Archive for July, 2008

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Anya Singleton, Emory Joseph, Parlour Steps, Kalliopi

Saturday, July 19th, 2008

Anya Singleton, The Other Side

Anya Singleton's first full-length album goes a long way towards fulfilling the promise of her earlier EP, Not Easy To Forget. The jazzy sound of that disc has evolved here into a more up-front soul sound with a bigger beat, epitomized by the insistent opening track, "Don't Tell Me." When I first played on the song it brought to mind the shock to the system I felt when I first heard Dana Glover's "Rain."

The slinky but unsentimental R&B thrum of "Small Disasters" and the airy "Simple" further show the subtle songwriting skills of Singleton and her two co-writers. In "Stop This Train," perhaps the best ballad on the disc, Singleton's phrasing resembles Bonnie Raitt's. By contrast, "Replaceable" is energetically pissed-off and punked-up, while "Nevermore" further establishes Singleton's strong persona: "No more lovin', rich boy, no, nevermore."

In the ruminative "Sandcastles" Singleton modulates her strong, rich voice down a notch, making me wish she'd actually take a few more chances with the fine vocal instrument she's been blessed with; there's a certain sameness to the quality of her vocals through much of the disc. When she opens up her belt in the anthemic closer, "The Other Side," one cheers her on and wants more.

But it's already clear that the indie route has given Singleton's talent some needed time to flower. I hate seeing undeveloped artists like Alicia Keys sprint to superstardom, never getting a chance to develop the way they might have, while taking up space in the public consciousness that more deserving artists ought to have.

Singleton could be one of those more deserving ones. I caught her live recently, singing a few songs with only Ann Klein on guitar backing her up. When she broke out "Don't Tell Me," the audience, which had come to see other performers, snapped right to attention.

Emory Joseph, Fennario: Songs by Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter

Emory Joseph wants to spread the word of the greatness of the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter songwriting ouevre. It's a worthwhile effort. A gifted singer, Joseph assembled a collection of top musicians and recorded a dozen Garcia-Hunter tunes in five days in a New York City studio. The result should warm the hearts of Grateful Dead fans. Whether Dead-haters will give it a chance is, of course, another question.

"I think these two were as good a songwriting team as America has ever known," writes Joseph in the liner notes, "and have always wanted to share them with the non-Grateful Dead fans, who don't know what they're missing. The songs they wrote have beautiful melodies and words that fit in your life when you're 15, and yet still and again when you are 60." I've always felt the same way.

Take note of the subtext behind Joseph's notes: in certain ways that matter aesthetically to many music fans, the Grateful Dead, to put it bluntly, sucked. The music rambled, the songs went on forever, Garcia wasn't much of a singer and neither was Bob Weir. "Sugaree" may be one of the Dead's greatest hits, but Emory doesn't help his cause by opening the CD with a nearly eight-minute (albeit soulful) version of it.

Listen to the whole disc, though, and you'll appreciate the youthful bounce Joseph applies to many of these hoary Americana numbers. The Dead's aggravating tendency to go on and on is somewhat tempered, although even the rocker "Loose Lucy" is scattered over five and a half minutes. The result: Joseph succeeds in putting across the material with obvious love for it, while using his wide-ranging musical sensibilities to get at the essence of the songs.

Two of my favorites are two of the least stretched out: the dark, slinky-funk version of "New Speedway Boogie," and the lovely "Loser." Other highlights include "It Must Have Been the Roses," on which the versatile-voiced Joseph warbles like John Denver, and "Brown-Eyed Women," which features a guest turn from David Grisman on mandolin paired with beautiful organ work by Jon Carroll that's reminiscent of the E Street Band's Danny Federici (RIP). Others work less well; despite excellent Buckley-esque vocals, "Black Peter" comes across as a shuffle to nowhere, and intentionally corpse-like singing don't do much for "Mission in the Rain." But despite my nitpicks, I do believe this disc is going to become part of my permanent collection.

Parlour Steps, Ambiguoso

This is smart, playful rock out of Vancouver, fractionally reminiscent of XTC. Songwriter Caleb Stull sings in a kind of moan, sometimes doubled by bassist Julie Bavalis singing in a sigh. This isn't super-musical, but with subtly layered guitars and thumping beats the overall sound is of a mostly friendly, but also skewed and thoughtful pop.

Some of the best moments come in the vocal-instrumental break sections, as in the energetic "World As Large" and the emotion-soaked "Gargoyles Passion." Desperation fuels the intense "Thieves of Memory," while stark banjo-like sounds, keyboards, saxes, and accordion (courtesy of NYC's own Mark Berube) show up often enough to add undercurrents of rootsiness and old-world charm.

There's little rootsy or charming about the angular, often angsty lyrics, though. "Doubt is a higher function / It's hard work believing in nothing." Testify, brother Stull.

Kalliopi, Around the World

This disc was a nice surprise in a humble package. Kalliopi is a Greek singer-songwriter based in London. Her three-song CD single pleasantly combines lo-fi guitars and drums with lush, crystalline vocals. Unpretentiously catchy songwriting and passionate delivery make up for the somewhat muted production. The title track rocks hard, reminding me of Elastica with a touch of Alanis Morrisette. "Naked" is a mid-tempo pop-rocker with ululating background vocals that hint at Eastern Europe or the Middle East, a suggestion that gets fuller blown in the final track, the moody and lovely "Fire and Sea."

Theater Review (NYC): Bouffon Glass Menajoree

Monday, July 14th, 2008

Just as there are all sorts of dramatic traditions, from Elizabethan to operatic to Noh, so are there multiple styles of clowning. One that we hear relatively little about, despite its continued presence in popular culture (from the early films of John Waters, for example, and Cirque du Soleil), is the French bouffon tradition. This began, so it is said, when the deformed, insane, or simply very ugly were banished from society but allowed back into town on festivals solely to entertain.

Quasimodo, in Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame, is the best-known bouffon character today, and Lynn Berg, one-third of the cast of Bouffon Glass Menajoree, wears a silly prosthetic hunchback in his role as Tom in this very funny parody of the Tennessee Williams classic. The original Glass Menagerie doesn't get too many serious professional productions – at least here in jaded New York – precisely because it's so well known and integrated into the artistic consciousness. But Williams's tale of a lame girl and her family's desperate hopes for a "gentleman caller" is as ripe for parody as his swampy settings are for decay and disaster, and this production takes the unicorn fully by the horn.

Playing well off Berg's manic Tom is the superb Audrey Crabtree, who reinterprets the repressed, shy Laura as a nightmarish figure in blood and white, half evil zombie and half Crazy Mary. Afflicted with a respiratory disease and a lame leg, Laura makes a perfect bouffon character to begin with, and Crabtree pounds the stuffing out of the character with insane glee.

Bouffon Glass Menajoree

The third leg of the stool is Aimee German as Amanda, padded to giant size and obsessed with her own past as a magnet for gentleman callers. From the moment the three climb out of their box and begin spreading their net of horrendous dysfunction over the helpless audience, this excellent cast, directed by Eric Davis who clearly knows his clowning, has us in its loud, obscene power. It's grotesque in the original and best sense of the word.

Those familiar with the original play may be wondering: what of Jim, the gentleman caller who finally does pay a visit to shy Laura? Jim's still here – played by a member of the audience. This works quite well, and indeed there's a fair amount of audience participation throughout. But not to worry, there's no blue paint involved, and no real danger, just a thrilling whiff of it.

Go see the Bouffon Glass Menajoree (and maybe grab a cup of coffee first, it's a late start). It runs through Aug. 29, Fridays only, at the Green Room at 45 Bleecker Theatre. Visit the show's website for tickets, or call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 inside the NY metro area, outside at (800) 432-7250.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – J.J. Appleton, Gandalf Murphy, Gary Morgan and PanAmericana!

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008

J.J. Appleton, Black & White Matinee

Every so often a little jewel of a CD comes along. J.J. Appleton's new six-song disc falls short of full-length, but merits more than the foreshortened "EP" badge. At 24 golden minutes, it seems the perfect length.

It opens with its "single," an old-fashioned term that still means something, at least symbolically. "Today Today Today" is certainly a catchy pop nugget; so is the title track, which nods to 1950s rock-and-roll. Appleton does this sort of rosy-cheeked pop as well as anyone, wearing his Beatles influence (mostly John, a touch of George) not like a heavy cloak but more like a shimmering shirt.

A more soulful take on pop sweetness is "Coming Back Alone." Its loping, gospel-influenced piano groove and soaring melody remind me a lot of Kevin So. In the gentle ballad "You're Sweet On Him," a smooth, jazz-folk melody slithers atop a Brazilian-style acoustic guitar accompaniment. "Caledonia Road" with its dark-toned verses and burst-of-sunlight chorus resembles something by Van Morrison or Martin Sexton. But though the songs vary in style, Appleton's strong musical personality carries through.

Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, The Great Unravel

I caught this band live last year and they instantly became one of my favorite acts. "Funny, deep, psychedelic, lyrical, and rootsy," I called them. Their new disc does nothing to change that.

The 13-song set is put forth as a celebration of the connectedness of all things, but it's equally a beautiful complaint against injustice wherever it is found. In the titanic opening track, "Desire," songwriter Joziah Longo rails against "terrorizing strangers knocking downstairs at our door," but in the gorgeous "Tink (I Know It's You)," love wins out: "Now that I can see / You're still here with me / We can take the reins and beat this thing together… We can merge in time / with the Great Divine / and we can build a world for all the lost and lonely."

This is no "dull sublunary lovers' love" but a transcendence of injustice and pain by means of human contact. Cosmic stuff. There are excellent songs on the second half of the disc, too, notably the catchy "Everyone Has a Broken Heart" and the hypnotic "Light a Way." But quoting lyrics doesn't give a sense of the lush yet elemental arrangements of these songs or their womblike melodies. Listen to some and then see if you don't want to pick up this CD as soon as it comes out.

Gary Morgan and PanAmericana!, Felicidade

My first serious music gig was with a swing band, and I've loved big-band music ever since. Combine the depth and tonal variety of a full jazz orchestra with Brazilian beats and flavors, and you've got something quite delicious.

Gary Morgan's orchestrations – of his own tunes as well as those by Brazilian composers like Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Eça – range from propulsive to lyrical and everything in between. Adding French horns and Latin percussion to the standard saxes, brass, and rhythm section, Morgan creates masterful arrangements that rarely sound self-consciously virtuosic. Typically, every touch contributes to the musicality, even when bursts of brass power interrupt dreamy soundscapes, as in "Reflexos," or when he slows a bossa nova to a languid crawl in "Tudo Bem."

Besides "Tudo Bem," "Pedra Vermelha" is the second centerpiece of the set. Morgan orchestrated the existing arrangement by the composer, Itiberê Zwarg, whom Morgan is championing. It's a feathery, scintillating piece inspired by the Brazilian mountain of the title; judging from the jumpy music, Pedra Vermelha sounds like a place of bright waterfalls and scudding clouds. The piece even shades away from jazz and into a modern classical vein.  This dics's going right on my jazz shelf.

Book Review: In the Woods by Tana French

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008

This highly regarded mystery, now released as a trade paperback, marks a strong beginning for first-time novelist Tana French. Set in the suburbs of Dublin, In the Woods is a multilayered story that combines the gritty worldliness of a police procedural with the eerie chills of a psychological thriller.

Detective Rob Ryan and his partner, Cassie Maddox, must find a child-killer who has done his dirty work in the same woods where Ryan, twenty years before, was the sole survivor of a bloody incident that left him with a blanked-out memory. Looming on the horizon: the obliteration of the crime scene by a new highway.

Is the new murder related to the earlier disappearances? Are the anti-highway protesters involved? Will pursuing the case unlock Ryan's memory – and does he really want it unlocked? With both his sanity and his job on the line, this is much more than just another murder case for him, and French artfully maintains the dual layers of suspense.

In Detective Ryan's first-person narration, I detected hints that the author hadn't quite mastered the kind of literary voice one expects of a strapping male heterosexual policeman. There's no reason a sensitive guy can't also be a tough murder detective, but I found some of Ryan's observations and feelings – some of his adjectives, to be precise – a little on the feminine side. Reflecting on himself as a boy, Ryan observes, "that relentless child had never stopped spinning in crazy circles on a tire swing, scrambling over a wall after Peter's bright head, vanishing into the wood in a flash of brown legs and laughter."

However, the psychological depth and observational detail of French's writing bring the story vividly to life. Touches of humor keep the darkness at bay, too. Speaking of Cassie's arrival on the mostly-male murder squad, Ryan observes, "When she finally arrived, she was actually sort of an anticlimax. The lavishness of the rumors had left me with a mental picture of someone on the same TV-drama scale, with legs up to here and shampoo-ad hair and possibly a catsuit."

Cassie turns out to be nothing of the sort, but much more interesting, and the same is true of the book. A traditional mystery in some ways, it's also a thoroughly modern take on the genre, with memorable characters and settings, emotional highs and lows, and a climax that satisfies on some levels while leaving you frustrated on others. Any imperfections in the plot are more than balanced by the fine writing, especially considering this is a first novel. I'm looking forward to French's next book.

[Note: this article has also been published at Blogcritics.org and syndicated to Boston.com.]