New York Notes: High School Follies

Oh-so-amusing things have been happening in the New York City schools.

Brooklyn Technical High School (“Brooklyn Tech”) can be proud of its many eminent graduates, including Nobel laureate George Wald, computer baron Charles Wang, world’s saddest songwriter Harry Chapin, bodybuilder-actor Lou Ferrigno, and Congressman (and recent mayoral candidate) Anthony Weiner. But Principal Lee McCaskill did not do these notable alumni proud when he resigned under pressure after it was discovered that his wife had falsified residency documents in order to get their daughter into a prestigious Brooklyn public elementary school. The actual smoking gun: a lease with a date earlier than the lease form’s copyright date! The should-have-been smoking gun: the rent. Anyone knows you can’t even live in a box on the sidewalk for $200 a month in Brooklyn, much less rent a one-bedroom apartment.

Now, not content with purging the disgraced Principal, the City’s Department of Education is moving to fire his wife, a social studies teacher at another Brooklyn high school. I say these menaces to society, who actually live in New Jersey, are getting what they deserve. Life’s Lesson Number One is to read the fine print, and people who call themselves educators shouldn’t have missed a detail like that. After they’re done paying the four years of out-of-state tuition they owe, they’d better set up a trust fund for their poor daughter’s future years of therapy. (Unless, of course, the daughter – now aged nine – has all along been the evil genius behind the plot. Probably not, though.)

In another boon to New York City’s therapeutic counseling corps – already a fourteen billion-quadrillion-godzillion-dollar industry, according to The Bagel and the Rat’s latest information – the ever-vigilant Department of Education has fired a janitor who’s been indicted on 360 counts relating to his hobby of secretly videotaping girls’ locker rooms and bathrooms in two high schools, one of which – and this can’t possibly be a coincidence, can it? – was Brooklyn Tech. 46-year-old Michael Conte also set up a secret camera in the bathroom of a female friend who lives in Long Island’s Suffolk County – where he’s being held on $50,000 bail – and in his own bathroom, which he shared with his mother and sister (now that’s just sick). There’s one piece of good news for Conte’s family, though, which has already bailed him out of Rikers Island. If they go broke defending him, there’s a $200 one-bedroom available somewhere in Brooklyn.

And finally in school news: if the state doesn’t cough up $6.5 billion soon, twenty-one school construction projects will have to be scrapped. Fortunately for Brooklyn Tech, it already exists, but other much-needed facilities will not come to be, and, as the teacher’s union president sagely notes, “you can’t lower class size without more capacity or fight obesity without gyms and playgrounds.”

In a pinch, the DOE could try fighting obesity by hiring well-known auteur Michael Conte to install locker room cameras, and telling the kids their fat bellies will be posted on the Internet for all to see if they don’t shape up.

Indie Round-Up for Feb 23 2006: Beautiful Girls, Gordone, Kurdian

I just scored myself some tickets to Cate Blanchett in Hedda Gabler at BAM, so I’m in a great mood. Let’s just get started, then. I’ve got three good indie CDs to tell you about this week.

The Beautiful Girls, We’re Already Gone

Perhaps one of the best eclectic acts to come along since Beck, The Beautiful Girls are at home with dub, reggae, blues-rock, lo-fi pop and roots. It isn’t the individual songs but the sum total that makes this Australian band so interesting and potentially important. Guitarist and principal songwriter Mat McHugh sings with wry circumspection, and there’s no fancy production; the songs are arranged and played with elemental rather than mechanical precision, like basic reggae. When the sound gets big, as in the rave-up at the end of “The Biggest Lie I Ever Told,” the effect is mighty; throughout, the band skilfully employs layering and dynamics to get the most possible impact from simple forms.

Plus you can dance to it.

Despite the band’s somewhat self-consciously modern sound, there’s very little “how cool are we!” attitude; these guys have internalized many styles, but their synthesis seems to come very naturally. End result: subtle, twenty-first-century eclectic-pop gold.

Leah-Carla Gordone, Dancing On The Dragon

Leah-Carla Gordone has matured appreciably since her last album, Butterfly Child. Stylistically, her r&b-flavored folk-rock puts one in mind of Melissa Etheridge (minus the off-key singing) crossed with Gwen Stefani (minus the pandering to the male libido). But Gordone holds forth in a husky baritone like Nina Simone’s, backed up with her own acoustic and twelve-string guitars and some highly funky support musicians, notably Mike Unger on electric guitar, violinist Yiling Tien, and a crack rhythm section.

No longer dependent on peace-and-love homilies, Gordone’s lyrics mingle hopeful idealism (“Can we get it back to how it used to be/When everything was pure and free”) with relationship realpolitik: “When you open up and let someone in/It’s like peeling back a layer of your skin/And it hurts at first but then you grow to like it/That is when the tragedy begins.” Melodies flow, harmonies soar, and choruses glitter. Gordone remains an earnest, serious and consciously inspirational singer-songwriter, but the style and art of her songs, and her production of them, now make a fine match with her lyrical themes, with hooks that are organic to the songs and also strong in pop sensibility: “This Moment,” “Get It Back,” and “The Dragon” are especially good examples of Gordone’s ability to come up with tunes both meaningful and catchy.

Melineh Kurdian, From Where You Are

Folk-rocker Melineh Kurdian takes inspiration from the Indigo Girls and Ani DiFranco as well as the traditions of American roots music. Nothing unusual there; umpteen folk-rockers meet that description. What sets Kurdian apart is the sheer beauty of her songs and of the voice that brings them to life, a voice with a measure of Patty Griffin’s ability to wrench the heart. “Santa Maria” almost knocks you over with loveliness; “Devil’s Child” is a poignant, almost achingly generous response to intolerance.

On the technical side, Kurdian’s own superior guitar skills seem to have inspired the supporting musicians – including lead guitarists Rob Endicott (a name new to me) and Ann Klein (who’s played with just about everyone) to excellent work.

Klein’s leads fire up “Cowgirl Love Song,” whose lyrics neatly capture life’s biggest dilemma with a musical metaphor: “That’s a tough chord, that’s a hard question to play/That’s a lot of love that you shove in my direction every day.” “Goddamn n’ Just Do” is a muscular take on the “Hit the Road, Jack” theme: “I am the unexpected man that can, I am a wild woman you don’t know could/I am what you could and should but won’t ’cause you won’t follow through… So, pack your heartache, put away your bellyache/Goddamn and Just Do.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it, [insert teenage pop moppet here].

What Kurdian doesn’t have are big hooks. That’s no fatal flaw in music with this rare combination of airy beauty and earthy grace, but it’s the one thing (other than dumb luck and the unfairness of the world) that could keep Kurdian from reaching the level of folk-rock royalty like the Indigo Girls and Shawn Colvin.

Catch her at Invasion of the GoGirls at South by Southwest in March. Buy the CD at CD Baby here.

CD Review: Jessi Colter, Out of the Ashes

Jessi Colter released her first solo album in 1970, shortly after her marriage to Waylon Jennings, but except for a couple of children’s releases, she hasn’t been heard from in over two decades. Yet her new Don Was-produced CD is every bit as vital as her early self-penned successes, like “Storms Never Last” and the 1975 hit “I’m Not Lisa.”

As the first release after the death of an iconic loved one – Jennings died in 2002 – Out of the Ashes bears comparison to Roseanne Cash’s powerful and elegiac Black Cadillac, but Colter’s voice, though supple, bears the honorable stamp of age and weather. In the hypnotic title track, which alone is worth the price of the CD, Colter’s voice fades in and out among fussy piano arpeggios – typical of the casual, slightly messy production. She does the same thing in the Patsy Cline-like “You Took Me By Surprise,” keeping her voice low, J.J. Cale style, among the rocking piano chords, forcing the listener to lean in to hear. The song’s mix of old-style Country & Western with turn-of-the-21st-century alt-country (cf. the Be Good Tanyas) shows us two things: there’s nothing new under the sun, and the sun should shine brightly on Jessi Colter’s comeback.

The elder Jennings’s voice (son Shooter also appears on the CD) emerges from the past on a duet of the Tony Joe White classic “Out of the Rain.” This slightly off-kilter but moving treatment can stand proudly with those by Joe Cocker and Etta James. The gentle, artsy “So Many Things” is a small glowing treasure. Colter gets down and bluesy in “You Can Pick ‘Em” and “Velvet & Steel,” devotional in the opening and closing hymns, playful in her cover of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” and back to country music basics with “Never Got Over You,” a duet co-written with Ray Herndon. The CD is a consistently sparkling constellation of American roots music.

With Rosanne Cash’s latest, knowing the backstory is an aid to appreciating the music. But Jessi Colter’s new CD, though it has a melancholy tone that suggests loss, demands no knowledge of specific lives. Its pure, raw, deeply human music is full of sweetness but entirely saccharine-free.

And The Crowd Goes Wild!

Our new Whisperado EP, Some Other Place, has received a couple of really nice mentions in the blogosphere. [Is that still what it’s called? The blogosphere? I often find myself fallen several days, weeks even, behind the times in virtual circles. Must be all the time I spend reading those old-fashioned “books.”]

“The musicianship is excellent and varied and the songwriting solid. It doesn’t waste time with homage to the American roots music tradition. It just goes about adding to it. ‘Some Other Place’ is the kind of song Greg Brown might write if he weren’t annoying as shit.” – Jim Henley (Read the whole review here.)

[Note: opinions expressed are those of the writer quoted, not of Bagel & Rat. We think Greg Brown has a great voice, and we like his song “Your Town Now,” but, as we don’t know his music very well otherwise, we have no opinion or knowledge of his qualities, annoying or pleasant.]

“I could mention here, again, that it rocks. Or that the song “Black and Blue” works equally well whether or not you take the ass-kicking metaphorically. Or that if I were writing a story and wanted a great name and location for an indie-rock record label, I only wish I could come up with something as good as ‘Bagel & Rat Records’ on Flatbush Avenue.

“But I’ll skip all that and just tell you to get yourself a copy and hear for yourself.” – Slacktivist

So, if you ain’t got your copy yet, what are you waiting for?

Indie Round-Up for Feb 9 2006: Indiegrrl-apalooza

It’s been a busy couple of weeks here at the Indie Corral. Thanks in part to a fresh announcement on the Indiegrrl list, my CD pile is thick with submissions from female artists, hence the female face of this week’s Round-Up.

Susan Kane, So Long

This lovely set of hummable country-folk, beautifully produced by Billy Masters (Suzanne Vega’s guitarist), has been getting some airplay on prestigious folk programs, and deservedly so. Kane has a sweetly unassuming but clear and sure voice, a good command of American idioms from country-western to blues to coffeehouse folk, a knack for homespun melodies, and an ace collaborator in Masters, whose guitar work and production nests the songs perfectly.

Kane sings folk with a country-singer’s voice, merging the pure beauty of an Erica Smith with the worldliness of a Joni Mitchell. As with Linda Nuñez (see below), if you like this style of music, you will probably enjoy this strong album through and through.

I have one quibble. Although lyrics, as a consequence of their dependence on a musical setting, generally sound better sung than they read upon the page, Kane’s, curiously, go the opposite way. The simple, rather formal beauty of the song structures and melodies seem to contrast with the natural, tumbling quality of the storytelling, resulting – to this ear, anyway – in moments of diminished artfulness.

That aside, this is a fine disc worthy of a place on your folk shelf. Kane and Masters are also a pleasure to hear live, as I learned at a recent show at NYC’s Rockwood Music Hall.

Nuñez, Cry Mercy

Linda Nuñez and her band make unabashed power-rock. Inspired as much by 70’s icons Pat Benatar and Heart as by 90’s alternative bands like Live and Soundgarden, Nuñez sings in an unstoppable belt that’s very refreshing in this age of little-girl voices. And it’s not just her singing style and ballsy harmonies that evoke 70’s arena rock, it’s also her dramatic, sometimes deliciously over-the-top songwriting. A touch of Latin flavor (as in “Havana”), a soft underbelly (“Either Way”) and a proud but not heavy-handed gay identification give this artist plenty of crossover juice, too.

The best songs are up front: “Cry Mercy” is a monster jam, and it’s hard to get the chorus of “Love In Pieces” out of your head once you’ve heard it. “Yea” is a headbanger’s delight that Beavis and Butthead would surely have labeled cool, and “That’s Where I Went Wrong” is a solid power-pop anthem. The songs on the second half of the CD have less hit potential, but the power never lets up, and if you like one Nuñez song, you’ll probably like the whole album. It has depth, and it rocks: two for two in my book.

Patricia Ossowski, What Would You Believe?

This is keyboard-based precision-pop with sophisticated production, lush soundscapes, and powerful lyrics: “while you here always looking for a miracle while i just slowly drown/and you here always saying i’m beautiful but i just can’t be found.” Some of the songs, like “Luminous” and “Please Don’t Go,” have memorable hooks; some rock (“Lucky Me,” “Broken Me”); and many have haunting harmonies and evoke truly chilling moods. The songs are about relationships mostly, but Ossowski has her own poetic and pithy way of looking at things, as in “Broken Me”: “i try to find a reason try to live through all argument/weigh the damage in both hands and i start to miss you/i turn around through your eyes see the view from here/what a wreck i appear to be and i start to miss you.”

But Ossowski has a hard time matching her vocals to her passionate lyrics and dramatic arrangements. Soft, precise singing has its place; it can have the effect of turning a single word or phrase, or a very compressed little melody, into a valid hook, as it does here in “Lucky Me” and “Please Don’t Go.” But Ossowski lacks the vocal range and power that allows a Grace Slick or a Tori Amos to make the most of their quietly intense moments. Perhaps that’s part of why “Lucky Me” stands out on this CD – its tight vocal harmonies and machine-like beat reinforce each other like strands of a rope.

Cantrell Maryott, Moving, Not Leaving

Cantrell Maryott also sings in a controlled style, but with more variation. The opening track, “Do You Remember,” shows that she can sing and write a bluesy torch song with the best of them, whild its solo section proves Mitzi Cowell a masterful guitarist and Philippe Pfeiffer (Maryott’s primary co-writer) a pianist of exquisite skill and taste. (It’s nice to get a CD that sounds this good from a part of the Universe I’m totally unfamiliar with – Ashland, OR – filled with wonderful performances by musicians whose names are totally new to me.)

Maryott is originally from Arizona, and there’s something of the desert in her spacious songwriting. “Do You Remember” is the only torchy track; it leads into “Carry On,” a lovely folk-gospel tune with angelic harmonies, and “Amelie,” a wee folk ballad which, except for Maryott’s use of vibrato on the vocals, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. However, the song bears some of the New Age coloring that characterizes most of the rest of the CD, which is thereby less varied and somewhat less interesting.

“Three Miles Into New Mexico” is an exception: a minor-key, mid-tempo country-western tune with a solid chorus, it really gets the toes tapping. But “Long Way Home,” despite fine country-style acoustic guitar playing, has a vocal that’s too gently sing-songy for my taste. I do grow to like the song more as it extends and becomes hypnotic a la Brian Eno ambient rock, but can’t say the same for “Forever” and “Home” which are just plain too New-Agey for my taste.

The CD closes with the chant-like “On This Morning,” a solstice ritual with Pink Floyd electric guitar and what Maryott calls “chanteling”: “harmonizing vocally within acoustically charged spaces to ‘channel the chant.'” I call it pretty, like a ghost in the finery of another age.

In all, despite losing me in places, this CD is the work of accomplished musicians and has much to recommend it.

Available at CD Baby here.

NEWS AND FOLLOW-UPS: Lee Rocker’s new CD has started out as the #1 Most Added on the Americana Music Chart, beating out Shawn Mullins and Roseanne Cash… For you New Yorkers and Brooklynites, my Soul of the Blues series continues tonight at Night and Day with a stellar lineup of local and regional favorites… And finally, speaking of Brooklyn: thanks to the ravages of time and an errant broom, Planty is dead. Poor Planty – he was indeed a strange plant in a strange land.

Theater Review: The Accidental Pervert

Improbable as it may sound, comedian/actor/writer Andrew Goffman and director Charles Messina have crafted a one-man play about a porn addict who likes videos from websites similar to Tubev, that’s both heartily funny and genuinely touching. A veteran of the comedy circuit, the indefatigable and charmingly goofy Goffman transforms the stuff of standup into a lighthearted but rich piece of theater. Neither a glorified comedy routine nor a plotless character study, The Accidental Pervert is a real play, albeit with a cast of one.

Goffman handles his uncomfortable subject matter with ease, riding on a powerful voice, penetrating gaze, sweet-but-tough persona, and a comic’s sense of timing. Although, you will spend a large part of the play wishing the main character took a look at Aided by tightly integrated lighting and sound cues and cleverly placed props and clothing, he tells a twisted bildungsroman of a boy who compensates (after a fashion) for an absent father by immersing himself in said parent’s abandoned collection of porn videos; all of them remarkably similar to and the kind of videos you’d see on there. Though not above generating inexpensive laughs with explicit raunchiness and porn-movie pun-titles (the likes of which wouldn’t be far off the names of ones from, he threads the obvious humor into a moving and psychologically aware narrative of sexual awakening, dissipated youth, amorous adventures, true love, and finally marriage and parenthood. Enlivening the monologue with plenty of physical humor and stage business, he captures the audience and pretty much never lets go.

I say “pretty much” because there are isolated moments when the sheer weight of Goffman’s task – carrying the whole story with only his own body and language – seems to get the better of him just a bit, so that a word or phrase is left detached from its context. Also, the last section of the play goes on a little too long, deviating from the overall succinctness. But such minor imperfections do not detract appreciably from this delightful and sparkling piece of work.

At the Triad Theater in New York City through February 24.