Music Review: Idina Menzel – I Stand

It sounded intriguing: bring together a mega-talented Broadway star and a mega-talented studio/songwriting wizard to record an album of original music. Idina Menzel, a star of Rent and Wicked (and recently seen on screen in Enchanted), is one of very few Broadway stars of relatively recent vintage to have made the leap beyond Broadway into the wider culture. Producer extraordinaire and songwriter Glen Ballard, the genius other half of the Alanis Morrissette phenomenon of the 1990s, has more recently worked with rock and pop royalty ranging from the Goo Goo Dolls and Shakira to Dave Matthews and Annie Lennox.

As an admirer of both artists, I really wanted to like this CD. Unfortunately, the best that I can say about it is that it's produced and arranged really well. Adult contemporary pop is rarely a nursery for originality, so I wasn't expecting anything world-changing or socks-knocking-off. But given Ballard's heavy participation – he co-wrote many of the songs with Menzel – I was hoping for at least a few good tunes. The closing ballad, "Perfume and Promises," is nice. The title track and "Gorgeous" have halfway decent hooks. That's as good as it gets. The songs are so drowned in cliche that "uninspired" seems a kind way to put it. As an album, it's listenable, but only because of the pretty soundscapes.

All Menzel's vocal passion and fireworks and Ballard's studio wizardry can't polish bad, half-hearted, Disneyesque material into something truly shiny. As with Disney's latest Broadway shows, though, this is probably one of those situations where critical reviews mean little. Judging from most of the listener reaction at, Menzel's fans are out in force, and they love whatever she does.

I can't help it, though. I feel strongly about this. I could walk out onto the street with my eyes closed and in four seconds trip over a songwriter who could write better pop songs than these for Idina Menzel (or any singer). Hugely successful creative artists like Ballard seem to often lose perspective amid all the plaudits and awards, and start to believe that whatever they do is brilliant. And no one's willing to listen objectively and say the emperor has no clothes.

Maybe a star like Menzel, not yet a mature songwriter, needs a collaborator who's hungry to succeed. With the exception of that good ballad at the end, Idina Menzel hasn't been well served here on her first project as a singer-songwriter.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – No Girls Allowed Edition

No ladies need apply to this edition of the Indie Round-Up – it's all guys, all the time.

Steve Northeast, Inside

Steve Northeast crafts energetic and emotional hard rock songs loaded with raspy guitars and cataclysmic rhythms. He puts a lot of emotion into the songs, and that, together with the deep engagement with what's going on the world, means that at times he risks overwhelming the production's generous musicality – and the excellent guitar work – with lyrics that bend towards earnest cliche. But at their best, the songs evoke the David Bowie of Heroes and the Soundgarden of the '90s. Favorites: "The Way It Is," "Out of Here," and the power ballad "Phoenix."

Listen at the website.

Jann Klose, Reverie

Jann Klose makes complex but accessible chamber pop with intelligent lyrics and contagious rhythms. Songs like "Doing Time" and "Clouds" have a European and sometimes Beatlesque sensibility. (It doesn't hurt that Klose's voice sounds a bit like Paul McCartney's.) The German-born, South African-raised singer-songwriter, now based in the Bronx, has been a theatrical performer, and he has a fine feel for how to arrange his songs with "stageworthy" effectiveness, easily slipping in horns, strings, reeds, and more unusual instruments. The touch is light; a song like "All These Rivers" may remind you of some of Sting's solo work, while the gentle "Remember Your Name" could have come out of southern California in the 1970s. Overall, a sweet salve for troubled times. Listen or buy.

The Alternate Routes, The Brooklawn Session

This disc is an acoustic re-recording of The Alternate Routes' superb debut album Good and Reckless and True, with the same eleven songs in a different order. At the moment, it's available only at concerts, and since the band is between tours right now, you'll have to borrow mine if you want it. (Low hourly rates!) You can, however, hear a couple of the tracks at their Myspace page. The disc has a sort of distant, ghostly, furry-wall-of-sound quality, very pleasing if you're in a coffeehouse mood yet want to hear good songs that aren't self-indulgent like a lot of acoustic singer-songwriter fare. Why am I writing about it if you can't buy it? Because it's another opportunity to tell you that you should really check out this Bridgeport, Connecticut band. Go out of your way if you have to; take an alternate route.

This Holiday Life, The Beginning of the End of the World

I sympathize with new bands trying to establish an identity; a band's name is quite important, but all the good ones, it seems, have been taken. Still, This Holiday Life could have tried a little harder.

Fortunately, the abbreviation THL seems to have been available – in any case, they're using it, and it flows off the tongue a lot better. The music, I'm happy to say, flows out of my speakers very pleasantly too.

The San Diego quartet has made a well deserved name for itself on the West Coast, with catchy songs and a modern sensibility which nevertheless nods back to the '80s new wave of Tears for Fears and Flock of Seagulls. A lot of the lyrics are abstract but there's no mistaking the meaning of "This is the end it's alright we're here together." "Undercover" is a strong earworm. "Animal" is a rubbery, surrealistic, evocative look at I don't know what, and "Oh Sister Please!" is another stretchy, hooky little gem. The slight quirkiness in the arrangements is amusing and endearing, not self-conscious. Overall, THL pops. Hear some tracks.

Theater Review (NYC): Conjur Woman: A Folk Opera

What better way to start observing Black History Month than to take in Sheila Dabney's spellbinding performance of Conjur Woman, Beatrice Manley's one-act folk opera. Backed by music performed on stage by the redoubtable Yukio Tsuji (guitar and percussion) and Jasper McGruder (harmonica and percussion), with tunes composed by the performers along with LaMama's founder, Ellen Stewart, Dabney belts out the Conjur Woman's tale of woe in a series of songs and hollers that vividly suggest the music of slavery times.

Conjur Woman turns her husband into a tree so the slave traders won't get him. Alas, she can't save him from the sawmill. That's the story in an acornshell. But what a telling. Jun Maeda's simple, beautiful set of jagged wooden walls changes color and mood from song to song (Jeff Tapper's lighting design is superb), serving as both cabin and woods. With a little bag of charms and herbs, a rope, and the passion in her rich, piercing, worldly-dark voice, Dabney takes us into the heart of darkness.

Conjur Woman
Background musicians left to right: Harry Mann on the mystical bass, Jasper McGruder, and Yukio Tsuji, backing Shelia Dabney. Photo by Brian Dilg.

The simple story roils with irony and allegory. Conjur Woman's magic is so strong it gives her power over nature itself – but only in her homeworld. Foreign gods (Christianity, modernity) render her charms inert. "God don't like that," she admits of her conjuring. But later: "God be with me in my hatred. God bring him back to me, God keep us together, God take us out of here." But even invoking the Christian God by three names (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) can't help her, and at the sawmill, the "machine ain't got feelings. Can't conjur machine."

We, however, are made to feel the full force of the conjuring. This isn't "Poof, you're a tree." Conjur Woman sings us a visceral description of how the man's body, part by part, becomes tree, and her image of his eyes still visible behind the wood, shining in silent terror as he's chopped into boards, is harrowing. This magic spell is no plot device; it's the substance and grain of the story.

Though drawn from the black experience, the music through which the tale is told – and the show as whole, staged by La Mama's Resident Director, George Ferencz – should resonate with any thinking being. The gulf between the "old ways" of wonder and nature and the new ways of technology is evident in cultures the world over. Though many centuries old, the battle is still with us, ever raging, if sometimes obscured by day-to-day life, inside our simian brains. Conjur Woman is a deep draught of wise wonder and emotional magic, with a mesmerizing central performance by the remarkable Shelia Dabney.

Through Feb. 10 at The Annex at La Mama. 66 E. 4 St., NYC. Visit Ovationtix online for tickets, or call (866) 811-4111.

Some Other Place

Get your Whisperado here! This post is showing off a playlist of our CD Some Other Place using the playlist widget.

Theater Review (NYC): North at La Mama

Ready for something different? North is a different kind of show, and that's appropriate, as it's the creation of Heather Christian, a different kind of singer.

Neither a drama nor a musical, North consists of an hour of music on a white-decked stage, with several dance segments, a shadow puppet number, and striking, if unexplained, visual and sonic imagery. Ms. Christian's band of musician-dancers, the Arbornauts, first enter, marionette-like, amid a series of blackouts, and the songspiel begins with Ms. Christian playing Chopin on a grand piano, which leads into a beautiful song by The Decemberists called "The Engine Driver."

Here it becomes apparent that Ms. Christian – in the most general sense, a singer-songwriter – is fundamentally a voice fetishist. Like pop singer Regina Spektor but to a much greater extreme, she makes her voice a self-referential and autoerotic object rather than an instrument through which thoughts and feelings are expressed. The expression here, the drama, is in the musical arrangements and the staging.

Whether the star's alternately breathy, nasal, infantilized, and heavily vibrating vocalizations strike you as interesting or annoying will determine to a great extent how much you enjoy the avant-garde entertainment she has devised. The songs themselves, some her own and some covers, are set with sometimes lovely, sometimes howling, occasionally bewildering arrangements and in some cases, curiously alluring choreography and evocative video. The snowy, angelic, dreamy, outlandish costumes and white-clad set suggest a winter landscape; there is a recurring theme of an airline flight; and the order of the songs feels vaguely meaningful. But otherwise the cantata has no story.

Ms. Christian's own piano-based compositions tend to be sparely written art songs and mood pieces that climax dramatically. The other four musicians play trumpet, clarinet, violin, electric guitar, melodica, and drums, and despite some out-of-tune playing (intentional? I couldn't tell) the impassioned builds are very effective. Set among the singer's own compositions are an assortment of classical and pop covers (Debussy, the Beatles), which carry most of the musical hooks.

For many singer-songwriters, it's dangerous to place your own compositions among recognized masterworks for fear they'll suffer by comparison. But here the atmospheric staging and the strange vocalizing take some of the burden off the songs themselves, and we are left with an impression that we have witnessed a sensational event while half-asleep or drugged. North continues through Feb. 2 at La Mama.


I turn 45 this month and I am glad to be the age that I am. In those four and a half decades I’ve been amazed to observe staggering changes in the world. Although technology will continue to advance rapidly, and today’s children will see many changes in their lifetimes, the world may not again change in such a fundamental way. I say that because we have crossed a very significant line: the digital line, which has enabled an unprecedented level of interconnectedness.

The next leap will be to a “firmament of all knowledge” that will provide something approaching telepathy. That may be some decades off, and catastrophe could intervene to prevent it. So it’s possible that the digital line will be the last really major techno-social line we will cross for a very long time.

Since 1963 we’ve gone from…

  • 8-tracks, LPs, and cassettes to CDs, MP3s, iTunes, and Bittorrent (i.e. analog to digital)
  • Cold War, the American Century, and American untouchability to a borderless Europe, 9-11, and American decline
  • Nixon, Humphrey, and McGovern to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney
  • Moon landings and oil rigs to nanotechnology and spooky action at a distance

And in the month that I turn 45, I am setting a personal record for playing gigs with the most different bands ever in one month: five. How we get recorded music may have changed, but people still want to play it live and hear it live. I suspect live music will remain a fairly recession-proof business. No matter how high the seas rise.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – American World Edition

American world? Sure. This week we feature music from artists who, although based in the US, make music that breaks boundaries and feels like it’s built from colorful, jagged pieces of the whole world.

Susan Krebs & the Soaring Sextet, Jazz Aviary

A jazz concept album about birds – not Charlie Parker, but actual birds – sounds potentially pretentious, or precious, or both. But this disc, from singer Susan Krebs, musical director-pianist Rich Eames, and some ace sidemen, is actually a sweet, sincere, unprepossessing, and lovely set of bird-themed tunes. Most of the tracks could stand alone, but the set also flows together like a flock of – I don’t know – some kind of flocking bird.

There are well-known songs, like “Skylark,” “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” and, in a nod to Bird with a capital B, “Ornithology.” There are more obscure songs, like Abbey Lincoln’s “Bird Alone” and Krebs and Eames’s original, meditative tune “The Peace of Wild Things,” which faintly echoes “‘Round Midnight” and features some beautiful flute playing by Rob Lackart. And there are surprises, like Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending,” which the musicians give a reverential, meditative treatment, aided by a string section.

A few tracks feel a little icy and overly careful, but Krebs and Co. hit the mark far more often. One of my favorites is their epic take on Dave Brubeck’s “Strange Meadowlark.” Another is “Bob White” with its herky-jerky rhythms. Krebs is not the most powerful or adventuresome vocalist; she sings with what I think of as a shy artistry with a touch of humor. The latter comes into play, for example, in Hoagy Carmichael’s “Baltimore Oriole,” and in the medley of roots and pop (non-jazz) standards that starts with Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” My biggest beef with jazz vocalists is that they frequently lack a sense of fun. Not so here. The “twinkle” in Krebs’s delivery is an important part of this disc’s appeal. So are the little throwaways – quotes from poems, recorded bird sounds, percussion sound effects – that dot the tracks.

Sample all tracks and purchase the CD at CD Baby.

One World, Share My Love

Here’s a band that wears its heart on its sleeve. One World’s new disc contains an hour of jazzy Latin adult contemporary tracks, touched by rock and funk and soft pop, most sung in English. It’s all very smooth, but loaded with good cheer, and has plenty of melodic hooks and rhythmic bounce to keep you on your toes. There are sad moods (“She Longed For His Love”), but One World’s one world is one world without anger and meanness. Check out some sample tracks from this great party record.

N-Side, Just a broke brotha’ tryin’ to come up!

It’s easy to dig jazz poet N-Side. He’s chill. He’s solid. He speaks his poems as neither an angry young man nor a self-satisfied old one, but as a literary artist. As a result he makes you really pay attention to his lyrics. “People wait for me to get fed up, frustrated – hate-filled with aggression, preparing myself to throw down. / But those folks rich in spirit have taught me force isn’t needed to keep this prize called knowledge around.” N’s poems – some rhyming, some more freeflowing and prosy, but all engaged with the complete human experience – are backed by Ricardo Love’s nu-soul grooves and organic hip-hop beats decorated with small splashes of jazz. (Two tracks are by Russell Case.)

The tracks rest in easy grooves that match the poet’s calm intensity as he talks to people we can’t see or hear but whom he makes us envision clearly. “Someone said… they had no culture here and neither did I… ‘Can you lay claim to an original thought of your own?’ / I loaded up with all the names that I was about to call him: sellout, racist, double agent, cultural perpetrator, antebellum negro, no-risk vicarious activist… but I didn’t say a word… finally I… realized once again, I was talking to myself. / Hopefully these type of conversations will change, and not be taken so personally.”

Deep and useful stuff. Sample all tracks and purchase the CD at CD Baby.

Finally, here’s a pic of Stratospheerius, the “full-on electro-fiddle-trip-funk” band whose CD I reviewed back in July. They rocked the legendary Bitter End last night with an all-too-short early set.


It’s good to know that some things, like the Bitter End’s tiny bathrooms, never change. But electric six-string violinist Joe Deninzon (who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia) leads this most excellent band through some serious rhythmic changes. Is it prog-rock? Jazz fusion? A jam band? Ask the portraits of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell on the walls, I don’t know. A little of each maybe. All I know is it’s kickass. They closed the set with the instrumental “Heavy Shtettle II: Heavier Shtettle.” I said kickass, right?

Here’s a bonus shot of drummer Lucianna Padmore in action. She is an even more awesome musician in person than on CD.


In Which Kenny Vance Calls In from the New Jersey Turnpike

The other night I had the chance to interview Kenny Vance, a founding member of the seminal group Jay and the Americans and currently leader of Kenny Vance and the Planotones. He was also the music director for American Hot Wax, Animal House, and Saturday Night Live. I had recently reviewed the Planotones’ new CD.

In person Kenny turns out to be a one-man treasure trove of information and perspective on the early rock and roll era (and a really nice guy). You can listen to the whole interview online at BC Radio Live, and/or read excerpts over at Blogcritics. Then pick up the new disc Countdown To Love.

Holiday Games

The holidays are all about being someone you’re not. They say that about Halloween, but since I’m usually hiding at home during Halloween, the winter holiday season does just as well. Here I am at the Central Park Blockhouse on Christmas Day. The year is 1812, and I am defending New York City from the British.

These ducks (also in Central Park) are pretending to be all nonchalant, but they know I am taking their picture.

Unaware of the danger, these revelers enjoy a game of Drink Pong at Fat Cat, farther downtown in the populated part of the Isle of Manhattan.

On New Year’s Eve, the British stage a surprise attack, targeting Prospect Park in Brooklyn rather than the more heavily fortified Central Park. Forced to retreat, the Yanks blow up their munitions depot rather than allow it to fall to the British.

Safe and snug in an undisclosed location, civilians enjoy a relaxing game of Pimps and Hos. It’s like Monopoly, only you’re pimps and you buy hos instead of real estate. When someone lands on your ho… you get the picture. Foreground right, with her back to the daguerreotype machine, is the notorious Madame Plumerais, no doubt thinking about her war profits and enjoying a good laugh. (The unidentified woman to the far left may be a British spy.)

When the danger was finally past, we were free to resume our normal activities. Here’s the vastly talented Jud Caswell jud_caswell_bowery performing at the Bowery Poetry Club, where we go for coffee, hard liquor, bawdy music… everything but poetry, really. I purchased Jud’s latest compact disc for one silver ducat – a bargain at any price! Jud came down from the Maine Territories, which, as you probably know, we have just purchased from Canada for forty mules and a ho. So he didn’t even need a passport. Observe how his strumming hand moves so fast you can’t even see it. That’s some north woods mojo right there. meg_braun_bowery I also put down my musket long enough to pick up my bass lute and play this gig backing up Meg Braun. I have it on good authority that Meg has “buzz.” She is, you might say, the Barack Obama of the folk music scene.

That’s all for now. I must put down my quill and try to get some sleep, to ready myself for tomorrow’s battle. Word is that the British invasion may really be all about targeting our singer-songwriters. In the morning I’ll try to hit up Madame Plumerais for information. If I succeed I’ll pass it along via pigeon. If not, well… it’s been pleasant being an atheist in this foxhole with you.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – End of Year Grab Bag

This week I have for you some thumbnail sketches of 2007 releases that I didn’t have time to review during the year but are worthy of note for one reason or another. That was going to be the only “theme.” But then I noticed something. Several stunningly attractive women lurked among the CD covers in the pile. And it got me thinking…

Sometimes I wish artists weren’t allowed to put any pictures of themselves on their CD packaging.

Physical appearance can skew one’s expectations unfairly. With very attractive artists, the listener can suffer from a kind of reverse prejudice. The camera adores Kyle Lardner, for example. Kyle Lardner CD Cover Her stunning photos stress her Sara Michelle Gellar eyes and lead one to think she might be a manufactured pop moppet. Not so – read on for a pocket review of her new CD.

Landon (or Landonband) is fronted by Landon Dunning. Her music is harsh and sore, serious and angry and rocking – Bob Clearmountain mixed it, ’nuff said? – but her face is absurdly beautiful. Landon has addressed this by titling her CD Defying the Stereotype and using a non-glamorous cover photo. Landon CD Cover She looks closely into the camera, the black and white emphasizing her raccoon eye makeup, the beginning of a sly grin slightly curling her upper lip. The broken text of the title is stamped right across the middle of her face. So I’m fucking beautiful, she seems to be saying – what am I supposed to do about it? It’s an effective technique. Listen to the forcefulness of the music and it stops mattering what the artist looks like.

Just the other day I got word that Lara St. John, whose Bach Violin Concertos is one of my favorite recent classical discs, has a new Bach recording out. When I went to check it out, I read up on the critically acclaimed violinist, and I found that she has a penchant for provocative CD cover poses. (This kind of thing tends not to come up when you’re buying downloads and not CDs.) Lara St. John Bach Concerto CD Cover Do I now think about this person differently, whom I earlier admired purely for her artistry? In some subtle way, probably.

But when I start worrying about these things too much I remind myself that we are all, every one of us, imperfect animals. Artists, fans, blatherers – we may not all take ourselves equally unseriously, but we probably ought to. And artists can’t win – play up your looks and you’re accused of pandering; fail to and you’re passing up your chance for a leg up. I like Landon’s solution, but not everyone can back up the attitude with the good music like she can. So, enough blather and on to more music.

Jon McKiel, The Nature of Things

Speaking of serious, Jon McKiel’s dark alt-rock may have something of the shoegazer to it, but I found it just the thing for driving around the city streets in an angry funk, with its moody sounds and aware lyrics. Listen to some tracks at his Myspace page.

Sheva, The Closest Thing

Here’s another example of looks affecting one’s listening attitude. I was all set to hate this, or just toss it out, based on the washed-out cover photo showing the artist staring blankly into the camera as if a soap opera director had forgotten to say “Cut.” (The fact that my cover letter was addressed to “Dear Dan” didn’t help either.) It turns out, though, to be a solid piano-pop disc with some pretty catchy tunes. Sheva’s voice lacks distinction, the songs are formulaic, and some of the arrangements are overwrought – but I still liked a fair amount of this earnest, straightforward blue-eyed pop disc. Hear three tracks at her Myspace page.

Bronze, Calypso Shakedown

This smooth meld of nu-soul and easygoing disco may come out of Chicago, but it feels like warm climes and beach times. Good songs, Fender Rhodes, strings (real ones, not played on a keyboard), and vocals that alternately suggest the Bee Gees and Earth, Wind and Fire come together to make this a sweet, groovy set of original retro tunes. The songwriting weakens towards the end, but there’s a nice chunk of good stuff, and even the lesser songs go down easy.

The Spoken X, Wild Child

Spoken X pairs chip-on-its-shoulder spoken poetry with heavy, riff-based rock. The results are mixed – some songs just sound pretentious – but when Ted Golder’s lyrics sidestep a tendency to rant and slip into a descriptive or stream of consciousness groove, the songs cohere. Then the music slams with a satisfying crunch, a bit like the Doors of old. “Teo takes a stroll and walks past an old lady dressed in rags talking to her people from outer space / She used to be religious but now she’s found so much more room to express herself.” Hear more of Spoken X expressing themselves.

Kyle Lardner, Sail Among the Stars

For a more effervescent pop experience, try piano-playing songstress Kyle Lardner (mentioned above). With a teenager’s sweet vocal purity, Lardner does shimmery but sophisticated pop that’s a little bit Disney and a little bit rock and roll – nothing too new, but it’ll put the rouge on your cheeks. Songs like “The Blanket Song,” “Aways Away,” and the scintillating, Abba-like “Perfume” feel like elevated teen angst tunes, while “Moral Amnesia” and “When We’re Gone” show an admirable social and philosophical conscience. As a singer Lardner doesn’t have the vocal heft to fully bear her ambitious musical vision, but her songs, couched in these majestic arrangements, show her off well and hold a good deal of promise.

Choose, Untitled

Talk about anti-image. This experiment-minded, female-fronted band makes alternately atmospheric and metallic industrial rock. The song titles are just numbers, and all the printed materials are written backwards, as if to say, Don’t worry about reading this stuff, it’s all about the music. Kinda cool, actually, although it might have been nice if they’d compromised their principles enough to print at least the web address rightways. But it is all about the music – and the experiments. (In concert they match up the audience’s heartbeats with the beat of the music). I’d like to have a chance to catch this group live in the new year. Listen up.

Kickstart, Untitled

Fronted by the gravelly-voiced baritone of singer-guitarist Eric Strickler, these thrashy Brooklyn punkers seem to be as influenced by sixties garage rock as by late-seventies punk. Sometimes Strickler sounds as if he’s going to vomit; other times he growls like Shane McGowan. Or is it the same thing? Either way, the band’s take-no-prisoners rhythms and catchy songs add up to a big panful of rugged rock.

I’m That Guy

I love Kenny’s Castaways. It’s always been sort of the Bitter End’s neglected little brother, but from the standpoint of actually hearing music, it’s better laid out, and the atmosphere and decor are just classic.

The building dates from the 1820s. Round about 1890, when it was known as The Slide, one of the papers called it “the wickedest place in New York.” Well, in the Giuliani-Bloomberg era there’s not too much wickedness to be had, at least not in touristy areas like Bleecker Street, but you can feel the history when you walk into the bar, musical and otherwise. From Aerosmith to The Smithereens, the list of acts who played at Kenny’s Castaways when just starting out reads like a Who’s Who of rock royalty. Bruce Springsteen’s first NYC gigs with the E Street Band were at Kenny’s.

Seems every time I go in there, whether to play a gig with my band or to catch another act, if it’s early enough I see a lone guitar guy singing folk songs to practically nobody. That’s the 7 PM hour, before the bands show up with their hangers-on, before the tourists wander in, even before most of the regulars who hang out at the bar up front arrive. Well, tonight was my turn to be that guy. Whisperado Solo at Kenny's Castaways, 12/21/2007 You can see from my expression that I was having a good time. Didn’t matter that only a few people came (my dad, my aunt, my girlfriend, and a buddy from work, to be exact.)

I felt bad for the duo that played after me – they’d come all the way from Philadelphia and nobody was there to see them (as opposed to me, who might have a thin crowd but gets to walk home.) We couldn’t even hang out to watch them because I hadn’t had dinner, and much as I like to support other musicians, the stomach always wins.

But hey, that’s rock and roll – you gotta play to an empty room sometimes. For a long time, sometimes. Years, sometimes. Till you die, sometimes. The next Whisperado gig is at R Bar the day after Christmas, when we’ll have the whole band and be celebrating our fifth bandiversary. Be there or forever regret it!

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Aidanblaise, Strazza, Hate Camels, and More

Laura Aidanblaise, Get Thee To The World

From Toronto comes a new singer-songwriter with an intensity of delivery rivalling that of PJ Harvey. There’s so much emotion in Laura Aidanblaise’s voice you worry she’s about to implode. The insistent intensity and melodic repetition may put off some listeners, but I find it haunting and vivid. Her seven-song disc is just about as sparely recorded as can be – just her voice and guitar on most songs – and it works fine; there’s isn’t much that swelling synths or dramatic drum fills could do to elevate or further focus the music. The last two songs do feature more instruments, but they’re used efficiently and tastefully.

“Boredom is the enemy and all that it attracts…” The words and melodies call to mind the skewed lyricism of Tori Amos’s early work, and the lyrical power suggests Ani DiFranco without the guitar pyrotechnics. There’s also a theatrical quality to the tunes that brings to mind certain Broadway music, like Sondheim. But the main point is that Laura Aidanblaise is an original new voice – probably not for everybody, but with a lot to say. Draw the curtains, brew some strong tea, and check her out.

Tommy Strazza, Welcome To The Rest Of Your Life

When you’ve had enough quiet intensity and you’re ready to rock, try Tommy Strazza; he writes hooky power-pop songs and puts them across with a voice and a classic old-fashioned rock style that call to mind Perry Farrell or Mott the Hoople – hoarse, passionate, triumphant. He’s not just a screamer, though. “Don’t mind walkin’ with some holes in my socks / If I can do my own thing hangin’ outside the box,” he liltingly sings in the folky “Goin’ Solo,” and his love song “My Love” is spacey and gentle. Still, his abilities shine brightest in his uptempo rockers like “Detour,” “Liberated,” and “Good To See You,” and the power ballad “Love, Don’t Bring Me Down.” Listen to some tracks at his Myspace page.

Hate Camels, Death Comedy Jams

This disc stands at the crossroads of progressive rock and jazz fusion, with a flash of heavy iron doing a wheelie in the intersection. Six of its seven long instrumental tracks pay tribute to a series of great comedians who have passed on – Mitch Hedberg, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, and Andy Kaufman. Kinison gets the metal treatment, natch. Lenny Bruce draws out a jazzy improv number that evokes the Beat era. Bill Hicks gets a piece with a twelve-tone feel, and so on. But direct references to the particular comics’ personalities or styles aren’t always easy to pick out – in some cases they might not exist. No matter; the compositions have enough inherent interest to please the kind of music fans who perk up at the genres I named at the start. Hear some of the tracks at Myspace.

Lorrie Ruiz, Chewy
And speaking of fusion, Lorrie Ruiz’s good-natured jazz fusion disc might be just the thing to convince your grouchy friends that fusion isn’t always as cold, virtuosic, and inaccessible as its reputation would have it. Taking some Stevie Wonder funk, adding some Steely Dan archness and George Benson smoothness, crafting some pretty good pop hooks to hang it all on, singer Ruiz and keyboardist Joe Doria have come up with a batch of fun, toe-tapping, and friendly songs. The weakness is Ruiz’s hummy, uninflected vocals, which just make you think what someone like Stevie Wonder, or even Mariah Carey – or any number of great young neo-soul singers I can think of – would have been able to do with material like this. Fortunately the other elements are more important here. The playing – by Doria, guitarist Chris Spencer, bassist Dayna Smith, and drummer Larry Bichler – gives this disc its soul, and good songwriting gives it heart. Nicely done.

Red Plastic Buddha, Sunflower Sessions

I love to get back to psychedelia sometimes. But the same old late-sixties, early-seventies music gets tired after awhile. Fortunately there are bands like Red Plastic Buddha keeping the swoony, shimmery tradition alive. Like a Peter Max painting come to life, Red Plastic Buddha comes in colors – all over the floor. With semi-spastic guitar solos that bring to mind early Jefferson Airplane, keyboard parts that very vaguely suggest Ray Manzarek and the Doors, and vocals that range from an intense scream to a distant call, they’ve really got the flavors down. Many of the six songs deserve their psychedelic-music bloat (“Forget Me Not,” “Clouds”), while a couple are a little too underwritten to merit it (“Rollercoaster,” “Over And Over”), but overall it’s a pretty sweet 33 minutes of dark, retrograde flower power. If they sharpened up their songwriting a bit, they’d get a leg up on the other bands (and there are some) that are also keeping the groovy flame burning. Hear three tracks at their Myspace page.

Brett Dennen, So Much More

Brett Dennen is a young folk artist with a deft touch on the guitar. His singing is plaintive yet assured, and he writes in a mature, socially involved, and sharp-eyed style. I don’t love his reedy voice, although it’s starting to grow on me a little. But I am very impressed with this disc – the scope of his songwriting and the delicate emotion of his delivery make Dennen a potentially major talent. (He’s touring this summer with John Mayer.) Listen to a few tracks and see if you don’t agree.

Do You Like the “Rock and Roll,” Boys and Girls?

The Blender Theater at Gramercy turns out to be a pretty good place to see a rock show. You can hear the vocals, and the whole mix isn’t nightmarishly loud… and that’s as much as I hope for from one of these old converted theaters. And you can sit! Although the shows are technically SRO, the seats in the former balcony have been retained. Though there isn’t much leg room, any seats are a blessing when you’re too decrepit to stand for a three or four hour rock show.

After Michael Tolcher opened the show with a solid acoustic solo set, the The Alternate Routes took the stage. They’re one of my favorite new bands, and although they strayed a few times from their smooth mix of alt-rock and power pop by hitting us with a couple of hardheaded country-ish numbers and maybe a few bars more jamming than were necessary for their short set, they didn’t disappoint.

The Alternate Routes
The Alternate Routes, Dec. 15 2008

Then the headliners, The Clarks, took the stage.

The Clarks
The Clarks, Dec. 15 2008

These guys are consummate pros. One song flows right into another. They look like they’ve been doing this and loving it all their adult lives, which they have. A bonus was their inspiring cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” to which they gave a gently swinging beat.

Altogether a good night at the not-movies. And we even got to sit down. Kinda like old times – going to see a rock show, walking around between sets, buying a beer, sitting back down. Only now, there’s no actual smoke allowed, so they fill the hall with some kind of haze. I guess it’s to make the lighting effects look cooler, but what it does it take me back to the days when you could smoke – pretty much anything – at an indoor rock show, and as long as you didn’t set fire to anything or try to jump on the stage, nobody would give you a second look (or smell).

Now You Funny Too

People say making it in comedy is even tougher than making it in music. Evidence appeared the other day when a series of comedians performed at the Duplex for five minutes each. Some were terrible, some mediocre, a few quite good. Here’s D’yan, one of the good ones, trying out a new number with her “Jew-kelele”:

D'yan at the Duplex

Thing I noticed, though, was how hardly any of the comedians supported each other. As each one went on, others left the club, until for the last couple of performers there was practically no one in the audience. Much of the evening was downright depressing.

Music’s different. Trying to keep a band going, promoting the gigs, making promoters and club owners happy, maintaining momentum when you’re getting little recognition and no remuneration, all while being creative – those are difficult tasks, but bands are usually nice to each other and can often stick around and appreciate the music of the act that went on before them (or will go on after). Also, bands themselves are social entities. Even on the solo singer-songwriter scene, people at least clap for each other. Here’s a band.

Elisa Peimer at the Underscore, NYC

That’s Elisa Peimer rocking at the Underscore. (On the left is Meg Braun, with Paul Cabri on electric guitar.)

Yup, I think I’ll save my funny business for home. Plenty of stubbed toes, splinters, and cabinet-door head trauma to be had here, thank you very much. Hey – maybe I’ll write a song about it. And when you listen to it, I promise I won’t bang you over the head with a guilt complex if you don’t laugh.

The Dupe!

When I was in high school, in a pleasant but sleepy suburb of New York City, my friend Eugenia was THE COOLEST.

One of the many reasons was her cool, mysterious extra life, where she’d go into the city – we all did that – but she’d go to the Duplex, “New York’s Legendary Piano Bar,” where all kinds of cool, mysterious people with cool, mysterious lifestyles drank and sang uncool, not very mysterious show tunes.

Now I’ll admit it: mumblety-mumble years later, although I’ve lived in New York and environs most of my life, I’d never been to the Dupe. Until last night, that is, thanks to Susan Gregory’s birthday party, which featured all the cookies you could eat. Mmm… cookies.

More Soul, More Blues, More Jazz

Just a photo from Wednesday night’s Soul of the Blues show at Cornelia Street Cafe. Jazz singer Sarah DeLeo, a newcomer to the Cornelia St. stage, opened the show with a set of blues-inflected jazz numbers including a great, obscure Ella Fitzgerald tune called “Too Young To Have the Blues.”

Pictured is our headliner Mala Waldron who tried out some unusual stuff and kicked Soul of the Blues butt as always.

Mala Waldron

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Jake Stigers, Kenny Vance

Jake Stigers, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got and Live & Loud in the UK

Jake Stigers hasn't slowed down since Comin' Back Again, touring and bringing the rock and roll flame to – well, I guess mostly Europe. His new CD has a loose, energetic flavor, and Stigers's facility with catchy tunesmithing has not deserted him. Several tracks have a folk-rock feel – Jeff Buckley meets James Taylor – while "Girl" is a straightforward, Beatle-esque pop nugget and "Love Is Spoken Here" has a Tom Petty twang. "Miss Reality," "Let Us Take You There," and the title track – which reminds me a lot of Joe Walsh and a little of the Rolling Stones, and that's never a bad thing – hark back to heavy southern and classic rock.

Style aside, good songs are good songs, and these are good songs, arranged with the right amount of, in some cases, sweetness that touches, and in others, gruffness that busts loose without going over the top. Above all, these songs are so good-natured you can't help smiling as you listen, right down to the excellent closer, Stigers's folk-gospel original tune "Jesus Said." The CD can currently be purchased at Koolkatmusik and will soon be widely available.

Also available is a live CD, Live & Loud in the UK, which testifies to the roadworthiness of Stigers and his band. It's a more straight-ahead rock and roll set, tempered with just a couple of power ballads, all very well recorded and mixed, but without the stylistic variety of the new studio album. So it's not as good an introduction as I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got is to Stigers and his band, but it will definitely appeal to those who are already fans. The live tracks are available for purchase through his Myspace page.

Kenny Vance and the Planotones, Countdown to Love

Kenny Vance, a founding member of the seminal doo-wop group Jay and the Americans ("This Magic Moment," "Cara Mia"), went on to a distinguished career as – among other things – music director for important American films including Animal House, Eddie and the Cruisers, and American Hot Wax, which was based on the life of legendary DJ Alan Freed. For that film, Vance created The Planotones, an initially fictional group which took on a life of its own.

Since re-forming the Planotones in 1992 Vance has continued carrying the doo-wop tradition to old and new audiences through concerts and new CD releases. His latest disc, Countdown to Love, is both a worthy torch-bearer of the doo-wop tradition and a valuable musical statement on its own terms. Most of the selections are typical doo-wop style songs, but there are some departures. His vocal-heavy version of the garage classic "Louie Louie" is fun, and "The Way You Look Tonight," with its Moonlight Sonata triplets, is quite lovely. So is the Bacharach-David classic "Anyone Who Had a Heart." The driving version of "There Goes My Baby" is refreshing when one is accustomed to the somber way it's usually played, and the a capella "My Girlfriend" closes the CD on a light, quirky note.

Tying them all together are the velvety vocals, sometimes in falsetto, other times in a sweet tenor. The arrangements have, for the most part, an easygoing texture that's clearly not the work of actual teenagers. But they bring the teen-inspired wails of doo-wop softly, comfortably into the 21st century.

A Thousand Years, A Couple of Blocks

New York City can’t boast 1,000 years of history, but it’s not hard to find ancient music within its walls. Yesterday I caught the Ivory Consort‘s CD Release concert at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, where this beatific-looking dude keeps watch outside.

Outside St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery

The present building dates from the late 18th century, but Peter Stuyvesant, the Governor of New Amsterdam, was buried in 1678 on the site, under the earlier chapel. I don’t know what he would have thought of the music being played upstairs. The Ivory Consort presented a program of Arabic, Christian, and Jewish music from what is now Spain and southern France in the 12th century and thereabouts. What the Dutch colonists were listening to in the 17th century, I have no idea (if anyone knows, please enlighten).

Ivory Consort

One of the cool things about the Ivory Consort is that, unlike some early music groups, the members have colorful personalities. You might think of them the way we used to think of our favorite rock bands. Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Who – these weren’t just groups, they were made up of distinct personalities who were, as individuals, almost as important to our enjoyment of the band as the overall sound. Singer-viellist Margo Grib manges to slither while standing in one spot – she’s like an operatic, grown-up Shakira (but with a much lovelier voice). Group director Jay Elfenbein is the avuncular, slightly goofball spokesman, a low-key Peter Schickele. Oud player Haig Manoukian is the star soloist; Percussionist-vocalist Rex Benincasa howls in Arabic like a musical Allen Ginsburg; Daphna Mor swings her red tresses while sexily blowing through a variety of tubes with holes in them; Dennis Cinelli is the “quiet” one, calmly playing the saz, gittern, and mandora while observing the others’ antics with a glint in his eye.

Walking home, I snapped this picture down 11st St. from the front of Webster Hall, the historic nightclub that’s soon to be given official Landmark status by the city. I thought this was a nice shot, with the 19th century architectural detail, the 21st century bands on the marquee, and the spire of Grace Church in the background. Grace Church was designed by James Renwick, Jr., who was later responsible for St. Patrick’s Cathedral uptown, and the Smithsonian Institution castle in Washington DC.

Webster Hall and 11th St.

Radio Nowhere and the End of the Hit Parade

The very notion of “popular” music is evolving before our eyes and ears. The appeal of a catchy tune hasn’t changed, but we are no longer the mass audience we were during most of the 20th century. Hence, massively popular hit songs are becoming fewer and farther between. We go off by ourselves and listen to new music that appeals to us individually. But when we get together in large numbers we keep using the old songs, over and over again.

Two recent observations have reinforced for me the idea that as a society we are coming to experience and use pop music very differently than we did during what I am starting to think of as the “golden age” of recorded music.

1. I’m at a college hockey game. What do you think they are playing over the P.A. to get the fans excited for the home team’s appearance on the ice? A new song by the Foo Fighters? Something off Jay-Z’s new hit album? Guess again. It’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” a 36-year-old track by The Who. And what does the pep band play in the stands during a pause in the action? “Jungle Boogie,” by Kool & The Gang, from 1973.

2. I’m watching TV. A commercial comes on for some baby product or other. The music: Steppenwolf’s 1968 hit, “Born to be Wild.” Too much time has gone by for it to be meant as a nostalgic appeal to the parents; this music predates the formative years of most of today’s baby-mommies and baby-daddies. It’s simpler than that: “Born To Be Wild” is a song just about everyone knows, whatever your age.

If you had told me, back in the 1970s when I was in high school, that the records my friends and I were playing at our parties would still be supplying the theme songs for sporting events – and college sports, at that – three decades in the future, I’d have said you were nuts. After all, 30 years before my musically formative period, big-band swing and Frank Sinatra were all the rage, and no one was listening to that any more (except “old” folks experiencing nostalgia). As a rule we didn’t appreciate, or even like, the music of one or two generations back.

And we didn’t have to. We had our own defining songs and bands that everyone our age listened to. Sure, tastes varied – some liked southern rock, some liked the Dead, some liked the heavier stuff, and some got into disco – but whether you liked or hated “Sweet Home Alabama,” whether “Hot Stuff” made you boogie or cringe, you knew those songs, and so did everyone else.

How many recent songs – and by recent I mean since the age of downloads began – can we say that about? I can think of a few monster hits, like “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” by Green Day. But mostly all I can come up with are 1990s hits like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Oops! I Did It Again,” which, while they still feel recent to me, date from before the Great Splintering.

It’s not that songs with catchy melodies and great hooks aren’t being written anymore. On the contrary, with recording technology accessible to just about anyone, excellent independent projects abound, and talented songwriters flower more and more readily. While the ability to write “hit-worthy” pop tunes remains relatively rare, it can be found all over if you pay attention to indie music.

But 99.9% of the great pop tunes being written today will never reach a substantial audience, not to mention penetrate the culture at large. The releases are far too numerous, the audience much too splintered. Most of the more traditional obstacles to commercial success haven’t gone away either. So where and how are you going to hear these great new songs?

Even the most popular music websites and blogs have vastly fewer readers than the big radio stations had listeners in their glory days. You might discover a great new song or band, you might tell your friends, but even if you’re today’s version of a tastemaker – an Originator, as the psychologist and media consultant David Jennings calls it in his recent book Net, Blogs and Rock ‘n’ Roll – your “public” is still a very small subset of the culture at large. Hence the same will be true of the audience for your new favorite song.

So where will the next “Born To Be Wild” come from? The next “Mysterious Ways”? The next “Oops! I Did It Again,” even? It’s the wrong question. The right question is, how will they spread? – and there’s no good answer right now.

Is there something inherently good about the existence of mega-hit songs? Maybe not; maybe the new paradigm isn’t fundamentally a bad thing. But it certainly seems like a sad thing – not because I’m still going to be singing Beatles tunes in the shower in the year 2040, but because a kid born today might have to be doing the same thing.

Note: for a more succinct (and tuneful) expression of the point I’m making, listen to Bruce Springsteen’s new hit “Radio Nowhere.”

Update: a discussion of this post has been happening over at Uncertain Principles.