Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Videos, Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands - "Adungu" and "Malagueña Salerosa"

I took a couple of videos of Cystal Bright and the Silver Hands at the Cave the other week (6/7/12). They're playing two of my favorites:  Adungu and Malagueña Salerosa.

An adungu is the African harp she's playing in this song of the same name.  I love Diego (Diaz's) eerie slide along with it.  Percussionist Sandy Blocker and bassist Aaron Bond were also great, and Will Ridenour joined them to provide a little extra percussion.

From her flawless delivery of Malagueña Salerosa, you'd think Crystal was Spanish or Mexican.  She has spent time in a mariachi band (Malagueña is a classic traditional Mexican song), as well as in Spain.  The video weirds out a little at the beginning (thank my shaky hand and Youtube software's best effort at stabilizing it), but it clears up after the first 30-40 seconds.  

I'll have to remember to post photos from this show later.  Birdeatsbaby, from Brighton, UK, came all the way over the pond, and were a great opener for Crystal.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Katherine Whalen and her Fascinators, Ayr Mountaineers (The Kraken, 6/2/12)

On my way out to Saxapahaw one day, just taking a ride in the country, I passed the Kraken...  (wow, if I wanted it to, I could take this post in a MUCH more interesting direction)

See, the Kraken is a bar (okay, but still, an interesting bar)... and I thought, "What the hell is a hole-in-the-wall called 'the Kraken' doing out here on Hwy 54?" 

Then a few weeks later, I see Ayr Mountaineers are playing there, opening for Katherine Whalen and her Fascinators.   I had seen the Mountaineers at their regular Tuesday gig at Vimala's (you must go there!), and was impressed.  I had never seen Ms. Whalen with her current band, but was a fan (who wasn't) of Squirrel Nut Zippers.  This seemed like the perfect show for such a one-foot-in-the-country dive. 

The Ayr Mountaineers are a young band of mountain music revivalists. I know very little about this particular brand of roots music.  Being a native New Orleanian, the traditional music I grew up with went more like "Jock-a-mo fee-na-HAY / jock-a-mo fee-na-HAY / If you don' like what the BIG chief say..." and was heavy on brass and bass.  So I'm no expert on, nor can I really speak to the authenticity of, their music.  But I can tell they're very talented group of musicians, and their is plenty of soul in what they're doing.  I say revivalists, but more of the style... they're no mere bluegrass cover band.  Front-woman Ella Bertram (Whalen's cousin, btw) writes most of their music, and is a damn good songwriter (and singer) to boot. There's a pretty heavy reliance on accordion, and less on rapid-fire banjo plucking.  The vibe is more relaxed and cool, thanks to Ella's vocals.  They're taking the music forward, cutting shoots and planting new roots. 

Ayr Mountaneers put on a very fun show. They seem like kids, but they've obviously been listening to and playing this music for a long time.  Hey, I saw Harry Connick, Jr., and Kermit Ruffins play when they were literally just kids -- they grew up with their roots music, too -- and look where they're at now.  Keep it up, Mountaineers...  I'm starting to get this Appalachia thing a little but now!  Check out their self-titled debut CD, or go see them at Vimala's or elsewhere.  

Ayr Mountaineers...

I hadn't ever heard Katherine Whalen and her Fascinators.  Knowing SNZ, though, I imagined a sound that would also be somewhat of a throwback -- a bit jazzy, lounge-y, perhaps.  But when I saw only three people on stage (drums and two electrics, Katherine's being a little 4-string thing), I realized they would be much more stripped down.  

With this material, Katherine's voice is more sultry, more gritty than it was with the Zippers (or with her doing jazz standards).  This seems more like her own, natural voice.  It places her somewhere in the same ballpark as Sallie Ford or Kelly Hogan.  I've heard her music with this band described as "electric folk".  But really, it has less folksiness in it and more of a quiet, very primitive, rock'n'roll -- at least live.  It's usually somewhat sincere, occasionally quirky, sometimes both.  Her recent CD, Madly Love, has a bit of a country-ish feel, too.  Ms. Whalen and her Fascinators play a different kind of front porch music than her young cousin, but music that you could just as easily hear coming from a porch on a hot Carolina summer's evening.

Katherine Whalen and her Fascinators...

Ms. Whalen woos the parlor...
It turned into a right hoe-down!

The porch analogy for the music above is only fitting.  The Kraken, being just a couple of miles west on 54, is sort of like Chapel Hill/Carrboro's back porch.  It clearly used to be someone's house, and the stage area,  the old living room.  A support beam lies center-stage, not seeming to mind the commotion.  The old front doors (now "backstage") provide a quick load-in and out for the band, and a little ventilation.  I'm reminded of the old Benny's in NOLA, where you'd watch the best blues bands play, separated by the skeletal framing of an old wall, which had simply had the sheetrtock removed (place collapsed a year or two after Katrina).  The Kraken was semi-recently rebranded as such (used to be the Little Bar?), a fact I presume was related to the SNZ song of the same name.  In any case, it's a great little venue for bands like this... a casual place where you can plop down in a chair out front if you like, and listen to the music through the front doors, along with the crickets and cars passing on the highway.  Like any good back porch, it's a great place to spend a summer's night with music, libations, friends, and family.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Some photos from T0W3RS' record release show...

... that I never did a blog post of.  The rest are on the FB page.  Click HERE.

Zack Mexico, Jane Jane Pollack, Old Bricks (Kings, Raleigh, 5/26/12)

I've been running a little behind lately... what was this show, 3 weeks ago?  Personal life's been hectic; what can I say?  Built a sand castle.  Watched the sun come up on the ocean.  Worked to keep my autistic boy sane and happy (he is, and he is).  

Nevertheless, this was yet another great (free!) show sponsored by DiggUp Tapes and PBR, at Kings Barcade.  IMHO, local label DiggUp Tapes has great taste in music... an opinion only strengthened by Zack Mexico.  They opened, and were the band I came for, having heard good things.  They've recently released their Aberration of Celestial Kokomo CD (free! here, but they have some connection with DiggUp; maybe their next CD?).  

Being from the Outer Banks, their surfy base is not unexpected.  But with them, it's just that, a base... like a good soup has.  A jumping off point.  But this soup also includes dark vocals, an artsy/indie edge, and a certain eerieness.  The dual guitars sound as much like Archers or Jawbox as the Ventures.  Vocals are as pensive and deep as the Feelies (coming in September!).  There's a lot mixed in here, which is good because, frankly, surf music can be kind of boring (I love me some Man... or Astroman?, but if it wasn't for the "show" they put on, I don't know...).  

No danger of being bored by Zack Mexico.  They took many unexpected twists and turns, between songs and within them, and were electric on stage.  Meanwhile, up front, artist Brad Vuyovich (BroRad for short) sat up front, painting a skimboard which was raffled off at the end of the night.  The first picture features him at work.  

Zack Mexico...

Next came Jane Jane Pollack.  I had neard nothing of them, except they were a quirky bunch making quirky music holed up in rural Georgia.  Sounds sorta Elephant 6-ish... and they were.  Odd, off-kilter pop, with the appropriately odd mix of instrumentation. Don't really know how to categorize them, having only heard them once, and it being so different.  But I enjoyed it.  They had their art show going as well (someone "painting" weird, amoeboa-like moving shapes on an old school projector).  
Jane Jane Pollack...

Last was our own Old Bricks, who I hadn't seen in awhile.  Their rootsy, thudding, brand of indie has gotten more polished since then.  I always liked their heavy use of percussion, a trend of which I think they were kind of vanguards (now, everybody's doing it).  It especially works for what can otherwise be a somewhat quiet band. The contrast suits their dark, tremulous style.  Stuart Edwards vocals are reminiscent of folk troubadour Dave Dondero, and when they rock out more, it makes me miss Dave's little-known band from his (and my) Pensacola years, Flatwheelers (MAN they were good!  Old Bricks is good, too.  They've recently released a new CD, City Lights, available here.  It's on Grip Tapes (another great local label, cousins-once-removed to DiggUp?)

Old Bricks...

BroRad's (almost) finished board...

Monday, June 4, 2012

Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands - Muses and Bones

When I first listened to this CD two or three of months ago, it immediately struck me as the best NC album I'd heard since the Love Language's Libraries (the recent T0W3RS release is in that mix now, too). Now, to qualify that, I hardly listen to every release from every local band, and there's a plethora of great recordings coming out around here every year.  So before gushing ridiculously, I thought I'd wait awhile and let it digest. Plus I hadn't yet gotten back into the milieu of CD reviews. Since then, however, I've reviewed a few good local releases, and this one is way overdue.  So now for the ridiculous gushing...

Muses and Bones is, quite simply, a stunningly beautiful collection of music. But you need to give it time. It starts with a deceptively upbeat tone, and if you don't get past the first two or three songs, you're won't get the full breadth of this album. On the opener, Especially Your Mother, the accordion gets moving, and it feels like a party is starting. Crystal sings of a spirited flirtation destined to failure ("You walked around me to see what's on the other side, what's behind / you walked beside me and before you walked out the door, I adored you").  But in a playful -- and danceable -- way, the idea of being stuck in an unhealthy relationship, and the difficulty one has in finding the strength to extricate oneself from it, is introduced.

By the sixth song, Today, this same idea will break your heart.

Drowned Out follows the opener, and it's a rollicking number bemoaning the over-consumption and hubris of humanity.  Jumpy accordion and a marching beat are backed by trumpet, with the overall feel of a manic cabaret.  It's a great song, and may be many listeners' favorite.  But I think it somewhat interrupts the flow of what is otherwise a very cohesive album.  Once past it, and you really get into the meat of Muses.  A gentler, darker tone begins with The Misplaced Zygote: Down the Wrong Chimney. Vocals and other instrumentation really start to shine, and the arrangements, in sparseness, blossom. Diego Diaz' spanish-influenced guitar softy accompanies Crystal's high, soft voice and some eerie musical saw, before accordion, trumpets, and percussion kick in.  Her vocals are earthy, mysterious... Kate Bush perhaps an octave lower.  Zygote introduces the ideas of empowerment and independence that run throughout the album: "I will be free of this and everything you want me to be"; "I can no longer feel this way if I ever want to live again."  There's also some neat animal imagery: "feeding me worms when I'm meant to eat lilies and violets, chickweed and hay."

The next three songs grab the themes and feel of Muses and Bones and run with them.  First comes Adungu, a sensual, spellbinding song of someone who is themselves spellbound, against all better judgement.  She knows it's wrong, but she begs the lover to "lie to me lie to me..." and promises to "stay right here where you want me to be".  The song's namesake, the adungu (an African harp), hypnotically draws the listener in, and is joined by a symphony of percussion (exceptional on this cut).  Ghostly electric slide and soft trumpet fill in the spaces.

Corpus Callosum is Adungu re-cast, sort of an organic remix.  In fact in some ways, it's almost the same song... a gutsy move, and one that probably takes someone with an advanced musical education (which Crystal has) to pull off (which she does).   Where many of the lyrics ("lie to me, lie to me") and some of the musical progression are shared, the instrumentation and arrangement are totally different.  But moreso, the delivery and resultant meaning are 180 degrees from Adungu.  This is a person who is coming to a realization... waking up.  Now, when she sings "so what if everything works out fine and I stayed right where you've always wanted to be", it's with disdain, if not outright contempt.  At least with eyes open, as she adds "But there's always the chance of leaving, and I told you to stop waiting / It's true, I do, continue to play this game with you".   At the end, she proclaims anyone who can explain this dichotomy within as worthy of "taking my paw in yours and resting upon my floor all night."  The word "night" is delivered with bite.  And she'll only go so far... you can rest on her floor.  Love the animal imagery again.  In short, Corpus Callosum is Adungu with a push rather than a pull.

By the time Today softly begins, the push has become a break, complete with the deep sadness that comes with it.  There's still the doubt ("Why must you stay, why must you take"), but there is realization, and strength, found in the grief ("I could be so kind, but I am not blind").  And on Today, the beautiful piano Crystal plays makes it's first real appearance.  I'm reminded of George Winston, whom I never really liked.  But this... it just works.  It accentuates the heart-rending feel of the song.  Simply beautiful.  And the wonderful percussion and trumpet also highlight what is a very minimalist song. 

As the album gets quieter, more goes on.  December continues pulling at your heart.  The quiet piano continues, this time accented by musical saw and accordion.  It's another minimal tune with a lot in it.  When the piano starts jumping and rolling about two-thirds of the way through, I'm thinking Broadway... another genre I don't especially like.  But again, it just works

Now, I don't want to give the impression that this is just some technically proficient, show tune-new age hybrid of a band.  There is clearly accomplished songwriting and playing at work here, but also spark and originality.  Plus, the Silver Hands understand the importance of a little chaos... especially among such beautifully orchestrated music.   Amid the beauty of swelling keys and vocals, mystical guitar, and more exotic stringed instruments, room is made for groaning, squealing, and at times just slamming the keyboard.   This comes off even more in their live show, where they seem more like a gypsy troupe, circus rejects in the Spanish countryside.  It's a feel captured somewhat by the first three songs, Toy Hammer, and the little interludes Bones and Lilies and Chimera March (you half expect Tom Waits to chime in with his inimitable growl during March).

The last third or so of the CD -- December / Killing Table / Spiral Sky / Bones and Lilies / Little Match Girl -- work together as a stunning unit, in the same way Kate Bush's Ninth Wave (the B-side from her classic Hounds of Love album) did.   Frankly, they'd make a damn fine musical... one even I'd pay to see.  It's not surprising that the band often collaborates with circus performers, dancers, and other artists, as they recently did in at FlowJo in Chapel Hill.

Crystal has said that Muses and Bones is not meant to be autobiographical, that the aim was to write a song cycle about a woman's journey of discovery and self-realization. It's hard to believe, as the songs sound so intimate and personal.  But what that does make clear is we are listening to a first-rate songwriter, singer, and musician (one who backed by equally accomplished players).  Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands are one of the best North Carolina acts I've heard of any genre...  hell, they're sort of "of every genre".  They're scheduled to tour all over the Southeast in the coming months, so you should have plenty of chances to see them, beginning this Thursday at the Cave in Chapel Hill.  While the fun, gypsy vibe of the live show is somewhat different from much of this album, it's equally as good.  Go see them!