Thursday, January 29, 2009

Christina Courtin: New York's Best Kept Secret

A few years ago, it seemed Christina Courtin was all people in the New York music scene were talking about, as they followed her around the downtown circuit, on stage everywhere from Joe's Pub to Rockwood Music Hall. But somehow I always seemed to miss her; until last week, when I quite fortuitously stumbled upon her as the opening act for Andrew Bird's show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
Ms. Courtin is a very physical performer: she holds her ground center stage, but rocks back and forth on her legs, as if with a little more momentum she could launch directly forward into the audience.  This physicality, combined with the quivering, slightly dissonant sound of her voice adds up to some sort of hybrid between Bjork and Jodie Foster's legendary character, Nell  (and, misleading as that may seem, I mean that in the very best of ways).  
Courtin's repertoire runs the gamut from rock to blues to gentle ballads, but it is the twangy country melodies that seem most improved by her unique, irresistible vocal style.  Striking as that is, however, she is firmly supported by the men in her band, all of whom play and sound like a true ensemble of equally important parts.
Let me say one more thing as further testament to the unique character that is Christina Courtin.  She stepped out on stage in front of a house of Billyburg hipsters/Andrew-Bird-lovers wearing a tight gold one-piece, with a black belt and black boots.   She claims it was because it was bassist Ryan Scott's Golden Birthday.  
"Am I the only one wearing a gold one-piece tonight?" She interjected between songs, "I hope so.  But I also... don't hope so".     
I don't think Christina has to worry much about the risk of blending in, in any sense or on any level.  

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Wakey Wakey at the Living Room

Get yourself down to the Living Room one of these last two Mondays in January to see Brooklyn locals Wakey Wakey rock the room during their month-long residency. The five-piece plus band delivers music that makes your toes tap and your heart ache all at once. Mike Grubbs is the man more or less at the center of the sound. His banter and laughter between songs is charming to no end, but it is the music that will really win you over. Grubbs starts many of the songs with a simple folkloric melody on the piano and then, cued with perfect accentuation by Jamie Alegre on the drums, the songs take on a richly textured sound, layered with electric instrumentation (the electric-violin tends to upstage the electric guitars) and nuance.
Wakey's songs flirt with some bright piano chords a la Ben Folds, but stand out on their own due to the vulnerable and honest quality of the lyrics and the passionate and raw crooning of Grubbs' vocals.

Wakey Wakey are true performers: their gracious and playful nature is comforting and amusing and their skills as musicians have the ability to awaken your senses, your passion, your emotions. Like an addiction, they'll leave you wanting more. Thank God for month-long residencies.

Photo by Frank Celenza from the Mercury Lounge CD Release party

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Word with Andrew Bird

Written for
Photo from Bird's show at Hiro Ballroom, NYC, October 2008

Andrew Bird’s literate brand of pop is carried out with virtuoso talent and enough eccentricity to ensure that his music is idolised by some and misunderstood by others. Because of this complexity it’s not surprising that Bird speaks in adjectives and broken sentences – taking his time to make sure his message is correct, yet moving in and around points. This is particularly so when Bird describes his new album, Noble Beast.

Compared to past efforts Noble Beast was produced relatively quickly. Bird strived for this streamlined recording to ensure that the initial idea behind the album was maintained. “I wanted it to be more woodsy, kind of mossy, earthy, kind of like that kind of steamy decay of things”, Bird explains.

When asked about the album’s lyrical themes and his characteristic vocal phrasings – part stream of consciousness, part neurotic tales and, on Noble Beast, partly songs of hope – Bird states that he makes a point of visiting Natural History Museums when he’s on tour for inspiration. “[The Field Museum in] Chicago is, like, older and mustier and heavier and darker. [New York’s American Museum of Natural History, where the interview is taking place] is kind of light and airy. But there are more dinosaurs in New York. " That’s cool, right? read more...

Friday, January 2, 2009

Blitzen Trapper is Returning to NYC!

If you missed these Portland, Oregon up-and-comers in November, don't worry: they will be back to play the Bowery Ballroom on February 27 and the Music Hall of Williamsburg the night after, February 28th.

Review written for

The live show that Blitzen Trapper put on at Terminal 5 in Manhattan on November 17 was something like watching a road race. The gun goes off and the band fires out of the gate,
with high energy rock songs, well executed but very focused and mostly devoid of emotion. With their sights set so firmly on the track, it’s hard to tell if they’re actually enjoying themselves. But after a few songs, the sextet settles in, finding their own rhythm (which is accented in each of their six bodies in unison) and exposing more and more of their unique sound.
With a combination of shaggy beards and tight hipster jeans, it comes as no surprise that the music from these Portland, Oregon men is a cross between blues/country and rock/funk. Eric Earley sets the mark as the lead singer, who at times croons with the whiny resonance of the best Country singers, only to later bust out a grating opening chorus, screamed into the microphone, flirting with heavy metal associations while maintaining the precision of a classic rock band.
It is not only the vocals from Earley, however, that stand out. Many of Blitzen Trapper’s songs are colored with striking three-part harmonies, pulling the sound back towards blues and country no matter how hard it’s trying to veer away (the occasional introduction of Earley’s harmonica has the same effect).
Their live set was diverse and spanned more musical genres than their typical album; like a sampling of all the options open to them as musicians. This appeared to be more fun for the audience to experience than it was for the young men onstage, as Earley rushed each song’s ending with a cold “Thank you” and the band exited the stage somewhat hurriedly and anti-climatically to allow for Iron & Wine (the headliner) to set up.
For a band that can so clearly hold their own in one of the biggest venues in New York City, they could afford to relish in the moments a little more. Take a lesson from the tortoise: slow and steady wins the race. It helps to make it fun along the way as well.