Sunday, July 24, 2011

My Cabaret

Cabaret is a word that can indicate a musical genre. Jazz singers who work with just a single accompanist or a small ensemble, and who perform programs of music organized around a single theme get this label. They tend to go for a musical style like Frank Sinatra, or late Ella Fitzgerald. There is nothing wrong with that, but it’s not what I mean.

Think of the show and movie Cabaret, not so much for the sound as for the feel. You walk into a gloomy room, lit mostly by the spotlight directed at the stage, and filtered through a thick haze of cigarette smoke. On that stage is an assortment of musical instruments. Some are predictable, guitars, piano, stand-up bass, sax and trumpet perhaps. But there are some surprises in the mix. Is that a gypsy‘s violin? There, an accordion? Harmonica even? And maybe one or two you can’t identify at all. I don’t know if the artists I have chosen wear costumes when they perform, but in this place, the performers are extravagantly dressed. And then there is the music. The songs are almost familiar but elusive. At times, they seem to veer away from every rule you know about songwriting. And yet, in this place and time, it all makes sense, and it takes your breath away. There is a sense of otherness in this music, even a hint of danger and a splash of darkness. But, above all, there is fierce originality. Welcome to my cabaret. Get yourself a drink, and stay for a few songs at least.

Alexis Marceaux: Stars


Alexis Marceaux is a powerful singer with a rich and emotive alto voice. Stars is a fine example of her work. The lyrics have an otherworldly feel to them, but it’s handled lightly. The arrangement is stunning. Marceaux, I believe, is using two fiddles here, but one is bowed and the other plucked. These join an acoustic guitar, drums, and bass. And then there is a moment in the middle of the song where everything except the guitar and voice drop out, and the song is rebuilt from there. All of this gives the song a unique feel, and it all serves the text of the song, about separation and yearning.

Tea Leaf Green: It‘s So Easy to Be Your Lover


I’m supposed to hate Tea Leaf Green. This album is a survey of pop styles, from the light reggae of It’s So Easy to Be Your Lover to folk, 60s rock, maybe even a dash of new wave. It’s all bathed in reverb, for that extra retro feel. But Tea Leaf Green obviously love this music, while also approaching it with a knowing wink. And they take these diverse styles and get the album to make sense as a whole. There is a slight sense of melodrama here, enhanced by the wonderful illustrations on the cover and in the booklet. These illustrations are by band member Josh Clark, and they suggest a gangster story told in the form of a graphic novel. If Clark ever does do a graphic novel, I want to know about it.

Fellaheen: Always on the Way


What does cigarette smoke sound like? It’s not a question that I would have thought to ask. But it sounds like Fellaheen’s song Always on the Way. The smoke suffuses Bruce Hanson’s lead vocal. It also oozes through the twin accordions that provide the musical cushion for this song. Listening to this, I imagine a Parisian cafĂ©, filled with scientists and artists making secret plans. That may sound bizarre, but the musical setting here makes it entirely plausible.

Dirty Bourbon River Show: The Day the Devil Took My Happiness Away

[purchase, download only]

The Day the Devil Took My Happiness Away starts with a vibe that recalls the best versions of St James Infirmary. Soon there is haunted whistling, then chorused male vocals like some of the old big bands used to use, and even some horn parts that feel more like strings. And then it’s all done. This song passes quickly, but with a powerful effect. And all of those disparate elements add up in a coherent way. Dirty Bourbon River Show has this gift. Blues is the foundation for their music, but they can build from it in various ways, and it all works.

Jack Cheshire: Copenhagen


Throughout this post, I have been talking about the arrangements, and the unusual uses of some instruments. But Jack Cheshire makes the most from the least. The band here is just guitar, stand-up bass, drums, and lead and background vocals, with minimal overdubs. Yet the sound is as rich as anything else here. The bass sings, which helps. But mostly, it’s just great economical writing and arranging. Copenhagen feels like a combination of moving parts, gears catching gears catching gears. If you have ever seen a perpetual motion machine where all of the parts are exposed to view, you have an idea of the sense of wonder that this music inspires.

Call for help:

Olinde Mandell: Love Me Tomorrow (demo)

[donate here]

Olinde Mandell is a type of performer who is rare these days; she can carry her delicate and beautiful songs with just her voice and guitar. For her debut album, she wants to add light production touches, including fiddle and backing vocals. On the evidence of her demo for Love Me Tomorrow, that is going to sound great. As I write this, Mandell is about half way to her fund raising goal with 13 days to go. If you can do anything at all, please help her go over the top, so this album can get made. Remember, this is a Kickstarter campaign, so if she doesn’t make her goal, she gets nothing. Thank you for what ever help you can give.


May said...

Hey there! This is a great blog. The Fellaheen fella has a very tom waits/ nick cave styling. All though I suppose anybody sounds like anybody these days. You're dead on about it sounding like cigarette smoke. Anyhow, love the blog!

May McDonough

Anonymous said...

your passion for great music & all of your words about all the spectacular artists on this posting inspired me to contribute to Ms. Mandell.