This Ain’t No Mudd Club: samba, indie, blues and heavy metal!
The Top 10 NYC Local releases of 2016
Bucky Hayes & The Commonwealth/Taylor & The Apes
The Lower East Side and the West Village in Manhattan: Unlikely professionals two-step at Rockwood Music Hall to Bucky Hayes & the Commonwealth while Taylor & the Apes wakes up the slumbering baby-boomer patrons at the Bitter End. These guys rock! New artists, both transplanted to NYC, Hayes from Atlanta, Elliott from Indiana, are two of thousands of acoustic-toting bards who traveled from the four corners of the country and the globe to come to the place where original music is heard. The nature of musical taste is subjective, and I chose to talk here about artists that I’ve heard of solely by word of mouth so that I could share with the readers a slice of what is really going on right now, uninfluenced by mass media.
Bucky Hayes & The Commonwealth
Original music: it’s an artistic statement to the world. It is oppressed in many places. Just outside New York City and on the outskirts of the city cover bands dominate. For an artist to perform all original material is a bolder statement than you might think, and to put out an album or EP is one of the highest summits of human expression. I was speaking to the manager of a Long Island cover band slated to play at the now out-of-business Trash Bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn a little over year ago, and I saw a different cultural attitude toward original music than in the city. He said that in Long Island there are not a lot of original bands and the ones there “sucked.” As outspoken as I am, I did not tell him what I was really thinking: You’re doing all covers; the singer sounds like Janis Joplin, the guitarist like Jimmy Page, and the drummer like John Bonham. It’s great you guys can play, but can you channel your own voice rather than doing paint by numbers versions of other people’s songs?
He was surprised that the Trash Bar asked them back for another gig. As I said, this band was good, but you can see that there is a resistance to embrace something new in this dialogue I had with the manager. Gentrification pushed the Trash Bar out replacing the club with condos. Gentrification is another strong variable that is threatening the creative arts and the Trash Bar is not the first forum for original music to fall to gentrification, and unfortunately, not the last.
Of Clocks & Clouds’ 2016 release, Better Off, is awesome. I have been following these Brooklyn natives for a few years and Better Off is a great follow-up to their previous release: You. Mainstream labeling would describe them as alternative metal. Their sound is ambient and melds electronics and synth with a gothic sensibility. Their instrumentals, such as “Open Heart Failure,” harkens back to some of the music on Pink Floyd’s 1971 release Meddle. “One of These Days” and other sonic landscapes from Floyd’s experimental period seem to be a big influence on Of Clocks & Clouds. These guys have a lot of dynamic and texture in their music. A number of these tracks start off with piano and build up to a sonic climax and then return to the calm. It is a myth that music has to be fast to be heavy, in fact when song has a slower tempo it opens the number up for more nihilistic possibilities.
I first caught Of Clocks & Clouds in Freddy’s Bar a few years ago, and earlier this year in Bushwick, Brooklyn where they were playing at an event put on by the Brooklyn Creators Collective. Brooklyn CC showcases new composers, choreographers, experimental theater, visual artists, writers and filmmakers. Emerging artists, many of them very young, present their cutting-edge creations to the community through this wonderful institution.
Bucky Hayes & the Commonwealth released 100 Miles to Macon this year. Hayes is a real troubadour; great voice, genuine lyrics, with toe-tapping tunes. The Commonwealth plays a lot of twangy two steps that keep the audience on their feet. Tracks like “One More Song Before the Morning,” with its upbeat honky tonk piano, and “I’ll Leave the Light On” are lively crowd-pleasers. Hayes vocal quality are similar to John Mellencamp, Van Morrison, and The Counting Crows. The songs on 100 Miles to Macon all tell stories. In “Sweet June,” Hayes’ poetry comes to the foreground. Last year the Commonwealth had a residency at Rockwood Music Hall for a successful while. Rockwood is one of the more upscale venues in NYC and Hayes plays there often.
Arriving by Os Clavelitos, in the samba/jazz category is another recommendation for 2016’s best of releases of the year. This collection has been getting airplay throughout the US and abroad. It is a collection of original compositions sung in English which have all the lovely ingredients of bossa nova and samba. It has the beats, the harmonic nuances, and the winding melodies that take you over the hills and into valleys that make Brazilian music so interesting. The title track “Arriving” is like a drive through the countryside that takes you through different landscapes. Brazilian music is complex, in the US and Britain we are used to hearing songs which most of the time have two sections: the verse and the chorus. Whereas Brazilian music in general has about four or five sections or even more that seamlessly flow into one another. Os Clavelitos has captured this song tradition well on this album.
The music is beautifully ornamented with flute and saxophone obbligato parts Obbligato is when an accompanying soloist doesn’t play the melody but plays behind the vocalist as improvisational support. Saxophonist Lester Young is a wonderful example of obbligato playing on the recordings he did with Billy Holiday. One of my favorite tracks is the moody “Frost” with the line, bury my heart in snow, which vocalist Chieko Honda sings with the calm, cool, understated yet passionate poetic vocal styling that bossa nova and samba are known for. It is the saddest track on the album and stands out for its drama. The rest of the record is incredibly upbeat, perfect for dancing, with some nice percussion breaks like on the album’s track “Eunice.” Good writing by Honda, guitarist Anthony Lanni and bass player Dan Kendall. The guitar is acoustic of course, with the subtle harmonic voicing that are part of the flavor of Brazilian musical tradition.
The next three releases are from bands that have overlapping personnel, however their sounds are very different. Taylor & the Apes, Stroamata, and Zen Anton’s band are local bands that have been playing Brooklyn and the Lower East Side for the last few years and each one of them put out music this year that is worth listening to.
Just What You Are by Taylor & the Apes is the latest offering by singer/songwriter Taylor Scott Elliott, boy genius. Only 26 years old, he writes as a man with wisdom beyond his years. Starting out with folky rock, (Taylor can tell you more about Lead Belly and Johnny Lee Hooker than most people twice his age), the Apes have evolutionarily evolved into a sometimes post punk garage band kind of the way Neil Young put down his acoustic and decided to rock out in Crazy Horse. Elliot is a friend of mind. He runs sound really well behind the scenes, and he and I played together a few years back I accompanied him on mandolin when he first wrote “Mr. James & Me,” a piece of hoot nanny that appears on Just What You Are (there’s another version on his previous EP, Street Corner as well). It’s a kick for me when I hear him do this song live.
The Apes are filling up the Bitter End and the biggest clubs in the city. Their drummer, Josh Salant advised me while I was writing this article and recommended some of the bands I included this review. I wanted to know who other local musicians were listening to, so Salant, who is in the mix as a sound engineer, pointed me in the direction of a few new bands that have a following. Salant engineered Just What You Are at Salant Studios in Brooklyn.
Elliott’s big influence is the Replacements; what generation gap? The band is a lot of fun to see live, a lot of banter on stage and Elliott is funnier than a lot of comedians I’ve seen. “Allen Street Blues” has the line “who said I need you! I’d like to wrap my hands around his filthy neck. Don’t mean to talk so tough, but anyone who acts like that is only full of shit.” The song is about drunken misadventure and the frustrations of the mating game in bars. “Mary” is the climax of the CD and the Apes live shows. It’s about that party girl we all know who’s a train wreck. “Moscow” is a rocker with an eastern European touch. I would be surprised if Elliott doesn’t start doing prog rock soon. “Moscow” flies in like a metal supersonic jet that is a call to mash. Elliott’s vocals are somewhere between Tom Petty and Iggy Pop, both of which are great lyricists and are able to write a tune that sticks in your head. But you have to hear The Apes for yourself, when something is new it defies description.
Stroamata, yet another hard rock band from Brooklyn features guitarist Rob Morrison, who also plays in Taylor and the Apes and the Coffin Daggers. Stroamata released a number of singles that are soon to be released on CD which is untitled, but because the stuff is so good, and most of the album has been out I am considering it a 2016 release. Stroamata has a very edgy musical structure, a formula that often has minimalist elements. The rhythm section is Alex Markowitz and Akil Marshall on bass, Marshall is classical trained and shows his virtuosity in some of his playing that can be very sparse and sophisticated.
This quartet is fronted by Dara Eagle on vocals, whom has an incredible range and versatility. To hear Eagle’s solo material, which is acoustic ukulele based, you would swear that she had a split personality. Songs such as “Serenity” and “A Fantasy” and “Dollar” have crass irreverent lyrics that are not meant for tender ears, parental discretion is advised. Some of these lyrics are an inversion of the old hat misogamist rants that punk and garage bands have spewed over the last few decades. I think we can use a few songs about good-for-nothing boyfriends for a change?
Morrison uses a hammer on technique in some of these songs to make his guitar sound like an organ on some of the tracks. Part of Stroamata’s goal is reproduce their studio innovations on the live stage, which they do successfully. I’ve seen them live a few times and they are just as exciting live as they are on record. Other tracks from the forthcoming release, most of which can be heard on Soundcloud right now include “Anything” “Bad,” “Get You Good,” “Just Go,” and “Heartbeat.”
Zen Anton’s release Fuck Art, a short EP, is also notable. Anton uses Taylor & the Apes rhythm section, Josh Salant on drums and Chud Chudnovski on bass. Anton has his own style of songwriting. The title track, “Fuck Art,” expresses anger and sorrow at the same time with a sense of humor. It’s about a break up with mixed feelings. As I said above, when something is new it often defies description, so give his tracks a listen as well as the other artists I’m sharing with you. The recordings are a little like ’90s grunge from Seattle in places. There are hints of Pearl Jam here and there and the vocals on some tracks are similar to Temple of the Dog. Anton also has some interesting backing vocals placed on a lot of these tracks. He uses an almost R&B falsetto vocal on the track “The Forever Setting Sun.” This collection shows versatility. The finale of the EP, “Sorry Jimi,” is a well-done extended jam that sounds kind of like Pearl Jam meets Jimi Hendrix’s Rage Against the Machine Gun. I would like to see this one done live.
Yellowcake and Wonder Muff
The next two releases, by Yellowcake and Wonder Muff, were recommended to me by Salant. I wanted to review some music that had word of mouth appeal that I haven’t heard yet and listen in a more objectively way than usual. Yellowcake is pretty big locally; they are a hybrid of r&b and other influences. Yellowcake’s 2016 release We Won’t Stop is smooth. They dabble in reggae at times and my favorite track is a track “Alibi” which reminds me of the old joints that Destiny’s Child did back in the day with a bouncy backbeat and clever lyrics. It brings to mind for me tunes like “Jumpin, Jumpin” by DC specifically. Yellowcake has a small horn section, saxophone, trumpet, and trombone for the most part. “Story of a Girl” and “Serenity” I liked, which have little reggae feel going on.
Rough Cuts by Wonder Muff, another band from Brooklyn that was recommended by Salant, crosses over different parts of the heavy metal spectrum. Some tracks, like “Shelter Me,” sounds like slug metal, but their track “Wonder Muff” (theme song?) sounds more like something Motorhead would play. It’s good to see a band not getting stuck in the rut of having everything sound the same. I really like the track “Halo” with its low key vocals, angst, and excessive guitar fuzz. Rough Cuts was a good listen, I would recommend it.
Yes…But with Shades of Gray by guitarist Scott Danger Bravo is an instrumental folk album that was released this year. I always say that different types of music have different types of functions. In some cultures music is for dancing and in others it’s to head bang. And there is music to listen to. Yes…But with Shades of Gray is nice acoustic guitar EP that is smooth and lush. Bravo’s compositions are carefully structured finger picking pieces that flow back and forth from one movement to the next. Bravo says he doesn’t jam and he’s a lone wolf composer and instrumentalist. His influences are Zakk Wylde, Tommy Emmanuel, Charlie Hunter, Pierre Bensusan. and Eddie Van Halen. Notable tracks from the EP are “Clomp Clomp”, and “Waiting for Planet X.”
The last 2016 release, but by no means the least I want to talk about is Used Man for Sale by Phil Gammage. This album is worthy of being checked out. Gammage is a seasoned songwriter, when I saw him live in Brooklyn a few months ago I was impressed with his band’s musicianship but mostly by his writing. I thought I was hearing obscure blues covers until I found out that Gammage wrote most of the repertoire. “Ride with Railroad Bill” is a blues stomp about getting revenge over his girl’s infidelity. “Railroad Bill lights a cigar with a 100 bill,” forgive me if I paraphrase, illustrates the tale vividly. The track ends with a raspy harmonica that drones on. Some tracks are more rock a billy like “Arms of a Kind Woman.” “Feeling Hurt” is a ballad that veers out of the realm of blues into kind of retro cabaret style. This is a very well done collection of songs.
I apologize, because I know I left a lot of people out. There is so much new music coming out and wish I could include everyone that put out a good set of recordings this year. I hope you get a chance to give this new music a listen. Happy New Year!