Monday, October 25, 2010

Blond Harmonies and a Timeless Troubadour

Christopher Paul Stelling

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

Caught a couple of promising acts on Saturday, the last day of this year’s CMJ festival, both of them playing at Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side—a marvel of a tiny space put to excellent use. (Drew the sound guy was up the built-in ladder sitting with his legs dangling from the sound booth.)

With his been-around-the-block guitar inscribed with various symbols (“CPS” being the easiest to figure out), his unruly hair in a modified ponytail, and his blue eyes at times almost alarming in their intensity, Christopher Paul Stelling comes across as a kind of neo-Testament prophet. His imagery-rich songs, involving suicide, murder, heaven, hell, ocean depths, bayous, and of course lost love, hearken back to 18th-century Scottish ballads (“Barbara Allen,” anyone?) even as they tap into the perpetual human condition.

After his gripping concert—disarmingly, in between the Gothic-tinged songs he commented on the quality of his Bloody Mary and, in an oblique comment on his strenuous performance (he uses his booted foot as percussion), informed us that his mother was an aerobics instructor—Chris told me that he'd like to go to Scotland, partly because, he said, they sing there without amplification. “I hope we’re heading toward more sincerity, less production,” he added. (No Auto-Tune for this guy.) Onstage he did occasionally stray from the mic, with no sound diminishment that I could detect.

Check out a video of Chris in action; I haven’t even mentioned his extraordinary finger-picking stylings, by turns muscular, breakneck, and celestial (and at times all three).

Delta Rae

In their first, a cappella song, the North Carolina group Delta Rae also stomped the beat—is this a trend? Composed of the baby-blond siblings Ian (who looks like Woody Harrelson), Eric, and Brittany Hölljes and their childhood friend Elizabeth Hopkins (they were smart to bring in a brunette; it cuts the sunniness factor), the band specializes in close harmonies. While a couple of their original songs were pretty good—such as “Ooh Caroline,” the subject of which they claimed materialized, uninvited, at one of their NYC concerts as they were performing the song—the four really showed their talents in the two covers they did: a revved-up “California Dreamin’” (just as I was thinking that Brittany Hölljes reminded me of Michelle Phillips) and their “model” (as Brittany told us) Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” in a thrilling rendition. Though it doesn’t come across quite as well recorded in, we’re told, a bathroom, they did upload that one to YouTube.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Champion of Dogs and Underdogs

Singer-songwriter-pianist-activist Nellie McKay, whose latest CD packs a melodious punch.

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

In a tease for Nellie McKay’s performance tomorrow at the Greene Space, for WNYC’s “Soundcheck,” someone called her new CD, Home Sweet Mobile Home, “whimsical.” Perhaps, I thought—in a Weill-Brechtian way. The shark has pearly teeth, and also, with her sweet, slightly askew smile, does Nellie, who is sharklike only when she’s fighting the good fight, on behalf of animals (“Eatin’ that burger… Eatin’ that torture”), the disenfranchised (“So you’ll find me/Here right beneath the underdog”), and the never-franchised (“Please sir let me lay in the sewer that claimed me”).

Since Nellie played Polly Peachum in a 2006 Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera, the Weill-Brecht influence would not be surprising, but, aside from last year’s Doris Day tribute album, which involved singing (beautifully) about cockeyed optimism and sentimental journeys, Nellie has from the beginning—after all, her first CD was called Get Away from Me—given us clever, sometimes acerbic, always enlightened songs couched in a Tin Pan Alley musical sensibility. (For my interview with Nellie on the Doris Day album, go to Vanity Fair’s website.)

I had assumed the CD title’s mobile-home reference had to do with today’s economy—and it might—but Nellie told an interviewer that her “nana” lived in a trailer and she used to like visiting there, and the cover shows a faux-naïf painting (her own) of a happy, lipsticked cat putting on Nellie’s record in a cozy, rosy setting. The inside packaging contains more animal art, along with photos of a smiling, saronged Nellie (the album includes the lilting “Caribbean Time,” recorded in Jamaica), but in the background are drawings of smokestacks spewing pollution—yet, indeed, rather whimsically!

Such is the despairing/rejoicing world of Nellie McKay, which I hope you will enter if you have not already. My favorite song on the CD is “Bruise on the Sky,” with its poignancy, lovely and inventive harmonies, and typically startling lyrics (“I need your loving eyes/At least your cyanide”).

Nellie will be on “Soundcheck” October 12, and you can check out tour dates and download “Caribbean Time” at her website.

The Return of von Pauli

My favorite Nazi has posted another propaganda video.