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 THE SCENE IS NOW

 ‘Magpie Alarm’

(Tongue Master)


More miniature adventures in song from The Scene Is Now. The New York ensemble has  been with us an awfully long time, remaining based around the nucleus of Phil Dray and Chris Nelson who came out of The Information in the early 80s. Currently a six-piece with horns, it's a good seven years since their previous  offering 'Songbirds Lie'. The 'avant jug band' tag still attaches and, probably, still holds. They continue to deliver up quirky and off-kilter songs that a casual overhearing might suggest are tossed off before breakfast but closer attention proves are not. That they're an acquired taste is less through being difficult to listen to and more that you're required to  pay attention and follow the meanderings. These aren't long songs at all. Few come in much over three minutes. They're observational or conversational, with elements of Beat Poetry, with a reliable tendency to branch off if it seems you might be getting too settled. Brimming with a fascination and, surely, a love for New York. The opener 'Cities Are Over' places itself centrally in the metropolis celebrating the subway and the twilight; knowingly it talks about creation from fragments and samples. And that is how this band works, except the samples and fragments being rearranged all originate in them. Getting it in order thus becomes a delightful puzzle as almost everything is cheery; the animated rush of 'April (Half The Battle)' and the jaunty carnival sounds of 'Fresno', the dancing piano and fairy tale images of 'Skulduggery', the lyrically exciting 'Last Call', and the Chinese puppet show guitar on 'Natalie'. Then every now and then they'll throw in a Southern Soul touch, such as the intro to  'Norway Pine', and you'll think them a moment as a little Lambchop, before they insistently hurry you along again.

- NICK WEST

 

THE SCENE IS NOW

‘Magpie Alarm’

(Tongue Master)

From the original line-up of The Scene Is Now only Phil Dray and Chris Nelson have remained. Chris Nelson is gifted with a keen eye for the charms and absurdity of life and oddly enough his voice sounds firmer than before. Maybe he should start selling anti-ageing products. It has been nearly six years since their previous album for Tongue Master. 'Songbirds Lie' featured less extravaganza than their previous four albums and 'Magpie Alarm' has an even stricter diet. The arrangement of their music is narrowed down. What can still be enjoyed is Nelson's voice rendering sane observations. It is rich coming from him that 'Cities Are Over' is the opening track and yet it mentions a New York twilight. Such a peripheral vision.

Now getting off to a false start with rather traditional pub rock music, Nelson's lyrical irony, wit and pith at first fail to lead the current band to exaltation. Well, since their records always cost the band money, it can be forgiven that they have included a whole fourteen songs. Studio rent doesn't come cheap. Gradually, their music becomes more adventurous and we roll on, roll off and rock on
'Pedestrian'. At this stage the Scene Is Now come closest to NRBQ or the Bottlecaps. We're getting thirsty. 'Norway Pine' sounds like a Lee Dorsey song and this sad shuffle suits the band very well. It's about the state tree of Minnesota, where Chris Nelson and Phil Dray are from.

'Skulduggery' derives from a simple piano riff and that works well. It's the first track where Nelson's lyrical and vocal gymnastics are given enough room. The first true highlight is next; the tender 'The Cold' - and is that Marianne Faithfull providing the backing vocal?? Unintentionally, Chris Nelson reaches his finest Al Green moment here. 'Magpie Alarm' takes a turn for the better now. Phil Dray and Chris Nelson get the overhand and the former brilliance reappears. Cabaret la freeform in 'Last Call', a wobbly waltz in 'Natalie' and the absurdist vaudeville in 'Turnstile Blues' bring the album to a very merry close. All's well that ends well.

-MAARTEN SCHIETHART

 

THE SCENE IS NOW

‘ Magpie Alarm ‘

(Tongue Master)


More miniature adventures in song from The Scene Is Now. The New York ensemble has  been with us an awfully long time, remaining based around the nucleus of Phil Dray and Chris Nelson who came out of The Information in the early 80s. Currently a six-piece with horns, it’s a good seven years since their previous  offering 'Songbirds Lie' .The ‘avant jug band’ tag still attaches and, probably, still holds. They continue to deliver up quirky and off-kilter songs that a casual overhearing might suggest are tossed off before breakfast but closer attention proves are not. That they’re an acquired taste is less through being difficult to listen to and more that you’re required to  pay attention and follow the meanderings. These aren’t long songs at all. Few come in much over three minutes. They’re observational or conversational, with elements of Beat Poetry, with a reliable tendency to branch off if it seems you might be getting too settled. Brimming with a fascination and, surely, a love for New York. The opener ‘Cities Are Over’ places itself centrally in the metropolis celebrating the subway and the twilight; knowingly it talks about creation from fragments and samples. And that is how this band works, except the samples and fragments being rearranged all originate in them. Getting it in order thus becomes a delightful puzzle as almost everything is cheery; the animated rush of ‘April (Half The Battle)’ and the jaunty carnival sounds of ‘Fresno’, the dancing piano and fairy tale images of ‘Skulduggery’, the lyrically exciting ‘Last Call’, and the Chinese puppet show guitar on ‘Natalie’. Then every now and then they’ll throw in a Southern Soul touch, such as the intro to  ‘Norway Pine’, and you’ll think them a moment as a little Lambchop, before they insistently hurry you along again.

- NICK WEST

 

THE SCENE IS NOW

‘ Magpie Alarm ‘

(Tongue Master)

This wonderful Manhattan sextet has been around (in name, anyway) since the
early 1980s, when they emerged from the ashes of Information (a woefully
underdocumented trio and/or quartet of the No Wave era). Initial TSIN
recordings and performances (featuring guitarist Dick Champ) were wiry as
hell, and the combination of jagged musical features, extremely evolved
lyrics and Chris Nelson’s ungainly vocals made them comparable to
later-period Red Crayola. Various folks passed through the group until they
semi-retired in the late 80s to pursue other actions (Phil Dray’s book on
lynching, At The Hands Of Persons Unknown was shortlisted for the 2003
Pulitzer prize). But they never really got away, and have emerged twice this
century with new albums as impressive as anything they’ve done. Nelson and
Dray remain the core members, but a lot of the music is now handled by folks
with a more liner approach to the avant garage, giving the tunes a
surprisingly lush and palatable surface. From the opening song, “Cities Are
Over “
(a delicate horn-laced ode to NYC), it’s obvious that TSIN has moved
into new levels of musical sophistication, one that perhaps more closely
matches their words. It’s still possible to detect similarities between the
vocal techniques of Nelson and Mayo Thompson, but the lyrics now have less
didacticism and are looser, friendlier. Indeed, several portions of this
album recall the arrangements and gestalt of Randy NewmanSail Away ‘ more
than anything else. But the lyrics remain closer to Donald Barthelme’s short
story ‘Me And Miss Mandible “ than Newman’sSimon Smith And The Amazing
Dancing Bear
”, which is fine with me. Still I am continually amazed by how
damn smooth this album sounds. I’ve played it incessantly for a couple of
weeks now, and it shows no sign of getting old.

-BYRON COLEY

 

THE SCENE IS NOW

‘ Magpie Alarm ‘

(Tongue Master)

***

Long-awaited latest by New York’s premier (and only) ‘ avant jug-band’

With their first three albums recently receiving reissue treatment, now
seems as good as any for New York avant-popsters The Scene Is Now to submit
to the harsh glare of modernity. ‘ Magpie Alarm ‘ is their first album in
over six years, and it’s great as you’d hope – non pro, wilfully awkward pop
smarts, played with the off-the-cuff charm and a wayward, unpredictable
grasp of melody. Here are the children of Red Krayola, expertly confounding
your expectations.

- JON DALE  

    

 

THE SCENE IS NOW

‘ Magpie Alarm ‘

(Tongue Master)

*****

They don’t break cover from semi-seclusion with a new disc very often, but
when The Scene Is Now do it’s always worth a listen. The mysterious band,
who emerged from mid-80s New York Noise scene, have outdone themselves here
on their second avian-themed release on Hammersmith-based Tongue Master
Reocrds. In 2004, their stark, angular album ‘ Songbirds Lie ‘ ruffled
feathers. But here the sextet are in fine form flitting from dark pop with a
jaunty trumpet on opener ‘ Cities Are Over ‘ to the madcap fairground vibe
of ‘ Fresno ‘. With a sound that can be both delicate and brutal, charming
and beguiling, the music perfectly shares a nest with Chris Nelson’s
authoritative yet croaky voice on 14 top tunes.

-GEOFF COWART
 

 

 

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