Preview: The Scene Is Now
“You can never say enough about The Scene Is Now,” said Yo La
Tengo’s Ira Kaplan. Which may well be true, if of little use when
writing a panel comprising 250 words. Still, the comment alone is
worthy of note, highlighting another of those New York bands
who’ve managed to garner peer and critical praise in inverse
proportion to commercial success.
retrospective, then, is well overdue, a TSIN appear at The Cube as
part of their first ever European tour, 20 years after the release
of their debut album ‘Burn All Your Records’. Lumped into the (stay
with us now) post post-punk scene known as ‘No-Wave’, the wife of
founder and mainstay, Phil Dray, offers a more workable
description:’ Swerve Music’, meaning regular pop but slightly off-kilter.
Indeed, last year’s ‘Songbirds Lie’, was nicely reviewed as a
‘truly enchanting record, one minute possessing the subtle charms
of Belle & Sebastian, the next the reassuring, gentle twang of
Lambchop, and a little later the gothic-tinged acoustics of The
Black Heart Procession’. Magpies of immaculate taste, Dray
maintains that “part of [the group’s] concept was that one’s
approach and enthusiasm was more vital than expert musicianship,
which none of us really had”. Hence tracks like ‘Social Practice’,
based on quotations from Mao’s Little Red Book, allied to an
inversion of the novelty song ‘Rockin’ Robin’ and a synthesized
‘Chinese Orchestra’ string part in homage to the state music
albums emerging from Beijing and Moscow in the 50s and 60s. The
long-awaited set of bucolic chamber pop begins here.
THE SCENE IS
NOW play THE CUBE, Bristol on SAT 13 AUG.
- BRISTOL &
BATH’S MAGAZINE VENUE 12-21 August, 2005
THE SCENE IS NOW
“Songbirds Lie “
Having only heard about this New York band in name (this is a 2003
reformation album after a 20+ year absence), I didn’t know what to
expect, but the good news is that it’s a breath of fresh air from
the all new post-punk copyists, new country, and OC-ready indie.
This album has bucketloads of heart, falling in sound somewhere
between Tom Waits ‘70s sunshine pop, New Orleans at Mardi Gras, and
maybe even a bit of Lambchop and Morphine’s late Mark Sandman (in
the vocal delivery). Let’s forget to pigeonhole them against other
bands, and relay the obvious: Original members CHRIS NELSON (vocals/trombone/guitar)
and PHILIP DRAY (keyboards) make festive, meticulously played
music that goes from party time (“ MACHIAVELLI,” “ Going To
Where It’s Green “) to boozy-introspection (“Falling Leaves “) and
keeps the listener engaged by maintaining variety in the huge
arrangements. Not for everybody, maybe, but definitely for the
New No Wave
The Scene Is Now return to active duty
The Scene Is Now’s Chris Nelson
once sang, "They’re just 24 hours, from the vine to the brine/But
you gotta let ’em soak for a long, long Time/Oh, the well-made
pickle is a taste sublime." The lines could describe the band’s
approach to their craft. "Some elements may be off-the-cuff," says
Nelson, "but by the time I say, ‘These are the lyrics,’ I’ve looked
at every syllable hundreds of times." The Scene’s career has
proceeded on a similar timetable: the recent Songbirds Lie (Tongue
Master) is their first widely available release since 1988’s Tonight
The roots of founders Nelson and
Phil Dray lie deep in New York’s ideologically noisy no-wave scene:
they formed Information in the late ’70s with drummer Rick Brown. (Nelson
may even have coined the movement’s name in New York Rocker and his
own fanzine NO.) "That approach didn’t exactly encourage adherence
to traditional song structure," Dray recalls. The first Scene Is Now
single ("1150 Lbs.") and album (Burn All Your Records), both from
1981, were song-based but spontaneous, with the traditional skills
of second guitarist Dick Champ and drummer Jeff McGovern offset by
Dray’s oblique keyboard, harmonica, and trombone lines and Nelson’s
raw guitar and vocals. Several members also played with the groovier,
earnestly leftist Mofungo, but the Scene’s touch was lighter. As
Nelson had it in "If Justice Hides," years later, "There’s politics
in every song . . . la da dee da da-da-da."
The band’s profile rose in the late
’80s as major indie Twin/Tone distributed their Lost Records imprint
for Total Jive and Tonight We Ride, both with backing by Pere Ubu
bassist Tony Maimone and dB’s drummer Will Rigby. Two ’90s outings
after Champ’s departure and Twin/Tone’s implosion — the cassette-only
Shotgun Wedding, and the barely-distributed CD-R Let’s Straighten It
were practically samizdat. (Bar-None’s best-of The Oily Years, still
in print, samples from all but the last.) "To us, it seemed we were
working right along," Dray says, "but we disappeared from anyone
‘Songbirds Lie’ marks the Scene’s
return to full-band status after a string of duo performances.
Nelson and Dray have found another solid rhythm section in Sue
Garner (also Brown’s partner) and Robert Dennis (Fire in the Kitchen/Tono-Bungay),
but two newer collaborators deserve equal credit. Multi-instrumentalist
Greg Peterson corresponded with Dray as a lone fan in Iowa; after
moving to New York in 2000, he was drafted for live work. Trumpeter
Steven Levi, whose jazz pedigree includes a stint gigging with Cecil
Taylor, came aboard at almost the same time.
"This is the first time in many years
Phil and I have had other people bringing in material," says Nelson.
Peterson has self-released several solo discs; here he contributes
music to the autumnal ballad "Falling Leaves" and two others, though
he’s happy to leave the words to his elders. Levi’s "Going to Where
It’s Green" is largely his handiwork. A second cousin to Talking
Heads’ "Nothing But Flowers," it’s the disc’s most immediately
accessible track, as Nelson — who admits to making "small
adjustments" to the lyrics — ticks off the dubious pleasures of a
country weekend over a ska-goes-Broadway arrangement: "The air is so
damn clean/I’d better bring a magazine."
The disc’s core nonetheless remains
the leaders’ knack for sophisticated play. "Machiavelli" sets
quotations from the father of European political cynicism over
lopsided blues-piano riffing. "A man must learn how to act like a
beast/Or a half-man and a half-beast," Nelson howls, sounding like
exactly that. The first of the bookending instrumentals, "T.S.I.N.
Fight Song," undercuts a showy trumpet fanfare with squalling guitar,
as though James Chance had invaded a Bacharach date; the closing "Molasses,
25 Cents" hangs together as loosely as 1981’s Poulenc-inspired "Rope."
Given their working pace, the Scene Is Now’s return to public view
could have been a soggy dill chip; instead, Songbirds Lie is as tart
and crisp as a just-sliced half-sour. You could even call it sublime
- FRANKLIN BRUNO
- BOSTON PHOENIX |
Issue Date July 22-28,2005
SCENE IS NOW
" Songbirds Lie "
Whether in the Hoboken scene 20 years ago or in New York's today,
this ranks as one of the area's most coolly spirited acts.
The Scene Is Now began in the mid-'80s as a more playful offshoot
of downtown Marxist art-prank act Mofungo, of which TSIN principals
Chris Nelson and Phil Dray were both members. On its '80s work,
the loosely constructed ensemble embodied a slyly goofy collision
of noisy experimentalism and good-natured playfulness. And we're
more than happy to report that on TSIN's new album (you heard us!),
' Songbirds Lie ' (Tongue Master; U.K.), little has changed, and
that's a great thing. The group is as referential to American music
as Charles Ives was, and perhaps, in certain circles, as relevant,
OUT NEW YORK - January 20-25,2005
SCENE IS NOW
Songbirds Lie '
name inevitably coupled with the adjective ' legendary '; The Scene
Is Now have maintained an aura of mystery over two decades. Their
mainstays, Chris Nelson and Philip Dray, started in the band Information,
who were part of the New York No-Wave scene of the late 70s. Pere
Ubu's Tony Maimone and dBs' Will Rigby passed through their ranks
for a time, and the Shams collaborated with them at one point. If
they're known in the wider world it's through Yo La Tengo's cover
of 'Yellow Sarong' on Fakebook.
'Songbirds Lie' is not really likely to bring them a wider audience
but that doesn't mean there aren't virtues here. They play what,
at first hearing, sounds like endearingly cheesy muzak; bandstand
in the park type of stuff. Lots of horns and keyboards; a bit like
Zappa meeting Lambchop. Nelson has one of those expressive voices,
somewhat like Kurt Wagner or Vic Chesnutt, that are made for tall
tales and weirdness. It all builds to an uncertain atmosphere; at
times a lack of clarity to ends and beginnings and a sense of
infiltration by stealth.
like music that you hear in dreams. Whacky, naive choruses as in
'Going To Where It's Green' and surreal tales of urban life ('Mediocre
Wedding Band') sitting next to touching narratives like 'Angelique'
and the exquisite 'Falling Leaves'. In truth it's going to annoy
as many listeners as it enchants, but if you're game for a cross
between Tom Waits and Pianosaurus it may be just your thing.
SCENE IS NOW
Songbirds Lie "
Scene Is Now have released only five albums in twenty-two years.
Youd accuse them of laziness if this, their first release
to be widely available in the UK, wasnt so damn great and
so damn hard to really get a critical grasp of. The New York outfit
are best known for Yo La Tengos take on their song Yellow
Sarong, but Songbirds Lie proves that they can hold
their own against such acclaimed bands/friends without the need
for back-slapping favours. Vocalist Chris Nelsons slightly
husky, slightly hushed voice recalls a wealth of talents: Johnny
Cash, Elvis Costello, Randy Newman
its like his lungs,
throat and tongue have been replaced on every song; his straight
forward narratives echo the latters work in particular (especially
on Mediocre Wedding Band). The music around him is equally as diverse,
one minute possessing the subtle charms of Belle and Sebastian,
the next the reassuring, gentle twang of Lambchop, and a little
later the gothic-tinged acoustics of The Black Heart Possession.
Call them plagiarists or geniuses, its your call; the fact
remains that Songbirds Lie is a truly enchanting record
thatll delight all but fans of the extremely leftfield.
SCENE IS NOW
Songbirds Lie "
album, another bunch of US oldies with a decidedly ' cult ' reputation;
cited as ' influential ' by so many, but unlike the obvious - Fugazi
or Mission Of Burma - these guys are producing music perhaps better
suited to their advanced years. The, er, Scene are by no means grizzled
emo forefathers grinding out mosh-friendly tunes for a generation-spanning
audience. That's not to say that it's subdued - there are moments
here when full-on punk rock is to the fore, but always with a twist.
The simplest way to describe The Scene Is Now is to chuck in references
and what better than Yo La Tengo, who covered ' Yellow Sarong '
on Fakebook. Their press release perhaps inevitably namechecks Pere
Ubu and that may be the closest point of contact - but only if backed
by a drunken mariachi band accompanied by typewriter, as on opener
' TSIN Fight Song '. For all the Big Apple's art rock influences
there's definite hints of Dexy's especially with the prevalent brass
and yelped vocals, and the lyric " Casio and blaring sax "
sums them up nicely. There are moments of Was(not Was)-style genius,
as on ' Mediocre Wedding Band ', the tale of Sally & Alvin,
who " lost his job today, but it's probably for the best, as
he was also placed under arrest ". At times the wry words are
delivered in the style of Edwyn Collins, as on ' Falling Leaves
', but musically, only if working with They Might Be Giants ('Maddie
Sloane') or their UK spiritual cousins XTC ('Rialto'). And if we're
doing the comparisons thing, ' Libertyville ' has to heard if you
ever wondered how (why?) Bogshed playing jazz would turn out. Sometimes
old guys just keep rockin' and sometimes they'll embarass their
kids with their antics. The Scene Is Now just gets weirder. We can
only hope the younger generations understand.
SCENE IS NOW
Songbirds Lie "
some 22 years together, the members of New Yorks The Scene
is Now certainly cant be accused of being careerist or commercially-slavish.
With a two-decade discography that only includes five hard-to-find
albums, a smattering of singles, and one seemingly out-of-print
anthology compilation, this elusive collective has a rarefied presence
that only consummate record collecting near-neighbours like Yo La
Tengo have noticed. In fact, TSINs only obvious claim to fame
to date is through an indirect appearance on Yo La Tengos
Fakebook (1990), wherein Ira Kaplan and co. dreamily covered TSINs
Yellow Sarong. With all this in mind, it will come as
some surprise to find core TSIN members, Chris Nelson (vocals/guitar/trombone)
and Philip Dray (keyboards), returning after another long pause
with a brand new album on West London-based label Tongue Master
(on/off home to Mark Eitzel, Last Harbour, Broken Dog, et al.) in
tow. Whilst it could be inaccurate to say TSIN sounds reinvigorated
(this writers immediate knowledge of the bands back
catalogue is a thin as the next guy/girls), Songbirds Lie
certainly doesnt seem dogged by the fatigue and dilapidation
that has befallen other bands with an equally lengthy mileage.
vigour is borne out right from the beginning of Songbirds Lie with
the opening triumvirate of TSIN Fight Song, Machiavelli,
and Going to Where its Green, wherein the groups
bucolic chamber pop joyfully joins the dots between Lambchops
" Thriller ", Mark Mulcahys " Smile Sunset
", Tom Waits " Swordfishtrombones ", and a
New Orleans street carnival. Its an intoxicating brew that
sustains itself through a good proportion of the album. At the heart
of it all are Chris Nelsons woozy bourbon-soaked and razor
blade-ravaged vocals - both the bands biggest asset and biggest
stumbling block - that crucially give the larger-than-life arrangements
a strong focal point and an obvious source of warmth. Things do,
however, vary from the aforementioned stylistic pattern occasionally,
notably on the self-deprecating Mediocre Wedding Band
with its jazzy swing time, the peculiar spoken-word tale of Angelique,
and the wearily downbeat Tindersticks-like Falling Leaves
- but generally this is a consistently upbeat selection of life-affirming
TSINs strangely textured tableau is bit tough to digest in
one go, particularly when this album is perhaps three or four songs
longer than it should really be. However, given that this defiantly
odd but accessible musical operation has made a virtue of cumulative
brevity, then its likely that this one readily available album
wont be quite enough to sustain any new converts over the
inevitable long wait for a follow-up to reach record stores. In
the interim, though, its definitely nice having these folks
around to brighten up 2004s rather dull musical landscape
with an amenable amalgam of playful lunacy and erudite invention.
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