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Professor and Maryann: Making Girlfriends Nervous and Stripping Down to Basics
and, Richard Lloyd: Still Spiky After All These Years
By Linus Gelber, Home Office Records
(more articles from this author)
2000-07-26
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Helen: The Face that Launched a Thousand Words
The Loneliest Munch?  Bad pun, sorry (whack).  All paintings by Danielle Brancaccio.

Dateline: The East Village, New York City. Some years ago in Paris, a clueless Mr. Cyrano met a red-haired girl at a party. What do you do? I asked her. "I'm a model." Oh, said I, confidently accustomed to the New York round of usual suspects: actors slash bartenders, operatic temps and novelists working at the coffee shop. What else do you do? Not long after that she turned up on the Calvin Klein billboard in Times Square, following her Vogue cover the month before. Oops. Well, these things happen. But sometimes it pays to ask the question. As is the case with Professor and Maryann, a favorite band these parts that does some wonderful else.

I don't want to give anything away, but it's been summer in the City. Truly a state of mind. Mom forwarded along one of those "Useless Facts!" emails today (a duck's quack doesn't echo, etc., you know the kind) featuring the tidbit that brain cells die every time you yawn. With the recent bout of summerhead 'round here, that quack probably would echo in my upstairs. And it's not just me.

Danielle Brancaccio, in Interlude
She puts her nose on the mike between verses - it's really cute. Summer's a tricky season for music. The big aggro and hip-hop shed tours bellow from arena to arena, outdoor beach and lawn venues chunk yet more wedges into the yawning chasm between today's music and what used to be today's music, and locally you never can tell. One Wednesday night the streets are thick with seekers, and two days later you can walk into Lucien on First Avenue at 10 p.m. and have your pick of tables. So you decide everyone's in the Hamptons for the weekends after all; yet Wednesday next downtown looks like the Andromeda Strain just hit, and that Friday the venues are shoulder to shoulder and cheek to cheek. Whatever. We don't run with the crowds anyway. But bookers spend their warm months with shoulders raised in permanent shrugs. Donde esta la audience? Who knows? Go figure.

Full house at Kenny's Loft on Second Avenue, though, for an art exhibit cum concert which stirs and blurs the arty party lines. Here's the "else" it's worth asking about: on the opening and closing nights of the week-long group show, Professor and Maryann unfurl their bittersweet tales against a backdrop of paintings by Danielle Brancaccio, singer and inevitable Maryann of the duo (she may or may not look like a Professor, but songwriter and guitarist Ken Rockwood definitely isn't getting away with being a Maryann). There's gallery wine in plastic cups, smoking is relegated to the back roof access, and for once no one is slouching against the walls. The pace is recumbent boho my-roommate's-away lo-fi chic; cell phones abound, there's lots of air-kissing, and black is, mais oui, the fashion flavor of choice.

Ken Rockwood & Painted Partner
The painting is Danielle's self-portrait.  Angel or devil?  Only the hairdresser knows for sure.

Rogue's Gallery: When the music begins it is almost apologetic, awkward as a new colt in tall grass. One minute you're chatting with Danielle or hanging with Wayne Kral, the local artist (via Columbus, Ohio) who organized the show and is holding forth before his meticulous surrealist alphabetics -- imagine Mirů illuminating a raunchy Book of Days; that's not it, but it will give you an idea. Then of a sudden there's equipment and tuning going on, and the band is off and running. At first the mood change is a little jarring. Music at a reception is what you don't listen to, right? But after a song or two I fall into a gentle, reassuring rhythm, hearing the songs in a new context and trying to pick out which painting makes me feel like each piece. Montage is of course the spirit of the Noughties, perhaps because a facile playful pogo of images obscures in many cases a critical lack of anything to say. Tonight, this slow ruminating mix of sight and sound is ultimately relaxing and rewarding, giving the mind room to stretch and turn a few comfy circles before curling up to watch and listen and be fed. It feels nearly aristocratic.

Danielle's portraits are dark and unlikely, plashings of vivid color against turgid, indistinct grounds. Whether serene, contorted, glowering or omniscient, her figures are lit from without as much as from within. Her composition is blunt and mobile and stark, almost refusing to let down its guard for the curious spectator. Happily enough, Professory and Maryann's music is also dark and unlikely, plashing vivid color against turgid, indistinct skies. It's a happy match.

The Muse Looks Down on Second Avenue
Penny for her thoughts. A Three Paragraph Tour: We last visited Professor and Maryann late last winter, following a few unplugged shows in and out of recording studios downtown. The winter's work bears sweet fruit -- Ken and Danielle are putting final touches on their new recording, which follows two previous albums on Bar/None Records. In brief, the band stepped out in 1992 and was signed almost immediately for their first record, "Fairy Tale." In 1996 their second CD, "Lead Us Not into Penn Station," brought them notice from local radio luminaries like Vin Scelsa of WNEW-FM (which was once a real fine station) and Rita Houston of WFUV-FM (which still is). Your Mr. Cyrano first saw them at The Bottom Line in a WFUV Required Listening show, and was mesmerized. You know how sometimes lots of people have the same experience, but we're all too polite to mention it? Polite silence hasn't been one of my strongest virtues over the years, so let me say this about that.

Danielle Brancaccio is simply devastating. Elfin, sexy, and intense, she radiates a tough and swaggering vulnerability on stage, glowing with the kind of bruised beauty and spattered hopeful pride that wakens the slumbering noble savage in the communal breast and makes you want to charge out and be noble and savage. Her breathy, dark voice is sweet and hoarse and compelling, and partnered with Ken's tender, finely-observed songs and atmospheric finger-picked guitar, it gingerly charts great coasts and shoals of pain, seeking safe passage to shelter, harbor, warmth, peace. At that Bottom Line show I first spotted what I've since dubbed "The Danielle Effect" -- a gently-intrusive touching of transfixed audience boyfriends by their dates, a reassuring contact that says, "Hi -- remember me?" At which eyes glide back into focus, nervous smiles peek out, and the poor flagrante delicto male (busted again!) gamely offers how much he, um, likes the guitar player.

Perchance to Dream: Danielle and "Sleeper"
How to separate the sleeper from the sleep?

It's hard to amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world as a duo, and Professor and Maryann has tried out a bunch of sidemen over the years. A few wacky months as a rock four-piece gave way for a time to a stark carnival turn with vibes, accordion, stand-up bass and the temperate drums of Tom DeVito, who is producing their new project. The larger calliope format was especially compelling, but through it all a spare simplicity lay at the heart of their material, and at last Ken and Danielle slipped the knot of the band and have gone back to the basic beginnings. Over various flavors of caffeine at Starbucks last week, Ken was eager and animated talking about their new recordings. "It's a really exciting direction for us," he said, describing how removing all of the extra trappings and oddments from the music left them time and space to work on honing and refining the simplest and most powerful elements: unadorned voice and guitar.

Moving and Standing Still: Ken is tall, thoughtful and rail-thin, favoring a concert garb of sturdy braces and the sorts of trousers that cry out for a good fedora. "We've treated each song like a different room," he says. "From song to song the sounds will move, change places, change levels." We've been talking about how production in the studio adds a kind of delta-vee to music, taking the place of the visual experience you have seeing a band live, supplying texture to capture your attention and make it easier to listen fully. And in fact the four not-quite-done-yet sample songs he gives me to preview are limpidly clear and full of motion, lit as much from without as from within. On "History in the Making," a delightful memoir in small-moment couplets ("We were tapping at the window / We were hanging out clothes to dry / We were history in the making, you and I / We were strolling through the daisies / We were chasing a butterfly / We were history in the making, you and I") Ken's vocals are pinched tight, as if trickling down a long-distance wire; for "Not You Not Me," a detached observer's covetous description of a love between others ("See the girl buy her man a tie / She likes simple colors, and so does he / See her walk down the empty hall and knock on his door hopefully") Danielle's voice is tremulous and airy, full of fondness and want, and Ken's guitar is fragile and bare.

In the Studio: Play it Again, Ken
He really is a Professor, you know. There's a nostalgia in their act that regrets the passing of a more dapper age, when a crisp white shirt and sunshine on a quiet afternoon might be enough to hit if off with the right girl, and a hurricane lamp was enough to throw back the uncertainties of night. We'll have what they're having. Part of what Professor and Maryann was after in this recording was a live feel, and as we mentioned last March they did take down several tracks in front of a small audience of friends. At least one of these looks likely to make the final cut. Was it history in the making? Time will tell. Professor and Maryann plays often in New York, and you can see them next kicking off the festivities at the Dan Emery Mystery Band Mystery X-Travaganza at 8 p.m. on Friday, August 18th at The C-Note on 10th Street and Avenue C. Of their two current CD's Mr. Cyrano easily picks "Lead Us Not Into Penn Station," worth the price of admission for "Willow" and "Cadillac (I'm Still in Love With You)" alone. There are tiny reproductions of several of Danielle's paintings in the packaging, although the color balance is not very faithful. The band's live performance is far more powerful and satisfying than either of the CD's to date. Watch out for The Danielle Effect.

Some nights we join with Ken Rockwood in asking "Can life be sweet even on these crooked streets?" Last Thursday we found sweet in a whole different casting in the form of Testing Testing 1-2-3, the new interim project fronted by guitar ace Richard Lloyd. I'm afraid that back in the day your Mr. Cyrano wasn't much of a Television fan -- so shoot me -- and the words "Marquee Moon" do not send me into nostalgic raptures; but that's just the luck of the draw. I do love saying "Marquee Moon" to other people, though, and watching them go into their own nostalgic raptures and ecstasies. Yesterday's seminal rebels are today's elder statesmen in these strange days, and Richard Lloyd is back in a new guitar-guru role.

Richard Lloyd, Testing Testing the Limits
Have guitar, will rock room.

Testing Testing is closing out a month of Thursdays at Manitoba's on Avenue B between 5th and 6th Streets, and if you've found this column at Internet speeds in time for the last of the July Thursdays we can only recommend that you go. Lloyd's set is new material from his forthcoming record, about which he is suitably vague: it's done, it's not at the factory yet, it will come out sooner or later. The music is jagged and sharp, and at a first hearing it reminded me of the late "musicians' musicians" bands like Ginger Baker's Air Force and Baker-Gurvitz Army. Which is to say that you won't leave humming the hooks -- hooks here serve only to hang a virtuoso turn on an otherwise thrumming wall -- and the jams don't fit the Phish/Dave Matthews jam band mold. With varied, solid drumming by Chris Butler, acrobatic bass served up by Peter Stuart, and churning rhythm guitar by Bibi Farber (let's just note that rhythm guitar like this would be lead guitar in a lot of bands), and of course the vaunted Mr. Lloyd on lead, Testing Testing 1-2-3 grinds out a good-natured aural assault that challenges and entertains and flexes its muscles just because it can. Television once took all of the usual ingredients and made a new tangier meal out of them, and Richard Lloyd is still laying a taster's table. It's rock and roll -- you've heard it all before. Just not quite like this.

Moments in Time: At the last Testing Testing 1-2-3 show, the band roared into a few chestnuts for an extended encore -- noting that the music had been new throughout the set, Lloyd explained that here they'd play (slay?) some sacred cows so we could all go home happy, crowing "Oh, he played that one!" And the four tore into versions of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," Jimi Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary" and Led Zeppelin's "Good Times/Bad Times." At the end of "The Wind Cries Mary" Lloyd broke a string ("This will be up on e-Bay tomorrow, at a substantial reserve"). There was some consternation in the band -- apparently he never breaks strings. At which Handsome Dick Manitoba of The Dictators, our publican and bartender for the night, roared out from behind the bar: "It was the ghost of Jimi who broke that string, Richard!" It was one of those perfect moments. You had to be there. Try to be there next time.

See you in two.

Mid-Season "I Haven't Seen Any Movies" Movie Wrap-Up:

Pick of the summer: "Chicken Run"
Best unshaven grunting and bellering movie: "Perfect Storm"
Best movie not to miss the beginning of: "Scary Movie"
Best movie line so far this summer: "You're a dick." - Wolverine
A propos of nothing, worst line ever in an otherwise great song: Sorry, Bob, it's you. "I must have looked a little uneasy when she bent down to tie the lace on my shoe" -- what were you thinking? - from "Tangled Up in Blue"

Linkography:

Professor and Maryann: www.professorandmaryann.com
Richard Lloyd: www.richardlloyd.com
Marquee Moon: www.slip.net/~rivethed/tvsite.htm
(This is a very good unofficial Television site)

Professor and Maryann photos by Linus Gelber. Richard Lloyd at Manitoba's by Pierre Jelenc. Does anyone else think it's funny that the City is picking up dead birds and testing them for West Nile virus? I'm picturing this team in explorer outfits, pointing at a bird pie on the street and yelling, "By George! Bring the bucket, Stanley! I've found another one!"


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