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The Novellas: Betty is Captured by Aliens and Laura Goes to London. Film at 11.
By Linus Gelber, Home Office Records
(more articles from this author)
2000-04-12
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New Yorkers talk about the weather. We do. It's an obsession. Meet us on home ground and there are two things we must know about you right off, before we can have any kind of decent conversation. We need to know where you're from, so we can nod sagely and say, "Hmm, really." By this we communicate that where you're from is probably interesting in its own cute way, but it sure isn't New York, fercryinoutloud. And we need to know your thoughts about how cold or hot or rainy or sticky or windy or calm it is outside. This gives us your measure.

  • Sample New York opening line: "Is it cold out, or what? What's that about?"

  • Incorrect approach: "What a beautiful day."

  • Instead, try this: "Wow, it's gorgeous out there! Not like it'll last, or anything. Where are you from?"

Which is by way of telling you that the trees down Clinton Street are in bloom, and our meager dram of Spring is peeping out. It's the season of wearing leathers to the clubs and then wondering idly why it's so hot in there. It's also the season of taking off your jacket and hat and resting them precariously on your bag, and resolutely straddling your small pile of possessions to make sure no one makes off with them. The price of democracy: eternal vigilance, or else people steal your stuff. And they wonder why folks don't dance in the clubs any more. Of course it's snowing today, but pay the the frigid whimsy no mind. Just hand me that scarf.

Peter Chance in Character
A Novella and his Harmonica After a day's recumbent summer temps, the cold downtown Saturday night streets are at half-mast. Almost tax time and it's glove weather. Say it with me: what's that about? In Arlene Grocery, one of the East Village's premiere music clubs, it's hot and close and The Novellas are loading in, following Antifolk strangeman David Dragov and before a muscular set by Boston's lithe Jennifer Tefft. Since 1994, when the band morphed by baby steps out of a previous combo called Peter Chance and the Undergroove, The Novellas have been spinning their gravely irreverent tales of high-octane dramatic enigma to a growing mass of fans who can't figure out where in the world these songs come from, and how on earth we've done without them for so long. Imagine Magazine and the Human League meeting in a particularly good vintage clothing store and you'll scratch the dark surface of their bright and unexpected sound.

Surprise: serious perky pop tunes about Russian parapsychics ("Nina"), Southern hauntings ("Marietta's Comin'"), wounded bullfighters ("The Drunken Toreador") and alien abduction ("There Goes Betty Again") turn out to be absolutely essential. There's not a stitch of kitsch in what frontman Peter Chance calls his "docu-pop" songs. "We do stories," Peter says, a bit nonplussed by Mr. Cyrano's rambling questions on character development and literary influences. "Some of them are real stories, and some are put together from lots of different stories." Call yourself The Novellas and a guy's got to wonder about authors. So what writer would be a stylistic influence? "I don't know," he says. "What do you think?" Um, Hemingway? For the economy of words and the elliptical themes? "I was going to say that! Yes!" Cool.

Novellas performances are true moveable feasts -- Peter (acoustic guitar, vox) and Laura Ogar (keyboard, theremin, tape samples) approach each show as a party at which they play gracious hosts. Dressed to but never beyond the verges of sartorial excess, they radiate warmly skittish chic and happy-puppy eagerness. Tonight, with Mark Nixdorf on bass as always and "summer drummer" Jagoda on the kit, they are minus Laura's theremin but plus both Deni Bonet on violin and spoken-word dervish Jonathan Berger on rant. Gold-rimmed round specs, serious glare, and an uncharacteristic starched white shirt make Jon look like a clean-shaven Kropotkin, perched on a barstool on stage and scribbling intently in his Poet's Accessory throughout the set while he watches for his cues. Deni, who is featured on the band's recent debut CD ("Magnets in Intimate Places"), darts in and out of the music, adding here a Michael Nyman-esque textural saw and there an exuberant gypsy air that dances back to the days of Scarlet Rivera's "Desire"-era Bob Dylan accompaniments. (This is still my favorite Dylan record. So shoot me.)

Laura Ogar on Theremin
The Theremin: Play, but Don't Touch

Laura's liquid, majestic keys spread out languorously behind Peter's pointed guitar work in a pageant of sonic architecture that is instantly entrancing. At most shows (but not this one) a small metal wind chime hangs from the microphone, and at the end of each song Peter sets it tinkling; the shifting, whispering sigh of sound is like a compressed recap of the music that has gone before, fading quickly and leaving a fond faint tickle in the ear. "Here's another happy song," he says, plunging into the next twisty wistful bit of existential weirdness with an exaggerated, eye-rolling shrug -- as if to say, "What will these wacky guys come up with next?"

In performance, Chance is a chameleon whirl of faces and voices. His (currently spiked blonde) leading-man hunky good looks and easy nervous energy stutter through different guises from song to song; after the set you may not quite know what he looks or sounds like out of character. He'll be the toothy grinning jerky-limbed pulpit-puppet preacher in "Marietta's Comin'" (gleefully roaring "Now, and at the hour of our death, Amen") one moment, and an aging broken toreador weeping about his lost glorious past just a few seconds later. In "Self Immolation Row" he's a clenched man at the end of his rope ("Lost my job, lost my wife, I lost my dignity / There's only one thing I can think of doing / One thing that's left for me down on / Self immolation row"), ready to go down in flames. "I'm a Gemini," he explains. "I have all these personalities." Peter's fey delivery is varied, precise and limpidly clear, and he has a beautiful resonant voice as supple as any in the clubs today.

Music critic Mark Keating, who does canny diggings in the fecund lands of New York music, suggests that a consistent element in The Novellas' work is the presence of death as an "unspoken awareness of mortality." I'm intrigued by this notion, but I disagree. Chance's garden is full of secret orchids, to my mind, rather than nightshade. Is "Buried Alive" ("My love is buried alive, minutes to go, minutes to go / Locked in my box, under the ground / Under the rocks, never to be found") about an actual live burial? Or is it about hiding tender pieces of the heart away from the madding crowd? Or both? Peter is suitably vague on the songwriting process. "Writing songs is like waiting for the bus," he offers. "Sometimes the bus comes, and sometimes you walk home." Perhaps a Novella's life is like a Novellas tune: starting the thumpy "Laura's Gone to London" at Arlene, Peter tells the crowd, "This isn't about this Laura. It's about another Laura." And he sidesteps nearly off-mike and mutters, in a clear audible aside, "Yeah, right. And another Peter. In another life." And begins to play.

  • The Cliff Notes Version: The Novellas are one of the best unsigned bands in New York City. Their Web site is fast and informative, constantly updated, and captures an accurate skeleton essence of the band. Their CD, which does not match their live shows, is available in stores, distributed by Ripe & Ready. (The CD is very good. The live shows are in Technicolor.)

Upcoming Novellas Shows: April 22 at C-Note (with Patti Rothberg); May 5 at CB's Gallery (a superb venue for the band); May 13 at The Saint in Asbury Park, NJ; May 19 at C-Note; June 17 at Arlene Grocery.

It's an in-betweeny night last week after Erin O'Hara's stripped-down set at Arlene, with just enough edge to the evening to suggest the leathers and enough stuffy shelter to make them massive overkill. Just where are you from, anyway? Erin is a mild-mannered wide-eyed alert free spirit whose confident calm gives no hint of the emergent beast to come when you put her in front of a rhythm section; she fronts her own band and sings with other downtown groups, including James Mastro's recent project Machine Shop.

Malcolm Holcombe with Dayna Kurtz, the Living Room
Nashville Wear in NYC Spring Mr. Cyrano and MC Webmaster J are on their way to the subway, quitting time come early on the circuit, when the sublime Dayna Kurtz, a jazz singer, guitarist and songwriter who has been absent far too long, hails past on Stanton Street. Dayna says we've got to see Malcolm Holcombe at the cattycorner Living Room, starting now. "He's the real deal," she says. "He's Lucinda Williams' favorite songwriter. You have to see him." So in we go.

Truth in advertising: Malcolm Holcombe is the real deal. Or perhaps the surreal deal. He's a bona fide crazy person with a powerful guitar gift and a bolt of The Poet struck smack between his strange blue eyes. Originally from Weaverville, North Carolina and now living in Nashville, Holcombe is a fund of people's wisdom and sucker-punch rural charm. He's vivid and twitchy and episodic. He's so rustic you almost want to kick him to snap him out of it, but there's an overwhelming sense that he isn't putting it on. "We used to say in Nashville," he comments in one scattered introduction, "we used to say, 'You are one in a million. And in New York City there's 14 more like you.' Heh." In keeping with our climate news theme this week, he's wearing way too many clothes: a leather jacket, a drab gray scarf, a work shirt, and more layers under that. But then Nashville folks do that up here, since apparently they don't have drafts down south.

It's hard to describe the show that followed. Dayna sang harmony on three songs and then Holcombe continued on his own, shifting jerkily in his seat and dribbling, chawing-tobacco style, in a disconcerting way. The music? Beautiful. Mesmerising. Holcombe's melodic style is reminiscent of Eric Andersen, and he works his way around the guitar like a man born to it. He isn't particularly ornate, but every note is struck just where it should be. He sings in a smoker's rasp, a next-day's all-night-party voice. "I put on my britches one leg at a time," he starts off in one star-turn rambling blues, and when the song is over he smiles. "I got $200 for this tune -- and I spent every nickel. Heh."

The story goes that Holcombe showed up some years back in Nashville, drunk and on a one-way ticket, with a dollar in his pocket and surely fire in his eyes. He landed a cooking and dishwashing gig, and apparently clambered up the musical ladder by being his unadorned self. I believe it. There's very little on him out there on the Web, so we've included a couple of archive links below. With a few deft words and a handful of aching notes he'll lay open his soul in front of you, utterly without barrier or guile, as in the moving, disjointed "Only For You" ("A thorn in my throat / I can't swallow alone / Rose in your eyes / Only for you"). In that pulpy moment of appreciative silence at the end of the song, he'll smile craftily and duck his head. "I had meatloaf tonight, with mashed potatoes and greens -- over at Irving Plaza." He licks his lips, momentarily transported to a paradise of home cooking, shattering the mood. It's jarring. The scary thing is, it occurs to you midway through his set that maybe you're the one with the priorities screwed up.

See you in two.

Linkography:

The Novellas: www.thenovellas.com/
Jon Berger's AntiMatters Pages: www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/Club/3794/
Deni Bonet: www.denibonet.com/
Malcolm Holcombe/Hip-O Records (CD info, use the Search): www.hiporecords.com/
Malcolm Holcombe (Subway Guide interview): www.subway.com/e-guide/docs/october99/malcolm_holcombre.htm
Malcolm Holcombe (1997 Flagpole coverage): http://flagpole.com/Issues/12.03.97/Holcombe.html
Dayna Kurtz: www.daynakurtz.com/
Arlene Grocery: www.arlene-grocery.com/
The Living Room: www.livingroomny.com/

Favorite Hemingway Line: "The road to hell is paved with unbought stuffed dogs."
Most Explosive Live Vocal Performance Heard in Years: Tricia Scotti giving it up completely covering Gerry Goffin & Carole King's "Don't Bring Me Down" at the late Saturday night Loser's Lounge show at Fez.
Previous Most Explosive Live Vocal Performance Heard in Years: Trina Hamlin busting loose covering "Oh Darling" at the Living Room last spring.
Most Moving Music Thoughts on Recent Radio: The "This American Life" reconsideration of Frank Sinatra on NPR. Thank you.

Remembering Phil Ochs, overwhelmed by the static on April 9, 1976.

Novellas and Malcolm Holcombe photos by Pierre Jelenc. Peter and Laura are both blonde these days. Malcolm and Dayna are not.


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