by Brad Roberts
I've been trying to catch up with Little Red Lung and Sarah Negahdari's newest project, Pisces, for a while now. So when Zoe-Ruth Erwin (photo at right by Chris Aguilar, also below) invited me to come out to the Hotel Cafe to review the Little Red Lung set on Tuesday, January 10, and as soon as I learned that Pisces were also on the bill, I jumped at the chance. And it's so close to my home, how could I refuse?
A nice crew of familiar faces dotted the audience here in the heart of Hollywood on a week night. And as has been the case at all the shows I've attended since the first of the year, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air at this show too. Hard to assess and even harder to explain, it's as if people are reaching out for something out of the ordinary or striving to expand their horizons. Maybe it's just a response to the bad economy, or the mad political circus going on until November. Maybe it's just the spectacle of seeing Newt Gingrich have a temper tantrum worthy of a seven year old.
Whatever it is, this show had the effect of making one forget the outside world and just concentrate on the journey these musicians were taking us on. Little Red Lung is a musically ambitious project headed by Zoe-Ruth Erwin which stretches and expands the boundaries of what is known as indie-rock. Heavily European in its influences, it mixes sweeping cinematic arrangements with quirky, unpredictable melodies supported by Zoe-Ruth's lilting soprano. She plays keys as well with impressive concentration, yet never neglects engaging the audience with her natural charisma.
With Charlene Huang offering gorgeous support with her violin, she often provides the glue which holds together the disparate style and varied musical instruments that are colliding and crashing into each other and constructing the towering edifices of sound that make Little Red Lung sound so unique.
I heard some in the crowd say they weren't sure what they were hearing at first, but that once they relaxed into it, the music began to make sense. That's an apt description of what, at once, sounded like part Kurt Weill, part Jacques Brel, part Claude Debussy, even part Stephen Sondheim. There's a certain theatricality about it that's mixed with an ambiance that recalls a smokey, dark Parisian cellar. It seems simultaneously mannered and natural. Though how you achieve both is a mystery to me.
Begun in 2007 as a project aimed at offbeat clubs or art galleries, the band then moved East to record and tour, eventually landing back in L.A. with a serious intent to break out into the club scene. With a fair amount of buzz backing them they have been playing a lot of shows around and acquainting audiences to their genre-defying musicality. It took me into musical places I haven't explored before.
While The Happy Hollows were on tour over the past year or so, Sarah Negahdari (photo at right by Zoe-Ruth Erwin) started experimenting with more traditional forms of folk songwriting and came up with a bunch of new material. Armed with these un-Happy Hollows songs, she set out to record them (with Joel Morales of Dios) and put them on stage. Performing under the moniker, Pisces, she has played a few dates around town with a bunch of musician friends including the Hollows' Charlie Mahoney and former Hollows drummer, Chris Hernandez.
The Pisces songs are in a wide range of styles with Sarah playing acoustic guitar and her sometimes bird-like vocals which can suddenly become guttural roars and shrieks adapting to either simple folk ballads, ragtimey bar songs, or experimental self-revelatory odes. Still displaying virtuoso guitar technique, she is a performer of such contagious ebullience that only the dead at heart could resist.
At this show she was also joined by Nick Ceglio on guitar, Charlene Huang and Zoe-Ruth Erwin (wearing headgear designed by Sarah that made them look like reindeer involved in a head-on collision) on backing vocals for a couple of songs. On a stunning final number, she had a sitar player adding a raga flavor to a song that already had a vaguely eastern influence. Playing for a crowd of friends and well-wishers, she radiates the love we give right back at us. The audience erupted into cheers when she announced The Happy Hollows are about to record their next album and to look for them to be out performing in March.
It's so encouraging to see young artists reaching out for new forms of expression and I applaud the effort of these two talented women. It was mind-expanding, challenging and ultimately very rewarding.