As someone who’s spent little time in them, it is strange how familiar old churches smell. They smell like warm dust, wood, and maple syrup—like a childhood home you’ve never stepped foot in before. It’s a combination of aromas rarely found in the glass and concrete structures of New York City, but at Park Church Co-Op in Greenpoint, it is a scent that lingers low in the air and welcomes you in. On Monday night, the Co-op was glowing electric pink and blue, casting an artificial sunset against the furthest stage wall. Its edges bled to purple where the two colors met. A slight, boyish woman by the name of Franz Charcoal took the stage holding a mint green electric guitar. Franz played simple, minute-long songs that sometimes ended just when you were getting into them. At times these songs were so short, the audience would hesitate to clap at the end, thinking Franz was simply pausing before another verse. She never was. “Yeah, they’re pretty short,” Franz said after one such moment. “But there’s a lot of them.”
Despite the dimly lit stage, I couldn’t help but think that this Franz Charcoal person looked and sounded familiar. A bit like Greta Kline of Frankie Cosmos. A lot like Greta Kline of Frankie Cosmos, in fact. But if you were to ask the woman herself, she was Franz Charcoal, a “rascal” who plays brief, autobiographical songs about misbehaving in church, of all places. Her presence was playful and lightweight considering the heavy atmosphere of the church itself. When Franz left the stage, the crucifix hanging behind her was bathed in hot red spotlights like a scene from a religious horror film.
The following acts helped a great deal in bringing some levity back to the setting. Felicia Douglass (of Ava Luna) offered her crisp approach to electronic, soul, and poetic R&B, which at times sounded like the seeds of Prince songs. Palberta’s Lily Konigsberg, meanwhile, made great use of her comedic timing to compensate for the fact that she’d lost her voice the night before. “This is a 50-year-old smoker’s rendition of my songs,” she said. “I may cough. I don’t want to.” Her music retained its stark beauty despite being stripped of some of the synthesizer flourishes on her recordings, and the rasp in her voice was a welcomed bit of grit to an evening filled with such polite music. Alone with an acoustic guitar, Konigsberg still yields a lovely and entertaining performance, especially when punctuated by the artist spritzing her throat with mentholated cold medication. At the end of her set, she curtly and sweetly said, “Okay. I’m done.”
Told Slant’s Felix Walworth is the first performer to address the oddness of the church all evening. At one point he paused just before starting a song; “Sorry,” he said. “It’s actually profoundly strange to be up here.” And it was profoundly strange to be down in the pews, as well. Not only for their unavoidable religious context, but also because sitting in a church pew makes you feel like a child. When Walworth (politely) ordered the crowd to stand up and sing “Tsunami” with him, I felt like I was participating in a camp sing-along or a Sunday sermon. Sometimes the connotations of the space you occupy are too powerful to leave the performance alone, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it was, as Walworth pointed out, profoundly strange.
Words are pretty weird. One alone is easy to understand, almost impossible to misinterpret. But string a bunch of them together, and it gets more complicated (as well as beautiful, descriptive, romantic or hurtful). One line can make you remember a song forever, or dismiss it entirely. Out of all of the thousands, maybe millions of lyric that were recorded this year, here are some that stood out the most.
When a cynic finds love, they become an optimistic, cheerful person. Or, they recognize that “til death do us part” and “in sickness and in health” don’t quite cut it in a time of war, economic instability, and global warming. On I Love You, Honeybear, Josh Tillman examined many aspects of modern love, but none were as realistically romantic or sincere as on the title track: “But don’t ever doubt this, my steadfast conviction/ My love, you’re the one I want to watch the ship go down with.”
Hop Along – “Horseshoe Crabs”
On Painted Shut, Frances Quinlan wrote two songs about musicians that suffered breakdowns and faded into obscurity; one was the jazz cornetist Charles “Buddy” Bolden, and the other was the folk musician Jackson C. Frank. His first record was produced by Paul Simon, but his depression prevented him from pursuing a music career. “Horseshoe Crabs” is sung from Frank’s perspective. As well as being the first time I’ve heard of the songwriter, it contains what’s possibly my favorite line of 2015, which is beautiful, crude, sad and funny: “Woke from the dream and I was old/ Staring at the asscrack of dawn.”
Eagles of Death Metal – “I Love You All The Time”
The saying is that even bad press is good press, but no band wants the kind of publicity the Eagles of Death Metal received on November 13. Even sadder is the fact that the band is seriously passionate about and appreciative of their fans- I saw them play in Philadelphia this fall, and Jesse Hughes walked through the line of concert-goers waiting outside the venue, shaking hands and giving out hugs. “Now I know every one of you motherfuckers,” he proudly proclaimed later onstage. “I Love You All The Time” is actually a song about a man’s love for a woman despite her disinterest, but it happens to have a section of lyrics in French. After what happened at Paris’s Bataclan, and because the band has encouraged other artists to cover the song so they could donate the publishing rights to helping the victims, the line “I love you all the time” takes on a deeper meaning: the connection we have to music, no matter what else is going on in the world.
A lot of the lyrics on Girl Band’s Holding Hands With Jamie are indecipherable, though Dara Kiely’s delivery of the words contains more meaning than they ever could themselves. This is, after all, an album inspired by a psychotic episode Kiely experienced a few years ago. Though it may seem odd to include a song that is more understood in a more visceral way, one line from the middle of “Paul” has always stuck out: “How many bulbs does it take to screw a light in.” It sounds like the setup to a bad joke, but turn it around in your mind enough and it’s about the confusion and frustration of not being able to do something right. You’re trying and trying, but glass is falling down around you, and the light still won’t turn on. It’s kind of sad, yet somehow funny in the right state of mind, and that approach to such a heavy topic makes the whole album so amazing.
Shilpa Ray – “Burning Bride”
Burning brides after the deaths of their husbands is a banned Hindu practice, which was actually a scheme to ensure there was no one left for the husband’s wealth to go to except for the priests who carried out the ritual. On Shilpa Ray’s “Burning Bride,” the lyrics can also be applied to the oppression of women in modern times, challenging those who want to kill the spirit of a woman “Up dancing, ‘cause she’s wild” with the chilling line, “You’ll be lucky when she runs out of desire.”
Kurt Vile – “Pretty Pimpin”
It’s easy to lose yourself in Kurt Vile’s “b’lieve i’m goin down.” After all, you’re following the thoughts of a man who’s lost himself. This is clear from the first track, “Pretty Pimpin,” where though Kurt admits the man he sees in the mirror looks pretty pimpin’, he doesn’t recognize him. In this song, he’s lost track of time, and himself, but no one knows it but him: “He was always a thousand miles away while still standing in front of your face.”
Ava Luna – “Billz”
“I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love.” That’s a cute song, but not very practical, and obviously not an Ava Luna song. Because while romance is nice, it’s still just a distraction from buying groceries, paying rent and staying alive. Love does have its own payoff, but it takes a lot of work to get there, and it won’t keep your heat on: “I’ve made up my mind, I will find one small moment and I’ll text you/ And I’ll fact-check every reference that I make, learn the language to impress you/ Cause I’m yours, and if you tell me that you’re mine, you’re the one I’m getting next to/ But our love ain’t gonna pay my bills.”
Krill – “Torturer”
2015 was a big year for Boston’s Krill. And then they broke up. If you’ve ever found yourself crying your eyes out to dumb pop songs after a breakup, you know that when something major happens, even the sappiest of lyrics can suddenly seem to apply to you personally. Krill didn’t play dumb pop songs, and their lyrics weren’t sappy, but at their last show ever, every word somehow seemed to point to the band’s eventual end. This was most obvious with “It Ends”(“It ends/ Same way it begins/ On a whim”), and a little more subtle in “Torturer,” a track where Jonah Furman has a conversation with a mysterious character (“I asked, what did you come here for?/ And you said, whatever you need me for”) before wondering, “Is it time to go back inside?”
Mini Mansions– “Death Is A Girl”
The title of this song is a dark, mysterious statement, perfect to drop as a piece of advice and then walk away with no explanation. But the real gem in the song is the line “You gotta live in a world where there’s only one day.” Living your life as if actions don’t have consequences can be freeing, dangerous. And it can be hard to tell which: “Death is a girl and she’s only one dance away.”
Destroyer – “Times Square, Poison Season I”
For someone that lives in New York, taking the line “You could fall in love with Times Square” out of context seems like a jab, a suggestion that you’re inauthentic and easily impressed with shiny things. When Dan Bejar prefaces it with “You can follow a rose wherever it grows,” it’s more of a suggestion to lighten up a bit, and a reminder thatif you look hard enough, you can find beauty almost anywhere. Even if it’s just in the people that recognize it where you don’t.
Ava Luna, that soulful quirky five-piece from Brooklyn, are releasing a new album on April 14th via Western Vinyl. Wow, that’s a long ways away, isn’t it? Well, you can stream one of their new songs right now, on Bandcamp.
“Billz” is the ninth track on Infinite House, Ava Luna’s latest release since 2014’s Electric Balloon. Typical of the band, it mixes the old-school sound of Carlos Hernandez’s passionate crooning and eclectic, jazzy pop with modern life. Putting words to what we’re all thinking as we go about our lives, he sings “Will it elevate me? Will it educate me?/ But is it gonna pay my bills?”
When the time is right, you can download Infinite House here. In the meantime, check out “Billz” below: