07/22/2010 10:45 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sxip Shirey and Sonic New York

I first saw Sxip ("Skip") Shirey when his band Luminescent Orchestrii opened for Dresden Dolls on the night that brought in 2008. It was an odd but oddly perfect pairing: the angry, exuberant cabaret punk of the Dolls - Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione - and the wild experimental (yet deeply traditional, and deeply respectful of tradition) Balkan music of Luminescent, subtle and complicated gypsy melodies played on fiddles, accordions, and "bullhorn harmonica." Music whose power will make your hair stand up on end.

Later, I saw Shirey as a regular at Joe's Pub, and came to understand something of his role in providing a venue and a point of reference for some of New York's most interesting musicians and performers, notably but not exclusively through his rolling revue, "Sxip Shirey's Hour of Charm." He looks the part of the impresario, with his goatee, his clouds of Einsteinian hair, and his broad-shouldered formal suits, part Brooks Brothers, part Ringling Brothers. He does everything from the traditional Balkan and Gypsy music of Luminescent to circus composing to funky tone-poem work on found objects and toy instruments - for which he's written a large part of his oeuvre. Shirey takes the musical potential of toys seriously, and his musical tastes are omnivorous; he is not a hierarchy man.

I've written about him before but only on my way to making a political point, which is a shame and less than he deserves. So I'd like to write something about his great new album, Sonic New York.

It's hard to describe it, because it's the kind of album that will appeal to people who don't think about music in terms of categories. Shirey paints with a very broad brush on a very large canvas; the liner notes explain what instruments and objects he's using to get these amazing evocative layers of sounds, so I could make a guess at which one of them is producing what shriek or throb or crunch or lush tremolo, but I'd probably be wrong. And anyway what exactly is a resophonic guitar, or an Orenophone? Stylistically you can hear everything from funk to big band to rap to Bossa Nova to 20s torch songs to spoken word performance to carousel to Middle Eastern and Klezmer music, but to say so is to bring us back to categories, and that's not quite right. It is what it is. It's about New York, an extended haunting eclectic sound poem attached to very local parts of this big city.

So to do it justice I loaded up my new digital music device and went walking, something I really hate to do because I'm old enough to believe that walking with earphones on is like blasting a big fuck you! to everyone you pass on the street. But walking around New York is how to hear this music. I can't speak for what Shirey had in mind with it, but here are some of my reactions. He starts off in a reflective mood, with "15 Punk Rockers Pounding a Piano into Junk," spoken, harmonized:

I remember Tompkins Square Park
Twenty years ago
There were fifteen punk rockers pounding a piano into junk
It wasn't sad
It was beautiful

Yeah, I lived at 12th and A, right on Tompkins' doorstep, in 1986, and I know what he means. The neighborhood and the people in it were on a wild anarchic swing that is hard to describe today, although Shirey captures something of it in the next song, his prideful crunching rap - but it's got a funky bass and a melody partially carried by sirens, as well as an ethereal break - "I live in New York City:"

I live in New York City
I live in New York City
I live in New York City
I fuck I fight in New York City

...and it's a lift for those of us who remember what the city used to be, and wonder if anyone is fucking or fighting here in neutered Manhattan anymore. Shirey is lucky enough to live in Brooklyn. Listening to "Grammarcy Park" while walking by Gramercy Park, the old movie music with its elegant pipe organ, troubled by ominous counter melodies beneath the surface, resonated with the privilege of the locked park, lonely arrogance of the strolling figures.

Shirey got me down to Coney Island for the elegiac second stanza of "15 punk rockers...", and it was just as well, because it was also a spot for the 70s funky summer dance number "Dreamland," sung by Rhiannon Giddens of The Carolina Chocolate Drops, and it's impossible to have that stuff coming through your earphones and not be shuffling your feet and swinging your arms. The boardwalk was a good place to do it. But where you might expect Shirey to really funk out, like on the one cover on the album, a remake of the great Fredrick Knight/Anita Ward 1979 disco hit "You Can Ring My Bell," the singer Aimee Curl gives you just the slightest catch in her voice, a hint of melancholy that brings out the ambiguous lyrics (I could be wrong but I think they changed a few.) The diminished chords on the electric piano accompaniment and the vaguely Brazilian guitar add to the effect. Curl's work on the similarly subtle "Clothes of My Man" is also full of wistful anticipation, sadness love and pride. You don't hear that kind of complexity and subtlety in anything that gets played on scandalously conservative New York radio nowadays.

"Bergen and Grand" confused me a bit, since Park Slope is about a mile and a world away from Crown Heights; and anyway the Satmars and Lubavitchers I've seen in their deeply hermetic neighborhoods don't seem much into the joys of Klezmer. If they are, they don't show this part of themselves to outsiders. Hrachelle Garniez' claviola weeps for them. Shirey follows this up with "A Young Man Walks Through Brooklyn," which is sort of Klezmer meets 80s industrial music, and that suits. Never very far from a synagogue or a crumbling industrial site in Brooklyn.

Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge was the place to hear "Brooklyn Bridge Song," with its doomed love expressed in visions of the traffic helicopters over the East River. Well, doomed love is better than no love, and the helicopters were strangely poignant that day as I listened to the fingerpicking guitar and vocal harmonies that reminded me - and this is not Sxip's fault, all bridge songs with fingerpicking guitar and vocal harmonies are wired together in the brain - of Simon and Garfunkel's "59th Street Bridge Song."

"Ghosts of the Gowanus Canal" really is like a ghost song, a song about all those barges and that freight, all that stone and brick and leather and lumber and coal and iron and feed and ice and cloth that got shipped along the canal when it was a major industrial thoroughfare in the 19th century, when factories and warehouses were built along its banks for ease of transport. The waters are still and placid today, surrounded by the now-rotting industrial infrastructure they inspired. You'll see the occasional sunbather amid the landscape of salvage yards, parking lots and fuel tanks. The music is full of barge horns and clanking and chugging, bells and breezes, but it sings too, with a haunting voice like the music of a strange culture, not fully understood but strangely powerful at a distance.

It's a very generous album, with seventeen tracks, and each one needs to be heard on its own terms and given the listener's full attention. Shirey brought some of these them to a cabaret-style show at the Lucille Lortel last month that featured himself, Evelyn Evelyn (world's only conjoined identical twin musical act) and Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley, who bear an astonishing resemblance to the Evelyn sisters. I could say a lot about the amazing Amanda Palmer if I had space - what she can say with her eyes and her music. The block letters on her electric piano might be assumed to spell KURZWEIL, the major manufacturer of electric pianos. In fact they spell KURTWEILL, and that is no accident. In addition to her own large catalogue she can do Weimar and she can do Radiohead, but she's always her own bad self.

Shirey opened, playing several harmonicas at once, flutes, bells, marbles rolling in bowls, and his own breath, amplified and channeled so that you heard and understood it as living sound, a presence of its own. He called up a volunteer to ring a toy bell at a particular point in a song--"Not too dramatic. But not ironic either. I hate that shit." Everything he did, every song, every noise wrung out of a piece of cheap plastic or kazoo or run through his complicated amplification, stood on its own and had something authentic to say about sound and its resonance with the human nervous system. It was experimental, but it was confident and real - definitely not ironic.