DISRUPT: Cuddle Magic & Frank LoCrasto
6:30pm doors • 7:30pm show
Cuddle Magic craft “high concept chamber-pop” (New Yorker) using 12-tone rows, odd meters, extended techniques, and unusual electro-acoustic timbres — a bass clarinet with a cheap microphone nested in the bell, junk-shop percussion run through a vocoder. They join forces with Texas-born, Brooklyn-based musician Frank LoCrasto, whose lush, open-air tropicalia permeates his new record Lost Dispatch, for an evening featuring individual sets from each act, with a collaboration in between.
Cuddle Magic is Benjamin Lazar Davis, Christopher McDonald, Dave Flaherty, Alec Spiegelman, Kristin Slipp, and Cole Kamen-Green — a six-piece avant-pop band located between Brooklyn and Philadelphia. All six musicians are in-demand collaborators in New York’s musical community and work with a wide array of artists, from pop superstars like Beyoncé to critically lauded independent musicians like Will Sheff (Okkervil River) and Amanda Palmer (Dresden Dolls), as well as with respected figures of the avant-garde like Fred Frith and Ran Blake.
It’s been a few years since the New Yorker labeled Cuddle Magic’s music “high concept chamber-pop.” At the time, that was a fair statement about a band known to utilize 12-tone rows, odd meters, and extended techniques; a band which had collaborated with new music pianist Phyllis Chen and Third Stream master Ran Blake. But with Ashes/Axis, the band’s forthcoming full-length record, listeners are less likely to hear echoes of the academy. All sorts of heady compositional devices, both musical and literary, are still present, but the members of Cuddle Magic have learned to bury those influences deeper in the substrate of the music.
Ashes/Axis features songs written by three of Cuddle Magic’s band members — Christopher McDonald, Benjamin Lazar Davis and Alec Spiegelman — all of whom take turns as lead vocalist. In addition, Kristin Slipp, whose voice is prominent from the very start of the album, takes the lead on “Slow Rider,” “The First Hippie on the Moon, Pt. II,” and “Voicemail.”
The album also features several co-writes: “The First Hippie on the Moon, Pt. II” was co-written by Lazar Davis and his brother Tim Davis; “The First Hippie on the Moon, Pt. I” was co-written by McDonald and Davis; “Voicemail” was co-written by Lazar Davis and Spiegelman; “Spinning” and “Round And Round” were co-written by Lazar Davis and Sarah K. Pedinotti of Lip Talk, and three of the songs on the album were co-written by Lazar Davis and longtime collaborator Bridget Kearney of Lake Street Dive. Those tracks, “Slow Rider,” “Trojan Horse,” and “Getaway,” are all pop songs hung over the frame of Bawa music from Northwestern Ghana. Parts of these songs were conceived just for the gyl, a type of wooden xylophone, and can be heard translated for this sort-of-rock band.
As with past Cuddle Magic records, the studio process for Ashes/Axis began with live full-band arrangements. Grooves were orchestrated with a set of unusual electro-acoustic timbres, including a finger-picked, overdriven acoustic guitar, a bass clarinet with a cheap microphone nested in the bell, junk-shop percussion run through a vocoder, and a slew of Casio keyboards (bought, urgently, from an unnervingly tense family in rural Maine). After tracking the arrangements, several elements were then removed to allow for one final stage of recomposition. With Cuddle Magic’s Benjamin Lazar Davis at the helm, Bryce Goggin (Pavement, Swans, Antony & The Johnsons) and assistant engineer Adam Sachs chopped, distorted, distressed, and delayed elements in each song. The end result is a sound that is warm and precise, raw yet sophisticated — a set of infectious pop songs from either an alternate reality or a paradoxically familiar near-future.
Frank LoCrasto has conjured a record of tropicosmic sounds for the endless summer of your inner mind. Entitled Lost Dispatch, the collection’s 11 tracks unfurl like a bootleg performance of a cocktail jazz group where it’s always the organist’s turn to solo, and someone spiked the punch bowl. Sunset psychedelia nestles alongside passages of space age jazz and dusty, analog exotica.
“Over the years as I’ve discovered library music recordings from the 1950s and ‘60s, I found myself getting lost in low-fi tones of the exoticized tropics, which has inspired the record,” LoCrasto says. “The sounds are surrealist; a sonic landscape comprised of analog synths, percussion, woodwinds, and field recordings.”
“Travelogue” sets the album’s intention with swooning island melodies, birdsong, and percussion that shushes like slow-washing waves, soundtracking a hallucinated world of bedroom rainforests where water droplets slip from waxy leaves, fizzing on overheated amplifiers. “Secret Cove” laps along as woodwinds and synths nudge around each other like eddies in a psychedelic stream. The muted piano of “The Islander” is like the ghost of jazz heard on the leeward breeze of a beach slipping into darkness. Throughout, the record balances serpentine exercises for eyes-closed inner exploration with lush, open-air tropicalia.
“When I wrote “Amazonia,” I was at my apartment in Borough Park and it started raining,” LoCrasto explains. “It was one of those really peaceful weekday afternoon summer rains and I just felt compelled to record it. When I listened back I wanted to play along, so I recorded an organ track and “Amazonia” was born. Not all the songs come about that way. A lot of times the inspiration will come from whatever mood I’m in. It might come from looking at old photographs or sheer boredom. The loneliness of creativity and composing manifests itself all over the record.”
Sketches for the record began eight years ago in LoCrasto’s former Brooklyn apartment, and many of the tracks were recorded during 2013-2016 while he was living nomadically between Texas and NYC. As the 50-minute suite took shape, LoCrasto called upon Robin MacMillan of Faraway Sound studios to produce and play drums and percussion on the album.
“I initially wanted to make a synth exotica record because I love exotica music and have loved the tropics my whole life,” LoCrasto says. “Growing up outside of Dallas, I rarely saw the ocean till I moved to New York. As a kid, my family took a few road trips to South Padre Island and Sarasota but that’s it. There’s definitely some nostalgia to those trips that has stuck. Since then, anytime I’d see a palm tree, or hear a steel pan, or smell Hawaiian tropic, it would resonate. It’s an experience I got a taste of and something I’d fantasize about.”
The Texas-born, Brooklyn-based artist’s fourth record, Lost Dispatch follows When You’re There (Maxjazz, 2006), El Dorado (Hundred Pockets, 2011), and LoCrasto (Storytime, 2015). LoCrasto has recorded and toured with Cass McCombs — who once called him “New York’s finest percussionist” — Pat Martino, James Iha, Parquet Courts, Greg Osby, Okkervil River, and Wallace Roney, and has appeared as a sideman on over 40 albums.
With Lost Dispatch, LoCrasto has crafted the perfect sand-and-salt-air soundtrack for warm weather journeying, no matter how close the crashing waves. It’s a sonic love letter to the electrified energy of swingin’ synthesizers, and a sunglasses-on, technicolor trip of third-eye tropicalia, dropping just in time for summer. Sunscreen not required.