For over thirty years NYC-based Rachelle Garniez has been much admired as a singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist. Her most recent recording, Gone to Glory, chronicles her interpretation of songs written or made famous by a variety of dearly beloved artists, all recently departed. The project began in 2016, a year which brought shocking and unexpected losses on many fronts. David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen had all died over the last twelve months, and there was, alongside that immeasurable cultural bereavement, a national political climate of unrest and seemingly irreconcilable division. The original Farewell Party concert was conceived and performed at Pangea, New York CIty’s home to alternative cabaret performance. People were starved for the chance to mourn and celebrate, and the Farewell Party became an annual event. The resulting Gone to Glory collection is a covers album that’s also about recovering, an uplifting assertion that while death may wreck our world, we still survive to enjoy all that’s been bequeathed.
With the depth of her talent and the breadth of her interests, Garniez’ vocal approach eloquently transfigures pop and rock, swing and soul – from the aforementioned Bowie, Prince, and Cohen, to Glen Campbell, Lemmy’s Motörhead, Aretha Franklin, Nancy Wilson, Della Reese, Sharon Jones, Mose Allison, and big band singer Bea Wain. With her masterful fluidity in full effect, she embodies the characters and inhabits the worlds. Equally at home in the incarnations of an adolescent hippie chick, a deeply troubled Viet Nam War veteran, a young Dutch WWII refugee, a heartless hipster, and a whole slew of romantics, Garniez simultaneously loses herself and finds a way to make the songs her own.
The arrangements are built around the Farewell Party band – Garniez (piano, accordion, guitar) with Karen Waltuch (viola) and Derek Nievergelt (double bass). Frequently expanding from that core, there’s a rich orchestral palette, reflecting Rachelle’s myriad influences and inspirations. Horns, strings, and background chorus vocals, together with cameos by french horn, classical harp, and campfire harmonica, alternately evoke Klezmer and Cajun, doo wop, blues, and r ’n’ b, latin, jazz, and show. Five of the songs have instrumental introductions functioning as mini-memorials, referencing, among others, Glen Frey (guitar solo from “Hotel California”), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia theme), Debbie Reynolds (“Singin’ in the Rain”), and Bernardo Bertolucci (theme from Last Tango in Paris).
As to subject matter, the Gone to Glory songs range from the fantastically awful to the redeeming wonders of the everyday, tracing an emotionally affective arc from abject despair to accepting embrace. Death looms large, by turns comedic (“Killed by Death”), tragic (“Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love to Town)”), and documentary (“The Day Is Past and Gone”). Monsters are everywhere – specters of alienation (“Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”), self-delusion (“Rhinestone Cowboy”), PTSD (“My Sister and I”), and toxic patriotism (“Monsters of the Id”). But love is offered up as countervailing, manifesting multiform, from hopeless (“100 Days, 100 Nights”) to romantic (“Dont You Know” and “How Glad I Am’), from earthy (“Raspberry Beret”) to paradisal (“Day Dreaming”), from crushing innocence (“Frank Mills”) to universal experience (“Anthem”).
Regarding her singular style, The New Yorker has written, “Garniez wanders through the genres of country, jazz and pop, leaving behind nothing but sweet wreckage.” Indeed, with her latest album, Rachelle locates a certain saving sweetness among the ruins, gathering glory from the gone.
Killed by Death
Feed my body to the sharks and throw a party. It’s a miracle I’ve lived this long, I’m good to go.
Intro – Glen Frey (2016) – iconic guitar solo from “Hotel California”
Motörhead/Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister (2015) goes Klezmer, beginning with a classic doina improvisation on viola, and devolving into a brassy, spooky second line, with a shout-out to the sexy sax solo from “Careless Whisper” by George Michael (2016).
Sashay flambé, every day’s a parade. We’re loud and proud, get used to it! Pink champale swirls up the crazy-straws and everybody watches us when we dance.
Prince (2016) takes a road trip to Lousiana in a cowbell jalopy – a lazy Cajun zydeco groove with psychedelic interludes – a nostalgiac paean to young love/lust.
Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
Fashionable cruelty, hard living, posers, predators, all fun and games ’til somebody gets hurt. Some people just aren’t cut out for this stuff. It’s not my fault. After all, I was never the highest up on the food chain.
Takes David Bowie’s (2016) edgy brittle production and translates the sordid tale into a slinky shuffle, punctuated by horn lines that both replicate and subvert the starring role played by Robert Fripp’s guitar on the original.
My Sister and I
Time for bed but it’s still light outside. The milk tastes funny here, the language mushy and strange. The pillowcase is cool and clean, I watch the shadows of the leaves on the tree outside flickering on the ceiling. Mama’s lullaby is playing in my head.
Intro – Princess Leia theme from Star Wars – Carrie Fisher (2016) / “Singin’ in the Rain” – Carrie’s mother, Debbie Reynolds (2016)
This song about World War II refugee children was recorded in 1941 by big band chanteuse Bea Wain (2017). The delicate ensemble approach and haunting string arrangement underline the poignant stoicism of the lyric.
The Day Is Past and Gone
Straight backed chair on the front porch, boards bleached grey as driftwood. Light echoes at the edge of the field. There’s cold at the bottom of the breeze, like the place where the spring feeds the pond.
In a way, Gone to Glory’s theme song, this traditional American hymn has been covered by Appalachian and gospel singers alike. Here it is presented as a minimalist raga – ghostly vocals float above a droning harmonium.
Don’t You Know
Darling, there’s no use fighting it, destiny sweeps in and dazzles us with cascades of passion. Wanna get a cuppa coffee?
intro – “O Mio Babbino Caro” by Puccini, a tribute to opera singer Montserrat Caballé (2018)
Vocalist/actress Della Reese (2017) had the 1959 single, an adaptation of another Puccini aria, “Musetta’s Waltz” from La Bohème. The oddly steadfast yearning of the vocal is supported by an understated orchestration, featuring harp and french horn, reflecting the song’s provenance.
Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love to Town)
Time was I was a real good dancer, maybe the best in town, laughing and smoking Luckys in the parking lot at the end of the night, boots broken in just right.
Written by Mel Tillis (2017) – Kenny Rogers had the hit – a deceptively sweet viola solo paired with a laid-back guitar accompaniment add extra elements of heartbreak to a Vietnam veteran’s expression of despair and lethal rage against betrayal and utter helplessness.
100 Days, 100 Nights
Honeymoon’s over dollface, let’s see what you got. Twirl those mustachios, clickety-clack the castanets and let the games begin.
Sharon Jones (2016) – a tribute to the woman whose band, The Dap-Kings, was the bedrock of Amy Winehouse’s signature soul sound. This accordion-driven tango/rumba/blues delivers a world-weary warning regarding the beast that lurks beneath the surface of just about every Mr. Right. Massive horns and shout-chorus group vocals, a raucous nod to Ray Charles, lift the spirit above the predicament.
Monsters of the Id
There is no high road, there is no low road. We’re off-road, riding rough on the edge of the abyss.
Singer and songwriter Mose Allison (2016) – a version of the quintessential sardonic jazz hipster’s scathing depiction of political cynicism and jingoistic manipulation. The ensemble performance is by turns stealthy and savage, swinging rough against the seams, spontaneously disintegrating into an eerie nursery school ditty.
Walking barefoot in Washington Square Park. Don’t kid yourself, the 60s are over. There’s PCP in that marijuana cigarette. Go home, and try to finish high school.
Intro – Theme from The Brady Bunch, which starred Florence Henderson (2016) / “I Think I Love You,” pop hit by Partridge family heartthrob David
Galt MacDermot (2018) – from the musical Hair, a delicate miniature ballad of adolescent delusion, romanticizing the bad boy, as the bedside ballerina twirls in her music box.
How Glad I Am
Let’s ride this wave nice and easy all the way. Lazy and graceful, just as lazy as this metaphor may be, but real!
Nancy Wilson (2018) – a stylized treatment of her crossover pop hit, incongruously featuring classical harp and harmonica, wildcards in this doo wop-inspired minimalist rendition.
Years pass so quickly, they are as mere moments. Oh please can we live forever.
Aretha Franklin (2018) – rhapsodic lyrics fly high above the deconstructed groove – the piano and bass play off each like lovers, distilling to its essence the original recording’s luscious orchestration.
It’s Christmas in midtown and my fingers are numb with cold. Been busking all afternoon, pumping the accordion hard. Tonight I’ll roll up a heap of quarters and trade them for bills at the laundromat tomorrow morning.
Glen Campbell (2017) – a portrait of a struggling New York City musician, hellbent on keeping his pipedreams alive amidst the grit and grime. The strings provide an elegant pathos, hints of the hyperion, but the unresolved ending gives no guarantee.
Civilizations crumble and reassemble. It’s what they do. It’s physics. It’s the law. From here to infinity. Knowing doesn’t make it any easier. My blood is cold, viscous in the veins. Heart heavy. The brutality, the ugliness, the disgrace weigh me down. But things have been worse and they will be better and they will be worse. Spirits and hearts broken, but maybe the better for it. See you on the other side.
Intro – Bernardo Bertolucci (2018) – theme from Last Tango in Paris / Mary Tyler Moore (2017) – theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Leonard Cohen (2016) – with a certain muted determination, the song bravely strokes against the current, a rallying hymn of amen, so be it. The intsruments supplely weave within a wavering time, and, finally, there is no faltering in the plangent peeling.