Robin Aigner, a vintage dress and boots extending her pint-sized frame, remains in control of the Living Room’s standing-room crowd as the music swirls around her. Ian McLaughlin’s upright bass lurches along, drummer Bill Gerstel doles out spare yet fluid accompaniment, and Brady Jenkins conjures up twinkling piano notes as Aigner, plucking an acoustic guitar at center stage, works her way through the verses of “See You Around,” the relationship number from her new record, Bandito.
“I’ve tidied up for the occasion, looking forward to the liaison,” she sings, her voice both vulnerable and seductive. “I throw away all of my reason when you come to town.”
Then comes the confrontation.
“I could make a meal for a king, sing a tune about any damned thing,” Aigner wails, throwing her head and neck backward and pushing out the words as violinist Rima Fand joins her on harmony vocals. “You would know all of these things if you were around.”
Robin Aigner is a songwriter in transition, and Bandito, which she self-released earlier this year, is a document of a musician operating at the peak of her craft. Aigner, who lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, introduced herself to local audiences more than seven years ago with Volksinger, a 15-track collection of acoustic odes that foreshadowed the singer-songwriter’s later affiliations with New York City’s Old Time and Anti-folk scenes. Then there was her collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Brook Martinez in Royal Pine, a duo that toured the countryside and released a pair of records steeped in Americana and alt-country. Aigner’s “Stone Cold Mamacita,” an early song released on both Volksinger and Royal Pine’s ultra-limited Huasteca, became a minor hit in some Brooklyn circles.
Bandito, however, presents Aigner as more of a central force than a solitary one. On songs like the beautifully engaging album-opener “Pearl Polly Adler,” she surrounds, even engulfs, herself with sound, most notably the rich and emotive violin playing of Caroline Shaw. “I’ve been to the Campbell apartment / At the invitation of F.D.R. / I’m the only one who knows where he goes when he parks his car,” she sings, letting the listener in on the secret and slipping in a hint of double entendre. “You can’t believe the papers, periodicals you read / I’m a lady first and foremost, doer of good deeds.”
Then, Shaw’s violin returns, weeping over Joshua Camp’s lonely piano.
On “Irving and Annie”—which concocts a relationship between composer Irving Berlin and Annie Moore, the first immigrant to pass through the gates of Ellis Island—Aigner accents her banjo-strumming with Dean Sharenow’s jangly percussion, a couple of piano solos, and the whisper and moan of Shaw’s violin. Even “See You Around,” a fairly low-key affair by Bandito’s standards, is fleshed out with multi-tracked vocals, pulsing bass lines, drums, and Rhodes organ.
Only on the disc’s closing track, “Great Molasses Disaster”—a historical vignette about a January 1919 incident when a tank of molasses exploded in Boston—does Aigner perform solo, in the true sense of the word. Then, the effect is so spare, fragile, and intimate that listening to it almost feels like eavesdropping, and the result feels devastatingly personal. “Sorry, my darlin’, I can’t meet today, doin’ my job, doin’ my job / How could something so sweet sweep us all off our feet / Our shoes are where our heads should be,” she coos over a naked acoustic guitar measure. “Too warm for January ten and nine / The air felt like September when you laid down your life / And the horses stuck like flies.”
Aigner’s voice is the engine that drives much of Bandito, a tender vehicle whose smooth texture and sensuality calls to mind Sam Phillips’s recordings for Nonesuch Records. However, Aigner is no folk-pop torch singer in the Phillips mold. Some of the songs on Bandito sit closer to the intersection of jazz, folk, and Eastern European gypsy music so wonderfully mined over the years by Tin Hat Trio. But Mark Orton, Tin Hat Trio’s guitarist, doesn’t hesitate to flaunt his virtuosity and jazz chops on six strings, whereas Aigner’s guitar lines are simple and more straightforward, recalling 1960s-era folk acts or even the more recent cowgirl blues of Edith Frost’s Calling Over Time. The components of her songs form a complicated equation, but above all they work, fitting together like so many puzzle pieces.
The fingerprints of Piñataland, the Brooklyn-based Old World orchestrette with whom Aigner collaborates, can also be found all over Bandito. Like Piñataland’s brilliant full-length debut, 2003’s Songs for the Forgotten Future Vol. 1, Bandito concerns itself with retelling and recapturing lost tidbits of American and personal history, but highlighting the emotional resonance of the events, rather than the cold simplicity of the facts. This approach also binds her to local acts like Kill Henry Sugar and Curtis Eller, the Astoria, Queens-based banjo player who opened for Aigner during the Bandito CD release event at the Living Room.
Bandito was recorded on a tiny budget over the course of three weeks at the Seaside Lounge Recording Studios in Brooklyn. Aigner later laid down some vocal tracks at Wombat Studios, a Park Slope institution that’s a short hop from Freddy’s Bar and Backroom, where Aigner first established herself with solo performances in the early 2000s. A lot has happened since she first took the stage in Freddy’s with her great-uncle’s acoustic guitar during an open mic night sometime in 2001. Aigner herself is quick to note the incredible transformation that would greet a listener following Volksinger directly with Bandito.
“We did a lot of [Volksinger] live, but it took forever, and I didn’t have the means or the confidence to add other musicians to it,” Aigner recalled. “By the time I got to Bandito, I had more creativity and more exposure to other kinds of music, more experience playing with other musicians, and more confidence in my ideas and my ideas in the studio. I was in charge in the production end, but I also had musicians who got the music and were excited and brought to the studio their own interpretation of it,” she said. “I definitely can’t take full credit for the way the album turned out.”
By the time Aigner started writing and recording Bandito she had also traveled quite a bit. She had toured widely with Royal Pine, recording sessions for Knoxville, Tennessee, radio station WDVX, played festivals with the Crooked Jades in Europe and Canada, and opened for Emmylou Harris in Nashville. She had also trekked to Romania with the string band Luminescent Orchestrii, pioneers of New York’s Balkan music scene, studying Eastern European music at a local festival and later staging on Old Time set at a Transylvanian village’s town hall. In 2006, the website Treble named Aigner one of the top overlooked female artists in the country.
Bandito is a record with many lustrous moments, from the heartache of “Pearl Polly Adler” to the hints of Spanish flamenco on “Dolores from Florence,” to the humorous “Mediocre Busker” and the flirtatious duet “Get Me Home”. It’s a product of its environment and the collaborators increasingly linked to Aigner, but it’s also a brilliant collection of songs, one that, all things being equal, should prove fodder for some best-of lists at the end of 2010.
Vellucci is a writer and musician living in San Diego.