Karina Deniké's Long Road to 'Under Glass'

Karina Deniké
Karina Deniké

Karina Deniké spent her formative years on the move, so perhaps it’s not surprising that her songs are filled with travelers and seekers, restless wanderers and mordant observers.

Born in the United Kingdom to Czech artists in exile after the Soviet Union crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, she spent her childhood performing street theater across Europe, North Africa and India.

As a teen she settled with her family in Berkeley, falling in with jazz musicians and the punk scene around 924 Gilman. Over the past two decades she’s been an essential part of the Bay Area arts community, from providing powerhouse vocals in the ska-punk band Dance Hall Crashers in the 1990s to collaborating with Fat Mike and Jeff Marx on their recent rock musical "Home Street Home."

But her new album, "Under Glass," is Deniké’s first project fully devoted to her own music and, not surprisingly, it’s impossible to pigeonhole.

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While Deniké references at least half a dozen styles on the album’s 12 tracks, she uses a core group of players to provide a consistent play of textures, whether she’s delivering soaring girl-group harmonies with singer/songwriter Lily Taylor on "Havin’ a Go," or taking a funhouse ride on the midway on "Musée Mécanique."

There’s a dizzying quality to Deniké’s music, an uncanny, time-shifting feel where songs seem familiar until she adds an unexpected texture or an arresting original image. She’s joined on several tracks by horn players known for working with Tom Waits, an obvious influence. But where he makes do with his Louis Armstrong rasp, Deniké possesses a voice so rich and luxuriant she sounds like she was born to sing any song that comes her way.

One of the album’s consistent pleasures is that Deniké knows just how to frame her voice. She accompanies herself on various organs and keyboards and often uses Aaron Novik’s dry woody bass clarinet as a snaky counterpoint, like on the woozy ballad “Stop the Horses." It’s a mark of her tonal dexterity that she can assume so many different guises while being backed by the same excellent band. The shifts from track to track can be jarring, but each song creates its own little world.

Deniké can sound like a dangerous vixen from a film-noir nightclub ("Golden Kimonos"), a brassy show-tune belter ("Boxing Glove") or the leader of a Motownesque girl group (“Park It”).

Deniké closes the album with "Až Budeš Vélky" a tender Czech lullaby that her mother used to sing. Is she taking us back home, and was it all just a dream? The title "Under Glass" suggests something fixed in place, but Karina Deniké’s musical world never seems to stop changing, and her tales of travel and exotic locales sound better with each spin.

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