New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: pop music

The Sound of the Fab Four Inspires Andrew Collberg’s New Album

Swedish-born, New Zealand-raised and now based in Tucson, Andrew Collberg is a connoisseur of many retro rock styles. He has a background in southwestern gothic, and a couple of years ago put out a killer single, Dirty Wind b/w Back on the Shore, a rich evocation of classic paisley underground rock in the same vein as True West or the Dream Syndicate. These days he’s mining sounds that evoke ELO and the Beatles, adding layers of the blippy faux-vintage keyboard textures that are all the rage in the Bushwick indie scene on his latest album, Minds Hits. The whole thing is streaming at Spotify.

The opening track, Rich, is totally ELO, a soul-tinged update on the sound Jeff Lynne achieved with Evil Woman, then morphing into something of a glamrock song with a fuzztone guitar solo before coming back to the wickedly catchy, funk-tinged verse. From there Collberg segues into Hole and its Penny Lane bounce, followed by Take a Look Around, a retro 60s soul tune with Abbey Road touches: la-la-la backing vocals, elegant broken-chord guitar lines, organ and a terse faux electric harpsichord solo. After that, the long, hypnotically vamping Pepper Peter keeps the Abbey Road vibe going, this time on the Lennon side of the street.

Tear has Collberg playing precise soul chords that rise to a swaying, ba-BUMP late-Beatles groove that grows more majestic as he adds layers of guitars and keys. Stars takes the sound about a dozen years forward into ornately catchy Jeff Lynne space-pop territory, while Snide Creepy Soul takes an insistent, similarly hooky ELO-style pop tune thirty more years into the future with a mix of vintage and fake-vintage keyboard voicings.

Easy Lazy Dome speeds up a Hey Jude ambience doublespeed and then takes a turn into unexpectedly ominous psychedelia, fueled by shivery lead guitar. Cantaloupe looks back to Sergeant Pepper, complete with tumbling Ringo-esque drums. The album winds up with Hit the Gas, which sets a classic Lennon-style tune over boomy lo-fi drums before it picks up with increasingly ornate layers of guitar/keyboard orchestration. Isn’t it amazing that fifty years after the Beatles first hit, artists and audiences alike continue to be obsessed with them? Fans of Elliott Smith, Abby Travis, and of course ELO and the Fab Four will have a good time with this.

Jenifer Jackson Brings Her Austin Americana Sophistication to the Rockwood

Purist psychedelic pop polymath Jenifer Jackson released her full-length debut, Slowly Bright at the very end of the 90s, a mix of bossa nova, Bacharach and the Beatles that remains a landmark in that genre. But even on that album, there was a little Americana. In the years since, Jackson has ventured further into chamber pop and jazz, but the roots of those styles always had a pull on her. A move to Austin and a new cast of musicians to rival any group she’s ever worked with springboarded her latest shift deeper into vintage C&W sounds, TX Sunrise. It’s the prolific tunesmith/chanteuse’s eleventh release and one of her best, a clinic in how to make an album in a bedroom (or a living room) that sounds like it was recorded at Carnegie Hall. The sonics are so lush in places that it’s easy to forget that the instrumentation is practically all acoustic. She’s playing songs from it at the big room at the Rockwood on March 26 at 9 PM.

There’s never been anything quite like this before. A string section holds much of the sound aloft (multi-instrumentalist Kullen Fuchs gets credit for much of that), yet it remains raw and close to the ground, more like early ELO doing country than an enveloping, early 60s Owen Bradley countrypolitan production. Case in point: the upbeat country-chamber duet Paint It Gold. And the songwriting is classic Jenifer Jackson, straightforward and disarmingly direct yet constantly changing shape. The arrangements and musicianship have a lot to do with that: within the space of a single verse, there could be an acoustic guitar mingling with the strings, then a dobro solo handing off to Jackson’s own honkytonk piano (!), then the accordion picking up the tune and deftly passing it back to the dobro. That’s a play-by-play of what happens on Heart with a Mind of Its Own, a co-write with Dickie Lee Erwin, that could be a Kitty Wells classic from 1956 or so.

The album’s most down-home flavored song is Your Sad Teardrops, a sardonic honkytonk kissoff anthem with another deliciously spot-on saloon piano break from Jackson. The title track adds fluttery, rippling, psychedelic touches to a warmly evocative Tex-Mex shuffle. Likewise, Jackson’s easygoing but insistent acoustic guitar contrasts with the lullaby ambience of the accordion and string section on Easy to Live, which could be an outtake from her brilliant 2007 live-in-the-studio album The Outskirts of a Giant Town. When Evening Light Is Low evokes a ballad from that album, The Missing Time, its balmy nocturnal milieu grounded by a persistent unease, something that recurs again and again throughout many of the songs here.

As it does on Ballad of Time Gone By, which opens as a gentle country waltz, Jackson’s voice soaring up to some spine-tingling high notes before descending back to earth – and suddenly what could be bittersweet nostalgia becomes a distantly aching lament. The way she slowly and methodically unveils her images on the understatedly plaintive but driving anthem In Summer, from furtive animals on the lawn to a menacing sunset milieu, is viscerally haunting.

Much as an often surreal humor spices the arrangements, there’s a lingering sadness in much of her work, and that comes to the forefront in the best songs here. She’s done Nashville gothic memorably before; this time, she goes into southwestern gothic for On My Mind, with its spaghetti western horns, bluesy cello and accordion. Same deal with Picture of May, a creepy bolero that another singer might do luridly, but Jackson maxes out the menace with her dreamy delivery as the images grow more enigmatic and ominous. All Around builds a mood of quiet despair via a wintry seaside tableau set to flinty, anthemic backbeat rock that wouldn’t be out of place in the Steve Wynn catalog. And the most shattering of all the tracks is White Medicine Cloud, a bitter, war-torn lament driven by Jackson’s foreboding tom-tom work: the portait of a herd of buffalo reaching to comfort a newborn calf who is very unlike them is genuinely heartwrenching. As is the somber trumpet line that returns the song from reverie to sobering reality. Count this multi-faceted masterpiece as one of the very best albums of 2014 so far, up there with Rosanne Cash’s The River & the Thread, Karla Moheno‘s Time Well Spent and Marissa Nadler‘s July. It’s been a good year for women artists, hasn’t it?

Tammy Faye Starlite – From Lakeside Lounge to Lincoln Center

As an artist, you make your Lincoln Center debut – assuming you can get one – by bringing a polished program that’s going to knock out the critics, right? If you’re Tammy Faye Starlite, you bring a raw if tightly rehearsed work in progress – and pack the house, and blow them away with it. Thursday night the insurgent comedienne/chanteuse/agitator led a poised yet gritty six-piece rock band through a characteristically irreverent, often hilarious and just as shattering set of Marianne Faithfull songs, including the cult singer’s iconic 1979 album Broken English in its entirety.

Beyond her work in film, the theatre and tv, Tammy Faye Starlite has won a devoted following for her unsparing, often caustically funny but revealing portraits of complicated rock personalities. She’s come a long way since her days at the now-defunct Alphabet City hotspot Lakeside Lounge, where she led the Mike Hunt Band through a series of snarky Rolling Stones album cover nights, pillaging the Glimmer Twins catalog for both gems and duds. Her most popular revue both lampoons and celebrates the music of Nico. Likewise, Tammy has used music and albums by the New York Dolls, Blondie and the Runaways as well as her own alt-country songwriting as springboards for stingingly literate, historically informed, uproariously amusing political commentary.

As usual this time out, the comedy was merciless. Tammy mocked Faithfull’s socialite snobbery as well as the acid-fueled hippie mysticism with which much of her work from the 70s is laced. In an impressively faithful Tory accent, Tammy channeled the British singer garbling her Biblical references, quoting from the “Book of Seth.” A little later, in introducing an aching, vividly bitter version of John Lennon’s Working Class Hero, she pondered whether a child of privilege such as Faithfull, or for that matter, Rick Perry and the rest of the Fox News cabal, could understand a 99-percenter’s rage and frustration. Her wryly meandering conclusion was that they could, even if they’re not exactly working-class and hardly heroes. But the music just as often took centerstage.

Early on, the sheer strength of Tammy’s voice threatened to subsume the elegant hesitance, not to mention the drug-damaged melismatics, that are Faithfull’s signature vocal tics. But as the show went on, the evocation became more eerily accurate, culminating in a rivetingly surreal, jangly rock version of Times Square. That song quickly became just as much an elegy for an edgy early 80s New York priced out by mallstore sterility and Disney tastelessness as it was a portrait of heartbroken alienation set against a backdrop of menace and decay. Lead guitarist Kevin Salem rescued the lesser tracks on Broken English – “the filler,” as Tammy acknowledged – with nonchalantly savage, expertly unhinged, judiciously placed acid blues licks. Multi-instrumentalist Keith Hartel channeled another guy with the same name on electric guitar, later switching to keyboards, finally turning in a spot-on, absolutely haunting take of Sister Morphine on acoustic, which was the night’s most memorable song and the point at which the personalities of Tammy and Marianne fused as one.

Getting there was a lot of fun. As usual, Tammy sprinkled snide bits of trivia and razorwire improv in with the songs. Folksinger Tim Hardin, co-writer of Brain Drain, the prosaically bluesy ode to scoring dope, had become known as “Tim Heroin” in New York circles by the time he penned the lyrics. As the show went on, the way Tammy handled a persistently vocal audience member who once was a neighbor of Hardin’s, and still revered him, became a clinic in how to finesse the most unwilling subject to set up a cruelly perfect punchline. She finally let down her hair with a raging, aptly punked-out, expletive-strewn version of Why’d Ya Do It, complete with faux-orgasmic vocalese which became a very physical shout-out to Penny Arcade, whose performance piece Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! Faithfull had made a cameo in back in the 90s.

Bassist Jared Michael Nickerson gave the album’s seemingly interminable stoner new wave title track an unwaveringly circular groove in tandem with drummer Ron Metz. Salem fueled Shel Silverstein’s would-be suicide epic The Ballad of Lucy Jordan with some unexpected U2 riffage, while keyboardist David Dunton switched from fluid organ lines to more sardonically woozy synth voicings. And Craig Hoek built an unexpected but effectively optimistic ambience on some of the later material in the set on both alto and soprano sax. “We wanted to play as long as we could, considering that we probably won’t be invited back,” Tammy snidely averred before an attempt to get an audience singalong going with As Tears Go By, but the crowd seemed too stunned and overwhelmed to respond. And it wouldn’t be wishful thinking to hope for a return engagement: as both the performance and brave choice of artist made clear, this isn’t your father’s Lincoln Center anymore. In the meantime, Tammy and the band are going to reprise most of this show on May 13 at Joe’s Pub.

Hard-Hitting Art-Rock and Chamber Pop from AK

AK are not an Alaskan band, nor are they a gangsta rap project with an automatic rifle for a logo. AK are a tuneful, purist chamber pop/art-rock group fronted by singer/keyboardist Alexandra Kalinowski. The group – which also includes violinist Hajnal Pivnick, clarinetist Lindsey Cosgrove, bassist Carl Limbacher and drummer Ross Marshall – have a new album, How Not to Be Alone, streaming at Bandcamp and a release show on March 23 at 4 (four) PM at the small room at the Rockwood. If the rest of the set is anything like the four tracks on the ep, it’s going to be intense.

Kalinowski has an insistent, hard-hitting, dancing attack on the piano and a soaring voice that she sometimes modulates carefully, other times she’ll cut loose with a full-throttle, practically operatic wail. Her arrangements for strings and winds are clever and emphatic. The album’s first track, Circles has her cascading down the piano to an aptly cyclical riff. “Not every end is as good as we started,” she asserts, then an ornately multitracked choir of voices mimics the pizzicato of a violin. It’s a neat touch.

The second track, Electricity builds from hints of gospel to an ominously rising rage, the strings echoing the angst in the vocals: “I have told you everything and been misunderstood.” Florida follows a similar upward trajectory from a nebulous solo piano intro to an absolutely killer orchestral arrangement with flitting flute cadenzas and lush string glissandos – it seems to be a lament for a long-dead affair. The final cut, Pusher is the most pop-oriented but also the angriest song here: “He pushes the pen toward my dying right hand,” Kalinowski wails. There hasn’t been a short album this good on this page in awhile: a lot of righteous wrath and intelligence here, which the band probably takes up a notch onstage.

Good Cop and Bad Cop Review Guess and Check

 

Bad Cop: Is this couplecore?

Good Cop: From the band lineup – Maya Klein on keys and her husband Jay on guitars – you might think so, but I wouldn’t call this band couplecore at all. Couplecore is rich brats from LA singing about riding the Ikea bus together. With you around I’m probably not going to get away with this, but I’d call Guess and Check indie pop.

Bad Cop: We’ll see about that. Let’s get the formalities out of the way. Their album is called, um, Entanglement. It’s on Bandcamp. They’re playing the Knitting Factory tomorrow night, the twelfth, at 8. I think cover is ten bucks and if you’re going, I wouldn’t stress, shows at the Knit don’t usually sell out.

Good Cop: OK, let’s run the tracks. Lucy Relax is the first one. You know what, I think this song is about a cat.

Bad Cop: Explain.

Good Cop: Well, it’s like something you’d say to a cat. Cats are asleep for so much of their lives that when they’re actually awake, they’re insane. And then you have to say, “Lucy, RELAX!!!” And Lucy isn’t the kind of name you’d give a person anyway. Unless like maybe you were French.

Bad Cop: “We’d never let you come to harm,” hmmm, you may have a point. A blue-eyed soul tinge to the vocals. You know, this reminds me of something from ten years ago. Or maybe earlier. Nice production – drums back in the mix, growly bass, some intertwining guitar lines. Catchy without being cloying.

Good Cop: That’s Barry Ickow on drums and Shayna Lewis on bass. Good song, good start to the album.

Bad Cop: Track two. Antidote. Reminds me of Erika Simonian‘s solo stuff before Little Silver. Good lyrics too. When’s the last time you heard someone use both “parse” and “absolution” in a song, at least one that was good?

Good Cop: I could see the Decemberists doing that.

Bad Cop: But they suck.

Good Cop: True. And this doesn’t sound anything like that anyway. Penny Lane but with new wave values.

Bad Cop: A happy pop song about being poisoned. I’m not supposed to say this, but I’m starting to really like this band.

Good Cop: Careful with that business of breaking character, you don’t want to get us into trouble. Now track three, Changeling, sounds a lot like that last one.

Bad Cop: But even more new wave. That string synth – and is that an omnichord? Whoah. That would be cool.

Good Cop: Kinda disco beat but without the disco drumming. You know, the boom-swish, boom-swish on the cymbals.

Bad Cop: I could do without the b-vox. But this would have been a hit thirty years ago. You know, baseball season is coming up and I’m in a baseball mood. So I would say that this album is three for three so far. No home runs, and that last one was more of a bloop than a blast, but these guys can definitely write a song.

Good Cop: Yeah, I’m enjoying this. [nudges Bad Cop] You notice we’ve been getting better assignments here. And more of them.

Bad Cop: Don’t count your chickens. Track four is Wish I Could Dance. My answer to that complaint, just have a few more drinks.

Good Cop: More of that disco groove. Oscillating synth. Kind of jarring with the hip-hop vocal flavor.

Bad Cop: This is the guy singing. It just kills me when a band has a perfectly good lead singer and then some doofus has to take over the mic to sing his or her song. And this song sucks. I think they’re trying to be Bushwick. You know, twee or something.

Good Cop: I’m not supposed to agree with you but this one doesn’t really pick up until the bridge on the way out and by then it’s too late.

Bad Cop: OK. Three for four. This next one is the title track. Are you sure this isn’t couplecore? “We were left there naked and alive?” And I don’t like guys who sing like girls.

Good Cop: C’mon, he just has a soft voice. And he’s hitting all the notes. I like that kind of suspenseful pulse they have going on. This is a hit, you have to admit it.

Bad Cop: Started slow but it picked up, didn’t it? I like that. Dynamics. They didn’t just record a single verse and chorus and then loop them like all those indie bands do.

Good Cop: I’m with you on that. Track six is Letter. Now I can tell this is the kind of song you love. It’s so plainspoken but so well-crafted. And so sad. Reminds me of that band DollHouse that you told me about..

Bad Cop: I think this is a New York band. Not a Bushwick band or a Williamsburg band. Real New Yorkers. This song has that kind of edge, it doesn’t waste words, the singer is on her game, she lets the story tell itself. A home run, no question. Not a cheap Yankee Stadium flyball into the bullpen, either. What does this make the album? Five for six at this point.

Good Cop: Here’s track seven, Some DJ’s. Now I know you’re gonna love this one. I love how Jay Klein says “They’ll have some DJ’s,” so cold and sarcastic. Songs about bands trying to make it are usually dumb and boring but this one really captures a moment.

Bad Cop: Grand slam home run. Awww, I love this song. For so many reasons. If you are as mystified as I am that anyone would pay a cover charge to listen to whatever songs are on some random person’s phone, you will love this too. Six for seven.

Good Cop: Here’s track eight, Gone. Who’s this singing?

Bad Cop: That’s the drummer. OK, give the drummer some. Next.

Good Cop: C’mon, it’s not so bad.

Bad Cop: It’s not awful, it’s just meh. Drummer knows a little guitar, can fake his way through a tune, he’s been bugging the band to give him a turn on the mic, and you know with drummers, you can’t fuck with them. Drummers all play in about ten bands and if you don’t kiss their ass they’ll leave. And this guy’s a good drummer but I could do without this song. Six for eight.

Good Cop: OK, track nine, Hundred Waters. I like that creepy bass walk over the steady guitar chords. Postpunk.

Bad Cop: Now THAT’S an omnichord! Eerie verse, anthemic chorus, nice contrast. Good song. And notice how few actual tracks there are on this song? For example, there’s about three for the keys, then just guitar, bass, drums and the vocals, lead and backups. No wasted notes. They really had an idea when they went into the studio with this.

Good Cop: “If you build a school like a prison, thoughts will never be sweet.” What a line. This is my favorite song on the album and I like almost all the rest too.

Bad Cop: Another home run. Seven for nine. I’m starting to think about maybe going to this show since the band is going on hiatus afterward.

Good Cop: Aw, that’s too bad! Just when they put out a really great album. How many times does that happen, huh?

Bad Cop: Ulrich Ziegler a couple of years ago, for one. Now this is track ten, Shelter. Biggest anthem here so far. Reverse image of the last song: big propulsive verse, little lullaby chorus.

Good Cop: A lot like that track you really liked a lot. You know, the DollHouse one.

Bad Cop: That was Letter. This is just as good, maybe better. Another homer. Although what it really needs, what I would love to hear right now, is a big slashing guitar solo.

Good Cop: Maybe they ran out of time in the studio. Or maybe they aren’t into big guitar solos.

Bad Cop: Or maybe nobody in the band can play one.

Good Cop: Don’t be so needlessly critical. Now there’s one more track, this is My God I Just Realized. Looks like we’re going back to the new wave.

Bad Cop: Ladies and gentlemen, it’s 1981 and this is the Mudd Club. I like how they trade off lines on the vocals on the verse. And there’s distortion on the guitar for once.

Good Cop: Looks like you were wrong about these guys not rocking out. And looks like we have a winner here. How would you rank this, nine for eleven?

Bad Cop: Yeah, that’s really raking. That’s an average that would never happen in real baseball – unless steroids were involved. It never ceases to amaze me how many good bands like this there are out there that just slip through the cracks.

Good Cop: Would you say that this is one of the best albums you’ve heard this year?

Bad Cop: Now let me put this in perspective, I’m not big on pop music as you know. But these guys won me over. The tunes are simple, terse, crystallized, and catchy as hell. You can understand the lyrics and better yet, the lyrics are usually pretty good. I have some issues with the vocals…

Good Cop: When do you NOT have issues with the vocals?

Bad Cop: That Byzan-tones concert we saw. That band plays instrumentals.

Good Cop: My point exactly. I can’t wait to see what the blog has for us to do next! Remember the days when the only thing we’d ever get to review was organ jazz cds? What a long way we’ve come since then!

Bad Cop: Don’t hold your breath. We could be on the shuttle back to Columbus…

Good Cop: You mean Scranton.

Bad Cop: I still can’t get used to Scranton being a Yankees farm team. Just can’t. Anyway, see you on the train.

The Steel Wheels Bring Their Catchy Acoustic Americana to Joe’s Pub

 

Isn’t it funny how whenever pop music goes completely to hell, classic Americana always makes a comeback? It happened in the 50s before rock took over the airwaves, when regional hitmakers from previously obscure places like Nashville and Nova Scotia broke through to a mass audience. It’s happening now, if on a smaller scale, since the radio airwaves – aside from college and nonprofit radio – have gone completely dead. “The beginning starts at the end,” Steel Wheels frontman Trent Wagler sings at the end of the second verse of his band’s brooding banjo ballad Walk Away, and he’s right. The Steel Wheels perfectly capture the newschool oldtime esthetic, which no doubt has a lot to do with their popularity. They’re at Joe’s Pub on March 9 at 7 PM for $15.

Their latest album, streaming at the band’s site, is titled No More Rain. It’s sort of a slower take on what grasscore jambands like the Infamous Stringdusters are doing, or, for that matter, what the Grateful Dead were doing in an acoustic vein thirty years ago, albeit more song- than jam-oriented. It’s a mix of mostly midtempo anthems and slower ballads that sometimes work an oldtime vernacular, and are sometimes just your basic jangly rock with acoustic instrumentation and rustic arrangements. Eric Brubaker’s fiddle is the usual lead instrument, although Wagler’s elegant guitar flatpicking, Jay Lapp’s banjo and mandolin and Brian Dickel’s bass all figure equally into their tasteful sound. The songs are expansive, with plenty of room for solos that tend to be on the pensive side. And the songwriting is very catchy, drawing on oldtime Appalachian music as well as country gospel, country blues and bluegrass. If the Steel Wheels were based in New York, they’d be a Jalopy band.

With its fire-and-brimstone country gospel vibe, the album’s aphoristic opening track, Walk Away, is its strongest – and it’s the only one that’s in a minor key. The slow waltz Until Summer sounds like the BoDeans but with a fiddle in place of the electric guitars and an upright bass replacing the rock rhythm section, a formula the band works frequently through the rest of the album. The casual syncopation of Kiss Me draws on oldschool soul music, while Go Up and The Race blend equal parts country gospel and Appalachian mountain music into warmly inviting singalongs, the latter with some spot-on three-part vocal harmonies.

Story has a neat handoff from mandolin to fiddle midway through, while So Long, another waltz, sets an unexpectedly gloomy lyric – the guy’s talking about seeing his ex-girlfriend in heaven – to a sunny melody. Whistle is newgrass with a dash of oldtime Britfolk; I Will, the album’s final track, a newgrass take on a hook-driven highway rock anthem. Corinne could be a Sam Llanas ballad, Oh Child the Grateful Dead – with a Burning Spear-style litany of directions that could either make you grin or roll your eyes. And the expansive neo-hobo tale Water’s Edge sounds like a parable of a modern-day drifer finally finding his niche in New Orleans, or Berkeley, or Bloomington maybe. You know the deal. If this is where catchy, easygoing hitmakers are making their home now, it’s a good place.

Agnes Obel Brings Her Somberly Catchy Art-Rock to Bowery Ballroom

If art-rock is your thing, Agnes Obel should be on your radar. The Danish-born pianist/chanteuse writes slow, brooding, extremely tuneful neoromantic laments that sometimes sound like Marissa Nadler with a piano – yeah, that good. Obel is playing Bowery Ballroom this Sunday night, March 2 at 10 PM; advance tix are $20 and as of today are still available.

Her latest album – streaming at Spotify  - is titled Aventine. It opens with a creepily minimalistic solo piano instrumental, Chord Left, which ought to be a horror film theme. From there Obel segues into Fuel to Fire, which adds a distant baroque tinge to the creepiness, dark washes of strings rising in the background, Obel’s elegant vocals building to big swells like Kristin Hoffmann in full-blown angst mode. While Obel’s Danish accent often makes her English lyrics hard to understand, it only adds to the songs’ menacing allure. The third track, Dorian is just piano, vocals and simple percussion: it’s more rhythmic and has more of a pop-oriented feel, albeit with some tricky syncopation.

Pizzicato cellos dancing in outer space – or at least that’s how they seem – juxtapose with a somber lead line on the title track. Obel disguises a Lynchian Nashville gothic vamp with swoops and shivers from the strings in Run Cried & Crawling, following it with the brief, rainy-night piano instrumental Tokka.

With its alternately stately and dancing cellos, the album’s longest track, The Curse sounds a lot like Rasputina, right down to the misterioso deadpan vocals. Simple, incisive piano contrasts with dark washes of strings on Pass Them By, which might be about a public lynching. Obel’s uneasy, breathy vocals on the catchily circling piano ballad Words Are Dead are the closest thing to Marissa Nadler here. After that, there’s the looping, crescendoing instrumental Fivefold, then the sad waltz Smoke & Mirrors, an Appalachian gothic tune reimagined with piano and ethereal vocal harmonies. Fans of Kate Bush, Linnea Olsson and Clara Engel, among other artists, will find a lot to like in Obel’s moody, wounded yet often unexpectedly kinetic sonics.

Lush, Gorgeous Psychedelic Pop and Vintage Folk-Rock from the New Mendicants

The New Mendicants – the Pernice Brothers’ Joe Pernice, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and the Sadies’ Mike Belisky – blend classic psychedelic and powerpop sounds from the 60s and 70s while adding their own wickedly tuneful edge. This supergroup of sorts absolutely nails a whole bunch of styles from the UK from around 1965 to 1975. Their new album Into the Lime is streaming at Spotify…and it’s also available on vinyl!

The trio open it very auspiciously with A Very Sorry Christmas, its growling, Badfinger guitars, a little bit of of a shuffling Ringo feel from Belisky and some Big Star blending in as well. “I’ve hurt so many people on the way, on a very sorry Christmas Eve, I wonder if the ghosts will ever let me be,” Blake laments. The second track, By the Time It Gets Dark is an optimistically catchy, gorgeous folk- rock ballad spiced with glockenspiel (although the litany of cliches that serves as the first verse needs to go). The bouncy Cruel Annette blends the mod pulse of late 60s The Who with jaunty, slightly vaudevillian early 60s Beatles. After that, the delicate, McCartneyesque acoustic waltz Follow You Down is quite likely the prettiest song ever written about a suicide pact.

The genuine classic here is High on the Skyline, an enigmatically alienated folk-rock anthem that’s equal parts Strawbs britfolk and lushly clangy, twanging Byrds. “I’ll show you how deadly close faraway can be,” Blake intones in his stately  delivery. If You Only Knew Her is similar musically, but more Beatlesque, sort of like a more fleshed-out take on Here, There and Everywhere. The trio follow that with the most modern-sounding track here, Lifelike Hair, a third-generation garage-psych rock tune with a hypnotic Brian Jonestown Massacre vibe.

It’s not clear at all what the title track is about, other than a lament for a vanished girlfriend: “The killing joke, the killing moon, the killing of me softly with this song,” Blake croons over a lushly orchestrated, sunnily attractive chamber folk melody. Sarasota blends elements of Motown and chamber pop into an absolutely surreal Florida scenario that might or might not be a murder mystery. The album winds up on a high note with the blistering neo-mod rock hit Shouting Match, a dead ringer for Connecticut pub rock legends the Reducers. The whole thing is one of the most tuneful collections to come over the transom here this year and a strong contender for one of 2014′s best albums.

Lake Street Dive Puts Out One of the Year’s Catchiest Albums

 

The most apt album title any group has ever come up with in the age of the selfie: Lake Street Dive‘s Bad Self Portraits. Is the Boston blue-eyed soul band’s latest release a commentary on extreme narcissism in the digital age? Actually not. This album’s about tunesmithing. Saying that any one band is the best at any particular thing will always get you in trouble – just when you think you know everything, a new discovery takes you back to square one. However, it is safe to say that there is no catchier band on the planet than Lake Street Dive. These songs are absolutely gorgeous, the kind that you catch yourself humming as you walk down the street, and then suddenly you’re in a good mood.

Their sound is very distinctive: they put a driving, kinetic, guitar-fueled edge on original songs written in a classic 60s soul and Motown vein. Frontwoman Rachael Price has a sardonic, acidic edge to her voice, which perfectly suits the songs’ lyrics. Bassist Bridget Kearney doesn’t get to cut loose here as much as she does onstage, but her melodic hooks are still delicious and often appear when least expected: she’s sort of the band’s second lead guitarist. What makes guitarist Mike Olson’s playing so interesting is that he’s more of a rock player than a soul player: you don’t hear a bunch of recycled Memphis or Muscle Shoals licks in what he does. There’s a lingering chipotle burn in his resonant, snarling chords, counterbalanced by a terse, period-perfect, muted mid 60s tunefulness in the songs’ quieter moments. Drummer Mike Calabrese anchors everything with a slinky swing.

The album opens with the title track, a more amped-up take on a classic, swaying soul sound: the woman in the story got a camera to snap shots of her boyfriend, who’s now gone, so can she take it all by herself and springboard an art career with it? That’s the question. The second track, Stop Your Crying is wickedly catchy Phil Spector-ish girl-group pop with roaring, stomping electric guitar and jaunty vocal harmonies. Then the band takes it down for the wounded, brooding, swaying Better Than, Kearney’s bass dancing around judiciously as she signals the changes.

Rabid Animal vividly evokes the caged feeling a kid would get moving back home, taking a step backward, Price’s voice agitated against a syncopated doo-wop piano melody. You Go Down Smooth is a dead ringer for classic Holland-Dozier-Holland, complete with a big blazing brass section and a clever series of false endings. Use Me Up keeps the Motown vibe motoring along with a series of absolutely delicious major/minor changes, Kearney kicking it off solo over the drums, the song building to another classic crescendo, Olson’s guitar set against what sounds like an echoey electric piano patch on a vintage 80s DX7 synth.

Bobby Tanqueray starts out as the jazziest track on the album and then rocks hard, up to a Beatlesque chorus and more of those droll girl-group harmonies. Just Ask works a steamy series of dynamics through a vintage Memphis theme, the organ, guitar and vocals moving up and then down: “You may not win my body by poisoning my mind,” Price asserts…but she likes the guy despite herself. On the next track, Seventeen, she ponders a pretty universal situation over a loosely funky, Led Zep-tinged pulse: what if we’d actually been able to hook up with somebody cool in high school instead of having to wait for what felt like forever, until college, or even later?

What About Me welds a funky sway to an oldschool soul chorus, a Beatlesque bridge and a richly tuneful guitar solo straight out of the George Harrison playbook. The album winds up with Rental Love, which if you buy this particular anachronism, sounds like the Beatles doing Imagine as the opening track on Sergeant Pepper. There’s a sourpuss, cynical contingent out there that says that all this has been done before, that it’s impossible to play vintage-sounding rock and soul better than the originals. Lake Street Dive defy that, and in the process have recorded one of the most deliciously tuneful albums of recent years.

Now where can you hear this album? Not on Spotify or Soundcloud and barely on Bandcamp,  although most of the tracks are up at Youtube in various form: click the links in the song titles above. Many of those tracks comprise an excellent live broadcast on Oregon Public which is archived here.  Lake Street Dive are also excellent in concert; they’re at Bowery Ballroom on March 31 at 10 PM. $18 advance tickets (available at the Mercury Lounge from 5-7 PM, Monday-Friday) are recommended.

Laura Cantrell Is Back With That Amazing Voice and More Brilliant Tunesmithing

The onetime “proprietress” of the wildly popular Radio Thrift Shop on WFMU and BBC Radio Scotland, Laura Cantrell’s career is marked by the same quietly resolute determination that distinguishes her vocals. She’s one of the most extraordinary voices in any kind of music over the last twenty years – she can say more with a single, bittersweet bent note than most singers can in a whole album – and she resists pigeonholing. Cantrell made a name for herself as the greatest of the alt-country singers, then took an abrupt detour into rock, then more or less returned to the roots of her native Nashville (although she’s quick to acknowledge that as a kid, she was a lot more new wave than country). Her new album No Way There from Here (which you can hear on Spotify) is her first collection of originals since 2008′s fetchingly retro-60s Trains and Boats and Planes, and ranks among the best things she’s ever done. The songs are split about 50/50 between more-or-less oldschool country and jangly rock. That “more or less” qualifier is because Cantrell likes to push the envelope: for example, in back of the jangly twelve-string guitars on the album’s wryly knowing opening number, All the Girls Are Complicated (a co-write with Amy Allison), there’s a bass clarinet. Not your typical Nashville instrumentation.

And as much as Cantrell gets props for her voice, she’s a first-class songwriter. One of the best songs here is the biting country fiddle tune Beg and Borrow Days, a swipe at anyone who might have snarkily criticized her early in her career for championing material written by her friends in the Lakeside Lounge scene rather than coming up with her own material. The absolutely heartbroken, anthemic title track is another one, a big anthem with strings and piano and a mandolin that sometimes sounds like a balalaika, Cantrell ending it by morosely quoting the Tennessee Waltz.

Starry Skies paints a warmly vivid nocturnal tableau, with all kinds of neat touches from guitars, accordion and piano. Cantrell sings the steel guitar-driven ballad Glass Armour with a tender concern for a guy who’s gotten off his game and needs to get it back: we should all be so lucky as to have someone so caring in our corner. Barely Said a Thing is pensive mystery story, recounting a sseduction that might or might not go somewhere, set to an oldschool country tune with organ and more of that deliciously jangly twelve-string. Washday Blues is Cantrell at her aphoristic best, cleaning up a lifetime’s worth of disappointed metaphors against a backdrop of steel guitar and mandolin. The album ends with Someday Sparrow, evoking Neko Case with its mix of disheartened vulnerability and guarded optimism over a purist dobro-fueled C&W melody.

As intensely emotional as a lot of these songs are, Cantrell also has a fun side, and there’s lighthearted, upbeat stuff here too: the woozily optimistic after-the-party ballad Letter She Sent; the absolutely irresistible, briskly shuffing banjo tune Driving Down Your Street; the steadily strolling, bucolic When It Comes to You; and Allison’s breathless Can’t Wait. Cantrell is on UK tour right now; the remaining showdates are here.

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