New York Music Daily

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Category: southwestern gothic

John Zorn’s Abraxas Plunges into the Killer Surf

John Zorn may have made a name for himself in the avant garde, but people forget what a hell of a rock tunesmith he is. Abraxas – guitarists Aram Bajakian and Eyal Maoz, bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and drummer Kenny Grohowski – have a new album, Psychomagia, out on Tzadik, which finds Zorn going off into noiserock and horror surf with the same kind of out-of-the-box tunefulness and assaultiveness as Beninghove’s Hangmen, or Big Lazy – or Morricone in his most acided-out back in the 60s, all filtered through the noisy prism of downtown NYC jazz. This being Zorn, some of his songs here are very through-composed, in other words, verses and choruses repeat less than you would expect from most surf bands. The result is both more elegant and more feral in places than even the mighty Dick Dale.

The opening track, Metapsychomagia, juxtaposes puckish wit with flickering menace, building from an uneasy bolero groove to a staggered Middle Eastern monster surf stomp, both guitarists ranging from lingering and twangy to frenetic and crazed, epic art-rock infused with swirling noise. Sacred Emblems is a Tex-Mex nocturne as Pink Floyd might have done it on Meddle, growing from a bittersweet Lee Hazelwood-flavored sway to southwestern gothic majesty. The band works a similar dynamic a little later on the considerably darker Squaring the Circle, a sort of Andalucian bolero surf number with a bracing Middle Eastern edge and unexpected dreampop echoes.

Circe is portrayed via a buzzing, squalling Raybeats-style stomp, the bass holding the center with burning low-register chords while the two guitars ride savage waves out into the maelstrom. Celestial Mechanism is closer to modern-day Balkan jazz than surf music, a shrieking, squalling two-chord vamp with the bass again holding the fort as the drums careen back and forth. Likewise, Four Rivers blends electric Balkan fusion with Israeli stoner metal over tumbling drums – it’s the noisiest thing on the album.

The Nameless God manages to be both the most opaquely indie-flavored and trad surf tune here, following a Ventures-in-space tangent over nebulously resonant, reverb-drenched guitars. The other two tracks here are the artsiest and arguably most interesting. Evocation of the Triumphant Beast is a genuinely evil creature, building from a macabre bolero over a stygian backdrop to searing, noisy postrock and then back with increasingly menacing flickers from the guitars. And Anima Mundi goes in the opposite direction, from an insistent danse macabre to a twinkly, clanging, serpentine guitar interlude that reminds of 70s psychedelic/art-rock legends Nektar. Throughout the album, the twin guitars sometimes wrestle, sometimes trade off gracefully, sometimes echo each other with a close yet dangerous chemistry that threatens to explode any second. On one hand, this album is so tuneful that fans of traditional surf music are going to love it; at the same time, it’s so deliciously evil in places that the most cynical Yo La Tengo diehards might be caught drooling.

So where can you hear this masterpiece? Start here at Youtube.

The Baseball Project’s 3rd Album: As Much Fun As an Unassisted Triple Play

The Baseball Project‘s new album, simply titled 3rd, sends you straight to Retrosheet. Baseball may not be the national pastime anymore, but this album is as deep and rich as the lore and the lure of the game. For fans, it’s pretty close to heaven – and for those who aren’t, it won’t alienate anybody because the tunes are so memorable and the playing is so flat-out excellent. What began as a one-off Steve Wynn side project has grown from a well-conceived novelty into a perennial World Series contender. The band is Hall of Fame caliber: Wynn (the Stan Musial of rock) on guitars and most of the lead vocals along with REM’s Peter Buck and Mike Mills plus the Minus Five’s Scott McCaughey and Linda Pitmon, who reasserts herself as the best and most consistently interesting rock drummer out there. The album isn’t up at Spotify yet, but the band’s first two are, so keep an eye out for it.

What makes the Baseball Project ultimately so much fun is that their songs celebrate the weird, the obscure and the tragic rather than the obvious. So many songs about baseball are cheesy and don’t really have a lot to do with the game, but the Baseball Project plunge into the history and the personalities involved, as well as what it’s like to be a diehard fan (and these guys really, really are). Although Wynn, the bandleader, has adopted the Yankees as his team, he’s written insightfully and poignantly about the Boston Red Sox, among other teams, on past albums. This time out, players from the Evil Empire are represented by four songs, while the Atlanta Braves – Mills’ and Buck’s team – also get plenty of props.

The first track is Stats, a pseudo-Ventures spacerock stomp with a seemingly random litany of numbers recited by Pitmon: random, that is, until you realize that’s Nolan Ryan’s season-record 383 strikeouts, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak…and then the guessing gets really good. For those who don’t know, stats are crack for baseball fans and so is this song.

Two of the best songs here, neither of which namecheck the player involved, are the most depressing. From Nails to Thumbtacks traces the career arc of one of the early steroid casualties, Lenny Dykstra, who went from spare outfielder with the Mets to sudden and prodigiously beefed-up stardom with the Phillies, only to wind up behind bars after a long, long downward spiral. “You gotta be high to fall this far,”McCaughey intones over a backdrop that’s part Ramones, part new wave. And 13, arguably the best song on the album, looks at the A-Roid scandal with even more of a caustic eye than Wynn cast on Roger Clemens in the gorgeous Twilight of My Career, from the band’s first album Frozen Ropes & Dying Quails. Over a corrosively sarcastic spaghetti western tune, Wynn explains how Alex Rodriguez took #13 as his Yankees uniform number since Babe Ruth wore #3, but ultimately it was hubris rather than bad luck that scuttled the third baseman’s assault on Henry Aaron’s home run record.

Wynn evokes his classic 2001 riff-rocker Strange New World in Hola America, the brooding account of Cuban defector Orlando Hernandez, whose World Series stardom with the Yankees obscures the alienation he must have felt while estranged from his family in a new culture. McCaughey celebrates Dock Ellis, not for the Pirates pitcher’s acid-fueled no-hitter, but for his abbreviated start on May 1, 1974 when he decided to hit every batter in the Cincinnati Reds lineup as payback for what he perceived as hotdogging – and also to energize his lacklustre team, a ploy that actually worked! Mystified manager Danny Murtaugh pulled Ellis five batters into the first inning, but the hurler’s message had been heard loud and clear.

The mid-90s REM-style powerpop hit To the Veterans Committee makes a soaringly persuasive case for enshrining longtime Braves centerfielder Dale Murphy in the Hall of Fame. Not only was Murphy one of his era’s top power hitters, he made the tricky transition from catcher to centerfield – where he won more than one Gold Glove – and he also was (and maybe still is) a competent piano player!

Box Scores celebrates a great tradition that someday may only be accessible on your phone, but as Buck reminds, “Every summer, every day, the box scores keep me sane.” The only really obvious track here, The Babe, sends a shout-out to the Sultan of Swat over a regal Hey Jude pulse lowlit by some deliciously watery vintage chorus-box guitar. Another tribute to a home run king, They Don’t Know Henry makes haunting 60s style garage-psych rock out a tip of the cap to Henry Aaron.

McCaughey cynically ponders what makes the low-budget Oakland A’s so good – and connects the dots between Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter and the recently retired, mostly mediocre Dallas Braden – over a slinky Stones/T-Rex groove. Mills and Pitmon share vocals on Pascual on the Perimeter, memorializing the afternoon when the Braves’ eccentric righthander ostensibly got lost on the way to the ballpark – and wouldn’t you know it, Phil Niekro started in his place. Part Dream Syndicate, part True West and maybe part Yo La Tengo, it’s got some of the best snarling, burning guitar of any of the tracks here.

Larry Yount, a pensive folk-rock number by Wynn, recalls the older brother of Hall of Famer Robin Yount, whose single big league appearance ended before he’d thrown a pitch. He hurt himself while warming up after coming in from the Astros bullpen late in 1971 and never again appeared in a game.

The material gets funnier as the album goes along. The Baseball Card Song is a country patter tune rippling along with Buck’s banjo and a rapidfire rap by Wynn…see, he’d held onto the collection he’d amassed as a kid until this big Wall Street guy offered him some stock in a startup in exchange, and then the fun really starts. Another patter song riffs on both Johnny Cash’s Boy Named Sue and Heart’s Barracuda, a sideways look at a fireballing Red Sox righty who never won a single Cy Young Award despite his 511 career victories. Instead of the usual tired round-the-bases metaphors, the wry faux 70s boudoir soul number Extra Inning of Love looks at another kind of game you play at night from the perspective of a pitcher rather than a batter. And the album ends with Take Me Out to the Ballgame done Ramones style.

There’s also the They Played Baseball, a folk-rock rogues’ gallery of sorts: “Durocher had his lip, and Bob Welch his great big wine, Piniella had his temper, Mendoza had his line and it’s a fine line,” McCaughey grins. Which perfectly sums up this album, and this band: if you know who those guys are, this is for you. Now let’s get Steve Wynn to throw out the first pitch at a Mets home game sometime this year!

A Supremely Good Surf Album by the Reigning Monarchs

Surf music may be a lot of fun, but there’s always been a dark underside to the style, from Dick Dale wailing away at ominous Middle Eastern themes, to the perennially popular horror surf of bands like Beware the Dangers of a Ghost Scorpion. The Reigning Monarchs don’t play horror surf, strictly speaking, but their music is evil. The two-guitar frontline of Greg Behrendt and Boston powerpopsters Letters to Cleo’s Michael Eisenstein fires off reverberating, snarling, menacing chromatic riffage over the hard-hitting rhythm section of bassist David Hawkins and drummer Blair Sinta. Their debut album Black Sweater Massacre is streaming all the way through at their site.

Much as their sonics are retro – vintage-sounding guitars, reverb everywhere, pummeling surf drums – the Reigning Monarchs have an original and distinctive sound. For one, they use horns (Tower of Power’s Lee Thornburg on valve trombone, flugelhorn and trumpet and Eugene Toale on sax) to raise the dramatic effect on several of the tracks here. They also blend in elements of styles that didn’t exist until surf music was already retro. The brief opening track, It Might be the Perfect Now mixes surf and dreampop, a strangely effective hybrid they revisit later with the absolutely hilarious, tongue-in-cheek Tanya Donnelly. The brass first seems like it’ll be a distraction, but it works like a charm to raise the disquiet on the deadly biker rock theme Murder Your Summer, Eisenstein’s funeral organ whirling over Behrendt’s hammering menace. Likewise, Steakhouse Blues is a Lynchian low-rent Vegas roadhouse number with wild, unhinged tremolo-picking and a tricky false ending: it reminds of Beninghove‘s Hangmen.
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The album’s title track is a blistering noir tune, like a classier, more cinematic Ghost Scorpion, or a bollywood band doing surf.  It’s Always Gonna Rain works a backbeat cinematic highway theme, building to a crescendo where the two guitarists throw jangly phrases at each other before returning to a cynical Old West ambience. The intense, explosive Thuggery is sort of a Peter Gunne Theme for the teens, with a slashing, off-the-rails guitar solo midway through. Swamp Thing follows a cinematic path from bright and jangly to ominously lingering and then picking up the pace with a gallop.

Frankenstein Ska begins as awfully slow ska and ends as reggae, with noisy references to the Balkans and dub in between. Moto Guzzi rips the old pop standard A Taste of Honey, while the menacing, marching Roll the Tanks evokes Laika & the Cosmonauts at their most savagely sarcastic. The album ends with Bood Red Metal Flake, bookending more reggae with lurid chordal splashes and a squirrelly, flanged guitar solo. It’s early in the year, but we have a strong frontrunner for best album of 2013.

Globalfest 2014: Esoterica Rules

Globalfest, the annual celebration of high-energy, danceable music from around the world, grew out of the yearly booking agents’ convention. Youtube may have made live auditions obsolete, but every year the talent buyers for cultural centers across the country, along with the agents for a seemingly nonstop onslaught of global acts, still get together for an all-expenses-paid Manhattan party on the company tab. What’s most auspicious about this past Sunday’s edition of the festival at Webster Hall was the number of kids and random New Yorkers of all ages in the crowd. The booking agents drank hard and schmoozed: none of them seemed to be the least bit interested in the music. The kids, on the other hand, packed the main room for dramatic Bollywood pop revivalist orchestra the Bombay Royale, explosive Kiev folk-punk ensemble DakhaBrakha and even more explosive Romany brass band legends Fanfare Ciocarlia before cramming the downstairs space for darkly fiery Arizona desert rockers Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta.

What’s happened is that there’s been a sea change among audiences, and among young people. Hard to believe as this may seem, thirty years ago it was considered weird for an American to like reggae – unless you were of Jamaican heritage. Forget about the kind of ridicule you might have faced if, perish the thought, a classmate discovered that you’d been sending oodles of money through the mail for limited-edition, low-budget vinyl pressings of Ukrainian folk or Romany brass music – or, if you were really lucky, you’d found a fellow weirdo who’d let you make cassette copies from his or her secret stash. People were troglodytes back then, weren’t they?

The Bombay Royale’s 2012 album You Me Bullets Love is a psychedelic blend of classic 60s-style Bollywood dance numbers spiced with surf and garage rock. This show  – the dramatic eleven-piece Melbourne, Australia band’s New York debut – found them taking their sound forward another ten years into the disco era with a lot of new material. Period-perfect as they sound, all their songs are originals. Singers Shourav Bhattacharya and Parvyn Kaur Singh – decked out in snakeskin suit and sari, respectively – slunk and spun, traded coy glances and wry pouts while the four-piece horn section, led by alto saxophonist Andy Williamson, blasted behind them.

They opened with a cinematically marching blend of Bollywood and spaghetti western, with the first of pyrotechnic keyboardist Matt Vehl’s many surreal, woozy synthesizer solos. Bhattacharya and Singh duetted on a surfy minor-key number, showed off some dance moves to a swaying bhangra beat and then went deep into anthemic funk. They followed that with Bobbywood, a number that sounded a bit like an Indian disco version of the Rocky theme mingled with brooding cinematics. Trumpeter Ros Jones ended up taking the first of many of the night’s chilling, chromatic solos; a little later, Williamson animatedly traded licks with Singh’s vocals on a creepy downtempo ballad.

It’s hard to think of another band writing songs that mix chromatic Dick Dale surf with Indian-spiced go-go vamps. Their sitar player wasn’t audible for much of the show, but ended up adding a surreal, bluesy solo on one of the later songs. Bass player Bob Knob’s chords loomed ominously underneath a couple of the harder-edged, surf-oriented tunes,  guitarist Tom Martin switching in a split-second from a twangy, reverb-toned attack to scratchy funk lines. The crowd roared for an encore; they didn’t get one.

Word was that it had taken the intervention of a U.S. Senator to assure visas for all four members of DakhaBrakha (Ukraininan for “give-and-take”), but the effort was worth it. They drew the most applause of all the bands on the bill. Their percussion-heavy sound is balanced by the eerie, high, close-harmony vocals of drummer/singer Olena Tsibulska, keyboardist/percussionist Iryna Kovalenko and cellist Nina Garenetska. The band’s lone male member, Marko Halanevych, also sang and contributed on both percussion and garmoshka (a small Ukrainian accordion). Garenetska started by plucking out funky pizzicato bass but before long she was firing off long, growling, raspy, sustained lines punctuated by macabre swoops and dives. Likewise, their set followed an up-and down trajectory, beginning with a wary marching feel with apprehensively insistent vocals, then a trio of creepy dirges before growing louder and more assaultive. Their funniest moments had a tongue-in-cheek hip-hop flavor. The most intense song in their set built explosive give-and-take interludes between ominous drums, ghostly vocals and snarling cello, sinking to a rapt, sepulchral interlude before rising to a pummeling outro. They wound up with a silly but very well-received spoof of cheesy electronic dancefloor beats.

The pride of Romania, eleven-piece Fanfare Ciocarlia were tight and fast beyond belief. The world’s most exhilarating Romany brass band has a precision to match their outrageous tempos, and chops that most American jazz players can only dream of. The four-man backline of a tuba and three slightly higher-pitched trubas played a looming, ominous introduction for their clarinetist, who then launched into wild volleys of shivery chromatics before the rest of the band came on to join in the hailstorms of rat-a-tat riffage.

They’d stop and start, sometimes taking a song doublespeed and then doublespeed after that, other times switching between soloists in a split second. One of the truba players came to the front about midway through the show and added a rapidfire solo of his own. They began with a single standup drummer, then added another for extra firepower. One of the more senior of the four trumpeters sang a couple of ballads, or at least parts of them, before the rest of the orchestra blasted them into the ozone. Hurichestra, true to its name, became a launching pad for a series of abrupt accelerations that were almost exponential: that any horn player can play so fast yet so fluidly defies the laws of physics. They traded birdcalls on a relatively brief take of their signature anthem, Ciocarlia, then teased the audience with droll Balkanized versions of Duke Ellington’s Caravan (which they probably learned from the Ventures) and St. James Infirmary.

Downstairs, Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan, backed by bass, drums, keyboards and a lot of pre-recorded stuff, played simple, low-key darkwave that, she said, was influenced by Siouxsie & the Banshees as well as Egyptian pop. The night ended with the feral southwestern gothic energy of Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta, who put pretty much every other desert rock band to shame. The brass-fueled Tucson group pounced on a couple of noir-tinged, ska-punk flavored songs to open the show, then Mendoza put down his acoustic guitar and played surreal, macabre organ over a funereal bolero sway. From there they hit a lively, upbeat Tex-Mex groove that took a turn in a much more menacing spaghetti western direction when least expected, followed by an early Santana-esque psychedelic rock epic with long, space-reverb interludes for both organ and slide guitar.

The lead guitarist took an even longer, more murky, echo-drenched solo later on, then lit up a couple of more familiar southwestern gothic themes with some chilling slide work as memorable as anything Friends of Dean Martinez ever recorded. A long, slinky, pitchblende cumbia groove might have been the highlight of the night, although a similarly brooding, low-key bolero that might have been Mendoza‘s version of Besame Mucho was right behind. Addressing the audience in Spanish, singer/percussionist Salvador Duran explained that out in Tucson, or Nogales, where Mendoza comes from, everything is up for grabs: banda music, rancheras, cumbia, rock, you name it. They closed the set with a rapidfire return to a darkly shuffling border rock theme. This was Mendoza’s first New York show as a bandleader, hopefully the first of many.

Lurid, Lyrical Noir Americana from the Coney Island Cowboy

Baritone country crooner Sean Kershaw‘s new album The Aussie Sessions is arguably his best – and he’s been writing good songs for a long time. His first New York band, the Blind Pharaohs, hung out on the shadowy side of rockabilly. Since then, Kershaw has gone in more of a classic honkytonk and western swing direction with his band the New Jack Ramblers. This one goes deep into the noir, from Texas to Tennessee – except that it was recorded in that hotbed of edgy music, Melbourne, Australia. This sounds like a live-in-the-studio recording, Kershaw alternating between electric and acoustic guitar and backed by Justin Rudge on guitar, “Sweet Felicia” on bass and harmony vocals and Scott Bennett on drums.

The opening track, Grass Is Always Bluer is killer, a creepy, snarling, galloping, aphoristic southwestern gothic tale set in the here and now. It sounds like a Blind Pharaohs number. Kershaw traces his couple-on-the-lam story to this:

I’m blessed to roam this land of ours where all roads lead to Rome
And every frequency takes you straight to the Twilight Zone
All the green and empty spaces are full of my favorite things
And all the colors tell me true just what this season brings

Cleaning My Gun reminds of Jack Grace’s recent detour into Nashville gothic, and it’s even creepier. “When they pry open my fingers in the morning, will they say this whole thing happened without warning?” Kershaw muses. The contrast between the echoey electric guitar with the brushy acoustic and the cymbals enhances the menace. The straight-up catchiest song on the album is Daydream Deceiver, which is Tex-Mex with a lot of early Elvis flavor, a kiss-off directed at a fair-weather girl.

Kershaw is at his aphoristic best as a rockabilly prowler in Gigglin Madman Blues, set in a now-bulldozed, twisted Coney Island of the mind. “To believe the hype you’ve gotta have some hype to believe in,” he intones sarcastically. The band takes a turn into gritty swamp rock with So Proud, which could be Steve Wynn covering Creedence, with a couple of long, spacy stoner blues guitar solos. The gleefully lurid Pain the Town Red is ghoulabilly as Bushwick Bill might do it  – musically, it’s the missing link between Stray Cat Strut and LJ Murphy‘s only slightly less twisted Skeleton Key. And the final track, Forever My Darling, with its tersely unwinding, apprehensive guitar and bolero-tinged shuffle groove, could be Kershaw’s Don’t Fear the Reaper. Kershaw brings all this menace and gallows humor as well as some more upbeat but similarly sardonic songs to Rodeo Bar on New Year’s Eve starting at around 9.

Mark Orton’s Nebraska Soundtrack Illuminates Big-Sky Sounds

Tin Hat guitarist Mark Orton‘s richly rustic instrumental soundtrack to the recently released Alexander Payne road movie Nebraska works clever, sometimes wry, often haunting varations on two main themes. The first is a gorgeous Old West big-sky waltz straight out of the Bill Frisell book; the second is more Lynchian. Blending deadpan wit (which sometimes veers thisclose to cornball) with a persistent unease, Orton creates a suspenseful narrative that stands on its own as an integral work, apart from the visuals. Auspiciously, this recording marks the first time the Tin Hat Trio, with Carla Kihlstedt on violin and Rob Burger on accordion – who sprang to fame with Orton for their soundtrack to Everything Is Illuminated – have appeared together in the studio since 2005. Mickey Raphael, of Willie Nelson’s band, joins them on harmonica here.

If the film, which only recently hit the theatres, is anything like the soundtrack, it’s down-home and bittersweet, with plenty of unexpected twists and turns. Alcohol seems to be involved from time to time. Orton doesn’t waste time turning the main theme into spaghetti western, Kihlstedt gamely voicing a trumpet. They take a detour into a skeletally syncopated stroll and then hit the waltz again with a lush, soaring Frisellian grandeur. Shifting strings introduce an expectant ambience and then Orton leads the band deep into the country, adding banjo and dobro against the plaintive wash of the accordion and soaring strings.

The Lynchian nocturne comes alive most ominously in an interlude with the piano and dobro; the group slowly weave and interweave their way back. Kihlstedt’s shivery whispers contrast with droll jawharp and sotto vocce dobro, leading to the score’s most wistful, epically sweeping interlude. Orton introduces a bit of Romany jazz on the pensively dancing Night of the Skeptic, which quickly diverges into ghostly, swirling noir terrain. Tragicomic accents from the guitars give way to disquiet and then a rich confluence of the two themes. The score recedes with a sepulchral, hauntedly spacious piano miniature before it comes full circle and concludes with a dobro-driven version of Green Green Grass of Home (which is not on the album but available as a single at itunes).

Spindrift Bring Their Ghosts of the West to Glasslands on November 8

Fronted by Kirkpatrick Thomas, formerly of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Spindrift play a reverb-drenched, surrealistically stagy mix of Lee Hazelwood-esque spaghetti western rock laced with punk-era influences from the Gun Club all the way back to the Cramps. Thomas is a connoisseur of desert rock and can’t resist employing every trope in the book in what seems to be a lovingly satirical, playfully Tarantino-esque take on it. Thomas’ baritone can be on the campy side; once in awhile he reaches for a Mark Sinnis-style menace. The band is at Glasslands at around 11 PM on Nov 8, playing songs from their latest album Ghost of the West, a mix of originals and wry updates on popular Old West tunes from across the decades. Spindrift are very good live, and as you might expect, a lot more psychedelic than they are in the studio.

Some of the new songs are cartoonish: Buffalo Dream, which sounds like the early Gun Club channeling their inner Indian tribe;  Cowpoke Cowpoke, a cartoonish faux-noir cowboy waltz; and a wryly deadpan version of Blood on the Saddle. They do When I Was a Cowboy in super lo-fi mode, shooting for a retro 20s 78 RPM ambience, then make psychedelia out of it. Thomas goes into crooner mode forCool Water, its swaying Apache vibe fleshed out with layers of ominously jangling guitars and Sasha Vallely’s lushly lurid vocal harmonies.

The  mariachi-pop Ballad of Paladin, “a knight without honor in a savage land,” sounds like Johnny Horton with more punk production values. King sings the elegantly arranged Hanging Me Tonight with a stoic sadness, while Thomas’ faux Johnny Cash slapback vocals on Gunfighter are irresistibly over-the-top. The western swing-flavored Wanderers of the Wasteland is much the same.

But the best songs here are the instrumentals. The epic Matador & the Fuzz begins by keeping the mariachi rock vibe going with flamencoish acoustic guitar, moody brass and a robust choir of voices, and builds to an explosive cop-car bolero. Mudhead works a briskly guitar-fueled, Romany jazz-tinged pulse. And the funniest track here might be Paniolos on the Range, adding bizarre gamelan touches over its loping Tex-Mex beat; it wouldn’t be out of place in the Tribecastan catalog. The album winds up with Navajo Trail, part rockabilly, part 50s lounge pop and part punk, and then a take of Ghost Riders in the Sky that offers a tip of the pitch-black cowboy hat to the Ninth House version.

Halloween Comes Earlier Every Year in NYC

Halloween’s on its way, and it’s gonna be hell in the East Village when every amateur from Cape May to Cape Hatteras comes into town to drink and puke. But for a taste of a more, um, tasteful Halloween, there’s a killer retro rock triplebill coming to Brooklyn Bowl on Oct 26, with ageless second-wave garage rockers the Fleshtones, the reliably entertaining Southern Culture on the Skids and the world’s most popular surf band outside of the Ventures and Dick Dale, Los Straitjackets. The three bands are pushing a new Halloween collaboration, Mondo Zombie Boogaloo, which is due out on Oct 1 on double gatefold vinyl in addition to the usual digital stuff.

It’s everything you would hope for from these three bands. Los Straitjackets get the creepy side of surf – they don’t get all cartoonish and cliched and ruin it. The Fleshtones are a party band, and they bring the party, as do Southern Culture on the Skids, and both of them steer clear of the cheese a lot more than you might think. It’s worth keeping around on vinyl, both as an annual playlist that’s got something for pretty much everyone you might want to invite over at the end of October, or just for something fun and guitarishly tasty to pick you up after a bad day at work.

As you would guess, Los Straitjackets’ songs here are the best. It’s Monster Surfing Time is a surprisingly low-key, swaying, midtempo number where the guitars finally go into machete mode a little on the third verse – in a way it’s kind of Walk Don’t Run ’13. Theme From Young Frankenstein turns out to be an elegant, slowly swinging, thinly disguised version of Harlem Nocturne. Theme From Halloween takes the coldly techy theme, amps up the menace with real instruments, then the band goes four-on-the-floor and rocks the hell out of it. Ghoul on a Hill only hints at the Beatles through a mist of reverb-tank noise, while their LMAO version of the Ghostbusters theme spoofs the original with a virtuosic sneer.

SCOTS’ songs are strong too. Rick Miller has some nonchalantly brilliant reverb guitar on a lot of their tracks, especially the ghoulabilly Tingler Blues. “I’ll take the house nobody wants,” he drawls over swaying, spaghetti western rock on The Loneliest Ghost In Town: “The violent nature of my demise has made all buyers run and hide, and here I stand confined to the scene of the crime.”  La Marcha De Los Cabarones is a ferocious Link Wray homage in 7/4 time, while their version of Goo Goo Muck is more of a straight up garage rock song than the famous Cramps version and a far cry from the feral Hasil Adkins original. And the feedback-drenched Demon Death has devious fun toying with a teen roadkill theme.

The Fleshtones’ Haunted Hipster might be the best song on the album. “Every day is Halloween for you,” Peter Zaremba sneers while Keith Streng plays Stonesy slide guitar and a droll, absolutely spot-on Beatles quote over Ken Fox’s growly fuzz bass. They also deliver (Sock It To Me Baby) In The House Of Shock, with its goodnaturedly poppy mid-60s vibe; Ghoulman Confidential, a roller rink organ soul shuffle; and Dracula A GoGo, a Flamin’ Groovies-style pub rock number. There’s also Que Monstruos Son, a very tongue-in-cheek Spanglish version of the Monster Mash featuring all three bands.

New Country Rehab Make Themselves Heard at Hill Country

Hill Country on 26th Street is sort of the Manhattan version of Radegast Hall, if you switch out the beer and brats for barbecue. The roar of the tourists there is usually pretty much the same, which is a pity since the owners of both establishments have great taste in music: hot jazz and the occasional Balkan band in Williamsburg, country and Americana roots in the Flatiron District. But tonight at Hill Country was a pleasant surprise, especially considering that New Country Rehab were playing songs from their excellent new album Ghost of Your Charms there. And that’s where the two venues differ: for the Williamsburg/Bushwick tourist and permanent-tourist classes, every day is Saturday. In Manhattan, apparently, the tourists stay put on Sundays. So the Toronto band didn’t have to compete with screaming rugrats and their parents.

Frontman/violinist John Showman intimated between songs that they’re pretty adventurous when it comes to booking themselves into venues across the continent. A recent gig at an Idaho biker bar, he explained, began when he went to the bar and the bartender pulled a seven-inch knife on him. The bar had only two taps. “Which beer do you like more?” the knife-wielding bartender asked him. Showman, being Canadian and diplomatic, replied, “I like ‘em both.” The bartender then put down the knife and poured Showman a beer from each tap – for free. The conversation then continued – presumably sans knife – as the bartender first regaled Showman with tales of his love of violence, ending by taking off several articles of clothing, finishing by suggesting that Showman feel his “six inches of scar tissue.” After the gig, Showman went to the club manager to collect his pay. Wondering what was up with the knife and the scar tissue, etc., he asked the manager about the guy. “Aw, you shouldn’t listen to my father,” the manager laughed. So Showman got a couple of free beers, something for playing, and also a song out of the night.

That song was Lizzy Dying of a Broken Heart, a surreal tale about a – you guessed it – frustrated former army instructor slowly losing it as a venue owner. It’s a story so surreal that it hardly seems possible it could be based in fact – except that it is. In concert, this time out the band played up their rock side more than their country roots, bassist Ben Whiteley and drummer Roman Tome hitting a laid-back Grateful Dead groove early on before doing a Hank Williams number in 5/4 time – and it worked. It was interesting watching guitarist Anthony DaCosta play rock, considering that he’s best known for his flashy bluegrass and country chops. But he turned out to be good at it, and a lot noisier than anticipated, going back to his amp with his hollowbody for the occasional acidic wash of feedback. Showman’s purist, terse licks – including a couple of brief duels with the guitar – fit the music, although he surprised the crowd (or at least somebody in the crowd) when he’d take the fiddle off his shoulder and play it standing up, like a Middle Eastern kamancheh or similar instrument. The best song of the night was Rollin’, a slightly subdued, understatedly venomous southwestern gothic stroll; the most upbeat was a lively love song whose message was “please don’t die.” The persistent darknesss in Showman’s songs is just one of the things that differentiates this band from the legions of hillbillies drinking from the well of four hundred years of Americana.

Fiery Violin-Driven New Country Rehab Bring Their Politically Aware Sounds to NYC

Toronto band New Country Rehab are one of the most unique, instantly recognizable bands around. Their latest album Ghost of Your Charms blends rustic Americana with eclectic string-driven rock that careens from Nashville gothic to more Celtic-tinged tunes with layers of strings that sometimes peak out at orchestral levels. Frontman John Showman isn’t just an excellent fiddler (and reputedly more than lives up to his name onstage), he’s a hell of a storyteller with a spot-on worldview. Like Larry Kirwan of Black 47 – a band this one often evokes – Showman’s a big-picture guy with a similarly bleak sense of humor. The band – also including bassist Ben Whiteley, drummer Roman Tome and up-and-coming guitarist Anthony DaCosta – bring their reputation for incendiary live shows to Hill Country on Sept 15 at 8 PM, where you can see them for free.

They put new blood into some old themes: murder ballads, robber ballads, lost-love laments and portraits of life among the down-and-out. Empty Room Blues sounds like the Pogues with a Canadian accent. The slow ballad Image of Me has a punchline straight out of vintage Ray Price or George Jones. There are also a couple of more mellow tracks here, one that echoes the Grateful Dead in acoustic mode, another that brings to mind more recent Springsteen. But it’s the darkest stuff that packs a wallop.

Back in Time builds from an almost trip-hop sway to more straightforward and rustic as Showman uneasily contemplates the ravages of getting old. Too Many Parties and Too Many Pals, which is part southern rock and part spaghetti western, offers a surreal and unexpectedly wise account of a hooker on trial. The political songs here are even better, beginning with Luxury Motel, a savage look at native disenfranchisement in third world tourist hotspots:

You stay by the boardwalk that covers the sands
They hauled in to cover the mangrove stands
There’s a family that used to fish by the shore
Now they suffer the drunks in their convenience store
The young boy who splashes in the runoff canal
Can’t swim in the ocean, he’s trespassing now

Lost Highway isn’t the Hank Williams classic but an original, rising to almost chamber-metal levels as Showman builds a fire-and-brimstone narrative about karmic payback. The southwestern gothic ballad Rollin’ starts out like The Fever and turns into a venomous 99-percenter anthem: “Oh Mr. Sprat, lick your platter clean, douse old Jack with gasoline and watch the night explode…” Lizzy Dying of a Broken Heart chronicles the sad, surreal life of an army officer slowly losing it in his post-Vietnam career as the owner of a music venue. The best song here is The Bank and the Army, putting a vividly aphoristic update on a familiar folk theme. Thousands of songs from around the world tell the tale of an evil king and his army colluding with the moneylenders: Showman relates the story through the eyes of a drunken war vet whose family farm has been foreclosed. But there’s a big, unexpected payoff at the end of the song. It’s too good to spoil here: no doubt they’ll play it live at Hill Country.

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