New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: acoustic music

A Free Show and Two Contrasting Americana Albums by the Howlin’ Brothers

It’s hard to keep up with the Howlin’ Brothers. The trio of bassist Ben Plasse, fiddler/multi-instrumentalist Ian Craft and guitarist Jared Green are one of those well-loved Americana acts who make a living on the road, but they also make excellent albums. They’ve got a brand-new one out, Trouble, streaming at Spotify and a free outdoor show on July 1 starting around 5 in the parking lot out back of City Winery.

A quick listen to the new one reveals it as both more electric, more intense and darker than the band’s previous material. The album before that is an acoustic ep, the Sun Studio Session, where the band went into the legendary room where Elvis and Johnny Cash and so many other legends recorded and put down four originals, a remake of an earlier tune and a cover of a Sun classic, Carl Perkins’ 1956 single Dixie Fried.

What’s coolest about that tune is that you can hear as much Chuck Berry in it as you can bluegrass – and Craft’s banjo solo is as wild and fun as anything Brandon Seabrook could wail through. There’s also a spare, brooding, piano-driven, Tom Waits-ish version of Tennessee Blues, which originally appeared on the band’s Howl album.

The first of the new tracks, Til I Find You sets lickety-split banjo over a steady bass pulse, with that rich Sun Studios natural reverb on the vocals. True to its title, the slow Troubled Waltz, another banjo tune, has an oldtime Appalachian feel. Take Me Down, fueled by Green’s dobro, works a swaying, dead-of-summer delta blues groove. Charleston Chew, a slightly more modern (if you consider 1954 modern) take on a 1920-style one-chord blues, is the lone electric track here, the slow-burn tone of Green’s guitar contrasting with Craft’s energetic fiddle. Taken as a whole, the ep is a smartly lower-key counterpart to the band’s raucous live show. It’s gonna get hot in the parking lot on Tuesday evening.

Where Did All the Live Coverage Go, or, A La Recherche De Concerts Perdus

New York Music Daily was originally conceived as a live music blog. In the very first month or so here, there was more concert coverage than there’s been in all of 2014 up to now.

What’s up with that? Has New York Music Daily morphed into just another generic “look who’s on tour” blog? Not necessarily.

OK – a cold winter, followed by a temporary lack of general mobility, made it awfully easy to focus on whittling down an enormous stack of albums instead of stumbling through pools of salty sludge night after night. And the abrupt closure of Zirzamin last summer – where this blog ran a music salon for the better part of a year – put an end to one of the few remaining genuine scenes in a town further and further balkanized by the proliferation (some would say overproliferation) of outer-borough neighorhood bars with live music. Zirzamin made a blogger’s job obscenely easy – it was one-stop shopping, sometimes three or four good acts on a given night. Since then, keeping track of the best acts who passed through there has become a lot more time-consuming. In the spirit of keeping a scene alive, this is a long-overdue look at some usual suspects who haven’t let the loss of that venue phase them.

Full disclosure: Lorraine Leckie was a partner in booking the Zirzamin salon. And why not: she has impeccable taste and likes residencies (beats having to pay for rehearsal space, right?). She’s been doing a monthly Friday or Saturday night show going way back to her days in the Banjo Jim’s scene. When Banjo Jim’s closed, she moved to Otto’s, but that place isn’t really set up to handle to loud bands with vocals (and her band the Demons can be LOUD). So Zirzamin, with its pristine sonics, was a logical move. Lately she’s had a monthly Friday night gig at Sidewalk – her next one is June 20 at 11. Sometimes she plays a rock set with the Demons, sometimes she does her quietly menacing chamber pop stuff. Her January show there (yeah, this is going back a ways) was a showcase for her Lou Reed-influenced glamrock and lots of Hendrix-inspired pyrotechnics from lead guitarist Hugh Pool, capped off with a long, volcanic take of one of her signature Canadian gothic anthems, Ontario. The show before that was a solo set where Leckie alternated between Stratocaster and piano, featuring a lot of sardonic, brooding chamber pop songs, many of them from Leckie’s collaboration with Anthony Haden-Guest, Rudely Interrupted.

Baritone crooner/powerpop tunesmith/sharp lyricist Walter Ego is another Zirzamin regular who’s more or less migrated to Sidewalk. Like Leckie, he’s been doing about a show a month there lately – the next one is on June 19 at 9 – as well as playing bass in Mac McCarty‘s gothic Americana band. Walter Ego was most recently witnessed doing double duty, playing both a solo set – including a rare cover, an impassioned version of Peter Gabriel’s Biko, dedicated to the late Nelson Mandela – followed by a careening show with McCarty’s band at the Path Cafe back when there was still snow on the ground. As much fun as that bill was – McCarty’s lickety-split take of Henry, Oh Henry, an absolutely creepy cemetery-folk tune, being just one of many highlights – that venue proved itself completely unsuitable, sonically and spacewise, for full-band rock shows. Walter Ego’s previous solo show at Sidewalk was a lot more sonically accomodating (if you can imagine that), emphasis on similarly creepy material like the subway suicide narrative 12-9, the gorgeous noir cabaret waltz Half Past Late and the even more darkly gorgeous, metaphorically-charged chamber pop song I Am the Glass.

J O’Brien is the latest A-list songwriter to turn up at Sidewalk, coming off a monthly Zirzamin residency. His solo set on twelve-string guitar there last month followed a pretty wild, high-voltage show by wryly howling punkgrass/oldtimey band the Grand. Most of their songs are about drinking. They’ve got fiddle and cajon and resonator guitar and standup bass and a girl on harmony vocals who also plays the saw. They sound like a stripped-down, more punk New Brooklyn take on the Old Crow Medicine Show and they drew a big crowd who loved them. O’Brien fed off that energy, mixing animated acoustic versions of surreal, hyperliterate mod-punk flavored songs from his days with cult favorites the Dog Show, as well as some newer material with a biting political edge. Like Ray Davies, somebody he often resembles, O’Brien remains populist to the core.

Resonator guitarist/bluesmama Mamie Minch most likely never played Zirzamin, probably since she’s such a staple of the Barbes scene. She’s also opened her own guitar repair shop, Brooklyn Lutherie, in the old American Can Company building in Gowanus where Issue Project Room was for several years. They’re New York’s only woman-owned guitar and stringed instrument repair shop – how cool is that? Being an experienced luthier, Minch has a deep address book, and has staged a couple of excellent acoustic shows in the space since she opened. The first featured New Orleans Balkan/Romany band the G String Orchestra doing a hauntingly exhilarating trio show with violin, accordion and bass. No doubt there will be more.

Willie Watson Brings His Colorful Oldtime Songs to the Mercury

It’s easy to see why David Rawlings would want to produce Willie Watson‘s debut album, Folk Singer Vol. 1. Watson has a terse, economical, low-key fluidity on both the guitar and banjo and is a connoisseur of dark folk music from across the decades and for that matter, the centuries. The album is a solo acoustic project with a colorful choice of songs. In the same vein as his approach to the fretboard, Watson lets the stories tell themselves, singing in an understated twang with a little shivery vibrato that tails off at the end in a 1920s blue style. He’s at the Mercury on May 21 at 8 PM; advance tix are $10 and recommended (the box office is open Monday-Friday, 5-7 PM).

Watson’s version of Midnight Special sets the stage: it’s got the feel of an old blues record from the 20s without the pops and scratches. At the end, Watson leaves no doubt that this is no party anthem: it’s a cautionary tale. He follows that with a briskly swaying, one-chord banjo version of the bankrobber ballad Long John Dean and then the similar, slightly slower banjo tune Stewball, a nonchalantly grim horseracing narrative. As the race kicks off, “Old Stewball was trembling like a criminal to be hung.”

The delta blues tune Mother Earth is sort of a slightly more upbeat take on Death Don’t Have No Mercy. The fastest number here, Mexican Cowboy, has a bitter end you can see coming a mile away, but it’s still a fun ride. Watson follows a slow, steady pace on James Alley Blues up to a vicious payoff at the end, then gets even more murderous on Rock Salt & Nails, an old song that’s as alienated and angry as anything Hank Williams ever wrote. It’s the high point of the album.

After that, Watson picks up the pace with the upbeat blues Bring It with You When You Come, an oldtimey weed-smoking anthem and then switches back to banjo for a muted take of Kitty Puss, a dance number. He ends the album with Keep It Clean, which sounds like a prototype for John Prine at his weirdest. This one gets Watson’s best guitar work here, spare and uncluttered but sprinkled with all sorts of crisp, nimble accents.

The Infamous Stringdusters Catch Lightning in a Bottle

 

It’s no secret that jambands are at their best onstage. Sure, the Infamous Stringdusters will probably sell busloads of copies of their forthcoming album Let It Go (due out April 1) at shows – a cynic would say that if you’re drunk or stoned enough, you’ll buy anything. But believe it or not, the album actually manages to capture the kind of livewire intensity that the band generates night after night in concert. They’re at Bowery Ballroom on March 27 at 10ish; general admission tix are $23.

The secret to this band’s onstage alchemy lies in the dynamics between Andy Hall’s dobro and Chris Pandolfi’s banjo. Sometimes it’s a tug-of-war, sometimes their snaky lines intertwine and harmonize alongside Andy Falco’s guitars, Jeremy Garrett’s fiddle and Travis Book’s bass. What makes the Stringdusters different from so many of their newgrass brethren is that a lot of their songs, especially on this album, are basically blue-sky rock anthems with acoustic instrumentation. This band doesn’t just recycle a ton of oldtime folk and bluegrass licks: they have their own distinctive style. Case in point: the album’s opening track, I’ll Get Away, where Garrett’s dancing lines give the song a bit of a Celtic tinge. Or the second track, Where the Rivers Run Cold, with Pandolfi’s flurrying, rapidfire, genuinely hard-rocking banjo.

The wary, biting Winds of Change segues out of that, with a stark twin fiddle solo and then some deliciously intense tradeoffs between the dobro and banjo. Rainbows starts out as a gentle folk-pop tune and then picks up with a big anthemic chorus, while Summercamp takes doo-wop rock to the country. The tersely dancing instrumental Middlefork mashes up a country waltz with Mexican folk and the Grateful Dead in acoustic mode

By My Side reverts to an anthemic acoustic highway rock vibe, followed by Colorado, an even mightier, more soaring newgrass anthem. There’s a hint of the Dead classic Franklin’s Tower in the catchy, shuffling Peace of Mind, the fiddle leaping joyously over its steady backdrop. Light and Love offers hints of oldtime country blues, while the album’s closing track, Let It Go is a civil war tune at heart. All of this has an intricate weave of instruments and the kind of incisive, meaningful jamming that usually gets the squeeze when you take a jamband out of their element and stick them in the sterile confines of a studio. The album’s not up at Spotify yet but it ought to be next month because the rest of the band’s studio stuff is there.

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.

Good Cop and Bad Cop Review Jan Bell & the Maybelles

Good Cop (on her phone, outside the American Folk Art Museum): See any jaywalkers?

Bad Cop (on his phone, out of breath, across Broadway on 64th Street): Ha, just me [sprints across just ahead of the light, and a taxi edging into the crosswalk]. How’d you get here before me?

Good Cop: I took the D and walked from Columbus Circle. And I didn’t jaywalk.

Bad Cop: Jaywalking is the new stop-and-frisk. Makes sense: after all, cars are hitting people and killing them left and right in this neighborhood. While we’re at it, we should start fining banks for every time they get robbed. They wouldn’t be getting robbed if they had better security.

Good Cop [sarcastically]: Or if they weren’t banks.

Bad Cop: They would be if they were bodegas. Anyway, let’s go inside. It’s freezing out here.

Good Cop: We’re here for the Friday night show with folk singer Jan Bell and her all-female band the Maybelles.

Bad Cop: You shouldn’t call her a folk singer. People will think she’s some sappy girl singing top 40.

Good Cop: People who like real folk music will get it. What is folk music, after all? It’s songs by songwriters who were most likely illiterate, that were passed down through an oral tradition since those people probably couldn’t read music either.

Bad Cop: Folk music has a bad name. It’s actually really creepy, the good stuff anyway.

Good Cop: Jan Bell knows that for sure. What did she say, how many happy love songs are there really, anyway?

Bad Cop: You’re better at the verbatim stuff than I am. But she’s right.

Good Cop: I’m so psyched for this show. Jan is playing acoustic guitar, that’s Rima Fand from Sherita on fiddle and Tina Lama on bass. And that looks like Katy Stone with the banjo.

Bad Cop [looks around, scowling]: This is so lame. We’re the only ones under sixty here.

Good Cop: What do you mean? That guy over there’s our age…

Bad Cop: That’s the bass player’s boyfriend. And there’s quilts on the walls. I feel like I’m in a nursing home.

Good Cop: This is actually a great place to see a show right after work. Lara Ewen, who’s also a fantastic Americana singer, books the music here and she has great taste. Plus the people from the Jalopy have a hand in it.

Bad Cop: These shows start at 5:30. Who gets out of work by 5:30 on a Friday?

Good Cop: Well, we made it, didn’t we?

Bad Cop: Under the wire. This is strictly a neighborhood thing. That’s New York in 2014 for you: everything is local. Local is the new central. All these little micro-scenes and no central scene, no way for a band to gain any traction.

Good Cop: Jan Bell has plenty of traction. She tours the US and the UK too.

Bad Cop: She has a motorhome. And she’s British so she’s got friends over there to put her up.

Good Cop: Well, I say good for her [the trio of Bell, Fand and Lama launch into a sad, shuffling minor-key song with three-part vocal harmonies].

Bad Cop: Wow, they’re really working the acoustics here.

Good Cop: I see they moved where the performers play from one side of the room to the other. This natural reverb is magical! It didn’t take Jan thirty seconds before she came up with a game plan – her voice can sometimes be pillowy but this is just plain heavenly!

Bad Cop: Yeah, she’s pillowy one minute, biting and bitter the next. She’s found her zone up there and she’s gonna haunt us. The bass player’s also a really good singer. You notice?

Good Cop: She really hits those high notes.

Bad Cop: A jazz player, obviously, She knows when to chill but she’s always got something interesting, something unexpected going on the low end, not just BUMP-bump, BUMP-bump, know what I mean?

Good Cop: Rima’s amazing too – I’m hearing all kinds of unexpected slides, and harmonies in what she’s playing. And she’s a great singer too.

Bad Cop: Yeah, but the lyrics are dumb. What’s this song about, Union Square?

Good Cop: No, it’s a cover. It’s The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore, by an English folk singer, Jean Ritchie. It’s a coal mining song. Jan did it on her album from about a year and a half ago with all these mining songs on it. Her grandfather was a miner.

Bad Cop: Now what about this next song they’re doing? This has gotta be American. Oldtime country blues…

Good Cop: This is Mining Camp Blues. It’s from the 1920s, maybe earlier, I dunno. Trixie Smith recorded it, Alice Gerrard covered it and that’s how Jan discovered it. You know, passing stuff down through the generations. Same old, same old, huh?

Bad Cop: Yeah. Now this next one I know, You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive, this is a Steve Earle song. He did it on his bluegrass album.

Good Cop: Actually not. This sad, haunting song is by Darrell Scott. It’s great we can hear all the instruments and yet there’s so much reverb on everything. It sounds so, well, authentic.

Bad Cop: This is a weird neighborhood for me but I gotta say that I am impressed by the acoustics here. And everybody who works here is so nice! It’s like we’re in Iowa. Or a nursing home in Iowa.

Good Cop: C’mon, admit it, you’re having a good time.

Bad Cop: Now THIS one I know! Loretta Lynn. Blue Kentucky Girl. Very different version from the original – the girls are doing it very low key, hushed, kind of a lullaby.

Good Cop: I like how she intersperses the originals, and the classics, and the obscure ones. That sad waltz, you know, “I’ve lost the right to love you.”

Bad Cop: This next one’s even creepier. A mail order bride sent off to Idaho where she’ll probably end up dying. Life was hard back then, huh?

Good Cop: That one’s actually a new song. It was written by Karen Dahlstrom, who was Jan’s bass player for awhile. It’s on her album, which is all new songs about Idaho and the old west, but written in an oldtime vernacular. It’s awfully good. I have it.

Bad Cop: You know this is where this band loses me. Cover Hank Williams, ok, but Ramblin’ Man? A woman singing a song written for a guy just doesn’t cut it for me. It’s like Joan Baez singing The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Virgil Cain is my name, NOT.

Good Cop: But listen to the vocals! And the harmonies! They really get this song, it’s so sad, and so haunted, and so full of doom and dread! You like this Nashville gothic stuff, right?

Bad Cop: Actually I do. OK. I changed my mind. I like these girls’ version. But I still don’t think women should try singing songs clearly meant for a guy, or vice versa.

Good Cop: OK, I think this is their last song. Another wistful waltz, a love song to New York written down under the Manhattan Bridge where Bell runs the Saturday night show at 68 Jay Street Bar. What a pretty way to bring it down and end the night. I tell you, we are going places with this blog. This is the third fantastic band we’ve been asked to go see in the past week. Stick with me and you’ll be famous!

Bad Cop: Don’t count your chickens. My guess is that we’re on the shuttle back to Columbus…

Good Cop: You mean Scranton.

Bad Cop: Uh, whatever. At best, we’re the B team. The only reason we were enlisted for this one is because the blog covered another show of hers last summer. So they needed a new angle. That’s all.

Good Cop: Be careful with that breaking-the-fourth-wall stuff. You know you’re not supposed to do that.

Bad Cop: That’s why I’m the bad guy [pulls a flask from his inside jacket pocket and takes a slug]. See you in Col…I mean Scranton.

Good Cop: Oh yeah, I almost forgot, Jan Bell has booked the night of February 23 at the Jalopy for an all-star tribute to Pete Seeger. It starts around 8, it’s ten bucks and there will be a lot of good usual New York Americana suspects onstage. If we’re lucky Jan will do her version of Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream like she did tonight.

The Devil Makes Three’s New Album: Darker and Funnier Than Ever

High-energy Santa Cruz, California Americana trio the Devil Makes Three‘s incendiary live shows have won them a rabid following on the road, coast to coast. Their latest album, I’m a Stranger Here picks right up where their 2009 release Do Wrong Right left off, but with a darker and more surreal, somewhat harder-rocking edge. This time around, guitarist Pete Bernhard, upright bassist Lucia Turino and guitarist/tenor banjo player Cooper McBean add jazz and bluegrass overtones by including violin and a horn section on a handful of tracks. Americana guitar legend Buddy Miller’s production artfully blends in the new textures without losing the band’s distinctively feral sound.

The title track opens the album. It’s a briskly bouncing minor-key country blues tune with a bit of a woozy stoner hip-hop tinge. It’s also a party anthem: “We’ve come to wake the dead…we get along like an alcohol fire.” Amen to that. Worse or Better puts a 21st century update on oldtime hellfire blues – it’s a shambling out-of-captivity story with a tasty guitar/violin break midway through. Likewise, Forty Days adds a wryly bluesy, dixieland-spiced, grimly humorous spin to the Noah/Ark myth.

The slow, rustic banjo waltz A Moment’s Rest contemplates the kind of moments when the pressure gets to the point where you “gotta swim to the bottom to keep from bursting into flames.” Dead Body Moving, unlike what the title might imply, picks up the pace, a morbidly bluegrass-flavored drifter’s tale: this guy’s already seen the afterlife, he claims, and it’s not pretty. Hallelu works a cynically funny faux-gospel vein: “They say Jesus is coming, he must be walking, he sure ain’t running, who can blame him, look how we done him.”

Hand Back Down takes an unexpected detour into surrealist stoner swamp rock:

Headlights burn like torches on the way to a war
Tell me what it was that we were fighting for
Who is this god to which we sacrifice
I say whatever he wants we better give it to him twice

Spinning Like a Top celebrates a lifetime of chewing shrooms, smoking weed and selling it, with a typically amusing, clever barrage of mixed metaphors from across the decades. Mr. Midnight shuffles along with a considerably more cynical view of the reality of life on the fringes. The album winds up with the slow, creepy Nashville gothic murder ballad Goodbye Old Friends. Much as these guys have a reputation as a party band, this music is awfully smart. Not bad for a bunch of stoner country guys, huh? They’re currently on west coast tour; the next stop is at the Mateel Community Center, 59 Rusk Lane in Redway, California on Feb 4; advance tix are $20.

Della Mae Write Their Own Bluegrass and Oldtime Folk Standards

With their purist chops, lively interplay, lush four-part vocal harmonies and original songwriting that blends the best of decades of oldtime bluegrass and Americana, Della Mae represent everything that’s good about newgrass. Many of the songs on their latest album This World Oft Can Be bring to mind the similarly purist all-female Americana trio, Red Molly. The whole thing is streaming at youtube.

It opens with the upbeat, bouncy Letter from Down the Road, frontwoman Celia Woodsmith’s soaring vocals and Kimber Ludiker’s incisive, tersely direct fiddle front and center – as she does on most of the tracks here, Ludiker stays mostly in the resonant low to midrange of her instrument. The second track, Maybelline (rhymes with “behind,” more or less) picks up the pace with a bit of a Britfolk tinge, Jenni Lyn Gardner’s spiky mandolin and another impactful fiddle solo. Empire takes a turn in a considerably darker direction, a grimly detailed, John Prine-ish portrait of a decaying rust belt town.

Hounds of Heaven sets an apprehensive Nashville gothic mood that never rises: although the old sailor in the tale insists that it’s not his time to go, by the time the third verse kicks in, he’s thinking about drowning. The aphoristic Ain’t No Ash has the feel of an Appalachian classic, with some richly mingling tradeoffs between Ludiker and guitarist Courtney Hartman’s nimble flatpicking as it winds out:

Love is a precious thing, I’m told
Burns just like West Virginia coal
But when the fire dies down, it’s cold
There ain’t no ash will burn

The most chilling number here is Heaven’s Gate, a bitterly ghostly tale that begins with the fiddle mimicking the ominous low resonance of a steel guitar, then eventually goes doublespeed. Is this about a suicide, a murder, or both? Either way, it’s a great story.

Turtle Dove kicks off as a reel and then hits a brisk bluegrass rhythm, with nimbly flatpicked guitar and handoffs to the other instruments down the line – with its sad, symbolic bird imagery, it’s a dead ringer for a classic folk song from the 1820s. A swaying oldschool-style bluegrass tune, Pine Tree explores a vividly rustic southern milieu, lit up by yet another purposeful, emphatic fiddle solo. The band follows that with a slowly waltzing, rather atmospheric ballad, Like Bones.

This World has a brooding, hypnotic Britfolk quality that finally lifts a little as the chorus turns around, a metaphorically-loaded narrative of the perils of growing old…but there’s light at the end of this tunnel. The slow, lingering final track, Some Roads Lead On sounds a lot like the old folk standard Wild Mountain Thyme, but without the syncopation. With just two guitars and some absolutely gorgeous lead and harmony vocals, it evokes Hungrytown at their most bucolic, a good way to end this eclectically original and disarmingly charming album. The band will be on spring tour starting on February 22 at NEU Hall in Chicago.

 

Another Savagely Funny, Menacing Album from Curtis Eller

As New York rents rise, the brain drain continues. Case in point: charismatic songwriter and banjo player Curtis Eller, who electrified audiences here from the mid-zeros through the early teens with his historically rich, phantasmagorical songs before leaving the city. Happily, he hasn’t given up on music. Eller’s back catalog is a savagely lyrical, surreal chronicle of some of the darker, more obscure moments in American history. Cruel ironies, double entendres and surprisingly subtle humor are everywhere in his songs, the music informed by oldtime swing and blues but not beholden to those traditions, sometimes menacing and morbid, sometimes gentle, sometimes furiously punked-out. Among songwriters, LJ Murphy is a good comparison – vintage vernacular, spot-on commentary on the here and now.

Eller’s also got a fantastic new album, How to Make It in Hollywood, which finds him taking a full-throttle detour into dark garage rock and classic soul music along with the oldtime sounds that made him one of New York’s most riveting live acts. The whole thing is streaming at his Bandcamp page. The opening track, Old Time Religion, is Eller at his brilliant best. Ostensibly it’s an oldtime gospel song but as it keeps going, it turns out that it’s a parody, complete with call-and-response vocals and organ. “Giving up my last chance, backsliding out the church dance, I’m gonna split the congregation, I’ve got the clap around me, dirty hands and that old time religion,” he drawls righteously.

1929 is sarcastic and anachronistic, early Chuck Berry taken back in time 25 years: this guy had a bad 1928 but he just can’t wait to see how good it’s going to be with Mr. Hoover in office! Eller works similar, bizarrrely pointed historical references into the oldschool soul ballad If You’re Looking for a Loser – which connects the dots between Robert E. Lee and Sonny Liston – and the considerably sadder, slower, more gospel-fueled Three More Minutes with Elvis as well as the wryly grim Busby Berkeley Funeral. And the final track, just solo vocals and banjo, is a very clever slap upside the head of the agribusiness cartel from a plainspoken guy down on the farm.

But the best songs here are the darkest and angriest. Butcherman begins witha bit of a calypso lilt and then becomes a soul shuffle. “I don’t want that filthy Chicago meat, take me down to Delancey and Essex Street,” Eller shouts out to his old Lower East Side stomping grounds: everybody else can have the preacher, but this guy knows that the butcher’s the one who really has his hands on the afterlife. Moses in the Bulrushes reverts to the hellfire apocalypticism throughout much of Eller’s music:

There’s a black crow circling over the North Pole
They got the satellite hooked up to the signal where it just don’t take
And this graveyard don’t have room for my skeleton, not tonight
Where there’s stormclouds going in but they just don’t break

The album’s best song is the eerily pulsing shuffle The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon, with a riverbed grave, Cadillac stalled out on the tracks and Henry Kissinger shaking it all night long as a backdrop for this snarling parable of post-9/11 multinational fascism. There’s also Battlefield Amputation, the album’s loudest song, which sounds like Elvis Costello circa This Year’s Model, right down to the vocals and the torrents of indignant imagery. Along wth Eller on all the stringed instruments, Louis Landry plays drums and catchy, eclectic, often menacing organ, with Shea Broussard on bass, joining with Dana Marks to add soaring, often sardonic harmony vocals. It may be something of a crapshoot and an impossible task to say that one great album rates over the other great ones in a given year, but this one’s as good a candidate as any for number one with a bullet for 2014.

Chris Hickey Survives the 80s to Reissue Two Lost Gems

The 80s got a bad rap. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had a lot to do with that. So did the entertainment-industrial complex. That was the John Hughes decade. It was also the decade where the big record labels, who then dominated all but the most obscure niche markets, began targeting their marketing to very specific age and gender groups. In this rigidly stratified world, that meant teenybopper pop, new wave and hair metal for the girls and 70s elevator pop for women past college age; metal for the younger guys, 70s dinosaur rock for the older ones. But the reality is that there was a vast amount of great music from that decade that never made it past college radio, if it even got that far. That’s where Chris Hickey would have been found, if anywhere, on the pre-internet airwaves back in 1985 when he released his cassette-only debut Frames of Mind, Boundaries of Time. He followed up that dark folk album with the similar Looking for Anything two years later. Happily, both are now available digitally for the first time ever.

It’s impossible to hear Matt Keating and not think of Hickey – and vice versa. Both are nonchalantly strong singers, have a flair for a biting turn of phrase and a catchy melodic hook – and an unease that doesn‘t lift. Where Keating got his start in punk rock, Hickey came from the folk side, but with a grimly lyrical edge that in its own quiet way was just as punk. Right from the first track on the first album, June Fifth, Hickey’s vocals are low, seething, wound tight as a drum. Just voice, a couple of guitars, a string of nonchalantly doomed images, and “A ring of the phone to tell you that you were wrong…”

Sometimes Hickey lets the images paint a picture; more often than not he hits the point of the songs square on the head, with a direct, plainspoken quality akin to Jonathan Richman but with balls. Hickey also has a strong political sensibility and a snarling distrust of authority. The best song on the collection is Another War, a soaring, Byrdsy twelve-string janglerock anthem. And it’s not just a litany of pain and grotesquerie, although there’s a lot of that:

The soldier plays a bamboo flute
The song he used to sing at home
For a a fifteen-year-old prostitute
He teaches her to sing along
The song sounds like a lullaby
She sings the words of quiet love
They could sing that song all night
But a knock on the door says time is up

This is where Hickey is strongest: the song may be going on thirty years old, but it’s as relevant now as it was then. It could have been inspired by Reagan’s misadventures in Costa Rica, or Lebanon, or Grenada, but this war could be anywhere.

The tunes have held up well, too. The earlier material, understandably, has more of a a lo-fi feel, sometimes just a couple of guitar tracks and voice, sometimes with bass and simple drums. The somewhat more elaborately produced tracks have more of a distinctive 80s feel – it’s that watery chorus-box guitar! The characteristically pensive Faraway has gently fingerpicked acoustic, woozy synth and a faux cello patch; the two-chord vamp in Carol echoes the Police’s King of Pain. I Can’t Wait to See You  is half the Police, half swaying acoustic 80s rock.

Start Over Again looks back to early acoustic Dylan, a word of caution for a would-be sellout: “Your words are thin and your heart isn’t in, so why don’t you start over again?” Not You works similar lyrical territory, with just snarling electric guitar and vocals: “I know who’s telling me the truth and it’s not you.” The caustic minor-key folk-rock tune Man of Principle foreshadows Roger Waters’ The Bravery of Being Out of Range. Freedom explores existential boundaries over a bed of tasty multilayered acoustic guitars:

An attempt is not an escape
An escape assumes a frame
A frame is a boundary that exists in the mind
The mind is one of many
Many agree to a frame… 

This Is My Land makes succinct fun of people who won’t let anyone near their stuff, metaphorically speaking. Not My Place reminds of 60s Dylan, but with good vocals, a plainspoken message to a boss type to kiss off. The unspoken punchline of the mutedly pulsing, allusive courtroom scenario Five Words might be “I sentence you to death.” And Dark Cold Day assesses a gloomy Reagan-era milieu  over biting, minor-key janglerock:

Follow poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night
With your unconcerning voice
Still persuade us to rejoice
With the forming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress 

The rest of the tracks broodingly contemplate interpersonal relations, and for one reason or another this is where the Matt Keating comparison holds most true. There Was a Time, with its simple, elegant broken chords and catchy, anthemic chorus; the grimly waltzing Not Our Son and the gorgeously jangly, uncharacteristically sunny Save My Life are three prime examples. The collection ends with a droll, roughhewn spoken word piece. Hickey remains active in music, with lots more intriguing stuff up at his Bandcamp page.

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