New York Music Daily

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Tag: album review

Zongo Junction Bring Their Mighty Psychedelic Afrobeat Grooves to Brooklyn Bowl

Considering the economics of being a musician in 2014, it’s almost astonishing how a ten-piece band like Zongo Junction could make a living. Yet they do it, constantly touring, bringing their psychedelic Afrobeat grooves to midsize venues everywhere. And there’s an audience for it: people love what they do. Is Vampire Weekend responsible? Maybe, but Zongo Junction’s shapeshifting grooves are vastly more interesting, and adrenalizing, and danceable than anything that other band ever dreamed of. Zongo Junction have a new album, No Discount, streaming at Spotify and a show coming up at Brooklyn Bowl on September 3 at 8 PM with the similarly energetic, more disco-inclined Afrolicious. Which means that if you want to party your ass off, that’s the place to be. Cover is $10 and given the size of the place, there’s probably no need to worry about getting a ticket in advance.

The album’s opening track, The Van That Got Away starts out with a tricky, skittish intro fueled by Jordan Hyde’s guitar, then Ross Edwards’ keys hint at a woozy P-Funk ambience before the horns come in with a tight, carpetbombing arrangement. Then all of a sudden they hit a dub interlude, the last thing you’d ever expect. Jonah Parzen-Johnson’s blippy baritone sax leads then out as the ambient layers shift behind him over the scurrying bass and drums of David Lizmi and bandleader Charles Ferguson.

Longtooth is more of a straight-up funk tune with a synth hook that sounds almost like a vocoder, a big, dramatic brass arrangement – that’s Aaron Rockers on that long, impressively judicious trumpet solo, with Kevin Moehringer on tombone and Matt Nelson on tenor sax. Invented History starts out as a ramshackle brass-band romp, hits a nebulously noisy interlude and segues into the bubbly title track. Pointillistic organ and guitar hooks intertwine and build to a big psychedelic soul crescendo, then the horns carry it, building a dizzying thicket of polyrhythms.

The hypnotically pulsing, cleverly intertwining 21 Suspects in Madina sets a balmy tenor sax solo over an echoey drums-and-EFX dub interlude and then picks up steam. A loopy atmospheric interlude sets up the album’s longest track, National Zoo – awash in lush, shifting sheets, it works a mighty anthemic groove down to a long, trippy noir segment and then back: it’s the darkest and most psychedelic track here. Tunnel Bar juxtaposes mid-80s Talking Heads with Afrobeat: it’s both the album’s most cinematic and avant garde number. They end it with a nebulous, enigmatic atmospheric horn outro

So that’s the play-by-play. You’re probably not going to be keeping score, just reacting on a visceral level on the dancefloor.

Diverse, Soulful, Sometimes Shattering Americana from the Sometime Boys

With their catchy tunes, purist country blues-flavored guitar and violin and jaunty acoustic grooves, you’d never guess that the Sometime Boys started out as a spinoff of noisy, ferociously intense art-rock band System Noise. Which goes to show just how versatile that band’s brain trust, singer/guitarist Sarah Mucho and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Kurt Leege can be. The Sometime Boys have a characteristically diverse, tuneful, smart new album Riverbed, streaming online, and a show coming up on August 28 at 9 PM at Bar Nine, 807 9th Ave. (53/54).

Summery, pastoral themes rub edges with funky rhythms, some folk noir, an instrumental and the album’s centerpiece, The Great Escape, a genuinely shattering song which might be a surprise to those unfamiliar with the Sometime Boys’ predecessor band. And it’s the best song any band has released so far this year. Mucho gets props and wins MAC cabaret awards for her gale-force, wounded contralto delivery and stratospheric, four-octave range, but she starts this one with practically a whisper as drummer Jay Cowit’s cymbals swoosh over Leege’s terse, warmly nocturnal acoustic work:

Wide awake
The night’s alive
I almost taste the black
This cold, it breeds
Bitter reads
There’s no turning back
On the ground
Surrounded by
Expired fallen leaves
All now that’s left
Are crooked lines
Can’t flee the forest for the trees

Mucho hints at gospel and then picks up with a wail as the chorus kicks in, “Fade away, into me.” You don’t usually fade away with a wail but that’s what Mucho does here, then brings it down into the second and last verse, a bitter reflection on the lure of victory and the harsh reality of defeat. Leege’s elegantly virtuosic electric guitar and Pete O’Connell’s increasingly intense bass pick it up from there; it seems to end optimistically. It’s a long song, about five and a half minutes long: stream it, but don’t multitask when you do it because you really need to just let it wash over you and hit you upside the head. If you’ve ever faded away into yourself, scowling out at the lights in the distance and wishing you were there and not slaving away at some stupid dayjob – or whatever makes you scowl – this could be your theme song.

The folk noir shuffle The Bird House is another absolutely brilliant track. Rebecca Weiner Tompkins’ plaintive violin, which usually serves as the band’s main lead instrument, wanders forlornly as Mucho relates the eerie tale of a woman alone and abandoned and losing it. Leege takes it out with a spiky solo that mingles with Mucho’s graceful, haunting, hypnotic, wordless vocals.

Several of the tracks are updates on tunes by an even earlier Mucho/Leege incarnation, the delightfully funky, opaquely ingriguing Noxes Pond. Much as Mucho’s writing tends toward the somber and serious, she has a devilish sense of humor, which comes front and center on Fake Dead Girlfriend. With a poker-faced calm over clustery, fingerpicked guitar and stately violin, Mucho explains that her family might think she’s nuts, but the world actually could use more people like her imaginary dead pal.

The rest of the album works a push-pull between a carefree, bucolic ambience and clenched-teeth angst. The album’s funkiest track, Modern Age, is an unlikely blend of soul-pop and Americana, Mucho insisting that “You can have my turn, I wanna watch it all burn.” The pensively sailing, bluegrass-tinged title track seems to be told from the point of view of a suicide. A Life Worth Living is more upbeat, hinting at a classic Grateful Dead theme, with a long, lusciously crescendoing multitracked electric guitar solo fom Leege. Irish Drinking Song isn’t the slightest bit Irish, but it’s a great drinking song, in a late-period Bukowski vein.

Pharaoh, another Noxes Pond song reinvented as newgrass, juxtaposes lithe, vintage Jerry Garcia-esque guitar with Mucho’s snarling, metaphorically bristling fire-and-brimstone imagery. There’s also the gracefully shapeshifting instrumental Wine Dark Sea; the comedic urban country number Why Can’t We Just Be Enemies; the balmy, sultry, gospel-tinged lullaby A Quiet Land; Buskin’, a tribute to performers in public spaces everywhere, and a brief instrumenal reprise at the end. The production is artful and pristine: all the layers of acoustic and electric textures build an ambience that on one hand sounds antique, yet absolutely unique and in the here and now. This band should be vastly better known than they are.

Big Plastic Finger’s Swirling, Trippy Assault Hits Williamsburg

Big Plastic Finger call themselves “a super psychedelic space noise core rock improv quartet starting over the edge and going further.” Their latest album, streaming at Bandcamp, is titled Launching the Tone Arm, which makes sense since it’s available on delicious vinyl as well as digitally. They’re playing Legion Bar (790 Metropolitan Ave. in Williamsburg, L to Graham Ave), tonight at 9 on a doublebill with saxophonist David Tamura’s similarly sardonic, improvisational Jazzfakers. A cynic might say, yeah, Sunday night is where bars always hide the free jazz because if they put it on the bill on a Saturday, it would clear the club. But for those who remember yesterday’s piece here, Sunday is starting to look like the new Saturday: an awful lot of good bands have been turning up on Sunday bills lately, all over town. You figure it out.

The album’s opening track, Winnebago Man sets the stage, guitarist Scott Prato and saxophonist Bonnie Kane spreading sheets of effects-infested wildfire over Mark McClemens’ steadily tumbling drums, bassist Brian McCorkle holding a single hypnotic note. Kane squalls relentlessly as Prato spaces out his chords while an outer-space fog moves in; from there they take it down to a quiet, steady hardcore beat and add increasingly abrasive layers over it. Pretty interesting for a one-chord jam.

Things We Don’t Want to Admit Are True mingles desolate sax within trippy, shifting layers of distortion, wah guitar and echoey Black Angels vocals, building to a tight, uneasy push-pull between the guitar and sax. As with the first track, it’s a basically a series of washes, long crescendos and dips in lieu of actual melody. They follow that with an even more echoey miniature that pairs Prato’s eerily rippling tremolo-picking against Kane’s shifting atmospheric sheets.

Finding a Good Use for the Growing Pile has a steady, growling rhythm in the same vein as Jamie Saft’s recent adventures in longscale noisy improv, Kane shifting between acidic rifage and dare we say catchy hooks as Prato blips and pings and judiciously moves his textures toward sandpapery and shrill, then goes in a spacier direction. The album’s longest song, Assembly of Presence works layers of feedback, distortion, echo, relentlessly apprehensive and then squalling sax over a tense, brisk pulse, through innumerable dynamic shifts and a surprisingly catchy guitar crescendo: it’s a trippy roller-coaster ride and the most menacing cut here.

Low Together (Worm Forward) starts with the group hinting wryly at lowrider wah funk, Kane and Prato again engaging in a tug-of-war with echoes of late 80s noiserock in a Live Skull vein, through an echoey MRI tube interlude and then back. Moving Through Walls messes with Metal Machine Music feedback; the final cut is the most frenetic and free jazz-oriented. Throughout the album, the group – all veterans of various paint-peeling noise projects – play with a clenched-teeth camaraderie and commitment to the jagged, intense edges of the spectrum. Not exactly easy listening, but you can get absolutely lost in this. Stephen Bilensky replaces McCorkle on bass for this gig; the Legion Bar backroom could turn into a sonic cyclotron.

Yet Another Richly Tuneful Album From the King of Retro Britrock, Edward Rogers

Born in Birmingham, England, crooner/songwriter Edward Rogers has been a staple of cutting-edge lyrical New York rock since the 80s. A connoisseur of retro British tunesmithing, he’s got a characteristically brilliant new album, Kaye – a homage to the Soft Machine’s Kevin Ayers – streaming at his web page and an album release show at 7 PM on August 17 at Joe’s Pub. Advance tix are $16 and highly recommended because Rogers’ shows there tend to sell out.

For this gig, he’ll have pretty much the same all-star band he enlisted to record the album, live in the studio: James Mastro and Don Piper on guitars; Sal Maida on bass; Dennis Diken on drums; Joe McGinty on keyboards; and Tish & Snooky on backing vocals What’s obvious right off the bat is that although Ayers’ writing is an obvious influence, Rogers’ songs here have the same lushly arranged mid-to-late 70s-style anthemic Britrock sound of the tracks on his previous album, Porcelain, from 2011. The lone cover here, Ayers’ After the Show, gets a jaunty neo-glam treatment, right down to the droll twin guitar leads.

The opening track, My Street kicks off with a snarling, low-register Mastro guitar hook, a decidedly ambiguous look back at a gritty upbringing. There’s a briefly evocative, psychedelic bridge that rises to a searing web of guitar leads that’s viscerally breathtaking. With its lingering spaghetti western tinges, the angst-ridden No Color for Loneliness is sort of a mashup of Bowie’s 1984 with late 60s Vegas noir.

Street Fashion keeps the glamrock vibe going while raising the guitar amperage (that’s Don Fleming and the Ladybug Transistor’s Gary Olson joining the melee with Mastro), Rogers contemptuously contemplating the shallowness that continues to invade and pervade his adopted city. Worry for the World blends funk tinges into a sunny chimepop tune that contrasts with Rogers’ gloomy lyric. The waltzing, summery yet elegaic title track is a wistful shout-out to Ayers, and the most Soft Machine-influenced song here:

You don’t shine if you don’t burn
Hide the mystery so well learned
I’ll bet you walked and turned
And touched the brain that never learned

Fueled by Byrdsy twelve-string guitar, What Happened to the News Today takes a snide swipe at how the media-industrial complex distracts us from what’s really going on. Copper Coin could be a 60s Zombies hit taken about five years into the future with a mostly acoustic, flamenco-tinged arrangement – is that Pete Kennedy playing guitar?

Rogers keeps the delicate acoustic ambience going with Borrowed & Blue. Then he hits a peak with the haunting, organ-fueled Fear of the Unknown, which could pass for a standout track on an early 70s Strawbs album. The album winds up with an apprehensively sprawling psychedelic jam, Peter Pan Dream and then a tantalizingly brief choral reprise of the ninth track.

Individualistic Pianist Yelena Eckemoff Brings the Lights Up from Noir to Grey

Pianist Yelena Eckemoff inhabits the eerie netherworld somewhere between jazz, classical and film music. Russian-born, classically trained, jazz-inclined, she’s one of this era’s most individualistic and instantly recognizable artists. Her back catalog is full of icily intense, glacial themes that are the essence of noir. She’s got a new album, A Touch of Radiance, which raises the luminosity factor to the level of the aurora borealis…maybe. She and the band on the album are playing the release show at the Jazz Standard at 7:30 and 9:30 PM on August 12; cover is $20 and well worth it (and the venue has delicious food).

Eckemoff has assembled a brave choice of supporting cast. Vibraphonist Joe Locke is one of the most gripping, intense players in all of jazz and one of the standout soloists in Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans rarities band. Drummer Billy Hart is the motive force behind the Cookers, arguably the best postbop jazz group alive. Tenor sax player Mark Turner can play anything but is inclined toward the avant garde: he’s got a Jazz Standard gig coming up in September and an album out on ECM. Bassist George Mraz has a checkered past and does a lot to redeem himself here. There’s ostensibly an autobiographical tangent to the album, although the songs and the moods drift from it – which makes it all the more interesting.

The opening track starts with a morosely twinkling intro that quickly morphs into a strolling swing groove that still has Eckemoff looking over her shoulder: the trouble is not over yet, and the pairing with Locke’s vibraphone magnifies the eerie glimmer a thousand times over. It’s a brilliant touch that fits Eckemoff to a T (anybody remember that Twin Peaks movie theme that Locke did with Bill Mays?). They go back to creepy at the end.

The album’s second cut blends blues into Eckemoff’s wounded, shattered motives, Turner taking a pensively hazy solo early on, Mraz driving a dubwise pulse until Eckemoff decides to go for a bit of a bluesy swing before turning it over to Locke, who teams with Hart and says the hell with sadness. But then Hart brings back the sepulchral gloom, all by himself! Who would have thought he had it in him?

Track three is a very effective small-group take on Gil Evans bossa noir. Any exuberance here is credit to Turner, Locke seizing the chance to take it back into the shadows even while the band is quietly swinging. The fourth cut evokes Frank Carlberg at his most evilly phantasmagorical (like on his amazing Tivoli Trio album): this time, everybody is in it, Turner leading the way, Locke close behind. If this is love, then we’re all doomed.

The next cut bounces along heavily. As a cr0ss-genre mashup, it’s sort of the jazz equivalent of a Finnish surf rock song, Eckemoff and Turner jumping at the chance to leap through a series of minor changes and an absolutely creepy, jungly rhythmic thicket. After that, the band sways and swooshes with a Baltic chill through a shapeshifting waltz. The following track is hilarious: ponderous funk and then disco, on this otherwise brutally serious album? The band keeps a poker face all the way through.

Track eight, Tranquility (song titles are an afterthought in the Eckemoff book) has Turner and Locke hinting at balminess before Eckemoff brings it down to earth. It’s a cool (well, chilly) contrast between African-American jazz and Russian classical idioms. Hart’s chill clave drive gives the next track, a low-key, first-gear Mack truck diesel groove. It’s like a portrait of this year’s New York summer: hot days, mercifully cool nights. After all the gravitas, Eckemoff finally achieves the synthesis she’s been shooting for with the title track, a cinematic, crescendoing theme that would have worked for a late-night 70s sitcom (maybe one with a vampire).

Throughout the album, Eckemoff plays with sepulchrally confident chops and an unassailable upper-register glimmer: she’s never met a spiraling icicle phrase she couldn’t nail. For people who like nine-minute songs, and dark music in general, this is one of those rare albums that’s an absolute must-own – and one of the best of 2014. Stream it at Eckemoff’s webpage and decide for yourself.

Briana Layon & the Boys Bring Their Menacing, Heavy Intensity to Arlene’s

Briana Layon’s bio at her web page compares her to both the Runaways’ Cherie Currie and Jinx Dawson of Coven, which is ok for starters, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The trouble with the current crop of women with big voices – and Layon has an epic one – is that so many of them are American Idol-ing it, all show, no substance, one watered-down gospel riff after another. Or even worse, they do the dorky SING-song-EY her-KY-jer-KY up-AND-down Tourette’s thing that spewed out from emo into the dogshit pile of Disney autotune pop. Briana Layon doesn’t go for that – it seems she’d rather be her own person. Which is why she’s not on American Idol. Briana Layon & the Boys, her smart, ferocious, blues and metal-infused heavy rock band, have a killer album, Touch and Go streaming at Bandcamp and a show at 7 PM on August 20 at Arlene’s for $5.

What’s coolest about the album is that a lot of these songs are long, with plenty of room for Layon to hit a bitter, gale-force wail and hang there, or for brilliant lead guitarist Chris DiBerardino to scorch the earth with a deep arsenal of stylistic assaults. The opening track is All Yours, a catchy three-minute bluesmetal tune, Layon bringing to mind two other distinctive, charismatic frontwomen, Spanking Charlene‘s Charlene McPherson and then Ann Wilson of Heart, rising to a searing wail at the end. The title track has DiBerardino delivering vamping, clustering early 70s riffage with a hint of funk and some cool, evilly chromatic Buck Dharma glissandos.

Pistolero could be a standout track from the first couple of AC/DC records, bassist Josh Castellano’s chords lurking at the bottom with solid drummer Vlad Hancu, who trades off with DiBerardino on the chorus. Teach Me is unexpectedly subtle, DiBerardino channeling Keith Richards with his catchy chords on the verse and then going to an Angus Young growl on the chorus, Castellano delivering a rare snappy bass solo that doesn’t suck.

Cut My Man opens with an icy, watery lead over a sketchy, muted riff, Layon joining in the ominous ambience and then rising toward murderous rage, airing out her wounded low range and in the process channeling the Sometime Boys‘ Sarah Mucho. They take it out as a waltzing danse macabre – this is just plain awesome, one of the best songs of the year.

Playing Dead is a menacingly elegant noir soul ballad in the Clairy Browne vein, Layon rising from an aptly ghostly purr to a roaring peak. Rope blends sludgy Spanking Charlene-style punk and fuzzy early 70s style metal riffage – ironically, it’s as close to “R&B” as Layon gets here. Sticky Wicket (meaning tight spot, a term taken from cricket, the British empire’s ancestor to baseball) is the closest thing to funkmetal here, DiBerardino capping it off with a gritty wah solo.

Castellano’s pitchblende Geezer Butler lines anchor a sweet, vintage Iron Maiden-style hook on Vanagloria – it would make a good three-minute-thirty track from Number of the Beast. Tell Me I’m Good blends jaunty flamencoesque flourishes from DiBerardino, a dancing pulse from the bass and Layon channeling her usual luridness.

Dear Friend starts out as a 6/8 soul ballad with organ lurking in the background, Layon putting a teens update on pensive Vera Beren-style theatrics – her shivery, low-key outro is just as chilling as her fullscale wail. The album peaks out with Looks Like Rain, which is not the Grateful Dead song but an eerily atmospheric art-metal piece that if you listen very closely sounds suspiciously like it might have had another life as a trip-hop pop song. It’s amazing what a tricky time signature and a great band can do for a tune.

A Killer Show by Israel’s Zvuloon Dub System

Israeli group Zvuloon Dub System wound up their first American tour with a deliriously fun and deliriously received New York show at Meridian 23 Friday night. The band’s inimitable sound takes otherworldly, thousand-year-old Ethiopian riffs and makes reggae out of them – sort of. Ilan and Asaf Smilan, the bass-and-drum brother team who lead the band, give the songs a fat groove that’s heavier than you typically find in Ethiopian funk, and sometimes a lot closer to an anthemic rock sway than what the Barrett brothers did with Bob Marley, for example. This time out, there wasn’t a lot of dub – just a few bars of bass and drums, or echoey keys in tandem with the bass, maybe – but there was a lot of jamming and all of it was purposeful and spot-on. Everyone expects reggae bands to take their time and stretch out and get lost sometimes, but this group stayed on task and didn’t waste notes even as they took the dynamics up and down, with lots of solos and imaginative pairing off or harmonies between instruments.

There were a couple of ringers in the band. On their latest album Anbesa Dub, keyboardist Lior Romano relies heavily on creepy funeral organ. Onstage, their sub player chose his spots with precise electric piano, varying his textures for an extra psychedelic edge. Every once in awhile, the drums would hit one of those classic around-the-kit turnarounds, but most of the time Asaf Smilan hung in the pocket as the waves of dancers undulated back and forth at the edge of the stage. His brother ran catchy, hypnotic, sometimes almost macabre chromatic riffs over and over again, summoning the spirits from the lowest registers with nothing more fancy than a standard-issue Fender Jazz bass running straight through the amp without any effects. There were two guitarists, one playing mostly rhythm and adding woozy textures through a wah from time to time. The other delivered lingering, ominous chords and snaky fills on a vintage hollow-body Gretsch. Although the new album is mostly instrumental, many of the songs had vocals, delivered passionately in Amharic by Ethiopian-born singer Gili Yalo.

The songs took those ancient “bati” riffs and gave them body, the tight two-piece horn section typically leading off with them and then taking their variations further and further out into the stratosphere. The tenor sax player delivered a spine-tingling series of glissandos down the scale early in the set; the trumpeter took his time, finally hitting a menacingly incisive crescendo toward the end of the show. Most of the material was either older or brand-new. Of the songs from the new album, Endermenesh comes across on record as sort of an Ethiopian take of Marley’s Could You Be Loved: here, they expanded it and took it deeper into Jamaican territory. They did the opposite with the album’s opening instrumental, Alemitu, which was their next-to-last song. Energywise, the highlight was a darkly skanking Ethiopian ska tune. The most poignant moment was when Yalo led the group through an anthemic number dedicated to peace in the Middle East: he explained that it went without saying that everybody in the band couldn’t wait to see an end to the current hostilities in Israel. And the crowd agreed.

And the guy/girl team behind the sound board earned their pay and a lot more by doing something that more sound crews should do: they turned up the band. This was a chatty crowd, hell-bent on getting their drink and their smoke on, in a cozy venue on a Friday night, and it was good for once to not have to move closer and closer to the PA to get away from the crowd noise and go deep into the vibe of the music.

Bright, Catchy, Eclectic Newgrass Instrumentals from Vivian Li & the Pickled Campers

Mandolinist Vivian Li‘s newgrass band call themselves the Pickled Campers. They’ve got a delightfully springlike, intriguingly eclectic new instrumental album, Growing in the Cracks streaming at Bandcamp and an album release show on August 16 at 8:30 PM at GSI Studios, 150 W. 28th St. Does this band like to get pickled? And go camping? Maybe both at once? As it turns out, yes! Their sound is a lot tighter and more eclectic than that might suggest: imagine Nickel Creek with a chamber jazz edge, sans the indie affectations, and you’re on the right track. The band’s not-so-secret weapon is violinist Zach Brock, a brilliant jazz bandleader in his own right, with a great new album of his own just out. Flutist Darren Ziller adds more unexpectedly acerbic textures alongside guitarist Ross Martin, horn player Chris Komer and bassist Todd Grunder.

Throughout the album, the playing is tasteful and elegant to the nth degree. The opening track sways along brightly through some uneasy changes, with edgy solos from violin and flute before Li’s mandolin takes it in a sunnier direction. Moses (Free) pairs exploratory mando against washes of violin and flute before the bass brings it together as a pensive waltz; it’s a shadowy, cinematic, intriguing newgrass/jazz hybrid. Brock and Li team up for some gently bouncy riffs to open Grit, then the guitar and flute take elegant solos before Brock turns up the heat.

Likewise, The Next Tune – that’s the title – coalesces into a waltz and then a stroll with more than a hint of Romany jazz, a thoughtful horn solo grounding Brock’s lithe, dancing lines. Lasagna Sky – a trippy sunset image, maybe? – leaps right into a graceful, blues-infused Stephane Grappelli-esque sway, with precise, articulate solos around the horn.

Moth in a Dustpan opens with a sardonic sense of abandonment channeled by a flute/horn duet before the bass and guitar kick off a brisk strut for Brock and Li to dance over; then the band indulge themselves with a droll improvisational interlude. Trickster juxtaposes a trickily kinetic jazz violin theme with indie classical harmonies, sprightly flute, terse horn and guitar, Li capping it off with a warmly incisive crescendo. The album ends up with the jauntily syncopated Golden Apple, the album’s most trad number. None of this music is particularly dark but it has plenty of wit and it’s absolutely unique: there’s no other band that sounds like Vivian Li & the Pickled Campers. Highly recommended for bluegrass and jazz and even classical people.

The Grisly Hand Bring Their Catchy, Darkly Lyrical Americana Rock to the Rockwood

It’s astonishing how so many fantastic out-of-town bands come into New York and end up playing ridiculously small place, isn’t it? The press page at Kansas City Americana band the Grisly Hand‘s site quotes a trendoid New York music blog (no, not this one, haha) as calling them one of the ten best in the state of Missouri. That’s an understatement: the Grisly Hand might be one of the ten best bands in the entire country right now. The title track of their debut ep, Western Avenue, got a spin here earlier this week and was immediately put on loop. With its lush bed of guitars, graceful piano and casually expert harmonies, it sounds like the Jayhawks circa Sound of Lies backing Neko Case – yeah, that good. The band has a second ep, Safe House and a new album, Country Singles, all streaming online, and an upcoming show on August 8 at midnight at the big room at the Rockwood. Fans of Americana and smart, lyrically-driven songwriting in general would be crazy to miss this show.

Other than Neko Case, the obvious comparison this band draws is the Walkabouts. Frontwoman Lauren Krum has the same kind of defiant twang in her voice as Case, while the band – which also include guitarists Jimmy Fitzner and Ben Summers, bassist Dan Loftus, drummer Matt Richey and steel player Mike Stover – prove themselves equally at home with honkytonk and more oldtime C&W sounds. And they love their layers: multitracked guitars, mandolin, banjo, keys and guy/girl vocals. Of the three other tracks on the first ep, Fitzner sings an exuberant, fiddle-driven Tex-Mex take of Gram Parsons’ Still Feeling Blue, while Richey propels the harmony-fueled Thinking About You with a tumbling bounce. The ep’s final track is Black Coffee, another wryly biting, early zeros-style Neko soundalike about an allnight bender.

Safe House, the second ep, opens with the wistful escape anthem Paris of the Plains, which brings to mind the odd meters and edgy harmonies of X – it wouldn’t be out of place on the Knitters album. Losin You Has Done a Number on Me blends banjo into its Bakersfield country sway, while Cherry Mash Waltz is a Walkabouts soundalike with its moody organ and Krum’s plaintive vocals. The Distraction takes an unexpected turn into jangly retro 60s Britpop, followed by Good Wife, which builds from an oldtimey hillbilly bounce to a furtive scamper. Picking Up Pieces artfully interpolates bits and pieces of honkytonk, X and maybe mid-80s REM; the ep ends with a vamping, mandolin-flavored indie rock number.

The new album is the band’s best, both lyrically and musically, and it’s more of a rock record. The first song, Coal & Black pairs twangy Buck Owens Telecaster against resonant steel: “I can see love has been no friend of yours, well he ain’t been no friend of mine,” Krum laments to a guy, “My heart sleeps at your door.” Phineas Gage updates the sad tale of the New Hampshire railroad worker who survived a stake through the head only to suffer a 180 degree personality change – it makes a more lively counterpart to Tom Warnick‘s far creepier No Longer Gage.

If You Say So veers back and forth between an upbeat sway and a scurrying shuffle. Municipal Farm Blues infuses a sardonic smalltime lawbreaker’s tale with cheery guy/girl harmonies, capped off by a gorgeously climbing steel solo. The album’s best song, Amusia opens with equally gorgeous twelve-string guitar and hits an angst-ridden peak with some haunting vocal harmonies: it could be the Handsome Family with big-studio production values.

Krum sings the velvety, jazzy piano ballad Blind Horse – it could pass for a standout Neil Finn song. The band picks up the pace with the roaring powerpop anthem That’s Not Affection, a brilliantly detailed account of making the trip to the part of town where people “tell you to fuck off without making a sound.” They keep the energy at redline with the biting, Walkabouts-ish electric bluegrass tune If You’re Leaving Take the Trash Out When You Go, capped off with a searing steel solo and a droll surprise ending.

Coup de Coeur builds a vividly wounded ambience against a backdrop of fingerpicked acoustic guitar and steel. A lickety-split ragtime tale, Rude Gambler once again brings to mind the Walkabouts circa the Old West Motel album. Krum’s resigned vocals float along with the steel over a sad country sway on Any Other Way. The closing track, Country Singles updates an early 70s Grateful Dead sound with a funky edge. So there you have it, the complete recorded output from this great band. Enjoy!

Yet Another Great Album from the Old Crow Medicine Show

Is there a band anywhere in the world who are more fun than the Old Crow Medicine Show? In an age of overproduced, digitized-ad-nauseum albums, it’s amazing how the OCMS manages to capture the unhinged energy of their live shows in the studio. No wonder that they’re one of those bands that pretty much everybody loves. Giving them the front page here probably doesn’t mean anything in terms of ramping up their fan base – it just means that this blog isn’t asleep on the job! Their latest album is titled Remedy, streaming at Spotify; as usual, they’re on summer tour.

The new album’s first track is Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer: it’s a slinky, banjo-fueled, twisted killler’s tale, and it wouldn’t be fair to spoil the ending. That capsulizes OCMS’s appeal: killer oldtime Americana chops, funny lyrics, unstoppable energy. The lickety-split fiddle tune 8 Dogs 8 Banjos celebrates all the good things in life, from hot coffee and sweet tea to corn liquor and dirtweed. Although it’s one of the album’s quieter songs, the bittersweetly swaying, accordion-driven, Celtic-tinged Sweet Amarillo is also one of its best.

The band – Kevin Hayes on “guitjo;” Cory Younts on mandolin, keyboards and drums; Critter Fuqua on slide guitar, banjo and guitar; Chance McCoy on guitar, fiddle and banjo; Ketch Secor on fiddle, harmonica and banjo; Gill Landry on slide guitar and banjo; and Morgan Jahnig on bass – pick up the pace with the scampering kiss-off anthem Mean Enough World, an acoustic take on Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan. The somber graveside scenario Dearly Departed Friend has a creepy, spot-on redneck surrealism: it’s a good companion piece to Lorraine Leckie’s Don’t Giggle at the Corpse. Firewater is a midtempo drinking song with soaring pedal steel, while Brave Boys takes a rapidfire detour into Irish territory.

Doc’s Day is a good-natured, harmonica-fueled country blues tune, setting the stage for the darkly rustic Cumberland River, spiced by some fiery fiddle from McCoy. The band goes back to a brisk Appalachian bounce for Tennessee Bound and then hits a peak on Shit Creek, a punkgrass take on an oldtimey high-water-rising theme. The hobo swing tune Sweet Home could be the Wiyos or for that matter, the Squirrel Nut Zippers. The album ends on an unexpectedly brooding note with The Warden, which challenges the guy running the prison to look in the mirror and see if he’s really human after all. Brilliant musicianship and tunesmithing, clever wordsmithing, traditionalist chops, and everybody sings. What more could you possibly want on a hot summer night?

 

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