New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: dark rock

Jessie Kilguss: State-of-the-Art Gothic Americana

If gothic Americana is your thing, singer Jessie Kilguss is someone you need to know. Thursday night at the American Folk Art Museum, she made a point of telling the crowd that she usually plays a lot louder. But it didn’t matter: Kilguss and her four-piece band adjusted effortlessly to the spacious sonics there and brought down the lights, raising the menacing intensity that runs beneath the surface of hersongs.

Beyond the attractiveness and singalong catchiness of the tunes, there’s a persistent unease and occasional savagery. Anger and betrayal are recurrent themes in her songwriting, as they are for so many Nashville gothic types, but Kilguss distinguishes herself by getting a lot of mileage out of implying that doom and despair rather than throwing it in your face. “Lately I’ve been really quiet,” she sang with a bittersweet restraint on the anthemic, backbeat-driven janglerock number that opened the set, her drummer playing with brushes, the guitarist throwing off an artful spiral from the frets of his vintage Telecaster as they lit into the second verse.

“If you want a happy ending, it depends on where you start,” she mused a little later in the set, over a slowly swaying, moodily resonant groove, “I started at the top and I’m working my way down – and it’s a long way down.” Her voice brightened, but just a little, on the warmly bucolic waltz that followed, an understatedly brooding reminiscence of being let down, probably for the umpteenth time.

“Maybe it’s better than I stay – a safe distance from you,” she intoned over a more insistent minor-key backdrop a little later, the bass playing a blues riff as the guitar jangled nebulously before hitting a growling peak on the chorus. They picked up the pace with a soaring anthem - possibly titled Don’t Let It Go to the Dogs Tonight – before getting quiet again with the Train Song. Most bands do a railroad theme with a clickety-clack rhythm, but Kilguss is more counterintuitive: the band kicked this one off with a trip-hop beat before cleverly shifting into a slow shuffle. They wound up the set with the vengeful murder ballad Hell Creek, “The creepiest song I’ve ever written,” Kilguss told the crowd.

She’s got an interesting backstory: she got her start in the theatre before dedicating herself to music more or less fulltime about seven or eight years ago. And while she’s not a stagy performer, she’s comfortable on it, swaying in her red dress (brighter than blood-red, but the symbolism seemed pretty obvious), her eyes closed, meticulously giving voice to the angst-ridden characters in her narratives. Those interested in catching her and the band at full volume can do that tonight at 7 PM at the small room at the Rockwood.

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

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

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

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

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

Darkly Intense Instrumentals from Lou Reed’s Last Great Lead Guitarist

Aram Bajakian was the last great lead guitarist in Lou Reed’s band. Since then, he’s shifted gears and gone on to play with Diana Krall. He’s also as strong and eclectic a composer as his background would suggest: a couple of years ago, he put out a fascinating trio album with with violinist Tom Swafford and bassist Shanir Blumenkranz that reimagined a series of old Armenian folk tunes. Bajakian’s new one, There Were Flowers Also in Hell (a William Carlos Williams quote), goes in a considerably different direction. It’s a feral, deliciously abrasive instrumental rock album, more informed by the blues than it is actually bluesy (although Bajakian is a strong and thoughtful blues player). This one again finds Bajakian leading a power trio, with Shahzad Ismaily on bass and Jerome Jennings on drums. It’s streaming at Bajakian’s Bandcamp page.

Bajakian nimbly weaves his way through many, many styles; he tends to work a concise, direct dirty/clean dichotomy. Ismaily is one of those rare players who listens in 360 degrees and improves everything he touches. As he does in Marc Ribot’s band, he excels at the dark, gritty stuff. Likewise, Jennings is an omnipresent, brooding. ready-to-pounce force at the low end. Much as everybody, especially the bandleader, can get completely unhinged, nobody wastes notes: for such a noisy record, it’s surprisingly focused.

The opening track is Texas Cannonball, which begins as lickety-split cowpunk and then gets all sludged out. One of Bajakian’s signature traits is that he can get just as wild and dirty (the crazed volleys of tremolopicking about two minutes in are only a hint as to how ferocious this album is going to get) as he can be expressive and lyrical. LouTone builds a clenched-teeth, apprehensively buzzing theme driven by Jennings’ leapfrogging, tumbling syncopation. Requiem for 5 Points, a somberly elegaic, minimalist piece, sets Bajakian’s lingering washes of sound over Ismaily’s stately, brooding, spacious lines.

Orbisonian, ablaze with a thicket of multitracked guitars, sounds like Big Lazy covering the Dead Kennedys, a contrast with the tender oldschool soul ballad, Sweet Blue Eyes, that follows it. Rent Party kicks off with a bouncy funk riff into a minor-key tune that’s part newschool Romany rock, surf music and Otis Rush blues – then they hit a long, surreal, muddy interlude reminiscent of 80s noiserock legends Live Skull as the bass growls to the surface. Bajakian then brings it down again with Medicaid Lullaby, a long, hypnotic tone poem that slowly develops a moody Middle Eastern-tinged theme.

Labor on 57th alternates between a hammering, anthemic, Darcy James Argue-like riff and noir surf. Japanese Love Ballad is a ghostly, spiky solo piece in the Asian scale that sounds like Bajakian is playing a resonator guitar with the strings muted. He picks things up again with the sardonic The Kids Don’t Want to Sleep, its growly, slowly simmering nocturnal groove bedeviled by flitting noise: all this pestering is driving dad nuts! The album winds up with For Julia, a spaciously pensive solo guitar sketch. Bajakian has made a lot of great music in recent years but this is some of his most interesting and adrenalizing – it’s one of the best instrumental rock records of recent years, hands down.

Marissa Nadler’s July: A Sullen, Overcast Art-Rock Masterpiece

Since the early zeros, Boston-area songwriter Marissa Nadler has built a richly creepy, allusively lyrical body of work that spans the worlds of folk noir, chamber pop, art-rock and Americana. Her latest album, July, is out today and streaming all the way through at NPR. And it might as well be called December instead. Her previous album, The Sister, took a turn away from Americana back toward the moody atmospherics of her mid-zeros work. This one takes that sound to the next level, methodically building layer upon swirling layer of Phil Wandscher’s guitars, Steve Moore’s keys and Eyvind Kang’s one-man string orchestra into a melancholy grandeur that sometimes reaches epic heights.

While the album has a handful of the mysterious, ghostly narratives and twisted historical vignettes that Nadler writes so well, the back end of the albm traces a theme of rejection, abandonment and despair that sinks deeper into the abyss as it goes on. Nadler’s nimble, hypnotic, baroque-tinged, fingerpicked acoustic and electric guitar work underpins most of these songs, although the production is far more lush than anything else she’s recorded. There are echoes of 80s goth music and densely echoey ambience a la the Cocteau Twins or the Church. As usual, Nadler puts reverb on all of it.

Nadler is as strong a singer as she is a storyteller, multitracking her vocals into an otherworldly choir of ethereal highs balanced on the low end by her gently menacing, elegantly melismatic attack. Drive unveils a typically sepulchral tableau, “Seventeen people in the dark tonight – you see some familiar faces behind the cellular lights.” It’s classic Nadler: the only driving in the song is a memory, the implication being that as this nebulously apocalyptic scene unfolds, there may not be any more. The song ends with a long, elegaic, Gilmouresque pedal steel solo.

1923 traces a theme of longing and absence as Nadler’s waves of guitar mingle with the organ, steel guitar and piano, building toward apprehensive cinematics. Firecrackers, a menacingly opiated, reverb-drenched, mostly acoustic Nashville gothic ballad, paints a booze-fueled Fourth of July scenario that does not end well. We Are Coming Back, with its richly spiky fingerpicking, is a vengeful ghost story, its narrator drawn back to a beloved childhood home where the unspoken horrific event at the center of the story went down.

Dead City Emily rises from similarly guitar-fueled, rhythmic insistence to icy, anthemic atmospherics, a wartime narrative that could be apocalyptic, or just symbolic of a metropolis or a scene that’s now gone. Nadler picks up the pace with Was It a Dream. a catchy, vintage 1960s style dark psych-folk hit fueled by snaky southwestern gothic guitar. By contrast, I’ve Got Your Name is a distantly gospel-inflected, minimalistic, cruelly sardonic breakup song, Nadler’s disconsolate narrator changing into her dress at a highway rest stop, taking care not to touch the floor, fighting highway hypnosis in the dark on the way back from New York to Massachusetts.

That story dominates the rest of the album. Desire is its most ornate, epic, overtly gothic track, a misty morass of reverberating vocals and darkly ethereal guitar. Anyone Else builds from a suspensefully apprehensive, richly jangling, ringing intro to an angst-fueled, bitter intensty. Nadler’s anger peaks on Holiday In, her narrator vowing that she’d rather be holed up at some cheesy roadside motel watching Crime TV than hanging out with the dubious fairweather character who left her hanging. And Nadler adds a country-gospel tinged note to the surreal, emotionally depleted Nothing in My Heart: “Got into the car today but didn’t go outside, maybe too far gone,” she frets. Raw, wounded and emotionally searing, this is one of the best albums covered here since this blog first went live in 2011. Time may judge this a classic. Nadler is at Glasslands on Feb 8 at 10 PM for $12. She also has a Soundcloud page with all kinds of deliciously creepy freebies.

A Long Overdue Look at Liv Mueller’s Haunting Solo Album

Over a year ago, Milwaukee songstress Liv Mueller sent her album Liv Sings – Love Songs for the Forlorn and Misguided over the transom here. It was a sensible thing for her to do, considering how well-suited to this blog her music is. She’s an individualistic songwriter with a thing for haunting, minimalist guitar, which she multitracks with the reverb turned all the way up, building a creepy, majestic backdrop for her slowly unwinding anthems and a waltz or two. She’s also an individualistic and tremendously good singer, with just as much power at the low end of her range as at the top. The songs on the album bring to mind Shannon Wright or Randi Russo taking a stab at Americana – admittedly, that might be a stretch, considering that neither of those artists is remotely country, but just imagine if you can. Mueller made a name for herself in that style of music in the midwest fronting the Lovelies and then the Dark Horse Project, so it’s no surprise that she’s equally at home with both vintage C&W and country blues-tinged material.

So why did such an excellent album sit around for so long here, unheard and forgotten? Umm…..dumbass blog owner (guess who) mistook it for somebody else’s jazz record, so it ended up hidden away on the server until a year-end cleanup sparked a listen to the first song. And this is one of those albums where the first song makes you want to hear what’s next, and so on until about an hour later, you’ve heard the whole thing and want to hear what else she’s got out there (good news – in the time that’s passed since she sent this one in, she’s been working on a new one). The noir torch song One More Time, which opens the album, is addictive, Mueller’s ghostly, mysterious a-cappella first verse rising to grand guignol orchestral heights on the wings of the string synth. Long Gone is the first of the many dark guitar-driven numbers: it’s got to be the only song that references both Edgar Allan Poe and the O.J. Simpson trial.

Mueller sings over a hypnotic, allusive country-blues vamp on This Kind of Love, her angst-ridden vocals matching the looming intensity of the music. Father Angel moves further toward indie rock, with creepy gothic lyrics and surreal backward-masked guitar. Salvation is a broodingly elegaic waltz – Mueller might be singing to a ghost here. And on the sardonic, embittered Let It Roll, is she singing “hell, hell, hell” as a mantra as the song opens – or is that just vocalese? Either would work, especially as Mueller adds a scorching, dreampop-tinged lead guitar line as the chorus kicks in.

She reinvents the country classic Crazy Arms, the only cover here, as Nashville gothic, and follows that with Haunted Face, a regret-laden neo-Velvets tune that wouldn’t be out of place in the Vera Beren catalog. An echoey noir bongo pulse pushes the Siouxsie-esque Beneath My Wings along, Mueller belting hard over the terse orchestration. Wish You May sets judiciously ringing tremolo guitar over a burning, distorted drone and another sardonic lyric; Mueller ends the album with a grimly amusing departure into Weimar-style cabaret. What’s coolest about this album is how she pulls together elements from styles that seem completely at odds with each other and makes everything work seamlessly along with her almost-lurid, unselfconsciously magnetic vocals.

Haunting, Atmospheric, Blues-Infused Intensity from the Bright Smoke

The Bright Smoke is the more-or-less solo project from Mia Wilson, whose raw, wounded wail and menacing minor-key songwriting made her previous band the French Exit one of New York’s most riveting live acts for a couple of years in the late zeros. Her songwriting on the Bright Smoke’s new album Virginia Et. Al. is more blues-infused, in the same vein as a young PJ Harvey but more atmospheric. Likewise, her vocals here are more low-key and world-weary but no less haunted and intense. The recording quality is lush yet direct: organic instrumentation, darkly enveloping sonics. Along with Wilson’s guitars and vocals, producer Q. Ledbetter adds guitar and bass tracks over lo-fi percussion samples and loops.

Wilson’s stark blues lines resonate with a rustic, haunting quality on the opening track, God Willing. “God willing the creek don’t rise,” becomes a mantra. “My hands are shaking,” Wilson intones as simple, biting guitar layers linger in the background like a coiled snake that’s about to strike.

Sea Level is the rare song that’s Joy Division-influenced without being slavishily imitative. With its ba-BUMP beat and catchy, mournfully bluesy melody, it also brings to mind the Stooges classic I Need Somebody. “Do you know what it’s like to wake up after trying not to wake up again?” Wilson asks. Slow Burn is slightly more upbeat, like the Banana Album-era Velvets taking a stab at a classic country song. The ache in Wilson’s voice is visceral as she waves someone away for good.

Pure Light is the longest, most hypnotic track here, the low resonance of Wilson’s voice contrasting with the guitars’ overtones, gentle but uneasy slides and creepily tinkling piano overhead. “Can you feel the wind come to make you wild again?” Wilson asks on the next track – but the answer isn’t clear, and it’s as if the wind she’s talking about could freeze everything over, again with a minor-key, minimalist Joy Division intensity. The last track, Free, is ostensibly a demo, but Wilson obviously knew she had a gem when she recorded it. It’s a dirge, just simple guitar, vocals and a piano drenched in natural reverb and enough out of tune that it maxes out the horror factor: “What a beautiful means to an otherwise painful end,” Wilson muses, a vivid elegy for someone who chose to kill himself or herself by drowning. You want intense? The Bright Smoke’s next gig is at Lit on Second Ave. at 8 PM on Jan 18.

Marianne Dissard Makes a Stormy, Brilliantly Twisted Art-Rock Album

Much as Marianne Dissard has established herself as one of the most distinctive voices in southwestern gothic rock – she even made a film about Giant Sand – she’s always had an art-rock side. Her latest album, due out in a couple of weeks – titled The Cat. Not Me – has a mighty, majestic, orchestral grandeur. A lot of is up at her Soundcloud page. Her world-weary, breathy, often whispery vocals are more nuanced and yet more powerful than ever. Although there’s guitar on this album, and it’s excellent, piano is the central instrument out in front of towering strings, woodwinds and brass, with an explosive rhythm section. Can you say grand guignol? Yet despite the prevalent menace, there’s incredible subtlety and often grim, surreal humor here. Dissard sings in her native French, moving from a purr to a wail with split-second grace. Although her lyrics sometimes get subsumed by the orchestration, that’s part of the allure: her dark imagery draws you in and won’t let you go. That seems to be the point of the album – but you don’t have to speak French to enjoy it [you can blame this blog for any errors in translation].

The opening track, Heureusement sans Heurt (rough translation: Happily without Accident) sets the tone, Dissard entering with a breathy whoosh along with the drums over insistent, dramatic piano chords anchored by low, resonant hass clarinet. Dissard’s litarny of surreal imagery ends with someone “melting in the road.” Her tender, elegaic vocals mingle with a gorgeously wounded, flamenco-tinged backdrop on Am Letzen: “The sun rises so it can set, I go out so I can can come back, I have no time left in my heart,” she whispers: the “last morning of the year” refrain carries a ton of weight. The song’s poignancy reminds a lot of Rachelle Garniez.

Dissard shifts gears abruptly with Mouton Bercail (Domestic Sheep), a twisted, noisily guitar-fueled minor-key new wave surf-rock number, sardonically beating herself up for not putting an end to something that’s obviously not working out. Then she goes into gospel-tinged art-rock – with some absolutely gorgeous piano – with Pomme (Apple), a disturbing tableau that seems to be a 21st century update on William Tell, its anxious prisoner awaiting some sign from a nameless commandant.

Je Ne Le Savais Pas (I Didn’t Know) is the loudest song on the album, a wrathful, anvil-of-the-gods anthem that winds out with the whole orchestra blasting at full steam. Oiseau (Bird) brings back that gorgeous gospel piano over an altered trip-hop beat, with a vividly gliding harmonica solo, Dissard working the doomed avian imagery for an understatedly imploring intensity.

Tortue (Turtle) builds a phantasmagorical, Kafkaesque tableau, Dissard’s torrential, hip-hop inflected lyrics against blustery orchestration and stately but slashing block chords from the piano. By now, if you’re paying attention, all this animal imagery makes perfect sense if you consider the album title. Election, which might well have the political subtext the title implies, is the poppiest number here, capped by a dirty, wickedly noisy guitar solo midway through. The most sweeping, angst-fueled and cinematic song is Salamandre, rising and falling, hushed and whispering before it picks up with a regret-laden blast from the orchestra. The season of the salamander may be summer, but this isn’t exactly a summery song.

Doll Circa (Terra) is the creepiest: the “little girl on the carpet, all alone” with the screams in the background as the last verse opens will give you goosebumps. As usual, Dissard unveils her images rather than expressly stating what’s happening, adding to the suspense. The album ends with La Partie De Puzzle Du Jardin A la Francaise (c’mon, that’s an easy translation), a strange, beautiful, brooding anthem that sounds like a cross between Botanica and something from Pink Floyd’s The Wall, complete with sardonic samples from old movies in the background. Meticulous arrangements, wrenchingly emotional musicianship, and Dissard at the top of her uneasy game: an early contender for best album of 2014.

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.

Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman: A Polemic, or, About the New Album

Forget any disinformation you may have heard about Amanda Palmer being a dork or a loser – especially if that disinformation came from her. She’s made a small fortune pandering to that crowd. But she’s not one of them. Her husband outed her. There was a moment when they were on tour, as novelist Neil Gaiman tells it on their new triple live album, where he explains to his new bride that he’s reticent to read a piece onstage which he thinks might not be up to snuff. Her response is not to worry, that even if it’s horrible, the crowd will love it anyway. Amanda Fucking Cynical Palmer? Oooooooh yeah.

On one hand, Palmer is punker than punk. Even though she’s surrounded by Republicans – or at least kids who will ditch their animal onesies and Dan Deacon playlists for McMansions the minute their trust funds kick in – she doesn’t shy away from important issues and plays wherever there are Occupiers. She’s a strong woman whose feminism informs her music without making it strident. She’s an eclectic tunesmith, a talented multi-instrumentalist and can be a riveting performer.

Yet Palmer can also be more indie than indie. Some of her recent songs, especially the ukulele numbers, have the carefully contrived ineptitude and preciousness that define indie rock. The backstory is that Palmer has been fighting her way through a creative dry spell, all the while needing to keep product rolling out in order to pay the bills. “Why should we worry when someone intelligent wants to write pop music, when there’s so much other shit wrong?” she protests, in that uke song that you may have heard (which, as she explains on the album, she wrote as a blog response since she was too hungover to come up with anything more coherent that particular morning). The answer to her question is that someone intelligent should be finding ways to fix all the shit that’s wrong instead of wasting their talent writing schlock. Palmer, being acutely self-aware, knows that better than anyone.

So in case you might assume that the An Evening with Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman – streaming all the way through at Bandcamp -would be couplecore, it’s not. This isn’t greedy narcissists on the road selling overpriced meet-and-greets to their most clueless fans and then phoning in some half-baked bullshit. The two deliver. Part intimate chamber pop, part noir cabaret, part spoken word with lots of sardonic banter, the performances are surreal, sometimes haphazard, sometimes wickedly focused and ultimately a lot of fun.

Gaiman is the surprise star here. He’s not much of a poet and, by his own admission, not much of a singer either but he can wind a yarn with the best of them, and gives Palmer a run for her money on a handful of the more vaudevillian numbers. The best of those are a delicious cover of Leon Payne’s country classic Psycho (which the audience clearly doesn’t know) and a  couple of similarly morbid, Irish-flavored ballads which are closer to Tom Lehrer than Nick Cave. And Gaiman’s stories are too good to spoil. He shows off his talent for evoking a specific milieu – a dreary British seaside town – on the ghost story that opens the album and follows that with a creepily hilarious tale about a stalker, an account of murder among Fourth Century religious nuts on the isle of Iona, and a snarky Hollywood insider-style account of Oscar night. He and Palmer have a lot in common: the gallows humor that fuels so much of their work, their theatrical side, their storytelling, their knack for finding the devil in the details. They make a good team.

Palmer splits her time between uke and piano. Gaiman’s droll delivery versus Palmer’s deadpan iciness on their cover of Making Whoopee is priceless, and reminds of Lorraine Leckie‘s recent collaborations with Anthony Haden-Guest. The uke-reggae nudist anthem Map of Tasmania (Australian slang for pussy) inspires a lusty audience singalong. Palmer joins with guest Jason Webley in a devious look back at driving her tourmates nuts in an overheated bus, celebrates her release from record label hell,  and ends the album with a tight, defiant version of her antiwar/antiviolence classic Ukulele Anthem.

But her more subdued songs are the knockouts. Dear Old House is Palmer’s requiem for her childhood home, now sold, presumably, to yuppies with a kid who will festoon Palmer’s old room with Miley Cyrus posters. The piano cabaret song I Want You but I Don’t Need You is just as creepy as it is wryly funny, while the muted waltz Look Mummy No Hands is sort of Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle but with the roles reversed. And her solo uke version of Death Cab for Cutie’s I Will Follow You into the Dark – dedicated to Ashlie Gough, who died at 23 at Occupy Vancouver – makes an aptly tender, haunting elegy.

As you would figure with such a talky album, there’s some TMI here – that seems to be the price Palmer is willing to pay to keep the crowdsourcing pipeline going, even as it gives the haters something to hate on. Is there anybody in the Palmer cult (or the Gaiman cult, for that mattter) who doesn’t already have their autographed and lipstick-kissed copies already? Probably not. But if only the haters could hear this, they’d realize the fun they’ve been missing.

Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas Bring Out the Demons

Detroit retro soul band Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas are on a roll. Maybe because they’ve been on the road a lot lately, maybe because recording in a real studio rather than on somebody’s protools in a bedroom somewhere is so expensive, they’ve been putting out single tracks and ep’s instead of working on a magnum opus. Their latest ep is appropriately called Demons: it’s as noir as noir soul music gets, and it’s luridly delicious. The whole thing is streaming at- believe it or not – Paste.

The title track is a false start, a good song masked by cliched, corporate production, a tentative misstep toward Dr. Luke territory. You hear this and you ask yourself, what in the world were they thinking? They’re such purists, and this is so far from that. But the rest of the songs are scary-good, starting with Caught Up. Hernandez has a distinctive voice that can be sweet and gently cajoling one second, but the next she’s flashing you the boxcutter up her sleeve. This one has a defiant feel. And it’s more of a dark garage rock song, sort of a cross between Clairy Browne and Sallie Ford, with an ominous bridge where the drums get mysterious and boomy, then a snarling guitar solo.

Big Town is noir to the core. It starts out with a simple bass/piano/baritone sax intro and builds from there to a gorgeously wounded turnaround, Hernandez glad that she has such a big city where she can hide away in her misery. The Hawaiian guitar solo out is completely bizarre, and just as creepy. Shadow Boy seems to be a darkly comforting shout-out to quiet, sad people whose lives are more interior than exterior; the band stalks almost imperceptibly up to an allusive ba-BUMP rhythm, lit up with apprehensive repeaterbox guitar and Hernandez’ lingering vocals. The last song is a pulsing, minor-key number where Hernandez’ character is so hot to trot that she’s been sleeping with somebody’s girlfriend AND somebody’s boyfriend  – she delivers this news as a come-on over a creepy funeral organ groove that takes a detour into reggae for awhile. There are a ton of bands rehashing mid-60s soul sounds, but none of them sound anything like Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas. Even with that dud of a first track, this is one of the best short albums of the year.

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