New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: literate songwriter

Two First-Rate, Contrasting Tunesmiths

It’s hard to imagine two tunesmiths or performers with less in common than Shannon Pelcher and Jessi Robertson. Each played a tantalizingly short acoustic set Friday night at the American Folk Art Museum and held the crowd rapt for very different reasons, other than that both artists’ songs are purposeful and interesting, and that neither player wastes notes, vocally or guitarwise.

Pelcher went on first. She’s very eclectic, has a great sense of melody and sings in an unaffectedly clear, nuanced soprano. She’s also a strong guitarist and uses a lot of jazz chords, but spaciously: they don’t clutter her songs. And she switches up genres: a warmly swaying waltz, a straight-up oldschool country tune, a jaunty oldtimey swing number, bucolic Americana and sophisticated jazz (which may be her ultimate destination). So choosing to do the show as a duo with a jazz bassist who added a handful of tuneful, serpentine solos made perfect sense. One of the strongest tunes in Pelcher’s set, a terse, syncopated number with a wickedly catchy chorus, is on the compilation album that the museum is selling at their gift shop for a ridiculously cheap five bucks. Pelcher is playing Barbes tomorrow night, June 25 at 7 with the droll, literarily-inspired Bushwick Book Club.

Where Pelcher did a lot of things, Robertson did one thing, delivering a wallop with her full-throated, angst-ridden, soul-inspired alto wail and her harrowing songs. She’ll probably be the first to admit that she’s a band person rather than a solo performer, but she reaffirmed the old aphorism that if a song sounds good solo acoustic, it’ll sound even better with a full band behind it. She opened in a nebulously early 70s Pink Floyd/Britfolk vein with a vamping lament, following with a moody reflection on aging that reminded of Kelli Rae Powell. The longing and ache in Robertson’s voice was relentless; as powerful an instrument as it is, she proved just as subtle and dynamic a singer as Pelcher, at one point disdainfully pushing the mic down and singing the rest of her set without any amplification. Not that she needed it, especially with the museum atrium’s natural reverb.

Explaining that she had a new album in the can, she told the crowd that her producer had heard her playing a brand-new song and insisted that she go back in the studio, a smart move: with its dark blues and gospel echoes, it turned out to be a characteristicaly potent portrait of pain and alienation. The characters in Robertson’s narratives deal with a lot of that, especially the girl who cuts herself in You Don’t Want to Taste My Heart, from her 2011 album Small Town Girls, arguably the high point of the show. And when she sang “You’re gonna burn, my love, ” over and over again over a haunting minor-key vamp as the last song wound out, there was no doubt she meant it. Robertson is playing LIC Bar in Long Island City at 1:30 on June 28 on an excellent multi-songwriter bill that also features Lara Ewen, the irrepressible impresario and soaring Americana singer who runs the museum’s consistently good Friday night concert series.

 

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.

Ember Schrag Brings Her Haunting Great Plains Gothic Songs to Cake Shop

Ember Schrag writes what could be called Great Plains gothic songs. She’s a nimble guitarist, a gripping storyteller, clever lyricist and a strong, dynamic singer with a direct, clear, matter-of-fact voice. She originally hails from Nebraska and now makes New York her home. And while she’s far from unknown in the dark folk demimonde, her writing transcends that genre: she’s one of the most individualistic and interesting songwriters in any style of music. She and her excellent band are at Cake Shop on May 11 at 11 PM; cover is $8.

Her 2012 album The Sewing Room – streaming at Bandcamp – is a quiet, disarmingly intense masterpiece. Violence and death are everywhere, yet seldom seen: the way Schrag lets her images unwind, usually after the fact, makes them all the more haunting. The opening track, Jephthah’s Daughter, sets the stage, a cruelly allusive tale of frontier justice (or more accurately, an imitation of it), Schrag’s elegant fingerpicking mingling with Jonah Sirota’s viola. Sutherland is no less chilling, a murder ballad as nonchalantly disturbing as anything A.M. Homes or Joyce Carol Oates ever wrote, the viola again adding a plaintive edge.

Alex McManus’s ominously tremoloing guitar lines and Gary Foster’s misterioso brushes on the drums propel the surrealistically torchy, slowly swaying betrayal anthem My Brothers Men. La Maria works a skeletal acoustic riff up to a more country-tinged chorus fueled by Greg Talenfeld’s lapsteel, Schrag contemplating how troubled people so often draw you in, not only “Because their seeping problems overtake you like the ending of the day.”

Schrag goes back to a slow swing groove on the brooding, metaphorically loaded seaside tableau I Ain’t a Prophet: it reminds a lot of early-zeros Marissa Nadler. A mashup of Old Testament and pulp novel imagery set to a distantly menacing oldtime swing tune, In the Alley imagines Scripture not as an opiate but as something from the other side of the narcotic spectrum. Frauleh Jekketheka is as funny as it is redemptive, an escape anthem told not from the point of view of the escapee but by one of the rednecks she was running from, Amy Denio’s moody clarinet pairing off against Philip Gayle’s lithely dancing mandolin.

Schrag’s casually wounded vocals echo Rasputina‘s Melora Creager on the title track, possibly the only song ever written about being tortured by angels. Dark Lion Lover is the album’s most opaquely atmospheric, jazz-inflected number, Sirota’s acidic, resonant lines contrasting with Schrag’s distantly seductive delivery.

The austere, bitterly aphoristic Your Words begins as the most traditional song here and then picks up as Schrag and Talenfeld gnash their guitars a bit. P.G. Six’s piano and Jay Kreimer’s homemade instruments add ghostly ambience to Houston, a surreal portrait of alienation and estrangement. The album ends on an unexpectedly optimistic note with April Night, Schrag’s gently lilting vocals evoking Laura Cantrell as she snatches what could be victory from the jaws of defeat. This is one of the five or six best albums ever to appear on this page over the past thirty months or so – and the icing on the cake is that the rest of Schrag’s equally intriguing back catalog is also up at Bandcamp to sweep you off into a world that in its own strange way looks dangerously like this one.

Purist Tunesmithing and a Slipper Room Show from Tamara Hey

Tamara Hey is New York to the core. She’s got an edgy sense of humor, a laser sense for a catchy classic pop hook and one of the most unselfconsciously ravishing voices in any style of music. Her album Miserably Happy (streaming at Spotify) is aptly titled: there’s a bittersweet dichotomy in her songs, biting lyrics with indelible New York City imagery set to a warmly tuneful blend of acoustic and electric folk-pop and powerpop. She’s playing the Slipper Room (Orchard and Stanton, upstairs over the big tourist restaurant) on May 8 at 7 PM; cover is $10.

The opening track, You Wear Me Out sets the stage: a deceptively sugary pop narrative about an exasperating guy who won’t give his girlfriend any breathing room. One minute he’s in the West Village with her, hell-bent on showing the world he’s not gay; the next he’s getting his mom on his side since the girl just happens to be the right religion for the holidays. The second track, Round Peg puts an only slightly lighthearted spin on the grim issue of female body issues: the narrator wishes she could relax and eat up like her full-figured friend rather than being “bitter in the center and no fun to be around.”

Umbrella, a delicate, vivid rainy-day tableau is a showcase for Hey’s clear, cool, crystalline maple sugar voice. Hey follows that with the backbeat powerpop gem Somebody’s Girl, a cleverly quirky number that wouldn’t be out of place in the Patti Rothberg catalog. Then Hey gets quiet and reflective again with Isabelle, which could be about schadenfreude, or the exasperation that comes with watching a dear friend screw up for the umpteenth time – or both.

Drive will resonate with any oldschool New Yorker. It starts with a 9/11 reference:

Any bright sunny day
With a low-flying plane
New York City, I lose feeling in my fingers
When there’s no subsequent crash
The blood returns and I go back
To doing what I do
But it still lingers

Then it hits a powerpop pulse with staccato strings and a biting Art Hays guitar solo, Hey hell-bent on just a momentary respite from crowded trains and random urban hassles. Likewise, the lushly arranged nocturne Long Dog Day vividly evokes post-dayjob exhaustion and the challenge of pulling yourself together for the rest of the evening.

The album’s funniest song, David #3 sardonically looks at how women get caught up with guys they really ought to stay away from – she hates his Red Sox hat, and when he’s in jail, since she can’t bail him out, she’s going to miss him! With Hey’s elegant tenor guitar intro, the album’s title track reimagines the Blondie hit Dreaming with more of an Americana edge. The final cut, October Sun, a gentle, pretty waltz, examines the price you pay for living intensely: “I unravel, not unwind,” Hey scowls, her lead guitarist channeling George Harrison during his solo. The whole album is one of the unsung purist pop releases of recent years.

Hey is also offering a very inexpensive series of Tuesday night workshops in music theory and writing lead sheets and charts beginning April 29 and continuing for five weeks through May 27.. As you might expect from her lyrics, Hey has a sardonic wit, and a disarmingly direct, commonsensical approach to music, qualities well suited to teaching. Classes run from 6:30 to 8:30 in the Astor Place neighborhood, close to the 6, N and R trains. If you can’t make the classes, Hey will also have courses available online starting in May, email for information or register online.

Hauntingly Intense Americana Tunesmithing from Ernest Troost

Ernest Troost is a brilliant Americana songwriter. Doesn’t he have the perfect name for one? Consider: Ernest Troost in skintight leather and spike bracelets, raising his Flying V guitar to the sky with a foot up on the monitor in the haze of the smoke machine? Nope. Ernest Troost remixed by celebrity DJ eUnUcH? Uh uh. But Ernest Troost making pensive, sometimes snarling, Steve Earle-ish, lyrically-driven Americana rock with inspired playing and smartly judicious arrangements? That’s the ticket. Troost’s latest album, prosaically titled O Love, is streaming at his Soundcloud page. He doesn’t have any New York shows coming up, but folks outside the area can catch him in Ridgefield, Connecticut on April 27 at Temple Shearith Israel, 46 Peaceable St.

Troost sets his aphoristic wordsmithing to a tightly orchestrated interweave of acoustic and electric guitars over a purist, understated rhythm section. The opening track, Pray Real Hard evokes Dylan’s Buckets of Rain, but with better guitar, a hard-times anthem where “you got to sleep on the floor ’cause that’s the only bed you made.” The ballad All I Ever Wanted adds psychedelic imagery over its country sway. Close, with its nimble acoustic fingerpicking and Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era sonics, has as much truth about why some relationships actually manage to work as it does an element of caution for clingy people. “All this room you give me makes us close,” Troost drawls: he could be talking to a woman, or to the Texas sky, but either way it makes an awful lot of sense.

The album’s shuffling, delta blues-tinged title track has a visceral ache: “Oh love left me a broken hollow frame, I do not feel a thing but I cannot bear the pain,” Troost intones. With its circling mandolin and intricate acoustic guitar interplay, Harlan County Boys builds a gloomy noir mining country folk tableau. Bitter Wind broodingly weighs the possibility of being able to escape the past, and also the danger of getting what you wished for. The Last Lullaby is a gently nocturnal elegy, while Storm Coming has a bluesy intensity and paranoid wrath to match anything Pink Floyd ever recorded, even if it doesn’t sound the slightest thing like that band.

Troost’s snaky, ever-present acoustic lead guitar line on the stark, oldschool folk-flavored When It’s Gone is the kindof device more artists should use. The Last to Leave waltzes from an oldtime C&W intro to lush countrypolitan sonics, a vividly sardonic, metaphorically-charged after-the-party scenario. The album’s best song is the wailing, electrifying murder ballad Old Screen Door: Troost’s genius with this one is that the only images he lets you see are incidental to what was obviously a grisly crime, “lightning bugs floating through a haze of gasoline” and so forth. It’s one of the best songs in any style released in recent months, a sort of teens update on the Walkabouts’ Pacific Northwest gothic classic Firetrap. Slide guitar fuels the upbeat, anthemically triumphant Weary Traveler, while I’ll Be Home Soon ends the album on an unexpectedly balmy, optimistic note. Fans of Steve Earle, James McMurtry, Jeffrey Foucault and the rest of that crew will find an awful lot to like in Troost’s brooding, intense songcraft.

Brilliantly Lyrical Janglerock from Son of Skooshny

Mark Breyer is one of the best underrated rock tunesmiths and lyricists of the past four decades. Beginning in 1978, he co-led powerpop mavens Skooshny – sort of the genre’s Steely Dan, considering that they never toured – with guitarist Bruce Wagner and drummer Brian Winogrond. As you might correctly assume from the band name (sarcastically meaning “boring” in Russian), they were popular in Russia, where they still have a cult following. And they deserve a global one. Since the band officially called it quits in the 90s, Breyer hasn’t slowed down, continuing to release richly tuneful, jangly, anthemic, deviously lyrical rock as Son of Skooshny. With its lush interweave of electric and acoustic guitars and wickedly literate lyrics, Son of Skooshny’s excellent latest album, Mid Century Mod, is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a dead ringer for Australian rock legends the Church at their most direct and accessible, circa 1982 or so, with lyrics that bring to mind Elvis Costello around that time. Breyer plays the acoustic guitars, with Steve Refling (who also produced) handling the other instruments.

The opening track, Dizzy mingles lingering, clanging twelve-string and six-string leads over a lush bed of acoustic guitars, with lyrics in the same vein as Walter Ego‘s more recent work:

Math is so cold, heartless, unfeeling
But don’t let me draw any parallels here
We won’t intersect and that’s become clear
Not in a point or a line
Not at a plane we’re not flying
Wrong place wrong time

The title track, a wickedly elegant kiss-off to a yuppie ex, is swaying backbeat folk-rock as the Church might have done it thirty years ago:

Yoga is liberating, even for beginners
While you are meditating, you’re thinking of your dinner
Have you ever looked in your coffee table pullout
I left a love note in a style
I thought would bring a bittersweet smile

While Breyer is based in Los Angeles, there’s a very New York edge to his songwriting, best exemplified here by Sorry. With its brooding, lingering chorus and echoeoy harmonies, it’s is a dead ringer for early-zeros dark New York rockers DollHouse:

The first time’s a charm but three strikes, you’re out
This was number three in our trilogy
One more would make a quadrology
But I am no good at apology

Knee Deep beefs up a Bydsy jangle as the Church or the Wirebirds would have, with Jason Staczek’s Hammond organ and a more four-on-the-floor powerpop chorus, a characteristically sardonic look at a relationship that was doomed from the start:

Swing ahead then fall back
In the red instead of the black
Back to school, learn to rap
Break the rules, break em in half 
We meet in the twilight sleep
Between sleep and the sundial
Make promises we can’t keep
Knee deep in the blue Nile

The final track, Untold History, traces an uneasy, early atomic age childhood with an offhanded savagery: with Refling’s keening slide guitar,  it’s the hardest-rocking and most overtly angry song here:

Outside the quarantine
A Cold War-era submarine
With a credo to protect
Torpedos can’t eject
In the shadow of the bomb
When my daddy left my mom
I stayed at home and paced the floor
I waited for the smoke to pour
All around the shelter door

Both lyrically and musically, this is a genuinely amazing album. The Church may have drifted into more opaque, symphonic terrain, but this guy is keeping the literate janglerock flame burning as strongly as any songwriter is these days.

And in case these five tracks aren’t enough, the previous Son of Skooshny album, Lovers Leap of Faith, is also up at Bandcamp. And it’s somewhat more diverse, perhaps owing to the shifting cast of characters. It’s got a handful of big rockers: the insistent opening track, Another Time, has Jeff Peters on guitars and bass, Arlan Schierbaum on keys and Mark Lewis on drums. That crew also plays How Does It End, a gorgeously wistful Florida narrative. Andy Colquhoun serves as a one-man powerpop army on the savagely guitar-fueled Kate’s Green Phone and also the brisk seduction anthem Spine. The biting dysfunctional family scenario Bare Bones is only a little more restrained, with Arthur Schlenger on guitars and bass and David Winogrond on drums.

The rest of the album works the Church-like Rickenbacker guitar jangle and clang with a nonchalant expertise, Breyer’s vocals precise and almost sardonically warm over the lingering resonance and steady backbeat. There’s Candy Air, a bedroom scenario interrupted by a sinister phone call, Steve Refling playing the rest of the band to Breyer’s Steve Kilbey. The Right Idea, which could be a poppy cut from the Church’s Blurred Crusade album, and the vividly sardonic LA folk-rock tableau Good Morning Gale Warning, have Schlenger doing triple duty on guitars, bass and keys. The cleverly lyrical, Beatlesque Science Changes Everything has Peters plus Michael Meros on string synth, Craig Fall on bass and Steve Bankuti on drums. Love’s Not Impossible, which hints at Orbison-style Nashville noir, features the Peters/Meros lineup.

Yet for all the intricate rhyme schemes, towering arrangements and anthemic angst, the best song on the album might be its simplest one, You Can’t Love Me, a bitter coming to grips with a situation where she’s taking her afternoon nap and he’s drinking alone and it can only get worse from there. Skooshny and Son of Skooshny have a substantial back catalog, something well worth investigating if the idea of state-of-the-art tunesmithing is your thing.

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.

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.

Avi Fox-Rosen and Raya Brass Band Slay at Rock Shop

“Love is a word you use so you don’t hurt the feelings of the ones who like to say it more than you,” Avi Fox-Rosen sang nonchalantly, without a hint of sarcasm, over a bouncy, singalong, pseudo-theatrical pop tune, early in his album release show Thursday night at Rock Shop. “Love is as suspect as me,” he added later on. That’s Fox-Rosen in a nutshell. He’s sort of akin to Elvis Costello with better guitar chops. Both are purist pop tunesmiths with an encyclopedic bag of licks and ideas. But where Costello goes for lyrical gymnastics and umpteen levels of meaning, Fox-Rosen tells sardonically and sometimes grimly funny, aphoristic stories, and slips you the shiv when you least expect it. For example, the organ soul song that opened the set, So Fucking Happy: the implication is that this may be the only time in the guy’s life that he’s not miserable.

That song is sort of the title track to Fox-Rosen’s December album, his final release in a year that saw him put out an album a month (all up at his Bandcamp page as name-your-price downloads). That he actually pulled off this feat is impressive in itself; that the material he released was so strong catapulted him to the top of the Best Albums of 2013 page here. He’d pulled an excellent band together for this show – a melodic, eclectic basssist, the similarly diverse and tasteful Chris Berry on drums and Dave Melton channeling 60s soul grooves on organ and electric piano: these guys really get Fox-Rosen’s incessant references to decades of rock history.

The night’s second song was Baby, a twinkling lullaby from February’s ep that poked fun at the lure of returning to the womb: Fox-Rosen drew plenty of laughs from its “Suck and shit and sleep” mantra. On album, Fox-Rosen’s apprehensive playground narrative Ugly Duckling begins as a cabaret tune – this time, the band made fluid new wave out of it until they took it doublespeed into creepy, snarling, guitar-fueled circus rock territory. “The other ducks didn’t give a fuck, Brother Duck cursed my rotten luck,” Fox-Rosen intoned, deadpan and cool. But this little duck turns out to have unexpected bite.

College had a similarly tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, Fox-Rosen bemoaning his “worthless degree in esoterica” and the fact that living at home with the ’rents doesn’t exactly compare with studying in Paris. He kept a low-key but corrosive political edge going – “Are you proud to be American?” he challenged over faux-celebratory Huey Lewis-style 80s anthemic radio rock, Melton taking an lush, swirly organ solo.

Then Fox-Rosen shifted gears, showing off some impressively creepy surf rock chops and took a searing, intense, noisy solo on Everybody Dies, the most macabre song of the evening, Melton adding the occaasional jarring slasher-flick riff. They lost the crowd on the song after that – sometimes Fox-Rose’s satire can be so subtle that it’s hard to tell when he’s being serious or not, or a mixture of both. But he got everybody’s attention with the savage God Who Lives in Your Head, who’s a real sourpuss, watching you like a spycam and digging up as much dirt as he can.  He closed with Where Is My Parade, underscoring the song’s twisted carnivalesque side, a snide spoof of rockstar (or wannabe rockstar) narcissism. Fox-Rosen is at Bar Chord, 1008 Corteyou Rd. (Stratford/Coney Island Ave.), in Ditmas Park on Feb 6 at 9.

Afterward, Raya Brass Band gathered on the floor in front of the stage rather than on it, drew the crowd in and then played their asses off. “Do you do originals as well as covers?” a woman in the crowd wanted to know.  Trumpeter Ben Syversen paused: “We’ve been playing mostly originals, although we also play a lot of the traditional repertoire,” he hastened to add. That’s this band’s appeal in a nutshell: you’d assume that they were from East Serbia if you didn’t know they were actually from Brooklyn. A nonstop gig schedule over the past couple of years has made this scorching Balkan five-piece group incredibly tight. Syversen and alto saxophonist Greg Squared use extended technique – microtones, slides and lickety-split doublestops – that would make most jazz players green with envy. Tuba player Don Godwin’s funky, surprisingly bright tuba pulse fueled the nonstop groove along with the ominously booming clip-clop clatter of the standup tapan bass drum. Ostensibly there were sound issues with Matthew “Max” Fass’ accordion, but out in the crowd his swirls and rapidfire riffage were cutting through just fine.

A lot of the traditional material from throughout the Balkans pulses along on menacingly chromatic vamps, and Raya Brass Band does that as well, although their songs are a lot more complex. They don’t rely on a simple verse/chorus format, they love tricky time signatures and they jam the hell out of the songs. By the time the first explosive minor-key number was over, Greg Squared had already shredded his first reed. By the end of the set, there was something in Syversen’s mouthpiece – a piece of him, maybe? Talk about giving 100% onstage. The staccato twin riffage between the two horns had an icepick intensity, the two sometimes doubling their lines, sometimes pairing off harmonically. Fass led the band through an unexpectedly lush, lingering ballad that took all kinds of wary twists and turns before they brought back the marauding minor-key assault. The high point of the many originals was a slinky number with an austere Ethiopian flavor. The most exhilarating of the traditional tunes was a lickety-split dash through Mom Bar, which does not have anything to do with your mother although drinking is definitely involved. Raya Brass Band are at Golden Festival Saturday night at 11 PM and then play a 2 AM set at Freddy’s afterward.

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