New York Music Daily

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Tag: literate songwriter

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.

Unselfconsciously Intense, Insightful, Vivid Tunesmithing from Sharon Goldman

Sharon Goldman is one of the most criminally underrated tunesmiths of the last ten years. Lately she’s split her time between leading her own band, playing solo or as one-half of lyrical folk-pop duo the Sweet Bitters (whose impromptu show this past spring was one of the most memorable concerts anywhere in New York this year). And as much as her clear, unaffectedly shining vocals were always a strong suit, lately her voice has taken on a lot more gravitas: she has become a shattering singer. On her new album Silent Lessons, she channels both the subtlest and the most overwhelming emotions with a gentle and graceful understatement that’s all the more haunting for how quiet it is.

Her lyrics are a clinic in how to paint an indelible picture with the simplest images and symbols. Although Goldman can be uproariously funny, her songs tend to be brooding, if sometimes guardedly optimistic. As usual, her band is fantastic: Thad DeBrock (who also produced) working his typical magic, building a glimmering web of acoustic and electric guitars, adding elegant touches from piano and keys over the terse groove of bassist Jeff Allen and drummer Doug Yowell.

The opening track, Left Turn takes a mundane, random bike ride through the neighborhood and turns it into a haunting tale of restlessness and spinning one’s wheels: Springsteen would have done well to have written this thirty years ago. As Goldman’s narrator sees it, she’s almost invisible as she pedals her way around the block: she “can’t get lost or found.” Debrock’s judiciously jangling, artfully layered guitars slowly build to an uneasy lushness. Likewise, the nebulous, wintry atmospherics of Her Secret underscore the story of a woman alone on the train platform, knowing that her clandestine affair is only keeping her in a rut. And Goldman’s terse fingerpicking in tandem with Noah Hoffeld’s stark cello provide a shadowy backdrop for Amy, someone’s mysterious, now-deceased ex who still manages to cast a wide shadow.

A Night to Forget is an unexpectedly driving, noir-tinged, Patti Smith-flavored electric rock nocturne, its narrator hell-bent on tying one on and forgetting everything she’s left behind. Valentine’s Day, which builds from opaque washes into another anthemic rock number, bitingly assesses how double standards still separate the boys from the girls, and ruin lives in the process. Pocket Full of Sun works a charging, Grateful Dead-tinged groove with an almost defiant optimism, gorgeously multitracked acoustic guitars and a surreal, metaphorically-charged lyric that goes unexpectedly dark. And Let You Go takes a catchy, syncopated oldschool country ballad into more opaque, pensive territory, another disarmingly simple story whose doomed plotline becomes crystal-clear as it goes along

As vivid as those songs are, the title track is the masterpiece here. It’s one of the best songs Goldman’s ever written, and it packs a gentle wallop. Her careful, precise but wounded vocals absolutely nail the “four in the morning of your soul” ambience of a woman sleepless and alone, abandoned and embittered and sobered by the reality that she isn’t blameless in how she ended up there. “What do you see in the stillness when you feel blind, and you need all six senses to know what to find?” she asks, hushed and low: the matter-of-factness in her delivery is what makes it so chilling, just Goldman’s voice and acoustic guitar and the cello. It’s over in barely two minutes and it’s one of the best songs of the year.

Goldman’s next live appearance is on 12/17 at 9 PM EST at Concert Window, where she’s doing a “pre-release pyjama party” streaming around the world from her living room. She’ll be taking requests and answering questions. It’s a pay-what-you-want show; “tickets” are available now. And the show isn’t going to be recorded or archived: it’s a literally once-in-a-lifetime event.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices Burn Up the Parkside

The Best Concerts of the Year page is an annual tradition here. With everything else going on lately, it’s been tempting to just make 2013 a wrap right now – after all, the last few weeks of the year are pretty much a wash, right? That would have been a mistake, because the list would have left out LJ Murphy & the Accomplices‘ explosive show this past Saturday night at the Parkside. Other than the fact that he’s a great showman with an amazing band and a deep catalog of savagely lyrical songs, what makes Murphy’s live shows so consistently interesting is that he’s always reinventing the material. For example, ten years ago, he was doing Comfortable Cage as a plaintive minor-key dirge. This time out, he reworked it into a much subtler, noir Orbison pop groove that was a lot more upbeat yet packed twice the wallop. A little later, the band picked up the pace even more and gave an extra jolt of electricity to Saturday’s Down, an understatedly haunting account of watching a respite from the trials of the work week slip away:

The morning came a bit too late as usual today
The sunshine made its case and was abruptly pushed away
Coffee burnt beyond description, bread as hard as stone
The stranger in the mirror said you’re spending too much time alone

A Sweetheart of the Rodeo sway masked the venom in Imperfect Strangers, pianist Patrick McLellan’s fiery chords and ripples raising the ante – “Don’t kid yourself until he calls you in the morning, I don’t want to hear you say he never gave you warning,” Murphy insisted. And then they hit a doublespeed soul-clap groove.

Over a slinky latin soul beat, the defiant Another Lesson I Never Learned wound up with a bitingly enigmatic series of tradeoffs between Murphy’s vocals and the piano. Then they took it down for a bit with This Is Nothing Like Bliss, a morose soul ballad about a hookup gone drastically wrong, then took it back up again.

In his signature porkpie hat and black suit, Murphy twitched and stutter-stepped like a pre-angel dust James Brown in front of the band as they made their into way through the Stax/Volt shuffle Happy Hour, a reminder that the people at the office that you can’t stand are even more obnoxious once they’ve had a few. Mad Within Reason, the title track to Murphy’s brilliant, most recent album, careened along on with a phantasmagical Weimar blues pulse:

Sinews and cobwebs have clung to our lips
Cnd crosses and pistols are hung from our hips
Cried for my supper, then spat on the plate
While everyone tried to become what they hate
The industry captain, smile on his face
So proud of the changes he’s made to this place

Lead guitarist Tommy Hoscheid alternated between judicious Memphis licks, a Stonesy growl and finally a flurry of slasher tremolo-picking over the sway of Brothers Moving‘s Nils Sorensen’s bass and Carlos Hernandez’s drums. The best song of the night was a recently resurrected classic, Pretty for the Parlor, adding a little deadpan country glitter to the grimly bouncing tale of a sniper hellbent on picking off a few poor suckers in some outer-borough hell.  After that, they segued out of Doc Pomus’ Lonely Avenue into Stormy Monday and then back again. At the end of the show, after the last of the encores (a roaring version of the sardonically titled Blue Silence) Murphy wryly stole a page out of the Muddy Waters book and led the group through a couple of lickety-split choruses of I Got My Mojo Working. In a year packed with transcendent live shows, this was one of the best – and the sound at the club, hit-and-miss in years past, was great! Lesson learned – watch for the Best Concerts of 2013 page here at the END of the year.

Hannah vs. the Many Battle the Sound at Cake Shop

Hannah vs. the Many played the album release show for their latest one, Ghost Stories, at Cake Shop Thursday night. Frontwoman/guitarist Hannah Fairchild’s songs are lyrically driven, and the vocals were hit-and-miss in the mix all night, beginning with the opening bands and continuing through her band’s ferocious, roughly 40-minute set. So this was a chance to focus on Hannah the tunesmith. She’s just as strong with the tunes as she is with the words and the vocals (too bad there were issues, since this club usually has much better sound than in your typical bodega basement). Guitarist Josh Fox is her not-so-secret weapon, weilding spaghetti western/crime jazz twang against acidic postpunk chords, judicious single-note harmonies and roaring punk riffage. Fairchild is no slouch on guitar herself, wailing and tremolo-picking her Strat with a slasher menace as the drums pummelled and the bassist (yeah – this band has bass now!) played tight, melodic lines.

The opening number, Poor Leander – a lit-rock scorcher from the new album – got a menacingly scampering, chord-chopping  psychobilly edge fueled by long drum rolls over bridge and some paint-peeling vocals from Fairchild, whose vocals are even better live than in the studio. The twin slasher guitars on the twin suicide anthem All Eyes on Me led up to a cartwheeling bridge and then a false ending that faked out the crowd. Jordan Baker, Fairchild’s gentlest and arguably most haunting song matched her elegantly apocalyptic lyric to a quiet jangle that Fox finally lit into with some otherworldly swoops before the last chorus kicked in.

There were a couple of new songs, one that built from noir to a punkish scamper, another that worked a skeletal/explosive dynamic;. Fairchild’s song structures don’t follow any kind of typical verse/chorus architecture, and from the looks of things that’s not about to change. Her next song, Muse, galloped along with a scathing, bitter lyric: “No kiss is ever more than sugar sweet/No affection is ever more than river deep.” Then they took the breathlessly sardonic Biography of Cells down to just the cymbals and Fairchild’s guitar for the last verse. The equally searing Lady of the Court – another track from the new album – had a Fox guitar solo in place on the wry 80s synth on the album and was better for it. They wound up with an absolutely bloodcurdling version of the raging noir cabaret anthem The Party Faithful and closed with a sarcastic, punked-out cover of some mallstore pop song. A lot of people in the crowd sang along. but for others, it was a WTF moment. That Hannah vs. the Many’s songs are better known in some circles than, say, Lady Gag, says a lot about the state of the rock music world in 2013.

While Fairchild’s lyrics tend to be on the venomous side, she had a coy repartee going with the crowd and with her band – when her drummer called her out for wearing her underwear on the outside of her fishnets, she didn’t blink. That every guy on the Lower East Side wasn’t packed into Cake Shop to enjoy those visuals pretty much speaks for what’s happened to the neighborhood.

The opening bands were good, too, if not particularly tight. The 9 PM act, Toronto’s Fast Romantics, worked an retro 80s/90s Britrock vibe that evoked both the Smiths and Pulp without being arch or affected. The high point was a decent cover of Pulp’s classic anti-fauxhemian anthem Common People, which is almost 20 years old now but in a lot of ways was the perfect song for the night, considering what part of town the band was playing in. Pep, the 10 PM act, had a trio of women out front singing fetchingly catchy, Spector-ish 60s girl-group pop and oldschool soul.

Another Assaultively Brilliant Album from Hannah vs. the Many

It’s never safe to say that one artist is the best in a particular genre: every time you think you’ve heard everything, a songwriter like Nehedar comes out of the woodwork and blows you away. But it’s safe to say that there is no better lyricist, tunesmith or singer in rock right now than Hannah Fairchild of Hannah vs. the Many. Her previous album All Our Heroes Drank Here was rated #13 on the best of 2012 list here and probably should have been #1. With its torrents of lyrics, savage humor, menacing noir cabaret cascades, scorching guitar riffage and relentless angst – not to mention Fairchild’s searing, wounded wail – it illustrates a bitter, doomed urban milieu as memorable as anything Leonard Cohen or Jarvis Cocker ever wrote. Hannah vs. the Many have a new ep aptly titled Ghost Stories just out and an album release show coming up on Nov 14 at Cake Shop. They’re ferociously good live, and Fairchild is as charismatic a frontwoman as you would expect after hearing her studio material.

The new ep reinvents several of the tracks from Fairchild’s 2010 solo album Paper Kingdoms. It’s amazing how different they are, yet how much the original, mostly acoustic versions sound like demos for these volcanic full-band performances.

All Eyes on Me builds from layers of resonant guitar from Fairchild and her brilliant lead player, Josh Fox, as the organ and keys rise to a slashing insistent Strat-fueled chorus. The narrative could be about a triumphant flight above the “the sorry strangers under glass, no time to think about their lives, identical in horror” – or it could be the desperate tale of a double suicide told from the point of view of someone with no fear of the reaper.

Lady of the Court is Fairchild at the top of her dramatic power, a bitter cautionary tale from the perspective of someone who’s just willing enough to work her way up…but to what? From its faux-bombastic twin guitar intro, it hits a roaring anthemic groove, Fairchild’s voice low and menacing as she traces another angst-fueled trajectory:

Unlikely princess in the eyes of the day-old drunks
I’ve never been the girl whose name is in the title
The story is ending and the world just blurs away
Turning pages and waiting on the hero
I am a guardian of thieves
Flying on unbuttoned sleeves 
Falling in the backstreets but not for too long

It hits a wry 80s keyboard interlude on the way to a surprise ending.

Nicollet captures a bitter breakup over creepy piano-based art-rock. The original version has a folkie acoustic feel, albeit with a distant menace; what’s stunning about this version is how much more power, yet more nuance there is in Fairchild’s voice:

Crossing yourself at my door
You’ve come seeking some quick and easy absoloution
But I’m only as clean as the floors I’ve been kneeling on

The most explosive and arguably best song here is Poor Leander, a corrosively poignant account of two probably irreparably damaged souls hell-bent on NOT making things work, set to marauding noir cabaret rock:

Bedsheet around your shoulder, scrapes on both your knees
Were you running off the rooof again, my broken friend?
Now you’re flying out to save her from the latest ivory castle that you found
But the second she lets you in her window it’ll all come crashing down

The closest thing to the original here is the luridly torchy, aptly titled Slow Burn, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Julia Haltigan catalog. As with the rest of the album, guitars gleam and smolder, electric piano tingles and Fairchild’s voice rises from an anxious murmur to a vengeful scream and then back again. Forget about Grace Potter and all those wannabes: Hannah vs. the Many are the real deal, the teens equivalent of what Siouxsie & the Banshees were in the 80s or the Avengers ten years before.

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