New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: noir music

Changing Modes Add to Their Legacy As One of the Great New York Bands

Quick: who’s the best rock songwriter in New York? Wendy Griffiths of Changing Modes is on the shortlist, no question. Quietly and efficiently, the keyboardist/bassist and her artsy, new wave-flavored band have put out a series of bitingly lyrical, wickedly catchy albums, all of which are streaming at Spotify. They’ve got a new one, The Paradox of Traveling Light, their sixth full-length album, due out momentarily and a release show at 9 PM on July 19 at Bowery Electric. Much as Changing Modes have made a name for themselves for elegant arrangements and shapeshifting tunes, they’re great fun live. Griffiths may be unsurpassed at creating a nonchalantly menacing ambience, but onstage she’s full of surprises, and the band feeds off her energy.

She also has a devious sense of humor, and that’s in full effect from the first few beats of Timur Yusef’s garage-rock drum intro on the album’s opening track, Dinosaur. A trickily rhythmic piano-pop song, it could be a snarky commentary on trendoids, or the human race in general on the fast track to the apocalypse. Griffiths’ scream on the way out is classic, Jello Biafra-class evil.

She works a neon luridness on the second track, Red, one of a handful of guy/girl duets here with the stagy-voiced Vincent Corrigan. The two spar and threaten each other over a punkish guitar-driven backdrop that brings to mind vintage X. The band follows that with the moody, Siouxsie-esque new wave anthem Give Up the Ghost, Griffiths and co-keyboardist Grace Pulliam shifting shades up to an expansive but purposeful Yuzuru Sadashige guitar solo.

The guy sings Sycamore Landing, an elegantly troubled 6/8 piano ballad that would fit perfectly in the Neil Finn catalog. In June alternates between a bouncy but creepy pulse and lingering atmospherics, a rich study in contrasts that might be a breakup song…or it might be about a suicide. That’s what makes Griffiths’ songwriting so interesting: she never hits anything head on, always drawing the listener into the mystery.

The one cover here is Black & Grey, a surprisingly solid, pensive song by otherwise lightweight quirk-pop band the Dream Bitches. Jeanine is the most lighthearted song here, and it’s not the first one the band has done about a cat. Fly morphs from macabre to wryly hilarious (Yusef gets the punchline), a bitter suburban escape anthem. Ride keeps the menacing chromatics going over a brisk new wave pulse, Griffiths’ venomous lyric driven to a crescendo by a snarling Sadashige guitar solo.

Lately takes an unlikely blend of spacerock lyrics and a brisk, surfy, organ-fueled groove and makes it all work: it seems to be a death-in-space scenario. The album ends with Sadashige’s pensive Triangle Heart, an understatedly dark ballad that shifts tempos all the way through to a funereal, tremoloing Griffiths organ solo that perfectly caps off this troubled and sometimes wrenchingly beautiful album, a strong contender for best of 2014.

Intensely Fun Summer Concerts by Nicole Atkins and the Universal Thump

Nicole Atkins and her “band of Daves,’ as she put it – on lead guitar, electric piano and organ, bass and drums – played a soaringly eclectic, richly tuneful set to kick off this year’s outdoor concert series at Madison Square Park. What was most striking about the concert was the welcome absence of the cheesy keyboard textures that gunk up some otherwise excellent songs on Atkins’ latest album, Slow Phaser. Aside from a diversion into that on a swaying, funky tune early in the set, her keyboardist stuck to fluid organ fills and elegantly glimmering electric piano.

They opened with the new album’s first song, Who Killed the Moonlight, putting more emphasis on lingering, uneasy atmospherics than the disco bounce of the studio version. The bassist gave it a slinky groove as the lead player added terse, red-neon, noirish fills and bends. Atkins’ wounded outsider presence on the sardonic Cool People provided an edge that transcended all the purloined Beatles and Lou Reed licks. Atkins reaffirmed why she has such a devoted fan base, showing off a spectacular vocal range that she varied from low and apprehensive to some spine-tingling flights to the upper registers, adding subtle blues and soul tinges and then some grit at the end as her voice began to go ragged after all that exertion.

She and the band maintained the intensity with the organ-fueled ba-bump noir cabaret tune Gasoline Bride and its creepy slowdown at the end, then the slow, angst-fueled Vera Beren-esque 6/8 ballad The Way It Is, part darkly Orbisonesque Americana, part gothic art-rock. Atkins took that to a peak with the wickedly catchy Maybe Tonight, an anguished blue-eyed Motown hit as towering as anything Gary Usher wrote for Gary Puckett back in the 60s.

Girl You Look Amazing, another tune that’s pretty straight-up disco on the new album, took on extra bite with a more straight-ahead beat underneath Atkins’ sarcastic dig at a would-be pickup artist. Interestingly, they gave We Wait Too Long a swooshy, misterioso groove, in contrast to the album’s more direct, regret-laden version.

After the hypnotically loping, darkly bluesy Vultures, with its creepily twinkling electric piano, they tiptoed and swayed through the longing and bitterness of Red Ropes, the most luridly noir song on the new album.

Atkins’ cynical sense of humor came front and center on It’s Only Chemistry, a sardonic battle-of-the-sexes narrative, and then an aching take of The Worst Hangover, whose narrator is so miserable (and possibly still so drunk) that she ends up calling an ambulance. It was too bad that the lead player missed his chance to take The Tower – the crushing, potentially explosive anthem that’s sort of Atkins’ signature song – to a logically pyrotechnic peak, instead drifting unexpectedly into nebulously metal territory. After everything that had come before, it would have been the perfect way to end the show. It took a siren echoing across the park from further north to add just the right touch of horror as the song wound out. The Madison Square Park series of free concerts continues on July 16 at 7 PM with French jazz pianist Jacky Terrasson and his group.

And it was good to be able to catch about half an hour of a show that promised to be even better beforehand several blocks north at Bryant Park, where keyboardist/songwriter Greta Gertler’s lush art-rock band the Universal Thump aired out some of the soaring, often epic songs from their massive triple-cd debut album along with some tantalizing new tunes. Gertler’s elegantly intricate electric piano mingled with the otherworldly vocal harmonies of Las Rubias Del Norte‘s Emily Hurst and Allyssa Lamb over the terse pulse of drummer Adam D. Gold and bassist Byron Isaacs. Guitarist Oren Bloedow – the noir mastermind behind art-rockers Elysian Fields, and a longtime Jenifer Jackson collaborator – kept a low-key, blue-flame intensity going, finally rising to a savagely insistent attack as the show hit a peak right about at the midway point. And then it was time to head south.

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.

 

A Dark Night of Soul at the Brooklyn Night Bazaar

Friday night at the Brookyn Night Bazaar, singer/guitarist Nick Waterhouse didn’t start a song in a major key until his long, menacingly pulsing set was almost over. And at that point, with a laid-back, warmly sunny retro soul groove, he lost the crowd. Apparently they liked his dark, minor-key stuff better, which makes sense considering how much there was of it and well he did it. It was almost funny watching guest Paula Henderson – ordinarily one of the world’s most colorful baritone saxophonists – hanging out way down in the smoky lows, inscrutable behind her red shades, decked out in a matching red dress, channeling luridness even when she wasn’t playing it. Waterhouse brought the regular drummer from his LA band, who has every snazzy retro soul thump and flourish in his fingers and used all of them judiciously, while the guest bassist and keyboardist evoked a shady, 1966-era Detroit soul lounge.

Waterhouse is also a hell of a guitarist, but he’s more about building a mood than he is about flash, firing off a handful of barely chorus-length solos, letting his menacing, reverb-drenched flourishes linger. His vocals have a drawl that draws more on 60s psychedelia than it does the retro soul that springboards his songs. Even when a verse would vamp along on a single chord until the chorus kicked in, there was always something interesting going on: an echoey Rod Argent-style electric piano solo; the organ and sax punching in together; oohs and aahs from the woman singing harmonies. The noir ambience never lifted until late in the show.

The first number sounded like a dark retro psych band like the Allah-Las doing oldschool soul. The second one was like Clairy Browne‘s band covering the 13th Floor Elevators. Another took the riff from Tom Petty’s Breakdown and made purist retro soul out of it. Waterhouse went into ghoulabilly and then a Lynchian bolero later on, followed by the night’s most lurid number, Sleeping Pills, which is probably about suicide but might not be. He also tossed in a couple of covers including an expansively furtive version of the Young-Holt Trio’s Ain’t There Something That Money Can’t Buy, one of several tracks from his new album, Holly. After well over an hour onstage, he and the band encored with a long jam on the Seeds’ Pushin’ Too Hard. That’s a funny song, and that’s how it started out, the drummer hitting on the “one” until he realized after about four minutes that it was just plain overkill. By then the song was going in a darker direction, Waterhouse and the organist pushing it through Stranglers territory on through to the Doors

On one hand, that Waterhouse got the people in the house to respond as energetically as they did was impressive, considering that this was Williamsburg, and that the show was part of a pathetic L Magazine-sponsored imitation of the CMJ indie clusterfuck. On the other, it’s probably safe to say that the crowd who came out for Waterhouse and the clique that goes to see bands like The Pains of Being Bear in Heaven probably don’t talk to each other much.

 

Amanda Thorpe Goes Deep Into the Noir in Yip Harburg’s Torch Songs

Nobody sings a moody grey-sky melody with as much moving, wounded poignancy as Amanda Thorpe. Although she’s best known as a purveyor of uneasy, rustic Britfolk-influenced rock and chamber pop – she’s the closest thing to Linda Thompson this generation has produced – Thorpe has also been singing jazz since the 90s. And she’s just as hauntingly adept at it, shifting meticulously and sometimes wrenchingly from one emotion to another in a pensive alto. She’ll caress the lyrics on a verse and then hit a wailing, anguished peak on a chorus. But where she works her magic best is in between those extremes.

Thorpe’s new album Bewitching Me: The Lyrics of Yip Harburg was springboarded by a chance introduction to Ben Harburg, grandson of the ubiquitous swing era lyricist. Thorpe reinvents a bunch of old chestnuts as well as several  rarities from throughout Harburg’s career, backed by a tight band recorded mostly live in the studio. Sexmob‘s Tony Scherr plays tersely eclectic guitar, ranging from wee-hours, tremolo-tuned saloon jazz to vintage soul to the downtown grit he’s best known for. Rob Jost plays bass with an edgily incisive, woody tone; Robert di Pietro on drums with his typical, minutely focused nuance; plus Matt Trowbridge on keyboards, Serena Jost on cello and Ray Sapirstein on trumpet. Joe McGinty guests memorably on organ on a shatteringly wounded, nocturnal, oldschool soul-infused take of I’m Yours. Scherr switches to bass on a wryly jaunty, Anita O’Day-style take of Buds Won’t Bud alongside guests Michael Fagan on guitar and Nancy Polstein (Thorpe’s bandmate in the late, great Wirebirds) on drums. And Ben Harburg duets with Thorpe on a droll, tonguetwisting bonus track, I Like the Likes of You, over a bouncy pop backdrop.

Her stab at turning Over the Rainbow into a janglerock anthem, Scherr channeling Bill Frisell, is about as good as anything anyone’s been able to do with it. But her take of the other standard Harburg’s best known for, Brother Can You Spare a Dime, is a quiet knockout, rising out of a creepy, ambient intro with a thinly restrained anger, bringing it into the post-Bush era with a muted vengeance and vivid sense of abandonment. With its haunting, subdued anguish, Thorpe’s noir tropicalia version of Willow in the Wind is even better, fueled by di Pietro’s ominous tom-toms and misterioso cymbal work. Thorpe and the band work their way into It’s Only a Paper Moon as subdued Lynchian noir, then wind it up with an unexpected snarl fueled by Scherr’s bristling chords. And her misty, lushly waltzing, Adrift on a Star raises the doomed deep-sky intensity to a hushed peak.

Jost’s stark cello mingles with Scherr’s sparkly guitar as Paris Is a Lonely Town unwinds into Beatlesque psychedelia. Likewise, the jazziest tune here, April in Paris gives Thorpe plenty of room to remind how much a notoriously romantic city can amplify absence and regret. Old Devil Moon gets a lingering Nashville gothic treatment that grows more sultry the deeper Thorpe goes into the song: the old devil’s definitely up to no good here. Thorpe reinvents I’m Yours as slow swaying, jangly, organ-fueled oldschool soul and follows it with the album’s most sensual number, Last Night When We Were Young, Thorpe airing out her upper register with a lushly breathy, spine-tingling presence.

There are also a couple of considerably more lighthearted songs here. Thorpe has devilishly deadpan fun with all the tricky rhymes and innuendo in When I’m Not Near the Man I Love over the band’s tiptoeing red-neon ambience. And she gives Then I’ll Be Tired of You a swinging vintage soul-infused interpretation. The album’s liner notes compare the chemistry between Thorpe and Scherr to Julie London with Barney Kessel, or Mary Ford with Les Paul, and while this rocks harder than either of those duos ever did, the comparison holds true. As noir music and torch songs go, it doesn’t get any better than this. It this album the best of 2014 so far? It’s one of them.

A Grim Look into the Future from HUMANWINE

Boston’s best band, HUMANWINE have been making important, politically insightful, exhilarating Romany-flavored punk rock and noir cabaret for over a decade. They’re the closest thing to the Clash or the Dead Kennedys that we have right now. Those comparisons are especially appropriate considering that HUMANWINE (a cryptic acronym for Humans Underground Making Anagrams Nightly While Imperialistic Not-Mes Enslave) don’t just write songs about doom and despair under an all-seeing Orwellian eye. The band’s core, frontwoman Holly Brewer and guitarist/keyboardist Matthew McNiss envision an alternate future that’s NOT a corporate fascist surveillance state. Since the band came up right after the Bush/Cheney coup d’etat in 2000, their response has been venomous, and sarcastic, and articulate right from the start. They see this happening in their own country, and they take it personally. More of us should.

Right now they have a characteristically creepy, carnivalesque new album, Fighting Naked, and an ep, Mass Exodus, up at their Bandcamp page as name-your-price downloads, as ominously entertaining as they are prophetic. The music on the album is intense, and feral, and anthemic, and the message is spot-on. Are we going to be hypnotized by the “hypocritical fascist porno priests on the tv selling you shit you don’t need, ” while we let the billionaires and their multinational cartels inch us closer and closer to fullscale slavery – or are we going to join forces, all of us, delete our Facebook accounts and then give Big Brother the boot? It’s our call.

Many of the corrosively propulsive narratives here are told from the point of view of exiles and freedom fighters battling a murderous occupation. Some are set in the imaginary fascist state of Vinland, which is basically the world taken forward a few years to where every move a person makes is recorded and watched. But as Brewer reminds on the live acoustic version of the catchy, defiant protest anthem 1st Amendment, surveillance can work both ways. Who’s watching the watchers?

The first track on the album is a macabre punkmetal waltz, UnEntitled States of Hysteria, Brewer’s machinegun vocals splattering a grim tableau of life under the occupation, with a snide outro that makes the connection between medieval witch trials and this era’s demonization of so-called terrorists. The next cut, Big Brother, a Middle Eastern-tinged punk tune, is more defiant and optimistic: when the “Eye of the pyramid is keeping track of your every move, every day your thoughts are all you got – so go and do what you gotta do.”

Tumbling drums – is that Brian Viglione or Nate Greenslit? – and McNiss’ murderously growing low-register guitar fuel the title track, another creepy waltz. Wake Up is next, a sarcastic, surreal lullaby that morphs into a viciously sarcastic faux military march, followed by a punk sea chantey that offers a hint of comic relief.

“Sometimes families change…create your own,” Brewer sings coldly on the chorus of Epoch, which opens as a deliciously ominous, Britfolk-tinged number and then bounces toward Balkan musical territory in 5/4 time. Likewise, the album’s most macabre song, Worthless Ode, shifting from a morbid march to a Transylvanian dance: it’s about love during wartime, and it doesn’t end well. Another menacing waltz, Script Language sounds like Vera Beren covering Trans-Siberian Orchestra, with some brooding trumpet from the Ghost Train Orchestra‘s Brian Carpenter.

The banjo-driven Rivolta Silenziosa has a World Inferno-style noir cabaret feel, shifting uneasily between low-key and anguished. The most vivid of the Bush-era parables is the pensive, defeated, Pink Floyd-ish art-rock anthem When in Rome: “You can’t see the dead as they’re arriving – many more in the back are under flags and hiding,” Brewer intones. The album ends with a radio transmission from Vinland, the hardy few remaining trying to enjoy themselves with “an apocalyptic night on the town,” or what remains of it, Brewer taking it up and out with an operatic intensity.

The ep also includes Our Devolution Is Televised, whose recurrent mantra is “Can’t you feel the lockdown?”, and the raging, surreal Death Wish for the Impostor. These are great albums, and they’re important ones. The whole point of this music is that in times like these, you become either a hero or a zero: it falls to ordinary people like us to do heroic things. And history is on our side: there’s plenty of precedent. The Nazis weren’t defeated by a race of giants. It was people just like you and everybody else who risked their lives – and lost them, sometimes - to put an end to that particular strain of fascism. We really don’t have any other choice. Imagine what the guards at Auschwitz would have done with GPS technology.

HUMANWINE are playing the album release show for these two on June 10 at the Lizard Lounge, 1667 Mass Ave. in Cambridge, Massachusetts with their acoustic side project the Folks Below opening.

A Haunting Exploration of the WWII Underground Resistance from Barbez

Brooklyn instrumentalists Barbez are one of the world’s great art-rock bands. Guitarist/frontman Dan Kaufman blends reeds, strings, vibraphone and theremin into his frequently haunting, sometimes austere, sometimes frenetic, historically-informed, Old World European-influenced songs. Their previous album, Force of Light, set death-obsessed poems by Romanian-Jewish Holocaust poet Paul Celan to music. They’ve got a new album, Bella Ciao, inspired by the unique sounds of Roman Jewish music and the bravery of the Italian underground against the Nazis in World War II. They’ve also got a show coming up on May 22 at around 10 at Trans-Pecos (the old Silent Barn space), 915 Wykoff Ave. in Ridgewood, L train to Halsey St.; cover is $10.

The new album – recorded and mixed by dark rock maven Martin Bisi – is a suite, a brooding, wounded, cinematic theme and variations. It opens and quickly builds to a propulsive, trickily rhythmic, darkly bustling overture over Peter Lettre’s tightly looping bass and the tumbling drums of Sway Machinery’s John Bollinger (whose echoey, terse clusters throughout this album drive the menace factor through the roof). The second track juxtaposes Peter Hess’ insistent clarinet and Danny Tunick’s vibraphone within a wistful waltz that builds to a gallop and then back.

Kaufman’s creepy tremolo guitar fuels the third track, morphing out of dub-inflected noir ambience to a lushly marching sway that evokes Big Lazy with orchestration. On the following cut, Fiona Templeton narrates an English translation of the Pier Paolo Pasolini poem The Resistance and Its Light over a soaring backdrop to illustrate an angst-ridden hope-against-hope theme. Then she does the same with Alfonso Gatto’s bitter wartime elegy, Anniversary, on Mizmor Leasaf, the eerily reverberating, dirgelike noir piece that’s the high point of the album.

After a brief, austere vocal interlude, Kaufman deftly builds a Twin Peaksian theme out of Lettre’s ominous introductory chromatics on Keter Ittenu, then does the same, building to a frantic punk pulse and then pulling back, on Kamti Beashmoret. The title track, a new arrangement of the famous Italian WWII resistance anthem – sung by Templeton in its original Italian – sets a trickly rhythmic verse up against soaringly waltzing choruses fueled by Catherine McRae’s violin and Pamelia Kurstin’s theremin, then a hypnotically psychedelic interlude. The narrative reaches a peak with Umevi Goel, rising from a brooding violin/clarinet passage to an understated danse macabre, Bollinger’s ominous rumble fueling its many dynamic shifts. -The album ends with a sad, rainy-day violin-and-piano duet, a vivid after-battle scenario. This plaintive, evocative masterpiece might well be the high point of the band’s career; watching them evolve since their begininngs in the late 90s mining a stylized Tom Waits vibe has been a lot of fun. And they’re just as good live as they are on album.

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.

Gord Downie & the Sadies Conquering the Bowery

[Thanks to Bowery Ballroom's smart, energetic house manager, Amanda, who took the extra effort to make sure that this review happened]

Canadian crooner Gord Downie told the crowd at Bowery Ballroom last night that his show with the Sadies was their second gig “with lights and a soundcheck,” but the chemistry and energy was through the roof. Airing out most of the songs on their brilliant new album, Gord Downie, the Sadies & the Conquering Sun, they veered from surreal, sunburnt southwestern gothic rock, to hypnotic psychedelia, to the richly jangly, Americana-tinged rock that the Sadies have honed to a knife’s edge over more than a decade.

Has there ever been another rock brother combo as spectacularly true to their name as guitarists Travis and Dallas Good? Ray and Dave Davies, maybe, in a completely different idiom. Travis played deliciously clanging, ringing lines – and a sizzling electrified bluegrass solo toward the end of Los Angeles Times, a swaying Highway 61 revisitation. Dallas played slinky paisley underground leads, searingly high, sustained, reverb-drenched ambience and the occasional descent into frenetic, low-register roar on a couple of Telecasters. Their bassist stuck with a simple, muscular, low pulse in an attempt to cut through the mix over drummer Mike Belitsky’s artful shuffles and counterintuitive rolls across the toms, nonchalantly reasserting himself as one of the half-dozen best drummers in rock. He’s Keith Moon without the wrestlemania persona and more swing.

They opened with a couple of deliciously ringing spaghetti western-tinged numbers, Crater, then the album’s title track, the latter with the first of Dallas Good’s keening, paint-peeling leads. A little afterward, they gave the Who’s So Sad About Us an energetic workout that recalled the Jam’s version, but more elegantly. Later on in the set they did a stinging version of the Gun Club’s Goodbye Johnny, a strikingly apt choice of cover considering the resemblance between that band and this project, and encored with a frenetic, furiously riffing, extended take of Iggy Pop’s I Got a Right, Dallas Good firing off acidic layers of Ron Asheton sustain in place of James Williamson’s proto-glam attack on the original.

But it was the originals that resonated the most. Reaching up from his ominous baritone with an unrestrained angst, Downie completely sold the crowd on Budget Shoes, a grim, metaphorically loaded narrative about two desperados making their way across a desert “valley of ghosts.” The sardonic One Good Fast Job went down into snarling swamp rock; a little later, Downie dedicated the antiwar anthem Demand Destruction to antinuclear heroine Dr. Helen Caldicott - it sounded like the Who covering the Pogues. Devil Enough morphed electric bluegrass into Blonde on Blonde clang, while I’m Free, Dissaray Me went off into lingering Brian Jonestown Massacre-style psychedelia, a vivid contrast between the two guitarists’ styles. They wound up the set by stretching out the low-key soul ballad Saved into a similarly psychedelic anthem with several playful false endings.

Watching Downie strain to talk to the audience between songs was almost comical: as fans of his long-running band the Tragically Hip know, he’s actually a very articulate guy. As a diversion, he’d swing a big yellow spotlight from the back of the stage like a yo-yo in reverse. How he managed not to burn the skin off his fingers – those things get HOT – was the mystery of the night.

Downie and the Sadies continue their American tour with stops at Lincoln Hall in Chicago on May 10 and then at the Magic Stick in Detroit on May 11. Then the Sadies are at Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland on May 17 - if you’re there and this is your thing, don’t miss them.

Richly Dark, Jangly Rock from Gord Downie & the Sadies

Canadian janglerockers the Sadies have made some great albums both by themselves as well as with Neko Case. Their latest project finds them working a hauntingly propulsive southwestern gothic vein behind Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, who channels a Celtic-tinged, Nick Cave-style desperation on their new album, Gord Downie, the Sadies & the Conquering Sun. The album is streaming at the band’s site; they’re bringing this gorgeously dark stuff to Bowery Ballroom on May 2 at around 10. General admission is $20.

The album’s opening track, Crater motors along on a snarling, catchy garage-punk groove: it’s one of the loudest things this band’s ever done. Travis Good takes a twistingly bluesy guitar solo; “Crater, getting crushed in your dreams,” Downie rages. The second cut, a title track of sorts, is the first of the lingering, backbeat-driven, jangly minor-key desert rock numbers, Downie “working the fugitive dust under the conquering sun.”Los Angeles Times sways more slowly, painting a restless party scenario, Downie frustrated that he can’t cut through a pretentious crowd to get to an intriguing girl. An unexpected, tasty flatpicked acoustic guitar solo takes the song out.

One Good Fast Job picks up the pace, a bristling, minor-key swamp-rock tune. “You sound hard, you sound dope, you sound like you lick your own envelopes,” Downie taunts. It Didn’t Start to Break My Heart Until This Afternoon opens with an uneasily droning intro and then scampers along with a hypnotic Brian Jonestown Massacre garage-psych ambience. The best song on the album is the ominously reverb-drenched Budget Shoes, fueled by Mike Belitsky’s artfully tumbling, Keith Moon drums, Downie tracing the steps of a couple of desperados “walking through the valley of ghosts,” one with his eyes on the other’s superior footgear.

Downie’s Irish-inflected vocals pair off with the band’s country-tinged jangle on Demand Destruction: “Is this accident ever over anymore?” Downie asks anxiously. They bring in a slow, warmly nocturnal Beggars Banquet ambience with spiky mandolin and flowing organ on Devil Enough before they pick it up with an electric bluegrass drive. I’m Free, Disarray Me goes in a nebulously uneasy Psychedelic Furs direction. The album ends with Saved, a slow, pensive, soul-tinged 6/8 anthem. Pretty much what you would expect from the Sadies, if not necessarily from Downie: not a single substandard song on this, definitely one of the best albums of the year.

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