New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: noir music

Good Shows Saturday Night on the LES

Eve Lesov looks kind of punk; her music has a classical tinge to it (it seems that every Russian has classical training). She plays an original, tuneful, moody mix of noir cabaret, chamber pop and gothic rock. Her songwriting also has a Spanish side. She’s a strong pianist, a fantastic singer with a dramatic, sometimes stagy flair and the kind of sardonic humor that so many Slavs have. She also has a shtick, “Russian devotchka in New York and things are crazy, man, but everything’s gonna be ok.” And she’s got an excellent, eclectic band. Saturday night at the Rockwood, Lesov led them through a set that was occasionally haunting, sometimes pensive, sometimes kinetic and often amusing.

Lesov’s drummer kept a terse, muted thump going through her mostly slow-to-midtempo songs using just a cymbal and a conga, which he played with mallets. Her excellent bassist added the occasional guitarlike flourish into his fluid grooves. Acoustic guitar mingled with Lesov’s stately piano chords and icy arpeggios; on a handful of songs, the band added balmy jazz flute on top of the mix for an unexpectedly tasty blend of textures.

They opened with a slow minor-key instrumental, Lesov wordlessly reaching for the top of her crystalline vocal range over a brooding chromatic bassline. Then they segued into a pensive bolero. A couple of big, crescendoing anthems bookended a slinky trip-hop groove that was the poppiest number of the set, yet it had the same kind of distant menace as most of the other songs. In a typically uneasy-funny moment, Lesov alluded to being kidnapped on her way over to the US – if that’s true, good thing she got away!

A little later, Lesov switched to guitar, the guitarist taking a turn on the drums while the drummer went to the piano and turned out to have impressively nimble, jazz-influenced chops. After Lesov sang her latest single, in Russian (with more of a clenched-teeth intensity than she had on any of the English-language material), the band closed with a slowly swaying, anthemic number that was part Britfolk, part stadium rock and part early 70s Bowie. Lesov seems to be making the Rockwood her home lately; she and the band will go slumming at Sidewalk on May 2 at 9 PM.

Afterward, it was great fun to go a few blocks north to catch LJ Murphy, who was also slumming at Sidewalk in a rare duo show with his phenomenal pianist Patrick McLellan. With Botanica‘s Paul Wallfisch making Germany his home base these days, McLellan has taken over as New York’s best rock keyboardist. He was on fire throughout the set, his Bernard Herrmann-esque horror cinematics on Mad Within Reason taking that song – the title track from Murphy’s album – to new levels of creepy surrealism. Likewise, he turned the snarling East Village Hell Night scenario This Fearful Town even more nightmarish with frantic, crazed midrange clusters. And then he backed away into graceful oldschool soul and gospel on the melancholy Waiting by the Lamppost. The rest of the show was a flurry of blues and jazz licks, Murphy growling and barking in his vintage voice through a mix of upbeat, anthemic numbers like the nonchalantly menacing Long Island murder anthem Pretty for the Parlor,  the sardonic Imperfect Strangers and then the singalongs Blue Silence and Barbed Wire Playpen. Murphy has made a name for himself as a charismatic showman, bandleader and lyricist but now he’s got a guy on the keys who can match his intensity.

Holly Golightly & the Brokeoffs Tour Their Best Album with a Couple of NYC Shows

Well-liked retro rock duo Holly Golightly & the Brokeoffs have a new album, It’s Her Fault, arguably the best one they’ve ever made (it’ s not on Spotify yet, but most of the rest of their albums are). They’ve also got a couple of New York shows: in Williamsburg for free on 4/20 at 2 PM at Rough Trade (get there early if you’re going), and the following night, April 21 they’ll be at the Mercury at 10:30 for $12 in advance.

The new album is a lot darker than anything they’ve done so far: much as a lot of the punk blues in their catalog isn’t exactly happy-go-lucky stuff, this can get unexpectedly intense. It’s also a lot more fleshed out than their earlier material, with bass, piano and all kinds of tasty but purist, spare guitar multitracking. SLC, the first number, is a duet, and it kicks ass: “You can turn around an oxcart in Salt Lake City, and they think that’s a really good time…but you ain’t gonna have a good time.” This amped-up oldtimey folk tune will resonate with aybody who’s ever been there. For All That Ails You, with its mournful train-whistle guitar and stalking, noir blues sway, is uncommonly dark for this band, and it’s excellent. Likewise, Pistol Pete, a creepy noir cabaret waltz.

They go back to the haphazard kind of hillbilly boogie they’re known for on Can’t Pretend and then do the same, adding uneasily quavering funeral organ, on 1 2 3 4. They hit a lurching honkytonk groove with the unexpectely hilarious Bless Your Heart, a reality check for any Brooklyn poser with phony C&W affectations.

Holly and Lawyer Dave reinvent Trouble in Mind as a lo-fi, punked-out oldtime slide guitar shuffle and go deep into echoey, eerily twinkling Nashville gothic with the sad waltz The Best – Holly pulls out all the stops in channeling a seriously damaged woman.

Don’t Shed Your Light offers a lo-fi take on the kind of nocturnal glimmer the Stones were going for circa Exile on Main Street, with more of that deliciously swirly funeral organ. They do the same with honkytonk on the vengeful No Business and then go straight for a Stones vibe with Perfect Mess, which would be a standout track on, say, Let It Bleed. The closing cut, King Lee, brings back the unhinged punk blues vibe. Not a single second-rate track here: one of the best dozen or so albums of 2014 by this reckoning.

The Ocular Concern: The Coen Brothers Do Twin Peaks, Sonically Speaking

Noir menace, sometimes distant, sometimes front and center and impossible to turn away from, fuels Portland, Oregon instrumentalists The Ocular Concern’s album Sister Cities (streaming at Bandcamp). The band’s music considerable resemblance to guitarist Marc Ribot‘s cinematically unfolding themes as well as multi-clarinetist Ben Goldberg‘s Unfold Ordinary Mind narratives, not to mention Ennio Morricone’s 70s work, especially the Taxi Driver score. The group’s main songwriters are guitarist Dan Duval and keyboardist Andrew Oliver, whose electric piano does double duty as bass in the same vein as what Ray Manzarek did with the Doors but with more restraint. The rest of the group includes Stephen Pancerev on drums, Lee Elderton on clarinet and Nathan Beck on vibraphone and mbira.

Surrealism is in full effect with the opening track, a wintry west African mbira theme for vibraphone, bass and drums, Duval’s loopy electric guitar kicking in to raise the ante. Violinist Erin Furbee, violist Brian Quincey and cellist Justin Kagan join the group on the Sister City Suite, which opens alternating between an uneasy calm and jarring strings, then shifts to a snide faux noir latin ambience that’s pure Bernard Herrmann spun through snarky Ribot downtown cool. Alex Krebs adds washes of bandoneon to the sarcastically blithe second segment, its suspenseful pulse evoking the Get Carter soundtrack, finally hitting a roaring punk jazz stomp where Elderton’s clarinet leaves no doubt that this is where the murder happens. From there they move to a cynical, string-driven cha-cha and then follow a fake tango groove with lushly swooping strings contrasting with more of that menacing Ribot-esque reverb guitar. This may be a Pacific Northwest band, but the sound is pure New York circa 1988.

The band’s eponymous track parses coldly glimmering. wistful pastoral jazz, Elderton using its hypnotic rhythm as a launching pad for a slowly crescendoing solo until the piano and drums push it out of the picture. Lafayette, another wintry mbira groove, sounds like the Claudia Quintet without the busy drums, Eldterton’s trilling and eventually thrilling solo being the highlight. They follow that with The Eclectic Piano, essentially a suspiciously blithe variation on the same theme. The album ends with the warmly consonant, narcotic William S. Burroughs, Let’s Go!, Elderton’s alto sax taking a slowly resonant lead over Oliver’s twinkling. echoing electric piano lines. If the Coen Brothers ever did an episode of Twin Peaks, this would be the soundtrack.

Creepy and Lively Americana Tunesmithing from the Annie Ford Band

Seattle-based fiddler Annie Ford made a name for herself on the road with Gill Landry, who went on to the Old Crow Medicine Show. These days, she’s got a killer debut album that juxtaposes her own broodingly lyrical, purist Americana songwriting with her drummer Matt Manges’ more upbeat but similarly oldschool C&W tunes. The whole thing is streaming at her Bandcamp page.

The production is as vintage-sounding as the songs. Everything sounds like it was recorded through old tube amps onto analog tape: Olie Elshleman’s gorgeously otherworldly pedal steel, Tim Sargent’s jaggedly noir guitar, Ivan Molton’s terse bass. and Robert Mitchell’s jaunty saloon piano and soul organ.

The best song on the album is Buick 1966, a cinematically noir mini-epic that shifts from a creepy bolero to a waltz to scampering bluegrass and then back, fueled by Sargent’s knee-buckling, Marc Ribot-like reverb guitar lines. All Hours is another haunting gem: Ford’s aphoristic portrait of drinking to remember rather than forget, set to vintage honkytonk spiced with stark fiddle and resonant, plaintive pedal steel, could be a classic from the late 50s – or an LJ Murphy song.

Mitchell takes centerstage on Frankie, a more upbeat,Fats Domino-esque murder ballad by Manges. Likewise, Shake on That works a late 50s style swamp rock groove that blends hints of both boogie-woogie and the Grateful Dead. Another romp by Manges, Lovesick has a carefree, early Wanda Jackson-style rockabilly energy.

Elshleman’s bittersweetly soaring steel makes a vivid contrast with Ford’s morose, subdued vocals on the forlornly shuffling Two Sides. Dirty Hearts & Broken Dishes explores similar emotional terrain over an elegant oldtime banjo waltz tune. Calloused Hands, another gently powerful number by Ford, has a narrator scrambling to hold onto memories of a comfortable childhood gone forever. The way Ford strings together her striking images: a woodsy, rural scene bulldozed into dust and a “tree struck open by a lightning storm that you could hide in to keep you safe and warm,” will resonate with anyone who’s seen their childhood neighborhoods replaced by McMansions.

Ford also examines family unease in My Brother, a reflection on someone dear to her heart who could obviously be dearer. Driven by more of that delicious, distantly menacing tremolo guitar, the midtempo shuffle Northern Rain has an understated vengefulness. The album ends up with the joyously vicious, metaphorically-charged noir bluegrass tune Gotta Kill a Rooster, capped off by a triumphantly diabolical, Romany-tinged Ford fiddle solo. There’s something for everyone here, country charm and menace in equal supply along with plenty of vintage soul sounds – it’s one of the best albums to come over the transom here in recent months.

John Zorn’s Abraxas Plunges into the Killer Surf

John Zorn may have made a name for himself in the avant garde, but people forget what a hell of a rock tunesmith he is. Abraxas – guitarists Aram Bajakian and Eyal Maoz, bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and drummer Kenny Grohowski – have a new album, Psychomagia, out on Tzadik, which finds Zorn going off into noiserock and horror surf with the same kind of out-of-the-box tunefulness and assaultiveness as Beninghove’s Hangmen, or Big Lazy – or Morricone in his most acided-out back in the 60s, all filtered through the noisy prism of downtown NYC jazz. This being Zorn, some of his songs here are very through-composed, in other words, verses and choruses repeat less than you would expect from most surf bands. The result is both more elegant and more feral in places than even the mighty Dick Dale.

The opening track, Metapsychomagia, juxtaposes puckish wit with flickering menace, building from an uneasy bolero groove to a staggered Middle Eastern monster surf stomp, both guitarists ranging from lingering and twangy to frenetic and crazed, epic art-rock infused with swirling noise. Sacred Emblems is a Tex-Mex nocturne as Pink Floyd might have done it on Meddle, growing from a bittersweet Lee Hazelwood-flavored sway to southwestern gothic majesty. The band works a similar dynamic a little later on the considerably darker Squaring the Circle, a sort of Andalucian bolero surf number with a bracing Middle Eastern edge and unexpected dreampop echoes.

Circe is portrayed via a buzzing, squalling Raybeats-style stomp, the bass holding the center with burning low-register chords while the two guitars ride savage waves out into the maelstrom. Celestial Mechanism is closer to modern-day Balkan jazz than surf music, a shrieking, squalling two-chord vamp with the bass again holding the fort as the drums careen back and forth. Likewise, Four Rivers blends electric Balkan fusion with Israeli stoner metal over tumbling drums – it’s the noisiest thing on the album.

The Nameless God manages to be both the most opaquely indie-flavored and trad surf tune here, following a Ventures-in-space tangent over nebulously resonant, reverb-drenched guitars. The other two tracks here are the artsiest and arguably most interesting. Evocation of the Triumphant Beast is a genuinely evil creature, building from a macabre bolero over a stygian backdrop to searing, noisy postrock and then back with increasingly menacing flickers from the guitars. And Anima Mundi goes in the opposite direction, from an insistent danse macabre to a twinkly, clanging, serpentine guitar interlude that reminds of 70s psychedelic/art-rock legends Nektar. Throughout the album, the twin guitars sometimes wrestle, sometimes trade off gracefully, sometimes echo each other with a close yet dangerous chemistry that threatens to explode any second. On one hand, this album is so tuneful that fans of traditional surf music are going to love it; at the same time, it’s so deliciously evil in places that the most cynical Yo La Tengo diehards might be caught drooling.

So where can you hear this masterpiece? Start here at Youtube.

The Baseball Project’s 3rd Album: As Much Fun As an Unassisted Triple Play

The Baseball Project‘s new album, simply titled 3rd, sends you straight to Retrosheet. Baseball may not be the national pastime anymore, but this album is as deep and rich as the lore and the lure of the game. For fans, it’s pretty close to heaven – and for those who aren’t, it won’t alienate anybody because the tunes are so memorable and the playing is so flat-out excellent. What began as a one-off Steve Wynn side project has grown from a well-conceived novelty into a perennial World Series contender. The band is Hall of Fame caliber: Wynn (the Stan Musial of rock) on guitars and most of the lead vocals along with REM’s Peter Buck and Mike Mills plus the Minus Five’s Scott McCaughey and Linda Pitmon, who reasserts herself as the best and most consistently interesting rock drummer out there. The album isn’t up at Spotify yet, but the band’s first two are, so keep an eye out for it.

What makes the Baseball Project ultimately so much fun is that their songs celebrate the weird, the obscure and the tragic rather than the obvious. So many songs about baseball are cheesy and don’t really have a lot to do with the game, but the Baseball Project plunge into the history and the personalities involved, as well as what it’s like to be a diehard fan (and these guys really, really are). Although Wynn, the bandleader, has adopted the Yankees as his team, he’s written insightfully and poignantly about the Boston Red Sox, among other teams, on past albums. This time out, players from the Evil Empire are represented by four songs, while the Atlanta Braves – Mills’ and Buck’s team – also get plenty of props.

The first track is Stats, a pseudo-Ventures spacerock stomp with a seemingly random litany of numbers recited by Pitmon: random, that is, until you realize that’s Nolan Ryan’s season-record 383 strikeouts, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak…and then the guessing gets really good. For those who don’t know, stats are crack for baseball fans and so is this song.

Two of the best songs here, neither of which namecheck the player involved, are the most depressing. From Nails to Thumbtacks traces the career arc of one of the early steroid casualties, Lenny Dykstra, who went from spare outfielder with the Mets to sudden and prodigiously beefed-up stardom with the Phillies, only to wind up behind bars after a long, long downward spiral. “You gotta be high to fall this far,”McCaughey intones over a backdrop that’s part Ramones, part new wave. And 13, arguably the best song on the album, looks at the A-Roid scandal with even more of a caustic eye than Wynn cast on Roger Clemens in the gorgeous Twilight of My Career, from the band’s first album Frozen Ropes & Dying Quails. Over a corrosively sarcastic spaghetti western tune, Wynn explains how Alex Rodriguez took #13 as his Yankees uniform number since Babe Ruth wore #3, but ultimately it was hubris rather than bad luck that scuttled the third baseman’s assault on Henry Aaron’s home run record.

Wynn evokes his classic 2001 riff-rocker Strange New World in Hola America, the brooding account of Cuban defector Orlando Hernandez, whose World Series stardom with the Yankees obscures the alienation he must have felt while estranged from his family in a new culture. McCaughey celebrates Dock Ellis, not for the Pirates pitcher’s acid-fueled no-hitter, but for his abbreviated start on May 1, 1974 when he decided to hit every batter in the Cincinnati Reds lineup as payback for what he perceived as hotdogging – and also to energize his lacklustre team, a ploy that actually worked! Mystified manager Danny Murtaugh pulled Ellis five batters into the first inning, but the hurler’s message had been heard loud and clear.

The mid-90s REM-style powerpop hit To the Veterans Committee makes a soaringly persuasive case for enshrining longtime Braves centerfielder Dale Murphy in the Hall of Fame. Not only was Murphy one of his era’s top power hitters, he made the tricky transition from catcher to centerfield – where he won more than one Gold Glove – and he also was (and maybe still is) a competent piano player!

Box Scores celebrates a great tradition that someday may only be accessible on your phone, but as Buck reminds, “Every summer, every day, the box scores keep me sane.” The only really obvious track here, The Babe, sends a shout-out to the Sultan of Swat over a regal Hey Jude pulse lowlit by some deliciously watery vintage chorus-box guitar. Another tribute to a home run king, They Don’t Know Henry makes haunting 60s style garage-psych rock out a tip of the cap to Henry Aaron.

McCaughey cynically ponders what makes the low-budget Oakland A’s so good – and connects the dots between Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter and the recently retired, mostly mediocre Dallas Braden – over a slinky Stones/T-Rex groove. Mills and Pitmon share vocals on Pascual on the Perimeter, memorializing the afternoon when the Braves’ eccentric righthander ostensibly got lost on the way to the ballpark – and wouldn’t you know it, Phil Niekro started in his place. Part Dream Syndicate, part True West and maybe part Yo La Tengo, it’s got some of the best snarling, burning guitar of any of the tracks here.

Larry Yount, a pensive folk-rock number by Wynn, recalls the older brother of Hall of Famer Robin Yount, whose single big league appearance ended before he’d thrown a pitch. He hurt himself while warming up after coming in from the Astros bullpen late in 1971 and never again appeared in a game.

The material gets funnier as the album goes along. The Baseball Card Song is a country patter tune rippling along with Buck’s banjo and a rapidfire rap by Wynn…see, he’d held onto the collection he’d amassed as a kid until this big Wall Street guy offered him some stock in a startup in exchange, and then the fun really starts. Another patter song riffs on both Johnny Cash’s Boy Named Sue and Heart’s Barracuda, a sideways look at a fireballing Red Sox righty who never won a single Cy Young Award despite his 511 career victories. Instead of the usual tired round-the-bases metaphors, the wry faux 70s boudoir soul number Extra Inning of Love looks at another kind of game you play at night from the perspective of a pitcher rather than a batter. And the album ends with Take Me Out to the Ballgame done Ramones style.

There’s also the They Played Baseball, a folk-rock rogues’ gallery of sorts: “Durocher had his lip, and Bob Welch his great big wine, Piniella had his temper, Mendoza had his line and it’s a fine line,” McCaughey grins. Which perfectly sums up this album, and this band: if you know who those guys are, this is for you. Now let’s get Steve Wynn to throw out the first pitch at a Mets home game sometime this year!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Devil Makes Three’s New Album: Darker and Funnier Than Ever

High-energy Santa Cruz, California Americana trio the Devil Makes Three‘s incendiary live shows have won them a rabid following on the road, coast to coast. Their latest album, I’m a Stranger Here picks right up where their 2009 release Do Wrong Right left off, but with a darker and more surreal, somewhat harder-rocking edge. This time around, guitarist Pete Bernhard, upright bassist Lucia Turino and guitarist/tenor banjo player Cooper McBean add jazz and bluegrass overtones by including violin and a horn section on a handful of tracks. Americana guitar legend Buddy Miller’s production artfully blends in the new textures without losing the band’s distinctively feral sound.

The title track opens the album. It’s a briskly bouncing minor-key country blues tune with a bit of a woozy stoner hip-hop tinge. It’s also a party anthem: “We’ve come to wake the dead…we get along like an alcohol fire.” Amen to that. Worse or Better puts a 21st century update on oldtime hellfire blues – it’s a shambling out-of-captivity story with a tasty guitar/violin break midway through. Likewise, Forty Days adds a wryly bluesy, dixieland-spiced, grimly humorous spin to the Noah/Ark myth.

The slow, rustic banjo waltz A Moment’s Rest contemplates the kind of moments when the pressure gets to the point where you “gotta swim to the bottom to keep from bursting into flames.” Dead Body Moving, unlike what the title might imply, picks up the pace, a morbidly bluegrass-flavored drifter’s tale: this guy’s already seen the afterlife, he claims, and it’s not pretty. Hallelu works a cynically funny faux-gospel vein: “They say Jesus is coming, he must be walking, he sure ain’t running, who can blame him, look how we done him.”

Hand Back Down takes an unexpected detour into surrealist stoner swamp rock:

Headlights burn like torches on the way to a war
Tell me what it was that we were fighting for
Who is this god to which we sacrifice
I say whatever he wants we better give it to him twice

Spinning Like a Top celebrates a lifetime of chewing shrooms, smoking weed and selling it, with a typically amusing, clever barrage of mixed metaphors from across the decades. Mr. Midnight shuffles along with a considerably more cynical view of the reality of life on the fringes. The album winds up with the slow, creepy Nashville gothic murder ballad Goodbye Old Friends. Much as these guys have a reputation as a party band, this music is awfully smart. Not bad for a bunch of stoner country guys, huh? They’re currently on west coast tour; the next stop is at the Mateel Community Center, 59 Rusk Lane in Redway, California on Feb 4; advance tix are $20.

A Noir Masterpiece from Karla Moheno

Dark chanteuse Karla Moheno‘s genius is that as much as her noir narratives are detailed down to the nth degree, it’s next to impossible to figure out who gets killed in them. The creepy mini-movies on her album Gone to Town – streaming at her Soundcloud page – shift from killer floods to seedy border towns, through drug dreams, rubbing up against madness and sleazy characters of all kinds who must be done away with or at least run away from. This isn’t just the most Lynchian record of the year, it’s the most Lynchian record of the decade.

It doesn’t hurt that Moheno is also a brilliant tunesmith and an equally distinctive singer. She has the torchy noir blues thing down cold, but the blues is just a skeleton for her. She starts with a classic sound and builds from there with the reverb turned up all the way, on everything from the drums to the piano to the guitars. The songs also reveal that she’s just as much at home in classic soul music and even rockabilly. What might be most impressive about this album is that although there’s a constantly shifting cast of characters in the guitar chair, the sound remains the same all the way through: the faces may change but Moheno’s bleak vision doesn’t.

Moheno modulates her cool, uncluttered, mentholated vocals with just the hint of a smile that only distracts from her nonchalantly dangerous persona: Bliss Blood or Julie Christie in a particularly apprehensive moment come to mind. And as much as there’s plenty of mayhem implied throughout the album, Moheno plays the kind of femme fatale who strolls more or less unscathed out of the mist of 4 AM gunsmoke as the credits roll, ready for the sequel.

Lead guitarist Dylan Charles channels Marc Ribot noir skronk on the opening track, Time Well Spent, over Jenifer Jackson drummer Greg Wieczorek’s slow, slinky pulse as Moheno launches into her cruel tale of deceit and revenge:

Your stale sun shines
Give the old college try
My choice was clear
Either leave or die
So why not make an arrangement
And dare that county line?
The houglasss leaks on the pavement while you pine

As the story continues, we discover that there’s been a betrayal, maybe more than one, and an escape in the works – where it goes from there makes it the best song of 2014 so far by a country mile.

Silver Bucket evokes the Gun Club doing a swaying Smokestack Lightning groove circa, say, 1985, guitarist Sam Feldman’s echoey, incisive clang and occasional jaggedly tremolo-picked line underscoring Moheno’s allusively menacing story of toying with potentially deadly floodwaters. Subtext, anyone? Once again, Wieczorek’s understated drumming is spot-on, keeping the mystery drive pulsing but not lumbering.

Blacked Out & Blue is a lushly crescendoing oldschool organ soul ballad with Scott Hollingsworth doing double duty on the keys and bass along with Devon Goldberg adding deliciously watery, George Harrison-esque lead guitar. Moheno’s narrator may be a little woozy and delirious, but she hasn’t lost a step:

Cabin and fever, with one sleeping wound
I’ll draw up the plan, sir, just hand me a tool
You’re not such an old dog
This trick ain’t that hard
Throw mama a bone now
Why don’t you play in her yard

Fueled by Guyora Kats’ incisive chordal, bluesy attack on a slightly out-of-tune piano, The Return is a kiss-off song with a darkly vaudevillian edge:

And all of the girls,
They line up to meet the devil in your eyes
Every drop you can get to
Is a taste of what you will only love to despise

Have fun enjoy the ride
You love to barely get by
Just another excuse to paint your red door black

And now it’s all gone wrong
We never could get along
And so I’m sending it back

Brand New Eyes is another slow soul ballad, played solo on electric guitar with a menace that evokes Liz Tormes at her most murderously inclined. As Mexico moves from a slow acoustic ballad to a fiery desert rock anthem fueled by Jesse Blum’s accordion and trumpet, Moheno pans around a tourist town with a devious, Marissa Nadler-esque whimsy:

But hey Mr. Elvis
I’m still waiting for you
I won’t let those vatos get to you
I’ll keep that promise that fell through

And Grandma never hung up
Her good old drinking cup
She knows a couple nickels
Buy out any pickle

So line em up and knock em back
Make sure you’re losing track
I don’t want to remember this
I don’t need anything to miss

Fool of a Girl, with Feldman again on guitar, quickly moves from a brisk rockabilly-tinged shuffle toward Tex-Mex as Moheno blithely narrates her girl-on-the-lam tale:

Oh I was left for dead in Chicago by a cold cold white man
And I drowned myself in gin and spent a fortune to wash away his quicksand
But I didn’t mind it, I didn’t even put up a fight
And call me crazy, but sometimes two wrongs make a right

The final track. Girl Next Door reverts to the chilly, bluesy minor-key swing of the opening number. It’s the torchiest of the songs here, lowlit by Goldberg’s shivery red-neon guitar lines. Moheno plays the Manderley bar at the McKittrick Hotel, 532 W 27th St. (10th/11th Aves. – it’s the indoor bar, not the one on the roof) on Feb 3 at 10:30 PM. The show is free, but this swanky place fills up fast, so getting there early would be a good idea.

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