New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: power pop

Great Storytelling and Tunesmithing on Wormburner’s New Third Album

Wormburner draw a lot of comparisons to Bruce Springsteen. Like the Boss, they play anthemic, four-on-the-floor meat-and-potatoes rock  narratives with great lyrics (we’re talking the Nebraska and before-era Springsteen, ok?). And they’ve got an infinitely better singer in charismatic frontman Steve “Hank” Henry. They play respectable midsize venues and get good gigs, often as a supporting act for artists from the Springsteen era. They’ve got an especially intimate one coming up on Sept 26 at 8:30 PM at the Mercury, which will be the release show for their long-awaited third album, Pleasant Living in Planned Communities. $12 advance tix are very highly recommended since it’s a good bet that this show will sell out.

The album title is characteristically sarcastic. It’s a collection of character sketches among the down-and-out – again, the peak-era Springsteen comparison. The A-side of the first vinyl single from the album, released last year, was Today Might Be Our Day. At the time, this blog called it “on the Celtic side of anthemic 80s rock, U2 without the strident vocals and empty slogans. And it’s got a story, in this case a smalltime hood on the run from the law. Is that a swoopy synth solo or a guitar running through a wah? The band has both. The B-side, Parliaments on Sundays, is a wry janglerock anthem like the Figgs at their most tuneful, told from the point of view of a guy who likes his liquor but only smokes or does the other stuff if it ‘helps to dull the edge, and anything to keep you off the ledge.’” Those two are a good start, and it gets better from there.

Over drummer Jim Spengler’s percussive, stomping Clash City Rockers beat, Hopscotch Gunner has Henry relating a tale of airborne combat gone horribly awry, with his usual intensity, against a backdrop of burning guitar from Paul McDaniel and Alex Senese, bassist Terry Solomone taking flight on the chorus. Somewhere Else To Be nicks a very, very familiar New Order riff and hitches it to a shiny Stiff Little Fingers-style punk-pop drive; it’s the first appearance of Daniel, a lapsed Catholic and gay prostitute who will appear later on.

Drinks at the Plaza Hotel opens with a morosely crescendoing, goth-tinged theme that brings to mind Ninth House, two would-be scam artists gloating about how clueless their marks are…or are they? Made-for-TV Movie (an original, not the Twin Turbine classic about the Columbine massacre) contemplates bridge-and-tunnel alienation and anomie, over blazingly anthemic, insistent powerpop. The band starts out with a strut and builds to a stomp on Dolores, If You Please, an angst-fueled 21st century depression scenario.

The band evokes the Jam circa Setting Sons with Catherine, the searing tale of an Iraq War vet: the chorus is a clinic in how to take an anthem as far up as it can possibly go. The Sleep That Never Comes offers the point of view of an even more shellshocked veteran, this guy from the Vietnam era: the sarcastic faux-martial brass is a neat, Phil Ochs-like touch. The final veterans’ tale is Doxology:

That’s the thing about sin
First the clouds roll in
Then it’s like the world’s about to end
And somebody’s guessed
What you won’t confess
Least of all not then,

Henry explains. It’s sort of the album’s Jungleland, but a whole lot less romantic. There’s also a brief instrumental titled Billy’s Topless, which may or may not be a shout-out to a Flower District space that once housed a notorious titty bar but which is now a deli and reputedly better off as one. Memorable stories, brilliant tunesmithing, what more could you want? The album’s not out yet, hence no Spotify or Bandcamp link, but should hit the interwebs shortly.

Summer Memories: Two Darkly Funny Solo Shows by Tunesmith Walter Ego

Good Cop: We’re baaaack!

Bad Cop: We refuse to be farmed out.

Good Cop: We’re back by popular demand! People like us! They request us!

Bad Cop: Au contraire. People hate us. Especially artists. Artists specifically request not to be reviewed by us. We scare them. [under his breath] Because we tell the truth.

Good Cop: But that’s not so scary! Maybe that’s why Blog Boss sent us to out to see not one but two Walter Ego shows this past summer. You notice we’ve gotten the call to cover all this summer’s primo shows?

Bad Cop: Hmm, maybe. But you know the real the reason we got the call to cover these two is because Blog Boss is a sadist. You think Blog Boss would have hesitated to go see Walter Ego if those two shows had been anywhere other than Sidewalk? This is Blog Boss’s way of saying to you and me, “You’re really nothing, the B team, you don’t really rate [waves his hand dismissively], you go to Sidewalk and suffer while I hang out in the VIP tent at Lincoln Center.”

Good Cop: Blog Boss’s loss. The sound at Sidewalk was actually pretty good both times Walter Ego played there, in mid-June and then last month. He’s playing there again this month on Sept 13 at 8 PM.

Bad Cop: Oh jesus, does this mean we have to go to Sidewalk again? Why can’t this guy play somewhere else?

Good Cop: C’mon, don’t tell me you haven’t noticed, the music at Sidewalk has improved a lot lately! You wanna know why that is? It’s because Somer is booking the place now…

Bad Cop [surprised, taken off guard]: Wow. That would explain a lot. I know her as a good singer and an excellent sound person so I guess this means she also has good taste. Although there’s still too much of the annoying Beck wannabes and dork-punk crowd there for my taste…

Good Cop: You’re so conditioned to everything in this city going to hell that you’re oblivious when anything good happens.

Bad Cop: I will say that I had fun both times we went to see Walter Ego. If I’m remembering correctly, the first one was quite the party…

Good Cop: No, that was the LJ Murphy show.

Bad Cop [rolls his eyes]: Omigod, you’re right. I don’t remember anything about that…

Good Cop: You’d better because we may be called on to report on it…

Bad Cop: You’re on your own with that one. But I do remember Walter Ego. The June show was longer and featured a lot more of his piano songs – in fact I think the August show didn’t have any piano songs. Which was too bad because I like the songs he plays on piano better than the ones he plays on guitar.

Good Cop: But the guitar songs were great too. The one that the audience really got into, which he played at both shows, was Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar. A lot of Walter Ego’s songs are devastatingly funny and this is one of them.

Bad Cop: There’s a line in the song that goes, “He taught Berry to duckwalk and Frampton to boxtalk.” That kills me.

Good Cop: Yeah, I’m with you. In case you’re reading this and you’re not from New York, Dan Smith is sort of an urban legend: he’s a guitar teacher who festoons the city with flyers with his face on them…

Bad Cop: And has for 25 years and if the photo is to be believed, he hasn’t aged in 25 years. Needless to say, this is a sarcastic song and the crowd loved it. Another big hit was Mitterrand’s Last Meal. See, François Mitterrand was the President of France back in the 80s, he was ostensibly a socialist but, uh, you could say he kind of straddled the fence. And after a long battle with prostate cancer….

Good Cop: …which he may or may not have gotten from eating oysters from the English Channel that were contaminated by that awful French nuclear waste pipeline…

Bad Cop: …Mitterrand had one last meal before he literally pulled the plug on himself, more or less, and the meal began with an endangered bird that is actually a protected species and is illegal to eat in France. So right there you have a scenario that’s ripe for satire and Walter Ego made the most of it.

Good Cop: There were also a lot of other funny songs, more of those at the August show than the one in June. I really liked the one about simplifying your life, starting out with cutting back on clutter and ending up back in ocean as an amoeba…very Handsome Family, don’t you think?

Bad Cop: I liked the June show better. He did that creepy art-rock anthem I Am the Glass and really aired out his low register. Really Nick Cave-class, that good. And I think, I’m not clear on this, this was awhile ago, there was another morbid one, more of a straight-up noir cabaret tune, Half Past Late. If he didn’t do that one he did A Big Life, which is kind of a bittersweet waltz, a carpe diem message song that didn’t turn out to be trite or maudlin.

Good Cop: I liked the country song about the magician who makes magic disappear, in other words, what a killjoy. And that catchy, bouncy one that sounds like the Kinks, about getting knocked down, starting at the bottom of a new career, etcetera.

Bad Cop: Reputedly – I can’t personally vouch for this, but I’ll pass along the rumor – the September 13 gig will be the one where Walter Ego actually plays his original instrument, the bass, with a band behind him. It’s been awhile since he’s done that.

Good Cop: I can’t wait! Sidewalk, here we come!

John Otway Provokes Laughter On the Big Screen and Onstage

As John Otway self-effacingly explained to the crowd at his Sunday concert at Theatre 80 St. Marks, he’s a “microcelebrity” in his native England. He was Spinal Tap before Spinal Tap existed. As documented in Steve Barker’s fascinating new documentary film Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure: The Otway Movie, Otway was on the receiving end of a multimillion-dollar 1977 recording contract from Polydor Records, resulting in little more than a couple of minor UK hits. Apparently the label’s view was that Otway’s exuberant/buffoonish rockstar persona would put them in position to compete with the era’s foremost stadium rock buffoons, the Bay City Rollers. The deal may not have exactly worked out the way the label wanted it to, although there’s no question that today, Otway is more popular than the Bay City Rollers.

As both the movie and Otway’s show revealed, he was always ahead of his time. He was doing crowdsourcing and creating flashmobs before anyone else. His shtick may well have given Christopher Guest the inspiration for Spinal Tap. At this particular concert, he didn’t have his band, but he did have a roadie who did triple duty as offstage chorus, as shill hollering suspiciously well-timed repartee from the aisles, and on one number, as fill-in keyboardist. Much of Otway’s comedy draws heavily from oldtime English vaudeville in the same vein as Monty Python or Neil Innes, especially when baiting the audience is concerned. Another weapon in Otway’s arsenal is improv. His deadpan parody of rockstar narcissism – and the public’s cluelessness about it – is stingingly accurate and often gut-bustingly (and potentially head-bustingly) funny even if it’s sometimes a little obvious. And while the lovably inept one-hit wonder character he channels can’t resist taking a leap of faith and landing on the “fail” button every time, what becomes clear early on is that Otway is actually a decent tunesmith, a perfectly adequate guitarist and in a lot of ways an utterly original if utterly devious creative genius.

Much as his parodies of 70s stadium anthems, by-the-numbers punk rock, disco and heavy metal all had their moments, it was between songs that Otway was funniest. He related how “some people actually come to see me more than once,” that he recalled (accurately or not) being “in the loo and overhearing guys talking about where my guitar capo was, on this fret at one show but on another at the next.” That set up one of the night’s most irresistible musician-insider jokes, concering the challenges of playing solo versus playing with a band.

Otway’s most exuberant comedy is very physical: pratfalls, a ladder and the endangerment of expensive instruments are involved. His funniest is surprisingly subtle. The film goes into more detail than the stage show did about how Otway led a write-in campaign resulting in the BBC putting their imprimatur on his ridiculously absurdist psych-pop song Beware of the Flowers Cause I’m Sure They’re Going to Get You, Yeah as one of the seven greatest lyrics ever written. Because Otway’s humor is not for everyone, he sometimes gets heckled. His solution? Book Abbey Road Studios for a recording of House of the Rising Sun and invite a crowd to come heckle him. “I had to tell them that the crowd was a choir,” he confided, “Abbey Road is a proper studio, you know! And you know that everyone who’s on the record would want a copy for themselves and the mum!” Otway related the incident’s logical Top of the Pops conclusion with a smirking triumph that the crowd couldn’t resist.

At the concert, there was a special bonus, a stripped-down, mostly acoustic opening set by janglerock songwriter Richard X. Heyman and his trio including his wife Nancy on bass and a lead acoustic guitarist playing nimble, bluegrass and blues-infused fills. With richly intertwined, catchy guitar and vocal interplay and soaring harmonies, Heyman led the group through biting, defiant anthems, crescendoing  powerpop and some richly tuneful Britfolk-infused numbers in much the same vein as what Otway probably drew on for his initial inspiration.

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.

Purist, Catchy, Artfully Arranged Tunesmithing from Guitar Goddess Ann Klein

Ann Klein may be best known as one of the most distinctive, exciting lead guitarists in any style of music, but she’s also a first-class tunesmith. She’s got a new album, Tumbleweed Symphony streaming at Soundcloud, which turns out to be more about tunesmithing than spine-tingling fretwork. She’s likely to deliver more guitar pyrotechnics at her album release show coming up on July 16 at 7 PM on an eclectic triplebill at the big room at the Rockwood: Icelandic glamrocker Ívar Páll Jónsson and his band follow at 8, then at 9 explosive Americana crew the Brothers Comatose (the latter for a $10 cover).

The album opens with Tango Wrangler, a funky soul tune spiced with violin, about an irrepressible WWII vet who “had a way with the ladies if the ladies had the lust.” Klein keeps the soul vibe going, but in a completely different direction, with the slow-burning Start a Fire: the blend of acoustic and electric piano is eerie and texturally luscious, as are the tersely multitracked guitars of Klein in tandem with producer Eric Ambel.

Her clear, uncluttered vocals linger over an artfully arranged backdrop of guitars and organ on the breakup ballad Remember to Forget. She follows that with the darkly scampering, rockabilly-flavored I’m Gone, So Long, and a tantalizingly brief, noisy guitar solo. Likewise, the broodingly gorgeous Sunday Morning has an uneasy, mandolin-fueled sway.

Real Love floats along slowly on a bed of watery guitars and electric piano: it’s part pastoral Pink Floyd, part Americana. Rodents in the Attic is a sardonically funny, swinging number about an old country house, Klein cutting loose on guitar with an icy, echoing tone through a vintage analog delay pedal – and when’s the last time anybody used the word “rodent” in a rock song? Then she switches gears with Rocking Chair, a nostalgic, dobro-driven country number.

Klein’s growling slide guitar contrasts with spiky mandolin on the album’s hardest-rocking track, Break Out. The final cut, Promised Land is not the Springsteen classic but a stomping, chirpy garage rock original. Why does this album sound so good? A little backstory: Klein is married to Tim Hatfield, partner with Eric Ambel at Brooklyn’s legendary Cowboy Technical Services studio, where the album was recorded.

Revisiting a Cult Classic Album from John Sharples

Drummers usually have huge address books: the good ones play with lots of different people. That’s true of John Sharples, but his musicianship extends beyond drums to guitar, bass and keyboards. Many of the tracks on his obscure 2004 gem, I Can Explain Everything have him doing both basic and lead tracks on all those instruments plus vocals, but it’s not just a one-man band thing. It’s aged well, a tuneful, eclectic mix of powerpop, riff-rock, oldschool C&W and Americana. More importantly, it has historical significance for documenting the scene centered around Freddy’s Bar, the Atlantic Yards hotspot notoriously driven out in the illegal land grab that spawned the hideous, already decaying new basketball stadium there. Freddy’s lives on, relocated to Brooklyn’s South Slope; likewise, Sharples, a.k.a. Reggie Mental (his alter ego in obscure/legendary faux first-wave punk band the Spunk Lads) has a monthly Saturday night residency there with a rotating cast of great players. He’s there this Saturday night, June 28 at 8 with an intriguing lineup including ex-Aquanettas guitar goddess Debby Schwartz and Celtic punk bandleader Fran Powers.

On the album, Sharples sings with a tough, restless delivery throughout a mix of the kind of diverse material that you might expect from an in-demand drummer. He opens with a rare, absolutely gorgeous Matt Keating janglerock anthem, Mind’s Eye, playing twelve-string guitar over his own rhythm section. Keating himself spices Circus Guy leader Michael Culhane’s pub rock tune The Main Thing with swirling organ, Culhane adding a biting, bluesy guitar solo. Move It, by Ian Samwell, is new wave-tinged powerpop with a snarling Tom Rogers guitar solo. Sharples follows that with Graham Davies’ New Year’s Day, a morose, artsy early 70s-style rainy-day Britfolk tune that wouldn’t be out of place on an early Al Stewart record.

Hub Moore’s Thank You sounds like a cross between the Records and the DB’s, Sharples adding a wry George Harrison quote on slide guitar along with playing most of the other instruments. He gives Johnny Burnette’s Lonesome Tears in My Eyes a Tex-Mex sway and a little wry Orbison on the vocals, then later on tackles Michael Nesmith’s Papa Gene’s Blues as the Lovin’ Spoonful or Commander Cody might have done a vintage country tune.

The best songs come toward the end. The lone Spunk Lads tune here riffs on the Ramones, oi punk and hip-hop, with a chorus that goes “You do the work and I’ll take the credit, that’s just part of my charm.” By contrast, Paula Carino‘s Eminence Rouge (from her days with her band Regular Einstein, who auspiciously reunited for a gig and hopefully more this year) gets a poignant C&W treatment with Jon Graboff’s keening pedal steel and Michele Riganese’s fetching backup vocals. The catchy, anthemic Three More Wishes/Waiting for the Train blends twelve-string jangle with Graboff’s steel lingering in the backbround. Then Sharples follows the rockabilly tune A Big Hunk O’Love with a killer version of Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers’ haunting 1929 hillbilly anthem Baltimore Fire, sort of like Social Distortion with better vocals.

The album ends with a tricky, clever cover of George Harrison’s Long, Long, Long, Sharples on bass and guitars and the great Americana/jazz chanteuse Erica Smith on harmony vocals. There’s a sweet backstory here – Sharples and Smith married five years after the album came out. Where can you get a copy of this rarity? Well, at one of Sharples’ shows, for starters. And he still plays some of the best songs from it at gigs.

Where Did All the Live Coverage Go, or, A La Recherche De Concerts Perdus

New York Music Daily was originally conceived as a live music blog. In the very first month or so here, there was more concert coverage than there’s been in all of 2014 up to now.

What’s up with that? Has New York Music Daily morphed into just another generic “look who’s on tour” blog? Not necessarily.

OK – a cold winter, followed by a temporary lack of general mobility, made it awfully easy to focus on whittling down an enormous stack of albums instead of stumbling through pools of salty sludge night after night. And the abrupt closure of Zirzamin last summer – where this blog ran a music salon for the better part of a year – put an end to one of the few remaining genuine scenes in a town further and further balkanized by the proliferation (some would say overproliferation) of outer-borough neighorhood bars with live music. Zirzamin made a blogger’s job obscenely easy – it was one-stop shopping, sometimes three or four good acts on a given night. Since then, keeping track of the best acts who passed through there has become a lot more time-consuming. In the spirit of keeping a scene alive, this is a long-overdue look at some usual suspects who haven’t let the loss of that venue phase them.

Full disclosure: Lorraine Leckie was a partner in booking the Zirzamin salon. And why not: she has impeccable taste and likes residencies (beats having to pay for rehearsal space, right?). She’s been doing a monthly Friday or Saturday night show going way back to her days in the Banjo Jim’s scene. When Banjo Jim’s closed, she moved to Otto’s, but that place isn’t really set up to handle to loud bands with vocals (and her band the Demons can be LOUD). So Zirzamin, with its pristine sonics, was a logical move. Lately she’s had a monthly Friday night gig at Sidewalk – her next one is June 20 at 11. Sometimes she plays a rock set with the Demons, sometimes she does her quietly menacing chamber pop stuff. Her January show there (yeah, this is going back a ways) was a showcase for her Lou Reed-influenced glamrock and lots of Hendrix-inspired pyrotechnics from lead guitarist Hugh Pool, capped off with a long, volcanic take of one of her signature Canadian gothic anthems, Ontario. The show before that was a solo set where Leckie alternated between Stratocaster and piano, featuring a lot of sardonic, brooding chamber pop songs, many of them from Leckie’s collaboration with Anthony Haden-Guest, Rudely Interrupted.

Baritone crooner/powerpop tunesmith/sharp lyricist Walter Ego is another Zirzamin regular who’s more or less migrated to Sidewalk. Like Leckie, he’s been doing about a show a month there lately – the next one is on June 19 at 9 – as well as playing bass in Mac McCarty‘s gothic Americana band. Walter Ego was most recently witnessed doing double duty, playing both a solo set – including a rare cover, an impassioned version of Peter Gabriel’s Biko, dedicated to the late Nelson Mandela – followed by a careening show with McCarty’s band at the Path Cafe back when there was still snow on the ground. As much fun as that bill was – McCarty’s lickety-split take of Henry, Oh Henry, an absolutely creepy cemetery-folk tune, being just one of many highlights – that venue proved itself completely unsuitable, sonically and spacewise, for full-band rock shows. Walter Ego’s previous solo show at Sidewalk was a lot more sonically accomodating (if you can imagine that), emphasis on similarly creepy material like the subway suicide narrative 12-9, the gorgeous noir cabaret waltz Half Past Late and the even more darkly gorgeous, metaphorically-charged chamber pop song I Am the Glass.

J O’Brien is the latest A-list songwriter to turn up at Sidewalk, coming off a monthly Zirzamin residency. His solo set on twelve-string guitar there last month followed a pretty wild, high-voltage show by wryly howling punkgrass/oldtimey band the Grand. Most of their songs are about drinking. They’ve got fiddle and cajon and resonator guitar and standup bass and a girl on harmony vocals who also plays the saw. They sound like a stripped-down, more punk New Brooklyn take on the Old Crow Medicine Show and they drew a big crowd who loved them. O’Brien fed off that energy, mixing animated acoustic versions of surreal, hyperliterate mod-punk flavored songs from his days with cult favorites the Dog Show, as well as some newer material with a biting political edge. Like Ray Davies, somebody he often resembles, O’Brien remains populist to the core.

Resonator guitarist/bluesmama Mamie Minch most likely never played Zirzamin, probably since she’s such a staple of the Barbes scene. She’s also opened her own guitar repair shop, Brooklyn Lutherie, in the old American Can Company building in Gowanus where Issue Project Room was for several years. They’re New York’s only woman-owned guitar and stringed instrument repair shop – how cool is that? Being an experienced luthier, Minch has a deep address book, and has staged a couple of excellent acoustic shows in the space since she opened. The first featured New Orleans Balkan/Romany band the G String Orchestra doing a hauntingly exhilarating trio show with violin, accordion and bass. No doubt there will be more.

Guided by Voices’ Cool Planet: The Best Album of Short Songs Ever Made?

Guided by Voices’ sixth album (!!!!!!) since the turn of the decade, Cool Planet, is out today (this Spotify link should work once the album officially hits). As usual, Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout eschew conventional pop song structure. Is this the album that they didn’t have time to finish? Is it the collection of sketches that Pollard didn’t have time to flesh out? Here’s another theory: these songs were meant to be exactly as they are: most of them two minutes or less, a single verse and chorus at the very most. Meaning that this album will never bore you. Even if you don’t like what the band is doing – which is hard to figure, considering how deliciously tuneful pretty much everything here is – it will be over practically before you could reach for the fast-forward button. Is this the best album of short songs ever made? Probably. Has anyone even made an album with so many short songs, for that matter? Outside of hardcore punk (and that lame-ass Magnetic Fields hundred-song monstrosity), you have to go back a long ways, to the Minutemen and Young Marble Giants and the postpunk era, and this is infinitely more interesting.

There are eighteen tracks here, alluding to the Beatles and the Who and the Kinks and especially David Bowie and others from the glamrock canon but never completely embracing any of those artists’ styles. Pollard’s genius is that he’ll nick a tune or an idea from that period but never go over the top with it. And Sprout’s creepy folk-rock is characteristically excellent, if more stripped down here than ever. And there’s zero filler! That’s a big deal – over the ongoing album marathon, for every Trashcan Full of Nails, there’s been one of those half-baked 4 AM piano-and-drums interludes that you put up with from Pollard just because the other stuff is so good.

The ba-bump Beatlesque stomp of the Orwellian Authoritarian Zoo (an Animal Farm reference) opens the album. It would be the Move if it had a busy bassline, but bassist Greg Demos keeps things pretty low-key in tandem with Kevin March’s even simpler, hard-hitting drums, although what Demos does as the album goes along, spinning and soaring as chorus after chorus hits a peak, is awfully cool.

Fast Crawl works a muted Syd Barrett vibe and then goes out with sputter barely a minute thirty seconds in. Psychotic Crush is sardonic early 70s glam and it’s over in barely over a minute. Sprout’s brooding acoustic frames Costume Makes the Man, the electric guitars (Mitch Mitchell and probably Pollard, who seems to be the one playing the occasional jagged, incisive lead here) coming in at the end.

Hat of Flames (a T.S. Eliot reference, maybe?) is arguably the most prototypical GBV number here – Sprout’s signature, roaring, reverb-drenched low register is the dead giveaway every time. These Dooms sets one of a litany of surreal lyrics to a simple reverb guitar track: it could be a demo, but then again, it’s fine just the way it is. Table at Fool’s Tooth is a clinic in how much 60s psych a band can throw at you in a minute fifteen seconds. By contrast, the album’s longest song, All American Boy blends Ziggy Stardust riffage with a steady All the Young Dudes anthemic pulse, stately piano and a woozily wistful aging rocker’s perspective.

The Bone Church goes unexpectedly and successfuly into early 70s Move/Sabbath riff-rock. Bad Love Is Easy to Do layers the guitars dynamically, with a very funny quote at the end. The No Doubters, a catchy glamrock tune, seems to be a low-key dis directed at haters. Cream of Lung, with its vintage 60s effects and enigmatically creepy tune, is the one song here that screams out the most loudly to keep going for another four minutes or so. But the rumbling, Beatlesque Males of Wormwood Mars, a puckish outer-space scenario with some of the album’s most luscious three-guitar sonics, makes perfect sense in under three minutes.

Ticket to Hide pairs Sprout’s wary acoustic against organ and electric guitar, with a funny mantra on the way out. The title cut, with its tumbling drums and catchy descending riff, is the closest thing to the Who here. There’s also You Get Every Game, a snidely deadpan one-chord miniature; Pan Swimmer, which perfectly crystallizes the band (catchy powerpop verse, nebulous turnaround); and Narrated by Paul, a woozy if simple piano-and-synth sketch. Do we know what Pollard’s droll stream-of-consciousness lyrics are about? That’s something to consider as the riffs kick in, one after the other. We take this band for granted: what they’ve done over the past couple of years is pretty amazing by itself. Add to that the fact that they’ve been making albums for over twenty years, Pollard for ten more than that. To put this in perspective: could the Stones have made one this good in 1994?

Iconic Dead Boys Guitarist Cheetah Chrome Returns to His Old Stomping Ground with a Brilliant New Album

Cheetah Chrome‘s career as an iconic lead guitarist hardly stopped when the Dead Boys called it quits the first time around. He went on to lead the Cheetah Chrome Motherfuckers, returning sporadically to his old CBGB band when they’d pull themselves together again for awhile back in the 80s and later, reunited Cleveland legends Rocket from the Tombs. Now based in Nashville, Chrome has made a name for himself as a producer, but he’s also a first-class if not overwhelmingly prolific songwriter. He’s coming back to town for a Dives of New York tour in the middle of the month on an excellent doublebill with edgy Nashville honkytonk singer Paul Burch. On May 15 they’re at Manitoba’s at 9ish, at the Delancey on May 17 and then upstairs at 2A on May 18 at around 9.

Chrome also has an absolutely brilliant solo album (Spotify link) out recently. Some of the tracks date from a Genya Ravan-produced 1996 session, the rest recorded in 2010 with a killer band including former New York Doll Sylvain Sylvain plus Sean Koos from Joan Jett’s band and Lez Warner of the Cult. Although originally from Cleveland, Chrome will always be associated with New York since he was such an important part of the CB’s scene in its heyday, and this album is pure oldschool seedy Lower East Side, part wickedly tuneful, expertly constructed punk, part powerpop with psychedelic touches. The first track, Sharky, rumbles along on a brisk surf beat with lively roller-rink organ paired against tersely jangly guitar. It sounds like the backing track for a rock anthem, but it works as an instrumental, especially when the bridge kicks in. Finally there’s a lingering, distorted guitar solo that eventually takes off and just when it really gets snarling, the song fades out. It’s the last thing you’d ever expect from a member of the Dead Boys.

Good as that one is, the stuff with lyrics is even better. The best song, and the closest thing to the Dead Boys (right around the time of their mid-80s comeback), is Stare Into the Night. No Credit is similar and a little faster, like an outtake from We Have Come for Your Children. Both songs take a cynical, understatedly desperate look around a Lower East Side underworld that’s been pretty much gentrified (and overdosed) out of existence. Nuthin is the most cynical of all the tracks but also the most dynamically rich: the way Chrome moves the opening hook from acoustic to electric, raising the menace casually all the way to redline, is pure genius.

East Side Story is a burning powerpop anthem with lush, rich layers of jangly, clanging, ringing, chiming guitars, Chrome’s vocals echoing the snotty desperation of his bandmate Stiv Bators on the second verse. Rollin Voodoo works the dynamics between a punchy, fuzz bass-driven hotrod theme and syncopated roadhouse rock, with a long psychedelic interlude. The album winds up with Love Song to Death, a viciously catchy kiss-off anthem, layers and layers of guitar textures and finally a solo where Chrome starts out taking his time and then going out in a smoldering, shivering shower of sparks. Chrome is the rare guitarist who never got slick and lazy, maintaining the unhinged intensity of his early years even after his technique got really, really good. Reputedly he’s at the peak of his powers as a player. If you go out to see any of these shows, you should get there early.

Purist Tunesmithing and a Slipper Room Show from Tamara Hey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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