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.