New York Music Daily

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Tag: singer-songwriter

Hauntingly Intense Americana Tunesmithing from Ernest Troost

Ernest Troost is a brilliant Americana songwriter. Doesn’t he have the perfect name for one? Consider: Ernest Troost in skintight leather and spike bracelets, raising his Flying V guitar to the sky with a foot up on the monitor in the haze of the smoke machine? Nope. Ernest Troost remixed by celebrity DJ eUnUcH? Uh uh. But Ernest Troost making pensive, sometimes snarling, Steve Earle-ish, lyrically-driven Americana rock with inspired playing and smartly judicious arrangements? That’s the ticket. Troost’s latest album, prosaically titled O Love, is streaming at his Soundcloud page. He doesn’t have any New York shows coming up, but folks outside the area can catch him in Ridgefield, Connecticut on April 27 at Temple Shearith Israel, 46 Peaceable St.

Troost sets his aphoristic wordsmithing to a tightly orchestrated interweave of acoustic and electric guitars over a purist, understated rhythm section. The opening track, Pray Real Hard evokes Dylan’s Buckets of Rain, but with better guitar, a hard-times anthem where “you got to sleep on the floor ’cause that’s the only bed you made.” The ballad All I Ever Wanted adds psychedelic imagery over its country sway. Close, with its nimble acoustic fingerpicking and Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era sonics, has as much truth about why some relationships actually manage to work as it does an element of caution for clingy people. “All this room you give me makes us close,” Troost drawls: he could be talking to a woman, or to the Texas sky, but either way it makes an awful lot of sense.

The album’s shuffling, delta blues-tinged title track has a visceral ache: “Oh love left me a broken hollow frame, I do not feel a thing but I cannot bear the pain,” Troost intones. With its circling mandolin and intricate acoustic guitar interplay, Harlan County Boys builds a gloomy noir mining country folk tableau. Bitter Wind broodingly weighs the possibility of being able to escape the past, and also the danger of getting what you wished for. The Last Lullaby is a gently nocturnal elegy, while Storm Coming has a bluesy intensity and paranoid wrath to match anything Pink Floyd ever recorded, even if it doesn’t sound the slightest thing like that band.

Troost’s snaky, ever-present acoustic lead guitar line on the stark, oldschool folk-flavored When It’s Gone is the kindof device more artists should use. The Last to Leave waltzes from an oldtime C&W intro to lush countrypolitan sonics, a vividly sardonic, metaphorically-charged after-the-party scenario. The album’s best song is the wailing, electrifying murder ballad Old Screen Door: Troost’s genius with this one is that the only images he lets you see are incidental to what was obviously a grisly crime, “lightning bugs floating through a haze of gasoline” and so forth. It’s one of the best songs in any style released in recent months, a sort of teens update on the Walkabouts’ Pacific Northwest gothic classic Firetrap. Slide guitar fuels the upbeat, anthemically triumphant Weary Traveler, while I’ll Be Home Soon ends the album on an unexpectedly balmy, optimistic note. Fans of Steve Earle, James McMurtry, Jeffrey Foucault and the rest of that crew will find an awful lot to like in Troost’s brooding, intense songcraft.

Jenifer Jackson Brings Her Austin Americana Sophistication to the Rockwood

Purist psychedelic pop polymath Jenifer Jackson released her full-length debut, Slowly Bright at the very end of the 90s, a mix of bossa nova, Bacharach and the Beatles that remains a landmark in that genre. But even on that album, there was a little Americana. In the years since, Jackson has ventured further into chamber pop and jazz, but the roots of those styles always had a pull on her. A move to Austin and a new cast of musicians to rival any group she’s ever worked with springboarded her latest shift deeper into vintage C&W sounds, TX Sunrise. It’s the prolific tunesmith/chanteuse’s eleventh release and one of her best, a clinic in how to make an album in a bedroom (or a living room) that sounds like it was recorded at Carnegie Hall. The sonics are so lush in places that it’s easy to forget that the instrumentation is practically all acoustic. She’s playing songs from it at the big room at the Rockwood on March 26 at 9 PM.

There’s never been anything quite like this before. A string section holds much of the sound aloft (multi-instrumentalist Kullen Fuchs gets credit for much of that), yet it remains raw and close to the ground, more like early ELO doing country than an enveloping, early 60s Owen Bradley countrypolitan production. Case in point: the upbeat country-chamber duet Paint It Gold. And the songwriting is classic Jenifer Jackson, straightforward and disarmingly direct yet constantly changing shape. The arrangements and musicianship have a lot to do with that: within the space of a single verse, there could be an acoustic guitar mingling with the strings, then a dobro solo handing off to Jackson’s own honkytonk piano (!), then the accordion picking up the tune and deftly passing it back to the dobro. That’s a play-by-play of what happens on Heart with a Mind of Its Own, a co-write with Dickie Lee Erwin, that could be a Kitty Wells classic from 1956 or so.

The album’s most down-home flavored song is Your Sad Teardrops, a sardonic honkytonk kissoff anthem with another deliciously spot-on saloon piano break from Jackson. The title track adds fluttery, rippling, psychedelic touches to a warmly evocative Tex-Mex shuffle. Likewise, Jackson’s easygoing but insistent acoustic guitar contrasts with the lullaby ambience of the accordion and string section on Easy to Live, which could be an outtake from her brilliant 2007 live-in-the-studio album The Outskirts of a Giant Town. When Evening Light Is Low evokes a ballad from that album, The Missing Time, its balmy nocturnal milieu grounded by a persistent unease, something that recurs again and again throughout many of the songs here.

As it does on Ballad of Time Gone By, which opens as a gentle country waltz, Jackson’s voice soaring up to some spine-tingling high notes before descending back to earth – and suddenly what could be bittersweet nostalgia becomes a distantly aching lament. The way she slowly and methodically unveils her images on the understatedly plaintive but driving anthem In Summer, from furtive animals on the lawn to a menacing sunset milieu, is viscerally haunting.

Much as an often surreal humor spices the arrangements, there’s a lingering sadness in much of her work, and that comes to the forefront in the best songs here. She’s done Nashville gothic memorably before; this time, she goes into southwestern gothic for On My Mind, with its spaghetti western horns, bluesy cello and accordion. Same deal with Picture of May, a creepy bolero that another singer might do luridly, but Jackson maxes out the menace with her dreamy delivery as the images grow more enigmatic and ominous. All Around builds a mood of quiet despair via a wintry seaside tableau set to flinty, anthemic backbeat rock that wouldn’t be out of place in the Steve Wynn catalog. And the most shattering of all the tracks is White Medicine Cloud, a bitter, war-torn lament driven by Jackson’s foreboding tom-tom work: the portait of a herd of buffalo reaching to comfort a newborn calf who is very unlike them is genuinely heartwrenching. As is the somber trumpet line that returns the song from reverie to sobering reality. Count this multi-faceted masterpiece as one of the very best albums of 2014 so far, up there with Rosanne Cash’s The River & the Thread, Karla Moheno‘s Time Well Spent and Marissa Nadler‘s July. It’s been a good year for women artists, hasn’t it?

Agnes Obel Brings Her Somberly Catchy Art-Rock to Bowery Ballroom

If art-rock is your thing, Agnes Obel should be on your radar. The Danish-born pianist/chanteuse writes slow, brooding, extremely tuneful neoromantic laments that sometimes sound like Marissa Nadler with a piano – yeah, that good. Obel is playing Bowery Ballroom this Sunday night, March 2 at 10 PM; advance tix are $20 and as of today are still available.

Her latest album – streaming at Spotify  - is titled Aventine. It opens with a creepily minimalistic solo piano instrumental, Chord Left, which ought to be a horror film theme. From there Obel segues into Fuel to Fire, which adds a distant baroque tinge to the creepiness, dark washes of strings rising in the background, Obel’s elegant vocals building to big swells like Kristin Hoffmann in full-blown angst mode. While Obel’s Danish accent often makes her English lyrics hard to understand, it only adds to the songs’ menacing allure. The third track, Dorian is just piano, vocals and simple percussion: it’s more rhythmic and has more of a pop-oriented feel, albeit with some tricky syncopation.

Pizzicato cellos dancing in outer space – or at least that’s how they seem – juxtapose with a somber lead line on the title track. Obel disguises a Lynchian Nashville gothic vamp with swoops and shivers from the strings in Run Cried & Crawling, following it with the brief, rainy-night piano instrumental Tokka.

With its alternately stately and dancing cellos, the album’s longest track, The Curse sounds a lot like Rasputina, right down to the misterioso deadpan vocals. Simple, incisive piano contrasts with dark washes of strings on Pass Them By, which might be about a public lynching. Obel’s uneasy, breathy vocals on the catchily circling piano ballad Words Are Dead are the closest thing to Marissa Nadler here. After that, there’s the looping, crescendoing instrumental Fivefold, then the sad waltz Smoke & Mirrors, an Appalachian gothic tune reimagined with piano and ethereal vocal harmonies. Fans of Kate Bush, Linnea Olsson and Clara Engel, among other artists, will find a lot to like in Obel’s moody, wounded yet often unexpectedly kinetic sonics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Savagely Funny, Menacing Album from Curtis Eller

As New York rents rise, the brain drain continues. Case in point: charismatic songwriter and banjo player Curtis Eller, who electrified audiences here from the mid-zeros through the early teens with his historically rich, phantasmagorical songs before leaving the city. Happily, he hasn’t given up on music. Eller’s back catalog is a savagely lyrical, surreal chronicle of some of the darker, more obscure moments in American history. Cruel ironies, double entendres and surprisingly subtle humor are everywhere in his songs, the music informed by oldtime swing and blues but not beholden to those traditions, sometimes menacing and morbid, sometimes gentle, sometimes furiously punked-out. Among songwriters, LJ Murphy is a good comparison – vintage vernacular, spot-on commentary on the here and now.

Eller’s also got a fantastic new album, How to Make It in Hollywood, which finds him taking a full-throttle detour into dark garage rock and classic soul music along with the oldtime sounds that made him one of New York’s most riveting live acts. The whole thing is streaming at his Bandcamp page. The opening track, Old Time Religion, is Eller at his brilliant best. Ostensibly it’s an oldtime gospel song but as it keeps going, it turns out that it’s a parody, complete with call-and-response vocals and organ. “Giving up my last chance, backsliding out the church dance, I’m gonna split the congregation, I’ve got the clap around me, dirty hands and that old time religion,” he drawls righteously.

1929 is sarcastic and anachronistic, early Chuck Berry taken back in time 25 years: this guy had a bad 1928 but he just can’t wait to see how good it’s going to be with Mr. Hoover in office! Eller works similar, bizarrrely pointed historical references into the oldschool soul ballad If You’re Looking for a Loser – which connects the dots between Robert E. Lee and Sonny Liston – and the considerably sadder, slower, more gospel-fueled Three More Minutes with Elvis as well as the wryly grim Busby Berkeley Funeral. And the final track, just solo vocals and banjo, is a very clever slap upside the head of the agribusiness cartel from a plainspoken guy down on the farm.

But the best songs here are the darkest and angriest. Butcherman begins witha bit of a calypso lilt and then becomes a soul shuffle. “I don’t want that filthy Chicago meat, take me down to Delancey and Essex Street,” Eller shouts out to his old Lower East Side stomping grounds: everybody else can have the preacher, but this guy knows that the butcher’s the one who really has his hands on the afterlife. Moses in the Bulrushes reverts to the hellfire apocalypticism throughout much of Eller’s music:

There’s a black crow circling over the North Pole
They got the satellite hooked up to the signal where it just don’t take
And this graveyard don’t have room for my skeleton, not tonight
Where there’s stormclouds going in but they just don’t break

The album’s best song is the eerily pulsing shuffle The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon, with a riverbed grave, Cadillac stalled out on the tracks and Henry Kissinger shaking it all night long as a backdrop for this snarling parable of post-9/11 multinational fascism. There’s also Battlefield Amputation, the album’s loudest song, which sounds like Elvis Costello circa This Year’s Model, right down to the vocals and the torrents of indignant imagery. Along wth Eller on all the stringed instruments, Louis Landry plays drums and catchy, eclectic, often menacing organ, with Shea Broussard on bass, joining with Dana Marks to add soaring, often sardonic harmony vocals. It may be something of a crapshoot and an impossible task to say that one great album rates over the other great ones in a given year, but this one’s as good a candidate as any for number one with a bullet for 2014.

Chris Hickey Survives the 80s to Reissue Two Lost Gems

The 80s got a bad rap. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had a lot to do with that. So did the entertainment-industrial complex. That was the John Hughes decade. It was also the decade where the big record labels, who then dominated all but the most obscure niche markets, began targeting their marketing to very specific age and gender groups. In this rigidly stratified world, that meant teenybopper pop, new wave and hair metal for the girls and 70s elevator pop for women past college age; metal for the younger guys, 70s dinosaur rock for the older ones. But the reality is that there was a vast amount of great music from that decade that never made it past college radio, if it even got that far. That’s where Chris Hickey would have been found, if anywhere, on the pre-internet airwaves back in 1985 when he released his cassette-only debut Frames of Mind, Boundaries of Time. He followed up that dark folk album with the similar Looking for Anything two years later. Happily, both are now available digitally for the first time ever.

It’s impossible to hear Matt Keating and not think of Hickey – and vice versa. Both are nonchalantly strong singers, have a flair for a biting turn of phrase and a catchy melodic hook – and an unease that doesn‘t lift. Where Keating got his start in punk rock, Hickey came from the folk side, but with a grimly lyrical edge that in its own quiet way was just as punk. Right from the first track on the first album, June Fifth, Hickey’s vocals are low, seething, wound tight as a drum. Just voice, a couple of guitars, a string of nonchalantly doomed images, and “A ring of the phone to tell you that you were wrong…”

Sometimes Hickey lets the images paint a picture; more often than not he hits the point of the songs square on the head, with a direct, plainspoken quality akin to Jonathan Richman but with balls. Hickey also has a strong political sensibility and a snarling distrust of authority. The best song on the collection is Another War, a soaring, Byrdsy twelve-string janglerock anthem. And it’s not just a litany of pain and grotesquerie, although there’s a lot of that:

The soldier plays a bamboo flute
The song he used to sing at home
For a a fifteen-year-old prostitute
He teaches her to sing along
The song sounds like a lullaby
She sings the words of quiet love
They could sing that song all night
But a knock on the door says time is up

This is where Hickey is strongest: the song may be going on thirty years old, but it’s as relevant now as it was then. It could have been inspired by Reagan’s misadventures in Costa Rica, or Lebanon, or Grenada, but this war could be anywhere.

The tunes have held up well, too. The earlier material, understandably, has more of a a lo-fi feel, sometimes just a couple of guitar tracks and voice, sometimes with bass and simple drums. The somewhat more elaborately produced tracks have more of a distinctive 80s feel – it’s that watery chorus-box guitar! The characteristically pensive Faraway has gently fingerpicked acoustic, woozy synth and a faux cello patch; the two-chord vamp in Carol echoes the Police’s King of Pain. I Can’t Wait to See You  is half the Police, half swaying acoustic 80s rock.

Start Over Again looks back to early acoustic Dylan, a word of caution for a would-be sellout: “Your words are thin and your heart isn’t in, so why don’t you start over again?” Not You works similar lyrical territory, with just snarling electric guitar and vocals: “I know who’s telling me the truth and it’s not you.” The caustic minor-key folk-rock tune Man of Principle foreshadows Roger Waters’ The Bravery of Being Out of Range. Freedom explores existential boundaries over a bed of tasty multilayered acoustic guitars:

An attempt is not an escape
An escape assumes a frame
A frame is a boundary that exists in the mind
The mind is one of many
Many agree to a frame… 

This Is My Land makes succinct fun of people who won’t let anyone near their stuff, metaphorically speaking. Not My Place reminds of 60s Dylan, but with good vocals, a plainspoken message to a boss type to kiss off. The unspoken punchline of the mutedly pulsing, allusive courtroom scenario Five Words might be “I sentence you to death.” And Dark Cold Day assesses a gloomy Reagan-era milieu  over biting, minor-key janglerock:

Follow poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night
With your unconcerning voice
Still persuade us to rejoice
With the forming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress 

The rest of the tracks broodingly contemplate interpersonal relations, and for one reason or another this is where the Matt Keating comparison holds most true. There Was a Time, with its simple, elegant broken chords and catchy, anthemic chorus; the grimly waltzing Not Our Son and the gorgeously jangly, uncharacteristically sunny Save My Life are three prime examples. The collection ends with a droll, roughhewn spoken word piece. Hickey remains active in music, with lots more intriguing stuff up at his Bandcamp page.

Avi Fox-Rosen and Raya Brass Band Slay at Rock Shop

“Love is a word you use so you don’t hurt the feelings of the ones who like to say it more than you,” Avi Fox-Rosen sang nonchalantly, without a hint of sarcasm, over a bouncy, singalong, pseudo-theatrical pop tune, early in his album release show Thursday night at Rock Shop. “Love is as suspect as me,” he added later on. That’s Fox-Rosen in a nutshell. He’s sort of akin to Elvis Costello with better guitar chops. Both are purist pop tunesmiths with an encyclopedic bag of licks and ideas. But where Costello goes for lyrical gymnastics and umpteen levels of meaning, Fox-Rosen tells sardonically and sometimes grimly funny, aphoristic stories, and slips you the shiv when you least expect it. For example, the organ soul song that opened the set, So Fucking Happy: the implication is that this may be the only time in the guy’s life that he’s not miserable.

That song is sort of the title track to Fox-Rosen’s December album, his final release in a year that saw him put out an album a month (all up at his Bandcamp page as name-your-price downloads). That he actually pulled off this feat is impressive in itself; that the material he released was so strong catapulted him to the top of the Best Albums of 2013 page here. He’d pulled an excellent band together for this show – a melodic, eclectic basssist, the similarly diverse and tasteful Chris Berry on drums and Dave Melton channeling 60s soul grooves on organ and electric piano: these guys really get Fox-Rosen’s incessant references to decades of rock history.

The night’s second song was Baby, a twinkling lullaby from February’s ep that poked fun at the lure of returning to the womb: Fox-Rosen drew plenty of laughs from its “Suck and shit and sleep” mantra. On album, Fox-Rosen’s apprehensive playground narrative Ugly Duckling begins as a cabaret tune – this time, the band made fluid new wave out of it until they took it doublespeed into creepy, snarling, guitar-fueled circus rock territory. “The other ducks didn’t give a fuck, Brother Duck cursed my rotten luck,” Fox-Rosen intoned, deadpan and cool. But this little duck turns out to have unexpected bite.

College had a similarly tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, Fox-Rosen bemoaning his “worthless degree in esoterica” and the fact that living at home with the ’rents doesn’t exactly compare with studying in Paris. He kept a low-key but corrosive political edge going – “Are you proud to be American?” he challenged over faux-celebratory Huey Lewis-style 80s anthemic radio rock, Melton taking an lush, swirly organ solo.

Then Fox-Rosen shifted gears, showing off some impressively creepy surf rock chops and took a searing, intense, noisy solo on Everybody Dies, the most macabre song of the evening, Melton adding the occaasional jarring slasher-flick riff. They lost the crowd on the song after that – sometimes Fox-Rose’s satire can be so subtle that it’s hard to tell when he’s being serious or not, or a mixture of both. But he got everybody’s attention with the savage God Who Lives in Your Head, who’s a real sourpuss, watching you like a spycam and digging up as much dirt as he can.  He closed with Where Is My Parade, underscoring the song’s twisted carnivalesque side, a snide spoof of rockstar (or wannabe rockstar) narcissism. Fox-Rosen is at Bar Chord, 1008 Corteyou Rd. (Stratford/Coney Island Ave.), in Ditmas Park on Feb 6 at 9.

Afterward, Raya Brass Band gathered on the floor in front of the stage rather than on it, drew the crowd in and then played their asses off. “Do you do originals as well as covers?” a woman in the crowd wanted to know.  Trumpeter Ben Syversen paused: “We’ve been playing mostly originals, although we also play a lot of the traditional repertoire,” he hastened to add. That’s this band’s appeal in a nutshell: you’d assume that they were from East Serbia if you didn’t know they were actually from Brooklyn. A nonstop gig schedule over the past couple of years has made this scorching Balkan five-piece group incredibly tight. Syversen and alto saxophonist Greg Squared use extended technique – microtones, slides and lickety-split doublestops – that would make most jazz players green with envy. Tuba player Don Godwin’s funky, surprisingly bright tuba pulse fueled the nonstop groove along with the ominously booming clip-clop clatter of the standup tapan bass drum. Ostensibly there were sound issues with Matthew “Max” Fass’ accordion, but out in the crowd his swirls and rapidfire riffage were cutting through just fine.

A lot of the traditional material from throughout the Balkans pulses along on menacingly chromatic vamps, and Raya Brass Band does that as well, although their songs are a lot more complex. They don’t rely on a simple verse/chorus format, they love tricky time signatures and they jam the hell out of the songs. By the time the first explosive minor-key number was over, Greg Squared had already shredded his first reed. By the end of the set, there was something in Syversen’s mouthpiece – a piece of him, maybe? Talk about giving 100% onstage. The staccato twin riffage between the two horns had an icepick intensity, the two sometimes doubling their lines, sometimes pairing off harmonically. Fass led the band through an unexpectedly lush, lingering ballad that took all kinds of wary twists and turns before they brought back the marauding minor-key assault. The high point of the many originals was a slinky number with an austere Ethiopian flavor. The most exhilarating of the traditional tunes was a lickety-split dash through Mom Bar, which does not have anything to do with your mother although drinking is definitely involved. Raya Brass Band are at Golden Festival Saturday night at 11 PM and then play a 2 AM set at Freddy’s afterward.

Unselfconsciously Intense, Insightful, Vivid Tunesmithing from Sharon Goldman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lush, Resonant Chamber Pop from Ukulele Tunesmith Sweet Soubrette

Ellia Bisker’s eclectic tunesmithing has recently taken a deliciously lurid, noir direction. Most recently, she’s joined forces with Kotorino frontman Jeff Morris, playing his femme fatale foil in that menacing circus-rock band as well as in the more stripped-down but equally dark duo Charming Disaster. So it’s no surprise that she’d color the songs on Burning City, the new album by her other project, Sweet Soubrette, with punchy brass and enigmatic, ominously hovering strings. Bisker has also taken her vocals to the next level: she’s got a lot more power and resonance in the lower registers these days. Her band here is excellent. Bisker plays uke, with Heather Cole on violin, Stacy Rock on piano, Bob Smith on bass, Mike Dobson and Don Godwin alternating behind the drum kit along with Erin Rogers on tenor sax, Carl Scheib on trombone and John Waters on trumpet.

Stylistically, the songs run the gamut. The opening track, Be My Man begins with an allusively latin feel and vamps up to to a vintage disco groove. The intriguingly moody, swaying chamber pop title track could be about the Arab/Israeli conflict, or citizens versus gentrifiers in New York City, or warfare in general. Charlatan, a piano ballad, offers an intriguing glimpse of a hardworking fortune teller who might or might not be the real thing. The catchiest, most upbeat number here is Just Your Heart, building to a coyly pulsing second-generation Motown vibe.

Homing Pigeon, which is just uke and violin, works an old country music trope, an endless series of variations on the same metaphor, Bisker running through the bird imagery for all it’s worth.  She does the same thing with electricity on Live Wire, which is a Pat Benetar-ish powerpop song disguised as eerily atmospheric chamber pop, and with stormy weather in Port in a Storm, a gently dancing country waltz. And Rock Paper Scissors gives the band the chance to work all kinds of neat dynamic shifts, back and forth between enigmatic, noirishly artsy pop and swirly circus rock. The remaining two tracks could have been left off and the album wouldn’t be any worse for it – top 40 is top 40, no matter how tasteful the arrangements or playing. Bisker plays the album release show for this one tonight, November 24 at 9 PM with excellent noir cabaret band Not Waving But Drowning opening at 7:30 at the Jalopy; cover is $10.

Nehedar and Hudson K Bring Down the Lights at the Delancey

Why do so many folkies play coffeehouses? Because their audiences need caffeine in order to stay awake!

There’s usually nothing more boring than a solo vocal-and-guitar act. Typically, the person onstage can either play but not sing, or sing but not play. Many of them can’t do either. And their songs tend to be about themselves, and their meh lives, and their meh loves, or more likely lack thereof. So it was a special treat Thursday night to see soul-rock songwriter Nehedar a.k.a. Emilia Cataldo hold the crowd absolutely rapt with her edgy, often harrowing storytelling and her elegant, balletesque vocal leaps and pirouettes. You could have heard a pin drop. And this wasn’t at Jazz at Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, either, it was downstairs at the Delancey. Where people go to hang, and have a few beers, and chitchat while their friends onstage are doing their thing.

And Cataldo doesn’t seem to sing about herself, either; midway through the set, she mused that so many of her songs are about other peoples’ problems – and that she was grateful for that. She opened with Bells of the City, an angst-fueled, swaying oldschool soul song from her excellent new album This Heart that seems to be about somebody “building a nice career out of a life of fear” who ends up not being able to resist the lure of the bright lights. Maybe it was just the power of suggestion, but when she got to the chorus, her voice took on a bell-like resonance. There are a million women out there with pleasant voices; what Cataldo does with hers, always in the service of getting a lyric across or teasing the listener, is what makes her different and worth hearing.

The version of On Killing on the new album is a brooding bolero; here, she did it more as a punchy, brutally insightful rock song about the psychology of warfare: “They taught him to kill and he was good student, ’cause he had the will,” Cataldo wailed knowingly. She went back to a soul vibe for the sad, restless, alienated Headlights, a piano ballad on the album that benefited from the jolt of energy that Cataldo gave it onstage. She followed what was essentially a biting, minor-key garage rock number with another minor-key one that gave her a platform for some bracingly spiraling vocals. Then she went into oldschool country for Something to Call Mine, a pensive ballad that she said sounds like a breakup ballad, but it’s not.

The soul vibe returned on Pretty Young Thing, a nonchalantly haunting tale of a girl who “could be your baby and she could be you,” who runs into somebody who was looking out for someone just like her to attack. Cataldo closed with a Blues Traveler cover, of all things, which she said was basically a clinic in how to write a song. And it wasn’t bad! There’s a lot of darkness and even horror in Cataldo’s songwriting, but she can also be a lot of fun: nobody saw it coming when she turned the outro into hip-hop.

Where Cataldo is all about drawing people into her narratives, Knoxville’s Hudson K, who was next on the bill, is all about power. Belting out her darkwave anthems in a hurricane-force alto over the fat, body-slamming synth bass blasting from her mixing board, she wielded a keytar, backed by a hard-hitting drummer who rose to the challenge of having to play in sync with the mechanical beats.”You’re stuck on repeat,” she wailed sarcastically on the catchiest number of her set, building to a loudly wavering, spacy wash of string synth over an 80s goth hook. There didn’t seem to be a lot of black eyeliner in the crowd, but pretty much everybody got up, moved down front and joined the dance party. Hudson K’s music is actually a lot more eclectic than this show intimated; a couple of years ago, she put out a killer noir cabaret-rock album, Shine, which is still available at her Bandcamp page as a free download.

And the sound at the venue  was great! As Hudson K joyously told the crowd, Marco behind the soundboard made that room really sing.

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