New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

A Gorgeously Jangly New Album by the Corner Laughers

The Corner Laughers play a sharply lyrical, catchy blend of jangly psychedelia, to richly arranged folk-rock and Americana and several other styles from th enew wave era. Their latest album Temescal Telegraph – streaming at Bandcamp – has some of the most gorgeous guitar work of any rock record released in recent months: clanging twelve-string lines, burning distortion, jaunty 80s British riffage, purist Americana, you name it, this band can play it.

The first track is Calculating Boy, an emphatic new wave number with jangly twelve-string guitar – that’s KC Bowman and Khoi Huynh switching off on guitar, bass and piano behind frontwoman/ukulele player Karla Kane’s cool, inscrutable vocals. This could be an older Pulp song with a woman out front, with a pair of doomed narratives about what sometimes happens to nonconformists: “Ever since she was a child she often smiled, mind over matter,” Kane intones.

Changeling, a backbeat soul tune with gospel organ, could be a well-produced Grateful Dead studio track. In The Accepted Time, Kane traces an impending breakup, from hope against hope, to a graveyard gate, over a lush bed of jangling, clanging guitar multitracks,

The Lilac Line is a blithe janglepop song, 90s Hoboken transplanted to the Bay Area. Loma Alta, a slow, summery 6/8 tableau, has piano chiming through the mix: the Jayhawks at their late 90s/early zeros peak come to mind. Then the band pick up the pace over a soul-clap beat with the new wave-tinged Sirens of the Pollen.

Wren in the Rain has hints of a Kinks classic amid the distantly uneasy, lusciously jangly, watery guitar textures. The lone cover here is a cheery, Beatlesque take of Martin Newell’s Goodguy Sun, swaying along amiably over drummer Charlie Crabtree’s coy flurries.

Skylarks of Britain is a lavishly arranged take on 60s British psych-folk – Sandy Denny-era Strawbs on steroids, maybe – with a trippy lyric that could be an inside joke. The band stay in Britfolk-rock mode to close the album with Lord Richard.

Purist, Brilliantly Produced, Anthemic Tunesmithing From Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts

From the early zeros through the mid-teens, guitarist Pete Cenedella fronted an anthemic and fearlessly woke two-guitar band, American Ambulance, who blended Stones snarl with oldschool country twang. They made some great records and played their last Manhattan full-band gig in the fall of 2015 at the Treehouse at 2A. Since then, Cenedella has led Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts and has continued to write as prolifically as he did with his old band.

They’ve got a couple of singles out this year: Cenedella’s game plan is to put them all out on vinyl until there’s enough of them to fill a double album. If what he has out there now is any indication, it’s going to be a hell of a record. The first single is Turning of the Wheel, which with the twin keyboards of Charles Roth and Tom Lucas has more of a classic Born to Run Springsteen feel. Graham Norwood’s sizzling, spiraling guitar solos toward the end are the icing on this angst-fueled ballad of loss and desperation.

The b-side, Little Leeway is an acoustic country kiss-off anthem. The rhythm section of bassist Ed Iglewski and Dave Anthony is much more lithe here, Cenedella’s metaphors following a would-be gambler to where the deal goes down, hard.

The newest single is Home in the Wind, which has an Abbey Road Beatles vibe and otherworldly vocal harmonies from Lisa Zwier, Erica Smith and Rembert Block along with perfect George Harrison-style analog chorus box leads from Norwood. The b-side, Darkness of a Brand New Day is a stark acoustic duet between Cenedella and Zwier, the brightness of the melody contrasting with the song’s surreal carnival scenario. At a time when there’s never been more of a shortage of rock music being made in this city, there’s never been more of a need for bands like this. If all goes well, this could be the start of something great.

Undercover…Sort of….on the Breadline

[Editor’s note: not exactly music-related, but worht knowing about]

The scariest part of being on the breadline was how absolutely ordinary everyone looked.

I’d never been on a breadline before. I’d found out about it from a flyer posted on a church door in my neighborhood. Expecting to be surrounded by crackheads and crazy street people, I’d dressed down. But as I joined the line, which was already almost all the way around this particular city block, it was reassuring to see who else had showed up a half an hour or more earlier.

To my surprise, this turned out to be a gathering of random New Yorkers. Like the people you work with – if you still have a job that people actually go to – and ride the train with, if you have reason to ride the train these days. This particular crowd was on the older side, meaning forty-plus, with plenty of seniors pushing old-lady carts. Some of the younger parents had brought their heavy-duty models. People of color were in the majority, mirroring this city’s current demographics, although I noticed a smartly dressed Asian girl in her twenties and a well-coiffed, mature white woman in a sharp black sundress reading the New York Times. I stood out for the very reason that I thought would help me blend in.

“No picture taking!” The beefy latino guy in front of me scowled at the black man crouched at the edge of the sidewalk. Slung around his neck were two big cameras, each with a zoom lense. I turned my back and kept my back to him. Ten minutes later, the line hadn’t moved; I glanced over my shoulder to find that he was gone.

After an hour and a half standing in the hot sun, when I finally reached the area where the Food Bank of New York was staging the handout, I noticed a sign with the same legalese disclaimer that’s commonly posted at the doors of corporate music venues: “By entering, you consent to be photographed and/or videotaped and that your image can be used for promotional, social media and other purposes,” etcetera.

There was another guy with a camera here, and this dude was obviously out for promo pix. Families with kids, babies, pregnant women and cute girls were all getting plenty of attention. He seemed very friendly; the black guy who’d been snapping pix a few blocks away had been all business. He didn’t interact with anybody. Undercover cop? Homeland Security? Rent-a-pig?

A lady asked me in Spanish if I wanted a mask; “No, gracias,” I demurred. Some of the volunteers were pleasant, some less so. Nobody was asked to sign in, or answer any questions, something I’d expected after my one experience at a food bank several years earlier. That story idea died on the vine when the guy running the program turned out to be a Nazi, or given to false assumptions about race and class, or suffering from the kind of battle fatigue that one would expect at his job – or all of the above.

This was more than a story idea. Until the lockdown, I did almost all my shopping in the far reaches of the outer boroughs, where food is plentiful and cheap. Not having a job to go to or events to cover, good produce at less than ridiculous prices has been hard to find without walking for hours: for the record, this walk took me over a hundred blocks.

But it paid off. The fresh produce was delicious. A couple of crispy apples; a trio of oranges; a handful of big, sweet carrots; impressively fresh romaine lettuce; a bag of spinach that hadn’t yet lost all its crispness; a few small potatoes, rot-free; a pair of huge cucumbers, ripe for pickling; and a pint of Florida grape tomatoes. Thanks, Food Bank of New York!

The rest of what was available was more in keeping with my expectations – at my lone previous food bank experience, I’d managed to escape with a bag of almost-rotten bananas, a loaf of inedible bread and a bag of shallots. So it was nice to get bunker food: peanut butter, corn flakes, a little bag of rice and a can of beans. It was disheartening to find that a lot of the canned fruits and vegetables were from China. On the way home, I noticed many people leaving those cans along the sidewalk. A quart of milk turned out to be skim. There were also huge bags of frozen chicken being handed out, but the idea of raw meat sitting in ninety-degree heat for minutes on end scared me off.

If this experience is typical, nobody on line with you is going to shame you, or look at you with distrust, if you need to be there. Just watch your back if you see a camera.

A Timely Reissue of a Punk Rock Cult Favorite From 1999 to Benefit Black Lives Matter

The New Bomb Turks couldn’t have picked a more appropriate time to reissue their 1999 album Nightmare Scenario. Since the incendiary original mixes were discovered in a digital audio tape archive at original engineer Jim Diamond’s studio, the band have decided to donate all proceeds from the record – streaming at Bandcamp – to benefit Black Lives Matter organizations in Columbus, Ohio..

This album captures the band at the peak of their power as the missing link between the Dead Boys, Radio Birdman and maybe the Dickies – it holds up alongside all those icons. The Birdman influence may seem obvious, since the group recorded the album in the wake of an Australian tour, further energized by the addition of drummer Sam Brown, who swings the hell ouf these tunes.

The New Bomb Turks always had the best puns for song titles, and this is no exception. Guitarist Jim Weber channels Cheetah Chrome in sarcastic faux Chuck Berry mode in the opening track, Point A to Point Blank. Spanish Fly By Night sounds like the UK Subs taking a stab at a Dead Boys tune circa 1978. And the raw, New York Dolls-ish take of Your Beaten Heart has frontman Eric Davidson’s vocals further out front than the rest of the tracks.

The remainder of the record stands up well too, with the sarcastic singalong Automatic Teller – a dis at a rich girl – and the slinky End of the Great Credibility Race, bassist Matt Reber going way up the scale. “Go as fast as you wanna go,” Davidson tells the band before the hardcore sprint Too Much.

Killer’s Kiss could be an especially loud Steve Wynn riff-rock number, while Continental Cats could be the Reducers – who just put out an archival live album – covering the Dolls. The classic cut here is The Roof, with Weber’s eerily tremoloing minor-key riffage.

If the Stooges did two-minute songs, Turning Tricks wouldn’t have been out of place on Raw Power. Weber repurposes vintage Stones for Wine and Depression; the original album ends with the 1979 CB’s-style Quarter to Four.

There’s also a previously unreleased bonus instrumental, Theme From Nightmare Scenario: you could call it their Night Theme. The New Bomb Turks went into the lockdown revitalized; reputedly, their Brooklyn shows at St. Vitus at the end of last year were as intense as everybody was hoping for. If you have a well-insulated basement or a party boat that can get out of range of the snitch patrol, these guys would be a good band to book.

Cello Rockers the Icebergs Take Their Dark, Distinctive Sound to the Next Level

It’s always validating to see a good band grow into a great one. Over the last few years, the Icebergs have distinguished themselves from the other acts in the cello-rock demimonde by way of Tom Abbs’ deep well of sounds, beyond that instrument’s usual sonic range, along with frontwoman/lyricist Jane LeCroy’s black humor and often searing metaphors.  O’Death drummer David Rogers-Berry completes the picture with his nimble, counterintuitive, coloristic style. On their new album Add Vice – streaming at Bandcamp – they take their dark, aphoristic, individualistic style to the next level: it’s one of the best records of the year. 

It opens with Fallen Creature, an escape anthem of sorts and the catchiest song the band have ever done. Abbs runs a Brubeck-esque riff over Rogers-Berry’s’s lithely tumbling drums, LeCroy contributing a typically telling lyric: “I am a fallen creature who knows my away around the grounds,,,I know silken threads, the stickiness of woven webs.”

The second track, Chelsea – a brief party scenario –  is a witchy one-chord jam as Lorraine Leckie might do it, with snarling guitar and organ, Abbs playing basslines behind guest Martin Philadelphy’s reverb guitar. Invictus keeps the menacing 60s ambience going; this could be Rasputina covering X. “Your days are numbered, so make them count,” LeCroy advises amidst the swirl.

Willa is a slow, death-obsessed ballad, Abbs’ stark upper-register lines subtly iced with reverb. The menace continues with the defiant, starkly bluesy Made It Rain  a trip-hop take on vintage Nina Simone.

The slinky Full Fathom 5 Ariel’s Song – a Shakespeare setting – has  ghostly call-and-response over funeral organ and the cello’s layers of distorted guitar voicings. They pick up the pace with the sarcastically blithe faux cha-cha Same Symptoms, then return to sinister mode with The Way They Wanted, a chillingly imagistic anti-conformist broadside. “The closer to truth, the bigger the joke,” LeCroy warns.

Motorcycle could be a brooding RZA Wu-Tang backing track as produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry. Bow Spirit is a brisk minor-key shuffle with similar dubwise tinges. The band follow that with Ocean Liner, a gleefully Halloweenish garage rock number (and an obvious choice for a band named the Icebergs).

Pareidolia has a slow, staggered sway behind LeCroy’s accusatory vocals. “What are you using to rip out your eyes so you don’t have to look?” she asks over a staggered, skeletal groove and Abbs’ pickslide slashes in the album’s title track – what an apt song for the year of the plandemic and the lockdown!

The tightly waltzing Little Lamb could be a parody of helicopter parenting, or about something even more troubling. The band wind up this hauntingly expansive album with A Line, LeCroy’s wry litany of metaphors reflecting her long background in the poetry underground. “Get out of line – a line is to cross,” she reminds. Powerful words for a year that may determine the fate of the earth. 

Searing, Fuzzy Doom Metal From Swedish Band Lowrider

Swedish band Lowrider do not play Los Angeleno funk. Hard-riffing stoner metal in a Kyuss/Sleep vein is more their thing. Their album Refractions is streaming at Bandcamp. Strong hum-along hooks and interesting psychedelic textures pervade this – they’re a rare metal band who don’t waste notes.

The first track, Red River has a fat fuzztone riffage from the band’s two guitarists – frontman Ola Hellquist on lead and Niclas Stalfors on rhythm – over drummer Andreas Eriksson’s ba-bump beat, tantalizingly brief wah-wah guitar and a weird, echoey bridge. They do the ba-bump thing a little more artfully in Ode to Ganymede – the funeral-parlor organ, atmospherics and a wry guitar solo that sounds like a talkbox but is probably just Hellquist fiddling with his wah are unexpected touches amid the crunch and sludge.

In the hypnotic, almost nine-minute Semanders Krog, the band shift in and out of a tricky beat, indulge in some minimalist atmospherics and finally rise to a long, sputtering trails of sparks from Hellquist’s wah-wah. Mule Pepe is just as trippy but a lot more straightforward, beatwise and riffwise; finally, three tracks in, we get a few seconds of solo bass and drums, and a classic devil’s-horns salute for an outro.

The instrumental Sun Devil is based around a simple, classic series of variations playing off a low E; Peder Bergstrand’s bass is tuned a whole octave lower. The closing epic, Pipe Rider, has growling guitars in tandem with the organ and unexpectely new wave-tinged synth over Eriksson’s shamanistic drums. On one hand, this sound has been done to death over the years – because every year, another generation of alienated kids discover Black Sabbath and the thousands of bands they influenced. Long may they play this stuff.

Going Through Hell with One of the World’s Greatest Jazz Orchestras

What could be more appropriate for this year than an album about a trip through hell?

When the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis recorded their live performance of alto saxophonist Sherman Irby’s Inferno in 2012, it’s unlikely that anyone in the world had any idea how much we would suffer eight years later at the hands of the lockdowners. Nor is it likely that the big band were even considering releasing this show as an album. But when it’s illegal to have your whole band in the same room, you do what any reasonable organization with a massive archive would do: you put out one great live record after another to keep your fans satisfied (and remind the rest of the world that a free society will someday flourish again in this city). This brings the orchestra’s releases this year to a grand total of four, and there may be more on the way.

Irby’s Dante-inspired suite features crowd favorite baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley playing the devil role, an assignment he obviously if rather subtly relishes when his turn comes.

A brief overture has slurry low brass, train-whistle high reeds and flickers of hi-de-ho swing, Temperley taking everybody way down into the depths. The first movement is titled House of Unbelievers, its brassy strut quickly giving way to suave, plush swing with good-natured solos from flute, soprano sax and trombone: it’s anything but hellish. But the atmosphere heats up in the simmmering second movement, Insatiable Hunger, a slow, slinky minor-key roadhouse theme of sorts: is that a piccolo descending from the clouds and hovering overhead like a drone? Shivery trombone offers a demonic response and kicks off the ensuing chatter.

Temperley’s allusively menacing solo follows that gremlin conversation as Beware the Wolf gets underway, echoed by smoky tenor sax, evilly slurry trombone and wicked, downwardly spiraling trumpet over a practically frantic swing. The album’s showstopper is The City of Dis, a slow, creepy, kaleidoscopically arranged Ravel Bolero-inspired number worthy of Gil Evans, packed with sly carnivalesque touches. It’s one of the most entertaining pieces of music released this year.

The Three-Headed Serpent is just about as colorful, a racewalking swing tune with bits of stern 19th century gospel, lowrider funk and solos from drums to tenor sax to piano popping up all over the place. The fierce trumpet duel at the center really energizes a crowd who up to this point have been pretty sedate.

The album’s epic final movement is The Great Deceiver, a synopsis of sorts that wraps up the brooding bolero theme and pretty much everything else, the devil himself slowly stalking in on the pulse of the bass as his minions chatter away. He slinks off amid an Ellingtonian lustre at the end. Irby is best known as a fearsome soloist, but these compositions are flat-out brilliant: let’s hope we get more like this out of him in the years to come. This is best-of-2020 material.

Lush, Elegant, Moodily Orchestrated Chamber Pop from Chanteuse Z Berg

Press releases usually can’t be trusted, especially when it comes to music. The one that came with the new album Get Z to a Nunnery, by a singer who goes by the name of Z Berg characterized the record as “a little bit Francoise Hardy…a little bit Dusty Springfield on drugs..” Intriguing, no? It’s streaming at Bandcamp – see for yourself.

While Berg’s lavishly orchestrated songs are totally retro 60s, her voice is very much in the here and now. There’s a big crack in it when she reaches for a crescendo, Amy Winehouse-style. In quieter moments, her mutedly husky musings bring to mind Americana chanteuses like Tift Merritt. And either the album cost a fortune to produce, or Berg has lots of conservatory-trained friends (or dad still has something left from the old days at the formerly big record label). Sweeping orchestration and classically-tinged piano pervade her moody narratives, full of artful chord changes, dynamic shifts and picturesque imagery. It’s more valium and vodka than Prozac.

The opening ballad, To Forget You sets the stage, floating along over lush strings and a gracefully swaying 6/8 rhythm. The theme of I Fall For the Same Face Every Time is that troubled birds of a feather flock together, set to elegantly arpeggiated piano and baroque harp cascades.

“We didn’t fear the things we did not know,” Berg asserts in another 6/8 number, Time Flies, a pretty generic pop song heavily camouflaged in layers of backward-masked guitar and symphonic gloss. She shifts to a straight-up waltz tempo for Into the Night, a more delicate number that could be Charming Disaster on opium.

A gentle foreboding pervades Calm Before the Storm, the gently fingerpicked guitar, 70s Nashville pop melody and Berg’s plainspoken lyrics bringing to mind Jenifer Jackson in Americana mode. Little Colonel is one of the more skeletal and haunting tracks here, rising to a low-key baroque pop arrangement:

Dear little colonel, one foot in the grave
Fighting the war with an unsteady aim
Is that the goal, to create a crusade
With nothing for no one, so no one is saved
Or safe

It was recorded before the lockdown, but it’s uncanny all the same.

Berg and I (that’s the title) is a doomed noir cabaret number gliding along with mutedly insistent piano, strings and backward masking. Charades, a duet, is more sardonic and ELO-ish, the piano receding behind fingerpicked guitar. “It was a scream when were young and dumb, acid on Topanga Beach, in my mind we’ll always be that free,” Berg recalls in The Bad List, an anguished holiday nightmare breakup scenario: it’s the album’s Fairytale of New York. There’s also a starry instrumental epilogue. This is a sleeper candidate for the shortlist of the best albums of 2020.

Stark, Simmering Americana Nocturnes from Clara Baker

Fire is a recurrent metaphor on Americana songstress Clara Baker‘s new album Things to Burn, streaming at Bandcamp. But it’s not a fullscale inferno: it’s more of a brush fire that won’t flame out. Baker is the rare singer whose unselfconscious, nuanced delivery, with just a tinge of vibrato at the end of a phrase, can bring to mind Erica Smith. The album’s production is similarly understated and tasteful, matching the persistent unease, and distant longing, and low-key sultriness of the vocals.

The echoey Rhodes piano and Baker’s sotto-voce delivery on the album’s title track make it easy to believe that this song is about seduction…and it is, but the sarcasm is subtle, and withering, underscored by the sudden bursts from Courtney Hartman’s noisy electric guitar.

The ambiece is more skeletal, set to a circular mandolin riff in the minor-key Appachian-tinged second track, Doubt:

My mama brought me up with fate, my daddy brought me up with facts
I wanna pray at the altar of the certainty I lack

Baker maintains the sparse atmosphere in A Memory, a brooding tale of abandonment: “Strong as I am, I could never compete with a memory,” she muses.

Baker’s use of space is masterful: the occasionsl washes of slide guitar, or a reverberating accent from the Rhodes, pepper the slow waltz More Than Enough, a classic 70s-style Nashville ballad with minimalist production values.

Middle of the Night begins ambiently and then hits a sleepless trip-hop beat: it’s the album’s poppiest song. Six Days of Rain is the album’s killer cut, a slowly crescendoing, calmly harrowing account of getting dumped after what must have been a tortuous relationship.

I Won’t Take My Time is more hopeful, an oldtime front porch-style tune at halfspeed with probably a tenth the usual amount of strumming. Moving On is not the Hank Snow classic but a pensive, metaphorically-charged, backbeat-driven acoustic rock tune: “I’m grasping at the edges of who I was before I changed,” Baker muses. She closes the album with the gorgeously subdued Old Mountains, which evokes acoustic Pink Floyd, references a BeeGees song and has one of Baker’s most potent lyrics:

In a moment of bliss
Do you panic
Knowing something this good
Could never last…
Are you mining for joy
In old mountains
Are you panning for gold
In rivers of the past
I’ve walked that road
It hurts like hell
Letting go
Is something I know well

Impactful stuff from a quietly powerful voice.

Obscure Heavy Psychedelia Rescued From Vietnam War-Era Obscurity – For the Tenth Time

The great thing about the Brown Acid compilations is that there are a ton of unbelievable rare treasures amid the obscure singles by marginally talented bands who did their best to imitate Cream, Led Zep, the MC5 or Uriah Heep. Yet while pretty much all these bands rescured from obscurity over the course of the series’ ten volumes sound high on one thing or another, ultimately they have one thing in common: they embraced freedom.

All but one of the songs on the new anthology Brown Acid: The Tenth Trip – streaming at Riding Easy Records – were made in the US during the Vietnam War. The privileged kids whose parents could afford to put them through college to escape the draft weren’t making music that sounded much like this. Acid rock was a working-class subculture, created by musicians who were in danger of being drafted into a war that virtually all of them opposed. There’s only one overtly political song on this record, but let’s not forget that songs which openly endorsed drug use identifed their makers as subversive. This music was more radical than most people today realize.

The first track, Tensions, is by Flint, Michigan band Sounds Synonymous. With slinky organ and fuzztone guitar, it’s basically a one-chord jam  til the chorus. The haphazard doublespeed outro is a classic 1969 stoner touch.

Instead of accelerating, Louisville’s Conception follow a similar pattern with their 1969 single Babylon, with cheap amps, a phaser and a slow blues jam that appears out of nowhere. California band Ralph Williams and the Wright Brothers’ Never Again is a hard blues recorded in mono – three years later.

Atlanta band Bitter Creek’s 1970 recording Plastic Thunder has MC5 snarl and ominous lyrics that reflect the turbulence of the era: it’s one of the album’s best songs. New Orleans group Rubber Memory’s All Together – a ramshackle Vietnam War plea for solidarity – is one of the longscale gems these anthologies are best know for, slinking along with fuzztone bass, wah-wah scratch guitar, and a bridge from nowhere to basically nowhere as well.

First State Bank put out the impressively multitracked, scampering riff-rocker Mr. Sun in that same year. The album’s lone novelty song, Brothers and One’s Hard On Me is a pretty obvious dirty joke (say the title slowly and you’ll get it).

Tucson’s Frozen Sun contribute a Hendrix ripoff with super-spacy lyrics, followed by the album’s most hilarious song, The Roach, a 1969 stoner classic by Alabama band the Brood. “Leave him around for when you begin to come down,” their singer rasps over wahs and organ and a weird white noise loop: is that supposed to be somebody toking hard?.

The album’s final cut is Tabernash’s Head Collect, a surreal 1969 mashup of the Beatles and mid-60s Pretty Things.

It’s unthinkable that any of the bands in the ten-album series could have made this music while wearing masks and standing six feet from each other. Folks, this lockdown bullshit is never going to end unless we put an end to it. It’s time to mobilize.