New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: January, 2012

Walter Ego Brings His Cruel Wit to Otto’s

Walter Ego played Otto’s Saturday night. The tourists hadn’t made it to the back room yet, so he kept the crowd entertained for the better part of an hour. New York is full of great little scenes: country and oldtime Americana at the Jalopy and 68 Jay Street Bar; gypsy music at Drom and Barbes; metal at St. Vitus and Tommy’s Tavern; and also what has become an elite songwriter’s salon that began at Banjo Jim’s and migrated to Otto’s after the bar on Avenue C closed down this past summer. The core is mix of veterans: Lorraine Leckie, LJ Murphy, J Wallace and Mac MacCarty along with up-and-coming talent like Drina Seay. And then there’s this guy: Murphy’s longtime bass player, who has now moved to centerstage, part Magical Mystery Tour era Beatles, part Elvis Costello, part Nick Cave maybe. Lyrics drive his songs, but his tunes can be more ornate and complex than you typically find in his kind of powerpop and janglerock.

As usual, there was a theatrical aspect to the show. This time he took a little time away from the set to make fun of juggling in general – or maybe just his own juggling. And then launched into a bright, sarcastically bouncy, vintage Kinks-style 60s Britpop number possibly called Satellites. As with all this guy’s songs, it’s loaded with metaphors, balls flying through the air: “If I am your gravity, what are you to me? You are a tiny, tiny satellite, I am the one who put you in the sky…you’re so far away,” he sang to these poor satellites, letting the cruelty of the lyric speak for itself. After that, he did a funk song, The Immorality Detection Machine, which manages to make fun of both right-wing hypocrites and lie detectors. “It’s the next best thing to time travel to the 50s, when men were men and women were girls,” he explained. The swaying, bluesy Don’t Take Advice from Me offered a killjoy’s irrepressible point of view: “What else is one more yeasayer boosting your esteem when I can give you the ugly truth that wakes you from your dream?” Later in the set he echoed that with The Magician, who will explain why that joke you just laughed at isn’t funny, and is so magic that he can make magic disappear.

But not all his songs are as direct, or as funny. Switching to piano, he brought out a biting, Lennonesque anthem that could have been encouragement to seize the moment…or it might have been making fun of people who think their lives are bigger than life. As usual, the highlight of the set was I Am the Glass, a goth-tinged, brooding, vindictive, metaphorically loaded ballad that he sang icily: “Whether you were cruel or oblivious, it didn’t have to come to this, instead of fragments I should still be one,” the broken glass tells its owner: a little later on in the song, there’s a car crash that brings everything full circle. The biggest surprise of the night was a casually riveting version of an obscure LJ Murphy song, Sunday’s Assassin, a searing chronicle of clinical depression: this killer still can’t drag himself out of bed or out of the house as he waits for the cops to haul him off while the tv cameras give him his fifteen minutes. The set ended with a funky number with a never-ending series of chord changes, more Beatlesque psychedelia and then an obligatory encore, in this case a terse piano version of Nowhere Man. Although Walter Ego has been writing songs since his days in Murphy’s band back in the 90s, he wasn’t playing out regularly until the past couple of years. For the moment, he seems to call Otto’s home when he’s not out busking; watch this space for upcoming dates.

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Andrew Collberg Brings Back a Raw Classic Sound

Anybody remember True West, a great band from the 80s? They were by far the best of that era’s “paisley underground” psychedelic bands. With their dueling Telecasters – Russ Tolman’s manic intensity paired off against Richard McGrath’s edgy, liquid legato lines – they created a sound that’s never been duplicated.

Until now. Swedish rocker Andrew Collberg is a sometime Howe Gelb collaborator, which makes a lot of sense. Collberg’s also got an absolutely feral, savagely good new single coming out on Jan 31 on Ft. Lowell Records on limited-edition green vinyl. The A-side, Dirty Wind sounds totally live, right down to the dirty, Tolmanesque noiserock solo; the B-side, Back on the Shore is a casually expert, poignant southwestern gothic ballad that wouldn’t be out of place in the James Apollo catalog. Stream it here.

Too Trippy

Here’s clawhammer banjo player Abigail Washburn and band playing the old spiritual Wayfaring Stranger with the Xinjiang Song & Dance Troupe in China during her just-completed “silk road tour” there. More videos here and US and Australian tourdates here.

Lana Del Rey Got a Raw Deal

OK, that’s a joke – sort of. Lana Del Rey is the pampered daughter of a Los Angeles dotcom millionaire: she’ll never have to worry about being a single paycheck away from homelessness. And no matter how much hate spews from the blogosphere, she’ll always at least have the option of hiring a PR team to tell the world how wonderful she is. But that outpouring of hate is hypocritical to the extreme.

Saying that what she does has more artistic merit than, say, Bon Iver or Arcade Fire is like saying that Mad Dog tastes better than Smirnoff Ice (it does, but why subject yourself to it at all). Still, if you’ve seen the stupid video, you have to admit that her phony noir shtick is actually a step (maybe a half-step or a microstep) above either of those two acts, both of whom have been championed by the same boys who take so much pleasure in putting her down. Could this possibly be a case of sour grapes? Maybe those boys have got their boy-thongs all in a knot because what they really want is to be Lana Del Rey. Why should she get all the photoshoots, the endless parade of stylists and sycophants, and trailerloads of American Outfitters knockoff clothes to choose from every afternoon when she wakes up?

Yeah, there’s a studied ineptitude to everything she does. But why should, say, Grizzly Bear get a free pass when it comes to musical incompetence, while Lana gets pilloried for it? That hypocrisy is fueled by misogyny. After all, everybody knows that indie rock is a boys’ club: other than the closeted trust-fund lesbian contingent, it’s no girls allowed. In a genre where being an atrocity exhibition is a badge of honor (it means you’re wealthy and can afford to embarrass yourself onstage or on record), why, all of a sudden, does quality matter when it comes to Lana Del Rey, but not when any of the boys are concerned? And the height of the hypocrisy is borne out by the fact that her Bowery Ballroom show was sold out. Clearly, the pretty boys of Bushwick’s interest in celebrity far outweighs their interest in music. And that’s two-faced to the extreme.

Tribecastan’s New Deli: A Welcome Addition to the Neighborhood

Tribecastan might be the ultimate kitchen-sink band. The sprawling New York group play deviously lighthearted original psychedelic music in styles from all over the world, from every era, combined in one giant hempseed stirfry of crunchy goodness. Their classic album is their 2009 debut, Strange Cousin: it’s their darkest, with a much more Balkan/Middle Eastern feel than their subsequent work. But their new one, officially out this coming February 7 and aptly titled New Deli, is a lot of fun. They’re playing tonight at Joe’s Pub at 7: if eclectic, trippy acoustic music is your thing, you should check them out.

The core of the band, John Kruth plays fretted instruments and flutes alongside his co-conspirator Jeff Greene on the rest of the fretted instruments in the band’s collective museum (five, just for his part) plus many percussion instruments as well. Their fellow travelers on this effort include Ween’s Dave Dreiwitz on bass, Scott Metzger on guitar, Steve Turre on trombone and shells, ex-Mink DeVille percussionist Boris Kinberg, John Turner on trumpet, Claire Daly on baritone sax, Cracker’s Kenny Margolis on keyboards plus cameos by the Master Musicians of Jajouka’s Bachir Attar, the Klezmatics’ Matt Darriau, Badal Roy and a horde of other special guests.

The opening track, Song for Kroncha, is typical: a Guyanese-style soca tune that takes a turn into bhangra. On a similar tip, Bed Bugs is a blithe Indian-flavored flute tune gone soca – these bed bugs are obviously well fed! Louie’s Luau also offers a taste of the tropics, a calypso-spiced New Orleans second line march done with fretted instruments plus brass and spiky mandolin (is that a mandolin? you never know with these guys) and jews harp. The band quotes from the Human League’s Keep Feeling Fascination underneath a flurrying mandolin (mandocello? rebab?) solo in Dive Bomber, a bracing Greek rembetiko dance with…are you ready…blues harp.

As with their previous album, Five Star Cave, the best songs here are the more serious ones. There’s A Crack in the Clouds, a wistful, catchy 6/8 anthem with flutes and cautious, brooding picking, and Jovanka, a Middle Eastern-flavored tango with a rich bed of fretted instruments and zither, Turner’s trumpet rising warily over the mysterious ambience, then giving way to Daly’s increasingly agitated baritone sax. The pensive bolero El Bumpa is another standout. The rest of the tracks include Daddy Barracuda, which resembles another wryly bluesy, psychedelic New York band, Hazmat Modine; the funky One Day His Axe Fell Into Honey, with its forest of flutes; the carefree, swinging The Brain Surgeon’s Wife Serves Lunch; and The Mystery of Licorice McKechnie, a weirdly amorphous jajouka tune.

There are also some covers here. Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Freaks for the Festival is done as a funky, vividly carnivalesque organ-and-brass tune with those spiky fretted things and a woozy, bluesy Metzger electric guitar solo. Don Cherry’s Guinea gets a rustic, hypnotic treatment with flutes over a harmonium backdrop that hints at reggae. There’s also a couple of duds: Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, which even the great Eric Burdon couldn’t rescue from schlockdom, and a pair of cloying Ornette Coleman ditties. Go to Joe’s Pub and scream for originals.

Spanking Charlene Kicks Ass

Spanking Charlene are sort of a New York counterpart to X: for punk rock, they’re very diverse musically. Substitute a distinctively New York snarl for the LA band’s DIY gutter-poetry vibe, bring the vocals up a lot higher and put producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel in the Ray Manzarek role and you get an idea of what they sound like. Like X (at least in the old days), they’re fronted by a couple, Charlene McPherson on vocals and Mo Goldner on guitar. Like Exene, McPherson takes an unapologetic feminist-hedonist stance, deploring the kind of shit women let guys get away with (and on the gentlest song here, My Girl, offering a warm shoulder for any woman with the nerve to stick up for herself). But where Exene is a distinctive singer, McPherson is a phenomenal one: an outraged, wounded wail like hers only comes around every few years. And the band can be very funny, and pretty amazing live. Besides producing their latest album Where Are the Freaks, Ambel plays a Fifth Beatle role, adding his trademark surreal wit with both lead guitar and piano.

The best songs here are the angry ones. You Suck is just plain great: as the band runs the riff from Pil’s This Is Not a Love Song, McPherson cuts loose on a guy who’s an emotional leech – and is she singing “fill me up” or “feel me up?” Stupid Me is even more intense – and as good as the vocals are here, McPherson always turns this into a showstopper onstage. And as much as she’s berating herself for falling for some loser, it’s the loser she fell for who’s even stupider. Tie Me Up sarcastically juxtaposes everything a girl wants – the flowers, a guy who takes care of her every need and more – with a crushing chorus:

Tie me up
Make me beg,
Pin my hands against the bed
Bite my lip
Taste my sweat
Tell me it’s not ready yet

Then there’s the title track, an exasperated shout out to anybody with a sense of fun who might have survived the blitzkrieg of gentrification that’s destroyed so much of New York (and major cities around the world). Stuck at a lame yuppie party and feeling sullen, McPherson longs for the kind of people who used to make neighborhoods like the East Village so much fun before they were driven out by the heirloom artisanal lardons-and-nori martini crowd.

The rest of the album covers a lot of ground. The opening cut, Secrets, lumbers along with some AC/DC style riffage, while Rev It Up goes into punkabilly, Cry Baby works a slow, Stoogey wah guitar feel and Booze and Pills – which really nails that particular vibe – is the closest thing to X here. There’s also the sarcastic The Other Girl and I Like You As a Friend, a woman’s perspective on the one line that every guy dreads most. The final two tracks here were originally released as singles on Little Steven Van Zandt’s label: a beefed-up version of Dismissed with a Kiss (the title track from their 2007 debut) and the edgy Canarsie, a catchy, Stonesy look at the band’s love-hate relationship with the distant Brooklyn neighborhood that McPherson and Goldner call home. What else is there to say – great band, great album, a lock for one of 2012’s best. We need more smart, assaultively fun, funny records like this, with raw but rich production values all the way through and solid playing from the rhythm section which includes Alison Jones on bass and either Eric Seftel or Phil Cimino on drums. Spanking Charlene’s home base is Lakeside Lounge, where they’ll be on Feb 18 at 11.

Catchy, Energetic Roots Rock from Barry

Upstate New York roots-rock trio Barry’s album Yawnin’ in the Dawning isn’t heavy music by a long shot, but it’s not stupid either. Some would say that the three brothers – Patrick on guitar and vocals, Ben on bass and Brad Barry on drums – are a bar band, which is accurate: they’re a good one. Throw a shot apiece of River-era Springsteen, Damn the Torpedoes-era Petty and the Pogues and chase it all with a beer or two and you have an idea of what they sound like. The production is fat and purist: put this on your headphones and you pretty much forget you’re listening to a mp3.

The title track is a sea chantey: “I only had ten hours of sleep and I wish I had ten more.” Amen to that! The second cut, For Your Own Good adds Celtic overtones to a pounding vintage Springsteeen groove. It’s a defiant individualist anthem, and it’s not a pose. “The bust is coming down on me and I don’t care,” asserts Patrick. Too bad corporate radio doesn’t play catchy singalong songs like this. Carnival (e) is a reggae song that builds a creepy circus scene: “They beg the bearded lady to make faces, to leave traces, of hope for some more.”

The band follows that with After Three Years in Carolina, a catchy, swaying country-rock song with characteristically nice guitar/organ textures and lush vocal harmonies. When the singer’s ex comes back to his neighborhood to haunt him, he has it all figured out: “I got a plan, I’ll get high every day.” The most Irish of all the songs here was obviously made to get the crowd going at shows: it’s a drinking song where each member of the band takes a verse to introduce himself.

I was born the night of a fight in the fall of ’75
The Thrilla in Manila when Ali left Frazier blind …
I’ve staggered through nights on crutches
These are the things that make me feel alive

And then it’s time for shots and beers all around. The album closes with another big, catchy organ-and-guitar-fueled ballad, Love Something Too Much and then one that should have been left on the cutting room floor. Considering the rest of the stuff on this album, it’s safe to assume that the band has more where this came from. The Bushwick and Echo Park trendoid rock blogs absolutely despise this kind of music. A band that’s actually fun, that you can sing along to? Ewww! Which is why you’re reading about it here and not there.

John Amadon’s Seven Stars Shines Eerily

The cover art of Portland, Oregon songwriter John Amadon’s album Seven Stars (streaming in its entirety at his Bandcamp site) reaches back for an early 70s psychedelic pop look – which makes a perfect match with the music, if not exactly the plotline. This is a quietly beautiful but disconcerting concept record about unrequited love – and you mustn’t let that scare you off. Far from being maudlin or wimpy, it’s creepy. Amadon’s elegant three-minute purist pop craftsmanship is a match for his casual, unaffected vocals and terse, sometimes chilling, sometimes nebulous lyrics. As heartbreak albums go, it’s in the same ballpark as the Jayhawks’ Sound of Lies…most of the time. Amadon really has a handle on classic pop songwriting: the Beatles and Big Star, through the prism of Elliott Smith, with echoes of the Jayhawks at their late 90s powerpop peak as well as Badfinger. The songs here are typically slow-to-midtempo, with tasteful, melodic electric guitar rising over a lush bed of acoustic rhythm guitar and sometimes keyboards, the bass and drums in the back of the mix where they belong.

The lyrics trace the arc of an affair that either went horribly wrong or never happened – which is never exactly clear. The story is told from the perspective of someone who went in with good intentions, then got them twisted. “I won’t be the keeper of a wayfarer’s house that’s never home,” Amadon asserts on the opening track, Empty Fiction. The way he reprises the simple, catchy vocal line on an acoustic guitar at the end of the song is a typical, unselfconsciously beautiful touch here. By the second track, Amadon is already foreshadowing a desperation that doesn’t bode well:

There’s an accelerator, there’s a chain
And there’s a part I play myself
But there’s a segregator, and there’s a flame
And there’s a price I know too well

Warmly melodic piano hands the song over to a terse lead guitar break in a thoughtful Neil Finn kind of way. Let’s Walk Without Talking – a free download – sets Amadon’s anxiety-fueled hope to a pretty organ melody straight out of the Jayhawks playbook, 1997, the backing vocals adding a tinge of glamrock. He follows with All Patched Up, a crunchier, Badfingeresque number, and then Ahead at the Turn, which moves from a pensive, jazzy intro and shifts artfully into a brighter powerpop vein. The clouds roll in with Bitter Prayers, a tense piano ballad: but, Amadon insists, “I’m not a cloud waiting to drown you darlin, I’m not gonna surround you darlin, I’m not gonna intrude.”

Right.

After a moment of tentative peace with an instrumental amusingly titled Xanax – with what could be a djeridoo and a melodica, but maybe just a synth – Amadon goes back to plying his object of desire in Tired Man Spinning, another powerpop number with a gentle insistence. By now, the protagonist is talking about “unlimited possibility and “infinite continuity” even though he’s “not used to being in somebody’s corner, I’m used to being somebody’s road.” This is where the woman who either didn’t want to get involved, or wouldn’t go any further – we’ll never know the answer, nor her side of the story – probably pulled the plug. The next song, a gorgeously sad piano-and-guitar ballad titled Lost Land, leaves no doubt:

Living in a lost land
But I know where you are
All the flowers you plant
They only glow in the dark

And by now she’s being cast as a possible “last pleasure in the hour of doom” – her pursuer makes it clear that he’s planning on dying with her.

Musically, the rest of the album is quite beautiful, but not lyrically convincing – stalkers don’t typically go away so easily. Palace of Ruin – which cleverly references the Buzzcocks’ Ever Fallen in Love – paints a picture in a “squalid room, looking at a broken old man, buried in a puddle of blood” – it’s not clear who, or for that matter how many people are either killing or being killed here, and it’s genuinely chilling. The title track hides the bitterness beneath warm Memphis soul guitar, but then it escapes with a roar in Torn by Livid Ocean (which seems to be a Stephen Crane quote), the album’s loudest song, ending with a long, lingering guitar solo screaming away – but in the distance, buried in the mix. The album ends on an ambiguous note with Knocking Down Doors, a slow, swaying, somewhat hypnotic anthem that could be a kiss-off note, or a self-critique. Once again, Amadon draws the listener in and keeps the suspense at a peak. If this is autobiography, it’s worrisome (and makes a good companion piece to Jay Bennett’s classic Whatever Happened, I Apologize); if it’s fiction, it’s one hell of a quiet ride. Count this among the most intriguing rock records of the past several months.

Penrose: Excellent Original Dark Blues/Rock from Philly

There’s only one thing better than a great, original band: a free download from a great, original band, and that’s what dark Philadelphia blues/garage rockers Penrose have to offer. A power trio made up of three brothers – Dan Murphy on guitar and keys, with his siblings Pat on bass and Tom on drums – put out the album, titled Devil’s Grip, just over a year ago. They also have a surprisingly quiet, creepy noir acoustic single, Tango with Lucy out as well. Both are streaming and downloadable for free at their Bandcamp site. As you would expect from a band of this quality, Penrose get good gigs in their hometown (their next is February 3 at World Cafe Live); audiences outside of Philly deserve to know about them as well.

While blues isn’t the first style of music you’d think a band this unique would play, blues is the underpinning of just about everything here. Many styles of blues – from the hypnotic R.L. Burnside-style Mississippi hill country shuffle that kicks off the album, through the epic suite that closes it, an update on the old story of Stagger Lee and Billy that burns through a bluesmetal boogie, a Riders on the Storm electric piano interlude, references to Neil Young and maybe the Chrome Cranks, with a snarling, Freddie King-style guitar solo out. In case you’re wondering, these guys really know their blues.

But that’s only part of the picture. Several of the songs have a 13th Floor Elevators-influenced garage rock menace, while a couple of the slower numbers have concisely snarling, chromatically-fueled Black Sabbath-style riffage, but with more nimble rhythm and guitar that’s more machete than sledgehammer. The raw sonics, with a wall of echo on the vocals and dirty, lo-fi distortion from the guitar, fit the songs perfectly. The best one is the strangely titled Paper Clips & Rubberbands, a haunting, swaying, minor-key number with a burning, sustained Albert King guitar feel and an apocalyptic lyric. “Found the cache beside the road” – or is it cash lying there on the shoulder instead? “There ain’t nothing here to come home to, only fear,” is the final turnaround before an unexpected diversion into a funk groove, guitar and piano riffing their way out angrily.

Another minor blues, Crooked Teeth seems to be about the evils of alcohol, and has a killer, spot-on, savagely simple guitar solo. Look Past the Sky is a brooding soul song, like the Elevators covering Bobby Bland. Driven by fuzztone bass, Snowstorm builds menace up to another screaming guitar solo, a stark contrast with Fly, an escape anthem that starts out slow and Sabbath-y before wandering into unexpectedly warm Hendrix Hey Joe territory. Did these guys ever listen to early 70s heavy boogie bands like Bloodrock? That wouldn’t be a surprise. They follow that by revisiting a similar proto-metal vibe with the slowly pulsing Austin, then do a vigorous bluespunk take on Son House’s Death Letter Blues. If you like blues, or the dark side of soul music, or dark, heavy rock in general, do yourself a favor, download this and then go see them the next time you’re in Philly. Or see them at the Bitter End this Sunday, 1/28 at 9 PM.

SOPA and PIPA Are Dead But Will Go Zombie Sooner or Later

Don’t be fooled into a sense of complacency by Congress’ recent backpedaling on SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and its evil twin PIPA. It’s only a matter of time before the corporate content providers regroup and pitch the idea of internet censorship another way (with big donations to legislators – remember, since record labels don’t manufacture physical product to much if any degree anymore, they have more cash to play politics with, if not to set aside for royalties for musicians). What they don’t realize is that the horse left this particular barn a dozen years ago: someone who entered school at age six, when Napster first went online, would be starting college now, and would probably own hundreds if not thousands of files which are at this point in history de facto public domain despite any protestations to the contrary.

In the meantime, check out this spot-on, hilarious analysis from our friends at The Pirate Bay: “The word SOPA means “trash” in Swedish. The word PIPA means “a pipe” in Swedish. This is of course not a coincidence. They want to make the internet into a one way pipe, with them at the top, shoving trash through the pipe down to the rest of us obedient consumers.”