New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Month: March, 2012

Matt Keating’s Wrong Way Home – Best Rock Album of 2012?

Matt Keating’s new Wrong Way Home (streaming in its entirety at the Sojourn Records site) is the best album he’s ever done. It’s a landmark in tunesmithing and songcraft to rival anything Elvis Costello or the Beatles ever recorded. Which is an even more impressive achievement considering the sweep and power of Keating’s 2008 double cd, Quixotic, a feast of lush, lyrically rich janglerock. This one is considerably different: blending elements of 1960s soul, country, ragtime and even jazz, it’s far more musically diverse. Lyrically, it’s his darkest album: as with Joy Division or late-period Phil Ochs, an encroaching, inescapable sense of doom pervades this record. Keating has always been an uneasy writer, able to dissect the fatal flaw in a relationship with a few sharp words: here, he takes his role as psychopathologist to a new level. He’s also never sung better – there are other singers who get called Orbison-esque, and most of those comparisons fall flat, but Keating’s nonchalant but wounded-to-the-core croon packs the same kind of emotional wallop.

The songs themselves are mini-epics, seldom going on for more than four minutes, arranged so that they begin sparsely and gradually add layers of strings, guitars, keyboards and horns until they reach an angst-driven orchestral grandeur. The musicianship is what you would expect from an A-list of New York players. Keating is a strong guitarist, but he’s a brilliant pianist, nimbly switching from blithe ragtime to tersely jeweled, incisive rock riffs, to torchy jazz on Baby’s Mind, a number that wouldn’t be out of place in the Chet Baker songbook, both compositionally and vocal-wise. Tony Scherr’s guitar channels a hundred styles, from Memphis soul to artsy metal, to psychedelia and country, alongside Jason Mercer on bass, Hem’s Mark Brotter and Greg Wieczorek (of Jenifer Jackson’s band) splitting duties on drums, Claudia Chopek’s one-woman string section, Cassis on accordion and Keating’s wife Emily Spray’s exquisite harmony vocals.

The opening track, Just About Now, a pulsing, piano-driven Burt Bacharach-esque soul song cruelly captures the moment where what seems to be redemption at last goes completely to hell. “I don’t remember facing a day so unafraid…when you’re in love you’re not on the take,” Keating observes, facing what appears to be an abrupt, cold ending. Punchline introduces a furtive clenched-teeth dread that will recur later on:

I’ve been using the back door
Keeping my own score
Scraping the bottom
Off of the top floor
You know I keep minimizing
All those expectations
On the horizon
In each situation

Scherr’s indulgent Comfortably Numb quote does double duty here as comic relief and deathblow as Keating runs the song’s mantra, “just leave it alone.”

Nobody’s Talking, a crushing portait of rural claustrophobia that you have to “claw your way through,” has a country sway and one of Keating’s signature allusive plotlines. Nobody’s taking out the trash or doing the dishes here: did somebody get killed, die, go on a bender or what? Likewise, the aphoristic Too Good to Lose – with lively dixieland from trumpeter Shane Endsley and the Microscopic Septet’s Dave Sewelson on baritone sax – could be completely sarcastic, or it could actually be one of the few bright spots amidst the gloom. It’s hard to tell. And the narrator of the wistfully Tex-Mex flavored title track – the most overtly Orbisonesque song here – might actually be the rare guy who actually wants to nurture communication in a relationship, or he could be a total control freak/stalker type.

Maybe He’ll Meet You, a shuffling country crooner tune, might be the album’s most haunting track. Keating shuffles his lyrics and his images artfully: the snakecharmer forgets his song and then dies of snakebite as the hope of finally being able to connect with someone slowly and inevitably slips away. Another real haunter is Maker of Carousels, Keating’s devastating portrait of self-inflicted emotional depletion, pulsing along with phantasmagorical carnival organ. Jersey Sky, a homage to Danny Federici, the late E Street Band organist, works a hypnotic, elegiac ambience, as does the ragtimey 1913 Coney Island, an understatedly brooding graveside scenario.

There’s also the absolutely hilarious, doo-wop flavored Back to the Party, an ominous tale of a clueless doofus whose ending is delivered with a riff rather than a lyric; the lavishly arranged, death-fixated Here and Then You’re Gone; the bitterly sardonic, Elvis Costello-inflected soul waltz Go to the Beach; the brightly shuffling Sound of Summer Days, which could be the great lost track from the Kinks’ Village Green; and the Springsteen-esque blue-collar lament Factory Floor, featuring Spray’s electrifying, vibrato-fueled soul harmonies. Even on the album’s closing track, a Lennon-esque piano ballad, Keating is apprehensive, unsure what’s going to happen to him if he allows himself the chance to salvage the remains of a relationship. How many people who heard London Calling, or Highway 61, or Armed Forces knew immediately that they had a classic in their hands? This album is one of those records: every time you hear it, there’s something new to reflect on and enjoy.

Purist Tunesmithing from Sharon Goldman

Purist, lyrical pop tunesmith Sharon Goldman is playing the First Acoustics Coffeehouse in downtown Brooklyn this Saturday the 24th at 7 PM; Sloan Wainwright is on afterward if you’re interested. But Goldman is worth seeing just by herself: her originality and irreverent sense of humor are a breath of fresh air in the cliche-pit of easy-listening folkie pop. Goldman’s tunes sometimes have a pleasant lilt, but more often they’re either pensive or anthemic, with a disarming simplicity and directness. Roger Waters always said that he tried to make his lyrics as simple and direct as possible in order to get his message across, and Goldman’s images work the same way. She’s got a new free download, Three Sun Songs, up at her Bandcamp site, which explores everything she does except for the funny stuff – for those you’ll have to go to her most recent album Sleepless Lullaby, or the one before that, Shake the Stars. Underneath the gentleness and simplicity of the music and imagery is a lot of complexity: unease permeates a lot of her work.

The knockout track here is Tuesday Morning Sun. New Yorkers will see it coming a mile away, just as so many of us saw the first airliner coming in. Others won’t see it as fast: Goldman’s steady, lushly intricate fingerpicking doesn’t allude to anything other more evocative than that “the Tuesday morning sun will turn to fire.” And she keeps the music steady and tense even as the nightmare unfolds, in a few terse words: with a shudder, she spills her coffee, like a lot of people must have that morning just over ten years ago.

The next song is a love song with a bit of a country tinge, probably to take the edge off, but the third track is classic Goldman. You’d think that a briskly swaying, country-flavored tune called Pocket Full of Sun would be a happy one, but it’s not: that sun is a projectile, it gets in your eyes, casts shadows and then on the last verse it turns into a gun, Martha Colby’s wary cello lines enhancing the unease as Mark Dann’s bass rises and brings the music up – how it ends is a surprise. Grab it now, go see her, you won’t be disappointed.

Walter Ego Plays the Show of His Life

Dylan said that you can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way. Saturday night at Otto’s guitarist/keyboardist (and frequent bassist) Walter Ego played what could have been the best show of his career, something you might not expect from a guy who was out of music the entire decade of the zeros (then again, if you had to miss a decade, that was the one, at least until 1/20/09). But Dylan didn’t say you couldn’t come back all the way and then some. What was most impressive is that the guy was playing on short notice, pinchhitting for the ailing but now apparently ok LJ Murphy. Murphy left big shoes to fill. Ego (or Walter – he likes to be on first-name terms with everybody) delivered in the clutch, more of a Rusty Staub blast than a Lenny Harris bloop (deliberate gratuitous Mets reference: Walter knows who they are).

Maybe not so ironically, the night’s most powerful moment was a cover of a Murphy song, Sunday’s Assassin (which by all accounts Murphy has played live once in the past ten years). Walter played this one on piano, giving it extra low-register grandeur, in the process helping to humanize the guy who kills not only Sundays but people, all the while vaccillating between the desire for tabloid notoriety and the reality of being so depressed that he can’t get out of bed. “Only fools keep trying to forget the price on my head,” he boasts one minute, the next dreading the moment when the cops scrape under his nails for blood and hair.

Walter usually has props and skits and jokes galore, but this time, maybe because it was short notice, it was all about the songs. The bouncy Adventures of Ethical Man chronicled a superhero who wears shirts emblazoned with a big letter “E,” which Cynical Man would claim as a tax writeoff, while Practical Man would use them to wash his car. The funniest of all the songs was The No Trouble Blues, about a guy who’s so up it looks like down to him: whiskey never tempts him, and when he gets to the crossroads, the Devil runs off with his tail between his legs. Then there was the cynical, cruelly metaphorical A Million Monkeys, and the sarcastic Don’t Take Advice from Me.

There were also a lot of pensive moments: a Ray Davies-esque number told from the point of view of a mouse whose girlfriend dies in a trap: “Pain is excruciating when you watch someone you love cry,” Walter crooned ominously. A lush, Lennonesque piano ballad apprehensively affirmed how anyone can have a big life instead of a little one (or not – the ambiguity was chilling). Likewise, the ridiculously catchy Satellite coldly and subtly chronicled the kind of person who enjoys balancing (and manipulating) everything he touches. And the best of the originals might have been I Am the Glass, this decade’s equivalent of the Room’s classic Jackpot Jack, a brooding, stately piano anthem full of shards and shattered symbols. Walter Ego will probably be back at Otto’s sometime next month, watch this space.

Slinky Dub from Super Hi-Fi

Brooklyn Afrobeat dub outfit Super Hi-Fi have a great new single, the sardonically titled Single Payer, just out on high-grade vinyl on Electric Cowbell Records, “probably the only dub track you will hear that works in samples of Nancy Pelosi and Joe Lieberman alongside a fiery trombone solo,” as the band puts it. The A-side is a seven-minute roots reggae instrumental with Alex Asher and Ryan Snow doing ominous harmonies on their trombones over the slinky groove of bassist Ezra Gale (formerly of the excellent Bay Area group Afrodesia) and Madhu Siddappa on drums, with Will Graefe skanking on guitar, oldschool stylee. The B-side is a version by Victor Rice, who also knows a thing or two about dub. They’re both streaming at Soundcloud, along with a bunch of other equally mind-melting mixes. Enjoy!

Mac McCarty Plays Dark Americana at Bar 82

If you weren’t at Mac McCarty’s show Wednesday night at Bar 82, you missed a good one (and considering how many people were there, you probably did). But that’s what music blogs are for, to spread the word about artists who deserve to be better-known. McCarty was a familiar face in the Banjo Jim’s scene: lately he’s been collaborating with a rotating cast of musicians who suddenly found themselves without a home when that well-loved venue shut its doors last summer. Americana is his thing, and he’s very eclectic: if you have to categorize what he does, dark folk wouldn’t be off the mark. Although his brisk opening and closing tunes – the latter a bristling cover of Maggie’s Farm – could either go totally bluegrass, or sound like the Minutemen if McCarty and his lead guitarist Cody Neeb had been playing electric instead of acoustic.

McCarty’s unselfconsciously flinty, weathered voice is a powerful vehicle for his pensive, sometimes haunting songs. The knockout moment of the night was a bitter, gorgeously brooding narrative told from the point of view of a thug who can’t bring himself to kill again: “Down at Miss Martha’s house, my name is Jack, I’m down there most every night with my heart painted black.” Lisa Zwier-Croce, the Banjo Jim’s honcho who built and nurtured the Americana scene that flourished there for so long, came up to sing poignant harmonies on a brisk coal miner’s lament; a little later on, McCarty delivered a plaintive gospel-tinged requiem lit up by Neeb’s fluid, understated bends and hammer-on licks. Donna Susan raised the energy in the room with a knowing grin when she joined McCarty for one of her wry I-don’t-want-to-go-to-work numbers, with a typically droll lyric where she talks to her dreams, “And they talk back, they really don’t like when I act like that.” After a lickety-split bluegrass tune, Walter Ego came up added his dry-ice baritone to the darkly rapidfire Dublin House Blues and then the sardonic I Promise I Love You, an oldtime country-folk song with more slinky lead work by Neeb. McCarty had broken his B string early on, but that didn’t stop him: somehow he finished the show without breaking another, pretty impressive considering how energetically he was attacking the songs. A lot of acoustic songwriters are absolutely forgettable performers, but by mixing up slow numbers with fast ones, and the constant parade of people on and off the stage, McCarty made this an entertaining night. And you missed it.

Today’s Free Download

“Don’t drive your chariot drunk,” Spottiswoode wants all you St. Paddy’s Day clowns to know. That’s what the uncompromising literate rocker calls his latest free download, available at his Noisetrade page. The title is a mashup of the antiwar classic Chariot – from his mammothly exhilarating Wild Goosechase Expedition album that came out last year – and Drunk, from the Building a Road album.

The youtube video of Drunk has been taken down. Maybe Spottiswoode got sick of people googling “spottiswoode drunk youtube” – the kind of thing you’d expect a nosy corporate HR clerk to do.

Cool New/Old Stuff from the Lonesome Savages

“Thank you Jesus, you know what I want,” says the Lonesome Savages’ singer: a small explosion in the reverb tank pans the speakers and then they’re off, staggering along on a simple bonecrusher minor-key riff. That’s the first track on their ep that’s just out on Bobby Hussy’s Kind Turkey punk label: it sounds like the Cramps fronted by Jello Biafra. Track two, Black Hair Woman works the same formula: slapback shockabilly vocals and a slow, simple stalker riff, all one minute fifty seconds worth. Got Love isn’t the tightest song ever recorded but it keeps the dark garage rock vibe going…and telegraphs the last song, a neat, ghoulish cover of Train Kept a-Rolling that has piano doubling the guitar line until the guitar completely freaks out in a spasm of noise. What’s coolest about this – other than just the fact that at least one band still thinks the Cramps are cool enough to rip off – is that it’s out on vinyl, a limited-edition run of 300 copies. Wish Lux was still with us? Grab one of these and spin it.

The Sweetback Sisters’ Kick-Ass Oldschool C&W

How do you describe a country record? If it’s good, it’s usually got a backbeat, and twangy vocals, and tasty instrumentation. Check out that sweet pedal steel! Oooh, here’s a funny song about getting drunk…and a sad one about getting dumped. Then there’s the dark side of country. As Stephen King will tell you, rural areas are scary, and some country music is terrifying. The Sweetback Sisters’ album Looking for a Fight isn’t one of those albums: it’s a fun one, with the exception of a couple of real haunters. What makes it different from the rest?

For one, this band knows their roots. The songs start out sounding about 1953 and go about as far as ten years later, beginning around the time country bands started using electric guitars and taking it up to the Bakersfield era, which employed electric bass and drums along with the Telecasters. They romp through vintage honkytonk, western swing and Tex-Mex with equal expertise. They get their signature sound from the badass vocals of Emily Miller and Zara Bode, who blend voices like the long lost twin granddaughters of Rose Maddox. The obvious comparison, New York-wise, is Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. with their period-perfect instrumentation and arrangements, but the Sweetback Sisters aren’t satirical, even if they sometimes get in your face. And yet they’re not totally retro either: the bad-girl personas aren’t just a cliche out of the rockabilly fakebook. The songs here are some of the most enjoyable ones to come out of this town in a long time.

As much fun as this band is, the two best songs here are slow, dark 6/8 ballads. Home, with its hushed vocals and Ross Bellenoit’s echoey, opiated tremolo guitar, paints a shadowy picture of clinical depression: “The voids start to fill…a wilted spread on the bed, and the thoughts fill your head, a little corpse on a hook.” Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Here There quietly but ferociously takes down a guy who’s cruel enough to rip a girl’s confidence to shreds and then turns on her for being insecure. The only other sad song here is The Heart of My Mind, a poignant, heartbroken waltz.

The rest of the album is irrepressibly upbeat. The opening track, Love Me Honey, Do is a bouncy Tex-Mex tune that goes up, and up, and up some more. A Bill Monroe style western swing song, Texas Bluebonnets takes a wistful theme and builds it to a chorus that just won’t quit. The first of the honkytonk numbers, It Won’t Hurt When I Fall Down from This Barstool is one of those songs that needed to be written, and it’s a good thing that this band did it instead of somebody else. The band blends a little vintage 60s soul into the mix on the title track, then goes for the jugular on Run Home and Cry, about a whiny guy who has the nerve to cheat (memo to the Sisters: whiny guys always cheat, because they’re self-centered).

The only straight-up love song here, The Mystery of You sets dreamy pedal steel over a skipping, staccato groove; then they go back to the honkytonk with a mid-50s style kissoff song, Thank You, lit up by Jesse Milnes’ fiddle, and twinkling piano way back in the mix. Rattled reaches for a coy but sultry Rosie Flores-style guitar-fueled rockabilly vibe, while Too Many Experts, a lickety-split bluegrass tune, is just plain hilarious, making fun of belligerent macho yahoos with its torrents of lyrics. “If a policeman should appear, ‘I only served them beer, yeah, one or two apiece I’m pretty sure,'” grins the bartender as he watches the melee unfold. The album winds up with a brief, early 50s style cowboy harmony number featuring drummer Stefan Amidon’s deadpan bass vocals. The band is currently on tour with Eilen Jewell, with several appearances at South by Southwest and then a Brooklyn show at the Jalopy on April 8.

Psychedelic Balkan Grooves from Choban Elektrik

Choban Elektrik made some waves last year when they debuted as Electric Balkan Garage, a psychedelic keyboard rock band playing traditional Balkan melodies. Since then keyboardist Jordan Shapiro and bassist Dave Johnsen (both formerly of Zappa cover band Project/Object) and drummer Phil Kester have made a mind-warpingly original album and have continued to play live around New York, with a gig this Thursday the 15th at 7:30 PM at Littlefield opening for the Debutante Hour, who’re doing their album release show. Choban Elektrik’s album is creepy and intense and like nothing that’s been made since probably the late 70s, maybe earlier. And the acts who were playing this kind of stuff back then, like Estonian acid rockers Suuk, were basically metal guitar bands. Music doesn’t get much more original than this.

And this isn’t fusion: it’s rock. 95% of the time, Shapiro carries the solos: no slaphappy Dave Matthews bass, no retarded brontosaurus drums. While the tempos here are sometimes cruelly tricky, Kester keeps it steady: he could go in a metal direction if he wanted to, but he doesn’t. Likewise, Johnsen plays warmly and melodically, sometimes doubling the keyboard line as the band hits a crescendo on a turnaround, occasionally firing off deep, earthtoned chords or tremoloing a note for extra menace. Shapiro is a monster player: fast and precise when he’s playing a clarinet line as he does on the album’s tenth track, dark and murky on the organ, surreallistically bright and edgy on Fender Rhodes. He also plays murderously slithery, roaring Balkan metal guitar on the album’s fifth track, similar to Eyal Maoz’s adventures in this kind of music but with a more nimble rhythm section and more of a corrosive noiserock edge.

The opening track sounds like the New York Gypsy All-Stars (or similar Turkish or Bulgarian electric gypsy jazz outfit) on opium, basically a one-chord jam with Shapiro’s organ doubling guest violinist Jesse Kotansky’s biting lines, the violin throwing off microtonal sparks before going off what sounds like a Macedonian tangent, the organ taking on a funky approach like Jimmy Smith gone to the Balkans. That’s just the first song on the album, by the way. A similar track later on begins with accordion carrying the melody and winds up with the organ swirling around.

Eva Salina Primack lends lush, otherworldly vocals to the echoey, dub-flavored second track, wah-wah electric piano giving way to sweeping organ and then back again. She also sings the poignant eighth track with aching but intricate microtonalities as it morphs from a pastoral violin tune, to funk, to echoey, prickly psychedelics. The darkest track here is amusingly called Mom Bar, trippy atmospherics rising to a torrential organ crescendo and a noisy outro that’s downright macabre. Their version of Steve’s Gajda, by Raif Hyseni goes from burbling to blippy to biting with a surprisingly bluesy organ solo and then downwardly spiraling violin, steadily speeding up to where everything eventually collapses on itself: it’s the most metal moment here. There are also a couple of bouncy Mediterranean-flavored numbers, one with trippy gamelanesque sonics, the other a funk song with growling bass and wah-wah Rhodes piano. The album ends with what’s essentially a big roaring powerpop instrumental with a tricky Balkan tempo. Right now cdbaby has it; watch for an album release show sometime this spring.

More Fun with the Debutante Hour

The Debutante Hour are an irrepressibly fun, irreverent, occasionally satirical hyper-literate harmony trio from Brooklyn with a theatrical stage show and a love of costumes. Their brand-new third studio album, An Awkward Time with the Debutante Hour is streaming at their Bandcamp site; they’re doing the album release show this Thursday March 15th at Littlefield at around 9:30, with the amazing Choban Elektrik and their psychedelic Balkan music opening the night at 7:30, followed by Schwervon.

Some of the Debutante Hour’s songs are satirical, but they can also be disarmingly serious. Sometimes quirky, sometimes coy, sometimes unexpectedly poignant, there’s no other band on the planet that remotely resembles them. Susan Hwang is typically the drummer in the group, but she also plays keyboards, as does Maria Sonevytsky, who also contributes baritone ukulele and drums. Cellist Mia Pixley usually plays the basslines but also gets to add the occasional austere string part or take a plaintive solo. Everybody in the band writes, takes a turn on lead vocals and contributes to the charming three-part harmonies which have become the band’s signature sound. If you have to hang a name on what the Debutante Hour does – which isn’t really fair, given the diversity of the styles they explore – you could call it new wave. They’re better musicians than, say, the Slits or the Raincoats, but they have a similar blend of edgy humor and bouncy melodies.

In case you’re wondering, the new album is too much fun to be awkward. The quirkiest song is the opening track, Doo Wop Girl, a catchy, surreal girlgroup soul tune with producer Peter Hess (who is sort of the fifth Beatle here) flavoring the mix with roto organ and a wry baritone sax bassline. Parking finds the noir cabaret lurking in the adventure that every urban driver knows by heart (c’mon peeps, give it up and take the train!). With its scampering Celtic accordion, Milestone is an inscrutable story told from the point of view of a country girl who can’t wait to get out: “The light that shines on the horizon is just another pair of headlights coming on strong,” she grouses.

The funniest song here is Sexy Sister, one of the more theatrical numbers. “She was quiet and melancholic and awkward when she was small…but magic things can happen thanks to puberty!” The ending is too spot-on to give away. Another track that’s almost as funny is Everybody Thinks I’m a Spy (But I’m Not), a creepy hypnotic ukulele trip-hop soul song – this band’s fearlessness about mixing up musical styles is one of the coolest things about them. “There is no camera taping you from my hat, I just like this hat and it’s cold, that’s what hats are made for,” the girl in the song explains emphatically: after all, she’s just an innocuous musicology student. Or not.

Illusions (Madame Bovary’s) is the most cynical song here, messing with the fourth wall: “I’ve got illusions, I’ve gotta lose them, that’s what they’re there for,” the doomed woman insists. There’s another song about her right afterward, a lush piano ballad that explores how she’s “never been good at being happy.” The album ends on an unexpectedly bitter note with another cabaret-flavored tune, A Book You’ll Never Read, whose author took seven years to finish it just as Michaelangelo, “possessed by either God or greed took seven years to paint the Sistine Chapel.” The rest of the songs include a torchy, dreamy country ballad and a tango [a Chabuca Granda cover?] with a whirlwind of cool contrapuntal vocals.