New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: July, 2013

The Caravan for Peace Takes Over Lincoln Center

“We’re the Caravan for Peace,” Malian desert blues band Imharhan‘s frontman Mohamed Issa told the crowd at Lincoln Center Out of Doors earlier tonight. He paused. “You know, you can’t have development without peace.” He was speaking in French. But someone must have advised him what the average income is in zip code 10023. And he was speaking to it. The French have a word for it: BCBG.

A bit earlier, longtime Ali Farka Toure guitarist Mamadou Kelly told the crowd how hard the past year had been for his fellow Malians. But he and the rest of the Caravan for Peace were clearly glad to be out of the line of fire, whether here or elsewhere. That’s the benefit of being a musician lucky enough to be chosen for this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival. Even by cynical New York standards, this year’s festival is an event not to be missed: the remaining concerts are here, and the Malians travel to Littlefield this Saturday, August 3 where you can watch Tartit play the roots of desert blues and then transform into Imharhan, a current-day electric band, plus sets by Kelly and luminous South Asian ghazal chanteuse Kiran Ahluwalia for a very worthwhile eighteen bucks.

That Tartit aka Imharhan have women in the band may seem almost expected in 2013, but remember that this group comes from a culture where Islamic extremism has wreaked even more havoc than Christian extremism has here. To put it in better perspective: the first successful all-female American rock band, the Go Go’s, are playing Coney Island tomorrow night. Tartit opened the night with spare, acoustic one-chord jams animated by a lot of call-and-response and ecstatically shrieking woo-woo-woo-woo-woo’s to bring a chorus over the edge. Their electric side turns what they do into Tuareg folk-rock: long jams driven by resonant, reverb-drenched electric guitar spiked with nimble hammer-on riffs and more of the same vocals. Issa offered insight into why their music drifts and wanders like it does: “In the desert, there’s no electric power. Just sand dunes, and the sky and the moon.”

Where Imharhan stuck to the roots, Kelly was clearly amped to show how diverse Malian music has become. He and his band – spiky lute, terse bass, and deep muddy calabash drum – opened with a brightly attractive song that worked an American folk-rock lick. Later on Kelly vamped through bluesy riffage that either predated John Lee Hooker or was nicked from him – or maybe both: this music brings the African influence on the guitar full circle. He went to the north for swaying camelwalking grooves and to the south for funkier rhythms, all the while airing out his bottomless bag of hypnotic yet biting licks. And he’s a funny guy – thinking his show was over, he told his band to pack it in, building to a big crescendo. Then he learned they had four more songs, grinned and launched back into another long, slow upward trajectory.

Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa headlined. Sahmaoui earned a worldwide cult following in the now-legendary French/Middle Eastern Orchestre Nationale de Barbes, and he played a few of that band’s long, crescendoing anthems to an ecstatic crowd massed in front of the stage, his fellow Algerians alongside French and Americans in a scene that Frantz Fanon would never have envisioned in his wildest dreams. The band felt the moment – it was their New York debut, after all – and rose to the occasion. Who knew that kora player Cheikh Diallo was also an excellent keyboardist, as adept at reggae as gnawa rhythms? Their bassist grinned and switched in a split-second from warm lead guitar lines to growly, snapping funk interspersed with evil, booming chords. The most jaw-dropping solos of the night were taken by Sahmaoui’s astonishingly good acoustic lead guitarist, firing off barrages of biting, terse, flamenco-tinged lines and then finally a whirlwind of hauntingly modal tremolo-picking, somehow managing not to break a string as he impersonated a guitar army.

Depending on the song, the crowd either sang along or didn’t. The Americans couldn’t cut it on the vocalese or the Arabic (Sahmaoui energizing the audience in Arabic, French, Spanish, English and possibly multiple other dialects),  but the home country posse swayed and roared as the anthems reached sudden, towering heights. Sahmaoui stuck mostly to his low-register, two-string bendir lute, playing nimble oud on a couple of songs including the haunting Makhtoube (“Destiny”), a grueling chronicle of wartime destruction as seen through a child’s eyes. Through bouncy, hypnotic call-and-response gnawa rock, then rising to stadium levels, Sahmaoui had come to bring the Arab Spring to New York and reaffirmed its power and honor for everyone who could understand it, whether or not they knew what he was talking about.

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Gorgeous Noir Janglerock and Dreampop From the Lost Patrol

The Lost Patrol have been around in one form or another since the late 90s. They started out as a cinematic soundtrack project, then became a surf band more or less and about five years ago morphed into a deliciously noir janglerock band, sort of the missing link between the Church and the Cocteau Twins. The addition of frontwoman/guitarist Mollie Israel pretty much brought them to their peak as a recording and touring band. In an era when supposedly nobody makes albums anymore, this band has ten (10) to their credit plus numerous singles and contributions to anthologies. Their latest one, Driven, with its lushly clanging unease and swirl, is streaming at the group’s Bandcamp page. They’re headlining Otto’s – a venue far too small for a band this good – at around midnight on Saturday, August 3 on one of Unsteady Freddie’s surf rock nights with purist Connecticut instrumentalists the Clams playing at 10 followed at 11 by powerhouse original reverb rockers Strange But Surf.

The album’s first track, Spinning sets the stage for much of what’s to come, an anthemic janglerock tune straight out of the Church circa The Blurred Crusade. With its lingering guitars and sweeping synth, All Tomorrow’s Promises sets Israel’s dreamy vocals against guitarist Stephen Masucci’s tersely echoey resonance, a spot-on evocation of the Church’s Peter Koppes. Chance of Rain is a morbidly gorgeous, twangy 60s garage tune lowlit by Israel’s brooding, elegaic vocals: “A chance of rain/Still remains/You tried in vain/To wash away/All the days you left behind.”

Israel takes the sultry menace just short of over the top with Little Black Kitten, a slow, slinky, simmering noir organ/janglerock groove. See You in Hell builds off a familiar old garage rock riff: where other bands would take it straight to cliche central, this crew sways it gently and lushly and makes it all the more ominous. The echoey, anxious, tonebending sway of Burn Me Down brings back memories of the late, great late 90s/early zeros New York rockers DollHouse.

There & Back shuffles along on a dark surf groove, followed by the moody dreampop ballad Tell Me. Invincible looks back to the early 80s for its apprehensive new wave swirl, followed by Just Go, an abrupt but impressive detour into torchy saloon jazz featuring Rob Schwimmer’s jaunty ragtime-fueled piano. The two most Lynchian songs here wind up the album: the propulsive noir 60s pop hit In Too Deep and then the towering, angst-fueled Disguise. One of the half-dozen best albums of 2013, by this reckoning: you’ll see it on the final list at the end of year here if we make it that far.

The Tea Club Bring Sweeping, Epic Grandeur to a Chill Little Williamsburg Room

The psychedelic art-rock epics on the Tea Club‘s third album, Quickly Quickly Quickly are closer to Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Nektar or Boston neo-art-rockers the Brew than, say, the Mars Volta.  They’re playing the back room at the Gutter bowling alley at Kent Ave. and North 12th St. in Williamsburg on August 2 at around 9: if trippy, majestic, symphonic grandeur is your thing, see this band.

The opening track, Firebears, is eighteen minutes long. Yup, pushing Pink Floyd Echoes territory. Not for people with ADD, but for those with a long attention span and an appreciation for catchy hooks, there are thousands in this one. Patrick and Dan McGowans’ guitars roar and clang and jangle and mingle nebulously over Jamie Wolff’s growly, melodic bass and Joe Rizzolo’s flurrying, clustering drums, keyboardist Renee Pestritto adding neoromantic flair on synth and elegantly pensive piano. The Nektar influence is everywhere, from the dreamy, opiated interlude that reminds of that band’s Dream Nebula, and later the long symphonic crescendo that wouldn’t be out of place on the Recycled album. And while the arrangements are ornate, and majestic, and often sweepingly beautiful, they keep the tunes simple. It’s easier to picture someone in the band saying to another, “Wouldn’t this sound great as an audience singalong at the Garden?” as the closing vamp gets underway, than it is to visualize the band actually playing the entire epic  all the way through in a rehearsal room (although they must – and it might cost a fortune!).

The second track, The Eternal German Infant is about half as long and kicks in immediately without the two-minute intro. A litany of surreal images – “She hid the meteorite keys?” A “peaceful pepper witch?”- gives way to a triplet theme that winds down gently and rises again. The guitar and synth textures are tasteful and purposeful: distortion, jangles and washes mingle and interweave without wasted notes, a rarity in this kind of music. The same is true of the rhythm section: Rizzolo doesn’t go overboard, and Wolff often serves as a third guitar lead. As with the first track, a peaceful interlude rises to a big orchestrated swell. And the dream sequence takes on a disquieting tone: “When I looked back the house turned to flame, and everything turned black.”

The album’s shortest song, Mister Freeze opens ominously with wah bass, pensive acoustic guitar and a dark wash of string synth. It’s got more of a dark, folk-rock atmosphere: think the Strawbs circa Hero and Heroine but with vastly better, more down-to-earth production. The brooding instrumental break midway through evokes the doomy interlude midway through Iron Maiden’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It segues into the album’s final cut, I Shall Consume Everything, shifting from a moody Pestritto flute solo, up and down through alternatingly sinister and soft passages with harplike keys, once again evoking Nektar as the guitars go more and more unhinged.

On one hand, there are plenty of ponytailed old stoners out there who would trade in their extra copies of Yes records if they knew this band existed. On the other, the element that every year discovers Pink Floyd and has their lives changed forever by that experience will also love the Tea Club. Bet on them being around thirty years from now and making a good living places like B.B. King’s.

Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa Play a Rare US Show for Free at Lincoln Center

Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa’s 2011 album is a lot closer to the rai-rock of Rachid Taha than the hypnotically bouncy Berber trance music popularized by Hassan Hakmoun. Sahmaoui – former frontman of the wildly popular French-Middle Eastern group  Orchestre Nationale de Barbes – and his band are playing Lincoln Center Out of Doors at 6:30 PM on Wednesday, July 31 on an excellent bill with shapeshifting desert blues collectives Tartit and Imharhan plus longtime Ali Farka Toure sideman Mamadou Kelly.

The crisp digital production of Sahmaoui’s album, which will no doubt be available at the merch table, separates everything carefully into its own place in the sonic picture: no doubt the band will sound more reckless and energetic onstage. Sahmaoui plays a museum’s worth of North African stringed instruments as well as acoustic and electric guitars, backed by multiple percussionists (and electric bass, when he isn’t playing the funky two-stringed bendir lute). The tracks intersperse spare, mantra-like traditional tunes within a mix of eclectic originals.

Beginning with a hypnotic, circular ngoni theme, the album gets rolling with its catchiest and arguably most haunting track, with a nod to the Clash’s Guns of Brixton. It’s a lament for a war-torn country as seen through the eyes of a young girl in the rubble of her home, reprised in a more spare, acoustic version at the end of the album. The fourth track, Kahina (Destiny), with its ominous chromatics and pensive antiwar lyric, is another standout. Samhaoui played in a late version of Weather Report founder Joe Zawinul’s band, so it’s no surprise to find a cover of Zawinul’s Black Market here, redone as swaying, surprisingly skeletal rai-rock. A couple of songs blend echoes of Malian desert blues with lilting soukous from further south. Sahmaoui uses catchy two-chord trip-hop vamps as palettes for layers and layers of tersely interwoven, tersely plucked melody.

Sahmaoui’s Arabic lyrics are excellent and often corrosive. A rough translation from the brooding anthem Miskina (The Empoverished):

Is it a miracle or a new religion?
We serve institutions
Accountants in collusion
And idiotic tv
On our knees before the screen,
Where once we got together
Electronic is the order of the day
It’s a universal problem
Books abandoned in their homes
Injustice on the horizon

A Second Night with the Kronos Quartet

[repost from the other blog – if you visit here frequently, you’ll notice how that place comes in handy to keep the front page fresh here at the end of the month when all possible energy is being summoned to pull together a new NYC live music calendar...]

If you could see the Kronos Quartet two nights in a row – for free – wouldn’t you? That’s part of the premise of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival. It was no surprise that the seats filled up early last night for an exhilarating string-driven cross-continental journey that began in Syria and ended in Greece, with flights to Palestine and India in between.

The group opened with a deliciously intense, hauntingly pulsing number by Syrian star Omar Souleyman titled I’ll Prevent the Hunters from Hunting You, a particularly apt choice considering the ongoing revolutionary struggles there. Violinist John Sherba’s nonchalantly sizzling swoops and dives soared against the beat of violist Hank Dutt, who was playing goblet drum, amped up in the mix for a ba-BOOM swing that put to shame any drum machine ever devised. They followed with a gorgeously ambered, austere old Yachiel Karniol cantorial tone poem of sorts, Sim Shalom (Let There Be Peace), a feature for the group’s new cellist Sunny Yang to air out the whispery, occasionally wailling ghosts in her instrument.

An electrocoustic take on Palestinian group Ramallah Underground‘s gritty, metaphorically charged Tashweesh (Distortion) was next, the ensemble adhering tightly to a backing track for a hypnotic, menacingly Lynchian ambience. Avant garde Vietnamese-American zither player Van-Anh Vo then joined the ensemble on the traditional, spiky dan tranh and vocals (and later played keening, sinister glissandos on a loudly amplified dan bao) for a lush pastorale possibly titled Green Delta. Violinist David Harrington led them through Vo’s Christmas Storm to a wild chamber-metal crescendo out; Dutt switched to a screechy wood flute for a third Vo work, before returning to his usual axe as the piece morphed into a lithe dance. After a long, rapt Ljova arrangement of the anxiously dreamy alap section of a Ram Narayan raga, Harrington switching to the resonant sarangi, the ensemble brought up Magda Giannikou, frontwoman of the disarmingly charming French lounge-pop group Banda Magda, to play a new, custom-made lanterna with its deep, rippling, pinging tones. The world premiere of her new work Strope in Antistrophe mingled biting yet playful cadenzas and tricky back-and-forth polyrhythms within a warmly tuneful, enveloping atmosphere.

Aptly named Irish chamber-folk quartet the Gloaming opened the evening with a series of resonantly nocturnal arrangements of ancient songs as well as a couple of new ones that sounded like them, violinist Martin Hayes’ otherworldly, deceptively simple washes of melody rising over Dennis Cahill’s casually meticulous guitar, along with piano and vocals. What’s the likelihood of seeing something this esoteric, and this much fun? In the next couple of weeks, pretty much every day.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors Kicks Off with an Eclectic Triplebill

[repost from NY Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture]

The Kronos Quartet are celebrating their fortieth anniversary this year, so it makes sense that the beginning of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival – one of the best ever – would be centered around that landmark occasion. The world’s most adventurous string quartet have an auspicious new cellist, Sunny Yang (replacing Jeffrey Ziegler) and their usual slate of premieres and new commissions. Even by their paradigm-shifting standards, their world premiere of Ukraine-born Mariana Sadovska’s Chernobyl: The Harvest – with the composer on vocals and harmonium – last night at the Damrosch Park bandshell was nothing short of shattering,  It’s a suite of old Ukrainian folk songs reinvented to commemorate the horror of the 1986 nuclear disaster, which by conservative standards killed at least a million people around the globe and caused the breakup of the Soviet Union, the world’s second-greatest power at the time.

Singing in Ukrainian, Sadovska began it a-cappella with her signature nuance, a thousands shades of angst, sometimes barely breathing, sometimes at a fullscale wail, occasionally employing foreboding microtones to max out the menace. Violist Hank Dutt got the plum assignment of leading the ensemble to join her, Yang’s foreboding drone underpinning a series of up-and-down, Julia Wolfe-esque motives. Quavering, anxious Iranian-tinged flutters from the cello along with violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, astringently atmospheric harmonics and a big, uneasy crescendo, the harmonium going full steam, built to a savagely sarcastic faux circus motif and then a diabolical dance. That was the harvest, a brutal portrayal whose ultimate toll is still unknown. Through a plaintive theme and variations, Sadovska’s voice rose methodically from stunned horror to indignance and wrath: again, the triptych’s final theme, Heaven, appeared to be sarcastic to the extreme, Sadovska determined not to let the calamity slip from memory. Nuclear time forgives much more slowly than time as we experience it: 26 years after the catastrophe, wild mushrooms in Germany – thousands of miles from the disaster scene – remain inedible, contaminated with deadly nuclear toxins.

In a counterintuitive stroke of booking, luminous singer Shara Worden’s kinetic art-rock octet, My Brightest Diamond headlined. They’re like the Eurythmics except with good vocals and good songs – hmmm, that doesn’t leave much, does it? Or like ELO during their momentary lapse into disco, but better. Sh-sh-sh-sh-Shara can get away with referencing herself in a song because she does it with tongue planted firmly in cheek, and because she’s as funny as she can be haunting. She loves props and costumes – a big cardboard moustache and a fez among them, this time out – and draws on a wide-ranging musical drama background. But she saves the drama for when she really needs to take a song over the edge, belting at gale force in contrast to a fat, droll synth bass pulse late in the show. Her lively arrangements rippled through the ensemble of Hideaki Aomori on alto sax, Lisa Raschiatore on clarinet and bass clarinet, CJ Cameriere on trumpet, Michael Davis on trombone and Alex Sopp on flutes, like the early/middle-period Moody Blues as orchestrated by Carl Nielsen. Sopp’s triumphant cadenzas capped off several big crescendos, as did Aomori on the second number, a circus rock song with dixieland flourishes. Worden brought the energy down to pensive for a bit, crooning with a low, ripe, Serena Jost-like intensity and playing Rhodes piano on a hypnotic trip-hop number. Worden switched to minimal but assured electric guitar on a slow, pensive tune and then a warm, gently arpeggiated love song, then to mbira on a similarly hypnotic but bouncier Afro-funk song. “A girl from the country had a dream, and the best place she could think of was here,” Worden beamed to the packed arena as she wound up the night. “We’re living the dream.”

Emily Wells was lost in limbo between the two. The smoky patterns on the kaleidoscopic light show projected behind her on the back of the stage offered more than a hint of the milieu she’s best suited to. It was a cruel if probably unintentional stroke of fate that stuck Wells, a competent singer, between two brilliant ones. Her music is quirky, playful and trippy to the extreme. Wells can be very entertaining to watch, when she’s building songs out of loops, adding layers of vocals, keys and violin, switching between instruments and her mixing board with split-second verve. But as her set – the longest one of the night – went on, it became painfully obvious that she wasn’t doing much more than karaoke. She sang her dubwise, trippy hip-hop/trip-hop/soul mashups in what became a monotonously hazy soul-influenced drawl without any sense of dynamics. Where Sadovska sang of nuclear apocalypse and Worden tersely explored existential themes, the best Wells could do was a Missy Elliott-ish trip-hop paean to Los Angeles. And when she addressed the crowd, Wells seemed lost, veering between a southern drawl and something like an Irish brogue. But the audience LOVED her, and gave her the most applause of anyone on the bill.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors is phenomenal this year: the Kronos Quartet will be there tomorrow and then Sunday night. The full calendar is here.

Bombino Battles the Wind with a High-Voltage Show in Downtown Brooklyn

What’s the likelihood of being able to see Bombino in concert? How about on your lunch break, for free? Say what you want about how New York has gone to hell – events like today’s show at Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn make living in this city worthwhile. Niger-born guitarist Omara “Bombino” Moctar and his four-piece Algerian jamband evoked the blues, Scottish bagpipe music, Malian desert rock and an ornate 70s-style soul ballad that with lush backing vocals would have been a hit for the Stylistics. Bombino lives up to the hype: not only does his playing bring to mind the legendary Ali Farka Toure, but also Mark Knopfler and Jerry Garcia in “on” mode. Much as Bombino is often pigeonholed in with the Malian desert rock crowd, his songs tend to be a lot faster. As the concert built to a crescendo with a small but avid home country posse dancing wildly at the front of the crowd, Bombino and his rhythm guitarist leaving the elegantly spacious licks behind and wailing on their chords, they left no doubt that this music is more about partying than about psychedelic ambience.

Getting to that point was a lot of fun. The drummer kept a hypnotic shuffle going, riding his hi-hat for a vintage disco beat on many of the songs, speeding up several of the songs, sometimes taking them doublespeed, otherwise simply leading the band into the passing lane and then hanging there precariously. They varied up the tempos in places, beginning in an improbable waltz rhythm before hitting a hypnotic, bouncy rock groove, other times riidng a swaying triplet beat or adding a bit of funk. In this group, the bass is more about the beat than the tunes, the bassist bopping unstoppably as he held the band’s many slurry two-chord vamps together.

As expected, the show was all about guitar solos, and despite the early hour and the gusts of wind blasting from behind the drum kit, Bombino delivered.  He was just as fascinating to hear playing resonant, Ali Farka Toure-inspired hammer-ons as he was with methodical, careful stairstep runs, judicious jazz chords and spacious, suspenseful accents during the longer songs. As the show went on, he picked up the pace, finally firing off a long series of quicksilver Vieux Farka Toure-style hammer-on runs before finally backing away, as if to survey the carnage he’d left behind, then going dark and gritty with his chords. Most of the songs clocked in at around six minutes, but they seemed longer: throughout his alternately serpentine and cloud-spotted riffage, time stood still. One number evoked the Grateful Dead’s Estimated Prophet, but faster; later on, an extended outro drew a straight line back to Bob Marley’s Exodus.

For those who wished they’d been able to see this, Bombino plays Brooklyn Bowl on July 30 at around 10 for $12; excellent, eclectic psychedelic hip-hop/funk band Mamarazzi opens the night at 8. And while the weekly Thursday noontime shows booked by BAM here usually don’t have much in the way of good music, every once in awhile they’ll knock out out of the park (pun intended) like this one. Next Thursday Sheila E – the highly admired percussionist and bandleader whose solo work puts to shame anything she ever did with that glyph guy – is here.

The Dustbowl Revival Bring Their Hilarious, Eclectic Oldtime Sounds to NYC

The Dustbowl Revival’s latest album, Carry Me Away is sort of a more subtle, and vastly more diverse take on what Ween did with their country album. The cd cover shot shows the ten-piece band squeezed into a bright red Volkswagen Thing, which perfectly capsulizes their raucous but darkly sardonic appeal. That vehicle, originally built in the late 30s for the Nazi army, was reintroduced in 1974, with only a few minor modifications, for the American hippie market Likewise, the Dustbowl Revival might seem to be a deliriously fun oldtime party band – and they are. But they’re also the Spinal Tap of oldtimey music, mercilessly if sometimes lovingly skewering bluegrass, swing, noir cabaret and gospel, both the antique and 21st century versions. They’re bringing their high-voltage live show to Joe’s Pub on August 16 – give the shi-shi venue’s people credit for bravely booking such an intense band..

And they can be hilarious. You want hubris? Try Swing Low, Sweet Chariot with new lyrics about being buried alive, or John the Revelator done as period-perfect, jumpy early 30s swing. They’re just as good at vintage bluegrass – and they reinvent the old Civil War folk song Soldier’s Joy as a modern-day junkie ode to West Coast dope. Riverboat Queen, a parody of hi-de-ho circus rock, has singer Caitlyn Doyle steaming her way luridly to a trick ending. Frontman/songwriter Zach Lupetin reaches into both redneck country and hip-hop over swaying oldtime country blues on the amusing Hard River Gal; Josephine, which does a doo-wop melody as 20s hot jazz, might be the funniest song here.

The tuba waltz Barnacles might be a surrealistic circus rock satire…or a swipe upside the head of a trustafarian girl. Mayflower sets vintage ragtime guitar against 1950s funeral organ and an inscrutably weird storyline; the album ends with a live take of Shine, which sounds like the Wiyos before that group went into psychedelic rock and might be a parody of rock guys who try to play the oldtimey stuff and end up falling flat on their faces. Any way you look at it, this is one of the funniest yet most musically impressive, and diverse, albums in recent months.

Intriguing Original Americana Rock From Roadkill Ghost Choir

Most Americana rock bands take country themes and make rock out of them. Florida group Roadkill Ghost Choir are a rock band, first and foremost, who color their songs with country motifs from steel and acoustic guitars and banjo. Their Quiet Light ep is a catchy, imaginatively arranged mix of surreal, darkly lyrical songs. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp page.

It opens with Beggars’ Guild, a morbid bluegrass banjo groove, to which they’ve added funeral organ, way up in the mix. It’s a trick that works like a charm. The lyrics follow a surreal narrative to hell and back…sort of. The second cut, Drifter, takes an upbeat, bouncy new wave groove and puts eerily keening steel guitar in the background. Devout is a more new wave-flavored take on paisley underground psychedelia. With its dreampop tremolo-picking mimicking a mandolin, it seems like a retelling of the Abraham myth.

The most pop-oriented track is Tarot Youth, jangly guitar mingling with echoey Fender Rhodes electric piano. Bird in My Window brings back the dreampop guitar raindroplets, blending with an oldtime, fingerpicked country blues. It could be a murder ballad, or a murder/suicide ballad: between the singer’s ersatz southern accent and the litany of strange images, it’s hard to tell. With its subdued, martial sarcasm, the final cut, In the Lion’s Mouth alludes menacingly to the Iraq war:

Shut your bloodshot eyes
In the morning light you’ll go to the war that’s televised…
In the lion’s mouth where the sun don’t shine
Take a long deep breath and say your goodbyes

Emily Wells’ Other Mama

If you’re a big fan of older bands, you’ve probably got your hands on a few of their demos. If you’re too young to remember the major label era, a demo was a rough, usually acoustic version of a song recorded on the cheap for the sake of producers and label people, typically to help familiarize studio personnel in preparation for the final studio version. Some of the songs on violinist Emily Wells’ new album Mama (The Acoustic Recordings), which reprise the tracks on her 2012 album by the same name, sound like demos; others play up Wells’ fondness for low-key Americana, by contrast to the studio album’s high-tech, hip hop-tinged production. Wells is playing Lincoln Center Out of Doors on Thursday, July 25 at around 7 on a fantastic bill opening for My Brightest Diamond and then the Kronos Quartet, who are celebrating 40 years in business with a new cellist and a new Chernobyl-themed collaboration with haunting Carpathian folk chanteuse Mariana Sadovska.

Passenger, the opening track, is sparse and skeletal but builds to a catchy singalong chorus that ends up being hard to resist. LIke several of the songs here, it doesn’t miss the trip-hop production it eventually would be saddled with in the studio: more than anything, this album reveals Wells to be a lot more compelling as whispery Americana songstress than white Missy Elliott.

Darlin reminds of Linda Draper’s recent adventures in Americana, albeit a lot more quietly. Its gentle acoustic guitar and vocals drenched in reverb like pretty much everything here (what little violin there is on this album is usually sparsely plucked pizzicato), Los Angeles sounds like a wispier Cat Power. Having heard the polished studio version of No Good, it’s easy to see how it could go in a woozy trip-hop direction – but the stripped-down version is better, showing its 1950s doo-wop roots.

Likewise, Johnny Cash’s Mama’s House, with its subdued folkie unease. Interestingly, the wispy Xanax blues version of Mama’s Gonna Give You Love doesn’t offer any hint of the soul groove the studio version launches into. The same with Let Your Guard Down and its distant, keening slide guitar: though the lush, early-70s soul production of the studio version is pretty spot-on, this is a lot more intense, Wells doing more with less.

The most classically-influenced song on Mama is Fire Song: here, it’s a dusky, dreamy folk-pop ballad. The acoustic version of Dirty Sneakers, the most blatantly commercial Missy Elliott-ish cut on that album, is pretty hilarious, almost a country parody of what it turned out to be. And on album, Piece of It has a surreal dubwise atmosphere, which actually makes sense considering the acoustic Cocteau Twins dreaminess of this take.

Some people will hear Wells’ vocals and will think, oh god, another languid Prozacked-out Lana Del Rey wannabe, but a closer listen will dispel that notion. Where Mama was a smoke session of overdubs and thumpy electronics, this an album of nocturnes, something to send you drifting away to somewhere unknown as the sun goes over the horizon.