New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: January, 2014

A Noir Masterpiece from Karla Moheno

Dark chanteuse Karla Moheno‘s genius is that as much as her noir narratives are detailed down to the nth degree, it’s next to impossible to figure out who gets killed in them. The creepy mini-movies on her album Gone to Town – streaming at her Soundcloud page – shift from killer floods to seedy border towns, through drug dreams, rubbing up against madness and sleazy characters of all kinds who must be done away with or at least run away from. This isn’t just the most Lynchian record of the year, it’s the most Lynchian record of the decade.

It doesn’t hurt that Moheno is also a brilliant tunesmith and an equally distinctive singer. She has the torchy noir blues thing down cold, but the blues is just a skeleton for her. She starts with a classic sound and builds from there with the reverb turned up all the way, on everything from the drums to the piano to the guitars. The songs also reveal that she’s just as much at home in classic soul music and even rockabilly. What might be most impressive about this album is that although there’s a constantly shifting cast of characters in the guitar chair, the sound remains the same all the way through: the faces may change but Moheno’s bleak vision doesn’t.

Moheno modulates her cool, uncluttered, mentholated vocals with just the hint of a smile that only distracts from her nonchalantly dangerous persona: Bliss Blood or Julie Christie in a particularly apprehensive moment come to mind. And as much as there’s plenty of mayhem implied throughout the album, Moheno plays the kind of femme fatale who strolls more or less unscathed out of the mist of 4 AM gunsmoke as the credits roll, ready for the sequel.

Lead guitarist Dylan Charles channels Marc Ribot noir skronk on the opening track, Time Well Spent, over Jenifer Jackson drummer Greg Wieczorek’s slow, slinky pulse as Moheno launches into her cruel tale of deceit and revenge:

Your stale sun shines
Give the old college try
My choice was clear
Either leave or die
So why not make an arrangement
And dare that county line?
The houglasss leaks on the pavement while you pine

As the story continues, we discover that there’s been a betrayal, maybe more than one, and an escape in the works – where it goes from there makes it the best song of 2014 so far by a country mile.

Silver Bucket evokes the Gun Club doing a swaying Smokestack Lightning groove circa, say, 1985, guitarist Sam Feldman’s echoey, incisive clang and occasional jaggedly tremolo-picked line underscoring Moheno’s allusively menacing story of toying with potentially deadly floodwaters. Subtext, anyone? Once again, Wieczorek’s understated drumming is spot-on, keeping the mystery drive pulsing but not lumbering.

Blacked Out & Blue is a lushly crescendoing oldschool organ soul ballad with Scott Hollingsworth doing double duty on the keys and bass along with Devon Goldberg adding deliciously watery, George Harrison-esque lead guitar. Moheno’s narrator may be a little woozy and delirious, but she hasn’t lost a step:

Cabin and fever, with one sleeping wound
I’ll draw up the plan, sir, just hand me a tool
You’re not such an old dog
This trick ain’t that hard
Throw mama a bone now
Why don’t you play in her yard

Fueled by Guyora Kats’ incisive chordal, bluesy attack on a slightly out-of-tune piano, The Return is a kiss-off song with a darkly vaudevillian edge:

And all of the girls,
They line up to meet the devil in your eyes
Every drop you can get to
Is a taste of what you will only love to despise

Have fun enjoy the ride
You love to barely get by
Just another excuse to paint your red door black

And now it’s all gone wrong
We never could get along
And so I’m sending it back

Brand New Eyes is another slow soul ballad, played solo on electric guitar with a menace that evokes Liz Tormes at her most murderously inclined. As Mexico moves from a slow acoustic ballad to a fiery desert rock anthem fueled by Jesse Blum’s accordion and trumpet, Moheno pans around a tourist town with a devious, Marissa Nadler-esque whimsy:

But hey Mr. Elvis
I’m still waiting for you
I won’t let those vatos get to you
I’ll keep that promise that fell through

And Grandma never hung up
Her good old drinking cup
She knows a couple nickels
Buy out any pickle

So line em up and knock em back
Make sure you’re losing track
I don’t want to remember this
I don’t need anything to miss

Fool of a Girl, with Feldman again on guitar, quickly moves from a brisk rockabilly-tinged shuffle toward Tex-Mex as Moheno blithely narrates her girl-on-the-lam tale:

Oh I was left for dead in Chicago by a cold cold white man
And I drowned myself in gin and spent a fortune to wash away his quicksand
But I didn’t mind it, I didn’t even put up a fight
And call me crazy, but sometimes two wrongs make a right

The final track. Girl Next Door reverts to the chilly, bluesy minor-key swing of the opening number. It’s the torchiest of the songs here, lowlit by Goldberg’s shivery red-neon guitar lines. Moheno plays the Manderley bar at the McKittrick Hotel, 532 W 27th St. (10th/11th Aves. – it’s the indoor bar, not the one on the roof) on Feb 3 at 10:30 PM. The show is free, but this swanky place fills up fast, so getting there early would be a good idea.

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Della Mae Write Their Own Bluegrass and Oldtime Folk Standards

With their purist chops, lively interplay, lush four-part vocal harmonies and original songwriting that blends the best of decades of oldtime bluegrass and Americana, Della Mae represent everything that’s good about newgrass. Many of the songs on their latest album This World Oft Can Be bring to mind the similarly purist all-female Americana trio, Red Molly. The whole thing is streaming at youtube.

It opens with the upbeat, bouncy Letter from Down the Road, frontwoman Celia Woodsmith’s soaring vocals and Kimber Ludiker’s incisive, tersely direct fiddle front and center – as she does on most of the tracks here, Ludiker stays mostly in the resonant low to midrange of her instrument. The second track, Maybelline (rhymes with “behind,” more or less) picks up the pace with a bit of a Britfolk tinge, Jenni Lyn Gardner’s spiky mandolin and another impactful fiddle solo. Empire takes a turn in a considerably darker direction, a grimly detailed, John Prine-ish portrait of a decaying rust belt town.

Hounds of Heaven sets an apprehensive Nashville gothic mood that never rises: although the old sailor in the tale insists that it’s not his time to go, by the time the third verse kicks in, he’s thinking about drowning. The aphoristic Ain’t No Ash has the feel of an Appalachian classic, with some richly mingling tradeoffs between Ludiker and guitarist Courtney Hartman’s nimble flatpicking as it winds out:

Love is a precious thing, I’m told
Burns just like West Virginia coal
But when the fire dies down, it’s cold
There ain’t no ash will burn

The most chilling number here is Heaven’s Gate, a bitterly ghostly tale that begins with the fiddle mimicking the ominous low resonance of a steel guitar, then eventually goes doublespeed. Is this about a suicide, a murder, or both? Either way, it’s a great story.

Turtle Dove kicks off as a reel and then hits a brisk bluegrass rhythm, with nimbly flatpicked guitar and handoffs to the other instruments down the line – with its sad, symbolic bird imagery, it’s a dead ringer for a classic folk song from the 1820s. A swaying oldschool-style bluegrass tune, Pine Tree explores a vividly rustic southern milieu, lit up by yet another purposeful, emphatic fiddle solo. The band follows that with a slowly waltzing, rather atmospheric ballad, Like Bones.

This World has a brooding, hypnotic Britfolk quality that finally lifts a little as the chorus turns around, a metaphorically-loaded narrative of the perils of growing old…but there’s light at the end of this tunnel. The slow, lingering final track, Some Roads Lead On sounds a lot like the old folk standard Wild Mountain Thyme, but without the syncopation. With just two guitars and some absolutely gorgeous lead and harmony vocals, it evokes Hungrytown at their most bucolic, a good way to end this eclectically original and disarmingly charming album. The band will be on spring tour starting on February 22 at NEU Hall in Chicago.

 

Mandy Barnett Covers Don Gibson: A Whole Album’s Worth, and It’s Good!

Believe it or not, without much fanfare, Mandy Barnett has released an album, I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson, marketed primarily as a point-of-purchase impulse item through a chain of mini-marts. For those who don’t follow country music, Gibson came up around the same time as George Jones. In a period whenNashville hits were penned mostly by an assembly line of hired-gun songwriters, Gibson distinguished himself by performing his own material. Several of his songs have become standards; other singers’ covers (notably Conway Twitty’s version of I Can’t Stop Loving You) have often overshadowed his own recordings. Gibson’s best songs have an angst-ridden quality, and as a singer, he comes across as something of a gentle, vulnerable soul.

Mandy Barnett? OK, say what you want about New Nashville, how it’s all just putrid pop, that it’s about as country as One Direction and full of annoying product placements. But anybody who disses Barnett forgets that it was her starring role as a teenager in a Patsy Cline revue that jumpstarted her career. She knows her classics, which makes it less of a surprise that she’s put her heart and soul into this one. Likewise, the all-star, veteran band behind her, with Hargus “Pig” Robbins’s terse, thoughtful piano, Lloyd Green’s pedal steel and Andy Reiss’ electric and acoustic guitar along with a string section that gives most of these tracks a plaintively lush early 70s Nashville feel.

You wouldn’t think from Reiss’ dirty rock guitar on the intro that the album’s opening track, (Yes) I’m Hurting would fly back to that era on the wings of the strings, but it does – and it’s over really fast. Barnett bends her way through the blue notes with a grim knowingness, which she does with even more wrenching angst on an absolutely knockout, deftly orchestrated version of Too Soon to Know.

Look Who’s Blue starts out with more than a hint of southwestern gothic, then switches to a vintage honkytonk guitar arrangement. Sweet Dreams also gets reinvented, this one with Tex-Mex overtones, as Barnett goes all out with the Patsy phrasing – she really goes deep into it and dredges up all the bitterness.

Just One Time plays up the Spanish tinge in the tune, with Barnett gamely channeling a Roy Orbison wariness. With its Alison Krauss cameo, Blue Blue Day goes back to a wintry, orchestrated early 70s Nashville ambience. Oh Lonesome Me has been done to death by a million singers, but this version transforms it into jaunty western swing.

Oh Such a Stranger is one of Gibson’s best songs, and the version here is the album’s most Lynchian track, fueled by the longing in Barnett’s delivery in tandem with Robbins’ gospel-tinged piano. Barnett takes it up another notch over the distant gospel choir (is that the Jordanaires?) on Far Far Away, a surreal but strangely successful blend of Elvis P. balladry and Tex-Mex. Lonesome Number One keeps the gospel choir, switching out the Spanish guitar for pedal steel. Barnett ends the album with a slow, restrained yet vividly wounded take of Legend in My Time. The only dud here is – big surprise – I Can’t Stop Loving You. Barnett and the band really try to redeem this one, but ultimately it’s a song that needs to be permanently retired. Strange as this might seem to say, the album ranks among the best stuff Barnett’s ever done. Now – where can you hear this unexpected treat? Soundcloud? Nope. Spotify? Not there, either. There are a few tracks up at youtube, however – click the links in the song titles above.

Mustard Plug Can’t Contain It

The band on this page yesterday was for the stoners. Today’s is for the drinkers. The operative question about well-loved ska-punk veterans Mustard Plug‘s latest album Can’t Contain It is whether a bunch of guys in their forties can still pull off playing lickety-split party anthems. Answer: no question. As you would expect from a band that’s been living on the road for twenty years, they’re tight beyond belief, but they’re not phoning this stuff in. And the sonics of the new album are fantastic: this could easily be the best-produced album the band’s ever made. Colin Clive’s multitracked guitars roar and burn, Brandon Jenison’s trumpet punches and soars in tandem with Jim Hofer’s trombone over the pummeling rhythm section of Rick Johnson’s bass and Nathan Cohn’s drums. Frontman Dave Kirchgessner’s goodnaturedly sardonic vocals rise over hard-hitting verses that build to catchy singalong choruses – this is party music for people who aren’t stupid. The whole thing is streaming at Dying Scene.

The opening track We Came to Party sets the stage. You know the drill, but it’s still fun – what the band is going for here is a college radio hit. They raise the catchiness factor with The All-Nighter and then add a little latin flavor to a briskly walking two-tone skank on Aye Aye Aye (which the band sings as “AAAAH, ya, ya”). White Noise starts out with more of a straight-up rock feel before they get the ska beat going after the first chorus.

Bang! takes a sarcastic, exasperated poke at the amateurs who always find a way to turn a party into a brawl. Burn It Down brings back the stutterstep two-tone organ-and-horn vibe, while Shakin’ It Up works the horns into a blazing vintage Sham 69-style punk rock hit.

Clive keeps the guitar firepower going in tandem with the horns (and an Elvis Costello quote) on Blame Yourself. Gone and Faded takes what could be a cheesy NOFX hook and makes a big angst-fueled anthem out of it instead. What Does She Know? is catchy, and weird, and kind of a tongue-twister, followed by the album’s best song, the vengeful, searing Twist the Knife.

 With its punchy punk riffage, It’s You starts out like it might be a make-up song but quickly goes in the other direction. Perfect Plan sets a tasty horn chart over alternately pogoing and stomping guitars. The album ends with Running Out of Time, a snide punk rock blast at a nameless and undeservedly successful corporate music act.

Apropos of nothing – is this just a trick of the imagination, or does Kirchgessner’s voice have more than a little Boston in it? Does Red Sox Nation go as far as Michigan?

Lushly Eclectic Oldtimey Stoner Swing from the Jitterbug Vipers

A big draw in their native Texas, the Jitterbug Vipers play songs that sound like classics from the 1930s…except that they’re originals. True to their name, the band’s songs are great for dancing, and as oldtime stoner music goes, few other groups compare: the Moonlighters, or the late, great Asylum Street Spankers come to mind. These vipers have a new album out, Phoebe’s Dream, which sets Sarah Sharp’s sultry, period-perfect vocals floating over the slinky groove of bassist Francie Meaux Jeaux and nimble drummer Masumi Jones, guitar monster Slim Richey channeling a century’s worth of classic jazz and swing tradition with a deviously eclectic, bristling attack that’s all his own.

The briskly shuffling title track recounts the story of Big Phoebe, who “tried to smoke her way into heaven, but they turned her back around” – and then she takes matters (i.e. more ganja) into her own hands. A Viper Just the Same tells a familiar tale in an oldtime vernacular: a stoner can spot another stoner from a long ways away. What’s especially cool about this song is how they switch the rhythm from a bolero to straight-up swing, and then back, fueled by Richey’s unexpectedly skronky guitar solo.

Stuff It, a co-write with Elizabeth McQueen from Asleep at the Wheel, has the sardonic wit of a classic, dismissive Mae West insult song. When You’re High is an unselfconsciously pretty, aptly balmy number that could be interpreted as a love ballad…but you know better. Dangerous stakes out some Romany jazz territory, a tribute to an irrepressible guy with fast fingers and “a bag of tricks, from mushroom soup to tortoiseshell picks.”

Richey kicks off Viper Moon as a lullaby that recalls Les Paul, then they take it in a bossa nova direction – it’s another stoner love song. Sharp saves her most pillowy vocal for the ethereally bluesy ballad Trouble; they follow that with the instrumental Django’s Birthday, a showcase for Richey’s agile Romany-style fretwork.

Along with all the weed-smoking numbers, the band also includes one for the drinkers, the tongue-in-cheek stroll That Was Just the Sauce Talking. There are also a couple of covers. They reinvent the 1939 Ella Fitzgerald hit Undecided as western swing – with what sounds like a quote from the Simpsons theme? And they give Billie’s Blues an expansive Stormy Monday treatment, with some wickedly cool, boomy brushwork from Jones. The Vipers’ next hometown gig is on Jan 29 at Lambert’s, 401 W 2nd St. in Austin.

Retro Trippiness from Nova Heart

On one hand, you might hear Chinese group Nova Heart’s retro 80s psychedelic pop and say to yourself, “I’ve heard this before.” And if 80s music is your thing, you assuredly have. Others might think dubstep, although Nova Heart’s music is slower and a lot closer to trip-hop. And it’s hard to imagine anyone doing either this artfully. Frontwoman Helen Feng writes catchy, anthemic hooks and sings them low, nonchalant and cool. But it’s Rome-based disco producer Rodion who’s shaped her themes into some of the trippiest hypnotic music to come over the transom here lately. Their Beautiful Boys ep is streaming all the way through at their Bandcamp page.

This music is all about textures: Nova Heart employ seemingly every weird, offcenter synth patch ever invented. For example, the third track, Good Ideas, which could easily have been a hit for ABC (the glossy British new wave pop band, not the tv network) thirty years ago: the way they take the hooks and move them around from the lows to the highs, or vice versa, and then back again, is as clever is as it is trippy. The first track, My Song, is sort of a trip-hop spy theme, with echoey Arp electric piano, layers of woozy upper-register synth, and a simple, catchy guitar line that they suddenly warp into doublespeed for a vintage new wave feel. And the title cut – an ode to tranny hookers – sways along with not one but two synth basslines, lowdown P-Funk style slyness balanced with eerily echoing, trebly, multitracked nocturnal electric piano. There’s also a song titled Ethereal which actually isn’t ethereal at all. Is this 80s nostalgia? Sort of. But it’s its own animal, too.

Another Savagely Funny, Menacing Album from Curtis Eller

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Hickey Survives the 80s to Reissue Two Lost Gems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entertaining New Songs with an Oldtime Swing from Seth Kessel

Jazz guitar legend Peter Leitch once joked grimly that in order to get steady work, maybe he should don a straw hat and play nothing written after, say, 1930. Seth Kessel and the Two Cent Band embody that esthetic, with their own original tunesmithing – and get a lot of work in the process. Their latest album is the aptly titled In the Golden Days, streaming at their Bandcamp page. Kessel plays energetically and eclectically on a hollowbody electric, straight through his amp without effects, alongside Gabriel Yonkler on soprano and tenor sax, Jackson Hardaker on trombone and tuba, Jason Bertone on bass and either Yaeir Heber or Hironori Momoi behind the drums. Kessel is also an excellent singer with an unaffectedly wry delivery and writes clever, funny lyrics in the spirit if not exactly the vernacular of the hot jazz he obviously loves so much.

The title track hints that it’s going to go in a noir direction but instead becomes a sardonic, lickety-split circus rock shuffle: the golden days when “we sat in the street, drank malt liquor and didn’t eat” had their ups and downs. The kiss-off swing anthem Don’t Contact Me is a lot of fun: “You know what, I take back that apology, you never bothered putting money down at Milk and Honey after getting paid for helping a friend, and all the while expecting to get laid,” Kessel relates. Southern Fried splices a twistedly noisy rock guitar solo onto a period-perfect Louis Jordan-style jump blues. They give the old standard Some of These Days a droll circus intro, a rapidfire, mandolin-like Kessel solo and then speed it up at the end – it sounds like a big concert favorite.

The strongest tune here might be Theme Song for Gregory Sallust, a moody, Romany-tinged waltz with biting soprano sax and a trombone solo that goes from blippy to brooding at the drop of a dime. The Chuck Berry-ish Let That Train Roll By looks back on one of the ones that got away – this one was definitely somebody to avoid, Yonkler’s smoky tenor sax handing off to Kessel’s noisy gutbucket solo. “I was hardly sober when you screwed me over,“ Kessel muses in the wry but understatedly vengeful Goodbye July, lit up by jaunty soprano sax, a guitar solo that mixes C&W and the blues, and a low, somewhat tongue-in-cheek one from the trombone.

They reinvent the old blues ballad After You’ve Gone as lickety-split swing, sly lowdown tombone grounding it in reality. In the Early Night is an amusingly telling look at one aspect of a Brooklyn musician’s life in 2014, getting hit on by rich gentrifier girls and not minding the influx of cash with mysterious origins. The conspiratorially cinematic instrumental Kestrel’s Revolution works a hi-de-ho theme with Balkan tinges. Turn the Heavens, a steady, shuffling ode to nocturnal entertainment of the adult variety, reminds that while this band may not do dixieland as tightly as some others do, they definitely have the spirit. The album winds up with an apprehensively scurrying oldtimey folk number. Kessel plays in a lot of projects; this band currrently doesn’t have anything on the calendar, but you can catch his duo show with Pete Matthiesen every Tuesday at 9 at Arcane, 111 Ave. C between 9th and 10th Sts.

Cigdem Aslan Revisits the 1920s Aegean Underground with a Riveting Intensity

Istanbul-born singer Cigdem Aslan’s album Mortissa is a shout-out to the strong women and freedom fighters in Turkey and Greece in the 1920s and 30s, when the music of the underground, rembetiko, was banned on both sides for being too Arabic. If that doesn’t grab you, nothing will. It’s haunting, plaintive, rivetingly emotional stuff, with echoes of both klezmer and Egyptian melodies along with its obvious Greek and Turkish roots. This so-called “Anatolian blues,” with its bitter ironies and double meanings, was the stoner soundtrack to the revolutionary underworld that rose up in Smyrna, and Istanbul, and port cities on the Aegean almost a century ago. Aslan is an aptly cosmopolitan choice to revisit these songs, a woman of Kurdish descent who’s made a name for herself in the UK singing klezmer music from across the Jewish diaspora. To paraphrase Edward Said: orientalism, the ultimate source of all good musical things.

Aslan sings in both Greek and Turkish, although you don’t have to speak either to enjoy this music, and Aslan’s delivery often transcends any linguistic limitations: it’s not hard to figure out where the songs are coming from. Is the haunting, dirgelike Ferece (Veil) about a funeral, or a wedding? Actually, neither. It’s sung from the point of view of a Muslim woman who wants to tear off her oppressive burqa, Nikos Angousis-Doitsidis‘ searing clarinet lines mirroring the vocals‘ simmering rage. Likewise, Bir Allah (One God), Aslan’s imploring melismatics mingling with Pavlos Carvalho’s biting bouzouki. Aslan shifts in a split second from jaunty to pensive, especially on the shapeshifting To Dervisaki (Little Dervish), with its fiery succession of solos from the bouzouki to Makis Baklatzis’s violin to the clarinet. Aslan does the same on the album’s towering, angst-ridden final cut, S’agapo (I Love You), Nikolaos Baimpas’ kanun rippling over the gusty swells of the orchestra.

Aslan sings with a nonchalantly crystalline tone over a bouncy minor-key pulse on Aman Katerina Mou (Oh My Katerina), then she veers between coy and inquisitive on the rhythmically tricky, chromatically edgy Vale Me Stin Agalia Sou (Take Me In Your Arms). Pane Gia To Praso (Going Out For Leeks – 1920s Greek slang for hashish) spirals downward on the wings of some of the album’s most gorgeous bouzouki riffage beneath Aslan’s eerily glimmering microtones. The catchy Trava Vre Manga Kai Alani (Go Away, Manga) has echoes of klezmer,while the stark bouzouki and vocal lines added a surreal, crepuscular creepinesss to Nenni (Lullaby). There’s also a slinky levantine ensemble piece, a lush pastorale, a bitterly anthemic barroom scenario where Aslan tells her suitors to take a hike, and the enigmatic Girl from Usak, sort of a Turkish circus rock shuffle with a kanun solo that might be the album’s most exhilarating moment.  Where can you hear this masterpiece online? It’s not at Grooveshark or Bandcamp but it is on Spotify, and there are a couple of tracks up at Asphalt Tango Records’ Soundcloud page.