New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Month: February, 2014

Lake Street Dive Puts Out One of the Year’s Catchiest Albums

The most apt album title any group has ever come up with in the age of the selfie: Lake Street Dive‘s Bad Self Portraits. Is the Boston blue-eyed soul band’s latest release a commentary on extreme narcissism in the digital age? Actually not. This album’s about tunesmithing. Saying that any one band is the best at any particular thing will always get you in trouble – just when you think you know everything, a new discovery takes you back to square one. However, it is safe to say that there is no catchier band on the planet than Lake Street Dive. These songs are absolutely gorgeous, the kind that you catch yourself humming as you walk down the street, and then suddenly you’re in a good mood.

Their sound is very distinctive: they put a driving, kinetic, guitar-fueled edge on original songs written in a classic 60s soul and Motown vein. Frontwoman Rachael Price has a sardonic, acidic edge to her voice, which perfectly suits the songs’ lyrics. Bassist Bridget Kearney doesn’t get to cut loose here as much as she does onstage, but her melodic hooks are still delicious and often appear when least expected: she’s sort of the band’s second lead guitarist. What makes guitarist Mike Olson’s playing so interesting is that he’s more of a rock player than a soul player: you don’t hear a bunch of recycled Memphis or Muscle Shoals licks in what he does. There’s a lingering chipotle burn in his resonant, snarling chords, counterbalanced by a terse, period-perfect, muted mid 60s tunefulness in the songs’ quieter moments. Drummer Mike Calabrese anchors everything with a slinky swing.

The album opens with the title track, a more amped-up take on a classic, swaying soul sound: the woman in the story got a camera to snap shots of her boyfriend, who’s now gone, so can she take it all by herself and springboard an art career with it? That’s the question. The second track, Stop Your Crying is wickedly catchy Phil Spector-ish girl-group pop with roaring, stomping electric guitar and jaunty vocal harmonies. Then the band takes it down for the wounded, brooding, swaying Better Than, Kearney’s bass dancing around judiciously as she signals the changes.

Rabid Animal vividly evokes the caged feeling a kid would get moving back home, taking a step backward, Price’s voice agitated against a syncopated doo-wop piano melody. You Go Down Smooth is a dead ringer for classic Holland-Dozier-Holland, complete with a big blazing brass section and a clever series of false endings. Use Me Up keeps the Motown vibe motoring along with a series of absolutely delicious major/minor changes, Kearney kicking it off solo over the drums, the song building to another classic crescendo, Olson’s guitar set against what sounds like an echoey electric piano patch on a vintage 80s DX7 synth.

Bobby Tanqueray starts out as the jazziest track on the album and then rocks hard, up to a Beatlesque chorus and more of those droll girl-group harmonies. Just Ask works a steamy series of dynamics through a vintage Memphis theme, the organ, guitar and vocals moving up and then down: “You may not win my body by poisoning my mind,” Price asserts…but she likes the guy despite herself. On the next track, Seventeen, she ponders a pretty universal situation over a loosely funky, Led Zep-tinged pulse: what if we’d actually been able to hook up with somebody cool in high school instead of having to wait for what felt like forever, until college, or even later?

What About Me welds a funky sway to an oldschool soul chorus, a Beatlesque bridge and a richly tuneful guitar solo straight out of the George Harrison playbook. The album winds up with Rental Love, which if you buy this particular anachronism, sounds like the Beatles doing Imagine as the opening track on Sergeant Pepper. There’s a sourpuss, cynical contingent out there that says that all this has been done before, that it’s impossible to play vintage-sounding rock and soul better than the originals. Lake Street Dive defy that, and in the process have recorded one of the most deliciously tuneful albums of recent years.

Now where can you hear this album? Not on Spotify or Soundcloud and barely on Bandcamp,  although most of the tracks are up at Youtube in various form: click the links in the song titles above. Many of those tracks comprise an excellent live broadcast on Oregon Public which is archived here.  Lake Street Dive are also excellent in concert; they’re at Bowery Ballroom on March 31 at 10 PM. $18 advance tickets (available at the Mercury Lounge from 5-7 PM, Monday-Friday) are recommended.

Good Cop and Bad Cop Review LJ Murphy Plus the Byzan-Tones

Good Cop: I think this is our big break. We’ve never been given an assignment this good.

Bad Cop: Back on the Columbus shuttle.

Good Cop: You mean the Scranton shuttle.

Bad Cop: I can’t get used to Scranton being a Yankees farm club. It was part of the Phillies system for as long as I can remember.

Good Cop: Now that’s going back a ways! Anyway, tonight we get to review LJ Murphy, the best rock songwriter in town, and then the Byzan-Tones, an awesome surf band! This is a big deal for us! You notice we’ve been getting better assignments lately?

Bad Cop: If you say so…

Good Cop: Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside, then Red Baraat, and this the best yet! If we don’t screw this one up there’s no telling how far we’ll go! [Good Cop elbows Bad Cop in the ribs]

Bad Cop [winces} Ouch! Don’t kid yourself. We haven’t had any assignment from this blog, good or bad, since July. We only got to cover that Sallie Ford concert because the blog had reviewed the record a couple of days before. We only got to do Red Baraat because the story wasn’t the music, it was that horrible experience in Central Park. So if this blog hadn’t reviewed LJ Murphy back in November, we’d still be in Col…I mean, Scranton.

Good Cop: Well, goodbye Scranton. hello Parkside Lounge on a Saturday night! [LJ Murphy,wearing a black suit and porkpie hat and holding a big black acoustic guitar, takes the stage along with his lead guitarist, keyboardist and drummer. With no bass, they launch into a swinging blues]

Bad Cop: I guess this is soundcheck.

Good Cop: I don’t think so. They did the song all the way through. I know this one: it’s Another Lesson I Never Learned.

Bad Cop: Guess they lost their bass player.

Good Cop: Not as far as I know. Nils Sorensen’s also in Brothers Moving, you know, that great Danish Americana band so maybe he had a conflict. And check out Patrick McLellan, he’s playing basslines with his left hand on the piano! At this point they don’t need a bass player…

Bad Cop [emphatically] Oh yes they do. But this guy’s good. Real good. Picked up on what was missing right away and took care of business.

Good Cop: I can’t believe somebody this good is playing the Parkside.

Bad Cop: Classic case of a guy stuck in the New York scene. In this town, you play to your friends. There’s no central scene with any significant following that you can leverage anymore. Here’s a guy who’s as good a songwriter as Richard Thompson, or Steve Earle, or Aimee Mann – and he’s younger than all of them – but he never got to take the band on the road. And he’s a band guy, not a singer-songwriter.

Good Cop: And he’s got a sizeable European following too. Funny how these things happen, isn’t it?

Bad Cop: Sound is not good tonight.

Good Cop: You know the Parkside, it can be good one night and not so good the next.

Bad Cop: It’s the piano. The low mids are feeding. And you can’t hear the electric guitar.

Good Cop: That’s Tommy Hoscheid. Great player. I see he brought his Gibson SG.

Bad Cop: He’s gonna need it.

Good Cop: Oh, I love this song. This is Happy Hour. Anybody who’s suffered through having to hang out with work “friends” in the financial district needs to hear this, it’ll validate you. And I love how LJ has rearranged it as an oldschool Stax/Volt shuffle.

Bad Cop: I liked it better when it was straight up janglerock. At least that’s one thing you can count on with this guy: you never know what you’re gonna get. Always rearranging things. The Faulkner of the three minute rock song. And you notice, he changed the lyric: it used to be “brotherhood of useless warts” instead of “brotherhood of sold and bought.”

Good Cop: That doesn’t rhyme with “one eye on the secretary and the other on the quarterly report.”

Bad Cop: It does if you’re from Queens.

Good Cop: True. “Their daytime dramas wait at home on videocassette,” that’s a really twisted line.

Bad Cop: It wasn’t back when he wrote it. These days you think of a spycam, or a webcam, right? Back then it was like something you Tivoed – except in analog, in real time, and everybody did it, and it actually wasn’t twisted at all. Ha, necessarily, at least. I remember this one time rushing home to record an episode of Survivor for this chick…

Good Cop: I can imagine where you’re going with that. Anyway – check out that creepy cascade from Patrick! This is Mad Within Reason, title track from LJ’s most recent album. “The music was sampled from Bach to James Brown, they saddled the mistress and lowered her down.” Nobody’s writing lyrics like that these days!

Bad Cop: Oh yeah they are. Four words for you: Hannah Versus the Many. But this guy’s good, always has been. “While everybody tried to become what they hate” – and another creepy piano cascade. This is sweet.

Good Cop: This next one’s even sweeter. Pretty for the Parlor – Long Island sniper gone on a spree. What a great tune this is – it’s anthemic, but not derivative or Beatlesque, it’s just good. And full of surprises. “The machinegun mama’s boy has called in sick today,” yum!

Bad Cop: OK, he’s gonna bring it down now. Waiting by the Lamppost for You: a period-perfect blend of sixties soul and blues. “Moonlight delays me, daylight betrays me, I’m hungover and showing my years.” Do you hear Nightclubbing, you know, the Iggy song?

Good Cop: Not unless it’s blasting through the wall from next door. Is that place still a disco?

Bad Cop: We’re at the Parkside, not the Mercury. Nobody next door. Deli across the street.

Good Cop: Oh yeah! Now this drummer’s good. A jazz guy maybe. They’re really rocking out Lonely Avenue – you know, the old Elvis song.

Bad Cop: Doc Pomus wrote it. Orthodox Jewish guy from Brooklyn. Now this is where you lose me, white guys playing the blues.

Good Cop: Aw, c’mon, the audience loves it.

Bad Cop: Once you’ve heard T-Bone Walker do Stormy Monday, all other versions are useless.

Good Cop: T-Bone Walker died before you were born.

Bad Cop: T-Bone Walker actually died when I was in the third grade I think. But I have the album.

Good Cop: This next song is Damaged Goods. What did LJ say, this is the first song he ever wrote in Brooklyn after moving from Queens?

Bad Cop: Guess he must have had the Wall Street job back then. Dungeoness and her crabs, more or less. This guy was on to what Eliot Spitzer and that crew were up to before anybody else was.

Good Cop: Now they’re going back from new wave to noir. This is Fearful Town. Did you hear Patrick quote Riders on the Storm?

Bad Cop [derisively]: Everybody does that. But this is a good song. This is why I came out tonight. Now this speaks to me. This is why I’m here and not someplace else. This guy speaks for anybody who used to live in this neighborhood. “Raided my old hangouts, put away my friends, now I’m sitting on a bonfire on a night that never ends.” LES, 2014, we are with you LJ Murphy!

Good Cop: You’re breaking character. You’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to hate everything.

Bad Cop: And you’re breaking the fourth wall. You’re not supposed to do that. What am I supposed to do? I complained about the sound. The blues medley left me cold. But I like this guy. Despite myself. Even this one. This next song is Nowhere Now. Sort of a twisted Chuck Berry kind of thing. I can’t figure it out for the life of me. Maybe it’s about America, all that “200 years of hoping, you’re not hoping anymore” stuff. What do you think?

Good Cop: That’s what I love about LJ’s songs, they draw you in and make you figure out what’s going on. Now this one’s easy, Blue Silence – they’re going to rock the hell out of this.

Bad Cop: And they do. And then they close with Barbed Wire Playpen, another Wall Street dungeoness crab scenario.

Good Cop: Ha ha funny.

Bad Cop: Couldn’t resist. And now we’re off to Otto’s.

Good Cop [about ten minutes later, at Otto’s Shrunken Head]: Holy shit, this place is packed. I haven’t seen Otto’s like this, maybe, ever.

Bad Cop: And we didn’t even get carded walking in.

Good Cop [laughs]: Nobody would ever card you.

Bad Cop: The doofus at the door, the skinhead, once chased me to the back and screamed at me until I showed him my I.D. This is recent, like, last year.

Good Cop: You can’t be serious.

Bad Cop: I’m completely serious. A guy at the bar saw the whole exchange, he came up to me afterward and said he couldn’t believe what he’d just witnessed.

Good Cop: I can’t either. But we’re here. And this band is great! What a cool doublebill it’s been, two venues, two great bands. That’s George Sempepos on lead guitar, I can’t see who’s playing bass or drums, and that’s Steve Antonakos on guitar too.

Bad Cop: They used to have an electric oud. Now that was wild. Psychedelic Greek surf music. I remember coming back from seeing them at the Blu Lounge in Williamsburg, this must have been around 2003 or so, completely shitfaced, this is at about four in the morning and I’m waiting forever at 14th Street for the F and I’d recorded the show so I pulled out my recorder and started blasting the Byzan-tones right there on the platform. And everybody was down with it.

Good Cop: You’re lucky you didn’t get arrested.

Bad Cop: Nobody arrests me!

Good Cop: OK. Now I can’t keep track of whether these songs are originals, or they’re psychedelic rock hits from Greece in the 1960s.

Bad Cop: My understanding is that they’re originals. But they sound like old Mediterranean stoner music. Except with more of a surf beat. Now this version of the band is a little brighter and a lot tighter than I remember them being.

Good Cop: And look, the crowd is really into this! This is music from a culture that doesn’t even use our alphabet and peeps are loving this! And the place is so packed that we can’t even get into the back room!

Bad Cop: Hold your fire. We would be able to if this was Lakeside. Oh yeah, Lakeside is gone now. But you get my point. And besides, it’s surf night, half the crowd came from Connecticut, they’re not going to leave for awhile. Captive audience. What every band needs in this century in this town.

Good Cop: Lots of Arabic sounds in this band. And minor keys, and tricky tempos. I can’t figure out what this one is in.

Bad Cop: Me neither. I’ve been drinking since before I left for the Parkside. Sorry.

Good Cop: Now this song is called Pontic Pipeline. Doesn’t sound like Pipeline, though.

Bad Cop: I think the reference is a little…um…what’s the word I want? Oblique? How does that sound ?

Good Cop: Sounds like Arabic rock to me. I love this band, and how the two guitars sometimes harmonize…and how Steve fakes how he’s playing with a slide even though he’s just bending the strings…and now George is singing. In a low, cool baritone, in Greek! What’s the likelihood of seeing something like this outside of Astoria?

Bad Cop: Or outside of Athens.

Good Cop: Point taken. OK, time to go. What a cool night this was! I can’t wait to do this again!

Bad Cop [pulls a flask from inside his trenchcoat and drains it]: OK, see you in July. Or in Col…I mean Scranton.

Laura Cantrell Is Back With That Amazing Voice and More Brilliant Tunesmithing

The onetime “proprietress” of the wildly popular Radio Thrift Shop on WFMU and BBC Radio Scotland, Laura Cantrell’s career is marked by the same quietly resolute determination that distinguishes her vocals. She’s one of the most extraordinary voices in any kind of music over the last twenty years – she can say more with a single, bittersweet bent note than most singers can in a whole album – and she resists pigeonholing. Cantrell made a name for herself as the greatest of the alt-country singers, then took an abrupt detour into rock, then more or less returned to the roots of her native Nashville (although she’s quick to acknowledge that as a kid, she was a lot more new wave than country). Her new album No Way There from Here (which you can hear on Spotify) is her first collection of originals since 2008’s fetchingly retro-60s Trains and Boats and Planes, and ranks among the best things she’s ever done. The songs are split about 50/50 between more-or-less oldschool country and jangly rock. That “more or less” qualifier is because Cantrell likes to push the envelope: for example, in back of the jangly twelve-string guitars on the album’s wryly knowing opening number, All the Girls Are Complicated (a co-write with Amy Allison), there’s a bass clarinet. Not your typical Nashville instrumentation.

And as much as Cantrell gets props for her voice, she’s a first-class songwriter. One of the best songs here is the biting country fiddle tune Beg and Borrow Days, a swipe at anyone who might have snarkily criticized her early in her career for championing material written by her friends in the Lakeside Lounge scene rather than coming up with her own material. The absolutely heartbroken, anthemic title track is another one, a big anthem with strings and piano and a mandolin that sometimes sounds like a balalaika, Cantrell ending it by morosely quoting the Tennessee Waltz.

Starry Skies paints a warmly vivid nocturnal tableau, with all kinds of neat touches from guitars, accordion and piano. Cantrell sings the steel guitar-driven ballad Glass Armour with a tender concern for a guy who’s gotten off his game and needs to get it back: we should all be so lucky as to have someone so caring in our corner. Barely Said a Thing is pensive mystery story, recounting a sseduction that might or might not go somewhere, set to an oldschool country tune with organ and more of that deliciously jangly twelve-string. Washday Blues is Cantrell at her aphoristic best, cleaning up a lifetime’s worth of disappointed metaphors against a backdrop of steel guitar and mandolin. The album ends with Someday Sparrow, evoking Neko Case with its mix of disheartened vulnerability and guarded optimism over a purist dobro-fueled C&W melody.

As intensely emotional as a lot of these songs are, Cantrell also has a fun side, and there’s lighthearted, upbeat stuff here too: the woozily optimistic after-the-party ballad Letter She Sent; the absolutely irresistible, briskly shuffing banjo tune Driving Down Your Street; the steadily strolling, bucolic When It Comes to You; and Allison’s breathless Can’t Wait. Cantrell is on UK tour right now; the remaining showdates are here.

Rosanne Cash Delivers Her Best Album Since Her Classic Black Cadillac

Rosanne Cash is one of those artists we take for granted. Another year, another tour, maybe another great album. So on one hand, her latest one The River & the Thread comes as no surprise. As a songwriter, her voice is wise, and knowing, and all too aware. On this one, both musically and lyrically, Richard Thompson is the obvious comparison – through imagery as loaded as a Civil War Gatling gun, Cash is always fighting off the gloom. As a singer, she just gets more and more nuanced: in the years since her last greatest shining moment, Black Cadillac, she’s using her resonant lower register a little more: Jenifer Jackson‘s recent work comes to mind. As expected, her husband and musical director John Leventhal’s guitar, bass and keyboard work is eclectic, and as subtle as the vocals, at the same time packing a soulful wallop. This is definitely the best thing Cash has done since 2006, which makes sense considering that the album revisits so many of the brooding themes that made Black Cadillac a genuine classic. Cash also has a New York show on Feb 22 at 7 PM at the Metrpoolitan Museum of Art, but it’s sold out. In the meantime, you can hear the album on Spotify.

The opening track A Feather’s Not a Bird sets the stage for most of what’s to come. Stark, noirish strings, minor keys and spare, bluesy lead guitar over a swaying beat anchor Cash’s litany of metaphors for a legacy that weighs heavily on her: “A feather’s a not a bird, the rain is not the sea, a stone is not a mountain but a river runs through me.” The Sunken Lands is more rustic – mandolin is the lead instrument – and reminds of Mary Lee Kortes, a narrative of toil and woe that could be set in the age of slavery…or the current age of near-slavery.

The ghost of Cash’s father continues to haunt her, particularly on Etta’s Tune, a bittersweet, vividly imagistic look at a conflicted family: “We kept the polished bass guitar, we kept the tickets and the reels of tape to remember who we are,” Cash recalls, with an understated anger for the loss of pretty much everything else. Then she switches gears with Modern Blue, a vintage 60s-style psych-folk number held aloft on a lush bed of acoustic guitars, like a Lee Hazelwood song but with better lyrics – and Carol Lipnik‘s swinging rhythm section of drummer Dan Rieser and bassist Tim Luntzel.

Tell Heaven sticks with the folk-rock, but more pensively, Cash assessing the dubious power of prayer: “The empty sky may never take our burdens,” she muses. The Long Way Home looks back to late 60s Jimmy Webb-style countrypolitan, and once again to Johnny Cash: “Summer rain was heavy, almost as heavy as your heart, a cavalcade of strangers came to tear your world apart.” Then World of Strange Design brings the Appalachian gothic back: it could be a harrowing tale of a returning soldier’s family falling apart, or simply a metaphorical tale about a guy who “Set off the minefield like you were rounding first.” Derek Trucks guests on guitar on that one.

With a string section (Dave Mansfield on violin and viola and Dave Eggar on cello) that begins pillowy and quickly turns ghostly, Night School is a haunted, restless look back at at a relationship that’s probably done for good: one of the most compelling things about Cash’s songwriting is that she always lets the images tell the story, tantalizing the listener and leaving open the possibility for multiple interpretations. By contrast, 50,000 Watts, a duet with Cory Chisel, employs layers and layers of guitars and electric piano in a jaunty tribute to gospel radio. The Nashville gothic reaches a peak with When the Master Calls the Roll, a death-fixated Civil War soldier’s tale. The album ends with Money Road, a mashup of fire-and-brimstone Bible imagery and 70s radio pop much in the same vein as Tom Petty’s Runaway. It almost goes without saying that this is one of the best albums of the year.

Revisiting the Frank Flight Band’s Darkly Brilliant Psychedelia

This is not a place to look for old music: the focus here is typically on the here and now. Even so, the rock n roll highway is littered with the skeleton frames of burnt-out bands that deserve to be remembered far better than they are. The Frank Flight Band, from Southport in the UK, are still going strong – and they’re one of the world’s most underrated psychedelic bands, sort of a British counterpart to Blue Oyster Cult. That they’ve released the grand total of three albums in over fifteen years might have something to do with their cult status. However, they’re far from unknown: they’ve spent time on the road, including a tour with Wishbone Ash. Their 2013 album Remains (streaming at Soundcloud) was one of the most darkly exhilarating releases in any style of music last year and is so far the high point of their career. But their previous two albums – Outrunning the Sun and The Sun Will Shine on You – are also worth owning. Fans in Southport can catch the band on February 21 at 9 PM at Victoria Pub, 42-43 Stanley Terrace Promenade.

Flight, with his relentlessly bleak, surreal vision and immersion in decades of psychedelic rock, is the main songwriter and rhythm guitarist but not the frontman. That role is held by Andy Wrigley, whose ageless, weatherbeaten voice is an apt vehicle for Flight’s brooding, often doomed tunesemithing, which like Blue Oyster Cult owes a significant debt to the Doors. Bassist Danny Taylor and drummer Dave Veres have been in and out of the band but are currently in, and are on all the recordings, testament to the pair’s lysergic chemistry and skintight groove. That each of the three albums has a different lead guitarist, yet the sound remains the same, testifies to Flight’s persisently uneasy vision. Although current lead player Alex Kenny is the strongest and bluesiest of the bunch, Dave Thornley and Colins Rens also distinguish themselves as purist, tasteful, incisive, blues-infused players. Likewise, while current keyboardist Michael Woodward stands out for his ornate, Richard Wright-class orchestration, Mark Wainwright, who’s on the first two albums, is also a strong, purposeful organist and pianist.

Thornley’s lone contribution, songwise, to The Sun Will Shine on You (released in 2011) is the catchy, distantly flamenco-tinged Hard Liquor and Grass, which Wrigley delivers more earnestly and seriousmindedly than possibly any other song ever written about getting stoned. The rest of the album is even more serious, existentially and musically speaking. Unsurprisingly, it opens with an antiwar anthem, Went the Day Well, a martial shuffle that juxtaposes battlefield horror with smarmy generals sipping wine out of range of the slaughter while “the leaders of each nation just shrug and walk away.” The band follows that with The Drover’s Wife and the Drifter, a dusky, swaying, folk-tinged anthem, sort of Pink Floyd doing Sympathy for the Devil. Thornley’s echoey, multitracked guitar solos are straight out of 1975, an era this band evokes over and over.

Bird of Prey takes a similarly Doorsy groove and adds ornate gothic tinges in the same vein as Ninth House, with a Light My Fire organ quote exactly where it ought to be and a counterintuitive emotional shift as the song goes on (most of this band’s songs are long, often clocking in at over ten minutes). The blue-sky instrumental Make Believe Highway sounds like Bill Frisell with a rock rhythm section – it’s one of the strongest tunes on the album.

Not in Vain mixes blues, country, soul and a little Tex-Mex behind Flight’s bitter returning soldier’s narrative: “The only hero that doesn’t cause offense is the one that comes back dead,” Wrigley intones. The title track, an eleven-minute epic, foreshadows the direction Flight would take on the next album with its Santana-esque sway, surreal spoken-word vocals and wailing Molly Hatchet/Outlaws guitar outro. Samples of birdsong open and close the album, a device the band turns to for an unexpectedly creepy effect.

Outrunning the Sun finds Flight exploring the latin side of rock, Colin Rens handling the lead guitar. This album is considerably longer, twelve tracks interrupted by the occasional, fleeting instrumental. Recorded in 1999, Flight shelved it and then finally released it ten years later – and the world of psychedelia is better for it. The sixteen-minute title epic slowly coalesces into an uneasy Shine on You Crazy Diamond vamp and then slowly picks up like Santana doing the Doors’ LA Woman, with a long acid blues solo from Rens and some genuinely poetic, metaphorically-charged spoken-word vocals by Wrigley and Taylor.

Tourniquet, a bitter kiss-off anthem, vamps along with a richly jangly ominousness up to another long, pensive Rens guitar solo. Beach House begins as a balmy seaside tableau until the rhythm section kicks in and the darkness makes its way in, hitting a long peak with an unselfconsciously gorgeous guitar solo over Veres’ tumbling drums. Season of Promise is sort of an artsier take on Black Magic Woman, growing more and more intoxicatingly lush as the band adds layer after layer of guitar to the mix: Flight’s chords and voicings are vastly more interesting and varied than merely simple strumming, and once again Rens throws in a nonchalantly biting solo, this time on acoustic.

The band follows Flight’s baroque-tinged miniature Preparations for the May Day Ball with the haunting anthem Better Not Shout , the first of two songs influenced by iconic blues guitarist Otis Rush, Rens’ solo on the way out using the same kind of ominously offcenter passing tones that Rush would typically employ when he played it live. Bad Time for the Future is not an apocalyptic anthem, but another angry breakup song, again setting sunbaked guitar leads to a slinky, clanging clave beat.

Crumbling at my Feet is more or less a funky, latin-flavored take on Otis Rush’s All Your Love. Taylor contributes an enigmatic instrumental that evokes U2 at their darkest and most focused, followed by the practically eighteen-minute Evening Star, a towering global warming-era parable that shifts from echoes of surf rock, to latin art-rock and hypnotically enveloping spacerock fueled by Rens’ pulsing dying-quasar leads. The band speeds it up and then pulls back again, Wrigley calmly narrating a sinister scenario:

The hands of darkness lead the hands of fate
To come push your heavy stone across your gate
Here comes a day of solar breeze
This storm will bake the earth and reap the seas
Our world is saying, “It’s final call,
So thanks for nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing at all

Ultimately, we’re all outrunning the sun, and this band knows that. That’s one of the reasons they’re important.

A Gorgeously Eclectic Solo Album From Tom Petty Keyboardist Benmont Tench

Who’s the best songwriter in Tom Petty’s band? Hint: it’s not the singer. Turns out that it’s keyboardist Benmont Tench, who’s been the Heartbreakers’ secret weapon for decades. Surprisingly, Tench’s new album You Should Be So Lucky takes a turn away from the driving, simple, spot-on piano and lush river of organ that characterizes his work in Petty’s band, substituting a wealth of eclectic styles from low-key, smoldering, Springsteen-ish anthems, to snarling garage rock, rockabilly and western swing along with tinges of ragtime and jazz. Tench’s tunesmithing is also a lot more diverse than Petty’s, and his lyrics can be excellent. So is the band: guitarists Ethan Johns and Blake Mills, along with Jeremy Stacey on drums and cameos by Petty, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Ringo Starr. Yup, the Beatles’ drummer is on this somewhere: individual track credits weren’t available at presstime, so it’s a guess where he is on this.

Tench is close to sixty and sounds it, his wispy, weathered, low-key vocals set to tuneful keyboard-based rock that in its strongest moments echoes both Springsteen and Willie Nile. The opening track, Today I Took Your Picture Down, with its spare piano and Memphis soul guitar, bears some resemblance to Dylan’s If You See Her Say Hello, but with a backbeat. “The eyes that followed me around, daring me to stare them down,” just had to go, Tench explains – and follows that with an absolutely gorgeous, crescendoing piano solo. It sets the stage for most of what’s to come.

Veronica Said bounces along with a Tenth Avenue Freeze-out beat: likewise, Tench’s lushly swirling organ solo wouldn’t be out of place in the late, great Danny Federici’s playbook. Tench follows that with the distantly New Orleans-flavored Ecor Rouge, a wee-hours theme that methodically makes its way toward dark third-stream jazz.

The spare folk-rock tune Hannah is the closest thing here to something Tench’s boss might write. Blonde Girl, Blue Dress, a wistful tale about the one that just barely got away, would have been a big radio hit thirty years ago (that’s a compliment), building from a richly tuneful guitar intro to a catchy, cleverly allusive chorus. The genuine classic here is the searingly catchy garage-rock broadside You Should Be So Lucky, with its shapeshifting layers of vintage keyboards and guitars and vicious lyrics. Then Tench takes it down with a long, balmy version of the old folk song Corinna, Corinna.

Dogwood brings to mind Willie Nile in low-key acoustic mode, a pensive drifter’s tale with an unexpectedly animated bridge, like something the Larch would throw in to shake things up. Like the Sun (Michoacan) pairs off a couple of twelve-string guitars for a jangly evocation of the Byrds, while the bolero instrumental Wobbles brings to mind Nashville piano legend Floyd Cramer.

The slowly swaying grey-sky lament Why Don’t You Quit Leaving Me Alone is something that Warren Zevon would no doubt have been proud to have written. Then Tench picks up the pace with a jaunty western swing take of Dylan’s Duquesne Whistle, first delivering a scrambling piano solo that hands off to an even livelier, spiraling one from the guitar, then sinking to the murkiest depths of the piano before leaping back in with a whiplash slide up the keys. There are also two bonus tracks on the vinyl version of this release (yay!), the snidely Jerry Lee Lewis-influenced rockabilly romp She’s My Girl and the Booker T-esque instrumental After Everything I’ve Done for You, a feast of dynamics for the organ and the band. The only dud here is a Xmas carol. All this begs the question, why has Tench been hiding this stuff so long, and does he have more great tunes like this stashed away? Lucky fans in LA can catch Tench with this band as he plays a two-night stand to celebrate the album’s release at 8 PM at Largo at the Coronet, 366 N La Cienega Blvd; tix are $35.

The Legendary Poets of Rhythm’s Rare Funk and Soul Sides Are Finally Back in Print

Much as the web has helped break down boundaries between cultures – some would say not always for the better –  the bar is still higher for people who play music that isn’t indigenous to their culture. That the mysterious German assemblage of musicians known as the Poets of Rhythm were able to replicate vintage American soul and funk from the 60s and 70s ten years and more before Youtube existed testifies to their passion for getting those sounds just right. The new Poets of Rhythm anthology out from Daptone Records mixes tracks from the group’s two studio albums from the 90s plus a handful of rare singles released between 1992 and 2003 under pseudonyms like the Bus People Express, Bo Baral’s Excusionists of Perception, the Whitefiled Brothers, the Soul Saints and Pan-Atlantics. It’s quite touching to see how little these guys cared about fame: all they wanted to do was to play music like it was 1967 again, a time when most of their posse probably wasn’t even born yet. Eclectic and often psychedelic as their sound could be, ultimately this was designed to get you up on your feet.

The production of undulating instrumentals like 50 Yards of Soul may be crisper than typically would have been the case in 1970, but the arrangements – in this case, wah guitar, organ and shuffling drums – are period-perfect. South Carolina – not the Gil Scott-Heron classic but an original – sways along with balmy organ and gently scratchy Memphis guitar, a tribute to a place the band had assuredly never seen. The single’s b-side, Augusta GA evokes vintage James Brown – huh, here I come, good god! – right down to the shuffling drum break and a gamely trebly impression of a young Bootsy Collins. Likewise, North Carolina plays off a catchy stairstepping bass hook.

Choking on a Piece of Meat Pt. 1 fades up, slow and slinky, into a Roy Ayers psychedelic soul vamp with wah guitar and reverbtoned flute. Discern Define sounds more like a backing loop for a 90s hip-hop joint by, say, Digable Planets than it does anything from an earlier era, although the textures – incisive horns, echoey drums, lingering Rhodes piano and slightly smoky organ – are spot-on. The previously unreleased Path of Life blends jazz poetry into a breezy mid 70s groove with jarringly anachronistic but irresistibly amusing wah synth.

Funky Train works an upbeat JBs style wah-and-horns track – unlike so much so-called “white funk,” the drums swing and the bass doesn’t waste notes. Ham Gallery is much the same, with a slightly more uptight, head-bopping beat. More Mess on My Thing offers a more caffeinated take on a hypnotically cinematic Isaac Hayes-style vamp. It Came Over Me finds the band gamely taking a stab at mid-70s Stylistics balladry and finding the groove with somewhat more spare horns and strings.

Santa’s Got a Bag of Soul has a droll sample straight out of Cypress Hill – told you this stuff was psychedelic, huh? Serengeti Stroke works a midtempo groove with an emphasis on hypnotic percussion, while Summer Days goes for balmy atmospherics. By contrast, The Donkey is the most lo-fi number – but as somebody in the band says, that donkey still bites! A couple of the album’s nineteen tracks don’t measure up to the others, but that’s still a good average. It’s good to see this stuff available digitally for a whole new generation to discover, especially considering that the original vinyl is hard to find and very pricy. And if it gets anyone into the original source material, so much the better. The whole thing’s hard to find as a full stream on the web, although it is on Spotify.

Intriguing Dark Americana from Kate Vargas

Americana chanteuse Kate Vargas is playing the album release show for her forthcoming one Down to My Soul at the big room at the Rockwood on Feb 20 at 7 PM with her excellent band. In the meantime, she’s got a couple of intriguing tracks up at her Bandcamp page. The first, Throw the Devil Back is a rustic, banjo-driven Appalachian gothic tune that slowly morphs into a slow-burning blues-rock anthem.  The second is the album’s title track, an ominously swaying folk noir anthem that recounts an escape and then an uneasy New Mexico return, “Past the old school bus abandoned in 1963 down a long ditch road that leads you home past the sweet cottonwood trees.”  Both songs are evocative of a couple of first-class dark Americana bands from these parts, Frankenpine and Bobtown: fans of those bands, and dark folk in general, ought to check Vargas out.

A Killer Free Download from Jamband the Delta Saints

 

Nashville jamband the Delta Saints call themselves “bayou rockers,” but while it’s true that they draw on New Orleans sounds, they’re a lot more diverse. Although they can be funky, they’re first and foremost a rock band. And while most people think of New Orleans music as ecstatic and celebratory – and a lot of it is – that music has a dark side, and the Delta Saints absolutely get that. If long, smoldering psychedelic jams with searing guitar and trippy keyboards are your thing, go to their site and download their killer new ep, Drink It Slow, for free (you can also stream it at Soundcloud). It’s the closest you’re going to get to their Feb 15 show at Irving Plaza opening for newschool outlaw country band Blackberry Smoke because that show is sold out. Is that cool or what? A country band and a delta-flavored jamband selling out a venue the size of Irving Plaza – has that ever happened in New York, let alone during this never-ending depression?

Don’t be fooled by the fact that that the ep has only three tracks: there’s more music than you would expect. It’s rare that you find a band that can go on to such great lengths yet still be as purposeful and consistently interesting as the Delta Saints are. Their not-so-secret weapon is lead guitarist Dylan Fitch, a monster blues player who can be very fast and frenetic, but he doesn’t waste notes. Likewise, Nate Kremer, the band’s keyboardist, who switches effortlessly from icepick piano lines, to swirling, majestic organ, and electric piano, varying his textures from echoey deep-space sonics to sly wah-wah licks.

Frontman Ben Ringel’s burning electric dobro kicks off the first track, Cigarettte with snarling riffage over drummer Ben Azi’s loose, laid-back, funky shuffle before the organ and piano wash in like a volcanic vent on the riverbottom. It’s a revenge anthem: Ringel tells the girl he wants to feel her choke from that smoke. Ouch! The second song, Crazy, is the centerpiece and it is a doozy, a nine-minute epic that works a slow, slinky noir blues groove with all kinds of up-and-down dynamics, a precise, angst-fueled Fitch solo and every keyboard texture in this band’s arsenal. Again, Azi’s drumming is just plain killer, hanging along a misterioso edge with his boomy kickdrum and haunting cymbal work during the song’s quieter moments. The last song is Drink It Slow, a live take that’s the funkiest thing here (although it’s more of a soul song) and another showcase for the keys: organ, wah Rhodes and finally a gritty explosion of guitar as bassist David Supica finally takes the band upward as it nears the end. The Delta Saints pretty much live on the road, so they’ll probably be back in town before you know it.

Another Tantalizing Album from Elizabeth & the Catapult

 

Elizabeth Ziman, who basically is Elizabeth & the Catapult, is one of this era’s great purist pop tunesmiths. While the keyboard textures on her latest album Like It Never Happened (streaming at Paste, of all places) are totally Bushwick, 2014, her wickedly catchy hooks and artsy song structures are closer to the radio hit side of ELO circa 1976. Ziman is no slouch as a pianist, a competent rhythm guitarist and a strong, brilliantly nuanced, individualistic singer. When she’s at the top of her game, her songs have an Aimee Mann-class intensity. Even when she’s not at the top of her game, they’re still catchy. There’s a lot of everything here. She’s had an off-and-on residency at Rockwood Music Hall over the past few months, and she’s at the relatively new third stage there every Monday in February at 8 for $10.

Like everything else Ziman has done (she’s got two other albums out), this one has a couple of absolutely killer tracks. The first is a joke, a deliciously good one. With its sarcastically monotonous piano pedaling and snarky lyrics, Happy Pop wouldn’t be out of place in the Patti Rothberg catalog – and it ends with a bemused busker making snide fun of people who don’t get it. By contrast, Wish I Didn’t is a brooding kiss-off anthem that moves cleverly from a minimalist vocal intro to Jeff Lynne-style art-rock majesty – with a lot of curse words, crudeness and elegance side by side. Metaphorical, maybe?

Salt of the Earth sounds like an oldtime chain gang singalong tricked out with layers of keys and shivery strings, a trip-hop groove emerging and then receding in favor of jaggedly bluesy guitar. Shoelaces is a ridiculously catchy 60s garage-pop song updated with a bit of a whimsical late 90s vibe: the tune, the edgy guitar solo and swoopy organ are the highlights rather than the lyrics. Ziman follows it with the atmospheric, hypnotic chamber pop number Someday Soon.

More Than Enough has lushly sweeping string synth, rippling tremolo organ and another one of those irresistibly catchy, anthemic choruses, Ziman contemplating how to ground herself amid the angst: “Don’t take darkness for granted, without it light can’t exist.” From its staccato Penny Lane bounce to its woozily oscillating synth. Please Yourself is an ELO pop hit updated for the teens. Sugar Covered Poison pairs sarcastically acrid, techy synth voicings that leave an artificial, chemical taste with a knowing lyric about a guy who’s hard to resist but no more than the emotional equivalent of junk food. The final track, Last Opus, is a richly tuneful art-rock ballad that gives Ziman a long launching pad for a handful of gloriously brooding, gorgeous piano solos.

The album’s title track is somewhat disingenuous. It’s funny how all these careless girls are the first to complain that they’ve had their hearts broken, but they won’t cop to doing that to anyone themselves. Over a distantly Carole King-ish sway with resonant electric piano, Ziman’s cynical narrator owns up to what she’s been doing – sort of. And there’s also a ballad here that’s the lyrical equivalent of a Precious Moments tchotchke – but even there, Ziman stays on task and plays with purist taste and restraint. Which helps explain why this is a tantalizing album, and why Ziman’s best days as a songwriter are still probably ahead of her. In the meantime, she’s really good live.