New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: April, 2014

A Wild Night at Smalls with Trombone Legend Frank Lacy

Trombonist/singer Frank Lacy is the extrovert star of the Mingus bands. He also leads his own groups. His latest album, Live at Smalls captures him with an inspired, straight-ahead postbop band – Josh Evans on trumpet, Stacy Dillard on tenor sax, Theo Hill on piano, Rashaan Carter on bass and Kush Abadey, this unit’s not-so-secret weapon, on drums – on parts of two hot nights in mid-October, 2012 on their home turf. Lacy can be much more avant garde than he is here: this is a showcase for lively interplay, pitch-and-follow and blazing gutbucket jazz-lounge entertainment. You can feel the heat: Ben Rubin’s engineering on this record puts you right there in the room. They celebrate the album’s release at the club on May 6 at 10:30 PM; cover is $20 which includes a beverage.

For Lacy, this is more of a showcase for leading a band than it is for blazing solos (after all, he can do that anytime he wants). And he’s a generous leader: the two most electrifying solos on the album belong to Evans – choosing his spots up to a series of wickedly rapidfire spirals on a steady, briskly strolling take of Charles Fambrough’s Alicia – and Dillard, soaring and sliding and throwing in some shivery doublestops on soprano sax on Lacy’s own gospel-infleced Spirit Monitor. Lacy also gives a characteristically witty clinic in how to pull the band out of a lull a little earlier during that tune.

Lacy’s also a distinctive singer, with a gritty falsetto that’s just as powerful as his lower register. It’s too bad that there’s only one vocal number here, Carolyn’s Dance, a series of long crescendos for the band members as Abadey rides the traps with all sorts of neat, unexpected jabs and crashes.

Dilllard’s boisterous bluesiness contrasts with Lacy’s more judicious attack on the summery, funky sway of Joe Bonner’s Sunbath. Lacy’s opening track, Stranded, works a catchy, chromatically-charged altered latin groove up to a tireless swing, a launching pad for everybody in the band. They follow that with a lustrous take of George Cables’ bossa-tinged Think on Me. They wind up the album with a good choice of closer, Freddie Hubbard’s The Intrepid Fox where Evans predictably gets called on to deliver the firepower and makes it look easy as the band swings it breathlessly. It’s surprising that more venues don’t do what Smalls does, recording all their shows (they have a subscription service for that) and releasing the creme de la creme on their Smalls Live label. Then again, Smalls takes the idea of community more seriously than most venues.

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Ani Cordero’s Recordar Celebrates Freedom Fighters and the Anthems That Kept Them Going

Ani Cordero has a backstory as eclectic as her Puerto Rican heritage. She got her start as a drummer in a Man or Astroman cover band and then switched gears about as radically as a drummer can, propelling darkly cinematic Brooklyn rockers Bee & Flower for a few years. Since then she’s also played drums with both a reconfigured version of Os Mutantes as well as in Mexican-American janglerockers Pistolera while also leading her own increasingly jangly, tuneful band, Cordero, in which she plays guitar. Her new album Recordar: Latin American Songs of Love and Protest puts a new electrified spin on songs from across the Americas from the 30s through the revolutionary nueva cancion movement of the 60s. She and her sensational band – including but not limited to Springsteen keyboardist Charles Giordano, trumpeters Kelly Pratt and Omar Akil Little, Vieux Farke Toure percussionist Tim Keiper and Modest Mouse cellist Brent Arnold –  play the album release show on May 1 at 9:30 PM at Joe’s Pub. Cover is $15.

Cordero is as good a choice as anyone to tackle such a daunting if potentially exhilarating project, considering that she was mentored in college by Juan Allende, the nephew of murdered, populist Chilean President Salvador Allende. She opens the album with a gently brooding accordion-and-horn-fueled arrangement of Victor Jara’s pensive 1966 anthem Deja la Vida Volar, delivering its bittersweet carpe diem message with a calm-before-the-storm clarity. She reinvents Argentinian crooner Piero’s 1969 hit Tengo la Piel Cansada as a darkly lingering tango sicodelico, much in the same vein as Las Rubias Del Norte.

Cordero discovered Bobby Collazo’s 1948 Cuban bolero La Ultima Noche via cheeseball songbird Eydie Gorme’s version; this one gets a careful, dreamy but uneasy reading with echoey electric keys and resonant brass. Cordero’s lilting take of the Gilberto Gil/Caetano Veloso hit Panis et Circenses (Bread and Circuses) looks less to the Os Mutantes version than the 60s American paisley pop that influenced it. Then she picks up the pace with a brisk take of the popular, homesick 30s Puerto Rican plena standard, Choferito.

Macorina, a gorgeously jangly lesbian love song from 1968 Mexico recorded by Chavela Vargas, gets a lushly tender interpretation that does justice to the bravery of the original. Cuarteto Mayari’s 1942 Puerto Rican hit El Flamboyan is recast as a bouncily percussion-driven shout-out to Cordero’s great-great-great grandfather, a freedom fighter for Puerto Rico against the Spanish occupation. Aunque Me Cueste la Vida, a 1954 hit in the Dominican Republic for Alberto Beltran (Piero’s dad) has a gravity that more than hints at a possible subtext (music there was ruthlessly censored under the Trujillo dictatorship).

Cordero recasts Violeta Parra’s 1967 Chilean lament Volver la Los 17 as moody, echoey trip-hop inflected art-rock. An aptly dusky, skeletal version of Argentinian folksinger Atahualpa Yupanqui’s Che Guevara homage El Primer Verso (Nada Más) hauntingly suggests that sometimes you have to die in order to be reborn: “If you don’t believe that, ask Che Guevara,” is the punchline. The album ends up with a resolutely marching take of Ali Primera’s 1978 Venezuelan revolutionary anthem Una Cancion Mansa Par Mi Pueblo Bravo.

The implication of the album as a whole (the title means “remember”) is that all of this could happen here, whether that be a coup d’etat, a revolution or music celebrating it: perish the thought that we would forget this lest we repeat the same ugly cycle. And you don’t have to speak Spanish to appreciate the songs’ alternately delicate and rousingly plaintive music (Cordero’s meticulously articulate vocals are enormously helpful for those of us who didn’t grow up speaking Spanish).

So where can you hear this gem? Right now, live; it hasn’t made it to Spotify or Bandcamp yet.

 

Richly Dark, Jangly Rock from Gord Downie & the Sadies

Canadian janglerockers the Sadies have made some great albums both by themselves as well as with Neko Case. Their latest project finds them working a hauntingly propulsive southwestern gothic vein behind Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, who channels a Celtic-tinged, Nick Cave-style desperation on their new album, Gord Downie, the Sadies & the Conquering Sun. The album is streaming at the band’s site; they’re bringing this gorgeously dark stuff to Bowery Ballroom on May 2 at around 10. General admission is $20.

The album’s opening track, Crater motors along on a snarling, catchy garage-punk groove: it’s one of the loudest things this band’s ever done. Travis Good takes a twistingly bluesy guitar solo; “Crater, getting crushed in your dreams,” Downie rages. The second cut, a title track of sorts, is the first of the lingering, backbeat-driven, jangly minor-key desert rock numbers, Downie “working the fugitive dust under the conquering sun.”Los Angeles Times sways more slowly, painting a restless party scenario, Downie frustrated that he can’t cut through a pretentious crowd to get to an intriguing girl. An unexpected, tasty flatpicked acoustic guitar solo takes the song out.

One Good Fast Job picks up the pace, a bristling, minor-key swamp-rock tune. “You sound hard, you sound dope, you sound like you lick your own envelopes,” Downie taunts. It Didn’t Start to Break My Heart Until This Afternoon opens with an uneasily droning intro and then scampers along with a hypnotic Brian Jonestown Massacre garage-psych ambience. The best song on the album is the ominously reverb-drenched Budget Shoes, fueled by Mike Belitsky’s artfully tumbling, Keith Moon drums, Downie tracing the steps of a couple of desperados “walking through the valley of ghosts,” one with his eyes on the other’s superior footgear.

Downie’s Irish-inflected vocals pair off with the band’s country-tinged jangle on Demand Destruction: “Is this accident ever over anymore?” Downie asks anxiously. They bring in a slow, warmly nocturnal Beggars Banquet ambience with spiky mandolin and flowing organ on Devil Enough before they pick it up with an electric bluegrass drive. I’m Free, Disarray Me goes in a nebulously uneasy Psychedelic Furs direction. The album ends with Saved, a slow, pensive, soul-tinged 6/8 anthem. Pretty much what you would expect from the Sadies, if not necessarily from Downie: not a single substandard song on this, definitely one of the best albums of the year.

Amir Nojan’s Persian Classical Concert Transcends the Romantic

Saturday night at Roulette was date night. Classical Persian music is romantic! There were a lot of couples in the crowd for California-based setarist Amir Nojan and the Nava Ensemble’s two sets of poems by Hafez, Rumi and others set to dynamic, often impassioned, artfully improvised themes. Taghi Amjadi sang affectingly and poignantly in an expressive, melismatically nuanced baritone, the brother percussion team of Sina and Samandar Dehghani propelling the songs with a hypnotically boomy groove.

The first part of the show was the soul set; the second half was the dark night of the soul. The concert followed a typical Persian classical trajectory, improvisations giving way to conversations – between voice and instruments, and among the instrumentalists themselves – followed by a long, lively drum break and then a couple of darkly bristling, concluding dance numbers. As the long opening crescendo peaked, Amjadi rose to an imploring intensity against a steadily marching, jangly groove that built agitatedly to match the vocals.

The early part of the concert illustrated an ancient poem by Hafez. Here’s a rough translation: “If the army of sadness invades to destroy the lovers, the bartender and I will take care of the troops with sweet wine.” Even the nation whose language was the lingua franca of the educated classes for centuries throughout the Middle East had to cope with invaders and fascist dictatorships. As with so much of classical Persian poetry, the subtext screams quietly.

When he wasn’t trading bars or verses with the other musicians, Nojan closed his eyes: he’s the rare musician whose command of the fretboard is so complete that he can play anything by touch. His flurrying, chord-chopping crescendos both built an riveting intensity, evoking both surf music and Sonic Youth noiserock, even if the melodies and the method he was using went back six centuries beforehand – that’s how evocative this music is. The second set built to an angst-fueled call-and-response with the vocals over a hypnotic, relentless dirge. The Roulette sound system had smartly been set up to catch all the nuances in the music, because when Nojan went down to the most whispery, delicate phrasing, the awestruck audience was still able to hear every note. A twin frame drum solo gave way to a couple of hauntingly fiery dance numbers at the end to send the crowd out into the street, literally singing along to the bitingly catchy four-chord hook of the night’s final number.

Much as this blog takes a very, very cynical view of promoters trying to piggyback on the artists they book for fortune and fame, the promoters of this show, Robert Browning Associates continue to build on an astonishingly good track record that dates back to the 70s. If first-class esoterica is your thing, these people have something for you. Their next concert is here at Roulette on May 3 at 8 PM with visionary Turkish multi-instrumentalist composer Omar Faruk Tekbilek and his hauntingly danceable ensemble; tix are $25 and worth it.

Dana Lyn Plays an Ocean of Melody at the Firehouse Space

[republished from New York Music Daily’s older and more sophisticated sister blog Lucid Culture]

Violinist Dana Lyn is as adept at Bach and Celtic dances as she is at searchingly acerbic string music. There’s a lot of the the latter on her latest album Aqualude. The night of 4/20 at the Firehouse Space in Greenpoint, she and her shapeshifting band from that album – Clara Kennedy on cello, Jonathan Goldberger on guitar, Mike McGinnis on clarinet and bass clarinet and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums – aired out some of the spiraling, entrancing pieces on it as well as a number of even more intriguing new compositions. One of those Lyn had just finished earlier in the day, but the group approached it with relish, Kennedy’s stark solo intro giving way to a lively balletesque theme that worked back and forth through all kinds of permutations, Goldberger hinting at skronk against an uneasy wash of strings.

Another began with an elegant eight-note clarinet hook that Lyn and Goldberger used as a springboard for lilting, dancing harmonies. One of Lyn’s main tropes is to loop a phrase and then use that to anchor an intricate interweave of voices. and the band did that often throughout an expansive set that went well over an hour. Lyn also has a fascination with the ocean and its creatures, carefully and wryly explaining how those often very strange beings influence her music. The guardedly explosive centerpiece of the Aqualude album, she said, was inspired by the hairy crabs who frequent the volcanic vents on the seabed. Another piece drew on the plight of the octopus, whose male and female basically go insane and die after they mate (does that remind you of another species?).

Kennedy opened the show with a stark intro that grew into a metrically tricky loop in tandem with the guitar, McGinnis adding counterrythmic staccato accents as Lyn’s violin wafted overhead. Sperrazza – who felt the room’s sonics instantly, keeping his masterfully counterintuitive accents and colors low-key with his brushes and sometimes just his hands – kicked off the next one as loudly as he’d go, with an almost baroque counterpoint from the clarinet and strings.

Along with the web of melodies, there’s a lot of contrast in Lyn’s music, and the band worked those dynamics with a comfortable chemistry: hazy atmospherics versus a kinetic drive, loud/soft and calm/agitated dichotomies, Goldberger hitting his pedals for an unexpected roar or McGinnis leaping from the murk of the bass clarinet to the top of his register. Lyn also counters the pensiveness and gravitas of her music with a surreal sense of humor. It was her birthday, so she supplied paper and pens so that everyone in the crowd could draw a cadavre exquis. Some of the audience came up with intriguing or amusing stuff; from an artistically-challenged point of view, it was impossible to concentrate on drawing for very long because it was such a distraction – and a lot more fun – to watch Lyn’s magical sonic tableaux unfold.

Sontag Shogun’s Elegantly Trippy Atmospherics Evoke Brian Eno

Does Sontag Shogun‘s name imply that they’re weekend warriors? Whatever the case, they have a strangely tuneful, individualistic sound, part piano-based art-rock, part ambient noise. They’re playing the album release show for their new one – most of which is streaming at Soundcloud and Bandcamp – on May 1 at 8 PM at Body Actualized, 143 Troutman St. (between Central and Evergreen; M to Central Ave.) in Bushwick. Cover is $6; there’s also music by Aaron Martin and Living Things plus a listening tent for new site-specific sound pieces by the group members, plus “an interactive scented-installation, popcorn and fortune cookies.” Quite the deal, huh?

The new album’s first two tracks center around Ian Temple’s attractively melodic neoromantic piano, which starts off very minimal in both instances and grows more animated. There are also layers of atmospheric, sustained electronic drones and sampled dialogue, which appears to be random. The fact that much of it isn’t clearly audible adds to the randomness/weirdness factor. Let the Flies in is a pretty much straight-up art-rock song, like a Richard Wright Pink Floyd ballad circa 1970 with hints of Britfolk, trippy keyboard echoes and vocals that allude to Radiohead. The piano eventually enters on the heels of snippets of noise and samples on the next track, Jubokko, then builds to a moody, stately theme that itself gets looped before receding into white noise and a few bubbly effects.

Orbit Insertion references Eno with its NASA sample, simple theme and shifting layers of atmospherics. It segues into Beyond Wind Bey, the most psychedelic of all the pastiches here: it isn’t Revolution 9 but it might qualify as Revolution 2 or 3. The Musk Ox, an icy hymn of sorts, also evokes Eno with its simple, stately resonance. The album’s concluding cut opens with seaside sonics that quickly go off into outer space; once again, the piano eventually joins the mix, carefully and gracefully. It’s interesting stuff: just when you think it’s about to drift off into the ether for good, there’s a surprise to lure you back in.

Purist Tunesmithing and a Slipper Room Show from Tamara Hey

Tamara Hey is New York to the core. She’s got an edgy sense of humor, a laser sense for a catchy classic pop hook and one of the most unselfconsciously ravishing voices in any style of music. Her album Miserably Happy (streaming at Spotify) is aptly titled: there’s a bittersweet dichotomy in her songs, biting lyrics with indelible New York City imagery set to a warmly tuneful blend of acoustic and electric folk-pop and powerpop. She’s playing the Slipper Room (Orchard and Stanton, upstairs over the big tourist restaurant) on May 8 at 7 PM; cover is $10.

The opening track, You Wear Me Out sets the stage: a deceptively sugary pop narrative about an exasperating guy who won’t give his girlfriend any breathing room. One minute he’s in the West Village with her, hell-bent on showing the world he’s not gay; the next he’s getting his mom on his side since the girl just happens to be the right religion for the holidays. The second track, Round Peg puts an only slightly lighthearted spin on the grim issue of female body issues: the narrator wishes she could relax and eat up like her full-figured friend rather than being “bitter in the center and no fun to be around.”

Umbrella, a delicate, vivid rainy-day tableau is a showcase for Hey’s clear, cool, crystalline maple sugar voice. Hey follows that with the backbeat powerpop gem Somebody’s Girl, a cleverly quirky number that wouldn’t be out of place in the Patti Rothberg catalog. Then Hey gets quiet and reflective again with Isabelle, which could be about schadenfreude, or the exasperation that comes with watching a dear friend screw up for the umpteenth time – or both.

Drive will resonate with any oldschool New Yorker. It starts with a 9/11 reference:

Any bright sunny day
With a low-flying plane
New York City, I lose feeling in my fingers
When there’s no subsequent crash
The blood returns and I go back
To doing what I do
But it still lingers

Then it hits a powerpop pulse with staccato strings and a biting Art Hays guitar solo, Hey hell-bent on just a momentary respite from crowded trains and random urban hassles. Likewise, the lushly arranged nocturne Long Dog Day vividly evokes post-dayjob exhaustion and the challenge of pulling yourself together for the rest of the evening.

The album’s funniest song, David #3 sardonically looks at how women get caught up with guys they really ought to stay away from – she hates his Red Sox hat, and when he’s in jail, since she can’t bail him out, she’s going to miss him! With Hey’s elegant tenor guitar intro, the album’s title track reimagines the Blondie hit Dreaming with more of an Americana edge. The final cut, October Sun, a gentle, pretty waltz, examines the price you pay for living intensely: “I unravel, not unwind,” Hey scowls, her lead guitarist channeling George Harrison during his solo. The whole album is one of the unsung purist pop releases of recent years.

Hey is also offering a very inexpensive series of Tuesday night workshops in music theory and writing lead sheets and charts beginning April 29 and continuing for five weeks through May 27.. As you might expect from her lyrics, Hey has a sardonic wit, and a disarmingly direct, commonsensical approach to music, qualities well suited to teaching. Classes run from 6:30 to 8:30 in the Astor Place neighborhood, close to the 6, N and R trains. If you can’t make the classes, Hey will also have courses available online starting in May, email for information or register online.

Olga Bell Brings Her Strange, Beguiling Russian Art-Rock to le Poisson Rouge

Krai is Russian for “border.” In Russia, there are seven krais, sort of the equivalent of counties in one of the US states. Those regions and their traditional music inspire the new album, simply titled Krai, by Moscow-born, Alaska-raised art-rocker Olga Bell. All but one of her songs here are completely through-composed, in other words, verses and choruses don’t repeat. The lyrics – in Russian – are a rapidfire mashup of ancient plainchant, folk tales and original, sometimes politically charged lyrics co-written by Bell and her mom, a former Soviet broadcaster. The music is rhythmically tricky art-rock, its indie classical flourishes interpolated amidst long, pensively vamping interludes driven by a kinetic rock rhythm section, with lingering, austere electric guitar, vibraphone, strings, woodwinds and Bell’s own intricately overdubbed six-part vocal harmonies. Bell’s often labyrinthine vocal arrangements employ a lot of close harmonies to enhance the otherworldliness, although she doesn’t use the microtones common to some Balkan and Russian music. Bell and her ensemble play the album release show for this one at 8 PM on April 28 at le Poisson Rouge; advance tix are $15 and highly recommended.

The opening track’s ominous art-rock intro quickly morphs into a Slavic chorale, then it moves back to offcenter cinematics, the vibraphone’s incisiveness contrasting with the opaqueness around it. Bell winds it up with a big crescendo of vocals and then a whoop. Where the first track swoops upward as it gets going, the second swoops downward, with the vocals, a jaw harp, steady bass and a practically mocking high cello line over a quavery, sustained drone that sounds like ebow guitar. Track three, Perm Krai (each title has a corresponding region) has a trickily rhythmic, shuffling trip-hop groove, something akin to Sigur Ros taking a stab at mathrock. The fourth cut, Stavropol Krai has Bell doing a call-and-response with her own multitracks, then the band lights up a spare, sparse theme with jaunty accents from flute and guitar. It ends with what appears to be a sarcastic military march.

Krasnoyarsk Krai, with its icy vibraphone flourishes, dense layers of vocals and organ, is the album’s creepiest track. Zabaikalsky Krai begins as a simililarly eerie bell melody and then works its way through an ominous synth interlude and then hints at a darkly leaping mathrock theme – it’s the album’s most ethereal song. With its weirdly processed keys and vocals, Khabarovsk Krai is the quirkiest, a Slavic dance dressed up as Radiohead.

The final track, Kamchatka Krai sounds like a Russian version of the Creatures, towering walls of vocals punctuated by big bass chords, pounding drums, screechy synth and the occasional swipe from the guitar or electric piano. Who is the audience for this? Maybe fans of Dirty Projectors, with whom Bell has worked extensively. Otherwise, fans of the stranger side of art-rock (and Bjork, and postrock, and mathrock, and accessible indie classical ensembles like Ymusic) will find a lot to sink their ears into here. It’s a long, strange trip.

Mighty Majestic Brilliance from Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band

Big band jazz is not the most lucrative style of music: after paying twenty guys for the gig, you’re lucky if there’s anything left over for you. But some of the most exciting composers in jazz persist in writing and recording large-ensemble pieces. Darcy James Argue is probably the most cutting-edge. Of all the purist, oldschool, blues-based big bands playing original material, pianist Orrin Evans‘ Captain Black Big Band is without a doubt the most powerful and entertaining. For those who don’t know his music, Evans is a vigorously cerebral tunesmith and one of this era’s most distinctive pianists: think of a young Kenny Barron with more stylistically diverse influences and you’re on the right track. Evans’ initial recording with this band was a roller-coaster ride through lively and often explosive, majestically blues-infused tunes. His new one, Mother’s Touch, is arguably even better, and has a broader emotional scope. Evans and this mighty crew play the album release show at Smoke jazz club uptown (Broadway between 105th and 106th) with sets at 7 and 9 PM on April 28. Get there early if you’re going (a seat a the bar is your best bet) because this will probably sell out.

The album’s slow, torchy first track, In My Soul, is amazing. It’s the most lavishly orchestrated oldschool soul song without words you’ll ever hear. Evans’ gentle, gospel-infused piano, Marcus Strickland’s searching tenor sax solo, and an artfully arranged conversation between groups of horns lead up to a joyously brass-fueled peak. By contrast, Explain It to Me is an enigmatic, pinpoint, Monk-ish latin groove, guest drummer Ralph Peterson doing a good impersonation of a salsa rhythm section on his big kit.

The album’s title track is a relatively brief two-parter: it’s basically an intro, guest pianist Zaccai Curtis spiraling around majestically on the first and then leapfrogging on the second over a dense wall of sound and Anwar Marshall’s tumbling drums.The best song on the album – and maybe the best single song that’s come over the transom here this year – is Dita. Throughout its long, impressionistic crescendos, elegant solo voices peeking in through the Gil Evans-like lustre and gracefully acrobatic outro, the pianist has a great time alluding to both the rhythm and the blues.

Tickle, written by Donald Edwards, works variations on a series of big, whirling riffs echoed by Stacy Dillard’s clustering tenor solo and then some wryly energetic call-and-response among the orchestra. An Eric Revis song, Maestra builds off a trickily rhythmic, circular riff underpinning a casually funky groove and a tersely jaunty Fabio Morgera trumpet solo. The band has a blast with the droll, bubbly bursts of Wayne Shorter’s Water Babies, a long trumpet solo giving voice to the most boisterous of the toddlers in the pool. The album ends with the epic Prayer for Columbine, an unexpectedly optimistic, cinematic theme grounded in unease – it has the feel of a longscale Quincy Jones soundtrack piece from the mid 60s. Pensive trombone over a similarly brooding vamp eventually gives way to a massive funk groove with a long, vividly animated conversation between aggravated baritone sax and a cooler-headed counterpart on tenor. It’s not always clear just who is soloing, but the whole thing is a sweeping, passionate performance from a big crew which also includes trumpeters Tanya Darby, Duane Eubanks, Tatum Greenblatt and Brian Kilpatrick; saxophonists Mark Allen, Doug Dehays, Stacy Dillard, Tim Green and Victor North, trombonists Dave Gibson, Conrad Herwig, Stafford Hunter, Andy Hunter and Brent White, with Luques Curtis on bass.

Jessie Kilguss: State-of-the-Art Gothic Americana

If gothic Americana is your thing, singer Jessie Kilguss is someone you need to know. Friday night at the American Folk Art Museum, she made a point of telling the crowd that she usually plays a lot louder. But it didn’t matter: Kilguss and her four-piece band adjusted effortlessly to the spacious sonics there and brought down the lights, raising the menacing intensity that runs beneath the surface of her songs.

Beyond the attractiveness and singalong catchiness of the tunes, there’s a persistent unease and occasional savagery. Anger and betrayal are recurrent themes in her songwriting, as they are for so many Nashville gothic types, but Kilguss distinguishes herself by getting a lot of mileage out of implying that doom and despair rather than throwing it in your face. “Lately I’ve been really quiet,” she sang with a bittersweet restraint on the anthemic, backbeat-driven janglerock number that opened the set, her drummer playing with brushes, the guitarist throwing off an artful spiral from the frets of his vintage Telecaster as they lit into the second verse.

“If you want a happy ending, it depends on where you stop your story,” she mused a little later in the set, over a slowly swaying, moodily resonant groove. “Me, I started at the top, I’ve been working my way down, such a long way down, it’s a long way down [an Orson Welles reference, by the way].”  Her voice brightened, but just a little, on the warmly bucolic waltz that followed, an understatedly brooding reminiscence of being let down, probably for the umpteenth time.

“Maybe it’s better than I stay – a safe distance from you,” she intoned over a more insistent minor-key backdrop a little later, the bass playing a blues riff as the guitar jangled nebulously before hitting a growling peak on the chorus. They picked up the pace with a soaring anthem – possibly titled Don’t Let It Go to the Dogs Tonight – before getting quiet again with the Train Song. Most bands do a railroad theme with a clickety-clack rhythm, but Kilguss is more counterintuitive: the band kicked this one off with a trip-hop beat before cleverly shifting into a slow shuffle. They wound up the set with the vengeful murder ballad Hell Creek, “The creepiest song I’ve ever written,” Kilguss told the crowd.

She’s got an interesting backstory: she got her start in the theatre before dedicating herself to music more or less fulltime about seven or eight years ago. And while she’s not a stagy performer, she’s comfortable on it, swaying in her red dress (brighter than blood-red, but the symbolism seemed pretty obvious), her eyes closed, meticulously giving voice to the angst-ridden characters in her narratives. Those interested in catching her and the band at full volume can do that tonight at 7 PM at the small room at the Rockwood.