New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Lachlan Bryan & the Wildes Bring Their Purist, Eclectic Americana All the Way from Australia

Much as the annual CMJ festival has been the butt of umpteen jokes for the last couple of decades – including a lengthy one from this blog – there always end up being a few gems amidst the detritus. And because CMJ is so scattered, and so many of the shows are so poorly attended, there’s usually no competition, and no cover charge, for the choicest acts. Lachlan Bryan is one of them. The Australian Americana bandleader/songwriter is about to tackle a marathon Dives of New York schedule with his excellent, purist band the Wildes, no doubt showcasing material from their new album Black Coffee (streaming at Bandcamp). They’re supposed to be at Bowery Electric tonight, even though theyr’e not on the club’s calendar. They’re at the small room at the Rockwood tomorrow Oct 16 at midnight, at the Path Cafe on the 17th at 10, at Goodbye Blue Monday on the 18th, also at 10 and then at Fifth Estate Bar in Park Slope on the 19th sometime after 9 (neither Bryan’s site nor the bar’s site have any info). Then the band are off to Richmond, where they will no doubt go over well.

One of the things that’s most immediately striking about Bryan is how down-to-earth and conversational his vocals are. They be some bo-ahs from Plain Failed, Noo Jers-ay who be doin’ this here Amereecana mus-eck, yes’m, ayund they talkin’ lahk they growed up in Alleybam even though they nevuh spent a lick o’tahm they-uh, nosuh. Bryan is not one of those bo-ahs. And he’s full of surprises. The album’s opening track, 309, sounds at first like it’s a pretty straight-up, electrified ripoff of a famous Dylan song, but it turns out to be a murder ballad. That’s a good idea of where this guy is going.

The second cut, Big Fish, mines a similar minor-key, bluesy feel, Bryan cynically contemplating a tug-of-war between the sexes where guys who don’t exactly take the moral high road – his protagonist included – lead unsuspecting women down the road to ruin. They follow that with You, Me & the Blues, a motoring post-Chuck Berry shuffle in the same vein as what Nick Lowe was doing with Rockpile thirty years ago. Then they go back to dark Americana with the paisley underground ballad Death Wish Country, spare dobro intertwining with lingering electric lead lines.

Dragging My Chain works as a mix of noir soul and blue-flame C&W, Memphis meets Nashville circa 1964. The album’s title track goes back to the neo-Dylan, but channeled through the wry prism of Jack Grace. The optimistic Change in the Wind brings to mind early 70s Kris Kristofferson, contrasting with the album’s most searing track, The CEO Must Die, a brutally insightful look at the psychology of going postal.
The album winds up with Kiss Me or Kill Me, a brooding oldschool country tune not unlike the Flatlanders, and then the pedal steel-driven ballad Forty Days and Nights. New Yorkers who want to see Americana done with soul, and purpose, and no wasted notes, ought to see this guy while he’s here.

Julia Wolfe’s Rage Against the Machine

John Schaefer was onto something when he picked a Carnegie Hall performance of Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer by the Bang on a Can All-Stars as his favorite concert of the year a few years back. Then again, that wasn’t such a difficult choice for the WNYC host. To say that it doesn’t get performed enough simply means that we need more stagings of this eclectic and intense choral/instrumental suite by the Bang on a Can avant garde institution’s house band. It was a rare treat to see the group play it last night at the World Financial Center. If you missed it, you’ll be able to hear the concert in the weeks to come on Q2 and then on Schaefer’s Soundcheck program on WNYC, along with the show tomorrow night, Oct 16 at 7:30 PM here, a new arrangement of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (better known as the Exorcist Theme) played by guitarist Grey McMurray with the Wordless Music Orchestra.

Wolfe’s music can be harrowing, but it can also be playful and fun: this piece is both, but more the former than the latter. As usual with her work, context and subtext are everything. This one mashes up the lyrics from a grand total of over 200 versions of the folk song John Henry, the tale of the man with the hammer in his hand who went up against the steam drill. Droll Americana riffs were sprinkled throughout the sometimes austere, sometimes lush, insistently and sometimes cruelly rhythmic work. Singers Molly Quinn, Emily Eagen and Katie Geissinger opened it, developing a hypnotically rapturous theme with the anxiously enveloping quality of a renaissance motet. Then percussionist David Cossin introduced the anvil beat which would serve as antagonist to the resilience and persistence of the echo-fueled vocals and shifting, Louis Andriessen-ish, percussive melodies of the rest of the piece.

Wolfe grew up steeped in Americana, and as she explained before the show, her first stringed instrument was the dulcimer. Guitarist Mark Stewart played some of that, and also the banjo, hammered on his body along with clarinetist Ken Thomson and ended up supplying percussion for a long interlude by stomping out a clog dance rhythm with his boots. Much as that was comic relief, it also viscerally voiced the angst of the man-versus-machine theme. A hauntingly murky, resonant segment about midway through built by bassist Robert Black and cellist Ashley Bathgate drove home the point that John Henry did not survive the duel. Take that forward into the present, then do the math.

Pianist Vicky Chow supplied dulcimer-like plucking inside the piano when she wasn’t hammering out an endless anvil choir on the keys, while Cossin switched between drumkit (heavy on the toms), vibraphone and boomy low timpani. Quinn’s crystalline soprano soared over the meticulous rhythms of the other two singers’ mantralike volleys of lyrics, phrases and syllables, which they repeated ad infinitum, sometimes comedically, sometimes to raise the menace level. Anyone wondering what this was all about needed only to watch how Bathgate was reacting: when things got funny, she couldn’t resist a big grin, but when things got intense, she’d be all business. The original folk song theme finally appeared as a stark coda right before the swirling atmospherics of the conclusion, which turned out to be part gospel, part Arvo Part. Bookmark the Q2 homepage if you want to experience all this for yourself at a yet-to-be-determined date.