Karla Moheno Brings Her Literate Noir Menace to the Mercury

by delarue

If Karla Moheno‘s most recent show at the big room at the Rockwood was any indication, she’s going to turn the Mercury Lounge into a Twin Peaks set this January 22 at 10 PM.

Moheno personifies noir. The opium mist and airconditioned chill in her alto voice channels a lurid menace that never lifts. At the Rockwood, right from the opening bars of the first song, Silver Bucket, the band – Dylan Charles on guitar, Dan Parra on bass and Greg Wieczorek on drums – teamed with her to keep the red-neon ambience simmering. That song, on Moheno’s brilliant new album, Gone to Town, clangs along with a dirty, vintage Gun Club swamp blues feel. This time out, the band gave it a lurking, nocturnal Smokestack Lightning groove until Charles launched into a screaming, lurching solo before returning back to earth with Moheno’s lilting “Ride the night to here” refrain.

The high point of the night came early with an especially menacing take of Time Well Spent, a little more vigorous than the bluesy dirge on the album. It’s a mystery story to match any creepy narrative set to music in the last few years, an allusive, ambiguous account of two killers on the run. Moheno makes it clear that she’s willing to dispose of her conspirator the minute she gets the chance: “I just can’t let it slide,” she intoned with a knowing swoop upward, eyes closed, gently swinging her Telecaster back and forth. Likewise, she put a little more playful innuendo into a slightly amped up version of the sultry oldschool soul ballad Blacked Out and Blue, Charles jaggedly reaching for the rafters again.

Interestingly, they took The Return, a vicious and deliciously swinging kiss-off song on record, down to an almost Weimar blues pulse that rose and fell over Wieczorek’s rimshot beat. “Carry me up the stairs/I’ll make believe someone cares,” she purred on the quietly murderous Mexico, a swaying 6/8 ballad set in a sleazy bordertown where everyone is on the take. And she reinvented Girl Next Door, a blackly blithe escape anthem, as a morose soul tune that Charles used as a springboard for a Marc Ribot-style axe-murderer solo.

Moheno also did a couple of older, more rock-oriented songs: Drive, which would have made a good upbeat track on Neko Case’s Blacklisted album, and Stand Back, a lingering, bucolic ballad. She closed the set with a gently pulsing, deadpan cover of the Velvets’ Femme Fatale, which had all the right touches, the guys in the band doing spot-on harmonies on the backing vocals. But Moheno also left room to believe that she wasn’t just being self-effacingly funny. Much as she joked and bantered with the crowd between songs, the extent to which she was being unserious was never clear. Go to the Mercury and decide for yourself.