New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: February, 2015

Irresistibly Funny, Jangly Soul-Flavored Sounds from Larry & the Babes

Larry & the Babes have a fun, catchy, snarky self-titled cassette debut album, The Dolphin Tapes, streaming at Bandcamp. What’s cool and different about them is how they mash up all kinds of retro 60s styles – doo-wop, Phil Spector bubblegum pop, soul balladry and hints of Nashville gothic – and turn all of it into an original sound. Some of their songs come across as a less punk take on what Nashville group Clear Plastic Masks do with vintage soul. And their lyrics are really funny.

“You think I’m the perfect person, but I’m made of wax…you’re gonna melt me so I’ve got to stop you in your tracks,” the singer intones on the opening cut, Perfect Person, “You shat on my tv show.” WTF?

The second track, HCDB is a charmingly jangly update on Orbison bolero-pop. The band takes a stomping detour into wah-infused garage rock with Bad Dog and then offers an amiable latin-soul shout-out to one of the world’s most annoying voices, Fran Drescher. Seriously: who wouldn’t want to “shoot the shit and eat tofu” with the actress? Um, ok. The last and most unselfconsciously pretty track is Mostess. This band sounds like they’re a lot of fun live: fans of entertaining, irreverent bands from the Brooklyn What to the Dead Milkmen ought to check them out. They’re at Palisades in Bushwick tomorrow, Thursday, Feb 19 at around 10.

Advertisements

Jim Jarmusch Turns Out to Be As Interesting a Guitarist As a Filmmaker – In a Completely Unexpected Way

The one quality that was surprisingly absent from the world premiere of indie film icon Jim Jarmusch’s band Squrl’s performance in the Financial District this evening, playing live soundtracks to a quartet of Man Ray silent films, was Jarmusch’s often devastatingly droll, deadpan humor. Sure, there were a few places where Jarmusch – alternating mostly between Strat and what sounded like a Farfisa – and his drummer/keyboardist pal Carter Logan, would accent a pratfall or a sudden shift in imagery with an “omg” drum hit or an eerily bent note or guitar chord. But mostly, the duo stuck to their blueprint. Which meant slow, resonantly droning, Indian-flavored soundscapes, a highly improvisational theme and variations.

As the pieces peaked, Jarmusch – who distinguished himself as an individualistic, talented and unassailably tuneful player – would launch into a phrase, or a chorus of sorts, sometimes evoking Neil Young with Crazy Horse, other times Yo La Tengo at their most epically melodic, or a paisley underground band like the Dream Syndicate. Many of the pieces grew slowly out of lingering, reverb-drenched guitar atmospherics and frequent, simple looped phrases, Logan shadowing Jarmusch with his own organ settings. Other than in a few lighter moments, the duo didn’t seem to be trying to correlate their slowly unwinding jams with any of the films’ playfully dissociative imagery. Then again, plot is an afterthought in Man Ray’s onslaught of action, deadpan dadaisms and wryly aphoristic, proto-existentialist subtitles. A particularly menacing, chromatically smoldering crescendo rose up during one of the lighter moments in a carefree sequence of rooftop dancing on the screen above the stage; similarly, the most ominous imagery onscreen appeared early on as Jarmusch and Logan let their notes ring out, judiciously shifting timbres with an assortment of pedals and a mixing desk.

WNYC‘s John Schaefer – on whose New Sounds Live this performance and the one Thursday night, Feb 19 at 8 PM will ostensibly air at some future date, at least in pieces – cautioned anyone thinking of coming back for Thursday’s second show to arrive early. Logistically, your best and fastest bet is to hang a left into the World Trade Center Path station, then go around the bend, under the West Side Highway and then up into the “winter garden” across the street with its stage in the center of the building’s west wall.

Squrl also have new albums out – the most recent profiled here a couple of days ago – both streaming at Soundcloud and available on delicious gatefold vinyl.

A Killer Edgy Jazz Triplebill This Thursday at Shapeshifter Lab

Isn’t it funny how tourists will drop a hundred bucks at a Manhattan jazz club without blinking an eye when they could just as easily see a killer triplebill at Shapeshifter Lab on Thurs, Feb 19 at 7:30 PM for a tenth of that? And the club’s not that far out – if you can deal with the R train for a couple of stops past Atlantic Avenue, you’re there. Or you can even walk from Atlantic if you’re really brave, in this kind of weather anyway. The lineup is on the tuneful/edgy/punk-inspired tip: the trio of saxophonist Briggan Krauss, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, then baritone sax guy Charles Evans‘ Quartet – who are just as likely to do haunting Satie-esque scapes as they are free-fall freakouts – followed by the world’s funniest jazz group, Mostly Other People Do the Killing.

Halvorson and Fujiwara have a long and productive chemistry as bandmates; the addition of Sexmob’s Krauss brings both knifes-edge acidity and clarity. There are also a couple of albums tangentially associated with this show which have been poking their little faces out from the stacks here. Last year, Fujiwara and Halvorson joined up with bassist Michael Formanek to form a characteristically edgy, growling trio, Thumbscrew. Their album opens with Cheap Knock Off, a swaying fuzztone early 70s stoner metal groove in disguise that somewhat predictably moves further outside.

As the album goes along, there’s a nonchalantly watery stroll that hints at fullscale menace but resists hitting it head-on, with an ominously/joyously pointillistic guitar-bass duet. There’s a tiptoeing strut like a coyly minimalist take on Big Lazy noir balladry that manages to fall apart gracefully and then reconfigure as skronk. Halvorson leads them with an eerie quaver out of a chattering flutter; from there they hint very distantly at a retro blues ballad as Fujiwara diverges and then regroups, Halvorson snarling back all the while. The album wind sup with shuffling sideways downtown funk that goes dark and slashing, an unselfconsciously poignant, descending anthem that’s the strongest and most tuneful track here, and a bouncy number that detours toward noirish swing for awhile. Throughout the compositions, Fujiwara is at the top of his game as colorist, Formanek both holding the center and playing the corners with a gritty, penetrating tone. It’s a treat to hear Halvorson in any context, this one expecially, although she shreds less than she can.That’s probably due to the fact that the trio are more focused here on composed material than on jams.

Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s latest album, Blue, is a note-for-note transcription of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Lest you buy into the idea that this is somehow revolutionary or paradigm-shifting, classical organists have been transcribing and then recreating improvisations since the days of the Edison cylinder. And these songs are all staples of the jazz canon anyway. What’s coolest about the album is that just as the musicians on it quickly discovered as the project got underway, it’s a great way for listeners to hear it in a new light. Whether Miles really planned to do something radical or just fell into it since he didn’t have any new material and his record label was screaming for a new album, what everybody agrees on is how fresh it sounds. How fresh are these new versions?

Plenty fresh, yet with a well-worn comfort, which is not to call this easy-listening. Saxophonist Jon Irabagon gets to indulge himself in two home run hitting contests, overdubbing both John Coltrane’s alto and Cannonball Adderley’s tenor, walking the line between two challenging and vastly different styles and ultimately choosing to voice neither, to simply hit the notes straight-on with plenty of help from generous amounts of post-production reverb. How does trumpeter Peter Evans channel Miles? Just as soberly, often with a spot-on, utterly desolate, nocturnal feel: the guy has stupendous technique and can playing anything, so this is obviously a walk in the park for him.

And of course all the little things jump out at you: drummer Kevin Shea doing Philly Joe Jones’ little are-we-done-yet cymbal hits as So What fades out; pianist Ron Stabinsky rippling through Wynton Kelly’s opening riffage on All Blues (where did THAT come from?); bassist Moppa Elliott gamely trying to capture every nuance and almost-crunched note off Paul Chambers’ strings on Blue in Green; and Flamenco Sketches, which reinforces the observation that it’s hard  to to imagine a lot of players these days giving each other as much space, and the all the angst and depth that implies, as Miles’ quintet did with the original. What the band ends up with here is pretty much what Miles got: blues-tinged gravitas and spare, rather creepy grooves that are the pure essence of noir. 

Jim Jarmusch Plays Not One But Two Free NYC Shows With His Paisley Underground Band

The big news today – if you haven’t already heard – is that Jim Jarmusch’s band, Squrl, are playing a free show not only this Tuesday, Feb 17 but also again on Thursday, Feb 19 at 8 PM at the World Financial Center. For those who don’t know the band, Squrl isn’t just a famous film guy doing music on the side for the hell of it: they work the gorgeous/abrasive Americana/psychedelic dynamic with a surreal tunefulness and menace worthy of the Dream Syndicate. Which makes sense: in the early 80s, before his movie career took off, Jarmusch was a force in the New York punk scene: future avant garde luminary Phil Kline was a frequent collaborator and bandmate. Like Guided by Voices, the band had basically been in mothballs before Jarmusch got it going again for the soundtrack to his vampire film, Only Lovers Left Alive, a couple of years ago. They’ve been very active since, at least in the studio. Their most recent album is titled simply EP #3, streaming via the Wall Street Journal’s online edition, a deliciously sludgy, slowly swaying series of paisley underground jams.

The ep’s first track evokes the Dream Syndicate taking a lingering, menacing stab at Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Black Swan is a long, increasingly creepy, hypnotically fuzzy stomp, a clinic in midrange textures: it would be a shock to discover that Martin Bisi wasn’t involved in it. Francine Says might be interpreted as a drolly opiated post-Velvets dis at a girl who needs to pull her shit together. The final cut is Should I Go or Should I Stay, a wistfully growling tableau that foreshadows great current-days bands like Mesiko.

On both nights they’ll be accompanying silent films by Man Ray. The concert calendar there gives the impression that the show will be just a duo performance by Jarmusch and his multi-instrumentalist bandmate Carter Logan, but with Jarmusch, you never know. Considering the current polar vortex situation, you’ll probably do better beating the crowds if you go to the Tuesday show and get there early: an hour beforehand wouldn’t be too early, because every indie film fan in town has this on his or her calendar. Also be aware that the front door to the building may or may not be open due to construction: your best bet is to walk along the north side of the new World Trade Center, then cross the highway, then take your first left – which you won’t hit til about the middle of the block – then go around and go in through the back door. There wasn’t a lot of seating at the most recent concert here, so be prepared to hang out on the steps in the back of the “winter garden.” Since Squrl will be playing live soundtracks this week’s films, it makes sense to expect more noisy jams than actual songs from either the ep or the Only Lovers Left Alive score. Which in a way will be even more fun, a quite possibly once-in-a-lifetime event which fortuitously will be recorded and then aired at a later date on John Schaefer’s New Sounds Live program on WNYC.

Janglerock Cult Favorite Jeffrey Dean Foster Makes a Couple of Rare NYC Appearances

REM was just the tip of the iceberg. The American south was a hotbed of janglerock back throughout the 80s – the Athens band may have triggered the explosion, but there were also the dB’s, Let’s Active and a whole slew of what were then called college radio groups, many of whom got their fifteen minutes on the low end of the FM dial. Jeffrey Dean Foster goes back that far, starting with the Right Profile (whose keyboardist went on to fame co-authoring the Freakanomics books, and whose drummer later joined Superchunk), then the Carneys, and afterward in the late 90s with the Pinetops (the powerpop band, not the Pennsylvania newgrass cult favorites). So it makes sense that Foster’s new album, The Arrow – streaming at Bandcamp – would be produced by janglerock mavens Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. Foster is passing through town over the next few days, with a stop in Brooklyn tomorrow night, Feb 15 at 8:30 PM at 12th St. Bar & Grill, 1123 8th Ave @ 12th St in Park Slope (F/G to 7th Ave). Then on Tuesday the 17th he’s at the small room at the Rockwood at 6 – and afterward, serious janglerock fans who want to make a real night of it can go right next door for Matt Keating’s album release show.

Foster’s new album kicks off with the mid-period Wilco powerpop soundalike Life Is Sweet, a pensively rousing shot in the arm complete with big two-guitar freakout by John Pfiffner and Easter himself. “Life is sweet but it doesn’t last,” Foster sings energetically: his enthusiasm hasn’t lost a step in practically thirty years, something for all of us to consider. Likewise, When You Break looks to Jeff Tweedy at his most animated for its mashup of 90s alt-country and powerpop, fueled by Brian Landrum’s hard-hitting drums and Dixon’s terse bass work.

With its web of watery 80s chorus-box guitars, Morningside has a period-perfect Reagan-era angst: “Watch the water under the bridge downtown, fear and envy running round,” is Foster’s opening line: the menacing ambience grows from there. Foster picks up the pace after that with Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts, a ghoulabilly song in an 80s costume with an aching string arrangement overdubbed by Ecki Heins. After that, The Sun Will Shine Again reimagines Big Star as late 80s REM but with good vocals.

The piano ballad The Lucky One mingles Beatles and late 80s/early 90s Hoboken indie pop: “I used to ride the subway train at four o’clock in the morning, I didn’t know how lucky I was to make it home,” Foster muses soberly. From there the band segues into the fiery, scampering powerpop smash Young Tigers Disappear: speaking of Hoboken, it would be a standout track on a Bongos record. Then they bring it down, ominously, with a stark Appalachian-tinged miniature featuring the eerie harmonies of Tres Chicas‘ Lynn Blakey and Tonya Lamm.

The similarly gorgeous and uneasy Jigsaw Man has a psychedelic shimmer straight out of the Chuck Prophet playbook, as does the more soul-inspired, restlessly ethereal Out of the Blue. Hang My Head On You has a glamrock strut like the Jayhawks doing Bowie, while Open Book puts a 90s alt-country swirl on four-on-the-floor Springsteen rock. The album comes full circle with the steady, straightforward title track and its neat chamber pop touches. All this ought to go a long way toward helping the world get to know a guy whose consistently strong tunesmithing deserves more than a cult following.

Yet Another Darkly Lyrical Masterpiece and a Rockwood Show from Matt Keating

Few songwriters personify the definition of cult artist better than Matt Keating. It may not necessarily be an easy life, but it’s a rewarding one. If he wants to play electric, he’s got his choice of plenty of venues, and if he just wants to go solo acoustic, he can play the folkie circuit around the world til the cows come home. He’s also in demand as a producer (he was hugely instrumental in helping Linda Draper take a hard detour into Americana) and as a sideman on lead guitar, bass and keyboards. And very methodically, over the past couple of decades he’s built a body of work to rival any other tunesmith active today. Keating is eclectic, shifting seamlessly between Elvis Costello-esque janglerock, rustic country blues, high lonesome C&W and most recently, plaintive oldschool soul. There’s a relentless unease and angst in those catchy tunes: Steve Wynn is a good comparison, although more thematically than musically. Keating just put the finishing touches on his long-awaited new album, This Perfect Crime – streaming at his webpage – and has an album release show coming up at the big room at the Rockwood at 8 PM on Feb 17. Cover is $10.

His previous album Wrong Way Home was a masterpiece of psychopathology and inventive cross-genre tunesmithing. Quixotic, the one before that, was a lavish double-cd feast of Americana-informed jangle and clang. This one is sort of the missing link between the two, as rich with melody as it is with grim narratives. The title track, When They’ve Thrown You Away builds to a hypnotic night-drive ambience, a bed of acoustic guitars floating over the organ as Keating draws a searing portrait of a doomed couple in Flyover America hell:

She was born in the buckle of the Bible Belt
She was raised by the knuckle her daddy never felt

And it gets more allusively gruesome from there.

Nothing to Figure Out has a similar, delicate blend of guitar and organ, transcontinental plane ride cast as loaded metaphor for a relationship unraveling over distance. Mothers Day is the first of the propulsive janglerockers (Tony Scherr and Allen Devine share lead guitar duties), pulsing along on a backbeat groove from bassist Jason Mercer and drummer Greg Wieczorek (also of Karla Moheno‘s band) as it builds to a lush sweep with Claudia Chopek’s one-woman string section.
.
The title track hits a growling, Stonesy bounce, in this case building to a big crescendo fueled by some aptly snarling lead guitar and Dave Sewelson’s one-man horn section. Sullivan Street, by contrast, is a gritty, whisperingly conspiratorial tale among the down-and-out in what’s left of the fringes of the West Village: it’s as quintessentially New York as anything Lou Reed ever wrote.

Keating’s tinkling, Nicky Hopkins-inspired piano and Sewelson’s honking baritone sax mingle above a slowly swaying Glimmer Twins backdrop on the cynical Hell If I Know. The minimalist, low-key The Only Thing evokes the starker material on Wrong Way Home, if with considerably more wry humor. I’m Lucky mashes up deadpan, sarcastic Lou Reed with elegant Spottiswoode-style chamber-folk.

The most sinister of all the narratives here is English Coffee. It’s sort of Springsteen’s Atlantic City told from the point of view of an American expat on unfamiliar and very uneasy turf, set to rippling, Beatlesque raga-rock. Is this guy a hitman? A rocker on tour? Maybe both?

Keating abruptly shifts gears after that with This Must Be Love, its tender, delicate web of guitars barely concealing a cynical undercurrent. Before the War is vintage Keating: doomed, metaphorically loaded imagery, catchy verse rising to a wicked singalong chorus:

There’s no rest for the weary
No doubt for the sure
No heartbreak in theory
Right before the war

The album winds up with a fond love ballad with a distant gospel tinge, a shout-out to Keating’s family. What else is there to say: in about ten months you’ll see this high on the Best Albums of 2015 page here and at probably a lot of other places too.

Mark Sinnis Brings His Gloomy Honkytonk Songs Back to His Old East Village Haunts

One consequence of the brain drain continuing to pour out of this city’s five boroughs is that in order to see some of the best musicians who’ve been priced out by the real estate bubble, you have to go where they are. So it was good to be able to catch longtime downtown NYC presence and charismatic Nashville gothic crooner Mark Sinnis playing a marathon gig at the refreshingly laid-back Mohansic Grill & Lounge in Yorktown Heights, up in Westchester, back in November. The show was like one of those old-fashioned tent revival style C&W extravaganzas from the 1950s, except with just one band, serenading an enthusiastic Saturday night crowd for well over two hours. Sinnis and his group 825 return to his old East Village stomping grounds, upstairs at 2A at 10 PM on Feb 15 as part of impresario/bandleader/genius guitarist Tom Clark‘s weekly Sunday American shindig.

The Yorktown Heights gig was on the back porch of a restaurant overlooking a golf course, not such a strange place to see a band up that way as it might seem. And the band was tremendous. Lead guitarist James “Smokey Chipotle” Brown locked in on some classic honkytonk harmonies with pedal steel player Brian Aspinwall when the two weren’t involved in high-voltage musical banter. Other times, Aspinwall would anchor the sound with high lonesome washes and wails as Senor Chipotle spun from wry hillbilly boogie licks, to eerie David Lynch twang, to chicken-scratch Johnny Cash rhythm or ringing, clanging Bakersfield riffage. Bassist John Goldberg held the rig to the road as drummer Michael Lillard kept the wheels spinning with every classic country shuffle beat ever invented, trumpeter Lee Compton adding both mariachi flair and a mournful, funereal New Orleans touch, often in tandem with a bluesy harmonica player who was new to the band.

Sinnis delivered the songs in his brooding baritone. Much as this band can hold their own with any other classic honkytonk crew out there, what distinguishes his Nashville gothic from, say, Nick Cave, or Roy Orbison, is that he really lets the band cut loose: several of the numbers went on for a solid six or seven minutes, with plenty of time for solos from pretty much everybody in the group. His lyrics mine a classic Americana vernacular full of doom and dread: funeral trains emerging into the dawn, ill-fated relationships, ghosts and faded memories of fleetingly good times now gone forever. And love affairs gone straight to hell, taking shape via slow, opiated dirges, bitter shuffle grooves or grimly romping numbers like one of the centerpieces of the early set, Mistaken for Love.

Many of the night’s hardest-hitting numbers – the angst-fueled funeral train anthem Cold Night in December, the booze-drenched Wine and Whiskey and the Devil Makes Three, and It’s Been a Long Cold Hard Lonely Winter – appear on his latest album with this band. Some of the unexpectedly quieter material, strangely enough, was taken from his extensive back catalog with dark art-rock band Ninth House, a unit Sinnis has fronted since the late 90s and has pulled deeper and deeper into Americana in recent years. He also brought out a couple of excellent new songs, one a brooding, manic-depressive bolero, another a morose honkytonk breakup ballad. All this gives you an idea of what to expect this Sunday: classic ideas and riffs updated for the here and now, with an unending gloom. Tom Clark’s Sunday nights at 2A draw a decent crowd and an A-list of NYC Americana talent – Amy Allison played a rare full-band show with LA cult favorite Don Heffington there last week, for example – but deserve an even wider audience and a better night than they have. Sinnis and 825 ought to bring it this Sunday.

Des Roar Bring Their Unhinged Menace to Rough Trade

Des Roar may look back to Phil Spector pop for inspiration, but there’s a leering, lurking Lynchian creepiness in what they do. And they’re not exactly a pop band. Punk would be a better way to describe them – in a genuine sense. Des Roar’s kind of punk goes back to bands like the Jesus & Mary Chain or even the Dead Boys, when punk meant breaking any rules around rather than playing harmless, conformist, G-rated uh-AW-oh songs, the kind of stuff that Jello Biafra calls “shut up and shop music.” They’re at Rough Trade on Feb 18 at around 11 preceded at around 10 by retro soul band the Jay Vons. Advance tix are $10.

Like a lot of bands who got their start in the zeroes, it’s been awhile since Des Roar put out an album. Their most recent one, Mad Things, came out in 2009 and is still out there, streaming at Grooveshark. The centerpiece, a real classic, is Ted Bundy Was a Ladies Man. The version here is a lot cleaner and janglier than the absolutely harrowing version on the band’s 2008 debut release, When in Rome, but the pouncing stalker blues tune fits the creepy, sarcastic lyric. “He killed 38 women in five different states, it’s getting out of hand,” frontman/guitarist Ben Wolcott deadpans. Likewise, the gleefully menacing, swaying Confessions of a White Widowed Male, a chronicle of 36 fewer murders fueled by lead player Alan O’Keeffe’s echoey slide guitar.

The brooding, amped-up minor-key new wave tune King of Cuffs raises the suspense by keeping it at arm’s length: it wouldn’t be out of place in the catalog of legendary dark NYC new wavers DollHouse. Wolcott’s deadpan menace and savage sarcasm match the blackly propulsive groove of The Ballad of Little Bangs, a gorgeous, classic late 70s-style powerpop number pushed along by Ryan Spoto’s bass and Lyla Vander’s drums.

The J&MC – who Des Roar like to cover onstage – are evoked most visibly on the careening, swaying Sparrow, a sideways tribute to a now-dead Oxycontin addict; the savage Daddy’s Girl, a kiss-off to a rich bitch who has to run away and “hide in the hills…cause nobody’s gonna take your shit anymore;” and Finish What You Started, which Vander sings. The callous When in Rome, with its faux Motown groove, keeps the cruel sarcasm front and center: “You’re just my New York City fling.” Wolcott sneers. Vander and Wolcott duet on How Much Is Too Much – it’s practically punk Abba, but too funny/creepy, especially when she threatens to throw acid in the face of any girl who messes with her guy.

There are also a couple of less overtly hostile numbers here: Baby You’re Too Young, which evokes the Clash’s cover of Booker T’s Time Is Tight, and Not Over for Me, akin to Sonny and Cher doing a secondhand Lee Hazlewood soul-blues tune but with gritty 80s production values.

Des Roar also have a Soundcloud page with a bunch of first-class singles, including the horror surf-inflected The Watchers; the downstroke punk-pop of Watch Your Step, which the Strokes only wish they had the balls to have written; the grimy Diddleybeat surf-punk Hallucinations, and the Link Wray-inspired Paranoia.

Sizzling Bluegrass Road Warriors Town Mountain Headline at the Rockwood Tonight

A good night at the Rockwod tonight. In the little room, there’s down-to-earth, wryly lyrical acoustic Americana songwriter Joanna Sternberg kicking off the evening at 7. Across the way, cult hero Ward White – who is unsurpassed at menacing rock narratives – plays the big room at the same time. Later on in the big room, there’s excellent acoustic Americana guitarist Bennett Sullivan at 10 and then raucous Asheville, North Carolina bluegrass band Town Mountain.

If memory serves right, the last time Town Mountain played New York, it was at the now-defunct Zirzamin on the coldest night of the year…and the place was packed. They’ve got a healthy following here, for good reason, so if you’re going, you ought to get there early (and you’ll probably like what Sullivan does too).

Town Mountain’s latest album is Live at the Isis, recorded last year in front of a liquored-up hometown crowd and streaming at Spotify. They sound like they’re about to jump out of their shoes on the blazing, careening opener, You Weighed Heavy on My Heart, Bobby Britt’s nimble fiddle and Phil Baker’s precise mandolin contrasting with Jesse Langlais’ absolutely unhinged banjo. Britt’s instrumental Four Miles – reputedly the first song he ever wrote – manages to be gorgeous and dangerous at the same time. Then Barker and bassist Nick DiSebastian push the energy even higher with the lickety-split Tarheel Boys

Up the Ladder gives guitarist/frontman Robert Greer a chance to team with Barker and Langlais for a spot-on and revealing look at where Chuck Berry got his guitar harmonies. Likewise, Greer gets the crowd howling along with him on the snide band-on-the-run anthem Lawdog, Britt firing off a solo that spins and spirals like a pair of lights on the roof of a police cruiser.

Their choice of covers aren’t the usual standards all the other bands play, either. They give Hank 3’s 5 Shots of Whiskey a subdued, morosely half-in-the-bag treatment and then immediately pick up the pace again with George Jones’ The Race Is On, with a surreal, bluesy banjo solo after which Britt jumps in and serves as the voice of reason until he decides to say the hell with it and go straight down the rabbit hole too. Jed Zimmerman’s Texas New Mexico Line, another road song, is barely more restrained. They pull it back a bit more with Sugar Mama and then wind up the album with a noisy, rapidfire Orange Blossom Special, Britt’s machinegunning riffage front and center. Once you hear this thing it won’t come as any surprise that these guys are racking up IBMA’s (International Bluegrass Music Awards). Grammies – who watches them, anyway?

Disarmingly Down to Earth, Catchy Original Acoustic Americana from Joanna Sternberg

Joanna Sternberg‘s expression on the cover of her new solo acoustic album Lullaby to Myself – streaming at Bandcamp – isn’t quite a scowl. But whatever she’s thinking about, she’s dead serious. Which could be a bit of a red herring since her lyrics have a deadpan humor that’s often just plain LMAO funny. Her vocals have the well-rounded fullness of a choirgirl (was she one in previous incarnation? Good possibility). Although guitar is not her main axe – she’s a conservatory-trained bassist – she plays her six-stringer confidently, knows her way around a catchy tune and draws on centuries of Americana without sounding cliched. Linda Draper is a good comparison, but where Draper fingerpicks, Sternberg strums. She’s playing the small room at the Rockwood tomorrow night, Feb 10 at 7 PM. In a vexing if probably unintentional stroke of booking, lyrical rock cult hero Ward White is playing next door at the big room at the same time. Tough choice, huh! If that’s too much of a dilemma, she’s at the Knitting Factory at 9 on Feb 18.

The first track on the new album is A Country Dance, a liltingly evocative nocturnal tale. “Follow me and my bottle of wine and we’ll dance near the stars,” Sternberg entreats, ” I’ll tell you my various schemes.” He Dreams is a sad, stripped-down take on the kind of honkytonk waltz Patsy Cline would do, set to a Mr. Bojangles-y tune. Likewise, Sternberg’s blithe vocals mask the wry sarcasm of the front porch folk number The Love I Give.

It Happens to Be a Boy looks at the same equation with a lot more optimism and good cheer. I Will Be With You has a misty, bittersweetly nocturnal vintage C&W angst – it’s sort of a mashup of the Davis Sisters and Roy Orbison, a feel that recurs toward the end of the album in a brooding breakup waltz simply titled The Song. Although Sternberg is clearly addressing herself on the charmingly antique title track, it’s a lullaby for pretty much anybody, even a toddler. Then she picks up the pace with the most bustling number here, I’ve Got Me, a wry look at the perils of self-absorption: “Between self-hatred and self-awareness is a very fine line…why is it so hard to be kind and gentle to myself?” she muses.

Without You brings to mind Bessie Smith’s After You’ve Gone; like a lot of the songs here, it benefits from some absolutely marvelous natural reverb in the space where it was recorded. The final track, I’ll Make You Mine is hardly as cheerful as the title suggests, one of many places on this album where the subtext runs deep. These songs may be just guitar and vocals, but Sternberg packs a lot into them.