New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Month: March, 2016

The Yale Slavic Chorus Hold the Crowd Rapt at Barbes

A girl had a competition with a nightingale to determine who was the better singer. “If I win, I get to cut off your wings,” the girl tells the bird. And then the girl wins.

‘Please don’t cut off my wings,” the defeated bird pleads. “You can cut off my feet instead. I need my wings to fly.”

“You know what, I’ll let you keep your wings, and your feet too,” the girl replies. “I’ll be satisfied knowing that I sing better than a nightingale.”

That was one of the happier stories that the eight women of the Yale Slavic Chorus sang last night at Barbes, in Macedonian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Georgian and other languages. But there were many even more colorful, and sinister narratives in the group’s two wild, feral yet meticulously arranged sets. For example, the tale about the five hundred Ukrainian construction workers who decide on a lark to wall in the first worker’s girlfriend to show up in the morning. So everybody who arrived at the worksite the next day did so alone…except for one unfortunate guy who forgot to tell his beloved not to bring him lunch. You can guess the rest. Did Edgar Allen Poe’s Cask of Amontillonado influence the song? It’s not likely that he ever heard it. Maybe the song and the story exist completely independent of each other. Music this cool poses questions like that.

Singers are expected to be able to shift on a dime between languages, and styles, but even so, this group is amazingly eclectic. The program was well-paced: they opened with a couple of the night’s more stately, stark numbers, then began introducing the eerie close harmonies, whoops and hollers and swoops and dives and “hey”s that recur throughout the Balkans and often filter into Russian and Ukrainian folk music. If memory serves right, they went as far east as Georgia and as far west as what is now the Czech Republic.

Each group member got to introduce a number or two and give the crowd the gist of the lyrics. “I am the fairest one of all” turned out to be a common theme, as was seduction: a couple of the songs were pretty racy. Often the group would pair off a duo or trio, who would later be joined by the rest of the ensemble. Otherwise, the stereo effect created by the exchange of phrases between individual voices was as fascinating to watch as it was difficult to pull off seamlessly – and this group made it look effortless. This music is difficult as it is, especially for those who haven’t grown up with it (meaning pretty much everyone, even in the regions where it originated), and on top of that, several chorus members were called on to belt from the lows to great heights. And they all delivered. While it’s probably not fair to single out any one member, considering the varying demands of the arrangements, steelcutter soprano Olivia Noble and her somewhat lower-pitched but no less dynamic bandmate Jola Pach are both scary-good. And soprano Claire Gottsegen, who seemed to project the most pure unrestrained power of anyone in the group, at least at this show, also happens to be their most petite member.

Being college students, this is a pretty young ensemble. It’s possible that some of these women, just like their counterparts in villages and towns across what was once Iron Curtain territory, will pursue other interests beyond singing. But let’s hope that all of them, and the three alums who joined them for the encore, decide to stick with it. The world’s a better place with voices as enchanting as theirs.

Rising Star Tenor Saxophonist Melissa Aldana Takes Her Sound to the Next Level

Unlike a lot of jazz musicians, tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana grew up in the idiom. She represents the third generation of a formidable Chilean musical family. She’s gone on record citing her latest album, Back Home, as an example of a more mature sound for her. Major understatement: it’s her breakthrough, the material to match the fearsome chops that put her on the map when she became the first South American and the first woman to win the Thelonious Monk competition six years ago. With her regular rhythm section, bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Jochen Rueckert, this is her second trio release, streaming at Spotify.

The rhythm section begin Aldana’s opening track, Alegria, with a tightly spinning, springl-loaded rumble as Aldana plays a terse melody overhead and builds methodically toward a carefree, gently triumphant vibe. There’s some defiantly individualistic Sonny Rollins in there, but there’s also the catchy, impactful “jukebox jazz” of JD Allen, as well as a tight, familiar chemistry similar to Allen’s long-running trio. Short, punchy figures and an emphasis on Aldana’s upper registers figure prominently throughout the album.

Before You has a fetching, hey-wait-a-minute-don’t-leave-yet feel over a shifting clave (Aldana wrote it for her boyfriend…awww). Rueckert’s misterioso, stygian cymbals and Menares’ precise, tiptoeing lines amplify the brooding mood of Aldana’s spacious, airy approach throughout Time. The album’s title track is its most trad yet carefree: Aldana has a great sense of humor and that really comes through here. And it’s contagious.

As a writer, Menares is represented by two tracks. The first, Desde La Lluvia is e minimalistic, lyrical jazz waltz where Aldana waits til the third time around before she goes dancing where the clouds used to be, in a bright after-the-rain scenario. Menares opens his other number, En Otro Lugar, with a bit of a solo ghost ballet before Rueckert gets a brisk clave going and Aldana lingers toward the back, choosing her spots: you can hear some of the considered yet fearlessly warped tones of an old mentor, George Garzone in there.

Rueckert brings two numbers to the album. Obstacles, the first, anchors judiciously considered variations on its hook in subtle rhythmic shifts, building to a floating swing capped off with a wryly galloping drum solo. Menares loops a cachy riff as Servant shifts in an out of a spinning triplet drive, Aldana once again hanging back with an austere, bluesy purism. The lone cover here is a sparse, misty, wee-hours bass-and-sax take of the Kurt Weill/George Gershwin tune My Ship.

In an era where so many players bleat and blow like a four-year-old with a jar of bubble soap, Aldana’s restraint and sense of purpose here are a breath of fresh air.

Walter Ego Brings His Hilarious, Edgy Marathon Recording Project to a Saturday Night Show

Walter Ego could be characterized as Elliott Smith with a better sense of humor and command of a more diverse number of styles. Bass is Walter Ego’s main axe, but he also plays pretty much every other instrument you’d want in a rock band. Last year, he challenged himself to record two songs a month. The result is his 24 in 2015 playlist, streaming at his site and available as a free download. He’s playing his dozen favorite tracks from the project this Saturday night, March 26 at 7 PM at Sidewalk.

Much as a lot of these songs are very funny, they’re also relevant. Walter Ego doesn’t suffer fools gladly, he abhors gun violence and blind obedience. The project’s first songs are typically just a single instrument and vocals; as it goes on, the songs get more fleshed out, Walter Ego as a one-man orchestra. The first number, Triangle Player, is a characteristically tragicomic one. See, Walter Ego is also a classical music fan. This elegant piano waltz contemplates the job of an orchestral triangle player, who doesn’t have a very hard job…yet it has some unique frustrations. The second January tune, Why Can’t It Stay Exactly Like This Forever is guitar and vocals, a subtly sarcastic look at how change might not be such a bad thing after all:

Dylan goes electric
John Henry is replaced
She loves you not, she doesn’t care
Dylan stays acoustic
John Henry keeps his job
She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah

The punchline after that, like a lot of them here, is too good to spoil.

February’s first song is a darkly chromatic noir cabaret piano number, We’re Going In the Wrong Direction, with another metaphorically-charged lyric and one of the album’s more vividly icy vocals. Be My Enemy also has a noir cabaret feel, an irresistibly amusing reference to an iconic Pink Floyd song, and the kind of subtly savage political message that will recur many times throughout these songs.

March’s first song is In Threes, an art-rock piano ballad, Walter Ego having fun with numbers and celebrity death myths. The second one is The Banishment Button, a swinging phaser-guitar rocker that seems like it’s going to be punk rock but has a lot more depth than that. April’s recordings include the darkly catchy art-rock anthem Everything’s Captured, weighing the “pros” and cons of the surveillance state, and Do Over, a sardonic new wave vignette weighing the dilemmas of ontogeny recapitulating philogeny.

The diptych Difficult Street is a slinky, sarcastic organ-and-drums number told from the point of view of a spoiled one-tenth-of-one-percenter. After that, the Moody Blues-esque folk-rock anthem Making Money – a droll counterfeiter’s tale – makes a good segue. June is represented by This Is What Happens, a coy right-brain-versus-left-brain scenario, and the absolutely brilliant I Woke Up In the Modern World, a vintage Springsteenesque sendup to paleoconservatives.

Set to swinging parlor piano pop, My Manifesto offers a subtly creepy look inside the head of a Unabomber type. If You Could See Inside My Head continues the theme – as goofy as this shuffle is, in a way it’s even creepier: “I guess that you think that amatuer brain surgery is fun,” the narrator taunts.

The surrealistically bouncy Radio Backwards is a twistedly hilarious counterpart to Elvis Costello’s Radio Radio. Say What’s On Your Mind take a snidely slinkys slap upside the head of a passive-aggressive type, one of the few songs here where Walter Ego really cuts loose on the bass.

Who Says I Have to Be Consistent is one of the funniest and most spot-on tracks here: as usual, it’s the song’s implication that’s funniest. The punchy psych-pop tune What Was I Thinking About? introduces horns for the first time; it’s one of the most poignant numbers here, bringing to mind Lee Feldman‘s recent work. By contrast, the swaying paisley underground-tinged White Bones offers a cruelly accurate answer to anyone who might dispute the science that establishes Africa as the birthplace of humankind.

Electric lead guitar makes its entramce in The Red Mercury Blues. a salute to a dangerous element that’s not easily labeled. I Am Here Now is the most surreal number here, a vamping Velvets-ish look at a post-Facebook world, with a trick ending.

The playlist winds up with three of its strongest tracks. With its jungly drums, blippy organ and synth brass, Welcome to Us blends elements of Afrobeat and psychedelia: finally, twenty tracks into the album, Walter Ego takes a guitar solo, and it’s good! Give Me a Gun For Christmas is just plain hilarious as a spoof of Xmas songs in general. And Martin Luther King Zombie Killer is just about as amusing, imagining a secret life for the civil rights leader, who “had a dream but also had a nightmare.” As usual, the subtext is murderously funny, and cruelly accurate. If the best album of the year is measured in terms of both quality and quantity, it’s going to be next to impossible for anyone to top this in 2016.

Foreshadowing the Dada Paradox Show This Friday at Freddy’s

Back in the day there were two songwriters, Ian and Liza, and their two bands, the Larch and Liza & the WonderWheels. The Larch was Ian’s band – he played lead guitar and Liza played keys. They sounded like Squeeze or Elvis Costello. Their final two albums – assuming that the band is finished at this point – are among the most brilliantly catchy, subtly venomous lyrical rock releases in recent New York music history.

Liza played rhythm guitar and keys while Ian played lead in Liza & the WonderWheels, who interestingly enough, were one of this city’s great jambands over the past fifteen years or so. Other than Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds, it’s hard to think of another female-fronted psychedelic band who were so consistently good.

Attrition set in, the rhythm section in both Ian and Liza’s  bands went through some changes – you know, New York brain drain, rents going up, people getting forced out, ad nauseum – and Liza and the WonderWheels morphed into Tracy Island. Meanwhile, the Larch faced the same dilemma and eventually turned into Dada Paradox, who have a show this coming Friday, March 25 at 8 PM at Freddy’s. Either way, both bands are basically Ian and Liza – who eventually married, but have so far avoided becoming a couplecore band, not only once but twice. That might seem like a major achievement, but it’s no big deal when you consider that Ian and Liza Roure would never write a song about the joys of shopping unless they were being very, very sarcastic.

This blog has yet to cover Dada Paradox, but back in November at Bowery Electric, Tracy Island played a show for the cognoscenti. There was probably as much talent in the crowd as there was onstage. Rebecca Turner and her band opened the night with a richly jangly set that put a teens Brooklyn update on 60s/70s Laurel Canyon psychedelic folk, John Sharples taking centerstage on several of the songs with his tersely gorgeous twelve-string lead guitar lines. John Pinamonti, another excellent, judicious twelve-string player, used to be this band’s lead player, and Sharples took his already formidable approach to a new level. Meanwhile, Turner her drummer and her melodic bassist Scott Anthony aired out a bunch of new material as well as old favorites like Brooklyn Is So Big, an ever more bittersweet shout-out to the borough and its ever more widely dispersed artistic class.

The Kennedys headlined, playing guitarmeister Pete Kennedy’s latest solo album Heart of Gotham from start to finish, his wife Maura on soaring vocal harmonies and rhythm guitar. “Down on the corner of hope and glory, to a place called Union Square,” they sang, two voices rising to anthemic proportions that most stadium rock bands can only dream of, in tribute to the many cultures that built New York into one of the world’s great cities until the luxury condo pestilence began wiping it out. A web of deliciously Byrdsy guitars mingled with rousing Celtic flourishes and slinky Pete Kennedy leads, the duo imagining Moses dreaming in the arms of Pharaoh’s Daughter. As a metaphor for a city, is that a ridiculous conceit, or something we can still aspire to? It felt awfully good to get a shot of optimism from these two.

Tracy Island were sandwiched between the two acts, playing the album release show for their debut, War No More. They opened with the catchy, vamping What You Want, a springboard for Liza’s jaunty, seductive vocals. The most delicious moment of the night was when they launched into Eddie Come Down. which is less an entreaty to a would-be suicide than it is an order to a crazy dude to pull his shit together. It wasn’t recognizable at first, Liza’s lingering blue-flame resonance against Ian’s resonantly evil slide lines. With just the two guitars, it brought to mind Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine dueling it out circa 1978, but with vocals that were cool, mentholated, on key, anchoring the stampede as Ian spun wild paisley underground circles against the center. They took it down to almost silence, then back up: if you’ve ever seen the Dream Syndicate, it was like that, just without drums. Back in the day it was the WonderWheels’ big showstopper: they’d go on for ten minutes or more if they were in the mood. Check out the Hall of Eds (hit the listen button and then scroll all the way down) for some of the most enjoyable moments from the last ten years or so of NYC jamband history.

The rest of the set had the jangle and clang and wah and scream going full steam. The catchy, sardonic faux-futurist Where’s My Robot Maid had a stairstepping, axe-murderer solo midway through. From there they rose from a cynical, brooding, minor-key New Depresssion anthem to summery post-Velvets ambience under Liza’s soaring, operatic vocals, then a shuffling, upbeat, Television-ish number. After that they worked an insistent Saturday Nigtht’s All Right for Fighting riff into a characteristically defiant Liza chorus, a reference to a classic punk anthem by X. And with Meet the Animal, they built a distantly simmering, sultry, psychedelic menace, Liza’s voice matched by Ians’s creepy washes of wah guitar. There will probably be many moments like these Friday night at Freddy’s.

Bright and Dark Shades of Cutting-Edge Big Band Jazz in Gowanus

Bassist Robert Sabin did triple duty the night of one of the year’s best twinbills this past Tuesday at Shapeshifter Lab, first leading his own group, Humanity Part II, then playing two sets with trombonist John Yao‘s explosive, vividly cinematic large 17-Piece Instrument big band. Yao wasn’t the only one with cinematic compositions: Sabin’s were just as vivid, and vastly darker. Nobody writes more evocatives dirges than this guy.

Guitarist Jesse Lewis opened the night’s first number, Scarecrow, as he’d often do throughout the set, building opaque washes of sound before Sabin and drummer Jeremy Noller joined him. Sabin’s compositions in this project draw as as much on classical and film music as jazz. Although this piece and others rose to lustrous peaks fueled by trumpeters Dan Urness and Matt Holman, alto saxophonist Aaron Irwin and tenor saxophonist Jason Rigby, the mood was typically somber, no surprise since Sabin’s latest album features what appears to be a corpse lying in the woods on the cd cover. Horn player Chris Komer contributed a methodically percolating solo midway through, over the group’s nebulous, midtempo swing.

Rigby’s bittersweetly minimalist tenor rose out of the mist as the group built Scarecrow to an uneasiliy soaring web of tersely echoing phrases, with a long trumpet solo out. Elegaically tolling bell-like motives permeated the wounded Tenebre. a quiet showstopper with saxes switched out for brooding clarinets as it gathered steam, Rigby’s gentle solo flickering amist angst-tinged swells, echoed by tuba player Ben Stapp. The mighty, steady, melancholy brass harmonies and eventually the creepy cha-cha that followed brought to mind Gil Evans’ iconically noir early 60s work, as did much of the rest of Sabin’s material.

After Ghost, a hypnotically resonant tone poem with some deliciously dynamic frenetic-to-calm guitar by Lewis, Sabin opened Through a Glass Darkly, prowling around in the murk with his bow. Lewis joined him with some harrowing David Gilmour phrasing, brooding modalities from Yao (who was also doing double duty) and Rigby leading the funeral procession out. The group closed with a similarly dark reworking of Ennio Morricone’s Humanity Part II and a low-key, enveloping update on the old folk song Pretty Polly

Awhile ago a certain extrovert drummer was asked to explain his large ensemble’s success. “We play jazz for tourists,” he explained. As colorful, and tuneful, and imagistically crystalline as Yao’s compositions are, there ought to be a Manhattan jazz club willing to give him a place to entertain the crowds and represent this city with music that’s every bit as accessible as the schlock that guy’s band plays but is also cutting-edge. Oh yeah – Yao already does when he plays with Arturo O’Farrill’s band and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Still, his music would resonate with a vastly wider audience.

Yao’s mighty ensemble opened with the grittily swinging Hellgate, Rigby (another guy playing the whole marathon evening) at the center between contrasting flutter and buoyancy. Slow Children, a vividly urban tableau with the composer on trombone, showcased incisive parallel voicings, Rigby pairing off against the brass and holding his own, then a warm interlude with trombone and the rhythm section over a steady clave.

Early Morning Walk took the bustle, and distant angst, up another notch, a multi-part extravaganza with hints of funk, latin soul, a ballestesque Sabin bass solo and a big rush-hour peak: what started with maybe a dog walk and a couple of errands ended with a pretty frenetic train ride. By contrast, Flip-Flop – the title track to Yao’s most recent album with this group – featured an animated, jovial conversation between Aviles and tenor saxophonist Rich Perry as the piece followed an almost impercetibly steady upward trajectory toward lickety-split intensity.

Where Sabin’s work evoked Gil Evans in the 1960s, Yao’s Out of Socket brought to mind the Miles David collaborator’s lively, blustery dance band charts from ten years earlier, winding up with the brass blazing on a droll parade riff. Jesse Stacken’s meticulously looping piano anchored the clever echo phrases in Illumination, baritone saxophonist Andrew Hadro fueling a long, purposeful crescendo before Stacken added neoromantically lustrous cascades. Artfully implied rhythm shifts and hints of tropicalia figured in First Step, Alejandro Aviles’ soprano sax flights giving way to boisterous low brass. They closed with an expansive, hard-swinging take of Herbie Hancock’s Fingerpainting. There were also two resonant, minimalistic, rhythmless miniatures, designed to employ extended technique from the rhythm section as color, Yao explained. Altogether, a fiery and rewarding performance for the rest of the band, including trumpeters Nick Marchione, Jason Wiseman, Dave Smith and Andy Gravish; trombonists Matt McDonald, Mike Fahn, Eric Miller and bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton and drummer Vince Cherico.

Yao’s big band is back at Shapeshifter on April 5 at 8:15 PM; baritone saxophonist Frank Basile‘s sextet opens the night at 7, with a $10 cover.

Roxy Coss Brings Her Vividly Lyrical Sax and Her Edgy Tunes to Midtown

Tenor saxophonist Roxy Coss‘ new album Restless Idealism – streaming at Spotify – takes its title from a Hunter S. Thompson quote. It’s a concept album of sorts, examining dynamics between hope and cynicism, alienation and intimacy. Coss writes vivid, purposeful songs without words and plays with an uncluttered, often smoky tone reminiscent of Harry Allen. She’s got a gig coming up at Club Bonafide (the old Something Jazz Club upstairs space on E 52nd St.) on March 24, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $10.

Don’t Cross the Coss, a catchy swing shuffle, makes an excellent, subtly amusing opening number. See. a lot of people misread Coss’ name. Add to that the subtext of what seems sweet on the surface being every bit as formidable an opponent, and you get the idea. Chris Patisshall’s piano, dancing between raindrops, and Willie Jones III’s martial snare volleys complete the picture.

A rather stern, stark piano figure introduces Waiting, shifting to an uneasy jazz waltz, Coss taking a brooding, steady stroll, eventually circumnavigating the upper registers as the rhythm loosens and the song brightens, a happy ending not foreshadowed. Again, Patisshall’s glittering piano seals the deal before a dancing Alex Wintz guitar solo.

Push bustles along, Jones having fun with some momentary breaks early on, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt sailing briskly through clear postbop skies, then handing off to Coss as bassist Dezron Douglas walks the changes. Perspective opens with a haunting intensity, Wintz’s knifes-edge shards and wary washes in the distance behind Patisshall’s precise, careful resonance and Coss’ wounded, muted melody. The air clears after that, but not much: this trouble lingers.

Likewise, Breaking Point pulses along on a tense clave. On one hand, it’s wickedly catchy, with a chorus that’ll make your spine tingle. On the other, it reflects the album title’s unease, Coss’ meticulously articulated intonation matched by Patisshall’s incisive drive, up to Wintz’s both-hands-on-the-wheel crescendo and Coss’ edgy modalisms as it winds out. By contrast, the ballad Happiness Is a Choice (is it really? If you have enough in your pocket, ok..) gives Coss a platform to show off her balmy side, with some neat noeoromantic flourishes from Patisshall.

Tricky makes a return to sharp, sardonic mode, its hints of dark cabaret and treachery mingled within an otherwise carefree swing, Jones working a slow, coolly artful crescendo as the band vamps coldly. The album winds up with The Story of Fiona, its wry, cartoonish wisps and animated conversation between Coss and Pelt. Melodic jazz in 2016 doesn’t get any better than this.

Bluesmistress Mamie Minch Joins a First-Class Oldtime Americana Bill on the 24th

There’s a really fun show coming up on March 24 in the quaint old 19th century upstairs auditorium at Greenwich House Music School at 46 Barrow St. in the West Village, when a bunch of familiar faces from the Jalopy’s oldtimey Americana scene take over the space. Check out the lineup that Eli Smith of the Down Hill Strugglers put together: his Struggler bandmate John Cohen; badass resonator guitarist and bluesmama Mamie Minch; charmingly retro, low-key front-porch songwriter Joanna Sternberg; dark Americana songwriter and Jalopy mainstay Feral Foster; bluesman Wyndham Baird, and others. Cover is $15 and includes open bar. And you don’t have to go all the way to Red Hook to see all this. Not that the Jalopy isn’t always a treat just to be at, let alone see a show at, but as messed up as the trains have been this past week, this makes things infinitely easier.

Minch is the star of this show. She played a set at Barbes a week ago Friday that was funny, and poignant, and full of razorwire repartee between her and Kill Henry Sugar drummer Dean Sharenow. Minch writes her own songs, springboarding from fingerpicked blues and folk styles that go back to the 20s and before, but she’s also a fierce advocate for the unsung women of the blues, mostly African-Americans from that era. Midway through the set, she and Sharenow pondered the question of changing lyrics if someone of the “original gender,” as she put it, sings a song written for a man’s voice (she’d just done a bristling, swinging, defiantly existentialist cover of Hank Williams’ Ramblin’ Man). That led into a brief discussion of how misogyny insinuates itself into language itself. “You notice how the word ‘woman’ has ‘man’ in it?” she needled him.

Sharenow wasn’t phased, but also didn’t offer anything to improve on that. “Maybe we can change the spelling, you know, like w-o-m-y-n or something,” Minch offered.

Sharenow cringed. “No!” he insisted. “How about…O.G.?”

“I like that,” Minch grinned back.

There’s nothing more original or gangsta than the blues, and there was plenty of that in this set. As she did on her debut album, she sang Pallet on Your Floor not as a come-on, like so many other would-be blues singers do, but as a haunting, plaintive plea, from the perspective of a low-rent hooker. Sharenow gave the song a jaunty shuffle groove with his brushes, throwing in the occasional unpredictable snare hit or swipe at the cymbals, especially when Minch would throw a mean upstroke from her guitar his way.

Minch asked Sharenow if he’d sing harmonies on Blues, Stay Away from Me, an old Delmore Brothers tune. “You want me to take the low one?” he asked her.

Minch laughed and turned to the crowd. “You don’t always do that when you sing with an alto!” But she’s been airing out more of her upper register lately, really stretching her voice to places she’s never gone before.

The duo took a turn in a funkier direction with a biting, sultry new one, looking back to the funny food metaphors of oldschool hokum blues but also the defiance of that era’s blueswomen. Minch’s churning guitar, blending with Sharenow’s rolling and tumbling attack, took her big audience hit Razorburn Blues – title track to her cult favorite 2008 debut album – into Mississippi hill country Then they did a slow, sad number about a guy who likes stuff like Mad Dog wine more than he ought to, then a whiplash new hill country song, like R.L. Burnside gone acoustic. And that was just the first set. Whatever much time she gets at the Greenwich House gig will be worth the cover. That, and the booze.

Murder Ballad Mondays Makes a Mean Return to Fort Greene on the 21st

A monthly residency is a sneaky way to keep your fanbase coming out without stating the obvious, that they could always blow off your show this month and catch you next time around. After all, who can keep track of when the third Thursday of the month is going to fall, other than the band playing that night?

A lot of touring artists use small New York venues as an anchor when they’re here – or as a rehearsal room, basically. Barbes is home base to many of the elite among them, most notably Big Lazy (first Friday of the month at 10) and Rachelle Garniez (first Thursday at 8). There are also a trio of good acts using Sidewalk to keep themselves sharp: guitarist Lenny Molotov’s bitingly lyrical original oldtime swing band the Fascinators (first Saturday at 8), Mac McCarty‘s careening folk noir Kidd Twist Band (first Saturday at 9) and the darkly eclectic, avant garde-inclined Lorraine Leckie (third Friday at 11, including tonight the 18th).

This blog’s favorite monthly residency is Murder Ballad Mondays at Branded Saloon. Like Paul Wallfisch‘s late, lamented Small Beast at the Delancey, it’s blogbait. Any lazy blogger can save himself or herself four or five separate nights out and catch several of the best acts in town all on the same bill on an off night that doesn’t conflict with anything. And it’s become a hit with the local Fort Greene contingent.

Last month’s was a prime example: with cold rain pelting the slush outside, torchy noir singer Ellia Bisker and her guitarslinging Charming Disaster conspirator Jeff Morris packed the place and treated folks to a deliciously lowlit, lurid evening. They used to treat the crowd to at least a short set, but lately they’ve been teasing everybody with just a song or two. This time out their contributions were a slinky version of a shadowy, swing-infused new number with some hilarious rhyme schemes as well as Murderer, Charming Disaster’s signature song of sorts, a coldly wary, subtle cautionary tale reminding that the perfect crime has no witnesses.

Jessi Robertson set the bar high right off the bat. Hauntingly resonant, deeply soul-infused vocals fused with lead guitarist Rony Corcos’ similarly lingering, bluesy lead lines and elegantly jangly phrasing. Part of Robertson’s appeal is that her big crescendos sometimes seem triumphant and celebratory when they’re actually venomous, and their first song was a prime example. They also made their way through the bristling underbrush of a folk noir number and closed with a fiery PJ Harvey cover.

Liz Tormes, this city’s leading exponent of murder ballads, brought the ambience down to a blue-flame intensity, mining the catalogs of Peter Rowan and Bill Monroe, her own calmly and murderously alluring repertoire and closed with a stark Elizabethan suicide song. Former Snow frontwoman Hilary Downes sang a calmly brooding version of the Townes Van Zant classic Pancho & Lefty. And Mudville – singer/keyboardist Marilyn Carino and brilliant bassist Ben Rubin – kept the simmeringly ominous ambience going with noir cabaret takes on the Misfits and Tom Waits as well as an even more allusively venomous original.

That’s what makes Murder Ballad Mondays so interesting – it’s taking the concept of songs about killing people far beyond the time-honored Britfolk/Appalachian tradition. The more you know about music, the more you realize just how much we have in common: no matter the culture, people around the world just love to kill each other. And then write about it. This coming Murder Ballad Monday on March 21 starts at 8 sharp and features Charming Disaster, Elisa Flynn – whose rapturously haunting voice is matched by her historically-informed, erudite tunesmithing – and others TBA who will probably be just as good.

Two NYC Shows and a Brave New Project from the Tuneful Sharon Goldman

Sharon Goldman is one of this young century’s great tunesmiths. She gets pigeonholed as a folksinger, and she plays that circuit, but she’s more likely to go deep into elegant chamber pop. And every now and then she’ll dash off a country song, or an intricately fingerpicked guitar ballad. Much as a lot of her material has a very intimate feel – the title track to her 2013 album Silent Lessons is one of the most spot-on, shattering portraits of wee-hours despondency ever recorded – she doesn’t write a lot of autobiographical songs. Her latest project, which she’s about to begin recording, is a radical departure, and a genuinely brave move for her, an examination of her conflicted roots as a secular Jewish artist raised in the Modern Orthodox tradition. She’ll be unveiling some of those songs along with material from her substantial back catalog at a couple of upcoming concerts. Tomorrow night, March 18 she’ll be at the American Folk Art Museum at 5:30 PM for an early, free afterwork show. Then on April 7 she’ll be playing one of the First Acoustics House Concerts in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. Cover is $25, with dessert and coffee at 7 PM, show at 8; advance registration is required, email for info.

What’s most striking about Goldman’s new song cycle is that it’s as universal as it is rooted in centuries of tradition. Any individualist who’s come out of a strict religious background will find a lot in common with Goldman’s narratives. She played a fascinating set of some of them at Caffe Vivaldi last month, joined by a terse, melodic mandolinist/lead guitarist. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not she records these songs as a set of related vignettes, as she did that night, or in linear fashion. The night’s uneasily strolling first number, Sabbath Queen, captured the exhaustion and exasperation of a young Jewish matriarch trying to be all that’s expected of her, to keep herself together and remain a calm center of attention at yet another Sabbath dinner.

Set to an ominous descending riff, the darkly blues-tinged Don’t Look Back flipped the script on the Sodom & Gomorrah myth, casting the fate of Lot’s wife in a sympathetic new light. The gently fingerpicked song after that brought back a muted exasperation, a girl waiting for a sign in the night sky overhead to signal the end of the Sabbath…so she can go off and be herself, and search for spirituality by herself…or not.

Goldman kept the music delicate throughout the next number, building an eerily evocative tableau of a conflicted bride at a traditional wedding celebration, finally bringing in a bit of a hora and an aptly dark, rustic Middle Eastern-tinged riff at the end. As she did on more than one song, Goldman sang it in both English and Hebrew.

She built a wistfully catchy, elegiac portrait of a lost relative, then switched to the piano for a smolderingly understated minor-key ballad.“The ghosts of my ancestors haunt me, they speak a language that used to be mine,” she mused on the next number, a waltz, weighing the pros and cons of cultural baggage. Then she offered a soaring, bluesy tribute to Lilith, a villain in the Torah and the Bible but a heroine to feminists around the world.

The intensity kept up with another simmering, insistent minor-key number addressing the power of a woman’s voice, forbidden as a solo instrument in more than one religious tradition around the world. A vividly picturesque shout-out to Jerusalem, where Goldman has spent a lot of time, was gentler and more pastoral but also disquieted: Goldman made it clear that she felt like a stranger in a strange land. She wound up the set with a pensive, somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at the pros and cons of membership in a “tribe,” and then a swaying blues: “The season of the songbird has arrived,” Goldman asserted.

This project is likely to generate a lot of controversy, considering that Goldman celebrates her roots in centuries of rich Jewish artistic tradition while carving out an individualistic path. Being aware of the rest of her body of work, one would expect no less.

The NYChillharmonic Bring Their Mighty, Lush Sound to Gowanus

The NYChillharmonic are one of this city’s most massive-sounding, original, deliciously uncategorizable groups. They’re basically a rock band, but with a seventeen-piece big band jazz lineup including brass, reeds and a string section along with the usual rock instrumentation. You could also call them a jazz band playing rock, which is true at least in the sense that everybody in the group comes from a jazz background, and that their leader, singer/composer/multi-keyboardist Sara McDonald got her start in the New School’s jazz program. They connect the dots between My Brightest Diamond, Missy Mazzoli and Gil Evans, and they’re playing Littlefield tonight at around 11, with exuberant, New Orleans-tinged soul/gospel/jazz crew Sammy Miller and the Congregation opening at around 10. Cover is $10.

Their most recent show here was their Lincoln Center debut, back in December. They opened their set with a leaping, looping hook that quickly gave way to a mighty, stalking Vegas tango-tinged verse and then slunk toward reggae. The song eventually wound down to a blue-flame suspense. McDonald began the next number with a suspenseful, allusively minimalist Radiohead-inflected piano/vocal intro around one of those circling riffs she love so much, the band working their way into a brooding soul-tinged atmosphere, low brass rising ominously beneath lithely dancing orchestration.

They picked up the pace with a brisk staccato pulse, once again building the suspense as the lush, balmy sonics rose behind McDonald’s cool, nuanced, somewhat enigmatic delivery. The slinky ba-ba, BUMP minor-key groove of the achingly catchy number after that took the group back in a noir soul direction, echoes of both Amy Winehouse and Abbey Road-era Beatles mingling with majestic harmonies that spanned the entire sonic spectrum – and then a droll trick ending from the string section.

Rippling, rapidfire piano opened the next number, the orchestra rising to a blustery, uneasy intensity and then falling back to McDonald’s low-key, distantly soul-infused vocals over a groove that seemed to want to cut loose from trip-hop to a fullscale gallop and then finally went dancing. After that, the group mashed up misterioso Blonde Redhead nocturnalisms with a woozy hip-hop/stoner neosoul vibe, a punchy tenor sax solo giving way to twinkling starlit ambience, then McDonald took it up again. The group wound up the show with bittersweet, dynamically shifting update on artsy 60s Burt Bacharach pop and then a bone-jarring dancefloor stomp. Much as the atrium’s boomy sonics are hardly suited to a mighty ensemble like this, it was impossible not to be swept up in the expanse of sound.

Out in front of the band, Illinois transplant McDonald was in particularly gregarious mode. Her lyrics channel the kind of pervasive restlessness you would expect from someone in her twenties in this city in this decade: buildings keep coming down, neighborhoods keep getting wiped out and the hours keep getting longer just to pay the rent. She didn’t address any of those topics, but she might as well have.