New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: December, 2019

The 50 Best Albums of 2019

This is a playlist, plus one last record at the very end that can’t be heard anywhere online but might be the best of all of them. You can listen to everything else here, almost all of it ad-free: it couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

Lots of triage was involved. A very ambitious listener with a dayjob that allows for multitasking can hear maybe eight or nine hundred new albums a year, all the way through. An insanely dedicated blogger can hear bits and pieces of maybe five thousand more. That’s about the limit of what one human can do. You may see a few stragglers here which were technically 2018 releases but got overlooked that year. If your favorite album from 2019 isn’t here, that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good…and it might just turn up here next year.

Other than the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Being chosen as the #50 band out of 50 is like getting picked last for kickball, and that’s kind of mean. Besides, if an album is one of the fifty best out of the literally hundreds of thousands released every year, it has to be damn good. Here we go!

Big Lazy – Dear Trouble
The subtlest, most desolate and ultimately most dynamic album from a group synonymous with cinematic noir menace. Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s sense of irony has never been more refined, and the rhythm section of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion has never been slinkier. Ulrich is the only musician in history who has been on three albums rated #1 for the year here. Listen at youtube

Changing Modes – What September Brings
Best album of the year with lyrics, the New York art-rockers’ finest, most cinematic, and most political release, a savagely lyrical, spot-on reflection on Trump-era narcissism and repression, laced with shapeshifting instrumentals and frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam’s disquietingly lush harmonies. Listen at youtube

The Bright Smoke – Gross National Happiness
The title reflects frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson’s signature, withering sarcasm. It’s the band’s most savagely political record, a grimly allusive measure of Trump-era inequality, despair and resistance against all that, with a haunting Joy Division undercurrent. Listen at Bandcamp

Karen Dahlstrom – No Man’s Land
The best short album of the year, with metaphorically-loaded, sharply picturesque narratives referencing apocalypse, smalltown anomie, late-night despondency and a ferocious, defiant anthem for the Metoo era from the powerful Bobtown alto singer and Americana songstress. Listen at her music page 

Hearing Things – Here’s Hearing Things
The best debut albun of 2019, by Brooklyn’s funnest dance band, mashes up horror surt, Booker T & the MG’s, twisted go-go music, Afrobeat, Ethiopiques and the Doors, with organ, sax and surf drums. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – These Times
Steve Wynn‘s iconic, feral, influential psychedelic guitar-duel band’s quietest, most allusively political and arguably most brilliantly lyrical album. Not bad for a group who put out their first record back in the 80s. Listen at youtube

Michael Winograd – Kosher Style
Unsurpassed for his sizzling clarinet chops, Winograd is also a very colorful composer. With sabretoothed chromatics and slashing minor keys, these new klezmer tunes run the gamut from blisteringly fun to mournful to sardonic, and the band is killer. Listen at Bandcamp

Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
Here’s another world-class clarinetist and ensemble playing an especially dynamic, inescapably vivid take on one of the most iconic, haunting pieces of classical music ever written (much of it composed in a Nazi prison camp). Riveting as it is, it raises questions as to how fair it is for this blog to rank it alongside the rest of the artists here. Listen at Spotify

Layale Chaker – Inner Rhyme
The brilliant violinist writes vivid, intense, often hauntingly beautiful compositions built around the rhythmic sophistication of classical Arabic poetry, equal parts Lebanese, Egyptian and western classical music, with occasional detours toward jazz or film score atmospherics. Listen at her music page

Los Wembler’s de Iquitos – Vision Del Ayahuasca
With almost all of their original members, this iconic psychedelic cumbia jamband from the heart of the Peruvian Amazon are as wildly trippy and original as they were fifty years ago. Along with Hearing Things‘ debut, this is the best party record of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

Miguel Zenon and the Spektral Quartet – Yo Soy la Tradicion
The formidable alto saxophonist teams up with one of the world’s edgiest string quartets for a mix of acerbic works with an unselfconsciously Bartokian intensity Listen at their music page

Rev. Screaming Fingers – Music for Driving and Film, vol iII (The Desert Years)
Dusky, loping southwestern gothic tableaux, twangy noir Americana, a little horror surf and ominous big-sky themes from these great guitar instrumentalists. Listen at their music page

Girls on Grass – Dirty Power
Like a female-fronted Dream Syndicate, guitar goddess Barbara Endes’ band rips through paisley underground psychedelia, spaghetti westen themes, snarling new wave and garage rock, with a defiant, politically fearless lyricism Listen at Bandcamp

Russ Tolman – Goodbye El Dorado
Jangly, vividly lyrical western noir rock: disappeances, shattered Hollywood dreams, dead-end kids who don’t have a prayer, and roadtrip anomie from the leader of 80s legends True West. Listen at youtube

Julia Haltigan – Trouble
Turns out that the torchy mistress of Manhattan noir is just as fluent with new wave and vintage CB’s-style powerpop, throughout these tales of nocturnal prowling in the East Village before it was yuppified and whitewashed. Listen at Bandcamp

The Felice Bros. – Undress
This could have been the great lyrical, populist record that Springsgteen made in between Born to Run and Darkness: surreal political broadsides, down-and-out characters and death lingering over everything. Listen at Bandcamp

Jay Vilnai – Thorns All Over
Poet Rachel Abramowitz supplies the lyrics for this haunting, mysterious collection of new murder ballads, over the guitarist/bandleader’s cold starscapes, Lynchian dirges and a relentless, lingering guitar menace. Listen at Bandcamp

Karine Poghosyan – Rachmaninoff & Stravinsky
Nobody plays the Russian Romantics with as much insighful flair as this irrepressible virtuoso. As with Raphael Severe above, it is fair to rate this ravishingly intuitive, picturesque performance of achingly beautiful Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableaux and punishingly difficult Stravinsky piano transcriptions against the current-day artists here? Listen at Spotify

Dina Maccabee – The Sharpening Machine
Epically eclectic, trippy art-rock, chamber pop, pastoral themes and occasional coy new wave from this shapeshifting violinist and songwriter. Listen at Soundcloud

The Sirius Quartet – New World
This adventurous, microtonally-inclined string quartet’s collection of original compositions is a fierce concept album in defiance of the current fascist climate in the US. Listen at Spotify

Yale Strom’s Broken Consort – Shimmering Lights
The un-cheesiest Hanukah instrumental record ever made, the violinist-bandleader’s new arrangements blazing with ferocious solos and bracing Middle Eastern modes. Listen at rockpaperscissors

Eleni Mandell – Wake Up Again
The iconic dark Americana and torch singer’s most hauntingly political album is a series of narratives set behind bars, inspired by her experiences teaching songwriting in the prison-industrial complex. Listen at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Spells & Rituals
The constantly shapeshifting murder ballad and dark rock superduo dive further into latin noir, 60s Britrock and even garagey psychedelic sounds, all with their colorfully dark lyricism. Listen at Bandcamp

Noctorum – The Afterlife
Lush, characteristically lyrical, jangly art-rock from iconic twelve-string guitarist Marty Willson-Piper – late of Australian psychedelic legends the Church – with a similarly allstar backing band. Listen at Bandcamp

Laura Carbone – Empty Sea
Bleak, Lynchian panoramas, highway-of-death narratives and some guitarishly snarling gutter blues from one of this era’s great noir singers. Listen at Bandcamp

Unnatural Ways – The Paranoia Party
A grimly surreal, volcanically noisy, rhytmically disorienting concept about contact with aliens from guitarist Ava Mendoza’s searing doom/art-rock power trio. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Maureen Choi Quartet – Theia
Epically twisting, high-voltage, flamenco and Romany-inspired string band music from the violinist and her equally eclectic ensemble Listen at Bandcamp

Budos Band – V
The imaginative Afrobeat and Ethiopiques instrumentalists’ most doom metal-inspired album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

JD Allen – Barracoon
A big comeback of sorts for this era’s most potent tenor saxophonist, scorching his way through a Zora Neale Hurston-inspired mix of ominously modal, tersely evocative protest jazz tunes with a new trio. Listen at youtube

Nancy Braithwaite – To Paradise For Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway
The classical clarinetist and her dynamic, nuanced chamber ensemble explore stunningly imagistic, darkly clever, tersely crafted pieces by a now Rhode Island-based, nonagenarian composer whose work has never been released on album before. A major rediscovery. Listen at Spotify

Fabian Almazan – This Land Abounds with Life
A glittering, epically cascading eco-disaster themed concept album from one of this era’s most tunefully virtuosic jazz pianists and his dynamic rhythm section Listen at Bandcamp

Doomstress – Sleep Among the Dead
Pervasive gloom, minor keys, purposeful guitar and unusual elegance from frontwoman Alexis Hollada on the Texas doom metal band’s debut album. Listen at Bandcamp

Bobtown – Chasing the Sun
Bewitching three-part harmonies from Katherine Etzel, Karen Dahlstrom and Jen McDearman and folk noir songwriting that’s just a hair less relentlessly dark than the material that put them on the map. Listen at Bandcamp

Petros Klampanis – Irrationalities
Slinky, brooding, Middle Eastern and Greek-inflected ballads and more kinetic, pulsing material from the eclecic bassist and his excellent trio. Listen at Spotify 

The Well – Death & Consolation
Grim, Sabbathy dirges, paint-peeling Stooges sonics and ornately macabre heavy psychedelia from this Texas band. Listen at Bandcamp

Jason Yeager – New Songs of Resistance
A short parade of first-class pan-latin singers deliver the pianist’s protest jazz reinventions of classic nueva cancion from across the Americas in the 70s, alongside some chillingly lyrical, politically-fueled instrumentals. Listen at Bandcamp

Amy Allison – Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun
A characteristically bittersweet, brilliantly crystallized, lyrical collection of rarities and outtakes by the inimitable Americana singer. Listen at youtube

Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith – Mummer Love
Rousingly hypnotic North African grooves and immersive atmospherics behind acerbic, often savage poetry by Patti Smith and one of her big influences, Arthur Rimbaud. Listen at Bandcamp

Andplay – Playlist
The meticulously focused, tightly intertwining, colorful violin/viola duo negotiate the dynamic twists and turns of pieces by David Bird, Ashkan Behzadi and Clara Iannotta on their debut ep. Listen at Bandcamp

The Shootouts – Quick Draw
Spot-on, classic 1965-style honkytonk, hard country, Bakersfield twang and a little rockabilly from this slyly aphoristic Akron, Ohio band. Listen at Soundcloud 

The Ragas Live Retrospective
Members of the paradigm-shifting Brooklyn Raga Massive, who put all kinds of radical new spins on classic Indian raga themes, captured live in the studio over more than sixteen hours worth of music. Most of it is sublime; nobody at this blog has listened to the entire record yet. You can start at Bandcamp

Sarah Pagé – Dose Curves
Hypotically shimmery electroacoustic psychedelia and an Indian raga performed on the concert harp. Unselfconsciously magical,  cutting-edge stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Zosha Di Castri – Tachitipo
Vocal ensemble Ekmeles, the Jack Quartet, pianist Julia Den Boer, percussion ensemble Yarn/Wire  and a chamber orchestra join the thoughtfully eclectic pianist/composer in a diverse mix of acerbic, socially relevant compositions and art-songs. Listen at Bandcamp

Funkrust Brass Band – Bones & Burning
Sizzling Balkan chromatics, undulating New Orleans grooves and a pretty relentless sense of doom on the theatrical, sprawling brass band’s latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

Castle Black – Dead in a Dream
The ferocious female-fronted power trio look back to the most darkly ambitious of the first wave punk bands with their surreal, often haunting latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Manimals – Multiverse
Crunchy, catchy powerpop and a darkly pervasive Bowie influence on the new album from New York’s’ most entertainingly theatrical band. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 compilation
Digitized and somewhat sonically tweaked field recordings of icons like Howlin’ Wolf and cult figures like Magic Sam, shredding and wailing in their element onstage, captured by a college kid with a cheap tape recorder. Listen at Bandcamp

Beat Circus – These Wicked Things
One of the first and best of the carnivalesque rock bands of the 90s, back and revitalized with a lavish, darkly picturesque southwestern gothic concept album. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Sometime Boys – The Perfect Home
A characteristically enigmatic mix of distantly Americana-influenced, slinky originals and imaginatively reinvented covers from New York’s most charismatic, kinetically psychedelic band. Listen at Bandcamp

Locobeach – Psychedelic Disco Cumbia
Truth in advertising: trippy chicha, serpentine highway themes and some woozy dub from this tropical supergroup led by members of Los Crema Paraiso and Chicha Libre. Listen at Bandcamp 

Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee – The Newest Sound You Never Heard
Recorded live and in the studio for Belgian radio in 1966 and 1967, these radical reinventions and a handful of originals by the iconic noir pianist and the shatteringly subtle jazz singer rival the brilliance of their iconic 1961 debut. Not streaming anywhere but available on vinyl.

The 30 Best NYC Concerts of 2019

Enormous triage was required to trim this down to a manageable number. Despite a desperate climate where practically every corner property in this city is being removed from the stock of housing and commercial space and handed over to speculators, thousands of stubborn musicians and patrons of the arts won’t leave this sinking ship.

Time to celebrate that tenacity! Consider this an informed survey rather than a definitive statement:  this is the most personal of all the year-end lists here. It’s impossible to count the number of shows over the past several years where this blog was in the house even though most New Yorkers couldn’t get there (or, more likely, couldn’t get home from there) because of the subway melting down at night and on the weekend. The reverse is just as true. You want FOMO? Move to Brooklyn.

The best show of 2019 was Rose Thomas Bannister‘s wedding, at Union Pool in late September, where the Great Plains gothic songstress sang her heart out on a killer festival bill which also included her polymath guitarist husband Bob Bannister, her bagpipe wizard dad Tom Campbell jamming with the mesmerizingly trippy 75 Dollar Bill, plus sets by psychedelic indie rockers PG Six and delirious Afrobeat crew Super Yamba. For anyone who might consider it pretentious to pick a private event as the year’s best concert…it wasn’t really private. Anybody who was at the bar, or just randomly walking by, could have come in and enjoyed the music – and as the night went on, a lot of people did.

Here’s the rest of the year, in chronological order:

House of Echo at Nublu 151, 1/15/19
French keyboardist Enzo Carniel’s hauntingly improvisational quartet built Lynchian ambience throughout a smoky, hypnotic series of cinematic tableaux.

Golden Fest, 1/18-19/19
Night one of the annual blockbuster South Park Slope festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music was a delirious dance party with brass band Zlatne Uste, their smaller spinoff Kavala, pontic lyra player Dimitrios Stefanides and otherworldly Turkish oboe band Zurli Drustvo. Night two went for about nine hours with about a hundred bands. Some highights: chanteuse Eva Salina fronting the Balkan Doors, Choban Elektrik: Amir Vahab‘s plaintive Iranian ballads; Raya Brass Band‘s chandelier-shaking intensity; Souren Baronian‘s deep, soulful Near Eastern jazz; clarinetist Michael Winograd‘s lavish klezmer orchestra; and thunderous Rhode Island street band What Cheer Brigade closing the festivities

Ethel at the Jewish Museum, 2/28/19
It’s shocking that it took twenty years before there was ever a world premiere performance of the complete, witheringly intense Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle…and it’s a good thing these champions of 21st century music took the job

Hearing Things at Barbes, 3/1/19
Slinky, allusively sinister, Balkan and Doors-tinged organ-and-sax grooves with a surf beat: the crowd danced hard at this wild post-happy hour gig

Josh Sinton’s Krasa at Issue Project Room, 3/15/19
Seated with his back to the audience, pushing his contrabass clarinet to its extreme limits through a huge pedalboard, Sinton’s solo show was one of the most deliciously assaultive sets of the year, over and out in less than 40 minutes.

Girls on Grass and the Sadies at Union Pool, 4/2/19
Luscious clang and twang, some Nashville gothic and surf and a little punkgrass from the legendary, jangly psychedelic band who got their start in the 90s, with a similarly brilliant, psychedelic act they highly influenced opening the night

The Juilliard Trombone Choir at the Greene Space, 4/3/19
NY Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi‘s explosive, wickedly tight band of future classical stars ripped and pulsed through irresistibly imaginative, sometimes amusing arrangements of works from Gabrieli to Beethoven to Warlock

Mary Lee’s Corvette at the Mercury, 4/13/19
With former Pogue Cait O’Riordan bopping and slinking around on bass, Mary Lee Kortes’ rivetingly lyrical, multistylistically jangly band brought equal parts ferocity and fun

The Coffin Daggers at Otto’s in the wee hours of 5/5/19
The undisputed kings of horror surf were as loud as ever and maybe even more murkily, assaultively psychedelic

Lee Narae at Lincoln Center, 5/9/19
Backed by a terse psychedelic folk band, the individualistic pansori singer unveiled a withering, provocatively feminist remake of the ancient Korean epic Byeongangsoe-ga, told from the long-suffering bride’s point of view

Greek Judas at Niagara, 5/9/19
A great night – this is the first time there have ever been two separate shows from a single evening on this list. Guitarists Wade Ripka and Adam Good sparred through one sinister chromatic Greek rembetiko metal hash-smoking anthem after another, over the supple groove of bassist Nick Cudahy and drummer Chris Stromquist

Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, 5/10/19
Kalhor is the renowed, intense master of the Iranian kamancheh fiddle; this evening was a very rare performance on setar lute, building serpentine, hauntingly relevant epics with his protege

Loreto Aramendi at Central Synagogue, 5/14/19
In a rare US appearance, the pioneering Spanish organist played wickedly imaginative arrangements of Rachmaninoff’s iconic C# Minor Prelude, Saint-Saens’ Halloween classic Danse Macabre and pieces by Buxtehude, Liszt and Ligeti

Bobtown at Rockwood Music Hall, 6/9/19
The iconic folk noir harmony band cheerily harmonized, slunk and bounded through a mix of somewhat less creepy material than usual, with lots of tunes from their new album Chasing the Sun, plus a brooding cameo from cellist Serena Jost

The New York Philharmonic in Prospect Park, 6/14/19
In his Brooklyn debut, maestro Jaap Van Zweden led this country’s flagship orchestra through a stunningly vivid, resolutely vindictive performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 6/26/19
The psychedelic cumbia legends reunited and warmed up for a South American tour with a couple of shows on their home turf. This was the second night, the one this blog didn’t review, and it was even better than the first, beginning with the gleefully uneasy Papageno Electrico and closing after midnight with the group’s creepy electric bolero version of Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1

Nashaz and Gato Loco at Barbes, 7/5/19
Oudist Brian Prunka’s undulating Middle Eastern band jammed out both otherworldly Egyptian classics as well as similarly edgy, entrancing originals; afterward, multi-saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk’s mighty noir mambo band burned through an even more towering, angst-fueled set

Hannah vs. the Many and the Manimals at the Nest, 7/11/19
The most entertaining show of the year began with charismatic frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s withering, torrentially lyrical noir punk band and ended with catchy powerposters the Manimals’ incendiary bandleader Haley Bowery skidding to the edge of the stage on her knees, seemingly covered with blood. Costumes and a quasi-satanic ritual were also involved.

Michael Winograd at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/19
The supersonic klezmer clarinetist and composer defied the heat, leading a similarly sizzling band through wildly cinematic originals from his new album Kosher Style

The Drive East Festival, 8/5-11/19
NYC’s annual celebration of traditional and cutting-edge Indian classical arts featured rapturous ragas from sitarist Hidayat Khan, hypnotic soundscapes by saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan, spellbinding violinists Trina Basu & Arun Ramamurthy’s Carnatic-inspired Nakshatra Quartet, and a sardonically riveting Metoo-themed dance performance by Rasika Kumar, festival creator Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek, with a dynamic live score by Roopa Mahadevan

Looking at You at Here, 9/6/19
Kamala Sankaram and Rob Handel’s new opera, billed as a mashup of the Edward Snowden affair and Casablanca, is a satire of Silicon Valley technosupremacists falling for their own bullshit. It was as chillingly Orwellian as it was hilarious, with a subtly immersive live score .

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Combo Lulo at Barbes, 9/14/19
The dynamic, resonant, klezmer and noir-inspired trumpeter, guitarist Brad Shepik and drummer Shane Shanahan built darkly chromatic mood pieces and more jaunty, acerbic tunes; it was a good setup for the organ-driven psychedelic cumbias, edgy Ethiopiques and trippy dub sounds afterward.

Wajde Ayub at Roulette, 9/28/19
The powerful Syrian baritone crooner – a protege of legendary Syrian tarab singer Sabah Fakhri – led a lavish, kinetic orchestra through a mix of harrowingly vivid, socially relevant anthems and ecstatic love ballads.

Nights one and two of the Momenta Festival, 10/15-16/19
To open their annual festival of underperformed and brand-new string quartet music at the Americas Society, the perennially relevant Momenta Quartet played a haunting Julian Carrillo microtonal piece, premiered a fierce, allusiveley political Alvin Singleton quartet as well as a more elegantly circling one by Roberto Sierra plus works by Ligeti and Mario Lavista.

The Takacs Quartet play the Bartok string quartet cycle at the 92nd St. Y, 10/18-20/19
A revelatory, slashingly energetic, insightful tour of some of the most harrowing, intense work for string quartet ever written

Big Lazy’s album release weekend at the American Can Co. building, 11/8-9/19
Bandleader and guitarist Steve Ulrich had lost his mom the night before the sold-out two-night stand started. He’d played Cole Porter’s I Love You to her that evening, and reprised the song on night one with his cinematic noir trio, bolstered by organist Marlysse Simmons, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and baritone saxophonist Peter Hess. Night two’s music was less mystical and pensive, more thrillingly, grittily menacing and macabre – when it wasn’t slinky and cynically playful.

Hamid Al-Saadi and Safaafir at Roulette, 11/23/19
The gritty, impassioned Iraqi crooner and this hemisphere’s only ensemble dedicated to classical Iraqi maqam music were tighter and more electric than they’d been at Lincoln Center in the spring, through a mix of metaphorically charged, socially relevant themes and more lively, traditional repertoire.

The Grasping Straws and Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons at the Mercury, 11/24/19
For anybody who might have missed seeing Patti Smith back in the 70s, or Jimi Hendrix in the 60s, this was a good substitute, the openers’ elegant, incisive lead guitarist Marcus Kitchen contrasting with the headliners’ feral, Hendrixian Hugh Pool

Karen Dahlstrom at Scratcher Bar, 12/8/19
The powerful, gospel-inspired singer and folk noir champion held the crowd rapt through brooding Old West narratives, wryly torchy blues, gorgeously plaintive laments and the fierce Metoo anthem No Man’s Land, the title track from her brilliant new album.

Gorgeously Bittersweet Rarities and Outtakes From the Inimitable Amy Allison

Amy Allison is one of the most shatteringly brilliant songwriters to emerge from New York since the 90s – or for that matter, ever. Her distinctive voice has jazz nuance, coy quirkiness and an inimitable bittersweet charm. On one hand, she really seems to be the sad girl whose album of the same name became iconic in Americana circles in the early zeros. On the other, her sense of humor is just as quietly devastating. Her latest album Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun – streaming at youtube – bridges two different eras in her career: her early days as a classic country songwriter, and more recently as a purist pop tunesmith. Many of the songs here are short, around the two-minute mark, outtakes from three different sessions in Scotland, Los Angeles and New York. If other songwriters put out A-sides as strong as Amy Allison’s B-sides, the world would be a much more interesting place.

The album opens with Blue Plate Special. a vintage soul-tinged shout-out to the Memphis she lived in briefly during the early 80s but seemingly never felt completely at home in: this is a surprisingly quiet place. After the Tone, a wryly swaying country song with beefy guitars, is a tale about being stood up, back to the days of answering machines

Allison sings Nightingale, a slowly swaying, guardedly optimistic country waltz with stately piano, from the point of view of an urban dwelller “too faraway in the noise and the fray” to hear the bird. 4:15, a casually loping tune with sparse, echoey Rhodes piano and banks of guitars, is a poetically succinct chronicle of late-afternoon teenage daydrinking – and abandonment.

Even the album’s blithest honkytonk number, Angel Face has a dark undercurrent. Allison evokes the dreamy quality of some of her best ballads with NYC, an elegantly countrypolitan-flavored celebration of diversity, and how New Yorkers don’t actually have to see the stars to know they shine on us.

She does Goodbye Lovers Lane much faster than she plays it live, a briskly aphoristic, Merseybeat-tinged shuffle that’s over in less than two minutes. Dream About Tomorrow, a Kitty Wells-style breakup ballad, is awash in a whirl of pedal steel. It Doesn’t Matter Anymore is classic Allison, drenched in longing and emotional desolation, finally picking up with a web of guitar textures:

It doesn’t matter, can’t you see
The future’s just a memory
I saw the summer turn to fall
It didn’t dawn on me at all

Over the album’s the most imaginative arrangement, with mandolin, piano and melodica, Allison salutes Bette Davis for her role as the doomed wife in the 1940 drama The Letter. Arguably the album’s strongest track. This Prison is a typically metaphor-loaded chronicle of depression, done as classic honkytonk with flangey guitar: Allison admits that this cold, lonely place might keep her out of trouble, but she needs to break out – if only she can find that missing key! The albun closes with Silver Stone, an older, bitter country breakup tune whose narrator ends up in a “town where all that glitters is fool’s gold.” Beyond this collection, Allison – a frequent contributor to the Hoboken-based Radio Free Song collective – has plenty of new material and even more obscurities that could make a couple of killer albums, or at least playlists.

The Legendary Dream Syndicate’s Latest Album Is Their Most Political and Lyrical One Yet

“You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way,” Dylan said. But the Dream Syndicate proved him wrong. It’s mind-blowing how a band who put out their first album in 1981, broke up in 1989, regrouped early in this soon-defunct decade and influenced pretty much every noiserock and psychedelic band since are arguably better than ever. Their latest album These Times – streaming at youtube and available on autographed limited edition vinyl – is their quiet one so far.

As quiet as the world’s most brilliantly feral jamband gets, anyway. The janglerock ticks more tightly, and frontman/guitarist Steve Wynn goes deeper into his recent explorations of dreampop and psychedelic soul, taking advantage of drummer Dennis Duck’s slinky capabilities (anybody who thinks he’s just a four-on-the-floor rock guy hasn’t seen the band play John Coltrane Stereo Blues live). It’s also one of Wynn’s lyrically strongest albums, and his most allusively political one.

The first track on the record is The Way In, Wynn’s vampy downstroke guitar over a nebulous dreampop backdrop:

What a tangled web
What a piece of the puzzle
Hot licks and rhetoric
A syntactical muzzle
And we can’t begin
Until we find a way in

Put Some Miles On is the most motorik song the band’s ever done , a wryly defiant commentary on the wear and tear of the road, literally and metaphorically Wynn goes deeper into that theme with the haunting Black Light, its spare, resonantly jangly guitar and eerily blippy keys over a midtempo swing groove:

Crawled out from beneath the rock
Crustacean rough and steely strong
A weathered eye with a ticking heart
I know where and why but not how long

Awash in watery 80s guitar, Bullet Holes is a catchy backbeat hit over a classic Wynn two-chord verse, contemplating the ravages of time and knowing where the bodies are buried:

Barely surviving
Shell shocked, struck by lightning
And alone
Death defying
Acceptance without trying
Walking on gilded air
Down the boulevard without a care
Something reminds me
Nothing left to bind me
I see the bullet holes
The history that no one knows
Just the way the story goes…

Still Here Now is just plain gorgeous, a bitterly resolute midtempo anthem that picks up with incisive piano and distantly unhinged sheets of Jason Victor guitar, building to his first tantalizingly savage solo here:

I sing the song in vain
And I know there are those
Who might feel the same
Stunted by light
I just guess I wasn’t thinking right

The slyly allusive revolutionary anthem Speedway comes across as less lyrically dense Highway 61 Dylan:

Banging on the shuttered doorway
The owner is fast asleep
Gonna work it out this time
Maybe just for keeps

Recovery Mode is a brisk, new wave-tinged tune: the momentary guitar duel between Wynn and Victor is spot-on and like nothing they’ve ever done before. It’s a tense, metaphorically-loaded late Trump-era scenario:

You came to the right place
You got a kind face
What if your saving grace
Was lost in the chase

Duck opens The Whole World’s Watching with a sly lowrider clave groove, bassist Mark Walton turning up his treble for a little funk flash as the guitar swirl grows denser and more abrasive, distorto organ flitting through the mix. “Differentiate the sides,” Wynn instructs: “Same wrong, different time.”

The growlingly propulsive Space Age could be a snide come-on to a groupie, or an even snider commentary on politics as spectacle. The band wind up the record with Treading Water Underneath the Stars, a crushingly cynical eoo-disaster parable over lingering Meddle-era Pink Floyd atmospherics. It goes without saying that this is one of the best albums of the year.

Why did this blog wait so long to pitch in and spread the word? Waiting for the band to come back to town! Good news: there’s a 2020 tour in the works, keep your eye on Wynn’s tour page.

Surreal, Occasionally Assaultive Epics and a Bushwick Brewery Gig from Bassist James Ilgenfritz

You’re going to want to turn down the volume on your device for the first track on bassist James Ilgenfritz‘s wildly uncategorizable new album You Scream a Rapid Language – streaming at Bandcamp – especially if you’re wearing earbuds. Some of this is assaultive, abrasive music, but it can be a treat for people who gravitate toward those kinds of sounds. The bassist’s next gig is a two-night stand with multimedia artist and playwright Sarah Krasnow at Honey’s, a mead brewery at 93 Scott Ave. in Bushwick on Jan 4 and 5 at 8 PM. Cover is $10; since this is happening over another L-pocalypse weekend, if you’re not in the neighborhood, it’s going to be a bitch to get to. The closest train that’s running is the M to Myrtle Ave; you could take your chances with the bus after.

Muted, pummeling beats anchor violinist Pauline Kim Harris’ sharp, shrieking, slashing upper-register riffage in the album’s first track, Terminal Affirmative. As usual, Ilgenfritz writes for every fraction of the available sonics, from nails-down-the-blackboard upper-register harmonics, to cello-like low-midrange washes, to pings and thuds from Alex Cohen’s double bass drum. .And just when you think this might be all shards and fragments, it turns into a witchy tarantella.

The second number, Apophenia III: The Index is a twistedly disjointed electroacoustic epic with lots of sardonic wah-wah, a talkbox, creepy, minimalist piano from Kathleen Supove, sepulchral wisps from James Moore’s guitar and Jennifer Choi’s violin, and a bit of a strolling stalker theme. How to Talk to Your Children About Not Looking at the Eclipse, a chattering solo tableau for Margaret Lancaster’s solo flute, is as ridiculously picturesque as the title suggests.

Freaky faux-operatic spoken word, fragmentary Joseph Kubera piano, flickering bass and lingering vibes from William Winant blend uneasily, sometimes edging toward horror, in Apophenia IV: A Bell in Every Finger. It could be a performance art parody, or maybe everybody just got really stoned before improvising it. Either way, it runs out of gas short of the twelve-minute mark. The album winds up with the five-part suite Fanfares For Modest Accomplishments, played by violin duo String Noise and spanning from chirpy, minimalistic acerbity, to wry conversationality, playfully adrenalizing rollercoaster interludes and a coy false ending.

Escaping the Nazis with a Quartet for the End of Time

Olivier Messiaen premiered his Quartet for the End of Time in a Nazi prison camp. There’s no way of knowing exactly what he was thinking at the time, but it’s probably safe to say that he considered that maybe this could have been his last concert, and the last piece of music he’d ever write. And while much of it is macabre, there’s a transgresssive subtext: we’re going to make a break for it and get the hell out of here, Messiaen seems to be saying. And he got away with it, right under the Nazis’ noses!

As it turned out, Messiaen didn’t have to go through with an escape plan, and there were no reprisals. Either the Nazis didn’t get it, or they didn’t take him seriously. He would eventually be liberated in 1941 and go on to write lots of other somewhat less creepy music. The new recording of the Quartet for the End of Time by clarinetist Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – streaming at Spotify – is worth owning just for the liner notes. Long story short: new scholarship reveals that the composer didn’t write all of it in the Nazi camp. Like so many other European artists, he’d volunteered to fight the Nazis, but this harrowing suite underscores how much he hated wartime conditions.

There are parts of the new album that sound fast, and others that sound slow, although that perception uptimately proves false. It’s probably due to how intensely Severe and the group – pianist Théo Fouchenneret, cellist Volodia van Keulen and violinist David Petrlik– tackle the piece. The many passages that evoke the songs of the birds that Messiaen loved so much are muted and distant, a taunt to a prisoner who can only hear them. The aching, acidically immersive, apocalyptic rapture of the final movement drags on and on – exactly as the composer persuaded his bandmates to play it the first time around. But the frantic, stormy moments before then are just short of grand guignol. Messiaen, a devout Catholic, left no doubt how sincere his liturgical themes of struggle and salvation were, but here the real-life horror narrative is inescapably, barely concealed amidst the shrieks, sprints and sudden swells.

There aren’t many other pieces of music for such a strange lineup as piano, violin, clarinet and cello, but the group found one: Thomas Ades‘ Studies from his opera The Tempest. These short character sketches – Messiaen-inspired instrumental arrangements of operatic themes – run the gamut from calm pensiveness to brooding melancholy.

 

Best Brooklyn Venue of 2019: More New Blood!

The annual pick for best Manhattan and Brooklyn music venue here originated at a predecessor blog a dozen years ago. The point was to give props to places that might be flying under the radar but had great music and deserved more support. Trouble was, back then there were a lot more spaces worth considering for a venue-of-the-year award. With the East Village pretty much completely devastated by gentrification, the shortlist for Manhattan dwindled to zero. And it would be pointless to pick a world-famous landmark like Carnegie Hall or the Village Vanguard.

Brooklyn’s full of venues, but most of them have problems that take them out of the picture. For 2019, the question is not why Lucky 13 Saloon earns this year’s award for Best Brooklyn Venue – it’s why the sonically excellent, laid-back metal bar didn’t win it five years ago.

The reason is that it wasn’t really a more-or-less fulltime music venue until then. It’s been a great bar since the early zeros, maybe before, and that vibe really hasn’t changed. Other than Barbes – which has won Best Brooklyn Venue here several times – it’s hard to imagine another club that draws as diverse a mix of nationalities and demographics. Drinks are still cheap: happy hour pitchers are the big bargain these days. The people who work here are chill, the sound in the back room of the old industrial space is shockingly good, they have deep-fried snacks, and it’s easy to get to. You can take the R to Union St, or just walk downhill from the Atlantic Ave. station and it’s right there on Sackett.

And the music is consistently excellent. Every heavy psychedelic band in town comes through here eventually, with frequent national touring acts, from punk to every kind of metal you could possibly want. And the crowd hangs for the whole evening. Cover is always affordable, usually ten bucks, rarely more, occasionally less. Once in awhile there’s a free show on a weekend afternoon or Sunday evening.

For anyone who might be wondering why St. Vitus hasn’t yet earned Best Brooklyn Venue yet, it’s on the shortlist, but there are a couple of issues. Sure, St. Vitus books all kinds of great, heavy sounds, they don’t overcharge, they have cool people working the bar and the music room, the sound is killer and so are many of their multi-band lineups. But once in awhile they deal with outside promoters who bring in annoying, twee indie bands, and probably as a result, the door crew seem to suffer from the battle fatigue that comes from having to deal with crowds of assholes. Brooklyn’s best venue doesn’t book that kind of garbage…and Brooklyn’s best venue also doesn’t treat stoners or metalheads like indie gentrifier trash.

Best Manhattan Venue of 2019: New Blood!

The premise of New York Music Daily’s annual choice for best Manhattan and Brooklyn venue dovetails with the ultimate mission here: to spread the word about music that deserves a wider audience. Trouble is, in the years since 2007 when the old Lakeside Lounge won the award for Best Manhattan Venue (at a predecessor blog), it’s been a real stretch to come up with a different pick every year. The list of contenders which have closed since then eclipses the dwindling number that might conceivably be called the best in the borough today.

That explains why, in the past three years, the Best Manhattan Venue award has gone to a museum, the free concert and events space at Manhattan’s flagship cultural institution, and a public park with frequent live music during the warmer months. Of all the places that have earned the award over the past dozen years, five have closed, one moved to Brooklyn, and another has pretty much gotten out of the music business. Beyond that, it’s slim pickings. And it would be a waste of time, old news, to flag a famous venue like one of the big Lincoln Center halls, or the Apollo, which rarely has concerts anymore anyway.

So what’s left? Most all of the best jazz spots have priced themselves out of the equation: it would be ridiculous to call a club the borough’s best venue if the people who live here can’t afford it. That’s even more of a problem at the classical venues. And the ones that aren’t obscenely expensive usually have sonic issues.

Meanwhile, the number of rock joints which might possibly deserve consideration is down to a grand total of three. Of those, Bowery Electric has erratic sound, hit-and-miss booking and the nerve to charge a cover for their second room, a tiny upstairs rehearsal closet that only has space to squeeze in the band along with (maybe) two other people. Shrine, which ended up winning Best Manhattan Venue for 2011 after a very impressive first year in business, has become a venue of last resort. And Rockwood Music Hall, whose northernmost original room was once a strong contender, is now no more than a minor-league Arlene Grocery. Even if the sound is great, most of the music there is a joke, clueless American Idol wannabes and their Instagram followers from New Jersey. Rock is very much alive throughout the rest of the world, but in Manhattan it’s flatlining.

So it’s kind of a big deal that for 2019, New York Music Daily has a new pick for Best Manhattan Venue: the Glass Box Theatre at the New School. The main attraction at the intimate, glass-walled first-floor space on 13th St. is the Stone, John Zorn’s legendary jazz, avant garde and improvisational music series that got priced out of its longtime East Village home a couple of years ago. There are also regular free concerts here featuring up-and-coming artists from the New School’s highly regarded classical and jazz programs, along with occasional theatrical or literary events.

The Glass Box Theatre is also currently home to Luisa Muhr‘s reliably cutting-edge Women Between Arts series, the only one in New York dedicated exclusively to multidisciplinary women artists. Whether there’s a jazz band cooking up front, or a quieter act, the sound is consistently excellent. Cover is always affordable: the Stone is typically $20, and Muhr’s series offers a sliding scale, with the policy of not turning away the underpaid or underemployed for lack of funds.

Audiences come to listen; the staff and security are helpful and chill, 180 degrees from the snooty hostility you get just a few blocks to the south at NYU. No, the Glass Box Theatre isn’t a fulltime music space, but neither are Bryant Park, the Lincoln Center atrium, or the American Folk Art Museum, the three most recent picks here for Best Manhattan Venue. As more and more of the borough’s real estate is appropriated exclusively for speculators, we have to make do with what we have – at least until we have a Sanders or Warren Presidency, and a shot at reclaiming what’s been stolen from us. In the meantime, it’s a good thing we have this cozy little spot to keep an old tradition going and hopefully start some new ones.

It’s Been a Typically Eclectic Year at Upper Manhattan’s Home for Adventurous New Classical Sounds

If new classical music is your thing, don’t let any possible twee, gentrifier associations scare you away from the Miller Theatre‘s series of so-called “pop-up” concerts. For almost a decade now, Columbia’s comfortable auditorium at the top of the stairs at the 116th St. stop on the 1 train has been home to an often spectacularly good series of free, early evening performances of 21st century works along with the occasional blast from the past. The name actually reflects how impromptu these shows were during the series’ first year, and while the schedule now extends several months ahead, new events still do pop up unexpectedly. Sometimes there’s free beer and wine, sometimes not, but that’s not the main attraction, testament to how consistently solid the programming here has become.

This past fall’s first concert was a revelatory world premiere of John Zorn’s new JMW Turner-inspired suite for solo piano, played with virtuosic verve by Steven Gosling; that one got a rave review here. The October episode, with indie classical chamber ensemble Counterinduction playing an acerbic, kinetic series of works by their charismatic violist Jessica Meyer, was also fantastic. Various permutations of the quintet, Meyer joined by violinist Miranda Cuckson, cellist Caleb van der Swaagh, clarinetist and bass clarinetist Benjamin Fingland and pianist Ning Yu began with the dappled shades of I Only Speak of the Sun, then brought to life the composer’s many colorful perspectives on Guadi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral in a dynamic, high-voltage partita. The most bracing number of the evening, Meyer explained, drew on a David Foster Wallace quote regarding how “ the truth will set you free, but not until it lets you go,”

There were many other memorable moments here throughout the past year. In February, Third Sound played an assured but deliciously restless take of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 along with a mixed bag of material from south of the border. A month later, pianist Marilyn Nonken parsed uneasily lingering works by Messiaen and Tristan Murail.

Then in April, Rebecca Fischer delivered a fascinating program of solo violin pieces along with some new arrangements. The highlight was a reinvention of Missy Mazzoli‘s incisively circling Death Valley Junction. Fischer also ran through an increasingly thorny, captivating Paola Prestini piece, along with brief, often striking works by Lisa Bielawa, Gabriela Lena Frank and Suzanne Farrin.

Last month, Tak Ensemble tackled elegantly minimalist chamber material by Tyshawn Sorey and Taylor Brook. And December’s concert featured firebrand harpist Bridget Kibbey, who played the Bach Toccata in D faster than any organist possibly could, then slowed down for simmering, relatively short pieces by Albeniz and Dvorak among others.

The next Miller Theatre “pop-up” concert on the calendar is next January 21 at 6 PM with violinist Lauren Cauley.

A Characteristically Rich, Diverse Year of Shows at Manhattan’s Best Venue for Acoustic and Folk Music

The American Folk Art Museum won the annual award for Best Manhattan Venue here back in 2016. It would be just as easy to say that again in 2019. Impresario Lara Ewen‘s mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series is still the most transit-accessible way to discover new songwriting and traditional music talent in this city, artists from all over the world covet playing in the museum’s rich natural reverb…and you can get a glass of wine here for a third of what it would cost you at Rockwood Music Hall.

As you would expect at a museum whose equally amazing exhibits document folk art and outsider art spanning the past few centuries, there’s plenty of folk music here. But even the oldtime sounds extend well beyond the world of fingerpicked front-porch acoustic guitar tunes. The best traditional show here this year was by singer Vienna Carroll, a historian whose insights into a set of rousing blues, gospel and string band songs reflected the triumphs of African-Americans over 19th century slaveowner terrorism and racism rather than the more common narrative of endless suffering. Queen Esther, a Folk Art Museum regular, reaffirmed that same fearlessly subversive esthetic at a couple of shows in February and July, featuring both Eastern Seaboard blues and soul-tinged originals.

Other entertaining oldtime folk shows included sets by the harmony-driven Triboro in May, as well as Irish tunesmith Brendan O’Shea (whose defiant, populist originals were even better) in July. Of all the original songwriters here, the most shattering was Karen Dahlstrom, whose November set featured a lot of material from her latest release No Man’s Land (a lock for best short album of 2019).  With her fearsome but meticulously nuanced alto, she aired out the fiery, gospel-infused title track, a Metoo-era broadside, as well as the metaphorically haunting After the Flood – a look at both personal and global apocalypses – and a new number, My Benevolent Destroyer, a chilling portrait of a broken marriage through the prism of imperialist domination.

Joshua Garcia, with his flinty voice and harrowing, Phil Ochs-inspired narratives, put the struggles of new immigrants and battered women in potently political perspective, along with the most chillingly allusive song about the Hiroshima bombing ever written. Miriam Elhajli sang in both English and Spanish, looking outward at the grim political climate as well as more inwardly, with intricate guitar fingerpicking and some intriguing jazz and Latin American riffs.

Niall Connolly held the crowd rapt with his brooding, tersely crystallized songs of struggle and emotional abandonment and rage against the Trumpies (a reaction that ran high at practically every show here this year). Soulstress Dina Regine, who played here in both April and June, was much the same, thematically, although her music draws more on classic 1960s American grooves.

How torchy singer Jeanne Marie Boes managed to get so much epic power and range out of her tiny keyboard is a mystery, although her towering, angst-fueled ballads and a couple of detours into darkly majestic blues had a relentlessly direct intensity. With her resonant chorister’s voice and deadpan surrealism, cellist/singer Meaner Pencil a.k.a. Lenna M. Pierce (she got her stage name the online anagram generator, she explained) was just as gripping, in a completely different vein.

Songstress/acoustic guitarist Kalyani Singh illuminated a dark inner world with a similar, often minimalistic focus, while southwestern singer Kate Vargas got the crowd going with singalongs and innumerable chances to have fun with beats. And Feral Foster – who runs the Jalopy’s longtime Roots & Ruckus series – didn’t let being under the weather get in the way of a characteristically haunted, expertly fingerpicked set of grim Nashville gothic laments and ballads.

The American Folk Art Museum’s Free Music Fridays series resumes January 10 at 5:30 PM with the soaring, brilliantly lyrical Linda Draper. There’s also an ongoing free series of guitar jazz concerts most every Wednesday at 2 PM with Bill Wurtzel and bassist Jay Leonhart.