New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: blues music

A Smart, Defiant, Diverse Debut Album From Americana Tunesmith Cristina Vane

Cristina Vane shifts between a simmering intensity and a low-key, brooding vocal delivery. She’s a strong guitarist with command of a whole bunch of blues styles and writes sharply lyrical, darkly aphoristic songs. Her narratives are cached in allusive, grim rural imagery more than fire-and-brimstone gospel. Her brilliant debut album Nowhere Sounds Lovely – streaming at Bandcamp – covers a lot of ground, stylistically and otherwise.

She opens the record with Blueberry Hill – an original, not the Fats Domino classic, although the first verse of this intricately interwoven, Appalachian-flavored acoustic slide guitar blues is set in New Orleans. The devil tells her to get out, so she heads to New Mexico – and that isn’t any more welcoming:

We got spiders in the bathrooms and there’s snakes in the halls
We got our women in white dresses gonna walk through walls
And this house is haunted, not as much as me
But I could shake these demons, they’re good company

Travelin’ Blues has an easygoing Piedmont-style feel, Tommy Hannum’s dobro lingering over Vane’s nimble fingerpicking, bassist Dow Tomlin and drummer Cactus Moser giving it a, loping groove. By contrast, the stark banjo tune Prayer For the Blind has a midwest gothic fatalism, an endless cycle where “Time passes on old wounds as if they were brand new.”

Badlands is not the famous song by that 70s rock guy who became a hopeless lockdowner apologist, but a searing, allusively grim slide guitar-driven blues original. It could be a sinister account of antedeluvian rural hell…or a thinly disguised pro-freedom anthem. The big guitar payoff at the end is spot-on.

There’s redemptive solitude in the front-porch folk waltz Dreaming of Utah, Hannum’s pedal steel adding a touch of vintage Bob Wills western swing. Vane reaches for a matter-of-factly strutting Memphis soul feel in What Remains and goes back to blues with Heaven Bound Station, a steady stroll with some neat twin-guitar interplay.

She switches to banjo for Will I Ever Be Satisfied, a spare, lonesome-traveler type number. Vane imagines her ideal guy in Dreamboy, a stomping, insistent, similarly simmering blues: turns out she likes the strong silent type. Then she slows things down with the moody, slide guitar-driven Wishing Bone Blues, rising out of a hypnotic, summery resonance

The Driving Song captures a gloomy, desperate rural atmosphere where “The characters around me, border the absurd/It’s a comedy of horrors, and it just keeps getting worse.” Vane winds up the album the triumphant waltz Satisfied Soul, Nate Leath’s fiddle harmonizing with the keening pedal steel. If she hits the road in the free states this summer, she’s going to make a whole lot of fans.

A Look Back at Abigail Lapell’s Searing, Brilliant Getaway Album

Abigail Lapell’s 2019 album Getaway – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most brilliantly lyrical, tersely melodic original folk albums of recent years. Her vocals are usually understated, so when she rises to the rafters with righteous wrath, it takes your breath away. Sandy Denny is the obvious influence. Likewise, there’s a smoldering anger here. Abandonment is a persistent theme. This is not music for the faint-hearted but it is an elixir for anyone who’s ever been screwed over. And the tunesmithing, and musicianship, and arrangements, are sharp and purposeful. Time may judge this a classic.

The album’s first track, Gonna Be Leaving begin with Lapell’s warpy, trebly hollowbody blues guitar over Lisa Bozikovic’s stately piano and a vocal line that in classical music would be called a rondo. It sets the stage for the rest of the album: there’s a crushing irony in how the protagonist’s escape foreshadows the antagonist’s subsequent departure.

Ask Me No Questions a brisk waltz with distant echoes of early Fairport Convention. The ending is crushing – it’s too good to spoil. If vindictive is your thing, this is your jam.

Lapell’s circling guitar voicings in Devll in the Deep are nothing short of gorgeous in this otherwise tormentedly crescendoing anthem, Rachael Cardiello’s viola adding bracing bursts of color. Lapell switches to piano for Leningrad, an even more witheringly cynical, wintry ballad: “I come from a better place, but I don’t have far to fall,” she alludes.

With its spare, fingerpicked guitar and fluttering mellotron, Sparrow for a Heart is the closest evocation of Sandy Denny here, Rebecca Hennessey adding somber trumpet. Christine Bougie’s keening lapsteel floats over Lapell’s steady strums in the spirited yet haggard road narrative Halfway to Mexico.

The tricky rhythms and Lapell’s blippy keyboards underscore the surreal milieu of UFO Song: like David Bowie, life on Mars seems to be an improvement…until the narrator here sees the spaceship.

Lapell builds a hypnotic backdrop with her accordion in Runaway, an atmospheric take on oldtime Appalachian folk. Likewise, Down by the Water is a spare, harmony-fueled front-porch folk number.

Lapell’s hammer-on guitar sparkles darkly under the brass section in Little Noise: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Linda Thompson catalog. The album’s final cut is Shape of a Mountain, rocky terrain as metaphor for a defiantly individualist and weatherbeaten heart, set against a starkly resonant full-band backdrop.

An Edgy Playlist for a Spring Day…and a Great Upcoming Webcast

Spring is here and artists are starting to release more and more singles. Prediction: this year we’re going to see more and more music that was recorded in defiance of the lockdown. For your listening pleasure, here’s a self-guided playlist that’s just a small capsule of some of the very good things bubbling up from under the radar:

Molly Burman‘s Fool Me With Flattery has a noirish 60s rock edge with tropicalia tinges. Great jangly guitar!

Just when you think Paper Citizen‘s Scratching the Surface is totally no wave/skronky retro early 80s dystopia, the big catchy crunchy chorus kicks in. The lyrical message is allusive but spot on: let’s get off the screen before it gets us.

Shannon Clark & the Sugar‘s Let It Ride is not a cover of the Bachman-Turner Overdrive hit but a slow-burning minor key blues original. Remember the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks? This is probably on the jukebox there

Blood Lemon‘s Black-Capped Cry oozes through slow, doomy postmetal minimalism. They’re an Idaho band, and Idaho is a free state, so chances are they recorded this legally!

In elegant, stately Hebrew, singer Shifra Levy sings If I Found Grace over pianist/composer Yerachmiel’s neoromantic crescendos. It’s a Purim piano power ballad. Purim is sort of the Jewish Halloween: it’s not macabre, but all the cool kids dress up in costume and go to parties. Purim is over and Passover is looming, but give it a spin anyway

And speaking of awesome Jewish music, iconic klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals is playing a webcast live from Rockland, New York this March 13 at 7 PM. She chooses her spots for when she does these broadcasts, always gives you plenty of thrills and chills but just as much poignancy and an encyclopedic knowledge of the source material.

Chamomile and Whiskey’s Gloomy Americana Rock Narratives Echo in the Here and Now

Americana band Chamomile and Whiskey’s new album Red Clay Heart – streaming at Spotify – is their loudest and darkest yet. The jaunty Celtic-tinged themes and newgrass of their earlier material have been switched out for hard country and electric blues, desperate narratives for desperate times.

The album’s opening track, Way Back is a careening hillbilly boogie “That was way back when I used to give a shit…when I used to strive for greatness, when I used to think I should,” frontman/guitarist Ryan Lavin snarls, flipping off a tantalizing blues solo before the last verse. If nostalgia is the enemy of history, this song rings true.

With its litany of hellfire imagery, Dead Bird seems to be a Bible Belt gothic cautionary tale: “I drank the blood of the savior and he drank some of mine.” The dark electric blues of Will Scott is a good comparison.

The embittered, gloomily reflective Never Live Up follows the same pattern: the full electric band doesn’t kick in until a couple of skeletal acoustic verses. Lavin’s layer of twangy riffage mingle with fiddler Marie Borgman’s leaps and bounds in Triumph, an ironically titled, haphazardly catchy honkytonk shuffle.

They follow the 80s-tinged rock anthem All Right with the fire-and brimstone-shuffle Hard Time Honey, spiced with an unexpected Spanish guitar solo. Another Wake – a requiem for the Charlottesville massacre – is a famous John Lennon piano ballad recast as grim Americana, with a surprisingly empowering message.

The band go back to lo-fi hard honkytonk with the party anthem Best of the Worst, which would have been a good way to end an album which again and again returns to a personal pain that anyone who’s suffered under the past year’s lockdowns can relate to.

A Spot-On, Politically Fearless Live Album From the Impassioned Kemp Harris

Songwriter/pianist/activist/actor Kemp Harris has made a career out of absolutely smoking you with a lyric when you least expect it. His signature blend of politically smart oldschool soul, gospel and funk earned him a devoted following on the crunchy circuit. His gritty, expressive vocals hardly hint that he was in his late sixties the evening he played a dynamic, impassioned set on February 29, 2020 at the Bird in San Francisco with a pickup band. Less than two weeks later, concerts there were criminalized by California dictator Gavin Newsom in order to comply with a cabal of tech Nazis hell-bent on turning the entire world into an Orwellian surveillance state.

Harris’ show happened to be recorded, and has now been released as the album Live at the Bird SF. streaming at Bandcamp. It’s endemic of the glut of live recordings that no one at the time ever thought they’d release, which are now being dumped all over the web. If there’s any silver lining to this dismal era in human history, some of those shows turned out to be fantastic, and this one has its moments.

Harris opens the show as a duo with drummer Jim Lucchese. You’re going to want to start with the third track, Ruthie’s, a wise, aphoristic illustration of the utility of hanging away from idiots intent on starting a confrontation. “Escape from the lions, let the gladiator games begin,” Harris intones midway through.

He brings up bassist Jose Saravia and guitarist James Nash for a haphazardly swampy, simmering take of the political broadside Sweet Weeping Jesus. Saravia runs the hook from the Isley Bros.’ Money, underscoring the political context in the flood metaphors of Didn’t It Rain: “I saw the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time,” Harris avers.

The sarcasm, and the surprise punchline of Edenton are absolutely withering, Harris reflecting on his childhood in a supportive but insular North Carolina black community surrounded by sinister forces. He and the band hit a minimalist Bill Withers vamp that picks up with a funky syncopation in Invisible, with a hip hop-flavored interlude that looks back to an iconic Ralph Ellison novel.

After a medley of covers and a bit of a hopeful original in tribute to Martin Luther King, he turns in an emphatic, gospel-infused solo take of Willie Nelson’s Night Life, then brings the band back for a sly, funky, suggestive take of The Rain Came Down.

He gives Wiggle the same vibe with tinges of reggae and hip-hop, finds the inner hymn in Dylan’s I Shall Be Released, and closes the set with Swing Down Chariot, a funky remake of the gospel standard. The first of the encores is a late-period Buddy Guy-ish take of the blues Going Down. Harris winds up the night with a benedictory, hopeful solo version of Good Night America.

Branford Marsalis’ New Soundtrack Salutes an Iconic Blues Heroine

Continuing this month’s theme of big, ambitious projects, one of this year’s most entertaining new albums is Branford Marsalis’ original score to the film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, streaming at Spotify.

Although conventional wisdom says it never could have happened, a hundred years ago some of the most successful bandleaders in the world were women. Ma Rainey was the first national blues star, and paved the way for the bestselling megastar of the 20s and early 30s, Bessie Smith. It’s about time Rainey, whose theatrics and sardonic persona spoke for a generation of indomitable black women, got the props she deserved, and Marsalis delivers a score that does her justice. The production values are purist, but in the here and now: Marsalis doesn’t try to recreate any kind of rustic ambience or trebly imitation of Rainey’s iconic 78 RPM records.

Singer Maxayn Lewis delivers the songs with an expressive alto that’s grittier than Rainey’s signature, understatedly brooding delivery. The opening number, Deep Moaning Blues, sets the stage for the rest of the record, with horns, piano, bass and drums, the latter two seldom found in a recording studio at the time Rainey was making 78s. The song is also almost twice as long as anything that could be squeezed into the shellac at the time.

Marsalis and the trombone engage in a genial barroom conversation in the blues Hear Me Talking to You. The Story of Memphis Green is a haunting minor-key theme, veering in and out of waltz time, with moody clarinet carrying the melody.

Clarinet, trumpet and tapdancing take centerstage in Jump Song, a lively midtempo 20s swing tune. Leftovers, a grimly incisive minor-key solo piano theme, is the album’s most minimalist yet most haunting interlude.

Other highlights among the set pieces include the title theme, a red-neon hokum blues; the Chicago El portrayed with steady, chuffing dixieland echoes; a catchy, brassy New Orleans sway with tuba and banjo; a cheery swing tune for soprano sax and piano; an artfully orchestrated rag; a towering sax-versus-piano tableau; a steely minor-key Gershwin Summertime paraphrase, and plenty of humorous, vaudevillian bits. Fans of classic blues and jazz have a lot to enjoy here.

The Original Cast Recording of the Tina Turner Musical Packs a Punch

The lavish 24-track original London cast recording of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical – streaming at Spotify – is a risky project. Covering an icon like Turner is a potential minefield: mess up and you will be held accountable. But singer Adrienne Warren, in the lead role, shows off a strong, throaty, versatile delivery. The band behind her are superb, particularly on the vintage soul numbers, and the supporting cast rise to the occasion as well. It’s not often that a Broadway pit band can school other musicians on how to play much of anything, but they do here. And the script doesn’t shy away from what a creep and an abuser Ike was.

The music doesn’t follow a chronological narrative, with songs from Turner’s big 80s comeback mingled within material that spans from edgy blues to high-voltage vintage soul to the poppier stuff of her later career. Sending out a shout to her gospel beginnings, the first version of Nutbush City Limits has a lavish, ecstatic choral arrangement. The band add a welcome raw edge to Shake a Tail Feather; likewise, Daniel J. Watts, whose salacious rasp makes a great fit in Ike’s Innuendo-fueled hit The Hunter.

Tina enters in the background in Matchbox, done here as a swinging jump blues. Her dad warns Ike what’s going happen if he strays from Tina in a witheringly cynical take of It’s Gonna Work Out Fine over some delicious guitar textures. In context, the angst-fueled intro to A Fool in Love packs a punch.

With a beefy rhythm section and bright spacerock guitars, Better Be Good to Me is a vast improvement on the original. The whole crew shift gears seamlessly back to a blue-flame, unexpectedly psychedelic take of Higher, the first song the Turners – battling hard behind the scenes by now – played on national tv.

River Deep Mountain High has a lavish intensity that rivals the record. Be Tender With Me, Ike’s plea for forgiveness, has a simmering intensity from both sides of the battle. Smartly, the version of Proud Mary here draws on the epic album version rather than the single – or Creedence, for that matter.

The group do their best to add an elegant, harder-rocking edge to I Don’t Wanna Fight, a good setup for Private Dancer, which is arguably even more weary and worn than the original even if it is a tad faster. And the cover of the Trammps’ hit Disco Inferno is practically punk rock.

Warren does a more-than-decent imitation of original singer Ann Peebles in Can’t Stand the Rain. After a low-key, starry version of David Bowie’s elegaic ballad Tonight, What’s Love Got to Do With It rocks a lot harder than the techy original, commemorating Turner’s first post-comeback New York appearance.

Likewise, Warren and the band reach toward Pink Floyd angst and grandeur in We Don’t Need Another Hero. Simply the Best may be epically cheesy no matter how epically you play it, but the decision to go back to Nutbush City Limits in the 1960s for the finale pays off mightily. There are only a couple of duds here: covering Al Green was ill-advised, and that odious Journey song is a real buzzkill. That’s why we have the mute button.

Spot-On Protest Songs and Spare, Eclectic Guitar Instrumentals From Austin Legend Matt Smith

Multi-instrumentalist Matt Smith is one of the great guitarists in Americana, among many other things. These days, most importantly, he writes protest songs.

Check out How We Got to Here, a spare, fingerpicked, dobro-infused number from his most recent album Being Human. In under four minutes, he paints a grim picture of recent American history, from the coup d’etat in 2000, up to the lockdown and how social media has paralyzed so many of us when we’re needed most:

We all saw it coming but we’re too self-involved to stand
Against the ones back in the shadows who wait to implement the plan
When they told us this was normal and did not believe the news
We took pictures of our dinnes and proselytized our views

Smith finds optimism in historical rebellions against past tyrannies: let’s hope he’s right.

The rest of the record – streaming at youtube – mirrors Smith’s long career as a bandleader, sideman to the stars and owner of a recording studio, the 6 String Ranch, revered as one of the go-to spots if you really want a vintage Americana sound from across many decades. There’s another great protest song here, Sanctuary, a dusky minor-key Robert Cray-style blues about the xenophobia that South American refugees run up against once they cross the US border.

“Why does it feel like the sky is falling?” Smith asks in the cynical, loping title track. After that, Smith channels a vast range of styles ranging from early 80s Midnight Starr stoner funk, to the Who.

Smith also has a charming all-instrumental solo acoustic album, Parlor – streamin at Spotify – where he plays a beautifully restored heirloom 1890’s Thompson and Odell parlor guitar. Most of the tracks are on the short side, some less than two minutes. Blind Blake-inspired ragtime fingerpicking, Piedmont and delta blues, Yorkshire-style balladry, Indian music, Leo Kottke wizardry, and, improbably, indie rock all figure into Smith’s distinctive, sometimes stark, sometimes opaque compositions.

Witheringly Smart, Cynical Oldschool Soul, Gospel and Funk From Fantastic Negrito

Multi-instrumentalist Fantastic Negrito a.k.a. Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz has been pumping out fearlessly populist, cynically amusing, pro-freedom songs that span the worlds of oldschool soul, hard funk, hip-hop and gospel music since the zeros. His deliciously layered, often witheringly lyrical latest album Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? is streaming at Spotify. It’s funny, it’s sharp, it’s a clinic in vintage soul music, the layers of guitar and organ are killer, and you’ll see it on the list of the best albums of 2020 here at the end of December. If you miss Prince, this guy picks up where he left off.

The first track is Chocolate Samurai, a gritty ba-bump roadhouse blues theme mashed up with some psychedelic hard funk and swirly gospel organ: a sly message to free ourselves from mental slavery, as Bob Marley put it.

I’m So Happy I Could Cry is a similarly high-voltage minor-key gospel hip-hop number complete with passionate guest vocals from Tarriona Ball of Tank and the Bangas. How Long? is next, a brooding, savagely wise soul tune in a bluesy Gil Scott-Heron vein:

To alll the baby Al Capones
Out there screaming all alone
Full of shit, full of hope
Holding on
We can repeat the same old lies
That make us feel all right
Try to escape
But but we gotta fight the scary ones
…moving so fast, spitting out hashtags
But the lynch mob’s ready to kill

The saturnine guitar solo midway through packs a wallop.

Searching For Captain Save A Hoe features golden age Bay Area rapper E-40, in a darkly organic, soul-infused reprise of his surreal, sarcastic 1993 stoner classic. Your Sex Is Overrated is more subtly amusing than you would think – and the expertly guitar-infused, darkly jazzy early 70s soul ballad atmosphere is spot-on.

These Are My Friends is a strutting, gospel-tinged chronicle of the shady characters Fantastic Negrito surrounds himself with. “Things that don’t kill you in this lockdown will only make you stronger,” he reminds. Easier said than done!

“You want me kissing your ass and you know I never could do that,” he explains in All Up In My Space, an eerie mashup of noir 60s soul and hip-hop, with a slithery organ solo. He brings in a harder funk edge in Platypus Dipster, the album’s most psychedelic number – the ending is priceless. He winds up the record with King Frustration, blending vintage soul, searing Chicago blues and early 70s Stevie Wonder in a fervently detailed message to the masses to wake up. We’ve never needed music this good as much as we do now. 

The Sideshow Tragedy Take an Embittered Detour into Powerpop

Over the past decade or so, Austin duo the Sideshow Tragedy have done everything from unhinged, electrified country blues, to feral hillbilly boogies and savagely lyrical, hip-hop influenced political punk rock. Their masterpiece, and their most political release by far, is the searing 2015 album Capital. Their latest one After the Fall – streaming at Bandcamp – is a breakup album, sometimes allusive, sometimes completely grim.

They open with the title track, a departure into vintage 70s-style CBGB powerpop, guitarist Nathan Singleton’s surprisingly lushly layered guitars and bass over drummer Jeremy Harrell’s syncopated drive. “Wore a mask so long it became my face/I went in circles for years just to get to this place,” Singleton recalls. Prophetic, huh?

Ben Senerfit’s baritone sax punches in on the lows in Easy Action, which comes across as a mashup of Jon Spencer and Marcellus Hall. Guest lead guitarist Marc Ribot plays sizzling, noisy blues over Kenny Siegal’s blustery layers of keyboards in Hold On It: “I only walk on eggshells ‘cause I like the way it sounds,” Singleton snarls.

He channels Lou Reed, both musically and vocally, in The Lonely One, then he goes back toward the gutter blues of the band’s early years in the resolute Capital Crime. They hit a surprisingly funky pulse in the album’s best, most aphoristic and Dylanesque track, Same Thing:

Edge of the water at the end of time
You can see the other shore on the horizon line
It’s a trick of the light, it’s not too faraway
I’m at the bottom of the bottle next to the bay

Singleton’s Blood on the Tracks reference later on packs a wallop.

“Nothing to live for, it’s something to do,” Singleton muses in What I Mean, a stomping, stark, hypnotic blues anthem in a Jesus and Mary Chain vein. He goes back to Lou Reed mode over Harrell’s simple, steady stomp in Forty Days and the album’s cynical closing cut, Young Forever.