New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: country 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.

Grimly Lyrical, Darkly Jangly Americana Rock Tunesmithing From Janet Simpson

The ramshackle, embroidered cover art for Janet Simpson‘s new album Safe Distance – streaming at Bandcamp – is pure American gothic, a cowboy trying to lasso a snake. That speaks volumes for Simpson’s worldview and irreverent outsider persona. Her songs draw a straight line back to the glory days of the so-called “paisley underground” rock of the 80s: Americana twang, punk spirit, psychedelic ambience. Simpson’s tales of hard times on the forgotten fringes are starkly lyrical and often chilling. She plays guitars and keys and has a great band behind her: Will Stewart on guitars, Robert Wason on bass and Tyler McGuire on drums. This is one of the best rock records of the year.

The opening track, Nashville Girls sounds like the Dream Syndicate with a woman out front, a clanging, vampy, wickedly catchy, caustically picturesque sendup of the kind of clueless trust fund kids you see in any gentrified neighborhood. Stewart’s uneasy chorus-box guitar solo wafts in, a fresh breeze straight ouf of the 80s; Simpson overdubs some whooshy synth on the way out. It’s a hard act to follow, but the rest of the record holds up.

The blend of jangle and clang in the second cut, Slip, is just as delicious: it could be the Gun Club at their most focused mid-80s peak, taking a stab at a hypnotic, nocturnal waltz. Alcohol permeates these songs like George Jones’ breath: Simpson’s battlescarred narrators medicate 24/7. Case in point: Reno, a pulsing, honkyonk-flavored tale that turns far much darker than you would ever think.

Simpson layers hazy keys and spare guitars for suspenseful, nocturnal ambience in Awe & Wonder, a brooding, completely ambiguous look at trying to rekindle what seems to be a pretty dead romance.

She wails to the top of her range over a steady, tense backbeat iu I’m Wrong: “I wander off sometimes it’s so easy to let myself fall through the cracks,” she muses. The baritone guitar solo out is an unexpected treat.

As an offhand portrait of despondency while everybody’s out having fun, Aiu’t Nobody Looking packs a calm wallop: and that fretless bass is a trip. The album’s title track is not a snide lockdown reference but a sobering account of a blackout hookup set to a marching waltz beat:

Dancing the line as if it was straight
A callous ballet, the border so fine
On the border so fine between two awful states

Simpson goes back to portraits of terminal depression in the spare, fingerpicked Black Turns Blue:

I’ve been drinking all my feelins it’s so much easier than dealing
The world’s so pretty when I’m reeling I’d rather stay where I can’t see

The album’s most hauntingly allusive song is Double Lines, a Nashville gothic drinking-and-driving tale right up there with Ninth House’s Follow the Line. Simpson offers up the spare, mostly acoustic Silverman as a mea culpa to someone who could have been a safe harbor.

Mountain, a Memphis soul tune, is an unexpectedly optimistic scenario. The album’s final cut is Wrecked, a subdued but defiant, distantly Tex-Mex flavored tune:

Maybe I’m barely hanging on
Maybe I’m wrecked, but I’m not too far gone
Maybe the edge is right where I belong
I’m not a fighter but I’m a dancer
And it might be a grave I’m dancing on

Unmasking One of the Most Deviously Brilliant Rock Hoaxes Ever

Working over the web last year, the Armoires decided to release a whole slew of singles under a bunch of assumed names (you bastards, you snagged October Surprise, the best bandname ever!). Despite widespread interest online and on radio, nobody ever got wise to the fact that it was really them. Finally, the muzzle is off, and this alternately hilarious and poignant, erudite mix of originals and covers – inspired by the Dukes of Stratosphear‘s immortal parodies of 60s psychedelic rock excess – has been released as an official Armoires record, Incognito, streaming at Bandcamp.

Based in California, the harmony-rock band found themselves stymied in attempts to pull the whole group together under dictator Gavin Nuisance’s fascist lockdowner restrictions. Fortuitously, the core of the band, keyboardist Christina Bulbenko and multi-instrumentalist Rex Broome, also run a very popular specialty label, Big Stir Records, so they have access to a global talent base. Drawing on a rotating cast of guitarists and drummers, the result is the most eclectically delicious album of the year so far.

The Armoires are more likely to slyly quote from late 70s powerpop than 60s psychedelia, although pretty much every rock style since then is fair game for their sometimes loving, sometimes witheringly cynical satire. What differentiates this album from the Dukes of Stratosphear’s (a.k.a. XTC’s) mashups is the cleverness of the lyrics.

Say what you want that “October Surprise” turn John Cale’s iconic proto-goth Paris 1919 into bouncy Penny Lane Beatles: that’s the spirit of punk, right? The B-side, Just Can’t See the Attraction, is an acidic original immersed in schadenfreude and driven by Larysa Bulbenko’s violin. “She was maybe too much, too demanding/She was surely too much in demand,” and the haters abound.

As D.F.E., the band give themselves several fictitious shout-outs in their A-side, I Say We Take Off and Nuke This Site From Orbit, a seethingly Beatlesque critique of social media. The quote at the end of the song is too good to give away. But the B-side is sobering, a lively, deadpan cover of Zager and Evans Hall of Famers Christie’s 1970 pentatonic folk-rock hit Yellow River, a post-Vietnam War anthem told from the winning side of that pyrrhic victory.

Bagfoot Run, the A-side of the single by “The Chessie System” is an irresistibly funny bluegrass escape anthem. You’d think that somebody would have figured out the joke from the subtly venomous anti-lockdown flip side, Homebound, a Louvin Brothers sendup, but nobody did.

As The Yes It Is, their jangly, anthemic cover of new wave band 20/20’s The Night I Heard a Scream, a portrait of an unsolved hit-and-run is infinitely more chilling. The cover of XTC’s Senses Working Overtime blows away the original, raising the Orwellian ambience several notches with piano and violin. Likewise, the line about “we’ll give it pause to breathe the air” in the triumphantly jangly, unlikely cover of the Andy Gibb rarity Words and Music.

Jackrabbit Protector, released under the name Zed Cats, is part Nancy Sinatra Vegas noir parody, part metaphorically-loaded populist throwdown. “I can count my friends on the palm of my hand,” Broome laments in the Beatlesque Walking Distance, awash in searing guitar multitracks. The lyrically torrential Sergeant Pepper-esque stroll, Ohma, Bring Your Light Into This Place, by the “Ceramic Age,” follows in the same vein: it could be a parable. Their B-side is Magenta Moon, a gorgeous, lushly swaying kiss-off anthem and cautionary tale (and maybe a Nick Drake shout-out). This eerie orb is “My one and true companion in the way you never were,” as Bulbenko relates in her simmering, mentholated mezzo-soprano.

Great Distances, by “Gospel Swamps” will rip your face off: over a tense twelve-string janglerock pulse, the band salute a time, and a person, lost to transcontinental barriers. It’s the great lost track from the Jayhawks’ Sound of Lies record. The concluding cut, Awkward City Limits makes an apt segue, an irresistible, metaphorically-loaded road narrative set to simmering backbeat roadhouse rock, the New Pornographers mashed up with early ELO.

But wait! There’s more! There are bonus tracks including a hilarious Lou Reed reference; Nashville gothic gloom transposed to early Trump-era lockdown; and Babyshambles retro garage rock recast as Burroughs cut-and-paste novelette in New Abnormal hell. Was it worth risking being unmasked as pretenders throughout these wild adventures into the furthest reaches of the band’s creativity? “We’ve always believed that art without risk isn’t worth doing,” is their response in the liner notes.

Catchy Retro 90s Americana from Kelly McFarling

“Am I the last of my kind…standing on the edge of past my prime?” songwriter Kelly McFarling asks in the fifth track of her new album Deep the Habit, streaming at Bandcamp. These confidently arranged Americana rock songs, orchestrated in crystalline digital chill, big-room studio style, look straight back to the 90s. Back then people listened to radio to discover this kind of stuff…and flocked to roadhouses to see it live. In 2021, are there enough places to play, and enough of a potential fan base, to sustain a career built around the Florida, Texas, and northern plains circuits? When are the voices of sanity going to reach critical mass so we can get the rest of the country back to normal?

The album’s first track is Delicate, a brisk, robust four-chord anthem straight out of the BoDeans playbook. Tim Marcus’ pedal steel seeps through the highs over Oscar Westesson’s catchy, loopy bassline and Nick Cobbett’s propulsive drums. The point of the song is that words have resonance: “Be careful what you say, they’re gonna follow us around,” McFarling cautions. There may be subtext here.

Follow Me Down has a more muted backbeat: Fleetwood Mac with a pedal steel. The band stick with that style again in Birds as they pick up the pace, guitarist Andrew Brennan slowly building the sound up from starkness.

North Decatur turns out to be an airy vehicle for Brennan’s feathery mandolin playing. Flangey guitar mingles with the steel behind McFarling’s airy, uncluttered voice in the next track, Century, an allusive workingperson’s Dead anthem. In a year where fear programming has atomized such a disturbing percentage of the population, that resolute, insistent, chorus about going outside has taken on unexpected poignancy. If you want to remember what normalcy really is, this it it.

Brennan sticks with his Jerry Garcia envelope-pedal pulse in the bluesy Now We Know. Just How Small is the album’s catchiest number, looking back to late 60s countrypolitan through every delicious texture, from watery analog chorus to flange, in Brennan’s pedalboard.

McFarling follows with Relevant, a slow, pensive, lingering number and closes the record with Easy As I, as in “I want to let things go as easy as I pick them up;” it’s the key to the album.

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.

Smart, Sharply Hilarious Black Dirt Country Rock From Joe Stamm

Americana rock bandleader Joe Stamm cut his teeth crooning over crowds of drunks in bars across the High Plains and the Midwest. He’s got a great ear for a story and a catchy tune, and he’s funny as hell. Dale Watson is an obvious comparison; New York’s own Jack Grace is another. Considering that Stamm makes his living on the road in a part of the world populated by freedom-loving people who like a good time, his touring schedule last year wasn’t completely put on ice by lockdowner insanity. He even found the opportunity to put out a new album, The Good & the Crooked (& the High & the Horny)”streaming at Spotify.

Good songwriters never have a hard time finding good musicians, and Stamm is a prime example. Check out lead guitarist Dave Glover’s sizzling flatpicking in Tough Times, Hard Luck, bassist Jonathan Byler Dann and drummer Bruce Moser pushing Stamm’s rapidfire, aphoristic story along. Imagine the Grateful Dead in a lucid moment (if you can) covering John Prine.

Stamm opens the record with the title track, a hillbilly boogie laced with vintage Bakersfield twang and searing blues from Glover. Stamm takes the explosive metaphors in Bombshell – a tall tale about a femme as fatale as you can get – to the next level. with a funny ending that’s too good to give away. Same deal with the album’s funniest song, Blame It on the Dog. This is one bad canine: “Dryhumping in the middle of the night, left on all the lights and who’s the sonofabitch who left up the toilet seat?” Stamm wants to know. It gets even better on the third verse: no spoilers.

Bottle You Up is the album’s most endearingly amusing song: as it turns out, daydrinking is a legacy. Stamm goes into classic honkytonk for Lower When I’m Sober, Dave Zollo’s piano adding a vintage Nashville edge, up to yet another twisted punchline.

As ridiculousy comical as a lot of Stamm’s songs are, some of them are just as serious. On this album, there’s Good Times, a simmering, grimly detailed ballad about the perils of overdoing it. 12 Gauge Storyline works on multiple levels, as a macho murder ballad but also a sobering reminder of how violence has its own legacy: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Lee Bains songbook. And the twangy, soulful, sad Comin’ Home Again is a throwback to 70s outlaw C&W.

“I don’t play no Kane Brown or any of that pop country shit,” Stamm snarls in Pearls to Pigs, as he says so long to Illinois and heads for wilder times in Texas. The psychedelic tinges in that song get darker and shift toward southwestern gothic afterward in Wild Imagination, one of the wildest tales here.

Stamm has a very smartly designed webpage: enough videos and freebies and amusingly dirty merch to get you in serious trouble with your boss. You have been warned. Stamm is playing his birthday show this year on March 13 at Crusens Rt. 29, 1007 N. Main St. in Creve Coeur, Illinois. Your best deal is to show up at 5:30 for a “VIP” seat which includes a good deal where you get a free collectible poster and your first beer is free. Their pizza is pretty cheap and looks really good.

An Epic Live Album by One of the Most Epic Bands of the Century

Let’s say your band has made a good living on the road for the last twenty years. All of a sudden, a bunch of oligarchs get together and create a phony health emergency in order to turn the world into an Orwellian nightmare where music doesn’t even exist. People aren’t even allowed to sing, let alone get together to see a band, since crowds of people who get together usually have fun. And in order to condition the population to a totalitarian slave state, all happiness has to be outlawed. That really happened throughout much of the world in 2020, and it isn’t over yet.

But it will be. The lockdown bears the seeds of its own destruction. In the meantime, out of the thousands of artists who’ve dumped hours upon hours of live recordings onto the web, only a handful can match the epic sweep of road warriors Okkervil River‘s latest release, A Dream in the Dark: Two Decades of Okkervil River Live, streaming at Spotify. On one hand, it’s sobering to realize that they’ve really been around that long. On the other, they are absolutely in their element, careening through the record’s two dozen tracks with their usual reckless abandon. This endless road trip begins in Northhampton, Massachusetts in 2006 and wind up in Cambridge in 2019, with almost a complete turnover in band members. By then, this endearingly shambling Americana quasi-jamband had tightened up their act a little without losing their spontaneity or irrepressible sense of humor.

The first song on this long, strange trip is the outlaw ballad Westfall, kicking off with a brief blast of feedback, steady strums from frontman Will Sheff’s acoustic guitar and a flurry of mandolin. The rest of the band don’t leap in until right before the fateful final verse. They fall apart in a spacerock outro.

The haphazard intro to the punkgrassy No Key, No Plan is priceless. Sheff gets a singalong going, mercilessly needles the crowd: the joke is too good to spoil. Then, as if this was an actual setlist, they follow with a superslow, lingering, steel guitar-infused take of the sad ballad Kansas City

The quiet, wintry, waltzing beginning of Listening to Otis Redding At Home During Christmas doesn’t offer the slightest hint of how orchestral the arrangement’s going to get: “Not even home will be with you forever,”Sheff intones.

This version of the subdued piano-and-strings ballad For Real winds up with a regal peak and a careening, screaming guitar solo. It Ends With a Fall come across as part Jayhawks, part late Beatles, part loping White Denim soul. Then the band pick things up with Sheff’s dramatic, signature off-key flair in a driving take of Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe, decaying to a free jazz freakout and then a typical noisy jam out.

The 90s Wilco influence comes in loud and clear in Unless It’s Kicks, the last song of a 2008 set in Germany. Goodnatured barrelhouse piano makes a surreal contrast with techy string synth in It Was My Season. Down Down the Deep River has post-Velvets clang, new wave swoosh and C&W chickenscratch guitar. By now, if this was an actual show, the band would really be on a roll, so in this case they keep the momentum going with Lost Coastlines and its faux-Motown groove.

A Stone – from a 2015 New York gig – is a momentary detour into wistful stoner country, with spot-on slip-key piano. Thirteen songs into the album, we’re finally rewarded with a minor-key anthem, Another Radio Song, from that same set – and as the band holler, “There’s no escaping it.”

The litany of dead performers in Okkervil River RIP is the most sobering moment here. The brisk, hypnotically pulsing, ten-minute stadium rock version of Judey on a Street is the album’s longest track among many: pretty much everything here is around the seven-minute mark or more.

The ridiculous mashup of blippy new wave and 90s alt-country in So Come Back, I Am Waiting is classic for these guys, in that they manage to make it work somehow. A Seattle crowd is stoked for a slowly crescendoing take of Okkervil River Song, probably the only Americana rock escape anthem that mentions skunk cabbage.

The Surgeon Above the Arbor is an inside joke, but a good one: a fan had requested a song by that title, but trouble was it didn’t exist. So Sheff wrote it: it turned out to be a slowly jangly, pensively vamping, distantly Neil Young-tinged ballad.

The album’s most muted, psychedelic number is Skiptracer. They pick up the pace with Black, a Velvets-meet-Wilco stomp and follow with the hip-hop/soul/Grateful Dead mashup Pink Slips.

Sheff brings out his dad Paul to play mandolin on the faux-western swing tune External Actor, just as he did on the album version.

Mary on a Wave, from a 2019 Washington, DC show, gets a long, lingering spacerock intro. They wind up the album on a similar note with Your Past Life As a Blast, more psychedelic than ever after all these years.

Celebrate the End of an Ugly World with Brent Amaker and the Rodeo’s Protest Songs

Everybody’s favorite tongue-in-cheek baritone C&W crooner, Brent Amaker, has a new ep Ugly World, with his band the Rodeo streaming at Spotify. His protest songs speak for billions of people around the globe. How do you write a hit song? Make it a broadside about everybody’s least favorite bully.

You probably know the big hit, Dump Trump:

He has his head up his own butt…
Dude loves himself so much he’ll take us down for a buck
This tv star is a hack
I want my country back

It’s a solid piece of retro tunesmithing, too – that machete-chord guitar outro is spot-on.

The rest of the record is just as relevant. The title track is a spaghetti western tune with a bunch of amusing musical quotes and a long, incendiary guitar solo. Amaker would love a beer, but the bars are closed: things just get uglier and uglier in this lockdown hell!

He sticks with a loping southwestern gothic groove for Soldier, an unexpectedly subtle number that manages to be sympathetic to the battlescarred dude while not missing the implications of what people this damaged do if they’re running the show. Amaker closes with  New Rodeo Anthem. a stadium-friendly (or corral-friendly) singalong. You know that when the lockdown is over and Amaker is back on the road, he and the band are going to break this one out for the encores.

Now, some of you regular readers might be wondering why, after salivating over the prospect of a Trump impeachment week after week a year ago, this blog went totally silent on the Presidential election. Did New York Music Daily secretly go over to the dark side and endorse Trump?

No. But if anybody thinks Biden is an improvement, they’re living in a dream world. In many respects Biden is Trump with a smiley face – or wearing a muzzle with a smiley face on it. Trump was surrounded by a bunch of cheap snatch-and-grab thugs, but Biden’s people are far more sinister. The Trump crowd simply wanted to loot the treasury and make a quick getaway. Biden’s people have an agenda: permanent lockdown. The New Abnormal. We are going to have to be twice as dedicated to noncompliance as we’ve been the past year in order to get rid of it. And this blog believes we can. Stay strong because the next four years are going to be hell. But we’re going to win this thing.

Smart, Diverse, Lyrical Acoustic Americana From the Steep Canyon Rangers

The Steep Canyon Rangers first exploded onto the Americana scene in the zeros as a pretty straight-up bluegrass band, but in the years since then they’ve become a lot more diverse. They’re just as informed by oldschool honkytonk as they are by hi-de-ho swing and punkgrass jamband music. Their latest album Arm in Arm is streaming at Bandcamp.

The third track, Sunny Days is a classic example of why these guys have such a big following. It’s a big singalong anthem, a showcase for banjo player Graham Sharp’s sizzling lines over guitarist Woody Platt’s punchy chords, fiddler Nicky Sanders sailing over bassist Barrett Smith’s steady pulse. When they take it down for a suspenseful break and then build up again, it’s Mike Guggino’s mandolin that’s out front. Old Crow Medicine Show made a living with songs like these for years, and so have the Steep Canyon Rangers. Crowds love this kind of stuff – and it’s a crime that in most parts of the United States, crowds aren’t allowed to come out to see it these days.

Everything You Know is another killer cut, a slow, hauntingly lyrical parable of imperialist evil and how to hang under the radar away from it. It could be the Jayhawks. In the year of the lockdown, this one really packs a wallop.

The rest of the record runs the gamut. Skipping right to the last track, Crystal Ship, to see if it was a crazy cover of the Doors song, turned out to be a false alarm: it’s an original, a subdued, slow, spare, melancholy ballad. Opening the album, One Drop of Rain follows a pretty standard newgrass pattern: enigmatic verse, catchy anthemic chorus.

Platt breaks out his electric slide guitar for Every River over drummer Michael Ashworth’s low-key drive, with some searing interplay with the fiddle. Honey on My Tongue has more of a low-key front-porch folk vibe, while In the Next Life diverges into wry, midtempo, syncopated Americana rock.

Bullet in the Fire is a pensive, stoically philosophical mandolin-driven ballad, followed by Take My Mind, a brisk shuffle featuring Oliver Wood and Michael Bearden. There’s also a sly, fiddle-fueled pickup number, A Body Like Yours and the Grateful Dead-influenced Afterglow.

A Twisted, Phantasmagorical Memento From Knife Throwers Assistance

Today’s album is the one and only release by sprawling circus rock collective Knife Throwers Assistance. Not much remains of them on the web, other than a Bandcamp page where you can still get a free download of the live recording the haphazardly orchestrated, mostly-female band made at their final show. They liked lurid harmonies, contrapuntal vocals and unorthodox instrumentation – and their songs were pretty relentlessly creepy.

As that final gig began, the band took the stage to a weird sample collage: it’s almost nine minutes of random noise, mic checking and guitar tuning. You can start your playlist with Mr. Detective, a long, ominously vamping murder ballad. This time out the group included the founding duo of guitarist Eve Blackwater and pianist Heidi Harris; singers Bridget Rooney, Deb Zep (who also plays bass clarinet) and Tea Leigh; banjo players Christen Napier and Annie Levey; cellist Elizabeth Glushko; singing saw player Cara White; bassist Kevin Anderson and drummer Matthew Vander Ende.

The forlorn piano ballad Crow Cry sounds like Carol Lipnik trying her hand at trip-hop, with a really cool, ominously circling vocal arrangement. They follow with the ba-bump stripper theme That Cat, then Voodoo, a folk noir tune with ridiculous faux-southern vocals.

Somebody plays eerie, chromatic melodica behind the steady guitar and aching vocals (guessing that’s Deb Zep) in Freedom, a gospel-tinged tableau. “Meet me by the railroad, that’s where we mortgaged off our souls,” Blackwater musees in Second Repeater, a surreal roadtrip tale.

Hildegard You Have My Heart has all kinds of neat touches: flamenco-ish interludes, snarling cello glissandos and glockenspiel tinkling evilly as the song rises and falls. The singing saw and Levey’s flute flutter uneasily behind the insistant vocals of Unfair, then the band wind up the show, and their career, with Scarlet the Fire-Eater, a plaintive, Appalachian-tinged ballad.

The album also comes with lo-fi concert videos of Crow Cry and Mr. Detective from the band’s early days, the latter with a long, haphazard glockenspiel solo, singing saw and bass clarinet among the many other instruments gathered onstage.

Since the band’s demise, Blackwater continues as a solo artist and member of the Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange, who for the better part of a year put on similarly sprawling monthly shows at Pete’s Candy Store until the lockdown drove live music in New York underground.