New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: country music

Purist Retro Country Sounds and a Lower East Side Gig by Virginia Singer Dori Freeman

Dori Freeman is one of the more prolific songwriters in Americana. She’s put out three albums in the past four years, which is a lot these days. Hailing from the heart of bluegrass country – Galax, Virginia – she’s a throwback, with an understated, warmly nuanced twang to her voice, a way with an unexpectedly slashing turn of phrase and a knack for catchy, often soul-influenced classic 60s C&W songcraft. Her latest album Every Single Star is streaming at youtube; she’s playing the basement room at the Rockwood this Jan 11 at 7 PM for $12 at the door.

The first track on the album is That’s How I Feel, a catchy, upbeat, vintage 60s soul-tinged bounce. Freeman’s narrator has found a dude she really likes, finding herself lost like “One can in the back of the fridge, one doe sitting high on the ridge, one man with his foot off the bridge…”

All I Ever Wanted, an Orbison-inspired abandonment tale, pictures a girl out with her friends drowning her sorrows in “margaritas deep enough to fill a sink.” Teddy Thompson’s production is smart and spare but lingering: those simple purist country guitar riffs really ring out, and the acoustic bass and drums punch through.

Freeman picks up the pace with the joyously bouncy Like I Do, like Dusty Springfield having fun with a Bo Diddley beat. She follows the spare solo acoustic lament You Lie There with the brisk, bittersweet countrypolitan shuffle Another Time. With its stabbing piano, Go On is an understatedly venomous kiss-off anthem.

Darlin’ Boy, with its elegant blend of acoustic guitars and honkytonk piano, is a wise dismissal aimed at a real ladykiller: it could have been a hit for an early 50s Nashville group like the Davis Sisters. Walls of Me and You is a even more vindictively vivid, a  walk-away anthem and the key to the album

Freeman contrasts that with the laid-back 2 Step, a duet with Thompaon and winds up the record with the solo acoustic ballad I’ll Be Coming Home.

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.

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.

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.

Karen & the Sorrows Celebrate Their Excellent, Eclectic New Americana Album at Littlefield This Week

Over the last few years, Karen & the Sorrows have individualistically skirted the fringes of the New York Americana scene. Not all their songs are sad, and frontwoman Karen Pitttelman has no fear of mashing up different styles. Their debut album was a creepy New England gothic suite. Their second ome was a country-tinged janglerock record. Their latest album. Guaranteed Broken Heart – streaming at Bandcamp – is even more eclectic, featuring some of New York’s most electrifying musicians. Pittelman’s vocals are more dynamic and diverse than ever as well. She and the band are playing the album release show on Oct 18 at around 10:30 PM at Littlefield. Nimble, pensive acoustic guitarist/songwriter Genessa James‘ Onliest open the night at 8:30, followed by the exhilarating, fearlessly political, historically inspired Ebony Hillbillies, NYC’s only oldtime African-American string band. Cover is $10.

The title track opens the album: it’s a briskly brooding southwestern gothic shuffle with some cool tradeoffs between lead guitar and pedal steel. Cole Quest Rotante’s lingering dobro spices the loping second track, There You Are, blending with the pedal steel, mandolin and Rima Fand’s plaintive fiddle.

The band go back to darkly shuffling desert rock with the organ-driven Jonah and the Whale, Girls on Grass guitar goddess Barbara Endes winding it up with a deliciously slithery solo. Why Won’t You Come Back to Me has an even more haunting, spare, 19th century African-American gospel feel: “Oh my little angel, send me back to hell,” is the closing mantra.

Bowed bass, mandolin and banjo mingle with Fand’s mournful fiddle in the similarly rustic Appalachian gothic ballad Your New Life Now. Drummer Charles Burst gives the sad, lingering ballad Far Away a muted country backbeat: “Some people you can love up close, some from afar/The trick is knowing which they are,” Pittelman observes.

Third Time’s the Charm is an upbeat, pedal steel-fueled honkytonk number: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” sets up the chorus. Then they bring it down with the mournful Queen of Denial.

When People Show You Who They Are is a subdued, downcast, hypnotic folk-pop tune in Americana disguise. The group mash up electric Neil Young with tinges of oldschool soul in It Ain’t Me, then quietly shuffle through the melancholy Something True, with tantalizingly brief mandolin and fiddle solos. They close the album with a love ballad, You’re My Country Music. It’s inspiring to see a genuine New York original taking her sound and her songwriting to the next level.

Jenifer Jackson Returns to Her Catchy, Poignant Psychedelic Pop Roots

Of all the songwriters who built their careers in the incredibly fertile crucible of the Lower East Side New York scene in the late 90s and early zeros, Jenifer Jackson is one of the most prolific and arguably the best. Over the years, she’s moved from Beatlesque psychedelia to stark, brooding pastoral pop, bossa nova and harrowing, majestic art-rock. She’s also been a poineer of the DIY house concert tour circuit Her move to Austin in the early part of the decade springboarded a deep dive into Americana. Her latest album Paths – streaming at Bandcamp – is a return to the catchy, anthemic, eclectic psychedelic pop she made a name with early in her career. Jackson has a pair of New York gigs coming up next month. She’s at the Owl on Nov 3 at 8, then the next night, Nov 4 at the same time she’s at the big room at the Rockwood.

On the new record, her voice is more nuanced than ever; her lyrics are characteristically crystallized, imagistic and loaded with subext. There’s a restrained angst in her delivery as she soars up to the chorus on the elegantly waltzing opening track, Things I Meant to Tell You, Jim Hoke’s flute and Chris Carmichael’s one-man string quartet adding a stark baroque touch. As usual, Jackson lets the images of returning to a dusty room after a trip speak for themselves. It packs a gentle wallop.

There’s a delicate web of acoustic guitar fingerpicking beneath the orchestration in the tender early-dawn scenario First Bird. Then the band – which includes Brad Jones on guitars, bass and keys, Pat Sansone on guitar and mellotron and Josh Hunt on drums – picks up the pace with Back Home, a big, electric, organ-driven backbeat rocker. “The silence almost made me lose my mind,” Jackson confides: the tradeoff between organ and twelve-string guitar in the break is absolutely luscious.

Travelled Together, a bittersweet breakup ballad, has wintry, vintage 60s orchestration and Laurel Canyon psychedelic pop ambience: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Judy Henske catalog. Sultry Memory is a summery psychedelic soul ballad with shimmering vibraphone: it has the enigmatic lushness of Jackson’s classic 2007 Outskirts of a Giant Town and the lush Philly soul of Got To Have You, two standout numbers from Jackson’s vast output over the years.

Hey, Good is a wistful, hopeful, sprightly tune with ukulele and just a hint of brass: it could be a charming lost acoustic McCartney miniature from the White Album. Jackson brings back the electricity and the backbeat in Written in Stone: imagine the Byrds backing the Mamas & the Papas.

Jackson likes to put a good old-fashioned hard country tune on every album, and What Good’s a Memory is a picture-perfect vintage 60s tune, right down to the saloon piano and pedal steel. She wraps up the record with a country gospel-flavored piano ballad, Hail and Farewell. In a time where the brain drain out of New York stalled or even destroyed so many music careers, it’s testament to Jackson’s sheer talent (not to mention persistence) that she’s been able to stay on a creative tear that just won’t quit.

[If you’re looking for today’s Halloween installment, take a trip back to October 21 of last year for an underrated, darky psychedelic 2013 release – amazingly still available as a free download – by a New York band who should have gone a lot further than they did]

Purist Americana Rock Tunesmith Michaela Anne Brings Her Catchy Songs Back to Her Old Stomping Ground

Singer and bandleader Michaela Anne has built a devoted following with her blend of vintage honkytonk and twangy rock. Her catchy, smartly produced new album, Desert Dove – streaming at Bandcamp -, is much more rock than Americana-oriented, with keyboards, a string section and unexpected tinges of 80s new wave. Imagine Margo Price without the jamband interludes, or Tift Merritt with more elaborate arrangements. Michaela Anne and her band are playing the album release show on Oct 16 at 7 PM at the Mercury; adv tix at the counter, available M-F from about 5 til 7 PM, are $12.

The album’s first track, By Our Design is a determined, slightly bucolic powerpop song with sweeping strings: imagine Merrritt orchestrated by ELO’s Jeff Lynne. One Heart has windswept pedal steel and bluesy guitar…and cloying corporate urban pop overtones, too. It’s the only track here that should have been left among the outtakes.

I’m Not the Fire – as in “I’m not the fire, I’m just the smoke” – pulses along with a catchy backbeat and swirly organ. The brisk, deftly orchestrated, cynical roadtrip tale Child of the Wind is a dead ringer for a Jessie Kilguss song, while Tattered Torn and Blue (And Crazy) takes a turn toward Twin Peaks retro-Orbison noir pop.

The album’s title track is a steady, upbeat, anthemic, Mark Knopfler-esque tale about a ghostly archetype. Run Away With Me has a Tom Petty vibe; Michaela Anne takes until track eight before she hits the purist honkytonk with Two Fools, its mournful pedal steel and saloon piano.

If I Wanted Your Opinion is an unexpectedly fierce feminist anthem. Michaela Anne makes it clear that the last thing she wants is to be judged on her appearance:

I’m not a poster on the wall, not a porcelain doll
I think it’s funny how you think you run the show
You want to tell me how to sing, I’m not a puppet on a string
And if I wanted your opinion you would know

Somebody New is the new wave-iest tune here; the concluding cut is Be Easy, a simple, purposeful acoustic song, a word of comfort to a troubled friend. It’s cool to see a songwriter who honed her formidable chops playing an endless Dives of New York tour here reaching the point where she can play the tour circuit, where people will really appreciate her.

[If you’re looking for today’s Halloween piece, take a trip back in time on the mighty, ravenous condor wings of Merkabah, from exactly a year ago.]

Folk Noir Supergroup Bobtown Bring Up the Lights Just a Little

For about ten years, Bobtown have been the most bewitching three-part harmony folk noir supergroup in the world. Their three-woman frontline – percussionist/tenor guitarist Katherine Etzel, guitarist/banjo player Karen Dahlstrom and singer/percussionist Jen McDearman – are as eclectically skilled as songwriters as they are on the mic. Their new album Chasing the Sun is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing the album release show on  Oct 13 at 7 PM at the big room at the Rockwood; cover is $10.

As the band admit, this album is somewhat less relentlessly dark than their haunting back catalog. They open the new record with Daughters of the Dust, a moody, midtempo, metaphorically charged newgrass tune: “In our land of bone and rust, unsteady and shifting, will we ever find a place for us?” the three women ask.

“I hear the whispesrs, will she sink or swim?” Etzel muses as Kryptonite gets underway; then lead guitarist Alan Lee Backer’s twangy riffage kicks in, a defiantly swaying, anthenic toast to “Feed the hungry ghosts of all our glory days.”

The starkly fingerpicked intro to Come On Home is there to fake you out: it’s a Tex-Mex flavored romp. Special guest Serena Jost‘s cello adds haunting textures to the album’s lone cover, a dirgey, elegaic take of Tom Petty’s American Girl: who knew that this song was about suicide?

“The darkest heart and evil hand blind our children’s eyes, as every witness takes the stand to show the devil in disguise,” the group harmonize in Hazel, a melancholy, banjo-driven portrait echoing the theme of the Petty song. The subtly vindictive breakup ballad Let You Go is a throwback to the group’s early years, when they were reinventing old 19th century field hollers.

Etzel takes the lead for In My Bones, a blithely creepy, cynical country-pop tune about cheating the reaper, with an irresistibly funny round of vocals midway through. “I’m right to question everyrthing, I’m right about to scream,” McDearman intones in This Is My Heart, a wounded waltz. Then the band pick up the pace with the determined, optimistic Devil Down: it’s Bobtown’s take on what Tom Waits did with Keep the Devil Down in the Hole.

The best song on the album is Dahlstrom’s gospel-flavored No Man’s Land. It’s an anthem for the Metoo era, a soaring, defiant, venomous broadside, and it could be the best song of the year:

...No man has me at his command
No man can claim me for his own
I am no man’s land
No man’s book can tell my story
No man’s judge can understand
No man’s eyes can see my glory
I am no man’s land

As consistently excellent as the band’s recorded output is, nothing beats the way these three distinctive voices blend onstage

Iconic Songwriter Amy Rigby Revisits a Lost New York in Her New Memoir Girl to City

What’s more Halloweenish than the destruction of New York artistic communities in the blitzkrieg of gentrification, and the rush to throw up speculator property to displace working-class housing? Songwriter Amy Rigby got her start as a college student, in a $300-a-month Alphabet City apartment she shared with her brother. Rigby’s new memoir is a look back at a time and place that’s not going to come back until after the real estate bubble finally bursts. And that could be awhile, maybe even not until we repeal the tax exemption that enables it. Holdovers of New York, unite!

Amy Rigby‘s new memoir Girl to City validates the argument that great lyricists are also strong prose writers. But beyond a stunning level of detail, that generalization is where the similarity between Rigby’s often outrageously hilarious, witheringly insightful songwriting and this plainspoken book ends. Instead, it’s a sobering and understatedly poignant portrait of an era in New York gone forever.

Rigby is humble to a fault. If there’s anything missing from this book, that would be more insight into her songwriting process. She’s a polymath tunesmith, equally informed by and eruditely successful with styles as diverse as Americana, honkytonk, purist pop and these days, psychedelia. As a lyricist, she’s a first-ballot hall-of-famer: it wouldn’t be overhype to rank her with Elvis Costello, Steve Kilbey, Hannah Fairchild and the most memorably aphoristic Nashville songwriters of the 40s and 50s. Rigby takes some pleasure in revealing how she wrote one of her most gorgeously plaintive songs, Summer of My Wasted Youth, in her head on her way home on the L train. Otherwise, we’re going to have to wait for a sequel for more than a few stories behind some of the best songs of the past thirty-plus years.

Beyond that, this is a rich and often heartbreaking narrative. The only daughter in a large, upper middle class Pittsburgh Catholic family, young Amelia McMahon (nicknamed Amy, after the 50s Dean Martin pop hit), grew up in the 1960s as a tomboy and evemtual diehard Elton John fan. Spared the ordeal of Catholic high school, she developed a highly refined fashion sense – she was East Village chic long before East Village chic existed – and although she doesn’t go into many details about what seems to have been a repressive upbringing, it’s obvious that she couldn’t wait to escape to New York.

A talent for visual art got her admitted early into Parsons, where she earned a degree she never ended up falling back on – then again, fashion illustration was basically obsolete by the time she graduated. Meanwhile, she haunted CBGB at its peak. Even then, her taste in music was eclectic and adventurous, from punk, to gothic rock, disco, and eventually pioneering feminist bands the Slits and Raincoats.

Auspiciously, she teamed up with a bunch of college friends to open the legendary Tribeca music venue Tier 3 – where she made her New York musical debut, as the drummer of the minimalistically undescribable Stare Kits. “It seemed unthinkable even a decade later that the streets of downtown could ever have been so empty at night, or that a Manhattan club could have such haphazard beginnings. But that was part of the beauty, although you wouldn’t have thought to call it beautiful, “Rigby recalls. Understatement of the decade.

Rigby reveals that she came to embrace Americana when she realized that country music was just as  alienated as punk. Now playing guitar (and percussion, and a little accordion), it wasn’t long before she and her younger brother Michael McMahon (who’s led the hilarious, theatrical Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co. for almost twenty years now) founded one of the first New York urban country outfits, the Last Roundup. Maybe it was that group’s newfound embrace of country music – a genuine appreciation, rather than the kitschy contempt for it that would characterize the Williamsburg Americana contingent twenty years later – that shaped their individualistic sound. Even then, Rigby was flexing her songwriting chops.

What’s even more improbable than being able to situate a punk club in Tribeca is that it was once possible to (barely) make ends meet as a working musician in Manhattan, playing original music. Like those trust fund kids in the East Village now, somebody had to be subsidized, rigtht?

As Rigby tells it, no. Cruelly, inevitably, money is always elusive. When she isn’t gigging, she temps and temps, for a succession of bosses from across the boss spectrum. The plotline of her classic, cynical bargain-shopper anthem, As Is, has never been more resonant in light of her experiences here. She seems to have given up everything but her career to keep her daughter clothed and fed.

Misadventures with small record labels, well-intentioned but clueless enablers and wannabe enablers from the corporate world, with both the Last Roundup and Rigby’s successor band, the fetchingly ramshackle, all-female Shams, are predictably amusing. Her details of simple survival are every bit as bittersweet.

Time after time, she falls for emotionally unavailable older men. She mentions “dad’s putdowns,” in passing: this legendary beauty doesn’t even seem to think of herself as all that goodlooking. A marriage to drummer Will Rigby results in a talented daughter (future bassist Hazel Rigby). and doesn’t last. The author goes easy on him, maybe because she’s already excoriated him, if namelessly, in song. 20 Questions, anyone?.

Yet, out of that divorce, and the borderline-condemnable three-bedroom $700-a-month Williamsburg apartment at the corner of Bedford and Grand, she built a solo career that would earn her a well-deserved media blitz and critical raves for her solo debut, Diary of a Mod Housewife. That’s pretty much where the story ends, and a sequel hopefully picks up.

What’s most depressing about Rigby’s narrative is that it could never happen in current-day New York. She started totally DIY – she’d never played an instrument onstage before joining Stare Kits – and made her way up through a succession of small venues, then larger ones and all of a sudden she was playing the Beacon Theatre and touring. No such ladder of success exists here anymore: in fact, it’s working the other way around. All the rock acts that used to play Bowery Ballroom are now being squeezed into its smaller sister venue, the Mercury (a joint that Rigby used to sell out with regularity twenty years ago)

What’s left of the Americana and rock scenes, so vital in Rigby’s early years, now rotate through a handful of small Brooklyn clubs, playing to the same two dozen people week after week. With larger venues (and even some of the smaller ones) assiduously datamining so they can book only the most active Instagram self-promoters, the idea of thinking outside the box and promoting artists whose strengths are not Instagram followers but lyrics and tunes is almost laughable. All this is not to say that the typical club owner in, say, 1985, wasn’t plenty lazy and greedy. It’s just that laziness and greed, at the expense of genuine art, have been institutionalized by social media.

Throughout the book, this charismatic, acerbic, laser-witted performer comes across as anything but a diva. Maybe the Catholic childhood, the authoritarian parents and series of doomed relationships cast a pall that she’s still trying to get out from under. More than anything, this tale deserves a triumphant coda: since Diary of a Mod Housewife, Rigby has put out a series of consistently brilliant albums, toured relentlessly if not overwhelmingly lucratively and married another legendary rock storyteller, Wreckless Eric.

The Long Ryders Celebrate Americana Rock Legend Sid Griffin’s Birthday in Jersey City

“After this obligatory encore, I’ll be at the merch table where you can ask me anything about the Bangles and the Dream Syndicate,” Long Ryders founder and guitarist Sid Griffin told the packed house at WFMU’s Monty Hall in Jersey City last night.

He was joking, of course. But who ever imagined that the Long Ryders – or the Dream Syndicate – would be back in action, touring and still making great records, almost forty years after they started? The difference for this band is that the individual members seem to be more involved as songwriters this time around. “The world’s smallest Kickstarter,” as Griffin called it, crowdfunded the Long Ryders’ often astonishingly fresh, vital, relevant new album, Psychedelic Country Soul, which figured heavily in the set.

Griffin was celebrating his 64th birthday, and was regaled from the stage by his bandmates: guitarist Stephen McCarthy played the Beatles’ When I’m 64 into the PA from the tinny speaker on his phone, and the crowd revealed their music geekdom by not only knowing the words but also the instrumental break after the first chorus. Griffin held up his end: he still has his voice and his lead guitar chops, trading long, crackling honkytonk solos with McCarthy early in the set.

“I had a dream that Trump was dead,” McCarthy ad-libbed, updating the new wave-flavored I Had a Dream for the end of a new decade. The band had most recently played this particular venue the night of the fateful 2016 Presidential election, and had plenty of vitriol for the possibly soon-to-be-impeached tweeting twat in the Oval Office. That wasn’t limited to banter with the crowd: Griffin reminded how prophetic the broodingly jangling anti-Reaganite protest song Stitch in Time, from the band’s 1986 Two Fisted Tales album, had turned out to be. And bassist Tom Stevens switched to Telecaster for the plaintively jangling Bells of August, the song Griffin described as the best on the new album, a familiar story centered around a family’s beloved son finally returning home…in a body bag.

It’s been said many times that the Long Ryders invented Americana as we know it today, but despite their vast influence in that area, they were always a lot more eclectic. This time out, they broke out covers by the late Greg Trooper, Mel Tillis – the big crowd-pleaser Sweet Sweet Mental Revenge – and what sounded like the Flamin’ Groovies. Of the band’s classic 80s material, both Final Wild Son and the last song of the night, a delirious singalong of Looking for Lewis and Clark, came across as chicken-fried Highway 61 Dylan.

Stevens’ other standout among the new material was a garage-psych flavored tune, What the Eagle Sees. And Griffin put some muscle behind his punkish stage antics with a slashing, embittered new one, Molly Somebody, which for whatever reason sounded a lot like the Dream Syndicate. And that makes sense – if you know any of the baseball-hatted old guys who went to this show, or knew them when they were baseball-hatted young guys, everybody who liked the Dream Syndicate was also into the Long Ryders, and True West. And the other great 80s guitar bands, including the Del-Lords: their frontman and lead guitarist, Eric Ambel, had played the evening’s opening set.

The Long Ryders tour continues tonight, Sept 19 at 9 PM at the Lockx, 4417 Main St.  in Philadelphia? Cover is $30