New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: country music

A Brilliant, Erudite New Blues Album and a Webcast From Mamie Minch

Mamie Minch hit New York in the early zeros while still in her teens and quickly got a reputation as a force of nature in the oldtime Americana scene. Almost two decades later, she’s earned herself a place among the greats who influenced her. Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Muddy Waters, look out, you’ve got company. Minch may be best known as an erudite, imaginative guitarist, but she also has a hauntingly nuanced alto voice and writes in an oldtime vernacular that can be raucously funny, or profoundly sad. 

Minch has a characteristically brilliant, sharply lyrical new album, Slow Burn streaming at Bandcamp and while she doesn’t have any shows scheduled at the moment, she is playing a webcast on Aug 20 at 6 PM on the Barbes youtube channel to celebrate.

It’s been an awful lot of fun watching her work up the material on the album onstage over the past few years: in the tradition of her predecessors over the past hundred-plus years, these songs have gone through many different incarnations. The first one, Deep Footsteps could be a hokum blues classic from the late 20s: Minch’s defiant, endless series of innuendos are irresistible. Drummer Dean Sharenow gives the song an emphatic swing; Minch close-mics her National Steel guitar to catch every available microtone resonating from her spiky fingerpicking

Fortified Wine, a slow Indian-summer front-porch lament, is another number that’s taken on a different shapes in the past few years. Here she’s joined by both members of Kill Henry Sugar, Sharenow and guitarist Erik Della Penna, who nails the mood with the the subtlest of slide guitar washes. The point of the song seems to be that being stuck with an addict is a bitch, whether in on some forlorn plantation in 1920, or in the here and now.

No More Is Love, a gentle, understatedly haunting Carter Family-style waltz, is an urban oldtime country song with more atmospherically drifting slide work from Della Penna. Big Bad Maddie is a remake of RL Burnside’s Poor Black Mattie with new lyrics which transform this character from downtrodden victim to total badass: she’s got “big dick swagger to keep those boys in line.” Logan Coale holds down a terse, minimalist bass pulse; it’s a revelation to hear Minch put her own spin on Mississippi hill country blues guitar.

The album’s other sort-of cover is Wee Midnight Hours, based on the version by Blind Wille McTell and Curly Weaver; Sharenow gives it an easygoing swing that recalls an even earlier time. The gorgeously bittersweet, even more bucolic True Blue was inspired by a New Yorker article about the unique properties of the color blue. CJ Camerieri adds spare, resonant french horn over Minch’s fingerpicking.

She winds up the record with the venomously bristling You Don’t Lift Me Up, a kiss-off to negative people, both specifically and in general, with echoes of Iggy Pop’s The Passenger. Della Penna’s sparse incisions are a perfect complement to Minch’s propulsively strolling groove. The band could have gone on for five more minutes and that wouldn’t have been too much. This record’s on the shortlist for best albums of 2020 in any stye of music.

Purist, Brilliantly Produced, Anthemic Tunesmithing From Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts

From the early zeros through the mid-teens, guitarist Pete Cenedella fronted an anthemic and fearlessly woke two-guitar band, American Ambulance, who blended Stones snarl with oldschool country twang. They made some great records and played their last Manhattan full-band gig in the fall of 2015 at the Treehouse at 2A. Since then, Cenedella has led Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts and has continued to write as prolifically as he did with his old band.

They’ve got a couple of singles out this year: Cenedella’s game plan is to put them all out on vinyl until there’s enough of them to fill a double album. If what he has out there now is any indication, it’s going to be a hell of a record. The first single is Turning of the Wheel, which with the twin keyboards of Charles Roth and Tom Lucas has more of a classic Born to Run Springsteen feel. Graham Norwood’s sizzling, spiraling guitar solos toward the end are the icing on this angst-fueled ballad of loss and desperation.

The b-side, Little Leeway is an acoustic country kiss-off anthem. The rhythm section of bassist Ed Iglewski and Dave Anthony is much more lithe here, Cenedella’s metaphors following a would-be gambler to where the deal goes down, hard.

The newest single is Home in the Wind, which has an Abbey Road Beatles vibe and otherworldly vocal harmonies from Lisa Zwier, Erica Smith and Rembert Block along with perfect George Harrison-style analog chorus box leads from Norwood. The b-side, Darkness of a Brand New Day is a stark acoustic duet between Cenedella and Zwier, the brightness of the melody contrasting with the song’s surreal carnival scenario. At a time when there’s never been more of a shortage of rock music being made in this city, there’s never been more of a need for bands like this. If all goes well, this could be the start of something great.

Stark, Simmering Americana Nocturnes from Clara Baker

Fire is a recurrent metaphor on Americana songstress Clara Baker‘s new album Things to Burn, streaming at Bandcamp. But it’s not a fullscale inferno: it’s more of a brush fire that won’t flame out. Baker is the rare singer whose unselfconscious, nuanced delivery, with just a tinge of vibrato at the end of a phrase, can bring to mind Erica Smith. The album’s production is similarly understated and tasteful, matching the persistent unease, and distant longing, and low-key sultriness of the vocals.

The echoey Rhodes piano and Baker’s sotto-voce delivery on the album’s title track make it easy to believe that this song is about seduction…and it is, but the sarcasm is subtle, and withering, underscored by the sudden bursts from Courtney Hartman’s noisy electric guitar.

The ambiece is more skeletal, set to a circular mandolin riff in the minor-key Appachian-tinged second track, Doubt:

My mama brought me up with fate, my daddy brought me up with facts
I wanna pray at the altar of the certainty I lack

Baker maintains the sparse atmosphere in A Memory, a brooding tale of abandonment: “Strong as I am, I could never compete with a memory,” she muses.

Baker’s use of space is masterful: the occasionsl washes of slide guitar, or a reverberating accent from the Rhodes, pepper the slow waltz More Than Enough, a classic 70s-style Nashville ballad with minimalist production values.

Middle of the Night begins ambiently and then hits a sleepless trip-hop beat: it’s the album’s poppiest song. Six Days of Rain is the album’s killer cut, a slowly crescendoing, calmly harrowing account of getting dumped after what must have been a tortuous relationship.

I Won’t Take My Time is more hopeful, an oldtime front porch-style tune at halfspeed with probably a tenth the usual amount of strumming. Moving On is not the Hank Snow classic but a pensive, metaphorically-charged, backbeat-driven acoustic rock tune: “I’m grasping at the edges of who I was before I changed,” Baker muses. She closes the album with the gorgeously subdued Old Mountains, which evokes acoustic Pink Floyd, references a BeeGees song and has one of Baker’s most potent lyrics:

In a moment of bliss
Do you panic
Knowing something this good
Could never last…
Are you mining for joy
In old mountains
Are you panning for gold
In rivers of the past
I’ve walked that road
It hurts like hell
Letting go
Is something I know well

Impactful stuff from a quietly powerful voice.

Courtney Marie Andrews Explores a Sea of Heartbreak

On the cover of her new record Old Flowers, Courtney Marie Andrews stands all alone in a vintage housedress, out in a field in the middle the night. She looks really sad. This is a concept album – streaming at Bandcamp – about being the bad guy in a relationship, and the consequences. It’s Andrews’ quietest, sparest, most intimate and plainspoken release to date, although it could have been more of all of those things if it hadn’t been overproduced..

She opens it with Burlap String, a slow, mostly acoustic country waltz awash in regret and spare sheets of guitar. Guilty, a cheater’s brokenhearted confession, has steady piano twinkling overhead and an unexpected, tasty bass solo. The music follows the same pattern, but more sparsely, in If I Told.

A haze of ebow guitar rises behind the gospel piano of Together or Alone; at this point in the narrative, Andrews seems like she’s gearing up to turn the corner. The martial drum flurries of Carnival, an even more minimalistic piano ballad, underscore the fear of never being able to find a relationship again.

Andrews puts a trip-hop beat on the album’s title track, which you’d think would be completely be out of place, but resonant gospel piano chords hold the song together: “You can’t water old flowers,” she laments. Break the Spell has a slowly waltzing blend of Mazzy Star haze and stark, oldtimey accents, then Andrews picks up the pace with It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault, the album’s best song and closest thing here to a 70s country classic.

She goes back to echoey piano-based trip-hop for How to Get Hurt and closes the record with Ships in the Night, a graceful, distantly gospel-tinged gesture of forgiveness. In general, these songs don’t have the sharply metaphorical focus of Andrews’ earlier work, and the glitchy electronic touches become grating after awhile. This album ultimately may prove to be a bridge to a new chapter in the career of one of the most distinctive voices in Americana over the past several years.

Good Times and Purist Oldschool Soul From the California Honeydrops

The California Honeydrops have a fun, upbeat new short album, Just One More and Then Some streaming at Bandcamp. It’s going to end up on a lot of party playlists this summer – if we don’t run out of party money first. Lift that insane lockdown, Cuomo!

The first track, Just One More, is a honkytonk song with some classic 50s style piano from Lorenzo Loera,  frontman Lech Wierzynski on his usual guitar along with Johnny Bones and Leon Cotter on saxes.

The second track, Pocket Chicken is closer to the oldschool soul the band have made a name for themselves with: it’s a funny story about finding a bucket of food, literally and otherwise, with more of that oldtimey-flavored piano.

Honey, Sugar Has a vintage Allen Toussaint-style New Orleans soul groove. The last song, Shack in the Back is slower, steamier and funkier, with soaring horns and more of a classic Memphis feel. There’s a reason why these guys were such a big draw on the concert circuit before the lockdown: they’ve got a bottomless bag of catchy hooks and real passion for retro styles.

Sinister Musical Mini-Movies and Murder Ballads From Ben Da La Cour

Dark Americana crooner Ben De La Cour‘s 2016 debut Midnight in Havana made the 20 best albums of the year list here. His latest album, Shadow Land – streaming at Bandcamp – is longer and considerably more twisted: it was very  tempting to save this for the annual Halloween celebration here. De La Cour spins a hell of a yarn, and his expressive baritone has more unhinged energy but also more nuance this time around. If murder ballads are your thing, this is your guy.

The album opens with the briskly shuffling outlaw ballad God’s Only Son. This guy is a total psychopath: he gives his kid brother the shiv, and it just gets more grisly from there. Likewise, the slow, simmering High Heels Down the Holler seems to be a retelling of the Ed Gein story.

The devil is always in De La Cour’s details. “Her words trailed off like cigarette smoke underneath the door.” Talk about saying volumes in a few words! That’s a line from The Last Chance Farm, a delicately fingerpicked ballad which could be set in a prison, or a pretty awful workplace, or somewhere else. Tom Shaner’s classic Lake 48 comes to mind.

De La Cour picks up the pace with the snarling, open-tuned electric blues In God We Trust – All Others Pay Cash, a surreal, cynical update on Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan. Is there a Hendrix quote in Amazing Grace (Slight Return)? Nope, but it’s a killer narrative, a hushed, stunningly detailed generational clash with an ending that’s way too good to give away.

Musically, the album’s title track is more lightheartedly Dylanesque, but De La Cour’s gloomy surrealism is unrelenting: “The more I talk, the less I have to say; the more I listen, the less I understand,” he grouses. Then he and the band hit a raucous post-Chuck Berry roar in The Basin Lounge. There’s a David Duke poster on the wall of this joint: get out of Denver, baby, GO!!!

The wistful, Celtic-tinged waltz Swan Dive opens on a grim Brooklyn streetside murder and just gets more interesting from there. The even more muted From Now On is the ringer here, a momentary break from all the killing. The album’s funniest number is Anderson’s Small Ritual, a bizarre character study.

De La Cour recounts an opium dream in the slow fire-and-brimstone blues Harmless Indian Medicine Blues. He winds up the record with flurries of fingerpicking throughout the hauntingly anthemic, apocalyptic Valley of the Moon. Telling stories with sharp lyrics over a catchy tune may be a neglected art these days, but nobody’s working harder than De La Cour to push that envelope. You’ll see this album on the best-of-2020 page if there’s still reason for a music blog to exist by the time we hit December. If we hit December.

A Dark, Energetic New Album From Detroit’s Whiskey Charmers

Detroit band the Whiskey Charmers play dark Americana. Their 2015 debut album explored a Nashvllle gothic sound; their 2018 follow-up was a shift to brooding desert rock. Their latest album Lost on the Range – streaming at Bandcamp – is their hardest-rocking and most diverse release yet, and arguably their best. Frontwoman/guitarist Carrie Shepard has never sung more powerfully than she does here.

The opening track, Fire and Flame is a stomping, vengeful rock anthem that sounds like Deep Purple with a good singer. The second song, Galaxy is a throwback to the Lynchian tremolo-guitar sound of their debut album: Laura Cantrell‘s most pensive songwriting comes to mind.

Lead guitarist Lawrence Daversa’s twangy riffage builds a quaint charm in Super 8, an irresistibly funny shout-out to budget vacationing. It contains the immortal line “If I wake up feeling awful, I’ll just make myself a waffle.”

Ozzie Andrews’ punchy bass propels Crossfire, a loping, western-flavored outlaw ballad: it’s sort of an update on the Grateful Dead’s Me and My Uncle with a searing twin-guitar outro. Dirty Pictures, a swaying Americana rock tune, has a seductive feel…but be careful, homegirl, there’ll always be a server somewhere with those pix on it!

The band go back to desert rock with Tumbleweed, follow that with the sultry shuffle Honeybee, then get pensive with the soul-tinged In the Dark. With a heavier rock drive, Wildfires could be a Blue Oyster Cult hit from the 70s…with a woman out front. They close the album with the distantly boleroish, angst-fueled Monsters, with a careening Daversa solo at the center.

Doc Watson’s First New York Headline Gigs Immortalized For Posterity

Casual fans of Americana may not realize that before Doc Watson’s career on the folk music circuit took off, he was an electric guitarist. People back home in North Carolina didn’t want to hear the oldtime stuff: they wanted rockabilly, and Watson was giving then what they wanted. It was at this transitional moment in 1962 that eighteen-year-old fan Peter Siegel made a couple of good quality mono recordings of Watson’s first two Manhattan headline gigs, the first at NYU and the second a last-minute booking which turned out to be one of the final performances at the West Village folk club Blind Lemon’s.

Almost sixty years later, Siegel digitized the files; the result is a new Smithsonian Folkways vinyl album, streaming at Spotify comprising selections from both shows. It has additional historical value for being a rare recording of multi-instrumentalist Gaither Carlton, Watson’s father in law, who joins him here on fiddle and occasional banjo. Since these were sit-down concerts, not down-home dances, the two keep the songs short: practically everything here is under the three-minute mark, often less than two. Compared to the kind of whirlwind picking Watson would electrify audiences with later in his career, this is a revealing look at his original, much more low-key approach to acoustic material.

Watson and Carlton open with the fiddler’s bittersweetly vampy instrumental Double File, on banjo and fiddle, respectively. With his stark tone, Carlton typically doubles the melody line or shadows Watson, as he does throughout the brisk heartbreak ballad Handsome Molly. That tune, and the grim, perennially relevant Civil War narrative He’s Coming to Us Dead are credited to legendary fiddler G.B. Grayson, Carlton’s mentor.

Watson switches back from guitar to banjo for a relativley low-key take of Corrina, Corrina then returns to guitar for the instrumental Brown’s Dream and its tasty moving bassline. He’s back on banjo for the wistful farewell song My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains. From his banter with the crowd, it’s clear that he takes some pride in the duo’s rather hypnotic original guitar-and-fiddle arrangement of Bonaparte’s Retreat.

The album’s b-side starts off on a similar note with the banjo tune Willie Moore and continues with The Blue Ridge Mountain Blues: once again, hearing Watson move that bassline around is a clinic in Appalachian harmony. They pick up the pace, Watson on banjo for Goin’ Back to Jericho, then flatpicking his guitar on the instrumental Billy in the Low Ground.

The most rustic of all the songs here is a hobo tune, Reuben’s Train. The Dream of the Miner’s Child – credited to Andrew Jenkins – is one of the most ominous, the little girl in the story afraid she’ll lose her dad to his dangerous dajyob. There are also two version of an early 20s novelty song, Groundhog., The first, from the club, has Carlton on banjo; Watson plays it on the more boisterous take from the NYU gig.

An Allstar Bluegrass Album From Americana Sage Jim Lauderdale

Jim Lauderdale had already built a distinguished career as an Americana tunesmith before Elvis Costello enlisted him as one of the Sugarcanes. Since then, Lauderdale hasn’t abandoned his solo career. His latest album, When Carolina Comes Home Again – streaming at Bandcamp – is a bluegrass record. His drawl is a little more down-home here, and he’s got an allstar band. Steve Earle once semi-sarcastically admitted that he did a bluegrass record because he wanted more of his songs to get played at jams. After hearing this, it’s a fair bet that Lauderdale’s will also be getting a workout when pickers get together.

Lauderdale has a murderer’s row of bluegrass talent to work with here. Cane Mill Road, Town Mountain, Jon Stickley and Lyndsay Pruett, Balsam Range, the Songs From the Road Band and the Steep Canyon Rangers are all represented here along with hotshot young guitar picker Presley Barker, fiddler Kattie Hopkins Kinlaw, mandolinist Aaron Ramsey, guitarist Nick Dauphinais and banjo player Marc Pruett.

The first cut is the title track. Lauderdale starts with a slow, brooding intro, then the banjo kicks in, driving a lickety-split groove that’s just as moody. The instrumentation is classic, with momentary solos from mando, flatpicked guitar and fiddle. The second song, As a Sign is a littel slower and a little brighter, Lauderdale at his aphoristic best:

I’d like to place a nickel bet that every single time
What you see is what you get, shortchanged for a dime
How the number crunches when you’re that kind of fool
Who bets his heart on hunches as an elementary rule

Misery’s Embrace is a bluegrass take on midtempo, morose George Jones honkytonk. Lauderdale gets even more poignant with the careful, distantly chilling The Last to Know, which could be a classic Don Gibson ballad. Then the band pick up the pace with the briskly strolling It Takes Just One to Wander (as in “it takes two to tango, it takes just one to wander”).

Cackalacky is one of those fun, silly, mostly one-chord nmbers that pop up at jams after everybody’s had a few. Lauderdale really goes for a No-Show Jones vocal delivery in the album’s first waltz, You’ll Have to Earn It. Then he and the band romp through You’ve Got This, another track with tantalizingly brief banjo and fiddle solos.

In Mountaineer, Lauderdale sends a shout out to the folks who like living high above most civilized people: it’s easy to imagine Johnny Cash singing this. The slow, steady waltz I’m Here to Remind You is a hopeful appraisal of silver linings amidst the clouds. You might not expect Moonrider, the cosmic cowboy tune after that, but that’s what Lauderdale gives you. He winds up the album with Spin a Yarn, a lively Virginia reel and then Better Than You Found It, a blend of Memphis soul and country gospel with a timely message about not messing up the planet any further. All this is clinic in expert tunesmithing from a guy who’s been doing that a long time.

Understatedly Troubling Music For Troubling Times From the Nine Seas

Folk noir superduo the Nine Seas take their name from the long-defunct, legendary Alphabet City bar 9C, located at the corner of 9th Street and Avenue C. Years before Pete’s Candy Store was anything more than a numbers joint, and more than a decade before the Jalopy opened, 9C was New York’s ground zero for Americana music. That’s where Liz Tormes and Fiona McBain cut their teeth at the wildly crowded, weekly bluegrass jam.

In the years since then, both would become important voices in Americana, as solo artists and with other bands (McBain best known for her longtime membership in the gospel and soul-tinged Ollabelle). This project, which began as a murder ballad cover act, also goes back several years, attesting to the chemistry between the two musicians. Their long-awaited debut album Dream of Me is streaming at their music page. It’s a mix of originals and imaginative covers, the two singer-guitarists occasionally abettted by keys and horns.

Tormes’ first number, Am I Still Your Demon is the album’s quietly potent opener. It has a classic Tormes vocal trick that she’s used before (see the devastating Read My Mnd, the opening number on her 2010 Limelight album). J. Walter Hawkes’ looming trombone arrangement perfectly matches the song’s understated angst.

The duo reinvent the old suicide ballad I Never Will Marry with a hazy dreampop tinge, as Mazzy Star might have done it. They do E.C. Ball’s fire-and-brimstone country gospel classic Trials, Troubles, Tribulations much the same way. Here and throughout the record, Jim White’s spare banjo, organ and other instruments really flesh out these otherwise stark songs.

Likewise, his glockenspiel twinkles eerily in Go to Sleep, an elegaic Tormes tune. McBain’s I Really Want You is just as calmly phantasmagorical: it’s more about longing than lust. Then Oliver de la Celle ‘s Lynchian guitar and White’s banjo raise the menace in a radical reinvention of Charlie Rich’s Midnight Blues

The hypnotic version of the murder ballad Down in the Willow Garden, a concert favorite, is all the more creepy for the duo’s bright harmonies and steady stoicism, White adding airy pump organ. McBain switches to piano for the even more atmospheric, Julee Cruise-ish Where He Rests.

They wind up the album with a pair of covers. They transform Midnight, a bluesy, Jimmy Reed-style 1952 hit for Red Foley, into minimalist girl-down-the-well pop. And they remake Don Gibson’s Sea of Heartbreak as jungly exotica: nobody plays with more implied menace than the Nine Seas.

The album also includes stripped-down alternate takes of Trials, Troubles, Tribulations and Midnight Blues. Beyond this album, since they’re unable to play shows at the moment, the Nine Seas have a weekly webcast, the Quarantine Chronicles, where they run through many other songs from the immense dark folk repetoire they’ve amassed over the years.