New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: country music

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.

Irresistibly Goofy Dark Americana From the Brent Amaker DeathSquad

Baritone crooner Brent Amaker is best known for playing a distinctively amusing, utterly original style of Americana with his band the Rodeo. But he also has another project, the Brent Amaker DeathSquad. As you would expect, he saves his darker, more Nashville gothic oriented material for that band. They’ve got a new album, Hello, just out and streaming at Bandcamp.

They open with the title track. There’s tons of reverb on everything here, even the drums (that’s either Nozomi Momo or Bryan Crawford behind the kit). It’s one of the more tongue-in-cheek, freak-folk tinged numbers here. You can hear a little Iggy Pop in Amaker’s vocals – later on here, he covers The Passenger, a little faster and more lo-fi than the original.

Bassist Darci Carlson talks her way through the lurid Man in Charge, Amaker’s ominous tremolo guitar lingering over a fast shuffle beat, a funeral train on the express track. You Won’t Find Me is a goofy honkytonk piano-fueled duet: it comes across as Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton doing a Roger Miller song.

Burn, a fuzztoned garage rock song, sounds like the Gun Club with Lux Interior out front. Amaker really pushes to the foggy bottom of his register in Rain: just when you think it’s just a solo acoustic tune, Carlson floats in with a pillowy vocal over a plush string section.

The punkabillyish Let Me Out is the funniest song on the album: “Lemme out,” insists Amaker, from behind bars. “No way,” Carlson intones. With its keening funeral-parlor organ and a theremin solo, I’m the Big Bang is another duet, which is also just about as funny. The album’s final and most psychedelic track is Death Squad, a ghoulabilly shuffle centered around a wry conversation about medicating with booze. It was impossible to resist saving this til now for the annual monthlong Halloween celebration here, even considering that this city has been living Halloween every day since about March 16.

A Big Dose of Hilarious, Sharply Lyrical, Tuneful Black Dirt Country Rock From Joe Stamm

If you’re a musician trying to build an audience, you can’t do better than Americana rocker Joe Stamm, who has one of the most sophisticated and well thought-out marketing campaigns this blog has ever encountered. There’s a catch, though…his system won’t work for you unless you have the material to back it up.

What he wants you to do when you visit his webpage is to sign up for his “online album adventure,” with a lot of freebies. So maybe you do that…and half an hour later, it hits you that you’re still there, still listening. This guy is good!

He calls his music black dirt country rock. He can be outrageously funny one moment and dead serious the next. He’s a strong singer, a hell of a storyteller and has a good sense of the kind of incident where there’s a song just waiting to be written about it. Like pretty much everybody in his line of work did before the lockdown, he made his living on the road.

When you sign up, he sends you all the stuff in a series of emails. with a lot of mini-playlists, free downloads and videos. Day one is a good introduction. It begins with a free download of High Road Home, an ambiguous and troubled workingman’s anthem (Stamm has a LOT of those). There’s more than a hint of Sam Llanas soul in the vocals, in this live duo version with low-key, purposeful acoustic lead player David Glover.

There’s also a duo version of the grimly aphoristic Crow Creek in the original A major key – which actually turns out better than the minor-key version Stamm recorded in the studio. But the centerpiece is Blame It on the Dog. It’s insanely funny and it has a trick ending. Without giving too much away, the dog is not always to blame for what’s going on here.

Later on during the “adventure” he celebrates “Busch Lights and a purple haze” – yikes – over a slow soul sway in a full band version of Bottle You Up, a salute to daydrinking. It’s also Stamm’s opportunity to pitch his line of suggestive beer-related t-shirts and such.

A little further into the “adventure” he completely flips the script with Ring of Roses, a folksy, John Prine-ish number inspired by a guy who was in hospice care, but that didn’t stop him from planning his next construction project. For freedom-loving people in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Stamm’s next gig is on Oct 10 at 10 PM at Bigs Bar at 3110 W. 12th St.

You may be wondering why on earth a New York music blog would be paying so much attention to shows in such a faraway place as South Dakota. There are actually many reasons why, which you should think about, and one of them is that there are there’s more going on musically in South Dakota than there is in New York City right now – at least as far as publicly advertised shows are concerned. And if that’s not cause for concern, somebody’s asleep at the wheel. 

Kelley Swindall Takes Her Fierce, Fearless Americana to the Next Level

Kelley Swindall is a badass outlaw country songwriter with a 21st century edge. She learned how to work a crowd singing over drunks at one of New York’s most notorious dive bars, the late, lamented Holiday Lounge and then up and down the Americana highway, from New York to New Orleans and pretty much all points in between. She’s got a new album, You Can Call Me Darlin’ If You Want, streaming at Soundcloud.

Pretty much every song on the record has been thoroughly road-tested, and a lot of them are a lot different than you may have heard her play onstage. For example, the opening number, I Ain’t For You You Ain’t For Me, used to be more of a hick-hop number. Here, it’s an unrepentant cheater’s anthem. The girl in this song strayed because she was trapped by a boyfriend who turned out to be an abusive POS, and she finally got wise. Swindall sings it with more than a little snarl over a searing minor-key drive spiced with Michael Hesslein’s piano and a tantalizingly evil Teddy Kumpel guitar solo midway through.

“Don’t put me on a pedestal ’cause I’ll jump off it,” she warns in the album’s track, a swaying, vintage 70s-style country-soul ballad with swirly organ. “I just smiled, and said, ‘That’s what drugs will do,’” Swindall tells the guy who wants to hang out, “talking shattered hopes and trashcan dreams, and all the lies in between” in Dear Savannah, a bittersweet over-the-shoulder look at a whirlwind romance.

California is a big crowd-pleaser, a wryly choogling talking blues about a transcontinental weed deal with a surprise ending. Meet Me Halfway is sort of a mashup of lazy Lowell George C&W and hick-hop: if anybody still thinks long-distance relationships have a prayer, Swindall will shatter that illusion.

Swindall follows the careening blues Come On Back My Way with the starry early 60s Nashville nocturne Refuse to Be Blue. My Minglewood Blues picks up where the iconic folk song left off: where the Grateful Dead took it into psychedelia, Swindall finds a lickety-split, feminist party anthem.

She lets her guard down in You Never Really Loved Me Anyway – but the punchline packs a wallop, over a Dylanesque Blood on the Tracks backdrop. She takes a welcome detour toward folk noir in Heartsick, then shifts toward classic honkytonk with He Ain’t You over Hesslein’s ragtimey piano and Don Dilego’s soaring, sinuous bassline.

She closes the record with Spring Street Dive: “You know sometimes the fear of being tied down sometimes holds you back from taking flight, it’s true!” she announces. The vinyl version also has a secret bonus cover track. Dilego’s production also deserves a shout: this has the feel of a big-room analog record, not the kind of sterile digital ambience that plagues so many rock and Americana records these days.

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.