New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: folk music

Saluting Some Great Women Blues Pioneers

These days, the irrepressible playlisters who put together the Rough Guide compilations have turned to the public domain. With digital music having flatlined as a consumer product a long time ago, one way a record label can survive is to reissue hundred-year-old blues songs that don’t require licensing or royalties. And these Rough Guide oldtime blues playlists are good! Each has lots of music, the greats alongside lesser-known talents. One of the best is the Rough Guide to Blues Women, a twenty-five track mix of guitar, piano and larger-group recordings, mostly from the 1920s, released in 2016 and streaming at Spotify.

There isn’t a lot of obvious material on this one. Among the iconic figures here, Ma Rainey is represented by a proto-dixieland version of Stack O’Lee Blues. Likewise, Bessie Smith’s Careless Love has chattering brass and piano. The Memphis Minnie track here is the lesser-known, upbeat shuffle Frisco Town. Sippie Wallace has a big band behind her in the speakeasy tale Parlor Social DeLuxe, while Victoria Spivey – the sweet-voiced Madonna of the 1920s – closes the album over some tasty stride piano with Hoodoo Man Blues.

For those looking for instrumental flash, check out the neat two-guitar intertwine in Ruth Willis’ Man of My Own, Lottie Kimbrough’s gorgeously chiming Rolling Log Blues, and Mattie Delaney’s elegantly pouncing fretwork in Down the Big Road Blues.

The blues can get pretty grim. Leola Manning’s Arcade Building Moan gruesomely recalls a lethal fire, and Greshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas’ contribute the alllusively grisly Pick Poor Robin Clean.

There’s risque material here too, notably Lucille Bogan’s barrelhouse tune Shave ‘Em Dry. Ida Cox’s Moaning Groaning Blues is somewhat subtler. And Hattie Hart fronts the Memphis Jug Band throughout a jauntily shuffling take of Cocaine Habit Blues, a.k.a. Take a Whiff on Me.

Pearl Dickson’s Little Rock Blues is built around a fleet-fingered, cascading riff, Louisa Johnson channels a brittle unease over thumping piano in By the Moon and Stars, otherwise known as I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down. Hattie Hudson’s surreal, imagistic Black Hand Blues makes a good segue.

There are a handful of ringers on this album. Louis Armstrong is one, with Bertha “Chippie” Hill fronting a piano-trumpet-vocal trio on a steady version of Trouble in Mind. Likewise, Blind Willie McTell backs his wife Kate in what seems an impromptu homemade version of the Prohibition-era relic God Don’t Like It. The version of Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do here is by Fats Waller, with Sara Martin on the mic. And Irene Scruggs sings over Blind Blake’s sparkling picking on Itching Heel Blues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summoning the Witches with Ayelet Rose Gottlieb

We just went through a wild month of eclipses, so what could be more appropriate than an album of 13 Lunar Meditations Summoning the Witches? That’s the title of singer Ayelet Rose Gottlieb’s new moon-themed album, streaming at Bandcamp. The concept is counterintuitive: where you might typically expect calm, nocturnal, possibly mysterious themes, this is a generally playful, upbeat record.

As usual, Gottlieb’s songs here span a vast number of styles, from jazz, to art-rock, to sounds of the Middle East and the avant garde. The lyrics are in many different languages as well. With a joyous surrealism, she finds moon imagery in unexpected public places in the first number, Lotte and the Moon, set to Aram Bajakian’s hypnotically loopy, pointillistic guitar backdrop with a deviously scrambling Ivan Bamford drum solo midway through. It reminds of Carol Lipnik at her most exuberant.

The second number, Yare’ah is a spare, bouncy Israeli tune spiced with Eylem Basaldi’s spiky pizzicato violin, Bajakian’s guitar and the rhythm section: that’s Stéphane Diamantakiou on bass. Mond – “moon” in German – is a surreal cut-and-paste mashup of a blippy indie classical chorale and a spoken word piece contemplating the passing of generations.

The astrologically-themed Venus and the Moon has a balletesque pulse, a tango-inflected melody and a tiptoeing bass solo. Moon Story has sailing violin and vocalese balanced by punchy bass and starkly jangly guitar.

Wafting, Middle Eastern flavored violin takes centerstage behind Gottlieb’s spoken word and wordless vocals in Patience, a spacy soundscape. Yasmoon’s Moon, the most haunting and vividly nocturnal piece here, is also a showcase for plaintive violin and Bajakian’s acerbically rhythmic, oud-like phrasing. Dissipating Discus, the free jazz freakout afterward, is irresistibly funny: hang with it until the punchline.

A Spanish-language bass-and-vocal bendiction kicks off the album’s strongest track, Moon Over Gaza, a stark, politically-themed, guitar-fueled noir swing tune. The group follow Tsuki, the most ambient tableau on the record, with its longest and most darkly orchestral epic, Traveler Woman. Gottlieb winds it up with Desert Moon, an only slightly less expansive, slinky, latin-tinged anthem. Ages come and go, but the moon remains for us to dance in its light.

Fascinating, Rare Choral Music From Georgia

In the Georgian language, zedashe means “jug.” The Republic of Georgia is home to one of the earliest wine-making civilizations, and also a deeply rooted tradition of choral music. So it’s no surprise that one of the country’s most celebrated choirs would call themselves Zedashe. Their latest album Silver Sanctuary is streaming at Bandcamp.

Traditional Georgian music sounds like nothing from the surrounding areas. Much of it is stark yet resonant. It follows neither traditional western, Arabic or other levantine scales or harmony. Zedashe are serious scholars, blending all sorts of large and small-scale songs from across the centuries with new arrangements, some based on musicological fragments they’ve unearthed over the years. Various configurations of the men and women of the ensemble join voices throughout this rather epic 22-track record, occasionally bolstered by drums, panduri and chonguri lute, accordion and bagpipes. Some of the songs feature lyrics in endangered regional languages including Chan and Megrelian.

Irony and hardship permeate this material. Unrequited love is a persistent theme, as are drinking and war. Couples bound for arranged marriages long for their true loves. Fables illustrate age-old human foibles. One of the songs salutes Queen Tamar, a 12th century strongwoman and patron of the arts. Others chronicle struggles against Russian invaders.

The longer, slower numbers tend to be more hypnotic and drony; the shorter, more kinetic ones often feature a lot of call-and-response. There are also a couple of impassioned solo performances.

And in keeping with this month’s theme here, this music is illegal to either perform or witness in most parts of the world. For anyone who missed this past year’s ACDA/NATS/ChorusAmerica webinar, most professional choirs don’t expect to be able to either rehearse or perform (outside of Sweden, Nicaragua, Moscow, or a small county in Idaho, anyway) for the next two years. Isn’t it about time we all raised our voices together against this madness?

Elegant, Rustic, Imaginatively Reinvented Sounds For Lute and Viola Da Gamba

There’s no small irony in that lutenist Ronn McFarlane and viola da gamba player Carolyn Surrick’s new album Fermi’s Paradox – streaming at Spotify – may be closer to the original source of its centuries-old British folk music than anything released by generations of guitar fingerpickers. Many times throughout history, the most ancient becomes avant garde again and this charmingly rustic, nimbly performed mix of classic folk, baroque and original themes is a vivid example.

The duo open with the title cut, an original with echoes of a popular early 60s Bob Dylan acoustic hit, the lute’s plucky, banjo-like tone contrasting with the dark bass washes of the gamba. The two give She Moves Through the Fair an aptly ethereal spaciousness before picking up with a jaunty clip-clop beat.

The album’s third track is a mashup of an ancient Swedish processional of sorts, a spare, elegant Surrick waltz and a briskly strolling Marin Marais work, a contrast the musicians revisit later in the album with another Swedish traditional piece and a 18th century Robert Robinson miniature. Their take of Blackwaterside has unusual syncopation and lively ornamentation, while Dave Shepherd’s The Rose of Raby is much more straightforward, with a clog-dance beat and stark resonance from the gamba.

Daniel’s Chaconne, a solo lute piece by McFarlane, has somber harmonies just off-center enough to make the song’s origin in time a mystery. Trinity Grove, another McFarlane number, is more warmly lilting, yet could easily pass for a traditional tune.

The two musicians parse the baroque repertoire for a pensive Telemann triptych and then a gently elegaic version of John Dowland’s Adew For Master Oliver Cromwell. A Bach transcription of a brief, stately Hans Leo Hassler work offers the duo a launching pad for striking textural contrasts.

Their bluegrassy version of the Allman Brothers’ Little Martha is a hoot. They close the record with a stark Turlough O’Carolan diptych and then a wry blend of Bach and Ave Maria.

The only track which really shouldn’t be on this album – or any other album – is a famous hymn written by a mass murderer. It never ceases to be amazing that the slave trader who wrote it – and killed hundreds, maybe thousands of kidnapped Africans – continues to enjoy the posthumous grace of having his song performed. This blog says enough is enough.

Soprano Meets Bass Reinvent Sephardic Treasures with Passion and Elegance

The new Sephardic Treasures album by the Soprano Meets Bass project – streaming at Spotify – is a gorgeous and expansive take on a very old idea. Classical ensembles have been appropriating ancient Jewish themes for centuries; this album is more eclectic, drawing on tango, flamenco and jazz as well. In general, the music is sleeker than you would expect from a klezmer or tango band playing this material. For those of us who don’t speak Ladino, singer Ana María Ruimonte gives the material much more clarity than most operatically-trained vocalists typically deliver. And she maintains power and edge through many of the melodies’ challenging, rapidfire melismas and ornaments.

This is a long, rewarding album: fifteen songs. Most of them are sad; kings typically do not fare well in them. Minor keys are everywhere, along with the occasional slashing Middle Eastern mode. Bandleader/bassist Alan Lewine puts on a master class in terse, purposeful solos, notably a triumphantly churning facsimile of flamenco guitar playing in a Romany-flavored anthem toward the end of the record.

Some of the songs have a full rhythm section, with Shai Wetzer on drums; others feature lighter percussion by Víctor Monge. Pianist Chano Domínguez, trumpeter Duane Eubanks, flutist Hadar Noiber,  Spanish guitarist Julián Vaquero and violinist Alicia Svigals all punch in purposefully, often with echoes of flamenco or the Balkans, when the vocals drop out, or in response to Ruimonte’s lyrical phrasing. She sings in character, whethe plaintive, pensive – or simply unable to keep a straight face, in a goofy nursery rhyme about a cat. That’s the album’s lone moment of comic relief.

In a handful of songs, she reaches for the rafters with arioso power, especially in a dancing, subtly shifting North African-influenced ballad. There are quieter songs and laments here as well, including one with a spare, hypnotic, almost Indian atmosphere, an almost completely rubato tableau, and a welcome departure into flamenco jazz. What a feast for fans of flamenco, klezmer and classical music alike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gamin Creates a Wild New Universe Blending Korean and Western Sounds

Gamin Kang, who performs under her first name, is a master of Korean wind instruments including the piri flute, sheng-like saenghwang and taepyoungso oboe. She’s made a career out of cross-pollinating with magical, otherworldly, centuries-old Korean folk themes. Her latest album Nong – Korean for “jam,” more or less – includes several collaborations with western ensembles and composers, a bracing and often entrancing series of mashups that hasn’t hit the web yet. Her music is unlike anything else in the world – and she hopes this will springboard more collaborations like it.

The album’s opening piece, Mudang – meaning “shaman” – by Theodore Wiprud is an alternately playful and sternly emphatic piece for quavery piri and string quartet. The ensemble Ethel aptly emulate the low rhythmic insistence of the traditional janggu drum and then flutter and flicker, echoing the soloist’s reedy blue notes throughout this strangely resolute mashup of traditional Korean themes and 21st century western string quartet idioms.

On the Courtship Displays of Birds-of-Paradise, a triptych by Anna Pidgorna begins with The Black Sicklebill, its contrasting textures, cascading chords and suspenseful ambience from the reeds of Michael Bridge‘s accordion and the saengwhang, along with ominous knock-knock effects. In part two, Parotia, it’s even less clear where the keening tones of the saengwhang and accordion diverge, at least until jaunty staccato chords and droll birdsong accents kick in. The Princess Marcia (an imaginary species invented by the composer) turns out to be both shy and ostentatious, with a coy sense of humor.

Violinist Omar Chen Guey and cellist Rafi Popper-Keizer join the bandleader for William David Cooper‘s Two Pieces for Piri and Strings. The strings mimic both the quavery intensity as well as the ghostly haze of the piri in the first part; the variations afterward alternate between anxious leaps and bounds, plucky accents, plaintive resonance and then a stark dance. It’s arguably the album’s most striking interlude.

Eun Young Lee‘s Bagooni – Korean for “basket” – features both the piri and saenghwang along with the string duo in a starkly glissandoing, insistently shamanic but playfully contrapuntal and expertly interwoven tableau. Longtime downtown New York jazz artists Ned Rothenberg and Satoshi Takeishi join the leader, who plays both piri and taepyungso in the album’s concluding, blues-based improvisation. The contrast and tension between the Korean reeds and Rothenberg’s bass clarinet and sax over Takeishi’s hypnotically undulating, folk-influenced percussion is bracing but also conversational, through Rothenberg’s keening duotones, a spine-tingling taepyungso solo and a blazing, syncopated coda. In a year where music was sadistically and abruptly put on pause (or potentially on “stop”) by the lockdowners, this wondrously intense album testifies to what can be accomplished when artists are unmuzzled and free to associate..

A Brand New Protest Song

Why are so few people outside the jazz world writing protest songs these days?

Because we’re so overwhelmed? Because events have become so chaotic that a topical song is almost dated from the time it’s written?

Or because people are too afraid?

Here’s a brand new one this blog heard recently:

New Abnormal Blues

Computer salesman put on his boogieman suit
Said if anybody moves around here just shoot
People stand in line, six feet apart
You’re going back to the plantation for a brand new start

Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Crossroads is calling to you

Like Julian Assange, a rocket from the tombs
I’m hearing other voices from many other rooms
Fake news twenty four seven, three sixty five
Nonstop limousine liberal pledge drive

Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Crossroads is calling to you

Sheeple walking round in their muzzles and veils
Can’t see the express train coming down the rails
Mad doctor gonna get you before you pull the lever
Gonna vaccinate you from any further endeavor

Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Crossroads is calling to you

Every last little Hitler kissing up to the boss
Get a good job working for the Holocaust
Death camp duty, surely pay the bills
From the Javits Center to Forest Hills

Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Crossroads is calling to you

Teachers screaming at kids, they can’t hug their friends
Parents won’t tell ‘em how all this ends
Call the snitch hotline, tell ‘em everything you saw
You know divide and conquer, that’s the law

Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Crossroads is calling to you

You better catch that tablet flying past your head
Take it to the mountaintop, tell us what it said
Better read that writing bleeding through the wall
Hear that trumpet, that’s your wakeup call

Go down
Crossroads calling to you

Tunewise, this is a fast shuffle blues in G – but you can sing it in any key that works for you. The four lines of the verse follow a G-G-C-G progression. Likewise, the chorus is G-G-D-G. And watch the very end of the song, the chorus is just those two lines, starting with the D and then back to the G – or the fifth and back to the root if you do it in a different key.

Mess around with the chords and you’ll find a melody – try starting on the D with the first line of the verse and make your way down to the G. And the chorus is a gospel call-and-response – if you can start with a high G on the first “go down” and then hit the low one on the next “go down,” give that a try.

This blog sees this as more of a lowdown, chugging take on what Dylan did with Subterranean Homesick Blues, or the kind of shuffle Nick Lowe would do with Rockpile. If you’re going to play a solo, after the next-to-last chorus seems like the logical place. But like any other folk song, how you do it is really up to you