New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Category: folk music

Sarah McQuaid’s Starkly Lyrical New Live Album Captures a Dark Zeitgeist

Songwriter Sarah McQuaid was into the early part of a marathon 2020 tour when live music was criminalized throughout most of the world. Since she’d planned on making a live album while on the road, she made one closer to home, solo acoustic in the charming, medieval Cornwall church where she sings in a choir. The result is the vinyl record The St Buryan Sessions, streaming at Bandcamp. McQuaid has made a lot of good, darkly pensive albums over the years and this might be the best of them all, a quasi greatest hits collection that promises to have lasting historical resonance, capturing the zeitgeist of a moment that the world would rather never revisit.

Even the guarded, seductive optimism of What Are We Going to Do, in the stark solo electric version here, is far more muted than the original. The record is notable right off the bat for having the only recording of McQuaid singing Sweetness and Pain – a troubled but ultimately hopeful, plainchant-inspired mini-suite – as a contiguous whole. She does that a-cappella, taking advantage of the church’s rich natural reverb and what could be more than a two-second decay.

That reverb also enhances both McQuaid’s guitar and piano work. There’s a similarly resolute sense of hope through dark times in the second song, The Sun Goes On Rising. McQuaid’s voice is strong anyway, and here she reaches back for power to match the anxiousness and uncertainty.

If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous – what a song title for the fall of 2021, right? – brings to mind Richard Thompson‘s solo acoustic work, McQuaid starkly fingerpicking an enigmatic blues behind her loaded imagery. For the record, the vocal harmonies are live loops.

She switches to piano for The Silence Above Us, a brooding, slow, nocturnal waltz which seems practically prophetic, considering the events of 2020. One Sparrow Down is an understatedly grim little swing tune about a cat-and-bird game, McQuaid backing herself with just a kickdrum.

The sparkling open-tuned guitar melody of Charlie’s Gone Home, one of McQuaid’s earliest songs, contrasts with the elegaic narrative. The rainy-day jazz guitar backdrop dovetails more closely with the volcanic portents of Yellowstone, McQuaid capping it off with a slashing flourish.

Time to Love is the sparest, most hypnotic number here and makes a good segue with her similarly sparse cover of Autumn Leaves where she really airs out her upper register. Live vocal loops enhance the somber reflections on mass mortality that pervade In Derby Cathedral: yesterday the church crypt, tomorrow the world.

McQuaid loves open tunings, best exemplified by her eerily echoing, chiming, increasingly macabre phrasing over an ominously swooping bassline in the instrumental The Day of Wrath, That Day. She keeps the subdued atmosphere going in, the pall lifting a little in The Tug of the Moon.

She returns to piano, adding gravitas to Michael Chapman’s Rabbit Hills, pulling it closer toward pastoral Pink Floyd territory. The closing number, Last Song is a requiem for McQuaid’s mom – a musician herself – and a reflection on the enduring strength of intergenerational traditions.

Francesc Sans Takes Gorgeous, Blissfully Energetic Spanish Bagpipe Music to New Places

Spanish bagpiper Francesc Sans’s debut album as a bandleader, L’Infinit – streaming at Spotify – is wildly dynamic, often suspenseful, blissful music. As Dr. Pam Popper likes to remind us, we need to bolster our sense of joy and fun more than ever in times like these. This album is an especially exhilarating way to reconnect and recharge.

Sans plays with a breathtaking clarity, an unwavering wind-tunnel tone and a spun-silk legato. What’s just as delicious is that there are sometimes as many as three accordions at once on many of the songs here. They’re rooted in traditional styles – a lot of circle dances, a lot of waltzes – but the musicianship is way outside the box.

Sanz rises out of a murky pool of sound to a suspenseful march, then leads the group in a cheery waltz in the opening number, Tres Tocs Un Cant. After another portentous lull, they take it out triumphantly. There’s a small army of musicians on this record: Rafalito Salazar on guitar; Guillem Anguera, Josep Aparicio and Carles Belda on accordion; Pep Mateu on keys; Artemi Agràs on bass; Albert Carbonell on violin; Alexis Lanza on cello; Josep Maria Ribelles on harp; Pep Toni Rubio on flute; Iris Gayete and Pere Joan Martorell on percussion; and Ester G. Llop, Heura Gaya and Mariona Escoda on vocals,

The second track, Jnavarro is another waltz, rising to a delirious minor-key intensity. And it’s over too soon: the group could have gone on for another ten minutes and it wouldn’t be been boring. Then Sans totally flips the script with the piano ballad Les Quintes, first tenderly, then rising to symphonic proportions on the wings of the bagpipe against Mateu’s angst-fueled, neoromantic piano.

The band bring the party back with Amoretes, a rousing circle dance: Sans’ sirening glissando before the pouncing rhythm returns will give you goosebumps. After that, Tres Niuetes has rippling piano and a briskly bouncing beat that’s almost funk.

Sans stays with that number’s allusive chromatics on the airy introduction to Lo Meu Sud before the group launch into a Gipsy Kings-style romp. A La Nit De Nadal has a resonant bagpipe melody that’s just a wary hair off from a big Scottish air…plus somber Renaissance vocal harmonies.

L’Horizon begins as a cheerfully ambling theme, then shifts to a bracingly chromatic Andalucian trajectory before a wildly careening outro. Sans’ piercing clarity is stunning in A Les Fosques Pel Call, an irresistibly edgy acoustic cumbia tune.

Dolors Gegants is aptly titled, Lanza’s cello starkly aloft over Mateu’s spare, glittering piano, but then the group return to a boisterous circle dance: there’s no stopping this crew. They close the album with L’Aloseta. a rapturously unsettled cumbia lowlit with Gaya’s expressive, poignantly bittersweet vocals. What a disarmingly beautiful record for a time when we really need music like this.

Prophetic, Hauntingly Gorgeous, Insightful New Music and Spoken Word From Tessa Lena

For the past several years, investigative journalist Tessa Lena has been one of the most prophetic and poetic observers of how digital technology has empowered creeping fascism on a global scale. With last year’s lockdown here in New York, her work gained traction exponentially. Her Substack feed quickly became a must-read for anyone trying to make sense of what’s happened since.

But she’s also a breathtakingly powerful singer and instrumentalist. Last summer, she took one of her most succinct and portentously accurate pieces, The Physical World Is the Only World We Have (a longer version of the lyrics appears here) and turned it into a gorgeous mosaic of spoken word and haunting, Armenian-tinged soundscape. Her wordless vocals as she reaches for the sky will give you chills. A good digital approximation of an electric mandolin, or a balalaika, maybe, adds spare bittersweetness. The whole piece is streaming at her podcast, Make Language Great Again. Tessa Lena’s commentary is as grimly funny as it is insightful and poignant:

Data’s rotten,
Tests are toast.
News is sullen,
Coast to coast.
Feudal darkness
Here and now!
To the masters
Peasants bow.
Facts are fiction,
Love is screen.
Gossip’s trending,
Trends are mean.
Hear, hear,
Where’s the joy
Ask Alexa.
She’ll annoy.

We are all losing our minds….I know that long-term stress is very effective in turning off human ability to think straight. Once we’ve been battered for a long enough time, our sensory patterns will be damaged sufficiently, and we’ll be so exhausted and hungry for any semblance of joy that we’ll accept anything to be allowed to do basic things in the world. To breathe. To laugh. To be a little bit alive, to be a little bit free, no matter how short the digital leash. We are like frogs in a pot of water that is warming up. We are getting used to it…we are at a major crossroads, and I am positive that the time to be fully human—not cyborg—is now….

Something terrible is happening to us, and it is not a drill. It is very complex and very trivial. It is imminent and cumulative. Every small fragment of the disaster can be explained in a respectable way, but the big picture is terrifying. We’ve given up our senses and our ancient instincts, but our leaders have no heads. We are not in good hands. We are shackled to a broken algorithm. We are on our own, and the sooner we realize it, the better our chance of surviving.

Haunting Acoustic Guitar Instrumentals Inspired by an Istanbul Gone Forever

Guitarists Erkin Cavus and Reentko Dirks’ new duo album Istanbul 1900 – streaming at Bandcamp – draws on the work of photographer Ara Güler, whose mid-20th century portraits capture the end of an era. More profoundly, the two musicians dedicate their magically ghostly, reflective record to the 150,000 traditional merchants, artists and workers there whose livelihoods were stolen from them during the global totalitarian takeover of 2020.

The two set the stage with Galata Liman, a spare, wistful but steady minor-key number with hints of flamenco along with an iconic Erik Satie piece. Ara, the second track, is a vivid grey-sky waltz, sparse leads over a brooding, gently strummed descending theme.

Sokak Arasi is more upbeat, a brisk, sparkling, circling, strolling number. Spare twin leads and delicate harmonies echo through Kadikoey Liman, which the two players pick up subtly at the end. They begin Moda as a swinging, catchy, Romany-flavored folk tune and after a fleeting lull really rock it out.

Maksim has a slow, almost imperceptible sway, rising out of a mutedly mournful, lingering, Satie-esqaue intensity and then back: with its sepulchral echo effects, it’s the album’s most desolately gorgeous track.

Awash in keening harmonics, Vefa is the starkest and arguably most plaintive number here. The two guitarists shift between a mutedly haunting Middle Eastern-tinged theme and a pouncing intensity in the next number, Pera.

They close the album with Mertan, a moody cosmopolitan ballad. This elegaic masterpiece is one of the half-dozen best albums released this year.

Midwestern Rock Legend Sam Llanas Haunted by the Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels

If Sam Llanas never put out another album, he would still be a first-ballot hall-of-famer. As co-leader of heartland rockers the BoDeans, he built a body of work to match any other songwriter active since the 80s. But Llanas shows no signs of slowing down, and like his colleague James McMurtry, he just keeps putting out great records. His latest is Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels, which isn’t’ online yet. It’s arguably his best solo release, and has moments that will rip your face off.

As the title implies, this is a haunted record, filled with regrets and disillusion, although there are plenty of upbeat moments as well. Much as it’s mostly acoustic, the atmosphere is lush and sparkling with layers and layers of guitar, mandolin, accordion and what sounds like autoharp. Llanas,, Mike Hoffmann and Sean Williamson handle the stringed instruments; Michael Ramos plays keys and accordion, with Susan Nicholson on violin.

Much as Llanas is hardly known for playing covers, he opens the album with an absolutely gorgeous, lushly jangly, bittersweet reinvention of the old Civil War folk song Shenandoah. The first of the originals, Lonely Girl, begins starkly and grows more nocturnally starry: it could be a prequel to an older song in the Llanas catalog, Two Souls.

Days Go By is classic Llanas, a big two-chord anthem on a more intimate scale and an angst-fueled look back on lakeside bonfires and people gone forever. His voice is still in great shape, as everybody who watched his webcasts during the lockdown noticed, and he really airs out his upper register in Straight to Hell, a brisk, gloomy country shuffle with a spiky twin guitar solo midway through.

One Summer Night is an aptly shimmery but propulsive take on Orbisonesque Nashville gothic pop. Here Comes the Dawn is next, a hopeful, catchy, gently bouncing pre-daybreak theme. A Place in This World could be an Everly Brothers tune, a fond look back at childhood influences: Llanas’ dad was a bass player, and the Mexican community in Waukesha, Wisconsin was fertile ground for musical cross-pollination.

Llanas goes back to early 60s Lynchian pop sounds in Down Here in the Cold: it’s imploring, but it’s also hopeful. Rave On is an upbeat, Willie Nile-ish pop tune – is that a glockenspiel, or just a Casio?

Autumn Is Falling is an anthem for our era, a metaphorically-loaded reflection on the grim passage of time. With its cheery, doo-woppy hooks, the most retro song here is Got Love. The big hit here is Bring Me to Light, a weary but defiant freedom fighter’s anthem flavored with chiming twelve-string and soaring slide work from Hoffmann. Llanas winds up the album with Wedding Ghost, a morbidly waltzing Louvin Brothers-style narrative: it’s a classic of its kind.

Sarah Aroeste Brings a Vanished Balkan Hub of Sephardic Culture Back to Life

Ladino singer Sarah Aroeste‘s cousin Rachel Nahmias survived the Holocaust, smuggled across the border from Macedonia to Albania in the trunk of a car. A Muslim family there hid her from the Nazis for the duration of the war. At 103, she’s still with us.

Her family wasn’t so lucky. After the Nazis took them off to Treblinka, a neighbor pulled the mezuzah (a religious home-sweet-home totem) off the door of their home, planning on giving it back to them when they were liberated. Along with more than seven thousand, mostly Sephardic Macedonian Jews, they never made it back. At times like this we need to remember the Holocaust. Evil was in full bloom then, and it’s in full bloom now: ask an Israeli or an Australian.

Aroeste’s latest album Monastir -streaming at Bandcamp – celebrates the rich history of the Macedonian city now known as Bitola, where her ancestors had roots before leaving for the US in 1913. There’s a small army of Israeli and Macedonian musicians on this, playing a mix of Sephardic and Macedonian folk songs and originals.

Aroeste sings the opening track, a hypnotic, mantra-like anthem celebrating a newborn’s arrival, with a restrained joy, Yonnie Dror getting his shofar to channel dusky digeridoo lows. Vevki Amedov’s magically microtonal Balkan clarinet joins with an animated choir in the irrepressibly jaunty Od Bitola Pojdov (Bitola Girls). Crooner Yehoram Gaon sings an elegantly bolero-flavored take of the Ladino lost-love ballad Jo La Keria over producer Shai Bachar’s elegant piano and Dan Ben Lior’s acoustic guitar.

Odelia Dahan Kehila and Gilan Shahaf join voices on a gorgeous, bittersweetly undulating new Hebrew take of the popular Balkan folk song Jovanke, Jovanke, reinvented as a glittering piano-based ballad. Sefedin Bajramov takes over the mic on Edno Vreme Si Bev Ergen, a lilting, carefree Macedonian folk tune about a guy on the prowl who meets a cute Jewish girl – and wants to be Fyedka to her Chava.

A Bitola children’s choir sing Estreja Mara, a popular post-WWII tribute to a freedom fighter killed by the Nazis at 21. Macedonian opera star Helena Susha sings En Frente de Mi Te Tengo, a brass-fueled ranchera-style ballad.

One of the album’s most dramatic, flamenco-tinged numbers is Aroeste’s original version of Espinelo, a medieval tale of an infant thrown into the ocean as a newborn since he was one of a pair of twins, considered at the time to be bad luck. He survives and goes on to Balkan fame. Baglama player Shay Hamani and kanun player Yael Lavie enhance the brooding Middle Eastern ambience.

The album’s final two tracks pay homage to Aroeste’s ancestral city. She leads a rousing, plaintive choir over an intricate web of acoustic guitars in an original, Mi Monastir, then soars over a bouncy backdrop in Bitola, Moj Roden Kraj, an early 50s hit for Macedonian folk-pop singer Ajri Demirovski. This an all-too-rare work of musicological sleuthing that’s just as fun to listen to as it is politically important.

A Colorfully Lyrical, Fast-Fingered Songwriter on the High Plains

Billy Lurken is the rare Americana songwriter who’s also a hell of a lead guitarist. His axe is acoustic. He gets a much bigger sound out of his guitar than most guys who usually play solo, and does the same on the banjo. He’s just as strong at bluegrass-style flatpicking as he is with the big jazzy chords of western swing and his own high-voltage take on the blues. He’s also a vivid chronicler of the anomie and quiet desperation everyday people face in Flyover America. Born in Minnesota and raised in South Dakota, he’s a fixture on the high plains circuit. His next gig is a free outdoor show on Sept 19 at 2 PM at Wilde Prairie Winery, 48052 259th St. in Brandon, South Dakota.

Lurken’s songs pick up on the little details but also capture the big picture. “It’s a Monday-through-Friday sort of dying” is one of the key lines in the Studs Terkel-influenced number he opened with on a segment of the No Cover, No Minimum show on South Dakota Public tv which you can stream here.

Movin’ On is a showcase for Lurken’s fast fingers on the frets: it’s a brisk early 50s style western swing-infused boogie about how the years can take their toll on a couple.

One of his most memorable story-songs is Home, a fast-picked chronicle of something less than bliss on the blue-collar domestic front. For all the detail – the dust-streaked Cadillac, the stoned girl on the back porch with her “Audrey Hepburn shades” – it’s what Lurken doesn’t say that packs the biggest punch.

And he has upbeat, optimistic songs to balance out the gloomy ones. There’s Girl in the Flowered Dress, a showcase for his chops. Tumbleweed, a studio recording, has a luscious, bluegrass-infused mix of guitar and banjo. And Rider, a cowboy tune, is a stark, nimbly fingerpicked Jimmie Rodgers-style blues.

If it might seem odd that a blog which has advocated for live music throughout the five boroughs of New York might be paying so much attention to South Dakota, that’s because South Dakota is a free state. There’s no apartheid there, no spyware required to go indoors at venues, restaurants and bars. That’s the way it is throughout the rest of the free states: Florida, Texas and across the plains. America’s Frontline Doctors have filed a civil rights lawsuit to overturn Mayor Bill DiBozo’s evil, unconstitutional edict, and at the moment a lot of businesses aren’t enforcing it. Until we succeed in liberating ourselves, you may see more of what’s happening in the land of “Great Faces, Great Places” here.

Sparely Powerful, Lyrical Catalan Songcraft From Singer Lia Sampai

One of the most stunningly direct, potently lyrical albums of the year is Lia Sampai’s latest release Amagatalls de Llum (rough unpoetic translation from Catalan: Hidden in Plain Sight), streaming at youtube. Sampai sings with a disarmingly intimate, nuanced delivery and writes striking, imagistic lyrics, with a fearless political sensibility. Her images can be charming and quirky one second and venomous the next. While there’s a definite flamenco influence in her music, there are also elements of Portuguese fado, pan-Mediterranean balladry, art-rock and tinges of jazz, nimbly negotiated by acoustic guitarist Adrià Pagès. Some of the songs are simply guitar and vocals, others feature terse strings in places.

She opens with La Caixeta (The Box), a stately, romantic waltz that’s part fado, part flamenco and part vintage Parisian chanson. The doll imagery in the sparse, angst-fueled second track, La Nina comes across as more of a reflection on reconnecting with an inner conscience than with an inner child, Lia Manchón’s violin and Ester Trilla’s cello adding pensive ambience.

La Nit del Foc (Night of Fire) is a coy mashup of a dramatic Spanish waltz and a Dylanesque talking blues. Sampai follows a suspenseful trail of eerie, allusive images, up to a duende-fueled peak in Pinyols de Gel (Hailstorm), Pagès’ attack growing more unhinged along with her.

The shapeshifting political broadside Una Llum (A Light) is a real stunner, a slap upside the head of a petty tyrant whose insatiable desire for control backfires and ignites a revolution. Sampai wrote this in 2019, but it has infinite more resonance in the year where the World Economic Forum terrorists are throwing everything they have at us to try to keep their global takeover attempt from going off the rails.

Iris is a delicately waltzing, enigmatic, metaphorically loaded narrative about a dancer (or maybe a stripper). Weeping willow metaphors take centerstage in the stark, grim Salze Vell:

Que dins de tant de vent lo plor és silenci,
Com una paraula que interdiu algú.
I les fulles se revolten encriptades
D’una música que sols entenem junts
Plorem per amunt!
Plorem per amunt!
Alcem un crit de pena i llibertat

[rough translation]

A scream drowned by the wind
Like a forbidden word
And the leaves spin, encrypted
With a music that only we understand
Let’s scream it!
Let’s scream it!
Scream from sadness, for freedom

The catchy, lilting Joc de Miralls (Game of Mirrors) seems to an examination of how recognizing your shadow in someone else can be liberating, if a little scary.

Pagès’ starry electric guitar rings out over Emili Bosch’s synth in Astronautes, a playful outer-space love song. Sampai winds up the album with the understatedly haunting L’Endemà (The Day After), the strings lush and moody as Gerard Morató’s piano mingles with Lluís Pérez-Villegas’ glockenspiel. Sampai’s Christmas party narrative is joyous and not a little defiant, but there’s a sinister undercurrent. What a perfect song for a year when dictators are trying to tell us how many people we can invite to our private holiday celebrations.

Victory Boyd Redeems the National Anthem

It’s likely that most Americans think of The Star Spangled Banner as a showoff piece that ambitious singers use to air out their pipes and signal the start of a ballgame. Then there’s the savage Jimi Hendrix remake, a protest against the exploitation of a disproportionate number of black Americans being drafted and sent into battle during the Vietnam War.

Victory Boyd‘s brand-new solo acoustic version also speaks to how black Americans are being targeted once again, this time for a lethal injection campaign. Boyd was fired from playing the national anthem to open the NFL season since she’s one of the approximately 75% of black Americans who won’t take the deadly Pfizer shot (more than twelve thousand murdered and half a million crippled, according to the government’s own statistics),

In a completely different way than Hendrix, she redeems the song. Check out those neat guitar reharmonizations – and the ending is priceless.

Thanks to the similarly fearless Mark Crispin Miller and also to Celia Farber for passing this along.

Delicate, Warmly Enveloping Music For Harp and Guitar From Mirabai Ceiba

Mirabai Ceiba play delicate, warmly thoughtful, often hypnotic pastoral themes on harp and guitar. Sometimes harpist Angelika Baumbach colors the music with simple piano phrases, intertwining with Markus Sieber’s meticulously fingerpicked acoustic guitar, along with occasional resonant electric textures. Their new album The Quiet Hour – streaming at Bandcamp – has an understatedly persistent, optimistic, meditative quality. As you might expect, this duo likes long songs.

The first track is titled Ma. Baumbach sings the gentle mantra “My heart” over and over as the loopy web of acoustic guitar and harp grows increasingly intricate behind her.

The pattern continues in She (an original, not the 60s pop hit), a stately series of syncopated triplet figures underpinning Baumbach’s low-key meditation on connecting with the archetypal female.

Harp Lullaby is exactly that – it reminds of Kurt Leege‘s starry jazz lullabies

Baumbach duets with guest Marketa Irglova in the hushed, bittersweet Britfolk-flavored Take on a Thousand Forms. Que Quede Escrito features a stark string section and minimalist piano: Baumbach sings this tender spiritual in her native Spanish.

The album’s big meditative loopmusic epic is Ra Ma. The duo close the record with The Time Given to Us, its most bucolic and folk-tinged but also most anthemic number. If you’re feeling stressed – and who isn’t right now? – give this a spin.

Fun fact: the duo’s bandname is a shout out to both pioneering medieval Indian feminist and composer Mira Bai, and also the Ceiba tree, sacred to Mayan mythology.