New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: indie pop

Intriguing, Allusively Lyrical Violin Songs From Concetta Abbate

Violinist Concetta Abbate writes imaginatively detailed, concise chamber rock songs – when she’s not playing string quartets, or ambient music. She draws on a classical background as well as an immersion in the New York free improvisation scene. Some of the songs on her new album Mirror Touch – streaming at Bandcamp – bring to mind a higher-register Rasputina, or in more delicate moments, cello rocker Serena Jost or the Real Vocal String Quartet. Much of this material is through-composed: Abbate doesn’t typically repeat herself or stay in one place for very long. She also uses pizzicato as much as she bows: this music has plenty of bounce and groove.

The album title refers to mirror-touch synesthesia, where an individual physically feels a physical reaction when another person is touched (many consider it extrasensory perception). The first song, Creatures, is a diptych, its elegantly vamping, swaying baroque pop shifting to a triumphant, emphatic conclusion. Abbate’s search for solid ground amid the relentless uncertainty of gentification-era New York becomes a rare success story.

She leaps to the top of her expressive high soprano in the precise cadences of the Renaissance-flavored miniature Madrigal. Then she matches a gentle but resolute vocal to more baroque-tinged, acerbically leaping violin riffage in Lavender, drummer Ben Engel artfully handling the subtle rhythmic shifts.

The jaunty latin jazz pulse of September, spiced with Charlie Rauh’s guitar and Abbate’s resonant lines on the low strings of her five-string model contrasts with the song’s troubled lyrics. Sunlight, an instrumental with wordless vocals, slowly coalesces toward Bach out of carefree, leaping phrases; then the energy picks up again.

Building has delicate pizzicato that shifts into ambience and one of Abbate’s most acerbically loaded lyrics:

Notebooks upon notebooks
Cost more than I make
Face upon illusion
Give and take
Will they discover me
Will I be found out

Hazy harmonics from both violin and Vasko Dukovski’s bass clarinet provide a surreal backdrop for the warmly inviting vocals of Overflow. The album’s funniest, most playful number is Mis, an instrumental duet between Dukovski and flutist Leanne Friedman.

Abbate returns to a more broodingly poetic atmosphere with Bit of Rain, which has hints of both trip-hop and 20th century minimalism. She follows that with the album’s most hypnotically circling number, Secrets

Worlds, a solo instrumental for violin and vocals, follows a disquieted path through riffage that evokes Ligeti, Bartok, and also Celtic music. Abbate concludes with the benedictory diptych Forgetful, an apt way to close this fresh, verdant, allusively intriguing album.

Rare Live Elliott Smith Available For the First Time on Record

The big deal about the new, remastered 25th anniversary edition of Elliott Smith’s solo debut – streaming at Bandcamp – is that it comes with a bonus live album, something that the iconic 90s songwriter never released during his lifetime. It took a conversation with one of his best friends from college to get the inside dope. “Oh, from when he was doing all those drugs,” she said with a dismissive wave of the hand: she wasn’t inclined to hear it.

For whatever reason, Smith doesn’t sound particularly opiated. His voice is ragged in places, and he doesn’t interact much with an impressively large crowd who’d come out for his solo acoustic set at Umbra Penumbra in Portland, Oregon on September 17, 1994. But his guitar work is solid, and vigorous, and everybody who was listening to Smith before he was murdered will want to hear it.

Knowing how he ended up, it’s sobering to hear the endless druggie references: the desperate narrative over those Wilco-ish chords in his first number; the references to scoring on the Lower East Side in Alphabet Town; and the appearance of Constantina, a recurrent, pseudonymous character who would outlive him.

Plenty of early versions of as-yet unreleased material in the setlist. No Name #4, an allusively grim narrative over briskly picked folk chords; the even more grisly detailed Condor Ave.; the wistfully waltzing No Name #1; and the broodingly Britfolk-tinged No Confidence Man, among others. Smith’s old Heatmiser bud Neil Gust joins him for a stark two-guitar version of Half Right.

On the reissue record, the bass response seems substantially boosted: does that explain why the downstrokes and atonal open-string harmonies of Needle in the Hay, for example, sound so much like Nirvana? Or is that just a function of listening on headphones instead of getting to know this otherwise rather delicate, mostly acoustic cd by cranking it up on a big oldschool stereo in a Gramercy Park apartment?

Hindsight being 20/20, it’s easy to hear the otherwise opaque Christian Brothers as a prototype for the gorgeously anthemic sensibility of Figure 8. Or how tantalizingly the briskly strummed layers of Southern Belle foreshadow that era as well. Or, listening to the full-band studio version of Coming Up Roses here, how much he already had that in his fingers to an extent that nobody realized at the time.

An Album of Songs For Our Time by Nicole Zuraitis

“All the screens block something inside, those afraid of their beginnings, unfulfilling,” singer Nicole Zuraitis wails over an anthemic 6/i8 groove, deep into her new album All Wandering Hearts, streaming at Bandcamp. “Eyes find comfort in darkness, eyes find comfort in escaping deep in a slumber to block out the overdrive mind.” Behind her, the band oscillates into a desperate vortex.

Of all the singers to have come out of New York in the last ten years or so, Zuraitis is one of the most individualistic. Gifted with scary range and gale-force power, she’s always embraced a lot of styles, from the big band jazz she belts over her husband Dan Pugach’s nonet, to thorny art-rock, lilting Americana and impassioned oldschool soul. Zuraitis has an intense, big-picture presence: her mind always seems to be racing, and she’s always looking for a respite, a reprieve. And she can be a hell of a lyricist.

And in the years since she was raising the roof at places like Caffe Vivaldi and 55 Bar, that fearsome voice has grown: there’s new grit in the lows, new power in the highs, new subtlety everywhere, In the liner notes, she sardonically calls this a “jazz adjacent album.”

The first song is Make It Flood, somber vocals in a guarded triumph: it’s Rockwood Music Hall pop in in heavy disguise. The Way Home rises, subtly, to a funky sway and then the lushness takes over again:

Trying to abandon my post
Before i lose this war…
Minus one’s a new concept
The slope of loss is steep
i know that there’s a void for us to fill
But there’s an answer if there is a will

Zuraitis’ circling, incisive piano provides a haunting backdrop for Gold, a prophetic, lithe clave anthem for a post-lockdown era where compassion trumps greed, Carmen Staaf enhancing that with a cheery, bubbly Rhodes solo.

The sinister Monk tonalties of the witheringly sarcatic Sugar Spun Girl set up the narrative in Rock Bottom, the most hilarious but also saddest song ever written about being on the road as a singer-songwriter. There’s no small irony in how singer-songwriters have earned a massive resurgence in the months since the lockdown, playing clandestine house concerts and parties, spreading the news and offering good cheer in the spirit of their medieval troubadour ancestors.

Zuraitis dedicates an elegant solo piano-and-vocal lullaby to her daugther, reinvents Prince’s I Would Die 4 U as swirling art-rock, and goes deep into What a Wonderful World for tenderness and rapture, in the context of a sobering dialectic. Deep music from a deep soul. A thoughtful and purposeful performance from a band that also includes Pugach on drums, Alex Busby Smith on bass, Elise Testone on backing vocals and Chase Potter on strings.

Thoughtful, Attractively Enveloping Nocturnes From Swimming Bell

Swimming Bell play slow, pensively lingering, atmospheric songs that draw equally on Americana and ambient music. Their new album Wild Sight – streaming at Bandcamp – brings to mind Neko Case or Tift Merritt as produced by Brian Eno, maybe. Washes of pedal steel and vocal harmonies figure prominently in frontwoman Katie Schottland’s songs. Her narratives are subtle, full of small, allusively telling details: they invite you in for repeated listening.

Good Time, Man begins as a hazy, atmospheric, wistful summertime tableau awash in Oli Deacon’s pedal steel. By the time Schottland’s intricate, fingerpicked acoustic guitar kicks in, it’s clear that this is a breakup scenario.

Deliciously icy tremolo guitars clang and ring out over a slow, swaying 6/8 groove in 1988, unraveling into a starry dreampop mist at the end: it seems to be a sad childhood reminiscence.  The pedal steel returns along with tasty, looming bass clarinet in For Brinsley, a Brinsley Schwarz homage: “Don’t lose your grip on love,” is the mantra.

“She’d lost the medal but she’d won the fight,” Schottland recalls in We’d Find, the enveloping sonics coalescing into an indian summer haze. Cold Clear Moon, a Tomo Nakayama cover, is catchy, steady and spare, the acoustic and electric guitar textures, glockenspiel and contrapuntal vocals building a hypnotic interweave.

The band follow Wolf, an echoey, circling vignette, with Got Things, a glistening anthem and the album’s catchiest, most straight-up rock number: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Rose Thomas Bannister catalog.

Left Hand Path is a front-porch folk tune with delicate electronics and steel twinkling in the distance. Schottland launches into Love Liked You slowly over National steel guitar, the band methodically rising into a slow, crescendoing, Hem-like sway: the swirly atmospherics are the icing on the cake. The album ends with Quietly Calling, a lush, crepuscular waltz that could be the Grateful Dead in a sharply focused moment: “You were listening to prove that you could while I was trying to be good,” Schottland intones. What a refreshing and individualistic sound: let’s hope Swimming Bell figure out how to make another album like this, clandestinely or otherwise.

Sharp and Hilarious New Protest Songs From Dawn Oberg

Nobody writes funnier, more acerbic protest songs these days than pianist and singer Dawn Oberg. The San Francisco songwriter’s previous political piano pop album Nothing Rhymes with Orange made the best albums of the year list in 2017. Lockdown or no lockdown, she was determined to get a new short album of relevantly entertaining songs out this year too. Her excoriating, irresistibly sardonic latest release, 2020 Revision is streaming at Bandcamp. As usual, the band behind her – Kelyn Crapp and Roger Rocha on guitars, Shawn Miller on bass and Andrew Laubacher on drums – are tight and inspired behind the velvet vocals.

Oberg loves puns and multiple entendres (in her world, doubles are for lightweights), and uses a lot of gospel voicings at the piano. “Those who hunger for justice are now starving at the station door,” she intones on the album’s first song, It’s 12:01, a fiery, insistent call for justice for the chilling list of innocent people murdered by the SFPD. The album includes a second, “clean” radio edit of the song so the censors don’t get their underwear all up in a knot over the word “motherfuckers.”

In the more woundedly subdued, gospel-tinged second track, Care, Oberg ponders what kind of “psychic surgeon practicing somewhere” could possibly give Donald Trump a conscience. In a year where the lockdowners are building concentration camps on American soil, this song has special resonance.

With Erik Ian Walker on the organ, the funniest, bounciest number here is Mitch McConnell. “I wouldn’t cross the street to pee on him if he were onfire,” Oberg insists. She takes issue with people who compare the Republican paleofascist to turtles, since that would be an insult to any reptile. We’ve never needed artists like Dawn Oberg more than we do now – which is why the lockdowners are doing everything in their power to keep audiences away from any kind of music. That’s an issue which Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Ayatollah Khomeini and the Taliban all agreed on.

A Gorgeously Jangly New Album by the Corner Laughers

The Corner Laughers play a sharply lyrical, catchy blend of jangly psychedelia, to richly arranged folk-rock and Americana and several other styles from th enew wave era. Their latest album Temescal Telegraph – streaming at Bandcamp – has some of the most gorgeous guitar work of any rock record released in recent months: clanging twelve-string lines, burning distortion, jaunty 80s British riffage, purist Americana, you name it, this band can play it.

The first track is Calculating Boy, an emphatic new wave number with jangly twelve-string guitar – that’s KC Bowman and Khoi Huynh switching off on guitar, bass and piano behind frontwoman/ukulele player Karla Kane’s cool, inscrutable vocals. This could be an older Pulp song with a woman out front, with a pair of doomed narratives about what sometimes happens to nonconformists: “Ever since she was a child she often smiled, mind over matter,” Kane intones.

Changeling, a backbeat soul tune with gospel organ, could be a well-produced Grateful Dead studio track. In The Accepted Time, Kane traces an impending breakup, from hope against hope, to a graveyard gate, over a lush bed of jangling, clanging guitar multitracks,

The Lilac Line is a blithe janglepop song, 90s Hoboken transplanted to the Bay Area. Loma Alta, a slow, summery 6/8 tableau, has piano chiming through the mix: the Jayhawks at their late 90s/early zeros peak come to mind. Then the band pick up the pace over a soul-clap beat with the new wave-tinged Sirens of the Pollen.

Wren in the Rain has hints of a Kinks classic amid the distantly uneasy, lusciously jangly, watery guitar textures. The lone cover here is a cheery, Beatlesque take of Martin Newell’s Goodguy Sun, swaying along amiably over drummer Charlie Crabtree’s coy flurries.

Skylarks of Britain is a lavishly arranged take on 60s British psych-folk – Sandy Denny-era Strawbs on steroids, maybe – with a trippy lyric that could be an inside joke. The band stay in Britfolk-rock mode to close the album with Lord Richard.

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.

More Radically Intuitive Reinventions From Marianne Dissard

We’ve reached the most disturbing time in the history of music. Musicians are being forced onto the dole, forced to take jobs in unfamiliar and often undesirable fields because the lockdowners are hell-bent on destroying the arts. While innumerable online collaborations have sprung up, most of them have turned out stiff and uninspired. While you can always improvise against what somebody has already recorded, it’s impossible to replicate the chemistry of being next to someone onstage or in a studio and engaging with them unless you’re actually there.

One of the few artists to successfully overcome those limitations, and create a lot of material during the lockdown, is French-born, Tucson-based songwriter Marianne Dissard. Maybe the fact that she’s a singer, that she’s used to doing a final vocal take over music that’s already been recorded, has empowered her. Whatever the case, she seems to be about halfway through creating the last album anyone would expect from her: a covers record, sung in English, no less.

The fact that she has exquisite taste in covers helps. She’s been releasing them as singles: the first one was an practically nine-minute, dirgey reinvention of Phil Ochs’ chilling lost-submarine epic The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns.

After that she put out “his” and “hers” version of the quietly vindictive Janis Ian folk-pop classic At Seventeen. This blog is partial to hers; it’s more orchestral, with elegantly mulitracked bass and cello by Thoger Lund from Giant Sand. Dissard changes the syncopation and sings it line by line, with vastly more angst than the sullen, deadpan original. When she reaches the point where “Smalltown eyes will gaze at you in dull surprise, when payment due exceeds accounts received,” it will give you chills.

The latest single is a considerably dirtier remake of Steely Dan’s Dirty Work. Dissard tweaks the gender references and also gives the song a lot more angst than the original (remember that the record label insisted on using studio crooner David Palmer instead of the grittier-voiced Donald Fagen on the 1972 single).

All this is streaming at Bandcamp an addition to a sepulchral, previously unreleased recording of Dissard singing Kath Bloom’s It’s So Hard To Come Home, backed by Calexico‘s Joey Burns on guitars and banjo!

A Promising Debut Release From the Catchy Forever Honey

Forever Honey play a watery, kinetic blend of 80s dreampop and digital-clean 21st century small-venue rock, with more catchy bounce than most bands in either of those two styles. Their debut ep Pre-Mortem High is streaming at Bandcamp.

The first track, Christian sets the stage: Aida Mekonnen’s icy chorus-box downstroke guitar, airy vocals from frontwoman Liv Price and bassist Jack McLoughlin’s dancing lines punching in as the verses peak out. Go For a Smoke is part Penny Lane Beatles and part drifting, echoing teens janglerock, Price reaching for a more sultry delivery.

The third cut, Twenty-Five has more of a produced, poppy feel: five years from the dreaded three-0, and Price is already feeling old. Impressively, the band could have gone in a generic corporate urban pop direction with the closing cut, Where We Are Sometimes, but opt instead for distantly Lynchian clanging/wafting contrast. “Careful what you wish for” is the mantra. It’s reason to hope for more from this group one of these days.

Surreal, Entertaining, Strangely Cinematic Themes on Curtis Hasselbring’s New Album

Curtis Hasselbring may be best known as one of the mostly highly sought-after trombonists in the New York jazz scene, but he also plays a lot of other instruments. As a guitarist, he has a very distinctive, jagged style and impeccable taste in late 70s/early 80s postpunk and new wave. He’s been involved with innumerable projects over the years, but his most psychedelic one is Curha, his mostly one-man band. Hasselbring’s music has always been defined by his sense of humor, but this is where you’ll find some of his funniest songs. The brand-new Curha II album is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening track, Casa Grande is a tongue-in-cheek surf tune with neatly intertwining guitars and keening funeral organ, Dan Reiser supplying a low-key beach-party beat. He sticks around for the second track, Togar, an outer-space Motown theme, guest guitarist Brandon Seabrook mimicking the squiggle of the keys.

Hasselbring keeps the sci-fi sonics going in Sick of Ants!: listen closely to the watery guitar and you’ll catch his appreciation for the late, great John McGeoch of Siouxsie & the Banshees and PiL. How airy is Blimp Enthusiast, a rare vocal number? Not particularly, but this quasi trip-hop song is very funny.

The blippy Blaster comes across as a motorik tv theme on whippits. With its loopy low-register piano and clip-clop beats, Soap makes even less sense until Peter Hess’ bass clarinet ushers in a somber mood for a second. Hasselbring’s trombone appears distinctly for the first time in Murgatroid, a clever mashup of 70s disco, outer-space theme and early new wave.

With its intricately dancing web of guitar multitracks, the rather disquieting MMS has echoes of early 80s Robert Fripp; then Hasselbring takes it further toward acid jazz. He goes back to lo-fi motorik minimalism with Totally Hired, then shifts toward spare, 90s electro-lounge with History of Vistas.

He closes the album with the coyly tiptoeing Her Pebble Fusion and then Blown Bubble Blues, which is kind of obvious but irresistibly fun. Hip-hop artists in need of far-out samples need look no further. You don’t have to be high to enjoy this, but it couldn’t hurt.