New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: indie pop

A Killer Triplebill Foreshadows a Great Psychedelic Show on the LES

This Thursday, March 30 at 8 PM there’s a rare, intimate performance by second-wave Los Angeles psychedelic legends the Jigsaw Seen at Bowery Electric. They’re followed by the much louder New York Junk, whose retro sound moves forward in time another ten years to the Max’s Kansas City early punk rock scene. Cover is a ridiculously cheap, CBGB-era $8.

The Jigsaw Seen’s latest album, streaming at Spotify, is aptly titled For the Discriminating Completist. It’s a collection of B-sides and rarities. There’s an album of new material in the works, and frontman Dennis Davison has also recently immersed himself in a brand-new dark acoustic project, Witchfinder Witch, a duo with New York folk noir icon Lorraine Leckie. Speaking of which, she has an incendiary new protest single, America Weeping, just out and available as a free download at Bandcamp

The two made their debut at Pete’s Candy Store on a Saturday night in January, Davison on acoustic guitar and Leckie on piano. The highlight of that gig was Cave Canem, a witheringly lyrical anthem that casts the history of dogs – and centuries of canine abuse – as a metaphor for humans’ crimes against their own species.

A few days later at Maxwell’s, the duo were the centerpiece of what’s arguably been the best triplebill of the year. Debby Schwartz opened the show, jangling adn clanging through a series of arcane British folk turnings on her hollowbody Gretsch, bolstered by Bob Bannister’s nuanced, artfully jeweled, Richard Thompson-esque Strat work, Rose Thomas Bannister supplying lush harmonies and percussion. Through neo-Britfolk and more dreampop-oriented material, Schwartz sang with her her soaring, diamond-cutter delivery, dreaming New York City in the middle of LA and finally closing with a stunning take of the psych-folk anthem Hills of Violent Green.

By now, Witchfinder Witch had shaken off whatever early jitters they might have had: they’d come to conquer. Davison spun bittersweet, pun-infused psych pop gems weighing the pros and cons of clinical depression (do it right and you get tons of songs out of it) and a couple of darkly allusive, mystically-tinged co-writes with Leckie. She charmed and seduced the crowd with blue-flame red-light cabaret tune or two, a jaunty S&M piano number that was so deadpan that it was creepily plausible, and a mysterious, hypnotic folk noir tableau that could have been about heroin, or simply death itself. The crowd was rapt.

The Pretty Babies headlined, putting a deliriously fun coda on what had been a low-key, entrancing evening up to then. Professional subversive and rockstar impersonator Tammy Faye Starlite – who’s channeling Nico on Thursdays in April at 7:30 PM at Pangea – led the world’s funniest Blondie cover band through a stampeding take of Dreaming as well as a surprising number of deeper cuts from the band’s early days when they rocked harder. If memory serves right, Tammy took a hilariously politically-fueled detour that eventually drove Call Me off the rails. Everybody in the band has a funny, punny Blondie name. Was bassist Monica Falcone – who absolutely nailed the wry disco lines in Heart of Glass – newly christened as Chrissie Stein? It’s hard to remember who else everybody else was: Heidi Lieb and Keith Hartel as Frank Infantes separated at birth, and expert standins for Jimmy Destri on keys and Clem Burke on drums. Hearing the Pretty Things and watching the crowd on their feet and bopping along was a jab in the ribs that said, hey, the original outfit was pretty good too. 

Olga Bell’s Irreverently Funny, Relevant Lincoln Center Debut Trumps Adversity

Olga Bell is hilarious. In her American Songbook debut at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse last night, the Russian-born art-rock/avant garde keyboardist/singer validated a brave piece of booking, in the process triumphing over all sorts of adversity. This was a tough gig from the git-go. Cheefing on what seemed like a bottomless thermos til it was gone, then finally switching to water, she battled a cold along with some unfamiliar gear that malfunctioned to the point of threatening to completely derail her show. But she persevered, cheerfully breaking the fourth wall when she wasn’t mercilessly pillorying the yuppie careerism, incessant status-grubbing and money obsessions of gentrifier-era Brooklyn, which she now calls home.

And she did it with more than just her lyrical jabs, which turned out to be a lot subtler than her musical barbs. Those drew the heartiest laughs from a sold-out audience of well-heeled twentysomethings whose mere presence in Manhattan on a Friday night was something of a surprise: turns out that not everyone in zip code 11221 is petrified of being geotagged outside it.

When she hit her pitch pedal and ran her vocals through a toddler-voice patch to make fun of a guy who’s too big for his britches, and then a little later turned the kiss-off anthem Power User into phony hip-hop, the crowd roared. She had similar fun with her electronics and all the loops she’d stashed away in her sequencer, particularly a Bernie Worrell-style low bass synth setting that she worked for every droll riff she could think of.

Her between-song patter also had edge and bite. Acknowledging that for her, this gig spelled revenge for having been rejected by the Juilliard folks a few floors below, she played elegantly nuanced, neoromantically-tinged piano when she wasn’t fiddling with her mixer, or loading a stubborn loop device, or feeding layers of melody into an arpeggiator. Such things exist: clearly, there’s a market among players who prefer chords instead. She namechecked “aspirational hipsters,” including the guy at the corner bar who’s on the take more than he’s on the make.

“Wherefore art thou, Doppio?” she posed to another would-be romantic doofus. Even the simpler, techier, disco-oriented numbers were laced with taunts and sarcasm, particularly Stomach It and Your Life Is a Lie, among other tracks from her 2016 album Tempo. Toward the end of the show, she was joined by cellist Andrea Lee for a moody Russian border-rock ballad from the 2014 album Krai, and then soul singer Sarah Lucas, who belted out one of the more pop-oriented electronic numbers. Bell encored with a vaudevillian piano tune about finding romance on the L train, which she’d written in 2006 for the Rockwood Music Hall open mic. Who knew there was once such a thing – and who knew that somebody who played there would someday headline at Lincoln Center.

This year’s American Songbook series continues to venture much further afield than the theatre music and pop hits from the 1930s and 40s that it was created for almost twenty years ago. There are two Kaplan Penthouse shows next week that deserve special mention: on Tuesday, March 28 at 8 PM, the Cactus Blossoms, who have an eerie resemblance to the Everly Brothers, bring their rapturous harmonies and disconsolate Americana ballads. And the following night, March 29, powerhouse Ghanian-born oldschool soul belter Ruby Amanfu leads her band.

Another Darkly Brilliant Album and a Webster Hall Release Show from Art-Rockers Changing Modes

How many bands or artists have put out seven albums as strong as New York art-rockers Changing Modes’ catalog? Elvis Costello, sure. But the Clash? No. The Doors? Nope. Pink Floyd? Maybe. The Stones, or the Beatles? That’s open to debate. What’s clear is that Changing Modes deserve mention alongside all of those iconic acts, a distinction they’ve earned in over a decade of steady playing, touring and recording. Their latest release, Goodbye Teodora, is due out this Sunday. They’re playing the album release show on March 26 at 6:45 PM at the downstairs space at Webster Hall; cover is $15.

Changing Modes distinguish themselves from their many shapeshifting, ornately psychedelic colleagues around the world in many ways. They’re one of the few art-rock acts fronted by a woman. And they’re dark. Co-leader Wendy Griffiths’ sharply literate lyrics and allusive narratives are as intricately woven as the band’s musical themes, and they keep their songs short, seldom going on for more than three or four minutes. The lineup on the new record is the same as their previous masterpiece, 2014’s The Paradox of Traveling Light. Griffiths switches between keys and bass, joined by guitarist/bassist Yuzuru Sadashige, multi-keyboardist Grace Pulliam and expert drummer Timur Yusef. The album opens with the uneasy Mind Palace, part scampering circus rock-tinged anthem, part jagged King Crimson. It’s a characteristically intriguing, enigmatic number that could be about a robot, or not a robot: “He is a hoarder of broken memories, a savage mistake, a victim of technology.”

Griffiths’ hard-hitting piano and Pulliam’s swooshy organ fuel Amanda’s House, a vivid and wryly detailed portrait of a goth girl which also might be satirical – consider the song title. Sadashige’s sharped-edge, steadily stalking guitar builds to menacingly anthemic proportions throughout Door, a creepy study in suspense. Yusef’s tersely boomy Middle Eastern percussion in tandem with Sadashige’s sparse crime-jazz lines underscore Griffiths’ crystalline, nuanced vocals in Arizona: southwestern gothic doesn’t get any darker than this.

Sharkbird is a dancing surf rock instrumental in the same vein as the Slickee Boys’ psychedelically creepy adventures in that style. The surrealistically elegaic Wasted shifts between dub-infused reggae and catchy, windswept orchestrated rock. The brooding, dynamically shifting Too Far Gone – not the Emmylou Harris classic but a co-write with rising star indie classical composer Denise Mei Yan Hofmann, who also contributes guitar – comes across as a mashup of Throwing Muses grit and allusively dark Invisible Sun-era Police.

With its flickering electric piano, moody Middle Eastern guitar, tense flurries of drums and a majestically wounded Sadashige solo midway through, the album’s title track is a requiem:

Goodbye Teodora
Hello to my emptiness
Over time you’ll be inclined
To give it all a rest

Likewise, Sadashige’s unselfconsciously savage, distorted lines contrast with Griffiths’ stately piano throughout the metrically tricky Firestorm. The allusively Beatlesque symphonic-rock anthem Chinese Checkers explores power dynamics via boardgame metaphors. The album’s most straightforward track, Vigilante, has grim political overtones. The album winds up Dust, a vast, ineluctably crescendoing postapocalyptic anthem. We’re only in March now, but this could be the best rock album of 2017, hands down. 

A Provocative, Wickedly Catchy New Album and a Rare Live Show by Nehedar

Over the past few years, Nehedar has made a name for herself as an often brilliantly lyrical, eclectic songwriter spanning the worlds of psychedelic soul and catchy urban pop. Her songs are sparkly, and fun, and full of humor. She’s a tremendously good singer, with a clear, bright voice. By contrast, her lyrics have edge, and bite, and a persistent unease. They ask more questions than they answer, and get you thinking. And she’s a big-picture person; her definitive album so far may be 2011’s Power Plant Beach, whose sunny album cover depicts a nuke plant in the background.

Her new album Hello Abyss, streaming at her music page, is arguably the most rock-oriented thing she’s done to date. and might also be the musical high point of her career. The songs’ unifying theme is escape. It’s hard to think of a more apt title for anything released under the current political climate, isn’t it? When she’s not singing harmonies in the New York rock band Fierce Love, she tends to be a creature of the studio: she doesn’t play a lot of shows on her own. Which is why the album release show on March 15 at 9 PM at Bowery Electric is a pretty big deal. Perl Wolfe – former lead singer of Bulletproof Stockings, the Hasidic Sleater-Kinney – opens the night at 8. After Nehedar’s own set, she plays with Fierce Love, then sardonic new wavers Blanket Statementstein headline at around 11. Cover is $10?

Nehedar (real name: Emilia Cataldo) plays guitar and keys, joined on the album by Fierce Love guitarists Shaul Zuckerberg and Tim Rockmore, with Craig Levy on bass and drums. The opening track, The Story is a new wave soul tune complete with wryly warpy synths and deadpan funny electronic percussion patches that contrast with the lyrics, a rugged individualist surveying the terrain from an understatedly solitary perspective.

The second cut, Catacomb, is part eco-disaster parable, part kiss-off anthem to the powers that be, sung over a counterintuitively bouncy new wave pop tune. “Got their hooks in you, made you believe that their lies are true…get your brain back!” she insists. “The lights are bright, but it’s monochrome.”

Shedding Skin is a mashup of anthemic powerpop and trippy dub reggae with some Middle Eastern spice. How rises with echoes of gospel and oldschool soul into a big power ballad. Is it cynical to want no more than to be able to wake up into a world that doesn’t make you want to hide under your pillow, Nehedar asks us – or, is that merely being realistic?

“You’re never too young go know which way not to go,” she asserts in the surrealistically lilting Happy Birthday, with its boomy, brushed snaredrum beat and dancing bass. You’re Beautiful When You Fall Apart is a big rocker with a 60s psychedelic undercurrent, just like the following cut, Fear and Love, which is more poppy: “Let’s see the monster underneath the bed!” she challenges with irrepressible cheer. “”I’m gonna take you in the back room, show you all the monsters I keep in the rear!”

The album’s most striking and strongest track is The Grudge, a snarling psych-pop broadside: “It’s like the bottom fell out and left me in a civil war,” she laments. The final numbers here are the let’s-bury-the-hatchet ballad Tonight Tonight and Sotah, which rises from eerie folk noir to a big, roaring, angst-fueled, Santana-esque guitar anthem, with the album’s most dramatic, intense vocals. 

Carsie Blanton Charms and Provokes at the Mercury

Tuesday night at the Mercury, New Orleans bandleader Carsie Blanton was at the top of her hilarious game. She makes good albums, but nothing compares to seeing her onstage. The woman is devastatingly funny, and politically spot-on, and charismatic to the extreme. Decked out in a sassy vintage red dress, fronting her skintight four-piece group, the inventor of the sexy board game Bango kept the audience in stitches when she wasn’t taking requests or running through a mix of torchy soul, swing and retro rock from her latest album So Ferocious.

One of the funniest moments of the night was when she explained the backstory for the bouncy kiss-off anthem Fat and Happy. As you would expect, she’s an Ella Fitzgerald fan, but she winced at how cheesy some of the choir arrangements on Fitzgerald’s albums from the 40s were. “So I thought, what if I took a song and ended it with the band going, ‘Oooohhh, FUUUUUUCK,” Blanton grinned. The band – keyboardist Pat Firth, bassist Joe Plowman and drummer Nicholas Falk – did exactly that, slowly and in perfect three-part harmony. The crowd roared.

“My friends said take the high road, turn the other cheek,” Blanton elaborated with a grin, “But I’m a revenge-taking kind of person.” So the tale of a selfish dude hell-bent on piggybacking on Blanton’s success resonated even more: “Will you still be whining like a suckling pig, or will you be trying to get on the gig?” she sneered.

She’d opened with a simmering blue-flame soul song that Amy Winehouse would have traded her stash to have had the chance to sing. “You don’t scare me,” was the refrain: no joke. Blanton followed that with Scoundrel, a bouncy early 60s-style John Waters soul-pop number and then the hazy, summer-evening soul of Hot Night. She explained that she’d written most of that one in Madrid on vacation, sulking in her unairconditioned B&B, serenaded by street noise until she realized how lucky she was to be there at all.

Throughout the set, Blanton worked the dynamics up and down, more than a tinge of smoke in her voice, through the gentle 6/8 torch-soul ballad Loving Is Easy to a wryly propulsive number from her Idiot Heart album, a typical surreal/crazy/creepy New Orleans moment when a guy tried to pick her up with the line, “Why not, we’re all gonna die one day.”

The first of the audience requests, Chicken grew out an idea that had stuck in her head, she said, which she’d dismissed as silly until she wrote the song…and it turned out to be one of her biggest crowd-pleasers. She followed Money in the Bank – a slinky mashup of sly, low-key Lou Reed and oldschool soul – with another novelty song, Moustache, a newschool Motown number. Blanton revealed that she actually has no issues with facial hair on dudes – it’s just that this one particular fuzzy upper lip turned out to be a big mistake.

Twister, a brand-new number, brought back the sultry/icy vibe of the night’s opening song. inspired by the recent tornado that hit her hometown, contemplating how a new romance could be altered by that sort of calamity. To Be Known made a poignant change of pace, part vintage BeeGees angst, part Jimmy Webb art-song. She kept pretty low-key with The Animal I Am, inspired by a badass canine friend who chews her underwear and, like her owner, is a general hellraiser. Then the group picked up the pace a little with Backbone, a snide dis at a sappy guy who’s probably too lazy to show a little gumption.

Blanton warned the crowd that she’d save the best for last, and she sort of did. It was a brand-new song where everybody in the band changed instruments. Pandemonium ensued as she railed about how everything went completely haywire at an election-night party, and how history reminds that back in the early 30s, lists of forbidden nations and ethnicities were being compiled just like they are now. The crowd begged for another encore but didn’t get one. Blanton’s tour continues at the Lancaster Roots & Blues Festival at the Ware Center, 42 N Prince St. in Lancaster, PA tonight, Feb 25 at 7:45 PM.

A Rare Music Impresario with Actual Talent

Lara Ewen may be best known as the irrepressible impresario behind the Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum, which with the ongoing disappearance of the downtown acoustic scene has arguably become Manhattan’s best listening room for folk and Americana sounds. But Ewen is also one of New York’s most magnetic singers, and a strong songwriter as well. Over the years, her music has gotten darker and gone deeper into gothic Americana, often in a Tom Waits vein. Her hardscrabble Queens roots may have something to do with that.

She’s playing the Scratcher Bar on 5th Street just east of Bowery on Feb 26 at around 7, when you might find fellow songsmith Kelley Swindall tending bar. It’s an intimate space, and a convenient time on a work night so getting there a little early wouldn’t be a bad idea: artists who book venues tend to be popular for reasons other than their art.

Ewen is the rare one who isn’t. Her definitive album is The Wishing Stone Songs, from 2013. But there’s other solid material in her catalog. A listen back to her 2007 cd Ghosts and Gasoline – which happily has made it to Spotify – reaffirms that. Her band on the record is excellent: much as there’s a late 90s influence, there’s no cheesy drum machine, no cliched trip-hop beat. Guitarist Howard Rappaport jangles and clangs, judiciously over the tight, low-key rhythm section of bassist Donald Facompre and drummer Jordan Lash.

Ewen sings in character, with unexpected nuance for someone who doesn’t come from a jazz background. One minute she’ll be serenading you with that crystal-clear, maple-sugar soprano, another she’ll be gritty, then maybe throwing some twang at you, depending on context.

The album’s opening track, Josephine, has a brisk, methodically vamping, hypnotic quality, an allusive portrait of bitterness. The Airport Song is one of those blue-collar character studies that Ewen writes so vividly, part country, part spacious big-sky tableau, Rappaport’s pedal steel soaring overhead. Likewise, the propulsive Untethered is a surreeal portrait of outer-borough disconnection and anomie, bringing to mind a first-rate early-zeros Brooklyn songwriter. Barbara Brousal.

Turning Blue sways along gently, a quietly savage portrait of a a woman settling for less than she should. The album’s most devastating track is Our Song, just Ewen and her acoustic guitar, a gorgeously bittersweet and unexpectedly generous post-breakup reflection.

The oldest track on the album, Clear, will resonate for anyone who wouldn’t trade this city for any other temptation. 20 Years Ago, an aging beauty’s lament, foreshadows where Ewen would go on her next album. Then Ewen picks up the pace with the brooding highway narrative Manahttan Kansas

Facompre walks jazz scales under Ewen’s Rickie Lee Jones-ish delivery in Misery Wholesale. The album winds up with Blessed, a hopeful love song to a down-and-out character, and A Way to You, which is a dead ringer for a well-known Dylan hit. While Ewen typically plays her most recent material onstage, she might bust out one or two of these if you’re lucky. 

A Rare New York Show and a Killer Album from Paris Combo

Long before the Squirrel Nut Zippers were a gleam in anybody’s eye, or there was such a band as the Flying Neutrinos – remember them? – Paris Combo were swinging the hell out of a sound that was part 20s, part 30s and part 80s, at least when they started. Since then, they’ve maintained a devoted fan base on their side of the pond, but they make it over here too infrequently. Their French lyrics are sardonic, playful and funny; likewise, their music has a lot more edge and bite than your typical goodtimey swing band, which makes sense considering that they got their start when punk rock was still current. These irrepressible, ever-more-eclectic Parisians are making a rare New York stop at City Winery on Feb 21 at 8 PM; $25 admission is available, meaning that you can stand somewhere within shouting distance of the bar and not feel stressed about buying expensive drinks.

Paris Combo’s latest album Tako Tsubo – a Japanese term for the very real cardiological effects of heartbreak – is streaming at youtube. The opening number, Bonne Nouvelle (Good News) is a real stunner, part tarantella rock, part Romany swing. Frontwoman/accordionist Belle du Berry understates the narrative’s ominous undercurrent: it’s about playing with fire, more or less.

Pianist David Lewis opens Je Suis Partie (I’m Out of Here) with an uneasy minor-key glimmer, du Berry channeling moody angst as the band leaps into a bouncy groove from bassist Benoît Dunoyer de Segonzac and drummer François Jeannin. Then Lewis supplies balmy trumpet over guitarist Potzi’s breezy, cosmopolitan swing shuffle in the album’s title track, with a droll, tongue-in-cheek hip-hop interlude.

Anemiques Maracas is one of the album’s funniest numbers, part Morricone soundtrack spoof, part yuppie satire. Profil does double duty as balmy, vampy retro 60s ye-ye pop and snide commentary on internet dating. Notre Vie Comme un Western (Our Life As a Western) opens as a surprisingly uneasy waltz and then takes on a cynical bolero-tinged atmosphere, Europeans equally mesmerized and mystified by American cultural imperialism.

Part Django swing, part tongue-in-cheek spy theme, D’Heidi has a wide-eyed sarcasm that recalls the group’s Dutch 80s/90s contemporaries Gruppo Sportivo. The slashing wordplay of Specimen comes across as a French counterpart to New York murder ballad duo Charming Disaster. Just title of Mon Anatomie Cherche un Ami – part Doors, part Chicha Libre – takes that cleverness to to the next level,

Vaille Que Vaille (Somehow) follows a pretty savage faux-Spanish waltz sway: it’s an oldschool existentialist cautionary tale. The faux-reggae Cuir Interieur (Leather Seats) is just plain hilarious: if the Tubes had been good French speakere, they might have sounded something like this. The album winds up with Orageuse (Stormy), which is funny because it’s hardly that – it’s a balmy before-the-rain scenario, at best. Every time you listen to this, you discover something new and amusing, which might well be poking fun at you too. Count this as one of the best albums to come over the transom here in the past several months.

A Playful Change of Pace for New Orleans Chanteuse Carsie Blanton

On one hand, for Carsie Blanton to put out a record of Lynchian retro rock is kind of like the Squirrel Nut Zippers making a heavy metal album. But the Zippers are great musicians – who knows, maybe they’d pull it off. Turns out Blanton is just as adept at allusive, nocturnal early 60s Nashville pop as the oldtimey swing she made her mark in. Her latest album, So Ferocious, is streaming at her webpage and available as a name-your-price download, the best advertising she could possibly want for her upcoming show at 7 PM on Feb 21 at the Mercury. Cover is $10.

Although it’s a switch for her, Blanton is just as badass and funny as she is out in front of a swing band. She sings and plays uke here, backed by guitarist Pete Donnelly, keyboardist Pat Firth, bassist Joe Plowman and drummer Jano Rix. One of the funniest tracks is Fat and Happy, a return to Blanton’s oldtimey days: the theme is “just wait and see,” and the way it turns out is too LMAO to give away.

Fever Dream builds a surreal New Orleans after-the-storm scenario, darkly spare bass paired against sepulchral toy piano. Hot Night offers a bouncy, energetic contrast, spiced with a distant brass chart; if Springsteen really wanted to write an oldschool soul song, he would have done it like this. Another nocturnal soul ballad, Lovin Is Easy pairs a spare string section against similarly low-key electric piano and Blanton’s unselfconsciously matter-of-fact, tender vocals.

Ravenous, a chirpy look back at adolescent friskiness, has a roller-rink charm that brings to mind both the Kinks and the Cucumbers, a mashup that Blanton revisits on the understatedly biting title track.. She turns the clock back anothe twenty years in Scoundrel, a coy Phil Spector pop tale about a couple of troublemakers.

Musically speaking, the album’s best track is probably The Animal I Am, a defiant individualist’s anthem set to artsy Jeff Lynne-style Nashville gothic pop. The album’s darkest track is To Be Known, part brooding Jimmy Webb chamber pop, part early BeeeGees existentialist lament. “Isn’t it al you ever wanted, to be alone?” Blanton ponders. Or is it “To be known?”. There’s also Vim and Vigor, a funnier take on what Amy Winehouse was up to before she self-destructed. Download this irrepressibly fun, dynamic mix and get to know one of the real genuine individualists in retro rock and many other styles as well.

Art-Rock Bandleader Hilary Downes Releases a Searingly Metaphorical New Solo Album

From the late zeros to the early part of this decade, pianist Hilary Downes was frontwoman for the Snow, who rank with Changing Modes and Botanica as one of the greatest art-rock bands to call this city their home. Since then, Downes has hardly been idle, and she’s finally releasing her similarly brilliant debut as a solo bandleader, Secrets of Birds – streaming at Bandcamp – at Barbes this Saturday night, Jan 28 at 8 PM. Folk noir standout Jessie Kilguss guests on vocals; eclectic A-list accordionist Will Holshouser leads one of his many projects to open the night at 6. After the Barbes show, most of the crowd are heading over to Freddy’s for Robin Aigner‘s Leonard Cohen tribute night.

Downes has a distinctive voice – a crystalline, often swoony yet precise delivery – a laser-like sense for a mot juste and a penchant for grim metaphors and multiple meanings. Meaning, she doesn’t stop at double entendres. The band behind her rises to the occasion to create a lush backdrop for her sometimes elusive, sometimes crushingly direct narrratives.

The opening track is Caldera, an elegant but venomously interconnected series of mythological scenes: “One could predict that the love they felt was equal to the harm they could inflict,” Downes intones, hushed and deadpan. Jeffrey Schaeffer’s waves of cymbals and sardonic swoops from the string section – violinist Karl Meyer and cellist Sara Stalnaker – drive the point home at the end with piercing accuracy.

Downes brings her torchiest nuance to the swing shuffle Deep Well, awash in chilly water metaphors and nocturnal unease:

Would that she could hold the night
Cold and without wind
To hold all of it oh so tight
Until it let her in

Her vocals bring calm and tenderness alongside Mike Cohen’s lingering guitars in contrast with Meyer’s stark violin throughout the optimistic Americana-tinged ballad Hearts Plateau. Then the band picks up the pace with the steamy, bossa-tinged Masters of the Table, a feast of imagery that gives the bandleader a slam-dunk opportunity to flip the script. She’s a master of turning the tables on what you might expect.

Dylan Nowik’s growling, stately lead guitar rises over darkly baroque strings and Cohen’s noir-tinged jangle on The Owl, a majestic and subtly sardonic portrait of a predator. Downes pulls out all the stops in Canon of Proportions, a purposeful, backbeat-driven anthem that’s the key to the album’s bitter central narrative:

Left long shadows in the sand
His arms, wings of a plane
He was Davinci’s man
His soul dwarfed by his frame

Matt Brandau’s boomy bass kicks off the album’s best and most cruelly vivid song, The Gist. It wouldn’t be out of place on Portishead’s Live at Roseland album:

Lady luck, she found her wealth
Took it from her former self
Queen of the sky, queen of the plain
She made herself a nest where birds could lay

The band take their deepest plunge into noir on album’s title track: “Save me from these thoughts, divebomb every part,” Downes laments, yet she’s just as defiant: “I’m not afraid of the darkness in my way.” She ends the album with the death-fixated psychedelic soul ballad The Word and then the waltzing, surprisingly optimistic Rainbow. It’s only January, but we have a real contender for best original album of 2017 here.

Catchy Tunesmithing and Smartly Relevant Songwriting from the New Tarot

Friday night at the Poisson Rouge, a crowd of about fifty people – which is a lot, in this post-election depression – gathered out of the cold to witness a short but impactful set by the catchy and eclectic New Tarot. This band has a lot of flavors. New wave is where they’re coming from, but they blend in elements as diverse as 90s Portishead trip-hop, growling riff-rock, 60s psychedelia, a little ornate art-rock and some lyrically-fueled Americana.

They opened with a scampering new wave-flavored number and its coy “meow meow” or two early on, Karen Walker’s woozy keyboards bringing to mind state-of-the-art retro 80s New York band Changing Modes. Guitarist Sulene van der Walt – subbing for Beth Callen – worked her way expertly and effortlessly from stiletto tremolo-picking, to twinkling, starry upper-register resonance to some unexpected grit and roar as the set went on.

The night’s second number romped along with a jungly Antmusic groove from bassist Dave Kahn and drummer Chas Langston behind Karen’s spare keyboard accents. Her frontwoman sister Monika growled and wailed like a somewhat less feral version of the Grasping Straws’ Mallory Feuer on the song after that, fueled by van der Walt’s hard-funk riffage contrasting with the aircondiitoned synth textures wafting overhead.

They went back – or, more accurately, forward – into the 80s for a swaying, vampy Talking Heads-flavored seduction theme spiced by Karen’s electric piano in tandem with David Banker’s spare trombone, an instrument that at this point serves mostly as an extra texture and could be utilized for a lot more firepower if the group felt up to it. Bump-bump, ba-BUMP-bump White Rabbit allusions gave way to a snarling, anthemic drive on the big anthem after that.

The most epic song of the night was a kaleidoscope of orchestral keys, clustering drums and deep-space guitar shimmer: it wouldn’t have been out of place on the Portishead Live Roseland album. Karen took over lead vocals on the moody piano ballad that followed, part trip-hop, part ELO chamber pop. They could have played for twice as long as they did and nobody would have complained, hitting a peak a defiantly populist note with the hip hop-flavored The Kitchen’s On Fire and then the night’s trippiest, most memorable anthem, slinking along on a misterioso levantine groove. They closed with a C&W-tinged, crushingly sarcastic swipe upside the head of yuppie materialists, possibly titled America, Monika strapping on the bouzouki that had been lying tantalizing against the back wall of the stage. This band would go over well if they could hook on with the next Bat for Lashes or St. Vincent tour – their webpage doesn’t have any upcoming gigs listed at the moment, but they play around New York a lot. And stay tuned for an auspicious new album.