New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: indie rock

NO ICE Represent the Real Brooklyn at Bowery Electric

NO ICE might be the best band to come out of Brooklyn in the last few years. They spun off of punkish populists the Brooklyn What when one of that band’s original three brilliant lead guitarists, Evan O’Donnell, absconded to Indonesia to work on a gamelan metal project (he’s been a member of New York’s Balinese gamelan, Gamelan Dharma Swara) and then most recently put out a ferociously good, dark art-rock album.

So frontman/multi-instrumentalist Jamie Frey decided to finally play all those instruments he’d been hiding down in the basement and keep the band going with a slightly different lineup and a different name. No ice – say it fast, ok? Or, you know the deal: if you’re ordering a fountain soda to go with your fast food, you get twice as much if you tell the girl at the register, “No ice!” Hardly rocket science – and it’s not known if that scam is the band’s M.O. beyond the noisy pun of a bandname.

Frey is one of New York’s most erudite musical talents. His songs draw on sixty years or more of music history: he’s as adept at doo-wop as he is at noiserock, fuzzily catchy Guided by Voices powerpop, unhinged punk rock and probably stuff we haven’t heard yet. It wouldn’t be out of the question to think that he had a couple of Duke Ellington big band numbers in him. He and the band are back from a marathon US tour and have an enticing show coming up on June 3 at Bowery Electric at 10, where they’re on an amazing all-New York triplebill, with power trio Castle Black – who veer between acidic Bush Tetras postpunk, stoner metal and more straight-up, sardonic punk – opening the night at 9. Television lead guitar legend Richard Lloyd headlines at 11; cover is an absurdly good $10. They’ll also be playing the annual Northside Festival on June 9 at Main Drag Music and on the 10th at the Gutter; both shows are at 11.

NO ICE’s album is Come On Feel the NO ICE, streaming at Bandcamp. It opens with The Cemetery,  a fast electric remake of the Jesus & Mary Chain’s Deep One Perfect Morning. The themes are similar, the musicianship better since they have Jesse Katz’s live drums backing John-Severin Napolillo’s guitar, Frey’s piano and Sean Spada’s organ. It makes a good diptych with with Summer Bummer, a hazier but equally brooding J&MC-style post-Velvets tune. “She’ll never love you again,” intones singer Oliver Ignatius.

Darlin’ will have you reaching for your phone – damn, what song from Daydream Nation does this take to the next level? Answer: it’s Hey Joni, complete with awesomely unhinged noise guitar jam. Then Frey goes deep into the soul-rock he loves so much with Leave Her Alone, a battle of superego vs. id. Superego wins, walking off with less than a home run.

I Want You goes back toward J&MC territory with some tastier, more dynamic guitar multitracks than that band ever laid down. We Get High Together is just plain sweet: if you have a stoner girlfriend, if you had a stoner girlfriend – or if you are a stoner girlfriend – you’ll get it. By contrast, Change Your Mind comes across as a haphazard mashup of the Lemonheads and Bay City Rollers (ok, nobody in the band except for Jamie probably ever heard of the Bay City Rollers, but that’s what it sounds like).

Out With the Brats is a powerpop gem: “Out on a weekday, feeling so weak and greY.” The trick ending is primo. The next track, simply titled Guitar, is an acidically simmering, twistedly psychedelic tableau with a sideways shout-out to Queen. Then the band returns to super-catchy mode with TBD and its blend of Britfolk and vintage powerpop. It’s here where it hits you, if you’ve read the song credits, how Frey has internalized the style of every other writer in this band to the point where he can sound like them just as easily as he can slip into Robert Pollard, or Thurston Moore, or (who was the songwriter in the Ink Spots?).

The swaying, jazzy miniature Eat This Heart is a co-write with Saskia Kahn. The band aptly turns the album’s lone cover, Leonard Cohen’s Memories, into leering vintage Springsteen. They wind up the album with Five Beers, a slow, contentedly slit-eyed nocturne: Frey really nails the starry distance that a few bowls and a few beers put between you and the sick Trumpy reality that awaits you when you wake up  hungover and hashed over, Napolillo turning in a tantalizingly fleeting slide guitar solo.  Somewhere Lou Reed is listening to this and smiling and saying, uh huh.

Soul Singer Alice Lee’s Long-Awaited New Album: One of 2017’s Catchiest, Most Lyrically Searing Releases

Back in the mid-zeros, soul singer Alice Lee was one of the most distinctive and individualistic artists in what was a thriving Lower East Side and Brooklyn music scene. She remains one of the most eclectic tunesmiths to emerge from there, blending jazz sophistication, trippy downtempo ambience, and a little slashing punk-funk or downtown guitar skronk into her uneasy, picturesque songs. This blog’s predecessor picked her 2005 release Lovers and Losers as one of the thousand best albums of all time. That one was sort of a mashup of Nina Simone and Fiona Apple.

In the years since then, gentrification continued to blight neighborhoods across the city, and Lee was one of the thousands driven out by the luxury-condo blitzkrieg. These days she’s been dividing her time between here and Guatemala, continuing to play her own music as well as tropicalia and jazz throughout Central America. Now, she finally has a new album, The Wheel – streaming at Bandcamp – and a a show coming on on May 25 at 9 PM Pete’s Candy Store, one of the few remaining venues that she played back in the day that’s still open.

Although there’s great elegance and nuance in her voice on these songs, the overall atmosphere is sobering and defiantly angry. Much of the material is awash in regret; the album’s best songs are searing narratives of 99-percenter struggles. She kicks things off with a swinging, lo-fi guitar-and-vocal jazz miniature, These Foolish Things: it’s over in a heartbeat, just like the affair it commemorates. The wickedly anthemic, trip-hop-tinged Where Are You My Love, a longtime concert favorite, captures Lee in the studio circa 2003 on electric piano, with Yuval Gabay on drums and Lee’s longtime producer, Pere Ubu and No Grave Like the Sea mastermind Tony Maimone on bass.David Johnson’s tersely biting Spanish guitar solo midway through matches the bittersweetness and longing in Lee’s voice as it finally rises at the end.

Most of the rest of the songs here feature Mark Schwartz on bass and Alejandro Vega on drums, with Maimone on the four-string on a handful of tracks. The blockbuster cut is the resolutely insistent Your Blues, an anthem for the era of Ferguson and Eric Garner, Lee doubletracking her blippy, distorted electric piano and judiciously resonant electric guitar:

Bend your life, break your back
For a system that bruises you
Twenty lashes in jail
When it fails you, accuses you
Don’t exist in the eyes of the law
They can do with you as they please
You stand up for yourself
And they bring you to your knees
Can’t look me in the eye
As you take your shot
The blood on your hands
Will come out in the wash
How can you stand by
Watch your brother fall and suffer
At the hands of another
How far are we from done
From disconnect and thinking we’re the only ones

Another electric piano groove, Letter to No One revisits the surreal, restless nocturnal vibe of much of Lovers & Losers:

My heart is overwhelmed
By a tide that won’t turn
I stumble forward, wondering how long
Before I wake
The key to happiness,
A secret no one else can crack
Always looking forward and
Never looking back

The album’s loopy, tricky, syncopated title track looks at the desperation of love in a time of wage slavery:

These days were meant for the dogs
You hit the blocks hard but you don’t get the job
Or you get the job but you’re full up in debt
That you spend the rest of your life trying to get ahead
…You don’t get a choice in the matter
Until you get caught

Lee revisits the theme in the briskly swinging, catchy, cynical Too Little Too Late, another big audience hit:

We go forward, two steps back
Hit play, repeat, don’t skip the track…
Watch the broken glass across the gap
Step on the line don’t let me pass the same way twice

Descent, set to an ironic downward chord progression, is Lee at her most harrowing and intense, with a creepy, tremolo-picked dreampop guitar solo:

Repetition is a curse
Save the chorus
Erase the verse
Where were you
When I was down
For the count, but not quite out
Passing ghost with no regrets
Learning to live and forget

The funky First and Sixth, another brooding nocturne, will resonate with anybody who has bittersweetly hazy memories of wee-hours hookups in what was then a (semi) affordable East Village on nights when the trains were all messed up: “Waiting on the L just out of luck, now I’m stuck at 14th St., waiting on my whiskey sour…it’s almost time for breakfast again…make no difference, hand to mouth…I don’t care if I’m the only one to get out of here alive.” This wasn’t such a long time ago, either.

Love Is a Thief, an elegant jazz waltz of sorts, dates from the early zeros and has the feel of early 60s Nina Simone blended with Velvets folk-rock: Lee plays it solo on acoustic guitar and piano. She works a psychedelically sparkling upward trajectory on the kiss-off anthem Left of Mine, brooding guitar jangle set to a funky shuffle beat. The album also includes a couple of remixes, including legendary Greenpoint producer Scotty Hard’s version of First and Sixth. It’s only May, but we may have the best album of 2017 here.

Loosie Bring Their Enigmatically Intriguing, Artsy Psychedelia to Brooklyn

Loosie’s distinctively scruffy, psychedelic songs are tight, but also very unpredictable. Drummer/bandleader Alex Kirkpatrick’s tunesmithing doesn’t fall into typical verse/chorus patterns, and as with the best abstract art, it’s not easily categorized. This band is all about setting a mood.

Tempos and dynamics shift abruptly and impactfully, frontwoman Sara McDonald’s distantly soul-influenced vocals typically lingering back in the mix, drawing the listener in. It would be easy to call Loosie the bastard child of Sonic Youth and This Mortal Coil, but they’re more than the sum of that noisy, rainyday 80s mashup. A better comparison would be the similarly uncategorizable but more free-jazz influenced Parlor Walls – or McDonald’s other project, the mighty, majestic NYChillharmonic, who play blustery art-rock and chamber pop with big band jazz arrangements. Loosie’s new album Solvents in the Dream is streaming at Bandcamp; they’re playing the album release show for their new one, on April 27 at 10 PM at Friends & Lovers in Bed-Stuy. Cover is a ridiculously cheap $5; pensive guitar instrumentalist Koby Williamson opens the night at 8, followed by tuneful, delicate dreampop band Pecas at 9.

The album’s opening track, Turning, morphs in and out of Dominic Mekky’s allusively creepy toy piano and a slow, crashing, cymbal-fueled sway spiced with the occasional flicker of slide guitar from Louis Cohen. All Lies is another study in contrasts: gritty, unresolved dreampop guitar layers alongside tersely straightforward close-harmonied piano, the water imagery of the lyrics matching the music.

Fragmentary, minimalist lullaby phrases give way to towering, crushingly anthemic guitars in I Stopped You. Dirty Laundry comes across as part Os Mutantes tropical psychedelia, part chilly late Pixies mist, and part uneasy early Wire stomp – a weird blend, but the band manages to make it work. Reverbtoned slide guitar, violin and steady piano mingle in the brightly crescendoing 6/8 ballad Sitting on the Rooftop, one of the most straightforward tracks here.

The epically psychedelic, nine-minute Here #2 follows a loosely syncopated groove, guitars flickering, amps sputtering and cymbals building a hailstorm: “Just feels good to be here,” is McDonald’s mantra. Today is a sweeping, swaying, mostly instrumental piano-and-vocalese number, followed by Burnt Rubber, the closest thing to a pop song here. McDonald’s disarmingly distinct, cheery vocals mask a dark lyrical undercurrent as the song decays into a pulsing psychedelic cloud. The final cut, Blank, makes a return to syncopatedly enigmatic instrumental territory. A lot of thought and outside-the-box creativity went into this.

About the bandname: for those outside urban areas, a loosie is a single cigarette typically sold on the street or at bodegas. The murder of Eric Garner was instigated when the black Staten Islander was arrested for selling untaxed loosies outside a newly constructed “luxury” condo built for rich white gentrifiers.

 

The New Pornographers Go New Wave at Terminal 5 on the 26th

How many of you went to see the New Pornographers at Prospect Park in the summer of 2015? It was what you would expect: a lot of fun. They played the hits, keys swooshed and guitars crunched and clanged….and there was plenty of room to roam around. Fifteen years ago, it would have been impossible to get in to see them unless you were willing to wait in an impossibly long line at the gates.

That’s not to imply that this century’s premier powerpop supergroup are any less popular now than they ever were, considering that Terminal 5, where they’re playing this April 26 at 9 PM, is the largest Manhattan venue they’ve ever been booked into. It’s likely that a lot of the people who’ve been priced out of Brooklyn and who would have packed that show in the park may come out for this one, for the borderline-obscene advance ticket price of $38. Factored into that, no doubt, is the fact that this is an all-ages show where legal adults will be subsidizing their (officially at least) nondrinking concertmates. Imagine shaggy, tattooed dad and son in matching Beavis and Butthead (or Bevis Frond) shirts.

The group’s new album, Whiteout Conditions is streaming at Spotify. It’s a new wave record, and it’s a good one. There’s a suspiciously satirical edge to the swooshy synths, and crisply danceable beats, and the unease cached rather haphazardly in the lyrics. These songs are amazingly catchy: hooks fly fast and furious, and you can sing along to pretty much everything. What Squeeze was thirty years ago, the New Pornographers are to now. Real estate bubble-era malaise has never been so much fun.

Kathryn Calder sings the careful cadences of the vampy, Head on the Door-era Cure style opening track, Play Money, over a brisk backbeat. There’s a vocoder and pulsing layers of synths:

Just when I’d thought we’d beat the system
That we were gentlemen of leisure
He left to talk about his treasure
And how he’d gotten it for a song…

Carl Newman moves to the mic for the title cut, awash in echoing sequencer beats. It sounds like Big Country without the bombast – ok, that’s a stretch, but just imagine. Mid-80s Wire is also a reference point. It’s an escape anthem, more relevant than ever since January 20.

High Ticket Attraction – how about that title for irony, huh? – looks back to the early 80s, when Bowie glam from ten years earlier was such a big influence. Yuppie entitlement and conspicuous consumption factor into Newman’s torrents of lyrics – the Jigsaw Seen come to mind.

Calder’s sober enunciation in This Is the World of the Theatre, one of the poppiest tracks here, perfectly captures the self-referential preciousness of a generation of gentrifier fauxhemians. The glossy, vamping Darling Shade has a more opaque 80s glossiness: it’s about what happens “When you add your voice to bad choices…when you break through, it’s nothing.”

Second Sleep wafts in with a late-Beatles psychedelic intro, and then the new wave beat kicks in: “This time of the morning you’d swear it was night,” Newman, Calder and Neko Case insist in between short rhyming couplets. “Be awake for awhile” becomes “Been awake for awhile,” after awhile.

Fuzz bass underpins droll, synthesized phony windchimes in Colosseums: “A scalper’s price built into the designs…say it like a soothsayer, it’ll keep for days.” The most overlty political track is the atmospherically swooshy We’ve Been Here Before: “We couldn’t find a way out when were here the first time,” Newman admits. “Might as well leave him behind, might as well leave him behind.”

Juke has a slinky Bollywood psychedelic groove, spun through the eye of a Beatles needle. Case takes over lead vocals on Clock Wise, which maintains the psychedelic ambience. The final cut is the allusively apocalyptic Avalanche Alley, blippy electronic organ flitting through a haze of guitars over a tight 2/4 beat: “News from the last world, news from the future…we could use a ride,” the singers harmonize. As with everything this band has ever done, this album doesn’t just invite repeated listens: it demands them. How rewarding it is to see one of the last successful holdovers from the college-radio-and-cds era still going strong.

Brilliant Bassist Bridget Kearney Releases a Catchy, Purist Keyboard-Driven Debut Album

Bridget Kearney is the rare bass player you want to hear more of. From day one, she’s been the groove on the low strings and the source of innumerable, tersely tasty solos as the bassist in popular blue-eyed soul group Lake Street Dive. But she’s also a solo artist, and a multi-instrumentalist. On her new album Won’t Let You Down – streaming at Bandcamp – she plays guitars and keys as well. It first took shape as a studio side project, and it’s been several years in the making. Taking a momentary detour from the never-ending Lake Street Dive tour (which this year includes a stop at Prospect Park Bandshell on June 13 at 8:30 PM), Kearney leads her own band playing songs from the new album at Rough Trade on April 21 at 10 PM. Advance tix are $12.

Vocally, Kearney works the same turf as her Lake Street Dive bandmate Rachael Price, but with an airier, more breathy delivery evocative of Holly Miranda. As a tunesmith, Kearney is very eclectic, blending elements of vintage 60s soul, garage rock, Beatlesque pop, psychedelia and glam, among other styles: this is a very keyboard-driven record. It opens with the playfully scampering garage rock title track: with its cheery layers of keys, it sounds like the New Pornographers covering the Friggs. The piano ballad What Happened Today is a catchy mashup of 70s John Lennon and classic soul, sprinkled with starry keyboard textures. With its blend of swirly roller-rink organ, twinkling electric piano and blazing guitars, Serenity brings to mind Ward White’s recent adventures in Bowie-esque glamrock.

Wash Up has a brisk new wave beat, a hypnotic swirl and a couple of tantalizingly brief lead guitar breaks. Kearney makes echoey, nocturnal trip-hop out of oldschool soul in Who Are We Kidding , then multitracks her own edgy bass and guitar harmonies in the Lynchian Nashville gothic pop of Living in a Cave. It’s the album’s strongest song.

Love Doctor isn’t a seduction theme: it’s a kiss-off anthem that looks back to Bowie in his Young Americans period. Kearney breaks out her acoustic guitar for the flamenco-tinged intro to the bitterly simmering minor-key noir soul ballad Nothing Does: the Motown chorus comes out of nowhere, and is absolutely delicious.

Kearney pushes the upper limits of her voice on Daniel, a Penny Lane pop number: it’s the only place on the album where it sounds like she’s really straining to hit the notes. The final cut is the ethereal, Lennonsque ballad So Long. It’s impossible to think of a better debut album released this year so far.

Playlist for a Crazy Monday

You know this blog’s steez: busy day, no time for a whole album? How about a playlist of some of the coolest singles to come over the transom lately? Click the links for each track, ad-free (at least at most recent listen – youtube is problematic like that).

Over a pretty standard Rich James-style funk groove, The Porchistas’ Mr. Chump raises a middle finger to the American Boris Yeltsin, the “draft-dodging scum” who “beats on little girls and cheats on Monopoly.” Then the girlie chorus chimes in. “Eats shit!”

What’s left of legendary Detroit band Death – the African-American Stooges – has just released the similarly relevant  Cease Fire, a politically fueled soul-rocker with crunchy guitars and unexpectedly swirly Stylistics orchestration.

Here’s Metallica backing Iggy Pop doing TV Eye live in Mexico. Who knew the world’s most popular late 80s/early 90s metal band – still going strong – would have an affinity for the Stooges?

Electric Citizen-like female-fronted metal trio Seven Day Sleep’s Red Lipstick Murders is twisted circus rock/metal…but listen closely and you’ll discover it’s really a roots reggae song!

Aussie folk noir chanteuse Woodes’ Bonfire is a field holler turns into lingering, uneasy, glossy new wave midway through. Believe it nor not, it works.

On the art for art’s sake side, Calvin Lore’s Sugar Hives is closer to Sean Lennon than his dad, but it’s catchy. It starts slowly –  hang in there.

Let’s wind this up with the uneasy, ambient Cuando El Misterio Es Demasiado Impresionante, Es Imposible Desobedecer from La Equidistancia by Leandro Fresco & Rafael Anton Irisarri. More about that one soon here!

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. 

An Intriguing New Album from the Propulsively Enigmatic Parlor Walls

Parlor Walls are one of those great bands who defy categorization. Are they postrock? Postpunk? Noiserock? Psychedelia? Free jazz?

All of the above. Guitarist/singer Alyse Lamb is a charismatic presence out in front of the trio, with as much of a flair for a catchy hook as sonic mayhem. She never plays anything remotely the same way twice. Drummer Chris Mulligan is a beast, playing thick, churning rivers of organ or fuzzy synth lines with his left hand while keeping time with the right and the kickdrum. Alto saxophonist Kate Mohanty adds her signature acidity, acerbity and occasional extended-technique squall, just as she did on the band’s previous record. They’re playing the album release show for their new one, Opposites – streaming at Bandcamp, and available on vinyl – on March 9 at 10 PM at Sunnyvale. Cover is $10.

None of the songs follow any predictable verse/chorus pattern: the group squeezes a lot into short, impactful packages. Mulligan drives the opening track, Crime Engine Failure with something of an altered qawwali groove, Lamb’s catchy vocal hooks against lingering, minimalist swaths of guitar and sax that intertwine as the song goes on. “Cover me…and all that lies in front of me,” Lamb intones amid the stormy cloudbanks of the second track. “You won’t let me bleed when you’re gone.”

The spare/densely roaring dichotomy of Play Opposites brings to mind peak-era Sonic Youth. “Open up your eyes…burn it to the ground…not going there,” Lamb half-sings, half-insists: allusion and unease define this band. Ambassadress juxtaposes Mulligan’s calm organ with stun-guitar blasts from Lamb, up to a tasty, sirening outro.

Love Again has a stomping martial beat, a less inchoate mashup of early Gang of Four and Goo-era SY fueled by Lamb’s swoops and dives. In Teach Me Where to Roam, the band vamps hypnotically as Mohanty hovers ominously over Mulligan’s four-on-the-floor thump, up to yet another simple, catchy, crescendoing chorus and then back.

As the band shifts back and forth from a heavy, syncopated beat, Hesitation alludes to resistance against repression, or at least conformity, arranged around Lamb’s recurrent seven-note slide riff. Shorts bursts from Mohanty pepper the whirling lows of Me Me My, an update on a familiar X-Ray Spex trope; Lamb’s long outro is pretty amusing.

The album’s longest track, Birthday, is an audience favorite,  Albert Ayler-ish sax busting out over a hypnotically circling backdrop. “Don’t you know I’m perfect?” Lamb asks, completely deadpan. The album winds up with the twinkling improvisation Carstairs and then the darkest, most epically anthemic track here, Red Shed. Another winner from one of Brooklyn’s most consistently unpredictable and interesting bands. 

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. 

Cocooning in Soho with Bing and Ruth

It took until about the halfway point in Bing and Ruth’s album release show last night at the Greene Space before the brunette in the front row finally rested her head on the shoulder of the adjacent sweaterboy. New Yorkers have been cocooning a lot lately: it’s hard to think of a more apt, or possibly more hopeful soundtrack for quiet reflection than the ensemble’s new record No Home of the Mind – available on vinyl and streaming at WNYC – which they played from start to finish.

Pianist David Moore has scaled down the original scope of the band from almost a dozen members to the current five, in the process further concretizing his signature blend of minimalism, indie classical and electroacoustic trance music. As the group’s instrumentals segued from one into another, they brought to mind acts as diverse as Anton BagatovDawn of Midi without the thump, George Winston without the sentimentality, or even Bruce Hornsby if he’d gone into minimalism after his time with the Grateful Dead.

What was most impressive was how little the group relies on electronics. Other acts would take Moore’s looping phrases and have a pedal do all the heavy lifting. Not Moore: it’s one thing to play his gnomic clusters, and elegant arpeggios, and Philip Glass-ine phrases once with perfect timing; Moore did it over and over, with unwavering intonation and touch and rhythm and made it seem easy. Much of the time, he had his eyes closed. Clarinetist Jeremy Viner, who supplied subtly shifting shades enhanced by a pedalboard, might have opened his once during about 45 minutes onstage. The two bassists – Greg Chudzik and Jeff Ratner – took different roles, one anchoring the music with a series of low drones, the other playing higher up the fingerboard and adding the occasional, understatedly emphatic slow glissando. Mike Effenberger sat stage left, running the sound through a series of mixers, sometimes for minute timbral shirts or oscillations, occasionally for dramatic low-versus-high effect. Moore began with his most energetic phrasing, segued down toward enigmatic ambience, took a turn into minor keys for the night’s most acerbic moments and ended on a warmly nocturnal note. 

Considering that Bing and Ruth usually play much larger spaces, it was something of a shock to see that the intimate Greene Space – a former deli about the same size as Hifi Bar – wasn’t sold out. Then again, everyone’s cocooning these days. Bing and Ruth’s next New York show is on April 10 at the San Damiano Mission, 85 N 15th St in Williamsburg, time/price TBA.

Just for the record, there is nobody with either the name Bing or Ruth in Bing and Ruth. There’ve been thousands of illustrious Ruths over the centuries; beyond a crooner of cheesy 1930s pop hits, a baseball executive, and the world’s most useless search engine, there haven’t been too many Bings. Here’s to this group for redeeming the name.