New York Music Daily

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Category: nashvillle gothic

The Brooklyn Folk Festival Is Ten Years Old and Better Than Ever

Over the past decade, the Brooklyn Folk Festival has become a New York rite of passage. Like Golden Fest, Rev. Vince Anderson’s Union Pool residency, the Brooklyn Cyclones and Shakespeare in the Park, it’s something that everyone should experience at least once. It’s held over a weekend every spring, with both daytime and evening lineups; a lot of people go every year.

The best thing about the festival is that it isn’t exclusively devoted to artists who play music by the greatest and most prolific songwriter of all time – whose name varies from language to language, but invariably translates as Anonymous. This past Saturday night’s lineup featured some of that repertoire but also originals drawing on a global expanse of influences, from high-voltage Romany dance music, to moody Balkan ballads,  ecstatic Afro-Colombian trance-dance chants, honkytonk, southern gothic and jug band sounds. Which makes sense, considering that the folks at the magical Jalopy Theatre – New York’s Americana music central – put this thing together.

By the time the nighttime lineup got underway, St. Ann’s Church on Montague Street was already packed with a diverse crowd of veterans and kids hell-bent on getting the most bang for the buck out of their all-weekend or allday passes. Italian pianist/singer Luca Ferraris kicked off the evening on the stage next to the beer stand with a dynamic set of originals and a few traditional numbers that ran the gamut from bouncy dance tunes with Romany or even Russian tinges, to ballads that sometimes sauntered unexpectedly in a jazz direction. A bassist joined him about midway through and became a vocal sparring partner. Even for those in the crowd whose Italian might be limited to restaurant menu items, the songs were infectious. 

In the church’s main space, pan-Balkan singer and song reinventor Eva Salina and sorcerer accordionist Peter Stan benefited from the rich natural reverb, which added yet another layer of mystery to their distinctive versions of songs from the catalogs of iconic Romany singers Saban Bajramovic and Vida Pavlovic. Nimbly negotiating the slithery sibilances of the Romanes language, the California-born Salina channeled resilience and grace in the face of longing and abandonment, sang a cartoonishly bouncy number from the point of view of a guy overjoyed with his three-foot-tall, extremely fertile wife, and didn’t shy away from the issues of displacement and exile that permeate so much of this repertoire. Stan sized up the sonics in a split-second and maxed them out with flickering torrents of bracing minor keys and chromatics that took on new dimensions, echoing off the walls.

There was a little overlap while one of the Jalopy house bands, Skalopy, played live dub reggae and some classic Toots & the Maytals material with a lineup that included both banjo and piano. Meanwhile, in the main space, Bulla En El Barrio built a frenzy of call-and-response with their hypnotically percussive chants, which draw a straight line back from Colombia to Africa. A succession of men and women took turns leading the choir over the thunder of the percussion; they closed with an original that was as rustic and otherworldly as any of the traditional epics.

They would have been a tough act to follow, but not for Jerron Paxton, who may be the most talented musician in all of New York. Playing a longer set than any of the other acts on the bill, solo, he nonchalantly showed off his spectacular chops as oldtime acoustic blues and ragtime guitarist, fiddler, banjo and harmonica player. This time out he didn’t take a turn at the piano, but he could have. In his genial Louisiana drawl, he entertained the crowd with stories from the kind of colorful past only a musician could have…but also didn’t hesitate to remind them of the sobering reality of how many ex-slaves died of starvation after the Civil War. And you wonder why so many old blues songs mention hunger. Moving methodically between carefree proto-bluegrass fiddle, wickedly precise blues fingerpicking, ominously ancient, hypnotically percussive banjo and some fierce harmonica blues, he made it all seem easy He encored on harmonica as well, with a breathless medley of 18th century blues tunes, including Abraham Lincoln’s favorite song.

Nick Panken, frontman of high-voltage Americana crew Spirit Family Reunion, didn’t waste time admitting that they had an impossible act to follow. And they’re a great band – but loud electric rock with drums doesn’t work in a space like St. Ann’s. In that context, the matter of who was playing before or after was irrelevant. The sound people really tried their best, and the band realized what was up, so their ballads worked out ok. But when they picked up the pace, the mix was just vocals, drums and Maggie Carson’s icepick five-string banjo lines. Their songs blend bluegrass, honkytonk and oldtime string band music and they can jam like crazy. And their fan base is crazy about them. But this was the wrong venue. The Jalopy is their New York home base when they’re not on tour; they’re best experienced there.

Speaking of Jalopy people, guitarist/singer Feral Foster – who’s been running the weekly Roots and Ruckus series there since forever – was next on the bill. Looking dapper in a sharp tan suit, he crooned, picked expertly in oldtimey open tunings and took a couple of unexpected and very successful turns into ragtime and slow blues. It’s hard to think of a more original songwriter in gothic Americana. Some of the songs were tongue-in-cheek but others were not: there’s an omnipresent dark undercurrent that always grounds them in grim reality. He’s at the Jalopy virtually every Wednesday sometime after 9 PM.

Finally, at around midnight, Birmingham, Alabama’s Steel City Jug Slammers took the stage, bolstered by Ernesto Gomez and one of his bandmates from Brooklyn’s Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues. It was amazing to watch Washtub Jay pick out swooping basslines on that clothesline string – without any tape on his fingers, either! – and play kazoo lines through a trumpet horn at the same time, and not miss a beat. Frontman Ramblin’ Ricky Tate played guitar and led the band through a sly series of shuffles and stomps as Maxwell Honeycup kept the low end going at the other side of the stage with his jug. By now, the crowd had thinned out, but these guys were not about to let anybody down.

That was it for this year’s Brooklyn Folk Festival, but a lot of these acts can be found at the Jalopy. Bulla en El Barrio are at Barbes on April 30 at around 10. Eva Salina and Peter Stan are at the American Folk Art Museum on May 4 at 5:30 PM, sharing the bill with irrepressibly fun, charming oldtimey chanteuse Tamar Korn, who can vocalize any wind instrument ever invented.. The Steel City Jug Slammers are at KGB Bar at around 9:30 PM on April 11. And Spirit Family Reunion are at the Knickerbocker, 35 Railroad Ave. in Westerly, Rhode Island on April 14 at 9 for $13 in advance.

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Lyrical, Mesmerizing Psychedelia From Rose Thomas Bannister in Williamsburg Saturday Night

Psychedelic rock bands aren’t known for searing, literary lyrics. It’s even rarer to find a psychedelic group with a charismatic woman out in front. Likewise, it’s just as uncommon for a woman songwriter with an acoustic guitar to be leading a great psychedelic band. Saturday night at the brand-new Wonders of Nature in Williamsburg, the crowd got all that from Rose Thomas Bannister and her mesmerizing backing unit.

She and lead guitarist Bob Bannister are the closest thing we have to an American Richard & Linda Thompson – except that these two don’t hit each other over the head with things (or at least it doesn’t seem so). Her career dates back to the past decade in Nebraska, where she sharpened her hauntingly spare, broodingly allusive “great plains gothic” songcraft. His dates back a decade before to post-no wave bands like The Scene Is Now, who are still going strong.

With a wry grin, he bowed the strings of his Strat for “ambience,” as he put it, as the undulating, enigmatic opening number, Sandhll slowly coalesced, drummer Ben Engle’s subtle cymbals mingling with bassist Debby Schwartz’s nimbly melodic, trebly, punchy countermelodies and violinist Concetta Abbate’s ethereally tectonic washes. In this context, The Real Penelope and its achingly Homeric references were reinvented as a sort of mashup of the Grateful Dead’s China Cat Sunflower and Rubber Soul-era Beatles.

Appropriating religious imagery and turning it inside out is a device that goes back centuries – Rumi, for example – but Rose Thomas Bannister is unsurpassed at it. The best song of the night was a brand-new one, Heaven Is a Wall, a prime example. She opened it with a hypnotic, cirlcing fingerpicked riff, then it morphed into a sarcastic march as she let loose a litany of fire-and-brimstone imagery straight out of the Mike Pence speechbook. Likewise, the gritty, swinging In the Alley and its understatedly Tom Waits-like tableau.

The rest of the set rose and fell, from Sutherland, a misty, ominous murder ballad, to the jauntily sarcastic Like Birds Do (a subtle Macbeth reference); the grim, claustrophobic narrative Jephthah’s Daughter, and Houston, an escape anthem recast as late-60s blue-eyed soul. Terse, sinewy, slinky Strat lines blended with stately violin, leaping and swooping bass and Engle’s low-key propulsion. They closed with their one cover of the night, a pulsing, emphatic take of Ivor Cutler’s Women of the World: Bannister knows as well as anyone else that the future of this country is female.

Cellist Leah Coloff opened with an acerbic solo set of her own, a mix of stark blues phrasing, edgy Patti Smith-style anthems and bracing detours toward free jazz and the avant garde. Franklin Bruno and his power trio the Human Hands closed the night with a set of haphazardly punchy, catchy, sardonically lyrical tunes that brought to mind acts as diverse as Cheap Trick, Big Star and the Dream Syndicate. Afterward, Bob Bannister spun a mix of obscure 70s dancefloor tracks over the PA; everybody danced.

A Characteristically Creepy New Album From the Great Kotorino

You could make a very strong case that Kotorino are the best New York band of the last ten years. Combining circus rock and latin noir, with frequent detours into gothic Americana, their sound grew more lavishly orchestrated as the group expanded. Their new album Sea Monster, streaming at Bandcamp, brings the band full circle to their earliest years in quietly uneasy parlor rock, a vehicle for frontman/guitarist Jeff Morris’ allusively grim narratives. Kotorino don’t have any shows coming up, but Charming Disaster – Morris and singer/uke player Ellia Bisker’s devilish murder ballad side project – are playing Pine Box Rock Shop this Friday night, Feb 16 at 11:30 PM.

“Like a broken calculator, they tried, and tried, but never got her number,” Morris and Bisker harmonize over an unexpectedly funky strut as the new album’s opening track, Hell Yeah, gets underway. The horn section kicks in, then there’s one of the misterioso interludes the band love so much. As usual, there are as many levels of meaning here, a sideways shout-out to an enterprising girl in the 21st century Manhattan gig economy:

Downtown to the tarpits
Where the hedge funds employ mystics
She said it’s been real in the abstract,
But I want to break out of this contract

Now That I’m Dead, a slowly swaying, crescendoing soul ballad, is next. The glockenspiel against Morris’ grittily clanging old Gibson hollowbody is a typical, neat Kotorino touch. The band shift between a muted, suspenseful pulse and bright, horn-spiced flair in the increasingly ominous travelogue Daddy’s on the Road: all those doppler effects are irresistibly fun.

Rags to Riches is classic Kotorino, a creepy circus waltz: without spoiling the plot, the theme is be careful what you wish for. Likewise, Breakdown has a darkly jaunty, brassy oldtimey swing: it’s part escape anthem, part dayjob hell story.

Too Bad (You Haven’t Eyes Like Us Owls) is the album’s most haunting track, a brooding noir mambo ablaze with brass, pouncing along on the slashes from Morris’ guitar, with a succession of surreal vocal cameos from the women in the band (who also comprise violinists Molly White and Estelle Bajou, tuba players Jeanie Schroder and Liz Prince, and singing saw player Caroline Ritson).

Patricia Santos’ mournful cello infuses the brooding, metaphorically charged waltz Planes Land:

The higher you go
The thinner the air
Head in the clouds
Spoils the view

Right Way Wrong has an emphatically jagged latin soul groove that rises to a moodily lush chorus, an allusively imagistic criminals-on-the-run tale with a cynically gruff Stefan Zeniuk bass sax solo. Fall Asleep But Don’t Let Me Go isn’t the only shipwreck tale Morris has written, but it’s the gloomiest, rising out of hazy ambience to a towering, 6/8 sway and then back, with an absolutely delicious contrapuntal vocal arrangement.

The title cut closes the album, Mike Brown;s chugging quasi-ska bassline giving way to a surreal, tropically psychedelic interlude with coy allusions to the Beatles and maybe the Boomtown Rats. Name another band alive who can do all this and a lot more in the span of just this many songs, You’ll see this here on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

Eerily Glimmering, Cinematic Nightscapes From Suss

Cinematic instrumental quintet Suss are the missing link between Brian Eno and Ennio Morricone – or the Lost Patrol without the drums. Which makes sense, considering that guitarist/bandleader Pat Irwin got his start with enigmatically loping and prowling 80s instrumentalists the Raybeats, but since then has made a mark in film music – when not playing in one version or another of the B-52’s, that is. The new group’s debut album, aptly titled Ghost Box is streaming at Bandcamp.

Never mind the album – if there’s any act out there that really makes their song titles come alive, it’s these guys. The band – which also comprises guitarist Bob Holmes, pedal steel player Jonathan Gregg, keyboardist Gary Lieb, and William Garrett – are  playing the release show tomorrow, Feb 4 at 8 PM for free at the Secret Theatre, 4402 23rd St. in Long Island City. Since the 7 train isn’t running, take the E or G to Court Square; the cozy black-box space is about three  blocks away.

The opening track, Wichita begins with a lingering big-sky riff answered by a wash of steel, then the echoes begin to gently swoosh and clang through the mix. Almost imperceptibly, wisps and flickers of steel and guitar begin wafting over the loop. It’s hypnotic to the extreme.

Opening with and then shadowed by a haze of feedback, Late Night Call is a slow, nostalgic conversation between guitar and steel, Likewise, Big Sky alternates between oscillating, slightly distorted washes, blippy electric piano fragments and sparse Old West riffs.

Twangy Lynchian guitar chords intersperse within a distantly menacing Angelo Badalamemti-style vamp in Rain. The band pick up the pace, at least to the extent that they ever do, with Laredo, putting reverbtoned 80s electric piano out front of the shifting clouds of guitar and spare spaghetti western licks.

Oscillating loops, disembodied dialogue, jagged clangs. resonant tremolo phrases and finally some gently acerbic, bluesy resonator guitar blend over a muted beat in Gunfighter. The album closes with a starrier, livelier, more expansive reprise of the opening theme. Drift off to your own private Twin Peaks Lodge with this.

The Black Lillies Rock City Winery With a New Lineup

The version of the Black Lillies that played City Winery last weekend was a lot different from the considerably larger version of the band who got a rave review here in the fall of 2013. Frontman/multi-instrumentalist Cruz Contreras has most recently pared the group down to a tight, lean four-piece. Drummer Bowman Townsend, who propelled the unit through this show with his usual blend of purist four-on-the-floor rhythm and vintage shuffle grooves, is the only holdover from that lineup.

But they still jam as psychedelically, if not as quite as much  as that incarnation. After a steady, upwardly driving hour and a half onstage, the takeaway was that this is as good a version of the Black Lillies as there’s ever been – Contreras has always drawn from a wide talent base, anyway.

The band’s not-so-secret new weapon is lead guitarist Dustin Schaefer. It was easy to see where his camaraderie with the bandleader comes from, considering the two’s encyclopedic appreciation of classic bluegrass, honkytonk, soul, stadium anthems and psychedelic rock. By the end of the night’s first number, Schaefer had cranked out two of his most sizzling solos of the night on his big vintage hollowbody Gibson, smoldering with chromatics and uneasy bluesy bends.

These Black Lillies rock harder than they ever have. Interestingly, the set had very little from the band’s most recent album Hard to Please. Instead, they focused on new material as well as a lot of the strongest anthems from 2013’s Runaway Freeway Blues, the band’s definitive statement to date.

Much as there were drinking songs, and band-on-the-road songs, and a handful of regretful ballads in the mix, the night’s central theme was the struggle to stay stay on solid ground in hard times. Maybe because of the current political climate, those songs of dashed dreams but also guarded hope resonated the most. In a revamped, amped-up take of Gold & Roses, Schaefer’s lead guitar substituted for the steel on the album version. Likewise, the band took Catherine – set in a surreal place with “nothing but blue skies and fire on the ground” – and made brisk bluegrass-inspired highway rock out of it.

The night’s longest number was a long, twisting psychedelic epic that went on for at least ten minutes, through a couple of false endings, part peak-era 1980s Grateful Dead and also Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd, a blend you might think would be crazy – but it worked. Contreras put down his Telecaster and played acoustic for most of the show, for one anthem after another. Matter-of-factly, the group followed a steady path through the exasperated 99-percenter tale All This Living, the cynical, honkytonk-tinged Two Hearts Down, and a terse version of Ruby, the group’s take on the old country blues standard Ruby, about a party animal who can’t stay out of trouble.

Contreras waited until the encore, a scurrying take of the old 70s Eddie Rabbitt radio hit Driving My Life Away, to take a solo on the Tele, but he made it count. And the best solo of the night was his two-handed, barreling charge down the keys of his piano on one of the new numbers. New bassist Sam Quinn played with a cool, low-key pulse, once in awhile rising to the top of the fretboard as a verse would turn around into a mighty chorus, and took over lead vocals on an unexpectedly Beatlesque new song.

The Black Lillies’ next gig is on Feb  15 9 PM at the Visulite Theatre, 1615 Elizabeth Ave in Charlotte, NC; cover is $14. For New York fans of similarly energetic if more lavish oldschool American sounds, crooner Brother Joscephus is bringing his New Orleans funk/soul orchestra there on Feb 6 at 8 PM. You can get in for $20.

The Fearlessly Relevant Kath Bloom Returns to a Favorite Brooklyn Haunt

Since the 70s, songwriter Kath Bloom has enjoyed a devoted cult following, especially among her colleagues. Her influence can be heard in the work of artists as diverse as Carol Lipnik and Larkin Grimm; both Linda Draper and Rose Thomas Bannister cite Bloom as an important early discovery. Beyond the reverence of her fellow songwriters, what’s most astonishing is that Bloom may be at her creative peak at this point, even with a vast back catalog of eighteen previous albums. Her voice may have weathered somewhat, but her writing is more harrowing and unflinchingly direct than ever. She’s making a stop at her favorite intimate Greenpoint venue, Troost on Jan 21 at around 9.

Her latest album This Dream of Life is streaming at her audio page. The sound is more full and lush than you would expect from a simple blend of acoustic and electric guitars: Red House Painters’ Mark Kozelek is there to parse the tunes, with frequent contributions from Avi Buffalo and Imaad Wasif.

The catchy, propulsive, anthemically bluesy title track, which could easily be a Draper number, opens the album:

Someone’s stepping on the gas
Someone’s crawling up your ass
Everybody wants to go back…
We’re all crying in our cage
We’re all using half our brains
Don’t you wanna be free?
Someone says we’re getting out
Tell me what it’s all about
Everybody’s lying to me
This dream of life is not for the faint of heart…

Then Bloom gets political in the second verse. It’s hard to think of a more aptly bleak, wintry commentary on our times.

The  intricately fingerpicked, country-tinged lullaby I Bring the Rains is 180 degrees the opposite. Then Bloom finds middle ground over a lively country gospel-inspired bounce in the death-fixated Reminds Me of It.

The lush, psychedelic sweep of At Last contrasts with Bloom’s starkly plainspoken, lamentful lyrics. The guys in the band add moody, gospel-tinged harmonies in the methodically swaying Oh Baby. With its surreal litany of images, the catchy, echoey Changing Horses in Mid Stream is Bloom at her aphoristic best: this caustic kiss-off anthem could be her Positively 4th Street.

This Love Has Got a Mind of Its Own makes a return to enigmatic psychedelic folk, the guitars rising to a jaggedly majestic peak. Bloom keeps that hazily lingering atmosphere going through the anxious I Just Can’t Make It Without You, then flips the script with the playfully edgy symbolism of the aptly titled retro 60s folk-pop of Let’s Get Going:

Come on, you Southern
And Northern
Maybe we can meet in the middle
Look around you
Doesn’t it astound you
Or maybe you recognize it a little?

Cold & Windy is as tremulous as its title, but also hopeful. Bloom examines good intentions gone drastically off the rails in How Can I Make It Up to You?, probably the only song ever to rhyme “drama with “Dalai Lama.” She closes this sometimes devastatingly straightforward album with Baby I’m the Dream You Had: “Though you don’t remember, this happened to you,” Bloom reminds.

Crooked Horse Bring Their Dark Americana to an Unexpected Friday Night Spot

Crooked Horse play disarmingly direct, catchy Nashville gothic and dark Americana. Their debut album is up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. They’re playing this Friday night, Jan 12 at 10:30 PM at Pine Box Rock Shop.

The album’s briskly marching opening track, Maybe, is a kiss-off anthem: it could be an acoustic version of a Walkabouts tune. “Maybe it’s everybody that leaves me with only maybe,” frontwoman Liz Rymes muses in her husky, impassioned voice. Guitarist Neal Johnson fires off a nimble flatpicking solo, then backs away for Bridget Nault’s river of minor-key accordion.

You Have to Know is a little less pissed off – “You’ll be better on your own” is the chorus – set to a catchy acoustic guitar loop over percussionist Aaron Kakos’ loping groove. The band pick up the pace with Omen and its tasty acoustic guitar multitracks: when the “wind blows in like an omen,” it’s obviously not carrying anything good.

Johnson sets a spiky, moody country-blues ambience in The Poet: “You crackle as you speak, the poet of defeat,” Rymes accuses, then the accordion and drums finally kick in. They break out the electric guitars in the snarling shuffle All For You, a brooding escape anthem – the question is who’s getting away, and to what.

The matter-of-factly defiant shuffle We Live Small makes a refreshingly optimistic anthem for the Trump-era depression: “We live small, but we live well,” Rymes asserts. The ominous vocal harmonies in the eerily strolling A Place Like This underscore the gloom, a chronicle of everything that’s out of reach in a dead-end town.

“Take a deep breath in the dark and just trust,” Rymes encourages in the moodily bouncing number after that. With its soaring, ghostly backing vocals, the scampering, bluegrass-tinged Lace Curtains is the catchiest and arguably best track on the album: “I don’t believe,” is the mantra. The album ends with Rotten, a sparse, hypnotic, anguished dirge. Catch this band on the way up before word gets out and you won’t be able to get in to see them.

Rapturous Musical Cross-Pollination at Women Between Arts at the New School

Yesterday was the fourth installment of Luisa Muhr’s new interdisciplinary series Women Between Arts at the New School. One would think that there would be several series in this city devoted to women whose work crosses the line between different artistic disciplines, but this appears to be the only one at present. What’s new with Muhr’s series is that it isn’t just a place for women artists who defy categorization: it’s also a space where adventurous established artists can branch out beyond their usual practice.

Case in point: Jean Rohe. She’s known as a songwriter and a strong, distinctive acoustic guitarist (to call her a folksinger would be reductionistic). Throughout her tantalizingly brief performance yesterday’s show, she did a lot of storytelling.

This narrative was harrowing. Rohe was named after her paternal grandmother, who killed herself on December 9, 1961. Tragically, just like her father, Rohe didn’t find out about the suicide until years later. That revelation springboarded an “odyssey,” as she termed it, to find out the truth and what pushed the woman over the edge.

Like many of the projects that find their way to Women Between Arts, it’s a work in progress, and a hauntingly captivating one. Rohe’s fingerpicking channeled distant delta blues grimness with her opening number, then she referenced the Penelope myth with a more expansive, anthemic tune. Her final song, she told the crowd, was set in Hades: “In New Jersey, as we all know,” she mused, drawing a handful of chuckles. The narrative saw her climbing into her grandmother’s old black Buick at a stoplight, to find her crying and incommunicado, a ghost before her time.

Noa Fort is known as a composer of translucent piano jazz informed by classical music as well as her own Israeli heritage. After guiding the crowd through a brief meditation, she had them write down their innermost feelings on slips of paper so she could channel and maybe exorcise those issues. As it turned out, this was a very  uneasy crowd. Fort plucked around inside the piano gingerly, George Crumb style before launching into a series of eerie belltones, close harmonies and finally a woundedly descending anthem. She closed with a somewhat elegaic but ultimately optimistic ballad where a calmly participatory crowd carried the melody upwards. 

Trina Basu, one of the great violinists in Indian classical music, leads the pioneering carnatic string band Karavika. This time out, she played a rapturous homage to 16th century mystic Meera Bai, joined by Orakel tabla player Roshni Samlal and singer Priya Darshini. Basu explained that she’d discovered the controversial, pioneering proto-feminist poet via the work of 1960s singer Lakshmi Shankar.

Basu opened the trio’s first epic number with elegant spirals that spun off into sepulchral harmonics, then built steam, rising up and down in a series of graceful pizzicato exchanges with the tabla. Darshini sang the second long piece, Basu and Samlal matching its poignancy, an ancient raga theme sliced and diced through the prism of progressive jazz. 

 The next installment of Women Between Arts is Jan 21 at 3 PM at the New School’s Glass Box Theatre (i.e. the new Stone) at 55 W 13th St., with Meredith Monk collaborator Ellen Fisher, lustrously haunting singer/composer Sara Serpa with cellist Erik Friedlander and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, and Appalachian music maven Anna Roberts-Gevalt.

An Allusively Haunting New Album and a Low-Key Neighborhood Gig by Dark Songwriter Jaye Bartell

Gothic Americana crooner Jaye Bartell sings in a deadpan but rather guarded baritone. He plays with a ton of reverb on his guitar, whether with a steady clang or more sparsely. His songs don’t typically follow any kind of predictable verse/chorus pattern. On his latest album, In a Time of Trouble, a Wild Exultation – streaming at Bandcamp – he often just vamps along on a couple of major chords, vintage Velvets style. Which has a lulling effect…until he gets to the punchline, or the suspense in his hauntingly imagistic narratives builds to breaking point. Bartell is off on a long European tour next month; fans of dark lyrical rock in his adopted Greenpoint neighborhood can catch him Friday night, Dec 28 at around 9 at Troost.

Throughout Bartell’s work, the devil is in the details. “Think I picked a bad time to have a good time, hanging upside down,” he muses in the album’s opening track. “My confetti is stuck in the garden…the water’s coming higher than the edges.” Definitely not a wild exultation,

“Come walk in the dead grass,” Bartell instructs, “I have come to ruin you; I have come to room with you,” he announces, somewhat hesitatingly, in CawCawCaw. He leaves the monologue without a response: is he that heavily symbolic bird, or talking to the bird, or somebody else? That sensibility is what draws you into his songs. And he keeps you guessing – even as an image jumps out at you, it could be a red herring.

Angel Olsen sings calm harmonies in Give Erin a Compliment (So Kind). Both the vocals and the song’s country stroll bring to mind the late, great Joe Ben Plummer and his band, downtown New York cult favorites Douce Gimlet. The sparse arrangement of Wilderness – just a couple of jangly guitar tracks, lightly brushed drums and simple bass – is much the same. Like everything Bartell does, it works on many levels. Somewhere out there in the woods, “There must be somebody warm enough to mistake for love, somebody cold enough to just take some.”

The album’s most chilling number is Swim Colleen. Shifting back and forth between waltz time, Bartell keeps the suspense going most of the way through. On the surface, it’s a beach tableau, but of course there are unexpected depths:

Scream at the waves
The waves scream back
There’s no ship coming in
There never has been
Swim, Colleen, swim

Army of One is Bartell at his most self-effacingly wry  – does General Superego have it in for loafing Private Ego?  Contrastingly, Mercy seems to be pretty straightforward – it’s akin to Jonathan Richman, or Lee Feldman at his most faux-naive. Bartell builds another brooding waterside scenario in the otherwise gentle Ferry Boat: it’s easy to imagine Nico singing it on Chelsea Girl.  

“I can’t think of anyone else with whom I’d ever go out of doors,” Bartell insists in  Out of Doors – but who wants to date an agoraphobic, right? The methodically swaying, Laurel Canyon psych-tinged Feeling Better Pilgrim is much the same – this guy may be ok, but a lot of people (water imagery alert!) aren’t. The final cut is If I Am Only For Myself Then What Am I, which, with delicate glockenspiel in the background, offers a sliver of hope. E

Earlier in the fall, at Bartell’s most recent gig at Troost – his home base between tours – he sang much more powerfully, even dramatically, than he does in the studio. This acoustic set mixed up some of the more low-key numbers from this album and a couple of sepulchral tales from his fantastic 2016 release, Loyalty. But the high point might have been an absolutely chilling take of the Brecht/Weill classic September Song, reinvented with more than a hint of noir bolero. “That was magic,” one spectator in the crowd murmured afterward. 

The Legendary Shack Shakers Validate Their Legend in Brooklyn

Saturday night in downtown Brooklyn, the Legendary Shack Shakers lived up to their legend with a marauding, macabre performance. How does frontman JD Wilkes stay in such great shape? By playing shows like this one. Midway through the set, he left his feet for the umpteenth time, spun in midair and did a full 360 with a perfect Olympic landing. And this was after he’d really worked up a sweat. Athletic stage moves go back long before Chuck Berry, but the Colonel still pushes himself as hard as he did twenty years ago.

When he wasn’t spinning across the stage or frisbeeing a heavy-duty red wooden tambourine into the crowd, he was blowing feral but wickedly precise, Little Walter-ish blues on a chromatic harp, or burning through similarly menacing chromatics on his banjo. He ran his vocals through two separate mics, one straight into the PA along with an old ribbon mic turned up to the point of distortion for a bullhorn effect. Somewhere Lux Interior is stewing with jealousy.

But while the Cramps seem to be one obvious influence on this band, the Shack Shakers are a lot wilder, a hell of a lot faster – they sped up several of their numbers past breaking point – and a lot of the time they sound a lot more Middle Eastern than American. Then again, Wilkes – a respected musicologist and historian of Kentucky mountain music – would probably cite a lesser-known strain of Irish music that made its way to the Bible Belt without losing any of its creepy edge.

And the rest of the band are phenomenal. Drummer Preston Corn kept the express-train-to-hell shuffle going at full throttle, bassist Fuller Condon provided a cool serpentine slink and guitarist Rod Hamdallah burned through the ominous changes with a calm, precise savagery, letitng the blasts from his vintage hollow-body model linger and resonate before firing off another volley of twisted rockabilly or blues.

The Shack Shakers have a new album, After You’ve Gone, out recently, and Wilkes and his conspirators drew heavily on it. Their witheringly cynical, allusively political new take of Worried Man Blues came across like CW Stoneking on crank, while the rapidfire War Whoop gave Wilkes a platform for some extra snazzy stage moves. And like so much of the rest of the set, the dirty blues of Curse of the Cajun Queen were packed with the surreal fire-and-brimstone imagery that’s been Wilkes’ signature since the 90s. You’ll see this show listed on the best New York concerts of 2017 page here at the end of the year.

The Legendary Shack Shakers’ tour continues; the next stop is Dec 1 at around 10:30 PM at the Outland, 322 South Ave. in Springfield, Missouri; cover is $12.