New York Music Daily

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Category: noir music

Big Lazy Bring Their Sinister, Slinky Noir Grooves Back to Barbes

Noir instrumental trio Big Lazy‘s two sold-out album release shows at the American Can Company building in Gowanus late last year were completely different. For a group whose usual sonic palette is a magically detailed but typically grim greyscale, that was unexpected – and obviously influenced by some devastatingly sad circumstances.

Frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich had lost his mom the previous night. Only a few hours before the first show, he’d played Cole Porter’s I Love You to her at her bedside – and the group, who typically don’t play many covers, reprised that with a gently starry, expansive instrumental take featuring Sexmob’s Steven Bernstein on trumpet. As far as emotional ironman performances go, this was right up there with Exene Cervenka’s gig the night her sister was killed in a car crash. Word spread throughout the venue; nobody knew how to react. Yet the pall over the space lifted as the band went on and played two long sets, the crowd hanging on every creepy chromatic and wry bent note. If there ever was proof of love being stronger than death, this was it.

The second night’s two sets were more boisterous. The Onliest, the desolately loping theme that opens the band’s latest album Dear Trouble, was especially dusky and spare the first time, but the group gave it a more sinisterly windswept take the second time around. There were unexpected treats from deep in the band’s catalog: the hammering Human Sacrifice, like Link Wray doing the Mission Impossible theme, on night two, and the gleefully macabre Skinless Boneless on night one. Bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion also dug in and cut loose more, the former finally indulging the crowd with a slap-happy rockabilly solo late Saturday night during a full-throttle, rat-a-tat take of Princess Nicotine.

The special guests fit seamlessly with the music: it was as if they were a regular part of the band. Miramar organist Marlysse Rose Simmons, with her funereal tremolo and murderously slinky riffs, completely gets this music. Baritone saxophonist Peter Hess, of Slavic Soul Party, added extra smoke on the low end. Bernstein provided disquieting animation on the highs, particularly when he picked up his slide trumpet for all sorts of bloody slashes and smears. And the guitar interplay between Ulrich and Marc Ribot, particularly on Ramona, a brooding quasi-bolero, had an especially bittersweet, saturnine depth.

Big Lazy return to their monthly Barbes residency this Friday, Jan 24 at 10 PM on the year’s best twinbill so far: ageless. Rapturous Armenian jazz multi-reedman Souren Baronian and his amazing band with Adam Good on oud open the night at 8. If you’re on the fence, you should know that this will be Big Lazy’s last Barbes gig for a couple of months. Although they’ve been playing around town more lately, they’re at their peak at what has been their home turf for the last six years.

The 100 Best Songs of 2019

This is a playlist. Click on each song title to hear it

Like the Best Albums of 2019 and Best NYC Concerts of 2019 lists, this doesn’t follow any particular order, or ranking. Most of these tracks are listed in the order they were received here (which doesn’t coincide with release dates for those songs which actually had them). Bottom line: if something’s good enough to make the top 100 of the year, it’s worth hearing. There’s a LOT of music here: you might want to bookmark this page and come back later. The point of this is not to regurgitatef the Best Albums page but also to include material by other artists who may not have put out an album this past year… or ever.

The best song of 2019 reflects the vast backlash against the Trumpie fratboy rape culture unleashed by the election three years ago. With just her acoustic guitar and her powerful alto voice, Karen Dahlstrom‘s defiant, gospel-infused No Man’s Land empowers everybody:

No man’s words can still my voice
No man can tell me where I stand
No man’s will can take my choice
I am no man’s land

In the year of Metoo, it’s a rare political song that isn’t strident or prosaic. It’s also the title track to her new album. Dahlstrom sings with folk noir harmony trio Bobtown, who you might see on this list a little bit later.

And there’s another song on that record that was too good to leave off the list. After the Flood, set in a post-Katrina New Orleans, examines apocalypses both global and personal.

The rest of the list also reflects a lot of wrath at rightwing corporate entitlement and gig economy-era fascism. If you need to get stoked for the 2020 election, crank this stuff.

Changing ModesRocket
A sinister surveillance state parable by the protean art-rockers which brings to mind X at their most rockabillyish. “Tell me why the failsafe signal failed/Tell me why the driver never broke a sweat,” co-frontwoman Wendy Griffiths wants to know.

Changing ModesFire
The band’s most savagely dystopic song, with a mutating backbeat stomp and wary chromatics from the baritone sax. “Caught by friendly fire/As drones divide the sky/You’ll just give in if you never ask why”

Changing Modes – Glide
The group’s cynicism reaches redline with this sardonically twinkly boudoir soul-tinged nocturne, Griffiths fixing her crosshairs on slacker apathy
All of these from the album What September Brings

The Bright SmokeAmerican Proletariat
A harrowing, darkly atmospheric, blues-tinged gig-economy narrative. “I fear this more,” frontwoman Mia Wilson intones, than “the employ of and the company of torturers and slumlords…an empire on its knees”

The Bright SmokeModel Citizen 
The band shift from unsettled indie chords to a starkly sarcastic minor-key interlude: “I can help you lose everything you won…you model citizens are out for blood.”

The Bright SmokeOne Hundred Years
This looks back to the gritty gutter blues the band were exploring earlier in the decade: “It’s been a banner year/It’s open season on the weak”

The Bright SmokeMauretania
Quincy Ledbetter’s oscillating bassline propels a desperate Joy Divison-esque tableau where everyone expects a “top down trickle down, but it never came.”
All of these from the album Gross National Happiness

Big LazyDream Factory
Drummer Yuval Lion ramps up a loose-limbed slink with his flurries as Andrew Hall runs a trancey blues bassline, frontman Steve Ulrich’s baritone guitar pulling the song deeper into the shadows

Big LazyRamona
With dubby accents from Marlysse Simmons’ organ, this is one of the spare, overcast bolero-ish tunes that Ulrich writes so well

Big LazyCardboard Man
This one features Marc Ribot, a rare guitarist who can go as deep into noir as well as Ulrich, adding eerily flamenco-tinged touches. The exchanges between the two, switching in a split-second between styles, are expertly bittersweet

Big LazyExit Tucson
A tense, morose quasi-bolero with all kinds of neat, rippling touches pinging through the sonic picture around Ulrich’s sad broken chords, disconsolately reverberating riffs and a long, forlornly shuffling solo

Big Lazy Fly Paper
Gloomy noir cinematic theme with a deliciously disorienting blend of tone-bending lapsteel, furtive guitar multitracks and a trick ending. It’s the most Twin Peaks of any of the songs on this list

Big LazySing Sing
Peter Hess’ baritone sax adds extra smoke beneath Ulrich’s lingering, macabre tritones
All of these from the album Dear Trouble, rated #1 record of 2019 here.

Hearing ThingsTriplestep
Coalescing into a menacing mashup of Ethiopiques and a death row strut, saxophonist Matt Bauder gets the Pink Panther to cross over to the dark side, up to a defiantly soaring alto solo that makes a killer coda.

Hearing ThingsWooden Leg
A subtly sardonic horror theme in the same vein as Beninghove’s Hangmen, Bauder fluttering furtively in the low registers as the band picks up steam: it’s the album’s most deliciously noir epic.

Hearing Things Transit of Venus
The Brooklyn surf/dance band’s first and most trippily macabre adventure in Ethiopian jazz,

Hearing ThingsStalefish
A more traditional, horror surf take on Turkish psychedelia, guitarist Ava Mendoza firing off slashing chords over baritone guitarist Jonny Lam’s snappy, evil basslines.
All of this from the album Here’s Hearing Things

Chicha LibreGnossienne No. 1
The legendary Brooklyn psychedelic cumbia band reunited for a South American tour and did a couple of darkly trippy Barbes shows to warm up. This quasi-bolero version of the macabre Erik Satie classic was the encore for night two. From their iconic 2008 debut Sonido Amazonico

The Dream SyndicateBullet Holes
A catchy backbeat hit over a classic Steve Wynn two-chord verse, contemplating the ravages of time and knowing where the bodies are buried

The Dream SyndicateStill Here Now
A bitterly gorgeous, resolute midtempo anthem that picks up with incisive piano and distantly unhinged sheets of Jason Victor guitar, building to a tantalizingly savage solo

The Dream SyndicateBlack Light
Spare, resonantly jangly guitar and eerily blippy keys over a midtempo swing groove in this dissociatively dark psychedelic tableau All these from the album These Times

Loreto AramendiRachmaninoff: Prelude in C# minor
The Spanish organist slayed with this majestic, haunting arrangement at Central Synagogue back in May. She also did a killer (sorry) version of Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. Neither of these clips were recorded on organs as powerful as the one at the synagogue, but the performances are almost as much of a thrill

Claudia NygaardMe Too
She’s got one last date with the rapist – in the graveyard. Most grimly funny and spot-on Americana rock song of the year. From the album Lucky Girl

Enzo Carniel’s House of EchoChaoides
The French noir cinematic jazz trio killed with this at Nublu 151 back in January. Slowly and methodically, guitarist Marc-Antoine Perrio added washes to darken the fog, finally introducing a few portentous, lingering chords from his Fender Jazzmaster
From their debut album

The Felice Bros – Days of the Years
Grimly autobiographical images of rock road warrior escape from upstate New York blue-collar hell…and a slight return, set to steady acoustic Springsteenian rock.

The Felice Bros – Holy Weight Champ
A defiantly surreal account of fighting the debt collector

The Felice Bros – Socrates
The philosopher’s last words recounted in song for any rugged individualist paying attention in the Facebook surveillance age
All of these from the album Undress

Dawn ObergIt’s 12:01
A parlor pop piano smash namechecking a litany of people murdered by the San Francisco Police Dept: “Past time, motherfuckers, to change the guard at the gate.” She slayed with this at the Rockwood back in September

Amanda Palmer – The Ride
Creepy circus metaphors taken to their logical, early 21st century personal and political extreme in over ten minutes plus worth of elegang neoromantic piano art-rock.“Everybody’s reaching to put on a seatbelt but this kind of ride comes without one”
From the album There Will Be No Intermission

Jay VilnaiThe Night We Met
The macabre final diptych on the guitarist/composer’s new murder ballad album Thorns All Over has Oscar Noriega’s moody clarinet rising over creepy, lingering belltones, minimalist guitar lurking in the background, descending to a glacially waltzing dirge.
From the album Thorns All Over

Joanna WallfischLullaby Girl
Capped off by an ornately gritty glamrock guitar solo, this big art-rock anthem could be peak-era mid-70s ELO. Wallfisch’s allusively imagistic portrait of an unnamed musician’s grimly elusive search for some kind of inner peace packs a wallop. How far do you think she traveled…

Joanna WallfischRoad Trip
This tensely pulsing, real-life account of her California tour by bike has a crushing existential subtext:
“I change my background story every time somebody asks/I have worn so many masks”
From the album Blood & Bone

Layale ChakerUshaq
A stark, intense, chromatically haunting Middle Eastern instrumental anthem set to an increasingly fluttering beat and a bass drone
From the violinist’s album Inner Rhyme

Rev. Screaming Fingers Monsoon Gully
Snarling, distorted, serpentine guitar leads set to a gently tumbling cha-cha beat in this noir guitar instrumental theme

Rev. Screaming FingersDance of the Dust
Speaking of funereal, the organ beneath the loping, savagely crescendoing desert tableau adds immensely to the ominous ambience. From the album Music for Driving and Film, vol iII (The Desert Years)

Michael WinogradDinner in Bay Ridge
Don’t laugh, this is a killer song from the pyrotechnic klezmer clarinetist’s latest release. It’s a soberly syncopated, gorgeously wistful, crescendoing number, the group weaving around the melody as it winds out.
From the album Kosher Style

Joshua GarciaPockets Full O’Gold
A chillingly metaphorical, Phil Ochs-influenced catalog of stuff a guy keeps buying, set to terse fingepicked solo guitar. “I’ll buy me a family and I’ll buy some friends…I’ll never buy sadness, I’ll leave that all to you.” And it gets better. He killed with this at the American Folk Art Museum last winter

Laura Carbone – Empty Sea
A slinky, lush 6/8 noir anthem with Carnival of Souls organ and a vast, bleak panorama of guitar texture

Laura Carbone – Nightride is a sparse highway-of-death tableau – like the he Dream Syndicate  stripped to the bare bones – rising to a garagantuan, swirling coda. Both tracks from the album Empty Sea

Charming DisasterBaba Yaga,
A shout out to the popular mythological Russian witch from the protean, wickedly lyrical noir superduo with a scampering horror surf-tinged groove

Charming DisasterBlue Bottle Blues
A swinging, distantly menacing number about poisoning, with strings and droning harmonium; frontwoman Ellia Bisker’s sultry tones enhance the sinister ambience over guitarist Jeff Morris’ gorgeously bittersweet guitar jangle
Both tracks from the album Spells & Rituals

Natalia SteinbachThere Is No Demon
An evil march, the art-rock/avant garde violinist/singer as one-woman string quartet
From the album Waterlynx

Unnatural WaysMost of All We Love to Spy
More than nine sometimes skronky, sometimes crushingly ornate minutes of scorching Ava Mendoza guitar chromatics over drummer Sam Ospovat’s precise but relentlessly thumping syncopation.
From the album The Paranoia Party

Dina MaccabeeEven When the Stars Align
After an ueasily charming glockenspiel solo, the art-rock violinist/singer’s vocals dance over a slowly swaying, spare web of textures. “I’m still a million miles away.”

Dina Maccabee–Tall Tall Trees
An unselfconsciously gorgeous late Beatlesque anthem set in a theatre where the show never starts; Roger Reidbauer contributes a deliciously spiraling, dipping guitar solo
From the album The Sharpening Machine

Roosevelt Sykes – Dirty Mother for Ya
The blues pianist revisits his ridiculously funny 1934 hit. ”Some people call it suggestive. Actually, I have no control of your thoughts. Listen to the words so you don’t get the wrong understanding,” says one of the only two dead artists on this list. From the Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 compilation

Beat CircusThe Last Man (Is Anybody Out There​?​)
A surreallistically swinging, apocalyptic, Lynchian blend of beat poetry and a Balkan-tinged chorale set to menacingly orchestrated desert rock. Think of how empty all those “luxury’ condos will be in the next five years.
From the album These Wicked Things

Girls on GrassBecause Capitalism
“Capitalism ruins everything worth doing,” lead guitarist/frontwoman Barbara Endes intones over a stabbing Motown beat, to a guy who’s only in it “For the cash, and the underage ass”

Girls on GrassCommander in Thief
“I come from superior genes,” the narcissist-in-charge brags over a swaying Flamin’ Groovies drive, the faux bombast of the guitars matching Endes’ sardonic lyric
Both tracks from the album Dirty Power

Budos BandThe Enchanter
A gorgeous vintage 60s Ethiopiques tune with growly, snarling tremolo guitar: Sabbath meets Mulatu Astatke

Budos BandPeak of Eternal Night
Big swells and a deliciously doomy theme whose Ethiopian roots come into bracing focus in the dub itnerlude midway through
From the album V

Binky Philips & the Planets – Blink
A desperate narrative that could be a Vietnam War tale, or apocalypse by gentrification.”This will not stand from where I’m sitting!”
From the album Established 1972 NYC

Kinan Azmeh The Fence, the Rooftop and the Distant Sea
Back in May on the Upper West Side, the great Syrian clarinetist teamed up with Brooklyn Rider cellist Michael Nicolas for an achingly gorgeous duo performance of this elegaic exile’s suite with an almost macabre cello interlude laced with sepulchral harmonics, ending as a poignant Arabic ballad. This clip is the version for clarinet and string quartet

Fabian AlmazanEverglades
An allusively gorgeous, thirteen-minute neoclassical jazz piano epic, with a broodingly emphatic bass solo, the chords rising with a crushing intensity. Is this about fighting alligators…or alligators fighting to survive?
From the album This Land Abounds With Life

Curtis EllerRadiation Poison
Don’t let the bluster of those of jump blues-inspired horns fool you: this is about an invisible killer. The charismatic banjo player may reference Nagasaki and the New Mexico atom bomb tests, but in the post-Fukushima era, the song has even more relevance. “Everybody’s been exposed.”
From the album Poison Melody

NoctorumPiccadilly Circus in the Rain
A bleakly gorgeous, syncopatedly swaying portrait of quiet working class desperation in real estate bubble-era London. “There’s no creative work amid the swarming bees”
From the album Afterlife

Russ TolmanKid
A searingly spot-on account of a girl from a broken home whose teachers think that she “might be talented at art,” but her refrain is “Please don’t make me go home.” The janglerock backdrop, with Kirk Swan’s incisive terse guitar fills and Robert Lloyd’s mandolin, is a little more gentle and sparkly than the bandleader’s legendary psychedelic band True West
From the album Goodbye El Dorado

Sharon GoldmanSunset at the Border
Over brooding parlor pop, the purist acoustic tunesmith connects the dots between the North American refugee crisis and Gaza wallbuilding.
From the album Every Trip Around the Sun

Rose Thomas BannisterHeaven Is a Wall
A shapeshifting fable about border walls packed with the cynically appropriated Old Testament imagery that the psychedelic Great Plains gothic songstress loves to use to drive a point home. She killed with this at Union Pool back in September with her band

Yale Strom’s Broken ConsortO Mighty Stronghold
Whoever thought a Hannukah standard could be so epic: Moroccan flair, sweeping strings, biting oud and an exhilirating violin-cello duel.
From the album Shimmering Lights

Theremin NoirCarlotta’s Portrait
The Bernard Hermann theme from Hitchcock’s Vertigo is rich with aching, increasingly enigmatic piano from Uri Caine and morose violin from violinist Mark Feldman as bandleader/keyboardist Rob Schwimmer puts the quavering icing on the cake with his theremin.They slayed with this at Greenwich House Music School in October – at the group’s first-ever show, twenty years after they’d released this on album

Son of SkooshnyStaying In
One of the alltime great baseball songs ever written – hang in there til you get to the end, where janglerock icon Mark Breyer puts everything in perspective, at his haunting, unflinching best. Getting there is a ride that brings to mind the 2016 World Series (Breyer’s beloved Cleveland Indians went down ignomimously to the typically cellar-dwelling Chicago Cubs).

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog Fuck La Migra
A punk rap that needed to be written…and it’s a good thing that this guy did it, with a little Texas blues thrown in for maximum context.
From the album YRU Still Here

Bobtown – Hazel
It’s an old down-to-the-river tale updated with an allusive current-day angst by this era’s most devilish folk noir harmony trio.
From the album Chasing the Sun

The Manimals – The Maze
Vintage Bowie mashed up with dissociative psychedelia and slashing powerpop, a surprisingly dark diversion from New York’s most unpredictably theatrical female-fronted rockers.
From the album Multiverse

The Long RydersHad a Dream
“I had a dream that Trump was dead,” guitarist Tom Stevens intoned in the psychedelic Americana legends’ slashingly updated take of this cynical MTV-era video hit at WFMU’s Monty Hall last year

Los Wembel’s de IquitosLamento Salvatico
Slinky, catchy minor-key psychedelic cumbia with layers of eerie wah-wah and jangle, lots of reverb and suspicious noises flickering through the mix from the timeless Peruvian Amazon band largely responsible for inventing the style.
From the album Vision del Ayahuasca

The Echo Session – Mystery Man
First-class retro 60s jangle-psych from Scotland, evoking the Pretty Things circa SF Sorrow

WarishVoices
A Queens of the Stone Age influenced punk stomp with tasty chromatic menace and hints of horror garage rock
From the album Down in Flames

Jason YeagerReckoning
A creepy, carnivalesque anti-imperialist protest jazz anthem: with a tune and a vocal this coldly dismissive, who says revenge songs need lyrics?
From the pianist’s album New Songs of Resistance

Petros KlampanisThalassia Platia
What seems to be a wistful, Middle Eastern-tinged jazz waltz turns out to be far more conflicted, with its aching lushness and a biting, upper-register bass solo
From the bassist’s album Irrationalities

Petroloukas Halkias and Vasilis Kostas – Palio Zegorisio
Centuries-old Greek hill country psychedelia with a tricky dance groove, shifting from major to minor and back, from the iconic clarinetist and his lauto-playing protege
From the album The Soul of Epirus

47soulMachina
A slow, ominously emphatic shamstep anthem and searingly imagistic account of Palestinian life under the occupation. “Sold out by the left, right when you left, why, you’re not filming?” They totally ripped with this in their Lincoln Center debut in October
From the band’s latest album Balfron Promise

The Red Room Orchestra Laura Palmer’s Theme
The noir cinematic ensemble and Twin Peaks theme reinventors slayed with this at Symphony Space back in February

Julia HaltiganMind Eater
“I don’t even wanna stay connected,” the luridly torchy New York bandleader sings in this relentlessly troubled new wave look at a world on the express track to self-destruction.

Julia HaltiganWool
A hazy. slowly swaying, noir-tinged nocturne where you can “lose your mind in the summer heat, waltz yourself down the broken street…passing through scenes that I know too well…”
From the album Trouble

Miguel ZenonViejo
A lush, sweeping, aching increasingly symphonic ballad with hints of Satie, Bartok and Angelo Badalementi – and a final dance – from the intense alto saxophonist and string quartet
From the album Yo Soy la Tradicion

Holy GroveBlade Born
A slowly swaying early 70s-style riff-rocker, guitarist Trent Jacobs searing through a thicket of triplets, then toward Sabbath menace and finally a hallucinatory nitrous hailstorm
From the album Live From The World Famous Kenton Club

The NYChillharmonicEasy Comes the Ghost
Percolating, bubbling synth and circus-rock piano phantasmagoria, shifting through a polyrhythmic maze to a determined disco strut that ended sudden and cold: a welcome, energetic coda at their Joe’s Pub show after a mostly subdued day at the Charlie Parker Festival

Amy LaVereNo Room For Baby
A hazily defeated, starkly orchestrated portrait of dead-end blue-collar struggle from the Americana bassist/bandleader.
From the album Painting Blue

The Sirius QuartetNew World
The edgy string quartet sarcastically juxtapose contrasting references to Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Shostakovich’s harrowing String Quartet No. 8: look how far we haven’t come, violinist/composer Gregor Huebner seems to say
It’s the title track to their latest album

The New Thread QuartetMichael Djupstrom: Test
A four-sax epic that shifts swiftly from moody ambience to increasingly agitated overlays, bagpipe-like flourishes, noirish trills, poltergeist flickers and sharp-fanged close harmonies. Bernard Herrmann would have been proud to have assembled this deliciously sinister tableau.
From their album Plastic Facts

Doomstress Your God Is Blind
”You’ve been deceived,” frontwoman Alexis Hollada snarls in this shapeshifting slap upside the head of warmongering religious nuts, rising to a spine-tingling outro.
From the Texas metal band’s album Sleep Among the Dead

Firebreather – Our Souls They Burn
A sludgy one-chord intro morphs into a dense, almost-galloping, menacingly hypnotic theme. If you can’t get enough of creepy chromatics, this song is for you.

Big EyesTry Hard Kiss Ass
A cynical powerpop slap at gentrifier yuppie careerist losers from this kick-ass powerpop band
From the album Streets of the Lost

The Diplomats of Solid Sound – Brave New World
A subtly Tex Mex-tinged, lushly orchestrated, cynically spot-on oldschool soul take on how social media and online dating are killing romance. Here’s a live youtube clip
From the album A Higher Place

Funkrust Brass BandUncanny Carnival
A dark Balkan-tinged anthem with a quote from the busker-rock playbook that’s so obvious but also such a good joke that it’s surprising that other brass bands haven’t used it
From the album Bones & Burning

Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith Farewell
A steady, quasi trip-hop groove slowly emerges as Smith intones Arthur Rimbaud’s harrowing self-penned obituary
From the album Mummer Love

Nusrat Fateh Ali KhanHaq Ali Ali
Longest song on this list, over twenty minutes of broodingly chromatic, Middle Eastern-tinged modes and bristling vocal cadenzas that tend to be more incisive and brief than the late great qawwali icon usually indulged in. The group take it doublespeed at about the eight-minute mark and don’t look back
From the album Live at WOMAD 1985

The Sometime Boys – Painted Bones
Lead guitarist Kurt Leege’s mournful washes of slide guitar, Mara Rosenbloom’s pointillistic electric piano and frontwoman Sarah Mucho’s brooding, gospel-tinged vocals mingle over a nimble bluegrass shuffle beat
From the album The Perfect Home

The Plaster CrampApartment 23
Like a more fleet-footed Botanica, a grisly art-rock narrative about an unwanted discovery. “His car sat on the wrong side of the streeet” |
From their debut album

Ashley Bathgate– Robert Honstein: Orison
A slow, gorgeous, tectonically shifting soundscape, textured top to bottom with gravelly murk, fleeting echoes, keening overtones and echo phrases from the cellist’s multitracks
From the album Ash

Michaela AnneIf I Wanted Your Opinion
An unexpectedly fierce oldschool honkytonk feminist anthem: she makes it clear that the last thing she wants is to be judged on looks
From the album Desert Dove

LocobeachEres Una Rata
The psychedelic cumbia supergroup’s big hit, a venomous dis with some classic, trippy, reverb-drenched keyboard work.
From the album Psychedelic Disco Cumbia

Sarah Pagé Pleiades
A softly pulsing deep-space raga, akin to a sitar drifting gently further and further from earth to the point where the vastness becomes terrifying
From the cutting-edge concert harpist’s album Dose Curves

AlltarSpoils
Hailstorm guitar tremolo-picking and a slow, evil chromatic riff set off relentless crush and lo-res distortion ,with a final rise from super-slow, to just plain slow and ceaselessly grim
From the doom metal band’s album Hallowed

The WellSabbah
Opening with a sitar-like drone and then hitting a stomping drive and a doomy, catchy Children of the Grave chromatic theme, with a little Ozzy and some unhinged Ron Asheton proto-punk
From the album Death and Consolation

Jaimie BranchPrayer for Amerikkka,
A ferocious stoner protest jazz diptych: stark gospel sway, venomous hip-hop speaking truth to power, lush strings and a flamenco-infused stamped out. Damn.
From the album Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise

Amy Allison This Prison
A typically metaphor-loaded chronicle of depression, done as classic honkytonk with flangey guitar: Allison admits that this cold, lonely place might keep her out of trouble, but she needs to break out – if only she can find that missing key
From the album Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun

Zosha DiCastriCortege
A processional for chamber orchestra that juxtaposes frantic, Bernard Herrmann-esque terror with steadier motives and suspenseful atmospherics, drawing on the ancient Roman wartime siege narrative that inspired Leonard Cohen’s song Alexandra Lost.
From the album Tachitipo

Nancy Braithwaite – Edith Hemenway: To Paradise For Onions
This menacingly neoromantic suite for clarinet and small ensemble are a David Lynch title theme waiting to happen, with a Duet for the End of Time at the end. Not bad for a piece by a nonagenarian composer whose work has never been previously recorded
Title track from the new album

Joel HarrisonBallad of Blue Mountain
Tightly unwinding, cleverly looped, Terry Riley-ish vibraphone, lingering clouds of guitar and sax passing through the sonic picture, and Indian sarod building slowly to a forceful peak.
From the album Still Point: Turning World

Mara Connor No Fun
Retro Orbison noir with punchy acoustic guitar and strings on the chorus: a classic sound for those who’ve never heard of the Stooges

Above the MoonFight the Sea
Kate Griffin’s fierce, angst-fueled twin-guitar attack propels this insistent twin-guitar stomp,
“Can’t see the forest through the trees…fight the ways that you can’t fight me.” They slayed with this at Marcus Garvey Park back in August
From the album Patterns You Create

The Eastern Blokhedz Baba
Having come this far, it’s time for this blog to get nostalgic. This is a psychedelic pop take on Brighton Beach Russian barroom music. Guitarist Wade Ripka’s irrepressible faux Soviet band didn’t play this at their May Barbes show but they did at the one before that. Maybe you had to be there

The 50 Best Albums of 2019

This is a playlist, plus one last record at the very end that can’t be heard anywhere online but might be the best of all of them. You can listen to everything else here, almost all of it ad-free: it couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

Lots of triage was involved. A very ambitious listener with a dayjob that allows for multitasking can hear maybe eight or nine hundred new albums a year, all the way through. An insanely dedicated blogger can hear bits and pieces of maybe five thousand more. That’s about the limit of what one human can do. You may see a few stragglers here which were technically 2018 releases but got overlooked that year. If your favorite album from 2019 isn’t here, that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good…and it might just turn up here next year.

Other than the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Being chosen as the #50 band out of 50 is like getting picked last for kickball, and that’s kind of mean. Besides, if an album is one of the fifty best out of the literally hundreds of thousands released every year, it has to be damn good. Here we go!

Big Lazy – Dear Trouble
The subtlest, most desolate and ultimately most dynamic album from a group synonymous with cinematic noir menace. Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s sense of irony has never been more refined, and the rhythm section of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion has never been slinkier. Ulrich is the only musician in history who has been on three albums rated #1 for the year here. Listen at youtube

Changing Modes – What September Brings
Best album of the year with lyrics, the New York art-rockers’ finest, most cinematic, and most political release, a savagely lyrical, spot-on reflection on Trump-era narcissism and repression, laced with shapeshifting instrumentals and frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam’s disquietingly lush harmonies. Listen at youtube

The Bright Smoke – Gross National Happiness
The title reflects frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson’s signature, withering sarcasm. It’s the band’s most savagely political record, a grimly allusive measure of Trump-era inequality, despair and resistance against all that, with a haunting Joy Division undercurrent. Listen at Bandcamp

Karen Dahlstrom – No Man’s Land
The best short album of the year, with metaphorically-loaded, sharply picturesque narratives referencing apocalypse, smalltown anomie, late-night despondency and a ferocious, defiant anthem for the Metoo era from the powerful Bobtown alto singer and Americana songstress. Listen at her music page 

Hearing Things – Here’s Hearing Things
The best debut albun of 2019, by Brooklyn’s funnest dance band, mashes up horror surt, Booker T & the MG’s, twisted go-go music, Afrobeat, Ethiopiques and the Doors, with organ, sax and surf drums. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – These Times
Steve Wynn‘s iconic, feral, influential psychedelic guitar-duel band’s quietest, most allusively political and arguably most brilliantly lyrical album. Not bad for a group who put out their first record back in the 80s. Listen at youtube

Michael Winograd – Kosher Style
Unsurpassed for his sizzling clarinet chops, Winograd is also a very colorful composer. With sabretoothed chromatics and slashing minor keys, these new klezmer tunes run the gamut from blisteringly fun to mournful to sardonic, and the band is killer. Listen at Bandcamp

Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
Here’s another world-class clarinetist and ensemble playing an especially dynamic, inescapably vivid take on one of the most iconic, haunting pieces of classical music ever written (much of it composed in a Nazi prison camp). Riveting as it is, it raises questions as to how fair it is for this blog to rank it alongside the rest of the artists here. Listen at Spotify

Layale Chaker – Inner Rhyme
The brilliant violinist writes vivid, intense, often hauntingly beautiful compositions built around the rhythmic sophistication of classical Arabic poetry, equal parts Lebanese, Egyptian and western classical music, with occasional detours toward jazz or film score atmospherics. Listen at her music page

Los Wembler’s de Iquitos – Vision Del Ayahuasca
With almost all of their original members, this iconic psychedelic cumbia jamband from the heart of the Peruvian Amazon are as wildly trippy and original as they were fifty years ago. Along with Hearing Things‘ debut, this is the best party record of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

Miguel Zenon and the Spektral Quartet – Yo Soy la Tradicion
The formidable alto saxophonist teams up with one of the world’s edgiest string quartets for a mix of acerbic works with an unselfconsciously Bartokian intensity Listen at their music page

Rev. Screaming Fingers – Music for Driving and Film, vol iII (The Desert Years)
Dusky, loping southwestern gothic tableaux, twangy noir Americana, a little horror surf and ominous big-sky themes from these great guitar instrumentalists. Listen at their music page

Girls on Grass – Dirty Power
Like a female-fronted Dream Syndicate, guitar goddess Barbara Endes’ band rips through paisley underground psychedelia, spaghetti westen themes, snarling new wave and garage rock, with a defiant, politically fearless lyricism Listen at Bandcamp

Russ Tolman – Goodbye El Dorado
Jangly, vividly lyrical western noir rock: disappeances, shattered Hollywood dreams, dead-end kids who don’t have a prayer, and roadtrip anomie from the leader of 80s legends True West. Listen at youtube

Julia Haltigan – Trouble
Turns out that the torchy mistress of Manhattan noir is just as fluent with new wave and vintage CB’s-style powerpop, throughout these tales of nocturnal prowling in the East Village before it was yuppified and whitewashed. Listen at Bandcamp

The Felice Bros. – Undress
This could have been the great lyrical, populist record that Springsgteen made in between Born to Run and Darkness: surreal political broadsides, down-and-out characters and death lingering over everything. Listen at Bandcamp

Jay Vilnai – Thorns All Over
Poet Rachel Abramowitz supplies the lyrics for this haunting, mysterious collection of new murder ballads, over the guitarist/bandleader’s cold starscapes, Lynchian dirges and a relentless, lingering guitar menace. Listen at Bandcamp

Karine Poghosyan – Rachmaninoff & Stravinsky
Nobody plays the Russian Romantics with as much insighful flair as this irrepressible virtuoso. As with Raphael Severe above, it is fair to rate this ravishingly intuitive, picturesque performance of achingly beautiful Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableaux and punishingly difficult Stravinsky piano transcriptions against the current-day artists here? Listen at Spotify

Dina Maccabee – The Sharpening Machine
Epically eclectic, trippy art-rock, chamber pop, pastoral themes and occasional coy new wave from this shapeshifting violinist and songwriter. Listen at Soundcloud

The Sirius Quartet – New World
This adventurous, microtonally-inclined string quartet’s collection of original compositions is a fierce concept album in defiance of the current fascist climate in the US. Listen at Spotify

Yale Strom’s Broken Consort – Shimmering Lights
The un-cheesiest Hanukah instrumental record ever made, the violinist-bandleader’s new arrangements blazing with ferocious solos and bracing Middle Eastern modes. Listen at rockpaperscissors

Eleni Mandell – Wake Up Again
The iconic dark Americana and torch singer’s most hauntingly political album is a series of narratives set behind bars, inspired by her experiences teaching songwriting in the prison-industrial complex. Listen at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Spells & Rituals
The constantly shapeshifting murder ballad and dark rock superduo dive further into latin noir, 60s Britrock and even garagey psychedelic sounds, all with their colorfully dark lyricism. Listen at Bandcamp

Noctorum – The Afterlife
Lush, characteristically lyrical, jangly art-rock from iconic twelve-string guitarist Marty Willson-Piper – late of Australian psychedelic legends the Church – with a similarly allstar backing band. Listen at Bandcamp

Laura Carbone – Empty Sea
Bleak, Lynchian panoramas, highway-of-death narratives and some guitarishly snarling gutter blues from one of this era’s great noir singers. Listen at Bandcamp

Unnatural Ways – The Paranoia Party
A grimly surreal, volcanically noisy, rhytmically disorienting concept about contact with aliens from guitarist Ava Mendoza’s searing doom/art-rock power trio. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Maureen Choi Quartet – Theia
Epically twisting, high-voltage, flamenco and Romany-inspired string band music from the violinist and her equally eclectic ensemble Listen at Bandcamp

Budos Band – V
The imaginative Afrobeat and Ethiopiques instrumentalists’ most doom metal-inspired album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

JD Allen – Barracoon
A big comeback of sorts for this era’s most potent tenor saxophonist, scorching his way through a Zora Neale Hurston-inspired mix of ominously modal, tersely evocative protest jazz tunes with a new trio. Listen at youtube

Nancy Braithwaite – To Paradise For Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway
The classical clarinetist and her dynamic, nuanced chamber ensemble explore stunningly imagistic, darkly clever, tersely crafted pieces by a now Rhode Island-based, nonagenarian composer whose work has never been released on album before. A major rediscovery. Listen at Spotify

Fabian Almazan – This Land Abounds with Life
A glittering, epically cascading eco-disaster themed concept album from one of this era’s most tunefully virtuosic jazz pianists and his dynamic rhythm section Listen at Bandcamp

Doomstress – Sleep Among the Dead
Pervasive gloom, minor keys, purposeful guitar and unusual elegance from frontwoman Alexis Hollada on the Texas doom metal band’s debut album. Listen at Bandcamp

Bobtown – Chasing the Sun
Bewitching three-part harmonies from Katherine Etzel, Karen Dahlstrom and Jen McDearman and folk noir songwriting that’s just a hair less relentlessly dark than the material that put them on the map. Listen at Bandcamp

Petros Klampanis – Irrationalities
Slinky, brooding, Middle Eastern and Greek-inflected ballads and more kinetic, pulsing material from the eclecic bassist and his excellent trio. Listen at Spotify 

The Well – Death & Consolation
Grim, Sabbathy dirges, paint-peeling Stooges sonics and ornately macabre heavy psychedelia from this Texas band. Listen at Bandcamp

Jason Yeager – New Songs of Resistance
A short parade of first-class pan-latin singers deliver the pianist’s protest jazz reinventions of classic nueva cancion from across the Americas in the 70s, alongside some chillingly lyrical, politically-fueled instrumentals. Listen at Bandcamp

Amy Allison – Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun
A characteristically bittersweet, brilliantly crystallized, lyrical collection of rarities and outtakes by the inimitable Americana singer. Listen at youtube

Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith – Mummer Love
Rousingly hypnotic North African grooves and immersive atmospherics behind acerbic, often savage poetry by Patti Smith and one of her big influences, Arthur Rimbaud. Listen at Bandcamp

Andplay – Playlist
The meticulously focused, tightly intertwining, colorful violin/viola duo negotiate the dynamic twists and turns of pieces by David Bird, Ashkan Behzadi and Clara Iannotta on their debut ep. Listen at Bandcamp

The Shootouts – Quick Draw
Spot-on, classic 1965-style honkytonk, hard country, Bakersfield twang and a little rockabilly from this slyly aphoristic Akron, Ohio band. Listen at Soundcloud 

The Ragas Live Retrospective
Members of the paradigm-shifting Brooklyn Raga Massive, who put all kinds of radical new spins on classic Indian raga themes, captured live in the studio over more than sixteen hours worth of music. Most of it is sublime; nobody at this blog has listened to the entire record yet. You can start at Bandcamp

Sarah Pagé – Dose Curves
Hypotically shimmery electroacoustic psychedelia and an Indian raga performed on the concert harp. Unselfconsciously magical,  cutting-edge stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Zosha Di Castri – Tachitipo
Vocal ensemble Ekmeles, the Jack Quartet, pianist Julia Den Boer, percussion ensemble Yarn/Wire  and a chamber orchestra join the thoughtfully eclectic pianist/composer in a diverse mix of acerbic, socially relevant compositions and art-songs. Listen at Bandcamp

Funkrust Brass Band – Bones & Burning
Sizzling Balkan chromatics, undulating New Orleans grooves and a pretty relentless sense of doom on the theatrical, sprawling brass band’s latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

Castle Black – Dead in a Dream
The ferocious female-fronted power trio look back to the most darkly ambitious of the first wave punk bands with their surreal, often haunting latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Manimals – Multiverse
Crunchy, catchy powerpop and a darkly pervasive Bowie influence on the new album from New York’s’ most entertainingly theatrical band. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 compilation
Digitized and somewhat sonically tweaked field recordings of icons like Howlin’ Wolf and cult figures like Magic Sam, shredding and wailing in their element onstage, captured by a college kid with a cheap tape recorder. Listen at Bandcamp

Beat Circus – These Wicked Things
One of the first and best of the carnivalesque rock bands of the 90s, back and revitalized with a lavish, darkly picturesque southwestern gothic concept album. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Sometime Boys – The Perfect Home
A characteristically enigmatic mix of distantly Americana-influenced, slinky originals and imaginatively reinvented covers from New York’s most charismatic, kinetically psychedelic band. Listen at Bandcamp

Locobeach – Psychedelic Disco Cumbia
Truth in advertising: trippy chicha, serpentine highway themes and some woozy dub from this tropical supergroup led by members of Los Crema Paraiso and Chicha Libre. Listen at Bandcamp 

Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee – The Newest Sound You Never Heard
Recorded live and in the studio for Belgian radio in 1966 and 1967, these radical reinventions and a handful of originals by the iconic noir pianist and the shatteringly subtle jazz singer rival the brilliance of their iconic 1961 debut. Not streaming anywhere but available on vinyl.

The 30 Best NYC Concerts of 2019

Enormous triage was required to trim this down to a manageable number. Despite a desperate climate where practically every corner property in this city is being removed from the stock of housing and commercial space and handed over to speculators, thousands of stubborn musicians and patrons of the arts won’t leave this sinking ship.

Time to celebrate that tenacity! Consider this an informed survey rather than a definitive statement:  this is the most personal of all the year-end lists here. It’s impossible to count the number of shows over the past several years where this blog was in the house even though most New Yorkers couldn’t get there (or, more likely, couldn’t get home from there) because of the subway melting down at night and on the weekend. The reverse is just as true. You want FOMO? Move to Brooklyn.

The best show of 2019 was Rose Thomas Bannister‘s wedding, at Union Pool in late September, where the Great Plains gothic songstress sang her heart out on a killer festival bill which also included her polymath guitarist husband Bob Bannister, her bagpipe wizard dad Tom Campbell jamming with the mesmerizingly trippy 75 Dollar Bill, plus sets by psychedelic indie rockers PG Six and delirious Afrobeat crew Super Yamba. For anyone who might consider it pretentious to pick a private event as the year’s best concert…it wasn’t really private. Anybody who was at the bar, or just randomly walking by, could have come in and enjoyed the music – and as the night went on, a lot of people did.

Here’s the rest of the year, in chronological order:

House of Echo at Nublu 151, 1/15/19
French keyboardist Enzo Carniel’s hauntingly improvisational quartet built Lynchian ambience throughout a smoky, hypnotic series of cinematic tableaux.

Golden Fest, 1/18-19/19
Night one of the annual blockbuster South Park Slope festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music was a delirious dance party with brass band Zlatne Uste, their smaller spinoff Kavala, pontic lyra player Dimitrios Stefanides and otherworldly Turkish oboe band Zurli Drustvo. Night two went for about nine hours with about a hundred bands. Some highights: chanteuse Eva Salina fronting the Balkan Doors, Choban Elektrik: Amir Vahab‘s plaintive Iranian ballads; Raya Brass Band‘s chandelier-shaking intensity; Souren Baronian‘s deep, soulful Near Eastern jazz; clarinetist Michael Winograd‘s lavish klezmer orchestra; and thunderous Rhode Island street band What Cheer Brigade closing the festivities

Ethel at the Jewish Museum, 2/28/19
It’s shocking that it took twenty years before there was ever a world premiere performance of the complete, witheringly intense Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle…and it’s a good thing these champions of 21st century music took the job

Hearing Things at Barbes, 3/1/19
Slinky, allusively sinister, Balkan and Doors-tinged organ-and-sax grooves with a surf beat: the crowd danced hard at this wild post-happy hour gig

Josh Sinton’s Krasa at Issue Project Room, 3/15/19
Seated with his back to the audience, pushing his contrabass clarinet to its extreme limits through a huge pedalboard, Sinton’s solo show was one of the most deliciously assaultive sets of the year, over and out in less than 40 minutes.

Girls on Grass and the Sadies at Union Pool, 4/2/19
Luscious clang and twang, some Nashville gothic and surf and a little punkgrass from the legendary, jangly psychedelic band who got their start in the 90s, with a similarly brilliant, psychedelic act they highly influenced opening the night

The Juilliard Trombone Choir at the Greene Space, 4/3/19
NY Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi‘s explosive, wickedly tight band of future classical stars ripped and pulsed through irresistibly imaginative, sometimes amusing arrangements of works from Gabrieli to Beethoven to Warlock

Mary Lee’s Corvette at the Mercury, 4/13/19
With former Pogue Cait O’Riordan bopping and slinking around on bass, Mary Lee Kortes’ rivetingly lyrical, multistylistically jangly band brought equal parts ferocity and fun

The Coffin Daggers at Otto’s in the wee hours of 5/5/19
The undisputed kings of horror surf were as loud as ever and maybe even more murkily, assaultively psychedelic

Lee Narae at Lincoln Center, 5/9/19
Backed by a terse psychedelic folk band, the individualistic pansori singer unveiled a withering, provocatively feminist remake of the ancient Korean epic Byeongangsoe-ga, told from the long-suffering bride’s point of view

Greek Judas at Niagara, 5/9/19
A great night – this is the first time there have ever been two separate shows from a single evening on this list. Guitarists Wade Ripka and Adam Good sparred through one sinister chromatic Greek rembetiko metal hash-smoking anthem after another, over the supple groove of bassist Nick Cudahy and drummer Chris Stromquist

Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, 5/10/19
Kalhor is the renowed, intense master of the Iranian kamancheh fiddle; this evening was a very rare performance on setar lute, building serpentine, hauntingly relevant epics with his protege

Loreto Aramendi at Central Synagogue, 5/14/19
In a rare US appearance, the pioneering Spanish organist played wickedly imaginative arrangements of Rachmaninoff’s iconic C# Minor Prelude, Saint-Saens’ Halloween classic Danse Macabre and pieces by Buxtehude, Liszt and Ligeti

Bobtown at Rockwood Music Hall, 6/9/19
The iconic folk noir harmony band cheerily harmonized, slunk and bounded through a mix of somewhat less creepy material than usual, with lots of tunes from their new album Chasing the Sun, plus a brooding cameo from cellist Serena Jost

The New York Philharmonic in Prospect Park, 6/14/19
In his Brooklyn debut, maestro Jaap Van Zweden led this country’s flagship orchestra through a stunningly vivid, resolutely vindictive performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2

Chicha Libre at Barbes, 6/26/19
The psychedelic cumbia legends reunited and warmed up for a South American tour with a couple of shows on their home turf. This was the second night, the one this blog didn’t review, and it was even better than the first, beginning with the gleefully uneasy Papageno Electrico and closing after midnight with the group’s creepy electric bolero version of Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1

Nashaz and Gato Loco at Barbes, 7/5/19
Oudist Brian Prunka’s undulating Middle Eastern band jammed out both otherworldly Egyptian classics as well as similarly edgy, entrancing originals; afterward, multi-saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk’s mighty noir mambo band burned through an even more towering, angst-fueled set

Hannah vs. the Many and the Manimals at the Nest, 7/11/19
The most entertaining show of the year began with charismatic frontwoman Hannah Fairchild’s withering, torrentially lyrical noir punk band and ended with catchy powerposters the Manimals’ incendiary bandleader Haley Bowery skidding to the edge of the stage on her knees, seemingly covered with blood. Costumes and a quasi-satanic ritual were also involved.

Michael Winograd at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/19
The supersonic klezmer clarinetist and composer defied the heat, leading a similarly sizzling band through wildly cinematic originals from his new album Kosher Style

The Drive East Festival, 8/5-11/19
NYC’s annual celebration of traditional and cutting-edge Indian classical arts featured rapturous ragas from sitarist Hidayat Khan, hypnotic soundscapes by saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan, spellbinding violinists Trina Basu & Arun Ramamurthy’s Carnatic-inspired Nakshatra Quartet, and a sardonically riveting Metoo-themed dance performance by Rasika Kumar, festival creator Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Nadhi Thekkek, with a dynamic live score by Roopa Mahadevan

Looking at You at Here, 9/6/19
Kamala Sankaram and Rob Handel’s new opera, billed as a mashup of the Edward Snowden affair and Casablanca, is a satire of Silicon Valley technosupremacists falling for their own bullshit. It was as chillingly Orwellian as it was hilarious, with a subtly immersive live score .

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore and Combo Lulo at Barbes, 9/14/19
The dynamic, resonant, klezmer and noir-inspired trumpeter, guitarist Brad Shepik and drummer Shane Shanahan built darkly chromatic mood pieces and more jaunty, acerbic tunes; it was a good setup for the organ-driven psychedelic cumbias, edgy Ethiopiques and trippy dub sounds afterward.

Wajde Ayub at Roulette, 9/28/19
The powerful Syrian baritone crooner – a protege of legendary Syrian tarab singer Sabah Fakhri – led a lavish, kinetic orchestra through a mix of harrowingly vivid, socially relevant anthems and ecstatic love ballads.

Nights one and two of the Momenta Festival, 10/15-16/19
To open their annual festival of underperformed and brand-new string quartet music at the Americas Society, the perennially relevant Momenta Quartet played a haunting Julian Carrillo microtonal piece, premiered a fierce, allusiveley political Alvin Singleton quartet as well as a more elegantly circling one by Roberto Sierra plus works by Ligeti and Mario Lavista.

The Takacs Quartet play the Bartok string quartet cycle at the 92nd St. Y, 10/18-20/19
A revelatory, slashingly energetic, insightful tour of some of the most harrowing, intense work for string quartet ever written

Big Lazy’s album release weekend at the American Can Co. building, 11/8-9/19
Bandleader and guitarist Steve Ulrich had lost his mom the night before the sold-out two-night stand started. He’d played Cole Porter’s I Love You to her that evening, and reprised the song on night one with his cinematic noir trio, bolstered by organist Marlysse Simmons, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and baritone saxophonist Peter Hess. Night two’s music was less mystical and pensive, more thrillingly, grittily menacing and macabre – when it wasn’t slinky and cynically playful.

Hamid Al-Saadi and Safaafir at Roulette, 11/23/19
The gritty, impassioned Iraqi crooner and this hemisphere’s only ensemble dedicated to classical Iraqi maqam music were tighter and more electric than they’d been at Lincoln Center in the spring, through a mix of metaphorically charged, socially relevant themes and more lively, traditional repertoire.

The Grasping Straws and Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons at the Mercury, 11/24/19
For anybody who might have missed seeing Patti Smith back in the 70s, or Jimi Hendrix in the 60s, this was a good substitute, the openers’ elegant, incisive lead guitarist Marcus Kitchen contrasting with the headliners’ feral, Hendrixian Hugh Pool

Karen Dahlstrom at Scratcher Bar, 12/8/19
The powerful, gospel-inspired singer and folk noir champion held the crowd rapt through brooding Old West narratives, wryly torchy blues, gorgeously plaintive laments and the fierce Metoo anthem No Man’s Land, the title track from her brilliant new album.

Escaping the Nazis with a Quartet for the End of Time

Olivier Messiaen premiered his Quartet for the End of Time in a Nazi prison camp. There’s no way of knowing exactly what he was thinking at the time, but it’s probably safe to say that he considered that maybe this could have been his last concert, and the last piece of music he’d ever write. And while much of it is macabre, there’s a transgresssive subtext: we’re going to make a break for it and get the hell out of here, Messiaen seems to be saying. And he got away with it, right under the Nazis’ noses!

As it turned out, Messiaen didn’t have to go through with an escape plan, and there were no reprisals. Either the Nazis didn’t get it, or they didn’t take him seriously. He would eventually be liberated in 1941 and go on to write lots of other somewhat less creepy music. The new recording of the Quartet for the End of Time by clarinetist Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – streaming at Spotify – is worth owning just for the liner notes. Long story short: new scholarship reveals that the composer didn’t write all of it in the Nazi camp. Like so many other European artists, he’d volunteered to fight the Nazis, but this harrowing suite underscores how much he hated wartime conditions.

There are parts of the new album that sound fast, and others that sound slow, although that perception uptimately proves false. It’s probably due to how intensely Severe and the group – pianist Théo Fouchenneret, cellist Volodia van Keulen and violinist David Petrlik– tackle the piece. The many passages that evoke the songs of the birds that Messiaen loved so much are muted and distant, a taunt to a prisoner who can only hear them. The aching, acidically immersive, apocalyptic rapture of the final movement drags on and on – exactly as the composer persuaded his bandmates to play it the first time around. But the frantic, stormy moments before then are just short of grand guignol. Messiaen, a devout Catholic, left no doubt how sincere his liturgical themes of struggle and salvation were, but here the real-life horror narrative is inescapably, barely concealed amidst the shrieks, sprints and sudden swells.

There aren’t many other pieces of music for such a strange lineup as piano, violin, clarinet and cello, but the group found one: Thomas Ades‘ Studies from his opera The Tempest. These short character sketches – Messiaen-inspired instrumental arrangements of operatic themes – run the gamut from calm pensiveness to brooding melancholy.

 

A Characteristically Rich, Diverse Year of Shows at Manhattan’s Best Venue for Acoustic and Folk Music

The American Folk Art Museum won the annual award for Best Manhattan Venue here back in 2016. It would be just as easy to say that again in 2019. Impresario Lara Ewen‘s mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series is still the most transit-accessible way to discover new songwriting and traditional music talent in this city, artists from all over the world covet playing in the museum’s rich natural reverb…and you can get a glass of wine here for a third of what it would cost you at Rockwood Music Hall.

As you would expect at a museum whose equally amazing exhibits document folk art and outsider art spanning the past few centuries, there’s plenty of folk music here. But even the oldtime sounds extend well beyond the world of fingerpicked front-porch acoustic guitar tunes. The best traditional show here this year was by singer Vienna Carroll, a historian whose insights into a set of rousing blues, gospel and string band songs reflected the triumphs of African-Americans over 19th century slaveowner terrorism and racism rather than the more common narrative of endless suffering. Queen Esther, a Folk Art Museum regular, reaffirmed that same fearlessly subversive esthetic at a couple of shows in February and July, featuring both Eastern Seaboard blues and soul-tinged originals.

Other entertaining oldtime folk shows included sets by the harmony-driven Triboro in May, as well as Irish tunesmith Brendan O’Shea (whose defiant, populist originals were even better) in July. Of all the original songwriters here, the most shattering was Karen Dahlstrom, whose November set featured a lot of material from her latest release No Man’s Land (a lock for best short album of 2019).  With her fearsome but meticulously nuanced alto, she aired out the fiery, gospel-infused title track, a Metoo-era broadside, as well as the metaphorically haunting After the Flood – a look at both personal and global apocalypses – and a new number, My Benevolent Destroyer, a chilling portrait of a broken marriage through the prism of imperialist domination.

Joshua Garcia, with his flinty voice and harrowing, Phil Ochs-inspired narratives, put the struggles of new immigrants and battered women in potently political perspective, along with the most chillingly allusive song about the Hiroshima bombing ever written. Miriam Elhajli sang in both English and Spanish, looking outward at the grim political climate as well as more inwardly, with intricate guitar fingerpicking and some intriguing jazz and Latin American riffs.

Niall Connolly held the crowd rapt with his brooding, tersely crystallized songs of struggle and emotional abandonment and rage against the Trumpies (a reaction that ran high at practically every show here this year). Soulstress Dina Regine, who played here in both April and June, was much the same, thematically, although her music draws more on classic 1960s American grooves.

How torchy singer Jeanne Marie Boes managed to get so much epic power and range out of her tiny keyboard is a mystery, although her towering, angst-fueled ballads and a couple of detours into darkly majestic blues had a relentlessly direct intensity. With her resonant chorister’s voice and deadpan surrealism, cellist/singer Meaner Pencil a.k.a. Lenna M. Pierce (she got her stage name the online anagram generator, she explained) was just as gripping, in a completely different vein.

Songstress/acoustic guitarist Kalyani Singh illuminated a dark inner world with a similar, often minimalistic focus, while southwestern singer Kate Vargas got the crowd going with singalongs and innumerable chances to have fun with beats. And Feral Foster – who runs the Jalopy’s longtime Roots & Ruckus series – didn’t let being under the weather get in the way of a characteristically haunted, expertly fingerpicked set of grim Nashville gothic laments and ballads.

The American Folk Art Museum’s Free Music Fridays series resumes January 10 at 5:30 PM with the soaring, brilliantly lyrical Linda Draper. There’s also an ongoing free series of guitar jazz concerts most every Wednesday at 2 PM with Bill Wurtzel and bassist Jay Leonhart.

An Epic Collection of Shattering, Haunting Tracks by Noir Icons Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee Rescued from Obscurity

Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee’s 1961 debut The Newest Sound Around is arguably one of the ten best albums ever made. Looking back, it’s astonishing to see that straight out of college, both artists had already largely concretized their individual sounds: Lee, with her airy yet shatteringly direct, intimate vocals, Blake the piano polymath who could be icier than Messiaen, more macabre than Bernard Herrmann, as folksy yet sophisticated as Charles Ives or, for that matter, John Fahey. There’s telepathy in the duo’s performances, all the more unlikely considering how frequently each could leave the page, disrupt the rhythm or shift the mood. It’s rare that two artists this fearlessly adventurous would find each other and work together so effortlessly. Lee sadly left us back in 2000, but Blake, now past eighty, remains as vital or even more so as an icon of all things noir.

And they have a new album out: The Newest Sound You Never Heard, a lavish double-disc compilation of live and studio recordings from Belgian radio from 1966 and 1967. It’s profoundly dark, deep stuff, a gold mine of wicked reinventions of jazz standards, a handful of originals and even a couple of rock tunes. The 1966 session opens with a devilishly determined, icy-hot contrapuntal reimaging of Thelonious Monk’s Misterioso, Lee enigmatically intoning a Gertrude Stein poem: sometimes a rose is a lot more than a rose!

Blake teases the listener as he eases into Honeysuckle Rose with a down-home warmth, then turns into the shadow stepson of Eubie Blake with his offhandedly menacing stride work: no one alive uses passing tones to create disquiet more memorably than Blake does. Lee returns, with generous reverb on her wondrous, resonant vocals, as Blake shifts from boogie to brooding belltones in their take of Green Dolphin Street

Lee’s sultry alto against Blake’s stygian rumble and icepick incisions turn A Hard Day’s Night into a blue-neon southern noir ballad. The two dance their way uneasily through a brief version of I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, then romp darkly through Hallelujah, I Love Him So: it brings to mind Rachelle Garniez at her most enigmatic.

Who knew how vast the desolation, yet also the hope, could be in Night and Day? Lee’s coyly misterioso interpretation of Something’s Coming gets a spare, grimly determined response from Blake. “Please don’t tease me,” Lee sings, cool and collected – and of course, Blake does exactly that, in a marionetttish Just Squeeze Me.

Blake’s solo take on God’s Image is as fearsome as anything Messiaen ever tried to evoke…yet also infinitely playful. Lee’s tough sophisticate takes centerstage over Blake’s mutedly fanged lefthand in Retribution. The first of his originals, Smoke After Smoke is one of his mini-movies: a saloon, a peek around the corner, then the scheme unfolds in a split second.

The two build wee-hours Manhattan streetcorner ambience, then shift to Montmartre after dark in Parker’s Mood. Likewise, Blake deftly shifts the beat to turn Caravan from a Middle Eastern anthem to starry Mitteleuropean restlessness (a second take from a year later is brisk, intense and 180 degrees from that). Conversely, the two’s distant rapture brings out new reverence in the spiritual Beautiful City,

Blake’s alternately frantic and stunned horror make the brief Birmingham USA one of the album’s most hauntingly evocative numbers. By contrast, the pair have ridiculous fun holding the doors until Ellington’s A train conductor is ready to scream for them to get onboard. There are also a couple of takes of Ja-Da here, the first lively and full of unexpected syncopation, the second, more spaciously dadaesque – it’s funny how much Lee prefigures future Jamaican dancehall toaster Yellowman here!

The 1967 disc begins with Out of This World, Lee conjuring a protagonist who really sounds like she was high while reading a fairy tale, Blake anchoring it with a grim boogie. They raise the surrealism of Mr. Tambourine Man to new levels, Blake moving from deep-space drift to terse blues. Blake’s phantasmagoria in Round About is unsurpassed on this album; then Lee shifts abruptly to a soberly hushed a-cappella performance of He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.

Moonlight in Vermont, in this duo’s hands, is definitely a winter song. The second Blake original, The Frog, the Fountain and Aunt Jane is a wryly evocative solo piano miniature. Lee follows it, solo, with a meticulous, line-by-by line, cinematic interpretation of Billie’s Blues. Reconvening for A Night in Tunisia, they switch out the North African milieu for a Broadway funhouse mirror.

Blake can’t resist going for full-on chromatic stalker menace in My Favorite Things, Lee coyly updating the lyric for jazz relevance. Her resolute blues pairs off against Blake’s deadpan humor in Blue Monk; then with characteristic counterintuitivity, their take of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman is arguably the most monochromatic, steady number here.

The album closes with a trio of ballads. The longing in Lee’s voice in The Man I Love is visceral over Blake’s Mompou-esque belltones. They work that dynamic even more eerily with Something to Live For and close with an expansive Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, Lee hovering just above Blake’s quiet devastation.

To compare albums recorded this year to this one isn’t really fair: there’ll never be another singer like Jeanne Lee. She’s the smartest girl in the class, singing to you alone, daring you to feel as alive and think as far ahead as she does. These days, the tireless Blake continues to make records and perform. The album hasn’t hit the usual online spots yet – peruse the song titles above for what little streaming music there is for this one at present.

A Brilliant New Album of Haunting Works by Obscure Composer Edith Hemenway

Clarinetist Nancy Braithwaite‘s new quintet album To Paradise For Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway (streaming at Spotify) isn’t just darkly delightful obscurities. It’s a major achievement, the first-ever recording of Hemenway’s compositions. What an incredible find. While there are echoes as diverse as the French early modernists, Messiaen, Berg and Bernard Herrmann in her work, her sound is unmistakably her own. The thirty picturesque pieces on this deceptively epic album, many of them miniatures, pack a great deal into a little space. They’re accessible but acerbic, often troubled and melancholy, sometimes macabre. To call much of this material Lynchian is an understatement. It is astonishing that such impactful music has been overlooked for so long – and kudos to Braithwaite for having the vision to release it.

Now in her nineties, the Providence-based Hemenway was trained as an organist but gravitated toward art-song and opera. She’s written for both adults and children; her operas have been premiered at popular venues in New York and New England. Pianist Vaughan Schlepp brings dynamic intensity and crepuscular sensitivity to Hemenway’s persistently uneasy tableaux, Braithwaite’s effortlessly dancing phrases and crystalline resonance enhancing their many mysteries. Cellist Robert Stirling and sopranos Claron McFadden and Roberta Alexander complete the ensemble.

The opening suite, Doors: Three Poems by W.S. Merwin, for soprano, clarinet, cello and piano brings to mind Bartok’s Mikrokosmos along with Ravel, Debussy and Amy Beach. From a steady, distantly anxious interweave and strenuous highs from the soprano, to an encroaching menace and finally a troubled waltz that doesn’t quite hit grand guignol, it’s a tour de force.

Questions of Travel for clarinet, cello and piano seems to chronicle a very questionable trip. The centerpiece is Journey of the Ancients, a slow, cinematic, broodingly stairstepping theme that rises to troubled crescendos with echoes of Ravel, Herrmann and early Schoenberg (and a wry Rachmaninoff quote). A waterfall flows down furtively; a siesta is depicted via a brooding canon. The coda is as apprehensive about the return as it is wistful for home.

In the album’s centerpiece, Braithwaite’s clarinet tersely answers and then mingles with Schlepp’s menacing neoromantic chromatics – it’s a David Lynch theme waiting to happen, with a Duet for the End of Time at the end.

The suite A Child’s Garden, for soprano, clarinet and piano is a particularly twisted playground of the mind. Braithwaite’s chilling downward cadenza in the opening sequence may be the album’s high point. Boats ripple anxiously on chilly waves; drafts waft relentlessly through an attic; a little later, friendly Schubertian companionship emerges in the form of a cow.

Asian Figures for clarinet and piano, based on texts by W.S. Merwin are less Asian than the title implies. The steady, four-part sequence, filled with Satie-esque longing, is another of the album’s most striking interludes. The Rachmaninovian, slowly crescendoing If I Could Find Her I Would See Nothing Else has a similar, aching melodicism.

The album concludes with Hemenway’s best-known suite, Four Poems of Langston Hughes: duets for two sopranos and piano, has stately gospel inflections punctuated by disarmingly piercing flourishes. All this makes you wonder how many other Edith Hemenways there are out there, overripe for discovery.

Epic Big Band Surrealism and a Jazz Standard Gig From the Michael Leonhart Orchestra

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra‘s previous album traced the epic journey of a swarm of butterflies all the way from Mexico to Egypt. Breathtaking as that trip over the top of the globe was, Leonhart’s new album with the ensemble, Suite Extracts Vol, 1 – streaming at Spotify – goes in a completely different direction, although in places it’s even more swirlingly atmospheric. If the idea of big band versions of songs by Spinal Tap, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Wu-Tang Clan and Howlin Wolf are your idea of a good time, you should hear this record. Leonhart and the group are at the Jazz Standard on Nov 12, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $30.

The album opens with an exuberantly brassy Afrobeat arrangement of the Nusrat classic Alu Jon Jonki Jon, punctuated by cheery sax solos. Things get more surrealistically entertaining from there. The first of a grand total of six tunes from the Spinal Tap soundtrack, the wryly titled La Fuga Di Derek turns out to be a moody piece for Sara Schoenbeck’s bassoon and Pauline Kim’s pizzicato violin. Schoenbeck’s desolate solo intro to Big Bottom offers absolutely no idea of where the song is going: as you would expect, Leonhart has fun with the low reeds, and also adds an accordion solo from Nathan Koci. From there, they segue into a one-chord jam that’s ostensibly Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman. Most of this actually makes more sense in context than it would seeem to, Leonhart’s chart following a similar trajectory from spare and enigmatic to an extended, achingly shreddy sax break over mutedly snappy bass chords.

Likewise, The Dance of the Maidens at Stonehenge has repetitive low brass bursts bookended by lots of African percussion: it’s as sardonic as the original. As is the medley of Jazz Odyssey and Lick My Love Pump, a brooding accordion solo bridging the ominous opening soundscape and the majestic, sweeping arrangement of the film score’s most sarcastically poignant tune. The final Spinal Tap number, The Ballad of St. Hubbins is the album’s vastest vista, Robbie Mangano’s spaghetti western Morricone guitar over postapocalyptic Pink Floyd atmospherics.

The Wu and their members are first represented by the Ghostface classic Liquid Swords, reinvented with forlorn Ray Mason trombone over grey-sky ambience, with darkly Balkan-tinged accordion: RZA would no doubt approve. Da Mystery of Chessboxing vamps along, alternately gusty and blithe, hypnotic and funky, while Liquid Chamber provides a launching pad for a slashing, Romany-flavored violin solo from Kim.

The diptych of ODB’s Shimmy Shimmy Ya and Raekwon’s Glaciers of Ice is the album’s most distinctively noir track, all ominous rises and falls. The concluding tune is a beefy take of Fela’s Quiet Man Is Dead Man and Opposite People, which could be Antibalas at their most symphonic. And Leonhart recasts the Howlin Wolf hit Built for Comfort as a slow, simmering, roadhouse fuzztone groove evocative of Quincy Jones’ 1960s film work.

Leonhart conducts and plays trumpet, mellophonium and bass harmonica; the rest of the group also includes Kevin Raczka and Eric Harland sharing the drum chair, Elizabeth Pupo-Walker and Daniel Freedman on percussion; Joe Martin and Jay Leonhart (Michael’s dad) on bass; Nels Cline on guitar; Philip Dizack, Dave Guy, Jordan McLean, Carter Yasutake and Andy Bush on trumpets; John Ellis, Ian Hendrickson-Smith, Chris Potter, Donny McCaslin and Jason Marshall on saxes; Sam Sadigursky and Daniel Srebnick on flutes and Erik Friedlander on cello.

Carol Lipnik and Tareke Ortiz Channel the Spirits on Halloween at Lincoln Center

Thursday night at Lincoln Center, Carol Lipnik emerged from the back of the room, irridescent in a shiny gown, like the Chrysler Building under a blood moon. Opening the night with her distinctive version of Harry Nillsson’s Lifeline. she was working the crowd before she could be seen. “Hello, is there anybody else here?”

As he would do all night, pianist Matt Kanelos played with a neoromantic poignancy matched to steely focus. Lipnik’s crystalline voice – widely acknowledged as the best in New York – has never sounded so rich,, from the shivery vibrato in her upper register, all the way to to a stern contralto, four octaves and counting. Her songs have a phantasmagorical yet often extraordinarily subtle social relevance. She spread the wings of her gown: “Welcome to the seance!”

The duo followed with Tom Ward’s brisk, shamanistic, menacingly chromatic minor-key anthem Spirits Be Kind to Me.At the end, she pulled a simple, rhythmic invocation – “Spirits!” from the crowd. Then she got them howling, literally, with a spare, desolate take of Michael Hurley’s The Werewolf.

Kanelos imbued The Oyster and the Sand with Moonlight Sonata glimmer as Lipnik pondered the price of beauty extracted from the ocean, rising to achingly operatic heights over sampled coastal sounds. Coney Island born and raised, ocean imagery pervades her repertoire. Then the two made an elegantly sardonic, vintage soul-infused romp out of a Halloween staple, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Put a Spell on You..They’d return to more obscure Halloween fare with a doomed take of Dylan’s The Man in the Long Black Coat a little later on.

Mexico City-based crooner Tareke Ortiz then took a page from Lipnik’s playbook, emerging even more slowly from the opposite side of the room in a Viking outfit, horns and lavish facepaint as his pianist, bassist and drummer built ominous, neoromantic ambience. “We travel tragically, toward the cold of our own voice, when it comes from outside ourselves. From the girl next door, from a window across the street, fom a dark alley and the wrong turn, from beyond the clouds and stars above, or from beyond the border,” he mused introducing an enigmatic, bolero-esque torch song.

The pianist switched to accordion for the carnivalesque waltz I’m Going Nowhere, which did double duty as defiant immigrant anthem and workingman’s lament. He and the group went back to slowly swinging latin noir cabaret to contemplate jealousy, then mined the Sylvia Rexach catalog to raise the angst factor. From there he invoked the muted, dashed hopes of refugees.

Lipnik and Kanelos returned for the circus rock of Freak House Blues, a big clapalong hit with audience. Her next song was steadier and more hypnotic: a simple “How?” was the nmantra.

“The last message received from the Mars Rovers was, ‘My bettery is low and it’s getting dark’ and this is a reenactment,” Lipnik explained, then brought the robot vehicle to life…for barely a minute.

With its sharp-fanged chromatics and grimly metaphorical call to fight, most menacing number of the night, Halloween standards notwithstanding, was The Things That Make You Grow, After a plaintively macabre take of the doomed tale of the Two-Headed Calf (who’s destined for a museum rather than the slaughterhouse), Ortiz returned with dark, abandoned love ballads and then a slowly coalescing song told from the pont of view of someone who goes into the desert knowing they may never be coming back.

Lipnik and Ortiz then joined forces to mash up stately mariachi and birdsong, and closed with a noir cabaret take of the Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer. By now, Lipnik could make this crowd do anything:, reaffirming that “We are vain and we are blind””is just as true now as it was in 1979. What a great way to get away from the amateurs and have a real Halloween.

The next free concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is Nov 7 at 7:30 PM with shamanistic all-female Korean art-rock band The Tune. Get there early if you’re going.