New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: pop music

A Late-Inning Comeback by Janglerock Icons Son of Skooshny

It’s been awhile since Mark Breyer – who could be called the Elvis Costello of janglerock – has made an appearance on this page. It’s good to see him back in action, still releasing one brilliantly constructed single after another. His latest two, under the Son of Skooshny name (Skooshny being his iconic jangle/powerpop outfit dating back to the 70s) are up at Bandcamp.

The first tune, Cold has a majestic sway in the same vein as the Church, Steve Refling’s layers of acoustic and electric guitars building a rich sonic mesh over a steady backbeat. It’s a good companion piece to the Jayhawks classic Trouble, debating whether it’s better to settle for mediocrity or just be alone. Breyer’s metaphors are as withering as usual, a chronicle of “two old souls who can’t tolerate the cold.” The bridge is the best part:

It’s hard to stay in the moment
Out there on the trail
When the desert dawn contracts
Will the mountain lion attack
Will the rattlesnake recoil and flail

Staying In is one of the alltime great baseball songs ever written, but that’s just part of the picture. Wait til you get to the end, where 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).

The starter only carries you so far
The setup gets you close but no cigar
The closer must have nerves of steel
To wrap it up and seal the deal
Here comes a heartbreak we all feel
The leadoff walk and then the steal
The liner into centerfield
Blown save
Be brave

Watch for this on the best songs of 2019 page at the end of the decade, i.e. in a couple of weeks.

Jessie Kilguss Brings Her Subtly Sinister Songcraft and Soaring Voice to Gowanus Next Week

There was a four-song stretch in Jessie Kilguss‘ set last week at 11th Street Bar that was as evocative and mysteriously enticing as any show anywhere in New York this year. The first song was What Do Whales Dream About at Night, which was both enigmatic, and quirky, and had an ambitious sweep. Kilguss kept the jaws of fate open with Great White Shark, then sang the most haunting song of the night, The Master, one of the best of her folk noir masterpieces. Sinister as it seems, it’s actually a shout-out to Leonard Cohen, arguably Kilguss’ biggest influence

Then Kilguss and her jangly four-piece backing band careened through House of Rain and Leaves, a broodingly steady grey-sky narrative. With her calmly nuanced, crystalline voice soaring to the highs and murmuring among the lows, Kilguss channeled distant disaster and sudden menace as well as sardonic detachment. She knows that singing is acting, which makes sense since she built a career as a stage actress before plunging into songwriting more or less fulltime. She’s playing on an intriguing acoustic bill on Dec 4 at 7 PM at Mirror in the Woods, a tea shop at 575 Union St. in Gowanus. Take the R to Union St. and walk away from the slope. The other acts on the bill range from similarly strong tunesmiths like dark duo Lusterlit (Kilguss’ bandmates in lit-pop collective the Bushwick Book Club),, soulful cello-rocker Patricia Santos, Americana songstress Andi Rae Healy and some open mic lifers.

Kilguss’ other songs at the East Village show last week were subtler and somewhat more lighthearted. She opened, playing swaths of chords on harmonium, with Spain, a pensive blend of new wave and vintage soul and continued with Strangers, an opaque mix of Guided By Voices and Blondie, maybe. She closed the show with an unexpectedly upbeat Lori McKenna cover and then an almost completely deadpan take of a big radio hit from one of the most awful chick flicks of the 80s, a moment where nobody in the band could keep a straight face all the way through. Kilguss will probaby bring just as much angst, and menace, and ridiculous fun to the Brooklyn gig: it’s a pass-the-tip-jar situation.

Yet Another Wildly Diverse Album From the Brilliantly Psychedelic, Lyrical Sometime Boys

The Sometime Boys are a rarity in the world of psychedelic music: a lyrically-driven band fronted by a charismatic woman with a shattering, powerful wail. Guitarist/singer Sarah Mucho cut her teeth in the cabaret world, winning prestigious MAC awards….when she wasn’t belting over loud guitars as an underage kid out front of the funky, enigmatic Noxes Pond, a popular act at the peak of what was an incredibly fertile Lower East Side rock scene back in the early zeros. Noxes Pond morphed into volcanically epic art-rock band System Noise, one of the best New York groups of the past decade or so, then Mucho and lead guitarist Kurt Leege went in a more acoustic, Americana-flavored direction with the Sometime Boys.

They earned the #1 song of the year here back in 2014 for their hauntingly crescendoing, gospel-fueled anthem The Great Escape. Their new album The Perfect Home – streaming at Bandcamp – is a mind-warpingly diverse collection of originals and covers. There aren’t many other bands capable of making the stretch between a country-flavored take of the Supersuckers’ deadpan, cynical Barricade and a similarly wry hard-funk cover of the Talking Heads’ Houses in Motion.

The other covers are a similarly mixed bag. Mucho’s angst-fueled, blues-drenched delivery over guest Mara Rosenbloom’s organ and the slinky rhythm section of bassist Pete O’Connell and drummer Jay Cowit takes the old Allman Brothers southern stoner standard Whipping Post to unexpected levels of intensity, Likewise, Pink Floyd’s Fearless has a bounce missing from the art-folk original on the Meddle album, along with a balmy, wise, nuanced vocal from Mucho and a starry, swirly jam at the end. And their slinky, gospel-influenced take of Tom Waits’ Way Down in the Hole is a clinic in erudite, purist blues playing.

But the album’s best songs are the originals. Unnatural Disasters has careening, Stonesy stadium rock over a bubbly groove and a characteristically sardonic but determined lyric from Mucho. The group are at their most dizzyingly eclectic on the European hit single Architect Love Letter, blending elements of bluegrass, soukous, honkytonk and an enveloping, dreampop-flavored outro.

Leege’s mournful washes of slide guitar, Rosenbloom’s pointillistic electric piano and Mucho’s brooding, gospel-tinged vocals mingle over a nimble bluegrass shuffle beat in Painted Bones. And the defiance and hard-won triumph in Mucho’s voice in the feminist anthem Women of the World – a snarling mashup of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Poi Dog Pondering, maybe – is a visceral thrill. Good to see one of New York’s most original, distinctive bands still going strong. They’re just back from European tour; watch this space for upcoming hometown shows.

A Radical Change of Pace and a Park Slope Gig From a Future Vocal Jazz Icon

Svetlana & the Delancey 5 have had a memorable run as one of New York’s most colorful swing bands. But their charismatic Moscow-born frontwoman is much more eclectic than most of the other oldtimey hot jazz chicks in town – and you can hear it in her voice. Her latest album Night at the Movies – streaming at her music page – is a total change of pace for her, yet in a way it’s a logical step forward for someone who was always too sophisticated to be fenced in by just one style. It’s a collection of movie music. Peggy Lee and Mel Torme – iconic voices, but worthy comparisons – made lavishly escapist records like this, although neither of them had to escape Soviet ugliness as so many other Russians did before the Chernobyl disaster bankrupted the regime. You can get a sense of that at her quartet gig Nov 21, with sets at 7 and 9 PM at the newly opened, ambitious Made in New York Jazz Cafe & Bar at 155 5th Ave off Degraw in Park Slope. You can get in for free; it’s ten bucks for a table. Take the R to Union St., walk uphill and back toward Atlantic.

Svetlana is at her balmiest throughout the album’s opening track, a lushly orchestrated bossa-nova take of In the Moonlight, from the 1995 flick Sabrina – it’s a good showcase for her impeccable nuance and remarkably vigorous low register, considering that the song is essentially a simple two-chord vamp. Sullivan Fornter’s terse piano cuts through the orchestration in the torch song Sooner or Later – not the Skatalites classic but a Sondheim track sung by Madonna in the 1990 Dick Tracy film.

Svetlana pairs off with her bud, trombonist/crooner Wycliffe Gordon – whose deviously entertaining charts she’s used for years – in the swing standard Cheek to Cheek, a throwback to the classic Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong duets. Their remake of Pharrell Williams’ Happy, from 2010’s Despicable Me, is even more of a revelation: who knew what a great blues tune this could be?

Svetlana makes an elegant ballad out of Pure Imagination, a devious stoner theme from the Willy Wonka movie, with a sly take of a lyric that works as well for experienced older people as well as for the kids. Her disarmingly intimate duet intro with guitarist Chico Pinheiro on Moon River is the coolest interpretation of that song since the days when REM used to surprise audiences with a janglerock version.

Fortner’s celestial gravitas matches the bandleader’s knowing, wistful take of the standard When You Wish Upon a Star. Michel Legrand’s Watch What Happens, from the 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is an unexpected match of jaunty, New Orleans-tinged swing and bruised hope against hope, with a jaunty Jon-Erik Kellso trumpet solo.

John Chin’s crushingly crescendoing piano in a sambafied take of Remember Me, from the 2017 film Coco, contrasts with Svetlana’s lushly bittersweet delivery. She sings Boris Pasternak’s ominous lyric from No One’s In This House – from the 1975 Russian drama Irony of Fate – as latin noir, spiced with Sam Sadigursky’s moody clarinet. The band reinvent the Charlie Chaplin classic Smile as a gentle latin swing tune, then make a chugging New Orleans romp out of Randy Newman’s Almost There, from the 2009 Princess & the Frog film. Has anybody ever done so many unexpected things with so many movie songs?

The epic cast of characters here also includes but is not limited to Rob Garcia and Matt Wilson on drums, Elias Bailey on bass, Rogerio Boccatto on percussion, Michael Davis on trombone, Antoine Silverman and Entcho Todorov on violin and Emily Brausa on cello.

The Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange Create the Newest Sound Around

Every month, the Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange plays the freshest material you can hear anywhere in New York. That’s because almost all of the Brooklyn collective’s songs are brand new. Ringleader Lorrane Leckie hosts a weekly salon where a rotating cast of some of the best songwriters you’ve never heard of – and some that you definitely have – workshop new material, then they take it to the stage in Williamsburg. Leckie in particular has been working on new material for her upcoming show on Nov 24 at 7 PM with her ferocious, psychedelic band the Demons at the Mercury. Fellow guitarslinger and charismatic singer Mallory Feuer’s equally ferocious band the Grasping Straws open the night at 6; cover is $10.

The October Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange lineup was typically diverse and just as interesting. Leckie debuted a forlornly strolling tribute to her recently departed French bulldog, Eloise, one of the more memorable musician mascots in this city in recent years. LJ Murphy, the group’s cleanup hitter, recast a couple of broodingly aphoristic older tunes as vintage soul music. Another first-class singer, Paul Anthony, went just as deeply into Sam Cooke-tinged soul.

The edgiest new material of the night was from Jeannie Skelly, one of the group’s strongest singers and guitarists. Her first number was a hilariously vindictive anti-fascist rant; the second was just as amusing, an apparently true story about an old friend who returns from his world travels a changed man: he’s become a vegetarian supremacist!

Carly Spell, a relative newcomer, held the crowd rapt with an allusively haunting chronicle of addiction and its most dire consequences. Likewise, Sara Hurwitz‘s poignant opening number, assesseddiminishing hopes for artistic community in a city completely devastated by gentrification. Lead guitarist Robert Troise added some neat bluegrass flatpicking on that one.

Eve Blackwater got everybody laughing and singing along to one of the funniest and most explicit fuck-you anthems written in recent months. Eric Richmond took the crowd back to a 1979 of the mind with a bleakly imagistic, tightly composed, Graham Parker-esque new wave tune. Teresa Toro, the latest and brighest addition to another collective, the Bushwick Book Club, brought down the lights with a couple of understatedly torchy, jazz-inflected numbers. Feuer also set aside her usual firepower for an enigmatic, more dreampop-flavored tune. And Sarah Murdoch, who might be the most powerful singer of the entire bunch, validated the argument that she’s just as nuanced and intense a blues singer as she is with jazz and Americana.

The Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange’s monthly show continues at Pete’s tonight, Nov 11 at 6 PM, so you won’t have to worry about the L train going down on your way home.

Witheringly Elegant, Ruthlessly Funny Protest Songs From Dawn Oberg

What’s more Halloweenish than the prospect of Donald Trump NOT being impeached? Think about that for a second. Dawn Oberg, arguably this era’s most entertaining protest songsmith, played a guardedly optimistic, elegantly venomous set at the Rockwood last month that evoked what the world would be like under another Trump administration. It was as grim as you would expect, but Oberg’s irrepressible sense of humor wouldn’t quit. In times like these, you have to laugh, right?

It had been six years since anybody from this blog had seen the Bay Area singer/pianist in concert. The first time was at the infamous Bar East, where she played to basically two people: this blog’s owner, and the coked-up soundguy. The New York gigs have gotten better since then, and Oberg’s voice has grown richer and more velvety, like a good single malt. And her writing has never been more excoriatingly funny.

Playing wide-angle gospel chords and intricate, jazz and blues-inflected ripples, she briskly made her way through a bristling set. Not all of the songs were political. She opened with her usual Old Hussies Never Die and followed that with Whiskey Priest, one of her many character studies, this a shout out to a liberation Christian with a fondness for spirits (much of Oberg’s catalog looks to the bottom of a glass, darkly).

Idiot for Love was a rarity, a wry, guardedly optimistic love ballad, followed by the similarly upbeat, pouncing, quietly devastating End of the Continent, a cynical tale of abandonment and alienation told in California seismological imagery. And with the disarmingly catchy Angel Rant, Oberg offered robust, rebellious empathy for anyone spiraling into a dark night of the soul.

Then she dug into the political satire, ruthlessly, one song after another: the relentless cynicism of I’d Love to Be Wrong; the withering Nothing Rymes with Orange (title track of her fantastic protest song ep from last year), and possibly the best song of the set, the furious, defiant it’s 12:01, namechecking everyone  recently murdered by the SFPD: “Past time, motherfuckers, to change the guard at the gate.” The funniest song of the set was Mitch McConnell, wherein Oberg pondered what horrible things a turtle could possibly do to be compared to that troglodyte.

Oberg’s next gig is, Nov 14 at 6 PM at Martuni’s, 4 Valencia St. in San Francisco.

The Plaster Cramp Bring Their Distant Menace to a Halloween Eve Bushwick Gig

Today’s Halloween installment is the Plaster Cramp’s debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – which came out back in 2016. The band’s cynical surrealism looks back to the downtown postpunk scene of the early 80s, with occasional tinges of psychedelia and latin music. They like sprawling Velvets vamps with jagged guitar spilling over the edges; the darkness in the songs’ lyrics is allusive, and it draws you in. They’re playing Alphaville on Oct 30 at 10 PM; cover is $11.

The album opens with The Ghost of Great Jones. Aside from a little Daniel Ash-style string-torturing from guitarist/frontman John Frazier, there isn’t anything particularly dark about this slinky, Talking Heads-ish one-chord jam.

In the Stacks is a throwback to the Velvets’ first album, complete with the hammering piano, just a hair out of tune. Dracula is a phony bossa tune that coalesces out of atonal weirdness, multitracked vocals half-buried in the mix.

A dancing bassline propels Pinball Safari, a latin-flavored funk tune. The group go back to vintage Velvets stomp for Change It, “While the moon above weeps above the drying poplar trees,”Frazier speaks, calmly. “Do you like what you see?”

The group mash up Talking Heads and the Velvets in Impatient Knives, then bring the lights down with the album’s best and most implicitly grisly song, Apartment 23. It sounds like a more fleet-footed Botanica:

His car sat on the wrong side of the streeet
The phone just rang and rang in apartment 23
Nobody expects to discover anything
He had hidden himself
An ordinary man, no next of kin
No one to notice…
Lost in a city of pinstripes and grey suits
How they go together holy jesus

Cherry Dark is the Plaster Cramp’s What Goes On, a catchy, tastily twisted 4 AM Lower East Side scenario. The guardedly optimistic Fingers Crossed sounds like the Velvets playing New Order: the anachronism is actually very funny. The album closes with the starry nocturne Downstream, a dead ringer for vintage Brian Jonestown Massacre. The group have been playing more frequently over the last few months, a good sign, even if very few of the venues they’ve been at do anything to promote the bands who play there.

A Purist Retro Rock Record and a Bushwick Release Show From New York Noir Icon Julia Haltigan

These days Julia Haltigan may be best known for her work as an actress in Sleep No More, the gothic Macbeth. But she’s never let the demands of her stage career derail her role as one of New York’s most torchily captivating singers and bandleaders. She can be lurid, seducive and downright macabre, frequently in the same song. Her lyrics paint uneasy urban tableaux, usually set somewhere on the Lower East Side where she was born and raised. She’s alaso a hell of a tunesmith, with a taste for retro sounds. Her latest and hardest-rocking album, Trouble, isnt up at her at Bandcamp page yet, but a bunch of the singles from it are. She’s playing the album release show at around 11 on Oct 24 at the Sultan Room (the old Starr Barr space at 234 Starrr St. in Bushwick). Cover is $10.

The core of the band this time out is longtime Jessie Kilguss sideman John Kengla on lead guitar, Andrew Raposo (who also produced) on bass, Morgan Wiley on B3 organ and  Caito Sanchez on drums. Haltigan opens the record with Earthquake, a Manhattan rooftop party senario set to a chugging Nick Lowe-style pub rock tune. “I don’t give a fuck, I’m tired of being hustled – is it something in the air or is it that we’re jaded?” she ponders. “if we don’t do it, who’s gonna run this city?”

The oldschool soul anthem You Don’t Even Know It is soberingly set in the here and now: “They raised your rent, but the neighborhood’s the same….You don’t even kow that they follow your feet, you don’t even know that the temperature’s rising”

Wool is 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.” Then Haltigan gets even more cynical, mashing up Blondie with Rockpile and some tasty, swirly organ in Debris of Love

With its layers of icy electronic keys and Wiley’s epic Jungleland piano at the end, Thunder is a surreal mix of third-gen Casket Girls new wave and imagistic Lynchian torch song.“You can watch me walk away, I’ll even let you hold the door,” Haltigan announces in Walk Away, another late 70s-style pub rock/new wave hybrid.

With Kengla’s spaghetti western guitars and the starry constellation of keys and percussion, Bad Habit is a noir soul tableau, Haltigan at her Lynchian best; Amy Winehouse’s shadow hangs over this one. Skeleton Dance is a spare, soul-infused requiem that wouldn’t be out of place in the Nicole Atkins catalog.

“I don’t even wanna stay connected,” Haltigan sings in Mind Eater, the most new wave of all the songs here, a relentlessly troubled look at a world on the express track to self-destruction. “Just like that, it’s gone,” she half-whispers in the synthy, Cure-influenced nightscape Be With You: from a heartbroken perspective, the personal really is political these days. There’s also a bonus track, Cindy, a wickedly catchy, sympathetic powerpop shout-out to a girl from out of town struggling to keep herself together in a new metropolis. Not a single weak track on this album: you’ll see it on the best records of 2019 page if we make it that far.

Jenifer Jackson Returns to Her Catchy, Poignant Psychedelic Pop Roots

Of all the songwriters who built their careers in the incredibly fertile crucible of the Lower East Side New York scene in the late 90s and early zeros, Jenifer Jackson is one of the most prolific and arguably the best. Over the years, she’s moved from Beatlesque psychedelia to stark, brooding pastoral pop, bossa nova and harrowing, majestic art-rock. She’s also been a poineer of the DIY house concert tour circuit Her move to Austin in the early part of the decade springboarded a deep dive into Americana. Her latest album Paths – streaming at Bandcamp – is a return to the catchy, anthemic, eclectic psychedelic pop she made a name with early in her career. Jackson has a pair of New York gigs coming up next month. She’s at the Owl on Nov 3 at 8, then the next night, Nov 4 at the same time she’s at the big room at the Rockwood.

On the new record, her voice is more nuanced than ever; her lyrics are characteristically crystallized, imagistic and loaded with subext. There’s a restrained angst in her delivery as she soars up to the chorus on the elegantly waltzing opening track, Things I Meant to Tell You, Jim Hoke’s flute and Chris Carmichael’s one-man string quartet adding a stark baroque touch. As usual, Jackson lets the images of returning to a dusty room after a trip speak for themselves. It packs a gentle wallop.

There’s a delicate web of acoustic guitar fingerpicking beneath the orchestration in the tender early-dawn scenario First Bird. Then the band – which includes Brad Jones on guitars, bass and keys, Pat Sansone on guitar and mellotron and Josh Hunt on drums – picks up the pace with Back Home, a big, electric, organ-driven backbeat rocker. “The silence almost made me lose my mind,” Jackson confides: the tradeoff between organ and twelve-string guitar in the break is absolutely luscious.

Travelled Together, a bittersweet breakup ballad, has wintry, vintage 60s orchestration and Laurel Canyon psychedelic pop ambience: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Judy Henske catalog. Sultry Memory is a summery psychedelic soul ballad with shimmering vibraphone: it has the enigmatic lushness of Jackson’s classic 2007 Outskirts of a Giant Town and the lush Philly soul of Got To Have You, two standout numbers from Jackson’s vast output over the years.

Hey, Good is a wistful, hopeful, sprightly tune with ukulele and just a hint of brass: it could be a charming lost acoustic McCartney miniature from the White Album. Jackson brings back the electricity and the backbeat in Written in Stone: imagine the Byrds backing the Mamas & the Papas.

Jackson likes to put a good old-fashioned hard country tune on every album, and What Good’s a Memory is a picture-perfect vintage 60s tune, right down to the saloon piano and pedal steel. She wraps up the record with a country gospel-flavored piano ballad, Hail and Farewell. In a time where the brain drain out of New York stalled or even destroyed so many music careers, it’s testament to Jackson’s sheer talent (not to mention persistence) that she’s been able to stay on a creative tear that just won’t quit.

[If you’re looking for today’s Halloween installment, take a trip back to October 21 of last year for an underrated, darky psychedelic 2013 release – amazingly still available as a free download – by a New York band who should have gone a lot further than they did]

Purist Americana Rock Tunesmith Michaela Anne Brings Her Catchy Songs Back to Her Old Stomping Ground

Singer and bandleader Michaela Anne has built a devoted following with her blend of vintage honkytonk and twangy rock. Her catchy, smartly produced new album, Desert Dove – streaming at Bandcamp -, is much more rock than Americana-oriented, with keyboards, a string section and unexpected tinges of 80s new wave. Imagine Margo Price without the jamband interludes, or Tift Merritt with more elaborate arrangements. Michaela Anne and her band are playing the album release show on Oct 16 at 7 PM at the Mercury; adv tix at the counter, available M-F from about 5 til 7 PM, are $12.

The album’s first track, By Our Design is a determined, slightly bucolic powerpop song with sweeping strings: imagine Merrritt orchestrated by ELO’s Jeff Lynne. One Heart has windswept pedal steel and bluesy guitar…and cloying corporate urban pop overtones, too. It’s the only track here that should have been left among the outtakes.

I’m Not the Fire – as in “I’m not the fire, I’m just the smoke” – pulses along with a catchy backbeat and swirly organ. The brisk, deftly orchestrated, cynical roadtrip tale Child of the Wind is a dead ringer for a Jessie Kilguss song, while Tattered Torn and Blue (And Crazy) takes a turn toward Twin Peaks retro-Orbison noir pop.

The album’s title track is a steady, upbeat, anthemic, Mark Knopfler-esque tale about a ghostly archetype. Run Away With Me has a Tom Petty vibe; Michaela Anne takes until track eight before she hits the purist honkytonk with Two Fools, its mournful pedal steel and saloon piano.

If I Wanted Your Opinion is an unexpectedly fierce feminist anthem. Michaela Anne makes it clear that the last thing she wants is to be judged on her appearance:

I’m not a poster on the wall, not a porcelain doll
I think it’s funny how you think you run the show
You want to tell me how to sing, I’m not a puppet on a string
And if I wanted your opinion you would know

Somebody New is the new wave-iest tune here; the concluding cut is Be Easy, a simple, purposeful acoustic song, a word of comfort to a troubled friend. It’s cool to see a songwriter who honed her formidable chops playing an endless Dives of New York tour here reaching the point where she can play the tour circuit, where people will really appreciate her.

[If you’re looking for today’s Halloween piece, take a trip back in time on the mighty, ravenous condor wings of Merkabah, from exactly a year ago.]