New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: pop music

Seething Satire and Corrosively Lyrical Narratives From Office Culture

Office Culture play a suspiciously deadpan, sharply satirical take on lyrically-driven 70s and 80s top 40 pop. The kind of people who use the word “adult” as a verb would no doubt call the group’s shtick ironic. The band’s debut album A Life of Crime – streaming at Bandcamp – actually doesn’t have much real irony, although there’s no shortage of sarcasm, starting with frontman Winston Cook-Wilson’s tirelessly pitchy attempts to play lounge lizard. This band sound like they’d be a lot of fun live: give them a Saturday night at the Rockwood and see if anybody in the house actually gets the joke. They’re playing the Sultan Room on Jan 22 at 9 PM; cover is $10. Assuming they hit the stage on time, you can still get home afterward before the nightly L-pocalypse starts.

The album begins with A Sign, its enveloping sonics and warmly vamping, Grateful Deadly chord changes masking a rushlessly cynical barroom pickup scene. Hard Times in the City, a glossy early 80s-style faux-funk number, skewers Wall Street yuppie money obsessions with a similarly jaundiced eye.

With its cheesily twinkling electric piano and ersatz jazz flourishes, Diamonds languidly chronicles a guy who’s “been pogo sticking around the Valley for half my life.” It’s Ward White lite. I Move in Shadows, a phony soul song, is so over-the-top awful that the satire gets lost. Likewise, Home on High is an exercise in scraping the bottom of the synthesizer patch barrel, “trying to use some new shtick on these hucksters,” an allusively grim narrative sinking amid blithely plasticky sonics.

If Lee Feldman had been writing songs back in the 80s, he could have tossed off Too Many and its chronicle of slowly losing it. The cynicism hits redline with Parade, its Trumpie protagonist making fun of a protestor. The final cut is Monkey Bone, which works on many levels: as apocalyptic parable, love ballad parody and swipe at young Republican entitlement. The world needs more bands as venomously amusing as Office Culture.

Spot-On, Frequently Hilarious Lyrical Tunesmithing and a Lower East Side Gig From Whisperado

Catchy, purist New York powerpop band Whisperado make irresistibly satirical videos. Check out Popstar Girl: she’s a meme, she’s a toy, she’s a tv show…and she might actually be human. Whisperado have a wildly lyrical new album, Out the Door, streaming at youtube. They’re playing the release show on Jan 20 at 9 PM at Arlene’s; cover is $10.

The first track is Vinegar Hill, an escape anthem tightly pulsing over the rhythm section of frontman/bassist Jon Sobel and drummer David Mills. The tradeoff between Sobel’s solo and Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s guitar is so subtle it’s almost imperceptible, a rare and unexpected detail. And Sobel’s never sung with such unleashed intensity as he does here.

The album’s second song, Precisely is a droll, picturesque, jangly Rickenbacker guitar-fueled examination of the vagaries of memory, and all that might imply. Signal to Noise is not the Peter Gabriel classic but an Emma Bull cover done as steadily swaying 70s British pub rock, Elisa Peimer’s organ swooshing as the band gather steam. She switches to bouncy piano for Nina (rhymes with “concertina”).

The album’s pouncing, blues-tinged title track could be about the apocalypse, or suicide…or both. Round the Bend is a towering, Celtic-tinged ballad with soaring vocal harmonies and honkytonk piano from Peimer. Mass Extinction No. 6 has hints of funk and a Dylanesque, spot-on, New York-centric catalog of dire images, reprised in an alternate acoustic take at the end of the record.

I Don’t Want to Do It Anymore is a coldly aphoristic look back at a pre-NAFTA America seemingly gone forever:

Factory, come back to me
I like those old machines
Pushcart tricks and Velcro strips
And all those ways and means
Folk songs on the radio
Sung out by human beings…

The Diddleybeat-driven Pretty Please is more optimistic but just as circumspect: it could be an upbeat Matt Keating tune. The album’s most surreallistically grim number is Stone Deaf, a mashup of the Kinks and Willie Nile, its narrator insisting that he “never left the grassy knoll.” The best serious song here is the towering 6/8 anthem Ghost of the Girl, with its icy Rickenbacker clang and Sobel’s loaded imagery: “The witches were legion, they blotted the moon while Satan was splitting the atom.”

With Hayden’s twangy riffage and Sobel’s growly bass solo, Winter Blues isn’t a blues in the strict sense of the word. Forbidden is beyond hilarious, a true insider look at how musicians take the easy way out: the jokes are way too good to give away. Best song of 2020 so far! The album’s only miss is that Little Feat ditty that everyone who’s ever played Rockwood Music Hall has covered at some point – and which, like Hallelujah and Hotel California, needs to be permanently retired.

Purist Retro Country Sounds and a Lower East Side Gig by Virginia Singer Dori Freeman

Dori Freeman is one of the more prolific songwriters in Americana. She’s put out three albums in the past four years, which is a lot these days. Hailing from the heart of bluegrass country – Galax, Virginia – she’s a throwback, with an understated, warmly nuanced twang to her voice, a way with an unexpectedly slashing turn of phrase and a knack for catchy, often soul-influenced classic 60s C&W songcraft. Her latest album Every Single Star is streaming at youtube; she’s playing the basement room at the Rockwood this Jan 11 at 7 PM for $12 at the door.

The first track on the album is That’s How I Feel, a catchy, upbeat, vintage 60s soul-tinged bounce. Freeman’s narrator has found a dude she really likes, finding herself lost like “One can in the back of the fridge, one doe sitting high on the ridge, one man with his foot off the bridge…”

All I Ever Wanted, an Orbison-inspired abandonment tale, pictures a girl out with her friends drowning her sorrows in “margaritas deep enough to fill a sink.” Teddy Thompson’s production is smart and spare but lingering: those simple purist country guitar riffs really ring out, and the acoustic bass and drums punch through.

Freeman picks up the pace with the joyously bouncy Like I Do, like Dusty Springfield having fun with a Bo Diddley beat. She follows the spare solo acoustic lament You Lie There with the brisk, bittersweet countrypolitan shuffle Another Time. With its stabbing piano, Go On is an understatedly venomous kiss-off anthem.

Darlin’ Boy, with its elegant blend of acoustic guitars and honkytonk piano, is a wise dismissal aimed at a real ladykiller: it could have been a hit for an early 50s Nashville group like the Davis Sisters. Walls of Me and You is a even more vindictively vivid, a  walk-away anthem and the key to the album

Freeman contrasts that with the laid-back 2 Step, a duet with Thompaon and winds up the record with the solo acoustic ballad I’ll Be Coming Home.

Darkly Multistylistic, Cinematic Cello Themes and a West Village Show from Ian Maksin

Cellist Ian Maksin writes catchy, often gorgeously cinematic songs without words. His music is stylistically vast, drawing on sounds from the Balkans to the Middle East to Latin America. He’s more dynamic than you might expect from someone who plays a low-register instrument and is also a rare cello player who excels at blues. There’s still time to get an advance ticket to his show tomorrow night, Jan 5 at 7 PM at the Poisson Rouge: you can get in for $20.

His new album Sempre is streaming at Bandcamp. The title track is an elegant cello take on minor-key Russian barroom balladry, Maksin overdubbing his moody, resonant lines over a lithely plucked bassline. Similarly, the nostalgic waltz Blues au Jardin du Luxembourg has more of a balmy Black Sea summer afternoon undercurrent than any distinctive Parisian flavor.

Vancouver Rain comes across as a loopmusic piece, Maksin’s biting chromatics and blues bookending a break in the clouds signaled by percussionist Andrew Mitran. The brief, acerbically tiptoeing Summer Garden could be Django Reinhardt at his most classical and chromatic.

Maksin is a one-man low string section throughout the tensely spacious, achingly soaring Respiro. The album’s longest and most hypnotic song, Lacrimae Novae begins as a medieval responsory of sorts, then Maksin brings in layers of broodingly chromatic, baroque-tinged melody.

Per Me, Per Te has contrasting layers of cautiously dancing pizzicato against uneasy resonance, set to a familiar four-chord progression: it could be a theme for a real weeper of a movie. Sunset on the Cascade is a pensive Russian/Brazilian mashup with light, Indian-flavored percussion. Maksin winds up the record with the soaringly crescendoing Brand New Page, its acerbically off-kilter chords recalling the edgy new wave-era bedroom pop of Young Marble Giants. Fans of this era’s most accessible, incorrigible Romantics – Ludovico Einaudi, Yann Tiersen et al. – ought to get to know Maksin.

Gorgeously Bittersweet Rarities and Outtakes From the Inimitable Amy Allison

Amy Allison is one of the most shatteringly brilliant songwriters to emerge from New York since the 90s – or for that matter, ever. Her distinctive voice has jazz nuance, coy quirkiness and an inimitable bittersweet charm. On one hand, she really seems to be the sad girl whose album of the same name became iconic in Americana circles in the early zeros. On the other, her sense of humor is just as quietly devastating. Her latest album Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun – streaming at youtube – bridges two different eras in her career: her early days as a classic country songwriter, and more recently as a purist pop tunesmith. Many of the songs here are short, around the two-minute mark, outtakes from three different sessions in Scotland, Los Angeles and New York. If other songwriters put out A-sides as strong as Amy Allison’s B-sides, the world would be a much more interesting place.

The album opens with Blue Plate Special. a vintage soul-tinged shout-out to the Memphis she lived in briefly during the early 80s but seemingly never felt completely at home in: this is a surprisingly quiet place. After the Tone, a wryly swaying country song with beefy guitars, is a tale about being stood up, back to the days of answering machines

Allison sings Nightingale, a slowly swaying, guardedly optimistic country waltz with stately piano, from the point of view of an urban dwelller “too faraway in the noise and the fray” to hear the bird. 4:15, a casually loping tune with sparse, echoey Rhodes piano and banks of guitars, is a poetically succinct chronicle of late-afternoon teenage daydrinking – and abandonment.

Even the album’s blithest honkytonk number, Angel Face has a dark undercurrent. Allison evokes the dreamy quality of some of her best ballads with NYC, an elegantly countrypolitan-flavored celebration of diversity, and how New Yorkers don’t actually have to see the stars to know they shine on us.

She does Goodbye Lovers Lane much faster than she plays it live, a briskly aphoristic, Merseybeat-tinged shuffle that’s over in less than two minutes. Dream About Tomorrow, a Kitty Wells-style breakup ballad, is awash in a whirl of pedal steel. It Doesn’t Matter Anymore is classic Allison, drenched in longing and emotional desolation, finally picking up with a web of guitar textures:

It doesn’t matter, can’t you see
The future’s just a memory
I saw the summer turn to fall
It didn’t dawn on me at all

Over the album’s the most imaginative arrangement, with mandolin, piano and melodica, Allison salutes Bette Davis for her role as the doomed wife in the 1940 drama The Letter. Arguably the album’s strongest track. This Prison is 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! The albun closes with Silver Stone, an older, bitter country breakup tune whose narrator ends up in a “town where all that glitters is fool’s gold.” Beyond this collection, Allison – a frequent contributor to the Hoboken-based Radio Free Song collective – has plenty of new material and even more obscurities that could make a couple of killer albums, or at least playlists.

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.

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.