New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: pop music

Luscious Jangle and Clang and Catchy Americana Tunesmithing From the HawtHorns

Even if you’re a music snob, you have to admit that the level of craft on the HawtHorns’ new album Morning Sun – streaming at Spotify – is impressive. On one hand, their irresistibly catchy brand of Americana rock is as predictable as the disintegration of the polar icecaps. On the other, their lyrics are a cut above average, the musicianship is smart and purposeful, and the production is purist and surprisingly imaginative. They’re the kind of band that seem to be engineered to get crowdsourced onto personal Spotify playlists. Now, Spotify’s own playlisters won’t go near the HawtHorns’ album – because they’re not allowed to. Only corporate product, or older music still in the hands of the skeleton crew at what’s left of the corporate music labels, is permitted on official Spotify playlists. That’s the deal with the devil that Spotify made to get into the American market. But you can put the HawtHorns on your own playlists, and check them out live at the small room at the Rockwood on August 9 at 7 PM.

The album’s first track, Shaking, opens with a big splash of guitar. Frontwoman KP Hawthorn sings this bittersweet pick-up-the-pieces-and-go-on tune. The jangle and strum of her husband Johnny’s acoustic and electric guitars builds to one of their typically anthemic choruses:

We were shaking
When we should have been swaying
We were screaming
When we should have been singing

“The trail is overgrown, and the path was not her own,” KP sings of the “queen of the desperados” lurching down Rebel Road. Is there gonna be an organ on the second chorus? Bring it on! That’s the way this formula works.

The album’s charmingly waltzing title track has a tense blend of acoustic and Telecaster, and a lusciously icy guitar solo played through what sounds like a vintage analog chorus pedal. They put a charge into a bluegrass melody with Give Me a Sign, then the band put a little more grit on the bass and a loose-limbed swing into the syncopation of the vengeful breakup ballad Broken Wings.

The 405 is not the obscure Steve Wynn classic, but a folk-rock counterpart to the ersatz Californiana of John Mayall’s Blues From Laurel Canyon – look it up if you must. Johnny breaks out his vintage 80s chorus box for All I Know – and are those woozy textures filtering from a 35-year-old Juno synth, or just a clever digital imitation?

The nocturnal resonance of the slide guitar in tandem with echoey Rhodes piano in Come Back From the Stars is a tasty touch: this catchy cut wouldn’t be out of place on a Jessie Kilguss album. On one hand, Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore is all too true: tunesmithing is a dying art, and there’s less money in it than ever. On the other, the idea of striking gold with a catchy song was always a pipe dream: even Elvis Costello had to take a cheesy tv talk-show gig to pay the bills.

The group close the record with the slow, hazy sway of Steady Fire and then the cheery front-porch folk duet Lucky Charm. If this is what the future of cross-country roadtrip soundtracks is going to be like, things could be a lot worse.

Another Vivid, Lyrical, Understatedly Haunting Album From Sharon Goldman

Sharon Goldman is one of the most gently powerful songwriters to emerge from the incredibly fertile East Village rock scene of the late 90s and early zeros. The real estate speculators’ blitzkrieg crushed it, but Goldman managed to keep her career going on the road. Since then, she’s put out a handful of brilliant albums of catchy, purposeful parlor pop and acoustic rock with sharp, plainspoken lyrics that often allude to much darker themes than her bright tunesmithing would lead you to think she’d tackle. Her latest album Every Trip Around the Sun – streaming at her music page – is in a way just as daring and iconoclastic as her previous record, Kol Isha, a sobering look at a very conflicted Jewish upbringing. This one focuses on issues of aging and death…from a distance, set to catchy chord changes and soaring choruses. Leonard Cohen may have gone to the tower of song, but Sharon Goldman is here for anybody who misses him.

Dolly Parton would no doubt be proud to have written the opening track, A Garden, a sprightly bluegrass-pop tune but also a memento mori: it’s a female counterpart to Mark Sinnis’ Undertaker in My Rearview Mirror. Goldman sang an absolutely shattering version of the understatedly towering title track at Rockwood Music Hall back in May; those bittersweet chord changes underscored both the triumph and bleakness of looking back rather than forward.

In betweem. the rest of the album is characteristically rich. The core of the band here is Allison Tartalia on keys, Craig Akin on bass, Mark Dann on electric guitar, and Eric Puente on drums, with contributions from several members of Goldman’s inner circle (if you remember the irrepressible and sublimely talented early zeros songwriters collective Chicks with Dip, you’ll recognize a lot of these folks).

The End of Sunset Over Athens puts a sobering, historically-informed spin on an otherwise sunny vacation narrative. Migration, the album’s most overtly political number, is an even more troubling look at the worldwide refugee crisis. Sara Milonovich’s violin and Noah Hoffeld’s cello provide a stark backdrop for the loaded metaphors of Lone Black Crow.

One of the album’s most offhandedly chilling numbers, Am I There Yet ponders the possibility that there may be no “there” to get to. Goldman plays both guitar and piano on the brooding Sunset at the Border, a haunting yet hopeful narrative that makes the connection between the South American refugee crisis, the ongoing genocide in Gaza and the Berlin Wall.

She weighs the angst of a gradeschooler with the angst of middle age in When I Was Ten, then paints an allusively gripping portrait of the morning of 9/11 in Tuesday Morning Sun. Penny With the Waves is wistful elegy for a lost friend, while The Ballerina may be the most ferociously feminist song Goldman has ever written, a savagely metaphorital slap upside the head of the patriarchy. Goldman also proves to be a brilliant rockabilly singer – who knew? – on The Collector, a tongue-in-cheek assessment of people accumulating…um…stuff. One suspects there will be even more unexpected revelations and fearlessly relevant work from this restless songwriter in the years to come.

Diverse Brooklyn Sounds in an Era of Vanishing Diversity

Where was the Brooklyn massive last night? Packed in the middle of the arena in front of the Prospect Park Bandshell, where Protoje and his protean reggae band were energizing the crowd. But as crowded as the middle of the space was, the sidelines were pretty vacant, and the party that goes on out back and off to the sides was almost completely absent. Which was strange: last year, his Jamaican countryman Chronixx drew a packed house that overflowed into the surrounding space.

Is an only 80% capacity crowd for a popular reggae act an indication that 20% of the Brooklyn Jamaican and Caribbean population has been forced into exile by real estate speculation? That the most musically-inclined 20% have been displaced, in the ongoing brain drain out of New York? Or is Chronixx really that much more popular than Protoje? That last proposition is dubious.

Everybody seemed to know the words and was singing or toasting along to Protoje’s eclectic mix of tunes. More than ever these days, the dwindling supply of artists still caught on the record label treadmill are forced from their usual positions and turned into utility players. Protoje did something for the ladies, something for the Rastas, something for the politically conscious – Criminal, an anti-corruption, anti-racist broadside and the biggest hit of the night- and plenty for the weedheads. A small parade of special guests filtered on and off the stage. Meanwhile, his energetic tin-guitar band behind him shifted from punchy dancehall to several detours into some pretty serious metal, including a sizzling guitar duel.

Down the hill, a smaller subset of the Brooklyn massive had gathered at Barbes to watch Middle Eastern group Nashaz debut a spellbinding new set of material. Bandleader/oudist Brian Prunka has been on a creative tear lately and the result is some of the best music his shapeshifting, slinky band has ever made. The decision to write material focusing on oud and trumpet has paid off immensely, with the addition of Slavic Soul Party‘s Kenny Warren to the band. Warren’s immersion in Balkan sounds with that Brooklyn brass crew has given him formidable chops to simmer and storm through chromatics and microtones, as he did last night. The result was akin to the great Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf backed by a more traditional rhythm section. No joke.

Tersely and emphatically, bassist Marouen Allam found just about every trick to make long one-chord jams interesting: slurry, shivery slides around a low note, the occasional leap to much higher registers, subtle rhythmic shifts and changes in voicings. Drummer Philip Mayer played the toms and cymbals with his hands, and engaged in a couple of adrenalizing dumbek duels with his percussionist bandmate Gilbert Mansour.

Prunka opened a couple of the numbers with moodily spiky, methodically crescendoing improvsiations, building up to exit velocity by the end of the first set. Meanwhile, Warren’s mournful resonance, ominously burbling riffage, sharp bursts and exuberant Romany-flavored crescendos were the icing on the cake. Prunka is back at Barbes on July 5 at 8 PM, hopefully not with 20% fewer bandmates because they too have been forced out by the luxury condo blitzkrieg.

Eleni Mandell’s Best Album Offers Grim Insight Into Survival in the Prison-Industrial Complex

Eleni Mandell got the inspiration for her new album, Wake Up Again, behind bars. No, she wasn’t doing time. She was teaching songwriting as part of the Jail Guitar Doors program founded by the MC5’s Wayne Kramer. The record – streaming at Spotify – is surprisingly her most indie rock-flavored release to date, at least until about the halfway point. But it’s also her most relevant, and most lyrically powerful. These clear-eyed, sobering songs elegantly and often allusively chronicle the cycles of despair, and addiction, and hopelessness of being caught in the prison-industrial compex. As Mandell makes crystal clear, orange is anything but the new black. She’s currently on tour, with a New York stop on June 27 at 9:30 PM at the big room at the Rockwood; cover is $15

Milo Jones’ reverbtoned guitar weaves enigmatically, going nowhere in particular, throughout the album’s opening track, Circumstance, Mandell matter-of-factly traces the outline of a woman caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, knowing that her babies will grow up without her.

“Got my foot out the window it’s a long way down, if you know the secret password there’s another way around,” Mandell explains in Be Together. “Am I waiting for a punishment for all the time I wasted?” she asks. In a career packed with some of the most captivating vocals ever recorded, this is one of Mandell’s most shattering.

Just Herself is just as harrowing, a resolutely waltzing account of someone who’s just as much of an outsider on the inside as she was before she got thrown in jail. Evelyn, a throwback to Mandell’s days as queen of late 90s/early zeros noir, underscores the fact that a large percentage of people in the prison-industrial complex – and the majority of the women there – aren’t criminals. They’re addicts, and people who sold them substances, some of which have been legalized in the years since many of these prisoners were locked up.

“Don’t ask when it was better – she would say that was never,” Mandell intones in Box in a Box, a catchy, gritty account of what could be solitary confinement, or addiction, or both. A brisk, subtly torchy backbeat number, Oh Mother could be a sideways tribute from a prisoner to a mom who managedto stay out of trouble – or the child of a prisoner admiring her mother’s resilience.

The gloom lifts in the quirky, upbeat, country-tinged What’s Your Handle (Radio Waves), following a thinly veiled escape theme that resurfaces a bit later in Air, a similarly bubbling, Americana-tinged number. Empty Locket, a duet with Jones, recounts a wistful, one-sided long-distance phone coversation.

Slowly swaying over Kevin Fitzgerald’s brushy drums and Ryan Feves’ bass, the country lament Ghost of a Girl is the closest thing here to Mandell’s signature noir Americana. The album close with another country waltz, the surreal, enigmatic title track. In a way, it’s no surprise that Mandell, an icon of noir since the late 90s, would end up behind bars – songwriting-wise, anyway. The most basic rule in noir is that ultimately there are none – and the consequences can be lethal.

Celebrating One of Manhattan’s Most Fearless Impresarios at the Borough’s Best Listening Room

There aren’t many venues left anywhere in New York where you can walk in on just about any show night and randomly discover a great new band or solo artist. But you can still do that at the American Folk Art Museum. The museum earned this blog’s award for Best Manhattan Venue a couple of years ago, largely because of impresario Lara Ewen, who brings in a wildly diverse and frequently excellent mix of global folk styles along with Americana and singer-songwriters.

Ewen is turning fifty this June 14, and an all-star cast (she isn’t saying who, just yet) are on tap to come out to celebrate at her mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series at the museum starting at 5:30 PM. Ewen’s booking (and her songwriting) reflect her background growing up in working-class, multicultural Queens. Three recent discoveries there – for this blog, at least – reflect Ewen’s ferocious dedication to bringing in music that represents the real New York.

In his debut at the museum this past spring, Greg Connors played electric guitar – not something you’d expect at a venue originally know for folk music, but Ewen likes to defy the odds. He ran his axe through a pedalboard with a lot of effects, flinging chords out into the space’s natural reverb and building to stomping, singalong choruses. His lyrics are edgy and cynical; his songs tell brooding stories set among the down-and-out without being cliched. His tantalizingly short set, clocking in at just over a half an hour, reminded of 90s underground songwriting stars Matt Keating or Jim Allen from time to time. If Connors had been around back then, he probably would have been playing CB’s Gallery and Sin-e and the rest of the East Village songwriter venues, all of them gone in a blitzkrieg of gentrification and real estate bubble madness. Connors hangs his hat in Peekskill now – he was awestruck at how attentively the audience at the museum responded, considering that he’s used to singing over crowds of drunks.

In her museum debut a week later, Ruby Landen explored several more traditional folk styles, from Appalachian-flavored balladry to French chanson. Her spare, elegant, eclectic guitar fingerpicking matched her low-key, purposefully plaintive vocals. She’s a relative newcomer to the New York Americana scene, so at the time of her show there was little on the web about her beyond a couple of youtube videos. But Ewen books a lot of good up-and-coming artists regardless of how little-known they are.

Another individualistic artist who’s just getting started and made her debut there last month is Yurby, who has even less of a presence online. There’s nobody in New York who sounds anything like her. Backed for most of her show by a bluesy, jazz-influenced electric guitar, she showed off a disarmingly clear, pure soul voice throughout a catchy mix of slowly unwinding ballads. Once in awhile there’d be a hint of a latin Caribbean influence, but otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair to pigeonhole her as neosoul. And her lyrics deal with empowerment and fighting injustice as much as the usual battle of the sexes. At the end of her set, she treated the crowd to one of those anthems, in Spanish.

Who knows – it wouldn’t be a stretch to see all three of these artists at Ewen’s birthday party. And maybe Ewen herself will treat the crowd to a few numbers – she won’t admit it, but she has one of the most magically mutable voices in town.

Field Medic Brings His Strummy Stories of Sadness and Drinking to Bushwick

Poor Field Medic, a.k.a. Kevin Sullivan. People talked through his set when he played, and that bummed him out. So he wrote a song about it. It’s called Used 2 Be a Romantic, and it’s on his latest album Fade Into the Dawn, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s jangly and melancholy and plainspoken and catchy, like all his best stuff. He’ll probably play that tune at his gig at Alphaville on May 11 at 10 PM; cover is $12. With the L train apocalypse in full effect this coming weekend, this show is even more of an attrraction, considering that the venue is just a couple of blocks from the Central Ave. stop on the J/M line.

But you mustn’t feel sorry for him. That song’s a humblebrag. “I used to be a romantic. now I’m a dude in a laminate,” Sullivan kvetches. Meanwhile, a million other dudes with acoustic guitars, playing for the tip bucket and a couple of drink tickets, would gladly trade places, blinding stage lights and all. One assumes a guarantee came with what Sullivan’s got slung around his neck.

He follows that with I Was Wrong, an oldtimey-flavored freak-folk shuffle, and stays in Americana mode – vocally, anyway – for the waltz The Bottle’s My Lover, She’s Just My Friend. Imagine Hank Snow and Bon Iver duetting – ok, that’s a stretch, but just try.

Hello Moon is acoustic spacerock, part trip-hop and part Elliott Smith. Sullivan picks up his banjo and goes back to oldtimey flavor with Tournament Horseshoe: it wouldn’t be out of place as a rare happy song from a vintage Violent Femmes album.

“When the bombs start to drop and the world starts to end…I can hear the hooves pounding, sounds like apocalypse” he intones in the brief waltz Songs R Worthless Now. A New Order-ish percussion loop foreshadows where Everyday’s 2Moro is about to go: it’s a funny account of daydrinking and then trying to clean up the crash pad before the girl with the lease gets home. The album’s last track, Helps Me Forget is a pretty waltz straight out of the early Jayhawks catalog: “How did I get here, how in the hell am I going to escape?” Sullivan asks the empty room.

Not everything here works. Henna Tattoo is a bizarre mashup of newgrass and 90s emo – although you have to give the guy credit for at least using real percussion instead of a drum machine to make that trip-hop loop, and the other ones on the album. And Mood Ring Baby could use a verse that’s as catchy as the banjo-driven chorus.

Back in the day, this is what we used to call a three dollar record. Those of us who were lucky enough to be kids – and who were at least theoretically solvent enough to pick up some of the vinyl that the yuppies had dumped and replaced with cd’s – ended up with lots of those cheap albums. They were three bucks instead of four or five because everybody knew that most of them had only about a single side worth of good material. Some of those we kept; others we recycled again, but not before making some pretty awesome mixtapes. It’s a good bet the same thing’s going to happen to this one, digitally at least.

Transcendent Lyrical and Vocal Power From Mary Lee’s Corvette at the Mercury

Saturday night at the Mercury, Mary Lee’s Corvette put on a clinic in eclectic tunesmithing, smartly conversational interplay, brilliant lyricism and spine-tlngling vocals. There literally isn’t a style that frontwoman/guitarist Mary Lee Kortes can’t write in: powerpop, Americana, glam rock, cabaret, classical, jazz, and psychedelia, to name a few. She did a lot of that, and held the crowd spellbound with that crystalline voice, which can leap two octaves or more, effortlessly. She’s been regarded as arguably the best singer in New York for a long time (noir haunter Karla Rose and Indian belter Roopa Mahadevan are good points of comparison).

Throughout a tantalizing forty-five minute set, Kortes validated everything good that’s ever been said about her. The band opened with the gritty new wave-flavored kiss-off anthem Need for Religion (as in, “Maybe it was just my need for religion that made me believe in you,” and it gets meaner from there). New lead guitarist Jack Morer played purposeful, incisiive fills on his Strat while new bassist Cait O’Riordan – founding member of the Pogues – shifted from nimble, dancing lines to snarling upward runs, and swung hard. Not only does she totally get Kortes’ songwriting – which some players can’t – but she also makes a good visual foil, two tall blondes bopping onstage and intertwining riffs.

Smartly, Kortes paired the warily triumphant garage-psych anthem Out From Under It with Learn  From What I Dream, with its edgy chromatic riffage and 60s Laurel Canyon psych-folk ambience. Through the night, the dream world was a frequent reference point, considering that Kortes is also a compelling prose writer and editor, with a new book, Dreaming of Dylan: 115 Dreams About Bob just out. Since Kortes has had more than a few (including a touching “don’t quit writing songs, no matter what” dream, as she explained to the crowd), it makes sense that she’d pull a collection like that together.

The best song of the night might have been Well by the Water, a corrosively metaphorical, lilting amthem that works on the innumerable, Elvis Costello-esque levels that Kortes loves so much, as apt a portrait of tightlipped Midwestern dysfunction as a history of human civilization itself. After that, the band stretched out in a bitingly bluesy take of Dylan’s Meet Me in the Morning – which Mary Lee’s Corvette famously recorded on their live cover of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album.

O’Riordan approached the slow, lingering bittersweet mini-epic Portland Michigan – a not-so-fond childhood reminiscence – with finesse but also as a search for impactful harmony, something few bass players do. They closed with a new song, a series of dreamscapes over a pulsing, Stonesy vamp – which Kortes used as a launching pad for her most spellbinding leaps of the night. Good to see this band back at a venue where they’ve put on similarly transcendent shows over the years.

Smart, Tuneful Classic Powerpop Sounds and a Union Pool Album Release Show by Big Eyes

Big Eyes play retro 70s powerpop which, if they’d been around then, would have been a big draw on the stadium circuit. If their new album Streets of the Lost – streaming at Bandcamp – had come out in, say, 1979, it would be considered a classic from that era. Frontwoman/guitarist Kait Eldridge’s hooks are relentlessly catchy, her lyrics are smart and her songs are a lot more imaginative and unpredictable than you typically get in a style that’s been done to death over the decades. Big Eyes are playing the album release show at Union Pool on March 30 at 10 PM; cover is $12.

The album’s first track, Hourglass Two opens with distorted guitars, Eldridge running a catchy minor-key riff, rhythm guitarist Paul Ridenour firing a blast of distorted chords. It seems to have an apocalyptic message: “I won’t be around when the trees are falling down,” Eldridge sings, sassily. From there the band could have taken it out with a return to the verse, but instead Eldridge adds a brand new riff. You like good tunesmithing?

Lucky You, a snide dis at a trust fund kid, is a stomping mashup of Cheap Trick, Big Star and the Stones: “Tell me do you ever feel an ounce of shame?” Eldridge asks. Nearly Got Away is slower, with rumbling riffage from Jeff Ridenour’s bass behind Eldridge’s spacious guitar snarls and icy chorus-pedal lines. The Upside is over in barely a cynical minute and a half, but not until after a wry twin guitar solo.

After a long space-storm intro, the album’s title track paints a grim but defiant picture of a homeless woman: While you’re at home, or on your phone you can’t ignore me,” Eldridge insists.

“Better watch the clock and make sure to check the locks,” she reminds in the riff-rocking When Midnight Comes. “Don’t stop to think, just pour me a drink.”

“I can’t get over it, i can read you like Dr. Seuss,” Eldridge sings over drummer Scott Mcpherson’s insistent four-on-the-floor beat in Try Hard Kiss Ass, “I don’t like myself when I’m around you.” The band nick a famous Modern Lovers lick for Young Dumb and Bored: “How you never have the time right?” Eldridge wants to know. Her searing guitar solo out could have gone on for another minute or two and nobody would complain.

Making fun of money-grubbing corporate types is like shooting fish in a barrel, but Eldridge gets our her machine gun in the sarcastic At the Top. The album’s final cut, Suddenly Nowhere maintains the hammering, cynical edge. If Cheap Trick, Paul Collins, Suzi Quarto or the Shivvers are your jam, so are Big Eyes. Count this among the two or three best rock releases of 2019 so far.

A Ferocious, Funny. Surreal New Album and a LES Show by the Charismatic Mary Spencer Knapp and Toot Sweet

To call Mary Spencer Knapp a force of nature really doesn’t do her justice. She will drop you in your tracks. The self-described accordion shredder is also a brilliant pianist, with a purposeful, bluesy streak. She’s a strong lyricist, she’s funny and she’s a whirlwind onstage. On the mic, she can move from a vengeful wail to a purr to something surreal and outer-dimensional, sometimes within the span of a few seconds, and make it seem completely natural. And there isn’t a style of music she can’t write: she’s played everything from Dominican folk to noir cabaret to the fringes of the avant garde.

Likewise, her new album Disco Eclipse with her band Toot Sweet – streaming at Bandcamp, blends new wave rock with cabaret, oldschool disco, soul music and a little performance art. The core of the group also includes Doug Berns on bass, Tyler Kaneshiro on trumpet and synth,and Javier Ramos on drums. They’re playing the album release show on March 31 at 8 PM at the small room at the Rockwood.

The album’s catchy, sarcastically strutting first song, Civilians comes across as a mashup of cabaret, the B-52s and early Talking Heads. It starts with a talk with the “drug counselor” and ends with Knapp bemoaning that “My grandfather killed civilians, I’m just one of seven billion.” In between songs, there are several playful miniatures. The best, titled Toot Suite, a wistful stroll with a tasty, torrential accordion solo and an ending that ’s too good to give away.

The soul-infused Northern Boulevard is even catchier: it’s a shout-out to a Queens neighborhood that starts with a rush to pick up a nameless injured person and then a wistful look back at a time before social media distractions:

There was something about living, living in the moment
I could achieve when I was there
There was something about sensing the world was ending
To free me from my usual affairs
There was something about making a saint of a man
Finding purpose in a good old laugh
There was something about living, living in the moment
I could achieve when I was there

Knapp’s full-throated voice, accordion and nostalgia for Old New York all bring to mind another first-rate, eclectic accordion-wielding songwriter, Rachelle Garniez.

Rolling on the Floor is a twisted, sultry cabaret-funk-punk tune about various situations which involve the floor, and also rolling:

She’s a manicured cutie
Big cat eyes with a bootie
Says she gonna give you triple X tonight
You want something more bovine?
You’re gonna have to draw the line

After the surreal stream-of-consciousness uke tune Fault Line, Bloody Murder is a surreal blend of Sergeant Pepper Beatles, the English Beat and no wave, set to a disco groove. Don’t you go running to mommy because “She’s a maleficent director, she’s gonna strut you and then she’ll cut you.”

In Rainy Day, Knapp builds a bouncy, bleakly surrealistic daydrunk scenario, followed by a trippy dub miniature. “I’ll make you sick of me,” is her vengeful mantra in the hypnotically hammering Playground Politics – and it gets more allusively vengeful from there.

Sway could be Laurie Anderson at her most rocking, while Bzzzness alternates variations on a slit-eyed boudoir theme with big crescendos from Knapp’s assertive gospel piano. The album’s final cut is the apocalyptic Tread Softly Epilogue. As diversely dramatic as these songs can be, they only hint at the kind of slinky valkyrie fury Knapp can work up onstage.

Oh yeah – Knapp was also a cast member in that popular Broadway show based on War and Peace.

Stephanie Chou Unveils Her Powerful, Socially Relevant New Suite

What makes Stephanie Chou’s music so much more interesting than most jazz these days? It’s a lot more tuneful, it’s often very playful, draws frequently on Chinese themes from over the centuries, and Chou isn’t afraid to take all this and rock out sometimes. And she’s a double threat, on the horn and the mic: she has a bright, edgy tone on the alto sax and sings in a soulful mezzo-soprano in both English and Chinese. Her most recent album, Asymptote – taking its name from one of the most philosophical constructs in mathematics – is streaming at youtube. Her next gig, at 7 PM on March 29 at Joe’s Pub, has special importance for Women’s History Month: it’s the debut of her harrowing new suite Comfort Girl, which explores the lives of the over two hundred thousand women exploited by sex traffickers in China during the World War II Japanese occupation. Cover is $15

The compositions on Asymptote aren’t as harrowing as that, but Chou doesn’t shy away from deep topics. She opens it with Kangding Love Song, a moody, latinized take on Chinese folk, John Escreet’s piano anchoring the music alongside bassist Zack Lober and drummer Kenny Wollesen, Andy Lin’s erhu fiddle floating sepulchrally overhead.

Wollesen gets to indulge in his signature Wollesonics with his homemade gongs and such in Eating Grapes, a popular Chinese tongue-twister that Chou recites without missing a syllable. Escreet’s elegant pointillisms and Lin’s aching erhu propel the Moon You’ll See My Heart, a bittersweetly starry English-language art-rock update on a 1970s Chinese pop hit. The title track is a less memorable take on acoustic coffeehouse folk-pop.

Does the recording of Penelope live up to how this blog described it in concert last year, “a haunting, crescendoing backbeat rock ballad fueled by Lin’s aching viola and a spiraling, smoky sax solo [that] would have been a huge radio hit for an artsy band like the Alan Parsons Project thirty years ago?” No smoky sax solo here, but otherwise, doublecheck!

General’s Command, an old Fujianese zither song gets reinvented as a stern, martial theme, then quickly goes in a lightheartedly strutting direction punctuated by a couple of blustery interludes. It sounds like this guy’s soldiers are having lots of fun behind his back.

A steady, brooding piano-and-sax intro, Chou overdubbing both instruments herself, opens Quiet Night Thought, Wollesen’s stately, minimalist percussion adding a tropical edge. As this setting of a Li Bai poem picks up steam, the lush blend of Chou’s vocals and sax is very affecting.

Making Tofu, a jazz waltz, is much more astringent and soaringly anthemic than a song about those flavorless little cubes would have you believe. The enigmatic, troubled tone poem In the Forest brings to mind Jen Shyu’s work with her Jade Tongue ensemble: it’s a salute to a legendary hermit from Chou’s upstate New York hometown. She winds up the album with the brief, uneasily twinkling Moon Recrudescence. It’s a shock this album has slipped so far under the radar up to now.