New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: pop music

Lush, Elegant, Moodily Orchestrated Chamber Pop from Chanteuse Z Berg

Press releases usually can’t be trusted, especially when it comes to music. The one that came with the new album Get Z to a Nunnery, by a singer who goes by the name of Z Berg characterized the record as “a little bit Francoise Hardy…a little bit Dusty Springfield on drugs..” Intriguing, no? It’s streaming at Bandcamp – see for yourself.

While Berg’s lavishly orchestrated songs are totally retro 60s, her voice is very much in the here and now. There’s a big crack in it when she reaches for a crescendo, Amy Winehouse-style. In quieter moments, her mutedly husky musings bring to mind Americana chanteuses like Tift Merritt. And either the album cost a fortune to produce, or Berg has lots of conservatory-trained friends (or dad still has something left from the old days at the formerly big record label). Sweeping orchestration and classically-tinged piano pervade her moody narratives, full of artful chord changes, dynamic shifts and picturesque imagery. It’s more valium and vodka than Prozac.

The opening ballad, To Forget You sets the stage, floating along over lush strings and a gracefully swaying 6/8 rhythm. The theme of I Fall For the Same Face Every Time is that troubled birds of a feather flock together, set to elegantly arpeggiated piano and baroque harp cascades.

“We didn’t fear the things we did not know,” Berg asserts in another 6/8 number, Time Flies, a pretty generic pop song heavily camouflaged in layers of backward-masked guitar and symphonic gloss. She shifts to a straight-up waltz tempo for Into the Night, a more delicate number that could be Charming Disaster on opium.

A gentle foreboding pervades Calm Before the Storm, the gently fingerpicked guitar, 70s Nashville pop melody and Berg’s plainspoken lyrics bringing to mind Jenifer Jackson in Americana mode. Little Colonel is one of the more skeletal and haunting tracks here, rising to a low-key baroque pop arrangement:

Dear little colonel, one foot in the grave
Fighting the war with an unsteady aim
Is that the goal, to create a crusade
With nothing for no one, so no one is saved
Or safe

It was recorded before the lockdown, but it’s uncanny all the same.

Berg and I (that’s the title) is a doomed noir cabaret number gliding along with mutedly insistent piano, strings and backward masking. Charades, a duet, is more sardonic and ELO-ish, the piano receding behind fingerpicked guitar. “It was a scream when were young and dumb, acid on Topanga Beach, in my mind we’ll always be that free,” Berg recalls in The Bad List, an anguished holiday nightmare breakup scenario: it’s the album’s Fairytale of New York. There’s also a starry instrumental epilogue. This is a sleeper candidate for the shortlist of the best albums of 2020.

Stark, Simmering Americana Nocturnes from Clara Baker

Fire is a recurrent metaphor on Americana songstress Clara Baker‘s new album Things to Burn, streaming at Bandcamp. But it’s not a fullscale inferno: it’s more of a brush fire that won’t flame out. Baker is the rare singer whose unselfconscious, nuanced delivery, with just a tinge of vibrato at the end of a phrase, can bring to mind Erica Smith. The album’s production is similarly understated and tasteful, matching the persistent unease, and distant longing, and low-key sultriness of the vocals.

The echoey Rhodes piano and Baker’s sotto-voce delivery on the album’s title track make it easy to believe that this song is about seduction…and it is, but the sarcasm is subtle, and withering, underscored by the sudden bursts from Courtney Hartman’s noisy electric guitar.

The ambiece is more skeletal, set to a circular mandolin riff in the minor-key Appachian-tinged second track, Doubt:

My mama brought me up with fate, my daddy brought me up with facts
I wanna pray at the altar of the certainty I lack

Baker maintains the sparse atmosphere in A Memory, a brooding tale of abandonment: “Strong as I am, I could never compete with a memory,” she muses.

Baker’s use of space is masterful: the occasionsl washes of slide guitar, or a reverberating accent from the Rhodes, pepper the slow waltz More Than Enough, a classic 70s-style Nashville ballad with minimalist production values.

Middle of the Night begins ambiently and then hits a sleepless trip-hop beat: it’s the album’s poppiest song. Six Days of Rain is the album’s killer cut, a slowly crescendoing, calmly harrowing account of getting dumped after what must have been a tortuous relationship.

I Won’t Take My Time is more hopeful, an oldtime front porch-style tune at halfspeed with probably a tenth the usual amount of strumming. Moving On is not the Hank Snow classic but a pensive, metaphorically-charged, backbeat-driven acoustic rock tune: “I’m grasping at the edges of who I was before I changed,” Baker muses. She closes the album with the gorgeously subdued Old Mountains, which evokes acoustic Pink Floyd, references a BeeGees song and has one of Baker’s most potent lyrics:

In a moment of bliss
Do you panic
Knowing something this good
Could never last…
Are you mining for joy
In old mountains
Are you panning for gold
In rivers of the past
I’ve walked that road
It hurts like hell
Letting go
Is something I know well

Impactful stuff from a quietly powerful voice.

Sharply Lyrical, Smart Purist Rock Eclecticism From Spygenius

Canterbury, UK-based band Spygenius play densely lyrical, erudite rock that draws on sixty years of classic tunesmithing. Their new double gatefold vinyl album Man on the Sea – streaming at Bandcamp – is as ambitious as it is vast. Their ability to channel an amazing number of styles is breathtaking. New wave? Check. The Beatles? Doublecheck. 80s pop, 70s art-rock? Check and doublecheck. Clever puns and cynical humor notwithstanding, frontman/guitarist Peter Watts’ songs occasionally take themselves a bit too seriously. But when this band connect, they really hit it out of the park (gratuitous American baseball reference in a review of an English band, WTF?), and they do that a lot here.

The opening track, Another True Story is Rubber Soul Beatles as Squeeze might have done it, with a twelve-string guitar: Oxford group Dada Paradox come to mind. Likewise, Albion, a snide dismissal of icy British conformity, is a McCartneyesque ballad with hints of the tropics and an unexpected snarl as it goes on.

Propelled by Ruth Rogers’ bubbly, dancing bass and Alan Cannings’ tightly clustering drums,  If You Go A-Roving looks back to the chimepop of 80s bands like Happy Mondays, with a Celtic tinge: keyboardist Matt Byrne’s trebly carnival organ is a deft touch. They keep the jangle and clang going throughout Salaud Days, a sendup of hypocrites. The title is a pun: “salaud” is French for “bastard,” Watts using the word in the Sartrean sense of an individual who refuses or neglects to exercise his free choice.

Side one concludes with Tomorrowland, a very clever critique of wide-eyed, futuristic techie fantasies, Byrne’s piano leaping and bounding uneasily. Side two begins with the Kinks-ish Café Emery Hill, followed by the sobering Dolphinarium 1986, a moody Celtic folk-rock reflection on how nostalgia is the enemy of history.

New Street is a snarky mashup of organ-driven 60s psychedelia and mid-80s REM. The album’s high point is the metaphorically loaded seafaring ballad Man Overboard: this grimly detailed account of a mutiny wouldn’t be out of place in the Charming Disaster catalog if that band played eight-minute songs.

Green Eyed Monster opens side three amid wild sheets of noise and then an anthemic, minor-key sway like the Church circa 1985 or so. From there the group segue into In a Garden, Byrne’s phantasmagorically twinkling piano elevating it above REM ripoff level. “She can’t help being stupider than you,” Watts rails in the scampering, organ-fueled Don’t Blame It on Your Mother, a dis to somebody who’ll do anything to avoid facing up to responsibility – a recurrent theme here.

Midnight Bandola comes across as an Irish take on the Grateful Dead circa American Beauty.  Rogers sings Spite, its bright Manchester pop sheen masking her hilariously venomous portrait of a pompous twit. Watch Your Back rises slowly from unresolved Robyn Hitchcock jangle to a big payoff. Windy (an original, not the 60s pop hit) has its airy late Beatles ambience: it could be late-period Love Camp 7 with a keyboard. That’s where the album ought to end; the intro to the last track is torture. Back in the radio-and-records age, this band would have been huge.

The DriverX Soundtrack: A Crazily Diverse College Radio Style Playlist

, Lili Haydn and Marvin Etzioni‘s soundtrack to the 2018 film DriverX – streaming at youtube – is a long one, with a grand total of twenty tracks. Even for a film score, it’s especially eclectic, everything from soul to powerpop to uneasy set pieces. Etzioni plays mostly the good-cop role here, showing off his multistylistic erudition, while Haydn gets to be bad cop with her stark, troubled instrumentals.

Her brief main title theme is a surreal mashup of Central Asian folk and sinister oldtimey swing. Etzioni pulls a first-class oldschool soul band together for Oh Glory Be, sung with gospel passion by Helen Rose. The Model rip through a brief powerpop sprint; a little later, Etzioni plays a grimly amusing Dylan spoof on ukulele.

Talon Majors sings a turbulent, Amy Winehouse-ish neosoul tune. The Satellite Four prance through a long series of variations on a famous Shadows surf theme. Danny Peck takes over the mic on Haydn’s breathy, Orbisonesque Nashville noir ballad I’m Here, which she reprises at the end, Julee Cruise style.

Etzioni’s tense soul-blues epic Trouble Holding Back slowly rises to a jaggedly haphazard guitar solo; then he goes into low-key, flinty olschool C&W with Hard to Build a Home. He sticks with gloomy Americana in Miss This World.

Haydn’s other contributions include a brooding violin and acoustic guitar interlude; a hazy trip-hop tune; a bit of psychedelic baroque pop; a dubby, twinkling nocturne; some haunting instrumental folk-rock and a ridiculous descent into EDM.

Courtney Marie Andrews Explores a Sea of Heartbreak

On the cover of her new record Old Flowers, Courtney Marie Andrews stands all alone in a vintage housedress, out in a field in the middle the night. She looks really sad. This is a concept album – streaming at Bandcamp – about being the bad guy in a relationship, and the consequences. It’s Andrews’ quietest, sparest, most intimate and plainspoken release to date, although it could have been more of all of those things if it hadn’t been overproduced..

She opens it with Burlap String, a slow, mostly acoustic country waltz awash in regret and spare sheets of guitar. Guilty, a cheater’s brokenhearted confession, has steady piano twinkling overhead and an unexpected, tasty bass solo. The music follows the same pattern, but more sparsely, in If I Told.

A haze of ebow guitar rises behind the gospel piano of Together or Alone; at this point in the narrative, Andrews seems like she’s gearing up to turn the corner. The martial drum flurries of Carnival, an even more minimalistic piano ballad, underscore the fear of never being able to find a relationship again.

Andrews puts a trip-hop beat on the album’s title track, which you’d think would be completely be out of place, but resonant gospel piano chords hold the song together: “You can’t water old flowers,” she laments. Break the Spell has a slowly waltzing blend of Mazzy Star haze and stark, oldtimey accents, then Andrews picks up the pace with It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault, the album’s best song and closest thing here to a 70s country classic.

She goes back to echoey piano-based trip-hop for How to Get Hurt and closes the record with Ships in the Night, a graceful, distantly gospel-tinged gesture of forgiveness. In general, these songs don’t have the sharply metaphorical focus of Andrews’ earlier work, and the glitchy electronic touches become grating after awhile. This album ultimately may prove to be a bridge to a new chapter in the career of one of the most distinctive voices in Americana over the past several years.

More Radically Intuitive Reinventions From Marianne Dissard

We’ve reached the most disturbing time in the history of music. Musicians are being forced onto the dole, forced to take jobs in unfamiliar and often undesirable fields because the lockdowners are hell-bent on destroying the arts. While innumerable online collaborations have sprung up, most of them have turned out stiff and uninspired. While you can always improvise against what somebody has already recorded, it’s impossible to replicate the chemistry of being next to someone onstage or in a studio and engaging with them unless you’re actually there.

One of the few artists to successfully overcome those limitations, and create a lot of material during the lockdown, is French-born, Tucson-based songwriter Marianne Dissard. Maybe the fact that she’s a singer, that she’s used to doing a final vocal take over music that’s already been recorded, has empowered her. Whatever the case, she seems to be about halfway through creating the last album anyone would expect from her: a covers record, sung in English, no less.

The fact that she has exquisite taste in covers helps. She’s been releasing them as singles: the first one was an practically nine-minute, dirgey reinvention of Phil Ochs’ chilling lost-submarine epic The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns.

After that she put out “his” and “hers” version of the quietly vindictive Janis Ian folk-pop classic At Seventeen. This blog is partial to hers; it’s more orchestral, with elegantly mulitracked bass and cello by Thoger Lund from Giant Sand. Dissard changes the syncopation and sings it line by line, with vastly more angst than the sullen, deadpan original. When she reaches the point where “Smalltown eyes will gaze at you in dull surprise, when payment due exceeds accounts received,” it will give you chills.

The latest single is a considerably dirtier remake of Steely Dan’s Dirty Work. Dissard tweaks the gender references and also gives the song a lot more angst than the original (remember that the record label insisted on using studio crooner David Palmer instead of the grittier-voiced Donald Fagen on the 1972 single).

All this is streaming at Bandcamp an addition to a sepulchral, previously unreleased recording of Dissard singing Kath Bloom’s It’s So Hard To Come Home, backed by Calexico‘s Joey Burns on guitars and banjo!

A Promising Debut Release From the Catchy Forever Honey

Forever Honey play a watery, kinetic blend of 80s dreampop and digital-clean 21st century small-venue rock, with more catchy bounce than most bands in either of those two styles. Their debut ep Pre-Mortem High is streaming at Bandcamp.

The first track, Christian sets the stage: Aida Mekonnen’s icy chorus-box downstroke guitar, airy vocals from frontwoman Liv Price and bassist Jack McLoughlin’s dancing lines punching in as the verses peak out. Go For a Smoke is part Penny Lane Beatles and part drifting, echoing teens janglerock, Price reaching for a more sultry delivery.

The third cut, Twenty-Five has more of a produced, poppy feel: five years from the dreaded three-0, and Price is already feeling old. Impressively, the band could have gone in a generic corporate urban pop direction with the closing cut, Where We Are Sometimes, but opt instead for distantly Lynchian clanging/wafting contrast. “Careful what you wish for” is the mantra. It’s reason to hope for more from this group one of these days.

Good Times and Purist Oldschool Soul From the California Honeydrops

The California Honeydrops have a fun, upbeat new short album, Just One More and Then Some streaming at Bandcamp. It’s going to end up on a lot of party playlists this summer – if we don’t run out of party money first. Lift that insane lockdown, Cuomo!

The first track, Just One More, is a honkytonk song with some classic 50s style piano from Lorenzo Loera,  frontman Lech Wierzynski on his usual guitar along with Johnny Bones and Leon Cotter on saxes.

The second track, Pocket Chicken is closer to the oldschool soul the band have made a name for themselves with: it’s a funny story about finding a bucket of food, literally and otherwise, with more of that oldtimey-flavored piano.

Honey, Sugar Has a vintage Allen Toussaint-style New Orleans soul groove. The last song, Shack in the Back is slower, steamier and funkier, with soaring horns and more of a classic Memphis feel. There’s a reason why these guys were such a big draw on the concert circuit before the lockdown: they’ve got a bottomless bag of catchy hooks and real passion for retro styles.

Wickedly Smart Metaphors and Catchy, Socially Aware Songs From Lara Herscovitch

A lot of the songs on Lara Herscovitch‘s new album Highway Philosphers – streaming at Spotify – pack a wallop rarely found in the normally sedate world of singer-songwriters. Take the album’s fifth track, You USA. The music may be low-key – just her intricate fingerpicking and lead guitarist Stephen Murphy’s airy washes – but the political content is fierce, and really captures the embryonic phase of the paradigm shift that’s sweeping the world:

We are underestimated, undeterred, here to stay
Pins in the rafters from the rally yesterday
Learning to look each other in the eye
Power grid’s gone down so we live like fireflies
Don’t look away USA

At at time where we’re finding Bernie supporters standing shoulder to shoulder with Trumpies at anti-lockdown protests, and just about everybody protesting the murder of George Floyd, something amazing is going on here. The whole world is uniting to rip those masks off ourselves…and also off everyone who profits from racism and divide-and-conquer strategies.

Another killer track is the Neko Case-ish Careful Porcelain Doll, a defiant tale of breaking away from a life of “paint by numbers in reverse.” The girl at the center of this story dreams of emulating her idol, Yankees home run champion and Gold Glove third baseman Graig Nettles, then trades that for adult domesticity…but ends the story with a spectacular Jacoby Ellsbury kind of move. For fans of the pinstripes, maybe it’s best that guys like DiMag and Bernie Williams didn’t try to make plays like that! We may not have baseball this year, but at least we have this song.

Most of the music here is pretty spare: just the bandleader’s acoustic guitar and clear, uncluttered vocals, Murphy’s terse electric fills and Craig Akin’s bass. There’s always a welcome subtext in these songs: Sailing to Newfoundland, for example, works on every level that quasi sea chantey’s title implies.

Fault Lines is Herscovitch’s eerily detailed counterpart to Dawn Oberg‘s harrowing End of the Continent; “I still wonder what that summer measured on the Richter Scale,” Herscovitch muses.

Castle Walls is a similarly vivid, wise tale of a European fling that didn’t work out. The album’s arguably funniest song is The Tiger and I, the most hilarious account of formula retail as circus ever set to music. Rise is also irresistibly amusing: it could be a Trump parable, or a satirical look at Andrew Cuomo’s ridiculously taxpayer-funded adventures with bridges to New Jersey. Or both.

There’s also In Your Corner, a gospel song about boxing – on a surface level, at least – and From a Dream, a surreal spoken-word narrative. Anyone who can’t resist clever wordplay, unselfconsciously soulful vocals and catchy tunes should check this out.

Karmic Payback Via Video

Catherine Russell‘s new video You Reap Just What You Sow reinvents the Alberta Hunter gospel/blues classic as oldtimey string band music, with Larry Campbell on acoustic guitar and Howard Johnson on tuba. But as impassioned as Russell’s vocals are – karma is a real bitch –  this is even more noteworthy since it’s her first-ever recording on mandolin. Little-known fact: the famous jazz chanteuse is also a first-class bluegrass musician.

Elizabeth Cook’s Perfect Girls of Pop is a ballsy satire of corporate radio cheesiness. The big joke is when the chorus kicks in – and she’s got the autotune dialed up all the way to hideous. Yeah, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel – but it’s still fun to hear the carnage.