New York Music Daily

Music for Transcending Dark Times

Category: pop music

Smart, Stormy, Fearless Art-Rock From Victoria Langford

Singer/multi-keyboardist Victoria Langford writes lush, sweeping yet very sharply sculpted songs. She has a strong, meticulously nuanced, expressive voice and a venomous sense of humor. She likes swirling, stormy orchestration and using religious imagery as a metaphor for interpersonal angst. Her debut album, simply titled Victoria, is streaming at Bandcamp. Imagine a more organic Radiohead, or a young Kate Bush at half the volume.

The album’s first track is Psalm, Langford’s spare Wurlitzer and insistent piano contrasting with Brett Parnell’s nebulous wash of guitars. The phantasmagoria hits redline with the second song, Coney Island, a harrowing, achingly intense tableau awash in a roar of sound and creepy canival effects:

I see stars
From the back
Of your hand
You bury me
Alive

At a moment in time when domestic abuse is rising with all this endless quarantining, the song has more relevance than ever.

Langford’s cynicism hits a peak in Savior, a brief, thumping parody of dancefloor pop:

You think everyone wants to fuck you
You are a victim or most wanted on the streets
You like to think that you are Kanye
But sitting on your ass won’t make those beats

I Found Hell Looking For Heaven is an instrumental, a majestic title theme of sorts, Leah Coloff’s stark cello blending with Langford’s symphonic keyboard orchestration. The string into to Boboli Gardens, cello bolstered by Sarah Goldfeather and Andie Springer’s violins, is even more plaintive, Langford’s piano shifting to a hazy, country-tinged sway.

The Radiohead influence comes through the most clearly in the slow, brooding What Might Have Been, right down to the glitchy electronics and tinkly multitracks behind the starkly circling piano riffs.

Rob Ritchie’s guitar lingers amid a whoosh of string synth over Joe Correia’s bass and Evan Mitchell’s drums in Be a Dragon, a surreal mashup of hip-hop and Radiohead with a fearless Metoo-era message. Langford winds up the record with The Truth, a pulsing, unapologetic escape anthem: It’s rare to see an artist come straight out of the chute with something this unique and individualistic, a stealth contender for best debut album of 2020.

Understatedly Troubling Music For Troubling Times From the Nine Seas

Folk noir superduo the Nine Seas take their name from the long-defunct, legendary Alphabet City bar 9C, located at the corner of 9th Street and Avenue C. Years before Pete’s Candy Store was anything more than a numbers joint, and more than a decade before the Jalopy opened, 9C was New York’s ground zero for Americana music. That’s where Liz Tormes and Fiona McBain cut their teeth at the wildly crowded, weekly bluegrass jam.

In the years since then, both would become important voices in Americana, as solo artists and with other bands (McBain best known for her longtime membership in the gospel and soul-tinged Ollabelle). This project, which began as a murder ballad cover act, also goes back several years, attesting to the chemistry between the two musicians. Their long-awaited debut album Dream of Me is streaming at their music page. It’s a mix of originals and imaginative covers, the two singer-guitarists occasionally abettted by keys and horns.

Tormes’ first number, Am I Still Your Demon is the album’s quietly potent opener. It has a classic Tormes vocal trick that she’s used before (see the devastating Read My Mnd, the opening number on her 2010 Limelight album). J. Walter Hawkes’ looming trombone arrangement perfectly matches the song’s understated angst.

The duo reinvent the old suicide ballad I Never Will Marry with a hazy dreampop tinge, as Mazzy Star might have done it. They do E.C. Ball’s fire-and-brimstone country gospel classic Trials, Troubles, Tribulations much the same way. Here and throughout the record, Jim White’s spare banjo, organ and other instruments really flesh out these otherwise stark songs.

Likewise, his glockenspiel twinkles eerily in Go to Sleep, an elegaic Tormes tune. McBain’s I Really Want You is just as calmly phantasmagorical: it’s more about longing than lust. Then Oliver de la Celle ‘s Lynchian guitar and White’s banjo raise the menace in a radical reinvention of Charlie Rich’s Midnight Blues

The hypnotic version of the murder ballad Down in the Willow Garden, a concert favorite, is all the more creepy for the duo’s bright harmonies and steady stoicism, White adding airy pump organ. McBain switches to piano for the even more atmospheric, Julee Cruise-ish Where He Rests.

They wind up the album with a pair of covers. They transform Midnight, a bluesy, Jimmy Reed-style 1952 hit for Red Foley, into minimalist girl-down-the-well pop. And they remake Don Gibson’s Sea of Heartbreak as jungly exotica: nobody plays with more implied menace than the Nine Seas.

The album also includes stripped-down alternate takes of Trials, Troubles, Tribulations and Midnight Blues. Beyond this album, since they’re unable to play shows at the moment, the Nine Seas have a weekly webcast, the Quarantine Chronicles, where they run through many other songs from the immense dark folk repetoire they’ve amassed over the years.

Shakey Graves’ Youtube Series Produces a Slyly Spot-On New Album

Shakey Graves’ sound has changed a lot since his wryly entertaining one-man-band days on the summer concert circuit over the last few years. But that’s ok – artists evolve. The question is whether Alejandro Rose-Garcia has simply followed his inner Badfinger muse, or if he’s been led astray by a holdover fringe of what’s left of the corporate music machine that imploded about fifteen years ago.

He’s definitely a lot more serious these days. The title track of his new ep Look Alive – a byproduct of his haphazardly inspired lockdown-era youtube series and streaming at Bandcamp– is a vampy 70s powerpop anthem. “I haven’t learned a thing since 1987,” he asserts – that’s the year he was born. Patrick O’Connor’s 12-string guitar riffs and a guitar-synth background linger throughout six sardonic minutes: long songs without digressive spoken-word interludes have not been this guy’s thing til now,

Jon Shaw’s boomy bass holds down the trip-hop groove of the second track, The Recipe, definitely a throwback: it’s an irresistibly funny look at really, REALLY bad branding. He mentions being free of some kind of past in Not Everything Grows, which follows a similar but more lo-fi pattern. The final product of this strange time is Under the Hood. “Use your eyes, don’t be easily deceived,” he warns calmly over an uncharacteristically woozy, techy backdrop. It speaks volumes that he uses autotune on the line “Don’t believe anything everyone tells you.” Big up to Shakey Graves for keeping the simple idea of a bunch of guys together in the studio making music alive at this pivotal historical moment.

Some Sobering Context For Tredici Bacci’s Latest Funny Video

Tredici Bacci make very funny videos. But the best joke in the lavish, cinematic band’s latest one, Defino De Venezia, is musical rather than visual. It starts at about 1:58 – but it won’t be as funny if you don’t watch from the beginning

What’s most amazing about it is that all seventeen people who play on it recorded their parts while sequestered – via Zoom, most likely. This is a case study in how video connections enable musicmaking, but also how they imperil it. On one hand, getting seventeen people in seventeen different places to sound anything like a cohesive unit is quite the feat. Bandleader Simon Hanes obviously went deep into his address book for the talent to pull this off (musician credits are listed below the video).

Let’s also give props to mixing engineer Myles Boisen for whatever mojo he was able to work to tighten everything up.

And that right there is the problem. You can’t fault anybody involved with the project, really. It’s just that Tredici Bacci are a funny band. Onstage they tend to be loose and spontaneous, and they can swing like hell. And that kind of magic, which really defines them, is missing here. Everybody seems so fixated on getting their parts right that there’s literally no chemistry. Which testifies to the limits of this kind of technology.

Obviously, anybody can take a stab at improvising over a video connection. But the camaraderie that enables a good jam can never be there. Not to be a killjoy, but ultimately this only underscores the undeniable truth that virtual reality can never be more than a pale imitation of the real thing, good jokes or not. And it’s frustrating to have to wait for the day when all this madness is over and we can see Tredici Bacci play live, for real, and not from six feet away. Ok, six feet away from the band, for sure, but not from each other.

One of the World’s Sharpest, Funniest Song Stylists Salutes the Dearly Departed

Rachelle Garniez has gotten more ink from this blog than just about any other artist, starting with the very first concert ever reviewed here, an installment of Paul Wallfisch‘s fantastic and greatly missed Small Beast series in the late summer of 2011. Since then, she’s released plenty of studio material as well, from the song ranked best of 2015 here – the metaphorically searing, Elizabethan-tinged Vanity’s Curse, from her album Who’s Counting – to her charming, oldtimey-flavored An Evening in New York duo record with Kill Henry Sugar guitar wizard Erik Della Penna earlier this year.

The latest installment of Garniez’s recent creative tear is yet another album, Gone to Glory – streaming at Spotify – her first-ever covers record. The project took shape at a series of shows at East Village boite Pangea, beginning as an annual salute to artists who’d left us the previous year. The secret of playing covers is simple: either you do the song in a completely different way, or make it better than the original, otherwise it’s a waste of time. In this case, Garniez splits the difference between reinventions and improvements.

Playing piano, she opens the record with a quote that’s almost painfully obvious, but still too funny to give away. Then she switches to accordion over the strutting groove of drummer Dave Cole, bassist Derek Nievergelt and violist Karen Waltuch for a polka-tinged take of Motorhead’s Killed By Death. That’s the album’s funniest song, although most of the rest are equally radical reinventions: Garniez has a laserlike sense of a song’s inner meaning and teases that out here, time after time.

She does Prince’s Raspberry Beret as a country song and then discovers the slinky inner suspensefulness in a low-key, noir-tinged take of David Bowie’s Scary Monsters. It’s super creepier than the original, as is a slightly stormier version of Mose Allison’s Monsters of the Id. She switches to piano for a brooding, lush, string-infused version of Jimmy Dorsey’s My Sister and I, a World War II refugee’s tale originally sung by Bea Wain in 1941.

Aretha Franklin is represented twice. Garniez’s droning accordion imbues The Day Is Past and Gone with an otherworldly druid-folk ambience. Her whispery, subtle solo piano take of Day Dreaming is all the more sultry for its simmering calm and mutedly cajoling intensity. Her tender delivery of a pillowy, orchestrated version of Della Reese’s Don’t You Know has much the same effect.

She keeps the sepulchral stillness and poignancy going through a folky arrangement of Kenny Rogers’ disabled veteran’s lament Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town – it’s infinitely sadder than the original. Sharon Jones’ 100 Days, 100 Nights gets a dark bolero-tinged interpretation that rises to a brassy peak

Garniez mashes up a little Piazzolla into her gently lilting version of Frank Mills, from the Hair soundtrack, playing up the song’s stream-of-consciousness surrealism. Nancy Wilson’s How Glad I Am has a lush retro 60s soul vibe, in a Bettye LaVette vein.

Garniez’s spare, gospel-tinged piano and subued vocals reveal the battle fatigue in the worn-down showbiz narrative of Glenn Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy. She closes the record with an apt, guardedly hopeful cover of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem. There’s a crack in everything, and that’s how Rachelle Garniez gets in.

Big up to the rest of the ensemble, who elevate many of these songs to symphonic levels: violinists Paul Woodiel and Cenovia Cummins, violist Entcho Todorov, cellist Mary Wooten, french horn player Jacob Garniez, multi-reedman Steve Elson, trombonist Dan Levine, trumpeter John Sneider, harpist Mia Theodoratis, harmonica player Randy Weinstein and backing vocalists Amanda Homi and Jeremy Beck.

A Bittersweet Triptych For a Grim Day

On one level, the Ukulele Scramble‘s new cover of the Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd classic See Emily Play is characteristically hilarious. The duo – Robin Hoffman and Richard Perlmutter – have interpolated the main theme from J.S. Bach’s First Goldberg Variation into the song, taking their inspiration from Rick Wright’s piano breaks on the original, which were recorded at a slower tempo and then sped up in the final mix for an approximation of baroque ambience.

All the same, this is one sad song! Emily seems happy at first…but wait til the sun goes down. Hoffman’s understated poignancy on the mic packs a lot more emotional wallop than Barrett did with the 1967 single.

Don’t watch the video for Delanila‘s It’s Been Awhile Since I Went Outside unless you can handle feeling heartbroken. The singer made it on her phone, walking in the rain through an absolutely deserted Soho and Tribeca. Lower Manhattan is truly dead in this one – cold drizzle or not, did you ever expect to see the sidewalks on Broadway south of Houston competely empty, in the middle of the day?

The song itself doesn’t specifically reference the coronavirus crisis: instead, Delanila’s pillowy noir-tinged ballad seems to be a snide commentary on the atomizing effects of social media (a bête noire for her – this isn’t her only critique of it).

And if you never guessed that the Rolling Stones would still be making records in 2020, let alone something worth hearing, guess again! If you haven’t heard the brand-new Living in a Ghost Town, give it a spin: it’s like their 1978 disco hit Miss You, but heavier and creepier.

A Rare Chance to Score This Era’s Most Formidable Rock Songwriter’s Obscure Debut Album

Hannah vs. the Many frontwoman Hannah Fairchild released her debut album Paper Kingdoms under her own name in 2010. She and the first incarnation of the band played the release show at the tiny, long-defunct Park Slope boite Bar 4. That’s how the great ones get started.

The album pretty much sank without a trace. But just for today, May 1 it’s up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. On one hand, you could say that this is strictly for the diehards. On the other, it’s a fascinating blast from the past from a songwriter who would grow into one of the most witheringly lyrical, ferociously powerful rock tunesmiths ever.

At her blog (also recently resurrected), she looks back on the strategy and logistics (or lack thereof) for making a bedroom pop record on a secondhand laptop, playing all the instruments….with a broken ankle, no less. While a lot of these songs lack the focus and savagery of her breakout album, All Our Heroes Drank Here, and her valkyrie wail doesn’t cut loose to the extent that she’s let it in the years since, there are moments of vocal brilliance and embryonic craft that will take your breath away.

Fairchild would eventually reprise five of these songs for her ferocious 2013 short album Ghost Stories. Hearing the subdued take of All Eyes on Me – Fairchild’s Don’t Fear the Reaper – is a revelation. So is Poor Leander, with its slashingly detailed story of a poor schlub in way, way too deep for his own good; it cuts through just as ominously if a lot more quietly here. And who would have known how much new resonance the line about how “I’ve got my mask on and I’m slipping out the side door” – in the defiant individualist’s anthem Lady of the Court – would take on over the past few weeks? Grab this piece of history while it lasts.

A Mesmerizingly Eclectic Debut Album From Singer Aubrey Johnson

Singer Aubrey Johnson has been a rivetingly individualistic part of the fabric of the New York jazz scene, with both large and small ensembles as well as John Zorn’s Mycale choir, for the better part of a decade. So it’s hard to believe that she’s only now releasing her debut album as a bandleader. That record, Unraveled, is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a chance to hear her arrestingly clear, crystalline voice delivering her own material as well as a few vastly multistylistic covers: it was worth the wait. Johnson has newfound gravitas in her lower registers as well as a little Americana rusticity further up the scale, bolstering an already formidable stylistic arsenal.

Herer she’s joined by by pianist Chris Ziemba, drummer Jeremy Noller and bassist Matt Aronoff, along with austere violin from  Tomoko Omura. The band launch into a straight-up trip-hop groove to kick off the album with the understatedly angst-ridden twists and turns of No More I Love Yous, written by obscore 80s new wave duoThe Lover Speaks: “I used to have demons in my room at night,” Johnson confides.

She switches to Portuguese for an expansively spare take of the Jobim standard Dindi, Michael Sachs adding graceful clarinet. The duet between Johnson and Aronoff is tantalizingly brief; her spiraling vocalese before she sings the final verse in English wil give you goosebumps.

She leaps around, over fluttery bass clarinet, Ziemba’s insistent minimalism and Noller’s altered trip-hop beat in Happy to Stay, a souped-up chamber pop tune that sounds like Gretchen Parlato on steroids. Karate is a coyly funny, blippily wordless remake of a famous Egberto Gismonti theme that echoes Johnson’s Mycale bandmate Sofia Rei‘s most playful work.

“The dawn is calling your name,” Johnson intones soberly in the moodily syncopated ballad Lie in Wait, “Are we just hanging on to prove everybody wrong?” Sachs and Omura add judiciously energetic solos as the band go scampering. Ripples from Ziemba and the bass clarinet permeate Love Again, Johnson’s voice rising and dipping from daunting heights as the beat grows funkier.

Her take of Jimmy Rowles’ noir jazz classic The Peacocks, with a bracing solo from Sachs,, is especially spare and cinematic: the rapport with Ziemba’s icy backdrop brings to mind Sara Serpa‘s similarly chilling work with Ran Blake. These Days is not the Joy Division postpunk classic but a poignantly energetic, rainy-day original, Johnson working her entire range as the violin sails, Ziemba’s piano rages and then backs away.

Untitled is a song for our time, a portrait of dissociation and alienation: over a shifting modal groove, Johnson asks for anything that would generate some kind of emotional response. Alice Lee‘s most adventurous jazz work comes to mind. And Johnson reaches back to the tropics again with the jauntily lilting, matter-of-fact Voice Is Magic, through a stunningly phantasmagorical midsection. Admittedly, there haven’t been many albums released in the last few weeks, but this is still the frontrunner for best vocal jazz release of 2020.

A Sizzling Live Newschool C&W Album from Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters

Time to say it again: more bands should make live albums. Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters‘ Live at the Grey Eagle – streaming at Spotify– is one of the best of the past year’s batch. One of the most smartly lyrical songwriters in Americana, she has a crackerjack oldschool C&W band behind her throughout this lavish 23-track collection recorded in front of a boisterous, hometown Asheville crowd.

“They teach you not to bite on the hand that feeds, but when you’re starving sometimes you just don’t know,” Platt twangs in the opening number, 90 Miles, a characteristically cynical, somewhat muted backbeat-driven breakup song. With its rapidfire lyrics, her brother Andrew Platt’s choogling lead guitar and Matt Smith’s wafting pedal steel, the shuffle Better Woman brings to mind Amy Rigby‘s adventures in Americana.

Evan Martin’s piano tinkles along, up to a spine-tingling steel solo in Jukebox, a country-soul now-or-never anthem: “Songbirds just ain’t built to fly, but sooner or later we have try,” Platt muses. If you remember jukeboxes, this one only costs a quarter!

The band ease their way into a brisk shuffle in All You Ever Needed, a cautionary tale for those who set their sights too low. Platt keeps that vividly seething exasperation going in Back Row, a bittersweet wake-up call to a self-destructive friend, with a fiery Memphis soul guitar solo over washes of organ. Likewise, the tersely tasty breaks in Blue Besides, Platt assessing whether getting the hell out is always necesarily the answer.

“When it comes to waiting, I’ve been practicing for years,” Platt announces in Golden Child, a defiantly triumphant, soul-tinged number. A broodingly upbeat war parable set to a brisk Texas shuffle beat, Lillies could be the Grateful Dead at their tightest, with a woman out front. The band go back to soul-tinged country with Wheels, then cover the BeeGees’ To Love Somebody as Dusty Springfield might have done it.

The show dips to a spare, pensive solo acoustic take of Holy Wall, then the band come back up for Eden, a chillingly detailed portrait of slow decay in Flyover America. As Platt sings, you really can’t go home again: “Please let me back inside the garden, I won’t eat anything that’s fallen from that goddamn tree.”

Martin spices the restless wanderlust tale Carolina with some oldschool Nashville slip-key piano. Platt dedicates the slow waltz Sawdust Girl to her mentor in lutherie, Asheville guitar builder Brad Nickerson, picking up the pace with the steel-driven Getting Good at Waiting – a big theme with her, huh?

The pensive Birthday Song is surprisingly more subdued than the album version. “Tonight this town is ours,” Platt intones in Low Road, a wise, richly detailed, summery carpe-diem ballad. Then the energy rises again with Irene, a tenderly reassuring, bittersweetly shuffling honkytonk number.

Platt’s solo acoustic take of The Road is aptly stark and wistful. From there the band slowly rise with a vampy Lou Reed feel in Diamond in the Rough and then keep those changes going through the Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want. For the encores, they work their way up from a delicate, elegant fingerpicked intro in Not Over Yet and close the night with the bristling blues Fancy Car, with slashing solos all around, including violin and harmonica – the latter by Platt’s impressibly tuneful dad – way back in the mix.

A Quietly Harrowing Holocaust-Themed Debut Album From Dana Sandler

Singer Dana Sandler is releasing her debut album I Never Saw Another Butterfly today in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a poignant, individualistic, searingly relevant record – streaming at youtube – inspired by the 1959 book of the same name, a collection of art and poetry by children imprisoned and murdered by the Nazis in the Terezin concentration camp. Sandler likes disquieting modes: some of her songs bring to mind 80s rock band the Police, others the klezmer music she’s immersed herself in beyond her usual jazz idiom.

Each of the album’s sections is dedicated to poets in captivity there whose names we know – Pavel Friedmann, Franta Bass, and Alena Synkova-Munkova, one of the fewer than one hundred out of fifteen thousand children to survive the camp – as well as two other young poets whose names we don’t.

The first track, Dear Pavel is a brooding feature for Peter Kenagy’s flugelhorn over Carmen Staaf’s piano, Jorge Roeder’s bass and Sandler’s husband Austin McMahon’s drums. Sandler’s setting of Friedmann’s poem Butterfly, which inspired the book title, is a rippling, klezmer-tinged art-song, swaying on the wings of Staaf’s piano. “It went away, I’m sure because it wished to kiss the world goodbye,” Sandler sings wistfully: who wouldn’t do the same under the circumstances.

A brief, moody duet between clarinetist Rick Stone and Roeder introduce the diptych Home/The Old House, a setting of Bass texts beginning with an overcast intensity and lightening with the prospect of a possible return home – after all, many of the victims in the camps had no idea of the kind of horrors that lay in store. Sandler’s toddler daughter supplies the ending and bravely hits all the notes. After that, The Garden, a spare vocal-piano duet, is all the more hauntingly elegaic for its simplicity.

Kenagy’s flugelhorn returns to take centerstage in Dear Alena, another grey-sky theme. Synkova-Munkova was a fighter, and that defiance is visceral throughout the lyrics and Staaf’s tightly wound, kinetically precise riffs. The band follow with the tensely modal, swinging I’d Like to Go Alone, which has two ominous, richly resonant clarinet solos: Stone takes the first, Sandler’s old bandmate Michael Winograd the second, utilizing the melody of Ani Ma’amin, an imploring klezmer tune no doubt written out frantically by composer Azriel David Fastag in a cattle car on his way to Treblinka.

Tears, the last of the Synkova-Munkova poems, gets an especially tender interpretation from Sandler and a hopeful, low-key solo from Roeder over Staaf’s plaintive, lingering chords. With Sandler maintaining her modal unease over the horns and clustering piano, Dear Anonymous  speaks for itself.

Staaf’s glittering rivulets and Stone’s sailing alto sax solo reflect the escape metaphors implicit in On a Sunny Evening. The band close the album on a hopeful note with Birdsong/Butterfly Reprise. The heroic spirit of those would-be escapees is something to consider as we tackle a considerably less lethal crisis here at home.