New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: pop music

Mara Connor Brings Broodingly Catchy Tunes Back to Her Old Williamsburg Haunts

Mara Connor brought a catchy mix of subtly slashing, Americana-flavored songs along with other material and a talented Los Angeles-based band, making their New York debut on her old South Williamsburg turf at Baby’s All Right last night. Connor has a purist janglerock sense for catchy hooks and occasionally stinging lyrics: Jessie Kilguss is a good point of comparison. It’s a fair guess Connor has southern roots – there’s a twang in that voice, and a friendliness, Brooklyn soujourn or not. She now calls the left coast home after leaving the South 11th Street apartment she’d shared with a roommate, who was part of what appeared to be a sold-out crowd.

Too bad Connor’s acoustic guitar wasn’t in the mix for the first and best number of the night, No Fun. It wasn’t the iconic Stooges song – it’s the distantly noir-tinged, woundedly evocative new single from Connor’s forthcoming debut album. And it didn’t come together until the chorus kicked in and her lead guitarist hit his distortion pedal. Lana Del Rey, if you still haven’t gone off to where memes go to die, eat your heart out to this.

From there, it wasn’t all downhill. Connor’s originals were strong, as was one of the covers. That choice spoke volumes: an obscure, quietly scathing, gently circling Britfolk narrative, Fools Run the Game (was it Sandy Denny who did it the first time around?).

Connor followed the hit single with a brooding, world-weary, reflective freeway tableau – Los Angeles will make you world-weary by thirty, no doubt. After a lowlit, downcast reflection on an ill-fated fling with a dissolute older guy here, she played a deliciously venomous kiss-off to a sensitive artist type who turns out to be just the opposite. As Mary Lee Kortes once said, “Never mess with a songwriter: we always get even in the end.”

Connor sings in a supple, subtle mezzo-soprano with more than a hint of bite. But when she goes up the scale, she strains. Having made her album at a famous corporate Nashville studio, there may have been people around her who pushed her to do something she’s not really comfortable with right now. There’s a duet with Langhorne Slim on the forthcoming record; choosing instead to play the song live with the girlyboy who’s arguably the wimpiest songwriter to come out of New York in the last twenty years was a big mistake. Is Lach still kicking around? That would have been an improvement.

What’s the future for artists like Connor? Her songs are catchy and memorable: you feel like you’ve lived in them. But until the corporate dinosaurs die off and the stadiums where they play revert to the public who financed them, singer-songwriters are going to have to make do with touring the City Wineries of the world, hawking t-shirts and vinyl (because that’s the only recorded music format left that can be monetized) at the merch table and Bandcamp, and maybe getting lucky with a movie placement or two.  Here’s wishing all that to Mara Connor.

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An Intimate Lower East Side Gig by Haunting Art-Rock Songwriter Joanna Wallfisch

There are two kinds of road songs. The more common ones celebrate freedom, the other celebrate escape. The second track on singer/multi-instrumentalist Joanna Wallfisch’s most recent album Blood & Bone – streaming at Bandcamp – is the other kind. It’s a chillingly propulsive narrative inspired by her 2016 California tour, which she made by bike.

I change my background story
Every time somebody asks
I have worn so many masks…
Winding down the windows
Letting in in the breeze
Breathing in the ashes
Of burning redwood trees
Time moves parallel to motion
It’s a traveler’s disease
We are all escapees

Wallfisch is playing the small room at the Rockwood on Jan 4 at 9 PM, an intimate opportunity to get to know her often slashingly lyrical, individualistic mix of majestic orchestrated rock, elegant parlor pop and jazz.

Jess Elder’s tinkling piano mingles with Wallfisch’s delicate uke and Kenneth Salters’ atmospheric cymbal washes in the album’s optimistic opening ballad, The Ship. Over swooshy organ and surreal electric piano, Wallfisch unleashes years’ worth of pent-up venom in The Shadow of Your Ghost, one of the alltime great kiss-off anthems. “You counted every moment that we spent, like a poor man counts each miserable cent,” she sings with a misty regret – and it only gets better from there. Elder’s titanic organ solo is one of the album’s high points.

The lush sweep of the towering seduction anthem Dandelions, awash in starry keyboard textures, is vastly more optimistic. The brooding counterpoint of the Solar String Quartet float above Elder’s circular, minimalist piano riffs in Anymore, a terse, bitter breakup ballad. The album’s catchiest song, capped off by an ornately gritty glamrock guitar solo by Elias Meister, is Lullaby Girl, which could be peak-era mid-70s ELO. Wallfisch’s allusively imagistic portrait of an unnamed musician’s grimly elusive search for some kind of inner peace packs a wallop.

‘In Runaway Child, Wallfisch builds a coyly detailed, Tamara Hey-esque tale of breaking free,over the boleroish pulse of Pablo Menares’ bass and Elder’s calypsonian toy piano. The group follow the starry, wistful piano-and-cello ballad Summer Solstice with Choices, a chromatically bristling, cabaret-tinged 6/8 anthem. Imagine Linda Thompson fronting Procol Harum: “The witching hour closes in fast…by dancing in circles, we’ll end up in flames.”

The hushed Solitude in a Song – Wallfisch sharing some surprising insights into how she writes – is the album’s most minimalist track. She goes back to cabaret-rock with The Truth, an anxious, brief mellotron-and-piano number. The album’s most traditional, commercial number is Bo Ba Bo; Wallfisch brings it full circle with the title track, Blood and Bone, a dancing, waltzing, Mozartean parlor pop number. Wallfisch deserves to be vastly better known than she is.

Heartland Rock Legend Sam Llanas Goes Deeper into the Country

It wouldn’t be fair to let the year go by without giving a spin to perennially estimable tunesmith Sam Llanas’ 2018 album Return of the Goya Pt. 1, streaming at Spotify. The title refers not to a painting or a can of frijoles but the acoustic guitar that Llanas wrote many of his former band the BoDeans’ biggest hits on. It was stolen decades ago. Recently, a fan found out about it and bought him a new one. The unexpected acquisition jumpstarted what would become Llanas’ most country-flavored record so far.

The opening number, Follow Your Heart is a lighthearted shuffle with Tex-Mex hints and bursts of pedal steel from Sean Williamson (who also produced the album). Matt Turner handles bass; throughout the record, Kevin Dunphy and Ryan Schiedermayer take turns behind the drumkit.

The band keep the good vibes shuffling along with Recipe. All Day, a droll band-in-the van scenario, is one of the album’s catchiest tunes and is the first Llanas recording to feature brass (in this case John Simons’ trombone). Heroes, which alludes to the Bowie classic, is one of the album’s more muted songs, but Llanas’ portrait of the Women’s March on Washington packs a punch.

The blithe doot-doot-doots in Little Song contrast with its thoughtful narrative about a hometown pal who ended in the war in Afghanistan. They follow that with Little Song II, a wry mashup of Jimmie Rodgers and Johnny Cash. All Alone Again has the gravitas of a forlorn Merle Haggard honkytonk ballad, while Rio on the Run, an older song, finds new life with a much more upbeat arrangement, a soulful shout-out to a hardworking lifer out on the rock & roll highway.

Long Way Home, with its half-whispered vocals, is one of those late-night road narratives Llanas writes so well: it’s the hardest rocking track here. Down the Line is a brooding, soul-searching, mutedly syncopated ballad from a guy who admittedly “Likes to drink – and I’m kind of a stoner.” The final track is Big Ol Moon, a tellingly poetic reminder that trauma hits everybody the same way, whether uptown or downtown. Llanas’ 2014 album The Whole Night Thru, with its fiery noir ambience, remains the high point of his post-BoDeans solo work, and his 1999 album A Good Day to Die, with Absinthe, may well be the highlight of a hall-of-fame career. This one is calmer, Llanas’ voice is a bit more flinty, but when it comes to matching lyrics to catchy melodies, he’s undiminished.

Another Withering Lyrical Rock Masterpiece by Ward White

It’s time we put Ward White up there in the pantheon with Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Rachelle Garniez, Steve Wynn, Ray Davies and any other first-ballot hall of famer you can think of. Over the last fifteen years or so, the now LA-based White been on a creative tear to rival any one of those songwriting icons. Bowie’s work in the 70s is a good comparison, although where the Thin White Duke would reinvent himself just about every year, White has crystallized a classic three-minute janglerock sound, often veering off to the psychedelic side. 

Lyrically speaking, nobody writes more compelling, allusively macabre narratives. The devil is always in the details: in this case, the crack in the porcelain, the kind of soap in the bathroom, the objects on either side of where the dead bird has fallen out of the sky. White’s 2013 release Bob got the pick for best album of the year here, but that might just as easily be said for anything he’s put out since, including his latest one, Diminish, streaming at Bandcamp. As usual, White keeps his songs short, everything less than five minutes, some less than three. White plays all the guitars, elegantly and tersely, joined by keyboardist Tyler Chester and the low-key rhythm section of bassist John Spiker and drummer Mark Stepro.

It opens with Titans, its plotline as inscrutable as its melody is straightforward and hard-hitting. Twin guitar leads roar up to a menacing, chromatic chorus: it’s one of White’s louder numbers. An infant’s death and a possible terrorist attack may be related, or just parallel events. “This is no time for dreams,” is the mantra: welcome to the end of the teens, USA.

Noise on 21, a punchy backbeat anthem with blippy organ, is a classic White urban tableau, the yuppies upstairs staying up late just to seal another sordid deal while the narrator reaches breaking point: “Some things that you should never see are happy in the shadows, now it’s time to go home.”

Back to the End, with its cruelly Beatlesque chorus-box guitar, is a throwback to White’s late 60s psych-pop period a few years ago, a characteristically allusive, twisted scenario tracing the ugly logic of a S&M scenario: “Cannibals don’t waste their time with darkening the roux.”

Canopy, a brief, catchy number with uneasily warpy 80s synth, is one of the more unselfconsciously poetic songs in White’s catalog, contemplating endings from contrasting viewpoints

Awash in jangle and starry synth orchestration, Flood paints a grim picture of dysfunction on a Hollywood film set, with a shout to Baudelaire:

Send a dozen roses up to Noah’s favorite failures
Don’t believe the rumors of a plague upon this town
This bar never closes and it’s filled with drunken sailors
For every one, an albatross who should have let him drown

Watch the Hands is the great lost track from Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces: “Your best laid plans will never bite you in the ass unless your turn your back and leave them starving,” the child killer taunts.

With White’s lingering, detfly textured guitar multitracks, Cowboy could be the most gorgeous, bittersweetly surreal number here. It’s White’s La Chute:

Tell Bob I’m not busy being born, or dying, just alive
Some flights leave too early out of Kennedy
And some pricks play the Castro card for years

White puts a fresh spin on an old myth in Sodom, bristling with Syd Barrett-ish changes, sardonic backing vocals and glammy guitars.

Some call us sacrilegious
The chafed and the chosen few
You polish your barnyard idol
I’ll tarnish the ewe

Alternately balmy and burning, Every Night I Have This Dream is another of the murder ballads White is unsurpassed at – it’s not clear whether this is really a dream or not:

Double nickels all the way
I can’t afford to lose the day
They pop that trunk trunk and we are done, and I’m not going out that way

White puts a sinister edge on a mashup of blithe Bacharach 60s bossa-pop and watery, artsy Beatlesque jangle in Uncle Bob (Akron), the album’s most corrosively cynical number. That’s hardly a surprise, considering it’s a tale from the campaign trail told by the manager of a candidate who turns out to be something less than ideal

The album’s final cut is The Living End, a somber, mostly acoustic portrait of defeat as harrowingly detailed as Richard Thompson’s Withered and Died:

Buried with your artifacts
Pharaoh’s favorite son
Too late to think of what you’ll do with what you’ve done

You’ll see this in a few days on the best albums of 2018 page.

Purist, Potently Lyrical Janglerock, Americana, Powerpop and Soul From the Bastards of Fine Arts

For the past several months, the Bastards of Fine Arts have been working up a formidable body of catchy, anthemic, purist rock songs via a mostly-monthly residency at 11th Street Bar. The project took shape as a challenge of sorts, songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Matt Keating and his lead guitarist co-conspirator Steve Mayone hell-bent on writing a new song every week. Their project caught on with social media and went viral. Fast forward to 2018, they’ve got a full band now (Jason Mercer on bass and Greg Wieczorek on drums) and a catalog as vast as a band who’ve been around for five times as long. Which means they can mine it for the real gems.

Playing as a duo at the American Folk Art Museum in May of last year, they were at the point where they were working every style they knew (and they know a lot!). Sam Cooke ballad? Check. Lou Reed (a guy Keating is unsurpassed at imitating)? Doublecheck. Honkytonk anthem, Wallflowers janglerock, wistful Americana waltz? Triplecheck.

A year later at an early 11th Street gig, they’d pulled the band together and had built up a set that transcended its origins. They opened with their catchiest number, the gorgeously bittersweet I’ll Take the Fall, Keating both self-effacing and witheringly cynical at the same time. Another even more vindictive number traced the story of an ex that the song’s narrator spies out on a date with some dude. On the way out of the bar, she drops her coat; the dude picks it up for her. Keating’s narrator would have left it there.

Because part of the project is “what style CAN’T we do,” there are plenty of jokes to go around, some more inside than others. Switching to piano, Keating turned a Mayone ballad into a gospel tune; Mayone added some sardonic metal licks to a Keating soul number. They worked a bossa groove, Mercer spiraling all over the fretboard during a more recent number, Walk in the Park, a rare instance of a song of theirs which doesn’t seem to have a cynical undercurrent.

In a very subtle Elvis Costello vein, they vamped along on a bouncy soul-blues tune for a good three minutes, at least, without changing chords once. At the end of the set, they brought up Keating’s daughter Greta, who flashed some incisive chops on Strat as well as a similarly edgy lyricism and soaring vocals. Most children of great musicians don’t go into music for obvious reasons; Greta Keating, like Amy Allison and Jakob Dylan, is every bit as formidable as her dad was when he was in his early twenties. Here’s hoping she sticks with it. The Bastards of Fine Arts are back at 11th Street Bar on Dec 18 at 9 PM.

No-No Boy’s Savagely Lyrical Songs Illuminate a Troubling Chapter in American History

“We think a lot about individuals,” electrifying singer Erin Aoyama explained toward the end of her band No-No Boy’s riveting Lincoln Center show this past evening. “When you hear a number like 120,000 people incarcerated, what does that mean? It’s a hard number to understand.”

Aoyama’s friend’s mother had been incarcerated at the Tule Lake concentration camp during World War II. Aoyama’s own grandmother had been another of almost 130,000 Japanese-Americans held prisoner without trial throughout the war. Yet among those people – most of them American citizens – “”The power of young love, finding this little bit of joy, even within a prison camp,” persisted, as Aoyama explained. This particular case was a clandestine romance where the young college student and her crush would steal moments to hold hands in the camp dishwashing room . With that, Aoyama’s high lonesome harmonies rose to the rafters as she launched into the wistful, ironically Americana-flavored anthem Heart Mountain. Songwriter/guitarist Julian Saporiti no doubt latched onto the double entendre in the song title, taken from one of the ten concentration camps where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned.

That was the night’s single moment to salute the resilience of the human spirit. Otherwise, Saporiti’s wickedly lyrical, historically rich double entendres and savage puns confronted hypocrisy, racism and collective amnesia. Like Aoyama, he’s an extremely strong singer, and a hell of a tunesmith, with an anthemic, Elliott Smith-inflected sensibility. What’s more, the band’s new album 1942 is only the tip of the iceberg: they’ve got about four more albums worth of material, and played a lot of those new songs throughout the show. Not bad for a guy who thought he’d never make another record after his artsy late-zeros janglerock band Young Republic broke up. “This project has been nine years in the making,” beamed Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal, who’d booked the band – she’d been entranced by Saporiti’s vocals and songwriting chops since discovering Young Republic while in college.

With No-No Boy, context is everything. Saporiti and Aoyama offered as much insight between songs as during them, providing historical background for narratives that typically focused on Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, but also explored the experiences of Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese immigrants. Saporiti revealed the he’d been inspired to start writing these songs in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, when a Trump advisor cited Japanese-American incarceration as a precedent for the eventual Muslim travel ban. The rest is history.

Aoyama took a wistful, stoic turn on lead vocals on the band’s usual opening number, a slow, steady Romany jazz-flavored, shuffling cover of Smoke Rings,  clarinet wafting pensively through the mix as grim back-and-white imagery of detainees played on the screen overhead. ““Imagine this beautiful song Erin’s singing for you, but behind barbwire,” Saporiti told the crowd.

The duo followed that wiht Tony Ramone, a vivid, delicately bouncy tour of 1980s Chinatown through the eyes of punk rocker from the neighborhood. Guest violinist Kishi Bashi’s spiky flourishes and plaintive washes spiced the harrowing travelogue Boat People, whose collective tales of outrunning the cops and cheating death in flimsy fishing boats in Pacific storms were some of the night’s more harrowing moments.

Both Imperial Twist – a surreal mashup of doo-wop and 1960s Vietnamese faux-French psychedelic pop – and the night’s folk-tinged closing number, Little Saigon each sent a shout out to the pioneering South Vietnamese psychedelic bands of the late 60s and early 70s. The more upbeat, catchy Khmerica pondered the experience of Laotian immigrants whose story is even less part of the popular narrative: “Some kids move ‘cause parents take jobs, some move because of napalm,” Saporiti intoned.

Aoyama moved to keyboards for Saint-Denis, a muted vignette about Vietnamese immigrants in Paris. The skeletal yet anthemic Gimme Chills, with its litany of grim historical events and sarcastic chronicle of American products, offered a look at American imperialsim in the Philippines: “Gimme trial without jury, gimme Imelda Marcos’ shoe,” as Saporiti put it.

The most grisly image of all was the corpse of a suicide who’d put his head on the railroad tracks outside a World War II concentration camp. That image panned overhead while the group played Only What You Can Carry, reminding that while those camps were not designed specifically for killing, a lot of people didn’t make it out alive. And Two Candles, with a soaring Kishi Bashi violin solo midway through, was a somber salute to those who remained silent about their experiences in the camps, Aoyama’s grandmother among them.

And for what it’s worth, the band’s output – both the album and multimedia tour – are Saporiti’s doctoral project at Brown University. Let’s hope the rest of the Ivy League is as open to artistic achievements like this one. As Saporiti said with a laugh, you can reach lot more people with catchy songs than you can with a thesis that ends up gathering dust on somelibrary shelf.

The series of free concerts at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues with a rare Tuesday show this coming Nov 20 at 7:30 PM with Canary Islands chanteuse Olga Cerpa and her band. If you’re in town, get there early if you want a seat.

No-No Boy Bring Their Fascinating, Harrowing, Catchy Songs of Japanese-American Incarceration to Lincoln Center

In one of the more ugly chapters in American history, beginning in 1942 almost 130,000 Japanese-Americans were seized without trial and subsequently imprisoned in a total of ten concentration camps, mostly in the western states. Most of those individuals were American citizens. Virtually all of them, instructed to leave their homes behind with only what they could carry with them, would spend the entirety of World War II imprisoned.

The “no-no boys,” as concentration camp staff first called them, refused to swear allegiance to the United States or serve in the military, which makes sense considering that virtually all of these men had family and relatives were were imprisoned along with them. With their debut album, 1942 – streaming at Bandcamp – elegantly tuneful rock band No-No Boy bring the chilling, powerfully relevant history of that era to life. They’re playing the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. this Thurs, Nov 15 at 7:30 PM. The show is free, but the earlier you get there the better because the venue frequently sells out.

Frontman/guitarist Julian Saporiti harmonizes with singer Erin Aoyama in the album’s shimmering, Elliott Smith-tinged opening track, Pacific Fog, Tessa Sacramone’s plaintive violin soaring overhead. Saporiti’s narrative allusively references John Okada’s hauting1957 novel, also titled No-No Boy.

This album goes beyond Japanese-American incarceration to focus on similarly relevant history. Case in point: Boat People, a gently sweeping, hypnotic ballad that juxtaposes the story of a mid-70s Vietnamese doctor who resettled in Montreal, alongside a more detailed, harrowing account of current-day refugees:

Fourteen hours by car, cargo trucks and cabs
Just to shake the cops, Mom had to stay back
A Chinese safe house and covered tracks…

The floor of the Pacific is littered with Asian bones.

The stories lighten but are no less minutely detailed in Han Shan & Helen Keller: Cold Mountain – an indelibly tense wintertime Boston college-crowd scenario – and then Disposable Youth, a wry afternoon party pickup scenario. By contrast, Lam Thi Dep – a John Lennon-esque anthem named after a female Viet Cong soldier captured in a famous Vietnam War photo – has the most intertwined of all the stories here. Saporiti’s savagely sardonic references reach beyond the fact that many first-generation Vietnamese-Americans voted Republican, to a hilarious account of knee-jerk political correctness in academia.

Instructions to All Persons refers to the FDR edict to round up Japanese-Americans on the west coast; Saporiti and Ayoyama sing in the voice of a survivor of the camps, reflecting on their prisoner friends’ quiet defiance and attempts to maintain some kind of normalcy there.

Saporiti draws his inspiration for Ogie/Naoko, a charming ukulele waltz, from Melody Miyamoto Walters’ book In Love and War: The World War II Love Letters of a Nisei Couple, adding sobering context to an otherwise schmaltzy story. The sweeping parlor pop ballad Heart Mountain – named for the camp where Ayoyama’s grandmother was imprisoned – is another waltz, Saporiti’s narrator hopeful that someday he can consummate a clandestine romance and rebuild his life as a college professor.

Two Candles In the Dark, arguably the album’s strongest song, is perhaps ironically its most Americana-flavored one. Saporiti gives voice to an irrepressible rulebreaker looking to get over despite her circumstances:

Pretty outlaw call a quarter past, light knuckles on a barrack door
She got a brother down in Topaz, I saw that name once in a jewelry store
Wind around past the skaters and pond, looking for a cut in the wire
She’s got a key to the cellar door,
I don’t ask questions, man, just stand there inspired

Dragon Park, the album’s most stoically angry song, traces images from Saporiti’s own Tennessee childhood as a Vietnamese-American fighting off racist idiots:

I know that Southern Stare
Not just back home but everywhere

The album ends with its most Asian folk-inflected tune, Little Saigon, lost in a reverie of a place to indulge in a heritage including but not limited to Vietnamese psychedelic rock and the dan bau, a magical, warp-toned stringed instrument. At its best, Saporiti’s tunesmithing ranks with any of the real visionaries of this era: Elvis Costello, Hannah Fairchild and Rachelle Garniez. You’ll see on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

Single of the Day 11/5/18 – Country with a Conscience

Americana songwriter Hadley McCall Thackston’s Change (via Bandcamp) is probably the last thing you’d expect from a slow pedal steel-fueled country ballad: an understatedly withering commentary on cops shooting innocent black kids. From the Georgia native’s debut album.

Eclectic, Gorgeously Lynchian Retro Americana From Peggy James

The desolation and alienation is relentless throughout Milwaukee Americana singer Peggy James’ latest album Nothing in Between, streaming at Spotify. What’s most striking is how original it is: while there are elements of artsy late 70s pop, 80s goth, 60s and 70s country, James’ style is completely her own. Milwaukee rock has been vastly underrated over the years, and this album puts James in the vanguard of great artists from the Shivvers to the BoDeans. Her startlingly direct, plainspoken delivery and lyrics mingle with a meticulously orchestrated, blue velvet atmosphere that’s impossible to turn away from: Gary Tannin’s production is genius. It’s today’s installment for Halloween month.

Swirly organ along with Jim Eannelli’s splashes of jangly guitar fuel the record’s epic, opening Lynchian ballad, We Had to Meet. James’ down-to-earth, unadorned delivery is multitracked for maximum intensity in places here. New York noir Americana goddess Jessie Kilguss comes to mind.

The intensity rises higher over Eannelli’s clanging, catchy chromatic in X-Files, a sultry mashup of Vegas noir and 80s new wave: “ Board up your fences or get blown apart,” James warns.

An Hour With You is retro 70s orchestrated Nashville gothic: “Nobody’s girl, I finally met nobody’s boy,” James muses against a sad, sparkly piano-and-strings backdrop. She takes the ambience ten years forward into the 80s with the pulsing, gothic lushness of Lover. The next cut, the album’s title track would be a straightforward 70s country-pop ballad except for the piano, which falls to the haunting, minimalist gothic side.

Muscle Man may be a silly Blondie-style attempt at reggae, but you can still see the trouble coming a mile away. Then the band take a detour into Tex-Mex flavored C&W with Gotta Have a Love “There’s only one way down this road, as straight as hell,” James warns.

In One Ear and Out the Other is a funny country cautionary tale in an early Dolly Parton vein. “Somehow my presence alarms you… a ghost of a very close friend,” James Ghost laments stoically in Ghost, a classic Nashville ballad straight out of the Kitty Wells book.

Sound of Your Wheels is a classic Lynchian theme, a younger woman pining for the older guy whose private plane is her only source of excitement in a dead-end town. Fallen Snow has lushness and twinkle beyond its baseboard-heat cocoon, piano and guitar delivering carefree ripple despite James’ persistent unease. The album’s final cut is the reverbtoned, tremoloing Wish You Well, a desolate goodbye ballad and vehicle for James’ most brooding vocals here. Let’s hope we hear more from this hauntingly individualistic, unpretentious, deceptively deep purist American tunesmith.

Withering Arabic Political Anthems and Swinging Noir Sounds at Youssra El Hawary’s US Debut at Lincoln Center

“We want our programming to be reflective of this city,” Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh said succinctly, introducing firebrand Egyptian singer/accordionist Youssra El Hawary this past evening for her North American debut. “She had an amazing song that went viral, part of the Arab Spring movement.” El Hawary has come a long way since her scathingly antiauthoritarian youtube hit The Wall six years ago.

She channels an angst and a noir psychedelic sensibility very similar to the French band Juniore. Yet she hasn’t lost any of the witheringly cynical political edge that brought her worldwide acclaim. ‘I can’t describe how emotional I am today,” she told the crowd, confiding that after her first show in Egypt, she thought she’d resign herself to going home and giving up on her dream. Sometimes good things happen to people who deserve them.

The blend of El Hawary’s chromatic accordion, Shadi El Hosseiny’s stalker electric piano and Sedky Sakhr’s wood flute in the night’s opening number, Kollo Yehoun, blended for an absolutely lurid mashup of late 60s French psychedelic pop and Egyptian classical songcraft. Tareq Abdelkawi’s buzuq added uneasily rippling intensity beneath El Hawary’s unselfconscious, airy Arabic-language vocals. She draws you in, whether understatedly moody or cool and collected.

Sakhr switched to harmonica for the second tune of the night, La Tesma Kalami, an anthemically strutting, shadowy Pigalle pop tune driven by Yamen El Gamal’s punchy bass and Loai (Luka) Gamal’s understaged drums. The anthemic, cabaret-tinged Kashkouli, as El Hawary described it, tackled issues of overthinking and fearlessness, Abdelkawi doubling the bandleader’s plaintive lead lines.

El Hawary rose gently out of El Hosseiny’s creepy, twinkling music box-like intro to a swaying, minor-key midtempo number, Mana Washi, Sakhr’s flute wafting and then bouncing as the band took the song further into straight-up rock territory. The title track to her album – which she translated as “We all go to sleep at night, wake up and forget” – swung through unexpected tempo shifts, torchy cabaret infused with Levantine energy. “That’s what we’ve been doing the last six, seven years,” she deadpanned.

Sakhr cynically went to great lengths to describe the noxiousness of Cairo bus exhaust in the city’s notoriously tangled rush hour traffic. Songs about things that literally smell like shit seldom have such a carefree bounce as Autobees, the jubilantly sarcastic number the band followed with. El Hawary didn’t hesitate to make the connection between the Cairo wall in her big hit and Trump’s proposed version on the Mexican border, which drew roars of applause as the band vamped and swung behind her: cosmopolitan elegance, pure punk rock energy.

Abdelkawi’s spirals and flickers lowlit the romantic angst of Baheb Aghib; then El Hawary brought the lights down with the bittersweetly lilting vocal-and-piano lament Bil Mazboot. The band went deep into swaying, crescendoing Cairo cafe land with the instrumental Sallem Zal Beit, a showcase for El Hawary’s accordion chops.

They reinvented the new wave-era French pop hit Maron Glacee with a droll calypso feel, then flipped the script with Jessica, a vindictively swinging kiss-off singalong directed at the ditzy French girl who stole her boyfriend. Despite differences in the band about how to translate Reehet El Fora, everybody agreed it was about the kind of sinking feeling that comes with having a Jessica around. With its neoromantic swirl, it was one of the night’s most stinging moments.

The band built a brooding fog behind her and then leapt into Hatoo Kteer, El Hawary skewering the Egyptian habit of stockpiling in case of crisis. She closed with Akbar Men El Gouda, the night’s most rock-oriented tune, then encored with a moodily catchy film theme that she credited as being a pivotal post-Wall moment in her career. 

You’ll see this show on the best concerts of 2018 page here at the end of the year. Lincoln Center’s mostly-weekly series of free concerts at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues next Thurs, Oct 11 at 7:30 PM with a rare New York performance of South African jazz featuring reedman McCoy Mrubata and pianist Paul Hanmer. Get there early if you want a seat.