New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: psychedelic pop

Jenifer Jackson Returns to Her Catchy, Poignant Psychedelic Pop Roots

Of all the songwriters who built their careers in the incredibly fertile crucible of the Lower East Side New York scene in the late 90s and early zeros, Jenifer Jackson is one of the most prolific and arguably the best. Over the years, she’s moved from Beatlesque psychedelia to stark, brooding pastoral pop, bossa nova and harrowing, majestic art-rock. She’s also been a poineer of the DIY house concert tour circuit Her move to Austin in the early part of the decade springboarded a deep dive into Americana. Her latest album Paths – streaming at Bandcamp – is a return to the catchy, anthemic, eclectic psychedelic pop she made a name with early in her career. Jackson has a pair of New York gigs coming up next month. She’s at the Owl on Nov 3 at 8, then the next night, Nov 4 at the same time she’s at the big room at the Rockwood.

On the new record, her voice is more nuanced than ever; her lyrics are characteristically crystallized, imagistic and loaded with subext. There’s a restrained angst in her delivery as she soars up to the chorus on the elegantly waltzing opening track, Things I Meant to Tell You, Jim Hoke’s flute and Chris Carmichael’s one-man string quartet adding a stark baroque touch. As usual, Jackson lets the images of returning to a dusty room after a trip speak for themselves. It packs a gentle wallop.

There’s a delicate web of acoustic guitar fingerpicking beneath the orchestration in the tender early-dawn scenario First Bird. Then the band – which includes Brad Jones on guitars, bass and keys, Pat Sansone on guitar and mellotron and Josh Hunt on drums – picks up the pace with Back Home, a big, electric, organ-driven backbeat rocker. “The silence almost made me lose my mind,” Jackson confides: the tradeoff between organ and twelve-string guitar in the break is absolutely luscious.

Travelled Together, a bittersweet breakup ballad, has wintry, vintage 60s orchestration and Laurel Canyon psychedelic pop ambience: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Judy Henske catalog. Sultry Memory is a summery psychedelic soul ballad with shimmering vibraphone: it has the enigmatic lushness of Jackson’s classic 2007 Outskirts of a Giant Town and the lush Philly soul of Got To Have You, two standout numbers from Jackson’s vast output over the years.

Hey, Good is a wistful, hopeful, sprightly tune with ukulele and just a hint of brass: it could be a charming lost acoustic McCartney miniature from the White Album. Jackson brings back the electricity and the backbeat in Written in Stone: imagine the Byrds backing the Mamas & the Papas.

Jackson likes to put a good old-fashioned hard country tune on every album, and What Good’s a Memory is a picture-perfect vintage 60s tune, right down to the saloon piano and pedal steel. She wraps up the record with a country gospel-flavored piano ballad, Hail and Farewell. In a time where the brain drain out of New York stalled or even destroyed so many music careers, it’s testament to Jackson’s sheer talent (not to mention persistence) that she’s been able to stay on a creative tear that just won’t quit.

[If you’re looking for today’s Halloween installment, take a trip back to October 21 of last year for an underrated, darky psychedelic 2013 release – amazingly still available as a free download – by a New York band who should have gone a lot further than they did]

New Music Duo andPlay and Cello Rocker Meaghan Burke Put on a Serious Party at the Edge of Chinatown

How do violin/viola duo andPlay manage to create such otherworldly, quietly phantasmagorical textures? Beyond their adventurous choice of repertoire, they use weird alternate tunings. Folk and rock guitarists have been doing that since forever, but unorthodox tunings are a relatively new phenomenon in the chamber music world. At the release party for their new album Playlist at the Metropolis Ensemble‘s second-floor digs at 1 Rivington St. last night, violist Hannah Levinson and violinist Maya Bennardo – with some help from their Rhythm Method buds Meaghan Burke and Leah Asher, on harmonica and melodica, respectively – evoked a ghost world that was as playful and bracing as it was envelopingly sepulchral. Anybody who might mistakenly believe that all 21st century serious concert music is stuffy or wilfully abstruse needs to check out the programming here.

The party was in full effect before the music started. A sold-out crowd pregamed with bourbon punch and grapefruit shots. As the performance began, Levinson sent a big bucket of fresh saltwater taffy around the audience, seated in the round. The charismatic Burke opened with a brief solo set of characteristically biting, entertainingly lyrical cello-rock songs. Calmly and methodically, she shifted between catchy, emphatic basslines, tersely slashing riffs, starry pizzicato and hypnotic, loopy minimalism. The highlights included Hysteria, a witheringly funny commentary on medieval (and much more recent) patriarchal attempts to control womens’ sexual lives, along with a wry, guardedly optimistic, brand-new number contemplating the hope tbat today’s kids will retain the ability to see with fresh eyes.

Dressed in coyly embroidered, matching bespoke denim jumpsuits, andPlay wasted no time introducing the album’s persistently uneasy, close harmonies  with a piece that’s not on it, Adam Roberts‘ new Diptych. Contrasting nebulous ambience with tricky polyrhythmic counterpoint, the duo rode its dynamic shfits confidently through exchanges of incisive pizzicato with muted austerity, to a particularly tasty, acerbic, tantalizingly brief coda.

Clara Ionatta’s partita Limun, Levinson explained, was inspired by the Italian concept of lemon as a panacea. Playful sparring between the duo subtly morphed into slowly drifting tectonic sheets, finally reaching a warmer, more consonant sense of closure that was knocked off its axis by a sudden, cold ending.

The laptop loops of composer David Bird‘s live remix of his epic Apochrypha threatened to completely subsume the strings, but that quasar pulse happily receded to the background. It’s the album’s most distinctly microtonal track, Bennardo and Levinson quietly reveling in both its sharp, short, flickeringly agitated riffs and misty stillness.

The next concert at the space at 1 Rivington is on Oct 11 at 7:30 PM with composer Molly Herron and the Argus Quartet celebrating the release of their new album “with music and poetry that explore history and transformation.” Cover is $20/$10 stud.

Shapeshifting Art-Rockers Changing Modes Put Out Their Most Savagely Brilliant Record Yet

Changing Modes aren’t just one of the most instantly recognizable rock bands in the world: they’re also one of the best. Over the past ten years or so, they’ve put out an increasingly brilliant succession of sharply lyrical, mind-warpingly eclectic albums that span from quirky new wave to majestic art-rock to ferocious punk. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call them the American Pulp – or to call Pulp the British Changing Modes. The big news about the group’s latest album, What September Brings – streaming at Spotify – is that keyboardists and co-frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam, guitarist/bassist Yuzuru Sadashige and drummer Timur Yusef have been bolstered by the addition of baritone saxophonist Sawa Tamezane. The new release is also arguably the band’s angriest and most political record yet (think about that title for a second). Griffiths has a short fuse when it comes to narcissists, and she torches several here. Changing Modes are playing the album release show on Sept 20 at 8 PM at Arlene’s; cover is $10. It’s impossible to think of a more entertaining, consistently surprising Friday night rock act anywhere in New York right now.

The album’s opening track, Days, could be described as noir new wave Motown circus rock, but that’s only scratching the surface of how artfully the band blend those styles. The two women’s voices harmonize eerily over an uneasy, altered waltz, the sax adding a deliciously smoky undercurrent:

These are the days I never spent with you
Black eyes and broken wings
White lies don’t give away
Black eyes and broken wings
Butterflies don’t miss a day

Pretty Poisonous has gritty guitar majesty balancing those carnivalesque keys, an allusively snide slap upside the head of real estate bubble-era yuppies. With blippy Wurlitzer, fuzz bass and sarcastic ba-ba harmonies, Tightrope is a delicious dis aimed at a phone-fixated drama queen: It also might be the funniest song Griffiths has ever written.

Corey Booker Blues is not about the mayor and erstwhile candidate: it’s a slinky instrumental, sort of a mashup of Henry Mancini and mid-70s King Crimson, dedicated to Griffiths’ cat – that was his name when she got him from the shelter. Next, the band keep the shapeshifting menace going with another instrumental, 2 1/2 Minutes to Midnight, with some tremolo-picked savagery and more than a hint of heavy metal growl from Sadashige

The band romp lickety-split through 250 Smiles, a sardonic sendup of a catty girl whose “tiny lies accessorize.” Then Pulliam flips the script with January, a pensive tale of abandonment set to an insistent, ornate solo piano backdrop.

Rocket, a sinister surveillance state parable, brings to mind X at their most rockabillyish: “Tell me why the failsafe signal failed/Tell me why the driver never broke a sweat,” Griffiths wants to know. Fueled by Amy Boyd’s shivery violin, Alexander Springs is a more psychedelic take on classic, lush mid-70s ELO, laced with brooding Aimee Mann cynicism:

Wasted summer days on village greens
You wait to see what September brings ‘cause
You’ve been down that lonely road before

Fire has backbeat stomp from Yusef, wary chromatics from Tamezane and Griffiths’ most savagely dystopic lyrics here:

In the line of fire
There’s no reality
As they watch you on their flat screens
A blip is all they see
Caught by friendly fire
As drones divide the sky
You’ll just give in if you never ask why

The cynicism reaches redline in Glide, a sardonically twinkly boudoir soul-tinged nocturne, Griffiths fixing her crosshairs on slacker apathy. The band reach back toward circus rock, with a little Beatles, in Potassium and Riboflavin, a strutting kiss-off number. They close the record with Night Loop, recalling Ennio Morricone’s Taxi Driver score as much as Angelo Badalamenti’s David Lynch theme music. It’s going to be awfully hard to choose any album other than this as the best of 2019 at this point.

Daniel Bennett and Mark Cocheo Play the Funniest Weekly Jazz Residency in Town

The wryly entertaining, irrepressibly catchy new album We Are the Orchestra, credited to the Daniel Bennett Group and streaming at Bandcamp, is actually the work of just two guys in the studio. Bandleader Bennett, who plays a small orchestra’s worth of reeds along with piano and percussion, admits that the idea was pretty crazy. But he and guitarist/banjo player Mark Cocheo pulled this eclectic, pastoral theme and variations together with boundless energy and an unstoppable sense of humor.

Bennett came up with the idea after arranging several Verdi opera themes for small ensemble for a Whitney Museum exhibition. The record is a mix of some of those numbers mingled with Bennett’s witty originalsf you have to pin a label on it, you might call it it film music: it’s rooted in jazz, but bustles with catchy rock hooks and is more than a little cartoonish in places. He and Cocheo have an ongoing weekly Tuesday night 7:30 PM residency at an unexpected and easy-to-get-to spot, the hideaway third-floor Residence Inn bar at 1033 6th Ave., a block south of Bryant Park on the west side of the street. Until word gets out about how much fun Bennett and Cocheo are having with it, you may have the place to yourself.

The new album’s first track is Loose Fitting Spare Tire, a briskly strolling highway theme assembled from crisp Cocheo guitar multitracks and some breezy alto sax from Bennett. It comes across as a more tightly wound take on Bill Frisell. Cocheo breaks out his banjo for a long, spiky solo over the changes in I’m Not Nancy, Bennett switching to flute.

Gold Star Mufflers is a twistedly surreal, uneasily psychedelic detour, banjo mingling with the piano. The first of the Verdi variations, Theme From Ernani is recast as a bittersweet, bossa-tinged tune with a warm, Memphis-flavored soul solo from Cocheo. Refinancing for Elephants – which wasn’t written by Verdi – brings in unexpected Irish flavor via Bennett’s tricky flute work.

Inside Our Pizza Oven, a real showstopper live, presumably could have been written by Verdi but also wasn’t. It’s got some absolutely gorgeous, Balkan-flavored microtonal, melismatic work from Bennett over a hypnotically strummy backdrop. Theme from Il Trovatore – which wasn’t written by Bennett – works much better as waltzing spaghetti western jazz than you might imagine. Carl Finds His Way – which was – brings the album full circle, Cocheo hitting his distortion pedal for extra edge and bite as Bennett swirls overhead.

Catchy, Edgy, Shapeshifting Art-Rock and a West Village Show from Eclectic Violinist Dina Maccabee

Dina Maccabee is one of the most versatile and interesting violinists and violists around. She’s a founding member of the Real Vocal String Quartet, and an important part of creepy Twin Peaks cover band the Red Room Orchestra. She’s also a bandleader in her own right and has a glistening, deliciously textured new art-rock album, The Sharpening Machine streaming at Sundcloud. Her next New York gig is on a bill she fits right in with, this August 17 at 3:30 PM as part of Luisa Muhr’s monthly Women Between Arts show – New York’s only multidisciplinary series focusing exclusively on woman performers – at the Glass Box Theatre at the New School, 55 W 13th St. Other artists on this highly improvisational program include dancer Azumi Oe with drummer Carlo Costa and bassist Sean Ali, plus dancer Oxana Chi with performance artist Layla Zami and pianist Mara Rosenbloom. It’s not clear who’s playing when, but everyone is worth seeing. Cover is $20, and be aware that the series has a policy that no one is turned away for lack of funds.

Maccabee’s tunesmithing on the new album is playful and catchy yet trippy and opaque. Echo effects bounce back and forth throughout the briskly bouncy title track, which opens the record. Maccabee runs her pizzicato textures and gentle wafts of sound through a kaleidoscope of effects alongside Brett Farkas’ spare, watery guitar, with hints of both the Cocteau Twins and Pink Floyd.

Maccabee’s crystalline vocals recall Aimee Mann in Could You Be Right, a verdantly orchestrated, surrealistically marching anthem in a Wye Oak vein. Sad Sad Sad Sad Sad Song is a rippling bluegrass banjo tune as ELO might do it – with a nifty fiddle solo and a resolute woman out front. Hey You – an original, not the Pink Floyd “classic rock” radio staple – brings to mind psychedelic pop icon Jenifer Jackson in a pensive, atmospheric moment: “My knowledge is written on my nails and my knuckles, if you refuse to see,” Maccabee’s narrator advises.

Tall Tall Trees is an unselfconsciously gorgeous late Beatlesque anthem set in a theatre where the show never starts; Roger Reidbauer contribufes a deliciously spiraling, dipping guitar solo.

An uneasily charming glockenspiel solo opens Even When the Stars Align, Maccabee’s vocals dancing over a slowly swaying, artfully spare web of textures. “I’m still a million miles away,” she laments. Her acoustic guitar lingers alongside Reidbauer’s spare lines amid the shimmer of the moody, slowly waltzing Green Again, which could be a great lost track from Pink Floyd’s Obscured by Clouds.

Little Bite has a suspiciously sardonic, quasi-martial sway powered by Sylvain Carton’s baritone sax : it’s sort of the missing link between Bjork and Hungry March Band. But I Do is a ruefully swinging oldtimey country tune. The final cut is It Doesn’t Have to Be Okay, a brooding trip-hop tune with big accordion-like swells. The level of detail and creativity on this record is amazing: there are too many neat touches to enumerate here. You’ll see this on the best albums of the year page here in December.

A Catchy New Album and a Gowanus Release Show From Anthemic, Psychedelic Rockers Quicksilver Daydream

Quicksilver Daydream distinguish themselves among psychedelic bands as one of the few in the world who feature a mellotron as a primary instrument. Alex Bayer is the lucky guy who gets to turn loose that mighty beast’s orchestral sonics, joining with synth player Jonathan Schenke to create a drifting majesty above the jangle and clang of the guitars. Unlike most of their trippy brothers and sisters, Quicksilver Daydream keep their songs short and concise. Their new album Fly Oblivion is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing the album release show tomorrow night, August 10 at 9 PM at Littefield; cover is $10.

Drummer Alf Lenni Bak Erlandsen propels the album’s catchy, jangly opening track Into the Night with a loose-limbed shuffle: “My days have turned to ashes,” frontman/guitarist Adam Lytle muses. He teams up with lead player Glenn Forsythe for a grittier but similarly anthemic sound in Immortal Blue beneath the sweep overhead.

Bassist Brett Banks’ elegant broken chords pulse through the mix of folk-rock jangle and art-rock lushness in Hang On. The album’s longest and trippiest song, Warmth of Other Suns is a riff-driven number with a surreal atmospheric interlude. Then the band bring it down in Forever, gentle acoustic fingerpicking mingling with spare electric guitar textures and the sweep of the mellotron.

After a hypnotic intro, the band pick up the pace with an emphatic drive in Turn It Around, the closest thing here to the eerie jangle of current day Laurel Canyon revivalists like the Allah-Las. “Memories eclipse on eternity’s plane,” Lytle sings casually in the galloping, spaghetti western-tinged Infinite Range.

They blend those Morricone tinges with Schenke’s starry, swirling keys in the propulsive but elegaic Silent Gaze. The pensive Realm of Light and the bouncy closing cut, Voyager both look back to vintage 70s psychedelic Britfolk bands like the Strawbs. With all the subtle textural variations, catchy hooks and big singalong choruses, it sounds like the band had a great time recording this album, and that vibe is contagious.

Pioneering Cello Rocker Serena Jost Brings Her Rapturous, Intimate Sonics to a Similarly Intimate Brooklyn Space

“My cello wants to go up in the ceiling,” Serena Jost observed at one of this year’s most rapturously intimate New York shows: in the middle of the day, in the cozy, vintage tin-plated Chinatown studio at Montez Press Radio a couple of days before Memorial Day weekend. As she did with her meticulously playful solo album Up to the Sky, Jost will typically size up the sonics of a room and then make them part of the performance. Just as she took advantage of the rich natural reverb at St. Peter’s Church in Chelsea when she recorded the album – live – she felt the highs bouncing off the studio’s metal, and the walls, and ran with it…calmly, and gently, with respect to any ghosts she might be coaxing out of the woodwork with her harmonics and overtones. She’s playing a slightly less intimate space, Freddy’s, at 7 PM on August 10 on a killer triplebill with haunting, fearsomely powerful soul belter and noir Americana songstress Karen Dahlstrom and the anthemic, politically fearless, vintage Springsteenian Tru Mongrel Hearts’ frontman Pete Cenedella

As a founding member of Rasputina, Jost is a pioneer of cello rock, but her own writing and improvisation defy categorization. If there was any common thread between the songs in this particular set – drawn mostly from her solo record – it was minimalism. No wasted notes, no gestures that weren’t meaningful, spiced with subtle echoes and sepulchral wisps of sound.

She opened with It’s a Delight, her soul-infused vocals soaring over its distantly Indian-tinged variations on a hypnotic octave riff. She got the harmonics keening with an especially emphatic take of the catchy Window; she’d revisit that trope with even more sonic surrealism later, with the contrasting rhythmic plucks and hazy atmospherics of Hallway.

Her lone cover was a more polished but understately chilling take on the brilliant/obscure Happiness, by Molly Drake (Nick’s mom): “Happiness is gone without a warning, jack-o-lantern in the night.”

Going back to the originals, Jost dug in hard with the staccato chords of Silver Star, an allusively seductive but ultimately just as wary and unresolved tableau. She also made up what was essentially a catchy, optimistic, singalong stadium-rock anthem, on the spot, and eventually closed with The Cut, a swaying, Britfolk-tinged tune that strongly evoked Linda Thompson, both vocally and thematically

The performance and interview afterward have been archived: click the archive link at Montez Press Radio and scroll down for a very acerbic, insightful look at where Jost is at these days: more attuned to psychedelia and spontaneity than ever, both as a solo artists and a bandleader.

Scruffy, Catchy, Eclectic Folk-Rock Tunesmithing and a Lower East Side Show From Sunshine Nights

For the better part of the past decade, lo-fi acoustic duo Sunshine Nights – Amy Priya and Stephen Sunshine – have entertained crowds across the five boroughs with their catchy, upbeat, almost ridiculously eclectic songwriting and soulful guy/girl vocals. Their characteristically diverse, energetic latest vinyl record If We Stick Around – streaming at Bandcamp – has politically-fueled gravitas to go along with the good vibes. They’re playing the Parkside (the one in Manhattan at Attorney and Houston, not related to the much newer Prospect Lefferts Gardens joint) on July 17 at 10 PM.

Priya sings an Indian carnatic devotional tune over a simple, high bell drone on the album’s opening track, For Love. The second song, Tell Me has a loping desert rock feel. “”Just turn around if you’re feeling hypnotized…. turn in for a deeper look, this is not some storybook,” Priya reminds.

Peace Out is a rocksteady tune as the Violent Femmes might have done it – if they’d had a banjo and an organ in the band. With its interweave of acoustic fingerpicking and bluesy dobro, There and Then follows a quintessential urban trail of images: when the meter maid pulls her gun on somebody, we know we’re in trouble!

The next track, Billie is packed with deliciously spot-on 60s Memphis soul guitar: “You say you’re looking to expand your outer circle, what the fuck does that mean?” Sunshine asks. The duo bring to mind the Jefferson Airplane in the crescendoing, angst-fueled anthem The Amplifier, then they multitrack their vocals for a rousingly brief take of the gospel tune Brighter Than Gold.

Armageddon Blue has a defiant, populist edge, an aphoristic kiss-off to the boss from hell. Piss Off Donald is as self-explanatory and plainspokenly funny as it ought to be, while the album’s longest song, MTA paints a classic global warming-era New York tableau where “There ain’t no counting on the MTA, we all gotta walk it today.”

The duo take a sunny stroll through Chinatown in New Colossus, which sounds a lot like an indie folk version of Sitting on the Dock of the Bay. They close the album with Last Dance, an imaginative mashup of oldtimey front-porch folk and Indian carnatic music. There’s literally something for everybody here.

A Lusciously Jangly, Ferociously Relevant Masterpiece From Girls on Grass

Girls on Grass’ latest album Dirty Power – streaming at Bandcamp – has everything you could possibly want from a great rock record: slashing lyrics, soaring vocals, gorgeous harmonies, layers and layers of luscious guitar jangle and clang and roar, and tunesmithing that draws on styles from the 60s through the 80s. It’s fearlessly political, and it might be the best record released so far this year. Frontwoman Barbara Endes is on the shortlist of the best guitarists in all of rock – and she’s a great bassist too. Imagine the Dream Syndicate fronted by a woman, and produced by Eric Ambel (who was actually behind the board when this was made, and it’s one of the best projects he’s ever worked on). Girls on Grass are headlining one of the year’s best triplebills on May 12 at Coney Island Baby at around 9. Catchy, fun guy/girl indie soul band Sunshine Nights open the night at 7, followed by wickedly jangly surf/twang/country instrumentalists the Bakersfield Breakers at around 8. Cover is a ridiculously cheap $8.

The new album opens with Down at the Bottom, the harmonies of Endes and drummer Nancy Polstein rising over a soul-clap beat, spiced with icy twelve-string guitar jangle that’s part 60s Merseybeat, part 80s paisley underground psychedelia. Second guitarist David Weiss adds country-tinged twang as bassist Dave Mandl holds down an insistent groove, Endes reminding that all the best things are in the shadows and in the deepest waters. In status-grubbing real estate bubble-era New York, that subtext screams.

Street Fight is a cynical, sarcastic stomp, Weiss channeling Mick Taylor in simmering post-Chuck Berry mode, up to a slashing chromatic run. Friday Night is an indelibly simmering tableau, capturing the energy and anticipation of meeting a crush at what promises to be a hot show, chilling back by the soundboard, passing around a joint. The ending is an unexpectedly different kind of crush.

Got to Laugh to Keep From Crying, a bittersweet account of betrayal and stalker behavior, is one of the album’s most gorgeous songs, Endes’ clang against Weiss’ country twang. Two Places at Once shifts between amped-up. briskly shuffling Morricone spaghetti western and an eerily surfy Radio Birdman highway theme. Then the band burn through the garage rock riffage of the escape anthem Into the Sun, with a searing, chromatically-fueled guitar solo midway through: it sounds like that’s  Endes, but it might be Weiss too.

“Capitalism ruins everything worth doing,” Endes intones to a guy who’s only in it “For the cash, and the underage ass” in the album’s most overtly political track, Because Capitalism: the rhythm section hits a fast Motown beat as the guitars stab and burn. Endes got the inspiration for the wounded, crescendoing anthem John Doe  from the time the X bassist wrote a carpe diem message in her journal, with a “We gotta stick together” mantra that works on more than one level.

The loping desert rock instrumental Asesino sends a shout-out to an iconic Ventures hit, with hints of vintage Public Image Ltd. at the very end. “I come from superior genes,” the narcissist-in-charge brags over a swaying Flamin’ Groovies drive in Commander in Thief: the faux bombast of the guitars matches Endes’ sardonic lyric. The band wind up the album with Thoughts Are Free, with a slow, richly lingering Dream Syndicate-style intro, then picking up with a brisk country shuffle beat. “Got my money, never mind what’s happening behind the scenes,” Endes sings sarcastically. Look for this on the best albums of 2019 page at the end of the year.

A Rare South Slope Gig By One of This Era’s Great Soul Songwriters

You wouldn’t expect one of this era’s great soul singers to play Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground on a dobro. But that’s what Alice Lee did at Pete’s Candy Store late last month. She’d picked up the old 1930s model in Alaska last year and decided to put it to use, if not the way anybody would expect her to. Not to say that Stevie Wonder did a bad job with the original, but she gave it extra bite, and extra 21st century flavor: we’ve really got to keep on reaching now, even more than we did in the 70s.

Other than the occasional Nina Simone tune, Lee isn’t even known for playing covers, but she did another to close the set. “If I ever start a cover band, we’re going to do Sade,” she grinned, then sang an energetically plaintive version of King of Sorrow that brought to mind the Nigerian-British chanteuse’s live energy a lot more than the misty boudoir soul she made in the studio. Lee played that one on her big hollow-body electric rather than the dobro. And she did a stark take of Love Is a Thief straight out of Twin Peaks.

But her own songs hit the hardest. The best was Last Night on Earth. The version on her Lovers and Losers album is a hypnotic, starry, lushly arranged nocturne: this one was much more stark and hauntingly apocalyptic. Likewise, Letter to No One was a lot more strikingly direct and alienated than the bittersweetly, seductively bouncing album version.

Your Blues, a slinky, catchy, defiant shuffle from her latest album The Wheel, was another really good one: “An unrevised history in an unsteady world…can’t look me in the eye as you take your shot, the blood on your hands will come out in the wash,” she railed. Not bad for someone nursing a sore ribcage, having played for hours the previous night. “Never bring an accordion to a bluegrasss jam,” she cautioned the crowd.

She also did a bunch of new material, no surprise since she’s back here, at least for a time, after spending the last few years in Guatemala. In the few years since she first left New York, the singer-songwriter scene has evaporated along with the venues that supported it. Lee can play the oldtimey stuff if she wants, but her own music is too much in the here and now for the Jalopy scene. And it’s way too edgy for the corporate bland-fest that the Rockwood has slowly morphed into. But you can catch her this Sunday night, April 28 at 9 PM at Freddy’s, where she’ll be leading a band with the great Tony Maimone from Pere Ubu, a frequent collaborator, on bass. Just be aware that because there is no R train to Prospect Ave, the closest station, you’ll have to take the F to 7th Ave and walk.