New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: rock music

Goddess Releases One of the Year’s Best and Most Hauntingly Psychedelic Albums

Goddess are one of New York’s most phantasmagorical, individualistic bands. There is no other group in town who sound remotely like them. Part creepy 60s psychedelic act, part folk noir, part underground theatre troupe, they create a magically eerie ambience, whether live or on record. It was a treat to be able to catch their most recent performance at a private party in south Brooklyn: the album release show for their fantastic new one, Paradise, streaming at Bandcamp. Maybe it was the low lights over a leafy back courtyard – or maybe it was Ember Schrag‘s dangerous gin punch-  but as it went on, the show built an electrically suspenseful ambience, like being invited to a wiccan ceremony or some kind of sacrifice, a real-life Stonehenge hidden away just up the block from Fourth Avenue.

Andy Newman’s lushly enveloping multi-keys are one of the keys to the band’s sound. The other is Tamalyn Miller’s one-string violin, which she built herself. With no training as a violinist, she created her own otherworldly style, sometimes trancelike, other times savage and menacing. Singer Fran Pado maxes out both the band’s surrealistic, theatrical side and also the creepiness factor. Bassist/keyboardist Bob Maynard and polymath guitar sorcerer Bob Bannister complete the picture.

The album’s opening track, Leave Here builds a gorgeously enveloping web of acoustic guitars, the women adding their eerie vocal harmonies, rising to a hauntingly bracing interlude, the stark overtones of the violin contrasting with the gently suspenseful lattice behind it. Death by Owls, a mini-suite, juxtaposes an uneasy lullaby theme with pulsing, warily echoey vocals and then a psych-folk march that looks back to vintage King Crimson or the Strawbs at their most psychedelic. Begins sets soaring, stately, gorgeous vocal harmonies over what could be a horror-film piano theme. By now, it’s clear there’s a narrative of sorts, if a rather opaque one: “Like a finger in the palm, like the death of remorse,” the women intone.

Ponies, a slow folk-rock piano theme, switches from a Brothers Grimm-style tale of mass drowning to a balmy, nocturnal Peter Zummo trombone solo. The band builds contrastingly ethereal vocals and droll electronic keys throughout the anthemic, late Beatlesque Belladonna Honey. Grey Skull works a disquieting dichotomy between ethereal, mellotron-like art-rock orchestration and stark, spare strings, Prado’s mysterious vocals soaring calmly overhead.

Married opens with the mantra “this is not a dream,” those richly soaring vocals over spare, baroque-tinged classical guitar, Miller providing a menacing, multitracked outro. The album winds up with the majestically elegaic title track, an escape anthem fueled by organ and violin, Pado’s gently alluring vocals joined by a choir of voices: a shot of hope breaking through the gloom that’s been gathering all the way to this point. What is this all about? It’s not clear. What is clear is that this is an album you have to spend some time with, and get lost in. Its closest relative is Judy Henske and Jerry Yester”s 1969 cult classic Farewell Aldebaran; someday this too may be just as prized by collectors of magical esoterica.

The outdoor show featured another, similarly phantasmagorical suite, this one a sinister, tragicomic tale of a witch who hypnotizes and then moves in with a hapless New Jersey family, who must then use what little strength they have left to break free of the spell. No spoilers here! And for the icing on the cake, Schrag played a set afterward with her full band, Bannister doing double duty on lead guitar, with Debby Schwartz playing lusciously slippery slides and chords on bass and Gary Foster behind the drum kit, matching Bannister’s edgy nuance. Highlights of the set were not one but two Macbeth-themed new ones. What’s become more and more intriguing, watching Schrag’s repertoire grow over the past several months, is how she takes fire-and-brimstone biblical imagery and turns it back on itself, a savagely articulate critique set to similarly biting, incisive psychedelic rock. Speaking of which, she’s playing Hifi Bar (the old Brownies) at 8 PM on July 2. Watch this space for upcoming Goddess gigs – with their theatrical, multimedia bent, they like to make their events special and for that reason haven’t been playing live a lot lately.

Tamara Hey Represents for Real New Yorkers at the Slipper Room

The dichotomy that runs through Tamara Hey‘s music is edgy, funny, picturesque New York-centric lyrics set to catchy, upbeat tunes with a purist pop sensibliity. Likewise, she balances the crystalline, unselfconscious charm of her vocals with what can be devastatingly amusing, deadpan between-song commentary. Her music has special resonance for those who consider themselves oldschool New Yorkers: Hey is sort of a songwriting Woody Allen of the Lower East Side…minus the celebrity and the ugly backstory. She’s playing the Slipper Room (Orchard and Stanton, upstairs over the big tourist restaurant) on July 1 at 7:30 PM; cover is $10.

And because there’s always an element of surprise when she plays live, she’s worth seeing more than once: this blog managed to catch a grand total of three of her shows over the past year at the Rockwood. One was a solo gig; two were with melodic bassist Richard Hammond, who managed to do double duty as rhythmic center and lead player, no easy feat. And the songs ran the gamut. One of the most charming numbers was Oscar & Bud, a vivid, minutely detailed portrait of a retired ex-showbiz couple who happen to be the narrator’s key people (i.e. they’ve got her spare keys – it’s a New York thing). That song looked back to vintatge Tin Pan Alley.

But Hey likes to mix it up. Drive, with its soaring chorus, 9/11 reference and get-me-the-hell-out-of-here theme, looked back to new wave, as did Miserably Happy (title track to her cult classic powerpop album), which evoked Blondie’s Dreaming. The rambunctiously pulsing, doo-wop tinged Alphabet City, a shout-out to familiar LES haunts which have lately been disappearing one after the other, took on a bittersweet quality. Likewise, We Lean on Cars, a snapshot of middle-school North Bronx anomie circa the early 90s. Hey and Hammond also ran through some more wrly entertaning snapshots of city life: David #3, weighing whether or not to succumb to the allure of a Mr. Wrong, who happens to be a Red Sox fan; Mexico Money, a droll tale of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat; and You Wear Me Out, a clever number about how macho guys sometimes turn out to be the most insecure ones. The C-Note may be long gone, Lakeside Lounge too, and Cafe Pick-Me-Up is moving to East 7th Street, but Tamara Hey still represents for the neighborhood.

And when she’s not playing gigs, she’s busy running Alphabet City Music, who offer economical and informative courses in guitar and applied music theory for players of all levels. This blog covered her introductory music theory course last year and found it both immensely challenging and also immensely useful. By the way, just in case anyone might assume ulterior motives, i.e. sucking up to the prof, to explain why this blog has been at so many of her recent shows, let’s set that record straight. The course was offered during the summer; two of those shows were in the fall and one was this past January.

Hauntingly Atmospheric Art-Rock Instrumentals from Brilliant Bassist Dana Schechter’s Insect Ark

Dana Schechter is one of this era’s great bass players. Her sinewy, biting low-register lines brought an unexpected elegant and grace to Michael Gira’s Angels of Light. After that, she led the hauntingly cinematic Bee & Flower. Her latest project, the richly atmospheric art-rock instrumental band Insect Ark with Taurus drummer Ashley Spungin, might well be her darkest yet. They’re headlining at St. Vitus on July 2 at 11 PM; cover is $10. Dead Kennedys-influenced Pennnslvania hardcore/punk band the Abandos open the night at 8 followed by Pawns – good luck finding them on the web – and then keyboardist Shari Vari’s 80s-tinged darkwave pop project Void Vision.

It’s amazing how much density, and mighty majesty, and how many cumulo-nimbus textures Schechter gets out of just lapsteel, keys, bass and drums on the new album, Portal/Well. What’s most impressive is that Schechter plays all of the instruments herself. The title track sets the tone, a steady, ominously atmospheric dirge, dark washes of lapsteel and keys shifting through the picture, distorted chords lingering and then rising in a dense, grey mist, aching to break free.

The Collector builds from a creepy tritone synth loop with a minimalist bassline that brings to mind early Wire, picking up steam as it bends and sways, and ends up back where it started. Lowlands is a miniature, awash in sustain from slow-burning lapsteel. The album’s most epic track, Octavia, opens as an opaque, Richard Wright-like minimalist-yet-maximalist mood piece and takes on a deep-space grandeur as layers and layers of lapsteel cut through the mist, then create their own. The miniature that follows, Crater Lake, is the most straight-up Eno-esque atmospheric piece here.

Taalith – a reference to an eerily portentous Isabelle Eberbardt short story about a drowning – could be described as slowcore spacerock, anchored on the low end by growling bass and at the top by drifting sheets from the lapsteel: the Friends of Dean Martinez taking a slow, syncopated stroll on Pluto. Parallel Twin, with its doppler effects and unexpected drum accents, is the most cinematic and suspenseful, picking up with some tasty, chromatic bass chords: it’s the closest thing to Bee & Flower here. The final cut, Low Moon is the droniest and most surreal, its stygian waves contrasting with almost droll, lo-fi synth oscilations. Only one of the tracks – The Collector – is up at Insect Ark’s Bandcamp page, but there are a handful of similarly brooding, intense singles there, and more stuff at Soundcloud as well. And it almost goes without saying that Schechter is the rare artist whose work is always worth owning. If you want more info on this, one of the few reliably good music blogs, The Obelisk did a good piece on the band.

Lucinda Williams: Tipsy But Not Phoning It In at Prospect Park

Lucinda Williams was wasted last night. Then again, that’s her vocal shtick – that low, raspy drawl always sounds like she’s half in the bag. The giveaway at her Prospect Park Bandshell show was the looseness, the long jams that her fantastic band burned through (and sometimes didn’t seem sure about where Williams wanted to wrap them up), and when she talked to the audience. At least she threw a shout to Bernie Sanders into her ramble, which drew the most applause of the evening – until she lit into an ill-advised encore of Neil Young’s Keep on Rocking in the Free World, complete with Bon Jovi-style backing vocals, anyway. But the crowd loved that too.

And the boozy, dissociative approach worked. Williams may have had a cheat sheet held together with binder clips, but she wasn’t phoning anything in. When she finally got to Essence, the “I’ve been waiting in this bar” part of that big, gorgeous chorus was pure, straight-up authenticity. Likewise, the cynical TMI of Those Three Days, its wounded narrator snarling about“You found a hole and then you came.”

They opened with a stark, almost otherwordly, Howlin Wolf-inspired Something Wicked This Way Comes. Brilliant lead guitarist Stuart Mathis’ searing, blues-infused lines on Righteously evoked peak-era Mick Taylor, then bassist David Sutton built to a stomping conclusion with some neat chordal work. Then Mathis went into acidic swamp-rock mode for Buttercup, where he stayed for most of the set, beyond his sparsely jangly twelve-string lines on Drunken Angel.

Arguably the best song of the night was a new one, the bitterly swaying adolescent alienation anthem West Memphis, from Williams’ double-cd set Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. The biggest hit of the night, at least til the FM radio rock covers of the encore, was a crushing doom-metal version of Unsuffer Me, so slow that it raised the question of whether the band had resurrected an obscure number by Black Sabbath or Sleep.

By the time the band got to Lake Charles, Williams was the picture of forlornness, abandoned and forsaken and drowning her sorrows. Then the songs got even sadder with the the vamping 2 Cool 2 Be Forgotten. From there, the band picked up the pace with a slinky take of Are You Down, part early Tom Petty, part Santana, drummer Butch Norton dueling it out with Mathis during a lively, latin-flavored doublespeed jam. After that, a new one, Foolishness, made a platform for more jamming and randomly caustic commentary on current events, Williams defiantly telling the crowd one thing that freedom means to her is that she can drink and drug however much she feels like.

Later numbers included another new one, Protection, which wasn’t much more than a one-chord jam; Get Right with God, which was more blues than gospel; and an expansive, rather haphazard, bluesily swaying take of Joy.  This year’s schedule of free outdoor shows at the Prospect Park Bandshell includes movies and plenty of other stuff besides just music, which as usual is a mixed bag. The next really enticing concert there is on July 10 at 7 PM with popular, humorous, brass-fueled Argentine ska-punk band Los Autenticos Decadentes.

Nathaniel Rateliff Reinvents Himself as a Kick-Ass, Original Soul Bandleader

What do you do if your singer-songwriter career stalls out? Reinvent yourself as an oldschool soul bandleader, maybe. Nathaniel Rateliff did it, with the same results as when Phil Niekro switched out the fastball for the knuckler, or when James Brown moved from behind the organ to take over the mic. Rateliff’s show last night, at a private event for media on the Lower East Side with his inspired new band the Night Sweats, was irresistibly fun, an auspicious kickoff to what’s becoming a marathon summer tour (dates are here).

The Alabama Shakes are just the tip of the iceberg: as any club booking agent knows, the retro 60s soul craze just refuses to stop, and Rateliff is the latest to catch the wave. On one hand his songs – vamping two-chord verses rising to even catchier, anthemic choruses – hardly pave any new ground. And a cynic might assail him for recycling riffs that any bar-band musician knows by heart. What makes Rateliff different is that he’s an excellent, distinctive lead guitarist. Playing through a reverb pedal turned up most of the way, his shivery, practically feral solos took the energy to redline every time and elevated the songs above the level of generic. And he doesn’t waste notes, either.

The band is excellent, too. Second guitarist Joseph Pope III distinguished himself with his fluency in vintage Memphis licks, and a hard-hitting, chord-chopping solo on the night’s last number. The bassist held down a steady, swinging groove in tandem with drummer Patrick Meese, who pushed the songs with a hard-hitting stadium rock drive. And organist Mark Shusterman harmonized meticulously with the two-man horn section, tenor sax and trumpet blending to deliver a sound a lot more hefty than you would think just three instruments could produce. This wasn’t Muscle Shoals, 1969 – it was state-of-the-art, 2015.

That being said, their style of soul rocks pretty hard and doesn’t go near jazz. They got to halfway through the set before they even hit a minor chord – after all, this is party music. But they do everything possible to keep the audience entertained, opening one number a-cappella with what sounded like five-part harmonies (everybody in the band sings, well), and bedeviled the audience (and themselves – this is a work in progress) with a series of trick endings. A slow nocturnal groove toward the end hinted at the Stones’ Gimme Shelter, but didn’t go there, instead rising to a more optimistic, animated peak, capped off with a searing Rateliff solo. They finally slowed down for a ballad in 6/8 right before the last song, which turned out to be a licketysplit shuffle possible titled Sonofabitch. If ithat in fact is the title, it will be a hit with every English-speaking six-year-old when it hits youtube, which it inevitably will. Be the first sonofabitch on your block to party to this band and bring your significant other.

The Grasping Straws Release Their Savagely Intense, Tuneful New Album at the Mercury

New York band the Grasping Straws have been through a lot of changes, but their latest incarnation is absolutely spine-tingling. Their ambitious debut ep – streaming at Bandcamp – introducd them as a rainy-day, jazz-tinged, jangly project in the same vein the Cardigans or Comet Gain. Their forthcoming album takes the energy up several thousand volts – wow! Frontwoman Mallory Feuer blends an otherwordly, raw, bluesy edge with the fearlessness of pre-meltdown Courtney Love, both vocally and guitarwise, instantly putting this group on the map as one of New York’s most distinctive, individualistic, exciting new bands. They’re playing the album release show on June 30 at 10:30 PM at the Mercury/ Sultry punk-folk-soul siren Liah Alonso – formerly of politically fueled rockers Left on Red – opens the night at 9:30 PM. Cover is $10.

Although there are some identifiable influences in the band’s sound, Fiona Apple first and foremost, their sound is unique. Feuer’s chords ring out with a reverbtoned, enigmatic edge, her vocals wailing, murmuring or occasionally rising to a goosebump-inducing scream with a sardonic lyrical bite while hard-hitting drummer Jim Bloom holds the songs to the rails. Sam Goldfine – formerly of popular alternative rock road warriors Beast Make Bomb – completes the picture as the band’s latest addition. Recorded in analog to half-inch eight track tape, the album’s production has an immediacy that captures their rollercoaster live show.

The jaggedly catchy opening track, State of Affairs reflects the disarray left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the year Feuer, a native New Yorker, founded the band. She switches gears with the ghostly, stark intro to Home, building to an uneasy, acidic vintage Sonic Youth grit. Just a Memory welds wounded, blues-infused paisley underground psychedelia to a late 80s Seattle assault.

Bloom pushes How Will I Grow with a scrambling punk rock pulse; Feuer’s indignant vocals channel Heart’s Ann Wilson as second guitarist Rob Krug adds acid blues textures. Feuer takes Say It Ain’t So up to a frantic doublespeed attack, then flips the script with Your Face, which begins as a hauntingly spare reflection drenched in natural reverb, then rises to a shatteringly epic peak (listen to those multitracked screams at 2:17 – bone-chilling!). The final cut, Don’t Hold Your Breath, looks back to the enigmatic, jazz-inflected vein the band mined in their early days. First-class tracks wall to wall with this one: put it on the shortlist for best full-length debut of 2015.

Parlor Walls Entertain Bushwick, Then Hit Cake Shop with Their Goodies

Parlor Walls have a bracingly fun ep that for lack of a better word could be called noiserock, a free download at Bandcamp. But they’re way more than that – and they have a lot more material than just what’s up there. A couple of weeks ago at the laid-back new venue Alphaville in Bushwick, they did more onstage in barely half an hour than most bands could do in two. While there’s no predictable verse/chorus structure to their songs and they like noise as much as tunes, their material can be awfully catchy.: when they have to, they keep things simple. They’re playing at 9 PM on June 25 at Cake Shop; cover is $8 and worth it. They’re also at Trans-Pecos the following night, June 26 at 9, opening for no wave sax legend James Chance; cover is $10.

Even though the Bushwick gig was late on a work night, there was a good crowd in the house, and the band kept them there. Frontwoman/guitarist Alyse Lamb – better known as the leader of the very popular Eula – would switch in a split-second from throwing off shards of reverb, to apprehensive postpunk chromatics, a hint of Chris Isaak noir twang, and oldfashioned punk rock roar. Meanwhile, drummer Chris Mulligan held down a thunderously swinging pulse and anchored the songs with deep washes of organ at the same time. This band’s ancestor, lineupwise if not exactly stylistically, is cult classic dark blues duo Mr. Airplane Man.

Guest alto saxophonist Kate Mohanty added an element of surprise, switching between blustery postbop jazz clusters, trickily rhythmic indie classical circles, reverb-drenched no wave acidity, abrasive duotone washes and catchy, blippy, polyrhythmic phrases. There was a menacingly psychedelic, drony quality to a couple of songs, like the Black Angels on molly. Other songs introduced tricky tempos (if memory serves right, one was in 9/8), dreamy/biting organ/guitar contrasts; and half the time it was impossible to tell who was playing the high frequencies, Lamb or Mohanty, the sound was so immersive. Persistent Daydream Nation echoes surfaced and then resurfaced frequently, Lamb’s vocals somewhat less agitated than they can be in Eula. And the trio did all this within the constrictions of maybe three minutes per song at the absolute max.

And there were fringe benefits: Lamb had brought lots of delicious homemade oatmeal-banana cookies. A whole tupperware containerful! They were almost as good as the music. On a night when the trains were all messed up and there was no telling how long it was going to take to get home, and stopping at a deli might mean missing the last train and a long walk to Myrtle Avenue, that hit the spot. Not that there’s any guarantee that there’ll be free munchies at the Cake Shop gig, but…you never know. It is Cake Shop after all.

Catchy, Jangly, Propulsive, Afrobeat-Inspired Tunes from the Letter Yellow

Do you like the idea of Vampire Weekend but find the real thing impossibly insipid? If so, the Letter Yellow are for you. Frontman/guitarist Randy Bergida writes lithely dancing, catchy major-key tunes anchored by the rhythm section of bassist Abe Pollack and drummer Mike Thies. They’re playing the album release show for their new one, Watercolor Overcast at the Cameo Gallery tonight, June 18 at 10 PM; cover is $8.

Pollack’s trebly bass plays an Afrobeat groove underneath Bergida’s balmy but tensely anticipatory vocals on the opening track, Anytime of Day, a lush, dynamically shifting, artfully orchestrated anthem. Road to the Mountain has a loping Afropop groove with an unselfconsciously joyous flute flourish on the turnaround, hitched to a gospel-inspired vamp. Summer in the City isn’t the 60s pop hit but an enigmatically sunny, soul-splashed, strummy original that in another era would have been a monster radio hit.

Pain in the World blends an edgy minor bossa groove and biting roots reggae lyricism over an echoey minor-key melody with hints of that tune that every busker from Sydney to South Carolina knows. The album’s strongest track, The Light We Shed sets pulsar guitar multitracks to a steady marching beat, echoey jangle giving way to clang and resonance. Slow Down works a slowly swaying, hypnotically summery soul vamp lit up with some sparkly keygboard flourishes.

Cold Cold Night builds a fiery, galloping nocturnal ambience, far from the wintriness the title suggests. Likewise, the soul strut Downtown has a nighttime vibe, with a long, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking-style latin psychedelic outro.

Drifter shifts toward Americana, while the final track, Can I Get It Girl goes in a more straightforward hard-funk direction, with more than a hint that it’s the style of music where the band got their start. Maybe the coolest thing about the album is that it’s available on vinyl: if the band remembers to bring a box of records to their shows, it’s a sure bet that they’ll sell out. So far, it hasn’t hit Bandcamp or the usual sites, but the band’s previous output is streaming at their  audio page.

Summer Fiction Put an Original Spin on Gorgeous Britrock and Sunshine Pop Sounds from the 60s and 70s

Don’t let the band name give you the wrong idea: Summer Fiction are a lot more than just a beach read. On their new album Himalaya – streaming at Bandcamp – frontman/guitarist Bill Ricchini channels classic 60s Britrock with tighter teens production values. Much as you can hear all sorts of elements and references to the Beatles, Zombies, Big Star and plenty of other iconic and not-so-iconic bands, they have an original sound. One of their secrets is Jonathan Prestbury s 12-string guitar, the other the straightforward rhythm section of Alex Yaker’s bass and Adam Dawson’s drums. They’re playing the album release show tonight, June 18 at 10 at Union Hall in Park Slope; cover is $12.

The album opens with On and On, the early Beatles as covered by the early Kinks. Dirty Blonde has a similarly kinetic pulse, this time driven by BC Camplight’s piano, with a deliciously watery guitar solo midway through. Perfume Paper builds a lushly gorgeous blend of jangly, chiming guitars, like Big Star, but again, with a tighter, more straight-ahead beat.

The instrumental title track works a late Beatles/early ELO vamp with tasteful cello from Eric Stephenson. The psych-pop Lauren Lorraine has a dancing, pinging sunshine pop vibe – it would be a standout Jacco Gardner track. Genevieve takes the idiom ten years forward to catchy late 70s ELO bossa-pop, followed by Religion of Mine, shifting back toward Zombies Odesssey and Oracle electric piano-and-organ-driven lushness.

Manchester turns out not to be a bleak postpunk song but a wistful art-rock waltz. By My Side is an elegantly fingerpicked, pensively autumnal folk-pop number, followed by Cathedral, a baroque pop instrumental. The album also comes with acoustic versions of Perfume Pape, Dirty Blonde amd Lauren Lorraine, each of them underscoring how strong the tunes are with just just guitar and vocals. If these songs had been around in the radio-and-records era, they would have been hits then and would be staples of oldies radio now. That’s meant as a compliment in the purest sense of the word.

The Hillbenders Bring Their Imaginative Americana Take on The Who to the Rockwood

If you’re into bluegrass, you’ve probably heard Luther Wright & the Wrongs‘ 2001 cult classic Rebuild the Wall, an acoustic version of the Pink Floyd movie soundtrack album. In a similar vein, with considerably less of a mean-spirited satirical edge, the Hillbenders’ Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry, an impressively faithful newgrass take on the Who, is currently burning up the charts and streaming at Spotify. They’re bringing it to the big room at the Rockwood on June 18 at 7 PM on an excellent twinbill with honkytonkers the Honeycutters, Cover is $12; the venue isn’t clear on who’s playing first, but both bands are worth seeing if Americana is your thing. And if you feel like nursing your $15 beer and making a night of it, sardonic oldtimey swing guitarist/crooner Seth Kessel & the Two Cent Band play their jaunty, fun, original  tunes afterward at around 10:30.

It’s tempting to say that audiences in 2015 will probably prefer the Hillbenders’ version over the Who’s original. Forget for a minute that these days, bluegrass is a whole lot more popular than bombastic stadium rock. For starters. this bluegrass band has virtuoso chops and impeccable taste, recording the album to two-inch tape. While the Who obviously also recorded in analog, they were still a garage band at heart when they made the original. What’s most surprising about the new album is how well the incidental music between the radio hits translates to bluegrass – and, quite frankly, how much the band improves it. A prime example is Sparks, where the dobro and banjo really soar. What’s less surprising is how well the Hillbenders do the hits. For one, just the absence of Roger Daltrey’s florid vocals is a big plus. And while it’s probably unfair to weigh how much more texture, and dynamics, and flair guitarist Jim Rea, mandolinist Nolan Lawrence, dobro player Chad Graves and banjo player Mark Cassidy add, by comparison to all of Pete Townshend’s overdubs, the ultimate result is that the Hillbenders’ version is arguably even more epic. And what more could you possibly want from a rock opera? That probably explains why Townshend has given his blessing to the album.

The one thing that it doesn’t offer is a blockbuster rhythm section, which makes sense: Gary Rea is a perfectly good bluegrass bassist, eschewing John Entwhistle’s sinewy attack for a purist oldschool approach. And the band sidesteps the issue of trying to match any of Keith Moon’s contributions, probably a wise choice. They also don’t attempt to clarify or expand on the original’s bare-bones plot: best to look at this as a catchy collection of newgrass pop songs imbued with tongue-in-cheek humor and played with first-class chops, rather than any kind of profound statement. And the hits are a revelation. You can understand the lyrics to Pinball Wizard – how’s “Bally table king” for 60s cultural resonance? Go to the Mirror matches the junior existentialist angst of the original, and We’re Not Gonna Take It has even more defiance. After all this, ironically, the original seems pretty lightweight.

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