Nothing like a European tour to inspire you to write a whole set worth of new material, right? Freddie Stevenson had the good sense to bring Jessie Kilguss along as a harmony singer and keyboardist on his most recent tour there, and the crystalline-voiced songwriter brought back enough new songs of her own to keep an audience at the American Folk Art Museum rapt earlier this fall. That was her most recent Manhattan gig – her next one is in Brooklyn at Hank’s at 10 PM on Dec 16. Cover is $5.
With her clever wordplay and understatedly anthemic sensibility, Kilguss’ closest comparisons are Elvis Costello and Leonard Cohen, the latter being her biggest influence. Although she play both guitar and keys, she typically limits herself to vocals when fronting her own band, tall and resolute and swaying with eyes closed in front of a tight electric guitar/bass/drums backing unit. That voice is a magical instrument, with a reflecting-pool clarity and a soaring range matched by minutely nuanced attention to subtle details. And as much as her songs tend to be on the brooding side, she can be devastatingly funny when she wants to be.
At the museum gig, the new material turned out to be more upbeat as well, at least after Spain, a slow, allusively waltzing pastorale. Russian Roulette, a steady, elegantly driving backbbeat number with a typical soaring chorus, had a tricky surprise ending. Kilguss’ lithely leaping vocals on the slow, swaying, moodily plainspoken Rainy Night in Copenhagen brought to mind Linda Draper in a particularly animated moment.
The sparsely jangling, straightforward What Is It You Want From Me left no doubt that it was a frustrated kiss-off anthem. With its uneasily percolating bassline and a coyly quirky little modulation toward the end, Strangers came across like peak-era 90s Wilco playing new wave – but with an infinitely better singer out in front of the band. The show hit a peak with Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. one of the most bittersweely gorgeous, catchy janglerock anthems written this century.
Then Kilguss went back to the new mateiral with Edge of Something, which had the feel of a terse early Patti Griffin-style coffeehouse rock number, but with a more defiant edge. The band closed with the lilting, anthemic Over My Dead Body, a nonchalantly assertive reminder that you never, ever want to mess with a songwriter: they always get even in the end. The band wound it up with a savage flurry of guitar tremolo-picking. That’s about as loud as you can get in the museum: you can expect Kilguss and her crew to cut loose more at the Hank’s gig.