New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: rock music

Jon DeRosa Brings His Haunting, Lynchian Chamber Pop Back to New York

It’s amazing how Jon DeRosa can croon with such nuance and skill considering that he’s lost most of the hearing in his right ear. Another sad reminder of the brain drain that continues to plague New York, the noir chamber pop singer decamped for Los Angeles last year, but has a haunting new album, Black Halo  to show for it. He’s bringing those ghostly songs back to town for an album release show at around 10 at St. Vitus in Greenpoint on June 3; cover is $10.

“The initial inspiration was this intense feeling of isolation and disconnection growing in me while still in New York,” DeRosa explains, “And kind of retreating into this inner world, this spirit world, really. After living there for so many years, I literally felt like a ghost drifting through the crowds, invisible, and with no real connection to anyone or anything.”

Who in New York, who’s been here since the zeros or even earlier, hasn’t felt that way? We’re excluded from the political process that’s turning even the grungiest working-class neighborhoods into ghost towns of future crackhouses, built not as actual homes but as lifesize gamepieces for robber barons hell-bent on cashing in on the real estate bubble before it explodes. And the privileged white suburbanites displacing the artistic class here have no interest in what makes a city a city. The arts don’t exist in their social media-based meta-world. They barely even watch movies. They’re all starring in their own little status-grubbing dramas which they think are comedies but are really horror videos. And they all think they’re Spielberg, but they’re not even Ed Wood. What’s just as disturbing is that some of us have found ourselves dragged into that too, by demands of the dayjob or just trying to stay in touch with the rest of the world.

That was what DeRosa escaped; from the album, he seems to have regained his footing in a shadowy place between the living and the dead. Much as there’s an elegaic strain that runs throughout the songs, there’s hope as well. DeRosa plays guitars, with Charles Newman on keys, Matt Basile on bass, Tom Curiano on drums and Carina Round on vocals. Claudia Chopek’s one-woman string section and Brad Gordon’s one-man wind ensemble join forces to create a lush miniature orchestra on several of the tracks.

The album’s opening, Lynchian, 60s noir pop ballad, Fool’s Razor establishes an atmosphere of anomie and defeat despite its towering, angst-fueled sweep. DeRosa’s chiming twelve-string guitar mingles with glockenspiel and piano on The Sun Is Crying, a sad waltz with a late 60s Laurel Canyon psych-pop vibe and a shout-out to Leonard Cohen. Then DeRosa and Round reach for unexpectedly blithe, surrealistic, mariachi-tinged Vegas pop with When Daddy Took the Treehouse Down.

Coyotes veers from southwestern gothic to mid-80s Cure jangle: “Fear is a thief in disguise, cuts out your heart and flees with its prize,” DeRosa broods in his resonant baritone, then follows with a wryly familiar Edith Piaf riff. Give Me One More Reason is the album’s most psychedelic track, a bartender cynically watching the night’s last patrons, who “don’t know how it feels to end the night standing upright,” waiting til after the doors are locked to pour a few glasses for the ghosts of the whores who still call the dive their home.

The bolero-rock number Lonely Sleep works an elegant, understated angst:

You say that there’s a river, but I see no way across
And you say the mind’s the builder, but my mind has long been lost

DeRosa and Round duet on the ghostly lullaby Dancing in a Dream, a more organic take on Julee Cruise Twin Peaks atmospherics. The piano-driven dirge Blood Moon brings to mind the Ocean Blue as well as DeRosa’s more ambient work with Aarktika. Likewise, Knock Once has 80s values: brisk new wave bassline, hypnotically loopy goth guitar. Then DeRosa brings a lingering, astigmatic 80s ambience to Orbisonian pop with You’re Still Haunting Me – which, when you think about it, pretty much defines what Lynchian music is all about, right?

The album’s most epic number is High and Lonely, a spare, hypnotically apocalyptic anthem: “I want none of your fleeting wealth, I want none of your earthly fortune,” is DeRosa’s mantra. The album winds up with the title track, a Spectoresqe instrumental waltz. DeRosa has a strong and occasionally shattering back catalog, notably his 2012 release A Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes, but this is his strongest, most consistent release. It’s not officially out yet, therefore no streaming link, although a couple of tracks are up at Motherwest Studios’ soundcloud page. Fans of the creme de la creme of dark rock: Nick Cave, Mark Sinnis and the rest will love this. It’s good to see someone we pretty much took for granted here in New York able to keep the torch burning thousands of miles away.

A Fantastic Honkytonk and Twang Triplebill at the Jalopy on the 31st

Country singer Katie Brennan has an interesting backstory. She’s also a virtuoso concert harpist with a classical background. She got her start in New York leading a nebulously funky indie rock band, the Holy Bones, before going deeply into Americana with her vastly underrated 2008 countrypolitan album Slowly. Then she went back to her native Washington State for a spell. But now she’s back, leading a first-class honkytonk band, the Bourbon Express. They’re playing the album release show for their deliciously oldschool new album, One Big Losin’ Streak – streaming online – on a killer triplebill on May 31 at around 9 PM at the Jalopy. As a bonus, brilliantly guitar-fueled, period-perfect 1964-style twang and surf instrumentalists the Bakersfield Breakers open the night at 7 followed by the Country Provisions Band at 8. Cover is $10.

The new album is the best thing Brennan’s ever done. In keeping with the mid-60s vibe, the songs are short, typically around the three minute mark or less with brief, incisive solos by guitarist Brendan Curley – who also doubles on mandolin – and steel guitarist Jonny Lam. Bassist Andrew Dykeman and drummer Andrew Hodgkins keep things tight. Vocally, Brennan’s pulled back a little on the wide-angle vibrato that’s been one of her signature traits and soars to some pretty spectacular high notes, bolstered by Sarah Kinsey’s harmonies.
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The album’s opening track, Don’t Turn Me Down has a touch of western swing, spiky lead guitar paired off against lingering steel. Upward Track opens with a classic mid-60s C&W riff straight out of the Don Gibson playbook, Brennan’s cheery, chirpy delivery bringing to mind vintage Dolly Parton. Last Dance features a tasty handoff from mandolin to steel midway through.

Party Girl, which is more or less the album’s title track, will hit the spot for anybody whose work week feels like one long losing streak. Which Wine Goes with My Heartache follows a droll, Amy Allison-style storyline: Brennan might not be the most likely person to answer that question, considering that she’s a whiskey drinker.

The Texas shuffle I’m Not Ready is a period-perfect 60 Tammy Wynette bad girl honkytonk number. Let’s Say ‘I Do,’ told from the point of view of a girl who likes “Roping old cowboys in smoky old bars, turning their pickups into getaway cars,” has a trick ending: like the music, Brennan’s lyrics look back to an earlier era when Nashville songwriting was full of all kinds of puns and one-liners. But the funniest song here is Your Love Is Better Than Nothing: the joke is a musical one tha goes back and forth, and is awfully tricky to play, and too good to spoil here. Slippin’ Around brings back the western swing sophistication; the album winds up with Those Days Are Gone, a gorgeously bittersweet love song that turns out to have a happy ending.

The Bakersfield Breakers have an amazing debut album of their own streaming at Bandcamp. If memory serves right, their most recent show around these parts was upstairs at 2A back in March, where guitarist Keith Yaun put on a clinic in just about every instrumental country and rock style from the 50s and 60s, with a harder-rocking and more surf-oriented edge than you’d guess after hearing the album. Some pretty volcanic Dick Dale and Ventures covers were part of that, but the best song of the night was a sad, wistful original that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Duane Eddy playbook.

Tongues in Trees Wrap Up Their Lush, Enveloping Sonic Cocoon at Barbes This Week

Hypnotic, thoughtfully adventurous trio Tongues in Trees wind up their May residency at Barbes with a show tomorrow night, May 27 at around 8 PM. It can be pretty comical to see how bands tag themselves, but this crew found a bunch that fit: “experimental art rock folktronica indian classical New York.” But one they didn’t pick – psychedelia – probably describes them best. On their debut ep – streaming at Bandcamp – singer Samita Sinha, guitarist Grey McMurray and drummer Sunny Jain take dreamy pastoral soundscapes, many of them colored with the precise modulations and ecstatic peaks of Indian carnatic nusic, and set them to trancey rhythms orchestrated with richly multilayered guitar textures.

The album’s first track, Howl Like (Running Brooks) opens with resonant, lingering guitar and Jain’s wind-chime cymbals, Sinha choosing her spots as the washes and gently jangling guitar loops rise and fall, the drums finally picking up with a mighty majesty. It’s the closest thing here to what the band sounds like live.

The second cut, Love Letter is a gently swaying lullaby – Sinha uses a gauzy filter on her tenderly keening vocalsa, way up toward the top of her her stratospheric range, as she often does onstage as the song builds to another soaring crescendo before fading down gracefully. Parallel sets Sinha’s nuanced, microtonal carnatic vocals and McMurray’s subtly polyrhythmic jangle and swoosh over a hypnotic, persistent motorik groove. The last track is Meri Bhavana, taking the gentle/rippling dichotomy of the second song up a notch.

At the first night of their residency earlier this month, it was especially cool to see Jain behind a full kit – rather than the big, boomy dhol bass drum he pummels in bhangra brass band Red Baraat – utilizng everything from the rims to the hardware with jazz precision and wit. Sinha alternated between mics and effects, a pillowy, springlike tone and full-gale intensity. McMurray, for a guy who plays very economically, really gives himself a workout onstage, always in search of the perfect timbre and the perfect spot for a note or a phase, many of which he spun through a loop pedal. Pouncing from one stompbox to another, he was like a stepdancer or a marine on an obstacle course, managing to knock over just a single drink in the process. A special guest added some looming trombone lines and also a dub edge to the several of the songs via a mixing board.

A Dynamic New Album and a Bushwick Show from Cellist/Singer Patricia Santos

Patricia Santos calls herself a “vocellist.” As you would expect from a distinctive, terse cello player and strong, eclectic singer, she has her fingers in several projects. Most notably, she’s half of the cello-vocal duo the Whiskey Girls and a member of brilliant noir art-rock/circus-rock/latin band Kotorino as well. Santos also has an intriguingly intimate, tunefully diverse new album, Never Like You Think, streaming at Bandcamp and an album release show coming up at 9 PM on May 27 at Max Cellar (downstairs from Amancay’s Diner), 2 Knickerbocker Ave. at Johnson Ave.in Bushwick. It’s close to the Morgan Ave. stop on the L.

The albun’s first track is The One I Should Love, a starkly swaying minor-key blues with just vocals and two instruments, sawing cello contrasting with Andrew Swift’s bitingly resonant guitar. Then the two instruments essentially switch roles. In Your Arms sets Santos’ wryly sultry vocals against a strutting tune that builds to a subtly crescendoing waltz, winding out with a long, hypnotically vamping, pitchblende outro. For You is even more spare, Santos’ warm, balmy vocals paired against a minimalist four-note riff that throws off shards of overtones, especially when she hits a passionate chorus.

Santos keeps the stark ambience going through a raptly dynamic, then unexpectedly explosive take of the classic Mexican folk song La Llorona. Old Hill, another waltz, has a wistful front-porch folk feel grounded by the celllo’s ambered tones. The album winds up with an absolutely knockout, creepy, noisy cover of Kotorono’s Little Boat. The original has a deadpan ominousness: here, Santos teams with Kotorino bandleader/guitarist Jeff Morris, building to a skronk-infested, murderous peak. It’s a cool blend of grit, elegance and raw intensity that aptly capsulizes a captivatingly individualistic debut release.

Noa Fort Brings Her Darkly Expansive, Eclectic Songs to the West Village

Pianist/singer Noa Fort– younger sister to respected jazz pianist Anat Fort – is one of New York’s more interesting and original artists. She bridges the gap between art-rock, chamber pop, classical and jazz, singing in both English and Hebrew, reflecting her Israeli-American background. Her moodily modulated alto vocals mirror the diversity of styles in her playing: she can channel torchy cabaret, creepy circus rock or work the corners of a song with a jazz and blues sophistication. She’s playing Caffe Vivaldi on May 26 at 9 PM.

She likes minor keys, slow tempos and takes her time: the videos on her music page often go on for six or seven minutes at a clip. The first tracks are solo or duo performances. There’s Winter Requiem, a slow, brooding art-rock anthem. The second number works around a menacingly carnivalesque stairstepping piano theme. No World Between Us – a duet with sparse, Lynchian washes of guitar from Amir Weiss – has an icy gothic rock feel, but with a loose rhythm that owes more to jazz. Fort goes deeper and even more darkly into that idiom with All By Yourself, a trio with her sister plus bass clarinetist Nitai Levi, before the instruments go off on a a jaunty improvisational tangent. And Now Is the Time – also with Anat on piano – looks back to Nina Simone for inspiration.

Fort’s originals leading a quintet are straight-up jazz, lively and rhythmic, with a similarly moody edge that brings to mind the work of another Israeli artist, Avishai Cohen. And her choice of Wild As the Wind is particularly apt, a richly dynamic take that starts absolutely ghostly and then picks up with a bittersweet edge: And just when you think you have her pegged as an enigmatic jazz/classical type, you discover at the bottom of the page that she likes ska-punk. Go figure. It’s more likely that she’ll air out her more introspective stuff at the show next week…but wouldn’t it be cool if she threw a Hub City Stompers song into the mix to shake up the room…

Guitarist Aram Bajakian and Singer Julia Ulehla Play Riveting Balkan Psychedelia at the Stone

Guitarist Aram Bajakian is in the midst of a weeklong stand at the Stone, with a revolving door of downtown jazz and rock talent. His late set last night was a rare performance with his wife, singer Julia Ulehla, playng what could be characterized as Balkan psychedelia from their magical Dalava album from late last year. Although both artists are respected in their individual fields – Bajakian was Lou Reed’s lead guitarist, did a turn in Diana Krall’s band and is one of John Zorn’s first-call guys, and Ulehla is in demand as a classical and indie classical singer – they haven’t worked together a lot, at least in public. And they should – this set was transcendent. They’re doing it again tonight, May 23 at 8 with a full band; at 10, Bajakian leads a “punk Armenian folk” group playing songs off his fantastic 2011 Kef album.

Bajakian wryly explained to the crowd that they shouldn’t expect note-for-note versions of the songs on the album, considering that the Stone is a place for improvisation, and that the two were dead set on playing without a net. They opened on a feral note, establishing a recurrent dynamic, Bajakian’s savage tunefulness counterbalanced by Ulehla’s precisely modulated, alternately wailing and misterioso delivery. All the material save for one song, if memory serves right, was taken from the Dalava album, based on a collection of folk songs passed down from Ulehla’s Moravian great-grandfather. Ulehla sang in perfectly unaccented Czech, providing English translations before pretty much every number.

And these songs are crazy, and fun, and had a sardonic humor worthy of the best American C&W. In more than one instance, Ulehla voiced both the clueless guy and the unattainable girl who puts him down. Together they played everything you could possibly want: fire-and-brimstone Slavic gospel; an airily skeletal horizontal mood piece; and a clanging, roaring, angst-fueled, Lynchian post-Velvets guitar number to open the show, Ulehla matching her husband for breathtaking intensity, if a little more low-key. Bajakian alternated between Telecaster and a hollowbody model that he played with a muted attack, but with the reverb turned up all the way to max out the ghostly factor.

Ulehla’s great-grandfather Vladimir believed that songs were like living beings (ask any musician – they are!) and that they could be reanimated at any future date, with whatever new life musicians could breathe into them. Bajakian turned an early number into a careening blues, and later shifted with deadpan aplomb between searing, cliffhanger noiserock and a tiptoeing waltz, drawing plenty of chuckles from the crowd. Meanwhile, Ulehla held her plaintive ground, whether with a soul-infused grit, an enigmatic resonance or operatic flair.

There’s an aasumption – grounded in decades of pretty irrefutable evidence – that people who play edgy music tend to be difficult and troubled. You certainly don’t expect them to be warm. But that’s how Bajakian and Ulehla came across, exchanging glances, as if to say to each other, “Isn’t this cool? I know you give everybody else goosebumps, but tonight the two of us can double that and then some!” Believe it or not, last night’s show wasn’t sold out. Tonight’s your chance to catch magic in a bottle.

In Memoriam: Bob Belden

Visionary saxophonist, composer, Miles Davis scholar and videographer Bob Belden died suddenly on Tuesday night after suffering a heart attack in his Upper West Side apartment. He was 58.

Belden’s often turbulent career encompassed just about everything an individual can do in music. He was a distinctive composer, a talented saxophonist, arranger, conductor, producer and music executive. His brief tenure as head of A&R at Blue Note Records in the late 90s ended after less than a year in a disagreement over the direction of the label: Belden wanted to promote new music while his corporate colleagues wanted to focus on easy-listening and more retro styles. Since then, he had led the cinematic instrumental band Animation, with whom he had just played earlier this year in Iran, the first American musician to perform there since the 1970s.

Born in Illinois, raised in South Carolina and educated in Texas, Belden came to New York in the late 70s and quickly found a home on the Upper West Side. The diverse, multi-ethnic character of the neighborhood – and the dangers lurking there after dark – had a profound impact on his worldview and his music. Belden’s vividly cinematic compositions are rich with history and political overtones, global in scope, often imbued with a noir sensibility. Much of his work draws heavily on classical and Indian music. While his best-known album is the 2001 orchestral jazz suite The Black Dahlia – a moody, 1950s style crime jazz score inspired by the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short – his most powerful album was his final one, Animation’s sweeping, anguished 2012 release Transparent Heart, a bitter look back at the aftermath of 9/11 in New York

Belden was also one of the world’s foremost Miles Davis scholars. He found considerable irony in winning three Grammies, but not for his music: those were for liner notes and post-production work on Miles Davis compilations and reissues. An acerbic writer with a sardonic sense of humor, Belden didn’t suffer fools gladly. As he saw it, other musicians failed to address contemporary concerns and were unable to put their work in the context of our times, something that Belden himself never failed to do.

His progressive politics mirrored the qualities in his music. He was always looking to draw attention to injustice, especially as it affected his adopted New York home. Although he could be cynical and blunt to the point of confrontation – something he relished – he tempered that with a self-effacing sense of humor. And he dedicated himself to passing his legacy to the next generation of musicians: his bandmates in the final edition of Animation were all about half his age.

Beyond music, Belden had considerable talent as a photographer and videographer, inspired by the film noir that he loved so much. This blog reviewed Belden’s final New York concert – at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center last month, he and Animation reinvented a suite of Miles Davis songs to the point of unrecognizability, giving them a persistent, propulsive, restlessly enveloping sweep reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s 1970s film scores. The concert was performed to projections of Belden’s own symbolically-charged, Sam Fuller-inspired black-and-white video, which he’d taken on a blustery night last summer, from Times Square to the lower reaches of Harlem.

In an interview onstage before the show, Belden reveled in reliving his experiences in Iran and was looking forward to returning there: he leaves a wealth of plans unfinished along with a deep body of work. Sincerest sympathies to his family and many, many friends.

The Sideshow Tragedy Bring Their Visionary Apocalyptic Blues to the Rockwood

The last time this blog caught up with the Sideshow Tragedy, it was a couple of years ago late on a Friday night in the red neon backroom at Zirzamin, and the Austin noir blues band was killing it. Really killing it. Guitarist Nathan Singleton was airing out his bottomless bag of jagged minor-key licks, drummer Jeremy Harrell had a murderous stomp going and there were some special guests, if memory serves right – it had been a crazy night up to that point. Fast forward to 2015: Zirzamin is sadly gone, but the Austin band has a new album, Capital, streaming at Continental Record Services‘ site, and a similar small-room, Friday night show, in this case at the Rockwood on May 22 at 11 PM. This usually sedate space is in for a serious jolt of adrenaline, tempered slightly by the fact that the new album is somewhat more spare and haunting than the band’s previous, often unhinged gutter blues attack. It’s a concept album, a sinister, brilliantly metaphorical portrait of a nation gone off the rails in an orgy of greed and mass desperation. Fans of Humanwine will love this.

“Summer’s here, and the tramps are on the move, ten to a trailerbed from Chicago to LA…you can taste the decay,” Singleton broods in Number One, a corrosively relevant, cynical portrait of haves versus have-nots over a riff-rock groove that other bands would have turned into metal, but these guys do as a shuffle. Likewise, Blacked Out Windows, with some harmonically offcenter multitracks, could be Sonic Youth, but instead Singleton runs the riff over and over for an ominously hypnotic vibe: “Smoke and mirrors closing in…his carnival calm is easy to believe,” Singleton warns. “The palms of the priest are easy to grease.”

Singleton more or less talks the apocalyptic lyrics to Keys to the Kingdom as Harrell beats a frantic, funereal pulse on his tom-toms. The Winning Side, a similarly frantic, scampering anthem, sounds like Dylan’s It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding at doublespeed: “It’s not the thought that counts,” Singleton muses grimly. The title track works a dusky midtempo slide guitar groove, a caustically aphoristic parable of the 21 st century going back into the dark ages in a hurry. “You listen to the police scanner as your write your report, better fill your quota while you got time…you can’t see the horizon ’cause it don’t matter right now, so rob the beggars blind,” Singleton taunts. It’s arguably the best and most relevant song anybody’s released this year.

Two Guns pairs Harrell’s shuffling, misty cymbals against Singleton’s uneasily precise slide guitar and menacing stream of metaphors: “The rockets’ eternal red glare, the shooting off of lights and flares, it’s getting dark out there.” So when Singleton finally reaches the point where he works a song around a major-key hook – with the only slightly less troubled Animal Song, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Marcellus Hall catalog – there’s a sense of relief, however temporary.

Let the Love Go Down returns to a death-obsessed theme with a series of fire-and-brimstone metaphors over a relentlessly rolling and tumbling drive.The album ends with Plow Song, a spiky resonator guitar-fueled trip through a postapocalyptic landscape where you’re bound to end up with “a gun for all seasons and a bit in your mouth.” Powerful words from a Texas band. Best album of the year? One of the top handful, no question.

Aram Bajakian and Julia Ulehla Bring Their Magic Reinventions of Ancient Moravian Songs to the Stone

Aram Bajakian is one of the world’s elite guitarists. Of all the lead players, good and not-so-good, who filtered through Lou Reed’s band, the only two who rate with Bajakian are iconic and sadly no longer with us: Mick Ronson and Robert Quine. But as you would expect from a member of John Zorn’s circle, Bajakian plays a lot more than just rock lead guitar: he’s just as adept at enigmatic, cinematic instrumentals, reinvented Armenian folk themes and surf music. He’s got a weeklong stand at the Stone this week, with sets at 8 and 10 PM starting on May 19 and running through the 24th with an intriguing cast of characters. Cover is $15; there are too many good sets to list. The late show on opening night, a Yusuf Lateef tribute with Sylvie Courvoisier on piano and Mat Maneri on viola, is tempting. But the best one of all might be the late set Friday night, May 22 at 10 PM where Bajakian and his singer wife Julia Ulehla reinvent ancient Moravian folk songs from their recent collaboration, Dalava.

The duo project – streaming at Bandcamp – has a really cool backstory. Bajakian and Ulehla first discovered those songs in a hundred-year-old book passed down through her family, meticulously transcribed by her great-grandfather Vladimir. But rather than trying to recreate an ambience to match the era the book dates from, the two decided to do their own versions. The results run the gamut from plaintive to jaunty to richly otherworldly: it’s an unselfconsciously magical album. The opening track takes a stark, rather mystical melody, infused with longing, and adds echoey harmonies and creepily tinkling glockenspiel, sparsely and then lushly orchestrated with violin from Tom Swafford and Skye Steele. By contrast, the second number is darkly bouncy, the violins’ acidic lines underpinned by Shanir Blumenkrantz’s spiky gimbri.

They follow that with a wistful waltz, Bajakian’s mutedly dancing reverbtoned incisions and surrealistic blues lines anchoring Ulehla’s dramatic, knifes-edge Czech vocals. From there the guitar and strings hit a minimalistic, otherworldly pulse that Ulehla eventually risees over with a pensive elegance. Mamičky (Mother) mines a similarly hypnotic ambience, but with a swaying, feral groove with guitars and violins wailing in tandem.

Originally a big, rousing hymn, Nech Je Pán Lebo Kraál gets reinvented as an airy, poignantly atmsopheric mood piece, Ulehla’s gently melismatic lines awash in Bajakian’s ebow guitar. Then they have fun with an old mountain melody, Bajakian’s burning, fuzztone metal attack contrasting with Ulehla’s delicately precise vocals. On Litala, she rises to wary, otherworldly levels over fluttery, misterioso ambience before the band picks up with a similarly uneasy, dancing pulse.

The love song after that reverts to gentle minimalism, just vocals echoed artfully by violin. The band does Vyšla Devcina as a creepy circus rock waltz, Bajakian’s icepick guitar paired against nebulous strings and Ulehla’s calmly enigmatic voice. The album winds up with Hájíčku Zeleny, its most gently anthemic, woundedly epic track. The audience for this is vast: fans of Balkan music, obviously, but also dreampop, cinematic soundscapes, indie classical, psychedelia and folk music as well. Follow these two to a land that time forgot.

The Bright Smoke Earn Comparisons to Joy Division

Lots of groups draw comparisons to Joy Division. Inevitably, all of them fall short. None of them can match that iconic band’s shatttering gothic art-rock grandeur…and nobody goes as far into the abyss as Ian Curtis. The Bright Smoke are a rare exception to that rule. In a way, their new album, Terrible Towns – streaming at Bandcamp – could be the great lost Joy Division album between Unknown Pleasures and Closer. Except that frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson doesn’t sound anything like Ian Curtis. However, she does have a powerful, angst-fueled low register, something akin to Cat Power without the affectations (ok, hard to imagine, but just try). She’s as strong a tunesmith and lyricist as she is a singer, and an inventive guitarist. Her songwriting is equally informed by oldtime acoustic blues and dark rock: other than the guys from Manchester, the new album occasionally brings to mind the live Portishead album. The Bright Smoke are playing the Cameo Gallery on May 19 at 9 PM; cover is $8.

As you would expect from such a relentlesly dark outfit, their songs are on the slow side, and usually in ninor keys. Beyond having a woman out front, the Bright Smoke distinguish themselves from Joy Division in that they’re considerably more swirly and psychedelic. Live, drummer Karl Thomas colors the songs with a terse, almost minimalist precision and the occasional jazzy flourish. Lead guitarist Quincy Ledbetter is a monster player, a master of texture and timbre, who although he has blazing speed doesn’t waste notes: if Bernard Sumner had started playing earlier than he did, he might have ended up sounding something like Ledbetter. Lately, for atmospherics, onstage the Bright Smoke have been including an electroacoustic element.

The album’s opening track, Hard Pander, could be Sade covering Joy Division. Wilson’s lyrics are enigmatic, sardonic, often imbued with gallows humor and this number is typical:

I don’t have to fake my inclinations
I don’t have to draw on my scars
You’re in over your head, girl
Pander right and pander hard

The way the bass rises, a low harmony with the wary, wounded guitar overhead in Like Video is a recurrent, artful touch throughout the album: this band really works every dark corner of the sonic spectrum. And Wilson’s cynicism is crushing:

I hear the Midwest stretches on for miles
And calls you back and it’s always on time
I hear it don’t have a past like mine
I hear the Midwest don’t have a voice to raise
Just settles down on her knees and prays
And makes you feel big in your small way
Baby, I’m in town today

On Ten also works a recurrent trope, Wilson’s elegant fingerpicking against layers and layers of lingering ambience, a savage dissection of Notbrooklyn ennui:

Join, join, join the ranks
Of the pretty, white, and jobless
And pray your daddy’s money away
At St. Sebastian’s School for the Godless

August/September is a diptych, the first part a plaintive piano waltz evoking Joy Division’s The Eternal, the second fueled by a menacing, echoing pulse that ends in crushing defeat: its quiet, sudden ending is one of the album’s most powerful moments. “There’s a bloody side to this, I don’t share your sunny disposition,” Wilson warns in Exit Door, with its wickedly catchy “You wanna know where the money comes from” mantra. Shakedown, a creepy roadhouse boogie in Lynchian disguise, brings to mind Randi Russo. “If there’s a game of losing friends…you and I would be Olympians,” Wilson broods.

Howl builds nonchalantly to an unexpectedly catchy, yet unpredictable chorus that would be the envy of any stadium rock band, a sardonic look at self-absorption lit up by a nimble tremolo-picked Ledbetter solo. City on an Island, with its watery chorus-box bass and 80s production values evokes early New Order and might be the album’s catchiest song. It might also be its most searing one, a kiss-off to a fauxhemian:

Good luck with your pylons
With your city on an island
And good luck with the small false hints
That you live the way I live

The album’s final track, simply titled Or, is a Mississippi hill country blues vamp, T-Model Ford spun through the prism of psychedelia and trip-hop, closer to the band’s stark, spare previous output than anything else here. Look for this around the top of the best albums of 2015 page in December if we make it that far.

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