New York Music Daily

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Category: southwestern gothic

Americana Crooner Jack Grace’s Long-Awaited New Album Might Be His Best Yet

Back in the radio-and-records era, conventional wisdom was that a band’s first album was always their best. The theory was that in order to get a record deal, a group had to pull together all their most impressive songs. These days, that theory falls apart since artists can release material at their own pace rather than having to constantly deliver new product to the boss at the record label.

Still, how many artists do you know whose material is stronger than ever after twenty years of incessant touring and putting out the occasional album? Crooner/guitarist Jack Grace, arguably New York’s foremost and funniest pioneer of Americana and urban country, is one of that rare breed. His long, long awaited new Eric Ambel-produced album Everything I Say Is a Lie is arguably the best thing Grace has ever done, due out on April 28 and presumably streaming at Soundcloud at that point. Grace and his band are playing the album release show at around 8 PM on April 27 at Hifi Bar.

Interestingly, this is Grace’s most straight-ahead rock record to date: there’s plenty of C&W influence but no straight-up honkytonk this time around. It’s also more straightforwardly serious than Grace is known to be, especially onstage. As usual, the band is fantastic: a swinging rhythm section of ex-wife and Pre-War Pony Daria Grace on bass, with drummers Russ Meissner and Diego Voglino, plus Ambel contributing plenty of his signature, counterintuitive guitar and Bill Malchow on keys.

Driven by a catchy, tremoloing guitar riff, the album’s first song Burned by the Moonlight is a garage-soul number spiced with some characteristically savage lead work from Ambel. Grace’s voice has an unexpected, angry edge: “Let the wolves tear you heart out every night,” he rasps. Kanye West (I Hear That You’re the Best) is Grace at his most hilarious. “Taylor Swift, I hear you’ve got a gift, I don’t want to hear any more about it…Kardashians are so beautiful, Lindsay Lohan’s problems are so real.” As good as the lyrics are, this slowly swaying late Beatlesque anthem’s best joke is when it becomes a singalong.

Run to Me follows the kind of allusively brooding desert rock tangent that Grace was often going off on five or ten years ago. “Evil has connections we can use,” he muses. Being Poor, a song for our time if there ever was one, has a stark, rustic Steve Earle folk-blues vibe: “It’s all got you down on your knees, no power to question why.”

Bad Wind Blowing has a tense, simmering roadhouse rock sway and a souful vocal cameo from Norah Jones: “Lean against the wind or get your ass blown to the ground.” Then Grace shifts gears into wry charmer mode with the steady backbeat Highway 61 rock of I Like You.

He sings the almost cruelly sarcastic title ballad over Malchow’s Lennonesque piano; Ambel’s twelve-string guitar break is just as surreal. Again, this song’s best joke is a musical one. By contrast, the album’s most crushingly relevant cut is Get Out. “We really used to try to get out of Brooklyn, now everybody’s trying to get in,” Grace laments over a stark banjo/guitar backdrop. It’ll resonate with anybody who remembers the days (ten years ago if anybody’s counting) before every entitled, recently relocated yuppie tourist in New York was starting a band named after this city’s second-most-expensive borough.

The album closes on a similarly somber note with So We Run, an unexpected and successful detour into early 70s style psychedelic Britfolk. Good to see a guy who’s been one of the most reliably good tunesmiths in town still at it, and at the top of his game.

Ani Cordero Brings Her Haunting, Reverb-Drenched Protest Rock to the West Side

Art by definition is subversive since it mirrors society’s downside as well as its upside, a secret that authoritarian regimes would prefer not to share (the Taliban outlawing music in Afghanistan, for example). By that standard, Ani Cordero’s new album Querido Mundo (Dear World), streaming at Soundcloud, is as transgressive as music can get in 2017. Not only because it’s extremely accessible, and the multi-instrumentalist bandleader’s Spanish-language lyrics tackle all kinds of controversial issues, but also because it’s one of the best rock records released this year. Cordero and her band are playing tonight, April 9 at 7:30 PM at Subrosa in the Meatpacking District. It’s a funny little club: most of the seating is on the staircase on the way down to the bar, where there are no sightlines, so it makes sense to get there in time. Cover is $10.

Cordero has a formidable list of credits beginning with her turn behind the drums in an early-zeros configuration of space-surf legends Man or Astroman. After that, she drummed for legendary downtown art-rockers Bee & Flower before switching to guitar in Cordero, her own enigmatically jangly indie group. At the same time, she was part of the considerably more politically-fueled, similarly jangly Pistolera.

But her latest material is her best. Her previous album, Recordar (Remember) reinvented protest songs from across the decades and the Americas. The new one is all originals. Her band is killer: Erich Hubner provides both Man or Astroman-style surf guitar and bass; Eileen Willis plays keys and accordion, with Lisette Santiago on percussion and Omar Akil Little on trumpet.

The bouncy ranchera-rock opening track, Corrupcion, mocks nickel-and-dime nepotism and greed in Puerto Rico but on a global level as well, Hubner’s savagely bluesy guitar solo giving way to a more hopeful one from Little. Awash in lingering reverb guitar, Alma Vieja (Old Soul) is a haunting southwestern gothic anthem, akin to Giant Sand covering the Church with more nuanced vocals than either of those groups. Likewise, Me Tumba addresses police brutality over a loping desert rock groove.

The tricky syncopation of the gentle, wistful, accordion-spiced immigrant anthem Voy Caminando harks back to Cordero’s indie rock work in the zeros. Over a gently insistent clave beat, the salsa-tinged Sacalo is a shot of encouragement for any woman trying to escape an abusive relationship. There’s similar hope in the gently lilting Pienses en Mi (Believe in Me).

The starkly pulsing El Pueblo Esta Harto (The People Won’t Take It) references Los 43, the forty-three Mexican student protestors abducted and murdered by government thugs in 2014. It wouldn’t be out of place on the Joe Strummer songbook.

Growling surf bass contrasts with spare Spanish guitar and ominously reverberating electric riffage in Culebra (Snake). The recurrent mantra is “Leave me here” – it’s the album’s most understatedly impactful and haunting track.The album’s catchiest, most anthemic cut is Dominas Mis Suenos (You Take Over My Dreams), part 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelic folk, part surf rock. Little’s trumpet flutters above a spiky web of guitars on the brightly resolute mariachi-flavored Vida Atrevida (Living Fearlessly), a challenge for dangerous times. The album winds up with the bittersweet Luto Por Nuestro Amor (Requiem for Our Love) and its blend of starry spacerock and saturnine desert-rock suspense.

Is Cordero – an American citizen with Puerto Rican roots – afraid of reprisals from the Trumpites? No. Her view is that it’s time for everyone with a voice to stand up for what’s right. Other songwriters ought to do the same. And they are – keep an eye on this page.

The Allah-Las Bring Their Ominous, Wickedly Catchy Psychedelia to NYC This Friday Night

The icy river of guitar reverb that echoed off the walls of Baby’s All Right in South Williamsburg turned out to be the perfect antidote to the hostility of the indian summer heat outside the sold-out first night of California psychedelic band the Allah-Las’ weekend stand late last September, the band’s most recent appearance here. The industrial-quality air conditioning blasting from the ceiling didn’t hurt either. And the decision to leave the room lights off, allowing illumination to filter in from the stage and from the back bar, only added to the hallucinatory ambience.

That the best song of the night – a dusky Steve Wynn/Karla Rose desert rock theme – didn’t have any words at all speaks to how catchy the Allah-Las songs are. That one appeared about an hour into the set. They’d also opened with an instrumental, a crepuscular, propulsive Doors/Frank Flight Band style vamp flickering with lead player Pedrum Siadatian’s twelve-string guitar, dancing, Indian-flavored flute lines and bubbling percussion in tandem with drummer Matthew Correia’s steady, cymbal-splashing groove. It set the stage for the rest of a shadowy, wall-warping evening

Th swaying, clanging, 13th Floor Elevators-ish Had It All kept the dusky ambience going. They opened the Del Shannon-noir number after that with a little Cape Canaveral launching pad noise, awash in reverb and distantly swirly organ. Bassist Spencer Dunham’s tersely cutting lines propelled the brooding sonics of the song after that up to a bittersweet major/minor turnaround on the chorus.

From there they went into steady, twilit Velvets clang-rock territory, Siadatian hitting his fuzztone pedal at the song’s end. Brief two-chord Elevators vamps interchanged with catchy, chugging, riff-driven Lou Reed tunesmithing, then a detour into ominous chromatic Laurel Canyon psych-folk, bristling with the occasional fuzztone lead. A misty, bittersweet ballad, a midtempo mashup of the Elevators and Arthur Lee punctuated by Siadatian’s surgically precise, lingering, tersely bluesy lead lines led to aurrealistically motoring Doorsy interludes mingling uneasily echoing electric piano into the echoey sonics. A dead-monk Yardbirds b-vox chorale made a brief appearance.

A later number blended Byrds chime with Plan 9’s distant sense of the macabre, then they played a dead ringer for LJ Murphy’s savagely classic Happy Hour. As incredibly catchy as this band’s music is, there’s always trouble on the horizon – just like our lives. The Allah-Las play this long strange trip back to you this Friday night, March 24 at Webster Hall at around 10; $20 advance tix are still available as of today.

Another Dark Chapter in Morricone Youth’s Marathon Series of Film Scores

Avi Fox-Rosen‘s record of releasing a dozen albums in a dozen months may be safe, but Morricone Youth aren’t far behind. The latest album from New York’s most prolifically cinematic band – in a planned series of fifteen soundtracks to films they’ve played live to over the past five years – is guitarist/bandleader Devon E. Levins’ original score for George Miller’s pioneering, dystopic 1979 post peak oil monster truck epic Mad Max. Like the rest of the series, the record is available on limited edition vinyl, in translucent Coke bottle greeen, and streaming at soundcloud.

The initial release in the series, a mix of the original score and new material composed for George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, explores the darkest corners of 60s psychedelia. The second, for the 1926 silent film The Adventures of Prince Ahmed, is more Morricone-esque, with Middle Eastern and Italian influenes. This new one is a mix of 70s art-rock and early new wave. Which makes sense: when the movie was in production, new wave rock was in its embryonic stages (and Mel Gibson, if he was a rightwing Christian supremacist nutjob then, hadn’t yet become famous for it).

As with much of Morricone Youth’s work, the album is a series of themes and variations. In general, the music is more overtly dark than the film’s exuberantly cynical narrative about vigilantes who can’t quite figure out how to get the max out of their prized but rapidly evaporating stash of petrochemicals. Dan Kessler’s washes of keyboards fuel the brief title theme: its motorik foreshadowing takes centerstage in the second piece, Mad Goose, over the furtive new wave pulse of bassist John Castro and drummer Brian Kantor.

Noir singer Karla Rose – whose forthcoming album of hauntingly lyrical songs is reputedly amazing – contributes distantly ghostly vocals to Clunes Town, a mashup of Del Shannon and Morricone spaghetti western. From there the band segues into Revenge of the MFP, which sounds like the Ex taking on a Richard Strauss theme famously repurposed for outer space.

Fraser Campbell’s balmy sax floats over a starry backdrop throughtout Jessie, a surrealistic love theme. Then Levins puts the rubber to the road with his grittily circling riffage in Nightrider, a careening chase scene. The band channel their main inspiration in the creepy, woozily psychedelic bolero Anarchie Road, followed by Johnny the Boy. a sardonic mashup of early Squeeze and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Kantor propelling it with a tumbling leadfoot drive. Castro’s Geezer Butler-like, growling bass pushes Toecutter as it rises from Pink Floyd ominousness toward krautrock. The closing credits roll to the surprisingly upbeat, starlit spacerock of Bad Max. That there are another dozen albums like this in the works is really something to look forward to in what’s been a horror movie of a year so far.

A Look Over the Shoulder at Americana Crooner Jack Grace’s Darkest Record

Since the early zeros, Jack Grace has been one of the bright lights of the New York Americana sceene. He tours constantly, puts out geat records, gets his songs in a lot of movies, is a hell of a guitarist and with that big baritone of his, can croon with anybody. He booked Rodeo Bar for years, until that late, lamented venue was forced out by a rent increase – and whose space is still unoccupied, two years later. Grace has a new album in the works, ostensibly titled Everything I Say Is a Lie. His next New York gig is at Bar Chord in Ditmas Park at 10 PM on Dec 10, and that is the truth.

Grace’s most recent album, The Money’s Gone Away – some of which is at Grace’s Soundcloud page– is where he really concretized the latin sound he was drifting toward on the one before that, 2010’s Drinking Songs for Lovers. But that’s a funny album and for the most part, this one’s dark and serious. The album’s title track is an uneasy cha-cha with creepy vibraphone lingering in the background, a grimly allusive early teens nocturne from when it was clear that the divide between rich and poor was only getting worse.

Hard Times All Around is the kind of midtempo oldschool C&W numbers Grace writes so well, backlit with keening pedal steel and his own stark guitar lines over the swinging rhythm section of his bassist wife Daria Grace and drummer Russ Meissner. Stark violin opens the tango-inflected Jack/Daria duet Warm Rock in the Sun, a horn-spiced cautionary tale.

Maybe Ya Wanna waltzes morosely out of a moody flamenco intro, a lament for missed chances that hits a bitter peak capped off by a bitingly psychedelic Grace guitar solo. The album’s haunting centerpiece, Don’t Run Out of Gas rises from spare, fingerpicked southwestern gothic to a towering backbeat drive:

Smoke has yet to clear
Battle was fought, I don’t think it was won…
Don’t run out of gas
My advice to you
Try to get there fast
For your troubles

With its creepy, icy chorus-box guitar and tuba pulse, Bothered to Think works the kind of blackly sardonic. bluesy Tom Waits territory that Grace dove headfirst into on his 2007 album The Martini Cowboy. Ghostly steel guitar mingles with spiky ukulele and terse violin in Polenca’s Blues, a windswept cinematic theme, followed by Poor Boy. a swinging 99-percenter lament.

Just when you might think that I Think I Broke My Heart is a mellow slice of dadrock, Grace hits a minor chord and runs his vocals through a vintage chorus pedal: “It hurts just to breathe,” he shivers.

Another real gem, the wistful Remember When We Were in Love, blends vintage Memphis soul and artsy late Beatles unease. By contrast, We Made It harks back to the surrealistically swinging oldschool C&W Grace was writing after his cult favorite 90s jamband, Steak, went on hiatus (they’re back on Dec 23 at the Bitter End, of all places)..

The only cover here is the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazlewood hit Summer Wine – it’s not awful, but there’s no getting away from the Vegas cheesiness. The album winds up with Lobster, Steak and Seafood, one of those silly, boisterous vamps that Grace likes to jam out live, a shout-out to roadside diners, which as dubious as they be, still beat the hell out of Olive Garden.

Tredici Bacci Air-Kiss a Classic Italian Cinematic Sound

Among the innumerable great bands to emerge from the Barbes scene in Brooklyn, nobody’s riding more of a wave of popularity right now than Tredici Bacci. As Chicha Libre did with Peruvian psychedelic cumbias from the 60s and 70s, and Les Sans Culottes have done with 60s French ye-ye pop, Tredici Bacci play their own inimitable, original songs inspired by Italian film music from forty and fifty years ago. Their debut full-length album, Amore Per Tutti, isn’t officially out yet and consequently not yet streaming at their Bandcamp page. They’re playing the album release show on Nov 12 at the Park Church Co-op, 129 Russell St. just off Nassau Ave. in Greenpoint at 8 PM. Cover is $15; it’s an all-ages show. The closest train is the G to Nassau Ave.

The album’s opening track, Columbo sets the stage, a skittishly strutting Bacharach-ish theme with horns, frontman Simon Hanes’ reverb guitar over keening roller-rink organ..The women in the group supply jaunty vocalese as it winds out. Likwewise, Ca C’est Cantare (some of the titles here are all over the map linguistically) is a dead ringer for 60s Bacharach bossa, spiced with blippy trumpet, balmy sax and strings, and more ba-ba vocals.

Modern Man rises from spare accordion and wordless vocals to a stern, hefty theme straight out of the Gato Loco songbook…then guest crooner Ryan Power follows a blithely waltzing tangent that sounds suspiciously like the kind of satire that Avi Fox-Rosen has so much fun with. The inevitable Morricone spaghetti western theme, Avante, is a great approximation: trebly bass, twangy guitar and the requisite mariachi trumpet over a galloping beat. The only giveaway that it actually isn’t Morricone is the vocals: instead, it could pass for Bombay Rickey minus that band’s swinging groove.

Swedish Tease turns out to be about as Nordic as a meatball hero, an almost frantic, scampering romp lit up with bluesy organ, surf drums, mosquito guitar and a wryly noisy interlude midway through. Ruth Garbus‘ airily dancing, unpretentiously jazz-inflected vocals match the joyously tricky metrics of Slusher. Elysian Fields frontwoman Jennifer Charles lends her blue velvet allure to Drowned, which alternates between bloodcurdling Lynchian tremolo-guitar sonics and a contrastingly lighthearted bossa tune.

Give Him the Gun features JG Thirlwell (who has a characteristically ambitious, lavish new album of his own just out) on vocals, an update on 70s Nino Rota disco. Souvenir de Beaucoup d’Amor is an unlikely successful mashup of Dark Side-era Pink Floyd, tarantella pop and oldschool organ soul – un peu bizarro, nyet? Vincenzo Vasi supplies lounge-lizard vocals to Nessun Dorma, a swaying chamber pop remake of an old operatic theme. Otherwise, the only real miss among the otherwise infinitely clever eleven tracks here is Vendetta Del Toro, a decent Morricone impression ruined by stupefyingly lame, off-key vocals. They’re so bad that it raises the question of who might have been serviced to get such an embarrassing effort – or, more accurately, lack of effort – in the can.

Morricone Youth Slay Zombies in Williamsburg

It’s hard to imagine a better way to cap off Halloween month than watching Morricone Youth play a live score to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Backs to the crowd, gamelan style, so they could follow every split-second cue onscreen, the band’s performance this past evening at Nighthawk Cinema in Williamsburg was a lot more entertaining than the movie. From the applause afterward, one suspects that the sold-out audience agreed.

The score is just out and available on limited edition neon green vinyl, the inaugural release in an ambitious series of fifteen soundtracks to the midnight movies the band’s played live to in the past five years. This one is a very cleverly intertwined series of three themes and variations, comprising both original soundtrack pieces and newly composed material. Although keyboardist Dan Kessler used his synclavier to trigger the occasional motorik loop, and guitarist/bandleader Devon E. Levins seemed to have an atmospheric wash or two stashed away in a pedal, everything else was completely live. Bassist John Castro matched a looming, booming presence to poinpoint precision in tandem with drummer Shaun Lowecki, who impressed with his tightness and subtlety despite having been pressed into service with just two rehearsals.

Kessler took centerstage most of the time with an endlessly shifting series of texures: eerily twinkling electric piano, sardonic wah-wah chromatics, ghostly music-box glockenspiel and warpy, rasping 60s synth tones. Levins lurked in the corner, stage left and alternated expertly between stilletto tremolo-picking, a little spaghetti western twang, elegantly menacing ripples and lingering, murderous ambience.

And like the movie, the score was absolutely hilarious in places. With an almost simultaneous flash of grins throughout the band, the group gently worked their way through a twinkling, sotto-voce love theme while a bizarre hint of romance between humans beseiged by zombies flickered onscreen. And the sudden, emphatic jolts in a couple of segments of the increasingly macabre main theme turned out not to mirror gunshots, or zombie deathblows. Timed to the split second, those sudden hits drove home the nails that the film’s protagonist was lackadaisically hammering in order to bar the doors and windows of the house that serves as the set for almost the entire film.

About the movie: for those who haven’t seen it, it’s like an Ed Wood production. Eighty percent of the budget gets saved for the vehicles and extras at the end. Watching how Romero pads the film to stretch it out to full-feature length – here’s the Pontiac going up the hill! Now here it is going down that same hill! – is funny at first and then leaves you wondering whether it’s time to take a break for a snack, or for the bathroom. Both of which would have been an option, had the band not been playing: the venue is primarily a bar/restaurant that just happens to show movies. The only real mystery here was where the box office was. “Upstairs!” hollered the guy behind the downtstairs bar. But the only office up there didn’t open until right before the performance.

Halloween Gets to Greenpoint a Little Early This Year

If your ideal Halloween would be coming face to face with something genuinely disturbing rather than filling up on a bucketful of free candy, going out into icy, torrential rain would be a good way to start the evening. The spy satellites can’t see through the clouds, and the spycams get all streaked up. Watch your back, and you could literally get away with murder.

The walk from the L train past McCarren Park to Manhattan Inn on Greenpoint Avenue, and then back, was enough to soak through a heavy winter coat the night that Big Lazy and Beninghove’s Hangmen played what could have been a notorious show there. The prospect of seeing two, maybe even three hours of macabre, marauding, stampeding noir cinematic instrumentals – and the cred of having been witness to it – justified the trip, theoretically at least.

The show that this blog trumpeted last spring as being the year’s most auspicious twinbill didn’t exactly turn out that way. Not a fault of the bands, or the musicians, but the space.

If you’ve seen a band rip the roof off your local every month for almost two years, you hold them to a high standard (another way of looking at it is that you take them for granted). If you’ve followed this blog at all, you’re undoubtedly familiar with Big Lazy. For those who’ve stumbled onto this page for the first time, the guitar/bass/drums trio play reverbtoned, cinematic instrumentals that blend David Lynch film score sounds with those of an earlier era, from Nino Rota’s Fellini themes, through surf rock and Ennio Morricone spaghetti western. Live, about half of what they play is improvisational: they are the consummate dark jamband. They also rely very heavily on audience interaction: people typically dance at their shows.

But there was nowhere to dance here. What was weirdest was how the band was set up: guitarist Steve Ulrich and bassist Andrew Hall found themselves facing drummer Yuval Lion, in the center of the room, surrounded by tables of diners and neighborhood newcomers who’d probably ducked in to get out of the rain. This completely discombubulated the trio: not being able to see half the crowd was obviously a drag, and the group never got unglued. Songs were shorter, solos far more brief, and from the perspective of sitting behind the drums –  the only place left in the room by the time the show started – it was hard to hear what was going on. For any musician who’s ever struggled through a tough set, don’t get down on yourself: even the world’s best bands sometimes have an off night. Usually it’s not their fault.

By the time Beninghove’s Hangmen hit, they were half in the bag and didn’t let the weirdness of the configuration – amps facing the drums – stop them from turning in a ferocious, careeningly intense set. They opened with an epic take of Surf N’ Turk. The version on their amazing Rattlesnake Chopper album is a blistering, Middle Eastern-flavored horror surf number; this time around, they started with a volcanic metal intro and then slowed down to a midtempo swing, through a long, forlorn Rick Parker trombone solo, saturnine microtonal jangle from guitarist Dane Johnson and some savage, insistent, hammering passing tones from bandleader/tenor saxophonist Bryan Beninghove that he’d reprise several times over as the night went on.

By contrast, Surfin’ Satie – a gleefully evil go-go surf take on a classic Erik Satie tune – was just as amped-up as the album version, the group clearly gasssed to have drummer Sean Baltazor back behind the kit. Then they slowed things down with a haphazardly psychedelic take of Pineapples and Ashtrays, the centerpiece of their new album. The studio version pairs a subtly sunny, wryly sarcastic cornpone theme with an increasingly horror-stricken chase narrative. This time out, they ramped up the psychedelics, guest guitarist Jon Lipscomb playing axe murderer against Johnson’s heavy-lidded bemusement. From there the band skanked slowly through the Lynchian dub reggae of Lola’s Got a Gun, brought the red-light roadhouse theme Roebuck down to a slow swamp-rock groove, and eventually ended with droll, explosively elephantine takes of familiar Neil Diamond and Led Zep tunes.

Big Lazy return to their someday-legendary monthly Barbes residency this Friday, Oct 7 at 10 PM; Beninghove’s Hangmen don’t seem to have anything coming up at the moment. But this is Halloween month – watch this space!

Big Lazy: 2016’s Ultimate Halloween Band

What better way to kick off Halloween month, 2016 than with the world’s slinkiest, most shadowy instrumental trio, Big Lazy? They play both kinds of Halloween music, the trick-or-treat stuff as well as the sinister. In all seriousness, they’re a lot closer to the latter than the former. Guitarist/founder Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion return to their monthly first-Friday-of-the-month, 10 PM residency this coming Friday, Oct 7 at Barbes.

It’s a fair guess that the people who were running Punk Magazine back in 1976 caught the Ramones at CB’s more than a few times that summer. And at least some of the hippies at the Village Voice back in the 60s might well have seen Phil Ochs at Folk City more than once. If you buy the premise that this blog is to New York what, say, Punk Magazine was to this city forty years ago – or what the Voice was a decade before then – it makes sense that New York Music Daily would be in the house for several Big Lazy Barbes shows in 2016. The funnest one might have been the most recent and cleverly improvisational, where Lion was just plain having a ball with all sorts of counterintuitive rhythms and syncopation, and Michael Bates – who shares a jazz pedigree with Hall – took over on the four-string. Another fun set was a couple of months back when Kill Henry Sugar‘s Dean Sharenow, a frequent Ulrich film score collaborator, sat in on drums, bringing his signature snare sound along with a dry wit to match the bandleader’s unparalleled, bleak sense of humor.

But the year’s best Big Lazy show – this blog has caught pretty much all of them – wasn’t at Barbes. It was at the Lively, a refreshingly laid-back basement bar located in the Meatpacking District, of all places. That joint had nice people working there, cheap drinks (at least by the standards of that neighborhood), a real stage in the back and a fantastic PA system. Sadly, this year’s strongest contender for “best Manhattan venue” barely lasted a couple of months.

But what a show Big Lazy played there. They ripped through Princess Nicotine, a machinegunning, barely three-minute minor-key ghoulabilly sprint that Ulrich wrote as a soundtrack piece to an obscure early 20s short film of the same name. The creepiest number of the night was Skinless Boneless, a slowly swaying, macabre tableau adrift in oceans of guitar reverb and tremoloing tritones. They didn’t do their serial killer strut version of Piazzolla’s Pulsacion No. 5, or their uber-noir cover of Thelonious Monk’s Epistrophy, both of which they aired out at Barbes this past summer, but they did do the early Beatles hit Girl, reinventing it as a dirge in the same vein as their deadpan take of Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me. And they did some new stuff, including one serpentine mini-epic that swung from neo-Nino Rota Fellini score, to more rocking and psychedelic, to sheer terror in places. As at Barbes, there were couples up front, dancing. Which is what noir is all about, anyway: grabbing what you can while the shadows close in.

Another Creepy Classic Album and a Couple of New York Shows from the Handsome Family

Andrew Bird says that Brett and Rennie Sparks of the Handsome Family are this era’s greatest songwriters. He ought to know: he did a whole album of Handsome Family covers. Whether or not you agree with Bird – another one of this era’s best tunesmiths and wordsmiths –  you can’t argue with the Handsome Family’s iconic status in folk noir circles. They’ve got a new album, Unseen – streaming at Spotify – and a couple of shows this weekend. On Friday, Sept 30 they’re at the Mercury at 8:30 PM for $17 in advance; the following night, Oct 1 they’re at the Knitting Factory for the same price, a half-hour later.

It’s interesting how the new album is a throwback to their earliest days, when they were more of a straight-up Americana band. However, this is a harder-rocking effort. The opening track, Gold takes the hallowed tradition of the outlaw ballad into the Oxycontin era: “Got a tattoo of a snake and a ski mask on my face, but I woke up in the ditch behind the Stop-and-Go,” Brett intones. “Lying the weeds with a bullet in my gut, watching dollar bills fly away in the dust.” The interweave of his own tremolo guitars, Alex McMahon’s baritone guitar and pedal steel is as luscious as the cruel irony of the narrative. It’s classic Handsome Family.

The Silver Light shambles along with an acoustic honkytonk feel, a crushingly cynical Vegas casino scenario. “Neon glowstick in your drink.” For fans of classic 60s and early 70s country, the backing vocals are priceless. The broodingly cello-infused Back in My Day offers a typical Rennie Sparks narrative:

We had maps that unfolded
You could drink from the river
We had gods made of clay
There were mile-high glaciers
No locks on the doors
The stars burned brighter
We never counted past four

And at that point it becomes more and more clear that the good old days, while a lot more temperate than these cruel final global warming years, weren’t all they might be cracked up to be.

The bittersweet passing tones of the pump organ solo in the carnivalesque waltz Tiny Tina might be the album’s most understatedly heartbreaking touch. Underneath the Falls brings a distantly ominous, majestic, jangly Byrds-style grandeur to that waltz tempo, another global warming-era requiem.

Rennie makes her first appearance on vocals on The Sea Rose, a catchy, jangly, twist on a classic siren song with a gorgeously spare acoustic guitar solo midway through. The album’s most epically allusive cut, The Red Door is a Lynchian doo-wop update on a Brothers Grimm theme. The stately swaying Gentlemen, with its quaint electric harpsichord and cello, offers a shout-out to William Crookes, who invented the vacuum tube in 1875 as an ostensible means to access the great beyond.

King of Dust, a desolate wreck-on-the-highway scenario, revisits the cruel irony of the album’s opening cut. On the surface, the final cut, Green Willow Valley is a comfortable pastoral nocturne, but if you listen closely, the subtext is crushing. If this is the last album the Handsome Family makes before global warming, or the plutonium leaking into the Pacific from Fukushima reactor number three, kills us all, it further cements their status as arguably this century’s best band. Look for this on the best albums list of 2016 here if we make it that far.