Karen & the Sorrows are one of New York’s most most individualistic Americana bands. For those who might think that’s like being the best cumbia band in Iceland, keep in mind that Americana, hip-hop and reggaeton are this city’s default styles of music right now. The band’s brooding first album traced the narrative of a ghost story from lead guitarist Elana Redfield’s native New Hampshire. Their new one, The Narrow Place – streaming at their music page – also covers a lot of dark territory, but it’s a lot more eclectic. It’s inspiring to see how much the group has grown musically. They’re wrapping up their current US tour, with an album release show at 10 PM on Sept 22 at C’Mon Everybody; cover is $10.
Drummer Tami Johnson keeps a stark, practically hypnotic beat as the album’s first track, Back Down to the Dirt gets underway: frontwoman/guitarist Karen Pittelman’s wary, soaring voice delivers an aphoristic, metaphorically-charged cautionary tale. Producer Charles Burst plays bass; on the rest of the album, Gerard Kouwenhoven keeps the four-string groove going.
Redfield’s pedal steel mingles with Julia Read’s fiddle behind Pittleman’s precise, chirpy vocals in Can’t Miss What You Never Had. a moody tale of 99-percenter longing for something better. The Wire is an ominously swaying noir Americana rock anthem that brings to mind the Walkabouts: “J.B. Flatt” supplies the funereal Hammond organ behind Redfield’s resonantly edgy guitar lines.
Pittelman’s bittersweet vocals bring to mind Amy Allison in the brisk, backbeat-driven Nowhere:
All these bones
On the other shore
How my sister sang
But I don’t sing no more
Take Me for a Ride is a big, aching, seductive rocker: “Here comes my girl in a flatbed Ford…let me take you out on the town, don’t care what those folks say,” Pittelman insists. Then she makes it clear that “I”m just the man who loves you” in the brisk highway rock number after that.
In The Price of the Ticket, Pittelman draws inspiration from James Baldwin’s assertion that artists should always reevaluate their work. It’s a bitter but resolute anthem for anyone who’s had to make a break with the past:
Write your notes back to home
In an alphabet they can’t read
Save your change for the phone
But no line could ever reach back
The album’s best and most allusively political song is the southwestern gothic-tinged Walk Through the Desert:
When they write what has happened here
It will seem so clear,
Like they knew
All that loss, all the haze and fear
It will disappear like the truth
The band go back to the country for the sad breakup ballad Do It For Myself. I Was Just Your Fool stomps along with some bitter theatrical imagery. The album winds up with Everything We Had, an unexpectedly welcome southern soul number.
Apropos of changing gender roles, isn’t it funny how the typical chick role in this band, i.e. the bass player, is a dude, while the women in the group play the rhythm guitar, lead guitar and drums? Maybe we’ve finally smashed the glass ceiling in music…or we’re just going back to an earlier era when groups like the Carter Family – or bands in villages across the world – divided up responsibilities among whoever was available to play regardless of who had the Y chromosomes.