New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: southwestern gothic

Greek Judas Bring Their Ferociously Psychedelic Middle Eastern-Flavored Metal Back to Barbes

There’s so much going on in this city that even with the ongoing gentrification-driven brain drain depleting the talent base, there’s more good music than a single blog could conceivably cover. Which creates a triage situation. Doesn’t it make the most sense to cast as wide a net as possible rather than focusing on one scene, which in this city, these days, is probably more of a micro-scene anyway? On the other hand, some bands are so much fun that you want to see them again. For example, this blog caught Greek Judas’ first-ever show at Barbes last year, which was so interesting, and so much different from anything else in town right now. Their next gig is back at Barbes at 10 PM on February 25.

The prospect of seeing the group – who do artsy metal covers of obscure, Middle Eastern-flavored gangster songs from the 1920s and 1930s Greek underground – on Lemmy’s birthday (RIP) was impossible to resist, especially since it was an early afterwork show. That made it easy to run to the G train afterward before the line went dead and hightail it over to Williamsburg to grab a couple of drinks at Duff’s. And then head up to Grand Victory, where Karla Rose & the Thorns finally hit the stage just a little before midnight, then rampaged through a murderously intense set featuring a couple of tunes by the Misfits and Buzzcocks in addition to Rose’s own misterioso minor-key noir narratives.

Greek Judas’ show that evening, as you would expect, was a lot tighter than their debut back in August. The group have been mining the crime rhymes and drugrunning anthems popular among Greek Cypriot refugees of a hundred years ago for awhile, first doing them pretty straight-up under the name Que Vlo-Ve (whose Bandcamp page has an intriguing handful of free downloads). But electrifying the songs (Judas – get it?) seemed inevitable. Guitarist Wade Ripka now switches back and forth between his six-sring and a lapsteel, which he runs through a Fender tube amp with the reverb way up for a ferocious blast of sound. His six-string counterpart Adam Good draws on his chops as A-list Middle Eastern oudist: at this show, the two traded searing, chromatically slashing minor-key verses and ended up stomping all over the end of each others’ phrases to seal the deal.

At both this show and their most recent one at the end of last month at Barbes, frontman Quince Marcum ran his vocals through the board clean without any effects rather than using the trippy, pitch-twisting pedalboard he brought the first time out. He played horn on one of the final numbers, singing in Greek in a strong, resonant baritone. From the perspective of a non-Greek speaker, it’s impossible to get what they do on more than a musical level, but Marcum offers helpful translations and has an unselfconscious passion for the songs. Crack whores, hash smugglers, henpecked husbands, busted beggars trying to outwit the cops, gangsters in jail plotting their next move (let’s get our ouds and jam!) all make appearances. The band’s usual choice of closing number sounds like the Bad Brains.

It’s hard to figure what kind of ceiling any band in town has these days: there’s more money to be made from the road than there is here, that’s for sure. But at the very least, on an artistic level anyway, Greek Judas are on the way up. If only for the cred of being able to saying you were there when it happened, if dark and assaultive sounds are your thing, now’s the time to catch them.

A Masterpiece of Noir and Southwestern Gothic by Bronwynne Brent

One of the best collections of dark Americana songwriting released over the past several months is Mississippi-born singer-guitarist Bronwynne Brent’s Stardust, streaming at Spotify. It has absolutely nothing in common with the Hoagy Carmichael song. What it does recall is two other masterpieces of noir, retro-tinged rock: Karla Rose’s Gone to Town and Julia Haltigan‘s My Green Heart. Brent’s simmering blue-flame delivery draws equally on jazz, blues, torch song and oldschool C&W, as does her songwriting.

The album’s opening track,The Mirror sets the stage, twangy Telecaster over funereal organ and Calexico’s John Convertino’s tumbling drums. “The mirror knows the cards that were dealt,” Brent accuses, “You were never there.” Keith Lowe’s ominously slinky hollowbody bass propels Another World, its eerie bolero-rock verse hitched to Brent’s dreamy chorus. She could be the only tunesmith to rhyme “felon” with “compellin’.”

The unpredictably shifting Don’t Tell Your Secrets to the Wind picks up from spare and skeletal to menacingly lush, with biting hints of Romany, mariachi and klezmer music: Nancy Sinatra would have given twenty years off her life for something this smartly orchestrated. By contrast, the banjo-fueled Devil Again evokes the dark country of Rachel Brooke. “You’re just a prisoner watching shadows dance, dancing to your grave,” Brent intones, then backs away for a twangy Lynchian guitar solo. She keeps the low-key moodiness going throughout the softly shuffling Dark Highway, Hank Williams spun through the prism of spare 60s Dylan folk-pop.

When You Said Goodbye brings back the southwestern gothic ambience, with artful hints of ELO art-rock. “When you said goodbye I knew that I would die alone alone,” Brent muses: the ending will rip your heart out. By contrast. Heart’s On Fire, an escape anthem, builds to more optimistic if wounded territory:”Well, you learn from your mistakes, sometimes the prisoner gets a break,” Brent recalls.

Already Gone builds shimmery organ-fueled nocturnal ambience over a retro country sway: spare fuzztone guitar adds a surreal Lee Hazlewood touch. Bulletproof gives Brent a swinging noir blues background while she shows off her tough-girl side: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Eilen Jewell catalog.

Heartbreaker leaves the noir behind for a spare, fingerpicked folk feel, like Emmylou Harris at her most morose. Lay Me Down blends echoes of spare Britfolk, mariachi, creepy western swing and clever references to the Ventures: “Distance grows between us, doesn’t that just free us?” Brent poses. She ends the album on a vividly Faulknerian note: “Guess I can’t stop drinking, not today,” her narrator explains,” You may think that I’m lonely and running out of time, but I’m not the marrying kind.” Add this to your 3 AM wine-hour playlist: it’ll keep the ghosts of the past far enough away where they can’t get to you.

Xixa Find Themselves in the Middle of the Year’s Best Lineup of Music on the 16th at Drom

Xixa are a Giant Sand spinoff. Formerly known as Chicha Dust, their name is as coyly entertaining as the psychedelic cumbias they play. But Giant Sand’s Gabriel Sullivan and Brian Lopez don’t just imitate the gloriously trebly sounds of Peru in the 70s, or pretty much anywhere south of the border in this decade: they’ve got an individual, sometimes harder-rocking, very 80s-inspired sound. Their debut vinyl ep Shift and Shadow is streaming at rockpaperscissors and out from Barbes Records.

They’re playing what’s most likely the best multiple-band lineup anywhere in New York this year – who knows, maybe anywhere at Drom on January 16, starting at 7:30 PM for a measly $10. Check out this lineup: Moroccan trance grooves with Samir Langus, psychedelic, surfy, vallenato-influenced art-rock groovemeisters Los Crema Paraiso, the even more psychedelic cumbia/salsa jammers Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta; the magically haunting, soaring all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache ; Xixa; then the darkly Middle Eastern flavored Nubian sounds of Alsarah & the Nubatones , rustic Haitian/Dominican cumbia/vallenato group Buyepongo and the newschool Ethiopiques-inspired dancefloor intensity of Debo Band sometime in the wee hours around 1 AM. For those in Park Slope, Buyepongo and then Xixa are also at Union Hall on 1/17 at 8 for $10

The ep’s title track welds Lynchian tremolo guitar and slithery minor-key organ to a peppy stadium rock chorus: you can practically see the sea of lighters rising as the sun goes down on Bonaroo or somewhere similar. The cover of the Meat Puppets’ Plateau – famously redone by Nirvana – looks not to grunge but to both the 80s goth-pop of bands like the Damned and Echo & the Bunnymen, as well as Peruvian jungle-rock legends like Juaneco y Su Combo. With its echoey timbale groove and serpentine organ, Cumbia del Platero brings to mind ornately orchestrated late-period Chicha Libre. The final cut, Dead Man slowly winds its way out of the synthy, chorus-box-guitar 80s toward a newschool cumbia slink.

A full-length album is scheduled for later in the year; fans of dusky, distantly ominous, trippy sounds should check this stuff out. And for those new to the genre, chicha is both a Peruvian malt beverage – sort of the Andean equivalent of Olde English or Colt .45 – and a slang adjective that translates roughly as “ghetto.” It’s also a style of psychedelic cumbia that first peaked in popularity in the 70s but was brought to the US by Chicha Libre and…you know the rest.

Jack Grace Puts on a Clinic in Latin-Inflected Surrealist Americana Tunesmithing and Entertainment at Barbes

Jack Grace was a good lead guitarist ten years ago. He’s a brilliant one now. Twenty years of constant touring will do that to you. Grace is best known for his surreal, LMFAO sense of humor and his funny songs that veer from exuberant vintage C&W, to Waits noir blues, to simmering southwestern gothic anthems. Leading a trio last night at Barbes, Grace put on a clinic in sizzling guitar and Americana songcraft. This was his latin set, propelled by drummer Russ Meissner’s expertly accented shuffle grooves. A flick of the cymbals, a rattle of the traps, a sudden gunshot rimshot, he made them all count. And maybe just coincidentally, it was a bittersweetly nostalgic show, at least as far as evoking the days ten years ago when Grace was booking the old Rodeo Bar, and could be found playing Lakeside Lounge on random Saturday nights when he wasn’t on the road.

They opened with Put on Your Shoes, Moonshine, a pensive, lyrically torrential desert rock anthem. Next was a boisterous trucker song peppered with filthy CB slang, the song’s chatty narrator wasting no time in explaining that the parking lot he’s spending the night is is so lame that the only hooker working it is a guy. “People that I can’t relate to don’t understand my ways.” Grace groused in Don’t Wanna Work Today, an uneasy, bluesy, minor-key Tex-Mex number.

“This next song is about snorting cocaine in the bathroom. There are plenty of places where you can do cocaine…but here in New York, the bathroom is where we do it,” Grace deadpanned in his cat-ate-the-canary, Johnny Cash-influenced baritone and then launched into Cry, a brooding minor-key cha-cha that swung from sly drug-fueled optimism to the despondency that sets in like a giant cat over the city the afternoon after a night of too many lines and too much tekillya. Speaking of which, he played his own version of Tequila – a dancing border-rock tune, not the surf rock instrumental – where the “lie, lie, lie” of the chorus spoke for itself.

The trio moved methodically from the muted country anomie of South Dakota to the sparse minor-key Waits blues strut Sugarbear. Throughout the set, Grace segued into deadpan country verses of familiar Led Zep songs, a trope he’s been working for years, more now since his side project Van Hayride – known for their even funnier covers of pre-Sammy Hagar Van Halen and other loud, cheesy stuff from the 80s – is temporariliy on the shelf. One of the night’s funniest moments was when Grace his his flange pedal, and without missing a beat, segued into a note-for-note cover of Pink Floyd’s Breathe, complete with a searing, doublespeed, savagely tremolo-picked guitar solo that would have made David Gilmour jealous.

The title track to Grace’s forthcoming album Everything I Say Is a Lie turned out to be a slowly swaying mashup of doo-wop, early 70s Willie Nelson and late 60s Jimmy Web balladry. Been So Long Since I Bothered to Think, an unselfconsciously haunting ba-bump bolero reminded just how dark and intense Grace can get when he’s in the mood. “In middle school I learned to criticize, the world’s broken down and compromised, “ he lamented – and then took a hit of beer and gargled a couple of choruses. Nobody can ever say this guy’s not entertaining.

The band went back to pensive, rustically bluesy ambience with Rotary Phone, a brooding, metaphorically loaded tale about getting old and out of touch, then some comic relief with a wry medley of Zep, Nirvana and Doors riffs. The set continued with a seriously bizarre C&W version of a Talking Heads song, then the absurdist mariachi funk of It Was a Really Bad Year – “A song that gets a lot of airplay this time of the year,” Grace mused – then a moody, pretty straight-up cover of Hank Williams’ I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. They closed with Big Bear, an electrified bluegrass tune from the film Super Troopers. Grace is at Coyote Ugly Saloon on First Ave. just south of 10th St. – who have bands now – on December 29 at around 9, then he’s playing a New Year’s Eve show in Saratoga Springs and returns to Coyote Ugly on January 5.

Bliss Blood and Al Street Bring Their Eclectically Lynchian Torch Songs to Freddy’s

Bliss Blood isn’t your typical Lynchian chanteuse. She’s as subtle as she is eclectic. With her coolly enigmatic, nuanced alto delivery, she brings to mind low-key cult favorites from the 50s like June Christy and Chris Connor. Retro as she is, she’s also completely in the here and now, putting her own simmering, low-flame spin on sinister, seductive songwriting, but also on purist pop that draws on artists as diverse as Ray Davies and Lee Hazlewood. Her latest album, Unspun, with longitime guitarist and collaborator Al Street, made the top albums of 2015 paage here. The two are playing an intimate Brooklyn show on December 29 at around 7:30 PM at Freddy’s. Another tunesmith who draws on more rock-oriented, similarly purist if somewhat more recent influences, the  sardonically lyrical Scott Phillips a.k.a. the Monologue Bombs opens the night at around 6. It’s a rare opportunity to see Bliss Blood’s duo project outside of her usual swanky haunts like Hamptons hotspots and the Soho Grand Hotel.

This blog most reently caught the duo in Wiilliamsburg at the well-loved and badly missed Brooklyn Rod & Gun Club (yeah, it’s been awhile). Blood played her trusty ukulele while Street aired out his bottomless bag of jazz, flamenco and blues licks., sometimes adding fiiery surf tremolpicking, occasionally anchoring the songs with biting, trebly basslines. Blood has lent her voice to more diverse projects than most singers with her command of distant menace – noise-punks the Pain Teens, acoustic blues band Delta Dreambox and one of New York’s original oldtimey swing bands, the Moonlighters being just a few – but this show was pure, Lynchian noir. The scampering swing number they opened with turned out to be a red herring, followed by a proto-Vegas noir tune, evoking an era when the casinos were still desert sand. The slowly swaying tune after that mashed up oldschool 60s soul and bittersweet 30s swing…then they hit the afterburners and took it doublespeed, Street firing off volleys of circling Sam Langhorne-style 60s blues riffage.

Blood’s tunesmithing shifts keys constantly, and counterintuitively: you never know what’s coming next, but it’s a good bet that the song’s going to be a real haunter. As jaunty and fun as Blood can be, there aren’t many songwriters who can channel longing and despondency as vividly yet distantly as she can. One prime example at this show was a gorgrously pouncing ballad that wound up with a rain-drenched Street janglerock solo. Their cover of Secret Love put the original Doris Day version to shame while alluding to the C&W guitar of the Loretta Lynn hit. After that, they did a waltz lit up by Street’s hornets-nest chord-chopping. He did the same thing on the sultry, misterioso Entropy, one of the new album’s standout cuts.

Another of the album’s best numbers, No One Gets It All came off as part restrained, lurid 60s Henry Mancini noir pop, part opaque janglerock, with an oldtime swing shuffle groove. From there the duo ran through blues, and flamenco tinges, alluded to Lady Day’s I Cover the Waterfront, veered toward more straight-up jazz, took a high-energy detour into Tex-Mex and then back to wounded, lowlit Twin Peaks territory with a chilling take of Palace of the Wind. It was a night of lots of styles and lots of stylish picking, a good indication of the depth of this duo’s troubled and alluring catalog.

The 50 Best Albums of 2015

Seven or eight years ago, everyone was predicting the demise of the album. That hasn’t happened, and as long as we have recording technology, it won’t. A few other predictions from the past decade, however, have come true. Albums these days tend to be shorter, and artists are releasing fewer of them. And as a result, they’re consistently better, since acts are no longer contractually obliged to record labels to churn out product regardless of whether or not they’ve got first-class material ready to go. A couple of artists on this list are on boutique labels, but everybody else is independent.

On this page you’ll find a link to stream each album in its entirety. Whenever possible, those links are to ad-free sites like Bandcamp or Soundcloud so you can multitask in comfort without having to ride the fader to mute the ads. Considering the vast number of albums released in any calendar year, you shouldn’t regard this list as gospel. It is, however, an informed survey based on careful triage followed by a sampling of several thousand releases, and then a locked-in, analytical listen to the best 500 or so, from this past January up to the present date. A LOT of time went into this. For purposes of keeping the list under control, none of the many thousands of excellent jazz, classical and avant garde releases are represented here. Realistically, there’s a limit on how much territory a single blog can cover.

The one collection that packed the most mighty wallop – a pretty quiet one, actually – and wins the title of best album of 2015 is Who’s Counting, by Rachelle Garniez. With gallows humor, terse piano, accordion and spare acoustic guitar, it’s the New York songwriter’s shortest, most intimate and darkest album, a masterpiece of existentialist rock, grim explorations of mortality and global carnage juxtaposed with jaunty, sultry, cabaret-flavored set pieces. This is the second time a release by Garniez has topped this list: her 2007 album Melusine Years ranked #1 that year at this blog’s predecessor. Stream it at Spotify

As far as the rest of this rich crop is concerned, there’s no ranking here, since there are so many styles to choose from. Seriously: what’s better? Carol Lipnik‘s otherworldly art-rock, Twin Guns’ savage garage-punk and horror surf, or Hungrytown‘s magnificently pensive folk noir? Apples and oranges, right? These albums are all so good that they can stand alongside anything here.

Les Sans Culottes- Les Dieux Ont Soif/The Gods Are Thirsty
The New York-based faux-French rockers deliver their most satirical, bitingly hilarious, spot-on critique yet…in French, of course, with a harder, more guitar-fueled edge than the retro 60s psychedelic pop they’re known for. Stream it at Soundcloud

Regular Einstein – Chimp Haven
Velvet-voiced, wickedly lyrical janglerock songwriter Paula Carino is another artist who topped the Best Albums of the Year list at this blog’s predecessor. In her case, that release was 2010’s Open on Sunday. This is her first new one – since the 90s, in fact -with her original New York band, packed with delicious double entendres, bittersweet narratives and tricky time signatures. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Bright Smoke – Terrible Towns
Haunting singer/guitarist Mia Wilson’s full-length debut with this atmospheric, blues-infused art-rock project ranks with Joy Division for angst-fueled, white-knuckle intensity. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Sideshow Tragedy Capital
Guitarist/frontman Nathan Singleton brings a ferocious, bitterly apocalyptic lyrical sensibility to his fiery gutter-blues band. Stream it at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Love, Crime & Other Trouble
Jeff Morris of the phantasmagorical Kotorino and Ellia Bisker of dark chamber pop band Sweet Soubrette join forces on their debut full-length release, a lyrically and historically rich mix of murder ballads and tales of relationships gone spectacularly wrong. Stream it at Bandcamp

Carol Lipnik – Almost Back to Normal
The best album by the best singer on this list, a launching pad for her spectacular four-octave vocal range, backed by luminous, hypnotic piano from Matt Kanelos and strings by Jacob Lawson. Allusive apocalyptic themes of natural and manmade disaster and post-9/11 terror linger in the distance. Stream it at Mermaidalley.com

Ember Schrag – The Folkadelphia Sessions
Hypnotically Beatlesque art-rock, smoldering Macbeth-inspired narratives and a killer Great Plains gothic anthem by the style’s most lyrical and distinctive practitioner. Stream and download it free from the Folkadelphia page

Twin Guns – The Last Picture Show
A mighty leap for the ferocious power trio, including but not limited to their Cramps-style stomp. This one’s a lot more psychedelic and noir surf-oriented. Stream it at Bandcamp

Lorraine Leckie & Pavel Cingl – The Raven Smiled
Spare and surreal yet majestically enveloping art-rock and Slavic folk noir sounds from the Canadian gothic songstress and Czech violin wizard. Stream it at Bandcamp

Rachel Mason – The Lives of Hamilton Fish
One of the darkest albums on this list, this lush, evocative mix of historically-inspired janglerock and folk noir traces the seeemingly unconnected lives of two early 20th century figures who shared the same name: a serial killer and the scion of a famous New York political legacy. Stream it at Bandcamp

King Raam – A Day & a Year
A majestic, brooding Iranian art-rock record by the pseudonymous expat baritone crooner and bandleader. Lyrics in Persian. Stream it at Soundcloud

Fernando Viciconte – Leave the Radio On
The noir rock bandleader originally hails from Argentina; this haunted, doomed concept album, with significant contributions from REM’s Peter Buck and others, could be the great lost Steve Wynn release. Stream it at Bandcamp

Litvakus– Raysn: The Music of Jewish Belarus
A rousing, exhilarating mix of rare Jewish dance numbers,lively originals and morose folk tunes from the badlands of Polesia, in the corner where Belarus, Poland, Latvia and the Ukraine meet. One of the best party albums on this list. Stream it at Bandcamp

Raya Brass Band – Raya
Another awesome party album, the third release by the New York Balkan group is their most original, stylistically and emotionally diverse one yet, incorporating Ethiopian and latin sounds into their rapidire chromatics. Stream it at Bandcamp

Tipsy Oxcart – Upside Down
A fat rock rhythm section anchors these deliriously edgy minor-key Balkan, Turkish and Jewish themes and originals. Stream it at Bandcamp

Marianne Dissard – Cologne Vier Takes
The southwestern gothic/art-rock chanteuse and bandleader at the top of her uneasy game, in a mix of richly atmospheric yet intimate versions from her darkly lyrical catalog. Lyrics in French. Stream it at Bandcamp

Tom Warnick & the World’s Fair – Side Effects
The well-loved noir rock cult figure turns in a characteristically diverse mix of ghoulabilly, noir swing, soul and blues, all with his signature black humor and a luridly smoky band behind him. Stream it at Spotify

Matt Keating – This Perfect Crime
Getting away with murder is the loosely interconnecting theme on this typically diverse blend of janglerock, Stonesy stomp, Americana and soul-infused sounds, all with Keating’s richly sardonic, literate lyricism. Stream it at Mattkeating.com

Tracy Island – War No More
The long-awaited full-length debut from captivating singer/multi-instrumentalist Liza Garelik Roure – former leader of deviously psychedelic popsters Liza & the WonderWheels – is her catchiest and most pensively colorful yet, fueled by husband Ian Roure’s sizzling lead guitar. Stream it at Lizasongs.com

Bliss Blood & Al Street – Unspun
The iconic noir torch song heroine builds lowlit, lurid, delectably lyrical ambience in an intimate duo recording with her longtime flamenco-inspired six-string guy. Stream it at Bandcamp

Orphan Jane – A Poke in the Eye
Deviously witty, creepy noir cabaret and circus rock from this irrepressibly theatrical, Brecht/Weill-inspired New York crew. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Universal Thump – Walking the Cat
Famously recorded at Abbey Road Studios, frontwoman/keyboardist Greta Gertler has never written with greater wit or purist pop chops than she does here with her lush chamber pop/art-rock project. Stream it at Bandcamp

Sarah Kirkland Snider – Unremembered
The most lavishly orchestrated album on this list features vocals from Padma Newsome and Shara Worden throughout a mix of brooding, sweeping art-rock reflections on harrowing childhood experiences and similar trauma. Stream it at Bandcamp

Goddess – Paradise
The latest release by the phantasmagorical New York art-rock band captures them in creepily enveloping psychedelic mode. Stream it at Bandcamp

Bobtown – A History of Ghosts
Eerie, sepulcural Appalachian folk tunes, creepy newgrass, retro soul, murder ballads, black humor galore and exquisite four-part harmonies from the band that might be the best folk noir act around. Stream it at Bobtownmusic.com

Mike RimbaudPut That Dream in Your Pipe and Smoke It
Yet another provocative, surrealistically lyrical, tight powerpop and retro new wave record from one of the most fearlessly funny, spot-on chroniclers of post-9/11 global society anywhere. Stream it at Spotify

Hungrytown – Further West
The most elegantly arranged and arguably best album by poignant Americana songstress Rebecca Hall and multi-instrumentalist Ken Anderson’s plaintive folk noir band Stream it at Spotify

The Sway Machinery – Purity & Danger
One of the great guitar albums on this list, this richly textured, intricately arraanged, soaring collection of anthems sees the band venturing further from desert rock toward cantorially-inspired psychedelia. Stream it at Spotify

The TarantinosNYC – Surfin’ the Silver Screen
Catchy, fun, vividly cinematic surf rock, spy themes and psychedelic soul from one of NYC’s most original instrumental units. Stream it at Spotify

Dalava – their debut album
Guitar polymath Aram Bajakian and his haunting singer wife Julia Ulehla combine to reinvent stark traditional Moravian themes with an electric edge. Stream it at Bandcamp  

Patricia Santos – Never Like You Think
The auspicious, intense, eclectic soul-infused debut by the charismatic cello rocker and Kotorino member. Stream it at Bandcamp

Eleni Mandell – Dark Lights Up
Los Angeles noir soul, bittersweet torch song and Americana by an icon of dark retro songcraft. Stream it at Spotify

The Whiskey Charmers – their debut album
Twin Peaks C&W, Appalachian gothic, dark blues and jangly rock from this shadowy, female-fronted Detroit dark Americana band. Stream it at Thewhiskeycharmers.com

Figli di Madre Ignota – Bellydancer
High-energy, Gogol Bordello-esque circus rock and Romany punk songs with hilarious, satirical lyrics in Italian and English. Stream their “spaghetti Balkan” sounds at Soundcloud

The Frank Flight Band – The Usual Curse
The British counterpart to Blue Oyster Cult reach back into the vaults for this haunted mix of Doorsy art-rock, shapeshifting psychedelia and unexpectedly macabre gothic sounds. Stream it at cdbaby

Dawn Oberg – Bring
The irrepressible parlor pop pianist/chanteuse at the top of her sardonic, lyrically rich game in this mix of personality portraits and psychopathological analysis. Stream it at Dawnoberg.com

Jennifer Hall – her debut ep
An intriguing, auspicious mashup of noir soul and art-rock from the powerfully nuanced Chicago song stylist and her excellent, eclectic band. Stream it at Spotify

The Grasping Straws – their debut album
Edgy songwriter/guitarist Mallory Feuer’s snarling, hard-hitting, scruffy, defiantly lyrical first full-length effort goes in a more straightforward, less jazz-inspired direction than the band’s initial ep. Stream it at Bandcamp

Ben Von Wildenhaus– II
Southwestern gothic, slinky bellydancer noir themes and Twin Peaks atmospherics from the loopmusic guitar master and esteemed noir soundscaper. Stream it at Soundcloud

Naked Roots Conducive – Sacred521
Cellist Valerie Kuehne and violinist Natalia Steinbach’s tormentedly cinematic, surrealistically intense art-rock dives menacingly and blackly amusingly into themes of alienation and ahwer despair. Stream it at Bandcamp

Lions – their debut ep
A slinky, trippy mix of Ethiopian grooves, Israeli stoner rock jams and cinematic themes. Stream it at Bandcamp

George Usher & Lisa Burns – The Last Day of Winter
Intense, autumnal purist powerpop, blue-eyed soul and psych-pop tunesmithing from two highly regarded, veteran songcrafters. Stream it at Spotify

Banda de los Muertos – their debut album
Epic, ornate, richly arranged, reinvented Mexican brass band ranchera themes and sweepingly majestic, blazing originals from trombonist Jacob Garchik’s imaginative big brass ensemble. Stream it at Spotify 

Spanglish Fly – New York Boogaloo
A hard-hitting, wickedly arranged, cleverly crafted update on classic 60s salsa soul from this irrepressible, danceable, psychedelic New York outfit. Stream it at Bandcamp

Curtis Eller & the New Town Drunks – Baudelaire in a Box: Songs of Anguish
Intriguing new translations of classic, surrealistically creepy Baudelaire poems set to starkly bluesy, phantasmagorical tunes by the charismatic circus rock bandleader and the Eastern Seaboard noir group. Stream it at Bandcamp

Elisa Flynn – My Henry Lee
The darkly eclectic songwriter and hauntingly luminous chanteuse’s most spare, terse album blends starkly funny individualist anthems with more pensive material and a classic murder ballad. Stream it at Bandcamp

Fireships – their debut album
Imaginatively arranged Americana rock and chamber pop with a fearlessly aware, Dylanesque, populist lyricism. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Amphibious Man – Witch Hips
Enigmatically lo-fi, twistedly Lynchian, surf-tinged reverb rock. Like nothing else on this list and yet in a way like an awful lot on this list, in terms of general darkness. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Honeycutters – Me Oh My
Oldschool female-fronted honkytonk with a newschool, sharply literate, defiantly populist lyrical edge. Stream it at Spotify

The Old Ceremony – Sprinter
Folk noir and serpentine, intricately arranged, Lynchian art-rock and chamber pop from Django Haskins’ darkly eclectic band. Stream it at youtube – but BE CAREFUL – a loud audio starts immediately when you click the link, mute the sound before you do

For more yummy clickbait, other 2015 lists here include the forthcoming playlist at the Best Songs of 2015 page and the Best New York Concerts of 2015 page.

Murder and Mayhem in Brooklyn, Again

One of Brooklyn’s most unique music scenes is growing in the wilds of Fort Greene, where noir chamber pop connoisseurs Charming Disaster – Ellia Bisker of the darkly catchy Sweet Soubrette and Jeff Morris of the lushly orchestrated, latin-tinged, phantasmagorical Kotorino – host a monthly salon where artists from many different genres get together to explore the darkest side of songwriting. It’s only fitting that the latest installment of Murder Ballad Mondays would take place on the darkest day of the year, this December 21 at 8 PM at Branded Saloon. Featured artists include enigmatic art-rock cellist/chanteuse Serena Jost, haunting High Plains gothic songstress Karen Dahlstrom (of folk noir stars Bobtown), the luridly theatrical, Brechtian Orphan Jane, Americana singer-songwriters Karen Poliski and Terry Radigan and others.

One explanation for the monthly extravaganza’s popularity could be that the artists here don’t limit themselves to old Appalachian folk songs or Child ballads. They’re pushing the limits of how far murder ballads can go: who knows, maybe this could become more than a demimonde. As the turnout here proves, there’s no shortage of material, not to mention people who like creepy music. This past month’s lineup, in particular, featured some of New York’s elite songsmiths, who turned in some pretty amazing performances.

Jessi Robertson, with her impassioned, otherworldly, rustic blues voice, got the night started on a strong note with a morosely stately waltz. “Should have burned it to the ground, dance in the dark…it’s a sad old story,” she intoned, low and gloomy. Then she referenced Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles over a mesh of watery, open guitar chords.

Sharply literate Americana parlor pop chanteuse Robin Aigner followed with an almost gleeful take of Delia’s Gone – springboarding off the Johnny Cash version – and then reinvented Neil Young’s Down By the River as a brooding minor-key waltz. In between, she sang a brand-new song, a swinging, catchy oldtimey strut: “I can’t shut you up, I can’t shut you out but I can shoot you and put you in the ground,” she grinned, explaining that the victim was a composite of ex-boyfriends rather than a specific individual. Yikes!

Jessie Kilguss made her US debut on harmonium (she played it on her most recent European tour) on a riveting, soaringly enveloping take of the Nick Cave version of the old standard Henry Lee. as well as making her way through a rapt, stark take of an original, Hell Creek, backed by guitarist John Kengla’s icy, late Beatlesque chorus-pedal guitar. Guitarist Arthur Schupach led his Donald & Lydia duo project through another take of Henry Lee, this one based on the Jolie Holland version. Speaking of which, that’s who Ellis Dodi frontwoman Erica Diloreto brought to mind, throughout a mix of material including a hilarious acoustic punk tune where she dropped a whole slew of f-bombs on a clueless ex.

Juliet Strong played kinetic, rippling gospel and ragtime-fueled piano on a couple of originals, while Charming Disaster tantalized the crowd with a single tongue-in-cheek number about a couple of ghosts in love, pulsing with intricate, sophisticated vocal call-and-response between Bisker and Morris. And a familiar bass face from the Lower East Side scene took a haphazard turn on piano, drawing some chuckles with a bitter 6/8 ballad about killing the tech-obsessed, micromanaging boss from hell. A ghoulabilly number about doing in the sleazy front guy from a hydrofracking operation didn’t go over as well. And a cover of a brand-new, as-yet-untitled Karla Rose & the Thorns serial killer narrative – done as a dirgey bolero with horror-film chromatics – capsulized the danger of a guy with Lou Reed vocal range plundering the repertoire of an immensely more powerful singer. Which speaks to Murder Ballad Mondays’ value as lab for experimentation as much as entertainment.

Miwa Gemini Plays Her Smart, Surreal, Uneasily Enigmatic, Jangly Rock at a Rare Afternoon Show

Miwa Gemini is sort of the missing link between Shonen Knife and Calexico. She’s got the endearingly surreal lo-fi Japanese janglerock thing down cold, but she also has a southwestern gothic side. She likes waltzes, but these days it seems that she likes boleros even better. Her quirky sense of humor, along with the birittle vibrato that trails off as her voice reaches the end of a phrase, bring to mind Melora Creager of Rasputina. Gemini’s clangly, reverb-tinged minor-key guitar fits in among the many bands haunting the northern fringes of desert rock, like And the Wiremen. For those of you who might be stir-crazy after spending the evening in while the annual Santacon puke-a-thon made so many of us prisoners in our own homes, Gemini is playing the small room at the Rockwood at 4 (four) PM today, December 13. It’s a pass-the-tip-jar situation.

At her most recent show, at Branded Saloon last month, Gemini and her trumpeter had the misfortune to follow a sizzling set by another duo, cellist-vocalists the Whiskey Girls. Charismatic belter Patricia Santos aired out her powerful and spectacular vocal range throughout a mix of sultry blues, an in-your-face kiss-off song or two and a murderous oldschool soul narrative, all the while playing slinky basslines, ominous deep-well washes of sound and challenging harmonics that required a lot of extended technique. Tara Hanish carried the lead lines with her elegantly serpentine, sometimes baroque-tinged phrasing while adding similarly spot-on high harmonies on the vocal side.

After all that, you might think that Gemini would have been anticlimactic, but she wasn’t. As a guitarist, she didn’t waste notes, using lots of simple, catchy descending lines and uneasy chromatics. As a singer, she projected strongly despite being under the weather after taking a red-eye flight back from a West Coast tour. Some of the duskiest, darkest material seemed to be new, while much of the rest of the set drew on Gemini’s most recent album, Fantastic Lies of Grizzly Rose. It’s a trippy narrative loosely centered around an imperturbably adventurous imaginary muse and possible alter ego – or wishful alter ego. Gemini and her bandmate jangled and soared through the briskly uneasy border-rock shuffe Goodnight Trail, then later on (or before – the memory is fuzzy on this), made a hypnotic Steve Wynn-style low-key groove out of the psychedelic soul ballad The Other Half of Me. Gemini has done a lot of different styles, from oldtimey to swing to garage rock and psychedelia over the years, but she’s never sounded more eclectically tuneful than she has lately.

Another Haunting Knockout From Marianne Dissard

Marianne Dissard is one of this era’s great cult artists. Known as a connoisseur of desert rock, she’s equally adept at new wave, but doesn’t limit herself to those two genres. Born in France, she relocated to Tucson in her teens and quickly laid the foundation for longstanding collaborations with Giant Sand and Sergio Mendoza, resulting not only in unimpeachable cred but also a deep and distinctive body of work. Perhaps ironically, for someone so tireless and endowed with so much joie de vivre, the pixieish, charismatic contralto singer’s best album to date is her most somber. Years of relentless touring eventually took their toll, and in 2013, Dissard basically crashed. The result was The Cat. Not Me, a majestically orchestrated art-rock masterpiece that, as a portrait of complete emotional depletion, ranks with anything Leonard Cohen or Ian Curtis ever wrote.

One considerably more upbeat constant throughout those years of touring has been that Dissard has always documented the various bands she’s played with. Not with live albums, but by taking whoever she had on the road with her into the studio in various cities throughout Europe, as the schedule would allow, to knock out a quick, tight snapshot of wherever her music happened to be at the moment. Her latest release in that series, available in a neat hybrid vinyl/cd format streaming at Bandcamp, is Cologne Vier Takes, an intimate, stripped-down trio set with Yan Péchin on guitars and Allyson Ezell on backing vocals, recorded in a single whirlwind afternoon between gigs earlier this year..

The opening track, Oiseau (Bird), is devastating – literally. Dissard intones her loaded images of the hapless creature hitting the window and then collapsing with a wounded understatement that permeates the quieter material from this session. Underneath, Péchin builds a richly textured web of electric and acoustic guitars, like the early Velvets if they’d been more elegant and raised on the Arizona/Mexico border. The gospel-fueled trip-hop original on The Cat. Not Me was good, but this is far more harrowing. Dissard and Péchin work the same dynamic, a little louder, on the defiant, sarcastically titled Mouton Bercail (Domestic Sheep).

Likewise, Les Confettis gets transformed from bouncy post-Blonde on Blonde Dylan into broodingly swaying, lushly echoey folk-rock, finally rising to a burning guitar crescendo after Dissard has chronicled every shard of torn paper: death by a thousand twisted little heartbreaks. The version of Les Draps Sourds (The Drunken Sheets) is Dissard at her surrealistic best, the deep-space menace of the guitar in contrast with her wry account of the kind of interruptions lovers sometimes have to deal with at the least opportune moment.

Tortured, distorted guitar underpins Dissard’s similarly tormented lyrics on the take of Election here. It has the presence of a full band, even with just the one instrument and Dissard’s typical vocal understatement – she’s as brilliant a singer as she is a lyricist, in this case in French, although she also writes fluently in English and German. The album ends with the whisperingly venomous kiss-off ballad Cayenne, another rapt blend of vocal and guitar nuance. There’s no other short album released this year that can compare with this.

Not to distract you from appreciating this album, but there’s also a free download of Dissard playing a similarly intimate trio show live on WFMU in 2009, up as a free download at the Free Music Archive, that you should grab immediately: as of today, over 3500 people have already beaten you to it. Dissard also promises a lavishly packaged best-of compilation in 2016, and hopefully a full-length memoir as well.

Karla Rose & the Thorns Bring on the Shadows in Williamsburg Next Tuesday Night

Something like what you’re about to read might have happened at a Karla Rose & the Thorns show. In case you’re up for a night of shadowy suspense, the noir cinematic rockers are playing Grand Victory on December 15 at around 10. Charismatic, dark psychedelic rocker Vic Thrill, of the Bogmen, plays beforehand at 9; cover is $10

It’s an unseasonably cool mid-July night in Cobble Hill. Outside Hank’s Saloon, a black Hummer with matching windows takes the corner off Atlantic onto Third Avenue a little too close. The heavy tread of the right rear tire clips the edge of the sidewalk. The imposing military-issue 4X4 lurches briefly and pulls up on the right, past the bus stop. A trio of hooded figures exit through the passenger door, into the shadows, and make their way to the bar.

Inside, there are three separate crowds, or at least the makings of them. In the darkest part of the bar, to the left of the door, a similarly shadowy cadre of locals gathers in a semicircle closed off to the rest of the patrons. It opens just enough to let the newcomers in and then closes again. A package is underhanded, briskly and nonchalantly, to the contingent at the bar rail. That gesture will be reciprocated, just as matter-of-factly, moments later.

A gaggle of pretty women in their 20s, poised and professional in their office wear, takes over the middle of the bar. They’ve got steam to blow off, in resreve, glad the work day’s over. Laughing and smiling, they gather around the ponytailed brunette in the center and her vast gallery of phone photos. They’re here for the band, looking forward to a night of minor keys and distant menace.

Dark Americana singer Jessie Kilguss walks in through the side door with her band. Setting up onstage, singer Karla Rose puts aside her Telecaster and cables; the two share a quick hug. Casual and inscrutable in her black bangs, black slacks and dark top, Rose is Josie Packard to Kilguss’ shiny, red-dressed Donna Hayward. The latter will eventually battle a problematic sound system and an increasingly noisy crowd which becomes mostly oblivious to what’s going on at either end of the joint. Later in the week she will leave on a long European tour with the Waterboys.

At the front of the bar, two middle-aged men banter tensely. The silver-haired gentleman closest to the stage, Brooklyn born and raised and proprietor of a well known music blog, has the upper hand. His younger counterpart, dressed in black from his boots to the top of his late-zeros vintage Mets cap, isn’t having it. “I actually saw the Dream Syndicate,” he scowls. “Not the original Karl Precoda version, but the one after that.” It’s not implausible. That band first broke up in 1989; a teenager would have had no problem getting into CBGB in those days.

In front of him on the bar is a black backpack. Several times throughout the show, he’ll reach inside for something shiny and metallic, as if to make sure it’s still there. Del Shannon gets covered; this is a bar, after all. So do the Collins Kids, a crepuscular, blue-flame number where the bassist learns it on the spot. He has to – it’s his hook.

Rose’s Telecaster is too low in the mix, but her voice isn’t. She cuts the corners a lot better than that SUV. Slithery blue notes and melismas float through the PA: if there are ghosts in this place, they’re out now. In a momentary break between songs, the bartendress comes out from behind the bar to give Rose a hug. “What was that Wanda Jackson song you played?” she wants to know.

“That’s Lorrie Collins,” Rose smiles. Then she jangles through a handful of expansive jazz chords over the rhythm section’s misterioso syncopation. Rose is a proficient jazz singer, but that’s not a style she does in this band. The man in black stares in, completely stumped. Then Rose begins the first verse of the Motels’ Only the Lonely, faster and more straightforwardly but also with more nuance than the wounded, reflecting-pool soul in Martha Davis’ vocals on the original. This will be the only time that the man in black’s features will soften, but not fondly or wistfully The expression is sadness. Distant memories of an old girlfriend, maybe? More likely, someone who wasn’t a girlfriend. Hard guys and hard lives are not strangers.

Rose leads the band through a slow killers-on-the-run narrative, an allusively murderous tale set in a seedy seaside Mexican tourist trap town and a slow number that sounds like a reverb guitar theme from a John Barry spy movie soundtrack. Lead guitarist Dylan Charles plays sparse, evocative mid-60s Memphis blues licks, wisps of ghoulabilly and a little purist C&W along with endless volleys of chainsaw chord-chopping, a hailstorm of reverb blasting from his amp. Rose sings mostly with her eyes closed, swaying, lost in minor keys. The blogger waits for his moment, then tilts his camera and catches Rose in full profile as she looks back to signal to the drummer. Meanwhile, Kilguss has joined the guys at the front of the bar. The man in black whispers something in her ear. Kilguss laughs, a waterfall of sound in contrast to the grey, rain-drenched sonics lingering overhead.

The show is over sooner than anyone expects. Afterward, Rose engages her fan base midway down the bar, smiles at their new pix. The man in black approaches her, rolls his eyes; she shrugs. A minute later, she slides a drink down the bar; he nods appreciatively, but the scowl lingers. Then he walks out.

At the police precinct outside the shoddy new basketball arena about a quarter mile away, the sound in the area is being monitored for gunshots. A computer is doing the honors. The man in black passes the conspiratorial crew huddled just inside the door and makes his way outside. They pay him no mind. He reaches deep into the backpack as he approaches the Hummer. If there’s a sudden pop or two, it’s drowned out by the rumble of the diesel of the eighteen-wheeler moving slowly up Atlatnic, accelerating out of the light.

To be continued?

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