New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: acoustic music

Elegant, Rustic, Imaginatively Reinvented Sounds For Lute and Viola Da Gamba

There’s no small irony in that lutenist Ronn McFarlane and viola da gamba player Carolyn Surrick’s new album Fermi’s Paradox – streaming at Spotify – may be closer to the original source of its centuries-old British folk music than anything released by generations of guitar fingerpickers. Many times throughout history, the most ancient becomes avant garde again and this charmingly rustic, nimbly performed mix of classic folk, baroque and original themes is a vivid example.

The duo open with the title cut, an original with echoes of a popular early 60s Bob Dylan acoustic hit, the lute’s plucky, banjo-like tone contrasting with the dark bass washes of the gamba. The two give She Moves Through the Fair an aptly ethereal spaciousness before picking up with a jaunty clip-clop beat.

The album’s third track is a mashup of an ancient Swedish processional of sorts, a spare, elegant Surrick waltz and a briskly strolling Marin Marais work, a contrast the musicians revisit later in the album with another Swedish traditional piece and a 18th century Robert Robinson miniature. Their take of Blackwaterside has unusual syncopation and lively ornamentation, while Dave Shepherd’s The Rose of Raby is much more straightforward, with a clog-dance beat and stark resonance from the gamba.

Daniel’s Chaconne, a solo lute piece by McFarlane, has somber harmonies just off-center enough to make the song’s origin in time a mystery. Trinity Grove, another McFarlane number, is more warmly lilting, yet could easily pass for a traditional tune.

The two musicians parse the baroque repertoire for a pensive Telemann triptych and then a gently elegaic version of John Dowland’s Adew For Master Oliver Cromwell. A Bach transcription of a brief, stately Hans Leo Hassler work offers the duo a launching pad for striking textural contrasts.

Their bluegrassy version of the Allman Brothers’ Little Martha is a hoot. They close the record with a stark Turlough O’Carolan diptych and then a wry blend of Bach and Ave Maria.

The only track which really shouldn’t be on this album – or any other album – is a famous hymn written by a mass murderer. It never ceases to be amazing that the slave trader who wrote it – and killed hundreds, maybe thousands of kidnapped Africans – continues to enjoy the posthumous grace of having his song performed. This blog says enough is enough.

Spot-On Protest Songs and Spare, Eclectic Guitar Instrumentals From Austin Legend Matt Smith

Multi-instrumentalist Matt Smith is one of the great guitarists in Americana, among many other things. These days, most importantly, he writes protest songs.

Check out How We Got to Here, a spare, fingerpicked, dobro-infused number from his most recent album Being Human. In under four minutes, he paints a grim picture of recent American history, from the coup d’etat in 2000, up to the lockdown and how social media has paralyzed so many of us when we’re needed most:

We all saw it coming but we’re too self-involved to stand
Against the ones back in the shadows who wait to implement the plan
When they told us this was normal and did not believe the news
We took pictures of our dinnes and proselytized our views

Smith finds optimism in historical rebellions against past tyrannies: let’s hope he’s right.

The rest of the record – streaming at youtube – mirrors Smith’s long career as a bandleader, sideman to the stars and owner of a recording studio, the 6 String Ranch, revered as one of the go-to spots if you really want a vintage Americana sound from across many decades. There’s another great protest song here, Sanctuary, a dusky minor-key Robert Cray-style blues about the xenophobia that South American refugees run up against once they cross the US border.

“Why does it feel like the sky is falling?” Smith asks in the cynical, loping title track. After that, Smith channels a vast range of styles ranging from early 80s Midnight Starr stoner funk, to the Who.

Smith also has a charming all-instrumental solo acoustic album, Parlor – streamin at Spotify – where he plays a beautifully restored heirloom 1890’s Thompson and Odell parlor guitar. Most of the tracks are on the short side, some less than two minutes. Blind Blake-inspired ragtime fingerpicking, Piedmont and delta blues, Yorkshire-style balladry, Indian music, Leo Kottke wizardry, and, improbably, indie rock all figure into Smith’s distinctive, sometimes stark, sometimes opaque compositions.

A Brilliant, Erudite New Blues Album and a Webcast From Mamie Minch

Mamie Minch hit New York in the early zeros while still in her teens and quickly got a reputation as a force of nature in the oldtime Americana scene. Almost two decades later, she’s earned herself a place among the greats who influenced her. Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Muddy Waters, look out, you’ve got company. Minch may be best known as an erudite, imaginative guitarist, but she also has a hauntingly nuanced alto voice and writes in an oldtime vernacular that can be raucously funny, or profoundly sad. 

Minch has a characteristically brilliant, sharply lyrical new album, Slow Burn streaming at Bandcamp and while she doesn’t have any shows scheduled at the moment, she is playing a webcast on Aug 20 at 6 PM on the Barbes youtube channel to celebrate.

It’s been an awful lot of fun watching her work up the material on the album onstage over the past few years: in the tradition of her predecessors over the past hundred-plus years, these songs have gone through many different incarnations. The first one, Deep Footsteps could be a hokum blues classic from the late 20s: Minch’s defiant, endless series of innuendos are irresistible. Drummer Dean Sharenow gives the song an emphatic swing; Minch close-mics her National Steel guitar to catch every available microtone resonating from her spiky fingerpicking

Fortified Wine, a slow Indian-summer front-porch lament, is another number that’s taken on a different shapes in the past few years. Here she’s joined by both members of Kill Henry Sugar, Sharenow and guitarist Erik Della Penna, who nails the mood with the the subtlest of slide guitar washes. The point of the song seems to be that being stuck with an addict is a bitch, whether in on some forlorn plantation in 1920, or in the here and now.

No More Is Love, a gentle, understatedly haunting Carter Family-style waltz, is an urban oldtime country song with more atmospherically drifting slide work from Della Penna. Big Bad Maddie is a remake of RL Burnside’s Poor Black Mattie with new lyrics which transform this character from downtrodden victim to total badass: she’s got “big dick swagger to keep those boys in line.” Logan Coale holds down a terse, minimalist bass pulse; it’s a revelation to hear Minch put her own spin on Mississippi hill country blues guitar.

The album’s other sort-of cover is Wee Midnight Hours, based on the version by Blind Wille McTell and Curly Weaver; Sharenow gives it an easygoing swing that recalls an even earlier time. The gorgeously bittersweet, even more bucolic True Blue was inspired by a New Yorker article about the unique properties of the color blue. CJ Camerieri adds spare, resonant french horn over Minch’s fingerpicking.

She winds up the record with the venomously bristling You Don’t Lift Me Up, a kiss-off to negative people, both specifically and in general, with echoes of Iggy Pop’s The Passenger. Della Penna’s sparse incisions are a perfect complement to Minch’s propulsively strolling groove. The band could have gone on for five more minutes and that wouldn’t have been too much. This record’s on the shortlist for best albums of 2020 in any stye of music.

Stark, Simmering Americana Nocturnes from Clara Baker

Fire is a recurrent metaphor on Americana songstress Clara Baker‘s new album Things to Burn, streaming at Bandcamp. But it’s not a fullscale inferno: it’s more of a brush fire that won’t flame out. Baker is the rare singer whose unselfconscious, nuanced delivery, with just a tinge of vibrato at the end of a phrase, can bring to mind Erica Smith. The album’s production is similarly understated and tasteful, matching the persistent unease, and distant longing, and low-key sultriness of the vocals.

The echoey Rhodes piano and Baker’s sotto-voce delivery on the album’s title track make it easy to believe that this song is about seduction…and it is, but the sarcasm is subtle, and withering, underscored by the sudden bursts from Courtney Hartman’s noisy electric guitar.

The ambiece is more skeletal, set to a circular mandolin riff in the minor-key Appachian-tinged second track, Doubt:

My mama brought me up with fate, my daddy brought me up with facts
I wanna pray at the altar of the certainty I lack

Baker maintains the sparse atmosphere in A Memory, a brooding tale of abandonment: “Strong as I am, I could never compete with a memory,” she muses.

Baker’s use of space is masterful: the occasionsl washes of slide guitar, or a reverberating accent from the Rhodes, pepper the slow waltz More Than Enough, a classic 70s-style Nashville ballad with minimalist production values.

Middle of the Night begins ambiently and then hits a sleepless trip-hop beat: it’s the album’s poppiest song. Six Days of Rain is the album’s killer cut, a slowly crescendoing, calmly harrowing account of getting dumped after what must have been a tortuous relationship.

I Won’t Take My Time is more hopeful, an oldtime front porch-style tune at halfspeed with probably a tenth the usual amount of strumming. Moving On is not the Hank Snow classic but a pensive, metaphorically-charged, backbeat-driven acoustic rock tune: “I’m grasping at the edges of who I was before I changed,” Baker muses. She closes the album with the gorgeously subdued Old Mountains, which evokes acoustic Pink Floyd, references a BeeGees song and has one of Baker’s most potent lyrics:

In a moment of bliss
Do you panic
Knowing something this good
Could never last…
Are you mining for joy
In old mountains
Are you panning for gold
In rivers of the past
I’ve walked that road
It hurts like hell
Letting go
Is something I know well

Impactful stuff from a quietly powerful voice.

Understatedly Troubling Music For Troubling Times From the Nine Seas

Folk noir superduo the Nine Seas take their name from the long-defunct, legendary Alphabet City bar 9C, located at the corner of 9th Street and Avenue C. Years before Pete’s Candy Store was anything more than a numbers joint, and more than a decade before the Jalopy opened, 9C was New York’s ground zero for Americana music. That’s where Liz Tormes and Fiona McBain cut their teeth at the wildly crowded, weekly bluegrass jam.

In the years since then, both would become important voices in Americana, as solo artists and with other bands (McBain best known for her longtime membership in the gospel and soul-tinged Ollabelle). This project, which began as a murder ballad cover act, also goes back several years, attesting to the chemistry between the two musicians. Their long-awaited debut album Dream of Me is streaming at their music page. It’s a mix of originals and imaginative covers, the two singer-guitarists occasionally abettted by keys and horns.

Tormes’ first number, Am I Still Your Demon is the album’s quietly potent opener. It has a classic Tormes vocal trick that she’s used before (see the devastating Read My Mnd, the opening number on her 2010 Limelight album). J. Walter Hawkes’ looming trombone arrangement perfectly matches the song’s understated angst.

The duo reinvent the old suicide ballad I Never Will Marry with a hazy dreampop tinge, as Mazzy Star might have done it. They do E.C. Ball’s fire-and-brimstone country gospel classic Trials, Troubles, Tribulations much the same way. Here and throughout the record, Jim White’s spare banjo, organ and other instruments really flesh out these otherwise stark songs.

Likewise, his glockenspiel twinkles eerily in Go to Sleep, an elegaic Tormes tune. McBain’s I Really Want You is just as calmly phantasmagorical: it’s more about longing than lust. Then Oliver de la Celle ‘s Lynchian guitar and White’s banjo raise the menace in a radical reinvention of Charlie Rich’s Midnight Blues

The hypnotic version of the murder ballad Down in the Willow Garden, a concert favorite, is all the more creepy for the duo’s bright harmonies and steady stoicism, White adding airy pump organ. McBain switches to piano for the even more atmospheric, Julee Cruise-ish Where He Rests.

They wind up the album with a pair of covers. They transform Midnight, a bluesy, Jimmy Reed-style 1952 hit for Red Foley, into minimalist girl-down-the-well pop. And they remake Don Gibson’s Sea of Heartbreak as jungly exotica: nobody plays with more implied menace than the Nine Seas.

The album also includes stripped-down alternate takes of Trials, Troubles, Tribulations and Midnight Blues. Beyond this album, since they’re unable to play shows at the moment, the Nine Seas have a weekly webcast, the Quarantine Chronicles, where they run through many other songs from the immense dark folk repetoire they’ve amassed over the years.

A Characteristically Rich, Diverse Year of Shows at Manhattan’s Best Venue for Acoustic and Folk Music

The American Folk Art Museum won the annual award for Best Manhattan Venue here back in 2016. It would be just as easy to say that again in 2019. Impresario Lara Ewen‘s mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series is still the most transit-accessible way to discover new songwriting and traditional music talent in this city, artists from all over the world covet playing in the museum’s rich natural reverb…and you can get a glass of wine here for a third of what it would cost you at Rockwood Music Hall.

As you would expect at a museum whose equally amazing exhibits document folk art and outsider art spanning the past few centuries, there’s plenty of folk music here. But even the oldtime sounds extend well beyond the world of fingerpicked front-porch acoustic guitar tunes. The best traditional show here this year was by singer Vienna Carroll, a historian whose insights into a set of rousing blues, gospel and string band songs reflected the triumphs of African-Americans over 19th century slaveowner terrorism and racism rather than the more common narrative of endless suffering. Queen Esther, a Folk Art Museum regular, reaffirmed that same fearlessly subversive esthetic at a couple of shows in February and July, featuring both Eastern Seaboard blues and soul-tinged originals.

Other entertaining oldtime folk shows included sets by the harmony-driven Triboro in May, as well as Irish tunesmith Brendan O’Shea (whose defiant, populist originals were even better) in July. Of all the original songwriters here, the most shattering was Karen Dahlstrom, whose November set featured a lot of material from her latest release No Man’s Land (a lock for best short album of 2019).  With her fearsome but meticulously nuanced alto, she aired out the fiery, gospel-infused title track, a Metoo-era broadside, as well as the metaphorically haunting After the Flood – a look at both personal and global apocalypses – and a new number, My Benevolent Destroyer, a chilling portrait of a broken marriage through the prism of imperialist domination.

Joshua Garcia, with his flinty voice and harrowing, Phil Ochs-inspired narratives, put the struggles of new immigrants and battered women in potently political perspective, along with the most chillingly allusive song about the Hiroshima bombing ever written. Miriam Elhajli sang in both English and Spanish, looking outward at the grim political climate as well as more inwardly, with intricate guitar fingerpicking and some intriguing jazz and Latin American riffs.

Niall Connolly held the crowd rapt with his brooding, tersely crystallized songs of struggle and emotional abandonment and rage against the Trumpies (a reaction that ran high at practically every show here this year). Soulstress Dina Regine, who played here in both April and June, was much the same, thematically, although her music draws more on classic 1960s American grooves.

How torchy singer Jeanne Marie Boes managed to get so much epic power and range out of her tiny keyboard is a mystery, although her towering, angst-fueled ballads and a couple of detours into darkly majestic blues had a relentlessly direct intensity. With her resonant chorister’s voice and deadpan surrealism, cellist/singer Meaner Pencil a.k.a. Lenna M. Pierce (she got her stage name the online anagram generator, she explained) was just as gripping, in a completely different vein.

Songstress/acoustic guitarist Kalyani Singh illuminated a dark inner world with a similar, often minimalistic focus, while southwestern singer Kate Vargas got the crowd going with singalongs and innumerable chances to have fun with beats. And Feral Foster – who runs the Jalopy’s longtime Roots & Ruckus series – didn’t let being under the weather get in the way of a characteristically haunted, expertly fingerpicked set of grim Nashville gothic laments and ballads.

The American Folk Art Museum’s Free Music Fridays series resumes January 10 at 5:30 PM with the soaring, brilliantly lyrical Linda Draper. There’s also an ongoing free series of guitar jazz concerts most every Wednesday at 2 PM with Bill Wurtzel and bassist Jay Leonhart.

The Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange Create the Newest Sound Around

Every month, the Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange plays the freshest material you can hear anywhere in New York. That’s because almost all of the Brooklyn collective’s songs are brand new. Ringleader Lorrane Leckie hosts a weekly salon where a rotating cast of some of the best songwriters you’ve never heard of – and some that you definitely have – workshop new material, then they take it to the stage in Williamsburg. Leckie in particular has been working on new material for her upcoming show on Nov 24 at 7 PM with her ferocious, psychedelic band the Demons at the Mercury. Fellow guitarslinger and charismatic singer Mallory Feuer’s equally ferocious band the Grasping Straws open the night at 6; cover is $10.

The October Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange lineup was typically diverse and just as interesting. Leckie debuted a forlornly strolling tribute to her recently departed French bulldog, Eloise, one of the more memorable musician mascots in this city in recent years. LJ Murphy, the group’s cleanup hitter, recast a couple of broodingly aphoristic older tunes as vintage soul music. Another first-class singer, Paul Anthony, went just as deeply into Sam Cooke-tinged soul.

The edgiest new material of the night was from Jeannie Skelly, one of the group’s strongest singers and guitarists. Her first number was a hilariously vindictive anti-fascist rant; the second was just as amusing, an apparently true story about an old friend who returns from his world travels a changed man: he’s become a vegetarian supremacist!

Carly Spell, a relative newcomer, held the crowd rapt with an allusively haunting chronicle of addiction and its most dire consequences. Likewise, Sara Hurwitz‘s poignant opening number, assesseddiminishing hopes for artistic community in a city completely devastated by gentrification. Lead guitarist Robert Troise added some neat bluegrass flatpicking on that one.

Eve Blackwater got everybody laughing and singing along to one of the funniest and most explicit fuck-you anthems written in recent months. Eric Richmond took the crowd back to a 1979 of the mind with a bleakly imagistic, tightly composed, Graham Parker-esque new wave tune. Teresa Toro, the latest and brighest addition to another collective, the Bushwick Book Club, brought down the lights with a couple of understatedly torchy, jazz-inflected numbers. Feuer also set aside her usual firepower for an enigmatic, more dreampop-flavored tune. And Sarah Murdoch, who might be the most powerful singer of the entire bunch, validated the argument that she’s just as nuanced and intense a blues singer as she is with jazz and Americana.

The Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange’s monthly show continues at Pete’s tonight, Nov 11 at 6 PM, so you won’t have to worry about the L train going down on your way home.

Folk Noir and Fearlessly Political Songwriting: Still Going Strong in the East Village

Sunday night at Scratcher Bar in the East Village, Lara Ewen and Niall Connolly strung together a couple hours worth of memorably surreal narratives and catchy acoustic guitar tune with a crafty expertise that’s become increasingly rare in this city.

Ewen, who is probably best known as the founder and fearless impresario of the mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum, is also a distinctive tunesmith in her own right and opened this particular show. There was a lot of fresh new material in her set, an auspicious preview of her long-awaited new album, mostly likely due out sometime next year. This time out, there was more bluesy grit in her voice than usual, and she fingerrpicked a lot more as well.

“I don’t write political songs,” she told the crowd, “Politics is something we tend to do in every moment of our lives,” she explained, prefacing a witheringly sarcastic new number about an sexual assault survivor, and then a kid who narrowly misses getting shot by the cops, each emphasizing how incredibly lucky they are.

Another aphoristic, darkly sparkling new song concerned a guy who manages to dig himself into a hole where he’s comfortable, way down in the dark. In the final verse, he brings a length of rope down there, although Ewen never reveals what exactly he does with it. Her other character studies, some new and some older and full of strange, unresolved chords, had similarly lingering imagery, situated among the down and out, or the about to be down and out. Like hell Ewen isn’t political: she just doesn’t preach.

Watching Connolly parse a series of terse, judiciously picked tunes, it’s obvious that he’s a rock guy: it was easy to imagine him playing those lines on a Strat with a rhythm section behind him. He’s more overtly political than Ewen, with an unassuming, raw, often melancholy vocal delivery. The big audience singalong was a soaringly anthemic portrait of the last days of Irish Revolutionary hero James Connolly (an ancestor, maybe?): “Lily, don’t you cry, I’ve lived the fullest of lives” was the chorus.

The best of the new ones was a spot-on, strange account of a late-night Rockaways bus ride (interrupted for Miller High Life and a shot of well whiskey at a watering hole along the way), and the kind of weirdos you meet there, everybody sharing the near dream-state surrealism of outer-borough afterwork fatigue.

Connolly is also a great storyteller without his guitar (Ewen said that she’d stolen all her stage banter from him: not a bad place to start). The funniest tale of the night concerned a bus driver who pulled to the curb for a second, exited the vehicle and shouted his order for fried rice to the Chinese restaurant cook taking a break across the street. Connolly, a populist to the core, explained that he has a special appreciation for any employee who likes to bend the rules.This particular takeout joint’s fried rice is apparently worth a risk.

Connolly’s next gig is Oct 17 at 8:30 PM at the Hunterian at 413 E 70th St. between First and York Aves.. Theres also an excellent bill coming up at the Folk Art Museum on Oct 18 at at 6 PM with  Sharon Goldman – one of the great tunesmiths to come out of the NYC acoustic scene since the turn of the century – and dark, brilliantly lyrical oldtimey songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Pete Lanctot.

Guitarslinger Phil Gammage Goes Back to His Dark Blues Roots Again

Phil Gammage may be best known as the lead guitarist in legendary CB’s era postpunk band Certain General, but he also has a substantial body of work as a bandleader. Over the years, he’s done everything from dark Americana to electric blues. With his latest album, It’s All Real Good – streaming at Spotify – the guitarslinger/crooner revisits the spare acoustic sound of his Live at Little Water Radio ep from a couple of years ago. He’s playing the release show tomorrow night, Sept 5 at 9 PM at 11th St. Bar. Then on the 9th he’s at Shrine at 9, and on the 30th he’s at Cowgirl Seahorse in the South Street Seaport at 7.

The album’s opening track, Naked in the Rain is a stripped down acoustic bossa, Kenny Margolis’ accordion and Michele Butler’s backing vocals filtering through a song that’s kind of low-key considering that it’s about dancing around nude.

With David Fleming’s chuffing, reverbtone blues harp, the title track is a sarcastic, bawdy blues that draws a straight line back to Sonny Boy Williamson – or even further. Likewise, Dancing on Top of the World is a sardonic, Waits-ish barhopping narrative. Luck Don’t Pass Us By comes across as an acoustic take on the apocalyptic gutter blues of 80s bands like the Gun Club.

Fueled by Margolis’ darkly bluesy spirals, Hellcat Magpie is a colorfully creepy circus-rock waltz. Then skinny Elvis meets Jimmy Reed in the muted, crepuscular Second Time Around.

Wandering Stars has a slow southwestern gothic sway, while Give Away is slow, spare and Orbisonesque. Gammage closes the album with Let Love Begin, his counterintuitive chords over Tony Mann’s shuffling drums. Gammage’s voice has grown a little flintier over the years, and the music here is quieter than most of his back catalog, but he can still conjure up as much distant menace as ever.

A Sparkling, Verdant, Ecologically-Inspired Suite from Dana Lyn and Kyle Sanna

Dana Lyn is one of New York’s most captivatingly protean violinists. She leaps between Irish music, classical and jazz and makes it seem effortless. She’s also one of the most relevant composers around. Her previous album Mother Octopus was a trippy, shapeshifting musical parable about oceanic eco-disaster. Guitarist-keyboardist Kyle Sanna is just as eclectic, moving from Irish and Middle Eastern music to indie classical, jazz and the artsier side of rock. The latest release by the two musicians’ duo project, is the Coral Suite, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a more spare yet lingering and resonant exploration of the vanishing world of coral reefs. Catchy as it is, it’s hard to pin down: there’s baroque elegance and Celtic plaintiveness in Lyn’s alternately wistful and vibrantly lyrical phrasing, anchored by Sanna’s subtle, methodical acoustic work.

Lyn begins the first part of the suite solo with a bittersweet ballad theme, then Sanna makes his entrance and the the two build stately, pointillistic ambience. They shift to a punchy reel of sorts, which in turns morphs into a hypnotic waltz, violin flitting and then soaring over terse, enigmatic chordal guitar varations. The two reharmonize the first reel theme, which leads to another, the multitracks growing more lush. Sanna’s deep-space, delta blues-tinged slide work closes the first section.

The duo begin part the epic, 27-minute second half with slow, hazy, Debussy-esque wave motion, then develop an increasingly lively Irish open-road (or for that matter, open-sea) melody. Echoes of acoustic Fairport Convention – imagine a particularly bright Dave Swarbrick solo – eventually lead to another waltz, a joyous line dance and then more waves.

Sanna makes a gorgeous, poignant Renaissance theme out of that last waltz. From there, the music grows from a tightly strolling intertwine, goes flying through another reel, then recedes to a spare pizzicato interlude. The two take it out with a gently tidal wash of atmospherics.

Lyn’s next New York gig is on July 11 at around 9 PM at Happy Lucky No. 1 Gallery, where she’s playing with pianist JP Schlegelmilch, a similarly diverse artist who may be best known as the not-so-secret weapon in Hearing Things – the missing link between the Doors and the Ventures – but has also released the only album of solo piano arrangements of Bill Frisell works. Rising star tenor saxophonist Anna Webber opens the night, leading a chordless trio at 8. Cover is $20.