New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: acoustic music

A Harrowing Solo Comeback Album and a Rare New York Show by Cult Icon Nina Nastasia

For about a decade beginning in the late 90s, songwriter Nina Nastasia earned a devoted following for her frequently haunting, painterly work. It’s hard to think of another artist who so perceptively captured the details in the darkness beneath the bustle in gritty New York neighborhoods which became artistic meccas before they were crushed in a blitzkrieg of gentrification.

The city’s decline mirrored Nastasia’s own. By 2010, her performing career had pretty much stalled. As Nastasia tells it, she and her longtime partner Kennan Gudjonsson sequestered themselves a tiny Chelsea apartment, caught up in a cycle of abuse and codependence. The day after Nastasia finally moved out, in January 2020, Gudjonsson killed himself.

In the first few months of the lockdown, Nastasia was able to process what by all accounts must have been inconceivable pain, and the result is a harrowing solo vinyl record, Riderless Horse, streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing what could be her first Williamsburg show in at least fifteen years at Union Pool on August 20 at 7 PM for $20

It’s been a dozen years since Nastasia released an album, but she’s emerged a stronger singer than ever. Meanwhile, her songwriting has taken a detour into Americana. With her usual black humor, she opens with the sound of a cork popping: this will not exactly be a party, but it’s impossible to turn away from.

The album’s first song is Just Stay in Bed, a spare Tex-Mex flavored tune in 6/8. Just when it sounds like it’s going to turn into a fond love song, Nastasia’s voice grows menacing. Clearly this was a dysfunctional relationship on both sides.

Her vocals rise to fiery accusatory levels over steady strumming in the second track, You Were So Mad, a stoic breakup ballad: “You set a blaze inside our house, you set a blaze and smoked us out.” This Is Love is a subdued heartland rock anthem, a chronicle of “taking turns to follow and lead into the dissonance.”

The narrative grows uglier over Nastasia’s enigmatic fingerpicking in Nature, a plainspoken portrait of violence, and how easy it is to become habituated to it. This dynamic will resonate intensely through the rest of the record.

Nastasia switches to waltz time for Lazy Road, although even in this bucolic calm, death is lurking nearby. She revisits that atmosphere a little later with the bluegrass-tinged Blind As Batsies.

“I keep you alive as best as I can do,” Nastasia sings imploringly, but ultimately “to choose life over illness and leave,” in another waltz, Ask Me. She switches back to a muted Americana sway in the ironically titled The Two of Us, which wouldn’t be out of place on an Amy Rigby record from the 90s:

The simmering rage returns in Go Away: “There’s only one way to for me to give you peace, for me to leave: bury me,” Nastasia taunts. She follows with The Roundabout, an anguished request to bury the conflict under a blanket of denial.

The next track, Trust is the closest thing here to the stark sparkle that permeates Nastasia’s iconic early work. She sings to a ghost, in waltz time again, in Afterwards: “Love is tiresome when you’re older…it makes me wonder about the years that came before, and all the things I must ignore.” As a portrait of a relationship unraveling with catastrophic consequences, this ranks with Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights. Time may judge this a classic – just like Nastasia’s earlier albums, particularly The Blackened Air, her most bleakly orchestral release, from 2001.

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A Lustrous Solo Album From Dobro Stylist Abbie Gardner

Abbie Gardner is one of the most distinctive dobro players in  Americana. She has a seemingly effortless grace and otherworldly precision on an instrument that often bedevils other acoustic guitarslingers. Despite her vaunted technique, she plays with a remarkable economy of notes. She may be best known as a member of well-loved harmony trio Red Molly. but she had fearsome chops before she joined that band. Her new solo album DobroSinger is streaming at Bandcamp

As with her other solo records, almost all the tunes are originals. The opening number, Down the Mountain is a steady coal-mining blues. Gardner’s liquid chords contrast with her stiletto-articulate fingerpicking and slithery slide lines. She sings in an expressive down-home delivery equally informed by oldschool gospel, blues and front-porch folk music.

The second track, Only All the Time is more enigmatic, a stripped-down throwback to the alt-country sounds of the 90s. Gardner slows down for See You Again, part sophisticated blues ballad, part country waltz, with a spare, suspenseful solo on the way out. Born in the City has more of Gardner’s signature, silken legato: the gist of the song is that urban people stick together just as tightly as country folks do.

Wouldn’t it be kind of cool if the next song, Three Quarter Time was in, say, 7/8? It actually isn’t: it’s in 6/8! The intimate arrangement is an artful approach to what’s essentially a vintage Memphis-style soul ballad. Gardner digs in hard for a wicked but nuanced vibrato for a starkly original, grim take of Cypress Tree Blues. Then she flips the script with the wryly aphoristic Too Many Kisses, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Amy Allison songbook.

The brisk, bouncily swinging Honky Tonk Song is the one number here where an overdubbed rhythm track would have come in handy: the absence of a band isn’t an issue anywhere else. Gardner interrupts the playful mood for the stark, understatedly harrowing memoir When We Were Kids: in a quiet way, it’s the most stunning song on the album.

Gardner closes the record with a couple of covers. The first one is a spacious, pouncing version of Those Memories of You, a minor hit for Pam Tillis in the mid-80s. And Gardner reinvents the proto-Lynchian Jo Stafford hit You Belong to Me with a distant, uneasily dreamy feel. If you play guitar, there’s plenty of inspiration here for you to take your chops to the next level. If you don’t, it’s a characteristically sharp, smart Americana record.

An Urban Country Legend Makes an Unlikely Stop on the Lower East Side

Alex Battles may have earned a place in New York music history as a bandleader and scenemaker in what was once a thriving Americana music scene, but he wouldn’t have reached that point without some good songs. With his wry, aphoristic lyrics and unpretentious baritone, the frontman of the Whisky Rebellion was a fixture for years at places like the old Hank’s and Sunny’s, just to name two of the more popular joints he could be be found at. It may seem a little odd that he’s playing the small room at the Rockwood tomorrow night, May 14 at 9, but these are weird times. As a bonus, all-female, soaring front-porch Americana harmony band the Calamity Janes play beforehand at 8. It’s a pass-the-tip-jar situation, and there are no restrictions on entry.

Battles’ catalog is well capsulized by his single A Perfect Game For Lenny Barker, an older song which is up at Bandcamp. It has a lot less to do with the big, burly Cleveland Indians pitcher’s wicked curveball on the historic night of May 15, 1981 against the Toronto Blue Jays than simply the civic pride he brought to a decaying rust belt city whose population was leaving in droves. These days, the same could be said for this city, although there hasn’t been any rust belt here to speak of since the 1960s.

Battles’ 2011 album Goodbye Almira has also been fairly recently digitized and is up at Bandcamp. You can hear his voice suddenly toughen up as he takes control on the mic on the one full-band song on the record, Tom Sawyer’s Island, over the fiddle and the honkytonk piano. Otherwise, it’s something of a change of pace for Battles, a mix of solo acoustic songs and a handful of fetching duets with Aiofe O’Donovan, long before she got off the bluegrass circuit and started playing shows with symphony orchestras.

Battles gets a lot of credit for helping to jumpstart the urban country sound here, and there’s a lot of the pull of the devil city on innocent, goodnatured out-of-towners here. Marilyn Monroe hits the road to get away from two of the main sophisticates who chased her. A nameless Nebraska girl finds out the hard way that being queen of the prairie doesn’t mean anything to the wolves of Wall Street. The two singers shoot for a low-key Gram-and-Emmylou vibe when Battles isn’t painting wistful and sometimes sharply evocative scenes of late-night battles of the sexes, a sad post-carnival tableau and a couple of tales where the big takeaway is what’s left unsaid.

This blog hasn’t been in the house at a Battles show in ages: the last one wasn’t actually his show, it was a birthday party at 68 Jay Street Bar in Dumbo where all his friends from the Roots and Ruckus scene gathered together to sing his songs. Memory is foggy on that one, but it was definitely a party. As for the Calamity Janes, it’s also been awhile; back in 2016, they battled an inept sound mix at a Williamsburg gig and emerged with a decisive victory. That won’t be a problem at the Rockwood.

Violinist Lily Henley Reinvents Haunting, Ironic Ancient Ladino Folk Tunes

Like most good violinists, Lily Henley has been called on to play all sorts of different styles of music. She got her start in New York playing bluegrass and front-porch folk, but also gravitated toward klezmer music. On her latest album Oras Dezaoradas – streaming at Bandcamp – she takes a deep dive into original Ladino songcraft.

There’s actually plenty of historical precedent for Henley’s decision to take a bunch of old ballads and set them to new melodies: until the advent of recording technology, folk musicians had been doing the same thing, largely uncredited, for thousands of years. One of the main themes that runs through the record is female empowerment, underscoring how important women musicians have been in keeping the tradition of Sephardic Spanish Jewish music alive since the terror of the Inquisition.

For the uninitiated, Ladino is to Spanish what ebonics are to English, more than what Yiddish is to German, so Spanish speakers won’t have a hard time getting the gist of these songs. Henley sings the first of several new versions of centuries-old lyrics with clarity and an airy understatement: the humor and irony in these songs is no less resonant today. The wistful, gently swaying tale that she opens the album with is a prime example, a mother confiding to her child that dad is sneaking home in the middle of the night from his girlfriend’s place. Henley fingerpicks a delicate lattice of guitar on this one; Duncan Wickel adds airy, atmospheric fiddle over the terse pulse of bassist Haggai Cohen-Milo.

Henley and Wickel swap instruments for a mashup of klezmer and Appalachia on the second track, jumping from a brightly waltzing intro to a biting, dancing escape anthem. Henley follows that with a defiant party-girl’s tale set to stark, bouncing minor-key tune with Wickel’s cello front and center.

There’s a cruel undercurrent to the broodingly fingerpicked, minor-key Alta Alta Va La Luna – “how high the moon,” basically. It’s a mother telling her child that they might be better off if they hadn’t been born. From there Henly goes back toward brisk, moody bluegrass for Arvoles Lloran Por Lluvia (Trees Cry For Rain), a bitter tale of exile common in much of diasporic Ladino music.

The album’s title track – meaning “Timeless Clock” – features the first of Henley’s original Ladino lyrics, a melancholy if energetically picked seaside tableau echoing a pervasive sense of abandonment. Esta Noche Te Amare, with equal hints of simmering flamenco drama and rustic Americana, is a fabulistic tale of a fair young maiden who sees her knight in shining armor revealed for what he really is.

The three musicians bounce darkly through the album’s lone instrumental, Muza de la Kozima: the acidic bite of the violin and cello is luscious. In La Galud, Henley paints an aching portrait of celebrations and traditions left behind, maybe for forever, set to a fast, steady waltz. She winds up the album, her anguished voice reaching for the rafters over a bass drone, a young woman recounting her boyfriend’s grim demise. It’s the most distinctly klezmer-adjacent melody here and a spine-tingling closer to this fascinating, imaginative record.

Thoughtful, Gently Provocative Acoustic Songs From Allegra Krieger

The first image in Wake Me, the opening track on songwriter Allegra Krieger’s new album Precious Thing – streaming at Bandcampis a stretcher being rolled down the street. Presumably, it’s going to an ambulance…or a van from the morgue. Krieger links that story to a much more optimistic and personal one. but the unease remains, unwinding over rippling. fingerpicked guitar in an open tuning that Jimmy Page would use in folkie moments.

Krieger sticks with that throughout most of the record, sometimes set against spare electric guitar leads. The addition of dark washes of bowed bass in places is a welcome textural touch.

A gritty, distorted drone introduces the second song, Isolation – an original, not the Joy Division classic. “‘Return to city life. the smell of money leaks out…drink up, detached from the ideals of being one of God’s daughters…living in filth is something I have gotten used to again,” Krieger muses. Is this a tale of coming home too soon to totalitarian NYC hell? Maybe.

Taking It In is about defamiliarizing, underscored by layers of spastic electric guitar skronk and fluttery bass in contrast to Krieger’s calm, bright vocals. “Everything is precariously waiting to fortify as the time goes by,” she muses in a similarly bright domestic tableau: clearly, there’s still work to be done.

“All my life I drank wine, thought they were bottles of blood, thought they were cleaning me up,” she reflects in the slowly swaying next number

Krieger switches to piano for another slow, pensive 6/8 tune, Let Go, the bass adding a disquieting edge. Driftingly nocturnal layers of organ-like pedal steel provide the contrast in Just For the Night. The album’s title track is more gently resolute: “Looking back on my life now, little that all meant to me,” Krieger observes. What a reckoning to have to face in 2022, huh?

Her piano on No Machine, steady and spare, matches her steady acoustic guitar style: the cautious trumpet solo afterward enhances the mood. “No machine can keep us safe, what I feel is what I’ll be,” Krieger asserts.

She ends the album with a low-key country waltz: her narrator’s escape to bucolic southern comfort turns out well. That we should all be so lucky.

The Funniest and Most Serious Songs of the Week

Time for another short self-guided playlist today: half a dozen songs in about eighteen minutes. Click artist names for their webpages; click song titles for audio.

The most hilarious one that’s come over the transom here in the wake of the hissyfit that Neil Young (and maybe his hedge fund handlers) threw about Rogan and Spotify is Sold Man, Curtis Stone and Media Bear’s parody of Neil Young’s Old Man. They nail everything, right down to the whiny falsetto:

Locked down in this 5G town
Live alone in the metaverse
Klaus Schwab’s coming for you…
I’m alone at last when I failed to cancel Rogan

Download it for free here

On a more serious note, Dr. Dan Merrick has just released the protest song Wrong’s Not Right, a catchy update on classic 1950s-style country gospel. When’s the last time you heard a country gospel song that mentioned beer – and not in a disparaging way?

On an even more serious note, Dietrich Klinghardt just wrote a beautiful, haunting Appalachian gothic-tinged protest song, Angels Come:

A wealthy clique controls our leaders
And the internet, the media west and east
Are these billionaires ordained by God to lead us?
Behind their eyes we sense the mark of the beast

Last year, Lydia Ainsworth recorded a trio of songs from her Sparkles & Debris album with a string section. If you liked the Pretenders’ Isle of View orchestral record, you’ll love the new version of Halo of Fire: “Allow your thoughts to roam as freely as they desire”

On the mysterious side, Terra Lightfoot and Jane Ellen Bryant team up for Somebody Was Gonna Find Out. Find out what? It’s a good story, open to multiple interpretations. Two acoustic guitars, two voices: see if you can figure it out.

Let’s wrap this up with Elle Vance‘s La Beaute de la Vie – with Tayssa Hubert on vocals – which is part Edith Piaf, part reggae. It works. Go figure. This is the French version; sadly, the English version is autotuned.

Poignant, Gorgeous New Songs For Viola Da Gamba on Almalé’s New Album

Pilar Almalé’s axe is the viola da gamba. It’s an unusual choice for an original songwriter, especially since most of the repertoire for the instrument is from the baroque era and before . Almalé has an expressive voice, uses the gamba for both cello-like sustain and basslines, writes strong melodies and reinvents older material with considerable flair. Her new album, Hixa Mia (My Daughter), released under her last name, is streaming at Spotify. She has a fantastic, similarly adventurous band. Violinist Thomas Kretszchmar and guitarist Alex Comín blend terse, imaginative jazz and Romany influences without cluttering the sound, percussionist Fran Gazol adding flamenco and Middle Eastern grooves.

Almalé opens the album with the title track, a catchy, Andalucian-flavored, poignant minor-key anthem with a swaying, levantine-tinged groove and a stark, jazz-inflected violin solo. You could call this folk-rock, or Romany music, or something fresh and new. The string harmonies on the slow, gently syncopated second track, simply titled Passacalle, are stark, rich and reedlike, a close approximation of an accordion. Comín bobs and weaves and chooses his spots, whether with feathery tremolo-picking, big lush chords or carefree single-note jazz lines.

She opens A la Luna, a gorgeously slinky, trickily rhythmic Turkish-inspired number, with a broodingly bowed solo, bringing a visceral sense of longing to the lyrics. Kretszchmar subtly builds his solo to a searing peak.

Pianist Lucas Delgado plays carefully articulated, somber lines in Flow My Tears, a moody, klezmer-esque ballad which Almalé sings in low-key, cadenced English. The group veer between brisk Romany-flavored jazz, a moody ballad and the baroque in the instrumental Blue Lamento. It makes a good bridge to Folias Gallegas, an upbeat, Celtic-tinged circle dance with an austere, baroque-flavored solo gamba break midway through.

La Patetica, a solo gamba piece, comes across as a stormy mashup of Tschaikovsky and a Bach cello suite. Almalé launches a-cappella into the album’s final cut, Los Guisados, a rousing, rustically waltzing anthem that rises out of an unexpected lull to a tantalizing white-knuckle restraint. It’s unlike anything else released in the last several months. Fans of music from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Black Sea will love this stuff.

Rare Concert Recordings by a Blues Legend Finally See Daylight After Almost Half a Century

Mance Lipscomb was one of the most interesting “discoveries” of the 1960s folk revival. He’d been a professional musician in his native Texas for decades, but his Jim Crow-era sharecropper dayjob kept him off the road and limited his performances to local house parties on the weekend. Lipscomb’s repertoire was vast: like many southern blues guitarslingers, he’d play country and front-porch folk songs for the white folks, blues and gospel for the black people, and a little of both for everybody. He distinguished himself with his laid-back vocals and casually expert acoustic guitar fingerpicking.

Lipscomb’s sound was bigger and more intricate than most of his contemporaries because he would fling out riffs over a steady bassline, or use the bass part as a lead line. There’s a new double live album of rare and previously unreleased Lipscomb concert material, Navasota, culled from a late-career 1972 Harvard show and also from a series of Texas performances in 1963 and 1964 and streaming at Spotify.

Onstage, Lipscomb reveals a low-key, down-home charisma and a sly, deadpan sense of humor: he once convinced an interviewer that he was able to sing and play while sound asleep, taking the idea of phoning it in onstage to the next level. Although the recording quality of the Texas material – much of it from two University of Houston concerts – is considerably better, the Harvard show reminds that even at the end of his career, Lipscomb’s guitar chops were still intact. Listening to the Harvard audience hoot and spontaneously burst into applause after he segues from See See Rider into a risque, possibly completely improvised couple of verses of Brown Skin Woman is charmingly quaint. His guitar being out of tune throughout much of the set is not.

Lipscomb’s steady version of Baby Please Don’t Go focuses on the grim lyric about being rounded up for slave labor on the county farm. His take of Key to the Highway is much the same, a desolate hitchhiker’s tale that probably has roots in an escape from slavery. He fires off some snazzy tremolo riffs in Done Had My Fun and strips B.B. King’s Rock Me Baby to its Texas shuffle roots, relating a funny story about coming home late at night to a pissed-off wife. He finally, finally gets the crowd to laugh at the surrealistically hilarious All Night Long, then pulls out his slide for True Religion.

The Texas disc opens with a swinging version of Rock Me Mama (f.k.a. Rock Me Baby) and the ragtime-inflected So Different Blues. Lipscomb takes Trouble in Mind back to its rustic beginnings and marches through Night Time Is the Right Time, an original, not the version popularized by J. Geils in the 70s. There’s hokum blues with Mama Don’t Allow and country blues with Careless Love, as well as the casually chilling, slide-driven Motherless Children. This is not the place to discover Lipscomb, but for fans of the great bluesman, it’s truth in advertising, a feel-good story starring an unlikely local talent who probably never thought he’d ever make a record.

Pensive, Drifting, Broodingly Hypnotic Acoustic Tunesmithing From Natalie Jane Hill

A cynic would say we’ve heard this a million times: girl with acoustic guitar singing sad songs of loneliness and abandonment. Add to that a pervasive Joni Mitchell influence, and you get hundreds of thousands of acts who go back forty years and more. That being said, songwriter Natalie Jane Hill manages to use that tradition as a stepping-off point without sounding obvious, which is more of an achievement than it might seem. She has a keen eye for detail, leaves some of her best punchlines unsaid, likes open tunings and has nimble fingers on the acoustic guitar. Her latest vinyl album Solely is streaming at Bandcamp.

Throughout the record, Hill’s vocals are more contained and less jazz-influenced than Mitchell’s. In the sarcastically titled opening track, Euphoria, Hill’s narrator is driving just to get away from it all, “Avoiding the street home till the low fuel light glows.” Consider: she’s got such a troubled mind that she’s not even paying attention to the gas gauge. Musically, the songh sets the stage for the rest of the record, just Hill’s brisk, clustering fingerpicking lowlit by stark violin, pedal steel and glockenspiel in places.

The central image in Little Teeth is how Hill envisions flower buds floating on the breeze, with glockenspiel tinkling delicately in the background. She works a familiar, circling open-tuned riff in the bucolic guitar-and-violin tune If I Were a Willow. Hill follows a stark, Britfolk-tinged minor-key theme in Plants and Flowers That Do Not Grow Here, subtly colored with steel, violin and what could either be a wood flute or a mellotron patch.

As a portrait of predawn solitude, To Feel Alone is even more spaciously drifting. Despite the calm, hypnotic backdrop, there’s unexpected venom in the album’s title track: as she tells it, breakup boyfriend is a fool’s errand.

Hill creates a similar dichotomy in the even more cynical Pretty View. The steel guitar sighs and swoops throughout Orb Weaver: spiders have seldom been portrayed so sympathetically. There’s more nocturnal gleam and glisten in the warmly enveloping empowerment anthem Listen to Me Tomorrow: “The older you get, these words are left unsaid,” Hill cautions. She winds up the album with Better Now, a mea culpa of sorts from a chronic depressive who’s self-aware enough to recognize how secondary trauma works. It’s an apt way to wind up an album that grimly evokes the emotional toll of these past twenty months.

Jeremiah Lockwood’s Gorgeous New All-Instrumental Album Takes Hanukah Music to the Next Level

Guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood‘s new solo acoustic instrumental album The Great Miracle – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most fascinatingly individualistic Hanukah records ever made. The leader of Malian and cantorially-inspired psychedelic rockers the Sway Machinery draws equally on his immersion in country blues as well as traditional Jewish music, for an often breathtakingly beautiful series of new versions of themes associated with the Festival of Lights.

He opens with the introspective Ritual, rising from a spacious intro to steady, spiky, rustic chords. It’s part cantorial melody, part Piedmont blues, part stately baroque theme.

Al Hanisim is an absolutely gorgeous, chromatically-spiced theme with shadowy echoes of Greek rembetiko music. Lockwood reinvents Mi Yamalel as a similarly celestial tableau with a cheery, strolling blues undercurrent. There’s more than a hint of flamenco, and Morricone, in the striking changes and tumbling Middle Eastern-tinged runs in Izhar Cohen’s Al Hanisim: it would make a great surf song.

Lockwood also follows a plaintive Spanish-tinged trajectory in Maoz Tzur, with some of the album’s most incisive fingerpicking. Little Dreydl is a change of pace, a ragtime attempt to rescue one of the season’s most cloying melodies from its usual home in the dairy fridge.

Drey Dreydl is the most bucolic, blues-infused track here, but it’s also a showcase for Lockwood’s skills as a picker. He closes the record with Chanuka Oy Chanuka – since it’s Hebrew, you can transliterate it any number of ways in English. It’s the most enigmatic, jazz-oriented number here, many times removed from its humble origins.

Could a Hanukah record ever make it to the best albums of the year list here? Stay tuned for when that page goes live next month!