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Tag: acoustic rock

Midwestern Rock Legend Sam Llanas Haunted by the Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels

If Sam Llanas never put out another album, he would still be a first-ballot hall-of-famer. As co-leader of heartland rockers the BoDeans, he built a body of work to match any other songwriter active since the 80s. But Llanas shows no signs of slowing down, and like his colleague James McMurtry, he just keeps putting out great records. His latest is Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels, which isn’t’ online yet. It’s arguably his best solo release, and has moments that will rip your face off.

As the title implies, this is a haunted record, filled with regrets and disillusion, although there are plenty of upbeat moments as well. Much as it’s mostly acoustic, the atmosphere is lush and sparkling with layers and layers of guitar, mandolin, accordion and what sounds like autoharp. Llanas,, Mike Hoffmann and Sean Williamson handle the stringed instruments; Michael Ramos plays keys and accordion, with Susan Nicholson on violin.

Much as Llanas is hardly known for playing covers, he opens the album with an absolutely gorgeous, lushly jangly, bittersweet reinvention of the old Civil War folk song Shenandoah. The first of the originals, Lonely Girl, begins starkly and grows more nocturnally starry: it could be a prequel to an older song in the Llanas catalog, Two Souls.

Days Go By is classic Llanas, a big two-chord anthem on a more intimate scale and an angst-fueled look back on lakeside bonfires and people gone forever. His voice is still in great shape, as everybody who watched his webcasts during the lockdown noticed, and he really airs out his upper register in Straight to Hell, a brisk, gloomy country shuffle with a spiky twin guitar solo midway through.

One Summer Night is an aptly shimmery but propulsive take on Orbisonesque Nashville gothic pop. Here Comes the Dawn is next, a hopeful, catchy, gently bouncing pre-daybreak theme. A Place in This World could be an Everly Brothers tune, a fond look back at childhood influences: Llanas’ dad was a bass player, and the Mexican community in Waukesha, Wisconsin was fertile ground for musical cross-pollination.

Llanas goes back to early 60s Lynchian pop sounds in Down Here in the Cold: it’s imploring, but it’s also hopeful. Rave On is an upbeat, Willie Nile-ish pop tune – is that a glockenspiel, or just a Casio?

Autumn Is Falling is an anthem for our era, a metaphorically-loaded reflection on the grim passage of time. With its cheery, doo-woppy hooks, the most retro song here is Got Love. The big hit here is Bring Me to Light, a weary but defiant freedom fighter’s anthem flavored with chiming twelve-string and soaring slide work from Hoffmann. Llanas winds up the album with Wedding Ghost, a morbidly waltzing Louvin Brothers-style narrative: it’s a classic of its kind.

Haunting Vocals and Tunesmithing on Emily Frembgen’s Brilliant New Album

Up until the lockdown, Emily Frembgen was one of the hardest-working musicians on what’s left of the New York acoustic and Americana scenes. She held down residencies at the Knitting Factory and LIC Bar, but also didn’t limit herself to the usual spots. She was just as likely to play a donut shop or a house party. It was at a Bushwick donut shop in the fall of 2017 where she calmly and quietly picked up her acoustic guitar and played one of the most haunting songs written by anyone in this city in the last several years. That song is called Downtown: Frembgen’s narrator goes to meet her friends one last time before she either leaves, or kills herself, or both. The song is all the more chilling for not being specific.

It’s not on her new album It’s Me or the Dog – streaming at Bandcamp – but the record has plenty of other intriguing material, some of it brooding, some of it more quirky and playful. Frembgen is a skilled, purist tunesmith, a potently imagistic lyricist and has an unselfconscious, sometimes wounded. sometimes understatedly vengeful voice that will give you goosebumps.

“Little child, going nowhere, I can’t touch you when you turn away from me,” Frembgen relates gently in Butterfly, a chilling, tersely detailed portrait of clinical depression. That one’s just Frembgen and her acoustic guitar. She’s joined by lead guitarist Hugh Pool, bassist Charles Dechants and drummer Keith Robinson for Changes, which brings to mind Rosanne Cash’s early new wave/Americana mashups.

Organist Brian Mitchell adds aptly Blonde on Blonde-flavored organ and Nashville piano to Sad Affair: the harmonica completes the mid 60s Dylan ambience behind Frembgen’s witheringly cynical imagery.

Flower/Weed is a seething, low-key kiss-off song, Frembgen’s gentle fingerpicking mingling with Charles Burst’s twinkly electric piano. She goes back to backbeat Americana with Silver Lining, a catchy, guardedly optimistic anthem about two troubled souls pulling themselves out of a dark place, lowlit by Pool’s baritone guitar.

The contrasting imagery and airy vocals in Turn Around bring to mind another first-class Americana-inspired tunesmith, Liz Tormes. Frembgen elevates Julee Cruise girl-down-the-well moroseness to new levels of angst in New Feelin’ over Pool’s Lynchian twang.

She picks up the pace with Hometown, an optimistic country shuffle concealing a desperate escape narrative, and closes the record with He Held Onto Me, Mitchell’s sober gospel piano underscoring Frembgen’s despondency. It’s the only place on the album where she drops her guard. Frembgen has been writing catchy songs since the late zeros, but she’s reached a harrowing new level here with one of the best records of 2021.

A Colorfully Lyrical, Fast-Fingered Songwriter on the High Plains

Billy Lurken is the rare Americana songwriter who’s also a hell of a lead guitarist. His axe is acoustic. He gets a much bigger sound out of his guitar than most guys who usually play solo, and does the same on the banjo. He’s just as strong at bluegrass-style flatpicking as he is with the big jazzy chords of western swing and his own high-voltage take on the blues. He’s also a vivid chronicler of the anomie and quiet desperation everyday people face in Flyover America. Born in Minnesota and raised in South Dakota, he’s a fixture on the high plains circuit. His next gig is a free outdoor show on Sept 19 at 2 PM at Wilde Prairie Winery, 48052 259th St. in Brandon, South Dakota.

Lurken’s songs pick up on the little details but also capture the big picture. “It’s a Monday-through-Friday sort of dying” is one of the key lines in the Studs Terkel-influenced number he opened with on a segment of the No Cover, No Minimum show on South Dakota Public tv which you can stream here.

Movin’ On is a showcase for Lurken’s fast fingers on the frets: it’s a brisk early 50s style western swing-infused boogie about how the years can take their toll on a couple.

One of his most memorable story-songs is Home, a fast-picked chronicle of something less than bliss on the blue-collar domestic front. For all the detail – the dust-streaked Cadillac, the stoned girl on the back porch with her “Audrey Hepburn shades” – it’s what Lurken doesn’t say that packs the biggest punch.

And he has upbeat, optimistic songs to balance out the gloomy ones. There’s Girl in the Flowered Dress, a showcase for his chops. Tumbleweed, a studio recording, has a luscious, bluegrass-infused mix of guitar and banjo. And Rider, a cowboy tune, is a stark, nimbly fingerpicked Jimmie Rodgers-style blues.

If it might seem odd that a blog which has advocated for live music throughout the five boroughs of New York might be paying so much attention to South Dakota, that’s because South Dakota is a free state. There’s no apartheid there, no spyware required to go indoors at venues, restaurants and bars. That’s the way it is throughout the rest of the free states: Florida, Texas and across the plains. America’s Frontline Doctors have filed a civil rights lawsuit to overturn Mayor Bill DiBozo’s evil, unconstitutional edict, and at the moment a lot of businesses aren’t enforcing it. Until we succeed in liberating ourselves, you may see more of what’s happening in the land of “Great Faces, Great Places” here.

Sparely Powerful, Lyrical Catalan Songcraft From Singer Lia Sampai

One of the most stunningly direct, potently lyrical albums of the year is Lia Sampai’s latest release Amagatalls de Llum (rough unpoetic translation from Catalan: Hidden in Plain Sight), streaming at youtube. Sampai sings with a disarmingly intimate, nuanced delivery and writes striking, imagistic lyrics, with a fearless political sensibility. Her images can be charming and quirky one second and venomous the next. While there’s a definite flamenco influence in her music, there are also elements of Portuguese fado, pan-Mediterranean balladry, art-rock and tinges of jazz, nimbly negotiated by acoustic guitarist Adrià Pagès. Some of the songs are simply guitar and vocals, others feature terse strings in places.

She opens with La Caixeta (The Box), a stately, romantic waltz that’s part fado, part flamenco and part vintage Parisian chanson. The doll imagery in the sparse, angst-fueled second track, La Nina comes across as more of a reflection on reconnecting with an inner conscience than with an inner child, Lia Manchón’s violin and Ester Trilla’s cello adding pensive ambience.

La Nit del Foc (Night of Fire) is a coy mashup of a dramatic Spanish waltz and a Dylanesque talking blues. Sampai follows a suspenseful trail of eerie, allusive images, up to a duende-fueled peak in Pinyols de Gel (Hailstorm), Pagès’ attack growing more unhinged along with her.

The shapeshifting political broadside Una Llum (A Light) is a real stunner, a slap upside the head of a petty tyrant whose insatiable desire for control backfires and ignites a revolution. Sampai wrote this in 2019, but it has infinite more resonance in the year where the World Economic Forum terrorists are throwing everything they have at us to try to keep their global takeover attempt from going off the rails.

Iris is a delicately waltzing, enigmatic, metaphorically loaded narrative about a dancer (or maybe a stripper). Weeping willow metaphors take centerstage in the stark, grim Salze Vell:

Que dins de tant de vent lo plor és silenci,
Com una paraula que interdiu algú.
I les fulles se revolten encriptades
D’una música que sols entenem junts
Plorem per amunt!
Plorem per amunt!
Alcem un crit de pena i llibertat

[rough translation]

A scream drowned by the wind
Like a forbidden word
And the leaves spin, encrypted
With a music that only we understand
Let’s scream it!
Let’s scream it!
Scream from sadness, for freedom

The catchy, lilting Joc de Miralls (Game of Mirrors) seems to an examination of how recognizing your shadow in someone else can be liberating, if a little scary.

Pagès’ starry electric guitar rings out over Emili Bosch’s synth in Astronautes, a playful outer-space love song. Sampai winds up the album with the understatedly haunting L’Endemà (The Day After), the strings lush and moody as Gerard Morató’s piano mingles with Lluís Pérez-Villegas’ glockenspiel. Sampai’s Christmas party narrative is joyous and not a little defiant, but there’s a sinister undercurrent. What a perfect song for a year when dictators are trying to tell us how many people we can invite to our private holiday celebrations.

Play For Today 9/7/21

Been awhile since there’s been a playlist on this page, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of entertaining singles floating around. Here’s a fun and informative self-guided mix: the links in the song titles will take you to each one.

The Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout are best known for their latin soul jams, but they’re a lot more eclectic than their name implies. The most electrifying song on their live album is Sheba, an Ethiopiques-tinged surf song

Louisiana rocker Rod Gator‘s Wanna Go for a Ride is the Clash’s version of Brand New Cadillac, as the Legendary Shack Shakers might have done it, darker and grittier with a guitar solo to match

Acoustic Syndicate‘s cover of the Grateful Dead classic Bertha has a tightness and a snarl that the original band sometimes let slip away. “Test me test me test me test me, why don’t you arrest me?” What a theme the lockdown era!

It makes a good segue with one you probably know, RC the Rapper‘s Just Say No, one of the big boombox hits from this summer’s protests here in the US. “It isn’t a theory if it keeps coming true.”

The smooth reggae grooves of Micah Lee’s No Lockdowns keep the inspiration flowing (thanks to the fearless folks at Texans For Vaccine Choice for this one).

The breathing metaphors and carefree sounds of children laughing on the playground in Alma’s Sips of Oxygen are a much subtler kind of commentary: “Someone in the doorway, hope they’re not afraid of them.”

Marianne Dissard and Raphael Mann’s delicate chamber pop duet reinvention of Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You is the great lost track from Nico’s Chelsea Girl album….with a woman who can hit the notes on the mic.

Let’s end this with something equally artful and poignant: Danny Wilkerson‘s Endless Haze, the best and least Beatlesque song on the new reissue of his very Fab Four-influenced 2018 solo debut album. The stark haggardness of the Boston Symphony Strings back his playfully lyrical but wounded chronicle of losing a battle with the bottle.

Fearless Texans Raise Their Voices For Freedom in Austin

Songwriter Five Times August was obviously amped to open Texans for Vaccine Choice‘s massive protest at the Capitol building in Austin yesterday. So amped that as he left the stage, he forgot to tell the audience who he was. It took a vociferous reminder from a woman in the front row to send him back to the mic. You can watch the whole performance, as well as the inspiring parade of medical professionals and activists afterward, at the Highwire.

For someone who over the past year has been writing catchy, corrosively funny, tragically perceptive protest songs, gigs don’t get any better than the chance to play to a robust, impressively diverse crowd of over a thousand people. The guitarist and singer otherwise known as Brad Skistimas opened with his lone cover of the day, an aptly Steve Earle-influenced take of Tom Petty’s Won’t Back Down. Then the lyrics and the jokes started flying, fast and furious.

God Help Us All, a spiky, fingerpicked tune, might be the biggest viral hit (pun intended) Skistimas has had so far, no doubt due in part to the hilarious video on the front page of his website.

Citizen fools and brand new rules make everyone a hero now
Keep your distance, no resistance, only do what you’re allowed…
See no evil, bow to the needle, didn’t we turn out great?
Sick is the new hell, poor is the new well, truth is whatever they say…
Divide and conquer, weak not stronger, everybody know your place
Do it now, it won’t hurt, dig into your own dirt, virtue found its grave

His third number was an update on what Woody Guthrie did with This Land Is Your Land. The horror-stricken ballad Jesus What Happened to Us was taken down by youtube, no surprise considering the lyrics. It’s Eve of Destruction with a locked-in, lockdown-era focus: “Keep staring at your smartphone, get dumber every week,” Skistimas taunted.

The funniest song of the afternoon (and most hilarious video he’s made so far) was Outttayerdaminde, a rapidfire Subterranean Homesick Blues flavored broadside that makes savage fun of narcissists run amok on Tik Tok. The quietest and most sobering number was a new one, a sad waltz titled Silent War:

Someone is trying to sell you the cure
Same one who made the disease
And they’ll try to convince you, and make you feel sure
But hey, there ain’t no guarantee
They’ve covered your mouth and tied back your hands
They did it to all of the kids
And nobody knows all the damage it’s done
And won’t ask until the master permits

He wound up the set with the bouncy, defiant I Will Not Be Leaving Quietly.

The speakers afterward were a microcosm of the kind of ordinary heroes who have sprung up around the world in the past year and a half. Physician assistant Miguel Escobar, whose incendiary address to his local muzzlemaniac school board went viral a couple weeks ago, spoke truth to power in both English and Spanish (even if you’re a non-native Spanish speaker, he’s very easy to understand). He takes the mic at 1:19:00.

Irrepressibly upbeat hero nurse Jennifer Bridges – who is suing her former employer, Houston Methodist Hospital for being wrongfully fired for refusing the kill shot, even though she has natural immunity to Covid – is at 2:09:55. The Highwire’s Del Bigtree closed the afternoon with an impromptu challenge to the crowd to take the energy of the rally home with them. He’s at 3:18:21 in the video.

As the irreplaceable and tirelessly entertaining Dr. Pam Popper has revealed, the 70% figure the US government has been throwing around is a lie. The Kaiser Family Foundation study she cites, based on individual state records, puts the actual percentage of the population who’ve been coerced or terrorized into taking the kill shot at less than half that. Bigtree elaborated on a point he made a couple weeks ago on the Highwire, that the roughly sixty percent majority who won’t take the kill shot is not going to budge, and that the PR campaign behind it is dead in the water. Our challenge is to be less of a silent majority, organize and get back to normal, because nobody’s going to do it for us.

Speaking of which, there’s a big protest at City Hall here in Manhattan on August 25 at 4 PM.

Carola Ortiz’s Picturesque, Edgy New Album Celebrates Vivid New Catalan Poetry

Catalan singer and clarinetist Carola Ortiz‘s new album Pecata Beata – streaming at Spotify – is a gorgeous, defiantly feminist collection that sets poems by Catalan women authors to an electrifying blend of Mediterranean balladry, Romany and flamenco music, and fado, with classical gravitas and the occasional jazz flourish. It’s her first album where she sings all the compositions in Catalan, her first language. Not only is the music here colorful, and often haunting, but the lyrics are fantastic, even from the limited perspective of an English-speaking linguistic tourist.

From the hair-raising werewolf intro of Corro per la Nit to its leaping, Balkan-inspired rhythms and suspenseful lulls, it’s a wild opener, propelled by guitarist Bartolomeo Barenghi, bassist Pau Lligadas and percussionist Aleix Tobias. Ortiz’s dramatic intensity, bringing Anna Gual’s harrowing chase scene to life, contrasts with her spare, jaggedly incisive clarinet.

She overdubs a small choir of voices on the tricky, syncopated introduction to the grim folk song El Testament d’Amèlia. From there she hits a more melancholy, melismatic delivery, much like a fadista, with poignant, resonant clarinet joined at the end by violinist Heloïse Lefebvre, violist John King and cellist Sandrine Robilliard. Ortiz’s concluding wail will give you goosebumps.

Sirena, with lyrics by Mercè Rodoreda, is a surreal, shapeshiftingly alluring mix of cabaret, along with what could be fado and a Mexican ranchera ballad. Ortiz channels hope against hope amid relentless angst in Monserrat Abello’s poem Visc Por No Morir – L’Exiliada, over a bittersweetly lilting, guitar-driven Belgian musette-style waltz.

A broodingly crecendoing setting of a Rosa Pou text, Ala, Bat! Yes, Adeu is a mashup of fado and bolero, Ortiz’s impassioned melismas channeling ache and despair. Carme Guasch’s clever wordplay in Amat I Amic gets the album’s most hypnotically circling melody, with elegantly rising and falling violin from Robilliard.

Avui les Fades i les Bruixes S’estimen, with a lyric by Maria Mercè Marçal, has a similarly circular, syncopated string quartet arrangement, Ortiz finally sailing up to the top of her vocal register. The playfully strutting Cant de Juliol, by Catarina Albert (pseudonymously, ,as Víctor Català) is the album’s most comedic, carnivalesque number.

Ortiz’s bass clarinet dips to gritty, noirish lows in Carmeta, an instrumental, shifting from a shamanic musette of sorts to a slinky, tricky Bakkan groove. She sticks with the big licorice for the album’s lush, tantalizingly brief love ballad La Rosa Als Llavis, with text by Joan Salvat Papasseit.

A Look Back at Abigail Lapell’s Searing, Brilliant Getaway Album

Abigail Lapell’s 2019 album Getaway – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most brilliantly lyrical, tersely melodic original folk albums of recent years. Her vocals are usually understated, so when she rises to the rafters with righteous wrath, it takes your breath away. Sandy Denny is the obvious influence. Likewise, there’s a smoldering anger here. Abandonment is a persistent theme. This is not music for the faint-hearted but it is an elixir for anyone who’s ever been screwed over. And the tunesmithing, and musicianship, and arrangements, are sharp and purposeful. Time may judge this a classic.

The album’s first track, Gonna Be Leaving begin with Lapell’s warpy, trebly hollowbody blues guitar over Lisa Bozikovic’s stately piano and a vocal line that in classical music would be called a rondo. It sets the stage for the rest of the album: there’s a crushing irony in how the protagonist’s escape foreshadows the antagonist’s subsequent departure.

Ask Me No Questions a brisk waltz with distant echoes of early Fairport Convention. The ending is crushing – it’s too good to spoil. If vindictive is your thing, this is your jam.

Lapell’s circling guitar voicings in Devll in the Deep are nothing short of gorgeous in this otherwise tormentedly crescendoing anthem, Rachael Cardiello’s viola adding bracing bursts of color. Lapell switches to piano for Leningrad, an even more witheringly cynical, wintry ballad: “I come from a better place, but I don’t have far to fall,” she alludes.

With its spare, fingerpicked guitar and fluttering mellotron, Sparrow for a Heart is the closest evocation of Sandy Denny here, Rebecca Hennessey adding somber trumpet. Christine Bougie’s keening lapsteel floats over Lapell’s steady strums in the spirited yet haggard road narrative Halfway to Mexico.

The tricky rhythms and Lapell’s blippy keyboards underscore the surreal milieu of UFO Song: like David Bowie, life on Mars seems to be an improvement…until the narrator here sees the spaceship.

Lapell builds a hypnotic backdrop with her accordion in Runaway, an atmospheric take on oldtime Appalachian folk. Likewise, Down by the Water is a spare, harmony-fueled front-porch folk number.

Lapell’s hammer-on guitar sparkles darkly under the brass section in Little Noise: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Linda Thompson catalog. The album’s final cut is Shape of a Mountain, rocky terrain as metaphor for a defiantly individualist and weatherbeaten heart, set against a starkly resonant full-band backdrop.

Thoughtful, Tuneful Pastoral Sounds From Andrew Rowan and Steven van Betten

Andrew Rowan and Steven van Betten have an attractively melancholy, bucolic chamber pop album, No Branches Without Trees. streaming at Bandcamp. Fans of the quiet side of Elliott Smith, or the early BeeGees, should check this out.

They open with Calico Basin, a wistful pastoral theme for strings. piano and glockenspiel God Given Beauty wouldn’t be out of place on Nick Drake’s first album, although this has more somber orchestration that blends with Rowan’s stark reed organ. The album’s title track is a wistful waltz, strings wafting starkly over van Betten’s delicately fingerpicked guitar.

“Have no fear when they come for you,” is the refrain in the Radiohead-tinged Little Boy: words to aspire to in an era of trace-and-track.

A quaint, fleeting string theme introduces Mining Claim, a brooding waltz that strongly brings to mind Philip Glass’ Dracula score. The narrative for Herrman, set to plaintive strings and guitar, is hauntingly allusive: it appears this Dutch gradeschooler survived the Holocaust, but his siblings may be another story. The album winds up on a similar note with Last Walk Through the Desert: as the strings flutter and shiver, does this guy ever make it out?

A Chilling Lockdown Halloween Song From the Grasping Straws

In an elegant, poetic minute and thirty-nine seconds, Mallory Feuer captures the surreal horror and cognitive dissonance of this year’s lockdown hell in her new single Quarantine Halloween. It’s totally acoustic, released under the name of her power trio the Grasping Straws and streaming at Bandcamp.

For Halloween, democracy is dressed up like money
Who’s a sheep? We’re all dressed as sheep
Consuming news like candy

Right up until the lockdown, Feuer maintained a busy schedule playing all over New York, whether as the Grasping Straws’ frontwoman and guitarist, or as the drummer in the darkly psychedelic Mischief Night with guitarist Marcus Kitchen.

Feuer suggests trying to find a movie scarier than this reality. Watch for this one on the best songs of 2020 page at the end of next month