New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: acoustic rock

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

Smart, Diverse, Lyrical Acoustic Americana From the Steep Canyon Rangers

The Steep Canyon Rangers first exploded onto the Americana scene in the zeros as a pretty straight-up bluegrass band, but in the years since then they’ve become a lot more diverse. They’re just as informed by oldschool honkytonk as they are by hi-de-ho swing and punkgrass jamband music. Their latest album Arm in Arm is streaming at Bandcamp.

The third track, Sunny Days is a classic example of why these guys have such a big following. It’s a big singalong anthem, a showcase for banjo player Graham Sharp’s sizzling lines over guitarist Woody Platt’s punchy chords, fiddler Nicky Sanders sailing over bassist Barrett Smith’s steady pulse. When they take it down for a suspenseful break and then build up again, it’s Mike Guggino’s mandolin that’s out front. Old Crow Medicine Show made a living with songs like these for years, and so have the Steep Canyon Rangers. Crowds love this kind of stuff – and it’s a crime that in most parts of the United States, crowds aren’t allowed to come out to see it these days.

Everything You Know is another killer cut, a slow, hauntingly lyrical parable of imperialist evil and how to hang under the radar away from it. It could be the Jayhawks. In the year of the lockdown, this one really packs a wallop.

The rest of the record runs the gamut. Skipping right to the last track, Crystal Ship, to see if it was a crazy cover of the Doors song, turned out to be a false alarm: it’s an original, a subdued, slow, spare, melancholy ballad. Opening the album, One Drop of Rain follows a pretty standard newgrass pattern: enigmatic verse, catchy anthemic chorus.

Platt breaks out his electric slide guitar for Every River over drummer Michael Ashworth’s low-key drive, with some searing interplay with the fiddle. Honey on My Tongue has more of a low-key front-porch folk vibe, while In the Next Life diverges into wry, midtempo, syncopated Americana rock.

Bullet in the Fire is a pensive, stoically philosophical mandolin-driven ballad, followed by Take My Mind, a brisk shuffle featuring Oliver Wood and Michael Bearden. There’s also a sly, fiddle-fueled pickup number, A Body Like Yours and the Grateful Dead-influenced Afterglow.

A Big Dose of Hilarious, Sharply Lyrical, Tuneful Black Dirt Country Rock From Joe Stamm

If you’re a musician trying to build an audience, you can’t do better than Americana rocker Joe Stamm, who has one of the most sophisticated and well thought-out marketing campaigns this blog has ever encountered. There’s a catch, though…his system won’t work for you unless you have the material to back it up.

What he wants you to do when you visit his webpage is to sign up for his “online album adventure,” with a lot of freebies. So maybe you do that…and half an hour later, it hits you that you’re still there, still listening. This guy is good!

He calls his music black dirt country rock. He can be outrageously funny one moment and dead serious the next. He’s a strong singer, a hell of a storyteller and has a good sense of the kind of incident where there’s a song just waiting to be written about it. Like pretty much everybody in his line of work did before the lockdown, he made his living on the road.

When you sign up, he sends you all the stuff in a series of emails. with a lot of mini-playlists, free downloads and videos. Day one is a good introduction. It begins with a free download of High Road Home, an ambiguous and troubled workingman’s anthem (Stamm has a LOT of those). There’s more than a hint of Sam Llanas soul in the vocals, in this live duo version with low-key, purposeful acoustic lead player David Glover.

There’s also a duo version of the grimly aphoristic Crow Creek in the original A major key – which actually turns out better than the minor-key version Stamm recorded in the studio. But the centerpiece is Blame It on the Dog. It’s insanely funny and it has a trick ending. Without giving too much away, the dog is not always to blame for what’s going on here.

Later on during the “adventure” he celebrates “Busch Lights and a purple haze” – yikes – over a slow soul sway in a full band version of Bottle You Up, a salute to daydrinking. It’s also Stamm’s opportunity to pitch his line of suggestive beer-related t-shirts and such.

A little further into the “adventure” he completely flips the script with Ring of Roses, a folksy, John Prine-ish number inspired by a guy who was in hospice care, but that didn’t stop him from planning his next construction project. For freedom-loving people in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Stamm’s next gig is on Oct 10 at 10 PM at Bigs Bar at 3110 W. 12th St.

You may be wondering why on earth a New York music blog would be paying so much attention to shows in such a faraway place as South Dakota. There are actually many reasons why, which you should think about, and one of them is that there are there’s more going on musically in South Dakota than there is in New York City right now – at least as far as publicly advertised shows are concerned. And if that’s not cause for concern, somebody’s asleep at the wheel. 

Rare Live Elliott Smith Available For the First Time on Record

The big deal about the new, remastered 25th anniversary edition of Elliott Smith’s solo debut – streaming at Bandcamp – is that it comes with a bonus live album, something that the iconic 90s songwriter never released during his lifetime. It took a conversation with one of his best friends from college to get the inside dope. “Oh, from when he was doing all those drugs,” she said with a dismissive wave of the hand: she wasn’t inclined to hear it.

For whatever reason, Smith doesn’t sound particularly opiated. His voice is ragged in places, and he doesn’t interact much with an impressively large crowd who’d come out for his solo acoustic set at Umbra Penumbra in Portland, Oregon on September 17, 1994. But his guitar work is solid, and vigorous, and everybody who was listening to Smith before he was murdered will want to hear it.

Knowing how he ended up, it’s sobering to hear the endless druggie references: the desperate narrative over those Wilco-ish chords in his first number; the references to scoring on the Lower East Side in Alphabet Town; and the appearance of Constantina, a recurrent, pseudonymous character who would outlive him.

Plenty of early versions of as-yet unreleased material in the setlist. No Name #4, an allusively grim narrative over briskly picked folk chords; the even more grisly detailed Condor Ave.; the wistfully waltzing No Name #1; and the broodingly Britfolk-tinged No Confidence Man, among others. Smith’s old Heatmiser bud Neil Gust joins him for a stark two-guitar version of Half Right.

On the reissue record, the bass response seems substantially boosted: does that explain why the downstrokes and atonal open-string harmonies of Needle in the Hay, for example, sound so much like Nirvana? Or is that just a function of listening on headphones instead of getting to know this otherwise rather delicate, mostly acoustic cd by cranking it up on a big oldschool stereo in a Gramercy Park apartment?

Hindsight being 20/20, it’s easy to hear the otherwise opaque Christian Brothers as a prototype for the gorgeously anthemic sensibility of Figure 8. Or how tantalizingly the briskly strummed layers of Southern Belle foreshadow that era as well. Or, listening to the full-band studio version of Coming Up Roses here, how much he already had that in his fingers to an extent that nobody realized at the time.

Smartly Woven Southern Gothic Tunesmithing From Abigail Dowd

Rural life isn’t easy, as folk music from around the world will never let you forget. Abigail Dowd draws on that tradition, with imagistic tales which reflect how much things have changed – and also how little. She’s got a big, bluesy voice, like Lucinda Williams before the booze caught up with her, as well as way with a sharp turn of phrase and a solid supporting cast of players behind her. Travelers and outsiders figure heavily in her songs. Her new album Not What I Seem is streaming at Bandcamp.

The stripped-down arrangement in the biting, minorr-key, bluesy Wiregrasser – just acoustic rhythm guitar, lead slide guitar and steady bass – underscores Dowd’s hardscrabble tableau, where people extract everything from the surrounding woods until there’s nothing left but creosote.

“I mostly look out for myself,” Dowd’s cynical narrator relates in The Other Side over a catchy, Dylanesque sus4 riff – but she also asserts that “When you get to heaven, there’ll be many a party, but there won’t be nobody there that you know.”

Over a spiky web of fingerpicked guitars, Dowd chronicles a harrowing southern legacy in Old White House. Dowd’s fingerpicking grows more spare and enigmatic in the album’s title track, a defiant, solo acoustic individualist’s anthem.

“I remember looking for a smile, and meeting cold steel eyes,” Dows recounts as Chosin, a searing memoir of how war trauma crosses generations, rises from a hazy intro to a briskly ringing, open-tuned melody. “Stand and fight, you fool, ‘cause no one’s gonna out alive/Watch out, how many of these wounds are mine?”

Dowd looks back on an uneasy transition from southern comfort to New England chill in Goodbye Hometown. She takes that story further into a troubled future in Oh 95, a vivid traveler’s tale: “When you’re all alone you speak the truth,” she reflects.

Dowd and the band pick up the pace with Desire, a shuffling minor-key tale set in coalmining country. Alienation is a persistent theme in these songs, and the stark To Have a Friend is the most forlorn of all of them.

Drag Me Down is an unexpected turn toward acoustic White Album-era Beatles. She keeps the low-key, fingerpicked ambience going with Daredevil: “Let me be the devil on your shoulder, I’m daring you to live,” Dowd cajoles.

She takes a turn into Lou Reed territory in Sweet Love and then returns to Americana, singing a-cappela in the album’s closing cut, Silent Pines, a gospel-flavored revolutionary anthem. If best-of-2020 lists still exist when this hellacious year is over, you’re going to see this album on a lot of them.

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.

Wickedly Smart Metaphors and Catchy, Socially Aware Songs From Lara Herscovitch

A lot of the songs on Lara Herscovitch‘s new album Highway Philosphers – streaming at Spotify – pack a wallop rarely found in the normally sedate world of singer-songwriters. Take the album’s fifth track, You USA. The music may be low-key – just her intricate fingerpicking and lead guitarist Stephen Murphy’s airy washes – but the political content is fierce, and really captures the embryonic phase of the paradigm shift that’s sweeping the world:

We are underestimated, undeterred, here to stay
Pins in the rafters from the rally yesterday
Learning to look each other in the eye
Power grid’s gone down so we live like fireflies
Don’t look away USA

At at time where we’re finding Bernie supporters standing shoulder to shoulder with Trumpies at anti-lockdown protests, and just about everybody protesting the murder of George Floyd, something amazing is going on here. The whole world is uniting to rip those masks off ourselves…and also off everyone who profits from racism and divide-and-conquer strategies.

Another killer track is the Neko Case-ish Careful Porcelain Doll, a defiant tale of breaking away from a life of “paint by numbers in reverse.” The girl at the center of this story dreams of emulating her idol, Yankees home run champion and Gold Glove third baseman Graig Nettles, then trades that for adult domesticity…but ends the story with a spectacular Jacoby Ellsbury kind of move. For fans of the pinstripes, maybe it’s best that guys like DiMag and Bernie Williams didn’t try to make plays like that! We may not have baseball this year, but at least we have this song.

Most of the music here is pretty spare: just the bandleader’s acoustic guitar and clear, uncluttered vocals, Murphy’s terse electric fills and Craig Akin’s bass. There’s always a welcome subtext in these songs: Sailing to Newfoundland, for example, works on every level that quasi sea chantey’s title implies.

Fault Lines is Herscovitch’s eerily detailed counterpart to Dawn Oberg‘s harrowing End of the Continent; “I still wonder what that summer measured on the Richter Scale,” Herscovitch muses.

Castle Walls is a similarly vivid, wise tale of a European fling that didn’t work out. The album’s arguably funniest song is The Tiger and I, the most hilarious account of formula retail as circus ever set to music. Rise is also irresistibly amusing: it could be a Trump parable, or a satirical look at Andrew Cuomo’s ridiculously taxpayer-funded adventures with bridges to New Jersey. Or both.

There’s also In Your Corner, a gospel song about boxing – on a surface level, at least – and From a Dream, a surreal spoken-word narrative. Anyone who can’t resist clever wordplay, unselfconsciously soulful vocals and catchy tunes should check this out.

Steve Wynn Reinvents Classics and Rarities with a Dusky, Haunting Acoustic Ambience

Hot on the heels of the Dream Syndicate‘s radically psychedelic, echoingly haunting new album The Universe Inside, bandleader Steve Wynn has totally flipped the script with his spare yet no less hauntingly intimate new release, Solo Acoustic Vol. 1. Beyond the Dream Syndicate’s guitar duels and increasingly vast panoramas, Wynn has toured solo acoustic on and off since his teenage days in the 80s. Yet, outside of side one of the legendary/obscure Straight to the Swapmeet ep, there’s never been a solo acoustic Wynn album until now.

You could call this his Lightnin’ Hopkins record. The legendary Texas bluesman would stop into a studio or radio station in between gigs along the highway, put down some tracks and sell the master for gas money. Wynn, a big Bill Callahan fan, went into the artist formerly known as Smog’s favorite Austin studio late last year and got a grand total of 26 songs from his vast back catalog in the can in a single marathon eight-hour session. This initial volume is up at Bandcamp, and there’s another on the way.

There are plenty of “so THAT’s what this song is all about” moments here: the devil is always in the details in Wynn’s noir-tinged tableaux, and sometimes that can get subsumed in the roar of the guitars. Wynn is also as interesting to listen to on acoustic as he is on electric. In fact, some of the spare, dusky versions here are arguably better than the originals.

That could easily be said for the catchy, vamping take of Manhattan Fault Line, which opens the album. It’s one of the few straightforwardly autobiographical numbers in Wynn’s book: a lifetime Los Angeleno, he was 34 when he left town for New York with his tail between his legs…and never looked back.

The version of Merrittville isn’t the only quiet one out there: the slow, watery menace of the Dream Syndicate’s performance on the Live at Raji’s record is an icy gem. Even the name of this town has a crushing sarcasm: what a horrible place for an irrepressible bon vivant to be on the run from rednecks and bible bangers!

Anthem is a real revelation, its desperate narrator still awake and staring at the screen as all the channels on tv are signing off. There’s also more than a hint of desperation in the version of Love Me Anyway here.

Similarly, the doomed narrative of Like Mary stands out even more than in the original, Wynn’s acoustic guitar running through a vintage amp with just a tinge of tremolo, heightening the Lynchian ambience. HIs terse, incisive picking ramps up the mystery in Morningside Heights, while this solo version of Carry a Torch has a welcome, unexpected if somewhat muted musical savagery to match the lyrics.

Freak Star, one of Wynn’s most careeningly evocative songs from the past ten years or so, is one of the album’s best tunes; “Something told me commonsense was not a game you play,” he reflects. The real rarity here is the cynical, Highway 61 Dylan-ish Is There Something I Should Know. The obvious choicefor this record is a deliciously twisted take of My Old Haunts, Wynn switching out the original’s blithely sarcastic oldtimey swing atmosphere for a much more pointed, low-key character study.

Layer By Layer is the most overtly Lou Reed-influenced number here: it”s not clear to what degree this is about religion, or surveillance, or both. There’s also an inventively strummed, brief solo take of Crawling Misanthropic Blues and a terse version of Shades of Blue, although without that bittersweet Dream Syndicate quote on the intro that literally takes your breath away  – if you know Wynn’s turbulent history, anyway. Is it fair to pick an album of old songs as one of the best of the year? They sure don’t sound old here.