New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: album review

A Diverse, Smartly Lyrical New Album and a Fort Greene Release Show From Karen & the Sorrows

Karen & the Sorrows are one of New York’s most most individualistic Americana bands. For those who might think that’s like being the best cumbia band in Iceland, keep in mind that Americana, hip-hop and reggaeton are this city’s default styles of music right now. The band’s brooding first album traced the narrative of a ghost story from lead guitarist Elana Redfield’s native New Hampshire. Their new one, The Narrow Place – streaming at their music page – also covers a lot of dark territory, but it’s a lot more eclectic. It’s inspiring to see how much the group has grown musically. They’re wrapping up their current US tour, with an album release show at 10 PM on Sept 22 at C’Mon Everybody; cover is $10.

Drummer Tami Johnson keeps a stark, practically hypnotic beat as the album’s first track, Back Down to the Dirt gets underway: frontwoman/guitarist Karen Pittelman’s wary, soaring voice delivers an aphoristic, metaphorically-charged cautionary tale. Producer Charles Burst plays bass; on the rest of the album, Gerard Kouwenhoven keeps the four-string groove going.

Redfield’s pedal steel mingles with Julia Read’s fiddle behind Pittleman’s precise, chirpy vocals in Can’t Miss What You Never Had. a moody tale of 99-percenter longing for something better. The Wire is an ominously swaying noir Americana rock anthem that brings to mind the Walkabouts: “J.B. Flatt” supplies the funereal Hammond organ behind Redfield’s resonantly edgy guitar lines.

Pittelman’s bittersweet vocals bring to mind Amy Allison in the brisk, backbeat-driven Nowhere:

All these bones
On the other shore
How my sister sang
But I don’t sing no more

Take Me for a Ride is a big, aching, seductive rocker: “Here comes my girl in a flatbed Ford…let me take you out on the town, don’t care what those folks say,” Pittelman insists. Then she makes it clear that “I”m just the man who loves you” in the brisk highway rock number after that.

In The Price of the Ticket, Pittelman draws inspiration from James Baldwin’s assertion that artists should always reevaluate their work. It’s a bitter but resolute anthem for anyone who’s had to make a break with the past:

Write your notes back to home
In an alphabet they can’t read
Save your change for the phone
But no line could ever reach back

The album’s best and most allusively political song is the southwestern gothic-tinged Walk Through the Desert:

When they write what has happened here
It will seem so clear,
Like they knew
All that loss, all the haze and fear
It will disappear like the truth

The band go back to the country for the sad breakup ballad Do It For Myself. I Was Just Your Fool stomps along with some bitter theatrical imagery. The album winds up with Everything We Had, an unexpectedly welcome southern soul number.

Apropos of changing gender roles, isn’t it funny how the typical chick role in this band, i.e. the bass player, is a dude, while the women in the group play the rhythm guitar, lead guitar and drums? Maybe we’ve finally smashed the glass ceiling in music…or we’re just going back to an earlier era when groups like the Carter Family – or bands in villages across the world – divided up responsibilities among whoever was available to play regardless of who had the Y chromosomes.

Advertisements

Darkness and Revelry in Equal Measure in Tomas Fujiwara’s Brilliant New Triple Double Album

Drummer Tomas Fujiwara’s music is all about creating a mood, and narratives, and destinations, and all the fun a band can have with interplay and conversations and occasional jousting on the way there. For all of those reasons, he’s one of the busiest guys in jazz. The musicianship on his new album Triple Double – soon to be streaming at Bandcamp – is as deep as his address book. Just the fact that he’s got two of the most ferocious guitarists on the planet, Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook sparring with each other makes this a must-own for fans of dark, gritty, occasionally hilarious music.

It’s pretty high concept: in addition to the guitars, there are two horns – Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and Ralph Alessi on trumpet – and two drummers, Gerald Cleaver holding down the second chair. It’s akin to a  more improvisational, less assaultive take on percussive British guitar band Action Beat, . In an interesting stroke of fate, Seabrook also put out a ferociously good new double-drum album, wryly titled Die Trommel Fatale, earlier this year. Fujiwara and the band are playing the album release show on Sept 22 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $22.

The fun starts right ffom the first few bars of the squirrelly two-guitar conversation that opens the first track, Diving For Quarters. For the listener, it’s a challenge to figure out who’s who, especially as a long, rather grim crescendo slowly builds. Looming brass contrasts with a squall or two as Fujiwara swings with his work boots on, Alessi taking a long latin noir-infused solo up to a gleeful thunderstorm of drums and guitar swipes.

Likewise, Alessi chooses his moments in a long solo that bisects the leering storm and skronk of the two guitars and drumkits in Blueberry Eyes, Halvorson in the left channel, Seabrook in the right throwing blast after distorted blast at each other. Suddenly the sky clears and they’re following a circular, allusively New Orleans-tinged shuffle as Bynum comes to the front. Even as some sweet brass harmonies take over at the end, Halvorson can’t wait to let it trail out with a down-the-drain rattle.

A gloomy rainy-day ambience, astringent guitars over spare drums and cymbals, pervades Hurry Home, a psychedelic tone poem of sorts. Pocket Pass makes a flailing contrast, packed with blazing trumpet spirals, snarky kiss-off guitars, Halvorson’s bad cop against Seabrook’s deadpan good cop. All of a sudden it straightens out (as much as anything straightens out on this album) in a dark latin direction.

For Alan opens with a droll spoken-word sample of a ten-year-old Fujiwara in conversation with his mentor Alan Dawson, who encourages him to have a good time within the parameters. “If a cymbal falls in, if the pedal breaks, whatever.” This matter-of-factly rising Cleaver-Fujiwara duel stays on the rails even as flurries in each channel diverge: the chase is on! Eight-minute pieces for drums alone are rarely this entertaining.

An elegaic, mournful horn melody rises over the drums’ tumble and crush as Love and Protest coalesces, bolstered by Seabrook’s eerie, reverberating belltones and echo effects as the menacing cloud darkens. It’s finally punctured by Alessi, but even he’s eventually subsumed in the vortex. Halvorson artfully takes over the slasher role as the dirge returns.

Notwithstanding all the uneasy close harmonies, Decisive Shadow is awfully catchy, especially when the horns kick in, up to a trickily shifting, insistent vamp with a contrastingly ebullient Alessi solo. Halvorson’s shears and sputters signal the drums, and everybody else, to tunnel down into the darkness.

The group returns to the Hurry Home theme with gingerly tremoloing guitars amid the sleet of the percussion: it’s the album’s creepiest number. Sarcastic cornet opens Toasting the Mart, a twisted march, Halvfrson thinking about horror surf, the horns peeping in through respective windows. Seabrook flickers and then the whole thing dissolves in a toxic heap only to reemerge unexpectedly.

To Hours (a pun?) makes an apt concluding statement, from a loosely congealing free-improv interlude to an uneasily cantering vamp, Alessi battling the murky backdrop. This isn’t just one of the most gripping jazz albums of the year: it’s on the level of anything any of the cast here have released as leaders recently. One of the ten best, maybe five best albums of the year, to be more precise. Press play, hit repeat, you’ll get used to it.

Entertainment and Formidable Piano Chops at an Unexpectedly Contemplative Spot with Champian Fulton

Champian Fulton brings a rare blend of daunting piano and vocal chops to the final nights of her indian summer Radegast Hall residency this Sept 18 at 8 PM. She’s also here on the 25th. Either way, it’s Monday, and it’s professional night, and while you might not expect people to come to listen, they do. Remember, every bar on a Monday could be the best bar in town.

Fulton’s latest album is The Things We Did Last Summer, a collaboration with suave tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton recorded live onstage in Spain last year and streaming at Spotify. It’s a mix of instrumental and vocal numbers, and despite the fact that it’s mostly standards, it’s arguably the high point of Fulton’s career so far. She makes solid studio albums – her all-instrumental collection, Speechless, is a party in a box – but both co-leaders do their best work onstage. More artists – particularly players who can improvise at the level the band reaches here – should be making live records.

Fulton’s subtle, tantalizingly melismatic vocals and entertaining stage presence are what she’s best known for, but she’s also a hell of a pianist. To open the album, she brings a moody been-there, done-that, know-your-pain feel to When Your Lover Has Gone, contrasting with a spacious, playfully jaunty, ragtime-tinged piano solo. Hamilton brings in the mist from there; Fulton really works the blue notes at the end.

The ten-plus minute take of Basie’s Black Velvet is a classic example of the kind of extended excursion Fulton excels at when the night is winding down, but she’s not ready to call it quits. Bassist Ignasi Gonzalez and drummer Esteve Pi settle into a comfortable midtempo stroll as Fulton winds her way up from gimlet-eye glimmer toward jubilation, Hamilton echoing her as he takes the long way in through the fog.

Fulton gets back on the mic with a barely restrained vengefulness for I Cried for You, which the band takes scampering, Gonzalez’ wry, brisk bass ballet contrasting with Fulton’s clenched-teeth attack on the keys. There’s a Sarah Vaughan-ish told-your-so quality to the vocals, but it’s not derivative.

The album’s instrumental title track brings back the wee-hours serenity, Hamilton plush and balmy over Fulton’s lingering phrases. Then the two offer contrast, floating sax against Fulton’s lowdown bluesy vocals and joyous staccato piano in Too Marvelous For Words.

Allusive, understated bluesy angst pervades an expansive vocal take of My Future Just Passed, this one closer to the Shirley Horn version. Then the band picks up the pace with the hot jazz standard Running Wild before going back to the “Great American Songbook” for a lush excursion through The Very Thought of You, Fulton ending the night with misty suspense that Hamilton works for all it’s worth before her fingers finally bust it through the clouds. It’s a good bet she’ll do something a lot like this during the Williamsburg stand.

For those in Jersey, she’s also at the Gruin Center for the Arts on College Drive on the Ocean County College campus in Toms River on Sept 19 at 8; tix are $24/$20 srs.

Smart, Innovative, Unpredictably Brilliant Newgrass Guitarist Jon Stickley and His Trio Hit Williamsburg This Weekend

Guitarist Jon Stickley gets major props for his daunting chops, mashing up bluegrass with jazz, Romany and south-of-the-border sounds. His instrumentals follow unexpected tangents through all those styles and more, with a bright, cinematic effect. He and his trio’s 2016 ep, Triangular is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’re playing the Knitting Factory on Sept 17 on a strange but solid triplebill. Skronky Chicago guitar improvisers Tacoma Narrows open the night at 8, followed by Stickley and then Minneapolis newgrassers the Last Revel headlining at 10: $12 adv tix are available.

The album’s opening track, Blackburn Brothers gives you a good idea of where Stickley’s coming from. It opens as a shuffling, moody, minor-key bluegrass tune but then Stickley throws some fluid Romany jazz phrases in, echoed by violinist Lyndsay Pruett as drummer Patrick Armitage keeps a steady, swaying beat. They make straight-ahead, emphatic rock out of it at the end.

Plain Sight has a wary, dancing, insistent pulse – with different instrumentation and a heavier beat, this cinematic theme could be metal, at least until the trio hit a warmly windswept big-sky interlude midway through.

Palm Tree is a jaunty tropical number set to a tricky beat: as Stickey flatpicks and spirals around, Brazilian psychedelic rainforest jammers Forro in the Dark come to mind. With its constantly shifting chords,Echolocation is the killer track here, Stickley’s fluttery tremolo-picking adding border-rock ambience to a brisk, gorgeously bittersweet, Lynchian theme. Stickley even sticks a baroque fugue in toward the end!

Manzanita, the final cut, blends verdant Britfolk, bluegrass and a little Doorsy latin noir over a propulsive, steady beat. No doubt this album and the rest of Stickley’s innovative catalog  will be available at the show: Punch Brothers, eat your heart out.

Vocal Sensation Camille Bertault Brings Her Wit and Eclectic Chops to the Jazz Standard

Conservatory-trained as a pianist, Camille Bertault became a social media sensation a couple of years ago for her vocal versions of classic jazz solos. It turns out that she’s not only an inventive singer but a clever, playful songwriter as well. The title of her debut album En Vie – streaming at her music page – is a pun which translates essentially as ‘lust for life.” Although she can do all sorts of things with her voice, Bertault sing with restraint and a sharp sense of irony here: she doesn’t overemote and lets the lyrics speak for themselves. She and her combo are bringing that French charm to the Jazz Standard tomorrow night, Sept 14, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25.

The album’s cynical opening track, Quoi de Plus Anodin (Nothing More Harmless: we’re sticking to English title style here for consistency’s sake, ok?) is fueled by pianist Olivier Hutman’s terse, insistent phrasing over the briskly shuffling drive of bassist Gildas Boclé and drummer Antoine Paganotti. The cheery tune contrasts with Bertault’s lyrics for an age of austerité:

Pas de dimanche
Pour les paluches qui s’épanchent
Plutôt crever que d’ faire la manche
Meme si y’a pas de fric en avalanche

[No day off for these poor sods; better to kick the bucket than put your hand out, even if there isn’t exactly an avalanche of dough on the way…]

Gritty, bustling bass, scrambling piano and bracing doubletracked vocalese harmonies percolate through the second cut, Course. Then Bertault hints at a cornet in the distance, then offers a bittersweet look at seeing through a child’s eyes in her lustrous, resonant soul-jazz reinterpretation of the Wayne Shorter ballad Enfant Eyes.

The album’s title track, another vocalese number, shifts between a balletesque grace, clenched-teeth intensity and syncopated swing behind Hutman’s crushing chordal attack. Cette Nuit, Bertault’s version of the Jimmy Rowles epic The Peacocks, offers contrasting, starry ambience, a lingering tone poem that springs into action when the bass and drums kick in and Bertault takes a purposefully scatting solo. Hutman’s cascades and  Paganotti’s elegant tumbles top it off expertly.

The steady, expansively moody ballad A la Mer Tume (an oceanic pun on “bitterness”) provides a launching pad for a balletesque bass solo. The band reaches toward a scamper but then pulls back throughout the catchy, vamping, latin-tinged Double Face, the last of the vocalese numbers

Bertault kicks off Tatie Cardie with a coy spoken word and drum duet and then relates a hilarious, Spike Jones-style account of unexpected events at a prim and proper aunt’s tea party, the whole band getting in on the joke. She opens her take of Prelude to A Kiss a-cappella, then the band take their moody time with it, Boclé adding a melancholy bowed solo. The final cut is Satiesque, a title that should have been taken long ago. It’s a syncopated, lyrical salute to the great surrealist composer:

Satie, est-ce que les fous ne sont pas
Plus sages qu’ils n’en ont l’air?
L’endroit est peut-être l’envers?

[Satie, are crazy people smarter than the ones who don’t let it show? Or is it the other way around?]

Lots of flavors here, all of them worth savoring. Few other artists can make phrases like “ba da da” as consistently surprising and interesting as Bertault.

A Small Subset of the Great Microscopic Septet Plays the Lower East Side Saturday Afternoon

There are few more definitively New York outfits than the Microscopic Septet – notwithstanding that a co-founder of this “surrealistic swing” crew is Australian. They predated the swing jazz revival here, but they’re not the least bit retro. They come out of the late 70s/early 80s punk jazz scene, but they’re not the least bit skronky. And pianist Joel Forrester foreshadowed this year’s avalanche of protest jazz by writing the theme for NPR’s Fresh Air as a brooding broadside against Bush I’s Gulf War. Beyond their substantial back catalog, they reputedly have a couple hundred more compositions they’ve played live over the decades but have never recorded. Their latest album, Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues is streaming at Cuneiform Records.

The Micros typically reunite for an annual Manhattan show or two. They haven’t done that this year, but their two lowest-register members, baritone saxophonist Dave Sewelson and bassist Dave Hofstra are playing a real 80s throwback kind of gig, a duo improvisation on Sept 9 in the community garden at Stanton and Norfolk at around 3. Avant garde cult favorite multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore – a big influence on Mara Rosenbloom – duets with bassist William Parker to start the afternoon at 2; afterward at 4, trombone wizard Steve Swell joins with Parker and TA Thompson.

The Micros’ album is a about as serious as they get – which isn’t totally dead serious, considering how much of their catalog is sort of the Spinal Tap of classic jazz – in that sense, they predated Mostly Other People Do the Killing by a couple of decades. The album opens with Cat Toys, a slinky horror film theme theme with the occasional wry piano flourish, a smoky Don Davis alto solo and Hofstra’s coy strut over drummer Richard Dworkin’s sotto-voce rimshots. Blues Cubistico is full of tongue-in-cheek stop-and-starts and gives Sewelson a vehicle for his genial wit. Likewise, the slowly swaying Dark Blue, with plenty of droll echo tradeoffs with the rest of the band and a similarly sardonic outro where the four-horn frontline finally coalesces.

Don’t Mind If I Do is a rare departure into straight-ahead, blithe, New Orleans-tinged territory with a slithery solo from tenor saxophonist Mike Hashin (who’s also the not-so-secret weapon in Svetlana & the Delancey Five). Similarly, another of soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston’s tunes here, Migraine Blues has a comfortable wee-hours strut, but with contrasting, shivery solos from Davis and Sewelson.

PJ in the 60s, a catchy, triumphant swing shuffle, is Forrester’s shout-out to his bandmate Johnston, building out of a surprisingly messy sax cauldron and featuring a balmy Johnston trading off with the rest of the horns. When It’s Getting Dark is basically variations on the Peter Gunne theme, Forrester’s sardonic piano up against Dworkin’s emphatic drumming and some cartoonish chartwork from the horns. Simple-Minded Blues, dedicated to Spectrum impresario Glenn Cornett, is anything but simple, a cheery exercise in dressing up the blues in all kinds of strange voicings, but with a purist Forrester solo as a sweet caramel center.

After You, Joel, dedicated by Forrester to painter Joel Goldstein, brings back the shuffle groove and Looney Tunes exchanges of voices. 12 Angry Birds, a low-key, marching Ellington homage by Johnston, reaches for Mood Indigo lustre, with a brooding soprano sax solo that’s arguably the album’s most riveting moment.

Quizzical, Johnston’s salute to his bandmate and Micros co-founder Forrester, threatens to get satirical early on but straightens out with a purposeful Monk influence and plenty of room for the pianist to channel that. The album winds up with a blues version of a xmas carol – which should have been left at the curb for the trash truck beside that moldy Simon & Garfunkel album  – and a hefty cover of Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers’ 1950 R&B hit I’ve Got a Right to Cry, sung with gritty passion by Sewelson. It’s unlikely that he and Hofstra will do much of anything this composed at the Saturday show in the garden…but you never know with any of these guys.

Ohmslice Bring Their Enveloping, Pensively Lyrical No Wave to Gowanus Saturday Night

Ohmslice is the brainchild of dark existentialist performance poet Jane LeCroy and multi-instrumentalist Bradford Reed, inventor of the Pencilina. Behind his homemade, one-of-a-kind modular synth – attached to various-sized water cans for percussion – he brings to mind a calm version of Alan Vega. But where Vega so often went for head-on assault – in the early days, at least – Reed typically goes for sparkle and shimmer and ripple. Phil Kline’s early electronic work is also a good point of comparison.

Overhead, LeCroy freestyles succinctly and acerbically about politics, philosophy and the struggle to stay sane in this city and this country in 2017. On their debut album, Conduit – which isn’t out yet and consequently hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots – they’re joined by drummer Josh Matthews, downtown fixture Daniel Carter on trumpet and sax and Swans’ Bill Bronson on guitar. They’re playing the album release show this Saturday night, Sept 9 at 10 PM at Halyards in Gowanus; Brooklyn’s original Balkan brass crew Hungry March Band play beforehand at 9.

The album’s opening number is Crying on a Train, a plainspoken escape scenario buzzing, sputtering and clattering over a Atrocity Exhibition-ish groove. The instrumental Ancient Friendship follows a similar rhythm but with a hypnotic spacerock vibe. With Carter’s desolate trumpet over a rapidly decomposing dirge, Get Matter gives LeCroy a platform for contemplating how we’re mostly empty space – on an atomic level, at least.

The miniature Velour Kirtan hints at qawwali and segues into the blippy, rhythmic Snow, a dead ringer for Siouxsie Sioux’s Creatures. Quavering, keening guitar waves and tinkling electro tones flavor another miniature, Broken Phase Candy, followed by the increasingly intricate, loopy, insectile Gravity, which brings to mind Paula Henderson’s adventures in electroacoustica.

Rusty Ground is far more minimal: with its distantly boomy drums and low, drony oscillations, it’s the album’s most menacing track. Paint by Numbered Days begins more nebulously but soon becomes the album’s most dynamic number, building to an echoey wash that eventually fades down to a calm seaside tableau.

Contrasting lows and highs rumble through the mix beneath LeCroy’s deadpan robot vocals in Machine of You. The album winds up on a surprisingly upbeat note with the jaunty instrumental pastiche Ohm’s Awe. What is this? Performance art? Jazz poetry? No wave? Why hang a label on it? As Sartre once remarked, once you give something a name, you kill it.

A Couple of Fun, Cutting-Edge Upcoming Indian Music Shows to Put on the Calendar

Mridangam player Bala Skandon leads Akshara, a Brooklyn Raga Massive spinoff who play dynamic, innovative, propulsively cheery instrumentals based on ancient Indian carnatic themes. The band’s debut album, In Time – an apt title from a group led by a drummer – is due to be up at Bandcamp soon.

It opens with Mind the Gap, a joyously dancing, verdant piece fueled by Jay Gandhi’s bansuri flute over a subtly morphing shuffle groove. As it builds steam, there’s a lushly rippling hammered dulcimer solo from House of Waters’ Max ZT and a couple of grinningly microtone-infused violin solos (either Arun Ramamurthy or Karavika‘s Trina Basu – it’s hard to tell who’s who).

Likewise, there are two cellos on the majestically swaying Mohana Blues, which is up at Bandcamp. Dave Eggar and Amali Premawardhana anchor Gandhi’s spare, enigmatic midrange lines, then join with the violins for a lilting, Celtic-tinged melody.  Opus in 5 follows a traditional raga tangent, violin and flute in tandem as the lively tune builds and the rhythm grows more energetic, then the band backs off for some takadimi drum vocalizing and a spare conversation between Skandon’s mridangam and Nitin Mitta’s tabla.

The dulcimer more or less assumes the role a sitar would play in Shadjam, strings and flute doubling the increasingly energetic melody line, down to a moody, nocturnal Gandhi solo and then a lusciously melismatic, crescendoing violin solo – that’s got to be Ramamurthy! 

The album winds up with the epic Urban Kriti. A long, spare dulcimer solo builds suspense up to an almost frantic peak, uneasily shivery cello and symphonic cadenzas trading off with lively riffage from the drums.  The band don’t have anything scheduled this month, but Basu and Ramamurthy have a rare duo show this September 10 at 3 PM at the Noguchi Museum, 9-01 33rd Rd. in Long Island City. The concert is free with museum admission, take the N to Broadway and then a healthy 15-block walk. And Akshara are playing the album release show on Oct 12 at 7:30 PM at Drom; adv tix are $20. If you love the cutting-edge collaborations that have been fermenting in the Brooklyn Raga Massive over the past several months, don’t miss this.

Nicole Atkins Brings Her Noir Soul to an Intimate Mercury Lounge Gig This Saturday Night

Here’s how to survive at the top level of what’s left of the music business. You tour constantly – summer festivals, rock venues, jazz clubs, house concerts, whatever’s available for the cash. You crowdfund your album, then record it live to two-inch analog tape with people who get what you do and can wrap it up in less than a week. Meanwhile, you bombard your fan base with everything from Spotify playlists of your influences to limited-edition concert recordings.  And the social media treadmill – one goofy pic after another, oy. That’ll drive you to drinking.

So maybe you quit for a bit. Nicole Atklns did that since booze has been her muse long before she wrote The Worst Hangover in the World. But while her latest album Goodnight Rhonda Lee – streaming at Bandcamp – has a requisite boozy song, the central theme is musical rather than lyrical, a spectacularly successful attempt to bring Dusty Springfield-style late 60s Memphis soul into the here and now. Atkins is bringing that to the Mercury on Sept 9 at 8 PM. General admission is $15, and since it’s a small venue for her, it couldn’t hurt to get there early.

The album opens with A Little Crazy, a co-write with Chris Isaak, a female take on classic early 60s Orbison noir. That crowdfunding campaign must have brought in a ton of dough because the production is lush: pedal steel, piano, shivery strings and Chris Vivion’s snappy hollowbody bass behind Atkins’ impassioned, soaring vocals.

Drummer Josh Block’s whipcrack soul/funk drums push Atkins’ Springfield evocation in the Darkness Falls So Quiet – it’s almost cute that the string section is more country than symphonic, maybe because the album was recorded in Austin.

Listen Up, inspired by a near-disastrous fall into a sinkhole after a gig in Knoxville, has a similarly funky snap. The way the organ voices a popular soul-gospel riff is awfully cool, as is how guitarist Austin Jenkins plays the In the Midnight Hour hook on the chorus at halfspeed. Lots of old ideas here, but they’re twisted into all sorts of imaginative new shapes.

The album’s title track opens as a dead ringer for an early Laura Cantrell favorite and then turns into a mashup of Tex-Mex and Everlys, with some neat staccato surf guitar for extra carbonation. Masking a recycled Brill Building riff behind sheets of sustained reverb guitar doesn’t work so well in I Could, but Colors, with its wary, surreal lyric and rich, string-heavy parlor pop ambience, is Atkins at the top of her moody game.

Brokedown Luck slowly coalesces with trippy quasi-barrelhouse piano and then a stark funk groove, peppy horns spicing Atkins’ narrative of frustration in a dead-end scene. The album’s best song is the slow-simmering, crushingly sarcastic, angst-driven piano-and-horns anthem I Love Living Here: “Nobody knows the real you, just the character you play…burn it to the ground,” she intones

Sleepwalking nicks a famous Marvin Gaye vamp and a slightly less famous new wave hook, but this elegant period-perfect early 70s-style soul anthem is irresistible. With A Night of Serious Drinking, Atkins puts her angst-fueled noir spin on what the Three Degrees would have done as a charmingly twinkling nocturnal vamp, complete with low-key brass and steel guitar lingering in the distance: “You and I are not like that legendary  bird that rises from the ash/ We burn and crash.”

The album ends with a slightly more optimistic one of Atkins’ towering, doomed signature anthems, A Dream Without Pain. “May the path be lit up by the bridges that I’ve burned,” she wails: things may be good at the moment, but how long will they last? Good to see Atkins still battling demons and making expertly catchy, smart music out of them.

JD Allen Brings His Restless, Uneasy Power and Tunefulness to Smalls This Labor Day

The restlessness and persistent unease in tenor saxophonist JD Allen’s compositions mirror how he works.  Much as he’s concretized a wickedly terse, hard-hitting, sometimes grimly ironic melodicism, he never stays in the same place for long. As a composer, Allen has few rivals in any style, let alone the postbop jazz he’s mined so intensely over the past ten years in particular. Yet he and his trio are also consummate improvisers. That bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston have a thing for the darkness in Allen’s writing explains a lot about their interplay, which borders on the telepathic. More than a decade of touring together will help get you there too.

Allen’s latest album is Radio Flyer; he and the trio are playing a rare Monday night gig at Smalls at 10:30 PM on Labor Day, Sept 4; cover is $20. If you wish you’d seen those great Sonny Rollins trios of the 50s – or the 90s – this group is on that level. It’s time that the jazz world realized that Allen deserves to be up on that same pedestal with Rollins and Ben Webster. The great ones aren’t just plaques in the hall of fame: some of them walk among us and maybe hang at the bar after.

On one hand, Radio Flyer (a brand of little red wagon) is your typical Allen album: ominous minor modes, plenty of stark bowed bass and rumbling drums, gravitas  and tunes everywhere. What’s different this time is that the songs are a lot longer than Allen’s usual three-to-four minute “jukebox jazz” pieces, and that there’s guitar on the album. Allen has never had guitar in the band before: how does it work out? Liberty Ellman is also a consummate improviser, so he gets where Allen is coming from. And if you’ve seen Allen live, constructing  a jazz symphony out of a handful of themes from one album or another, this is what that sounds like.

The album opens with Sitting Bull, Allen’s distantly American Indian-inflected, brooding sax panned hard left, Ellman hanging back in the opposite channel, August moodily in and out of the picture as Royston machetes the underbrush. Yet as dark as this is, when Allen pulls a funky swing together, there’s a joke, and it’s way too good to give away. He’s like that. August’s chugging, deep blues contrasts with Ellman’s pensively chosen phrases up to where Allen takes it out with one of his signature grey-sky riffs.

The title track leaves no doubt that this is another one of Allen’s sonata-like suites: nobody in jazz does theme-and-variations better than this guy. Ellman’s ringing, overtone-laced washes and Royston’s rumble along the perimeter contrast with the bandleader and the bass, steady at the center. Then they leave it to Royston to hold it together, Ellman’s long, enigmatic solo echoing Allen’s.

How happy is Heureux? Somewhat. Counterrhythms and echo devices abound through the loose intro, to a bustling, floating swing, yet neither August nor Royston ever lapse into a straight-up walk or shuffle. If only other rhythm sections were this interesting- or had this much fun. Ellman can’t resist, and pushes them hard when he takes flight.

The band pick up the pace with The Angelus Bell, with its artful-dodger tradeoffs between voices  – lots and lots of clever echoing and use of space on this album. Sancho Panza echoes the restrained, stormy majesty of Allen’s iconic 2007 I Am I Am album, August edging toward the Middle East with his shadowy, dancing, microtone-infused lines, Royston’s relentless prowl and Ellman’s mournful, spare jangle underpinning Allen’s bright but elegaic melody.

Royston’s tongue-in-cheek rhythmic japes set the stage for the rest of the band in Daedalus. a apt decision considering that it’s the album’s most straight-ahead number. They close it out with another American Indian reference, Ghost Dance, Roston’s sotto-voce cymbals misting August’s purposeful incisions, Ellman finally getting to take an opening solo and matching Allen’s deep, bluesy grandeur. You’ll see this album on many best-of lists, here and at NPR and elsewhere at the end of the year.