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No New Abnormal

Tag: americana music

A Smart, Defiant, Diverse Debut Album From Americana Tunesmith Cristina Vane

Cristina Vane shifts between a simmering intensity and a low-key, brooding vocal delivery. She’s a strong guitarist with command of a whole bunch of blues styles and writes sharply lyrical, darkly aphoristic songs. Her narratives are cached in allusive, grim rural imagery more than fire-and-brimstone gospel. Her brilliant debut album Nowhere Sounds Lovely – streaming at Bandcamp – covers a lot of ground, stylistically and otherwise.

She opens the record with Blueberry Hill – an original, not the Fats Domino classic, although the first verse of this intricately interwoven, Appalachian-flavored acoustic slide guitar blues is set in New Orleans. The devil tells her to get out, so she heads to New Mexico – and that isn’t any more welcoming:

We got spiders in the bathrooms and there’s snakes in the halls
We got our women in white dresses gonna walk through walls
And this house is haunted, not as much as me
But I could shake these demons, they’re good company

Travelin’ Blues has an easygoing Piedmont-style feel, Tommy Hannum’s dobro lingering over Vane’s nimble fingerpicking, bassist Dow Tomlin and drummer Cactus Moser giving it a, loping groove. By contrast, the stark banjo tune Prayer For the Blind has a midwest gothic fatalism, an endless cycle where “Time passes on old wounds as if they were brand new.”

Badlands is not the famous song by that 70s rock guy who became a hopeless lockdowner apologist, but a searing, allusively grim slide guitar-driven blues original. It could be a sinister account of antedeluvian rural hell…or a thinly disguised pro-freedom anthem. The big guitar payoff at the end is spot-on.

There’s redemptive solitude in the front-porch folk waltz Dreaming of Utah, Hannum’s pedal steel adding a touch of vintage Bob Wills western swing. Vane reaches for a matter-of-factly strutting Memphis soul feel in What Remains and goes back to blues with Heaven Bound Station, a steady stroll with some neat twin-guitar interplay.

She switches to banjo for Will I Ever Be Satisfied, a spare, lonesome-traveler type number. Vane imagines her ideal guy in Dreamboy, a stomping, insistent, similarly simmering blues: turns out she likes the strong silent type. Then she slows things down with the moody, slide guitar-driven Wishing Bone Blues, rising out of a hypnotic, summery resonance

The Driving Song captures a gloomy, desperate rural atmosphere where “The characters around me, border the absurd/It’s a comedy of horrors, and it just keeps getting worse.” Vane winds up the album the triumphant waltz Satisfied Soul, Nate Leath’s fiddle harmonizing with the keening pedal steel. If she hits the road in the free states this summer, she’s going to make a whole lot of fans.

Grimly Lyrical, Darkly Jangly Americana Rock Tunesmithing From Janet Simpson

The ramshackle, embroidered cover art for Janet Simpson‘s new album Safe Distance – streaming at Bandcamp – is pure American gothic, a cowboy trying to lasso a snake. That speaks volumes for Simpson’s worldview and irreverent outsider persona. Her songs draw a straight line back to the glory days of the so-called “paisley underground” rock of the 80s: Americana twang, punk spirit, psychedelic ambience. Simpson’s tales of hard times on the forgotten fringes are starkly lyrical and often chilling. She plays guitars and keys and has a great band behind her: Will Stewart on guitars, Robert Wason on bass and Tyler McGuire on drums. This is one of the best rock records of the year.

The opening track, Nashville Girls sounds like the Dream Syndicate with a woman out front, a clanging, vampy, wickedly catchy, caustically picturesque sendup of the kind of clueless trust fund kids you see in any gentrified neighborhood. Stewart’s uneasy chorus-box guitar solo wafts in, a fresh breeze straight ouf of the 80s; Simpson overdubs some whooshy synth on the way out. It’s a hard act to follow, but the rest of the record holds up.

The blend of jangle and clang in the second cut, Slip, is just as delicious: it could be the Gun Club at their most focused mid-80s peak, taking a stab at a hypnotic, nocturnal waltz. Alcohol permeates these songs like George Jones’ breath: Simpson’s battlescarred narrators medicate 24/7. Case in point: Reno, a pulsing, honkyonk-flavored tale that turns far much darker than you would ever think.

Simpson layers hazy keys and spare guitars for suspenseful, nocturnal ambience in Awe & Wonder, a brooding, completely ambiguous look at trying to rekindle what seems to be a pretty dead romance.

She wails to the top of her range over a steady, tense backbeat iu I’m Wrong: “I wander off sometimes it’s so easy to let myself fall through the cracks,” she muses. The baritone guitar solo out is an unexpected treat.

As an offhand portrait of despondency while everybody’s out having fun, Aiu’t Nobody Looking packs a calm wallop: and that fretless bass is a trip. The album’s title track is not a snide lockdown reference but a sobering account of a blackout hookup set to a marching waltz beat:

Dancing the line as if it was straight
A callous ballet, the border so fine
On the border so fine between two awful states

Simpson goes back to portraits of terminal depression in the spare, fingerpicked Black Turns Blue:

I’ve been drinking all my feelins it’s so much easier than dealing
The world’s so pretty when I’m reeling I’d rather stay where I can’t see

The album’s most hauntingly allusive song is Double Lines, a Nashville gothic drinking-and-driving tale right up there with Ninth House’s Follow the Line. Simpson offers up the spare, mostly acoustic Silverman as a mea culpa to someone who could have been a safe harbor.

Mountain, a Memphis soul tune, is an unexpectedly optimistic scenario. The album’s final cut is Wrecked, a subdued but defiant, distantly Tex-Mex flavored tune:

Maybe I’m barely hanging on
Maybe I’m wrecked, but I’m not too far gone
Maybe the edge is right where I belong
I’m not a fighter but I’m a dancer
And it might be a grave I’m dancing on

Catchy Retro 90s Americana from Kelly McFarling

“Am I the last of my kind…standing on the edge of past my prime?” songwriter Kelly McFarling asks in the fifth track of her new album Deep the Habit, streaming at Bandcamp. These confidently arranged Americana rock songs, orchestrated in crystalline digital chill, big-room studio style, look straight back to the 90s. Back then people listened to radio to discover this kind of stuff…and flocked to roadhouses to see it live. In 2021, are there enough places to play, and enough of a potential fan base, to sustain a career built around the Florida, Texas, and northern plains circuits? When are the voices of sanity going to reach critical mass so we can get the rest of the country back to normal?

The album’s first track is Delicate, a brisk, robust four-chord anthem straight out of the BoDeans playbook. Tim Marcus’ pedal steel seeps through the highs over Oscar Westesson’s catchy, loopy bassline and Nick Cobbett’s propulsive drums. The point of the song is that words have resonance: “Be careful what you say, they’re gonna follow us around,” McFarling cautions. There may be subtext here.

Follow Me Down has a more muted backbeat: Fleetwood Mac with a pedal steel. The band stick with that style again in Birds as they pick up the pace, guitarist Andrew Brennan slowly building the sound up from starkness.

North Decatur turns out to be an airy vehicle for Brennan’s feathery mandolin playing. Flangey guitar mingles with the steel behind McFarling’s airy, uncluttered voice in the next track, Century, an allusive workingperson’s Dead anthem. In a year where fear programming has atomized such a disturbing percentage of the population, that resolute, insistent, chorus about going outside has taken on unexpected poignancy. If you want to remember what normalcy really is, this it it.

Brennan sticks with his Jerry Garcia envelope-pedal pulse in the bluesy Now We Know. Just How Small is the album’s catchiest number, looking back to late 60s countrypolitan through every delicious texture, from watery analog chorus to flange, in Brennan’s pedalboard.

McFarling follows with Relevant, a slow, pensive, lingering number and closes the record with Easy As I, as in “I want to let things go as easy as I pick them up;” it’s the key to the album.

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.

Chamomile and Whiskey’s Gloomy Americana Rock Narratives Echo in the Here and Now

Americana band Chamomile and Whiskey’s new album Red Clay Heart – streaming at Spotify – is their loudest and darkest yet. The jaunty Celtic-tinged themes and newgrass of their earlier material have been switched out for hard country and electric blues, desperate narratives for desperate times.

The album’s opening track, Way Back is a careening hillbilly boogie “That was way back when I used to give a shit…when I used to strive for greatness, when I used to think I should,” frontman/guitarist Ryan Lavin snarls, flipping off a tantalizing blues solo before the last verse. If nostalgia is the enemy of history, this song rings true.

With its litany of hellfire imagery, Dead Bird seems to be a Bible Belt gothic cautionary tale: “I drank the blood of the savior and he drank some of mine.” The dark electric blues of Will Scott is a good comparison.

The embittered, gloomily reflective Never Live Up follows the same pattern: the full electric band doesn’t kick in until a couple of skeletal acoustic verses. Lavin’s layer of twangy riffage mingle with fiddler Marie Borgman’s leaps and bounds in Triumph, an ironically titled, haphazardly catchy honkytonk shuffle.

They follow the 80s-tinged rock anthem All Right with the fire-and brimstone-shuffle Hard Time Honey, spiced with an unexpected Spanish guitar solo. Another Wake – a requiem for the Charlottesville massacre – is a famous John Lennon piano ballad recast as grim Americana, with a surprisingly empowering message.

The band go back to lo-fi hard honkytonk with the party anthem Best of the Worst, which would have been a good way to end an album which again and again returns to a personal pain that anyone who’s suffered under the past year’s lockdowns can relate to.

Celebrating the Spanish-Language Side of a Great Mexican-American Rock Bandleader

Patricia Vonne has been a fierce advocate for immigrant rights since bursting onto the Americana scene right around the turn of the century. She has an artistic bloodline: her great uncle, Guillermo Aguirre y Fierro, was an acclaimed Mexican poet, and her brother is filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. For those who aren’t already acquainted, a good way to get to know her fiery anthems and poignant ballads is her 2015 career retrospective, Viva Bandolera, streaming at Spotify.

It’s a long record, seventeen tracks. It’s missing one of her best songs, the escape anthem Blood on the Tracks (a title that took a lot of nerve to appropriate, but Vonne validated that hubris). Still, it’s packed with plenty of big concert favorites. Vonne’s richly arranged and orchestrated catalog comprises songs in both English and Spanish, this collection focusing on the Spanish material.

The self-described “blood drenched love song” Traeme Paz (Bring Me Peace) opens the album, Vonne’s wounded, full-throated delivery over a lushy syncopated web of guitars. The similarly aching, swaying minor-key ranchera rock anthem Dulce Refugio (Sweet Refuge) draws on an Aguirre y Fierro poem, Insomnio. Vonne flexes her signature castanets in El Marinero y La Sirena (The Sailor and the Mermaid), looking at the lure of the mermaid archetype from both male and female perspectives.

The album’s bristling, mariachi-rock title track celebrates a female bandit who gets sweet revenge on the Texas Rangers who murdered her husband. The lusciously jangly Qué Maravilla (How Marvelous) may be a love song, but there’s a persistent dark undercurrent. With its spiraling leads and inventive drums, Guitarras y Castañuelas – the title track from Vonne’s second album – is a sultry shout-out to her cultural heritage on both sides of the Atlantic. Lowlit by accordion, violin and a glimmering piano solo, the subtly bolero-tinged (The Orchard of St. Vincent) is a salute to Federico Garcia Lorca.

The one song here that hasn’t stood the test of time is Torera – it’s no less gauche for an armed woman to kill a defenseless animal than it is for a man. Vonne builds a suspenseful Sevillian flamenco atmosphere in La Gitana de Triana (The Triana Gypsy) and follows that with one of her most searing rock anthems, Mujeres Desaparecidas (Missing Women), memorializing the scores of Juarez women abducted and murdered in transnational drug wars.

Echoing with ominous tremolo guitar, the briskly pulsing Fuente Vaqueros (Fountain of the Cowboy), reflects on Lorca’s early years. Vonne follows that with a couple of drinking songs, the crescendoing, reggae-tinged nocturne Fiesta Sangria and the reverb-drenched southwesten gothic anthem Tequileros, a salute to bootleg hooch.

La Lomita de Santa Cruz (The Cross on the Hill) has a similar, moodily twangy energy, a reflection on keeping cultural traditions alive. With its somber trumpet, the breakup ballad Soledad has a towering angst. The last vocal number here, Severina, is Vonne’s tender dedication to her grandmother. One side of Vonne that’s been overlooked is that she also writes great instrumentals, underscored by the album’s closing spaghetti western theme, Mexicali de Chispa (Mexicali Spark), one of several collaborations here with her filmmaker brother.

Smart, Sharply Hilarious Black Dirt Country Rock From Joe Stamm

Americana rock bandleader Joe Stamm cut his teeth crooning over crowds of drunks in bars across the High Plains and the Midwest. He’s got a great ear for a story and a catchy tune, and he’s funny as hell. Dale Watson is an obvious comparison; New York’s own Jack Grace is another. Considering that Stamm makes his living on the road in a part of the world populated by freedom-loving people who like a good time, his touring schedule last year wasn’t completely put on ice by lockdowner insanity. He even found the opportunity to put out a new album, The Good & the Crooked (& the High & the Horny)”streaming at Spotify.

Good songwriters never have a hard time finding good musicians, and Stamm is a prime example. Check out lead guitarist Dave Glover’s sizzling flatpicking in Tough Times, Hard Luck, bassist Jonathan Byler Dann and drummer Bruce Moser pushing Stamm’s rapidfire, aphoristic story along. Imagine the Grateful Dead in a lucid moment (if you can) covering John Prine.

Stamm opens the record with the title track, a hillbilly boogie laced with vintage Bakersfield twang and searing blues from Glover. Stamm takes the explosive metaphors in Bombshell – a tall tale about a femme as fatale as you can get – to the next level. with a funny ending that’s too good to give away. Same deal with the album’s funniest song, Blame It on the Dog. This is one bad canine: “Dryhumping in the middle of the night, left on all the lights and who’s the sonofabitch who left up the toilet seat?” Stamm wants to know. It gets even better on the third verse: no spoilers.

Bottle You Up is the album’s most endearingly amusing song: as it turns out, daydrinking is a legacy. Stamm goes into classic honkytonk for Lower When I’m Sober, Dave Zollo’s piano adding a vintage Nashville edge, up to yet another twisted punchline.

As ridiculousy comical as a lot of Stamm’s songs are, some of them are just as serious. On this album, there’s Good Times, a simmering, grimly detailed ballad about the perils of overdoing it. 12 Gauge Storyline works on multiple levels, as a macho murder ballad but also a sobering reminder of how violence has its own legacy: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Lee Bains songbook. And the twangy, soulful, sad Comin’ Home Again is a throwback to 70s outlaw C&W.

“I don’t play no Kane Brown or any of that pop country shit,” Stamm snarls in Pearls to Pigs, as he says so long to Illinois and heads for wilder times in Texas. The psychedelic tinges in that song get darker and shift toward southwestern gothic afterward in Wild Imagination, one of the wildest tales here.

Stamm has a very smartly designed webpage: enough videos and freebies and amusingly dirty merch to get you in serious trouble with your boss. You have been warned. Stamm is playing his birthday show this year on March 13 at Crusens Rt. 29, 1007 N. Main St. in Creve Coeur, Illinois. Your best deal is to show up at 5:30 for a “VIP” seat which includes a good deal where you get a free collectible poster and your first beer is free. Their pizza is pretty cheap and looks really good.

An Epic Live Album by One of the Most Epic Bands of the Century

Let’s say your band has made a good living on the road for the last twenty years. All of a sudden, a bunch of oligarchs get together and create a phony health emergency in order to turn the world into an Orwellian nightmare where music doesn’t even exist. People aren’t even allowed to sing, let alone get together to see a band, since crowds of people who get together usually have fun. And in order to condition the population to a totalitarian slave state, all happiness has to be outlawed. That really happened throughout much of the world in 2020, and it isn’t over yet.

But it will be. The lockdown bears the seeds of its own destruction. In the meantime, out of the thousands of artists who’ve dumped hours upon hours of live recordings onto the web, only a handful can match the epic sweep of road warriors Okkervil River‘s latest release, A Dream in the Dark: Two Decades of Okkervil River Live, streaming at Spotify. On one hand, it’s sobering to realize that they’ve really been around that long. On the other, they are absolutely in their element, careening through the record’s two dozen tracks with their usual reckless abandon. This endless road trip begins in Northhampton, Massachusetts in 2006 and wind up in Cambridge in 2019, with almost a complete turnover in band members. By then, this endearingly shambling Americana quasi-jamband had tightened up their act a little without losing their spontaneity or irrepressible sense of humor.

The first song on this long, strange trip is the outlaw ballad Westfall, kicking off with a brief blast of feedback, steady strums from frontman Will Sheff’s acoustic guitar and a flurry of mandolin. The rest of the band don’t leap in until right before the fateful final verse. They fall apart in a spacerock outro.

The haphazard intro to the punkgrassy No Key, No Plan is priceless. Sheff gets a singalong going, mercilessly needles the crowd: the joke is too good to spoil. Then, as if this was an actual setlist, they follow with a superslow, lingering, steel guitar-infused take of the sad ballad Kansas City

The quiet, wintry, waltzing beginning of Listening to Otis Redding At Home During Christmas doesn’t offer the slightest hint of how orchestral the arrangement’s going to get: “Not even home will be with you forever,”Sheff intones.

This version of the subdued piano-and-strings ballad For Real winds up with a regal peak and a careening, screaming guitar solo. It Ends With a Fall come across as part Jayhawks, part late Beatles, part loping White Denim soul. Then the band pick things up with Sheff’s dramatic, signature off-key flair in a driving take of Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe, decaying to a free jazz freakout and then a typical noisy jam out.

The 90s Wilco influence comes in loud and clear in Unless It’s Kicks, the last song of a 2008 set in Germany. Goodnatured barrelhouse piano makes a surreal contrast with techy string synth in It Was My Season. Down Down the Deep River has post-Velvets clang, new wave swoosh and C&W chickenscratch guitar. By now, if this was an actual show, the band would really be on a roll, so in this case they keep the momentum going with Lost Coastlines and its faux-Motown groove.

A Stone – from a 2015 New York gig – is a momentary detour into wistful stoner country, with spot-on slip-key piano. Thirteen songs into the album, we’re finally rewarded with a minor-key anthem, Another Radio Song, from that same set – and as the band holler, “There’s no escaping it.”

The litany of dead performers in Okkervil River RIP is the most sobering moment here. The brisk, hypnotically pulsing, ten-minute stadium rock version of Judey on a Street is the album’s longest track among many: pretty much everything here is around the seven-minute mark or more.

The ridiculous mashup of blippy new wave and 90s alt-country in So Come Back, I Am Waiting is classic for these guys, in that they manage to make it work somehow. A Seattle crowd is stoked for a slowly crescendoing take of Okkervil River Song, probably the only Americana rock escape anthem that mentions skunk cabbage.

The Surgeon Above the Arbor is an inside joke, but a good one: a fan had requested a song by that title, but trouble was it didn’t exist. So Sheff wrote it: it turned out to be a slowly jangly, pensively vamping, distantly Neil Young-tinged ballad.

The album’s most muted, psychedelic number is Skiptracer. They pick up the pace with Black, a Velvets-meet-Wilco stomp and follow with the hip-hop/soul/Grateful Dead mashup Pink Slips.

Sheff brings out his dad Paul to play mandolin on the faux-western swing tune External Actor, just as he did on the album version.

Mary on a Wave, from a 2019 Washington, DC show, gets a long, lingering spacerock intro. They wind up the album on a similar note with Your Past Life As a Blast, more psychedelic than ever after all these years.

Almost a Year Later, a Sofia Talvik Song From the First Days of the Lockdown Still Resonates

Conventional wisdom is that if you play music from outside your native idiom, you pretty much have to be better than the natives to get any cred. Swedish Americana ongwriter Sofia Talvik is. She was finishing up a tour in Winnsboro, Texas when the lockdown came crushing down. Nine momths later, where are we? This delicate, distantly chilling song, Meanwhile in Winnsboro, ponders that same question. “You forgot all the luxury you’ve got as you brace for the end of the world,” is a recurrent theme. Now we know where it went: into the pockets of Amazon and the rest of the lockdowners.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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