New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: americana music

Fiver Puts Out a Smartly Lyrical New Psychedelic Americana Record

Songwriter/guitarist Simone Schmidt a.k.a. Fiver writes catchy, thoughtful, expansive, distantly Americana-tinged rock songs that draw on peak-era, early zeros-era Neko Case and Cat Power along with the Grateful Dead. Schmidt likes a biting turn of phrase and sings her allusive, historically informed narratives in a breathy, modulated mezzo-soprano. Her latest album with Scottish trio the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition is streaming at Bandcamp

Yeah But Uhh Hey, a steady, vamping, syncopated backbeat number sets the stage, a cynical gig-economy era workingperson’s lament. What goes round seems to come around here; it all falls apart gracefully at the end.

Leaning Hard (On My Peripheral Vision) is a clanging country tune, Jeremy Costello’s bass snapping and Nick Dourado’s lapsteel wafting behind the twang while drummer Bianca Palmer provides a low-key swing.. “Hope you don’t take it as sign,” Schmidt muses, referring to the song title. She winds it up with a Jerry Garcia-tinged wah guitar solo.

Her layers of guitar textures mingle with Dourado’s rippling piano for even more of a Deadly vibe in June Like a Bug, winding out with a long, nocturnal jam. Jr. Wreck, a spare, gospel-infused breakup ballad, has a tantalizingly brief, late-Beatlesque guitar solo from Schmidt at the center.

The album’s funniest song is Sick Gladiola, a torrentially lyrical Tex-Mex-flavored waltz about starstruck fortune-seekers following the downward spiral of traffic and alienation in a gentrification-era El Lay hell. “Don’t bang your head on that bar, it’s too low,” Schmidt warns.

Death Is Only a Dream comes across as a blend of 70s Kath Bloom hippie chamber folk and more recent Carla Bley minimalism, drifting into an enigmatically catchy, early 80s Dead style outro.

Schmidt details a soul-depleting marriage from the trophy wife’s point of view over a steady disco groove in Paid in Pride. She closes the record with For Your Sake This, her echoey vocalese over Dourado’s starry piano slowly coalescing around her acoustic guitar. This has been a slow year for rock music, both in the studio and onstage, and this is one of the best of the class of 2021 so far.

Revisiting Classic, Purist Americana and Bluegrass From Martha Spencer

Martha Spencer sings in a high soprano voice with lonesome country vibrato, backed by an inspired, thoughtful blend of flatpicked guitar, banjo, fiddle and bass. That description could fit thousands and thousands of Americana songbirds, but Spencer sings and writes from the point of view of someone who grew up immersed in classic country and bluegrass music with her  family’s Virginia group, the Whitetop Mountain Band. Her 2018 debut album as a solo artist is still up at Bandcamp. The sound is totally 1950s, whether she’s doing oldschool C&W, bluegrass, a blues or a ballad. She winds a good yarn and has a sharp sense of humor.

She and the band – a shifting cast that include but are not limited to guitarists Frank Rische and Ersel Fletcher,, bassist Debbie Bramer, fiddler Billy Hurt, Jr and banjo player Alex Leach –  open the album with Blue Ridge Mountain Lullaby, a fond childhood reminiscence of falling asleep while the ‘rents are playing all the old songs. My Heart Says Yes is a simple, catchy mashup of bluegrass and indie rock: totally Hoboken, 1996. Spencer’s voice takes on extra bite, way up the scale in the rockabilly tune Hard Headed Woman, amped up with growling electric guitar and spiraling electric honkytonk piano.

Spencer blends Patsy Cline nuance and Dolly Parton plaintiveness in the aching, sad ballad The Last Leaves. After that the band pick up the pace in Let the Wild Stay Free, a smartly aphoristic bluegrass tune.

When Spencer bends her way up to those blue notes in Chickens Coming Home to Roost Tonight, it’s clear she means business, echoed by the understatedly slashing bluesy guitar solo.  She keeps that strong-willed point of view front and center in Rambling Woman: over spiky banjo and fiddle, she makes it clear she’s not ready to settle down.

Wishful Thinking comes across as an Appalachian flavored acoustic take on a peak era 40s/50s Kitty Wells-style ballad. After that, Spencer flips the script with Ruby, a spare, rustic Virginia reel. Then she and the band slow things down again with Cold Winter Lingers On, a classic C&W breakup duet spiced with pedal steel and countrypolitan guitar.

They bring up the energy again with the oldtime country gospel tune Jonah and follow that with the wry hillbilly boogie No Help Wanted.

Tree of Heaven is deceptively pretty: it turns out to be Spencer’s Don’t Fear the Reaper. She winds up the album with the brisk banjo tune Rambling Hobo. Fans of real, purist country and bluegrass – the genuine article, not the legions of indie rock boys trying to wrap their dainty fingers around acoustic instruments – will love this stuff.

Abigail Dowd Stares Down the Flood and Wins

From Johnny Cash, to Led Zeppelin, to Karla Rose, musicians have never stopped finding new uses for flood metaphors. Americana songwriter Abigail Dowd is the latest in that venerable line. For Dowd, it’s personal: her Colorado home was flooded six times in 2018, springboarding the songs on her hauntingly intense latest album Beautiful Day, streaming at Soundcloud. As a tale of resilience and triumph over adversity, it has special resonance in the year of the needle of death.

Dowd has a ruggedly individualistic persona and a thing for southern gothic; her previous album Not What I Seem got a rave review here last year. Not everything is as it seems in the allusive, wary title track, Dowd’s spiky fingerpicking leading to a doublespeed charge fueled by Alex McKinney’s dobro and Scott Sawyer’s spare electric guitar lines over the low-key shuffle rhythm of bassist Jason Duff and drummer Austin McCall. Here and there, Joe MacPhail’s Rhodes electric piano pops up, a subtle suspenseful enhancement.

Diamond is a strutting Lou Reed tune in Americana disguise, spiced with MacPhail’s smoky organ: “Sometimes I feel like a miner left behind in the dark” is the key line. Dowd’s delivery in general is more flinty on this album, especially in One Moment at a Time, a moody carpe-diem theme built around a briskly flurrying acoustic guitar riff.

The instrumental St. Vrain – the name of the creek that rose up and almost took Dowd’s home with it – has a gorgeously haunting, baroque-tinged web of guitars and is over way, way too soon: Dowd could have kept this going three times as long and it wouldn’t be boring.

Sawyer’s ominous washes of chords raise the intensity in River, a resolute Appalachian gothic anthem. Dowd stays with the brooding minor-key atmosphere in Apple Trees, a chillingly metaphorical tale of plans suddenly derailed.

The Underground Railroad escape anthem Judgment Day captures the exhaustion of life on the run and the perils at every turn. “I just want to be alone,” the haunted freedom fighter in Don’t Want to Talk About It asserts: sometimes you have to become a monster to defeat them.

Dowd’s defiant narrator throws off the shackles of original sin in the briskly stomping After the Fall, right up to a surprise ending. The she brings down the lights in the haunting, organ-fueled, enigmatic Rise Above: at what point do we have to walk through hell to get any further?

The flood metaphors reach fever pitch in Run, a global warming-era Appalachian gothic tale run amok. Dowd winds up the album with Grandmother Moon, a shamanic, oldtime blues-infused tableau. Dowd is on a creative tear right now: there must be something in that Rocky Mountain water.

Hard Country Singer Sara Petite Shifts Gears into Harder Rock Territory

“I ain’t feeling like an angel tonight,” Sara Petite sings over a twangy stomp on the opening track of her new album Rare Bird, streaming at Soundcloud. She’s made a career in defiant bad-girl hard country sounds: this one’s more rock-oriented. Her vocals are more focused, more wintry, more dynamic this time out: there’s more depth to the hard-living persona.

Petite also explores more musical territory here. Case in point: the second track, Runnin’. If not for the pedal steel and the down-home snarl of the guitars, this would be new wave.

As Petite sees it, Scars are “like barbwire to the touch, jagged and jaded” and make a good theme for a richly textured, unexpectedly complicated Americana rock anthem. Listen closely and you realize how much Stockholm Syndrome plays into an abusive relationship.

The title track is a mashup of elegant 60s countrypolitan and more recent, harder-edged Nashville sounds, with a plaintively sizzling fiddle solo on the way out. Petite picks up the pace with The Misfits, a big, fist-pumping nonconformist anthem, then brings the lights down again with the gorgeously bittersweet Missing You Tonight.

She fills a barroom with a colorful bunch of party animals in Crash Boom Bang, mashing up a simmering Texas slide guitar shuffle with a familiar Elvis hit. Likewise, she blends some catchy Memphis soul into the mix in Medicine Man.

Floating With the Angels has tinges of Tex-Mex, Petite finding religion in drunken bliss via a clever litany of gospel imagery. She goes back in a retro soul direction with the resolute, distantly New Orleans-tinged Keep Moving On: “I’ve been ridiculed, blamed, shamed, misunderstood,” she admits, but she won’t let that get her down. “Freedom ain’t just for the chosen few.”

She winds up the record with Working on a Soul: who would have expected the crazed noiserock intro that kicks off this surreal mix of hick-hop, Nashville gothic and jubilant country gospel.

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.