New York Music Daily

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Tag: americana music

Americana Crooner Jack Grace’s Long-Awaited New Album Might Be His Best Yet

Back in the radio-and-records era, conventional wisdom was that a band’s first album was always their best. The theory was that in order to get a record deal, a group had to pull together all their most impressive songs. These days, that theory falls apart since artists can release material at their own pace rather than having to constantly deliver new product to the boss at the record label.

Still, how many artists do you know whose material is stronger than ever after twenty years of incessant touring and putting out the occasional album? Crooner/guitarist Jack Grace, arguably New York’s foremost and funniest pioneer of Americana and urban country, is one of that rare breed. His long, long awaited new Eric Ambel-produced album Everything I Say Is a Lie is arguably the best thing Grace has ever done, due out on April 28 and presumably streaming at Soundcloud at that point. Grace and his band are playing the album release show at around 8 PM on April 27 at Hifi Bar.

Interestingly, this is Grace’s most straight-ahead rock record to date: there’s plenty of C&W influence but no straight-up honkytonk this time around. It’s also more straightforwardly serious than Grace is known to be, especially onstage. As usual, the band is fantastic: a swinging rhythm section of ex-wife and Pre-War Pony Daria Grace on bass, with drummers Russ Meissner and Diego Voglino, plus Ambel contributing plenty of his signature, counterintuitive guitar and Bill Malchow on keys.

Driven by a catchy, tremoloing guitar riff, the album’s first song Burned by the Moonlight is a garage-soul number spiced with some characteristically savage lead work from Ambel. Grace’s voice has an unexpected, angry edge: “Let the wolves tear you heart out every night,” he rasps. Kanye West (I Hear That You’re the Best) is Grace at his most hilarious. “Taylor Swift, I hear you’ve got a gift, I don’t want to hear any more about it…Kardashians are so beautiful, Lindsay Lohan’s problems are so real.” As good as the lyrics are, this slowly swaying late Beatlesque anthem’s best joke is when it becomes a singalong.

Run to Me follows the kind of allusively brooding desert rock tangent that Grace was often going off on five or ten years ago. “Evil has connections we can use,” he muses. Being Poor, a song for our time if there ever was one, has a stark, rustic Steve Earle folk-blues vibe: “It’s all got you down on your knees, no power to question why.”

Bad Wind Blowing has a tense, simmering roadhouse rock sway and a souful vocal cameo from Norah Jones: “Lean against the wind or get your ass blown to the ground.” Then Grace shifts gears into wry charmer mode with the steady backbeat Highway 61 rock of I Like You.

He sings the almost cruelly sarcastic title ballad over Malchow’s Lennonesque piano; Ambel’s twelve-string guitar break is just as surreal. Again, this song’s best joke is a musical one. By contrast, the album’s most crushingly relevant cut is Get Out. “We really used to try to get out of Brooklyn, now everybody’s trying to get in,” Grace laments over a stark banjo/guitar backdrop. It’ll resonate with anybody who remembers the days (ten years ago if anybody’s counting) before every entitled, recently relocated yuppie tourist in New York was starting a band named after this city’s second-most-expensive borough.

The album closes on a similarly somber note with So We Run, an unexpected and successful detour into early 70s style psychedelic Britfolk. Good to see a guy who’s been one of the most reliably good tunesmiths in town still at it, and at the top of his game.

Joshua James Brings His Gothic Americana to the Mercury Tonight

Joshua James plays a surrealistic 21st century take on Nashville gothic and folk noir. He likes minor keys and ominous nature imagery. The production on his new album, My Spirit Sister – not yet streaming at Bandcamp, but due there at the end of the month and serendipitously available on vinyl – manages to be sleek and digital without dulling the edge of James’ song cycle. There’s an understatedly symphonic sweep to what’s essentially a theme and variations. He’s got a gig tonight with his band at the Mercury at 8. If you didn’t already get your $15 advance ticket, it’ll cost you three bucks more, which is as pricy as that venue gets these days. But James is worth it.

The album’s indelibly catchy opening track is Broken Tongue. It’s like the shadow side of a 60s Simon and Garfunkel folk-rock hit, with shivery digital reverb effects on the many layers of guitars over a steady backbeat anchored by bassist Isaac Russell and drummer Timmy Walsh. In his flinty twang, the Nebraskan songwriter ponders alienation and the struggle to communicate through the debris of a lifetime worth of damage.

As the similarly brooding yet propulsive Coyote Calling moves along, the guitars of James and Evan Coulombe slash and stab through the digital haze: in a subtle way, it’s the album’s funniest song. It segues into Real Love, a creepy hitchhiking narrative which mirrors the opening track. Is the “mighty wind that’s gonna lift you up” a tornado, a fire-and-brimstone religious metaphor, or both?

The crushing, distorted electric guitars return in Golden Bird, a druggy, apocalyptic tale that unwinds amidst the contrast of high lonesome, reverbtoned guitar twang and a crushing, distorted chordal attack. James paints an understatedly cynical portrait of rural white ghetto nickel-and-diming: it’s like Tom Waits backed by Jessie Kilguss’ band.

In a swaying Wallflowers/Deer Tick rock vein, Pretty Feather is the first pop-oriented number here. Backbone Bend, which nicks the chord progression from a familiar Prince hit, strays further beyond Americana than any of the other tracks. Losin’ My Mind is a tasty reverb guitar-fueled update on vintage 60s acoustic Dylan. In Dark Cloud, James weaves a richly detailed story about a young couple hanging on by their fingernails: you can see the end coming a mile away, but it still packs  an impact. The cycle winds up with the Springsteen-folk of Blackbird Sorrow, which is a decent song, although the ending is too pat: dark clouds don’t usually vanish from the sky as fast and inexplicably as they do here. It’ll be interesting to see where James goes after this.

The Cactus Blossoms’ Moody Americana Hits the Spot Gently at Lincoln Center

Last night at the Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center, the Cactus Blossoms built a lowlit, Lynchian ambience, rising out of it occasionally with hints of rockabilly, Tex-Mex and a detour into rambunctious Vegas noir. It was indicative of how much edgier the American Songbook series here is now. Tonight’s show features blue-flame oldschool soul songstress Ruby Amanfu; showtime is 8 PM, and be aware that latecomers aren’t allowed in.

It wouldn’t be overhype to mention brothers Jack Torrey, who played artfully terse leads on a shortscale Guild guitar, and rhythm guitarist sibling Page Burkum in the same sentence as the Everlys or the Louvins. Their blend of voices is every bit as celestial, and often heartbreaking as either of those two iconic Americana acts, and they work it for all it’s worth. Burkum didn’t talk to the audience at all; Torrey didn’t do that much either, and then only with a laconic, aw-shucks Midwestern modesty.

The night’s most stunningly relevant number was the disconsolate border ballad Adios Maria. Awash in longing and doomed acceptance, it spoke for anyone dreading deportation, or, possibly even worse, an early-morning raid to snare a loved one. Introducing a shuffling, vintage C&W flavored take of Chuck Berry’s Brown Eyed Handsome Man, Torrey spoke of being on tour in Europe during the Presidential inauguration back in January and missing Obama’s presence in the Oval Office. “I hope they hear this over at the Trump Tower,” he deadpanned.

Otherwise, this band lets the music speak for itself.If there ever was a retro group for this era, the Cactus Blossoms are it. Even the upbeat Happy Man, with its 50s R&B allusions, positioned its central character in a gloomy context. The most surrealistically dark of all the songs, Burkum’s Powder Blue, used the Twin Peaks theme as a stepping-off point to build a backdrop that was equal parts lovestruck rapture and understated dread. Torrey’s more country-flavored Queen of Them All worked that territory with similar, wounded grace; then the band picked up the pace with a swaying cover of the Kinks’ Who’ll Be the Next In Line, followed by Torrey’s honkytonk-spiced kissoff anthem A Sad Day to Be You.

They went into sardonic, rockabilly-tinged territory for Clown Collector and drew the night’s loudest applause with the surprisingly jaunty Stoplight Kisses. Burkum and Torrey wove their harmonies with the kind of intuitive chemistry that you would expect from family members, while the latter parsed the songs with muted early-rock leads, slinky Nashville licks and hints of electrified bluegrass. And the rhythm section was tremendous. Bassist Andy Carroll swung as judiciously as Torrey did, playing his Guild hollowbody model just a hair behind the beat with a little treble bite in his tone. Drummer Chris Hepola switched judiciously from sticks to brushes, pushing the quieter numbers with a rapt rimshot beat, then breaking out his mallets for the voodoo groove of the obscure Vegas C&W novelty Uncle John’s Bongos. For their first encore, the brothers voiced the high/low contrasts of the Beatles’ This Boy rather than the moodier internal harmonies, something of a departure from what they’d been doing all night. The Cactus Blossoms’ tour continues; their next stop is in their hometown Minneapolis on around 10 PM on April 14 at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union Theatre.

New York Guitar Star Homeboy Steve Antonakos Releases His Best, Most Eclectic Album

If you were a kid in New York back in the 80s, you had pretty much unlimited opportunities to see live music, theoretically at least. Sure, you could get into any club you wanted to: no venue owner was going to turn away a paying customer. The idea of bouncers hassling club patrons for identification was almost but not quite as faraway as the Orwellian nightmare of face recognition technology.

But getting into clubs could be expensive. Those who weren’t there may not realize just how much free live music, much of it outdoors, there was. For the sake of argument, let’s say you carried your beer into Union Square one evening. Everybody drank on the street back then since the implementation of “broken windows policing” as a means of making a revenue stream out of those least able to pay – kids and ethnic minorities, mostly – hadn’t gone beyond the drawing board.

Maybe you were drawn in by the twangy “rig-rock” sounds of the Blue Chieftains, who were doing a afterwork show on the plaza at the south end of the park. Maybe you wondered who was firing off that downward cascade of high-octane honkytonk guitar in that one big, stomping anthem.

That was Homeboy Steve Antonakos. The Blue Chieftains live on as a memory of a better time in New York history, a prestige piece of his resume. Since then, he’s played with a bunch of Americana outfits as well as the richly tuneful Greek psychedelic bands Magges and Dervisi, the latter with his fellow Greek-American guitar luminary George Sempepos. But Antonakos isn’t just one of New York’s great guitarists: he’s a strong songwriter too. His latest album, Bodega Rock is streaming at Bandcamp. His next gig is on March 30 at 9 PM at Espresso 77, 35-57 77th St. in Jackson Heights. where he does double duty playing his own material and then takes a turn on lead guitar with Drina Seay, New York’s answer to Neko Case. The closest train is the 7 to 74th St., but you can also take any train to the nearby Roosevelt Ave. stop.

The album opens with the Stonesy title track, guest guitarist Tim Heap fueling a shout-out to the 24-hour suppliers of Slim Jims, Bambus, beer and neighborly good cheer that help make this city so great. Antonakos sings the wry, aphoristic, ragtime-flavored The Improbability of Love backed by Bruce Martin’s piano, Seay a one-woman gospel choir.

Jeff Schiller’s smoky tenor sax wafts through the wistful shuffle Make It Swing, Antonakos raising a glass to an early influence in both jazz and pregaming. Seay sings the acoustic Americana ballad There’s Always Yesterday with tender restraint against Neil Thomas’ lilting accordion. Martin’s flurrying drums and Skip Ward’s bass propel One of Us, a pretty hilarious catalog of New York characters who might or might not exist. Awash in stormy layers of acoustic and electric guitars, He’s Still Not Over Her follows a much more ominous tangent.

Antonakos’ shivery lapsteel permeates the cynically shuffling It’s a Beautiful Day and its Sixteen Tons allusions; it might be the best song on the album. Seay ought to sing lead on this one: she’d hit it out of the ballpark.

With steel guitar and banjo lingering ominously in the background, the stark Nashville gothic ballad Poisoned Well is another standout. The album winds up with the gorgeously anthemic It Takes Time, another duet with Seay.

While we’re at it, could you imagine an album called 7-11 Rock? Actually, yes: it would be by Journey.

First-Class Original Bluegrass and a Lower East Side Gig From Cricket Tell the Weather

Cricket Tell the Weather have pretty much everything you could possibly want from a bluegrass band: inspiring instrumental chops, vivid storytelling and a dynamic range that runs the gamut from ecstatic to mournful. What distinguishes them from the legions of cover bands and pop musicians posing as Americana pickers is frontwoman/fiddler Andrea Asprelli’s songwriting. She’s informed by tradition but not reverent. Her songs are homespun but not sentimental, and she loves historical references. She and the band have a 10 PM gig on March 21 at the scruffy downstairs third-stage room at the Rockwood; cover is $10.

Their latest album, Tell the Story Right is streaming at Bandcamp. Asprelli’s accomplices on this one include Doug Goldstein on banjo, guitarists Mike Robinson and Jeff Picker, with Dave Speranza and Sam Weber each contributing bass. Over a steady backbeat, the newgrass opening number, Briar, takes a rather haggard perspective of being “too far down to come up or too far up to come down…Beware of the righteous and their charity, “ Asprelli intones, moody but purposeful.

If I Had My Way is a bitingly successful, bitter original take on the theme that the Grateful Dead appropriated for Samson and Delilah. “Never trusted photographs to tell the story right,” Asprelli confides over Goldstein’s steady picking on the following tune, Photograph. “All night we wait for the dawn, shimmers then it’s gone,” she laments. The interweave between banjo and fiddle is tasty to the extreme.

Alice, a portrait of a rugged individualist, has a jaunty oldtimey blues swing, a tiptoeing bass solo and a lively handoff from Goldstein to Asprelli. The balmy midtempo instrumental Lucinda’s Daughter is a launching pad for some hot guitar flatpicking and subtly wry banjo. “Gonna open up the classifieds, gonna buy the first rusty bucket I find,” Asprelli announces as the wandering That’ll Be My Home gets underway.

Eugenia is a rock anthem miscast as bluegrass: the band plays it tentatively, and it only leaves the ground at the very end. A group like Deer Tick would have a field day with it. There are also three covers here. The spiritual Little David Play on Your Harp gets a steady, propulsive treatment with soulful vocal harmonies. The version of Laura Marling’s Daisy turns out to be an imaginative mashup of Britfolk and Appalachian sounds, in the same vein as Jan Bell. The last one was written by a dorky, awkward piano pop girl; it gives Asprelli a chance to air out her vocal range, but otherwise it’s a dud. A writer as strong as she is doesn’t need to go scraping the bottom of the barrel.

A Rare Music Impresario with Actual Talent

Lara Ewen may be best known as the irrepressible impresario behind the Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum, which with the ongoing disappearance of the downtown acoustic scene has arguably become Manhattan’s best listening room for folk and Americana sounds. But Ewen is also one of New York’s most magnetic singers, and a strong songwriter as well. Over the years, her music has gotten darker and gone deeper into gothic Americana, often in a Tom Waits vein. Her hardscrabble Queens roots may have something to do with that.

She’s playing the Scratcher Bar on 5th Street just east of Bowery on Feb 26 at around 7, when you might find fellow songsmith Kelley Swindall tending bar. It’s an intimate space, and a convenient time on a work night so getting there a little early wouldn’t be a bad idea: artists who book venues tend to be popular for reasons other than their art.

Ewen is the rare one who isn’t. Her definitive album is The Wishing Stone Songs, from 2013. But there’s other solid material in her catalog. A listen back to her 2007 cd Ghosts and Gasoline – which happily has made it to Spotify – reaffirms that. Her band on the record is excellent: much as there’s a late 90s influence, there’s no cheesy drum machine, no cliched trip-hop beat. Guitarist Howard Rappaport jangles and clangs, judiciously over the tight, low-key rhythm section of bassist Donald Facompre and drummer Jordan Lash.

Ewen sings in character, with unexpected nuance for someone who doesn’t come from a jazz background. One minute she’ll be serenading you with that crystal-clear, maple-sugar soprano, another she’ll be gritty, then maybe throwing some twang at you, depending on context.

The album’s opening track, Josephine, has a brisk, methodically vamping, hypnotic quality, an allusive portrait of bitterness. The Airport Song is one of those blue-collar character studies that Ewen writes so vividly, part country, part spacious big-sky tableau, Rappaport’s pedal steel soaring overhead. Likewise, the propulsive Untethered is a surreeal portrait of outer-borough disconnection and anomie, bringing to mind a first-rate early-zeros Brooklyn songwriter. Barbara Brousal.

Turning Blue sways along gently, a quietly savage portrait of a a woman settling for less than she should. The album’s most devastating track is Our Song, just Ewen and her acoustic guitar, a gorgeously bittersweet and unexpectedly generous post-breakup reflection.

The oldest track on the album, Clear, will resonate for anyone who wouldn’t trade this city for any other temptation. 20 Years Ago, an aging beauty’s lament, foreshadows where Ewen would go on her next album. Then Ewen picks up the pace with the brooding highway narrative Manahttan Kansas

Facompre walks jazz scales under Ewen’s Rickie Lee Jones-ish delivery in Misery Wholesale. The album winds up with Blessed, a hopeful love song to a down-and-out character, and A Way to You, which is a dead ringer for a well-known Dylan hit. While Ewen typically plays her most recent material onstage, she might bust out one or two of these if you’re lucky. 

Jim Allen Brings His Edgy, Metaphorical, Sardonically Purist Songwriting to a Rare Fort Greene Gig

The sound guy was drunk by the time Jim Allen hit the stage at around eight. That was back in 2003 at a long-gone Williamsburg hotspot, the Blu Lounge. Surprisingly, the building’s still standing. The first-floor venue space is a liquor store now.

When the sound guy’s girlfriend showed up, the two chatted and made out through most of the set. Until the encore, where Allen reinvented the old ELO radio hit Don’t Bring Me Down as a stark blues. By the second verse, the sound guy was bugging out.

That same year Allen put out his Wild Card cd (which is still available and streaming at Spotify). Tim Robinson’s neo-cubist front cover art is a black-and-white afterwork street scene: the joker in the deck has his jacket open enough to reveal some color. The back covers shows Allen out behind what appears to be one of the far west warehouses on 28th Street, Liberty Island out of focus in the distance behind him. The cd booklet photo captures Allen curbside, sitting in what’s left of a refrigerator with the door ripped off. Loaded images for a guy who’s made them his stock in trade for a long time.

In the years past, Allen has not been idle. Most recently, he’s fronted a fantastically catchy retro new wave band, Lazy Lions. And his solo work, which is sort of akin to a hybrid of Graham Parker and Dale Watson, is stronger and more lyrical than ever. Allen loves double entendres, aphorisms both old and brand-new, and litanies of images that weave a yarn, often a grim one. Where is this clever, often hilarious wordsmith and tunesmith playing tomorrow night, Jan 22? City Winery, or maybe the Rockwood,, right? Nope. The Beacon, a gig he’s more than earned over the years? No. He’s playing at 8 PM at Branded Saloon in Fort Greene. As a bonus, Tim Simmonds – who’s fronted both Captain Beefheart cover band Admiral Porkbrain as well as his own tight new wave/powerpop band, the Actual Facts – plays afterward at 9.

Listening back to Allen’s fourteen-year-old album reveals how well it’s stood the test of time. The best song on it is The Verdict. It’s a slow country ballad set in a courtroom. The narrator’s on trial for being stuck on some girl, and Allen makes it apparent that he’s going to get what he deserves. Which is what, exactly? The answer’s too good to give away. The album’s worth owning for that song alone – it’s a genuine classic.

The rest of the album’s good too. It begins and ends with metaphorically-charged commentaries on the elusive nature of fame. “You can keep your crown if it’s the thorny one,” Allen bristles on the opening number, King of the Jews; he doggedly plans on finding a “hidden spring” early on in the gospel-tinged final song, No One for Me. In between, Marc Rubinstein supplies honkytonk piano and bluesy, swirly organ, Steve Alcott’s pedal steel soaring over the purposeful pulse of drummer Barbara Allen, Pemberton Roach reminding why he’s one of the alltime heroes of new wave bass.

Allen follows with the simmering swamp blues I’ll Need You Then – as in “when the shit has well and truly hit the fan” – a showcase for his soul-infused baritone. There are a pair of murderous anthems. The first is A Little Bit of Love, where Allen encourages a down-and-out rival to go find Jesus, because “Maybe you can room with him.” The second, A Thousand Ways, is every bit as spot-on:

Chain him to a desk and share each week for forty hours
It won’t be long befor you have to send his family flowers
…or make him black and put him in the City of New York

There’s also the zydeco-tinged workingman’s lament Where the Heart Is; the Rockpile-style shuffle Black Black Sea; Blue Neon Light, which is Allen’s Swinging Doors; the drony, psychedelic Looking At You; the brooding, ominous, delta blues-flavored It Might As Well Rain, a big fan favorite at shows; and the jauntily snide blues Little Green Circles. Allen’s back catalog is consistently strong, but this might be the most solid one of the bunch, start to finish.

Four First-Class Female-Fronted Global Acts at Drom Last Night

Early into her second raga yesterday evening at Drom, Roopa Panesar took an impulsive slide up the neck of her sitar. Then another, then another, against the rumbling, rippling beat of both a tabla and a mridangam. That twin-percussion drive is unusual in Indian classical music, but it suited Panesar well. For somebody whose right hand was a blur much of the time, she plays with an economy of notes, letting the river of beats carry most of the weight while she ran through a deep catalog of centuries-old riffs and thoughtfully placed variations. None of the material in her tantalizingly brief set went on for much longer than about eight minutes, slowly crescendoing alaps (improvisational intros) included. Meanwhile, the mridangam anchored the music with a fat low end, sometimes in tandem with the tabla, at other times giving the tabla room to sail overhead with an extra layer of polyrhythms. Panesar could have gone on for three times as long as she did and the audience wouldn’t have complained.

Punjabi songwriter and ghazal reinventor Kiran Ahluwalia was next, fronting a fantastic band which included both her brilliant guitarist husband Rez Abbasi and accordionist Will Holshouser along with a rock rhythm section. Abbasi only took one detour into the raga jazz that he’s been exploring so memorably lately, but he really those adrenalizing upward flurries count. Holshouser and the bassist added more than a hint of roots reggae on one of the later numbers while the bandleader brought an especially vigorous edge to her lustrously entrancing songs. The most anthemic was Jane Na, which contemplates how to exorcise personal demons, she explained. The group closed with their bounciest number, a cover that gave Ahluwalia a chance to air out her nuanced but potently expressive upper register.

Quebecoise fiddler Briga and her band have lately shifted from the Balkan music that she first made a name for herself in, to embrace North African grooves and melodies. It’s a good fit all around. There were echoes of moody chaabi balladry, funky Nubian beats and plenty of enigmatic, Egyptian-tinged tunefulness in her kinetically pulsing mix of instrumentals and vocal numbers. Singing first in French in a cool, unaffected alto, she led her excellent band through a set which, like Panesar’s, could have gone on for much longer – but this weekend is the booking agents’ convention, necessitating a constant changeover between acts. Briga’s keyboardist shifted artfully from spacy P-Funk synth, to slithery accordion, to reverbtoned, Herbie Hancock-tinged electric piano psychedelia while her subtle, propulsive bassist and two percussionists wove an intricately boomy lattice of lows.

Eclectic cellist/banjo player Leyla McCalla enjoyed a warm homecoming set, joined by her husband Daniel Tremblay on five-string banjo and electric guitar, in addition to an inspired violinist playing under the name Free-For-All. McCalla’s biggest audience hit was a spare, bluesy, aphoristically minor-key number that she dedicated to “the President-Elect,” whose meaning essentially boiled down to “if you don’t have money, you’re no more than a dog.” That was the night’s most political moment. Otherwise, she switched between instruments, singing in a cool, clear voice in English, Cajun and Kreyol, reflecting her Haitian-American heritage. The spare, Caribbean folk-tinged Time For the Hunter, Time For the Prey, an early number, addressed the perils of Haitian immigration. There was also a lilting Haitian love song, a bouncy Acadian-flavored number along with distant references to zydeco and some deep blues. Hearing her play those spare, plaintively antique phrases way down low on her cello made for some of the night’s most texturally delicious moments, matched by her down-to-earth vocals.

This being booking agent weekend, there were other acts on the bill. The last time this blog was in the house at a Banda Magda show, it was the summer of 2015 on the Hudson River way up on the Upper West, rugrats were running all over the place and frontwoman Magda Giannikou entertained them with a mix of jaunty retro 60s-style French pop, Mediterranean ballads and some hauntingly shapeshifting, Middle Eastern-flavored material. And southwestern gothic avatars Orkesta Mendoza, who were scheduled to headline (after doing the same at a late show at the Mercury, no less), haunted and pulsed their way through a mighty set of noir mambos and bolero rock. That was a couple of weeks after the Banda Magda show and was a lot further inland, at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival. That band has a characteristically psychedelic, epic new album out; catch you next time around, amigos.

There’s another fantastic lineup starting at 7 PM tonight at Drom. With the snowstorm, this might be your chance to see an unusually intimate show featuring all kinds of global sounds from darkly slinky psychedelic boleros, to wild Ethiopian funk, to Moroccan trance grooves and more. Cover is an insanely cheap $10.

Kaia Kater Brings Her Individualistic Update on Classic Americana to a Couple of New York Shows

Banjo player/multi-instrumentalist Kaia Kater ranks in the vanguard of roots musicians inspired by classic Americana but not constrainted by it. Her debut album, Sorrow Bound encompassed oldtime Appalachian sounds, bluegrass and newgrass. Her latest album, Nine Pin – streaming at her music page – is considerably starker, darker and more blues-based. You’ve got a couple of chances to check her out live this week (see below: she’s on a couple of cool multiple-act bills). Give the album a spin and chances are you will be drawn in by her purist, rustic sensibility as much as by her commitment to age-old populist themes that have become especially relevant in these horribly surreal, pre-inauguration times.

The opening track, Saint Elizabeth – an Elizabeth Cotten shout-out, maybe? sets the stage. It’s mostly just Kater’s stark vocals and banjo over minimal washes of bass until Caleb Hamilton’s trumpet kicks in at the end. “Can’t you hear me calling to you, with black and broken teeth?” her grim narrator implores.

Likewise, Little Pink is a morosely swaying field-holler style vamp,  Hamilton’s spare trumpet contrasting with ringing electric guitar that adds an unexpected Malian desert rock duskiness. Paradise Fell brings an antique Appalachian-style tune into the 21st century, lowlit with resonant steel guitar: “Paradise fell, and the tenements grew,” Kater muses.

Rising Down hypnotically blends spiky banjo and pizzicato fiddle textures, fluttery trumpet on the top end balanced by low washes of steel: “I will stand with my people as one,” Kater intones matter-of-factly. Harlem’s Little Blackbird is a moody jump-rope rhyme of sorts, while the album’s title track broodingly contemplates the “evils of the setting sun,” in a down-and-out milieu. After all this dirgelike ambience, the aptly titled, spare instrumental Fun Times At Our House makes a sharp contrast.

The ominously spare piano waltz Viper’s Nest edges into minimalist art-rock, followed by White, a more sprightly, trickily syncopated, oldtimey banjo tune with gospel-flavored harmonies. Kater takes the music into warmly nocturnal territory with Harvest and the Plow and then after the last of a handful of improvisational miniatures that pepper the album, she winds it up with the jaunty Hangman’s Reel: this executioner is obviously having fun, maybe sarcastically.

Kater’s on the bill this Jan 5 at the Jalopy at a little after 8 on a great bill assembled by first-class Alaskan fiddler Ken Waldman along with several other artists: Nic Gareiss and Maeve Gilchrist doing their folk dance and harp act; Wild Hog with Thomas Bailey, Aaron Jonah Lewis and Max Johnson; Brian Vollmer & Claire Byrne playing oldtimey guitar-and-fiddle music; the fiddle-fueled trio of Chris Miller, Audrey Knuth and Mark Kilianski; and individualistic string band Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards. Cover is $15. You can also catch Kater at the small room at the Rockwood on Jan 8 at about 8:30 PM followed by thoughtful newschool Americana songstress Kristin Andreassen and charming antique Appalachian folk duo Anna & Elizabeth.

Hauntingly Rustic Oldtime Appalachian Duo Anna & Elizabeth Play Manhattan and Brooklyn Next Month

Anna & Elizabeth are revered in the folk music world for their homemade “crankies” – a 19th century invention which is sort of a cross between a nickelodeon and a flipbook – and for their otherworldly take on antique Appalachian sounds. When the duo come to New York, they usually play the Jalopy. This time around, on Jan 8 at around 10 they’re at the small room at the Rockwood preceded at around 8:30 by banjoist Kaia Kater – who lately alternates between bluesy rusticity and pensive atmospherics – and thoughtful newschool Americana songstress Kristin Andreassen. If you feel like paying a cover to see Anna & Elizabeth, they’re at National Sawdust on Jan 20 at 7 for twenty bucks in advance…but no drink minimum.

The news about this purist, old-fashioned pair is that their 2012 album, Sun to Sun, is available again after having gone out of print shortly after the two released it. If you think that Elizabeth LaPrelle’s voice is hauntingly stark now, you should have heard her then – and you can, at Spotify. The duo sing an a-cappella take of a variation on the old lullaby All the Pretty Horses to open it, then a slow, spacious version of a Transatlantic folk tune, When I Was a Young Girl, backed by simple, keening fiddle washes that are acidic enough to give you goosebumps.

They juxtapose a slow, resonant instrumental, Darlin Don’t You Know It’s Wrong with the understatedly creepy Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail, Anna Roberts-Gevalt anchoring it with her stately baritone uke. Then she picks up her banjo for a hypnotically steady version of the surreal battle-of-the-sexes tale Old Kimball, switching to guitar for the even more surreal country gospel number Ooh My My!

The two sprint through a tighly wound fiddle-and-banjo dance, Patroller, then take their time with The Letter Song, a sad a-cappella message home from a woman married away on the desolate edge of the early American frontier. The banjo-and-guitar tune Green Icy Mountain is a lot more upbeat if not much more optimistic: life in those days in that part of the world was always precarious.

Lone Pilgrim contrasts Anna’s spare guitar with the raw power of Elizabeth’s vocals. The two take the album’s title track back to its roots as a grim field holler – rather than making lickety-split bluegrass out of it like many have done – and do the same with a sparse take of the Scottish ballad Highlands of Heaven. The lo-fi quality of the original recording enhances its homemade charm.