New York Music Daily

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Tag: americana music

A Tasty Guitar-Fueled New Album by Demolition String Band’s Americana Pioneers Elena Skye and Boo Reiners

One of New York’s funnest street fairs of the year actually isn’t in New York, it’s in Hoboken. This afternoon at 2:30 PM, Boo Reiners and Elena Skye – the brain trust of pioneering NYC urban C&W group Demolition String Band – are the main attraction at this year’s Hoboken Arts & Music Festival. It’s not the first time they’ve been the stars of this show and it probably won’t be the last. The stage is on the town’s main drag, Washington Street at 8th Street, just a short ten-minute walk from the Hoboken Path train station.

Elena and Boo also have a new album out, I Wait for the Light, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s the second one they’ve released under their own names, after four with Demolition String Band, and it’s notable for being their most rocking one so far. The lineup on this one is much the same as the original unit: Reiners wailing and flatpicking up a storm on Telecaster and banjo, Skye on mandolin, guitar and baritone guitar, with Kenny Soule on drums, Winston Roye and Mike Santoro sharing bass duties.

The album kicks off with the highway rock anthem I Don’t Know, I Can’t Say. With her forceful, soulful, twangy delivery, Skye has never sung better: this song is like vintage 90s Wilco with a woman out front. The second track, Sea of Pleasure has a dynamic the BoDeans used to work all the time –  hushed and muted, then richly clangy, with a tantalizingly  brief, biting Reiners Tele solo out.

The tender ballad Red For You has a hushed vintage 50s Kitty Wells sway with 21st century production values, and a rich web of guitars that build to an achingly sunbaked peak. The album’s mightiest track, the big anthem She’s Nobody’s Girl is the kind of snarling guitar rocker that someone like Miranda Lambert could only wish she’d written. The band follows with the lingering ballad Deep Cool Green Ravine, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Emmylou Harris catalog.

Then they pick up the pace with the burning acoustic-electric Every Day An Angel and its subtle Beatlesque tinges. The duo reinvent Elegant Wind, a familiar number to Demolition String Band fans, as spare Gillian Welch-style folk. By contrast, the blazing Sailor Girl is a mashup of Revolver-era Beatles and shuffling vintage 60s honkytonk.

“Jesus was a peace freak, he took care of the weak,” Skye reminds in the Ramones-influenced Jesus Was a Liberal, the album’s most ferocious and arguably best track. “if Jesus had a radio show, or a tv show, he’d been on after Randi Rhodes, or Rachel Maddow,” Slye asserts, something you might expect from a singer who in the past decade would make it a point to dedicate Demolition String Band’s snarling version of Creedence’s Fortunate Son to George W. Bush.

The lush blend of banjo, mando and guitar textures throughout the wounded ballad Scar on My Heart are among the album’s tastiest moments. They wind it up on an upbeat note with You Keep Me Up, which draws a straight line back to the Emmylou Harris/Rodney Crowell collaborations of about ten years ago.

Rachael Kilgour’s New Album Transcends Trauma

Rachael Kilgour is the rare artist who sounds perfectly good in the studio, but onstage takes her formidable vocal skills to a level that few singers even attempt, let alone reach. Her Lincoln Center show last year was absolutely shattering. She cried during one of that evening’s saddest songs – that’s how deeply she inhabits her characters. And she’s hilarious, too: few songwriters can be so much fun, and so insightful, pillorying rightwing hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance.

But most of the material at that show wasn’t the political satire she’s best known for. The majority of the set was Americana ballads from her latest album Rabbit in the Road, streaming at her webpage. She’s bringing that harrowingly melismatic voice and alternately plaintive and biting tunesmithing to a couple of New York shows this month. On May 12 at 7 PM she’s at the Commons Cafe, 388 Atlantic Ave.in Cobble Hill; take any train to Atlantic Ave; The following night at 8, she’s at Caffe Vivaldi preceded at 7 by another eclectic songwriter with a sense of humor, Orly Bendavid & the Mona Dahls.

And now that you know how ferociously political Kilgour’s previous output is, now’s the time to tell you that her latest release is far more personal. It’s a breakup album.

Aie aie aie.

Michael Franti used to write brilliant political songs and raps back in the day. Then he decided that schlocky top 40 love ballads were his thing – and fell off the map. Paul Weller once fronted one of the best and most political punk rock bands ever, the Jam…and never wrote a song worth hearing after they broke up. Did Kilgour run out of gas too?

As it turns out, no. Her lyrics on the new album can be just as incisive and edgy, and she can still write a catchy hook and an anthemic chorus with the best of them. It’s just her focus that’s changed direction. It seems that Kilgour got blindsided in a particularly messy divorce. She’s been outspoken about how she wants to break down the barriers between audience and performer, and that she sees the new material as being therapeutic for both sides of that equation.

So it’s comforting on more than one level that she’s succeeded at what she wanted to achieve: this is the rare heartbreak narrative that doesn’t come across as mawkish or cliched. The album opens with a soul-tinged, somewhat stunned miniature that sets the stage. Deep Bruises is where the shock sinks in, Kilgour trying to talk herself through an endless cycle of despair: It’s the one song that best evokes her soaring, Orbison-esque angst when she slides up to a note to drive a chorus home. Steve Wynn’s Tears Won’t Help You Now is a good point of comparison.

Ready Freddie is the ballad that Kilgour had the hardest time getting through at the Lincoln Center gig. It’s an attempt to cheer up her adopted daughter, someone she’s obviously close to and missed terribly when she wrote it. it’s a theme she revisits almost as fervently later on the record. By contrast, Up From Down is a kiss-off anthem, if a muted one, set to a pleasant if innocuous full-band folk-pop arrangement.

Anger rises in Still My Wife, the homey imagery that Kilgour opens with giving way to a cheating tale straight out of a classic country ballad. The dismissive patronizing title track is songwriter vengeance at its most subtle and satisfying: in case you haven’t already figured it out, never, EVER mess with one, they always get even in the end

Don’t Need Anyone echoes the defiance of Kilgour’s political work as much as her vocals echo Neko Case. “You think I need a lover to save me from my grief? I don’t need distractions, I don’t need your second hand relief,” she insists. Likewise, Hit By a Bus balances mixed feelings with vindictiveness: guess which one wins.

Kilgour has had great fun mocking Christian extremists (some people mistake her for a born-again because they don’t get the joke). So I Pray might seem like quite a departure, but it’s a wish, rather than a call to some patriarchal force, and a launching pad for vocal pyrotechnics in a live setting. Even here, Kilgour can’t resist a delicious dig: “I pray, to no one in particular, that they’ll help you find your way.” The album’s concluding cut, Break Wide Open is the only place where it feels overproduced: it doesn’t really add anything. Needless to say, it’ll be interesting to see what direction Kilgour goes in after this. We could use her stiletto wit and inclusive vision right about now.  

Courtney Marie Andrews’ Brooding Departure into Retro Americana Is Her Best Career Move

Courtney Marie Andrews’ latest album Honest Life – streaming at Spotify – sounds like a Melba Montgomery record from the early 70s, but with different production values. And it doesn’t sound anything like what Andrews has ever done up to this point. If there ever was a musician who’s earned a new lease on her artistry, it’s Andrews. As Americana, it’s more Memphis than Nashville, drawing a straight line back to Dusty Springfield. Among current artists, Tift Merritt is the obvious reference; Margo Price is also a point of comparison. In other words, Andrews’ strikingly purposeful turn in a retro direction isn’t dadrock – or momrock. She’s playing the Mercury on May 8 at 8 PM; cover is $10.

The album is short: ten songs, most of them around the three-minute mark. Many of the arrangements don’t have a rhythm section, which enhances the intimacy. Awash in Charles Wicklander’s gospel piano and Steve Norman’s distant lapsteel, anchored by Andrews’ bittersweetly swaying acoustic guitar riff, the opening track, Rooking Dreaming contains a pretty devastating admission. “I was too broke, too shallow to dive deep,” Andrews intones, an unexpected mea culpa from a recent refugee from the corporate pop machine. “I am a passenger to somewhere, I do not yet know the name…I am a when will I see you again,” she explains with guarded hope as the song ends, very much unresolved. She revisits that theme later on the title track, a bluegrass tune reinvented as quasi-gospel, spiced with her own tastily tremoloing guitar solo.

This Is Not the End, a lost-love lament, has a similar backdrop, but no drums, just steel, piano and Andrews’ delicate acoustic fingerpicking. Irene has a dramatic flair, a cautionary tale for a potential drama queen: “You are a magnet Irene, sometimes good people draw troublesome things.” Andrews throws in a funny, chugging solo on the low strings to drive the point home.

With nifty honkytonk piano balanced against washes of steel, How Quickly Your Heart Mends brings to mind Merritt’s early Nashville material. Let the Good One Go is slower and drenched in vintage soul, marinating in yet more of that terse, gospel-tinged piano. Table for One, a stark band-on-the-road narrative, comes across as one part Lowell George, one part Townes Van Zandt: “Found peace in the Redwoods, lost it twenty miles later,:” Andrews laments. Themewise, Put the Fire Out follows to a logical conclusion: get off the road. It wouldn’t be out of place on a recent Laura Cantrell album.

Andrews’ ache in 15 Highway Miles is visceral: “If fate is a dart that you throw at a map, then you can’t count on fate, you can count on that.” But the ending is optimistic. The album’s final cut, Only on My Mind is a quiet stunner, a devastating, string-drenched portrait of shattered dreams, with a cruel allusion to a popular Louis Armstrong hit. This is a good, reflective headphone album for a summery Sunday afternoon with a pitcher of lemonade and a scone…or a solitary stroll along the Brooklyn Prom, or the piers on Emmons Avenue, water bottle in your backpack, flask in your pocket.

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.