New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: americana pop

Heather Maloney Airs Out Her Powerful Voice and Promising New Songs at Joe’s Pub

The first thing that hits you like a ton of bricks when you see Heather Maloney sing is how much of an individualist she is. She likes to pronounce her R’s, maybe because her name has one. Much as you might assume that other singers wouldn’t shy away from that particular letter, they do, especially in her field, which is packed to the gills with guys from New Jersey faking a Bible Belt drawl…or even worse, doing phony ebonics which border on blackface and would have Robert Johnson and Rev. Gary Davis rolling in their graves. For her part, Maloney has a perfect Connecticut accent (she’s from the Berkshires, actually), meaning that she has no accent at all, at least from an East Coast point of view. Couple that with a range like a vintage V-16 Cadillac or a Rolls-Royce – powerful and luxuriously silky from the lows through some spectacular highs – and a complete lack of affectation, at least on her own material, and you have a force to be reckoned with. She played Joe’s Pub last night, not with her long-running band Darlingside but with a new, rotating unit comprising a guitarist/bassist, lead guitarist and drummer. Although she said they’d only been touring for a couple of weeks, they had an energy and chemistry that hinted at a longer association.

She talks to the crowd like she sings – intimately, conversationally, with an irrepressible, dry wit. Lyrically, she likes metaphors and American history, no surprise considering that her previous material ranges from the center to the fringes of Americana. Much of the material in the set was taken from her new album Making Me Break (streaming at Bandcamp), which she recorded in Nashville with members of Band of Horses, among others, whom she was able to enlist with the thirty grand she raised via crowdfunding. Her big break, she told the audience, came when Graham Nash gave his imprimatur to her version of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, title track to her album with Darlingside. She did that one solo acoustic and nailed every one of Joni’s austerely jazz-inflected flights up the scale, her meticulous attention to the lyrics raising the angst and longing.

As good as that one was, her original material, at its best, was just as good and when it wasn’t, showed a lot of promise: Maloney is a work in progress. She’s got a purist pop sensibility and a gift for a catchy hook that occasionally gets sabotaged by indie cliches, like on one song that was mostly movable chords (where you play, say, a C and then just hold your fingers in the same position as you move randomly up and down the fretboard). Ironically, what might have been her most anthemic vocal line of the whole night was sung over those dissonances. Let’s hope there’s a janglerock band somewhere who can deliver it with the kind of payoff and resolution missing this time around.

The best song of the night was 1855, a soaringly bittersweet tale told from the point of view of someone looking back on their 19th century parents and the single photo of them that exists, and its many implications. Maloney also hit a home run with the evening’s newest number, Holding You, I Was, an achingly elegaic, regretful, elegant but crushingly straightforward narrative set to one of Maloney’s most anthemic tunes. A brooding if upbeat new one referenced Maloney’s Saturn return (an astrological concept relating to when Saturn, on its long orbit, returns to where it was when you were born, ostensibly creating all kinds of havoc). Opening act Will Dailey distinguished himself as an economical and intuitive lead guitarist, a role he should embrace because he’s very good at it: a frontman, he’s not. The one low point was a cover of one of the worst songs ever written – a real stinker, we’re talking Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, hotel-motel-Holiday-Inn bad. But the crowd – on the older, bridge-and-tunnel side – didn’t complain. Still, Maloney should know better. It’s not likely she’ll be breaking that one out at any of the folk festivals she’s playing this summer.

Aiofe O’Donovan Brings Her Cutting-Edge, Purist Americana Tunesmithing to the Upper West

Aiofe O’Donovan is cool. The Crooked Still singer/guitarist played one of the outdoor concerts at Madison Square Park a couple of months ago and wasn’t impressed by that burger joint there with the interminably long lines – and if you’d been standing downwind in the greasy smoke wafting from the kitchen, you wouldn’t have been either. “Is the food really that good?” she asked, skeptical. A lone guy sheepishly put his his hand. “OK, if you say so,” she grinned back.

O’Donovan makes her living on the road, whether playing bluegrass classics, singing in progressive jazz icon Dave Douglas’ group, with symphony orchestras, or doing her own stuff. September’s show was mostly original material, much of it taken from her debut solo album, Fossils, and it was consistently excellent. If you missed the show – and a lot of people did – she’s making a quick swing through town, in between Crooked Still reunion shows, for a free concert at 7:30 PM on Nov 13 at the Lincoln Center Atrium. It’s not clear who’s playing when, but she’s on the bill with a solid quartet of performers: explosive New Orleans trombonist/gospel shouter Glen David Andrews; Elle King, who is sort of an Americana counterpart to Cat Power; and charming guy/girl harmony duo the Spring Standards. These shows are a neighborhood institution and fill up fast, so the earlier you get there, the better: you can probably expect about a half an hour from each act.

O’Donovan, being a runner, likes to jump around a lot onstage, and reveled in the chance to do that at the park because, as she explained, she’d been playing on a boat where that hadn’t been an option. Backed by terse upright bass, drums and lead guitar, she mixed up ballads and more upbeat numbers. As you might expect from someone in a band whose name refers to moonshine, whiskey figures into a lot of her songs, from the swaying, John Prine-influenced opening number, Oh Mama, to a jaunty country blues punctuated by a bouncy bass solo a little later on.

They followed the broodingly shuffling Thursday’s Child, fueled by Austin Nevins’ lingering, red-sunset guitar leads with a slower but similarly simmering, late-summery tune. O’Donovan sang Briar Rose with a moodily insistence as ambulance sirens passed north of the park. It was cool to watch the group mash up trad styles with electric rock energy, without turning it into cliched 70s-style dadrock, then going deep into the Appalachian catalog. And through it all O’Donovan soared, and sailed, and brought edge and bite to the songs when they asked for them, as songs do. It’s not clear if O’Donovan will have a band with her at the Lincoln Center show or not, but either way she’s a lot of fun live.

A Rare Live Gig in August Spawns Two Auspicious October Shows

Was drummer/impresario John Sharples‘ excellent, rare gig as a bandleader back in August responsible for two of this weekend’s most enticing shows? Maybe yes, maybe no. In the case of the show tomorrow night, Oct 24 at Freddy’s, definitely yes, since he’s booked it. It’s an eclectic lineup starting at 9 with a similarly rare performance by the jangly, edgy band that songwriter Paula Carino made a name for herself with back in the late 90s, Regular Einstein. After that there’ll be short sets by Psychic Lines and guitarist Tim Simmonds’ Ex Extract project followed at 11 by Calm King, which is members of Beefheart cover band Admiral Porkbrain playing “improvisational postpunk chamber pop.”

And an artist Sharples drew on for her nuanced but powerful, torchy voice at that August show, Americana songwriter Robin Aigner, plays the album release show for her long-awaited new album of historically-infused oldtimey songs and chamber pop at Barbes this Saturday, Oct 26 at 8 on a great bill (this one not booked by Sharples) that starts with oldtime blues guitar monster Mamie Minch at 6 and continues at 10 with harmony-driven noir cumbia and bolero band Las Rubias Del Norte at 10.

What was the August show like? Drummers have deep address books since the good ones play with a ton of people, and Sharples is no exception. This particular night started with crystalline-voiced songwriter Rebecca Turner opening solo with a wryly epic, brooding contemplation of family tensions. Then she brought up her band – including John Pinamonti on lead guitar and studio mastering legend Scott Anthony on bass – for terse, quietly bristling versions of older material like The Way She Is now and newer songs including the metaphorical Cassandra and The Cat That Can Be Alone. She and the band closed with Brooklyn Is So Big, which ten years ago was a triumphant shout-out to the borough’s musical riches and now seems more like an obituary.

Sharples played both six and twelve-string guitar out in front of a band that included Ross Bonadonna on guitar and Tom Pope on drums, mixing up material from the cult classic 2004 I Can Explain Everything album along with unexpected treats like the tongue-in-cheek, metrically Carino favorite Robots Helping Robots and a blistering take of Brooklyn, by Celtic punk band Box of Crayons.

But the best song of the night was a straight-up janglerock version of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, the lushness and overtones of the twelve-string providing some of the original’s angst-fueled grandeur. Or it might have been the ominously swaying version of Tom Warnick’s noir blues anthem The Impostor. Or for that matter, Dylan’s Positively 4th Street reinvented as tightly wound janglerock. Or the lusciously jangling Matt Keating cover, Mind’s Eye, with Aigner adding her plaintive harmonies. It was one of those kind of shows.

The night wound up with a catchy solo set by guitarist/frontman Tim Reedy, of indie rockers Electric Engine. Nobody evokes the mid-90s anthemic REM sound like that band, and it was cool to hear Reedy’s witty lyrics and frequent baseball references without the ring of the amps behind him.

Shelley King Brings Her Southern Gospel, Soul and Country Fire to Manhattan

Shelley King is a big deal in Texas. The Arkansas-born, Austin-based bandleader has a sizzling new album, Building a Fire – streaming at Spotify – and a free show tonight at 9 PM at Hill Country. If they give her any amperage in the PA, there won’t be a tourist there who can drown her out. King’s music is retro in the best way possible, drawing on oldtime gospel, C&W and soul, and the band on the album is killer. A couple of Subdudes do much of the heavy lifting: John Magnie on accordion and organ and Steve Amedee on drums, with Marvin Dykhuis on guitars, dobro and mandolin, Sarah Brown on bass and cameos from fellow Austinites Warren Hood, Cindy Cashdollar and Carolyn Wonderland. King’s soulful midrange vocals are down-to-earth but full of bristling intensity and a little grit in places: the influence of the southern gospel church is everywhere. .

The album’s title track is a swaying, subtly blues-tinged, ominous noir soul song. King follows that with Grace, a stark, stripped-down oldtime gospel shuffle with nifty accordion and slow-burning slide guitar. King gets even more intense on the traditional gospel tune I Know I’ve Been Changed a little later on, over more of that blue-flame slide work.

The best song on the album is The Ones You Don’t See Coming, a gorgeous backbeat country tune, King working her oldschool metaphors for all they’re worth:

Hidden from the radar in the still of the night
Left total devastation in the morning light
Rain-wrapped tornado, invisible storm
Never saw it coming, no sirens to warn
Worst are the ones you don’t see coming…

Things You Do is a brisk, hard-hitting soul-blues number anchored by dirty, distorted Rhodes piano, while The Real Thing offers the flipside of that vibe, roto organ propelling the wamly swaying soul ballad. King learned Larry Campbell’s bittersweet gospel anthem When I Go Away from Levon Helm, offering it up here as a darkly soaring tribute to her old pal.

The rustically waltzing 1940s Eyes mines a wistful acoustic string band vein, then King and band pick up the pace with the punchy organ-soul groove Hard Times Are No Match for Sweet Dreams. King brings back a bucolic, pre-bluegrass feel on the album’s closing cut, Moonlight.

There are also a couple of 70s style country-pop ballads here:, Talking ‘Bout the Weather and Lost in You, both substituting purist acoustic production values for Nashville big-studio gloss (and some tasty glockenspiel on the second one). Miranda Lambert only wishes she had material this catchy.

Unselfconsciously Intense, Insightful, Vivid Tunesmithing from Sharon Goldman

Sharon Goldman is one of the most criminally underrated tunesmiths of the last ten years. Lately she’s split her time between leading her own band, playing solo or as one-half of lyrical folk-pop duo the Sweet Bitters (whose impromptu show this past spring was one of the most memorable concerts anywhere in New York this year). And as much as her clear, unaffectedly shining vocals were always a strong suit, lately her voice has taken on a lot more gravitas: she has become a shattering singer. On her new album Silent Lessons, she channels both the subtlest and the most overwhelming emotions with a gentle and graceful understatement that’s all the more haunting for how quiet it is.

Her lyrics are a clinic in how to paint an indelible picture with the simplest images and symbols. Although Goldman can be uproariously funny, her songs tend to be brooding, if sometimes guardedly optimistic. As usual, her band is fantastic: Thad DeBrock (who also produced) working his typical magic, building a glimmering web of acoustic and electric guitars, adding elegant touches from piano and keys over the terse groove of bassist Jeff Allen and drummer Doug Yowell.

The opening track, Left Turn takes a mundane, random bike ride through the neighborhood and turns it into a haunting tale of restlessness and spinning one’s wheels: Springsteen would have done well to have written this thirty years ago. As Goldman’s narrator sees it, she’s almost invisible as she pedals her way around the block: she “can’t get lost or found.” Debrock’s judiciously jangling, artfully layered guitars slowly build to an uneasy lushness. Likewise, the nebulous, wintry atmospherics of Her Secret underscore the story of a woman alone on the train platform, knowing that her clandestine affair is only keeping her in a rut. And Goldman’s terse fingerpicking in tandem with Noah Hoffeld’s stark cello provide a shadowy backdrop for Amy, someone’s mysterious, now-deceased ex who still manages to cast a wide shadow.

A Night to Forget is an unexpectedly driving, noir-tinged, Patti Smith-flavored electric rock nocturne, its narrator hell-bent on tying one on and forgetting everything she’s left behind. Valentine’s Day, which builds from opaque washes into another anthemic rock number, bitingly assesses how double standards still separate the boys from the girls, and ruin lives in the process. Pocket Full of Sun works a charging, Grateful Dead-tinged groove with an almost defiant optimism, gorgeously multitracked acoustic guitars and a surreal, metaphorically-charged lyric that goes unexpectedly dark. And Let You Go takes a catchy, syncopated oldschool country ballad into more opaque, pensive territory, another disarmingly simple story whose doomed plotline becomes crystal-clear as it goes along

As vivid as those songs are, the title track is the masterpiece here. It’s one of the best songs Goldman’s ever written, and it packs a gentle wallop. Her careful, precise but wounded vocals absolutely nail the “four in the morning of your soul” ambience of a woman sleepless and alone, abandoned and embittered and sobered by the reality that she isn’t blameless in how she ended up there. “What do you see in the stillness when you feel blind, and you need all six senses to know what to find?” she asks, hushed and low: the matter-of-factness in her delivery is what makes it so chilling, just Goldman’s voice and acoustic guitar and the cello. It’s over in barely two minutes and it’s one of the best songs of the year.

Goldman’s next live appearance is on 12/17 at 9 PM EST at Concert Window, where she’s doing a “pre-release pyjama party” streaming around the world from her living room. She’ll be taking requests and answering questions. It’s a pay-what-you-want show; “tickets” are available now. And the show isn’t going to be recorded or archived: it’s a literally once-in-a-lifetime event.

Basia Bulat Brings Her Anthemic, Nuanced Americana to Bowery Ballroom

A cynic might say that Basia Bulat is Tift Merritt with bangs. Both artists are distinctive, nuanced singers, write artsy Americana-tinged songs and make excellent studio albums. Merritt funds hers by touring incessantly. Bulat is Canadian, and since the Canadian government funds their artists, she gets the benefit of big-studio production that most American acts can’t afford. She’s at Bowery Ballroom on Nov 23 at 10 PM, playing songs from her latest album, Tall Tall Shadow; general admission tix are $15.

Most of the songs on the album follow a steady trajectory up from the verse to a big anthemic chorus, like the catchy title track, with a long crescendo up to the bridge. By contrast, the cautious, stripped-down acoustic ballad Five, Four is sort of Neko Case without the noir. Promise Not to Think About Love takes a bouncy Appalachian folk tune into the zeros, something like Mary Lee Kortes‘ Nothing Song with more of a pop feel. Is that a dulcimeer with a lot of reverb on it?

It Can’t Be You artfully pairs mandolin and concert harp, Bulat’s vocals channeling a vivid agitated/wounded dichotomy. Wires is more optimistic: with its big stadium production, ebow guitar paired with twinkling electric piano for a verse, this is the CBC radio hit. The City with No Rivers brings back a brooding mood, an unexpectedly successful blend of Americana and 80s darkwave.

Paris or Amsterdam paints a memorably wistful folk-rock scenario: it’s not clear if Bulat’s narrator is waiting in the station for a missing lover or a ghost, adding to the unease. Likewise, the misterioso pop hit Someone, its techy keys contrasting with plaintive strings, could be either a lost-love lament or an elegy. Bulat’s elegantly cinematic, nocturnal scene draws you in to catch all the details. Never Let Me Go, the next-to-last-track, pairs a guardedly optimistic lyric with a nebulous trip-hop tune. The album winds up with From Now On (an original, not the Supertramp hit), which takes what’s essentially an Appalachian ballad and turns it into a stately piano-based chamber pop anthem. It’s too bad that albums this accessible so often aren’t anywhere near this smart; consider this a sleeper candidate for one of the best albums of 2013.

Lara Ewen Brings Her Smart, Original Americana Tunesmithing to the Path Cafe in November

Lara Ewen has a 10 PM Friday night residency this November at the Path Cafe on Christopher St. just west of 7th Ave. South. The cover graphic for her new album The Wishing Stone Songs depicts the outline of a woman with her head in her hands, but her songs are far more lively than that image implies. When she’s not evoking the Dixie Chicks at their late-career best (after Natalie Maines dissed George W. Bush), Ewen’s doing cool new things with classic country songwriting. One of the best songs here has the sly sophistication of Ewen’s pal Kelli Rae Powell; another sounds like the acoustic Grateful Dead. The production of the album is fresh and live-sounding, stripped to the bare necessities (sometimes just a couple of guitars and no bass, other times with just a cajon for percussion) without being skeletal.

Ewen has a twang in her voice, an ear for a catchy hook, great taste in arrangements and an aphoristic lyrical style that looks back to classic C&W even though the songs here range from citybilly to a more purist take on folk-pop. In other words, this isn’t top 40. The first track, Death Better Take Me Dancing introduces a dark humor that recurs throughout the album: over a catchy, lithe, fiddle-driven groove, Ewen makes it clear that she wants to go out standing up and still moving fast. One Day sounds like Sheryl Crow without the cliches and some absolutely gorgeous flatpicking, while the pensive waltz How to Be Your Girl balances delicately plucked fiddle against lush washes of strings, Ewen sardonically pondering how to handle a relationship that actually might not go straight to hell in a hurry.

She keeps the brooding sarcasm going with A Whole Lot Worse, an all-too-true story of a woman settling for a guy who doesn’t completely suck. set to spiky, fingerpicked acoustic guitar and washes of Gerald Menke pedal steel. The most imaginative arrangement here is Restless: Ewen takes a bluesy Appalachian-style ballad and makes piano-based chamber pop out of it. She goes back to waltz time for the duet Keeping It In, a bitter post-breakup barroom ballad:

Now I wanna make you feel worthless
No one could blame me for trying
 I’m worn out like a screw that’s been stripped
From being turned around so many times

By contrast, All the Way There is a deliciously catchy, upbeat highway anthem: with its rich web of acoustic and electric guitars, it’ll resonate with anybody who likes the idea of driving barefoot. The narrator of the swaying, bluesy-infused Reckless defiantly insists that she’s going to get back on top of her game:

I let my callouses soften
Let my heart go black
And I’m gonnna beat on my chest
Til I feel it beating back

Then Ewen goes back to brooding mode for the haunting, Waits-ish down-and-out scenario Breakdown Lane. A couple of tracks here veer closer to the softer side of New Nashville: the funky, metaphorically-charged Hospital Song, and the wryly seductive Outlaw Song. All together, it’s a musically purist, cleverly lyrical mix of some of the best things happening in Americana right now.

Claire Lynch Brings Her Beautiful Voice and Killer Band to Hill Country

If you’re a bluegrass fan, you probably know that Claire Lynch has been a bigtime IBMA winner as a singer. And if you’re a bluegrass fan in New York, you probably already know that the former Front Porch String Band frontwoman is playing Hill Country on June 27 at 10:30 PM. The downstairs space there has a powerful PA and it’s a ticketed event ($15), so you won’t have to strain to hear over the usual crowds of bellowing tourists. Her latest album with her all-star band, titled Dear Sister, finds her on the mellower side of newgrass, more or less. As usual, the picking is strong (and often spectacular), lively conversations abounding between guitarist/mandolinist Matt Wingate, Bryan McDowell (on fiddle, mando and guitar) and banjo player Mark Schatz  Many of the tunes are just flat-out gorgeous, to match the vocals. Lynch’s voice is sort of a blend of vintage Dolly Parton and Amy Allison, with a similar nuance and unexpected power when she wants to drive a lyric home.

The opening track, How Many Moons is a pop song in disguise: then the backbeat and the dobro and the fiddle kick in and  it’s a country song. “No one’s ever said that I had the patience of a saint,” Lynch admits. Doin’ Time, a duet with Tim O’Brien, is deliciously anthemic, like a vintage Tom Petty song reinvented as bluegrass. Once the Teardrops Start to Fall sets a torchy vocal over a growly, bluesy bassline, a vibe that Lynch keeps going strong in Need Someone, which is an unabashedly straight-up pop song  The album’s centerpiece, a co-write with Louisa Bascomb, is based on letters sent home from the battlefield by Bascomb’s Civil War ancestors.  Dripping with authenticity, there’s an ever-present, bittersweet longing for home; and a crushing subtext that does not bode well for the soldiers.

A brisk remake of the Osborne Brothers’ I’ll be Alright Tomorrow, with a cameo from Alison Brown on banjo, plays up the angle that the singer might like drinking away her baby more than him actually coming home. Other choice tracks include the slow dobro-fueled ballad Everybody Knows I’ve Been Cryin’ and the closing diptych, Buttermilk Road/The Arbours, winding up the album on a high note, a rustic fiddle-and-percussion dance hitched to an oldschool bluegrass romp.

A Smart, Wickedly Tuneful Project from Anders Parker and Kendall Meade

Anders Parker and Kendall Meade had such a good time making Wild Chorus, their album together, they named it after the Knoxville studio where they recorded it. Parker and Meade have a long history working together, going back to the 90s when he fronted Varnaline and shared the stage with Son Volt’s Jay Farrar in Gob Iron while she led the vastly underrated Juicy and then went on to the absolutely brilliant Mascott. All the while, she was being sought out as a collaborator since she has a reputation for elevating every project she touches: this one joins the ranks of Sparklehorse, Helium and the Spinanes, among others. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp page.

What’s interesting about this is that it’s a true collaboration: while the duo trade off on vocals when they aren’t duetting, the album isn’t a case of having “his songs” and “her songs” – the tracks are a showcase for both songwriters’ strengths, Meade bringing a welcome craftsmanship to Parker’s more roughhewn style, Parker adding a haphazard edge to Meade’s polish and sheen. The opening track, We’re on Fire, Babe sets the stage, lingering distorted guitar pairing off against echoey Rhodes piano, swooshy organ and a rhythm section, Meade’s reassuring, reflecting-pool vocals blending with Parker’s twang and polishing down the rusty edges. The nonchalant backbeat acoustic gem City of Greats blends a bit of a vintage C&W feel wth a low-key 80s vibe that evokes Laura Cantrell’s recent work: “What you got isn’t what you would choose, you’re the master of all that you lose,” the duo harmonize with an elegaic matter-of-factness.

Just when it seems that Let’s Get Lost is one of Parker’s gruff tunes, Meade comes in with a knowing coyness and confectionery harmonies. Across the Years layers sweeping slide guitar and gospel-tinged piano and then hits a gently galloping riff before an unpredictable series of interludes that sound like a female-fronted middle-period Wilco. They follow Sleepwalking, a bittersweetly jangly, hypnotically nocturnal ballad with the luscious Dreamers on the Ground, its layers of distorted guitars ringing and clanging artfully against each other in the left and right channels, Parker’s refusal to give in to an eay resolution finding a perfect foil in Meade’s anthemic hooks.

Gettin’ Ready nicks the intro from Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart but quickly goes in the opposite direction of that song with an optimistic anticipation fueled by nonchalant, distorted guitar. Oh Love hits a bullseye with its quietly torchy Lynchian country-soul vibe, while Play It vamps on a psychedelically-tinged organ loop that reminds of Mike Rimbaud. The album ends with The Sun Will Shine Again Someday, a swaying anthem for the current depression that recalls Son Volt: “Times are hard for dreaming eyes, I’d like to sit and watch it all go by,” Parker muses, “I’d like to see them blown away.” That wish notwithstanding, this is not a particularly edgy album, but it’s not shallow, and much of it is ridiculously catchy. Who is the audience for this? Pretty much anybody with a taste for low-key tunefulness. Let’s hope this isn’t the last collaboration between these two. A big shout out to the folks at Nine Mile Records for the good taste to get behind it.

Brooding Nocturnal Ambience from Sam Llanas

As the co-founder and frontman of legendary heartland rockers the BoDeans, Sam Llanas built a deep catalog of singalong Americana rock anthems along with many darker, more pensive songs. Like any good songwriter, Llanas can evoke pretty much any emotion he wants. Yet even on his most upbeat upbeat hits with the band – She’s a Runaway, Still the Night, Feed the Fire, etc. – there was usually some undercurrent of unease. That came to the forefront in Absinthe, Llanas’ 1999 side project which released a single, riveting concept album, A Good Day to Die, a haunting series of songs inspired by the suicide of his older brother. Llanas waited til late last year before releasing his first album under his own name, the aptly titled 4 AM: he’s playing songs from it tonight, Sept 11 at 10 at Zirzamin, tomorrow the 12th at 8 PM at the small room at the Rockwood and then Monday the 17th at 8 at Iridium.

“I poured a small bourbon and water, and toasted the Clash,” Llanas sang on Cold Winter’s Day, one of the BoDeans most evocative nocturnes. That same atmosphere pervades the solo record, right down to the inside cd booklet shot of Llanas reclining in murky half-light, glass in hand, revisiting the ghosts of the past. Where he really nails the atmosphere is less with the spare, mostly acoustic insrumentation than with the vocals: instead of going down into his raw, emotionally charged baritone, he goes way up to the top of his register for a breathy, sometimes raspy, soulful timbre. Who knew he had that kind of range! While he’s still writing in an Americana rock vein, this is his soul record: there are hints of 70s artists like William Bell in his casually imploring, emotionally-charged vocals. Llanas plays acoustic guitar, backed tersely and tastefully by band of mostly fellow Milwaukeeans including guitarist Terry Vittone, bassist Matt Turner, Bukka Allen of the BoDeans on accordion, percussionist Ryan Schiedermayer and the one-man string section of Gary Tanin.

Oh, Celia sets the tone, a laid-back yet insistent come-on fueled by Allen’s lilting accordion. Shyne, a backbeat-driven breathy noir 60s pop nocturne, sounds like R. Dean Taylor but with digital production: “I want to dance with the devil’s daughter under the city lights,” Llanas croons, completely deadpan. The title track lingers wistfully but purposefully for just a little over two minutes, lowlit by accordion and gently ringing lead guitar.

The coyly titled Nobody Luvs Me has Tex-Mex tinges while the bittersweet, brooding Fare Thee Well works a western swing vein, underscored by Llannas’ powerful, low-register harmonies. By contrast, Janey is the most stark, minimalist song here: “It’s been a hell of a wonderful fight,” Llanas remarks, out on a late-night walk, trying to cool off. He follows it with the album’s most vivid cut, The Only One, contemplating a crushingly solitary 4 AM “hour of truth” against Vittone’s biting but judicious lead lines.

The song that harks most closely to the BoDeans’ anthemic style is the cynical Cherry O – “I never meant to hurt you as bad as I did,” whispers the vengeful cheater as the catchy chorus subsides. That’s the one song here that really screams out for a loud rock version. Llanas goes back to an understatedly noir, Orbison-inspired vein for Oh How I Loved You, then follows with the suspensefully quiet, symbolically-charged The Way Home. There’s also a cover of Jules Shear’s All Through the Night. This album doesn’t hit you over the head, but it’s exactly what it’s supposed to be: a good late-night listen.