New York Music Daily

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Tag: americana rock

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.  

The Sadies Bring Their Most Psychedelic Sounds Yet to the East Village

Americana fans need no introduction to Canadian quartet the Sadies, one of the world’s alltime great jangle bands. They’ve been around for about twenty years and they make fantastic albums. Their work with Neko Case is legendary. Their 2014 collaboration with Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, a grim detour into southwestern gothic, was every bit as good. Interestingly, their latest album, Northern Passages – streaming at Bandcamp – is their hardest-rocking and most psychedelic release. Which shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody who’s seen the band lately: they blasted through a cover of Iggy Pop’s I Wanna Be Your Dog at a recent Bowery Ballroom gig. They’re playing Webster Hall on May 11 at 8 PM; tix are $25. On one hand, there are additional acts on the bill, opening and closing the night. But, hey, these guys are great live, whatever the circumstances.

With organ swirling calmly over drummer Mike Belitsky’s subtle rimshot pulse, the album’s opening track, Riverview Fog, has a laid-back Blonde on Blonde feel that mutes the song’s brooding lyrics. Brothers Dallas and Travis Good match guitar fury on Another Season Again’s careening post-Velvets drive: if the Brian Jonestown Massacre had been more focused, they would have sounded something like this.

The group ramps up the energy even higher with There Are No Words, a blast of waltzing fuzztone psychedelia spiced with icepick twelve-string guitar. Kurt Vile laconically tackles the torrential, aphoristic lyrics of It’s Easy (Like Walking), part Neil Young stoner folk, part classic, uneasy, minor-key Sadies jangle and clang. The band puts a twin-guitar snarl and then tack a noisy, unhinged outro onto late 60s Carnaby Street Britpop in The Elements Song: “We carry on, carry on, we pretend that nothing’s wrong,” the brothers harmonize.

Through Strange Eyes scampers along in the same newschool psychedelic jangle vein as the Allah-Las, but with an electric bluegrass edge. Honkytonk guitars and fiddle imbue God Bless the Infidels with a Sweetheart of the Rodeo proto-outlaw country vibe. Then the band washes the bitterly elegaic folk-rock of The Good Years in icy reverb guitar. “She knew these things would come in threes, maybe in fours…he haunted her before he was dead,” the Goods intone. It’s the album’s darkest and best song.

As Above, So Below is part stoic Beatles, part soaring, twelve string-fueled Byrds, a rich web of intertwining leads. Questions I Never Asked is the band at their most bittersweetly jangly and gorgeous, building out of glistening clang and twang to a roaring coda. That the album’s concluding instrumental, The Noise Museum, would be just as strong as the other tracks speaks to how memorably uneasy these songs are. Has there been an album this tuneful and guitarishly rich released in the last six months? Probably not.

What to Do When a Great New York Band Gets Priced Out of Town

Greetings from North Carolina!

Considering how many thousands of New York artists have been priced out of town by gentrification and the real estate bubble, sometimes you have to leave the state to see them. Case in point: ferocious Americana rock vets Ninth House, who played earlier this evening on the big stage at frontman/bassist Mark Sinnis’ home base, Beale Street Barber Shop in Wilmington, North Carolina. It’s combination retro rock-themed haircut joint, music venue, art gallery and vintage store in what appears to be the happening hood in a college town with a well-preserved historic district.

In their ten years in New York, Ninth House started out as a hard-hitting but elegant art-rock band, then went through a series of guitarists who took their music in more of an epic gothic direction and towards jamband territory. As the years went by, Sinnis brought more of a dark Americana focus to the music, which Doktor John of the Aquarian called “cemetery and western.” The handle stuck, and applies even more to the honktyonk and vintage C&W sounds that Sinnis has pursued under his own name.

Ninth House hadn’t played together in over a year. Drummer Francis Xavier – Sinnis’ brother – lives in upstate New York, and guitarist Keith Otten now calls Florida home. They had one rehearsal for this show, but picked up without missing a beat. Otten is one of the great musical wits in all of rock, bringing an unexpected element to Sinnis’ brooding, death-obsessed songcraft. This time out some of that humor was pretty broad – the lonesome trainwhistles in the Nashville gothic shuffle Cold Night in December, for example – but the rest was more subtle and devious. Was he going to extend that outro until he’d finished channeling Social Distortion? Uh hun.

While the set veered into honkytonk as the evening wore on, the restless energy never wavered. The dusky warmth of Ninth House – the band’s signature song – and Down Beneath were balanced by an explosive take of the big escape anthem Long Stray Whim and an absolutely savage bolero-rock version of Fallible Friend, both older songs. Sinnis didn’t push the angst in his resonant baritone as far as he usually does in a bitterly graceful run through Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me, another tune from the early zeros, but that gave him plenty of headroom for when he finally went up the scale. And Injury Home, a darkly blues-infused minor-key anthem, was just short of unhinged.

The hard honkytonk stuff – Wine and Whiskey and the Devil Makes Three, I’ll Have Another Glass of Whiskey (Because Death Is Not So Far Away), and a cover of Ernest Tubb’s Driving Nails in My Coffin – energized the crowd, as did the surprise cold ending of a scorching electric cover of Ghost Riders in the Sky. They closed with an Elvis medley, Elvis impersonator Alex J. Mitchell taking the stage to lead the band Vegas-style through a medley of Mystery Train, Little Sister and a couple of other 50s hits.

Sinnis’ next solo gig is on June 3 at 8 PM at his home base, Beale Street Barber Shop, 616B Castle St. in Wilmington. His next New York area gigs will be June 24 at 8 PM and then the next day, June 25 at 4 PM with his mighty ten-piece honkytonk band 825 at Sue’s Sunset House, 137 North Water St. in Peekskill, NY. The bar is just steps from the Peekskill Metro North station.

While we’re at it, a shout-out to Funck’s Restaurant in Annville, Pennsylvania for their handmade onion rings, a welcome break from the storm that lasted well into Virginia on the drive down. The spacious, comfortable woodframe joint’s kitchen gives you a decent portion, on the pricy side – eight bucks – fried to a crisp that’s just pliable enough not to be flaky. The balance of onion and breading turned out to be perfect; so was the balance of flavor between crunchy outside and the single tasty, sweet, generously cut ring inside. Even better, the rings came with a slightly astringent, grainy horseradish dip that added an unexpectedly welcome dimension of extra heat. This branch of the business – there are two others – has casual but very prompt service. Their menu also includes giant club sandwiches that could have been both lunch and dinner if a couple of peeps in the posse hadn’t been so hungry.

Rebecca Turner Brings Her Richly Jangly, Anthemic Songcraft Back to the East Village

Songwriter Rebecca Turner earned a devoted following around the turn of the century for her catchy, anthemic blend of janglerock, Laurel Canyon folk-pop and the occasional detour into starker acoustic folk or more ornate psychedelia. In a lot of ways, she represents the vanguard of ex-Brooklynite musicians caught between the very tail end of the cds-and-college-radio era and the age of streaming and vinyl. She puts out albums at her own pace (she’s working on a new one, helmed in the studio by husband/bassist Scott Anthony, recently responsible for remastering the Feelies’ latest vinyl reissues). She also has an 8 PM gig coming up on May 7 at Hifi Bar, the scene of her most recent Manhattan gig.

That was last year, and it was killer. She had a five-piece backing unit for that one including Anthony on bass and Rich Feridun on six-string lead guitar; John Sharples, playing twelve-string, was the band’s not-so-secret weapon. They opened with a backbeat-driven anthem with torrents of lyrics and tantalizingly unresolved chord changes. The Cat That Can Be Alone, she explained, was inspired by an Anita O’Day quote relayed by Love Camp 7’s Dann Baker, something along the lines of “The cat that can be alone is better off than the cat that can’t.” It turned out to be a bouncy Beatlesque number, Turner soaring to the top of her range with a hint of country twang. She and the band wound it up with a tongue-in-cheek segue into the O’Day version of Tenderly.

Turner’s next number was period-perfect Lakeside Lounge rock from around 2000, a mashup of  swaying vintage 70s C&W-tinged with Blonde on Blonde era Dylan, The set hit a peak midway through with a rousingly jangling take of the Byrdsy anthem The Way She is Now, Sharples choosing his spots and leaving them out to glisten in the bar’s low lights.

Another backbeat anthem, That Did It, was part 60s electric Dylan, part Amy Rigby at her jangliest, with a delicious blend of six and twelve-string guitars meshing with Turner’s acoustic. She followed with Idiot, a similarly catchy, wryly propulsive number. A low-key, matter-of-factly fingerpicked take of the ballad Comfort You Up brought the lights down, Erica Smith joining to add lush low harmonies. Then they picked up the pace again with the lilting, bucolic My Morning.

The cover that had everyone in the crowd mystified was a BeeGees song from the 60s, Sun in My Morning, Sharples’ twelve-string filtering down into it as if in a Turner painting. Arguably the best song of the night was a new one, Tom Tom, shimmering in the twin-guitar jangle, up to a suspenseful turnaround on the chorus and a fiery, twangy Feridun solo. For the encore, Turner aired out what’s become her signature song, Brooklyn Is So Big. It was cute and wistful when it came out: it’s heartbreaking now, considering how many of Turner’s contemporaries have been priced out. It’s a good bet Turner and the band will bust out a lot of this material at the show this weekend.

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.

Sofia Talvik Brings Her Poignantly Original Americana to Manhattan

One of the most distinctively memorable Americana albums of recent years was made by a tirelessly touring, talented Swedish songwriter. Sofia Talvik‘s next New York show is at Scandinavia House at 58 Park Ave, south of 38th St., at 8 PM on April 27. Cover is $15. The following night, April 28, she’s playing Lara Ewen’s prestigious Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum at 5:30 PM.

Talvik’s 2015 album Big Sky Country – streaming at her music page – couldn’t be more aptly titled. Its wide expanses and purist, rustic playing explore themes of regret, disillusion, guarded hope. Talvik has obviously drunk deeply at the well of American and British folk music, adding her own fresh, distinctive voice to the tradition.

The album’s opening track, Aha-Aha is a more wide-angle take on the kind of open-tuned original Britfolk that groups like Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention were doing in the early 70s, lushly arranged but tersely played by Talvik and dobro player Marcus Högquist, bassist Janne Manninen, and drummer Joakim Lundgren.”It’ll make you stronger, take a deep breath now,” Talvik encourages, airy and pensive. She does the same with an American bluegrass shuffle, Fairground, later on.

Driven by John Bullard’s banjo, the towering, waltzing title cut, a band-on-the-run anthem, is absolutely gorgeous. it wouldn’t be out of place in the Hungrytown songbook:

I left my heart in a dirty old bar
Laramie, Wyoming, I slept in my car

Burning dobro and spare banjo pair off with Mathis Richter-Reichhelm’s violin at the center in Dusty Heart, Empty Hand, a wistful Nashville gothic tale of abandonment. The album’s most riveting and most parlor pop-oriented cut is Lullaby, a distantly elegaic waltz. “It’s summer and everything is beautiful, still you wish you were dead,” Talvik intones in her precise, clipped delivery.

Bonfire has echoes of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, although it’s a lot more brisk. Talvik’s bright, lilting vocals downplay the sober lyrics of the banjo waltz Jasmine, Rose & Sage. Jozsef Nemeth’s piano ripples uneasily in tandem with David Floer’s cello in the late-Beatlesque ballad Give Me a Home, building to an understatedly windswept, orchestrated crescendo. The album winds up on an optimistic note with the airy love ballad So. There’s also a cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s American Indian freak-folk tune Starwalker. It’ll be interesting to see what else Talvik has come up with since this came out.

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.