New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: americana rock

Thoughtful, Attractively Enveloping Nocturnes From Swimming Bell

Swimming Bell play slow, pensively lingering, atmospheric songs that draw equally on Americana and ambient music. Their new album Wild Sight – streaming at Bandcamp – brings to mind Neko Case or Tift Merritt as produced by Brian Eno, maybe. Washes of pedal steel and vocal harmonies figure prominently in frontwoman Katie Schottland’s songs. Her narratives are subtle, full of small, allusively telling details: they invite you in for repeated listening.

Good Time, Man begins as a hazy, atmospheric, wistful summertime tableau awash in Oli Deacon’s pedal steel. By the time Schottland’s intricate, fingerpicked acoustic guitar kicks in, it’s clear that this is a breakup scenario.

Deliciously icy tremolo guitars clang and ring out over a slow, swaying 6/8 groove in 1988, unraveling into a starry dreampop mist at the end: it seems to be a sad childhood reminiscence.  The pedal steel returns along with tasty, looming bass clarinet in For Brinsley, a Brinsley Schwarz homage: “Don’t lose your grip on love,” is the mantra.

“She’d lost the medal but she’d won the fight,” Schottland recalls in We’d Find, the enveloping sonics coalescing into an indian summer haze. Cold Clear Moon, a Tomo Nakayama cover, is catchy, steady and spare, the acoustic and electric guitar textures, glockenspiel and contrapuntal vocals building a hypnotic interweave.

The band follow Wolf, an echoey, circling vignette, with Got Things, a glistening anthem and the album’s catchiest, most straight-up rock number: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Rose Thomas Bannister catalog.

Left Hand Path is a front-porch folk tune with delicate electronics and steel twinkling in the distance. Schottland launches into Love Liked You slowly over National steel guitar, the band methodically rising into a slow, crescendoing, Hem-like sway: the swirly atmospherics are the icing on the cake. The album ends with Quietly Calling, a lush, crepuscular waltz that could be the Grateful Dead in a sharply focused moment: “You were listening to prove that you could while I was trying to be good,” Schottland intones. What a refreshing and individualistic sound: let’s hope Swimming Bell figure out how to make another album like this, clandestinely or otherwise.

An Incendiary, Politically Fearless Lockdown-Era Album by One of This Century’s Funniest, Most Quotable, Pissed-Off Songwriters

Matthew Grimm‘s song West Allis topped the Best Songs of the Year list here in 2013. On the surface, it’s a clear-eyed, unsentimental account of a Wisconsin man, David Carter, whose dead body went undiscovered for four years after he’d shot himself in his own home. But as is usually the case with Grimm, there are many other levels at work here, one of them debunking the myth of how close-knit Midwestern communities actually are.

Before Grimm went solo, he fronted a raucously twangy, ferociously populist New York Americana-punk-janglerock band, the Hangdogs. That band’s 2002 release Wallace ’48 was rated best album of the year by this blog’s e-zine predecessor. Grimm’s new album Dumpster-Fire Days – streaming at Spotify – is his hardest-rocking and arguably most witheringly lyrical album in a long and incendiary career.

He opens with Salt of the Earth, which could be Steve Earle fronting Social Distortion. It’s Grimm’s What’s the Matter with Kansas:

We’re the peasants who cheered as heretics burned,
Put synagogues to the torch
Lined up to die for rich men’s right to own people,
Enforced apartheid a hundred years more
We gathered in the square to watch Black men hang
Like a Friday night football game
We’ll greenlight genocide long as some charlatan
Tells us it’s in Jesus’ name

Not quite everything here is quite as, well, grim. Tommy Keene Is Playing Kiki’s House, the album’s title track more or less, is a bittersweet look back at college life during the Reagan era. Much as it seems Grimm could already see the fascism that was coming down the pike, there’s an indominable joie de vivre here too. Compare your freshman reading and playlist to this one:

1986, Songs From the Film, JP finds it in the cut-out bin
We spin it again and again like it turned some secret key in ou restless brains
Niebuhr, Gramsci, Scruffy the Cat, Hobsbawm, Wiesel, the Mats
Social D, Marcuse, Del Fuegos, Dewey, threads that wove what we became

Aspire is more acoustic, with one of those Texas shuffle grooves the Hangdogs loved so much. It’s Grimm at his most cynically amusing: “Venture unto roads less traveled, unless you’re in the South.” Likewise, Reply Guy (The Dick Next Door) could be the Hangdogs in one of their janglier moments, a ruthlessly detailed portrait of a rightwing nut with an especially twisted secret – which turns out to be less than a secret after all.

In Be Saffiyah Khan, Grimm sends a shout-out to the woman who stared down a crowd of anti-Muslim bigots – and won. He reminds that a Nazi by any other name is still a Nazi in Nazis Agree With You, a perennially relevant broadside which also contains the album’s best musical joke.

Monument, a slow, seething number with organ behind the guitars, doesn’t namecheck Trump, but it doesn’t have to:

He vows to build a wall and paint the country red
He rips children from their mothers while they’re sleepin in their beds
There’s malice in his heart and there’s blood on his hands
We don’t need a monument to that kind of man

Grimm picks up the pace with a rare love song, Friney’s Song, and follows that with the simmering, Celtic-tinged anthem So Long, Good Luck and Fuck You:

I might not make it out alive so it’s down to you rise up
And smash the garbage system that led millions to their graves
Tell the toffs who wrecked the earth to recognize your actual worth
And shut this fucker down until they do

Stephanie King supplies harmony vocals in March, a gospel-inspired, Woody Guthrie-esque singalong for anyone who wants “to make a world of no masters and no lords.” Grimm closes the album with The Whirlwind, as prophetically vindictive a song as he’s ever written:

Did you think we’d take your hand and just go gently into a new dark age
That we’d turn our backs obeisant while you dragged our neighbors away,
That all your Russians and your fascist cult can save you from your sins
Well, count your days, open wide, and prepare to reap the whirlwind

And while we’re at it, let’s resolve that after this whirlwind is over, the world we inherit afterward – and we will – is one where guys like Grimm can play songs like this on a real stage in front of real people.

Stark, Simmering Americana Nocturnes from Clara Baker

Fire is a recurrent metaphor on Americana songstress Clara Baker‘s new album Things to Burn, streaming at Bandcamp. But it’s not a fullscale inferno: it’s more of a brush fire that won’t flame out. Baker is the rare singer whose unselfconscious, nuanced delivery, with just a tinge of vibrato at the end of a phrase, can bring to mind Erica Smith. The album’s production is similarly understated and tasteful, matching the persistent unease, and distant longing, and low-key sultriness of the vocals.

The echoey Rhodes piano and Baker’s sotto-voce delivery on the album’s title track make it easy to believe that this song is about seduction…and it is, but the sarcasm is subtle, and withering, underscored by the sudden bursts from Courtney Hartman’s noisy electric guitar.

The ambiece is more skeletal, set to a circular mandolin riff in the minor-key Appachian-tinged second track, Doubt:

My mama brought me up with fate, my daddy brought me up with facts
I wanna pray at the altar of the certainty I lack

Baker maintains the sparse atmosphere in A Memory, a brooding tale of abandonment: “Strong as I am, I could never compete with a memory,” she muses.

Baker’s use of space is masterful: the occasionsl washes of slide guitar, or a reverberating accent from the Rhodes, pepper the slow waltz More Than Enough, a classic 70s-style Nashville ballad with minimalist production values.

Middle of the Night begins ambiently and then hits a sleepless trip-hop beat: it’s the album’s poppiest song. Six Days of Rain is the album’s killer cut, a slowly crescendoing, calmly harrowing account of getting dumped after what must have been a tortuous relationship.

I Won’t Take My Time is more hopeful, an oldtime front porch-style tune at halfspeed with probably a tenth the usual amount of strumming. Moving On is not the Hank Snow classic but a pensive, metaphorically-charged, backbeat-driven acoustic rock tune: “I’m grasping at the edges of who I was before I changed,” Baker muses. She closes the album with the gorgeously subdued Old Mountains, which evokes acoustic Pink Floyd, references a BeeGees song and has one of Baker’s most potent lyrics:

In a moment of bliss
Do you panic
Knowing something this good
Could never last…
Are you mining for joy
In old mountains
Are you panning for gold
In rivers of the past
I’ve walked that road
It hurts like hell
Letting go
Is something I know well

Impactful stuff from a quietly powerful voice.

Courtney Marie Andrews Explores a Sea of Heartbreak

On the cover of her new record Old Flowers, Courtney Marie Andrews stands all alone in a vintage housedress, out in a field in the middle the night. She looks really sad. This is a concept album – streaming at Bandcamp – about being the bad guy in a relationship, and the consequences. It’s Andrews’ quietest, sparest, most intimate and plainspoken release to date, although it could have been more of all of those things if it hadn’t been overproduced..

She opens it with Burlap String, a slow, mostly acoustic country waltz awash in regret and spare sheets of guitar. Guilty, a cheater’s brokenhearted confession, has steady piano twinkling overhead and an unexpected, tasty bass solo. The music follows the same pattern, but more sparsely, in If I Told.

A haze of ebow guitar rises behind the gospel piano of Together or Alone; at this point in the narrative, Andrews seems like she’s gearing up to turn the corner. The martial drum flurries of Carnival, an even more minimalistic piano ballad, underscore the fear of never being able to find a relationship again.

Andrews puts a trip-hop beat on the album’s title track, which you’d think would be completely be out of place, but resonant gospel piano chords hold the song together: “You can’t water old flowers,” she laments. Break the Spell has a slowly waltzing blend of Mazzy Star haze and stark, oldtimey accents, then Andrews picks up the pace with It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault, the album’s best song and closest thing here to a 70s country classic.

She goes back to echoey piano-based trip-hop for How to Get Hurt and closes the record with Ships in the Night, a graceful, distantly gospel-tinged gesture of forgiveness. In general, these songs don’t have the sharply metaphorical focus of Andrews’ earlier work, and the glitchy electronic touches become grating after awhile. This album ultimately may prove to be a bridge to a new chapter in the career of one of the most distinctive voices in Americana over the past several years.

The Jayhawks Put Out One of the Most Gorgeous, Lyrically Relevant Albums of 2020

A band formed in the 80s that still exists today either deserves to be celebrated…or ought to pack it in to avoid further embarrassment. The version of the Jayhawks that existst today isn’t the original, twangy alt-country act: it’s the gorgeously harmony-driven rock quartet who for a few years around the turn of the century were the best rock band on the planet.

Over the years, frontman Gary Louris became the Mick Ronson-esque guitar god he always aspired to be, and the rest of the band are absolutely at the top of their formidable game on their new album XOXO, streaming at Spotify. The difference here is that all four band members: Louris, keyboardist Karen Grotberg, bassist Marc Perlman and drummer Tim O’Reagan all contribute songs and also take turns on lead vocals. Maybe it’s the zeitgeist, but this is one of the band’s darkest albums. And their signature harmonies are as celestial as they were twenty years ago.

They open with a catchy, swaying midtempo Louris tune, This Forgotten Town, a witheringly imagistic parable of impoverished Flyover America. An elusive American Dream and a hypocritical preacher figure into this doomed narrative, where “Every day that I lost money it brought me closer to the grave, where the river don’t flow, where the rats don’t go, where the grass don’t grow.”

O’Reagan takes over the mic on Dogtown Days, a big, punchy, garagey riff-rock number with a tantalizingly ominous Louris solo. Fueled by Grotberg’s piano, part Penny Lane Beatles, part honkytonk, Living in a Bubble is just as distantly ominous as a chronicle of mundane life under a police state. The song was most likely written before the lockdown, but it’s even scarier now.

Grotberg sings Ruby, a wistful, elegaic, vividly detailed art-rock ballad. The late Beatles influence really comes to the surface in Homecoming, a grimly enveloping, apocalyptic scenario. There’s a quaint 90s charm to the kiss-off anthem Society Pages, both in the Wilco-esque chord changes and the references to to dead-tree media. And it’s inarguably true: you can’t trust a man who can’t finish his beer!

Illuminate is classic Jayhawks: gorgeously elegant guitar flourishes and a fiery Bowie-esque drive propel this sinister tale of demagogues manipulating the faithful. Louris spices the restless escape anthem Bitter Pill with expertly snazzy honkytonk fills. Across My Field, a Grotberg tune, has a richly summery resonance, like Hem at their most imagistic.

Pearlman’s bass snaps and crackles and Grotberg switches to organ for Little Victories, the most 60’s-influenced and psychedelic song here: “Did you ever feel so all alone, did you fight the darkness on your own?” the band ask. Then they bring the lights down with the rustic waltz Down to the Farm: Louris’ acoustic twelve-string work is tantalizing. Is this about death, being taken off to prison, or both?

The band keep the hazy, mostly acoustic ambience going with Looking up Your Number. Grotberg infuses the bitter breakup waltz Jewel of the Trimbelle with glistening gospel and country piano. The album’s most understatedly bittersweet song might be the soaring nocture Then You Walked Away, with unexpected Grateful Dead allusions. The band wind up the record with the soul-tinged Hypocrite’s Lament, a cruelly detailed story along the same lines as Amanda Palmer’s Bed Song.

What an inspiration it is to see this crew putting out what could be the best rock record of the year: if we make it to December, you’ll see it on the best albums of 2020 page.

Purist, Eclectic Psychedelic Tunesmithing and Subtle Humor on Lorraine Leckie’s New Album

Lorraine Leckie has been one of the few musicians to survive the devastation of the incredibly fertile rock scene that flourished in New York as late as the mid-zeros. It was a top-down assault on artistic communities. Encouraged by tax breaks, opportunitistic developers took the wrecking ball to working-class housing everywhere, and it wasn’t long before the giant sucking sound of an artistic brain- drain out of town ensued. Yet even under those dire circumstances, Leckie’s following grew, and the gigs got better and better, probably because she was one of the few still representing a gritty, punk-influenced Lower East Side sound.

But thta’s hardly the only sound she’s mined since then: her albums range from delicate, rainy-day acoustic songs, to icy, gothic Mitteleuropean art-rock and snarling Americana. Her latest album, Razor Wing Butterfly – streaming at Bandcamp – is her most psychedelic release to date.

Leckie’s skeletal, fingerpicked Telecaster explodes into a roar on the chorus in the opening track, Only Darkness, a parallel tale of a couple of noir archetypes seemingly doomed to their own separate worlds. Lead guitarist Hugh Pool channels dirty, evil, Crazy Horse Neil Young, violinist Pavel Cingl adding elegant washes and accents over the chugging rhythm section of Charles DeChants and drummer Keith Robinson

They follow the strutting, Stonesy Under the Vampire Moon with It Ain’t the Blues, which Pool introduces with a creepy approximation of a music box. There’s clever irony in the title because this is a blues – a vindictive, rampaging one.

Bristling with richly textured guitar multitracks, Genius in the Crowd is a shout-out to Leckie’s psychedelic rock pal Anton Newcomb of Brian Jonestown Massacre, her tender lyric contrasting with the guitar fury – and an interlude that’s too funny to give away.

Crickets, a stark, open-tuned acoustic ballad, has Britfolk tinges: it could be a John Renbourn or June Tabor song from the 60s spiced with spare electronic keys. The album’s funniest track is Mars Bar Baby, a tourists-eye view of one of New York’s most legendary dive bars. Again, the joke is too good to give away: if you know the old swing tune Moon Over Brooklyn, you’ll get it.

The Other Woman Is the Wind was inspired by a conversation Leckie had with a biker at the Sturgis motorcycle festival, a slow, swaying, Molly Hatchet-ish account of a guy addicted to the thrill of the raod.

Leckie follows with the album’s two best cuts, each of them a protest song. She wrote America Weeping in a rehearsal room with the band in the wake of the fateful 2016 Presidential election. It’s both a requiem for Leonard Cohen (a huge influence, who had died the night before) and an anguished cauldron of guitars. The title track perfectly captures the fury in the streets this summer, a growling yet hopeful anthem, Cingl contributing a tantalizingly brief, slashing coda.

Leckie switches to piano, slightly out of tune and awash in reverb, to wind up the album counterintuitively with the pensive vignette Why Oh Why. This album is probably the best introduction to Leckie’s music that exists so far. And for anyone who’s followed her regular Manhattan weekend residencies over the years, friom Banjo Jim’s, to Zirzamin and afterward, Leckie’s already substantial back catalog is dwarfed by the vast amount of material she’s written but hasn’t yet recorded: it’s reason to look forward to whatever this defiantly multistylistic tunesmith decides to put out next.

Sinister Musical Mini-Movies and Murder Ballads From Ben Da La Cour

Dark Americana crooner Ben De La Cour‘s 2016 debut Midnight in Havana made the 20 best albums of the year list here. His latest album, Shadow Land – streaming at Bandcamp – is longer and considerably more twisted: it was very  tempting to save this for the annual Halloween celebration here. De La Cour spins a hell of a yarn, and his expressive baritone has more unhinged energy but also more nuance this time around. If murder ballads are your thing, this is your guy.

The album opens with the briskly shuffling outlaw ballad God’s Only Son. This guy is a total psychopath: he gives his kid brother the shiv, and it just gets more grisly from there. Likewise, the slow, simmering High Heels Down the Holler seems to be a retelling of the Ed Gein story.

The devil is always in De La Cour’s details. “Her words trailed off like cigarette smoke underneath the door.” Talk about saying volumes in a few words! That’s a line from The Last Chance Farm, a delicately fingerpicked ballad which could be set in a prison, or a pretty awful workplace, or somewhere else. Tom Shaner’s classic Lake 48 comes to mind.

De La Cour picks up the pace with the snarling, open-tuned electric blues In God We Trust – All Others Pay Cash, a surreal, cynical update on Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan. Is there a Hendrix quote in Amazing Grace (Slight Return)? Nope, but it’s a killer narrative, a hushed, stunningly detailed generational clash with an ending that’s way too good to give away.

Musically, the album’s title track is more lightheartedly Dylanesque, but De La Cour’s gloomy surrealism is unrelenting: “The more I talk, the less I have to say; the more I listen, the less I understand,” he grouses. Then he and the band hit a raucous post-Chuck Berry roar in The Basin Lounge. There’s a David Duke poster on the wall of this joint: get out of Denver, baby, GO!!!

The wistful, Celtic-tinged waltz Swan Dive opens on a grim Brooklyn streetside murder and just gets more interesting from there. The even more muted From Now On is the ringer here, a momentary break from all the killing. The album’s funniest number is Anderson’s Small Ritual, a bizarre character study.

De La Cour recounts an opium dream in the slow fire-and-brimstone blues Harmless Indian Medicine Blues. He winds up the record with flurries of fingerpicking throughout the hauntingly anthemic, apocalyptic Valley of the Moon. Telling stories with sharp lyrics over a catchy tune may be a neglected art these days, but nobody’s working harder than De La Cour to push that envelope. You’ll see this album on the best-of-2020 page if there’s still reason for a music blog to exist by the time we hit December. If we hit December.

A Dark, Energetic New Album From Detroit’s Whiskey Charmers

Detroit band the Whiskey Charmers play dark Americana. Their 2015 debut album explored a Nashvllle gothic sound; their 2018 follow-up was a shift to brooding desert rock. Their latest album Lost on the Range – streaming at Bandcamp – is their hardest-rocking and most diverse release yet, and arguably their best. Frontwoman/guitarist Carrie Shepard has never sung more powerfully than she does here.

The opening track, Fire and Flame is a stomping, vengeful rock anthem that sounds like Deep Purple with a good singer. The second song, Galaxy is a throwback to the Lynchian tremolo-guitar sound of their debut album: Laura Cantrell‘s most pensive songwriting comes to mind.

Lead guitarist Lawrence Daversa’s twangy riffage builds a quaint charm in Super 8, an irresistibly funny shout-out to budget vacationing. It contains the immortal line “If I wake up feeling awful, I’ll just make myself a waffle.”

Ozzie Andrews’ punchy bass propels Crossfire, a loping, western-flavored outlaw ballad: it’s sort of an update on the Grateful Dead’s Me and My Uncle with a searing twin-guitar outro. Dirty Pictures, a swaying Americana rock tune, has a seductive feel…but be careful, homegirl, there’ll always be a server somewhere with those pix on it!

The band go back to desert rock with Tumbleweed, follow that with the sultry shuffle Honeybee, then get pensive with the soul-tinged In the Dark. With a heavier rock drive, Wildfires could be a Blue Oyster Cult hit from the 70s…with a woman out front. They close the album with the distantly boleroish, angst-fueled Monsters, with a careening Daversa solo at the center.

There’s Never Been a More Appropriate Time for a New Phil Ochs Album

Phil Ochs was the best songwriter to come out of the 1960s. Like Bob Dylan, he started out as a folksinger doing protest songs. Where Dylan drifted into electric blues and wove William Burroughs-inspired symbolist webs, Ochs wrote historically rich mini-movies set to contemporary classical music, neoromantic art-song and careening, jangly Laurel Canyon psychedelia. Like Dylan, he hit a dry spell after one of his greatest albums – the harrowingly prophetic 1968 Rehearsals For Retirement. A couple of years after Dylan made his first big comeback with Blood on the Tracks, Ochs killed himself.

While there are entire albums of Dylan covers (the Byrds and Mary Lee’s Corvette at the top of the list), very few artists have covered Ochs – Marianne Dissard‘s chillingly atmospheric recent version of The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns is a rare exception. Fortuitously, there seems to be an abundance of material in the Ochs archive that never made it to digital, as evidenced by the lavish, brand-new twenty-track compilation The Best of the Rest, just out and streaming at Spotify. While this isn’t all prime Ochs, his corrosive broadsides, cynical humor and profound insights into capitalism run amok have never been more relevant than they are now. As a starting point for an Ochs mixtape, this is a decent jumpoff point.

Most of the songs are acoustic outtakes from the sessions for his 1965 album I Ain’t Marching Anymore, signaling the point where he was beginning to stretch out beyond critiquing early Vietnam War-era politics from an aw-shucks, Woody Guthrie-influenced perspective. The first number, the solemly vamping In the Heat of the Summer allusively examines the Watts Riots. it’s more portrait than analysis.

The take of the famous Civil Rights era anti-racist dis Here’s to the State of Mississippi is every bit as stinging as the one that made it onto the album. And the take of the equally popular I’m Gonna Say It Now, a raised middle finger at patriarchal power, has a careening energy missing from the official mix. As a snide chronicle of exploitation and hypocrisy, Canons of Christianity is slightly more subdued but no less impactful.

The limousine-liberal parody Love Me, I’m a Liberal is just as funny as it was close to sixty years ago, especially if you get the historical references. Song of a Soldier is a Vietnam-era parable that carries much more of a wallop in an era where New York nurses on the frontline get a nightly 7 PM cheer…but no raise, and no time off, and minimal protective gear. The solo acoustic version of The War Is Over, from a 1967 radio session, is even more surreal than the album cut, and is even more uncanny, foreshadowing lockdown-era America.

Similarly, Days of Decision is Ochs’ eerily clairvoyant take on Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing, right down to the waltz tempo. Hearing Ochs’ intricate Britfolk fingerpicking in I’m Tired, it’s no wonder English folksinger Shawn Phillips chose to cover it. Colored Town is as spot-on a portrait of ghetto life as anything Public Enemy ever recorded. Likewise, the cruel details in the anti death penalty tale The Confession.

That’s What I Want to Hear probably ended up on the cutting-room floor because it’s less than empathetic: some people (like Ochs himself!) are sometimes too depressed to protest. The Men Behind the Guns, a quasi sea chantey, is a shout-out to the navy rank-and-file, a reminder that Ochs was once a military academy-educated rightwinger before college radicalized him for life. But Sailors and Soldiers is as gorgeous and insightful a salute to veterans and draftees as anyone’s ever written.

Take It Out of My Youth could be the most elegant barroom tableau anybody ever set to a Tex-Mex waltz tune, “As the hours escaped to dungeons of wet empty words.” Ochs was a connoisseur of nueva cancion tunesmithing, underscored by an insistent take of the migrant worker tale Bracero. All Quiet on the Western Front, a 1969 rarity, paints a chilling, historically rich portrait of blind obedience to tyranny. The album’s final cut is a rare and fascinating rehearsal take of No More Songs, one of the few recordings featuring Ochs on piano, explaining his ideas for orchestral arrangements to an unheard collaborator in between verses. One can only wonder how the person at the other end of the monitor responded to Ochs’ self-penned obituary.

Understatedly Troubling Music For Troubling Times From the Nine Seas

Folk noir superduo the Nine Seas take their name from the long-defunct, legendary Alphabet City bar 9C, located at the corner of 9th Street and Avenue C. Years before Pete’s Candy Store was anything more than a numbers joint, and more than a decade before the Jalopy opened, 9C was New York’s ground zero for Americana music. That’s where Liz Tormes and Fiona McBain cut their teeth at the wildly crowded, weekly bluegrass jam.

In the years since then, both would become important voices in Americana, as solo artists and with other bands (McBain best known for her longtime membership in the gospel and soul-tinged Ollabelle). This project, which began as a murder ballad cover act, also goes back several years, attesting to the chemistry between the two musicians. Their long-awaited debut album Dream of Me is streaming at their music page. It’s a mix of originals and imaginative covers, the two singer-guitarists occasionally abettted by keys and horns.

Tormes’ first number, Am I Still Your Demon is the album’s quietly potent opener. It has a classic Tormes vocal trick that she’s used before (see the devastating Read My Mnd, the opening number on her 2010 Limelight album). J. Walter Hawkes’ looming trombone arrangement perfectly matches the song’s understated angst.

The duo reinvent the old suicide ballad I Never Will Marry with a hazy dreampop tinge, as Mazzy Star might have done it. They do E.C. Ball’s fire-and-brimstone country gospel classic Trials, Troubles, Tribulations much the same way. Here and throughout the record, Jim White’s spare banjo, organ and other instruments really flesh out these otherwise stark songs.

Likewise, his glockenspiel twinkles eerily in Go to Sleep, an elegaic Tormes tune. McBain’s I Really Want You is just as calmly phantasmagorical: it’s more about longing than lust. Then Oliver de la Celle ‘s Lynchian guitar and White’s banjo raise the menace in a radical reinvention of Charlie Rich’s Midnight Blues

The hypnotic version of the murder ballad Down in the Willow Garden, a concert favorite, is all the more creepy for the duo’s bright harmonies and steady stoicism, White adding airy pump organ. McBain switches to piano for the even more atmospheric, Julee Cruise-ish Where He Rests.

They wind up the album with a pair of covers. They transform Midnight, a bluesy, Jimmy Reed-style 1952 hit for Red Foley, into minimalist girl-down-the-well pop. And they remake Don Gibson’s Sea of Heartbreak as jungly exotica: nobody plays with more implied menace than the Nine Seas.

The album also includes stripped-down alternate takes of Trials, Troubles, Tribulations and Midnight Blues. Beyond this album, since they’re unable to play shows at the moment, the Nine Seas have a weekly webcast, the Quarantine Chronicles, where they run through many other songs from the immense dark folk repetoire they’ve amassed over the years.