New York Music Daily

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Tag: americana rock

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.

A Rare Music Impresario with Actual Talent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessie Kilguss Brings a Whole Slew of Great New Songs to Brooklyn

Nothing like a European tour to inspire you to write a whole set worth of new material, right? Freddie Stevenson had the good sense to bring Jessie Kilguss along as a harmony singer and keyboardist on his most recent tour there, and the crystalline-voiced songwriter brought back enough new songs of her own to keep an audience at the American Folk Art Museum rapt earlier this fall. That was her most recent Manhattan gig – her next one is in Brooklyn at Hank’s at 10 PM on Dec 16. Cover is $5.

With her clever wordplay and understatedly anthemic sensibility, Kilguss’ closest comparisons are Elvis Costello and Leonard Cohen, the latter being her biggest influence. Although she play both guitar and keys, she typically limits herself to vocals when fronting her own band, tall and resolute and swaying with eyes closed in front of a tight electric guitar/bass/drums backing unit. That voice is a magical instrument, with a reflecting-pool clarity and a soaring range matched by minutely nuanced attention to subtle details. And as much as her songs tend to be on the brooding side, she can be devastatingly funny when she wants to be.

At the museum gig, the new material turned out to be more upbeat as well, at least after Spain, a slow, allusively waltzing pastorale. Russian Roulette, a steady, elegantly driving backbbeat number with a typical soaring chorus, had a tricky surprise ending. Kilguss’ lithely leaping vocals on the slow, swaying, moodily plainspoken Rainy Night in Copenhagen brought to mind Linda Draper in a particularly animated moment.

The sparsely jangling, straightforward What Is It You Want From Me left no doubt that it was a frustrated kiss-off anthem. With its uneasily percolating bassline and a coyly quirky little modulation toward the end, Strangers came across like peak-era 90s Wilco playing new wave – but with an infinitely better singer out in front of the band. The show hit a peak with Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. one of the most bittersweely gorgeous, catchy janglerock anthems written this century.

Then Kilguss went back to the new mateiral with Edge of Something, which had the feel of a terse early Patti Griffin-style coffeehouse rock number, but with a more defiant edge. The band closed with the lilting, anthemic Over My Dead Body, a nonchalantly assertive reminder that you never, ever want to mess with a songwriter: they always get even in the end. The band wound it up with a savage flurry of guitar tremolo-picking. That’s about as loud as you can get in the museum: you can expect Kilguss and her crew to cut loose more at the Hank’s gig.

Lorraine Leckie and Her Demons Open for Americana Rock Legends the Long Ryders at Bowery Ballroom

One of the year’s most highly anticipated twinbills is this coming Nov 10 at 9 PM, when eclectic songwriter Lorraine Leckie and Her smoldering Demons open for the Long Ryders, who pretty much invented Americana rock back in the 80s. They haven’t played New York in this century, or for that matter, toured the US in almost thirty years. Their four-cd career retrospective, Final Wild Songs – which includes a stampeding live set recorded in Europe – is just out this year. This concert features the classic late 80s Long Ryders lineup of Sid Griffin on guitar and vocals, Stephen McCarthy on guitar, Tom Stevens on bass and Greg Sowders on drums. $20 advance tix are still available as of today.

Leckie’s most recent fullscale New York show was a rare smalll-club gig back in June at Pangea, a momentary homecoming sandwiched between European and US tours. As much as this was more low-key than she typically is on a big stage, the set was no less fiery for being somewhat quieter and a lot more intimate. She and a scaled-down version of the Demons – Hugh Pool on lead guitar and Tim Kuhl on cajon and percussion – opened with a hushed, seethingly waltizng take of Little Miss X, a sarcastic portrait of a bimbo du jour. From there the band made their way through a stripped-down version of the T Rex-ish Rainbow and then the rousing anthem Paint the Towns, Pool’s tersely resonant lines channeling 60s Memphis soul.

Kuhl pushed the sardonic nocturne Happy City along with a trip-hop groove, Leckie switching from Telecaster to piano. “When I go, I leave a scar,” she intoned with an understated, gleeful menace in Come A-Dancing, then gave an airy vocalese intro to a wickedly catchy, slinky, minor-key new number, Shake Off the Devil, Kuhl again supplying a clickety-clack trip-hop rhythm.

Leckie is hard to categorize – one minute she’s wailing through Neil Young-style electric Americana rock, the next she’s using all sorts of strange guitar tunings and playing enigmatically minimalist art-rock. She put the spotlight on that side of her vast repertoire with the propulsively brisk Man Who Walks in the Rain, the acidic, hypnotic waltz Dangerous Friends, and Climb Ya Like a Mountain, a shout-out to the noted mountain climber Aleister Crowley. From there the band shifted gears with another new number, the anthemic vintage 70s Lou Reed-ish Under the Vampire Moon.

The high point of the night, volume and intensity-wise, was another open-tuned guitar number, It Ain’t the Blues, Leckie airing out her powerful low register with the aching “It ain’t the blues, it’s only YOUUUUUU!” chorus. She closed with a couple of snarkly macabre, carnivalesque piano tunes. And electrifying guest singer Carol Lipnik – whose popular 7 PM Sunday evening residency at Pangea is now in its second year – contributed plaintive takes of two Leckie tunes. The highlight was Bliss, with its poignantly misty portrait of an old couple gone irrepairably off the rails, reinvented as an a-cappella showstopper where which Liphik accompanied herself on spoons. She’d brought them from home, she explained after the show, wanting to make sure that she had cutlery in hand that she could play in the same key as the song’s melody.

Catchy, Impactful Acoustic Americana at Bowery Ballroom Tonight

Here’s a great way to get away from all the Halloween tourists from out ot state descending like a swarm of poisonous roaches on this city this weekend: go see popular North Carolina newgrass/Americana road warriors Mandolin Orange at Bowery Ballroom tonight at 9. Cover is $20.

Their new album Blindfaller is streaming at Spotify. While it draws on the same purist Appalachian sounds as their previous releases, it’s also more fleshed out, a full-band production. The band’s lyrics look back to an oldtime vernacular without being cheesy or cliched. And as with the best folk music, there’s a lot of subtext and symbolism here, a welcome, politically relevant, populist sensibility.

Fiddler/frontwoman Emily Frantz’s strong, crystalline vocals soar over a spiky backdrop of acoustic guitar and the band’s signature mando sound on the pensive, midtempo opening track, Hey Stranger, a cautionary tale. That’s co-leader Andrew Marlin on the four strings and Josh Oliver on the six. Marlin’s reflective vocals channel the slowly swaying, moody post Reconstruction-era ambience ofWildfire: it wouldn’t be out of place on a Richard Buckner album from twenty years ago. Likewise, pedal steel player Allyn Love teams with Frantz for a lustrous veneer for the sad honkytonk waltz Picking Up Pieces.

Building a scenario where there’s “a redbird in the corn, a blackbird at the door,” Lonesome Whistle is a gorgeously bittersweet Nashville gothic lament, with purposeful, biting solos from both fiddle and mando while bassist Clint Mullican pushes things along. “I saw it in a dream, monuments of trees, as the air we breathe turned our lungs to dust,” Marlin intones on the even more ominous, apocalyptic Echo, which maybe ironically is the album’s most retro number.

Kyle Keegan’s drums build to a quick peak as Cold Lover’s Waltz gets underway: it’s a more acoustic, Laura Cantrell-ish take on plaintive early 60s countrypolitan and arguably the album’s strongest, most anthemic cut. Oliver plugs in and plays with a raw electric tone on the steady, bittersweet, distantly Hank Williams-tinged My Blinded Heart, which is just as tuneful.

Ther album’s loudest track is Hard Travelin’, a straight-up hard honkytonk shuffle. The band follows that with the low-key, front-porch folk-flavored Gospel Shoes. a witheringly cynical, vividly aphoristic antiwar anthem. The album winds up with the spare, restless nocturne Take This Heart of Gold.

One particularly refreshing thing about this collection is what’s NOT on it. No simpering phony Beach Boys indie pop disguised as bluegrass, no autotune (even some of the Nashville crew are using it now), no product placements. Just an organic sound that’s just as new as it is old-fashioned.

Another Creepy Classic Album and a Couple of New York Shows from the Handsome Family

Andrew Bird says that Brett and Rennie Sparks of the Handsome Family are this era’s greatest songwriters. He ought to know: he did a whole album of Handsome Family covers. Whether or not you agree with Bird – another one of this era’s best tunesmiths and wordsmiths –  you can’t argue with the Handsome Family’s iconic status in folk noir circles. They’ve got a new album, Unseen – streaming at Spotify – and a couple of shows this weekend. On Friday, Sept 30 they’re at the Mercury at 8:30 PM for $17 in advance; the following night, Oct 1 they’re at the Knitting Factory for the same price, a half-hour later.

It’s interesting how the new album is a throwback to their earliest days, when they were more of a straight-up Americana band. However, this is a harder-rocking effort. The opening track, Gold takes the hallowed tradition of the outlaw ballad into the Oxycontin era: “Got a tattoo of a snake and a ski mask on my face, but I woke up in the ditch behind the Stop-and-Go,” Brett intones. “Lying the weeds with a bullet in my gut, watching dollar bills fly away in the dust.” The interweave of his own tremolo guitars, Alex McMahon’s baritone guitar and pedal steel is as luscious as the cruel irony of the narrative. It’s classic Handsome Family.

The Silver Light shambles along with an acoustic honkytonk feel, a crushingly cynical Vegas casino scenario. “Neon glowstick in your drink.” For fans of classic 60s and early 70s country, the backing vocals are priceless. The broodingly cello-infused Back in My Day offers a typical Rennie Sparks narrative:

We had maps that unfolded
You could drink from the river
We had gods made of clay
There were mile-high glaciers
No locks on the doors
The stars burned brighter
We never counted past four

And at that point it becomes more and more clear that the good old days, while a lot more temperate than these cruel final global warming years, weren’t all they might be cracked up to be.

The bittersweet passing tones of the pump organ solo in the carnivalesque waltz Tiny Tina might be the album’s most understatedly heartbreaking touch. Underneath the Falls brings a distantly ominous, majestic, jangly Byrds-style grandeur to that waltz tempo, another global warming-era requiem.

Rennie makes her first appearance on vocals on The Sea Rose, a catchy, jangly, twist on a classic siren song with a gorgeously spare acoustic guitar solo midway through. The album’s most epically allusive cut, The Red Door is a Lynchian doo-wop update on a Brothers Grimm theme. The stately swaying Gentlemen, with its quaint electric harpsichord and cello, offers a shout-out to William Crookes, who invented the vacuum tube in 1875 as an ostensible means to access the great beyond.

King of Dust, a desolate wreck-on-the-highway scenario, revisits the cruel irony of the album’s opening cut. On the surface, the final cut, Green Willow Valley is a comfortable pastoral nocturne, but if you listen closely, the subtext is crushing. If this is the last album the Handsome Family makes before global warming, or the plutonium leaking into the Pacific from Fukushima reactor number three, kills us all, it further cements their status as arguably this century’s best band. Look for this on the best albums list of 2016 here if we make it that far.