New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: americana rock

Midwestern Rock Legend Sam Llanas Haunted by the Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels

If Sam Llanas never put out another album, he would still be a first-ballot hall-of-famer. As co-leader of heartland rockers the BoDeans, he built a body of work to match any other songwriter active since the 80s. But Llanas shows no signs of slowing down, and like his colleague James McMurtry, he just keeps putting out great records. His latest is Ghosts of Yesterday’s Angels, which isn’t’ online yet. It’s arguably his best solo release, and has moments that will rip your face off.

As the title implies, this is a haunted record, filled with regrets and disillusion, although there are plenty of upbeat moments as well. Much as it’s mostly acoustic, the atmosphere is lush and sparkling with layers and layers of guitar, mandolin, accordion and what sounds like autoharp. Llanas,, Mike Hoffmann and Sean Williamson handle the stringed instruments; Michael Ramos plays keys and accordion, with Susan Nicholson on violin.

Much as Llanas is hardly known for playing covers, he opens the album with an absolutely gorgeous, lushly jangly, bittersweet reinvention of the old Civil War folk song Shenandoah. The first of the originals, Lonely Girl, begins starkly and grows more nocturnally starry: it could be a prequel to an older song in the Llanas catalog, Two Souls.

Days Go By is classic Llanas, a big two-chord anthem on a more intimate scale and an angst-fueled look back on lakeside bonfires and people gone forever. His voice is still in great shape, as everybody who watched his webcasts during the lockdown noticed, and he really airs out his upper register in Straight to Hell, a brisk, gloomy country shuffle with a spiky twin guitar solo midway through.

One Summer Night is an aptly shimmery but propulsive take on Orbisonesque Nashville gothic pop. Here Comes the Dawn is next, a hopeful, catchy, gently bouncing pre-daybreak theme. A Place in This World could be an Everly Brothers tune, a fond look back at childhood influences: Llanas’ dad was a bass player, and the Mexican community in Waukesha, Wisconsin was fertile ground for musical cross-pollination.

Llanas goes back to early 60s Lynchian pop sounds in Down Here in the Cold: it’s imploring, but it’s also hopeful. Rave On is an upbeat, Willie Nile-ish pop tune – is that a glockenspiel, or just a Casio?

Autumn Is Falling is an anthem for our era, a metaphorically-loaded reflection on the grim passage of time. With its cheery, doo-woppy hooks, the most retro song here is Got Love. The big hit here is Bring Me to Light, a weary but defiant freedom fighter’s anthem flavored with chiming twelve-string and soaring slide work from Hoffmann. Llanas winds up the album with Wedding Ghost, a morbidly waltzing Louvin Brothers-style narrative: it’s a classic of its kind.

Haunting Vocals and Tunesmithing on Emily Frembgen’s Brilliant New Album

Up until the lockdown, Emily Frembgen was one of the hardest-working musicians on what’s left of the New York acoustic and Americana scenes. She held down residencies at the Knitting Factory and LIC Bar, but also didn’t limit herself to the usual spots. She was just as likely to play a donut shop or a house party. It was at a Bushwick donut shop in the fall of 2017 where she calmly and quietly picked up her acoustic guitar and played one of the most haunting songs written by anyone in this city in the last several years. That song is called Downtown: Frembgen’s narrator goes to meet her friends one last time before she either leaves, or kills herself, or both. The song is all the more chilling for not being specific.

It’s not on her new album It’s Me or the Dog – streaming at Bandcamp – but the record has plenty of other intriguing material, some of it brooding, some of it more quirky and playful. Frembgen is a skilled, purist tunesmith, a potently imagistic lyricist and has an unselfconscious, sometimes wounded. sometimes understatedly vengeful voice that will give you goosebumps.

“Little child, going nowhere, I can’t touch you when you turn away from me,” Frembgen relates gently in Butterfly, a chilling, tersely detailed portrait of clinical depression. That one’s just Frembgen and her acoustic guitar. She’s joined by lead guitarist Hugh Pool, bassist Charles Dechants and drummer Keith Robinson for Changes, which brings to mind Rosanne Cash’s early new wave/Americana mashups.

Organist Brian Mitchell adds aptly Blonde on Blonde-flavored organ and Nashville piano to Sad Affair: the harmonica completes the mid 60s Dylan ambience behind Frembgen’s witheringly cynical imagery.

Flower/Weed is a seething, low-key kiss-off song, Frembgen’s gentle fingerpicking mingling with Charles Burst’s twinkly electric piano. She goes back to backbeat Americana with Silver Lining, a catchy, guardedly optimistic anthem about two troubled souls pulling themselves out of a dark place, lowlit by Pool’s baritone guitar.

The contrasting imagery and airy vocals in Turn Around bring to mind another first-class Americana-inspired tunesmith, Liz Tormes. Frembgen elevates Julee Cruise girl-down-the-well moroseness to new levels of angst in New Feelin’ over Pool’s Lynchian twang.

She picks up the pace with Hometown, an optimistic country shuffle concealing a desperate escape narrative, and closes the record with He Held Onto Me, Mitchell’s sober gospel piano underscoring Frembgen’s despondency. It’s the only place on the album where she drops her guard. Frembgen has been writing catchy songs since the late zeros, but she’s reached a harrowing new level here with one of the best records of 2021.

Play For Today 9/7/21

Been awhile since there’s been a playlist on this page, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of entertaining singles floating around. Here’s a fun and informative self-guided mix: the links in the song titles will take you to each one.

The Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout are best known for their latin soul jams, but they’re a lot more eclectic than their name implies. The most electrifying song on their live album is Sheba, an Ethiopiques-tinged surf song

Louisiana rocker Rod Gator‘s Wanna Go for a Ride is the Clash’s version of Brand New Cadillac, as the Legendary Shack Shakers might have done it, darker and grittier with a guitar solo to match

Acoustic Syndicate‘s cover of the Grateful Dead classic Bertha has a tightness and a snarl that the original band sometimes let slip away. “Test me test me test me test me, why don’t you arrest me?” What a theme the lockdown era!

It makes a good segue with one you probably know, RC the Rapper‘s Just Say No, one of the big boombox hits from this summer’s protests here in the US. “It isn’t a theory if it keeps coming true.”

The smooth reggae grooves of Micah Lee’s No Lockdowns keep the inspiration flowing (thanks to the fearless folks at Texans For Vaccine Choice for this one).

The breathing metaphors and carefree sounds of children laughing on the playground in Alma’s Sips of Oxygen are a much subtler kind of commentary: “Someone in the doorway, hope they’re not afraid of them.”

Marianne Dissard and Raphael Mann’s delicate chamber pop duet reinvention of Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You is the great lost track from Nico’s Chelsea Girl album….with a woman who can hit the notes on the mic.

Let’s end this with something equally artful and poignant: Danny Wilkerson‘s Endless Haze, the best and least Beatlesque song on the new reissue of his very Fab Four-influenced 2018 solo debut album. The stark haggardness of the Boston Symphony Strings back his playfully lyrical but wounded chronicle of losing a battle with the bottle.

Ward Hayden and the Outliers Put Out a Smart, Subtly Lyrical, Searingly Relevant Americana Rock Record

Ward Hayden and the Outliers play catchy, high-voltage, lyrically edgy Americana rock. Their new album Free Country – available as a name-your-price download at Bandcamp – was written and recorded during the lockdown, although the political content is more subtext than it is central in Hayden’s sharply detailed narratives. He keeps his songs short, sings in an unselfconsciously soulful baritone and likes escape anthems.

The band open with a brisk four-on-the-floor burner, Nothing to Do (For Real This Time), which strongly brings to mind Matt Keating, another great songwriter with a Massachusetts connection:

A stranger in my hometown,
A stranger in my own house
I can’t go home, I burned that bridge, spent my last dime
I’ve got nothing to do for real this time
This is what happens when you wake up
All the cool kids in the class
Just actors in a mask…

The band – Hayden on guitar and vocals, Cody Nilsen on lead guitar and pedal steel, Greg Hall on bass and Josh Kiggans on drums – slow down for Shelly Johnson, a grim salute to the Twin Peaks character. “Muscle and mind are two different things, that’s why smalltown queens rarely keep their kings,” Hayden observes. The outro is priceless.

“It seems the truth no longer matters,” Hayden relates in I’d Die For You, a brisk shuffle fueled by Nilsen’s steel:

Life isn’t like the movies, you think just what you believe,
No matter your perspective
As fate would have it
We’ve got to share reality

Political message cached in a love song, Soviet style – or lockdown-era Massachusetts style.

The band work off a familiar Link Wray riff as Sometimes You Gotta Leave gets underway, twelve-string jangle contrasting with distorted roar and soaring bass, with a big careening guitar outro. Middle Man is part loping, twangy southwestern gothic and part honkytonk: Hayden’s message is carpe diem.

Over a punchy twin-guitar crunch, he contemplates the end of the world – and the heroism that could stop it – in All Gone Mad, a capsule of the ugly early days of the lockdown:

Seriously, I’m asking, as I’ve been thinking
That if you ain’t Babe Ruth then you ain’t Abe Lincoln
You don’t die trying, until you just get old
Then you ride down the road with your blinkers still blinking

Hayden goes back to the carpe diem theme in the escape anthem Bad Time to Quit Drinkin’ – the reference to a famous song by the Who is a typically sardonic touch. Irregardless, a Buddy Holly-ish shuffle, touches on the interminable torture so much of the world has suffered under lockdowns, and the mess future generations will have to clean up:

All we’ve got is the damn tv
Leading us from the path to glory
I don’t want this reality

As Hayden sees it, Indiana is a place where “The devil rocks the cradle, it’s in the soil, in the air and one and all.” He and the band close the record with When the Hammer Falls, a smoldering, swaying number that sounds a lot like the Dream Syndicate. It’s a good bet that producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel is responsible for one or more of the noisy guitar multitracks. It’s been a real slow year for rock records, and it may get even slower. Be that what it may, this is one of the best of the bunch.

Fiver Puts Out a Smartly Lyrical New Psychedelic Americana Record

Songwriter/guitarist Simone Schmidt a.k.a. Fiver writes catchy, thoughtful, expansive, distantly Americana-tinged rock songs that draw on peak-era, early zeros-era Neko Case and Cat Power along with the Grateful Dead. Schmidt likes a biting turn of phrase and sings her allusive, historically informed narratives in a breathy, modulated mezzo-soprano. Her latest album with Scottish trio the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition is streaming at Bandcamp

Yeah But Uhh Hey, a steady, vamping, syncopated backbeat number sets the stage, a cynical gig-economy era workingperson’s lament. What goes round seems to come around here; it all falls apart gracefully at the end.

Leaning Hard (On My Peripheral Vision) is a clanging country tune, Jeremy Costello’s bass snapping and Nick Dourado’s lapsteel wafting behind the twang while drummer Bianca Palmer provides a low-key swing.. “Hope you don’t take it as sign,” Schmidt muses, referring to the song title. She winds it up with a Jerry Garcia-tinged wah guitar solo.

Her layers of guitar textures mingle with Dourado’s rippling piano for even more of a Deadly vibe in June Like a Bug, winding out with a long, nocturnal jam. Jr. Wreck, a spare, gospel-infused breakup ballad, has a tantalizingly brief, late-Beatlesque guitar solo from Schmidt at the center.

The album’s funniest song is Sick Gladiola, a torrentially lyrical Tex-Mex-flavored waltz about starstruck fortune-seekers following the downward spiral of traffic and alienation in a gentrification-era El Lay hell. “Don’t bang your head on that bar, it’s too low,” Schmidt warns.

Death Is Only a Dream comes across as a blend of 70s Kath Bloom hippie chamber folk and more recent Carla Bley minimalism, drifting into an enigmatically catchy, early 80s Dead style outro.

Schmidt details a soul-depleting marriage from the trophy wife’s point of view over a steady disco groove in Paid in Pride. She closes the record with For Your Sake This, her echoey vocalese over Dourado’s starry piano slowly coalescing around her acoustic guitar. This has been a slow year for rock music, both in the studio and onstage, and this is one of the best of the class of 2021 so far.

A Well-Traveled Americana Guitarslinger Returns to a Familiar Williamsburg Haunt

Back in the day, like most music blogs, New York Music Daily got involved in the club booking business. The choice of venue, with its utterly Lynchian, red velvet-themed back room and intimate sonics, seemed perfect.

Looking back, it was cursed. Hurricane Katrina knocked out power all over town, flooded the space, and delayed opening night by a week. We ended up doing it all acoustic, with no electricity.

Subway service was plagued by an endless series of problems for months afterward, making it next to impossible for musicians from Brooklyn and Queens to get into Manhattan. Trying to lure an audience out under those conditions proved even more of a challenge. There were other issues, and a lawsuit against the landlord which the venue owners lost. Zirzamin closed abruptly in July of 2013. David Lynch movies are great fun to watch, but not to live through.

Still, the music was phenomenal. It was like being a kid in a candy store. Go back through the archives for a time capsule of some of New York’s best talent at the time, most of whom were far too popular to be expected to play a space this small.

One of those artists was Jon LaDeau.

What was most obvious about him was his guitar chops. He knew his blues, and oldtime Americana, and jamband rock, and he didn’t waste notes. A lot of the time he played with a slide. He had a comfortable, confident way with a tune and a low-key presence as a singer.

Over the years, he kept at it. It was validating to see him refining those chops at gigs all over town, most recently at the now badly missed Friday night series at the American Folk Art Museum, in 2018 and 2019. His latest release, Time Capsules – streaming at Bandcamp – is a short album from earlier this year. As you would expect from a record put out during the lockdown, it’s haunted by uncertainty and a theme of time lost forever.

The first track, Younger Days is an undulating number driven by guest Chris Parker’s slide guitar and layers of multitracks from LaDeau. The obvious comparison is the Grateful Dead (or Widespread Panic, for that matter). It’s over in less than three minutes.

Mayteana Morales takes a turn on soulful lead vocals on the title track, a slowly swaying ballad in 6/8 time, Justin LaDeau adding quaint, retro Nashville saloon piano. The group stay in a 6/8 vintage soul groove, picking up the pace a little in the next track, Alone, the bandleader’s spare, incisive guitar rising amid Steve Okonski’s organ.

The surreal final cut, Cemetery Road has the most guitar snarl and bite here. It could be a lockdown parable: “We wanna be free, we wanna go home to the things that we love,” as LaDeau puts it. He’s making a return to the stage at one of his old haunts, Pete’s Candy Store, with an unrestricted show on July 6 at 8:30 PM.

Ferociously Funny, Politically-Fueled Americana Rock From Esquela

In a crowded pack of Americana bands, Esquela distinguish themselves with their ferocious, often hilarious, fearlessly political lyrics and high-voltage guy/girl vocals. With New York under a draconian lockdown last summer and most studios officially shuttered, the group joined the legions of artists making albums over the web to record their latest one, A Sign From God, streaming at Bandcamp. Credit producer and multi-instrumentalist Eric “Roscoe” Ambel for piecing together individual tracks culled from very diverse sonic environments and somehow finding a way to make them sound like a cohesive group effort.

The opening number, Not in My Backyard sets the stage for the rest of the record. “Hydrofracking is a swear word, nuclear power is for the birds, guess we better burn some trees,” John “Chico” Finn and Becca Frame cynically observe over Ambel’s growling guitars and the steady four-on-the-floor drive from bassist Keith Christopher and drummer Mike Ricciardi.

Frame brings the lights down in Oradura, a grim account of the Nazi massacre of the French village of Oradour Sur Glane in 1944. With the smoldering intertwine of Brian Shafer and Matt Woodin’s guitars, it could be the Walkabouts: it’s the best song on the album.

With a lickety-split Shafer guitar solo and a ridiculously funny bridge, Rest of My Life offers two…um…individual perceptions of a one-night stand. Woodin and Shafer take turns with tantalizingly twangy solos in Give Ups, about a woman with distinctive taste in outerwear. Frame returns to the mic as the band get serious again, with 1861: in the current era of unprecedented divide-and-conquer, this Civil War parable really packs a wallop.

Ambel adds honkytonk-flavored lapsteel in Three Finger Joe, a cynical tale of casual redneck bigotry. Set to a snarling mix of Ambel guitar multitracks, First World Problems might the funniest song ever written about American exceptionalism. Together Finn and Frame chronicle the kind of devastating issues we have to cope with every day: our favorite teams finish last, the wifi acts up, we lose our phones, and country radio sucks. The joke at the end is way too good to spoil.

Rob Arthur guests on organ in What’s Your Problem, a snide account of white entitlement that brings to mind a big Dream Syndicate hit, right down to the opening Ambel guitar riff. Finn chronicles pioneer days in upstate New York over Ambel’s keening slide guitar in Two Stones. The band close the album with Wait For Me, Frame’s gorgeously chiming, haunting setting of a World War II poem by Russian soldier Konstantin Simonov. It’s been a slow year for rock records; count this as one of the best of the bunch so far.

Classical and Rock Acts Shake Off the Rust at the Naumburg Bandshell

It was weird seeing a rock band onstage at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park last night. There hasn’t been any rock there since the early teens, when some promoter put on a stupefyingly awful disco night. Then again, it wasn’t always unusual for rock acts to play there: it happened a lot back in the 90s.

Twenty years earlier, the Grateful Dead did a show there. Now that must have been weird.

There were other aspects relating to yesterday evening’s show that seemed weird. But most of them were welcome, and reason for guarded optimism at a time when we desperately need it.

The rock band onstage was singer/guitarist Aoife O’Donovan and her low-key rhythm section. She was joined by a chamber orchestra subset of the Knights for a tersely symphonic, imaginatively arranged take of what seemed to a suite inspired by early 20th century suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt. Although O’Donovan’s roots are in Americana, and she was playing acoustic, the songs had more of a classic 60s pop feel, sometimes in a Jimmy Webb or Lee Hazelwood vein. O’Donovan’s work has never been more political, or relevant than this, another welcome development.

A number that quoted from a letter to Catt from then-President Woodrow Wilson had a mutedly rich, brass-infused chart. O’Donovan then led the ensemble into syncopated, Joni Mitchell-esque territory and closed with a more enigmatic, indie rock-flavored number. O’Donovan has obviously done her homework and is encouraging everyone to rise up and fight: a rousing amen to that.

The Knights shook off the rust of over a year of inactivity with conductor Eric Jacobsen leading them through a haphazard take of his arrangement of Kayhan Kalhor‘s exhilarating, Kurdish-tinged theme Ascending Bird. The way the low strings emulated the starkness and shivery intensity of an Iranian kamancheh was a tasty touch. The (presumably) new presence of brass and woodwinds seemed forced, and extraneous to the music’s ecstatic trajectory.

The orchestra left the bumps in that road behind for a sleek and empathetic version of George Walker’s Lyric For Strings, whose canonic cadences evoked the Barber Adagio with less angst, more fondness, and somewhat more modernist tonalities.

Violinist Gil Shaham joined them for the night’s coda, playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61 from memory. This may have been just another day at the office for him, but the technique he put to use was just plain sizzling. Which is not to say that this piece sizzles per se: it’s a carefully orchestrated celebration. Needless to say, Shaham’s quicksilver vibrato, the quartz crystal solidity of the endless volleys of high harmonics, and his unassailably confident attack in the most robust moments reaffirmed his vaunted stature.

The first movement seemed fast, at least in the beginning, the orchestra clearly relishing the opportunity to reconnect with their soloist since they’d recorded this together a couple of years ago. The second movement was unusually muted and practically a lullaby in places. The conclusion, with its rounds of triumphant, anthemic riffage, ended the night on an aptly ebullient note. There was no encore.

In a stroke of serendipity, this was the day when Andrew Cuomo apparently caved to the pressure to relinquish some of the dictatorial powers he’d seized in the March 16, 2020 coup d’etat – presumably to give a last-gasp shot of hydroxychloroquine to a political career that’s on a vent and flatlining. The details are still shaking out. It’s not unreasonable to worry that the psy-op squads at the World Economic Forum, the Gates Foundation and the Bloomberg cartel, who have been pulling Cuomo’s strings over the past sixteen months, will attempt to sneak all sorts of New Abnormal surveillance or divide-and-conquer schemes into any so-called reopening plan.

Because the concert was arranged before yesterday’s unexpected events, the organizers had been giving out free tickets online. Trouble was, the ticketing system didn’t work. An anxious message at their webpage timidly asked for proof of needle of death or meaningless PCR test, presumably to satisfy Cuomo’s office: this isn’t the kind of demand the Naumburg organization, who have always been the epitome of genteel, would typically impose on an audience.

While ticketed patrons were being let into the seats – which never came close to reaching capacity – there was clearly no surveillance going on. As far as muzzle-mania goes, oxygen-deficient people generally took the seats, those of us breathing normally situated mostly in back. Standing five feet to the left of this blog’s owner was one of the world’s great cellists: she wasn’t muzzled, nor was one of the world’s great violists, a couple of paces behind her. Sea change, or sign of imminent New Abnormal apartheid? We’ll find out next time.

This year’s series of Naumburg Bandshell concerts continues on June 29 at 7:30 PM when the Ulysses and Emerson String Quartets team up for music by Shostakovich, Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss and others. Since tickets for the performance have already been issued, rushing to the space early to score a seat – a winning strategy in years past – may not be worth the effort. You will probably be better off standing, taking a place on the benches immediately to the south, or on the lawn to the west where the sound is still reasonably audible. Bring a picnic and some wine!

Hard Country Singer Sara Petite Shifts Gears into Harder Rock Territory

“I ain’t feeling like an angel tonight,” Sara Petite sings over a twangy stomp on the opening track of her new album Rare Bird, streaming at Soundcloud. She’s made a career in defiant bad-girl hard country sounds: this one’s more rock-oriented. Her vocals are more focused, more wintry, more dynamic this time out: there’s more depth to the hard-living persona.

Petite also explores more musical territory here. Case in point: the second track, Runnin’. If not for the pedal steel and the down-home snarl of the guitars, this would be new wave.

As Petite sees it, Scars are “like barbwire to the touch, jagged and jaded” and make a good theme for a richly textured, unexpectedly complicated Americana rock anthem. Listen closely and you realize how much Stockholm Syndrome plays into an abusive relationship.

The title track is a mashup of elegant 60s countrypolitan and more recent, harder-edged Nashville sounds, with a plaintively sizzling fiddle solo on the way out. Petite picks up the pace with The Misfits, a big, fist-pumping nonconformist anthem, then brings the lights down again with the gorgeously bittersweet Missing You Tonight.

She fills a barroom with a colorful bunch of party animals in Crash Boom Bang, mashing up a simmering Texas slide guitar shuffle with a familiar Elvis hit. Likewise, she blends some catchy Memphis soul into the mix in Medicine Man.

Floating With the Angels has tinges of Tex-Mex, Petite finding religion in drunken bliss via a clever litany of gospel imagery. She goes back in a retro soul direction with the resolute, distantly New Orleans-tinged Keep Moving On: “I’ve been ridiculed, blamed, shamed, misunderstood,” she admits, but she won’t let that get her down. “Freedom ain’t just for the chosen few.”

She winds up the record with Working on a Soul: who would have expected the crazed noiserock intro that kicks off this surreal mix of hick-hop, Nashville gothic and jubilant country gospel.

Grimly Lyrical, Darkly Jangly Americana Rock Tunesmithing From Janet Simpson

The ramshackle, embroidered cover art for Janet Simpson‘s new album Safe Distance – streaming at Bandcamp – is pure American gothic, a cowboy trying to lasso a snake. That speaks volumes for Simpson’s worldview and irreverent outsider persona. Her songs draw a straight line back to the glory days of the so-called “paisley underground” rock of the 80s: Americana twang, punk spirit, psychedelic ambience. Simpson’s tales of hard times on the forgotten fringes are starkly lyrical and often chilling. She plays guitars and keys and has a great band behind her: Will Stewart on guitars, Robert Wason on bass and Tyler McGuire on drums. This is one of the best rock records of the year.

The opening track, Nashville Girls sounds like the Dream Syndicate with a woman out front, a clanging, vampy, wickedly catchy, caustically picturesque sendup of the kind of clueless trust fund kids you see in any gentrified neighborhood. Stewart’s uneasy chorus-box guitar solo wafts in, a fresh breeze straight ouf of the 80s; Simpson overdubs some whooshy synth on the way out. It’s a hard act to follow, but the rest of the record holds up.

The blend of jangle and clang in the second cut, Slip, is just as delicious: it could be the Gun Club at their most focused mid-80s peak, taking a stab at a hypnotic, nocturnal waltz. Alcohol permeates these songs like George Jones’ breath: Simpson’s battlescarred narrators medicate 24/7. Case in point: Reno, a pulsing, honkyonk-flavored tale that turns far much darker than you would ever think.

Simpson layers hazy keys and spare guitars for suspenseful, nocturnal ambience in Awe & Wonder, a brooding, completely ambiguous look at trying to rekindle what seems to be a pretty dead romance.

She wails to the top of her range over a steady, tense backbeat iu I’m Wrong: “I wander off sometimes it’s so easy to let myself fall through the cracks,” she muses. The baritone guitar solo out is an unexpected treat.

As an offhand portrait of despondency while everybody’s out having fun, Aiu’t Nobody Looking packs a calm wallop: and that fretless bass is a trip. The album’s title track is not a snide lockdown reference but a sobering account of a blackout hookup set to a marching waltz beat:

Dancing the line as if it was straight
A callous ballet, the border so fine
On the border so fine between two awful states

Simpson goes back to portraits of terminal depression in the spare, fingerpicked Black Turns Blue:

I’ve been drinking all my feelins it’s so much easier than dealing
The world’s so pretty when I’m reeling I’d rather stay where I can’t see

The album’s most hauntingly allusive song is Double Lines, a Nashville gothic drinking-and-driving tale right up there with Ninth House’s Follow the Line. Simpson offers up the spare, mostly acoustic Silverman as a mea culpa to someone who could have been a safe harbor.

Mountain, a Memphis soul tune, is an unexpectedly optimistic scenario. The album’s final cut is Wrecked, a subdued but defiant, distantly Tex-Mex flavored tune:

Maybe I’m barely hanging on
Maybe I’m wrecked, but I’m not too far gone
Maybe the edge is right where I belong
I’m not a fighter but I’m a dancer
And it might be a grave I’m dancing on