New York Music Daily

Music for Transcending Dark Times

Tag: americana

Doc Watson’s First New York Headline Gigs Immortalized For Posterity

Casual fans of Americana may not realize that before Doc Watson’s career on the folk music circuit took off, he was an electric guitarist. People back home in North Carolina didn’t want to hear the oldtime stuff: they wanted rockabilly, and Watson was giving then what they wanted. It was at this transitional moment in 1962 that eighteen-year-old fan Peter Siegel made a couple of good quality mono recordings of Watson’s first two Manhattan headline gigs, the first at NYU and the second a last-minute booking which turned out to be one of the final performances at the West Village folk club Blind Lemon’s.

Almost sixty years later, Siegel digitized the files; the result is a new Smithsonian Folkways vinyl album, streaming at Spotify comprising selections from both shows. It has additional historical value for being a rare recording of multi-instrumentalist Gaither Carlton, Watson’s father in law, who joins him here on fiddle and occasional banjo. Since these were sit-down concerts, not down-home dances, the two keep the songs short: practically everything here is under the three-minute mark, often less than two. Compared to the kind of whirlwind picking Watson would electrify audiences with later in his career, this is a revealing look at his original, much more low-key approach to acoustic material.

Watson and Carlton open with the fiddler’s bittersweetly vampy instrumental Double File, on banjo and fiddle, respectively. With his stark tone, Carlton typically doubles the melody line or shadows Watson, as he does throughout the brisk heartbreak ballad Handsome Molly. That tune, and the grim, perennially relevant Civil War narrative He’s Coming to Us Dead are credited to legendary fiddler G.B. Grayson, Carlton’s mentor.

Watson switches back from guitar to banjo for a relativley low-key take of Corrina, Corrina then returns to guitar for the instrumental Brown’s Dream and its tasty moving bassline. He’s back on banjo for the wistful farewell song My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains. From his banter with the crowd, it’s clear that he takes some pride in the duo’s rather hypnotic original guitar-and-fiddle arrangement of Bonaparte’s Retreat.

The album’s b-side starts off on a similar note with the banjo tune Willie Moore and continues with The Blue Ridge Mountain Blues: once again, hearing Watson move that bassline around is a clinic in Appalachian harmony. They pick up the pace, Watson on banjo for Goin’ Back to Jericho, then flatpicking his guitar on the instrumental Billy in the Low Ground.

The most rustic of all the songs here is a hobo tune, Reuben’s Train. The Dream of the Miner’s Child – credited to Andrew Jenkins – is one of the most ominous, the little girl in the story afraid she’ll lose her dad to his dangerous dajyob. There are also two version of an early 20s novelty song, Groundhog., The first, from the club, has Carlton on banjo; Watson plays it on the more boisterous take from the NYU gig.

An Allstar Bluegrass Album From Americana Sage Jim Lauderdale

Jim Lauderdale had already built a distinguished career as an Americana tunesmith before Elvis Costello enlisted him as one of the Sugarcanes. Since then, Lauderdale hasn’t abandoned his solo career. His latest album, When Carolina Comes Home Again – streaming at Bandcamp – is a bluegrass record. His drawl is a little more down-home here, and he’s got an allstar band. Steve Earle once semi-sarcastically admitted that he did a bluegrass record because he wanted more of his songs to get played at jams. After hearing this, it’s a fair bet that Lauderdale’s will also be getting a workout when pickers get together.

Lauderdale has a murderer’s row of bluegrass talent to work with here. Cane Mill Road, Town Mountain, Jon Stickley and Lyndsay Pruett, Balsam Range, the Songs From the Road Band and the Steep Canyon Rangers are all represented here along with hotshot young guitar picker Presley Barker, fiddler Kattie Hopkins Kinlaw, mandolinist Aaron Ramsey, guitarist Nick Dauphinais and banjo player Marc Pruett.

The first cut is the title track. Lauderdale starts with a slow, brooding intro, then the banjo kicks in, driving a lickety-split groove that’s just as moody. The instrumentation is classic, with momentary solos from mando, flatpicked guitar and fiddle. The second song, As a Sign is a littel slower and a little brighter, Lauderdale at his aphoristic best:

I’d like to place a nickel bet that every single time
What you see is what you get, shortchanged for a dime
How the number crunches when you’re that kind of fool
Who bets his heart on hunches as an elementary rule

Misery’s Embrace is a bluegrass take on midtempo, morose George Jones honkytonk. Lauderdale gets even more poignant with the careful, distantly chilling The Last to Know, which could be a classic Don Gibson ballad. Then the band pick up the pace with the briskly strolling It Takes Just One to Wander (as in “it takes two to tango, it takes just one to wander”).

Cackalacky is one of those fun, silly, mostly one-chord nmbers that pop up at jams after everybody’s had a few. Lauderdale really goes for a No-Show Jones vocal delivery in the album’s first waltz, You’ll Have to Earn It. Then he and the band romp through You’ve Got This, another track with tantalizingly brief banjo and fiddle solos.

In Mountaineer, Lauderdale sends a shout out to the folks who like living high above most civilized people: it’s easy to imagine Johnny Cash singing this. The slow, steady waltz I’m Here to Remind You is a hopeful appraisal of silver linings amidst the clouds. You might not expect Moonrider, the cosmic cowboy tune after that, but that’s what Lauderdale gives you. He winds up the album with Spin a Yarn, a lively Virginia reel and then Better Than You Found It, a blend of Memphis soul and country gospel with a timely message about not messing up the planet any further. All this is clinic in expert tunesmithing from a guy who’s been doing that a long time.

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.

A Sizzling Live Newschool C&W Album from Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters

Time to say it again: more bands should make live albums. Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters‘ Live at the Grey Eagle – streaming at Spotify– is one of the best of the past year’s batch. One of the most smartly lyrical songwriters in Americana, she has a crackerjack oldschool C&W band behind her throughout this lavish 23-track collection recorded in front of a boisterous, hometown Asheville crowd.

“They teach you not to bite on the hand that feeds, but when you’re starving sometimes you just don’t know,” Platt twangs in the opening number, 90 Miles, a characteristically cynical, somewhat muted backbeat-driven breakup song. With its rapidfire lyrics, her brother Andrew Platt’s choogling lead guitar and Matt Smith’s wafting pedal steel, the shuffle Better Woman brings to mind Amy Rigby‘s adventures in Americana.

Evan Martin’s piano tinkles along, up to a spine-tingling steel solo in Jukebox, a country-soul now-or-never anthem: “Songbirds just ain’t built to fly, but sooner or later we have try,” Platt muses. If you remember jukeboxes, this one only costs a quarter!

The band ease their way into a brisk shuffle in All You Ever Needed, a cautionary tale for those who set their sights too low. Platt keeps that vividly seething exasperation going in Back Row, a bittersweet wake-up call to a self-destructive friend, with a fiery Memphis soul guitar solo over washes of organ. Likewise, the tersely tasty breaks in Blue Besides, Platt assessing whether getting the hell out is always necesarily the answer.

“When it comes to waiting, I’ve been practicing for years,” Platt announces in Golden Child, a defiantly triumphant, soul-tinged number. A broodingly upbeat war parable set to a brisk Texas shuffle beat, Lillies could be the Grateful Dead at their tightest, with a woman out front. The band go back to soul-tinged country with Wheels, then cover the BeeGees’ To Love Somebody as Dusty Springfield might have done it.

The show dips to a spare, pensive solo acoustic take of Holy Wall, then the band come back up for Eden, a chillingly detailed portrait of slow decay in Flyover America. As Platt sings, you really can’t go home again: “Please let me back inside the garden, I won’t eat anything that’s fallen from that goddamn tree.”

Martin spices the restless wanderlust tale Carolina with some oldschool Nashville slip-key piano. Platt dedicates the slow waltz Sawdust Girl to her mentor in lutherie, Asheville guitar builder Brad Nickerson, picking up the pace with the steel-driven Getting Good at Waiting – a big theme with her, huh?

The pensive Birthday Song is surprisingly more subdued than the album version. “Tonight this town is ours,” Platt intones in Low Road, a wise, richly detailed, summery carpe-diem ballad. Then the energy rises again with Irene, a tenderly reassuring, bittersweetly shuffling honkytonk number.

Platt’s solo acoustic take of The Road is aptly stark and wistful. From there the band slowly rise with a vampy Lou Reed feel in Diamond in the Rough and then keep those changes going through the Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want. For the encores, they work their way up from a delicate, elegant fingerpicked intro in Not Over Yet and close the night with the bristling blues Fancy Car, with slashing solos all around, including violin and harmonica – the latter by Platt’s impressibly tuneful dad – way back in the mix.

Hilarious, Witheringly Insightful Heartland Americana From Chicago Farmer

Cody Diekhoff a.k.a. Chicago Farmer writes knowingly wry, often witheringly spot-on, ferociously populist blue-collar narratives set to a dynamically rousing Americana backdrop. His debut album Backenforth, IL made the shortlist of the best albums of the year here back in 2013. He titled his new one Flyover Country, just as Amanda Gardier (featured here yesterday) did with hers. First time there have ever been two albums with the same name on this page on consecutive days! Who knows, maybe that’s a meme.

This particular Flyover Country – streaming at youtube – begins with Indiana Line, a fiery, bluesy, open-tuned outlaw ballad. “I’ll be the king of roadkill, two birds at a time,” insists this rural Avon Barksdale: there’s a reason he’s so reckless moving all that weight, but it’s too good a story to spoil.

The funniest song here is 13 Beers: it’s sweet redemption for any concertgoer who’s been scammed and subjected to one indignity after another at a Ticketbastard arena. It makes you want to sing along with the ending, even if Dieckhoff planned that all along.

The title track is unusually earnest for him: yeah, us East Coast snobs look down our snooty noses on Heartland America, which does all the heavy lifting and doesn’t get much in return. Trouble is, that’s a coast-to-coast problem.

The lyrically torrential eco-disaster parable Mother Nature’s Daughter is an update on Blonde on Blonde Dylan: “Mother nature’s daughter, they’ve done sold and bought her, there ain’t no more water in the well,” Dieckhoff warns.

“White collar crime pays, and blue collar crime takes away,’” is the chorus in Collars, a sad waltz that brings to mind John Prine’s Hello in There thematically if not musically. Dieckhoff sends a shout-out to hardworking, underpaid musicians and their equally hardworking, underpaid fans in the hillbilly boogie All in One Place and follows with Deer in the Sky, which has a little Creedence feel to it and a funny assessment of the perils of flying versus driving.

The cover of Hank Williams’ Ramblin Man has a welcome Nashville gothic sparseness. Baseball season may be in jeopardy, but the metaphors of Dirtiest Uniform are timeless. Dickhoff wraps up the album with The Village Revisited, a grim hurricane parable that’s part Creedence, part Stones. We need more guys like this who can be stone-cold serious, but just as gut-bustingly amusing.

Charming, Deceptively Sophisticated New York Songs From Rachelle Garniez and Erik Della Penna

To what degree does being born and raised in a metropolis empower the ability to demystify it? Are native New Yorkers better able to cut through centuries of myth and romance to see the grit and blood underneath? Or does an immigrant, whether from outside the country or simply another state, have a broader perspective? Rachelle Garniez and Erik Della Penna assess those questions, and much more, on their debut collaboration, An Evening in New York, streaming at Spotify.

Both artists were born and raised here. Each songwriter’s own catalog has a rich historical sensibility: Della Penna with Americana-tinged superduo Kill Henry Sugar, Garniez mostly as a solo artist but occasionally with bands ranging from alt-country pioneers Mumbo Gumbo to ecstatic delta blues/New Orleans jamband Hazmat Modine. Each artist tends to favor subtlety and detail over fullscale drama: they make a good team. The two don’t have any shows together coming up.  Garniez was scheduled play the release show for her first all-covers album, a salute to recently deceased artists including Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin and others, on March 15 at 7 PM at Dixon Place, but the show was cancelled due to the coronavirus scare.

On the duo record, Della Penna plays the stringed instruments and Garniez handles the keyboards. There’s a retro charm but also devilish levels of detail in the songs, a mix of mostly oldtimey-flavored originals and a handful of well-known New York-themed numbers from across the decades. On the surface, the title track is a charmingly waltzing turn-of-the-20th-century guitar-and-accordion duet, but there’s a wistful subtext.

Della Penna switches to banjo for his cynically empathetic lounge-lizard ballad, Neighbors, Manhattan Island, a Garniez concert favorite, languidly reflects on how cheaply the land that would become the “Empire City” was purchased from its original inhabitants (who didn’t understand they’d have to leave). Then the two pick up the pace with Talking Picture, wryly prefiguring the kind of tender reassurance an Instagram video can offer.

They follow a brisk instrumental version of the old 19th century vaudeville hit 42nd Street with a starkly resonant, anciently bluesy cover of Hazmat Modine’s surreal Viking Burial. Garniez’s Black Irish Boy is a pretty hilarious recollection of a childhood crush, as well as its aftermath. Then Della Penna takes over the mic for the Appalachian-tinged Zeppelin Song, singing from the point of view of a WWI German soldier hoping to escape the perils of combat by catching a ride on the rich baron’s contraption.

Garniez moves to the piano for a glistening ragtime-infused take of Am I Blue. Della Penna offers a fond Coney Island reminiscence with Wonder Wheel, followed by the slyly cajun-tinged High Rise. The duo put a kazoo in Coffee – as in “Let’s have another cup of coffee, and let’s have another piece of pie.” They wind up the album with their funniest song, We’ll Take Manhattan: you kind of have to live here to get the jokes, but they’re pretty priceless.

The album also includes an elegant take of Bye Bye Blackbird; a coyly spare Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen with a tastily bristling Della Penna guitar solo; and an irresistibly funny version of Irving Berlin’s hokum blues Walking Stick.

A Diverse New Album and a Couple of Hometown Gigs by All-Female Supertrio Puss N Boots

Americana soul supertrio Puss N Boots have a new album, Sister, streaming at Spotify and a couple of New York dates coming up. They make a good case for going out tomorrow, Valentine’s Day, with an 8 PM gig at Rough Trade which will probably sell out; general admission is $25. Then the next night, Feb 15 they’re at Bowery Ballroom, same time, same price.

This blog called their debut release No Fools, No Fun “a younger, more irreverent counterpart to the Dolly Parton/Loretta Lynn/Linda Ronstadt albums.” The new record is both more eclectic and more serious, individual lead vocals often taking the place of harmonies. The band are also covering other peoples’ songs for the first time. It takes nerve to open with an instrumental, but that’s exactly what singer Norah Jones, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Sasha Dobson and bassist Catherine Popper do: the sardonically titled Jamola is a good-naturedly swaying slow-midtempo surf theme, their Summer Place.

That slow-burning tremolo guitar filters through the second track, It’s Not Easy, a backbeat country ballad, Jones’ voice rich with gravitas: she’s really grown into the talent she hinted she’d become during her poppier early days. She turns up the reverb on her amp all the way in the swaying Nothing You Can Do, which is sort of the bastard child of Dusty Springfield and Syd Barrett.

They follow that with Lucky, an electric newgrass tune, and then You and Me, a bouncy, soul-tinged number by Popper with some tasty vintage tube amp sonics and incisive hollowbody bass. Their take ot the Replacements’ It’s a Wonderful Lie (GREAT title, huh?) could be late 90s Wilco with a woman out front, while You Don’t Know is a successful Jones detour into Tex-Mex flavored C&W.

“All I want for Christmas is an answer,” Dobson muses broodingly in The Great Romancer, over more of that deliciously spare, lingering reverb guitar. The band work an early 60s Orbison vibe with the album’s title track. Then they return to a bluegrass-tinged vibe in The Razor Song, a kiss-off anthem by Popper and stick with it throughout Tom Petty’s Angel Dream, a more optimistic shuffle with some neat, offbeat cymbal work from Dobson.

The trio really air out their voices with the harmonies of Same Old Bullshit, a smoldering, guitar-fueled vintage soul song. Concrete Blonde’s Joey is the most 50s-pop tune on the record; they wind it up with The Grass Is Blue, a sad Dollly Parton waltz a launching pad for Jones’ most shivery, haunting vocals. “There’s snow in the tropics, there’s ice in the sun, it’s hot in the Arctic and crying is fun,” she explains – trouble is, these days, all that’s less paradoxical than it was back when people listened to music like this on the radio.

Purist Retro Country Sounds and a Lower East Side Gig by Virginia Singer Dori Freeman

Dori Freeman is one of the more prolific songwriters in Americana. She’s put out three albums in the past four years, which is a lot these days. Hailing from the heart of bluegrass country – Galax, Virginia – she’s a throwback, with an understated, warmly nuanced twang to her voice, a way with an unexpectedly slashing turn of phrase and a knack for catchy, often soul-influenced classic 60s C&W songcraft. Her latest album Every Single Star is streaming at youtube; she’s playing the basement room at the Rockwood this Jan 11 at 7 PM for $12 at the door.

The first track on the album is That’s How I Feel, a catchy, upbeat, vintage 60s soul-tinged bounce. Freeman’s narrator has found a dude she really likes, finding herself lost like “One can in the back of the fridge, one doe sitting high on the ridge, one man with his foot off the bridge…”

All I Ever Wanted, an Orbison-inspired abandonment tale, pictures a girl out with her friends drowning her sorrows in “margaritas deep enough to fill a sink.” Teddy Thompson’s production is smart and spare but lingering: those simple purist country guitar riffs really ring out, and the acoustic bass and drums punch through.

Freeman picks up the pace with the joyously bouncy Like I Do, like Dusty Springfield having fun with a Bo Diddley beat. She follows the spare solo acoustic lament You Lie There with the brisk, bittersweet countrypolitan shuffle Another Time. With its stabbing piano, Go On is an understatedly venomous kiss-off anthem.

Darlin’ Boy, with its elegant blend of acoustic guitars and honkytonk piano, is a wise dismissal aimed at a real ladykiller: it could have been a hit for an early 50s Nashville group like the Davis Sisters. Walls of Me and You is a even more vindictively vivid, a  walk-away anthem and the key to the album

Freeman contrasts that with the laid-back 2 Step, a duet with Thompaon and winds up the record with the solo acoustic ballad I’ll Be Coming Home.

Gorgeously Bittersweet Rarities and Outtakes From the Inimitable Amy Allison

Amy Allison is one of the most shatteringly brilliant songwriters to emerge from New York since the 90s – or for that matter, ever. Her distinctive voice has jazz nuance, coy quirkiness and an inimitable bittersweet charm. On one hand, she really seems to be the sad girl whose album of the same name became iconic in Americana circles in the early zeros. On the other, her sense of humor is just as quietly devastating. Her latest album Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun – streaming at youtube – bridges two different eras in her career: her early days as a classic country songwriter, and more recently as a purist pop tunesmith. Many of the songs here are short, around the two-minute mark, outtakes from three different sessions in Scotland, Los Angeles and New York. If other songwriters put out A-sides as strong as Amy Allison’s B-sides, the world would be a much more interesting place.

The album opens with Blue Plate Special. a vintage soul-tinged shout-out to the Memphis she lived in briefly during the early 80s but seemingly never felt completely at home in: this is a surprisingly quiet place. After the Tone, a wryly swaying country song with beefy guitars, is a tale about being stood up, back to the days of answering machines

Allison sings Nightingale, a slowly swaying, guardedly optimistic country waltz with stately piano, from the point of view of an urban dwelller “too faraway in the noise and the fray” to hear the bird. 4:15, a casually loping tune with sparse, echoey Rhodes piano and banks of guitars, is a poetically succinct chronicle of late-afternoon teenage daydrinking – and abandonment.

Even the album’s blithest honkytonk number, Angel Face has a dark undercurrent. Allison evokes the dreamy quality of some of her best ballads with NYC, an elegantly countrypolitan-flavored celebration of diversity, and how New Yorkers don’t actually have to see the stars to know they shine on us.

She does Goodbye Lovers Lane much faster than she plays it live, a briskly aphoristic, Merseybeat-tinged shuffle that’s over in less than two minutes. Dream About Tomorrow, a Kitty Wells-style breakup ballad, is awash in a whirl of pedal steel. It Doesn’t Matter Anymore is classic Allison, drenched in longing and emotional desolation, finally picking up with a web of guitar textures:

It doesn’t matter, can’t you see
The future’s just a memory
I saw the summer turn to fall
It didn’t dawn on me at all

Over the album’s the most imaginative arrangement, with mandolin, piano and melodica, Allison salutes Bette Davis for her role as the doomed wife in the 1940 drama The Letter. Arguably the album’s strongest track. This Prison is a typically metaphor-loaded chronicle of depression, done as classic honkytonk with flangey guitar: Allison admits that this cold, lonely place might keep her out of trouble, but she needs to break out – if only she can find that missing key! The albun closes with Silver Stone, an older, bitter country breakup tune whose narrator ends up in a “town where all that glitters is fool’s gold.” Beyond this collection, Allison – a frequent contributor to the Hoboken-based Radio Free Song collective – has plenty of new material and even more obscurities that could make a couple of killer albums, or at least playlists.