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No New Abnormal

Tag: amy allison

The 50 Best Albums of 2019

This is a playlist, plus one last record at the very end that can’t be heard anywhere online but might be the best of all of them. You can listen to everything else here, almost all of it ad-free: it couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

Lots of triage was involved. A very ambitious listener with a dayjob that allows for multitasking can hear maybe eight or nine hundred new albums a year, all the way through. An insanely dedicated blogger can hear bits and pieces of maybe five thousand more. That’s about the limit of what one human can do. You may see a few stragglers here which were technically 2018 releases but got overlooked that year. If your favorite album from 2019 isn’t here, that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good…and it might just turn up here next year.

Other than the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Being chosen as the #50 band out of 50 is like getting picked last for kickball, and that’s kind of mean. Besides, if an album is one of the fifty best out of the literally hundreds of thousands released every year, it has to be damn good. Here we go!

Big Lazy – Dear Trouble
The subtlest, most desolate and ultimately most dynamic album from a group synonymous with cinematic noir menace. Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s sense of irony has never been more refined, and the rhythm section of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion has never been slinkier. Ulrich is the only musician in history who has been on three albums rated #1 for the year here. Listen at youtube

Changing Modes – What September Brings
Best album of the year with lyrics, the New York art-rockers’ finest, most cinematic, and most political release, a savagely lyrical, spot-on reflection on Trump-era narcissism and repression, laced with shapeshifting instrumentals and frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam’s disquietingly lush harmonies. Listen at youtube

The Bright Smoke – Gross National Happiness
The title reflects frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson’s signature, withering sarcasm. It’s the band’s most savagely political record, a grimly allusive measure of Trump-era inequality, despair and resistance against all that, with a haunting Joy Division undercurrent. Listen at Bandcamp

Karen Dahlstrom – No Man’s Land
The best short album of the year, with metaphorically-loaded, sharply picturesque narratives referencing apocalypse, smalltown anomie, late-night despondency and a ferocious, defiant anthem for the Metoo era from the powerful Bobtown alto singer and Americana songstress. Listen at her music page 

Hearing Things – Here’s Hearing Things
The best debut albun of 2019, by Brooklyn’s funnest dance band, mashes up horror surt, Booker T & the MG’s, twisted go-go music, Afrobeat, Ethiopiques and the Doors, with organ, sax and surf drums. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – These Times
Steve Wynn‘s iconic, feral, influential psychedelic guitar-duel band’s quietest, most allusively political and arguably most brilliantly lyrical album. Not bad for a group who put out their first record back in the 80s. Listen at youtube

Michael Winograd – Kosher Style
Unsurpassed for his sizzling clarinet chops, Winograd is also a very colorful composer. With sabretoothed chromatics and slashing minor keys, these new klezmer tunes run the gamut from blisteringly fun to mournful to sardonic, and the band is killer. Listen at Bandcamp

Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
Here’s another world-class clarinetist and ensemble playing an especially dynamic, inescapably vivid take on one of the most iconic, haunting pieces of classical music ever written (much of it composed in a Nazi prison camp). Riveting as it is, it raises questions as to how fair it is for this blog to rank it alongside the rest of the artists here. Listen at Spotify

Layale Chaker – Inner Rhyme
The brilliant violinist writes vivid, intense, often hauntingly beautiful compositions built around the rhythmic sophistication of classical Arabic poetry, equal parts Lebanese, Egyptian and western classical music, with occasional detours toward jazz or film score atmospherics. Listen at her music page

Los Wembler’s de Iquitos – Vision Del Ayahuasca
With almost all of their original members, this iconic psychedelic cumbia jamband from the heart of the Peruvian Amazon are as wildly trippy and original as they were fifty years ago. Along with Hearing Things‘ debut, this is the best party record of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

Miguel Zenon and the Spektral Quartet – Yo Soy la Tradicion
The formidable alto saxophonist teams up with one of the world’s edgiest string quartets for a mix of acerbic works with an unselfconsciously Bartokian intensity Listen at their music page

Rev. Screaming Fingers – Music for Driving and Film, vol iII (The Desert Years)
Dusky, loping southwestern gothic tableaux, twangy noir Americana, a little horror surf and ominous big-sky themes from these great guitar instrumentalists. Listen at their music page

Girls on Grass – Dirty Power
Like a female-fronted Dream Syndicate, guitar goddess Barbara Endes’ band rips through paisley underground psychedelia, spaghetti westen themes, snarling new wave and garage rock, with a defiant, politically fearless lyricism Listen at Bandcamp

Russ Tolman – Goodbye El Dorado
Jangly, vividly lyrical western noir rock: disappeances, shattered Hollywood dreams, dead-end kids who don’t have a prayer, and roadtrip anomie from the leader of 80s legends True West. Listen at youtube

Julia Haltigan – Trouble
Turns out that the torchy mistress of Manhattan noir is just as fluent with new wave and vintage CB’s-style powerpop, throughout these tales of nocturnal prowling in the East Village before it was yuppified and whitewashed. Listen at Bandcamp

The Felice Bros. – Undress
This could have been the great lyrical, populist record that Springsgteen made in between Born to Run and Darkness: surreal political broadsides, down-and-out characters and death lingering over everything. Listen at Bandcamp

Jay Vilnai – Thorns All Over
Poet Rachel Abramowitz supplies the lyrics for this haunting, mysterious collection of new murder ballads, over the guitarist/bandleader’s cold starscapes, Lynchian dirges and a relentless, lingering guitar menace. Listen at Bandcamp

Karine Poghosyan – Rachmaninoff & Stravinsky
Nobody plays the Russian Romantics with as much insighful flair as this irrepressible virtuoso. As with Raphael Severe above, it is fair to rate this ravishingly intuitive, picturesque performance of achingly beautiful Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableaux and punishingly difficult Stravinsky piano transcriptions against the current-day artists here? Listen at Spotify

Dina Maccabee – The Sharpening Machine
Epically eclectic, trippy art-rock, chamber pop, pastoral themes and occasional coy new wave from this shapeshifting violinist and songwriter. Listen at Soundcloud

The Sirius Quartet – New World
This adventurous, microtonally-inclined string quartet’s collection of original compositions is a fierce concept album in defiance of the current fascist climate in the US. Listen at Spotify

Yale Strom’s Broken Consort – Shimmering Lights
The un-cheesiest Hanukah instrumental record ever made, the violinist-bandleader’s new arrangements blazing with ferocious solos and bracing Middle Eastern modes. Listen at rockpaperscissors

Eleni Mandell – Wake Up Again
The iconic dark Americana and torch singer’s most hauntingly political album is a series of narratives set behind bars, inspired by her experiences teaching songwriting in the prison-industrial complex. Listen at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Spells & Rituals
The constantly shapeshifting murder ballad and dark rock superduo dive further into latin noir, 60s Britrock and even garagey psychedelic sounds, all with their colorfully dark lyricism. Listen at Bandcamp

Noctorum – The Afterlife
Lush, characteristically lyrical, jangly art-rock from iconic twelve-string guitarist Marty Willson-Piper – late of Australian psychedelic legends the Church – with a similarly allstar backing band. Listen at Bandcamp

Laura Carbone – Empty Sea
Bleak, Lynchian panoramas, highway-of-death narratives and some guitarishly snarling gutter blues from one of this era’s great noir singers. Listen at Bandcamp

Unnatural Ways – The Paranoia Party
A grimly surreal, volcanically noisy, rhytmically disorienting concept about contact with aliens from guitarist Ava Mendoza’s searing doom/art-rock power trio. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Maureen Choi Quartet – Theia
Epically twisting, high-voltage, flamenco and Romany-inspired string band music from the violinist and her equally eclectic ensemble Listen at Bandcamp

Budos Band – V
The imaginative Afrobeat and Ethiopiques instrumentalists’ most doom metal-inspired album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

JD Allen – Barracoon
A big comeback of sorts for this era’s most potent tenor saxophonist, scorching his way through a Zora Neale Hurston-inspired mix of ominously modal, tersely evocative protest jazz tunes with a new trio. Listen at youtube

Nancy Braithwaite – To Paradise For Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway
The classical clarinetist and her dynamic, nuanced chamber ensemble explore stunningly imagistic, darkly clever, tersely crafted pieces by a now Rhode Island-based, nonagenarian composer whose work has never been released on album before. A major rediscovery. Listen at Spotify

Fabian Almazan – This Land Abounds with Life
A glittering, epically cascading eco-disaster themed concept album from one of this era’s most tunefully virtuosic jazz pianists and his dynamic rhythm section Listen at Bandcamp

Doomstress – Sleep Among the Dead
Pervasive gloom, minor keys, purposeful guitar and unusual elegance from frontwoman Alexis Hollada on the Texas doom metal band’s debut album. Listen at Bandcamp

Bobtown – Chasing the Sun
Bewitching three-part harmonies from Katherine Etzel, Karen Dahlstrom and Jen McDearman and folk noir songwriting that’s just a hair less relentlessly dark than the material that put them on the map. Listen at Bandcamp

Petros Klampanis – Irrationalities
Slinky, brooding, Middle Eastern and Greek-inflected ballads and more kinetic, pulsing material from the eclecic bassist and his excellent trio. Listen at Spotify 

The Well – Death & Consolation
Grim, Sabbathy dirges, paint-peeling Stooges sonics and ornately macabre heavy psychedelia from this Texas band. Listen at Bandcamp

Jason Yeager – New Songs of Resistance
A short parade of first-class pan-latin singers deliver the pianist’s protest jazz reinventions of classic nueva cancion from across the Americas in the 70s, alongside some chillingly lyrical, politically-fueled instrumentals. Listen at Bandcamp

Amy Allison – Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun
A characteristically bittersweet, brilliantly crystallized, lyrical collection of rarities and outtakes by the inimitable Americana singer. Listen at youtube

Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith – Mummer Love
Rousingly hypnotic North African grooves and immersive atmospherics behind acerbic, often savage poetry by Patti Smith and one of her big influences, Arthur Rimbaud. Listen at Bandcamp

Andplay – Playlist
The meticulously focused, tightly intertwining, colorful violin/viola duo negotiate the dynamic twists and turns of pieces by David Bird, Ashkan Behzadi and Clara Iannotta on their debut ep. Listen at Bandcamp

The Shootouts – Quick Draw
Spot-on, classic 1965-style honkytonk, hard country, Bakersfield twang and a little rockabilly from this slyly aphoristic Akron, Ohio band. Listen at Soundcloud 

The Ragas Live Retrospective
Members of the paradigm-shifting Brooklyn Raga Massive, who put all kinds of radical new spins on classic Indian raga themes, captured live in the studio over more than sixteen hours worth of music. Most of it is sublime; nobody at this blog has listened to the entire record yet. You can start at Bandcamp

Sarah Pagé – Dose Curves
Hypotically shimmery electroacoustic psychedelia and an Indian raga performed on the concert harp. Unselfconsciously magical,  cutting-edge stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Zosha Di Castri – Tachitipo
Vocal ensemble Ekmeles, the Jack Quartet, pianist Julia Den Boer, percussion ensemble Yarn/Wire  and a chamber orchestra join the thoughtfully eclectic pianist/composer in a diverse mix of acerbic, socially relevant compositions and art-songs. Listen at Bandcamp

Funkrust Brass Band – Bones & Burning
Sizzling Balkan chromatics, undulating New Orleans grooves and a pretty relentless sense of doom on the theatrical, sprawling brass band’s latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

Castle Black – Dead in a Dream
The ferocious female-fronted power trio look back to the most darkly ambitious of the first wave punk bands with their surreal, often haunting latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Manimals – Multiverse
Crunchy, catchy powerpop and a darkly pervasive Bowie influence on the new album from New York’s’ most entertainingly theatrical band. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 compilation
Digitized and somewhat sonically tweaked field recordings of icons like Howlin’ Wolf and cult figures like Magic Sam, shredding and wailing in their element onstage, captured by a college kid with a cheap tape recorder. Listen at Bandcamp

Beat Circus – These Wicked Things
One of the first and best of the carnivalesque rock bands of the 90s, back and revitalized with a lavish, darkly picturesque southwestern gothic concept album. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Sometime Boys – The Perfect Home
A characteristically enigmatic mix of distantly Americana-influenced, slinky originals and imaginatively reinvented covers from New York’s most charismatic, kinetically psychedelic band. Listen at Bandcamp

Locobeach – Psychedelic Disco Cumbia
Truth in advertising: trippy chicha, serpentine highway themes and some woozy dub from this tropical supergroup led by members of Los Crema Paraiso and Chicha Libre. Listen at Bandcamp 

Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee – The Newest Sound You Never Heard
Recorded live and in the studio for Belgian radio in 1966 and 1967, these radical reinventions and a handful of originals by the iconic noir pianist and the shatteringly subtle jazz singer rival the brilliance of their iconic 1961 debut. Not streaming anywhere but available on vinyl.

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.

Purist, Potently Lyrical Janglerock, Americana, Powerpop and Soul From the Bastards of Fine Arts

For the past several months, the Bastards of Fine Arts have been working up a formidable body of catchy, anthemic, purist rock songs via a mostly-monthly residency at 11th Street Bar. The project took shape as a challenge of sorts, songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Matt Keating and his lead guitarist co-conspirator Steve Mayone hell-bent on writing a new song every week. Their project caught on with social media and went viral. Fast forward to 2018, they’ve got a full band now (Jason Mercer on bass and Greg Wieczorek on drums) and a catalog as vast as a band who’ve been around for five times as long. Which means they can mine it for the real gems.

Playing as a duo at the American Folk Art Museum in May of last year, they were at the point where they were working every style they knew (and they know a lot!). Sam Cooke ballad? Check. Lou Reed (a guy Keating is unsurpassed at imitating)? Doublecheck. Honkytonk anthem, Wallflowers janglerock, wistful Americana waltz? Triplecheck.

A year later at an early 11th Street gig, they’d pulled the band together and had built up a set that transcended its origins. They opened with their catchiest number, the gorgeously bittersweet I’ll Take the Fall, Keating both self-effacing and witheringly cynical at the same time. Another even more vindictive number traced the story of an ex that the song’s narrator spies out on a date with some dude. On the way out of the bar, she drops her coat; the dude picks it up for her. Keating’s narrator would have left it there.

Because part of the project is “what style CAN’T we do,” there are plenty of jokes to go around, some more inside than others. Switching to piano, Keating turned a Mayone ballad into a gospel tune; Mayone added some sardonic metal licks to a Keating soul number. They worked a bossa groove, Mercer spiraling all over the fretboard during a more recent number, Walk in the Park, a rare instance of a song of theirs which doesn’t seem to have a cynical undercurrent.

In a very subtle Elvis Costello vein, they vamped along on a bouncy soul-blues tune for a good three minutes, at least, without changing chords once. At the end of the set, they brought up Keating’s daughter Greta, who flashed some incisive chops on Strat as well as a similarly edgy lyricism and soaring vocals. Most children of great musicians don’t go into music for obvious reasons; Greta Keating, like Amy Allison and Jakob Dylan, is every bit as formidable as her dad was when he was in his early twenties. Here’s hoping she sticks with it. The Bastards of Fine Arts are back at 11th Street Bar on Dec 18 at 9 PM.

Amanda Shires Brings Her Thoughtful, Vivid Nocturnes to SoHo

Amanda Shires was already an established presence on the Americana circuit before she met Jason Isbell. No doubt that connection has given her career an extra boost, but she’s been a first-rate fiddler and a distinctive songwriter since the early zeros. Her latest album, My Piece of Land – streamng at NPR– is Shires’ shout-out to her Texas roots and the red dirt music that she grew up with. The songs are sparse, most of them on the slow and pensive side, building a dusky, mysterious ambience with lingering electric and acoustic guitars, washes of steel, acoustic bass and brushed drums. The production is similarly purist and organic, with just enough natural reverb to max out the saturnine backdrop behind Shires’ gently articulated vocals. She’s playing the album release show tomorrow night, Sept 13 at 9 PM at City Winery. The venue doesn’t sell tickets: your best deal is to tell the door person that you’re going to the bar, which will set you back $18. And there’s plenty of space to stand if you don’t want to drink. Otherwise, you can take a table for more money.

The album opens with the spare, brisk shuffle The Way It Dimmed, Shires’ voice cautious and pensive:

Closer was never close enough
Closing time we watched the lights and sun come up
You begged me to stay and I slipped away
I remember the the fire and the way it dimmed
As a fire will sometimes do

The uneasily swaying Slippin’ looks back to early 70s Laurel Canyon Americana pop, with a similarly brooding, nocturnal ambience, Shires’ narrator considering how long it’s going to be for her honkytonking man to be seduced by “the curve of her shoulder, the length of the bar.”

Shires channels Amy Allison cleverness and Tift Merritt tenderness in Harmless, a disarmingly gentle cheater’s tale:

There’s some I can’t remember
A talented bartender
Way out in the cheap seats
The stars stare unblinking
The ones that know anything
Won’t be revealing

Shires finally rosins up her bow for Pale Fire, a spacious, deep-sky nod to the Vladimir Nabokov novel. The playfully twinkling Nursery Rhyme follows a loping western swing groove. Then Shires opens the eerie blues My Love (The Storm) with a couple of creepy scrapes on her fingerboard: her all-too-brief solo over burning electric guitar and organ midway through is the high point of the album.

The big rocker here, When You’re Gone is an improbably successful mashup of Abbey Road Beatles and late 90s Sheryl Crow at her most intense. Mineral Wells is a pensive look back to the scenery of Shires’ childhood:” “The only tree with leaves in Lubbock, with roots in Mineral Wells.” She takes a detour into moody, echoey, Fender Rhodes-driven southern soul with I Know What It’s Like: “With everyone standing around, I buckled and hit the ground,” Shires recalls. She closes the album with another brooding 6/8 ballad, You Are My Home, rising to a brushfire crescendo of stark fiddle and searing slide guitar. In its purposeful, meticulously assembled way, this is one of the most solidly captivating albums of the year.

Amy Allison Brings Her Poignant, Distinctive Voice and Songcraft to the East Village Folk Festival

For the past six months, Amy Allison has held down a monthly Saturday night residency at Dixon Place with pianist Lee Feldman. It’s an amazing collaboration. The daughter of jazz piano icon Mose Allison, she made her mark in the 90s as the best songwriter to come out of what was known then as alt-country. Revered by her peers – Elvis Costello appears on one of her albums, and Emmylou Harris’ most recent release contains an Amy Allison cover – she maintains a devoted cult following here.

Feldman, an briliant and similarly poignant songwriter in his own right, has an intuitive grasp of Allison’s songs. He interprets them line by line, shifting from rapt, starlit neoromantic glimmer, to earthy gospel, to wry Floyd Cramer C&W, sometimes in the space of a few bars (for what it’s worth, he also has a thing for Bach, and jazz, and film and tv themes, and wrote one of the few childrens’ musicals worth seeing). He and Allison share an irrepressible, sometimes devastating sense of humor: when those two decide to ham it up for a bar or two, the result is killer. On June 19 at 7 PM, Allison is venturing beyond her usual turf to play the East Village Music Folk Festival at Theatre 80 St. Marks; $10.50 tix are available.

This month’s installment of Allison’s Lower East Side residency was a lot of fun. The house is usually packed when she plays: this time out, with thunderclouds looming in from across the Hudson and media hysteria about a deluge that never came, it was a more intimate gathering. Her distinctive, disarmingly direct yet minutely nuanced voice was in top shape, part pilowy velvet, part twang. Even by Allison’s standards, the set was an especially choice one, a mix of favorites, rarities and a couple of unexpected covers. The two opened with the gently swaying, characteristically bittersweet Beautiful Night, Feldman adding Beethovenesque upper-register lustre. They followed with a mutedly tender, understatedly longing take of Anywhere You Are Is Where I Am.

“You turned my silver heart into stainless steel,” she intoned in Silver Stone, a rare gem dating from her earliest C&W days. Another obscurity, Blueberry Pie, echoed hokum blues and 19th century folk with its droll dessert metaphors. Blue Plate Special, a vivid, Jarmusch-style early 80s Memphis tableau, drew on vintage soul music and also the time she’d spent living there, and made a good segue.

Bette Davis, a new one, has become a big hit with the crowd, and will resonate with anybody who ends the night glued to Turner Classics. Allison put down her guitar as Feldman channeled her dad’s erudite blues in a cover of his Vietnam War-era classic Everybody’s Crying Mercy – as relevant now as it was then. She told the crowd that both Ella Fitzgerald and Shirley Temple had done Goodnight My Love; this version turned out to be closer to Blossom Dearie.

Another new number, Angel Face, was classic Allison, a catchy, poignantly optimistic number, but as usual Allison had something up her sleeve; meanwhile, Feldman mashed up gospel and Schubert. The best song of the night was also its most ornate, a lushly gorgeous take of the gently ominous Come Sweet Evening. She closed with the richly plaintive Goodbye Lovers Lane, a song that wouldn’t be out of place in the Roy Wood/Move catalog, and encored with Dream World, which crystallizes her worldview better than the more famous sad-girl song that first put her on the map. Allison has been writing up a storm of good songs over the past year or so; Sunday’s East Village show could be a launching pad for a whole bunch of them.

Texas Art-Rock Jamband and Neil Young Collaborators Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real in Williamsburg Tonight

If the idea of blowing off work or school today to wait for hours in the suddenly scorching sun for this evening’s free MOMA Summergarden event – where the new Neil Young album is being premiered over the PA at 6 out behind the museum – doesn’t appeal to you, there’s a relatively inexpensive alternative tonight at Brooklyn Bowl where Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, who back Young on the record, are playing their own stuff at around 9. Cover is a reasonable $15. That a band that packs stadiums coast to coast hasn’t sold out this comparatively smaller venue testifies to something really troubling as far as live music in New York is concerned.

The group’s latest album Something Real is streaming at Spotify. The opening track, Surprise, is exactly that, kicking off with a wry Pink Floyd quote and then hitting a bluesy metal sway over an altered version of the hook from Sabbath’s Paranoid .Then they make a doublespeed Blue Oyster Cult boogie of sorts out of it. The title track is a straight-up boogie: “I got tired of trying to please everybody…you’re just a name in a picture frame,” the bandleader rails, then bassist Corey McCormick, percussionist Tato Melgar and drummer Anthony LoGerfo take it down for a searing, blues-infused solo. These guys don’t coast on their bloodlines: Lukas and Micah Nelson play like they really listened to their dad…at his loudest.

Set Me Down on a Cloud has a pretty straight-up, growling Neil-style country-rock sway. Don’t Want to Fly has a similar groove, a dark stoner blues gem that David Gilmour would probably love to have written. Ugly Color is an unlikely successful, epic mashup of Santana slink, Another Brick in the Wall art-pop and BoDeans highway rock. Speaking of the BoDeans, the ballad Georgia is a tensely low-key ringer for something from that band circa 1995.

This brother outfit goes back to boogie blues with the strutting I’ll Make Love to You Any Ol’ Time. Then they blast through Everything Is Fake in a swirling hailstorm of tremolo-picking. The album winds up with an amped-up cover of Scott McKenzie’s famous 1967 janglepop hit San Francisco, Neil Young cameo included. It’s sad how so few children of noteworthy rock musicians have lived up to their parents’ greatness – on the other hand, it’s heartwarming to see these guys join the ranks of Amy Allison (daughter of Mose), the Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan and Sean Lennon. And these guys rock a lot harder than all of them.

Purist Americana in Park Slope with Mamie Minch and Laura Cantrell

Mamie Minch and Laura Cantrell have a lot in common. While each has a devoted following in her own Americana niche – Minch is a blues maven and Cantrell is steeped in vintage country music – they’re fans of each other’s styles and each other’s work. What’s the likelihood of seeing the two charismatic, often mesmerizing performers on the same stage? It happened last night at Union Hall in Park Slope, where Cantrell played the first night of her weekly May residency there. She’ll be playing at around 9 on Tuesdays for the rest of the month, with a rotating selection of special guests opening at around 8. Cover is $10. Shows like this one are why we live in New York, folks.

The room was pretty full by the time Minch hit the stage, solo with her trusty late 30s resonator guitar. She quickly reminded what a connoisseur she is when it comes to songs, and tunings – she used a new one on practically every song – and licks. For a first-class country blues player, she’s very economical, true to her influences. Her version of Mattie Delaney’s Big Road Blues alternated deliciously between a dancing, walking beat and a resonant, spiky shuffle. A little later she reinvented Bessie Smith’s Sing Sing Blues – the unrepentant tale of an abused woman who killed her man – as a chillingly rustic, practically otherworlldly feminist anthem. She also reinvented a handful of her own songs, moving effortlessly from her resonant alto voice to unexpectedly  higher registers on Border Radio, an upbeat, swinging hillbilly ballad dedicaated to the Carter Family; Razorburn Blues, a rapidfire litany of the things women endure for guys who don’t appreciate them; and Fortifiied Wine Widow, a morose Roaring 20s-style lament for a guy who couldn’t stay away from the patent medicine. She’d return later to join Cantrell and her band for a soulful, nuanced duet on Ivory Joe Hunter’s I Almost Lost My Mind, trading off on solos with a similarly nimble, purist guitarist, Boo Reiners. And it was fun to hear the two frontwomen ponder influences, and song origins, out loud between songs, a revealing look at two world-class musicologists in their element

Minch engaged the crowd with plenty of sardonic background for her songs, no surprise since she’s known for being a cutup onstage. But Cantrell can also be LMAO funny when she wants to be, and she was in an even more talkative mood than she usually is. Her funniest story involved the old Civil War song When the Roses Bloom Again – which she and her group played using the melody by Wilco – and a version sung by Barry Gibb. That’s right, a Bee Gee on the Grand Old Opry. The youtube clip is every bit as priceless as Cantrell said it was.

In her family, song collecting is a tradition going back to her great-aunt Ethel, who got credit for a possible edit/update on that song, as well as the murder ballad Poor Ellen Smith, which Cantrell and her sensational four-piece acoustic band with fiddle, Reiners on lead acoustic guitar and banjo and Jeremy Chatzky on bass –  did as a pretty straight-up bluegrass tune.

The set was a mix of fan favorites and expected numbers, like a couple of Amy Allison songs: a joyous take of Can’t Wait and an aptly somber, sober version of The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter as the encore. Cantrell also soared through a lively take of Jenifer Jackson‘s What You Said, then brought the lights down with a stark take of the brooding, ornate breakup ballad No Way There From Here, the title track to Cantrell’s most recent and characteristically brilliant album. She paid tribute to 1940s country hitmaker Molly O’Day with the pensive Mountain Fern and then to her most obvious influence with a robust version of Kitty Wells Dresses. From the jaunty swing of All the Same to You to the Neko Case-style simplicity of Maybe Sparrow, Cantrell worked every corner of her magical, crystalline voice from whispery lows to spectacular highs.

She was a transcendent singer fifteen years ago and she’s even better now, if such a thing can be possible. Arguably the best song of the night was Churches Off the Interstate, an early song from her debut album Not the Tremblin’ Kind, which won her a national following after she’d won over this city. On album, it’s a brisk, buttersweet shuffle. This all-acoustic version was more spare, and bucolic, and haunting: Cantrell seemed to want to clarify that it’s about hope rather than any kind of expectation of a happy ending. In the context of being a concert favorite by someone who used to play it all over what’s now a sometimes unrecognizable East Village, it was heartbreaking. Cantrell’s back here this coming May 12, preceded by a screening of films selected by archivist Russell Scholl. And the next cuople of weeks after, the band will be rejoined by another brilliant guitarist, Jon Graboff. Yeah, Graboff and Reiners on the same stage, that should be something.

Nell Robinson Brings Her Historically Rich Antiwar Americana Songs to Joe’s Pub

Alabama Americana songwriter Hilary Perkins, a.k.a. Nell Robinson has an epic and historically relevant antiwar-themed new album out, The Rose of No-Man’s Land – streaming at Spotify – with an all-star cast of players and special guests. It’s a mix of classic and cult-favorite war-themed songs from the Americana songbook from across the ages, along with Robinson’s originals which draw on letters sent home from the wartime front from throughout her family history. As you would expect from such serious material, most of the music is on the slow side. What’s most interesting about it is that none of these songs are didactic or preachy: they let the war stories and veterans’ laments speak for themselves, reminding that pretty much everybody who goes to war and survives it comes home a pacifist. In concert, Perkins involves the audience a lot more actively than just in a singalong way, and she’s bringing that show to Joe’s Pub on Saturday night, Nov 22 at 7 PM with her band and special guest Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Tix are $25.

The album opens on an aptly somber note with a brief, slow instrumental take of Bill Monroe’s My Last Days on Earth, Jim Nunally’s steady acoustic guitar paired with Greg Leisz’s resonant dobro. Robinson’s direct, uncluttered, vibrato-infused vocals give the traditional song Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier an imploring edge. Kathy Baker reads the first of the letters – from the real Nell Robinson, Perkins’ grandmother, to her soldier on the front in World War I, offering some unexpected comic relief.

The rest of the band – David Piltch on bass and Zach Harmon on drums – come in on Luther Presley’s Waiting for the Boys to Come Home, Levon Henry adding a celebratory clarinet solo. But the optimism is short-lived, the band returning to gently sobering mode with the Civil War narrative Blue-Eyed Boston Boy and keeps that going with the old folk song One Morning in May

A bluegrass romp through Rodney Crowell’s Scots Irish takes the theme forward in time to the Vietnam era and then today with some sweet flatpicking from Nunally and mandolin from Leisz. They follow that with a blue-flame take of Johnny Cash’s Vietnam talking blues Drive On with similar energy and cynicism, Elliott taking over lead vocals. X’s John Doe duets with Perkins on her starkly wistful bluegrass original Happy to Go – a revealing look at the psychology of defending one’s country – as well as on an aching take of Mel Tillis’ Stateside, pushed along by Craig Eastman’s fiddle.

Guy Clark’s Heroes, a chilling narrative about a shellshocked Gulf War vet, gets a gorgeously hushed treatment. The Forgotten Soldier Boy, another slow number from the Bill Monroe repertoire, revisits the theme from a WWI point of view. A Nunally original, Poppies stays in that era, Piltch’s all-too-brief bass solo adding an aptly bittersweet edge. Perkins sings an a-cappella verse of the country gospel title track, then follows that with another purist bluegrass original, Wahatchee, a brutal battlefield ballad set during the American Revolution. The album seems to hedge its bets at the end, closing on a patriotic note with Gene Scheer’s American Anthem.

The rest of the letters are as affecting as the songs. Kris Kristofferson reads a bitter, pessimistic 1866 assessment of Civil War Reconstruction; Doe voices a funny 1944 vignette; Maxine Hong Kingston delivers a brooding 1932 recollection of the veterans’ march on Washington, DC; and Elliott reads Marcus Cumbie’s 2012 poem Grove Hill. Click here for the text and song lyrics. What does all this prove? For one, that veterans always get the shaft after their service is done, no matter how much ink gets spilled over their heroism. In 2014, the majority of Americana combat veterans, some of them poisoned by the radioactive waste in U.S. munitions, return home too disabled to work.

Urban Country Legend Amy Allison Returns to Her Old East Village Stomping Ground This Sunday

It was fun to see Amy Allison make a return trip last month to what’s left of the East Village where she started. The iconic Americana songwriter played a mix of hits and unexpected new treats to an adoring crowd upstairs at 2A, where she’s on the bill again this Sunday Oct 19 at 10. Last time out was a duo show with brilliant guitarist Jon Graboff, her longtime bandmate back in the day who’ll be joining her along with bassist Richard Hammond this time out.

After she’d run through the coy Shakespearean country song Love’s Labors Lost – only Amy Allison could pull off a Shakespearean country song and make it not sound fake – she told the crowd that she’d wanted to change one of the verses to “My love for you is real/Her tits are fake,” in honor of the recently deceased Joan Rivers. But Allison forgot to do that. So she told that to the audience. Since her music is so nuanced and meticulous, just like her minutely jeweled vocals, she’ll own up to a mistake if it gets a laugh…or adds another level of meaning to the many others. She’s like that.

Emmylou Harris is going to cover Allison’s song Her Hair Was Red – a dedication to her grandmother – on her next album, so she played that wistful, nostalgic number, as well as the more rapt Everywhere You Are Is Where I Am. Graboff lit up the distantly Orbisonesque Don’t Go to Sleep with some richly jazzy phrasing, then echoed that later when the two teamed up for a broodingly ominous cover of Was, by her famous jazzcat dad Mose Allison. They romped through Blue Plate Special, a bittersweet portrait of her days living in Memphis, then Garden State Mall, her poignant tale of a girl who ends up with barely enough in her wallet to justify the expedition. Then they got more optimistic – sort of, anyway – with Pretty Things to Buy, which might have been inspired by her days working in retail at a boutique a few blocks south. In those days, New York musicians could actually pay rent without inherited money.

She encored with Sad Girl, the title track to the album Elvis Costello picked as one of his favorites, a song she’s played over and over again. It’s sort of her signature song, and she still sings it like it’s the first time, aching and hopeful despite all evidence to the contrary. Which is why she’s such a treasure. Upstairs at 2A this Sunday night – c’mon, it’s Professional Night, all the amateurs will be asleep in their beds – is where it’s at.

Laura Cantrell Is Back With That Amazing Voice and More Brilliant Tunesmithing

The onetime “proprietress” of the wildly popular Radio Thrift Shop on WFMU and BBC Radio Scotland, Laura Cantrell’s career is marked by the same quietly resolute determination that distinguishes her vocals. She’s one of the most extraordinary voices in any kind of music over the last twenty years – she can say more with a single, bittersweet bent note than most singers can in a whole album – and she resists pigeonholing. Cantrell made a name for herself as the greatest of the alt-country singers, then took an abrupt detour into rock, then more or less returned to the roots of her native Nashville (although she’s quick to acknowledge that as a kid, she was a lot more new wave than country). Her new album No Way There from Here (which you can hear on Spotify) is her first collection of originals since 2008’s fetchingly retro-60s Trains and Boats and Planes, and ranks among the best things she’s ever done. The songs are split about 50/50 between more-or-less oldschool country and jangly rock. That “more or less” qualifier is because Cantrell likes to push the envelope: for example, in back of the jangly twelve-string guitars on the album’s wryly knowing opening number, All the Girls Are Complicated (a co-write with Amy Allison), there’s a bass clarinet. Not your typical Nashville instrumentation.

And as much as Cantrell gets props for her voice, she’s a first-class songwriter. One of the best songs here is the biting country fiddle tune Beg and Borrow Days, a swipe at anyone who might have snarkily criticized her early in her career for championing material written by her friends in the Lakeside Lounge scene rather than coming up with her own material. The absolutely heartbroken, anthemic title track is another one, a big anthem with strings and piano and a mandolin that sometimes sounds like a balalaika, Cantrell ending it by morosely quoting the Tennessee Waltz.

Starry Skies paints a warmly vivid nocturnal tableau, with all kinds of neat touches from guitars, accordion and piano. Cantrell sings the steel guitar-driven ballad Glass Armour with a tender concern for a guy who’s gotten off his game and needs to get it back: we should all be so lucky as to have someone so caring in our corner. Barely Said a Thing is pensive mystery story, recounting a sseduction that might or might not go somewhere, set to an oldschool country tune with organ and more of that deliciously jangly twelve-string. Washday Blues is Cantrell at her aphoristic best, cleaning up a lifetime’s worth of disappointed metaphors against a backdrop of steel guitar and mandolin. The album ends with Someday Sparrow, evoking Neko Case with its mix of disheartened vulnerability and guarded optimism over a purist dobro-fueled C&W melody.

As intensely emotional as a lot of these songs are, Cantrell also has a fun side, and there’s lighthearted, upbeat stuff here too: the woozily optimistic after-the-party ballad Letter She Sent; the absolutely irresistible, briskly shuffing banjo tune Driving Down Your Street; the steadily strolling, bucolic When It Comes to You; and Allison’s breathless Can’t Wait. Cantrell is on UK tour right now; the remaining showdates are here.