New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: big star band

The Auspicious Future and Gloriously Melancholy Past of Americana Rock at Lincoln Center

For the last several years, the Americana Music Association has partnered to book the closing night of Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Yesterday’s festivities began with multi-instrumentalist Amanda Shires and her similarly brilliant band and closed soaringly and bittersweetly with the unselfconsciously gorgeous harmonies of the Jayhawks. There were other acts scheduled throughout the day, some of them rambunctious, one of them absolutely putrid, but if these two are the foundation and future of Americana, New York’s default listening music is in good hands.

Shires doesn’t exactly play violin like your typical Americana fiddler. From song to song, she’d fire off savage Romany chromatics, venomous tarantella riffs and stark blues along with plenty of extended technique, from muted pizzicato harmonics to slow, eerily surfacing glissandos. She’s also a hell of a storyteller, chooses her words and sings every song differently, in character. A brittle ingenue, wounded valkyrie and wistful red-dirt Texas songbird were just three of them.

She has a hell of a band. Her lead guitarist wove his way from biting minor-key blues, through menacingly Lynchian twang, often sparring with the bandleader. The bassist played what would have been new wave if the drummer hadn’t swung the music so hard: all those steady eighth notes and the occasional emphatic chord on the low end gave the music extra majesty.

They opened with My Love (The Storm), more or less a remake of Wayfaring Stranger, and brought the show full circle at the end, taking out Look Like a Bird with the day’s most searing guitar/violin duel. After a noir bolero and an amped-up romp through the sharp, bitter The Way It Dimmed, Shires told a funny story about an encounter with a Florida fan aromatic with “an herb that is legal in Colorado and other kind states.” He gave her a bag that turned out not to be filled with the obvious but with bits and pieces of a dead Siberian tiger – or so he said. “It’ll make you bulletproof!” he explained.

With that, Shires lit into  the song he inspired, which was funny for an instant but got dark quickly, a catalog of what might be worth protecting from gunfire, personal to political. A spare, lingering take of  Harmless, a cheating song that underscored dashed hopes rather than the potential fallout, contrasted with a loud, enigmatic rocker that brought to mind the Throwing Muses, then a loping, simmering Tex-Mex ballad that slowly crescendoed into growling psychedelia.

The Jayhawks have held up stunningly well since their glory days in the late 90s and early zeros. Frontman Gary Louris, pianist/organist Karen Grotberg and drummer Tim O’Reagan still blend voices for the most glistening harmonies this side of the Balkans, and bassist Marc Perlman still makes his slinky, seamlessly melodic lines look effortless. Meanwhile, the band’s newsboy-capped latest addition filled out the sound, switching between mandolin, airy violin lines, acoustic guitar and Telecaster.

In the years since the band’s legendary turn-of-the-century triptych of albums – 1997’s Sound of Lies, 2000’s Smile and 2003’s Rainy Day Music – Louris has grown into the lead guitar god he was struggling to be then. He’s switched out most of the screeching, Stoogoid dry-ice attack for a precise, meticulously dynamic, texturally rich volleys that varied from Mick Ronson heavy blues, to many subtle shades of clang and twang, enabled by fast footwork on a pedalboard. His signature sound – a little Beatles, a little Bowie and a whole lot of Big Star – has held up as well as the band.

They opened with the mighty, indomitable powerpop anthem I’m Gonna Make You Love Me and followed with an appropriately towering version of the evening’s best song, the angst-fueled individualist anthem The Man Who Loved Life and its bitter on-the-road narrative.

Trouble, the centerpiece of Sound of Lies’ thread of rejection and alienation, was as shattering as the album version, Louris hitting his flange for extra surrealism to raise the effect of being “Hung out to dry, backs against the wall, stoned out of our minds.”

The rest of the show followed a dynamic arc up to a big crescendo with Tailspin, its gloomy perspective muted within the framework of a mighty singalong anthem. O’Reagan took over lead vocals on the moody, C&W-fueled ballad Tampa to Tulsa. The material from the band’s latest album Paging Mr. Proust was surprisingly strong, including a vampy, vintage soul-inspired number that could have been the Zombies. Even the slighter, poppier material – like Angelyne and Save It For a Rainy Day – was fresh and forceful. How many other bands who’ve been around since the 80s still channel this much passion and intensity?

Lincoln Center Out of Doors wraps up tonight, August 13 at 6 PM out back in Damrosch Park with oldschool 70s soul man Don Bryant and then veteran blues guitarist Bonnie Raitt, And the atrium space just north of 62nd Street continues to program some of the most exhilaratingly diverse acts from around the globe. Next up there: a rare twinbill of hypnotic, otherworldly, intense Colombian bullerengue with singer and tambolero Emilsen Pacheco Blanco along with singer Carolina Oliveros’ mighty 13-piece vocal/percussion choir Bulla en el Barrio on August 24 at 7:30 PM. The show is free; the earlier you get there, the better.

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Lush, Gorgeous Psychedelic Pop and Vintage Folk-Rock from the New Mendicants

The New Mendicants – the Pernice Brothers’ Joe Pernice, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and the Sadies’ Mike Belistky – blend classic psychedelic and powerpop sounds from the 60s and 70s while adding their own wickedly tuneful edge. This supergroup of sorts absolutely nails a whole bunch of styles from the UK from around 1965 to 1975. Their new album Into the Lime is streaming at Spotify…and it’s also available on vinyl!

The trio open it very auspiciously with A Very Sorry Christmas, its growling, Badfinger guitars, a little bit of of a shuffling Ringo feel from Belitsky and some Big Star blending in as well. “I’ve hurt so many people on the way, on a very sorry Christmas Eve, I wonder if the ghosts will ever let me be,” Blake laments. The second track, By the Time It Gets Dark is an optimistically catchy, gorgeous folk- rock ballad spiced with glockenspiel (although the litany of cliches that serves as the first verse needs to go). The bouncy Cruel Annette blends the mod pulse of late 60s The Who with jaunty, slightly vaudevillian early 60s Beatles. After that, the delicate, McCartneyesque acoustic waltz Follow You Down is quite likely the prettiest song ever written about a suicide pact.

The genuine classic here is High on the Skyline, an enigmatically alienated folk-rock anthem that’s equal parts Strawbs Britfolk and lushly clangy, twanging Byrds. “I’ll show you how deadly close faraway can be,” Blake intones in his stately  delivery. If You Only Knew Her is similar musically, but more Beatlesque, sort of like a more fleshed-out take on Here, There and Everywhere. The trio follow that with the most modern-sounding track here, Lifelike Hair, a third-generation garage-psych rock tune with a hypnotic Brian Jonestown Massacre vibe.

It’s not clear at all what the title track is about, other than a lament for a vanished girlfriend: “The killing joke, the killing moon, the killing of me softly with this song,” Blake croons over a lushly orchestrated, sunnily attractive chamber folk melody. Sarasota blends elements of Motown and chamber pop into an absolutely surreal Florida scenario that might or might not be a murder mystery. The album winds up on a high note with the blistering neo-mod rock hit Shouting Match, a dead ringer for Connecticut pub rock legends the Reducers. The whole thing is one of the most tuneful collections to come over the transom here this year and a strong contender for one of 2014’s best albums.

Josh Berwanger’s Strange Stains Updates a Classic Powerpop Sound

Powerpop genius Josh Berwanger, formerly of 90s band the Anniversary, brings his breathlessly catchy songs to the Mercury on Oct 19 at 8 PM. This guy is a brilliant tunesmith: comparisons to Alex Chilton, Cheap Trick, the Raspberries and ELO are not an exaggeration. His new album Strange Stains traces a predictably doomed romance from its origins to the realization that it’s just not going to work out, along the way referencing several decades worth of catchy, anthemic three-minute songwriting.

The album opens with Bullets of Change, an incongruously successful blend of ELO pop with a C&W bridge – it’s so catchy that it actually works. Enemies mines a 60s noir Orbison doo-wop pop groove, the girl in question “overmedicated with all the pills I gave to you.” In the gorgeously jangly, Raspberries-ish Baby Loses Her Mind, the problem is that “Jenny’s up on the roof again, she’s not taking her medicine…she yells down, I was young, I’m getting old and it’s no fun.”

Time Traveller warps another Orbison-style pop tune into the 80s; it reminds of Milwaukee cult favorites the Shivvers with a guy instead of a girl in front of the band. Gypsy Girl & the Tombs of Atuan works its way to an angry, ominous vibe with a period-perfect late 70s twin guitar solo, bass rising against it tensely as it hits a high point.

Berwanger follows Mary, a la-la pop homage to ganja, with the dark, minor-key 60s folk-pop anthem I Can Feel the Moon. The 12-string guitar solo hits in the sweetest place possible, and then hands off to a terse blues solo, bass soaring underneath the sweep of the string synth. All Night Long sounds like Cheap Trick taking a stab at retro 50s rock, followed by the crushingly sarcastic, bouncy, horn-fueled Spirit World. The Spector-esque kiss-off number Sweet Little Girl is where everything unravels; the album ends with Everybody Knows, which is not the Leonard Cohen classic but another angry powerpop gem: “Everybody knows that your mind’s made out of clay, and you don’t have much to say,” Berwanger snarls quietly. What a cool new update on an old sound this is.

A Clinic in Tunesmithing with Daniel Stampfel

Thursday night Daniel Stampfel played the album release show for his new ep at Fontana’s. The singer/guitarist looks the same as he did when he was packing the old Luna Lounge ten years ago, fronting the Inevitable Breakups, a fantastic powerpop outfit that should have been the band representing New York around the world instead of the Strokes or Interpol. Stampfel’s crowd hasn’t changed any more than he has: fellow musicians out to watch a talented colleague work his magic live, and wide-eyed twentysomething women (Stampel always pulls the chicks no matter where he goes). The band was tremendous, as usual: good tunesmiths never have a hard time finding musicians to play those tunes. The lead guitarist switched expertly from searing, sun-drenched slide lines, to rapidfire, pointillistic bluesy runs, to plenty of nimble Johnny Marr-style jangle and clang, while the drummer walked the line expertly between swing and anthemic and the bassist picked out a steady, often suspenseful new wave pulse (and took the most interesting solo of the night on the next-to-last song). Stampfel’s nonchalantly soaring vocals sometimes took a back seat to the roar of the band, but that didn’t matter: people were there for the hooks.

As usual, there were plenty of those. Stampfel works a catchy area between the Jayhawks at their most cosmopolitan, the Raspberries at their most melodic and Big Star at their most focused, with a more propulsive, rhythmic drive than any of those bands. While those are all old groups, what Stampfel is doing is putting his own stamp on an oldschool style, tuneful verses working their way up to irresistibly catchy resolutions when the choruses hit. He opened playing acoustic guitar on a jangly midtempo number that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Gary Louris songbook, following with a bouncy, 80s-influenced song that was the poppiest one of the night. The band picked up the pace with a biting riff-rock number, then a more laid-back soul-flavored tune with a gorgeous little hailstorm of tremolo-picking by the lead player. Hurricane Bells’ Steve Schiltz (who produced the record) then came up to add an extra layer of his characteristically thoughtful, spacious guitar on a lush, anthemic tune that reminded of the Church back when that band was writing the occasional pop song. They closed with an unexpectedly minor-key new wave tune (the one with that great bass solo) and then an exuberant one that might have been an Inevitable Breakups song.

That was the music. Lyrics don’t really figure into what Stampfel does: some of the songs could have been titled Oh Baby I Love Your Way or Just the Two of Us (they weren’t, but you get the picture). In order to take his stuff to the next level, i.e. Carl Newman/Steve Kilbey/Elvis Costello territory, he needs a lyricist: tunes as good as this guy’s deserve some substance. One can only imagine the greatness that would result from a collaboration with, say, a Paula Carino or Ward White.

The Brixton Riot Hits One Out of the Park

The Brixton Riot are sort of an American counterpart to the Jam. Unlike the punk-era legends, their rhythms are more straight-ahead, four-on-the-floor, and the presence of two guitarists gives them a roaring, sometimes shimmering edge that the British band didn’t always have. And where the Jam looked to the Who and older American R&B bands for tunes, the Brixton Riot’s latest album Palace Amusements blends a Guided by Voices assault with catchy Big Star-influenced powerpop, sometimes veering into swirling dreampop or even toward the indie side of country. But otherwise the two bands have a lot in common, particularly a sharply literate lyrical vision. Frontman/guitarist Jerry Lardieri’s presence is strong but understated: much of the time this band lets the guitars do the talking. And that’s a great thing because they’re a blast; lead player Mark Wright adds some genuinely face-peeling intensity here. On top of all of this, the album is gorgeously produced: most bands these days can barely make it through a single verse before they loop it a couple of times and then call it done, but these guys fine-tune the sonic spectrum for ringing overtones, wailing bluesy lines, roaring punk rock grit and plenty of lush, attractive jangle and clang. Hardly anyone makes albums anymore that sound this good.

The title track, Signal to Noise, is an instant insight into how they work. The title is a snide metaphor for current pop music, “a hollow sound across the nation, signal to noise ratio.” It starts out with an insistent staccato riff, a bit like Wire, then morphs into something like a cross between GBV at their most lucid and Ted Leo at his least self-absorbed. The second track, Hard to See the Sun explores suburban anomie: “Keeping to yourself ’cause you love a mystery, deleting all the ghosts from your family history – it’s fine, it won’t change,” Lardieri observes sarcastically. There’s a series of big, shimmery dreampop swells, some nice terse slide guitar licks and then an offhandedly savage Mark Wright solo that goes chord-chopping and then sidewinding evilly into the last chorus. Wright is dangerous player, the rare lead guitarist you want to hear more from.

Canvas Shoes is just plain hilarious. With their silly accents and the music they’re compelled to make in order to conform to their peer group, the pampered children of Bushwick and Wicker Park make easy targets. But this is priceless: “Hey pretty boy, you know who you are, in your sister’s clothes, with your father’s guitar,” and it only gets better from there. The flip side of that equation is reflected in the scorching Motown rocker Our Cover’s Been Blown, an anxious and probably autobiographical look at a band staring at what looks more and more like a dead end, with “an easy road back to the commuter crawl,” as Lardieri bleakly puts it. They go back to only slightly less mean and sarcastic with Hipster Turns 30, a spot-on commentary for those on the wrong side of that number whose “accounts are overdrawn, no more rent checks from mom,” who’re finally trading in any claim to coolness in order to become their parents all over again.

Pinwheel stomps from a steady intro from bassist Steve Hass and drummer Matt Horutz to a catchy, Reducers-flavored pub rock tune, with more tremolo-picked menace from Wright, while Strange Matter sends out a snarling thank-you to the Jam’s Strange Town. But the closest thing to the Jam here is actually Ocean Avenue, punchy verse giving way to roaring chorus as Lardieri tells the bitter tale of a rocker who sees his neighborhood being destroyed by gentrification along with his dreams of not having to “turn all the amps down.”

The raging yet furtive Keep It a Secret takes a backbeat country tune and disguises it as punk, like Twin Turbine might have done ten years ago: it makes a good anthem for the era of Occupy sites. The bitter It’s Been Too Long goes deeper into a chronicle of a band reaching crisis point, with what by now is an expectedly cynical outlook:

Please spare me the speech, let’s get on with the rot
And count all the breaks that we never got
Let’s stop talking trash, let’s make a new start
Are we breaking new ground or just breaking apart?

The album ends with Losing Streak, one of the great baseball songs in the history of rock – trying to figure out if it’s pure fiction or a thinly veiled account of an actual blue-chip hitting prospect who’s going bust is maddening. When the band throws in a droll Wilco quote toward the end, that’s the only relief in sight. Like a lot of New Jersey bands, the Brixton Riot has been making Maxwell’s their home lately for live shows when they’re not playing in Manhattan; watch this space for upcoming dates.