New York Music Daily

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Poignant, Pensive Brilliance on Jessie Kilguss’ Allusive, Eclectic, Wickedly Tuneful New Album

You’d think that someone who’d taken a star turn in stage productions with Daniel Day Lewis and Marianne Faithfull would stick with a successful theatrical career. But Jessie Kilguss was drawn to music – and that’s our victory and the theatre world’s loss. Over the past decade, she’s become one of the most haunting singers in any style of music. Her delivery is intimate, like she’s letting you in on a secret – whether that might be a sly joke, an innuendo or something far more sinister. While she’s best known as a purveyor of folk noir, her back catalog spans from witchy art-rock to anthemic janglerock to Richard and Linda Thompson-esque, Britfolk-influenced stylings.

Her new album The Fastness – streaming at Spotify – is not about velocity. It’s about refuge. The title is a North Sea term for a secluded hideaway: a place to hold fast. That sheltering theme resonates mightily through a mix of imagistic, often poignant songs blending elements of 60s soul, 80s goth, new wave and art-rock. And Kilguss’ voice has never soared more mightily or murmured more mordantly than here on this album. She and her first-class band are playing the album release show this Thursday, June 28 at 8:30 PM at the downstairs third stage at the Rockwood; cover is $10.

With Kirk Schoenherr’s contrasting layers of guitar – icy and Siouxsie-esque in the left channel, watery and organ-timbred in the right – the album’s opening track The Master is an elegaic masterpiece. In usual Kilguss fashion, it’s enigmatic to the extreme. “Who will be the oracle when he is gone?” is the final refrain. A Bernie Sanders parable, maybe, or a more ancient, mythological reference? 

Kilguss follows that with Spain, a guardedly optimistic if understatedly brooding update on 60s soul balladry, spiced with guitar grit over the calmly swaying pulse of John Kengla’s bass and Rob Heath’s drums. Strangers comes across as a wistful mashup of Guided By Voices and Blondie, while Dark Corners of Your Mind follows a hypnotically vamping, psychedelic path, akin to the Frank Flight Band with a woman out front. Kengla’s bass dances amid the sheets of rainy-day guitars as Kilguss ponders the danger of being subsumed by the demands of a relationship.

New Start is a surreal, unlikely mashup of classic 60s C&W and echoey new wave, but Kilguss manages to make it work, all the way through one of the album’s catchiest choruses, awash in the waves from her harmonium. Hell Creek – a co-write with Kengla – is one of the murder ballads she writes so well. With its lingering atmospherics, Kilguss references current-day atomization and how its ramifications can do far more damage than just playing tricks with your mind.

Likewise, Rainy Night in Copenhagen has aptly echoey, Cure-like ambience. Bridge the Divide is the monster anthem here, an eerily propulsive Laurel Canyon psychedelic verse giving way to soaring new wave on the chorus.

What Is It You Want From Me is the closest thing here to Kilguss’ purist pop masterpiece Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, from her 2014 album Devastate Me. She winds up this cycle with with the metaphorically-loaded Edge of Something, an easy place to fall off one way or another. Another triumph for one of the most unselfconsciously brilliant tunesmiths to emerge from this city in recent years and a strong contender for best rock record of 2018.

Ferocious Power Trio Castle Black Put Out One of 2017’s Best Short Albums

In an era when gentrification, the demise of one venue after another and subway closures all down the line at night have landed one crushing blow after another on the New York music scene, Castle Black’s rise to become one of this city’s best bands is as heartwarming as it is improbable. A couple of years ago, they were playing the usual cruddy circuit of bottom-tier venues that most new bands never gain enough traction to leave. Since then, Castle Black have put out a succession of ep’s, each one better than the other and emerged as a relentlessly touring powerhouse.

Armed with a couple of vintage Fenders, guitarist/frontwoman Leigh Celent has grown into a powerful and distinctive player equally at home with noise and melody. Bassist Lisa Low anchors the music with a looming ominousness while drummer Matt Bronner ranges from rapidfire four-on-the-floor punk to doomy metal to the occasional departure into unorthodox meters, holding the beast to the rails. The band’s latest ep, Trapped Under All You Know is streaming at youtube. They’re playing the release show on August 25 at 10 PM at the Well in Bushwick – they’re definitely loud enough to drown out any of the other bands rehearsing in the upstairs rooms there.

The album’s first track, Seeing in Blue kicks off with Bronner’s boomy tom-tom rolls, Celent building an angst-fueled nocturnal scenario with her guitar and her vocals. It’s part Avengers roar and part enigmatic late-period Bush Tetras, with a little Cramps menace. And it’s as catchy as all those references

Broken Bright Star is one of the half-dozen best songs of 2017, hands down. The catchy, doomy opening guitar riff brings to mind the Vice Squad classic Last Rockers, rising to a richly jangly mesh of guitar multitracks on the chorus. The point where the verse suddenly dips down to just Celent’s vocals, and then explodes with a wrathful guitar chord, will give you goosebumps.

Blind Curtain is just as anthemic and catchy: imagine a two-guitar version of Blondie covering mid-80s Husker Du. The album stays in that relentlessly troubled zone with the distantly Joy Division-inflected last cut, Rise, Celent’s roaring, reverbtoned guitar shards flickering through the “shadows as they rise, again and again again.”  Brief as this is,  you’ll see this album on the best of 2017 page here in December if we’re still all here.

A Killer Triplebill Foreshadows a Great Psychedelic Show on the LES

This Thursday, March 30 at 8 PM there’s a rare, intimate performance by second-wave Los Angeles psychedelic legends the Jigsaw Seen at Bowery Electric. They’re followed by the much louder New York Junk, whose retro sound moves forward in time another ten years to the Max’s Kansas City early punk rock scene. Cover is a ridiculously cheap, CBGB-era $8.

The Jigsaw Seen’s latest album, streaming at Spotify, is aptly titled For the Discriminating Completist. It’s a collection of B-sides and rarities. There’s an album of new material in the works, and frontman Dennis Davison has also recently immersed himself in a brand-new dark acoustic project, Witchfinder Witch, a duo with New York folk noir icon Lorraine Leckie. Speaking of which, she has an incendiary new protest single, America Weeping, just out and available as a free download at Bandcamp

The two made their debut at Pete’s Candy Store on a Saturday night in January, Davison on acoustic guitar and Leckie on piano. The highlight of that gig was Cave Canem, a witheringly lyrical anthem that casts the history of dogs – and centuries of canine abuse – as a metaphor for humans’ crimes against their own species.

A few days later at Maxwell’s, the duo were the centerpiece of what’s arguably been the best triplebill of the year. Debby Schwartz opened the show, jangling adn clanging through a series of arcane British folk turnings on her hollowbody Gretsch, bolstered by Bob Bannister’s nuanced, artfully jeweled, Richard Thompson-esque Strat work, Rose Thomas Bannister supplying lush harmonies and percussion. Through neo-Britfolk and more dreampop-oriented material, Schwartz sang with her her soaring, diamond-cutter delivery, dreaming New York City in the middle of LA and finally closing with a stunning take of the psych-folk anthem Hills of Violent Green.

By now, Witchfinder Witch had shaken off whatever early jitters they might have had: they’d come to conquer. Davison spun bittersweet, pun-infused psych pop gems weighing the pros and cons of clinical depression (do it right and you get tons of songs out of it) and a couple of darkly allusive, mystically-tinged co-writes with Leckie. She charmed and seduced the crowd with blue-flame red-light cabaret tune or two, a jaunty S&M piano number that was so deadpan that it was creepily plausible, and a mysterious, hypnotic folk noir tableau that could have been about heroin, or simply death itself. The crowd was rapt.

The Pretty Babies headlined, putting a deliriously fun coda on what had been a low-key, entrancing evening up to then. Professional subversive and rockstar impersonator Tammy Faye Starlite – who’s channeling Nico on Thursdays in April at 7:30 PM at Pangea – led the world’s funniest Blondie cover band through a stampeding take of Dreaming as well as a surprising number of deeper cuts from the band’s early days when they rocked harder. If memory serves right, Tammy took a hilariously politically-fueled detour that eventually drove Call Me off the rails. Everybody in the band has a funny, punny Blondie name. Was bassist Monica Falcone – who absolutely nailed the wry disco lines in Heart of Glass – newly christened as Chrissie Stein? It’s hard to remember who else everybody else was: Heidi Lieb and Keith Hartel as Frank Infantes separated at birth, and expert standins for Jimmy Destri on keys and Clem Burke on drums. Hearing the Pretty Things and watching the crowd on their feet and bopping along was a jab in the ribs that said, hey, the original outfit was pretty good too. 

Purist Tunesmithing and a Slipper Room Show from Tamara Hey

Tamara Hey is New York to the core. She’s got an edgy sense of humor, a laser sense for a catchy classic pop hook and one of the most unselfconsciously ravishing voices in any style of music. Her album Miserably Happy (streaming at Spotify) is aptly titled: there’s a bittersweet dichotomy in her songs, biting lyrics with indelible New York City imagery set to a warmly tuneful blend of acoustic and electric folk-pop and powerpop. She’s playing the Slipper Room (Orchard and Stanton, upstairs over the big tourist restaurant) on May 8 at 7 PM; cover is $10.

The opening track, You Wear Me Out sets the stage: a deceptively sugary pop narrative about an exasperating guy who won’t give his girlfriend any breathing room. One minute he’s in the West Village with her, hell-bent on showing the world he’s not gay; the next he’s getting his mom on his side since the girl just happens to be the right religion for the holidays. The second track, Round Peg puts an only slightly lighthearted spin on the grim issue of female body issues: the narrator wishes she could relax and eat up like her full-figured friend rather than being “bitter in the center and no fun to be around.”

Umbrella, a delicate, vivid rainy-day tableau is a showcase for Hey’s clear, cool, crystalline maple sugar voice. Hey follows that with the backbeat powerpop gem Somebody’s Girl, a cleverly quirky number that wouldn’t be out of place in the Patti Rothberg catalog. Then Hey gets quiet and reflective again with Isabelle, which could be about schadenfreude, or the exasperation that comes with watching a dear friend screw up for the umpteenth time – or both.

Drive will resonate with any oldschool New Yorker. It starts with a 9/11 reference:

Any bright sunny day
With a low-flying plane
New York City, I lose feeling in my fingers
When there’s no subsequent crash
The blood returns and I go back
To doing what I do
But it still lingers

Then it hits a powerpop pulse with staccato strings and a biting Art Hays guitar solo, Hey hell-bent on just a momentary respite from crowded trains and random urban hassles. Likewise, the lushly arranged nocturne Long Dog Day vividly evokes post-dayjob exhaustion and the challenge of pulling yourself together for the rest of the evening.

The album’s funniest song, David #3 sardonically looks at how women get caught up with guys they really ought to stay away from – she hates his Red Sox hat, and when he’s in jail, since she can’t bail him out, she’s going to miss him! With Hey’s elegant tenor guitar intro, the album’s title track reimagines the Blondie hit Dreaming with more of an Americana edge. The final cut, October Sun, a gentle, pretty waltz, examines the price you pay for living intensely: “I unravel, not unwind,” Hey scowls, her lead guitarist channeling George Harrison during his solo. The whole album is one of the unsung purist pop releases of recent years.

Hey is also offering a very inexpensive series of Tuesday night workshops in music theory and writing lead sheets and charts beginning April 29 and continuing for five weeks through May 27.. As you might expect from her lyrics, Hey has a sardonic wit, and a disarmingly direct, commonsensical approach to music, qualities well suited to teaching. Classes run from 6:30 to 8:30 in the Astor Place neighborhood, close to the 6, N and R trains. If you can’t make the classes, Hey will also have courses available online starting in May, email for information or register online.

The Split Squad Hits a Home Run Their First Time Up

During spring training, baseball teams often field two different squads on the same day against different teams, to facilitate plenty of practice time for both the stars and the scrubs. Which explains the sarcasm in the Split Squad’s name: this retro rock supergroup includes keyboardist Josh Kantor from Steve Wynn’s Baseball Project as well as Blondie drummer Clem Burke, guitarists Keith Streng of ageless garage rockers the Fleshtones and Eddie Munoz from powerpop cult legends the Plimsouls along with bassist Michael Giblin. On their debut album Now Here This, the Split Squad goes back through fifty years of rock, plundering ideas all over the place and mixing them up into a snarling, roaring, guitar-fueled blend of powerpop turbocharged with punk and oldschool garage rock. They’re at Bowery Electric on April 25 at around 10 atop a great purist guitar-fueled triplebill: Lakeside Lounge supergroup Los Dudes open the show at around 8 followed by legendary indie power trio the Figgs, still going strong after twenty years. Advance tickets are $10 and highly recommended.

The album unfortunately isn’t streaming on the web, but several of the tracks have made it to youtube (follow the link and enjoy!); there are also brief clips at the band’s music page. The title track opens the album. It’s Clash City Rockers meets Shakin’ All Over, as done by a late edition of Radio Birdman – yeah, that good. Those two paint-peeling wah guitar solos could be Chris Masuak. The steady, punchy, snide Touch & Go is the Kinks as done by Guided by Voices, more or less. With its mean, jangly guitar on the chorus, snappy bass and screaming guitar solo, She Is Everything could be a Del-Lords track from the late 80s. Then Sorry She’s Mine works the La Bamba/Hang On Sloopy riff before it goes in a janglier direction – anybody remember 18, that excellent Williamsburg garage-punk band from about six-seven years ago?

I’ve Got a Feeling has a tasty post-Stooges/Radio Birdman sway, with a deliciously swirly, all-too-brief organ solo. The vicious kiss-off anthem I Can’t Remember goes for a haphazard, 6/8 oldschool soul groove. I Feel the Same About You bookends a somewhat wry Beatles Abbey Road intro and outro around a four-on-the-floor powerpop stomp that could be Cheap Trick, right down to the Bun E. Carlos drumrolls out of the verse. Likewise, Superman Says, a look behind the mask of a stressed-out superhero: “They take it for granted that I never lose,” Clark Kent grouses.

Put It Down keeps the catchy powerpop going over a soul-clap beat that slows down to make way for the organ. Tinker Taylor hints at a Dolls glam vibe, while Hey Hey Baby, the most trad garage rock tune here, blends fuzz guitar into a biting minor-key riff-rock tune. You’ll Never Change is a brooding Vegas tango done as oldschool soul, Spooky by the Classics IV but genuinely spooky. The album winds up with Messin’ Around , which is basically Gloria, right down to the half-assed harmonica. They take it out with a nasty exchange of bars from the guitars. Recycling has seldom been so much fun.

Ellen Foley Gets Back in the Rock Groove

Before she made a name for herself in film, on tv and in the theatre, Ellen Foley had a brief but arguably just as successful career as a singer. Her Mick Ronson-produced 1979 debut album Night Out bombed in the US but scored big in several European markets. Her classic remains 1981’s Spirit of St. Louis, generally regarded as the great lost Clash album since Joe Strummer and Mick Jones (Foley’s boyfriend at the time) produced it, played on it and wrote most of the songs. Then there was 1983’s Another Breath, a pretty forgettable detour into synth-pop. Oh yeah – Foley also sang on that famous Meatloaf monstrosity as well as a bunch of Joe Jackson hits. After a similarly eclectic acting career, it was good to suddenly see her fronting a band again, starting about six years ago when she had a more-or-less monthly residency at the late, great Lakeside Lounge. And now she’s got a new record, About Time, with her Lakeside band, assembled by former Five Chinese Brothers leader Paul Foglino and produced by Eric Ambel. The album, her first in thirty years, confirms for anyone who missed her Lakeside shows that the chameleonic chanteuse is just as adept at deliciously guitar-driven highway rock as she is with cabaret, powerpop and elegant chamber-rock. The whole thing is streaming at her Bandcamp page. She’s doing the album release show at the Cutting Room at 8 PM on Nov 4; tix are $20 and still available as of today.

Foglino contributes most of the songs here – and they’re some of the best he’s ever written. The opening track, If You Can’t Be Good has Foley showing off the big resonant vibrato that became her trademark back in the 70s, over a tastefully arranged web of jangly guitars. Nobody Ever Died from Crying looks back to Blondie with its steady backbeat pulse and coyly vengeful lyrics, while All of My Suffering goes in a swaying, anthemic highway rock direction with Stonesy piano, organ and slide guitar, followed by a tasty wee-hours version of Randy Newman’s Guilty.

“If you had a mind, you would be losing it, if you had a soul, it would be shaking…torture me, torture me, open your eyes and tell me what you see,” Foley intones with understated rage on the catchy, soul-tinged If You Had a Heart. She turns in her best vocal over a sultry saloon-jazz groove on Madness, then goes back to the glam on the T Rex-flavored Worried Woman, with its wickedly soaring chorus. And then she brings it down with the Memphis soul-tinged Any Fool Can See.

Around the Block and Back keeps the vintage soul vibe going, defiantly alluding to the twists and turns of a long career. Another standout track is I Can See, Orbison noir as peak-era 70s Blondie might have done it. She looks back in time another ten years to the early Who with the stomping Carry On and winds up the album with a lullaby of sorts, Everything’s Gonna Be All Right. It’s good to see a cult heroine from thirty years ago still at the top her of game, picking up like she never left off.

The Pretty Babies Do Blondie Better Than the Originals

Some cover bands are actually better than the original because the music they cover is so horrible. That the Pretty Babies‘ Blondie covers might be better than the originals is a lot more impressive. Subversive cabaret personality/chanteuse Tammy Faye Starlite pulled this group together as one of her snarkily hilarious but musically spot-on all-female cover projects, after savaging the Rolling Stones in the Mike Hunt Band and then taking a stab at the New York Dolls with Prima Ballerina. Beyond the nonstop, cruelly sardonic and usually LMFAO stream-of-consciousness banter, what makes this band so good is that they absolutely nail the music. Last week at Arlene’s their drummer had Clem Burke’s machinegun rumble down cold, their bassist (who apparently had been brought in to pinch-hit on short notice) had Chris Stein’s agile lines in his fingers, and both “Frannie Infante” and Sit N Spin’s Heidi Lieb on guitars pulled off their parts like their hair was still feathered (yeah, they might go back that far) and it was 1983.

Another cool thing about this band is how deeply they go into the catalog. What do you do if you’re a Blondie cover band and your keyboardist is AWOL? You play the powerpop songs. That meant no Rapture, or Heart of Glass, or The Tide Is High – and the set was better for it. They opened with Hanging on the Telephone, Tammy wailing with a power that Deborah Harry would have killed for in 1977, Lieb completely deadpan as she played her leads through a chorus pedal for the perfect, watery new wave guitar tone. There were technical difficulties on One Way or Another, and Tammy seized the opportunity to wordlessly harrass the sound guy – hasn’t every band that’s ever played this venue wanted to do that?

Their titular song, Tammy explained, was about a thirteen-year-old girl having sex and was ostensibly written for Brooke Shields, who “had the eyebrow thing to bond on” with Chris Stein, a joke the band’s two blonde women ran with until it was beyond tasteless. And their take on the song was as sad and pretty as Blondie ever got, maybe more so: name a goth band that hasn’t done something influenced one way or another by that tune. From there they cannonballed through Dreaming, went back to ethereal and pretty for Touched by Your Presence, Dear, channeled the Dolls on Rip Her to Shreds and then the Ramones on I’m Gonna Love You Too. The funniest moment of the night was the intro to Call Me, where they launched into another song that sounds exactly like it – but it wasn’t Children of the Grave. The joke is too good to spoil – if you’re lucky you’ll get to see them do it again. Watch this space for upcoming shows, always a possibility when Tammy’s not doing her poignant/hilarious Nico revue Chelsea Madchen (which earned a rave review here).

Bebe Buell – Better Than Ever At the Hiro Ballroom

At this point Bebe Buell can rest on her laurels if she wants to. The legendary rock scenestress has written the well-received memoir Rebel Heart; raised a popular daughter (Liv Tyler); and in the 80s and early 90s, she led a couple of first-class bands who were sort of thinking person’s alternatives to Blondie. So it was something of a surprise, and a heartwarming one, to see Buell pack the Hiro Ballroom last night, fronting a tight new group and airing out a bunch of first-rate powerpop songs from her new album Hard Love. Some of those tunes evoked 80s new wave/popsters the Motels – especially since Buell is working her lower register with more authority than she used to – and some of them leaned back toward glamrock. But the best ones – in fact, almost everything she played – had a distinctly defiant, oldschool New York edge.

If you look at the video from thirty years ago, it’s obvious that Buell wasn’t out of her element with the guys she palled around with (Elvis Costello and the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler, to name a couple). She really knew what she was doing in front of the mic, and she still does – this could be her finest hour. Backed by two guitars, inobtrusive synthesizer, drums and Joan Jett’s former bassist, Buell didn’t have anything on a laptop and she didn’t rely on her excellent backup singer to carry the tunes – although she did appreciate the harmonies. “She’s got my back,” Buell explained with an appreciative wink. The show kicked off on an impressively ominous note with the crunchy powerpop Sugar Sugar (no relation to the 60s pop ditty), with a gypsy punk edge that sounded like Vera Beren in a slightly less menacing mood. They got even crunchier after that with a glam/80s tune possibly titled Stop Look Listen. Several of the songs revisited a dark new wave vibe that evoked DollHouse, another New York band who should be better remembered than they are. “Turn out all the lights, she said,” Buell intoned on a particularly ominous, seductive one of those songs a little later in the set.

Normal Girl sounded like the Ramones doing the Runaways, toying with gender roles – Buell’s normal girls raise hell, mess with guys and don’t kiss ass. The Joey Ramone requiem Fly Black Angel got an epic glam-noir treatment, with a long, surprisingly ethereal outro: “Across this city headlights shine for you,” Buell sang over the brooding, watery swoosh and clang. You Got It All Wrong swung with a raging Dead Boys midtempo stomp welded to creepy, swooping upper-register synth; her cover of the Gang of Four’s I Love a Man in a Uniform ripped the sarcasm of the lyric from the margins and stuck it on the front page. The closing track on the new album, a big, crashing anthem called I Will Wait had a chilly unease that they sent flying with a cover of her old boyfriend Mick Jagger’s God Gave Me Everything. Throughout the show, Buell enticed the surprisingly young crowd to come toward the stage: “I want you to be close to me,” she assured them. And she made good on that promise. After the set was over, she went straight to the merch table to hang out with everyone, exactly what you’d want from someone who’d just done a song called the Mother of Rock n Roll.