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.

Lingering, Catchy Retro 80s Psychedelia from Annie Girl & the Flight

Before you consider San Francisco psychedelic new wave band Annie Girl & the Flight‘s new ep, Pilot Electric, hit their video page for The Devil, an incendiary, explosive, Thalia Zedek-esque mini-epic with a long, completely unhinged solo by lead guitarist Josh Pollock. That’s considerably more raw and feral than the stuff on the album (which is on Spotify, although mysteriously a Google search doesn’t reveal that), and it’s hard to think of anything more enticing to bring people out to see them live. They’re coming through town for a couple of shows, on May 21 at 9:30 at Shea Stadium in Bushwick and then early the next evening, May 22 at 6 PM at the small room at the Rockwood.

Their frontwoman sings in a dreamy, sometimes cooing high soprano over a lush backdrop with shimmery cymbals and lingering layers of guitar with a little wry wah action on the album’s tersely catchy first track, Fire Escape. When it picks up, the dreampop ambience remains.

The second track, The Forge vamps out a midtempo, nonchalantly swaying, hypnotic hook straight ouf of the Cure circa 17 Seconds; as the layers of guitar mingle and soar, they might distract you from the fact that it’s a one-chord jam all the way through. The title cut is similar, a little slower, alternating between resonant jangle and gritty wind-turbine washes as the rhythm steadies itself. With its blend of clang and swirl, the final cut, Summit evokes an early psychedelic ballad by the Church as it shifts between suspense and majesty. It’s a prime example of this band’s fondness for building a towering atmosphere around a very simple, memorable hook.

Trippy, Quirky Icelandic Rock from Mum

It’s tempting to say something like, “Oh, those crazy Icelanders, with their funny fractured English, one minute they’re all about weird sound effects, the next they’re doing all this somber gazing-at-the-ocean ambient stuff.” Obviously, that’s a stereotype and it’s true less often than not. But Icelandic band Mum’s new album Smilewound is a lot like that. The album title is as enigmatic as the music often is- is “wound” a noun or a verb? It could go either way, through the group’s icily trippy blend of quirky chamber pop and trip-hop.

Radiohead is the obvious influence, but where Radiohead uses electronics for the sake of menace, Mum sprinkle them throughout their songs with a grin. Some of these songs sound like Tom Tom Club with more modern toys; others evoke chamber pop bands like Edison Woods, but with more of a techy feel. “We’re all toothwheels in the mouth machine,” one of the women in the band announces in the first song, a trip-hop number anchored on the low end by bass synth, pizzicato strings dancing overhead. By contrast, Underwater Snow builds from simple, resonant, minimalist piano chords to a surreal blend of C&W balladry, trip-hop and chamber pop, with some droll, bubbly Baba O’Reilly synth thrown in toward the end.

When Girls Collide builds from a mechanical dancefloor thud to a more anthemic dreampop swirl; likewise, Slow Down juxtaposes lushness against minimalism, dreamy vocals against a steady trip-hop pulse. Candlestick starts out like a video game theme and then introduces a series of truly bizarre electronic percussion effects, like a 21st century Spike Jones. Then they bring hints of menace back with One Smile and its music-box theme. Then Eternity Is the Wait Between Breaths takes the music box theme and weird faux gamelan percussion in a more surrealistically comedic direction.

The Colorful Stabwound sounds like mid-80s Cure (the darker side of that band, anyway) taken ten years forward in time with coy female vocals. Sweet Impressions evokes Clare & the Reasons with its lively, whimsical tempo shifts and enigmatic lyrics: “screaming through a grassy meadow” ??? Likewise, Time to Scream and Shout isn’t exactly what the title suggests: it’s a lullaby (and possibly a reference to the disastrous Wall Street-engineered run on the nation’s currency back in 2008). The album ends with Whistle (with Kylie), more of a straight-up pop song than anything else here, with an attractively lush, baroque-tinged string outro. Sometimes funny, sometimes pensive and always psychedelic, the album gives your mind plenty of places to drift to.

Dead Leaf Echo’s Debut Album: A Rainy Day Treat

Dead Leaf Echo plays the release show for their debut album Thought & Language on Feb 27 at 10:30 at the Mercury Lounge for $10. If this had come out on 4AD in 1989, it would be regarded as a classic of its kind today. The band name is well-chosen: their music has a vividly chilly autumnal feel as well as a reverberating, hypnotic ambience.  Wet, shimmery, frequently icy layers of guitar mist swirl and echo through simple, catchy hooks that often bring to mind bands like My Bloody Valentine and Lush in their early years. Call it shoegaze, or dreampop, or goth, it’s a mix of all three.

The album’s opening track, Conception, sets the tone, a rain-drenched soundscape morphing into an insistent, cyclical hook, riffs echoing dubwise throughout the mix. The second cut, Kingmaker opens bright and ringing like mid-80s Cure, echoey guitar screams fading into white noise a la the Church. That band is echoed even more vividly on Featherform, a mix of elegant jangle and nebulous shoegaze, its clangy lines rising insistently and then blending into a lushback drop for a baroque-tinged outro. It segues into Internal with its dreaminess juxtaposed against steady bass chords, once again building into an intricate, majestically enveloping web of sound.

Language of the Waves blends the catchy, chiming bounce of late 80s bands like the Mighty Lemon Drops with more ornate sonics. Memorytraces (a free download) is the album’s best and loudest song, a swaying, catchy anthem with a terse, incisive flange guitar solo and a lush, distantly jangling outro with biting harmonic flourishes. Like many of the tracks here, it segues into the next one, Birth, with it simple, direct bass pulse, pensive anthemicness and insistently crescendoing guy/girl vocals.

Child rises out of a hazy tone poem of sorts to a breathless pace, followed by the rising and receding waves of Thought, distantly majestic slide guitar moving through the mix. Dream of the Soft is sort of a gentler take on the blend of folk and new wave that the Railway Children began their career with, a New Order-ish bass hook rising and eventually pushing everything to the side.

The bouncy Heavensent is sort ofa  hybrid of the Cure, Lush and the Coctean Twins, period-perfect wthout being cheesy or a ripoff. By contrast, the slowly atmospheric Gesture reverts to early 90s Church sonics and dramatic heft. She Breathes goes for more of a late 80s pop feel amidst the grey-sky ambience, while Birthright brings in a marching goth vibe.

Flowerspeak, with its bass hook anchoring the spacious, minimalist melody, could be the Police if they’d stuck around after Synchronicity. The album ends with Language and its contrasting high/low, light/dark textures and echoey raindroplet guitar awash in banks of reverb. It’s music to get lost in, a treat for fans of dark, pensive, rainy-day music. One thing on this album that would be good to hear more of is guitarist Ana B.’s voice: she nails the moody uncertainty of the era the band has embraced. It’s tempting to say that they’ve coldly embraced it, but that be an extreme for a band whose sense of the understated and the enigmatic is their greatest asset.

Strange, Clever French Pop from Benjamin Schoos

In French rock, the Cure were for many years what the Beatles were in the Anglophone world: a template for how to do things. So it’s no surprise that Benjamin Schoos’ album Chinaman vs. Chinagirl has a cold 80s sheen, with a couple of tracks that come close to nicking melodies straight from the Robert Smith songbook. But the album is a lot more musically diverse than that. On one hand, it’s partly a teens update on Serge Gainsbourg. In a smooth Gauloise baritone, Schoos talks his way through a pun-infested Chinese wrestling narrative – how’s that for surreal? On the other, it’s artsy 80s pop with chilly faux-retro teens synth timbres keeening and woozing through the mix, sometimes over a stiff new wave beat, sometimes swaying forward another ten years with a trip-hop rhythm.

Do you have to speak French to get this music? As catchy as the tunes are, not necessarily, but to have any appreciation of Schoos’ sense of humor, yes. He’s as influenced by French rap as he is by Gainsbourg – everything is a pun, some of them very funny, some less so. There’s actually hardly anything Chinese about the album, although wrestling – both the real and phony kinds – and boxing serve as recurrent metaphors for guy/girl tension. The album’s bouncy first song, Marquise doesn’t really set the stage – it’s a kiss-off to an ice queen and may have literary or political resonance (a thinly veiled Carla Bruni dis, maybe?). After that, Schoos duets with Laetitia Sadier on a catchy new wave pop song that, predictably, sounds like Stereolab covering the Cure. Profession Catcheur (Pro Wrestler) works a series of jokes – and a particularly amusing one about Margaret Thatcher – into a trip-hop spy theme, followed by the lush, artsy, faux-angsted piano ballad La Chinoise.

The album wouldn’t be French if it didn’t have a fingersnapping faux lounge jazz number, would it? This one’s a snidely satirical portrait of a pop culture maniac: “Some people like the art of smoking, putting on the patch…me, I live only for wrestling,” he tells the world. That prosaic English translation doesn’t do justice to Shoos’ wordplay.

As a centerpiece, the title track is a letdown, ripping off Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes. But Schoos gets the jokes going again with Le Combat, sort of a rewrite of the duet with Sadier, this one personifying the idea of love, Schoos insisting that he’s going to kick love’s ass. After that, over ominous, icy chamber pop, Schoos revisits the famous fight between surrealist icon Arthur Cravan and world heavyweight Jack Johnson: “That’s the life I’m embracing, I invite you, my friends, come help with the party, throw a white guy a crumb,” Schoos declares. The album ends with an absolutely evil duet between Chrissie Hynde (who gamely makes an attempt to sing in French) and Marie France, two girls yucking it up about how much they like to make men suffer. There’s a twelfth track, but it’s anticlimactic…and it’s in English.

Who is the audience for this? In English, probably the same crowd who’ve embraced Gainsbourg: silly as much of this album is, it can be a lot of fun. By the way, apropos of the title, “Chinaman” doesn’t carry the racist connotation in French that it does in English. Neither the album nor its tracks seem to have made it to youtube or dailymotion (the French youtube), although it is on Spotify.

A Short, Sweet One from Alfonso Velez

Running a daily music blog has its downside: sometimes there’s absolutely no time for it. Thankfully, there’s the ever-more-popular trend where albums just get shorter and shorter. Today we have Alfonso Velez to thank for putting out a four-song release simply titled AV. He may play under his own name, but he’s a rock tunesmith, not a folkie. And he’s a damn good one. The first track, Criminal, is period-perfect goth-pop: brisk new wave rhythm, syncopated drums, minor-key soul/pop guitars, murky early 80s Cure atmospherics. It’s a kiss-off song, Velez’ moody voice lingering on the vowels.

An ominously funereal bell-like guitar figure over a steady midtempo pulse kicks off The Need to Know, a creepy, Lynchian minor key blues. “If you feel something creeping up your neck, check check check check check,” Velez intones. Miles, a gorgeous, majestically crescendoing art-rock anthem, takes the vibe ten years forward into 90s Britrock, like the Verve but a thousand times more tuneful. Velez bends his voice with even more of a nod to Richard Ashcroft on the last song, A Riot. You can hear the whole thing here.

A Hidden Treasure by Little Silver

Little Silver put out their debut album The Stolen Souvenir before this blog existed. But that’s no reason to ignore this quietly brilliant piece of darkly psychedelic folk-rock from Brooklyn, from the summer of 2010. Erika Simonian and Hem’s Steve Curtis weave a darkly hypnotic web of guitars with occasional extra texture from banjo and piano, and join voices for an apprehensive, gorgeously nocturnal feel.

The title track is slow and sparse, kind of a big sky theme, banjo mingling tersely with the acoustic and electric guitars and some sweet vocal harmonies. Food from the Cow is done as a nocturne, sparse, haunting electric guitars intertwining and growing more crepuscular, Simonian’s vocals more lush than on her own recording of this song (from her classic 2004 album All the Plastic Animals), emphasizing the lyrics’ bitter resignation. They do Leadbelly’s Irene, Goodnight as a sad farewell, adding layers of guitar until it practically collapses with heartbreak: it’s as poignant as it is hypnotic and psychedelic. The last track, Sleep Til Morning reminds of Hem, a lingering, slow, warily atmospheric folk ballad with echoey electric piano that’s the closest thing here to contentment – although it never becomes more than an approximation. “You draw the dreamland right into the day/I watch my waking thoughts, I watch my way,” the two intone as the piano ends it with an austere elegance.

They’ve also got an album of covers titled Dress Up which came out earlier this year, with similarly pensive, more country-flavored versions of songs by Chris Whitley, the Cure, Hem, Sun Kil Moon and the Speedies. Both albums are streaming at Little Silver’s Bandcamp site.