New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: dark folk

Charming Disaster Take Their Wickedly Literate Narratives and Murder Ballads on the Road

Charming Disaster are a New York mini-supergroup, a collaboration between Jeff Morris, frontman of majestically slinky circus rock/latin/art-rock band Kotorino, and Ellis Bisker, who leads existenialist chamber pop/soul band Sweet Soubrette. Their debut album, which came out earlier this year and is up at bandcamp, is a mix of murder ballads and crime narratives. Since then, they’ve expanded their worldview to include songs about just about any kind of troubled relationship. They like duets, and swing, and Romany sounds, and mythology. They’re currently hitting the road (tourdates are here), and when they get back they’re hosting a night of murder ballads at Branded Saloon in Ft. Greene on October 19 at 8 PM.

Their show at the end of last month at Pete’s Candy Store – which also went out over the interwebs via Concert Window – was deliciously creepy, but there was also a lot of new material, a series of character studies and retelings of old myths from around the world which were just as erudite and bewitchingly lyrical as their earlier stuff. Bisker played electric ukulele and kept time on a hi-hat while Morris played guitar and a stompbox of sorts. The uke and guitar mingled so seamlessly that it was as if they were a single ringing, rippling entiity. Morris took the deadpan rake role in contrast to Bisker’s torchiliy menacing allure.

They opened with Ghost Story, a catchy backbeat-driven tale of love or something like it, beyond the grave. The darkly jaunty, Weimar-inflected Showgirl, Morris explained, was inspired by his great-aunt, a real showgirl back in the Roaring 20s who dated a mobster…and also went out with a cop. The most gorgeously jangly number of the night was Ragnarok, a sardonic Laurel Canyon psychedelic folk anthem exploring grisly Nordic apocalyptic imagery; it brought to mind Pierre de Gaillande‘s late, lamented art-rock band the Snow.

The duo joined voices for a grim, Appalachian-tinged waltz about starvation in the wilderness, then made uneasily pouncing garage-psych rock out of the Egyptian Osiris myth. They cast Persephone not as an ingenue longing to be rescued but someone who’d embraced her fate as a permanent citizen of Hades, bringing to mind another great, now disbanded New York group, the Disclaimers.

A ukulele swing version of Led Zep’s Immigrant Song was just plain hilarious; after that, the duo went back to bittersweetly jangly with Artichoke, Bisker contributing a droll kazoo solo over Morris’ frenetic guitar clang. They wound up the set with a funny circus rock duet in the same vein as what Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl did with A Fairytale of New York. Audiences up and down the Eastern Seaboard are up for a real treat this month.

Rachel Mason Unveils Her Gorgeously Lurid, Erudite Historical Song Suite at Joe’s Pub

Rachel Mason is best known as an uncategorizable performer who refuses to be pigeonholed. Throughout her extensive body of work, the theatrical and narrative aspects are typically as important as the music. Focusing strictly on songcraft, what was stunning at her performance at Joe’s Pub on Sunday night was how impactful her tunes are even without those theatrics – and what a spellbinding singer she is. In a rare concert performance, backed by a tight and inspired band – Tanner Beam on lead guitar, Stu Watson on bass, Robbie Lee on flute, Michael Durek on piano and theremin and Chris Moses Kinlow on drums – Mason aired out songs from her brand-new film and accompanying soundtrack album, The Lives of Hamilton Fish. Auspiciously, Mason’s latest magnum opus is currently in development as a theatre work written by Pia Wilson, to be produced by Cindy Sibilsky. As lurid and downright haunting as Mason’s music and the accompanying art-film are, a stage version could have mass appeal far beyond the confines of cutting-edge downtown New York performance.

Although Mason serves as a Greek chorus of sorts both in the film and on the soundtrack, her point of view takes a backseat to the twin narratives of two men, both named Hamilton Fish, who died on the same day in 1936. Mason has really done her homework, historically speaking – while the serial killer and pedophile Hamilton Albert Fish provides plenty of grisly grist for the mill, what might be most impressive is how she brings to life the other Hamilton Fish. He was the second in a line that would number a total of five men with that improbable name, a seemingly dour and tormented upstate New York political lifer upstaged by his famous father, a United States Secretary of State central to the doctrine and practice of manifest destiny. Exactly the kind of complex characters Mason loves to illuminate.

She opened the show with a tensely pulsing janglerock number, 60s Laurel Canyon pop through the swirly prism of 80s psychedelia in a Plan 9 vein, then going deeper into paisley underground territory as she traced the two lives that ended in side-by-side obituaries “tied together by the Evening Star.” She gave voice to the more benign Fish’s familial angst in Distinguished Line, a matter-of-factly strolling folk noir number, then took a stark, horrified, operatic tour through the deadly Fish’s horrific younger days in Wild Fish Pt. 1, an electrified take on late 19th century front-porch folk.

The narrative continued its harrowing, mysterious course with the uneasily Dylanesque, aptly titled Nightmare, the politician haunted by the ghost of his wife as the theremin whistled ominously in the background. Mason waited until The Werewolf of Wisteria – as the serial killer was known after a Staten Island murder – to spiral around at the top of her vocal range; throughout most of the show, her moody alto made a powerful vehicle for her grimly detailed story. The stark Broken Soul of a Hunan Being – based on a letter the killer wrote to the mother of one of his victims – made for a chilling example.

And in a cameo, pianist/singer M. Lamar delivered chills with his otherworldly falsetto and murky attack on the keys, channeling the horror and pain of a tortured child – throughout both the album and the film, Mason leaves no doubt that the killer Fish wasn’t born that way, he was made. It’ll be fascinating to see how this translates to the stage.

Rachel Mason’s Epic New Folk Noir Album Traces Two Twisted Historical Narratives

In addition to her work in film, video and performance art, Rachel Mason is one of the most entertaining artists in art-rock. An edgy surrealism, a laser sense for catchy tunes and a spot-on political sensibility define her work. She’s performed pieces which recreate a Rand Paul thirteen-hour filibuster in its entirety, sent shout-outs to freedom fighters in Chechnya and to inspirations as disparate as Beyonce and Marina Abramovic. Mason’s latest project is an ambitious film where she plays the role of a newspaper editor whose imagination is sparked by the January 15, 1936 deaths of two historical figures, both named Hamilton Fish. One is a New York State congressman and the most minor figure in a prominent political family, the other a sadistic serial killer and self-described cannibal executed in the Sing Sing electric chair. The accompanying double album, The Lives of Hamilton Fish is streaming at Bandcamp.  Mason has a couple of intriguing shows coming up: on July 21 at 7:30 PM sharp at Anthology Film Archives, she’ll be singing to accompany the film. Then on July 26 at 7 PM, Mason will playing the album with her band and countertenor M. Lamar at Joe’s Pub. General admission is $15, but advance tix are a good idea because it’s likely to sell out.

This is one creepy album. There are a grand total of twenty-one tracks on Mason’s folk noir magnum opus, mostly just reverbtoned acoustic guitar and vocals. Mason has really done her homework, filling out the narrative in rich detail. For example, in the opening cut, Two Strangers, Mason alludes to the many sewing pins that the killer Fish inserted into his abdomen…and also references the most likely apocryphal stash of cash that his shady Republican county boss namesake buried in the woods somewhere in New England. Mason’s voice is richly nuanced, depending on the song; sometimes muted and somber, sometimes horrified and reaching for the rafters with a spine-tingling, dramatic edge, as on The Werewolf of Wisteria, one of the monickers given to the sadomasochistic Fish in the contemporary press.

Likewise, the music is typically somber and minor-key as a lurid crime chronicle takes centerstage. On one hand, Mason doesn’t downplay the grisly, hallucinatory storyline, but she also doesn’t deny dignity to the victims, many of them children. And there’s plenty of sympathy here for the tortured orphan who would later turn his demons loose on the world – he claimed to have killed, dismembered and eaten more than a hundred victims, a claim that’s been subject to plenty of dispute. Mason also poignantly reminds that an innocent man was tried – and acquitted – for one of Fish’s crimes.

The sarcasm rises to fever pitch in A Distinguished Line, contemplating the irony in how history remembers a mass murderer better than the undistinguished scion of a Republican political fortune. Mason’s sarcasm is crushing: “I sang soprano in the little boys’ choir, and the things they did to me made my voice grow higher,” she sings in Wild Fish, a broodingly subdued chronicle of the killer’s horrific childhood. Mason really works the mystery – despite the two central characters’ divergent life stories, sometimes it’s hard to tell which Fish Mason is talking about. Throughout the album, two other similarly brilliant, historically-inspired songwriters, Robin Aigner and Elisa Flynn often come to mind. The arrangements occasionally get more fleshed out, encompassing creepy Alec Redfearn-esque organ-fueled psychedelia and shuffling Americana or 80s goth-tinged rock.

And what of the largely forgotten upstate New York politico? There’s a happy ending here, at least on his side. While not addressed on the album, Hamilton Fish V – the last of the line, Hamilton-wise – redeemed the name, turning the family’s Republican legacy on its axis, becoming a prime mover behind the resurgence of the influential progressive weekly The Nation. After springboarding a respected think tank and independent media center, the Nation Institute, Fish V now runs a consultancy that aids environmentally sustainable businesses. At least that’s what he does when he’s not growing organic produce.

Molly Ruth Brings Her Chilling, Twistedly Individualistic Americana to Trash Bar This Saturday

Molly Ruth might be the most genuinely scary presence in the New York music scene right now. When she’s not singing, she seems demure; on the rare occasion she talks to the crowd, she seems friendly. But just wait til the songs kick in. Channeling her bleak, angst-ravaged narratives from a sordid rural America in period-perfect oldtime vernacular via her mighty, wounded wail, she’s impossible to turn away from. Among the current crop of rising New York frontwomen, only the Bright Smoke‘s Mia Wilson and Mesiko‘s Rachael Bell come within miles of Molly Ruth. She’s playing Trash Bar at 8 PM on March 28; cover is $8 and includes open bar on wells and PBRs til 9. You’ll need them.

Her previous show at the Mercury a couple of weeks ago was by far the most haunting performance witnessed by this blog this year (some context: even Carmina Slovenica‘s Toxic Psalms, Carol Lipnik’s unearthly flights and Big Lazy‘s murderous noir film themes had nothing on this). On one hand, Molly Ruth’s music is rooted in the eerie, otherworldly riffs of delta blues and stark fingerpicking of oldtime Appalachian music, with some vintage 50s C&W in there as well. On the other hand, her music is completely in the here and now, especially when she plays electric with her band, a brand-new and fortuitous change of pace. If you thought she was scary solo acoustic, just wait til you see her wailing on her vintage Gibson SG with the dynamic, sometimes explosive rhythm section of bassist Chris Rozik and drummer Alex Ali behind her

The first song of the set was a country waltz, I Fucked Him for Firecrackers, whose narrator’s seemingly carefree delivery foreshadows a twisted punchline. That set the stage for more ominous, somber solo acoustic blues-flavored numbers like I’m Afraid of God, an illustration of how repeated exposure to threats of fire and brimstone affects a child’s mind – it doesn’t exactly inspire faith. She followed with a lively ragtime-fueled stroll titled Hatred Is Holy, then strapped on her Gibson and launched into a stomping take of My Revelation’s Taking a Long Time to Come, with its wry punk mashup of sex and religion.

One swaying, punching tune evoked Humanwine with its brooding stream-of-consciousness flow. Another aphoristic country waltz grimly addressed women struggling beneath male oppression, as did the sardonically savage A Million Fucking Whores. She wound up the set with an open-tuned Piedmont-flavored blues guitar duet, a metaphorically-drenched flood scenario, a return to careening Missisippi hill country-style thrash and then a morose country song titled My Hometown’s Not Where I’m From, channeling sheer terminal depression. Since the band is new, there’s a good chance that you’ll hear most of this stuff at the Trash show.

Headliner Lorraine Leckie had a hard act to follow, but she and her volcanic, psychedelic noir Americana band kept the intensity at redline. Guitarist Hugh Pool might have been nursing a broken leg, but that didn’t stop him from whirling through solar flares of Voodoo Chile Hendrix, long shimmery washes tinged with feedback and searing reverb-iced cascades. Leckie’s jangly Telecaster anchored the songs’ anthemic drive in tandem with nimble, melodic bassist Charles DeChants and drummer Paul Triff. The highlight of their set could have been the gorgeous paisley undergruond anthem Nobody’s Girl, with its unexpectedly crunchy, metal-flavored chorus. Or it could have been the volcanic closer, Ontario, Pool practically falling off his stool as he blasted through a long, raging outro. Molly Ruth gave credit to Leckie, leader of an earlier generation of dark rockers, for putting the night together and giving her a chance to do the one thing in life that she actually enjoys. If we’re lucky, this bill will repeat later this summer somewhere.

And lucky Jersey residents can see Leckie play a rare stripped-down duo show with Pool tomorrow night, March 27 at the Record Collector at 385 Farnsworth Ave. in Bordentown; $12 adv tix are still available as of today.

Caitlin Canty Joins a Richly Tuneful, Edgy Americana Bill with Jeffrey Foucault at Subculture

Running a music blog is fun. That’s why we do it. But once the whole world starts watching, there are hiccups. The first thing that hits you is that everybody wants attention, but a whole lot of people aren’t willing to reciprocate. For example, there was this amazing Indian singer doing Pakistani ghazals, backed by this awesome Malian rock band, whose previous album got a rave review here. She’s got an album release show coming up very soon. But she she hides her music behind a paywall.

Then there’s this haphazardly fun Israeli guitarist who has a money gig in a lame indie rock band, but whose original material is completely different, and totally kicks ass. Unfortunately, his show on the south side of Williamsburg got cancelled…or the tourist trap he was scheduled to play at cancelled on him. Probably the latter: “Dude, you didn’t sell enough online tickets to yuppie Jersey parents, or parents of the Minnesota transplants who play here, so we’re cancelling your gig in favor of a Justin Bieber cover band.” This is Notbrooklyn, 2015.

So what do the other eight million of us have to look forward to this weekend? How about a killer doublebill on Feb 22 at Subculture at 8 PM with powerfully lyrical Americana songwriters Caitlin Canty and Jeffrey Foucault, and $18 advance tix, which you should scramble to get if you don’t already have them?

Foucault is a standard bearer of the Faulknerian southern folk rock of John Prine and Steve Earle, both of whom are obvious influences. Canty has a relatively new album, Reckless Skyline, streaming at Bandcamp, epically and puristically produced live in the studio by Foucault, which gives you a good indication of what kind of level she’s elevated her game to lately. The apocalyptic shuffle that opens the album, anchored by Eric Heywood’s eerily keening pedal steel, encourages an unnamed freedom fighter to burn his or her photographs: “No rest or time to run to cover,” Canty insists.

She looks back to a pre-spycam era with the warm, gorgeously layered True, a classic 60s soul ballad: “How can I belong to you, and belong to me, once I saw the fear?” she entreats, even as the guitar multitracks rise to a lush, enveloping sonic quilt.

One Man is a hypnotically enticing, entrancing electric blues number, Matt Lorenz’s snarling lead guitar over Jeremy Moses’ resonant bass and Billy Conway’s hard-hitting drums. My Love For You Will Not Fade evokes Tift Merritt at her most summery and sultry: “The pen is only at the paper, the ink aches for the page,” Canty insists, cool and strong.

The Brightest Day hits an explosive, gorgeously burning peak fueled equally by blue-flame guitars and vocals, Canty cutting off the end of her vocal lines to underscore the doom in the lyrics. Then she hits a simmering minor-key intensity with the bitter kiss-off shuffle Enough About Hard Times and keeps it going with the otherworldly, spacious, bluesy menace of Wore Your Ring: “I wore your ring til the stone fell out,” Canty intones, nonchalant but savage.

The hard-swinging My Baby Don’t Care hits a bitter, growling gutter blues groove, followed by the more optimistic, expansive blue-collar anthem Southern Man (an original, not the Neil Young classic). “Never hit dry land or the sky,” Canty intones cynically on the gorgeously low-key Nashville gothic anthem I Never. “Can you keep the pain out, only let in the breeze? Gonna leave the door open, only lets in all the leaves,” she laments.

The album ends up with an otherworldly, ethereal cover of the Neil Young cult classic Unknown Legend and then the roughhewn Cold Habit, a showcase for Canty’s flinty, restless, unselfconsciously wounded vocals. This is a deep album that offers deeper insights with repeated listening, and knowing how intense Canty is onstage, should translate even better up there. Stephen King, if you ever need someone to sing a soundtrack, here she is.

Mark Sinnis Brings His Gloomy Honkytonk Songs Back to His Old East Village Haunts

One consequence of the brain drain continuing to pour out of this city’s five boroughs is that in order to see some of the best musicians who’ve been priced out by the real estate bubble, you have to go where they are. So it was good to be able to catch longtime downtown NYC presence and charismatic Nashville gothic crooner Mark Sinnis playing a marathon gig at the refreshingly laid-back Mohansic Grill & Lounge in Yorktown Heights, up in Westchester, back in November. The show was like one of those old-fashioned tent revival style C&W extravaganzas from the 1950s, except with just one band, serenading an enthusiastic Saturday night crowd for well over two hours. Sinnis and his group 825 return to his old East Village stomping grounds, upstairs at 2A at 10 PM on Feb 15 as part of impresario/bandleader/genius guitarist Tom Clark‘s weekly Sunday American shindig.

The Yorktown Heights gig was on the back porch of a restaurant overlooking a golf course, not such a strange place to see a band up that way as it might seem. And the band was tremendous. Lead guitarist James “Smokey Chipotle” Brown locked in on some classic honkytonk harmonies with pedal steel player Brian Aspinwall when the two weren’t involved in high-voltage musical banter. Other times, Aspinwall would anchor the sound with high lonesome washes and wails as Senor Chipotle spun from wry hillbilly boogie licks, to eerie David Lynch twang, to chicken-scratch Johnny Cash rhythm or ringing, clanging Bakersfield riffage. Bassist John Goldberg held the rig to the road as drummer Michael Lillard kept the wheels spinning with every classic country shuffle beat ever invented, trumpeter Lee Compton adding both mariachi flair and a mournful, funereal New Orleans touch, often in tandem with a bluesy harmonica player who was new to the band.

Sinnis delivered the songs in his brooding baritone. Much as this band can hold their own with any other classic honkytonk crew out there, what distinguishes his Nashville gothic from, say, Nick Cave, or Roy Orbison, is that he really lets the band cut loose: several of the numbers went on for a solid six or seven minutes, with plenty of time for solos from pretty much everybody in the group. His lyrics mine a classic Americana vernacular full of doom and dread: funeral trains emerging into the dawn, ill-fated relationships, ghosts and faded memories of fleetingly good times now gone forever. And love affairs gone straight to hell, taking shape via slow, opiated dirges, bitter shuffle grooves or grimly romping numbers like one of the centerpieces of the early set, Mistaken for Love.

Many of the night’s hardest-hitting numbers – the angst-fueled funeral train anthem Cold Night in December, the booze-drenched Wine and Whiskey and the Devil Makes Three, and It’s Been a Long Cold Hard Lonely Winter – appear on his latest album with this band. Some of the unexpectedly quieter material, strangely enough, was taken from his extensive back catalog with dark art-rock band Ninth House, a unit Sinnis has fronted since the late 90s and has pulled deeper and deeper into Americana in recent years. He also brought out a couple of excellent new songs, one a brooding, manic-depressive bolero, another a morose honkytonk breakup ballad. All this gives you an idea of what to expect this Sunday: classic ideas and riffs updated for the here and now, with an unending gloom. Tom Clark’s Sunday nights at 2A draw a decent crowd and an A-list of NYC Americana talent – Amy Allison played a rare full-band show with LA cult favorite Don Heffington there last week, for example – but deserve an even wider audience and a better night than they have. Sinnis and 825 ought to bring it this Sunday.

Revisiting and Looking Ahead to a Bunch of Great Acoustic Shows

Karen Dalhstrom is one of the four first-rate songwriters in Bobtown, who with their unearthly four-part harmonies and creepy tunesmithing are arguably the most distinctive noir Americana band on the planet. They’re playing the album release show for their long-awaited new album, A History of Ghosts on the big stage downstairs at Hill Country at 9:30 PM on Jan 14. Not to take anything away from her work with that band, but Dahlstrom is also a solo artist, with a killer album of her own, Gem State, a collection of songs set in frontier-era Idaho and written in a period-perfect oldtime vernacular. It was good to be able to catch one of her infrequent solo shows awhile back at the American Folk Art Museum across the Broadway/Columbus triangle up by Lincoln Center.

Taking advantage of the space’s natural reverb, Dahlstrom aired out several of the songs from that album, including a goosebump-inducing a-cappella version of Streets of Pocatello, a menacing, hardscrabble hobo’s tale. Miner’s Bride, an even more doomed narrative told by a mail-order bride sent off to an uncertain fate on the high plains, was every bit as haunting. But the high point of the show – and one most spine-tingling moments at any concert in town last year – was her version of Galena. The Idaho city takes its name from a woman, maybe a Russian or Polish immigrant, mother or wife to one of the men who flocked there during the Gold Rush. Over a sad, elegantly waltzing tune, Dahlstrom brought the sudden rise and equally sudden decline of this boomtown to life, aptly personifed as a woman, who ends up “A penny curiosity, old bones in a pinewood vale,” Dahlstrom’s elegaic alto rising just a little from almost a whisper, to low and mournful.

Lara Ewen, the crystalline-voiced Americana songstress who hosts the pretty-much-weekly free Friday evening afterwork acoustic shows at the Folk Art Museum, told the crowd that this show was roughly the fourth time she’d booked Dahlstrom for a gig there: if that’s not instant cred, nothing is. As you would expect, there have been plenty of other excellent shows there in recent months. Sweet Soubrette, the more pop-oriented project of singer/ukulele player Ellia Bisker (who has a murderously good new album with the creepy Charming Disaster, her duo with Kotorino‘s Jeff Morris, due out shortly) swung through to play a stripped-down trio set. The highlight of that one was the eerily glimmering Burning City, an evocation of the bombing and subsequent firestorms in WWII Berlin.

Greg Cornell of the Cornell Brothers played a fascinating duo set there. What an interesting, and original, and excellent guitarist this guy is. Few other players rely on the low strings as much, and as imaginatively, and tunefully, as this guy does. His style is somewhere between bluegrass flatpicking and janglerock, and it’s completely his own. It helps that his songs are as anthemic and catchy as they are.

Another individualistic act, folk noir duo Mark Rogers and Mary Byrne – whose debut album I Line My Days Along Your Weight has been burning up the internet lately – got the call to pinch-hit for an act who’d cancelled, and hit one out of the park with their hypnotically moody, allusively lyrical songs. Byrne switched between guitar and a vintage mandolin, singing with a wary, carefully modulated, wounded delivery as Rogers nonchalantly aired out a deep and equally considered mix of classic blues, folk and bluegrass licks that merged seamlessly into Byrne’s somber, crepuscular narratives.

There seem to be two Caitlin Bells playing music in New York these days; purist oldtime Americana singer Caitlin Marie Bell is the talented one. She shares a pensive, rustic quality with Rogers and Byrne, mining the classic folk repertoire from the 1800s for her all-too-brief solo acoustic set there. Her high, resonant vocals soared over her nimble guitar fingerpicking as she made her way through warmly bucolic, Appalachian flavored front porch material along with a couple of darker, more incisive, blues-infused numbers.

Another purist folk musician from a completely different idiom, Pete Rushefsky played a rapturous, often exhilarating, glistening set there a few weeks later. His axe is the tsimbl, the pointillistically rippling, otherworldly Ukraininan Jewish hammered dulcimer that’s the forerunner of the Hungarian cimbalom and the western European zither. The first part of his set featured him leading a trio with two violins leaping and dancing against the tsimbl’s lush undercurrent; the second featured his wife doubling on flute and vocals, delivering several obscure treats from the Ukraininan folk tradition. What’s especially interesting about Rushefsky’s songbook is that much of it sounds completely different fom the boisterous, carnivalesque Romany-flavored klezmer music from points further west: this was both more somber and lustrous.

Where Rushefsky worked a pensive, hypnotic ambience, Sharon Goldman was her usual direct self: the acoustic rock tunesmith can say more in a few words than most people can in a whole album. She can also be drop-dead funny, although this time out her set was more about painting pictures, whether an unexpectedly triumphant late summer Park Slope scenario, or the ominous foreshadowing of the morning of 9/11…or a coy couple competing over a pint of ice cream. Goldman bought them to life with catchy chord changes on the guitar and her richly modulated, subtly nuanced vocals.

And Ewen booked a pretty perfect choice for Halloween: Jessi Robertson. She’s got an unearthly wail to rival anyone, and this time out had made herself up as a bloody corpse or accident victim or something similarly gruesome. So when she cut loose with “You’re gonna burn, my love,” on the chorus of the first song on her excellent new album, it worked on every conceivable level. And after she’d done a few similarly harrowing numbers, going off-mic and singing without any amplification, she did a cruelly funny country song with a title something along the lines of I Hope I Hurt You As Much As You Hurt Me.

Goldman, like so many others in the vanguard of acoustic music, likes house concerts: her next one is in Jersey City on Jan 25 at 8 PM, email for info. Sweet Soubrette are at Freddy’s on Jan 22. And the American Folk Art Museum’s free, 5:30 PM Friday concert series resumes on Jan 9 with first-class, politically-fueled lyricist and anthemic folk-rock songwriter Niall Connolly headlining at around half past six.

Arborea Takes You Deep Into the Haunted Woods

Maine is the most beautiful state in the American northeast: deep pine woods, rugged Atlantic coast, breathtaking highlands. Its most famous native, Stephen King, does a great job portraying its sinister side. Sure, like seemingly everywhere else in the fifty states, it’s been invaded, partially by a subset of the same speculator class who’ve decimated New York neighborhoods and transformed them into a ghost town of empty condos, hoping to unload them on the next sucker before the market caves in. But there’s still plenty of pristine countryside left Down East.

Out of that bucolic, richly verdant, often desolate part of the world comes the aptly named Arborea, the noir folk banjo-and-guitar duo of Shanti and Buck Curran. Their two most recent albums are Red Planet – a reissue of their raptly haunting 2011 release – and Fortress of the Sun, both of which are streaming at Bandcamp. Each is rustic, otherworldly and considerably uneasy; the more recent one is less stark and skeletal. Settle in for a hypnotic and often riveting journey through their sonic underbrush.

Red Planet opens with a pensive solo guitar miniature, followed by an airy version of the old folk song Black Is The Colour, Buck building contrast with his spare, incisive dobro over a guitar drone. Phantasmagoria in Two establishes an echoey noir ambience: “Everywhere I go there’s fear,” Shanti intones. She keeps the brooding, doomed imagery going through Spain, an autumnal mood piece and then Careless Love, its title a mantra of sorts.

The title track juxtaposes Shanti’s chiming hammered dulcimer against another drone, followed by the artfully crescendoing Wolves, which rises to an intricate blend of spiky textures: if Joanna Newsom ever grew up, she might sound something like this. Shanti’s voice rises to the rafters on the plaintive Song For Obol, following with the album’s best and catchiest song, Arms and Horses. Shanti winds up the album with a solo banjo-and-voice piece, A Little Time, which sounds like Marissa Nadler but more stripped down.

Fortress of the Sun is considerably more fleshed-out and slightly more rock-oriented, the Currans joined by Greg Boardman on viola, Michael Krapovicky on bass and Anders Griffen on drums. The catchy opening anthem, Pale Horse Phantasm draws a straight line back to 80s goth, both lyrically and musically, but with organic instrumentation. Daughters of Man paints a doomed, nocturnal narrative over loops of minor-key folk guitar. After The Flood Only Love Remains is just as hypnotic and more optimistic, Shanti’s apprehensive lovers “Breaking your heads to save this place.”

Buck sings and plays dobro on Rider, a more orchestrated take on what the band was doing five years ago. When I Was On Horseback, a surreallistically hypnotic Britfolk waltz, nicks the tune from Scarborough Fair. Hints of flamenco spice the spacious, terse miniature Rua das Aldas, followed by Cherry Tree Carol with its lingering/incisive dynamic. There’s also a whispery, dynamically-charged one-chord jam aptly titled Ghosts along with more subdued alternate versions of three tracks. See you in the woods – you might want to bring a flashlight.

Dark Country Crooner Mark Sinnis Puts Out His Most Haunting Album

Purists complain when their favorite style of music changes. Sometimes they have a point – drum machines and bling-bling hip-hop product placements in country music? Barf.

But consider: if a style doesn’t change, that means it’s dead. Mark Sinnis personifies the cutting edge in this era’s country music, aware of tradition and immersed in it yet taking it to genuinely exciting new places. While his new album It’s Been a Long Cold Hard Lonely Winter (streaming at Spotify) is his deepest immersion in hard honkytonk, he also sounds like no other artist in country music anywhere. It’s what you get from a guy who grew up on the classics – Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, most obviously – but as a musician, cut his teeth playing new wave and gothic rock. Doktor John of the Aquarian called his music”cemetery and western,” and the term stuck. It’s an apt way to describe Sinnis’s doomed vision and individualistic blend of classic C&W and Nashville gothic.

It’s a long album, well over an hour’s worth of music, almost unthinkable in today’s world. Themes of drinking to kill the pain, death and life beyond the grave recur throughout it. Sinnis’ resonant baritone, always a strength, has never been more soulful or expressive, or more highly nuanced. He was good fifteen years ago fronting ferocious dark rockers Ninth House – who’ve been through a million lineup changes, and are still more or less active – but he’s great now.

Lee Compton’s trumpet and Brian Aspinwall’s pedal steel team up to give the album’s Texas shuffle of a title track an ominous southwestern gothic touch. Sinnis sings Wine and Whiskey and the Devil Makes Three with George Jones inflections without making it blatantly derivative. Interestingly, Aspinwall’s mellow steel work gives a cover of the Ernest Tubb honkytonk hit Driving Nails in My Coffin an almost Hawaiian feel.

Six Feet from Eternity opens with the story of Mary Ann Slouson, who died at age thirty on August 25, 1854 – Sinnis’ birthday. A World with No Tomorrow, unlike what the title would suggest, is optimistic – with its slow Memphis soul groove, jaunty trumpet and unexpectedly biting garage rock guitar from virtuoso Smokey Chipotle (who colors the rest of the album with classic honkytonk licks straight out of 1962), it seems Sinnis got the visitation from his pal on the other side that he was hoping for.

Sitting at the Heartbreak Saloon has a Tex-Mex sway and the feel of a Conway Twitty hit fromthe 70s with better production values and a more boozy milieu. Sunday Mourning Train works a period-perfect grim 1968-style Johnny Cash chunk-ka-chunk shuffle. Cemeteries and Centuries broodinglyand hypnotically contemplates “Sobering realities,” as Sinnis puts it, “Like waiting for a train, one by one we go.” A lingering, slow cover of the George Jones classic He Stopped Loving Her Today revisits that ambience a little later on, fueled by Zach Ingram’s funeral parlor organ.

On a Cold Night in December sets a haunting overnight train narrative to a loping southwestern gothic beat. Open Road of Memories has a bittersweet, nocturnal bounce, a mid 60’s-style Nashville September song. Down Old Route Number Nine makes a dirge out of Merle Travis Sixteen Tons-style country blues, swaying along with Stephen Gara’s resolute banjo. And Sinnis puts an update on Johnny Cash spoken-word pieces from the 60s with The Angel of Death. The album winds up with another Cash soundalike, In Harmony, a catchy if utterly morbid coda that makes uneasy peace with the inevitability of the grave. There are also a couple of remakes of older Sinnis songs here: a surprisingly gentle take of the corrosive kiss-off anthem Mistaken for Love, and a lustrous version of the Ninth House classic Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me. You’ll see this here again in a few days on the Best Albums of 2014 page.

A Haunting New Album and a Rockwood Show from Mark Rogers & Mary Byrne

Mark Rogers & Mary Byrne‘s haunting, plaintively lyrical debut album I Line My Days Along Your Weight is a masterpiece of folk noir, one of the best releases of 2014. They’re playing the album release show on Oct 14 at 6 (six) PM at the small room at the Rockwood and one of the reasons why they’re doing it that so soon after work is that you’ll probably be hungry by 7. So they’ll have pizza at the little bar next door, just to the north, where reduced drink specials are also promised. But don’t go for dinner, go for the music. Their recent impromptu show uptown at the American Folk Art Museum turned out to be one of the most enjoyably intense sets witnessed by this blog in recent months.

The two make a good and rather striking pair. Byrne is wiry and determined, with a thousand-yard stare. Rogers is big, rugged and fixated on taking his formidable guitar chops to a new level. Neither are newcomers. She cut her teeth in hypnotic, lo-fi Atlanta band Hot Young Priest, while he was part of the core of brilliant southwestern gothic band Myssouri. Their new album – recorded more-or-less live to analog tape and streaming at Athens music blog Flagpole Magazine – opens pensively with the evocatively brooding First Fall Nights. Byrne’s voice has a distinctive, unselfconsciously down-to-earth quality reminiscent of Paula Carino and this is a prime example.

Hospital keeps the grey-sky atmosphere going, a lush intertwine of fingerpicked guitars underpinning the menace implicit in Byrne’s narrative, Rogers adding one of his signature terse, rustically blues-infused resonator guitar solos. And he plays biting, catchy hooks on a hundred-year-old mandolin on When Your Elders Are Tall, something of a more hypnotic take on the Handsome Family.

With its moodily vamping minimalist ambience, A Racing Heart brings to mind Randi Russo, Rogers capping it off with a glimmering Middle Eastern-tinged solo. The even more hypnotic Green Gold Violet paints a wounded late-afternoon tableau, Rogers’ luminous dobro paired against Byrne’s tensely fingerpicked stroll. “Put a sticky there – honey,” Byrne reminds as the absolutely chilling, metaphorically searing A Gracious Host gets going: this remembrance has serious baggage.

Walk With Me pairs mandolin with more of that hypnotic, circular acoustic guitar. Cold Spring has a briskly scampering bluegrass shuffle groove: “I wanna go more north with you , where it’s more serious…where children run from dangers, only then when the wolves howl,” Byrne suggests. And then Rogers channels George Harrison.

With its torrents of doomed imagery, Sirens Call paints a haunting, indelible outer-borough New York nocturnal scenario: with Byrne’s nimble fingerpicking, it wouldn’t be out of place in the Linda Draper songbook. Rogers and Byrne revisit that milieu with the album’s closing cut, Sing a Fare Thee Well, the mandolin adding a surreal Macedonian edge. Play this with the lights out, late at night and discover two people who share your precarious world.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 192 other followers