New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: dark rock

The Haunting, Mysterious King Raam Brings His Iranian Art-Rock Anthems to the Mercury

If you’ve heard of King Raam, believe the hype. The Teheran-based bandleader, who with the rest of his group plays pseudonymously, is sort of the Iranian Nick Cave. Who is this theatrical, intense Persian-language art-rock singer? He’s in his forties, born in the party city of Bushehr, and has been back and forth to the US several times. He’s collaborated with Johnny Azari and the late Ali Eskandarian, among others. He has a gram account, so it’s certain that the CIA and Mossad know who he is. He and the band are bringing their eclectic, often hauntingly artsy sounds to the Mercury at midnight on August 29; $12 advance tix are still available at the box office, open Tues-Sat from noon to 6 PM.

Iranian music in general tends to be very good and has been for centuries: even pop artists from the 60s and 70s like Googoosh are arguably more interesting and tuneful than their American counterparts. Most of King Raam’s latest album, A Day & a Year, is streaming at Soundcloud along with much of his ominously melodic, often psychedelic back catalog. The band doesn’t waste any time getting off to an powerful start with a slow, foreboding minor-key anthem, Pegasus, bringing to mind similarly brooding global acts like the Russian group Auktyon and Mexican legends Jaguares. The multitracked guitars roar, the keys twinkle uneasily and the drums have a big-room sound: a lot of care and smart production ideas went into this. English translations of the lyrics weren’t available as of press time, but consider that the song is about a winged horse and then do the math.

The moody Closing Credits (Titrazhe Payan), just pensive vocals and simple guitar arpeggios until the final crescendo, bears an even stronger resemblance to Jaguares and that band’s frontman Saul Hernandez‘s solo work. The album’s third track, Tehran has a wistful sway, part folk-rock as the Church might have done it at their peak, part Spottiswoode. The Church resemblance recurs, but more spaciously and sparely, in Distant Tomorrows, featuring guest crooner Makan Ashgevari. The Return follows, with a big, cinematic, rather triumphantly orchestrated sweep: it’s the most stadium rock-oriented track here. Its 70s folk-pop counterpart is Crosswind, one of the later cuts.

Missing Squares has a shuffle groove, surfy reverb guitars and a brass section – another Jaguares soundalike, more or less. A City Without Gates sets the spare quality of Tehran to a more propulsive, even catchier groove, with some of the album’s strongest vocals. The band brings things down with the echoey, dub-tinged piano-based Resurrection and then follows with Salvador, which rises from a rather upbeat, guitar-fueled neo-Motown drive to a swing groove and then pure Lynchian menace.

A Day Will Come is the most gorgeously jangly, bittersweet number on the album – it could be vintage early 70s Al Stewart with better vocals and production. Deja Vu, with its stomping drums, funk tinges and propeller-blade guitars, is a duet with Iranian blues artist Behzad Omrani.  The final cut is the echoey, muted piano ballad Since You’ve Been Gone.

In terms of pure tunefulness, this is one of the half-dozen best rock albums released in 2015. How horribly sad that the citizens of the nation that for centuries was the cultural capital of the world have been forced to literally go underground to enjoy music like this since the fall of the Shah (and he was no picnic either). And what a fantastic thing that artists like King Raam have made their way to the US. If anyone deserves asylum citizenship, it’s this guy and the rest of the guys who play with him.

Intense, Haunting Frank Flight Band Recordings Rescued from the Archives

For their consistently dark post-Doors vision, brilliant guitar work, epic songcraft and wry humor, it’s tempting to call the Frank Flight Band the British Blue Oyster Cult. Except that the Frank Flight Band’s output has been much more consistent and genuinely brilliant. That’s not meant as a dis to BOC, although that band’s studio output since Fire of Unknown Origin – which was a long, long, long time ago – has basically been a wash. Over the past two decades, the Frank Flight Band’s output has been much less prolific – just four albums – but with the persistent hint that vastly more material is hidden away in a vault somewhere. That myth gets some validation on the band’s latest release, The Usual Curse, streaming in full at cdbaby.

There’s been some turnover in the band across the years. Although former frontman Andy Wrigley’s distinctive rasp is missed, Maurice Watson’s croon is one of the album’s strengths; he’s sort of the missing link between Bryan Ferry and Mark Sinnis. Flight is the rare bandleader who typically limits himself to rhythm guitar and songwriting, while lead player Dave Thornley gets to flex his chops. There isn’t a lot of lead playing here, but it’s choice. Flight draws on influences as diverse as David Gilmour, Robbie Krieger and classic C&W, and Thornley’s terse, spacious, jangly, chiming style is a good fit. For whatever reason, this is the first Flight album where he doesn’t contribute lyrically.

The opening cut, Empty has a doomed sway, Flight’s elegant multitracks and Thornley’s hauntingly bluesy solo over studio drummer Terry Shaughnessy’s shuffle groove. “It won’t be only bricks that fall on the grass that lovers bear…death is in the opening sighs of every interaction,” Watson intones.

The title track begins as a real departure for this band, Watson’s angry, death-obsessed lyrics over Thornley’s web of Beatlesque folk-pop guitar; then it goes electric with an unexpected Booker T-inflected soul groove. Thornley and Flight share writing credits on The Last Train West, a dusky, jangly kiss-off anthem akin to the Doors doing highway rock.

Thornley sings his sardonic, jazz-inflected mid-period Pink Floyd-influenced ballad, Ballet Dancer. Watson returns to the mic for the album’s riveting, anguished, Middle Eastern-tinged, closing clave groove, Unrequited, one of Flight’s half-dozen best compositions. While most of the tracks here date from almost ten years ago, there are also two new tunes. As Flight explains in the album’s liner notes, “In typical FFB cyclical fashion this is the first time all four original members have recorded together since the proto basement tape ‘Leyland Road’ sessions of the mid 1990’s.” The first of the new tunes, the epic Home from the Sea mashes up southern boogie, north Atlantic folk and pensive late 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelia. The second, the surf/spacerock instrumental As Far As The Eye Can See is a dead ringer for the Church circa the early 90s. While the Frank Flight Band’s definitive recording is their 2013 masterpiece Remains, this collection further cements their reputation as psychedelic cult heroes. And raises the intrigue: what else do they have in the can that we haven’t heard?

Dark Psychedelic Bandleader Ember Schrag Joins a Killer Triplebill at Trans-Pecos on the 23rd

Ember Schrag‘s most recent gig at Hifi Bar was one of the year’s best. For that matter, the enigmatic, charismatic psychedelic bandleader’s previous show at a house concert in south Brooklyn with phantasmagorical art-rock band Goddess was pretty amazing too. Schrag and her band open the night at Trans-Pecos at 8:30 PM this Sunday, August 23, followed by intense Balkan noir psychedelic band Alec K. Redfearn & the Eyesores, with whom Schrag will air out her chops on creepy Farfisa organ. Groove-driven no wave cult faves Escape by Ostrich give the evening an acidic coda; cover is a measly $8.

Counterintuitively, Goddess opened the Brooklyn show with their album release performance, a deliciously macabre, theatrical suite about a genuine monster who takes over a hapless New Jersey household. As electrifying as that show was, Schrag and her band were every bit as intense. On album, Schrag’s signature style until this year has been great plains gothic: low-key, reserved, with a subtle, white-knuckle intensity and allusively murderous narratives. This year, on the heels of her release of her live Folkadelphia session album, she and her band have taken those songs as well as a whole bunch of new material into vastly more trippy, artsy terrain.

Guitar polymath Bob Bannister alluded to Muscle Shoals and Fairport Convention and Blonde on Blonde Dylan, among numerous other reference points, but always twisted those styles into something terse and erudite of his own to match Schrag’s venomously symbolist lyrics. Bassist Debbie Schwartz (formerly of the Aquanettas and a fantastic, similarly psychedelic songwriter in her own right) played a surf groove on one number, slides and hammer-ons on a handful of others, and bolstered Schrag’s soaring, distantly angst-fueled voice with her high vocal harmonies. Meanwhile, drummer Gary Foster colored the songs with witchy rimshots and cymbal splashes, misty crescendos and, when necessary, a swinging four-on-the-floor garage rock drive.

Bannister’s nimble accents mingled with Schrag’s hypnotic, circular fingerpicked hooks and Foster’s brushwork on the pensive Sutherland, an understated murder ballad and the night’s opening number. Virgin in the Shadow of My Shoe, a swaying, psychedelic folk noir number, might be Schrag’s most definitive new song. She doesn’t even bother to stomp on a religious icon: she lets her shadow do it. Bannister and Schrag’s rainswept jangle blended as one on the late Beatlesque psych anthem The Real Penelope, followed by a catchy southwestern gothic clang-rock number, part Steve Wynn, part astringent 80s Boston.

Schrag likes to turn Biblical imagery inside out, and she also has a Shakespearean side, most evident in the Arthur Lee-esque number that followed that, and later the ominous Lady M, Bannister’s icepick accents taking the place of the resonant, keening Susan Alcorn steel guitar on the recorded version. From there the band made their way through another ominous waltz that also brought to mind Arthur Lee, as well as a sad, misty Laurel Canyon psych-folk anthem that exploded the Abraham myth. Schrag wound up the set with another wounded waltz where she raised her voice to a shivery Ann Wilson wail, then the slow, cruellly sardonic I Ain’t a Prophet, and a wickedly catchy janglerock song spiced with nimble triplet figures and a biting, bluesy solo from Bannister: the guy can play anything and make it his own. The Trans-Pecos show should be every bit as good.

Dark Country Band the Whiskey Charmers Debut with a Killer Album

Detroit band the Whiskey Charmers play Twin Peaks C&W. It’s dark and intriguing and draws on classic 1960s country music, but also jangly rock and several noir styles from across the decades. Frontwoman/guitarist Carrie Shepard has a strong yet soft and utterly enigmatic voice. While she doesn’t sound anything like Tammy Wynette, she’s coming from the same place emotionally, world-weary beyond her years, keeping her cards close to her vest. Guitarist Lawrence Daversa plays with edge and bite and a very distinctive sense of melody which manages to be counterintuitive to the extreme yet wickedly tuneful – he always leaves you guessing what’s coming around the bend, and it always ends up working out. Their fantastic new album is streaming at their webpage.

Shepard’s strums a lush, nocturnal blanket of acoustic guitar, Daversa interspersing his bluesy accentts as Elevator gets underway. It seems to be a ghost story – in a footrace, the dead always win. Vampire, a creepy southwestern gothic bolero, also puts a cleverly sardonic spin on an old legend: yeah, this guy is out for blood, but the girl doesn’t give a damn. It’s the catchiest (no pun intended) track on the album, Daversa’s Lynchian twang leads reverberating over the dancing rhythm section.

Straight & Narrow weaves an undercurrent of heartbreak into a darkly familiar oldtime gospel theme: it’s akin to Iris DeMent taking a detour into Appalachian gothic. The band follows that with Neon Motel Room, an eerily shuffilng outlaw ballad that’s all the more relevant in an era when renegade cops are blowing innocent people away every time you turn around. They revisit that vibe, musically speaking anyway, a little later with Can’t Leave

C Blues is an elegant, low-key country blues lament. Parlor Lights mashes up a haunting Bessie Smith-style blues ballad with ominous trainwhistle slide guitar: “Turn off the open road, there’s an end in sight,” Shepard intones, letting the subtext speak for itself. Sidewinder follows a stark, loping Hank Williams sway until Daversa’s snarling electric lead kicks in with the rest of the band; the guy Shepard’s referring to in the title is a real snake.

The album winds up with the simply titled Waltz, a nocturne that could be an early Bob Wills number. If this is the only album they ever make, it’ll have a cult audience for decades. Obviously, they’ve got more songs than this; let’s hope they record them someday. The Whiskey Charmers spend a lot of time on the road: their next club gig is on August 19 at 8 PM at Small’s, 10339 Conant in Hamtramck, Michigan; cover is $7 ($10 for ages 18-20).

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.

Jon DeRosa Brings His Haunting, Lynchian Chamber Pop Back to New York

It’s amazing how Jon DeRosa can croon with such nuance and skill considering that he’s lost most of the hearing in his right ear. Another sad reminder of the brain drain that continues to plague New York, the noir chamber pop singer decamped for Los Angeles last year, but has a haunting new album, Black Halo  to show for it. He’s bringing those ghostly songs back to town for an album release show at around 10 at St. Vitus in Greenpoint on June 3; cover is $10.

“The initial inspiration was this intense feeling of isolation and disconnection growing in me while still in New York,” DeRosa explains, “And kind of retreating into this inner world, this spirit world, really. After living there for so many years, I literally felt like a ghost drifting through the crowds, invisible, and with no real connection to anyone or anything.”

Who in New York, who’s been here since the zeros or even earlier, hasn’t felt that way? We’re excluded from the political process that’s turning even the grungiest working-class neighborhoods into ghost towns of future crackhouses, built not as actual homes but as lifesize gamepieces for robber barons hell-bent on cashing in on the real estate bubble before it explodes. And the privileged white suburbanites displacing the artistic class here have no interest in what makes a city a city. The arts don’t exist in their social media-based meta-world. They barely even watch movies. They’re all starring in their own little status-grubbing dramas which they think are comedies but are really horror videos. And they all think they’re Spielberg, but they’re not even Ed Wood. What’s just as disturbing is that some of us have found ourselves dragged into that too, by demands of the dayjob or just trying to stay in touch with the rest of the world.

That was what DeRosa escaped; from the album, he seems to have regained his footing in a shadowy place between the living and the dead. Much as there’s an elegaic strain that runs throughout the songs, there’s hope as well. DeRosa plays guitars, with Charles Newman on keys, Matt Basile on bass, Tom Curiano on drums and Carina Round on vocals. Claudia Chopek’s one-woman string section and Brad Gordon’s one-man wind ensemble join forces to create a lush miniature orchestra on several of the tracks.

The album’s opening, Lynchian, 60s noir pop ballad, Fool’s Razor establishes an atmosphere of anomie and defeat despite its towering, angst-fueled sweep. DeRosa’s chiming twelve-string guitar mingles with glockenspiel and piano on The Sun Is Crying, a sad waltz with a late 60s Laurel Canyon psych-pop vibe and a shout-out to Leonard Cohen. Then DeRosa and Round reach for unexpectedly blithe, surrealistic, mariachi-tinged Vegas pop with When Daddy Took the Treehouse Down.

Coyotes veers from southwestern gothic to mid-80s Cure jangle: “Fear is a thief in disguise, cuts out your heart and flees with its prize,” DeRosa broods in his resonant baritone, then follows with a wryly familiar Edith Piaf riff. Give Me One More Reason is the album’s most psychedelic track, a bartender cynically watching the night’s last patrons, who “don’t know how it feels to end the night standing upright,” waiting til after the doors are locked to pour a few glasses for the ghosts of the whores who still call the dive their home.

The bolero-rock number Lonely Sleep works an elegant, understated angst:

You say that there’s a river, but I see no way across
And you say the mind’s the builder, but my mind has long been lost

DeRosa and Round duet on the ghostly lullaby Dancing in a Dream, a more organic take on Julee Cruise Twin Peaks atmospherics. The piano-driven dirge Blood Moon brings to mind the Ocean Blue as well as DeRosa’s more ambient work with Aarktika. Likewise, Knock Once has 80s values: brisk new wave bassline, hypnotically loopy goth guitar. Then DeRosa brings a lingering, astigmatic 80s ambience to Orbisonian pop with You’re Still Haunting Me – which, when you think about it, pretty much defines what Lynchian music is all about, right?

The album’s most epic number is High and Lonely, a spare, hypnotically apocalyptic anthem: “I want none of your fleeting wealth, I want none of your earthly fortune,” is DeRosa’s mantra. The album winds up with the title track, a Spectoresqe instrumental waltz. DeRosa has a strong and occasionally shattering back catalog, notably his 2012 release A Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes, but this is his strongest, most consistent release. It’s not officially out yet, therefore no streaming link, although a couple of tracks are up at Motherwest Studios’ soundcloud page. Fans of the creme de la creme of dark rock: Nick Cave, Mark Sinnis and the rest will love this. It’s good to see someone we pretty much took for granted here in New York able to keep the torch burning thousands of miles away.

The Sideshow Tragedy Bring Their Visionary Apocalyptic Blues to the Rockwood

The last time this blog caught up with the Sideshow Tragedy, it was a couple of years ago late on a Friday night in the red neon backroom at Zirzamin, and the Austin noir blues band was killing it. Really killing it. Guitarist Nathan Singleton was airing out his bottomless bag of jagged minor-key licks, drummer Jeremy Harrell had a murderous stomp going and there were some special guests, if memory serves right – it had been a crazy night up to that point. Fast forward to 2015: Zirzamin is sadly gone, but the Austin band has a new album, Capital, streaming at Continental Record Services‘ site, and a similar small-room, Friday night show, in this case at the Rockwood on May 22 at 11 PM. This usually sedate space is in for a serious jolt of adrenaline, tempered slightly by the fact that the new album is somewhat more spare and haunting than the band’s previous, often unhinged gutter blues attack. It’s a concept album, a sinister, brilliantly metaphorical portrait of a nation gone off the rails in an orgy of greed and mass desperation. Fans of Humanwine will love this.

“Summer’s here, and the tramps are on the move, ten to a trailerbed from Chicago to LA…you can taste the decay,” Singleton broods in Number One, a corrosively relevant, cynical portrait of haves versus have-nots over a riff-rock groove that other bands would have turned into metal, but these guys do as a shuffle. Likewise, Blacked Out Windows, with some harmonically offcenter multitracks, could be Sonic Youth, but instead Singleton runs the riff over and over for an ominously hypnotic vibe: “Smoke and mirrors closing in…his carnival calm is easy to believe,” Singleton warns. “The palms of the priest are easy to grease.”

Singleton more or less talks the apocalyptic lyrics to Keys to the Kingdom as Harrell beats a frantic, funereal pulse on his tom-toms. The Winning Side, a similarly frantic, scampering anthem, sounds like Dylan’s It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding at doublespeed: “It’s not the thought that counts,” Singleton muses grimly. The title track works a dusky midtempo slide guitar groove, a caustically aphoristic parable of the 21 st century going back into the dark ages in a hurry. “You listen to the police scanner as your write your report, better fill your quota while you got time…you can’t see the horizon ’cause it don’t matter right now, so rob the beggars blind,” Singleton taunts. It’s arguably the best and most relevant song anybody’s released this year.

Two Guns pairs Harrell’s shuffling, misty cymbals against Singleton’s uneasily precise slide guitar and menacing stream of metaphors: “The rockets’ eternal red glare, the shooting off of lights and flares, it’s getting dark out there.” So when Singleton finally reaches the point where he works a song around a major-key hook – with the only slightly less troubled Animal Song, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Marcellus Hall catalog – there’s a sense of relief, however temporary.

Let the Love Go Down returns to a death-obsessed theme with a series of fire-and-brimstone metaphors over a relentlessly rolling and tumbling drive.The album ends with Plow Song, a spiky resonator guitar-fueled trip through a postapocalyptic landscape where you’re bound to end up with “a gun for all seasons and a bit in your mouth.” Powerful words from a Texas band. Best album of the year? One of the top handful, no question.

The Bright Smoke Earn Comparisons to Joy Division

Lots of groups draw comparisons to Joy Division. Inevitably, all of them fall short. None of them can match that iconic band’s shatttering gothic art-rock grandeur…and nobody goes as far into the abyss as Ian Curtis. The Bright Smoke are a rare exception to that rule. In a way, their new album, Terrible Towns – streaming at Bandcamp – could be the great lost Joy Division album between Unknown Pleasures and Closer. Except that frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson doesn’t sound anything like Ian Curtis. However, she does have a powerful, angst-fueled low register, something akin to Cat Power without the affectations (ok, hard to imagine, but just try). She’s as strong a tunesmith and lyricist as she is a singer, and an inventive guitarist. Her songwriting is equally informed by oldtime acoustic blues and dark rock: other than the guys from Manchester, the new album occasionally brings to mind the live Portishead album. The Bright Smoke are playing the Cameo Gallery on May 19 at 9 PM; cover is $8.

As you would expect from such a relentlesly dark outfit, their songs are on the slow side, and usually in ninor keys. Beyond having a woman out front, the Bright Smoke distinguish themselves from Joy Division in that they’re considerably more swirly and psychedelic. Live, drummer Karl Thomas colors the songs with a terse, almost minimalist precision and the occasional jazzy flourish. Lead guitarist Quincy Ledbetter is a monster player, a master of texture and timbre, who although he has blazing speed doesn’t waste notes: if Bernard Sumner had started playing earlier than he did, he might have ended up sounding something like Ledbetter. Lately, for atmospherics, onstage the Bright Smoke have been including an electroacoustic element.

The album’s opening track, Hard Pander, could be Sade covering Joy Division. Wilson’s lyrics are enigmatic, sardonic, often imbued with gallows humor and this number is typical:

I don’t have to fake my inclinations
I don’t have to draw on my scars
You’re in over your head, girl
Pander right and pander hard

The way the bass rises, a low harmony with the wary, wounded guitar overhead in Like Video is a recurrent, artful touch throughout the album: this band really works every dark corner of the sonic spectrum. And Wilson’s cynicism is crushing:

I hear the Midwest stretches on for miles
And calls you back and it’s always on time
I hear it don’t have a past like mine
I hear the Midwest don’t have a voice to raise
Just settles down on her knees and prays
And makes you feel big in your small way
Baby, I’m in town today

On Ten also works a recurrent trope, Wilson’s elegant fingerpicking against layers and layers of lingering ambience, a savage dissection of Notbrooklyn ennui:

Join, join, join the ranks
Of the pretty, white, and jobless
And pray your daddy’s money away
At St. Sebastian’s School for the Godless

August/September is a diptych, the first part a plaintive piano waltz evoking Joy Division’s The Eternal, the second fueled by a menacing, echoing pulse that ends in crushing defeat: its quiet, sudden ending is one of the album’s most powerful moments. “There’s a bloody side to this, I don’t share your sunny disposition,” Wilson warns in Exit Door, with its wickedly catchy “You wanna know where the money comes from” mantra. Shakedown, a creepy roadhouse boogie in Lynchian disguise, brings to mind Randi Russo. “If there’s a game of losing friends…you and I would be Olympians,” Wilson broods.

Howl builds nonchalantly to an unexpectedly catchy, yet unpredictable chorus that would be the envy of any stadium rock band, a sardonic look at self-absorption lit up by a nimble tremolo-picked Ledbetter solo. City on an Island, with its watery chorus-box bass and 80s production values evokes early New Order and might be the album’s catchiest song. It might also be its most searing one, a kiss-off to a fauxhemian:

Good luck with your pylons
With your city on an island
And good luck with the small false hints
That you live the way I live

The album’s final track, simply titled Or, is a Mississippi hill country blues vamp, T-Model Ford spun through the prism of psychedelia and trip-hop, closer to the band’s stark, spare previous output than anything else here. Look for this around the top of the best albums of 2015 page in December if we make it that far.

Dark Songstress Ember Schrag Plays a Revealingly Low-Key Brooklyn House Concert

Carlos, the goodlooking, rangy guy who runs the space housing the Gatehouse concert series in Fort Greene, surveyed the room Friday night. His black eyes shifted warily, separating familiar faces from newcomers. His blasé, taciturn expression muted a spring-loaded, muscularly twitchy presence, clearly on the prowl for fresh meat. More about that later.

Ember Schrag opened the show in a rare all-acoustic duo performance with polymath lead guitarist Bob Bannister. Notwithstanding her DIY esthetic, Schrag is an elegant singer with sophisticated mic technique, and isn’t used to singing without one. So it was interesting to watch her scramble to find a way to project into the space, in the process unleashing an unexpected grit and raw menace that don’t usually find their way into her typically stately, enigmatic vocals. While she’s most recently been mining a richly lyrical, psychedelically-tinged art-rock vein, this setting gave her the chance to air out several tracks from her haunting, low-key, mostly acoustic Great Plains gothic album The Sewing Room, including the title track, a metaphorically-charged battle of angels that ends as an unexpectedly triumphant escape anthem. As the Nebraska-born songwriter told it, there might be more than a little autobiography in there.

Throughout Sutherland, a tensely fingerpicked murder ballad, Schrag’s voice reached for more menace and foreshadowing than her deadpan, Melora Creager-esque delivery on the studio version. By contrast, Virgin in the Shadow of My Shoe – a swaying pop anthem from Schrag’s latest release, a live Folkadelphia session featuring Susan Alcorn on pedal steel – was irresistibly snide and funny. The two guitarists kept a steady stroll going with Banquo’s Book, its ominous series of images and a deliciously understated, bitingly terse, bluesy Bannister solo.

On album, Your Words is a delicate kiss-off anthem; here, Schrag raised the anger factor, but just a little. An older song related an incident involving a collaboration with a free jazz group and an offer of free rent in a space that turned out to have bedbugs; a new one, Speak to Me in Dreams, juxtaposed another trail of nonchalantly murderous imagery with sizzling fretwork from Bannister. Schrag closed with I Ain’t a Prophet, a corruscating remake of a familiar fire-and-brimstone Bible myth – “Got to use a hammer on Jacob’s Ladder,” she calmly intoned.

Now you might think that someone whose songs can be as starkly serious as most of the numbers in this set would bring a similar gravitas to the stage. Not so. In front of an audience, Schrag is a firecracker, bantering with the crowd and sharing insights into her fabulistic, Calvinist imagery. She peppers her songs with all sorts of Old Testament references coupled with an irreverence that at the core is pure oldschool punk rock. And as generous as she is with the keys to her narratives, she also brought a delicious gin/grapefruit punch, and a cake made out of several kinds of flour that everyone was raving about, and some baked chicken.

About two songs before the end of the show, Carlos finally went into action with a flying leap onto the table, poised to make a swipe at the meat. But an audience member in the back calmly lifted the jet-black figure and his furry paws and returned him to his spot on the floor, where the hungry predator regrouped, grudgingly accepted an appreciative pat on the head, and began plotting his next move. Watch this space for upcoming shows by Schrag, with or without furry friends in the house.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 188 other followers