New York Music Daily

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Tag: dark rock

Lusterlit Bring Their Richly Lyrical, Creepy, Lynchian Rock to Bushwick

Multi-instrumentalists Susan Hwang and Charlie Nieland formed Lusterlit as a far darker spinoff of the Bushwick Book Club, a songwriting collective whose sprawling, global membership regularly contributes assignments based on a staggeringly diverse reading list of both fiction and nonfiction – they started with Vonnegut and then branched out from there. Musically speaking, Lusterlit compares most obviously to the Handsome Family, but switching out the Americana for more of an ethereal, gothic ambience. Lusterlit’s album List of Equipment is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’ve got a show at 9 PM this Wednesday, April 12 at the Well, 272 Meserole St. in Bushwick, Cover is $8; take the L to Montrose Ave. As a bonus, wry 70s style krautrock disco band Automaatio play afterward at 10. Cover is $8.

The duo hit the album’s first track, Ceremony, out of the park. It’s a long, creepy, ineluctably crescendoing, chromatically-charged Lynchian anthem inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Hwang’s voice slides up from low and understatedly menacing, growing more wrathful as the narrative shifts into more harrowing territory. She’s been a strong singer since her days as co-leader of the charming, eclectic trio the Debutante Hour with Maria Sonevytsky and Mia Pixley, but this could be the high point of her career so far. Behind the vocals, the two evoke a Phil Spector deep-space grandeur with their densely arranged, reverbtoned layers of acoustic guitar and synthesized strings.

The title track  – inspired by a Julia Child cookbook – is a jaunty noir cabaret piano tune, Hwang imagining her kitchen utensils as tools for more sinister purposes. As dark, quirky, artsy pop goes, it wouldn’t be out of place in the Changing Modes songbook. Nieland takes over vocals in The Day of the Triffids with a breathy, misterioso delivery against an enveloping, cumulo-nimbus backdrop punctuated by slowly tumbling John Barry film noir percussion.

The two concluding cuts draw on Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. Hwang makes quasi-hip-hop out of her litany of Middle American images from decades past in the first one, Flight: the chorus of Marlon Cherry, Leslie Graves, and another first-rate literary songwriter, Jessie Kilguss add distantly gospel-flavored harmonies. The second, Genius of Love, sends a shout to a couple of iconic new wave hits, Nieland taking the music forward fifteen years with a 90s trip-hop vibe. As with all the songs here, the lyrics are torrential: they come at you like refugees across the Syrian border. If there’s any album released this year that demands many repeated listens, this is it.

An Unpredictably Fun Album Release Show by Changing Modes

It’s hard to imagine a New York band that has as much fun onstage as Changing Modes. Or a band anywhere who can negotiate the endlessly tricky metrics and serpentine twists and turns of their artsy, often new wave-tinged songs as tightly as they do. At their album release show for their new one, Goodbye Theodora at Webster Hall this past weekend, everybody in the band except for drummer Timur Yusef switched instruments.

Singer Wendy Griffiths is the best keyboardist in the band, but she played the better part of the set on bass – as it turns out, she’s also their most nimble bass player. Co-frontwoman Grace Pulliam is a guitarist, but she played keys and bass synth. Guitarist Yuzuru Sadashige took over bass duties early on and ended the show on keys. As usual, Griffiths and Pulliam took turns on lead vocals, often in the same song, Pulliam’s soul-infused lower register blending with Griffiths’ crisp, crystalline soprano for some unselfconsciously spine-tingling moments and some that were a lot more devious. Griffiths worked the mystery angle; everybody else in the band was pretty much grinning from ear to ear for the duration of the show. They’re bringing their multi-instrumental prowess, good cheer and darkly lyrical songs to the one-year anniversary celebration at the Muse Brooklyn at 350 Moffatt St. in Bushwick tonight, April 2 at 7:30 PM. Cover is $15; take the L to Wilson Ave.

It takes nerve to open with an instrumental, but that’s what Changing Modes did, tackling the creepy, futuristic tumbles and swells of 2-1/2 Minutes to Midnight without breaking a sweat. They kept the enigmatic, surreal atmosphere going with a swaying take of Mind Palace, the first of the tracks from the new album and followed with the sly noir swing romp Amanda’s House, which sounds suspiciously like a song somebody with that name might write.

Sadashige fired off some evil noiserock in between Pulliam and Griffiths’ vocal handoffs in Red, followed by the macabre, lingering anthem Arizona, the night’s best song. Fueled by Sadashige’s searing solo, they growled through the postapocalyptic allusions of Door, then had fun with Sharkbird, the night’s monster surf-tinged second instrumental.

After the uneasy dynamic shifts of Firestorm, they lightened the mood with Pulliam singing an Amy Winehouse-esque cover of Elle King’s Ex’s & Oh’s, and later elevated Radiohead’s Karma Police toward late Beatles grandeur. Too Far Gone – a co-write with their indie classical composer pal Denise Mei Yan Hofmann – made a detour back to grimly anthemic territory. They wound up the set with the poppy, bouncy Vital Signs and the woozy, fuzzy, older new wave song Pretty Vacant, which is nothing like the Sex Pistols. Changing Modes have a deep back catalog, seven albums worth of songs just as eclectic and unpredictably fun as these.

A Killer Triplebill Foreshadows a Great Psychedelic Show on the LES

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agnes Obel Brings Her Creepy Waltzes to the West Village Saturday Night

Multi-keyboardist/singer Agnes Obel writes broodingly catchy songs that span from minimalist chamber pop to more ornate art-rock. She loves waltz time: most of the songs on her new album Citizen of Glass, streaming at Spotify, have a slow 3/4 pulse. David Lynch has given her his imprimatur, which makes sense, although as a point of reference, she’s closer to Basia Bulat than Julee Cruise. Obel’s got a New York gig this Saturday night, March 11 at the Poisson Rouge at 7:30 PM. Advance tix are $20.

Obel plays all the keyboards on the album other than Daniel Matz’s trautonium, an early analog synthesizer that sounds like a chorus of shortwave radios. Kristina Koropecki’s alternately swooping and dancing cello multitracks add lushness and lustre to the moodily waltzing opening number, Stretch Your Eyes: it wouldn’t be out of place as a backing track on a classic 90s RZA Wu-tang joint.

Familiar has the…ummm…familiar feel of an icy 90s stainless-steel-counter club trip-hop number, like Portishead with guy/girl vocals: it’s likely that Obel is simply multitracking those harmonies with a pitch pedal. To her credit, Obel writes instrumentals as well as vocal numbers; the first of these, Red Virgin Soil is a hypnotically circling minor-key, cello-driven waltz.

A more stately piano waltz, It’s Happening Again has a distantly troubled, hazy Marissa Nadler-esque vibe, a look over the shoulder at a haunted past. Obel also draws comparisons to Nadler over 3/4 cadences throughout Stone, which  brings to mind Philip Glass’ film work.

Trojan Horses is the album’s best and creepiest track, in the same vein as Clint Mansell’s most ominously circular film scores. “The end of time has just begun, I hear it call your name,” Obel soberly intones early in the title track, the most minimalist but arguably catchiest song here. That could also be said about Golden Green, a trance-inducing round with Bach-like echoes, Obel playing through a vibraphone patch. 

The album winds up with the melancholy, resonant piano instrumental Grasshopper and then Mary, a sad reminiscence that could be about a lesbian relationship, or maybe witchcraft, or maybe both. Once again, Obel’s signature allusiveness draws you in.

Haunting Singer Carol Lipnik’s East Village Residency Takes On New Relevance

This past Sunday evening at Pangea, Carol Lipnik reached for the rafters, with her voice and with her hand, as if trying to pull stars from the sky. It wasn’t as if she was imploring some unseen force, but there was a quiet desperation as her four-octave voice rose to the stratosphere. Behind her, Matt Kanelos built a twilit mist of electronics and then played steady, lustrous neoromantic piano chords to anchor his longtime collaborator’s uneasy flights upward.

“We’ve fallen backward into a strange abyss of imperfection,” Lipnik mused, in between songs. Iridescent in a shimmery midnight blue dress, she addressed the ugly events of the past week with grim understatement. “Our pleasure ship has hit an iceberg. My life raft is made of paper, and my oar, a pen…my song is a torn sail, my voice the ripping wind.” Much as Lipnik’s performances, and especially her lyrics, can be both hilarious and heartwrenching, this was out of character.

Then again, we’ve all been wrenched from our comfort zones. Calmly and matter-of-factly, Lipnik built a dynamic intensity that rose and fell, laced with dark punk rock humor and ominous nature imagery. The fun stuff included a leap to the rafters with a boisterous cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Put a Spell on You that its author would no doubt have been proud of. Lipnik channeled Klaus Nomi in a phantasmagorical version of The Twist. She drew the most feverish applause when she introduced a famous 60s cabaret-rock hit. “The Barnum and Bailey circus is going out of business, Lipnik explained. “Now there’s a new circus in town. Let’s all drink to the death of a clown!” Without further elaboration, the duo onstage brought out every ounce of creepiness in Dave Davies’ metaphorically-loaded circus narrative. Later, the two brought out far more angst than hope in a relentlessly steady take of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem.

The most bittersweet number of the night was a brand-new, rather elegaic collaboration with David Cale titled A History of Kisses. The most apt for the moment was an insistent minor-key art-rock anthem titled Beast Bird, a familiar bestiary facing an even more familiar peril. An elegantly surreal “torch song to a wild goose,” a disquietingly airy take of Goddess of Imperfection – Lipnik’s theme song for her ongoing Pangea residency – and the allusive eco-disaster parable My Piano (which was a tree in a past life) completed the picture. Lipnik’s weekly Sunday shows in the sonically exquisite back room at this comfortable East Village boite are almost as legendary as her vocal range; the show continues this Sunday, Feb 5 at around 7 PM.

Midway through the show, Lipnik brought up Witchfinder Witch, the brand-new duo collaboration between Dennis Davison, frontman of LA psychedelic rock legends the Jigsaw Seen and folk noir songstress Lorraine Leckie, who were making their Manhattan debut. She delivered a cute singalong about legendary Lower East Side dive Mars Bar; he held the crowd rapt with The Unhappiest Man Under the Sun with Leckie on piano, a song that no doubt spoke for a lot of people in the crowd.

Another Dark Chapter in Morricone Youth’s Marathon Series of Film Scores

Avi Fox-Rosen‘s record of releasing a dozen albums in a dozen months may be safe, but Morricone Youth aren’t far behind. The latest album from New York’s most prolifically cinematic band – in a planned series of fifteen soundtracks to films they’ve played live to over the past five years – is guitarist/bandleader Devon E. Levins’ original score for George Miller’s pioneering, dystopic 1979 post peak oil monster truck epic Mad Max. Like the rest of the series, the record is available on limited edition vinyl, in translucent Coke bottle greeen, and streaming at soundcloud.

The initial release in the series, a mix of the original score and new material composed for George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, explores the darkest corners of 60s psychedelia. The second, for the 1926 silent film The Adventures of Prince Ahmed, is more Morricone-esque, with Middle Eastern and Italian influenes. This new one is a mix of 70s art-rock and early new wave. Which makes sense: when the movie was in production, new wave rock was in its embryonic stages (and Mel Gibson, if he was a rightwing Christian supremacist nutjob then, hadn’t yet become famous for it).

As with much of Morricone Youth’s work, the album is a series of themes and variations. In general, the music is more overtly dark than the film’s exuberantly cynical narrative about vigilantes who can’t quite figure out how to get the max out of their prized but rapidly evaporating stash of petrochemicals. Dan Kessler’s washes of keyboards fuel the brief title theme: its motorik foreshadowing takes centerstage in the second piece, Mad Goose, over the furtive new wave pulse of bassist John Castro and drummer Brian Kantor.

Noir singer Karla Rose – whose forthcoming album of hauntingly lyrical songs is reputedly amazing – contributes distantly ghostly vocals to Clunes Town, a mashup of Del Shannon and Morricone spaghetti western. From there the band segues into Revenge of the MFP, which sounds like the Ex taking on a Richard Strauss theme famously repurposed for outer space.

Fraser Campbell’s balmy sax floats over a starry backdrop throughtout Jessie, a surrealistic love theme. Then Levins puts the rubber to the road with his grittily circling riffage in Nightrider, a careening chase scene. The band channel their main inspiration in the creepy, woozily psychedelic bolero Anarchie Road, followed by Johnny the Boy. a sardonic mashup of early Squeeze and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Kantor propelling it with a tumbling leadfoot drive. Castro’s Geezer Butler-like, growling bass pushes Toecutter as it rises from Pink Floyd ominousness toward krautrock. The closing credits roll to the surprisingly upbeat, starlit spacerock of Bad Max. That there are another dozen albums like this in the works is really something to look forward to in what’s been a horror movie of a year so far.

Smart, Cutting-Edge Tunesmithing at Manhattan’s Most Comfortable Listening Room

Much as the world of singer-songwriters has shrunk, in the wake of the death of the big record labels – call it a market correction – Manhattan still has a great listening room for solo acoustic acts and small string bands. That venue is the American Folk Art Museum, just a few steps from the uptown 1 local to 66th Street, across the triangle from Lincoln Center. Their mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series starts at 5:30 on the nose, goes to about quarter after seven and spans the world of folk music, from vintage Americana, gospel and blues to bluegrass, original songwriters and sounds from all over the world. That’s why this blog picked the museum as Manhattan’s best venue for 2016.

Jessi Robertson, with her harrowing narratives of angst and despair and her otherworldly, soul-infused wail, is the star of the show there on Friday the 29th. She’s a surprisingly funny performer for someone whose music is so dark and intense. She’s as captivating as the three best acts to play the space over the past few weeks: Joshua Garcia, Dina Regine and Anana Kaye.

Garcia held the crowd rapt throughout his brief set there last month. He has a flinty, clipped vocal delivery that’s bluesy without being cliched. He sounds like a throwback to the artists from the 1950s who influenced Dylan, but whom Dylan couldn’t quite figure out how to copy, at least vocally speaking. Along with a handful of populist anthems and nostalgic character studies, Garcia’s most riveting song was That’s the Way You Drop a Bomb. Told from the plainspoken perspective of one of the the crew of the Enola Gay, Garcia nailed every detail, right down to the pilot’s admonishment not to watch the explosion on the ground, the mushroom cloud or the firestorm afterward. Except that Garcia’s crewman had a conscience.

Dina Regine is best known as one of the pioneers of EDM, but her songwriting is vastly more interesting. On that same bill, she played solo acoustic on guitar, unselfconsciously making her way through a fearlessly populist set that made a great segue with Garcia. Shadowy vamping post-Lou Reed grit stood alongside warmly familiar retro 60s soul and doo-wop tunes, everything anchored in Regine’s background as a daughter of the Queens projects in the 1970s. She’s reputedly working on a new album which, if this set is any indication, promises to be just as eclectic and relevant as her last one.

Last week, Anana Kaye opened the night flanked by a couple of guys on rhythm and lead guitar. With her raccoon-eye makeup and circus rock outfit, she looked the part, but she transcends the theatrics of that cubculture (that’s a typo, but it works, right?). As a pianist, she really has a handle on uneasy, cinematic voicings that sometimes reach lurid, bloodcurdling depths. The best song in her tantalizingly brief set was Down the Ladder, a cruelly haunting desperation anthem. The most playful was Blueberry Fireworks, an aptly surrealistic shout-out to a gradeschool-aged friend with a vivid imagination. The more low-key material in her set reminded of Tom Waits while her upbeat, carnivalesque numbers reminded of a strummy, guitar-driven, lyrically infused Rasputina or female-fronted World Inferno. Kaye’s next gig is on Feb 15 at 8 PM at LIC Bar in Long Island City.

Steel Player Mike Neer Darkly Reinvents Thelonious Monk Classics

Any fan of western swing knows how cool a steel guitar can sound playing jazz. The great C&W pedal steel player Buddy Emmons knew something about that: back in the 70s, he recorded steel versions of famous Charlie Parker tunes. In that same vein, steel guitarist Mike Neer has just put out an even more deliciously warped, downright creepy, dare we say paradigm-shifting album of Thelonious Monk covers for lapsteel, wryly titled Steelonious and streaming at the band’s webpage. Neer’s playing the album release show on Jan 25 at 8 PM at Barbes. If you like Monk, steel, and/or darkly cinematic sounds in general, you’d be crazy to miss this.

The album opens with a tongue-in-cheek slide down the frets into a surf stomp, and the band is off into their tight version of Epistrophy, a devious mix of western swing, honkytonk and the Ventures. Neer is amped up with plenty of reverb and just a tad of natural distortion for extra bite. By contrast, he plays Bemsha Swing through a watery chorus effect against the low-key pulse of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Diego Voglino as pianist Matt King stays in the background.

The rest of the album is a mix of iconic material and deeper cuts. In deference to the composer’s purist taste, King’s piano keeps things purposeful and bluesy, with the occasional hint of New Orleans. Neer’s take of Round Midnight echoes the Hawaiian sounds he played for so long, first with the Haoles and then the Moonlighters. In its own twisted way, this simmering quasi-bolero is closer to the spirit of the original than most straight-up jazz versions. It’s easy to imagine Beninghove’s Hangmen doing something as noir as this with it.

Likewise, In Walked Bud gets reinvented with all sorts of slinky bossa nova tinges, Tom Beckham’s echoey, bluesy vibraphone over lingering organ. If Neer’s version is historically accurate, Bud Powell wasn’t just crazy – this cat was scary!

Bye-Ya has more of a western swing feel, partially due to Neer’s droll, warpy tones. I Mean You positions Neer as bad cop against purist, good cop King. Putting organ on Off Minor was a genius move – what a creepy song! Voglino’s surf drums provide an almost gleeful contrast. In the same vein, the band does Ugly Beauty as a waltzing, noir organ theme, Neer’s menacing solo echoing Charlie Rouse’s sax on the original before veering back toward Bill Monroe territory.

It’s amazing how good a country ballad Ask Me Now makes; same deal with how well Blue Monk translates to proto-honkytonk. Straight No Chaser is so distinctive that there’s not a lot that can be done with it other than playing it pretty much as written, and the band keep their cards pretty close to the vest. But their starlit waltz version of Reflections is anything but trad: it’s sort of their Theme From a Summer Place. It’s awfully early in the year, and much as it might be cheating to pick a cover album, this is the frontrunner for best release of 2017 so far.

Hannah Vs. the Many Release the Best Rock Record of 2016

For the past five years or so, Hannah Vs. the Many have earned a reputation for incendiary live shows and brilliant albums equally informed by noir cabaret, punk, art-rock and theatre music, with a dash of magic realism. Frontwoman/multi-instrumentalist Hannah Fairchild might not just be the best songwriter in New York: she might be the best songwriter anywhere in the world. Her torrential volleys of lyrics have stiletto wit, sardonic and often savage double entendres, and a towering angst that sometimes boils over into raw wrath. While her writing reflects elements of purist Carl Newman powerpop, epic Paul Wallfisch grandeur and Neko Case noir, she’s a stronger and more eclectic writer than any of them with the possible exception of the Botanica frontman. Her wounded wail is one of the most riveting and dramatic voices in New York as well. Originally a keyboardist, she was writing brooding acoustic guitar songs almost from the moment she first picked up the instrument, then pulled a band together and the rest is history.

Their debut, All Our Heroes Drank Here, made the shortlist of the best albums of 2012 here; the follow-up, Ghost Stories ranked high on that list two years later. Their latest release, Cinemascope, draws its inspiration from classic film from over the decades. In terms of vast lyrical scope, genre-defying sophistication and sheer catchiness, it’s the best rock record of the year (caveat: Karla Rose & the Thorns have one in the can that hasn’t hit yet). Hannah Vs. the Many are playing the album release show at around 9 this Saturday, Nov 19 at Bushwick Public House at 1288 Myrtle Ave; the closest train is the M to Central Ave.

The opening track, Smoke Is Rising begins as a pensive art-rock ballad, Fairchild adding a jazz tinge with her piano, and builds to a noisy metallic inferno. It follows the same arc as the suicide jumper in Fairchild’s similarly searing All Eyes on Me; this one’s about a woman’s self-immolation, and every metaphor that could imply. When Fairchild intones, “You notice me, don’t you?” it’s just as much a condemnation of those who would watch without intervening as it is a cynical comment on depressive self-absorption.

Lovely Resolution blends elements of Nordic valkyrie metal, punk and classic garage rock, carried by Fairchild’s melismatic shriek. It ponders questions of authenticity and motives in revolutionary politics, it’s the most punk track on the album, and it’s a good anthem in this surreal post-election netherworld. And it’s optimistic:

We are the preface of a new day rising
Last year’s hope
This year’s trash
Next year’s gods

Carl Limbacher’s bubbly bass opens the bitter Cameo, a chronicle of a flirtation to rival the crunching cynicism of the Church’s For a Moment We’re Strangers, tense blue-flame jangle giving way to an explosive chorus. Fairchild has written about the inspiration for these songs in a series of poignant, sometimes shockingly revealing blog posts; this one was spiringboarded by a late-night hookup thwarted by too much alcohol.

I won’t be remembered
I won’t be remembered
Curling up and drifting off under blanket statements
Draw near help me fight this chill
Resolutions wearing thin
Morals bending backwards
Don’t stay, only say you will

The skittish new wave that opens The Auteur gives way to stomping, lickety-split punk. Like much of Fairchild’s work, this one casts a cold eye on how men expect women to subsume themselves, how some women do so willingly, and at great expense. It’s also very funny:

Once we’re discovered the question will ever be
Which of us settled for whom?
It’s uninspired at best, another biblical fall
You’re unravelling under surveillance
And now we’ll all place our bets
On if you’ll come when you’re called

The saddest, quietest and most radical change for Fairchild here is Chiaroscuro. It’s a muted country song with a banjo, of all things, a chronicle of a family trip to a Washington, DC historic site as well as the divorce that followed years later, a psychological autopsy of Midwestern stoicism worthy of Upton Sinclair:

Every child becomes a murderer in time
We take our leave of absence and we scatter from our homes
They offer contrast, these killers out of context
Someone else’s brother has been chiseled into stone
Not ours, though.

The hard-charging Hotel Empire, as Fairchild has explained, is the album’s turning point. Up to now, the songs have mainly chronicled women trying to be good. All the narratives after this are from anti-heroines. It’s also the climactic song in a suite inspired by what was probably a horribly abusive real-life relationship. Fairchild uses the plotline from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, from the point of view of the Kim Novak character, as the springboard for this harrowing conclusion. “Go on. I said I’m fine,” is the mantra.

Surrender Dorothy is the key to the album, a lickety-split look at the madonna/whore dichotomy through the prism of high school musicals (Fairchild had quite a successful career as a stage actress while still in her teens). It sounds like Patti Smith backed by the UK Subs:

Cinderella’s sisters tell us
Nothing in the final edit
‘Cause we left them blinded, bled and
Screaming through the rolling credits
Made a mistake, played it straight
How many punchlines til she breaks?
Splitting on seams, no reprieve
What I get is what you see

Max Tholenaar-Maples’ scrambling drums and Fairchild’s distorted guitar keep the punk rock going fulll-throttle in Murder Darling, bookending Wells Albritton’s brief, moody electric piano interlude. It’s another example of Fairchild at her most savagely hilarious and spot-on:

Flash right back to a boy in need of applause
Evading playground taunts
From bright young things with eyes rolled
Beat that track! Daddy said you’re whatever you want
And how that promise haunts

NSFW revisits love-as-war metaphors, both musically and lyrically, shifting between a sarcastic march and wounded jangle:

Curious trend
Isn’t it strange?
What information you chose to retain?
All of my fears, none of my wit
Drape me in jealousy tailored to fit
Lining your walls
Faces you’ve earned
Duchesses hanging themselves on your word
Women of rank I have surpassed

Kopfkino makes a harrowing coda to the album, an actress at the end of her rope in a Holocaust milieu whose ending you can’t see coming, but which brings the song cycle full circle. In terms of sheer ambition, epic grandeur and cruel insight, there’s no other album that’s been released this year that comes close to this one.

LJ Murphy Brings His Feral Stage Show and Visionary Lyricism Back to the East Village

Great musicians reinvent themselves every so often. Bowie did it, and Elvis Costello has done it a few times as well. And so has.LJ Murphy, who is the closest thing New York has to either of those songwriters these days. The Bowie influence isn’t really obvious, although Murphy’s songs have a surrealistic side. The Costello influence is something Murphy has deliberately muted over the past few years, although lyrically speaking, the two share a fondness for irresistible puns, double and triple entendres and a defiant, sometimes venomously anti-authoritarian sensibility. Where Costello these days is a suave elder statesman, Murphy is a ferociously charismatic showman. What’s new in Murphy’s music is that these days, he’s fronting a band with three electric guitars, taking an already high-voltage sound to new heights of intensity. He’s bringing his megawatt show to a Saturday night East Village gig at Sidewalk on Nov 12 at 8 PM. As a bonus, Mac McCarty‘s new Spoon River Anthology-inspired folk noir band, Abraham’s River, play afterward at 9 with Walter Ego – as good a songwriter as anybody else on this bill – probably doing his typical multi-instrumentalist thing on bass, piano and lead guitar.

Over the years, Murphy has fronted an eclectic series of groups, ranging from catchy, new wave-influenced janglerock to volcanic electric blues. Although there were some brilliant lineups behind him in the mid-zeros – the version of his group, The Accomplices, with the crushingly swinging rhythm section of Josh Belknap on drums and Andrew Plonsky on bass, comes to mind – the current lineup may be the best of all of them. And as explosive as this unit is, Murphy has lately been opening and closing his shows solo acoustic. It’s kind of a macho thing, as if to say, “Yeah, this band is great, but these songs don’t need a band.” Last time out, he opened with the haunting, minor-key Fearful Town, an understatedly savage portrait of East Village tourist trap hell, and closed with the similarly poignant Saturday’s Down, a 6/8 soul ballad set in McCarren Park in Williamsburg back in the days when it really was populated with cops on horseback, sleeping drunks and men who work three jobs.

The time before that Murphy played a brief acoustic set in tandem with his multi-instrumentalist not-so-secret weapon, Tommy Hoscheid, who’s as likely to break out his tenor sax as he is to fire off a vintage Memphsi soul solo on electric guitar, or accompany the band on piano. The time before that – yeah, this guy’s worth seeing three times over the course of a summer – Murphy opened with Saturday’s Down and closed with the ominously aphoristic noir blues cautionary tale Geneva Conventional.

But the funnest parts of those shows were when the band was really cooking. Hoscheid and Dylan Treadwell on guitars, Murphy rocking his vintage Gibson hollowbody, the kinetically tuneful Quinn Murphy (no relation) towering over the rest of the group on bass and Jacob Kavell on drums. Together they blasted through the punked-out Stax/Volt of Happy Hour – a crushingly funny portrait of Wall Street happy hour dysfunction that anybody who’s ever spent time in the belly of the beast down there can relate to. They shuffled propulsively through the menace of another soul-inflected number, Panic City and its evocation of post-9/11 paranoia and post-3/11 horror, quite possibly the most relevant song written by any rock writer in the past fifteen years. They swung gently through the brooding cautionary tale Sleeping Mind, a poignant evocation of terminal depression, and romped through more upbeat numbers like the jangly, sardonic Damaged Goods, the enigmatically crescendoing Nowhere Now, the drunk dream sequences in the decaying Rust Belt noir of Buffalo Red and the explosively bouncy Blue Silence. As seemingly every song wound up, Murphy reached for the rafters with the headstock of his guitar, chopping at his chords like an axe murderer until the rest of his accomplices joined him. As far as feral, unleashed energy is concerned, there’s nobody in town these days who can touch this guy. If raw adrenaline is your thing, miss this show at your peril.