New York Music Daily

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Tag: dark rock

The Bright Smoke Bring Their Darkly Fiery, Intense Art-Rock to Park Slope

Earlier this year, the Bright Smoke released one of the year’s most haunting and brilliantly lyrical albums, their full-length debut Terrible Towns. The album release show at the Mercury this past spring mirrored the swirly, ominously swaying ambience of the band’s studio work. But their most recent Mercury show was a ferocious, fiery, occasionally explosive breakthrough: all of a suddden, this band has become one of New York’s most exciting live acts. Their next show is at Union Hall in Park Slope on October 3 at 9 PM; cover is $10. Synthy 80s goth/darkwave act Elle Le Fantôme opens the night at 8; popular, intense, dramatic female-fronted powerpop band the Shondes make a good segue afterward at around 10.

Last time out, guitarist/frontwoman Mia Wilson didn’t waste any time establishing a wounded, enigmatic atmosphere right off the bat with one of the new album’s tracks, Hard Pander, tricky polyrhythms shifting between Karl Thomas’ drums and Yuki Maekawa Ledbetter’s laptop. The band raised the menace factor immediately with a corrosively crescendoing take of City on an Island, a sardonically vivid look at the diminishing returns an artist faces in New York in 2015, lead guitarist Quincy Ledbetter rising from watery mid-80s Cure jangle to a napalm mist of distortion. He did the same thing in On 10, almost imperceptibly, as Wilson’s defiant alto rose to a dismissive wrath:

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

They opened the next number with a brisk postpunk stroll, but by the time they hit the chorus Thomas was scraping the guardrails with his cymbals and tumbling snare riffs, and Ledbetter was going deep into the blues with a similarly unhinged attack that went spiraling out in a blast of reverb-drenched noise. They went back to suspenseful for a catchy, moody backbeat-driven new song, part Joy Division’s The Eternal, part brooding soul ballad, lowlit by Ledbetter’s mournful belltone lines. Then on the next number Ledbetter shifted between fuzztone grit and off-the-rails Chicago blues.

The song after that had Wilson’s steady, ominously looping fingerpicked riffs building tension against Ledbetter’s echoey cumulo-nimbus resonance, rising to fullscale horror as his attack grew more insistent, throwing off some invisible demon. Likewise, on Exit Door, the band left the spare, shuffling gloom of the album version for a raw, screaming guitar drive, Wilson again holding it to the rails with her elegant fingerwork. The end of the show was intense to the extreme. Wilson explained that a friend had convinced her to revisit some older material from her days leading a similarly dark, intense band, the French Exit, so she played one of their best songs, a towering, anguished 6/8 anthem about “totally losing it,” she said. As the song escalated toward sheer terror in a cauldron of reverb and overtones, Wilson fell to her knees, rocked back and forth, wailed without a mic and ended up with blood-streaked strings after she’d slashed at them.  Calmly, she assured the crowd afterward that she was ok. There hasn’t been such an intense moment onstage anyhere else in New York since then. Hopefully there won’t be any blood or bruises at Union Hall, but the energy is going to be through the roof regardless.

LJ Murphy Gets Scary and Relevant at Sidewalk This Saturday at 7

Did they kill you with kindness?
Did they drown you in shame?
Was it voluntary blindness?
Do you remember your name?
From Panic City to your hometown

As usual, LJ Murphy was dressed to kill. Black suit, porkpie hat, splashy tie, big black guitar like the one Johnny Cash played. His eyes widened with a gleeful “I told you so,” over drummer Jacob Cavell’s shimmying Stax/Volt shuffle, lead guitarist Tommy Hoscheid adding a snarling little curlicue at the end of his vintage Memphis soul licks. Bassist Nils Sorensen was on tour with his other band, Brothers Moving, so Murphy was doing the White Stripes thing instead. This was on a Saturday night earlier this summer at Sidewalk, where Murphy will be with this dangerously erudite band this coming Saturday night, September 12 at 7 PM. These guys take fifty years of the dark side of blues and soul and bring them into the era of the Great Destruction in New York. And hopefully beyond.

Did you read the directions?
Are you making a list?
Did you pass the inspection?
Was there something you missed?
From Panic City to your hometown

Murphy’s hip cracked like a whip as he signaled for a change. This band knows their James Brown, their Charles Brown too, and they responded in a split second. Hoscheid played with just a tinge more distortion, more fire as this cautionary tale shifted from 9/11 to 3/11:

Will you hide in the darkness
Til the enemy’s gone?
Will you remember the password
When the pressure is on?
‘Cause your hair is on fire
And your eyes are insane
Can you cover up the damage
From the poisonous rain?
From Panic City to your hometown

Murphy is Queens born and raised. He was here on both of those dates, and he was paying attention, and making it impossible not to pay attention to this song. His voice part rasp, part bluesy shout, part croon, he raised his guitar, then brought it down like a cleaver as the band spiraled and careened into the last couple of bars. It’s impossible to imagine an outsize personality like Murphy – or at least one with substance to match – coming out of gentrifier Bushwick or Bed-Stuy or wherever those parasites have most recently been spotted. One can only wonder how many other LJ Murphys might be toiling in dives in Montclair, or Akron, or Buffalo, who twenty years ago would have hightailed it for New York at the first opportunity, but these days are cursed to stay put – rather than opening for Murphy and making the night a doubleheader instead of an evening where you run for the exit after the last pitch is fired.

Reverb Monsters Thee Oh Sees Flip the Script in Their Return to Bowery Ballroom

Is Thee Oh Sees’ September 8, 10 PM show at Bowery Ballroom going to be a wash since it’s right after the Labor Day weekend? Probably not, since the band had been on hiatus for much of this past year while frontman John Dwyer took care of Castle Face label business. And most everybody who’s coming back to town will be back by then. So if assaultively glimmering, reverb-drenched psychedelic garage rock is your thing, you should plan on getting to the venue a little early; general admission is $20.

Thee Oh Sees’ latest album – their fourteenth release –  is Manipulator Defeated At Last (streaming at Soundcloud), and it’s a real curveball, an unexpectedly successful departure into retro 80s tropes. If you thought you knew this band, you’re in for all sorts of surprises – good ones. The opening track, Web starts out as a coy new wave strut until Dwyer comes in and throws lighter fluid on everything – is it a spoof? Maybe. Probably. The twin guitars doing a horn chart toward the end is period-perfect 80s.

Halloweenish whistling wind sonics and a slinky bassline explode into an early Joy Division stomp in Withered Head. Likewise, Poor Queen welds a lingering Daniel Ash-ish reverb guitar riff to a skittish 2/4 beat. Then Dwyer mashes up galloping garage rock with Syd Barrett and a tongue-in-cheek early 70s stoner rock riff in Turned Out Light.

Lupine Ossuary – you just gotta love this guy’s song titles – is Link Wray as Barrett would have done it,  a surrealistically squalling one-chord jam. In what has become a sadistic formula, Dwyer juxtaposes a dreamily cinematic, serpentine early 60s organ theme with crushing guitars in Sticky Hulks: it’s the most psychedelic track here.

Acoustic guitars – WTF?!?! – build a web in tandem with the organ as the uneasy motorik theme Holy Smokes gets underway and remains in the fast lane. By contrast, Rogue Planet is sort of Wire as done by Guided by Voices. The album winds up with the murderously lingering, shuffling Palace Doctor, an ambling, ominously vamping, latin-tinged take on vintage Bauhaus. Wow. We take this band for granted and they just keep putting out great albums, this being one of their best.

Rachelle Garniez Stuns and Seduces the Crowd at Pangea

Many cognoscenti in the New York music scene consider Rachelle Garniez the best songwriter in town, and some would argue that she she might simply be the best songwriter anywhere. A couple of nights ago at Pangea she bolstered that argument, playing to a rapt and wildly appreciative hometown crowd in a duo show with bassist Tim Luntzel. Despite having to sit because he was in a walking cast, he supplied terse, elegantly elastic lines to anchor Garniez’s acerbic, erudite, occasionally feral playing as she alternated between acoustic guitar, accordion and piano.

As a performer, Garniez is devastatingly funny, although her songs often pack a wallop that comes from the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. One of her favorite tropes is to introduce them via slow, contemplative, frequently psychedelic intros that give her a launching pad for deviousy surrealist, deadpan humor that seems completely fresh and off-the-cuff but is actually more thoroughly composed than anyone realizes. What varies from show to show is the punchlines: it’s impossible to think of anyone who has as much fun flying without a net as Garniez.

And there’s always something relevant lurking behind the jokes. What seemed like it would be blissed-out musings on deep-forest beauty turned in a split second into caustic commentary on global warming…which then introduced a sly, vamping, bluesy stripper theme. That one she played on accordion, accenting the song with some unexpected horror on the low end and then a coyly sinister flatline motif at the very end. Likewise, she painted a dreamy early morning riverside scenario and then flipped the script, tying it into the perils of gentrification. That led into the metaphorically slashing if gently waltzing Tourmaline, the semi-precious gem in the title a metaphor for all things not quite perfect, or accepted, embellished with Garniez’s usual umpteem levels of meaning. As Garniez tells it, anyone who might dis you for having something in common with that stone “Is only just snow on your screen.”

Playing piano, she made the connection between Facebook and crack cocaine (Garniez is equally disdainful of both) in the gospel-tinged God’s Little Acre, an unrepentant kiss-off from a former party animal who’s been tracked down (or stalked) by a fling from a past decade. And in a bouncy, blackly amusing new one, just bass and vocals, she explained that at her funeral, she doesn’t want any ordinary Cadillac hearse: she wants an El Camino instead. How many other songwriters would identify a funeral flower car by its make and model, never mind using that image as a metaphor?

Beyond an irresistibly funny, sarcastically operatic shout-out to Jean-Claude Van Damme and his  endorsements for antidepressants, the best song of the night was a starkly baroque-tinged new guitar song inspired by her European tourmate Kyrie Kristmanson. Yet again, Garniez filled in the details of what would seemingly turn out to be a comfortable, sympathetic portrait of an old lady and her tchotchkes…but revealed the source of the money funding all the decor as “The bludgeon and blade.”

And she is New York to the core. Feeding off the crowd’s energy, she wound up the set with People Like You, which opens as an uneasiy and ambiguous Far Rockaway reminiscence, then takes on a blithe, boppy Rickie Lee Jones bounce before Garniez drops the artifice and bares her fangs, in a withering sendup of gentrifier status-grubbing:

It’s people like you who don’t know pride from shame
It’s people like you who always stay one step ahead of the game
It’s people like you who never place a face before a name

Then she quoted from Taylor Swift and brought down the house.

Garniez is just as fearless when it comes to having special guests: other vocalists might be intimidated by sharing the stage with singer Carol Lipnik and her otherworldly, soaring four-octave range, but not her. Lipnik and pianist Matt Kanelos delivered plenty of thrills with a spellbinding, melismatic take of Oh, the Tyranny, a hauntingly awestruck track from their new album Almost Back to Normal. A little later, torchy chanteuse Angela McCluskey provided some plaintive intensity of her own in a Billie Holiday-inspired diptych, pianist Paul Cantelon providing brilliant, Debussy-esque ripples and lustre.

Garniez has a long-awaited new album due out on November 13; her next gig is at Barbes on Sept 3 at 8 PM. Lipnik continues her weekly Thursday 7 PM residency at Pangea this month. And McCluskey and Cantelon debut their new dancefloor groove band, Saint Bernadette – with Garniez on accordion – tonight, August 26 at City Winery at 7.

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.


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