Nobody strings together chord changes with more of an unexpected wallop than Karla Rose. Considering how much film noir ambience she works, that’s no surprise. As a lyricist, she has a merciless wit to rival Elvis Costello or Hannah Fairchild. And she’s one of the three or four best singers in New York, a rare rock vocalist with a jazz background who uses her vast range for nuance rather than cluttering the songs. She’s playing a rare low-key show at 8 PM on Feb 27 at 11th St. Bar, where she got her start back in the early part of the decade.
A couple of years ago, Rose was on the front page here constantly, riding a wave of popularity in the wake of her brilliantly shadowy debut album Gone to Town (which she released under her given name, Karla Moheno: Rose is her middle name). Then she cut back on the shows to make a new record and regroup her well-loved oldtimey swing harmony group the Tickled Pinks. so it’s great to see her back playing out again, doing her own songs.
The last time this blog was in the house at one of her shows, it was the spring of last year with the Pinks on a twinbill in Williamsburg with spectacular acoustic guitar instrumentalist Lyle Brewer. If memory serves right, her most recent 11th St. Bar show was about a year before that, and it was killer. At that point she was focusing on writing songs that a single guitar could handle since her lead player was busy with his own projects. So there was plenty of new material, a lot of it with a dreamy early 70s soul vibe, some with a grittier post-Velvets pulse and a gorgeous, bittersweetly catchy new one, Sicilian Pride. dedicated to one of her homegirls.
In the time between the first album and that point, there were a few other 11th St. Bar shows as well. One in particular that stands out (because there’s an archival tape to reference, ha) was on December 30 of 2015 with Frank LoCrasto sitting in on piano. It was a casual, intimate set, on the subdued side, an atmosphere where the faux-tenderness at the end of the phrase “Carry me up the stairs, I’ll make believe someone cares” could be delivered in a whisper and give you cynical goosebumps.
That’s a line from Mexico, a surreal and more than slightly desperate scenario set in a seedy seaside resort. The rest of the set was just as good. The duo took their time with Silver Bucket, a casually apocalyptic number with a hypnotic Smokestack Lightning sway. Time Well Spent, her shatteringly dark parable of trying to hang on in a town less and less hospitable to artistic pursuits, had a relentless calm-before-the-storm edge.
The Return – a savagely jaunty, ragtime-flavored kiss-off anthem – and the first album’s lush title track, part oldschool soul and part smutty hokum blues, were as funny as usual. The high point was an early version of the rampaging, allusive serial killer parable Battery Park, which would go on to earn Best Song of 2016 here. The two also did a Randy Newman cover and a gorgeous, understatedly plaintive, almost epic ballad contemplating distance and angst and possible defeat. In a year where the clown in office masks a more sinister agenda where far less buffoonish people really believe that it’s a national emergency if there’s no wall between here and Mexico, there’s never been more of a time for songs like that.