New York Music Daily

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Tag: dark rock

Shattering Acoustic Songs and Defiant Rock Anthems Side By Side on the Lower East

“The most depressing music ever!” That’s how one of the members of high-voltage rockers Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts introduced his bandmate, singer Erica Smith at the Treehouse at 2A a couple of weekends ago. But much as Smith’s shattering, nuanced voice and painterly lyrics deal almost exclusively with dark topics, her songs actually aren’t depressing at all. She’s all about transcendence. Which is what dark music is all about, right? If everything was hopeless, why bother? The real torment is the lure of something better, and Smith channels that hope against hope better than just about anyone alive.

Her career as one of the leading lights of a still-vital Lower East Side Americana scene in the late zeros took a couple of hits, first with the loss of her drummer, the late, great Dave Campbell, then the demands of job and motherhood. Since then, she hasn’t exactly been inactive, but her gigs have been more sporadic: we can’t take her for granted anymore. Playing solo acoustic, she was all the more unselfconsciously intense for the sparseness and directness of the songs.

As usual, her imagery was loaded. Glances exchanged, unspoken, almost buckled under the weight of a pivotal twist of fate. A surreal, dissociative stare up into bright lights could have been a prelude to a grisly interrogation…or just a particularly anxious moment as seen from a hospital bed. That reference came early during the night’s best song, Veterans of Foreign Wars, a brooding waltz ending with a scenario that could have been either an Eric Garner parable, one with broader, antiwar implications, or both. Otherwise, she strummed and nimbly fingerpicked her way through styles from austere front-porch folk to vintage soul to minimalist rock.

But Smith is hardly all about gloom and doom: she has a fun side. The solo set made a stark contrast with her turn out in front of the band, through a smoldering take of group leader/guitarist Pete Cenedella’s mighty, steamy oldschool soul ballad, Hand to Lend, which quickly became a launching pad for belting and torchy melismatics to rival Aretha. Nobody sings a soul anthem like Smith: we may have lost Sharon Jones, but we still have this elusive performer.

Cenedella got his start fronting the highly regarded American Ambulance, whose ferocious populism and interweave of Stonesy rock with what was then called alt-country won them a national following. But musically speaking, this latest group’s musicianship rivals any outfit he’s been involved with.

Drummer David Anthony’s matter-of-factly swinging four-on-the-floor groove and bassist Ed Iglewski’s trebly, melodic lines underpinned lead guitarist Rich Feridun’s incisively terse fills and Charly CP Roth’s rivers of organ. Alongside Cenedella, the harmony vocal trio of Smith, Lisa Zwier and Rembert Block spun elements of Motown, Tina Turner soul and Balkan gothic into an uneasily silken sheen.

The songs in the group’s first set (this blog went AWOL for the second one) rock just as hard as Cenedella’s most electric earlier material, and if anything, are more anthemic than ever. The addition of the organ along with a frequent 60s soul influence often brought to mind peak-era Springsteen at his most ornate: Gaslight Anthem, eat your heart out.

The catchiest and most danceable number was a slinky go-go-strut, The Getaround. The most straightforwardly poignant, in a mix of songs with persistent themes of heartbreak and crawling from the wreckage afterward, was the imagistic Skies Can’t Decide. Setting the stage with the catchy, defiant Down Harder Roads and Turning of the Wheel worked out well, considering the fireworks, both loud and quiet, which followed.

Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts are currently in the midst of recording a lavish double album, so they ought to be playing out a lot more. And Smith is at Otto’s on Nov 1 at 7 PM with Beatlesque soul band Nikki & the Human Element

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Another Dark Lyrical Masterpiece From Elysian Fields

Elysian Fields earned an avid cult following for their torchy, noir sound, fueled by frontwoman Jennifer Charles’ smoldering vocals. Since the 90s, they’ve become more epic and cinematic, so their latest album, Pink Air – streaming at Bandcamp – is a something of a departure for them. It’s arguably the most starkly straight-ahead rock record they’ve ever made. It’s also their most overtly political album, obviously inspired by the grim events since the 2016 Presidential election. And it’s one of the half-dozen best albums to come out in 2018 so far. The band are currently on European tour; the next stop is the Milla Club, Holzstrasse 28 in Munich on Oct 19 at 8 PM. Lucky concertgoers can get in for €15.30.

Polymath guitarist Oren Bloedow’s eerie chromatic bends open the album’s first song, Storm Cellar, a black-humor look at the complications of creating art while the whole world is dying – literally. Charles paints a wry picture of bunker life over a steady, simple, anthemic new wave groove from bassist Jonno Linden and drummer Matt Johnson.

The jangle of Bloedow’s twelve-string alongside Simon Hanes’ Strat open Star Sheen with Church-like lusciousness, then the two mute their strings as the song sways and Charles’ opiated vocals contemplate solitude and a certain kind of self-deception:

Only dark can feed the soul
If you don’t manipulate it
When a silent earth has spoken
Planets swoop intoxicated

Likewise, the spectre of death lingers in the distance in the muted Beyond the Horizon:

And though the flames are low
I know that they’re climbing
The neolithic flint that’s making a spark…

Thomas Bartlett’s steady lattice of electric piano anchors guest trumpeter CJ Camarieri’s balmy solo.

The guitars get growlier and Charles’ vocals get sultrier in Tidal Wave, a new wave-ish throwback to the band’s early days. Over backdrop that grows from hazy to hypnotically direct, Karen 25 is arguably the album’s most chilling track, an allusively grisly dystopic scenario from a very imminent future:

I met Karen 25 the last days of the archives
Our instructions scrub the files
From the master hard drive…

Over Bloedow’s spare, poignant jangle, Charles’ breathy sarcasm addressing an unnamed patriarchal figure in Start in Light is absolutely withering:

This world could be bought and sold
So many people
Busy doing what they’re told
But the right stuff
Ain’t the right stuff
It’s just old

Rising from nebulous to bitingly anthemic, the album’s centerpiece is Philistine Jackknife, a spot-on portrait of “festering piehole’ Donald Trump and his “horrowshow that’s now livestreaming:”

Can we smoke him out
Tear him from the garish tower
Mercenaries standing by
Clocking in by the hour

Dispossessed is a contemplation of the the challenge to find any kind of stability in these precarious times. The most elegiac. apocalyptic number here is Household Gods, a horror-stricken gothic tableau, Charles intoning soberly about “Watching from a window like a shadow play/Down below, no one can tell that they’ve run away.”

With a searing Bloedow solo at the center, the album’s hardest-rocking track is Knights of the White Carnation, a spot-on critique of the neoliberal drift toward fascism:

A dark illumination
A murdering resurrection
Lords and Queens of the castle walls
Heirs of the great plantations
Hands that whipped black skin
Hold the keys of the private prisons

The album winds up with Time Capsule, a wistfully uneasy childhood reminiscence that brings to mind Bloedow’s collaborations with another extraordinary singer, Jenifer Jackson. Look for this album on the best of 2018 page at the end of the year.

An Ominously Glimmering Free Download from Brian Carpenter & the Confessions

While the latest album by Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra is more blithe and cartoonish than their previous, more noir-inspired material, the trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist’s other project, Brian Carpenter & the Confessions haven’t lightened up any. Their show last fall at Drom on an amazing triplebill with New York’s most cinematic noir band, Big Lazy and gonzo soul band the Claudettes was one of the year’s best. They’ve also have a live Folkadelphia Sessions ep up at Bandcamp as a free download.

There are three ominous, slightly surreal tracks, perfect for Halloween. Guitarist Andrew Stern and violinist Jonathan Lamaster build sinisterly clanging, reverbtoned ambience to kick off the first one, Lazarus, Carpenter’s wintry voice intoning Old Testament gloom and doom over the steady backdrop of bassist Tony Leva and drummer Gavin McCarthy. The bandleader adds a gorgeously funereal, tremoloing Farfisa organ solo as well.

Falling From You is a bolero as Nick Cave might do it. The final cut is Far End of the World, a Tom Waitsian noir soul ballad, Carpenter’s spare, ominous guitar anchoring the faux-blithe vocals of Jen Kenneally and Georgia Young.

If you haven’t discovered the Folkadelphia Sessions, you can get pretty lost there. This vast series of live free download recordings isn’t limited to crunchy music, either: artists as diverse as Anais Mitchell, Devotchka and Marissa Nadler – who’s recorded two sessions – all have releases in the catalog.

A Moody New Album and a National Tour by Brooding Rockers DeVotchKa

Long-running, carnivalesque rockers DeVotchKa have a brand new album, This Night Falls Forever streaming at Spotify and a national tour in the works. The next affordable show is on Sept 21 at around 9 PM at the Wonder Ballroom, 128 NE Russell St. in Portland, Oregon. As a bonus, Orkesta Mendoza, who careen between psychedelic cumbia, psycho mambo and eerie southwestern gothic, open at around 8. General admission is $25.

Driven by dancing, Tex-Mex flavored reverb guitar, the album’s opening track, Straight Shot sounds like the BoDeans covering the darker side of 60s Orbison, with a little faux-soukous thrown in. Let Me Sleep is DeVotchKa at their phantasmagorical best, a southwestern gothic bolero rippling with Tom Hagerman’s moody neoromantic piano and ominously swooshing strings.

With its winged arpeggios and galloping pulse, Lose You in the Crowd is a mashup of Nick Cave and Orbison noir. Love Letters, a waltz, rises through delicate pizzicato strings to artsy pop lushness: Nick Cave lite.

Empty Vessels, with frontguy Nick Urata’s languid Coldplay vocals and portrait of carefree richkid entitlement, sounds suspiciously sarcastic: “We’re just empty vessels waiting for words to fill,“ yeah right. Likewise, Done With Those Days has those same lingering, bombastic vocals over a purposeful baroque-tinged, noirish backdrop.

Shawn King’s clustering drums and Jeanie Schroeder’s suspenseful bass push My Little Despot along as the orchestration pulses at halfspeed, Urata intoning a moody banana republic gothic narrative. It’s one of the album’s two strongest tracks.

The other is the slowly waltzing art-rock ballad Break Up Song, awash in organ and simmering guitar: it could be Nicole Atkins at her most gothic, with a dude out in front of the band. With Angels, the band return to catchy, comfortable, smoke machine-infused stadium rock: spare verse, big anthemic chorus, moody major/minor changes. The album’s last track is a throwaway, more or less – Urata’s whistling gets annoying in seconds flat.

While the new album isn’t as dark or carnivalesque as the band’s earlier material, the tunes are catchy, the arrangements are majestic yet pristine and the band play them elegantly. Goes to show that stadium grandeur isn’t necessarily incompatible with smart tunesmithing.

Still Corners Bring the Noir to Bushwick This Week

London band Still Corners play deliciously Lynchian cinematic rock with frequent detours into new wave. Their album Slow Air is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’ve got a show this Sept 18 at 10 PM at Elsewhere. Cover is $18.

The album is a diptych of sorts: they stack the noir stuff deep early and then lighten up as the 80s filter in with a glossy sheen. The aptly tilted opening track, In the Middle of the Night sounds like the Lost Patrol doing trip-hop, Greg Hughes’ catchy rainy-day guitars awash in lush noir soundtrack synth. The Message has lingering spaghetti western licks over a tight backbeat, singer Tessa Murray’s misty voice channeling lost-highway desolation.

Julee Cruise girl-down-the-well stoicism and longing permeates Sad Movies, with more incisive/lush contrast between starry guitar and orchestral sweep. The band go back to catchy, vampy Twin Peaks ambience in Welcome to Slow Air, surreal tropical touches contrasting with neoromantic elegance.

Black Lagoon is hardly the monster movie theme you might imagine; instead, it’s a sleek, pulsing new wave pop tune with an unexpectedly desperate undercurrent. Dreamlands, the least troubled track here, has echoey Cure guitar front and center.

Whisper is the album’s most minimalist cut, the synthesizers’ growling lows and ethereal highs sandwiching spare, watery gothic guitar and bass riffage. Fade Out has wry phony low-brass synth over a steady backbeat. The Photograph is totally 80s – like, totally – a mashup of ABC and early U2 that works infinitely better than that bastardly pairing. The album’s final cut is the loopy Long Goodbyes, with its juxtaposition of simple, keening guitar and looming Angelo Badalamenti synth.

Every note serves a purpose here. Nothing is wasted in setting a mood and maintaining it, especially when the game plan is mystery.

A Strange, Innovative New Mixtape Album and a Williamsburg Show From Agnes Obel

Of the 21 tracks on Agnes Obel’s latest aptly titled album Late Night Tales – streaming at Bandcamp – only four of the songs are hers. But it’s not a covers album – it’s a cleverly assembled mixtape, often a very good one. Considering how many decades’ worth of material across about as wide a stylistic swath as you could imagine are represented here, segues aren’t the point. Obviously, the goth-tinged Danish multi-keyboardist/singer is going to be playing her own material at her gig tomorrow night, Sept 15 at Warsaw. Showtime is 8 PM; general admission is $20. If you’re going, be aware that there is no G train this weekend: the venue is about a five minute walk from the south exit (i.e. the one without the lines) at the Bedford Ave. L station.

To open the album, the shifting ominousness of Henry Mancini’s Evil Theme segues into the creepy arpeggios and vocalese of Moonbird, a 1971 instrumental by the Roger Webb Sound. Campy faux-tropicalia by Eden Ahbez quickly breaks the mood; the grim Lee Hazelwood western gothic track after that also hasn’t aged well.

Jamaican singer Nora Dean’s distantly menacing dub plate Ay Ay Ay Ay (Angle-Lala) is a welcome return to the darkness, echoed a bit later by Lena Platonos’ Bloody Shadows from a Distance. A loopily cinematic bass-and-narration miniature by Yello quickly gives way to the surreal 196os Brazilian renaissance choral psych-pop of Aleluia, by Quarteto Em Cy with the Tamba Trio

Ray Davies’ 2015 cover of his ex Chrissie Hynde’s I Go to Sleep is almost as surreal, awash in an echoey chamber pop arrangement. The lingering unease of the fifth movement from Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, (uncredited, but the piano sounds like Obel) connects to her first original here, Stretch Your Eyes and its rainy-day Dead Can Dance ambience. 

An otherworldly folk melody sung by the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Choir bridges to Obel’s second number, Glemmer Du and its twistedly twinkling music-box piano. Her third composition, Bee Dance is a ghostly waltzing instrumental for strings and piano.

The stark freak-folk of Sibylle Baier’s The End, from 2006, leads into Michelle Gurevich’s similarly spare, sarcastic Party Girl, from a year later. The mix shifts back to noir with Can’s wintry, swooshy instrumental Oscura Primavera, followed by indie classical composer David Lang’s minimalist choral fugue I Lie, performed by the Torino Vocalensemble (uncredited). Arguably the highlight of the whole mix is a live 1964 concert recording of Nina Simone singing an a-cappella version of her excoriating, ferociously relevant ode to black female beauty, Images. Obel’s emphatic, minimalist dreamscape setting of Inger Christensen’s Poem About Death concludes this strange and unsettling mix.

One minor issue with the album is that the times listed for every single track on the Bandcamp page are completely wrong. Don’t be surprised when what’s ostensibly six minutes worth of Obel suddenly cuts off at the 1:45 mark.

An Incendiary Concert at a Legendary Studio Immortalized on the BC 35 Album

Martin Bisi is a legend of the New York underground  – and he’s hardly a stranger in many other worlds as well. As a young engineer in 1983, he vaulted to prominence by winning a Grammy for his work on Herbie Hancock’s hit Rockit, which would go on to be sampled by thousands of hip-hop acts over the decades. The vast list of acts Bisi has worked with at his legendary Gowanus digs BC Studios runs from Sonic Youth  to John Zorn to the Dresden Dolls. 

His new album BC 35 – streaming at Bandcamp – was recorded in front of a live audience there over the course of a marathon weekend in January of 2016, a historic event very enthusiastically reviewed here. True to form, Bisi also recorded it and played with many of the groups on the bill, in celebration of the studio’s 35th anniversary. Much as he’s as distinctive and darkly erudite a guitarist as he is a producer, he’s somewhere in the mix here on three tracks: characteristically, he isn’t being ostentatious. His latest gig is at El Cortez on Sept 1 at around 8 on a killer triplebill, in between the perennially sick, twisted noiserock of the Sediment Club and the headliners, no wave sax legends James Chance & the Contortions. Cover is $20.

The order of the tracks leaps back and forth between the Saturday and Sunday sessions. The album’s most notable cut is Details of the Madness, the first recording and live performance by 80s noiserock legends Live Skull (who call themselves New Old Skull here) since 1998. guitarist Mark C, bassist Marnie Greenholz Jaffe and drummer Rich Hutchins pick up like they never left off, enigmatically catchy, icy guitar multitracks over a relentless fuzztone swing that slows with an ominous nod to Joy Division.

Some of these tracks are improvisations, including the album’s opening number, Nowhere Near the Rainbow. Original Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert gives Parlor Walls guitarist Alyse Lamb, Skeleton Boy from Woman and Lubricated Goat’s Stu Spasm a slinky pulse for sputters and squall punctuated by the occasional anthemic goth riff. SYNESTHESIA!  – an Alice Donut reunion, more or less – is similar but much dirtier. Denton’s Dive – with Hutchins, Skeleton Boy, Dave W, Phil Puleo and Ivan Up – is practically ten minutes of sludgecore, dissociative reverbtoned noise and swaying atrocity exhibition atmosphere.

Here’s how this blog described the Sunday session jam What a Jerk: “Algis Kisys of Swans jousted with ex-Cop Shoot Cop bassist Jack Natz and drummer Jim Coleman for a ferocious blast through a hornet’s nest of needle-pinning fuzztones and booming low-register chords.” What’s here is a judicious edit – if noiserock jams can be judiciously edited, Bisi’s definitely the man for the job. After that, Tidal Channel’s no wave synth-and-spoken-word piece Humash Wealth Management, Inc. keeps the assault going full force.

JG Thirlwell’s characteristically creepy, southwestern gothic overture Downhill features Insect Ark’s Dana Schechter on bass and violinist Laura Ortman leading a full string section. It is probably less memorable for being this blog’s owner’s most recent appearance on album, as part of the impromptu “BC Radiophonic Choir.”

The lineup on The Animals Speak Truth includes Barbez’s Dan Kaufman on guitar, Botanica’s Paul Wallfisch on organ and keys and the Dresden Dolls’ Brian Viglione on drums, maintaining the lingering lysergic menace in a vamping instrumental that picks up to a grimly tumbling, clustering pace.

Looking back to the weekend reportage again: “Susu guitarist Andrea Havis and drummer Oliver Rivera Drew (who made a tight rhythm section with baritone guitarist Diego Ferri, both of whom play in Bisi’s European touring band) backed Arrow’s soaring frontwoman Jeannie Fry through a swirl of post-MBV maelstrom sonics and wary, moodily crescendoing postpunk jangle.“ That’s His Word Against Mine, by JADO.

White Hills’ echoey End of the Line offers contrast as well as the weekend’s lone reference point to Brian Eno, BC Studios’ co-founder. Bolstered by Wallfisch and Viglione, noir singer/guitarist Ajda the Turkish Queen’s toweringly gorgeous, Lynchian waltz Take This Ride is the strongest track here. The album concludes with a noisy, hypnotically pulsing jam by Cinema Cinema plus David Lackner and Mikel Dos Santos, and more Tidal Channel assault. Warts and all, you’ll see this on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year, a magical piece of history. What a treat it was to be witness to most of it.

Iranian Rock Rules at Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center Out of Doors was packed this past evening. The message was clear: New Yorkers, or at least a large subset of us, love Iranian music. On a triplebill that began with a tantalizingly short set by all-female hometown crew Habibi and ended with crooner Faramarz Aslani and his band, rock band Kiosk played one of the best sets of any group in this city this year.

Frontman Arash Sobhani entertained the crowd with his sardonic sense of humor, edgy, mythologically influenced Farsi lyrics and slashingly individualistic Stratocaster chops. His fellow axeman Mohammad Talani wailed and slunk, a nonchalantly powerful presence on a big hollowbody Gibson while bassist Ali Kamali bubbled over the steady, funk-influenced beats of drummer Yahya Alkhansa.

The early part of the set was an update on the psychedelic “Farsi funk” that was all the rage in Iran prior to the 1979 Khomeini takeover, and brutally suppressed thereafter (Kiosk take their name from the kind of venues available for confrontational rock in their Teheran  hometown). Hits like Love For Speed (a sarcastic parable about Teheran traffic), the cautionary tales Everybody’s Asleep and Bulldozer each had a minor-key psych-funk feel grounded by a heavier than usual drumbeat for that style, Sobhani evoking peak-era Leonard Cohen with both his vocals and his chord changes. On guitar, he fired off purist, icepick Chicago blues leads but also slithery volleys of chromatics that were a dead giveaway for the group’s origins.

Talani hung back with his rhythm early on but once he got a chance to cut loose, he took a couple of the darker anthems to angst-fueled peaks with his screaming, anguished leads, like a Middle Eastern David Gilmour. Meanwhile, Sobhani led the group through an eclectic mix that included a pensively crescendoing contemplation of exile, then a rapidfire, punkish romp through a melody that he said was originally Iranian but eventually became a klezmer melody (it sounded Russian).

A couple of shuffling numbers after that could have been American ghoulabilly save for the linguistic difference. After a detour into what could have been dub reggae but wasn’t, and a tune that brought to mind Gogol Bordello, they did a silly faux Chuck Berry tune about a legendary Iranian bootlegger who got jail time for pirating AC/DC records. This group is huge in the Iranian diaspora but should be vastly better known beyond that world.

Habibi deserved more than fifteen minutes onstage. What they lack in tightness they make up for in originality. Lead guitarist Lenaya “Lenny” Lynch fired off needling tremolo-picked riffs over the tense surf-ish rhythm sectdion of bassist Erin Campbell and drummer Karen Isabel as rhythm guitarist Leah Beth Fishman added rainy-day chords that sometimes edged toward Lush dreampop, frontwoman Rahill Jamalifard singing coolly and matter-of-factly, mostly in Farsi. From their brief, Arabic-tinged instrumental intro through a mix of Breeders jangle, Ventures stomp and Farsi funk, they’re developing an intriguing, distinctive sound. Give the rhythm section a year to get their chops up to speed, and this band could be dangerous.

Backed by six-piece band including flamenco guitarist and musical director Babak Amini, Aslani got the crowd singing and dancing along to his allusively biting lyrics set to pleasant, flute-fueled Mediterranean and Brazilian-inflected acoustic ballads that often brought to mind the Gipsy Kings. An icon of Iranian music since the 70s, he’s a wordsmith and connoisseur of classical Persian poetry first and foremost.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues tomorrow night, July 29 with art-rock guitarist Jonathan Wilson – of Roger Waters’ band – doing his own material. Getting into the show this particular evening was easy, but you might want to show up before 7:30 PM showtime if you want a seat.

British Folk-Rock Supergroup The Rails’ Brilliant New Album Chronicles Real Estate Bubble-Era Hell

The Rails are as much of a supergroup as you could possibly want, on every front. With withering contempt for speculators and the plague of gentrification that continues to decimate urban areas throughout the western world and beyond, this band jangle and clang with the kind of purist tunefulness you would expect considering their pedigree. The sonics are luscious beyond belief: guitarist James Walbourne’s attack ranges from gentle acoustic filigrees to electric slings and arrows punctuated by equal parts scream and slither.

The core of the group also includes Walbourne’s singer wife Kami Thompson (daughter of Linda and Richard Thompson) with Son Volt’s Jim Boquist on bass and the North Mississippi Allstars’ Cody Dickinson on drums. Their album Other People – as in “There are other people in this world, not just you” – is streaming at Spotify. They’re playing the Mercury on July 25 at 7 PM. Cover is $20; if smart, fearlessly relevant songwriting is your thing, don’t miss them.

The album opens with the bitter, brooding ballad The Cally, a slowly unwinding, imagistic tale of a seedy bar under siege amid wretched real estate bubble excess. Walbourne muses about how refreshing it is to see a prostitute still out there, typical of the crushing irony in many of these songs.

Thompson sings the tensely pulsing breakup anthem Late Surrender, bubbling over with Walbourne’s spiky, lingering Strat work, up to a tantalizingly brief solo out. With her resolute, low-key vocals, the album’s title track is as apt a smack upside the head of yuppie narcissists as anyone’s written this year:

Take the candy
Steal the money
Pull the blind down
Kick the dog

Walbourne seethes and grits his teeth through the slowly waltzing Drowned In Blue, Thompson just slightly more restrained over the lushly textured, watery guitars and stinging steel. The guitar multitracks are just as rich but more spare and acoustic in Hanging On, which works just as well as a requiem for a relationship as for a burnt-out freedom fighter.

For a minute it seems like Walbourne’s narrator in Dark Times got a raw deal with the richkid cokehead girlfriend, but there’s more to the story – and a delicious Farfisa organ break that gives way to a typically searing guitar solo. Shame, a drunkard’s lament, has a more upbeat Britfolk feel.

Thompson’s voice rises plaintively in Leaving the Land, a wounded, defeatedly waltzing ballad with a cynically roaring Celtic dance midway through. It sets up the album’s big bombshell, Brick and Mortar, which might be the best song of 2018. Over a savage minor-key strut, Walbourne paints a grim picture of one historic district after another being destroyed as working people get displaced:

I can’t hear the beat on Denmark Street
Silenced by the sound of mute concrete
And it’s never coming back
Just another luxury flat
It’s farewell to all of London’s brick and mortar

“Why does evil taste so sweet? Leads you down a dead-end street,” Thompson muses to complete the trilogy in yet another pensive waltz, Mansion of Happiness, set to Walbourne’s black widow web of guitars and mandolin. The group stay in 3/4 time throughout Australia, a mutedly cynical would-be escape tale, then add a fourth beat to the measure in the stark, doomed, Everly Brothers-tinged I Wish, I Wish.

Willow Tree is an unexpectedly successful detour toward oldschool American C&W. The album winds up with the aching Low Expectations: “There must be something more than this,” Walbourne broods. He’s done plenty of memorable lead guitar work with the Pretenders and Ray Davies but this is his masterpiece so far. And it’s also a high-water mark for Thompson as standard bearer of a mighty songwriting legacy.

Haunting Harmonies and Fierce Relevance From Bobtown at the American Folk Art Museum

When you have three multi-instrumentalists as diversely talented as Jen McDearman, Katherine Etzel and Karen Dahlstrom, who needs more people in the band? Friday night at the American Folk Art Museum, in a rare trio performance, the three core members of folk noir group Bobtown reaffirmed their status as one of the best bands in New York. Which they’re been for the past ten years.

They haven’t been playing out a lot lately since they’re in the process of making a new album.  “For those of you who know us, we’re a pretty dark band,” Dahlstrom admitted. “The new record is…more of a charcoal grey.” Which was pretty accurate: the new songs in their tantalizingly brief, headlining set were less macabre than much of the band’s back catalog, if they weren’t exactly carefree.

The band’s closing number, No Man’s Land – as in, “I am no man’s land” – brought the house down. Dahlstrom couldn’t resist telling the crowd how much more resonance this fearlessly feminist, oldtime gospel-flavored broadside has taken on in the few weeks since she’d written it. The women’s three-part harmonies spoke truth to power throughout this ferocious reclamation of women’s rights, and dreams, a slap upside the head of trumpie patriarchy.

Getting to that point was just as redemptive. The trio opened with another brand-new number, In My Bones, pulsing with vocal counterpoint. You wouldn’t expect Etzel, whose upper register has razorwire power, to hang out in the lows, but she was there a lot of the time. Likewise, Dahlstrom – best known for her mighty, gospel-infused alto – soared up in the highs. McDearman, who channels the most high-lonesome Appalachian sound of anyone in the group and usually takes the highest harmonies of all, found herself somewhere in the middle for most of it.

The rest of the new material, including the bittersweet kiss-off anthem Let You Go, had a more wry sensibility than the band’s usual ghostly chronicles. Rumble Seat, a sardonic chronicle of smalltown anomie that could just as easily be set in luxury condo-era Brooklyn as somewhere in the Midwest, was even funnier, especially when the trio reached the eye-rolling yodels on the final choruses.

The band joined voices for a 19th century field holler-style intro and then some loomingly ominous harmonies in Battle Creek, Dahlstrom’s chilling, gospel-infused chronicle of an 18th century Michigan millworker’s descent into the abyss. Throughout the evening, McDearman switched from eerily twinkling glockenspiel to atmospheric keyboards and also cowbell. Etzel, who typically handles percussion, played tenor guitar; Dahlstrom played both guitar and banjo, the latter a relatively new addition to her arsenal.

The Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum is off this week for the holiday but resumes on July 13 at around 6 PM with a typically excellent lineup including elegantly angst-fueled, individualistic torchsong/parlor pop piano chanteuse Jeanne Marie Boes, followed by soul/gospel belter (and Lenny Molotov collaborator) Queen Esther.

And several other artists who’ve played the museum in recent months – especially when sticking around for the whole night wasn’t an option – deserve a shout. Dave Hudson treated the crowd to a catchy, anthemic set of solo acoustic janglerock. Heather Eatman played a rare mix of similarly catchy, 80s-inspired acoustic songs she’d written back then as a teenager. Jon LaDeau flexed his purist country blues guitar chops, Joanna Sternberg alternated between LOL-funny and poignant original Americana, and Miwa Gemini and her accordionist mashed up uneasy southwestern gothic and Mediterranean balladry. And as far as vocals are concerned, along with this show, the most exhilarating sets here so far this year have been by Balkan singer Eva Salina and her pyrotechnic accordionist Peter Stan, along with a rare solo show by Dahlstrom and a deliciously venomous farewell New York performance by blue-eyed soul powerhouse Jessi Robertson.