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Tag: dark rock

Best Short Album of 2020: Karla Rose’s Mysterious New EP The Living End

Karla Rose is best known among her musical colleagues in New York as a formidable and incredibly mutable singer. She can channel any emotion a person could possibly feel, from the subtlest to the most desperate. Just listen to her negotiate the tricky phrasing of My Hero – Sean Lennon’s doo-wop noir theme from the film Alter Egos – with a little cadenza at the end that will give you goosebumps.

But Rose is just as formidable a tunesmith and lyricist, with a distinctly sinister side. She is not one of the would-be femmes fatales who sprung up in the wake of Lana Del Rey – she is the real deal. Her latest release, the three-song ep The Living End is streaming at Spotify.

The title alone speaks to Rose’s fondness for wordplay and multiple levels of meaning: it wouldn’t be hubris to compare her to Elvis Costello, Ward White or Hannah Fairchild.  The first song on the record is Battery Park. Partly inspired by Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, it’s a haunting, bolero-tinged anthem that subtly speaks truth to the grisly power of Wall Street entitlement. Over the terse pulse of drummer Kevin Garcia and bassist Ari Folman-Cohen, Rose’s Telecaster jangles and clangs with the reverb full on, lead player Dylan Charles building to chainsaw volleys of tremolo-picking at the end. This version is a lot quieter than the absolutely feral attack she and the band gave the song at places like the Mercury Lounge around the time she wrote it. It’s a frontrunner for the best song of the year.

The two other songs are even more enigmatic. Moon and I is part classic 70s soul and part dreampop, Rose’s guitar building starrier, more atmospheric textures as Scott Hollingsworth’s organ hangs in the background over the low-key groove of Lorenzo Wolff’s bass and Andrew Zehnal’s drums.

The title track is a dead ringer for Lou Reed, but Rose plays the verse in a devious 12/8 rhythm to shake things up. Her message is hopeful: stay on plan and we’ll get through this. In the year of the lockdown and the muzzle, that inspiration couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.

Dark Rockers Galanos Return with a Vengeance

Back in 2017 this blog called Kingston, New York’s Galanos “the X of dark 21st century rock.” How convenient that their latest release, a similarly sinister three-song ep, would be streaming at Bandcamp in time for Halloween month this year. Fans of brooding punk-inspired sounds will love this band.

Frontwoman Netochka Nezvanova splits the vocals with a couple of the guys in the band, guitarist Gregjaw and bassist Joe Pugsley over drummer John Steele’s four-on-the-floor stomp. The first track, They Take it All Away is a punching, anthemic look at creeping fascism. It’s hard to think of a more appropriate anthem for the year of the lockdown: but the band offers hope at the end.

The second track is the most Halloweenish, a mashup of late 70s no wave and freaky jazz poetry. The final cut is The Death of a Wolf, which reminds a lot of early Siouxsie.

Smartly Woven Southern Gothic Tunesmithing From Abigail Dowd

Rural life isn’t easy, as folk music from around the world will never let you forget. Abigail Dowd draws on that tradition, with imagistic tales which reflect how much things have changed – and also how little. She’s got a big, bluesy voice, like Lucinda Williams before the booze caught up with her, as well as way with a sharp turn of phrase and a solid supporting cast of players behind her. Travelers and outsiders figure heavily in her songs. Her new album Not What I Seem is streaming at Bandcamp.

The stripped-down arrangement in the biting, minorr-key, bluesy Wiregrasser – just acoustic rhythm guitar, lead slide guitar and steady bass – underscores Dowd’s hardscrabble tableau, where people extract everything from the surrounding woods until there’s nothing left but creosote.

“I mostly look out for myself,” Dowd’s cynical narrator relates in The Other Side over a catchy, Dylanesque sus4 riff – but she also asserts that “When you get to heaven, there’ll be many a party, but there won’t be nobody there that you know.”

Over a spiky web of fingerpicked guitars, Dowd chronicles a harrowing southern legacy in Old White House. Dowd’s fingerpicking grows more spare and enigmatic in the album’s title track, a defiant, solo acoustic individualist’s anthem.

“I remember looking for a smile, and meeting cold steel eyes,” Dows recounts as Chosin, a searing memoir of how war trauma crosses generations, rises from a hazy intro to a briskly ringing, open-tuned melody. “Stand and fight, you fool, ‘cause no one’s gonna out alive/Watch out, how many of these wounds are mine?”

Dowd looks back on an uneasy transition from southern comfort to New England chill in Goodbye Hometown. She takes that story further into a troubled future in Oh 95, a vivid traveler’s tale: “When you’re all alone you speak the truth,” she reflects.

Dowd and the band pick up the pace with Desire, a shuffling minor-key tale set in coalmining country. Alienation is a persistent theme in these songs, and the stark To Have a Friend is the most forlorn of all of them.

Drag Me Down is an unexpected turn toward acoustic White Album-era Beatles. She keeps the low-key, fingerpicked ambience going with Daredevil: “Let me be the devil on your shoulder, I’m daring you to live,” Dowd cajoles.

She takes a turn into Lou Reed territory in Sweet Love and then returns to Americana, singing a-cappela in the album’s closing cut, Silent Pines, a gospel-flavored revolutionary anthem. If best-of-2020 lists still exist when this hellacious year is over, you’re going to see this album on a lot of them.

Grim Early 80s-Style Guitar Rock From Linnea Olsson’s Maggot Heart

The last time anybody from this blog was in the house at a Linnea Olsson show, it was on a frigid February evening in 2014 at the now long-gone Highline Ballroom. Out in front of a big crowd that night, she played solo cello and sang a very brief, barely half-hour set of moody, skeletal chamber pop songs.

Olsson’s latest project is 180 degrees from that, a dark early 80s-influenced power trio, Maggot Heart. She leads the group and plays guitar, joined by bassist Olivia Airey and drummer Uno Bruniusso. Their latest album Mercy Machine is streaming at Bandcamp.

With its densely layered, ringing intro and contrastingly skronky loopiness, the opening track, Second Chance could be a more minimalist Bauhaus. For a song titled Sex Breath, the album’s punkish second cut is unexpectedly menacing, with a juicy, evilly watery guitar solo: Olsson has really taken her chops to the next level. This is a killer guitar record.

Driven by Airey’s gritty, chugging bassline, Justine wouldn’t be out of place on Siouxsie’s Juju album. The distortion on the bass gets even fuzzier for Roses, which comes across as syncopated Patti Smith with gothic chromatics and vocals spun tightly through a trebly flange effect.

Gutter Feeling has a ba-bump noir cabaret groove and some of the album’s most ghoulish lyrics: Olsson takes it galloping, doublespeed more or less, over a long bridge. The album’s death-obsessed title track is its most pummelingly punk-influenced moment: here as elsewhere, Olsson’s shrieking wide-angle chords bring to mind the late, great Siouxsie guitarist John McGeoch.

“All this talk about nothing gives us something to do,” Olsson intones cynically in High Rise, a mashup of Siouxsie and the Stooges. With its dissociative riffs popping up throughout the sonic picture, Lost Boys could be a straightforward, upbeat Live Skull number from the mid-80s.

Senseless has more of a slow, hypnotic early 80s growl and an ending where all hell breaks loose. The trio wind up this relentlessly interesting, disarmingly catchy album with Modern Cruelty and its contrastingly roaring and icy guitar multitracks, Olsson again threatening to go off the rails at any instant. Not a single substandard song on this album: there’s no telling what’s going to happen between now and the end of the year, but let’s hope there’s still a reason and an audience for a best albums of 2020 rundown when we get to December, Somebody has to keep music alive when the lockdowners are doing everything in their power to destroy it.

Cello Rockers the Icebergs Take Their Dark, Distinctive Sound to the Next Level

It’s always validating to see a good band grow into a great one. Over the last few years, the Icebergs have distinguished themselves from the other acts in the cello-rock demimonde by way of Tom Abbs’ deep well of sounds, beyond that instrument’s usual sonic range, along with frontwoman/lyricist Jane LeCroy’s black humor and often searing metaphors.  O’Death drummer David Rogers-Berry completes the picture with his nimble, counterintuitive, coloristic style. On their new album Add Vice – streaming at Bandcamp – they take their dark, aphoristic, individualistic style to the next level: it’s one of the best records of the year. 

It opens with Fallen Creature, an escape anthem of sorts and the catchiest song the band have ever done. Abbs runs a Brubeck-esque riff over Rogers-Berry’s’s lithely tumbling drums, LeCroy contributing a typically telling lyric: “I am a fallen creature who knows my away around the grounds,,,I know silken threads, the stickiness of woven webs.”

The second track, Chelsea – a brief party scenario –  is a witchy one-chord jam as Lorraine Leckie might do it, with snarling guitar and organ, Abbs playing basslines behind guest Martin Philadelphy’s reverb guitar. Invictus keeps the menacing 60s ambience going; this could be Rasputina covering X. “Your days are numbered, so make them count,” LeCroy advises amidst the swirl.

Willa is a slow, death-obsessed ballad, Abbs’ stark upper-register lines subtly iced with reverb. The menace continues with the defiant, starkly bluesy Made It Rain  a trip-hop take on vintage Nina Simone.

The slinky Full Fathom 5 Ariel’s Song – a Shakespeare setting – has  ghostly call-and-response over funeral organ and the cello’s layers of distorted guitar voicings. They pick up the pace with the sarcastically blithe faux cha-cha Same Symptoms, then return to sinister mode with The Way They Wanted, a chillingly imagistic anti-conformist broadside. “The closer to truth, the bigger the joke,” LeCroy warns.

Motorcycle could be a brooding RZA Wu-Tang backing track as produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry. Bow Spirit is a brisk minor-key shuffle with similar dubwise tinges. The band follow that with Ocean Liner, a gleefully Halloweenish garage rock number (and an obvious choice for a band named the Icebergs).

Pareidolia has a slow, staggered sway behind LeCroy’s accusatory vocals. “What are you using to rip out your eyes so you don’t have to look?” she asks over a staggered, skeletal groove and Abbs’ pickslide slashes in the album’s title track – what an apt song for the year of the plandemic and the lockdown!

The tightly waltzing Little Lamb could be a parody of helicopter parenting, or about something even more troubling. The band wind up this hauntingly expansive album with A Line, LeCroy’s wry litany of metaphors reflecting her long background in the poetry underground. “Get out of line – a line is to cross,” she reminds. Powerful words for a year that may determine the fate of the earth. 

Lush, Elegant, Moodily Orchestrated Chamber Pop from Chanteuse Z Berg

Press releases usually can’t be trusted, especially when it comes to music. The one that came with the new album Get Z to a Nunnery, by a singer who goes by the name of Z Berg characterized the record as “a little bit Francoise Hardy…a little bit Dusty Springfield on drugs..” Intriguing, no? It’s streaming at Bandcamp – see for yourself.

While Berg’s lavishly orchestrated songs are totally retro 60s, her voice is very much in the here and now. There’s a big crack in it when she reaches for a crescendo, Amy Winehouse-style. In quieter moments, her mutedly husky musings bring to mind Americana chanteuses like Tift Merritt. And either the album cost a fortune to produce, or Berg has lots of conservatory-trained friends (or dad still has something left from the old days at the formerly big record label). Sweeping orchestration and classically-tinged piano pervade her moody narratives, full of artful chord changes, dynamic shifts and picturesque imagery. It’s more valium and vodka than Prozac.

The opening ballad, To Forget You sets the stage, floating along over lush strings and a gracefully swaying 6/8 rhythm. The theme of I Fall For the Same Face Every Time is that troubled birds of a feather flock together, set to elegantly arpeggiated piano and baroque harp cascades.

“We didn’t fear the things we did not know,” Berg asserts in another 6/8 number, Time Flies, a pretty generic pop song heavily camouflaged in layers of backward-masked guitar and symphonic gloss. She shifts to a straight-up waltz tempo for Into the Night, a more delicate number that could be Charming Disaster on opium.

A gentle foreboding pervades Calm Before the Storm, the gently fingerpicked guitar, 70s Nashville pop melody and Berg’s plainspoken lyrics bringing to mind Jenifer Jackson in Americana mode. Little Colonel is one of the more skeletal and haunting tracks here, rising to a low-key baroque pop arrangement:

Dear little colonel, one foot in the grave
Fighting the war with an unsteady aim
Is that the goal, to create a crusade
With nothing for no one, so no one is saved
Or safe

It was recorded before the lockdown, but it’s uncanny all the same.

Berg and I (that’s the title) is a doomed noir cabaret number gliding along with mutedly insistent piano, strings and backward masking. Charades, a duet, is more sardonic and ELO-ish, the piano receding behind fingerpicked guitar. “It was a scream when were young and dumb, acid on Topanga Beach, in my mind we’ll always be that free,” Berg recalls in The Bad List, an anguished holiday nightmare breakup scenario: it’s the album’s Fairytale of New York. There’s also a starry instrumental epilogue. This is a sleeper candidate for the shortlist of the best albums of 2020.

The Psychedelic Furs’ New Album: As Dark and Witheringly Relevant As Ever

The Psychedelic Furs have a new album. It’s really good!

Let’s be clear, this isn’t the same band who channeled horrorstricken, Joy Division-class angst with their densely atmospheric 1989 classic Book of Days – or whose guitar/organ/alto sax-fueled post-Velvets stomp had established them as one of that decade’s most important bands several years earlier. The sound of this record is closer to the former than the latter, with an even techier, postrock feel in places. Among core members from the group’s classic period, only frontman Richard Butler and keyboardist Joe McGinty remain. Butler, however, is in strong voice, and writing with the same withering punk sarcasm and bleak imagery that informed his best work. And the replacements – Richard Fortus, Jon Carin and someone who goes only by “BT” (could that be another founding member, Butler’s bassist brother Tim?) – share a commitment to the murk.

The album is titled Made of Rain; it’s streaming at Spotify. The first track, The Boy Who Invented Rock & Roll seems to be an Elvis parable, awash in vastly pulsing atmospherics and all kinds of guitar effects, Butler’s baritone a savage rasp overhead:

The druggy days the pointless pain
My glitter hips this bloodless ass
The endless days the starless dark
A bag of tears where love is gone
Her darling pays, a siren song…
The breathless air, the frozen tide
The greenless spring, the timeless night
The suicidal drunken dance
The sense that things will fall apart

In the wordless, echoey outro, the distantly reverberating flutter of a sax, and the snap and crackle of the bass rise up through the swirl.

You’ll Be Mine follows the same architecture: long, trancey verse and a big turnaround on the chorus. Butler works variations on a sarcastic “don’t be surprised” theme – this isn’t about seduction. He pushes his voice beyond where he really ought to (then again, he always did that) in the more upbeat, catchy, distinctly new wave-flavored Wrong Train. This song’s a typically imagistic narrative about a missed connection, in both senses of the word. Drugs and their dark side are a recurrent theme here.

This’ll Never Be Like Love has a slower, dreamlike sway: throughout the album, the soprano sax is a tasty, tasteful textural contrast. The band return to rainy-day washes of sound with the somber, wee-hours resignation of Ash Wednesday. Then they pick up the pace with the junkie cynicism of Don’t Believe, layers of icy chorus-box guitars filtering through the mix.

Come All Ye Faithful, a venomous minor-key kiss-off anthem, has as much of a funky bounce as this band could ever manage. No-One is a sequel, just as vicious and even catchier, set in a place where everyone’s “Dressed up in Halloween, where nobody ever screams.”

McGinty’s baroque electric piano ripples anxiously in Tiny Hands, a grimly knowing account of family dysfunction. Butler keeps that theme front and center over an acoustic-electric sway in Hide the Medicine. The band close the album with Turn Your Back on Me and its dreampop Dark Side of the Moon sonics, and then Stars, a wistfully twinkling, distantly Lynchian anthem.

Where does this fit in the Furs’ hall-of-fame lineup of albums? Somewhere in the middle. File this between the musically rich but lyrically deficient 1991 album World Outside and the 1982 classic Forever Now.

A Dark, Noisy, Psychedelic Swedish Blend of 90s Indie Rock, Dreampop and No Wave

Kall are another one of those bands who sound like no other group on the planet. Their attack is part unhinged 90s indie rock, part no wave, with a little dreampop and a rhythm section that’s heavier but also busier than you typically find in any of those styles. Add lead vocalist Kim’s guttural black metal rasp and you have one of the most distinctively psychedelic acts around. They have a thing for loops and really like long songs. Their latest limited edition vinyl album Brand is streaming at Bandcamp.

The album opens with Rise, beginning with a sun-seared, disjointedly lingering solo guitar intro, building to an even more scorching, reverb-infused, careening minor-key drive. The band’s two guitarists, H. and Fix, team up for a roar that strongly brings to mind Thalia Zedek’s legendary 90s band, Come.

Fervour has contrasting, loopy, lingering rainy-day guitars over bassist Phil A. Cirone’s lithe, trebly lines until the distortion kicks in. Sax player Sofia blows noisy sheets of sound as the volcanic layers grow thicker.

Eld sounds like Yo La Tengo playing an early Wilco song, drummer Peter guiding its increasingly complex, Sonic Youth-tinged trajectory before everybody drifts away for a summery sax break.

The seventeen-minute epic Fukta din Aska has a hammering, hypnotic Astronomy Domine feel that rises and falls between noisy SY interludes and sparse, spacious sketches. When the sax wafts in, it’s very evocative of Brooklyn band Parlor Walls‘ early work,

Hide Below could be enveloping early zeros favorites Serena Maneesh, rising in thirteen minutes from drizzly and atmospheric to more gusty terrain as the bass bubbles and the drums pummel. The band wind up the album with Fall, shifting from a funereal bass pulse to elegantly brooding guitar variations, a long scream and a drift through hints of doom metal to a slowly swaying, psychedelic peak.

By the way, the lp cover illustration is also excellent: a real metaphor for this point in global history. The Swedes, who DIDN’T lock down, know this better than pretty much everyone else.

Sinister Musical Mini-Movies and Murder Ballads From Ben Da La Cour

Dark Americana crooner Ben De La Cour‘s 2016 debut Midnight in Havana made the 20 best albums of the year list here. His latest album, Shadow Land – streaming at Bandcamp – is longer and considerably more twisted: it was very  tempting to save this for the annual Halloween celebration here. De La Cour spins a hell of a yarn, and his expressive baritone has more unhinged energy but also more nuance this time around. If murder ballads are your thing, this is your guy.

The album opens with the briskly shuffling outlaw ballad God’s Only Son. This guy is a total psychopath: he gives his kid brother the shiv, and it just gets more grisly from there. Likewise, the slow, simmering High Heels Down the Holler seems to be a retelling of the Ed Gein story.

The devil is always in De La Cour’s details. “Her words trailed off like cigarette smoke underneath the door.” Talk about saying volumes in a few words! That’s a line from The Last Chance Farm, a delicately fingerpicked ballad which could be set in a prison, or a pretty awful workplace, or somewhere else. Tom Shaner’s classic Lake 48 comes to mind.

De La Cour picks up the pace with the snarling, open-tuned electric blues In God We Trust – All Others Pay Cash, a surreal, cynical update on Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan. Is there a Hendrix quote in Amazing Grace (Slight Return)? Nope, but it’s a killer narrative, a hushed, stunningly detailed generational clash with an ending that’s way too good to give away.

Musically, the album’s title track is more lightheartedly Dylanesque, but De La Cour’s gloomy surrealism is unrelenting: “The more I talk, the less I have to say; the more I listen, the less I understand,” he grouses. Then he and the band hit a raucous post-Chuck Berry roar in The Basin Lounge. There’s a David Duke poster on the wall of this joint: get out of Denver, baby, GO!!!

The wistful, Celtic-tinged waltz Swan Dive opens on a grim Brooklyn streetside murder and just gets more interesting from there. The even more muted From Now On is the ringer here, a momentary break from all the killing. The album’s funniest number is Anderson’s Small Ritual, a bizarre character study.

De La Cour recounts an opium dream in the slow fire-and-brimstone blues Harmless Indian Medicine Blues. He winds up the record with flurries of fingerpicking throughout the hauntingly anthemic, apocalyptic Valley of the Moon. Telling stories with sharp lyrics over a catchy tune may be a neglected art these days, but nobody’s working harder than De La Cour to push that envelope. You’ll see this album on the best-of-2020 page if there’s still reason for a music blog to exist by the time we hit December. If we hit December.

A Dark, Energetic New Album From Detroit’s Whiskey Charmers

Detroit band the Whiskey Charmers play dark Americana. Their 2015 debut album explored a Nashvllle gothic sound; their 2018 follow-up was a shift to brooding desert rock. Their latest album Lost on the Range – streaming at Bandcamp – is their hardest-rocking and most diverse release yet, and arguably their best. Frontwoman/guitarist Carrie Shepard has never sung more powerfully than she does here.

The opening track, Fire and Flame is a stomping, vengeful rock anthem that sounds like Deep Purple with a good singer. The second song, Galaxy is a throwback to the Lynchian tremolo-guitar sound of their debut album: Laura Cantrell‘s most pensive songwriting comes to mind.

Lead guitarist Lawrence Daversa’s twangy riffage builds a quaint charm in Super 8, an irresistibly funny shout-out to budget vacationing. It contains the immortal line “If I wake up feeling awful, I’ll just make myself a waffle.”

Ozzie Andrews’ punchy bass propels Crossfire, a loping, western-flavored outlaw ballad: it’s sort of an update on the Grateful Dead’s Me and My Uncle with a searing twin-guitar outro. Dirty Pictures, a swaying Americana rock tune, has a seductive feel…but be careful, homegirl, there’ll always be a server somewhere with those pix on it!

The band go back to desert rock with Tumbleweed, follow that with the sultry shuffle Honeybee, then get pensive with the soul-tinged In the Dark. With a heavier rock drive, Wildfires could be a Blue Oyster Cult hit from the 70s…with a woman out front. They close the album with the distantly boleroish, angst-fueled Monsters, with a careening Daversa solo at the center.