New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: dark rock

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.

Three New Singles For Tough Times

Every Friday night at 8, Charming Disaster’s web series airs at their youtube channel. Kotorino‘s Jeff Morris and Sweet Soubrette‘s Ellia Bisker started the project as a murder ballad duo and branched out to include both Kotorino’s latin noir and Sweet Soubrette’s dark folk and soul, among an increasing number of styles. Their latest single, I Am a Librarian is an elegantly waltzing throwback to their creepy early days. Are you awaiting the moment you make your escape? Charming Disaster feel your pain.

Smoota – the boudoir soul crooner alter ago of trombonist Dave Smith – also has a new single, Catch It! (The Coronavirus Boogie). It’s a great oldschool funk tune, but if you’re 65 or older, or immunocompromised, you, um, might want to think twice about this particular path to herd immunity.

Once and future HUMANWINE frontwoman Holly Brewer continues to release singles at a breakneck pace. The latest one is Good Ole Fashioned Protest Song, up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. Brewer has been a big-picture person for a long time: follow the money and you’ll find the perp, whether you’re talking about petty crime, or the nonsense coming out of the Oval Office.

A Quietly Harrowing Holocaust-Themed Debut Album From Dana Sandler

Singer Dana Sandler is releasing her debut album I Never Saw Another Butterfly today in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a poignant, individualistic, searingly relevant record – streaming at youtube – inspired by the 1959 book of the same name, a collection of art and poetry by children imprisoned and murdered by the Nazis in the Terezin concentration camp. Sandler likes disquieting modes: some of her songs bring to mind 80s rock band the Police, others the klezmer music she’s immersed herself in beyond her usual jazz idiom.

Each of the album’s sections is dedicated to poets in captivity there whose names we know – Pavel Friedmann, Franta Bass, and Alena Synkova-Munkova, one of the fewer than one hundred out of fifteen thousand children to survive the camp – as well as two other young poets whose names we don’t.

The first track, Dear Pavel is a brooding feature for Peter Kenagy’s flugelhorn over Carmen Staaf’s piano, Jorge Roeder’s bass and Sandler’s husband Austin McMahon’s drums. Sandler’s setting of Friedmann’s poem Butterfly, which inspired the book title, is a rippling, klezmer-tinged art-song, swaying on the wings of Staaf’s piano. “It went away, I’m sure because it wished to kiss the world goodbye,” Sandler sings wistfully: who wouldn’t do the same under the circumstances.

A brief, moody duet between clarinetist Rick Stone and Roeder introduce the diptych Home/The Old House, a setting of Bass texts beginning with an overcast intensity and lightening with the prospect of a possible return home – after all, many of the victims in the camps had no idea of the kind of horrors that lay in store. Sandler’s toddler daughter supplies the ending and bravely hits all the notes. After that, The Garden, a spare vocal-piano duet, is all the more hauntingly elegaic for its simplicity.

Kenagy’s flugelhorn returns to take centerstage in Dear Alena, another grey-sky theme. Synkova-Munkova was a fighter, and that defiance is visceral throughout the lyrics and Staaf’s tightly wound, kinetically precise riffs. The band follow with the tensely modal, swinging I’d Like to Go Alone, which has two ominous, richly resonant clarinet solos: Stone takes the first, Sandler’s old bandmate Michael Winograd the second, utilizing the melody of Ani Ma’amin, an imploring klezmer tune no doubt written out frantically by composer Azriel David Fastag in a cattle car on his way to Treblinka.

Tears, the last of the Synkova-Munkova poems, gets an especially tender interpretation from Sandler and a hopeful, low-key solo from Roeder over Staaf’s plaintive, lingering chords. With Sandler maintaining her modal unease over the horns and clustering piano, Dear Anonymous  speaks for itself.

Staaf’s glittering rivulets and Stone’s sailing alto sax solo reflect the escape metaphors implicit in On a Sunny Evening. The band close the album on a hopeful note with Birdsong/Butterfly Reprise. The heroic spirit of those would-be escapees is something to consider as we tackle a considerably less lethal crisis here at home.

Marianne Dissard Commemorates Heroism and Duplicity with a Phil Ochs Classic

[Editor’s note: the underlying alarmist tone of this piece reflects the uncertainty of the time it was written, before studies confirming that at least 83% of all humans are either immune or have natural resistance to COVID-19 were readily available]

In 1968, the submarine USS Scorpion sank in the Atlantic, enroute to the Mediterranean, It was the second time in five years that the Navy had lost a sub to conditions other than wartime (the USS Thresher had sunk under similarly mysterious circumstances off the coast of Massachusetts in 1963).

Despite knowing that the Scorpion needed repairs, Navy brass decided to keep the ship in the water for an upcoming NATO exercise. Whistleblower Dan Rogers, a crew member, refused to go on the mission. He would be the only surviving member of the original crew of one hundred.

Fast forward to 2020: Captain  Brett Crozier of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, his crew stricken by coronavirus, sounds the alarm. The Navy’s response? Recently departed Navy Secretary Thomas Modly calls Crozier “too naive or too stupid,” relieves him of duty and admonishes the crew for their appreciation of his support for his troops.

On his classic 1968 album Rehearsals for Retirement, Phil Ochs commemorated that first tragedy with an elegant, corrosively cynical piano ballad, The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns. Now, inspired by Captain Crozier’s heroism and the top brass’ harsh response, Marianne Dissard has released a hauntingly atmospheric cover of the song, streaming at Bandcamp.

Dissard pulled a band together remotely, with all the instrumentalists – bassist Thøger Lund, violinist Vicki Brown, and flutist Marco Rosano in Tucson, and guitarist Raphael Mann in the UK – sending in their contributions over the web. The French-born Dissard rarely sings in English, but this is one of her most hauntingly evocative vocals, ever, more unselfconsciously elegaic than Ochs’ version. A smoky swirl of guitars lingers, pizzicato violin pops up, the bass drones, and it’s Dissard’s pause at the song’s cruelly climactic moment that packs the biggest wallop of all. If this is typical of Dissard’s long-awaited, forthcoming album, it’ll be the best thing she’s ever done.

Going to the Well For an Overlooked Phantasmagorical Treat by Brodka

Polish singer Monika Brodka‘s album Clashes came out in 2016; if she ever played New York, that evidence never made it this far. Since then, the record’s been sitting on the hard drive here, but leaving it there was a mistake. If you like catchy, dark, carnivalesque sounds or 80s goth bands, you should hear it. It’s streaming at Bandcamp.

Creepily twinkling music-box electric piano underscores the airy violin and wounded vocals of the title track: imagine Lorde if/when she ever grows up. The band shift between a cantering syncopation to a straight-up gothic rock pulse in Horses. By now, it’s obvious they’ve got a great bass player; nice creepy, quiet outro too.

Santa Muerte is a surreal, galloping southwesern gothic bounce…with funeral organ. Can’t Wait For War is not a Trumpie march but a pulsing blend of Siouxsie and Romany-flavored sounds. With its blippy minor-key synth and processed vocals, Holy Holes has a moody 80s New York vibe.

A mbira (or a close digital approximation) pings through the steady, hypnotic Haiti: something in the song relates to “cherry flavor.” Funeral is a strange mashup of noir swing and macabre art-rock, afloat in menacingly waltzing keyboard textures. Up in the Hill is the weirdest track here: it’s a generic pop song with an unexpectedly serpentine guitar solo buried in the mix. Could it be that another band’s tune got sequenced into the files that were sent here?

The bass-heavy new wave track afterward is pretty forgettable as well. They bring back the macabre, funeral-organ ambience with the instrumental Kyrie and keep it going through Hamlet, an elegantly muted, disconsolate processional. The final cut is Dreamstreamextreme, an airy, slowly swaying tableau. Throughout the album, you can hear an artist who’s found an original sound and is still experimenting with other ideas: may that experimentation continue and find a wider audience.

Revisiting a Nocturnal Rock Gem From Halycine

Halycine’s ep In the Salt – streaming at Bandcamp – made the shortlist of best releases of the year here in 2016. File this under acts who should be vastly better known. Frontwoman Chloe Raynes has a velvety, accusatory delivery that brings to mind Randi Russo; so does her darkly guitar-fueled songwriting. That comparison holds up strongest in the chugging midtemp anthem Circles, which opens the record.

The bitterly loping second track, Elixir has echoes of early 80s Siouxsie and delicious layers of guitar, from gritty to icy. One More Try is the most majestically angst-fueled anthem here, a 6/8 noir ballad disguised as dark 80s rock, awash in Raynes’ quasar guitar pulses.

She saves her most powerful vocal attack for Woman, You Better Run and its tantalizingly long series of chord changes: “I do not think it’s safe” is the mantra. The final cut, Silver Moon brings to mind the Jesus & Mary Chain circa Darklands: “It’s been a long road for you,” she intones enigmatically, “I wish you well.”

Gorgeously Bittersweet Powerpop and Retro Rock From High Waisted

The level of craft, and depth, and command of a whole slew of retro rock styles in High Waisted guitarist/frontwoman Jessica Louise Dye’s songs is just plain stunning. Her band’s debut album On Ludlow made the top ten albums of the year list here in 2016. The group’s long-awaited follow-up, Sick of Saying Sorry, is streaming at Bandcamp. On the mic, Dye really airs out her upper register this time around, and although the band pull back from a somewhat misguided second-gen new wave tangent they went off on for awhile, there’s more 80s influence.

It gets off to a false start. Things get better in a hurry with the early 80s-style powerpop of the second track, Modern Love and its exhilarating chorus. Bassist Jeremy Hansen adds a catchy reggae pulse in tandem with drummer Jono Bernstein under the starry, lingering guitars in Drive: it’s High Waisted at their Lynchian best.

Burdens is a weird mashup of jazzily vamping 70s soul ballad and Phil Spector pop, but it works. Dye teams up with lead guitarist Stephen Nielsen for an insistent attack in the powerpop anthem Easy As It Comes, with yet another killer, regret-tinged chorus.

She wistfully reflects on the struggles of her friends scattered around the world in the wryly titled Cereal: it’s like Amanda Palmer without the theatrics. 8th Amendment has a loping, syncopated surf rock clang, calmly defiant vocals and an unexpected turn into Brian Jonestown Massacre-style psychedelia.

Eyes Crying is the album’s most gorgeously angst-fueled, Lynchian track: the Wallflowers’ toweringly elegaic classic Sixth Avenue Heartache comes to mind. Giving Up has a steady backbeat, a Mellotron (or a close facsimile) and Dye’s most spine-tingling vocal flights: it’s the album’s strongest cut. She and the band bring it full circle with I’m Fine, a blend of early Go Go’s and swirly dreampop. Fans of the darkest, torchiest songwriters to come out of this city in recent years – Karla Rose, Julia Haltigan and Nicole Atkins, at least in her early career – should check out this band.

Iconic Heavy Psychedelic Band Revisit Deep Cuts With Surprising Results

Can you imagine if Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper made its debut on corporate radio in 2020? The politically correct crowd would crash Instagram with all their outraged selfie vids. “I can’t believe you’d be so irresponsible as to play a song that ADVOCATES TEEN SUICIDE!!!!!”

The band, of course, leave it open to multiple interpretations: it could just as easily be about drugs..or a love song, heh heh heh. And it’s a far cry from their best work: for that, you need to dig into their first four records. Over that initial span of releases, there is no other act in the history of rock music who were better.

Not the Stones, who weren’t ready for prime time. Not the Beatles, although they get an asterisk because their manager and record label held them back. Not the Dream Syndicate (who got screwed even worse by their label), the Velvets (who couldn’t pull their shit together, basically), the Stooges (who learned on the fly), Pink Floyd (who had to regroup after their bandleader self-destructed), the Dead Kennedys (whose second album was awful), David Bowie (who got off to a bad start) or Richard Thompson (ever try listening to Henry the Human Fly?). And as revolutionary and brilliant as the first four albums by Elvis Costello, the Jam, the Clash, X, Parliament/Funkadelic and several others are, Blue Oyster Cult’s classic early stuff is just as strong, and smart, and sometimes a lot funnier.

So why would this blog cover something as crazy as the band’s new recording, a 40th anniversary celebration of their uneven 1976 Agents of Fortune album, recorded live in concert in 2016 and streaming at Spotify? Because it’s just plain preposterous. Right off the bat, this isn’t even the same band that made the original: the Bouchard brothers’ rhythm section disintegrated back in the 80s, and we lost the great Allen Lanier a couple of decades later. Still, this is actually an improvement on the original!

Frontman/guitarist Eric Bloom, once a fine, clear-voice singer, doesn’t do much more than rasp these days. But lead guitarist Buck Dharma still has his chops here, and the replacements are clearly psyched to play a lot of material that these days falls into the deep-cuts category. There’s snap to the bass, a leadfoot groove but a groove nonetheless from the drums, and a lot of swirly organ.

They open with This Ain’t the Summer of Love, a riffy anti-hippie anthem that isn’t much more than rehashed Stones….but they seem to be having fun with it. They can’t do much with True Confessions, an ill-advised attempt at mashing up that sound with doo-woppy soul. Although Bloom can’t hit the high notes in the ominously circling hit single, and the band must be sick to death of it, they manage not to phone it in. “Forty thousand men and women coming every day!” State of the world, 2020, huh?

This edition of the band’s take of the “classic rock” radio staple E.T.I. (Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) isn’t as quite as offhandedly macabre as the original, but it still has a gleefully sinister ring. The Revenge of Vera Gemini – which original keyboardist Lanier co-wrote with his girlfriend at the time, Patti Smith – is heavier and a lot more menacing.

Dharma’s icy chromatics can’t quite elevate Sinful Love above the level of generically strutting powerpop. Likewise, Tattoo Vampire is a second-rate Led Zep ripoff. Morning Final, a haphazard attempt to blend Lou Reed urban noir and latin soul as the Stones did it on Sticky Fingers, is so bizarre it’s pretty cool.

From there the band segue into Tenderloin: disco-pop was not their forte. They wind up the record, and the show, with Debbie Denise: what an understatedly bittersweet, profoundly Lynchian pop song! A sparse audience cheer enthusiastically afterward.

Twin Peaks Pop and a Bushwick Gig From Nicole Mercedes

Riding home from Barbes the other night, there was a girl on the train who’d gone to extremes to tell the world that she was the saddest person alive. She was about fifteen: ragged blonde bangs, raccoon eyeliner carefully streaked down her cheeks. Her glassy eyes drifted in and out of focus: she was definitely on something, probably Oxycontin. She wore badly distressed turquoise jeans over matching polkadot tights, plus an altered turquoise sweatshirt embroidered with the words “Boys don’t cry.” To which she or her seamstress had stiched in the word “BROKEN,” running vertically down from the letter “B.”

She was with a thin-faced boy sporting a sloppy, day-glo yellow hair dyejob. He was on coke, couldn’t stop wiping his nose or running his mouth. Hell-bent on trying to get her to change her gloomy ways, he pitched group therapy, he pitched drugs. She tried pushing him away – as vigorously as a petite woman who’s zonked on Oxy can push away an obsessive cokehead, at least. It was hard to resist the temptation to go across the aisle, give her a pat on the arm and encourage her to go home and listen to Joy Division. That would have made her feel better.

In reality, she probably didn’t have Joy Division on her headset at that moment: Nicole Mercedes might have been a better guess. The former Debbie Downer frontwoman sings Twin Peaks pop: disembodied, distantly melancholy vocals over a coldly twinkling, techy, atmospheric backdrop where the guitars tend to blend into the keys. She’s a lot more energetic than Julee Cruise, infinitely more interesting than Lana Del Rey. She’s got a new solo album, Look Out Where You’re Going, which hasn’t hit her Bandcamp page yet. She had a gig on March 19 at 8 PM at the Sultan Room; which has been cancelled due to the coronavirus scare.

The opening track, At Ease, sets the stage: catchy four-chord changes, distinct guitars and then a starry synth riff at the end. The song title seems to be sarcastic to the extreme. The second cut, Filters comes across as a mashup of Casket Girls, Michael Gordon and late-period ELO, an unexpectedly tasty blend.

Just when Last Hike seems to be a wistful vacation reminiscence, there’s a grim plot twist: no spoilers! Nicole Mercedes is a dead ringer for early Linda Draper in Mediterranean, the next track, right down to the watery acoustic guitar. Motel has a slowly waltzing resignation that shifts in a more anthemic direction.

Haphazardly minimal, echoey guitar rings through the string synth ambience of Stoop. Thumbalina is album’s most icily orchestral, anthemic number. The closing cut, Watering is a steady, drifting spacerock gem. Beyond a general sadness and sense of abandonment, it’s never clear what Nicole Mercedes is singing about. But this is all about ambience, and she really nails it.