Folk noir superduo the Nine Seas take their name from the long-defunct, legendary Alphabet City bar 9C, located at the corner of 9th Street and Avenue C. Years before Pete’s Candy Store was anything more than a numbers joint, and more than a decade before the Jalopy opened, 9C was New York’s ground zero for Americana music. That’s where Liz Tormes and Fiona McBain cut their teeth at the wildly crowded, weekly bluegrass jam.
In the years since then, both would become important voices in Americana, as solo artists and with other bands (McBain best known for her longtime membership in the gospel and soul-tinged Ollabelle). This project, which began as a murder ballad cover act, also goes back several years, attesting to the chemistry between the two musicians. Their long-awaited debut album Dream of Me is streaming at their music page. It’s a mix of originals and imaginative covers, the two singer-guitarists occasionally abettted by keys and horns.
Tormes’ first number, Am I Still Your Demon is the album’s quietly potent opener. It has a classic Tormes vocal trick that she’s used before (see the devastating Read My Mnd, the opening number on her 2010 Limelight album). J. Walter Hawkes’ looming trombone arrangement perfectly matches the song’s understated angst.
The duo reinvent the old suicide ballad I Never Will Marry with a hazy dreampop tinge, as Mazzy Star might have done it. They do E.C. Ball’s fire-and-brimstone country gospel classic Trials, Troubles, Tribulations much the same way. Here and throughout the record, Jim White’s spare banjo, organ and other instruments really flesh out these otherwise stark songs.
Likewise, his glockenspiel twinkles eerily in Go to Sleep, an elegaic Tormes tune. McBain’s I Really Want You is just as calmly phantasmagorical: it’s more about longing than lust. Then Oliver de la Celle ‘s Lynchian guitar and White’s banjo raise the menace in a radical reinvention of Charlie Rich’s Midnight Blues
The hypnotic version of the murder ballad Down in the Willow Garden, a concert favorite, is all the more creepy for the duo’s bright harmonies and steady stoicism, White adding airy pump organ. McBain switches to piano for the even more atmospheric, Julee Cruise-ish Where He Rests.
They wind up the album with a pair of covers. They transform Midnight, a bluesy, Jimmy Reed-style 1952 hit for Red Foley, into minimalist girl-down-the-well pop. And they remake Don Gibson’s Sea of Heartbreak as jungly exotica: nobody plays with more implied menace than the Nine Seas.
The album also includes stripped-down alternate takes of Trials, Troubles, Tribulations and Midnight Blues. Beyond this album, since they’re unable to play shows at the moment, the Nine Seas have a weekly webcast, the Quarantine Chronicles, where they run through many other songs from the immense dark folk repetoire they’ve amassed over the years.