New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: elliott smith

One of Brooklyn’s Best Bands Pitches in to Help Brooklyn’s Best Venue

For several years from the early to late teens, guitarist Tom Csatari’s Uncivilized were one of the creme de la creme of the bands in the Barbes scene. They could just as easily have called themselves Uncategorized. Blending terse, catchy, jangly Americana into their careening, nebulously shifting big band jazz sound, they always seemed to be thisclose to completely going off the rails. Their performance of Twin Peaks soundtrack material in October of 2017 was one of the best concerts this blog ever witnessed there, and fortuitously was recorded and immortalized on the Uncivilized Plays Peaks album.

As Csatari recalls, their first gig at the iconic Brooklyn boite was on the Fourth of July in 2012. One of the songs in the set was a characteristically gorgeous, ramshackle arrangement of Elliott Smith’s Independence Day. About year later, Csatari doubled the size of the group for a gig at JC Sanford’s Monday night big band jazz series at the now long-gone Tea Lounge several blocks away on Union Street. Clarinetist Levon Henry had the good sense to record that gig as well – and now, they’re releasing this heftier live version of Independence Day as a single, with all proceeds to benefit Barbes, which is now open again but remains imperiled since Cuomo’s fascist lockdown measures prevent them from operating at full capacity.

The song’s B-side has a pair of Csatari originals, Harlem/Delhi segueing into Drifts, jaunty ragtime morphing into slashing string-driven noir in seconds flat: maybe this should have been the A-side instead!

Field Medic Brings His Strummy Stories of Sadness and Drinking to Bushwick

Poor Field Medic, a.k.a. Kevin Sullivan. People talked through his set when he played, and that bummed him out. So he wrote a song about it. It’s called Used 2 Be a Romantic, and it’s on his latest album Fade Into the Dawn, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s jangly and melancholy and plainspoken and catchy, like all his best stuff. He’ll probably play that tune at his gig at Alphaville on May 11 at 10 PM; cover is $12. With the L train apocalypse in full effect this coming weekend, this show is even more of an attrraction, considering that the venue is just a couple of blocks from the Central Ave. stop on the J/M line.

But you mustn’t feel sorry for him. That song’s a humblebrag. “I used to be a romantic. now I’m a dude in a laminate,” Sullivan kvetches. Meanwhile, a million other dudes with acoustic guitars, playing for the tip bucket and a couple of drink tickets, would gladly trade places, blinding stage lights and all. One assumes a guarantee came with what Sullivan’s got slung around his neck.

He follows that with I Was Wrong, an oldtimey-flavored freak-folk shuffle, and stays in Americana mode – vocally, anyway – for the waltz The Bottle’s My Lover, She’s Just My Friend. Imagine Hank Snow and Bon Iver duetting – ok, that’s a stretch, but just try.

Hello Moon is acoustic spacerock, part trip-hop and part Elliott Smith. Sullivan picks up his banjo and goes back to oldtimey flavor with Tournament Horseshoe: it wouldn’t be out of place as a rare happy song from a vintage Violent Femmes album.

“When the bombs start to drop and the world starts to end…I can hear the hooves pounding, sounds like apocalypse” he intones in the brief waltz Songs R Worthless Now. A New Order-ish percussion loop foreshadows where Everyday’s 2Moro is about to go: it’s a funny account of daydrinking and then trying to clean up the crash pad before the girl with the lease gets home. The album’s last track, Helps Me Forget is a pretty waltz straight out of the early Jayhawks catalog: “How did I get here, how in the hell am I going to escape?” Sullivan asks the empty room.

Not everything here works. Henna Tattoo is a bizarre mashup of newgrass and 90s emo – although you have to give the guy credit for at least using real percussion instead of a drum machine to make that trip-hop loop, and the other ones on the album. And Mood Ring Baby could use a verse that’s as catchy as the banjo-driven chorus.

Back in the day, this is what we used to call a three dollar record. Those of us who were lucky enough to be kids – and who were at least theoretically solvent enough to pick up some of the vinyl that the yuppies had dumped and replaced with cd’s – ended up with lots of those cheap albums. They were three bucks instead of four or five because everybody knew that most of them had only about a single side worth of good material. Some of those we kept; others we recycled again, but not before making some pretty awesome mixtapes. It’s a good bet the same thing’s going to happen to this one, digitally at least.

No-No Boy’s Savagely Lyrical Songs Illuminate a Troubling Chapter in American History

“We think a lot about individuals,” electrifying singer Erin Aoyama explained toward the end of her band No-No Boy’s riveting Lincoln Center show this past evening. “When you hear a number like 120,000 people incarcerated, what does that mean? It’s a hard number to understand.”

Aoyama’s friend’s mother had been incarcerated at the Tule Lake concentration camp during World War II. Aoyama’s own grandmother had been another of almost 130,000 Japanese-Americans held prisoner without trial throughout the war. Yet among those people – most of them American citizens – “”The power of young love, finding this little bit of joy, even within a prison camp,” persisted, as Aoyama explained. This particular case was a clandestine romance where the young college student and her crush would steal moments to hold hands in the camp dishwashing room . With that, Aoyama’s high lonesome harmonies rose to the rafters as she launched into the wistful, ironically Americana-flavored anthem Heart Mountain. Songwriter/guitarist Julian Saporiti no doubt latched onto the double entendre in the song title, taken from one of the ten concentration camps where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned.

That was the night’s single moment to salute the resilience of the human spirit. Otherwise, Saporiti’s wickedly lyrical, historically rich double entendres and savage puns confronted hypocrisy, racism and collective amnesia. Like Aoyama, he’s an extremely strong singer, and a hell of a tunesmith, with an anthemic, Elliott Smith-inflected sensibility. What’s more, the band’s new album 1942 is only the tip of the iceberg: they’ve got about four more albums worth of material, and played a lot of those new songs throughout the show. Not bad for a guy who thought he’d never make another record after his artsy late-zeros janglerock band Young Republic broke up. “This project has been nine years in the making,” beamed Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal, who’d booked the band – she’d been entranced by Saporiti’s vocals and songwriting chops since discovering Young Republic while in college.

With No-No Boy, context is everything. Saporiti and Aoyama offered as much insight between songs as during them, providing historical background for narratives that typically focused on Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, but also explored the experiences of Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese immigrants. Saporiti revealed the he’d been inspired to start writing these songs in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, when a Trump advisor cited Japanese-American incarceration as a precedent for the eventual Muslim travel ban. The rest is history.

Aoyama took a wistful, stoic turn on lead vocals on the band’s usual opening number, a slow, steady Romany jazz-flavored, shuffling cover of Smoke Rings,  clarinet wafting pensively through the mix as grim back-and-white imagery of detainees played on the screen overhead. ““Imagine this beautiful song Erin’s singing for you, but behind barbwire,” Saporiti told the crowd.

The duo followed that wiht Tony Ramone, a vivid, delicately bouncy tour of 1980s Chinatown through the eyes of punk rocker from the neighborhood. Guest violinist Kishi Bashi’s spiky flourishes and plaintive washes spiced the harrowing travelogue Boat People, whose collective tales of outrunning the cops and cheating death in flimsy fishing boats in Pacific storms were some of the night’s more harrowing moments.

Both Imperial Twist – a surreal mashup of doo-wop and 1960s Vietnamese faux-French psychedelic pop – and the night’s folk-tinged closing number, Little Saigon each sent a shout out to the pioneering South Vietnamese psychedelic bands of the late 60s and early 70s. The more upbeat, catchy Khmerica pondered the experience of Laotian immigrants whose story is even less part of the popular narrative: “Some kids move ‘cause parents take jobs, some move because of napalm,” Saporiti intoned.

Aoyama moved to keyboards for Saint-Denis, a muted vignette about Vietnamese immigrants in Paris. The skeletal yet anthemic Gimme Chills, with its litany of grim historical events and sarcastic chronicle of American products, offered a look at American imperialsim in the Philippines: “Gimme trial without jury, gimme Imelda Marcos’ shoe,” as Saporiti put it.

The most grisly image of all was the corpse of a suicide who’d put his head on the railroad tracks outside a World War II concentration camp. That image panned overhead while the group played Only What You Can Carry, reminding that while those camps were not designed specifically for killing, a lot of people didn’t make it out alive. And Two Candles, with a soaring Kishi Bashi violin solo midway through, was a somber salute to those who remained silent about their experiences in the camps, Aoyama’s grandmother among them.

And for what it’s worth, the band’s output – both the album and multimedia tour – are Saporiti’s doctoral project at Brown University. Let’s hope the rest of the Ivy League is as open to artistic achievements like this one. As Saporiti said with a laugh, you can reach lot more people with catchy songs than you can with a thesis that ends up gathering dust on somelibrary shelf.

The series of free concerts at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues with a rare Tuesday show this coming Nov 20 at 7:30 PM with Canary Islands chanteuse Olga Cerpa and her band. If you’re in town, get there early if you want a seat.

No-No Boy Bring Their Fascinating, Harrowing, Catchy Songs of Japanese-American Incarceration to Lincoln Center

In one of the more ugly chapters in American history, beginning in 1942 almost 130,000 Japanese-Americans were seized without trial and subsequently imprisoned in a total of ten concentration camps, mostly in the western states. Most of those individuals were American citizens. Virtually all of them, instructed to leave their homes behind with only what they could carry with them, would spend the entirety of World War II imprisoned.

The “no-no boys,” as concentration camp staff first called them, refused to swear allegiance to the United States or serve in the military, which makes sense considering that virtually all of these men had family and relatives were were imprisoned along with them. With their debut album, 1942 – streaming at Bandcamp – elegantly tuneful rock band No-No Boy bring the chilling, powerfully relevant history of that era to life. They’re playing the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. this Thurs, Nov 15 at 7:30 PM. The show is free, but the earlier you get there the better because the venue frequently sells out.

Frontman/guitarist Julian Saporiti harmonizes with singer Erin Aoyama in the album’s shimmering, Elliott Smith-tinged opening track, Pacific Fog, Tessa Sacramone’s plaintive violin soaring overhead. Saporiti’s narrative allusively references John Okada’s hauting1957 novel, also titled No-No Boy.

This album goes beyond Japanese-American incarceration to focus on similarly relevant history. Case in point: Boat People, a gently sweeping, hypnotic ballad that juxtaposes the story of a mid-70s Vietnamese doctor who resettled in Montreal, alongside a more detailed, harrowing account of current-day refugees:

Fourteen hours by car, cargo trucks and cabs
Just to shake the cops, Mom had to stay back
A Chinese safe house and covered tracks…

The floor of the Pacific is littered with Asian bones.

The stories lighten but are no less minutely detailed in Han Shan & Helen Keller: Cold Mountain – an indelibly tense wintertime Boston college-crowd scenario – and then Disposable Youth, a wry afternoon party pickup scenario. By contrast, Lam Thi Dep – a John Lennon-esque anthem named after a female Viet Cong soldier captured in a famous Vietnam War photo – has the most intertwined of all the stories here. Saporiti’s savagely sardonic references reach beyond the fact that many first-generation Vietnamese-Americans voted Republican, to a hilarious account of knee-jerk political correctness in academia.

Instructions to All Persons refers to the FDR edict to round up Japanese-Americans on the west coast; Saporiti and Ayoyama sing in the voice of a survivor of the camps, reflecting on their prisoner friends’ quiet defiance and attempts to maintain some kind of normalcy there.

Saporiti draws his inspiration for Ogie/Naoko, a charming ukulele waltz, from Melody Miyamoto Walters’ book In Love and War: The World War II Love Letters of a Nisei Couple, adding sobering context to an otherwise schmaltzy story. The sweeping parlor pop ballad Heart Mountain – named for the camp where Ayoyama’s grandmother was imprisoned – is another waltz, Saporiti’s narrator hopeful that someday he can consummate a clandestine romance and rebuild his life as a college professor.

Two Candles In the Dark, arguably the album’s strongest song, is perhaps ironically its most Americana-flavored one. Saporiti gives voice to an irrepressible rulebreaker looking to get over despite her circumstances:

Pretty outlaw call a quarter past, light knuckles on a barrack door
She got a brother down in Topaz, I saw that name once in a jewelry store
Wind around past the skaters and pond, looking for a cut in the wire
She’s got a key to the cellar door,
I don’t ask questions, man, just stand there inspired

Dragon Park, the album’s most stoically angry song, traces images from Saporiti’s own Tennessee childhood as a Vietnamese-American fighting off racist idiots:

I know that Southern Stare
Not just back home but everywhere

The album ends with its most Asian folk-inflected tune, Little Saigon, lost in a reverie of a place to indulge in a heritage including but not limited to Vietnamese psychedelic rock and the dan bau, a magical, warp-toned stringed instrument. At its best, Saporiti’s tunesmithing ranks with any of the real visionaries of this era: Elvis Costello, Hannah Fairchild and Rachelle Garniez. You’ll see on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

Chris Maxwell Plays the Release Show For His Allusively Harrowing New Album at Hifi Bar

Lately, Chris Maxwell has been doing mostly tv and film work Back in the late 90s, he played in popular, skronky punk-funk band Skeleton Key. As you might expect from his background, his songwriting is very eclectic, closer to the former than the latter. He’s got an excellent new album, Arkansas Summer, streaming at Soundcloud and an album release show on March 9 at around 9:30 at Hifi Bar, a space he probably played back in the early zeros when it was Brownies and he was lead guitarist in a late version of White Hassle. As a bonus, his White Hassle bandmate Marcellus Hall, another first-rate, deviously funny songwriter, opens the night at around 8:30.

The album veers between simmering southern soul and Beatlesque psych-pop ballads in a brooding, vividly lyrical Elliott Smith vein. References to a violent chiildhood surface and resurface: this could be autobiographical, or just a good, allusively harrowing, Faulknerian yarn. It opens with the distantly wary trip-hop atmospherics of Strange Shadows, a cautionary tale:

Every time that I look down
Strange shadows on the ground…
You arrived with the perfect script
What did you write with it?
You wrote to your daughter
That you forgot her

The energy rises with the stomping, smoldering soul ballad Have You Ever Killed Yourself and its Elliottt Smith tinges. Imaginary Man also brings Smith to mind, but in more low-key mode with Maxwell’s fingerpicked acoustic guitar under Let It Be piano and swirly late Wilco ambience, a creepy, metaphorically-loaded tale about someone who might not be imaginary at all.

With its wry everything’s-gone-to-hell narrative, the gospel-infused Mess of Things looks back to Maxwell’s time in White Hassle: “St. Nicholas are you feeling dangerous, I’m here for a little angel dust,” its disoolute narrator announces. The title track is an ornate Abbey Road art-rock piano ballad:

A black-eyed susan in the road
Little man threw sticks and stones
And called her names and broke her bones
A big black crow in a robin’s nest
Left us all with a bloody mess
Little man, your days are numbered …

Impossible Knot is next, a briskly shuffling, uneasy minor key traveler’s tale:

Tried to fall asleep, fell into the grave of memories
That I made
But couldn’t keep

Devil Song goes back to surrealist trip-hop, a sardonic sympathy-for-the-devil narrative that Maxwell adds elegant Magical Mystery Tour orchestration to as it builds. Drunk Barber Shaved the World is as funny, and hair-raising, as its title implies, another Elliott Smith-style acoustic-electric shuffle. Maxwell spins a web of fingerpicked acoustic guitar over stark, stygian bowed bass in Things Have Changed For Me, a suspect tale from a guy whose long streak of bad luck and dubious choices doesn’t exactly foreshadow anything better.

Likewise, the understatedly frantic escape anthem Away We Go seems less than promising, a return to the outer-space metaphors that open the album. It closes with its most opaque number, Last Song, a mashup of trip-hop and delta blues that only raises the intrigue: does this troubled story end with the cops surrounding the house after a 9/11 call, or is there more to it than that? All the more reason to spin this mysterious, purist, immensely tuneful album multiple times.



Jacco Gardner Brings His Trippy 60s Top of the Pops UK Sounds to Rough Trade

Psychedelic songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Jacco Gardner is sort of the Elliott Smith of retro 60s sunshine pop. But where Smith wrote doomed junkie narratives, heartbreak ballads and politically relevant broadsides, Gardner stays in the 60s witth his dreamy, trippy, pastoral baroque pop. He’s got a couple of albums out: Cabinet of Curiosities, which this blog gave a solid thumbs-up to last year, and a new one, Hypnophobia, which seems (at least from what little’s up at Bandcamp) to be more epic and slightly more beefed-up sonically. Gardner is Dutch but sings in a period-perfect , precise, cat-ate-the-canary 60s Carnaby Street London accent. Underneath, he layers all sorts of jangly, spiky, ringing, pinging vintage guitars, trebly bass and what sounds like vintage mellotron and organ (he really likes the flute patches). He’s also got a show coming up on June 11 at 10 PM at Rough Trade; advance tix are $12.

Gardner’s most recent New York show was in the middle of last August at South Street Seaport – yeah, that’s going back a ways. Listening back, what does the recording sound like? Trebly and tuneful. Outdoors in mid-afternoon, Gardner played an acoustic-electric model, backed by lead guitar, bass, drums and keys. The show was a good approximation of the meticulousness of his recordings, with enough wobbly reverb on the vocals to drive a minivan through. The lushness of the keys over a hard-hitting beat gave the songs more energy and sweep than you would expect, enhanced by how long the band jammed them out, a couple numbers clocking in at around seven or eight minutes. There were also three-part vocal harmonies that brought to mind the Zombies, the Move and the Pretty Things. And one of the later tunes, with its swirly keys, resonant guitar clang and uneasy major/minor chord changes, strongly evoked Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. All this should sound even better in the intimate, sonically superb confines in the back at Rough Trade.

Dark Tuneful Uncategorizable Indie Rock from the Martha’s Vineyard Ferries

The Martha’s Vineyard Ferries‘ debut album is titled Mass.Grave (you get it, right? Massachusetts supergroup-of-sorts?). Kahoots’ Elisha Wiesner plays guitar and sings with Shellac’s Bob Weston on bass and Chris Brokaw – who’s played with everyone from Steve Wynn, to Come, to Jennifer O’Connor (whose insurgent Kiam Records is putting this album out) – back behind the drums. As the title implies, this is unassumingly dark, thoughtful but very catchy stuff, unadorned without being threadbare. Most of the seven tracks here sound live; there don’t appear to be a lot of overdubs. You could call it postpunk, for lack of a better word.

Wiesner writes most of the songs. The first track, Wrist Full of Holes, works insistent, chromatically-charged guitar riffage over a loping beat. They bring in phasers on the chorus: cool touch! There are hints of Elliott Smith, another guy with a Massachusetts connection.

Track two, Parachute, sounds like an early 80s Boston band’s take on the Gang of Four, noisy but without any of the affections. It’s about an actual parachute jump,  or a metaphorical one, a pulsing, minimalist beat dropping out for a series of tradeoffs between the guitar and bass and then back up in a hurry. She’s a Fucking Angel (From Fucking Heaven), by Brokaw, adds layers of dreampop guitar and the kind of offcenter, noisy edge you might expect from a longtime Thalia Zedek collaborator. It’s also the funniest and most upbeat song here.

The best song here is Ramon and Sage. An insistent intro hands off to variations on an enigmatically clanging, resonant guitar phrase and then a deliciously catchy verse over Weston’s fuzz bass. It’s over in less than three minutes but could have gone on for twice that and wouldn’t be boring at all. Blonde on Red also begins with an insistent, rhythmic intro, evoking early Wire or Guided by Voices without the faux-British thing.

Weston’s Look Up, an anxious Boston-area motorway narrative, also has Wire echoes, that fuzz bass again and a sarcastic chorus: “Look up from the telephone, step off of the curb alone.” The last track, One White Swan is a post-Velvets slowcore dirge, Brokaw subtly coloring the funereal pulse with his fog-off-the-ocean cymbals as eerie vocal harmonies slowly rise to take centerstage over a minimialist guitar loop; this track also evokes Zedek in ultra-hypnotic mode. Safe to say that there is no other band alive who sound anything like them. It would be great to hear more from these guys; if this is the only album they ever make, it’s a gem, one of the best of 2013.

Aaron Blount Haunts Zirzamin

Monday night at around half past eleven, the back room at Zirzamin was basically empty, and all of a sudden it was packed, as Aaron Blount, formerly of dark Austin rockers Knife in the Water took the stage for a rivetingly mysterious show, most of it solo. Blount is a tremendously interesting guitarist and a nonchalantly haunting, quietly powerful singer. Playing his Danelectro Jazzmaster copy through a Fender Twin with the reverb going full steam, his casual but precise fingerpicking built a blizzard of overtones ringing from the amp: it was as if he’d summoned every ghost who’d ever hit a reverb pedal to join him in the vortex. His songs unfolded slowly and sepulchrally, phrases from old blues, bluegrass, gospel and folk rising ominously in the mist. His mostly chordal approach to the guitar intersperses eerie passing tones to max out the menace. To twist a title from Leonard Cohen – one that Blount probably knows well – he puts a new spin on the old ceremony.

A single, jagged slash broke the enveloping ambience as Blount worked his way into the first number, employing a strange tuning for what was essentially a bluegrass melody, but one stripped to the bone and bleached by the desert sun. An icy burst from his reverb tank kicked off the next one, a mix of cold chromatic chords and muted low notes like waves hitting the November shore. “There is no room, no hostel, nowhere to hide,” Blount intoned nonchalantly. Pregnant pauses in many of these slowly crescendoing anthems left the overtones extra time to linger and leave their mark. Blount casually made his way into a bittersweet soul song that picked up with a gorgeously menacing chorus straight out of the David J songbook. A gothic folk number reminded of the Church’s Steve Kilbey at his most hypnotic; another, sung in French, sounded like Elliott Smith in ultra-minimalist mode with the reverb turned all the way up, turning a two-note phrase into an orchestra.

Then Blount brought up the Dimestore Dance Duo a.k.a. guitarslinger Jack Martin and bassist Jude Webre along with a drummer. Martin’s blends of country blues and gypsy tonalities is the raw essence of noir, and it made a perfect match with Blount’s allusive menace. This wasn’t about fitting into a song seamlessly. Martin and Webre wrestled with them, Blount calmly and coolly guiding them with a phrase, or a jab of his guitar’s headstock, the duo tossing and turning and then suddenly diving into their depths once they had the structure down. It didn’t take long. In the Dimestore project, Webre serves as the perfectly melodic, matter-of-fact foil for Martin’s jaggedly biting phrases, and he played the same role here, anchoring the songs with a series of artfully transposed voicings shifting between the lows and the upper frets. Together they rampaged haphazardly and memorably through a backbeat-driven anthem (again, evoking the Church), a twisted country blues that gave Martin a launching pad for a succession of deliciously lurid chromatic riffs, and then a creepily swaying nocturne. “The night is slowing to a crawl,” Blount intoned, “Bottles dance on the shelves…we float, drift and collide and spill out into the street.” Before they did that, they gently ravaged another ballad in the 6/8 time that Blount loves so much, Martin and then Webre shifting uneasily from major to minor, playing modes against each other as the crowd sat silent and rapt. This crew is bound to reunite at least once, whether for a show or (fingers crossed) a recording somewhere in the relatively near future: watch this space.

Dylan Connor Releases a Catchy, Hard-Hitting New Political Pop Album

The cover shot of Dylan Connor’s new album Primitive Times shows a carful of monkeys with assault rifles. He dedicates it to Syrian freedom fighters killed in the ongoing revolution there. Which makes sense: Connor has a broader worldview than most songwriters. He’s got an easy way with a pop hook and can be a ferociously incisive wordsmith: a lot of these songs scream out for the replay button. Connor plays most of the instruments here – guitars, bass and keys – alongside Merritt Jacob’s tasteful lead guitar and Joe Izzo’s drums. His surprisingly wide-ranging vocals are nonchalant, unaffected and on-key, qualities that used to be a requirement but these days are a welcome exception to the rule.

The title track opens. It’s catchy, backbeat-driven 80s new wave pop with tersely resonant, bluesy lead guitar, layers of keys and what sounds like a drum machine:

Secret prisons for nameless crimes
Faceless enemies serving time
King doesn’t care what his people say
Great floods wash their homes away…
Countless languages, borderlines
It doesn’t take a genius to read the signs
In high rise buildings where cash is king
Corporate crooks all dance and sing
In the evolution of the modern mind…

Tattoo on Your Bones is an anthem that evokes a more lo-key Midnight Oil, a third world scenario that could be the first world someday soon:

Dry river soaked in rum
Drunk policemen
Stationed anywhere
Hopeless in the
Prayer-filled air
No buyers
When the power’s down
Dead heat hangs
His hat on the town

The poppiest of the A-list songs here, Pressure Point works a bit of a funk groove with jazzy chords and another lyrical bullseye:

You know that a watched pot never boils
Get to the point
The snake lashes out and then recoils
You thought that you could save your own ass
But all the pews are filled for midnight mass
And the prayer candles glow
Dogs play in the snow
And a voice is telling you to go

Not everything here is as lyrically oriented. A couple of tracks reach for a hazily apprehensive, distantly Beatlesque, Elliott Smith-style janglerock vibe; another is a Springsteenish plea to a girl to stay in and drink one of the world’s most ghetto beverages; there’s also an anthemic requiem for a powerpop guitarist who “Toured every dive bar on the west coast/His was the sound that cut the most.” And an awful folk-pop ditty that never should have made the cut (memo to Connor: stick with your good stuff, the record execs who might have drooled over that piece of schlock are all unemployed now). The album ends with the brooding, solo acoustic Feza Feza (Arabic for “Help, help!”), which Connor released last year as a fundraising single to help the people of Syria. Fans of literate, relevant tunesmiths who use catchy melodies to get an important message across (Mike Rimbaud, Fred Gillen Jr. and Stephan Said, to name just three) should check this guy out.

Artful Psychedelic Tunesmithing from Jeff Beam

Jeff Beam hails from Maine. He plays bass in the Milkman’s Union. He also does his own psychedelic pop with an expanse of ideas that literally covers the entire psychedelic genre. He’s playing Pete’s Candy Store on April 14 at 10 PM. And he has an album, Be Your Own Mirror, streaming at his Bandcamp site. As you would imagine, it’s trippy and sometimes pretty dark. The coolest thing about it is how he takes all these old ideas from the 60s and mashes them up: there’s Kinks, and Floyd, and Procol Harum, and the Strawbs side by side and it all makes sense. The only thing missing is the big-room studio production, although to his credit, Beam’s endless layers of overdubs are a good facsimile. What’s most impressive is that like Elliott Smith – an artist who bears some resemblance – Beam plays almost everything here himself except for some drums, horns and strings (yup – the album’s got ’em).

The first track, Whispering Poison in His Ear evokes the folkie side of Roger Waters circa Obscured by Clouds, with a nice, stinging, tremoloing guitar solo wavering over and under a central note. Hospital Patience is a darkly tiptoeing minor-key late 60s Britfolk tune that builds to an epic majesty with a tasty, fat Robin Trower-ish solo. A two-part instrumental follows that, with mellotron, fuzztone guitar, tempo shifts, an eerie pregnant pause, and then takes on a funky edge.

The strongest cut here is Now. How Beam builds it from a slinky, brooding minor-key blues into an ornate Beatlesque anthem is a clinic in good songwriting. Lyrics don’t seem to be a major part of all this; this one’s the least opaque of all the songs. “I’m going underground…give me a quiet town, all these people chasing me around,” Beam muses.

The rest of the album includes riffy T-Rex style glamrock, an instrumental that looks back to early Genesis, a catchy Kinks-ish pop tune and a warped take on a Penny Lane riff that wouldn’t be out of place in Elliott Smith’s last work. Best thing about this is that’s free – or you can throw some bucks at his bandcamp site if you want. Download it here.