New York Music Daily

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Amy Rigby at the Peak of Her Rapturous Literary Powers in Alphabet City Last Night

Last night at Berlin Amy Rigby was a riveting, intense, spring-loaded presence, swaying and stabbing at the air with the headstock of her guitar. She’d brought two for this solo show: a lusciously jangly Danelectro twelve-string, and a standard-issue acoustic for the punkier stuff.

About midway through, somebody interrupted her with a request. Rigby considered it but then admitted she’d forgotten what key it’s in, adding that she’d retired it after a critic had taken her to task for being too self-effacing.

In reality, Rigby definitely qualifies as humble, but her characters – single moms and struggling musicians in particular – don’t put themselves down as much as they just get worn down by having to surmount one obstacle after another. Like Ray Davies, a counterpart from an earlier era, Rigby is populist to the core, and even funnier than he is. Where Davies falls back on British vaudeville, Rigby draws on both Americana and classic powerpop, among other styles. And she’s more specifically literary.

Case in point: an offhandedly savage take of From philiproth@gmail to rzimmerman@aol.com, the wickeldy catchy, jangly shout-out to Dylan winning the Nobel Prize that opens Rigby’s latest album, The Old Guys. Just the premise of the song is hilarious. That Rigby offers a degree of sympathy for the wannabe sending his own halfhearted shout-out before her knockout of a punchline speaks to her prowess as a storyteller. She probably won’’t ever be enshrined in that corporate museum in Cleveland, but in the secret history of rock music, she’s a first-ballot hall-of-famer. Patti Smith times Elvis Costello divided by Skeeter Davis equals Amy Rigby – more or less.

Much as there were plenty of even more amusing moments, there’s always been a lot of gravitas in Rigby’s work and this set was loaded with it. She opened with Bobblehead Doll, a haggard, depleted narrative whose mantra is “What was it all for?” As she sometimes does, she coyly referenced a classic from her Nashville days in Are We Still There Yet, a fond look back at an era where cds and cassettes weren’t yet being left in boxes at random streetcorners.

A gorgeous, expansive take of Summer of My Wasted Youth was even more bittersweet. On a personal level, the screaming subtext is about having a hard time letting go of a pre-parenthood, pre-divorce rock & roll lifestyle. In historical context, it’s nothing short of shocking: there actually was a time in New York when an unemployment check could not only cover Manhattan rent but also the occasional tab at a cheap Greenpoint Polish bar.

Knapsack, a cleverly constructed tale about an unrequited crush on a bookstore security guy (at the old Borders on Church St., maybe?) was just as poignant. Rigby recounted how she’d written the wistful Tex-Mex flavored Back From Amarillo as a salute to the city, something that went little-noticed when she got to the venue because there wasn’t much of a crowd. She picked up the pace with The President Can’t Read, a savage swipe at the bozo in the Oval Office and kept the energy going with Hometown Blues, an uneasy bigup to her Pittsburgh hometown and all its quirks.

The funniest song of the night was Men in Sandals, a perplexed look at how anyone aspiring to any kind of macho heroism could wear them – it could be Mets broadcaster Howie Rose’s theme song. Rigby grew more somber toward the end of the set, reading a colorful excerpt about a college boyfriend from a forthcoming memoir and then playing a subdued, elegaic take of Bob, a song from the new album memorializing the late Lou Reed fanatic who obviously had a major impact on a future songwriting legend. She closed with Don’t Ever Change, which stops just short of exasperation in the latest chapter of a lifelong search for simple contentment. That’s just one reason why Rigby’s work resonates so universally.

Playing solo, just bass and vocals, Faith bandleader Felice Rosser built a magical, misty ambience with her catchy changes, looming chords, subtle slides and her otherworldly, Nina Simone-esque soul voice to open the evening. You might not think that just a Fender Precision and a mic would be enough to fill a room, but Rosser held the crowd rapt. With the Corinthian columns at the edge of the little stage, “It was like being in a temple,” as Rigby put it.

Rigby’s next gig is somewhere in Ojai, California on June 16. Her tour page doesn’t say where or when,

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Hannah vs. the Many Bring Their Withering Lyrics and Riveting Presence to an Iconic Brooklyn Dive

The best lyricist in rock music played Long Island City Bar last month. It wasn’t Elvis Costello or Aimee Mann doing a secret gig to warm up for a tour. It was Hannah Fairchild, who at this point in history is the gold standard as far as double entendres, searing metaphors and savage wit set to catchy tunes are concerned. That she plays a mean Telecaster, fronts an incendiary power trio with a slinkily feral rhythm section and has a flamethrower wail for a voice is the icing on the cake. She’s playing Hank’s this Saturday night at 10 PM; cover is $7.

Fairchild calls her band Hannah vs. the Many. “Just to be clear, you are not the many,” she reassured the crowd. She is the rare instance where the enemy of your enemy is actually your friend. Her music is not for people with meh lives. But for anyone who’s been wounded, or even tortured, she is your vanquishing valkyrie

And she was noir before that Canadian dotcom millionaire’s trust-tunded kid picked a Spanish last name to advertise herself as rock royalty. Fairchild’s doomed anti-heroines immolate themselves publicly and throw themselves headlong from tall buildings when the pain becomes too much. Fairchild followed the magic-realist trajectory of the latter through the machinegunning cadences of the night’s oldest song, All Eyes on Me, charging through the song’s eerie chromatic changes.

Most of the material was taken from Hannah vs. the Many’s most recent album Cinemascope, ranked as best rock record of the year here several months ago. “Here’s a song about musical theatre,” Fairchild said brightly, then launched into the grim punk rock torrents of Surrender Dorothy:

Cinderella’s sisters tell us
Nothing in the final edit
‘Cause we left them blinded, bled and
Screaming through the rolling credits
Made a mistake, played it straight
How many punchlines til she breaks?
Splitting on seams, no reprieve
What I get is what you see

Although Fairchild has led a more-or-less separate career in the theatre, obviously the road hasn’t been easy, for her or for any woman, for that matter.

Carl Limbacher’s bass scrambled over Max Tholenaar-Maples’ drums as the trio launched into the cynical Cameo, Fairchild’s simmering, distortedly jangly broken chords expoding into a fireball on the chorus. The swaying, simmering ballad Slow Burn made a stark contrast, then the band picked up the pace again in a split second.

When the night’s best number is a new  one, that speaks volumes to where its writer is right now. This one, Stupid, blended uneasy Syd Barrett-ish changes beneath a characteristically defiant narrative. And despite all the relentless cynicism and gloomy punchlines, the blonde woman in the classy black dress, cranking out chords from her vintage Fender amp under the low lights, was no victim. This was a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Never mess with a songwriter: they always get even in the end.

A Shatteringly Relevant New Suite Casts a Cold Eye on Surveillance State Terror

“The last refuge of privacy,” is how the central object in The Secret Diary of Nora Plain was described by the song cycle’s lyricist, Lucky Fonz III at National Sawdust this past weekend. In their US debut, premiering this haunting, labyrinthine yet often shatteringly direct suite to a sold-out audience, Dutch ensemble the Ragazze Quartet were bolstered by the eclectic beats of percussionist Remco Menting.

In front of the ensemble, charismatic singer Nora Fischer channeled the increasing terror of being caught in the spycams’ deadly web, whether calm and stoic, shivering on the floor or twitching like a marionette, Ian Curtis-style.  “Let bygones be bygones,” she encouraged coolly during one of the early songs, hope against hope. At that point it wasn’t clear just what this story’s everywoman had done – if anything – to catch Big Brother’s merciless eye, a conclusion that the suite left hanging. That only raised the suspense, underscoring how anyone with an identifiable cellphone or a Facebook page  – or without one, conceivably – could be caught in the trap.

Fischer is force of nature. At her quietest, she brought a plaintive, sometimes prayerful quality to the narrative; at her loudest, she belted with a gale-force wail worthy of Aretha. Likewise, the quintet of musicians began with an atmospheric whisper and rose in a series of waves, through as many different styles as a string quartet augmented by a drummer with a full kit plus vibraphone could possibly play.

The stage direction was spare yet tightly focused on an ever-encroaching menace, pushing Nora further and further toward the edge. There were moments when the quartet drew ominously closer and closer to her; other times, they fell in line as good soldiers in a police state are required to. Menting took a couple of turns behind a small keyboard during quieter, more atmospheric interludes. Likewise, violinists Rosa Arnold and Jeanita Vriens shifted to Menting’s vibraphone and bowed icy, airy textures at a couple of the suite’s most whispery ebbs.

The songs, with music by Morris Kliphuis, rose and fell, akin to Elvis Costello’s Juliet Letters with music by Philip Glass and Caroline Shaw and played by Rasputina, perhaps. Cellist Rebecca Wise propelled those shifts with stark, raw washes along with elegantly incisive pizzicato; violist Annemijn Bergkotte was a spare, striking presence in both the low and higher registers as well. Stylistically, the segments ran the gamut from hypnotically circling, kinetic chamber rock – often spiced with allusively macabre, Glass-ine phrases – to an emphatic detour into funk, murky mood pieces, and a couple of rises to sheer terror, most grippingly in Rat in My Room. Whether that rat was the four-legged or two-legged kind was left to the audience to figure out.

Was Fischer’s final exit what it seemed on the surface, a coyly triumphant slip out the side door? Or was she going elsewhere? Readers of Lois Lowry‘s dystopic classic The Giver will get that reference. Anyone concerned with the perilous state of civil liberties should see this hauntingly enigmatic, rivetingly disturbing, potently relevant work. 

The Year’s Best Americana Triplebill at Hank’s This Thursday Night

The best Americana triplebill of the year so far is happening this March 8 at Hank’s.  Kasey Anderson, whose gritty populist narratives bring to mind a young Steve Earle, opens the night at 8. Eric Ambel, proprietor of the dearly missed Lakeside Lounge and an even more spectacular, surreal guitarist and songwriter – who played lead in Earle’s band back in the day – follows at 9. Cliff Westfall  – whose aphoristic songs and soulful C&W baritone will take you back to 1956 at warp speed – headlines at around 10. Cover is $10.

Westfall, whose album Baby You Win is streaming at his music page. is as strong and memorable a retro songwriter as Pokey LaFarge – no joke. It takes you back to an era of neon-lit jukeboxes, tailfins, beer cans that you could crush in one hand only if you were really strong…and ten-cent drafts. And Westfall matches the honkytonk ambience with innumerable clever musical and lyrical details that fill out the picture. The opening track, It Hurt Her to Hurt Me is sort of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen with even more clever wordplay, done by Hank Williams with a sizzling electric band behind him. The shuffling title track gives the group a chance to show off everything they’ve got: Scott Metzger’s tasty reverbtoned vintage tube amp sonics, a wry surf riff when least expected, a little Merle Haggard to kick off the song and colorful period vernacular. This guy’s “giving back the Crackerjack box I got from a so-called friend.”

Westfall croons bittersweetly over Charlie Giordano’s rippling honkytonk piano in the sad barroom ballad Til the Right One Comes Along. Then the group channel Orbison over a luscious web of twanging, jangling, echoing guitars in the Lynchian anthem More and More (as in “I think I love you more and more less and less”). With Metzger’s morosely tremoloing guitar solo, it’s a standout among many here.

With its chugging layers of twelve-string guitars – that’s Metzger and Graham Norwood – Off the Wagon is the missing link between Johnny Burnette and the Byrds –  the 1967 psychedelic Byrds, and the 1969 country Byrds as well. “We go together like booze and pills!” Westfall announces; those stampeding, twangy Bakersfield guitar multitracks on the way out are a straight shot of adrenaline.

The worn-out, defeated ballad Hanging On paints a vividly grim picture of a guy who’s just about had it with being strung along. By contrast, the boisterous I’ll Play the Fool comes across as a mashup of Subterranean Homesick Blues Dylan and Buck Owens.

The gorgeously clanging The Man I Used to Be paints a picture of a guy with “a little less size and a lot less wear…dusty 8X10s out in the hall, but I don’t recognize that guy at all.”

“I live in your world since I left my own,” Westfall admits in the sad waltz A Lie If You Must, over Dan Iead’s pedal steel.  “A lie calculated to appease and disarm, tell me what’s self-deception compared to your charms?” Elvis Costello would be proud to have written this one.

The End of the Line, the album’s hardest-rocking track, wouldn’t be out of place on a Wayne Hancock album, right down to that searing Metzger guitar solo midway through. The retro 50s shuffle ballad Sweet Tooth gives Westfall a chance to have fun with food and drug metaphors. The album winds up with similarly sly swamp-rock of The Odds Were Good. You’re going to see this on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

Ward White’s As Consolation: Best Rock Record of 2017

Ward White’s album Bob topped the list of best releases of 2013 here. So it’s hardly a surprise that his latest album As Consolation is by far the best rock record released this year. Most artists who play loud, troubling, psychedelic music usually get quieter and more pensive as the years go by. but since the early zeros, White has gone in the opposite direction.

The new album – streaming at Bandcamp –  isn’t quite as surreal as Bob, but Bob is unlike any other record ever made, a disjointed whirlwind murder mystery psychedelic lit-rock suite. Its closest comparisons are not albums but Russell Banks novels and David Cronenberg films. As Consolation, on the other hand, does not seem to have a central storyline  – other than a relentlessly grim cynicism that crosses the line into sadism and the macabre. White’s worldview has never been more bleak – yet there’s never been this much unselfconscious joie de vivre in his music.

He’s a one-man guitar army here with his lavish but tersely arranged multitracks – for what it’s worth, he’s also an excellent bass player (that was his axe in the legendary Rawles Balls). This time around he’s fallen in love with a vintage analog delay pedal, for an eerie, watery effect akin to running his axe through a Leslie speaker. Now based in Los Angeles after a long stint in New York, he’s joined by Tyler Chester, who plays a museum’s worth of vintage keyboards (or clever digital facsimiles) – he turns out to be a sort of a left coast Joe McGinty, a longtime White collaborator who put out a fantastic album with him in 2009. Mark Stepro, who played on White’s withering 2008 album Pulling Out, returns to the drum chair.

Overarching narrative or not, there are characters who make multiple appearances in these allusively grisly, meticulously detailed narratives. One is the titular girl in Here’s What Happened to Heidi, the opening track. As with Bob, the events are anything but clear. Is this being told from the point of view of a corpse? A murder victim? “”Please tell me it’s not morning yet,” someone pleads again and again.

It’s rewarding to see White getting back in touch with the psychedelia and heavy rock he grew up with as a kid in Connecticut: there are more textures and more stylistic leaps than ever before in what has become a back catalog that ranks with guys like Richard Thompson and Elvis Costello.

The murderously catchy, organ-infused Crater is one of the most straightforwardly sinister cuts here – an incriminating envelope is involved. “Under the stone, don’t fight it, you’ll be at home,” White intones nonchalantly as the band gallops behind him.

A mashup of psychedelic soul and Abbey Road Beatles, Dude is White at his sardonic best:

Girls in California call me dude.
It’s non-negotiable
As smirks and disapproval misconstrued

“A few dreams, that much you’re owed,” White muses to the girl passed out on the sofa as Rhodes piano echoes uneasily in the miniature that serves as the album’s title track. Then he picks up the pace immediately with Spurs, its treacherous western vacation plotline shifting suddenly and strangely between a hard-hitting, syncopated pulse and lushly ethereal cinematics. “The paralyzing fear that we’re alone makes us cling to the humdrum,” White asserts: the rhyme that follows is too good to give away. It’s definitely a first in rock history.

Stepro flurries like Keith Moon throughout Hotel, a mashup of mod and new wave.

The fumes are playing havoc with your senses
You never listened before
Why would you listen now?

We never find out what Heidi, making a reappearance here, has to say to her assailant; White’s tongue-in-cheek, bluesy guitar solo adds a blackly amusing tinge.

White goes to the top of his formidable vocal range in Dog Tags, the narrator telling someone who was “naked on the fire escape: – his killer, maybe? – not to bother to look for the body, over an artfullly lingering remake of Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1. Then the music picks up with a blast of Beatles and Bowie in Parking Lot: “Frozen onfire in the parking lot, better hold your breath til I count to ten again,” White instructs.

With its tense, broken guitar chords and smoky organ, Stay Low is the most distinctly Lynchian song here: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Charming Disaster catalog. The raging guitars of Coffee Maker echo the sonics on his 2014 release Ward White Is the Matador, a pair of accomplices growing more desperate by the hour. The way White caps off his guitar solo is as cruel as it is priceless.

The psychedelic Twin Peaks narrative Which Pain takes place in a torture chamber: “Too late to turn back now, not too big to fail,” a vindictive narrator tells his victim. More echoes of early-70s Bowie return in The Crows, another chilling tale from beyond the grave. “Sadness will make you insane, leave your cake out in the rain,” White reminds: that’s among the most telling of the many wry and far more subtle lyrical references here. The album closes with Weekend Porsche, a surreal soundscape that slowly coalesces into a reprise of that glam theme. It’s the first instrumental White’s ever recorded and the Eclipse to this Dark Side of the Moon.

A Long-Overdue Retrospective From the Greatest Songwriter You Might Not Know

Back in the radio-and-records era, it was common for a band to put out a greatest-hits album to fulfill their obligation to the label in order to get out of a record deal. Mark Breyer, longtime leader of cult favorite powerpop band Skooshny, put his together to get a record deal. Which makes sense in a way: Breyer is nothing if not counterintuitive. The album, Matchless Gifts – out from Kool Kat Musik and streaming at Bandcamp – is a lavish, smartly assembled double-cd compilation of the best tracks he’s released since 2006 under the name Son of Skooshny, often in collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Steve Refling. For those new to the Breyer songbook, this is as good a way as any to get to know one of the greatest songwriters alive, and it’s one of the best albums of 2017.

The layers of jangly guitars and dreamy sonics draw obvious comparisons to Australian psychedelic/spacerock legends the Church, reinforced by Breyer’s brilliant lyrics – his double entendres and wordplay rank with the Church’s Steve Kilbey, and Elvis Costello, and Rachelle Garniez. And the songs are catchy beyond belief, drawing on decades of clang and twang – Carl Newman is another reference point. Yet Breyer’s catalog doesn’t really evoke any band other than his old one. This guy is a real individualist, a first-ballot Hall of Famer who might take you by surprise.

And much as Breyer can’t resist a good pun – it’s impossible to count all of them here – these songs are sad. The devil is always in the details: Breyer has a rare eye for them. The one that might rip your face off more than any of the others, The Subtle Eye, is actually a brisk, balmy number and one of the gentlest songs here:

Teddy lifts me to a cloud
To protect me from an angry crowd
We sit and watch the spectacle below
Teddy died too young for her to go

See, Teddy is a dog. She appears in a dream, after appearances by now-deceased parents who, if these cameos are characteristic, were real cheerful earfuls (NOT). Humans will betray you, but many other species won’t. And they care enough about you to visit you after they’re gone, if only to let you know that they’re ok. In his last verse, Breyer promises to do the same: who knows what the subtle eye can see, right?

The boisterous opening anthem, Just a Test is irresistibly funny, but quaint diner food turns out to have a surprise in it, and eventually Breyer declares that “I want the other actors dead instead !” He’s referring to a tv show, but obviously there’s more to it.

“You left a note on my door, I found the footnote on the floor,” he announces as Spine, a big, enveloping seduction athem gets underway: foreshadowing is a huge part of Breyer’s M.O. A picturesque, bittersweetly romantic stroll through North Hollywood, No Ho may be conceptually funny – nobody walks in LA, right? – but you can see the ending coming a mile away, and it’s bleak.

Likewise, don’t let the blase calm 70s folk-pop sheen of Half of the World fool you. It deals with issues of perception and drunken yoga, with a coda that’s way too good to give away. Science Changes Everything, with its litany of math and physics metaphors, follows the same pattern, as does Dizzy – a dead ringer for the catchiest stuff on the Church’s Blurred Crusade album. “When more is less you use subtraction, reduce it to a fraction,” Breyer calmly intones.

His images invite plenth of debate. What does the object of affection In Mid-Century Modern do when she visits the justice of the peace? Regret, disillusion, and alienation bordering on despondency are everywhere. “I had that flat but it wasn’t home, you had a cat but you were alone,” Breyer relates in Sorry, another contrast between dreamy, Church-like sonics and richly imagistic, grim narrative.

Good Morning, Gail Warning may take place in an ashram kitchen, but Arthur Schlenger’s eerily reverberating guitars and keys are pure David Lynch soundtrack. “Troubles brew, bubbles rise,” Breyer relates in How Does It End, glistening nocturne swirling through an allusive tale of fractured family ties.

“Take apart your Japanese contraption – douse the charcoal, tear the plastic tent,” Breyer implores in Candy Air: meanwhile, the cat’s under the house and won’t come out. “May I remove your elevator shoes?” he asks in The Right Idea, backed by a plaintively lingering web of twelve-string guitars that leave no doubt how this story is going to end.

Some of these tracks rock pretty hard – Knee Deep, one of the few more optimistic anthems here; the surreal Kate’s Green Phone, which may or may not be about daydrinking and unrealistic expectations; the autobiographical Untold History, which traces an allusively harrowing Cold War childhood narrative; and Another Time, a Costello-esque account of dealing with somebody from outer space. And Bare Bones reaches toward classic punk blast and thud: it’s the closest thing to Breyer’s old band here.

In typical fashion, he saves some of the best songs for the bonus disc. Jeff Peters’ guitar nicks a familiar Angelo Badalementi film noir riff for the doomed trajectory of You Can’t Love Me:

Thank god you’re farsighted instead of near
It might be the only thing keeping you here

And Love’s Not Impossible, with Michael Meros’ hilarious early 80s pop quote, offers a tantalizing flicker of hope, even as the drizzle grows more impenetrable.

In the meantime, Breyer hasn’t slowed down. His latest single, The New South – presumably from yet another formidable album – has unexpected country flavor and a typically sardonic plotline. 

Haunting Singer Carol Lipnik’s East Village Residency Takes On New Relevance

This past Sunday evening at Pangea, Carol Lipnik reached for the rafters, with her voice and with her hand, as if trying to pull stars from the sky. It wasn’t as if she was imploring some unseen force, but there was a quiet desperation as her four-octave voice rose to the stratosphere. Behind her, Matt Kanelos built a twilit mist of electronics and then played steady, lustrous neoromantic piano chords to anchor his longtime collaborator’s uneasy flights upward.

“We’ve fallen backward into a strange abyss of imperfection,” Lipnik mused, in between songs. Iridescent in a shimmery midnight blue dress, she addressed the ugly events of the past week with grim understatement. “Our pleasure ship has hit an iceberg. My life raft is made of paper, and my oar, a pen…my song is a torn sail, my voice the ripping wind.” Much as Lipnik’s performances, and especially her lyrics, can be both hilarious and heartwrenching, this was out of character.

Then again, we’ve all been wrenched from our comfort zones. Calmly and matter-of-factly, Lipnik built a dynamic intensity that rose and fell, laced with dark punk rock humor and ominous nature imagery. The fun stuff included a leap to the rafters with a boisterous cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Put a Spell on You that its author would no doubt have been proud of. Lipnik channeled Klaus Nomi in a phantasmagorical version of The Twist. She drew the most feverish applause when she introduced a famous 60s cabaret-rock hit. “The Barnum and Bailey circus is going out of business, Lipnik explained. “Now there’s a new circus in town. Let’s all drink to the death of a clown!” Without further elaboration, the duo onstage brought out every ounce of creepiness in Dave Davies’ metaphorically-loaded circus narrative. Later, the two brought out far more angst than hope in a relentlessly steady take of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem.

The most bittersweet number of the night was a brand-new, rather elegaic collaboration with David Cale titled A History of Kisses. The most apt for the moment was an insistent minor-key art-rock anthem titled Beast Bird, a familiar bestiary facing an even more familiar peril. An elegantly surreal “torch song to a wild goose,” a disquietingly airy take of Goddess of Imperfection – Lipnik’s theme song for her ongoing Pangea residency – and the allusive eco-disaster parable My Piano (which was a tree in a past life) completed the picture. Lipnik’s weekly Sunday shows in the sonically exquisite back room at this comfortable East Village boite are almost as legendary as her vocal range; the show continues this Sunday, Feb 5 at around 7 PM.

Midway through the show, Lipnik brought up Witchfinder Witch, the brand-new duo collaboration between Dennis Davison, frontman of LA psychedelic rock legends the Jigsaw Seen and folk noir songstress Lorraine Leckie, who were making their Manhattan debut. She delivered a cute singalong about legendary Lower East Side dive Mars Bar; he held the crowd rapt with The Unhappiest Man Under the Sun with Leckie on piano, a song that no doubt spoke for a lot of people in the crowd.

LJ Murphy Brings His Feral Stage Show and Visionary Lyricism Back to the East Village

Great musicians reinvent themselves every so often. Bowie did it, and Elvis Costello has done it a few times as well. And so has.LJ Murphy, who is the closest thing New York has to either of those songwriters these days. The Bowie influence isn’t really obvious, although Murphy’s songs have a surrealistic side. The Costello influence is something Murphy has deliberately muted over the past few years, although lyrically speaking, the two share a fondness for irresistible puns, double and triple entendres and a defiant, sometimes venomously anti-authoritarian sensibility. Where Costello these days is a suave elder statesman, Murphy is a ferociously charismatic showman. What’s new in Murphy’s music is that these days, he’s fronting a band with three electric guitars, taking an already high-voltage sound to new heights of intensity. He’s bringing his megawatt show to a Saturday night East Village gig at Sidewalk on Nov 12 at 8 PM. As a bonus, Mac McCarty‘s new Spoon River Anthology-inspired folk noir band, Abraham’s River, play afterward at 9 with Walter Ego – as good a songwriter as anybody else on this bill – probably doing his typical multi-instrumentalist thing on bass, piano and lead guitar.

Over the years, Murphy has fronted an eclectic series of groups, ranging from catchy, new wave-influenced janglerock to volcanic electric blues. Although there were some brilliant lineups behind him in the mid-zeros – the version of his group, The Accomplices, with the crushingly swinging rhythm section of Josh Belknap on drums and Andrew Plonsky on bass, comes to mind – the current lineup may be the best of all of them. And as explosive as this unit is, Murphy has lately been opening and closing his shows solo acoustic. It’s kind of a macho thing, as if to say, “Yeah, this band is great, but these songs don’t need a band.” Last time out, he opened with the haunting, minor-key Fearful Town, an understatedly savage portrait of East Village tourist trap hell, and closed with the similarly poignant Saturday’s Down, a 6/8 soul ballad set in McCarren Park in Williamsburg back in the days when it really was populated with cops on horseback, sleeping drunks and men who work three jobs.

The time before that Murphy played a brief acoustic set in tandem with his multi-instrumentalist not-so-secret weapon, Tommy Hoscheid, who’s as likely to break out his tenor sax as he is to fire off a vintage Memphsi soul solo on electric guitar, or accompany the band on piano. The time before that – yeah, this guy’s worth seeing three times over the course of a summer – Murphy opened with Saturday’s Down and closed with the ominously aphoristic noir blues cautionary tale Geneva Conventional.

But the funnest parts of those shows were when the band was really cooking. Hoscheid and Dylan Treadwell on guitars, Murphy rocking his vintage Gibson hollowbody, the kinetically tuneful Quinn Murphy (no relation) towering over the rest of the group on bass and Jacob Kavell on drums. Together they blasted through the punked-out Stax/Volt of Happy Hour – a crushingly funny portrait of Wall Street happy hour dysfunction that anybody who’s ever spent time in the belly of the beast down there can relate to. They shuffled propulsively through the menace of another soul-inflected number, Panic City and its evocation of post-9/11 paranoia and post-3/11 horror, quite possibly the most relevant song written by any rock writer in the past fifteen years. They swung gently through the brooding cautionary tale Sleeping Mind, a poignant evocation of terminal depression, and romped through more upbeat numbers like the jangly, sardonic Damaged Goods, the enigmatically crescendoing Nowhere Now, the drunk dream sequences in the decaying Rust Belt noir of Buffalo Red and the explosively bouncy Blue Silence. As seemingly every song wound up, Murphy reached for the rafters with the headstock of his guitar, chopping at his chords like an axe murderer until the rest of his accomplices joined him. As far as feral, unleashed energy is concerned, there’s nobody in town these days who can touch this guy. If raw adrenaline is your thing, miss this show at your peril.

 

Haunting, Brilliantly Lyrical Noir Americana from Ben De La Cour

Crooner Ben De La Cour brings to mind Townes Van Zandt, and also a young Ward White. De La Cour shares a similarly cynical worldview and world-weary, rakish persona, and sings in an assured baritone that he would probably prefer was fueled by quality bourbon, although rotgut might do the job in a pinch. And as he makes clear from the git-go, he’s no stranger to being in a pinch. He tells a good yarn, is a hell of a lyricist and has a thing for windmills. Vocally, Nick Cave is the obvious comparison, but De La Cour doesn’t rip him off wholesale: where Cave looks to Ireland for inspiration, De La Cour goes to the dark side of Nashville – his adopted hometown – or the Mississippi gulf. His brilliant new album Midnight in Havana is streaming at his music page,

The opening track is Mobile Bay, awash in a lush bed of acoustic and electric guitars, with accordion and Meredith Krygowski’s violin adding subtle cajun tinges. De La Cour keeps his imagery close to his vest in this one: do those bells across the water imply that the doomed narrator’s ex is marrying some other guy, that there’s a hurricane on the way, or both?

The band builds from bassist Jimmy Sullivan and drummer Erin Nelson’s steady Nashville gothic shuffle to an afterdark Tex-Mex rock blaze – the BoDeans circa 1993, feeding the fire – with Evelyn:

Pain lay deep in every track as we crossed over the border
But only one of us came back and I was so much older
And if I had it all again I’d probably make a couple changes to the end, Evelyn

Anybody Like You puts a bluegrass spin on the opening tune, with a disarmingly charming Freewheeling-era Dylan lyrical feel. Hold On takes a hard turn into grimly surreal fire-and-brimstone blues: “It makes me sick to think of Charley Patton in his grave, if he rose up they’d put him right back down in there again,” De La Cour rails. Walkin Around with the Blues is a less successful detour into Allman Brothers redneck rock.

The Last Last Dance nicks a familiar REM riff for a booze-drenched, doomed hookup scenario: “They say pick your poison, for all I know you do,” De La Cour’s narrator explaining that “At the emotional soup kitchen, I’m down at the front of the line.”

With its snarling guitars from lead player Ryan Dishen, Ain’t Going Down That Road brings to mind the Bottle Rockets in a particularly dark moment:

I heard Mr. Williams say we’re all just sitting around a hole in the ground
Shutterbugs are just far-out weird while the rest are just hanging around…
Some folks gotta feel the heat before they ever see the light
But I ain’t going down that road tonight

Brandywine Bouquet shifts into slowly swaying Blonde on Blonde territory, while Windmills and Trees offers both droll environmentalist relevance as well as a little insight into everybody’s favorite power source. But De La Cour can’t resist bringing back the gloom with the viscerally uneasy Down to the Water’s Edge:

I can see that light in your eyes, is it love or is it fear
If I could tell one from the other maybe neither one of us would be here

The album closes with the offhandedly ominous title track, an allusive tale that sounds a lot more like Matt Keating – or a Russell Banks short story – than anything Cuban. Time after time, De La Cour takes a theme that others would only scratch the surface of, and plunges to its murkiest, terminally depressed depths. Get to know this guy – he has a ceiling as high as both Van Zandt and White, and will hopefully last a lot longer than the former.

Amy Allison Brings Her Poignant, Distinctive Voice and Songcraft to the East Village Folk Festival

For the past six months, Amy Allison has held down a monthly Saturday night residency at Dixon Place with pianist Lee Feldman. It’s an amazing collaboration. The daughter of jazz piano icon Mose Allison, she made her mark in the 90s as the best songwriter to come out of what was known then as alt-country. Revered by her peers – Elvis Costello appears on one of her albums, and Emmylou Harris’ most recent release contains an Amy Allison cover – she maintains a devoted cult following here.

Feldman, an briliant and similarly poignant songwriter in his own right, has an intuitive grasp of Allison’s songs. He interprets them line by line, shifting from rapt, starlit neoromantic glimmer, to earthy gospel, to wry Floyd Cramer C&W, sometimes in the space of a few bars (for what it’s worth, he also has a thing for Bach, and jazz, and film and tv themes, and wrote one of the few childrens’ musicals worth seeing). He and Allison share an irrepressible, sometimes devastating sense of humor: when those two decide to ham it up for a bar or two, the result is killer. On June 19 at 7 PM, Allison is venturing beyond her usual turf to play the East Village Music Folk Festival at Theatre 80 St. Marks; $10.50 tix are available.

This month’s installment of Allison’s Lower East Side residency was a lot of fun. The house is usually packed when she plays: this time out, with thunderclouds looming in from across the Hudson and media hysteria about a deluge that never came, it was a more intimate gathering. Her distinctive, disarmingly direct yet minutely nuanced voice was in top shape, part pilowy velvet, part twang. Even by Allison’s standards, the set was an especially choice one, a mix of favorites, rarities and a couple of unexpected covers. The two opened with the gently swaying, characteristically bittersweet Beautiful Night, Feldman adding Beethovenesque upper-register lustre. They followed with a mutedly tender, understatedly longing take of Anywhere You Are Is Where I Am.

“You turned my silver heart into stainless steel,” she intoned in Silver Stone, a rare gem dating from her earliest C&W days. Another obscurity, Blueberry Pie, echoed hokum blues and 19th century folk with its droll dessert metaphors. Blue Plate Special, a vivid, Jarmusch-style early 80s Memphis tableau, drew on vintage soul music and also the time she’d spent living there, and made a good segue.

Bette Davis, a new one, has become a big hit with the crowd, and will resonate with anybody who ends the night glued to Turner Classics. Allison put down her guitar as Feldman channeled her dad’s erudite blues in a cover of his Vietnam War-era classic Everybody’s Crying Mercy – as relevant now as it was then. She told the crowd that both Ella Fitzgerald and Shirley Temple had done Goodnight My Love; this version turned out to be closer to Blossom Dearie.

Another new number, Angel Face, was classic Allison, a catchy, poignantly optimistic number, but as usual Allison had something up her sleeve; meanwhile, Feldman mashed up gospel and Schubert. The best song of the night was also its most ornate, a lushly gorgeous take of the gently ominous Come Sweet Evening. She closed with the richly plaintive Goodbye Lovers Lane, a song that wouldn’t be out of place in the Roy Wood/Move catalog, and encored with Dream World, which crystallizes her worldview better than the more famous sad-girl song that first put her on the map. Allison has been writing up a storm of good songs over the past year or so; Sunday’s East Village show could be a launching pad for a whole bunch of them.