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Darkly Psychedelic Art-Rocker Ember Schrag Opens for a Horror Film Thursday Night in Gowanus

Every summer, Rooftop Films puts on as eclectic and interesting an indie film series as you can find in New York: dramas, documentaries, animation, shorts and student films are just a part of the picture. There’s a creepily enticing screening this Thursday, June 16 on the roof of the old American Can Company buildlng at 232 3rd St in Gowanus; the closest train is the R at Union St. Doors are at 8 PM and haunting, intensely lyrical psychedelic songwriter Ember Schrag plays at 8:30, followed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s creepy suspense thriller Tickled. Cover is $15; there will be beer afterward.

Schrag’s most recent gig was a secret show in Brooklyn earlier this month, a rare stripped-down duo set with guitar polymath Bob Bannister, in the middle of a triplebill that was pure magic. Witchily theatrical art-rockers Goddess opened the night with a gently twinkling pavane, then a spare, summery lullaby, then picked up the pace with an insistently mystical British folk-influenced anthem. Then the band played uneasy washes of ambience while frontwoman Fran Pado – making her stage debut as an instrumentalist on both keys and cuatro – related a spooky story about an evil old suburban New Jesey woman who snatches any and all balls directed, accidentally or otherwise, into her driveway. No spoilers here: suffice it to say that the child narrator of the horror story ends up in the old hag’s basement.

Pado went into her misterioso low register over more atmospherics on the next number as one-string violinist Tamalyn Miller added sepulchral, flitting swoops and dives. The band likes epics and suites, and kept going with a live loop of tradeoffs between Miller’s eerie wafts of sound, multi-instrumentalist Andy Newman’s glimmering minimalist keys, while Bannister – doing double duty this evening – held it down with terse fingerpicking. The latter part of the show drew on plainchant as much as Pat Garrett/Billy the Kid era Dylan, winding up with the bittersweetly optimistic folk-rock anthem Heaven, the title track to the band’s latest album, then a concluding benediction of sorts.

Schrag opened with an uneasily swaying blues, Bannister playing slide and then hitting his pedal for a vintage 60s reverb effect, almost like a repeater box. Schrag’s lyrics are enigmatic, packed with metaphors and allusions to literature, mythology and the Old Testament. All this carefully cached imagery may have been part and parcel of an upbringing amongst Christian zealots that she finally escaped, driving off into the sunset with little more than her collection of samizdat secular cassette tapes. She’s got an absolutely brilliant, Macbeth-themed album in the can, recorded last year, which if released then would have topped the list of the year’s beat albums here. She played several of those numbers, first a low-key take of the allusively venomous Lady M.

The crowd was silent and rapt as the duo jangled and slunk through Like Birds Do, a bouncy tune packed with literary allusions and the kind of muted wrath that pervades much of Schrag’s recent work, which she finally let loose at the end, sailing up to the top of her register. By contrast, The Real Penelope was a bittersweetly Beatlesque, epically psychedelic “love song in disguise,” as she put it: no spoilers here. The highlight of the night might have been Iowa, a starkly direct, hypnotically crescendoing singalong anthem that sort of turns its fire-and-brimstone imagery inside out: the true believers of the Midwest seldom get hit with a storm as mighty as this one.

Guitarist David Grubbs headlined. He’s got a brand-new vinyl album out, and played several numbers from it. He’s one of the most distinctive and individualistic six-string players out there. Solo on Strat, methodically and hypnotically, he made his way through a mostly instrumental set that drew on Indian ragas, film music and Americana as well as 20th century minimalism. The lingeirng, tersely echoing opening instrumental diptych set the tone for the rest of the night, a deep-sky high-plains raga with allusions to both the Beatles and Meddle-era Pink Floyd trailing like comet dust in the distance as a chromatic menace loomed in and finally took centerstage.

Grubbs’ music knows no limits, utilizing the totality of his axe’s sonic range, from the bottom to the very top of the fretboard, often at the same time. How he managed to get so many strange and disquieting harmonies without using an unorthodox tuning was a clinic in thinking outside the box: it’s hard to imagine a guitarist in the crowd not going home afterward, plugging in and trying to figure out what Grubbs was up to.

He built another deep-space tableau out of sparsely echoing variations on a single dramatic blues overture riff, then mashed up Yardbirds-era Jimmy Page with Steve Ulrich noir, no small achievement. From there he sliced and diced an anthemic Britfolk tune spun through the spacerock of the Church or Marty Willson-Piper. His lone vocal number blended catchy folk-rock with tinges of jazz. There’s more tha a little irony in that the best triplebill of 2016 was a private, by-invite-only, quasi house concert. Catch some of this and a promising movie too in Gowanus this Thursday night.

Ember Schrag Brings Her Ever More Psychedelic Tunesmithing to Union Pool

Isn’t it strange that there aren’t more women in psychedelic rock? Sure, there was Grace Slick; lately, Marissa Nadler has gone deep into Pink Floyd style art-rock, and Marianne Dissard – who has a characteristically brilliant ep out this year – also has a psychedelic side. Here in New York we have Ember Schrag, who got her start as a self-styled Great Plains Gothic tunesmith. These days she’s been fleshing out her stark, spare earlier material with lush orchestration and plenty of room for purposeful improvisation. Her band, with Bob Bannister on lead guitar, Debby Schwartz on bass and Gary Foster on drums, is one of this city’s most visually interesting outfits. Fresh off her tour of European festivals in Alec K Redfearn & the Eyesores – with whom she plays organ – Schrag is doing a rare duo show with Bannister on October 18 at 4 PM outdoors at Union Pool for free.

Her show with her band at Hifi Bar this past July was typical. Foster, who draws on a jazz background, played the role of sonic architect. One minute he’d be playing with bundles, the next minute brushes, then mallets, finally switching to sticks as the show picked up with a straight-ahead garage rock stomp for a few minutes. Sometimes he’d be rocking a bundle and a mallet, pinging the bells of the cymbals or building up to a big whoooooosh. Schwartz is the Secretary of Entertainment in this project, slipsliding up and down the frets of her Musicmaster bass with a joyously slinky attack: she plays with a pick and is a real hard hitter, essesntially the second lead guitarist in this band. She also handles the high vocal harmonies, with an unselfconsciously fiery, penetrating delivery.

Bannister is the magician in the group: watching his fingers, thinking on his feet, is a clinic in subtlety and craft. Much as Schrag’s new arrangements for her older songs – and her new material – have specific parts, neither Bannister nor the band as a whole ever play any one song exactly the same. There are references to specific styles, or time periods, sprinkled throughout them, but when Bannister takes them to Memphis, say, he doesn’t steal wholesale from Steve Cropper. And when he goes in a an Americana jamband direction, you can tell that he’s internalized David Gilmour and Jerry Garcia, but he doesn’t rip those guy off either. And he uses a whole lot less notes.

Much as Schrag can be a devilishly funny presence onstage, she was in enigmatic mode at this show. She didn’t talk to the audience much, running through the songs matter-of-factly, eyes closed, completely immersed in her hypnotically circling, fingerpicked riffs. Yet she’s never sung with so much intensity and power as she did here: maybe having an electric band behind her makes her air out the wounded twang or the deep Bible Belt noir. For one reason or another, the high point of the show might have been an older song, Iowa, dating from the Iraq War era. On Schrag’s absolutely brilliant latest album, a Folkadelphis Sessions ep, it’s Nashville gothic as Pink Floyd might have done it, lowlit with resonant pedal steel from Susan Alcorn. At this show, it was a lot louder, more driving, and Schrag sang the hell out of it. The lyrics are a very artful series of three roadside images woven together to build a grim, apocalyptic ambience: heavy rains a-coming over Iowa, yikes!

Another number that Schrag had an uproariously good time with had a Ray Davies-esque, vaudevillian strut, imagining Jesus and Nicodemus as gay lovers while Bannister added wry colors with his slide. There were innumerable other did-you-catch-that moments throughout the rest of the set: Bannister’s slow, sunsplashed Gilmouresque slide leads on the opening song; his mysterious, muted wah lines in the austerely Beatlesque The Real Penelope; Foster’s single, menacing grand-guignol flurry on a witchy, shapeshifting mini-epic; and the intricately jangly interplay between the two guitars on the Macbeth-inspired Lady M. Find out what else is in store at Union Pool on Sunday afternoon.

Two of New York’s Best Psychedelic Acts and an Indie Stalwart at Cake Shop on the 13th

The headliner of the triplebill this Sunday night, Sept 13 at Cake Shop will most likely draw an older, 90s indie crowd. Hamish Kilgour, who plays at 11, is best known for his work with aptly named New Zealand indie rockers the Clean, whose coolly nebulous sonics influenced a ton of bands back in the day. But that crowd will be balanced, demographically at least, by the two acts who open the night. Ember Schrag, who began her career as a “great plains gothic” tour warrior in the late zeros, has gone deeper and deeper into psychedelia lately: her shows this year with her band have been transcendent. She kicks off the evening at 9 in a rare duo acoustic show with her similarly superb lead guitarist, Bob Bannister. Then she’s leaving Monday morning to go on tour as the organist for another dark psychedelic outfit, the Balkan-infused Alec K Redfearn & the Eyesores.

Schrag’s latest album, a live recording and free download in the Folkadelphia Sessions series, offers a look at what Schrag does with a band: it capturs them at the peak of their subtle powers. The opening track, Lady M sets the stage, the guitar interweave between Schrag and Bannister so tight that it seems like a single, otherworldly, rippling twelve-stirng – until he cuts loose with a wry Tex-Mex-flavored solo. Meanwhile, Susan Alcorn’s pedal steel soars elegantly in the background. Schrag has a Macbeth fixation: the chorus of “your children will be kings” cuts both ways, in true Shakespearean fashion.

Iowa, an older song, has been a live showstopper lately, a slowly swaying ballad heavy as stormclouds over the Midwest. Schrag takes a series of three metaphorically-charged roadside images, weaves them into one of the most menacing, apocalyptic songs released this year, and sings the hell out of it. Schrag has a thing for taking biblical imagery and turning it inside out, and this is a prime example.

Virgin in the Shadow of My Shoe packs the iconoclastic wallop of PiL’s Religion, but a thousand times more subtly, with its spiky, psychedelic sway. The final cut, The Real Penelope, works a misty, opaque groove fueled by drummer Gary Foster’s masterful malletwork: it’s the most hypnotic and enigmatic track here, capped off with a slowly spiraling, acid-wah Bannister solo. You’ll see this album on the best albums of 2015 page here at the end of the year if we all last that long.

Another album that’ll be on that page is the latest release from the 10 PM act,  Goddess – the full review is here. It was also great fun to catch the band play a rare house concert in south Brooklyn a couple of months back.That phantasmatorical, tragicomic psychedelic suite opened with singer Fran Pado soaring over a a mashup of jangly Laurel Canyon psychedelia and Abbey Road Beatles, introducing the tale of “Grinny,” a witchy figure who takes over a New Jersey family, who then struggle to break free of the evil spell that paralyzes them.

As the tale unwound, Andy Newman’s enveloping, shapeshifting keyboard textures took centerstage, then receded, then returned, in an early Genesis vein. An eerily twinkling, strummy folk-rock number followed: “Grinny was great on Halloween,” Pado revealed as the mellotron oscillated in the background. The band took a twisted bit of neo-plainchant and made a mantra-like groove out of it as Newman let his flute settings resonate above while the narrative grew grimmer. After a bit of a waltz, a spacious, minimalist intro grew slowly into a march, with hauntingly echoey vocal counterpart between Pado and one-string violinist Tamalyn Miler, who then took the creepiest solo of the night as the song built to a horrified peak. The band worked that suspensefully lustrous/macabre dynamic for the rest of the show, capped off by Miller’s shivery glissandos: it wouldn’t be fair to give away the ending.

Goddess will also be on WFMU at midnight on 9/15, joined by Bannister, Leah Coloff, and Peter Zummo, who will also be part of the festivities at the Cake Shop gig. Cover is $10.

Dark Psychedelic Bandleader Ember Schrag Joins a Killer Triplebill at Trans-Pecos on the 23rd

Ember Schrag‘s most recent gig at Hifi Bar was one of the year’s best. For that matter, the enigmatic, charismatic psychedelic bandleader’s previous show at a house concert in south Brooklyn with phantasmagorical art-rock band Goddess was pretty amazing too. Schrag and her band open the night at Trans-Pecos at 8:30 PM this Sunday, August 23, followed by intense Balkan noir psychedelic band Alec K. Redfearn & the Eyesores, with whom Schrag will air out her chops on creepy Farfisa organ. Groove-driven no wave cult faves Escape by Ostrich give the evening an acidic coda; cover is a measly $8.

Counterintuitively, Goddess opened the Brooklyn show with their album release performance, a deliciously macabre, theatrical suite about a genuine monster who takes over a hapless New Jersey household. As electrifying as that show was, Schrag and her band were every bit as intense. On album, Schrag’s signature style until this year has been great plains gothic: low-key, reserved, with a subtle, white-knuckle intensity and allusively murderous narratives. This year, on the heels of her release of her live Folkadelphia session album, she and her band have taken those songs as well as a whole bunch of new material into vastly more trippy, artsy terrain.

Guitar polymath Bob Bannister alluded to Muscle Shoals and Fairport Convention and Blonde on Blonde Dylan, among numerous other reference points, but always twisted those styles into something terse and erudite of his own to match Schrag’s venomously symbolist lyrics. Bassist Debbie Schwartz (formerly of the Aquanettas and a fantastic, similarly psychedelic songwriter in her own right) played a surf groove on one number, slides and hammer-ons on a handful of others, and bolstered Schrag’s soaring, distantly angst-fueled voice with her high vocal harmonies. Meanwhile, drummer Gary Foster colored the songs with witchy rimshots and cymbal splashes, misty crescendos and, when necessary, a swinging four-on-the-floor garage rock drive.

Bannister’s nimble accents mingled with Schrag’s hypnotic, circular fingerpicked hooks and Foster’s brushwork on the pensive Sutherland, an understated murder ballad and the night’s opening number. Virgin in the Shadow of My Shoe, a swaying, psychedelic folk noir number, might be Schrag’s most definitive new song. She doesn’t even bother to stomp on a religious icon: she lets her shadow do it. Bannister and Schrag’s rainswept jangle blended as one on the late Beatlesque psych anthem The Real Penelope, followed by a catchy southwestern gothic clang-rock number, part Steve Wynn, part astringent 80s Boston.

Schrag likes to turn Biblical imagery inside out, and she also has a Shakespearean side, most evident in the Arthur Lee-esque number that followed that, and later the ominous Lady M, Bannister’s icepick accents taking the place of the resonant, keening Susan Alcorn steel guitar on the recorded version. From there the band made their way through another ominous waltz that also brought to mind Arthur Lee, as well as a sad, misty Laurel Canyon psych-folk anthem that exploded the Abraham myth. Schrag wound up the set with another wounded waltz where she raised her voice to a shivery Ann Wilson wail, then the slow, cruellly sardonic I Ain’t a Prophet, and a wickedly catchy janglerock song spiced with nimble triplet figures and a biting, bluesy solo from Bannister: the guy can play anything and make it his own. The Trans-Pecos show should be every bit as good.

Dark Songstress Ember Schrag Plays a Revealingly Low-Key Brooklyn House Concert

Carlos, the goodlooking, rangy guy who runs the space housing the Gatehouse concert series in Fort Greene, surveyed the room Friday night. His black eyes shifted warily, separating familiar faces from newcomers. His blasé, taciturn expression muted a spring-loaded, muscularly twitchy presence, clearly on the prowl for fresh meat. More about that later.

Ember Schrag opened the show in a rare all-acoustic duo performance with polymath lead guitarist Bob Bannister. Notwithstanding her DIY esthetic, Schrag is an elegant singer with sophisticated mic technique, and isn’t used to singing without one. So it was interesting to watch her scramble to find a way to project into the space, in the process unleashing an unexpected grit and raw menace that don’t usually find their way into her typically stately, enigmatic vocals. While she’s most recently been mining a richly lyrical, psychedelically-tinged art-rock vein, this setting gave her the chance to air out several tracks from her haunting, low-key, mostly acoustic Great Plains gothic album The Sewing Room, including the title track, a metaphorically-charged battle of angels that ends as an unexpectedly triumphant escape anthem. As the Nebraska-born songwriter told it, there might be more than a little autobiography in there.

Throughout Sutherland, a tensely fingerpicked murder ballad, Schrag’s voice reached for more menace and foreshadowing than her deadpan, Melora Creager-esque delivery on the studio version. By contrast, Virgin in the Shadow of My Shoe – a swaying pop anthem from Schrag’s latest release, a live Folkadelphia session featuring Susan Alcorn on pedal steel – was irresistibly snide and funny. The two guitarists kept a steady stroll going with Banquo’s Book, its ominous series of images and a deliciously understated, bitingly terse, bluesy Bannister solo.

On album, Your Words is a delicate kiss-off anthem; here, Schrag raised the anger factor, but just a little. An older song related an incident involving a collaboration with a free jazz group and an offer of free rent in a space that turned out to have bedbugs; a new one, Speak to Me in Dreams, juxtaposed another trail of nonchalantly murderous imagery with sizzling fretwork from Bannister. Schrag closed with I Ain’t a Prophet, a corruscating remake of a familiar fire-and-brimstone Bible myth – “Got to use a hammer on Jacob’s Ladder,” she calmly intoned.

Now you might think that someone whose songs can be as starkly serious as most of the numbers in this set would bring a similar gravitas to the stage. Not so. In front of an audience, Schrag is a firecracker, bantering with the crowd and sharing insights into her fabulistic, Calvinist imagery. She peppers her songs with all sorts of Old Testament references coupled with an irreverence that at the core is pure oldschool punk rock. And as generous as she is with the keys to her narratives, she also brought a delicious gin/grapefruit punch, and a cake made out of several kinds of flour that everyone was raving about, and some baked chicken.

About two songs before the end of the show, Carlos finally went into action with a flying leap onto the table, poised to make a swipe at the meat. But an audience member in the back calmly lifted the jet-black figure and his furry paws and returned him to his spot on the floor, where the hungry predator regrouped, grudgingly accepted an appreciative pat on the head, and began plotting his next move. Watch this space for upcoming shows by Schrag, with or without furry friends in the house.

The Year’s Best New York Rock Show Happened in Queens Last Week

The best New York show of 2014 happened last week at Trans-Pecos. There’s no way anybody’s going to top the quadruplebill of art-rock cellist-singer Meaner Pencil, charismatic Great Plains gothic bandleader Ember Schrag, the starkly entrancing duo of guitarist Mary Halvorson and violist Jessica Pavone and the darkly psychedelic Christy & Emily. After the show had finally ended, the challenge of getting home from Ridgewood at half past midnight seemed pretty much beside the point. Nights like this are why we live here instead of in New Jersey.

Meaner Pencil takes her stage name from the online anagram generator. Her music is plaintive and poignant but also occasionally reveals the kind of quirky humor that you would expect from someone who would do that. Or, from someone who honed her chops and her ability to hold a crowd by playing in the subway. This crowd responded raptly – you could have heard a pin drop as she sang in the arrestingly bell-like, soaring voice of a chorister, playing solo on her cello with a elegant, minimalistic blend of gentle plucking and bowing. Her second song, with its sadly tolling, funereal chords and hypnotically drifting sense of resignation, was a quiet knockout. Longing, alienation and abandonment were recurrent themes, set to slow tempos with the occasional hint of renaissance plainchant, pansori stateliness, and maybe Stereolab. And there was a riff-based art-rock piece that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Serena Jost catalog.

Ember Schrag’s albums have a similar kind of low-key, lustrous elegance, but with a more distinct Americana flavor. Onstage, she leads a fiery, virtuosic art-rock band who are unrivalled in all of New York. Drummer Gary Foster established an ominous tone with rolling toms and deep-fog cymbals in tandem with bassist Debby Schwartz as their hypnotically rumbling first number, The Real Penelope got underway. Schrag varied her vocals depending on the lyrics, from austere on this particular one, to torchy, gritty and often downright haunting, playing nimble rhythm on a beautiful vintage Gibson hollowbody guitar while lead guitarist Bob Bannister aired out a deep vault of eclectic licks. In this case, he started out with wry wah-wah and ended up ankle-deep in murky surf.

They followed with the bittersweet, trickily rhythmic, distantly Beatlesque Sandhill/Seaside: “Is it worse to kill a god or kill a child?” Schrag challenged. Tell Me a Nightmare blended sardonic ba-ba harmonies into its lushly theatrical sonics, the band joined by a string trio featuring both Pavone and Lenna M. Pierce (an anagram of Meaner Pencil) as well as violinist Sana Nagano, playing an arrangement by June Bender.

From there Schrag led the band into a wickedly catchy, waltzing Celtic-tinged anthem, The Plant & the Seed and then the menacingly sensual, carnivalesque 60s psychedelia of As Birds Do. Schrag dedicated William for the Witches – not the first Macbeth-inspired song she’s written – to “all the Republicans back home,” ramping up the menace several notches with her litany of spells as Bannister veered from monster surf, to ominous jangle, to a little skronk. They went back to Nashville gothic with Sycamore Moon, lowlit by Bannister’s blue-flame slide work and closed with a sardonic art-pop anthem, Virgin in the Shadow of My Shoe that would have fit well in the Hannah Fairchild songbook. There is no more interesting, intelligent rock songwriter than Ember Schrag anywhere in the world right now. To put that in context: Steve Wynn, Richard Thompson, Paul Wallfisch and Neko Case, scooch over and make some room for your sister.

Flipping the scirpt and putting Halvorson and Pavone next on the bill was a smart piece of programming: it kept the intensity at redline even as the idiom completely changed. They’re two of the world’s foremost improvisers, yet what they played seemed pretty much composed. An alternately lively and broodingly conversational repartee between Pavone’s meticulous, elegant washes and biting, austere motives, and Halvorson’s similarly precise, pointillistically rhythmic tangents took shape immediately and kept going. Like the night’s opening act, a feeling of unease pervaded the duo’s short, two-to-three-minute pieces, both instrumentals and moody vocal numbers, yet there was subtle, sardonic humor that bubbled up from time to time as the melodies and voices intertwined. A distantly Balkan-tinged instrumental, Halvorson bobbing and weaving through the flames shooting from Pavone’s viola, was the high point of the set.

Guitar/keyboard duo Christy & Emily opened with a droning, pitchblende organ dirge that was a dead ringer for the Black Angels, but with better vocals, enhanced by a harmony singer who contributed to several songs. Christy stabbed against Emily’s neo John Cale drone, All Tomorrow’s Parties without the drums, so to speak. At one point Emily played nimble broken chords in her lefthand on the organ while hitting a boomy tom-tom – crosshanded, without missing a beat. Cheery, clear vocals contrasted with the enveloping ultraviolet sonics as the show went on, Emily’s sometimes minimalisticaly echoing, sometimes ornately neoromantic phrases counterbalanced by Christy’s off-the-rails attack on the frets. They wound up the show with a Lynchian Nashville gothic ballad and then a more lighthearted, bouncy singalong. Schrag has another full-band show coming up in Greenpoint next month while Pavone can be found next with Clara Latham’s Same Size at Radio Bushwick a couple of days from now, on Oct 16. Halvorson is at the Firehouse Space on Nov 6 with Dan Blake and Sam Pluta.

Ember Schrag Brings Her Haunting Great Plains Gothic Songs to Cake Shop

Ember Schrag writes what could be called Great Plains gothic songs. She’s a nimble guitarist, a gripping storyteller, clever lyricist and a strong, dynamic singer with a direct, clear, matter-of-fact voice. She originally hails from Nebraska and now makes New York her home. And while she’s far from unknown in the dark folk demimonde, her writing transcends that genre: she’s one of the most individualistic and interesting songwriters in any style of music. She and her excellent band are at Cake Shop on May 11 at 11 PM; cover is $8.

Her 2012 album The Sewing Room – streaming at Bandcamp – is a quiet, disarmingly intense masterpiece. Violence and death are everywhere, yet seldom seen: the way Schrag lets her images unwind, usually after the fact, makes them all the more haunting. The opening track, Jephthah’s Daughter, sets the stage, a cruelly allusive tale of frontier justice (or more accurately, an imitation of it), Schrag’s elegant fingerpicking mingling with Jonah Sirota’s viola. Sutherland is no less chilling, a murder ballad as nonchalantly disturbing as anything A.M. Homes or Joyce Carol Oates ever wrote, the viola again adding a plaintive edge.

Alex McManus’s ominously tremoloing guitar lines and Gary Foster’s misterioso brushes on the drums propel the surrealistically torchy, slowly swaying betrayal anthem My Brothers Men. La Maria works a skeletal acoustic riff up to a more country-tinged chorus fueled by Greg Talenfeld’s lapsteel, Schrag contemplating how troubled people so often draw you in, not only “Because their seeping problems overtake you like the ending of the day.”

Schrag goes back to a slow swing groove on the brooding, metaphorically loaded seaside tableau I Ain’t a Prophet: it reminds a lot of early-zeros Marissa Nadler. A mashup of Old Testament and pulp novel imagery set to a distantly menacing oldtime swing tune, In the Alley imagines Scripture not as an opiate but as something from the other side of the narcotic spectrum. Frauleh Jekketheka is as funny as it is redemptive, an escape anthem told not from the point of view of the escapee but by one of the rednecks she was running from, Amy Denio’s moody clarinet pairing off against Philip Gayle’s lithely dancing mandolin.

Schrag’s casually wounded vocals echo Rasputina‘s Melora Creager on the title track, possibly the only song ever written about being tortured by angels. Dark Lion Lover is the album’s most opaquely atmospheric, jazz-inflected number, Sirota’s acidic, resonant lines contrasting with Schrag’s distantly seductive delivery.

The austere, bitterly aphoristic Your Words begins as the most traditional song here and then picks up as Schrag and Talenfeld gnash their guitars a bit. P.G. Six’s piano and Jay Kreimer’s homemade instruments add ghostly ambience to Houston, a surreal portrait of alienation and estrangement. The album ends on an unexpectedly optimistic note with April Night, Schrag’s gently lilting vocals evoking Laura Cantrell as she snatches what could be victory from the jaws of defeat. This is one of the five or six best albums ever to appear on this page over the past thirty months or so – and the icing on the cake is that the rest of Schrag’s equally intriguing back catalog is also up at Bandcamp to sweep you off into a world that in its own strange way looks dangerously like this one.