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Understatedly Troubling Music For Troubling Times From the Nine Seas

Folk noir superduo the Nine Seas take their name from the long-defunct, legendary Alphabet City bar 9C, located at the corner of 9th Street and Avenue C. Years before Pete’s Candy Store was anything more than a numbers joint, and more than a decade before the Jalopy opened, 9C was New York’s ground zero for Americana music. That’s where Liz Tormes and Fiona McBain cut their teeth at the wildly crowded, weekly bluegrass jam.

In the years since then, both would become important voices in Americana, as solo artists and with other bands (McBain best known for her longtime membership in the gospel and soul-tinged Ollabelle). This project, which began as a murder ballad cover act, also goes back several years, attesting to the chemistry between the two musicians. Their long-awaited debut album Dream of Me is streaming at their music page. It’s a mix of originals and imaginative covers, the two singer-guitarists occasionally abettted by keys and horns.

Tormes’ first number, Am I Still Your Demon is the album’s quietly potent opener. It has a classic Tormes vocal trick that she’s used before (see the devastating Read My Mnd, the opening number on her 2010 Limelight album). J. Walter Hawkes’ looming trombone arrangement perfectly matches the song’s understated angst.

The duo reinvent the old suicide ballad I Never Will Marry with a hazy dreampop tinge, as Mazzy Star might have done it. They do E.C. Ball’s fire-and-brimstone country gospel classic Trials, Troubles, Tribulations much the same way. Here and throughout the record, Jim White’s spare banjo, organ and other instruments really flesh out these otherwise stark songs.

Likewise, his glockenspiel twinkles eerily in Go to Sleep, an elegaic Tormes tune. McBain’s I Really Want You is just as calmly phantasmagorical: it’s more about longing than lust. Then Oliver de la Celle ‘s Lynchian guitar and White’s banjo raise the menace in a radical reinvention of Charlie Rich’s Midnight Blues

The hypnotic version of the murder ballad Down in the Willow Garden, a concert favorite, is all the more creepy for the duo’s bright harmonies and steady stoicism, White adding airy pump organ. McBain switches to piano for the even more atmospheric, Julee Cruise-ish Where He Rests.

They wind up the album with a pair of covers. They transform Midnight, a bluesy, Jimmy Reed-style 1952 hit for Red Foley, into minimalist girl-down-the-well pop. And they remake Don Gibson’s Sea of Heartbreak as jungly exotica: nobody plays with more implied menace than the Nine Seas.

The album also includes stripped-down alternate takes of Trials, Troubles, Tribulations and Midnight Blues. Beyond this album, since they’re unable to play shows at the moment, the Nine Seas have a weekly webcast, the Quarantine Chronicles, where they run through many other songs from the immense dark folk repetoire they’ve amassed over the years.

A Charmingly Dark Show by Fizz and an Upcoming Upper West Gig by Liz Tormes

You’ve got to watch this video by Fizz – Americana tunesmiths Liz Tormes and Olabelle‘s Fiona McBain – at Pete’s Candy Store back on the third of the month. Musicians tend to be physically agile people, but the way those two take Don Gibson’s Sea of Heartbreak and make a jump-rope rhyme out of it is as challenging as it is surreal….and also just plain sweet. And they pull it off effortlessly, like they were eight-year-olds on the playground together. Never mind the fact that Tormes would have been in Nashville at the time and McBain on the other side of the world.

The two used to do this duo act more than they do now. Watching the two swap songs and harmonize, poignantly and seamlessly, brought back some good memories on the Lower East Side back in the late zeros. When the two play together, they usually do murder ballads, and there were a few of those in this set. Of the two performers, McBain is the more versatile songwriter, informed both by oldschool soul music (that’s the Ollabelle connection) as well as front-porch folk and bluegrass. Tormes has a devious sense of humor, and her live show can be great fun, notwithstanding that her Nashville gothic songs are pretty relentlessly dark, intense and devastating. Nobody’s breakup ballads deliver more of a punch to the gut than hers do. Tormes’ voice has more plushness and restraint; McBain’s soars higher and has more of a bite. They make a great team.

They opened with a Tormes number, full of woundedly elegant Everlys harmonies against a steady backbeat. Their version of Brenda Lee’s Comin’ on Strong was much the same. followed by a spare, muted cover of the Everlys’ murder ballad Down in the Willow Garden, pushed along by McBain’s stark fingerpicking. McBain then led the two through a broodingly hypnotic, open-tuned waltz that brought to mind Mazzy Star.

They gave an enigmatic indie touch to a gentle country gospel number, then went into moody Lynchian mode and stayed there with a lowlit cover of Blondie’s Call Me – considering how creepy they made that one, it would be even more fun to hear what they could do with Black Sabbath’s Children of the Grave! They closed the set with a warmly intuitive, wistful take of the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset. Tormes is on the bill this Friday, Oct 23 at 5:30 PM at the American Folk Art Museum, Columbus Ave. at 66th St.on an excellent triplebill with fellow folk noir songsmith Linda Draper and minimialist gothic rock act Bright Brown.

Cathie Ryan Makes Her Way Subtly Through Wind and Rain

Irish-American singer Cathie Ryan’s first studio album in seven years, Through Wind and Rain, walks the line between restraint and plaintiveness. By any standard, Ryan has a beautiful voice: like her songs, her vocals bridge the gap between Irish and American folk music, with an elegance and nuanced poignancy not unlike Hungrytown’s Rebecca Hall. Ryan carries the songs with the grace of a survivor who’s come to grips with difficult circumstances and has decided to ride out the storm, which makes sense considering the personal troubles she’s dealt with in the recent past: she lost her home in a hurricane, her marriage broke up, then she broke up her band and moved to Ireland. That land being her spiritual home, she was able to muster the personal resources and the songs to put her career back together again. Although Ryan has a cast of virtuoso Celtic musicians behind her, this is a relatively quiet album: when it hits a high point, it’s more insistent than exuberant. It’s also a purist record: there’s no autotune, no computer gimmicks, or for that matter hardly anything here that’s electrified at all.

Ryan’s own lilting take on the traditional Irish ballad In the Wishing Well opens the album, with casually expert,lush acoustic backing from ex-Solas guitarist John Doyle, his old bandmate Seamus Egan on bouzouki, Niall Vallely on concertina, Scott Petito on upright bass, and Matt Mancuso from Ryan’s touring band on fiddle. Canadian songwriter Laura Smith’s I’m a Beauty, a pretty waltz, is a showcase for Ryan to channel a quiet indomitability, echoed by the guitars of Patsy O’Brien and Donogh Hennessy, and Michael McGoldrick’s lively yet understated uilleann pipes. Ryan sings a couple of tracks, one a traditional tune and the other by Altan’s Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, in Gaelic. Another traditional ballad, Go From My Window is rich with bittersweetness: the wariness in how Ryan delivers the line “the wind and the rain have brought you back again, but you haven’t got a home here” underscores its loaded meaning.

The traditional tune Fare Thee Well makes a nice contrast, rising on the wings of Mike Brenner’s lapsteel, followed on a similarly upbeat note by Kate Rusby’s Walk the Road. Liberty’s Sweet Shore, by Doyle, makes a vivid reminder of how so many Irish-Americans in decades past came across the ocean to escape the tyrrany of British rule. Daddy, a country song by Ryan, is a gentle plea from child to parent to lay off the boozing (something that doesn’t get addressed all that much in Irish music), while Rock Me to Sleep, Mother is a gentle lullaby lowlit by Brenner’s dobro.

Hennessy’s guitar, Michelle Mulcahy’s harp and the rich harmonies of Ryan and Ollabelle’s Fiona McBain deliver a Roger McGuinn rarity, May the Road Rise with You – which sounds like a great lost Byrds track from 1965 or so – with greater optimism than pretty much anything else here. They end the album with a medley of two reels and a jig, Ryan pounding on a boomy bodhran drum for good measure. There’s neither crazed intensity nor stunned horror here: Ryan knows she makes her biggest impact working the corners of these songs. Fans of the deeper, subtle side of Irish music or for that matter any kind of folk music have a lot to enjoy here. Ryan plays the album release show at Clark Theatre at Lincoln Center with her band on October 13 at 8 PM; tix are just $18.

Noir Night at Zirzamin In Case You Missed It

It seems inevitable for music bloggers to start booking shows. In the case of this blog, that meant coming full circle. Where did New York Music Daily’s debut as live music promoter take place? At New York’s best new venue, of course: Zirzamin, the lowlit subterranean music parlor at the corner of Houston and LaGuardia. It was an aptly dark and stormy evening for what was billed as “noir night.” It wasn’t lucrative in any commercial sense, as the early part got more or less rained out, thanks to crazy winds and flying trashcans and intermittent explosions in the sky, two hundred years of CO2 emissions coming back to haunt us all. But the music was transcendent.

Elisa Flynn opened. With a polymath’s insatiable curiosity and a keen sense of history, she proved as knowledgeable about classic Americana roots as she is with indie rock, and it showed in her music. Armed with just her acoustic guitar, her trusty loop pedal and a richly nuanced voice that she let trail off with a suspenseful vibrato, she made her way through aching big-sky themes, a bitter returning Civil War soldier’s lament and a disarmingly pretty but grimly sarcastic Afghan War narrative told from a perspective looking out from inside an “iron galleon.” She reinvented the old folk standard Henry Lee as bitingly atonal, nimbly fingerpicked indie rock, underscoring the doom of the lyrics. A little later, she ran through a wistful high school reminiscence that referenced both Johnny Thunders and Ian Dury, which has got to be the only song in existence that does that. Moving from a catchy, simple, circular riff to fiery, anthemic minor chords, she brought a Marc Chagall picture to life, mixing gypsyish tonalities, enigmatic open chords and a little late Beatles. And just to prove that not all of her songs are dark, she played a new one that ended up hitting a bittersweet note despite itself: “Oh, won’t you tell me what drugs you’re on,” she sang, not a little jealous of how blithely some people carry themselves. Flynn has booked an intriguing show of her own on September 18 at the Way Station in Ft. Greene, where she and a parade of songwriters will be playing the entire Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music.

As eclectic as Flynn’s set was, Liz Tormes set a single mood and never wavered from it. That mood was menacing. Tormes makes it work because she does it so nonchalantly, and takes great pleasure it: when she described a song or two as murder ballads, her face lit up noticeably as the word “murder” crossed her lips. While between songs, bantering with her bandmates – Ollabelle keyboardist Glenn Patscha and guitarist/singer Fiona McBain – she broke character from the stoic, wounded femme fatale persona, it served her equally well throughout a mix of originals and classic country/folk covers, including understatedly haunting, gorgeously harmonized versions of Rosalie, I Never Will Marry and the old honkytonk hit Comin’ on Strong. The version of Read My Mind on Tormes’ brilliant 2009 Limelight album is a fiery rock song; stripped to its brooding acoustic roots, it was even darker. As is often the case with her, the subtext was crushing: “And I want you to read my mind. Dear,” she sang, with just the slightest hint that this was not exactly a love song. A bitter resignation and sense of all hell about to break loose dominated several other songs, including one hypnotic number that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Randi Russo catalog, and the steady, pulsing Maybe You Won’t, another track from Limelight. Eerily and methodically calm, the trio made their way through a troubled East Village nocturne that worked on a million different levels, and a Carter Family cover that could have been the Velvet Underground doing country gospel, with the piano in…um…western saloon tuning. Patscha would have been within his rights to have complained, but he didn’t. Toward the end of the set, Tormes catalogued a list of things that haunted her: “Nothing haunts you – I think it should,” she sang again and again as it wound out, raising her voice just enough to drive the point home, hard. There is no singer in the world who channels heartbreak or unconsummated rage more potently than Tormes.

By the time Beninghove’s Hangmen took the stage, the storm had subsided and a crowd had gathered to see saxophonist Bryan Beninghove and a six-piece version of his powerhouse noir soundtrack band careen through a wild, improvisational set. While what they’re playing is essentially film music, this time out they went deep into their diverse jazz roots, transforming the Neil Diamond cheeseball Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon into a Russ Meyer set piece. A little later, they rampaged through a practically twenty-minute version of Quatro Loko, an unexpectedly cheery number fueled by Beninghove’s jaunty soprano sax before going completely haywire, drummer Shawn Baltazor and bassist Kellen Harrison wailing on each others’ instruments, trombonist Rick Parker (also of the fascinating Bartok cover band Little Worlds) wailing on the out-of-tune piano for extra amperage.

Beninghove began a distantly apprehensive, swinging gypsy jazz tune on melodica, then switched to tenor sax and took it into more lurid territory, handing off to Parker, whose long, shivery, microtonal solo maxed out the menace. Guitarist Dane Johnson opened a horror-surf tune with some bracing, off-kilter grit, juxtaposing a klezmer-flavored dirge theme that shifted to a surprisingly warm, soul-infused chorus, Parker blasting over it with a coldly haphazard rage, Beninghove following with a long, electrically chromatic, achingly tense tenor solo. Their version of Hangmen’s Waltz took the macabre mood of the version on the band’s amazing, self-titled album from last year and expanded on it, polyrhythmic and hallucinatory. After diversions into calypso, samba and dixieland flair and then a morbid surf stomp highlighted by Johnson’s echoey, overtone-drenched intensity, they wrapped up the night at around half past eleven with another album track, Roadhouse, a surreal, volcanically Lynchian boogie. Beninghove’s Hangmen will be in residency several Mondays at 9 in September at Zirzamin; watch this space for details.