New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: folk noir

Sinister Musical Mini-Movies and Murder Ballads From Ben Da La Cour

Dark Americana crooner Ben De La Cour‘s 2016 debut Midnight in Havana made the 20 best albums of the year list here. His latest album, Shadow Land – streaming at Bandcamp – is longer and considerably more twisted: it was very  tempting to save this for the annual Halloween celebration here. De La Cour spins a hell of a yarn, and his expressive baritone has more unhinged energy but also more nuance this time around. If murder ballads are your thing, this is your guy.

The album opens with the briskly shuffling outlaw ballad God’s Only Son. This guy is a total psychopath: he gives his kid brother the shiv, and it just gets more grisly from there. Likewise, the slow, simmering High Heels Down the Holler seems to be a retelling of the Ed Gein story.

The devil is always in De La Cour’s details. “Her words trailed off like cigarette smoke underneath the door.” Talk about saying volumes in a few words! That’s a line from The Last Chance Farm, a delicately fingerpicked ballad which could be set in a prison, or a pretty awful workplace, or somewhere else. Tom Shaner’s classic Lake 48 comes to mind.

De La Cour picks up the pace with the snarling, open-tuned electric blues In God We Trust – All Others Pay Cash, a surreal, cynical update on Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan. Is there a Hendrix quote in Amazing Grace (Slight Return)? Nope, but it’s a killer narrative, a hushed, stunningly detailed generational clash with an ending that’s way too good to give away.

Musically, the album’s title track is more lightheartedly Dylanesque, but De La Cour’s gloomy surrealism is unrelenting: “The more I talk, the less I have to say; the more I listen, the less I understand,” he grouses. Then he and the band hit a raucous post-Chuck Berry roar in The Basin Lounge. There’s a David Duke poster on the wall of this joint: get out of Denver, baby, GO!!!

The wistful, Celtic-tinged waltz Swan Dive opens on a grim Brooklyn streetside murder and just gets more interesting from there. The even more muted From Now On is the ringer here, a momentary break from all the killing. The album’s funniest number is Anderson’s Small Ritual, a bizarre character study.

De La Cour recounts an opium dream in the slow fire-and-brimstone blues Harmless Indian Medicine Blues. He winds up the record with flurries of fingerpicking throughout the hauntingly anthemic, apocalyptic Valley of the Moon. Telling stories with sharp lyrics over a catchy tune may be a neglected art these days, but nobody’s working harder than De La Cour to push that envelope. You’ll see this album on the best-of-2020 page if there’s still reason for a music blog to exist by the time we hit December. If we hit December.

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.

Three New Singles For Tough Times

Every Friday night at 8, Charming Disaster’s web series airs at their youtube channel. Kotorino‘s Jeff Morris and Sweet Soubrette‘s Ellia Bisker started the project as a murder ballad duo and branched out to include both Kotorino’s latin noir and Sweet Soubrette’s dark folk and soul, among an increasing number of styles. Their latest single, I Am a Librarian is an elegantly waltzing throwback to their creepy early days. Are you awaiting the moment you make your escape? Charming Disaster feel your pain.

Smoota – the boudoir soul crooner alter ago of trombonist Dave Smith – also has a new single, Catch It! (The Coronavirus Boogie). It’s a great oldschool funk tune, but if you’re 65 or older, or immunocompromised, you, um, might want to think twice about this particular path to herd immunity.

Once and future HUMANWINE frontwoman Holly Brewer continues to release singles at a breakneck pace. The latest one is Good Ole Fashioned Protest Song, up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. Brewer has been a big-picture person for a long time: follow the money and you’ll find the perp, whether you’re talking about petty crime, or the nonsense coming out of the Oval Office.

Rome Connects Brooding European Gothic and Irish Dark Folk Traditions

Rome‘s limited-edition vinyl album The Dublin Session may be in the hands of collectors now, but you can still hear this German-Irish project’s surprisingly lush blend of art-rock and stark folk noir at Spotify.

It’s all about gloomy ambience. In the brief, Gaelic-language introduction, the first two things you hear are bandleader Jerome Reuter’s stark, minor-key guitar fingerpicking and gusts of gale-force wind. Then the whole band, including the bouzouki and banjo, kick in on the pouncingly brooding Celtic battle anthem Antenora.

The gloom lifts temporarily when gothic crooner Thåström sings the slow, lush ballad Evropa Irredenta – but not in Latin. “Are you sleeping through the same nightmare?” he wants to know. Holy Ennui may have a jubilant backbeat, but the trouble isn’t over: “You miss the war, don’t you, brother?” Reuter asks.

The b-side begins with Slash ‘n‘ Burn, a slow, muted revolutionary anthem:

Lack of hope and misinformation
Do you really think that’s all it takes
To explain away all this agitation
…did you really think we’d stay quiet through it all?

With its slashing minor-chord variations, Vaterland is the album’s mighty, apocalyptic centerpiece “Are we to choose between wolves and swine?” Reuter poses. “We’re finished here,” a whispering choir responds. After that, the grimly romping banjo tune Mann für Mann is a logical next step

Surprisingly, the album ends on an upbeat note with the towering 6/8 sweep of Rakes and Rovers and then Matt’s Mazurka, which sounds a lot more Irish than Polish. Maybe we’re not staring straight into the abyss after all.

A Characteristically Rich, Diverse Year of Shows at Manhattan’s Best Venue for Acoustic and Folk Music

The American Folk Art Museum won the annual award for Best Manhattan Venue here back in 2016. It would be just as easy to say that again in 2019. Impresario Lara Ewen‘s mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series is still the most transit-accessible way to discover new songwriting and traditional music talent in this city, artists from all over the world covet playing in the museum’s rich natural reverb…and you can get a glass of wine here for a third of what it would cost you at Rockwood Music Hall.

As you would expect at a museum whose equally amazing exhibits document folk art and outsider art spanning the past few centuries, there’s plenty of folk music here. But even the oldtime sounds extend well beyond the world of fingerpicked front-porch acoustic guitar tunes. The best traditional show here this year was by singer Vienna Carroll, a historian whose insights into a set of rousing blues, gospel and string band songs reflected the triumphs of African-Americans over 19th century slaveowner terrorism and racism rather than the more common narrative of endless suffering. Queen Esther, a Folk Art Museum regular, reaffirmed that same fearlessly subversive esthetic at a couple of shows in February and July, featuring both Eastern Seaboard blues and soul-tinged originals.

Other entertaining oldtime folk shows included sets by the harmony-driven Triboro in May, as well as Irish tunesmith Brendan O’Shea (whose defiant, populist originals were even better) in July. Of all the original songwriters here, the most shattering was Karen Dahlstrom, whose November set featured a lot of material from her latest release No Man’s Land (a lock for best short album of 2019).  With her fearsome but meticulously nuanced alto, she aired out the fiery, gospel-infused title track, a Metoo-era broadside, as well as the metaphorically haunting After the Flood – a look at both personal and global apocalypses – and a new number, My Benevolent Destroyer, a chilling portrait of a broken marriage through the prism of imperialist domination.

Joshua Garcia, with his flinty voice and harrowing, Phil Ochs-inspired narratives, put the struggles of new immigrants and battered women in potently political perspective, along with the most chillingly allusive song about the Hiroshima bombing ever written. Miriam Elhajli sang in both English and Spanish, looking outward at the grim political climate as well as more inwardly, with intricate guitar fingerpicking and some intriguing jazz and Latin American riffs.

Niall Connolly held the crowd rapt with his brooding, tersely crystallized songs of struggle and emotional abandonment and rage against the Trumpies (a reaction that ran high at practically every show here this year). Soulstress Dina Regine, who played here in both April and June, was much the same, thematically, although her music draws more on classic 1960s American grooves.

How torchy singer Jeanne Marie Boes managed to get so much epic power and range out of her tiny keyboard is a mystery, although her towering, angst-fueled ballads and a couple of detours into darkly majestic blues had a relentlessly direct intensity. With her resonant chorister’s voice and deadpan surrealism, cellist/singer Meaner Pencil a.k.a. Lenna M. Pierce (she got her stage name the online anagram generator, she explained) was just as gripping, in a completely different vein.

Songstress/acoustic guitarist Kalyani Singh illuminated a dark inner world with a similar, often minimalistic focus, while southwestern singer Kate Vargas got the crowd going with singalongs and innumerable chances to have fun with beats. And Feral Foster – who runs the Jalopy’s longtime Roots & Ruckus series – didn’t let being under the weather get in the way of a characteristically haunted, expertly fingerpicked set of grim Nashville gothic laments and ballads.

The American Folk Art Museum’s Free Music Fridays series resumes January 10 at 5:30 PM with the soaring, brilliantly lyrical Linda Draper. There’s also an ongoing free series of guitar jazz concerts most every Wednesday at 2 PM with Bill Wurtzel and bassist Jay Leonhart.

Best New York Concert of the Year

The best New York concert of 2019 was Rose Thomas Bannister‘s wedding. In case you think it’s elitist to choose a private event over something everybody in town theoretically could have gone to…you could have been there too if you happened to wander into Union Pool the night of September 29. “You thought you were coming to a wedding!” the protean, psychedelic Great Plains gothic lit-rock songwriter beamed. “I gave you a music festival!”

Super Yamba Band headlined. By that time, plenty of people had come out to the bar, with no idea that two of this era’s most formidable musical minds had just tied the knot. And soon there were plenty of random strangers getting down to slinky Afrobeat in the back room with all the wedding guests.

It’s probably safe to say that Super Yamba’s set was a mashup of their mid-July 2018 show on an old shipping pier by the water on the Upper West Side, and their gig at Barbes this past March. If there’s any band in town worth seeing more than once, it’s these guys. The pier show seemed to be louder and heavier on the horns, the keyboardist doing double duty on both, while the Barbes gig had more dynamics, instruments leaving and then rejoining the mix, Both shows were heavy on the minor-key, sometimes distantly, sometimes closely Ethiopian-tinged jams. Impassioned frontman Leon Ligan-Majek a.k.a. Kaleta did a long stint in Fela’s band toward the end, so he learned from the guy who invented Afrobeat. Cantering, undulating rhythms, sharply sparkly electric piano, looming organ and spicy, emphatic horns and brass filtered through the mix, sometimes for minutes on end, sometimes shifting quickly to a faster tempo or back the other way.

Super Yamba Band’s next gig is at 9 PM on Dec 14 at Bar Chord for the tip jar. For those who can’t make it to deep Brooklyn, they’re playing Symphony Space on Dec 19 at 7:30, where you can get in for $20 if you’re thirty and under.

The rest of the wedding was a mix of searing jams and savagely brilliant tunesmithing. The wildest jam was when Bannister’s virtuoso bagipiper dad Tom Campbell came up to the stage and joined 75 Dollar Bill for a hypnotic yet searing duel with guitarist Che Chen. It was as if the freedom fighters in Tinariwen had flown to Scotland for a predawn raid to liberate a Trump property.

Bannister has never sung more powerfully, or with more triumphant intensity. Which made sense in that marrying guitar polymath Bob Bannister was the crowning stroke in a career that began when she escaped from a Christian supremacist environment, driving off in a little car with her secret collection of forbidden secular cassettes. In that context, the sudden, wary martial flurry in the opening number, Ambition, made sense on every possible level: a word of warning, but also a vengeful, martial riff. Whichever motivation you might ascribe to the slowly crescendoing anthem – a portrait of greed, or revenge – it worked.

Working on only two rehearsals, drummer Rob Smith colored the music with his subtle brushwork and cymbals while the groom wove restlessly articulated webs of notes, from saturnine Richard Thompson-esque leads to lingering jangle and clang, austere blues, warmly soulful Beatlesque lines and even a little wry Tex-Mex. When bride and groom calmly matched voices in the stately, understated, Macbeth-inspired Lady M – “Your children will be kings” – there was no mistaking how much of a victory had been snatched from the jaws of defeat.

The rest of the set was a mix of the hypnotic and the ferocious. The Real Penelope, a mashup of Revolver Beatles psychedelia and Britfolk, was wistful yet guardedly optimistic, the future Mrs. Bannister realizing that she’d found the lead guitarist of her dreams. Same Name Blues, which she rarely plays live, had a seethingly sardonic edge, as did the most relevant song of the night, Heaven Is a Wall, a shapeshifting fable about border walls packed with the cynically appropriated Old Testament imagery that she loves to use to drive a point home. And Iowa, with its simple yet eerie Midwestern imagery and coda that fell away abruptly at the end, seemed to synopsize her flight from repression, knowing that there would be possibly apocalyptic consequences, both personally and globally,

After that, most of the band reconvened as PG Six, frontman/guitarist Pat Gubler a steely, dapperly suited presence out front. Debby Schwartz, fresh off a sizzling set with the Bannisters, was even more of a whirlwind, firing off incisive chords, raga riffs working around an open string and sinuous, soaring leads that gave the band a third lead player. Gubler’s resonant, darkly opaque chords and tersely circling lines rang out as Bannister’s leads slashed and wailed around them, sometimes bringing to mind Jerry Garcia in “on” mode, at other times veering closer to unhinged Sonic Youth territory. His bride eventually came up to sing harmonies, one of the great Brooklyn musical power couples reveling in making it official.

Jessie Kilguss Brings Her Subtly Sinister Songcraft and Soaring Voice to Gowanus Next Week

There was a four-song stretch in Jessie Kilguss‘ set last week at 11th Street Bar that was as evocative and mysteriously enticing as any show anywhere in New York this year. The first song was What Do Whales Dream About at Night, which was both enigmatic, and quirky, and had an ambitious sweep. Kilguss kept the jaws of fate open with Great White Shark, then sang the most haunting song of the night, The Master, one of the best of her folk noir masterpieces. Sinister as it seems, it’s actually a shout-out to Leonard Cohen, arguably Kilguss’ biggest influence

Then Kilguss and her jangly four-piece backing band careened through House of Rain and Leaves, a broodingly steady grey-sky narrative. With her calmly nuanced, crystalline voice soaring to the highs and murmuring among the lows, Kilguss channeled distant disaster and sudden menace as well as sardonic detachment. She knows that singing is acting, which makes sense since she built a career as a stage actress before plunging into songwriting more or less fulltime. She’s playing on an intriguing acoustic bill on Dec 4 at 7 PM at Mirror in the Woods, a tea shop at 575 Union St. in Gowanus. Take the R to Union St. and walk away from the slope. The other acts on the bill range from similarly strong tunesmiths like dark duo Lusterlit (Kilguss’ bandmates in lit-pop collective the Bushwick Book Club),, soulful cello-rocker Patricia Santos, Americana songstress Andi Rae Healy and some open mic lifers.

Kilguss’ other songs at the East Village show last week were subtler and somewhat more lighthearted. She opened, playing swaths of chords on harmonium, with Spain, a pensive blend of new wave and vintage soul and continued with Strangers, an opaque mix of Guided By Voices and Blondie, maybe. She closed the show with an unexpectedly upbeat Lori McKenna cover and then an almost completely deadpan take of a big radio hit from one of the most awful chick flicks of the 80s, a moment where nobody in the band could keep a straight face all the way through. Kilguss will probaby bring just as much angst, and menace, and ridiculous fun to the Brooklyn gig: it’s a pass-the-tip-jar situation.

A Haunting, Politically Fearless Solo Acoustic Album From Folk Noir Supergroup Bobtown’s Karen Dahlstrom

Karen Dahlstrom may be best known as one of the trio of brilliant songwriters in the three-woman frontline of folk noir supergroup Bobtown, but she’s no less haunting as a solo artist. Her 2011 debut solo release, Gem State is a concept album set in frontier Idaho – and may be the only record of its kind. Dahlstron’s long-awaited follow-up, No Man’s Land – streaming at her music page – is the best short album of 2019 by a country mile. Dahlstrom’s vocals, sometimes stark, sometimes plaintive, sometimes completely devastated, are nothing short of shattering. If anything, they’re even more nuanced than the harmonies and gale-force gospel wail she’ll cut loose with Bobtown from time to time (for a serious thrill, dial up Dahlstrom’s gospel noir tour de force Battle Creek). Likewise, she paints a relentlessly dark series of tableaux equally informed by oldtime blues, gospel and bluegrass. But this is a distinctly 21st century record, relentlessly bleak yet defiant. Dahlstrom’s next New York gig is. Nov 15 at 5:30 PM at the American Folk Art Museum.

Although the record is just guitar and vocals, that’s all these songs need. Dahlstrom’s imagery in the first track, After the Flood packs a potent a political message as a personal one. Set in a post-Katrina New Orleans, Dahlstrom sets the scene at an old cathedral that managed to survive, then she shifts to the old quarter:

Over a bottle of Four Roses in a bar on Saint-Louis
We trade our stories and compare our scars
The deepest wounds will never show
Wonder if we’ll ever know
If our disasters are written in the stars
He shows me the numbers tattoed on his chest
With a look he meant to bring me to my knees
But he don’t know the half of it
More than I would dare admit
I’ve weathered storms worse than these

Cottonmouth Blues, a muted minor-key sway with more than a hint of St. James Infirmary doesn’t seem to be about the aftereffects of smoking weed; it’s a metaphor for shyness. It’s classic Dahlstrom, deviously working an oldtime sex-and-drugs vernacular in the here and now.

The delicately fingerpicked Goodbye, Espanola is a more pastorally bluesy tale of hope from escape from a dead end-southern town where pollution hangs in the air and “The hot rod kids keep low to the ground, never seem to go anywhere.”

The sleepless, despondent narrator of the gentle, mournfully waltzing final number, Broken Golden pleads for the nameless tunesmith she’s stuck on to give her

…something I can cling to when night gets cold
Put words in my mouth and thoughts in my head
Paint me a picture and send me to bed

But it’s the album’s gospel-tinged title track that’s the best of all of them here – and might be the single best song of 2019. The album version on Bobtown’s latest release has mighty harmonies from Dahlstrom’s bandmates Katherine Etzel and Jen McDearman. But there’s more seething anger and resolute determination in this spare, all-acoustic take of Dahlstrom’s fearless feminist anthem. In the year of Metoo, it transcends gender boundaries:

No man’s words can still my voice
No man can tell me where I stand
No man’s will can take my choice
I am no man’s land

You’ll see this ep on the best albums of 2019 page here, too.

Folk Noir and Fearlessly Political Songwriting: Still Going Strong in the East Village

Sunday night at Scratcher Bar in the East Village, Lara Ewen and Niall Connolly strung together a couple hours worth of memorably surreal narratives and catchy acoustic guitar tune with a crafty expertise that’s become increasingly rare in this city.

Ewen, who is probably best known as the founder and fearless impresario of the mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum, is also a distinctive tunesmith in her own right and opened this particular show. There was a lot of fresh new material in her set, an auspicious preview of her long-awaited new album, mostly likely due out sometime next year. This time out, there was more bluesy grit in her voice than usual, and she fingerrpicked a lot more as well.

“I don’t write political songs,” she told the crowd, “Politics is something we tend to do in every moment of our lives,” she explained, prefacing a witheringly sarcastic new number about an sexual assault survivor, and then a kid who narrowly misses getting shot by the cops, each emphasizing how incredibly lucky they are.

Another aphoristic, darkly sparkling new song concerned a guy who manages to dig himself into a hole where he’s comfortable, way down in the dark. In the final verse, he brings a length of rope down there, although Ewen never reveals what exactly he does with it. Her other character studies, some new and some older and full of strange, unresolved chords, had similarly lingering imagery, situated among the down and out, or the about to be down and out. Like hell Ewen isn’t political: she just doesn’t preach.

Watching Connolly parse a series of terse, judiciously picked tunes, it’s obvious that he’s a rock guy: it was easy to imagine him playing those lines on a Strat with a rhythm section behind him. He’s more overtly political than Ewen, with an unassuming, raw, often melancholy vocal delivery. The big audience singalong was a soaringly anthemic portrait of the last days of Irish Revolutionary hero James Connolly (an ancestor, maybe?): “Lily, don’t you cry, I’ve lived the fullest of lives” was the chorus.

The best of the new ones was a spot-on, strange account of a late-night Rockaways bus ride (interrupted for Miller High Life and a shot of well whiskey at a watering hole along the way), and the kind of weirdos you meet there, everybody sharing the near dream-state surrealism of outer-borough afterwork fatigue.

Connolly is also a great storyteller without his guitar (Ewen said that she’d stolen all her stage banter from him: not a bad place to start). The funniest tale of the night concerned a bus driver who pulled to the curb for a second, exited the vehicle and shouted his order for fried rice to the Chinese restaurant cook taking a break across the street. Connolly, a populist to the core, explained that he has a special appreciation for any employee who likes to bend the rules.This particular takeout joint’s fried rice is apparently worth a risk.

Connolly’s next gig is Oct 17 at 8:30 PM at the Hunterian at 413 E 70th St. between First and York Aves.. Theres also an excellent bill coming up at the Folk Art Museum on Oct 18 at at 6 PM with  Sharon Goldman – one of the great tunesmiths to come out of the NYC acoustic scene since the turn of the century – and dark, brilliantly lyrical oldtimey songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Pete Lanctot.

Folk Noir Supergroup Bobtown Bring Up the Lights Just a Little

For about ten years, Bobtown have been the most bewitching three-part harmony folk noir supergroup in the world. Their three-woman frontline – percussionist/tenor guitarist Katherine Etzel, guitarist/banjo player Karen Dahlstrom and singer/percussionist Jen McDearman – are as eclectically skilled as songwriters as they are on the mic. Their new album Chasing the Sun is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing the album release show on  Oct 13 at 7 PM at the big room at the Rockwood; cover is $10.

As the band admit, this album is somewhat less relentlessly dark than their haunting back catalog. They open the new record with Daughters of the Dust, a moody, midtempo, metaphorically charged newgrass tune: “In our land of bone and rust, unsteady and shifting, will we ever find a place for us?” the three women ask.

“I hear the whispesrs, will she sink or swim?” Etzel muses as Kryptonite gets underway; then lead guitarist Alan Lee Backer’s twangy riffage kicks in, a defiantly swaying, anthenic toast to “Feed the hungry ghosts of all our glory days.”

The starkly fingerpicked intro to Come On Home is there to fake you out: it’s a Tex-Mex flavored romp. Special guest Serena Jost‘s cello adds haunting textures to the album’s lone cover, a dirgey, elegaic take of Tom Petty’s American Girl: who knew that this song was about suicide?

“The darkest heart and evil hand blind our children’s eyes, as every witness takes the stand to show the devil in disguise,” the group harmonize in Hazel, a melancholy, banjo-driven portrait echoing the theme of the Petty song. The subtly vindictive breakup ballad Let You Go is a throwback to the group’s early years, when they were reinventing old 19th century field hollers.

Etzel takes the lead for In My Bones, a blithely creepy, cynical country-pop tune about cheating the reaper, with an irresistibly funny round of vocals midway through. “I’m right to question everyrthing, I’m right about to scream,” McDearman intones in This Is My Heart, a wounded waltz. Then the band pick up the pace with the determined, optimistic Devil Down: it’s Bobtown’s take on what Tom Waits did with Keep the Devil Down in the Hole.

The best song on the album is Dahlstrom’s gospel-flavored No Man’s Land. It’s an anthem for the Metoo era, a soaring, defiant, venomous broadside, and it could be the best song of the year:

...No man has me at his command
No man can claim me for his own
I am no man’s land
No man’s book can tell my story
No man’s judge can understand
No man’s eyes can see my glory
I am no man’s land

As consistently excellent as the band’s recorded output is, nothing beats the way these three distinctive voices blend onstage