New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: folk-pop

Hauntingly Imagistic, Socially Aware Songs From Australia’s Emily Barker

Beyond the increasingly Orwellian nightmare of communist China, what the lockdowners have done to Australia is a crime unequaled in antipodean history. Infants torn from their mothers by police enforcing muzzle regulations, pregnant women arrested for pro-freedom Facebook posts, food production facilities shut down in order to starve citizens into submission: the list of atrocities is endless. Meanwhile, lockdowner collaborators in the Australian government have been busy recruiting diverse representatives of the country’s many ethnicities to star in reality tv-style pro-lockdown propaganda videos, for pay. All this is going to happen in America, and everywhere else, if we don’t end the lockdown. And then hold Nuremberg trials for those responsible.

One can only hope Australian songwriter Emily Barker has been spared from the bulk of the country’s assault on human rights. Under the regime, any ecologically aware, politically-inspired songwriter would seem to be imperiled. She paints haunting pictures with few words, is a strong folk-rock tunesmith and sings with an understated intensity. Her latest album A Dark Murmuration of Words is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, Return Me has an easygoing, sparely loping groove but also a stark string arrangement and otherworldly, reverb-toned banjo. The second track, Geography is a wistful midtempo shuffle with the strings and also organ hovering in the distance, Barker contemplating how much the idea of home is an actual space, or a mindspace.

“From a prison cell, you dreamt of trees while the blood dries up upon your cheek,” Barker sings in The Woman Who Planted Trees, a brooding, minor-key fingerpicked tune. “You didn’t know, you never heard, around the world, people learned.” Barker takes her inspiration from the struggles of Nobel Prizewinning Kenyan ecological activist Wangari Maathai.

The album’s most unforgettable song is Where Have the Sparrows Gone. It’s an understatedly harrowing, baroque-tinged double narrative, an imagistic travelogue that’s both an eco-disaster parable and an elegy for an unnamed individual whose ashes are about to be scattered.

Over an elegantly picked web of acoustic and electric guitars, Barker paints an allusively detailed portrait of rural poverty and impending natural disaster in Strange Weather: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Tift Merritt songbook.

“I made it harder the more your skin is dark,” Barker’s white supremacist prison-industrial complex oligarch narrator sings cynically in Machine, a surreal mashup of trip-hop and 19th century African-American gospel

Organ and banjo mingle in When Stars Cannot Be Found, a gently shuffling lullaby. The strings return with a moody bluster in Ordinary, a troubled return to allusive environmental disaster imagery.

With lingering baritone guitar and organ, Any More Goodbyes is the most American country-flavored and gorgeously bittersweet tune here. Barker closes the record with Sonogram, a piano-and-vocal number which could be about pregnancy, or something much less auspicious. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page at the end of the year.

More Radically Intuitive Reinventions From Marianne Dissard

We’ve reached the most disturbing time in the history of music. Musicians are being forced onto the dole, forced to take jobs in unfamiliar and often undesirable fields because the lockdowners are hell-bent on destroying the arts. While innumerable online collaborations have sprung up, most of them have turned out stiff and uninspired. While you can always improvise against what somebody has already recorded, it’s impossible to replicate the chemistry of being next to someone onstage or in a studio and engaging with them unless you’re actually there.

One of the few artists to successfully overcome those limitations, and create a lot of material during the lockdown, is French-born, Tucson-based songwriter Marianne Dissard. Maybe the fact that she’s a singer, that she’s used to doing a final vocal take over music that’s already been recorded, has empowered her. Whatever the case, she seems to be about halfway through creating the last album anyone would expect from her: a covers record, sung in English, no less.

The fact that she has exquisite taste in covers helps. She’s been releasing them as singles: the first one was an practically nine-minute, dirgey reinvention of Phil Ochs’ chilling lost-submarine epic The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns.

After that she put out “his” and “hers” version of the quietly vindictive Janis Ian folk-pop classic At Seventeen. This blog is partial to hers; it’s more orchestral, with elegantly mulitracked bass and cello by Thoger Lund from Giant Sand. Dissard changes the syncopation and sings it line by line, with vastly more angst than the sullen, deadpan original. When she reaches the point where “Smalltown eyes will gaze at you in dull surprise, when payment due exceeds accounts received,” it will give you chills.

The latest single is a considerably dirtier remake of Steely Dan’s Dirty Work. Dissard tweaks the gender references and also gives the song a lot more angst than the original (remember that the record label insisted on using studio crooner David Palmer instead of the grittier-voiced Donald Fagen on the 1972 single).

All this is streaming at Bandcamp an addition to a sepulchral, previously unreleased recording of Dissard singing Kath Bloom’s It’s So Hard To Come Home, backed by Calexico‘s Joey Burns on guitars and banjo!

Wickedly Smart Metaphors and Catchy, Socially Aware Songs From Lara Herscovitch

A lot of the songs on Lara Herscovitch‘s new album Highway Philosphers – streaming at Spotify – pack a wallop rarely found in the normally sedate world of singer-songwriters. Take the album’s fifth track, You USA. The music may be low-key – just her intricate fingerpicking and lead guitarist Stephen Murphy’s airy washes – but the political content is fierce, and really captures the embryonic phase of the paradigm shift that’s sweeping the world:

We are underestimated, undeterred, here to stay
Pins in the rafters from the rally yesterday
Learning to look each other in the eye
Power grid’s gone down so we live like fireflies
Don’t look away USA

At at time where we’re finding Bernie supporters standing shoulder to shoulder with Trumpies at anti-lockdown protests, and just about everybody protesting the murder of George Floyd, something amazing is going on here. The whole world is uniting to rip those masks off ourselves…and also off everyone who profits from racism and divide-and-conquer strategies.

Another killer track is the Neko Case-ish Careful Porcelain Doll, a defiant tale of breaking away from a life of “paint by numbers in reverse.” The girl at the center of this story dreams of emulating her idol, Yankees home run champion and Gold Glove third baseman Graig Nettles, then trades that for adult domesticity…but ends the story with a spectacular Jacoby Ellsbury kind of move. For fans of the pinstripes, maybe it’s best that guys like DiMag and Bernie Williams didn’t try to make plays like that! We may not have baseball this year, but at least we have this song.

Most of the music here is pretty spare: just the bandleader’s acoustic guitar and clear, uncluttered vocals, Murphy’s terse electric fills and Craig Akin’s bass. There’s always a welcome subtext in these songs: Sailing to Newfoundland, for example, works on every level that quasi sea chantey’s title implies.

Fault Lines is Herscovitch’s eerily detailed counterpart to Dawn Oberg‘s harrowing End of the Continent; “I still wonder what that summer measured on the Richter Scale,” Herscovitch muses.

Castle Walls is a similarly vivid, wise tale of a European fling that didn’t work out. The album’s arguably funniest song is The Tiger and I, the most hilarious account of formula retail as circus ever set to music. Rise is also irresistibly amusing: it could be a Trump parable, or a satirical look at Andrew Cuomo’s ridiculously taxpayer-funded adventures with bridges to New Jersey. Or both.

There’s also In Your Corner, a gospel song about boxing – on a surface level, at least – and From a Dream, a surreal spoken-word narrative. Anyone who can’t resist clever wordplay, unselfconsciously soulful vocals and catchy tunes should check this out.

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.

Thoughtful, Carefully Crafted, Gospel-Tinged Songwriting From Christina Courtin

Since her Juilliard days in the early zeros, multi-instrumentalist Christina Courtin has shifted seamlessly between the worlds of classical, film music and low-key, pensive songwriting that sometimes fits into the chamber pop category. Her main axe is violin, but she’s also a competent guitarist. Her lyrics have a stream-of-consciousness feel that often masks a slashing sense of humor. Her latest album Situation Station is streaming at Bandcamp.

“If I had some money I’d take the train, take it further than faraway,” she sings on the album’s calmly lustrous opening track, Japanese Maple Tree. Chris Parker’s strummy acoustic guitar, Kenny Wollesen’s boomy drums, James Shipp’s muted vibraphone and Greg Cohen’s bass propel the suspiciously blithe, coldly sarcastic folk-pop tune Stare Into the Sun.

Pianist Danny Fox infuses Bouquet with a spare, gospel-tinged ambience, Courtin bringing in a lush orchestral arrangement. “Got my missile pointed right where I want it to be,” she asserts in Dear Lieder, which is even more skeletal: “If I blow up everyone I might just get some rest.”

The album’s most anthemic singalong is the triumphant Life So Far, with its gorgeous, gusty strings. Courtin returns to a soul-gospel vibe with the slowky crescendoing Matthew’s Wings, spiced with a terse slide guitar solo, and picks up that same warmth with a heftier arrangement a little later in Love Is a Season.

The most striking song here is the title track, Courtin tracing an idyllic childhood memory not likely to return, if ever, as the music shifts from overcast atmospherics to a jaunty ragtime strut. Fox moves to electric piano for Coyote Midnight, a simmering nocturne that could be about an abuser, or someone in politics. She closes the record with the gentle, elegaic You Held Me Up.

The last time this blog was in the house at one of Courtin’s gigs, it was at Barbes late on a Thursday night in the spring of 2018. Playing solo, she split the show between instrumentals and vocal numbers; her voice seemed clearer, less husky than it is on this record. It was a very calming, peaceful, enveloping performance, music to really get lost in, a welcome nightcap after a rather stuffy evening in one of the big midtown concert halls a couple of hours earlier.

Jenifer Jackson Returns to Her Catchy, Poignant Psychedelic Pop Roots

Of all the songwriters who built their careers in the incredibly fertile crucible of the Lower East Side New York scene in the late 90s and early zeros, Jenifer Jackson is one of the most prolific and arguably the best. Over the years, she’s moved from Beatlesque psychedelia to stark, brooding pastoral pop, bossa nova and harrowing, majestic art-rock. She’s also been a poineer of the DIY house concert tour circuit Her move to Austin in the early part of the decade springboarded a deep dive into Americana. Her latest album Paths – streaming at Bandcamp – is a return to the catchy, anthemic, eclectic psychedelic pop she made a name with early in her career. Jackson has a pair of New York gigs coming up next month. She’s at the Owl on Nov 3 at 8, then the next night, Nov 4 at the same time she’s at the big room at the Rockwood.

On the new record, her voice is more nuanced than ever; her lyrics are characteristically crystallized, imagistic and loaded with subext. There’s a restrained angst in her delivery as she soars up to the chorus on the elegantly waltzing opening track, Things I Meant to Tell You, Jim Hoke’s flute and Chris Carmichael’s one-man string quartet adding a stark baroque touch. As usual, Jackson lets the images of returning to a dusty room after a trip speak for themselves. It packs a gentle wallop.

There’s a delicate web of acoustic guitar fingerpicking beneath the orchestration in the tender early-dawn scenario First Bird. Then the band – which includes Brad Jones on guitars, bass and keys, Pat Sansone on guitar and mellotron and Josh Hunt on drums – picks up the pace with Back Home, a big, electric, organ-driven backbeat rocker. “The silence almost made me lose my mind,” Jackson confides: the tradeoff between organ and twelve-string guitar in the break is absolutely luscious.

Travelled Together, a bittersweet breakup ballad, has wintry, vintage 60s orchestration and Laurel Canyon psychedelic pop ambience: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Judy Henske catalog. Sultry Memory is a summery psychedelic soul ballad with shimmering vibraphone: it has the enigmatic lushness of Jackson’s classic 2007 Outskirts of a Giant Town and the lush Philly soul of Got To Have You, two standout numbers from Jackson’s vast output over the years.

Hey, Good is a wistful, hopeful, sprightly tune with ukulele and just a hint of brass: it could be a charming lost acoustic McCartney miniature from the White Album. Jackson brings back the electricity and the backbeat in Written in Stone: imagine the Byrds backing the Mamas & the Papas.

Jackson likes to put a good old-fashioned hard country tune on every album, and What Good’s a Memory is a picture-perfect vintage 60s tune, right down to the saloon piano and pedal steel. She wraps up the record with a country gospel-flavored piano ballad, Hail and Farewell. In a time where the brain drain out of New York stalled or even destroyed so many music careers, it’s testament to Jackson’s sheer talent (not to mention persistence) that she’s been able to stay on a creative tear that just won’t quit.

[If you’re looking for today’s Halloween installment, take a trip back to October 21 of last year for an underrated, darky psychedelic 2013 release – amazingly still available as a free download – by a New York band who should have gone a lot further than they did]

Catchy, Deceptively Deep Americana Tunesmithing and a Lower East Side Show From Amy LaVere

Amy LaVere is a rarity, a bassist-frontwoman out on the Americana rock highway. She’s got a misty voice and writes moody, catchy songs with tinges of noir. She’s also Will Sexton’s wife. Her new album Painting Blue is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing the basement room at the Rockwood tonight, August 29 at 7 PM; cover is $10.

Sexton’s ominous baritone guitar twang lingers over Tim Regan’s spare, plaintve, jazz-tinged piano and brushy drums (that’s either George Sluppick, Shawn Zorn or longago Iggy Pop sideman Hunt Sales behind the kit) in the opening track, I Don’t Wanna Know. LaVere’s wounded, breathy vocals channel a distant, apocalyptic angst.

No Battle Hymn has brisk, arid 80s production:and a backbeat: if Neko Case had been making records back then, she might have sounded like this. Girlfriends – as in, “Don’t let your girlfriends tell you what you need” – is a catchy, Tex Mex-tinged admonition to a friend who might have actually found a good guy after all.

Veteran soul man Al Gamble’s organ percolates through the bouncy soul song You’re Not In Memphis, while Love I’ve Missed is more of a soul-pop tune. The album’s most haunting track is No Room For Baby, a starkly orchestrated portrait of dead-end blue-collar despair

Stick Horse is a lot more optimistic and quietly defiant, Rick Steff supplying a lilting accordion solo. Shipbuilding is a rare Elvis Costello cover that’s as good or even better than the original, a gentle and subtly scathing interpretation of the Falklands War-era ballad. The album’s title track makes a good segue, a Costello-ish take on early 60s pop beefed up with soaring strings:

Do you have the courage but not the fight
Smoke could be in the air
Flames around you everywhere
You wouldn’t care

Another Vivid, Lyrical, Understatedly Haunting Album From Sharon Goldman

Sharon Goldman is one of the most gently powerful songwriters to emerge from the incredibly fertile East Village rock scene of the late 90s and early zeros. The real estate speculators’ blitzkrieg crushed it, but Goldman managed to keep her career going on the road. Since then, she’s put out a handful of brilliant albums of catchy, purposeful parlor pop and acoustic rock with sharp, plainspoken lyrics that often allude to much darker themes than her bright tunesmithing would lead you to think she’d tackle. Her latest album Every Trip Around the Sun – streaming at her music page – is in a way just as daring and iconoclastic as her previous record, Kol Isha, a sobering look at a very conflicted Jewish upbringing. This one focuses on issues of aging and death…from a distance, set to catchy chord changes and soaring choruses. Leonard Cohen may have gone to the tower of song, but Sharon Goldman is here for anybody who misses him.

Dolly Parton would no doubt be proud to have written the opening track, A Garden, a sprightly bluegrass-pop tune but also a memento mori: it’s a female counterpart to Mark Sinnis’ Undertaker in My Rearview Mirror. Goldman sang an absolutely shattering version of the understatedly towering title track at Rockwood Music Hall back in May; those bittersweet chord changes underscored both the triumph and bleakness of looking back rather than forward.

In betweem. the rest of the album is characteristically rich. The core of the band here is Allison Tartalia on keys, Craig Akin on bass, Mark Dann on electric guitar, and Eric Puente on drums, with contributions from several members of Goldman’s inner circle (if you remember the irrepressible and sublimely talented early zeros songwriters collective Chicks with Dip, you’ll recognize a lot of these folks).

The End of Sunset Over Athens puts a sobering, historically-informed spin on an otherwise sunny vacation narrative. Migration, the album’s most overtly political number, is an even more troubling look at the worldwide refugee crisis. Sara Milonovich’s violin and Noah Hoffeld’s cello provide a stark backdrop for the loaded metaphors of Lone Black Crow.

One of the album’s most offhandedly chilling numbers, Am I There Yet ponders the possibility that there may be no “there” to get to. Goldman plays both guitar and piano on the brooding Sunset at the Border, a haunting yet hopeful narrative that makes the connection between the South American refugee crisis, the ongoing genocide in Gaza and the Berlin Wall.

She weighs the angst of a gradeschooler with the angst of middle age in When I Was Ten, then paints an allusively gripping portrait of the morning of 9/11 in Tuesday Morning Sun. Penny With the Waves is wistful elegy for a lost friend, while The Ballerina may be the most ferociously feminist song Goldman has ever written, a savagely metaphorital slap upside the head of the patriarchy. Goldman also proves to be a brilliant rockabilly singer – who knew? – on The Collector, a tongue-in-cheek assessment of people accumulating…um…stuff. One suspects there will be even more unexpected revelations and fearlessly relevant work from this restless songwriter in the years to come.

Scruffy, Catchy, Eclectic Folk-Rock Tunesmithing and a Lower East Side Show From Sunshine Nights

For the better part of the past decade, lo-fi acoustic duo Sunshine Nights – Amy Priya and Stephen Sunshine – have entertained crowds across the five boroughs with their catchy, upbeat, almost ridiculously eclectic songwriting and soulful guy/girl vocals. Their characteristically diverse, energetic latest vinyl record If We Stick Around – streaming at Bandcamp – has politically-fueled gravitas to go along with the good vibes. They’re playing the Parkside (the one in Manhattan at Attorney and Houston, not related to the much newer Prospect Lefferts Gardens joint) on July 17 at 10 PM.

Priya sings an Indian carnatic devotional tune over a simple, high bell drone on the album’s opening track, For Love. The second song, Tell Me has a loping desert rock feel. “”Just turn around if you’re feeling hypnotized…. turn in for a deeper look, this is not some storybook,” Priya reminds.

Peace Out is a rocksteady tune as the Violent Femmes might have done it – if they’d had a banjo and an organ in the band. With its interweave of acoustic fingerpicking and bluesy dobro, There and Then follows a quintessential urban trail of images: when the meter maid pulls her gun on somebody, we know we’re in trouble!

The next track, Billie is packed with deliciously spot-on 60s Memphis soul guitar: “You say you’re looking to expand your outer circle, what the fuck does that mean?” Sunshine asks. The duo bring to mind the Jefferson Airplane in the crescendoing, angst-fueled anthem The Amplifier, then they multitrack their vocals for a rousingly brief take of the gospel tune Brighter Than Gold.

Armageddon Blue has a defiant, populist edge, an aphoristic kiss-off to the boss from hell. Piss Off Donald is as self-explanatory and plainspokenly funny as it ought to be, while the album’s longest song, MTA paints a classic global warming-era New York tableau where “There ain’t no counting on the MTA, we all gotta walk it today.”

The duo take a sunny stroll through Chinatown in New Colossus, which sounds a lot like an indie folk version of Sitting on the Dock of the Bay. They close the album with Last Dance, an imaginative mashup of oldtimey front-porch folk and Indian carnatic music. There’s literally something for everybody here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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