New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: folk-pop

Quirky, Individualistic, Shapeshifting Catalan Songwriting From Singer Magali Sare

You have to have a sense of humor to call your album “Sponge.” Catalan singer Magali Sare‘s new release, Eponja – streaming at Spotify – is playful and a lot of fun, although there’s a recurrent dark undercurrent. That’s no surprise, considering that it’s a coming-of-age record . Sare is a very eclectic singer and can reach spectacular heights. She comes out of a classical background, but here she shifts mostly between carefree trip-hop, sprightly chamber pop and more techy sounds, along with upbeat Catalan folk. If Bjork was Catalan, she might sound something like this. Sare’s inspired, purposeful band includes pianist Marta Pons, guitarist Sebastià Gris, bassist Vic Moliner and drummer Dídak Fernàndez along with occasional strings.

The lilting opening lullaby is aptly titled Hola, Sare’s voice trailing off with a little brittle vibrato at the end of a phrase. She follows with Mañana, a coy, fingersnapping mashup of trip-hop and tango: as Sare observes, love and freedom are one and the same.

Crooner Salvador Sobral joins in a rousing duet on Sempre Vens Assim (roughly translated: Your Usual Steez), rising to a mighty peak with a choir of voices and a little jaunty salsa piano. Sare reaches from a pensively fingerpicked verse to soaring choruses, toward the top of her register, in the album’s title track. It’s a somewhat more sobering look back on how children develop an ethical sensibility (the song is a lot more fun than such an explanation would imply).

Sare packs torrents of lyrics into a quirky but pensive trip-hop cabaret tune in Malifetes (Mischief), an account of a conflicted adolescence. The key line, roughly translated, is “I was emotionally blackmailed.” The deliriously crescendoing love song ETC features flamenco band Las Migas: lively verse, swoony chorus.

The narrative hits a bump in the road with No Se, circling piano phrases anchoring Sare’s metaphorically loaded account of literally being left out in the cold. A spoken-word piece set to a trippy, echoey backdrop, No Se Cantar is an amusing catalog of reasons to sing (including simply to shake people up a little).

Inframon (Underworld) is a brightly resonant tableau in contrast with Sare’s lyrics about dealing with the dark side: “You just know you’ve been there once you’re out and you aren’t afraid of falling in,” essentially. She reverts to a twinkly trip-hop ambience in M’ai Vist Mai Plorar (I’ve Never Seen You Cry): “Watch the wind lift the broken veil,” Sare muses.

She follows with the Mediterranean-tinged, elegantly fingerpicked seduction scenario No Te Edat (rough translation: Timeless), and then Niña Mujer (Womanchild), a pensive psychedelic pop study in contradictions. She closes the album with its lone classical interlude, a stately, energetic canon. You don’t have to speak Catalan to enjoy this smartly individualistic, constantly shapeshifting collection.

Starkly Powerful Tunesmithing and Loaded Metaphors on Abigail Lapell’s New Album

“Time may judge this a classic,” this blog enthused about Abigail Lapell’s 2019 album Getaway. Raves like that as rare here as integrity in the Justin Trudeau cabinet. The small handful of albums which have earned that distinction include Karla Rose Moheno‘s Gone to Town and Hannah vs. the Many‘s All Our Heroes Drank Here, to name two of the best. How well does Lapell’s latest release Stolen Time – streaming at Bandcamp – stack up against her previous achievement? It doesn’t always have the same seething intensity, but Lapell’s songwriting is strong, and she has an excellent band behind her.

She opens it with the hypnotic, sparsely fingerpicked, subtly aphoristic Britfolk-flavored Land of Plenty. Dani Nash’s mutedly ominous, swaying drumbeat anchors the second track, Ships, Christine Bougie adding snarling electric guitar and sparse lapsteel alongside violist Rachael Cardiello and bassist Dan Fortin. It’s a metaphorically loaded departure ballad echoing a big influence in Lapell’s work, Sandy Denny.

Lapell moves to piano for Pines and its allusively ominous nature imagery. Scarlet Fever has stark oldtime blues inflections and plaintive viola from Cardiello. With “silver needles on the wall,” is this a subtle lockdown parable? Maybe.

All Dressed Up, a nimbly fingerpicked acoustic tune, may also have post-March 2020 subtext: “No way out of here, wake me up when the coast is clear,” Lapell instructs. I See Music, a stately piano waltz spiced with Ellwood Epps’ trumpet is next: “There’s no danger in a major key, there’s no harm in a harmony,” Lapell asserts.

She goes back to guitar for the similarly graceful Waterfall and follows with the album’s title track, Stolen Time, a swaying, crescendoing anthem lit up by Bougie’s incandescent lapsteel. “I dreamed I saw my baby, sewage in his veins, a rotten apple in his chest,” Lapell recalls in the next track: is this a tantalizingly brief, disquieting shipwreck tale, or is there more to the story?

“Dance in the ashes, gasoline and matches” figure heavily in the otherwise lilting, catchy nocturne Old Flames. Lapell winds up this often riveting, enigmatic album on an optimistic note with I Can’t Believe. It’s inspiring to see one of the sharpest songwriters in folk-adjacent sounds persevering under circumstances which have been less than encouraging for artists in general. Barring the unforeseen, Lapell’s next gig is an evening performance on May 21 at Paddlefest in St. Andrews, New Brunswick.

Thoughtful, Gently Provocative Acoustic Songs From Allegra Krieger

The first image in Wake Me, the opening track on songwriter Allegra Krieger’s new album Precious Thing – streaming at Bandcampis a stretcher being rolled down the street. Presumably, it’s going to an ambulance…or a van from the morgue. Krieger links that story to a much more optimistic and personal one. but the unease remains, unwinding over rippling. fingerpicked guitar in an open tuning that Jimmy Page would use in folkie moments.

Krieger sticks with that throughout most of the record, sometimes set against spare electric guitar leads. The addition of dark washes of bowed bass in places is a welcome textural touch.

A gritty, distorted drone introduces the second song, Isolation – an original, not the Joy Division classic. “‘Return to city life. the smell of money leaks out…drink up, detached from the ideals of being one of God’s daughters…living in filth is something I have gotten used to again,” Krieger muses. Is this a tale of coming home too soon to totalitarian NYC hell? Maybe.

Taking It In is about defamiliarizing, underscored by layers of spastic electric guitar skronk and fluttery bass in contrast to Krieger’s calm, bright vocals. “Everything is precariously waiting to fortify as the time goes by,” she muses in a similarly bright domestic tableau: clearly, there’s still work to be done.

“All my life I drank wine, thought they were bottles of blood, thought they were cleaning me up,” she reflects in the slowly swaying next number

Krieger switches to piano for another slow, pensive 6/8 tune, Let Go, the bass adding a disquieting edge. Driftingly nocturnal layers of organ-like pedal steel provide the contrast in Just For the Night. The album’s title track is more gently resolute: “Looking back on my life now, little that all meant to me,” Krieger observes. What a reckoning to have to face in 2022, huh?

Her piano on No Machine, steady and spare, matches her steady acoustic guitar style: the cautious trumpet solo afterward enhances the mood. “No machine can keep us safe, what I feel is what I’ll be,” Krieger asserts.

She ends the album with a low-key country waltz: her narrator’s escape to bucolic southern comfort turns out well. That we should all be so lucky.

Pensive, Drifting, Broodingly Hypnotic Acoustic Tunesmithing From Natalie Jane Hill

A cynic would say we’ve heard this a million times: girl with acoustic guitar singing sad songs of loneliness and abandonment. Add to that a pervasive Joni Mitchell influence, and you get hundreds of thousands of acts who go back forty years and more. That being said, songwriter Natalie Jane Hill manages to use that tradition as a stepping-off point without sounding obvious, which is more of an achievement than it might seem. She has a keen eye for detail, leaves some of her best punchlines unsaid, likes open tunings and has nimble fingers on the acoustic guitar. Her latest vinyl album Solely is streaming at Bandcamp.

Throughout the record, Hill’s vocals are more contained and less jazz-influenced than Mitchell’s. In the sarcastically titled opening track, Euphoria, Hill’s narrator is driving just to get away from it all, “Avoiding the street home till the low fuel light glows.” Consider: she’s got such a troubled mind that she’s not even paying attention to the gas gauge. Musically, the songh sets the stage for the rest of the record, just Hill’s brisk, clustering fingerpicking lowlit by stark violin, pedal steel and glockenspiel in places.

The central image in Little Teeth is how Hill envisions flower buds floating on the breeze, with glockenspiel tinkling delicately in the background. She works a familiar, circling open-tuned riff in the bucolic guitar-and-violin tune If I Were a Willow. Hill follows a stark, Britfolk-tinged minor-key theme in Plants and Flowers That Do Not Grow Here, subtly colored with steel, violin and what could either be a wood flute or a mellotron patch.

As a portrait of predawn solitude, To Feel Alone is even more spaciously drifting. Despite the calm, hypnotic backdrop, there’s unexpected venom in the album’s title track: as she tells it, breakup boyfriend is a fool’s errand.

Hill creates a similar dichotomy in the even more cynical Pretty View. The steel guitar sighs and swoops throughout Orb Weaver: spiders have seldom been portrayed so sympathetically. There’s more nocturnal gleam and glisten in the warmly enveloping empowerment anthem Listen to Me Tomorrow: “The older you get, these words are left unsaid,” Hill cautions. She winds up the album with Better Now, a mea culpa of sorts from a chronic depressive who’s self-aware enough to recognize how secondary trauma works. It’s an apt way to wind up an album that grimly evokes the emotional toll of these past twenty months.

Sparely Powerful, Lyrical Catalan Songcraft From Singer Lia Sampai

One of the most stunningly direct, potently lyrical albums of the year is Lia Sampai’s latest release Amagatalls de Llum (rough unpoetic translation from Catalan: Hidden in Plain Sight), streaming at youtube. Sampai sings with a disarmingly intimate, nuanced delivery and writes striking, imagistic lyrics, with a fearless political sensibility. Her images can be charming and quirky one second and venomous the next. While there’s a definite flamenco influence in her music, there are also elements of Portuguese fado, pan-Mediterranean balladry, art-rock and tinges of jazz, nimbly negotiated by acoustic guitarist Adrià Pagès. Some of the songs are simply guitar and vocals, others feature terse strings in places.

She opens with La Caixeta (The Box), a stately, romantic waltz that’s part fado, part flamenco and part vintage Parisian chanson. The doll imagery in the sparse, angst-fueled second track, La Nina comes across as more of a reflection on reconnecting with an inner conscience than with an inner child, Lia Manchón’s violin and Ester Trilla’s cello adding pensive ambience.

La Nit del Foc (Night of Fire) is a coy mashup of a dramatic Spanish waltz and a Dylanesque talking blues. Sampai follows a suspenseful trail of eerie, allusive images, up to a duende-fueled peak in Pinyols de Gel (Hailstorm), Pagès’ attack growing more unhinged along with her.

The shapeshifting political broadside Una Llum (A Light) is a real stunner, a slap upside the head of a petty tyrant whose insatiable desire for control backfires and ignites a revolution. Sampai wrote this in 2019, but it has infinite more resonance in the year where the World Economic Forum terrorists are throwing everything they have at us to try to keep their global takeover attempt from going off the rails.

Iris is a delicately waltzing, enigmatic, metaphorically loaded narrative about a dancer (or maybe a stripper). Weeping willow metaphors take centerstage in the stark, grim Salze Vell:

Que dins de tant de vent lo plor és silenci,
Com una paraula que interdiu algú.
I les fulles se revolten encriptades
D’una música que sols entenem junts
Plorem per amunt!
Plorem per amunt!
Alcem un crit de pena i llibertat

[rough translation]

A scream drowned by the wind
Like a forbidden word
And the leaves spin, encrypted
With a music that only we understand
Let’s scream it!
Let’s scream it!
Scream from sadness, for freedom

The catchy, lilting Joc de Miralls (Game of Mirrors) seems to an examination of how recognizing your shadow in someone else can be liberating, if a little scary.

Pagès’ starry electric guitar rings out over Emili Bosch’s synth in Astronautes, a playful outer-space love song. Sampai winds up the album with the understatedly haunting L’Endemà (The Day After), the strings lush and moody as Gerard Morató’s piano mingles with Lluís Pérez-Villegas’ glockenspiel. Sampai’s Christmas party narrative is joyous and not a little defiant, but there’s a sinister undercurrent. What a perfect song for a year when dictators are trying to tell us how many people we can invite to our private holiday celebrations.

Delicate, Warmly Enveloping Music For Harp and Guitar From Mirabai Ceiba

Mirabai Ceiba play delicate, warmly thoughtful, often hypnotic pastoral themes on harp and guitar. Sometimes harpist Angelika Baumbach colors the music with simple piano phrases, intertwining with Markus Sieber’s meticulously fingerpicked acoustic guitar, along with occasional resonant electric textures. Their new album The Quiet Hour – streaming at Bandcamp – has an understatedly persistent, optimistic, meditative quality. As you might expect, this duo likes long songs.

The first track is titled Ma. Baumbach sings the gentle mantra “My heart” over and over as the loopy web of acoustic guitar and harp grows increasingly intricate behind her.

The pattern continues in She (an original, not the 60s pop hit), a stately series of syncopated triplet figures underpinning Baumbach’s low-key meditation on connecting with the archetypal female.

Harp Lullaby is exactly that – it reminds of Kurt Leege‘s starry jazz lullabies

Baumbach duets with guest Marketa Irglova in the hushed, bittersweet Britfolk-flavored Take on a Thousand Forms. Que Quede Escrito features a stark string section and minimalist piano: Baumbach sings this tender spiritual in her native Spanish.

The album’s big meditative loopmusic epic is Ra Ma. The duo close the record with The Time Given to Us, its most bucolic and folk-tinged but also most anthemic number. If you’re feeling stressed – and who isn’t right now? – give this a spin.

Fun fact: the duo’s bandname is a shout out to both pioneering medieval Indian feminist and composer Mira Bai, and also the Ceiba tree, sacred to Mayan mythology.

Darkly Diverse, Atmospherically Trippy Sounds From Georgian Singer Nainnoh

Singer Nainnoh hails from the nation of Georgia, which has one of the world’s greatest and most distinctive choral music traditions. Georgian music is often described as otherworldly: its stark modes aren’t quite western, yet they don’t sound Middle Eastern or Asian, either. Much of Nainnoh’s debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – comes across as the missing link between Enya and Nico. English is not her strong suit – song titles are a giveaway – but to her credit she really enunciates. Behind her, spare acoustic guitars and layers of keyboards build an atmosphere that’s sometimes gothic, sometimes psychedelic.

She likes long songs: some of these tracks go on for five or six minutes apiece. Skip the opening ballad, which is pretty generic. The second track, Colors, is trippy trip-hop with brooding minor-key changes and tremoloing layers of keys. Sample lyric: “I am pixels.”

Nainnoh has fun with her pitch pedal in Water, building warpy ambience over spare, reverbtoned acoustic guitar. She follows Run, a starkly marching goth ballad with Threads, which sounds like Goldfrapp underwater.

Seasons could be late 90s Missy Elliott taking a stab at tropicalia. Nainnoh goes back toward gothic ambience in Reasons, pushing the bottom of her low register with mixed results. Angst rises in Break Apart, its loopy metal guitar shred half-buried in the mix: “Confrontation is a work of art,” Nainnoh muses.

The wafty keys, drum machine and ka-chunk sway return in Vital Illusions. Words is not a BeeGees cover but a catchy, surreal Gipsy Kings-style faux-flamenco tune. The airily gothic closing cut, Velvet Mode makes a good segue.

A Look Back at Abigail Lapell’s Searing, Brilliant Getaway Album

Abigail Lapell’s 2019 album Getaway – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most brilliantly lyrical, tersely melodic original folk albums of recent years. Her vocals are usually understated, so when she rises to the rafters with righteous wrath, it takes your breath away. Sandy Denny is the obvious influence. Likewise, there’s a smoldering anger here. Abandonment is a persistent theme. This is not music for the faint-hearted but it is an elixir for anyone who’s ever been screwed over. And the tunesmithing, and musicianship, and arrangements, are sharp and purposeful. Time may judge this a classic.

The album’s first track, Gonna Be Leaving begin with Lapell’s warpy, trebly hollowbody blues guitar over Lisa Bozikovic’s stately piano and a vocal line that in classical music would be called a rondo. It sets the stage for the rest of the album: there’s a crushing irony in how the protagonist’s escape foreshadows the antagonist’s subsequent departure.

Ask Me No Questions a brisk waltz with distant echoes of early Fairport Convention. The ending is crushing – it’s too good to spoil. If vindictive is your thing, this is your jam.

Lapell’s circling guitar voicings in Devll in the Deep are nothing short of gorgeous in this otherwise tormentedly crescendoing anthem, Rachael Cardiello’s viola adding bracing bursts of color. Lapell switches to piano for Leningrad, an even more witheringly cynical, wintry ballad: “I come from a better place, but I don’t have far to fall,” she alludes.

With its spare, fingerpicked guitar and fluttering mellotron, Sparrow for a Heart is the closest evocation of Sandy Denny here, Rebecca Hennessey adding somber trumpet. Christine Bougie’s keening lapsteel floats over Lapell’s steady strums in the spirited yet haggard road narrative Halfway to Mexico.

The tricky rhythms and Lapell’s blippy keyboards underscore the surreal milieu of UFO Song: like David Bowie, life on Mars seems to be an improvement…until the narrator here sees the spaceship.

Lapell builds a hypnotic backdrop with her accordion in Runaway, an atmospheric take on oldtime Appalachian folk. Likewise, Down by the Water is a spare, harmony-fueled front-porch folk number.

Lapell’s hammer-on guitar sparkles darkly under the brass section in Little Noise: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Linda Thompson catalog. The album’s final cut is Shape of a Mountain, rocky terrain as metaphor for a defiantly individualist and weatherbeaten heart, set against a starkly resonant full-band backdrop.

Thoughtful, Tuneful Pastoral Sounds From Andrew Rowan and Steven van Betten

Andrew Rowan and Steven van Betten have an attractively melancholy, bucolic chamber pop album, No Branches Without Trees. streaming at Bandcamp. Fans of the quiet side of Elliott Smith, or the early BeeGees, should check this out.

They open with Calico Basin, a wistful pastoral theme for strings. piano and glockenspiel God Given Beauty wouldn’t be out of place on Nick Drake’s first album, although this has more somber orchestration that blends with Rowan’s stark reed organ. The album’s title track is a wistful waltz, strings wafting starkly over van Betten’s delicately fingerpicked guitar.

“Have no fear when they come for you,” is the refrain in the Radiohead-tinged Little Boy: words to aspire to in an era of trace-and-track.

A quaint, fleeting string theme introduces Mining Claim, a brooding waltz that strongly brings to mind Philip Glass’ Dracula score. The narrative for Herrman, set to plaintive strings and guitar, is hauntingly allusive: it appears this Dutch gradeschooler survived the Holocaust, but his siblings may be another story. The album winds up on a similar note with Last Walk Through the Desert: as the strings flutter and shiver, does this guy ever make it out?

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.