New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: folk-rock

Arooj Aftab’s Misty, Organic New Album Transcends Tragedy

Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab’s new album Vulture Prince – streaming at Bandcamp – takes its title from a Parsi funeral custom, where a body is left for the vultures in order to continue the natural cycle of life. The backstory is grim: the singer lost her younger brother Maher while making the record. Somehow she found the perseverance to transcend that tragedy. The central theme is revisiting places, and situations, and people, who may not exist anymore. With the lockdowners still exerting an iron grip on much of the world, the album couldn’t be more relevant.

As usual, Aftab defies categorization. Several of these songs could be called ghazals, but the instrumentation is more jazz and art-rock oriented. Baghon Main is a verdantly catchy remake of a track from her debut album, Maeve Gilchrist opening the song with a flourish on her harp, then Petros Klampanis’ stately bass and Juliette Jones’ distant violin enter the picture. Aftab’s meticulously modulated voice has taken on additional gravitas and maybe even more nuance – if that’s possible! – in the the years since.. And it’s the key to the album. Instrumental voicings that would have been spun through a mixer earlier in her career are organic now – the echo and doppler-like effects from the violin, for example.

Diya Hai has a similarly catchy, spiky backdrop, Badi Assad supplying  acoustic guitar with Jones’ shivery violin entering later, Aftab’s gently emotive voice just as haunting. She keeps her melismas low-key and lustrous in Inayaat, awash in violin, Aftab’s spare, hypnotic piano contrasting with the incisive pings and ripples of the harp. Percussionist Jamey Haddad’s shift from a drifting, ghazal-like feel to an implied qawwali groove is a striking touch.

Aftab multitracks her vocals in the starkly catchy minor-key dub reggae tune Last Night, a setting of a Rumi love poem with a handful of lines in English. Mohabbat comes across as a gently undulating mashup of Elizabethan British folk and Punjabi devotional music, Nadje Noordhuis’ resonant trumpet calm above Gyan Riley’s guitar, the harp and the tremoloing lines of the violin.

Aftab’s misty intonation of her late friend Annie Ali Khan’s lyrics in Saans Lo – an encouragement to move on and the closest thing here to Aftab’s swirly, immersive earlier work – is unselfconsciously wrenching. She closes the album with Suroor, her hazy vocals contrasting with the lively, lightly processed harp and a dancing rhythm: as imaginatively arranged as this is, it’s the closest thing to a traditional ghazal here.

Rainy-Day Desolation From Noeta

Noeta play spare, moody, often hypnotically melancholy songs influenced by Nordic folk and 80s goth music. An economy of notes is their thing. Judiciously fingerpicked acoustic guitar arpeggios, minimalist accordion drones and wafting atmospherics anchor frontwoman Êlea’s elegant chorister’s voice. The duo’s new album Elm is streaming at Bandcamp.

These songs unwind slowly, with catchy, often loopy riffs. Êlea sings the opening track, Dawn Fades, delicately and pensively, with a hint of medieval plainchant, over a catchy, circling, fingerpicked acoustic guitar progression. She soars more plaintively in the second track, As I Fall Silent as guitarist Ândris adds a buzzy dreampop edge.

His icy, misty reverb guitar and spare piano provide the backdrop in the aptly titled, desolate Disillusion. The drifting tableau Above and Below, awash in sad accordion and keys, has a totally early 80s 4AD feel.

True to its title, Fade is the most minimalist yet hypnotically lush track here. Incisively enigmatic fingerpicked guitar contrasts with Êlea’s girl-down-the-well vocals in As We Are Gone. The duo wind down the record with the menacingly whispery, stark title track and then a slightly more animated, less gloomy instrumental variation, Elm II. The last fourteen months have been relentlessly bleak: this album really nails that ambience.

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.

Celebrating the Spanish-Language Side of a Great Mexican-American Rock Bandleader

Patricia Vonne has been a fierce advocate for immigrant rights since bursting onto the Americana scene right around the turn of the century. She has an artistic bloodline: her great uncle, Guillermo Aguirre y Fierro, was an acclaimed Mexican poet, and her brother is filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. For those who aren’t already acquainted, a good way to get to know her fiery anthems and poignant ballads is her 2015 career retrospective, Viva Bandolera, streaming at Spotify.

It’s a long record, seventeen tracks. It’s missing one of her best songs, the escape anthem Blood on the Tracks (a title that took a lot of nerve to appropriate, but Vonne validated that hubris). Still, it’s packed with plenty of big concert favorites. Vonne’s richly arranged and orchestrated catalog comprises songs in both English and Spanish, this collection focusing on the Spanish material.

The self-described “blood drenched love song” Traeme Paz (Bring Me Peace) opens the album, Vonne’s wounded, full-throated delivery over a lushy syncopated web of guitars. The similarly aching, swaying minor-key ranchera rock anthem Dulce Refugio (Sweet Refuge) draws on an Aguirre y Fierro poem, Insomnio. Vonne flexes her signature castanets in El Marinero y La Sirena (The Sailor and the Mermaid), looking at the lure of the mermaid archetype from both male and female perspectives.

The album’s bristling, mariachi-rock title track celebrates a female bandit who gets sweet revenge on the Texas Rangers who murdered her husband. The lusciously jangly Qué Maravilla (How Marvelous) may be a love song, but there’s a persistent dark undercurrent. With its spiraling leads and inventive drums, Guitarras y Castañuelas – the title track from Vonne’s second album – is a sultry shout-out to her cultural heritage on both sides of the Atlantic. Lowlit by accordion, violin and a glimmering piano solo, the subtly bolero-tinged (The Orchard of St. Vincent) is a salute to Federico Garcia Lorca.

The one song here that hasn’t stood the test of time is Torera – it’s no less gauche for an armed woman to kill a defenseless animal than it is for a man. Vonne builds a suspenseful Sevillian flamenco atmosphere in La Gitana de Triana (The Triana Gypsy) and follows that with one of her most searing rock anthems, Mujeres Desaparecidas (Missing Women), memorializing the scores of Juarez women abducted and murdered in transnational drug wars.

Echoing with ominous tremolo guitar, the briskly pulsing Fuente Vaqueros (Fountain of the Cowboy), reflects on Lorca’s early years. Vonne follows that with a couple of drinking songs, the crescendoing, reggae-tinged nocturne Fiesta Sangria and the reverb-drenched southwesten gothic anthem Tequileros, a salute to bootleg hooch.

La Lomita de Santa Cruz (The Cross on the Hill) has a similar, moodily twangy energy, a reflection on keeping cultural traditions alive. With its somber trumpet, the breakup ballad Soledad has a towering angst. The last vocal number here, Severina, is Vonne’s tender dedication to her grandmother. One side of Vonne that’s been overlooked is that she also writes great instrumentals, underscored by the album’s closing spaghetti western theme, Mexicali de Chispa (Mexicali Spark), one of several collaborations here with her filmmaker brother.

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.

A Gorgeous, Prophetic Protest Anthem From the Jigsaw Seen’s Dennis Davison

After years of fronting the brilliantly lyrical, psychedelic Jigsaw Seen, Dennis Davison made waves with his similarly tuneful solo debut album earlier this year. As it turned out, he has a lot more material in the can than just the tunes on that album, including his visionary latest single, The Monuments, a name-your-price download at Bandcamp.

The cover alone will creep you out: a corpse-like statue in tribute to the “Confederate States of America 1861-1865.” But look closer: the statue has been splattered with paint. Over a lush, brooding web of twelve-string guitar and bass, Davison warns of a paradigm shift. The dictator at the center of the story won’t budge:

You live in peace
Upon the gift of my consent
I’ll set you free
The day that they topple the monuments

But Davison knows that they’re going to be “ground into powder, the graven marble recast.” Take off that muzzle, hug your friends, we’re free! Watch for this at the top of the best songs of 2020 page here at the end of the year.

A Big Dose of Hilarious, Sharply Lyrical, Tuneful Black Dirt Country Rock From Joe Stamm

If you’re a musician trying to build an audience, you can’t do better than Americana rocker Joe Stamm, who has one of the most sophisticated and well thought-out marketing campaigns this blog has ever encountered. There’s a catch, though…his system won’t work for you unless you have the material to back it up.

What he wants you to do when you visit his webpage is to sign up for his “online album adventure,” with a lot of freebies. So maybe you do that…and half an hour later, it hits you that you’re still there, still listening. This guy is good!

He calls his music black dirt country rock. He can be outrageously funny one moment and dead serious the next. He’s a strong singer, a hell of a storyteller and has a good sense of the kind of incident where there’s a song just waiting to be written about it. Like pretty much everybody in his line of work did before the lockdown, he made his living on the road.

When you sign up, he sends you all the stuff in a series of emails. with a lot of mini-playlists, free downloads and videos. Day one is a good introduction. It begins with a free download of High Road Home, an ambiguous and troubled workingman’s anthem (Stamm has a LOT of those). There’s more than a hint of Sam Llanas soul in the vocals, in this live duo version with low-key, purposeful acoustic lead player David Glover.

There’s also a duo version of the grimly aphoristic Crow Creek in the original A major key – which actually turns out better than the minor-key version Stamm recorded in the studio. But the centerpiece is Blame It on the Dog. It’s insanely funny and it has a trick ending. Without giving too much away, the dog is not always to blame for what’s going on here.

Later on during the “adventure” he celebrates “Busch Lights and a purple haze” – yikes – over a slow soul sway in a full band version of Bottle You Up, a salute to daydrinking. It’s also Stamm’s opportunity to pitch his line of suggestive beer-related t-shirts and such.

A little further into the “adventure” he completely flips the script with Ring of Roses, a folksy, John Prine-ish number inspired by a guy who was in hospice care, but that didn’t stop him from planning his next construction project. For freedom-loving people in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Stamm’s next gig is on Oct 10 at 10 PM at Bigs Bar at 3110 W. 12th St.

You may be wondering why on earth a New York music blog would be paying so much attention to shows in such a faraway place as South Dakota. There are actually many reasons why, which you should think about, and one of them is that there are there’s more going on musically in South Dakota than there is in New York City right now – at least as far as publicly advertised shows are concerned. And if that’s not cause for concern, somebody’s asleep at the wheel. 

Smartly Woven Southern Gothic Tunesmithing From Abigail Dowd

Rural life isn’t easy, as folk music from around the world will never let you forget. Abigail Dowd draws on that tradition, with imagistic tales which reflect how much things have changed – and also how little. She’s got a big, bluesy voice, like Lucinda Williams before the booze caught up with her, as well as way with a sharp turn of phrase and a solid supporting cast of players behind her. Travelers and outsiders figure heavily in her songs. Her new album Not What I Seem is streaming at Bandcamp.

The stripped-down arrangement in the biting, minorr-key, bluesy Wiregrasser – just acoustic rhythm guitar, lead slide guitar and steady bass – underscores Dowd’s hardscrabble tableau, where people extract everything from the surrounding woods until there’s nothing left but creosote.

“I mostly look out for myself,” Dowd’s cynical narrator relates in The Other Side over a catchy, Dylanesque sus4 riff – but she also asserts that “When you get to heaven, there’ll be many a party, but there won’t be nobody there that you know.”

Over a spiky web of fingerpicked guitars, Dowd chronicles a harrowing southern legacy in Old White House. Dowd’s fingerpicking grows more spare and enigmatic in the album’s title track, a defiant, solo acoustic individualist’s anthem.

“I remember looking for a smile, and meeting cold steel eyes,” Dows recounts as Chosin, a searing memoir of how war trauma crosses generations, rises from a hazy intro to a briskly ringing, open-tuned melody. “Stand and fight, you fool, ‘cause no one’s gonna out alive/Watch out, how many of these wounds are mine?”

Dowd looks back on an uneasy transition from southern comfort to New England chill in Goodbye Hometown. She takes that story further into a troubled future in Oh 95, a vivid traveler’s tale: “When you’re all alone you speak the truth,” she reflects.

Dowd and the band pick up the pace with Desire, a shuffling minor-key tale set in coalmining country. Alienation is a persistent theme in these songs, and the stark To Have a Friend is the most forlorn of all of them.

Drag Me Down is an unexpected turn toward acoustic White Album-era Beatles. She keeps the low-key, fingerpicked ambience going with Daredevil: “Let me be the devil on your shoulder, I’m daring you to live,” Dowd cajoles.

She takes a turn into Lou Reed territory in Sweet Love and then returns to Americana, singing a-cappela in the album’s closing cut, Silent Pines, a gospel-flavored revolutionary anthem. If best-of-2020 lists still exist when this hellacious year is over, you’re going to see this album on a lot of them.

Emma Swift’s Blonde on the Tracks – Best Album Title Ever?

If you’re a woman putting out an album of Dylan covers, you can’t do any better than Emma Swift’s Blonde on the Tracks. It’s just as irresistible contentwise as it is titlewise, and it’s streaming at Bandcamp.

As Dylan cover albums go, the gold standard is Mary Lee’s Corvette’s live version of Blood on the Tracks. Until that record came out in 2002, The Byrds Play Dylan was the benchmark for smartly arranged rock versions of songs by the guy who would eventually give us Murder Most Foul. Swift’s record is a mix of both. Take the first track, Queen Jane Approximately. Swift gives the vocals both country twang and hash-oil mist, leaving no doubt what this song’s about. The mix of acoustic and twelve-string guitars behind her is a throwback to the Byrds but with more balanced, digital 21st century production.

The rest of the record is a mix of classics and obscurities. Swift really goes deep into the lyrics in a skeletal but wickedly nuanced take of I Contain Multitudes: recognizing how well this weatherbeaten late-period song is suited to a woman’s voice was a genius move.

It would have been just as brilliant if Swift had put a brass section on the big Frankenstein piano hook in Sooner or Later One of Us Must Know. She doesn’t – in fact, she takes it out completely, going for a spare, hazy atmosphere, which is a letdown, Mining iconic songs like this can be a minefield and in this case it blows up in her face – although the pedal steel is a welcome touch.

Likewise, the wide-angle tremolo guitar and organ really help Swift nail every ounce of angst in Simple Twist of Fate, one of those Blood on the Tracks songs that deserved production this intuitive. Her cover of Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands is one of the great WTF moments in rock history, right up there with Carol Lipnik’s symphonic Spanish-language version of Freebird. For what it’s worth, this is an improvement on the original: Swift bails just short of the twelve minute mark and actually manages to give the lyrics some wistfulness.

She goes for counterintuitive again with The Man in Me, the closest thing to genuine Blonde on Blonde here. Lyrically, it’s a throwaway, but the band elevate it beyond the schlockiness of the original. With tasty acoustic/electric contrasts, they’re just as inspired in Going Going Gone, and Swift has fun with a couple of big Patsy Cline-style upward swoops.

She winds up the album with another Blood on the Tracks number, You’re a Big Girl Now: the vocals are an improvement but the flangey faux-70s guitars are not. Dylan fans are going to pick this to death far beyond anything on this page: and every single one of them’s going to want to hear it.