New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: folk-rock

Sarah McQuaid’s Starkly Lyrical New Live Album Captures a Dark Zeitgeist

Songwriter Sarah McQuaid was into the early part of a marathon 2020 tour when live music was criminalized throughout most of the world. Since she’d planned on making a live album while on the road, she made one closer to home, solo acoustic in the charming, medieval Cornwall church where she sings in a choir. The result is the vinyl record The St Buryan Sessions, streaming at Bandcamp. McQuaid has made a lot of good, darkly pensive albums over the years and this might be the best of them all, a quasi greatest hits collection that promises to have lasting historical resonance, capturing the zeitgeist of a moment that the world would rather never revisit.

Even the guarded, seductive optimism of What Are We Going to Do, in the stark solo electric version here, is far more muted than the original. The record is notable right off the bat for having the only recording of McQuaid singing Sweetness and Pain – a troubled but ultimately hopeful, plainchant-inspired mini-suite – as a contiguous whole. She does that a-cappella, taking advantage of the church’s rich natural reverb and what could be more than a two-second decay.

That reverb also enhances both McQuaid’s guitar and piano work. There’s a similarly resolute sense of hope through dark times in the second song, The Sun Goes On Rising. McQuaid’s voice is strong anyway, and here she reaches back for power to match the anxiousness and uncertainty.

If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous – what a song title for the fall of 2021, right? – brings to mind Richard Thompson‘s solo acoustic work, McQuaid starkly fingerpicking an enigmatic blues behind her loaded imagery. For the record, the vocal harmonies are live loops.

She switches to piano for The Silence Above Us, a brooding, slow, nocturnal waltz which seems practically prophetic, considering the events of 2020. One Sparrow Down is an understatedly grim little swing tune about a cat-and-bird game, McQuaid backing herself with just a kickdrum.

The sparkling open-tuned guitar melody of Charlie’s Gone Home, one of McQuaid’s earliest songs, contrasts with the elegaic narrative. The rainy-day jazz guitar backdrop dovetails more closely with the volcanic portents of Yellowstone, McQuaid capping it off with a slashing flourish.

Time to Love is the sparest, most hypnotic number here and makes a good segue with her similarly sparse cover of Autumn Leaves where she really airs out her upper register. Live vocal loops enhance the somber reflections on mass mortality that pervade In Derby Cathedral: yesterday the church crypt, tomorrow the world.

McQuaid loves open tunings, best exemplified by her eerily echoing, chiming, increasingly macabre phrasing over an ominously swooping bassline in the instrumental The Day of Wrath, That Day. She keeps the subdued atmosphere going in, the pall lifting a little in The Tug of the Moon.

She returns to piano, adding gravitas to Michael Chapman’s Rabbit Hills, pulling it closer toward pastoral Pink Floyd territory. The closing number, Last Song is a requiem for McQuaid’s mom – a musician herself – and a reflection on the enduring strength of intergenerational traditions.

A Colorfully Lyrical, Fast-Fingered Songwriter on the High Plains

Billy Lurken is the rare Americana songwriter who’s also a hell of a lead guitarist. His axe is acoustic. He gets a much bigger sound out of his guitar than most guys who usually play solo, and does the same on the banjo. He’s just as strong at bluegrass-style flatpicking as he is with the big jazzy chords of western swing and his own high-voltage take on the blues. He’s also a vivid chronicler of the anomie and quiet desperation everyday people face in Flyover America. Born in Minnesota and raised in South Dakota, he’s a fixture on the high plains circuit. His next gig is a free outdoor show on Sept 19 at 2 PM at Wilde Prairie Winery, 48052 259th St. in Brandon, South Dakota.

Lurken’s songs pick up on the little details but also capture the big picture. “It’s a Monday-through-Friday sort of dying” is one of the key lines in the Studs Terkel-influenced number he opened with on a segment of the No Cover, No Minimum show on South Dakota Public tv which you can stream here.

Movin’ On is a showcase for Lurken’s fast fingers on the frets: it’s a brisk early 50s style western swing-infused boogie about how the years can take their toll on a couple.

One of his most memorable story-songs is Home, a fast-picked chronicle of something less than bliss on the blue-collar domestic front. For all the detail – the dust-streaked Cadillac, the stoned girl on the back porch with her “Audrey Hepburn shades” – it’s what Lurken doesn’t say that packs the biggest punch.

And he has upbeat, optimistic songs to balance out the gloomy ones. There’s Girl in the Flowered Dress, a showcase for his chops. Tumbleweed, a studio recording, has a luscious, bluegrass-infused mix of guitar and banjo. And Rider, a cowboy tune, is a stark, nimbly fingerpicked Jimmie Rodgers-style blues.

If it might seem odd that a blog which has advocated for live music throughout the five boroughs of New York might be paying so much attention to South Dakota, that’s because South Dakota is a free state. There’s no apartheid there, no spyware required to go indoors at venues, restaurants and bars. That’s the way it is throughout the rest of the free states: Florida, Texas and across the plains. America’s Frontline Doctors have filed a civil rights lawsuit to overturn Mayor Bill DiBozo’s evil, unconstitutional edict, and at the moment a lot of businesses aren’t enforcing it. Until we succeed in liberating ourselves, you may see more of what’s happening in the land of “Great Faces, Great Places” here.

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.

Fearless Texans Raise Their Voices For Freedom in Austin

Songwriter Five Times August was obviously amped to open Texans for Vaccine Choice‘s massive protest at the Capitol building in Austin yesterday. So amped that as he left the stage, he forgot to tell the audience who he was. It took a vociferous reminder from a woman in the front row to send him back to the mic. You can watch the whole performance, as well as the inspiring parade of medical professionals and activists afterward, at the Highwire.

For someone who over the past year has been writing catchy, corrosively funny, tragically perceptive protest songs, gigs don’t get any better than the chance to play to a robust, impressively diverse crowd of over a thousand people. The guitarist and singer otherwise known as Brad Skistimas opened with his lone cover of the day, an aptly Steve Earle-influenced take of Tom Petty’s Won’t Back Down. Then the lyrics and the jokes started flying, fast and furious.

God Help Us All, a spiky, fingerpicked tune, might be the biggest viral hit (pun intended) Skistimas has had so far, no doubt due in part to the hilarious video on the front page of his website.

Citizen fools and brand new rules make everyone a hero now
Keep your distance, no resistance, only do what you’re allowed…
See no evil, bow to the needle, didn’t we turn out great?
Sick is the new hell, poor is the new well, truth is whatever they say…
Divide and conquer, weak not stronger, everybody know your place
Do it now, it won’t hurt, dig into your own dirt, virtue found its grave

His third number was an update on what Woody Guthrie did with This Land Is Your Land. The horror-stricken ballad Jesus What Happened to Us was taken down by youtube, no surprise considering the lyrics. It’s Eve of Destruction with a locked-in, lockdown-era focus: “Keep staring at your smartphone, get dumber every week,” Skistimas taunted.

The funniest song of the afternoon (and most hilarious video he’s made so far) was Outttayerdaminde, a rapidfire Subterranean Homesick Blues flavored broadside that makes savage fun of narcissists run amok on Tik Tok. The quietest and most sobering number was a new one, a sad waltz titled Silent War:

Someone is trying to sell you the cure
Same one who made the disease
And they’ll try to convince you, and make you feel sure
But hey, there ain’t no guarantee
They’ve covered your mouth and tied back your hands
They did it to all of the kids
And nobody knows all the damage it’s done
And won’t ask until the master permits

He wound up the set with the bouncy, defiant I Will Not Be Leaving Quietly.

The speakers afterward were a microcosm of the kind of ordinary heroes who have sprung up around the world in the past year and a half. Physician assistant Miguel Escobar, whose incendiary address to his local muzzlemaniac school board went viral a couple weeks ago, spoke truth to power in both English and Spanish (even if you’re a non-native Spanish speaker, he’s very easy to understand). He takes the mic at 1:19:00.

Irrepressibly upbeat hero nurse Jennifer Bridges – who is suing her former employer, Houston Methodist Hospital for being wrongfully fired for refusing the kill shot, even though she has natural immunity to Covid – is at 2:09:55. The Highwire’s Del Bigtree closed the afternoon with an impromptu challenge to the crowd to take the energy of the rally home with them. He’s at 3:18:21 in the video.

As the irreplaceable and tirelessly entertaining Dr. Pam Popper has revealed, the 70% figure the US government has been throwing around is a lie. The Kaiser Family Foundation study she cites, based on individual state records, puts the actual percentage of the population who’ve been coerced or terrorized into taking the kill shot at less than half that. Bigtree elaborated on a point he made a couple weeks ago on the Highwire, that the roughly sixty percent majority who won’t take the kill shot is not going to budge, and that the PR campaign behind it is dead in the water. Our challenge is to be less of a silent majority, organize and get back to normal, because nobody’s going to do it for us.

Speaking of which, there’s a big protest at City Hall here in Manhattan on August 25 at 4 PM.

A Brilliant, Spot-On 60s-Style Psychedelic Debut From Langan Frost & Wane

Langan Frost & Wane are a fantastic psychedelic folk-pop band. Their debut album – streaming at Spotify – straddles the line between period-perfect homage to their influences from the 60s, and parody of psychedelic excess. Brian Langan, RJ Gilligan (a.k.a. Frost) and Nam Wayne‘s songcraft and musicianship is very precise and very British, distantly sinister Elizabethan folk surrealism spiced with a hit of good blotter. The blend of acoustic and electric textures is elegant; most of these songs are over in well under four minutes, sometimes much less. Yet this isn’t sunshine pop: there’s a persistent disquieted edge here. Acid is scary stuff, after all.

The opening track, Perhaps the Sorcerer sets the stage: it’s Jethro Tull meets the Peanut Butter Conspiracy out behind the Moody Blues’ tour van in a shady Laurel Canyon back alley around 1970. With its gorgeously uneasy close-harmonied vocals, mellotron and faux-Balkan guitars, it’s done in less than 2:30.

The Dandelion has somberly arpeggiated folk guitar behind all sorts of goofy mid-60s effects including a jawharp, akin to an acoustic Dukes of Stratosphear. Falcon Ridge is a medieval Scottish-tinged waltz – the singer assures his girl that he will be there with “wagons of wine in tow.”

Babe and the Devil, a murder mystery tale, is a delta blues as the Stones would have done it on Beggars Banquet, complete with djembe instead of Charlie Watts’ drums. The band channel the Pretty Things at their trippy mid-60s peak in King Laughter, guitar sitar oscillating and clanging behind the song’s troubled narrative: where do good times go when they’re over?

Delicate hammer-on folk guitar mingles with glockenspiel in Everyday Phoenix. Frozen Shell comes across as a tripped-out take on gloomy Celtic balladry. On the surface, Learn the Names of the Plants sounds like Peter Paul & Mary, but there’s guile here: “Know the nightshade from the blueberry and live to see tomorrow!”

Gentle penumbral oscillations from the guitars enhance the unease in the stark, minor-key Libra Moon. Is Alchemist of Hazy Row about a sad drug dealer or a bereaved father? Maybe neither – the soaring violin solo is a tantalizingly plaintive touch, and the ending is way too good to give away. It might be the best song on the album.

The trio go back to SF Sorrow-era Pretty Things for The Weaver and the Traveler, with hobbits on the keys to liven the somber mood. Then they shift from a pounding, echoey dulcimer theme to Moody Blues sweep and Syd Barrett playfulness in Orange Magic

Set to an aptly feathery web of acoustic guitars, Everywing is a brooding medieval existentialist love story. She Walks Alone could be a sequel, and is the only remotely Beatlesque track here. The album closes with the pensive, enigmatic, violin-fueled Diomyria. Admittedly, 2021 has been the slowest year for rock records since rock records first existed. But even in a busy year, this would be one of the best.

Iconic Guitarist and Bassist Release a Blissfully Gorgeous Duo Record

The preeminent jazz guitarist of our time and one of our era’s greatest and most distinctive bassists played a gorgeous 2017 duo session originally released as part of a box set which is now available for the first time as a stand-alone vinyl record. Bassist Skúli Sverrisson wrote the music on his album Strata – streaming at Spotify – for guitarist Bill Frisell, whose resonant lyricism and judicious, terse overdubs are a perfect fit for these sublime melodies. Frisell likes working in a duo situation and in 35 years of recording, this is his best album in that configuration. Pretty much everything Frisell has ever done since this blog went live has ended up in the ten-best list at the end of the year and this should be no exception.

The first track on the record is Sweet Earth, a lingering, echoey, jangly, distantly Britfolk-tinged theme. The bass is typically so sparse that it’s almost invisible…or simply seamless. The second song, Instants has the feel of an arpeggiated Nordic space-surf instrumental: right up Frisell’s alley, or one of them. Again, the intertwine of the two instruments is such that it’s often impossible to figure out who’s playing what, especially as the song takes on a more fugal feel, or when the bass is shadowing the guitar.

Frisell plays twelve-string on the ravishing, chiming, bittersweet Vanishing Point, a waltz pulsing along on a steady, emphatically minimalist bassline. Ancient Affection is more complex, Frisell adding ominously psychedelic fuzztone resonance beneath the increasingly intricate, glistening thicket overhead. Sverrisson’s spare chromatics add suspense to his steady arpeggios beneath Frisell’s spare, echoey riffs in the austere, moody Came to Light, which closes the first album side.

Side two opens with Cave of Swimmers, a slow, rapt, warily strolling theme with distant baroque echoes. There’s also a spare, gently emphatic fugal sensibility in Amedeo, Frisell’s low accents adding a warm resolve to this otherwise rather opaque tune.

Sverrisson’s variations on a staggered, loping riff hold the foreground as Frisell fills out the picture with a lingering bittersweetness in Afternoon Variant. The simply titled Segment is an echoey tone poem of sorts. The duo wind up the album with Her Room and its gentle echoes of a well-known David Lynch film theme. Whether you call this jazz or jangly rock – it’s both, in the best possible ways – this is one of the most unselfconsciously beautiful albums of the year.

Broodingly Individualistic, Haunting Russian Folk Noir From Julia Vorontsova

Julia Vorontsova plays Russian folk noir. The sound of her voice and her lute are much the same, a muted, disconsolate presence. One suspects that her lead guitarist, Zeke Zema, would rather be playing metal, but on her 2016 album Over – streaming at Spotify – his biting, distorted lines are usually back in the mix. Of all the albums to have made it to the hard drive here over the past few years, this is one of the most haunting. Vorontsova’s lyrics – in Russian and Romanes – reflect a lot of irony, heartbreak and dissolution.

The instrumentation is spare but intricately layered, with acoustic and electric guitars and Marie-Sophie Leturq,’s resonant cello over a low-key rhythm section of Ian Walker on bass and Aaron Sterling  on drums. The quietly brooding opening track, St. Pete is just variations on an enigmatic lute riff, the drums like furtive footfalls in the snow.

The second cut, Malenitsa, is a briskly swaying minor-key folk tune lowlit with ghostly, shimmery guitar lines. Oubliette, a dark Russian cabaret number set to a rock backbeat, contains two of the album’s most haphazardly incisive guitar solos. Gently vibrato-tinged cello floats beneath Vorontsova’s delicate fingerpickng in Gretchen, a melancholy, Goethe-inspired waltz.

The album’s longest song is Gypsy, a sotto-voce, somewhat hypnotic duet. After that, Vorontsova goes back to mashing up Russian cabaret with steady, strolling, uneasy Laurel Canyon psychedelia in Alps, capped off by a moody slide guitar solo. Shivery cello and acidically hovering electric guitar mingle with Vorontsova’s nimble fingerpicking in Knight Violin.

She reverts to quiet, nebulous, overcast sonics for Nameless and its unexpectedly tricky rhythms. The album’s title track is a slow, conspiratorial, Romany jazz-tinged waltz with an unexpected guitar duel midway through.

The first of two tracks titled Prayer, an elegantly swaying ballad in 6/8 time could be Marissa Nadler in Russian – at least until the strut at the end with all the frenetically bluesy guitar. With its steady, syncopated drive and grimly gorgeous layers of guitar, Pick is the album’s mighty, understated peak. Likewise, the even quieter Prayer 2 has a macabre undercurrent. Vorontsova closes the record with Air, a spare, skeletally dancing number with bells and lots of ringing guitar harmonics. Even if you don’t speak Russian, this is a rapturously good listen if you gravitate toward music reflecting the kind of darkness that has surrounded us since March 16 of last year

Looking Back on a Unique, Individualistic New York Art-Rock Project

Pan-Asian-influenced art-rock band Carbonworks were one of the most interestingly eclectic groups to emerge in New York in the late teens. They were essentially a studio project. They put out just one album, early in 2017 and played a single gig to celebrate it – in Chinatown, if memory serves right. But that album is still streaming at Soundcloud. Fans of ornate 70s psychedelic bands like Genesis, and adventurous string ensembles like the Kronos Quartet, are especially encouraged to check it out.

The album opens with Song for an Angel, a slow, brooding Ladino waltz with plaintive violin from Allegra Havens and Phi Khanh’s distinctive vocals over bassist Shea Roebuck and drummer Mike Stetina’s rock rhythm. Khanh switches to Vietnamese over Chau Nguyen’s fluttery dan tranh zither in the introduction to By the Window, which rises to a mashup of the Mission Impossible theme and quasi trip-hop.

They go back to moody waltz territory, awash in lush strings, for the cynical God Save the King “Everything you wanted somehow slipped away,” Khanh laments. They pick up the pace in a tricky 14/8 beat for the punk-tinged Samurai, which could be a Changing Modes song, right down to Khanh’s somber vocals.

Monaco, a pulsing one-chord instrumental jam, comes across as the Alan Parsons Project with more organic production – and a koto mingling with bandleader Neal Barnard’s piano against stark strings. With its soaring vocal harmonies and swirling strings, Louder Than Words wouldn’t be out of place in the My Brightest Diamond catalog.

The album’s centerpiece is the four-part End of the World Suite. A stark string trio (also including violist Anastasia Migliozzi and cellist Jeff Phelps) over a galloping beat signals Part 1: The Beginning of the End, then Chris Thomas King’s bluesy guitars enter and pull the music toward Pink Floyd bluster. With its trickily rhythmic, loopily acidic guitar-and-violin harmonies, Part 2: Love and Illusion brings to mind the Turtle Island Quartet’s 80s experimentations.

The strings intertwine bustlingly with Russell Kirk’s sax over steady, shapeshifting rhythms in Part 3: The End. Only the suite’s coda, Winged Victory, with its brief dan tranh and Renaissance-tinged vocal interludes, has any discernible apocalyptic quality. The album concludes with West Pier, a melancholy, distantly baroque-tinged piece for string quartet and voice.

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.