New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: folk-rock

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.

A Gorgeously Jangly New Album by the Corner Laughers

The Corner Laughers play a sharply lyrical, catchy blend of jangly psychedelia, to richly arranged folk-rock and Americana and several other styles from th enew wave era. Their latest album Temescal Telegraph – streaming at Bandcamp – has some of the most gorgeous guitar work of any rock record released in recent months: clanging twelve-string lines, burning distortion, jaunty 80s British riffage, purist Americana, you name it, this band can play it.

The first track is Calculating Boy, an emphatic new wave number with jangly twelve-string guitar – that’s KC Bowman and Khoi Huynh switching off on guitar, bass and piano behind frontwoman/ukulele player Karla Kane’s cool, inscrutable vocals. This could be an older Pulp song with a woman out front, with a pair of doomed narratives about what sometimes happens to nonconformists: “Ever since she was a child she often smiled, mind over matter,” Kane intones.

Changeling, a backbeat soul tune with gospel organ, could be a well-produced Grateful Dead studio track. In The Accepted Time, Kane traces an impending breakup, from hope against hope, to a graveyard gate, over a lush bed of jangling, clanging guitar multitracks,

The Lilac Line is a blithe janglepop song, 90s Hoboken transplanted to the Bay Area. Loma Alta, a slow, summery 6/8 tableau, has piano chiming through the mix: the Jayhawks at their late 90s/early zeros peak come to mind. Then the band pick up the pace over a soul-clap beat with the new wave-tinged Sirens of the Pollen.

Wren in the Rain has hints of a Kinks classic amid the distantly uneasy, lusciously jangly, watery guitar textures. The lone cover here is a cheery, Beatlesque take of Martin Newell’s Goodguy Sun, swaying along amiably over drummer Charlie Crabtree’s coy flurries.

Skylarks of Britain is a lavishly arranged take on 60s British psych-folk – Sandy Denny-era Strawbs on steroids, maybe – with a trippy lyric that could be an inside joke. The band stay in Britfolk-rock mode to close the album with Lord Richard.

Stark, Simmering Americana Nocturnes from Clara Baker

Fire is a recurrent metaphor on Americana songstress Clara Baker‘s new album Things to Burn, streaming at Bandcamp. But it’s not a fullscale inferno: it’s more of a brush fire that won’t flame out. Baker is the rare singer whose unselfconscious, nuanced delivery, with just a tinge of vibrato at the end of a phrase, can bring to mind Erica Smith. The album’s production is similarly understated and tasteful, matching the persistent unease, and distant longing, and low-key sultriness of the vocals.

The echoey Rhodes piano and Baker’s sotto-voce delivery on the album’s title track make it easy to believe that this song is about seduction…and it is, but the sarcasm is subtle, and withering, underscored by the sudden bursts from Courtney Hartman’s noisy electric guitar.

The ambiece is more skeletal, set to a circular mandolin riff in the minor-key Appachian-tinged second track, Doubt:

My mama brought me up with fate, my daddy brought me up with facts
I wanna pray at the altar of the certainty I lack

Baker maintains the sparse atmosphere in A Memory, a brooding tale of abandonment: “Strong as I am, I could never compete with a memory,” she muses.

Baker’s use of space is masterful: the occasionsl washes of slide guitar, or a reverberating accent from the Rhodes, pepper the slow waltz More Than Enough, a classic 70s-style Nashville ballad with minimalist production values.

Middle of the Night begins ambiently and then hits a sleepless trip-hop beat: it’s the album’s poppiest song. Six Days of Rain is the album’s killer cut, a slowly crescendoing, calmly harrowing account of getting dumped after what must have been a tortuous relationship.

I Won’t Take My Time is more hopeful, an oldtime front porch-style tune at halfspeed with probably a tenth the usual amount of strumming. Moving On is not the Hank Snow classic but a pensive, metaphorically-charged, backbeat-driven acoustic rock tune: “I’m grasping at the edges of who I was before I changed,” Baker muses. She closes the album with the gorgeously subdued Old Mountains, which evokes acoustic Pink Floyd, references a BeeGees song and has one of Baker’s most potent lyrics:

In a moment of bliss
Do you panic
Knowing something this good
Could never last…
Are you mining for joy
In old mountains
Are you panning for gold
In rivers of the past
I’ve walked that road
It hurts like hell
Letting go
Is something I know well

Impactful stuff from a quietly powerful voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s Never Been a More Appropriate Time for a New Phil Ochs Album

Phil Ochs was the best songwriter to come out of the 1960s. Like Bob Dylan, he started out as a folksinger doing protest songs. Where Dylan drifted into electric blues and wove William Burroughs-inspired symbolist webs, Ochs wrote historically rich mini-movies set to contemporary classical music, neoromantic art-song and careening, jangly Laurel Canyon psychedelia. Like Dylan, he hit a dry spell after one of his greatest albums – the harrowingly prophetic 1968 Rehearsals For Retirement. A couple of years after Dylan made his first big comeback with Blood on the Tracks, Ochs killed himself.

While there are entire albums of Dylan covers (the Byrds and Mary Lee’s Corvette at the top of the list), very few artists have covered Ochs – Marianne Dissard‘s chillingly atmospheric recent version of The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns is a rare exception. Fortuitously, there seems to be an abundance of material in the Ochs archive that never made it to digital, as evidenced by the lavish, brand-new twenty-track compilation The Best of the Rest, just out and streaming at Spotify. While this isn’t all prime Ochs, his corrosive broadsides, cynical humor and profound insights into capitalism run amok have never been more relevant than they are now. As a starting point for an Ochs mixtape, this is a decent jumpoff point.

Most of the songs are acoustic outtakes from the sessions for his 1965 album I Ain’t Marching Anymore, signaling the point where he was beginning to stretch out beyond critiquing early Vietnam War-era politics from an aw-shucks, Woody Guthrie-influenced perspective. The first number, the solemly vamping In the Heat of the Summer allusively examines the Watts Riots. it’s more portrait than analysis.

The take of the famous Civil Rights era anti-racist dis Here’s to the State of Mississippi is every bit as stinging as the one that made it onto the album. And the take of the equally popular I’m Gonna Say It Now, a raised middle finger at patriarchal power, has a careening energy missing from the official mix. As a snide chronicle of exploitation and hypocrisy, Canons of Christianity is slightly more subdued but no less impactful.

The limousine-liberal parody Love Me, I’m a Liberal is just as funny as it was close to sixty years ago, especially if you get the historical references. Song of a Soldier is a Vietnam-era parable that carries much more of a wallop in an era where New York nurses on the frontline get a nightly 7 PM cheer…but no raise, and no time off, and minimal protective gear. The solo acoustic version of The War Is Over, from a 1967 radio session, is even more surreal than the album cut, and is even more uncanny, foreshadowing lockdown-era America.

Similarly, Days of Decision is Ochs’ eerily clairvoyant take on Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing, right down to the waltz tempo. Hearing Ochs’ intricate Britfolk fingerpicking in I’m Tired, it’s no wonder English folksinger Shawn Phillips chose to cover it. Colored Town is as spot-on a portrait of ghetto life as anything Public Enemy ever recorded. Likewise, the cruel details in the anti death penalty tale The Confession.

That’s What I Want to Hear probably ended up on the cutting-room floor because it’s less than empathetic: some people (like Ochs himself!) are sometimes too depressed to protest. The Men Behind the Guns, a quasi sea chantey, is a shout-out to the navy rank-and-file, a reminder that Ochs was once a military academy-educated rightwinger before college radicalized him for life. But Sailors and Soldiers is as gorgeous and insightful a salute to veterans and draftees as anyone’s ever written.

Take It Out of My Youth could be the most elegant barroom tableau anybody ever set to a Tex-Mex waltz tune, “As the hours escaped to dungeons of wet empty words.” Ochs was a connoisseur of nueva cancion tunesmithing, underscored by an insistent take of the migrant worker tale Bracero. All Quiet on the Western Front, a 1969 rarity, paints a chilling, historically rich portrait of blind obedience to tyranny. The album’s final cut is a rare and fascinating rehearsal take of No More Songs, one of the few recordings featuring Ochs on piano, explaining his ideas for orchestral arrangements to an unheard collaborator in between verses. One can only wonder how the person at the other end of the monitor responded to Ochs’ self-penned obituary.

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.

Shakey Graves’ Youtube Series Produces a Slyly Spot-On New Album

Shakey Graves’ sound has changed a lot since his wryly entertaining one-man-band days on the summer concert circuit over the last few years. But that’s ok – artists evolve. The question is whether Alejandro Rose-Garcia has simply followed his inner Badfinger muse, or if he’s been led astray by a holdover fringe of what’s left of the corporate music machine that imploded about fifteen years ago.

He’s definitely a lot more serious these days. The title track of his new ep Look Alive – a byproduct of his haphazardly inspired lockdown-era youtube series and streaming at Bandcamp– is a vampy 70s powerpop anthem. “I haven’t learned a thing since 1987,” he asserts – that’s the year he was born. Patrick O’Connor’s 12-string guitar riffs and a guitar-synth background linger throughout six sardonic minutes: long songs without digressive spoken-word interludes have not been this guy’s thing til now,

Jon Shaw’s boomy bass holds down the trip-hop groove of the second track, The Recipe, definitely a throwback: it’s an irresistibly funny look at really, REALLY bad branding. He mentions being free of some kind of past in Not Everything Grows, which follows a similar but more lo-fi pattern. The final product of this strange time is Under the Hood. “Use your eyes, don’t be easily deceived,” he warns calmly over an uncharacteristically woozy, techy backdrop. It speaks volumes that he uses autotune on the line “Don’t believe anything everyone tells you.” Big up to Shakey Graves for keeping the simple idea of a bunch of guys together in the studio making music alive at this pivotal historical moment.

Rome Connects Brooding European Gothic and Irish Dark Folk Traditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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