New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: folk-rock

Everybody’s Favorite Americana Harmony Trio, Red Molly, Make a Triumphant Return to City Winery

Is there another Americana band with as individualistic and spine-tingling a blend of voices as Red Molly? Actually yes – Bobtown, who played the Brooklyn Americana Festival on Saturday. More about them later.

Red Molly’s first New York show in two years last night at City Winery was epic. The harmony trio of dobro player Abbie Gardner, guitarists Molly Venter and Laurie MacAllister really give you a lot of bang for your buck. In two long sets, bolstered by bassist Craig Akin and Roosevelt Dime guitarist/percussionist Eben Pariser, they played a wickedly fun, dynamic mix of originals and a bunch of choice covers.

Each group member has a solo album in progress: MacAllister fretted about how the trio would be able to “shoehorn the songs into a Red Molly show,” but everything worked seamlessly. As usual, the women took turns on lead vocals, often in the same number. Venter took centerstage on one of the best of the new songs, Cold Black Water, a portrait of an indomitable single mother making a new start on the rugged Oregon coast, rising from an enigmatic, quiet suspense on the verse to a ferociously anthemic payoff on the chorus. Another standout was a hauntingly muted ballad by Gardner, told from the point of view of a war veteran’s wife who’s watching her wounded warrior trying to keep himself together.

And the voices were sublime. Gardner has jazz bloodlines and Venter is a connoisseur of Texas Americana, with blue notes peeking out from every secret corner. MacAllister contrasts with a disarmingly direct delivery. And while there was plenty of the usual banter between the group and what seemed to be a sold-out crowd, MacAllister came across as the ringleader in this merry band. Introducing a rousing number inspired by a gig in Alaska that wound up with a dude in the crowd throwing a taxidermied fox onto the stage, she related how, for a woman in a state with a gender imbalance, “The odds were good, but the goods were odd.”

The best song of the night was When It’s All Wrong. Gardner’s dobro slid and slithered through every macabre passing tone in the scale as her voice channeled a bitterness and menace that Lana Del Rey and all the other wannabe noir pinups would die to have written.                   

The covers were choice, beginning with the famous Richard Thompson tune from which they take their name. Gardner drew lots of chuckles with a sly little dobro lick on the intro to Crazy, which Venter sang with a nuance that would have made Patsy Cline proud. The three-part harmonies, backed by just bass, on The Fever were a lot of fun, while the group’s most calmly rapturous moment was their a-capella take of their original May I Suggest. As long as Red Molly are still together and touring – something that didn’t seem likely a couple of years ago – maybe, despite the madmen in the White House, we are truly living in the best years of our lives. The darkest times sometimes produce the greatest art. Red Molly’s current tour continues on Oct 6 at at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, CA; advance tix are $25.

Next month is a particularly good one at City Winery, Just for starters, Willie Nile – the world’s most obvious choice to sing Dylan – does that on the 10th at 8 PM: tix are expensive, $30, but this could be an awful lot of fun. And then there’s a killer twinbill on the 15th at 8 with blue-eyed soulstress and fiery guitarslinger Miss Tess followed by one of the great songwriters in noir Americana, Eilen Jewell, for $20.

And Gardner has a solo show at Pete’s on Oct 17 at 8:30 PM

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Joshua Garcia Brings His Harrowing, Relevant Tunesmithing to a Cozy West Village Spot

When describing a singer-songwriter, the term “troubadour” is typically misused to the most ridiculous extent possible. Most of the culprits are part of the corporate publicity  machine, or those who still kiss up to it, probably because they’ve been kissing up to it for so long that they’ve forgotten that it has nothing left for them. But that’s another story.

In the Middle Ages, the troubadours – a French word – were the CNN of Europe. Making their way precariously from town to town, through thickets of bandits – with whom they undoubtedly shared more than we’ll ever know – they carried news, and rumors, and often outright falsehoods about what was going on in the wider world. For some mead and a meal and a bed, they’d keep the night going with drinking songs and sex songs, and maybe there’d be a jam session at the end. Relics of this ancient ritual persist in bars around the world.

The obvious conclusion is that in the age of CNN, there’s hardly a need for troubadours. But in an era when so much news is no more reliable than the apocryphal tales spread by well-traveled, hardworking guys picking up bits and pieces of information here and there and weaving them into a semi-plausible whole, maybe we need to rethink that conclusion. That’s where somebody like Joshua Garcia comes in.

Garcia sings in a strong, confident baritone that harks back to the more purposeful folk voices of the 1950s folk revival: in other words, he isn’t trying to be Dylan or, for that matter, John Mayer. Likewise, his guitar picking is steady, and fluid, and fluent in several bluesy styles. He writes in images: rather than telling you what’s going on, he gives you an audio movie to figure out. He’s got a deadpan sense of humor that can be very grim, which makes sense considering who’s in the Oval Office right now.

At his show at the American Folk Art Museum a couple of weeks ago, you could have heard a pin drop. “I’m not used to playing for so many of you,” he grinned, but that will change. His songs are topical, but in the style of a Spike Lee movie rather than a news program. The best one was That’s the Way You Drop a Bomb, a matter-of-fact, picturesque account of what the crew of the Enola Gay were told to expect on their way to and back from killing hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians. An old story, no question, but one with immense relevance when fire and fury drip from greedy lips at White House news conferences.

Garcia opened his set with an aphoristic catalog of things that he was going to buy. Some were concrete, many of them were grandiose, and eventually he came to the point where he’d mention a few of the things he wasn’t going to buy. Those, he’d leave to you. Guess what they were.

He also played a couple of brooding narratives about immigrant life. The first and more allusive one looked at the dismal daily routine of his Mexican-American immigrant grandmother, a California factory worker in the 1950s. The more harrowing one, a chronicle of spousal abuse was unselfconsciously tender and dedicated to his mom. Obviously, domestic violence is hardly the exclusive domain of immigrants or working people, but there’s no question that societies where prosperity is not monopolized by a robber baron class have lower rates of violent crime. Garcia didn’t say any of that outright: he let his song speak for itself. He closed the set a-cappella, a brave move that worked like a charm on the crowd.

His next gig is a short set at 7 PM on Sept 2 at Caffe Vivaldi followed eventually at 8 by Jeremy Aaron, a good acoustic guitarist who writes socially aware topical songs, and then clever, playful swing/oldtimey Americana accordionist-singer Erica Mancini at 8:30. 

And the weekly Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum – Manhattan’s best and arguably most popular listening room for pretty much all styles of acoustic music – resumes on September 22 at 6 PM with acoustic Americana tunesmith Rodrigo Aranjuelo. and gothic Americana duo Thoughtdream 

Dalava Hauntingly Reinvent Grim, Timelessly Relevant Slovak and Czech Folk Songs

Dalava reinvent dark, often grim, centuries-old Slovak and Czech folk tunes as intense, dynamically shifting psychedelic rock. Guitarist Aram Bajakian is arguably the greatest lead player ever to pass through Lou Reed’s band: only the late Robert Quine and Mick Ronson compare. Bajakian also plays with numerous other outfits including lavish Hungarian folk/art-rock band the Glass House Ensemble.

His wife, singer Julia Ulehla, is the scion of an important Moravian musicological legacy. Her great-grandfather Vladimir, a colleague of Leos Janacek, was a major player in that discipline and as she tells it, a pretty amazing guy. His exhaustive fieldwork and research would make a good movie all by themselves. You can read a lot more about that in the extensive liner notes to the latest album The Book of Transfigurations, streaming at Bandcamp.

Bajakian isn’t coming through town this month to play this amazing, haunting music, but he will be at the Stone on both August 19 and 20 at 8:30 PM with John Zorn’s quasi-horror-surf band, Abraxas; cover is $20.

Like the duo’s 2015 debut album, this latest one radically reimagines a series of picturesque tunes from the family collection.Its central theme is change: as Ulehla puts it, “Girl into speckled bird, girl into married woman, boy into soldier, girl into mother, mother into widow, boy into ghost, vibrantly strong soldier into wounded corpse, and man into murderer.”

The album is bookended by mid-century field recordings of her grandfather Jiri singing with spare cimbalom accompaniment by Antoš Frolka. The senior Ulehla’s voice is raw, strong and impassioned as he sings of departure and no return: a soldier off to war, possibly. The band – Bajakian on guitar, Peggy Lee on cello, Tyson Naylor on multi-keys, Colin Cowan on bass and Dylan van der Schyff on drums – then make relentlessly prowling Velvets rock out of it.

The album’s second song, Grass, offers delicate, airy contrast, a vignette that captures the literally crushing poverty faced by peasants across Europe for thousands of years. Bajakian plays jagged minor-key slashes over a careening, bolero-ish beat behind Ulehla’s accusatory wail in The Rocks Began to Crumble, a soldier sent off to war bitterly telling his true love that she might as well marry somebody else.

Lee’s cello builds distantly claustrophobic ambience in Iron Bars, Iron Lock, illustrating an age-old mother-daughter conflict: mom wants to keep her kid away from the guys. The Bloody Wall allusively recounts a murder victim haunting the scene of the crime over lushly crescendoing, anthemic art-rock. It’s one of the album’s most gorgeous melodies, the strings matching the intricate Czech ornamentation of Ulehla’s voice.

That narrative is echoed with a more spare, atmospherically crescendoing approach in You Used to Look Like a Lion, a gruesome lament for a dying soldier. Then the band laps into Red Violet, a stormy, syncopated 1-chord jam in 7/8 time. Bajakian and Ulehla slip back into the shadows for Souling, a love song set to an uneasy fingerpicked acoustic backdrop.

The album’s starkest, most riveting song is War, Ulehla’s wounded melismas soaring over Bajakian’s sparse, lingering minor-key broken chords and Lee’s washes of cello: it’s another vivid soldier-going-off-to-war scenario. Then Lee and Ulehla flicker through the anguished medieval magic realism of Mother Gave Away Her Daughter,

He’s Bringing Something For Me, a veiled account of love and abandonment, has an even more sepulchral atmosphere that winds out with an ominous rumble. The terse murder ballad Carnival is awash in creepy wind-chime ripples and Ulehla’s phantasmic vocals. The album’s closing cut, Sell Us Your Shirt mashes up the vocals of grandfather and granddaughter Ulehla over the cimbalom, a cruel encounter with thieves who’ll literally steal the shirt off an unlucky peasant’s back. How little things have changed over the centuries: this magical, mysterious, imagistic album will entrance anybody who likes dark, brooding music: you don’t have to speak Czech to appreciate it, although that helps.

Acoustic Guitarslinger R.D. King Brings His Richly Intertwining, Melodic Instrumentals to NYC

First there was B.B. Then there was Albert, then Freddie. And now there’s R.D., the latest in a line of first-class guitar-playing Kings. Difference is that R.D. King plays acoustic, and that his style is not blues but his own intricate, meticulous instrumental material that could be called pastoral psychedelia or cinematic folk. Either way, it’s a hell of a lot more energetic and epic than most music for the acoustic guitar.

King is bound to get comparisons to a whole slew of fingerstyle players who use unorthodox or open tunings – John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Adrian Legg, Leo Kottke and John Fahey are all in the mix – but if there’s any current-day artist he brings to mind, it’s David Grubbs, who’s more of a Strat guy. This particular King’s album RD King vs. Self  is streaming at Soundcloud, and for anybody who wants to see his fingers fly up and down the fretboard, he’s playing the small room at the Rockwood on August 19 at 6 PM. Then the following night he’s at Pine Box Rock Shop at 9:30.

His technique is spectacular, employing all kinds of harmonics, hammer-ons, pull-offs, flurrying upper-register clusters and contrastingly terse, precise basslines – and as many notes as this guy plays, he doesn’t waste them. The album’s first track is Lightness of Being, set to a rapidfire triplet rhythm. With its web of overdubs and subtly shifting center, it’s as if Fahey and Renbourn conspired to write their own Twin Peaks theme, but closer to waterfalling folk than noir cinematics. The Precipice is a stormy blend of flamenco and a 60s hotrod theme, while the pensive, propulsively waltzing, attractively summery title track hints at acoustic Pink Floyd, 60s American folk and Scottish highland balladry.

Heartstring, a gorgeously wistful song without words, brings to mind what Richard Thompson could do turbocharging a sad Jimmy Webb ballad. There Are No Young Forests comes across as a verdant, enigmatic counterpart to Grubbs’ vast electric deep-space tableaux. The uneasy Vertigo continues on a long, subtly crescendoing tangent, sparkling with harmonics, followed by the tight, emphatic variations of Luminescence.

The album winds up with the tidally shifting vamps of Twilight, rising to a bristling peak, and then the sparkly, cascading An End to Wandering. If you play guitar and feel stuck in a rut, listening to this guy will get you unstuck in a hurry.

Acerbic, Catchy LA Folk-Punks Las Cafeteras Headline This Thursday at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

Sometimes Las Cafeteras come across as sort of the Mexican Pogues – with an infinitely better singer. Other times they could be a more rock-oriented version of New York son jarocho folk-punks Radio Jarocho. The bilingual Los Angeles band’s punchy acoustic sound has a fearless political relevance to go along with a spiky catchiness. Their latest album, Tastes Like LA is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’re headlining an excellent pan-latin bill at Lincoln Center Out of Doors this Thursday, July 27 at around 10. Fiery, dramatic belter Xenia Rubinos opens the night at 7, followed by trippy downtempo guy Helado Negro and then our own fearlessly lyrical Hurray For the Riff Raff. It won’t hurt to get to Damrosch Park as early as you can; gates open at 6.

The album opens with the catchy Tiempos De Amor, its bouncy, anthemic tune in contrast to frontwoman Leah Rose Gallegos’ biting delivery, an anthem for anyone who would dare create a better world in a time when it’s never been more imperiled, for immigrants or anyone else. The band revisits that theme with the snide lyrical volleys of Señor Presidente a little later on.

Vamos to the Beach – how’s that for Spanglish? – is more carefree, with its shuffling acoustic textures (that’s Hector Paul Flores on jarana tercera, Daniel Joel Jesus French on jarana segunda and Jorge Mijangos on requinto), tinkling glockenspiel and peppy brass. Paletero, a salute to refreshing treats from the guy with the cart full of ices, has a bittersweet, reggae-tinged groove and a chirpy vocal. At one point, if the band switched out the thicket of acoustic instrumentation and keening organ for a more electric arrangement, it would be a dead ringer for a big Cure hit from the early 80s.

Las Cafeteras’ remake of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land is definitely the wildest anybody’s ever done with this song, an apt direction to take in this era of deportations and Boris Yeltsin-like demagoguery about border walls. The optimistic anthem Apache is a Mexican take on late 90s trip-hop, while the harmonies of La Morena, a shout-out to a Mexican earth mother archetype, bring to mind New York’s all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache.

If I Was President features defiantly optimistic rap cameos, matching Gallegos’  resolutely assertive vocals. Likewise, the loping Feo Mas Bello is a joyous look forward to as-yet-unrealized romantic bliss…and possibly a long-overdue reunion with a loved one from south of the border. The album winds up with the unexpectedly C&W flavored Two More Days, tackling that same theme much less opaquely. Crank this up and let’s party for our right to fight.

Rebecca Turner Brings Her Richly Jangly, Anthemic Songcraft Back to the East Village

Songwriter Rebecca Turner earned a devoted following around the turn of the century for her catchy, anthemic blend of janglerock, Laurel Canyon folk-pop and the occasional detour into starker acoustic folk or more ornate psychedelia. In a lot of ways, she represents the vanguard of ex-Brooklynite musicians caught between the very tail end of the cds-and-college-radio era and the age of streaming and vinyl. She puts out albums at her own pace (she’s working on a new one, helmed in the studio by husband/bassist Scott Anthony, recently responsible for remastering the Feelies’ latest vinyl reissues). She also has an 8 PM gig coming up on May 7 at Hifi Bar, the scene of her most recent Manhattan gig.

That was last year, and it was killer. She had a five-piece backing unit for that one including Anthony on bass and Rich Feridun on six-string lead guitar; John Sharples, playing twelve-string, was the band’s not-so-secret weapon. They opened with a backbeat-driven anthem with torrents of lyrics and tantalizingly unresolved chord changes. The Cat That Can Be Alone, she explained, was inspired by an Anita O’Day quote relayed by Love Camp 7’s Dann Baker, something along the lines of “The cat that can be alone is better off than the cat that can’t.” It turned out to be a bouncy Beatlesque number, Turner soaring to the top of her range with a hint of country twang. She and the band wound it up with a tongue-in-cheek segue into the O’Day version of Tenderly.

Turner’s next number was period-perfect Lakeside Lounge rock from around 2000, a mashup of  swaying vintage 70s C&W-tinged with Blonde on Blonde era Dylan, The set hit a peak midway through with a rousingly jangling take of the Byrdsy anthem The Way She is Now, Sharples choosing his spots and leaving them out to glisten in the bar’s low lights.

Another backbeat anthem, That Did It, was part 60s electric Dylan, part Amy Rigby at her jangliest, with a delicious blend of six and twelve-string guitars meshing with Turner’s acoustic. She followed with Idiot, a similarly catchy, wryly propulsive number. A low-key, matter-of-factly fingerpicked take of the ballad Comfort You Up brought the lights down, Erica Smith joining to add lush low harmonies. Then they picked up the pace again with the lilting, bucolic My Morning.

The cover that had everyone in the crowd mystified was a BeeGees song from the 60s, Sun in My Morning, Sharples’ twelve-string filtering down into it as if in a Turner painting. Arguably the best song of the night was a new one, Tom Tom, shimmering in the twin-guitar jangle, up to a suspenseful turnaround on the chorus and a fiery, twangy Feridun solo. For the encore, Turner aired out what’s become her signature song, Brooklyn Is So Big. It was cute and wistful when it came out: it’s heartbreaking now, considering how many of Turner’s contemporaries have been priced out. It’s a good bet Turner and the band will bust out a lot of this material at the show this weekend.

Sofia Talvik Brings Her Poignantly Original Americana to Manhattan

One of the most distinctively memorable Americana albums of recent years was made by a tirelessly touring, talented Swedish songwriter. Sofia Talvik‘s next New York show is at Scandinavia House at 58 Park Ave, south of 38th St., at 8 PM on April 27. Cover is $15. The following night, April 28, she’s playing Lara Ewen’s prestigious Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum at 5:30 PM.

Talvik’s 2015 album Big Sky Country – streaming at her music page – couldn’t be more aptly titled. Its wide expanses and purist, rustic playing explore themes of regret, disillusion, guarded hope. Talvik has obviously drunk deeply at the well of American and British folk music, adding her own fresh, distinctive voice to the tradition.

The album’s opening track, Aha-Aha is a more wide-angle take on the kind of open-tuned original Britfolk that groups like Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention were doing in the early 70s, lushly arranged but tersely played by Talvik and dobro player Marcus Högquist, bassist Janne Manninen, and drummer Joakim Lundgren.”It’ll make you stronger, take a deep breath now,” Talvik encourages, airy and pensive. She does the same with an American bluegrass shuffle, Fairground, later on.

Driven by John Bullard’s banjo, the towering, waltzing title cut, a band-on-the-run anthem, is absolutely gorgeous. it wouldn’t be out of place in the Hungrytown songbook:

I left my heart in a dirty old bar
Laramie, Wyoming, I slept in my car

Burning dobro and spare banjo pair off with Mathis Richter-Reichhelm’s violin at the center in Dusty Heart, Empty Hand, a wistful Nashville gothic tale of abandonment. The album’s most riveting and most parlor pop-oriented cut is Lullaby, a distantly elegaic waltz. “It’s summer and everything is beautiful, still you wish you were dead,” Talvik intones in her precise, clipped delivery.

Bonfire has echoes of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, although it’s a lot more brisk. Talvik’s bright, lilting vocals downplay the sober lyrics of the banjo waltz Jasmine, Rose & Sage. Jozsef Nemeth’s piano ripples uneasily in tandem with David Floer’s cello in the late-Beatlesque ballad Give Me a Home, building to an understatedly windswept, orchestrated crescendo. The album winds up on an optimistic note with the airy love ballad So. There’s also a cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s American Indian freak-folk tune Starwalker. It’ll be interesting to see what else Talvik has come up with since this came out.

A Killer Triplebill Foreshadows a Great Psychedelic Show on the LES

This Thursday, March 30 at 8 PM there’s a rare, intimate performance by second-wave Los Angeles psychedelic legends the Jigsaw Seen at Bowery Electric. They’re followed by the much louder New York Junk, whose retro sound moves forward in time another ten years to the Max’s Kansas City early punk rock scene. Cover is a ridiculously cheap, CBGB-era $8.

The Jigsaw Seen’s latest album, streaming at Spotify, is aptly titled For the Discriminating Completist. It’s a collection of B-sides and rarities. There’s an album of new material in the works, and frontman Dennis Davison has also recently immersed himself in a brand-new dark acoustic project, Witchfinder Witch, a duo with New York folk noir icon Lorraine Leckie. Speaking of which, she has an incendiary new protest single, America Weeping, just out and available as a free download at Bandcamp

The two made their debut at Pete’s Candy Store on a Saturday night in January, Davison on acoustic guitar and Leckie on piano. The highlight of that gig was Cave Canem, a witheringly lyrical anthem that casts the history of dogs – and centuries of canine abuse – as a metaphor for humans’ crimes against their own species.

A few days later at Maxwell’s, the duo were the centerpiece of what’s arguably been the best triplebill of the year. Debby Schwartz opened the show, jangling adn clanging through a series of arcane British folk turnings on her hollowbody Gretsch, bolstered by Bob Bannister’s nuanced, artfully jeweled, Richard Thompson-esque Strat work, Rose Thomas Bannister supplying lush harmonies and percussion. Through neo-Britfolk and more dreampop-oriented material, Schwartz sang with her her soaring, diamond-cutter delivery, dreaming New York City in the middle of LA and finally closing with a stunning take of the psych-folk anthem Hills of Violent Green.

By now, Witchfinder Witch had shaken off whatever early jitters they might have had: they’d come to conquer. Davison spun bittersweet, pun-infused psych pop gems weighing the pros and cons of clinical depression (do it right and you get tons of songs out of it) and a couple of darkly allusive, mystically-tinged co-writes with Leckie. She charmed and seduced the crowd with blue-flame red-light cabaret tune or two, a jaunty S&M piano number that was so deadpan that it was creepily plausible, and a mysterious, hypnotic folk noir tableau that could have been about heroin, or simply death itself. The crowd was rapt.

The Pretty Babies headlined, putting a deliriously fun coda on what had been a low-key, entrancing evening up to then. Professional subversive and rockstar impersonator Tammy Faye Starlite – who’s channeling Nico on Thursdays in April at 7:30 PM at Pangea – led the world’s funniest Blondie cover band through a stampeding take of Dreaming as well as a surprising number of deeper cuts from the band’s early days when they rocked harder. If memory serves right, Tammy took a hilariously politically-fueled detour that eventually drove Call Me off the rails. Everybody in the band has a funny, punny Blondie name. Was bassist Monica Falcone – who absolutely nailed the wry disco lines in Heart of Glass – newly christened as Chrissie Stein? It’s hard to remember who else everybody else was: Heidi Lieb and Keith Hartel as Frank Infantes separated at birth, and expert standins for Jimmy Destri on keys and Clem Burke on drums. Hearing the Pretty Things and watching the crowd on their feet and bopping along was a jab in the ribs that said, hey, the original outfit was pretty good too. 

A Rare Music Impresario with Actual Talent

Lara Ewen may be best known as the irrepressible impresario behind the Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum, which with the ongoing disappearance of the downtown acoustic scene has arguably become Manhattan’s best listening room for folk and Americana sounds. But Ewen is also one of New York’s most magnetic singers, and a strong songwriter as well. Over the years, her music has gotten darker and gone deeper into gothic Americana, often in a Tom Waits vein. Her hardscrabble Queens roots may have something to do with that.

She’s playing the Scratcher Bar on 5th Street just east of Bowery on Feb 26 at around 7, when you might find fellow songsmith Kelley Swindall tending bar. It’s an intimate space, and a convenient time on a work night so getting there a little early wouldn’t be a bad idea: artists who book venues tend to be popular for reasons other than their art.

Ewen is the rare one who isn’t. Her definitive album is The Wishing Stone Songs, from 2013. But there’s other solid material in her catalog. A listen back to her 2007 cd Ghosts and Gasoline – which happily has made it to Spotify – reaffirms that. Her band on the record is excellent: much as there’s a late 90s influence, there’s no cheesy drum machine, no cliched trip-hop beat. Guitarist Howard Rappaport jangles and clangs, judiciously over the tight, low-key rhythm section of bassist Donald Facompre and drummer Jordan Lash.

Ewen sings in character, with unexpected nuance for someone who doesn’t come from a jazz background. One minute she’ll be serenading you with that crystal-clear, maple-sugar soprano, another she’ll be gritty, then maybe throwing some twang at you, depending on context.

The album’s opening track, Josephine, has a brisk, methodically vamping, hypnotic quality, an allusive portrait of bitterness. The Airport Song is one of those blue-collar character studies that Ewen writes so vividly, part country, part spacious big-sky tableau, Rappaport’s pedal steel soaring overhead. Likewise, the propulsive Untethered is a surreeal portrait of outer-borough disconnection and anomie, bringing to mind a first-rate early-zeros Brooklyn songwriter. Barbara Brousal.

Turning Blue sways along gently, a quietly savage portrait of a a woman settling for less than she should. The album’s most devastating track is Our Song, just Ewen and her acoustic guitar, a gorgeously bittersweet and unexpectedly generous post-breakup reflection.

The oldest track on the album, Clear, will resonate for anyone who wouldn’t trade this city for any other temptation. 20 Years Ago, an aging beauty’s lament, foreshadows where Ewen would go on her next album. Then Ewen picks up the pace with the brooding highway narrative Manahttan Kansas

Facompre walks jazz scales under Ewen’s Rickie Lee Jones-ish delivery in Misery Wholesale. The album winds up with Blessed, a hopeful love song to a down-and-out character, and A Way to You, which is a dead ringer for a well-known Dylan hit. While Ewen typically plays her most recent material onstage, she might bust out one or two of these if you’re lucky. 

Relevant Mexican Sounds, and the Hip-Hop Elite Salute a Chinatown Legend

Fearless Mexican-American folk-rockers Las Cafeteras have a cool free download today just in time for President’s Day. If I Was President is off their forthcoming Tastes Like LA album. “We’ve got a different kind of party in the White House tonight.” For real!

And even if rap or stoner Chinese food isn’t your thing, and you’re a New Yorker, check out Narcotechs‘ great new video for their joint Chicken Lo Mein. They filmed it at Wo Hop. If you’re OG NYC, at one time or another you’ve indulged at the legendary Mott Street spot. This was filmed in the basement space – duh – not the street-level room, which draws the tourists in for more ducats. The production draws on a Wu-tang classic from back in the day. Relive your lost youth in this one if you can remember it.