New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: folk-rock

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 – which isn’t online yet – 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.

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.