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Tag: folk-rock

Five Times August’s Silent War: The Best Rock Album of 2022

Akin to his predecessors Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs, songwriter Five Times August burst on the scene in 2020 playing solo acoustic at freedom rallies. Over the last couple of years, his hilarious videos have gone viral, to the point where he’s probably the most popular protest singer in the US. Another reason for that popularity is that he’s a hell of a songwriter. The man known to some as Brad Skistimas has finally assembled those songs on a full-length album, Silent War, streaming at Bandcamp. This lyrically scorching, often seethingly funny record isn’t just the best album of 2022: Five Times August brings receipts. Time may judge this a classic, as important and vivid a portrait of an era as the Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist.

The songs are straightforward and uncluttered to an extreme, mostly just vocals and acoustic guitar. The cheery bounce of the opening track, God Help Us All is a stark contrast to the torrent of cynical rhymes for a time of reality inversion and mass psychosis:

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 health, poor is the new wealth, 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

Skistimas has remade his viral hit Jesus… What Happened to Us? with a lot more energy as well. It’s less of a lament than searing cautionary tale:

Mark, Jack, Bill, Joe, they’ll teach you what you need to know,
They’ll give you your permissions and tell you where to go…
Shut your mouth, get in line, just behave or pay the fine
They’re pulling on your backbone and taking out your spine

The album’s funniest video hit is Outtayerdaminde, a rapidfire litany of Libs of Tiktok narcissism and buffoonery. Then Skistimas reaches for a scampering acoustic Dylan vibe in I Will Not Be Leaving Quietly, a defiant clapalong anthem.

This blog picked the solemnly waltzing title track as the best song of 2021, and it’s aged tragically well:

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…
Take back your freedom and fight for your life, stand up before it’s all gone

Track six, simply titled Joe, is a venomous front-porch folk variant on a folk song that Jimi Hendrix immortalized, referencing the pullout from Afghanistan, the 2020 election and the perils inherent in having a guy with late-stage Alzheimer’s in the Oval Office. The ending is too good to give away.

Sad Little Man, probably the only bestselling single to ever appear on this page, is a creepy, tiptoeing portrait of the career bureaucrat who conspired with Jeremy Farrar and the British MI5 gestapo to launch the plandemic in 2020.

Skistimas hits a Subterranean Homesick drive in Anti-Fascist Blues, a full-band go-go blues broadside targeting cancel culture: “Make yourself a slave until you think that you’re free, dig yourself a grave for the American dream.”

This Just In is a defiant shout-out the Canadian truckers – and the funniest, most spot-on portrait of Justin Trudeau ever written. Likewise, Fight For You is tender but resolute: love during the most hideous holocaust in world history.

The most towering, haunting anthem here is Gates Behind the Bars. It could be the best song of 2022:

The geek’s in control, he’s changed his disguise
His chemical world will be your demise
He’s sick and he’s cruel and acts like he’s God
Speaks on the stage while zombies applaud
The creep’s not alone, he plots with his friends,
The forum they have is a circle of sin
There’s snakes all around who traffic and kill
They’ll dope up the world with needles and pills

Skistimas switches to piano for Lions:

Someday when the truth has been revealed
After all the effort to be healed
You will see the wounded everywhere you go
So wake up with the lions, don’t let yourself stay asleep

He winds up the album with a couple of bonus covers, a stripped-down version of the Tom Petty hit I Won’t Back Down and a Guthrie-esque Star Spangled Banner.

Thanks to the world’s #1 “misinformation spreader,” Steve Kirsch for the heads-up about this one.

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Amythyst Kiah Plays an Enticing Triplebill at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

In 2018, this blog called Amythyst Kiah “a force of nature and then some.” She’s a double threat on both blues guitar and oldtime banjo, and a powerful singer with a defiant populist streak and a deep historical awareness. This year she’s one of the few highlights of what has been the worst-ever series of Lincoln Center Out of Doors concerts, with a gig out back of the complex in Damrosch Park tomorrow night, July 30 at around six. Pensive Turkish chanteuse Aynur opens the night at 5 PM; thunderous Ukrainian folk-punk stompers Dakhabrakha headline. Seats are first-come, first-served.

Kiah’s album Wary & Strange came out last year and is streaming at Bandcamp. Those who haven’t seen her live should be aware that she’s infinitely more raw and uncompromising onstage. These songs are good, but, clearly, she’s still figuring out how they translate in the studio. It would be great to hear her flex on the frets the way she can, and nix the techy glitches the next time out.

One of the most memorable songs is Black Myself, a roaring, multitracked blues tune where she turns a litany of racial assumptions upside down. Hangover Blues has a funny wah guitar track mimicking a blues harp. Kiah nicks a famous Dylan riff for Firewater, a reflection on exorcising psychological ghosts. Then she springboards off an iconic Rev. Gary Davis tune for Tender Organs, a vehicle for her purist, incisively edgy oldschool soul guitar work.

In Ballad of Lost, Kiah reaffirms that she’s just as much at home with a wistful country waltz. One suspects that she really kicks out the jams in concert with the rock tune and the smoldering soul ballad afterward, but trying to make hip-hop out of them is a mindfuck.

There’s plenty more of Kiah online. Ludicrous as the idea of covering Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart may be, Kiah reinvents it by changing the chords and making a slow, simmering, vampy southern soul song out of it. And it’s actually not bad! It’s up at her homepage right now.

A Prescient, Indomitable Final Album From Jewlia Eisenberg’s Charming Hostess

“There was a doctor, there was a teacher, but the doctor didn’t care about illness, and the teacher didn’t care about teaching,” Charming Hostess frontwoman Jewlia Eisenberg sang, to open her radical circus rock band’s final album, The Ginzburg Geographies. In the context of 2022, the irony could not be more crushing.

Eisenberg died on 3/11 last year, four months after the Covid shot rollout. She’d been in precarious health for quite some time before. Nonetheless, the indomitable singer and musical polymath had continued to perform and work on a vast series of projects right up until the 2020 lockdown. It’s something of a miracle that she got as far as she did with the album, which her bandmates finished without her last year.

It’s collection of wildly original arrangements of Italian protest songs, an exploration of the territory that nurtured and eventually destroyed the marriage between World War II-era Italian antifascist activists and writers Natalia and Leone Ginzburg, Hounded and pursued by axis forces, the two managed to evade and outlive Mussolini, but Leone was murdered by the Nazis. His widow would go on to serve in the Italian parliament in the decades after the war.

If you count their college days, Charming Hostess enjoyed a career that lasted almost thirty years, on and off. They went through many incarnations, from proto Gogol Bordello punk to feminist klezmer. Here, they do a strikingly faithful evocation of an anarchic Italian street band from seventy years ago, while also putting their own spin on retro 70s Italian film music in a Tredici Bacci vein . Eisenberg took several of the couple’s texts and used them to create a playlist of brooding, accordion-fueled psychedelia, oom-pah blue-collar protest songs and skittishly subversive bedroom pop. A girl protests against household drudgery, over a swaying, accordion-fueled backdrop. “Authority has no value,” Eisenberg reminds. Guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood jangles through some heartbreakingly beautiful interludes behind Eisenberg’s delicate multitracks. Much of this is on the phantasmagorical side, which makes plenty of sense considering the context. There’s also a ramshackle, bluegrass-flavored cover of a classic Woody Guthrie antifascist song.

The best number on the album is La Situazione, a slinky, shuffling, distantly creepy psychedelic rock shuffle fueled by Dan Cantrell’s roller-rink organ. The gist of Leone’s text is that it is Italians’ duty not to give in to alarmism and instead to dig in and fight while the Nazis roll into Rome. You want prophetic?

Eisenberg was outrageously funny, earthy and sometimes combative. Yet that feisty persona was a manifestation of her deeply liberational Jewish spirituality. She wrote film and theatre music, took a plunge into Babylonian mysticism and late in her career revisited her inner soul and blues sirens: she was a lot of those. Eisenberg didn’t just think outside the box: that box existed only as a target for her surrealist wit…or to be destroyed. How cruel that we’ll never know what else she might have had up her sleeve.

Charismatic Road Warriors Frenchy & the Punk Bring Their High Energy Show to Queens This Evening

Before the lockdown, Frenchy & the Punk were one of the hardest-working bands touring the world. The duo of singer/dancer Samantha Stephenson and guitarist Scott Helland got their start when steampunk was all the rage and have since taken a turn in a harder-rocking direction than their original mix of noir cabaret and circus rock. The good news is that they’re playing again, with a show tonight, May 8 at 5 PM on the trailer in the back of the parking lot at Culture Lab in Long Island City.

Their most recent single, The Storm Is a Call For Rebuilding, is a rousing, Celtic-tinged protest song from the desperate days of August, 2020:

Watch who the leaders trample on
You might be next if in the way of their throne
Hear their words but judge on what they’ve done
It’s too easy to sway the unguarded
Oh, dance in the rain but see beyond the fog…

The single before that was a biting acoustic-electric cover of the Nerves’ Hanging on the Telephone, which beats the more famous Blondie version.

The band’s most recent album is Hooray Beret, which came out in 2019. They really mix it up on this one. The opening number is an unexpectedly successful detour into funk. From there they go into a lot of riffy powerpop in a more acoustic Joan Jett vein, Stephenson’s throaty wail over Helland’s punchy guitar and bass multitracks.

In the middle of all that, there’s Sing, bouncy cautionary tale that’s the band’s equivalent of Pink Floyd’s Time. There’s Monsters, a brisk but ominously pulsing take on the acoustic goth pop Siouxsie took with Christine. “They’ve disguised themselves as shepherds….it’s up to us to break the cycle,” Stephenson insists.

Stephenson switches to her native French for Oo La La, a catchy blend of vintage Squeeze and All Along the Watchtower. Onstage, Helland plays with a loop pedal, giving the duo a louder, lusher sound than most two-piece acts. Fun fact: Helland’s solo work is 180 degrees from his high-energy attack in this project. His instrumental loopmusic albums are fantastic if you like ambient, ethereal sounds.

Starkly Powerful Tunesmithing and Loaded Metaphors on Abigail Lapell’s New Album

“Time may judge this a classic,” this blog enthused about Abigail Lapell’s 2019 album Getaway. Raves like that as rare here as integrity in the Justin Trudeau cabinet. The small handful of albums which have earned that distinction include Karla Rose Moheno‘s Gone to Town and Hannah vs. the Many‘s All Our Heroes Drank Here, to name two of the best. How well does Lapell’s latest release Stolen Time – streaming at Bandcamp – stack up against her previous achievement? It doesn’t always have the same seething intensity, but Lapell’s songwriting is strong, and she has an excellent band behind her.

She opens it with the hypnotic, sparsely fingerpicked, subtly aphoristic Britfolk-flavored Land of Plenty. Dani Nash’s mutedly ominous, swaying drumbeat anchors the second track, Ships, Christine Bougie adding snarling electric guitar and sparse lapsteel alongside violist Rachael Cardiello and bassist Dan Fortin. It’s a metaphorically loaded departure ballad echoing a big influence in Lapell’s work, Sandy Denny.

Lapell moves to piano for Pines and its allusively ominous nature imagery. Scarlet Fever has stark oldtime blues inflections and plaintive viola from Cardiello. With “silver needles on the wall,” is this a subtle lockdown parable? Maybe.

All Dressed Up, a nimbly fingerpicked acoustic tune, may also have post-March 2020 subtext: “No way out of here, wake me up when the coast is clear,” Lapell instructs. I See Music, a stately piano waltz spiced with Ellwood Epps’ trumpet is next: “There’s no danger in a major key, there’s no harm in a harmony,” Lapell asserts.

She goes back to guitar for the similarly graceful Waterfall and follows with the album’s title track, Stolen Time, a swaying, crescendoing anthem lit up by Bougie’s incandescent lapsteel. “I dreamed I saw my baby, sewage in his veins, a rotten apple in his chest,” Lapell recalls in the next track: is this a tantalizingly brief, disquieting shipwreck tale, or is there more to the story?

“Dance in the ashes, gasoline and matches” figure heavily in the otherwise lilting, catchy nocturne Old Flames. Lapell winds up this often riveting, enigmatic album on an optimistic note with I Can’t Believe. It’s inspiring to see one of the sharpest songwriters in folk-adjacent sounds persevering under circumstances which have been less than encouraging for artists in general. Barring the unforeseen, Lapell’s next gig is an evening performance on May 21 at Paddlefest in St. Andrews, New Brunswick.

The Funniest and Most Serious Songs of the Week

Time for another short self-guided playlist today: half a dozen songs in about eighteen minutes. Click artist names for their webpages; click song titles for audio.

The most hilarious one that’s come over the transom here in the wake of the hissyfit that Neil Young (and maybe his hedge fund handlers) threw about Rogan and Spotify is Sold Man, Curtis Stone and Media Bear’s parody of Neil Young’s Old Man. They nail everything, right down to the whiny falsetto:

Locked down in this 5G town
Live alone in the metaverse
Klaus Schwab’s coming for you…
I’m alone at last when I failed to cancel Rogan

Download it for free here

On a more serious note, Dr. Dan Merrick has just released the protest song Wrong’s Not Right, a catchy update on classic 1950s-style country gospel. When’s the last time you heard a country gospel song that mentioned beer – and not in a disparaging way?

On an even more serious note, Dietrich Klinghardt just wrote a beautiful, haunting Appalachian gothic-tinged protest song, Angels Come:

A wealthy clique controls our leaders
And the internet, the media west and east
Are these billionaires ordained by God to lead us?
Behind their eyes we sense the mark of the beast

Last year, Lydia Ainsworth recorded a trio of songs from her Sparkles & Debris album with a string section. If you liked the Pretenders’ Isle of View orchestral record, you’ll love the new version of Halo of Fire: “Allow your thoughts to roam as freely as they desire”

On the mysterious side, Terra Lightfoot and Jane Ellen Bryant team up for Somebody Was Gonna Find Out. Find out what? It’s a good story, open to multiple interpretations. Two acoustic guitars, two voices: see if you can figure it out.

Let’s wrap this up with Elle Vance‘s La Beaute de la Vie – with Tayssa Hubert on vocals – which is part Edith Piaf, part reggae. It works. Go figure. This is the French version; sadly, the English version is autotuned.

Poignant, Gorgeous New Songs For Viola Da Gamba on Almalé’s New Album

Pilar Almalé’s axe is the viola da gamba. It’s an unusual choice for an original songwriter, especially since most of the repertoire for the instrument is from the baroque era and before . Almalé has an expressive voice, uses the gamba for both cello-like sustain and basslines, writes strong melodies and reinvents older material with considerable flair. Her new album, Hixa Mia (My Daughter), released under her last name, is streaming at Spotify. She has a fantastic, similarly adventurous band. Violinist Thomas Kretszchmar and guitarist Alex Comín blend terse, imaginative jazz and Romany influences without cluttering the sound, percussionist Fran Gazol adding flamenco and Middle Eastern grooves.

Almalé opens the album with the title track, a catchy, Andalucian-flavored, poignant minor-key anthem with a swaying, levantine-tinged groove and a stark, jazz-inflected violin solo. You could call this folk-rock, or Romany music, or something fresh and new. The string harmonies on the slow, gently syncopated second track, simply titled Passacalle, are stark, rich and reedlike, a close approximation of an accordion. Comín bobs and weaves and chooses his spots, whether with feathery tremolo-picking, big lush chords or carefree single-note jazz lines.

She opens A la Luna, a gorgeously slinky, trickily rhythmic Turkish-inspired number, with a broodingly bowed solo, bringing a visceral sense of longing to the lyrics. Kretszchmar subtly builds his solo to a searing peak.

Pianist Lucas Delgado plays carefully articulated, somber lines in Flow My Tears, a moody, klezmer-esque ballad which Almalé sings in low-key, cadenced English. The group veer between brisk Romany-flavored jazz, a moody ballad and the baroque in the instrumental Blue Lamento. It makes a good bridge to Folias Gallegas, an upbeat, Celtic-tinged circle dance with an austere, baroque-flavored solo gamba break midway through.

La Patetica, a solo gamba piece, comes across as a stormy mashup of Tschaikovsky and a Bach cello suite. Almalé launches a-cappella into the album’s final cut, Los Guisados, a rousing, rustically waltzing anthem that rises out of an unexpected lull to a tantalizing white-knuckle restraint. It’s unlike anything else released in the last several months. Fans of music from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Black Sea will love this stuff.

Bassist Devin Hoff Reinvents British Folk Classics As Tersely Magical Low-Register Themes

Anne Briggs emerged as one of the most distinctive singers in the British folk movement of the late 60s and early 70s, and remains a beloved figure from that era. Many of the songs she helped popularize have become standards. Now, bassist Devin Hoff has taken Briggs’ outside-the-box sensibility to the next level with his new album Voices From the Empty Moor: Songs of Anne Briggs, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a collection of starkly beautiful new arrangements for bass and vocals, solo bass, and slightly more expansive instrumentation. Much as the new versions are far beyond anything the guitar-strumming troubadours of the Britfolk revival ever envisioned, Hoff always leaves some or all of the familiar melody intact. If you love low-register music, or the source material, you have to hear this album.

He opens with She Moved Through the Fair, beginning with a diesel engine-like drone, then bowing a spacious, unadorned solo melody line, then bringing back the drone and building the sonic picture from there. It’s even more stark and ghostly than Briggs’ original.

Sharon van Etten sings Go Your Way with a spot-on, nuanced, airy woundedness as Hoff fills in the low end with chords and tersely dancing riffs. Julia Holter takes over vocals wistfully for Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, Hoff building stygian cello-metalish ambience with layers of loops.

Saxophonist Howard Wiley squalls, wafts and spins through Maa Bonny Lad, Hoff texturing the backdrop with keening harmonics, pitchblende resonance and a gracefully loping bassline. Living By the Water has plaintive, unadorned vocals by Shannon Lay, slinky bass melismatics and pulsing harmonies that could pass for an accordion. All that from a bass, damn.

Hoff makes a diptych out of The Snow It Melts the Soonest and My Bonny Boy, bowing the first with a slithery attack anchored by a low E. Alejandro Farha plays similarly purposeful, incisive oud on the latter. Hoff’s deft shift between bassline and multiple vocal harmony lines in Black Waterside, sung by Emmett Kelly, is a clinic in imagination and good taste.

The closest thing to a straight-up rock arrangement here is Willie O’ Winsbury, a gorgeously restrained, jangly, psychedelic instrumental version with Jim White on drums and Hoff handling guitars as well as bass. He closes solo with a brief and appropriately somber verse of The Lowlands.

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.