New York Music Daily

Music for Transcending Dark Times

Tag: folk-rock

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parody Love Me, I’m a Liberal is just as funny as it was close to sixty years ago, especially if you get the historical references.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.

A Rare Chance to Score This Era’s Most Formidable Rock Songwriter’s Obscure Debut Album

Hannah vs. the Many frontwoman Hannah Fairchild released her debut album Paper Kingdoms under her own name in 2010. She and the first incarnation of the band played the release show at the tiny, long-defunct Park Slope boite Bar 4. That’s how the great ones get started.

The album pretty much sank without a trace. But just for today, May 1 it’s up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. On one hand, you could say that this is strictly for the diehards. On the other, it’s a fascinating blast from the past from a songwriter who would grow into one of the most witheringly lyrical, ferociously powerful rock tunesmiths ever.

At her blog (also recently resurrected), she looks back on the strategy and logistics (or lack thereof) for making a bedroom pop record on a secondhand laptop, playing all the instruments….with a broken ankle, no less. While a lot of these songs lack the focus and savagery of her breakout album, All Our Heroes Drank Here, and her valkyrie wail doesn’t cut loose to the extent that she’s let it in the years since, there are moments of vocal brilliance and embryonic craft that will take your breath away.

Fairchild would eventually reprise five of these songs for her ferocious 2013 short album Ghost Stories. Hearing the subdued take of All Eyes on Me – Fairchild’s Don’t Fear the Reaper – is a revelation. So is Poor Leander, with its slashingly detailed story of a poor schlub in way, way too deep for his own good; it cuts through just as ominously if a lot more quietly here. And who would have known how much new resonance the line about how “I’ve got my mask on and I’m slipping out the side door” – in the defiant individualist’s anthem Lady of the Court – would take on over the past few weeks? Grab this piece of history while it lasts.

A Sizzling Live Newschool C&W Album from Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters

Time to say it again: more bands should make live albums. Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters‘ Live at the Grey Eagle – streaming at Spotify– is one of the best of the past year’s batch. One of the most smartly lyrical songwriters in Americana, she has a crackerjack oldschool C&W band behind her throughout this lavish 23-track collection recorded in front of a boisterous, hometown Asheville crowd.

“They teach you not to bite on the hand that feeds, but when you’re starving sometimes you just don’t know,” Platt twangs in the opening number, 90 Miles, a characteristically cynical, somewhat muted backbeat-driven breakup song. With its rapidfire lyrics, her brother Andrew Platt’s choogling lead guitar and Matt Smith’s wafting pedal steel, the shuffle Better Woman brings to mind Amy Rigby‘s adventures in Americana.

Evan Martin’s piano tinkles along, up to a spine-tingling steel solo in Jukebox, a country-soul now-or-never anthem: “Songbirds just ain’t built to fly, but sooner or later we have try,” Platt muses. If you remember jukeboxes, this one only costs a quarter!

The band ease their way into a brisk shuffle in All You Ever Needed, a cautionary tale for those who set their sights too low. Platt keeps that vividly seething exasperation going in Back Row, a bittersweet wake-up call to a self-destructive friend, with a fiery Memphis soul guitar solo over washes of organ. Likewise, the tersely tasty breaks in Blue Besides, Platt assessing whether getting the hell out is always necesarily the answer.

“When it comes to waiting, I’ve been practicing for years,” Platt announces in Golden Child, a defiantly triumphant, soul-tinged number. A broodingly upbeat war parable set to a brisk Texas shuffle beat, Lillies could be the Grateful Dead at their tightest, with a woman out front. The band go back to soul-tinged country with Wheels, then cover the BeeGees’ To Love Somebody as Dusty Springfield might have done it.

The show dips to a spare, pensive solo acoustic take of Holy Wall, then the band come back up for Eden, a chillingly detailed portrait of slow decay in Flyover America. As Platt sings, you really can’t go home again: “Please let me back inside the garden, I won’t eat anything that’s fallen from that goddamn tree.”

Martin spices the restless wanderlust tale Carolina with some oldschool Nashville slip-key piano. Platt dedicates the slow waltz Sawdust Girl to her mentor in lutherie, Asheville guitar builder Brad Nickerson, picking up the pace with the steel-driven Getting Good at Waiting – a big theme with her, huh?

The pensive Birthday Song is surprisingly more subdued than the album version. “Tonight this town is ours,” Platt intones in Low Road, a wise, richly detailed, summery carpe-diem ballad. Then the energy rises again with Irene, a tenderly reassuring, bittersweetly shuffling honkytonk number.

Platt’s solo acoustic take of The Road is aptly stark and wistful. From there the band slowly rise with a vampy Lou Reed feel in Diamond in the Rough and then keep those changes going through the Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want. For the encores, they work their way up from a delicate, elegant fingerpicked intro in Not Over Yet and close the night with the bristling blues Fancy Car, with slashing solos all around, including violin and harmonica – the latter by Platt’s impressibly tuneful dad – way back in the mix.

Hilarious, Witheringly Insightful Heartland Americana From Chicago Farmer

Cody Diekhoff a.k.a. Chicago Farmer writes knowingly wry, often witheringly spot-on, ferociously populist blue-collar narratives set to a dynamically rousing Americana backdrop. His debut album Backenforth, IL made the shortlist of the best albums of the year here back in 2013. He titled his new one Flyover Country, just as Amanda Gardier (featured here yesterday) did with hers. First time there have ever been two albums with the same name on this page on consecutive days! Who knows, maybe that’s a meme.

This particular Flyover Country – streaming at youtube – begins with Indiana Line, a fiery, bluesy, open-tuned outlaw ballad. “I’ll be the king of roadkill, two birds at a time,” insists this rural Avon Barksdale: there’s a reason he’s so reckless moving all that weight, but it’s too good a story to spoil.

The funniest song here is 13 Beers: it’s sweet redemption for any concertgoer who’s been scammed and subjected to one indignity after another at a Ticketbastard arena. It makes you want to sing along with the ending, even if Dieckhoff planned that all along.

The title track is unusually earnest for him: yeah, us East Coast snobs look down our snooty noses on Heartland America, which does all the heavy lifting and doesn’t get much in return. Trouble is, that’s a coast-to-coast problem.

The lyrically torrential eco-disaster parable Mother Nature’s Daughter is an update on Blonde on Blonde Dylan: “Mother nature’s daughter, they’ve done sold and bought her, there ain’t no more water in the well,” Dieckhoff warns.

“White collar crime pays, and blue collar crime takes away,’” is the chorus in Collars, a sad waltz that brings to mind John Prine’s Hello in There thematically if not musically. Dieckhoff sends a shout-out to hardworking, underpaid musicians and their equally hardworking, underpaid fans in the hillbilly boogie All in One Place and follows with Deer in the Sky, which has a little Creedence feel to it and a funny assessment of the perils of flying versus driving.

The cover of Hank Williams’ Ramblin Man has a welcome Nashville gothic sparseness. Baseball season may be in jeopardy, but the metaphors of Dirtiest Uniform are timeless. Dickhoff wraps up the album with The Village Revisited, a grim hurricane parable that’s part Creedence, part Stones. We need more guys like this who can be stone-cold serious, but just as gut-bustingly amusing.

A New Psychedelic Cult Classic by the Greek Theatre

If Swedish band the Greek Theatre’s 2017 album Broken Circle – streaming at Bandcamp – had come out in 1975, it would be considered a cult classic. It’s 70s psychedelia at its most colorful and outside-the-box. There are moments that look back to Pink Floyd, Nektar, the Strawbs, even the Grateful Dead, but there’s no other band on earth who sound like this. Layers and layers of guitars and less expected instruments artfully arranged throughout the sonic picture, tersely atmospheric keys, and a spring-loaded rhythm section deliver smartly orchestrated, stylistically puddlejumping, relentlessly uneasy trippiness. Who said they don’t make music like this anymore?

Take the first track, Fat Apple. The opening quickly winds down to a delicate, starry theme with what seems to be a bagpipe wafting through the glimmer – Pink Floyd with Celtic tinges. “Castrate all your fears,” frontman Sven Froberg advises as a cautionary tale of a Dylanesque ballad, sparkling with pedal steel, suddenly appears. “See what you became, what a shame you turned out this way.” They take this seven-minute epic out with a swaying twin-guitar duel. Are we having fun yet?

Spiky, gleaming guitars and airy keys introduce Paper Moon, rising to a restrained gallop, a brooding tale of hiding out from trouble capped off with an elegant mandolin solo. Still Lost Out at Sea follows a drifting 6/8 pulse, lilting soprano sax carrying a wistful sea chantey tune over a low-key acoustic web. “Go back through the years, see how it feels, find out what’s real,” Froberg gently suggests.

“They’re selling drugs down at the mall, and though we know, we don’t tell a single soul,” he quietly announces over a similar, mutedly triumphant folk-rock backdrop in Stray Dog Blues, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Marty Willson-Piper catalog. They follow with the pensive instrumental 1920, its deft echo phrasing and balance of subtly dynamic acoustic guitars and distantly omious kickdrum.

The album’s unexpectedly optimistic, increasingly anthemic title track fades up into a rumbling sway, its icy, echoey, resonant guitar multitracks recalling Pink Floyd’s Animals as well as Nektar’s Journey to the Center of the Eye. From there the band go back to instrumental territory with the delicate, bluegrass-tinged Ruby-khon.

Likewise, Kings of Old has a rustic Strawbs-like intro, then the band leaps into an early Genesis-style vamp with more of that delicious, watery chorus-box guitar they like so much. The deftly fingerpicked final cut, Now Is the Time makes a benedictory, warmly hypnotic coda, complete with a calmly shamanic outro.

In Memoriam – John Prine

John Prine, the ruggedly individualistic, fiercely populist songwriter and early pioneer in what would become the Americana music movement, died of coronavirus this past Tuesday in a Nashville hospital. He was 73.

Vital to the end, Prine had a tour planned for this year. One of the first artists to successfully break from a big record label to play live and record independently, Prine’s influence over several generations of songwriters was vast. A brilliant lyricist, nimble guitarist and wryly laconic raconteur, Prine chronicled the struggles of working-class Americans with sardonic humor and empathy as they confronted the ugly unattainability of the American Dream. Esteemed by his peers, artists as diverse as Elvis Costello and Steve Earle cited Prine as a formative influence.

Prine got his start in Chicago in the late 1960s while working there as a mailman. During one particular harsh winter, he would take shelter inside mailboxes, where he wrote several of his most popular songs. With the surrealism of Dylan, the aphoristic, down-home sensibility of honkytonk and a defiant workingman’s political sensibility, he had a soft spot for old people and spoke out articulately against the Vietnam War. He could spot a hypocrite a mile away.

Many of his songs – the antiwar anthem Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore, the Vietnam veteran chronicle Sam Stone, and Hello in There, the hardscrabble tale of an old couple in the heartland becoming more and more atomized – have become iconic in Americana circles. Among songwriters, simply knowing who Prine is gives you instant cred; being able to cover his songs is even better. Not many did: the most famous one was Bonnie Raitt’s version of Angel From Montgomery, the closest thing Prine ever had to a radio hit.

As the years went by, Prine’s drawling baritone became more weathered: he always sounded twenty years older than he was. And his songwriting never diminished, as he shifted toward rock in the 90s and then a return to his original acoustic sound in this century. Two key albums from his deep catalog include the pseudo-greatest-hits collection Prime Prine, from 1976 and the 2011 archival release The Singing Mailman Delivers, a collection of many of his best-known songs made on the fly at a Chicago radio station.

Prine could be hilarious: give a listen to Illegal Smile, a sly weedhead tale from his 1973 album Sweet Revenge, where the record label tried to recast him as an outlaw country singer, with mixed results: no wonder Prine would go independent. He could also be very, very dark, as you can hear in Down By the Side of the Road, a chilling highway tale from his 1978 Bruised Orange album.

He is greatly missed. Deepest condolences to the Prine family and his many friends.

Celestially Orchestral Lushness and Persistent Unease on Lisa Hannigan’s Live Album

We may not have concerts in New York right now, but more and more artists are realizing the benefits of recording live albums. Unless you make your albums on your phone – as many do – it’s infinitely cheaper to record a concert than to run up studio time. And live albums are the best advertising: prospective concergoers know exactly what they’re getting themselves into. One relatively recent one that perfectly fits the zeitgeist is Live in Dublin, by Lisa Hannigan and S t a r g a z e (that’s how she spells it), streaming at Spotify.

Hannigan has a soaring, nuanced voice and stately cadences that reflect the folk tradition of her native Ireland. Her lyrics are pensive and often rather dark. The concert’s opening waltz, Ora, perfectly capsulizes the balance of persistent unease and lush, starry atmosphere that will pervade the rest of the set. The long, sustained tones of the strings and woodwinds are a throwback to the terse orchestral arrangements common on European folk-rock records of the early 70s. Then the bass and drums kick in elegantly behind an upward swirl from the strings as the soul-tinged piano ballad Prayer For the Dying gets underway: Radiohead meets Renaissance.

Twinkling mandolin and vibraphone mingle above the increasingly lavish backdrop of Little Bird. “You are lonely as a church despite the queueing out the door – I am empty as a promise,” Hannigan muses.

Insistently slurry strings and ominous brass swells build unsettling druidic ambience in Undertow. Overtones rise in a similarly suspenseful vein from the low brass drone that introduces Bookmark, a swing ballad stripped to its bare, fingerpicked bones: “Am I a friend, or an unwieldy heroine?” Hannigan ponders.

The band take a break for the rustic vocal harmonies of Anahorish, which foreshadows what Irish immigrants would bring with them to Appalachia. The tenderness of Hannigan’s vocals bely the melancholy, pulsing orchestral textures of Nowhere to Go. The energy of the concert hits a high point with Lo, a moody anthem with a neat web of counterpoint.

They back away for a trip-hop sway with Swan, which the orchestra elevates above the level of generic 90s pop. A hushed gloom grows more enveloping in We the Drowned, up to a mighty, stricken intensity with eerie backing vocals and echo phrases from the orchestra: it’s the high point of the show. After that, there’s nowhere to go but down with Lille, a spare, gently fingerpicked, wistful folk-rock ballad.

After that, A Sail comes as a surprise, a stomping, insistent, backbeat anthem and the most unselfconsciously catchy song of the set. The group shift from hazy atmospherics to equally hypnotic but more energetic trip-hop with Barton and close the night with Fall, an attractively strummy anthem: “Drain the spirits from the jar, hop the fences, steal the car,” Hannigan instructs rather somberly.