New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Graham Norwood

Purist, Brilliantly Produced, Anthemic Tunesmithing From Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts

From the early zeros through the mid-teens, guitarist Pete Cenedella fronted an anthemic and fearlessly woke two-guitar band, American Ambulance, who blended Stones snarl with oldschool country twang. They made some great records and played their last Manhattan full-band gig in the fall of 2015 at the Treehouse at 2A. Since then, Cenedella has led Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts and has continued to write as prolifically as he did with his old band.

They’ve got a couple of singles out this year: Cenedella’s game plan is to put them all out on vinyl until there’s enough of them to fill a double album. If what he has out there now is any indication, it’s going to be a hell of a record. The first single is Turning of the Wheel, which with the twin keyboards of Charles Roth and Tom Lucas has more of a classic Born to Run Springsteen feel. Graham Norwood’s sizzling, spiraling guitar solos toward the end are the icing on this angst-fueled ballad of loss and desperation.

The b-side, Little Leeway is an acoustic country kiss-off anthem. The rhythm section of bassist Ed Iglewski and Dave Anthony is much more lithe here, Cenedella’s metaphors following a would-be gambler to where the deal goes down, hard.

The newest single is Home in the Wind, which has an Abbey Road Beatles vibe and otherworldly vocal harmonies from Lisa Zwier, Erica Smith and Rembert Block along with perfect George Harrison-style analog chorus box leads from Norwood. The b-side, Darkness of a Brand New Day is a stark acoustic duet between Cenedella and Zwier, the brightness of the melody contrasting with the song’s surreal carnival scenario. At a time when there’s never been more of a shortage of rock music being made in this city, there’s never been more of a need for bands like this. If all goes well, this could be the start of something great.

The Year’s Best Americana Triplebill at Hank’s This Thursday Night

The best Americana triplebill of the year so far is happening this March 8 at Hank’s.  Kasey Anderson, whose gritty populist narratives bring to mind a young Steve Earle, opens the night at 8. Eric Ambel, proprietor of the dearly missed Lakeside Lounge and an even more spectacular, surreal guitarist and songwriter – who played lead in Earle’s band back in the day – follows at 9. Cliff Westfall  – whose aphoristic songs and soulful C&W baritone will take you back to 1956 at warp speed – headlines at around 10. Cover is $10.

Westfall, whose album Baby You Win is streaming at his music page. is as strong and memorable a retro songwriter as Pokey LaFarge – no joke. It takes you back to an era of neon-lit jukeboxes, tailfins, beer cans that you could crush in one hand only if you were really strong…and ten-cent drafts. And Westfall matches the honkytonk ambience with innumerable clever musical and lyrical details that fill out the picture. The opening track, It Hurt Her to Hurt Me is sort of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen with even more clever wordplay, done by Hank Williams with a sizzling electric band behind him. The shuffling title track gives the group a chance to show off everything they’ve got: Scott Metzger’s tasty reverbtoned vintage tube amp sonics, a wry surf riff when least expected, a little Merle Haggard to kick off the song and colorful period vernacular. This guy’s “giving back the Crackerjack box I got from a so-called friend.”

Westfall croons bittersweetly over Charlie Giordano’s rippling honkytonk piano in the sad barroom ballad Til the Right One Comes Along. Then the group channel Orbison over a luscious web of twanging, jangling, echoing guitars in the Lynchian anthem More and More (as in “I think I love you more and more less and less”). With Metzger’s morosely tremoloing guitar solo, it’s a standout among many here.

With its chugging layers of twelve-string guitars – that’s Metzger and Graham Norwood – Off the Wagon is the missing link between Johnny Burnette and the Byrds –  the 1967 psychedelic Byrds, and the 1969 country Byrds as well. “We go together like booze and pills!” Westfall announces; those stampeding, twangy Bakersfield guitar multitracks on the way out are a straight shot of adrenaline.

The worn-out, defeated ballad Hanging On paints a vividly grim picture of a guy who’s just about had it with being strung along. By contrast, the boisterous I’ll Play the Fool comes across as a mashup of Subterranean Homesick Blues Dylan and Buck Owens.

The gorgeously clanging The Man I Used to Be paints a picture of a guy with “a little less size and a lot less wear…dusty 8X10s out in the hall, but I don’t recognize that guy at all.”

“I live in your world since I left my own,” Westfall admits in the sad waltz A Lie If You Must, over Dan Iead’s pedal steel.  “A lie calculated to appease and disarm, tell me what’s self-deception compared to your charms?” Elvis Costello would be proud to have written this one.

The End of the Line, the album’s hardest-rocking track, wouldn’t be out of place on a Wayne Hancock album, right down to that searing Metzger guitar solo midway through. The retro 50s shuffle ballad Sweet Tooth gives Westfall a chance to have fun with food and drug metaphors. The album winds up with similarly sly swamp-rock of The Odds Were Good. You’re going to see this on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

Another Menacingly Brilliant Album and a Bowery Electric Release Show by Ward White

Ward White‘s Bob was the best album of 2013. Set to a cinematically shapeshifting pastiche of classic powerpop and art-rock, White’s harrowing, cynical, often brutally hilarious nonlinear narrative about unneighborly suburbanites, a plane crash, narcoterrorism, possible cannibalism and at least one murder was like no other album ever made. Attempting to unravel the mystery required multiple listening and a heavy finger on the rewind button, yet that only made the ride more entertaining. It compares more closely with literary than with musical works: Russell Banks’ surreal 1995 novel Hamilton Stark is a good one.

Maybe because a follow-up to such an individualistic, strangely brilliant album would have been impossible, White’s new one, Ward White Is the Matador (streaming at Bandcamp) goes back to the encyclopedically tuneful, wickedly lyrical songwriting he’s made a name for himself with since the late 90s. It validates all the comparisons to David Bowie, Scott Walker, Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson that White’s drawn over the years. In this case, the allusively menacing narratives don’t segue into each other as they do on Bob, and the music is louder, the guitars crunchier than anything White has done before. Is there a central theme? Possibly.

And maybe to shake things up somewhat, this is the first album that White didn’t produce himself: Bryan Scary (who plays keys) and Graham Norwood (who plays bass and adds guitar) take over the chores behind the board this time out. White’s playing the album release show on one of the year’s best triplebills on Nov 11 at Bowery Electric: the night begins with folk noir songwriter Jessie Kilguss (who’s also releasing a darkly brilliant new album) at 8, then White at 9, then similarly tuneful, disquieting retro soul/Americana songwriter Matt Keating at around 10. Cover is an absurdly cheap $10.

There’s a lot to sink your ears into here, fourteen tracks, the last one a VU White Light/White Heat style mystery that clocks in at over 20 minutes. Lou Reed is a recurrent reference point; there are also a handful of amped-up takes on Burt Bacharach-style latin-tinged pop, lots of glammy guitars, retro 60s keyboards, a devious Pink Floyd quote at the precisely perfect moment and a long instrumental break at the end of the first track that sounds like the Alan Parsons Project taking a stab at a noise jam. And lots of guitars, jangling and roaring and resonating.

Lyrically, it’s the same kind of allusive ominous storytelling that White worked so memorably on Bob, but within a three to four-minute verse/chorus/bridge rock framework. People may be horribly tortured here – or those grisly images may simply be a metaphor for an inner torment that’s just as painful. And pain is everywhere, from the guy who can’t see his hands in front of his face, to the drunk stumbling home, the guy kicking the hooker out of his place, the girl from the street gang, the killer “sweeping up the shards and embers scattered in the tub” and the 5 AM subway rider on the Brooklyn-bound L train platform watching a menacing pair of figures close in on him.

And for all the pain, White never loses his sense of humor, bleak as it may be. “What of all these women? They like to come and go, but mostly go: when they come, believe me, I’m the last to know,” one guy reflects. “Well, I guess that I will live to see tomorrow/I hope you got a toothbrush I can borrow,” another muses after his brush with death. “Throwing all my pills away was a bit premature,” admits another doomed character. As noir songwriting goes, it doesn’t get any better than this. At the end of the year, there will be a new Best Albums of the Year page for 2014 here and this one will be on it.