New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: highway rock

A Visionary, Politically Fearless New Album and a Gowanus Show by the Felice Brothers

The Felice Brothers’ new album Undress – streaming at Bandcamp – could be the great record Springsteen should have made between Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town but didn’t. This one’s a lot more Americana-flavored, when it’s not evoking the Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet along with Willie Nile and Phil Ochs. It’s gloomy, surreal, seriously woke stuff, but with towering crescendos that peak out in ecstatic soul and country-flavored choruses. Frontman Ian Felice’s aw-shucks delivery masks ferocious anti-fascist insight: this band gets the big picture. Future generations, if there are any, may judge this a classic. Until Alexa’s in every room and every bar, sifting through your words and your expressions for any hint of nonconformity, you can sing along with these guys. You can also sing along with them at the Bell House, where they’re playing at 9 PM on May 10. General admission is $20.

On the surface, the coyly blithe title track offers a cynical “no matter what frat, we all shit” quasi-cameraderie. “Under the mushroom cloud: The Pentagon, undress!” Ian commands. Later on, the President, Vice President and one of many of the current administration’s Press Secretaries are ordered to do so as well. We’ll get you bastards to be transparent one way or the other!

Built around a wary, austere guitar hook, Holy Weight Champ is a coldly defiant parable, its protagonist throwing various loaded symbols at a nameless creditor. It’s sweet revenge against the banksters…or is it?  Special Announcement, with its sardonic ragtime piano, is even funnier, a litany of what a guy needs to do once he has the money to buy the Presidency. But populism can be a hard sell:

The people want glory and the people won’t wait
They want to eat the enemy’s hearts and brains
And lick the plate

Death permeates many of these songs, especially the waltzes. Moody accordion and piano linger in Nail It on the First Try; likewise, another, more Stonesy and similarly gloomy waltz, Poor Bind Birds has a tantalizingly gorgeous organ solo that fades out at the end, way too soon. Maybe that’s symbolic as well. And the most country-flavored number in three-four time, The Kid, traces the grim story of an outsider in cold, destitute upstate “ghost town New York” who never had a chance.

With its insistent, brassy pulse, Salvation Army Girl is a subtle dig at fauxhemians. TV Mama, driven by Jesske Hume’s snappy bass and spiced with soaring pedal steel, is a gentle but snide look at celebrity worship. Hometown Hero, which could be about a returning war veteran, a prisoner out on parole, or both, could be the most forlorn Fourth of July song ever written.

The brisk, ragtimey, shambling Jack Reminiscing is a great story about a local drunk, with a surprise ending that brings reality in through the back door in a split second. The best and most lyrically torrential song on the album is Days of the Years. imagine a dead-serious Marcellus Hall, or Biggie Smalls reincarnated as a highway rock guy:

Watching birds on a drowsy sea
Sitting in the dark of a family tree
Funeral flowers and paperwork
Drowning my dreams in mountain streams
Standing tall in a cap and gown
In a house that is since torn down
It’s summer in the Catskills now
Leisure classes in the mountain passes
The jaws of life and the jaws of death
In secrets in a dying breath
In a black four-door sedan
Down the road to the end of the world
These are the days of the years of my life

The album’s mighty coda is Socrates, a coldly withering anthem which beams the old philosopher down into the here and now and recasts him as a populist songwriter. Once again, as it does throughout the album, the out-of-tune, echoey piano adds a sarcastic old-west edge, in this case against wall-of-sound Sandinista-era Clash guitar orchestration:

When they tie me to the stake
What a great event I’ll make
All of the ratings will soar
High as the war
The pile on the stick
All my books and manuscripts
All of my letters and I will darken the sky
But the sisters of charity committed them to memory
And all of the children will sing my seeds on the wind

We need records like this in times like these. It’ll be on the best albums of 2019 page assuming we get that far.

Shattering Acoustic Songs and Defiant Rock Anthems Side By Side on the Lower East

“The most depressing music ever!” That’s how one of the members of high-voltage rockers Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts introduced his bandmate, singer Erica Smith at the Treehouse at 2A a couple of weekends ago. But much as Smith’s shattering, nuanced voice and painterly lyrics deal almost exclusively with dark topics, her songs actually aren’t depressing at all. She’s all about transcendence. Which is what dark music is all about, right? If everything was hopeless, why bother? The real torment is the lure of something better, and Smith channels that hope against hope better than just about anyone alive.

Her career as one of the leading lights of a still-vital Lower East Side Americana scene in the late zeros took a couple of hits, first with the loss of her drummer, the late, great Dave Campbell, then the demands of job and motherhood. Since then, she hasn’t exactly been inactive, but her gigs have been more sporadic: we can’t take her for granted anymore. Playing solo acoustic, she was all the more unselfconsciously intense for the sparseness and directness of the songs.

As usual, her imagery was loaded. Glances exchanged, unspoken, almost buckled under the weight of a pivotal twist of fate. A surreal, dissociative stare up into bright lights could have been a prelude to a grisly interrogation…or just a particularly anxious moment as seen from a hospital bed. That reference came early during the night’s best song, Veterans of Foreign Wars, a brooding waltz ending with a scenario that could have been either an Eric Garner parable, one with broader, antiwar implications, or both. Otherwise, she strummed and nimbly fingerpicked her way through styles from austere front-porch folk to vintage soul to minimalist rock.

But Smith is hardly all about gloom and doom: she has a fun side. The solo set made a stark contrast with her turn out in front of the band, through a smoldering take of group leader/guitarist Pete Cenedella’s mighty, steamy oldschool soul ballad, Hand to Lend, which quickly became a launching pad for belting and torchy melismatics to rival Aretha. Nobody sings a soul anthem like Smith: we may have lost Sharon Jones, but we still have this elusive performer.

Cenedella got his start fronting the highly regarded American Ambulance, whose ferocious populism and interweave of Stonesy rock with what was then called alt-country won them a national following. But musically speaking, this latest group’s musicianship rivals any outfit he’s been involved with.

Drummer David Anthony’s matter-of-factly swinging four-on-the-floor groove and bassist Ed Iglewski’s trebly, melodic lines underpinned lead guitarist Rich Feridun’s incisively terse fills and Charly CP Roth’s rivers of organ. Alongside Cenedella, the harmony vocal trio of Smith, Lisa Zwier and Rembert Block spun elements of Motown, Tina Turner soul and Balkan gothic into an uneasily silken sheen.

The songs in the group’s first set (this blog went AWOL for the second one) rock just as hard as Cenedella’s most electric earlier material, and if anything, are more anthemic than ever. The addition of the organ along with a frequent 60s soul influence often brought to mind peak-era Springsteen at his most ornate: Gaslight Anthem, eat your heart out.

The catchiest and most danceable number was a slinky go-go-strut, The Getaround. The most straightforwardly poignant, in a mix of songs with persistent themes of heartbreak and crawling from the wreckage afterward, was the imagistic Skies Can’t Decide. Setting the stage with the catchy, defiant Down Harder Roads and Turning of the Wheel worked out well, considering the fireworks, both loud and quiet, which followed.

Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts are currently in the midst of recording a lavish double album, so they ought to be playing out a lot more. And Smith is at Otto’s on Nov 1 at 7 PM with Beatlesque soul band Nikki & the Human Element

Blackberry Smoke Kick Out the Jams on Their Latest Epic Tour

The high point of Blackberry Smoke’s Manhattan show this past evening happened about midway through, a twisted, surreal kaleidoscope of sunbaked Georgia clay refracted upward into grim, grey Pink Floyd atmospherics, anchored by drummer Brit Turner’s steady sway. As frontman/guitarist Charlie Starr pulled away from the center with a sudden, Gilmouresque howl, Paul Jackson stayed steady, plucking icy chordlets from his hollow-body Gretsch to light up the somber mist. Keyboardist Brandon Still, who up to this point had switched effortlessly from funky, echoey Fender Rhodes to some spot-on honkytonk piano, built a black swirl of organ beneath the ominous skies above.

By the time the jam was over, Starr had referenced Hendrix, the Grateful Dead (several times) and maybe Neil Young before leading the band into a dirtbag verse or two of the Beatles’ Come Together. Bassist Richard Turner’s graceful, boomy McCartney licks were almost comical, in contrast with the grimy detour the band had suddenly taken. Maybe it wasn’t as cartoonishly funny as the Aerosmith cover, but it worked as comic relief. And it was one of umpteen moments during the show reaffirming the eternal popularity of jambands – and why Blackberry Smoke are one of the best in the business.

Obviously, most jambands don’t have the songs, or the snide lyrical impact that Blackberry Smoke’s most recent material has. They had the crowd singing along practically from the first chorus of Fire in the Hole, the outlaw redneck rock anthem they used to open the show. Just like the last time these guys passed through town, the audience was fistpumping and raising devil’s horns to Waiting for the Thunder, Starr’s ripsnorting, fryolator-guitar fueled diatribe about the divergence between the rich and the underclasses. The song is a lot more vivid than that statement – and it was awfully validating to see a bunch of out-of-towners getting down with a protest anthem. Even if Lynyrd Skynyrd could have written a song like this one, they never would have gotten away with it.

Whether Blackberry Smoke are doing that, or twangy party anthems – and there were plenty of those in the mix – they haven’t lost touch with their populist roots. Case in point: Best Seat in the House, from the band’s latest full-length album, Find a Light, a cynical, backbeat-driven anthem told from the defiant point of view of a working class kid whose ambition doesn’t go much further than that.

Likewise, the funniest point of the evening was when Starr introduced Run Away From It All, a muted, brooding would-be escapee’s tale to open a brief more-or-less acoustic segment. “We haven’t had much luck with radio,” he admitted. “Then I looked around the house and couldn’t remember if I owned a radio.” Over a long enough timeline, all technologies’ survival rates drop to zero.

In contrast with that stark cynicism, the band ran through plenty of sidewinding stomps, a simmering peach pie of southern twang and Stonesy snarl. And then they’d suddenly get serious with a gloomy, toweringly lingering, cinematic mini-epic like the death-obsessed Running Through Time.

The seemingly endless Blackberry Smoke tour continues; the next stop with anything approaching affordable tickets is at Sept 13 at 7:30 PM at the Capitol Center for the Arts, 44 S Main St. in Concord, New Hampshire where it will cost Granite Staters $35 to get in.

Another Clinic in Searing Lead Guitar and a Williamsburg Show From the Great Eric Ambel

Eric Ambel is an artist who ought to be playing record stores – because he makes vinyl records. Spectacularly good ones. His most recent studio album, Lakeside, sent a ferocious, guitar-fueled shout out to his beloved East Village club, Lakeside Lounge, forced out of business in 2014 in a blitzkrieg of gentrification. His latest record, Roscoe Live, Vol. 1 – streaming at Bandcamp – captures him in his element, onstage at a summer festival in upstate New York in 2016. The backing band is obviously psyched for this gig: alongside Ambel, there’s Spanking Charlene’s Mo Goldner on rhythm guitar, Ambel’s old Yayhoos bandmate Keith Christopher on bass and Phil Cimino on drums. Ambel’s playing an unlikely early weekday show tomorrow, Feb 6 at 8:30 PM at Rough Trade; cover is $10.

Ambel has a vast bag of hot licks, but most of them are his own. If you asked him to play like Neil Young, or Buck Owens, or Ron Asheton, or David Rawlings, he would, but he’d rather be himself. And although he’s a connoisseur of every possible sound you can get out of a guitar amp, he’s got a noisy side too. There’s pretty much all of that on the live record.

Just the way that he edges his way into the set’s opening number, jabbing around the harmonies of the first chord of the brisk shuffle Girl That I Ain’t Got is typical. As are the nasty, string-stretching first solo and a tantalizingly slashing second one. Here Come My Love, by his Del-Lords bandmate Scott Kempner, comes across as an amped up Jimmy Reed number. The blend of the two guitars is especially tasty; Ambel’s solo out is unexpectedly carefree and chill.

Hey Mr. DJ, a sarcastic dig at the kind of clown who’d pay a cover charge to hear some other clown plug his phone into the PA, is a co-write with the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Jimbo Mathus and one of several tracks from the Lakeside album. Over the slow, slinky beat and a buzzsaw backdrop, Ambel turns the sarcasm loose: “Crank the drums, crank the bass, crank that shit all over the place.”

The slow waves of the warped blues Don’t Make Me Break You Down keep the smokering intenstiy going, through lingering phrases that Ambel takes into the grimy depths, then up again.

“Just to show you I’m not anti-cisco, I have a disco song,” Ambel tells the crowd, then launches in to the strutting Have Mercy, which is actually more of a simmering take on vampy early 70s psychedelic soul.

The band follow Let’s Play With Fire, a shuffling mashup of honkytonk and Lynchian Nahville pop with a slowly crescendoing take of the David Rawlings/Gillian Welch hit Look at Miss Ohio, a staple of Ambel’s live show back in Lakeside’s glory days in the 90s and zeros.

Massive Confusion, the loudest track on the Lakeside recod, is a more swinging take on a familiar Ramones formula. Ambel then closes the show with two of his best songs. Buyback Blues, the centerpiece of the Lakeside record, is a slow, evil rollercoaster in a Cortez the Killer vein. The night’s last number is Total Destruction to Your Mind, the Stonesy Swamp Dogg cover that was Ambel’s signature song as a solo artist for years. For anybody who got to hear Ambel blast his way through this one back in the Lakeside days, Christopher making his way up the fretboard as the chorus kicks in, it’s a real shot of adrenaline. How long do we have to wait until the real estate bubble finally bursts so somebody can open up a place like Lakeside, with cheap beer and great bands every night? The closest thing we have to that in New York these days, Barbes, won’t last forever,

The Black Lillies Bring Their Fiery, Eclectic Americana to the West Side This Weekend

The Black Lillies are one of the most esteemed, eclectic and hardest-working bands out on the Americana highway. But they transcend that label, blending Nashville gothic, psychedelic rock and oldschool soul into their hard-hitting mix. Their latest album Hard to Please is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing a relatively rare, intimate gig this Jan 28 at 8 PM at City Winery;  general admission is $15.

Bandleader Cruz Contreras – who plays several keyboards and guitars here – gets a lot of production work, so he draws on an extensive talent base. The core of the band on this album includes singer Trisha Gene Brady, pedal steel player Matt Smith, guitarist Daniel Donato, bassist Bill Reynolds and drummer Bowman Townsend.

The album opens with the title cut, guests Jamel Mitchell’s baritone sax and Kris Donegan’s baritone guitar growling on the low end, building a vintage 60s R&B sway in the same vein as the Pretty Things or early Kinks. That’s the Way It Goes Down follows a familiar Americana rock pattern: catchy, jangly verse, explosive chorus as the BoDeans would have done it in their heyday twenty years ago. Donato’s savage lead blasts through into the third chorus and just doesn’t stop: it’s the album’s high point.

Contreras’ echoey Wurlitzer and Ed Roth’s Hammond organ infuse Mercy with a Memphis soul-gospel simmer, Mitchell leading a similarly summery horn section. Brady’s passionate vocals rise over the horns’ steady late 60s soul pulse in The First Time, with a neat exchange of solos, Donegan’s guitar and Smith’s steel over Contreras’ bubbly electric piano.

Matt Menfee’s banjo echoes mournfully in the grim duet Bound to Roam, an update on the folk classic Wayfaring Stranger. Then the band picks up the pace with Dancin’, Contreras’ bluegrass guitar contrasting with Smith’s honkytonk steel and Donegan’s southern-fried riffage; Menefee’s banjo is the icing on the cake.

Backlit by steel and easygoing acoustic picking, Desire sounds like a more down-to-earth Deer Tick. Contreras’ jaunty barrelhouse piano fuels the raucously Chuck Berry-ish band-on-the-road narrative 40 Days. He switches to mandolin for the album’s most relevant number, the broodingly allusive World War II Pacific theatre ballad Broken Shore. The album closes with a surreal mashup of mid-80s Cure pop and 70s dadrock. The band have a new one in the works; the show this weekend may be a good chance to get a taste of what they have in store.

Blackberry Smoke Burns Through Hell’s Kitchen

The song that drew the most powerful response at Blackberry Smoke’s show last night was Waiting for the Thunder, the snidely apocalyptic anthem that opens their latest album Like an Arrow. “Why do we stand by and do nothing while they piss it all away?” drawled frontman/lead guitarist Charlie Starr.

He was referring to those “with the power and the glory” who “get more than they deserve.” A little later, he and guitarist Paul Jackson took a sarcastic twin solo that referenced a cheesy Aerosmith hit from the 70s as bass player Richard Turner made a slinky upward climb, and lead drummer (that’s what the band calls him) Brit Turner swung a tight metalfunk groove.

It was a typical moment in a night full of many different flavors. From the looks of a near sold-out crowd – an unpretentious, multi-generational bunch – Blackberry Smoke’s rise in popularity here doesn’t seem to mirror the waves of rich white southern suburbanites who’ve flooded the outer boroughs in recent years. People just dig this band’s sense of humor, Starr’s knack for a sardonically aphoristic turn of phrase, and the fact that they can jam like crazy when they want to. Which is what keeps the music fresh, night after night. They started out here at Irving Plaza. Last time around, they played the Beacon; yesterday evening they were at Terminal 5.

Much as the group’s roots are in southern rock, more often than not they came across as a louder southern version of the Grateful Dead. Most of the jamming took place in long, slowly rising intros or smolderingly suspenseful interludes midway through a song. The most epic one of them began Third Stone From the Sun and ended up a couple of stories into Franklin’s Tower.

Throughout the night, Starr played a museum’s worth of vintage guitars, starting with a longscale Les Paul Jr. model, later switching to a Guild hollowbody and eventually an acoustic, showing off some flashy bluegrass flatpicking in an offhandedly savage take of the workingman’s escape anthem One Horse Town – these guys are populist to the core. He saved his most searing slide work for a Telecaster and his most deep-fried southern licks for a gorgeous gold Les Paul. Jackson also played one of those for most of the night, eventually moving to acoustic and then a vintage white SG.

They opened with the aphoristic, heavy riff-rocking Testify, then got the night’s requisite big party song, Good One and its endless list of intoxicating substances out of the way early, fueled by Brandon Still’s glittering honkytonk piano. It took awhile before his organ or echoey, starry Wurly were audible in the mix. From there the band built momentum through some gritty outlaw C&W, the blazing, Stonesy Let It Burn, and a couple of midtempo numbers that rehashed old bluegrass riffs the Dead made famous.

The most rustic song of the night was the swaying I Ain’t Got the Blues; the loudest might have been a snarling, defiant take of What’s Left of Me. The new album’s title track was surprisingly muted, less Molly Hatchet than 80s heartland stadium rock.

There were also a couple of covers, something a band this good doesn’t need. A haphazard stab at dirtbag Aerosmith stench in the Beatles’ Come Together, and an attempt to make something substantial out of Tom Petty, only lowered the bar – then again, this group come from a part of the world where cover bands are the rule rather than the exception. Blackberry Smoke’s nonstop tour continues with a sold-out show tonight at the Wicomico Civic Center in Salisbury, Maryland.

The Rural Alberta Advantage Bring Their Catchy Stomp to NYC This Weekend

The Rural Alberta Advantage’s latest album The Wild – streaming at Bandcamp and available on vinyl – is full of stomping, catchy Canadian gothic anthems and some more lighthearted material at the tail end. While frontman/guitarist Nils Edenloff’s tunesmithing here is pretty vigorous and upbeat, a persistent gloom often hangs overhead. This band could be the Sadies’ little brothers, or a deeper Deer Tick. They’re playing tonight, Nov 3 at around 10 at Rough Trade; if you’re going, hopefully you already have your $20 advance tix because it’s five bucks extra at the door. The same applies to the Bowery Ballroom show tomorrow night, Nov 4. Another good if completely different band, the sleek, new wave-flavored Yukon Blonde, open both of these Canuck twinbills at 9 PM.

The album opens with the murder ballad Beacon Hill, a dirty, noisy take on Sadies dark Americana that drummer Paul Banwatt pushes with a parade-ground stomp, as he does in a lot of places here. The uneasy Bad Luck Again sways along over Edenloff’s jangly layers of fingerpicked guitar and builds to a big stadium-rock peak. Then the band takes the intensity to redline with the thundering, frantic Dead/Alive, a sort of mashup of the Walkabouts and American Ambulance with a little Celtic tinge from Robin Hatch’s accordion. Wild Grin, a later track, is the song’s reverse image

Brother has a brooding newgrass atmosphere over a marching beat: imagine if Trampled By Turtles really trampled. Toughen Up has an interesting hand-drum beat and swooshy Twin Peaks organ but also an awful emo-ish lead vocal: it’s places like his where you wish that Edenloff would give up on trying to hit those high notes and just chill.

White Lights comes across as a more earnest take on mid-90s Wilco, while Alright sounds like acoustic Oasis. The steady, determinedly jangly Selfish Dreams could be a Sadies outtake; the album ends with Letting Go, shifting back and forth between a subdued Deer Tick shuffle and hard-hitting stadium exuberance, an unlikely triumphant breakup anthem.

A Tasty Guitar-Fueled New Album by Demolition String Band’s Americana Pioneers Elena Skye and Boo Reiners

One of New York’s funnest street fairs of the year actually isn’t in New York, it’s in Hoboken. This afternoon at 2:30 PM, Boo Reiners and Elena Skye – the brain trust of pioneering NYC urban C&W group Demolition String Band – are the main attraction at this year’s Hoboken Arts & Music Festival. It’s not the first time they’ve been the stars of this show and it probably won’t be the last. The stage is on the town’s main drag, Washington Street at 8th Street, just a short ten-minute walk from the Hoboken Path train station.

Elena and Boo also have a new album out, I Wait for the Light, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s the second one they’ve released under their own names, after four with Demolition String Band, and it’s notable for being their most rocking one so far. The lineup on this one is much the same as the original unit: Reiners wailing and flatpicking up a storm on Telecaster and banjo, Skye on mandolin, guitar and baritone guitar, with Kenny Soule on drums, Winston Roye and Mike Santoro sharing bass duties.

The album kicks off with the highway rock anthem I Don’t Know, I Can’t Say. With her forceful, soulful, twangy delivery, Skye has never sung better: this song is like vintage 90s Wilco with a woman out front. The second track, Sea of Pleasure has a dynamic the BoDeans used to work all the time –  hushed and muted, then richly clangy, with a tantalizingly  brief, biting Reiners Tele solo out.

The tender ballad Red For You has a hushed vintage 50s Kitty Wells sway with 21st century production values, and a rich web of guitars that build to an achingly sunbaked peak. The album’s mightiest track, the big anthem She’s Nobody’s Girl is the kind of snarling guitar rocker that someone like Miranda Lambert could only wish she’d written. The band follows with the lingering ballad Deep Cool Green Ravine, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Emmylou Harris catalog.

Then they pick up the pace with the burning acoustic-electric Every Day An Angel and its subtle Beatlesque tinges. The duo reinvent Elegant Wind, a familiar number to Demolition String Band fans, as spare Gillian Welch-style folk. By contrast, the blazing Sailor Girl is a mashup of Revolver-era Beatles and shuffling vintage 60s honkytonk.

“Jesus was a peace freak, he took care of the weak,” Skye reminds in the Ramones-influenced Jesus Was a Liberal, the album’s most ferocious and arguably best track. “if Jesus had a radio show, or a tv show, he’d been on after Randi Rhodes, or Rachel Maddow,” Slye asserts, something you might expect from a singer who in the past decade would make it a point to dedicate Demolition String Band’s snarling version of Creedence’s Fortunate Son to George W. Bush.

The lush blend of banjo, mando and guitar textures throughout the wounded ballad Scar on My Heart are among the album’s tastiest moments. They wind it up on an upbeat note with You Keep Me Up, which draws a straight line back to the Emmylou Harris/Rodney Crowell collaborations of about ten years ago.

Americana Crooner Jack Grace’s Long-Awaited New Album Might Be His Best Yet

Back in the radio-and-records era, conventional wisdom was that a band’s first album was always their best. The theory was that in order to get a record deal, a group had to pull together all their most impressive songs. These days, that theory falls apart since artists can release material at their own pace rather than having to constantly deliver new product to the boss at the record label.

Still, how many artists do you know whose material is stronger than ever after twenty years of incessant touring and putting out the occasional album? Crooner/guitarist Jack Grace, arguably New York’s foremost and funniest pioneer of Americana and urban country, is one of that rare breed. His long, long awaited new Eric Ambel-produced album Everything I Say Is a Lie is arguably the best thing Grace has ever done, due out on April 28 and presumably streaming at Soundcloud at that point. Grace and his band are playing the album release show at around 8 PM on April 27 at Hifi Bar.

Interestingly, this is Grace’s most straight-ahead rock record to date: there’s plenty of C&W influence but no straight-up honkytonk this time around. It’s also more straightforwardly serious than Grace is known to be, especially onstage. As usual, the band is fantastic: a swinging rhythm section of ex-wife and Pre-War Pony Daria Grace on bass, with drummers Russ Meissner and Diego Voglino, plus Ambel contributing plenty of his signature, counterintuitive guitar and Bill Malchow on keys.

Driven by a catchy, tremoloing guitar riff, the album’s first song Burned by the Moonlight is a garage-soul number spiced with some characteristically savage lead work from Ambel. Grace’s voice has an unexpected, angry edge: “Let the wolves tear you heart out every night,” he rasps. Kanye West (I Hear That You’re the Best) is Grace at his most hilarious. “Taylor Swift, I hear you’ve got a gift, I don’t want to hear any more about it…Kardashians are so beautiful, Lindsay Lohan’s problems are so real.” As good as the lyrics are, this slowly swaying late Beatlesque anthem’s best joke is when it becomes a singalong.

Run to Me follows the kind of allusively brooding desert rock tangent that Grace was often going off on five or ten years ago. “Evil has connections we can use,” he muses. Being Poor, a song for our time if there ever was one, has a stark, rustic Steve Earle folk-blues vibe: “It’s all got you down on your knees, no power to question why.”

Bad Wind Blowing has a tense, simmering roadhouse rock sway and a souful vocal cameo from Norah Jones: “Lean against the wind or get your ass blown to the ground.” Then Grace shifts gears into wry charmer mode with the steady backbeat Highway 61 rock of I Like You.

He sings the almost cruelly sarcastic title ballad over Malchow’s Lennonesque piano; Ambel’s twelve-string guitar break is just as surreal. Again, this song’s best joke is a musical one. By contrast, the album’s most crushingly relevant cut is Get Out. “We really used to try to get out of Brooklyn, now everybody’s trying to get in,” Grace laments over a stark banjo/guitar backdrop. It’ll resonate with anybody who remembers the days (ten years ago if anybody’s counting) before every entitled, recently relocated yuppie tourist in New York was starting a band named after this city’s second-most-expensive borough.

The album closes on a similarly somber note with So We Run, an unexpected and successful detour into early 70s style psychedelic Britfolk. Good to see a guy who’s been one of the most reliably good tunesmiths in town still at it, and at the top of his game.

Sam Morrow Brings His Sardonically Purist Soul and Americana Rock to the Rockwood

At first listen, Sam Morrow’s latest album There Is No Map – streaming at Spotify – might fool you into thinking that it’s dadrock. But it’s not. Although Morrow works the same familiar soul, blues and country-inspired terrain that white hippies have made a cliche out of since the 70s, Morrow isn’t one of them. In fact, when he hits the second verse of the slow, waltzing soul ballad Green – more or less the centerpiece of the album – he makes fun of those cliches. ““If I sing in key, would you believe…the same old bullshit don’t make the grass green,” he drawls, so laid-back that he could be drunk. Which he actually isn’t, since Morrow doesn’t drink. He’s bringing that refreshingly sardonic humor and his tastefully crafted Americana tunes to the small room at the Rockwood on Sept 8 at 8 PM.

The album has a lot of flavors and most of them work. The opening number, Barely Holding On, is a loping Johnny Cash-style shuffle spiced with chicken-scratch C&W guitar and honkytonk piano. “Gimme freedom of speech, then call me an asshole when I speak my brain,” Morrow intones.

“You’re fooling yourself if you think people change,” Morrow suggests in the metaphorically bristling The Deaf Conductor – with its organ, piano and snarling multitracked guitars, it wouldn’t be out of place on the Wallflowers’ first album. Likewise, a little later, Morrow sends a subtle swipe upside the head of entitled white privilege in the Stonesy Train Robber.

“We’re all just fucking liars…we’re all just hookers in high heels,” he laments in the slow, spare, carefully crafted Wasted Time. By contrast, the blippy Rhode-driven swamp-soul strut Am I Wrong has a cool, echoey psychedelic interlude midway through. Devil’s in the Details works stark, spare, brooding Waits territory, while the album’s closing, title cut goes in a country-blues direction, fueled by some tasty dobro picking.

Not everything here is up to that level. There’s Girls, a mashup of secondhand Springsteen and secondhand Stones, and Hurts Like Hell, whose web of mandolin and clever wordplay sinks in a morass of overemoting. But Morrow’s on to something, and he’s funny, and can craft a nifty turn of phrase and a catchy hook with enough consistency to keep you from tuning out. Now if only the legions of Fleetwood Mac and Band imitators would only follow suit.