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Tag: hilary downes

The 100 Best Songs of 2017

This is a playlist. Click on each song title to stream it, click on the artist name for their webpage.

It was tempting to pick one of the segments of the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York’s new release, Fukushima, as the best song of the year. But the single most relevant and mesmerizing album of 2017 is best heard as a contiguous suite. Taking one of its five movements out of context would spoil the experience. And it’s nowhere to be found online at the moment, anyway.

In lieu of that, the single best song of 2017, Kitten, by Dennis Davison, is still in the embryonic stage. It wasn’t released by a record label, or even recorded in a studio. It reached this blog as a voice memo, just vocals and guitar in a practice space. The frontman of cult favorite psychedelic band the Jigsaw Seen has written a lot of great songs over the years, but this one is the most harrowing. On the surface, it’s about a homeless guy who finds a kitten. He’s in trouble: he lives by the exit sign. And this is not a sweet love-conquers-all narrative. It’s a wish song – and a portrait of terminal depression as vivid and chilling as anything Phil Ochs or Ian Curtis ever wrote. And it’s as catchy as it is depressed.

Rather than trying to rank the other 99 songs here, they’re listed in rough chronological order of when they were either received or witnessed onstage. Rather than regurgitating the Best Albums of 2017 list, this one has a lot of songs that either haven’t been officially released, or were just so amazing to see live over the past year that it wouldn’t be fair to exclude them. Same rules as last year: one song per band or artist. Otherwise, half this list would be Ward White and Amir ElSaffar, and that would be counterproductive. You can go down the rabbit hole with any of the hundred artists on this list all by yourself without any further help from this blog.

Ward WhiteCoffee Maker
A pair of accomplices grow more desperate by the hour in this catchy yet characteristically enigmatic, Charming Disaster-esque post-murder narrative. The way White caps off his guitar solo is as cruel as it is priceless. From the even more inscrutable As Consolation, best rock album of 2017.

Jack GraceGet Out of Brooklyn
The baritone Americana crooner’s somber, heartbreaking requiem for a pre-real estate bubble New York. “The place held its own ground, the rivers separated where you bothered to go – really used to try to get out of Brooklyn, now everybody’s trying to get in.” From the album Everything I Say Is a Lie.

The Dream Syndicate  – Like Mary
The most harrowing track on Steve Wynn’s recently regrouped, legendary 80s band’s new album How Did I Find Myself Here is a catchy, tensely muted, grim portrait of a woman who may be a child killer…or just an Oxycontin casualty.

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son)
A vast, oceanic Iraqi-flavored lament from the paradigm-shifting trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist’s Middle Eastern orchestral jazz group’s latest album Not Two. 

The Sadies – The Good Years
A brisk shuffle beat beneath hypnotically lingering guitars in this chilling Nashville gothic elegy for a disastrous marriage: “She couldn’t wait to clean out the place he occupied.” From the album Northern Passages.

Alice Lee – Your Blues
A savagely lyrical, spot-on soul anthem for the era of Ferguson and Eric Garner from the ex-New York singer/multi-instrumentalist’s brilliant new album The Wheel.

Charming Disaster – What Remains
The New York noir supergroup– led by Jeff Morris of lavish, dark, latin-flavored rockers Kotorino and Ellia Bisker of parlor pop existentialists Sweet Soubrette – slink their way through this chillingly allusive post-murder narrative inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s The River. From the album Cautionary Tales.

Los WemblersSonido Amazonico
A brand-new version of the eerie, slinky national anthem of psychedelic cumbia, which the Peruvian band wrote and first recorded almost fifty years ago. This one’s a lot longer and more psychedelic than any other version in existence, Chicha Libre’s included. From their unlikely and amazing comeback album Ikaro Del Amor.

 Sofia TalvikLullaby
Catchy, anthemic and resolutely optimistic on the surface: “Still you wish you were dead.” When the Nordic Americana songwriter played this at the American Folk Art Museum this past spring, you could have heard a pin drop. From the album Big Sky Country.

Castle Black – Broken Bright Star
Guitarist Leigh Celent’s evil, spare icepick intro kicks off this slowly marauding anthem that eventually explodes in a fireball of reverb. From the album Trapped Under All You Know.

Morricone YouthClunes Town
Del Shannon mashed up with Ennio Morricone – makes sense, right? – with distantly ghostly multitracked Karla Rose vocals. From the band’s Mad Max soundtrack

Frontwoman/drummer Susan Hwang gives this long, creepy, ineluctably crescendoing, chromatically-charged Cormac McCarthy-inspired anthem her most luridly Lynchian vocal ever. From the album List of Equipment.

Lorraine LeckieAmerica Weeping
Leonard Cohen died the day before the fateful 2016 Presidential election. This careening psychedelic riff-rocker is the eclectic bandleader’s anguished response. Free download!

Son of SkooshnyUntold History
With Steve Refling’s keening slide guitar, this is one of the band’s harder-rocking numbers, Mark Breyer’s chillingly autobiographical account of growing up amid all sorts of familial and social Cold War-era dysfunction. From the album Matchless Gifts.

Aimee MannLies of Summer
Slow and lush, heavy like a thunderstorm, this mutedly depressed orchestral rock tale doesn’t reveal whether the narrator is addressing a prisoner or a dead person until the very end. From the album Mental Illness.

Brian Carpenter & the ConfessionsCity on Fire
The Ghost Train Orchestra trumpeter/bandleader plays keys and guitar and lends his baritone voice to this brilliantly Lynchian band, duetting with chanteuse Jen Kenneally in this slinky, bolero-tinged smash. They managed to steal the spotlight from Big Lazy on a Friday night in the East Village last month, no joke. 

Changing ModesDust
Awash in orchestral keys and troubled close harmonies from the band’s two frontwomen, this slowly crescendoing apocalypse anthem makes an apt coda to the New York art-rock band’s brilliant album Goodbye Theodora.

James Williamson and Deniz TekNo Sense of Crime
The best and most death-obsessed track from the Stooges’ immortal Kill City album, reinvented as lush, poignant, similarly opiated acoustic parlor rock. Giant Drag’s Annie Hardy adds plaintive high harmonies, with violin from Petra Haden. From the killer, wryly titled ep Acoustic K.O.

Miramar  – Sin Ti
A psychedelically Lynchian, allusively Middle Eastern-tinged bolero, the highlight of the Virginia group’s show at Drom back in January.

Joshua GarciaThat’s the Way You Drop a Bomb
Oldschool first-wave-style folk revival narrative as one of the crew of the Enola Gay might have heard it. Chililng beyond belief, and a staple of the New York songwriter’s live show.

Greek JudasKontrabandistas
A drug-smuggling anthem from the 1930s Greek underworld reinvented as searing, menacing, twin guitar-fueled metal. From the band’s brand-new debut album. 

The New Pornographers – High Ticket Attractions
Motorik Pulp-style new wave satire of yuppie status-grubbing. Llittle do they know how much corporations are taking advantage of them. From the album Whiteout Conditions.

Kerem Guney – Sicak Bir Sevda
Is it fair to put a haunting Turkish psychedelic rock anthem from the late 70s – like the Doors with an electric saz – on a list of 2017 songs? It hasn’t been released outside Turkey until the Uzelli Psychedelic Anadolu compilation came out earlier this year. 

MeszecsinkaHajnalban (At Dawn) – fifteen minutes of evil shamanic post-Velvets Balkan crash and wail from this phantasmagorical female-fronted Balkan group. Another band who killed it back in January at Drom.

Jaye BartellSwim Colleen
With his deadpan baritone and reverb-drenched, spare guitar hooks, nobody’s better at allusive macabre narratives than this guy. From his album In a Time of Trouble, a Wild Exaltation.

Carol LipnikMy Piano
Stately, graceful art-rock eco-disaster parable: after all, pianos are made from trees. Her vocal crescendo will give you goosebumps. She and pianist Matt Kanelos held the crowd rapt with this at Pangea back in January.

The Jigsaw SeenMy Name Is Tom
A rare successful mashup of dark Indian raga theme and American psychedelic rock, and one of the LA band’s most iconic songs. They ripped the roof off with this at Bowery Electric back in March.. From their latest album For the Discriminating Completist.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
The iconic noir pianist and the brilliant jazz singer outdo Dylan’s original. Eade’s rapidfire articulation underscores the venom and bitterness in this exasperated capitalist treadmill tirade as Blake anchors it with his signature blend of eerie glimmer and murk. From their album Town & Country.

Rev. Billy & the Stop Shopping Choir End of the World
The fearless environmental activist and his mighty, roughly sixty-member choir opened their towering Prospect Park Bandshell set this past summer with this ominous original gospel tune: “Only so many beautiful days on earth!”

The Robert Sabin Dectet – Ghost
A portrait of a house whose occupant has just died, a somber belltone pavane punctuated with artfully suspenseful use of space and moody horns. From the bassist’s album Humanity Part II with his lushly cinematic large ensemble

Gacaltooyo Band – Ninkaan Ogayn (He Who Does Not Know)
Never before released outside of Somalia, this late 70s jam is a slow, haunting mashup of noir soul, Bollywood balladry, Ethiopiques and what sounds like J-pop – Somalian pentatonic scales come across as positively Asian in places here. From the compilation Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa

The Mehmet Polat TrioEverything Is in You
Joined by kora and ney flute, the brilliant Turkish oudist shifts between otherworldly Middle Eastern modes, Asia and Africa in this pensive epic. From the album Ask Your Heart

Black Lesbian FishermenRagged Ritual
This trippy, practically fifteen-minute drone-rock dirge has subtle Indian raga allusions, moody Middle Eastern ambience and a slow build to a darkly majestically macabre, resonant swirl of organ and guitar. From the album Ectopic Apiary.

Hearing ThingsStalefish
A mashup of growling go-go funk, horror surf, Middle Eastern music and the Doors, it’s a staple of Brooklyn’s funnest band’s live show.

NO ICELeave Her Alone
Musically, it’s a bitter, fiery soul-rock anthem. Lyrically, it’s one of the year’s classiest numbers: cool guys don’t harass women. From the Brooklyn band’s amazingly multistylistic, fun debut full-length album Come On Feel the NO ICE.

Orkesta MendozaContra La Marea
The  briskly strutting noir centerpiece of the slinky psychedelic mambo/cumbia band’s latest album ¡Vamos A Guarachar!, brooding baritone sax and clarinet alongside bandleader Sergio Mendoza’s reverberating guitar multitracks.

The Trio JoubranLaytaka
The gorgeously fluttering, understatedly elegaic intro to the oud-playing brothers’ album and DVD A’Lombre Des Mots (In the Shadow of Words), their tribute to their longtime collaborator, iconic Palestinian poet and activist Mahmoud Darwish. They mesmerized the crowd with this at their Lincoln Center show this past June.

Doug Wieselman’s Trio S  Dreambox
A cello drone and flickers from the drums underpin the bandleader’s moody Balkan melismas. building to a ferocious, Macedonian-flavored dance – the high point of their new album Somewhere Glimmer.

Money Chicha – Tamborcita
The most epic number on the debut album by the Austin psychedelic cumbia monsters (a spinoff of the slightly less psychedelic Grupo Fantasma), simmering and swooshing with ominous chromatics, reverb guitar and dub tinges.

Ella AtlasLeave Me in Blue
The most darkly lingering, epically sweeping track on 2017’s best debut album, The Road to Now, the Lynchian first release by enigmatic singer Tarrah Maria and Lost Patrol guitarist Steven Masucci.

King Gizzard & the Lizard WizardOpen Water
A hash-smuggling Red Sea speedboat theme of sorts, it’s got an energetic, hypnotically shuffling, qawwali-ish groove, icepick staccato guitar and all sorts of eerie chromatic hooks. From the album Flying Microtonal Banana.

Timatim FitfitLiving in the City
A stabbing parlor pop tune, John Cale mashed up with the Handsome Family from the menacing, carnivalesque solo album The Sugar Man, a creepy side project by Orphan Jane accordionist Tim Cluff.

Omar SouleymanMawal
An uncharacteristically slow, hauntingly violin-driven refugee’s lament from the gruff Syrian-born crooner’s album To Syria With Love.

Clint Mansell – Wheatfield With Crows
With its shivery violins, lustrous long tones and darkly ambient washes, this is where the film composer’s score to the Van Gogh movie Loving Vincent breaks into a scream.

 What Cheer? Brigade Black Cannon
Sort of a swaying Balkan brass Hawaii 5-0; the stampeding doublespeed bridge and the breathless charge on the way out are the high points of the East Coast’s largest brass band’s album You Can’t See Inside of Me.

The Legendary Shack Shakers  – White Devil
“White is the color of hipsters,” frontman JD Wilkes snarls as this noir blues stomps along, flickering with out-of-tune piano and Rod Hamdallah’s screaming distorted guitar. From the album After You’ve Gone.

BobtownMagilla Lee
New York’s best folk noir band blend their charming voices for this blithely bouncy narrative about “true meditation through medication” with dire consequences. They slayed with this at this year’s Brooklyn Americana Festival.

Nicole Atkins  I Love Living Here
A slow-simmering, crushingly sarcastic, angst-driven piano-and-horns anthem set in 2017 Brooklyn gentrifier hell. From the noir soul singer’s latest album Goodnight Rhonda Lee.

Anbessa OrchestraNagatti Si Jedha
The Israeli-American Ethio-jazz band jam the hell out of this uneasily catchy, slinky, reverb guitar-driven anthem, a mashup of vintage soul and ancient African riffs, when they play it live. From their most recent ep.

Red Baraat – Gaadi of Truth
Fiery, chromatic horn-driven live bhangra with a little hip-hop flavor: like an Indian Slavic Soul Party. From the album Bhangra Pirates.

The Sirius QuartetSpidey Falls!
This high-voltage microtonal string epic is part Big Lazy crime jazz, part Bernard Herrmann, part Piazzolla and part turbocharged tarantella.

Rahim AlHajChant
The Iraqi-born oudist and his trio entertained the crowd at Lincoln Center this past spring with an intimate version of this uneasily bouncy, subtly sardonic theme inspired by his mom trying to keep her kids out of trouble. This video link above is the full orchestrated version

Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta – Red
Slinky, luridly organ-driven psychedelic cumbia mixed up withChicano Batman-style psychedelic soul. From the album Fonografic.

Nina Diaz – Star
Towering, angst-fueled noir punk cabaret, like a mashup of Vera Beren and Nicole Atkins. From the Girl in a Coma’s excellent debut album The Beat Is Dead.

Kalyani SinghEllis
An allusively grisly Ellis Island scenario set to a soaring Indian carnatic melody recast as gothic Americana – told from the point of view of a ghost. Or is she? You could have heard a pin drop when Singh sang this at the American Folk Art Museum last year. 

The NYChillharmonicBlumen
A lush, hypnotic, uneasily circling Radiohead-inflected epic from singer Sara McDonald’s mighty 22-piece New York band, who mash up big band jazz and symphonic rock. They raised the roof with this at Joe’s Pub last spring.

Dalava – The Bloody Wall
A murder victim haunts the crime scene over almost imperceptibly crescendoing art-rock in guitarist Aram Bajakian and singer Julia Ulehla’s reinvention of this old Moravian folk tune from their latest album The Book of Transfigurations.

Electric YouthIt’s Them
The Canadian duo’s enveloping, slowly crescendoing take on a classic Lynch film theme – in this case, for a movie that never came out. From the album Breathing.

Mulatu AstatkeYekatit
The godfather of Ethio-jazz, backed by an impressively tight pickup band including keyboardist Jason Lindner and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, kept the uneasy, brassy groove going for almost fifteen minutes with this classic in Central Park back in August.

Los Crema Paraiso – Shine On You Crazy Diablo
The cinematic Venezuelan psychedelic trio have been playing their deadpan version of the Pink Floyd epic all the way through in concert. for more than a year now. They didn’t extend it all the way through at Barbes back in July, but it was still amazing how they can recreate it while adding wry dub tinges. This is a similar, relatively brief eight-minute studio version.

Melissa & the MannequinsCan’t Let Go
The latest deliciously catchy, jangly single from New York’s best new band of 2017; bittersweetly coy vocals, ringing guitars and a little vintage soul too. 

BrigaBela Sum
Mesmerizing singer Eva Salina and Balkan accordionist Sergiu Popa join the Quebecoise violinist on this broodingly gorgeous ballad from the album Femme.

Funkrust Brass Band – Dark City
The title track, and most distinctively chromatic, Balkan-flavored anthem from the debut album by New York’s largest and most explosive brass band.

 Sofia Rei – Arriba Quemando El Sol
The stark Violeta Parra peasant’s lament reinvented as relentless, marching art-rock fueled by Marc Ribot’s unhinged guitar. From the album El Gavilan.

Kelly GreenCulture Shock
A bustling, epic noir jazz theme that eventually descends into dissociative Sketches of Spain allusions, flutters loosely and then jumps back into the rat race again. Centerpiece of the album  Life Rearranged.

David Smooke & the Peabody Wind Ensemble – Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The epic, sixteen-minute title track to the toy pianist’s new album is a real cinematic showstopper. Horrified tritone cadenzas, thunderous swells, unexpectedly dusky microtonal banjo, and then toy piano plinking and clicking mutedly under extreme duress.

Mike Neer’s Steelonious – Off Minor
Smoking steel guitar, organ and a rhythm section take Thelonious Monk’s classic to the next Lynchian level. From the band’s debut album.

Vigen HovsepyanGulo
The most haunting track on the powerful Armenian singer and multi-instrumentalist’s new album Echoes: Revived Armenian Folk Music is this slowly swaying 6/8 piano ballad.

La Mar EnfortunaAman Minush
Elysian Fields guitarist Oren Bloedow and singer Jennifer Charles’ Sephardic art-rock side project made entrancing psychedelic rock out this darkly bouncy old tune at their November show at the Jewish Museum

Noura Mint SeymaliSoub Hanak
A microtonal duskcore anthem, the most straight-up rock number from the fearless jamband leader’s album Arbina.

Hilary DownesSecrets of Birds
The art-rock songwriter’s band take their deepest plunge into noir on the album’s title track: “Save me from these thoughts, divebomb every part,”…yet, “I am not afraid of the  darkness in my way.”

Trina Basu & Arun RamamurthySindhu Bhairavi
Haunting, edgy, hypnoticallly dueling Indian violins – since this live recording from their amazing Noguchi Museum show in September is an audio-only clip, it’s tantalizingly hard to figure out who’s playing what.

The Hooten Hollers – Scrapper’s Lament
An amusing, amped-up oldschool country ballad about the joys of scrounging for scrap metal – a perfect job in these new depression times. From the band’s 2017 album.

Borbely Mihaly Polygon2/1
A bouncy, uneasy, staccato Hungarian bass clarinet/cimbalom/drums theme, one of the highlights of the trio’s amazing show at Drom back in January.

Tomas Fujiwara’s Triple DoubleLove & Protest
Mournful, spacious blues trumpet over a twin-drum stampede spiced with burns and scrapes from guitarists Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook: Wadada Leo Smith clarity and Amir ElSaffar majesty. From the group’s debut album.

River CultShadow Out of Time
Epic Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth slides into galloping post-Sabbath in this careening live track from the heavy psych band’s latest ep Live at WFMU.

Bridget KibbeyToccata in D
This is the famous J.S. Bach organ piece that’s been used in a million horror movies…played solo, matter-of-factly and celestially, on the harp. It’s as funny as it is subversive, but ultimately it’s still arguably the creepiest piece of music ever written. A downtown crowd at the Times Arrow Festival earlier this year didn’t know what to make of it. 

Dawn ObergNothing Rhymes With Orange
The most bleakly hilarious song of the year is this sharp, literary middle finger raised at “Putin’s little bitch” in the Oval Office. Title track from the parlor pop pianist’s latest ep.

Kacy & Clayton – A Certain Kind of Memory
A dead ringer for Jenifer Jackson in wounded dark country mode circa 2007, down to the slow, lingering, Richard Thompson-esque arrangement. From the album The Siren’s Song.

Super Yamba BandControl Per Capita (C.P.C.)
One of the Brooklyn psychedelic Afrobeat band’s most lavish, funky jams. They got a packed house at Barbes boiling over with this last summer. 

 Chicano BatmanThe Taker Story
A anti-imperialist broadside, part Isaac Hayes hot butter, part Gil Scott-Heron, with a hazy latin tint from the psychedelic latin soul stars’ latest album Freedom Is Free.

Marcellus HallStill in Range
The ex-White Hassle frontman treated a Williamsburg crowd to an unexpectedly slashing take of this deviously allusive, pouncingly catchy, sardonic social media-era critique last spring. From the album Afterglow.

The Klezmatics – The Yoke
A crushingly bitter Catalan dirge told from a slave’s point of view, the highlight of NYC’s original klezmer punks’ latest album Apikorsom/Heretics. They held a Central Park crowd rapt with this last summer. 

Agnes ObelTrojan Horses
Creepy horror-movie piano and dark low strings anchor the evil, whispery harmonies of this moody Nordic art-rock waltz from the album Citizen of Glass.

 Pokey LaFargeSilent Movies
An offhandedly stinging, sarcastically swinging oldschool soul anthem for an era of selfie overkill. He and his band motored through this at Bowery Ballroom back in July. From the album Manic Revelations.

Algiers – Cleveland
A fierce yet enigmatic anti-police violence anthem, part noir gospel, part postrock, part postapocalyptic film theme from the band’s second album The Underside of Power.

Paris ComboBonne Nouvelle
Big bustling noir swing tune with a bitter undercurrent from a darker, more lyrically hilarious French counterpart to the Squirrel Nut Zippers. From the album Tako Tsubo.

Bridget KearneyLiving in a Cave
Orbison noir through the prism of 2017 new wave revival. From the Lake Street Dive bassist’s excellent, catchy debut album Won’t Let You Down.

Gold DimeDisinterested
The side project by Talk Normal’s Andrya Ambro punctuates this surreal drone-rock epic with all kinds of delicious, darkly explosive riffage. From the band’s debut album Nerves.

The Dirty Bourbon River ShowPoor Boy, Rich Girl
A sly steamboat-soul slap upside the head of an easy target – but some targets deserve to be hit upside the head. From the album The Flying Musical Circus.

 Meaghan BurkeGowanus
A swirling, theatrical orchestrated rock lament from the charismatic cello rock songwriter’s new album Creature Comforts.

The Ed Palermo Big BandOpen Up Said the World At the Door
A wry big band jazz cover of the haphazardly careening Jeff Lynne cult favorite from the Move’s 1970 Looking On album that perfectly crystalizes the angst-fueled bustle the original was shooting for. From the album The Great Un-American Songbook Volumes 1 & 2.

Touched By GhoulMurder Circus
The title track from the darkly enigmatic, female-fronted Chicago punk/postrock band’s debut album works artfully cynical variations on a familiar carnival theme. 

 Marta SanchezScillar
The jazz pianist and her band artfully shift roles in this broodingly modal, looping, haunting elegy of sorts. From her new quintet album Danza Imposible.

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80African Dreams
“Conscious capitalism doesn’t exist,” the torchbearer of the original Nigerian Afrobeat legacy remarked at his Central Park show this past summer before launching into this pouncing, undulating cautionary tale for those who might want to play that game.  

Ensemble Mik Nawooj Gin & Juice
A deadpan, operatic orchestral cover of the Snoop Dogg driving-while-wasted classic. For real. They killed with this in Harlem back in March.

NehedarThe Grudge
Broodingly punchy 60s psych pop with coy 80s new wave tinges and a deliciously vengeful lyric. “Wanna step on me so you can rise to a better pedigree?…Put the claws back in your kitty paws.”

 Ani Cordero – Culebra
Growling surf bass contrasts with spare Spanish guitar and ominously reverberating electric riffage in this kinetic number from the fearless protest song specialist. From the album Querido Mundo.

Maximo ParkWork and Then Wait
A defiant 99-percenter singalong anthem, sort of a cross between mid-90s Blur and an artsy dance act like the Cat Empire. From the album Risk to Exist.

The PorchistasMr. Chump
Which raises a middle finger to the American Boris Yeltsin. This orange-wigged creep is a “draft-dodging scum” who “beats on little girls and cheats on Monopoly.” Then the girlie chorus chimes in: “Eats shit!” From the album Axis & Allies.

GalanosFeel Good
Echoey and surreal, this macabre, whispery, reverb-drenched noir theme slowly coalesces out of a Lynchian spoken word interlude laced with evil guitar flickers. From the album Deceiver Receiver.


Art-Rock Bandleader Hilary Downes Releases a Searingly Metaphorical New Solo Album

From the late zeros to the early part of this decade, pianist Hilary Downes was frontwoman for the Snow, who rank with Changing Modes and Botanica as one of the greatest art-rock bands to call this city their home. Since then, Downes has hardly been idle, and she’s finally releasing her similarly brilliant debut as a solo bandleader, Secrets of Birds – streaming at Bandcamp – at Barbes this Saturday night, Jan 28 at 8 PM. Folk noir standout Jessie Kilguss guests on vocals; eclectic A-list accordionist Will Holshouser leads one of his many projects to open the night at 6. After the Barbes show, most of the crowd are heading over to Freddy’s for Robin Aigner‘s Leonard Cohen tribute night.

Downes has a distinctive voice – a crystalline, often swoony yet precise delivery – a laser-like sense for a mot juste and a penchant for grim metaphors and multiple meanings. Meaning, she doesn’t stop at double entendres. The band behind her rises to the occasion to create a lush backdrop for her sometimes elusive, sometimes crushingly direct narrratives.

The opening track is Caldera, an elegant but venomously interconnected series of mythological scenes: “One could predict that the love they felt was equal to the harm they could inflict,” Downes intones, hushed and deadpan. Jeffrey Schaeffer’s waves of cymbals and sardonic swoops from the string section – violinist Karl Meyer and cellist Sara Stalnaker – drive the point home at the end with piercing accuracy.

Downes brings her torchiest nuance to the swing shuffle Deep Well, awash in chilly water metaphors and nocturnal unease:

Would that she could hold the night
Cold and without wind
To hold all of it oh so tight
Until it let her in

Her vocals bring calm and tenderness alongside Mike Cohen’s lingering guitars in contrast with Meyer’s stark violin throughout the optimistic Americana-tinged ballad Hearts Plateau. Then the band picks up the pace with the steamy, bossa-tinged Masters of the Table, a feast of imagery that gives the bandleader a slam-dunk opportunity to flip the script. She’s a master of turning the tables on what you might expect.

Dylan Nowik’s growling, stately lead guitar rises over darkly baroque strings and Cohen’s noir-tinged jangle on The Owl, a majestic and subtly sardonic portrait of a predator. Downes pulls out all the stops in Canon of Proportions, a purposeful, backbeat-driven anthem that’s the key to the album’s bitter central narrative:

Left long shadows in the sand
His arms, wings of a plane
He was Davinci’s man
His soul dwarfed by his frame

Matt Brandau’s boomy bass kicks off the album’s best and most cruelly vivid song, The Gist. It wouldn’t be out of place on Portishead’s Live at Roseland album:

Lady luck, she found her wealth
Took it from her former self
Queen of the sky, queen of the plain
She made herself a nest where birds could lay

The band take their deepest plunge into noir on the album’s title track: “Save me from these thoughts, divebomb every part,” Downes laments, yet she’s just as defiant: “I’m not afraid of the darkness in my way.” She ends the album with the death-fixated psychedelic soul ballad The Word and then the waltzing, surprisingly optimistic Rainbow. It’s only January, but we have a real contender for best original album of 2017 here.

Murder Ballad Mondays Makes a Mean Return to Fort Greene on the 21st

A monthly residency is a sneaky way to keep your fanbase coming out without stating the obvious, that they could always blow off your show this month and catch you next time around. After all, who can keep track of when the third Thursday of the month is going to fall, other than the band playing that night?

A lot of touring artists use small New York venues as an anchor when they’re here – or as a rehearsal room, basically. Barbes is home base to many of the elite among them, most notably Big Lazy (first Friday of the month at 10) and Rachelle Garniez (first Thursday at 8). There are also a trio of good acts using Sidewalk to keep themselves sharp: guitarist Lenny Molotov’s bitingly lyrical original oldtime swing band the Fascinators (first Saturday at 8), Mac McCarty‘s careening folk noir Kidd Twist Band (first Saturday at 9) and the darkly eclectic, avant garde-inclined Lorraine Leckie (third Friday at 11, including tonight the 18th).

This blog’s favorite monthly residency is Murder Ballad Mondays at Branded Saloon. Like Paul Wallfisch‘s late, lamented Small Beast at the Delancey, it’s blogbait. Any lazy blogger can save himself or herself four or five separate nights out and catch several of the best acts in town all on the same bill on an off night that doesn’t conflict with anything. And it’s become a hit with the local Fort Greene contingent.

Last month’s was a prime example: with cold rain pelting the slush outside, torchy noir singer Ellia Bisker and her guitarslinging Charming Disaster conspirator Jeff Morris packed the place and treated folks to a deliciously lowlit, lurid evening. They used to treat the crowd to at least a short set, but lately they’ve been teasing everybody with just a song or two. This time out their contributions were a slinky version of a shadowy, swing-infused new number with some hilarious rhyme schemes as well as Murderer, Charming Disaster’s signature song of sorts, a coldly wary, subtle cautionary tale reminding that the perfect crime has no witnesses.

Jessi Robertson set the bar high right off the bat. Hauntingly resonant, deeply soul-infused vocals fused with lead guitarist Rony Corcos’ similarly lingering, bluesy lead lines and elegantly jangly phrasing. Part of Robertson’s appeal is that her big crescendos sometimes seem triumphant and celebratory when they’re actually venomous, and their first song was a prime example. They also made their way through the bristling underbrush of a folk noir number and closed with a fiery PJ Harvey cover.

Liz Tormes, this city’s leading exponent of murder ballads, brought the ambience down to a blue-flame intensity, mining the catalogs of Peter Rowan and Bill Monroe, her own calmly and murderously alluring repertoire and closed with a stark Elizabethan suicide song. Former Snow frontwoman Hilary Downes sang a calmly brooding version of the Townes Van Zant classic Pancho & Lefty. And Mudville – singer/keyboardist Marilyn Carino and brilliant bassist Ben Rubin – kept the simmeringly ominous ambience going with noir cabaret takes on the Misfits and Tom Waits as well as an even more allusively venomous original.

That’s what makes Murder Ballad Mondays so interesting – it’s taking the concept of songs about killing people far beyond the time-honored Britfolk/Appalachian tradition. The more you know about music, the more you realize just how much we have in common: no matter the culture, people around the world just love to kill each other. And then write about it. This coming Murder Ballad Monday on March 21 starts at 8 sharp and features Charming Disaster, Elisa Flynn – whose rapturously haunting voice is matched by her historically-informed, erudite tunesmithing – and others TBA who will probably be just as good.

The Snow’s Disaster Is Your Mistress: An Art-Rock Classic

While it might seem a little extreme to proclaim the Snow‘s latest album Disaster Is Your Mistress to be a classic, somebody has to do it: four or five times a year, albums this good make their way over the transom here. Full disclosure: this actually came out in 2012. A file was sent; the link didn’t work; the ball was dropped on this end and finally retrieved close to a year later. Things like that happen around here more often than you will ever know.

In the age where indie rock is usually recorded by cutting and pasting a simple verse and chorus so that the band (or, possibly, the producer) doesn’t have to play either more than once, the Snow still make songs that sound that seem like they were a joy rather than a chore to create. The Brooklyn art-rock band distinguish themselves for having not one but two brilliant songwriters in singer/keyboardist Hilary Downes and guitarist/singer/trumpeter Pierre de Gaillande. Downes’ songs tend to be torchier, crafted to fit her crystalline, Anita O’Day-esque jazz voice. Her co-bandleader’s songs tend to rock harder, sometimes with the dark garage-rock edge that his first New York band, Melomane (who are in dry dock now but once in awhile make an appearance onstage) were known for. Each songwriter’s lyrics have edge, and bite, and clever wordplay imbued with black humor.

The Snow’s arrangements and production on their previous two albums had a chamber pop elegance, but the new album is a throwback to the days of peak-era Pink Floyd – each song has an intricately arranged, symphonic sweep. No verse or chorus is ever exactly the same: guitar and keyboard voicings and effects change, depending on the lyrics, rising and falling with a sometimes epic grandeur. Most albums can be summed up in a couple of paragraphs, but there are so many interesting things going on in this one that it takes awhile to get to know, and it takes some time explaining, and it’s all worth it.

It opens with a brief, staccato, dancing string intro fueled by Sara Stalnaker’s cello and Karl Meyer’s violin. The first song is Downes’ Paper Raincoats, alternating between a stately, marching art-rock theme and a funkier groove:

Feed your disequilibrium
Until the planted seed is born
We’re wearing paper raincoats
In a season of storm
Are you on your way home?

she asks anxiously. De Gaillande’s simmering minor-key bolero Little Girl is hilarious, and vicious, and poignant as a portait of an annoyingly irresponsible Edie Sedgwick type. It starts out sympathetically and then gets brutal, with fuzztone guitar and some LMFAO snide vocoder. The album’s title track layers swirling, ELO-flavored psychedelics into a swaying, 6/8 anthem, Christian Bongers’ bass rising tensely as the chorus kicks in. It works on multiple levels: as a metaphor for simply leaving a bad situation behind, or for a nation at the edge of disaster.

Pomegranate is one of de Gaillande’s playful, droll, catchy numbers, evolution as a metaphor for guy hooking up with girl. “I guess we lose a lot of fluids when we finally make the climb,” he grins, drummer Jeff Schaefer pushing it with a purposeful new wave beat and then taking it down halfspeed to a quiet interlude lowlit by Downes’ coy vocalese. If the radio played songs this smart, this would be the album’s hit single.

Downes’ pensive chamber pop ballad Glass Door has a gentle, Moody Blues-ish woodwind chart – David Spinley on clarinet and Quentin Jennings on flute – and one of the album’s best lyrics:

Here you are a fugitive
On the chamber you depend
A little peace, a little shelter
And safety from buffetting winds
But smoke gets in, inside this sphere
And in this haze we live my dear
One warden’s custody you plead
For another form of slavery
Where are the rooms inside of you? 

Good Morning Cambodia takes a savage look at how the west looked the other way during Pol Pot’s genocidal regime, de Gaillande’s banjo eerily mimicking a koto as the verse scampers to the faux-cheery turnaround. It builds to an apprehensive backbeat Romany rock anthem fueled by Meyer’s sailing violin, and then a series of cruelly funny false endings.

Black and Blue builds from funky trip-hop spiced with Ken Thomson’s baritone sax and Downes’ come-on vocals and then winds down to a gorgeous art-rock chorus. Dirty Diamond is a subdued wee-hours duet, part countrypolitan, part noir cabaret, solace for anyone stuck on the corporate treadmill:

There’s a cruel character
And its cunning opposite
And they follow you around
As they watchy you step in shit
It’s a drag to run this race
With these strivers and their baggage 
You never seem to keep the pace
As they rip and run you ragged 

With its Cure references, the brief, brisk duet Reaching Back is the closest thing to Bushwick blog-rock here, soberingly weighing the pros and cons of keeping a tradition alive, be it familial or artistic.  The album ends with Stay Awake, a slowly swaying apprehensive folk-rock anthem a la the Strawbs, imploring a nameless, dissolute figure to clean up his or her act:

Push on the verge of the surging ocean
Missing the days of the sweet commotion past
You felt your way to the creeping notion
It’s a lie that will make devotion last
And the bosses lost their minds
And you might not have the line
And the dotted line that you signed
When you were flying was a lie

And you resigned

While de Gaillande has made his frequently hilarious, richly tuneful English-language Georges Brassens cover band his main focus lately, the Snow is still active. Here’s the itunes link.

Elegantly Drifting Art-Rock from the Snow at Union Hall

For Pierre de Gaillande to be playing in just two bands means he must be busy with other things – there was a point when he was playing art-rock with Melomane, and the Snow, and doing more of an indie thing in Morex Optimo, and also getting his Bad Reputation project, which does English-language versions of Georges Brassens songs, off the ground. Last night at Union Hall, de Gaillande and co-bandleader/keyboardist Hilary Downes led the Snow through a haunting, somewhat stripped-down set of material from throughout the band’s career. To the songs’ credit, they sounded practically as lush with just acoustic guitar, keys, violin and trumpet as they do in their more lavish studio guise.

The show opened on a quietly intense, brooding note with Russians, a snidely allusive look back at the less desirable aftereffects of perestroika: “Mama I’m home, mama I’m sick, I ate too much candy, sucked too much liquor,” went the punchline. The band ended it with a long, creepy walk down the scale, ending with a single ominously sustained spaghetti western guitar chord. They followed that with a new song, a slow, steady, nocturnal art-rock ballad sung by Downes. True Dirt, an elegant chamber pop tune about getting messy – metaphorically, at least – kicked off with a big flamencoesque trumpet/guitar intro.

Downes sang the melancholy, metaphorically bristling Undertow with a richly nuanced, Julie London torchiness over the steady insistence of the guitar, the trumpet adding an unexpected jauntiness. They followed with a late Beatlesque art-folk ballad, its distantly aching atmosphere enhanced by Karl Meyer’s austere violin lines.

But everything wasn’t so serious. Union Hall for some reason has become a magnet for amusing cover bands – there’ll be a couple doing twisted  Hall & Oates and Dionne Warwick covers here on Halloween – and in keeping with that theme, Downes hammed it up – but just a little – by closing with a surprisingly plaintive version of Olivia Newton-John’s Hopelessly Devoted to You. Whatever you might think of ex-model pop singers, John Farrar – who wrote most of ONJ’s songs -wasn’t a bad tunesmith. It says a lot about the Snow that they’d be able to make something substantial out of one of them.

Dark, Direct, Smart Retro Rock from Whitehorse

Whitehorse is Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland. Together they make eclectic, dark garage rock which might seem like a contradiction in terms until you consider what an excellent, diverse guitarist Doucet is. Which makes it no surprise that there are numerous other genres on their album. It opens with a meandering spoken-word number set to a Marc Ribot-style noir guitar interlude that goes spiraling with a flamenco feel. Those are just two styles in Doucet’s arsenal, and they don’t return until a reprise at the end. In between there’s a lot of bluesiness, a ton of reverb and lots of vocal harmonies. Both Doucet and McClelland are strong singers, harmonizing much like the Snow’s Pierre de Gaillande and Hilary Downes.

With its simple stomping beat and lo-fi vibe, Killing Time Is Murder could be the White Stripes with brains. Emerald Isle could do without the stream-of-consciousness lyrical torrents, but the noir rockabilly tune is cool, not just because it has a glockenspiel. Passenger 24 goes back to punk-blues stomp that distantly evokes the Cramps, McClelland’s passenger high on coke alongside a “hopped-up driver chasing the moon.”

If commercial played good songs, Broken would be a monster hit (is there a college radio station where you are? Are they playing this track to death? They should be). It’s a wickedly catchy country tune disguised as backbeat rock, with a vicious duet that does justice to a Blood on the Tracks reference. “You’ve got to have a heart to have a broken one,” Doucet snarls, “I need a girl like you like a hole in the head.” The album winds up with a torchy, oldtime-flavored swing duet, McClelland’s lurid vocals backed by noir atmospherics from the organ and steel guitar. The only miss here is a pointless cover of Springsteen’s easy-listening hit I’m On Fire, which isn’t as annoying as the original but it’s pretty close. With originals as good as the rest of the tracks here, who needs covers?