New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: hilary hawke

Beautiful, Haunting, Evocative Mining Songs from Jan Bell

Jan Bell has one of the most distinctive and beautiful voices in any style of music. She’s never sung or written more vividly or poignantly than she does on her new concept album Dream of the Miner’s Child. A miner’s granddaughter, she traces the seam of coal that runs under the Atlantic from Wales to the Carolinas to make connection between the traditional songs of the Yorkshire mining country where she grew up, and the Appalachian ballads of her adopted land. A small ocean liner’s worth of Americana talent, including her bandmates from the acclaimed all-female Maybelles, joins her on this virtually all-acoustic collection recorded at various stops around the world. Soaring with vocal harmonies and prominent violin, it’s a richly purist, gorgeously subtle album, much of it propelled with a casually expert country swing by bassist Tim Luntzel and drummer Brian Geltner.

It opens with a briskly plaintive version of Jean Ritchie’s The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore (referring to a railroad rather than a New York subway line), Bell’s honey-and-nettle vocals contrasting with an austerely soaring Rima Fand violin solo. Yorkshire Water, an elegant chamber pop-flavored original, sets nuanced harmonies from Melissa Carper and the Be Good Tanyas‘ Samantha Parton over spare lines from Truckstop Honeymoon guitarist Mike West and pianist Katie Euliss.

Bell does Trixie Smith’s oldtime Mining Camp Blues closer to Davis Sisters-style country, joining harmonies with Alice Gerrard, Megan Palmer supplying rustic fiddle ambience. The title track, a wistful duet with Jolie Holland, looks back both to the 1925 Vernon Dalhart version as well as the original 1907 Welsh mining disaster ballad. Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town, a duet with Will Scott, is considerably more subtle – and strangely evocative – than the haphazard Pogues version.

Another Bell original, Elsecar Grace aka John Willliams, carries a cruelly ironic narrative with a vintage soul/gospel melody. Her midtempo take on Darrell Scott’s haunting You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive is nonchalantly chilling, while Juliet Russell adds her voice to an absolutely otherworldly a-cappella duet on Brian O’Higgins A Stor Mo Chroi.

M Shanghai String Band’s Philippa Thompson and Hilary Hawke join Bell on her Maybelles bandmate Karen Dahlstrom’s The Miner’s Bride, a brooding tale of a mail-order marriage in the old west made even more ominous by Thompson’s ghostly singing saw. Casey Neill shares vocals and adds electric guitar on a gently insistent, impactful take of Billy Bragg’s workingman’s anthem Between the Wars. Bell follows that with a Woody Guthrie lyric, Union Sea and makes ragtime-tinged antique pop out of it.

The catchiest of the originals here is Aunt Molly Jackson, the Carper Family (Melissa Carper, Beth Chrisman, Jenn Miori and Brennen Leigh) adding rich harmonies to this brisk oldschool C&W number. The most British of the tracks here is Carried by the Wind, Bell joined by Salty Pink’s Amelia Sauter and  Leah Houghtaling. Bell and Palmer end the album with an a-cappella take of the traditional Irish ballad Factory Girl. Life in mining country on both sides of the Atlantic was hard; Bell and her all-star cast deliver these songs with a potent bittersweetness that reflects both the hopes and grim realities of the people who created them, at the same time adding memorably to the repertoire. It’s not a stretch to imagine future generations of Americana musicians referencing the Jan Bell versions of many of these songs: this album secures her place among the finest and most individualistic musicians in that world. Bell plays the album release show at Barbes at 8 PM this Friday, Dec 14; high-voltage Balkan band Sherita (a Raya Brass Band spinoff) kicks off the evening at 7.

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M Shanghai String Band’s Two Thousand Pennies: Their Best Album

M Shanghai String Band are Brooklyn’s finest example of an ancient tradition: the community band. Consider: a hundred years ago, Red Hook assuredly had at least one bunch of local Irish guys playing the waterfront bars, probably many more than that. Meanwhile, the same thing was going on among the Italians in Williamsburg, the Greeks in Brooklyn Heights, and pretty much wherever there were people (instead of cows: much of Brooklyn was farmland back then). These days, divisions among the population occur more on economic lines than ethnic ones. When M Shanghai String Band decided to name themselves after the Havemeyer Street Chinese restaurant whose basement had become their rehearsal and then their performance space, they were just a bunch of locals who had one thing in common; their love of oldtime American music. Fast forward to 2012: they’ve got a new album out, Two Thousand Pennies, and it’s one of this year’s best. M Shanghai were a lot of fun back in the zeros, but who would have thought they’d still be going, let alone putting out a record as brilliantly eclectic as this one? There isn’t a bad song on it.

M Shanghai, who currently boast about ten members, are a string band in the broadest sense of the word: a long time ago, they expanded beyond vintage country sounds to include elements of gypsy music, sea chanteys, British folksongs, oldtime swing jazz, noir cabaret and straight-up rock, all of which they play acoustic. Guitarist Austin Hughes’ gentle, keening voice isn’t the first thing you’d expect to hear from a country band – not that they’re always a country band – but he sings on key and writes fluently in a whole bunch of styles, with a subtly stinging lyricism.

The album begins powerfully with the swaying, broodingly catchy, minor-key Sea Monster, a metaphorically-charged parable of post-9/11 paranoia. Made in the Dark has a swaying flamenco/noir cabaret vibe: we’re all made in the dark, after all, but this isn’t exactly a celebration. Violinist and spoons player Philippa Thompson sings Leaving Oklahoma, which has the mix of resignation and hope of a classic dust bowl ballad, followed by the starkly rustic Shanghai Mountain, sung by its author, banjo player Hilary Hawke.

The soaring title track, Richard Morris’ mandolin blending with Dave Pollack’s full-thoated, bluesy harmonica, cynically explores an understatedly bleak current-day depression milieu. Guitarist Matthew Schickele, the group’s resident ham, sings Marlene, a muted, sad country waltz as well as Sailor’s Snug Harbor – a ruggedly wry oldtime-flavored sea chantey commissioned by Staten Island’s 5 Boroughs Music Festival – and the ridiculously fun Zombie Zombo. Morris sings Entropy, his blackly humorous swing tune: “We idolize the work of human hands…and everything falls apart,” he complains.

Hughes’ Sleeping Engineeer never wakes up during the shuffling, richly nocturnal railroad ballad; Glendon Jones’ creepy gypsy fiddle finally alludes to the consequences waiting just around the bend. Thompson contrasts that with Boxcar, a casually imperturbable hobo song: this particular tramp isn’t about to trade freedom for any kind of stability. Dillinger follows the trail of the legendary outlaw through some gorgeous harmonies to a surprising conclusion; Hawke sings Wrecking Ball Savior, a bitterly beautiful, Appalachian-flavored lament. The album ends with O Lucy, a track that wouldn’t be out of place on a Richard & Linda Thompson album from the 70s. M Shanghai String Band sold out their album release shows at the Jalopy last month; their next one at Brooklyn’s home for all things good and vintage American is at 9 PM on Nov 3 and you’d best show up on time if you want to get in.

M Shanghai String Band Packs the Jalopy, Again

M Shanghai Strng Band’s sold-out cd release show at the Jalopy Friday night started at nine and ended a little before one in the morning. Brooklyn’s best-loved oldtime string band do it oldschool, Grand Old Opry style, virtually all ten band members stepping to the mic for a couple of bars at a time, an endless parade of hot licks and cool ideas. The parade of talent began before they did, with a series of cameos by their friends (when you have ten people in a band, that translates to a LOT of friends). Karla Schickele and Kristin Mueller each sang pensively catchy folk-pop songs; Pierre de Gaillande of the Snow contributed a couple of cleverly artsy, amusing acoustic rock and soul tunes; Jan Bell sang plaintive, bittersweet country waltzes, followed by a couple of eerie minor-key blues tunes, Ain’t Gonna Rain and Broken Arrow, sung ruggedly and rustically by Will Scott. And as much as taking the stage after Kelli Rae Powell could be a recipe for disaster – she’s a hard act to follow – M Shanghai took that chance. Nine months pregnant and looking ready to pop, she nonetheless made her way way through her best song, Don’t Slow Down, Zachary, playing up the comedy rather than the grimness of its rockers-on-the-road narrative. And with the indelibly catchy Bury Me in Iowa City – a track from her sensationally good, forthcoming live album, recorded at the Jalopy – she both set the stage and raised the bar for the headliners.

And they delivered. What a fun night this was! Their first set comprised the entirety of their eclectic new album, Two Thousand Pennies; the second was almost as long and took the energy even higher. In the style of an oldtime community band, everybody gets to contribute, some more than others. If there were any individual stars of this show, they were violinists Glendon Jones and Philippa Thompson, blending and contrasting styles – he’s got more of a gypsy bite, she typically goes for a more fluid country fiddle approach. One after another, band members traded off solos, harmonica player Dave Pollack handing off energetically to mandolinist Richard Morris, or to banjo player Hilary Hawke, or one of the violinists. But ultimately none of this would have mattered if the songs weren’t so good.

The new album is the best thing they’ve ever done. They began with the anxious steampunk sway of Sea Monster and its catchy major/minor changes, followed by Made in the Dark, an apprehensive, gypsy-flavored tango – this band goes far afield of traditional country music a lot of the time. Many of their songs – the dustbowl ballad Leaving Oklahoma, the stern seafarer’s narrative Sailor’s Snug Harbor, the rousing outlaw shuffle Dillinger and the British folk-style ballad O Lucy – could have been classics from Bakersfield, or Staten Island, or Yorkshire, decades or centuries ago. Shanghai Mountain lept from a stark banjo tune to a fiery bluegrass dance, while the catchy Two Thousand Pennies – the album’s title track – alluded to this era’s Great Depression.

Guitarist Matthew Schickele – who seems to be in charge of writing all this band’s funniest songs – led the bunch through a surprisingly sad, irony-tinged waltz, Marlene, as well as the Staten Island sea chantey and also the night’s most amusing song, Zombie Zombo. Morris sang Entropy, which began as an upbeat swing tune but quickly took on a disconcerting edge. Wrecking Ball Savior, with its fetching guy/girl harmonies and country gospel tinges, might be an anti-gentrification number, while Boxcars, sung with a carefree charm by Thompson, voiced a hobo’s defiantly optimitic point of view. Pollack, who’d been punctuating pretty much eveything with a boiterous bite, finally got the chance to take a long solo on the offhandedly ominous railroad ballad Sleeping Engineer and made the most of it.

The second set kicked off with stark twin fiddles and a raucously gypsy-fueled dance, Thompson out in front of the band. Guitarist Austin Hughes, who writes many of the bnad’s most memorable songs, sang a catchy gospel-tinged banjo tune. Schickele delivered Stay Calm, a deadpan Neil Young-flavored number. Thompson played spoons on a lickety-split bluegrass tune, and then singing saw on a haunting noir swing number a little later on. Drummer Brian Geltner, who’d held back with a terse groove all night, finally got to cut loose with a stomp on a lively, crescendoing country song lit up with more of those gorgeous harmonies and a searing Jones violin solo. And the most intense instrumental moment of the night was a casually menacing, all-too-brief cameo by clarinetist Ken Thompson – that’s how this band does it, they always leave you wanting more, even after two hours onstage. Like most of the best of the NYC country and oldtime Americana scene, they make the Jalopy their home: they’ll be there at 9 PM on Nov 3.