New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: indie folk

Another Brilliantly Allusive, Eclectic Album From Haunting Singer/Multi-Instrumentalist Elisa Flynn

For over ten years, Elisa Flynn has been one of the most spellbinding and distinctive voices in New York music. Her songs are rich with history. They sparkle with images and tackle some heavy questions. Her melodies range from moody Radiohead complexity, to scruffy indie vignettes, to stark detours toward noir cabaret and 19th century art-song. Flynn’s vocals – full, meticulously modulated, often soaring, sometimes wrenchingly plaintive – are the shiraz that fuels the narratives on her latest album The World Has Ever Been on Fire, streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing Picasso Machinery, 43 Broadway at Wythe in South Williamsburg on April 27 at around 9 PM. 

On the new record, Flynn is a one-woman orchestra, playing all the: guitars, banjo and drums. The Ballad of Richie and Margot rocks pretty hard, with a dreampop edge: spare, emphatic verse, big enveloping vintage Sonic Youth chorus, bitingly crescendoing stadium-rock guitar solo in the middle. She builds hypnotically ringing, pulsing grey-sky ambience with variations on a catchy, simple guitar hook in Before He Went Down – its doomed storyline ends suddenly, yet in the exact place where it makes sense.

Flynn picks out a spiky, distantly Middle Eastern-tinged vamp as Lost in the Woods shuffles along. “Maybe I’ll be addicted to those sleeping pills as well,”she muses in Syd, a catchy, darkly watery anthem. Paula Carino comes to mind: “I can only write these words in a kind of a trance…I can only feel like a girl when my lips are far too red.”

With its lush bed of multitracked, clanging guitars, the distantly tango-inflected escape anthem Wolves echoes the gloomy, anthemic intensity of Timber, the standout track on Flynn’s 2008 album Songs About Birds and Ghosts. The slowly swaying 6/8 ballad Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument – inspired by the Fort Greene memorial to the legions of US Revolutionary War soldiers who died in British captivity – is the album’s majestic centerpiece, a grim conflagration scenario. “Would you lend me your hand to climb out of the hold?” Flynn asks: the answer is all the more shattering for being left unsaid. It might be the single best song of 2018.

Veronica rises from a spare, rustic, allusively blue-infused one-chord banjo tune to a big, echoey, crashing full-band crescendo. The chiming, echoing No Diamond is even more hypnotic, an allusively wintry tableau capped off by an unexpectedly roaring guitar outro.

Sugar has a stomping, vamping mid-80s Throwing Muses vibe. The album winds up with Caution, a guarded love song that begins as a solo banjo number and then morphs into swirling, pouncing trip-hop. The contrast between sharp, translucent tunesmithing, Flynn’s enigmatic images and her strong, forceful vocals make this one of the best rock albums of 2018.

Fun fact: Flynn was a founding member of cult favorite kitchen-sink noiserockers Bunny Brains!

Arborea Takes You Deep Into the Haunted Woods

Maine is the most beautiful state in the American northeast: deep pine woods, rugged Atlantic coast, breathtaking highlands. Its most famous native, Stephen King, does a great job portraying its sinister side. Sure, like seemingly everywhere else in the fifty states, it’s been invaded, partially by a subset of the same speculator class who’ve decimated New York neighborhoods and transformed them into a ghost town of empty condos, hoping to unload them on the next sucker before the market caves in. But there’s still plenty of pristine countryside left Down East.

Out of that bucolic, richly verdant, often desolate part of the world comes the aptly named Arborea, the noir folk banjo-and-guitar duo of Shanti and Buck Curran. Their two most recent albums are Red Planet – a reissue of their raptly haunting 2011 release – and Fortress of the Sun, both of which are streaming at Bandcamp. Each is rustic, otherworldly and considerably uneasy; the more recent one is less stark and skeletal. Settle in for a hypnotic and often riveting journey through their sonic underbrush.

Red Planet opens with a pensive solo guitar miniature, followed by an airy version of the old folk song Black Is The Colour, Buck building contrast with his spare, incisive dobro over a guitar drone. Phantasmagoria in Two establishes an echoey noir ambience: “Everywhere I go there’s fear,” Shanti intones. She keeps the brooding, doomed imagery going through Spain, an autumnal mood piece and then Careless Love, its title a mantra of sorts.

The title track juxtaposes Shanti’s chiming hammered dulcimer against another drone, followed by the artfully crescendoing Wolves, which rises to an intricate blend of spiky textures: if Joanna Newsom ever grew up, she might sound something like this. Shanti’s voice rises to the rafters on the plaintive Song For Obol, following with the album’s best and catchiest song, Arms and Horses. Shanti winds up the album with a solo banjo-and-voice piece, A Little Time, which sounds like Marissa Nadler but more stripped down.

Fortress of the Sun is considerably more fleshed-out and slightly more rock-oriented, the Currans joined by Greg Boardman on viola, Michael Krapovicky on bass and Anders Griffen on drums. The catchy opening anthem, Pale Horse Phantasm draws a straight line back to 80s goth, both lyrically and musically, but with organic instrumentation. Daughters of Man paints a doomed, nocturnal narrative over loops of minor-key folk guitar. After The Flood Only Love Remains is just as hypnotic and more optimistic, Shanti’s apprehensive lovers “Breaking your heads to save this place.”

Buck sings and plays dobro on Rider, a more orchestrated take on what the band was doing five years ago. When I Was On Horseback, a surreallistically hypnotic Britfolk waltz, nicks the tune from Scarborough Fair. Hints of flamenco spice the spacious, terse miniature Rua das Aldas, followed by Cherry Tree Carol with its lingering/incisive dynamic. There’s also a whispery, dynamically-charged one-chord jam aptly titled Ghosts along with more subdued alternate versions of three tracks. See you in the woods – you might want to bring a flashlight.

Moody, Morose Rainy Day Atmospherics from Belle Mare

Do Brooklyn duo Belle Mare bring to mind the beauty of the ocean? Not really, but their music is definitely watery. Their album The Boat of the Fragile Mind – streaming at Bandcamp – is a good rainy-day listen, part jangly rock, part dreampop and part pensive acoustic tunesmithing. Some of this brings to mind Linda Draper and her recordings with Kramer during her psychedelic period in the early zeros; others remind of Marissa Nadler, or sound like demos (remember those?) for some 80s 4AD band. Frontwoman Amelia Bushell sings with a muted, often wounded, occasionally utterly defeated nonchalance over guitarist Thomas Servidone’s web of shifting atmospheric sheets and reverb-drenched acoustic strumming, with swirling electric guitar lines and echoey keyboards flowing through the mix.

While the album has a nebulously linked theme of angst and abandonment, the point of the music seems to be more about setting a mood than tracing a narrative. Bushell varies her delivery from a subdued, stoic alto to soaring highs where she cuts loose with angst and sometimes echoes of sheer terror. Servidone is a one-man guitar orchestra: he puts a ton of reverb on everything, from the gentle acoustic chords that underpin pretty much all of the album’s eight tracks, to fluid washes of dreampop and the ever-present, dub-inflected, often sepulchral sonic bits and pieces that waft throughout the songs.

The opening track, Charade, is a more noir take on Phil Spector-ish pop, through the watery lens of dreampop. The Once Happy Heart builds from atmospherics and brooding contemplation to a big vocal crescendo over chiming keys – “I give myself over to hideous sights,” Bushell muses. The title cut, a diptych of sorts, ponders how “we hoped that we might make it out alive,” building to an unexpectedly anthemic outro with distant, ominously boomy drums. After that, Bushell shoots for an oldschool 70s soul ambience on All This time, a feel she maintains on the next track, Deep in Your Dark.

The duo wrap the jaunty if perturbed folk-rock of The City in a gauzy disguise with layers of fluttering vocalese and pinging electric piano. “If it’s all right I’d like to find a suitable time to let out my reheased lines, hope they don’t scare you,” Bushell intones on the next track, guitar and disembodied voices adding an especially ghostly edge in the background. The album ends with its most experimental track, So Long.

This album came out over a year ago. So what took this blog so long to get to it? Bad recordkeeping, plain and simple. If the sky overhead looks ominous, kick back and drift away with this…if you dare.

Two New York Shows and a Killer New Album from the Handsome Family

The Handsome Family have influenced so many harmony-folk and dark Americana acts over the years, yet they’re impossible to imitate. The husband/wife team of Brett and Rennie Sparks’ resonant, unaffectedly moody vocals and brooding, surrealistic imagery have put them at the front of the noir folk caravan for the past couple of decades. They’ve got a show tonight, June 27 at 8:30 at the Slipper Room (Orchard and Stanton) and then on June 29 at 9 at the Knitting Factory; tickets are $20 and still available as of this moment. They’ve also got a characteristically excellent, thematic new album, Wilderness, just out,  also available as a deluxe edition from Carrot Top Records along with a book featuring both Rennie’s inimitable animal imagery and prose stylings – plus a poster and postcards.

Each of the dozen tracks on the album – their ninth – takes its name from a different animal, although in many instances those animals are only minor characters in the narrative. And Rennie’s tales are often as funny as they are surreal and creepy. The song ostensibly about a lizard chronicles a witch’s curse that gets an entire village dancing, and then they can’t stop, as the song’s ominous major/minor changes go on and on. The one titled Glowworm is a dead ringer for the Strawbs in their trippiest early 70s incarnation, soaring bassline and all, Brett soberly tracing the Jules Verne-like steampunk steps of an inner-earth explorer. The most oldtimey one is Woodpecker, the second song released this year about Mary Sweeney, the Wisconsin Window Smasher of 1896. In contrast to the jaunty tribute by A Brief View of the Hudson, the Handsome Family allude that her delusions might just have to do with a couple of the era’s most popular, legal substances.

There’s a spider’s tale set to a wry country waltz that’s straight out of Kafka. Flies, a high plains gothic mini-epic, begins with the death of General Custer and connects the dots between wars among both humans and ants. Frogs rocks as hard as this band ever has, a snarling electric Tonight’s the Night-era Neil Young evocation fueled by Brett’s searing leads. Stephen Foster is eulogized, dead and penniless in a Bowery flophouse, with a dreamy waltz lit up by Rennie’s twinkling bass ukulele. Myths – real or imagined – about where birds go in the winter, and the hypnotic effects of the octopus – are explored in wryly minute detail over gracefully waltzing or swaying changes. Giant caterpillars in Belize come to the rescue  – or do they? – when a woman is struck by lightning and “can’t escape the static or the 60 cycle hum” afterward. The funniest song here is Owls, an acerbically droll Edward Gorey-ish folk tune about an old guy losing it in his McMansion with “the clawfooted tubs, the room of rare orchids, the glass hall for my guns, statues of pharaohs twenty feet tall, crystal chandeliers, rare paintings of clowns.” The scariest, and most enigmatic one, is Gulls, which is not the only one here about a magic spell going drastically awry. Funeral parlor organ swells and ripples, glockenspiel tinkles eerily, accordion and fiddle resonate and gentle layers of guitar mingle over steady, minimalist drums. Yet another fantastic album, in every sense of the word.

Raiding Marissa Nadler’s Cupboard

Did you know that aside from the usual sources, there’s a whole lot of rare and very choice Marissa Nadler at her Soundcloud site? She’s got a new album, The Sister, coming out at the end of the month and if this is any indication, it’s going to be every bit as good as her now-classic 2004 debut. Grab a free download of the lush, gorgeous Clown Town, the rustic Motel Blues, the dark folk tune Apostle and a bunch of other stuff including an unexpectedly decent cover of Kris Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down.

Catching up with Slopes of Distant Hills

How irresponsible is it to sit on an album for over a year before you do something with it? Admit it: there are albums on your hard drive, or your phone, or maybe even under your bed if you have one, that you haven’t heard yet. The same applies in the world of music blogs, probably multiplied by some ridiculously high number. From the point of view of Andrew Maurer a.k.a. Slopes of Distant Hills, that idea is probably something less than attractive…but better late than never, he’s got an album out on insurgent Chicago label Luxotone that you should hear. If you like the idea of Bon Iver – angst-driven rusticity – but can’t stand the reality, this album is for you. Maurer’s voice has a fragile, breathy, anxious tone that contrasts with the steady dexterity of his fingers on the acoustic guitar. Some of the songs here evoke Nick Drake, others are more bluesy or bluegrass-oriented. As with everything Luxotone has put out, the production is rich and artful: producer/multi-instrumentalist George Reisch adds his usual terse, often poignant layers of guitar, keyboards, bass and drums.

The opening track is Sage Leaf, a minor-key blend of Britfolk and indie rock that builds to a lush crescendo of acoustic guitars: “Left the sea crumbling/Left the wind rustling.” It sets the scene for much of what’s to come. A folk-rock number, Sinking in My Heart builds to a hypnotic interlude and then picks up with yet another one of those intricately gorgeous passages with stately, incisive layers of guitars from Reisch: a little surf and some blues this time around.

Long and Dustry Trail sets pensive Drake-style pastoral imagery to an aptly nocturnal C&W tune: “I work in the town serving coffee to strangers; if they say something bright they could become my friends,” Maurer observes somewhat caustically. He blends the folk with oldschool soul on When Birds Fly, digs into Piedmont blues with Reason, then mines a Dylanesque Buckets of Rain vibe with Your Little Smile. Buddha Eye blends reggae with a trippy freak-folk feel and echoey Give Peace a Chance-style vocals and a completely unexpected hip-hop interlude; then he leaps into A Thousand Kisses, a catchy T-Rex style glam/folk anthem. The absolute stunner here is Anyone, a brooding, alienated, Arthur Lee-esque psychedelic folk number that winds up with a lusciously arranged guitar-and-keys outro. The album closes with Saved by Flight, an apprehensive, incisively fingerpicked acoustic blues tune. RIYL: Nick Drake, Love, the Zombies, Steve Kilbey’s solo stuff. And if some of the Deerhunter/Sufjahn Stevens/Bon Iver crowd catch on to this, so much the better.

Bobby Vacant Strikes Again

Bobby Vacant and the Weary’s 2009 album Tear Back the Night is a high point in recent rock history, a richly arranged, sometimes crushingly intense mix of darkly lyrical folk-rock and more ornate, crescendoing anthems. Since then, Swiss-American songwriter Bobby Vacant has hardly been idle, going against the tide with an enterprising new label, Weak Records, who’ve so far put out an entertaining album of eclectic Americana rock by the Jesus Taco. And now Vacant has a new album, Virginia Neon, credited to Bobby Vacant and the Worn this time around (multi-instrumentalist George Reisch, a.k.a. the Weary being replaced by bassist/singer Brigitte Meier a.k.a. the Worn). It’s almost but not quite as bleak, considerably more diverse and a lot louder than its predecessor, juxtaposing quiet acoustic songs with some unexpectedly fiery, energetic rock. And where Tear Back the Night went for lush arrangements, this has much more of a DIY feel. Leonard Cohen fans will be salivating all over this record.

The best of the 14 tracks here include both rockers and quieter fare. Surprisingly, the one that stands out as an instant college radio hit is the funniest one. With a strikingly simple, distantly apprehensive bass-driven hook that goes jangly and irresistibly catchy on the chorus, Nobody’s There is a wry catalog of ways to get attention. That’s how it works on a literal level, anyway – all these songs are minefields of symbolically loaded detail. The Jesus Taco’s Brett Davidson’s Man or Astroman style surf guitar drives the rumbling southwestern gothic opening track, Lay Me Down, while Run, a vigorous, exasperated garage-punk escape anthem with a Diddleybeat bounce, wouldn’t be out of place in the Steve Wynn catalog.

Among the quiet songs, Snow in April evokes the David J classic Stop This City, with its torrents of spoken-word images and vivid late winter milieu. The most intense track here is The Road, a hypnotic folk-rock song in a Tim Buckley vein:

I drove across the USA
I saw pain in every face
Headlights chasing down the dawn
Lost souls, every one
Carry on…

There’s also When You Burned My Eyes, whose wistful, almost sentimental vibe only adds to the title’s intrigue; the stately baroque folk of St. Peter’s Island; Without You, an interestingly funky take on Joy Division-esque gloom; Where You Live, a lullaby as a young Jonathan Richman might have done it; Shiny Pearl, an unexpected detour into acoustic soul music; Wild Wind Blows, an allusively menacing banjo tune; and Skylark, which mines a Pale Blue Eyes-ish Velvets vibe. It’s good to see such a tersely compelling songwriter holding onto the momentum of his previous album, with contributions from several artists including Per Blomgren (ex-Radio Dept.) on drums and luthier Tyko Runesson adding thoughtful melody and texture on about fifteen fretted, keyboard and wind instruments.

Jennifer O’Connor Is Back with Her Best Album

Is Jennifer O’Connor’s new album I Want What You Want her big comeback? Not really. She’s always been good. She burst into prominence in the late zeros, a purist rock tunesmith with understatedly strong guitar chops and a down-to-earth vocal style that won her all kinds of acclaim from the cognoscenti. By 2009, she’d parted ways with her record label (how many times have we heard that, huh?). Broke and burnt out from constant touring, she contemplated giving up music altogether when she wasn’t impresario-ing the occasional songwriter salon at Rock Shop in Brooklyn, or building her own label, Kiam Records. And occasionally, she’d write a song. This album is the result, offering guarded hope against a dreadful alternative which is usually left unspoken, to powerful effect. The raw, gently resolute intensity of O’Connor’s voice is the perfect vehicle for the portraits of emotional depletion here – a lot of these songs are absolutely devastating. Consider this album a more rock-oriented, teens counterpart to Joni Mitchell’s Blue.

What hope there is here takes awhile to emerge. “So many other ways – we can change,” O’Connor offers, on the simple guitar-and-voice vignette that opens the album, before plunging into the abyss with the hypnotic post-Velvets stomp of Already Gone. It’s a haunting portrait of how a scene that once seemed so promising will vanish before your eyes, leaving nothing to replace it, and as usual O’Connor doesn’t waste a note (bassist Michael Brodlieb’s hook on the way out of the chorus is absolutely, simply spot-on). Clinical depression moves in to take centerstage on the catchy but elegiac 7/12/09:

Every minute you’re alone
In every place you’ve ever known
With every song you set the tone
For loneliness

She moves back toward a middle-period Jesus & Mary Chain ambience, and brings up the energy level, with You Come Around, an exasperated kiss-off  to someone who basically shows up exactly when expected, because, as O’Connor puts it, that’s what they do. It’s their nature – and people like are usually psychic vampires, and she wants nothing more to do with this one. She follows it with the understatedly aching, wistful country song Hidden Hill, a cruelly vivid wintertime tableau with “Nashville guitar” from Tim Foljahn.

The trajectory goes up from there, from the stately Swan Song (For Bella), with Kirsten McCord on cello; the brisk, new wave beat of Running Start; the catchy, mantra-like folk-rocker How I Will Get By; and the lushly gorgeous Good Intentions, Mascott’s Kendall Meade’s precise keys mingling with Versus’ Richard Balayut’s soaring, anthemic guitar leads. Change Your Life is a dirge, a funeral procession for a previous existence – but also an opening theme for a new one. O’Connor finally flexes her guitar muscles on the roaring, noisy No One Knows Anything, then switches to electric piano for the final two tracks, a bouncy reprise of the opening track (with crystalline backing vocals from Amy Bezunartea), and finally Your Guitar, a quietly triumphant account of a rocker who’s decided to walk away from it all, sick of the “unbearable trends, the means and the ends, neither of which you can defend.” The whole album is streaming at soundcloud; the limited edition cd version of the album also includes high-quality downloads of all the songs from bandcamp.