New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: indie pop

Familiar, Heartwarming Faces in Friendly New Places

Music in New York is in a really weird place right now. We’re in the midst of the biggest market correction this city has ever seen. Part of that, the abrupt destruction of so many independent venues and the complete annihilation of what was left of the rock scene, is tragic.

But part of this market correction is long overdue.

As this blog predicted as far back as the mid-teens, we’re seeing a quiet explosion of community-based, artist-run spaces, most of them quasi-legal or even less so. That’s where audiences went during the lockdown. The corporate model they replaced is dead in the water. Seriously: does anyone think that the Mercury Lounge, with its apartheid door policy where proof of taking one of the deadly needles is required to get in, is going to survive the year?

In the meantime, the surviving off-the-beaten-path places are thriving. If you work or live in the Financial District, you might know Cowgirl Seahorse. It’s a friendly taco-and-beer joint at the far edge of the South Street Seaport at the corner of where Front Street meets the extension of Peck Slip. Since reopening, they’ve expanded their original Monday night Americana series to sometimes twice a week, and who knows how far they could take that.

It was heartwarming to the extreme to catch honkytonk band the Bourbon Express there over the Fourth of July weekend. With their signature guy/girl vocals and Bakersfield-style twang, they were prime movers in the scene at the original Hank’s before that place finally bit the dust at the end of 2018. This latest version of the band is just a trio, husband-and-wife team Brendan and Katie Curley on guitars along with their bassist holding down the groove.

Brendan is a twangmeister, and so is Katie, but on vocals rather than guitar since she plays acoustic (when she’s not playing the concert harp on their albums). The resulting blend of voices is one of the most distinctive sounds in country: imagine Waylon Jennings duetting with Amy Allison. This set was mostly covers, which was unusual for them, but it showed their roots.

The best number of the night was Jukebox in My Heart, Katie’s fond tribute to the joys of vintage vinyl. A brief, no-nonsense version of Vern Gosdin’s Set ‘Em Up Joe was a perfect example of how deep these two dig for their inspiration.

Brendan ran his Telecaster through a flange for period-perfect 70s ambience in a countrified take of Danny O’Keefe’s 1969 pillhead lament Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues. Katie sometimes sings with a vibrato you could drive a semi-truck through, so it was almost funny that she held back on that during her take of Freddy Fender’s Until the Next Teardrop Falls. They made their way soulfully from the 50s through the 70s with songs by Buck Owens and Emmylou Harris, along with a robust version of Soulful Shade of Blue by Buffy Sainte-Marie and a totally Nashville gothic Jolene. With the easygoing crew behind the bar, shockingly good sound and a steady stream of delivery orders moving out the front door, it was almost as if this was 2014 and this was the old Lakeside Lounge.

Then the next weekend Serena Jost played a solo show at the Five Myles gallery in Bed-Stuy. In almost twenty years, it’s been a hotspot for adventurous jazz, hip-hop and dance as well as art that reflects the neighborhood’s gritty past a lot more than its recent whitewashing. Jost fits in perfectly. Most cello rockers don’t play solo shows, but cello rock is unconventional by definition and so is Jost. Throughout a tantalizingly brief show singing to the crowd gathered out front on the street, she aired out her lustrous, soaring voice, an instrument that’s just as much at home singing Bach cantatas as it is with her own enigmatic, enticingly detailed, riff-driven songs.

In recent years, the onetime founding member of Rasputina has found a much more minimalist focus, perfect for playing solo (she switched to acoustic guitar for a couple of numbers). Still, it was the most epic, ornate material that was the most breathtaking, most notably a subtly undulating, singalong take of the big, triumphant anthem Great Conclusions and an aptly majestic, absolutely gothic, sometimes stygian new song inspired by the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Jost spent the lockdown by writing up a storm of new material, something we’ll hopefully get to see more of, most likely at spaces like this one.

Azure Ray Return With a Gorgeously Lyrical Psychedelic Pop Record

It’s been twenty years since Azure Ray put out their debut album, a major influence on a generation of bedroom pop perpetrators which was finally issued for the first time on vinyl this year. In the years since, the duo of Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink have not been idle, and they have a brand new album, Remedy, streaming at Bandcamp. In general, it’s more lush and keyboard-oriented, without the group’s earlier Americana touches. The vocals are calm but strong and the lyrics are fantastic: there’s a persistent existentialist streak throughout many of these otherwise warmly shimmery songs.

“How do you say hello when you know there is no more? What do you dream about when you’re not swallowing swords?” the two ask in the opening track, a spare, Lennonesque piano ballad.

They revert to the loopy keyboard pastiches they explored on their debut album in the second track, Bad Dream, but with more of a spacy, dreampop-influenced feel. It’s a wake-up call, possibly referencing an abusive relationship.

Likewise, there’s a gentle spacerock sway to Phantom Lover, swirly keys and chilly guitar clang over a simple drum machine loop. “All we’ve got is what we’ve done,” the duo observe in Already Written, an allusive, bittersweetly devastating psychedelic pop gem that’s one of the best songs of the year:

I want to bite my tongue, I’m never great with decisions
Got a lot to be desired but never asked for permission
Thank god I was raised this way
Now I’m somewhere between what I hear and when I listen
Try to write it down but it’s already written
How I miss those days

The album’s title track has a lush hypnotic web of guitars and a lyric that seems to reference the Trump era:

Stand alone in an empty room
Scared to stay, stared to bloom
Little beast clawing at my door
I call for peace, they call for war…
I’ve disadmired old tendencies
A secret greed in the cemetery

“If you think about it long enough, you’ll question everything you know,” the two remind, over the surreal blend of acoustic guitar and drifting keys in Desert Waterfall. They stick with the spare/sleek dichotomy in Grow What You Want and How Wild: finally, seven tracks in, we get a pedal steel.

The Swan is the most sweepingly angst-fueled, orchestrated number here, a hauntingly allusive tale of a steep decline:

Another fight for the waking light
Did you lose your wings at a sacrifice
It’s impossible to understand
And what tore your fingers back from your closed-up fist
You closed your eyes with confidence
It’s impossible to understand

29 Palms, a strangely successful mashup of atmospheric Americana and balletesque chamber pop, is a soberly imagistic breakup narrative. They close the record with the techy, blippy I Don’t Want To Want To: “Inside part of me has died but I still have a photograph.” Who would have thought that Azure Ray would make an album in 2021, let alone that it would be one of the best of the year!

Fleur Put a Psychedelic Spin on Classic Sixties French Pop

Dutch band Fleur add sly psychedelic flourishes to the classic ye-ye French pop sound that singers like Françoise Hardy and France Gall turned into an international phenomenon in the sixties. The group came together when Les Robots‘ Arjan Spies and Dave Von Raven brought the Colour Collection‘s Floor Elman as frontwoman. Their debut cassette album – which has been reissued, and streaming at Bandcamp – didn’t take long to go viral in Europe.

Musically, the esthetic is similar to American parody band Les Sans Culottes, but without that band’s often savagely cynical, punk-inspired lyrical edge. The opening track, La Tribu des Trompettes has the requisite fetching, boppy vocals (in Dutch-accented French) and trebly guitars, with a sludgy synth break from about ten years after the era the band’s shooting to evoke. But that searing guitar solo is spot-on, and tantalizingly short.

Track two, Mon Amie Martien (that’s how they spell it) has coyly twinkling synth over the snappy, trebly bass, plus nimble, colorful drums and an aptly spacy keyboard break. Sans Toi is a quintessentially surreal mashup of faux C&W, the Beatles and a bit of a hard-psych breakdown midway through. Then the band hit a wry bossa-pop strut in Plus de Rouge

Etoile Magique has a galloping pulse like the early Kinks, spiced with starry electric piano again. They follow with Monsieur Dracula, a bizarre mashup of goofy fuzztone Halloween pop with a melancholy Lynchian bridge.

They shift between Revolver-era Beatles and moody assembly-line American psych-pop in the kiss-off anthem Livrer Tes Affaires, and its botched syntax. Fête de Folie comes across as the closest thing to parody here: that beat and those synth flourishes are just plain ridiculous. Petite Amie, a bizarre update on 50s variétés pop with ragtime banjo and piano, also feels like a spoof.

The queen bee in the scampering, electric piano-fueled La Reine des Abeilles is finished in less than two minutes. A snappy bassline drives Petit Homme de Papier, a strangely bittersweet continental take on Laurel Canyon psych-pop. There’s also Moi et Toi/Toi et Moi, a runaway folk-rock hit which captures the whole band at the top of their game as devious impersonators sixty years after the fact.

Heather Trost Goes into Lush Psychedelia With Her New Solo Album

Violinist Heather Trost may be best known as the ferocious lead instrumentalist in Balkan band A Hawk and a Hacksaw, but she’s also proficient on several other instruments. Her new solo album Petrichor – streaming at Bandcamp – is quite a change. It’s a playful psychedelic rock album in the same vein as another solo debut from a couple of years ago by a similarly talented instrumentalist, Lake Street Dive bassist Bridget Kearney.

Trost opens the record with Let It In, a pulsing, shoegazy psychedelic tableau, layers of keys wafting around over distantly flurrying drums. For someone whose instrumental chops are so fierce, her voice is surprisingly delicate and airy.

The second song, Love It Grows is part Mamas & the Papas at their most warily autumnal, part Alec K. Redfearn Balkan noir – with fractured French lyrics. Tracks to Nowhere grows ghostlier over steady, spare electric guitar arpeggios, then the bass and drums come in and it takes shape as a moody, soul-tinged ballad.

Trost keeps the stately 6/8 rhythm going through I’ll Think Of You, a lullaby of sorts buoyed by her soaring violin. Burbling high keys contrast with a Velvets drone in VK09, a dead ringer for the Black Angels. Trost brings the album full circle with the hypnotically echoey Sunrise. The only miss here is the album’s lone cover – 70s hippie pop, ugh.

Playful, Gently Trippy Dance Tunes and Neosoul From Kalbells

Kalbells play psychedelic funk and neosoul. They’re a road-warrior supergroup: Rubblebucket’s Kalmia Traver fronts the band with her cheery, chipper vocals, alongside Okkervil River keyboardist Sarah Pedinotti, Angelica Bess of Body Language and drummer Zoë Brecher of Hushpuppy. Their new album Max Heart is streaming at Bandcamp. This stuff is all about trippy textures and messing with your head: airy highs, reverb and uncluttered dance beats all figure into their web of sound. This is a good party record but it works just as well as chillout music.

Lush string synth joins the twinkly electric piano, Bernie Worrell-esque keyb flourishes, and fluttering flute in the opening track, Red Marker, Traver’s bandmates’ harmonies wafting behind her vocals. The song seems to be about picking up the pieces and moving on.

Traver testifies gently to the therapeutic effects of blowing some notes out into the street in Flute Windows Open In the Rain, exchanging phrases with thoughtful sax over an altered oldschool disco groove. Purplepink has a muted but resolutely funky strut and a slit-eyed, sunbaked guitar solo.

Twinkling keys return over a spare, steady beat and increasingly lush keys in Poppy Tree. Dancing along over some catchy bass octaves, Hump the Beach is just as hypnotic as it is catchy.

Pickles is the album’s funniest track: without giving anything away, it’s metaphorical and features a cameo by hip-hop artist Miss Eaves.

Brecher supplies an elegantly rattling Afrobeat rhythm to anchor the blippy, playful textures of Bubbles. Big Lake is closer to four-on-the-floor, with a catchy, leaping bassline and enveloping harmonies.

Diagram of Me Sleeping is a slow jam that gets funnier the more closely you listen to the lyrics – although that whistling is annoying. The band wind up the album with the defiantly anthemic, whimsically ornamented title track.

Lo-Fi, Melancholy Jangle and Swirl From Clever Girls

Clever Girls are a throwback to the lo-fi jangle that was so popular in the UK in the late 80s and early 90s, and also occasionally the singalong catchiness of the 50s. The group frequently beef up their sound with lingering dreampop resonance. Frontwoman/guitarist Diane Jean sings her forlorn, angst-infused lyrics in an unadorned high soprano. Their new album Constellations os streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, Come Clean is a distantly regretful, 50s-tinged waltz through a lo-fi 21st century prism, skeletal and then rising closer to ornate but not qutie. That sets the stage for a lot of what’s to follow: plenty of loud/soft contrasts and sudden, unexpected, explosive peaks.

Jangly, spare guitar shifts to dissociative ambience, then crunch and a big dreampop-infused coda in the second track, Lavender. Remember Pluto is a famous New Order tune as Comet Gain might have done it.

Bassist Tobias Sullivan introduces Womxn with a little ba-BUMP noir cabaret as guitarist Winfield Holt adds simmer and shards, drummer Rob Slater chilling in the distance through the reverb. Built around a catchy, rising three-note riff, Baby Blue is awash in even more of that reverb and distant dreampop sonics.

The group follow the album’s title track, a found-sound miniature, with Spark and its Oasis chorus. Stonewall is a surreal mashup of cloying pop and post-Velvets grit, while Saturn is unexpectedly upbeat, bouncing along with Sullivan’s bass, They close the album with Fried and its plainspoken, seething images of a relationship unraveling. 

Thoughtful, Tuneful Pastoral Sounds From Andrew Rowan and Steven van Betten

Andrew Rowan and Steven van Betten have an attractively melancholy, bucolic chamber pop album, No Branches Without Trees. streaming at Bandcamp. Fans of the quiet side of Elliott Smith, or the early BeeGees, should check this out.

They open with Calico Basin, a wistful pastoral theme for strings. piano and glockenspiel God Given Beauty wouldn’t be out of place on Nick Drake’s first album, although this has more somber orchestration that blends with Rowan’s stark reed organ. The album’s title track is a wistful waltz, strings wafting starkly over van Betten’s delicately fingerpicked guitar.

“Have no fear when they come for you,” is the refrain in the Radiohead-tinged Little Boy: words to aspire to in an era of trace-and-track.

A quaint, fleeting string theme introduces Mining Claim, a brooding waltz that strongly brings to mind Philip Glass’ Dracula score. The narrative for Herrman, set to plaintive strings and guitar, is hauntingly allusive: it appears this Dutch gradeschooler survived the Holocaust, but his siblings may be another story. The album winds up on a similar note with Last Walk Through the Desert: as the strings flutter and shiver, does this guy ever make it out?

Moody, Enveloping, Purposeful Girl-Down-the-Well Sounds From Caitlin Pasko

Caitlin Pasko plays minimalist, pensive parlor pop songs and sings in a nebulous high soprano. An economy of notes is her thing. Her new solo album Greenhouse – streaming at Bandcamp – is sardonically titled. There’s nothing verdant about her alternately hazy and icy keyboard textures or her moody vocals. On one hand, this often comes across as one long song, with a relentlessly suffocating, claustrophobic feel. On the other, Pasko really owns that sound. Fans of Julee Cruise will love this.

She opens the record with the minimalist, rhythmic piano chords and enigmatic, close-harmonied vocals of I Know I: “I can’t trust my emotions,” Pasko reflects, “Because my skin crawls.”

Pasko reaches for her airy uppermost registers in Unwell as a drone looms in and wafts above her steady chords. She switches to electric piano for Even God. “I’m stuck in death,” she half-whispers, again and again, eventually shifting back to piano and then a low Rhodes rumble at the end. Definitely a lockdown moment!

Horrible Person is probably the most succinct kiss-off song ever written, and it’s actually very funny. Over lingering, Eno-esque atmospherics, Pasko doesn’t waste either notes or words. The simple instrumental Ooo Happy introduces To the Leaves, which seems to be a tenative stab at happiness…or merely escape.

She gets back on her feet – literally – in the next song, Mother: Pasko’s images of abandonment and alienation pack a quiet wallop. “You are lake and you’re still as glass,” she muses enigmatically in Quiet Weather: it seems to be a paradoxical love song. Pasko closes the album with Intimate Distance, the closest thing to a straightforward pop ballad, or for that matter any kind of closure. A cynic would say that any second-year piano student could play the whole record from beginning to end, but Pasko’s commitment to maintaining a mood and resisting the urge to go fulllblown orchestral is pretty remarkable.

 

A Trippy, Twinkling Debut Album by Dreampop Duo Vákoum

Multi-instrumentalists Natalia Padilla and Kelli Rudick are Vákoum, whose envelopingly atmospheric, imaginative, sometimes quirky new album Linchpin is streaming at Bandcamp. Bjork and the dreampop bands of the 80s, particularly Lush and the Cocteau Twins, are the influences that jump out at you. If chilly, watery guitar surrounded by airy synth atmospherics is your thing, this is your jam.

It’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole, an immersive late-night wind-down record. For the play-by-play, here goes: the echoey synth and blippy sequencer that open the first track, simply titled intro, are a red herring. Instead of an ambient soundscape, it turns into a lushly (pun intended) wafting dreampop tune, awash in late 80s gloss and sheen. The two women’s close harmonies are a welcome bracing touch.

That sets the stage for the rest of the record. The second track, Beast has a similarly blippy/icily resonant dichotomy, set to tricky, techy, dancing syncopation. There’s a little jazz in the guitar in the loopy Spark, while Sync is a blend of twinkling 90s trip-hop with hints of the Balkans in the vocal harmonies.

For whatever reason, Love is more about textures and coy accents than melody, as is the dissociatively glimmering Freedom. The bass rises higher in Thought than any of the other tracks: this is a pretty trebly record.

Airotic is more skeletal and jangly; Trust concerns something “To help us heal after what he put us through.” What that was isn’t clear. The duo wind up the record with SOA, which is pissed-off and has more of an action-flick soundtrack feel. The autotune doesn’t seem to be on all the vocal multitracks, although by the end of the album it gets annoying. If you can get past that, kick back and chill with this.

A Rainy Day Classic From the Early Zeros Finally Available on Vinyl

Azure Ray‘s 2001 debut was a foundational album for the deluge of bedroom pop records that would follow throughout the decade, and remains a cult favorite. Finally, it’s been reissued on vinyl for those who prefer something sonically superior and longer-lasting than a Spotify stream.

And let’s cut to the chase: it has a previously unreleased bonus track, which is killer. Singers Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink join voices with their usual mistiness and an only slightly unrestrained joy in Witches, a steel guitar-infused, countryish escape anthem:

As they watched us share our souls they tried to copy us
But they’re witches, they couldn’t copy us
As they watched us from above
The knew they’d never love enough

And it’s fun to revisit the rest of the record. The big hit was Sleep, a chimy, distantly bittersweet post trip-hop song with a good facsimile of a mellotron patch wafting over all the loops. The hazy, summery waltz Displaced, the slightly out-of-tune, quietly defiant working couple’s ballad Another Week and the whispery, brooding cautionary tale Don’t Make a Sound hold up strongly twenty years after the cd first hit the record store racks (remember those?). Less so for the opaquely echoey Rise.

The dobro against a churchbell loop in the Beatlesque 4th of July is as offhandedly ominous as it was in the months before 9/11. The tenderly opiated, Elliott Smith-ish chamber pop of Safe and Sound, the lo-fi C&W of Fever and the faux tropicalia of For No One are no less pensively attractive for being period pieces. Awash in post-Velvets shimmer and strum, How Will You Survive serves as an uneasy coda. Looking back, there’s no counting how many other girl-and-guitars duos they influenced, all the way down the line from the groups here who on any random night could be found at the C-Note, to CB’s Gallery, the Blu Lounge and Pete’s Candy Store. Good thing this album still exists to remind us of the hope and resilience of that time.