New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: indie pop

Intriguing, Allusively Lyrical Violin Songs From Concetta Abbate

Violinist Concetta Abbate writes imaginatively detailed, concise chamber rock songs – when she’s not playing string quartets, or ambient music. She draws on a classical background as well as an immersion in the New York free improvisation scene. Some of the songs on her new album Mirror Touch – streaming at Bandcamp – bring to mind a higher-register Rasputina, or in more delicate moments, cello rocker Serena Jost or the Real Vocal String Quartet. Much of this material is through-composed: Abbate doesn’t typically repeat herself or stay in one place for very long. She also uses pizzicato as much as she bows: this music has plenty of bounce and groove.

The album title refers to mirror-touch synesthesia, where an individual physically feels a physical reaction when another person is touched (many consider it extrasensory perception). The first song, Creatures, is a diptych, its elegantly vamping, swaying baroque pop shifting to a triumphant, emphatic conclusion. Abbate’s search for solid ground amid the relentless uncertainty of gentification-era New York becomes a rare success story.

She leaps to the top of her expressive high soprano in the precise cadences of the Renaissance-flavored miniature Madrigal. Then she matches a gentle but resolute vocal to more baroque-tinged, acerbically leaping violin riffage in Lavender, drummer Ben Engel artfully handling the subtle rhythmic shifts.

The jaunty latin jazz pulse of September, spiced with Charlie Rauh’s guitar and Abbate’s resonant lines on the low strings of her five-string model contrasts with the song’s troubled lyrics. Sunlight, an instrumental with wordless vocals, slowly coalesces toward Bach out of carefree, leaping phrases; then the energy picks up again.

Building has delicate pizzicato that shifts into ambience and one of Abbate’s most acerbically loaded lyrics:

Notebooks upon notebooks
Cost more than I make
Face upon illusion
Give and take
Will they discover me
Will I be found out

Hazy harmonics from both violin and Vasko Dukovski’s bass clarinet provide a surreal backdrop for the warmly inviting vocals of Overflow. The album’s funniest, most playful number is Mis, an instrumental duet between Dukovski and flutist Leanne Friedman.

Abbate returns to a more broodingly poetic atmosphere with Bit of Rain, which has hints of both trip-hop and 20th century minimalism. She follows that with the album’s most hypnotically circling number, Secrets

Worlds, a solo instrumental for violin and vocals, follows a disquieted path through riffage that evokes Ligeti, Bartok, and also Celtic music. Abbate concludes with the benedictory diptych Forgetful, an apt way to close this fresh, verdant, allusively intriguing album.

Rare Live Elliott Smith Available For the First Time on Record

The big deal about the new, remastered 25th anniversary edition of Elliott Smith’s solo debut – streaming at Bandcamp – is that it comes with a bonus live album, something that the iconic 90s songwriter never released during his lifetime. It took a conversation with one of his best friends from college to get the inside dope. “Oh, from when he was doing all those drugs,” she said with a dismissive wave of the hand: she wasn’t inclined to hear it.

For whatever reason, Smith doesn’t sound particularly opiated. His voice is ragged in places, and he doesn’t interact much with an impressively large crowd who’d come out for his solo acoustic set at Umbra Penumbra in Portland, Oregon on September 17, 1994. But his guitar work is solid, and vigorous, and everybody who was listening to Smith before he was murdered will want to hear it.

Knowing how he ended up, it’s sobering to hear the endless druggie references: the desperate narrative over those Wilco-ish chords in his first number; the references to scoring on the Lower East Side in Alphabet Town; and the appearance of Constantina, a recurrent, pseudonymous character who would outlive him.

Plenty of early versions of as-yet unreleased material in the setlist. No Name #4, an allusively grim narrative over briskly picked folk chords; the even more grisly detailed Condor Ave.; the wistfully waltzing No Name #1; and the broodingly Britfolk-tinged No Confidence Man, among others. Smith’s old Heatmiser bud Neil Gust joins him for a stark two-guitar version of Half Right.

On the reissue record, the bass response seems substantially boosted: does that explain why the downstrokes and atonal open-string harmonies of Needle in the Hay, for example, sound so much like Nirvana? Or is that just a function of listening on headphones instead of getting to know this otherwise rather delicate, mostly acoustic cd by cranking it up on a big oldschool stereo in a Gramercy Park apartment?

Hindsight being 20/20, it’s easy to hear the otherwise opaque Christian Brothers as a prototype for the gorgeously anthemic sensibility of Figure 8. Or how tantalizingly the briskly strummed layers of Southern Belle foreshadow that era as well. Or, listening to the full-band studio version of Coming Up Roses here, how much he already had that in his fingers to an extent that nobody realized at the time.

Thoughtful, Attractively Enveloping Nocturnes From Swimming Bell

Swimming Bell play slow, pensively lingering, atmospheric songs that draw equally on Americana and ambient music. Their new album Wild Sight – streaming at Bandcamp – brings to mind Neko Case or Tift Merritt as produced by Brian Eno, maybe. Washes of pedal steel and vocal harmonies figure prominently in frontwoman Katie Schottland’s songs. Her narratives are subtle, full of small, allusively telling details: they invite you in for repeated listening.

Good Time, Man begins as a hazy, atmospheric, wistful summertime tableau awash in Oli Deacon’s pedal steel. By the time Schottland’s intricate, fingerpicked acoustic guitar kicks in, it’s clear that this is a breakup scenario.

Deliciously icy tremolo guitars clang and ring out over a slow, swaying 6/8 groove in 1988, unraveling into a starry dreampop mist at the end: it seems to be a sad childhood reminiscence.  The pedal steel returns along with tasty, looming bass clarinet in For Brinsley, a Brinsley Schwarz homage: “Don’t lose your grip on love,” is the mantra.

“She’d lost the medal but she’d won the fight,” Schottland recalls in We’d Find, the enveloping sonics coalescing into an indian summer haze. Cold Clear Moon, a Tomo Nakayama cover, is catchy, steady and spare, the acoustic and electric guitar textures, glockenspiel and contrapuntal vocals building a hypnotic interweave.

The band follow Wolf, an echoey, circling vignette, with Got Things, a glistening anthem and the album’s catchiest, most straight-up rock number: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Rose Thomas Bannister catalog.

Left Hand Path is a front-porch folk tune with delicate electronics and steel twinkling in the distance. Schottland launches into Love Liked You slowly over National steel guitar, the band methodically rising into a slow, crescendoing, Hem-like sway: the swirly atmospherics are the icing on the cake. The album ends with Quietly Calling, a lush, crepuscular waltz that could be the Grateful Dead in a sharply focused moment: “You were listening to prove that you could while I was trying to be good,” Schottland intones. What a refreshing and individualistic sound: let’s hope Swimming Bell figure out how to make another album like this, clandestinely or otherwise.

Revisiting a Soulful Favorite From the Outdoor Summer Concert Circuit

Since the Central Park Summerstage and Prospect Park bandshell concerts are cancelled this year, does it make sense to revisit some of the acts who played there? Or is that just plain depressing? After all, an album or a youtube clip is no substitute for the electricity of being a participant in a spectacle. Both venues have had their problems over the years, but it’s sad to see them go, maybe for forever. On one hand, it’s easy to imagine the Live Nation sleazeballs drooling over snagging those spaces more or less fulltime for their obscenely overpriced shows, with an injection of government cash and free rent – all under the guise of throwing a “benefit” for the parks, of course. On the other hand, if the lockdowners get their way, there won’t be any concerts anywhere, ever again – other than the ones we put on secretly, that is.

One of the bands who’d really entrenched themselves in the free outdoor concert series here was Lake Street Dive. They were a real feel-good story: they cut their teeth in New York at the Rockwood, then made the leap to Bowery Ballroom, reaffirming the eternal appeal of oldschool soul music. But the band rocked harder than most soul acts, and really turned up the volume with their 2016 album Side Pony, streaming at Soundcloud. It’s both more rocking and less 60s oriented than the sound they made a name for themselves with.

Bridget Kearney’s fuzz bass kicks off the opening number, Godawful Things; it isn’t long before the band hit a vintage Motown groove with her slithery, leaping, McCartneyesque lines. There are also plenty of White Album-era Beatles echoes in the second track, Close to Me, right down to drummer Mike Calabrese’s ka-chunk Ringo-isms.

Call Off Your Dogs is a smartly crafted exercise in tricky rhythms: briskly waltzing verse, perfectly executed early 70s style proto-disco chorus, complete with pillowy strings – and a theremin as it fades out! The band go back to the Fab Four in Spectacular Failure, which could be a gritty, bluesy John song from the White Album with a woman out front, followed by the even bluesier, I Don’t Care About You, with a dynamic, passionate vocal from lead singer Rachael Price.

So Long is a soul song as starry late 70s ELO would do it – that’s got to be Kearney’s twinkling Omnichord synth and sweeping mellotron (or damn good digital facsimiles). The band bring in swooshy organ in the oldschool ballad How Good It Feels (as in “how good it feels to be alone” – it doesn’t!).

They put a little extra funky bounce in the album’s vintage Temptations-flavored title track: funny how many years it’s been since that hair meme! The one track that doesn’t hold up here is Hell Yeah, a stab at late 60s style Rascals schlockmeister pop.

Guitarist Mike Olsen picks up his trumpet for Mistakes, a bittersweet, pensive cheater’s ballad, Price’s voice shiny with regret. Can’t Stop could be a standout early disco era Isaac Hayes tune. They go back to a vintage 60s sound for the catchy anthem Saving All My Sinning, Olsen’s watery chorus-box guitar over sunny organ. Imagine – if it’s not too painful – that you’re standing in the middle of a crowd of people, nobody’s wearing a mask, it’s hot and you have your shades on, and Lake Street Dive are slinking their way through some of these songs.

And while we’re at it, let’s resolve to never, never let what happened in 2020 happen again.

A Promising Debut Release From the Catchy Forever Honey

Forever Honey play a watery, kinetic blend of 80s dreampop and digital-clean 21st century small-venue rock, with more catchy bounce than most bands in either of those two styles. Their debut ep Pre-Mortem High is streaming at Bandcamp.

The first track, Christian sets the stage: Aida Mekonnen’s icy chorus-box downstroke guitar, airy vocals from frontwoman Liv Price and bassist Jack McLoughlin’s dancing lines punching in as the verses peak out. Go For a Smoke is part Penny Lane Beatles and part drifting, echoing teens janglerock, Price reaching for a more sultry delivery.

The third cut, Twenty-Five has more of a produced, poppy feel: five years from the dreaded three-0, and Price is already feeling old. Impressively, the band could have gone in a generic corporate urban pop direction with the closing cut, Where We Are Sometimes, but opt instead for distantly Lynchian clanging/wafting contrast. “Careful what you wish for” is the mantra. It’s reason to hope for more from this group one of these days.

Catchy, Purist, Relevant Powerpop Songcraft From Elisa Peimer

It was about fifteen years ago that Elisa Peimer played a reasonably well-attended show at a long-gone Williamsburg venue, the Blu Lounge, as part of a multi-artist bill staged by the songwriters collective Chicks With Dip. It was early in her career, and she was one of the first of the acts to hit the stage that night, but it was obvious that she had a purist pop sensibility and a compelling blue-eyed soul voice.

In the years afterward, she’d contribute to a popular anthology celebrating the 40th anniversary of Joni Mitchell’s Blue album and then tour with the core group behind it. She’s also a founding member of the Sonic Youth and Wilco powerpop spinoff The End of Love, and has put out a series of solo albums as well. Her latest one, Navigator, is streaming at Spotify.

The opening track comes across as late 70s Pat Benatar without the cliched heavy metal guitar. In I’m Gonna Start, a defiant anthem about getting off the screen and staying off, the references are quaint: just tv and radio. But maybe Peimer’s already a step ahead of most everybody else in getting off of evil Facebook and Instagram too.

The second track, Shouldn’t I is a throwback to late 70s/early 80s CBs style powerpop. Peimer’s got a great, purposeful band behind her: Jay Deegan and Irwin Menken on guitars and a killer rhythm section of Whisperado’s Jon Sobel on bass alongside longtime Graham Parker and Mekons drummer Steve Goulding.

Cyrano has a Highway 61 Dylan sway and a telling lyric:

He thinks he isn’t pretty
But he’s being pretty blind
He doesn’t seem to know
That the girls, they always go for a beautiful mind

Adrift is a metaphorically loaded, electrified sea chantey, reflecting back on getting away from ever-present distractions and finding one’s own way. Peimer goes back to 6/8 time for the soul-tinged, ballad End of the Sunset and winds up the record with the bitttersweetly elegaic Slipped into a Dream. If catchy, purist tunesmithing is your demimonde, Peimer should be on your radar.

Smart, Stormy, Fearless Art-Rock From Victoria Langford

Singer/multi-keyboardist Victoria Langford writes lush, sweeping yet very sharply sculpted songs. She has a strong, meticulously nuanced, expressive voice and a venomous sense of humor. She likes swirling, stormy orchestration and using religious imagery as a metaphor for interpersonal angst. Her debut album, simply titled Victoria, is streaming at Bandcamp. Imagine a more organic Radiohead, or a young Kate Bush at half the volume.

The album’s first track is Psalm, Langford’s spare Wurlitzer and insistent piano contrasting with Brett Parnell’s nebulous wash of guitars. The phantasmagoria hits redline with the second song, Coney Island, a harrowing, achingly intense tableau awash in a roar of sound and creepy canival effects:

I see stars
From the back
Of your hand
You bury me
Alive

At a moment in time when domestic abuse is rising with all this endless quarantining, the song has more relevance than ever.

Langford’s cynicism hits a peak in Savior, a brief, thumping parody of dancefloor pop:

You think everyone wants to fuck you
You are a victim or most wanted on the streets
You like to think that you are Kanye
But sitting on your ass won’t make those beats

I Found Hell Looking For Heaven is an instrumental, a majestic title theme of sorts, Leah Coloff’s stark cello blending with Langford’s symphonic keyboard orchestration. The string into to Boboli Gardens, cello bolstered by Sarah Goldfeather and Andie Springer’s violins, is even more plaintive, Langford’s piano shifting to a hazy, country-tinged sway.

The Radiohead influence comes through the most clearly in the slow, brooding What Might Have Been, right down to the glitchy electronics and tinkly multitracks behind the starkly circling piano riffs.

Rob Ritchie’s guitar lingers amid a whoosh of string synth over Joe Correia’s bass and Evan Mitchell’s drums in Be a Dragon, a surreal mashup of hip-hop and Radiohead with a fearless Metoo-era message. Langford winds up the record with The Truth, a pulsing, unapologetic escape anthem: It’s rare to see an artist come straight out of the chute with something this unique and individualistic, a stealth contender for best debut album of 2020.

Shakey Graves’ Youtube Series Produces a Slyly Spot-On New Album

Shakey Graves’ sound has changed a lot since his wryly entertaining one-man-band days on the summer concert circuit over the last few years. But that’s ok – artists evolve. The question is whether Alejandro Rose-Garcia has simply followed his inner Badfinger muse, or if he’s been led astray by a holdover fringe of what’s left of the corporate music machine that imploded about fifteen years ago.

He’s definitely a lot more serious these days. The title track of his new ep Look Alive – a byproduct of his haphazardly inspired lockdown-era youtube series and streaming at Bandcamp– is a vampy 70s powerpop anthem. “I haven’t learned a thing since 1987,” he asserts – that’s the year he was born. Patrick O’Connor’s 12-string guitar riffs and a guitar-synth background linger throughout six sardonic minutes: long songs without digressive spoken-word interludes have not been this guy’s thing til now,

Jon Shaw’s boomy bass holds down the trip-hop groove of the second track, The Recipe, definitely a throwback: it’s an irresistibly funny look at really, REALLY bad branding. He mentions being free of some kind of past in Not Everything Grows, which follows a similar but more lo-fi pattern. The final product of this strange time is Under the Hood. “Use your eyes, don’t be easily deceived,” he warns calmly over an uncharacteristically woozy, techy backdrop. It speaks volumes that he uses autotune on the line “Don’t believe anything everyone tells you.” Big up to Shakey Graves for keeping the simple idea of a bunch of guys together in the studio making music alive at this pivotal historical moment.

A Bittersweet Triptych For a Grim Day

On one level, the Ukulele Scramble‘s new cover of the Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd classic See Emily Play is characteristically hilarious. The duo – Robin Hoffman and Richard Perlmutter – have interpolated the main theme from J.S. Bach’s First Goldberg Variation into the song, taking their inspiration from Rick Wright’s piano breaks on the original, which were recorded at a slower tempo and then sped up in the final mix for an approximation of baroque ambience.

All the same, this is one sad song! Emily seems happy at first…but wait til the sun goes down. Hoffman’s understated poignancy on the mic packs a lot more emotional wallop than Barrett did with the 1967 single.

Don’t watch the video for Delanila‘s It’s Been Awhile Since I Went Outside unless you can handle feeling heartbroken. The singer made it on her phone, walking in the rain through an absolutely deserted Soho and Tribeca. Lower Manhattan is truly dead in this one – cold drizzle or not, did you ever expect to see the sidewalks on Broadway south of Houston competely empty, in the middle of the day?

The song itself doesn’t specifically reference the coronavirus crisis: instead, Delanila’s pillowy noir-tinged ballad seems to be a snide commentary on the atomizing effects of social media (a bête noire for her – this isn’t her only critique of it).

And if you never guessed that the Rolling Stones would still be making records in 2020, let alone something worth hearing, guess again! If you haven’t heard the brand-new Living in a Ghost Town, give it a spin: it’s like their 1978 disco hit Miss You, but heavier and creepier.

Thoughtful, Carefully Crafted, Gospel-Tinged Songwriting From Christina Courtin

Since her Juilliard days in the early zeros, multi-instrumentalist Christina Courtin has shifted seamlessly between the worlds of classical, film music and low-key, pensive songwriting that sometimes fits into the chamber pop category. Her main axe is violin, but she’s also a competent guitarist. Her lyrics have a stream-of-consciousness feel that often masks a slashing sense of humor. Her latest album Situation Station is streaming at Bandcamp.

“If I had some money I’d take the train, take it further than faraway,” she sings on the album’s calmly lustrous opening track, Japanese Maple Tree. Chris Parker’s strummy acoustic guitar, Kenny Wollesen’s boomy drums, James Shipp’s muted vibraphone and Greg Cohen’s bass propel the suspiciously blithe, coldly sarcastic folk-pop tune Stare Into the Sun.

Pianist Danny Fox infuses Bouquet with a spare, gospel-tinged ambience, Courtin bringing in a lush orchestral arrangement. “Got my missile pointed right where I want it to be,” she asserts in Dear Lieder, which is even more skeletal: “If I blow up everyone I might just get some rest.”

The album’s most anthemic singalong is the triumphant Life So Far, with its gorgeous, gusty strings. Courtin returns to a soul-gospel vibe with the slowky crescendoing Matthew’s Wings, spiced with a terse slide guitar solo, and picks up that same warmth with a heftier arrangement a little later in Love Is a Season.

The most striking song here is the title track, Courtin tracing an idyllic childhood memory not likely to return, if ever, as the music shifts from overcast atmospherics to a jaunty ragtime strut. Fox moves to electric piano for Coyote Midnight, a simmering nocturne that could be about an abuser, or someone in politics. She closes the record with the gentle, elegaic You Held Me Up.

The last time this blog was in the house at one of Courtin’s gigs, it was at Barbes late on a Thursday night in the spring of 2018. Playing solo, she split the show between instrumentals and vocal numbers; her voice seemed clearer, less husky than it is on this record. It was a very calming, peaceful, enveloping performance, music to really get lost in, a welcome nightcap after a rather stuffy evening in one of the big midtown concert halls a couple of hours earlier.