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Americana Crooner Jack Grace’s Long-Awaited New Album Might Be His Best Yet

Back in the radio-and-records era, conventional wisdom was that a band’s first album was always their best. The theory was that in order to get a record deal, a group had to pull together all their most impressive songs. These days, that theory falls apart since artists can release material at their own pace rather than having to constantly deliver new product to the boss at the record label.

Still, how many artists do you know whose material is stronger than ever after twenty years of incessant touring and putting out the occasional album? Crooner/guitarist Jack Grace, arguably New York’s foremost and funniest pioneer of Americana and urban country, is one of that rare breed. His long, long awaited new Eric Ambel-produced album Everything I Say Is a Lie is arguably the best thing Grace has ever done, due out on April 28 and presumably streaming at Soundcloud at that point. Grace and his band are playing the album release show at around 8 PM on April 27 at Hifi Bar.

Interestingly, this is Grace’s most straight-ahead rock record to date: there’s plenty of C&W influence but no straight-up honkytonk this time around. It’s also more straightforwardly serious than Grace is known to be, especially onstage. As usual, the band is fantastic: a swinging rhythm section of ex-wife and Pre-War Pony Daria Grace on bass, with drummers Russ Meissner and Diego Voglino, plus Ambel contributing plenty of his signature, counterintuitive guitar and Bill Malchow on keys.

Driven by a catchy, tremoloing guitar riff, the album’s first song Burned by the Moonlight is a garage-soul number spiced with some characteristically savage lead work from Ambel. Grace’s voice has an unexpected, angry edge: “Let the wolves tear you heart out every night,” he rasps. Kanye West (I Hear That You’re the Best) is Grace at his most hilarious. “Taylor Swift, I hear you’ve got a gift, I don’t want to hear any more about it…Kardashians are so beautiful, Lindsay Lohan’s problems are so real.” As good as the lyrics are, this slowly swaying late Beatlesque anthem’s best joke is when it becomes a singalong.

Run to Me follows the kind of allusively brooding desert rock tangent that Grace was often going off on five or ten years ago. “Evil has connections we can use,” he muses. Being Poor, a song for our time if there ever was one, has a stark, rustic Steve Earle folk-blues vibe: “It’s all got you down on your knees, no power to question why.”

Bad Wind Blowing has a tense, simmering roadhouse rock sway and a souful vocal cameo from Norah Jones: “Lean against the wind or get your ass blown to the ground.” Then Grace shifts gears into wry charmer mode with the steady backbeat Highway 61 rock of I Like You.

He sings the almost cruelly sarcastic title ballad over Malchow’s Lennonesque piano; Ambel’s twelve-string guitar break is just as surreal. Again, this song’s best joke is a musical one. By contrast, the album’s most crushingly relevant cut is Get Out. “We really used to try to get out of Brooklyn, now everybody’s trying to get in,” Grace laments over a stark banjo/guitar backdrop. It’ll resonate with anybody who remembers the days (ten years ago if anybody’s counting) before every entitled, recently relocated yuppie tourist in New York was starting a band named after this city’s second-most-expensive borough.

The album closes on a similarly somber note with So We Run, an unexpected and successful detour into early 70s style psychedelic Britfolk. Good to see a guy who’s been one of the most reliably good tunesmiths in town still at it, and at the top of his game.

A Look Over the Shoulder at Americana Crooner Jack Grace’s Darkest Record

Since the early zeros, Jack Grace has been one of the bright lights of the New York Americana scene. He tours constantly, puts out great records, gets his songs in a lot of movies, is a hell of a guitarist and with that big baritone of his, can croon with anybody. He booked Rodeo Bar for years, until that late, lamented venue was forced out by a rent increase – and whose space is still unoccupied, two years later. Grace has a new album in the works, ostensibly titled Everything I Say Is a Lie. His next New York gig is at Bar Chord in Ditmas Park at 10 PM on Dec 10, and that is the truth.

Grace’s most recent album, The Money’s Gone Away – some of which is at Grace’s Soundcloud page– is where he really concretized the latin sound he was drifting toward on the one before that, 2010’s Drinking Songs for Lovers. But that’s a funny album and for the most part, this one’s dark and serious. The album’s title track is an uneasy cha-cha with creepy vibraphone lingering in the background, a grimly allusive early teens nocturne from when it was clear that the divide between rich and poor was only getting worse.

Hard Times All Around is the kind of midtempo oldschool C&W numbers Grace writes so well, backlit with keening pedal steel and his own stark guitar lines over the swinging rhythm section of his bassist wife Daria Grace and drummer Russ Meissner. Stark violin opens the tango-inflected Jack/Daria duet Warm Rock in the Sun, a horn-spiced cautionary tale.

Maybe Ya Wanna waltzes morosely out of a moody flamenco intro, a lament for missed chances that hits a bitter peak capped off by a bitingly psychedelic Grace guitar solo. The album’s haunting centerpiece, Don’t Run Out of Gas rises from spare, fingerpicked southwestern gothic to a towering backbeat drive:

Smoke has yet to clear
Battle was fought, I don’t think it was won…
Don’t run out of gas
My advice to you
Try to get there fast
For your troubles

With its creepy, icy chorus-box guitar and tuba pulse, Bothered to Think works the kind of blackly sardonic. bluesy Tom Waits territory that Grace dove headfirst into on his 2007 album The Martini Cowboy. Ghostly steel guitar mingles with spiky ukulele and terse violin in Polenca’s Blues, a windswept cinematic theme, followed by Poor Boy. a swinging 99-percenter lament.

Just when you might think that I Think I Broke My Heart is a mellow slice of dadrock, Grace hits a minor chord and runs his vocals through a vintage chorus pedal: “It hurts just to breathe,” he shivers.

Another real gem, the wistful Remember When We Were in Love, blends vintage Memphis soul and artsy late Beatles unease. By contrast, We Made It harks back to the surrealistically swinging oldschool C&W Grace was writing after his cult favorite 90s jamband, Steak, went on hiatus (they’re back on Dec 23 at the Bitter End, of all places)..

The only cover here is the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazlewood hit Summer Wine – it’s not awful, but there’s no getting away from the Vegas cheesiness. The album winds up with Lobster, Steak and Seafood, one of those silly, boisterous vamps that Grace likes to jam out live, a shout-out to roadside diners, which as dubious as they be, still beat the hell out of Olive Garden.

Jack Grace Puts on a Clinic in Latin-Inflected Surrealist Americana Tunesmithing and Entertainment at Barbes

Jack Grace was a good lead guitarist ten years ago. He’s a brilliant one now. Twenty years of constant touring will do that to you. Grace is best known for his surreal, LMFAO sense of humor and his funny songs that veer from exuberant vintage C&W, to Waits noir blues, to simmering southwestern gothic anthems. Leading a trio last night at Barbes, Grace put on a clinic in sizzling guitar and Americana songcraft. This was his latin set, propelled by drummer Russ Meissner’s expertly accented shuffle grooves. A flick of the cymbals, a rattle of the traps, a sudden gunshot rimshot, he made them all count. And maybe just coincidentally, it was a bittersweetly nostalgic show, at least as far as evoking the days ten years ago when Grace was booking the old Rodeo Bar, and could be found playing Lakeside Lounge on random Saturday nights when he wasn’t on the road.

They opened with Put on Your Shoes, Moonshine, a pensive, lyrically torrential desert rock anthem. Next was a boisterous trucker song peppered with filthy CB slang, the song’s chatty narrator wasting no time in explaining that the parking lot he’s spending the night is is so lame that the only hooker working it is a guy. “People that I can’t relate to don’t understand my ways.” Grace groused in Don’t Wanna Work Today, an uneasy, bluesy, minor-key Tex-Mex number.

“This next song is about snorting cocaine in the bathroom. There are plenty of places where you can do cocaine…but here in New York, the bathroom is where we do it,” Grace deadpanned in his cat-ate-the-canary, Johnny Cash-influenced baritone and then launched into Cry, a brooding minor-key cha-cha that swung from sly drug-fueled optimism to the despondency that sets in like a giant cat over the city the afternoon after a night of too many lines and too much tekillya. Speaking of which, he played his own version of Tequila – a dancing border-rock tune, not the surf rock instrumental – where the “lie, lie, lie” of the chorus spoke for itself.

The trio moved methodically from the muted country anomie of South Dakota to the sparse minor-key Waits blues strut Sugarbear. Throughout the set, Grace segued into deadpan country verses of familiar Led Zep songs, a trope he’s been working for years, more now since his side project Van Hayride – known for their even funnier covers of pre-Sammy Hagar Van Halen and other loud, cheesy stuff from the 80s – is temporariliy on the shelf. One of the night’s funniest moments was when Grace his his flange pedal, and without missing a beat, segued into a note-for-note cover of Pink Floyd’s Breathe, complete with a searing, doublespeed, savagely tremolo-picked guitar solo that would have made David Gilmour jealous.

The title track to Grace’s forthcoming album Everything I Say Is a Lie turned out to be a slowly swaying mashup of doo-wop, early 70s Willie Nelson and late 60s Jimmy Web balladry. Been So Long Since I Bothered to Think, an unselfconsciously haunting ba-bump bolero reminded just how dark and intense Grace can get when he’s in the mood. “In middle school I learned to criticize, the world’s broken down and compromised, “ he lamented – and then took a hit of beer and gargled a couple of choruses. Nobody can ever say this guy’s not entertaining.

The band went back to pensive, rustically bluesy ambience with Rotary Phone, a brooding, metaphorically loaded tale about getting old and out of touch, then some comic relief with a wry medley of Zep, Nirvana and Doors riffs. The set continued with a seriously bizarre C&W version of a Talking Heads song, then the absurdist mariachi funk of It Was a Really Bad Year – “A song that gets a lot of airplay this time of the year,” Grace mused – then a moody, pretty straight-up cover of Hank Williams’ I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. They closed with Big Bear, an electrified bluegrass tune from the film Super Troopers. Grace is at Coyote Ugly Saloon on First Ave. just south of 10th St. – who have bands now – on December 29 at around 9, then he’s playing a New Year’s Eve show in Saratoga Springs and returns to Coyote Ugly on January 5.