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Blues Guitar Maven Will Scott Makes His Way Back to His Old Brooklyn Stomping Ground

Will Scott was in goodnatured entertainer mode yesterday evening at this year’s Brooklyn Americana Festival, staged in Brooklyn Bridge Park by 68 Jay Street Bar impresario and distinctive British-American folk song stylist Jan Bell. “I’m the only guy who ever left Brooklyn for Indiana and lost weight,” he joked. Which is funnier than you might think, considering that his rangy build never seems to have felt the effect of all those late-night whiskeys during the weekly residency he held for years up the block at 68 Jay. This one of a handful of return shows over the past year was especially fun since he was playing solo acoustic – he’s always been more of a band guy. For another, he got to air out just about every one of his many blues styles: swooping, animated Robert Johnson-style slides; intricate fingerpicking; purist delta blues, and Bible Belt gothic gospel. And lots of grim fire-and-brimstone biblical imagery, and one absolutely sizzling, shredding display of tremolopicking where he really took his time chainsawing all the way to the top of the fretboard. The one style he didn’t show off, one that he’s exceptionally good at, was hypnotic Mississippi hill country blues. But you can only fit so much stylistic cliff-jumping into a 45-minute set.

Scott explained that Gnawbone – the raw, roughhewn title track from his 2009 electric blues album – was named for a town in his home state. “They wanted to name it after Narbonne, in France,” Scott explained, “But the best the hoosiers could do was Gnawbone. I figured I’d name my album that since there was no way I’d ever end up playing there,” he explained. He paused. “Well…I just did.” Apparently the people in town didn’t take offense.

Scott eventually brought up Bell, his longtime collaborator and partner for some harmony vocals on a high-energy, anthemic take of See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, which turned out to be pretty amazing. See, most backup singers will go way up high and wail around on the blue notes. Bell did the opposite: if memory serves right, she went up an octave above the fifth and then made her way down. The effect was as original as it was unselfconsciously chilling: somebody transcribe that so other singers can do that too! And it’s worth mentioning that they way they did the song, looking back toward gospel rather than the Blind Lemon Jefferson recording that Dylan based his on, harked back to a very early version better known as One Kind Favor.

The festival winds up today, September 27 with a ton of music, starting at eleven in the morning at Superfine in Dumbo with the mando and guitar-driven Demolition String Band, eclectic retro Americana/doo-wop singer Willy Gantrim, and honkytonk bandleader/bassist Abby Hollander. Then at 4 PM there’s a rare solo vocals-and-accordion set by charismatic Romany chanteuse and song reinventor Eva Salina followed by the Jack Grace Band playing their boisterously funny oldschool 60s C&W and brooding southwestern gothic, under the archway below the Manhattan Bridge: if you’re in the neighborhood, you’ll hear it. And Scott makes a fond return appearance at 68 Jay at 7 PM.

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Good Cop and Bad Cop Review Jan Bell & the Maybelles

Good Cop (on her phone, outside the American Folk Art Museum): See any jaywalkers?

Bad Cop (on his phone, out of breath, across Broadway on 64th Street): Ha, just me [sprints across just ahead of the light, and a taxi edging into the crosswalk]. How’d you get here before me?

Good Cop: I took the D and walked from Columbus Circle. And I didn’t jaywalk.

Bad Cop: Jaywalking is the new stop-and-frisk. Makes sense: after all, cars are hitting people and killing them left and right in this neighborhood. While we’re at it, we should start fining banks for every time they get robbed. They wouldn’t be getting robbed if they had better security.

Good Cop [sarcastically]: Or if they weren’t banks.

Bad Cop: They would be if they were bodegas. Anyway, let’s go inside. It’s freezing out here.

Good Cop: We’re here for the Friday night show with folk singer Jan Bell and her all-female band the Maybelles.

Bad Cop: You shouldn’t call her a folk singer. People will think she’s some sappy girl singing top 40.

Good Cop: People who like real folk music will get it. What is folk music, after all? It’s songs by songwriters who were most likely illiterate, that were passed down through an oral tradition since those people probably couldn’t read music either.

Bad Cop: Folk music has a bad name. It’s actually really creepy, the good stuff anyway.

Good Cop: Jan Bell knows that for sure. What did she say, how many happy love songs are there really, anyway?

Bad Cop: You’re better at the verbatim stuff than I am. But she’s right.

Good Cop: I’m so psyched for this show. Jan is playing acoustic guitar, that’s Rima Fand from Sherita on fiddle and Tina Lama on bass. And that looks like Katy Stone with the banjo.

Bad Cop [looks around, scowling]: This is so lame. We’re the only ones under sixty here.

Good Cop: What do you mean? That guy over there’s our age…

Bad Cop: That’s the bass player’s boyfriend. And there’s quilts on the walls. I feel like I’m in a nursing home.

Good Cop: This is actually a great place to see a show right after work. Lara Ewen, who’s also a fantastic Americana singer, books the music here and she has great taste. Plus the people from the Jalopy have a hand in it.

Bad Cop: These shows start at 5:30. Who gets out of work by 5:30 on a Friday?

Good Cop: Well, we made it, didn’t we?

Bad Cop: Under the wire. This is strictly a neighborhood thing. That’s New York in 2014 for you: everything is local. Local is the new central. All these little micro-scenes and no central scene, no way for a band to gain any traction.

Good Cop: Jan Bell has plenty of traction. She tours the US and the UK too.

Bad Cop: She has a motorhome. And she’s British so she’s got friends over there to put her up.

Good Cop: Well, I say good for her [the trio of Bell, Fand and Lama launch into a sad, shuffling minor-key song with three-part vocal harmonies].

Bad Cop: Wow, they’re really working the acoustics here.

Good Cop: I see they moved where the performers play from one side of the room to the other. This natural reverb is magical! It didn’t take Jan thirty seconds before she came up with a game plan – her voice can sometimes be pillowy but this is just plain heavenly!

Bad Cop: Yeah, she’s pillowy one minute, biting and bitter the next. She’s found her zone up there and she’s gonna haunt us. The bass player’s also a really good singer. You notice?

Good Cop: She really hits those high notes.

Bad Cop: A jazz player, obviously, She knows when to chill but she’s always got something interesting, something unexpected going on the low end, not just BUMP-bump, BUMP-bump, know what I mean?

Good Cop: Rima’s amazing too – I’m hearing all kinds of unexpected slides, and harmonies in what she’s playing. And she’s a great singer too.

Bad Cop: Yeah, but the lyrics are dumb. What’s this song about, Union Square?

Good Cop: No, it’s a cover. It’s The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore, by an English folk singer, Jean Ritchie. It’s a coal mining song. Jan did it on her album from about a year and a half ago with all these mining songs on it. Her grandfather was a miner.

Bad Cop: Now what about this next song they’re doing? This has gotta be American. Oldtime country blues…

Good Cop: This is Mining Camp Blues. It’s from the 1920s, maybe earlier, I dunno. Trixie Smith recorded it, Alice Gerrard covered it and that’s how Jan discovered it. You know, passing stuff down through the generations. Same old, same old, huh?

Bad Cop: Yeah. Now this next one I know, You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive, this is a Steve Earle song. He did it on his bluegrass album.

Good Cop: Actually not. This sad, haunting song is by Darrell Scott. It’s great we can hear all the instruments and yet there’s so much reverb on everything. It sounds so, well, authentic.

Bad Cop: This is a weird neighborhood for me but I gotta say that I am impressed by the acoustics here. And everybody who works here is so nice! It’s like we’re in Iowa. Or a nursing home in Iowa.

Good Cop: C’mon, admit it, you’re having a good time.

Bad Cop: Now THIS one I know! Loretta Lynn. Blue Kentucky Girl. Very different version from the original – the girls are doing it very low key, hushed, kind of a lullaby.

Good Cop: I like how she intersperses the originals, and the classics, and the obscure ones. That sad waltz, you know, “I’ve lost the right to love you.”

Bad Cop: This next one’s even creepier. A mail order bride sent off to Idaho where she’ll probably end up dying. Life was hard back then, huh?

Good Cop: That one’s actually a new song. It was written by Karen Dahlstrom, who was Jan’s bass player for awhile. It’s on her album, which is all new songs about Idaho and the old west, but written in an oldtime vernacular. It’s awfully good. I have it.

Bad Cop: You know this is where this band loses me. Cover Hank Williams, ok, but Ramblin’ Man? A woman singing a song written for a guy just doesn’t cut it for me. It’s like Joan Baez singing The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Virgil Cain is my name, NOT.

Good Cop: But listen to the vocals! And the harmonies! They really get this song, it’s so sad, and so haunted, and so full of doom and dread! You like this Nashville gothic stuff, right?

Bad Cop: Actually I do. OK. I changed my mind. I like these girls’ version. But I still don’t think women should try singing songs clearly meant for a guy, or vice versa.

Good Cop: OK, I think this is their last song. Another wistful waltz, a love song to New York written down under the Manhattan Bridge where Bell runs the Saturday night show at 68 Jay Street Bar. What a pretty way to bring it down and end the night. I tell you, we are going places with this blog. This is the third fantastic band we’ve been asked to go see in the past week. Stick with me and you’ll be famous!

Bad Cop: Don’t count your chickens. My guess is that we’re on the shuttle back to Columbus…

Good Cop: You mean Scranton.

Bad Cop: Uh, whatever. At best, we’re the B team. The only reason we were enlisted for this one is because the blog covered another show of hers last summer. So they needed a new angle. That’s all.

Good Cop: Be careful with that breaking-the-fourth-wall stuff. You know you’re not supposed to do that.

Bad Cop: That’s why I’m the bad guy [pulls a flask from his inside jacket pocket and takes a slug]. See you in Col…I mean Scranton.

Good Cop: Oh yeah, I almost forgot, Jan Bell has booked the night of February 23 at the Jalopy for an all-star tribute to Pete Seeger. It starts around 8, it’s ten bucks and there will be a lot of good usual New York Americana suspects onstage. If we’re lucky Jan will do her version of Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream like she did tonight.

A First-Class Americana Roots Triplebill at the Bell House

Jan Bell is not only one of the most distinctly individual voices in Americana music, she’s also an impresario. In addition to her regular Saturday night music series at 68 Jay Street Bar, she books the occasional show at larger venues. Last night at the Bell House featured both the past and future of roots music, from the most rustic, purist oldtime sounds to the avant garde.

When the opening act gets more time onstage than anyone else on the bill, that’s usually a bad omen, but in case of Jackson Lynch and Eli Smith from the Downhill Strugglers, the effect was the opposite: they could have kept going for twice as long and nobody would have wanted them to leave. This oldtime music collective, with their rotating cast of characters, are a time machine: their mission seems to be to go looking for the raw and the intense in rural music from the 1920s and sometimes before then, and bring it back to life. They two switched guitars and fiddles and a banjo in and out and sang on everything except for a stomping, high-energy reel. The word “hallelujah” figured prominently early in the set; as it went on, country blues took centerstage. Over and over again, without mentioning it once, the two drove home the point that most of this music was made for dancing. That, and that all the cross-pollination between black blues and white country was clearing the path for the rock music that would follow in decades to come.

Bell is the rare singer who’s better live than she is in the studio – notwithstanding her glistening, detailed, nuanced vocals on her best and most recent album, Dream of the Miner’s Child. This time out she was joined in exquisitely lush four-part harmonies by bassist Tina Lama, fiddler Rima Fand, banjo player Katy Stone and M Shanghai String Band’s multi-talented Philippa Thompson on mandolin, fiddle, spoons and musial saw. Yorkshire-raised, Brooklyn-based, Bell’s take on Americana has a distinctive British folk flavor: it isn’t hard to imagine how easily she would have blended into a crowd of immigrant miners and their kin dancing around the bonfire somewhere in the Appalachians, 150 years ago. She sees herself as a link in a chain, adding her own blend of vulnerability and indomitability to material that’s been handed down through the ages – as in Trixie Smith’s Mining Camp Blues, a 1920 song that Bell picked up via Alice Gerrard’s version (Gerrard is featured in a duet of that song on Bell’s album).

Maybe because she’s an emigre, departure is a recurrent theme in Bell’s music, often an uneasy and poignant one. Gracefully and plaintively, she led the group through Jean Ritchie’s grim The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore and Darrell Scott’s grimmer You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive, then mined the sadness in Loretta Lynn’s Blue Kentucky Girl. A brisk minor-key shufffle made room for a bristling solo from Lama and an acrobatically perfect one on the spoons by Thompson, which wowed the crowd. They wound up the set with a wistful waltz by Bell and then a chilling take of sometime Bell bandmate Karen Dahlstrom’s The Miner’s Bride, a cruelly matter-of-fact account of a mail-order marriage in the old west.

The Wiyos have always had a carnivalesque side, but lately the carnival has gotten a lot darker, in the wake of the band’s recent turn into psychedelic rock with last year’s Wizard of Oz-inspired Twist album. Though they barely got any time onstage, they made the most of it, maxing out the menace with an ominous, atmospheric introduction and then a bitingly jaunty minor-key swing tune. The addition of electric piano to the band is genius, freeing up the guitar to handle more leads and add to the trippy, time-warping surrealism. Frontman Michael Farkas brought his sardonically goodnatured energy and deadpan humor over the irrepressible oldtimey pulse of the band, happily bolstered by both bass and drums this time out. In their Oz world, the Tin Man is a stoner – as a shout-out, the band gave a him an unexpectedly menacing, noirish tango that reminded of Jack Grace’s recent, darker material. A little later, they did much the same in addressing the student loan crisis. As one of New York’s first (and arguably most popular) oldtimey bands, they’ve always had great chops and live shows; it’s just a much fun to see them branching out into new territory. And it was a great bill overall: to see this many first-class Americana roots acts usually requires at least a couple of trips to 68 Jay or the Jalopy.

The 50 Best Albums of 2012

About five years ago, people were saying that the album was a thing of the past. How wrong that turned out to be! This year’s crop of albums was so absurdly good that it felt criminal to whittle it down to a hundred, let alone fifty. And the only way of getting it down to that number was to cut out all the “world music,” including reggae and Afrobeat and most of the gypsy sounds, because there was so much of that and it was all so good.

Bookmark this page and return often. Virtually all of these albums are streaming (click the links) or are available as free downloads: consider this your place to discover some amazing sounds that were too smart for the Bushwick and Wicker Park blogs, and too dangerous for corporate radio and tv.

1.  Ulrich Ziegler – their debut album
Dating back to the 90s,  guitarist Stephen Ulrich has been New York’s most distinguished noir composer. When he wasn’t writing film and tv music, he was leading the ferociously creepy instrumental trio Big Lazy. When that band broke up (the drummer left to join Gogol Bordello), Ulrich eventually teamed up with Itamar Ziegler from Pink Noise, and then released this haunting, reverb-drenched, surf/skronk/jazz/soundscape masterpiece. Stream it

2.  Chicha Libre – Canibalismo
Chicha Libre’s 2008 debut album Sonido Amazonico landed in the top ten and this one is arguably even better, a trippy, wickedly dub-influenced mix of Peruvian surf rock, slinky Andean and latin grooves, and surrealistic psychedelic rock. There is no more fun, or more danceable, band in New York than Chicha Libre. Band info and audio/video

3.  Raya Brass Band – Dancing on Roses, Dancing on Cinders
This fiery Brooklyn crew distinguish themselves from the hundreds of other excellent Balkan brass units by virtue of their long, scorching jams: nobody does that better. Stream it

4.  Botanica – What Do You Believe In
This era’s pre-eminent art-rock band’s most brooding, haunted album, a rich blend of gypsy-tinged melody, raw, roaring guitar, edgy piano and spooky organ. Stream it

5.  The Universal Thump – their full-length debut
The final and concluding installment of the most massive, richly orchestrated album on this list, a lushly symphonic double-cd mix of chamber pop, art-rock, psychedelia and quirky, theatrical indie pop. Stream it

6.  Rachelle Garniez – Sad Dead Alive Happy
The iconic, eclectic accordionist/chanteuse – who has sort of become the Dorothy Parker of underground rock – took a deep dive into soul and gospel sounds, with richly soaring results. Stream it

7.  The Japonize Elephants – Melodie Fantastique
One of the original gypsy bands, this enormous, theatrical circus rock crew took their game to the next level with this one. Stream it

8.  Lianne Smith – Two Sides of a River
An iconic presence in the New York Americana and rock scene since the late 90s, Smith’s debut album was legendary before it was finally released – and it’s as eclectic, psychedelic, haunting and funny as anything else on this list. And her amazing voice is better than ever. Stream it 

9.  Bobtown – Trouble I Wrought
Nobody writes more cleverly creepy acoustic Nashville gothic and bluegrass than Bobtown. With four first-rate songwriters, their sound is as diverse as it is dark. Stream it

10.  Jan Bell – Dream of the Miner’s Child
One of the great voices in Americana music, Bell made this into a concept album that linked British folk with the American country and bluegrass sounds that grew out of it  with a vivid sense of history and a tantalizing mix of classics and originals that sound like Appalachian standards. Stream it/free downloads

11. M Shanghai String Band – Two Thousand Pennies
The mighty eleven-piece Brooklyn acoustic Americana crew’s most lush, haunting, diverse and ultimately best album, ranging from gypsy and chamber pop to brooding Appalachian ballads and the rousing singalong songs they’re best known for. Stream it

12.. Love Camp 7 – Love Camp VII
An expertly wry, tuneful, catchy janglerock concept album looking at recent history through the prism of the Beatles, with a jaundiced eye and expertly labyrinthine polyrhythms. Given up for dead after the tragic loss of brilliant drummer Dave Campbell, the band has recently regrouped and is as playful and fun as ever. Stream it

13. Hannah vs. the Many – All Our Heroes Drank Here
Ferociously literate, white knuckle intense female-fronted punk and powerpop, with some noir cabaret and Jarvis Cocker-style art-rock thrown in for good measure. Stream it

14. The Larch– Days to the West
The follow-up to their 2010 masterpiece Larix Americana finds the Brooklyn retro new wavers sounding more psychedelic and more savagely lyrical than ever. Stream it

15. Lorraine Leckie and Anthony Haden-Guest – Rudely Interrupted
A blackly amusing, gorgeously orchestrated chamber-pop collaboration between the caustic social critic and the Canadian gothic rock siren.  Band info and a/v

16. Black Fortress of Opium – Stratospherical
Lush, roaring, darkly psychedelic Middle Eastern-tinged art-rock from this powerful, female-fronted Boston band. Stream it

17. Matt Keating – Wrong Way Home
The respected Americana rocker’s best single-disc album, a brooding, offhandedly menacing blend of classic soul, country and elegant chamber pop. Stream it

18. Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores  – Sister Death
Not to have this album in the #1 spot is pretty absurd: the Rhode Island band’s swirling, psychedelic, gypsy-tinged art-rock masterpiece is the most downright macabre collection on this list. Stream it

19.. The Sometime Boys – Ice & Blood
The second album from cabaret siren Sarah Mucho and art-rocker Kurt Leege’s sharply lyrical acoustic Americana project finds them funkier, more lush and more intense than ever. Stream it

20. Animation – Transparent Heart
As historically important as it is richly arrranged, saxophonist Bob Belden’s collection of cinematic instrumental themes traces the decline of New York over the past couple of decades, centered around 9/11 and the fascism that ensued. Band info and a/v

21. Tift Merritt – Traveling Alone
Marc Ribot’s guitar is amazing beyond belief, and Merrritt’s pensive Americana songs and nuanced vocals are as vivid as always.  Band info and a/v

22. Out of Order – Hey Pussycat
The loudest album on this list is by this assaultive all-female Long Island noiserock/punk trio, raw but richly produced by John Sharples. Stream it

23. Changing Modes – In Flight
With three keyboards and edgy lead guitar, these women and guys play biting, lyrical art-rock and new wave-influenced sounds. Stream it

24. Chris Erikson & the Wayward Puritans – Lost Track of the Time
Erikson has been one of the great guitarists in Americana for years, in other peoples’ bands. This is his long-overdue debut as a leader, a careening, gorgeously twangy mix of Americana, paisley underground psychedelia and riff-rock. Stream it

25. Marissa Nadler – The Sister
The Nashville gothic/noir cabaret chanteuse/songwriter’s most haunting and atmospheric album since her debut, a darkly nebulous, allusive gem. Stream it/free downloads

26. Spanking Charlene – Where Are the Freaks
Female-fronted Americana punk band with  powerful, intense lead vocals, hooks that run the gamut from the Stooges to X and a potently snide, sarcastic, spot-on worldview. Stream it

27. Frankenpine – In That Black Sky
Creepy original bluegrass, Appalachian ballads and elegantly dark acoustic sounds from this diverse Brooklyn band. Stream it/free dowloads

28. Choban Elektrik – their debut album
A side project by members of Zappa cover band Project/Object, they take classic Balkan and gypsy themes and make trippy psychedelic rock out of them. Stream it

29. Slavic Soul Party – New York Underground Tapes
The wildly popular Brooklyn Balkan brass band at the top of their funky, surprisingly eclectic, intensely danceable game. Stream it

30. Saint Maybe – Things As They Are
A throwback to the paisley underground bands of the 80s like True West and the Dream Syndicate, this project by a Patti Smith guitarist and Bob Dylan’s drummer mixes surreal, apocalyptic imagery and raw, surreal, psychedelic Americana rock. Stream it 

31. Mike Rimbaud – Can’t Judge a Song By Its Cover
The New York underground rocker – who also put out an excellent album of originals last year, and constantly releases video singles – puts his indelibly New York spin on politically charged classics by Phil Ochs, Dylan, the Stones and others. Stream it

32. When the Broken Bow – We, the Dangerous Weapons
A surreal, fearlessly political, apocalyptic concept album by this Oregon band  that runs the gamut from soul-pop to careening art-rock to goth and gypsy sounds. Stream it

33. Tim Foljahn – Songs for an Age of Extinction
Grimly lyrical, pensively psychedelic noir chamber pop and Americana-influenced songwriting. Stream it

34. Demolition String Band – Gracious Days
The well-loved New York Americana/bluegrass/rock twanglers’ best electric album, an intoxicating blend of guitars, mandolins, banjo and Elena Skye’s velvet vocals. Stream it

35. The Brixton Riot – Palace Amusements
Sort of the missing link between the Jam and Guided by Voices, this New Jersey band blast their way through a series of hard-hitting, swirling, lyrically biting three-minute songs. Stream it

36. L’il Mo & the  Monicats – Whole Lotta Lovin
Americana chanteuse Monica Passin’s most intimate and eclectic album to date, with soaring harmonies from fellow Americana siren Drina Seay. Song samples

37. Leigh Marble – Where the Knives Meet Between the Rows
Brooding, bitterly lyrical songwriting with a mix of hypnotically psychedelic and Americana-flavored tunes from the Portland, Oregon bandleader. Stream it

38. Eilen Jewell – Queen of the Minor Key
Truth in advertising – Jewel excels at noir Americana, ghoulabilly, garage rock and oldschool psychedelic sounds. Band info and a/v

39. Mucca Pazza – Safety Fifth
A characteristically high-voltage mix of short but sonically titanic gypsy punk and gypsy rock songs from the brass-heavy Chicago dance orchestra. Stream it

40. Chicago Stone Lightning Band – their debut album
With a raw, guitar-fueled edge, their twin-Gibson assault covers classic 60s style Chicago blues, riff-driven stoner rock, original soul and funk. Stream it

41. Emily Jane White – Ode to Sentience
Intense, broodingly lyrical, intricately orchestrated Nashville gothic and art-rock sounds. Band info and a/v 

42. My Education – A Drink for All My Friends
The Austin postrock/instrumental band have never sounded more lush or guitarishly intense on this mix of desert rock and cinematic themes. Stream it

43. Tom Shaner – Ghost Songs, Waltzes and Rock n Roll
That such a great album would be this low on the list attests to how amazing this past year was for music. The former Industrial Tepee frontman has never written more richly or lyrically than he does on this southwestern gothic gem. Band info and video

44. Jon DeRosa – A Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes
The Brooklyn crooner comes across as sort of a cross between Jarvis Cocker and Leonard Cohen, with a mix of lush chamber pop, Americana and 80s-influenced gothic art-rock. Band info and a/v

45. The Sweetback Sisters – Lookin’ for a Fight
This amazing two-frontwoman honkytonk band not in the top ten? How can that be possible? Take a look at the rest of the list. Stream it

46. Band of Outsiders – Sound Beach Quartet
The 80s psychedelic punk legends are still going strong, with a richly jangly, snaky new ep that evokes Television as well as the Jesus & Mary Chain, both groups whose careers they’ve now eclipsed. Stream it 

47. Mighty High – Legalize Tre Bags
The funniest album of the year blends roaring Motorhead-style biker rock with woozy stoner riffage and some of the best weed jokes ever put on vinyl. Stream it

48. The Weal and Woe – The One to Blame
Gorgeously harmony-driven oldschool honkytonk and 1950s style proto-rockabilly sounds from this wonderfully retro Brooklyn band. Stream it

49. Guided by Voices – The Bears for Lunch
Agelessly energetic, prolific indie surrealist Robert Pollard hasn’t lost a thing: this is the third and best release in the band’s incredibly productive 2012, not including Pollard’s own solo releases. Band info and a/v

50. Ian Hunter – When I’m President
Last but hardly least on this list, another ageless rocker from an even earlier era put out an album that could be the great lost Stones classic from 30 years ago. Band info/free downloads 

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.

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.