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Poignant, Pensive Brilliance on Jessie Kilguss’ Allusive, Eclectic, Wickedly Tuneful New Album

You’d think that someone who’d taken a star turn in stage productions with Daniel Day Lewis and Marianne Faithfull would stick with a successful theatrical career. But Jessie Kilguss was drawn to music – and that’s our victory and the theatre world’s loss. Over the past decade, she’s become one of the most haunting singers in any style of music. Her delivery is intimate, like she’s letting you in on a secret – whether that might be a sly joke, an innuendo or something far more sinister. While she’s best known as a purveyor of folk noir, her back catalog spans from witchy art-rock to anthemic janglerock to Richard and Linda Thompson-esque, Britfolk-influenced stylings.

Her new album The Fastness – streaming at Spotify – is not about velocity. It’s about refuge. The title is a North Sea term for a secluded hideaway: a place to hold fast. That sheltering theme resonates mightily through a mix of imagistic, often poignant songs blending elements of 60s soul, 80s goth, new wave and art-rock. And Kilguss’ voice has never soared more mightily or murmured more mordantly than here on this album. She and her first-class band are playing the album release show this Thursday, June 28 at 8:30 PM at the downstairs third stage at the Rockwood; cover is $10.

With Kirk Schoenherr’s contrasting layers of guitar – icy and Siouxsie-esque in the left channel, watery and organ-timbred in the right – the album’s opening track The Master is an elegaic masterpiece. In usual Kilguss fashion, it’s enigmatic to the extreme. “Who will be the oracle when he is gone?” is the final refrain. A Bernie Sanders parable, maybe, or a more ancient, mythological reference? 

Kilguss follows that with Spain, a guardedly optimistic if understatedly brooding update on 60s soul balladry, spiced with guitar grit over the calmly swaying pulse of John Kengla’s bass and Rob Heath’s drums. Strangers comes across as a wistful mashup of Guided By Voices and Blondie, while Dark Corners of Your Mind follows a hypnotically vamping, psychedelic path, akin to the Frank Flight Band with a woman out front. Kengla’s bass dances amid the sheets of rainy-day guitars as Kilguss ponders the danger of being subsumed by the demands of a relationship.

New Start is a surreal, unlikely mashup of classic 60s C&W and echoey new wave, but Kilguss manages to make it work, all the way through one of the album’s catchiest choruses, awash in the waves from her harmonium. Hell Creek – a co-write with Kengla – is one of the murder ballads she writes so well. With its lingering atmospherics, Kilguss references current-day atomization and how its ramifications can do far more damage than just playing tricks with your mind.

Likewise, Rainy Night in Copenhagen has aptly echoey, Cure-like ambience. Bridge the Divide is the monster anthem here, an eerily propulsive Laurel Canyon psychedelic verse giving way to soaring new wave on the chorus.

What Is It You Want From Me is the closest thing here to Kilguss’ purist pop masterpiece Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, from her 2014 album Devastate Me. She winds up this cycle with with the metaphorically-loaded Edge of Something, an easy place to fall off one way or another. Another triumph for one of the most unselfconsciously brilliant tunesmiths to emerge from this city in recent years and a strong contender for best rock record of 2018.

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An Allusively Haunting New Album and a Low-Key Neighborhood Gig by Dark Songwriter Jaye Bartell

Gothic Americana crooner Jaye Bartell sings in a deadpan but rather guarded baritone. He plays with a ton of reverb on his guitar, whether with a steady clang or more sparsely. His songs don’t typically follow any kind of predictable verse/chorus pattern. On his latest album, In a Time of Trouble, a Wild Exultation – streaming at Bandcamp – he often just vamps along on a couple of major chords, vintage Velvets style. Which has a lulling effect…until he gets to the punchline, or the suspense in his hauntingly imagistic narratives builds to breaking point. Bartell is off on a long European tour next month; fans of dark lyrical rock in his adopted Greenpoint neighborhood can catch him Friday night, Dec 28 at around 9 at Troost.

Throughout Bartell’s work, the devil is in the details. “Think I picked a bad time to have a good time, hanging upside down,” he muses in the album’s opening track. “My confetti is stuck in the garden…the water’s coming higher than the edges.” Definitely not a wild exultation,

“Come walk in the dead grass,” Bartell instructs, “I have come to ruin you; I have come to room with you,” he announces, somewhat hesitatingly, in CawCawCaw. He leaves the monologue without a response: is he that heavily symbolic bird, or talking to the bird, or somebody else? That sensibility is what draws you into his songs. And he keeps you guessing – even as an image jumps out at you, it could be a red herring.

Angel Olsen sings calm harmonies in Give Erin a Compliment (So Kind). Both the vocals and the song’s country stroll bring to mind the late, great Joe Ben Plummer and his band, downtown New York cult favorites Douce Gimlet. The sparse arrangement of Wilderness – just a couple of jangly guitar tracks, lightly brushed drums and simple bass – is much the same. Like everything Bartell does, it works on many levels. Somewhere out there in the woods, “There must be somebody warm enough to mistake for love, somebody cold enough to just take some.”

The album’s most chilling number is Swim Colleen. Shifting back and forth between waltz time, Bartell keeps the suspense going most of the way through. On the surface, it’s a beach tableau, but of course there are unexpected depths:

Scream at the waves
The waves scream back
There’s no ship coming in
There never has been
Swim, Colleen, swim

Army of One is Bartell at his most self-effacingly wry  – does General Superego have it in for loafing Private Ego?  Contrastingly, Mercy seems to be pretty straightforward – it’s akin to Jonathan Richman, or Lee Feldman at his most faux-naive. Bartell builds another brooding waterside scenario in the otherwise gentle Ferry Boat: it’s easy to imagine Nico singing it on Chelsea Girl.  

“I can’t think of anyone else with whom I’d ever go out of doors,” Bartell insists in  Out of Doors – but who wants to date an agoraphobic, right? The methodically swaying, Laurel Canyon psych-tinged Feeling Better Pilgrim is much the same – this guy may be ok, but a lot of people (water imagery alert!) aren’t. The final cut is If I Am Only For Myself Then What Am I, which, with delicate glockenspiel in the background, offers a sliver of hope. E

Earlier in the fall, at Bartell’s most recent gig at Troost – his home base between tours – he sang much more powerfully, even dramatically, than he does in the studio. This acoustic set mixed up some of the more low-key numbers from this album and a couple of sepulchral tales from his fantastic 2016 release, Loyalty. But the high point might have been an absolutely chilling take of the Brecht/Weill classic September Song, reinvented with more than a hint of noir bolero. “That was magic,” one spectator in the crowd murmured afterward. 

A Long-Overdue Retrospective From the Greatest Songwriter You Might Not Know

Back in the radio-and-records era, it was common for a band to put out a greatest-hits album to fulfill their obligation to the label in order to get out of a record deal. Mark Breyer, longtime leader of cult favorite powerpop band Skooshny, put his together to get a record deal. Which makes sense in a way: Breyer is nothing if not counterintuitive. The album, Matchless Gifts – out from Kool Kat Musik and streaming at Bandcamp – is a lavish, smartly assembled double-cd compilation of the best tracks he’s released since 2006 under the name Son of Skooshny, often in collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Steve Refling. For those new to the Breyer songbook, this is as good a way as any to get to know one of the greatest songwriters alive, and it’s one of the best albums of 2017.

The layers of jangly guitars and dreamy sonics draw obvious comparisons to Australian psychedelic/spacerock legends the Church, reinforced by Breyer’s brilliant lyrics – his double entendres and wordplay rank with the Church’s Steve Kilbey, and Elvis Costello, and Rachelle Garniez. And the songs are catchy beyond belief, drawing on decades of clang and twang – Carl Newman is another reference point. Yet Breyer’s catalog doesn’t really evoke any band other than his old one. This guy is a real individualist, a first-ballot Hall of Famer who might take you by surprise.

And much as Breyer can’t resist a good pun – it’s impossible to count all of them here – these songs are sad. The devil is always in the details: Breyer has a rare eye for them. The one that might rip your face off more than any of the others, The Subtle Eye, is actually a brisk, balmy number and one of the gentlest songs here:

Teddy lifts me to a cloud
To protect me from an angry crowd
We sit and watch the spectacle below
Teddy died too young for her to go

See, Teddy is a dog. She appears in a dream, after appearances by now-deceased parents who, if these cameos are characteristic, were real cheerful earfuls (NOT). Humans will betray you, but many other species won’t. And they care enough about you to visit you after they’re gone, if only to let you know that they’re ok. In his last verse, Breyer promises to do the same: who knows what the subtle eye can see, right?

The boisterous opening anthem, Just a Test is irresistibly funny, but quaint diner food turns out to have a surprise in it, and eventually Breyer declares that “I want the other actors dead instead !” He’s referring to a tv show, but obviously there’s more to it.

“You left a note on my door, I found the footnote on the floor,” he announces as Spine, a big, enveloping seduction athem gets underway: foreshadowing is a huge part of Breyer’s M.O. A picturesque, bittersweetly romantic stroll through North Hollywood, No Ho may be conceptually funny – nobody walks in LA, right? – but you can see the ending coming a mile away, and it’s bleak.

Likewise, don’t let the blase calm 70s folk-pop sheen of Half of the World fool you. It deals with issues of perception and drunken yoga, with a coda that’s way too good to give away. Science Changes Everything, with its litany of math and physics metaphors, follows the same pattern, as does Dizzy – a dead ringer for the catchiest stuff on the Church’s Blurred Crusade album. “When more is less you use subtraction, reduce it to a fraction,” Breyer calmly intones.

His images invite plenth of debate. What does the object of affection In Mid-Century Modern do when she visits the justice of the peace? Regret, disillusion, and alienation bordering on despondency are everywhere. “I had that flat but it wasn’t home, you had a cat but you were alone,” Breyer relates in Sorry, another contrast between dreamy, Church-like sonics and richly imagistic, grim narrative.

Good Morning, Gail Warning may take place in an ashram kitchen, but Arthur Schlenger’s eerily reverberating guitars and keys are pure David Lynch soundtrack. “Troubles brew, bubbles rise,” Breyer relates in How Does It End, glistening nocturne swirling through an allusive tale of fractured family ties.

“Take apart your Japanese contraption – douse the charcoal, tear the plastic tent,” Breyer implores in Candy Air: meanwhile, the cat’s under the house and won’t come out. “May I remove your elevator shoes?” he asks in The Right Idea, backed by a plaintively lingering web of twelve-string guitars that leave no doubt how this story is going to end.

Some of these tracks rock pretty hard – Knee Deep, one of the few more optimistic anthems here; the surreal Kate’s Green Phone, which may or may not be about daydrinking and unrealistic expectations; the autobiographical Untold History, which traces an allusively harrowing Cold War childhood narrative; and Another Time, a Costello-esque account of dealing with somebody from outer space. And Bare Bones reaches toward classic punk blast and thud: it’s the closest thing to Breyer’s old band here.

In typical fashion, he saves some of the best songs for the bonus disc. Jeff Peters’ guitar nicks a familiar Angelo Badalementi film noir riff for the doomed trajectory of You Can’t Love Me:

Thank god you’re farsighted instead of near
It might be the only thing keeping you here

And Love’s Not Impossible, with Michael Meros’ hilarious early 80s pop quote, offers a tantalizing flicker of hope, even as the drizzle grows more impenetrable.

In the meantime, Breyer hasn’t slowed down. His latest single, The New South – presumably from yet another formidable album – has unexpected country flavor and a typically sardonic plotline. 

A Wickedly Catchy Weekend Show by the Mysterious Melissa & the Mannequins

Melissa & the Mannequins are New York’s most exciting new band. There’s very little about them on the web. The only one of their songs that’s made it online so far is Slip Away, the gorgeously bittersweet, propulsively jangly number they closed their deliciously catchy set with at Long Island City Bar over the Labor Day weekend. They’ve been around for about  a year, tops. Quietly and steadily, they’ve put what’s obviously been an enormous amount of work into this band, equal to their formidable chops. Up-and-coming rock acts seldom have as much command of their instruments, let alone as many styles as this group winds their way through.

In roughly an hour onstage, frontwoman/guitarist Melissa Gordon sang with a cool, collected delivery over a tight rhythm section. Lyrically, most of the songs dealt with brooding breakup scenarios, often in contrast to the tunes’ bright,upbeat quality, Stylistically, they really ran the gamut. Several numbers worked a psychedelic soul vein, bringing to mind Chicano Batman with a woman out front and a more subdued, atmospheric keyboardist: throughout the set, the Mannequin on keys kept a tight focus and added all kinds of subtle textures and washes of sound.

Midway through the set, the band switched it up with an unexpectedly funky song, like Turkuaz in a rare low-key, trippy moment. There were also a couple of detours in the direction of Jacco Gardner-ish retro 60s sunshine pop and a distant Beatles influence. The most riveting song of the set might be called I Wasn’t Listening, an uncharacteristically haunting, epic, wounded noir soul ballad in 6/8 tiime, lead guitarist Steve Flakus capping it off with a long, biting, purist blues solo.

Gordon is also an excellent guitarist (which you wouldn’t know from her Soundcloud page, something she obviously put up as she was learning the fretboard). She and Flakus took a grand total of three perfectly synchronized twin solos: it wasn’t Iron Maiden, but it was just as tight. Gordon also engaged the crowd with her deadpan sense of humor: she seems to come out of a theatre background. LIC Bar also seems to be the group’s home base these days as they build a following, an aptly cool joint for this band. They’re also at Bowery Electric at 9 on Oct 1; cover is $10.

80s Psychedelic Guitar Legend Russ Tolman Makes a Rare Stop in Brooklyn

Russ Tolman was the leader of one of the 80s’ most legendary guitar bands, True West. Though never as famous as their pals the Dream Syndicate – Tolman and Steve Wynn were in the equally legendary Suspects, and Wynn contributed some gloriously savage lead guitar to True West’s cover of Pink Floyd’s Lucifer Sam – Tolman’s songwriting was no less brilliant. And True West were every bit as incendiary live, fellow Telecaster player Richard McGrath dueling it out onstage with Tolman night after night. The band’s first two albums, Hollywood Holiday and Drifters are iconic: with its brooding layers of reverb guitar and Tolman’s ominous lyricism, the latter is easily one of the fifty greatest rock records ever made.

The original True West lineup hung it up in 1985; there were some sporadic but rewarding reunion tours in the mid-to-late zeros. All the while, Tolman has been releasing albums here and there, from Byrdsy folk-rock to low-key electronic experimentation. If he’s ever played Brooklyn before, it’s been a long time; if he hasn’t, then his show at Pete’s on Sept 14 at 8:30 PM will be his debut in the borough. Either way, he’s overdue.

Tolman’s latest recordings are a couple of singles. With it stomping beat and a whirling lead guitar line that brings to mind another great 80s guitar band, the Rain Parade, Marla Jane could be an upbeat track from True West’s peak era. Something About a Rowboat switches in a mandolin for the Tele Tolman might have played it on thirty years ago. Tunewise, this breakup anthem is just as strong – it’s interesting to compare Tolman’s flinty vocal delivery with the bravado of True West frontman Gavin Blair. Awfully heartwarming to see such an important, underrated artist from back in the day still at it and still at the top of his game.

Rebecca Turner Brings Her Richly Jangly, Anthemic Songcraft Back to the East Village

Songwriter Rebecca Turner earned a devoted following around the turn of the century for her catchy, anthemic blend of janglerock, Laurel Canyon folk-pop and the occasional detour into starker acoustic folk or more ornate psychedelia. In a lot of ways, she represents the vanguard of ex-Brooklynite musicians caught between the very tail end of the cds-and-college-radio era and the age of streaming and vinyl. She puts out albums at her own pace (she’s working on a new one, helmed in the studio by husband/bassist Scott Anthony, recently responsible for remastering the Feelies’ latest vinyl reissues). She also has an 8 PM gig coming up on May 7 at Hifi Bar, the scene of her most recent Manhattan gig.

That was last year, and it was killer. She had a five-piece backing unit for that one including Anthony on bass and Rich Feridun on six-string lead guitar; John Sharples, playing twelve-string, was the band’s not-so-secret weapon. They opened with a backbeat-driven anthem with torrents of lyrics and tantalizingly unresolved chord changes. The Cat That Can Be Alone, she explained, was inspired by an Anita O’Day quote relayed by Love Camp 7’s Dann Baker, something along the lines of “The cat that can be alone is better off than the cat that can’t.” It turned out to be a bouncy Beatlesque number, Turner soaring to the top of her range with a hint of country twang. She and the band wound it up with a tongue-in-cheek segue into the O’Day version of Tenderly.

Turner’s next number was period-perfect Lakeside Lounge rock from around 2000, a mashup of  swaying vintage 70s C&W-tinged with Blonde on Blonde era Dylan, The set hit a peak midway through with a rousingly jangling take of the Byrdsy anthem The Way She is Now, Sharples choosing his spots and leaving them out to glisten in the bar’s low lights.

Another backbeat anthem, That Did It, was part 60s electric Dylan, part Amy Rigby at her jangliest, with a delicious blend of six and twelve-string guitars meshing with Turner’s acoustic. She followed with Idiot, a similarly catchy, wryly propulsive number. A low-key, matter-of-factly fingerpicked take of the ballad Comfort You Up brought the lights down, Erica Smith joining to add lush low harmonies. Then they picked up the pace again with the lilting, bucolic My Morning.

The cover that had everyone in the crowd mystified was a BeeGees song from the 60s, Sun in My Morning, Sharples’ twelve-string filtering down into it as if in a Turner painting. Arguably the best song of the night was a new one, Tom Tom, shimmering in the twin-guitar jangle, up to a suspenseful turnaround on the chorus and a fiery, twangy Feridun solo. For the encore, Turner aired out what’s become her signature song, Brooklyn Is So Big. It was cute and wistful when it came out: it’s heartbreaking now, considering how many of Turner’s contemporaries have been priced out. It’s a good bet Turner and the band will bust out a lot of this material at the show this weekend.

The Molochs Bring Their Psychedelic Jangle and Clang to Williamsburg and the LES

The Molochs – whose core is guitarists Lucas Fitzsimons and Ryan Foster – fall on the side of the more tuneful, jangly retro psychedelic bands out there. Some of their material is more lo-fi third – or fourth, or fifth wave, which wave are we on now? – 60s British psych-pop. Other times, they fit in with the uneasy Laurel Canyon clang and twang of bands like the Allah-Las (who have a show coming up at Webster Hall on March 24). The Molochs are coming to Brooklyn at Union Pool on March 25 at 8, followed by the fuzzy drony Cosmonauts; cover is $10. Then on the 27th at 10 careeningly intense gutter blues bandleader Breanna Barbara and her excellent band open for that same twinblll at Berlin for the same price.

The Molochs’ debut album America’s Velvet Glory is streaming at Bandcamp. It kicks off with Ten Thousand, a scampering minor-key mosquito-jangle psych-pop smash with swirly organ: think Forever Changes-era Arthur Lee without the strings. No Control is sort of the Blues Magoos through the prism of retroish British garage rock like Babyshambles. Charlie’s Lips goes on and on, an over-the-top, sarcastic dis at a trust fund kid that’s part Beatles, part Kinks.

A Beggars Banquet-style web of slide guitars filters through That’s the Trouble with You. The One I Love channels the Byrds circa 1965 with a spot-on Mike Bloomfield lead break, followed by Little Stars, a slow, sad, vampy Jesus & Mary Chain style dirge. Then the duo mashes up 19th Nervous Breakdown Stones with Highway 61 Dylan in No More Cryin.

They build an organ-driven homoerotic Blonde on Blonde anthem with You and Me, then edge into early Velvets territory with New York, right down to the Run Run Run quote at the end. The album winds up with the swaying, minor-key I Don’t Love You and its doomed relationship imagery, and goes hack to BoB territory with You Never Learn. All of these styles have been mined for decades, often beyond the point of overkill, but these guys’ enthusiasm and catchy hooks make it all seem fresh again.

Jessie Kilguss Brings a Whole Slew of Great New Songs to Brooklyn

Nothing like a European tour to inspire you to write a whole set worth of new material, right? Freddie Stevenson had the good sense to bring Jessie Kilguss along as a harmony singer and keyboardist on his most recent tour there, and the crystalline-voiced songwriter brought back enough new songs of her own to keep an audience at the American Folk Art Museum rapt earlier this fall. That was her most recent Manhattan gig – her next one is in Brooklyn at Hank’s at 10 PM on Dec 16. Cover is $5.

With her clever wordplay and understatedly anthemic sensibility, Kilguss’ closest comparisons are Elvis Costello and Leonard Cohen, the latter being her biggest influence. Although she play both guitar and keys, she typically limits herself to vocals when fronting her own band, tall and resolute and swaying with eyes closed in front of a tight electric guitar/bass/drums backing unit. That voice is a magical instrument, with a reflecting-pool clarity and a soaring range matched by minutely nuanced attention to subtle details. And as much as her songs tend to be on the brooding side, she can be devastatingly funny when she wants to be.

At the museum gig, the new material turned out to be more upbeat as well, at least after Spain, a slow, allusively waltzing pastorale. Russian Roulette, a steady, elegantly driving backbbeat number with a typical soaring chorus, had a tricky surprise ending. Kilguss’ lithely leaping vocals on the slow, swaying, moodily plainspoken Rainy Night in Copenhagen brought to mind Linda Draper in a particularly animated moment.

The sparsely jangling, straightforward What Is It You Want From Me left no doubt that it was a frustrated kiss-off anthem. With its uneasily percolating bassline and a coyly quirky little modulation toward the end, Strangers came across like peak-era 90s Wilco playing new wave – but with an infinitely better singer out in front of the band. The show hit a peak with Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. one of the most bittersweely gorgeous, catchy janglerock anthems written this century.

Then Kilguss went back to the new mateiral with Edge of Something, which had the feel of a terse early Patti Griffin-style coffeehouse rock number, but with a more defiant edge. The band closed with the lilting, anthemic Over My Dead Body, a nonchalantly assertive reminder that you never, ever want to mess with a songwriter: they always get even in the end. The band wound it up with a savage flurry of guitar tremolo-picking. That’s about as loud as you can get in the museum: you can expect Kilguss and her crew to cut loose more at the Hank’s gig.

Enigmatic, Psychedelic Postpunk from Supergroup Heroes of Toolik

Heroes of Toolik are as close to a supergroup as NYC has right now. Frontman/guitarist Arad Evans plays in avant garde legend Glenn Branca‘s ensemble. Bassist Ernie Brooks was in the Modern Lovers, and Billy Ficca held down the drum chair in Television. Violinist/singer Jennifer Coates rounds out the lineup with trombonists Peter Zummo (ex-Lounge Lizards) and John Speck. Together, they offer potently tuneful reinforcement to the argument that cerebral music can be just as catchy.

Their sound blends riff-driven postpunk, psychedelia and minimalism, with the occasional jazzy flourish. They’re playing a rare stripped-down duo show at around 9 at Troost in Greenpoint on Sept 28. Then they’re back in Greenpoint on Oct 12 at St. Vitus at around 11, playing the album release show for their new one, Like Night.  Cover is $10. The album hasn’t hit Spotify yet, but there are some tracks up at the band’s soundcloud page.

The opening track, Perfect builds quickly out of a pensively jangly guitar hook with a looming brass chart: “Pay your respects to the great unraveled…between the flash and lightning’s echo, that moment waiting is where you live,” Evans intones. Coates’ violin joins the intricate weave between the horns as the song winds out.

It’s good to hear her assertive, crystalline voice front and center on several of these tracks, beginning with Miles, which builds into an ominous march with alternating, minimalist clang and squall. Coates’ disembodied vocals add to the sepulchral ambience, the long psychedelic outro echoing the Branca symphonies that Evans is used to playing.

The surreal, distantly mambo-tinged Something Like Night sways along, terse trombone contrasting with spiky koto and a circular, pulsing guitar hook. The epic instrumental Warm follows the same pattern, guitar and violin exchanging loopy phrases, gradually building momentum as the drums and trombone add polyrhythms – it’s the closest thing to jazz here.

The briskly strolling Blind Man builds a vividly nocturnal tableau – it sounds like the kind of obscure, jangly 80s indie bands that influenced Sonic Youth, bluesy violin and spare trombone adding melody and texture. Say Virginia bounces along with a wry rondo of individual instrumental voices, a gruff trombone solo taking the tune out. The enigmatic, allusively phantasmagorical waltz Again sets Coates’ crystalline vocals over an increasingly ornate backdrop.

The band keeps the distant menace going through the noirish stroll Crazy Doll, a slowly unwinding, allusive northern New England mystery tale. Coates sings the album’s closing cut, You Will Not Follow, a creepily inscrutable nursery rhyme-inflected number that suddenly hits a growling, unhinged guitar-fueled sway, shades of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. It’s an aptly ambitious way to wind up this strange and compelling mix of songs.

The Hilariously Relevant Rachael Kilgour Makes a Highly Anticipated Lincoln Center Debut Next Week

This September 8 songwriter Rachael Kilgour makes her Lincoln Center debut. She’s hilarious, and her acerbic, catchy songs are witheringly relevant. Her latest album is a terse three-song ep, Whistleblower’s Manifesto: Songs for a New Revolution, streaming at her site. It’s hard to imagine a handful of tunes released in recent years that capture the state of the nation any better than these three. The folksinger who opens Kilgour’s show in the atrium space at Broadway and 62nd St at 7:30 PM is pretty generic, but Kilgour is worth getting there early for – and especially since this show is free, it’s likely to sell out, so getting there early will be worth it.

Since the late zeros, Kilgour has made a name for herself as one of the smartest, most individualistic, and most rock-oriented acts on the folkie circuit. She’s a strong singer, a vivid lyricist with a populist streak and has a first-rate band. This little album is all about sarcasm. In a bright, cheery, soaring voice, Kilgour savages the kind of Prosperity Christians and related rightwingers that she may have grown up with her native Minnesota. The opening track, In America, sways along with a 90s trip-hop beat, although the layers of acoustic and electric guitars over an acoustic rhythm section gives the song a more organic feel than what you might expect:

It’s rags to riches, baby, that’s our story and we’re sticking to it
If you don’t make it big, you can’t claim the game is rigged
In America, you manifest your own destiny
Stack the deck and deal a hand and if your daddy’s rich
Every card you hold will be turned to gold
For a white man and his tricks
The bottom few could be privileged too
If they’d buckle down and try…

But at the end, Kilgour goes to the well for a punchline as devastating as anything the Clash or the Dead Kennedys ever put on vinyl.

He’ll Save Me is the centerpiece here. In this case, the sarcasm extends to the music, Kilgour’s blithely Bible-thumping protagonist chirping over a creepy, noir backdrop that’s Nashville gothic to the core:

As long as I pray I know I’ll get my way
When it comes to Judgment Day…
I don’t have to make nice
I know he’ll forgive me
Well, Jesus Christ, who do you think you are
Telling me I’ve gone too far?
…A three-car garage and a weekly massage,
I only take what I deserve
Healthcare? Don’t you know I know better
Than to hand rewards to sinners?
…She’s going to hell, another fetus killed
The Lord’s commandments say it’s true
But God bless my son as he aims his gun
At a cursed Afghani fool

The concluding, title cut is the most sarcastic of all mighty, swaying janglerock anthem, blending 90s Oasis clang with 60s Byrds jangle. The nagging, persistent cheer, delivered by the kind of know-it-all conformist we’ve all worked with (or worked for), is crushing:

There’s a man-boys’ club everywhere you look
From the Pentagon to your hippie neighbors
Keeping secrets, doing favors
‘Cause maybe in the end it’s easier to pretend
Than risk pissing off all your friends
Nobody wants a conflict
Nobody likes a tattletale
So keep your mouth shut, keep it to yourself
…Though you did what’s right
You’ll be the one to pay the price
Chances are you won’t be liked
They’ll never forgive you, Whistleblower
It’s on your shoulders
And you’re the only one to blame

The rest of Kilgour’s catalog is neither this grim nor this overtly political, but it’s just as tuneful. One suspects that Kilgour will be just as funny onstage as she is on these tracks.