New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: jason mercer bass

Matt Keating and Band Put On a Clinic in Purposeful Janglerock

Last night Matt Keating put on a fiery, jangly, two-guitar full-band show. Beyond the catchiness of the tunes and the cleverness – and frequent ferocity – of the lyrics, it was a consummate display of musicianship. Keating is a perfectly good lead guitarist in his own right, but he’d chosen this time to give that job to Steve Mayone, who put on a clinic in good taste and judicious use of as few notes as possible. Rare in a guitarist, rarer still in a lead player. Mayone’s first solo was a blue-flame scorcher that ended in a flurry of tremolo-picking, so it seemed that he’d take it even higher after that. Nope. As it turned out, he stayed on the counterintuitive tip, first choosing his spots through a series of short, bluesy, single-note leads, often using a vintage analog chorus pedal for a deliciously watery, ominous tone. As the show went on, he switched on and off between that and more of a biting, distorted timbre, finally cutting loose and blazing his way to the top of the fretboard on one of the closing numbers.

Meanwhile, bassist Jason Mercer filled the role of second lead guitarist with his lithe slides, slithery upward runs and stairstepping moves toward the looming, foggy bottom of his hollowbody Danelectro SG copy. Like Mayone, drummer and longtime Jenifer Jackson collaborator Greg Wieczorek was all about counterintuitivity, throwing elbows and unexpected accents when a space would open up. To max out the textures, he cushioned his snare with a cloth on one of the early numbers and varied his attack from song to song: sometimes he’d be hitting the snare with a stick and the rest of the kit with a bundle, or with brushes, or he’d switch from mallets to sticks as a song would rise from misterioso to anthemic. Keating began on acoustic and then switched to Strat for couple of the harder-rocking, more Stonesy songs, although he saved his most intense wailing for the acoustic on the loudest number of the night, an unhinged, practically brutal version of They’ve Thrown You Away. It’s classic Keating, a searingly imagistic Flyover America narrative that ponders a lot of things, not the least whether or not the guy with designs on the damaged woman at the center of the narrative can drive her home from her job at the roadside corporate chain since he might have gotten his license revoked for giving a cop the finger.

And where did the band decide to show off all this artistry? The Beacon? City Winery? Nope. Hifi Bar in the East Village, in the old Brownies space where Keating had played, probably more than once, twenty years ago. If that isn’t keeping it real, you figure out what is. The songs ran the gamut from some of the catchiest material on Keating’s characteristically dark new album, This Perfect Crime, to a pair of jangly powerpop set pieces – Saint Cloud and Louisiana – from his brilliant 2008 double cd, Quixotic – to the ghostly Coney Island 1910, to a slowly crescendoing take of the old crowd-pleaser Lonely Blue, on which Wieczorek started out by transforming it into trip-hop before picking up with a stadium-rock drive as the band reached for the rafters. Watch this space for upcoming hometown shows from this killer group.

Reconstructing Jenifer Jackson

Bad Cop: Welcome to another episode. This one really is an episode.

Good Cop: And it’s all your fault.

Bad Cop: Being the B team at this blog has its rewards. We get to see a lot of good shows…

Good Cop: We get to see the best shows. What’s been happening lately is that we’ve taken on the job of covering concerts by artists who’ve gotten press here before. Considering that they’ve been designated for coverage on multiple occasions means that they’re got to be pretty good. Psychedelic Americana songwriter Jenifer Jackson is one of those artists, and she has a show coming up at the small room at the Rockwood at 8 PM on July 21. It’s a good lineup, with jazz singer Joanna Wallfisch at 9 and then noir guitar legend Jim Campilongo and his trio doing their weekly show at 10.

Bad Cop: Are we going?

Good Cop: I hope so. We saw her show at the other space here on Allen Street back in March and it was amazing, one of the best ones I’ve seen this year.

Bad Cop: I’ll second that.

Good Cop: And this doofus [motions toward Bad Cop] lost the recording. Which means that in order to explain what she sounds like onstage, we basically have to reconstruct what happened several months ago, and to be honest, I can’t remember a lot of it. If I’m correct, this was the show where Jenifer announced that she had a new name for her band: the Denim Bridge. As she explained it, that phrase popped up randomly in conversation, one of those “wow, great band name” moments, and she grabbed it. And I think it makes sense: this is an Americana band, a lot of Jenifer’s songs are about people connecting – or not connecting – and there’s another level of connectivity here, between this group, which is based in Austin, and the core of musicians who made up her New York band who usually join her when she comes back to town.

Bad Cop: I don’t like the name. Too dadrock. The ninth album by Piscataway Watershed: Denim Bridge!

Good Cop: You’re not supposed to like it. But you did like this show, which is unusual because you’re such a grump. And now you’ve made me a grump because I’m grasping at straws to remember what happened. As I remember, it was a really cold night, but there were a lot of people there. I don’t want to drop names, but there were at least a half a dozen of the best rock songwriters in town in the room.

Bad Cop: Like who?

Good Cop: I’m not going to say. I don’t want to come across as a starfucker. Let’s just say that Jenifer Jackson is revered by her peers. A songwriter’s songwriter, you could say.

Bad Cop: What I remember is having to hit the bathroom beforehand, and there being a grand total of one bathroom for two rooms here – and having to compete with women for it.

Good Cop [speechless- shakes her head slowly, back and forth]

Bad Cop: That and Kullen Fuchs. He’s the lead guy in the band, basically. He was playing vibraphone. When’s the last time you saw a country band with a vibraphone? And he was fast and furious and amazing. And then he’d switch to accordion, and then trumpet. Sometimes in the same song.

Good Cop: Matt Kanelos played piano. I had no idea that he was so good at honkytonk. He channeled Floyd Cramer.

Bad Cop: Do you think that people in general have any idea of who Floyd Cramer was?

Good Cop: Country people all know. At least people who like classic country music. Which is one side of this band: they did a couple of honkytonk-flavored numbers, but the vibraphone gave them a fresh, new sound.

Bad Cop: You wouldn’t expect it to work but it did. Most of the songs, as I remember, were from the new album, TX Sunrise. My favorite was White Medicine Cloud, which is one of those hypnotic, quiet numbers that Jenifer writes so well. This one’s kind of epic, at least the way they played it. And it’s got an antiwar, why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along message that actually isn’t mawkish or trite. It was rather touching, actually.

Good Cop: One of my favorites was Your Sad Teardrops. A honkytonk kiss-off anthem with some really cool slip-key piano.

Bad Cop: Another really good one was All Around. Big, sweeping, angst-fueled anthem. An uneasy, windswept seaside tableau. Blog Boss said that this one sounded like Steve Wynn, which I think is right on the money. And if memory serves, this was the show where Jenifer broke out a bunch of the southwestern gothic stuff: On My Mind, and Picture of May, an awesome, creepy bolero.

Good Cop: Speaking of creepy boleros, she encored with Mercury the Sun and Moon, that minor-key psychedelic noir Vegas song from her first album that was such a big hit with her fans.

Bad Cop: I have a recording of that song from the show.

Good Cop: If that’s all you’ve got, let’s hear it! [Bad Cop hits the play button]. Well, that’s a vibraphone, but this isn’t Jenifer Jackson.

Bad Cop: You’re right, that’s Tuatara [hits fast-forward]. OK, here it is…

Good Cop: You cut off the beginning.

Bad Cop: Guess so. Too bad I lost everything else. This would have been a great show to listen back to.

Good Cop: Any shortcomings on our part you can blame on HIM [smacks Bad Cop in the stomach; Bad Cop doubles over in pain]. Hmmm…piano and vibes. Glittery gorgeousness. And all those scampering drum fills: do you remember who the drummer was?

Bad Cop [gulping]: Greg Wieczorek. Guy’s a genius.

Good Cop: I should have figured that out for myself. He has a very distinctive style. Omigod, the way Jenifer’s voice just went up with a harmony on the chorus, against the melody line – and then she does it again, That’s what I love about this band: they never play anything the same way twice.

Bad Cop: That’s the jazz thing. Jenifer’s dad is a famous jazz disc jockey, at least to the extent that a jazz dj can be famous.

Good Cop: They did an album together. And it’s really good.

Bad Cop: So are we going to this show on Monday?

Good Cop: I’m gonna bug the boss about it!

Yet Another Great Album from Linda Draper

In an era when conventional wisdom is that the album is dead (it isn’t really – Avi Fox-Rosen has already put out six of them this year and plans six more) Linda Draper has just released her seventh, Edgewise. Nonchalantly and methodically, she’s built a body of work as one of the most singularly intelligent and individualistic tunesmiths in any kind of music. In a way, this album brings her full circle with her 2001 debut, Ricochet. That collection of catchy, sharply lyrical acoustic rock was produced by the legendary Kramer, who famously worked with Lou Reed and Ween among others. This time around, Draper turned the production over to Americana maven Matt Keating, who also serves as a one-man band here, playing all sorts of guitars, keys, bass and percussion (plus Jason Mercer holding down the four-string on the third track). It’s Draper’s most lyrically straightforward and musically best album, eleven songs in just under 38 minutes. Notes and words are never wasted, and Draper’s voice, always a strength, is even more nuanced and self-assured than usual, sailing through the highs and hitting the lows with special oomph.

As one might expect, Keating plays up the rootsy influences lurking in Draper’s tunes. The opening track, Glass Palace starts hazy and pensive but picks up with a hypnotic pulse like Mazzy Star on steroids, the narrator daring her ex-friend to walk a mile in her shoes from her “palace off the boulevard.” Right On Time snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, Draper’s blithe cynicism highlighted by swirly organ:

The war is over today
At least for a little while they say
Since then ten have taken its place
I don’t even know where to begin anymore
Talk about the punishment not fitting the crime

Hollow works a haunting, insistent folk noir riff: “Left right march to the beat of the monotonous humdrum, get it out of your system.” she encourages. The title track sets a litany of surreallistically sarcastic imagery to a swaying countrypolitan tune that reminds of vintage Amy Rigby, followed by the grimly nocturnal Take It, contemplating how nothing’s going to save this couple from the ravages of time, whether now or later.

The brooding, minor-key Sleepwalkers pairs off resonant, ringing electric guitar and plinky ukulele against funeral organ, its soaring chorus contrasting with its ominous lyrics:

As you travel among the sleepwalkers
Even the purest of angels would crash and burn
In a place like this

Keating’s guitar gives the Johnny Cash-influenced Shadow of a Coal Mine a southwestern gothic flavor, while Live Wire works a dark Eilen Jewell-esque garage rock vibe with echoey Rhodes piano, distorted Strat and reggae-tinged bass. In Good Hands, a waltz with elegant gospel piano, manages to be both sarcastic and bittersweet

It’s a shame you couldn’t make it to my wedding
To embarrass me somehow…
Some hipster just sarcastically sold me his friends’ band’s t-shirt
They’re so underground they call themselves dirt

The album ends up with Draper’s rootsiest, most bluegrass-inflected song, So Long: “Maybe there’s no difference in disillusion and despair,” she broods. There’s also a cover of Paul McCartney’s Blackbird, which isn’t bad, but Bettye LaVette’s shattering version has made that song off limits from this point on. And it’s testament to the strength of Draper’s songwriting that all her originals are better than that song anyway. As expected, this is a stealth contender for best album of 2013.

Matt Keating’s Wrong Way Home – Best Rock Album of 2012?

Matt Keating’s new Wrong Way Home (streaming in its entirety at the Sojourn Records site) is the best album he’s ever done. It’s a landmark in tunesmithing and songcraft to rival anything Elvis Costello or the Beatles ever recorded. Which is an even more impressive achievement considering the sweep and power of Keating’s 2008 double cd, Quixotic, a feast of lush, lyrically rich janglerock. This one is considerably different: blending elements of 1960s soul, country, ragtime and even jazz, it’s far more musically diverse. Lyrically, it’s his darkest album: as with Joy Division or late-period Phil Ochs, an encroaching, inescapable sense of doom pervades this record. Keating has always been an uneasy writer, able to dissect the fatal flaw in a relationship with a few sharp words: here, he takes his role as psychopathologist to a new level. He’s also never sung better – there are other singers who get called Orbison-esque, and most of those comparisons fall flat, but Keating’s nonchalant but wounded-to-the-core croon packs the same kind of emotional wallop.

The songs themselves are mini-epics, seldom going on for more than four minutes, arranged so that they begin sparsely and gradually add layers of strings, guitars, keyboards and horns until they reach an angst-driven orchestral grandeur. The musicianship is what you would expect from an A-list of New York players. Keating is a strong guitarist, but he’s a brilliant pianist, nimbly switching from blithe ragtime to tersely jeweled, incisive rock riffs, to torchy jazz on Baby’s Mind, a number that wouldn’t be out of place in the Chet Baker songbook, both compositionally and vocal-wise. Tony Scherr’s guitar channels a hundred styles, from Memphis soul to artsy metal, to psychedelia and country, alongside Jason Mercer on bass, Hem’s Mark Brotter and Greg Wieczorek (of Jenifer Jackson’s band) splitting duties on drums, Claudia Chopek’s one-woman string section, Cassis on accordion and Keating’s wife Emily Spray’s exquisite harmony vocals.

The opening track, Just About Now, a pulsing, piano-driven Burt Bacharach-esque soul song cruelly captures the moment where what seems to be redemption at last goes completely to hell. “I don’t remember facing a day so unafraid…when you’re in love you’re not on the take,” Keating observes, facing what appears to be an abrupt, cold ending. Punchline introduces a furtive clenched-teeth dread that will recur later on:

I’ve been using the back door
Keeping my own score
Scraping the bottom
Off of the top floor
You know I keep minimizing
All those expectations
On the horizon
In each situation

Scherr’s indulgent Comfortably Numb quote does double duty here as comic relief and deathblow as Keating runs the song’s mantra, “just leave it alone.”

Nobody’s Talking, a crushing portait of rural claustrophobia that you have to “claw your way through,” has a country sway and one of Keating’s signature allusive plotlines. Nobody’s taking out the trash or doing the dishes here: did somebody get killed, die, go on a bender or what? Likewise, the aphoristic Too Good to Lose – with lively dixieland from trumpeter Shane Endsley and the Microscopic Septet’s Dave Sewelson on baritone sax – could be completely sarcastic, or it could actually be one of the few bright spots amidst the gloom. It’s hard to tell. And the narrator of the wistfully Tex-Mex flavored title track – the most overtly Orbisonesque song here – might actually be the rare guy who actually wants to nurture communication in a relationship, or he could be a total control freak/stalker type.

Maybe He’ll Meet You, a shuffling country crooner tune, might be the album’s most haunting track. Keating shuffles his lyrics and his images artfully: the snakecharmer forgets his song and then dies of snakebite as the hope of finally being able to connect with someone slowly and inevitably slips away. Another real haunter is Maker of Carousels, Keating’s devastating portrait of self-inflicted emotional depletion, pulsing along with phantasmagorical carnival organ. Jersey Sky, a homage to Danny Federici, the late E Street Band organist, works a hypnotic, elegiac ambience, as does the ragtimey 1913 Coney Island, an understatedly brooding graveside scenario.

There’s also the absolutely hilarious, doo-wop flavored Back to the Party, an ominous tale of a clueless doofus whose ending is delivered with a riff rather than a lyric; the lavishly arranged, death-fixated Here and Then You’re Gone; the bitterly sardonic, Elvis Costello-inflected soul waltz Go to the Beach; the brightly shuffling Sound of Summer Days, which could be the great lost track from the Kinks’ Village Green; and the Springsteen-esque blue-collar lament Factory Floor, featuring Spray’s electrifying, vibrato-fueled soul harmonies. Even on the album’s closing track, a Lennon-esque piano ballad, Keating is apprehensive, unsure what’s going to happen to him if he allows himself the chance to salvage the remains of a relationship. How many people who heard London Calling, or Highway 61, or Armed Forces knew immediately that they had a classic in their hands? This album is one of those records: every time you hear it, there’s something new to reflect on and enjoy.