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Tag: jason mercer

Purist, Potently Lyrical Janglerock, Americana, Powerpop and Soul From the Bastards of Fine Arts

For the past several months, the Bastards of Fine Arts have been working up a formidable body of catchy, anthemic, purist rock songs via a mostly-monthly residency at 11th Street Bar. The project took shape as a challenge of sorts, songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Matt Keating and his lead guitarist co-conspirator Steve Mayone hell-bent on writing a new song every week. Their project caught on with social media and went viral. Fast forward to 2018, they’ve got a full band now (Jason Mercer on bass and Greg Wieczorek on drums) and a catalog as vast as a band who’ve been around for five times as long. Which means they can mine it for the real gems.

Playing as a duo at the American Folk Art Museum in May of last year, they were at the point where they were working every style they knew (and they know a lot!). Sam Cooke ballad? Check. Lou Reed (a guy Keating is unsurpassed at imitating)? Doublecheck. Honkytonk anthem, Wallflowers janglerock, wistful Americana waltz? Triplecheck.

A year later at an early 11th Street gig, they’d pulled the band together and had built up a set that transcended its origins. They opened with their catchiest number, the gorgeously bittersweet I’ll Take the Fall, Keating both self-effacing and witheringly cynical at the same time. Another even more vindictive number traced the story of an ex that the song’s narrator spies out on a date with some dude. On the way out of the bar, she drops her coat; the dude picks it up for her. Keating’s narrator would have left it there.

Because part of the project is “what style CAN’T we do,” there are plenty of jokes to go around, some more inside than others. Switching to piano, Keating turned a Mayone ballad into a gospel tune; Mayone added some sardonic metal licks to a Keating soul number. They worked a bossa groove, Mercer spiraling all over the fretboard during a more recent number, Walk in the Park, a rare instance of a song of theirs which doesn’t seem to have a cynical undercurrent.

In a very subtle Elvis Costello vein, they vamped along on a bouncy soul-blues tune for a good three minutes, at least, without changing chords once. At the end of the set, they brought up Keating’s daughter Greta, who flashed some incisive chops on Strat as well as a similarly edgy lyricism and soaring vocals. Most children of great musicians don’t go into music for obvious reasons; Greta Keating, like Amy Allison and Jakob Dylan, is every bit as formidable as her dad was when he was in his early twenties. Here’s hoping she sticks with it. The Bastards of Fine Arts are back at 11th Street Bar on Dec 18 at 9 PM.

The New Bourbon Express Album: State-of-the-Art Hard Honkytonk

The Bourbon Express are as good as it gets in hard honkytonk. To get the sound perfect for their new album Cry About It Later – which hasn’t yet hit their Soundcloud page – they brought in the king of Americana and twangy rock guitar, Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, to produce. The result is a purist blend of classic 60s C&W and harder-edged urban country. They’re playing the album release show this Saturday night, April 21 at 10 PM at Hank’s; cover is $8.

The album’s first track is Pick Me Up, swinging along over the groove from Andrew Dykeman’s bass and Phil Cimino’s drums. This isn’t your ordinary drinking song: frontwoman/rhythm guitarist Katie Curley insists that she needs enough to get her through the whole month!

Co-leader Brendan Curley spaces out his incisive Telecaster licks in Devil’s Angel, which has the feel of a Tammy Wynette hit from the late 60s, but with the guitar sting of the best Brooklyn country bands from the past fifteen years or so. Turn the Page – an original, not the Metallica hit – traces a bittersweet story through a family album, Jonny Lam’s pedal steel lingering in the background. Katie’s last line of the song is shattering, an ending too good to give away.

Take Me Out has a gorgeous blend of resonant guitar and steel, along with Melody Berger’s fiddle, not to mention one of the album’s most plaintively affecting vocals. Dream Girl, an aptly starry waltz, is probably the only honkytonk song ever to feature a concert harp. Katie also plays that instrument throughout her two intriguing, previous albums of Americana-laced parlor pop songs, originally released under her maiden name, Katie Brennan.

With its spiky twelve-string guitar textures blending with the steel, Ten Gallon Hat could be a female-fronted Byrds circa Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Brendan switches to saloon piano on Dilly Dally, Katie enthusing about the joys of being a homebody with a glass of red wine in her hand.

The album’s most aphoristic, retro 50s song is Blame It on the Hangover, a cheater’s cautionary tale. The title track keeps that theme going – “Laugh about it now, cry about it later.” The real classic here is is Five to Nine, a Take This Job and Shove It for everyone stuck in the electronic sweatshop. “I’ll probably have to drink alone tonight ‘cause I had to turn off my phone,” Katie laments, “You’re trying to keep me on the virtual clock while I’m trying to get offline.”

The album winds up with Cold Quiet Drink, a subdued Amy Allison-ish ballad with Brendan moving to mandolin, Ambel on acoustic guitar and Jason Mercer on bass.

Yet Another Darkly Lyrical Masterpiece and a Rockwood Show from Matt Keating

Few songwriters personify the definition of cult artist better than Matt Keating. It may not necessarily be an easy life, but it’s a rewarding one. If he wants to play electric, he’s got his choice of plenty of venues, and if he just wants to go solo acoustic, he can play the folkie circuit around the world til the cows come home. He’s also in demand as a producer (he was hugely instrumental in helping Linda Draper take a hard detour into Americana) and as a sideman on lead guitar, bass and keyboards. And very methodically, over the past couple of decades he’s built a body of work to rival any other tunesmith active today. Keating is eclectic, shifting seamlessly between Elvis Costello-esque janglerock, rustic country blues, high lonesome C&W and most recently, plaintive oldschool soul. There’s a relentless unease and angst in those catchy tunes: Steve Wynn is a good comparison, although more thematically than musically. Keating just put the finishing touches on his long-awaited new album, This Perfect Crime – streaming at his webpage – and has an album release show coming up at the big room at the Rockwood at 8 PM on Feb 17. Cover is $10.

His previous album Wrong Way Home was a masterpiece of psychopathology and inventive cross-genre tunesmithing. Quixotic, the one before that, was a lavish double-cd feast of Americana-informed jangle and clang. This one is sort of the missing link between the two, as rich with melody as it is with grim narratives. The title track, When They’ve Thrown You Away builds to a hypnotic night-drive ambience, a bed of acoustic guitars floating over the organ as Keating draws a searing portrait of a doomed couple in Flyover America hell:

She was born in the buckle of the Bible Belt
She was raised by the knuckle her daddy never felt

And it gets more allusively gruesome from there.

Nothing to Figure Out has a similar, delicate blend of guitar and organ, transcontinental plane ride cast as loaded metaphor for a relationship unraveling over distance. Mothers Day is the first of the propulsive janglerockers (Tony Scherr and Allen Devine share lead guitar duties), pulsing along on a backbeat groove from bassist Jason Mercer and drummer Greg Wieczorek (also of Karla Moheno‘s band) as it builds to a lush sweep with Claudia Chopek’s one-woman string section.
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The title track hits a growling, Stonesy bounce, in this case building to a big crescendo fueled by some aptly snarling lead guitar and Dave Sewelson’s one-man horn section. Sullivan Street, by contrast, is a gritty, whisperingly conspiratorial tale among the down-and-out in what’s left of the fringes of the West Village: it’s as quintessentially New York as anything Lou Reed ever wrote.

Keating’s tinkling, Nicky Hopkins-inspired piano and Sewelson’s honking baritone sax mingle above a slowly swaying Glimmer Twins backdrop on the cynical Hell If I Know. The minimalist, low-key The Only Thing evokes the starker material on Wrong Way Home, if with considerably more wry humor. I’m Lucky mashes up deadpan, sarcastic Lou Reed with elegant Spottiswoode-style chamber-folk.

The most sinister of all the narratives here is English Coffee. It’s sort of Springsteen’s Atlantic City told from the point of view of an American expat on unfamiliar and very uneasy turf, set to rippling, Beatlesque raga-rock. Is this guy a hitman? A rocker on tour? Maybe both?

Keating abruptly shifts gears after that with This Must Be Love, its tender, delicate web of guitars barely concealing a cynical undercurrent. Before the War is vintage Keating: doomed, metaphorically loaded imagery, catchy verse rising to a wicked singalong chorus:

There’s no rest for the weary
No doubt for the sure
No heartbreak in theory
Right before the war

The album winds up with a fond love ballad with a distant gospel tinge, a shout-out to Keating’s family. What else is there to say: in about ten months you’ll see this high on the Best Albums of 2015 page here and at probably a lot of other places too.

The Best New York Rock Show of 2014 and Its Aftermath

The best New York rock show of 2014 was a couple of weeks ago at Bowery Electric – there’s  no way there’s going to be anything this good coming up in the next few weeks, end of story. The triplebill of folk noir singer Jessie Kilguss, lit-rock songwriter/bandleader Ward White (the two playing the album release shows for their latest ones) and Americana vet Matt Keating made for a transcendent and surprisingly thematic night of hard-hitting, emotionally potent songcraft. Much as their styles, and sets, were vastly different, they share a power and individuality as singers, as tunesmiths and lyricists.

Kilguss played first, backed by a terse, expertly tuneful band with Jason Loughlin on lead guitar, Andrea Longado on acoustic guitar, John Kengla on bass and Rob Heath on drums. Kilguss has one of those voices you hear maybe once every ten years: it’s that affecting, and sad, and unselfconsciously deep. It’s a little misty, yet direct to the point of being scary. Her new album is titled Devastate Me, but ultimately it’s the listener who’s devastated – in a good way.

Kilguss went up high when a chorus would kick in, because that’s where her songs are the most anthemic, but she doesn’t belt very hard – or at least didn’t seem to. She opened with the new album’s title track and its regretful “I let myself fall” refrain. Then she played the the single best song of the night, Red Moon. On one level, it’s a Hunger Games milieu, rebels hiding from an unseen gestapo, but on another it’s a chilling portrait of personal decline as vivid as anything Bukowski ever wrote.

The rest of the songs were just as memorable if not quite as intense: Loughlin’s guitar, always hovering around a central tone, fueled a lingering sense of unease. Kilguss followed the downcast resignation of I’m Your Prey with the indelibly catchy Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight – on the surface a wistful reminiscence of a country childhood, but ultimately a tale of urban claustrophobia. The band added a resonantly psychedelic edge to A Safe Distance From You, and a couple of louder, more powerpop-oriented earlier songs, then took that to a peak on Train Song, with its towering Pink Floyd grandeur and cynically eerie narrative inspired by the time Kilguss passed out on the subway.

You might think that someone who writes songs like hers might be distant and introverted, but when she talked to the crowd she was conversational and funny. She related that recently, she finally broke out her guitar for a live show – at a hospital ward. And Wynton Marsalis was there – visiting, not convalescing, as it turned out. So her attempt to make her debut with the guitar in a low-pressure situation kind of fizzled when the famed jazz trumpeter heard her play…and then he invited her to a rehearsal at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the kind of endorsement that just falls into your lap. Kilguss and band are at Red Hook Bait & Tackle on a twinbill with Matt Keating on Dec 12 starting at around 9.

Where Kilguss is disarmingly direct, nobody writes songs that stand up to more repeated listening – or for that matter require more repeated listening – than Ward White does. The images and changes in narrators in the songs in his all-too-brief, roughly fifty-minute set flashed by in rapid succession, to the point where it made the most sense just to enjoy the suspenseful builds to the anthemic choruses, the jokes that would jump out, and the raw yet ornately orchestrated power of the band onstage. The night’s single most intense musical moment was toward the end of the fiery, pounding Bikini, where violinist Claudia Chopek built a shivery crescendo evoking the nuclear holocaust on the uninhabitable island of its title. Keyboardist Joe McGinty’s elegant electric harpsichord (yeah, harpsichord, just like on all those old Doors albums) gave both surprising gravitas and tongue-in-cheek drollery to the surreal Bacharach S&M pop of Alphabet of Pain and the jazzy Rash, which had its own torture references.

Bassist Bryan Smith supplied the equivalent of a second lead guitar to bolster White’s own sometimes searing, sometimes aching lead guitar lines over Everet Almond’s crushing drums while Victoria Liedtke’s backing vocals added another layer of punch and poignancy. Meanwhile, White teased the crowd with one narrative voice after another. There was the narcissistic gay boss (Rudy Giuliani? Michael Bloomberg? Bill DiBlasio?) kicking the male hooker out of his place over a faux-disco beat on I’ll Make It Up to You; the quiet sadist ready to grill his prey in the Lynchian Dolores on the Dotted Line; and the dotty, aging protagonist intent on buying a mylar balloon for a granddaughter? girlfriend? The answer wasn’t clear. That’s not White’s style lately. For more intrigue, he’s playing Mercury Lounge at 7 PM on Dec 2 with this band.

Matt Keating brought the night full circle, both with his band and his songs. Lead guitarist Steve Mayone echoed Loughlin’s defiant refusal to resolve, to allow any easy answers, throughout Keating’s restless, uneasy but explosively crescendoing songs. There was a lot of new material on the bill, no surprise since Keating has a new album due out early next year. Bassist Jason Mercer and drummer Greg Wieczorek alternated between a steady backbeat and a slinky soul groove as Keating opened with an angst-fueled narrative focusing on a woman who did some time behind bars for “giving the finger to a uniform” – Springsteen and Tom Waits only wish they wrote stories of the down-and-out this vividly.

From there Keating led the group through the metaphorically-charged Maker of Carousels – a devastatingly sad waltz – to a searing, anthemic take of his concert favorite Lonely Blue, then a departure into Coney Island soul, then lushly gorgeous janglerock with the airy but chilling Saint Cloud and Louisiana, a biting post-Hurricane Katrina narrative. Keating joins Kilguss on the bill in Red Hook on Dec 12.

The Del-Lords’ First Album in 23 Years Picks Up Like They Never Stopped

In the case where a band releases their first album in 23 years, it’s typically either a reissue, a grab-bag of rarities or a half-baked attempt to revisit the group’s glory years, assuming they had any.  In the case of the Del-Lords, had they never made their new album Elvis Club- their first since 1990’s Lovers Who Wander- their place in rock history would be secure. They came up as a fiery highway rock band with deep roots in Americana, in an era when theose roots were being rediscovered and a four-star review in Rolling Stone actually helped a band sell records. If it’s possible to say that a band had a huge cult following, the Del-Lords had one. Their live performances are legendary, including a series of 1987 New York shows where they opened for Lou Reed and his band and blew them off the stage. The new album  – as well as two albums’ worth of rarities and esoterica – is streaming at the Del-Lords Bandcamp page. Much as it might sound extreme to declare it the ballsiest Del-Lords album ever, it just might be. The band is playing the album release show on June 27 at 9 PM at Bowery Electric with excellent female-fronted Americana punk rockers Spanking Charlene opening the night at 8; advance tickets are still available as of today but won’t last much longer.

The irony is that this probably wouldn’t have happened had a promoter not contacted them in 2010 and persuaded them into doing a brief Spanish tour. The quartet – guitarists Scott Kempner and Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, bassist Manny Caiati and drummer Frank Funaro – reunited, played a handful of reunion gigs at the now-shuttered Lakeside Lounge to warm up for the tour (under the pseudonym the Elvis Club, which explains the album title), and decided, what the hell, let’s pull some new songs together. It’s a good thing they did. Kempner’s tunesmithing is as strong as ever and as it turns out both he and Ambel have never sung better. The songs run the gamut from anthemic Willie Nile-ish janglerock to fiery riff-rock to various rootsy styles, with a choice Neil Young cover to cap it off.

The music is a rich blend of jangle, twang, clang and roar. Layers of guitar get tweaked artfully for just the right tinge of reverb or distortion or tremolo; the playing is terse and powerful. This time around, Ambel handles all the leads except one; almost all of them go on for no more than a couple of bars. He always leaves you wanting more. He also produced the album with his usual purist touch (the inside cd cover shot is an early morning view of the East River from inside Ambel’s Cowbow Technical Services studio, home to scores of great albums in the years since the Del-Lords first disbanded). That has a lot to do with why it sounds as good as it does: strong as the band’s albums from the 80s were, there’s a distinct 80s feel to them, while this one sounds timeless. The rest of the band is as strong as they were 23 years ago, in the case of Kempner maybe stronger. This time out, Caiaiti wasn’t available, so a rotating cast of bassists including Ambel’s Yayhoos bandmate Keith Christopher, Jason Mercer, Steve Almaas and new fulltime member Michael DuClos share the four-string chair.

The opening track, When the Drugs Kick In sets the stage for what’s to come with its wickedly catchy four-chord hook and beefed-up janglerock vibe. The second track, Princess might be the strongest one: the beat is deceptively funky, the reverb-fueled minor-key riffage burns and slashes, with a couple of searing Ambel solos fueled by resonant chords and nonchalantly savage tremolo-picking. The sardonic Chicks, Man is one of those classic one-chord songs (give it a listen, it’s true), while Flying works some vintage Memphis licks into a gorgeous, midtempo anthem in the same vein as Kempner’s classic Forever Came Today (from the 1986 Roscoe’s Gang album), with a sudden, explosive crescendo midway through.

Fueled by more of that soul guitar, All of My Life is a casually celebratory ballad from the point of view of a survivor who never expected to get as far as he has, Rob Arthur’s lush Hammond organ picking it up out of a thoughtful Ambel solo. Everyday – co-written with early rock legend Dion DiMucci – is the closest thing to  Willie Nile here. Ambel takes over the vocals on Me & the Lord Blues, an evil, slinky, slow-burning tune that builds to a sunbaked Ron Asheton-like wah guitar solo.

The low-key but catchy Letter (Unmailed) sways along with a hint of Tex-Mex and a subtle reference to the Church, followed by You Can Make a Mistake One Time, which has the feel of an oldtime chain gang song set to raw, electric rock, Ambel getting a rare opportunty to cut loose for more than a couple of bars and making the most of it, Funaro’s snare drum like a sniper in the dark.

Silverlake evokes Steve Wynn with Kempner’s  brooding lyric – “It’s just a matter of trying, it’s just a matter of crying, it’s just a matter of lying to yourself” – and forceful, jangly tune. The album winds up with a take of Neil Young’s Southern Pacific – the best song from the 1981 Reactor album – which turns out to be a lot more sonically diverse than the original while maintaining an angry mood all the way through. Considering that it’s told from the point of view of a guy who worked his whole life only to get laid off, it’s an apt way to wind up an album released in these new depression days. It’s inspiring to see a bunch of guys who’ve been going as long as these guys have continuing to put out music that’s as vital and entertaining as what they were doing almost three decades ago.

Gorgeous Jangle and Clang from Chris Erikson

Chris Erikson is oldschool. He’s a newspaperman, covering many beats at the New York Post. He’s also a brilliant guitarist (which is kind of oldschool these days as well) who’s been in demand in the New York scene for a long time, backing such A-list talents as Matt Keating and Florence Dore. Yet he’s not your typically guitarslinger: there are maybe six parts on his new album Lost Track of the Time that you could conceivably call solos. Two of them open and close the album on a boisterous Bakersfield country note, the first a jaunty Buck Owens-like run using the low registers almost like a baritone guitar, the second a high-strung boogie passage in a very cleverly composed mystery story titled The Worst Thing That Ever Happened. Otherwise, Erikson plays chords, elegant riffs and pieces of both, sometimes picking them with his fingers like Keith Richards, sometimes evoking twangmeisters from Duane Eddy to Steve Earle (who’s obviously a big influence here), or even 80s paisley underground legends True West. He’s that interesting, and that tasteful: he always leaves you wanting more.

But there are plenty of good players out there. What elevates this album above your typical Twangville tuneage is the songwriting. Erikson writes allusively, his sharp, frequently bitter, pensive lyrics leaving just enough detail for the listener to fill in the blanks. His changes are catchy and anthemic, driven by a purist melodic sensibility and a love of subtle shifts in tone, touch and attack. Along with the dynamics – something you don’t often see in music like this – there’s also a lot of implied melody. Erikson also happens to be an excellent singer. On the angriest or craziest stuff here, his voice takes on a Paul Westerberg-style rasp; otherwise, his drawl shifts between pensive and sardonic, depending on the lyrics. Again, Steve Earle comes to mind. As you would expect, Erikson’s band the Wayward Puritans is first-rate, with Jason Mercer on bass, Will Rigby on drums plus frequent contributions from Keating on keyboards along with Jay Sherman-Godfrey on guitars, with Bob Hoffnar and Jonathan Gregg on pedal steel, Kill Henry Sugar’s Erik Della Pena on lapsteel, Hem’s Mark Brotter and Gary Maurer (who produced) on drums and acoustic guitar, respectively.

The best song on the album, and the one instant classic here is Ear to the Ground. It starts with a richly clanging, intricate series of chords that are going to have everyone reaching for their six-string: it’s that gorgeous.Those changes come around again a couple of times but Erikson makes you wait for them. It’s a bitter kiss-off song, but a very subtle one: until the end, the story is what doesn’t happen. Erikson does the same on another first-rate backbeat rock track a little later on, The Subject Came Up, an elephant-in-the-room scenario where “by the next morning a chalk outline was all that remained” of what ultimately turned out to be a dealbreaker. The most sarcastic song here, a big 6/8 country anthem titled Guilty, has its obviously wrongfully accused narrator asking for the court to “just read me my rights and I’ll sign on the line” over a rich backdrop of mandolin and dobro.

The funniest songs on the album are both country tunes: the first a honkytonk number about a freeloading girlfriend, lit up by some juicy piano from Keating. The other is When I Write My Memoir, another kiss-off song, but with an unexpected punchline, not the first thing you’d think of from a writer dreaming of seeing his autobio top the charts at amazon. Was That Me sets a tongue-in-cheek, disingenuous lyric to blistering highway rock. There’s also the long, aphoristically unwinding rock anthem On My Way and a couple of pensive, brooding acoustic numbers, In the Station and When It Comes Down, the latter with soaring steel from Hoffnar and a welcome return to the recording studio by Dore, who supplies equally soaring harmony vocals. Count this among the best albums to make it over the transom here this year.

Chris Erikson and the Wayward Puritans, like a lot of New York’s best bands, made Lakeside Lounge their home. Now that Lakeside’s days are numbered (April 30 is the last big blowout there), let’s hope they find another sometime soon.

A Welcome Return Engagement from Jenifer Jackson

How many of you caught Jenifer Jackson’s most recent New York show last week at the Rockwood? The place was pretty full. As usual, the crowd was a lovefest, a bunch of A-list New York musicians coming out to revisit one of their own who was ubiquitous here ten years ago. But since she moved to Austin, return engagements have been limited. It was great to see so many familiar faces, everybody amped to see Jenifer. But was this a nostalgia show? No way. She debuted three new songs (which so far haven’t made it to youtube). The first, In Summer, related how summer babies don’t like the cold (Jackson is one: she speaks from experience), over a pensive janglerock verse that gave way to an only slightly restrained chorus filled with unexpected major/minor changes. She’s very eclectic: the next new one, a hypnotic, slow anthem, reminded of Australian rockers the Church, bassist Jason Mercer picking it up with a swoop out of lead guitarist Oren Bloedow’s counterintuitively biting staccato solo. And the last one was a western swing tune, Bob Wills without the horns or the pedal steel.

She sang with her usual combination of nuance and smoldering soul, the band – which also included the tremendously subtle Greg Wieczorek on drums and Matt Kanelos on piano – pretty much jumping out of their shoes to get the chance to play with her again. And as much as the new material was a lot of fun, the best song of the night was Trouble Fire, a sad country ballad from her Birds album that she started subdued and defeated before bringing it up and teasing the audience with allusions to a harmony on the chorus that she hinted and hinted at and finally nailed at the end just to make everybody happy.

Back in the day, you could catch her playing at Fez, then a week or two later she’d be at the Mercury, or the Living Room before it moved and became a tourist trashpit. Or maybe she’d do something at Pete’s Candy Store. Memo to anyone who has a favorite New York band or performer: carpe diem and see them now before they move to Austin or somewhere the same.

Two Drummers Make a Difference

Drummers do all the heavy lifting and usually get none of the credit, so this is to give credit where it’s due. As dynamic as Jenifer Jackson and LJ Murphy are, each got to take their shows this past weekend to the next level because of who was behind the drum kit. Each show was intense, in a completely different way: Jackson dreamy and hypnotic, Murphy careening through one catchy, blues-infused rock song after another. At Rockwood Music Hall Friday night, Jackson was unselfconsciously blissed out to be playing with most of the New York crew she’d made her 2007 Outskirts of a Giant Town album with: Matt Kanelos on piano, Elysian Fields’ Oren Bloedow on guitar, Jason Mercer on bass and Greg Wieczorek behind the kit. The original Rockwood space is small, and some drummers just don’t get it, hammering away like John Bonham. From his first suspenseful brushstroke, Wieczorek set a mood and never wavered, sometimes pushing Jackson’s often inscrutable grooves with just a shaker and a muted kick beat. And when a chorus would rise to a swell, he’d let the band take it. He was just there enough to swing the beat, almost imperceptibly shifting it into bossa nova, or adding quiet, counterintuitive cymbal splashes or hi-hat accents: had he not been there, it wouldn’t have been the same.

The rest of the band seemed to be just as blissed out to be playing with Jackson. Mercer’s moody, sepulchral solo on the night’s opening song, Maybe, set the tone right off the bat; Kanelos’ tersely majestic chords gave a mesmerizing glimmer to I Remember – done here as part Beatles, part countrypolitan – and a long, psychedelic take of The War Is Done. Jackson has been a great rock singer for a long time: she’s a great jazz singer now. The way she suddenly leaped off the page impatiently as the chorus rose on the brisk bossa shuffle Suddenly Unexpectedly, and the way she spun clever little circles around the ridiculously catchy chorus of Bring on the Night was impossible to turn away from. She ended the show with a mostly solo acoustic version of The Beauty in the Emptying, a wistful country ballad on the surface, underneath a characteristically resilient, tenacious resolution not to concede defeat. From a bon vivant like Jackson, it was a logical way to end this particular reunion with a crowd of longtime fans who were just as psyched to see her as she seemed to be to see them.

Saturday at Otto’s, Murphy went in a completely diffferent direction: this time it was drummer Andrew Guterman who kept the machine from jumping the rails. It’s not like Murphy had been freed from being behind a guitar – it’s an important part of his stage act – but on account of a recent hand injury, he had to stick to just vocals at this show. But instead of doing the crooner set, Murphy pulled out all the stops and all his big rockers, seizing the opportunity to unleash some of his inner James Brown, scatting along with outros, bringing the band almost to a stop in a split second and then back up again. And for what amounted to a pickup band, these guys – Patrick McLellan on piano, Tommy Hoscheid on Les Paul and Nils Sorensen on bass – were amazingly on top of their game. And Guterman kept the energy level going through the roof without drowning out his bandmates, whether elevating the bitter Same Trick beyond mere Stax/Volt homage, or giving the inscrutably caustic Nowhere Now a drive that went over the edge into punk.

Murphy is a 99 percenter to the core, and his lyrics resonated more than ever considering what was happening in Foley Square. Whether snarling about how “crosses and pistols are slung at our hips,” ridiculing the one percenter – an “elegant tormentor stripped of all his polyester” – getting his freak on in a dungeon just a stone’s throw from Wall Street, or warning of the day when “a sermon blares all night from the roof of a radio car,” there was a defiant I-told-you-so in his carnivalesque, blues-drenched vocal assault. The band careened through the afterwork nightmare scenario of Happy Hour with a deliciously sarcastic, blissed-out attack, only to follow with the tense apprehension of Bovine Brothers, a look at the kind of future that the Occupy protestors are also warning us about, where “the hand that you’ve been pumping turns into a handsome snake, with only one regret because he’s running out of bones to break.” After winding up the set with a punishing version of the surreal late-night psychology session Blue Silence and then encoring with an equally raucous Barbed Wire Playpen (the one about the S&M hedge fund guy), the crowd still wanted more. But the excellent Highway Gimps – sort of a cross between Motorhead and My Bloody Valentine – were next on the bill.

Jenifer Jackson’s New Album: An Emotional Portrait of the Here and Now

We typically associate emotional depth with sadness. Jenifer Jackson’s music has always been deep, usually with a melancholy edge, so on one level her new album The Day Happiness Found Me is quite a change. But the semantics of the title are a giveaway: she wasn’t expecting this. Against a backdrop of sometimes crushing angst and an awareness of the ever-present possibility of defeat, this enchantingly subtle singer offers guarded hope for the future. Sometimes sultry, sometimes aching, sometimes absolutely shattering, it’s a definitive record for our time.

Jackson has made a career out of pushing the envelope: merging Beatlesque psychedelia with Brazilian rhythms, blending jazz sophistication with the direct emotional impact of country music and vintage 70s soul. This latest album, her seventh full-length release, is her most intimate to date, distilled to a crystalline purity. She’s always been an extraordinarily nuanced singer, and has been through several phases, from misty chanteuse to powerful soul belter. Here, she’s never sung more directly, yet more subtly, over arrangements which are sparse but not spare, just Jackson and Chris McQueen on guitars and keys, with Chris Jones on bass (and Hem’s Jason Mercer guesting on four-string on two tracks). To say that this is a departure from the intricate psychedelia of her previous album The Outskirts of a Giant Town is an understatement.

The Missing Time opens the album on a pensive note: as is the case from here on out, Jackson’s images linger vividly. “Autumn descends” is the focal point here. It’s about missing someone, just vocals and fingerpicked guitar, with a gentle allusive Stax/Volt solo from McQueen. Groundward is classic Jenifer Jackson: an inscrutable, hypnotically imagistic rainy day tableau where “Yesterday the motion had no meaning, yesterday the seasons were careening, groundward.” Is the understated depiction of the gentle drizzle an ominous omen (especially with those dark, low-register guitar flourishes), or a sign that the sun’s about to shine?

Bring on the Night is not the Kool & the Gang song: it’s an original, casually and very cleverly building to a lushly crescendoing janglerock chorus. When Jackson’s voice swoops and then spirals low with anticipation right as it kicks in, the effect will give you goosebumps – this is a reprieve she’s talking about. What Makes Love Stay is a catchy oldschool country song: it would give instant cred to somebody like Carrie Underwood or her late 2011 equivalent (the Carrie Underwoods of the world don’t last long).

The murky boudoir ambience of Whispering Words reaches back toward the low-key psychedelic vibe Jackson mined on her last couple of albums, while the absolutely gorgeous, artsy pop of In Spring – a track that wouldn’t be out of place on a pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd record – shoots for an optimistic outcome after some disappointments: “One bad season does not make a year,” she reminds. She pulls out her best, plushest soul delivery for the soaring Game & Huff style Baby Did You Think That Love Would Find a Way, then reaches back another ten years for a 60s psychedelic pop vibe on I Remember. And The Beauty in the Emptying goes for a perfectly sparse arrangement, a reflection on letting go of the clutter – emotionally or otherwise – and looking forward to a new adventure. Of all the songs here, Maybe is the stunner, the genuine classic, awash in tense, noir atmospherics. Travel and a search for home have been major themes in Jackson’s music: this could be where she seizes victory from the jaws of defeat.

Beneath the white November moon
A tiny crescent in a deep blue
Cutting stark patterns through twisted trees
I walked a long time through fallen leaves
I tried to talk to you if only in my mind
Looking for an answer for anything that I could find
Maybe this is as much sense as life will ever make

Jenifer Jackson plays the album release show for this one on Friday, Nov 18 at Rockwood Music Hall on at 7 PM.