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Charming Disaster Bring Their Richly Detailed, Creepy Art-Rock to Joe’s Pub

Singer and ukulele player Ellia Bisker fronts uneasy existentialist soul band Sweet Soubrette – known for their delicious retro 60s horn charts – and also leads careening careening Balkan punk street group Funkrust Brass Band. She also harmonizes menacingly with guitarist Jeff Morris in Kotorino, who mash up latin noir and phantasmagorical circus rock. Lately, Morris and Bisker have been busiest in their duo project Charming Disaster, New York’s noir supergroup. As you would expect from a crew who specialize in murder ballads, suspense pervades their uneasily tuneful, richly arranged art-rock and parlor pop narratives. Sometimes they can be playful, other times downright macabre. Their latest album, the aptly titled Cautionary Tales, is streaming at Bandcamp; they’re playing Joe’s Pub on July 20 at 8 PM. Cover is $15.

While Charming Disaster typically tour as a duo, the album features some familiar faces from the Kotorino talent base, including bassist/drummer Don Godwin (better known as the world’s funkiest tuba player, from Raya Brass Band) and a brilliant string section of violinist Marandi Hostetter and cellist Noah Hoffeld. ]

The opening track, Sympathetic Magic, rises out of a stately web of guitar, uke and clever vocal counterpoint, a carefully detailed S&M scenario between two unlikely participants. No spoilers here.

Snake Bit is a concert favorite and one of their loudest songs, a snarling garage-psych anthem with a little latin and late Beatles flavor. Some of Charming Disaster’s charm is how Morris and Bisker trade off playing the villlain and victim roles, and this is a prime example.

With its blend of spiky Britfolk and prime 70s Bowie glam, Selene & Endymion is just as guitarishly ferocious, proof that dating a goddess isn’t all it’s made out to be. “When you’re asleep, sleep with one eye open,” the two harmonize at the end. They go back to mythology a little later on and further north with the grisly, apocalyptic Ragnarok. part Byrds, part Cheap Trick at their punkest.

Phosphorescent Lilies is a primo Bisker soul number, a swaying, allusive, blackly funny tale of medieval sacrifice. The Dylanesque folk-rock waltz Little Black Bird follows a surrealistic Brothers Grimm-style tangent. Days Are Numbered, an irresistibly funny mashup of Black Sabbath and lush chamber pop, is a spy story, at least on the surface, an apt tale for a surveillance state in the age of big data.

With its waltzing horror-movie music-box piano and danse macabre strings, Infernal Soiree is the closest thing to Orphan Jane grand guignol here. Awash in distant reverb, the starkly elegaic What Remains is the album’s best track, the shadow image of the frantic couple cleaning up the evidence in an earlier Charming Disaster gem, Deep in the High, from the duo’s debut album Love, Crime & Other Trouble. The final cut here is the grimly metaphorical, ineluctably waltzing String Break Song, Is this 2017’s best album? it’s one of them.

Good news on the Kotorino front, too – they’ve got a new album pretty much in the can, and an expected 2018 release date.

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Is It Safe to Say That Murder Ballad Mondays Are Killer?

It took four months worth of Murder Ballad Mondays before somebody played Rock Salt and Nails. It’s one of the real classics of folk noir. And it’s well known. Populist folksinger Nevada Smith gets credited for it, but it’s unlike anything else in his catalog and has a vernacular that looks back as far as the 1850s. And it’s as disconsolate as it is vengeful: the violence is implied, and even then, not til the last verse. Bobtown guitarist and songwriter Karen Dahlstrom channeled that sadness with distance and understatement, saving her powerful wail for a creepy a-cappella performance of her own grim Old West outlaw ballad Streets of Pocatello , from her brilliant Idaho-themed album Gem State. Then she picked up her guitar and did a new one that was a lot quieter but just as eerie.

That’s Murder Ballad Mondays in a nutshell: elite performers having fun with deadly tales from across the centuries and from their own repertoire as well. So far, the two most popular covers at this well-attended monthly extravaganza seem to be Delia’s Gone and Henry Lee, referencing both Johnny Cash and Gillian Welch. But the originals are what people come for: organizers Jeff Morris and Ellia Bisker, better known as torchily menacing parlor pop duo Charming Disaster, pack a lot into two hours. The next one is Monday, January 18 at 8 PM at Branded Saloon in Ft. Greene (closest stop is Bergen St. on the 2/3) featuring ominous baritone crooner Sean Kershaw and other similarly minded acts.

Charming Disaster have treated crowds here to short sets at previous Murder Ballad Mondays installments; last time around, they did just a single number, the allusively torchy Ghost Story (although they played a full set at Pete’s Candy Store this past Saturday night, packed the place and delivered an actually very funny show that included both a devastatingly tongue-in-cheek Led Zep cover and a new one about breaking strings onstage).

A duo version of phantasmagorical circus rock/noir cabaret band Orphan Jane – accordionist Tim Cluff and his trumpeter – also joined the festivities last time out, firing off a furtive number simply titled Murder as well as The Mansion Song, a menacingly vaudevillian narrative whose message seems to be that it pays to be cautious when seeking revenge against the one-tenth-of-one-percent: they can afford a bigger army than you.

Other artists included art-rock luminary and multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost, who held the crowd rapt with a typically allusive new tale about murder on the gallery floor, and an icily doomed cover from the current Nordic art-pop catalog. And singer Karen Poliski worked a similar intensity as she went to the well for a chilling Handsome Family cover.

Sweet Soubrette Release One of 2015’s Best Concerts As a Live Album

It’s a hot indian summer night outside Joe’s Pub, the shadows from the dark tower a block away just beginning to suck the light from the streets to the east of Astor Place. Inside, the man in the long black coat stretches out his legs underneath a table about twenty feet from the stage. With the back of his hand, he wipes his brow: he’s overdressed for this time of year. Across the table a couple beam and whoop it up. Somebody in the band – the drummer, as it turns out -is a friend, and they’re there to make sure he gets props.

Sweet Soubrette take the stage to what will be the most rousing applause of the night (Kotorino will play a ferocious, lustrously latin-tinged set of artsy, noir rock afterward). The man in the long black coat pulls his recorder from his pocket, presses a button and glances at it quizzically. As the lights dim, he pulls out his phone, illuminating the gadget’s digital display. Exhaling, dismayed, he clicks off both devices, pockets them in his coat and leans back to watch the show.

Frontwoman/ukulele player Ellia Bisker opens the set with a bouncy number, All That Glitters, her voice more weary than brassy as she channels the cynicism of a gold-digger working her latest mark. With NYU – where a thousand undergrad women have signed up as employees of an online prostitution ring in order to pay their tuition – a few blocks away, the song resonates in a new context. Next is Sweet Time, a soul ballad recast as oldtimey Americana on the wings of Heather Cole’s violin. “The song kind of undermines the message…just so you know,” Bisker tells the crowd coyly.

The man in the long black coat is restless, but Bisker is on a roll with her banter. “We have songs about a lot of normal things…like most bands,” she explains, deadpan and serious. “But we also have songs about books – a lot of books.” She explains that this one was inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, then launches into a propulsive take of the moody Burning City, the horn section – John Waters on trumpet, Cecil Scheib on trombone and Erin Rogers on alto sax- bobbing and weaving.

“So you have all these experiences…but you retain nothing, and you learn nothing, and nothing helps you,” the bandleader tells the audience, and then begins the achingly waltzing, saturnine Wake Up When, a chronicle of missed chances and lost hopes. By now the man in the long black coat is on the edge of his seat, watching as the lush wash of strings and horns rises.

“You come to a moment in your life, a crossroads…decisions, and you know what whatever you choose, you’re going to regret it,” Bisker continues – at this point, a pattern is clear, this concert has a theme and a trajectory:

The ghost ship of the life you didn’t choose
Is the one you know will never carry you
There are moments you get a glimpse
From the corner of your eye
And all you can do is watch it sail on by

Bisker misses a downstroke on her uke at one point; crushing poignancy, all the more so for not being part of the plan.

The show takes a turn into less harrowing territory with a sardonically pouting new soul ballad, (You Don’t) Talk to Me, awash in oldschool Memphis-style horns. Then drummer Darrell Smith hits a trip-hop beat as the group make their way through Big Celebrity and its sarcastic John Waters-esque allusions.

“We’re coming to the end, not just the end of our time here, but the end of our time at all, really. I’m just a truth sayer,” Bisker relates before Night Owls, another waltz. “Blow out the candle, we see in the dark,” she intones with a quiet defiance over the wash of orchestration. The concert ends with the Anais Nin-inspired anthem What’s My Desire: “She made the unspeakable speakable, and we admire her for that,” Bisker tells everyone.

Months later, the man in the long black coat reaches to his Macbook and types in Sweet Soubrette’s webpage. What might they be up to? As it turns out, Bisker is busy this month. Sweet Soubrette are at Rock Shop on January 14 at 10 PM for a $10 cover, with hauntingly anthemic folk noir/janglerock bandleader Jessie Kilguss opening the night at 8. Kotorino, to which Bisker lends her torchy harmonies, are at Barbes the previous night, the 13th, at 8. And her murderously entertaining parlor-pop murder ballad duo Charming Disaster, with Kotorino’s Jeff Morris are at Pete’s on the 9th, also at 8.

Clicking on the Sweet Soubrette music page, the man in the long black coat does a doubletake. That concert at Joe’s Pub was recorded and has been released as a live album, a name-your-price download at bandcamp! So much for not having enough memory in the recorder back in September! And the band also have a new single, Take It Easy, an ironically uneasy parlor-pop number.

The 50 Best Albums of 2015

Seven or eight years ago, everyone was predicting the demise of the album. That hasn’t happened, and as long as we have recording technology, it won’t. A few other predictions from the past decade, however, have come true. Albums these days tend to be shorter, and artists are releasing fewer of them. And as a result, they’re consistently better, since acts are no longer contractually obliged to record labels to churn out product regardless of whether or not they’ve got first-class material ready to go. A couple of artists on this list are on boutique labels, but everybody else is independent.

On this page you’ll find a link to stream each album in its entirety. Whenever possible, those links are to ad-free sites like Bandcamp or Soundcloud so you can multitask in comfort without having to ride the fader to mute the ads. Considering the vast number of albums released in any calendar year, you shouldn’t regard this list as gospel. It is, however, an informed survey based on careful triage followed by a sampling of several thousand releases, and then a locked-in, analytical listen to the best 500 or so, from this past January up to the present date. A LOT of time went into this. For purposes of keeping the list under control, none of the many thousands of excellent jazz, classical and avant garde releases are represented here. Realistically, there’s a limit on how much territory a single blog can cover.

The one collection that packed the most mighty wallop – a pretty quiet one, actually – and wins the title of best album of 2015 is Who’s Counting, by Rachelle Garniez. With gallows humor, terse piano, accordion and spare acoustic guitar, it’s the New York songwriter’s shortest, most intimate and darkest album, a masterpiece of existentialist rock, grim explorations of mortality and global carnage juxtaposed with jaunty, sultry, cabaret-flavored set pieces. This is the second time a release by Garniez has topped this list: her 2007 album Melusine Years ranked #1 that year at this blog’s predecessor. Stream it at Spotify

As far as the rest of this rich crop is concerned, there’s no ranking here, since there are so many styles to choose from. Seriously: what’s better? Carol Lipnik‘s otherworldly art-rock, Twin Guns’ savage garage-punk and horror surf, or Hungrytown‘s magnificently pensive folk noir? Apples and oranges, right? These albums are all so good that they can stand alongside anything here.

Les Sans Culottes- Les Dieux Ont Soif/The Gods Are Thirsty
The New York-based faux-French rockers deliver their most satirical, bitingly hilarious, spot-on critique yet…in French, of course, with a harder, more guitar-fueled edge than the retro 60s psychedelic pop they’re known for. Stream it at Soundcloud

Regular Einstein – Chimp Haven
Velvet-voiced, wickedly lyrical janglerock songwriter Paula Carino is another artist who topped the Best Albums of the Year list at this blog’s predecessor. In her case, that release was 2010’s Open on Sunday. This is her first new one – since the 90s, in fact -with her original New York band, packed with delicious double entendres, bittersweet narratives and tricky time signatures. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Bright Smoke – Terrible Towns
Haunting singer/guitarist Mia Wilson’s full-length debut with this atmospheric, blues-infused art-rock project ranks with Joy Division for angst-fueled, white-knuckle intensity. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Sideshow Tragedy Capital
Guitarist/frontman Nathan Singleton brings a ferocious, bitterly apocalyptic lyrical sensibility to his fiery gutter-blues band. Stream it at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Love, Crime & Other Trouble
Jeff Morris of the phantasmagorical Kotorino and Ellia Bisker of dark chamber pop band Sweet Soubrette join forces on their debut full-length release, a lyrically and historically rich mix of murder ballads and tales of relationships gone spectacularly wrong. Stream it at Bandcamp

Carol Lipnik – Almost Back to Normal
The best album by the best singer on this list, a launching pad for her spectacular four-octave vocal range, backed by luminous, hypnotic piano from Matt Kanelos and strings by Jacob Lawson. Allusive apocalyptic themes of natural and manmade disaster and post-9/11 terror linger in the distance. Stream it at Mermaidalley.com

Ember Schrag – The Folkadelphia Sessions
Hypnotically Beatlesque art-rock, smoldering Macbeth-inspired narratives and a killer Great Plains gothic anthem by the style’s most lyrical and distinctive practitioner. Stream and download it free from the Folkadelphia page

Twin Guns – The Last Picture Show
A mighty leap for the ferocious power trio, including but not limited to their Cramps-style stomp. This one’s a lot more psychedelic and noir surf-oriented. Stream it at Bandcamp

Lorraine Leckie & Pavel Cingl – The Raven Smiled
Spare and surreal yet majestically enveloping art-rock and Slavic folk noir sounds from the Canadian gothic songstress and Czech violin wizard. Stream it at Bandcamp

Rachel Mason – The Lives of Hamilton Fish
One of the darkest albums on this list, this lush, evocative mix of historically-inspired janglerock and folk noir traces the seeemingly unconnected lives of two early 20th century figures who shared the same name: a serial killer and the scion of a famous New York political legacy. Stream it at Bandcamp

King Raam – A Day & a Year
A majestic, brooding Iranian art-rock record by the pseudonymous expat baritone crooner and bandleader. Lyrics in Persian. Stream it at Soundcloud

Fernando Viciconte – Leave the Radio On
The noir rock bandleader originally hails from Argentina; this haunted, doomed concept album, with significant contributions from REM’s Peter Buck and others, could be the great lost Steve Wynn release. Stream it at Bandcamp

Litvakus– Raysn: The Music of Jewish Belarus
A rousing, exhilarating mix of rare Jewish dance numbers,lively originals and morose folk tunes from the badlands of Polesia, in the corner where Belarus, Poland, Latvia and the Ukraine meet. One of the best party albums on this list. Stream it at Bandcamp

Raya Brass Band – Raya
Another awesome party album, the third release by the New York Balkan group is their most original, stylistically and emotionally diverse one yet, incorporating Ethiopian and latin sounds into their rapidire chromatics. Stream it at Bandcamp

Tipsy Oxcart – Upside Down
A fat rock rhythm section anchors these deliriously edgy minor-key Balkan, Turkish and Jewish themes and originals. Stream it at Bandcamp

Marianne Dissard – Cologne Vier Takes
The southwestern gothic/art-rock chanteuse and bandleader at the top of her uneasy game, in a mix of richly atmospheric yet intimate versions from her darkly lyrical catalog. Lyrics in French. Stream it at Bandcamp

Tom Warnick & the World’s Fair – Side Effects
The well-loved noir rock cult figure turns in a characteristically diverse mix of ghoulabilly, noir swing, soul and blues, all with his signature black humor and a luridly smoky band behind him. Stream it at Spotify

Matt Keating – This Perfect Crime
Getting away with murder is the loosely interconnecting theme on this typically diverse blend of janglerock, Stonesy stomp, Americana and soul-infused sounds, all with Keating’s richly sardonic, literate lyricism. Stream it at Mattkeating.com

Tracy Island – War No More
The long-awaited full-length debut from captivating singer/multi-instrumentalist Liza Garelik Roure – former leader of deviously psychedelic popsters Liza & the WonderWheels – is her catchiest and most pensively colorful yet, fueled by husband Ian Roure’s sizzling lead guitar. Stream it at Lizasongs.com

Bliss Blood & Al Street – Unspun
The iconic noir torch song heroine builds lowlit, lurid, delectably lyrical ambience in an intimate duo recording with her longtime flamenco-inspired six-string guy. Stream it at Bandcamp

Orphan Jane – A Poke in the Eye
Deviously witty, creepy noir cabaret and circus rock from this irrepressibly theatrical, Brecht/Weill-inspired New York crew. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Universal Thump – Walking the Cat
Famously recorded at Abbey Road Studios, frontwoman/keyboardist Greta Gertler has never written with greater wit or purist pop chops than she does here with her lush chamber pop/art-rock project. Stream it at Bandcamp

Sarah Kirkland Snider – Unremembered
The most lavishly orchestrated album on this list features vocals from Padma Newsome and Shara Worden throughout a mix of brooding, sweeping art-rock reflections on harrowing childhood experiences and similar trauma. Stream it at Bandcamp

Goddess – Paradise
The latest release by the phantasmagorical New York art-rock band captures them in creepily enveloping psychedelic mode. Stream it at Bandcamp

Bobtown – A History of Ghosts
Eerie, sepulcural Appalachian folk tunes, creepy newgrass, retro soul, murder ballads, black humor galore and exquisite four-part harmonies from the band that might be the best folk noir act around. Stream it at Bobtownmusic.com

Mike RimbaudPut That Dream in Your Pipe and Smoke It
Yet another provocative, surrealistically lyrical, tight powerpop and retro new wave record from one of the most fearlessly funny, spot-on chroniclers of post-9/11 global society anywhere. Stream it at Spotify

Hungrytown – Further West
The most elegantly arranged and arguably best album by poignant Americana songstress Rebecca Hall and multi-instrumentalist Ken Anderson’s plaintive folk noir band Stream it at Spotify

The Sway Machinery – Purity & Danger
One of the great guitar albums on this list, this richly textured, intricately arraanged, soaring collection of anthems sees the band venturing further from desert rock toward cantorially-inspired psychedelia. Stream it at Spotify

The TarantinosNYC – Surfin’ the Silver Screen
Catchy, fun, vividly cinematic surf rock, spy themes and psychedelic soul from one of NYC’s most original instrumental units. Stream it at Spotify

Dalava – their debut album
Guitar polymath Aram Bajakian and his haunting singer wife Julia Ulehla combine to reinvent stark traditional Moravian themes with an electric edge. Stream it at Bandcamp  

Patricia Santos – Never Like You Think
The auspicious, intense, eclectic soul-infused debut by the charismatic cello rocker and Kotorino member. Stream it at Bandcamp

Eleni Mandell – Dark Lights Up
Los Angeles noir soul, bittersweet torch song and Americana by an icon of dark retro songcraft. Stream it at Spotify

The Whiskey Charmers – their debut album
Twin Peaks C&W, Appalachian gothic, dark blues and jangly rock from this shadowy, female-fronted Detroit dark Americana band. Stream it at Thewhiskeycharmers.com

Figli di Madre Ignota – Bellydancer
High-energy, Gogol Bordello-esque circus rock and Romany punk songs with hilarious, satirical lyrics in Italian and English. Stream their “spaghetti Balkan” sounds at Soundcloud

The Frank Flight Band – The Usual Curse
The British counterpart to Blue Oyster Cult reach back into the vaults for this haunted mix of Doorsy art-rock, shapeshifting psychedelia and unexpectedly macabre gothic sounds. Stream it at cdbaby

Dawn Oberg – Bring
The irrepressible parlor pop pianist/chanteuse at the top of her sardonic, lyrically rich game in this mix of personality portraits and psychopathological analysis. Stream it at Dawnoberg.com

Jennifer Hall – her debut ep
An intriguing, auspicious mashup of noir soul and art-rock from the powerfully nuanced Chicago song stylist and her excellent, eclectic band. Stream it at Spotify

The Grasping Straws – their debut album
Edgy songwriter/guitarist Mallory Feuer’s snarling, hard-hitting, scruffy, defiantly lyrical first full-length effort goes in a more straightforward, less jazz-inspired direction than the band’s initial ep. Stream it at Bandcamp

Ben Von Wildenhaus– II
Southwestern gothic, slinky bellydancer noir themes and Twin Peaks atmospherics from the loopmusic guitar master and esteemed noir soundscaper. Stream it at Soundcloud

Naked Roots Conducive – Sacred521
Cellist Valerie Kuehne and violinist Natalia Steinbach’s tormentedly cinematic, surrealistically intense art-rock dives menacingly and blackly amusingly into themes of alienation and ahwer despair. Stream it at Bandcamp

Lions – their debut ep
A slinky, trippy mix of Ethiopian grooves, Israeli stoner rock jams and cinematic themes. Stream it at Bandcamp

George Usher & Lisa Burns – The Last Day of Winter
Intense, autumnal purist powerpop, blue-eyed soul and psych-pop tunesmithing from two highly regarded, veteran songcrafters. Stream it at Spotify

Banda de los Muertos – their debut album
Epic, ornate, richly arranged, reinvented Mexican brass band ranchera themes and sweepingly majestic, blazing originals from trombonist Jacob Garchik’s imaginative big brass ensemble. Stream it at Spotify 

Spanglish Fly – New York Boogaloo
A hard-hitting, wickedly arranged, cleverly crafted update on classic 60s salsa soul from this irrepressible, danceable, psychedelic New York outfit. Stream it at Bandcamp

Curtis Eller & the New Town Drunks – Baudelaire in a Box: Songs of Anguish
Intriguing new translations of classic, surrealistically creepy Baudelaire poems set to starkly bluesy, phantasmagorical tunes by the charismatic circus rock bandleader and the Eastern Seaboard noir group. Stream it at Bandcamp

Elisa Flynn – My Henry Lee
The darkly eclectic songwriter and hauntingly luminous chanteuse’s most spare, terse album blends starkly funny individualist anthems with more pensive material and a classic murder ballad. Stream it at Bandcamp

Fireships – their debut album
Imaginatively arranged Americana rock and chamber pop with a fearlessly aware, Dylanesque, populist lyricism. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Amphibious Man – Witch Hips
Enigmatically lo-fi, twistedly Lynchian, surf-tinged reverb rock. Like nothing else on this list and yet in a way like an awful lot on this list, in terms of general darkness. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Honeycutters – Me Oh My
Oldschool female-fronted honkytonk with a newschool, sharply literate, defiantly populist lyrical edge. Stream it at Spotify

The Old Ceremony – Sprinter
Folk noir and serpentine, intricately arranged, Lynchian art-rock and chamber pop from Django Haskins’ darkly eclectic band. Stream it at youtube – but BE CAREFUL – a loud audio starts immediately when you click the link, mute the sound before you do

For more yummy clickbait, other 2015 lists here include the forthcoming playlist at the Best Songs of 2015 page and the Best New York Concerts of 2015 page.

Murder and Mayhem in Brooklyn, Again

One of Brooklyn’s most unique music scenes is growing in the wilds of Fort Greene, where noir chamber pop connoisseurs Charming Disaster – Ellia Bisker of the darkly catchy Sweet Soubrette and Jeff Morris of the lushly orchestrated, latin-tinged, phantasmagorical Kotorino – host a monthly salon where artists from many different genres get together to explore the darkest side of songwriting. It’s only fitting that the latest installment of Murder Ballad Mondays would take place on the darkest day of the year, this December 21 at 8 PM at Branded Saloon. Featured artists include enigmatic art-rock cellist/chanteuse Serena Jost, haunting High Plains gothic songstress Karen Dahlstrom (of folk noir stars Bobtown), the luridly theatrical, Brechtian Orphan Jane, Americana singer-songwriters Karen Poliski and Terry Radigan and others.

One explanation for the monthly extravaganza’s popularity could be that the artists here don’t limit themselves to old Appalachian folk songs or Child ballads. They’re pushing the limits of how far murder ballads can go: who knows, maybe this could become more than a demimonde. As the turnout here proves, there’s no shortage of material, not to mention people who like creepy music. This past month’s lineup, in particular, featured some of New York’s elite songsmiths, who turned in some pretty amazing performances.

Jessi Robertson, with her impassioned, otherworldly, rustic blues voice, got the night started on a strong note with a morosely stately waltz. “Should have burned it to the ground, dance in the dark…it’s a sad old story,” she intoned, low and gloomy. Then she referenced Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles over a mesh of watery, open guitar chords.

Sharply literate Americana parlor pop chanteuse Robin Aigner followed with an almost gleeful take of Delia’s Gone – springboarding off the Johnny Cash version – and then reinvented Neil Young’s Down By the River as a brooding minor-key waltz. In between, she sang a brand-new song, a swinging, catchy oldtimey strut: “I can’t shut you up, I can’t shut you out but I can shoot you and put you in the ground,” she grinned, explaining that the victim was a composite of ex-boyfriends rather than a specific individual. Yikes!

Jessie Kilguss made her US debut on harmonium (she played it on her most recent European tour) on a riveting, soaringly enveloping take of the Nick Cave version of the old standard Henry Lee. as well as making her way through a rapt, stark take of an original, Hell Creek, backed by guitarist John Kengla’s icy, late Beatlesque chorus-pedal guitar. Guitarist Arthur Schupach led his Donald & Lydia duo project through another take of Henry Lee, this one based on the Jolie Holland version. Speaking of which, that’s who Ellis Dodi frontwoman Erica Diloreto brought to mind, throughout a mix of material including a hilarious acoustic punk tune where she dropped a whole slew of f-bombs on a clueless ex.

Juliet Strong played kinetic, rippling gospel and ragtime-fueled piano on a couple of originals, while Charming Disaster tantalized the crowd with a single tongue-in-cheek number about a couple of ghosts in love, pulsing with intricate, sophisticated vocal call-and-response between Bisker and Morris. And a familiar bass face from the Lower East Side scene took a haphazard turn on piano, drawing some chuckles with a bitter 6/8 ballad about killing the tech-obsessed, micromanaging boss from hell. A ghoulabilly number about doing in the sleazy front guy from a hydrofracking operation didn’t go over as well. And a cover of a brand-new, as-yet-untitled Karla Rose & the Thorns serial killer narrative – done as a dirgey bolero with horror-film chromatics – capsulized the danger of a guy with Lou Reed vocal range plundering the repertoire of an immensely more powerful singer. Which speaks to Murder Ballad Mondays’ value as lab for experimentation as much as entertainment.

Charming Disaster Take Their Wickedly Literate Narratives and Murder Ballads on the Road

Charming Disaster are a New York mini-supergroup, a collaboration between Jeff Morris, frontman of majestically slinky circus rock/latin/art-rock band Kotorino, and Ellis Bisker, who leads existenialist chamber pop/soul band Sweet Soubrette. Their debut album, which came out earlier this year and is up at bandcamp, is a mix of murder ballads and crime narratives. Since then, they’ve expanded their worldview to include songs about just about any kind of troubled relationship. They like duets, and swing, and Romany sounds, and mythology. They’re currently hitting the road (tourdates are here), and when they get back they’re hosting a night of murder ballads at Branded Saloon in Ft. Greene on October 19 at 8 PM.

Their show at the end of last month at Pete’s Candy Store – which also went out over the interwebs via Concert Window – was deliciously creepy, but there was also a lot of new material, a series of character studies and retelings of old myths from around the world which were just as erudite and bewitchingly lyrical as their earlier stuff. Bisker played electric ukulele and kept time on a hi-hat while Morris played guitar and a stompbox of sorts. The uke and guitar mingled so seamlessly that it was as if they were a single ringing, rippling entiity. Morris took the deadpan rake role in contrast to Bisker’s torchiliy menacing allure.

They opened with Ghost Story, a catchy backbeat-driven tale of love or something like it, beyond the grave. The darkly jaunty, Weimar-inflected Showgirl, Morris explained, was inspired by his great-aunt, a real showgirl back in the Roaring 20s who dated a mobster…and also went out with a cop. The most gorgeously jangly number of the night was Ragnarok, a sardonic Laurel Canyon psychedelic folk anthem exploring grisly Nordic apocalyptic imagery; it brought to mind Pierre de Gaillande‘s late, lamented art-rock band the Snow.

The duo joined voices for a grim, Appalachian-tinged waltz about starvation in the wilderness, then made uneasily pouncing garage-psych rock out of the Egyptian Osiris myth. They cast Persephone not as an ingenue longing to be rescued but someone who’d embraced her fate as a permanent citizen of Hades, bringing to mind another great, now disbanded New York group, the Disclaimers.

A ukulele swing version of Led Zep’s Immigrant Song was just plain hilarious; after that, the duo went back to bittersweetly jangly with Artichoke, Bisker contributing a droll kazoo solo over Morris’ frenetic guitar clang. They wound up the set with a funny circus rock duet in the same vein as what Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl did with A Fairytale of New York. Audiences up and down the Eastern Seaboard are up for a real treat this month.

Sweet Soubrette and Kotorino Haunt Joe’s Pub

Did Ellia Bisker, leader of elegant existentialist chamber pop band Sweet Soubrette, make a quantum leap…or did she have those lush, poignant, unselfconsciously brilliant songs in her all along? Her emergence among New York’s songwriting elite dovetailed suspiciously with her joining forces with the more established and similarly brilliant Jeff Morris – leader of latin/circus rock/art-rock luminaries Kotorino – in the murder ballad project Charming Disaster. Whatever the case, the Sweet Soubrette/Kotorino twinbill at Joe’s Pub a week ago had to be one of this year’s best New York concerts, hands down.

Sweet Soubrette have been through several incarnations: the current version, with its terse, richly arranged horn charts and frequent echoes of classic soul music, is by far the best. Heather Cole’s violin dipped and soared over Bob Smith’s nimble bass and Darrell Smith’s jazz-inflected, low-key drums as the horns – John Waters on trumpet, Cecil Scheib on trombone and Erin Rogers on alto sax – provided lustrous, vintage Memphis-inspired, resonant harmonies. Bisker played ukulele, singing in a confident but angst-drenched alto that really kicked into gear in the lows: she’s made a quantum leap as a singer as well.

A coy gold-digger’s tale was an early highlight. On album, the band does Burning City – inspired by the account of the bombing of Berlin in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five – as moodily dancing art-rock, but here it had a more purposeful drive and heavier gravitas. The newest songs were the best: the sardonically pensive waltz Wake Up When pondered how little we retain from what should be life lessons, while Talk To Me explored the futility of breaking out of one’s aloneness and actually communicating. The catchiest number of the entire night, Ghost Ship, bopped along on a new wave Motown bassline, Bisker’s deadpan, staccato vocals building on a sort of catch/release dynamic: it would be a standout track in the Serena Jost catalog. The set wound up with the understatedly venomous oldschool soul-inflected Big Celebrity and its thinly veiled references to gentrifier status-grubbing, then the broodingly balmy, doomed wee-hours scenario Night Owls, and finally some comic relief in the form of a song-length shout-out to Anais Nin. “Let’s find out what’s stronger, my pen or your sword,” Bisker demanded.

She returned to the stage as Morris’ femme fatale foil in Korotino, who killed it, as usual. On any given night, they might be the best live band in town: that they could earn a roaring ovation by closing with a suicide song speaks for itself. While Morris has gone deeper and deeper into his pan-latin side in recent months, this show focused more on the band’s phantasmagorical, surrealist rock catalog. The dizzyingly syncopated, doomed minor-key cha-cha Never Had a Chance was a red herring of sorts, fueled by the devious rimshot drive of drummer Jerome Morris (Jeff’s brother) in tandem with Mike Brown’s sinewy bass and the horn section of Gato Loco‘s Stefan Zeniuk (who switched from bass sax, to bass clarinet and then tenor sax) and lively trumpeter Jesse Selengut. Violinist Estelle Bajou’s menacingly slitherly lines mirrored Cole’s approach in Sweet Soubrette – or was it the other way around?

Morris is another guy who’s never sung better, coming across as sort of an exasperated Joel Grey at the peak of his powers, armed with a hollowbody Gibson, the awestruck, epically shapeshifting steampunk adventure Oh My God giving him plenty of chances to air out his pipes. From there the band made their way through moodily strutting Weimar cabaret rock, building to a dixieland-flavored peak with the horns.The frantically swinging circus rock of Going Out Tonight contrasted with the angst-fueled, eerily misty vocal harmonies of the angst-fueled waltz Planes Land.

The rest of the set worked the dynamics up and down without a respite: it was a pretty wild ride. They opened the droll, artsy new wave-flavored Sea Monster with a chugging ska bass-and-drum intro and built from there to the deliriously balletesque, swirling latin noir What Is This Thing. An especially menacing, nocturnal take of North Star State, Morris explained nonchalantly, explored the simple, everyday chore of breaking your girlfriend out of the nuthouse. They closed with a suspensefully dynamic take of that suicide anthem, Dangle Tango. Kotorino are at Rock Shop on Oct 3 at 8, opening for the even more theatrical Funkrust Brass Band; cover is $10. And Charming Disaster play Pete’s on Sept 30 at 10.

A Dynamic New Album and a Bushwick Show from Cellist/Singer Patricia Santos

Patricia Santos calls herself a “vocellist.” As you would expect from a distinctive, terse cello player and strong, eclectic singer, she has her fingers in several projects. Most notably, she’s half of the cello-vocal duo the Whiskey Girls and a member of brilliant noir art-rock/circus-rock/latin band Kotorino as well. Santos also has an intriguingly intimate, tunefully diverse new album, Never Like You Think, streaming at Bandcamp and an album release show coming up at 9 PM on May 27 at Max Cellar (downstairs from Amancay’s Diner), 2 Knickerbocker Ave. at Johnson Ave.in Bushwick. It’s close to the Morgan Ave. stop on the L.

The albun’s first track is The One I Should Love, a starkly swaying minor-key blues with just vocals and two instruments, sawing cello contrasting with Andrew Swift’s bitingly resonant guitar. Then the two instruments essentially switch roles. In Your Arms sets Santos’ wryly sultry vocals against a strutting tune that builds to a subtly crescendoing waltz, winding out with a long, hypnotically vamping, pitchblende outro. For You is even more spare, Santos’ warm, balmy vocals paired against a minimalist four-note riff that throws off shards of overtones, especially when she hits a passionate chorus.

Santos keeps the stark ambience going through a raptly dynamic, then unexpectedly explosive take of the classic Mexican folk song La Llorona. Old Hill, another waltz, has a wistful front-porch folk feel grounded by the celllo’s ambered tones. The album winds up with an absolutely knockout, creepy, noisy cover of Kotorono’s Little Boat. The original has a deadpan ominousness: here, Santos teams with Kotorino bandleader/guitarist Jeff Morris, building to a skronk-infested, murderous peak. It’s a cool blend of grit, elegance and raw intensity that aptly capsulizes a captivatingly individualistic debut release.

A Killer Debut Album and a Show Uptown by Charming Disaster

Guitarist/pianist Jeff Morris is the mastermind behind mighty, darkly harmony-fueled art-rock/circus rock/noir cabaret/salsa swing band Kotorino. Ellia Bisker plays ukulele and fronts catchy, lyrically driven indie pop band Sweet Soubrette. Together they are Charming Disaster, whose new album of murder ballads, Love, Crime & Other Trouble – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most twistedly delicious noir albums of recent years. They seem to have had so much fun making it that they ended up bringing in most of Kotorino in the process. Charming Disaster’s next show is on Jan 27 at 8 PM at Silvana on 116th St., down the hill from Morningside Heights, about a block from the C train.

Two things immediately distinguish Charming Disaster from the many other would-be hitmen with murder ballads. Where so many of those songs come out of the folk and country traditions, Charming Disaster’s are more urban, and urbane. A closer listen reveals little Raymond Chandler-esque vignettes with all kinds of unexpected narrative twists and ghoulish humor that manages not to be campy. Bisker’s ability to change her voice to suit the song, whether with a petulant hint of New Jersey or a brassy oldtime swing delivery, informs how she channels the various dangerous dames here.

The opening track, Ghost Story, begins with a gorgeous interweave of guitar and uke and rises toward Spectorish proportions as Bisker unveils a tale about a woman who’s haunted by not one but two ghosts, and how everybody got to where they are, dead or alive. Ocean City comes across as a more skittish, shuffling take on what Springsteen captured in another low-budget coastal town, pushed along by Mike Brown’s bass and Jerome Morris’ drums.

With its tinkling saloon piano, the Weimar blues-tinged Showgirl is a duet, a wickedly sardonic tale that reminds that corruption in the NYPD goes way, way back. Wolf Song recasts 80s goth rock as a delicate acoustic nocturne with a big brass-fueled crescendo from trombonist Cecil Scheib and trumpeter Jesse Selengut. Artichoke blends ghoulabilly with Romany jazz and noir cabaret in a Tom Waits vein. One of the best tracks here, Secretary, paints a ghoulish picture of a real femme fatale over an eerie staccato guitar bounce a la Iggy’s The Passenger: this girl always smells like smoke even though she’s never been known to step out of the office for one.

Morris and Bisker intertwine voices on Grifters, a cynical Depression-era con artists’ tale set to another ominously swinging, Waits-flavored shuffle. They pick up the pace with the roaring, punk-flavored, grisly Osiris, an aptly shapeshfitting number and the album’s most straightforward track. They keep the energy at knife’s edge with Deep in the High, a cruelly carnivalesque number about a couple unraveling fast.

The most suspenseful track here is Knife Thrower, a lushly menacing look at the symbiotic relationship between a carnival couple with some gorgeously deep-sky steel guitar from Morris. The album winds up with the uneasy I Know You Know, a bittersweet love song with a dark undercurrent. If you aren’t hooked on this by now, there’s no hope for you. You should also grab the band’s 2013 debut single, Murderer b/w East River Ferry Waltz, a free download also up at their Bandcamp page.

Lush, Resonant Chamber Pop from Ukulele Tunesmith Sweet Soubrette

Ellia Bisker’s eclectic tunesmithing has recently taken a deliciously lurid, noir direction. Most recently, she’s joined forces with Kotorino frontman Jeff Morris, playing his femme fatale foil in that menacing circus-rock band as well as in the more stripped-down but equally dark duo Charming Disaster. So it’s no surprise that she’d color the songs on Burning City, the new album by her other project, Sweet Soubrette, with punchy brass and enigmatic, ominously hovering strings. Bisker has also taken her vocals to the next level: she’s got a lot more power and resonance in the lower registers these days. Her band here is excellent. Bisker plays uke, with Heather Cole on violin, Stacy Rock on piano, Bob Smith on bass, Mike Dobson and Don Godwin alternating behind the drum kit along with Erin Rogers on tenor sax, Carl Scheib on trombone and John Waters on trumpet.

Stylistically, the songs run the gamut. The opening track, Be My Man begins with an allusively latin feel and vamps up to to a vintage disco groove. The intriguingly moody, swaying chamber pop title track could be about the Arab/Israeli conflict, or citizens versus gentrifiers in New York City, or warfare in general. Charlatan, a piano ballad, offers an intriguing glimpse of a hardworking fortune teller who might or might not be the real thing. The catchiest, most upbeat number here is Just Your Heart, building to a coyly pulsing second-generation Motown vibe.

Homing Pigeon, which is just uke and violin, works an old country music trope, an endless series of variations on the same metaphor, Bisker running through the bird imagery for all it’s worth.  She does the same thing with electricity on Live Wire, which is a Pat Benetar-ish powerpop song disguised as eerily atmospheric chamber pop, and with stormy weather in Port in a Storm, a gently dancing country waltz. And Rock Paper Scissors gives the band the chance to work all kinds of neat dynamic shifts, back and forth between enigmatic, noirishly artsy pop and swirly circus rock. The remaining two tracks could have been left off and the album wouldn’t be any worse for it – top 40 is top 40, no matter how tasteful the arrangements or playing. Bisker plays the album release show for this one tonight, November 24 at 9 PM with excellent noir cabaret band Not Waving But Drowning opening at 7:30 at the Jalopy; cover is $10.