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Tag: jenifer jackson

Haunting, Uneasy Psychedelia from Matt Kanelos

Matt Kanelos is one of New York’s most sought-after pianists. He’s half of Carol Lipnik‘s haunting Ghosts in the Ocean project, plays with psychedelic Americana chanteuse Jenifer Jackson and Canadian gothic bandleader Lorraine Leckie as well as in sardonic jazz guitarist Jon Lundbom‘s band. Kanelos’ original songs are as smart and distinctive as the artists he shares the stage with. His new album Love Hello – streaming at Bandcamp – is a masterpiece of pensive, allusively lyrical psychedelia. To paraphrase one of his bandmates (guess which one!), it’s part hypnotic Wilco Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, part metrically tricky, artsy Radiohead and part Terry Riley in ultra-minimalist mode.

Kanelos alternates between keyboards and guitars on this album, with a core band of Kyle Sanna on guitar, Ben Gallina on bass and Conor Meehan on drums. The album’s starkly opening track Where the Seed Grows sets the stage, Kanelos’ spare, lustrous piano lingering over a simple, distantly uneasy acoustic guitar pulse. It’s arguably the album’s most haunting cut:

I know the mountain and the shore
I don’t go there anymore
They’re fighting a ground war
I heard the message in the drum
I know the places they come from
I hit the wind chime with my thumb
I thought that it would give me some
I’ll wait for the wind to come

The second track, Wonderland is a variation on the same melodic theme, a psychedelic nocturne with similarly marvelous, sparse piano, hints of Americana and a slow descent into grey-sky atmospherics. Video Town, another variation, evokes Radiohead’s Pyramid Song with its rhythmically tricky vamps, wary ambience and long, insistent crescendo as it winds up and then out.

And the Line could be the Church at their most low-key covering Neil Young, a dusky, airy Indian summer theme lit up by Sanna’s casually intense tremolo-picking. By contrast, Island Animals has an eerie, surreal, noisy Daydream Nation anxiousness, a reflection on aging and imminent doom that morphs into a slowly swaying paisley underground vamp and then back up. “The country wears a green disguise and you’re spinning on the earth alone, no filter to protect your eyes, animals a headstone,” Kanelos intones.

The Brink mingles layers and loops of keys into a terse, nebulous lament that segues into a brief, slowly marching solo piano take of the Charles Mingus composition Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love. Earth Man is a broodingly sarcastic apocalyptic reflection set to a slow, stately, uneasily swaying rhythm, Gallina artfully raising the intensity with judiciously placed chords behind Kanelos’ chiming electric piano, blippy layers of keys and a chorus of wordless vocals. Kanelos ends the album with its most skeletal track, North, a guardedly optimistic mood piece. The cd comes in a cool full-color package with surreal, thought-provoking photos by Kanelos and Marie Lewis, an apt visual counterpart to the music. In its quietly provocative way, it’s one of the best albums to come over the transom here so far this year.

Jenifer Jackson Brings Her Austin Americana Sophistication to the Rockwood

Purist psychedelic pop polymath Jenifer Jackson released her full-length debut, Slowly Bright at the very end of the 90s, a mix of bossa nova, Bacharach and the Beatles that remains a landmark in that genre. But even on that album, there was a little Americana. In the years since, Jackson has ventured further into chamber pop and jazz, but the roots of those styles always had a pull on her. A move to Austin and a new cast of musicians to rival any group she’s ever worked with springboarded her latest shift deeper into vintage C&W sounds, TX Sunrise. It’s the prolific tunesmith/chanteuse’s eleventh release and one of her best, a clinic in how to make an album in a bedroom (or a living room) that sounds like it was recorded at Carnegie Hall. The sonics are so lush in places that it’s easy to forget that the instrumentation is practically all acoustic. She’s playing songs from it at the big room at the Rockwood on March 26 at 9 PM.

There’s never been anything quite like this before. A string section holds much of the sound aloft (multi-instrumentalist Kullen Fuchs gets credit for much of that), yet it remains raw and close to the ground, more like early ELO doing country than an enveloping, early 60s Owen Bradley countrypolitan production. Case in point: the upbeat country-chamber duet Paint It Gold. And the songwriting is classic Jenifer Jackson, straightforward and disarmingly direct yet constantly changing shape. The arrangements and musicianship have a lot to do with that: within the space of a single verse, there could be an acoustic guitar mingling with the strings, then a dobro solo handing off to Jackson’s own honkytonk piano (!), then the accordion picking up the tune and deftly passing it back to the dobro. That’s a play-by-play of what happens on Heart with a Mind of Its Own, a co-write with Dickie Lee Erwin, that could be a Kitty Wells classic from 1956 or so.

The album’s most down-home flavored song is Your Sad Teardrops, a sardonic honkytonk kissoff anthem with another deliciously spot-on saloon piano break from Jackson. The title track adds fluttery, rippling, psychedelic touches to a warmly evocative Tex-Mex shuffle. Likewise, Jackson’s easygoing but insistent acoustic guitar contrasts with the lullaby ambience of the accordion and string section on Easy to Live, which could be an outtake from her brilliant 2007 live-in-the-studio album The Outskirts of a Giant Town. When Evening Light Is Low evokes a ballad from that album, The Missing Time, its balmy nocturnal milieu grounded by a persistent unease, something that recurs again and again throughout many of the songs here.

As it does on Ballad of Time Gone By, which opens as a gentle country waltz, Jackson’s voice soaring up to some spine-tingling high notes before descending back to earth – and suddenly what could be bittersweet nostalgia becomes a distantly aching lament. The way she slowly and methodically unveils her images on the understatedly plaintive but driving anthem In Summer, from furtive animals on the lawn to a menacing sunset milieu, is viscerally haunting.

Much as an often surreal humor spices the arrangements, there’s a lingering sadness in much of her work, and that comes to the forefront in the best songs here. She’s done Nashville gothic memorably before; this time, she goes into southwestern gothic for On My Mind, with its spaghetti western horns, bluesy cello and accordion. Same deal with Picture of May, a creepy bolero that another singer might do luridly, but Jackson maxes out the menace with her dreamy delivery as the images grow more enigmatic and ominous. All Around builds a mood of quiet despair via a wintry seaside tableau set to flinty, anthemic backbeat rock that wouldn’t be out of place in the Steve Wynn catalog. And the most shattering of all the tracks is White Medicine Cloud, a bitter, war-torn lament driven by Jackson’s foreboding tom-tom work: the portait of a herd of buffalo reaching to comfort a newborn calf who is very unlike them is genuinely heartwrenching. As is the somber trumpet line that returns the song from reverie to sobering reality. Count this multi-faceted masterpiece as one of the very best albums of 2014 so far, up there with Rosanne Cash’s The River & the Thread, Karla Moheno‘s Time Well Spent and Marissa Nadler‘s July. It’s been a good year for women artists, hasn’t it?

Rosanne Cash Delivers Her Best Album Since Her Classic Black Cadillac

Rosanne Cash is one of those artists we take for granted. Another year, another tour, maybe another great album. So on one hand, her latest one The River & the Thread comes as no surprise. As a songwriter, her voice is wise, and knowing, and all too aware. On this one, both musically and lyrically, Richard Thompson is the obvious comparison – through imagery as loaded as a Civil War Gatling gun, Cash is always fighting off the gloom. As a singer, she just gets more and more nuanced: in the years since her last greatest shining moment, Black Cadillac, she’s using her resonant lower register a little more: Jenifer Jackson‘s recent work comes to mind. As expected, her husband and musical director John Leventhal’s guitar, bass and keyboard work is eclectic, and as subtle as the vocals, at the same time packing a soulful wallop. This is definitely the best thing Cash has done since 2006, which makes sense considering that the album revisits so many of the brooding themes that made Black Cadillac a genuine classic. Cash also has a New York show on Feb 22 at 7 PM at the Metrpoolitan Museum of Art, but it’s sold out. In the meantime, you can hear the album on Spotify.

The opening track A Feather’s Not a Bird sets the stage for most of what’s to come. Stark, noirish strings, minor keys and spare, bluesy lead guitar over a swaying beat anchor Cash’s litany of metaphors for a legacy that weighs heavily on her: “A feather’s a not a bird, the rain is not the sea, a stone is not a mountain but a river runs through me.” The Sunken Lands is more rustic – mandolin is the lead instrument – and reminds of Mary Lee Kortes, a narrative of toil and woe that could be set in the age of slavery…or the current age of near-slavery.

The ghost of Cash’s father continues to haunt her, particularly on Etta’s Tune, a bittersweet, vividly imagistic look at a conflicted family: “We kept the polished bass guitar, we kept the tickets and the reels of tape to remember who we are,” Cash recalls, with an understated anger for the loss of pretty much everything else. Then she switches gears with Modern Blue, a vintage 60s-style psych-folk number held aloft on a lush bed of acoustic guitars, like a Lee Hazelwood song but with better lyrics – and Carol Lipnik‘s swinging rhythm section of drummer Dan Rieser and bassist Tim Luntzel.

Tell Heaven sticks with the folk-rock, but more pensively, Cash assessing the dubious power of prayer: “The empty sky may never take our burdens,” she muses. The Long Way Home looks back to late 60s Jimmy Webb-style countrypolitan, and once again to Johnny Cash: “Summer rain was heavy, almost as heavy as your heart, a cavalcade of strangers came to tear your world apart.” Then World of Strange Design brings the Appalachian gothic back: it could be a harrowing tale of a returning soldier’s family falling apart, or simply a metaphorical tale about a guy who “Set off the minefield like you were rounding first.” Derek Trucks guests on guitar on that one.

With a string section (Dave Mansfield on violin and viola and Dave Eggar on cello) that begins pillowy and quickly turns ghostly, Night School is a haunted, restless look back at at a relationship that’s probably done for good: one of the most compelling things about Cash’s songwriting is that she always lets the images tell the story, tantalizing the listener and leaving open the possibility for multiple interpretations. By contrast, 50,000 Watts, a duet with Cory Chisel, employs layers and layers of guitars and electric piano in a jaunty tribute to gospel radio. The Nashville gothic reaches a peak with When the Master Calls the Roll, a death-fixated Civil War soldier’s tale. The album ends with Money Road, a mashup of fire-and-brimstone Bible imagery and 70s radio pop much in the same vein as Tom Petty’s Runaway. It almost goes without saying that this is one of the best albums of the year.

Yet Another Smart, Purist Album from Kim Richey

Kim Richey is one of those songwriters that Americana music fans take for granted. Every so often she puts out a new album, and it always ends up being pretty much what you’d expect: smart, impeccably crafted, with tasteful playing, lots of catchy hooks, plenty of detail and wise observations in the lyrics. Her latest one Thorn in My Heart is her seventh in a career that began in the mid-90s. Back then she was ahead of her time, someone who didn’t come out of country music but found herself a home there, more or less. Since then she’s circled closer around that center, every now and then selling a song to some New Nashville type. The viability of that business model having plunged so dramatically has put Richey out on the road more consistently, not such a bad thing since nobody does her songs as well as she does. She’s playing Joe’s Pub tonight with her band at around 10:15; tickets are $15 and are still available as of now.

As usual, Richey has surrounded herself with a cast of quality Nashville sidemen: the core of her touring band, guitarist Neilson Hubbard and mandolinist/multi-instrumentalist Dan Mitchell plus guitarists Will Kimbrough and Kris Donegan, bassist Michael Rinne and drummer Evan Hutchings, along with Wilco’s Pat Sansone (formerly of Jenifer Jackson’s band) on keys and Trisha Yearwood guesting on harmony vocals. Richey likes to write with people: as with her previous album, Hubbard gets a lot of co-writes here.

The title track is a terse midtempo backbeat country ballad that wouldn’t be out of place in the Tift Merritt songbook. “I’m fighting a battle with the undertow, it’s hard to hold your hand when you’re letting go,” the narrator grouses. Something More sets a brooding southern gothic narrative against spiky banjo and Sansone’s surreal funeral-parlor organ. And No Means Yes is an oldschool country cheating song in waltz time.

Angels’ Share, a co-write with the 1861 Project’s Thomm Jutz, builds a slow, summery, crying-in-your-beer ambience up to a bittersweet organ break: Lucinda Williams comes to mind. Richey has a couple more collaborations with Jutz here: I’m Going Down, an escape anthem with more bristling banjo, gospel piano and a trip-hop beat, and Everything’s Gonna Be Good, a slow, cautiously optimistic gospel-tinged ballad.

By contrast, the album’s best song, Come On – co-written with Mike Henderson – brings back the escape imagery over snarling guitar-fueled garage rock riffage. The other Henderson collaboration, Take Me to the Other Side, is also a gem, working its way up from a doomed Appalachian country-gospel theme. I Will Wait (written with Henrik Irgens) is sort of Richey’s Long Black Veil.

London Town, co-written by ex-bandmate Nate Campany, is a trip-hop song in disguise with tasty, moody trumpet fills interspersed amidst the jangle. And Richey moves to harmony vocals on the catchy Americana rock anthem Breakway Speed, a BoDeans-flavored collaboration with Mando Saenz with a wry Johnny Cash quote as its centerpiece. On one hand, Richey isn’t breaking any new ground here; on the other hand, it’s hard to imagine anyone else who mines a pensive acoustic-electric Americana vein as subtly and consistently well as she does.

Epic Art-Rock Brilliance from the Universal Thump

The Universal Thump’s debut album is finally out: it’s taken the Brooklyn art-rock band two years and three installments, culminating in this lavish, magnificently orchestrated double-cd set. If this album had been released in, say, 1975 – which it could have been, considering its ornately symphonic arrangements and trippy, epic sweep – it would be regarded as a classic today. That designation may have to wait awhile, but for now you can enjoy all eighteen inscrutably beautiful songs on one of the most herculean efforts from any band in recent memory.

One of the things that differentiates the Universal Thump from, say, Pete Gabriel-era Genesis, is the vocals. Frontwoman Greta Gertler reminds of a more serioso Kate Bush and has command of a whole slew of keyboard styles: poignantly artsy Paul Wallfisch-esque rock piano, slinky sly soul, and swirly, quirky 80s synth-pop. The band’s other core member is drummer Adam D Gold, who comes across here as a more terse, nimble Nick Mason (he also plays with intriguing postminimalist instrumentalists Build, and composed a number of instrumental interludes here). Guitarists Tony Scherr and Pete Galub both contribute sweeping, anthemic, David Gilmour-influenced lines, while the bass is handled by either Groove Collective’s Jonathan Maron or Ollabelle’s Byron Isaacs. There are also choirs, a midsize orchestra, and cameos by a long parade of artists from accordionist par excellence Rachelle Garniez to the Throwing Muses’ Tanya Donnelly.

Swimming sets the stage. It’s a bouncy pop epic with a bassoon trading licks with the string section, and a long, murky psychedelic break midway through. A characteristically towering ballad, Grasshoppers juxtaposes apprehension with majestically carefree piano. After an austere, atmospheric tone poem, they bring up the energy for the sweeping Honey Beat, which wouldn’t be out of place on REM’s Reveal album from 1999, that band’s lone and very successful venture into art-rock.

To the Border (Wild Raspberries) evokes the Snow with its balmy atmospherics lit up by twinkly woodwinds,  then shifting to solemnly stately chamber pop. Opening Night is the most dramatic yet maybe the most accessible song here, a carnivalesque take on late-period ELO with a mammoth backup choir, a tuba intro and even a sly baritone guitar solo from Galub: guess that’s just the way things are meant to be with that one. Another real knockout here is Linear Messages, gorgeous and pensive with elegant orchestral swells and a dark Balkan-tinged carnival interlude fueled by Garniez’ accordion. After another brief intermezzo (contributed by John Ellis on bass clarinet), they end the first disc with The Last Time, a distantly sad, slow ballad that sounds like a young, inspired Kate Bush taking a stab at Procol Harum.

The second disc wastes no time in setting an epic tone with Darkened Sky, driven at first by Gertler’s alternately austere and searching piano, then by Scherr’s guitar, which kicks off a long, hypnotically nebulous Rick Wright-style interlude that looms in and pushes the piano and vocals to the edge of the picture. Ban Melisma starts out funny and then gets dark fast, with more ominously sustained cumulo-nimbus guitar from Scherr. They blend Pink Floyd and trip-hop with Dwell, capped off by a tersely Gilmouresque Scherr solo, then switch to a lushly bubbly, period-perfect, artsy mid-70s disco vibe for Flora, an inspiring, true story of a komodo dragon who gave birth via parthogenesis.

Likewise, Teacher takes the not-so-easy life of a conservatory student and makes a parable out of it: Galub and Gold follow each other with an irresistibly cool series of guitar cameos, with a powerfully soaring lead vocal from guest Lucy Woodward. Snowbird, the most pensively direct number here, evokes Jenifer Jackson, Maron adding an understatedly soaring bass solo before the long, ominously psychedelic trail out begins. The album closes with Only an Ocean, a throwback to the jaunty ragtime-flavored songs that Gertler had so much fun with on her previous solo album Edible Restaurant, Garniez and violinist Zach Brock adding a jaunty vaudevillian edge. Those are just two of the literally hundreds of clever twists, turns, jokes and knife’s-edge moments throughout this luscious slab of vintage art-rock with a fresh flavor. The band encourages listeners to enjoy a slice of cake with ice cream between its four “chapters,” a suggestion worth considering. Like a lot of the A-list of New York bands, the Universal Thump have a wider global following than they do here (Gertler originally hails from Australia). They’re currently on US tour; the full schedule is here. You can also catch the band playing a delightful live set streaming on demand from WFMU.

Intriguing Vintage Sounds from Mary Lorson & the Soubrettes

Pianist/chanteuse Mary Lorson has a new album, Burn Baby Burn, with her band the Soubrettes. It’s an unassumingly charming, deceptively upbeat, pensively lyrical blend of oldtime-flavored Americana, sultry torch songs and jaunty purist pop. Lorson first rose to prominence back in the 90s as the frontwoman of Madder Rose, whose raw, moody blend of trip-hop and downtempo with rock instrumentation made them a cooler alternative to bands like Tortoise. She was a decent singer in that band, and later in Saint Low; she’s an extraordinary one now. Her voice is clear, unadorned, usually gentle and matter-of-fact, a quietly powerful vehicle for her allusively brooding songs, which reveal themselves slowly, with repeated listening: don’t go into this expecting to be able to make sense of it the first time through. On this album Lorson plays piano and guitar alongside banjoist/guitarist Leah Houghtaling and bassist Amelia Sauter, with contributions from Michael Stark on piano, Joe Novelli on lapsteel and AJ Strauss on horn on a couple of tracks.

The opening track, Busboy, sets the stage for what’s to come, Stark’s hypnotically pointillistic piano mingling with the banjo for a bell-like backdrop that mutes the grimly surreal, apocalyptic lyrics, delivered by Lorson with a deadpan coyness. That contrast between starry melody and bitter resignation recurs a little later on with Only One Number Two and its offhand Satie allusions. The album’s second track, Mancub, puts an oldtimey spin on an indie rock tune, with a blithe “bump bump badump bump” chorus over Kathy Ziegler’s swirling organ and a lyric about a guy who may not realize just how bizarre his life was on his way up. The lush, soul-infused ballad Lately wouldn’t be out of place in the Aimee Mann songbook; Houghtaling does a memorable job mimicking a violin’s pizzicato with her muted touch on the banjo.

The rustic, swirly nocturne River, with its lush blend of acoustic guitar, banjo, bass and organ downplays Lorson’s downcast vibe, while the catchy, matter-of-fact pop tune Bubble of Pretend evokes Greta Gertler in an especially theatrical moment. The hypnotic title track, its resonant lapsteel contrasting with boomy bass, creates a bucolically atmospheric milieu that reminds of Hem. By contrast, the upbeat country song Crystal Ball nicks a Jenifer Jackson lick: “Are you looking at me, I’m the only one in here,” Lorson asks enigmatically.

These Police, a ballad contrasting upper-register piano with Lorson’s finely nuanced, torchily wounded vocals, looks at the consequences of exhausting yourself to please others who probably couldn’t care less. The inscrutably seductive, pulsing, cabaret-flavored Let ‘Em Eat Little Debbie Cakes asserts that “Marie Antoinette never made that crack about the poor and their petits fours for breakfast.” The album winds up with its only cover song, I Don’t Care, brassy tune punctuated by big ghostly flurries of guitar, brass and backing vocals. This was the signature song for Eva Tanguay, proto-flapper feminist, vaudeville star and contemporary of Sophie Tucker and Mae West. But rather than channeling the lyrics’ impunity, Lorson delivers it wistfully, as if she really does care and has taken a beating for that. It’s an apt way to close this thoughtful and thought-provoking album.

Thanks for the Memories, Lakeside Lounge

Lakeside Lounge has been sold and will be closing at the end of April. After just over fifteen years in business, the bar that defined oldschool East Village cool will be replaced by a gentrifier whiskey joint, no doubt with $19 artisanal cocktails and hedge fund nebbishes trying to pick up on sorostitutes when their boyfriends are puking in the bathroom – or out of it.

Lakeside opened in 1996 [thanks for the correction, everybody] in the space just north of the former Life Cafe on Ave. B north of 10th Street in the single-story building between tenements that had previously housed a Jamaican fried chicken takeout restaurant. It was an instant hit. Owners Jim Marshall (a.k.a. The Hound, an astute and encyclopedic blues and soul-ologist with a great blog) and Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (of the Del-Lords, and eventually lead guitarist in Steve Earle’s band) had a game plan: create a space that nurtures artists rather than exploiting them as so many venues do. And they stuck to that plan. Before long, Lakeside had become a mecca for good music. For several years, there was literally a good band here just about every night with the exception of the few holidays when the bar was closed. Artists far too popular for the back room would play here just for the fun of it: Earle, Rudy Ray Moore, Graham Parker, John Sinclair, the Sadies, Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby all had gigs here, some of them more than once. Dee Dee Ramone hung out here and eventually did a book signing on the little stage in the back, with people lined up around the block. Steve Wynn had a weekly residency here for a bit (which was amazing). The place helped launch the careers of countless Americana-ish acts including Laura Cantrell, Amy Allison, Mary Lee’s Corvette, Megan Reilly, Tom Clark & the High Action Boys, Tammy Faye Starlite and Spanking Charlene and sustained countless others through good times and bad. And as much as most of the bands played some kind of twangy rock, booking here was actually very eclectic: chanteuses Erica Smith and Jenifer Jackson, indie pop mastermind Ward White, punk rockers Ff and several surf bands from Laika & the Cosmonauts to the Sea Devils all played here.

As the toxic waves of gentrification pushed deeper into the East Village, Lakeside never changed. You could still get a $3 Pabst, or a very stiff well drink for twice that. Their half-price happy hour lasted til 8 PM. The jukebox was expensive (two plays for a buck) but was loaded with obscure R&B, blues and country treasures from the 40s through the 60s. Countless bands used their black-and-white photo booth for album cover shots. Their bar staff had personalities: rather than constantly texting or checking their Facebook pages, they’d talk to you. And they’d become your friends if you hung out and got to know them. Some were sweet, some had a mean streak, but it seemed that there was a rule that to work at Lakeside, you had to be smart, and you had to be cool.

But times changed. To a generation of pampered, status-grubbing white invaders from the suburbs, Lakeside made no sense. The place wasn’t kitschy because its owners were genuinely committed to it, and to the musicians who played there. It had no status appeal because it was cheap, dingy and roughhewn, and Ambel refused to book trendy bands. Had they renovated, put in sconces and ash-blonde paneling, laid some tile on the concrete floor, kicked out the bands and brought in “celebrity DJ’s” and started serving $19 artisanal cocktails, they might have survived. But that would have been suicide. It wouldn’t have been Lakeside anymore.

There won’t be any closing party, but the bands on the club calendar will be playing their scheduled shows. Ambel plays the final show at 9 on the 30th. Before then, stop in and say goodbye to a quintessential New York treasure.

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.

The 50 Best Albums of 2011

Randi Russo started hinting that she might go in a psychedelic direction ever since her 2001 noise-rock masterpiece, Solar Bipolar. With its swirling production, jaggedly assaultive guitars, sharply literate lyrics and rugged individualism, her latest one Fragile Animal tops the list in 2011. It’s got a roaring Middle Eastern epic, a long, hypnotic raga-rock interlude, jaunty Beatlesque psych-pop, all with the tunefulness and resolute defiance that have been her signature since her debut album in 2000. There’s literally not a single second-rate song on this album.

The #2 spot goes to another artist who first broke out right around that time. Jenifer Jackson’s new The Day Happiness Found Me is her most intimate, terse album so far, a blend of hypnotic tropical grooves, sultry oldschool soul and vintage country, and she’s never sung with more understated power. It’s a quiet knockout.

#3 doesn’t wait to get to the point: the Oxygen Ponies’ third album, Exit Wounds is a vitriolic, lyrical masterpiece of post-Velvets songwriting. Frontman/songwriter Paul Megna pillories a generation of self-absorbed, entitled brats in these bitter, hypnotically catchy, meticulously arranged art-rock songs.

The rest of the list is only the tip of the iceberg. For the sake of brevity – if you buy the suggestion that a list of fifty albums could possibly be brief – this one cuts off at that number. Because New York Music Daily is basically a rock blog, there’s no jazz or classical on this list to speak of (for an intriguing list of the year’s 25 best jazz albums, visit NYMD’s sister blog, Lucid Culture). And since there were probably over a million albums released worldwide this past year, you shouldn’t read anything into whether an album might be rated #1 or #50 – if it’s good enough to be anywhere on this list, it’s got to be pretty incredible.

4. Mary Lee Kortes – Songs from the Beulah Rowley Songbook ep. The Mary Lee’s Corvette frontwoman came up with a fictitious alter ego from the 1930s and 40s who wrote in as many diverse, harrowing, literate styles – this is her “long lost debut.”

5. Roulette Sisters – Introducing the Roulette Sisters. This is actually the charismatic oldtimey quartet’s second album: Mamie Minch, Meg Reichardt, Karen Waltuch and Megan Burleyson romp through a characteristically entertaining, innuendo-driven mix of oldtime blues, country and novelty songs.

6. Ansambl Mastika – Songs & Dances for Life Nonstop. The Brooklyn Balkan uproar may not be playing as many shows lately, with their frontman concentrating on Raya Brass Band, but this scorching mix of every style from the old Ottoman empire is as exhilarating as gypsy music can possibly get – Gogol Bordello, watch out.

7. Beninghove’s Hangmen – debut album. Noir soundtrack music from a bunch of guys with jazz chops, punk attitude and off-the-scale raw intensity: best debut album of 2011 by a longshot.

8. Steve Wynn – Northern Aggression. The legendary noir rocker adds a little swirly dreampop to his noisy guitar duels and haunting portaits of life among the down-and-out.

9. Spottiswoode – Wild Goosechase Expedition. The literate art-rocker’s critique of the perils of life during wartime is spot-on and amusing as well. This sprawling, psychedelic, Beatlesque effort is a career best, and the band is scorching.

10. Ward White – Done with the Talking Cure. The literate powerpop tunesmith keeps putting out snarky, wickedly catchy albums – in a year where Elvis Costello didn’t put out any, this makes a good substitute

11. Trio Tritticali – Issue #1.Violinist Helen Yee, violist Leanne Darling and cellist Loren Dempster’s original mix of Asian, Middle Eastern and tropical themes is as intense and intricately interwoven as it is ambitious.

12. Hazmat Modine – Cicada. The minor-key blues/reggae/klezmer psychedelic outfit’s third album might be their strongest and most eclectic to date, with input from Gangbe Brass Band and Natalie Merchant.

13. Karen Dahlstrom – Gem State. The Bobtown multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, an Idaho native, reached back for a haunting, intense late-1800s western Americana vibe on these evocative original songs.

14. The Threeds Oboe Trio – Unraveled. Three oboes (and sometimes French horn) playing tongue-in-cheek new arrangements of Michael Jackson, the Doors, Stevie Wonder, Piazzolla and Little Feat – this might be the funniest and most original album of the year.

15. Carol Lipnik -M.O.T.H. The queen of Coney Island phantasmagoria delivers her most lushly creepy album yet.

15. Dina Rudeen – The Common Splendor. The retro soul songwriter, backed by a first-class band, go deep into a late 60s vibe for these evocative three-minute portraits.

17. Evanescent – debut album. This is the Moonlighters’ Bliss Blood plus guitarist Al Street doing her torchiest, most noir songs ever. Free download.

18. Les Chauds Lapins – Amourettes. The charming, coy French chanson revivalists broaden their scope with this lushly orchestrated, unselfconsciously romantic collection.

19. Marianne Dissard – L’abandon. The French rocker (and documentary filmmaker) works every southwestern gothic angle she can find on this surprisingly diverse, snarling, intensely psychedelic new album.

20. Elisa Flynn – 19th Century Songs. Like Karen Dahlstrom (#13 above), Flynn has a great eye for images, an amazing voice and an ear for a great tune – this album is considerably more diverse, and just as dark.

21. Dollshot – debut album. Brother/sister Noah and Rosalie Kaplan (tenor sax and voice) lead this creepy, improvisational group, putting a sometimes devious, sometimes twisted new spin on classical art-songs.

22. The Universal Thump – Chapter Two. Keyboard goddess Greta Gertler’s lush art-rock band’s second ep in a year is as richly tuneful, playfully quirky and and anthemic as their first one.

23. Mark Sinnis – The Undertaker in My Rearview Mirror. The baritone crooner who fronts Ninth House offers his most morbid, rustic Nashville gothic release to date.

24. Edward Rogers – Porcelain. The British expat tunesmith has never been more eclectic, more acerbic or more relevant throughout this mix of retro glam, art-rock and new wave with his amazing band.

25. Hungrytown – Any Forgotten Thing. The duo of Rebecca Hall and Ken Anderson add a deliciously off-kilter psychedelic folk edge to Hall’s dark, brooding songs.

26. Frankenpine – The Crooked Mountain. The New York bluegrass band push the envelope with a mix of upbeat original numbers and creepy ballads as well as a detour into gypsy jazz.

27. Robin O’Brien – The Empty Bowl. Her first album of new songs since the 90s, the dark soul/folk/rock chanteuse is at the absolute peak of her unpredictable power.

28. Pinataland – Hymns for the Dreadful Night. The best album to date by the Brooklyn “historical orchestrette,” a lavishly orchestrated mix of Americana and rock with a biting and spot-on historical edge.

29. Aunt Ange – Olga Walks Away. A concept album about an acid trip, straight out of the 60s, with a creepy gypsy punk edge to match – one of the year’s most original releases.

30. Rahim AlHaj – Little Earth. A protege of legendary oud player Munir Bashir, AlHaj spans the globe with styles from Iraq, Egypt and the Appalachians, backed by a global supporting cast.

31. A Hawk & a Hacksaw – Cervantine. A Neutral Milk Hotel spinoff (how many of those are there, about fifty?), these folks do rustic, intense gypsy romps as well as anyone else. Their show last summer at the Bell House was killer.

32. On – Box of Costumes. Hard to believe that there are only two guys – a guitarist/singer and drummer/keyboardist – in this dark, artsy Israeli rock band.

33. The Jolly Boys – Great Expectations. The legendary Jamaican mento band went out on a high note with this clever mix of pop and punk covers, their first release since the 70s.

34. Trio Joubran – Asfar. The three Palestinian oud-playing brothers turn in a haunting, austere, elegaic suite of instrumentals with flamenco tinges.

35. Marissa Nadler – 5th album. The mistily captivating dark acoustic rock chanteuse goes into Americana further than ever before, with excellent results.

36. Shusmo – Mumtastic. Palestinian buzuq player Tareq Abboushi’s funky, psychedelic Middle Eastern/jazz/rock unit is catchy and politically spot-on throughout this diverse debut album.

37. Loga Ramin Torkian – Mehraab. The Iraqi/Canadian multi-instrumentalist takes a hauntingly successful trip into hypnotic dreampop/electronic territory.

38. American Modern Ensemble – Star Crossing: Music of Robert Paterson. All together, this suite of new instrumentals – mostly for flutes and percussion – is intensely cinematic and totally noir.

39. See-I – debut album. The Washington, DC roots reggae act mix tons of woozy dub and a little dancehall into their trippy rootsy grooves.

40. Pistolera – El Desierto y la Ciudad. Divided into a bustling city side and hypnotic, apprehensively dark desert side, the New York-based janglerockers explore the immigrant experience with typically hard-hitting intensity.

41. Terakaft – Ishumar. The Malian desert blues band deliver their hardest-rocking collection of grooves ever.

42. The Mast – Wild Poppies. Singer/guitarist Haale and virtuoso percussionist Matt Kilmer team up for a wary, psychedelic mix of indie rock with Middle Eastern tinges and an uncompromising lyrical intensity.

43. Aram Bajakian’s Kef – debut album. Lou Reed’s lead guitarist, when he’s not on the road, leads this intriguing electic band who play new verisons of classic Armenian themes.

44. Taj Weekes & Adowa – Waterlogged Soul Kitchen. The roots reggae star is his usual politically-charged self on this mix of warm grooves and ferociously insightful anthems.

45. The Rudie Crew – This Is Skragga. Always a great live band, these ska party monsters proved they can do it in the studio too with this one.

46. The Funk Ark – From the Rooftops. Afrobeat from Washington, DC: slinky latin vamps, ferocious Ethiopian themes and good-natured, oldschool funk.

47. CSC Funk Band – Things Are Getting Too Casual. The Brooklyn psychedelic funk band mix Afrobeat and Celtic sounds into their danceable blend. Free download.

48. Christopher O’Riley & Matt Haimovitz – Shuffle Listen Repeat. This is pianist O’Riley’s third album of classical-style piano versions of rock songs; this time, he found his noir muse in the music of Hitchcock film composer Bernard Herrmann.

49. Karikatura – Departures. Latin grooves, flamenco guitar, gypsy tunes, an amazing horn section and smart, socially conscious lyrics, just as good on record as onstage.

50. The Rough Guide to Bellydance, 2nd Edition. The second one is even better than the first: it’s a mix of who’s who in levantine instrumentals over the last 30 years.

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.