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Tag: jessie kilguss review

Jessie Kilguss Brings Her Plaintively Jangly, Brilliantly Catchy Tunesmithing to the East Village

You might wonder why this blog waited til now to mention the killer twinbill back in mid-July at Hank’s Saloon with Jessie Kilguss and an early but auspiciously dark incarnation of Karla Rose & the Thorns. The answer is that Kilguss, whose best project is her own band, is also in demand as a harmony vocalist. Shortly after that gig, she went on an extended European tour with Freddie Stevenson and the Waterboys. But she’s back, and has a gig at around 8 on Nov 10 at Hifi Bar.

Kilguss is as brilliant a singer as she is a tunesmith. Her speaking voice alone has more liveliness and color in it than most people can evoke singing at full throttle – there’s a rippling undercurrent of unselfconscious joy, as if she’s got an irresistibly funny secret to share. Her singing voice has that same unaffected warmth, with a hint of Americana twang or bluesy poignancy depending on the lyric or the character she’s portraying (a strong and quite successful acting background informs her style). As a songwriter, she resists easy resolutions, deftly building the tension in a phrase until she really needs to bring it in for a landing, with often breathtaking results. Behind her, a tight, purposeful janglerock band plays her pensive, typically midtempo songs.

She opened that set at Hank’s with the catchy but gently shattering title track from her most recent album, Devastate Me, a quiet account of the heartbreak to end all heartbreaks. Guitarist Jason Loughlin imbued I’m Your Prey with some unexpected roar and grit over Rob Heath’s tumbling drums in contrast to Kilguss’ wounded ingenue vocals. Then she brought the lights down with a wistfulness just short of fullscale longing, throughout the catchiest song of the set, Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight, inspired by both the Alexandra Fuller memoir as well as Kilguss’ rural Massachusetts childhood.

Bassist John Kengla set a hypnotic ambience on the next number, rising from distantly Indian-tinged resonance to bouncy folk-rock. Loughlin’s deep-space quasar leads pulsed through the Anglian folk noir of Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet, then the band mashed up honkytonk and Lou Reed gutter-glam with Tennessee, an unlikely but strangely successful blend. From there they hit a pounding, tense straight-up rock groove with the gloomy Civil War narrative March to the Sea. They stuck with the same beat for the song after that, Loughlin’s crashing, bell-like chords a welcome antidote to the noisy crowd (no surprise, this being Hank’s – people go there to tie one on). After the subdued melancholy of You Didn’t Do Right By Me, they closed with the most epic song of the night, the towering Ten Stories High and its 80s grand guignol. After wrapping up a similarly epic tour, it’s a good bet that Kilguss will be psyched to be back on her own turf, singing her own songs.

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.

An Understatedly Devastating Masterpiece and a Bowery Electric Album Release Show from Jessie Kilguss

What’s the likelihood that two of the best albums of 2014 would be released within an hour of each other on the same night at the same venue? Unlikely as that might seem, it’s happening this Nov 11 at Bowery Electric when dark Americana songwriter Jessie Kilguss kicks off the night at 8 PM with the album release show for her latest one, Devastate Me (streaming at Spotify). And her crowd has the good luck to be able to stick around and see Ward White play the release show for his similarly tuneful, menacingly literate new album Ward White Is the Matador about an hour later. If that’s not enough ominously lyrical rock for you, Matt Keating is playing at 10. It’s hard to think of a better triplebill in this city this year – and it’s only ten bucks.

Kilguss has made other good albums, but this is her quantum leap. The title is apt, but in a quietly devastating way. Kilguss’ voice has a matter-of-factness that gives her wounded narratives an intensity that’s all the more shattering for its nonchalance, through an understatedly riveting mix of crescendoing, jangly, purist Americana rock and Nashville gothic tunesmithing.

The title track sets the stage, guitarist Jason Loughlin, bassist John Kengla and drummer Rob Heath keeping a terse, even skeletal pulse as Kilguss builds her narrative to a sudden, creepy noir chord change and then the soaring chorus where the layers of guitars begin to build. The band adds all kinds of artful touches, from how Kilguss sails all the way to the top of her range as the chorus kicks in, to where the glockenspiel takes it out.

The album’s best song – and one of the best songs of the entire year – is Red Moon. It could be a Civil War tale, or a present-day account of freedom fighters on the run from the gestapo, fueled by Loughlin’s searing slide work. And it’s all the more powerful for Kilguss’ portrayal of the political as personal:

If you want a happy ending
It depends on where you stop your story
Me, I started at the top
I’ve been working my way down
Such a long way down

I’m Your Prey is the biggest rock anthem here, again following a steadily upward trajectory as Kilguss gives voice to a girl who couldn’t resist temptation even while she was staring trouble straight in the eye. The muted sadness and longing in her voice on the wistful Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight – referencing the Alexandra Fuller memoir- will rip your face off, crepuscular organ mingling with the web of guitars underneath. And You Didn’t Do Right By Me takes an old country waltz theme and makes purist janglerock out of it, ending with an achingly vivid blend of wordless vocals and slide guitar.

A Safe Distance From You keeps the noir atmosphere going, from its opening bass/drums pulse to its big, anthemic chorus and choir of ominously reverberating slide guitars – again, Loughlin keeps the flames flickering with an intensity to match Kilguss’ voice. Likewise, Train Song works lingering, nocturnal, Pink Floyd resonance all the way to a big psychedelic outro. “It’s a beautiful day to lose control, leave this life for a little while,” Kilguss muses, leaving the listener to figure out what she means by that. The final track, City Map builds a moodily dreamy, resigned midsummer ambience, her narrator’s placemap defined by”people I’ve loved, victories and their declines.” All of this proves that it’s actually possible to transition from the theatre to music – as an actress, Kilguss has shared the stage with Marianne Faithfull, among others.

Jessie Kilguss: State-of-the-Art Gothic Americana

If gothic Americana is your thing, singer Jessie Kilguss is someone you need to know. Friday night at the American Folk Art Museum, she made a point of telling the crowd that she usually plays a lot louder. But it didn’t matter: Kilguss and her four-piece band adjusted effortlessly to the spacious sonics there and brought down the lights, raising the menacing intensity that runs beneath the surface of her songs.

Beyond the attractiveness and singalong catchiness of the tunes, there’s a persistent unease and occasional savagery. Anger and betrayal are recurrent themes in her songwriting, as they are for so many Nashville gothic types, but Kilguss distinguishes herself by getting a lot of mileage out of implying that doom and despair rather than throwing it in your face. “Lately I’ve been really quiet,” she sang with a bittersweet restraint on the anthemic, backbeat-driven janglerock number that opened the set, her drummer playing with brushes, the guitarist throwing off an artful spiral from the frets of his vintage Telecaster as they lit into the second verse.

“If you want a happy ending, it depends on where you stop your story,” she mused a little later in the set, over a slowly swaying, moodily resonant groove. “Me, I started at the top, I’ve been working my way down, such a long way down, it’s a long way down [an Orson Welles reference, by the way].”  Her voice brightened, but just a little, on the warmly bucolic waltz that followed, an understatedly brooding reminiscence of being let down, probably for the umpteenth time.

“Maybe it’s better than I stay – a safe distance from you,” she intoned over a more insistent minor-key backdrop a little later, the bass playing a blues riff as the guitar jangled nebulously before hitting a growling peak on the chorus. They picked up the pace with a soaring anthem – possibly titled Don’t Let It Go to the Dogs Tonight – before getting quiet again with the Train Song. Most bands do a railroad theme with a clickety-clack rhythm, but Kilguss is more counterintuitive: the band kicked this one off with a trip-hop beat before cleverly shifting into a slow shuffle. They wound up the set with the vengeful murder ballad Hell Creek, “The creepiest song I’ve ever written,” Kilguss told the crowd.

She’s got an interesting backstory: she got her start in the theatre before dedicating herself to music more or less fulltime about seven or eight years ago. And while she’s not a stagy performer, she’s comfortable on it, swaying in her red dress (brighter than blood-red, but the symbolism seemed pretty obvious), her eyes closed, meticulously giving voice to the angst-ridden characters in her narratives. Those interested in catching her and the band at full volume can do that tonight at 7 PM at the small room at the Rockwood.