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Tag: jessie kilguss

Mara Connor Brings Broodingly Catchy Tunes Back to Her Old Williamsburg Haunts

Mara Connor brought a catchy mix of subtly slashing, Americana-flavored songs along with other material and a talented Los Angeles-based band, making their New York debut on her old South Williamsburg turf at Baby’s All Right last night. Connor has a purist janglerock sense for catchy hooks and occasionally stinging lyrics: Jessie Kilguss is a good point of comparison. It’s a fair guess Connor has southern roots – there’s a twang in that voice, and a friendliness, Brooklyn soujourn or not. She now calls the left coast home after leaving the South 11th Street apartment she’d shared with a roommate, who was part of what appeared to be a sold-out crowd.

Too bad Connor’s acoustic guitar wasn’t in the mix for the first and best number of the night, No Fun. It wasn’t the iconic Stooges song – it’s the distantly noir-tinged, woundedly evocative new single from Connor’s forthcoming debut album. And it didn’t come together until the chorus kicked in and her lead guitarist hit his distortion pedal. Lana Del Rey, if you still haven’t gone off to where memes go to die, eat your heart out to this.

From there, it wasn’t all downhill. Connor’s originals were strong, as was one of the covers. That choice spoke volumes: an obscure, quietly scathing, gently circling Britfolk narrative, Fools Run the Game (was it Sandy Denny who did it the first time around?).

Connor followed the hit single with a brooding, world-weary, reflective freeway tableau – Los Angeles will make you world-weary by thirty, no doubt. After a lowlit, downcast reflection on an ill-fated fling with a dissolute older guy here, she played a deliciously venomous kiss-off to a sensitive artist type who turns out to be just the opposite. As Mary Lee Kortes once said, “Never mess with a songwriter: we always get even in the end.”

Connor sings in a supple, subtle mezzo-soprano with more than a hint of bite. But when she goes up the scale, she strains. Having made her album at a famous corporate Nashville studio, there may have been people around her who pushed her to do something she’s not really comfortable with right now. There’s a duet with Langhorne Slim on the forthcoming record; choosing instead to play the song live with the girlyboy who’s arguably the wimpiest songwriter to come out of New York in the last twenty years was a big mistake. Is Lach still kicking around? That would have been an improvement.

What’s the future for artists like Connor? Her songs are catchy and memorable: you feel like you’ve lived in them. But until the corporate dinosaurs die off and the stadiums where they play revert to the public who financed them, singer-songwriters are going to have to make do with touring the City Wineries of the world, hawking t-shirts and vinyl (because that’s the only recorded music format left that can be monetized) at the merch table and Bandcamp, and maybe getting lucky with a movie placement or two.  Here’s wishing all that to Mara Connor.

The 50 Best Albums of 2018

This is a playlist – click on the links below to hear every album in its entirety.

The best album of 2018 was also one of the shortest. Songwriter Rose Thomas Bannister’s lushly orchestrated latest release, Ambition, is not the first time she’s written on Shakespearean themes, but it is by far her darkest and most relevant album. Originally commissioned for a dance adaptation of Macbeth, the song cycle deals with the most fundamental questions of evil and how to deal with it. Many of the characters in Bannister’s distantly sinister narratives make the worst possible choices at the most crucial moments.

Bannister, who made a name for herself with spare, poignant Great Plains gothic songs, has never written more psychedelically or diversely, or sung with as much nuance and power. From the creepy flurries of the title track, through the grim understatement of Lady M, themes of betrayal and revenge permeate these songs’ constantly shifting, intricate arrangements, Bob Bannister’s elegant lead guitar lines weaving along the central seam. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Beyond the next ten albums or so – the creme de la creme of 2018 – these albums are listed in rough chronological order of when they were received here (which often doesn’t coincide with actual release dates over the past few months). Sp there’s no hierarchical ranking, considering how many completely different styles are represented on the list. If an album is one of the year’s fifty best, it has to be pretty amazing.

Ward White – Diminish
Catcny, erudite, purist three-minute janglerock tunesmithing matched to a withering, cynical, relentlessly grim lyrical sensibility. No songwriter alive writes more allusively macabre stories than this guy,  Endless puns, double entendres, and gallows humor are everywhere. White’s most surreal, psychedelic album to date, Bob, got the nod here as best album of 2013; everything he’s done since is on that level, this one included. The list of artists with as formidable a body of work as White has are very few: Bowie, Elvis Costello and Steve Wynn are points of comparison. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Elysian Fields – Pink Air
Lush jangle and clang, propulsive new wave and haunting dystopic scenarios in what might be the best ever album in haunting singer Jennifer Charles and polymath guitarist Oren Bloedow’s majestic, artsy band’s twenty-plus year carer. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Kotorino – Sea Monster
Carnivalesque latin noir, circus rock, suspenseful cinematic narratives and creepy steampunk tales on this brilliant New York crew’s tersest, most crystallized album yet. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Michael Hersch – Violin Concerto; End Stages suite: International Contemporary Ensemble with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
The most harrowing recording of the year combines two macabre, microtonal pieces, the latter exploring the tortured, fitful final moments of terminally ill patients. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Ensemble Fanaa – their debut albun
Multi-reedman Daro Behroozi’s otherworldly Middle Eastern/North African jazz trio play slinky, hypnotic, rivetingly microtonal originals. Bassist John Murchison doubles on the gimbri bass lute; percussionist Dan Kurfirst plays both a full kit and a boomy daf frame drum. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Klazz-Ma-Tazz – Meshugenah
High-voltage violinist Ben Sutin’s wild, klezmer-jazz-rock jamband whirl through ferocious, epic remakes of Yiddish vaudeville and theatre classics from over the decades. One of the most adrenalizing albums released this year. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

No-No Boy – 1942
A catchy, jangly, harmony-driven Elliott Smith-tinged concept album tracing the injustices suffered by Japanese-Americans during and after their incarceration in US concentration camps during World War II. One of the year’s most savagely relevant albums. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

The Brooklyn Raga Massive – Ragas Live Retrospective
The most epic album ever featured on this page contains over six hours of classical Indian ragas, recorded live in the studio. A cast of some of this era’s best younger Indian music instrumentalists team up with jazz, Americana and rock musicians for some outside-the-box reinventions, from large ensembles to spare duos and trios. Some of this is pretty crazy; a couple of the tracks are bullshit, but the traditional stuff is consistently sublime. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Todd Marcus – On These Streets: A Baltimore Story
The world’s only bass clarinetist currently leading a large jazz ensemble wrote this withering suite in the wake of the murder of Freddie Gray, a mix of lavish, intense, sometimes Middle Eastern-tinged epics and quieter, more somber material. Commentary from community members and activists is interspersed between songs for added, troubling context. One of the most politically important albums of recent years. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Mehmet Polat – Ageless Garden
Sometimes haunting, sometimes kinetic, this collection of originals by one of the world’s great oudists and composers of Turkish music draws on Kurdish, Andalucian and flamenco sounds as well. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Greek Judas – their debut album
One of the craziest albums on this list is this mix of heavy psychedelic remakes of classic Greek rembetiko anthems, originally dating from the 20s through the mid-50s. Rembetiko was the music of the gangster underworld, Turkish and Cypriot immigrants, and freedom fighters battling dictatorships; its slashing Middle Eastern chromatics take on extra menace when played with heavy metal savagery, Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Drunken Foreigner Band – White Guy Disease
Another crazy update on a slightly more modern sound. The lead instrument in this epic instrumental psychedelic band is an electrified phin lute, which gives their stately Laotian folk themes a surreal, twisted new dimension. If Country Joe & the Fish had been Laotian, they might have sounded something like this. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Gordon Grdina’s Marrow – Ejdeha
The album title is Farsi for “dragon;” the fiery jazz oudist and guitarist and his haunting, careening band switch between darkly slinky original levantine themes and smoldering guitar jazz that veers into dark metal in places. Listen at Spotify

Bombay Rickey – Electric Bhairavi
With her unreal four-octave vocal range, accordionist/sitarist/keyboardist Kamala Sankaram  fronts this catchy, slinky, darkly psychedelic unit, who mash up cumbia, surf and Bollywood with devious flair. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Ben Holmes and Patrick Farrell – The Conqueror Worm Suite
A subtle but luridly vivid, klezmer and Balkan-tinged piece inspired by the macabre  Edgar Allen Poe short story, from the innovative trumpet/accordion duo. Listen at youtube.

Uncivilized Plays Peaks
Guitarist Tom Csatari and his careening ten-piece pastoral jazz outfit had the good sense to record their 2017 Barbes performances of these sprawling, darkly haphazard reinventions of iconic Angelo Badalamenti Twin Peaks themes, plus some choice originals. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores – The Opposite
Hypnotically circling, kinetic, phantasmagorical original Balkan psychedelic rock, bandleader Redfearn running his accordion through a series of effects pedals for some wildly swirling, enveloping sounds. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Eva Salina & Peter Stan – Sudbina
The renowned Balkan chanteuse and her pyrotechnic accordionist remake songs made famous by one of the greatest Romany singers of the 20th century, Vida Pavlovic, who was sort of the Edith Piaf of Romany music. Abandonment and heartbreak have seldom sounded so visceral. Listen at Spotify

The Lemon Bucket Orkestra – If I Had the Strength
Dark, edgy, wildly punk-inspired original klezmer anthems and dance numbers that draw on a hundred-plus years of Ukrainian, Russian and Lithuanian traditions. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp.

Gordon Grdina – Inroads
The great Middle Eastern jazz oudist and guitarist’s second album on this list features keys and alto sax rather than a string jazz lineup; it’s a little more sardonically funny and Sun Ra-like. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp..

The Michael Leonhart Orchestra – The Painted Lady Suite
The flight of a swarm of butterflies over the top of the world, all the way to Egypt, has never sounded more epic or cinematic. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin stars in this lavish, intense big band cycle of songs without words.  Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Twin Guns – Imaginary World
The latest album by these reverb addicts is slightly less Cramps-influenced, a bit quieter and more macabre than their previous mashups of horror surf and biker rock. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Electric Mess – The Beast Is You
These twin-guitar Brooklyn rockers channel the incendiary chromatic psychedelic punk attack of Australian legends Radio Birdman, with some of the most exhilarating fretwork of any album on this list. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sarah Bernstein’s Unearthish – Crazy Lights Shining
The microtonal violinist – one of the world’s great string jazz players and composers – teams up with percussionist Satoshi Takeishi for an otherworldly, acerbic mix of jazz poetry tableaux and eerily wafting miniatures. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Xylouris White – Mother
The brooding Cretan lyra player and Dirty Three drummer team up for a bracing, sometimes slashing thicket of Middle Eastern-tinged themes. Listen at Spotify,

Sigurd Hole – Encounters
The Norwegian bassist leads a frequently Middle Eastern-tinged string trio through a brooding series of nocturnes, dirges and more atmospheric pieces. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

SUSS – Ghost Box
Starry, eerily lingering, Twin Peaks-style guitar nocturnes, big-sky tableaux and the occasional detour into southwestern gothic themes. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Mary Halvorson – Code Girl
Amirtha Kidambi handles lead vocals on the perennially incisive guitarist’s deepest, most lavish plunge into artsy, shapeshifting, improvisationally-inclined, sometimes darkly humorous rock. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Alicia Svigals and Uli Geissendoerfer – The Beregovski Suite
The iconic klezmer violinist and film composer teams up with the German pianist to rescue these alternately moody and romping, decades-old klezmer themes collected on the eve of the  Holocaust by the great Russian musicologist. Listen at Spotify,

Qais Essar  The Ghost You Love
Incisive, often hauntingly poignant Afghani folk-tinged new instrumentals by this rising star composer and virtuoso of the rubab lute. Listen ad-free at his music page,

Maya Youssef – Syrian Dreams
A dynamic mix of relatively short pieces from one of the world’s most focused, purposeful players on the kanun – the magically rippling Middle Eastern zither. Listen at Spotify,

Satoko Fujii – Invisible Hand
The brilliant pianist celebrated her sixtieth birthday last year by releasing an album a month, including several riveting live sets. This solo performance is dark and dead serious, if hardly as horror-stricken as her Fukushima Suite, picked for best album of the year here in 2018. She improvises as purposefully and tunefully as anyone who ever lived. Listen at Spotify,

Thumbscrew – Ours
The second Mary Halvorson project on this list is the reliably edgy guitarist’s grittiest release this year, often drifting into the shadows for reverberating film noir ambience. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sean Moran – Sun Tiger
The guitarist’s trio with cellist Hank Roberts (who also appears on this list as part of another guitarist, Gordon Grdina’s band) and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza smolders and burns, with frequent detours into pastoral jazz.  Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sean Noonan – The Aqua Diva
The weirdest album on this list. Alex Marcelo puts a slightly out-of-tune piano to better use than you would think possible, maxing out the overtones in this bizarre mix of mythologically-inspired stream-of-consciousness poetry, darkly magical jazz, gospel and theatre music. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Women’s Raga Massive Compilation
The only reason that this is further down the list from the other compilation by the irrepressible Brooklyn Indian music collective is that it’s shorter – by about five hours. This mix of hypnotic, epic traditional performances along with rock and soul-tinged remakes of classic carnatic themes features seventeen of the women artists and female-fronted bands among the Raga Massive’s vast membership. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Bill Frisell – Music IS
This era’s preeminent jazz guitarist breaks out his trusty loop pedal for a characteristically tuneful, concise mix of pastoral themes, atmospherics, oldtimey melodies and noir-tinged cinematics. Listen at Spotify,

Elisa Flynn – The World Has Ever Been on Fire
The first-ever solo album by this historically-inspired, hauntingly soaring singer and multi-instrumentalist, with songs ranging from hypnotic, Radiohead-ish art-rock to jangly, toweringly angst-fueled anthems. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Lorraine Leckie – Live at Mercury Lounge
Further evidence that psychedelic bands should all be making live albums. The guys in this band seem so psyched to be playing these pulsing, Slavic-tinged themes that they’re jumping out of their shoes. There’s a sad backstory: this was the final show played by the late, great drummer Paul Triff. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Banda Magda – Tigre
A characteristically cinematic, mightily shapeshifting mix of Mediterranean psychedelia, coy French chanson, cumbia and lavish instrumentals by accordionist/multi-instrumentalist Magda Giannikou’s subtle, richly textured band. The theme is resilience in troubled times, inspired by the Greek struggle against European community bankster terrorism. Listen at Spotify,

Johnny Gandelsman – Bach: The Complete Sonatas and Partitas
It took the great Brooklyn Rider and Knights violinist eight years to finish recording this astonishingly dynamic album. The physicality, lithely dancing quality and Gandelsman’s signature, silken legato help explain why it soared to the top of the classical music charts. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The BC 35 compilation
In January of 2016, legendary producer and dark rock icon Martin Bisi held a marathon weekend session to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the revered Gowanus recording room, BC Studios, which he’d started while still in his teens. Many of the edgy rock acts he’s worked with since the 80s are featured on this vast collection of gothic, industrial, metalish and folk noir acts. Most notable is the first recording by 80s noiserock legends Live Skull. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Coolerators – Diggin’ Bones
Australian soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston leads this moody, carnivalesque, utterly individualistic  Monk-inspired organ jazz trio. Organist Alister Spence contributes deliciously smoky, Greg Lewis-tinged playing. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Mary Halvorson and Robbie Lee – Seed Triangular
The third and final Mary Halvorson project here is an acoustic-electric duo record with the brilliant, unpredictable guitarist playing vintage 18th century models in addition to her trusty electric, alongside multi-instrumentalist Lee. Pastoral jazz never sounded so unsettling and enigmatic. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Cliff Westfall – Baby You Win
If Elvis Costello had made an album of original country songs, it would have sounded something like this. The country crooner and songwriter writes period-perfect, aphoristic honkytonk and Nashville gothic tunes, spiced with lead guitarist Scott Metzger’s ferocious solos. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Jessie Kilguss – The Fastness
The title is a North Atlantic term for secret hideaway. The lustrous, soaring folk noir singer leads a concise, purposeful band through this brooding mix of rainy-day tableaux, new wave-tinged tunes and an offhandedly savage murder ballad. Listen at Spotify,

Amy Rigby – The Old Guys
Elvis Costello-class wordplay; broodingly silken Skeeter Davis-class vocals and a deeper drift into psychedelia than ever before from one of the most brilliant, hilarious, relevant tunesmiths of the past 25 years. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Edward Rogers – TV Generation
One of the world’s great voices in retro Britrock turns a withering eye on surveillance state fascism in this mix of artsy rock, spare acoustic ballads and Bowie-esque glam. Listen at Spotify,

Jen Shyu – Song of Silver Geese
A lavish, surreal, atmospherically haunting suite by the pan-Asian jazz multi-instrumentalist-singer. The nonlinear narrative follows the trail of the spirits of several friends, very young and somewhat older, whom Shyu recently lost. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Sleep  – The Sciences
Heavy psych album of the year. Who knew that these icons of doom metal would be completely undiminished – and surprisingly upbeat, and more psychedelic than ever – 25 years after they picked up where Black Sabbath left off. Listen at Spotify,

The Arcane Insignia – A Flawed Design
An all-acoustic string band playing vintage 70s style art-rock. Imagine ELO’s first album beefed up by an entire symphony orchestra, playing classic Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. After awhile it’s hard to figure out where one song ends and another begins, but it’s a hell of a song. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices – BooCheeMish
Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard and others from the rock world guest on the renowned Bulgarian women’s choir in this surprisingly upbeat mix of otherworldly, chromatically charged folk themes and originals in the same vein. Listen ad-free at Bandcamp

Poignant, Pensive Brilliance on Jessie Kilguss’ Allusive, Eclectic, Wickedly Tuneful New Album

You’d think that someone who’d taken a star turn in stage productions with Daniel Day Lewis and Marianne Faithfull would stick with a successful theatrical career. But Jessie Kilguss was drawn to music – and that’s our victory and the theatre world’s loss. Over the past decade, she’s become one of the most haunting singers in any style of music. Her delivery is intimate, like she’s letting you in on a secret – whether that might be a sly joke, an innuendo or something far more sinister. While she’s best known as a purveyor of folk noir, her back catalog spans from witchy art-rock to anthemic janglerock to Richard and Linda Thompson-esque, Britfolk-influenced stylings.

Her new album The Fastness – streaming at Spotify – is not about velocity. It’s about refuge. The title is a North Sea term for a secluded hideaway: a place to hold fast. That sheltering theme resonates mightily through a mix of imagistic, often poignant songs blending elements of 60s soul, 80s goth, new wave and art-rock. And Kilguss’ voice has never soared more mightily or murmured more mordantly than here on this album. She and her first-class band are playing the album release show this Thursday, June 28 at 8:30 PM at the downstairs third stage at the Rockwood; cover is $10.

With Kirk Schoenherr’s contrasting layers of guitar – icy and Siouxsie-esque in the left channel, watery and organ-timbred in the right – the album’s opening track The Master is an elegaic masterpiece. In usual Kilguss fashion, it’s enigmatic to the extreme. “Who will be the oracle when he is gone?” is the final refrain. A Bernie Sanders parable, maybe, or a more ancient, mythological reference? 

Kilguss follows that with Spain, a guardedly optimistic if understatedly brooding update on 60s soul balladry, spiced with guitar grit over the calmly swaying pulse of John Kengla’s bass and Rob Heath’s drums. Strangers comes across as a wistful mashup of Guided By Voices and Blondie, while Dark Corners of Your Mind follows a hypnotically vamping, psychedelic path, akin to the Frank Flight Band with a woman out front. Kengla’s bass dances amid the sheets of rainy-day guitars as Kilguss ponders the danger of being subsumed by the demands of a relationship.

New Start is a surreal, unlikely mashup of classic 60s C&W and echoey new wave, but Kilguss manages to make it work, all the way through one of the album’s catchiest choruses, awash in the waves from her harmonium. Hell Creek – a co-write with Kengla – is one of the murder ballads she writes so well. With its lingering atmospherics, Kilguss references current-day atomization and how its ramifications can do far more damage than just playing tricks with your mind.

Likewise, Rainy Night in Copenhagen has aptly echoey, Cure-like ambience. Bridge the Divide is the monster anthem here, an eerily propulsive Laurel Canyon psychedelic verse giving way to soaring new wave on the chorus.

What Is It You Want From Me is the closest thing here to Kilguss’ purist pop masterpiece Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, from her 2014 album Devastate Me. She winds up this cycle with with the metaphorically-loaded Edge of Something, an easy place to fall off one way or another. Another triumph for one of the most unselfconsciously brilliant tunesmiths to emerge from this city in recent years and a strong contender for best rock record of 2018.

Joshua James Brings His Gothic Americana to the Mercury Tonight

Joshua James plays a surrealistic 21st century take on Nashville gothic and folk noir. He likes minor keys and ominous nature imagery. The production on his new album, My Spirit Sister – not yet streaming at Bandcamp, but due there at the end of the month and serendipitously available on vinyl – manages to be sleek and digital without dulling the edge of James’ song cycle. There’s an understatedly symphonic sweep to what’s essentially a theme and variations. He’s got a gig tonight with his band at the Mercury at 8. If you didn’t already get your $15 advance ticket, it’ll cost you three bucks more, which is as pricy as that venue gets these days. But James is worth it.

The album’s indelibly catchy opening track is Broken Tongue. It’s like the shadow side of a 60s Simon and Garfunkel folk-rock hit, with shivery digital reverb effects on the many layers of guitars over a steady backbeat anchored by bassist Isaac Russell and drummer Timmy Walsh. In his flinty twang, the Nebraskan songwriter ponders alienation and the struggle to communicate through the debris of a lifetime worth of damage.

As the similarly brooding yet propulsive Coyote Calling moves along, the guitars of James and Evan Coulombe slash and stab through the digital haze: in a subtle way, it’s the album’s funniest song. It segues into Real Love, a creepy hitchhiking narrative which mirrors the opening track. Is the “mighty wind that’s gonna lift you up” a tornado, a fire-and-brimstone religious metaphor, or both?

The crushing, distorted electric guitars return in Golden Bird, a druggy, apocalyptic tale that unwinds amidst the contrast of high lonesome, reverbtoned guitar twang and a crushing, distorted chordal attack. James paints an understatedly cynical portrait of rural white ghetto nickel-and-diming: it’s like Tom Waits backed by Jessie Kilguss’ band.

In a swaying Wallflowers/Deer Tick rock vein, Pretty Feather is the first pop-oriented number here. Backbone Bend, which nicks the chord progression from a familiar Prince hit, strays further beyond Americana than any of the other tracks. Losin’ My Mind is a tasty reverb guitar-fueled update on vintage 60s acoustic Dylan. In Dark Cloud, James weaves a richly detailed story about a young couple hanging on by their fingernails: you can see the end coming a mile away, but it still packs  an impact. The cycle winds up with the Springsteen-folk of Blackbird Sorrow, which is a decent song, although the ending is too pat: dark clouds don’t usually vanish from the sky as fast and inexplicably as they do here. It’ll be interesting to see where James goes after this.

Lusterlit Bring Their Richly Lyrical, Creepy, Lynchian Rock to Bushwick

Multi-instrumentalists Susan Hwang and Charlie Nieland formed Lusterlit as a far darker spinoff of the Bushwick Book Club, a songwriting collective whose sprawling, global membership regularly contributes assignments based on a staggeringly diverse reading list of both fiction and nonfiction – they started with Vonnegut and then branched out from there. Musically speaking, Lusterlit compares most obviously to the Handsome Family, but switching out the Americana for more of an ethereal, gothic ambience. Lusterlit’s album List of Equipment is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’ve got a show at 9 PM this Wednesday, April 12 at the Well, 272 Meserole St. in Bushwick, Cover is $8; take the L to Montrose Ave. As a bonus, wry 70s style krautrock disco band Automaatio play afterward at 10. Cover is $8.

The duo hit the album’s first track, Ceremony, out of the park. It’s a long, creepy, ineluctably crescendoing, chromatically-charged Lynchian anthem inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Hwang’s voice slides up from low and understatedly menacing, growing more wrathful as the narrative shifts into more harrowing territory. She’s been a strong singer since her days as co-leader of the charming, eclectic trio the Debutante Hour with Maria Sonevytsky and Mia Pixley, but this could be the high point of her career so far. Behind the vocals, the two evoke a Phil Spector deep-space grandeur with their densely arranged, reverbtoned layers of acoustic guitar and synthesized strings.

The title track  – inspired by a Julia Child cookbook – is a jaunty noir cabaret piano tune, Hwang imagining her kitchen utensils as tools for more sinister purposes. As dark, quirky, artsy pop goes, it wouldn’t be out of place in the Changing Modes songbook. Nieland takes over vocals in The Day of the Triffids with a breathy, misterioso delivery against an enveloping, cumulo-nimbus backdrop punctuated by slowly tumbling John Barry film noir percussion.

The two concluding cuts draw on Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. Hwang makes quasi-hip-hop out of her litany of Middle American images from decades past in the first one, Flight: the chorus of Marlon Cherry, Leslie Graves, and another first-rate literary songwriter, Jessie Kilguss add distantly gospel-flavored harmonies. The second, Genius of Love, sends a shout to a couple of iconic new wave hits, Nieland taking the music forward fifteen years with a 90s trip-hop vibe. As with all the songs here, the lyrics are torrential: they come at you like refugees across the Syrian border. If there’s any album released this year that demands many repeated listens, this is it.

Another Killer Show in Brooklyn on March 24

Funny how crowds at the same event vary from one night to the next, isn’t it? February’s installment of Murder Ballad Mondays at Branded Saloon in Fort Greene was a mobscene. Last month’s was basically limited to  artists who’d played previous editions of the monthly celebration of twisted desire in song from throughout the ages. In a stroke of counterintuitivity, most murder ballads have traditionally been sung by men, yet most of the performers at Murder Ballad Mondays have been women. A necessary antidote? Karmic payback? Food for thought.

Ironically, despite the light turnout, this particular night was the best yet. Peg Simone opened, minimalist and inscrutable on piano, her back to the crowd. In a coolly enigmatic alto. she delivered a long, rainswept , eerily chiming noir blues. From there she segued into a hypnotically enveloping, quietly vengeful number, like Nico tackling Long Black Veil. Neville Elder of folk noir favorites Thee Shambels followed with a long, ghoulishly detailed Donner Party-inspired tale: Great Plains gothic as the Strawbs might have done it

Miwa Gemini reinvented the Nancy Sinatra hit Bang Bang from the point of view of a real femme fatale  And after playing the surrealistically Gun Club-ish, slide guitar-fueled coda to her Grizzly Rose song cycle, she decided that her imaginary muse doesn’t die in the end: she ends up being the killer.

Cello rock duo the Whiskey Girls – Patricia Santos and Tara Hanish – made their first New York appearance since a sizzling set here late last year, opening with tensefly syspenseful, stark minor-key blues and then a luridly menacing ba-bump latin swing tune, Not Anymore: “The view from the stage ain’t like the view from the floor,” Santos intoned ominously. If memory serves right, they also did a stark chamber pop version of the jazz standard Wild Is the Wind. And creepy parlor pop duo Charming Disaster – who host the night – treated the crowd to a gorgeously harmony-driven number with intricate call-and-response vocals and also a deadpan cover of a Foster the People cheeseball pop ditty. Guitarist Jeff Morris was game, even though his conspirator Ellia Bisker had to twist his arm to get him to play it.

All this capsulizes something you might not expect from Murder Ballad Mondays: it’s not just about dark storytelling or the comfort of imagining someone dead, most likely an ex. It’s about the tunes! The music here is every bit as good as the stories. This month’s performance – rescheduled to SUNDAY, April 24 at 8 PM – includes cameos by the brilliant, historically-fixated Elisa Flynn, haunting folk noir bandleader Jessie Kilguss, shortwave radio operator/pianist Steve Espinola as well as the hosts, who’ve been on a serious creative roll lately.

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.

Karla Rose & the Thorns Bring on the Shadows in Williamsburg Next Tuesday Night

Something like what you’re about to read might have happened at a Karla Rose & the Thorns show. In case you’re up for a night of shadowy suspense, the noir cinematic rockers are playing Grand Victory on December 15 at around 10. Charismatic, dark psychedelic rocker Vic Thrill, of the Bogmen, plays beforehand at 9; cover is $10

It’s an unseasonably cool mid-July night in Cobble Hill. Outside Hank’s Saloon, a black Hummer with matching windows takes the corner off Atlantic onto Third Avenue a little too close. The heavy tread of the right rear tire clips the edge of the sidewalk. The imposing military-issue 4X4 lurches briefly and pulls up on the right, past the bus stop. A trio of hooded figures exit through the passenger door, into the shadows, and make their way to the bar.

Inside, there are three separate crowds, or at least the makings of them. In the darkest part of the bar, to the left of the door, a similarly shadowy cadre of locals gathers in a semicircle closed off to the rest of the patrons. It opens just enough to let the newcomers in and then closes again. A package is underhanded, briskly and nonchalantly, to the contingent at the bar rail. That gesture will be reciprocated, just as matter-of-factly, moments later.

A gaggle of pretty women in their 20s, poised and professional in their office wear, takes over the middle of the bar. They’ve got steam to blow off, in resreve, glad the work day’s over. Laughing and smiling, they gather around the ponytailed brunette in the center and her vast gallery of phone photos. They’re here for the band, looking forward to a night of minor keys and distant menace.

Dark Americana singer Jessie Kilguss walks in through the side door with her band. Setting up onstage, singer Karla Rose puts aside her Telecaster and cables; the two share a quick hug. Casual and inscrutable in her black bangs, black slacks and dark top, Rose is Josie Packard to Kilguss’ shiny, red-dressed Donna Hayward. The latter will eventually battle a problematic sound system and an increasingly noisy crowd which becomes mostly oblivious to what’s going on at either end of the joint. Later in the week she will leave on a long European tour with the Waterboys.

At the front of the bar, two middle-aged men banter tensely. The silver-haired gentleman closest to the stage, Brooklyn born and raised and proprietor of a well known music blog, has the upper hand. His younger counterpart, dressed in black from his boots to the top of his late-zeros vintage Mets cap, isn’t having it. “I actually saw the Dream Syndicate,” he scowls. “Not the original Karl Precoda version, but the one after that.” It’s not implausible. That band first broke up in 1989; a teenager would have had no problem getting into CBGB in those days.

In front of him on the bar is a black backpack. Several times throughout the show, he’ll reach inside for something shiny and metallic, as if to make sure it’s still there. Del Shannon gets covered; this is a bar, after all. So do the Collins Kids, a crepuscular, blue-flame number where the bassist learns it on the spot. He has to – it’s his hook.

Rose’s Telecaster is too low in the mix, but her voice isn’t. She cuts the corners a lot better than that SUV. Slithery blue notes and melismas float through the PA: if there are ghosts in this place, they’re out now. In a momentary break between songs, the bartendress comes out from behind the bar to give Rose a hug. “What was that Wanda Jackson song you played?” she wants to know.

“That’s Lorrie Collins,” Rose smiles. Then she jangles through a handful of expansive jazz chords over the rhythm section’s misterioso syncopation. Rose is a proficient jazz singer, but that’s not a style she does in this band. The man in black stares in, completely stumped. Then Rose begins the first verse of the Motels’ Only the Lonely, faster and more straightforwardly but also with more nuance than the wounded, reflecting-pool soul in Martha Davis’ vocals on the original. This will be the only time that the man in black’s features will soften, but not fondly or wistfully The expression is sadness. Distant memories of an old girlfriend, maybe? More likely, someone who wasn’t a girlfriend. Hard guys and hard lives are not strangers.

Rose leads the band through a slow killers-on-the-run narrative, an allusively murderous tale set in a seedy seaside Mexican tourist trap town and a slow number that sounds like a reverb guitar theme from a John Barry spy movie soundtrack. Lead guitarist Dylan Charles plays sparse, evocative mid-60s Memphis blues licks, wisps of ghoulabilly and a little purist C&W along with endless volleys of chainsaw chord-chopping, a hailstorm of reverb blasting from his amp. Rose sings mostly with her eyes closed, swaying, lost in minor keys. The blogger waits for his moment, then tilts his camera and catches Rose in full profile as she looks back to signal to the drummer. Meanwhile, Kilguss has joined the guys at the front of the bar. The man in black whispers something in her ear. Kilguss laughs, a waterfall of sound in contrast to the grey, rain-drenched sonics lingering overhead.

The show is over sooner than anyone expects. Afterward, Rose engages her fan base midway down the bar, smiles at their new pix. The man in black approaches her, rolls his eyes; she shrugs. A minute later, she slides a drink down the bar; he nods appreciatively, but the scowl lingers. Then he walks out.

At the police precinct outside the shoddy new basketball arena about a quarter mile away, the sound in the area is being monitored for gunshots. A computer is doing the honors. The man in black passes the conspiratorial crew huddled just inside the door and makes his way outside. They pay him no mind. He reaches deep into the backpack as he approaches the Hummer. If there’s a sudden pop or two, it’s drowned out by the rumble of the diesel of the eighteen-wheeler moving slowly up Atlatnic, accelerating out of the light.

To be continued?

A Killer Murder Ballad Monday Coming Up in Brooklyn

What’s the likelihood of seeing two bands as brilliantly creepy as Bobtown and Charming Disaster on the same bill? And one of New York’s great lead guitarists, and one of the most distinctive banjo players on the planet, and a rising star in the cello-rock demimonde? It happened at the second installment of the new, monthly Murder Ballad Mondays series at Branded Saloon. It’s a salon held in a saloon – rather than an open mic, it’s a place for eclectic artists to prowl around in the darkest corners of the human psyche, pay homage to psychopathic urges in song from across the centuries, and work up new material in that hallowed tradition.

Charming Disaster – guitarist Jeff Morris from the estimable, phantasmagorical  latin noir/art-rock band Kotorino and Ellia Bisker from the similarly-inclined Sweet Soubrette and Funkrust Brass Band – run the show here, and treated the crowd to an all-too-brief, barely half-hour set of menacingly harmony-driven songs that veered from chamber pop to noir cabaret to circus rock. It was the one point in a deviously fun night of music where the songs deviated from the topic of killing to simply chronicling the intricacies of all sorts of troubled relationships, some mythical, some set in the here and now. Morris played with just a touch of distortion on his old hollowbody Gibson as Bisker wound through graceful lead lines on her electric ukulele.

Bobtown – one of the best loved and most menacing bands in folk noir – opened the show, percussionist/keyboardist Katherine Etzel, singer Jen McDearman, guitarist Karen Dahlstrom, bassist Fred Stesney and lead guitarist/banjo player Alan Lee Backer treating the crowd to some unexpected but typically ominous new material, the sparkling harmonies of the women in the band flying overhead. Backer then took a detour into his own vintage-style Americana and C&W, followed by folk singers Sarah Durning and then Karen Poliski parsing the classics with some murderous numbers from the repertoire of Gillian Welch and others.

The  most original of all the covers was a mind-warping take of Helter Skelter, played solo on banjo by Andrew Vladeck of jangly, Americana-inflected anthem band Fireships. Badass, eclectic cello-rock firestarter Patricia Santos (also of Kotorino) went deep into rustic blues/gospel mode with a new one of her own as well as another Gillian Welch tune. Comic relief was provided by Erica Smith‘s bass player taking a rare turn on piano. He’d written a song on the way to the show – a politically-inspired ghoulabilly tune – but couldn’t read the lyrics he’d scribbled moments before on the D train. Backer’s penlight came to the rescue.

This coming Monday’s installment, starting at 8 PM, features an even more auspicious lineup: powerful, soul-infused dark acoustic songwriter Jessi Robertson; brilliant Americana/janglerock tunesmith and harmonium player Jessie Kilguss; the similarly intense, historically-fixated Robin Aigner; songwriter Arthur Schupbach’s John Prine-inspired Donald & Lydia duo project; parlor pop songwriter Juliet Strong and more.

And Charming Disaster have a gig on Saturday night, November 14 at 8 at the Slipper Room; cover is $15.

 

Searing Yet Subtle, Southern Blues-Infused Intensity from Lizzie and the Makers

Lizzie Edwards is one of the most instantly recognizable, individualistic singers in the New York rock scene. With her velvet voice, she delivers a wallop: there are few singers in any style of music who can be as simultaneously pillowy and ferocious. Although steeped in blues belting, she’s not derivative or trying to be either Janis or Robert Plant: she’s just herself. She and her first-class band the Makers have a brand-new album, Fire From the Heart of Man streaming at Spotify and an album release show on Nov 12 at 8:50 PM (not 9 – at least that’s what the club calendar says) at the Shop, 243 Starr St. (Wyckoff/Irving) in Bushwick. Cover is $10; take the L to Jefferson St.

The album opens with Song 3.5 and its catchy, steadily descending, blues-fueled melody, Edwards’ thunder references paired with resonant slide guitar by Jason Loughlin (of Jessie Kilguss‘ band and many other first-class projects). The Wrong Side is a soul/blues tune in the same vein as mid-90s, peak-era Robert Cray, Rob Clores’ organ adding slithery textures in tandem with James Winwood’s simmering guitar lines. From there, Edwards goes into seething mode with Fight Song – “I’m ready” is the mantra – Winwood channeling David Gilmour with his biting, aching solo.

Monster builds from syncopation to a stomp, with another tasty contrast between rippling organ and burning guitar multitracks. Edwards’ assertion is that even if you fight with monsters, and manage to fend them off, you don’t necessarily become one. Hopeless opens with a hypnotic intro rising to a pounding but spare groove with the organ, and a mighty chorus that gives Edwards a launching pad for some of her most intense pyrotechnics here: “Can can you turn me away again?” she asks with a towering angst.

The gentler, organ-fueled, 60s Memphis-tinged undercurrent of It’s Not Me, It’s You masks the understated bitterness of the lyrics. The pummeling rhythm section – Brent Bass on…you guessed it and Bryan Bisordi on drums – opens the propulsive Good Song, Clores’ rippling solo handing off to Winwood’s more aggressive spirals. It’s everything that’s good about southern rock without the cheesy stoner vibe or endless noodling.

Edwards saves her most potently plaintive vocal for Take Me Back, with its brooding, heartbroken vibe. The most psychedelic track is Too Late, part noir soul, part psychedelic Led Zep at their most low-key. The album winds up with its darkest, most surreal anthem, Sleep It Off and its Abbey Road Beatlisms. Watch for this album at the end of next month on the Best Albums of 2015 page.

If you dig this band, you’d be missing out if you didn’t also get to know Edwards’ fierce, harmony-fueled gospel side project Lizzie and the Sinners with Erica Smith, Sarah Wise, Charley Roth, Jahn Xavier, Chris Schultz, and Tom Shad.