New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: jolie holland

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.

Beautiful, Haunting, Evocative Mining Songs from Jan Bell

Jan Bell has one of the most distinctive and beautiful voices in any style of music. She’s never sung or written more vividly or poignantly than she does on her new concept album Dream of the Miner’s Child. A miner’s granddaughter, she traces the seam of coal that runs under the Atlantic from Wales to the Carolinas to make connection between the traditional songs of the Yorkshire mining country where she grew up, and the Appalachian ballads of her adopted land. A small ocean liner’s worth of Americana talent, including her bandmates from the acclaimed all-female Maybelles, joins her on this virtually all-acoustic collection recorded at various stops around the world. Soaring with vocal harmonies and prominent violin, it’s a richly purist, gorgeously subtle album, much of it propelled with a casually expert country swing by bassist Tim Luntzel and drummer Brian Geltner.

It opens with a briskly plaintive version of Jean Ritchie’s The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore (referring to a railroad rather than a New York subway line), Bell’s honey-and-nettle vocals contrasting with an austerely soaring Rima Fand violin solo. Yorkshire Water, an elegant chamber pop-flavored original, sets nuanced harmonies from Melissa Carper and the Be Good Tanyas‘ Samantha Parton over spare lines from Truckstop Honeymoon guitarist Mike West and pianist Katie Euliss.

Bell does Trixie Smith’s oldtime Mining Camp Blues closer to Davis Sisters-style country, joining harmonies with Alice Gerrard, Megan Palmer supplying rustic fiddle ambience. The title track, a wistful duet with Jolie Holland, looks back both to the 1925 Vernon Dalhart version as well as the original 1907 Welsh mining disaster ballad. Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town, a duet with Will Scott, is considerably more subtle – and strangely evocative – than the haphazard Pogues version.

Another Bell original, Elsecar Grace aka John Willliams, carries a cruelly ironic narrative with a vintage soul/gospel melody. Her midtempo take on Darrell Scott’s haunting You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive is nonchalantly chilling, while Juliet Russell adds her voice to an absolutely otherworldly a-cappella duet on Brian O’Higgins A Stor Mo Chroi.

M Shanghai String Band’s Philippa Thompson and Hilary Hawke join Bell on her Maybelles bandmate Karen Dahlstrom’s The Miner’s Bride, a brooding tale of a mail-order marriage in the old west made even more ominous by Thompson’s ghostly singing saw. Casey Neill shares vocals and adds electric guitar on a gently insistent, impactful take of Billy Bragg’s workingman’s anthem Between the Wars. Bell follows that with a Woody Guthrie lyric, Union Sea and makes ragtime-tinged antique pop out of it.

The catchiest of the originals here is Aunt Molly Jackson, the Carper Family (Melissa Carper, Beth Chrisman, Jenn Miori and Brennen Leigh) adding rich harmonies to this brisk oldschool C&W number. The most British of the tracks here is Carried by the Wind, Bell joined by Salty Pink’s Amelia Sauter and  Leah Houghtaling. Bell and Palmer end the album with an a-cappella take of the traditional Irish ballad Factory Girl. Life in mining country on both sides of the Atlantic was hard; Bell and her all-star cast deliver these songs with a potent bittersweetness that reflects both the hopes and grim realities of the people who created them, at the same time adding memorably to the repertoire. It’s not a stretch to imagine future generations of Americana musicians referencing the Jan Bell versions of many of these songs: this album secures her place among the finest and most individualistic musicians in that world. Bell plays the album release show at Barbes at 8 PM this Friday, Dec 14; high-voltage Balkan band Sherita (a Raya Brass Band spinoff) kicks off the evening at 7.

Unexpectedly Edgy Americana from Lindi Ortega

Lindi Ortega hails from Canada, whose government supports the arts, and as a result Canadian artists’ albums typically have superior sonics compared with American recordings made on the fly, DIY, with Protools and a couple of mics haphazardly set up in somebody’s bedroom. Which in the case of Ortega’s new album Cigarettes & Truckstops is important, because producer Colin Linden gets the excellent band behind her to really breathe, as they make their way through a diverse mix of oldschool honkytonk, highway rock, bluegrasss and some surprisingly intense blues. Ortega comes across as more of a rocker who discovered Americana than someone who’s been immersed in it since day one. However, there’s as much Dolly Parton influence as there is Jolie Holland in Ortega’s energetic, occasionally raspy, fluttering melismatic vocals.

The album’s title track has a Gentle of My Mind vibe, but with hushed contemporary alt-country production: brushed drums, tremolo guitars and Rhodes piano – and a Dolly reference that will have her fans cringing. Things get better from there. The Day You Die, a brisk bluegrass shuffle, reminds of Demolition String Band, right down to the biting electric guittar solo. Ortega reverts to a country nocturne vibe with Lead Me On, a sad, resigned ballad with the same tasty acoustic/electric textures as the opening track.

Don’t Wanna Hear It contrasts Ortega’s languid vocals with a big snarling, Link Wray-inspired garage rock arrangement. A Canadian twist on outlaw country, Demons Don’t Get Me Down reminds a bit of Lorraine Leckie, with some bright honkytonk piano handing off to a tasty slide guitar solo. Murder of Crows sounds like it’s going to go down to the delta crossroads until the electric guitars kick in and it turns into a big, murderous blues anthem, like Holly Golightly airing out her pipes, and her band, with big-room production values.

Heaven Has No Vacancy, a creepy, slow, noirish open-tuned slide blues, reminds of John Mellencamp’s self-titled blues album with guitarist Andy York about ten years ago. Once again, the layers of guitars are absolutely exquisite, and in this instance, pretty bloodcurdling (musician credits weren’t included with pre-release downloads). “I’ve got some pain to medicate and I’m all out of pills,” Ortega intones on the next track, High, a stoner take on Jimmy Webb-style countrypolitan: “I ain’t that sane, honey, I just want to fly…I’m not into razorblades so I thought I’d try something new.” And then on the casually stomping song after that, she’s telling a guy not to use crack, or shrooms, or ecstasy – if the effect is to induce a few chuckles. it works. The album ends with the swirly, creepy noir 60s pop charm of Every Mile of the Ride, hinting that Americana may not be Ortega’s ultimate destination. But while she’s doing it, she’s doing it with class: who says Canadians can’t play blues or country music? Lindi Ortega is on US tour right now with Social Distortion.

Free Download for April 8

Check out the absolutely irresistible, effervescent new single, Katie, by Boston oldtimey band Mornin Old Sport. For fans of the Moonlighters, Jolie Holland, and if you go back that far, the Squirrel Nut Zippers. There’s a free download, but it’s been edited – might want to wait for the final version…