New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: jonathan gregg

Flickering Nocturnes and Big Sky Atmospherics From Suss

Back in 2018, this blog called New York cinematic instrumenalists Suss “the missing link beween Brian Eno and Ennio Morricone.” Their debut album was aptly titled Ghost; the release show, at a black-box theatre in Long Island City, was magically sepulchral and unexpectedly energetic, the band taking their time expanding on the record’s distantly Lynchian themes. Their new vinyl album Promise – streaming at Bandcamp – is even more vast and atmospheric. It’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole – with a pause to flip the record over.

The opening number, Midnight is a characteristic, glacially unwinding big-sky tableau, pedal steel player Jonathan Gregg’s minimalist lines washing over the ambience from guitarists Pat Irwin, Bob Holmes and keyboardist Gary Lieb.

Drift, the second cut, is exactly that, a flicker of low, twangy reverb guitar finally puncturing the enveloping, misty layers. Individual instruments become more distinct in Home, a minimistically folksy Great Plains nocturne.

The guitars get a little grittier and starrier in No Man’s Land – and is that a harmonium shadowing them? Mission is Pink Floyd spacerock with half the notes and layers of guitar, while  Echo Lake is a clever study in sound bouncing off one distant surface back to another.

Pensively strummed acoustic chords and the occasional troubled, watery electric guitar phrase linger beneath the hovering atmospherics in Winter Light, the album’s most ominous and memorable interlude. They close with the hypnotically twinkling Nightlight.

Eerily Glimmering, Cinematic Nightscapes From Suss

Cinematic instrumental quintet Suss are the missing link between Brian Eno and Ennio Morricone – or the Lost Patrol without the drums. Which makes sense, considering that guitarist/bandleader Pat Irwin got his start with enigmatically loping and prowling 80s instrumentalists the Raybeats, but since then has made a mark in film music – when not playing in one version or another of the B-52’s, that is. The new group’s debut album, aptly titled Ghost Box is streaming at Bandcamp.

Never mind the album – if there’s any act out there that really makes their song titles come alive, it’s these guys. The band – which also comprises guitarist Bob Holmes, pedal steel player Jonathan Gregg, keyboardist Gary Lieb, and William Garrett – are  playing the release show tomorrow, Feb 4 at 8 PM for free at the Secret Theatre, 4402 23rd St. in Long Island City. Since the 7 train isn’t running, take the E or G to Court Square; the cozy black-box space is about three  blocks away.

The opening track, Wichita begins with a lingering big-sky riff answered by a wash of steel, then the echoes begin to gently swoosh and clang through the mix. Almost imperceptibly, wisps and flickers of steel and guitar begin wafting over the loop. It’s hypnotic to the extreme.

Opening with and then shadowed by a haze of feedback, Late Night Call is a slow, nostalgic conversation between guitar and steel, Likewise, Big Sky alternates between oscillating, slightly distorted washes, blippy electric piano fragments and sparse Old West riffs.

Twangy Lynchian guitar chords intersperse within a distantly menacing Angelo Badalamemti-style vamp in Rain. The band pick up the pace, at least to the extent that they ever do, with Laredo, putting reverbtoned 80s electric piano out front of the shifting clouds of guitar and spare spaghetti western licks.

Oscillating loops, disembodied dialogue, jagged clangs. resonant tremolo phrases and finally some gently acerbic, bluesy resonator guitar blend over a muted beat in Gunfighter. The album closes with a starrier, livelier, more expansive reprise of the opening theme. Drift off to your own private Twin Peaks Lodge with this.

George Usher and Lisa Burns Channel 50 Years of Gorgeously Erudite Rock Songcraft on Their New Album

Some artists get overlooked if they aren’t playing shows regularly, an unfair disadvantage to say the least. George Usher and Lisa Burns earned their cred playing all over New York beginning as far back as the 80s. There’s a harrowing backstory and a happy ending, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, behind their album The Last Day of Winter (streaming at Spotify).

Usher earned iconic status as a powerpop songwriter and bandleader with House of Usher, Beat Rodeo and other groups dating from the CBGB days (and wrote the title track of Laura Cantrell‘s classic 2000 debut album, Not the Tremblin’ Kind). Burns also enjoys an avid cult following as an innovative crafter and reinterpreter of classic soul, powerpop and occasionally psychedelic sounds. While making a successful recovery from cancer, Usher decided to reinvent himself as a lyricist since he was too debilitated to play, and Burns set those lyrics to music. The result is a pensive, often plantive, richly arranged blend of janglerock, powerpop, Americana and new wave, one of the best albums of 2015.

Happily, Usher’s back to playing his guitar, and also piano on this album. The opening track, Wake Me When Tomorrow’s Here has the soaring crescendos of the Church, Burns’ soulful, vibrato-heavy harmonies mingling with Usher’s understatedly triumphant vocals: he’s been through a lot. Burns widens that vibrato all the way in the vintage C&W-tinged ballad Depression Glass, a vividly downcast Flyover America tableau. More Than That I Cannot Say amps up the late 60s folk-rock that Burns does so well.

Lost in Translation has a slow, hazy sway that’s part Beatles, part pastoral Pink Floyd, spiced with Usher’s spiky, minimalist piano accents. The wrly shuffling My Precious Wisdom gives Usher a platform to stay at the keys and ripple through some ragtime. If It Ever Comes to Pass is the album’s best track, a snarling minor-key, darkly new wave-tinged gem fueled by Mark Sidgwick’s lead guitar. The guy/girl harmonies bring to mind legendary late 90s/early zeros New York band DollHouse.

Usher airs out an unexpectedly powerful upper register on another real gem, the brooding, metaphorically charged honkytonk ballad Dark Blue Room, lowlit by Jonathan Gregg’s high lonesome pedal steel. Then Usher returns to the 88s as Burns sings the angst-fueled Wasn’t Born to Belong: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Matt Keating catalog.

Drummer Wylie Wirth’s elegant brushwork pushes the gorgeous, ominously bittersweet Never Ever Land while Usher handles its big, restless acoustic guitar chords: “It’s a cloudy dream and a slow return when the fire has nowhere to burn,” Usher and Burns warn. Then they go back to channeling the Church in 80s folk-rock mode in the understatedly savage kiss-off anthem The World That Rested on Your Word. The album’s creepiest track is The Ferryman’s Name, evoking both the Fab Four and CSNY with its harmonies and surreallistic death imagery. The album winds up with its magnificently saturnine – and ultimately hopeful – title track, Jeff Hermanson’s horn sailing over Claudia Chopek’s stark string arrangement.

Musically speaking, this is arguably the strongest collection of tunes Burns has ever written, pretty impressive for someone who’s been at it as long as she has. Usher himself has been recording since the 60s, beginning as a pop prodigy in his native Cleveland. Fun factoid: as a kid, he was known to take credit – or at least not deny credit – for Gary Puckett’s hits, since they were credited to one G. Usher (the unrelated producer Gary Usher). But he’s a generation younger than McCartney and Jagger and the rest of the guys from that era. His voice may have weathered a smidge, but it’s still strong. Long may it resonate.

The Irrepressible Deena Shoshkes Opens a Night of Cult Favorites This Friday in Park Slope

Some music you can listen to pretty much anytime. Deena Shoshkes‘ music is what you might want to hear when you DON’T want to hear noiserock…or eardrum-smashing jazz improvisation…or doom metal. It’s upbeat and fun and cheery without being bland. For the longest time, Shoshkes fronted the Cucumbers, one of the defining Hoboken bands of the 80s and 90s. Her chirpy high soprano and irrepressible charm won the group an avid cult following, as well as earning a curmudgeonly backlash from a faction who found the band terminally cute. In the years since, Shoshkes has gotten more in touch with her lower register, has added a tinge of smoke and plenty of welcome nuance to her vocals. She’s opening a historically rich triplebill of cult favorites with her band the Laughing Boys at Union Hall in Park Slope this Friday night, March 20 at 8:30 PM followed by downtown NYC postpunk supergroup Heroes of Toolik and then Hoboken janglerock vets Speed the Plow at around 10:30. Cover is $10.

Shoshkes’ latest album Rock River is streaming at Spotify. Her calling cards are craft and a sense of humor. On one level, she takes what does does completely seriously, but she doesn’t seem to take herself seriously at all, and the result is infectious. After awhile, it’s hard to be curmudgeonly, you just start bobbing your head and humming along. A droll spin of the maracas here; a lush waterfall of twelve-string jangle there; a little silly P-Funk portamento synth; references to Brill Building pop, vintage C&W, the majestic clang of the Church in the 80s, even 90s trip-hop in the spirit of edgier bands like Madder Rose.

Her longtime fellow Cucumber Jon Fried adds southern-fried [resisting the urge to say cucumber!} flavor to the punchy opening track, My Own Advice. Longtime Hoboken (ok, ex-Hoboken) luminaries Rebecca Turner and Elena Skye make a Spectoresque chorus on All She Wrote, which sounds like a L’il Mo country crowdpleaser. There are a couple of pensively swaying ventures into Tex-Mex balladry. There’s a soaring country anthem spiced with Jonathan Gregg’s washes of pedal steel that wouldn’t be out of place in the Amy Allison songbook. There’s a saucy organ-and-horn-driven soul groove. Other tracks channels watery new wave and wistful chamber pop. And just when Shoshkes has you thinking that all this is about the hooks and the arrangements, she zings you with a line like “Lost a lot a long time ago in the backdrop of her eyes.”

You aren’t going to hear her sing about how the remains of the Fukushima reactors keep leaking into the Pacific, and that it’s going to kill every living thing on the planet if we don’t stop the deluge. Expecting her to do a song about the Pentagon trying to engineer regime change in Russia – and inciting a global nuclear holocaust – would be a bit of a stretch. Shoshkes seems more content working the corners of a song, intricately and thoughtfully, and having so much fun with it that it makes you jealous. You can get that kind of jealous this Friday in Brooklyn.

Maynard & the Musties Put Out a Cool New Album of Wry, Surreal Country Songs

Songwriter Joe Maynard is one of New York’s urban country pioneers. He got his start here back around the turn of the century, fronting a funny band called the Illbillies, then went in a more trad direction, at least musically, with the Millerite Redeemers, who morphed into Maynard & the Musties. When not playing music, Maynard’s gig is dealing in rare books, which explains the band name. Although his songs can be LMFAO funny, they’re just as likely to be poignant or even haunting, sometimes with a defiant political edge. And unlike so many of the recent transplants here who call themselves country but are as country as Blake Shelton, Maynard originally hails from Nashville. That might have something to do with how oldschool his mix of honkytonk anthems, cry-in-your-beer ballads and brooding Nashville gothic tales can be. And as much as the band can channel a vintage C&W sound, they can also really rock out when they want. They’re headlining an excellent Americana triplebill on March 11 at the Way Station, with brassy, female-fronted rockabilly band Rocket J & the 88s opening at 9, followed by Dr. Bluegrass and the Illbillies (no relation to Maynard’s old band) at 10 and then Maynard himself at 11.

Their latest album, Fall On In – streaming at Bandcamp – was produced by Americana maven and ex-Lakeside Lounge honcho Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, who also contributes some of his signature guitar. This band went through a million drummers: none of them worked out until they found Pierre Scoffini, who’s absolutely brilliant, and Ambel obviously had a lot of fun capturing his offbeat cymbal swooshes and counterintuitive snare hits.

Lead player Mike Randall doesn’t waste any time throwing off some restlessly growling six-string lines on the opening track, the swamp-rock flavored Evil Flower. The C&W shuffle Smart Ass, spiced with Jonathan Gregg’s rippling pedal steel, offers a sardonic look at the value of higher education. The fiery Americana rock tune Chinese Jail is Maynard – who’s never sung more vigorously than he does here, over a backdrop of slowly phased Exile on Main Street guitars – at his surrealistic, twisted best.

With its gorgeous web of jangling, twanging guitar from Randall, Mo Botton, Gregg and Maynard himself, Road to Ruin paints an even more twisted urban picture, and has an absolutely hilarious line about sex with a woman of a certain age. Death is a departure into creepy circus rock, bassist Chet Hartin adding accordion over the vaudevillian pulse of Dikko Faust’s trombone. The gently swinging, wistful Broken Angel dates back to the Millerite Redeemers days.

The slow, uneasily misty Waiting on a Train brings to mind John Prine – a guy Maynard often evokes – at his most wryly allusive, fiddler Naa Koshie Mills adding stark, bagpipe-ish textures. Part honkytonk, part western swing, Boozy Memory is the album’s funniest track. The weirdest track is another older tune, The Beef Trade in Suede, reinvented here as a Tex-Mex number. The scariest one is Caroline and Danny, a tale of obsession and cheating gone horribly wrong. The album winds up with the joyously careening We Are The People!, which could be an Occupy anthem, and the morbid miniature Everyone’s Dead. Fans of the lyrical side of Americana from Alex Battles to Steve Earle ought to check this out.

Gorgeous Jangle and Clang from Chris Erikson

Chris Erikson is oldschool. He’s a newspaperman, covering many beats at the New York Post. He’s also a brilliant guitarist (which is kind of oldschool these days as well) who’s been in demand in the New York scene for a long time, backing such A-list talents as Matt Keating and Florence Dore. Yet he’s not your typically guitarslinger: there are maybe six parts on his new album Lost Track of the Time that you could conceivably call solos. Two of them open and close the album on a boisterous Bakersfield country note, the first a jaunty Buck Owens-like run using the low registers almost like a baritone guitar, the second a high-strung boogie passage in a very cleverly composed mystery story titled The Worst Thing That Ever Happened. Otherwise, Erikson plays chords, elegant riffs and pieces of both, sometimes picking them with his fingers like Keith Richards, sometimes evoking twangmeisters from Duane Eddy to Steve Earle (who’s obviously a big influence here), or even 80s paisley underground legends True West. He’s that interesting, and that tasteful: he always leaves you wanting more.

But there are plenty of good players out there. What elevates this album above your typical Twangville tuneage is the songwriting. Erikson writes allusively, his sharp, frequently bitter, pensive lyrics leaving just enough detail for the listener to fill in the blanks. His changes are catchy and anthemic, driven by a purist melodic sensibility and a love of subtle shifts in tone, touch and attack. Along with the dynamics – something you don’t often see in music like this – there’s also a lot of implied melody. Erikson also happens to be an excellent singer. On the angriest or craziest stuff here, his voice takes on a Paul Westerberg-style rasp; otherwise, his drawl shifts between pensive and sardonic, depending on the lyrics. Again, Steve Earle comes to mind. As you would expect, Erikson’s band the Wayward Puritans is first-rate, with Jason Mercer on bass, Will Rigby on drums plus frequent contributions from Keating on keyboards along with Jay Sherman-Godfrey on guitars, with Bob Hoffnar and Jonathan Gregg on pedal steel, Kill Henry Sugar’s Erik Della Pena on lapsteel, Hem’s Mark Brotter and Gary Maurer (who produced) on drums and acoustic guitar, respectively.

The best song on the album, and the one instant classic here is Ear to the Ground. It starts with a richly clanging, intricate series of chords that are going to have everyone reaching for their six-string: it’s that gorgeous.Those changes come around again a couple of times but Erikson makes you wait for them. It’s a bitter kiss-off song, but a very subtle one: until the end, the story is what doesn’t happen. Erikson does the same on another first-rate backbeat rock track a little later on, The Subject Came Up, an elephant-in-the-room scenario where “by the next morning a chalk outline was all that remained” of what ultimately turned out to be a dealbreaker. The most sarcastic song here, a big 6/8 country anthem titled Guilty, has its obviously wrongfully accused narrator asking for the court to “just read me my rights and I’ll sign on the line” over a rich backdrop of mandolin and dobro.

The funniest songs on the album are both country tunes: the first a honkytonk number about a freeloading girlfriend, lit up by some juicy piano from Keating. The other is When I Write My Memoir, another kiss-off song, but with an unexpected punchline, not the first thing you’d think of from a writer dreaming of seeing his autobio top the charts at amazon. Was That Me sets a tongue-in-cheek, disingenuous lyric to blistering highway rock. There’s also the long, aphoristically unwinding rock anthem On My Way and a couple of pensive, brooding acoustic numbers, In the Station and When It Comes Down, the latter with soaring steel from Hoffnar and a welcome return to the recording studio by Dore, who supplies equally soaring harmony vocals. Count this among the best albums to make it over the transom here this year.

Chris Erikson and the Wayward Puritans, like a lot of New York’s best bands, made Lakeside Lounge their home. Now that Lakeside’s days are numbered (April 30 is the last big blowout there), let’s hope they find another sometime soon.