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Tag: julia haltigan

A Masterpiece of Noir and Southwestern Gothic by Bronwynne Brent

One of the best collections of dark Americana songwriting released over the past several months is Mississippi-born singer-guitarist Bronwynne Brent’s Stardust, streaming at Spotify. It has absolutely nothing in common with the Hoagy Carmichael song. What it does recall is two other masterpieces of noir, retro-tinged rock: Karla Rose’s Gone to Town and Julia Haltigan‘s My Green Heart. Brent’s simmering blue-flame delivery draws equally on jazz, blues, torch song and oldschool C&W, as does her songwriting.

The album’s opening track,The Mirror sets the stage, twangy Telecaster over funereal organ and Calexico’s John Convertino’s tumbling drums. “The mirror knows the cards that were dealt,” Brent accuses, “You were never there.” Keith Lowe’s ominously slinky hollowbody bass propels Another World, its eerie bolero-rock verse hitched to Brent’s dreamy chorus. She could be the only tunesmith to rhyme “felon” with “compellin’.”

The unpredictably shifting Don’t Tell Your Secrets to the Wind picks up from spare and skeletal to menacingly lush, with biting hints of Romany, mariachi and klezmer music: Nancy Sinatra would have given twenty years off her life for something this smartly orchestrated. By contrast, the banjo-fueled Devil Again evokes the dark country of Rachel Brooke. “You’re just a prisoner watching shadows dance, dancing to your grave,” Brent intones, then backs away for a twangy Lynchian guitar solo. She keeps the low-key moodiness going throughout the softly shuffling Dark Highway, Hank Williams spun through the prism of spare 60s Dylan folk-pop.

When You Said Goodbye brings back the southwestern gothic ambience, with artful hints of ELO art-rock. “When you said goodbye I knew that I would die alone alone,” Brent muses: the ending will rip your heart out. By contrast. Heart’s On Fire, an escape anthem, builds to more optimistic if wounded territory:”Well, you learn from your mistakes, sometimes the prisoner gets a break,” Brent recalls.

Already Gone builds shimmery organ-fueled nocturnal ambience over a retro country sway: spare fuzztone guitar adds a surreal Lee Hazlewood touch. Bulletproof gives Brent a swinging noir blues background while she shows off her tough-girl side: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Eilen Jewell catalog.

Heartbreaker leaves the noir behind for a spare, fingerpicked folk feel, like Emmylou Harris at her most morose. Lay Me Down blends echoes of spare Britfolk, mariachi, creepy western swing and clever references to the Ventures: “Distance grows between us, doesn’t that just free us?” Brent poses. She ends the album on a vividly Faulknerian note: “Guess I can’t stop drinking, not today,” her narrator explains,” You may think that I’m lonely and running out of time, but I’m not the marrying kind.” Add this to your 3 AM wine-hour playlist: it’ll keep the ghosts of the past far enough away where they can’t get to you.

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Julia Haltigan Channels a Simmering Noir Intensity at the Poisson Rouge

Unlikely as it is that the leader of one of the city’s most dynamic bands would be just as entertaining and luridly gripping as a solo act, that’s what noir songwriter Julia Haltigan was Saturday night at the Poisson Rouge. It was a good gig for her, not her usual crowd, which tends to be on the young and wild side, something you might expect for someone who channels a torchy, retro allure and a menace that’s sometimes distant and sometimes in your face. This show gave her a chance to connect with an older, bridge-and-tunnel date-night audience who’d come out for an easy-listening evening with singer-songwriter Vonda Shepard. Haltigan’s regular backing unit has jazz sophistication but also feral energy; playing mostly by herself, with just her trusty vintage Gibson guitar and her reverb pedal, she used the moment to work the corners with a razorwire nuance that matched her songs’ simmering intensity.

Haltigan also seized the opportunity to make points with the audience via a couple of good stories. The first concerned some unexpected consequences in the wake of allowing her electric mandolinist dad – who also made a cameo during the show on smoky blues harp – to serve as an admin at her Facebook fan page. The second looked back to a past decade when people had Blackberries. Haltigan explained that she once went about a year without texting “hi” to anyone for fear of the gizmo translating that as “I’m horny.” Her phone ended up embarrassing her that way a couple of times, once in an exchange with her cousins, before she realized what was going on. That took awhile.

One day during rehearsal, she related the story to her bassist. “Remember that time I borrowed your phone?” he asked her. “I reset the autocorrect.”

That was the comic relief from the songs’ relentless, smoky disquiet. An appropriately spare take of Skeleton Dance, she explained, contemplated a sort of “Mickey Mouse version of death.” But that was the exception. A co-write with the Waterboys’ Mike Scott shifted from an enigmatic stroll to the kind of anthemic chorus you’d expect from that band; a little later, Haltigan led the crowd in a singalong of a similarly pensive, oldtime gospel-flavored Freddie Stevenson song. But her own material was the most memorable. She opened with a slow, haunting oldschool soul-tinged ballad, a woman on the run in her Waitsian hotel room in the wee hours, looking back on what she’ll never have again. From there Haltigan went toward dark rockabilly with the irrepressible Gasoline & Matches and the defiant I Don’t Wanna Fall in Love, airing out her powerful low register. The best song of the night was a murderously scampering border rock anthem that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Karla Rose & the Thorns show.

Haltigan next plays with her band on December 15 at 10:15 PM at the Manderley Bar at the McKittrick Hotel, 532 W 27th St. (10th/11th Aves, south side of the street, look for the little red light at the top of the stoop).

Eilen Jewell: Lynch Girl With Guitar and Brilliant Band

Watching Eilen Jewell in her black dress in daylight, leading her brilliant band earlier this evening outside City Winery, was surreal. The self-described Queen of the Minor Key is best appreciated after dark under low lights. But the unlikely early hour didn’t stop her from turning the parking lot out back of the club into a noir movie set, sonically speaking at least. Jewell’s jeweled voice works the corners of dark Americana with a casual menace that’s just short of lurid: she’s always a step ahead of you, never giving in to the temptation to go over the top.

Her band was phenomenal. Guitarist Jerry Miller (not to be confused with the guy from alt-country pioneers Moby Grape) was, as he’s put it before, “Duane Eddy, Link Wray and James Burton rolled into one.” At this show he was also Otis Rush, and Steve Cropper, and Buck Owens, sometimes all of them within the span of a few bars. Miller’s twangy,  tremoloing blue-flame nonchalance made the perfect counterpart to Jewell’s aching, angst-tinged restraint. Drummer Jason Beek did the Tim O’Reagan thing on harmony vocals – the guy’s an excellent singer – while bassist Johnny Sciascia hit hard and tersely and kept the shuffles on the straight and narrow. Dark as Jewell’s music is, between songs, she was deviously charming, at one point giving a shout out to the club’s sangria. You know, the one thing that a wine bar wants to be known for.

In over an hour onstage, they gave a clinic in just about every style of elegantly dark Americana, ending pretty much everything they played with a big crescendo from the guitars and a ka-THUMP from the drums. Let’s hope somebody had the presence of mind to record this show and put it up at archive.org, where there’s more tantalizing live stuff from her. They played up the honkytonk energy in Loretta Lynn’s Give Me a Lift and the countrypolitan sophistication of Stonewall Jackson’s That’s Why I’m Walking, gave Eric Andersen’s Dusty Boxcar Wall a dusky southwestern gothic edge and ended the night with a long, haphazardly dangerous version of Shaking All Over with Miller flatpicking his way up to a wry Gloria quote.

But the originals were the best. The band got the after-hours neon ambience going with the bluesy, noir Where They Never Saw Your Name, Miller channeling Otis Rush’s All Your Love, and segued into the equally shadowy, even catchier Sea of Tears. Jewell brought it down and let her voice tremolo out a little at the end to match Miller’s guitar on a slowy, achingly Lynchian version of her torch ballad Only One, followed by the swampy shuffle Bang Bang Bang – which casts Cupid as a psychopath – and then the apprehensively swinging High Shelf Blues, more of a lament than a drinking song.

This blog once likened the swaying oldschool country ballad Breathless to Laura Cantrell covering X, and Jewell validated that description. A haunting new song possibly titled One More Time featured Miller playing at the murky bottom of his strings, as if on a baritone guitar. Going Back to Dallas, from Jewell’s first album (which her old label refused to supply her with for this show, she told the crowd) was just as purposeful and brought back the foreboding edge – could it be a Lee Harvey Oswald reference, maybe? They followed with the slow, regretful summery sway of Boundary County, a homage to Jewell’s native Idaho, then the uneasy janglerock of Home to Me, then began the encores with the defiant If You Catch Me Stealing and then the haunting, Julia Haltigan-esque I’m Gonna Dress in Black with its St. James Infirmary vibe. Fans in Westchester county can catch Jewell tomorrow night, July 10 at the Turning Point in Piermont at around 7:30.

The 100 Best Songs of 2012

Was this the best year ever for music, or what? There could have been 500 songs on this list and they’d all be amazing. In order to give credit where credit is due, it became necessary to pare this down to just one track per artist.

Bookmark this page and visit often. Virtually every link here will take you to a stream or download of each song. Where this year’s 50 Best Albums page was all about rock, this page offers a chance to explore some of the best acts outside of the rock world. While these days, an “official release” tends to be the day someone uploads the song to youtube, there are a handful of tracks here which are so new that they haven’t made it to the web yet.

Outside of the top ten here, this list is in completely random order: trying to rank a jangly rock song against a lushly orchestrated Middle Eastern anthem, a bittersweet honkytonk song or a Serbian brass jam is absurd. So don’t think any less of the tracks at the bottom of the list: they’re all good. Rachelle Garniez, who happened to land on #99, is every bit as fun as Julia Haltigan at #9, or Lorraine Leckie at #19.

For the first time ever, this year’s top spots on the lists of best New York concerts, best albums and best songs were swept by a single group, Ulrich Ziegler. The noir guitar instrumental duo of Stephen Ulrich and Itamar Ziegler took top honors for their debut album, their album release show at Barbes in August and for their song Ita Lia, a morbidly reverb-toned, icily chromatic Nino Rota-inspired theme which you can play here. For those who’ve followed Ulrich’s career, that should come as no surprise, considering that his previous band Big Lazy pretty much ruled the top ten, year after year, at this blog’s predecessors on the web and in print.

2. Walter Ego – Sunday’s Assassin. This is an LJ Murphy song that Walter Ego used to play bass on when the two were bandmates back in the 90s. Murphy long since dropped this from his set list, and that’s too bad, because this casually lurid serial killer’s tale is one of the best things he ever wrote. Thanks to Walter Ego for resurrecting it. Watch the video

3. Mike Rimbaud – Idiot Wind. On one hand, to not put what could be the greatest rock lyric ever written in the top spot here is absurd, especially considering how Rimbaud reinvented it as straight-up, snarling rock. It’s also very hard to find: if you have Spotify, it’s here, otherwise here’s a sound snippet.

4. Chris Erikson – Ear to the Ground
Best jangly rock song of the year comes from this popular lead guitarist, who finally put out a debut album, Lost Track of the  Time, which includes this richly allusive, wickedly catchy track. He teases you with the hook and then makes you wait til the very end for the payoff. Watch the video

5. Saint Maybe – Everything That Rises
An epic masterpiece of volcanically guitar-fueled, psychedelic southwestern gothic rock from Patti Smith’s guitarist and Bob Dylan’s drummer. From their debut album Things As The Are. Play the song

6. Hannah vs. the Many – Jordan Baker. Prettiest sad noir 60s pop song of the year: girl finally finds guy she actually likes…and then the apocalypse swirls in. From the amazing new album All Our Heroes Drank Here. Play the song

7. The Sometime Boys – Good People of Brooklyn. Soaring lush acoustic chamber pop from this artsy Americana band. Frontwoman Sarah Mucho sings uneasily about her “city of trees,”  from the new album Ice & Blood. Play the song

8. Jon DeRosa – Birds of Brooklyn. Metaphorically loaded noir 60s chamber pop at its most cinematic, old guy eyeing a girl he could never have as the strings swoon behind him. From his new Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes album. Play the song

9. Julia Haltigan – Over the Fields. Looks to be too new to make it to the web yet – over careening southwestern gothic backbeat rock, the New York chanteuse amps up the suspenseful brassiness. She slayed with this at Make Music NY this summer.Stream some similar tracks

10. Changing Modes – Firewall. Nebulously narrative macabre chromatic Botanicaesque art-rock tune from this three-keyboard band’s brilliant latest album In Flight. Play the song

11. Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores – Fire Shuffle. This is the most swirlingly psychedelic of the many macabre gypsy-tinged tracks on the Rhode Island band’s chilling latest album Sister Death. Play the song

12. Chicha Libre – Papageno Electrico. Like Alec Redfearn above, the Brooklyn Peruvian surf rock band’s latest album Canibalismo is loaded with trippy, creepy tracks and this is the creepiest, like a Japanese video game theme done as psychedelic cumbia. Watch the video 

13. Beninghove’s Hangmen – Surf & Turk. New York’s premier noir cinematic surf jazz monsters hit last year’s list with their debut album. This is a new creepy surf track; you can catch them at Zirzamin on Mondays at 9 where they play it frequently. Play the song; stream the first album

14. Daniel Kahn & the Painted Bird – Sunday After the War. Coldly wise, crushingly cynical klezmer-rock. “They’re always recruiting, after the war.” Kahn slayed with this at Lincoln Center Out of Doors this past summer. Watch a video

15. Emily Jane White – Clipped Wings. The murderess leaves a suicide note at the lake house and this is it: a great story and a chilling song. From her latest album Ode to Sentience. Watch the video

16. When the Broken Bow- Giving Up the Ship. Apocalyptic ukulele waltz with bloodcurdling screams at the end from this smart, raw, female-fronted Portland, Oregon art-rock crew. Play the song

17. Lianne Smith- The Thief. Now co-leader of the Golden Palominos, Smith has been playing this gorgeous but chilling oldschool country smash for years and finally released it on her debut Two Sides of a River. Sing along: “I found out, yeah, I found out too late. ” Play the song

18. Jan Bell – The Miner’s Bride. One of the great voices in Americana music, Bell makes the connection between Appalachian music and the British folk songs it sprung from. This is a Karen Dahlstrom song about a mail-order bride going off to what looks like disappointment and early death in the old west, from Bell’s new album Dream of the  Miner’s Child. Play the song

19. Lorraine Leckie – The Everywhere Man. This party crasher has come to kill everything in his path: a wicked serial killer tale from Leckie’s elegant new chamber pop collaboration with social critic/writer Anthony Haden-Guest, Rudely Interrupted. Play the song 

20. The Japonize Elephants – Melodie Fantastique. Lush sweeping majestic circus rock doesn’t get any more entertaining than this. Title track from the band’s sensational new album. Play the song  

21. Mac McCarty – My Name Is Jack. Another song about a killer, and one that hasn’t made it to the web yet, from one of the darkest voices in Americana. For awhile he had a monthly residency at Bar 82, where he would always play this, and he’s got other videos you can watch.

22. Dimestore Dance Band – Wren Wren. Might as well go with two relatively brand-new ones, this being an urbane, wry gypsy-inflected number from guitar virtuoso Jack Martin and his bassist accomplice Jude Webre. The band is back together and playing this from time to time, and you can hear more of their stuff here.

23. Jodi Shaw – The Witch. In the old days, dotty old women used to get burned. The Brooklyn pianist/songwriter works that metaphor for all it’s worth in this chilling art-rock ballad. From her latest album In Waterland. Play the song 

24. Choban Elektrik – Valle E Shquiperise Se Mesme. A classic Balkan folk song done as trippy psychedelic rock with funereal organ and searing violin, from the band’s sensational 2012 debut album. Play the song

25. Eilen Jewell – Warning Signs. Her 2012 album is called Queen of the Minor Key, which pretty much says it all: this is a killer backbeat noir Americana rock tune with cool baritone sax and reverb guitar. Watch the video

26. Kayhan Kalhor & Ali Bahrami Fard – Where Are You. Anguished alienation has never been more hauntingly restrained than it is on this epic instrumental from I Will Not Stand Alone, the transcendent new collaboration between the Iranian spiked fiddle and santoor virtuosos. Watch the video  

27. Damian Quinones y Su Conjunto – Barrio. This lead guitar-fueled epic from their brilliant 2012 album Gumball Ma-Jumbo is a throwback to the classic latin soul sound of the late 60s and early 70s, right down to the inspired, analog-sounding production.  Play the song

28. Matt Keating – Punchline. Bouncy, metaphorically charged vintage soul-infused cynicism from Keating’s characteristically literate, intense latest album Wrong Way Home. Play the song

29. Clairy Browne & the Bangin Rackettes – Vicious Circle. Dramatic, intense, theatrical oldschool soul anthem that may or may not be a bitter Amy Winehouse homage. From their album Baby Caught the Bus; they killed with this in their New York debut this fall at Webster Hall. Play the song

30. J O’Brien- Cottonmouth. Classic New York songwriting: a torrent of images of the kind of twisted people, and twisted psyches, you meet on the train home after work, from the former leader of fiery mod-punk rockers the Dog Show. Play the song  

31. Out of Order – Gimme Noise. Hammering hardcore riffage from this volcanic all-female noiserock/punk/postpunk trio’s deliciously assaultive new album Hey Pussycat! Play the song

32. Beware the Danger of a Ghost Scorpion – Denton County Casket Co Typically intense, macabre, breakneck horror surf from this unstoppable Boston band’s Five After Midnight broadcast recording. Play the song

33. Tri-State Conspiracy – The Clone. The high point of their Nuisance album from 2008, the noir ska/swing band’s savage version of this was the high point of this year’s Atlantic Antic festival, a cruel broadside directed at all the posers and gentrifiers. Watch the video

34. Les Sans Culottes – DSK. Another highlight of the Atlantic Antic, this viciously funny garage-psychedelic sendup of Dominique Strauss-Kahn hasn’t made it to the web yet, but you can check out a lot of other amusing stuff from the faux French rockers here.

35. David J – Not Long for This World. The ominous title track to the goth songwriting legend’s latest album, the once and future Bauhaus bassist/playwright turned in a riveting version of this backed by Botanica’s Paul Wallfisch at the Delancey this past spring. Watch a video

36. The NY Gypsy All-Stars – Sen Sev Beni. Their latest album Romantech is full of scorching gypsy vamps driven by clarinet powerhouse Ismail Lumanovski: this audience favorite  is the best of them. Play the song

37. Auktyon – Mimo. These Russian art-rockers have been around forever, and they put out a typically surreal, jazz and gypsy-influenced new album, Top, this year. This is the best track, a haunting, towering minor-key anthem. Play the song

38. Harmonia – Songs from Vojvodina. This prosaic title doesn’t give any idea of the ferocity and exhilaration of this lickety-split suite of gypsy music from the Cleveland band’s equally adrenalizing 2012 album Hidden Legacy. Sound snippet 

39. Nathan Halpern – The Mirror. A creepy Philip Glass-ine theme from the soundtrack to the documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, written by the esteemed Brooklyn noir rocker and composer. Sound samples from the score

40. Sam Llanas – Shyne. Low-key, brooding nocturnal noir 60s pop with an Americana edge from the longtime BoDeans frontman’s recent solo album 4 AM. Sound snippet

41. Super Hi-Fi – We Will Begin Again. The darkest and most mysterious track from the twin trombone deep-dub band’s debut album Dub to the Bone (get it?) Play the song 

42. LJ Murphy – Waiting by the Lamppost. The legendary New York noir rocker has a reputedly phenomenal new album due out next year and this might or might not be on it; it’s an uusually low-key, broodingly surreal soul song. Watch the video 

43. Mighty High – High on the Cross. Of all the drugs Brooklyn’s best-loved stoner rock parodists chronicle in their songs, none is more powerful – or funnier – than religion. Play the song

44. Band of Outsiders – Gods of Happenstance. Television and the Grateful Dead may both be history but these 80s New York garage-pychedelic-punk legends are still going strong; this is the standout track from their 2012 ep Sound Beach Quartet and it evokes the best of both of those bands. Play the song  

45. Spanglish Fly – The Po-Po. Oldschool 60s style latin soul about a familiar New York crisis: getting busted for an open container by cops who haven’t yet met their quota of summonses for harmless offenses. Play the song 

46. Love Camp 7 – Beatles VI. An especially loud, growling vintage 60s psychedelic style track with one of frontman Dann Baker’s characteristically sardonic lyrics, the 60s as a gloomy backdrop to the Fab Four. From their brilliant Beatles-themed album Love Camp VII. Play the song

47. Musiciens Sans Frontieres – Legalize. This song from cinematic guitarist/composer Thomas Simon’s artsy rock-pop project won an award for best video at a hemp film festival  and you can watch that video here.

48. Marcellus Hall – Afterglow. This might not be the right title, and it doesn’t seem to be anywhere on the web, which is too bad: it’s one of the former White Hassle frontman and Americana-punk songwriter’s funniest, and most withering – and catchiest – critiques. Band info 

49. The Ryan Truesdell Big Band – Punjab. Not what you might expect to see here on a daily basis – a recently rediscovered, epic Gil Evans big band noir classic, with lustrous Indian and Middle Eastern shades. From the new album Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans. Play the song

50 The Universal Thump – Opening Night. What an absolutely gorgeous song: late-period ELO with better strings, bigger theatrics and much better vocals from bandleader/singer Greta Gertler. She meets a girl in her dream who offers her a deal: if you bring me from the dream world to reality, you’ll never cry again. Think about that. Play the song  

51. Slavic Soul Party – Draganin Cocek. The high point of the ten-piece Balkan brass band’s scorching, eclectic new New York Underground Tapes – which don’t seem to have made it to the web yet. Stream some similar tracks

52. Magges – Ena Vrathi Pou’Vrehe. It may be all Greek to you, but even if you don’t speak the language, the ringing twin bouzouki riffs and haunting gothic undercurrent of their psychedelic classics will pull you under. From their new album 12 Tragouthia. Play the song

53. Wadada Leo Smith – Emmett Till. An epic narrative from the trumpeter’s Ten Freedom Summers concept album about the Civil Rights movement, this cinematic tale eventually hits a horrific crescendo, equal parts jazz and indie classical. Play the song

54. Bettye LaVette – Choices I’ve Made. The soul survivor took this old George Jone song and made a theme for anybody who’s ever lived to regret something or another. She sang an especially shattering version at Madison Square Park this past summer. Watch the video

55. Marcel Khalife – Palestinian Mawwal. The great Lebanese oud player and composer put out a titanic double album, Fall of the Moon this year and this is one of its high points, a lush Middle Eastern anthem with full orchestra and choir. Play the song

56. Alfredo Rodriguez – Fog. Noir soundtrack music doesn’t get any more haunting or evocative than the Cuban-American jazz pianist’s epic from his latest album Sounds of Space. Play the song 

57. Hot Club of Detroit – Midnight in Detroit. Proof that noir can be done just as well by a gypsy jazz bandk, in a minute 45 seconds. From their latest album Junction. Play the song 

58. EST – Three Falling Free. A rare outtake from the now-defunct, artsy, eclectic trio, this epic, Floydian monstrosity builds to a crushing crescendo with the piano and bass going full blast: you want adrenaline? Watch the video 

59. Israel Vibration – Ball of Fire. This apocalyptic roots reggae tune goes back almost as far as Culture’s Two Sevens Clash, and it’s even better. And the band kicked ass with it at Central Park Summerstage this past August. Watch the video 

60. Klezwoods – Charambe. One of many standout tracks from their new album The 30th Meridian – From Cairo to St. Petersburg With Love, this is a wicked blend of 60s style psychedelic rock and klezmer, like something the Electric Prunes would have done. Play the song

61. Glass Anchors – Winter Home. Sadness and longing set to wickedly evocative, catchy janglerock from the female-fronted, Americana-tinged Brooklyn band’s debut album.  Play the song

62. Bobtown – Battle Creek. High-voltage noir soul anthem from the point of view of a country girl steadily losing it in northern Midwest rust belt hell, sung electrifyingly by Karen Dahlstrom. From the noir Americana band’s killer new album Trouble I Wrought. Play the song  

63. Chicago Stone Lightning Band – Tears & Sorrow. Creepy, brooding  early 70s style acid blues from the Chicago band’s considerably more energetic debut album. Play the song  

64. Single Red Cent – Dilettante. A hilarious postpunk-flavored putdown of spoiled trendoids, “stealing a page from the better bands, nothing in common with the working man.” Play the song 

65. Wahid  – Looking for Paradise. New Middle Eastern instrumental sounds: hard to imagine that just an oud and drums can create a sound that’s this majestic and intense. From the duo’s new album Road Poem. Sound snippet

66. The Larch – Monkey  Happy Hour. Wry, spot-on double entendres abound in this psychedelic new wave look at the last people you’d ever want to hang with after work. From their excellent new album Days to the West. Play the song  

67. Sex Mob – Juliet of the Spirits. Even though the noir-ish jazz quartet’s version of the classic Nino Rota film theme is nowhere to be found on the web, it wouldn’t be fair to leave it off the list: the riveting version they played at the World Financial Center this past fall might have been their first time, and it was amazing.  Band info

68. M Shanghai String Band – Sea Monster
This offhandedly eerie, symbolically-fueled, gypsy-tinged cut might be the best one on the massive Brooklyn Americana band’s new album Two Thousand Pennies. Play the song 

69. Clare & the Reasons- Colder. An icy art-rock mini-epic from the Brooklyn band, with a chilling mantra on the way out: “When will it get better?” Watch the video 

70. Animation – Transparent Heart. The epic, cinematic instrumental title track from saxophonist Bob Belden’s concept album about how New York (and the country) went to hell, as the Bush regime used 9/11 as a pretext for dismantling 200 years of democracy, and New York became a haven for chain stores and suburban yuppie cluelessness. Play the song

71. Yankee Bamg Bang – Silver Bullet. The backlash against gentrifier music is in full effect from these Bollywood-influenced Brooklyn rockers, poking fun at “love songs we couldn’t swallow from musician/actor/models.” Play the song/free download

72. My Education – For All My Friends. Syd Barrett meets Nektar in this roaring ten-minute art-rock theme,  rising to a titanic wall of frantic tremolo-picking. From their latest album A Drink For All My Friends. Play the song

73. Amniotic Fluid – Be Careful Children. Creepy cinematics with virtuoso clarinet, accordion and percussion in under two minutes. From their fiery debut album. Sound snippet

74. Theo Bleckmann & ACME – To the Night. Like Sex Mob at #67 above, the list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the rich, otherworldly debut that this crooner and indie chamber ensemble gave to Phil Kline’s new song cycle, Oud Cold, this past November. This is its high point, a feast of lustrous close harmonies. Not on the web yet, but you can check out the composer’s other intriguing song sequences.

75. Tom Shaner – She Will Shine. One of the highlights of the southwestern gothic rocker’s new album Ghosts Songs, Waltzes & Rock & Roll is a hilarious song called She’s an Unstoppable Hipster. This is sort of that song in reverse: gentrifier girl goes to the country because she’s sick of the city…or she just can’t hack it? This one’s not on the web but the first song is, in a very funny video

76. Tift Merritt – Small Talk Relations. The Americana chanteuse’s latest album Traveling Alone is the best guitar album of the year, with Marc Ribot’s noir playing off Eric Heywood’s steel and slide work. Ironically, this quiet, elegant countrypolitan number is the album’s best cut. Play the song/free download

77. Ramzi Aburedwan – Rahil. An absolutely sizzling, smashingly catchy theme for buzuq, accordion and percussion by the Palestinian virtuoso/composer, from his latest album Reflections of Palestine. Watch the video

78. Arturo O’Farrril & the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra – River Blue. One of the best concerts in New York this year was the first of two nights by this amazing, titanic band right after the hurricane: thsi darkly majestic  Rafi Malkiel Middle Eastern jazz epic is arguably the high point. Watch the video 

79. Ran Blake & Sara Serpa – Dr. Mabuse. With piano and wordless vocals, the noir jazz legend and his protegee evoke a troubled world of the spirits. From their live album Aurora, which is on Spotify if you have it; otherwise, good luck looking around.

80. Tom Warnick & World’s Fair- The Impostor. Kafkaesque rock doesn’t get any more intense than this: watch the keyboardist/bandleader finding it impossible to refrain from jumping back into the vocals after he’s handed them over to guitarist John Sharples on this noir classic. Here’s the video

81. Terrible Feelings – Blank Heads. This female-fronted punk band sounds like a dead ringer for the Avengers circa 1979, with rich Steve Jones style production. No streaming audio, but a free download from the band

82. Karthala 72 – Diable du Feu. Horror surf guitar grafted to a classic Afrobeat vamp with evil, buzzy bass by this period-perfect Brooklyn crew. Title track from their excellent new album. Play the song.

83. Spottiswoode -Enfant Terrible. This one came out a few years back, but the veteran art-rocker killed with this savage anti-trendoid broadside at a haphazardly assembled but absolutely brilliant show in the West Village right after the hurricane. Watch the video

84. Jaffa Road – Through the Mist of Your Eyes. A luscious Middle Eastern psychedelic rock tune from the eclectic female-fronted Canadian band. Play the song/free download 

85. The Funk Ark – El Rancho Motel. In case you think that Ethiopian cumbia is a crazy idea, check out this wickedly fun, creepily surfy track from the Washington, DC Afrobeat band’s excellent new album High Noon. Watch the video

86. Deleon – A La Nana. A creepy, stately minor key flamenco-flavored waltz with banjo as the lead instrument from this excellent Sephardic rock band. Play the song

87. Raya Brass Band – Melochrino. The hard-charging Balkan brass jamband is just as good at brooding, slowly unwinding, chromatically charged tunes like this one. From their phenomenal debut album Dancing on Roses, Dancing on Cinders. Play the song  

88. Andrew Collberg – Back on the Shore. A frequent Giant Sand collaborator, he writes period-perfect mid-80s style paisley underground psychedelic rock. This is a lush, hauning noir southwestern gothic anthem. Watch the video  

89. Tim Foljahn – New Light. From his brooding, pessimistic, absolutely haunting apocalypse concept album Songs for an Age of Extinction, this one artfully doubles the vocals: one track blithe and clueless, the other less so. Play the song

90. The Sweetback Sisters – Texas Bluebonnets
The harmonies and the melody of this oldschool western swing/Tex-Mex tune are so charming and chipper you know there has to be a sad undercurrent…and there sure is. “Those Texas bluebonnets just blew me away.” From their excellent album Lookin’ for a Fight. Watch the video

91. The Brixton Riot – Keep It Like a Secret. Snarling two-guitar rock from this New Jersey band, all too aware of how the Bush-era police state still lingers and makes you watch your back. From their scorching new album Palace Amusements. Play the song

92. Botanica – Manuscripts Don’t Burn. How the hell did the most epic, intense, grand guignol track from this era’s greatest art-rock band end up way down here? Roll of the dice. Sorry, guys. From their arguably most haunted, brooding album What Do You Believe. Play the song

93. Black Fortress of Opium – Afyonkaharisar Battle Cry. The female-fronted Boston band artfully crescendo from stately Middle Eastern sonics to a ferocious cauldron of dreampop guitar. From their new album Stratospherical. Play the song

94. Leigh Marble – Holden. The last of the anti-trendoid anthems here might be the funniest, which is ironic (in the true sense of the word) in that the Portland, Oregon songwriter’s latest album Where the Knives Meet Between the Rows is otherwise extremely dark. The title here is a Salinger reference. Play the song  

95. Marissa Nadler -The Wrecking Ball Company. Metaphorical, inscrutably deadpan, deathly noir atmospherics from this era’s unrivalled mistress of that style. From her latest and possibly best album The Sister. Play the song

96. Mucca Pazza – Last Days. An artsy, Russian-tinged accordion waltz from this titanically powerful gypsy punk brass band’s latest album Safety Last. Play the song

97. Niyaz – Shosin. A characteristically hypnotic, pulsing track from the Persian-Canadian dance/trance band’s latest album Sumud (Arabic for “resilience”). Watch the video

98.  Tribecastan – Jovanka. The darkest song on the eclectic-beyond-belief New York kitchen-sink worldbeat band’s latest album New Deli is sort of a balalaika bolero except that the web of stringed instruments is everything but a balalaika. Watch the video 

99. Rachelle Garniez – Land of the Living
The unexpectedly triumphant closing track on the inscrutable accordionist/chanteuse’s latest album Sad Dead Alive Happy, it starts with a devious dream sequence of sorts and ends with a warmly wry, indelibly New York stoop conversation. Play the song

100. Catspaw – Curl Up & Die. Let’s wrap up this list with a careening ghoulabilly track from this brooding 2/3 female New York retro rock trio. It’s a staple of their live show but hasn’t made it to the web yet – although you can hear their classic, even more haunting Southbound Line here.

The 30 Best New York Concerts of 2012

Of all the end-of-the-year lists here, this is the most fun to put together. It’s the most individual – everybody’s got a different one.  Last year’s list had 26 shows; this year’s was impossible to whittle down to less than 30. What was frustrating was looking back and realizing how many other great shows there were. Erica Smith, Rebecca Turner, Love Camp 7 and Pinataland all on the same bill at the Parkside? The club didn’t list it on their calendar. Neil Young in Central Park? Completely spaced out on that one. Pierre de Gaillande’s Georges Brassens translation project, Les Chauds Lapins and Raya Brass Band at that place in Tribeca in January? That night conflicted with Winter Jazzfest. The Brooklyn What at Littlefield, Rachelle Garniez at Barbes, Ward White and Abby Travis at Rock Shop, Spanglish Fly at SOB’s…all of those conflicted with having a life. But it was still a great year, arguably better than 2011.

Of all the multiple-act bills, the longest marathon, and arguably most exhilarating show of the year was Maqamfest on January 6 at Alwan for the Arts downtown with slinky Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat, haunting vintage Greek rembetiko oud band Maeandros, torchy Syrian chanteuse Gaida, rustic Iraqi classicists Safaafir, deviously intense Palestinian buzuq funk band Shusmo and then a crazy Middle Eastern jam with the brilliant Alwan All-Stars. Maqamfest 2013 promises to be just as good.

Rather than trying to rank the rest of these shows, they’re listed chronologically:

Walter Ego at Otto’s, 1/28/12 – the witty, brilliantly lyrical multi- instrumentalist/songwriter, minus his usual theatrical shtick, instead running through one clever, pun-infused, catchy song after another.

Eva Salina at the Ukrainian National Home, 3/31/12 – this was the debut performance of brilliant Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina Primack’s new band with Frank London on trumpet and Patrick Farrell on accordion. She swayed, lost in the music and sang her heart out in a bunch of different languages over the haunting pulse behind her.

Closing night at Lakeside Lounge, 4/30/12 with co-owner Eric Ambel’s Roscoe Trio, Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith’s band, Mary Lee Kortes, Boo Reiners from Demolition String Band, Charlene McPherson from Spanking Charlene and many others giving the legendary East Village rock venue a mighty sendoff.

Little Annie, Paul Wallfisch and David J at the Delancey, 5/7/12 – the smoky, sureallistically hilarious noir cabaret chanteuse, Botanica’s brilliant keyboardist playing three sets, and the legendary Bauhaus bassist/songwriter/playwright at the top of their brooding noir game.

Ben Von Wildenhaus at Zebulon, 5/14/12 – at one of his final shows before leaving town, the noir guitarist played solo through a loop pedal and turned the club into a set from Twin Peaks.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices at Otto’s,  6/16/12 – backed by the ferocious piano of Patrick McLellan, Tommy Hochscheid’s classic Stax/Volt guitar attack and a swinging rhythm section, the NYC noir rock legend careened through a politically-charged set of songs from his reportedly phenomenal forthcoming 2013 album.

Black Sea Hotel in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, 6/17/12 – the trio of Willa Roberts, Corinna Snyder and Sarah Small sang their own otherworldly, hypnotic a-cappella arrangements of surreal Bulgarian folk songs from across the centuries, their voices hauntingly echoing in the cavernous space of an old synagogue.

Veveritse Brass Band at Barbes, 6/28/12 – over the absolutely psychedelic, bubbly pulse of the trubas, this ten-piece Balkan jam band burned and roared and turned the club’s back room into a cauldron of menacing chromatics and minor keys.

Kotorino at Joe’s Pub, 6/29/12 – transcending a series of snafus with the sound system, the lush, artsy chamber-steampunk band evoked other countries and other centuries throughout a set that was as jaunty and fun as it was haunting.

Aaron Blount of Knife in the Water with Jack Martin from Dimestore Dance Band at Zirzamin, 7/9/12  – although the two hadn’t rehearsed, Martin evoked the ghost of Django Reinhardt against the reverb cloud swirling from Blount’s guitar amp, through a mix of moody, gloomy southwestern gothic songs.

Magges at Athens Square Park in Astoria, 7/10/12 – the Greek psychedelic rockers played a long show of spiky, often haunting songs spiced with Susan Mitchell’s soaring electric violin and Kyriakos Metaxas’ sizzling electric bouzouki – it seemed that the whole neighborhood stuck around for most of it. Too bad there wasn’t any ouzo.

Neko Case out back of the World Financial Center, 7/12/12 – the stage monitors weren’t working, which messed up opening act Charles Bradley’s set, but Case, Kelly Hogan and the rest of the band didn’t let it phase them, switching up their set list and playing a raw, intense set of noir Americana.

Niyaz at Drom, 7/22/12 – a  long, mesmerizing cd release show by the artsy Canadian-Persian dance/trance ensemble, frontwoman Azam Ali slowly and elegantly raising the energy from suspenseful to ecstatic as it went on.

Dimestore Dance Band at Zirzamin, 7/23/12 – since reviving this group, guitarist Jack Martin has become even more powerful, more offhandedly savage and intense than he was when he was leading them back in the mid-zeros when this witty yet plaintive gypsy/ragtime/jazz band was one of the finest acts in the Tonic scene. This show was a welcome return.

The Secret Trio, Ilhan Ersahin and Selda Bagcan at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/12 – the annual “Turkish Woodstock” began with short sets of haunting classical instrumentals, psychedelic jazz and then the American debut of the legendary psychedelic rock firebrand and freedom fighter whose pro-democracy activism landed her in jail at one point.

Bettye LaVette at Madison Square Park, 8/8/12 – the charismatic underground soul legend took songs from acts as diverse as George Jones, Paul McCartney and Sinead O’Connor and made them wrenchingly her own, a portrait of endless struggle followed finally by transcendence.

Bombay Rickey at Barbes, 8/11/12 – jaunty, jangly, surfy , psychedelic Bollywood rock fun, with guitar, accordion and frontwoman Kamala Sankaram’s amazing operatic vocals.

Daniel Kahn & the  Painted Bird at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/12/12 – grim, politically spot-on, lyrically brilliant klezmer-rock songwriting from the Berlin-based bandleader backed by an inspired New York pickup group.

Ulrich Ziegler at Barbes, 8/17/12 – of all the single-band shows, this was the year’s most intense, over an hour of eerie. reverb-driven noir cinematic instrumentals from genius guitarist Stephen Ulrich and his inspired colleague Itamar Ziegler, celebrating the release of the album rated best of 2012 here.

The Byzan-Tones at Zebulon, 8/22/12 – the recently resurrected Greek psychedelic surf rockers traded in the electric oud for Steve Antonakos’ lead guitar, and the result sent the haunting, Middle Eastern-fueled energy through the roof.

J O’Brien and Beninghove’s Hangmen at Zirzamin, 9/10/12 – a fascinatingly lyrical, characteristically witty set, solo on twelve-string guitar, by the former Dog Show frontman followed by New York’s best noir soundtrack jazz band at their most intense and psychedelic.

The Strawbs at B.B. King’s, 9/11/12 – it’s amazing how almost 45 years after the psychedelic/Britfolk/art-rock band began, they still sound strong, their lyrical anthems still resonant even in a stripped-down acoustic trio setting.

Sam Llanas at Zirzamin, 9/11/12 – rushing downtown to catch a solo show by the former BoDeans frontman paid off with a riveting, haunting set of brooding, austerely nocturnal songs, especially when J O’Brien joined him on bass.

Sex Mob at the World Financial Center, 9/27/12 – the downtown jazz legends got the atrium echoing with a hypnotic, absolutely menacing set of classic Nino Rota film themes – and they didn’t even play the Godfather.

Julia Haltigan at 11th St. Bar, 10/2/12 – the eclectic southwestern gothic/Americana/soul siren and songwriter at the top of her torchy, sultry, intense game, backed by a brilliant, jazzy band.

M Shanghai String Band‘s cd release show at the Jalopy, 10/5/12 – an hour of cameos from too many New York Americana luminaries to name, followed by two long sets from the massive oldschool string band, moving energetically from bluegrass, to Appalachian, to sea chanteys, gypsy sounds and Britfolk, sometimes fiery and intense, sometimes hilarious.

Theo Bleckmann backed by ACME, crooning Phil Kline song cycles at BAM, 10/25/12 – this was the premiere of Kline’s lushly enveloping chamber-rock arrangements of his acerbically hilarious Rumsfeld Songs, his eclectic Vietnam-themed Zippo Songs and his brand-new, luridly haunting new Sinatra-inspired cycle, Out Cold.

The Arturo O’Farrill Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra at Symphony Space, 11/2/12 – in the wake of the hurricane, O’Farrill decided to put on a couple of free concerts to lift peoples’ spirits. This was the first and better of the two nights, the brilliant latin big band pianist joined by special guests including Anat Cohen, Sex Mob’s Steven Bernstein, Rafi Malkiel and Larry Harlow, playing long, broodingly intense, towering themes, many of them based on classic Jewish melodies.

Katie Elevitch at Zirzamin, 12/16/12  – goes to show that you can’t really count the year’s best concerts until the year’s almost over. Backed by her fantastic four-piece band, the haunting, intense rock siren improvised lyrics, roared, whispered and seduced the crowd in the plush space with her voice and her achingly soul-inspired songwriting.

Rachel Brooke Puts a Subtly Menacing Spin on Classic Americana

Rachel Brooke is a distinctively menacing voice in Americana music, both as a singer and songwriter. When she’s not using her cool, unvarnished alto to deliver a subtle chill, she weilds it for a sultry allure. She’s sort of a Second City counterpart to Julia Haltigan, although where Haltigan goes ghost-hunting on the Mexican border, Brooke heads for the hollows of Kentucky. Brooke’s latest album A Killer’s Dream is about half blues and half country, the two styles frequently meeting at the 1953-era crossroads where rock was just being born. The group behind her, Chicago’s Viva Le Vox, deliver a spot-on evocation of Magic Sam and band, a vibe further enhanced by recording the album live to two-inch tape. The fact that there’s no bass on the album adds to the raw, ramshackle quality of the music.

After a brief intro, the opening track blends casually biting Magic Sam sonics – clanging reverb guitar without much sustain, as if played through an old Vox amp – with an insistent pulse that’s part Cramps, part Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (Brooke grew up with country and bluegrass but cut her teeth in punk rock). Is this going to turn out to be a murder ballad? Brooke hints at it, something she’s very good at.

Late Night Lover is the torchiest song here, sort of a Cab Calloway big band number with muted trumpet and a big flurry of guitars on the chorus where you’d expect a big swell from the brass, Brooke in absolutely lurid mode: “The window’s open, so come right in.” She follows that with Every Night About This Time, a brief soul/blues ballad in 6/8. Brooke adds a little plaintive blue yodel on Life Sentence Blues, a raw acoustic number.

The country waltz Old Faded Memory, an epic duet with crooner Lonesome Wyatt of Those Poor Bastards, paints a surreal picture, young musicians evoking old lovelorn people who missed the boat and are painfully aware of it. Ashes to Ashes takes an early 50s stye hillbilly boogie and punks it out a little with busy drums and cymbals, while the ominously imagistic The Black Bird sounds like the BoDeans if that band had been from Nashville circa 1960.

Only for You goes for a slow shuffling Hank Williams vibe, with some raw, vivid fiddle playing that reminds of Naa Koshie Mills of Maynard & the Musties. After that, Brooke picks up the pace with Serpentine Blues, reaching for a mid-60s Dylan band vibe with slide guitar, loud drums that often drown out the rest of the band and a menacingly metaphorical lyric. The album ends with the title track, which mines a coy ah-OOH mid-50s Wanda Jackson/Janis Martin rockabilly kitten vibe, and then a brief secret track that might have been a soundcheck. In a genre where copycats abound, it’s refreshing to see someone as original and yet true to the historical spirit of the music as Brooke: count this among 2012’s best albums.

Julia Haltigan Takes a Torch to 11th Street

You heard it here first: there is no other singer in New York with as much raw, sultry power, or charisma, or purist intelligence  as Julia Haltigan. Last night at 11th Street Bar in Alphabet City, she may have been playing what was essentially a weekly rehearsal, but she took over the stage as if she was at Carnegie Hall. As many styles as she mines, expertly – fiery southwestern gothic, torchy swing, warm 60s soul and big Henry Manciniesque anthems – she’s always herself. Her brassy alto has a restlessness that just won’t quit, a knowing, purposeful quality: she may be in her twenties, but she’s an old soul. The band behind her was just as good: her dad Emmet Haltigan playing alternately soulful and biting lines on harmonicas and elecrtric mandolin, plus a jazz trumpeter, slinky bass, swinging drums and lead guitarist Sam Feldman wailing intensely throughout the set. They’ve got a new album, Magneto, due out momentarily: if it’s anything like this show, it’s going to be amazing.

Their jaunty opening swing tune, It’s a Trap, established the distant menace that characterizes a lot of her songs: she waited until the end to go up the scale and drive it home with a fiery apprehension. From there they went into a warmly laid-back, wistful oldschool soul number, then a blazing southwestern gothic robber ballad. She and the band brought back the torchy vibe with a gorgeously nocturnal, casually intense lament: “When you held my hand…those monsters weren’t real, they were just how I feel,” she sang, low and matter-of-fact and all the more powerful for it.

The title track from her album My Green Heart mixed noir blues with a sinister desert duskiness, some rich harmonies from the harmonica and trumpet all the way through, and a coy disco beat from the drums on the chorus. They followed that with another catchy retro soul tune, It’s Just the Way That Day Had To Go , which had the feel of a classic from the 60s even though it’s a brand-new original. Haltigan gave the lushly countrypolitan ballad Homesick for the Moon a restrained longing, searching for somewhere new that could be anywhere “as long as it’s a long way from home.” She put down her guitar for an absolutely lurid, steamy, innuendo-driven boudoir jazz tune: “I’m gonna take you way out, you won’t wanna come back,” she sang, swaying, lost in the groove. “I’ve got a hundred octane in my veins…c’mon over, make a lane change.” But that’s more than 100 octane, guys: that’s rocket fuel.

Feldman’s searing leads and Dick Dale-style tremolo-picking fueled the stomping rock number after that, followed by the most trad song of the night, the bluesy All I Can Think Of Is You. They wound up the set with a brave choice of cover song, Richard Thompson’s Vincent Black Lightning. Feldman hasn’t quite yet figured out how to make it his own, but he’ll get there. In the meantime, their version still blows away any other cover of that one. Haltigan sang the hell out of it, gently, with an understated bittersweetness that fit the lyrics like a motorcycle glove. She and the band are often at the Rockwood when they’re not at 11th Street; their next show is at the Allen Street club on at Oct 19 at 10 followed eventually by the excellent North Carolina bluegrass/oldtimey band Holy Ghost Tent Revival at midnight.

Make Music NY: A Fool’s Errand

“I’m Julia Haltigan, and my feet are on fire,” said the blonde woman in the black dress as the sun burned down on the impromptu stage Thursday afternoon in front of the Walgreen’s on Astor Place. Stepping up and down in her sandals as if on a devil’s treadmill out in front of her six-piece band, firing off chords from a big, beautiful Gibson hollowbody guitar, she was obviously in pain. Haltigan’s powerful voice can be a lot of things – torchy, lurid, seductive, brassy, menacing or downright dangerous – and the element of danger in her vocals has never been more present than it was during her brief set that she shut down after only half an hour in the heat. Seriously – physical exertion when the temperature is in the triple digits is at best uncomfortable and at worst a genuine hazard. A generously sympathetic guy in the audience offered her a wet towel to put over her burning kicks, but it wasn’t long before she was improvising another stepdance while she played. It could be that the pain was pushing her to new levels of intensity, but realistically speaking, she’s always like this, indomitable and charismatic, refusing to concede defeat.

Yet Haltigan is only half of the story: the other half is her amazing band. Her lead guitarist fired off flurries of clenched-teeth jazz chords, psychedelic blues, swaying unhinged C&W and a literally searing, reverberating surf-drenched solo on the most intense song of the entire day, That Flame, a gorgeously noir, stomping tango. The single best one of the day was an expansively country-flavored anthem that hit a breathtaking crescendo as the chorus kicked in: “Here it comes, over the western plains, over the hills,” Haltigan belted, the band cooking up an unstoppably jangling, clanging, careening paisley underground pulse behind her, Haltigan’s dad Emmet adding an extra layer of bite with his electric mandolin (he also played smart, tersely wary blues harp on a handful of songs). My Green Heart showed off the frontwoman’s aptitude for southwestern gothic, in this case a blend of Tex-Mex, apprehensive blues and oldschool country. They turned the garage rock tune I Don’t Want to Fall in Love into something like the Yardbirds at their peak, then the bass player walked them slyly through a slinky come-hither jazz number: “I’m gonna take you way out, you won’t wanna come back,” the chanteuse purred. They swung their way soulfully through the latin-tinged, Henry Mancini-esque It’s a Trap and closed with a roaring southwestern gothic riff-rock song that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Steve Wynn catalog, the lead player veering from paint-peeling Dick Dale surf licks to concrete-smashing Poison Ivy riffage. Haltigan’s grandmother was one of the popular Larkin Sisters back in the 40s and that lineage is clear, but this singer takes the concept of torch song from that era and incorporates pretty much every era since then, including this one. Neko Case has nothing on her. Julia Haltigan and her band are at the big room at the Rockwood this Friday the 29th at 11.

Up at Calvary Church on Gramercy Park North, another singer and her band couldn’t have been more dissimilar. Luckily for them, Rachel Brotman and her subtle samba-soul quartet played under a canopy, and nobody seemed to want to move a muscle. The drummer flicked his brushes, the bassist kept to a smart, minimalist pulse and the pianist hung back with his quietly jazzy ambience while Brotman painted the corners of her moody songs with a gentle vividness a notch above Norah Jones. In a way, this performance was the perfect one for a groggy day, inobtrusive and contemplative – and a chance to let the impact of the express train that was Haltigan and her band sink in. Too bad that the space this band occupied was smack between two coveted parking spots, quickly taken by a restaurant equipment van and then an ambulette, both armed with ear-shattering reverse gear alarms. Of all the vocalists playing this year’s Make Music NY, Brotman deserved this sonic assault the least – and so did her audience. This year, if it wasn’t the heat, it was the sonics. There’s a good reason why buskers don’t typically occupy this particular slice of landscape.

Down at Washington Square Park, it was the relentless heat that did Ann Klein in. Playing a duo set with a melodic bassist, each performer’s amp powered by solar panels belonging to worldbeat jamband Solar Punch – who were scheduled to play later on-  the guitar goddess shut down her set after just fifteen minutes since her acoustic kept going out of tune as the strings and the fretboard grew hotter. It was a tremendously good fifteen minutes, Klein channeling Hendrix in soulful, Third Stone from the Sun mode when she wasn’t firing off nimble blues, lickety-split bluegrass on her mandolin or snaking her way through suspensefully crescendoing, jangly country lines. But she’s a pro and she knew this was a battle she couldn’t win.

Each of these performances were held under the MMNY rubric, the NYC contribution to the worldwide Fete de la Musique held every June 21st. Conceptually, it’s brilliant: a nonprofit organization dedicated to obtaining permits for musicians to play a daylong festival of busking in city-owned and other public spaces. But weatherwise, this thing is pretty much dead in the water. Participation keeps going down, both in terms of actual performances and number of musicians involved, for obvious reasons, perhaps compounded by various venues offering their own MMNY shows independently of the organization. After all, what would you choose: an evening gig on an air-conditioned stage or a half-hour in the blazing sun with your guitar constantly going out of tune and the van backing into the parking space across the street making it impossible for you to be heard?

In a way, the day’s earliest show was the most enjoyable one. A series of vibraphonists around the world had taken it upon themselves to stage Erik Satie’s surreal, twisted Vexations, an eighteen-hour piece that loops a characteristically brooding melody that quickly takes on a macabre edge via a series of tritones. At a little past eleven in the morning, the New York contingent was represented by Matt Evans, who managed to keep perfectly precise time even while friends and random strangers tried to strike up conversations with him. As he ran the melody over and over again, quietly and methodically, it took on an even more claustrophobic, ineluctable sadness than Satie’s more famous Gnossiennes and Gymnopedies. Watching this from the shaded steps of the New York Mercantile Bank, it was an auspiciously introspective way to start the day – and in retrospect, it would have been a good way to end it. Many of the performances of this piece from last Thursday from around the world were recorded, and you can hear them here.

At 4 PM, the Chinese Music Ensemble of NY was scheduled to play Chatham Square, but was nowhere to be found: if they’d cancelled, or on the spur of the moment decided to move their performance elsewhere, they were entitled to. Up the block a little at Columbus Park, an impressive contingent of erhu and lute players were vying with each other sonically, including one who’d attached a battery-powered amp to the base of his fiddle and was able to overwhelm pretty much everyone around him – including his three bandmates, two on erhu and one on sanxian (Chinese banjo) – with his wickedly precise hammer-ons and glissandos. A lot of Chinese folk music sounds Celtic, and that’s what this crew played, drawing plenty of applause from the neighborhood crowd gathered in the shade under the trees.

And that’s where, at least as far as this blog is concerned, Make Music NY 2012 came to a close. A couple of attempts to keep the evening going turned out to be a waste of time: one act was a no-show and the other was still AWOL almost an hour after they were scheduled to hit the stage at one of the nicest, most powerfully airconditioned venues in town. A cynic would say, why not just stay indoors, go online and check out all these acts rather than playing hooky from work and running around all day, risking the same hazards and probably feeling just as sweaty and gross as the musicians playing the festival? Answer: because staying in is lame. It only reinforces the stereotype of the 400-pound music blogger living in his mom’s basement, pondering the merits of Stone Temple Pilots versus the Spin Doctors, only emerging when the pizza delivery arrives. And staying in eliminates any possibility of the kind of unexpected, random discoveries that make all this effort worthwhile.

But another equally valid stereotype also exists: the kids just in from Osaka, or Idaho Falls, or Rotterdam for the first and probably only time in their lives, breathlessly lost on the subway when not immersed in their festival guides, CMJ badges slung around their necks to prove for everyone to see that they’ve finally Made the Bigtime Now. In a way, that stereotype’s just as ugly as the first one. And it’s not one that anyone should aspire to, especially here. Global warming has won this war: it’s time to either move Make Music NY to a less climactically harsh time of year, or throw in the towel.

Shelter From the Storm With the Dirty Urchins

The storm hit at about 7:30 last night. Watching the wind whip torrents of rain up Allen Street from behind the big plate-glass window at the Rockwood Music Hall’s original room, the question was whether that window would hold. Meanwhile, onstage, the Dirty Urchins were playing a song called Spare Me. They couldn’t have timed it better.

As it turned out, the window held – if it hadn’t, it would have been like a grenade had gone off in there. And it would have ruined the mood. The Dirty Urchins play charming, witty, unselfconsciously torchy acoustic songs with antique arrangements, yet those songs are also firmly rooted in the here and now. Perfect illustration: the last song of the set was a deadpan vaudevillian singalong called Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down, which would have made an apt concluding cut on a classic Kinks record. And while the band brought a late-night speakeasy atmosphere, it was one with bite – speakeasies were illegal, after all. Tenor sax player David Luther sang a wry blues about the new depression from the point of view of a guy who won’t let empty pockets get him down: his pickup line is, “I may be broke but I ain’t cheap.” And he didn’t use a mic. In fact, the only person in the band who used one was bassist Bennett Miller, who led the group through a breezy Beatlesque number, and another catchy one that wistfully observed how so many people we know used to play guitar and sing, but now have gone off to do more important things, the implication being that those more important things don’t include, say, shutting down nuclear reactors or overthrowing dictators.

And as it turned out, mics weren’t all that necessary: the crowd hung on the lyrics, letting the songs linger for a few seconds after they ended before breaking into quiet applause. Singer/guitarist Julia Haltigan, the latest addition to the band, brought her electric stage presence and powerful yet magically nuanced jazz and blues-infused voice to several songs, delivering a bitter version of Homesick for the Moon with an unselfconscious, understated brassiness. The implication of the song is that she wants to go straight to hell, because that’s where all the cool guys are – and at the end, again and again, she drove home the point that pretty much any destination is ok as long as it’s far from here.

Guitarist Freddie Stevenson opened the set with a gritty, tango-flavored number, The City Is King, duetting with Haltigan – who gets a little smoky, a little misty as she goes way up the scale. The rest of the set balanced poignancy with a more upbeat, humorous vibe. The Dirty Urchins have a new album due out momentarily (and a characteristically jaunty name-your-price ep up at their bandcamp); their next gig is at Littlefield in Gowanus on September 16.

By the way, if you’re reading this, Mr. Rockwood, it’s not your fault that your place was built before the effects of global warming started to get really grisly. But you might want to think about taking out that window and putting in a wall.