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No New Abnormal

Tag: katherine etzel

The 50 Best Albums of 2019

This is a playlist, plus one last record at the very end that can’t be heard anywhere online but might be the best of all of them. You can listen to everything else here, almost all of it ad-free: it couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

Lots of triage was involved. A very ambitious listener with a dayjob that allows for multitasking can hear maybe eight or nine hundred new albums a year, all the way through. An insanely dedicated blogger can hear bits and pieces of maybe five thousand more. That’s about the limit of what one human can do. You may see a few stragglers here which were technically 2018 releases but got overlooked that year. If your favorite album from 2019 isn’t here, that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good…and it might just turn up here next year.

Other than the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Being chosen as the #50 band out of 50 is like getting picked last for kickball, and that’s kind of mean. Besides, if an album is one of the fifty best out of the literally hundreds of thousands released every year, it has to be damn good. Here we go!

Big Lazy – Dear Trouble
The subtlest, most desolate and ultimately most dynamic album from a group synonymous with cinematic noir menace. Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s sense of irony has never been more refined, and the rhythm section of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion has never been slinkier. Ulrich is the only musician in history who has been on three albums rated #1 for the year here. Listen at youtube

Changing Modes – What September Brings
Best album of the year with lyrics, the New York art-rockers’ finest, most cinematic, and most political release, a savagely lyrical, spot-on reflection on Trump-era narcissism and repression, laced with shapeshifting instrumentals and frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam’s disquietingly lush harmonies. Listen at youtube

The Bright Smoke – Gross National Happiness
The title reflects frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson’s signature, withering sarcasm. It’s the band’s most savagely political record, a grimly allusive measure of Trump-era inequality, despair and resistance against all that, with a haunting Joy Division undercurrent. Listen at Bandcamp

Karen Dahlstrom – No Man’s Land
The best short album of the year, with metaphorically-loaded, sharply picturesque narratives referencing apocalypse, smalltown anomie, late-night despondency and a ferocious, defiant anthem for the Metoo era from the powerful Bobtown alto singer and Americana songstress. Listen at her music page 

Hearing Things – Here’s Hearing Things
The best debut albun of 2019, by Brooklyn’s funnest dance band, mashes up horror surt, Booker T & the MG’s, twisted go-go music, Afrobeat, Ethiopiques and the Doors, with organ, sax and surf drums. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – These Times
Steve Wynn‘s iconic, feral, influential psychedelic guitar-duel band’s quietest, most allusively political and arguably most brilliantly lyrical album. Not bad for a group who put out their first record back in the 80s. Listen at youtube

Michael Winograd – Kosher Style
Unsurpassed for his sizzling clarinet chops, Winograd is also a very colorful composer. With sabretoothed chromatics and slashing minor keys, these new klezmer tunes run the gamut from blisteringly fun to mournful to sardonic, and the band is killer. Listen at Bandcamp

Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
Here’s another world-class clarinetist and ensemble playing an especially dynamic, inescapably vivid take on one of the most iconic, haunting pieces of classical music ever written (much of it composed in a Nazi prison camp). Riveting as it is, it raises questions as to how fair it is for this blog to rank it alongside the rest of the artists here. Listen at Spotify

Layale Chaker – Inner Rhyme
The brilliant violinist writes vivid, intense, often hauntingly beautiful compositions built around the rhythmic sophistication of classical Arabic poetry, equal parts Lebanese, Egyptian and western classical music, with occasional detours toward jazz or film score atmospherics. Listen at her music page

Los Wembler’s de Iquitos – Vision Del Ayahuasca
With almost all of their original members, this iconic psychedelic cumbia jamband from the heart of the Peruvian Amazon are as wildly trippy and original as they were fifty years ago. Along with Hearing Things‘ debut, this is the best party record of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

Miguel Zenon and the Spektral Quartet – Yo Soy la Tradicion
The formidable alto saxophonist teams up with one of the world’s edgiest string quartets for a mix of acerbic works with an unselfconsciously Bartokian intensity Listen at their music page

Rev. Screaming Fingers – Music for Driving and Film, vol iII (The Desert Years)
Dusky, loping southwestern gothic tableaux, twangy noir Americana, a little horror surf and ominous big-sky themes from these great guitar instrumentalists. Listen at their music page

Girls on Grass – Dirty Power
Like a female-fronted Dream Syndicate, guitar goddess Barbara Endes’ band rips through paisley underground psychedelia, spaghetti westen themes, snarling new wave and garage rock, with a defiant, politically fearless lyricism Listen at Bandcamp

Russ Tolman – Goodbye El Dorado
Jangly, vividly lyrical western noir rock: disappeances, shattered Hollywood dreams, dead-end kids who don’t have a prayer, and roadtrip anomie from the leader of 80s legends True West. Listen at youtube

Julia Haltigan – Trouble
Turns out that the torchy mistress of Manhattan noir is just as fluent with new wave and vintage CB’s-style powerpop, throughout these tales of nocturnal prowling in the East Village before it was yuppified and whitewashed. Listen at Bandcamp

The Felice Bros. – Undress
This could have been the great lyrical, populist record that Springsgteen made in between Born to Run and Darkness: surreal political broadsides, down-and-out characters and death lingering over everything. Listen at Bandcamp

Jay Vilnai – Thorns All Over
Poet Rachel Abramowitz supplies the lyrics for this haunting, mysterious collection of new murder ballads, over the guitarist/bandleader’s cold starscapes, Lynchian dirges and a relentless, lingering guitar menace. Listen at Bandcamp

Karine Poghosyan – Rachmaninoff & Stravinsky
Nobody plays the Russian Romantics with as much insighful flair as this irrepressible virtuoso. As with Raphael Severe above, it is fair to rate this ravishingly intuitive, picturesque performance of achingly beautiful Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableaux and punishingly difficult Stravinsky piano transcriptions against the current-day artists here? Listen at Spotify

Dina Maccabee – The Sharpening Machine
Epically eclectic, trippy art-rock, chamber pop, pastoral themes and occasional coy new wave from this shapeshifting violinist and songwriter. Listen at Soundcloud

The Sirius Quartet – New World
This adventurous, microtonally-inclined string quartet’s collection of original compositions is a fierce concept album in defiance of the current fascist climate in the US. Listen at Spotify

Yale Strom’s Broken Consort – Shimmering Lights
The un-cheesiest Hanukah instrumental record ever made, the violinist-bandleader’s new arrangements blazing with ferocious solos and bracing Middle Eastern modes. Listen at rockpaperscissors

Eleni Mandell – Wake Up Again
The iconic dark Americana and torch singer’s most hauntingly political album is a series of narratives set behind bars, inspired by her experiences teaching songwriting in the prison-industrial complex. Listen at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Spells & Rituals
The constantly shapeshifting murder ballad and dark rock superduo dive further into latin noir, 60s Britrock and even garagey psychedelic sounds, all with their colorfully dark lyricism. Listen at Bandcamp

Noctorum – The Afterlife
Lush, characteristically lyrical, jangly art-rock from iconic twelve-string guitarist Marty Willson-Piper – late of Australian psychedelic legends the Church – with a similarly allstar backing band. Listen at Bandcamp

Laura Carbone – Empty Sea
Bleak, Lynchian panoramas, highway-of-death narratives and some guitarishly snarling gutter blues from one of this era’s great noir singers. Listen at Bandcamp

Unnatural Ways – The Paranoia Party
A grimly surreal, volcanically noisy, rhytmically disorienting concept about contact with aliens from guitarist Ava Mendoza’s searing doom/art-rock power trio. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Maureen Choi Quartet – Theia
Epically twisting, high-voltage, flamenco and Romany-inspired string band music from the violinist and her equally eclectic ensemble Listen at Bandcamp

Budos Band – V
The imaginative Afrobeat and Ethiopiques instrumentalists’ most doom metal-inspired album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

JD Allen – Barracoon
A big comeback of sorts for this era’s most potent tenor saxophonist, scorching his way through a Zora Neale Hurston-inspired mix of ominously modal, tersely evocative protest jazz tunes with a new trio. Listen at youtube

Nancy Braithwaite – To Paradise For Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway
The classical clarinetist and her dynamic, nuanced chamber ensemble explore stunningly imagistic, darkly clever, tersely crafted pieces by a now Rhode Island-based, nonagenarian composer whose work has never been released on album before. A major rediscovery. Listen at Spotify

Fabian Almazan – This Land Abounds with Life
A glittering, epically cascading eco-disaster themed concept album from one of this era’s most tunefully virtuosic jazz pianists and his dynamic rhythm section Listen at Bandcamp

Doomstress – Sleep Among the Dead
Pervasive gloom, minor keys, purposeful guitar and unusual elegance from frontwoman Alexis Hollada on the Texas doom metal band’s debut album. Listen at Bandcamp

Bobtown – Chasing the Sun
Bewitching three-part harmonies from Katherine Etzel, Karen Dahlstrom and Jen McDearman and folk noir songwriting that’s just a hair less relentlessly dark than the material that put them on the map. Listen at Bandcamp

Petros Klampanis – Irrationalities
Slinky, brooding, Middle Eastern and Greek-inflected ballads and more kinetic, pulsing material from the eclecic bassist and his excellent trio. Listen at Spotify 

The Well – Death & Consolation
Grim, Sabbathy dirges, paint-peeling Stooges sonics and ornately macabre heavy psychedelia from this Texas band. Listen at Bandcamp

Jason Yeager – New Songs of Resistance
A short parade of first-class pan-latin singers deliver the pianist’s protest jazz reinventions of classic nueva cancion from across the Americas in the 70s, alongside some chillingly lyrical, politically-fueled instrumentals. Listen at Bandcamp

Amy Allison – Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun
A characteristically bittersweet, brilliantly crystallized, lyrical collection of rarities and outtakes by the inimitable Americana singer. Listen at youtube

Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith – Mummer Love
Rousingly hypnotic North African grooves and immersive atmospherics behind acerbic, often savage poetry by Patti Smith and one of her big influences, Arthur Rimbaud. Listen at Bandcamp

Andplay – Playlist
The meticulously focused, tightly intertwining, colorful violin/viola duo negotiate the dynamic twists and turns of pieces by David Bird, Ashkan Behzadi and Clara Iannotta on their debut ep. Listen at Bandcamp

The Shootouts – Quick Draw
Spot-on, classic 1965-style honkytonk, hard country, Bakersfield twang and a little rockabilly from this slyly aphoristic Akron, Ohio band. Listen at Soundcloud 

The Ragas Live Retrospective
Members of the paradigm-shifting Brooklyn Raga Massive, who put all kinds of radical new spins on classic Indian raga themes, captured live in the studio over more than sixteen hours worth of music. Most of it is sublime; nobody at this blog has listened to the entire record yet. You can start at Bandcamp

Sarah Pagé – Dose Curves
Hypotically shimmery electroacoustic psychedelia and an Indian raga performed on the concert harp. Unselfconsciously magical,  cutting-edge stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Zosha Di Castri – Tachitipo
Vocal ensemble Ekmeles, the Jack Quartet, pianist Julia Den Boer, percussion ensemble Yarn/Wire  and a chamber orchestra join the thoughtfully eclectic pianist/composer in a diverse mix of acerbic, socially relevant compositions and art-songs. Listen at Bandcamp

Funkrust Brass Band – Bones & Burning
Sizzling Balkan chromatics, undulating New Orleans grooves and a pretty relentless sense of doom on the theatrical, sprawling brass band’s latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

Castle Black – Dead in a Dream
The ferocious female-fronted power trio look back to the most darkly ambitious of the first wave punk bands with their surreal, often haunting latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Manimals – Multiverse
Crunchy, catchy powerpop and a darkly pervasive Bowie influence on the new album from New York’s’ most entertainingly theatrical band. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 compilation
Digitized and somewhat sonically tweaked field recordings of icons like Howlin’ Wolf and cult figures like Magic Sam, shredding and wailing in their element onstage, captured by a college kid with a cheap tape recorder. Listen at Bandcamp

Beat Circus – These Wicked Things
One of the first and best of the carnivalesque rock bands of the 90s, back and revitalized with a lavish, darkly picturesque southwestern gothic concept album. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Sometime Boys – The Perfect Home
A characteristically enigmatic mix of distantly Americana-influenced, slinky originals and imaginatively reinvented covers from New York’s most charismatic, kinetically psychedelic band. Listen at Bandcamp

Locobeach – Psychedelic Disco Cumbia
Truth in advertising: trippy chicha, serpentine highway themes and some woozy dub from this tropical supergroup led by members of Los Crema Paraiso and Chicha Libre. Listen at Bandcamp 

Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee – The Newest Sound You Never Heard
Recorded live and in the studio for Belgian radio in 1966 and 1967, these radical reinventions and a handful of originals by the iconic noir pianist and the shatteringly subtle jazz singer rival the brilliance of their iconic 1961 debut. Not streaming anywhere but available on vinyl.

A Haunting, Politically Fearless Solo Acoustic Album From Folk Noir Supergroup Bobtown’s Karen Dahlstrom

Karen Dahlstrom may be best known as one of the trio of brilliant songwriters in the three-woman frontline of folk noir supergroup Bobtown, but she’s no less haunting as a solo artist. Her 2011 debut solo release, Gem State is a concept album set in frontier Idaho – and may be the only record of its kind. Dahlstron’s long-awaited follow-up, No Man’s Land – streaming at her music page – is the best short album of 2019 by a country mile. Dahlstrom’s vocals, sometimes stark, sometimes plaintive, sometimes completely devastated, are nothing short of shattering. If anything, they’re even more nuanced than the harmonies and gale-force gospel wail she’ll cut loose with Bobtown from time to time (for a serious thrill, dial up Dahlstrom’s gospel noir tour de force Battle Creek). Likewise, she paints a relentlessly dark series of tableaux equally informed by oldtime blues, gospel and bluegrass. But this is a distinctly 21st century record, relentlessly bleak yet defiant. Dahlstrom’s next New York gig is. Nov 15 at 5:30 PM at the American Folk Art Museum.

Although the record is just guitar and vocals, that’s all these songs need. Dahlstrom’s imagery in the first track, After the Flood packs a potent a political message as a personal one. Set in a post-Katrina New Orleans, Dahlstrom sets the scene at an old cathedral that managed to survive, then she shifts to the old quarter:

Over a bottle of Four Roses in a bar on Saint-Louis
We trade our stories and compare our scars
The deepest wounds will never show
Wonder if we’ll ever know
If our disasters are written in the stars
He shows me the numbers tattoed on his chest
With a look he meant to bring me to my knees
But he don’t know the half of it
More than I would dare admit
I’ve weathered storms worse than these

Cottonmouth Blues, a muted minor-key sway with more than a hint of St. James Infirmary doesn’t seem to be about the aftereffects of smoking weed; it’s a metaphor for shyness. It’s classic Dahlstrom, deviously working an oldtime sex-and-drugs vernacular in the here and now.

The delicately fingerpicked Goodbye, Espanola is a more pastorally bluesy tale of hope from escape from a dead end-southern town where pollution hangs in the air and “The hot rod kids keep low to the ground, never seem to go anywhere.”

The sleepless, despondent narrator of the gentle, mournfully waltzing final number, Broken Golden pleads for the nameless tunesmith she’s stuck on to give her

…something I can cling to when night gets cold
Put words in my mouth and thoughts in my head
Paint me a picture and send me to bed

But it’s the album’s gospel-tinged title track that’s the best of all of them here – and might be the single best song of 2019. The album version on Bobtown’s latest release has mighty harmonies from Dahlstrom’s bandmates Katherine Etzel and Jen McDearman. But there’s more seething anger and resolute determination in this spare, all-acoustic take of Dahlstrom’s fearless feminist anthem. In the year of Metoo, it transcends gender boundaries:

No man’s words can still my voice
No man can tell me where I stand
No man’s will can take my choice
I am no man’s land

You’ll see this ep on the best albums of 2019 page here, too.

Folk Noir Supergroup Bobtown Bring Up the Lights Just a Little

For about ten years, Bobtown have been the most bewitching three-part harmony folk noir supergroup in the world. Their three-woman frontline – percussionist/tenor guitarist Katherine Etzel, guitarist/banjo player Karen Dahlstrom and singer/percussionist Jen McDearman – are as eclectically skilled as songwriters as they are on the mic. Their new album Chasing the Sun is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing the album release show on  Oct 13 at 7 PM at the big room at the Rockwood; cover is $10.

As the band admit, this album is somewhat less relentlessly dark than their haunting back catalog. They open the new record with Daughters of the Dust, a moody, midtempo, metaphorically charged newgrass tune: “In our land of bone and rust, unsteady and shifting, will we ever find a place for us?” the three women ask.

“I hear the whispesrs, will she sink or swim?” Etzel muses as Kryptonite gets underway; then lead guitarist Alan Lee Backer’s twangy riffage kicks in, a defiantly swaying, anthenic toast to “Feed the hungry ghosts of all our glory days.”

The starkly fingerpicked intro to Come On Home is there to fake you out: it’s a Tex-Mex flavored romp. Special guest Serena Jost‘s cello adds haunting textures to the album’s lone cover, a dirgey, elegaic take of Tom Petty’s American Girl: who knew that this song was about suicide?

“The darkest heart and evil hand blind our children’s eyes, as every witness takes the stand to show the devil in disguise,” the group harmonize in Hazel, a melancholy, banjo-driven portrait echoing the theme of the Petty song. The subtly vindictive breakup ballad Let You Go is a throwback to the group’s early years, when they were reinventing old 19th century field hollers.

Etzel takes the lead for In My Bones, a blithely creepy, cynical country-pop tune about cheating the reaper, with an irresistibly funny round of vocals midway through. “I’m right to question everyrthing, I’m right about to scream,” McDearman intones in This Is My Heart, a wounded waltz. Then the band pick up the pace with the determined, optimistic Devil Down: it’s Bobtown’s take on what Tom Waits did with Keep the Devil Down in the Hole.

The best song on the album is Dahlstrom’s gospel-flavored No Man’s Land. It’s an anthem for the Metoo era, a soaring, defiant, venomous broadside, and it could be the best song of the year:

...No man has me at his command
No man can claim me for his own
I am no man’s land
No man’s book can tell my story
No man’s judge can understand
No man’s eyes can see my glory
I am no man’s land

As consistently excellent as the band’s recorded output is, nothing beats the way these three distinctive voices blend onstage

Soaring, Haunting Folk Noir Band Bobtown Make a Mighty Return to the Stage

Bobtown are the most individualistic folk noir band you could possibly imagine. They have soaring three-part vocal harmonies – and they’re fronted by their drummer. They’ve also been AWOL lately since they’ve been working on a new album. Last weekend, they packed the big room at the Rockwood and played most of the tracks from the record, Chasing the Sun, due out at the end of next month. If the show was any indication, it’s going to be amazing.

Everybody in the band plays a lot of instruments. Bandleader Katherine Etzel began the show on ukulele, then switched to a big, imposing standup drumkit. Karen Dahlstrom played guitar for most of the set but then broke out her banjo, something she rarely does live. Jen McDearman took turns on both lead and harmony vocals while adding percussion and eerily twinkling glockenspiel. Alan Lee Backer switched between electric and acoustic lead guitar while bassist Dan Shuman held down the low end, bolstered on a couple of tunes by stark resonance from guest cellist Serena Jost (who also plays on the record).

They opened with Devil Down, a brightly shuffling tune with thematic if not musical resemblance to Tom Waits’ Down in the Hole:. As Etzel intimated, the new album is slightly more optimistic than the ghostly tales that populate much of the band’s previous output. After that, McDearman didn’t waste any time taking the music back in that direction with Hazel, a banjo number about a crazy woman who’s reached the end of her rope.

Etzel went back to lead vocals for Let You Go, a kiss-off anthem with echoes of the chain gang songs the band were exploring in the early part of the decade. Daughters of the Dust, a spaghetti western bluegrass tune, kept the charming/sinister dynamic going, the women’s shiny harmonies in contrast with the emotionally depleted Dust Bowl narrative. Then they picked up the pace with the Buddy Holly-ish Come on Home.

In My Bones turned out to be classic Bobtown, a chirpy, blackly amusing tune about how to cheat the man in black when he makes a “certain visitation.” With its hushed ambience, This Is My Heart could have been an especially melancholy number from a Dolly Parton bluegrass record. Then the group built to a big, vamping peak with Kryptonite and its Hey Jude-style chorus.

The biggest surprise of the night, with Jost on cello again, was a slow, spare, hazy cover of Tom Petty’s American Girl: who knew the lyrics were so sad? They closed with the night’s most mighty, majestic number, No Man’s Land, sung with gospel-infused intensity by Dahlstrom. In a year of full-frontal assaults on women’s rights from Ohio all the way to the Mexican border, it’s a new national anthem:

No man’s words can still my voice
No man can tell me where I stand
No man’s will can take my choice
I am no man’s land

Haunting Harmonies and Fierce Relevance From Bobtown at the American Folk Art Museum

When you have three multi-instrumentalists as diversely talented as Jen McDearman, Katherine Etzel and Karen Dahlstrom, who needs more people in the band? Friday night at the American Folk Art Museum, in a rare trio performance, the three core members of folk noir group Bobtown reaffirmed their status as one of the best bands in New York. Which they’re been for the past ten years.

They haven’t been playing out a lot lately since they’re in the process of making a new album.  “For those of you who know us, we’re a pretty dark band,” Dahlstrom admitted. “The new record is…more of a charcoal grey.” Which was pretty accurate: the new songs in their tantalizingly brief, headlining set were less macabre than much of the band’s back catalog, if they weren’t exactly carefree.

The band’s closing number, No Man’s Land – as in, “I am no man’s land” – brought the house down. Dahlstrom couldn’t resist telling the crowd how much more resonance this fearlessly feminist, oldtime gospel-flavored broadside has taken on in the few weeks since she’d written it. The women’s three-part harmonies spoke truth to power throughout this ferocious reclamation of women’s rights, and dreams, a slap upside the head of trumpie patriarchy.

Getting to that point was just as redemptive. The trio opened with another brand-new number, In My Bones, pulsing with vocal counterpoint. You wouldn’t expect Etzel, whose upper register has razorwire power, to hang out in the lows, but she was there a lot of the time. Likewise, Dahlstrom – best known for her mighty, gospel-infused alto – soared up in the highs. McDearman, who channels the most high-lonesome Appalachian sound of anyone in the group and usually takes the highest harmonies of all, found herself somewhere in the middle for most of it.

The rest of the new material, including the bittersweet kiss-off anthem Let You Go, had a more wry sensibility than the band’s usual ghostly chronicles. Rumble Seat, a sardonic chronicle of smalltown anomie that could just as easily be set in luxury condo-era Brooklyn as somewhere in the Midwest, was even funnier, especially when the trio reached the eye-rolling yodels on the final choruses.

The band joined voices for a 19th century field holler-style intro and then some loomingly ominous harmonies in Battle Creek, Dahlstrom’s chilling, gospel-infused chronicle of an 18th century Michigan millworker’s descent into the abyss. Throughout the evening, McDearman switched from eerily twinkling glockenspiel to atmospheric keyboards and also cowbell. Etzel, who typically handles percussion, played tenor guitar; Dahlstrom played both guitar and banjo, the latter a relatively new addition to her arsenal.

The Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum is off this week for the holiday but resumes on July 13 at around 6 PM with a typically excellent lineup including elegantly angst-fueled, individualistic torchsong/parlor pop piano chanteuse Jeanne Marie Boes, followed by soul/gospel belter (and Lenny Molotov collaborator) Queen Esther.

And several other artists who’ve played the museum in recent months – especially when sticking around for the whole night wasn’t an option – deserve a shout. Dave Hudson treated the crowd to a catchy, anthemic set of solo acoustic janglerock. Heather Eatman played a rare mix of similarly catchy, 80s-inspired acoustic songs she’d written back then as a teenager. Jon LaDeau flexed his purist country blues guitar chops, Joanna Sternberg alternated between LOL-funny and poignant original Americana, and Miwa Gemini and her accordionist mashed up uneasy southwestern gothic and Mediterranean balladry. And as far as vocals are concerned, along with this show, the most exhilarating sets here so far this year have been by Balkan singer Eva Salina and her pyrotechnic accordionist Peter Stan, along with a rare solo show by Dahlstrom and a deliciously venomous farewell New York performance by blue-eyed soul powerhouse Jessi Robertson.

Bobtown Bring Their Gorgeous Gothic Americana to Hill Country

Harmony-driven gothic Americana band Bobtown‘s new album, A History of Ghosts, recently reached #1 at the Roots Music Report. They’re playing the album release show on the big stage downstairs at Hill Country on 26th St. just off 6th Ave. at 9:30 PM on Jan 14. A lot of things distinguish this band from the others in their field: their otherworldly, gorgeous four-part vocal harmonies, for one. The fact that the band has not one but four first-rate songwriters, who all seem to save their best material for the group, doesn’t hurt. And while there’s a whole demimonde of carnivalesque Americana bands who write gloomy minor-key songs about backstreet murders and drunken depravity, Bobtown’s songs are all the more creepy for how lighthearted they can be – on the surface, anyway.

How about a slow, summery pastoral reminiscence – about a public execution? A blithe, bouncy waltz with chipper, round-the-horn vocals, about drinking yourself to death in a dead-end town? Those are just two examples of what percussionist/keyboardist Katherine Etzel, singer Jen McDearman, guitarist Karen Dahlstrom and bassist Fred Stesney come up with on the album, streaming at their site. The womens’ crystalline vocals blend with the fretwork of lead guitarist/banjoist Alan Lee Backer, who long ago established himself as one of the most diverse and incisive players in the New York Americana scene, a guy who’s just as fluent with electric honkytonk as he is bluegrass.

The song about the execution is Morning Sun, written and sung by Stesney, the women’s vocals adding an eerie shimmer behind the tale of the guy on the gallows who’s finally run out of time. The grimly funny dead-end town waltz is Rumble Seat, by Etzel, a good way to get acquainted with the singers’ individual voices. That’s Dahlstrom, McDearman and then Etzel as they make their way through the first verse.

Dahlstrom’s Across the River opens the album on a delicate, purist country gospel note: if the Dixie Chicks’ record label’s marketing department had left them alone, they might have sounded something like this. She also contributes the cynically brooding, bolero-tinged Our Lady of Guadalupe Street.

McDearman takes over lead vocals on her trio of songs here (co-written with producer Joe Ongie): the subtly enigmatic, banjo-fueled bluegrass tune Girl in Blue, Darlin’, a plaintive, wistful waltz, and Oh, Undertaker, which sets a ghoulishly amusing lyric to a morose tune fueled by Etzel’s accordion. Etzel’s two other songs here are the elegantly orchestrated, ethereally intriguing Fosse Grim, and the rousingly gospel-flavored Stitch in Time.

Stesney also contributes the phantasmagorically shuffling circus rock anthem Kentucky Graveyard – which ends with a hilarious surf music quote – as well as the title track, a grimly catchy litany of ways to reach your final resting place. It’s may be early, but this is a strong contender for best album of the year.

If you’re wondering where the band got their name, it’s a neighborhood near Etzel’s old Iowa hometown.

Another Creepy Winner from Bobtown

Among oldtime Americana bands, no one has better original songs than Bobtown. That’s probably because the band has four first-rate songwriters. Between them, percussionist/keyboardist Katherine Etzel, singer Jen McDearman, guitarist Karen Dahlstrom and bassist Fred Stesney blend their voices and instruments in a dark mix of bluegrass, country blues, gospel and other rustic Americana styles alongside new band member and brilliant guitarist/banjoist Alan Lee Backer. Their new album Trouble I Wrought also features cameos by drummers Dave Ciolino-Volano and Charlie Shaw and pedal steel player Mike Nolan along with M Shanghai String Band’s Philippa Thompson’s stark violin, and Dock Oscar Stern’s wry jawharp on one song. The new record expands on the eclectically haunting sound of their brilliant 2010 debut: this time out, they’re a little less stark, a little more lush but just as grim, fixated on death and despair. Consider this stuff antique folk songs for a new century.

On this album, Etzel is the main songwriter. Bobtown’s first album has a number of her songs written in the style of 19th century chain gang chants, and this album opens with one, Mama’s Got the Backbeat – which with different production, could be trip-hop, or gospel-flavored hip-hop. But that’s hardly the only style she works here. Skipping Stone is part banjo-fueled gospel bluegrass, part oldtime hokum blues with jaunty Roulette Sisters-style harmonies: “Today’s precious lover is tomorrow’s tasty bourguignon,” mmmm…

Etzel’s most lavish song here is Burn Your Building Down, a sepulchral grand guignol anthem with swirly violin, banjo and harmonies, building to a towering angst in the same vein as Vespertina. By contrast, her title track clocks in at barely two minutes, its rage semi-concealed in a soaring gospel arrangement over an organ drone. Resurrection Mary is a cheery, harmony-fueled Boswell Sisters-style swing tune…about a murder and a ghost. And Coalville, the lurid tale of a doomed couple now sharing a graveyard, reaches for a plush Nashville gothic ambience.

McDearman seems to specialize in sarcastically cheery, upbeat bluegrass songs. One Public Enemy would have been a perfect fit on one of Dolly Parton’s bluegrass albums (hey Dolly, there’s still time…). And McDearman maxes out the suspense factor in the otherwise very pretty Magilla Lee, as the listener grows closer and closer to finding out what happened as the poor girl waited to die. Dahlstrom contributes only one song here, Battle Creek, but it’s the best one on the album. With her searing gospel wail rising over an ominous minor-key backdrop, she paints a cruel portrait of a farm girl slowly losing it in early Rust Belt-era Michigan. Dahlstrom is no stranger to historically-informed songwriting: her Idaho-themed solo album, Gem State, was one of last year’s most intense releases in any style of music.

Not everything is so overtly bleak. Stesney’s two songs here each work a blackly humorous vein: Live Slow Die Old, which comes across as a mashup of Smog, Flugente and the Mountain Goats, and the irresistibly funny faux-gospel Flood Water Rising, possibly the only country gospel song to namecheck both L. Ron Hubbard and Herbert Hoover. There’s also a deadpan cover of Don’t Fear the Reaper, done as tersely creepy Nashville gothic, Backer’s banjo carrying the hook under the womens’ angelic harmonies, a terse banjo/accordion interlude in place of Buck Dharma’s shredding guitar solo. Like Bobtown’s previous album, this is one of the best of the year. The band’s next gig is Sept 21 at 9 PM on an excellent bill with eclectic alt-country siren Alana Amram & the Rough Gems at Union Hall for $10.

Bobtown Kickstarts a New Album

By now the Kickstarter parodies have made their way to pretty much everybody’s inbox – good grief, another band begging for money? On the other hand, acts as defiantly individualistic as the Oxygen Ponies, the Universal Thump and Serena Jost have successfully financed recordings through Kickstarter. What’s cool about Kickstarter is that it gives anybody with an extra twenty bucks the opportunity to feel good about helping their favorite artists; more problematic issues like creative control creep in as the level of financing escalates. And it can be just as sad watching your favorite band send out desperate plea after plea as it is to imagine old J.S. Bach losing his eyesight, furiously scribbling the Brandenburg Concertos by the dim light of a candle, hoping that some Marquis (or Count or Duke or whatever the hell that particular one-percenter was) would like the music enough that he’d want more…and be willing to pay for it.

Dark acoustic Americana band Bobtown are going about their Kickstarter campaign a little differently. If you really want to get in at the top end, a grand will get you all the goodies that all the lesser levels of support give you: all kinds of signed merch and memorabilia, plus you get to be on the album and on the video, plus they’ll record not only your outgoing phone message, but also any song of your choice. Beyond all that, they’ll also do a house concert for you. Consider: if you can find the space to fit a hundred people, you could sell tickets at ten bucks a head and actually make money off their Kickstarter campaign! Maybe this is the future of the music industry…

Obviously, none of this would be worth anything if Bobtown wasn’t a great band. Their 2010 debut album was one of that year’s most deliciously entertaining, eclectic and sometimes creepy releases, with Katherine Etzel’s rustic field hollers, Jen McDearman’s casually menacing bluegrass-pop songs and strong picking from the rest of the band. This year’s follow-up promises to be just as diverse: guitarist Karen Dahlstrom’s recently released solo album, Gem State, a haunting collection of acoustic songs set in oldtime Idaho, was one of the half-dozen best albums of this past year, so there’s no telling what she might have ready for the new Bobtown album along with her bandmates.

In case the dark quality of this band’s music might lead you to believe that the members of the group are all brooding introverts, you are in for a BIG surprise, as this video confirms, word up. Also check out their hilarious cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper, which should be food for thought if you have money to burn and feel like getting your own personal Nashville gothic cover version of your favorite song – Enter Sandman, maybe? Bobtown are at the Jalopy on the 5th at 9 (on a doublebill with excellent concert harpist/songwriterKatie Brennan) and then on the 28th at 68 Jay St. Bar at 8:30.