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Karen & the Sorrows Celebrate Their Excellent, Eclectic New Americana Album at Littlefield This Week

Over the last few years, Karen & the Sorrows have individualistically skirted the fringes of the New York Americana scene. Not all their songs are sad, and frontwoman Karen Pitttelman has no fear of mashing up different styles. Their debut album was a creepy New England gothic suite. Their second ome was a country-tinged janglerock record. Their latest album. Guaranteed Broken Heart – streaming at Bandcamp – is even more eclectic, featuring some of New York’s most electrifying musicians. Pittelman’s vocals are more dynamic and diverse than ever as well. She and the band are playing the album release show on Oct 18 at around 10:30 PM at Littlefield. Nimble, pensive acoustic guitarist/songwriter Genessa James‘ Onliest open the night at 8:30, followed by the exhilarating, fearlessly political, historically inspired Ebony Hillbillies, NYC’s only oldtime African-American string band. Cover is $10.

The title track opens the album: it’s a briskly brooding southwestern gothic shuffle with some cool tradeoffs between lead guitar and pedal steel. Cole Quest Rotante’s lingering dobro spices the loping second track, There You Are, blending with the pedal steel, mandolin and Rima Fand’s plaintive fiddle.

The band go back to darkly shuffling desert rock with the organ-driven Jonah and the Whale, Girls on Grass guitar goddess Barbara Endes winding it up with a deliciously slithery solo. Why Won’t You Come Back to Me has an even more haunting, spare, 19th century African-American gospel feel: “Oh my little angel, send me back to hell,” is the closing mantra.

Bowed bass, mandolin and banjo mingle with Fand’s mournful fiddle in the similarly rustic Appalachian gothic ballad Your New Life Now. Drummer Charles Burst gives the sad, lingering ballad Far Away a muted country backbeat: “Some people you can love up close, some from afar/The trick is knowing which they are,” Pittelman observes.

Third Time’s the Charm is an upbeat, pedal steel-fueled honkytonk number: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” sets up the chorus. Then they bring it down with the mournful Queen of Denial.

When People Show You Who They Are is a subdued, downcast, hypnotic folk-pop tune in Americana disguise. The group mash up electric Neil Young with tinges of oldschool soul in It Ain’t Me, then quietly shuffle through the melancholy Something True, with tantalizingly brief mandolin and fiddle solos. They close the album with a love ballad, You’re My Country Music. It’s inspiring to see a genuine New York original taking her sound and her songwriting to the next level.

Robin Aigner’s Con Tender Punches and Teases on All Kinds of Levels

There are plenty of sirens with torchy voices out there. Most of them front oldtimey swing jazz bands. The most gifted of them tend to drift either further into jazz, or into straight-ahead rock, a la Neko Case, where the most intriguing wiggles and secret corners of their voices are guaranteed centerstage.

Robin Aigner is one of those sirens, but even in that crowded field, she stands out. As exceptional and in-demand a vocal stylist as she is, her greatest strength is her songwriting. She has a laser sense for the mot juste. Obsessed with history, she writes in a vernacular straight from whatever era she’s channeling, packed with devious puns and double and triple entendres. As a tunesmith, she’s a connoisseur of Americana, from Appalachian folk, to early jazz, to blues and torch song from throughout the ages. Her latest album, Con Tender, with her band Parlour Game, is streaming at Bandcamp.

The album title alone gives you a good idea of where Aigner’s coming from. It could be Spanglish, or a battle-of-the-sexes boxing metaphor, or it could refer to being a caretaker to the duplicitous – or, most likely, all three. The opening track, Kiss Him When He’s Down sets Aigner’s wry prescription for how to keep a guy’s head in, um, the game to a bittersweet swing blues lit up by the interweave of Rima Fand’s violin and Michael Joviala’s clarinet over the slinky pulse of bassist Larry Cook and Gutbucket/Universal Thump drummer Adam D. Gold. Strings moves forward in time toward late 30s Ink Spots territory, a wistfully swinging tale from the point of view of a girl who thinks she’s made a break for good…but she’s left the door open just a crack.

Crazy works a charming early hillbilly swing shuffle with a sideways reference to the Patsy Cline song, Aigner admitting to a weakness for

Charmers who disarm the masses
Glasses-wearing antifascists
Romeos with garden hoes
Throw me deep into the throes

A plaintively elegant waltz with a verse in subtly sarcastic Franglais, Français Salé pairs Aigner’s ukulele against Fand’s stark violin, all the way up to an unexpectedly crushing if completely understated final verse. Likewise, Aigner pairs her terse acoustic guitar with Joviala’s spacious piano over a bolero-tinged groove on Shoegazer: it’s a surprisingly sympathetic if amusing account of a guy with a fetish.

Aigner sails gently through her imperiled airplane metaphors for all they’re worth in Velocity, a gorgeous country waltz that draws comparisons to Laura Cantrell. El Paraiso draws a vivid, Marissa Nadler-esque Victorian heartbreak tableau with string band music to match its milieu. The album hits a peak with Greener, its Gatsby-era setting the exact opposite of what it seems to be, Fand’s violin and Ray Sapirstein’s trumpet flying over a tensely flurrying, flamenco-tinged beat.

A 21st century update on classic hokum blues, Your Candy’s No Good for Me, with its endless sequence of innuendos, is just plain hilarious:

Your honey’s quite the bee’s kneex
Even when I’m stung
I give your honey bear an extra little squeeze

The album comes full circle with a stark, gospel-tinged take of Wayfaring Stranger. Pulitzer Prize-winning violinist Caroline Shaw, bassist Julian Smith, harmonica player Jim Etkin, banjo player Noah Harley, guitarist David Wechsler and drummer Alice Bierhorst also contribute to this richly purist collection: look for it in a few days on the list of the year’s best here.

Another Great Retro Americana Album from Miss Tess

Over the past few years, guitarist/bandleader/chanteuse Miss Tess has made a name for herself as a connoisseur of retro sounds. Her unaffectely bright, nuanced vocals immediately set her apart from the rest of the retro crowd; she isn’t trying to ape Billie Holiday, or Loretta Lynn, or any other icon from decades past. When Miss Tess is at the top of her game, which is pretty much always, her songs sound like country, soul or blues hits from whatever era she’s gone back in time to capture. Her latest album, The Love I Have for You, with her killer band the Talkbacks – Will Graefe (also of the brilliant dub reggae band Super Hi-Fi) on lead guitar, Larry Cook on upright bass, and Matt Meyer on drums –  has a characteristically diverse mix of originals and at least one cover. They’re playing the album release show at Joe’s Pub at 7 PM on Dec 11; cover is $15. As of today this album isn’t streaming yet at her Bandcamp page, but the rest of her excellent back catalog is.

The opening track, Sorry You’re Sick, is hilarious. “What do you want from the liquor store?” Miss Tess chirps as the band bounces along behind her with a vintage 60s soul vibe.  After a few shots of whatever’s in Miss Tess’ brown bag, “You can be sure you won’t suffer no more.”

The album’s title track is basically Your Cheating Heart redone as a soul song with a triplet rhythm, propelled by Meyer’s artful cymbal work. Likewise, the Alabama Waltz is pretty much the one from a few states north (you know, the beautiful…), with a tasty blend of electric and acoustic guitars. Then Graefe uses a tasteful, jazzy cover of Willlie Nelson’s Night Life as a lauching pad for an expansive solo that finally catches fire at the very end.

With its pinpoint, shuffling beat, Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad sounds like a classic soul song from the Lakeside Lounge jukebox, capped off by a biting Graefe slide guitar solo.  Give It Up or Let Me Go, a bluesy rockabilly number, has some deliciously dueling guitars from the lead player and the bandleader.  The catchiest song here is the Hank Williams-ish country ballad Hold Back the Tears, which is packed with neat back-and-forth dynamic shifts. Not a single bad song on this album: Miss Tess does it again.

Alluringly Torchy Retro Sounds from Miss Tess and the Talkbacks

So many singers in retro music mimic their influences, but Miss Tess has her own nonchalantly warm voice. She’s got a little grit and she bends the blue notes, but not too hard. You can tell she’s listened to Billie Holiday, but she’s not trying to be anyone other than herself. Miss Tess doesn’t sound like anybody else; in fact, maybe someday other singers will be imitating her. And she’s an excellent guitarist, too. Likewise, she writes songs that sound like classics from the 1930s through the 1950s. Her latest album, Sweet Talk, with her killer backing band, the Talkbacks – Will Graefe (also of the brilliant dub reggae band Super Hi-Fi) on lead guitar, Larry Cook on upright bass (with Danny Weller on the album tracks), and Matt Meyer on drums – also might be her darkest yet. She’s gone on record as saying that she wanted to record the album “slow and strange” and a lot of that comes through.

To her further credit, all but one of the songs – other than the Ink Spots’ Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, redone as a fetching ballad that reminds of Daria Grace – are originals. Don’t Tell Mama starts out on a sultry tone with just guitar and vocals: “I see your glass is empty, hows about another round, what a sentimental feeling we have found,” Miss Tess cajoles, Graefe following with a searing bent-note solo, taking the song forty years forward into 1970 or so. The band follows that with the pedal steel-driven honkytonk of Never Thought I’d Be Lonely and then the haunting suicide bolero shuffle Adeline, Graefe once again taking the spotlight with his creepily surreal solos over blippy funeral organ.

If You Wanna Be My Man, a midtempo swing blues, brings back the low-key, sultry, jazzy vibe. It could could be Rachelle Garniez at her most nonchalantly upbeat: hokum blues humor, urban sophistication. People Come Here for Gold swings along on a brisk backbeat swamp rock groove – it might be a subtle anti-gentrification polemic couched in an oldtime vernacular. This Affair kicks off with a long bass solo and then morphs into a noir bossa nova tune with yet another brilliant, spiraling, Jerry Miller-esque guitar solo.

The slow, pretty country waltz Save Me, St. Peter has fun with Biblical metaphors, a dark song with playful imagery. Likewise, Everybody’s Darling contrasts Meyer’s vaudeville rimshots and Graefe’s lively, Matt Munisteri-ish solo with a brooding, bittersweet lyric and vocals. And New Orleans, upbeat as it is, keeps the bittersweet saloon jazz feel going. Miss Tess and the Talkbacks are at the big room at the Rockwood this Tuesday, July 16 at 8 PM; the similarly torchy but more pop-oriented Sophie Auster (Paul’s kid) plays afterward.

Purist, Rustic Americana from Vincent Cross

Songwriter Vincent Cross was a mainstay of the late, lamented Banjo Jim’s Americana music scene, but he’s hardly been idle since that club shut its doors. His previous album Home Away from Home was a pretty straight-up, purist bluegrass collection; his new one A Town Called Normal is a lot more eclectic, a mix of rustic acoustic Americana with a bit of folk-rock and traditional sounds from across the pond. Most of the album is streaming at various places, including Cross’ site and his myspace page. Cross sings with an unaffected, easygoing twang, plays guitars, mandolin and harmonica and has an excellent band behind him, incorporating the talents of various combinations of Bennett Sullivan and Doug Nicolaisen on banjos; Max Johnson, Allen Cohen and Larry Cook on bass; Mark Farrell on mandolin and Shane Kerwin on drums on a few tracks.

Several of the songs sound like they could be Appalachian standards…except that they’re originals. One of the richest sounding of these is Cursed, with its lusciously intermingled layers of banjo, mandolin and acoustic guitar. Cross has a way with aphoristic oldtime vernacular: “How can we distinguish the evil from the good? The chorus always should,” he observes on the title cut. Likewise, the metaphorically-charged cautionary tale Turn Your Eyes: “Warning bells from the mizzzen mast, don’t go down with the crew and cast.” And Childish Things – a catchy, swinging bluegrass-tinged original, not the James McMurtry hit – muses that “nobody knows why the caged bird sings til you put away your childish things.”

My Love starts out quietly and then builds to a neat series of tradeoffs between Cross’ harmonica and nimble guitar flatpicking. Old Christmas Wrapping, a bittersweet waltz, goes into down-and-out Tom Waits territory, but less pessimistically. Walking on the Outside sounds suspiciously like an acoustic version of Son Volt’s Tearstained Eye, with a soulful dobro solo. Sometimes builds up to a brooding, hypnotic two-chord jam, while Trouble Being There evokes Matt Keating with its wry surrealism and gentle folk-rock melody.

There’s also Footnotes, a brooding polyrhythmic miniature; Wrack and Ruin, which takes a stab at honkytonk; and a nicely syncopated take of the traditional folk song Cuckoo, “who never hollers ‘cuckoo’ til the 4th day of July.” How’s that for symbolism?  Cross is at the American Folk Art Museum on 4/26 at 5:30 PM.