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The 20 Best New York Concerts of 2020 Which Can Be Publicly Discussed

When Andrew Cuomo declared himself dictator and ordered a lockdown of the state of New York on March 16, that didn’t stop musicians from playing, or prevent crowds from coming out to see them. Chances are that most of the players you know have been doing underground shows since then. But because a lot of those performances were forbidden under lockdown regulations, careers could be jeopardized if the Cuomo regime were to find out about them.

Someday the whole story can be told and those artists, and their supporters, can receive due credit for their heroism, for helping to keep hope alive when it seemed there was none. For the time being, here’s a salute to the artists who played the year’s most entertaining shows before the lockdown, as well as a handful who played dictatorially approved gigs in the time since.

There were three multiple-night stands this past year that deserve special mention. Over the course of barely a couple of weeks in February, the Danish String Quartet played the entire Beethoven cycle at Alice Tully Hall. The group’s chops are world-class, but it was their insight, and attention to detail, and flair for picking up on both the hilarity and the angst in the immortal works as well as the more obscure parts of that repertoire that made those sold-out evenings so unforgettable.

At the end of January, Juilliard staged an equally memorable series of concerts featuring mostly obscure works by women composers from over the past couple of centuries. The quality of the material, as well as the student ensembles’ performances, were astonishingly strong. Much as it was rewarding to see some better-known works like the Ruth Crawford Seeger String Quartet, and Grażyna Bacewicz’s withering second Cello Concerto on the bill, it was even more fascinating to discover pieces like Israeli composer Verdina Shlonsky’s phantasmagorical 1949 piano suite Pages From the Diary. along with dozens of chamber and symphonic pieces, practically all of them New York premieres. Juilliard’s Joel Sachs, who programmed the shows and tracked down the material, deserves immense credit for what was obviously a mammoth job. Too bad concerts at Juilliard no longer officially exist – and unless we get rid of the lockdown, the continued existence of Juilliard itself is imperiled.

And, of course, in the middle of January there was Golden Fest, New York’s wild, annual Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music event, which always raises the bar impossibly high for the rest of the year. Slashing, female-fronted Russian Romany party band Romashka, slinky brass band Slavic Soul Party, the volcanic Raya Brass Band, the even louder rembetiko heavy metal band Greek Judas, agelessly soulful Armenian jazz multi-reedman Souren Baronian, a rare New York appearance by the Elem All-Stars, Lyuti Chushki – Bulgarian for “Red Hot Chili Peppers”  – romping original klezmer band Litvakus and the Navatman Music Collective – this hemisphere’s only Indian carnatic choir – were highlights among dozens of other acts over the course of about ten hours of music.

In keeping with the annual tradition here, the rest of the concerts are listed in chronological order. 2020 was looking so good until the lockdown, wasn’t it!

Andrew Henderson at St. Thomas Church, 1/5/20
The organist played a sometimes stately, sometimes thrilling program of works by Buxtehude, Howells, Reger and others

 Linda Draper at the American Folk Art Museum, 1/10/20
With her calm, resonant chorister voice, the eclectic songwriter mixed up edgy earlier material as well as several characteristically, pensively intense, lyrically brilliant new songs.

Sara Serpa at the Zurcher Gallery, 1/11/20
This era’s most luminously haunting jazz singer/composer aired out a soaring, immersive mix of new material featuring brilliant guitarist Andre Matos and keyboardist Dov Manski

The Susan Alcorn Quintet at Winter Jazzfest, 1/11/20
This era’s great jazz pedal steel player mixed up a set full of new material, by turns immersively haunting, raptly atmospheric and sometimes riotously funny

Mames Babagenush in the Curry Hill neighborhood. 1/12/20
This supremely tight but feral Danish klezmer band started out in the afternoon in a church basement and ended the night with a crazed coda at a scruffy hotel. A lot of aquavit was involved: it didn’t phase them. And they’d just played Golden Fest the previous night.

Souren Baronian and Big Lazy at Barbes, 1/24/20
The octogenarian king of Middle Eastern jazz followed by the similarly slinky, minor key-fixated, chillingly cinematic and strangely danceable noir soundtrack band at the top of their game. Best twinbill of the year.

Saawee at Flushing Town Hall. 2/21/20
Violinist Sita Chay and percussionist Jihye Kim’s all-female Korean dance-and-ritual group summoned the spirits via a witchy, hypnotic, delicately shamanic performance

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore at Barbes, 2/22/20
With his otherworldly, crystalline trumpet, edgy Balkan chromatics and wry sense of humor, Holmes’ trio with guitarist Brad Shepik and percussionist Shane Shanahan built biting variations on subtly familiar klezmer themes.

Alicia Svigals and Donald Sosin play a live movie score at Temple Ansche Chesed, 2/23/20
The iconic klezmer violinist and her pianist collaborator delivered a dynamic mix of haunting traditional tunes, spirited originals and some coy classical interludes as a live score to E.A. Dupont’s irrepressibly sweet, groundbreaking 1923 German silent film The Ancient Law

Lara Ewen at Rockwood Music Hall, 2/24/20
Well known as the impresario behind the amazing, mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays concert series that ran for years at the American Folk Art Museum before being put on ice by the lockdown, Ewen is also a songwriter of note. And a hell of a singer, and a storyteller, and she’s really come into her own as an acoustic guitarist.

Jackson Borges at the organ at Central Synagogue, 2/25/20
Another excellent, long-running performance series that bit the dust when Cuomo’s insane lockdown regulations were imposed was organist Gail Archer’s semimonthly Prism Organ Concerts in midtown. Borges was the latest of a long line of global performers to play there, with a dynamic mix ranging from a majestic Mendelssohn sonata, to many more obscure works

Nicholas Capozzoli at St. Thomas Church, 3/1/20
What, another organ concert? Hey, this past year officially got cut off in mid-March. And this was a rousing one, with another mighty Mendelssohn sonata plus airy modern works by Leguay and Peters

Slavic Soul Party at Barbes, 3/3/20
Their mainstage show at Golden Fest was all the more traditional, blazing Balkan stuff. This one had the hip-hop, and the funk, and the James Brown and the Ellington. With breaks for European tours, they played this little Brooklyn boite just about every week for fifteen years until the lockdown.

The Vienna Yiddish Duo at the  Austrian Cultural Center, 3/10/20
A rare mix of edgy, Moldovan-flavored versions of klezmer classics as well as some ubiquitously familiar sounds from extrovert pianist Roman Grinberg and virtuoso clarinetist Sasha Danilov

Dolunay at Barbes, 3/12/20
Another one of the many Golden Fest bands on this list, playing an undulating, plaintive set of Turkish laments and originals…with just three people in the audience for most of the night.

The Pedro Giraudo Tango Quartet at Barbes, 3/14/20
The possibly last-ever indoor crowd at the historic Park Slope venue gathered for a sweeping, gorgeous set of originals and a couple of Piazzolla classics.

The American Symphony Orchestra String Quartet at Bryant Park, 9/14/20
The first of two outdoor shows featuring works by black composers was an alternately stirring and stark mix of material by Florence Price, Jessie Montgomery and William Grant Still.

And that’s where it ends. Get ready for some fireworks in 2021!

Twin Peaks Pop and a Bushwick Gig From Nicole Mercedes

Riding home from Barbes the other night, there was a girl on the train who’d gone to extremes to tell the world that she was the saddest person alive. She was about fifteen: ragged blonde bangs, raccoon eyeliner carefully streaked down her cheeks. Her glassy eyes drifted in and out of focus: she was definitely on something, probably Oxycontin. She wore badly distressed turquoise jeans over matching polkadot tights, plus an altered turquoise sweatshirt embroidered with the words “Boys don’t cry.” To which she or her seamstress had stiched in the word “BROKEN,” running vertically down from the letter “B.”

She was with a thin-faced boy sporting a sloppy, day-glo yellow hair dyejob. He was on coke, couldn’t stop wiping his nose or running his mouth. Hell-bent on trying to get her to change her gloomy ways, he pitched group therapy, he pitched drugs. She tried pushing him away – as vigorously as a petite woman who’s zonked on Oxy can push away an obsessive cokehead, at least. It was hard to resist the temptation to go across the aisle, give her a pat on the arm and encourage her to go home and listen to Joy Division. That would have made her feel better.

In reality, she probably didn’t have Joy Division on her headset at that moment: Nicole Mercedes might have been a better guess. The former Debbie Downer frontwoman sings Twin Peaks pop: disembodied, distantly melancholy vocals over a coldly twinkling, techy, atmospheric backdrop where the guitars tend to blend into the keys. She’s a lot more energetic than Julee Cruise, infinitely more interesting than Lana Del Rey. She’s got a new solo album, Look Out Where You’re Going, which hasn’t hit her Bandcamp page yet. She had a gig on March 19 at 8 PM at the Sultan Room; which has been cancelled due to the coronavirus scare.

The opening track, At Ease, sets the stage: catchy four-chord changes, distinct guitars and then a starry synth riff at the end. The song title seems to be sarcastic to the extreme. The second cut, Filters comes across as a mashup of Casket Girls, Michael Gordon and late-period ELO, an unexpectedly tasty blend.

Just when Last Hike seems to be a wistful vacation reminiscence, there’s a grim plot twist: no spoilers! Nicole Mercedes is a dead ringer for early Linda Draper in Mediterranean, the next track, right down to the watery acoustic guitar. Motel has a slowly waltzing resignation that shifts in a more anthemic direction.

Haphazardly minimal, echoey guitar rings through the string synth ambience of Stoop. Thumbalina is album’s most icily orchestral, anthemic number. The closing cut, Watering is a steady, drifting spacerock gem. Beyond a general sadness and sense of abandonment, it’s never clear what Nicole Mercedes is singing about. But this is all about ambience, and she really nails it.

Artsy Afrobeat-Inflected Tunesmithing and a City Winery Show from Jenn Wasner

Jenn Wasner is an anomaly in the indie rock world: a fluent, imaginative guitarist who uses just about every sound available to her and writes smart, pensive, lyrical songs. She’s bringing her band Wye Oak to a rare Manhattan gig tomorrow night, Oct 6 at City Winery. If you can get to Manhattan, you can also get home afterward since the show is early – 8 PM – and you won’t have to worry about the train leaving you at some random outpost in the remote fringes of Bushwick. And you can get in for twenty bucks at the door.

Wasner also has an intriguing side project, Flock of Dimes, whose debut album is streaming at Bandcamp. The songs blend icy, crisply produced ABC-style 80s art-pop with a stainless-topped, airconditioned 90s lounge feel over Afrobeat-inflected rhythms. Wasner likes dancing vocal melodies and tricky tempos which percolate throughout pretty much every song here.

Wasner’s lingering guitar resonates over a soukous-ish triplet beat on the opening track, Birthplace; “My love is not an object,” she asserts, then dancing, synthesized strings kick in. The Joke is a powerpop gem as the Talking Heads might have played it, with blippy synth and surrealistically echoing faux-Leslie speaker guitars: the steel solo that the song fades out on is anunexpected treat and over too soon.

Everything Is Happening Today pairs atmospheric verse against kinetic, metrically tricky chorus.  Likewise, Semaphore shifts from uneasy resonance to subtly crescendoing dancefloor-beat angst on the chorus, “Too far gone for a sempahore.”

The danciest and techiest track is Ida Glow. which could be Missing Persons or Garbage without the sexpot pose. Wasner goes back toward Remain in Light-era Talking Heads with Flight, an allusive, lushly textured account of betrayal.

With its watery layers of chorus-box guitar and similarly disembodied vocals, Apparition could be late-period Siouxsie without the microtones…and then it goes in the direction of the Fixx or Tears for Fears. Spiraling, Spanish-tinged guitars punctuate the gorgeous Given/Electric Life, which could be Linda Draper with slicker production: “I’m not in the ways of counting days, distract myself,” Wasner insists.

“We seem to be awake, but we are dreaming,” shse intones enigmatically at the end of Minor Justice, a return to icy, blippy Afrobeat-pop. “I couldn’t free you, I couldn’t free myself,” she laments in You, the Vatican – #bestsongtitleever, huh? The album ends with,…To Have No Answer, which sounds like Bjork at her trippiest and most atmospheric. Throughout the album, Wasner plays all the guitars and keys as well: she obviously put a lot of time and effort into this. It’s like an artichoke, one layer after another to unfold. If the album had come out thirty years ago, every graying Gen-Xer would still have the cd somewhere – and that’s a compliment.

Concetta Abbate Records a Lush, Glimmering Album of Chamber Rock Nocturnes at Spectrum

On one hand, the cred you used to get for being in the crowd at a live album recording has lost a little lustre over the years. After all, these days, if you’re up to the job, you can make your own live album most any night and put it up at youtube or archive.org. Still, it was awfully cool to be at Spectrum Saturday night, where elegant violinist/guitarist Concetta Abbate recorded a live album with a string quartet. The experience wasn’t as intense as being at Arlene’s the night that Mary Lee’s Corvette recorded their Blood on the Tracks album (although nobody other than the band knew that would happen), or as dark as when Rasputina recorded A Radical Recital a few years later at B.B. King’s…or exasperating, like when Aimee Mann did alternate take after alternate take for her live DVD at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

This was a warmly enveloping, raptly glimmering night of nocturnes, many of them miniatures: Abbate doesn’t waste notes. What’s even better is that the lucky four dozen or so people who got to witness her quiet magic will get a digital copy of the album, and then presumably it’ll be up at her webpage. Her opening instrumental had subtle rhythmic shifts and a delicate pizzicato/legato dichotomy; afterward, a handful of numbers had light electroacoustic touches, like the second one, its allusions to oldschool soul awash in uneasily lush string textures, like a more polished version of early ELO. Abbate sang while playing, in an expressively airy, carefully modulated soprano.

Disquieting electronic washes gave way to a twinkle balanced by a spare, balletesque string arrangement on the night’s next song, beneath Abbate’s melismatic, Renaissance-tinged vocals. Ambered string washes anchored a trickily syncopated piano riff, no easy task to pull off live. The upbeat, catchy, pulsing number after that sounded like a mashup of the Universal Thump and Linda Draper’s acerbic parlor pop.

From there the ensemble took an ornate waltz arrangement up to a vividly wounded series of crescendos; then Abbate brought the lights down with a playfully psychedelic vignette in 5/4 time. Spare, spacious minimalism gave way to a brooding viola solo over tersely fingerpicked acoustic guitar, then a lively, balletesque tune, then a lushly melancholy art-rock anthem in the same vein as Sarah Kirkland Snider’s recent work. After that, the pretty waltz that sounded like the Left Banke made a striking contrast. It’ll be even more fun to enjoy the nuances of the album and ponder Abbate’s terse lyrical imagery. Abbate’s next New York solo show is on June 12 at 8 PM at Chinatown Soup, 16B Orchard St. just north of Canal.

Linda Draper’s New Album Adds to Her Hall of Fame Credentials

It’s time to head down to the quarry and hammer out a pedestal for Linda Draper. Eight albums into her career, not one of them anything less than brilliant: Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello, Steve Wynn, Aimee Mann brilliant. Draper is in their league both as a tunesmith and lyricist, and she can sing circles around all of them. And she’s explored a lot of styles over the past fifteen years or so: straightforward acoustic pop, surrealistic psychedelia, Nashville gothic and now a richly tuneful jangle and clang. Producer Matt Keating gets major props for making a big rock record out of Draper’s latest album, Modern Day Decay. It hasn’t hit the web yet, although you can hear a lot of it at her album release show on April 29 at 7 PM at the big room at the Rockwood.

Draper had the good sense to get the most out of Keating on this album. It’s arguably Draper’s strongest release to date, both lyrically and musically, and he really takes it to the next level, both as lead guitarist and keyboardist. Recorded mostly live in the studio in a single whirlwind 48-hour session, the songs have a bristling intensity, Draper’s strong but nuanced mezzo-soprano anchored by bassist Jeff Eyrich and drummer Eric Puente.

The gorgeously anthemic title track opens the album. With the layers of twelve-string guitar over piano and organ, it sounds like the Church with a woman out front:

In a world made for the masses
It ain’t easy to see
It all through rose-colored glasses
You know the thorns wait patiently
…Some say time is all we need
To heed, no matter the relevance
Or pick at the scab until it bleeds…

The matter-of-fact Keep Your Head Up has tinges of psychedelia and C&W and opens with a wry shout-out to Mary Magdalene. I’t s a prime example of Draper at her witheringly lyrical best:

We’re under the gun until one day we’re done…
Get on the latest medication
Join the rest of the brainwashed nation
Airport security, a little radiation
Stand in line, take a number
Don’t blame the stars for your lack of wonder
Like a wild tiger turned into a fur coat
We howl at the moon until we lose the fight

True Enough is another catchy, richly jangly 12-string guitar anthem, a rugged individualist trying to keep her cool under pressure:

Gone are the days of the heat and the haze
That once bled my eyes dry
They sensed in the place by the cold golden gaze
That a love almost passed me by
It’s just a blip on the screen, a switch in the scene
The rest is a big fat lie
Why can’t they just take me as I am…

Put Love In has some unexpected hip-hop tinges in the lyric over an uneasy acoustic-electric backdrop. The catchy, swaying Take Your Money and Run works on a whole slew of levels. On the surface, it’s an escape anthem of sorts:

I pawned my ring for everything and said let it ride
Now I’m here to tell you you reap what you sow
You sold me out, now you’d better let me go
Cause I’m done, all right, but I did it with love
Head for the hills tonight, no heaven above
Can stop me now
There’s nothing to slow down
There’s nothing to stop you
It doesn’t matter where you come from
That doesn’t mean that’s all you have to become
You have so much more love in your heart
Than the sum of your parts
So take your money and run

A slow, organ-infused soul ballad, the nonchalantly cajoling Lose with Me brings to mind Jenifer Jackson. “All my heroes are long gone, or sold their souls to some reality show,” Draper muses.

Awash in lingering, echoing psychedelic guitars, Burn Your Bridges sounds like the Church doing a late Beatles folk-pop number: “All hands on deck for the shipwreck, brace yourselves,” Draper warns.

Pedestal takes a careeningly successful detour into rockabilly: for that matter, it might be the most lyrically sophisticated rockabilly tune ever written:

Everyone’s listening to nobody else
The symphony sounds fine on the train
As we keep moving round in vain
Regurgitating joy and pain

Nashville builds from a stark, spare acoustic intro to a mighty cinematic sweep:

Into the evening
Out of my mind
What you call believing
I call dying
Can’t you see the bags under my eyes
Or the rags that I wore in disguise
The latest fashion, greatest curse
I don’t know which one should be worse….
Like cattle they packed us
Onto the bus
Eleven hours later we were in Nashville
The flames and the smoke followed me here
Ten years ago just seemed to disappear
Now I’m rnnning from the wind
‘Cause I know how fast it can blow
There ain’t gonna be a next time
All we’ve got is today
And all I see in my mind
Keeps driving away

The album winds up with a waltz, Good As New, another individualist’s manifesto

There’s nothing wrong if you don’t belong…
I spend my lifetime, I’ve made it a habit
Of staying on the outside, now why should I quit
“That’s just your way of hiding,” you say
You know, ’cause you see yourself in me

Just on lyrics alone – is Draper quotable, or what? – this is a strong contender for best release of 2016.

Linda Draper Plays One of the Year’s Most Memorable Shows, Then Hits Williamsburg on the 28th

Liz Tormes and Linda Draper made a calmy intense twinbill back in October, each folk noir tunesmith playing solo acoustic at the American Folk Art Museum. It was good enough to make this year’s Best New York Concerts page – obviously a list that reflects only a tiny sliver of the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of concerts that took place in this city this year, but a very fun evening all the same. Both performers can be hilarious, but this particular show was more about songcraft than devastating one-liners. Draper is at Pete’s on December 28 at 10 PM, followed by lush, sparklingly anthemic Americana parlor rock band the Hinges, who are sort of the Pacific Northwest version of Hem. Tormes is most likely done for the year, at least as shows are concerned, although she has a long-awaited new album in the works.

Tormes played first, setting a tone for the night immediately with her uneasily catchy major/minor changes and blend of Americana and purist 60s pop. Gently and methodically, she worked her way up from hypnotically lowlit. minimalist post-Velvets ambience to an understatedly sardonic waltz, alluding to those who might want the limelight more than they deserve. Dancing hints of 80s new wave lit up a simmeringly exasperated nocturne about being kept up by noisy Lower East Side neighbors, inspired by real events during Tormes’ long tenure in that neighborhood. Through the purposeful stroll of Don’t Love Back and a similarly bittersweet, middle-period Dylanesque backbeat anthem, Tormes tied all her influences together with her plush, matter-of-fact vocals, rising and sailing from time to time but mostly mining a richly allusive midrange, resolute if wounded in places. It was a set for survivors, optimistic in the face of everything that had come before.

Draper didn’t waste any time picking up the pace with the rousing anti-conformity entreaty Modern Day Decay, the title track to her new album due out early next year. She went toward classic Britfolk with the next number and its broodingly descending vocals over an insistently steely fingerpicked minor-key hook. Likewise, the insistent C&W-tinged sway of Take the Money and Run underscored its defiance, an escape anthem in search of fellow travelers. She kept the energy in the red with an especially amped take of Broken Eggshell, her lyrically torrential, crescendoing shout-out to gentle, everyday iconoclasms. As she tells it, eggshells are to be stepped on, not tiptoed around.

She worked an uneasy resolve as enigmatic open chords shifted back and forth with warmer major changes, then went into the snidely tongue-in-cheek stroll of Sleepwalkers, a considerably uneasier escape anthem: Draper is no fan of the meh-ness of the walking dead. Then she shifted gears and evoked the bittersweet jangle of Matt Keating – with whom she’s enjoyed a memorable collaboration in recent years – with a new song, With the new album due out soon, Draper is likely to air out even more auspicious new material at Pete’s.

Linda Draper Brings Her Subtly Savage Vocal and Lyrical Brilliance Back to the East Village

The most beautifully redemptive moment at any New York concert this year happened at Linda Draper‘s show at the Rockwood on the first of June. She and her subtle, intuitive, brilliant trio with bassist Jeff Eyrich and drummer Eric Puente decided to flip the script at the last moment and open with an oldschool C&W-tinged number, Modern Day Decay. “In a world full of assholes, it ain’t easy,” Draper sang, resonant and nonchalant, as the big crowd of young Republicans yakked it up, oblivious to the band onstage. Meanwhile, the waitress made her way through the crowd, furiously exchanging receipts: all the assholes were paying with their parents’ credit cards. And nobody listened.

When Draper – an elegant, warmly compelling presence whose stock in trade is lyrical wit and subtlety – hit the chorus, she fired off an unexpected flurry of guitar riffage, then took the song way down. “There’s a bar next door, you can go there if you want to talk,” she encouraged afterward. Within a couple of minutes, they’d disappeared, presumably into $1000 Uber cars back to Bushwick or New Jersey. Without missing a beat, she followed with Hollow, a starkly hypnotic Appalachian gothic number. “Can you get it out of your system before you grow cold and numb?” she challenged.

The next song was a rare treat. Time Will Tell is the wickedly catchy opening track on Draper’s debut album, and she seldom plays it, but she did here, and the rhythm section gave it a lowlit slink that underscored her woundedly catchy, subtly snide kiss-off lyric: “You are the shipwreck, I am the sea, you’re sinking through me.”

Draper brought an unexpected and stunning jazz-inflected sensibilty to the catchy 6/8 soul ballad Good As New – she’s been dipping deeper into her full, ripe lower register lately, and this was a prime example. “I’ve made a habit of staying on the outside,” she mused: it’s a song that Neko Case would be proud to have in her catalog. Draper and the band followed with the defiant backbeat anthem True Enough, echoing another individualistic American artist, Tift Merritt. “It’s just a flicker of the beam, a stitcher in the seam, the rest is a big fat lie.”

Ultimately, Draper doesn’t resemble anyone but herself. She and her rhythm section kept the lights low with Sleepwalkers, a bossa-tinged, bitterly catchy lament. “Even the purest of angels would crash and burn in a place like this,” she sang. She followed with the sardonically shuffling Broken Eggshell: “Every corner I meet, there’s two more fancy streets I’ve been walking down…there’s an eggshell to break, it’s the perfect sound.” A theme song for every New Yorker who’d love to crush every speculator’s highrise underfoot! Likewise, the understately savage country escape anthem Make the Money and Run: “You’ve got so much more love in your heart than the sum of your parts,” she entreated. By the time she’d finished the set with the wryly catchy, marching I Got You – “Don’t blame the stars for your lack of wonder” – the crowd was silent, absolutely rapt.

Draper’s next show is a really short, half-hour set at Sidewalk at 8 PM on July 16. But it’s worth coming out for because it’s A) Linda Draper, and B) Joe Yoga, the similarly intense, lyrically-fueled frontman of fiery, jazz-tinged southwestern gothic band the Downward Dogs, who plays after her.

Disarmingly Down to Earth, Catchy Original Acoustic Americana from Joanna Sternberg

Joanna Sternberg‘s expression on the cover of her new solo acoustic album Lullaby to Myself – streaming at Bandcamp – isn’t quite a scowl. But whatever she’s thinking about, she’s dead serious. Which could be a bit of a red herring since her lyrics have a deadpan humor that’s often just plain LMAO funny. Her vocals have the well-rounded fullness of a choirgirl (was she one in previous incarnation? Good possibility). Although guitar is not her main axe – she’s a conservatory-trained bassist – she plays her six-stringer confidently, knows her way around a catchy tune and draws on centuries of Americana without sounding cliched. Linda Draper is a good comparison, but where Draper fingerpicks, Sternberg strums. She’s playing the small room at the Rockwood tomorrow night, Feb 10 at 7 PM. In a vexing if probably unintentional stroke of booking, lyrical rock cult hero Ward White is playing next door at the big room at the same time. Tough choice, huh! If that’s too much of a dilemma, she’s at the Knitting Factory at 9 on Feb 18.

The first track on the new album is A Country Dance, a liltingly evocative nocturnal tale. “Follow me and my bottle of wine and we’ll dance near the stars,” Sternberg entreats, ” I’ll tell you my various schemes.” He Dreams is a sad, stripped-down take on the kind of honkytonk waltz Patsy Cline would do, set to a Mr. Bojangles-y tune. Likewise, Sternberg’s blithe vocals mask the wry sarcasm of the front porch folk number The Love I Give.

It Happens to Be a Boy looks at the same equation with a lot more optimism and good cheer. I Will Be With You has a misty, bittersweetly nocturnal vintage C&W angst – it’s sort of a mashup of the Davis Sisters and Roy Orbison, a feel that recurs toward the end of the album in a brooding breakup waltz simply titled The Song. Although Sternberg is clearly addressing herself on the charmingly antique title track, it’s a lullaby for pretty much anybody, even a toddler. Then she picks up the pace with the most bustling number here, I’ve Got Me, a wry look at the perils of self-absorption: “Between self-hatred and self-awareness is a very fine line…why is it so hard to be kind and gentle to myself?” she muses.

Without You brings to mind Bessie Smith’s After You’ve Gone; like a lot of the songs here, it benefits from some absolutely marvelous natural reverb in the space where it was recorded. The final track, I’ll Make You Mine is hardly as cheerful as the title suggests, one of many places on this album where the subtext runs deep. These songs may be just guitar and vocals, but Sternberg packs a lot into them.

Flowers Glisten and Jangle and Clang and Have a Lot of Shows Coming Up

British band Flowers sound like Britfolk rock legend Amanda Thorpe backed by the Smiths – but not in a florid, campy Beirut way. And in a more trebly, considerably more stripped-down way, too. None of the full-band songs on their latest album, Do What You Want to, It’s What You Should Do – streaming at Spotify – have bass on them, and drummer Jordan Hockley sometimes pounds out a dancing beat with just a single tom-tom. Frontwoman Rachel Kenedy doesn’t have quite the torchy, belting power that Thorpe does, but she’s a soaring, compelling singer in her own right. For those who feel like ditching work, they’re at Cake Shop at about one in the afternoon on Oct 21; at the Delancey at 8, the following night, Oct 22; at the Knitting Factory on Oct 23 at around 2 in the afternoon, followed by psychedelic rockers Gringo Star (free with rsvp  although you will get spammed if you sign up) ; back at Cake Shop on Oct 24 at three in the afternoon, and then later that night at the Brooklyn Night Bazaar, time tba. You definitely won’t run the risk of getting spammed for those shows.

Kenedy sing with a full, round, chorister’s tone on the album’s opening track, Young, bringing to mind Linda Draper‘s adventures in janglerock a few years back. Forget the Fall starts out with a skeletal sway before guitarist Sam Ayres adds brightly clanging layers of chords. Drag Me Down is the closest thing here to a Thorpe/Smiths mashup, while Worn Out Shoes hitches a doo wop-inflected verse to a big anthemic chorus

Lonely is a return to straight up catchy janglerock, Joanna a Smiths-ish launching pad for some spectacular vocal leaps and bounds from Kenedy. They strip it down to just the guitar and vocals for If I Tell You, then return to anthemic mode – with jaunty splashes of cymbals, would you believe – with Comfort.

I Love You blends some midsummer folk ambience into its bouncy sweep. All Over Again is one of the most irresistibly catchy numbers here; by contrast, Anna goes for more of a gently pastoral neo-Velvets feel, with a couple of the trick endings this band likes so much. Be With You is the most low-key song here, followed by the unexpectedly cynical Plastic Jane. Kenedy winds up the album with a brief solo number, just vocals and bass.

This band is all about setting a mood and keeping it going. Their lyrics don’t cover a lot of ground – angst-tinged romantic longing is pretty much it for Kenedy – and there isn’t much variation among all the brightly ringing tunes. But if catchy, smartly assembled, sunshiney three-minute janglerock songs are your thing, these guys deliver 24/7.

Moody, Morose Rainy Day Atmospherics from Belle Mare

Do Brooklyn duo Belle Mare bring to mind the beauty of the ocean? Not really, but their music is definitely watery. Their album The Boat of the Fragile Mind – streaming at Bandcamp – is a good rainy-day listen, part jangly rock, part dreampop and part pensive acoustic tunesmithing. Some of this brings to mind Linda Draper and her recordings with Kramer during her psychedelic period in the early zeros; others remind of Marissa Nadler, or sound like demos (remember those?) for some 80s 4AD band. Frontwoman Amelia Bushell sings with a muted, often wounded, occasionally utterly defeated nonchalance over guitarist Thomas Servidone’s web of shifting atmospheric sheets and reverb-drenched acoustic strumming, with swirling electric guitar lines and echoey keyboards flowing through the mix.

While the album has a nebulously linked theme of angst and abandonment, the point of the music seems to be more about setting a mood than tracing a narrative. Bushell varies her delivery from a subdued, stoic alto to soaring highs where she cuts loose with angst and sometimes echoes of sheer terror. Servidone is a one-man guitar orchestra: he puts a ton of reverb on everything, from the gentle acoustic chords that underpin pretty much all of the album’s eight tracks, to fluid washes of dreampop and the ever-present, dub-inflected, often sepulchral sonic bits and pieces that waft throughout the songs.

The opening track, Charade, is a more noir take on Phil Spector-ish pop, through the watery lens of dreampop. The Once Happy Heart builds from atmospherics and brooding contemplation to a big vocal crescendo over chiming keys – “I give myself over to hideous sights,” Bushell muses. The title cut, a diptych of sorts, ponders how “we hoped that we might make it out alive,” building to an unexpectedly anthemic outro with distant, ominously boomy drums. After that, Bushell shoots for an oldschool 70s soul ambience on All This time, a feel she maintains on the next track, Deep in Your Dark.

The duo wrap the jaunty if perturbed folk-rock of The City in a gauzy disguise with layers of fluttering vocalese and pinging electric piano. “If it’s all right I’d like to find a suitable time to let out my reheased lines, hope they don’t scare you,” Bushell intones on the next track, guitar and disembodied voices adding an especially ghostly edge in the background. The album ends with its most experimental track, So Long.

This album came out over a year ago. So what took this blog so long to get to it? Bad recordkeeping, plain and simple. If the sky overhead looks ominous, kick back and drift away with this…if you dare.