New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: linda thompson

Witheringly Lyrical, Relevant Acoustic Rock Intensity with the Rails at the Mercury

Let’s say you’re the daughter of the guy who might be both the greatest rock songwriter and the greatest rock guitarist of alltime. And your mother is generally considered to be the greatest British folksinger of the past century. And you decide not to go into, say, architecture or film or visual art. Instead, you go into music. And marry one of the greatest lead guitarists of your own generation. Career suicide waiting to happen, right?

Hardly. Kami Thompson has her dad Richard’s withering sense of humor, her mom’s looks and a voice which, while it would be ridiculously unfair to compare to Linda Thompson’s shattering, poignant instrument, is every bit as haunting in its own right. Wednesday night at the Mercury, she and her guitarslinger husband James Walbourne – the core of British folk-rock duo the Rails – spun a shimmering, rippling web of vocals and guitar that transcended that spare format.

Playing lead and sharing vocals, Walbourne waited until four songs into the set before he really cut loose and went for the jugular with spiraling volleys of notes, infused with equal parts blues, Britfolk and the Byrds. Throughout the show, it was as if there was a guitar orchestra onstage: the way the two interweave and fill out each others’ melodies creates a lush thicket of sound that sounds like a lot more than just two acoustic guitars.

The best song of the set was hardly a surprise. The duo couldn’t have played a more appropriate song for the Lower East Side of New York in 2018 than title track of the duo’s latest album There Are Other People In  This World, Not Just You. Kami sang that with a mix of battle fatigue, resilience and seething anger, amplified by her husband’s low harmonies as he flung icepick riffs against the melody. Earlier in the set, Walbourne had lamented the closure of longtime neighborhood watering hole Max Fish (which has since reopened a few blocks away with completely different ambience and clientele). And underscored that exasperation with the blitzkrieg of speculator-fueled destruction with a snarling take of The Cally, a desperate, embittered reminiscence of Caledonian Road British dive bar revelry in the age of luxury condos that aren’t even built for habitation.

With the plaintively lilting Willow Tree, a mutatingly bucolic instrumental and then a rather grim take of the old exile tale Australia, the duo gave a musically purist if sardonic nod to the “songs that were passed down to us,” as Kami said with almost a grimace. Much as their roots encompass centuries worth of traditional sounds, they’re most at home doing their own songs. She finally took her voice to the rafters as the angst-fueled Late Surrender peaked out. Walbourne offered his own take of relationship hell with Dark Times, a harmony-fueled tale of an affair that was doomed from the start.

While Walbourne is obviously influenced by Richard Thompson – who was in the crowd, watching closely and approvingly – he doesn’t mimic any of the master’s familiar wild bends, Middle Eastern allusions or long, volcanic crescendos. Walbourne’s lead guitar work with the Pretenders is more conventional, but his role in this project is as much orchestrator as fretburner. And his wife is no slouch on the guitar, either, although she didn’t launch into any of her husband’s sidewinding spirals, leaping Celtic phrases or any of his starkly sparkly open-tuned blues, her fingerpicking was nimble and nuanced. A good crowd for a weekday night roared for a second encore following the duo’s stately, rainy-day closing number, but time was up.

This was the last stop on the Rails’ American tour, but they’re likely to be back; watch this space.

British Folk-Rock Supergroup The Rails’ Brilliant New Album Chronicles Real Estate Bubble-Era Hell

The Rails are as much of a supergroup as you could possibly want, on every front. With withering contempt for speculators and the plague of gentrification that continues to decimate urban areas throughout the western world and beyond, this band jangle and clang with the kind of purist tunefulness you would expect considering their pedigree. The sonics are luscious beyond belief: guitarist James Walbourne’s attack ranges from gentle acoustic filigrees to electric slings and arrows punctuated by equal parts scream and slither.

The core of the group also includes Walbourne’s singer wife Kami Thompson (daughter of Linda and Richard Thompson) with Son Volt’s Jim Boquist on bass and the North Mississippi Allstars’ Cody Dickinson on drums. Their album Other People – as in “There are other people in this world, not just you” – is streaming at Spotify. They’re playing the Mercury on July 25 at 7 PM. Cover is $20; if smart, fearlessly relevant songwriting is your thing, don’t miss them.

The album opens with the bitter, brooding ballad The Cally, a slowly unwinding, imagistic tale of a seedy bar under siege amid wretched real estate bubble excess. Walbourne muses about how refreshing it is to see a prostitute still out there, typical of the crushing irony in many of these songs.

Thompson sings the tensely pulsing breakup anthem Late Surrender, bubbling over with Walbourne’s spiky, lingering Strat work, up to a tantalizingly brief solo out. With her resolute, low-key vocals, the album’s title track is as apt a smack upside the head of yuppie narcissists as anyone’s written this year:

Take the candy
Steal the money
Pull the blind down
Kick the dog

Walbourne seethes and grits his teeth through the slowly waltzing Drowned In Blue, Thompson just slightly more restrained over the lushly textured, watery guitars and stinging steel. The guitar multitracks are just as rich but more spare and acoustic in Hanging On, which works just as well as a requiem for a relationship as for a burnt-out freedom fighter.

For a minute it seems like Walbourne’s narrator in Dark Times got a raw deal with the richkid cokehead girlfriend, but there’s more to the story – and a delicious Farfisa organ break that gives way to a typically searing guitar solo. Shame, a drunkard’s lament, has a more upbeat Britfolk feel.

Thompson’s voice rises plaintively in Leaving the Land, a wounded, defeatedly waltzing ballad with a cynically roaring Celtic dance midway through. It sets up the album’s big bombshell, Brick and Mortar, which might be the best song of 2018. Over a savage minor-key strut, Walbourne paints a grim picture of one historic district after another being destroyed as working people get displaced:

I can’t hear the beat on Denmark Street
Silenced by the sound of mute concrete
And it’s never coming back
Just another luxury flat
It’s farewell to all of London’s brick and mortar

“Why does evil taste so sweet? Leads you down a dead-end street,” Thompson muses to complete the trilogy in yet another pensive waltz, Mansion of Happiness, set to Walbourne’s black widow web of guitars and mandolin. The group stay in 3/4 time throughout Australia, a mutedly cynical would-be escape tale, then add a fourth beat to the measure in the stark, doomed, Everly Brothers-tinged I Wish, I Wish.

Willow Tree is an unexpectedly successful detour toward oldschool American C&W. The album winds up with the aching Low Expectations: “There must be something more than this,” Walbourne broods. He’s done plenty of memorable lead guitar work with the Pretenders and Ray Davies but this is his masterpiece so far. And it’s also a high-water mark for Thompson as standard bearer of a mighty songwriting legacy.

A Look Back at Last Year’s Vocal Summit With Amanda Thorpe and Her Siren Friends

More about that Amanda Thorpe show coming up on June 13 at 8 PM at Hifi Bar. She’s playing in the intimate space in the back, where the Britfolk and chamber pop songwriter – the closest thing to Linda Thompson that this generation has produced – will be joined by guitarists Don Piper and her longtime Bedsit Poets bandmate Edward Rogers.

Mary Lee Kortes was one of three other women who joined Thorpe late last year onstage at the Treehouse at 2A for a summit meeting of four of the most haunting voices in all of rock. It was one of the half-dozen most spellbinding shows of the year: vocally speaking, no other performance all year came close. The quartet of Thorpe, Kortes, Lianne Smith and Debby Schwartz each played guitar, singing in the round, trading songs, joining voices as duos and trios and once or twice in four-part harmony: pure, unaffected, spine-tingling intensity.

Thorpe has an ambered delivery that can be either coyly fun or woundedly resigned in the low registers, but when she cuts loose and soars way up, that’s when the firepower really kicks in. Likewise, Smith channels hushed nunace as much as poignancy, has a spun-steel upper register and has never written better than she’s doing now. With her metalcutter crystalline tone and ability to effortlessly leap octaves, Kortes is probably one of the half-dozen best singers in the world, never mind the rock world. Schwartz, the former Aquanettas frontwoman, might have the most distinctive voice of all four singers,  both plaintive and atmospheric with a tinge of grit. She and Smith – who also draws on rockabilly, Americana and psychedelia – share an indie rock background. Kortes draws on all sorts of Americana, and like Thorpe is equally adept at jazz.

Smith had her Strat with the reverb turned up as she usually does. A typically allusive new number parsed the understated ache and longing from eyes that are “bright, bright, bright” in circumstances that are hardly “right, right, right” – chilling, especially in contrast to the power she unleashed on the chorus. A spare, skeletal, southern soul-tinged new song gave her a platform for the kind of simmering vengeance that Dusty Springfield would have killed for.

Schwartz aired out the sardonic, understatedly brooding Dreaming New York City in the Middle of LA and also the evening’s high point among many, a viscerally  spine-tinglingtake of the otherwise enigmatic, minor-key anthem Hills of Violent Green. Kortes’s high points were the wickedly catchy, darkly chromatic, soaring Vegas noir-tinged Learn from What I Dream and the jaunty, uneasily defiant oldtimey swing tune Big Times, along with a swinging, embittered, coiled-cobra new song that might have been the evening’s single best number.

Joining voices with Treehouse impresario and guitar monster Tom Clark, Thorpe elevated a sad Everly Brothers song far above early 60s folk-revival stuff, to the level of something from the Skooshny catalog, maybe. She channeled the most nuance of anyone, especially in a handful of shadowy, noir-tinged reinventions of Great American Songbook jazz-pop from the Yip Harburg catalog, which she memorably recorded in 2014. A longtime staple of the Lower East Side scene back when it was about art far more than commerce, she rarely makes it back to town these days: if you missed her the first time around, now’s your chance not to miss out again.

Erica Smith Brings Her Poignant, Spectacular Voice and Eclectically Shattering Songs to the East Village

Erica Smith is one of New York’s most distinctive and often harrowing voices in folk noir and Americana. But even in this city, Smith’s ability to shift effortlessly from style to style is pretty spectacular. In addition to performing her own music, she’s currently a member of both the Richard Thompson cover group the Shootout Band – in which she puts her own stamp on Linda Thompson’s vocals – and also the explosive gospel-rock band Lizzie and the Sinners. Smith can belt a blues ballad or deliver a plaintive Appalachian narrative with anyone. And she’s also a versatile jazz stylist. Her latest album, a jazz recording with her band the 99 Cent Dreams, is One for My Baby, streaming at Spotify. She’s got a gig coming up on an excellent twinbill at Hifi Bar on May 10 at 7:30 PM; similarly lyrical and somewhat sunnier Americana singer Rebecca Turner follows at around 8:30 PM.

There’s a tragic backstory here: as it turned out, this was the final recording by the great New York drummer Dave Campbell. Perhaps best known for his serpentine, turn-on-a-dime work with psychedelic rock band Love Camp 7, Campbell was also a terrific swing jazz player with a flair for Brazilian grooves, which comes across vividly on the more upbeat tunes here. This is a collection of counterintuitive versions of standards recorded with rock band instrumentation – electric guitar, bass, drums and Leif Arntzen’s soulful muted trumpet on two numbers – along with an obscure treasure by one of this era’s great lit-rock songwriters. It opens with The Very Thought of You, where Smith distinguishes her version from the famous Billie Holliday take with her inscrutable delivery, growing more playfully optimistic as she goes along. Guitarist Dann Baker (also of Love Camp 7) mashes up Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery as he follows Smith’s emotional trajectory.

Interestingly, there are a couple of songs commonly associated with Sinatra here. Smith does I Could Write a Book as ebullient, optimistic swing: the song feels like it’s about jump out of its shoes, but Smith holds it in check over a slightly ahead-of-the-beat bassline And she does the title track a tad faster than the Ol’ Blue Eyes original, echoing the bartender’s desire to call it a night as much as the wee-hours angst of the lyrics, Baker with her every step of the way through an alternately woozy and vividly brooding interpretation.

She does Rodgers and Hart’s It Never Entered My Mind as lingering, noir-tinged torch jazz, Baker’s gracefully stately chordal ballet in tandem with Campbell’s tersely slinky 6/8 groove. Smith’s careful, minutely jeweled, woundedly expressive vocals mine every ounce of ironic, biting subtext in the lyrics. Ain’t Misbehavin’ gets a hushed low-key swing treatment that builds to coyly nonchalant optimism, Arntzen’s trumpet following suit.

Campbell’s artfully acrobatic tumble opens Everything I’ve Got as an altered bossa before the band swings it by the tail, Smith leading the group on a long upward trajectory that far outpaces the Blossom Dearie original. The album’s most shattering track is a desolate, rainswept take of Cry Me a River, Baker shifting Kessel’s lingering lines further into the shadows over Campbell’s low-key, sepulchrally minimalistic brushwork. The band does the first recorded version of Livia Hoffman’s Valentine as a slow swing tune: “What are childhood crushes for? For crushing all your dreams forevermore,” Smith intones in a knowing, wounded mezzo-soprano. The album winds up with a wryly good-naturedly suspenseful, rainforest-swing solo take of Campbell’s drums on Everything I’ve Got: just wait til the hip-hop nation finds out that this exists. Throughout the record, Smith’s disarmingly direct, imaginative, emotionally vivid phrasing breathes new life into songs that other singers sometimes phone in, reason alone to give this a spin if classic jazz is your thing.

Tift Merritt’s Traveling Alone: Her Best Album

Tift Merritt’s Traveling Alone is THE lead guitar album of 2012. She’s probably one of the least likely people you might expect to be behind something like this. But she deserves it. As somebody who first hit about ten years ago, in the dying hours of the radio-and-records era (she’s on Yep Roc at the moment: tomorrow, who knows) she’s had to shift gears to make a living on the road. And she’s done it: that’s where she is right now, on US tour. Good songwriters always have their choice of good musicians, but the band on this album is monstrous. Marc Ribot and pedal steel virtuoso Eric Heywood team up for some of the most gorgeous interplay on any rock or country record in recent memory, alongside multi-instrumentalist and Laurie Anderson collaborator Rob Burger plus Merritt’s longtime bassist Jay Brown and Calexico’s John Convertino on drums. Producer Tucker Martine finally got a real band to work with – as opposed to the meh-ness of the Decemberists et al. – and obviously had a blast with all the multi-tracking. Songs typically start out spare, even skeletal, but quickly build to a rich, lush thicket of guitars firing at you every which way.

And yet, Merritt’s nuanced voice is still front and center, often trailing down suspensefully at the end of a phrase to draw the listener even closer. She’s lived up to the comparisons ever since people started calling her the new Linda Thompson. The songs here follow a trail of existential angst, a wistfully knowing solitude: Merritt has never written better, or had so much command of a turn of phrase as she does here. For those who like the idea of Lucinda Williams but find the real thing overrated, this is for you.

There’s a romantic side to being alone, and Merritt is no stranger to that. The theme permeates much of the album, beginning with the title track, where she admits to enjoying it, stress and all. This one has Richard and Linda Thompson all over it, Ribot adding sweet tremolo and then a fiery, distorted solo. Sweet Spot radiates longing but not desperation: it’s Williams without the drunken rasp, over a lush bed of steel and tremolo guitar, Ribot taking it to Memphis with his solo. They go deeper into soul with Drifted Apart, Merritt going for Laura Cantrell-ish understatement [memo to self – who is that guy on the faux-Orbison high harmonies? Aaron Neville?]. Still Not Home grafts a slapdash My Sharona riff onto a brisk, anxious country shuffle, Merritt nailing the tense exhilaration as she makes her way out: “All the windows open and the wind and the wheels, nobody can tell me the way that feels.”

The band goes for a slow, hypnotic, bucolic early evening ambience on Feeling of Beauty, Berger’s piano blending with the steel and the web of acoustic guitars: “I’m all right, thanks for asking/Got a few hopes in my basket,” Merritt sings, misty and sultry. Too Soon to Go, a noir countypolitan tune, is just plain gorgeous with its richly intertwining guitar leads, building to an elegant conversation between Ribot and Heywood. Small Talk Relations is arguably the most intense song here, a towering piano anthem that rises from almost skeletal to lushly orchestrated. Merritt matter-of-factly develops her metaphors to a big crescendo:

Workmen in the street below
Softly play the radio
The crowd just turns to leave
A secret current underneath
Cannot be heard above the din below

A plaintive Appalachian ballad fired up with reverb guitar, steel and Rhodes piano, Spring is a defiant defense of living at the edge, existentially speaking. “Only for a minute just to be alive, before I hit the ground just below the spine,” Merritt intones bittersweetly as the song takes flight, up to a viscerally searing Heywood solo: it’s the high point of the album. Ribot’s slashing, bluesy solo out is pretty adrenalizing too.

The next couple of tracks take a surprisingly effective detour into 80s-flavored pop. The first one, To Myself, wears a backbeat country disguise: you want to hate this, but the hook is just plain irresistible. Likewise, In the Way is the Cure, 1986, with the deluxe Americana package: jauntily pulsing ragtime piano, lusciously watery layers of vintage chorus-box guitar and an artful multitracked solo. The closing cut, Marks, a towering breakup ballad, builds slowly to a fiery tangle of guitars, snarling, resonating and jangling as Merritt reaches for the metaphor in the pocket of her winter coat. Albums like this are hard to write about because it’s impossible to resist the temptation to replay the songs – and then they become distractions. Hopefully this is sufficient inspiration for you to investigate it.

Enigmatic Gothic Americana from Emily Jane White

It’s time to plunge back into the abyss today with Emily Jane White’s third album, Ode to Sentience, which is out June 12 in the US on Antenna Farm Records after a Japanese release last year. Sadness and despair pervade White’s angst-ridden Nashville gothic and classical-rock anthems. She’s got a great band, with layers of acousic and electric guitars, piano and a string section, that proves just as powerful on the art-rock numbers as on the country and folk-rock songs. She sings in a whispery voice that often takes on a lilt at the end of a phrase, with echoes of Britfolk chanteuses like Linda Thompson. As a songwriter, White is sort of a cross between Eilen Jewell and Marissa Nadler, but more of a traditionalist: where Nadler goes for minimal and sepulchral, White goes for grand guignol. She’s on tour this month, with a stop at Glasslands on June 20 on a good doublebill with Alana Amram & the Rough Gems opening at around 9:30.

The album’s opening track, Oh Katherine, sets the stage for what’s to come. It begins as a brisk, fingerpicked acoustic Britfolk shuffle; it winds out in a lush arrangement with washes of electric guitar, cello and swooshy cymbals. “I do not bat an eye, my life has gone awry, and I do not leave alive,” White intones matter-of-factly, letting the song’s anguished regret speak for itself. Likewise, the equally catchy Nashville gothic ballad The Cliff bitterly chronicles a relationship gone to hell, building from a terse mix of acoustic and reverb guitars and pedal steel to a big noir guitar interlude midway through. The most minimal track here is The Preacher, with its tersely eerie Syd Barrett guitar and bitter, cynical lyric; the folkiest one is Black Silk, one of the more enigmatic numbers here. “Father, he’s got me up against the wall, fading into a life I don’t want,” White explains – sort of. What happened to this girl? And of all the mini-mystery stories here, the most inscrutable one is The Law, building from a swaying backbeat country song with driving, percussive piano that suddenly ends cold and unresolved.

The minor-key waltz The Black Oak offers a bleak, Richard Thompson-esque look at a doomed relationship that White’s tormented narrator can’t bring herself to break off, while the elegaic I Lay to Rest (California) evokes this era’s greatest art-rockers, Botanica, from its snarling, macabre guitar intro, to its ornate, Chopinesque piano interlude. Clipped Wings, with its ominous major/minor changes, wouldn’t be out of place in the Arthur Lee songbook: a killer’s suicide note, it has a chilling authenticity. “Can I cut you out of the frame? Can I throw the remnants in the lake?” the murderess asks her dead paramour. The High Romantic Chopin-rock reaches a peak with Requiem Waltz: “Now I know what pain can do,” White laments as the big, anguished, fullblown orchestrated crescendo reaches a peak with soaring, aching violin. White goes back to country for the album’s final track, Broken Words, an understatedly bitter kiss-off song.

For fans of melancholy music, this album is a treat. One complaint, however: whenever she gets to the punchline, White always brings her vocals down a notch. The first couple of times this happens, it enhances the mystery; then it becomes annoying, then downright maddening. You will find yourself reaching reflexively for the rewind button, often more than once in the same song. Bringing the vocals up in the mix would have helped immeasurably. Obviously, if White’s stories weren’t so compelling, this wouldn’t be an issue: it’s a good thing that the music stands up to repeated listening, because trying to figure out just what’s happening here will take awhile.