New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: lisa zwier

Shattering Acoustic Songs and Defiant Rock Anthems Side By Side on the Lower East

“The most depressing music ever!” That’s how one of the members of high-voltage rockers Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts introduced his bandmate, singer Erica Smith at the Treehouse at 2A a couple of weekends ago. But much as Smith’s shattering, nuanced voice and painterly lyrics deal almost exclusively with dark topics, her songs actually aren’t depressing at all. She’s all about transcendence. Which is what dark music is all about, right? If everything was hopeless, why bother? The real torment is the lure of something better, and Smith channels that hope against hope better than just about anyone alive.

Her career as one of the leading lights of a still-vital Lower East Side Americana scene in the late zeros took a couple of hits, first with the loss of her drummer, the late, great Dave Campbell, then the demands of job and motherhood. Since then, she hasn’t exactly been inactive, but her gigs have been more sporadic: we can’t take her for granted anymore. Playing solo acoustic, she was all the more unselfconsciously intense for the sparseness and directness of the songs.

As usual, her imagery was loaded. Glances exchanged, unspoken, almost buckled under the weight of a pivotal twist of fate. A surreal, dissociative stare up into bright lights could have been a prelude to a grisly interrogation…or just a particularly anxious moment as seen from a hospital bed. That reference came early during the night’s best song, Veterans of Foreign Wars, a brooding waltz ending with a scenario that could have been either an Eric Garner parable, one with broader, antiwar implications, or both. Otherwise, she strummed and nimbly fingerpicked her way through styles from austere front-porch folk to vintage soul to minimalist rock.

But Smith is hardly all about gloom and doom: she has a fun side. The solo set made a stark contrast with her turn out in front of the band, through a smoldering take of group leader/guitarist Pete Cenedella’s mighty, steamy oldschool soul ballad, Hand to Lend, which quickly became a launching pad for belting and torchy melismatics to rival Aretha. Nobody sings a soul anthem like Smith: we may have lost Sharon Jones, but we still have this elusive performer.

Cenedella got his start fronting the highly regarded American Ambulance, whose ferocious populism and interweave of Stonesy rock with what was then called alt-country won them a national following. But musically speaking, this latest group’s musicianship rivals any outfit he’s been involved with.

Drummer David Anthony’s matter-of-factly swinging four-on-the-floor groove and bassist Ed Iglewski’s trebly, melodic lines underpinned lead guitarist Rich Feridun’s incisively terse fills and Charly CP Roth’s rivers of organ. Alongside Cenedella, the harmony vocal trio of Smith, Lisa Zwier and Rembert Block spun elements of Motown, Tina Turner soul and Balkan gothic into an uneasily silken sheen.

The songs in the group’s first set (this blog went AWOL for the second one) rock just as hard as Cenedella’s most electric earlier material, and if anything, are more anthemic than ever. The addition of the organ along with a frequent 60s soul influence often brought to mind peak-era Springsteen at his most ornate: Gaslight Anthem, eat your heart out.

The catchiest and most danceable number was a slinky go-go-strut, The Getaround. The most straightforwardly poignant, in a mix of songs with persistent themes of heartbreak and crawling from the wreckage afterward, was the imagistic Skies Can’t Decide. Setting the stage with the catchy, defiant Down Harder Roads and Turning of the Wheel worked out well, considering the fireworks, both loud and quiet, which followed.

Petey & the True Mongrel Hearts are currently in the midst of recording a lavish double album, so they ought to be playing out a lot more. And Smith is at Otto’s on Nov 1 at 7 PM with Beatlesque soul band Nikki & the Human Element

Lorraine Leckie and Pavel Cingl Release Their Enigmatic, Witchy New Album at the Mercury on the 29th

Among rock songwriters, few are as capable as Lorraine Leckie in writing across a vast array of different styles. New Yorkers know her best as the leader of a whipcrack-sharp psychedelic Americana rock band that she fondly calls Her Demons. Yet as straightforward as her work with that group is, her other projects can be much harder to pin down. Her latest album, The Raven Smiled – a collaboration with similarly eclectic Czech violin star Pavel Cingl, streaming at Bandcamp – is her most enigmatic, her most beguiling and arguably her best. She and Cingl are joined by those Demons – lead guitarist and recent Blues Hall of Fame inductee Hugh Pool, bassist Charles DeChants and drummer Paul Triff – at the album release show on September 29 at 8 PM at the Mercury. Cover is $10, and you get a free copy of the cd with paid admission.

The influences on this album, through a glass darkly, seem to be PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, although the music here bears more reflection than resemblance to either artist’s work. As you would expect from the instrumentation – Leckie’s Telecaster or piano paired with Cingl’s violin – the sound is a lot closer to the folk noir of Leckie’s spare 2010 album Martini Eyes. However, Cingl’s judicious production frequently adds misty atmospherics and more ornate textures, in the same vein as Leckie’s haunting 2013 album with Anthony Haden-Guest, Rudely Interrupted.

The opening track, The Man That Walks in the Rain sets the stage, cryptic and mysterious, along the same lines as Dylan’s Man in the Long Black Coat. Leckie has made no secret that she is a devotee of the black arts, so it should come as no surprise that Climb Ya Like a Mountain would be a homage to Aleister Crowley (who, as Leckie tells it, was an avid mountain climber – and a surprisngly buffoonish persona for someone enamored with the dark side).

Leckie explores that light/dark dichotomy from the opposite angle with Dangerous Friends, its triumphant continental party narrative set against a hazy backdrop channeled via one of the unorthodox guitar tunings that she employs so often here. By contrast, the baroque-tinged piano ballad Story of Your Life has a lustrous, minimalist sheen, a homage to Prague, a city whose history and beauty clearly resonate strongly with Leckie.

Awake is even more minimalistic, Cingl’s lullaby violin gently building the somnambulistic ambience. By contrast, That Ain’t Nice is a launching pad for Leckie’s dissociative, noisy guitar explorations in tandem with Cingl’s blizzard of glissandos. Witches Heart tersely mashes up early PJ Harvey, witchy mid-70s Marianne Faithfull Britfolk and 80s goth, enhanced by the eerie close harmonies of backup singer Lisa Zwier. “My little doll, you were born under a broken star, I am sorry,” Leckie intones with a cool inscrutability as the album’s most distantly ominous track, Medicine Man, gets underway. The title cut, an enigmatic piano vignette, closes the album on a decidedly unresolved note. As with the rest of the songs here, there’s charm, but also menace, the defining characteristic of this allusively intriguing collection.