Up until the lockdown, Emily Frembgen was one of the hardest-working musicians on what’s left of the New York acoustic and Americana scenes. She held down residencies at the Knitting Factory and LIC Bar, but also didn’t limit herself to the usual spots. She was just as likely to play a donut shop or a house party. It was at a Bushwick donut shop in the fall of 2017 where she calmly and quietly picked up her acoustic guitar and played one of the most haunting songs written by anyone in this city in the last several years. That song is called Downtown: Frembgen’s narrator goes to meet her friends one last time before she either leaves, or kills herself, or both. The song is all the more chilling for not being specific.
It’s not on her new album It’s Me or the Dog – streaming at Bandcamp – but the record has plenty of other intriguing material, some of it brooding, some of it more quirky and playful. Frembgen is a skilled, purist tunesmith, a potently imagistic lyricist and has an unselfconscious, sometimes wounded. sometimes understatedly vengeful voice that will give you goosebumps.
“Little child, going nowhere, I can’t touch you when you turn away from me,” Frembgen relates gently in Butterfly, a chilling, tersely detailed portrait of clinical depression. That one’s just Frembgen and her acoustic guitar. She’s joined by lead guitarist Hugh Pool, bassist Charles Dechants and drummer Keith Robinson for Changes, which brings to mind Rosanne Cash’s early new wave/Americana mashups.
Organist Brian Mitchell adds aptly Blonde on Blonde-flavored organ and Nashville piano to Sad Affair: the harmonica completes the mid 60s Dylan ambience behind Frembgen’s witheringly cynical imagery.
Flower/Weed is a seething, low-key kiss-off song, Frembgen’s gentle fingerpicking mingling with Charles Burst’s twinkly electric piano. She goes back to backbeat Americana with Silver Lining, a catchy, guardedly optimistic anthem about two troubled souls pulling themselves out of a dark place, lowlit by Pool’s baritone guitar.
The contrasting imagery and airy vocals in Turn Around bring to mind another first-class Americana-inspired tunesmith, Liz Tormes. Frembgen elevates Julee Cruise girl-down-the-well moroseness to new levels of angst in New Feelin’ over Pool’s Lynchian twang.
She picks up the pace with Hometown, an optimistic country shuffle concealing a desperate escape narrative, and closes the record with He Held Onto Me, Mitchell’s sober gospel piano underscoring Frembgen’s despondency. It’s the only place on the album where she drops her guard. Frembgen has been writing catchy songs since the late zeros, but she’s reached a harrowing new level here with one of the best records of 2021.