New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: milwaukee bands

A Long Overdue Look at Liv Mueller’s Haunting Solo Album

Over a year ago, Milwaukee songstress Liv Mueller sent her album Liv Sings – Love Songs for the Forlorn and Misguided over the transom here. It was a sensible thing for her to do, considering how well-suited to this blog her music is. She’s an individualistic songwriter with a thing for haunting, minimalist guitar, which she multitracks with the reverb turned all the way up, building a creepy, majestic backdrop for her slowly unwinding anthems and a waltz or two. She’s also an individualistic and tremendously good singer, with just as much power at the low end of her range as at the top. The songs on the album bring to mind Shannon Wright or Randi Russo taking a stab at Americana – admittedly, that might be a stretch, considering that neither of those artists is remotely country, but just imagine if you can. Mueller made a name for herself in that style of music in the midwest fronting the Lovelies and then the Dark Horse Project, so it’s no surprise that she’s equally at home with both vintage C&W and country blues-tinged material.

So why did such an excellent album sit around for so long here, unheard and forgotten? Umm…..dumbass blog owner (guess who) mistook it for somebody else’s jazz record, so it ended up hidden away on the server until a year-end cleanup sparked a listen to the first song. And this is one of those albums where the first song makes you want to hear what’s next, and so on until about an hour later, you’ve heard the whole thing and want to hear what else she’s got out there (good news – in the time that’s passed since she sent this one in, she’s been working on a new one). The noir torch song One More Time, which opens the album, is addictive, Mueller’s ghostly, mysterious a-cappella first verse rising to grand guignol orchestral heights on the wings of the string synth. Long Gone is the first of the many dark guitar-driven numbers: it’s got to be the only song that references both Edgar Allan Poe and the O.J. Simpson trial.

Mueller sings over a hypnotic, allusive country-blues vamp on This Kind of Love, her angst-ridden vocals matching the looming intensity of the music. Father Angel moves further toward indie rock, with creepy gothic lyrics and surreal backward-masked guitar. Salvation is a broodingly elegaic waltz – Mueller might be singing to a ghost here. And on the sardonic, embittered Let It Roll, is she singing “hell, hell, hell” as a mantra as the song opens – or is that just vocalese? Either would work, especially as Mueller adds a scorching, dreampop-tinged lead guitar line as the chorus kicks in.

She reinvents the country classic Crazy Arms, the only cover here, as Nashville gothic, and follows that with Haunted Face, a regret-laden neo-Velvets tune that wouldn’t be out of place in the Vera Beren catalog. An echoey noir bongo pulse pushes the Siouxsie-esque Beneath My Wings along, Mueller belting hard over the terse orchestration. Wish You May sets judiciously ringing tremolo guitar over a burning, distorted drone and another sardonic lyric; Mueller ends the album with a grimly amusing departure into Weimar-style cabaret. What’s coolest about this album is how she pulls together elements from styles that seem completely at odds with each other and makes everything work seamlessly along with her almost-lurid, unselfconsciously magnetic vocals.

Richly Hypnotic, Unique Middle Eastern Psychedelic Grooves from Painted Caves

Milwaukee band Painted Caves play Middle Eastern-influenced psychedelic grooves that more or less follow the Silk Road in reverse, back toward India. Their signature sound sets droll deadpan vocals over a hypnotic, clattering rhythm, a web of acoustic Middle Eastern instruments mingling with layers of guitar.  It’s safe to say that there is no group anywhere in the world who sound anything like them. The obvious comparison is New York kitchen-sink instrumentalists Tribecastan, although Painted Caves’ songs rock a lot harder, yet are also more hypnotic. Their excellent debut album is streaming all the way through at their Bandcamp page.

The first song, Ballad of the Office Worker slinks along over a wry faux-mechanical, clattering rhythm lit up by incisive oud and a wry Hendrix quote from the guitar. “It’s time we sell, we spend our time in hell, and spend your time in hell,” frontman/guitarist Ali Lubbad intones. Blood in the Water jams out a distantly ominous vamp over a tricky beat with qanun along with the lingering layers of guitar. The band’s namesake song, with its spiky layers of oud, wah guitar and flute, sounds like Tribecastan playing a classic Greek psychedelic rock song from the 60s – or like Trio Bel Canto covering Tribecastan if those guys had been contemporaties, an idea that isn’t as farfetched as it might seem.

Half-Human slowly and very subtly morphs from a clip-clop Malian-style duskcore groove into a reggae song, with a simple but spot-on anti-materialist message. As with a lot of these songs, it’s hard to keep track of the instruments – is that a sitar or a sarod? A guitar pedal? A steel pan, or the qanun again? – and who’s playing what. The next track is The Ocean, six hazy minutes of Balinese gamelan rock with Middle Eastern tinges that works a series of artful rises and falls as it winds out, with ornamentation that ranges from throat-singing, to reverb guitar and layers of shadowy amp noise.

The best song on the album is the eerie, chromatically-charged Morse Code. It’s amazing what this band can do with what’s essentially a one-chord jam, eventually winding down to a quietly creepy multitracked oud interlude that the guitar picks up with a slow-mo stoner surf vibe. Peace Bear looks backwards through freak-folk, the Beatles and minimalist Indian Baul trance music. The album’s closing track is part Bollywood, part desert blues. Won’t it be funny someday when music like this is totally mainstream, while straight-up four-on-the-floor rock songs are considered quaint and esoteric?