New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: miwa gemini

Haunting Harmonies and Fierce Relevance From Bobtown at the American Folk Art Museum

When you have three multi-instrumentalists as diversely talented as Jen McDearman, Katherine Etzel and Karen Dahlstrom, who needs more people in the band? Friday night at the American Folk Art Museum, in a rare trio performance, the three core members of folk noir group Bobtown reaffirmed their status as one of the best bands in New York. Which they’re been for the past ten years.

They haven’t been playing out a lot lately since they’re in the process of making a new album.  “For those of you who know us, we’re a pretty dark band,” Dahlstrom admitted. “The new record is…more of a charcoal grey.” Which was pretty accurate: the new songs in their tantalizingly brief, headlining set were less macabre than much of the band’s back catalog, if they weren’t exactly carefree.

The band’s closing number, No Man’s Land – as in, “I am no man’s land” – brought the house down. Dahlstrom couldn’t resist telling the crowd how much more resonance this fearlessly feminist, oldtime gospel-flavored broadside has taken on in the few weeks since she’d written it. The women’s three-part harmonies spoke truth to power throughout this ferocious reclamation of women’s rights, and dreams, a slap upside the head of trumpie patriarchy.

Getting to that point was just as redemptive. The trio opened with another brand-new number, In My Bones, pulsing with vocal counterpoint. You wouldn’t expect Etzel, whose upper register has razorwire power, to hang out in the lows, but she was there a lot of the time. Likewise, Dahlstrom – best known for her mighty, gospel-infused alto – soared up in the highs. McDearman, who channels the most high-lonesome Appalachian sound of anyone in the group and usually takes the highest harmonies of all, found herself somewhere in the middle for most of it.

The rest of the new material, including the bittersweet kiss-off anthem Let You Go, had a more wry sensibility than the band’s usual ghostly chronicles. Rumble Seat, a sardonic chronicle of smalltown anomie that could just as easily be set in luxury condo-era Brooklyn as somewhere in the Midwest, was even funnier, especially when the trio reached the eye-rolling yodels on the final choruses.

The band joined voices for a 19th century field holler-style intro and then some loomingly ominous harmonies in Battle Creek, Dahlstrom’s chilling, gospel-infused chronicle of an 18th century Michigan millworker’s descent into the abyss. Throughout the evening, McDearman switched from eerily twinkling glockenspiel to atmospheric keyboards and also cowbell. Etzel, who typically handles percussion, played tenor guitar; Dahlstrom played both guitar and banjo, the latter a relatively new addition to her arsenal.

The Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum is off this week for the holiday but resumes on July 13 at around 6 PM with a typically excellent lineup including elegantly angst-fueled, individualistic torchsong/parlor pop piano chanteuse Jeanne Marie Boes, followed by soul/gospel belter (and Lenny Molotov collaborator) Queen Esther.

And several other artists who’ve played the museum in recent months – especially when sticking around for the whole night wasn’t an option – deserve a shout. Dave Hudson treated the crowd to a catchy, anthemic set of solo acoustic janglerock. Heather Eatman played a rare mix of similarly catchy, 80s-inspired acoustic songs she’d written back then as a teenager. Jon LaDeau flexed his purist country blues guitar chops, Joanna Sternberg alternated between LOL-funny and poignant original Americana, and Miwa Gemini and her accordionist mashed up uneasy southwestern gothic and Mediterranean balladry. And as far as vocals are concerned, along with this show, the most exhilarating sets here so far this year have been by Balkan singer Eva Salina and her pyrotechnic accordionist Peter Stan, along with a rare solo show by Dahlstrom and a deliciously venomous farewell New York performance by blue-eyed soul powerhouse Jessi Robertson.

Another Killer Show in Brooklyn on March 24

Funny how crowds at the same event vary from one night to the next, isn’t it? February’s installment of Murder Ballad Mondays at Branded Saloon in Fort Greene was a mobscene. Last month’s was basically limited to  artists who’d played previous editions of the monthly celebration of twisted desire in song from throughout the ages. In a stroke of counterintuitivity, most murder ballads have traditionally been sung by men, yet most of the performers at Murder Ballad Mondays have been women. A necessary antidote? Karmic payback? Food for thought.

Ironically, despite the light turnout, this particular night was the best yet. Peg Simone opened, minimalist and inscrutable on piano, her back to the crowd. In a coolly enigmatic alto. she delivered a long, rainswept , eerily chiming noir blues. From there she segued into a hypnotically enveloping, quietly vengeful number, like Nico tackling Long Black Veil. Neville Elder of folk noir favorites Thee Shambels followed with a long, ghoulishly detailed Donner Party-inspired tale: Great Plains gothic as the Strawbs might have done it

Miwa Gemini reinvented the Nancy Sinatra hit Bang Bang from the point of view of a real femme fatale  And after playing the surrealistically Gun Club-ish, slide guitar-fueled coda to her Grizzly Rose song cycle, she decided that her imaginary muse doesn’t die in the end: she ends up being the killer.

Cello rock duo the Whiskey Girls – Patricia Santos and Tara Hanish – made their first New York appearance since a sizzling set here late last year, opening with tensefly syspenseful, stark minor-key blues and then a luridly menacing ba-bump latin swing tune, Not Anymore: “The view from the stage ain’t like the view from the floor,” Santos intoned ominously. If memory serves right, they also did a stark chamber pop version of the jazz standard Wild Is the Wind. And creepy parlor pop duo Charming Disaster – who host the night – treated the crowd to a gorgeously harmony-driven number with intricate call-and-response vocals and also a deadpan cover of a Foster the People cheeseball pop ditty. Guitarist Jeff Morris was game, even though his conspirator Ellia Bisker had to twist his arm to get him to play it.

All this capsulizes something you might not expect from Murder Ballad Mondays: it’s not just about dark storytelling or the comfort of imagining someone dead, most likely an ex. It’s about the tunes! The music here is every bit as good as the stories. This month’s performance – rescheduled to SUNDAY, April 24 at 8 PM – includes cameos by the brilliant, historically-fixated Elisa Flynn, haunting folk noir bandleader Jessie Kilguss, shortwave radio operator/pianist Steve Espinola as well as the hosts, who’ve been on a serious creative roll lately.

Miwa Gemini Plays Her Smart, Surreal, Uneasily Enigmatic, Jangly Rock at a Rare Afternoon Show

Miwa Gemini is sort of the missing link between Shonen Knife and Calexico. She’s got the endearingly surreal lo-fi Japanese janglerock thing down cold, but she also has a southwestern gothic side. She likes waltzes, but these days it seems that she likes boleros even better. Her quirky sense of humor, along with the birittle vibrato that trails off as her voice reaches the end of a phrase, bring to mind Melora Creager of Rasputina. Gemini’s clangly, reverb-tinged minor-key guitar fits in among the many bands haunting the northern fringes of desert rock, like And the Wiremen. For those of you who might be stir-crazy after spending the evening in while the annual Santacon puke-a-thon made so many of us prisoners in our own homes, Gemini is playing the small room at the Rockwood at 4 (four) PM today, December 13. It’s a pass-the-tip-jar situation.

At her most recent show, at Branded Saloon last month, Gemini and her trumpeter had the misfortune to follow a sizzling set by another duo, cellist-vocalists the Whiskey Girls. Charismatic belter Patricia Santos aired out her powerful and spectacular vocal range throughout a mix of sultry blues, an in-your-face kiss-off song or two and a murderous oldschool soul narrative, all the while playing slinky basslines, ominous deep-well washes of sound and challenging harmonics that required a lot of extended technique. Tara Hanish carried the lead lines with her elegantly serpentine, sometimes baroque-tinged phrasing while adding similarly spot-on high harmonies on the vocal side.

After all that, you might think that Gemini would have been anticlimactic, but she wasn’t. As a guitarist, she didn’t waste notes, using lots of simple, catchy descending lines and uneasy chromatics. As a singer, she projected strongly despite being under the weather after taking a red-eye flight back from a West Coast tour. Some of the duskiest, darkest material seemed to be new, while much of the rest of the set drew on Gemini’s most recent album, Fantastic Lies of Grizzly Rose. It’s a trippy narrative loosely centered around an imperturbably adventurous imaginary muse and possible alter ego – or wishful alter ego. Gemini and her bandmate jangled and soared through the briskly uneasy border-rock shuffe Goodnight Trail, then later on (or before – the memory is fuzzy on this), made a hypnotic Steve Wynn-style low-key groove out of the psychedelic soul ballad The Other Half of Me. Gemini has done a lot of different styles, from oldtimey to swing to garage rock and psychedelia over the years, but she’s never sounded more eclectically tuneful than she has lately.