New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: murder ballads

Sinister Musical Mini-Movies and Murder Ballads From Ben Da La Cour

Dark Americana crooner Ben De La Cour‘s 2016 debut Midnight in Havana made the 20 best albums of the year list here. His latest album, Shadow Land – streaming at Bandcamp – is longer and considerably more twisted: it was very  tempting to save this for the annual Halloween celebration here. De La Cour spins a hell of a yarn, and his expressive baritone has more unhinged energy but also more nuance this time around. If murder ballads are your thing, this is your guy.

The album opens with the briskly shuffling outlaw ballad God’s Only Son. This guy is a total psychopath: he gives his kid brother the shiv, and it just gets more grisly from there. Likewise, the slow, simmering High Heels Down the Holler seems to be a retelling of the Ed Gein story.

The devil is always in De La Cour’s details. “Her words trailed off like cigarette smoke underneath the door.” Talk about saying volumes in a few words! That’s a line from The Last Chance Farm, a delicately fingerpicked ballad which could be set in a prison, or a pretty awful workplace, or somewhere else. Tom Shaner’s classic Lake 48 comes to mind.

De La Cour picks up the pace with the snarling, open-tuned electric blues In God We Trust – All Others Pay Cash, a surreal, cynical update on Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan. Is there a Hendrix quote in Amazing Grace (Slight Return)? Nope, but it’s a killer narrative, a hushed, stunningly detailed generational clash with an ending that’s way too good to give away.

Musically, the album’s title track is more lightheartedly Dylanesque, but De La Cour’s gloomy surrealism is unrelenting: “The more I talk, the less I have to say; the more I listen, the less I understand,” he grouses. Then he and the band hit a raucous post-Chuck Berry roar in The Basin Lounge. There’s a David Duke poster on the wall of this joint: get out of Denver, baby, GO!!!

The wistful, Celtic-tinged waltz Swan Dive opens on a grim Brooklyn streetside murder and just gets more interesting from there. The even more muted From Now On is the ringer here, a momentary break from all the killing. The album’s funniest number is Anderson’s Small Ritual, a bizarre character study.

De La Cour recounts an opium dream in the slow fire-and-brimstone blues Harmless Indian Medicine Blues. He winds up the record with flurries of fingerpicking throughout the hauntingly anthemic, apocalyptic Valley of the Moon. Telling stories with sharp lyrics over a catchy tune may be a neglected art these days, but nobody’s working harder than De La Cour to push that envelope. You’ll see this album on the best-of-2020 page if there’s still reason for a music blog to exist by the time we hit December. If we hit December.

A Deviously Dark New Masterpiece and a Joe’s Pub Show From Creepy Duo Charming Disaster

Charming Disaster aren’t just the creepiest guy/girl harmony duo in folk noir. They’re also a songwriting superduo. Since the late zeros, guitarist Jeff Morris has led mighty noir mambo/circus rock band Kotorino. When singer/ukulele player Ellia Bisker – leader of majestic existentialist soul band Sweet Soubrette – joined his group, that springboarded a series of collaborations that led to the duo’s debut collection of original murder ballads. Since then, they’ve become a touring powerhouse and have expanded their sound to include dark and death-obsessed narratives set to increasingly and expertly diverse musical backdrops. Their latest album Spells and Rituals is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing Joe’s Pub on August 22 at 9 PM; cover is $15.

They open the record with Blacksnake, a slinky clave tune about a pair of lovers who’ve gotten in too deep for their own good. All this bliss just might kill them: “Is it just hallucination or the ergot on the rye?” they ask as what may be an apocalypse looms on the horizon. There’s also a funny fourth wall-breaking reference to percussion equipment; see the band live and you’ll get it.

Although the duo do an impressive job playing multiple instruments onstage to bulk up their sound, there’s a full band on the album. Wishing Well, a Merseybeat-tinged janglerock tune has Don Godwin doing double duty on bass and drums along with the handclaps to propel its allusively suicidal narrative. Baba Yaga, a shout out to the popular witch from Russian mythology, has a scampering horror surf-tinged groove; there’s no Moussourgsky quote, although that’s the kind of thing they’d slip in when playing it live.

Devil May Care, with its wry Biblical allusions and Tex-Mex tinges, is a hoot. “You’ve got a right to get in trouble,’ is the refrain. Llithe strings add to the distant menace , alongside Jessie Kilguss’ droning harmonium. Bisker’s sultry tones enhance the sinister ambience over Morris’ gorgeously bittersweet guitar jangle in Blue Bottle Blues, a swinging number about poisoning.

Heart of Brass is a throwback to Kotorino’s adventures in sardonic steampunk storytelling, Morris and Bisker in counterpoint over tinkling glass bells and a hypnotic sway. From there they blend Beatles and classic 60s country balladry in the slightly more lighthearted, metaphorically loaded cross-country narrative Keep Moving.

Menacing circus-rock piano (that’s either Morris or Bisker; both play keys on the album) and strings (Heather Cole on violin and Patricia Santos on cello) build operatic drama in Belladonna. “The ambulance sang my name more times than once,” Morris and Bisker harmonize in Fire Eater, a broodingly orchestrated, Balkan brass-tinged parable about the perils of thrill-seeking. They stomp their way through the catchy Laurel Canyon psychedelia of the monstrously funny Be My Bride of Frankenstein and close the album with the cynical, scampering garage rock spoof Soft Apocalypse. Dark music has seldom been this much fun – and these two put on a hell of a show.