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Reverb Monsters Thee Oh Sees Flip the Script in Their Return to Bowery Ballroom

Is Thee Oh Sees’ September 8, 10 PM show at Bowery Ballroom going to be a wash since it’s right after the Labor Day weekend? Probably not, since the band had been on hiatus for much of this past year while frontman John Dwyer took care of Castle Face label business. And most everybody who’s coming back to town will be back by then. So if assaultively glimmering, reverb-drenched psychedelic garage rock is your thing, you should plan on getting to the venue a little early; general admission is $20.

Thee Oh Sees’ latest album – their fourteenth release –  is Manipulator Defeated At Last (streaming at Soundcloud), and it’s a real curveball, an unexpectedly successful departure into retro 80s tropes. If you thought you knew this band, you’re in for all sorts of surprises – good ones. The opening track, Web starts out as a coy new wave strut until Dwyer comes in and throws lighter fluid on everything – is it a spoof? Maybe. Probably. The twin guitars doing a horn chart toward the end is period-perfect 80s.

Halloweenish whistling wind sonics and a slinky bassline explode into an early Joy Division stomp in Withered Head. Likewise, Poor Queen welds a lingering Daniel Ash-ish reverb guitar riff to a skittish 2/4 beat. Then Dwyer mashes up galloping garage rock with Syd Barrett and a tongue-in-cheek early 70s stoner rock riff in Turned Out Light.

Lupine Ossuary – you just gotta love this guy’s song titles – is Link Wray as Barrett would have done it,  a surrealistically squalling one-chord jam. In what has become a sadistic formula, Dwyer juxtaposes a dreamily cinematic, serpentine early 60s organ theme with crushing guitars in Sticky Hulks: it’s the most psychedelic track here.

Acoustic guitars – WTF?!?! – build a web in tandem with the organ as the uneasy motorik theme Holy Smokes gets underway and remains in the fast lane. By contrast, Rogue Planet is sort of Wire as done by Guided by Voices. The album winds up with the murderously lingering, shuffling Palace Doctor, an ambling, ominously vamping, latin-tinged take on vintage Bauhaus. Wow. We take this band for granted and they just keep putting out great albums, this being one of their best.

The Pre-War Ponies Bring Their Lush, Romantic, Warmly Nocturnal Swing Sounds Back to Barbes

Every time you turn around, another oldtimey swing band pops up somewhere around town. And venues have gotten wise: even grungy old Arlene’s has swing bands now! Ten years ago, who would have thought? One of the most original and distinctive groups in that feverishly followed demimonde is the Pre-War Ponies. Where most 20s hot jazz outfits play lickety-split, uptempo material, the Pre-War Ponies specialize in warmly swinging, mostly midtempo songs anchored by the plush, balmy, disarmingly clear vocals of frontwoman/baritone uke player Daria Grace (a founding member of another iconic New York swing band, the Moonlighters). And while many of the other swing crews in town play the same old standards, the Pre-War Ponies have been known to scour junk shops in search of rare gems from eighty and ninety years ago. They’ve got a fantastic new album, Get Out Under the Moon due out soon and a show on Sept 10 at 10 PM at Barbes. Auspiciously, Pierre de Gaillande (former frontman of brilliant New York art-rockers Melomane, with whom Grace played bass) debuts his new band, Open Kimono to open the night at 8.

The Pre-War Ponies’ Barbes show last month was as pillowy, and romantic, and fun as you could possibly want, enhanced by the erudite wit and groove of polymath latin jazz drummer Willie Martinez. Grace ran her uke through an effects pedal, adding subtle tinges of reverb as well as some psychedelically oscillating timbres on a couple of numbers. J. Walter Hawkes doubled on uke and trombone, alternating between boisterous – and sometimes droll – and comfortable, nocturnal ambience on both instruments. Martinez’s ambling brushwork and artful cymbal work propelled the forthcoming album’s 1928 title track;, then he gave a lowlit slink to Grace’s subtly moody take of Irving Berlin’s Say It Isn’t So as Hawkes added shadowy resonance.

They played what’s more or less their signature song, Moon Over Brooklyn – a onetime Guy Lombardo recording – early in the set. Other than the Flatbush Avenue reference, it could be set pretty much anywhere, but as Grace sang it, it had a coyly strolling charm that was impossible to resist. From there they picked up the pace with a jaunty take of Fats Waller’s How Can You Face Me with Hawkes’ trombone front and center. Then they went back toward bittersweet territory as Grace’s expansive chords anchored a brooding shuffle take of The Lamp Is Low, a showcase for Martinez at his most articulate and expressive.

You wouldn’t think a band could raise the energy level with a suicide song, but that’s what they did, with a bouncy take of Jimmie Noone’s 1920s hit Ready for the River. Amapola, a tongue-in-cheek cha-cha shout-out to a pretty little poppy (you do the math) was another springboard for Martinez’s spring-loaded subtlety behind the kit, Hawkes adding foghorn trombone ambience. Al Dubin and Harrry Warren’s risque swing tune Pettin’ in the Park bore a mysterious resemblance to Walking in a Winter Wonderland, with a pulsing Ian Riggs bass solo midway through. Hawkes’ eyeball-rolling muted trombone solo took centerstage in the Boswell Sisters’ Got the South in My Soul to wind up the band’s first set. The crowd responded warmly: it was date night, lots of couples, from their 20s to older Slopers out for a romantic evening in Barbes’ cozy back room. That’s probably the biggest reason behind the unwavering popularity of the stuff the Pre-War Ponies play.

A Rare NYC Appearance and a Driving, Resolute New Album by Malian Desert Rockers Terakaft

There’s cruel irony in the title of Malian desert rockers Terakaft‘s new, fifth album, Alone (streaming at Spotify). For two decades, the group’s message has been one of resistance and solidarity. A sort of shadow project to iconic duskcore band Tinariwen, with whom they share several members, they’ve typically served as a harder-rocking version of that group. But the energy of their new album, unlike their previous two releases, is driven not by optimism but disillusion and sometimes crushing despair in the wake of the ongoing war in their native land. Nonetheless, their music is steady, resolute and indomitable, its mantra-like grooves and rhythms testament to their commitment to the struggle that’s taken untold lives in their conflict-stricken home country. They’re at Joe’s Pub on September 7 at 9:30 PM as part of their current North American tour. Cover is $22 and since this band so seldom plays here, advance tix are highly recommended.

Growling, lingering, distorted chords anchor the loping pulse of the opening track, Anabayou (Awkward), further beefed up by heavier percussion than one would typically hear if the group were playing around the fire at sundown in the Sahara. Credit their longtime producer Justin Adams with adding stadium rock muscle without subsuming the music’s otherworldly, hypnotic quality.

Tafouk Tele (The Sun Is There) shifts the shuffling groove to the offbeat, the call-and-response of the vocals – an ancient trait in the region’s folk music – mirrored by the deft exchange of guitar riffage. When the song suddenly falls apart at the end, the effect is viscerally chilling. The album’s most stark and intense track – possibly the band’s best song ever – is Karambani (Nastiness), a rather savage minor-key shuffle fueled by a menacing baritone guitar riff that speeds up to a horrified sprint.

Itilla Ehene Dagh Aitma (To My Brothers) sets a low-key verse and a singalong chorus to trickily rhythmic, undulating waves of ringing, keening guitars. Oulhin Asnin (My Heart Hurts) subtly shifts the rhythm into a more straightforward groove, creating a feeling of forward motion slowly breaking free of restraint. Track six, Kal Hoggar works a more straight-up triplet beat, carefully textured layers of guitars buildilng a serpentine interweave.

Amidinin Senta Neflas (My Trusted Friend) is the closest thing here to straight-up western rock, enhanced by a spare harmonica track, a touch that probably originated in the studio. With its surreal, deep-space lead guitar lines, Wahouche Natareh (Lions) is the album’s most psychedelic number. Its most spare and woundedly pensive tune is the concluding title cut. You may be wondering about the lyrical content here: as with the group’s previous output, themes of exile, longing, anguish and struggle, sung in the group’s native Tamashek, dominate these resonant, memorably lingering songs.

George Usher and Lisa Burns Channel 50 Years of Gorgeously Erudite Rock Songcraft on Their New Album

Some artists get overlooked if they aren’t playing shows regularly, an unfair disadvantage to say the least. George Usher and Lisa Burns earned their cred playing all over New York beginning as far back as the 80s. There’s a harrowing backstory and a happy ending, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, behind their album The Last Day of Winter (streaming at Spotify).

Usher earned iconic status as a powerpop songwriter and bandleader with House of Usher, Beat Rodeo and other groups dating from the CBGB days (and wrote the title track of Laura Cantrell‘s classic 2000 debut album, Not the Tremblin’ Kind). Burns also enjoys an avid cult following as an innovative crafter and reinterpreter of classic soul, powerpop and occasionally psychedelic sounds. While making a successful recovery from cancer, Usher decided to reinvent himself as a lyricist since he was too debilitated to play, and Burns set those lyrics to music. The result is a pensive, often plantive, richly arranged blend of janglerock, powerpop, Americana and new wave, one of the best albums of 2015.

Happily, Usher’s back to playing his guitar, and also piano on this album. The opening track, Wake Me When Tomorrow’s Here has the soaring crescendos of the Church, Burns’ soulful, vibrato-heavy harmonies mingling with Usher’s understatedly triumphant vocals: he’s been through a lot. Burns widens that vibrato all the way in the vintage C&W-tinged ballad Depression Glass, a vividly downcast Flyover America tableau. More Than That I Cannot Say amps up the late 60s folk-rock that Burns does so well.

Lost in Translation has a slow, hazy sway that’s part Beatles, part pastoral Pink Floyd, spiced with Usher’s spiky, minimalist piano accents. The wrly shuffling My Precious Wisdom gives Usher a platform to stay at the keys and ripple through some ragtime. If It Ever Comes to Pass is the album’s best track, a snarling minor-key, darkly new wave-tinged gem fueled by Mark Sidgwick’s lead guitar. The guy/girl harmonies bring to mind legendary late 90s/early zeros New York band DollHouse.

Usher airs out an unexpectedly powerful upper register on another real gem, the brooding, metaphorically charged honkytonk ballad Dark Blue Room, lowlit by Jonathan Gregg’s high lonesome pedal steel. Then Usher returns to the 88s as Burns sings the angst-fueled Wasn’t Born to Belong: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Matt Keating catalog.

Drummer Wylie Wirth’s elegant brushwork pushes the gorgeous, ominously bittersweet Never Ever Land while Usher handles its big, restless acoustic guitar chords: “It’s a cloudy dream and a slow return when the fire has nowhere to burn,” Usher and Burns warn. Then they go back to channeling the Church in 80s folk-rock mode in the understatedly savage kiss-off anthem The World That Rested on Your Word. The album’s creepiest track is The Ferryman’s Name, evoking both the Fab Four and CSNY with its harmonies and surreallistic death imagery. The album winds up with its magnificently saturnine – and ultimately hopeful – title track, Jeff Hermanson’s horn sailing over Claudia Chopek’s stark string arrangement.

Musically speaking, this is arguably the strongest collection of tunes Burns has ever written, pretty impressive for someone who’s been at it as long as she has. Usher himself has been recording since the 60s, beginning as a pop prodigy in his native Cleveland. Fun factoid: as a kid, he was known to take credit – or at least not deny credit – for Gary Puckett’s hits, since they were credited to one G. Usher (the unrelated producer Gary Usher). But he’s a generation younger than McCartney and Jagger and the rest of the guys from that era. His voice may have weathered a smidge, but it’s still strong. Long may it resonate.

Riveting, State-of-the-Art New and Antique Korean Sounds from Kyungso Park at Barbes

Kyungso Park‘s axe is the gaegeum, the magically tone-bending Korean zither that sometimes sounds like a harp and sometimes like a cross between an oud and a theremin. Or something that might be heard in Jabba the Hut’s space lounge, if that place ever had acoustic music. This past evening at Barbes, she treated a rapt crowd to a wide swath of music for the instrument, both cutting-edge original compositions and traditional numbers.

As serious and meticulous a composer and player as she is, she’s also a very funny, engaging performer, her stern gaze while she played evaporating into an animated grin between songs as she entertained the audience. She’d brought two different instruments, one a large, contemporary model and the other a smaller traditional version. She wryly explained its origins in a medieval dictator’s desire for indigenous instruments and music with a distinct regional character rather than one that looked to China for inspiration. She also took care to explain that her style, both as a musician and tunesmith, are “very, very different” from traditional repertoire and technique.

Her own compositions are very terse, even minimalistic, sometimes employing circular motives and subtle variations on them, in a vein that resembles western indie classical music more than it does much of anything from Asia. Likewise, she eschewed traditional Asian scales in favor of more western tonalities: the evening’s most sparse composition relied strictly on open strings without any of the woozy bends and otherworldly glissandos typically associated with the classical or folk repertoire.

The traditional material was every bit as interesting as the originals. These included a rather jaunty diptych from a sort of Korean counterpart to Romeo and Juliet, along with a tensely crescendoing, rather epic number that resembled an Indian raga but without the reverberating, twangy strings. Park sang elegantly on a couple of songs, narrated another, then right before the end of the show did a thoughtful and remarkably tuneful improvisation with a french horn player that juxtaposed his misty long-tone lines against her steady, bucolic, distantly bittersweet plucked phrasing. Park ended the show with an original composition employing the kind of extended technique that she’s often drawn to, bowing the high strings at the back of the bridge for a rhythmic, feral shriek and squall. Considering how meticulously and dynamically she’d played all night, it was probably the last thing anybody in the crowd expected, a fearlessly energetic way to wrap up one of the most fascinating performances in any New York venue this year. Park is reprising it at 6 PM tomorrow night, August 30 at Pioneer Works at 159 Pioneer St in Red Hook in the middle of an intriguing triplebill starting at 6 PM with bassist Ethan Jodziewicz and Appalachian fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves, and then Ethiopiques funk band Nikhil P. Yerawadekar & Low Mentality headlining at 8 or so. Cover is $10.

Cleopatra Degher Plays One of This Summer’s Most Enjoyably Catchy Shows at the Rockwood

Acoustic songstress Cleopatra Degher played one of the year’s funniest and most quietly devastating songs at her show at the Rockwood last month. It was a catchy, cheery little tune titled Rebecca Wood. See, Rebecca sometimes wonders what it would be like to be alone. But as Degher told it, she never is. “She gets to know all her friends on Facebook through all the pictures that they took.” The crowd didn’t start to chuckle until after the second chorus, but by then Degher had made her point.

The San Diego-based songwriter spent much of her childhood in Sweden. She’s still relatively young (early 20s), a nimble and very eclectic guitarist, has a way with a catchy, anthemic tune and sings in a strong, determined mezzo-soprano, informed by all sorts of oldtimey folk and Appalachian music as well as more current sounds. Auspiciously, her set was mostly new material along with a few numbers from her most recent album Pacific (streaming at Bandcamp). She opened with I Saw the Sky, her fast fingers picking a flurry on the strings up to one of her signature anthemic choruses. She followed with Nothing to Worry About Now, a driving, sparkling mountain music-inspired number.

Her agile hammer-ons and dynamic shifts, up to doublespeed and back, propelled Burden of Tomorrow. Keep on Moving, inspired by the long winters she endured in Sweden, blended hints of a Grateful Dead classic into its optimistic crescendos, a springboard for Degher’s steely upper register. Nothing But a River was as stunningly and bittersweetly hopeful as it was anthemic, Degher reaching back for all the force she could muster on the chorus. It was almost as she was going to use sheer force of will to make sure this relationship would go somewhere instead of falling through right at the start.

By contrast, Shame had more of a shuffling oldtimey feel, but once again hit a towering peak on the chorus: Degher can deliver a lot more raw energy than most musicians who employ just guitar and vocals. She also did a stately waltz written by her dad, Darius Degher, as well as a high-voltage cover of Ring of Fire. She spends a lot of time on the road: let’s hope she makes it back to town sooner than later.

St. Bernadette Packs the House in Their NYC Debut at City Winery

The debut of chanteuse Angela McCluskey and pianist Paul Cantelon‘s sophisticated new dancefloor project St. Bernadette packed the house at City Winery last night. They treated the crowd to a mix of songs as eclectic as you would expect from the the brain trust of popular 90s folk-rockers the Wild Colonials. They’re sort of a hi-de-ho swing or noir cabaret take on Beats Antique: if they want to take this act on the road, they could make a killing. It was rather incongruous watching the crowd sitting still, more or less, while McCluskey swayed animatedly across the stage, trading grins and the occasional riff with her bandmates, including a nimble bassist, jazz trumpeter and polymath multi-instrumentalist Rachelle Garniez, who doubled on accordion and claviola. Behind them, loops and a drum track swirled and thudded, Cantelon sometimes enhancing the textures with his own multi-keys.

McCluskey explained that she’d gotten the inspiration for this group after having done a session fronting a sixteen-piece jazz orchestra for a piece for the Boardwalk Empire soundtrack. Not having the full orchestra available, she decided to take matters into her own hands and bring them with her, even if that meant having them in the can rather than actually onstage.

Cantelon’s lustrously rippling piano in tandem with muted trumpet set the stage for McCluskey’s balmy, roots reggae-inflected take of her catchily vamping hit You and Me. McCluskey is a woman of many, many voices, depending on the song or the emotional content she’s putting across, channeling a completely different persona – a brassy seductress with a hint of smoke in her delivery – on the torchy swing number after that.

They revisited the vamping anthemic quality of the opening number, then brought a moody, Ethiopiques-tinged sway to the slow swing number after that: McCluskey is a far more nuanced song stylist than Amy Winehouse, but there were echoes of that singer’s sad, smoky delivery all the same. From there the band made their way through wary bossa-pop, the bittersweetly lowlit, accordion-fueled noir swing of What About Us, more Cab Calloway-inflected material and eventually the dreamy, narcotized boudoir disco hit In the Air. Garniez turbocharged the songs’ pulse with her rhythmic claviola lines, finally getting a solo on accordion and made the most of it with a torrent of low-midrange chords and rivulets

Late in the set Cantelon and McCluskey reprised their cover of Wild Is the Wind from their performance earlier in the week at Pangea – but where the version they did there was a glistening river of sound, this was pure high lonesome angst, echoing a chilling sense of abandonment. But Cantelon lept into that nocturnal sparkle on the ballad that followed that. The group wound up the set with a suspensefully subdued cover of My Baby Just Cares for Me – a surprising number of people in the crowd knew it and sang along. Or maybe that shouldn’t be such a surprise: you’d think that people who like Nina Simone would also be drawn to McCluskey’s work. She, Cantelon and Garniez continue their weekly Monday 10 PM residency at the third stage at the Rockwood; cover is $10 plus a $10 drink minimum.

Rachelle Garniez Stuns and Seduces the Crowd at Pangea

Many cognoscenti in the New York music scene consider Rachelle Garniez the best songwriter in town, and some would argue that she she might simply be the best songwriter anywhere. A couple of nights ago at Pangea she bolstered that argument, playing to a rapt and wildly appreciative hometown crowd in a duo show with bassist Tim Luntzel. Despite having to sit because he was in a walking cast, he supplied terse, elegantly elastic lines to anchor Garniez’s acerbic, erudite, occasionally feral playing as she alternated between acoustic guitar, accordion and piano.

As a performer, Garniez is devastatingly funny, although her songs often pack a wallop that comes from the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. One of her favorite tropes is to introduce them via slow, contemplative, frequently psychedelic intros that give her a launching pad for deviousy surrealist, deadpan humor that seems completely fresh and off-the-cuff but is actually more thoroughly composed than anyone realizes. What varies from show to show is the punchlines: it’s impossible to think of anyone who has as much fun flying without a net as Garniez.

And there’s always something relevant lurking behind the jokes. What seemed like it would be blissed-out musings on deep-forest beauty turned in a split second into caustic commentary on global warming…which then introduced a sly, vamping, bluesy stripper theme. That one she played on accordion, accenting the song with some unexpected horror on the low end and then a coyly sinister flatline motif at the very end. Likewise, she painted a dreamy early morning riverside scenario and then flipped the script, tying it into the perils of gentrification. That led into the metaphorically slashing if gently waltzing Tourmaline, the semi-precious gem in the title a metaphor for all things not quite perfect, or accepted, embellished with Garniez’s usual umpteem levels of meaning. As Garniez tells it, anyone who might dis you for having something in common with that stone “Is only just snow on your screen.”

Playing piano, she made the connection between Facebook and crack cocaine (Garniez is equally disdainful of both) in the gospel-tinged God’s Little Acre, an unrepentant kiss-off from a former party animal who’s been tracked down (or stalked) by a fling from a past decade. And in a bouncy, blackly amusing new one, just bass and vocals, she explained that at her funeral, she doesn’t want any ordinary Cadillac hearse: she wants an El Camino instead. How many other songwriters would identify a funeral flower car by its make and model, never mind using that image as a metaphor?

Beyond an irresistibly funny, sarcastically operatic shout-out to Jean-Claude Van Damme and his  endorsements for antidepressants, the best song of the night was a starkly baroque-tinged new guitar song inspired by her European tourmate Kyrie Kristmanson. Yet again, Garniez filled in the details of what would seemingly turn out to be a comfortable, sympathetic portrait of an old lady and her tchotchkes…but revealed the source of the money funding all the decor as “The bludgeon and blade.”

And she is New York to the core. Feeding off the crowd’s energy, she wound up the set with People Like You, which opens as an uneasiy and ambiguous Far Rockaway reminiscence, then takes on a blithe, boppy Rickie Lee Jones bounce before Garniez drops the artifice and bares her fangs, in a withering sendup of gentrifier status-grubbing:

It’s people like you who don’t know pride from shame
It’s people like you who always stay one step ahead of the game
It’s people like you who never place a face before a name

Then she quoted from Taylor Swift and brought down the house.

Garniez is just as fearless when it comes to having special guests: other vocalists might be intimidated by sharing the stage with singer Carol Lipnik and her otherworldly, soaring four-octave range, but not her. Lipnik and pianist Matt Kanelos delivered plenty of thrills with a spellbinding, melismatic take of Oh, the Tyranny, a hauntingly awestruck track from their new album Almost Back to Normal. A little later, torchy chanteuse Angela McCluskey provided some plaintive intensity of her own in a Billie Holiday-inspired diptych, pianist Paul Cantelon providing brilliant, Debussy-esque ripples and lustre.

Garniez has a long-awaited new album due out on November 13; her next gig is at Barbes on Sept 3 at 8 PM. Lipnik continues her weekly Thursday 7 PM residency at Pangea this month. And McCluskey and Cantelon debut their new dancefloor groove band, Saint Bernadette – with Garniez on accordion – tonight, August 26 at City Winery at 7.

A Rare NYC Appearance by Indo-Pakistani Art-Rock/Metal Warriors the Mekaal Hasan Band

The Mekaal Hasan Band sound like no other group on the planet. The fiery, guitar-fueled art-rock band blend south Asian, Middle Eastern and global metal influences into their distinctive, rhythmically tricky sound. Don’t let their constant tempo and metric shifts or lead guitarist Hasan’s Berklee background give you the impression that what they play is prog. Their latest album, Andholan – streaming at Spotify – is packed with unexpected dynamics, snarling melodies and purposeful drive, taking flight on the wings of frontwoman Sharmistha Chatterjee’s soaring vocals. They’re making a rare New York appearance on August 30 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub, and they’re very popular with a Punjabi audience, so $15 advamce tix are very highly recommended.

The opening track, Gunghat kicks off with a bitingly flurrying, chromatically menacing guitar-and-flute intro before Gino Banks’ hard-hitting drums kick in and Chatterjee’s uneasily intense, elegantly ornamented voice enters, while Hasan and flutist Mohammad Ahsan Papu build a shiveringly artsy, metallic backdrop. Champakalli builds around a creepy bell-like motif before Hasan puts the bite on and they make almost gleeful metal out of it; then they go back and forth with an ominous sway.

Chaterjee builds toward imploring heights over a surealistically chiming, watery background as Bheem gets underway, then the band picks up steam, like a more darkly metallic update on classic 70s Nektar, the flute adding droll touches, almost like portamento synth. Hasan’s garish squall contrasts with Chaterjee’s stark leaps and bounds and the terse, new wave-tinged pulse of Sayon: imagine the Police with metal guitar and a Pakistani influence. Maalkauns is both the hardest-hitting soccer-stadium fist-pumper and the most distinctively Pakistani numbers here.

The album’s best song, Sindhi brings back the eerie bell-tone ambience of the second track – Hasan’s distinctively ringing, reverbtoned guitar textures, at least when he isn’t getting cheesy putting the bite on, anyway, are nothing short of delicious. Mehg opens as an airy mood piece that quickly gives way to a crushing stomp, flute and voice sailing above it insistently. Kinarey, the album’s final cut, is a diptych. Based on a raga etude, the song shifts through pensive piano and vocals to a lonesome flute interlude and back. It’s rare that you hear a band that so seamlessly bridges the gap between Indo-Pakistani music and rock, let alone one with such a nuanced yet powerful singer.

The Haunting, Mysterious King Raam Brings His Iranian Art-Rock Anthems to the Mercury

If you’ve heard of King Raam, believe the hype. The Teheran-based bandleader, who with the rest of his group plays pseudonymously, is sort of the Iranian Nick Cave. Who is this theatrical, intense Persian-language art-rock singer? He’s in his forties, born in the party city of Bushehr, and has been back and forth to the US several times. He’s collaborated with Johnny Azari and the late Ali Eskandarian, among others. He has a gram account, so it’s certain that the CIA and Mossad know who he is. He and the band are bringing their eclectic, often hauntingly artsy sounds to the Mercury at midnight on August 29; $12 advance tix are still available at the box office, open Tues-Sat from noon to 6 PM.

Iranian music in general tends to be very good and has been for centuries: even pop artists from the 60s and 70s like Googoosh are arguably more interesting and tuneful than their American counterparts. Most of King Raam’s latest album, A Day & a Year, is streaming at Soundcloud along with much of his ominously melodic, often psychedelic back catalog. The band doesn’t waste any time getting off to an powerful start with a slow, foreboding minor-key anthem, Pegasus, bringing to mind similarly brooding global acts like the Russian group Auktyon and Mexican legends Jaguares. The multitracked guitars roar, the keys twinkle uneasily and the drums have a big-room sound: a lot of care and smart production ideas went into this. English translations of the lyrics weren’t available as of press time, but consider that the song is about a winged horse and then do the math.

The moody Closing Credits (Titrazhe Payan), just pensive vocals and simple guitar arpeggios until the final crescendo, bears an even stronger resemblance to Jaguares and that band’s frontman Saul Hernandez‘s solo work. The album’s third track, Tehran has a wistful sway, part folk-rock as the Church might have done it at their peak, part Spottiswoode. The Church resemblance recurs, but more spaciously and sparely, in Distant Tomorrows, featuring guest crooner Makan Ashgevari. The Return follows, with a big, cinematic, rather triumphantly orchestrated sweep: it’s the most stadium rock-oriented track here. Its 70s folk-pop counterpart is Crosswind, one of the later cuts.

Missing Squares has a shuffle groove, surfy reverb guitars and a brass section – another Jaguares soundalike, more or less. A City Without Gates sets the spare quality of Tehran to a more propulsive, even catchier groove, with some of the album’s strongest vocals. The band brings things down with the echoey, dub-tinged piano-based Resurrection and then follows with Salvador, which rises from a rather upbeat, guitar-fueled neo-Motown drive to a swing groove and then pure Lynchian menace.

A Day Will Come is the most gorgeously jangly, bittersweet number on the album – it could be vintage early 70s Al Stewart with better vocals and production. Deja Vu, with its stomping drums, funk tinges and propeller-blade guitars, is a duet with Iranian blues artist Behzad Omrani.  The final cut is the echoey, muted piano ballad Since You’ve Been Gone.

In terms of pure tunefulness, this is one of the half-dozen best rock albums released in 2015. How horribly sad that the citizens of the nation that for centuries was the cultural capital of the world have been forced to literally go underground to enjoy music like this since the fall of the Shah (and he was no picnic either). And what a fantastic thing that artists like King Raam have made their way to the US. If anyone deserves asylum citizenship, it’s this guy and the rest of the guys who play with him.

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