New York Music Daily

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Rachael Kilgour’s New Album Transcends Trauma

Rachael Kilgour is the rare artist who sounds perfectly good in the studio, but onstage takes her formidable vocal skills to a level that few singers even attempt, let alone reach. Her Lincoln Center show last year was absolutely shattering. She cried during one of that evening’s saddest songs – that’s how deeply she inhabits her characters. And she’s hilarious, too: few songwriters can be so much fun, and so insightful, pillorying rightwing hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance.

But most of the material at that show wasn’t the political satire she’s best known for. The majority of the set was Americana ballads from her latest album Rabbit in the Road, streaming at her webpage. She’s bringing that harrowingly melismatic voice and alternately plaintive and biting tunesmithing to a couple of New York shows this month. On May 12 at 7 PM she’s at the Commons Cafe, 388 Atlantic Ave.in Cobble Hill; take any train to Atlantic Ave; The following night at 8, she’s at Caffe Vivaldi preceded at 7 by another eclectic songwriter with a sense of humor, Orly Bendavid & the Mona Dahls.

And now that you know how ferociously political Kilgour’s previous output is, now’s the time to tell you that her latest release is far more personal. It’s a breakup album.

Aie aie aie.

Michael Franti used to write brilliant political songs and raps back in the day. Then he decided that schlocky top 40 love ballads were his thing – and fell off the map. Paul Weller once fronted one of the best and most political punk rock bands ever, the Jam…and never wrote a song worth hearing after they broke up. Did Kilgour run out of gas too?

As it turns out, no. Her lyrics on the new album can be just as incisive and edgy, and she can still write a catchy hook and an anthemic chorus with the best of them. It’s just her focus that’s changed direction. It seems that Kilgour got blindsided in a particularly messy divorce. She’s been outspoken about how she wants to break down the barriers between audience and performer, and that she sees the new material as being therapeutic for both sides of that equation.

So it’s comforting on more than one level that she’s succeeded at what she wanted to achieve: this is the rare heartbreak narrative that doesn’t come across as mawkish or cliched. The album opens with a soul-tinged, somewhat stunned miniature that sets the stage. Deep Bruises is where the shock sinks in, Kilgour trying to talk herself through an endless cycle of despair: It’s the one song that best evokes her soaring, Orbison-esque angst when she slides up to a note to drive a chorus home. Steve Wynn’s Tears Won’t Help You Now is a good point of comparison.

Ready Freddie is the ballad that Kilgour had the hardest time getting through at the Lincoln Center gig. It’s an attempt to cheer up her adopted daughter, someone she’s obviously close to and missed terribly when she wrote it. it’s a theme she revisits almost as fervently later on the record. By contrast, Up From Down is a kiss-off anthem, if a muted one, set to a pleasant if innocuous full-band folk-pop arrangement.

Anger rises in Still My Wife, the homey imagery that Kilgour opens with giving way to a cheating tale straight out of a classic country ballad. The dismissive patronizing title track is songwriter vengeance at its most subtle and satisfying: in case you haven’t already figured it out, never, EVER mess with one, they always get even in the end

Don’t Need Anyone echoes the defiance of Kilgour’s political work as much as her vocals echo Neko Case. “You think I need a lover to save me from my grief? I don’t need distractions, I don’t need your second hand relief,” she insists. Likewise, Hit By a Bus balances mixed feelings with vindictiveness: guess which one wins.

Kilgour has had great fun mocking Christian extremists (some people mistake her for a born-again because they don’t get the joke). So I Pray might seem like quite a departure, but it’s a wish, rather than a call to some patriarchal force, and a launching pad for vocal pyrotechnics in a live setting. Even here, Kilgour can’t resist a delicious dig: “I pray, to no one in particular, that they’ll help you find your way.” The album’s concluding cut, Break Wide Open is the only place where it feels overproduced: it doesn’t really add anything. Needless to say, it’ll be interesting to see what direction Kilgour goes in after this. We could use her stiletto wit and inclusive vision right about now.  

The New Pornographers Go New Wave at Terminal 5 on the 26th

How many of you went to see the New Pornographers at Prospect Park in the summer of 2015? It was what you would expect: a lot of fun. They played the hits, keys swooshed and guitars crunched and clanged….and there was plenty of room to roam around. Fifteen years ago, it would have been impossible to get in to see them unless you were willing to wait in an impossibly long line at the gates.

That’s not to imply that this century’s premier powerpop supergroup are any less popular now than they ever were, considering that Terminal 5, where they’re playing this April 26 at 9 PM, is the largest Manhattan venue they’ve ever been booked into. It’s likely that a lot of the people who’ve been priced out of Brooklyn and who would have packed that show in the park may come out for this one, for the borderline-obscene advance ticket price of $38. Factored into that, no doubt, is the fact that this is an all-ages show where legal adults will be subsidizing their (officially at least) nondrinking concertmates. Imagine shaggy, tattooed dad and son in matching Beavis and Butthead (or Bevis Frond) shirts.

The group’s new album, Whiteout Conditions is streaming at Spotify. It’s a new wave record, and it’s a good one. There’s a suspiciously satirical edge to the swooshy synths, and crisply danceable beats, and the unease cached rather haphazardly in the lyrics. These songs are amazingly catchy: hooks fly fast and furious, and you can sing along to pretty much everything. What Squeeze was thirty years ago, the New Pornographers are to now. Real estate bubble-era malaise has never been so much fun.

Kathryn Calder sings the careful cadences of the vampy, Head on the Door-era Cure style opening track, Play Money, over a brisk backbeat. There’s a vocoder and pulsing layers of synths:

Just when I’d thought we’d beat the system
That we were gentlemen of leisure
He left to talk about his treasure
And how he’d gotten it for a song…

Carl Newman moves to the mic for the title cut, awash in echoing sequencer beats. It sounds like Big Country without the bombast – ok, that’s a stretch, but just imagine. Mid-80s Wire is also a reference point. It’s an escape anthem, more relevant than ever since January 20.

High Ticket Attraction – how about that title for irony, huh? – looks back to the early 80s, when Bowie glam from ten years earlier was such a big influence. Yuppie entitlement and conspicuous consumption factor into Newman’s torrents of lyrics – the Jigsaw Seen come to mind.

Calder’s sober enunciation in This Is the World of the Theatre, one of the poppiest tracks here, perfectly captures the self-referential preciousness of a generation of gentrifier fauxhemians. The glossy, vamping Darling Shade has a more opaque 80s glossiness: it’s about what happens “When you add your voice to bad choices…when you break through, it’s nothing.”

Second Sleep wafts in with a late-Beatles psychedelic intro, and then the new wave beat kicks in: “This time of the morning you’d swear it was night,” Newman, Calder and Neko Case insist in between short rhyming couplets. “Be awake for awhile” becomes “Been awake for awhile,” after awhile.

Fuzz bass underpins droll, synthesized phony windchimes in Colosseums: “A scalper’s price built into the designs…say it like a soothsayer, it’ll keep for days.” The most overlty political track is the atmospherically swooshy We’ve Been Here Before: “We couldn’t find a way out when were here the first time,” Newman admits. “Might as well leave him behind, might as well leave him behind.”

Juke has a slinky Bollywood psychedelic groove, spun through the eye of a Beatles needle. Case takes over lead vocals on Clock Wise, which maintains the psychedelic ambience. The final cut is the allusively apocalyptic Avalanche Alley, blippy electronic organ flitting through a haze of guitars over a tight 2/4 beat: “News from the last world, news from the future…we could use a ride,” the singers harmonize. As with everything this band has ever done, this album doesn’t just invite repeated listens: it demands them. How rewarding it is to see one of the last successful holdovers from the college-radio-and-cds era still going strong.

Hannah Vs. the Many Release the Best Rock Record of 2016

For the past five years or so, Hannah Vs. the Many have earned a reputation for incendiary live shows and brilliant albums equally informed by noir cabaret, punk, art-rock and theatre music, with a dash of magic realism. Frontwoman/multi-instrumentalist Hannah Fairchild might not just be the best songwriter in New York: she might be the best songwriter anywhere in the world. Her torrential volleys of lyrics have stiletto wit, sardonic and often savage double entendres, and a towering angst that sometimes boils over into raw wrath. While her writing reflects elements of purist Carl Newman powerpop, epic Paul Wallfisch grandeur and Neko Case noir, she’s a stronger and more eclectic writer than any of them with the possible exception of the Botanica frontman. Her wounded wail is one of the most riveting and dramatic voices in New York as well. Originally a keyboardist, she was writing brooding acoustic guitar songs almost from the moment she first picked up the instrument, then pulled a band together and the rest is history.

Their debut, All Our Heroes Drank Here, made the shortlist of the best albums of 2012 here; the follow-up, Ghost Stories ranked high on that list two years later. Their latest release, Cinemascope, draws its inspiration from classic film from over the decades. In terms of vast lyrical scope, genre-defying sophistication and sheer catchiness, it’s the best rock record of the year (caveat: Karla Rose & the Thorns have one in the can that hasn’t hit yet). Hannah Vs. the Many are playing the album release show at around 9 this Saturday, Nov 19 at Bushwick Public House at 1288 Myrtle Ave; the closest train is the M to Central Ave.

The opening track, Smoke Is Rising begins as a pensive art-rock ballad, Fairchild adding a jazz tinge with her piano, and builds to a noisy metallic inferno. It follows the same arc as the suicide jumper in Fairchild’s similarly searing All Eyes on Me; this one’s about a woman’s self-immolation, and every metaphor that could imply. When Fairchild intones, “You notice me, don’t you?” it’s just as much a condemnation of those who would watch without intervening as it is a cynical comment on depressive self-absorption.

Lovely Resolution blends elements of Nordic valkyrie metal, punk and classic garage rock, carried by Fairchild’s melismatic shriek. It ponders questions of authenticity and motives in revolutionary politics, it’s the most punk track on the album, and it’s a good anthem in this surreal post-election netherworld. And it’s optimistic:

We are the preface of a new day rising
Last year’s hope
This year’s trash
Next year’s gods

Carl Limbacher’s bubbly bass opens the bitter Cameo, a chronicle of a flirtation to rival the crunching cynicism of the Church’s For a Moment We’re Strangers, tense blue-flame jangle giving way to an explosive chorus. Fairchild has written about the inspiration for these songs in a series of poignant, sometimes shockingly revealing blog posts; this one was spiringboarded by a late-night hookup thwarted by too much alcohol.

I won’t be remembered
I won’t be remembered
Curling up and drifting off under blanket statements
Draw near help me fight this chill
Resolutions wearing thin
Morals bending backwards
Don’t stay, only say you will

The skittish new wave that opens The Auteur gives way to stomping, lickety-split punk. Like much of Fairchild’s work, this one casts a cold eye on how men expect women to subsume themselves, how some women do so willingly, and at great expense. It’s also very funny:

Once we’re discovered the question will ever be
Which of us settled for whom?
It’s uninspired at best, another biblical fall
You’re unravelling under surveillance
And now we’ll all place our bets
On if you’ll come when you’re called

The saddest, quietest and most radical change for Fairchild here is Chiaroscuro. It’s a muted country song with a banjo, of all things, a chronicle of a family trip to a Washington, DC historic site as well as the divorce that followed years later, a psychological autopsy of Midwestern stoicism worthy of Upton Sinclair:

Every child becomes a murderer in time
We take our leave of absence and we scatter from our homes
They offer contrast, these killers out of context
Someone else’s brother has been chiseled into stone
Not ours, though.

The hard-charging Hotel Empire, as Fairchild has explained, is the album’s turning point. Up to now, the songs have mainly chronicled women trying to be good. All the narratives after this are from anti-heroines. It’s also the climactic song in a suite inspired by what was probably a horribly abusive real-life relationship. Fairchild uses the plotline from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, from the point of view of the Kim Novak character, as the springboard for this harrowing conclusion. “Go on. I said I’m fine,” is the mantra.

Surrender Dorothy is the key to the album, a lickety-split look at the madonna/whore dichotomy through the prism of high school musicals (Fairchild had quite a successful career as a stage actress while still in her teens). It sounds like Patti Smith backed by the UK Subs:

Cinderella’s sisters tell us
Nothing in the final edit
‘Cause we left them blinded, bled and
Screaming through the rolling credits
Made a mistake, played it straight
How many punchlines til she breaks?
Splitting on seams, no reprieve
What I get is what you see

Max Tholenaar-Maples’ scrambling drums and Fairchild’s distorted guitar keep the punk rock going fulll-throttle in Murder Darling, bookending Wells Albritton’s brief, moody electric piano interlude. It’s another example of Fairchild at her most savagely hilarious and spot-on:

Flash right back to a boy in need of applause
Evading playground taunts
From bright young things with eyes rolled
Beat that track! Daddy said you’re whatever you want
And how that promise haunts

NSFW revisits love-as-war metaphors, both musically and lyrically, shifting between a sarcastic march and wounded jangle:

Curious trend
Isn’t it strange?
What information you chose to retain?
All of my fears, none of my wit
Drape me in jealousy tailored to fit
Lining your walls
Faces you’ve earned
Duchesses hanging themselves on your word
Women of rank I have surpassed

Kopfkino makes a harrowing coda to the album, an actress at the end of her rope in a Holocaust milieu whose ending you can’t see coming, but which brings the song cycle full circle. In terms of sheer ambition, epic grandeur and cruel insight, there’s no other album that’s been released this year that comes close to this one.

Raquel Vidal & the Monday Men Bring Their Jangly Paisley Underground Noir to the Upper West

“This song is about not questioning things,” Raquel Vidal explained to the crowd as she took the stage last Friday night at Desmond’s. “Too many people do that.”

Then the darkly cinematic songwriter and her band the Monday Men – David Hollander on lead guitar, Seth Masten on bass and Todd Guidice on drums – launched into a sarcastically jangling, minor-key paisley underground groove. “Can’t cook a meal so I hired a chef,” Vidal intoned in her deadpan alto, Hollander spiraling through an all-too-brief solo. Although her main axe is keyboards, Vidal is also a strong rhythm guitarist, playing up in the mix with an incisive, reverbtoned clang.

Next on the bill was the brooding, Lynchian, bolero-flavored Leather Trunk, a showcase for Vidal’s cool, distantly menacing vocals and a casually bloodcurdling solo from Hollander. It wouldn’t have been out of place in the Bliss Blood catalog. From there they went to a steady backbeat while the band kept the ominous mood going through Black Cat, Hollander building a vintage 60s Chicago blues lounge ambience with his simmering riffage.

The dusky, propulsively shuffling murder ballad after that brought to mind both Eilen Jewell and Steve Wynn, especially when Hollander cut loose again, thisclose to unhinged, keeping the suspense at redline with his steady volleys of chromatics and blues licks. Then the band swung and pounced through a grimly oldtime gospel-flavored number sung by Guidice.

Vidal took over the mic again, voicing a bittersweet optimism, a tribute to the late bloomers among us, as the guitars built from uneasily lingering. clave-driven ambience to a fiery crescendo. Then Guidice sang Put the Hammer Down, its portrait of somebody close to the edge contrasting with a warmly twangy, C&W-tinged backdrop. They closed with the Stonesy, fearlessly political Be the Change That You Wanna Become, an apt choice for the Bernie Sanders era.

Raquel Vidal & the Monday Men hail from the Hudson Valley but play here frequently. It’s too bad that Lakeside Lounge is gone, since they would have fit right in there. Their next gig is Friday night, March 4 at 11 PM at the West End Lounge, 855 West End Ave just south of 102nd. The venue’s webpage leaves it a mystery as to whether there’s a cover or not.

Menacingly Alluring Noir Rocker Raquel Vidal & the Monday Men Roll Into Manhattan This Thursday

As Cold Spring, New York multi-instrumentalist/bandleader Raquel Vidal tells it, the Monday Man was a particularly valuable member of the circus. He’d be in charge of stealing fresh laundry off the line as the circus train rolled out of town at the start of a busy week after the previous weekend’s engagement. Together with her tight, swinging noir Americana band the Monday Men, Vidal rolls into Manhattan for a gig at 9 PM on November 12 at Shrine uptown. If you’re a little short of ten grand for a VIP ticket to that stupefyingly overpriced Neko Case show in Fort Greene, Vidal and her alluringly Lynchian songs will hit the spot.

There isn’t a whole lot of Vidal’s stuff online, but every bit of it is killer. You can watch her and the band from the front doing the ominously shuffling Black Cat – with a menacingly spiky guitar solo from Mark Westin – or from behind the drums, doing the purposefully plaintive Pure Heart at a Hurricane Sandy relief concert upstate in Beacon a couple of years ago. She’s also got a Reverbnation page with a handful of studio tracks that make room for the nuances and dangerous edges of her voice over the band’s similarly menacing, tight groove.

“I’ve earned the right to drown my eyes and drink all night, but baby I won’t cry,” Vidal intones with a steely nonchalance on the propulsively jangly studio version of Black Cat. The studio take of Pure Heart turns out to be a noir swing cautionary tale: “Don’t sleep your life away, there are no make-up days,” Vidal warns. Tell – as in “Tell all your friends there was a who’s who of every kind of sin” – takes that Gatsbyesque party narrative to its sardonic, sinister conclusion over the syncopated swing of bassist Seth Masten and drummer Todd Guidice.

Leather Trunk works a methodically creepy bolero-rock groove in the same vein as Karla Rose & the Thorns, set “On a shore where your dreams lay dying,” as Vidal puts it, a more retro, literate spin on Nancy Sinatra Vegas noir. When Vidal hits that last, muted line, “Let’s pretend that we were once in love,” the effect is gently devastating. The last of the Reverbnation tracks is Doin’ What They Told Me, a snarlingly menacing, twin guitar-fueled stomp that wouldn’t be out of place in the Eilen Jewell catalog, looking toward a doomed future date “when the market falls.” That lowlit back room a couple of blocks south of 135th could become a Twin Peaks set for about an hour this Thursday night.

Eleni Mandell Brings Her Hauntingly Wistful New Album to the Mercury

More elusive than Neko Case but just as revered in noir music circles, Eleni Mandell has enchanted listeners with her distant, memtholated allure and songs that bridge the gap between countrypolitan, torchy saloon blues and jazz since right around the turn of the century. If you were in New York back then, there wasn’t a single cool bar in town, from Max Fish, to O’Connor’s, to Hank’s Saloon, that didn’t have Mandell’s cd’s on the jukebox (remember those things?). Roughly fifteen years later, Mandell’s still putting her individualistic spin on retro sounds from the 50s and 60s. Her latest album, Dark Lights Up – streaming at Spotify – might be her best ever. Overall, Mandell tends to mutes the chill in favor of wary warmth – it’s a record for guardedly optimistic survivors. She’s currently touring it with a New York stop tonight, August 2 at around 8 PM at the Mercury. Cover is $10 and considering how devoted her following is, you might want to get there early.

The band on the album is fantastic. Mandell’s not-so-secret weapon is pianist Nate Walcott, with his glimmering blend of ragtime, slip-key C&W and jazz – to top it off, he also adds jaunty trumpet and flugelhorn. Jake Blanton plays lead acoustic guitar over the tasteful, subtle rhythm section of bassist Ryan Feves and drummer Mike Green. The first song, I’m Old Fashioned, sets the stage, both amusing and in its own unselfconscious way, pretty chilling. See, Mandell is oldschool: she likes to go into the bank and say hit to the teller, writes thank-you notes with pen and paper, reads the newspaper and picks the phone off the receiver when she takes a call. Has the world really changed so much since she released her cult classic debut album, Wishbone, in 1999? Yup.

What Love Can Do, the title track of sorts, has Walcott working gorgeously nocturnal, twinkling lines underneath Mandell’s bittersweet tale of longing and occasional redemption. She raises the angst level on the sad waltz Someone to Love – just think, maybe even Eleni Mandell might have stood in the back of the room some lonely night, hoping that someone would notice her. By contrast, the coolly blithe Cold Snap  puts a bouncy spin on rejection and disappointment, a classic dichotomy in Mandell’s work. It also doesn’t exactly paint her native Los Angeles as a mecca for single people.

The gorgeously simmering China Garden Buffet is a musical Edward Hopper tableau, an uneasily balmy, improbable portrait of an unlikely liaison. Town Called Heartache, with its allusively tricky metrics and clever wordplay, wouldn’t be out of place in the Paula Carino songbook. Old Lady sets elegant Rachelle Garniez-esque wistfulness to a bouncy Beatlesque tune: “I’ll clean up your grandkids and sleep in the back room,” Mandell muses.

Magic Pair of Shoes looks back to pensively late 50s/early 60s Patsy Cline/Owen Bradley countrypolitan balladry. If You Wanna Get Kissed is a coyly hilarious, low-key take on classic honkytonk; likewise, the strolling Baby Don’t Call works a lowlit piano boogie groove. Butter Blonde and Chocolate Brown offers a charming portrait of Mandell’s gradeschool-age daughter and son, artfully casting them as adults. The album’s final cut, Do It Again – an original, not the Steely Dan classic – is its most optimistic. After a grand total of ten albums, this might well be Mandell’s best. You’ll see this one on the best albums of 2015 page here in a few months if we’re all still here.

Americana Icon Laura Cantrell Brings Her Distinctive Sound to Bowery Electric

Laura Cantrell’s publicist is on the ball. “Why don’t you review all the shows?” he asked, seeing that this blog covered the first night of New York’s most revered Americana songwriter’s weekly stand at Union Hall last month.

The offer was awfully tempting. Cantrell is the rare artist you can see every week without getting the least bit bored. There are hundreds of country bands in New York, but none who play the music better than hers. And much as there’ve been thousands of acts who’ve played long-running residencies over the years, the ones who succeed at it are all iconic: Kitty Wells, Les Paul, Bob Wills, Sam Llanas…the list goes on and on. Ask anybody who went to see any of those shows, and chances are they’ll brag about it. In case you missed the Brooklyn gigs, Cantrell is playing on June 12 at around 10 at Bowery Electric. Another first-class songwriter, Ana Egge, whose most recent, darkly lyrical Americana album was produced by Steve Earle, opens the night at around 9. Advance tix are $10.

In Cantrell’s case, her publicist and this blog ended up meeting halfway. The first night of Cantrell’s May residency was a low-key, all-acoustic, retro C&W knockout. The final one was an electric show that was even more magical. As exuberant as she and her band were, it was a judicious, finely honed exuberance. Both Cantrell’s timeless originals and the cover gems she rescues from obscurity run the emotional gamut, but they tend to be melancholy: sad songs seldom get played with as much fire and verve as this band gave them. Jon Graboff – who switched seamlessly between keening, lustrous pedal steel and spiky mandolin — and Telecaster player Boo Reiners both have sizzling chops, a long association with Cantrell and know her material inside out. Which explains why it wasn’t until several songs into the set that either of them took a solo.

With this band, it’s all about the songs…and in this case, wiseass banter between friends, offstage and on, and Cantrell’s crystal-clear voice. And how she can say more in just a graceful lilt at the end of a phrase than most people can in a whole album. And yet, she can’t resist telling the audience all about those songs. The former proprietress of WFMU’s Radio Thrift Shop  explained how this particular night’s most evocative enumber, the starkly claustrophobic No Way There From Here, was inspired by seeing a performance of a similarly sad piece of music: classical composer Samuel Barber’s Knoxville, Summer 1915, with lyrics by James Agee. Cantrell also revealed that at that same performance, she sang a tune from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical: something she has had no plans to do ever since.

The rest of the set reminded how individualistic Cantrell’s songs are – they’re grounded in classic country music, but never so much that they’re reverential or cliched. Drummer Steve Goulding – of Graham Parker & the Rumour – pushed the fond, historically-infused Kitty Wells Dresses and a jauntily strutting version of Melba Montgomery’s Somewhere Some Night with his elegant rimshots, in tandem with bassist Jeremy Chatzky. Graboff’s mandolin spiced up the wistful Molly O’Day homage Mountain Fern. And Franklin Bruno’s terse piano lit up a similarly pensive if more rock-oriented ballad.

Meanwhile, Cantrell channeled the joyous expectation of Amy Allison’s Can’t Wait with the same intensity as the tender ambiguity in Glass Armour and the defiance in George Usher’s Not the Tremblin’ Kind, the title track to the classic 2000 album that springboarded her career. After a broodingly enigmatic, Neko Case-esque version of Maybe Sparrow and a lively take of All the Same to You, she and the band worked the dynamics for all they were worth, through the fetching, disquieted Two Seconds and then the stampeding shuffle Yonder Comes a Freight Train. It was finally at that point where Graboff got to move from wry trainwhistle accents to a long, searing solo, handing off to Reiners’ lickety-split flatpicking. You should expect some and possibly all of this at Bowery Electric.

Purist Americana in Park Slope with Mamie Minch and Laura Cantrell

Mamie Minch and Laura Cantrell have a lot in common. While each has a devoted following in her own Americana niche – Minch is a blues maven and Cantrell is steeped in vintage country music – they’re fans of each other’s styles and each other’s work. What’s the likelihood of seeing the two charismatic, often mesmerizing performers on the same stage? It happened last night at Union Hall in Park Slope, where Cantrell played the first night of her weekly May residency there. She’ll be playing at around 9 on Tuesdays for the rest of the month, with a rotating selection of special guests opening at around 8. Cover is $10. Shows like this one are why we live in New York, folks.

The room was pretty full by the time Minch hit the stage, solo with her trusty late 30s resonator guitar. She quickly reminded what a connoisseur she is when it comes to songs, and tunings – she used a new one on practically every song – and licks. For a first-class country blues player, she’s very economical, true to her influences. Her version of Mattie Delaney’s Big Road Blues alternated deliciously between a dancing, walking beat and a resonant, spiky shuffle. A little later she reinvented Bessie Smith’s Sing Sing Blues – the unrepentant tale of an abused woman who killed her man – as a chillingly rustic, practically otherworlldly feminist anthem. She also reinvented a handful of her own songs, moving effortlessly from her resonant alto voice to unexpectedly  higher registers on Border Radio, an upbeat, swinging hillbilly ballad dedicaated to the Carter Family; Razorburn Blues, a rapidfire litany of the things women endure for guys who don’t appreciate them; and Fortifiied Wine Widow, a morose Roaring 20s-style lament for a guy who couldn’t stay away from the patent medicine. She’d return later to join Cantrell and her band for a soulful, nuanced duet on Ivory Joe Hunter’s I Almost Lost My Mind, trading off on solos with a similarly nimble, purist guitarist, Boo Reiners. And it was fun to hear the two frontwomen ponder influences, and song origins, out loud between songs, a revealing look at two world-class musicologists in their element

Minch engaged the crowd with plenty of sardonic background for her songs, no surprise since she’s known for being a cutup onstage. But Cantrell can also be LMAO funny when she wants to be, and she was in an even more talkative mood than she usually is. Her funniest story involved the old Civil War song When the Roses Bloom Again – which she and her group played using the melody by Wilco – and a version sung by Barry Gibb. That’s right, a Bee Gee on the Grand Old Opry. The youtube clip is every bit as priceless as Cantrell said it was.

In her family, song collecting is a tradition going back to her great-aunt Ethel, who got credit for a possible edit/update on that song, as well as the murder ballad Poor Ellen Smith, which Cantrell and her sensational four-piece acoustic band with fiddle, Reiners on lead acoustic guitar and banjo and Jeremy Chatzky on bass –  did as a pretty straight-up bluegrass tune.

The set was a mix of fan favorites and expected numbers, like a couple of Amy Allison songs: a joyous take of Can’t Wait and an aptly somber, sober version of The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter as the encore. Cantrell also soared through a lively take of Jenifer Jackson‘s What You Said, then brought the lights down with a stark take of the brooding, ornate breakup ballad No Way There From Here, the title track to Cantrell’s most recent and characteristically brilliant album. She paid tribute to 1940s country hitmaker Molly O’Day with the pensive Mountain Fern and then to her most obvious influence with a robust version of Kitty Wells Dresses. From the jaunty swing of All the Same to You to the Neko Case-style simplicity of Maybe Sparrow, Cantrell worked every corner of her magical, crystalline voice from whispery lows to spectacular highs.

She was a transcendent singer fifteen years ago and she’s even better now, if such a thing can be possible. Arguably the best song of the night was Churches Off the Interstate, an early song from her debut album Not the Tremblin’ Kind, which won her a national following after she’d won over this city. On album, it’s a brisk, buttersweet shuffle. This all-acoustic version was more spare, and bucolic, and haunting: Cantrell seemed to want to clarify that it’s about hope rather than any kind of expectation of a happy ending. In the context of being a concert favorite by someone who used to play it all over what’s now a sometimes unrecognizable East Village, it was heartbreaking. Cantrell’s back here this coming May 12, preceded by a screening of films selected by archivist Russell Scholl. And the next cuople of weeks after, the band will be rejoined by another brilliant guitarist, Jon Graboff. Yeah, Graboff and Reiners on the same stage, that should be something.

Karla Moheno Brings Her Literate Noir Menace to the Mercury

If Karla Moheno‘s most recent show at the big room at the Rockwood was any indication, she’s going to turn the Mercury Lounge into a Twin Peaks set this January 22 at 10 PM.

Moheno personifies noir. The opium mist and airconditioned chill in her alto voice channels a lurid menace that never lifts. At the Rockwood, right from the opening bars of the first song, Silver Bucket, the band – Dylan Charles on guitar, Dan Parra on bass and Greg Wieczorek on drums – teamed with her to keep the red-neon ambience simmering. That song, on Moheno’s brilliant new album, Gone to Town, clangs along with a dirty, vintage Gun Club swamp blues feel. This time out, the band gave it a lurking, nocturnal Smokestack Lightning groove until Charles launched into a screaming, lurching solo before returning back to earth with Moheno’s lilting “Ride the night to here” refrain.

The high point of the night came early with an especially menacing take of Time Well Spent, a little more vigorous than the bluesy dirge on the album. It’s a mystery story to match any creepy narrative set to music in the last few years, an allusive, ambiguous account of two killers on the run. Moheno makes it clear that she’s willing to dispose of her conspirator the minute she gets the chance: “I just can’t let it slide,” she intoned with a knowing swoop upward, eyes closed, gently swinging her Telecaster back and forth. Likewise, she put a little more playful innuendo into a slightly amped up version of the sultry oldschool soul ballad Blacked Out and Blue, Charles jaggedly reaching for the rafters again.

Interestingly, they took The Return, a vicious and deliciously swinging kiss-off song on record, down to an almost Weimar blues pulse that rose and fell over Wieczorek’s rimshot beat. “Carry me up the stairs/I’ll make believe someone cares,” she purred on the quietly murderous Mexico, a swaying 6/8 ballad set in a sleazy bordertown where everyone is on the take. And she reinvented Girl Next Door, a blackly blithe escape anthem, as a morose soul tune that Charles used as a springboard for a Marc Ribot-style axe-murderer solo.

Moheno also did a couple of older, more rock-oriented songs: Drive, which would have made a good upbeat track on Neko Case’s Blacklisted album, and Stand Back, a lingering, bucolic ballad. She closed the set with a gently pulsing, deadpan cover of the Velvets’ Femme Fatale, which had all the right touches, the guys in the band doing spot-on harmonies on the backing vocals. But Moheno also left room to believe that she wasn’t just being self-effacingly funny. Much as she joked and bantered with the crowd between songs, the extent to which she was being unserious was never clear. Go to the Mercury and decide for yourself.

Robin Aigner’s Con Tender Punches and Teases on All Kinds of Levels

There are plenty of sirens with torchy voices out there. Most of them front oldtimey swing jazz bands. The most gifted of them tend to drift either further into jazz, or into straight-ahead rock, a la Neko Case, where the most intriguing wiggles and secret corners of their voices are guaranteed centerstage.

Robin Aigner is one of those sirens, but even in that crowded field, she stands out. As exceptional and in-demand a vocal stylist as she is, her greatest strength is her songwriting. She has a laser sense for the mot juste. Obsessed with history, she writes in a vernacular straight from whatever era she’s channeling, packed with devious puns and double and triple entendres. As a tunesmith, she’s a connoisseur of Americana, from Appalachian folk, to early jazz, to blues and torch song from throughout the ages. Her latest album, Con Tender, with her band Parlour Game, is streaming at Bandcamp.

The album title alone gives you a good idea of where Aigner’s coming from. It could be Spanglish, or a battle-of-the-sexes boxing metaphor, or it could refer to being a caretaker to the duplicitous – or, most likely, all three. The opening track, Kiss Him When He’s Down sets Aigner’s wry prescription for how to keep a guy’s head in, um, the game to a bittersweet swing blues lit up by the interweave of Rima Fand’s violin and Michael Joviala’s clarinet over the slinky pulse of bassist Larry Cook and Gutbucket/Universal Thump drummer Adam D. Gold. Strings moves forward in time toward late 30s Ink Spots territory, a wistfully swinging tale from the point of view of a girl who thinks she’s made a break for good…but she’s left the door open just a crack.

Crazy works a charming early hillbilly swing shuffle with a sideways reference to the Patsy Cline song, Aigner admitting to a weakness for

Charmers who disarm the masses
Glasses-wearing antifascists
Romeos with garden hoes
Throw me deep into the throes

A plaintively elegant waltz with a verse in subtly sarcastic Franglais, Français Salé pairs Aigner’s ukulele against Fand’s stark violin, all the way up to an unexpectedly crushing if completely understated final verse. Likewise, Aigner pairs her terse acoustic guitar with Joviala’s spacious piano over a bolero-tinged groove on Shoegazer: it’s a surprisingly sympathetic if amusing account of a guy with a fetish.

Aigner sails gently through her imperiled airplane metaphors for all they’re worth in Velocity, a gorgeous country waltz that draws comparisons to Laura Cantrell. El Paraiso draws a vivid, Marissa Nadler-esque Victorian heartbreak tableau with string band music to match its milieu. The album hits a peak with Greener, its Gatsby-era setting the exact opposite of what it seems to be, Fand’s violin and Ray Sapirstein’s trumpet flying over a tensely flurrying, flamenco-tinged beat.

A 21st century update on classic hokum blues, Your Candy’s No Good for Me, with its endless sequence of innuendos, is just plain hilarious:

Your honey’s quite the bee’s kneex
Even when I’m stung
I give your honey bear an extra little squeeze

The album comes full circle with a stark, gospel-tinged take of Wayfaring Stranger. Pulitzer Prize-winning violinist Caroline Shaw, bassist Julian Smith, harmonica player Jim Etkin, banjo player Noah Harley, guitarist David Wechsler and drummer Alice Bierhorst also contribute to this richly purist collection: look for it in a few days on the list of the year’s best here.