New York Music Daily

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Tag: noir music

A Killer Dark Psychedelic Triplebill in Queens

Having seen just one of the year’s best segues between two bands – in a year that’s been loaded with amazing twinbills – was there any sense in sticking around for the last band? Absolutely. Having already made the shlep out to Trans-Pecos in Ridgewood this past evening for Ember Schrag‘s potently lyrical psychedelia and Alec K. Redfearn‘s macabre, accordion-fueled psychedelic art-rock, hanging around for a rare appearance by Escape by Ostrich was worth it. The four-piece band – Willie Klein on guitar and violin, Bob Bannister on lead guitar, Chris Nelson on bass and Robert Dennis on drums – were like a no wave-tinged mashup of early Love Camp 7 (before they rediscovered the Beatles) and the Grateful Dead. They wound up a long but rewarding night with a particularly relevant, smoldeingly low-key cover of Woody Guthrie’s Deportees. Getting to that point was every bit as much fun.

Redfearn. who’s on tour at the moment, sounds like no other artist anywhere, the rare bandleader who’s iconic in psychedelic, art-rock and gothic rock circles. He also had the presence of mind – pure genius, actually – to enlist Schrag not as a guitarist but as a keyboardist. Redfearn gets his signature sound by running his accordion through a pedalboard: one minute he’s roaring like a guitar, the next he’s oscillating or adding devious wah-wah textures like Josh Camp did with his Electrovox in Chicha Libre for so long. Playing organ, Schrag harmonized seamlessly with Redfearn when she wasn’t adding hypnotic low drones or elegant baroque-flavored lines: you’d think that the band’s brilliant previous keyboardist, Orion Rigel Domisse, would have been irreplaceable, but Schrag adds her own similarly psychedelic edge. Redfearn sang in his signature powerful, brooding baritone while bassist Christopher Sadlers anchored the songs with his steady, pitchblende bowing, alternating with the occasional slinky rattlesnake groove. Drummer Matt McLaren enhanced the songs’ Balkan flavor with his sharpshooter rimshots on a kit with no cymbals. Horn player Ann Schattle supplied terse, incisive riffage when she wasn’t adding atmospherics, much like Schrag.

Auspiciously, much of the set was new material, most of the songs segueing into each other to make up a macabre suite. They opened with a thumping new number, murderous Serbian folk as done by Syd Barrett, maybe, then without stopping made their way into a swinging Balkan stripper vamp that sounded like it might be Redfearn’s classic Fire Shuffle, from his most recent album, Sister Death. As it disintegrated, radiating evil sonic radionuclides, it turned out not to be. A menacingly marionettish tune put Schattle’s horn front and center as Redfearn ran his accordion through the sonic strobe of a 1960s repeater box. The trickiest number was a Macedonian-inflected tune from Redfearn’s Exterminating Angel album from a few years ago; the darkest and catchiest material later in the set reflected a heavy Greek rembetiko influence. The folks at the Rock in Opposition Festival in France – where the band will be appearing next month – are in for a real treat.

Schrag and her amazing band – Bannister doing double duty on lead guitar, with Debby Schwartz on bass and harmony vocals and Gary Foster on drums – opened the night. Hearing her refer to herself as a “folkie” was pretty funny: although her first couple of albums are what she calls “great plains gothic,” her sound has evolved into shapeshifting, sometimes slithery psychedelic rock. Foster and Banister fueled the understatedly ominous flamenco flourishes on a bitter waltz early in the set, Schwartz and Schrag engaging in a brief, intense bit of trippy, contrapuntal neo-plainchant at one point. Seamlessly, they made their way through the straight-up, latin-tinged psychedelic pop of What Birds Do, the numbed Abbey Road Beatles angst of The Real Penelope and the shapeshifting Banquo’s Book, Bannister’s triplets mingling with Schrag’s hypnotically pulsing riffs. Likewise, it was impossible to figure out who was playing what throughout the deliciously clanging textures of one of Schrag’s several Shakespearean-influenced numbers, the agitatedly intense art-rock anthem Lady M.

Foster raised the suspense to murderous levels on the intro to Sutherland, an allusively creepy badlands tableau from Schrag’s most recent solo album, The Sewing Room. And although there’s all sorts of (usually implied) mayhem in Schrag’s double entendres, biblical and historical allusions, she can be riotously funny when she’s in the mood. My Brother’s Men, as she told the crowd, wasn’t actually about a goon squad: she got the inspiration from the title from the legions of barbecue joints run by brothers in her native Nebraska.

Meet the Ominous, Phantasmagorical Herbert Bail Orchestra

The Herbert Bail Orchestra work all sorts of influences into their careening, carnivalesque, noir-tinged sound: art-rock, oldtime blues, Celtic balladry, gospel and even funk. Bail plays the role of hoarse oldtime blues shouter, part early Tom Waits, maybe part Rev. Vince Anderson. The band is excellent: banjo, accordion and organ figure heavily and deliciously into their sound. Los Angelenos looking for a fun night out can catch their show tomorrow night, August 23 at 8:30 PM on an awesome triplebill at the Satellite at 1717 Silver Lake Blvd. Blackwater Jukebox open the evening with their edgy southwestern gothic punk, followed by Blac Jesus & the Experimentalists, who shift between creepy noir soul and guitar-fueled hard retro funk. Cover is an absurdly cheap $8.

Herbert Bail’s most recent album, The Future’s In the Past is streaming at Bandcamp. The band also has an intriguing Soundcloud page which offers a more current view of the wide expanse of styles they run through, many of them at once. Their latest single, You Are Beautiful (ok, ugh title, but it’s a good song) rises from a sun-streaked latesummer Britfolk intro to an ecstatic, gospel-fueled peak over a jaunty shuffle beat. Radio Tower  opens with accordion over almost a reggae bounce, with a little unexpected hip-hop flavor. The title track from the most recent album is much the same – imagine Cage the Elephant with a scampering circus-rock groove.

The best song on the page is Take Me Down, a wickedly catchy, broodingly swinging tune that’s part Nick Cave, part Walkabouts and maybe part Grateful Dead. The Big Sound brings back the towering soul/gospel intensity, something akin to how early ELO at their most disturbed might have done it. The Nature of Things succeeds where U2 failed to bridge the gap between vintage Americana and stadium rock.The rest of the playlist includes murky boogie-woogie; a Motown/ragtime mashup; a dirge that wouldn’t be out of place sung by a chain gang; a Mr. Bojangles-ish shuffle; and doomed, string-driven Nick Cave balladry. If you’re in the neighborhood, take a slug of absinthe, put on your dancing shoes and go see these guys.

Dark Psychedelic Bandleader Ember Schrag Joins a Killer Triplebill at Trans-Pecos on the 23rd

Ember Schrag‘s most recent gig at Hifi Bar was one of the year’s best. For that matter, the enigmatic, charismatic psychedelic bandleader’s previous show at a house concert in south Brooklyn with phantasmagorical art-rock band Goddess was pretty amazing too. Schrag and her band open the night at Trans-Pecos at 8:30 PM this Sunday, August 23, followed by intense Balkan noir psychedelic band Alec K. Redfearn & the Eyesores, with whom Schrag will air out her chops on creepy Farfisa organ. Groove-driven no wave cult faves Escape by Ostrich give the evening an acidic coda; cover is a measly $8.

Counterintuitively, Goddess opened the Brooklyn show with their album release performance, a deliciously macabre, theatrical suite about a genuine monster who takes over a hapless New Jersey household. As electrifying as that show was, Schrag and her band were every bit as intense. On album, Schrag’s signature style until this year has been great plains gothic: low-key, reserved, with a subtle, white-knuckle intensity and allusively murderous narratives. This year, on the heels of her release of her live Folkadelphia session album, she and her band have taken those songs as well as a whole bunch of new material into vastly more trippy, artsy terrain.

Guitar polymath Bob Bannister alluded to Muscle Shoals and Fairport Convention and Blonde on Blonde Dylan, among numerous other reference points, but always twisted those styles into something terse and erudite of his own to match Schrag’s venomously symbolist lyrics. Bassist Debbie Schwartz (formerly of the Aquanettas and a fantastic, similarly psychedelic songwriter in her own right) played a surf groove on one number, slides and hammer-ons on a handful of others, and bolstered Schrag’s soaring, distantly angst-fueled voice with her high vocal harmonies. Meanwhile, drummer Gary Foster colored the songs with witchy rimshots and cymbal splashes, misty crescendos and, when necessary, a swinging four-on-the-floor garage rock drive.

Bannister’s nimble accents mingled with Schrag’s hypnotic, circular fingerpicked hooks and Foster’s brushwork on the pensive Sutherland, an understated murder ballad and the night’s opening number. Virgin in the Shadow of My Shoe, a swaying, psychedelic folk noir number, might be Schrag’s most definitive new song. She doesn’t even bother to stomp on a religious icon: she lets her shadow do it. Bannister and Schrag’s rainswept jangle blended as one on the late Beatlesque psych anthem The Real Penelope, followed by a catchy southwestern gothic clang-rock number, part Steve Wynn, part astringent 80s Boston.

Schrag likes to turn Biblical imagery inside out, and she also has a Shakespearean side, most evident in the Arthur Lee-esque number that followed that, and later the ominous Lady M, Bannister’s icepick accents taking the place of the resonant, keening Susan Alcorn steel guitar on the recorded version. From there the band made their way through another ominous waltz that also brought to mind Arthur Lee, as well as a sad, misty Laurel Canyon psych-folk anthem that exploded the Abraham myth. Schrag wound up the set with another wounded waltz where she raised her voice to a shivery Ann Wilson wail, then the slow, cruellly sardonic I Ain’t a Prophet, and a wickedly catchy janglerock song spiced with nimble triplet figures and a biting, bluesy solo from Bannister: the guy can play anything and make it his own. The Trans-Pecos show should be every bit as good.

Dark Country Band the Whiskey Charmers Debut with a Killer Album

Detroit band the Whiskey Charmers play Twin Peaks C&W. It’s dark and intriguing and draws on classic 1960s country music, but also jangly rock and several noir styles from across the decades. Frontwoman/guitarist Carrie Shepard has a strong yet soft and utterly enigmatic voice. While she doesn’t sound anything like Tammy Wynette, she’s coming from the same place emotionally, world-weary beyond her years, keeping her cards close to her vest. Guitarist Lawrence Daversa plays with edge and bite and a very distinctive sense of melody which manages to be counterintuitive to the extreme yet wickedly tuneful – he always leaves you guessing what’s coming around the bend, and it always ends up working out. Their fantastic new album is streaming at their webpage.

Shepard’s strums a lush, nocturnal blanket of acoustic guitar, Daversa interspersing his bluesy accentts as Elevator gets underway. It seems to be a ghost story – in a footrace, the dead always win. Vampire, a creepy southwestern gothic bolero, also puts a cleverly sardonic spin on an old legend: yeah, this guy is out for blood, but the girl doesn’t give a damn. It’s the catchiest (no pun intended) track on the album, Daversa’s Lynchian twang leads reverberating over the dancing rhythm section.

Straight & Narrow weaves an undercurrent of heartbreak into a darkly familiar oldtime gospel theme: it’s akin to Iris DeMent taking a detour into Appalachian gothic. The band follows that with Neon Motel Room, an eerily shuffilng outlaw ballad that’s all the more relevant in an era when renegade cops are blowing innocent people away every time you turn around. They revisit that vibe, musically speaking anyway, a little later with Can’t Leave

C Blues is an elegant, low-key country blues lament. Parlor Lights mashes up a haunting Bessie Smith-style blues ballad with ominous trainwhistle slide guitar: “Turn off the open road, there’s an end in sight,” Shepard intones, letting the subtext speak for itself. Sidewinder follows a stark, loping Hank Williams sway until Daversa’s snarling electric lead kicks in with the rest of the band; the guy Shepard’s referring to in the title is a real snake.

The album winds up with the simply titled Waltz, a nocturne that could be an early Bob Wills number. If this is the only album they ever make, it’ll have a cult audience for decades. Obviously, they’ve got more songs than this; let’s hope they record them someday. The Whiskey Charmers spend a lot of time on the road: their next club gig is on August 19 at 8 PM at Small’s, 10339 Conant in Hamtramck, Michigan; cover is $7 ($10 for ages 18-20).

Big Lazy Bring Their Lurid, Creepy, State-of-the-Art Noir Back to Barbes

How many bands have there ever been who were at their peak twenty years after they started? On one hand, just getting to the twenty-year mark as a band is quite the achievement. But composer/guitarist Stephen Ulrich just keeps getting creepier and more eclectic. And it’s safe to say that this edition of Big Lazy, the world’s most consistently haunting, reverb guitar-fueled instrumental band is the best ever. Which is not to be dismissive of original drummer Willie Martinez, who only left the group due to the demands on his schedule as a star of latin jazz and salsa. Nor is this a dis at original bassist Paul Dugan, whose darkly frenetic pulse was such an important part of the band’s first incarnation from about 1996 through 2007.

But the new rhythm section of Andrew Hall and Yuval Lion is the best ever, and the most consistent with Ulrich’s bleak, rain-drenched vision. Back in the day, the band made their home at Tonic, the late, lamented Norfolk Street hotspot for adventurous, jazz-influenced music. Since last year, maybe predictably, the band has made Barbes their home base. They’re playing there again on August 7 at 10 PM.

Between them, Hall and Lion give Ulrich a more minimalist groove than this band has ever had. And yet, they also get featured more prominently on solos, Hall using his bow for extra stygian resonance, Lion rattling the traps like a poltergeist left over from when Manhattan’s Record District (where you bought turntables and vinyl) was bulldozed to make way for the World Trade Center. It may not be safe to say that any one band in town is the very best, but it is safe to say that Big Lazy never play anything remotely the same way twice.

Ulrich saves his bloodthirsty volleys of tremolo-picking and savage chord-chopping when he really needs to take the energy to redline or bring a sonic narrative to a murderous peak (film soundtracks are his regular gig – Big Lazy is his fun project). He’ll often intersperse a loping highway theme or great plains noir atmospherics amidst all the crime-jazz chromatics and wall-bending noir surf riffs. Although on record, menace is the band’s stock in trade, onstage Ulrich can be very funny, quoting from all sorts of jazz songs and movie themes. Once or twice a set, he’ll put down the guitar and break out his lapsteel for high lonesome wails or lingering, floating body-in-the-pool sonics. And much as most of the songs are instrumentals, occasionally they’ll have a guest take a turn out front: one of the coolest moments in the trio’s recent shows has been where oldtime music maven Mamie Minch joined them for a nonchalantly Lynchian, plaintive version of Crazy.

When Ulrich regrouped Big Lazy in 2013 after a six-year hiatus, that was big news, and this blog covered them not once but five times that year and in 2014. Which explains why the band has been absent from the front page here since this past January. But this blog hasn’t been absent from Big Lazy’s Barbes shows this year, beginning in January and then in each of the last three months. In case you haven’t already figured it out, one more thing that’s safe to say about this decidedly unsafe band is that they’re worth seeing more than once. At the end of the year, along with the best albums and best songs lists, there’s also a list of the best concerts in New York and at least one of these gigs will be on it – the May show in particular was pretty amazing.

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.

Rachel Mason Unveils Her Gorgeously Lurid, Erudite Historical Song Suite at Joe’s Pub

Rachel Mason is best known as an uncategorizable performer who refuses to be pigeonholed. Throughout her extensive body of work, the theatrical and narrative aspects are typically as important as the music. Focusing strictly on songcraft, what was stunning at her performance at Joe’s Pub on Sunday night was how impactful her tunes are even without those theatrics – and what a spellbinding singer she is. In a rare concert performance, backed by a tight and inspired band – Tanner Beam on lead guitar, Stu Watson on bass, Robbie Lee on flute, Michael Durek on piano and theremin and Chris Moses Kinlow on drums – Mason aired out songs from her brand-new film and accompanying soundtrack album, The Lives of Hamilton Fish. Auspiciously, Mason’s latest magnum opus is currently in development as a theatre work written by Pia Wilson, to be produced by Cindy Sibilsky. As lurid and downright haunting as Mason’s music and the accompanying art-film are, a stage version could have mass appeal far beyond the confines of cutting-edge downtown New York performance.

Although Mason serves as a Greek chorus of sorts both in the film and on the soundtrack, her point of view takes a backseat to the twin narratives of two men, both named Hamilton Fish, who died on the same day in 1936. Mason has really done her homework, historically speaking – while the serial killer and pedophile Hamilton Albert Fish provides plenty of grisly grist for the mill, what might be most impressive is how she brings to life the other Hamilton Fish. He was the second in a line that would number a total of five men with that improbable name, a seemingly dour and tormented upstate New York political lifer upstaged by his famous father, a United States Secretary of State central to the doctrine and practice of manifest destiny. Exactly the kind of complex characters Mason loves to illuminate.

She opened the show with a tensely pulsing janglerock number, 60s Laurel Canyon pop through the swirly prism of 80s psychedelia in a Plan 9 vein, then going deeper into paisley underground territory as she traced the two lives that ended in side-by-side obituaries “tied together by the Evening Star.” She gave voice to the more benign Fish’s familial angst in Distinguished Line, a matter-of-factly strolling folk noir number, then took a stark, horrified, operatic tour through the deadly Fish’s horrific younger days in Wild Fish Pt. 1, an electrified take on late 19th century front-porch folk.

The narrative continued its harrowing, mysterious course with the uneasily Dylanesque, aptly titled Nightmare, the politician haunted by the ghost of his wife as the theremin whistled ominously in the background. Mason waited until The Werewolf of Wisteria – as the serial killer was known after a Staten Island murder – to spiral around at the top of her vocal range; throughout most of the show, her moody alto made a powerful vehicle for her grimly detailed story. The stark Broken Soul of a Hunan Being – based on a letter the killer wrote to the mother of one of his victims – made for a chilling example.

And in a cameo, pianist/singer M. Lamar delivered chills with his otherworldly falsetto and murky attack on the keys, channeling the horror and pain of a tortured child – throughout both the album and the film, Mason leaves no doubt that the killer Fish wasn’t born that way, he was made. It’ll be fascinating to see how this translates to the stage.

Orkesta Mendoza Bring Their Desert Noir to Lincoln Center

Orkesta Mendoza are connoiseurs of noir. A lot of what’s lurking in the shade of that big black umbrella takes its origins from the Balkans, Romany and Jewish music, notably hi-de-ho jazz and its descendants in ghoulabilly and elsewhere. But a lot of noir comes from south of the border. For bandleader/guitarist/keyboardist Sergio Mendoza, none of those styles are off limits: slithery mambos, funereal boleros and towering, angst-fueled, cinematic rancheras, to name a few. He and his sizzling band – which can vary in size from a six-piece to a full orchestra – take those styles and mash them up into stampeding, lushly and exhilaratingly arranged psychedelic rock. They’re playing Lincoln Center Out of Doors, out back in Damrosch Park on July 29 at 7 PM. You should get there early if you want a seat.

The group’s most recent New York appearance was last year at South Sttreet Seaport, with a roughly ten-piece lineup including a horn section. Mendoza’s songs, whether originals or covers, tend to be expansive and go on for sometimes ten minutes or more – they redeem the concept of a jamband. This time out, in roughly forty-five minutes onstage, there wasn’t time for a lot wild improvisation, altough the group made those moments count. Mendoza played mostly acoustic guitar, shifting to the organ for just a single number. The star of this particular show was lapsteel player Joe Novelli, who played with a searing, chromatically-fueled fury. This wasn’t western swing – it was el diablo del desierto teleported from the netherland where Ambrose Bierce disappeared.

Baritone saxophonist Marco Rosano also distinguished himself and played keys on a couple of songs as well – lots of guys in this band double on several instruments. The most haunting song of the afternoon was Dulce Amor, a menacing bolero sung with drama and passion by Mexican cult favorite crooner Salvador Duran. Another similarly ominous, more upbeat minor key number was Mambo Mexicano, a springboard for several sizzling solos from throughout the band.

There was also a pricelessly hilarious moment. After the bass player led the group into a slinky psychedelic cumbia groove, Mendoza began it in English. It didn’t have much in the way of lyrics, and it turned out to be just a one-chord jam – but the band made it interesting. And when they got to the chorus, when Mendoza deadpanned “Don’t tell me that you love me,” it turned out that this was a Fleetwood Mac cover, Tusk, the 1979 hit that might be the most soporific song ever to reach the top 40. Fewer people in the crowd than you might expect got the joke – then again, 1979 was a long time ago, and it’s not likely that number gets a lot of corporate radio airplay anymore. For their last song, the group brought up whirlwind accordionist Rey Vallenato Beto Jamaica – who’d opened the afternoon with his band – raising the energy several notches. The only drawback about this show was that it was relatively short, but at Lincoln Center, artists typically get about a full hour onstage.

An Artfully Orchestrated, Intensely Noir New Album and a Joe’s Pub Show from Esteemed Chamber Pop Band the Old Ceremony

Back in the early zeros, when songwriter Django Haskins was a familiar presence playing around the Lower East Side of New York, it’s not likely that he drew a lot of Leonard Cohen comparisons. But artists grow, and as the years went on Haskins’ work took on a welcome gravitas, culminating when he formed chamber pop band the Old Ceremony in 2004. For those who might not get the reference, the band name is a shout-out to Cohen’s cult classic album New Skin for the Old Ceremony. The group are currently on tour for their excellent new album, Sprinter – streaming at youtube – with a show at Joe’s Pub tonight, July 25 at 7:30 PM. Cover is $15, and remember, the venue doesn’t charge a drink minimum anymore.

The album opens with the title track, a scampering folk noir number, like a more lushly orchestrated Curtis Eller song, Mark Simonsen’s eerily looping vibraphone contrasting with Gabriele Pelli’s gusty violin. Haskins’ elegantly emphatic twelve-string acoustic guitar joins with Simonsen’s organ and a nebulously dense arrangement on the stomping Live It Down, bringing to mind Pinataland.

An enigmatically catchy waltz, Ghosts of Ferriday opens with swirly Pink Floyd organ and builds to an ominously clanging noir-psych interlude fueled by Haskins’ creepy tremolo guitar: it’s sort of the missing link between Jimmy Webb and Nick Waterhouse. ”Something for the headphones, something for the chatterbox, drown out the howling of the human rain,” Haskins relates with crushing, deadpan sarcasm in the pulsing 60s bossa-noir anthem Magic Hour, evoking another cult favorite New York band, the Snow.

The sinister Mission Bells goes back to a latin noir slink, Haskin’s sardonic wah guitar paired against Simonsen’s smoky organ, with subtle, Lynchian dub tinges and an unexpectedly feral guitar solo out.  Over Greenland opens with an airy minimalism, channeling the narrator’s dread during a red-eye flight from who knows what – and then the scene shifts to a sarcastic, faux-Springsteen tableau. Fall Guy starts out with a brooding boleroesque groove and picks up with an anthemic stomp – the chute jumper at the center of the story sounds like notorious hijacker D.B. Cooper.

The moody, fingerpicked folk-rock blue-collar anomie anthem Hard Times wouldn’t be out of place on a recent Matt Keating album. Dan Hall’s rumbling drums and Shane Hartman’s dancing bass propel Efige, a snarling southwestern gothic narrative with murderously Balkan-tinged guitar. The final cut is Go Dark, packed with tricky metrics, snarky faux cinematics and metaphorically-charged suspense in the same vein as Ward White‘s most recent material. There’s just as much going on in the other songs as well, subtext and symbolism and allusions: if there’s any album this year that requires repeated listening, this is it. Notwithstanding contributions from southern indie royalty – Mike Mills of REM and the Baseball Project, and Chris Stamey from the DB’s – it’s Haskins’ tour de force. He’s never written more strongly or for matter played guitar with as much spacious, suspenseful intensity as he dives into here. It’s always good to see an artist at the top of their game fifteen years or so after they started, isn’t it?

Rachel Mason’s Epic New Folk Noir Album Traces Two Twisted Historical Narratives

In addition to her work in film, video and performance art, Rachel Mason is one of the most entertaining artists in art-rock. An edgy surrealism, a laser sense for catchy tunes and a spot-on political sensibility define her work. She’s performed pieces which recreate a Rand Paul thirteen-hour filibuster in its entirety, sent shout-outs to freedom fighters in Chechnya and to inspirations as disparate as Beyonce and Marina Abramovic. Mason’s latest project is an ambitious film where she plays the role of a newspaper editor whose imagination is sparked by the January 15, 1936 deaths of two historical figures, both named Hamilton Fish. One is a New York State congressman and the most minor figure in a prominent political family, the other a sadistic serial killer and self-described cannibal executed in the Sing Sing electric chair. The accompanying double album, The Lives of Hamilton Fish is streaming at Bandcamp.  Mason has a couple of intriguing shows coming up: on July 21 at 7:30 PM sharp at Anthology Film Archives, she’ll be singing to accompany the film. Then on July 26 at 7 PM, Mason will playing the album with her band and countertenor M. Lamar at Joe’s Pub. General admission is $15, but advance tix are a good idea because it’s likely to sell out.

This is one creepy album. There are a grand total of twenty-one tracks on Mason’s folk noir magnum opus, mostly just reverbtoned acoustic guitar and vocals. Mason has really done her homework, filling out the narrative in rich detail. For example, in the opening cut, Two Strangers, Mason alludes to the many sewing pins that the killer Fish inserted into his abdomen…and also references the most likely apocryphal stash of cash that his shady Republican county boss namesake buried in the woods somewhere in New England. Mason’s voice is richly nuanced, depending on the song; sometimes muted and somber, sometimes horrified and reaching for the rafters with a spine-tingling, dramatic edge, as on The Werewolf of Wisteria, one of the monickers given to the sadomasochistic Fish in the contemporary press.

Likewise, the music is typically somber and minor-key as a lurid crime chronicle takes centerstage. On one hand, Mason doesn’t downplay the grisly, hallucinatory storyline, but she also doesn’t deny dignity to the victims, many of them children. And there’s plenty of sympathy here for the tortured orphan who would later turn his demons loose on the world – he claimed to have killed, dismembered and eaten more than a hundred victims, a claim that’s been subject to plenty of dispute. Mason also poignantly reminds that an innocent man was tried – and acquitted – for one of Fish’s crimes.

The sarcasm rises to fever pitch in A Distinguished Line, contemplating the irony in how history remembers a mass murderer better than the undistinguished scion of a Republican political fortune. Mason’s sarcasm is crushing: “I sang soprano in the little boys’ choir, and the things they did to me made my voice grow higher,” she sings in Wild Fish, a broodingly subdued chronicle of the killer’s horrific childhood. Mason really works the mystery – despite the two central characters’ divergent life stories, sometimes it’s hard to tell which Fish Mason is talking about. Throughout the album, two other similarly brilliant, historically-inspired songwriters, Robin Aigner and Elisa Flynn often come to mind. The arrangements occasionally get more fleshed out, encompassing creepy Alec Redfearn-esque organ-fueled psychedelia and shuffling Americana or 80s goth-tinged rock.

And what of the largely forgotten upstate New York politico? There’s a happy ending here, at least on his side. While not addressed on the album, Hamilton Fish V – the last of the line, Hamilton-wise – redeemed the name, turning the family’s Republican legacy on its axis, becoming a prime mover behind the resurgence of the influential progressive weekly The Nation. After springboarding a respected think tank and independent media center, the Nation Institute, Fish V now runs a consultancy that aids environmentally sustainable businesses. At least that’s what he does when he’s not growing organic produce.

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