New York Music Daily

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Tag: noir music

Mark Sinnis Brings His Gloomy Honkytonk Songs Back to His Old East Village Haunts

One consequence of the brain drain continuing to pour out of this city’s five boroughs is that in order to see some of the best musicians who’ve been priced out by the real estate bubble, you have to go where they are. So it was good to be able to catch longtime downtown NYC presence and charismatic Nashville gothic crooner Mark Sinnis playing a marathon gig at the refreshingly laid-back Mohansic Grill & Lounge in Yorktown Heights, up in Westchester, back in November. The show was like one of those old-fashioned tent revival style C&W extravaganzas from the 1950s, except with just one band, serenading an enthusiastic Saturday night crowd for well over two hours. Sinnis and his group 825 return to his old East Village stomping grounds, upstairs at 2A at 10 PM on Feb 15 as part of impresario/bandleader/genius guitarist Tom Clark‘s weekly Sunday American shindig.

The Yorktown Heights gig was on the back porch of a restaurant overlooking a golf course, not such a strange place to see a band up that way as it might seem. And the band was tremendous. Lead guitarist James “Smokey Chipotle” Brown locked in on some classic honkytonk harmonies with pedal steel player Brian Aspinwall when the two weren’t involved in high-voltage musical banter. Other times, Aspinwall would anchor the sound with high lonesome washes and wails as Senor Chipotle spun from wry hillbilly boogie licks, to eerie David Lynch twang, to chicken-scratch Johnny Cash rhythm or ringing, clanging Bakersfield riffage. Bassist John Goldberg held the rig to the road as drummer Michael Lillard kept the wheels spinning with every classic country shuffle beat ever invented, trumpeter Lee Compton adding both mariachi flair and a mournful, funereal New Orleans touch, often in tandem with a bluesy harmonica player who was new to the band.

Sinnis delivered the songs in his brooding baritone. Much as this band can hold their own with any other classic honkytonk crew out there, what distinguishes his Nashville gothic from, say, Nick Cave, or Roy Orbison, is that he really lets the band cut loose: several of the numbers went on for a solid six or seven minutes, with plenty of time for solos from pretty much everybody in the group. His lyrics mine a classic Americana vernacular full of doom and dread: funeral trains emerging into the dawn, ill-fated relationships, ghosts and faded memories of fleetingly good times now gone forever. And love affairs gone straight to hell, taking shape via slow, opiated dirges, bitter shuffle grooves or grimly romping numbers like one of the centerpieces of the early set, Mistaken for Love.

Many of the night’s hardest-hitting numbers – the angst-fueled funeral train anthem Cold Night in December, the booze-drenched Wine and Whiskey and the Devil Makes Three, and It’s Been a Long Cold Hard Lonely Winter – appear on his latest album with this band. Some of the unexpectedly quieter material, strangely enough, was taken from his extensive back catalog with dark art-rock band Ninth House, a unit Sinnis has fronted since the late 90s and has pulled deeper and deeper into Americana in recent years. He also brought out a couple of excellent new songs, one a brooding, manic-depressive bolero, another a morose honkytonk breakup ballad. All this gives you an idea of what to expect this Sunday: classic ideas and riffs updated for the here and now, with an unending gloom. Tom Clark’s Sunday nights at 2A draw a decent crowd and an A-list of NYC Americana talent – Amy Allison played a rare full-band show with LA cult favorite Don Heffington there last week, for example – but deserve an even wider audience and a better night than they have. Sinnis and 825 ought to bring it this Sunday.

Blue-Eyed Soul Band Spain Bring Their Disquieting Sounds to NYC

For the past twenty-odd years, Josh Haden’s group Spain have occupied a unique, distantly Lynchian netherworld of blue-eyed soul and moody, purist pop tunesmithing, sort of like the Eels playing Orbison – or vice versa. They’re making a rare couple of stops in NYC, first at the Lincoln Center Atrium on Jan 29 at 7:30 PM for free, early arrival being the keyword there. They’re also at Rough Trade on Feb 3 at 9 for $15.

Their fifth and latest album, Sargent Place – streaming at Spotify – features the latest incarnation of the band, with Haden on bass plus Daniel Brummel on lead guitar, Randy Kirk on keys and guitars and Matt Mayhall on drums. Textures are big with this band: for example, the way that Haden’s bass and Brummel’s guitar evoke the spare sound of a Fender Rhodes on the tersely catchy, incendiarily crescendoing opening track, Love At First Sight. There’s an actual Rhodes on the enigmatically soul-tinged, waltzing second cut, The Fighter, featuring Haden’s sister Petra on harmony vocals and strings – it wouldn’t be out of place in the Lee Feldman catalog. She reappears on the duskily smoldering, blues-drenched dirge From the Dust

It Could Be Heaven subsumes its morbidness in Chuck Prophet-style purist pop catchiness – but just barely. Sunday Morning isn’t the Velvets classic but a pretty damn good song in its own right, an insistently pulsing, troubled, vintage 60s minor-key soul strut with a savage guitar solo out.

Haden brings down the lights with the slow, balmy, gospel-tinged 6/8 soul ballad Let Your Angel and keeps the moody, churchified atmosphere going with To Be a Man. He hits a peak with the absolutely Lynchian longing and angst of In My Soul, fueled by Brummel’s eerily gleaming, reverbtoned lead lines. The hushed folk-pop lullaby You and I is sadly notable for being the final studio recording by Haden’s dad, jazz bass legend Charlie Haden. The album winds up with the simple, disarmingly direct Waking Song: “Every time I go to sleep, it’s time to wake up,” Haden relates, something for the insomniac in all of us.

A Killer Debut Album and a Show Uptown by Charming Disaster

Guitarist/pianist Jeff Morris is the mastermind behind mighty, darkly harmony-fueled art-rock/circus rock/noir cabaret/salsa swing band Kotorino. Ellia Bisker plays ukulele and fronts catchy, lyrically driven indie pop band Sweet Soubrette. Together they are Charming Disaster, whose new album of murder ballads, Love, Crime & Other Trouble – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most twistedly delicious noir albums of recent years. They seem to have had so much fun making it that they ended up bringing in most of Kotorino in the process. Charming Disaster’s next show is on Jan 27 at 8 PM at Silvana on 116th St., down the hill from Morningside Heights, about a block from the C train.

Two things immediately distinguish Charming Disaster from the many other would-be hitmen with murder ballads. Where so many of those songs come out of the folk and country traditions, Charming Disaster’s are more urban, and urbane. A closer listen reveals little Raymond Chandler-esque vignettes with all kinds of unexpected narrative twists and ghoulish humor that manages not to be campy. Bisker’s ability to change her voice to suit the song, whether with a petulant hint of New Jersey or a brassy oldtime swing delivery, informs how she channels the various dangerous dames here.

The opening track, Ghost Story, begins with a gorgeous interweave of guitar and uke and rises toward Spectorish proportions as Bisker unveils a tale about a woman who’s haunted by not one but two ghosts, and how everybody got to where they are, dead or alive. Ocean City comes across as a more skittish, shuffling take on what Springsteen captured in another low-budget coastal town, pushed along by Mike Brown’s bass and Jerome Morris’ drums.

With its tinkling saloon piano, the Weimar blues-tinged Showgirl is a duet, a wickedly sardonic tale that reminds that corruption in the NYPD goes way, way back. Wolf Song recasts 80s goth rock as a delicate acoustic nocturne with a big brass-fueled crescendo from trombonist Cecil Scheib and trumpeter Jesse Selengut. Artichoke blends ghoulabilly with Romany jazz and noir cabaret in a Tom Waits vein. One of the best tracks here, Secretary, paints a ghoulish picture of a real femme fatale over an eerie staccato guitar bounce a la Iggy’s The Passenger: this girl always smells like smoke even though she’s never been known to step out of the office for one.

Morris and Bisker intertwine voices on Grifters, a cynical Depression-era con artists’ tale set to another ominously swinging, Waits-flavored shuffle. They pick up the pace with the roaring, punk-flavored, grisly Osiris, an aptly shapeshfitting number and the album’s most straightforward track. They keep the energy at knife’s edge with Deep in the High, a cruelly carnivalesque number about a couple unraveling fast.

The most suspenseful track here is Knife Thrower, a lushly menacing look at the symbiotic relationship between a carnival couple with some gorgeously deep-sky steel guitar from Morris. The album winds up with the uneasy I Know You Know, a bittersweet love song with a dark undercurrent. If you aren’t hooked on this by now, there’s no hope for you. You should also grab the band’s 2013 debut single, Murderer b/w East River Ferry Waltz, a free download also up at their Bandcamp page.

This Saturday, January 24: A Great Night for Noir

This Saturday night, Jan 24 is a good one for noir music. At 7 PM LJ Murphy and his band the Accomplices are slumming at Sidewalk, bringing the nattily dressed, charismatic songwriter’s menacing urban narratives to life over careening, darkly bluesy rock. Then at 10 Big Lazy, New York’s preeminent noir instrumentalists for the past couple of decades, are headlining at Barbes. What’s the likelihood of being able to see two band this good on the same evening? Nights like this are why we live in New York. This blog’s covering both shows. No need to sign up or meet up or anything, just come along for the ride.

Big Lazy’s latest album, Don’t Cross Myrtle (a cautionary deep-Brooklyn reference) was ranked best album of 2014 here: it’s an absolute masterpiece of noir. Bandleader/guitarist Stephen Ulrich hit a high point with his soundtrack to the documentary film Art & Craft last year, then kept going with this one. At the album release show late in the year at the Manderley Bar in the Sleep No More building in Chelsea, the band was a little low in the mix, something that won’t be a problem at Barbes. But they didn’t let it phase them, turning in a performance that matched the haunted mood they created in the studio. Bassist Andrew Hall (who also happens to be first chair bass in the Greenwich Village Orchestra) opened the stygian waltz Swampesque with pitchblende bowing before Ulrich entered with a wash of shivery, ultraviolet reverb. Deep in its black heart, the song’s a blues, a twisted, monstrous one.

Drummer Yuval Lion kicked off the frantic Just Plain Scared, a big crowd-pleaser from right around the turn of the century, with a suspensefully tense gallop until Ulrich came in with his lingering, ominous phrasing, part downtown jazz skronk, part Bernard Herrmann. Then Hall took a verse and took it even further into the depths before Ulrich wrenched the band onto the express track for a harrowing ride to the end of the line. In much the same vein as Marc Ribot‘s noir soundtrack pieces, the band built Black Sheep out of a seemingly innocuous phrase of the utmost simplicity, then took it on a stroll through uneasily pastoral, Bill Frisell-ish territory.

They staggered through the tricky tempos of Avenue X, a shadowy, chromatically menacing original that Ulrich took his time with, finally reaching for the rafters with some hacksaw tremolo-picking. He went off on a more digressive, rather sardonic tangent on the loping highway theme The Low Way, then led the band through the mysterious improvabilly of Night Must Fall with his clusterbombing, reverb-drenched attack.

Charlie Giordano of Bruce Springsteen’s band guested on accordion on a plaintively swirling take of Unswerving, a slowly swaying lament. Baritone saxophonist Peter Hess – of Slavic Soul Party, and a frequent Big Lazy collaborator – joined them on the sepulchrally dubby Bring Me the Head of Lee Marvin. Then the band’s original drummer Willie Martinez took a turn on creepy congas on the new album’s opening track, Minor Problem. They closed with arguably the most menacing, slowly stalking number of the night, Skinless Boneless, followed by the Link Wray-tinged Human Sacrifice. It’ll be interesting to see who they might pull out of the woodwork for a guest appearance at the Barbes show – last time here it was Mamie Minch, putting a twisted spin on Patsy Cline.

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.

Singles for 1/11

CMJ be damned, this is the year’s most intense week for concerts. Winter Jazzfest Friday and last night, Globalfest tonight, the French jazz marathon on Monday, Prototype Festival on Wednesday, opening night of the Ecstatic Music Festival on Thursday: as Ian Curtis said, where will it end? Time to pack some espresso and a couple sandwiches and head back out into the icebox. To keep things fresh here, a small handful of tasty treats from across the interwebs:

Frontier Ruckus’s Bathroom Stall Hypnosis is classic 60s noir meets the Jayhawks circa Sound of Lies, spun through the chilly 90s vortex of Pulp, with a tune and a vicious, cynical lyric worthy of the latter band. You can literally smell the cocaine in this one. They’re at the Mercury on Jan 31 at half past eleven (youtube).

Here’s an absolutely gorgeous, unexpectedly elegaic take of Kelli Rae Powell’s brooding band-on-the-run epic Don’t Slow Down, Zachary, recently recorded at the Jalopy with Jim McNamara on bass, M Shanghai String Band’s Austin Hughes on guitar and vocals and Glendon Jones on violin (youtube). She’s doing what could be her last NYC show at Hill Country Brooklyn on Feb 7 at 8.

Portland, Oregon art-rock/circus rock crew Musee Mecanique’s Like Home is a dreamy, creepy waltz with glockenspiel and mellotron (museemecanique.net). Yummy!

And for an enjoyably twisted three-minute snack, check out Bella Novela’s Four Walls – the Go Go’s backed by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, or maybe a young Belinda Carlisle fronting Judas Priest. As over-the-top as you would imagine, and actually not bad (soundcloud).

Arborea Takes You Deep Into the Haunted Woods

Maine is the most beautiful state in the American northeast: deep pine woods, rugged Atlantic coast, breathtaking highlands. Its most famous native, Stephen King, does a great job portraying its sinister side. Sure, like seemingly everywhere else in the fifty states, it’s been invaded, partially by a subset of the same speculator class who’ve decimated New York neighborhoods and transformed them into a ghost town of empty condos, hoping to unload them on the next sucker before the market caves in. But there’s still plenty of pristine countryside left Down East.

Out of that bucolic, richly verdant, often desolate part of the world comes the aptly named Arborea, the noir folk banjo-and-guitar duo of Shanti and Buck Curran. Their two most recent albums are Red Planet – a reissue of their raptly haunting 2011 release – and Fortress of the Sun, both of which are streaming at Bandcamp. Each is rustic, otherworldly and considerably uneasy; the more recent one is less stark and skeletal. Settle in for a hypnotic and often riveting journey through their sonic underbrush.

Red Planet opens with a pensive solo guitar miniature, followed by an airy version of the old folk song Black Is The Colour, Buck building contrast with his spare, incisive dobro over a guitar drone. Phantasmagoria in Two establishes an echoey noir ambience: “Everywhere I go there’s fear,” Shanti intones. She keeps the brooding, doomed imagery going through Spain, an autumnal mood piece and then Careless Love, its title a mantra of sorts.

The title track juxtaposes Shanti’s chiming hammered dulcimer against another drone, followed by the artfully crescendoing Wolves, which rises to an intricate blend of spiky textures: if Joanna Newsom ever grew up, she might sound something like this. Shanti’s voice rises to the rafters on the plaintive Song For Obol, following with the album’s best and catchiest song, Arms and Horses. Shanti winds up the album with a solo banjo-and-voice piece, A Little Time, which sounds like Marissa Nadler but more stripped down.

Fortress of the Sun is considerably more fleshed-out and slightly more rock-oriented, the Currans joined by Greg Boardman on viola, Michael Krapovicky on bass and Anders Griffen on drums. The catchy opening anthem, Pale Horse Phantasm draws a straight line back to 80s goth, both lyrically and musically, but with organic instrumentation. Daughters of Man paints a doomed, nocturnal narrative over loops of minor-key folk guitar. After The Flood Only Love Remains is just as hypnotic and more optimistic, Shanti’s apprehensive lovers “Breaking your heads to save this place.”

Buck sings and plays dobro on Rider, a more orchestrated take on what the band was doing five years ago. When I Was On Horseback, a surreallistically hypnotic Britfolk waltz, nicks the tune from Scarborough Fair. Hints of flamenco spice the spacious, terse miniature Rua das Aldas, followed by Cherry Tree Carol with its lingering/incisive dynamic. There’s also a whispery, dynamically-charged one-chord jam aptly titled Ghosts along with more subdued alternate versions of three tracks. See you in the woods – you might want to bring a flashlight.

The 50 Best Albums of 2014

Of the hundreds of thousands of albums released every year, maybe ten percent of them are worth hearing. That’s about twenty-five thousand albums, possibly a lot more – it’s harder to keep track of the numbers than it was in the previous century. A very ambitious blogger can hear bits and pieces of maybe twenty percent of that total. That’s the triage.

A very, very ambitious blogger can hear, at best, maybe ten percent of that small sample, all the way through, at least enough to get the gist of what those few hundred albums are about. So consider this list – and the Best Songs of 2014 and the Best NYC Concerts of 2014 lists here – a celebration of good music released in 2014 or thereabouts rather than anything definitive. Links to listen to each album are included: whenever possible, the link is to an ad-free site like Bandcamp or Soundcloud rather than Spotify. So bookmark this page and come back to enjoy what you might have missed.

Every few years, there’s one album that stands out above all the rest, which transcends genre. This year, that was Big Lazy‘s Don’t Cross Myrtle, a creepy collection of reverb-drenched, Lynchian songs without words and desolate highway themes. Even by the standards of frontman/guitarist Stephen Ulrich’s previous work for film, tv and with this band, he’s never written with more delectable menace. Stream the album via Spotify.

Before the rest of the list kicks in, there are two ringers here from a couple years ago: Great Plains gothic tunesmith Ember Schrag‘s The Sewing Room, a quiet, allusive, disarmingly intense masterpiece (at Bandcamp), and a considerably more ornate and more chromatically-charged release, Philadelphia-based Turkish art-rockers Barakka‘s Uzaklardan (at Reverbnation). Both albums came over the transom too late to be included in the 2012 list here, but each of them is a real gem.

Beyond the choice of Big Lazy as #1, there’s no numerical ranking on this list. For fairness’ sake, the remainder of the fifty are listed in more-or-less chronological order as they first received attention here, without taking release dates into consideration. So the albums at the end aren’t the ass end of the list – they just happened to have been reviewed here at the end of the year. To be clear, the Ministry of Wolves, the last act on this list, are every bit as enjoyable as creepy surf band the Reigning Monarchs, who lead the rest of the parade:

The Reigning Monarchs – Black Sweater Massacre
Marauding crime-surf instrumentals from an unlikely cast of 90s powerpop types. Stream the album via the band’s page

Curtis Eller – How to Make It in Hollywood
Wickedly literate, historically rich, pun-infused and unexpectedly rocking Americana from the charismatic roots music banjoist. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Karla Moheno - Gone to Town
Nobody writes more intriguing noir musical narratives than this inscrutable chanteuse. If Big Lazy hadn’t put out their album this past year, this one would be at the top of the pile with a bullet. Stream the album via Soundcloud

Marissa Nadler - July
Arguably her best album, the atmospheric folk noir chanteuse and storyteller’s lushly enveloping adventure in Pink Floyd-style art-rock. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Marianne Dissard – The Cat. Not Me
A stormy, brilliantly twisted, angst-fueled, epically orchestrated art-rock album by the French southwestern gothic avatar and Sergio Mendoza collaborator. Stream the album via Spotify

Aram Bajakian – There Were Flowers Also in Hell
Darkly blues-inspired, characteristically eclectic, moody instrumentals by the last great lead guitarist from Lou Reed’s Band. Stream the album via Spotify

Rosanne Cash – The River & the Thread
A pensive southern gothic travelogue set to terse Americana rock, arguably as good as Cash’s iconic Black Cadillac album from a few years ago. Stream the album via Spotify

Laura Cantrell – No Way There from Here
The lyrically strongest and most musically diverse album yet by this era’s most compelling voice in classic country music. Stream the album via Spotify

The New Mendicants – Into the Lime
A janglefest of gorgeous Britfolk-infused powerpop from Joe Pernice of the Pernice Brothers, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and the Sadies’ Mike Belistky. Stream the album via Spotify

Siach HaSadeh – Song of the Grasses
Slowly unwinding, raptly intense improvisations on classic Jewish cantorial and folk themes from over the centuries. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Son of Skooshny – Mid Century Modern
Mark Breyer achieved cult status in the 90s with powerpop vets Skooshny and continues to write biting, lyrically rich, beautifully jangly songs. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Isle of Klezbos – Live from Brooklyn
A deliriously fun concert recording by the mostly-female, pioneering New York klezmer whirlwind. Stream the album via Bandcamp

New Electric Ride – Balloon Age
Period-perfect, fantastic mid-60s style psychedelic rock in a Dukes of Stratosphear or Love Camp 7 vein. Stream the album via Bandcamp

The Baseball Project – 3rd
Catchy, characteristically insightful powerpop, paisley underground and janglerock from Steve Wynn and Peter Buck’s supergroup, rich in diamond lore from across the decades. Stream the album via Spotify

Ichka – Podorozh
Meaning “journey” in Russian. the new album by the Montreal klezmer group blazes through bristling chromatic themes. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Jaro Milko & the Cubalkanics – Cigarros Explosivos
The Firewater lead guitarist’s adventure in psychedelic cumbias comes across as a sort of a Balkan version of Chicha Libre. Stream the album via Bandcamp 

Bad Buka -Through the Night
A harder-rocking, more theatrical take on Gogol Bordello-style Slavic punk from these New York guys and girls. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Gord Downie, the Sadies & the Conquering Sun
Ominously jangly southwestern gothic and paisley underground rock from the Canadian Americana band and the Tragically Hip frontman. Stream the album via the band’s page

Cheetah Chrome – Solo
It took practically twenty years for this searing, intense album by the punk-era guitar icon to see the light of day, but the wait was worth it. Stream the album via Spotify

Andrew Bird – Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of
The cult favorite Americana songwriter plunders the catalog of another similarly literate, frequently creepy Americana act, the Handsome Family, for an insightful and lyrically rich collection of covers. Stream the album via Soundcloud

Guided by Voices - Cool Planet
If the last of the final four albums from the indie powerpop band’s marathon of recording over the last two years is really their swan song, they went out with a bang. Stream the album via Spotify

Golem – Tanz
A wickedly hilarious, blistering mix of edgy punk rock, crazed circus rock and straight-up hotshot klezmer. Stream the album via Spotify

Matt Kanelos – Love Hello
Pensive, allusively lyrical Radiohead-influenced psychedelia and art-rock from the popular NYC jazz and rock keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Spottiswoode - English Dream
Purist, richly arranged, artsy janglerock with psychedelic and Britfolk tinges from the cult favorite lyrical songwriter and bandleader. Stream the album via Bandcamp

The Skull Practitioners – ST1
Searing, pummeling, catchy noiserock and riff-driven jams from Steve Wynn lead guitarist Jason Victor’s explosive trio. Stream the album via Bandcamp

HUMANWINE - Fighting Naked
Creepy, menacing, chromatically-fueled narratives from an all-too-plausible, Orwellian nightmare future from the politically spot-on Vermont band. Stream the album via Bandcamp – free download

Amanda Thorpe - Bewitching Me: The Lyrics of Yip Harburg
The riveting Britfolk chanteuse reinvents songs by the Tin Pan Alley figure as noir-inflected janglerock, backed by a stellar NYC band. Stream the album via Spotify

Changing Modes - The Paradox of Traveling Light
Frontwoman/multi-instrumentalist Wendy Griffiths’ band’s most ornate, intricately crafted art-rock masterpiece, with the occasional departure into punk or powerpop. Stream the album via Soundcloud

The Bakersfield Breakers - In the Studio with the Bakersfield Breakers
These New York surf and twang instrumentalists put their own kick-ass spin on a classic Telecaster-driven sound from the early 60s. Stream the album via Bandcamp

The Sometime Boys - Riverbed
One of the most distinctively unique bands on this list, they blend newgrass, country blues, funky rock and Nashville gothic into a spicy, anthemically psychedelic, lyrically intense blend. Stream the album via the band’s page 

The Immigrant Union - Anyway
The Australian band – a Dandy Warhols spinoff – craft deliciously catchy Rickenbacker guitar janglerock. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Bombay Rickey – Cinefonia
The year’s best debut album is by spectacular, intense singer/accordionist Kamala Samkaram’s ornate, intricate, surfy Bollywood-inspired art-rock band. Stream the album via Bandcamp 

Hannah Thiem – Brym
Lush, moody, Middle Eastern and Nordic-inspired violin grooves and cinematic soundscapes from Copal‘s dynamic frontwoman/composer. Stream the album via Soundcloud 

The Larch – In Transit
Characteristically urbane, insightfully lyrical, Costello-esque powerpop with searing lead guitar from the highly regarded New York quartet. Stream the album via Bandcamp

The OBNIIIs - Third Time to Harm
The twin guitar-driven Austin garage punks are probably the closest thing we have to Radio Birdman these days. They released two albums this past year, one a sizzling live set, and this studio release which is more psychedelic and every bit as volcanic. Stream the album via Spotify

The Wytches – Annabel Dream Reader
Arguably the darkest album on this list, this harrowing collection mines the desperation of living at the fringes of society, set to scorching, reverb-drenched noir rock. Stream the album via Spotify.

Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons – Rebel Devil Devil Rebel
The Canadian gothic chanteuse returns to her fiery, electric Neil Young-influenced roots with this stampeding effort, driven by guitar great Hugh Pool’s ferocious attack. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Ward White – Ward White Is the Matador
The most intricately literate of all the albums on this list. Nobody writes more intriguing, or menacing, rock narratives than this New York tunesmith. And he’s never rocked harder, either. Stream the album via Bandcamp 

Jessie Kilguss - Devastate Me
The title is apt – the NYC folk noir singer/bandleader offers a quietly shattering. impeccably crafted collection of Nashville gothic and paisley underground rock. Stream the album via Spotify

Mesiko - Solar Door
One of the most tunefully eclectic albums on the list, the debut by Norden Bombsight’s David Marshall and Rachael Bell with all-star drummer Ray Rizzo has postpunk, paisley underground, psychedelia and kinetic powerpop, sometimes all in the same song. Stream the album via Bandcamp

O’Death - Out of Hands We Go
A characteristically careening, ominous mix of Nashville gothic, oldtimey, circus rock and noir cabaret from these Americana individualists. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Chuck Prophet – Night Surfer
One of the great lead guitarists in rock, Prophet is also a great tunesmith who spans from psychedelia to janglerock to Americana and powerpop. Stream the album via Spotify

Wounded Buffalo Theory – A Painting of Plans
The New York art-rockers have never sounded more focused, or more intense on this richly ornate, psychedelic collection. Stream the album via the band’s page, free download

Mark Rogers & Mary Byrne – I Line My Days Along Your Weight
A brooding, plaintive and vividly lyrical folk noir masterpiece, Byrne’s tersely evocative lyrics and luminous vocals over a darkly magical web of acoustic textures. Stream the album via Spotify

Jessi Robertson – I Came From the War
Combat is a metaphor for all sorts of angst on the riveting soul and Americana-influenced singer/bandleader’s intricate, atmospheric latest release. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Metropolitan Klezmer – Mazel Means Good Luck
An especially wild live album by this deliciously shapeshifting, latin and reggae-influenced New York Jewish music juggernaut. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Matt Ulery - In the Ivory
The jazz bassist’s lush, rippling compositions blend soaring neoromantic themes, edgy improvisation, cinematic instrumental narratives and frequently haunting interludes. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Jenifer Jackson – TX Sunrise
One of the most diverse songwriters here, she’s done everything from Beatlesque bossa pop to psychedelia to Nashville gothic. This is her deepest and most rewarding dive into Americana, comprising both classic C&W and southwestern gothic. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Mark Sinnis – It’s Been a Long Cold Hard Lonely Winter
A death-obsessed hard honkytonk album from powerful baritone crooner and leader of cult favorite dark rockers Ninth House. Stream the album via Spotify

The Brooklyn What - Minor Problems
The best short album of 2014 has explosive, dynamic guitar duels, a catchy anthemic sensibility, psychedelic intensity and edgy, sarcastic wit. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Robin Aigner – Con Tender
Historically rich, period-perfect, sultry and often hilariously lyrical tunesmithing equally informed by stark southern folk music, vintage blues and oldtimey swing jazz. Stream the album via Bandcamp, free download

The Ministry of Wolves - Happily Ever After
The second album of creepily theatrical art-rock songs based on Grimm’s Fairy Tales by the all-star band of Botanica‘s Paul Wallfisch, Alexander Hacke and Danielle de Picciotto from Crime & the City Solution and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds co-founder Mick Harvey. Stream the album via Spotify 

If you’re wondering why there’s hardly anything in the way of jazz or classical music here, that stuff is more likely to be found at this blog’s older sister blog, Lucid Culture.

The Ministry of Wolves Update the Brothers Grimm with Twisted Art-Rock

You could make a case for the Ministry of Wolves as a gothic rock supergroup; or you could take them up a few notches and call them the latest incarnation of the urbane existentialist art-rock that Botanica‘s Paul Wallfisch has mined so memorably since the 90s. Alexander Hacke and Danielle de Picciotto are members of the latest edition of Crime & the City Solution; Hacke also did a long stretch in Einsturzende Neubauten. Mick Harvey was a founding member of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds; Wallfisch is the least gothic but most musically defining member of this unlikely and wildly successful pickup band, which first came together to supply a soundtrack to Claudia Bauer’s theatre production Republik der Wolfe. That spectacle was first staged at the Theater Dortmund in Germany, where Wallfisch is artistic director. Its songs use Grimm’s Fairy Tales and most specifically, Anne Sexton’s take on them from her 1971 collection, Transformations, as a stepping-off point. The group released many of the songs from the production earlier this year; their new album, Happily Ever After (streaming at Spotify) includes unreleased material as well as several tracks with lyrics in the original German.

De Picciotto delivers both the English version and a German translation of Sexton’s pointedly sarcastic poem The Gold Key (Der Goldene Schluessel) with counterintuitive brightness over Harvey’s  lingering guitar multitracks and Wallfisch’s ominously reverberating Wurlitzer. It makes a good title theme here and would work just as well for pretty much any horror film. She does the same with a creepy, music box-like version of White Snake Waltz (Die Weisse Schlange). Wallfisch casts Little Red Riding Hood as a Jersey tourist in Manhattan on a Saturday night in a Lou Reed-inspired narrative, over a noisy one-chord jam that’s one part Taxi Driver soundtrack, one part Blind Idiot God.

Hacke narrates a particularly twisted version of the most epic of the previously unreleased tracks here, The 12 Dancing Princesses. The guys in the band shamble through the chilling folk-rock of The Wonderful Musician, “Like a fish on a hook, dancing the dance of death,” Hacke’s banjo adding rustic textures in the background.

Rapunzel gets a lushly angst-fueled, absolutely Lynchian overture in her name, via Wallfisch’s one-man multi-keyboard orchestra. Der Froschkoenig (The Frog Prince), starts as a stately waltz and brings back the undiluted menace of the opening theme. Wallfisch’s piano drives the final cut, Rumpelstilzchen, with a noir boogie riff as it reaches its expected conclusion. You’ll see this here again on the best albums of 2014 page in a couple of days.

Big Lazy’s Don’t Cross Myrtle – Best Album of 2014

Film composer/guitarist Stephen Ulrich has been on some kind of roll lately. He scored the Academy Award-shortlisted documentary Art and Craft with characteristically vivid noir unease. His one-off album with his cinematic instrumental project Ulrich Ziegler, with ex-Pink Noise guitarist Itamar Ziegler, was rated best album of 2012 here. Most recently, Ulrich has regrouped his legendary noir instrumental trio Big Lazy, who set the bar as far as menacing reverbtone guitar cinematics are concerned. The title of their latest album, Don’t Cross Myrtle – streaming at Spotify – is a creepy deep-Brooklyn reference, and it’s apt. Pound for pound, it’s the best album of 2014.

Some backstory: the group broke up in 2007. Meanwhile, Ulrich continued on with a semi-rotating cast of characters including drummer Yuval Lion, who ended up sticking around for this project along with prominently ubiquitous bassist Andrew Hall, who’s never played with more stygian intensity than he does here. The new album covers all the desolate, shadowy, knifes-edge territory that previous incarnations of the band have evoked since their iconic 1996 debut, Amnesia, released under the name Lazy Boy (the reason for the name change is a sick and hilarious indictment of American corporate fascism). And this unit turns out to be the best version of the band, ever, surpassing even the slinky menace of Ulrich’s original trio with Paul Dugan on bass and Willie Martinez on drums.

The opening track, Minor Problem, is a a twisted tango, Ulrich tracing a sleaze-infested trail with his guitar and then his lapsteel over a misterioso clatter from Lion as Hall holds it all together. The slowly undulating Unswerving blends Charlie Giordano’s accordion into Ulrich’s spaciously eerie chromatics for a tinge of Peter Lorre-era musette. The Low Way opens as a jauntily swinging, Bill Frisell-esque highway theme, but Ulrich wastes no time edging it toward the shadows: it’s sort of the reverse image of Junction City, the one relatively easygoing track on the band’s debut.

Human Sacrifice makes horror surf out of a flamenco theme – with its savage clusters and sudden dips and swells, it’s one of the most suspenseful tracks here, and a real showstopper live. Black Sheep brings back the pastoral flavor with a muted, psychedelic sarcasm – Lion’s snorting barnyard flurries on the drums are irresistibly funny. Avenue X – another Brooklyn reference and a popular title in the horror surf demimonde – revisits the murky, dubby depths that Ulrich explored for awhile about ten years ago, with a snide, faux-blithe trumpet cameo from Sexmob‘s Steven Bernstein.

Night Must Fall motors along on an ominously sketchy ghoulabilly shuffle groove in the same vein as classic late 90s Big Lazy tracks like Princess Nicotine and Just Plain Scared, hitting a similarly explosive, jagged peak. The single best cut here is the funereal waltz Swampesque, Lion and Hall shadowing Ulrich’s alternately lingering and icepicking lines. Bring Me the Head of Lee Marvin pairs crime-scene guitar with guest Peter Hess’s brooding baritone sax over an almost imperceptibly shapeshifting groove.

The album’s title track is also its funniest, a ba-BUMP stripper theme that the band, and Bernstein again, fire poison darts at with considerable relish. Whereabouts takes a balmy jazz ballad deep into Twin Peaks territory; the album winds up with a bonus track, Lunch Lady, a narrative that turns on a dime from bouncy and bluesy to murderous. Throughout the album, Ulrich and the rhythm section pepper the shadowy cinematics with bits of black humor and the occasional devious quote – Hendrix, the Mission Impossible theme and allusions to Nino Rota’s Fellini soundtracks, a well that Ulrich has drawn deeply from over the years. Obviously, picking this album over similarly brilliant if stylistically unrelated releases by Jennifer Niceley, Robin Aigner, Paul Wallfisch’s Ministry of Wolves and Arborea (all of whom you may see on this page in the near future, hint hint) is completely subjective. It’s like choosing Sergeant Pepper over Are You Experienced in 1967, or Public Enemy over Sonic Youth in 1987. If you buy the idea that somebody has to make that call, this album makes it a no-brainer.

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