New York Music Daily

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Tag: noir music

Noa Fort Brings Her Darkly Expansive, Eclectic Songs to the West Village

Pianist/singer Noa Fort– younger sister to respected jazz pianist Anat Fort – is one of New York’s more interesting and original artists. She bridges the gap between art-rock, chamber pop, classical and jazz, singing in both English and Hebrew, reflecting her Israeli-American background. Her moodily modulated alto vocals mirror the diversity of styles in her playing: she can channel torchy cabaret, creepy circus rock or work the corners of a song with a jazz and blues sophistication. She’s playing Caffe Vivaldi on May 26 at 9 PM.

She likes minor keys, slow tempos and takes her time: the videos on her music page often go on for six or seven minutes at a clip. The first tracks are solo or duo performances. There’s Winter Requiem, a slow, brooding art-rock anthem. The second number works around a menacingly carnivalesque stairstepping piano theme. No World Between Us – a duet with sparse, Lynchian washes of guitar from Amir Weiss – has an icy gothic rock feel, but with a loose rhythm that owes more to jazz. Fort goes deeper and even more darkly into that idiom with All By Yourself, a trio with her sister plus bass clarinetist Nitai Levi, before the instruments go off on a a jaunty improvisational tangent. And Now Is the Time – also with Anat on piano – looks back to Nina Simone for inspiration.

Fort’s originals leading a quintet are straight-up jazz, lively and rhythmic, with a similarly moody edge that brings to mind the work of another Israeli artist, Avishai Cohen. And her choice of Wild As the Wind is particularly apt, a richly dynamic take that starts absolutely ghostly and then picks up with a bittersweet edge: And just when you think you have her pegged as an enigmatic jazz/classical type, you discover at the bottom of the page that she likes ska-punk. Go figure. It’s more likely that she’ll air out her more introspective stuff at the show next week…but wouldn’t it be cool if she threw a Hub City Stompers song into the mix to shake up the room…

The Sideshow Tragedy Bring Their Visionary Apocalyptic Blues to the Rockwood

The last time this blog caught up with the Sideshow Tragedy, it was a couple of years ago late on a Friday night in the red neon backroom at Zirzamin, and the Austin noir blues band was killing it. Really killing it. Guitarist Nathan Singleton was airing out his bottomless bag of jagged minor-key licks, drummer Jeremy Harrell had a murderous stomp going and there were some special guests, if memory serves right – it had been a crazy night up to that point. Fast forward to 2015: Zirzamin is sadly gone, but the Austin band has a new album, Capital, streaming at Continental Record Services‘ site, and a similar small-room, Friday night show, in this case at the Rockwood on May 22 at 11 PM. This usually sedate space is in for a serious jolt of adrenaline, tempered slightly by the fact that the new album is somewhat more spare and haunting than the band’s previous, often unhinged gutter blues attack. It’s a concept album, a sinister, brilliantly metaphorical portrait of a nation gone off the rails in an orgy of greed and mass desperation. Fans of Humanwine will love this.

“Summer’s here, and the tramps are on the move, ten to a trailerbed from Chicago to LA…you can taste the decay,” Singleton broods in Number One, a corrosively relevant, cynical portrait of haves versus have-nots over a riff-rock groove that other bands would have turned into metal, but these guys do as a shuffle. Likewise, Blacked Out Windows, with some harmonically offcenter multitracks, could be Sonic Youth, but instead Singleton runs the riff over and over for an ominously hypnotic vibe: “Smoke and mirrors closing in…his carnival calm is easy to believe,” Singleton warns. “The palms of the priest are easy to grease.”

Singleton more or less talks the apocalyptic lyrics to Keys to the Kingdom as Harrell beats a frantic, funereal pulse on his tom-toms. The Winning Side, a similarly frantic, scampering anthem, sounds like Dylan’s It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding at doublespeed: “It’s not the thought that counts,” Singleton muses grimly. The title track works a dusky midtempo slide guitar groove, a caustically aphoristic parable of the 21 st century going back into the dark ages in a hurry. “You listen to the police scanner as your write your report, better fill your quota while you got time…you can’t see the horizon ’cause it don’t matter right now, so rob the beggars blind,” Singleton taunts. It’s arguably the best and most relevant song anybody’s released this year.

Two Guns pairs Harrell’s shuffling, misty cymbals against Singleton’s uneasily precise slide guitar and menacing stream of metaphors: “The rockets’ eternal red glare, the shooting off of lights and flares, it’s getting dark out there.” So when Singleton finally reaches the point where he works a song around a major-key hook – with the only slightly less troubled Animal Song, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Marcellus Hall catalog – there’s a sense of relief, however temporary.

Let the Love Go Down returns to a death-obsessed theme with a series of fire-and-brimstone metaphors over a relentlessly rolling and tumbling drive.The album ends with Plow Song, a spiky resonator guitar-fueled trip through a postapocalyptic landscape where you’re bound to end up with “a gun for all seasons and a bit in your mouth.” Powerful words from a Texas band. Best album of the year? One of the top handful, no question.

The Bright Smoke Earn Comparisons to Joy Division

Lots of groups draw comparisons to Joy Division. Inevitably, all of them fall short. None of them can match that iconic band’s shatttering gothic art-rock grandeur…and nobody goes as far into the abyss as Ian Curtis. The Bright Smoke are a rare exception to that rule. In a way, their new album, Terrible Towns – streaming at Bandcamp – could be the great lost Joy Division album between Unknown Pleasures and Closer. Except that frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson doesn’t sound anything like Ian Curtis. However, she does have a powerful, angst-fueled low register, something akin to Cat Power without the affectations (ok, hard to imagine, but just try). She’s as strong a tunesmith and lyricist as she is a singer, and an inventive guitarist. Her songwriting is equally informed by oldtime acoustic blues and dark rock: other than the guys from Manchester, the new album occasionally brings to mind the live Portishead album. The Bright Smoke are playing the Cameo Gallery on May 19 at 9 PM; cover is $8.

As you would expect from such a relentlesly dark outfit, their songs are on the slow side, and usually in ninor keys. Beyond having a woman out front, the Bright Smoke distinguish themselves from Joy Division in that they’re considerably more swirly and psychedelic. Live, drummer Karl Thomas colors the songs with a terse, almost minimalist precision and the occasional jazzy flourish. Lead guitarist Quincy Ledbetter is a monster player, a master of texture and timbre, who although he has blazing speed doesn’t waste notes: if Bernard Sumner had started playing earlier than he did, he might have ended up sounding something like Ledbetter. Lately, for atmospherics, onstage the Bright Smoke have been including an electroacoustic element.

The album’s opening track, Hard Pander, could be Sade covering Joy Division. Wilson’s lyrics are enigmatic, sardonic, often imbued with gallows humor and this number is typical:

I don’t have to fake my inclinations
I don’t have to draw on my scars
You’re in over your head, girl
Pander right and pander hard

The way the bass rises, a low harmony with the wary, wounded guitar overhead in Like Video is a recurrent, artful touch throughout the album: this band really works every dark corner of the sonic spectrum. And Wilson’s cynicism is crushing:

I hear the Midwest stretches on for miles
And calls you back and it’s always on time
I hear it don’t have a past like mine
I hear the Midwest don’t have a voice to raise
Just settles down on her knees and prays
And makes you feel big in your small way
Baby, I’m in town today

On Ten also works a recurrent trope, Wilson’s elegant fingerpicking against layers and layers of lingering ambience, a savage dissection of Notbrooklyn ennui:

Join, join, join the ranks
Of the pretty, white, and jobless
And pray your daddy’s money away
At St. Sebastian’s School for the Godless

August/September is a diptych, the first part a plaintive piano waltz evoking Joy Division’s The Eternal, the second fueled by a menacing, echoing pulse that ends in crushing defeat: its quiet, sudden ending is one of the album’s most powerful moments. “There’s a bloody side to this, I don’t share your sunny disposition,” Wilson warns in Exit Door, with its wickedly catchy “You wanna know where the money comes from” mantra. Shakedown, a creepy roadhouse boogie in Lynchian disguise, brings to mind Randi Russo. “If there’s a game of losing friends…you and I would be Olympians,” Wilson broods.

Howl builds nonchalantly to an unexpectedly catchy, yet unpredictable chorus that would be the envy of any stadium rock band, a sardonic look at self-absorption lit up by a nimble tremolo-picked Ledbetter solo. City on an Island, with its watery chorus-box bass and 80s production values evokes early New Order and might be the album’s catchiest song. It might also be its most searing one, a kiss-off to a fauxhemian:

Good luck with your pylons
With your city on an island
And good luck with the small false hints
That you live the way I live

The album’s final track, simply titled Or, is a Mississippi hill country blues vamp, T-Model Ford spun through the prism of psychedelia and trip-hop, closer to the band’s stark, spare previous output than anything else here. Look for this around the top of the best albums of 2015 page in December if we make it that far.

The TarantinosNYC Surf the Silver Screen

The TarantinosNYC use that name to distinguish themselves from the Tarantinos, a UK band who play a diverse mix of songs from Quentin Tarantino films. The TarantinosNYC do some of that, but they also write originals. They’re best known as a surf band, but as you would hope from a group with a film fixation, they have a cinematic side. Their music is catchy, and fun, and sometimes pretty creepy, much more unpredictable and occasionally epic than what most straight-up surf outfits typically play. Between them, lead guitarist Paulie Tarantino, bassist Tricia Tarantino, keyboardist/rhythm guitarist Brian Tarantino and drummer Joey Tarantino make up one of New York’s most consistently interesting, original, entertaining bands. They have a new album, Surfin’ the Silver Screen coming out and a release show this Friday, May 15 at 11 PM at Lucille’s Bar, adjacent to B.B. King’s on 42nd St. Cover is $10.

Shindig – one of the six first-class originals here – makes a good opener: purist reverb surf guitar hitched to swirly organ, the rhythm section holding a classic Ventures beat. The organ and digital production give it a more current feel, yet also enable the band to put their own stamp on it. Bullwinkle Pt. 2 is the first cover, lowlit with Paulie’s lingering, noir, reverb-drenched tremolo-bar chords. Then they reinvent You Only Live Twice as a glittery showstopper, Brian’s organ front and center. It’s almost like ELO doing a surf song – and if you don’t think ELO could play surf music, you haven’t heard their version of a well-worn Grieg theme.

Dust-Up, another original, mashes up hints of monster surf and a Dell Shannon standard: it’s hard to imagine any band other than this one that would have come up with something this improbably successful. Their cover of Son of a Preacher Man brings to mind the Ventures’ psychedelic period – yikes! But then they get serious again with Our Man Flint/Dr. Evil, first doing an old hymn as surf, then channeling pretty much every dance rock style from the 60s in under three minutes

Quincy Jones’ Soul Bossa Nova is a bizarre hybrid of roller-rink theme, garage psychedelia, a vintage soul strut and artsy late 70s Britpop. With its vamping repeaterbox guitar and some dancing tremolo-picking from Paulie, Spanish Steps sounds like Link Wray in a hurry to get a Lee Hazlewood desert rock groove on tape. There are two versions of another instrumental, Our Man in Amsterdam, the second harder and more garage-rock oriented – it’s hard to figure where the Amsterdam connection comes in.

The theme from Django – Tarantino’s best film by a mile – gets a richly watery, jangly, psychedelic arrangement with layers of acoustic and electric guitar and keys that elevates it above the cartoonish original. Pushed along by Tricia’s dancing, period-perfect early 70s soul bassline, Lo Chiamavano King comes across as a more artsy take on what could pass for a big Roy Ayers title theme.

Elena Barakhovski contributes soaring vocalese on Korla’s Theme, an artfully nebulous, ominously crescendoing Dick Dale-style Red Sea stomp with all kinds of cool variations – it might be the album’s best song. Then they slow things down to a misterioso swing with an impressively lush cover of Shake Some Evil by 90s cult heroes Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. Positraction, another original, manages to blend Booker T, 60s go-go music, surf and swing without anybody in the band stepping on anybody else. Then they do Les Baxter’s Hell’s Belles as blazing psychedelic soul. The album ends with Man from Nowhere, a rare spy-surf gem first recorded by Shadows bassist Jet Harris on the soundtrack to the obscure British film Live It Up, pairing a brooding baritone guitar hook against uneasily airy keys. Surf bands typically live for rarities, but this is an especially sweet find. For that matter, so is the whole record. While it  hasn’t hit the usual spots yet, cds are available, and there are a handful of tracks up at the band’s Soundcloud page.

An Intuitive, Eclectic, Spot-On Live Charlie Chaplin Score by Marc Ribot

Earlier this evening Marc Ribot played a live score to the Charlie Chaplin film The Kid at Symphony Space. What was most remarkable was not how perfectly synced Ribot’s aptly acoustic solo score was to the action, or how attuned it was to the filmmaker’s many levels of meaning, or how artful the variations on several themes were constructed. Believe it or not, the show wasn’t completely sold out: there might have been a dozen empty seats, which is awfully unlikely when Ribot plays the Vanguard or the Poisson Rouge. The good news is that this performance isn’t just a one-off thing: the edgy-guitar icon is taking the score on the road with him this year, so it’s a safe bet that if you missed this concert, you’ll get other chances to see him play it here on his home turf.

In case you haven’t seen the film, the 1921 silent flick is very sweet, with plenty of slapstick, irresistible sight gags, Chaplin’s signature populism…and an ending that’s awfully pat. But Ribot didn’t go there: he left off on an enigmatic, unresolved note. To his further credit, he was most present during the film’s most lingering, pensive moments: when there was a brawl, or what passed for special effects sizzle in the early 20s, Ribot backed off and didn’t compete with the vaudevillian antics. His 2010 album Silent Movies (which includes the main theme from this score) is considered a classic of noir composition and rightfully so: Ribot can build toward symphonic levels of menace out of the simplest two-note phrase. Maybe because he was playing completely clean, without any effects, he used more notes than he usually does when playing film music. And the moods were considerably more varied than the rain-drenched, reverbtoned, shadowy ambience Ribot’s cinematic work is known for.

The opening theme here was a characteristic mix of jarring close harmonies and a little Americana; as the characters were introduced, Ribot hinted at flamenco and then ran the gamut of many idioms: enigmatic downtown jazz, oldtime C&W, plaintive early 20th century klezmer pop and eerie neoromanticism, to name a few. Familiar folk and pop themes peeked their heads in and quickly retreated, but in this case the crowd – a multi-generational Upper West mix of diehard jazz people and families out for an especially cool movie night – found the action onscreen more amusing.

A bucolic waltz, a brooding hint of an insistent, repetitive horror melody, allusions to Irving Berlin and of course the noir that’s part and parcel of so much of Ribot’s music shifted shape and repeated when one of Chaplin’s various nemeses – especially Walter Lynch’s no-nonsense beat cop or Edna Purviance’s angst-driven mother to the foundling Chaplin adopts – would make a re-entry. And much as some of these themes would begin very straightforwardly, Ribot didn’t waste any time twisting all of them out of shape. Chaplin’s smalltime scam artist and his ward never have it easy in this timeless tale, and Ribot kept that front and center all the way through. Ribot heads off on yet another European tour soon; watch this space for future hometown dates.

Dark Songstress Ember Schrag Plays a Revealingly Low-Key Brooklyn House Concert

Carlos, the goodlooking, rangy guy who runs the space housing the Gatehouse concert series in Fort Greene, surveyed the room Friday night. His black eyes shifted warily, separating familiar faces from newcomers. His blasé, taciturn expression muted a spring-loaded, muscularly twitchy presence, clearly on the prowl for fresh meat. More about that later.

Ember Schrag opened the show in a rare all-acoustic duo performance with polymath lead guitarist Bob Bannister. Notwithstanding her DIY esthetic, Schrag is an elegant singer with sophisticated mic technique, and isn’t used to singing without one. So it was interesting to watch her scramble to find a way to project into the space, in the process unleashing an unexpected grit and raw menace that don’t usually find their way into her typically stately, enigmatic vocals. While she’s most recently been mining a richly lyrical, psychedelically-tinged art-rock vein, this setting gave her the chance to air out several tracks from her haunting, low-key, mostly acoustic Great Plains gothic album The Sewing Room, including the title track, a metaphorically-charged battle of angels that ends as an unexpectedly triumphant escape anthem. As the Nebraska-born songwriter told it, there might be more than a little autobiography in there.

Throughout Sutherland, a tensely fingerpicked murder ballad, Schrag’s voice reached for more menace and foreshadowing than her deadpan, Melora Creager-esque delivery on the studio version. By contrast, Virgin in the Shadow of My Shoe – a swaying pop anthem from Schrag’s latest release, a live Folkadelphia session featuring Susan Alcorn on pedal steel – was irresistibly snide and funny. The two guitarists kept a steady stroll going with Banquo’s Book, its ominous series of images and a deliciously understated, bitingly terse, bluesy Bannister solo.

On album, Your Words is a delicate kiss-off anthem; here, Schrag raised the anger factor, but just a little. An older song related an incident involving a collaboration with a free jazz group and an offer of free rent in a space that turned out to have bedbugs; a new one, Speak to Me in Dreams, juxtaposed another trail of nonchalantly murderous imagery with sizzling fretwork from Bannister. Schrag closed with I Ain’t a Prophet, a corruscating remake of a familiar fire-and-brimstone Bible myth – “Got to use a hammer on Jacob’s Ladder,” she calmly intoned.

Now you might think that someone whose songs can be as starkly serious as most of the numbers in this set would bring a similar gravitas to the stage. Not so. In front of an audience, Schrag is a firecracker, bantering with the crowd and sharing insights into her fabulistic, Calvinist imagery. She peppers her songs with all sorts of Old Testament references coupled with an irreverence that at the core is pure oldschool punk rock. And as generous as she is with the keys to her narratives, she also brought a delicious gin/grapefruit punch, and a cake made out of several kinds of flour that everyone was raving about, and some baked chicken.

About two songs before the end of the show, Carlos finally went into action with a flying leap onto the table, poised to make a swipe at the meat. But an audience member in the back calmly lifted the jet-black figure and his furry paws and returned him to his spot on the floor, where the hungry predator regrouped, grudgingly accepted an appreciative pat on the head, and began plotting his next move. Watch this space for upcoming shows by Schrag, with or without furry friends in the house.

The Spirit of Miles Davis Returns Via Bob Belden’s Noir Nightscapes

Friday night at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center at the Borough of Manhattan Community College’s sonically immaculate auditorium, reedman and Miles Davis scholar Bob Belden’s quintet, Animation, revisited the lingering unease of Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool, reinventing the music as a sort of update on Morricone 70s crime jazz, playing along to a chillingly here-and-now series of black-and-white video pieces. Shot by Belden himself on a blustery night last summer, the restless flutter of black leaves against neon glare or distantly flickering streetlights vividly evoked the same urban angst that permeated Davis’ original. Belden’s point was that this era’s juxtaposition of real estate bubble luxe against crushing poverty and burgeoning racism mirrors similar struggles and stress experienced by everyday New Yorkers during the era of Robert Moses and Joe McCarthy. The group – Belden on soprano sax and flute, Nord Electro keyboardist Roberto Verástegui, bassist Jair-Rohm Parker Wells, trumpeter Pete Clagett and drummer Matt Young – drove that point home, hard.

The original Miles themes were transient to the point of being practically illusory: from the git-go, it was obvious that Belden had reimagined this music as a suite. During a pre-concert Q&A with organizer Willard Jenkins, Belden more than hinted that this music would be intense. Relentless is more like it. Young’s deftly machinegunning rhythms, sometimes morphing on a dime from one odd meter to the next, other times evoking a more aggressive, less pointillistic John Hollenbeck, underpinned these long, purposefully stalking midnight strolls. Verastegui subtly varied his timbres from a eerie, vintage Rhodes echo to outer-space warp on an absolutely unrecognizable, twistedly futuristic take of Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid, aptly set against the bombardment of Times Square advertising images. It seemed to ask, is this all we have to show for sixty years of ostensible progress?

Wells interestingly got the eeriest moments of the night with his stately horror-film tritones and nonchalantly menacing chromatic walks during a long solo. Both Belden and Clagett ran their horns through a raw wee-hours mist of reverb, evoking the same kind of primitive processing – as on the Escalier Pour L’Echafaud soundtrack – that  made Davis’ music the essence of late 50s noir. Belden alternated between aching, sustained lines and anxiously clusters of bop, from the vamping bustle of the opening number, Move, through the only number where the band really made any attempt to match the trad, blues-based melodicism of the originals, Boplicity. Clagett got plenty of choice moments to evoke and revel in Miles-style nocturnal resonance. In between, they switched between white-knuckle Taxi Driver soundtrack intensity, chrome-chill 90s trip-hop and occasional echoes of In a Silent Way-era early electric Miles, through long, warily exploratory versions of Darn That Dream, Why Do I Love You and Budo (which Belden introduced, appropriately, as “Hallucination”). The highlight of the night came early in the second set, with a plaintively rapturous, considerably slower and more expansive take of Godchild.

Belden, like Davis and Duke Ellington has talent for visuals, in his case film. Anyone who’s spent time walking along Central Park West in the wee hours – especially in the pre-bubble decades – will resonate to Belden’s apprehensive shots of open windows, subway staircases and deserted streets lined by iron fences which offer no way out in case of trouble. It appears the concert was recorded: what a great DVD it would make!

Some backstory: Belden and the band were especially amped in the wake of being the first American band to play in Iran since the late 70s. As he told it, there’s actually an audience for jazz there (German label ECM Records has an Ikanian affiliate who record and release a small handful of jazz acts there), and Belden’s final night there, a concert in Teheran, received thunderous ovations. “And we did the same thing over there that we do here,” he noted dryly, also taking care to relate that the Iranians he encountered are in so many respects indistinguishable from Americans. They suffer through traffic jams, have close-knit families and seem eager to interact with westerners. And they love jazz. Not to beat a point into the ground, but these are the people who would be displaced or killed should the Obama accords get pushed off the board by the rightwing lunatic fringe.

The Monophonics Bring Their Darkly Psychedelic Soul Sounds to Brooklyn Bowl

The Monophonics are sort of a more psychedelic west coast counterpart to the Dap-Kings, masters of all things darkly slinky and soulful. They get extra props for starting their career as an all-instrumental band: it wasn’t until fairly recently that they even bothered with vocals. But that’s a good thing, because it adds yet another trippy dimension to their ominous grooves. They’ve got a new album, Sound of Sinning due out soon, which will no doubt end up with the rest of their catalog at their Bandcamp page. They’ve also got a Brooklyn Bowl show coming up on April 15 at around 9, with the similarly slinky, groove-driven Afrobeat/psychedelic funk band Ikebe Shakedown opening the night at 8. Cover is $12.

The new album opens with Lying Eyes – an original, not the cheesy 70s hit by the Eagles – setting a well-traveled 60s noir garage guitar hook to a jaunty, shuffling soul-clap beat. It gets darker and trippier as it goes along, with hints of dub. Frontman/organist Kelly Finnigan’s raindrops-on-the-keys attack and gruffly impassioned vocals rise above an echoey backdrop, part Zombies, part noir soul, on the title track.

The slowly swaying 6/8 soul ballad La La La Love Me is straight out of 1967, right down to the reverb on all the instruments…but with a creepy undercurrent. Promises is a killer update on late 60/early 70s Rare Earth that adds reverbtoned depth and menace missing from the era’s original stuff. Then the band returns to a brooding nocturnal ambience with Falling Apart, guitarist Ian McDonald alternating between bright, Memphis tinged licks and dark-water chorus-box lines against a backdrop of period-perfect strings and brass.

Drummer Austin Bohlman propels Hanging On with a tight latin soul pulse, up to a darkly rising brass chart anchored by trumpeter Ryan Scott – and then they channel Jethro Tull for a few bars, an unexpectedly droll touch. Strange Love has a Spectorish majesty, Myles O’Mahony’s precise, hollowbody-toned bass dancing over the string section, bells and growly baritone sax. Find My Way Back Home artfully pairs watery guitar and airy organ for what sounds like a prototype for jazz-inflected 70s Stylistics art-soul balladry

They follow that with Holding Back Your Love, the hardest-hitting, most direct song here, infused with McDonald’s fuzztone Yardbirds riffage. Too Long follows a similarly straightforward groove, but a slow-burning, menacingly nocturnal one with a towering noir soul arrangement. The final track, Everyone’s Got is a surreal mashup of trip-hop, Lee Hazlewood southwestern gothic and oldschool soul. The Monophonics have been touring with Galactic and probably blowing that band off the stage, night after night. Fans of the dark side of soul and psychedelic pop – Clairy Browne and Nick Waterhouse in particular – will love these guys. Not to give away anything that’s going to happen here later this year, but an awful lot of best-of-2015 lists will have this album on it.

A Gorgeously Noir New Album and a Little Italy Gig by Bliss Blood and Al Street

There’s an embarrassment of riches up at Bliss Blood‘s Bandcamp page. With the irrepressibly jaunty, harmony-driven, Hawaiian-tinged Moonlighters, she pioneered the swing jazz revival here in New York in the early zeros. She got her start before that as a teenager in the 80s and early 90s fronting noise-punk cult heroes the Pain Teens. But she’s also a connoiseur of noir. She first explored those sounds thematically with her trio Nightcall, which she stripped down to a duo with guitar sorcerer Al Street. The two have a gorgeously shadowy new album, Unspun, up at Bandcamp and plenty of gigs coming up. Their next one is a trio set with reedman Ian Hendricikson-Smith on March 29 at 8 PM at Epistrophy Cafe, 200 Mott St. (Kenmare/Spring).

Blood has been one of the most intriguing and enigmatic singers in this city for a long time. A master of nuance and innunedo, she can be playful, or swoony, or downright sultry one second, and sinister the next. She’s just as strong and eclectic as a songwriter: she has a thing for foreshadowing, and subtle metaphors, and clever double entendres: Street has a fluency and edge on acoustic guitar that most players only dream of achieving on electric: forget about nailing the kind of sizzling, flamenco and Romany-influenced riffs with the kind of nuance he employs without help from amps or pedals.

The new album’s first track is Alpha, a flamenco-tinged cautionary tale about a guy whose “fingers are always on the snare” – as she explains, you don’t want to be on the banks when this particular levee gives way. Entropy has a distantly injured pulse that’s as dreamy and Lynchian as it is ominously steady: “Now the laws of all transgression have all been broken but a few/So don’t pretend we didn’t bend the universe in two,” Blood broods. Then they pick up the pace with the droll, innuendo-fueled hokum blues shuffle Give Me Lots Of Sugar, a dead ringer for a Bessie Smith classic. And though you might think following that with a song called It’s So Hard would be pretty self-explanatory, it’s not: Blood’s insistent ukulele anchors a pensively torchy, bossa-flavored anthem.

Lucia, a lively flamenco swing instrumental, gives Street a launching pad for all kinds of nimble spirals. No One Gets It All, the album’s most haunting track, has a surreally captivating lyric to match its bittersweetly gorgeous melody. It seems to be a defiantly triumphant if deeply wounded existentialist anthem:

Satiated, sinking in your sweet domain
Waking to a distant and whispered call
Stirring to the echoes of a fractured song
Reflection’s fading, no one gets it all

It’s Comfortably Numb without the stadium bombast.

The two take a richly nuanced detour toward the Middle East with Nuyaim, then hit a steady noir swing strut with Pitfall and its wry chronicle of romantic missteps. Please Do (I Like It So Much) mines a vintage C&W sway, while Rustbelt works a catalog of sly junkyard innuendos over a cheery swing tune. Then they float their way through Snowmelt, a reverb-drenched, hypnotically Lynchian mood piece.

Tying My Tail In Knots sets more of those devious innuendos to a chirpy drive with an unexpected 90s quirk-pop tinge. Street does a mighty impersonation of a balalaika on the angst-fueled but ultimately triumphant title track. The album winds up with Vixen, a femme fatale theme infused with unexpectedly Stonesy blues guitar. Multiple levels of meaning reverberate throughout these songs: it would take a novel to count them all. It goes without saying that this is one of 2015’s best releases (some context: noisy postpunks Eula, lyrical new wave revivalists Lazy Lions, avant art-song siren Carol Lipnik, noir duo Charming Disaster, and Paula Carino’s double entrendre-fueled Regular Einstein all figure into that equation).

Bliss Blood and Al Street work fast. They’ve got a new single, Clash by Night up at Bandcamp, a brisk, strummy, resolute individualist’s anthem. “Solitude, not loneliness,” is the central theme, a cause for any rebel.

Molly Ruth Brings Her Chilling, Twistedly Individualistic Americana to Trash Bar This Saturday

Molly Ruth might be the most genuinely scary presence in the New York music scene right now. When she’s not singing, she seems demure; on the rare occasion she talks to the crowd, she seems friendly. But just wait til the songs kick in. Channeling her bleak, angst-ravaged narratives from a sordid rural America in period-perfect oldtime vernacular via her mighty, wounded wail, she’s impossible to turn away from. Among the current crop of rising New York frontwomen, only the Bright Smoke‘s Mia Wilson and Mesiko‘s Rachael Bell come within miles of Molly Ruth. She’s playing Trash Bar at 8 PM on March 28; cover is $8 and includes open bar on wells and PBRs til 9. You’ll need them.

Her previous show at the Mercury a couple of weeks ago was by far the most haunting performance witnessed by this blog this year (some context: even Carmina Slovenica‘s Toxic Psalms, Carol Lipnik’s unearthly flights and Big Lazy‘s murderous noir film themes had nothing on this). On one hand, Molly Ruth’s music is rooted in the eerie, otherworldly riffs of delta blues and stark fingerpicking of oldtime Appalachian music, with some vintage 50s C&W in there as well. On the other hand, her music is completely in the here and now, especially when she plays electric with her band, a brand-new and fortuitous change of pace. If you thought she was scary solo acoustic, just wait til you see her wailing on her vintage Gibson SG with the dynamic, sometimes explosive rhythm section of bassist Chris Rozik and drummer Alex Ali behind her

The first song of the set was a country waltz, I Fucked Him for Firecrackers, whose narrator’s seemingly carefree delivery foreshadows a twisted punchline. That set the stage for more ominous, somber solo acoustic blues-flavored numbers like I’m Afraid of God, an illustration of how repeated exposure to threats of fire and brimstone affects a child’s mind – it doesn’t exactly inspire faith. She followed with a lively ragtime-fueled stroll titled Hatred Is Holy, then strapped on her Gibson and launched into a stomping take of My Revelation’s Taking a Long Time to Come, with its wry punk mashup of sex and religion.

One swaying, punching tune evoked Humanwine with its brooding stream-of-consciousness flow. Another aphoristic country waltz grimly addressed women struggling beneath male oppression, as did the sardonically savage A Million Fucking Whores. She wound up the set with an open-tuned Piedmont-flavored blues guitar duet, a metaphorically-drenched flood scenario, a return to careening Missisippi hill country-style thrash and then a morose country song titled My Hometown’s Not Where I’m From, channeling sheer terminal depression. Since the band is new, there’s a good chance that you’ll hear most of this stuff at the Trash show.

Headliner Lorraine Leckie had a hard act to follow, but she and her volcanic, psychedelic noir Americana band kept the intensity at redline. Guitarist Hugh Pool might have been nursing a broken leg, but that didn’t stop him from whirling through solar flares of Voodoo Chile Hendrix, long shimmery washes tinged with feedback and searing reverb-iced cascades. Leckie’s jangly Telecaster anchored the songs’ anthemic drive in tandem with nimble, melodic bassist Charles DeChants and drummer Paul Triff. The highlight of their set could have been the gorgeous paisley undergruond anthem Nobody’s Girl, with its unexpectedly crunchy, metal-flavored chorus. Or it could have been the volcanic closer, Ontario, Pool practically falling off his stool as he blasted through a long, raging outro. Molly Ruth gave credit to Leckie, leader of an earlier generation of dark rockers, for putting the night together and giving her a chance to do the one thing in life that she actually enjoys. If we’re lucky, this bill will repeat later this summer somewhere.

And lucky Jersey residents can see Leckie play a rare stripped-down duo show with Pool tomorrow night, March 27 at the Record Collector at 385 Farnsworth Ave. in Bordentown; $12 adv tix are still available as of today.

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