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Purist, Eclectic Psychedelic Tunesmithing and Subtle Humor on Lorraine Leckie’s New Album

Lorraine Leckie has been one of the few musicians to survive the devastation of the incredibly fertile rock scene that flourished in New York as late as the mid-zeros. It was a top-down assault on artistic communities. Encouraged by tax breaks, opportunitistic developers took the wrecking ball to working-class housing everywhere, and it wasn’t long before the giant sucking sound of an artistic brain- drain out of town ensued. Yet even under those dire circumstances, Leckie’s following grew, and the gigs got better and better, probably because she was one of the few still representing a gritty, punk-influenced Lower East Side sound.

But thta’s hardly the only sound she’s mined since then: her albums range from delicate, rainy-day acoustic songs, to icy, gothic Mitteleuropean art-rock and snarling Americana. Her latest album, Razor Wing Butterfly – streaming at Bandcamp – is her most psychedelic release to date.

Leckie’s skeletal, fingerpicked Telecaster explodes into a roar on the chorus in the opening track, Only Darkness, a parallel tale of a couple of noir archetypes seemingly doomed to their own separate worlds. Lead guitarist Hugh Pool channels dirty, evil, Crazy Horse Neil Young, violinist Pavel Cingl adding elegant washes and accents over the chugging rhythm section of Charles DeChants and drummer Keith Robinson

They follow the strutting, Stonesy Under the Vampire Moon with It Ain’t the Blues, which Pool introduces with a creepy approximation of a music box. There’s clever irony in the title because this is a blues – a vindictive, rampaging one.

Bristling with richly textured guitar multitracks, Genius in the Crowd is a shout-out to Leckie’s psychedelic rock pal Anton Newcomb of Brian Jonestown Massacre, her tender lyric contrasting with the guitar fury – and an interlude that’s too funny to give away.

Crickets, a stark, open-tuned acoustic ballad, has Britfolk tinges: it could be a John Renbourn or June Tabor song from the 60s spiced with spare electronic keys. The album’s funniest track is Mars Bar Baby, a tourists-eye view of one of New York’s most legendary dive bars. Again, the joke is too good to give away: if you know the old swing tune Moon Over Brooklyn, you’ll get it.

The Other Woman Is the Wind was inspired by a conversation Leckie had with a biker at the Sturgis motorcycle festival, a slow, swaying, Molly Hatchet-ish account of a guy addicted to the thrill of the raod.

Leckie follows with the album’s two best cuts, each of them a protest song. She wrote America Weeping in a rehearsal room with the band in the wake of the fateful 2016 Presidential election. It’s both a requiem for Leonard Cohen (a huge influence, who had died the night before) and an anguished cauldron of guitars. The title track perfectly captures the fury in the streets this summer, a growling yet hopeful anthem, Cingl contributing a tantalizingly brief, slashing coda.

Leckie switches to piano, slightly out of tune and awash in reverb, to wind up the album counterintuitively with the pensive vignette Why Oh Why. This album is probably the best introduction to Leckie’s music that exists so far. And for anyone who’s followed her regular Manhattan weekend residencies over the years, friom Banjo Jim’s, to Zirzamin and afterward, Leckie’s already substantial back catalog is dwarfed by the vast amount of material she’s written but hasn’t yet recorded: it’s reason to look forward to whatever this defiantly multistylistic tunesmith decides to put out next.


Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons Release a Swirling, Hypnotic, Psychedelic Live Album in Memory of Their Late Great Drummer Paul Triff

More bands should make live albums. They’re a lot less expensive, compared to studio recordings, and if the musicians are on their game they capture an energy that can’t be bottled in the studio. Orchestras and jazz artists have known this for a long time but rock acts are still catching up.

When Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons recorded their September 29, 2015 set at the Mercury Lounge, no one in the band could have known that someday it would have historical value beyond simply being a high-voltage performance. Tragically, this show would be the very last one that popular New York drummer Paul Triff would ever play. And it’s available as a name-your-price download from Bandcamp, in his memory. Fittingly, Leckie and her band are playing the album release show at the Mercury on March 14 at 8 PM. Feral original punk/blues siren Molly Ruth opens the night at 7; cover is $10.

The premise of the September show was to air out a lot of new material from Leckie’s most recent studio album, The Raven Smiled, and the band were clearly amped to play it. While Leckie has flirted with psychedelia throughout her career, she’d never plunged so deeply into it. So it’s no surprise that guitarist Hugh Pool – who can channel Hendrix better than just about anyone alive – and bassist Charles DeChants, who comes from a jamband background, would be on top of their game here. Triff was also a big psychedelic fan, a devotee of Steely Dan; the great drummer Ron Howden, of Nektar, was also an influence. All that shows up in this performance. Violinist Pavel Cingl can play anything from punk to classical, but he also takes centerstage in kitchen-sink psychedelic folk band Jull Dajen, and his interplay with Pool here can be intoxicating.

The show opens with The Man Who Walks in the Rain – Cingl’s violin swirls and dances, mingling with Pool’s echoing leads over DeChants’ looming bass and Triff’s relentless drive. Leckie’s downtuned Telecaster growls and simmers as Dangerous Friends, a slow, slinky, scorchingly rising anthem gets underway. The two guitars and violin build a witchy web in Medicine Man, driven by Triff’s shamanic beat.

The group push their way through tricky polyrhythms into the surrealistically swaying, distantly menacing That Ain’t Nice and then follow it with the suspensefully lingering dynamics of Witches Heart, Pool’s quasar guitar matched by Cingl’s starry violin flickers. Then the intensity reaches volcanic levels with Climb Ya Like a Mountain, Leckie’s tribute to rugged outdoorsman Aleister Crowley, better known for his adventures in black magic than high-altitude hiking.

There’s a momentary lull when Leckie moves to the piano for a solo version of The Raven Smiled, then brings the band back for a rampaging version of her big crowd-pleaser, Ontario, Cingl and Pool sparring throughout the mighty Americana rock anthem. Its final triumphant flurries would be the last beats that Triff would ever play onstage. As the album attests, this is a great live band (Keith Robinson has since stepped in to fill the big shoes left behind by Triff). And this could be their best record.

How Do You Say Jethro Tull in Czech?

What an encouraging omen that in 2016, a band would be unafraid to record a hauntingly vivid, 70s-style art-rock suite. One that vividly echoes Jethro Tull, no less.

Jethro Tull.

Say it slowly. Jethro. Tull.

If you’re stoned, you’re already laughing. But stop. In this blog’s five-year history, the most popular review here is a writeup of a show by that band’s founder. So today’s front page news should be the second most popular piece ever, right?Psychedelic art-folk band Jull Dajen earn that distinction, evoking Tull in the best possible ways, and without the Stonehenge vibe that earned them Spinal Tap immortality. The Prague-based group’s new album Salamander is streaming at Soundcloud.

The opening diptych pairs a jaunty seafaring waltz theme of sorts with a bouncier one in 4/4, with a psychedelic wah violin solo by the band’s not-so-secret weapon, Pavel Cingl, at the center. The title track is a surreal Slavic take on Tull with a crystalline yet inscrutable vocal in perfect English by Bara Malkova anchored by slinky, sliding bass from Czech punk legend Jaroslav Kestra Kestranek.

In a Circle bookends a purposeful, propulsive minor-key dance theme with bandleader/acoustic guitarist Petr Stambersky’s pensive fingerpicking alongside Dusan Navarik’s similarly thoughtful flute. They hand off to Cingl, who raises the morose energy a little before the dance kicks in.

Unfortuantely I Haven’t Met You Yet goes a moodily bouncing psychedelic Britfolk direction. There’s a hint that the gnomes will go frolicking at the end – whether or not they do is worth sticking around to find out.Old Indian Man is a sad, hypnotic take on what could be a Native American theme, although it sounds closer to Shonen Knife with more expressive vocals. Cingl hits his wah pedal and channels a century of deep blues as it winds out.

Forgotten Tull gives Navarik a chance to channel his inner secondhand Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Meanwhile, the rhythm section gets  a chance to have devious fun with 70s disco (Kestranek’s lines are hilarious), and Cingl to offer a snide response via his wah pedal. For Anoushka Shankar reprises the opening theme as a moody fugue and then pouncing 70s art-rock, an eclectic elegy for her paradigm-shifting dad who like this band never met an idiom he could resist appropriating and adding his original voice to.

Malkova sings Starless – an allusion to the classic King Crimson dirge, maybe? – with a haunted resignation in contrast to the band’s slowly crescendoing dynamics and a lively, combative conversation between Cingl and Navarik. Greedy Pigs – Hungry Sharks is a funny juxtaposition between bouncy and sinister. There’s a final, closing benediction, a variation on the Scottish seaside theme that opens the album, Cingl”s psycho blues and Frantisek Tomasek’s terse, purposeful accordion signaling that all here ends well. Dare you to give this a spin even if Jethro Tull is no more than a signifier of wretched 70s excess to you.

The Long Ryders and Lorraine Leckie at Bowery Ballroom: Two Generations of Smart Americana Rock

Last night at Bowery Ballroom, the Long Ryders opened with their big 1983 college radio hit Tell It to the Judge on Sunday – an ominously scampering mashup of electrified bluegrass and the 13th Floor Elevators – and encored with a singalong of the rapidfire, Dylanesque imagery of Looking for Lewis and Clark. Despite a layoff of more than two decades, and the fact that they hadn’t played Manhattan in almost three, the guys who pretty much invented Americana rock all by themselves proved little worse for the time away. Beyond their three excellent albums from that era, and the new four-disc retrospective Final Wild Songs that came out earlier this year, the quartet distinguished themselves with vocals as well as a deep, and, when you think about it, surprisingly eclectic back catalog. Can you name another rock band from that era, or any other, with three lead singers as strong as guitarists Sid Griffin and Stephen McCarthy and bassist Tom Stevens? Isn’t it weird to hear songs like And She Rides – whose infamously funny video Griffin mentioned toward the end of the set – and realize just how good a new wave band these guys were when they weren’t using Griffin’s Kentucky roots as a stepping-off point for a brand-new style that combined punk energy with rootsy rusticity?

Stevens ended up taking the lion’s share of lead vocals and a handful of tantalizingly brief bass breaks, more than you’d expect from a country-rock band. McCarthy switched between his signature twangy Telecaster leads and searing steel guitar. Counterintuitively, the high point of the show was midway through the set, when Griffin, playing twelve-string Rickenbacker, led the band through an insistently raging cover of Dylan’s Masters of War, McCarthy adding menace with his blazing, upward and then descending steel slides. They kept that intensity going with a broodingly lingering take of Two Kinds of Love. Methodically and energetically, the band aired out most of the hits – and there were a lot of them: the wry shuffle Run Dusty Run, the pensively jangly Ivory Tower, You Can’t Ride the Boxcars Anymore and Mel Tillis’ Sweet Sweet Mental Revenge..

Opening act Lorraine Leckie and Her Demons had come to conquer, and the charismatic Canadian-American frontwoman was taking no prisoners.“If you ask me, I’m for immediate impeachment on the grounds of extreme ugliness,” the wiry, black-clad singer asserted. Hitting their stride right off the bat with a classic 1979 CBGB-style powerpop shuffle, Language of the Night, they roared and stomped through material as diverse as the enigmatic, Neil Young/Crazy Horse sway of Beware and the New Orleans shout-out Rebel Devil Devil Rebel – title track to Leckie’s 2014 album.

Drummer Keith Robinson kept an energetic swing going in tandem with bassist Charlie DeChants as guitarist Hugh Pool and violinist Pavel Cingl – just in from Prague – teamed up for a slinky, elegantly fugal duel during the volcanic coda, Ontario. But the best song of the night might have been when Leckie went centerstage with just her vocals and acoustic guitar for a brand new co-write with the Jigsaw Seen‘s Dennis Davison, possibly titled The Owl. It wasn’t clear whether the song’s narrator gets lured away and then overdoses, or gets murdered, but either way, the audience responded with rapt silence: you could have heard a pin drop. And Bowery Ballroom was packed. The Long Ryders are at Cafe Nine in New Haven tonight, Nov 11 for lucky Fairfield County peeps; Leckie is at Sidewalk on Nov 18 at 11.

Lorraine Leckie and Pavel Cingl Release Their Enigmatic, Witchy New Album at the Mercury on the 29th

Among rock songwriters, few are as capable as Lorraine Leckie in writing across a vast array of different styles. New Yorkers know her best as the leader of a whipcrack-sharp psychedelic Americana rock band that she fondly calls Her Demons. Yet as straightforward as her work with that group is, her other projects can be much harder to pin down. Her latest album, The Raven Smiled – a collaboration with similarly eclectic Czech violin star Pavel Cingl, streaming at Bandcamp – is her most enigmatic, her most beguiling and arguably her best. She and Cingl are joined by those Demons – lead guitarist and recent Blues Hall of Fame inductee Hugh Pool, bassist Charles DeChants and drummer Paul Triff – at the album release show on September 29 at 8 PM at the Mercury. Cover is $10, and you get a free copy of the cd with paid admission.

The influences on this album, through a glass darkly, seem to be PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, although the music here bears more reflection than resemblance to either artist’s work. As you would expect from the instrumentation – Leckie’s Telecaster or piano paired with Cingl’s violin – the sound is a lot closer to the folk noir of Leckie’s spare 2010 album Martini Eyes. However, Cingl’s judicious production frequently adds misty atmospherics and more ornate textures, in the same vein as Leckie’s haunting 2013 album with Anthony Haden-Guest, Rudely Interrupted.

The opening track, The Man That Walks in the Rain sets the stage, cryptic and mysterious, along the same lines as Dylan’s Man in the Long Black Coat. Leckie has made no secret that she is a devotee of the black arts, so it should come as no surprise that Climb Ya Like a Mountain would be a homage to Aleister Crowley (who, as Leckie tells it, was an avid mountain climber – and a surprisngly buffoonish persona for someone enamored with the dark side).

Leckie explores that light/dark dichotomy from the opposite angle with Dangerous Friends, its triumphant continental party narrative set against a hazy backdrop channeled via one of the unorthodox guitar tunings that she employs so often here. By contrast, the baroque-tinged piano ballad Story of Your Life has a lustrous, minimalist sheen, a homage to Prague, a city whose history and beauty clearly resonate strongly with Leckie.

Awake is even more minimalistic, Cingl’s lullaby violin gently building the somnambulistic ambience. By contrast, That Ain’t Nice is a launching pad for Leckie’s dissociative, noisy guitar explorations in tandem with Cingl’s blizzard of glissandos. Witches Heart tersely mashes up early PJ Harvey, witchy mid-70s Marianne Faithfull Britfolk and 80s goth, enhanced by the eerie close harmonies of backup singer Lisa Zwier. “My little doll, you were born under a broken star, I am sorry,” Leckie intones with a cool inscrutability as the album’s most distantly ominous track, Medicine Man, gets underway. The title cut, an enigmatic piano vignette, closes the album on a decidedly unresolved note. As with the rest of the songs here, there’s charm, but also menace, the defining characteristic of this allusively intriguing collection.

Sunday Salons and Unusual Suspects

Today is time to finish catching up on shows by the acts who’ve made the weekly Sunday Salon at Zirzamin so much fun, week after week. If you run a music blog the right way, you walk a fine line. On one hand, it’s important to keep up with the important artists in your scene, or from your era. On the other hand, nobody wants to hear about them over and over again. By the same token, this is a new mix of old favorites: because this blog casts such a wide net, it’s never safe to assume that you’ll be running into the same old faces.

Pete Galub headlined Salon #28. He’s one of the great lead guitarists of our time. In the era of indie rock, that may be a lost art, but it’s not lost on him. As a songwriter, powerpop is his thing. Humor is very important, and always present, in his writing, but at this gig, solo on electric guitar, there wasn’t any. He was pissed. He’d played the album release show for his long-awaited, absolutely brilliant new album, Candy Tears, to a packed house at Littlefield a couple of weeks previously. This time out was a wash as far as turnout was concerned. If that was the issue, Galub took it out on his Telecaster, squalling and wailing, sheets of paint-peeling noise juxtaposed against the richly tuneful jangle that defines many of his songs. At Littlefield, Jason Victor from Steve Wynn’s band squared off against Galub for a memorable duel; by himself, Galub didn’t need a sparring partner to rid himself of his demons, or at least to battle them. The 9/11 reflection I Plead the Fifth Dimension echoed the angst and uncertainty of the weeks following that horrible day; 300 Days in July made a slow, sun-drenched, less angst-fueled but sardonically bittersweet seaside tableau. It was a clinic in technique: thoughtful, judicious fingerpicking, searing blues lines, resonant jangle and clang and scorching noise that throws a vicious lateral pass over to Steve Wynn.

Phil Shoenfelt and Pavel Cingl, the brain trust of anthemic Czech rockers Phil Shoenfelt & Southern Cross headlined Salon #29. Southern Cross is huge in Europe: where was this festival favorite playing in New York? Zirzamin. Although there were just the two musicians onstage, they had the lush, majestic sweep of a full band, in the same vein as their recent Live at the House of Sin album but even more epic. Shoenfelt’s rhythm guitar playing is tremendous: they didn’t have drums, but they didn’t need them. Running his acoustic guitar through an obscure effects pedal for a deliciously reverberating, practically orchestral sound, Shoenfelt unleashed a river of jangle and clang underneath Cingl’s terse, gorgeously incisive violin and electric mandolin leads. It was like watching the Church, or Nick Cave, from the first row. In his resonant baritone, Shoenfelt painted gloomy, sometimes portraits of life among the down-and-out in Berlin, New York and elsewhere, gambling with one’s own life and paying the price, as Cingl colored the music with elegant violin lines and ringing, soaring mandolin that sounded more like a twelve-string guitar.

SLVPistolera frontwoman Sandra Lilia Velasquez’s sultry new trip-hop/downtempo project – headlined Salon #31. She was a good singer in that band and she’s a great one in this project. She joked about being liberated from behind her guitar, and there might be some truth to that: she’s the closest thing to Sade that we have in New York right now. Bassist Mark Marshall played slinky, serpentine grooves as drummer Sean Dixon colored the music with counterintuitive jazz flair, using his rims and hardware as well as the cymbals to create a backdrop that was as energetic as it was misty. And he managed to stay on top of the atmospherics and synth orchestration on the laptop without missing a beat. While the strongest songs were Velasquez’s own, the biggest surprise of the night was a politically-fueled, obscure early 80s Genesis song reinvented as stripped-down, funky art-rock. In front of the mic, swaying, eyes closed, she channeled minute fractions of the spectrum between boudoir seduction and full-blown angst and every emotion in between. It was a clinic in subtlety and nuance, a side that Velasquez has always had even while it often got lost in the jangle and clang of the guitars.

At Salon #33, the headliner was the sound guy. As a bass player, he’s familiar with several different styles, as most bassists are. As a pianist and singer, he’s a work in progress, right now a stronger sideman than frontman. His lyrics are narrative, stringing images together and employing a lot of double entendres and the occasional pun, although his music is fueled more by anger than by humor. Apocalyptic imagery, references to global warming and the Iraq war recurred frequently throughout the songs. His melodies gave away a fondness for chromatics, frequently referencing the Balkans and the Middle East along with some classical flourishes. The piano was in pretty bad condition, tuningwise and otherwise: for someone who’s spent as much time onstage as this guy has, he should have been prepared for the challenge of having to maul that damaged beast and he wasn’t. It would have been interesting to see how this performance might have gone had the instrument been in something approximating working condition.

A Dark, Richly Resonant Live Album from Phil Shoenfelt & Pavel Cingl

Czech rockers Phil Shoenfelt & Southern Cross have earned a cult following across Europe for their brooding, artsy gothic rock. The core of the band, frontman/guitarist Shoenfelt and multi-instrumentalist Pavel Cingl are coming to New York for a tour of some of the dives here, They’ll be at Pete’s Candy Store on May 24 at 9 – with their similarly dark tourmates Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons opening at 8 – then at Zirzamin at 7 on May 26, plus an 11 PM gig that same night at Otto’s. Fortuitously, Shoenfelt and Cingl also have an unexpectedly lush duo album out, Live at the House of Sin, which has an anthemic sound far more rich than you would expect from just two performers. It may be a cliche to say that if a song sounds good stripped down in an acoustic format, it’ll sound even better with a band, but it’s true. So if this album is any indication, New York dark rock fans are in for a treat next weekend.

The opening track, Vivi the Flea unfolds in a down-and-out New York milieu evocative of Mark Steiner at his gloomiest, Cingl’s soaring violin contrasting with the lingering resonance of Shoenfelt’s guitar. The second track, Twisted, has Cingl playing through a wah effect to raise the psychedelic factor. The Irish-flavored Saviour’s Day reminds a lot of Nick Cave – the irony of the title is not lost in a doomed gothic context.

Cingl switches to eerily reverberating electric mandolin, Shoenfelt fingerpicking his twelve-string on Black Rain for a majestic, sweeping ambience. Shivers Inside brings to mind Mark Sinnis at his most darkly seductive, while The Gambler works a menacing two-chord vamp, Cingl’s violin taking the intensity to redline. Alchemy sounds like a Lee Hazelwood theme taken forty years forward in time to Transylvania; Martha’s Well mines a bitter, abandoned theme.

The aphoristic Darkest Hour brings Sinnis to mind again, but in full-blown angst mode. Angel Street has some neat guitar/violin tradeoffs; Shoenfelt’s sepulchral croon rises to a casual menace on Black Venus, a traditional tune with new lyrics and a deliciously ringing mandolin solo. With its echoey violin, Hospital has Cingl looking over his shoulder at the Smiths’ How Soon Is Now. The album winds up with Letter From Berlin, which manages to be both elegaic and sympathetic: at the end of the song, the narrator offers to walk the suicidal girl home. Fans of Shane MacGowan, Leonard Cohen and the other troubadours of doom will eat this up.