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Tag: phil ochs

The 50 Best Albums of 2017

Scroll down for links to stream each of the albums here…except for the very newest one, which happens to be #1.

The best and most relevant album of 2017 was Fukushima, by the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York. This haunting, epic five-part suite is not a narrative of the grim events of March 11, 2011, but rather the Tokyo-born pianist/bandleader’s reflection on personal terror and horror in the wake of the worst nuclear disaster in world history.

Fujii’s stock in trade is not political music. Her vast catalog – over eighty albums as a leader or co-leader since the 90s – encompasses everything from epic improvisational soundscapes, to dark, acerbic piano compositions, rainy-day Japanese-flavored jazz-folk and collaborations with a global cast of artists. This may be her greatest achievement to date, as lush and sweeping as it is anthemically tuneful. And as a response to greed-fueled attempts to cover up the deadly environmental damage caused by the meltdowns, it’s as savage as Shostakovich’s greatest symphonies or Charles Mingus’ political broadsides.

It’s not streaming anywhere at present (end of December 2017), but it’s just out and available from Fujii’s Libra Records. Watch this space for a link! 

Vast research and triage went into the rest of this list. If you count multitasking as listening, an extremely ambitious listener can digest maybe three new albums a day. That’s about 1200 albums a year. An extremely ambitious music blogger can sample several thousand and then attempt to make sense of the very best. As in previous years, these albums are listed in rough chronological order considering when they were received here, rather than in any kind of hierarchical ranking. Which would be absurd, anyway – if an album’s one of the year’s fifty best, it’s got to be pretty damn good.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade – Town & Country
Protest jazz, icy Messiaenic miniatures and luminous nocturnes from the noir piano icon and his brilliant longtime singer collaborator. Listen at Spotify 

Ward White – As Consolation
The best rock record of 2017 is a surreal, twistedly psychedelic, ferociously literary masterpiece, from the guy who also put out the album ranked #1 here in 2013. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Dream Syndicate – How Did I Find Myself Here
Iconic noir songwriter Steve Wynn regrouped his legendary, influential 80s band, who picked up like they never left off with a mix of psychedelia, dreampop and volcanic jams. Listen at youtube

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Not Two
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s latest large-ensemble recording, blending elements of Middle Eastern, Indian music and jazz is an album for our time: turbulent, restless and packed with poignant solos from a global lineup. Listen at New Amsterdam Records 

Son of Skooshny – Matchless Gifts
Wickedly lyrical songwriter Mark Breyer, longtime leader of powerpop cult favorites Skooshny, carries on with this richly jangly magnum opus, which collects his best songs of the last ten years or so. Listen at Bandcamp 

Phil Ochs  – Live in Montreal 10/22/66
What’s the iconic 1960s political firebrand doing on a list devoted to new music? This is new – a never-before-released set of many of his most shattering songs. It’s probably the definitive solo acoustic Ochs album. Listen at Spotify 

Charming Disaster – Cautionary Tales
The New York noir supergroup – led by Jeff Morris of lavish, dark, latin-flavored rockers Kotorino and Ellia Bisker of parlor pop existentialists Sweet Soubrette – expand their palette from murder ballads to apocalyptic anthems, spy themes and a novelty song that had to be written. Listen at Bandcamp 

Alice Lee – The Wheel
The long-awaited new album by one of the most brilliantly lyrical, sardonically insightful, captivating soul singers and songwriters to emerge from this city in this century. Listen at Bandcamp 

Changing Modes – Goodbye Theodora
Postapocalyptic art-rock, noir surf and snarling dreampop are just the tip of the iceberg on the keyboard-driven, female-fronted cult favorite New York band’s seventh album. Listen at Spotify

The Mehmet Polat Trio – Ask Your Heart
Serpentine, uneasily picturesque, dynamic Middle Eastern, African and Balkan themes from the virtuoso oud player and his eclectic group. Listen at Spotify 

NO ICE – Come On Feel the NO ICE
The Brooklyn What’s Jamie Frey continues as part of this careeningly diverse group, arguably the best band to come out of Brooklyn in the past five years. Fearless soul-rock, unhinged post new wave and loud, enigmatic anthems with a killer, spot-on sense of humor. Listen at Bandcamp

Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
Morose, muted, characteristically slashing acoustic waltzes and orchestral pop from the perennially relevant psychopathologist. Listen at Spotify 

The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
Sardonic, bitingly insightful new wave for an age of greed and narcissism from this era’s preeminent powerpop supergroup. Listen at Spotify 

Orkesta Mendoza – ¡Vamos A Guarachar!
The world’s darkest and slinkiest southwestern gothic psychedelic cumbia noir mambo band. Listen at Bandcamp 

Los Wemblers – Ikaro Del Amor
That a four-song ep could make this list testifies to how genuinely incredible, and improbable it is. Legendary in their native Peru, where they started almost fifty years ago, this psychedelic cumbia family band jam as eerily and otherworldly as they did when they first emerged from the jungle. Listen at Spotify 

The Uzelli Psychedelic Anadolu compilation
Spanning from 1975 to 1984, this collection of kinetic Turkish psychedelic rock and funk seems even more current in this era of surreal cross-cultural mashups, comprising songs by artists including Erkin Koray, Asik Emrah, Ali Ayhan, Deniz Ustu Kopurur and others. Listen at Spotify 

The Sadies – Northern Passages
The moodily jangly Canadian gothic cult favorites’ hardest-rocking and most psychedelic album. Listen at Bandcamp 

Morricone Youth – Mad Max
The iconic New York noir cinephiles’ first release of the year – one of a planned fifty recordings of scores for films they’ve played live to over the years – is far darker and more southwestern gothic-oriented than the road warrior film’s plot. With a Karla Rose vocal cameo, too. Listen at Spotify 

James Williamson and Deniz Tek – Acoustic K.O.
Two iconic guitarists who largely defined the uncompromising Detroit proto-punk sound of the 1970s flip the script with an acoustic ep of lushly orchestrated Stooges classics. Listen at Spotify 

Andina: Huayno, Carnaval and Cumbia – The Sound of the Peruvian Andes 1968-1978
Seventeen trebly, reverby, even rarer tracks than the psychedelic cumbia unearthed by Barbes Records on the iconic Roots of Chicha compilations. Los Walker’s are the best-known group here; Los Compadres del Ande, Los Jelwees and Huiro y su Conjunto, among others, are also included. This isn’t just chicha, either: there are horn bands and cha-cha groups here too. Listen at Bandcamp

Melange – Viento Bravo
The Spanish Nektar jangle and swirl and spiral through one brooding, psychedelic art-rock mini-epic after another. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Legendary Shack Shakers – After You’ve Gone
Unstoppable after twenty years on the road, the iconic ghoulabilly/noir Americana band dive deeper into their twisted, swampy roots. Guitarist Rod Hamdallah makes a furiously triumphant return. Listen at Spotify 

Mames Babegenush – Mames Babegenush With Strings
Dynamic, lush, soaring, swooping brass-and-reed-fueled original klezmer dance numbers and anthems from this powerhouse Copenhagen unit. Listen at Spotify

Briga – Femme
The Montreal-based violinist’s eclectic, incisive mix of Romany, Balkan and klezmer sounds, with a little psychedelic and hip-hop flavor. Listen at Bandcamp

Saffron – Will You
Magical singer Katayoun Goudarzi and sitarist Shujaat Khan team up with Rolling Stones saxophonist Tim Ries, pianist Kevin Hays and others for this hypnotic, otherworldly reinvention of centuries-old Indian carnatic themes. Listen at Rockpaperscissors 

Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa
Newly digitized, rare, otherworldly 1970s and 80s Somali psychedelic rock, funk and Afrobeat from cassettes and master tapes buried to hide them from bombing raids. Amazing stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Arthur Lee & Love – Coming Through to You: The Live Recordings 1970-2004
Four sprawling discs comprising most of this psychedelic rock legend’s best songs, which he rocks the hell out of in concert. Most of this stuff is previously unreleased, and further proof that Lee’s career was far from over by the time he was done with Forever Changes. Listen at Spotify 

Steelism – Ism
Friends of Dean Martinez meets Morricone Youth in this surreal, catchy mix of keening steel guitar-driven instrumentals. Powerhouse soulstress Ruby Amanfu guests on a track. Listen at Spotify 

Neotolia – Neotolian Song
Pianist Utar Artun’s acerbic, moodily cinematic, sometimes jazz-inspired Turkish ensemble with the great Jussi Reijonen on guitar and oud. Listen at Soundcloud 

Dalava – The Book of Transfigurations
Slashingly eclectic ex-Lou Reed guitarist Aram Bajakian and his singer wife Julia Ulehla join forces and reinvent haunting, often harrowing Moravian folk songs with a psychedelic edge.Listen at Bandcamp 

Vigen Hovsepyan – Echoes: Revived Armenian Folk Music
The evocative singer/guitarist’s brooding, eclectic ballads and anthems from decades past, featuring the great oudist Ara Dinkjian. Listen at Spotify 

Money Chicha – Echo in Mexico
This is psychedelic south-of-the-border funk band Grupo Fantasma proving how deeply they can go into heavy psychedelic cumbias. Listen at Soundcloud

Castle Black – Trapped Under All You Know
Layers of reverb guitars flickering and roaring through the shadows, Leigh Celent’s power trio put out the best short rock album of 2017. Listen at youtube 

The Sweetback Sisters – King of Killing Time
Hard country, early 50s style from the eclectic, purist, badass duo of Emily Miller and Zara Bode with a great band behind them. Listen at Bandcamp 

Clint Mansell – Loving Vincent soundtrack
A classic 21st century horror film score. It’s not a horror film per se, but you can see the madness coming a mile away. Listen at Spotify 

Ella Atlas – The Road to Now
Enigmatic, allusively torchy singer Tarrah Maria’s band put out one of the most Lynchian releases of the year, joining forces with Lost Patrol guitar mastermind Stephen Masucci. Listen at Bandcamp 

Kelly Moran – Bloodroot
Enigmatically glistening, baroque-tinged multi-keyboard instrumentals inspired by many species of woodland greenery. Listen at Bandcamp 

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Flying Microtonal Banana
On which the well-loved Aussie psychedelic band took their initial leap into eerie, Middle Eastern-tinged microtonal music. Listen at Bandcamp 

Nina Diaz  – The Beat Is Dead
The Girl in a Coma bandleader gets ornate and cinematic with this dark, 80s new wave-style collection. Listen at Spotify 

Funkrust Brass Band – Dark City
High-voltage, rat-a-tat original Balkan brass anthems from this huge Brooklyn ensemble fronted by Charming Disaster’s Ellia Bisker. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Warlocks – Songs from the Pale Eclipse
Jangly, punchy, catchy 60s Laurel Canyon-style psychedelic rock – in lieu of a new album by the Allah-Las, this one will do fine. Listen at Bandcamp 

Galanos – Deceiver Receiver
With a gutter blues influence, some Thee Oh Sees dark garage-psych and some Black Angels ambience, this group are sort of the X of creepy 21st century rock. Listen at Bandcamp

Chicano Batman – Freedom Is Free
Organist Bardo Martinez and his shapeshifting band swing kaleidoscopically between latin soul, Zombies-style psych-pop, hard funk and Isaac Hayes-style epics. Listen at Bandcamp

Bridget Kearney  Won’t Let You Down
One of the year’s catchiest albums features Lake Street Dive’s killer bassist playing most of the instruments, through a mix of powerpop and new wave-flavored sounds. Listen at Bandcamp  

Algiers – The Underside of Power
Politically-fueled punk soul meets postrock meets postapocalyptic film score in gritty singer Franklin James Fisher’s ominously smoky narratives. Listen at Spotify 

Eric Ambel – Roscoe Live Vol. 1
One of the most distinctively brilliant, entertaining rock guitarists of the last couple of decades at the top of his game at an upstate outdoor festival with a killer band. Listen at Bandcamp 

Red Baraat – Bhangra Pirates
Wave after wave of undulating, crescendoing, cinematic, insanely danceable original brass-fueled live bhangra jams. Listen at Spotify 

Olcay Bayir – Neva/Harmony
Quietly intense new versions of ancient Turkish ballads and Balkan songs from the nuanced Turkish singer’s debut album. Listen at Spotify 

Gogol Bordello – Seekers & Finders
Amazing how fresh and energetic the original Eastern Bloc punks sound after all these years. Tight, catchy, never boring. Listen at Spotify

Ihtimanska – Yuz Yuze
A low-key but bouncy duo album of biting, minor-key Turkish and Bulgarian tunes from the duo of reedwoman Ariane Morin and accordionist Yoni Kaston. Listen at Bandcamp 

Daniel Ruiz – Purple Bird and Other Strange Songs
A haunting mix of of Doors and Nick Cave-influenced dark psychedelic rock and pop  from this Spanish songwriter. Listen at Bandcamp

Phil Ochs – A Halloween Appreciation

What’s more Halloween than a guy who killed himself? Phil Ochs arguably left the planet as his era’s greatest English-language songwriter. But where his old pal and arch-rival Bob Dylan was still cranking out albums – at that moment, the uneven if imaginatively Romany-flavored Desire – Ochs’ career had stalled years before. He never got past a massive creative block and the damage to his vocal cords from a 1973 mugging in Tanzania, dead three years later at 36 after a long downward spiral.

But he left a body of work arguably greater than what Dylan had accumulated to that point. Where Dylan had invented psychedelic folk, Ochs’ mid-60s albums Tape From California and Pleasures of the Harbor took an extremely successful turn into 20th century classical music and art-song. His populist relevance, catchy tunesmithing, clever wordplay and innumerable levels of meaning were every bit as formidable as Dylan’s. And Ochs’ 1968 album Rehearsals For Retirement remains the most harrowingly detailed, metaphorically foreshadowed musical suicide note ever written.

So there’s no lack of irony that the opening track on the recently released Live in Montreal 10/22/66, streaming at Spotify, is Cross My Heart – as in, “Cross my heart, and I hope to live.”

As is the case with pretty much every artist these days, there are innumerable Ochs concert recordings bouncing around, most of them pretty dodgy. This lavish solo acoustic set from a part of the world where Ochs played some of his best shows is a soundboard recording, but a very good one. And the setlist is sublime – it’s as close to a definitive solo acoustic Ochs album as there is.

“You always come back, if only to yourself,” he muses between songs early in the show. Right off the bat, alienation and disillusion are front and center. “The answer is limbo and the harvest will be hard,” he sings in the otherwise much more optimistic, Britfolk-tinged Song of My Returning.

Serendipitously, it seems that most of Ochs’ between-song commentary was recorded as well, and he’s at the top of his surrealistic, sardonic game. He introduces a nimbly fingerpicked take of The Bells – his setting of the Edgar Allen Poe poem – with a joke about how Poe’s work has been banned from classrooms. “The word was tintinnabulation – they couldn’t find it in the dictionary, so they assumed it was LSD.” And his sly introduction to the metaphors of Cops of the World is pretty priceless.

All of Ochs’ richly worded lit-rock novelty hits are here: Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, Miranda, and The Party. As with a lot of the songs here, they actually rock a lot harder than in the albums’ far more ornate parlor-pop arrangements. As you would expect from a show from this point in time, the set is light on Ochs’ early, more prosaic, folkie material. We get the plainspoken ballad Joe Hill – a salute to the Utah labor leader executed for a crime he didn’t commit – as well as a defiant I Ain’t Marching Anymore, a low-key, knowing take of There But For Fortune, I’m Gonna Say It Now – the one number here that hasn’t aged well – and the encore, the cynically spot-on if rather obvious broadside Chaplain of the War.

Beyond the fact that the lyrics really jump out at you, what’s most striking is how strong a guitarist Ochs is. He toys with his strum, opening Flower Lady with a Like a Rolling Stone quote; as vivid ad verdant as Lincoln Mayorga’s piano is on the album version, this is might be even better. And his flatpicking in the more traditionally-oriented numbers is fast and fluid.

Yet as funny and insightful as Ochs is here, torment runs deep. “Portrait of the pain never answers back,” he sings nonchalantly in Flower Lady. A little later on, in an especially epic take of Crucifixion – his JFK assassination parable – it’s “Do you have a portrait of the pain?”

“The hour will be short for leisure on the land,” he reminds in Pleasures of the Harbor, the allusively grisly if elegant account of a sleazy seaside hookup and its aftermath. “The lonely in disguise are clinging to the crowd.” Shades are drawn at pivotal moments in three separate songs. On record, the sarcasm and angst in I’ve Had Her are muted: here, they practically scream.

The real revelation is an early version of Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore, which would become the understatedly shattering centerpiece of Rehearsals For Retirement. Ochs introduces it as “A study in levels of depression.” It’s a work in progress, in straight-up 4/4 rather than the slinky 6/8 album version, its doomed narrative a little different this time out:

Fiddler takes a sniff and picks up the fiddle
As you race from wall to wall, stumble down in the middle
And you’re torn apart
No lower point to start
And you feel you’d like to steal a happy heart

And while this album is a period piece, student protestors around the world still get shot. People still go to jail for weed. And in the Silicon Valley slavers’ gig economy, mentions of plaques in union halls may be quaint – but also a painful reminder that eternal vigilance is no less the price of liberty than it was in 1966.

Dynamic, Lushly Tuneful Art-Rock and a National Sawdust Show from Founders

While Founders have found themselves a place in the majestic corridors of art-rock bands like Pink Floyd and ELO, they don’t seem to draw on those vintage groups at all. Their influences are both more current – Radiohead, for one – and antique. Violinist Ben Russell, violist Nathan Schram, cellist Hamilton Berry, bassist Andrew Roitstein and trumpeter/pianist Brandon Ridenour all share a classical and indie classical background. Their excellent debut album, You & Who, is unlike anything else out there right now. Much as it looks forward, it also harks back to the elegantly paradigm-shifting avant garde pop that Phil Ochs explored on albums like Pleasures of the Harbor and the second side of Tape from California. The tracks are streaming at Spotify, with a handful at the band’s music page if you don’t want to deal with the hassle of killing the volume every time an ad pops up. Consistent with the band’s classical background, they’re playing an interesting show tonight at National Sawdust at 9:30 PM as part of that venue’s Winterreise-themed month of shows, They’re set to play originals plus Radiohead covers and a new number utilizing lyrics by poet Wilhelm Muller, whose work Franz Schubert set to music in his Winterreise suite – a political broadside about escaping a tyrannical dictatorship disguised as a lovelorn song cycle. Cover is $15, which is cheap for this swanky concert hall.

The album opens with the title track, shifting shape and tempos dizzyingly yet expertly between jaunty ragtime and blistering cello-metal. It’s a defiant challenge: ”Come on if you think you can take us on, you and what army?” is the punchline. Ridenour plays the elegantly moody instrumental Blooming solo on piano, a more warmly melodic take on Radiohead. The Hunt, with its soaringly intermingled string arrangement and Russell’s operatically-inspired vocals, immediately brings to mind middle-period Phil Ochs as it rises to an achingly catchy chorus, swirls and rages from there to a sizzling violin outro.

“So bummed out outside my window, the sky is disappearing,” Russell intones on I’ll Fly Away, a spare, steady chamber pop update on the old Appalachian folk standard. It segues into Jane, an instrumental that shifts from a steady, emphatic waltz to more pensive, distantly ominous terrain and then back, Ridenour’s terse upper-register cadences over a tense bed of strings. He switches to trumpet on Never, a dancing baroque pop vignette.

Winter, another pensive waltz, opens with strummy strings mimicking a folk-rock guitar intro, then pulsing with echoes of Philip Glass and an unexpected trumpet fanfare from Ridenour. The drony Oh My Love blends echoes of Appalachia and classical Indian music, followed by a morose, minimalist, dirgey cover of Radiohead’s Motion. The album closes with Solace, which pretty much sums up what this band’s all about: clustering neo-baroque piano riffage, plaintive strings, unexpected dynamic shifts and an unassailable sense of melody.

One way this band actually does resemble its stadium-sized predecessors is that it could use a singer as strong and colorful as the music. With the exception of the Strawbs, who were fronted by none other than Sandy Denny in their earliest days, none of the art-rock bands of the 70s had particularly strong vocals. Imagine someone with the charisma and power of, say, Hannah Fairchild out in front of this band. That could be scary.

Mike Rimbaud: The Closest Thing to the Clash That NYC Has Right Now

Much like Ward White, Mike Rimbaud has quietly and methodically built a vast catalog of wickedly smart, catchy, relevant lyrical rock songs. Where White has drawn on janglerock, Americana, chamber pop and most recently, an artsy glam sound, Rimbaud looks back to new wave and punk, but also to reggae, and jazz, and Phil Ochs. White’s narratives are elusive to the extreme; Rimbaud’s are disarmingly direct, with a savagely spot-on political sensibility. A strong case could be made that no other New York artist represents this city’s defiantly populist past – or, one hopes, its future – more than Mike Rimbaud. He’s playing the album release show for his characteristically excoriating new one, Put That Dream in Your Pipe and Smoke It (streaming at Spotify) at Bowery Electric at 8:30 PM on Jan 15. Cover is eight bucks.

The album title alone is intriguing. Is it a pipe dream to think that we could create a world that improves on the current paradigm of speculators taking their profits private and passing all their losses off to an increasingly destitute public? Should we take Rimbaud’s suggestion as a challenge, as fuel for our imagination…or is he just throwing a cynical swipe at dashed hopes? Whichever the case, isn’t that what song lyrics should do: draw you in, keep your interest, maybe make you laugh a little, and think at the same time?

The album opens with Frequent Flyer Subway Rider, a cruelly evocative narrative which will resonate with any New Yorker who shares Rimbaud’s feeling that we deserve a few free rides for all we’ve suffered with the trains over the years. Rimbaud plays all the guitars on the album, with Chris Fletcher on bass and Kevin Tooley on drums; Lee Feldman’s bluesy Rhodes piano perfectly matches Rimbaud’s gritty ambience here.

Friend is a snarling, reverbtoned new wave update on Highway 61 era Dylan, a slap at social media addicts that’s as funny as it is accurate: “Your BFF is only BS,” Rimbaud snickers. Likewise, Rimbaud takes a blackly amusing look at the all-too-real dangers of fracking in Shale ‘n’ Roll over brooding bolero-rock that wouldn’t be out of place on a Las Rubias Del Norte album, Marc Billon’s creepy electric piano matching Rimbaud’s watery menace.

Over a vamping psychedelic rock backdrop that offers a wink to Dave Brubeck, Know Nothing Know It All makes gleeful fun of limousine liberals, both among the electorate and the elected: “Owned by Coke, and the Koch brothers,” Rimbaud reminds, Feldman laying down a serpentine groove.

Erik Friedlander’s ambered cello lines anchor the swaying, jangly Apple Doesn’t Mean Apple Anymore and its sardonic wordplay, a look at how corporate newspeak subtly replaces everyday language. Poverty Is a Thief, a Gil Scott-Heron-inspired duet with soul singer Danni Gee, makes the connection between the credit trap and the prison-industrial complex.

Among the album’s more lighthearted numbers, Paris Is the Heart sends a shuffling, stream-of-consciousness latin-rock shout-out to that city’s haunts. The requisite Marley-esque reggae song here is Tears Don’t Fall in Outer Space; the album ends with a cover of the Clash’s Rock the Casbah, revealing it as the prophetic anthem it turned out to be. For what it’s worth, Rimbaud has never sung better than he does here. Where he used to snarl, he’s more likely to croon these days, which is somewhat ironic considering how much unbridled wrath there is in these songs. Another winner from a guy who refuses to quit.

Dawn Oberg’s New Album: Through the Bottom of a Glass, Darkly

Pianist/songwriter Dawn Oberg seems to have an enthusiastic cult following. She plays respectably small and midsize venues across the country and is well-liked by NPR. The obvious comparison is Aimee Mann, but where Mann looks back to 60s folk-rock and psychedelia, Oberg is more informed by jazz, gospel and soul music. She’s got a New York show at 9 PM on 4/20 – where, you ask? City Winery? The big room at the Rockwood? The Blue Note, or Barbes? Nope. Oberg is playing Bar East, the former Hogs & Heifers space on the Upper East better known as Bare Ast, which pretty much says it all about the kind of disarray facing musicians passing through town.

Although alcohol makes frequent appearances in Oberg’s urbane, wryly literate songs – her new album is titled Rye – disarray is not a factor. She’s a hell of a piano player with a fondness for gospel voicings and sings in a quirky, natter-of-fact contralto, sort of Amy Allison in slo-mo. Oberg keeps the humor deadpan and lets her images speak for themselves. Perfect illustration: the nonchalantly shuffling opening track, Girl Who Sleeps with Books. Oberg slowly pans an apartment that’s perfectly comfortable on one hand, and yet there’s something missing. The brilliance of this song is that this girl, with her notebook and clutter and caffeine addiction, who would rather spend an evening with something more interactive than a novel, is us. Seriously: who doesn’t have a book hiding somewhere in the covers?

The title track juxtaposes jaunty, blues-infused piano rock with a brooding, whiskey-fueled reminscence of a long-gone affair spent “hiking in the Sierras, getting high and watching South Park.” With its breathless torrents of lyrics, Gentleman and a Scholar is 21st century Cole Porter, a portrait of someone who “knows the works of Fats Waller and can play you recordings of them…he taught me how to drive a stick without acting like a prick and in general doesn’t tick me off.” The subtext is killing: Amy Rigby would do this one halfspeed with guitars and pedal steel.

Reconstruction evokes Shine On Brightly era Procol Harum, Roger Rocha adding shifting layers of guitar, a neat touch considering the song’s architectural theme. Parallel Plane revisits the swinging shuffle of the opening track: “The masterpiece I ruined is always on display…like a monster with a toy she’d break rather than hold,” Oberg laments. Cracks, an understatedly haunting, elegaic ballad worthy of Phil Ochs, sets Oberg’s clipped, wounded articulation over Rocha’s distantly symphonic guitar orchestration:

Black orange and red, colors of your bed
The canvas conveys how well you hide the dread
From Larkspur to the Tenderloin
A journey that spans a realm of the coin 
Distant as Marrakesh
Promixity of spirit and flesh
With angles so sharp and unkind
As to sever all you hold as true
You keep close to your heart the cracks killing you

Contortions works a sideshow metaphor for all it’s worth, an exasperated message to someone jumping through hoops for someone when she should really be kicking his ass instead. As a portrait of bitterness and alienation, Disguise makes a more angst-ridden companion to Blow This Nightclub’s Sensitive Skin. To That Extent once again evokes Procol Harum, Erik Ian Walker’s organ mingling with Oberg’s piano for a richly textural feast.

“The breakers shining big and beautiful, will laugh unthinkingly and crush your skull,” Oberg intones matter-of-factly on End of the Continent, its earthquake metaphors gathering intensity in anticipation of the Big One. It’s the album’s catchiest song and a rare moment where Oberg cuts loose at the piano: she always leaves you wanting more. It ends with Civic High, a high-spirited tribute to Oberg’s native San Francisco, her “favorite hedonistic playground.” The only other lyrical rock albums from this year that compare with this are Ward White’s surreal, sinister Bob, and LJ Murphy’s new one, which is in the can but not released yet.

Matt Keating’s Wrong Way Home – Best Rock Album of 2012?

Matt Keating’s new Wrong Way Home (streaming in its entirety at the Sojourn Records site) is the best album he’s ever done. It’s a landmark in tunesmithing and songcraft to rival anything Elvis Costello or the Beatles ever recorded. Which is an even more impressive achievement considering the sweep and power of Keating’s 2008 double cd, Quixotic, a feast of lush, lyrically rich janglerock. This one is considerably different: blending elements of 1960s soul, country, ragtime and even jazz, it’s far more musically diverse. Lyrically, it’s his darkest album: as with Joy Division or late-period Phil Ochs, an encroaching, inescapable sense of doom pervades this record. Keating has always been an uneasy writer, able to dissect the fatal flaw in a relationship with a few sharp words: here, he takes his role as psychopathologist to a new level. He’s also never sung better – there are other singers who get called Orbison-esque, and most of those comparisons fall flat, but Keating’s nonchalant but wounded-to-the-core croon packs the same kind of emotional wallop.

The songs themselves are mini-epics, seldom going on for more than four minutes, arranged so that they begin sparsely and gradually add layers of strings, guitars, keyboards and horns until they reach an angst-driven orchestral grandeur. The musicianship is what you would expect from an A-list of New York players. Keating is a strong guitarist, but he’s a brilliant pianist, nimbly switching from blithe ragtime to tersely jeweled, incisive rock riffs, to torchy jazz on Baby’s Mind, a number that wouldn’t be out of place in the Chet Baker songbook, both compositionally and vocal-wise. Tony Scherr’s guitar channels a hundred styles, from Memphis soul to artsy metal, to psychedelia and country, alongside Jason Mercer on bass, Hem’s Mark Brotter and Greg Wieczorek (of Jenifer Jackson’s band) splitting duties on drums, Claudia Chopek’s one-woman string section, Cassis on accordion and Keating’s wife Emily Spray’s exquisite harmony vocals.

The opening track, Just About Now, a pulsing, piano-driven Burt Bacharach-esque soul song cruelly captures the moment where what seems to be redemption at last goes completely to hell. “I don’t remember facing a day so unafraid…when you’re in love you’re not on the take,” Keating observes, facing what appears to be an abrupt, cold ending. Punchline introduces a furtive clenched-teeth dread that will recur later on:

I’ve been using the back door
Keeping my own score
Scraping the bottom
Off of the top floor
You know I keep minimizing
All those expectations
On the horizon
In each situation

Scherr’s indulgent Comfortably Numb quote does double duty here as comic relief and deathblow as Keating runs the song’s mantra, “just leave it alone.”

Nobody’s Talking, a crushing portait of rural claustrophobia that you have to “claw your way through,” has a country sway and one of Keating’s signature allusive plotlines. Nobody’s taking out the trash or doing the dishes here: did somebody get killed, die, go on a bender or what? Likewise, the aphoristic Too Good to Lose – with lively dixieland from trumpeter Shane Endsley and the Microscopic Septet’s Dave Sewelson on baritone sax – could be completely sarcastic, or it could actually be one of the few bright spots amidst the gloom. It’s hard to tell. And the narrator of the wistfully Tex-Mex flavored title track – the most overtly Orbisonesque song here – might actually be the rare guy who actually wants to nurture communication in a relationship, or he could be a total control freak/stalker type.

Maybe He’ll Meet You, a shuffling country crooner tune, might be the album’s most haunting track. Keating shuffles his lyrics and his images artfully: the snakecharmer forgets his song and then dies of snakebite as the hope of finally being able to connect with someone slowly and inevitably slips away. Another real haunter is Maker of Carousels, Keating’s devastating portrait of self-inflicted emotional depletion, pulsing along with phantasmagorical carnival organ. Jersey Sky, a homage to Danny Federici, the late E Street Band organist, works a hypnotic, elegiac ambience, as does the ragtimey 1913 Coney Island, an understatedly brooding graveside scenario.

There’s also the absolutely hilarious, doo-wop flavored Back to the Party, an ominous tale of a clueless doofus whose ending is delivered with a riff rather than a lyric; the lavishly arranged, death-fixated Here and Then You’re Gone; the bitterly sardonic, Elvis Costello-inflected soul waltz Go to the Beach; the brightly shuffling Sound of Summer Days, which could be the great lost track from the Kinks’ Village Green; and the Springsteen-esque blue-collar lament Factory Floor, featuring Spray’s electrifying, vibrato-fueled soul harmonies. Even on the album’s closing track, a Lennon-esque piano ballad, Keating is apprehensive, unsure what’s going to happen to him if he allows himself the chance to salvage the remains of a relationship. How many people who heard London Calling, or Highway 61, or Armed Forces knew immediately that they had a classic in their hands? This album is one of those records: every time you hear it, there’s something new to reflect on and enjoy.