New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: power pop

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.

The 100 Best Songs of 2014

If you count youtube clips, how many songs were “released” in 2014? Five million? Ten million? Considering the vast amount of material that’s out there, you can’t consider this page to be gospel any more than you can any other blog’s best-of-2014 list.

But it is a seriously good playlist. At first it seemed like a good idea to simply pull all of these songs into a Spotify playlist and call it a night, but that didn’t work since a lot – perhaps the majority – of the artists here aren’t on Spotify. But you can follow the links on this page and hear every song except for one mystery track which is one of the best of them all. Bookmark this page and enjoy!

As was the case last year with Matthew Grimm’s West Allis, one song stood apart from the pack this year as far as sheer visceral impact is concerned and that’s The Great Escape by artsy New York Americana band the Sometime Boys. Kurt Leege’s guitar provides an elegant, elegaic intro for frontwoman/guitarist Sarah Mucho’s carefully modulated, wounded, brittle vocals, which rise to a full gospel wail as the song hits a peak. It’s a bitter reflection on the lure of victory and the harsh reality of defeat, from the perspective of someone gazing into the night from a window in lower Manhattan. If you’ve ever faded away into yourself, scowling out at the glimmer in the distance and wishing you were there and not slaving away at some stupid dayjob – or contemplating suicide – this could be your theme song. It’s from the band’s album Riverbed, streaming here.

As with this year’s Best Albums of 2014 and Best NYC Concerts of 2014 pages, there’s no ranking here other than the #1 song of the year. For the sake of fairness, songs are listed in rough chronological order by the date they first got some attention at this blog, irrespective of release date. Which means that the last songs on the list aren’t the ass end of the list: they just made their first appearance here in December. To be clear: Karla Moheno’s mysterious Time Well Spent, which leads the rest of the pack here, is a lot different than Jennifer Niceley’s uneasily balmy Land I Love, the last song here. But they’re both worth a spin. Here we go!

Karla Moheno – Time Well Spent
A slinky, cruel noir blues dirge about deceit and revenge. Moheno’s genius is that her narratives are allusive; you have to brave the shadows to figure out what’s going on and who’s being killed. If the Sometime Boys hadn’t put out an album this year, this song, from her album Gone to Town, would occupy the top spot. Listen here.

Jessie Kilguss – Red Moon
The folk noir bandleader’s brooding, Spanish Civil War-inspired tableau could also be a present-day account of freedom fighters on the run from just about any gestapo – the NSA, Mossad or ISIS. It’s all the more powerful for Kilguss’ portrayal of the political as personal. From the album Devastate Me. Spotify link

Ward White – Bikini
This swaying, snarling art-rock narrative isn’t about beachwear: it’s a cruelly sardonic narrative set on a now-uninhabitable South Pacific atoll right after an atom bomb was set off there, gently ominous guitar multitracks subtly going awry over keyboardist Joe McGinty’s pillowy mellotron. From the album Ward White Is the Matador. Listen here

Marianne Dissard – Am Lezten
A portrait of total emotional depletion so vividly detailed it’s scary. And you don’t need to speak French to understand it – although that makes it all the more poignant. From her gorgeously orchestrated art-rock album The Cat. Not Me. Listen here

The Wytches – Gravedweller
Don’t let this song’s apparent references to zombies – which could simply be metaphorical – scare you away. Drenched in toxic reverb, this is a morbid, Middle Eastern-tinged horror surf number, and it’s genuinely evil. From the album Annabel Dream Reader. Listen here, free download

Willie Watson – Rock Salt & Nails
One of the year’s biggest buzz songs. Everybody covered this morose old murder ballad from the 1800s, nobody more starkly or hauntingly than the former Old Crow Medicine Show guitarist. It’s a version worthy of Hank Williams, no joke. From the album Folk Singer Vol. 1. Listen here

Ember Schrag – William for the Witches
At her Trans-Pecos show in October, the gothic Americana bandleader dedicated her careening Macbeth-inspired anthem to “all the Republicans back home,” ramping up the menace several notches with her litany of spells as guitarist Bob Bannister veered from monster surf, to ominous jangle, to a little skronk,  captured here on this video.

LJ Murphy – Fearful Town
At the Parkside back in May, noir rocker Murphy’s show was a going-away party of sorts for pianist Patrick McLellan, who took out his angst on the piano keys, gently and elegantly exchanging creepy, lingering noir tonalities with guitarist Tommy Hoscheid as Murphy drew a morosely surreal portrait of a DiBloomberg era East Village of tourist traps and the grotesqueries who congregate there. This youtube clip is the studio version.

Benmont Tench – You Should Be So Lucky
Tom Petty’s organist released his debut album this year and this is the title track, as viciously brilliant a kiss-off anthem as anyone’s ever written, set to tersely murderous, bluesy Laurel Canyon psychedelia. Watch the video 

Big Lazy – Human Sacrifice
The cult favorite NYC noir soundtrack trio makes horror surf out of a flamenco theme, with its savage clusters and sudden dips and swells, and allusions to a famous Duke Ellington tune (via the Ventures). From the album Don’t Cross Myrtle, rated #1 for 2014. Listen here

Gord Downie & the Sadies – Budget Shoes
An ominously reverb-drenched southwestern gothic tale fueled by Mike Belitsky’s artfully tumbling, Keith Moon drums. Singer and longtime Tragically Hip frontman Downie traces the steps of a couple of desperados “walking through the valley of ghosts,” one with his eyes on the other’s superior footgear. From their album Gord Downie, the Sadies & the Conquering Sun. Listen here

Ernest Troost – Old Screen Door
A wailing, electrifying murder ballad. Troost succeeds with this one since the only images he lets you see are incidental to what was obviously a grisly crime, “lightning bugs floating through a haze of gasoline” and so forth. A teens update to the Walkabouts’ vengeful anthem Firetrap, from the album O Love. Listen here

Changing Modes – Ride
The band keeps the menacing chromatics going over a brisk new wave pulse, frontwoman/keyboardist Wendy Griffiths’ venomous lyric driven to a crescendo by a snarling Yuzuru Sadashige guitar solo. From the New York art-rockers’ album The Paradox of Traveling Light. Listen here

HUMANWINE – Our Devolution Is Televised
Tthe closest thing to the Dead Kennedys that we have these days: macabre chromatic Romany punk rock set in an Orwellian nightmare that very closely resembles today’s world. The recurrent mantra is “Can’t you feel the lockdown?” From the ep Mass Exodus. Listen here, free download

The Brooklyn What – Too Much Worry
Almost nine minutes of white-knuckle intensity, relentless angst and psychedelic guitar fury. A serpentine homage to early Joy Division, there’s an interlude where it evokes a tighter take on that band doing the Velvets’ Sister Ray, then a long, volcanic guitar duel worthy of the Dream Syndicate. From the year’s best short album, Minor Problems. Listen here

Briana Layon & the Boys – Cut My Man
The dark metal/powerpop rockers open the song with an icy, watery guitar lead over a sketchy, muted riff, frontwoman Layon joining in the ominous ambience and then rising toward murderous rage, airing out her wounded low range and in the process channeling the Sometime Boys‘ Sarah Mucho. They take it out as a waltzing danse macabre. From their album Touch & Go. Listen here

Cheetah Chrome – Stare into the Night
It’s the closest thing to the Dead Boys (right around the time of their mid-80s comeback) on that band’s iconic lead guitarist’s new album, Solo, most of its searing tracks recorded almost twenty years ago and seeing the light just now. It’s about time. Spotify link

The Annie Ford Band – Buick 1966
A cinematic, noir mini-epic that shifts from a creepy bolero to a waltz to scampering bluegrass and then back, fueled by Tim Sargent’s knee-buckling, Marc Ribot-like reverb guitar lines. From Ford’s debut album. Listen here

Golem – Vodka Is Poison
Over a rampaging circus punk stomp, bandleaders Annette Ezekiel Kogan and Aaron Diskin trade verses about why it either “Makes you round, makes you soft, makes it hard to get aloft,” or “Makes you happy, makes you free, makes you wish that you were me!” From the album Tanz. Spotify link 

The Fleshtones – Hipster Heaven
A hellish, Chuck Berry-flavored chronicle of the band’s old New York neighborhoods being swallowed by hordes of narcissistic gentrifiers fresh out of college but acting like kindergarteners. From their album Wheel of Talent. Watch the video

Guess & Check – Some DJs
An aptly downcast janglepop tale that will resonate with anybody who’s walked into a party all psyched and then realizes in a split second that it’s really going to suck. In other words, that it’s full of trendoids who are all a-twitter since some DJ just plugged his phone into the PA system! From their album Entanglement. Listen here

Orphan Jane – Lost Mind
A menacingly theatrical circus rock tune that builds from a sarcastically whiny, vaudevillian verse to an explosive choir of voices on the chorus. From their album A Poke in the Eye. Listen here

Mitra Sumara – mystery song
Mitra Sumara are one of New York’s most fascinating bands. Singer Yvette Perez’s group plays obscure psychedelic rock and funk covers from Iran in the 1960s and 70s. This particular number was the highlight of this year’s annual Alwan-a-Thon, a celebration of sounds from across the Middle East held at downtown music mecca Alwan for the Arts. But nobody seems to know what the song is called. It sounds like Procol Harum but more upbeat, with some seriously evil funeral organ. If anybody knows the title, please pass it on! It was the third song on the setlist that night.

The Reigning Monarchs – Thuggery
Sort of a Peter Gunne Theme for the teens, an intense, explosive monster surf instrumental with a slashing, off-the-rails guitar solo midway through. From the album Black Sweater Massacre. Listen here

Curtis Eller – The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon
A riverbed grave, a Cadillac stalled out on the tracks and Henry Kissinger shaking it all night long serve as the backdrop for this snarling parable of post-9/11 multinational fascism. From the historically-inspired Americana cult favorite banjo player’s album How to Make It in Hollywood. Listen here

The Jitterbug Vipers – Stuff It
A co-write with Elizabeth McQueen from Asleep at the Wheel, this sassy oldtimey swing tune by the Texas stoner swing band has the sardonic wit of a classic, dismissive Mae West insult song. From the album Phoebe’s Dream. Listen here

Della Mae – Heaven’s Gate
A bitter, ghostly newgrass tale that begins with the fiddle mimicking the ominous low resonance of a steel guitar, then eventually goes doublespeed. Is this about a suicide, a murder, or both? Either way, it’s a great story. From the album This World Oft Can Be. Watch the video (WARNING – you have to mute the audio ad before the whole album streams)

Bad Buka – Through the Night
A big, blazing, full-on orchestrated minor-key Romany art-rock epic, the title track from this searing, theatrical Slavic art-punk band’s new album. Listen here

The Devil Makes Three – Hand Back Down
The wild punkgrass crew take an unexpected detour into surrealist stoner swamp rock with a cynical antiwar edge, from their album I’m a Stranger Here. This video is a live take.

Marissa Nadler – Firecrackers
A menacingly opiated, reverb-drenched, mostly acoustic Nashville gothic ballad, painting a booze-fueled Fourth of July scenario that does not end well. From the folk noir icon’s album July. Listen here

Aram Bajakian – Rent Party
This instrumental by the former Lou Reed lead guitar genius kicks off with a bouncy funk riff into a minor-key tune that’s part newschool Romany rock, surf music and Otis Rush blues – then the band hits a long, surreal, muddy interlude reminiscent of 80s noiserock legends Live Skull as Shahzad Ismaily’s bass growls to the surface. From the album There Were Flowers Also in Hell. Listen here

The Delta Saints – Crazy
The centerpiece of the Americana jamband’s Drink It Slow ep is a nine-minute epic that works a slow, slinky noir blues groove with all kinds of up-and-down dynamics, a precise, angst-fueled guitar solo and every keyboard texture in this band’s arsenal. Listen here

Rosanne Cash – World of Strange Design
An harrowing Appalachian gothic tale that could be about a returning soldier’s family falling apart, or maybe just metaphorical, about a guy who “Set off the minefield like you were rounding first.” From the album The River & the Thread. Watch the video

Laura Cantrell – Washday Blues
This era’s most poignant, compelling voice in classic country music at her aphoristic best, cleaning up a lifetime’s worth of disappointed metaphors against a backdrop of steel guitar and mandolin. From the new album No Way There from Here. Spotify link

The New Mendicants – High on the Skyline
An enigmatically alienated folk-rock anthem that’s equal parts Strawbs Britfolk and lushly clangy, twanging Byrds from this psychedelic pop supergroup. “I’ll show you how deadly close faraway can be,” Teenage Fanclub frontman Norman Blake intones in his stately delivery. From their album Into the Lime. This live acoustic take isn’t the album version but it’s still really good.

Ihtimanska – Hicaz Hümayun Saz Semaisi
The most gripping and most distinctively Middle Eastern of all the tracks on the Montreal Turkish traditional music duo’s debut album. Listen here

Siach HaSadeh – Kuni Roni/Maggid’s Niggun
A darkly dancing North African-tinged diptych: the oud’s ironically triumphant run down into the abyss midway through might be the high point of the improvisational klezmer band’s album Song of the Grasses. Listen here

Son of Skooshny – Untold History.
This intense, richly arranged, artsy janglerock anthem traces an uneasy early atomic age childhood with an offhanded savagery: with Steve Refling’s keening slide guitar, it’s the hardest-rocking and most overtly angry song on the new album Mid Century Modern. Listen here

New Electric Ride – Marquis de Sade
This trippy vintage 60s psych tune casts the old philosopher as a stoner, from a funky Cream intro, through a little early Santana and then a galloping proto-metal interlude fueled by Craig Oxberry’s artful drums before some very funny vocals kick in. From the album Balloon Age. Listen here

Tammy Faye Starlite – Sister Morphine
A showstopper by the irrepressible chanteuse who’s carved herself out a niche for sardonic but spot-on reinventions of songs by brilliant and difficult people: Nico, Iggy, and others. She slayed with this one live at her Marianne Faithfull tribute/parody at Lincoln Center back in March. Watch the video

Isle of Klezbos – Noiresque
Shoko Nagai dazzles with her glimmering, darkly neoromantic and blues-tinged piano on this bracing latin- and Middle Eastern-tinted theme, shifting seamlessly between waltz time and a swing jazz groove. From the album Live from Brooklyn. Listen here

Jenifer Jackson – All Around
This flinty anthemic backbeat rock tune builds a mood of quiet apprehension via a wintry seaside tableau – it wouldn’t be out of place in the Steve Wynn catalog. From the stunningly eclectic Austin songwriter’s album Texas Sunrise. Listen here 

The Baseball Project – 13
Arguably the best song on the new album, 3rd – frontman Steve Wynn takes unsparing aim at at the A-Roid scandal over a corrosively sarcastic spaghetti western backdrop. Watch the video

John Zorn’s Abraxas – Metapsychomagia
Guitarists Aram Bajakian and Eyal Maoz and bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz juxtapose puckish wit with flickering menace, building from an uneasy bolero groove to a staggered Middle Eastern monster surf stomp, both guitarists ranging from lingering and twangy to frenetic and crazed, epic art-rock infused with swirling noise. Title track from the new album. Watch the video

Martin Bisi – Invite to Heaven Hell
One of the most deliciously tuneful things the dark art-rocker has ever done, building a stygian spacerock ambience, like the Chuch or the Byrds at their most psychedelic, with hints of peak-era Sonic Youth peeking through the pulsing guitars, with disembodied vocals, soaring trumpet and a dead-girl chorus in the background. From the album Ex Nihilo. Listen here

Ichka – Glaziers Hora
This Alicia Svigals tune is a showcase for soaring solos from everyone in this fiery klezmer band, over a misterioso staccato rhythm. From their album Podorozh. Listen here

Jaro Milko & the Cubalkanics – Herido
A mix of Del Shannon noir with a creepy bolero: it’s arguably the strongest track on the psychedelic cumbia band’s creepily slinky new album Cigarros Explosivos. Listen here 

Holly Golightly & the Brokeoffs – For All that Ails You
With its mournful train-whistle guitar and stalking, noir blues sway, it’s uncommonly dark for even this creepy gutter blues/noir Americana band. From the album It’s Her Fault. Watch the video

The Mystic Braves – There’s a Pain
A briskly scampering noir blues recast as period-perfect 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelia, from the album Desert Island. Listen here

Barbez – Mizmor Leasaf
Italian poet Alfonso Gatto’s bitter wartime elegy, Anniversary, recast as an eerily reverberating, dirgelike noir soundtrack piece from the album Bella Ciao, which explores haunting Italian Jewish themes. Watch the video

Spottiswoode – Butterfly
With its anxiously fluttery, tremoloing intro, swooping clarinet and elegant electric harpsichord, it’s a characteristically moody, richly orchestrated chamber pop anthem. From the album English Dream. Listen here

Action Beat & G.W. Sok – Sentence Machine
A noisier take on what Joy Division did with Atrocity Exhibition, seemingly a Kafkaesque account of a tortuous execution machine, set to a choir of sawing, stabbing, frantically pinwheeling guitars. From the ex-Ex frontman and British noiserock band’s collaborative album A Remarkable Machine. Spotify link

Karikatura – Eyes Wide
A bracing latin reggae tune and the title track to the band’s new album, frontman Ryan Acquaotta chronicling what happens when the real estate mob decides to take over a sketchy part of town: “With the luxury developments they’re packing in, propaganda that the neighborhood is back again, watch whoever is moving in after, blowing their cover.” And then the displacement of the people who call it home begins. Listen here

The Skull Practitioners – Another Sicko
An out-of-focus vocal from guest Tom Derwent, long drones, allusions to funk, twisted bent-note mental asylum screams from Steve Wynn lead player and frontman Jason Victor going on for what seems minutes and an ending that the band finally allows to completely disintegrate. From the New York noiserockers’ ep ST1 – also available on cassette. Listen here

Zvuloon Dub System – Alemitu
An ominously organ-fueled minor-key instrumental that blends otherworldly Ethiopiques into a moody Israeli roots reggae groove. From their album Anbesa Dub. Listen here

The Last Internationale – We Will Reign
The fearless, politically-fueled Bronx rockers slayed with this snarling, defiant, Patti Smith-style anthem at the Mercury back in June, the title track from their new album. Watch the video

Hannah Thiem – Phavet
If you listen very closely, you’ll realize that the cinematic, intense violinist/composer’s slinky electroacoustic mood piece is a one-chord jam, as it shifts from an echoing, dancing, hypnotically bracing theme to a thicket of overdubs where Thiem becomes a one-woman string sextet.. From the ep Brym. Listen here

Amanda Thorpe – Willow in the Wind
With its haunting, subdued anguish, the intense Britfolk/art-rock chanteuse’s noir tropicalia version of Tin Pan Alley wordsmith Yip Harburg’s song surpasses any other take on it, fueled by drummer Robert di Pietro’s ominous tom-toms and misterioso cymbal work. From the album Bewitching Me. Spotify link 

Nick Waterhouse – Sleeping Pills
With echoey Rod Argent electric piano and baritone saxophonist Paula Henderson’s smoky lines, this was the most lurid song of the night at the LA psychedelic soul music maven’s show in Greenpoint back in June. From the album Holly. Watch the video

Puss N Boots – GTO
The darkest and arguably best song on the album No Fools, No Fun, a detour toward Eilen Jewell-tinged ghoulabilly by the the Americana super-trio of Norah Jones, guitarist/singer Sasha Dobson and bassist Catherine Popper. Watch the video

People – Supersensible Hydrofracked Dystopia
Fiery jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson, irrepressible drummer Kevin Shea (of NYC’s funnest jazz group, Mostly Other People Do the Killing) and bassist Kyle Forester (from Crystal Stilts) toss off this barely minute-long but cruelly spot-on punk jazz miniature from the album 3xaWoman. Watch the video

Coppins – Great Day for Living
A sarcastic dystopic pre-apocalyptic narrative set to a reggae-tinged groove from the eclectic, funky, rootsy Toronto band known for their bagpipe funk. From the album The Prince That Nobody Knows. Listen here 

Marah – The Old Riverman’s Regret
A sad, vividly resigned oldtimey folk waltz, looking back nostalgically on 19th century commercial river rafting. From the album Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, a mightily successful detour into Americana by the highway rock band. Listen here

Carsie Blanton – Don’t Come Too Soon
Sly, innuendo-fueled oldtime hokum blues from the torchy New Orleans chanteuse. Listen here, free download

Millsted – Televangelist
Over an uneasy, hammering pulse, the New York punk/metal band work murderously direct East Bay Ray-style horror-surf riffage that spirals out in acidic sheets of reverb, hits a misterioso interlude and then rises again. From the album Harlem. Listen here

The Butcher Knives – Could Be the End
The New York Romany/latin rockers’ slinky shuffle kicks off by nicking the intro from Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives and morphs into steady brisk spaghetti western rock, with a cool, offcenter Ethan Cohen banjo solo out. From their album Misery. Listen here 

The Bakersfield Breakers – Longing
A sad, spiky mix of honkytonk, incisive blues and Britfolk licks and moody ranchera rock via guitarist Keith Yaun’s virtuoso multitracks. From the album In the Studio with the Bakersfield Breakers. Listen here

The Jones Family Singers – Bones in the Valley
A funky update on an ancient, eerie spiritual livened with a combination of graveyard imagery and a message that’s ultimately hopeful, a launching pad for some impassioned call-and response. From the Houston gospel-soul band’s album The Spirit Speaks. Listen here

The Old Crow Medicine Show – Dearly Departed Friend
As much as the bluegrass road warriors are best known for explosive party music, this is a somber graveside requiem for an Iraq War casualty, with a creepy, spot-on redneck surrealism. From their album Remedy. Listen here

Andrew Bird – So Much Wine Merry Christmas
The funniest of the Handsome Family covers on Bird’s tribute to the iconic Americana surrealist duo, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of. One brilliantly twisted, literate Americana songwriter deserves another. Listen here

The Grisly Hand – Western Avenue
A ringer here, the title track from the Kansas City band’s 2012 debut, sounding like the Jayhawks circa Sound of Lies backing Neko Case. Yeah, that good. Their new album Country Singles is pretty damn good too. Listen here

Edward Rogers – What Happened to the News
Fueled by Byrdsy twelve-string guitar, it’s a snide swipe at how the media-industrial complex distracts us from what’s really going on. Fron the Britrock maven’s Kevin Ayers-inspired new album Kaye. Watch the video

Bombay Rickey – Pilgrim
Frontwoman Kamala Sankaram’s wickedly precise, loopy accordion winds through a misterioso, lingering, surfy stroll with ominous bass and alto sax solos, the latter building to a spine-tingling coda. From the psychedelic Bollywood-inspired band’s album Cinefonia, the year’s best debut release. Listen here

Sharon Jones – Retreat
The brooding, practically exhausted version that this era’s definitive soul-funk singer delivered out back of the World Financial Center back in June was considerably more ominous and menacing than the version on the record. From the album Give The People What They Want. Listen here

The Immigrant Union – Anyway
The epic title track from the lush Australian psych-pop janglerockers’ latest album has plaintive harmonies and a slow psych-pop sway much in the same vein as the Allah-Las. Listen here

Debby Schwartz – Hills of Violent Green
A lushly luscious folk noir anthem and a showcase for some literally breathtaking, swooping upper-register vocals by the former Aquanettas frontwoman (and current Ember Schrag bassist). Fron the Satan You Brought Me Down ep. Listen here 

Wormburner – Drinks At the Plaza Hotel
Fiery Stiff Little Fingers style punk-pop, a couple of smalltime scam artists trading faux-sophisticated banter and having a great time seeing how much they can get over on the snobs. From the album Pleasant Living in Planned Communities. Listen here

Banda Magda – Trata
A gorgeously swaying Middle Eastern-tinged Greek party tune with rippling hammered dulcimer, cheery brass and animated guy/girl vocals that builds to a towerine, majestic peak. Frmo the pan-global New York art-rock/jazz/Middle Eastern band’s album Yerakina. Listen here

Alsarah & the Nubatones – Bilad Aldahb
A bristling, broodingly expansive oud solo by the late, great Haig Magnoukian leads into a dusky lament lowlit by Rami El Asser’s stately frame drum work. From the New York Nubian funk revivalists/reinventors’ album Silt. Listen here

Mary Lee Kortes – Big Things
An irrepressibly jaunty hi-de-ho swing tune: the intense, soaring Americana tunesmith/singer slayed with this at the Rockwood a couple of months ago. From the album Songs from the Beulah Rowley Songbook ep – and possibly appearing on her forthcoming, long-awaited Songs of Beulah Rowley album, a thematic collection centered around a tragic, talented 1930s/40s cult favorite songwriter. Listen here

Mark Rogers & Mary Byrne – Green Gold Violet
A starkly vivid, hypnotic, wounded late-afternoon folk noir tableau, Rogers’ luminous dobro paired against Byrne’s tensely fingerpicked stroll. From the album I Line My Days Along Your Weight. Listen here

Matt Ulery – The Farm
The lively flair of this harmony-driven, climactic chamber pop number understates its corrosive portrayal of rural hell. From the eclectic, cinematic bassist/composer’s album In the Ivory. Listen here

The Larch – Mr. Winters
The jangliest track on the ferociously lyrical New York psychedelic new wave rockers’ new album In Transit is a metaphorical, nonchalantly ominous sort of a mashup of Squeeze and powerpop legends Skooshny. Listen here

Lachan Bryan & the Wildes – The CEO Must Die
A brutally insightful look at the psychology of going postal from the Australian Americana songwriter/bandleader’s purist, impeccably crafted album Black Coffee. Listen here

The OBNIIIs – No Time for the Blues
The closest thing to Radio Birdman that we have right now, lead guitarist Tom Triplett ripping through volleys of chromatic. Surprisingly, the studio version on the Third Time to Harm album is even more volcanic t han the live version on their Live in San Francisco album. Listen here

Jay Brown – Fox News (Jesus Save Me).
Snidely hilarious faux gospel from the Americana songwriter. Anybody who watches that channel should be tied to a chair and forced to listen to this on loop. LMFAO. From the album Beginner Mind. Listen here

Lorraine Leckie – The Everywhere Man
This song about a party-hopping serial killer originally appeared on the album Rudely Interrupted, her elegant chamber pop collaboration with social critic Anthony Haden Guest. But the simmering, noir version on her latest album Rebel Devil Rebel takes the energy up several notches. Listen here 

Mesiko – Mockingbird
A distantly disquieting, pastorally-tinged art-rock anthem with early 70s Pink Floyd resonance: “Put away the mockingbird inside your lungs, keep your cellular calls to a minimum,” drummer Ray Rizzo sings as the band rises to a squall. From the album Solar Door. Listen here

Kelley Swindall – The Murder Song
A talking blues destined to become a Halloween classic. The dark Americana songstress credits her acting coach for helping her get in touch with her dark side on this one – yikes! From her album Pronounced [KEL-lee SWIN-dul] or something like that. Listen here

O’Death – Isavelle
The most ornate, and arguably most menacing track on the individualistic, creepy circus rock/Americana/noir cabaret band’s new album Out Of Hands We Go, a murder ballad fueled by Bob Pycior’s icepick violin. Listen here

Dina Regine – Broken
A brooding yet brisk latin-tinged groove with Steve Cropper-esque guitar: “You beat the wall for your past oppressor – sometimes spirits treat you real kind but most of the time they mess with your mind,” Regine sings with a gentle unease. From the New York soul-rock cult figure’s long-awaited album Right On, Alright. Listen here

Wounded Buffalo Theory – You Have Left Me
A gorgeously angst-fueled art-rock anthem that builds to a thicket of chiming guitars; axeman Kurt Leege takes a rare turn on lead vocals and knocks it out of the park. From the New York art-rockers’ album A Painting of Plans. Listen here, free download

Sam Llanas – To Where You Go From
The elegant, regret-laden final cut from the soulful BoDeans frontman’s new solo album The Whole Night Thru, a vivid, broodingly nocturnal highway theme. Watch the video (be careful – you may have to mute an ad at the beginning since this is a full album stream)

Jessi Robertson – You’re Gonna Burn
Deep inside this volcanic noir soul anthem, it’s a bitter, menacing blues, resonant, sustained lead guitar lines fueling its big upward trajectory as the New York noir Americana singer airs out her powerful voice. From the album I Came From the War. Listen here

Opal Onyx – Arrows Wing
The atmospheric New York art-rockers’ anthem begins as folk noir before rippling keys and atmospheric washes of cello take it even further into the shadows. From the album Delta Sands. Listen here 

Metropolitan Klezmer – Baltic Blue
The shapeshifting klezmer/latin/psychedelic cumbia group cleverly move between grooves as alto saxophonist Debra Kreisberg’s slow, haunting theme heats up, mashing up the blues and Hava Nagila with soulful solos from throughout the band. From the live album Mazel Means Good Luck. Listen here

The Yiddish Art Trio – Guilt
Clarinet powerhouse Michael Winograd wrote this evocative, enveloping theme that pairs his wary, airy lines with dark, full-throttle washes from Patrick Farrell’s accordion, evoking the majesty of a classical organ prelude. From the group’s debut album. Listen here

Mark Sinnis – Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me
Originally released by the dark country crooner’s original band, art-rockers Ninth House, this reinvents this haunting, crescendoing anthem as low-key but no less intense Americana. From the album album It’s Been a Long Cold Hard Lonely Winter. Here’s a live version

Robin Aigner – Greener
This pensive oldtimey number’s Gatsby-era setting is the exact opposite of what it seems to be, Rima Fand’s violin and Ray Sapirstein’s trumpet flying over a tensely flurrying, flamenco-tinged beat. From the brilliantly lyrical, deviously funny New York tunesmith/chanteuse’s album Con Tender. Listen here, free download

Jennifer Niceley – Land I Love
Swooshes and gentle booms from the drums and gorgeously lingering pedal steel color the song’s Lynchian Julee Cruise atmospherics, the Tennessee songstress brooding over her pastoral imagery and how that beauty “is never coming back.” From the album Birdlight. Listen here

If you missed the explanation on the Best Albums page, all the classical and most of the jazz is more likely to be found at this blog’s older sister blog Lucid Culture.

The 50 Best Albums of 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Long Overdue Look at the Brooklyn What’s Latest Incendiary Release

The Brooklyn What exploded out of the Freddy’s Bar scene in the late zeros. That was right before the building that housed the first incarnation of that beloved Brooklyn venue was bulldozed, in the wake of the illegal land grab that resulted in the construction of the notorious Barclays Center. So it’s no wonder that the band’s music has been so relevant, and so hard-hitting. Yours probably would be, too, if your home turf was seized in the name of eminent domain and then turned into a basketball stadium, to further enrich an already mega-wealthy out-of-state developer.

Since then, the band’s musicianship has grown exponentially, over the course of two full-length albums and a bunch of singles, without losing touch with their punk roots. Watching them develop has been akin to seeing how the Clash rose from their early three-chord stomps to the epic stylistic mashups of Sandinista. The Brooklyn What’s latest, characteristically intense ep, streaming at Bandcamp, is titled Minor Problems. Their next show, starting around 9 this coming January 17 at the Gutter in Williamsburg, is a Lou Reed/VU tribute and benefit for the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri with a whole slew of bands including Jeff Lewis, psychedelic folk legend Peter Stampfel, No One and the Somebodys, Ghospal, the Planes, Electric People, Old Table and possibly others.

The new record’s opening track, Sledgehammer Night, gives you a good idea of where the band is coming from these days: it’s amazing how much they can pack into a single song, even in just a couple of minutes. This one’s got an intro like an early Wire outtake and a catchy twin guitar hook from Evan O’Donnell and John-Severin Napolillo. It’s alternately skronky and propulsive – and kind of creepy in places. “I’m sick and tired of staring at screens,” frontman Jamie Frey intones, “I need a reaction, I need a release.” His voice has grown deeper, more world-weary since the early days, no surprise considering how much this city, and the world, has changed since then.

The intro to Blowin’ Up hints at the Dead Boys; the verse is hardcore, the missing link between Black Flag and Guided by Voices. Then the band swings the hell out of it, with a searing, unhinged guitar solo (guessing that’s O’Donnell putting blisters on his fingers). By contrast, Metropolitan Avenue is a four-on-the-floor backbeat anthem held together by bassist Matt Gevaza and drummer Jesse Katz as Frey makes his best pitch to a standoffish Bushwick girl while the guitarists trade jagged incisions and fullscale roar.

As good as those songs are, the masterpiece here is Too Much Worry, almost nine minutes of white-knuckle intensity, relentless angst and psychedelic guitar fury. Napolillo’s homage to early Joy Division extends to the rapidfire rhymes of No Love Lost (and echoes of Warsaw), and as the song careens forward, there’s an interlude where it evokes a tighter take on that band doing the Velvets’ Sister Ray, at least musically speaking. The guitars rise and fall and after a brief passage with Frey’s eerily distant piano rippling overhead, heat up with a volcanic duel worthy of the Dream Syndicate. That’s O’Donnell with the icepick attack in the left channel, Napolillo’s scorched-earth stampede on the right. As four-song ep’s go, there’s been nothing released in 2014 that comes close to this: watch for it on the best albums of the year page here in about a week.

Frey’s prowess as a prose writer matches his songwriting: his blog is LMFAO and just as insightful, in terms of what’s happening to this city.

The Best New York Rock Show of 2014 and Its Aftermath

The best New York rock show of 2014 was a couple of weeks ago at Bowery Electric – there’s  no way there’s going to be anything this good coming up in the next few weeks, end of story. The triplebill of folk noir singer Jessie Kilguss, lit-rock songwriter/bandleader Ward White (the two playing the album release shows for their latest ones) and Americana vet Matt Keating made for a transcendent and surprisingly thematic night of hard-hitting, emotionally potent songcraft. Much as their styles, and sets, were vastly different, they share a power and individuality as singers, as tunesmiths and lyricists.

Kilguss played first, backed by a terse, expertly tuneful band with Jason Loughlin on lead guitar, Andrea Longado on acoustic guitar, John Kengla on bass and Rob Heath on drums. Kilguss has one of those voices you hear maybe once every ten years: it’s that affecting, and sad, and unselfconsciously deep. It’s a little misty, yet direct to the point of being scary. Her new album is titled Devastate Me, but ultimately it’s the listener who’s devastated – in a good way.

Kilguss went up high when a chorus would kick in, because that’s where her songs are the most anthemic, but she doesn’t belt very hard – or at least didn’t seem to. She opened with the new album’s title track and its regretful “I let myself fall” refrain. Then she played the the single best song of the night, Red Moon. On one level, it’s a Hunger Games milieu, rebels hiding from an unseen gestapo, but on another it’s a chilling portrait of personal decline as vivid as anything Bukowski ever wrote.

The rest of the songs were just as memorable if not quite as intense: Loughlin’s guitar, always hovering around a central tone, fueled a lingering sense of unease. Kilguss followed the downcast resignation of I’m Your Prey with the indelibly catchy Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight – on the surface a wistful reminiscence of a country childhood, but ultimately a tale of urban claustrophobia. The band added a resonantly psychedelic edge to A Safe Distance From You, and a couple of louder, more powerpop-oriented earlier songs, then took that to a peak on Train Song, with its towering Pink Floyd grandeur and cynically eerie narrative inspired by the time Kilguss passed out on the subway.

You might think that someone who writes songs like hers might be distant and introverted, but when she talked to the crowd she was conversational and funny. She related that recently, she finally broke out her guitar for a live show – at a hospital ward. And Wynton Marsalis was there – visiting, not convalescing, as it turned out. So her attempt to make her debut with the guitar in a low-pressure situation kind of fizzled when the famed jazz trumpeter heard her play…and then he invited her to a rehearsal at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the kind of endorsement that just falls into your lap. Kilguss and band are at Red Hook Bait & Tackle on a twinbill with Matt Keating on Dec 12 starting at around 9.

Where Kilguss is disarmingly direct, nobody writes songs that stand up to more repeated listening – or for that matter require more repeated listening – than Ward White does. The images and changes in narrators in the songs in his all-too-brief, roughly fifty-minute set flashed by in rapid succession, to the point where it made the most sense just to enjoy the suspenseful builds to the anthemic choruses, the jokes that would jump out, and the raw yet ornately orchestrated power of the band onstage. The night’s single most intense musical moment was toward the end of the fiery, pounding Bikini, where violinist Claudia Chopek built a shivery crescendo evoking the nuclear holocaust on the uninhabitable island of its title. Keyboardist Joe McGinty’s elegant electric harpsichord (yeah, harpsichord, just like on all those old Doors albums) gave both surprising gravitas and tongue-in-cheek drollery to the surreal Bacharach S&M pop of Alphabet of Pain and the jazzy Rash, which had its own torture references.

Bassist Bryan Smith supplied the equivalent of a second lead guitar to bolster White’s own sometimes searing, sometimes aching lead guitar lines over Everet Almond’s crushing drums while Victoria Liedtke’s backing vocals added another layer of punch and poignancy. Meanwhile, White teased the crowd with one narrative voice after another. There was the narcissistic gay boss (Rudy Giuliani? Michael Bloomberg? Bill DiBlasio?) kicking the male hooker out of his place over a faux-disco beat on I’ll Make It Up to You; the quiet sadist ready to grill his prey in the Lynchian Dolores on the Dotted Line; and the dotty, aging protagonist intent on buying a mylar balloon for a granddaughter? girlfriend? The answer wasn’t clear. That’s not White’s style lately. For more intrigue, he’s playing Mercury Lounge at 7 PM on Dec 2 with this band.

Matt Keating brought the night full circle, both with his band and his songs. Lead guitarist Steve Mayone echoed Loughlin’s defiant refusal to resolve, to allow any easy answers, throughout Keating’s restless, uneasy but explosively crescendoing songs. There was a lot of new material on the bill, no surprise since Keating has a new album due out early next year. Bassist Jason Mercer and drummer Greg Wieczorek alternated between a steady backbeat and a slinky soul groove as Keating opened with an angst-fueled narrative focusing on a woman who did some time behind bars for “giving the finger to a uniform” – Springsteen and Tom Waits only wish they wrote stories of the down-and-out this vividly.

From there Keating led the group through the metaphorically-charged Maker of Carousels – a devastatingly sad waltz – to a searing, anthemic take of his concert favorite Lonely Blue, then a departure into Coney Island soul, then lushly gorgeous janglerock with the airy but chilling Saint Cloud and Louisiana, a biting post-Hurricane Katrina narrative. Keating joins Kilguss on the bill in Red Hook on Dec 12.

Former BoDeans Frontman Sam Llanas Returns with a Vengeance to Fiery Electric Rock

There’s no small irony in the fact that when the BoDeans broke up in the mid-zeros, guitarist Kurt Neumann brought in four new members to replace co-founder Sam Llanas. While Neumann continued touring the band with more of an emphasis on cajun and C&W sounds, Llanas concentrated on brooding, mostly acoustic songwriting. But now Llanas is back with a vengeance, with the best BoDeans album since the 90s…except that it’s not a BoDeans record, it’s a Llanas solo album. On the brand-new The Whole Night Thru –  streaming at Spotify – he’s assembled a smoldering electric band: Sean Williamson on guitar, Matt Turner on bass and Ryan Schiedermayer on drums, with Gary Tanin on keys. The result is the best studio project anybody associated with the BoDeans has probably done since before the band’s iconic double live album, Joe Dirt Car back in 1995.

And it’s got everything that made the group a stadium rock favorite across the country for so long; big singalong anthems, volcanic guitar sonics and the same burning, impassioned vocals that made songs like Feed the Fire and Still the Night such audience favorites. This is definitely one for the diehards, and ought to draw in a new generation of fans who missed Llanas in his previous incarnation.

The opening track, Deja Vu, like many of the songs here, opens with suspenseful atmospherics and builds to a classic, anthemic Llanas chorus. It’s a lurid song: Llanas references Edgar Allen Poe and might or might not be addressing the breakup of his old band with the line about the “vultures waiting for your body to fall.” Williamson adds an all-too-brief solo, playing searing lines against a single resonating string.

The swaying, catchy, shuffling Cold n’ Clean will be familiar to those who’ve followed Llanas’ solo performances: with its wishing well imagery, it manages to be sardonic and poignant at the same time. Everywhere But Here brings back the noir of the opening track, addressing a mystery New York girl against an ominous, 80s-tinged gothic rock backdrop: “I’ve been chasing your ghost around Miltown,” Llanas laments, “You’re everywhere but here.” Again, Williamson’s guitar takes the intensity to redline.

With its layers of guitars and shifting vocals, Dangerous Love ponders what kind of price a femme fatale’s going to extract. By contrast, I’m Still Alive paints a somber portrait of a hurricane survivor facing hard times, alone and alienated. Then the band picks it up with Somethin’ Comin’ as the song rises from a simmering intro to roaring, slide guitar-fueled anthem: it’s one of the loudest numbers Llanas has ever recorded, and he makes it worth the effort.

Addicted to the Cure returns to Llanas’ familiar theme of whether or not to resist the advances of a woman who’s obviously got an agenda. The Best I Can gives the chance to work Llanas’ signature catchy chord changes dynamically, back and forth against a roaring blend of distorted guitar textures. The elegant, regret-laden final cut, To Where You Go paints an achingly vivid picture of the solitude of a cross-country night drive. It’s everything a fan of Llanas’ old band could possibly want. Four-on-the-floor rock records don’t get any more satisfying than this.

Saturday Singles

Former Band of Susans guitarist (and Demolition String Band bassist) Anne Husick has a creepy new single, The Other Side out from the World Wide Vibe folks and streaming at Soundcloud. With its absolutely gorgeous layers of guitars, it’s a noir blues at the core, lit up with Robert Aaron’s organ and drummer Kevin Tooley’s echoey snare beat. She’s playing the release show at Sidewalk on Dec 3, time TBA. If her show at Otto’s a couple of Sundays ago was any indication, you’re in for a night of dark oldschool LES rock treats. Tons of people rip off Lou Reed: Husick uses a 70s version of the post-Velvets sound as a springboard, and dives in from there.

Powerpop maven Mark Breyer has been writing heartbreakingly beautiful songs for a long time, first with cult favorites Skooshny and most recently on his own, under the name Son of Skooshny. His latest one, No Ho – a collaboration with multi-instrumentalist/producer Steve Refling, streaming at Bandcamp – paints a gently devastating portrait of existential angst and understated despair, a couple doomed from the start traipsing their way through a vivid LA milieu. And the title could be as savage for the girl as the narrator’s prospects are bleak.

You want a sultry vocal? Check out Melissa Fogarty’s multilingual delivery on Metropolitan Klezmer‘s Mazel Means Good Luck, based on a 1954 arrangement of a 1947 big band hit. The irrepressible cross-genre Jewish jamband are playing the album release for their new one – this song is the title track – at the legendary Eldridge Street Synagogue Museum on December 15 at 4 (four) PM. Tix are $20/$15 stud/srs.

And check out September Girls‘ Black Oil, ornate postpunk with Middle Eastern flourishes, that’s catchy and disorienting at the same time.

Dina Regine’s Soulful New Album Was Worth the Wait

What does it say about our society that Dina Regine has probably made more money spinning other peoples’ records than she’s made by playing her own unique blend of classic soul and rootsy rock? She was getting paid for playlisting long before just any random person could plug their phone into the PA system and then call it a night. But Regine’s greatest accomplishments have been as a songwriter, bandleader and singer. A well-loved presence in the New York club scene throughout the late 90s and early zeros, she still has an avid cult following, and an excellent, long-awaited new album, Right On All Right. And she’s got an album release show coming up on Nov 18 at around 8:30 PM at Bowery Electric. Ursa Minor, who have a similarly dynamic singer in Michelle Casillas – who also contributes to Regine’s album – are on the bill afterward at around 9:30. Cover is eight bucks.

On the album, Regine plays much of the guitars along with keys, mandolin and harp (!). Tony Scherr plays lead guitar on several tracks, along with Tim Luntzel on bass and Dan Rieser on drums. The opening track, Gotta Tell You is a gorgeously jangling, swaying 6/8 soul ballad, Jon Cowherd’s organ rising on the chorus with Regine’s impassioned vocals – and then they rock it out for a bit. The oldschool soul-funk number Dial My Number has a hot horn section (Erik Lawrence on tenor sax, Briggan Krauss on baritone sax and Frank London on trumpet) juxtaposed with Regine’s more low-key yet simmering vocals. By contrast, Can’t Find You Anywhere welds red-neon noir soul ambience to soaring, anthemic choruses, fueled by Scherr’s biting guitar multitracks.. Likewise, Hurt Somebody works the tension between blue-flame soul and brisk new wave-tinged powerpop – Regine likes to mix up her styles and this is a prime example.

Far Gone takes an unexpected and very successful departure into oldschool C&W with a tasty blend of Regine’s baritone guitar mingling with Scherr’s twangy lines. Then Regine hits a pulsing garage-soul vamp on Until Tomorrow and keeps that going with the gloriously guitar-driven, Gloria-esque Fences. The best track here is Broken, a brooding yet brisk latin-tinged groove with Steve Cropper-esque guitar: “You beat the wall for your past oppressor – sometimes spirits treat you real kind but most of the time they mess with your mind,” Regine sings with a gentle unease. How she varies her delivery from one track to another, from sweet to defiant and undeterred is one of the album’s strongest points.

The title track adds slink and suspense to a vintage go-go theme, with yet another one of Regine’s usual, crescendoing, anthemic choruses.  Shaky Dave Pollack’s hard-hitting blues harp drives the vintage Stonesy Nothing Here. The album’s final cut, Wildest Days, is also its most epic, and it’s surprisingly wistful, a snapshot of a deliriously fun time that threatens not to last too long. Fans of the creme de la creme of retro soul, from Lake Street Dive to Sharon Jones, will love this album. It’s not out yet, therefore no spotify link, but a lot of the tracks are up on Regine’s soundcloud page.

Another Menacingly Brilliant Album and a Bowery Electric Release Show by Ward White

Ward White‘s Bob was the best album of 2013. Set to a cinematically shapeshifting pastiche of classic powerpop and art-rock, White’s harrowing, cynical, often brutally hilarious nonlinear narrative about unneighborly suburbanites, a plane crash, narcoterrorism, possible cannibalism and at least one murder was like no other album ever made. Attempting to unravel the mystery required multiple listening and a heavy finger on the rewind button, yet that only made the ride more entertaining. It compares more closely with literary than with musical works: Russell Banks’ surreal 1995 novel Hamilton Stark is a good one.

Maybe because a follow-up to such an individualistic, strangely brilliant album would have been impossible, White’s new one, Ward White Is the Matador (streaming at Bandcamp) goes back to the encyclopedically tuneful, wickedly lyrical songwriting he’s made a name for himself with since the late 90s. It validates all the comparisons to David Bowie, Scott Walker, Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson that White’s drawn over the years. In this case, the allusively menacing narratives don’t segue into each other as they do on Bob, and the music is louder, the guitars crunchier than anything White has done before. Is there a central theme? Possibly.

And maybe to shake things up somewhat, this is the first album that White didn’t produce himself: Bryan Scary (who plays keys) and Graham Norwood (who plays bass and adds guitar) take over the chores behind the board this time out. White’s playing the album release show on one of the year’s best triplebills on Nov 11 at Bowery Electric: the night begins with folk noir songwriter Jessie Kilguss (who’s also releasing a darkly brilliant new album) at 8, then White at 9, then similarly tuneful, disquieting retro soul/Americana songwriter Matt Keating at around 10. Cover is an absurdly cheap $10.

There’s a lot to sink your ears into here, fourteen tracks, the last one a VU White Light/White Heat style mystery that clocks in at over 20 minutes. Lou Reed is a recurrent reference point; there are also a handful of amped-up takes on Burt Bacharach-style latin-tinged pop, lots of glammy guitars, retro 60s keyboards, a devious Pink Floyd quote at the precisely perfect moment and a long instrumental break at the end of the first track that sounds like the Alan Parsons Project taking a stab at a noise jam. And lots of guitars, jangling and roaring and resonating.

Lyrically, it’s the same kind of allusive ominous storytelling that White worked so memorably on Bob, but within a three to four-minute verse/chorus/bridge rock framework. People may be horribly tortured here – or those grisly images may simply be a metaphor for an inner torment that’s just as painful. And pain is everywhere, from the guy who can’t see his hands in front of his face, to the drunk stumbling home, the guy kicking the hooker out of his place, the girl from the street gang, the killer “sweeping up the shards and embers scattered in the tub” and the 5 AM subway rider on the Brooklyn-bound L train platform watching a menacing pair of figures close in on him.

And for all the pain, White never loses his sense of humor, bleak as it may be. “What of all these women? They like to come and go, but mostly go: when they come, believe me, I’m the last to know,” one guy reflects. “Well, I guess that I will live to see tomorrow/I hope you got a toothbrush I can borrow,” another muses after his brush with death. “Throwing all my pills away was a bit premature,” admits another doomed character. As noir songwriting goes, it doesn’t get any better than this. At the end of the year, there will be a new Best Albums of the Year page for 2014 here and this one will be on it.

A Scorching New Rock Record and an Album Release Show at the Mercury by Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons

Lorraine Leckie is one of New York’s most eclectic and prolific songwriters. Her previous album Rudely Interrupted, a collaboration with legendary/notorious social critic Anthony Haden-Guest, was an elegant blend of chamber pop. The one before that, Martini Eyes, was an acoustic album. In the meantime, Leckie has been dividing her time onstage between the chamber pop and the ferocious electric rock of Her Demons, the name she’s bestowed on her group with lead guitar monster Hugh Pool, bassist Charles Dechants and drummer Paul Triff. And they’ve got a new album – one of the final projects to be recorded at the legendary Excello Recording, at least in the studio’s original Williamsburg space – titled Rebel Devil Devil Rebel. Leckie and the band are playing the album release show on Nov 13, appropriately enough, at 8 PM at the Mercury. Leckie’s longtime tourmate Kelley Swindall, who alternates between oldschool talking blues, murder ballads and pensive acoustic Americana, opens the night with her band at 7; advance tix are $10.

The creepy video for the album’s first single, Watch Your Step (that’s actress Celina Leroy in the role of the doomed girl) is over at No Depression. Leckie digs in with her vocals for a surprising amount of grit behind Pool’s snarling, resonant lines. The title track, a joyous shout-out to New Orleans and its temptations, is even more bristling, Pool channeling Hendrix when he’s not veering between Stones roar and classic Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Likewise, Always Got a Song blends Texas shuffle blues, 60s psych and vintage CBGB-era gutter rock.

Leckie wrote the uneasy Laurel Canyon ripper Paint the Towns Red while marching against the Iraq war during the peak of the past decade’s protests. Come A Dancin’, which shifts between Nashville gothic and psychedelic menace,  has quite the backstory: Leckie had a dream about a film titled Blood and Sand, starring Tyrone Power and Rita Hayworth. The following day, she went to the video store and, on a lark, asked the clerk if such a movie existed. Not only did the film actually exist – Leckie, who’d had no idea that there was any such thing, rented it and discovered that it’s about a woman who seduces men with her guitar!

The ominously lingering Beware, with its distant early Alice Cooper vibe, was inspired by friends lost to drug overdoses. Leckie switches from guitar to piano on the lithely dancing, string-infused Blink Blink, which she was inspired to write by her late dog Killjoy: “‘The dog would go sit in the yard for hours and stare like she was saying goodbye to the world,” Leckie explains. And the delicate Fly Away Little Sparrow is a dedication to her late brother, a suicide.

By contrast, Rainbow has a jaunty, glam-infused feel, like Warren Zevon on mushrooms. There’s also a much harder-rocking, eerily psychedelic take of the serial killer tale The Everywhere Man, which originally appeared on the Rudely Interrupted album. It’s another triumph for Leckie and her bleak yet resiliently individualistic vision. The new album’s not out yet but will be at all the usual spots in the next couple of weeks along with the rest of her darkly intense catalog.

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