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Another Withering Lyrical Rock Masterpiece by Ward White

It’s time we put Ward White up there in the pantheon with Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Rachelle Garniez, Steve Wynn, Ray Davies and any other first-ballot hall of famer you can think of. Over the last fifteen years or so, the now LA-based White been on a creative tear to rival any one of those songwriting icons. Bowie’s work in the 70s is a good comparison, although where the Thin White Duke would reinvent himself just about every year, White has crystallized a classic three-minute janglerock sound, often veering off to the psychedelic side. 

Lyrically speaking, nobody writes more compelling, allusively macabre narratives. The devil is always in the details: in this case, the crack in the porcelain, the kind of soap in the bathroom, the objects on either side of where the dead bird has fallen out of the sky. White’s 2013 release Bob got the pick for best album of the year here, but that might just as easily be said for anything he’s put out since, including his latest one, Diminish, streaming at Bandcamp. As usual, White keeps his songs short, everything less than five minutes, some less than three. White plays all the guitars, elegantly and tersely, joined by keyboardist Tyler Chester and the low-key rhythm section of bassist John Spiker and drummer Mark Stepro.

It opens with Titans, its plotline as inscrutable as its melody is straightforward and hard-hitting. Twin guitar leads roar up to a menacing, chromatic chorus: it’s one of White’s louder numbers. An infant’s death and a possible terrorist attack may be related, or just parallel events. “This is no time for dreams,” is the mantra: welcome to the end of the teens, USA.

Noise on 21, a punchy backbeat anthem with blippy organ, is a classic White urban tableau, the yuppies upstairs staying up late just to seal another sordid deal while the narrator reaches breaking point: “Some things that you should never see are happy in the shadows, now it’s time to go home.”

Back to the End, with its cruelly Beatlesque chorus-box guitar, is a throwback to White’s late 60s psych-pop period a few years ago, a characteristically allusive, twisted scenario tracing the ugly logic of a S&M scenario: “Cannibals don’t waste their time with darkening the roux.”

Canopy, a brief, catchy number with uneasily warpy 80s synth, is one of the more unselfconsciously poetic songs in White’s catalog, contemplating endings from contrasting viewpoints

Awash in jangle and starry synth orchestration, Flood paints a grim picture of dysfunction on a Hollywood film set, with a shout to Baudelaire:

Send a dozen roses up to Noah’s favorite failures
Don’t believe the rumors of a plague upon this town
This bar never closes and it’s filled with drunken sailors
For every one, an albatross who should have let him drown

Watch the Hands is the great lost track from Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces: “Your best laid plans will never bite you in the ass unless your turn your back and leave them starving,” the child killer taunts.

With White’s lingering, detfly textured guitar multitracks, Cowboy could be the most gorgeous, bittersweetly surreal number here. It’s White’s La Chute:

Tell Bob I’m not busy being born, or dying, just alive
Some flights leave too early out of Kennedy
And some pricks play the Castro card for years

White puts a fresh spin on an old myth in Sodom, bristling with Syd Barrett-ish changes, sardonic backing vocals and glammy guitars.

Some call us sacrilegious
The chafed and the chosen few
You polish your barnyard idol
I’ll tarnish the ewe

Alternately balmy and burning, Every Night I Have This Dream is another of the murder ballads White is unsurpassed at – it’s not clear whether this is really a dream or not:

Double nickels all the way
I can’t afford to lose the day
They pop that trunk trunk and we are done, and I’m not going out that way

White puts a sinister edge on a mashup of blithe Bacharach 60s bossa-pop and watery, artsy Beatlesque jangle in Uncle Bob (Akron), the album’s most corrosively cynical number. That’s hardly a surprise, considering it’s a tale from the campaign trail told by the manager of a candidate who turns out to be something less than ideal

The album’s final cut is The Living End, a somber, mostly acoustic portrait of defeat as harrowingly detailed as Richard Thompson’s Withered and Died:

Buried with your artifacts
Pharaoh’s favorite son
Too late to think of what you’ll do with what you’ve done

You’ll see this in a few days on the best albums of 2018 page.

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Amy Rigby at the Peak of Her Rapturous Literary Powers in Alphabet City Last Night

Last night at Berlin Amy Rigby was a riveting, intense, spring-loaded presence, swaying and stabbing at the air with the headstock of her guitar. She’d brought two for this solo show: a lusciously jangly Danelectro twelve-string, and a standard-issue acoustic for the punkier stuff.

About midway through, somebody interrupted her with a request. Rigby considered it but then admitted she’d forgotten what key it’s in, adding that she’d retired it after a critic had taken her to task for being too self-effacing.

In reality, Rigby definitely qualifies as humble, but her characters – single moms and struggling musicians in particular – don’t put themselves down as much as they just get worn down by having to surmount one obstacle after another. Like Ray Davies, a counterpart from an earlier era, Rigby is populist to the core, and even funnier than he is. Where Davies falls back on British vaudeville, Rigby draws on both Americana and classic powerpop, among other styles. And she’s more specifically literary.

Case in point: an offhandedly savage take of From philiproth@gmail to rzimmerman@aol.com, the wickeldy catchy, jangly shout-out to Dylan winning the Nobel Prize that opens Rigby’s latest album, The Old Guys. Just the premise of the song is hilarious. That Rigby offers a degree of sympathy for the wannabe sending his own halfhearted shout-out before her knockout of a punchline speaks to her prowess as a storyteller. She probably won’’t ever be enshrined in that corporate museum in Cleveland, but in the secret history of rock music, she’s a first-ballot hall-of-famer. Patti Smith times Elvis Costello divided by Skeeter Davis equals Amy Rigby – more or less.

Much as there were plenty of even more amusing moments, there’s always been a lot of gravitas in Rigby’s work and this set was loaded with it. She opened with Bobblehead Doll, a haggard, depleted narrative whose mantra is “What was it all for?” As she sometimes does, she coyly referenced a classic from her Nashville days in Are We Still There Yet, a fond look back at an era where cds and cassettes weren’t yet being left in boxes at random streetcorners.

A gorgeous, expansive take of Summer of My Wasted Youth was even more bittersweet. On a personal level, the screaming subtext is about having a hard time letting go of a pre-parenthood, pre-divorce rock & roll lifestyle. In historical context, it’s nothing short of shocking: there actually was a time in New York when an unemployment check could not only cover Manhattan rent but also the occasional tab at a cheap Greenpoint Polish bar.

Knapsack, a cleverly constructed tale about an unrequited crush on a bookstore security guy (at the old Borders on Church St., maybe?) was just as poignant. Rigby recounted how she’d written the wistful Tex-Mex flavored Back From Amarillo as a salute to the city, something that went little-noticed when she got to the venue because there wasn’t much of a crowd. She picked up the pace with The President Can’t Read, a savage swipe at the bozo in the Oval Office and kept the energy going with Hometown Blues, an uneasy bigup to her Pittsburgh hometown and all its quirks.

The funniest song of the night was Men in Sandals, a perplexed look at how anyone aspiring to any kind of macho heroism could wear them – it could be Mets broadcaster Howie Rose’s theme song. Rigby grew more somber toward the end of the set, reading a colorful excerpt about a college boyfriend from a forthcoming memoir and then playing a subdued, elegaic take of Bob, a song from the new album memorializing the late Lou Reed fanatic who obviously had a major impact on a future songwriting legend. She closed with Don’t Ever Change, which stops just short of exasperation in the latest chapter of a lifelong search for simple contentment. That’s just one reason why Rigby’s work resonates so universally.

Playing solo, just bass and vocals, Faith bandleader Felice Rosser built a magical, misty ambience with her catchy changes, looming chords, subtle slides and her otherworldly, Nina Simone-esque soul voice to open the evening. You might not think that just a Fender Precision and a mic would be enough to fill a room, but Rosser held the crowd rapt. With the Corinthian columns at the edge of the little stage, “It was like being in a temple,” as Rigby put it.

Rigby’s next gig is somewhere in Ojai, California on June 16. Her tour page doesn’t say where or when,

A Lush Lyrical Masterpiece from the Leisure Society

The Leisure Society play erudite, wickedly catchy, smart chamber pop and art-rock. Frontman Nick Hemming’s vocals are gentle but resolute; his tunesmithing is brilliant and his influences reveal him as someone who’s listened widely and deeply to decades worth of literate rock. The references fly fast and furious on the band’s new album Alone Aboard the Ark: the Kinks (not surprising, since Ray Davies sought them out to record at his Konk Studios, where they cut the record more or less live), Hal David and Burt Bacharach, Pulp, Elvis Costello, the Smiths, obscure but sometimes brilliant 80s bands like the Wild Swans and Shelleyan Orphan. The album is streaming at the NY Times, of all places. The British press – always with a chip on its shoulder, more than willing to misrepresent in order to win an American audience – has compared them to Fleet Foxes, the Decemberists and the like, which is ridiculous, since the Leisure Society’s hooks hit you like a Rolls-Royce with no brakes and their lyrics are also strong.

The album’s opening track, Another Sunday Psalm, contrasts a breezy backbeat acoustic guitar-and-piano pop tune with Hemming’s pensive lyric:

Can you keep this pose too many other cats are craving
They’re polishing their claws and saying in fifteen words
What took me years to hang my name upon 

A Softer Voice Takes Longer Hearing sets a cynical, morose lyric over twangy Lynchian bolero pop: “Every hour is a cavalcade to be gazed upon as it slips away,” Hemming muses.  Fight for Everyone, inspired by watching the 2012 Olympics, kicks off with trumpet from Mumford & Sons’ Nick Etwell, then the period-perfect, drolly oscillating 80s synth kicks in. Faux Rick Wakeman riffage underscores the relentless bombast and pressure that elite athletes have to endure even before the starting gun fires.

Tearing the Arches Down sardonically mingles Ziggy-era Bowie and late T Rex glam, like Edward Rogers in a particularly 1972 moment. The album’s best song is the Sylvia Plath homage The Sober Scent of Paper, Botanica noir filtered through the misty prism of 70s Britfolk – a free download in exchange for your email. All I Have Seen blends northern soul with Ronsonesque glam, building to a mad crescendo, while Everyone Understands is La Bamba as Botanica might have done it, a bitter sendup of a drama queen in 7/8 time. “What do you get for all this freewheeling? A pirouette in a castle of sand,” Hemming grouses.

Life is a Cabriolet (Edwardian British for convertible) juxtaposes bouncy swing with a doomed cynicism, followed by the similarly cynical cabaret-infused chamber pop song One Man & His Fug. The Romany-flavored title track of sorts, Forever We Shall Wait follows a Jarvis Cocker-style party animal’s desperate trajectory up to a big circus rock ending. Gay overkill doesn’t set in til the last two tracks, and if homoeroticism is your thing, you’ll like those songs too. Big-studio 1970s production values and lush yet terse playing from multi-instrumentalist Christian Hardy, violinist Mike Siddell, cellist William Calderbank, flutist Helen Whitaker, bassist Darren Bonehill and drummer Sebastian Hankins propel this magnificent beast. A lock for one of the best albums of 2013.

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.

Walter Ego Brings His Cruel Wit to Otto’s

Walter Ego played Otto’s Saturday night. The tourists hadn’t made it to the back room yet, so he kept the crowd entertained for the better part of an hour. New York is full of great little scenes: country and oldtime Americana at the Jalopy and 68 Jay Street Bar; gypsy music at Drom and Barbes; metal at St. Vitus and Tommy’s Tavern; and also what has become an elite songwriter’s salon that began at Banjo Jim’s and migrated to Otto’s after the bar on Avenue C closed down this past summer. The core is mix of veterans: Lorraine Leckie, LJ Murphy, J Wallace and Mac MacCarty along with up-and-coming talent like Drina Seay. And then there’s this guy: Murphy’s longtime bass player, who has now moved to centerstage, part Magical Mystery Tour era Beatles, part Elvis Costello, part Nick Cave maybe. Lyrics drive his songs, but his tunes can be more ornate and complex than you typically find in his kind of powerpop and janglerock.

As usual, there was a theatrical aspect to the show. This time he took a little time away from the set to make fun of juggling in general – or maybe just his own juggling. And then launched into a bright, sarcastically bouncy, vintage Kinks-style 60s Britpop number possibly called Satellites. As with all this guy’s songs, it’s loaded with metaphors, balls flying through the air: “If I am your gravity, what are you to me? You are a tiny, tiny satellite, I am the one who put you in the sky…you’re so far away,” he sang to these poor satellites, letting the cruelty of the lyric speak for itself. After that, he did a funk song, The Immorality Detection Machine, which manages to make fun of both right-wing hypocrites and lie detectors. “It’s the next best thing to time travel to the 50s, when men were men and women were girls,” he explained. The swaying, bluesy Don’t Take Advice from Me offered a killjoy’s irrepressible point of view: “What else is one more yeasayer boosting your esteem when I can give you the ugly truth that wakes you from your dream?” Later in the set he echoed that with The Magician, who will explain why that joke you just laughed at isn’t funny, and is so magic that he can make magic disappear.

But not all his songs are as direct, or as funny. Switching to piano, he brought out a biting, Lennonesque anthem that could have been encouragement to seize the moment…or it might have been making fun of people who think their lives are bigger than life. As usual, the highlight of the set was I Am the Glass, a goth-tinged, brooding, vindictive, metaphorically loaded ballad that he sang icily: “Whether you were cruel or oblivious, it didn’t have to come to this, instead of fragments I should still be one,” the broken glass tells its owner: a little later on in the song, there’s a car crash that brings everything full circle. The biggest surprise of the night was a casually riveting version of an obscure LJ Murphy song, Sunday’s Assassin, a searing chronicle of clinical depression: this killer still can’t drag himself out of bed or out of the house as he waits for the cops to haul him off while the tv cameras give him his fifteen minutes. The set ended with a funky number with a never-ending series of chord changes, more Beatlesque psychedelia and then an obligatory encore, in this case a terse piano version of Nowhere Man. Although Walter Ego has been writing songs since his days in Murphy’s band back in the 90s, he wasn’t playing out regularly until the past couple of years. For the moment, he seems to call Otto’s home when he’s not out busking; watch this space for upcoming dates.