New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: russ meissner

Americana Crooner Jack Grace’s Long-Awaited New Album Might Be His Best Yet

Back in the radio-and-records era, conventional wisdom was that a band’s first album was always their best. The theory was that in order to get a record deal, a group had to pull together all their most impressive songs. These days, that theory falls apart since artists can release material at their own pace rather than having to constantly deliver new product to the boss at the record label.

Still, how many artists do you know whose material is stronger than ever after twenty years of incessant touring and putting out the occasional album? Crooner/guitarist Jack Grace, arguably New York’s foremost and funniest pioneer of Americana and urban country, is one of that rare breed. His long, long awaited new Eric Ambel-produced album Everything I Say Is a Lie is arguably the best thing Grace has ever done, due out on April 28 and presumably streaming at Soundcloud at that point. Grace and his band are playing the album release show at around 8 PM on April 27 at Hifi Bar.

Interestingly, this is Grace’s most straight-ahead rock record to date: there’s plenty of C&W influence but no straight-up honkytonk this time around. It’s also more straightforwardly serious than Grace is known to be, especially onstage. As usual, the band is fantastic: a swinging rhythm section of ex-wife and Pre-War Pony Daria Grace on bass, with drummers Russ Meissner and Diego Voglino, plus Ambel contributing plenty of his signature, counterintuitive guitar and Bill Malchow on keys.

Driven by a catchy, tremoloing guitar riff, the album’s first song Burned by the Moonlight is a garage-soul number spiced with some characteristically savage lead work from Ambel. Grace’s voice has an unexpected, angry edge: “Let the wolves tear you heart out every night,” he rasps. Kanye West (I Hear That You’re the Best) is Grace at his most hilarious. “Taylor Swift, I hear you’ve got a gift, I don’t want to hear any more about it…Kardashians are so beautiful, Lindsay Lohan’s problems are so real.” As good as the lyrics are, this slowly swaying late Beatlesque anthem’s best joke is when it becomes a singalong.

Run to Me follows the kind of allusively brooding desert rock tangent that Grace was often going off on five or ten years ago. “Evil has connections we can use,” he muses. Being Poor, a song for our time if there ever was one, has a stark, rustic Steve Earle folk-blues vibe: “It’s all got you down on your knees, no power to question why.”

Bad Wind Blowing has a tense, simmering roadhouse rock sway and a souful vocal cameo from Norah Jones: “Lean against the wind or get your ass blown to the ground.” Then Grace shifts gears into wry charmer mode with the steady backbeat Highway 61 rock of I Like You.

He sings the almost cruelly sarcastic title ballad over Malchow’s Lennonesque piano; Ambel’s twelve-string guitar break is just as surreal. Again, this song’s best joke is a musical one. By contrast, the album’s most crushingly relevant cut is Get Out. “We really used to try to get out of Brooklyn, now everybody’s trying to get in,” Grace laments over a stark banjo/guitar backdrop. It’ll resonate with anybody who remembers the days (ten years ago if anybody’s counting) before every entitled, recently relocated yuppie tourist in New York was starting a band named after this city’s second-most-expensive borough.

The album closes on a similarly somber note with So We Run, an unexpected and successful detour into early 70s style psychedelic Britfolk. Good to see a guy who’s been one of the most reliably good tunesmiths in town still at it, and at the top of his game.

A Look Over the Shoulder at Americana Crooner Jack Grace’s Darkest Record

Since the early zeros, Jack Grace has been one of the bright lights of the New York Americana scene. He tours constantly, puts out great records, gets his songs in a lot of movies, is a hell of a guitarist and with that big baritone of his, can croon with anybody. He booked Rodeo Bar for years, until that late, lamented venue was forced out by a rent increase – and whose space is still unoccupied, two years later. Grace has a new album in the works, ostensibly titled Everything I Say Is a Lie. His next New York gig is at Bar Chord in Ditmas Park at 10 PM on Dec 10, and that is the truth.

Grace’s most recent album, The Money’s Gone Away – some of which is at Grace’s Soundcloud page– is where he really concretized the latin sound he was drifting toward on the one before that, 2010’s Drinking Songs for Lovers. But that’s a funny album and for the most part, this one’s dark and serious. The album’s title track is an uneasy cha-cha with creepy vibraphone lingering in the background, a grimly allusive early teens nocturne from when it was clear that the divide between rich and poor was only getting worse.

Hard Times All Around is the kind of midtempo oldschool C&W numbers Grace writes so well, backlit with keening pedal steel and his own stark guitar lines over the swinging rhythm section of his bassist wife Daria Grace and drummer Russ Meissner. Stark violin opens the tango-inflected Jack/Daria duet Warm Rock in the Sun, a horn-spiced cautionary tale.

Maybe Ya Wanna waltzes morosely out of a moody flamenco intro, a lament for missed chances that hits a bitter peak capped off by a bitingly psychedelic Grace guitar solo. The album’s haunting centerpiece, Don’t Run Out of Gas rises from spare, fingerpicked southwestern gothic to a towering backbeat drive:

Smoke has yet to clear
Battle was fought, I don’t think it was won…
Don’t run out of gas
My advice to you
Try to get there fast
For your troubles

With its creepy, icy chorus-box guitar and tuba pulse, Bothered to Think works the kind of blackly sardonic. bluesy Tom Waits territory that Grace dove headfirst into on his 2007 album The Martini Cowboy. Ghostly steel guitar mingles with spiky ukulele and terse violin in Polenca’s Blues, a windswept cinematic theme, followed by Poor Boy. a swinging 99-percenter lament.

Just when you might think that I Think I Broke My Heart is a mellow slice of dadrock, Grace hits a minor chord and runs his vocals through a vintage chorus pedal: “It hurts just to breathe,” he shivers.

Another real gem, the wistful Remember When We Were in Love, blends vintage Memphis soul and artsy late Beatles unease. By contrast, We Made It harks back to the surrealistically swinging oldschool C&W Grace was writing after his cult favorite 90s jamband, Steak, went on hiatus (they’re back on Dec 23 at the Bitter End, of all places)..

The only cover here is the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazlewood hit Summer Wine – it’s not awful, but there’s no getting away from the Vegas cheesiness. The album winds up with Lobster, Steak and Seafood, one of those silly, boisterous vamps that Grace likes to jam out live, a shout-out to roadside diners, which as dubious as they be, still beat the hell out of Olive Garden.

Pat Irwin and Daria Grace Bring Their Brilliantly Eclectic Sounds to an Laid-Back Outdoor Show in Queens

The theory that Sunday or Monday are the new Saturday cuts both ways. On one hand, the transformation of hallowed downtown New York and Brooklyn neighborhoods into Jersey tourist trashpits on the weekend has driven some of the best New York talent to gigs and venues that might seen off the beaten path. On the other hand, for the permanent-tourist class whose parent guarantors have driven rents in Bushwick and elsewhere sky-high, every day is Saturday because nobody works for a living. OK, some of them are interns. But that’s a story for another time. For an afternoon that perfectly reflects the state of the city, 2016 and also features some of the city’s most eclectic talent, brilliant singer Daria Grace has put together a triplebill starting at around 4 PM on July 31 in the backyard at LIC Bar, with ex-B-52’s guitarist Pat Irwin playing his often hauntingly cinematic instrumentals, then a set by Norah Jones collaborator Sasha Dobson and finally a set by Grace’s charming uke swing band the Pre-War Ponies at around 6.. The venue is about a three-minute walk from the 21st St. station on the 7 train.

Last month’s installment of this same lineup was a treat. Grace did triple duty, first joining Irwin on keys (who knew that she was a more than competent organist?), then adding her signature counterintuitive, swinging, slinky basslines to a set by Dobson, then switching to uke and leading her own band. Irwin opened the afternoon with a set that touched on Bill Frisell pastoral jazz, Brian Eno ambience and most significantly, Angelo Badalamenti noir. He mixed slowly crescendoing, shifting instrumentals from his film work across the years with a couple of new numbers, one more minimalist and atmospheric, the other far darker and distantly menacing. By the time his roughly forty-five minutes onstage was over, he’d gone from solo to having a whole band behind him. Dobson followed with a set that drew on roughhewn 80s indie rock, switching from harmonium to Strat as she led her trio – Grace on a gorgeous vintage 1966 hollowbody Vox bass – through a mix of her solo material and a couple of jaunty Americana-flavored numbers from her Puss & Boots album with Norah Jones and bassist Catherine Popper.

It’s hard to find a window of time for sets by three bands; the last time this blog caught Grace leading the Pre-War Ponies was on a twisted but actually fantastic twinbill back in May at Barbes, opening for psychedelic Middle Eastern metal band Greek Judas (who are back at Barbes tomorrow night, the 28th, at 10). Grace’s not-so-secret weapon, J. Walter Hawkes is an incorrigible extrovert and a charismatic showman, but he really was on his game this time out, whether firing off lickety-split cascades on his uke or on his trombone, which he typically employs for both low-register amusement and purist oldschool swing and blues. A real force of nature up there, he spent the set blasting out droll vaudevillian licks, foghorn riffs and serioso latin lines.

Lately Grace has been doing a lot of gigs with iconic latin jazz drummer Willie Martinez, but this time out she had Russ Meissner behind the kit, who had a ball adding counterintuitive hits and accents to cha-cha jazz numbers like Amapola, from the band’s latest album Get Out Under the Moon. As expected, the big audience hit was Moon Over Brooklyn, which Grace delivered with so much genuine, unselfconscious affection for her adopted hometown that it was easy to forget that you could change the lyrics just a smidge and it would make a romantic anthem for any city, anywhere. Romantic songs are usually cheesy and rote and this was anything but. You can get some romance and some sun on the 31st in Long Island City.

Daria Grace at Rodeo Bar Last Night

For some crazy reason this past couple of weeks has been all about singers. Maybe there’s some mysterious force at work that science doesn’t understand yet. Or maybe it’s just that this is New York and even the far less mysterious forces of gentrification can’t banish all the great voices from this town.

In case you ever wondered, a lot of the vocal jazz groups you see playing restaurant gigs in New York actually serve a purpose. They give A-list players a chance to moonlight for a little extra cash – or maybe just dinner – and a chance to hang with their friends, and keep up their chops, even if nobody’s listening. What makes Daria Grace and the Pre-War Ponies any different from those other bands? She can’t resist a bargain at a junk shop – if that bargain is an old chart for some obscure song from the 20s or 30s. Last night at Rodeo Bar, they threw a few standards into the mix – Heart and Soul, and All I Do Is Dream of You, and a really thoughtful, low-key but vividly anxious version of It’s the Talk of the Town. But the real treats were the rarities that hardly anybody else plays: Jimmie Noone’s 1920s hit Ready for the River (“The happiest song ever written about suicide,” said trombonist J. Walter Hawkes); Hoagy Carmichael’s Two Sleepy People, about a “foggy little fella and drowsy little dame” who can’t drag themselves away from each other; and Belle Baker’s quietly brooding waltz Underneath the Russian Moon, from 1929.

Grace played baritone ukulele and sang with a cool, pure, mountain-spring clarity that went misty as she went up the scale, dipping down low and then stretching to the top of her register and making it look effortless. Hawkes varied his attack from droll to snarky to whispery to full-on crystalline intensity: when he wasn’t playing trombone, he was playing snaky, thoughtful leads on ukulele. The bass player dove into what was obviously a bunch of unfamiliar material, playing half his solos with a bow and coming up triumphantly while drummer Russ Meissner kept a wry shuffle groove going, often using just his hands on the snare and a cymbal. On the bouncy 1928 Helen Kane tune Get Out, Get Under the Moon, Grace finally cut loose at the end – the effect was intense.

Guy Lombardo’s Moon Over Brooklyn, a big favorite of this band, was as amusing as always. What makes it so funny is that it’s really not about Brooklyn at all. Somewhere in a junk shop in Illinois there may be a moth-eaten chart for the same song, except that the Chicago version switches out Flatbush Avenue for North Huron Street – and a line that rhymes with it. On Johnny Mercer’s Pardon My Southern Accent, was the band singing “Shut up!” on the chorus? No. The phrase was “Sho ’nuff!” Hawkes added his own version of a Southern accent on Atlanta Blues a.k.a. Pallet on Your Floor. They also did a balmy version of Paul Robeson’s Got the South in My Soul, a torchy Say It Isn’t So and flipped the script with a bracing bolero tune that gave Meissner a chance to really turn up the heat.

What are such a superb singer and her band doing singing over – or into – the Monday night football crowd at Rodeo Bar? This is a side project for her. Grace is also the bass player in her husband Jack’s group, one of the East Coast’s most popular country bands, so she’s busy with that. In the meantime, you can catch her with the Pre-War Ponies the last Monday of the month here playing two sets, starting a little after 9.