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New York Artists Remember a Beloved, Legendary Voice Teacher

Barbara Maier Gustern, one of the world’s most beloved and successful vocal coaches, died on March 15 of injuries suffered in a brutal assault in her Chelsea neighborhood five days earlier. She was 87.

She had stepped out of her apartment after rehearsing a cast of cabaret singers when she was struck from behind and fell on the sidewalk on West 28th St. just off Eighth Avenue. A passing cyclist helped her return home, where an ambulance was called. A 26-year-old Long Island resident, Lauren Pazienza, has been charged with manslaughter in the attack.

A tiny woman with a big voice and a larger-than-life presence, Gustern was born in Indiana and came to New York in the 1950s with hopes of becoming a Broadway singer. But she soon discovered an aptitude for teaching. It wasn’t long before she’d become one of the most highly sought after vocal coaches in Manhattan, a stature she relished for over half a century.

Dedicated to preserving the individuality of her clients’ styles, Gustern did not follow a one-size-fits-all approach in her teaching. Her training empowered Diamanda Galas to maintain her stamina through punishing, marathon performances. Gustern made a first-class jazz chanteuse out of Deborah Harry, and helped Tammy Faye Starlite channel iconic voices from Marianne Faithfull to Mick Jagger. Gustern also worked with Carol Lipnik to refine and expand her spectacular four-octave range.

Gustern was a taskmaster and did not suffer fools gladly. But those who studied with her say her influence was transformative.

“Barbara Maier Gustern was my Voice Mother,” says Lipnik. “For eleven years I was lucky enough to cherish her as one of the most important people in my life. At just 4’ 11” no one ever thought of her as small, At 87 years old no one ever thought of her as old. She had the energy of a hummingbird. She never stopped moving. She would bound up and down seventeen flights of stairs to her apartment for exercise rather than taking the elevator. When she would dance at parties no one could keep up with her. She was the matriarch of a whole tribe of downtown artistic misfits that she proudly and lovingly nurtured. She celebrated singularity, individuality, and peculiarity.

I was born with a natural, wild voice, a seemingly unlimited vocal range, and fiercely possessive of my personal sense of expression. I never wanted to study singing because I was afraid that a teacher would damper my spirit and try to me make me sound “Broadway”. Not Barbara, she met me in my world and worked with me to help make me the best and strongest me that I could be. She never pulled punches and always was straight with me when she heard something wrong. I was in awe of her, and scared of her, but I listened to her – me, a person who never, ever listened to a single teacher. She’d humble me to my knees and I’d listen. She had a playful, mischievous side, too. Many times she would have me sing scales higher and higher and higher till I realized it was just for her own sport to see how high I could go – then she’d beam and proudly say: “that was a D!”. Together, we cultivated and nurtured a crystalline quality in my voice so diligently that when I recorded vocals for my “Almost Back To Normal” album I actually had a very bad flu.

You can’t describe Barbara without also mentioning the fabulous fashion sense that she had. I honestly don’t think I ever saw her wear the same thing twice. Cashmere turtlenecks, black leather pants, paisley shirts, animal prints… Once I asked her where she got her famous red cowboy boots and she smiled and said, ‘The little boys department!’

This is not goodbye because I will love her forever. I now am part of her legacy that will carry on and out into to the world through the sound of my voice.”

Penny Arcade echoes that sentiment: “Barbara Maier Gustern was a remarkable person for many reasons. She had charm, talent, good looks well into old age and a desire to contribute to society which she acted upon. But the thing that made her most unusual was that she had made it her business to spend her old age completing her character. Quentin Crisp, the great English raconteur famously said that the function of life is to reconcile our glowing opinion of ourselves with what our friends call ‘the trouble with you.’ Precious few people get to complete their characters, because for one, you have to live long enough. Barbara lived gloriously till she was violently struck down in the street by a demented stranger. At 87 she was vibrant, energetic, busy doing new things like directing cabaret and still singing and teaching. She was still growing , still exploring what it meant to be fully human. She led a charmed life despite many disappointments and personal tragedies and made it to 87. Somehow she managed to emerge not bitter, envious or complacent. She presented a glowing example of how to age into old age with vibrancy, wisdom and fun. She will live on in people’s memories and stories because of her contributions to so many people and her example of what it means to be a fully evolved human being.”

Serena Jost says, “Barbara was one of the most amazing people I’ve ever encountered. She was both the consummate voice teacher and the embodiment of a life well lived. Carol Lipnik introduced me to her and I’m so thankful. I’ve had other wonderful teachers but Barbara helped me find my true voice. Her lessons were both rigorous and fun and blew me away. She was always honest and didn’t have the need to praise for her own sense of well-being – rather, her perceptions were grounded in x-ray vision, honesty and so much caring. She recognized talent and saw my potential in a new way. When I brought in one of my songs, she not only knew what to offer technically but amazingly fully understood the essence of any song. She was very complimentary about my music and then helped me to soar. I think what Barbara loved most – in and out of the studio – was connection, truth and communication. Like the best of teachers, she loved her subject and students as One.

Barbara had boundless energy and came to many of my shows including at Pangea, the Owl and the release of my album Up to the Sky at Saint Peter’s Church in Chelsea. I knew if I’d done well because she would be beaming afterwards. Barbara taught the whole person and it gave her so much joy to see others realize themselves in song. She was such an evolved human, a giver, a mover, a shaker, a mother, a mentor, always purposeful. She was made of steel with a soft giving heart. She gave generously to all she encountered and sought out people in need who she could serve. Barbara had an effervescence that is hard to fully describe but when experienced you knew you were amongst one of the greatest humans around. I hope we may all be inspired by her example and live and give as fully as she did. I am forever grateful to her for giving me the wings of song.”

John Kelly adds, “Barbara Maier Gustern gave me permission to continue to own my voice and honor my desire – my need – to sing. She also gave me confidence – through a more solid understanding of the technique and tools necessary to produce open, supported sound. Barbara was a diminutive but powerful presence and a force that I feel privileged to have known, worked with, and loved.”

Familiar, Heartwarming Faces in Friendly New Places

Music in New York is in a really weird place right now. We’re in the midst of the biggest market correction this city has ever seen. Part of that, the abrupt destruction of so many independent venues and the complete annihilation of what was left of the rock scene, is tragic.

But part of this market correction is long overdue.

As this blog predicted as far back as the mid-teens, we’re seeing a quiet explosion of community-based, artist-run spaces, most of them quasi-legal or even less so. That’s where audiences went during the lockdown. The corporate model they replaced is dead in the water. Seriously: does anyone think that the Mercury Lounge, with its apartheid door policy where proof of taking one of the deadly needles is required to get in, is going to survive the year?

In the meantime, the surviving off-the-beaten-path places are thriving. If you work or live in the Financial District, you might know Cowgirl Seahorse. It’s a friendly taco-and-beer joint at the far edge of the South Street Seaport at the corner of where Front Street meets the extension of Peck Slip. Since reopening, they’ve expanded their original Monday night Americana series to sometimes twice a week, and who knows how far they could take that.

It was heartwarming to the extreme to catch honkytonk band the Bourbon Express there over the Fourth of July weekend. With their signature guy/girl vocals and Bakersfield-style twang, they were prime movers in the scene at the original Hank’s before that place finally bit the dust at the end of 2018. This latest version of the band is just a trio, husband-and-wife team Brendan and Katie Curley on guitars along with their bassist holding down the groove.

Brendan is a twangmeister, and so is Katie, but on vocals rather than guitar since she plays acoustic (when she’s not playing the concert harp on their albums). The resulting blend of voices is one of the most distinctive sounds in country: imagine Waylon Jennings duetting with Amy Allison. This set was mostly covers, which was unusual for them, but it showed their roots.

The best number of the night was Jukebox in My Heart, Katie’s fond tribute to the joys of vintage vinyl. A brief, no-nonsense version of Vern Gosdin’s Set ‘Em Up Joe was a perfect example of how deep these two dig for their inspiration.

Brendan ran his Telecaster through a flange for period-perfect 70s ambience in a countrified take of Danny O’Keefe’s 1969 pillhead lament Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues. Katie sometimes sings with a vibrato you could drive a semi-truck through, so it was almost funny that she held back on that during her take of Freddy Fender’s Until the Next Teardrop Falls. They made their way soulfully from the 50s through the 70s with songs by Buck Owens and Emmylou Harris, along with a robust version of Soulful Shade of Blue by Buffy Sainte-Marie and a totally Nashville gothic Jolene. With the easygoing crew behind the bar, shockingly good sound and a steady stream of delivery orders moving out the front door, it was almost as if this was 2014 and this was the old Lakeside Lounge.

Then the next weekend Serena Jost played a solo show at the Five Myles gallery in Bed-Stuy. In almost twenty years, it’s been a hotspot for adventurous jazz, hip-hop and dance as well as art that reflects the neighborhood’s gritty past a lot more than its recent whitewashing. Jost fits in perfectly. Most cello rockers don’t play solo shows, but cello rock is unconventional by definition and so is Jost. Throughout a tantalizingly brief show singing to the crowd gathered out front on the street, she aired out her lustrous, soaring voice, an instrument that’s just as much at home singing Bach cantatas as it is with her own enigmatic, enticingly detailed, riff-driven songs.

In recent years, the onetime founding member of Rasputina has found a much more minimalist focus, perfect for playing solo (she switched to acoustic guitar for a couple of numbers). Still, it was the most epic, ornate material that was the most breathtaking, most notably a subtly undulating, singalong take of the big, triumphant anthem Great Conclusions and an aptly majestic, absolutely gothic, sometimes stygian new song inspired by the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Jost spent the lockdown by writing up a storm of new material, something we’ll hopefully get to see more of, most likely at spaces like this one.

Pioneering Cello Rocker Serena Jost Brings Her Rapturous, Intimate Sonics to a Similarly Intimate Brooklyn Space

“My cello wants to go up in the ceiling,” Serena Jost observed at one of this year’s most rapturously intimate New York shows: in the middle of the day, in the cozy, vintage tin-plated Chinatown studio at Montez Press Radio a couple of days before Memorial Day weekend. As she did with her meticulously playful solo album Up to the Sky, Jost will typically size up the sonics of a room and then make them part of the performance. Just as she took advantage of the rich natural reverb at St. Peter’s Church in Chelsea when she recorded the album – live – she felt the highs bouncing off the studio’s metal, and the walls, and ran with it…calmly, and gently, with respect to any ghosts she might be coaxing out of the woodwork with her harmonics and overtones. She’s playing a slightly less intimate space, Freddy’s, at 7 PM on August 10 on a killer triplebill with haunting, fearsomely powerful soul belter and noir Americana songstress Karen Dahlstrom and the anthemic, politically fearless, vintage Springsteenian Tru Mongrel Hearts’ frontman Pete Cenedella

As a founding member of Rasputina, Jost is a pioneer of cello rock, but her own writing and improvisation defy categorization. If there was any common thread between the songs in this particular set – drawn mostly from her solo record – it was minimalism. No wasted notes, no gestures that weren’t meaningful, spiced with subtle echoes and sepulchral wisps of sound.

She opened with It’s a Delight, her soul-infused vocals soaring over its distantly Indian-tinged variations on a hypnotic octave riff. She got the harmonics keening with an especially emphatic take of the catchy Window; she’d revisit that trope with even more sonic surrealism later, with the contrasting rhythmic plucks and hazy atmospherics of Hallway.

Her lone cover was a more polished but understately chilling take on the brilliant/obscure Happiness, by Molly Drake (Nick’s mom): “Happiness is gone without a warning, jack-o-lantern in the night.”

Going back to the originals, Jost dug in hard with the staccato chords of Silver Star, an allusively seductive but ultimately just as wary and unresolved tableau. She also made up what was essentially a catchy, optimistic, singalong stadium-rock anthem, on the spot, and eventually closed with The Cut, a swaying, Britfolk-tinged tune that strongly evoked Linda Thompson, both vocally and thematically

The performance and interview afterward have been archived: click the archive link at Montez Press Radio and scroll down for a very acerbic, insightful look at where Jost is at these days: more attuned to psychedelia and spontaneity than ever, both as a solo artists and a bandleader.

Soaring, Haunting Folk Noir Band Bobtown Make a Mighty Return to the Stage

Bobtown are the most individualistic folk noir band you could possibly imagine. They have soaring three-part vocal harmonies – and they’re fronted by their drummer. They’ve also been AWOL lately since they’ve been working on a new album. Last weekend, they packed the big room at the Rockwood and played most of the tracks from the record, Chasing the Sun, due out at the end of next month. If the show was any indication, it’s going to be amazing.

Everybody in the band plays a lot of instruments. Bandleader Katherine Etzel began the show on ukulele, then switched to a big, imposing standup drumkit. Karen Dahlstrom played guitar for most of the set but then broke out her banjo, something she rarely does live. Jen McDearman took turns on both lead and harmony vocals while adding percussion and eerily twinkling glockenspiel. Alan Lee Backer switched between electric and acoustic lead guitar while bassist Dan Shuman held down the low end, bolstered on a couple of tunes by stark resonance from guest cellist Serena Jost (who also plays on the record).

They opened with Devil Down, a brightly shuffling tune with thematic if not musical resemblance to Tom Waits’ Down in the Hole:. As Etzel intimated, the new album is slightly more optimistic than the ghostly tales that populate much of the band’s previous output. After that, McDearman didn’t waste any time taking the music back in that direction with Hazel, a banjo number about a crazy woman who’s reached the end of her rope.

Etzel went back to lead vocals for Let You Go, a kiss-off anthem with echoes of the chain gang songs the band were exploring in the early part of the decade. Daughters of the Dust, a spaghetti western bluegrass tune, kept the charming/sinister dynamic going, the women’s shiny harmonies in contrast with the emotionally depleted Dust Bowl narrative. Then they picked up the pace with the Buddy Holly-ish Come on Home.

In My Bones turned out to be classic Bobtown, a chirpy, blackly amusing tune about how to cheat the man in black when he makes a “certain visitation.” With its hushed ambience, This Is My Heart could have been an especially melancholy number from a Dolly Parton bluegrass record. Then the group built to a big, vamping peak with Kryptonite and its Hey Jude-style chorus.

The biggest surprise of the night, with Jost on cello again, was a slow, spare, hazy cover of Tom Petty’s American Girl: who knew the lyrics were so sad? They closed with the night’s most mighty, majestic number, No Man’s Land, sung with gospel-infused intensity by Dahlstrom. In a year of full-frontal assaults on women’s rights from Ohio all the way to the Mexican border, it’s a new national anthem:

No man’s words can still my voice
No man can tell me where I stand
No man’s will can take my choice
I am no man’s land

A Rapturous, Hauntingly Spare Solo Album From Enigmatic Cello Rock Songstress Serena Jost

The sheer hummability of cellist/multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost’s music contrasts with the opaqueness of her lyrics. In her music, nothing is ever as it seems despite all indications to the contrary. That enigmatic sensibility has served her well over the past fifteen years. The closest comparison is ELO’s Jeff Lynne, a similarly brilliant tunesmith whose signature sound blends classical ideas with rock, and has a similarly distinctively, elegant production style as well. Jost’s newest album, Up to the Sky – streaming at her music page – is her most ambitious to date. It’s a solo recording, just cello and vocals, recorded in the rich, reverberating sonics of St. Peter’s Church at 346 W 20th St. in Chelsea, where she’s playing the album release show on April 19 at 7:30 PM. Cover is $10; a reception will follow.

Window opens the album. Jost’s stark, ambered low chords, circling in a Philip Glass vein, anchor her clear, pensive vocals. A recurring shooting star reference adds to the nocturnal rapture and unease.

The influence of Jost’s frequent collaborator Amanda Thorpe shines through plaintively in The Cut, a canteringly hypnotic, Britfolk-tinged, plaintively imagistic lament. Likewise, the wave motion of Clement – just vocalese and cello – sets the stage for Great Conclusions. Playing this with her band, Jost cuts loose with a galloping, crescendoing intensity, but in this version, her pizzicato attack is muted, her vocals understated and clear, echoing Linda Thompson as the song’s gloomily allusive narrative winds out.

Hallway. another instrumental with vocalese, brings in a hazy late-afternoon sun, introducing the baroque-flavored vignette Happiness. “Happiness has come and gone without warning, just a lantern in the night.” Jost intones.

Lullaby is a melody much of the world knows from childhood; the cello adds a newly somber undercurrent. By contrast, It’s a Delight rises to an unexpectedly triumphant crescendo over the sparest, circling low-register riff. Jost works that dichotomy again in Silver Star, its images of escape and release over subtle variations on a mantra-like cello phrase. The album concludes, unresolved, with the fragmentary, echoing, mysterious Red Door. Fans of darkly individualistic songwriters from Carol Lipnik to Connie Converse will devour this. Indie classical people ought to check this out as well – for what it’s worth, Jost once arranged and led a fifty-cello performance of Terry Riley’s In C!

Is It Safe to Say That Murder Ballad Mondays Are Killer?

It took four months worth of Murder Ballad Mondays before somebody played Rock Salt and Nails. It’s one of the real classics of folk noir. And it’s well known. Populist folksinger Nevada Smith gets credited for it, but it’s unlike anything else in his catalog and has a vernacular that looks back as far as the 1850s. And it’s as disconsolate as it is vengeful: the violence is implied, and even then, not til the last verse. Bobtown guitarist and songwriter Karen Dahlstrom channeled that sadness with distance and understatement, saving her powerful wail for a creepy a-cappella performance of her own grim Old West outlaw ballad Streets of Pocatello , from her brilliant Idaho-themed album Gem State. Then she picked up her guitar and did a new one that was a lot quieter but just as eerie.

That’s Murder Ballad Mondays in a nutshell: elite performers having fun with deadly tales from across the centuries and from their own repertoire as well. So far, the two most popular covers at this well-attended monthly extravaganza seem to be Delia’s Gone and Henry Lee, referencing both Johnny Cash and Gillian Welch. But the originals are what people come for: organizers Jeff Morris and Ellia Bisker, better known as torchily menacing parlor pop duo Charming Disaster, pack a lot into two hours. The next one is Monday, January 18 at 8 PM at Branded Saloon in Ft. Greene (closest stop is Bergen St. on the 2/3) featuring ominous baritone crooner Sean Kershaw and other similarly minded acts.

Charming Disaster have treated crowds here to short sets at previous Murder Ballad Mondays installments; last time around, they did just a single number, the allusively torchy Ghost Story (although they played a full set at Pete’s Candy Store this past Saturday night, packed the place and delivered an actually very funny show that included both a devastatingly tongue-in-cheek Led Zep cover and a new one about breaking strings onstage).

A duo version of phantasmagorical circus rock/noir cabaret band Orphan Jane – accordionist Tim Cluff and his trumpeter – also joined the festivities last time out, firing off a furtive number simply titled Murder as well as The Mansion Song, a menacingly vaudevillian narrative whose message seems to be that it pays to be cautious when seeking revenge against the one-tenth-of-one-percent: they can afford a bigger army than you.

Other artists included art-rock luminary and multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost, who held the crowd rapt with a typically allusive new tale about murder on the gallery floor, and an icily doomed cover from the current Nordic art-pop catalog. And singer Karen Poliski worked a similar intensity as she went to the well for a chilling Handsome Family cover.

Murder and Mayhem in Brooklyn, Again

One of Brooklyn’s most unique music scenes is growing in the wilds of Fort Greene, where noir chamber pop connoisseurs Charming Disaster – Ellia Bisker of the darkly catchy Sweet Soubrette and Jeff Morris of the lushly orchestrated, latin-tinged, phantasmagorical Kotorino – host a monthly salon where artists from many different genres get together to explore the darkest side of songwriting. It’s only fitting that the latest installment of Murder Ballad Mondays would take place on the darkest day of the year, this December 21 at 8 PM at Branded Saloon. Featured artists include enigmatic art-rock cellist/chanteuse Serena Jost, haunting High Plains gothic songstress Karen Dahlstrom (of folk noir stars Bobtown), the luridly theatrical, Brechtian Orphan Jane, Americana singer-songwriters Karen Poliski and Terry Radigan and others.

One explanation for the monthly extravaganza’s popularity could be that the artists here don’t limit themselves to old Appalachian folk songs or Child ballads. They’re pushing the limits of how far murder ballads can go: who knows, maybe this could become more than a demimonde. As the turnout here proves, there’s no shortage of material, not to mention people who like creepy music. This past month’s lineup, in particular, featured some of New York’s elite songsmiths, who turned in some pretty amazing performances.

Jessi Robertson, with her impassioned, otherworldly, rustic blues voice, got the night started on a strong note with a morosely stately waltz. “Should have burned it to the ground, dance in the dark…it’s a sad old story,” she intoned, low and gloomy. Then she referenced Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles over a mesh of watery, open guitar chords.

Sharply literate Americana parlor pop chanteuse Robin Aigner followed with an almost gleeful take of Delia’s Gone – springboarding off the Johnny Cash version – and then reinvented Neil Young’s Down By the River as a brooding minor-key waltz. In between, she sang a brand-new song, a swinging, catchy oldtimey strut: “I can’t shut you up, I can’t shut you out but I can shoot you and put you in the ground,” she grinned, explaining that the victim was a composite of ex-boyfriends rather than a specific individual. Yikes!

Jessie Kilguss made her US debut on harmonium (she played it on her most recent European tour) on a riveting, soaringly enveloping take of the Nick Cave version of the old standard Henry Lee. as well as making her way through a rapt, stark take of an original, Hell Creek, backed by guitarist John Kengla’s icy, late Beatlesque chorus-pedal guitar. Guitarist Arthur Schupach led his Donald & Lydia duo project through another take of Henry Lee, this one based on the Jolie Holland version. Speaking of which, that’s who Ellis Dodi frontwoman Erica Diloreto brought to mind, throughout a mix of material including a hilarious acoustic punk tune where she dropped a whole slew of f-bombs on a clueless ex.

Juliet Strong played kinetic, rippling gospel and ragtime-fueled piano on a couple of originals, while Charming Disaster tantalized the crowd with a single tongue-in-cheek number about a couple of ghosts in love, pulsing with intricate, sophisticated vocal call-and-response between Bisker and Morris. And a familiar bass face from the Lower East Side scene took a haphazard turn on piano, drawing some chuckles with a bitter 6/8 ballad about killing the tech-obsessed, micromanaging boss from hell. A ghoulabilly number about doing in the sleazy front guy from a hydrofracking operation didn’t go over as well. And a cover of a brand-new, as-yet-untitled Karla Rose & the Thorns serial killer narrative – done as a dirgey bolero with horror-film chromatics – capsulized the danger of a guy with Lou Reed vocal range plundering the repertoire of an immensely more powerful singer. Which speaks to Murder Ballad Mondays’ value as lab for experimentation as much as entertainment.

Rasputina’s Iconic Cello Rock Hits a Devastatingly Intense Peak

This Halloween week’s first entry might be the best of them all. Consider for a minute that the original Rasputina lineup comprised Melora Creager, Serena Jost and Julia Kent: in cello rock circles, that’s the equivalent of Jagger, Richard, Wyman and Watts. Seriously. In the years or centuries – depending on which myth you subscribe to – since Rasputina basically invented the style, Creager has more or less become synonymous with the name. And her dark vision is a hell of a lot more consistent than the Rolling Stones.

For an artist who’s famously old-fashioned, Victorian corsets and all, the topic of the chilling and disarmingly brilliant new Rasputina album, Unknown, is strangely and disconcertingly digital. The songs deal with being hacked, maliciously and anonymously. For that reason, the album is not available online: it’s ten bucks at Rasputina‘s webpage (and at gigs) and worth every penny. The opening track, Curse Tablet sets the stage: this may be a solo album, but Creager multitracks her cello and her vocals, a one-woman chamber ensemble. It’s shocking to hear someone who’s made a career out of channeling a million different characters sounding as vulnerable and wounded as she does here. And yet, she can’t resist bringing in some of her usual sardonic humor on the bridge, a spoof of spammer keyword-ese.

The cello-metal anthem Pastoral Noir blackly and amusingly imagines a showdown between Vesta (Greek goddess of the hearth) and Pan (god of mischief), with a little keyboard torture and a punchline that screams for the repeat button…several times, because the vocals are so heavily processed. Sparrow-Hawk Proud raises the menace factor, a creepy minor-key vamp punctuated by jarring, distorted cadenzas: “I will forever keep you quiet,” intones the mysterious voice at the end of the connection, wherever that might be. After building a harrowing, pulsing backdrop, Unicorn Horn Mounted draws a savagely cartoonish portrait of snobbish Jeb Bush types contemplating a rare kill.

Once again, when least expected, Creager lets down her guard on the gently dancing Bridge Manners: “Reflecting ignorance of sophistication, and ignorant of courtly machination,” the ingenue at the center of the story takes centerstage despite herself: subtext anyone? The savagely waltzing anthem Indian Weed contemplates “What happens when virtue is turned around and preyed upon, made to hurt you,” as any secrets you might have entrusted to the cloud come raining down.

The instrumental title track whispers and wafts along with a ghostly ominousness. The unease continues throughout the surreal, Gorey-esque Emily Dickinson’s Trophy Envelope, which posits a competition between the poet and the Wizard of Oz: Dickinson wins on many fronts, not the least because she never changes her clothes. The creepy, circling Psychopathic Logic, which makes the connection between serial rape, murder and cyberterrorism, is bookended by two instrumentals: the apprehensively crescendoing Catstkill gothic Steady Rain and a graveyard-scape called Untitled I.

Sensed, a moody acoustic guitar-and-strings ballad, ponders a last-day-on-earth scenario between “ghost lovers” – it’s Hannah vs. the Many’s heartbreaking Jordan Baker, but a thousand times creepier. “When you’re traumatized, you take everything as scary, you don’t talk anymore, you just keep it buried,” Creager intones on the murder ballad Taken Scary. For anyone who’s ever been screwed by a cybernerd, or stalked online, it’s delicious vengeance: Creager’s distorted slasher solo is pure bliss. The album ends on a somber note with the instrumental Hymn of the Wormwood Women.

Rasputina’s most essential album is still probably Oh Perilous World, Creager’s scathing 2007 indictment of Bush/Cheney surveillance state duplicity and mass murder, but this is a masterpiece in its own right – and a strong contender for best release of 2015. Watch for it on the Best Albums of 2015 page here at the end of the year. Rasputina are currently on fall tour; their next gig is at the Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Avenue in Asheville, North Carolina at 9 PM on October 24.

Sweet Soubrette and Kotorino Haunt Joe’s Pub

Did Ellia Bisker, leader of elegant existentialist chamber pop band Sweet Soubrette, make a quantum leap…or did she have those lush, poignant, unselfconsciously brilliant songs in her all along? Her emergence among New York’s songwriting elite dovetailed suspiciously with her joining forces with the more established and similarly brilliant Jeff Morris – leader of latin/circus rock/art-rock luminaries Kotorino – in the murder ballad project Charming Disaster. Whatever the case, the Sweet Soubrette/Kotorino twinbill at Joe’s Pub a week ago had to be one of this year’s best New York concerts, hands down.

Sweet Soubrette have been through several incarnations: the current version, with its terse, richly arranged horn charts and frequent echoes of classic soul music, is by far the best. Heather Cole’s violin dipped and soared over Bob Smith’s nimble bass and Darrell Smith’s jazz-inflected, low-key drums as the horns – John Waters on trumpet, Cecil Scheib on trombone and Erin Rogers on alto sax – provided lustrous, vintage Memphis-inspired, resonant harmonies. Bisker played ukulele, singing in a confident but angst-drenched alto that really kicked into gear in the lows: she’s made a quantum leap as a singer as well.

A coy gold-digger’s tale was an early highlight. On album, the band does Burning City – inspired by the account of the bombing of Berlin in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five – as moodily dancing art-rock, but here it had a more purposeful drive and heavier gravitas. The newest songs were the best: the sardonically pensive waltz Wake Up When pondered how little we retain from what should be life lessons, while Talk To Me explored the futility of breaking out of one’s aloneness and actually communicating. The catchiest number of the entire night, Ghost Ship, bopped along on a new wave Motown bassline, Bisker’s deadpan, staccato vocals building on a sort of catch/release dynamic: it would be a standout track in the Serena Jost catalog. The set wound up with the understatedly venomous oldschool soul-inflected Big Celebrity and its thinly veiled references to gentrifier status-grubbing, then the broodingly balmy, doomed wee-hours scenario Night Owls, and finally some comic relief in the form of a song-length shout-out to Anais Nin. “Let’s find out what’s stronger, my pen or your sword,” Bisker demanded.

She returned to the stage as Morris’ femme fatale foil in Korotino, who killed it, as usual. On any given night, they might be the best live band in town: that they could earn a roaring ovation by closing with a suicide song speaks for itself. While Morris has gone deeper and deeper into his pan-latin side in recent months, this show focused more on the band’s phantasmagorical, surrealist rock catalog. The dizzyingly syncopated, doomed minor-key cha-cha Never Had a Chance was a red herring of sorts, fueled by the devious rimshot drive of drummer Jerome Morris (Jeff’s brother) in tandem with Mike Brown’s sinewy bass and the horn section of Gato Loco‘s Stefan Zeniuk (who switched from bass sax, to bass clarinet and then tenor sax) and lively trumpeter Jesse Selengut. Violinist Estelle Bajou’s menacingly slitherly lines mirrored Cole’s approach in Sweet Soubrette – or was it the other way around?

Morris is another guy who’s never sung better, coming across as sort of an exasperated Joel Grey at the peak of his powers, armed with a hollowbody Gibson, the awestruck, epically shapeshifting steampunk adventure Oh My God giving him plenty of chances to air out his pipes. From there the band made their way through moodily strutting Weimar cabaret rock, building to a dixieland-flavored peak with the horns.The frantically swinging circus rock of Going Out Tonight contrasted with the angst-fueled, eerily misty vocal harmonies of the angst-fueled waltz Planes Land.

The rest of the set worked the dynamics up and down without a respite: it was a pretty wild ride. They opened the droll, artsy new wave-flavored Sea Monster with a chugging ska bass-and-drum intro and built from there to the deliriously balletesque, swirling latin noir What Is This Thing. An especially menacing, nocturnal take of North Star State, Morris explained nonchalantly, explored the simple, everyday chore of breaking your girlfriend out of the nuthouse. They closed with a suspensefully dynamic take of that suicide anthem, Dangle Tango. Kotorino are at Rock Shop on Oct 3 at 8, opening for the even more theatrical Funkrust Brass Band; cover is $10. And Charming Disaster play Pete’s on Sept 30 at 10.

Robin Aigner Brings Her Bittersweet, Richly Lyrical, Picturesque Americana to Barbes

Robin Aigner is one of the most darkly entertaning performers in New York. Long sought after as both a frontwoman and harmony singer – her time in chamber pop luminaries Pinataland ought to be at leat semi-legendary – she’s just as strong a songwriter. Her music draws equal on 19th century folk, Prohibition-era swing and oldtime hillbilly songs, with the occasional detour into Balkan sounds. And she can be hilarious: her lyrics are all about subtext, and double entendres, and history. She’s written about molasses floods in WWI-era Boston, inept Williamsburg buskers and imagined romances between such improbable figures as Irving Berlin and the first woman to come in through Ellis Island (she was Irish). And Aigner is an unreconstructed romantic – her characters get all bumped and bruised no matter what century they’re in, but they don’t quit. She and her charming chamber pop band Parlour Game are playing Barbes on August 8 at 8 PM, followed at 10 by Banda de los Muertos, a supergroup of NYC jazz types playing rousingly anthemic Sinaloa-style Mexican ranchera music for brass band.

Aigner is also an impresario: her previous gig was a mind-bogglingly eclectic, surprising, sometimes downright haunting night of Tom Waits covers at Freddy’s, featuring a diverse cast of characters including but hardly limited to Mamie Minch, Serena Jost, Pierre de Gaillande, Brooke Watkins, Dave Benjoya, Andrew Sovine and numerous others. She also put together the show before that, a magical night at the Jalopy with folk noir songwriter Erica Smith, rockabilly and retro guitar maven Monica Passin a.k.a. L’il Mo and devious accordion-and-violin duo the Wisterians. “Every month is World Wine Month,” Aigner announced to the audience at the Jalopy gig, and while she didn’t indulge in more than a couple of glasses during her set, that comment set the tone. Playing solo on guitar, she opened with Delores from Florence, an allusive yet minutely detailed tale of transcontinental love gone wrong set to a soaringly cantering, flamenco-tinged waltz.

After that, she did See You Around, a broodingly pulsing, wryly wistful number told from the point of view of a woman struggling to get past being smitten by a guy who clearly has no use for her in daylight. Pearl Polly Adler – an innuendo-packed shout-out to the legendary FDR-era bordello owner – looked back to early 20th century pop, when 90% of the stuff coming out of New York had a tasty, bracing klezmer tinge. For that matter, so did Kiss Him When He’s Down, a jaunty endorsement for giving a roofie to your significant other – or insignificant other – in order to get what you want.

Switching to uke, Aigner drew plenty of laughs with Crazy, a hilariously detailed litany of the kind of weirdos a woman can date if she sees fit. She went for darker ambience with the plaintive, alienated war survivor’s tale El Paraiso, then picked things up again with the jaunty Irving and Annie – Annie thinks Irving can play sonatas (he can’t) and later on in the song, she references Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island), which used to serve as a quasi-quarantine and was the site of one of New York’s first hospitals. After another moody, low-key number, Aigner teamed with Watkins on accordion to wind up her set with Greener, a soaringly anxious, bitter post-party alienation anthem that works on innumerable levels. If we’re lucky, she’ll play some and maybe all of these songs at Barbes.