New York Music Daily

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Tag: singer-songwriter

Tamara Hey Brings Her Wickedly Funny, Smart Story-Songs to the Rockwood

Tamara Hey’s soaring voice has charmed and captivated audiences here in her native New York for over a decade. She writes meticulously detailed, magically crystallized three-minute pop songs which, just like her vocals, are disarmingly deep. She’s also one of the great wits in music: an edgy sense of humor infuses everything she writes, even in the gloomiest moments. And her punchlines have O. Henry irony and Amy Rigby bittersweetness.

Yet even in Hey’s most optimistic scenarios, there are always dark clouds somewhere in the distance. She also happens to  be the rare conservatory-trained musician who doesn’t waste notes or let her chops get in the way of saying something as directly as possible, musically or lyrically. She’s playing the small room at the Rockwood on July 1 at 6 PM as part of an intriguing lineup. You know how it is at that place: run ‘em in, run ‘em, off without any regard for what the segues might be like, but in this case the 5 PM act, lyrical parlor pop band Paper Citizen make a good opener. And the 10 PM and midnight acts – southern gothic keyboardist/singer Sam Reider and guitarslinger Mallory Feuer’s fiery power trio the Grasping Straws – are also worth seeing, if you can hold out that long on a work night.

Hey played her most recent Rockwood gig to a packed house back in March. “Thanks for choosing me over Stormy Daniels,” she grinned, appreciating that everybody wasn’t pulling up CNN on their phones instead. Hey’s hilarious opening number, Your Mother Hates Me set the stage. Anybody who’s been in a relationship long enough to meet the ‘rents can relate. The resentment simmering just beneath Hey’s steady fingerpicking was visceral, and the jokes – especially the one about guys’ moms assuming that the girlfriend is a slut – were too good to give away.

She took her time working her way into Miserably Happy, the title of her 2008 album, drawing a few chuckles along the way as she picked up steam – it was like Blondie’s Dreaming, but wide awake, and with a stronger singer out front. Hey went back into stingingly funny mode after that with another new one, Rainy Rainy Cloud, a drivingly anthemic, snarky, spot-on portrait of a jealous frenemy.

She followed We Lean on Cars – a bittersweetly vivid portrait of North Bronx adolescent anomie – with Umbrella, a similarly imagistic, mutedly jazzy rainy-day tableau. Round Peg, a subtly slashing commentary on women’s body image and ridiculous societal pressures, was next and drew rousing applause.

Hey dedicated a stripped-down take of the powerpop gem Somebody’s Girl to fellow songsmith Lorraine Leckie, who was in the house and had dedicated her song Nobody’s Girl to Hey at a recent Mercury Lounge gig.

Isabelle, a plaintive folk-rock ballad with an evil twist, pondered the potential of a newlywed friend getting subsumed in her new marriage. Then Hey picked up the pace again with Drive and its understated escape subtext. 

After Girl Talk, which rose from a goth-tinged bassline to a powerpop insistence, Hey closed with David #3 – an absurdly funny tale about guys women really should stay away from – and encored with the gentle Thanks a Lot, New York, NY, a shout-out from an artist who doesn’t take her hometown for granted. Something like this could keep you enchanted on the first of the month down on Allen Street.

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Poignant, Pensive Brilliance on Jessie Kilguss’ Allusive, Eclectic, Wickedly Tuneful New Album

You’d think that someone who’d taken a star turn in stage productions with Daniel Day Lewis and Marianne Faithfull would stick with a successful theatrical career. But Jessie Kilguss was drawn to music – and that’s our victory and the theatre world’s loss. Over the past decade, she’s become one of the most haunting singers in any style of music. Her delivery is intimate, like she’s letting you in on a secret – whether that might be a sly joke, an innuendo or something far more sinister. While she’s best known as a purveyor of folk noir, her back catalog spans from witchy art-rock to anthemic janglerock to Richard and Linda Thompson-esque, Britfolk-influenced stylings.

Her new album The Fastness – streaming at Spotify – is not about velocity. It’s about refuge. The title is a North Sea term for a secluded hideaway: a place to hold fast. That sheltering theme resonates mightily through a mix of imagistic, often poignant songs blending elements of 60s soul, 80s goth, new wave and art-rock. And Kilguss’ voice has never soared more mightily or murmured more mordantly than here on this album. She and her first-class band are playing the album release show this Thursday, June 28 at 8:30 PM at the downstairs third stage at the Rockwood; cover is $10.

With Kirk Schoenherr’s contrasting layers of guitar – icy and Siouxsie-esque in the left channel, watery and organ-timbred in the right – the album’s opening track The Master is an elegaic masterpiece. In usual Kilguss fashion, it’s enigmatic to the extreme. “Who will be the oracle when he is gone?” is the final refrain. A Bernie Sanders parable, maybe, or a more ancient, mythological reference? 

Kilguss follows that with Spain, a guardedly optimistic if understatedly brooding update on 60s soul balladry, spiced with guitar grit over the calmly swaying pulse of John Kengla’s bass and Rob Heath’s drums. Strangers comes across as a wistful mashup of Guided By Voices and Blondie, while Dark Corners of Your Mind follows a hypnotically vamping, psychedelic path, akin to the Frank Flight Band with a woman out front. Kengla’s bass dances amid the sheets of rainy-day guitars as Kilguss ponders the danger of being subsumed by the demands of a relationship.

New Start is a surreal, unlikely mashup of classic 60s C&W and echoey new wave, but Kilguss manages to make it work, all the way through one of the album’s catchiest choruses, awash in the waves from her harmonium. Hell Creek – a co-write with Kengla – is one of the murder ballads she writes so well. With its lingering atmospherics, Kilguss references current-day atomization and how its ramifications can do far more damage than just playing tricks with your mind.

Likewise, Rainy Night in Copenhagen has aptly echoey, Cure-like ambience. Bridge the Divide is the monster anthem here, an eerily propulsive Laurel Canyon psychedelic verse giving way to soaring new wave on the chorus.

What Is It You Want From Me is the closest thing here to Kilguss’ purist pop masterpiece Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, from her 2014 album Devastate Me. She winds up this cycle with with the metaphorically-loaded Edge of Something, an easy place to fall off one way or another. Another triumph for one of the most unselfconsciously brilliant tunesmiths to emerge from this city in recent years and a strong contender for best rock record of 2018.

Another Brilliantly Allusive, Eclectic Album From Haunting Singer/Multi-Instrumentalist Elisa Flynn

For over ten years, Elisa Flynn has been one of the most spellbinding and distinctive voices in New York music. Her songs are rich with history. They sparkle with images and tackle some heavy questions. Her melodies range from moody Radiohead complexity, to scruffy indie vignettes, to stark detours toward noir cabaret and 19th century art-song. Flybn’s vocals – full, meticulously modulated, often soaring, sometimes wrenchingly plaintive – are the shiraz that fuels the narratives on her latest album The World Has Ever Been on Fire, streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing Picasso Machinery, 43 Broadway at Wythe in South Williamsburg on April 27 at around 9 PM. 

On the new record, Flynn is a one-woman orchestra, playing all the: guitars, banjo and drums. The Ballad of Richie and Margot rocks pretty hard, with a dreampop edge: spare, emphatic verse, big enveloping vintage Sonic Youth chorus, bitingly crescendoing stadium-rock guitar solo in the middle. She builds hypnotically ringing, pulsing grey-sky ambience with variations on a catchy, simple guitar hook in Before He Went Down – its doomed storyline ends suddenly, yet in the exact place where it makes sense.

Flynn picks out a spiky, distantly Middle Eastern-tinged vamp as Lost in the Woods shuffles along. “Maybe I’ll be addicted to those sleeping pills as well,”she muses in Syd, a catchy, darkly watery anthem. Paula Carino comes to mind: “I can only write these words in a kind of a trance…I can only feel like a girl when my lips are far too red.”

With its iush bed of multitracked, clanging guitars, the distantly tango-inflected escape anthem Wolves echoes the gloomy, anthemic intensity of Timber, the standout track on Flynn’s 2008 album Songs About Birds and Ghosts. The slowly swaying 6/8 ballad Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument – inspired by the Fort Greene memorial to the legions of US Revolutionary War soldiers who died in British captivity – is the album’s majestic centerpiece, a grim conflagration scenario. “Would you lend e your hand to climb out of the hold?” Flynn asks: the answer is all the more shattering for being left unsaid. It might be the single best song of 2018.

Veronica rises from a spare, rustic, allusively blue-infused one-chord banjo tune to a big, echoey, crashing full-band crescendo. The chiming, echoing No Diamond is even more hypnotic, an allusively wintry tableau capped off by an unexpectedly roaring guitar outro.

Sugar has a stomping, vamping mid-80s Throwing Muses vibe. The album winds up with Caution, a guarded love song that begins as a solo banjo number and then morphs into swirling, pouncing trip-hop. The contrast between sharp, translucent tunesmithing, Flynn’s enigmatic images and her strong, forceful vocals make this one of the best rock albums of 2018.

Fun fact: Flynn was a founding member of cult favorite kitchen-sink noiserockers Bunny Brains!

Lyrical, Mesmerizing Psychedelia From Rose Thomas Bannister in Williamsburg Saturday Night

Psychedelic rock bands aren’t known for searing, literary lyrics. It’s even rarer to find a psychedelic group with a charismatic woman out in front. Likewise, it’s just as uncommon for a woman songwriter with an acoustic guitar to be leading a great psychedelic band. Saturday night at the brand-new Wonders of Nature in Williamsburg, the crowd got all that from Rose Thomas Bannister and her mesmerizing backing unit.

She and lead guitarist Bob Bannister are the closest thing we have to an American Richard & Linda Thompson – except that these two don’t hit each other over the head with things (or at least it doesn’t seem so). Her career dates back to the past decade in Nebraska, where she sharpened her hauntingly spare, broodingly allusive “great plains gothic” songcraft. His dates back a decade before to post-no wave bands like The Scene Is Now, who are still going strong.

With a wry grin, he bowed the strings of his Strat for “ambience,” as he put it, as the undulating, enigmatic opening number, Sandhll slowly coalesced, drummer Ben Engle’s subtle cymbals mingling with bassist Debby Schwartz’s nimbly melodic, trebly, punchy countermelodies and violinist Concetta Abbate’s ethereally tectonic washes. In this context, The Real Penelope and its achingly Homeric references were reinvented as a sort of mashup of the Grateful Dead’s China Cat Sunflower and Rubber Soul-era Beatles.

Appropriating religious imagery and turning it inside out is a device that goes back centuries – Rumi, for example – but Rose Thomas Bannister is unsurpassed at it. The best song of the night was a brand-new one, Heaven Is a Wall, a prime example. She opened it with a hypnotic, cirlcing fingerpicked riff, then it morphed into a sarcastic march as she let loose a litany of fire-and-brimstone imagery straight out of the Mike Pence speechbook. Likewise, the gritty, swinging In the Alley and its understatedly Tom Waits-like tableau.

The rest of the set rose and fell, from Sutherland, a misty, ominous murder ballad, to the jauntily sarcastic Like Birds Do (a subtle Macbeth reference); the grim, claustrophobic narrative Jephthah’s Daughter, and Houston, an escape anthem recast as late-60s blue-eyed soul. Terse, sinewy, slinky Strat lines blended with stately violin, leaping and swooping bass and Engle’s low-key propulsion. They closed with their one cover of the night, a pulsing, emphatic take of Ivor Cutler’s Women of the World: Bannister knows as well as anyone else that the future of this country is female.

Cellist Leah Coloff opened with an acerbic solo set of her own, a mix of stark blues phrasing, edgy Patti Smith-style anthems and bracing detours toward free jazz and the avant garde. Franklin Bruno and his power trio the Human Hands closed the night with a set of haphazardly punchy, catchy, sardonically lyrical tunes that brought to mind acts as diverse as Cheap Trick, Big Star and the Dream Syndicate. Afterward, Bob Bannister spun a mix of obscure 70s dancefloor tracks over the PA; everybody danced.

Rapturous Musical Cross-Pollination at Women Between Arts at the New School

Yesterday was the fourth installment of Luisa Muhr’s new interdisciplinary series Women Between Arts at the New School. One would think that there would be several series in this city devoted to women whose work crosses the line between different artistic disciplines, but this appears to be the only one at present. What’s new with Muhr’s series is that it isn’t just a place for women artists who defy categorization: it’s also a space where adventurous established artists can branch out beyond their usual practice.

Case in point: Jean Rohe. She’s known as a songwriter and a strong, distinctive acoustic guitarist (to call her a folksinger would be reductionistic). Throughout her tantalizingly brief performance yesterday’s show, she did a lot of storytelling.

This narrative was harrowing. Rohe was named after her paternal grandmother, who killed herself on December 9, 1961. Tragically, just like her father, Rohe didn’t find out about the suicide until years later. That revelation springboarded an “odyssey,” as she termed it, to find out the truth and what pushed the woman over the edge.

Like many of the projects that find their way to Women Between Arts, it’s a work in progress, and a hauntingly captivating one. Rohe’s fingerpicking channeled distant delta blues grimness with her opening number, then she referenced the Penelope myth with a more expansive, anthemic tune. Her final song, she told the crowd, was set in Hades: “In New Jersey, as we all know,” she mused, drawing a handful of chuckles. The narrative saw her climbing into her grandmother’s old black Buick at a stoplight, to find her crying and incommunicado, a ghost before her time.

Noa Fort is known as a composer of translucent piano jazz informed by classical music as well as her own Israeli heritage. After guiding the crowd through a brief meditation, she had them write down their innermost feelings on slips of paper so she could channel and maybe exorcise those issues. As it turned out, this was a very  uneasy crowd. Fort plucked around inside the piano gingerly, George Crumb style before launching into a series of eerie belltones, close harmonies and finally a woundedly descending anthem. She closed with a somewhat elegaic but ultimately optimistic ballad where a calmly participatory crowd carried the melody upwards. 

Trina Basu, one of the great violinists in Indian classical music, leads the pioneering carnatic string band Karavika. This time out, she played a rapturous homage to 16th century mystic Meera Bai, joined by Orakel tabla player Roshni Samlal and singer Priya Darshini. Basu explained that she’d discovered the controversial, pioneering proto-feminist poet via the work of 1960s singer Lakshmi Shankar.

Basu opened the trio’s first epic number with elegant spirals that spun off into sepulchral harmonics, then built steam, rising up and down in a series of graceful pizzicato exchanges with the tabla. Darshini sang the second long piece, Basu and Samlal matching its poignancy, an ancient raga theme sliced and diced through the prism of progressive jazz. 

 The next installment of Women Between Arts is Jan 21 at 3 PM at the New School’s Glass Box Theatre (i.e. the new Stone) at 55 W 13th St., with Meredith Monk collaborator Ellen Fisher, lustrously haunting singer/composer Sara Serpa with cellist Erik Friedlander and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, and Appalachian music maven Anna Roberts-Gevalt.

A Long-Overdue Retrospective From the Greatest Songwriter You Might Not Know

Back in the radio-and-records era, it was common for a band to put out a greatest-hits album to fulfill their obligation to the label in order to get out of a record deal. Mark Breyer, longtime leader of cult favorite powerpop band Skooshny, put his together to get a record deal. Which makes sense in a way: Breyer is nothing if not counterintuitive. The album, Matchless Gifts – out from Kool Kat Musik and streaming at Bandcamp – is a lavish, smartly assembled double-cd compilation of the best tracks he’s released since 2006 under the name Son of Skooshny, often in collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Steve Refling. For those new to the Breyer songbook, this is as good a way as any to get to know one of the greatest songwriters alive, and it’s one of the best albums of 2017.

The layers of jangly guitars and dreamy sonics draw obvious comparisons to Australian psychedelic/spacerock legends the Church, reinforced by Breyer’s brilliant lyrics – his double entendres and wordplay rank with the Church’s Steve Kilbey, and Elvis Costello, and Rachelle Garniez. And the songs are catchy beyond belief, drawing on decades of clang and twang – Carl Newman is another reference point. Yet Breyer’s catalog doesn’t really evoke any band other than his old one. This guy is a real individualist, a first-ballot Hall of Famer who might take you by surprise.

And much as Breyer can’t resist a good pun – it’s impossible to count all of them here – these songs are sad. The devil is always in the details: Breyer has a rare eye for them. The one that might rip your face off more than any of the others, The Subtle Eye, is actually a brisk, balmy number and one of the gentlest songs here:

Teddy lifts me to a cloud
To protect me from an angry crowd
We sit and watch the spectacle below
Teddy died too young for her to go

See, Teddy is a dog. She appears in a dream, after appearances by now-deceased parents who, if these cameos are characteristic, were real cheerful earfuls (NOT). Humans will betray you, but many other species won’t. And they care enough about you to visit you after they’re gone, if only to let you know that they’re ok. In his last verse, Breyer promises to do the same: who knows what the subtle eye can see, right?

The boisterous opening anthem, Just a Test is irresistibly funny, but quaint diner food turns out to have a surprise in it, and eventually Breyer declares that “I want the other actors dead instead !” He’s referring to a tv show, but obviously there’s more to it.

“You left a note on my door, I found the footnote on the floor,” he announces as Spine, a big, enveloping seduction athem gets underway: foreshadowing is a huge part of Breyer’s M.O. A picturesque, bittersweetly romantic stroll through North Hollywood, No Ho may be conceptually funny – nobody walks in LA, right? – but you can see the ending coming a mile away, and it’s bleak.

Likewise, don’t let the blase calm 70s folk-pop sheen of Half of the World fool you. It deals with issues of perception and drunken yoga, with a coda that’s way too good to give away. Science Changes Everything, with its litany of math and physics metaphors, follows the same pattern, as does Dizzy – a dead ringer for the catchiest stuff on the Church’s Blurred Crusade album. “When more is less you use subtraction, reduce it to a fraction,” Breyer calmly intones.

His images invite plenth of debate. What does the object of affection In Mid-Century Modern do when she visits the justice of the peace? Regret, disillusion, and alienation bordering on despondency are everywhere. “I had that flat but it wasn’t home, you had a cat but you were alone,” Breyer relates in Sorry, another contrast between dreamy, Church-like sonics and richly imagistic, grim narrative.

Good Morning, Gail Warning may take place in an ashram kitchen, but Arthur Schlenger’s eerily reverberating guitars and keys are pure David Lynch soundtrack. “Troubles brew, bubbles rise,” Breyer relates in How Does It End, glistening nocturne swirling through an allusive tale of fractured family ties.

“Take apart your Japanese contraption – douse the charcoal, tear the plastic tent,” Breyer implores in Candy Air: meanwhile, the cat’s under the house and won’t come out. “May I remove your elevator shoes?” he asks in The Right Idea, backed by a plaintively lingering web of twelve-string guitars that leave no doubt how this story is going to end.

Some of these tracks rock pretty hard – Knee Deep, one of the few more optimistic anthems here; the surreal Kate’s Green Phone, which may or may not be about daydrinking and unrealistic expectations; the autobiographical Untold History, which traces an allusively harrowing Cold War childhood narrative; and Another Time, a Costello-esque account of dealing with somebody from outer space. And Bare Bones reaches toward classic punk blast and thud: it’s the closest thing to Breyer’s old band here.

In typical fashion, he saves some of the best songs for the bonus disc. Jeff Peters’ guitar nicks a familiar Angelo Badalementi film noir riff for the doomed trajectory of You Can’t Love Me:

Thank god you’re farsighted instead of near
It might be the only thing keeping you here

And Love’s Not Impossible, with Michael Meros’ hilarious early 80s pop quote, offers a tantalizing flicker of hope, even as the drizzle grows more impenetrable.

In the meantime, Breyer hasn’t slowed down. His latest single, The New South – presumably from yet another formidable album – has unexpected country flavor and a typically sardonic plotline. 

Phil Ochs – A Halloween Appreciation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

80s Psychedelic Rock Cult Hero Russ Tolman at the Top of His Uneasy Game at Pete’s Last Week

It feels so good to be alive.

That’s the punchline of a song called Shot You Down. In context, it’s one of the most vengefully delicious lyrics ever written. It’s arguably the best track on True West’s 1982 cult classic Drifters album. In his Pete’s Candy Store debut Thursday night, such that it was, True West bandleader Russ Tolman didn’t play that one. But he did play Hollywood Holiday. That’s the title track of the group’s first ep, a snarling mashup of post-Velvets rock, Americana and psychedelia.

The music media at the time called that stuff “paisley underground.” It’s a horribly inaccurate term. True West and their contemporaries the Dream Syndicate, Long Ryders, Green on Red and a whole bunch of other great bands weren’t exactly underground. As the mergers and acquisitions of the deregulated Reagan 80s devastated the radio waves, college radio suddenly was the closest thing to Spotify available at the time. All those bands ruled the college charts. 

And fashion had nothing to do with it. While most kids of the era were bopping to the cheesy sounds of DX7 synthesizers, these groups clanged out a gritty, sometimes trippy sound with the volume and fearlessness of punk but also a country twang and a willingness to go beyond punk’s three-minute marker.

The original incarnation of True West didn’t last long – they broke up in 1985. Tolman reunited the band for a memorable couple of  tours in the late zeros, and most auspiciously, joined forced with his old guitar sparring partner Richard McGrath and a series of collaborators for a well-received west coast tour last year.

Tolman’s a band guy – solo acoustic isn’t his default setting. But with one anthem after another, he reaffirmed that if anything, he’s an even better songwriter than he was thirty-plus years ago. On the surface, Hollywood Holiday is about a sleazy hookup. But it also might be about a murder. In very few words, Tolman built a series of scenarios which could have gone any number of ways: it’s up to the listener to figure out how they resolve, if at all.

And the tunesmithing was sublime. As with his lyrics, an unease and a frequent gallows humor pervade his music. The breakup tune Marla Jane and the wryly boisterous Something About a Rowboat – which as it turns out recounts a thwarted booze-fueled pickup scenario – were among the catchiest. Several others, notably the surrealistically apt Two Drinks From Genius brought to mind Tolman’s old college bandmate Steve Wynn, who was in the house. Was Tolman going to go up the fretboard for those two evil little chordlets as the chorus of Hollywood Holiday turned around? Yesssssss! He closed with a vicious, 60-style garage-psych number: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking To It: “You can sign my name to the story, because I won’t,” he intoned over its minor-key changes.

Shows like this you walk away from thinking to yourself, damn, after all these years, it still feels so good to be alive. Not to give anything away, but we may be seeing a lot more of Tolman in New York in the coming months: watch this space!

Joshua Garcia Brings His Harrowing, Relevant Tunesmithing to a Cozy West Village Spot

When describing a singer-songwriter, the term “troubadour” is typically misused to the most ridiculous extent possible. Most of the culprits are part of the corporate publicity  machine, or those who still kiss up to it, probably because they’ve been kissing up to it for so long that they’ve forgotten that it has nothing left for them. But that’s another story.

In the Middle Ages, the troubadours – a French word – were the CNN of Europe. Making their way precariously from town to town, through thickets of bandits – with whom they undoubtedly shared more than we’ll ever know – they carried news, and rumors, and often outright falsehoods about what was going on in the wider world. For some mead and a meal and a bed, they’d keep the night going with drinking songs and sex songs, and maybe there’d be a jam session at the end. Relics of this ancient ritual persist in bars around the world.

The obvious conclusion is that in the age of CNN, there’s hardly a need for troubadours. But in an era when so much news is no more reliable than the apocryphal tales spread by well-traveled, hardworking guys picking up bits and pieces of information here and there and weaving them into a semi-plausible whole, maybe we need to rethink that conclusion. That’s where somebody like Joshua Garcia comes in.

Garcia sings in a strong, confident baritone that harks back to the more purposeful folk voices of the 1950s folk revival: in other words, he isn’t trying to be Dylan or, for that matter, John Mayer. Likewise, his guitar picking is steady, and fluid, and fluent in several bluesy styles. He writes in images: rather than telling you what’s going on, he gives you an audio movie to figure out. He’s got a deadpan sense of humor that can be very grim, which makes sense considering who’s in the Oval Office right now.

At his show at the American Folk Art Museum a couple of weeks ago, you could have heard a pin drop. “I’m not used to playing for so many of you,” he grinned, but that will change. His songs are topical, but in the style of a Spike Lee movie rather than a news program. The best one was That’s the Way You Drop a Bomb, a matter-of-fact, picturesque account of what the crew of the Enola Gay were told to expect on their way to and back from killing hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians. An old story, no question, but one with immense relevance when fire and fury drip from greedy lips at White House news conferences.

Garcia opened his set with an aphoristic catalog of things that he was going to buy. Some were concrete, many of them were grandiose, and eventually he came to the point where he’d mention a few of the things he wasn’t going to buy. Those, he’d leave to you. Guess what they were.

He also played a couple of brooding narratives about immigrant life. The first and more allusive one looked at the dismal daily routine of his Mexican-American immigrant grandmother, a California factory worker in the 1950s. The more harrowing one, a chronicle of spousal abuse was unselfconsciously tender and dedicated to his mom. Obviously, domestic violence is hardly the exclusive domain of immigrants or working people, but there’s no question that societies where prosperity is not monopolized by a robber baron class have lower rates of violent crime. Garcia didn’t say any of that outright: he let his song speak for itself. He closed the set a-cappella, a brave move that worked like a charm on the crowd.

His next gig is a short set at 7 PM on Sept 2 at Caffe Vivaldi followed eventually at 8 by Jeremy Aaron, a good acoustic guitarist who writes socially aware topical songs, and then clever, playful swing/oldtimey Americana accordionist-singer Erica Mancini at 8:30. 

And the weekly Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum – Manhattan’s best and arguably most popular listening room for pretty much all styles of acoustic music – resumes on September 22 at 6 PM with acoustic Americana tunesmith Rodrigo Aranjuelo. and gothic Americana duo Thoughtdream 

An Allusively Intense, Psychedelic New Album by Larkin Grimm

Multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Larkin Grimm gets pigeonholed as freak-folk, probably because her music is mostly acoustic But that’s a box she doesn’t fit into. She can wail to match Yoko at her most assaultive if she wants, but she’s just as likely to soar gently over an artsy, psychedelic backdrop. Her latest album Chasing an Illusion is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing Sunnyvale at 8 PM tomorrow night, June 8; cover is $15. Renata Zeiguer’s trippy, creepy Prozac rock project Cantina opens the night at 7. Grimm is also at Planeta, 295 E 8th St. on June 16, time and cover TBA.

Grimm recorded the album with what sounds like a vast cast of performers  – neither her site nor her Bandcamp page lists them – at Martin Bisi’s legendary Gowanus basement space, BC Studios. The natural reverb on the recording – which was done live to max out the sonics – is subtle yet vividly alive. Grimm, who typically wears her cards close to the vest, explains the album as being influenced by Ornette Coleman, and a pivotal moment when she ran into a number of her major influences, Ravi Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders among them, at Coleman’s funeral.

There’s a distinct Indian influence throughout the album’s eight often epic tracks. The opener, Ah Love is Oceanic Pleasure is a lush, rubato raga-rock soundscape of sorts, awash in austere strings, various plucked instruments and even a sax fluttering in the backdrop, high in the clouds. “You have to choose your freedom,” is the refrain.

Grimm’s harp flickers and ripples over a bittersweetly Lynchian Orbison-pop vamp throughout Beautifully Alone, which rises to a teeth-clenched midtown Manhattan scenario.. “I wanna be alone dangerously alone, beautifully alone,” she asserts.

Another raga-rock piece, Fear Transforms into Love (Journey in Turiya…) tingles with harp glissandos; true to the title, it reaches majestic, triumphant peak. I Don’t Believe You has a similar sweep with echoes of 80s dreampop, like the Cocteau Twins but more organic. “I wish that you would die, so that I could play outside,” Grimm laments. Yikes!

On the Floor contrasts Grimm’s balmy vocals with a simple, gritty electric guitar and violin arrangement. Tom Van Buskirk’s elegant drums provide a hypnotically symphonic sway for A Perfect World, a lush return to acoustic dreampop. Then Grimm goes in an unexpected 90s trip-hop direction with Keeping You Alive: her blithe understatement belies her…um…grim exasperation. The album winds up with the title track, a rustic blues amped with trumpet sailing over burning distorted guitar. “I feel dead inside,” Grimm rails as it gets underway and finally reaches an anguished peak. For those who wish that Nico had made Chelsea Girl with Arthur Lee instead, this is for you.