New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: singer-songwriter

Kalyani Singh Brings Her Breathtaking Voice and Quietly Powerful, Allusive Songs to the Rockwood

In 2020, when live musical performance in New York was outlawed, singer-songwriters made a big comeback. And a lot of band people joined that crowd. After all, drums and loud guitar amps could be problematic in a back garden, or on a front lawn: forget about a clandestine indoor space. But you could bring an acoustic guitar just about anywhere.

It’s not known if Kalyani Singh was one of those many performers who helped keep live music going at a point in history when we didn’t know if it would ever be legal again. At a time when indoor live performances were legal, it was a joy to catch her playing her counterintuitively constructed songs, cutting loose with her subtle but sometimes dramatically soaring voice at a solo show at the American Folk Art Museum in the summer of 2019, after having been absolutely knocked out by another performance of hers there a couple of summers previously.

Her next gig is on Dec 22 at 6 PM at the small room at the Rockwood, an intimate space that’s well suited to her craftsmanship and vocals. She doesn’t follow standard verse-chorus patterns and writes hauntingly imagistic lyrics that invite the listener in to figure out the narrative. Escape, alienation and the search for home are recurrent themes in her work.

We have to go all the way back to 2017 for an album from her, and this one, Caught in a Blackout, is only three tracks. But they’re choice. Singh goes way up the scale into her powerful upper register in the first song, We Were Two Astronauts:

Like a girl down a rabbit hole
The pictures were forming in my head
I followed that rabbit to my death

There’s an unexpected outro and a punchline that packs a wallop

Escape Me is a showcase for her vocal harmonies. Worth, the final track, is another mighty potent one: stately Britfolk waltz for a verse, venomous anthemic chorus:

You fought me for the best seat in the house
Was it worth the view?
From where I’m standing
I can see the world for what it is
But can you?

Singh hasn’t put out any albums since then, but she does have a bunch of singles up at Bandcamp. Ellis, from right around the time of that first Folk Art Museum show, perfectly capsulizes Singh’s style: steady, purposeful acoustic guitar, powerful and dynamic vocals, and a ghostly, allusive narrative that could be about homeless immigrants in any number of eras.

This Is Where, from 2018, is a breathtaking and troubling look at how we give away our freedom all too easily, with hints of both dreampop and Indian carnatic music.

“Don’t want to be the girl you want when you’re bored,” Singh asserts with a calm understatement in New Camera, a ukulele waltz. Sleepless (Season 1), from earlier this fall, is an aptly drifting nocturne. The newest song, just out this month, is Lemon, a brooding, Pink Floyd-influenced electric ballad:

I’m terrified of getting behind the wheel again
One too many nightmares have ruined it for me
I packed the witch’s hat in the box by the stairs
I’ll savor wearing it in New York City

The lone cover up at Bandcamp is a dreamy take of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, awash in snowy reverb.

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Robin Holcomb Brings Her Loaded Imagery and Tersely Crystallized Songcraft to Roulette

Few songwriters have the ability to crystallize a troubling image and build a tableau around it as memorably or tersely as pianist Robin Holcomb. She’s enjoyed a cult following since the 90s; she has an environmentalist streak and prefers shadowy melodies that draw as deeply on 19th century American front-porch folk and balladry as Charles Ives.

She had to go to the free state of Montana to find a studio to record her new solo album One Way or Another, streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing the album release show on Nov 10 at around 9 at Roulette. Her husband, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz (of Presidents of the United States of America fame) opens the night at 8 in a duo performance with the brilliantly thoughtful bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck. You can get in for $25 in advance.

Holcomb’s new record is a mix of intimate versions of older songs, material from a couple of theatrical projects and a couple of covers. If anything, the songs are crystallized to a finer diamond finish than before: most of them clock in at under three minutes, some considerably less.

She opens with the title track (an original, not the Blondie hit), a spare spacious, gospel-tinged reflection. “Remember learning to crawl as you stagger out under the weight of the world, one foot it starts to fall,” Holcomb intones with her usual graceful understatement.

Track two is simply titled Waltz, Holcomb building a a distant sense of foreboding with her sparse, modal melody and imagery to match, a big-sky tableau with “nary a place to bury the bones.” Holcomb reinvents Stephen Foster’s Hard Times Come Again No More with tightly clustering phrases that bring to mind Dawn Oberg.

Doc Pomus’ I’ve Got That Feeling comes across as minimalist Carole King, at least until Holcomb really pounces on it after the second chorus. She shifts between gospel resonance and Carol Lipnik phantasmagoria in Once: the Steely Dan references and the trick ending are spot-on.

Likewise, Holcomb works uneasy Carla Bley harmonies over a jaunty Appalachian dance beat in A Lazy Farmer Boy, playing up the underlying grimness in the rustic tale. She builds the album’s most hauntingly allusive narrative in I’m Gonna Lose Again: the way she brings the story full circle will give you chills. It’s one of the best songs of the year.

“Don’t confuse me with my laughter, I won’t return the morning after,” Holcomb reminds in Copper Bottom, a key track from her Utopia Project about early 20th century cults.

“The mirror allows what the darkness divides,” she reveals in Rockabye, a subtly venomous, Tom Waits-ish lullaby for a drunken abuser. The darkness and regret is buried much deeper in the hypnotic circles of Shining.

Holcomb goes back to waltz time for Electrical Storm: the devil’s also in the details for that one. She mutes the absence and sense of sheer abandonment in the light-fingered Britfolk cadences of another Foster song, Old Dog Tray. The final cut, The Point of it All provides a wary, broodingly detailed coda for this inviting and often haunting record.

Jessie Kilguss Brings Her Purist Tunesmithing and Subtle Lyrical Power to the Rockwood

Jessie Kilguss wrote Great White Shark in prison. We don’t know if the multi-instrumentalist lit-rock songwriter violated any of ex-Governor Andrew Cuomo’s insane 2020 antisocial distancing regulations, but she wasn’t in the slammer because of that. She actually walked out of jail that day. Full disclosure: she came up with the song while leading a songwriting class for prisoners.

It’s the first single on her new album What Do Whales Dream About at Night?, which is due to hit her Bandcamp page this weekend. It’s got stately, bittersweet ELO major/minor changes, Naren Rauch’s layers of jangly guitars mingling with Kilguss’ harmonium and soaring, subtly mapled vocals.

The rest of the record reflects Kilguss’ stature as one of the great tunesmiths to emerge from this city in the past decade. It’s her deepest dive into lush chamber pop, and her most lyrically opaque release to date: her narratives really draw you in. She paints a guardedly hopeful if surreal picture in the first track, House of Rain and Leaves over a distantly bucolic guitar backdrop: “The rules don’t apply to you, at least not mine,” she relates

Rauch teams with bassist Whynot Jansveld and drummer Brian Griffin for a Some Girls-era Stonesy drive in the second track, Outside, Kilguss channeling righteous anger as she reaches for the rafters. The Attacca Quartet‘s Nathan Schram is a one-man string section over increasingly brooding layers of jangle and clang in The Tiger’s Wife, a metaphorically-loaded tale.

Coyote Street is the big anthemic hit here, a vivid LA tableau which could be the Church at their late 80s peak with a woman out front. Kilguss took the inspiration for the elegantly orchestrated, swaying title track from Serhiy Zhadan’s poem Headphones, a reflection on psychologically escaping an earlier Ukrainian conflict. Kilguss finally drops her signature allusiveness for a witheringly direct look at how violence percolates downward.

The album’s longest, most lushly symphonic track is Sleepwalking Heart, a slow, Lou Reed-tinged existential view of the psychology of denial. She picks up the pace with the similarly Velvetsy Roman Candles and closes the record with You Were Never Really Here, a delicate, painterly detailed portrait of a doomed relationship, spiced with wistful glockenspiel. Listeners who’ve been entranced by Kilguss’ earlier and often more overtly dark work are going to love this. It’s one of the best albums of 2022.

Kilguss is playing the album release show with a string section at the downstairs room at the Rockwood on Sept 23 at 8:30 PM for $10. Onstage, she can be outrageously funny: check out her deliciously snarky dismissal of Ted-talk pretense.

Greta Keating Brings Her Catchy, Eclectic Tunesmithing to the Lower East Side

Although there’s a long history of family legacies in folk music around the world, and plenty of cross-generational jazz pollination, rock tends to die with the first generation. The good rock legacies are a very short list: the Dylans (Bob and Jakob), the Rigbys (Amy and Hazel), the Lennons (John and Sean), with the Allisons (Mose and Amy) at the top of the list if you count brilliance that transcends jazz and Americana.

Add the Keatings to that list. Greta Keating is the daughter of Matt Keating – whose prolific and darkly lyrical songwriting career spans janglerock and soul, and goes back to the 90s – and his wife Emily Spray, a somewhat less prolific songwriter but an equally breathtaking singer. In this case, the apple didn’t fall far. Greta Keating has a soaring voice, writes catchy, anthemic songs, has a flair for the mot juste and like her dad plays a number of instruments. She’s bringing those songs to the small room at the Rockwood on Sept 23 at 7 PM.

Also like her dad, she writes a lot of songs. Her Soundcloud page has a bunch, some which could fall into the bedroom-pop category, others which are more fleshed out with acoustic and electric guitars, judicious piano, organ and occasional synthesized strings.

Keating has a thing for starry, drifting Julee Cruise-like tableaux, and there are a bunch here, including It’s a Drug, Ain’t It Strange and Hungry Dog. My Perfect Man is torchier, in waltz time, as is The Cold Makes Me Think, a hazy, spacious piano ballad that brings to mind A. A. Williams.

Keating goes into opaque trip-hop in Betwixt and Between, then reaches for quietly venomous, cynical Lynchian pop vibe with 15-Year-Old Boy. Too Late to Lay could be an early Everything But the Girl song with more delicate vocals, while Head Down to My Toes is a determined adventure into big assertive anthemic stadium rock.

How Could You Be But You Were is a bittersweet, swing-tinged stroll. The best song on the page is Small As I Felt, where she raises the angst to redline over Orbisonian crescendos: it screams out for sweeping orchestral strings and a kettledrum.

A Girl With Cheeks Damp is another stunner, a brooding plunge into jazzy 70s soul. The funniest tune on the page is Adderall Song: crystal meth makes people do the craziest things, huh?

The rest of the many songs in this long playlist range from soul (Hard to Please), to driving, sarcastic rock (My Body Is Allergic); dreamy Stereolab sonics (Out of Nowhere) and fingersnapping Peggy Lee jazz (Shadow Shadow).

There’s even more on Keating’s youtube channel, including a Telecaster-driven powerpop shout-out to girl-bonding empowerment. If the future of New York rock tunesmithing is your thing, Keating’s songs will resonate with you.

A Harrowing Solo Comeback Album and a Rare New York Show by Cult Icon Nina Nastasia

For about a decade beginning in the late 90s, songwriter Nina Nastasia earned a devoted following for her frequently haunting, painterly work. It’s hard to think of another artist who so perceptively captured the details in the darkness beneath the bustle in gritty New York neighborhoods which became artistic meccas before they were crushed in a blitzkrieg of gentrification.

The city’s decline mirrored Nastasia’s own. By 2010, her performing career had pretty much stalled. As Nastasia tells it, she and her longtime partner Kennan Gudjonsson sequestered themselves a tiny Chelsea apartment, caught up in a cycle of abuse and codependence. The day after Nastasia finally moved out, in January 2020, Gudjonsson killed himself.

In the first few months of the lockdown, Nastasia was able to process what by all accounts must have been inconceivable pain, and the result is a harrowing solo vinyl record, Riderless Horse, streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing what could be her first Williamsburg show in at least fifteen years at Union Pool on August 20 at 7 PM for $20

It’s been a dozen years since Nastasia released an album, but she’s emerged a stronger singer than ever. Meanwhile, her songwriting has taken a detour into Americana. With her usual black humor, she opens with the sound of a cork popping: this will not exactly be a party, but it’s impossible to turn away from.

The album’s first song is Just Stay in Bed, a spare Tex-Mex flavored tune in 6/8. Just when it sounds like it’s going to turn into a fond love song, Nastasia’s voice grows menacing. Clearly this was a dysfunctional relationship on both sides.

Her vocals rise to fiery accusatory levels over steady strumming in the second track, You Were So Mad, a stoic breakup ballad: “You set a blaze inside our house, you set a blaze and smoked us out.” This Is Love is a subdued heartland rock anthem, a chronicle of “taking turns to follow and lead into the dissonance.”

The narrative grows uglier over Nastasia’s enigmatic fingerpicking in Nature, a plainspoken portrait of violence, and how easy it is to become habituated to it. This dynamic will resonate intensely through the rest of the record.

Nastasia switches to waltz time for Lazy Road, although even in this bucolic calm, death is lurking nearby. She revisits that atmosphere a little later with the bluegrass-tinged Blind As Batsies.

“I keep you alive as best as I can do,” Nastasia sings imploringly, but ultimately “to choose life over illness and leave,” in another waltz, Ask Me. She switches back to a muted Americana sway in the ironically titled The Two of Us, which wouldn’t be out of place on an Amy Rigby record from the 90s:

The simmering rage returns in Go Away: “There’s only one way to for me to give you peace, for me to leave: bury me,” Nastasia taunts. She follows with The Roundabout, an anguished request to bury the conflict under a blanket of denial.

The next track, Trust is the closest thing here to the stark sparkle that permeates Nastasia’s iconic early work. She sings to a ghost, in waltz time again, in Afterwards: “Love is tiresome when you’re older…it makes me wonder about the years that came before, and all the things I must ignore.” As a portrait of a relationship unraveling with catastrophic consequences, this ranks with Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights. Time may judge this a classic – just like Nastasia’s earlier albums, particularly The Blackened Air, her most bleakly orchestral release, from 2001.

Amythyst Kiah Plays an Enticing Triplebill at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

In 2018, this blog called Amythyst Kiah “a force of nature and then some.” She’s a double threat on both blues guitar and oldtime banjo, and a powerful singer with a defiant populist streak and a deep historical awareness. This year she’s one of the few highlights of what has been the worst-ever series of Lincoln Center Out of Doors concerts, with a gig out back of the complex in Damrosch Park tomorrow night, July 30 at around six. Pensive Turkish chanteuse Aynur opens the night at 5 PM; thunderous Ukrainian folk-punk stompers Dakhabrakha headline. Seats are first-come, first-served.

Kiah’s album Wary & Strange came out last year and is streaming at Bandcamp. Those who haven’t seen her live should be aware that she’s infinitely more raw and uncompromising onstage. These songs are good, but, clearly, she’s still figuring out how they translate in the studio. It would be great to hear her flex on the frets the way she can, and nix the techy glitches the next time out.

One of the most memorable songs is Black Myself, a roaring, multitracked blues tune where she turns a litany of racial assumptions upside down. Hangover Blues has a funny wah guitar track mimicking a blues harp. Kiah nicks a famous Dylan riff for Firewater, a reflection on exorcising psychological ghosts. Then she springboards off an iconic Rev. Gary Davis tune for Tender Organs, a vehicle for her purist, incisively edgy oldschool soul guitar work.

In Ballad of Lost, Kiah reaffirms that she’s just as much at home with a wistful country waltz. One suspects that she really kicks out the jams in concert with the rock tune and the smoldering soul ballad afterward, but trying to make hip-hop out of them is a mindfuck.

There’s plenty more of Kiah online. Ludicrous as the idea of covering Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart may be, Kiah reinvents it by changing the chords and making a slow, simmering, vampy southern soul song out of it. And it’s actually not bad! It’s up at her homepage right now.

Thoughtful, Gently Provocative Acoustic Songs From Allegra Krieger

The first image in Wake Me, the opening track on songwriter Allegra Krieger’s new album Precious Thing – streaming at Bandcampis a stretcher being rolled down the street. Presumably, it’s going to an ambulance…or a van from the morgue. Krieger links that story to a much more optimistic and personal one. but the unease remains, unwinding over rippling. fingerpicked guitar in an open tuning that Jimmy Page would use in folkie moments.

Krieger sticks with that throughout most of the record, sometimes set against spare electric guitar leads. The addition of dark washes of bowed bass in places is a welcome textural touch.

A gritty, distorted drone introduces the second song, Isolation – an original, not the Joy Division classic. “‘Return to city life. the smell of money leaks out…drink up, detached from the ideals of being one of God’s daughters…living in filth is something I have gotten used to again,” Krieger muses. Is this a tale of coming home too soon to totalitarian NYC hell? Maybe.

Taking It In is about defamiliarizing, underscored by layers of spastic electric guitar skronk and fluttery bass in contrast to Krieger’s calm, bright vocals. “Everything is precariously waiting to fortify as the time goes by,” she muses in a similarly bright domestic tableau: clearly, there’s still work to be done.

“All my life I drank wine, thought they were bottles of blood, thought they were cleaning me up,” she reflects in the slowly swaying next number

Krieger switches to piano for another slow, pensive 6/8 tune, Let Go, the bass adding a disquieting edge. Driftingly nocturnal layers of organ-like pedal steel provide the contrast in Just For the Night. The album’s title track is more gently resolute: “Looking back on my life now, little that all meant to me,” Krieger observes. What a reckoning to have to face in 2022, huh?

Her piano on No Machine, steady and spare, matches her steady acoustic guitar style: the cautious trumpet solo afterward enhances the mood. “No machine can keep us safe, what I feel is what I’ll be,” Krieger asserts.

She ends the album with a low-key country waltz: her narrator’s escape to bucolic southern comfort turns out well. That we should all be so lucky.

Tasha Delivers Catchy, Low-Key, Evocative Jangle and Clang

Tasha sings in a calm, breathy, sometimes airy voice and writes catchy janglerock songs. She likes open tunings and doesn’t waste notes. Her album Tell Me What You Miss the Most is streaming at Bandcamp.

She bookends the album with two versions of Bed Song. It’s an original, not the Amanda Palmer classic. The first is more spare and acoustic; the second take of this verdant open-tuned tune, akin to pastoral, mostly-acoustic 70s Pink Floyd, is more enveloping and psychedelic.

The full band join her on the album’s second song, History, an electric tune with spare lead guitar and a slow country-flavored sway. She picks up the pace with Perfect Wife, its rainy-day jazz chords and lo-fi synth flutes. Then she mashes up those two styles in Sorry’s Not Enough.

An echoey, evocative seaside tableau, Love Interlude introduces Dream Still, a return to swaying, optimistic after-the-rain jangle. Then Tasha picks up her acoustic for the steadily fingerpicked, warmly hypnotic sunset theme Burton Island

As befits a vast body of water, Lake Superior is the most orchestrated, expansive track here. Tasha follows that with the enticingly enigmatic Year From Now. If you’re looking for a thoughtful way to start a weekend morning, this is a good stepping-off point. Even better, it’s available on cassette!

Pensive, Drifting, Broodingly Hypnotic Acoustic Tunesmithing From Natalie Jane Hill

A cynic would say we’ve heard this a million times: girl with acoustic guitar singing sad songs of loneliness and abandonment. Add to that a pervasive Joni Mitchell influence, and you get hundreds of thousands of acts who go back forty years and more. That being said, songwriter Natalie Jane Hill manages to use that tradition as a stepping-off point without sounding obvious, which is more of an achievement than it might seem. She has a keen eye for detail, leaves some of her best punchlines unsaid, likes open tunings and has nimble fingers on the acoustic guitar. Her latest vinyl album Solely is streaming at Bandcamp.

Throughout the record, Hill’s vocals are more contained and less jazz-influenced than Mitchell’s. In the sarcastically titled opening track, Euphoria, Hill’s narrator is driving just to get away from it all, “Avoiding the street home till the low fuel light glows.” Consider: she’s got such a troubled mind that she’s not even paying attention to the gas gauge. Musically, the songh sets the stage for the rest of the record, just Hill’s brisk, clustering fingerpicking lowlit by stark violin, pedal steel and glockenspiel in places.

The central image in Little Teeth is how Hill envisions flower buds floating on the breeze, with glockenspiel tinkling delicately in the background. She works a familiar, circling open-tuned riff in the bucolic guitar-and-violin tune If I Were a Willow. Hill follows a stark, Britfolk-tinged minor-key theme in Plants and Flowers That Do Not Grow Here, subtly colored with steel, violin and what could either be a wood flute or a mellotron patch.

As a portrait of predawn solitude, To Feel Alone is even more spaciously drifting. Despite the calm, hypnotic backdrop, there’s unexpected venom in the album’s title track: as she tells it, breakup boyfriend is a fool’s errand.

Hill creates a similar dichotomy in the even more cynical Pretty View. The steel guitar sighs and swoops throughout Orb Weaver: spiders have seldom been portrayed so sympathetically. There’s more nocturnal gleam and glisten in the warmly enveloping empowerment anthem Listen to Me Tomorrow: “The older you get, these words are left unsaid,” Hill cautions. She winds up the album with Better Now, a mea culpa of sorts from a chronic depressive who’s self-aware enough to recognize how secondary trauma works. It’s an apt way to wind up an album that grimly evokes the emotional toll of these past twenty months.

Tough, Smart, Angst-Fueled Guitar-Driven Tunesmithing From Squirrel Flower

Singer/guitarist Ella Williams calls herself Squirrel Flower. She rocks harder than most solo songwriters. She doesn’t get fenced in with standard verse/chorus patterns. She uses grit and noise to make a point, in lieu of a generic, conformist indie sound. The songs on her new album Planet (i) – streaming at Bandcamp – are angst-ridden but not mawkish. She hits you upside the head when you least expect it.

She puts the rubber to the road right from the start with I’ll Go Running. The song starts with just a simple hammer-on electric guitar riff and drums, then Williams adds layers until it’s a roaring blaze:

I’m an oil tank getting low
Didn’t listen long enough to know…
Pack it in and push it strong
Pack it up and move along

It seems optimistic. “I’ll be newer than before” is the closing mantra.

The second track, Hurt a Fly is a more standard-issue Lou Reed-style riff-rock tune: once again,  Williams’ guitar grows noisier as she fills in the details in this tale of betrayal.

Deluge in the South goes in the opposite direction, from a tasty acoustic-electric clang to dreamier sonics, even as the flood metaphors grow more ominous:

Storm is coming in, water in the gutter
Underneath your house, drink it undercover

Likewise, Big Beast has early Linda Draper-esque acoustic loopiness and surrealism. Williams picks up her electric and hits the distortion pedal for Roadkill: “Slow down,” is the loaded message as her voice rises from pensiveness to a soaring intensity.

She builds a birds’ nest of wafting nocturnal ambience over steady, close-miked acoustic fingerpicking in Iowa 146. The next track, Pass could be a catchy, hypnotic early 90s Penelope Houston tune.

Distorted, slurry bass anchors the hypnotic, dreampop-tinged Midwestern road narrative Flames and Flat Tires. Williams resurrects the high water imagery in To Be Forgotten, a resolute departure tale.

“I’ve seen the desert now, and I know I want the water,” Williams asserts in the album’s sparest song, Desert Wildflowers: bring on the natural disasters, she insists, she can handle them. With reverb-drenched guitars and vocals rising to a distorted squall, Night is the hardest-rocking track here. Williams closes the album with Starshine, which, as she sees it, can burn you just like the sun. This is a good late-night listen: lots to think about here.