New York Music Daily

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Tag: singer-songwriter

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.

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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.

A Rare Brooklyn Show and a New Record From the Great Aimee Mann

You know that voice: cool, reserved, minutely nuanced. You know those melancholy major/minor changes and Beatlesque melodies. You know that withering cynicism, that jaundiced eye, those double entendres you wish you’d written. If you don’t, Aimee Mann’s latest album Mental Illness is as good a place to start as any. Not bad for somebody who’s been making music since the 80s.

She doesn’t play Brooklyn a lot – although she did record a live DVD there. A future daily New York music blog owner brought a date to that one, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in the summer of 2004. The date didn’t go anywhere – Mann probably would have seen that coming a mile away. Or maybe she’d say it was just as well.

Believe it or not, you can bring a date to see Mann in Brooklyn, because for some reason her June 26 show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg isn’t sold out as of today. Which is even crazier since fellow cynic, Silicon Valley satirist/songwriter Jonathan Coulton is opening the night at 8. It won’t be a cheap date since general admission is $35 –  in order to avoid the embarrassment of spending even more you’re going to have to pick up your tickets at the cash table at the Mercury Lounge before 7 PM on a weeknight. But it could be worth it.

The new album came out earlier this year and is streaming at Spotify. Even by Mann’s standards, it’s a subdued, gloomy affair. It’s mostly acoustic. Mann plays guitar and bass, Jamie Edwards filling the Jon Brion role on keys and guitar, with Jay Bellerose on drums and longtime sideman Paul Bryan on bass along with a lavish string section that gives this album genuinely epic grandeur in places.

The opening track, Goose Snow Cone paints a bleak, wintry chamber-pop picture of holding on by one’s fingernails. “Always melt at the feet of the devil I know,” Mann laments. “I just wanted a place but I ended up gone.” There are more drug metaphors here than on any Mann album since 2002’s iconic Lost in Space.

The  stately, waltzing Stuck in the Past, with its major/minor Beatles changes, is classic Mann, Richard Dodd’s stark cello rising to take centerstage: “Like drawing rings around Saturn,  a shadow is cast, but now it falls a pattern.” Another waltz, You Never Loved Me is all the more disconsolate for how sparse and direct it is: the tumbling Spectorian drums as the song winds out are an apt touch

Rollercoasters, a slowly swaying, fingerpicked ballad awash in fairground images, is one of the great drug songs ever, and maybe the best one on the album. White powder isn’t something Ward White has ever written about, but if he did, the song might sound like this.

Slow and lush, heavy like a thunderstorm, Lies of Summer doesn’t reveal whether the narrator is addressing a prisoner or a dead person until the very end:

Saw you at the fall
Picture on a closed circuit
Boy you lost it all it
Thinking you could rework it

The dancing string arrangement can’t mask the wrath in the art-rock anthem Patient Zero – consider,  just for starters, what that title implies.

News filtered over the transom
That a villain ended up with a part
You paid your respects like a ransom
To a role that was doomed from the start

The title Good for Me, with its shivery ELO stings, is sarcastic – of course, right? It’s about self-deception:. “What a waste of a smoke machine,” Mann intones, and then immediately launches into a litany of powder drug metaphors. She follows it with Knock It Off, a kiss-off anthem and the album’s most opaque number.

Mann revisits the doomed boxing imagery she worked so inimitably on 2005’s The Forgotten Arm in Philly Sinks, yet another waltz. Then she picks up the pace – just a little – with Simple Fix. Three guesses as to what this one’s about. After all this pain, you can hardly blame her for setting her sights on “prizes of adrenaline.”

The album winds up on a catchy and surprisingly simple note with Poor Judge (as in “my heart is a poor judge”). If Magnolia is Mann’s commonly acknowledged masterpiece and Lost in Space a less common one, this is in the same league.. You’ll see it on the best albums of 2017 page along with recent releases by Ran Blake and Dominique Eade, Alice Lee and Ward White.

Rachael Kilgour’s New Album Transcends Trauma

Rachael Kilgour is the rare artist who sounds perfectly good in the studio, but onstage takes her formidable vocal skills to a level that few singers even attempt, let alone reach. Her Lincoln Center show last year was absolutely shattering. She cried during one of that evening’s saddest songs – that’s how deeply she inhabits her characters. And she’s hilarious, too: few songwriters can be so much fun, and so insightful, pillorying rightwing hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance.

But most of the material at that show wasn’t the political satire she’s best known for. The majority of the set was Americana ballads from her latest album Rabbit in the Road, streaming at her webpage. She’s bringing that harrowingly melismatic voice and alternately plaintive and biting tunesmithing to a couple of New York shows this month. On May 12 at 7 PM she’s at the Commons Cafe, 388 Atlantic Ave.in Cobble Hill; take any train to Atlantic Ave; The following night at 8, she’s at Caffe Vivaldi preceded at 7 by another eclectic songwriter with a sense of humor, Orly Bendavid & the Mona Dahls.

And now that you know how ferociously political Kilgour’s previous output is, now’s the time to tell you that her latest release is far more personal. It’s a breakup album.

Aie aie aie.

Michael Franti used to write brilliant political songs and raps back in the day. Then he decided that schlocky top 40 love ballads were his thing – and fell off the map. Paul Weller once fronted one of the best and most political punk rock bands ever, the Jam…and never wrote a song worth hearing after they broke up. Did Kilgour run out of gas too?

As it turns out, no. Her lyrics on the new album can be just as incisive and edgy, and she can still write a catchy hook and an anthemic chorus with the best of them. It’s just her focus that’s changed direction. It seems that Kilgour got blindsided in a particularly messy divorce. She’s been outspoken about how she wants to break down the barriers between audience and performer, and that she sees the new material as being therapeutic for both sides of that equation.

So it’s comforting on more than one level that she’s succeeded at what she wanted to achieve: this is the rare heartbreak narrative that doesn’t come across as mawkish or cliched. The album opens with a soul-tinged, somewhat stunned miniature that sets the stage. Deep Bruises is where the shock sinks in, Kilgour trying to talk herself through an endless cycle of despair: It’s the one song that best evokes her soaring, Orbison-esque angst when she slides up to a note to drive a chorus home. Steve Wynn’s Tears Won’t Help You Now is a good point of comparison.

Ready Freddie is the ballad that Kilgour had the hardest time getting through at the Lincoln Center gig. It’s an attempt to cheer up her adopted daughter, someone she’s obviously close to and missed terribly when she wrote it. it’s a theme she revisits almost as fervently later on the record. By contrast, Up From Down is a kiss-off anthem, if a muted one, set to a pleasant if innocuous full-band folk-pop arrangement.

Anger rises in Still My Wife, the homey imagery that Kilgour opens with giving way to a cheating tale straight out of a classic country ballad. The dismissive patronizing title track is songwriter vengeance at its most subtle and satisfying: in case you haven’t already figured it out, never, EVER mess with one, they always get even in the end

Don’t Need Anyone echoes the defiance of Kilgour’s political work as much as her vocals echo Neko Case. “You think I need a lover to save me from my grief? I don’t need distractions, I don’t need your second hand relief,” she insists. Likewise, Hit By a Bus balances mixed feelings with vindictiveness: guess which one wins.

Kilgour has had great fun mocking Christian extremists (some people mistake her for a born-again because they don’t get the joke). So I Pray might seem like quite a departure, but it’s a wish, rather than a call to some patriarchal force, and a launching pad for vocal pyrotechnics in a live setting. Even here, Kilgour can’t resist a delicious dig: “I pray, to no one in particular, that they’ll help you find your way.” The album’s concluding cut, Break Wide Open is the only place where it feels overproduced: it doesn’t really add anything. Needless to say, it’ll be interesting to see what direction Kilgour goes in after this. We could use her stiletto wit and inclusive vision right about now.  

A Rare Music Impresario with Actual Talent

Lara Ewen may be best known as the irrepressible impresario behind the Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum, which with the ongoing disappearance of the downtown acoustic scene has arguably become Manhattan’s best listening room for folk and Americana sounds. But Ewen is also one of New York’s most magnetic singers, and a strong songwriter as well. Over the years, her music has gotten darker and gone deeper into gothic Americana, often in a Tom Waits vein. Her hardscrabble Queens roots may have something to do with that.

She’s playing the Scratcher Bar on 5th Street just east of Bowery on Feb 26 at around 7, when you might find fellow songsmith Kelley Swindall tending bar. It’s an intimate space, and a convenient time on a work night so getting there a little early wouldn’t be a bad idea: artists who book venues tend to be popular for reasons other than their art.

Ewen is the rare one who isn’t. Her definitive album is The Wishing Stone Songs, from 2013. But there’s other solid material in her catalog. A listen back to her 2007 cd Ghosts and Gasoline – which happily has made it to Spotify – reaffirms that. Her band on the record is excellent: much as there’s a late 90s influence, there’s no cheesy drum machine, no cliched trip-hop beat. Guitarist Howard Rappaport jangles and clangs, judiciously over the tight, low-key rhythm section of bassist Donald Facompre and drummer Jordan Lash.

Ewen sings in character, with unexpected nuance for someone who doesn’t come from a jazz background. One minute she’ll be serenading you with that crystal-clear, maple-sugar soprano, another she’ll be gritty, then maybe throwing some twang at you, depending on context.

The album’s opening track, Josephine, has a brisk, methodically vamping, hypnotic quality, an allusive portrait of bitterness. The Airport Song is one of those blue-collar character studies that Ewen writes so vividly, part country, part spacious big-sky tableau, Rappaport’s pedal steel soaring overhead. Likewise, the propulsive Untethered is a surreeal portrait of outer-borough disconnection and anomie, bringing to mind a first-rate early-zeros Brooklyn songwriter. Barbara Brousal.

Turning Blue sways along gently, a quietly savage portrait of a a woman settling for less than she should. The album’s most devastating track is Our Song, just Ewen and her acoustic guitar, a gorgeously bittersweet and unexpectedly generous post-breakup reflection.

The oldest track on the album, Clear, will resonate for anyone who wouldn’t trade this city for any other temptation. 20 Years Ago, an aging beauty’s lament, foreshadows where Ewen would go on her next album. Then Ewen picks up the pace with the brooding highway narrative Manahttan Kansas

Facompre walks jazz scales under Ewen’s Rickie Lee Jones-ish delivery in Misery Wholesale. The album winds up with Blessed, a hopeful love song to a down-and-out character, and A Way to You, which is a dead ringer for a well-known Dylan hit. While Ewen typically plays her most recent material onstage, she might bust out one or two of these if you’re lucky. 

Jim Allen Brings His Edgy, Metaphorical, Sardonically Purist Songwriting to a Rare Fort Greene Gig

The sound guy was drunk by the time Jim Allen hit the stage at around eight. That was back in 2003 at a long-gone Williamsburg hotspot, the Blu Lounge. Surprisingly, the building’s still standing. The first-floor venue space is a liquor store now.

When the sound guy’s girlfriend showed up, the two chatted and made out through most of the set. Until the encore, where Allen reinvented the old ELO radio hit Don’t Bring Me Down as a stark blues. By the second verse, the sound guy was bugging out.

That same year Allen put out his Wild Card cd (which is still available and streaming at Spotify). Tim Robinson’s neo-cubist front cover art is a black-and-white afterwork street scene: the joker in the deck has his jacket open enough to reveal some color. The back covers shows Allen out behind what appears to be one of the far west warehouses on 28th Street, Liberty Island out of focus in the distance behind him. The cd booklet photo captures Allen curbside, sitting in what’s left of a refrigerator with the door ripped off. Loaded images for a guy who’s made them his stock in trade for a long time.

In the years past, Allen has not been idle. Most recently, he’s fronted a fantastically catchy retro new wave band, Lazy Lions. And his solo work, which is sort of akin to a hybrid of Graham Parker and Dale Watson, is stronger and more lyrical than ever. Allen loves double entendres, aphorisms both old and brand-new, and litanies of images that weave a yarn, often a grim one. Where is this clever, often hilarious wordsmith and tunesmith playing tomorrow night, Jan 22? City Winery, or maybe the Rockwood,, right? Nope. The Beacon, a gig he’s more than earned over the years? No. He’s playing at 8 PM at Branded Saloon in Fort Greene. As a bonus, Tim Simmonds – who’s fronted both Captain Beefheart cover band Admiral Porkbrain as well as his own tight new wave/powerpop band, the Actual Facts – plays afterward at 9.

Listening back to Allen’s fourteen-year-old album reveals how well it’s stood the test of time. The best song on it is The Verdict. It’s a slow country ballad set in a courtroom. The narrator’s on trial for being stuck on some girl, and Allen makes it apparent that he’s going to get what he deserves. Which is what, exactly? The answer’s too good to give away. The album’s worth owning for that song alone – it’s a genuine classic.

The rest of the album’s good too. It begins and ends with metaphorically-charged commentaries on the elusive nature of fame. “You can keep your crown if it’s the thorny one,” Allen bristles on the opening number, King of the Jews; he doggedly plans on finding a “hidden spring” early on in the gospel-tinged final song, No One for Me. In between, Marc Rubinstein supplies honkytonk piano and bluesy, swirly organ, Steve Alcott’s pedal steel soaring over the purposeful pulse of drummer Barbara Allen, Pemberton Roach reminding why he’s one of the alltime heroes of new wave bass.

Allen follows with the simmering swamp blues I’ll Need You Then – as in “when the shit has well and truly hit the fan” – a showcase for his soul-infused baritone. There are a pair of murderous anthems. The first is A Little Bit of Love, where Allen encourages a down-and-out rival to go find Jesus, because “Maybe you can room with him.” The second, A Thousand Ways, is every bit as spot-on:

Chain him to a desk and share each week for forty hours
It won’t be long befor you have to send his family flowers
…or make him black and put him in the City of New York

There’s also the zydeco-tinged workingman’s lament Where the Heart Is; the Rockpile-style shuffle Black Black Sea; Blue Neon Light, which is Allen’s Swinging Doors; the drony, psychedelic Looking At You; the brooding, ominous, delta blues-flavored It Might As Well Rain, a big fan favorite at shows; and the jauntily snide blues Little Green Circles. Allen’s back catalog is consistently strong, but this might be the most solid one of the bunch, start to finish.