New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: singer-songwriter

Celebrating One of Manhattan’s Most Fearless Impresarios at the Borough’s Best Listening Room

There aren’t many venues left anywhere in New York where you can walk in on just about any show night and randomly discover a great new band or solo artist. But you can still do that at the American Folk Art Museum. The museum earned this blog’s award for Best Manhattan Venue a couple of years ago, largely because of impresario Lara Ewen, who brings in a wildly diverse and frequently excellent mix of global folk styles along with Americana and singer-songwriters.

Ewen is turning fifty this June 14, and an all-star cast (she isn’t saying who, just yet) are on tap to come out to celebrate at her mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series at the museum starting at 5:30 PM. Ewen’s booking (and her songwriting) reflect her background growing up in working-class, multicultural Queens. Three recent discoveries there – for this blog, at least – reflect Ewen’s ferocious dedication to bringing in music that represents the real New York.

In his debut at the museum this past spring, Greg Connors played electric guitar – not something you’d expect at a venue originally know for folk music, but Ewen likes to defy the odds. He ran his axe through a pedalboard with a lot of effects, flinging chords out into the space’s natural reverb and building to stomping, singalong choruses. His lyrics are edgy and cynical; his songs tell brooding stories set among the down-and-out without being cliched. His tantalizingly short set, clocking in at just over a half an hour, reminded of 90s underground songwriting stars Matt Keating or Jim Allen from time to time. If Connors had been around back then, he probably would have been playing CB’s Gallery and Sin-e and the rest of the East Village songwriter venues, all of them gone in a blitzkrieg of gentrification and real estate bubble madness. Connors hangs his hat in Peekskill now – he was awestruck at how attentively the audience at the museum responded, considering that he’s used to singing over crowds of drunks.

In her museum debut a week later, Ruby Landen explored several more traditional folk styles, from Appalachian-flavored balladry to French chanson. Her spare, elegant, eclectic guitar fingerpicking matched her low-key, purposefully plaintive vocals. She’s a relative newcomer to the New York Americana scene, so at the time of her show there was little on the web about her beyond a couple of youtube videos. But Ewen books a lot of good up-and-coming artists regardless of how little-known they are.

Another individualistic artist who’s just getting started and made her debut there last month is Yurby, who has even less of a presence online. There’s nobody in New York who sounds anything like her. Backed for most of her show by a bluesy, jazz-influenced electric guitar, she showed off a disarmingly clear, pure soul voice throughout a catchy mix of slowly unwinding ballads. Once in awhile there’d be a hint of a latin Caribbean influence, but otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair to pigeonhole her as neosoul. And her lyrics deal with empowerment and fighting injustice as much as the usual battle of the sexes. At the end of her set, she treated the crowd to one of those anthems, in Spanish.

Who knows – it wouldn’t be a stretch to see all three of these artists at Ewen’s birthday party. And maybe Ewen herself will treat the crowd to a few numbers – she won’t admit it, but she has one of the most magically mutable voices in town.

Mari Kalkun Sings a Rare Program of New and Ancient Estonian Music

Tuesday night at Scandinavia House, Mari Kalkun treated a packed auditorium to a very rare program of pensively bucolic, often hypnotic Estonian songs. But Kalkum is no ordinary folk singer: she writes her own material, often utilizing texts by both contemporary and historic Estonian poets. She sang in Estonian, Finnish and Voro a south Estonianl language that has only about seventy thousand remaining speakers, as she explained.

Her main axe is the kannel, a semi-oval-shaped stringed instrument that resembles a dulcimer but which she plucked like a harp slung around her shoulders. Since she uses traditional open tunings, the melodies didn’t move around much beyond the center,, further enhancing the dream state effect. Even when she switched to piano, she played similarly intricate, intertwining, subtly shifting upper-register voicings, anchored by an insistent, rhythmic lefthand. She did much the same on a Finnish box lute. The result was stately, often rapt and spacious: she let those starry plucks and chimes linger.

Engaging the audience at length between songs, she explained almost every one of them. Nature was a common theme, as was the ongoing population shift from rural areas to the cities;. Kalkun also sang a couple of love ballads that gave her a chance to air out a surprisingly powerufl low register, considering how airy and lilting most of the rest of the music on the bill was.

Her most energetic song was a sardonic post World War II tune about the Forest Brothers, the freedom fighters who’d managed to escape the Nazis by building underground bunkers deep in the woods – and then had to remain there to escape being captured by the next bunch of invaders, the Soviets. An impressive number of Estonian speakers in the crowd recognized the traditional numbers on the bill and sang along.

Toward the end of the show, Kalkun broke out her loop pedal and became a one-woman choir, interpolating an increasingly complex, rhythmically challenging series of layers. She sang the last of her encores a-cappella, walking through the auditorium and getting the audience to join her.

Kalkun’s next show, a duo set with Aleksandra Kremenetski, is back in her home country at the Writers House Festival in Talinn on May 25 at 9 PM. Scandinavia House, less than five blocks south of Grand Central on Park Avenue, has very diverse programming, with music, film and exhibits representing artists from across the Nordic countries. The next concert there is June 20 at 7:30 PM with Icelandic  jazz bassist Sigmar Matthíasson and Arora – cover is $15

Mara Connor Brings Broodingly Catchy Tunes Back to Her Old Williamsburg Haunts

Mara Connor brought a catchy mix of subtly slashing, Americana-flavored songs along with other material and a talented Los Angeles-based band, making their New York debut on her old South Williamsburg turf at Baby’s All Right last night. Connor has a purist janglerock sense for catchy hooks and occasionally stinging lyrics: Jessie Kilguss is a good point of comparison. It’s a fair guess Connor has southern roots – there’s a twang in that voice, and a friendliness, Brooklyn soujourn or not. She now calls the left coast home after leaving the South 11th Street apartment she’d shared with a roommate, who was part of what appeared to be a sold-out crowd.

Too bad Connor’s acoustic guitar wasn’t in the mix for the first and best number of the night, No Fun. It wasn’t the iconic Stooges song – it’s the distantly noir-tinged, woundedly evocative new single from Connor’s forthcoming debut album. And it didn’t come together until the chorus kicked in and her lead guitarist hit his distortion pedal. Lana Del Rey, if you still haven’t gone off to where memes go to die, eat your heart out to this.

From there, it wasn’t all downhill. Connor’s originals were strong, as was one of the covers. That choice spoke volumes: an obscure, quietly scathing, gently circling Britfolk narrative, Fools Run the Game (was it Sandy Denny who did it the first time around?).

Connor followed the hit single with a brooding, world-weary, reflective freeway tableau – Los Angeles will make you world-weary by thirty, no doubt. After a lowlit, downcast reflection on an ill-fated fling with a dissolute older guy here, she played a deliciously venomous kiss-off to a sensitive artist type who turns out to be just the opposite. As Mary Lee Kortes once said, “Never mess with a songwriter: we always get even in the end.”

Connor sings in a supple, subtle mezzo-soprano with more than a hint of bite. But when she goes up the scale, she strains. Having made her album at a famous corporate Nashville studio, there may have been people around her who pushed her to do something she’s not really comfortable with right now. There’s a duet with Langhorne Slim on the forthcoming record; choosing instead to play the song live with the girlyboy who’s arguably the wimpiest songwriter to come out of New York in the last twenty years was a big mistake. Is Lach still kicking around? That would have been an improvement.

What’s the future for artists like Connor? Her songs are catchy and memorable: you feel like you’ve lived in them. But until the corporate dinosaurs die off and the stadiums where they play revert to the public who financed them, singer-songwriters are going to have to make do with touring the City Wineries of the world, hawking t-shirts and vinyl (because that’s the only recorded music format left that can be monetized) at the merch table and Bandcamp, and maybe getting lucky with a movie placement or two.  Here’s wishing all that to Mara Connor.

Father John Misty’s First Live Album Is As Bleakly Funny As You Could Want

Said it before, time to say it again: more artists should make live albums. Studio, schmudio! If you’re Father John Misty, all you need is a mic, a guitar and a DI straight into the board. Rip the file to a thumb drive: instant album! Cost? Nothing. His vocals, guitar, uneasy tunes, gallows humor and withering cynicism are in first-class shape on his new album Live at Third Man Records, which strangely hasn’t hit Spotify yet, although it is available on vinyl. It’s today’s Halloween month installment

The first track is an aching take of I Love You Honeybear:

…on the Rorschach sheets where we make love…
You’re the one i want to go down with…
Unless we’re getting high on a mattress while the global market crashes

Meanwhile, the “misanthropes next door” are terrified that their neighbors are about to sire a Damien.

The surreal early Dylan influence – on the music and the lyrics, fortuituously, but not the vocals – really comes out in the solo acoustic take of I’m Writing a Novel. In the good Father’s alternate universe, Sartre and Heidegger join him in his trailer to share a pot of opium tea.

Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings is pretty much what any decent tunesmith might write after “Retracing the expanse of your American back with Adderall and weed in my veins,” as he relates to the nameless girl.

Chateau Lobby 4 (In C for 2 Virgins) is even more twistedly funny, newlyweds in a wee hours scenario: “So bourgeoisie to keep waiting, date for 21 years seems pretty civilian,” the guy tells his bride who “left early to go cheat your way through film school.”

This take of So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain is could be the great lost mid-70s co-write between Leonard Cohen and Neil Young. Everybody stays silent til the end through the endless deadpan litany of evils in Holy Shit:

Age-old gender roles
The golden era of tv
Eunuch sluts
Consumer slaves
A rose by another other name…

This intimate set closes with a concise version of Everyman Needs a Companion: Father John’s riffing on a bromance between Jesus and John the Baptist is pretty classic. The next Father John Misty show is in the UK at Portsmouth Guildhall in Portsmouth on Oct 28 at around 7:30 PM; cover is £29.25.

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.

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. Flynn’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 lush 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 me 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.