New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: singer-songwriter

Intense, Evocative, Ruggedly Individualistic Acoustic Americana from Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear

Kansas City duo Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear sound like no other band on the planet. They’re both a trip back to a land to a time forgot, and completely in the here and now. And their music is amazing. Forget for a sec that they may be darlings of NPR and the corporate media because they’re a mom and her kid making music together. Ohhhh, how sweeeet, right? No. Ruth Ward is a badass guitarist, so is her son Madisen. And their allusively erudite songs can be catchy beyond belief, distilled in two hundred years of front-porch folk, and country blues, and oldschool C&W and soul music. But while their influences may be retro, what they’re doing with them is something brand new and genuinely exciting. They haven’t played New York since an absolutely riveting invite-only show in the meatpacking district back in May; by the time they hit Joe’s Pub on July 27 at 7:30 PM, they’ll be a couple of days removed from the Newport Folk Festival, and then they’re off to a marathon European tour. Cover for the Joe’s Pub gig is $15 and advance tix are still available as of today, believe it or not.

Their new album Skeleton Crew is streaming at Spotify. The steady, bouncy but enigmatic opening track, Live by the Water, sets the tone for the rest of the album. On the surface, it’s told from the point of view of an older guy who can’t get enough simple pleasures…but is also all too aware of what he doesn’t have. The devil’s in the details everywhere here.

The monster hit waiting to happen is the ragtime-tinged Silent Movies, mother and son’s strums building a lush bed of guitars in perfect unison. Mom echoes son’s vocals; throughout the album, it’s impossible to tell who’s playing the spare lead lines, the two are so committed to staying on track, not overdoing it, simply reflecting a mood, or the storyline. This is deep stuff.

Modern Day Mystery has a careful, moody minor-key sway. “I could never leave this place gracefully,” Madisen explains casually, and then draws the listener in from there. “When I leave this house, I couldn’t disappear if I tried.”

The two weave a spiderweb of guitars on the delicately waltzing Dead Daffodils, a creepy, Faulknerian southern gothic tableau. Then they go back toward ragtime with Whole Lotta Problems and its droll, aphoristic call-and-response. Fight On rises from intricate and enigmatic to lush and sweeping, with a 70s soul-jazz tinge. By contrast, Big Yellow Taxi – an original, not the Joni Mitchell hit – is an irrepressibly bouncy, bittersweet portrait of a homeless guy.

Daisy Jane is the most musically lighthearted number here, followed by the most chillingly allusive one, Undertaker and Juniper. By the Wards’ reckoning, even executioners fall in love…and suffer the consequences. Down in Mississippi features stark cello along with terse guitar multitracks, a troubled Jim Crow-era tableau echoed in the understatedly majestic, gospel-tinged Sorrows and Woes. Be the first on your block to be able to brag that you discovered this inimitable duo.

Linda Draper Brings Her Subtly Savage Vocal and Lyrical Brilliance Back to the East Village

The most beautifully redemptive moment at any New York concert this year happened at Linda Draper‘s show at the Rockwood on the first of June. She and her subtle, intuitive, brilliant trio with bassist Jeff Eyrich and drummer Eric Puente decided to flip the script at the last moment and open with an oldschool C&W-tinged number, Modern Day Decay. “In a world full of assholes, it ain’t easy,” Draper sang, resonant and nonchalant, as the big crowd of young Republicans yakked it up, oblivious to the band onstage. Meanwhile, the waitress made her way through the crowd, furiously exchanging receipts: all the assholes were paying with their parents’ credit cards. And nobody listened.

When Draper – an elegant, warmly compelling presence whose stock in trade is lyrical wit and subtlety – hit the chorus, she fired off an unexpected flurry of guitar riffage, then took the song way down. “There’s a bar next door, you can go there if you want to talk,” she encouraged afterward. Within a couple of minutes, they’d disappeared, presumably into $1000 Uber cars back to Bushwick or New Jersey. Without missing a beat, she followed with Hollow, a starkly hypnotic Appalachian gothic number. “Can you get it out of your system before you grow cold and numb?” she challenged.

The next song was a rare treat. Time Will Tell is the wickedly catchy opening track on Draper’s debut album, and she seldom plays it, but she did here, and the rhythm section gave it a lowlit slink that underscored her woundedly catchy, subtly snide kiss-off lyric: “You are the shipwreck, I am the sea, you’re sinking through me.”

Draper brought an unexpected and stunning jazz-inflected sensibilty to the catchy 6/8 soul ballad Good As New – she’s been dipping deeper into her full, ripe lower register lately, and this was a prime example. “I’ve made a habit of staying on the outside,” she mused: it’s a song that Neko Case would be proud to have in her catalog. Draper and the band followed with the defiant backbeat anthem True Enough, echoing another individualistic American artist, Tift Merritt. “It’s just a flicker of the beam, a stitcher in the seam, the rest is a big fat lie.”

Ultimately, Draper doesn’t resemble anyone but herself. She and her rhythm section kept the lights low with Sleepwalkers, a bossa-tinged, bitterly catchy lament. “Even the purest of angels would crash and burn in a place like this,” she sang. She followed with the sardonically shuffling Broken Eggshell: “Every corner I meet, there’s two more fancy streets I’ve been walking down…there’s an eggshell to break, it’s the perfect sound.” A theme song for every New Yorker who’d love to crush every speculator’s highrise underfoot! Likewise, the understately savage country escape anthem Make the Money and Run: “You’ve got so much more love in your heart than the sum of your parts,” she entreated. By the time she’d finished the set with the wryly catchy, marching I Got You – “Don’t blame the stars for your lack of wonder” – the crowd was silent, absolutely rapt.

Draper’s next show is a really short, half-hour set at Sidewalk at 8 PM on July 16. But it’s worth coming out for because it’s A) Linda Draper, and B) Joe Yoga, the similarly intense, lyrically-fueled frontman of fiery, jazz-tinged southwestern gothic band the Downward Dogs, who plays after her.

Tamara Hey Represents for Real New Yorkers at the Slipper Room

The dichotomy that runs through Tamara Hey‘s music is edgy, funny, picturesque New York-centric lyrics set to catchy, upbeat tunes with a purist pop sensibliity. Likewise, she balances the crystalline, unselfconscious charm of her vocals with what can be devastatingly amusing, deadpan between-song commentary. Her music has special resonance for those who consider themselves oldschool New Yorkers: Hey is sort of a songwriting Woody Allen of the Lower East Side…minus the celebrity and the ugly backstory. She’s playing the Slipper Room (Orchard and Stanton, upstairs over the big tourist restaurant) on July 1 at 7:30 PM; cover is $10.

And because there’s always an element of surprise when she plays live, she’s worth seeing more than once: this blog managed to catch a grand total of three of her shows over the past year at the Rockwood. One was a solo gig; two were with melodic bassist Richard Hammond, who managed to do double duty as rhythmic center and lead player, no easy feat. And the songs ran the gamut. One of the most charming numbers was Oscar & Bud, a vivid, minutely detailed portrait of a retired ex-showbiz couple who happen to be the narrator’s key people (i.e. they’ve got her spare keys – it’s a New York thing). That song looked back to vintatge Tin Pan Alley.

But Hey likes to mix it up. Drive, with its soaring chorus, 9/11 reference and get-me-the-hell-out-of-here theme, looked back to new wave, as did Miserably Happy (title track to her cult classic powerpop album), which evoked Blondie’s Dreaming. The rambunctiously pulsing, doo-wop tinged Alphabet City, a shout-out to familiar LES haunts which have lately been disappearing one after the other, took on a bittersweet quality. Likewise, We Lean on Cars, a snapshot of middle-school North Bronx anomie circa the early 90s. Hey and Hammond also ran through some more wrly entertaning snapshots of city life: David #3, weighing whether or not to succumb to the allure of a Mr. Wrong, who happens to be a Red Sox fan; Mexico Money, a droll tale of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat; and You Wear Me Out, a clever number about how macho guys sometimes turn out to be the most insecure ones. The C-Note may be long gone, Lakeside Lounge too, and Cafe Pick-Me-Up is moving to East 7th Street, but Tamara Hey still represents for the neighborhood.

And when she’s not playing gigs, she’s busy running Alphabet City Music, who offer economical and informative courses in guitar and applied music theory for players of all levels. This blog covered her introductory music theory course last year and found it both immensely challenging and also immensely useful. By the way, just in case anyone might assume ulterior motives, i.e. sucking up to the prof, to explain why this blog has been at so many of her recent shows, let’s set that record straight. The course was offered during the summer; two of those shows were in the fall and one was this past January.

Americana Individualist Kelley Swindall Hits the Road from the Heartland to the South

Kelley Swindall is one of the most distinctive artists in Americana. She opened her most recent show here with a talking blues. Fifty years ago, every folksinger from one end of the Bleecker Street strip to the other was doing talking blues…but then again that was back when Bleecker Street was the cool part of town. Swindall’s first talking blues of the night – yup, there was more than one – happened to be her big crowd-pleaser The Murder Song, a bloody tale of lust and mayhem that’s become a cult favorite on independent radio throughout the south. If country blues, newgrass and good acoustic jambands like Old Crow Medicine Show are your thing and you’re in the part of the world where Swindall’s touring right now, you ought to see her. She’s starting her latest tour with a two-night stand at the Golconda Mansion in Golconda, Illinois on June 12 and 13 at 6 PM, then hits Charlie Bob’s in Nashville on the 14th, then at 6 PM on the 15th she’s on Hippie Hill in Cristiana, Tennessee. But the big show is her headline slot at Wingstock at City Market in Savannah, Georgia on the 21st. That may be the sunniest day of the year, but Swindall will bring on the night.

The other talking blues she did last time out was her own original, inspired by both the classic Minglewood Blues and the Grateful Dead’s psychedelic cover – Swindall’s version is closer to OCMS than the Dead, maybe since she’d switched from electric guitar to acoustic for that number. But she’s just as likely to bust out a macabre wee-hours creeper like Sidewalk’s Closed, the opening track on her amusingly titled, unspellable debut album (pronounced “Kelley Swindall”). Although she’s been on the road a lot, she’s managed to hit her old Manhattan stomping grounds more than once since the first of the year. It was good to hear her with a full band including bass and drums – and piano, too – the last time out. The time before that marked the first time she’d ever plugged in and played electric guitar onstage, something that gives her darker songs – and she has lots of them – a mighty boost.

Her new material is as good or better than anything she’s done so far. Highlights of the most recent gig included a couple of new ones, the torchy, sultry Come On Back My Way as well as a period-perfect oldschool C&W tearjerker, aptly titled Heartsick. But Swindall’s songs aren’t just about love and longing: the bastards in them get what they deserve, the careless chicks in the drugrunning anthem California run up against karma, cheaters get busted and that poor guy down Savannah way gets let down by the restless girl he’s smitten by: “That’s what drugs’ll do.” is the punchline midway through.

For those who might think it strange that a southern woman would get her start in country and blues-flavored music in New York, that’s what we listen to up here. Y’all think y’all lost the war, but the truth is you won. It just took 150 years.

A Dynamic New Album and a Bushwick Show from Cellist/Singer Patricia Santos

Patricia Santos calls herself a “vocellist.” As you would expect from a distinctive, terse cello player and strong, eclectic singer, she has her fingers in several projects. Most notably, she’s half of the cello-vocal duo the Whiskey Girls and a member of brilliant noir art-rock/circus-rock/latin band Kotorino as well. Santos also has an intriguingly intimate, tunefully diverse new album, Never Like You Think, streaming at Bandcamp and an album release show coming up at 9 PM on May 27 at Max Cellar (downstairs from Amancay’s Diner), 2 Knickerbocker Ave. at Johnson Ave.in Bushwick. It’s close to the Morgan Ave. stop on the L.

The albun’s first track is The One I Should Love, a starkly swaying minor-key blues with just vocals and two instruments, sawing cello contrasting with Andrew Swift’s bitingly resonant guitar. Then the two instruments essentially switch roles. In Your Arms sets Santos’ wryly sultry vocals against a strutting tune that builds to a subtly crescendoing waltz, winding out with a long, hypnotically vamping, pitchblende outro. For You is even more spare, Santos’ warm, balmy vocals paired against a minimalist four-note riff that throws off shards of overtones, especially when she hits a passionate chorus.

Santos keeps the stark ambience going through a raptly dynamic, then unexpectedly explosive take of the classic Mexican folk song La Llorona. Old Hill, another waltz, has a wistful front-porch folk feel grounded by the celllo’s ambered tones. The album winds up with an absolutely knockout, creepy, noisy cover of Kotorono’s Little Boat. The original has a deadpan ominousness: here, Santos teams with Kotorino bandleader/guitarist Jeff Morris, building to a skronk-infested, murderous peak. It’s a cool blend of grit, elegance and raw intensity that aptly capsulizes a captivatingly individualistic debut release.

Heather Maloney Airs Out Her Powerful Voice and Promising New Songs at Joe’s Pub

The first thing that hits you like a ton of bricks when you see Heather Maloney sing is how much of an individualist she is. She likes to pronounce her R’s, maybe because her name has one. Much as you might assume that other singers wouldn’t shy away from that particular letter, they do, especially in her field, which is packed to the gills with guys from New Jersey faking a Bible Belt drawl…or even worse, doing phony ebonics which border on blackface and would have Robert Johnson and Rev. Gary Davis rolling in their graves. For her part, Maloney has a perfect Connecticut accent (she’s from the Berkshires, actually), meaning that she has no accent at all, at least from an East Coast point of view. Couple that with a range like a vintage V-16 Cadillac or a Rolls-Royce – powerful and luxuriously silky from the lows through some spectacular highs – and a complete lack of affectation, at least on her own material, and you have a force to be reckoned with. She played Joe’s Pub last night, not with her long-running band Darlingside but with a new, rotating unit comprising a guitarist/bassist, lead guitarist and drummer. Although she said they’d only been touring for a couple of weeks, they had an energy and chemistry that hinted at a longer association.

She talks to the crowd like she sings – intimately, conversationally, with an irrepressible, dry wit. Lyrically, she likes metaphors and American history, no surprise considering that her previous material ranges from the center to the fringes of Americana. Much of the material in the set was taken from her new album Making Me Break (streaming at Bandcamp), which she recorded in Nashville with members of Band of Horses, among others, whom she was able to enlist with the thirty grand she raised via crowdfunding. Her big break, she told the audience, came when Graham Nash gave his imprimatur to her version of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, title track to her album with Darlingside. She did that one solo acoustic and nailed every one of Joni’s austerely jazz-inflected flights up the scale, her meticulous attention to the lyrics raising the angst and longing.

As good as that one was, her original material, at its best, was just as good and when it wasn’t, showed a lot of promise: Maloney is a work in progress. She’s got a purist pop sensibility and a gift for a catchy hook that occasionally gets sabotaged by indie cliches, like on one song that was mostly movable chords (where you play, say, a C and then just hold your fingers in the same position as you move randomly up and down the fretboard). Ironically, what might have been her most anthemic vocal line of the whole night was sung over those dissonances. Let’s hope there’s a janglerock band somewhere who can deliver it with the kind of payoff and resolution missing this time around.

The best song of the night was 1855, a soaringly bittersweet tale told from the point of view of someone looking back on their 19th century parents and the single photo of them that exists, and its many implications. Maloney also hit a home run with the evening’s newest number, Holding You, I Was, an achingly elegaic, regretful, elegant but crushingly straightforward narrative set to one of Maloney’s most anthemic tunes. A brooding if upbeat new one referenced Maloney’s Saturn return (an astrological concept relating to when Saturn, on its long orbit, returns to where it was when you were born, ostensibly creating all kinds of havoc). Opening act Will Dailey distinguished himself as an economical and intuitive lead guitarist, a role he should embrace because he’s very good at it: a frontman, he’s not. The one low point was a cover of one of the worst songs ever written – a real stinker, we’re talking Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, hotel-motel-Holiday-Inn bad. But the crowd – on the older, bridge-and-tunnel side – didn’t complain. Still, Maloney should know better. It’s not likely she’ll be breaking that one out at any of the folk festivals she’s playing this summer.

Dark Songstress Ember Schrag Plays a Revealingly Low-Key Brooklyn House Concert

Carlos, the goodlooking, rangy guy who runs the space housing the Gatehouse concert series in Fort Greene, surveyed the room Friday night. His black eyes shifted warily, separating familiar faces from newcomers. His blasé, taciturn expression muted a spring-loaded, muscularly twitchy presence, clearly on the prowl for fresh meat. More about that later.

Ember Schrag opened the show in a rare all-acoustic duo performance with polymath lead guitarist Bob Bannister. Notwithstanding her DIY esthetic, Schrag is an elegant singer with sophisticated mic technique, and isn’t used to singing without one. So it was interesting to watch her scramble to find a way to project into the space, in the process unleashing an unexpected grit and raw menace that don’t usually find their way into her typically stately, enigmatic vocals. While she’s most recently been mining a richly lyrical, psychedelically-tinged art-rock vein, this setting gave her the chance to air out several tracks from her haunting, low-key, mostly acoustic Great Plains gothic album The Sewing Room, including the title track, a metaphorically-charged battle of angels that ends as an unexpectedly triumphant escape anthem. As the Nebraska-born songwriter told it, there might be more than a little autobiography in there.

Throughout Sutherland, a tensely fingerpicked murder ballad, Schrag’s voice reached for more menace and foreshadowing than her deadpan, Melora Creager-esque delivery on the studio version. By contrast, Virgin in the Shadow of My Shoe – a swaying pop anthem from Schrag’s latest release, a live Folkadelphia session featuring Susan Alcorn on pedal steel – was irresistibly snide and funny. The two guitarists kept a steady stroll going with Banquo’s Book, its ominous series of images and a deliciously understated, bitingly terse, bluesy Bannister solo.

On album, Your Words is a delicate kiss-off anthem; here, Schrag raised the anger factor, but just a little. An older song related an incident involving a collaboration with a free jazz group and an offer of free rent in a space that turned out to have bedbugs; a new one, Speak to Me in Dreams, juxtaposed another trail of nonchalantly murderous imagery with sizzling fretwork from Bannister. Schrag closed with I Ain’t a Prophet, a corruscating remake of a familiar fire-and-brimstone Bible myth – “Got to use a hammer on Jacob’s Ladder,” she calmly intoned.

Now you might think that someone whose songs can be as starkly serious as most of the numbers in this set would bring a similar gravitas to the stage. Not so. In front of an audience, Schrag is a firecracker, bantering with the crowd and sharing insights into her fabulistic, Calvinist imagery. She peppers her songs with all sorts of Old Testament references coupled with an irreverence that at the core is pure oldschool punk rock. And as generous as she is with the keys to her narratives, she also brought a delicious gin/grapefruit punch, and a cake made out of several kinds of flour that everyone was raving about, and some baked chicken.

About two songs before the end of the show, Carlos finally went into action with a flying leap onto the table, poised to make a swipe at the meat. But an audience member in the back calmly lifted the jet-black figure and his furry paws and returned him to his spot on the floor, where the hungry predator regrouped, grudgingly accepted an appreciative pat on the head, and began plotting his next move. Watch this space for upcoming shows by Schrag, with or without furry friends in the house.

Ward White Plays an Enticingly Quiet, Lyrically Rich Show at the Rockwood

Ward White is New York’s preeminent literate tunesmith. His songs come across as a sort of catchy, anthemic, current-day update on Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game. They bristle with references to novels, film, theate, art, history…and sometimes silly current events. For all the doomed imagery, savagery and relentless cynicism on his latest album Ward White Is the Matador, those songs can be hilarious. His stage show is the same way. It would have been fun to have been able to catch him playing a relatively rare solo acoustic set – the kind where you can really listen, and get into those lyrics, and try to figure out what the hell all those twisted stories are about – at Pete’s Candy Store a couple of weeks back. But the L wasn’t running. For those who missed that show – or White’s searing electric show with his band at the big room at the Rockwood last month – he’s making another semi-rare acoustic appearance at the small room there at 9 PM on March 31. It’s a good segue, actually, because White’s a criminally good guitarist and he’s followed on the bill at 10 PM by another mean picker, bluegrass maven Michael Daves, who’s playing his weekly Rockwood residency.

That February show there was much like White’s fiery Bowery Electric album release show late last year. Violinist Claudia Chopek fueled the centerpiece of both the show and the album, Bikini – a reference to the radioactive South Pacific bombsite rather than beachwear – with her knifes-edge, shivery crescendos. Bassist Bryan Smith fired off boomy, muscular low-register chords coupled to nimbly catchy hooks further up the fretboard. While it’s not like White – who alternated between punchy glamrock hooks, resonant jangle and soaring leads all night – really needs a lead guitarist, Smith filled that role when the music got quieter. Visually, the star of the show was harmony singer Victoria Liedtke, who balanced a stoic Lynch girl presence with some pricelesss cat-ate-the-canary expressions in response to White’s banter, which were every bit as as funny as the songs’ double entendres and references to things like mylar balloons.

That’s what one of the night’s best songs was centered around, an offhandedly chilling hospital scene set to a allusively balmy ballad backdrop – mylar balloons are those shiny things you can get in any hospital gift shop, White explained. The understatedly creepy, retro 60s pop of Dolores on the Dotted Line was as suspenseful and offhandedly apt a portrait of control-freak sadism as it is on album. The album’s pulsing opening number, Sabbath, was as amusing as it was ineluctably bleak. In between, White cracked up the crowd with the S&M Bacharach bossa nova of Alphabet of Pain as well as plenty of sardonic between-song one-liners, but he didn’t do much explaining when it came to the songs. Although he did allude to references to both an unnamed Kurosawa film and a David Foster Wallace novel in one of the set’s later numbers. Go to the Tuesday night show and find out what else you missed.

Downtown Luminaries and Secret Special Guests Play Richard Thompson and Graham Parker at the Mercury this Sunday

The classic album night was invented at the Bottom Line, the West 4th Street venue shuttered in 2004 after their landlord, New York University, raised their rent in order to kick them out for good since they owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back rent. At that point, the gay couple who owned the club were getting old but were stubbornly still booking has-beens from the venue’s glory days in the 70s, when Bruce Springsteen sold out a weeklong stand and Lou Reed recorded his Take No Prisoners album there. Attrition is a cruel thing, and it did the Bottom Line in.

Still, the club made the occasional halfhearted attempt to draw a crowd. The most successful, at least moneywise, were the classic album nights. It’s not clear who did the first album cover night there: it might have been New Jersey bar band leader Gary Myrick, or it might have been the crew who eventually morphed into the Loser’s Lounge contingent, whose preference for cheese and camp typically overwhelmed any lackadaisical attempt to do justice to the songs, such as they were, Either way, it was a cheap way to pack the club. Thirty people in the band, running on and offstage, everybody bringing a girlfriend or boyfriend, maybe even another friend or two? Multiply that by what was then a stiff twenty dollar cover…and no drink tickets for the band, since there were so many musicians. Pure gravy for the venue – especially since everyone except for the organizers were playing for free.

In the decade or so since the Bottom Line closed, there have been innumerable other classic album nights staged across this city. Some of the less crassly commercial ones have been transcendent: Mary Lee’s Corvette outdid Dylan with their live version of Blood on the Tracks the first time around, released it on album, then played it again live, twelve years later. System Noise, who morphed into Americana jamband the Sometime Boys, sold out venues all over town with their Ziggy Stardust cover nights. There’s a classic album twinbill coming up at 6 (six) PM on Sunday, March 22 at the Mercury that threatens to rival both of those, where an A-list of downtown NYC talent will be covering both Richard & Linda Thompson’s iconic Shoot Out the Lights album as well as Graham Parker’s new wave cult classic Squeezing Out Sparks.

What might be coolest about this is that this is the second time this crew will be doing Shoot Out the Lights. They played it last November at Tom Clark’s weekly Sunday night Treehouse Americana extravaganza at 2A, so if there were any bugs to work out, those should be history (the whole night was recorded and is up at youtube). Bass player Tom Shad gets credit with coming up with the idea; guitarist Rich Feridun is unbelievable as he channels Thompson’s tortured clusters and spirals. The rest of the band that night included Ward White and Erica Smith on vocals (just watch her wailing her way through Wall of Death, relishing every line); Dave Foster on guitar and vocals; Lizzie Edwards on harmonies; Charlie Roth on keys and Chris Schulz on drums. It’s not clear exactly who’s doing what this time around, but the cast has been expanded to include powerpop maven John Sharples, American Ambulance’s Pete Cenedella, star bassist Lisa Dowling, Matt Keating. and Tim Simmonds of Admiral Porkbrain, among others. Cover is ten bucks. And there will be special guests…but this blog is sworn to secrecy. Hint: some of them, um, might have played on the originals.

Yet Another Darkly Lyrical Masterpiece and a Rockwood Show from Matt Keating

Few songwriters personify the definition of cult artist better than Matt Keating. It may not necessarily be an easy life, but it’s a rewarding one. If he wants to play electric, he’s got his choice of plenty of venues, and if he just wants to go solo acoustic, he can play the folkie circuit around the world til the cows come home. He’s also in demand as a producer (he was hugely instrumental in helping Linda Draper take a hard detour into Americana) and as a sideman on lead guitar, bass and keyboards. And very methodically, over the past couple of decades he’s built a body of work to rival any other tunesmith active today. Keating is eclectic, shifting seamlessly between Elvis Costello-esque janglerock, rustic country blues, high lonesome C&W and most recently, plaintive oldschool soul. There’s a relentless unease and angst in those catchy tunes: Steve Wynn is a good comparison, although more thematically than musically. Keating just put the finishing touches on his long-awaited new album, This Perfect Crime – streaming at his webpage – and has an album release show coming up at the big room at the Rockwood at 8 PM on Feb 17. Cover is $10.

His previous album Wrong Way Home was a masterpiece of psychopathology and inventive cross-genre tunesmithing. Quixotic, the one before that, was a lavish double-cd feast of Americana-informed jangle and clang. This one is sort of the missing link between the two, as rich with melody as it is with grim narratives. The title track, When They’ve Thrown You Away builds to a hypnotic night-drive ambience, a bed of acoustic guitars floating over the organ as Keating draws a searing portrait of a doomed couple in Flyover America hell:

She was born in the buckle of the Bible Belt
She was raised by the knuckle her daddy never felt

And it gets more allusively gruesome from there.

Nothing to Figure Out has a similar, delicate blend of guitar and organ, transcontinental plane ride cast as loaded metaphor for a relationship unraveling over distance. Mothers Day is the first of the propulsive janglerockers (Tony Scherr and Allen Devine share lead guitar duties), pulsing along on a backbeat groove from bassist Jason Mercer and drummer Greg Wieczorek (also of Karla Moheno‘s band) as it builds to a lush sweep with Claudia Chopek’s one-woman string section.
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The title track hits a growling, Stonesy bounce, in this case building to a big crescendo fueled by some aptly snarling lead guitar and Dave Sewelson’s one-man horn section. Sullivan Street, by contrast, is a gritty, whisperingly conspiratorial tale among the down-and-out in what’s left of the fringes of the West Village: it’s as quintessentially New York as anything Lou Reed ever wrote.

Keating’s tinkling, Nicky Hopkins-inspired piano and Sewelson’s honking baritone sax mingle above a slowly swaying Glimmer Twins backdrop on the cynical Hell If I Know. The minimalist, low-key The Only Thing evokes the starker material on Wrong Way Home, if with considerably more wry humor. I’m Lucky mashes up deadpan, sarcastic Lou Reed with elegant Spottiswoode-style chamber-folk.

The most sinister of all the narratives here is English Coffee. It’s sort of Springsteen’s Atlantic City told from the point of view of an American expat on unfamiliar and very uneasy turf, set to rippling, Beatlesque raga-rock. Is this guy a hitman? A rocker on tour? Maybe both?

Keating abruptly shifts gears after that with This Must Be Love, its tender, delicate web of guitars barely concealing a cynical undercurrent. Before the War is vintage Keating: doomed, metaphorically loaded imagery, catchy verse rising to a wicked singalong chorus:

There’s no rest for the weary
No doubt for the sure
No heartbreak in theory
Right before the war

The album winds up with a fond love ballad with a distant gospel tinge, a shout-out to Keating’s family. What else is there to say: in about ten months you’ll see this high on the Best Albums of 2015 page here and at probably a lot of other places too.

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