New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: singer-songwriter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughtful, Gently Provocative Acoustic Songs From Allegra Krieger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah McQuaid’s Starkly Lyrical New Live Album Captures a Dark Zeitgeist

Songwriter Sarah McQuaid was into the early part of a marathon 2020 tour when live music was criminalized throughout most of the world. Since she’d planned on making a live album while on the road, she made one closer to home, solo acoustic in the charming, medieval Cornwall church where she sings in a choir. The result is the vinyl record The St Buryan Sessions, streaming at Bandcamp. McQuaid has made a lot of good, darkly pensive albums over the years and this might be the best of them all, a quasi greatest hits collection that promises to have lasting historical resonance, capturing the zeitgeist of a moment that the world would rather never revisit.

Even the guarded, seductive optimism of What Are We Going to Do, in the stark solo electric version here, is far more muted than the original. The record is notable right off the bat for having the only recording of McQuaid singing Sweetness and Pain – a troubled but ultimately hopeful, plainchant-inspired mini-suite – as a contiguous whole. She does that a-cappella, taking advantage of the church’s rich natural reverb and what could be more than a two-second decay.

That reverb also enhances both McQuaid’s guitar and piano work. There’s a similarly resolute sense of hope through dark times in the second song, The Sun Goes On Rising. McQuaid’s voice is strong anyway, and here she reaches back for power to match the anxiousness and uncertainty.

If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous – what a song title for the fall of 2021, right? – brings to mind Richard Thompson‘s solo acoustic work, McQuaid starkly fingerpicking an enigmatic blues behind her loaded imagery. For the record, the vocal harmonies are live loops.

She switches to piano for The Silence Above Us, a brooding, slow, nocturnal waltz which seems practically prophetic, considering the events of 2020. One Sparrow Down is an understatedly grim little swing tune about a cat-and-bird game, McQuaid backing herself with just a kickdrum.

The sparkling open-tuned guitar melody of Charlie’s Gone Home, one of McQuaid’s earliest songs, contrasts with the elegaic narrative. The rainy-day jazz guitar backdrop dovetails more closely with the volcanic portents of Yellowstone, McQuaid capping it off with a slashing flourish.

Time to Love is the sparest, most hypnotic number here and makes a good segue with her similarly sparse cover of Autumn Leaves where she really airs out her upper register. Live vocal loops enhance the somber reflections on mass mortality that pervade In Derby Cathedral: yesterday the church crypt, tomorrow the world.

McQuaid loves open tunings, best exemplified by her eerily echoing, chiming, increasingly macabre phrasing over an ominously swooping bassline in the instrumental The Day of Wrath, That Day. She keeps the subdued atmosphere going in, the pall lifting a little in The Tug of the Moon.

She returns to piano, adding gravitas to Michael Chapman’s Rabbit Hills, pulling it closer toward pastoral Pink Floyd territory. The closing number, Last Song is a requiem for McQuaid’s mom – a musician herself – and a reflection on the enduring strength of intergenerational traditions.

Another Allusively Menacing, Lyrical Masterpiece From Ward White

Ward White is the Elvis Costello of the 21st century. Nobody does deviously whirlwind literary wordplay and catchy tunesmithing better. Like Costello, White is prolific – thirteen albums, including his latest, The Tender Age, streaming at Bandcamp. His influences are vast, he thinks outside the box, but he’s had the good sense to resist getting in over his head (Elvis C turned out to be great at string quartets but was, um, less successful with opera buffo and hip-hop). And White is arguably even darker than the past century’s greatest songwriter.

And he’s a hell of a lead guitarist, and a damn good bass player too. The new album features his longtime collaborators Tyler Chester on keys and the Wallflowers’ Mark Stepro on drums. This is their best album together: they’ve become White’s Attractions. Tenacious D bassist John Spiker engineered with his usual retro purism and flair.

Allusive violence and an ever-present menace have come to permeate most of White’s most recent material. The first track, Dirty Clouds, is a slow, funk-tinged number, Chester’s echoey Wurlitzer percolating beneath White’s dissociatively grim imagery. Check out the hilarious video – is this a metaphor for media terrormongering? Maybe a little bit. There are innumerable levels of meaning in White’s songs: they don’t just stand up to repeated listening, they require it. Catchy as his catalog is, it’s not for people with short attention spans or the faint of heart.

Track two, Easy Meat is one of White’s more sinisterly evocative narratives, vintage 80s powerpop pulsing along on a tense new wave beat, with a spacerock guitar solo at the center. Reduced to lowest terms, it’s about acting on impulses that would be unthinkable to anyone outside, say, the Gates Foundation or the California governor’s office.

Rhyme schemes, metaphors and reflections on anomie fly fast and furious in the Bowie-tinged Let’s Don’t Die At the Stoplight – like the gunfire White once found himself caught in while waiting at an intersection:

It’s not what he expects
But how he expects it
So quick to arrive
So grisly an exit
The eye takes an eye
And the windshield reflects it
You can put it into gear again….

White imagines Chet Baker in the afterlife, trying to pull himself together in Dentures, a mashup of piano-fueled Bowie balladry and Richard Thompson ghoulishness:

You’re either making art or getting paid
And the angel licked his nails and thought,
“All the really good ones die afraid.”
Put down your horn, you won’t need it
The day you’re born, you’re defeated…

Chester’s enigmatic organ solo is spot-on beyond belief.

On Foot, a brisk new wave/powerpop burner, is a murder ballad: the cruellest joke is musical rather than lyrical. The most Bowie-inspired song here is the album’s bittersweetly catchy title track, White channeling Mick Ronson with his solo in a surreal tale of a LA cop casually making a shocking existential choice.

One of White’s recurrent themes is the question of where everyday mishegas crosses the line, whether that might endanger merely the crazy person or everyone around them. Gail, Where’s Your Shoes is a prime example, complete with tantalizingly woozy guitar solo. Is this a thinly veiled portrait of a woman pouring herself out of a cab on a Williamsburg avenue in the fall of 2006? Hmm…..

White builds a more overtly cynical, vengeful narrative over Stonesy sarcasm in Wasn’t It Here: as he does throughout the album, Stepro’s casual flurries drive the murderous point home. White hits his chorus pedal for icy 80s gloss in Heavy Lifting, the album’s funniest number.

“Suicide rates are an urban myth if you look into it,” White’s titular Karate Dentist relates over a backdrop that could be Steely Dan at their most rocking, White closes the album with Monrovia, a distantly Turkish (or Smiths) tinged kiss-off anthem, and the only place where he stops trying to conceal the snarl beneath the surface. He’s no stranger to best-albums-of-the-year list here: his 2013 album Bob and his 2020 release Leonard at the Audit both topped the full-length charts here, and this may end up at the top of the crop of 2021 as well.

Haunting Vocals and Tunesmithing on Emily Frembgen’s Brilliant New Album

Up until the lockdown, Emily Frembgen was one of the hardest-working musicians on what’s left of the New York acoustic and Americana scenes. She held down residencies at the Knitting Factory and LIC Bar, but also didn’t limit herself to the usual spots. She was just as likely to play a donut shop or a house party. It was at a Bushwick donut shop in the fall of 2017 where she calmly and quietly picked up her acoustic guitar and played one of the most haunting songs written by anyone in this city in the last several years. That song is called Downtown: Frembgen’s narrator goes to meet her friends one last time before she either leaves, or kills herself, or both. The song is all the more chilling for not being specific.

It’s not on her new album It’s Me or the Dog – streaming at Bandcamp – but the record has plenty of other intriguing material, some of it brooding, some of it more quirky and playful. Frembgen is a skilled, purist tunesmith, a potently imagistic lyricist and has an unselfconscious, sometimes wounded. sometimes understatedly vengeful voice that will give you goosebumps.

“Little child, going nowhere, I can’t touch you when you turn away from me,” Frembgen relates gently in Butterfly, a chilling, tersely detailed portrait of clinical depression. That one’s just Frembgen and her acoustic guitar. She’s joined by lead guitarist Hugh Pool, bassist Charles Dechants and drummer Keith Robinson for Changes, which brings to mind Rosanne Cash’s early new wave/Americana mashups.

Organist Brian Mitchell adds aptly Blonde on Blonde-flavored organ and Nashville piano to Sad Affair: the harmonica completes the mid 60s Dylan ambience behind Frembgen’s witheringly cynical imagery.

Flower/Weed is a seething, low-key kiss-off song, Frembgen’s gentle fingerpicking mingling with Charles Burst’s twinkly electric piano. She goes back to backbeat Americana with Silver Lining, a catchy, guardedly optimistic anthem about two troubled souls pulling themselves out of a dark place, lowlit by Pool’s baritone guitar.

The contrasting imagery and airy vocals in Turn Around bring to mind another first-class Americana-inspired tunesmith, Liz Tormes. Frembgen elevates Julee Cruise girl-down-the-well moroseness to new levels of angst in New Feelin’ over Pool’s Lynchian twang.

She picks up the pace with Hometown, an optimistic country shuffle concealing a desperate escape narrative, and closes the record with He Held Onto Me, Mitchell’s sober gospel piano underscoring Frembgen’s despondency. It’s the only place on the album where she drops her guard. Frembgen has been writing catchy songs since the late zeros, but she’s reached a harrowing new level here with one of the best records of 2021.

A Colorfully Lyrical, Fast-Fingered Songwriter on the High Plains

Billy Lurken is the rare Americana songwriter who’s also a hell of a lead guitarist. His axe is acoustic. He gets a much bigger sound out of his guitar than most guys who usually play solo, and does the same on the banjo. He’s just as strong at bluegrass-style flatpicking as he is with the big jazzy chords of western swing and his own high-voltage take on the blues. He’s also a vivid chronicler of the anomie and quiet desperation everyday people face in Flyover America. Born in Minnesota and raised in South Dakota, he’s a fixture on the high plains circuit. His next gig is a free outdoor show on Sept 19 at 2 PM at Wilde Prairie Winery, 48052 259th St. in Brandon, South Dakota.

Lurken’s songs pick up on the little details but also capture the big picture. “It’s a Monday-through-Friday sort of dying” is one of the key lines in the Studs Terkel-influenced number he opened with on a segment of the No Cover, No Minimum show on South Dakota Public tv which you can stream here.

Movin’ On is a showcase for Lurken’s fast fingers on the frets: it’s a brisk early 50s style western swing-infused boogie about how the years can take their toll on a couple.

One of his most memorable story-songs is Home, a fast-picked chronicle of something less than bliss on the blue-collar domestic front. For all the detail – the dust-streaked Cadillac, the stoned girl on the back porch with her “Audrey Hepburn shades” – it’s what Lurken doesn’t say that packs the biggest punch.

And he has upbeat, optimistic songs to balance out the gloomy ones. There’s Girl in the Flowered Dress, a showcase for his chops. Tumbleweed, a studio recording, has a luscious, bluegrass-infused mix of guitar and banjo. And Rider, a cowboy tune, is a stark, nimbly fingerpicked Jimmie Rodgers-style blues.

If it might seem odd that a blog which has advocated for live music throughout the five boroughs of New York might be paying so much attention to South Dakota, that’s because South Dakota is a free state. There’s no apartheid there, no spyware required to go indoors at venues, restaurants and bars. That’s the way it is throughout the rest of the free states: Florida, Texas and across the plains. America’s Frontline Doctors have filed a civil rights lawsuit to overturn Mayor Bill DiBozo’s evil, unconstitutional edict, and at the moment a lot of businesses aren’t enforcing it. Until we succeed in liberating ourselves, you may see more of what’s happening in the land of “Great Faces, Great Places” here.

Sparely Powerful, Lyrical Catalan Songcraft From Singer Lia Sampai

One of the most stunningly direct, potently lyrical albums of the year is Lia Sampai’s latest release Amagatalls de Llum (rough unpoetic translation from Catalan: Hidden in Plain Sight), streaming at youtube. Sampai sings with a disarmingly intimate, nuanced delivery and writes striking, imagistic lyrics, with a fearless political sensibility. Her images can be charming and quirky one second and venomous the next. While there’s a definite flamenco influence in her music, there are also elements of Portuguese fado, pan-Mediterranean balladry, art-rock and tinges of jazz, nimbly negotiated by acoustic guitarist Adrià Pagès. Some of the songs are simply guitar and vocals, others feature terse strings in places.

She opens with La Caixeta (The Box), a stately, romantic waltz that’s part fado, part flamenco and part vintage Parisian chanson. The doll imagery in the sparse, angst-fueled second track, La Nina comes across as more of a reflection on reconnecting with an inner conscience than with an inner child, Lia Manchón’s violin and Ester Trilla’s cello adding pensive ambience.

La Nit del Foc (Night of Fire) is a coy mashup of a dramatic Spanish waltz and a Dylanesque talking blues. Sampai follows a suspenseful trail of eerie, allusive images, up to a duende-fueled peak in Pinyols de Gel (Hailstorm), Pagès’ attack growing more unhinged along with her.

The shapeshifting political broadside Una Llum (A Light) is a real stunner, a slap upside the head of a petty tyrant whose insatiable desire for control backfires and ignites a revolution. Sampai wrote this in 2019, but it has infinite more resonance in the year where the World Economic Forum terrorists are throwing everything they have at us to try to keep their global takeover attempt from going off the rails.

Iris is a delicately waltzing, enigmatic, metaphorically loaded narrative about a dancer (or maybe a stripper). Weeping willow metaphors take centerstage in the stark, grim Salze Vell:

Que dins de tant de vent lo plor és silenci,
Com una paraula que interdiu algú.
I les fulles se revolten encriptades
D’una música que sols entenem junts
Plorem per amunt!
Plorem per amunt!
Alcem un crit de pena i llibertat

[rough translation]

A scream drowned by the wind
Like a forbidden word
And the leaves spin, encrypted
With a music that only we understand
Let’s scream it!
Let’s scream it!
Scream from sadness, for freedom

The catchy, lilting Joc de Miralls (Game of Mirrors) seems to an examination of how recognizing your shadow in someone else can be liberating, if a little scary.

Pagès’ starry electric guitar rings out over Emili Bosch’s synth in Astronautes, a playful outer-space love song. Sampai winds up the album with the understatedly haunting L’Endemà (The Day After), the strings lush and moody as Gerard Morató’s piano mingles with Lluís Pérez-Villegas’ glockenspiel. Sampai’s Christmas party narrative is joyous and not a little defiant, but there’s a sinister undercurrent. What a perfect song for a year when dictators are trying to tell us how many people we can invite to our private holiday celebrations.