New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: singer-songwriter

A Characteristically Rich, Diverse Year of Shows at Manhattan’s Best Venue for Acoustic and Folk Music

The American Folk Art Museum won the annual award for Best Manhattan Venue here back in 2016. It would be just as easy to say that again in 2019. Impresario Lara Ewen‘s mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series is still the most transit-accessible way to discover new songwriting and traditional music talent in this city, artists from all over the world covet playing in the museum’s rich natural reverb…and you can get a glass of wine here for a third of what it would cost you at Rockwood Music Hall.

As you would expect at a museum whose equally amazing exhibits document folk art and outsider art spanning the past few centuries, there’s plenty of folk music here. But even the oldtime sounds extend well beyond the world of fingerpicked front-porch acoustic guitar tunes. The best traditional show here this year was by singer Vienna Carroll, a historian whose insights into a set of rousing blues, gospel and string band songs reflected the triumphs of African-Americans over 19th century slaveowner terrorism and racism rather than the more common narrative of endless suffering. Queen Esther, a Folk Art Museum regular, reaffirmed that same fearlessly subversive esthetic at a couple of shows in February and July, featuring both Eastern Seaboard blues and soul-tinged originals.

Other entertaining oldtime folk shows included sets by the harmony-driven Triboro in May, as well as Irish tunesmith Brendan O’Shea (whose defiant, populist originals were even better) in July. Of all the original songwriters here, the most shattering was Karen Dahlstrom, whose November set featured a lot of material from her latest release No Man’s Land (a lock for best short album of 2019).  With her fearsome but meticulously nuanced alto, she aired out the fiery, gospel-infused title track, a Metoo-era broadside, as well as the metaphorically haunting After the Flood – a look at both personal and global apocalypses – and a new number, My Benevolent Destroyer, a chilling portrait of a broken marriage through the prism of imperialist domination.

Joshua Garcia, with his flinty voice and harrowing, Phil Ochs-inspired narratives, put the struggles of new immigrants and battered women in potently political perspective, along with the most chillingly allusive song about the Hiroshima bombing ever written. Miriam Elhajli sang in both English and Spanish, looking outward at the grim political climate as well as more inwardly, with intricate guitar fingerpicking and some intriguing jazz and Latin American riffs.

Niall Connolly held the crowd rapt with his brooding, tersely crystallized songs of struggle and emotional abandonment and rage against the Trumpies (a reaction that ran high at practically every show here this year). Soulstress Dina Regine, who played here in both April and June, was much the same, thematically, although her music draws more on classic 1960s American grooves.

How torchy singer Jeanne Marie Boes managed to get so much epic power and range out of her tiny keyboard is a mystery, although her towering, angst-fueled ballads and a couple of detours into darkly majestic blues had a relentlessly direct intensity. With her resonant chorister’s voice and deadpan surrealism, cellist/singer Meaner Pencil a.k.a. Lenna M. Pierce (she got her stage name the online anagram generator, she explained) was just as gripping, in a completely different vein.

Songstress/acoustic guitarist Kalyani Singh illuminated a dark inner world with a similar, often minimalistic focus, while southwestern singer Kate Vargas got the crowd going with singalongs and innumerable chances to have fun with beats. And Feral Foster – who runs the Jalopy’s longtime Roots & Ruckus series – didn’t let being under the weather get in the way of a characteristically haunted, expertly fingerpicked set of grim Nashville gothic laments and ballads.

The American Folk Art Museum’s Free Music Fridays series resumes January 10 at 5:30 PM with the soaring, brilliantly lyrical Linda Draper. There’s also an ongoing free series of guitar jazz concerts most every Wednesday at 2 PM with Bill Wurtzel and bassist Jay Leonhart.

The Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange Create the Newest Sound Around

Every month, the Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange plays the freshest material you can hear anywhere in New York. That’s because almost all of the Brooklyn collective’s songs are brand new. Ringleader Lorrane Leckie hosts a weekly salon where a rotating cast of some of the best songwriters you’ve never heard of – and some that you definitely have – workshop new material, then they take it to the stage in Williamsburg. Leckie in particular has been working on new material for her upcoming show on Nov 24 at 7 PM with her ferocious, psychedelic band the Demons at the Mercury. Fellow guitarslinger and charismatic singer Mallory Feuer’s equally ferocious band the Grasping Straws open the night at 6; cover is $10.

The October Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange lineup was typically diverse and just as interesting. Leckie debuted a forlornly strolling tribute to her recently departed French bulldog, Eloise, one of the more memorable musician mascots in this city in recent years. LJ Murphy, the group’s cleanup hitter, recast a couple of broodingly aphoristic older tunes as vintage soul music. Another first-class singer, Paul Anthony, went just as deeply into Sam Cooke-tinged soul.

The edgiest new material of the night was from Jeannie Skelly, one of the group’s strongest singers and guitarists. Her first number was a hilariously vindictive anti-fascist rant; the second was just as amusing, an apparently true story about an old friend who returns from his world travels a changed man: he’s become a vegetarian supremacist!

Carly Spell, a relative newcomer, held the crowd rapt with an allusively haunting chronicle of addiction and its most dire consequences. Likewise, Sara Hurwitz‘s poignant opening number, assesseddiminishing hopes for artistic community in a city completely devastated by gentrification. Lead guitarist Robert Troise added some neat bluegrass flatpicking on that one.

Eve Blackwater got everybody laughing and singing along to one of the funniest and most explicit fuck-you anthems written in recent months. Eric Richmond took the crowd back to a 1979 of the mind with a bleakly imagistic, tightly composed, Graham Parker-esque new wave tune. Teresa Toro, the latest and brighest addition to another collective, the Bushwick Book Club, brought down the lights with a couple of understatedly torchy, jazz-inflected numbers. Feuer also set aside her usual firepower for an enigmatic, more dreampop-flavored tune. And Sarah Murdoch, who might be the most powerful singer of the entire bunch, validated the argument that she’s just as nuanced and intense a blues singer as she is with jazz and Americana.

The Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange’s monthly show continues at Pete’s tonight, Nov 11 at 6 PM, so you won’t have to worry about the L train going down on your way home.

Jenifer Jackson Returns to Her Catchy, Poignant Psychedelic Pop Roots

Of all the songwriters who built their careers in the incredibly fertile crucible of the Lower East Side New York scene in the late 90s and early zeros, Jenifer Jackson is one of the most prolific and arguably the best. Over the years, she’s moved from Beatlesque psychedelia to stark, brooding pastoral pop, bossa nova and harrowing, majestic art-rock. She’s also been a poineer of the DIY house concert tour circuit Her move to Austin in the early part of the decade springboarded a deep dive into Americana. Her latest album Paths – streaming at Bandcamp – is a return to the catchy, anthemic, eclectic psychedelic pop she made a name with early in her career. Jackson has a pair of New York gigs coming up next month. She’s at the Owl on Nov 3 at 8, then the next night, Nov 4 at the same time she’s at the big room at the Rockwood.

On the new record, her voice is more nuanced than ever; her lyrics are characteristically crystallized, imagistic and loaded with subext. There’s a restrained angst in her delivery as she soars up to the chorus on the elegantly waltzing opening track, Things I Meant to Tell You, Jim Hoke’s flute and Chris Carmichael’s one-man string quartet adding a stark baroque touch. As usual, Jackson lets the images of returning to a dusty room after a trip speak for themselves. It packs a gentle wallop.

There’s a delicate web of acoustic guitar fingerpicking beneath the orchestration in the tender early-dawn scenario First Bird. Then the band – which includes Brad Jones on guitars, bass and keys, Pat Sansone on guitar and mellotron and Josh Hunt on drums – picks up the pace with Back Home, a big, electric, organ-driven backbeat rocker. “The silence almost made me lose my mind,” Jackson confides: the tradeoff between organ and twelve-string guitar in the break is absolutely luscious.

Travelled Together, a bittersweet breakup ballad, has wintry, vintage 60s orchestration and Laurel Canyon psychedelic pop ambience: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Judy Henske catalog. Sultry Memory is a summery psychedelic soul ballad with shimmering vibraphone: it has the enigmatic lushness of Jackson’s classic 2007 Outskirts of a Giant Town and the lush Philly soul of Got To Have You, two standout numbers from Jackson’s vast output over the years.

Hey, Good is a wistful, hopeful, sprightly tune with ukulele and just a hint of brass: it could be a charming lost acoustic McCartney miniature from the White Album. Jackson brings back the electricity and the backbeat in Written in Stone: imagine the Byrds backing the Mamas & the Papas.

Jackson likes to put a good old-fashioned hard country tune on every album, and What Good’s a Memory is a picture-perfect vintage 60s tune, right down to the saloon piano and pedal steel. She wraps up the record with a country gospel-flavored piano ballad, Hail and Farewell. In a time where the brain drain out of New York stalled or even destroyed so many music careers, it’s testament to Jackson’s sheer talent (not to mention persistence) that she’s been able to stay on a creative tear that just won’t quit.

[If you’re looking for today’s Halloween installment, take a trip back to October 21 of last year for an underrated, darky psychedelic 2013 release – amazingly still available as a free download – by a New York band who should have gone a lot further than they did]

Folk Noir and Fearlessly Political Songwriting: Still Going Strong in the East Village

Sunday night at Scratcher Bar in the East Village, Lara Ewen and Niall Connolly strung together a couple hours worth of memorably surreal narratives and catchy acoustic guitar tune with a crafty expertise that’s become increasingly rare in this city.

Ewen, who is probably best known as the founder and fearless impresario of the mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum, is also a distinctive tunesmith in her own right and opened this particular show. There was a lot of fresh new material in her set, an auspicious preview of her long-awaited new album, mostly likely due out sometime next year. This time out, there was more bluesy grit in her voice than usual, and she fingerrpicked a lot more as well.

“I don’t write political songs,” she told the crowd, “Politics is something we tend to do in every moment of our lives,” she explained, prefacing a witheringly sarcastic new number about an sexual assault survivor, and then a kid who narrowly misses getting shot by the cops, each emphasizing how incredibly lucky they are.

Another aphoristic, darkly sparkling new song concerned a guy who manages to dig himself into a hole where he’s comfortable, way down in the dark. In the final verse, he brings a length of rope down there, although Ewen never reveals what exactly he does with it. Her other character studies, some new and some older and full of strange, unresolved chords, had similarly lingering imagery, situated among the down and out, or the about to be down and out. Like hell Ewen isn’t political: she just doesn’t preach.

Watching Connolly parse a series of terse, judiciously picked tunes, it’s obvious that he’s a rock guy: it was easy to imagine him playing those lines on a Strat with a rhythm section behind him. He’s more overtly political than Ewen, with an unassuming, raw, often melancholy vocal delivery. The big audience singalong was a soaringly anthemic portrait of the last days of Irish Revolutionary hero James Connolly (an ancestor, maybe?): “Lily, don’t you cry, I’ve lived the fullest of lives” was the chorus.

The best of the new ones was a spot-on, strange account of a late-night Rockaways bus ride (interrupted for Miller High Life and a shot of well whiskey at a watering hole along the way), and the kind of weirdos you meet there, everybody sharing the near dream-state surrealism of outer-borough afterwork fatigue.

Connolly is also a great storyteller without his guitar (Ewen said that she’d stolen all her stage banter from him: not a bad place to start). The funniest tale of the night concerned a bus driver who pulled to the curb for a second, exited the vehicle and shouted his order for fried rice to the Chinese restaurant cook taking a break across the street. Connolly, a populist to the core, explained that he has a special appreciation for any employee who likes to bend the rules.This particular takeout joint’s fried rice is apparently worth a risk.

Connolly’s next gig is Oct 17 at 8:30 PM at the Hunterian at 413 E 70th St. between First and York Aves.. Theres also an excellent bill coming up at the Folk Art Museum on Oct 18 at at 6 PM with  Sharon Goldman – one of the great tunesmiths to come out of the NYC acoustic scene since the turn of the century – and dark, brilliantly lyrical oldtimey songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Pete Lanctot.

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.