New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: singer-songwriter

A Rare Midtown Show by Americana Songwriting Icon Joe Ely

Joe Ely may be iconic in Americana music circles, but he’s hardly resting on his laurels these days. Joe Strummer’s favorite country singer has seen the cult favorite debut album by his early 70s supergroup the Flatlanders reissued, along with his hard-to-find 1983 solo record B484, one of the first releases to utilize what was then state-of-the-art computer technology. Earlier this year, a previously unreleased duet by Ely and Linda Ronstadt was rescued from the vaults. His thinly veiled autobiographical novel Reverb: An Odyssey is out, and is as brilliant and understatedly surreal as you would expect from an eloquent pioneer of what would become known as alt-country back in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. If that isn’t enough, Ely is the Texas State Musician of 2016. And his latest darkly relevant, immigrant-themed album, Panhandle Rambler – streaming at Spotify – employs a wide and distinguished group of talent from his Austin circle. It might be the best solo album he’s ever done. His most recent gig here was with the Flatlanders at Carnegie Hall several months back, but he’s making a rare return to NYC with a gig on July 27 at 8 PM at B.B. King’s. Advance tix are $27.50.

The album’s first cut, Wounded Creek builds from an ominous thicket of acoustic guitars and bass into a darkly bluesy southwestern gothic ballad, Ely at the top of his game as purposefully imagistic storyteller. The similarly uneasy, tiptoeing Magdalene also works an allusive, haunted storyline, an outlaw couple on the run. “I don’t know what comes next,” Ely confides, “Your guess is as good as mine,” Joel Guzman’s accordion wafting in the distance. Coyotes Are Howling keeps the border-rock suspense going, a gloomy American narcocorrida of sorts:

Bright lights are flashing
Both red and blue
It’s nowhere near Christmas
But it’s long overdue

When the Nights Are Cold sardonically nicks a famous Pink Floyd riff for a somber portrait of illegal immigrant angst. Early in the Mornin’ follows a similar, more enigmatic tangent, blending elegant Mexican folk touches into late 70s outlaw honkytonk. Southern Eyes works a sarcastically shuffling western swing groove, followed by the folk noir hobo tale Four Ol’ Brokes.

Wonderin’ Where is a bittersweetly nostalgic William Carlos Williams-ish tale with Memphis soul tinges. Ely goes back to outlaw balladry with the brooding, ghostly Burden of Your Load, arguably the album’s best song:

State prison? Don’t get distracted
Keep your eyes on the road
The weight will be subtracted
From the burden of your load

Then the band picks up the pace with Here’s to the Weary, a populist anthem referencing Woody Guthrie, Bob Wills and George Jones. Jim Hoke’s ghostly steel keens icily in Cold Black Hammer, a darkly wry, Tom Waits-style story of a real femme fatale. The final cut is the unexpectedly hard-rocking You Saved Me, drawing a straight line back to Buddy Holly. Throughout the album, there’s all kinds of tasteful, often Spanish-tinged picking, contrasting with Guzman’s echoey, 80s-style synth lines, in the same vein as the Highwaymen records. Ely’s voice is a little more flinty now, which suits him fine since subtlety and stories have always been his thing. It’s another release that really should have been on last year’s list of best albums here.

Revisiting a Folk Noir Classic by Hungrytown

It might seem absurd that folk noir duo Hungrytown’s latest album Further West – streaming at Bandcamp -made the Best Albums of 2015 page here, yet never got a full writeup. That’s because if they made it to town last year, they did that before the album came over the transom. Where it sat, and sat, and sat, and that’s a crime: it’s by far their most vivid and intense album, in fact one of the most darkly memorable releases of the past many months.

Since the early zeros, singer Rebecca Hall and her multi-instrumentalist husband Ken Anderson have been working the darker corners of the folk milieu. Their most recent album before this, 2011’s Any Forgotten Thing took an impressively erudite detour into period-perfect 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelic folk. This release is a return to their elegant acoustic roots, more or less, although a couple of the most quietly lingering tracks also explore the band’s psychedelic side. The elegantly waltzing, understatedly menacing title cut sets the stage:

Rocks in my pocket
Blood on the stairs
Followed you down to the sea

And the story only gets better from there. Hall’s calm, collected narrator eventually intimates that she’s leaving the crime scene for parts further west simply because she’s got better things to do.

The album’s version of Hard Way to Learn – the chilling opening track on Hall’s excellent 2000 solo album Rebecca Hall Sings! – gets a slightly bulked-up remake, awash in lush, multitracked harmonies, propelled by Anderson’s steady banjo and Lissa Scheckenburger’s stark fiddle. In Sometime, Hall turns on her pillowiest, most understatedly wounded delivery, anchored by funereal organ, revisiting a theme of learning the hard way:

Rushing through my brightest hour but favoring the dark
Believing every undying word is justified in part

Hall doesn’t bother to change any of the lyrics to fit a woman’s voice for a stark take of the old British folk ballad, Don’t You Let Me Down, and the result is even more surreal than the original. And the bit about how “the bank man stole it all away” makes it even more relevant, here at the end of the real estate bubble era. The harrowingly catchy Day for Night takes that theme further into the present:

Losing streak, trying to sail, over dry land
Losing sleep, promise to pay, no money in hand
And the cold’s rolling in from the north…
So many ways, ways to go wrong, so we just go along
And the trucks run their engines all night
We’ll sleep in the glare of the streetlight

Hall and Anderson duet a-cappella and keep that hardscrabble ambience going with the bitter migrant work lament Pastures of Plenty. They pick up the pace with the Lynchian vintage C&W of Don’t Cross That Mountain, the bit of extra reverb on Hall’s voice matched by Anderson’s ominously echoey guitar. Then they revisit the indian summer psychedelia of their previous album with the hypnotic, uneasily starlit Highway Song:

Moon rolls down the highway
Playing hide and seek
Stop along the meadow
Tickling his cheek

Suzanne Mueller’s austere cello underpins the stately, heartbroken minor-key waltz Ramparts and Bridges. Anderson’s twinkling electric piano mingles with low-key fingerpicked guitar on Static, an enigmatic night drive that might or might not be a sequel to the title track: “I know how you feel to have lost every signal you once had,” Hall intones gently. The album ends up with the elegantly trad Eastward Forests, Westward Hills and then the spare, menacingly aphoristic Troubles in Between:

December, sorry, slept right through.
January, missed you too.
Sped past March, April and May
Sometimes it’s best to keep away

Not only is this one of the best albums of 2015, if’s one of the best of the decade, if anybody’s counting. Hungrytown’s next gig is actually sort of close to home, a free outdoor show tonight at 6:30 PM at Harborfront Park, 101A East Broadway in Port Jefferson, Long Island.

Haunting, Brilliantly Lyrical Noir Americana from Ben De La Cour

Crooner Ben De La Cour brings to mind Townes Van Zandt, and also a young Ward White. De La Cour shares a similarly cynical worldview and world-weary, rakish persona, and sings in an assured baritone that he would probably prefer was fueled by quality bourbon, although rotgut might do the job in a pinch. And as he makes clear from the git-go, he’s no stranger to being in a pinch. He tells a good yarn, is a hell of a lyricist and has a thing for windmills. Vocally, Nick Cave is the obvious comparison, but De La Cour doesn’t rip him off wholesale: where Cave looks to Ireland for inspiration, De La Cour goes to the dark side of Nashville – his adopted hometown – or the Mississippi gulf. His brilliant new album Midnight in Havana is streaming at his music page,

The opening track is Mobile Bay, awash in a lush bed of acoustic and electric guitars, with accordion and Meredith Krygowski’s violin adding subtle cajun tinges. De La Cour keeps his imagery close to his vest in this one: do those bells across the water imply that the doomed narrator’s ex is marrying some other guy, that there’s a hurricane on the way, or both?

The band builds from bassist Jimmy Sullivan and drummer Erin Nelson’s steady Nashville gothic shuffle to an afterdark Tex-Mex rock blaze – the BoDeans circa 1993, feeding the fire – with Evelyn:

Pain lay deep in every track as we crossed over the border
But only one of us came back and I was so much older
And if I had it all again I’d probably make a couple changes to the end, Evelyn

Anybody Like You puts a bluegrass spin on the opening tune, with a disarmingly charming Freewheeling-era Dylan lyrical feel. Hold On takes a hard turn into grimly surreal fire-and-brimstone blues: “It makes me sick to think of Charley Patton in his grave, if he rose up they’d put him right back down in there again,” De La Cour rails. Walkin Around with the Blues is a less successful detour into Allman Brothers redneck rock.

The Last Last Dance nicks a familiar REM riff for a booze-drenched, doomed hookup scenario: “They say pick your poison, for all I know you do,” De La Cour’s narrator explaining that “At the emotional soup kitchen, I’m down at the front of the line.”

With its snarling guitars from lead player Ryan Dishen, Ain’t Going Down That Road brings to mind the Bottle Rockets in a particularly dark moment:

I heard Mr. Williams say we’re all just sitting around a hole in the ground
Shutterbugs are just far-out weird while the rest are just hanging around…
Some folks gotta feel the heat before they ever see the light
But I ain’t going down that road tonight

Brandywine Bouquet shifts into slowly swaying Blonde on Blonde territory, while Windmills and Trees offers both droll environmentalist relevance as well as a little insight into everybody’s favorite power source. But De La Cour can’t resist bringing back the gloom with the viscerally uneasy Down to the Water’s Edge:

I can see that light in your eyes, is it love or is it fear
If I could tell one from the other maybe neither one of us would be here

The album closes with the offhandedly ominous title track, an allusive tale that sounds a lot more like Matt Keating – or a Russell Banks short story – than anything Cuban. Time after time, De La Cour takes a theme that others would only scratch the surface of, and plunges to its murkiest, terminally depressed depths. Get to know this guy – he has a ceiling as high as both Van Zandt and White, and will hopefully last a lot longer than the former.

Intense, Purist, Catchy Tunesmithing and Devastating Wit from Elisa Peimer

Singer/keyboardist Elisa Peimer is a lot smarter, and edgier, and funnier than your typical folk-pop songwriter. She has a distinctive, soul-infused, slightly throaty delivery, has a way with a classic pop hook and also a devastating wit. When her lyrics aren’t uproariously amusing, they’re a lot more subtle. Case in point: Better, the big, Celtic-flavored 6/8 ballad that opens her new album Inside the Glass, streaming at her webpage. It’s not a typical kiss-off song: instead of chronicling a list of misdeeds, Peimer puts a positive spin on an otherwise gloomy storyline. Will the girl in the narrative realize that she can do better than the guy she’s with, who’s always got one eye on whoever’s coming through the front door of the bar? No spoilers here. Peimer and her excellent band – whose core is Paul Cabri on guitars, Irwin Menken on bass and John Clancy on drums – are playing the album release show on June 12 at 6 (six) PM at First Acoustics Coffeehouse in the basement of First Unitarian Church, 50 Monroe Pl. at Pierrepont St. in downtown Brooklyn. Take any train to Borough Hall; cover is $10 and includes yummy vegetarian food.

The funniest song on the album is titled Good Song. Anyone in the arts can relate to this one – see, the girl in the story used to write one great tune after another until she finally got into a good relationship with a guy. Now she’s happy…but she’s miserable all the same since all her new songs are trite and cheesy. The last verse is priceless. Bad relationships: the gift that keeps on giving!

The band blazes through stomping, new wave-inspired powerpop in the bittersweet Good for You, a dead ringer for vintage early 80s Motels. Bobby Hollywood, another Celtic anthem, is Peimer at her crushingly sardonic best. In a couple of tersely crafted verses and a chorus, she nails the pathology of the kind of gentrifier narcissists who frequent places like the Union Square greenmarket:

I was buying Brooklyn pickles
Made by a hipster out in Queens
Surrounded by my neighbors
In their hundred dollar jeans
But the one that caught my eye
Was the one that didn’t care
About the cooking demonstration
‘Cause Bobby Hollywood died right there
..But the teller of the story
Seemed to vanish in the crowd
Lost in trucker hats and strollers
Of the financially endowed…

Aloft with pilllowy strings, the parlor pop ballad Poetry is a lot more enigmatic – until the ending, which is way too good to give away. Hint: this song is MEAN! The band gets electric again on It’s All Right, a mashup of Rolling Thunder Revue Dylan and more recent folk-pop. Then Peimer switches to guitar for the delicously jangly, uneasly anthemic Can’t Make Me Stop Loving You.

She paints a guardedly hopeful late-winter tableau in Daffodils, then follows that with a considerably more morose, angst-infused parlor-pop ballad, What Would He Say. The album winds up with the towering, overcast art-rock anthem This Life. Another first-class release from a member of the Brooklyn-based Chicks with Dip songwriters’ collective, whose members include Aimee Van Dyne, Sharon Goldman, Carolann Solebello and several other cult favorite songsmiths..

Holly Miranda Sings Your Soul Back to You at Hell Phone in Bushwick

In a city where even the corporate media has grudgingly admitted that roughly 70% of New Yorkers spend about 70% of their income on rent, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate residency than Holly Miranda‘s ongoing series of Thursday night shows this month at Hell Phone in Bushwick. Miranda’s music isn’t political, but she touches a nerve, in a profound and angst-ridden way. To paraphrase Jarvis Cocker, when you’re this broke, there aren’t many options beyond getting together with your comrades-in-poverty…and when those sort of things fall through, as they seem to inevitably, Miranda will sing your soul back to you. Solo on Telecaster and then piano, her show last night was all about solace, and transcendence.

About two thirds of the way through, she cautioned the crowd not to expect happy songs, which was true, although there was plenty of fun in her roughly hourlong set. She proved herself to be probably the only person in history to cover both Connie Converse and Drake, and find an improbably sad connection between the two. In a duet with opening act Ambrosia Parsley, she slowly made her way through a starkly spacious cover of the BeeGees’ How Can You Mend a Broken Heart. As woundedly intense as all that was, Miranda’s orignals were even more haunting.

She drew deeply from throughout her career, from the jaggedly incisive indie rock of her old band the Jealous Girlfriends, to her most recent, self-titled album as well as some unselfconsciously shattering new material. Out in front of a crowd, Miranda goes with raw vocal power more than the finesse that characterizes her studio work, airing out a soulful wail that sometimes alluded to that brittle post-Billie Holiday intonation that Norah Jones made so popular fifteen years ago – but with a lot more oomph and originality.

“I carry this torch across the ocean for you,” she intoned on the night’s opening number, swinging C&W spun through the fragmented prism of lo-fi 80s college radio rock. She flipped the script on her sassy singalong hit All I Want Is to Be Your Girl. trading out lust for longing. Slowly crescendoing Lynchian balladry gave way to a forceful clang as Miranda’s voice went up to the top of her range, from a muted mournfulness to wrenching heartbreak. She explained that she stole the chords for Hymnal from an actual book of hymns that her parents kept atop the piano in her childhood home, then told a funny story about playing it at the Grand Old Opry…and then sang the living hell out of it. The best song of the night was a somber new Nashville gothic piano tune, the chorus opening with, “So I’ll sing, because my mother can’t,” her voice rising with a bitterly allusive insistence.

And it was great to be able to hear Parsley open the night, trading songs and backed by guitarist Chris Maxwell, Miranda supplying ethereally bracing high harmonies. Together they made their way through a handful of uneasily torchy, slow swing tunes and a plaintively altered bolero, in honor of Cinco de Mayo. Last year, Maxwell put out a simmeringly lyrical album of southern gothic songs, Arkansas Summer, and he treated the crowd to a tantalizing trio of those as well. “I’ve learned to whistle down the wind,” he intoned with a nonchalant but knowing gravitas.

Miranda’s Thursday night residency continues at Hell Phone, 247 Varet St. in Bushwick through May 26, with a series of special guests opening the night a little after 9. Cover is $10, or $15 including a download of Miranda’s forthcoming ep. Take the L to Morgan Ave. and exit at Bogart St. The club is about three blocks away, enter through the phone booth at the back of the Ange Noir Cafe.

Linda Draper’s New Album Adds to Her Hall of Fame Credentials

It’s time to head down to the quarry and hammer out a pedestal for Linda Draper. Eight albums into her career, not one of them anything less than brilliant: Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello, Steve Wynn, Aimee Mann brilliant. Draper is in their league both as a tunesmith and lyricist, and she can sing circles around all of them. And she’s explored a lot of styles over the past fifteen years or so: straightforward acoustic pop, surrealistic psychedelia, Nashville gothic and now a richly tuneful jangle and clang. Producer Matt Keating gets major props for making a big rock record out of Draper’s latest album, Modern Day Decay. It hasn’t hit the web yet, although you can hear a lot of it at her album release show on April 29 at 7 PM at the big room at the Rockwood.

Draper had the good sense to get the most out of Keating on this album. It’s arguably Draper’s strongest release to date, both lyrically and musically, and he really takes it to the next level, both as lead guitarist and keyboardist. Recorded mostly live in the studio in a single whirlwind 48-hour session, the songs have a bristling intensity, Draper’s strong but nuanced mezzo-soprano anchored by bassist Jeff Eyrich and drummer Eric Puente.

The gorgeously anthemic title track opens the album. With the layers of twelve-string guitar over piano and organ, it sounds like the Church with a woman out front:

In a world made for the masses
It ain’t easy to see
It all through rose-colored glasses
You know the thorns wait patiently
…Some say time is all we need
To heed, no matter the relevance
Or pick at the scab until it bleeds…

The matter-of-fact Keep Your Head Up has tinges of psychedelia and C&W and opens with a wry shout-out to Mary Magdalene. I’t s a prime example of Draper at her witheringly lyrical best:

We’re under the gun until one day we’re done…
Get on the latest medication
Join the rest of the brainwashed nation
Airport security, a little radiation
Stand in line, take a number
Don’t blame the stars for your lack of wonder
Like a wild tiger turned into a fur coat
We howl at the moon until we lose the fight

True Enough is another catchy, richly jangly 12-string guitar anthem, a rugged individualist trying to keep her cool under pressure:

Gone are the days of the heat and the haze
That once bled my eyes dry
They sensed in the place by the cold golden gaze
That a love almost passed me by
It’s just a blip on the screen, a switch in the scene
The rest is a big fat lie
Why can’t they just take me as I am…

Put Love In has some unexpected hip-hop tinges in the lyric over an uneasy acoustic-electric backdrop. The catchy, swaying Take Your Money and Run works on a whole slew of levels. On the surface, it’s an escape anthem of sorts:

I pawned my ring for everything and said let it ride
Now I’m here to tell you you reap what you sow
You sold me out, now you’d better let me go
Cause I’m done, all right, but I did it with love
Head for the hills tonight, no heaven above
Can stop me now
There’s nothing to slow down
There’s nothing to stop you
It doesn’t matter where you come from
That doesn’t mean that’s all you have to become
You have so much more love in your heart
Than the sum of your parts
So take your money and run

A slow, organ-infused soul ballad, the nonchalantly cajoling Lose with Me brings to mind Jenifer Jackson. “All my heroes are long gone, or sold their souls to some reality show,” Draper muses.

Awash in lingering, echoing psychedelic guitars, Burn Your Bridges sounds like the Church doing a late Beatles folk-pop number: “All hands on deck for the shipwreck, brace yourselves,” Draper warns.

Pedestal takes a careeningly successful detour into rockabilly: for that matter, it might be the most lyrically sophisticated rockabilly tune ever written:

Everyone’s listening to nobody else
The symphony sounds fine on the train
As we keep moving round in vain
Regurgitating joy and pain

Nashville builds from a stark, spare acoustic intro to a mighty cinematic sweep:

Into the evening
Out of my mind
What you call believing
I call dying
Can’t you see the bags under my eyes
Or the rags that I wore in disguise
The latest fashion, greatest curse
I don’t know which one should be worse….
Like cattle they packed us
Onto the bus
Eleven hours later we were in Nashville
The flames and the smoke followed me here
Ten years ago just seemed to disappear
Now I’m rnnning from the wind
‘Cause I know how fast it can blow
There ain’t gonna be a next time
All we’ve got is today
And all I see in my mind
Keeps driving away

The album winds up with a waltz, Good As New, another individualist’s manifesto

There’s nothing wrong if you don’t belong…
I spend my lifetime, I’ve made it a habit
Of staying on the outside, now why should I quit
“That’s just your way of hiding,” you say
You know, ’cause you see yourself in me

Just on lyrics alone – is Draper quotable, or what? – this is a strong contender for best release of 2016.

Free Music Fridays at the American Folk Art Museum: Good Times and Good Tunesmithing

One of this city’s most consistently fun weekly events is Free Music Fridays at the American Folk Art Museum at Lincoln Square, just across the street from the uptown 1 train exit at 66th Street. Even if you can’t get out of work in time to catch the 5:30 PM opening act, the show typically goes til a little after 7. The crowd is a mix of local kids, retirees, tourists and friends of the bands, and wine is available for a donation to the museum.

Lara Ewen – a modest and unselfconsciously brilliant folk noir singer and a strong tunesmith as well – books a diverse mix of mostly acoustic songwriters as well as oldtime folk, blues and Americana performers. She draws on a deep pool of New York talent, including many acts from the Jalopy scene, plus the occasional national touring artist. The natural reverb in the museum’s high-ceilinged atrium adds a cathedral-like ambience: many acts like to play here unamplified. Lately there have been shows pretty much every week, a positive development considering that the series went on a lengthy hiatus last summer to accommodate one of the museum’s many, constantly changing exhibitions. This Friday’s show is a particularly good one, with Beatlesque popsinger Jeff Litman, Clifford Westfall and Girls on Grass‘ paisley underground guitarist/frontwoman Barbara Endes, and Americana guitar genius Tom Clark.

This year has been an especially good one at the museum so far. The highight of February’s shows was Jessi Robertson, who didn’t waste any time warning the crowd that most of her songs mine pretty disturbing territory. In one number which had to with stab wounds, she revealed that her hands have an inherited tendency to get a little shaky in pubilc: not part of the skillset that makes a good slasher. In a mix of artsy but terse post-PJ Harvey acoustic rock as well as older, more opaque material, Robertson aired out her signature, throaty, otherworldly wail, channeling sheer emotional destitution, alienation and abandonment – and some good jokes. The funniest number in her set had a title along the lines of “I hope I hurt you more than you hurt me.” Robertson plays at around 9 this Saturday, April 25 at Pine Box Rock Shop, opening for her lead guitarist Rony Corcos’ excellent power trio Rony’s Insomnia.

March was a good month. Eva Salina, one of the world’s great Balkan singers, joined forces with her longtime collaborator, whirlwind Romany accordionist Peter Stan for a dynamically intense run through songs from her latest album Lema Lema: The Songs of Saban Bajrmovic. A global Romany icon, Bajrmovic was sort of a Balkan mashup of Al Green, Hank Williams and Jim Morrison. That it took an American woman – Salina is a friendly Californian with an ethnomusicology degree from UC/Santa Cruz – to bring his songs to a larger audience is pretty radical. And while she expertly voiced the difficult clusters of the Romanes language in an often heartwrenchingly nuanced, otherworldly chromatic run through songs about unrequited love, gambling and Romany pride, she told the crowd that the star of the evening would be Stan. She wasn’t kidding. With a pedal to the metal, he shredded the reeds on his deluxe model with lightning cadenzas, cascades up and down the scale and enough minor keys to drown your sorrows in a thousand times over.

Along with lustrous tunesmith Sharon Goldman – whose often harrowing, deeply personal account of coming to grips with her roots as a secular Jewish artist has been chronicled here in detail – other March artists here included Heather Eatman, Joanna Sternberg and Chris Michael. The last time this blog caught a show by Eatman…well, this blog, or any other blog for that matter, didn’t exist back in the fall of 2003 when she played the old Living Room at the corner of Stanton and Allen. She hasn’t lost a step since then; if anything, she’s even more interesting as a singer and tunesmith. She hasn’t changed her formula much: uneasy, unresolved verses building from open chords into sudden, head-on, impactfully catchy choruses. Her voice still has both the coy chirp and the moody, monsoon resonance; her lyrics add an edge and bite. Interestingly, she used this show to run through a handful of songs she’d written as a teenager back in the early 90s, which, if a little simpler, stood up against her more recent material. Eatman is at the small room at the Rockwood next month sometime.

Sternberg is a cutup and an irrepressible bon vivant. She made herself laugh as much as the audience. She’s charming and funny and unlike most adults, hasn’t lost touch with how it feels to be a kid. Her funniest number was a kids’ song directed at a stubborn little girl who doesn’t want to get in the shower. But Sternberg doesn’t talk down to kids: this one eventually revealed that the little girl is actually a little spooked by the water, and that all it took was a little sympathy to get her to pull herself together and wash up. Sternberg’s material for a drinking-age demographic was more nuanced, including a bittersweetly meta breakup song, a couple of more romping, upbeat front-porch folk originals and a detour into pensive vintage Appalachian balladry. Sternberg’s next gig is at the Jalopy Tavern (adjacent to the big main space) on April 28 at 9.

And this past Friday, Michael transcended any cheap Tom Waits comparisons, impressing with his fluency in a whole slew of southern blues, soul and gospel-inflected material. He’s a good guitarist and doesn’t fake the drawl like so many of his yankee counterparts, entertaining the crowd with a mix of upbeat numbers that occasionally brought to mind a less cynical Dan Hicks.

Pete Lanctot Brings His Edgy, Lyrical Americana Rock Narratives to Bushwick

Multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Pete Lanctot’s latest album, No Sign of Love or Farewell- streaming at Bandcamp – is a series of richly lyrical character studies among the down-and-out. While the narrators change with each song, the characters interact in subtle ways: unraveling these mysteries is a lot of fun. So is the music. Tom Waits and Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan are reference points, along with the C&W, oldtimey blues and swing that influenced them. Among New York songwriters, the obvious comparison is Tom Shaner. Lanctot’s band is fantastic. Here he sticks to just guitars and vocals, leaving the violin to Ginger Dolden (who also plays Stroh violin, marxophone, music boxes and autoharp ).Joe McMahan and Adam Brisbin both contribute guitar, with Chris Donohue on bass and keys and Bryan Owings on drums. Lanctot is at Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick at 10:30 PM on April 11.

The album opens with the swinging, bluesy, cynically aphoristic Could’ve Been Good:

Rattling the chain-link fence
Moon as white as a bone
Things stop making any sense
When you’re this faraway from home
Kicking at the gravel
Throwing rocks along the path
Got my pick and shovel,
I’m my own better half

A slow but rousing oldtime country waltz, Coming Around paints a vividly unsettled picture of smalltown nocturnal revelry. Lanctot switches to 6/8 time for the regretful Come to Me Now

I know people stare
I ain’t unaware
Let ’em stare til they’re blind if they like
I look at my feet
As I walk down the street
In my heart there’s a permanent spike

The band builds a richly burning web of acoustic and electric guitars as Used to Be a Rambler gets underway: Lanctot develops this character with a classic blues vernacular that gets funnier as you start to realize what direction he’s going in. The southwestern gothic tale Fifty Miles From Nowhere pulses along on a Bo Diddey beat: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Steve Wynn catalog. “I’m still carrying the kindling from the bridges that I burned,” Lanctot’s narrator muses vengefully.

He brings back the rustically waltzing charm with The Only Love I Know and follows that with the brisk, murky, nocturnal swamp-rock of Perdido:

Well my grip isn’t slipping, I let go completely
I’ve started telling lies in my prayers
Planted a seed in the soil of doubt
And resentment is the fruit that it bears

The album’s longest track, a doomed, oldschool soul-flavored travelogue, is I’ll Meet You at the End of the Line. Its most oldtimey number is the gospel-infused banjo blues Walk Right, a dead ringer for a Curtis Eller tune. Lanctot keeps the stark banjo shuffle going with Ride On Elijah, the album’s most overtly Dylanesque and final cut. Does it tie up all the loose ends here? That’s a mystery you’re going to have to solve yourself.

A Vivid, Elegant New Album and a Murray Hill Show from Singer Heather Nova

Singer Heather Nova may have been throwing fire at the sun since the 90s, but she’s undiminished as a songwriter. Her voice has taken on a bit more of a wintry tinge than in her heyday, when she was cranking out one European hit after another, but she still hits the high notes with an enigmatic intensity, from a whisper to a wail. Her latest album, The Way It Feels, is streaming at Spotify. She’s got a relatively rare New York show coming up on April 6 at 7:30 PM at the Cutting Room; $22.50 advance tix are available at their ticket window.

The album opens with the angst-driven Treehouse, an ocean of atmospheric guitars and strings moving in and out like the tide over spare fingerpicked lines, gracefully rising to towering art-rock, part Aussie legends the Church, part Nicole Atkins. The shuffling Sea Glass, with its insistent rhyme scheme and pensive oceanside metaphors, brings to mind Mary Lee Kortes at her poppiest.

“Every day is like Pompeii,” Nova muses as The Archaeologist opens, a stark throwback to Nova’s 90s adventures in trip-hop. Girl on the Mountain layers a moody Britfolk verse and one of Nova’s signature, breathtaking, surprise choruses over a similar groove that rises to an icy majesty. Lie Down in the Bed You’ve Made isn’t the kiss-off anthem you might expect: it’s a seduction ballad, like a more country Aimee Mann.

With its catchy four-chord hook and artful piano/vibraphone chamber-pop arrangement, the woundedly resigned On My Radar is a more warmly organic throwback to Nova’s 90s work. Her breathy vocals gives Sleeping Dogs a disarming intimacy against a broodingly artsy Britfolk backdrop. The psychedelic pop ballad Sea Change morphs cleverly in and out of a 6/8 rhythm, awash in swirly keyboards and spare, glittering guitars. Nova follows that with the album’s most ethereal cut, This Humanness, weighing emotional baggage and the inevitable passage of time.

Over an intricate web of acoustic guitars and cello, I’m Air is Nova at her inscrutably counterintuitive best, moving in an unexpectedly triumphant, symphonic direction, an update on an old Moody Blues theme. With its archetypal metaphors, Women’s Hands tackles heavy themes like societally-inflicted self-hatred and insecurity. The album winds up with the oldtimey-tinged ukulele waltz Moon River Days. Good to see someone who quietly and methodically built one of the most consistently catchy catalogs of the past twenty years or so still at it and still going strong.

Chris Maxwell Plays the Release Show For His Allusively Harrowing New Album at Hifi Bar

Lately, Chris Maxwell has been doing mostly tv and film work Back in the late 90s, he played in popular, skronky punk-funk band Skeleton Key. As you might expect from his background, his songwriting is very eclectic, closer to the former than the latter. He’s got an excellent new album, Arkansas Summer, streaming at Soundcloud and an album release show on March 9 at around 9:30 at Hifi Bar, a space he probably played back in the early zeros when it was Brownies and he was lead guitarist in a late version of White Hassle. As a bonus, his White Hassle bandmate Marcellus Hall, another first-rate, deviously funny songwriter, opens the night at around 8:30.

The album veers between simmering southern soul and Beatlesque psych-pop ballads in a brooding, vividly lyrical Elliott Smith vein. References to a violent chiildhood surface and resurface: this could be autobiographical, or just a good, allusively harrowing, Faulknerian yarn. It opens with the distantly wary trip-hop atmospherics of Strange Shadows, a cautionary tale:

Every time that I look down
Strange shadows on the ground…
You arrived with the perfect script
What did you write with it?
You wrote to your daughter
That you forgot her

The energy rises with the stomping, smoldering soul ballad Have You Ever Killed Yourself and its Elliottt Smith tinges. Imaginary Man also brings Smith to mind, but in more low-key mode with Maxwell’s fingerpicked acoustic guitar under Let It Be piano and swirly late Wilco ambience, a creepy, metaphorically-loaded tale about someone who might not be imaginary at all.

With its wry everything’s-gone-to-hell narrative, the gospel-infused Mess of Things looks back to Maxwell’s time in White Hassle: “St. Nicholas are you feeling dangerous, I’m here for a little angel dust,” its disoolute narrator announces. The title track is an ornate Abbey Road art-rock piano ballad:

A black-eyed susan in the road
Little man threw sticks and stones
And called her names and broke her bones
A big black crow in a robin’s nest
Left us all with a bloody mess
Little man, your days are numbered …

Impossible Knot is next, a briskly shuffling, uneasy minor key traveler’s tale:

Tried to fall asleep, fell into the grave of memories
That I made
But couldn’t keep

Devil Song goes back to surrealist trip-hop, a sardonic sympathy-for-the-devil narrative that Maxwell adds elegant Magical Mystery Tour orchestration to as it builds. Drunk Barber Shaved the World is as funny, and hair-raising, as its title implies, another Elliott Smith-style acoustic-electric shuffle. Maxwell spins a web of fingerpicked acoustic guitar over stark, stygian bowed bass in Things Have Changed For Me, a suspect tale from a guy whose long streak of bad luck and dubious choices doesn’t exactly foreshadow anything better.

Likewise, the understatedly frantic escape anthem Away We Go seems less than promising, a return to the outer-space metaphors that open the album. It closes with its most opaque number, Last Song, a mashup of trip-hop and delta blues that only raises the intrigue: does this troubled story end with the cops surrounding the house after a 9/11 call, or is there more to it than that? All the more reason to spin this mysterious, purist, immensely tuneful album multiple times.

 

 

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