New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: singer-songwriter

An Allusively Intense, Psychedelic New Album by Larkin Grimm

Multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Larkin Grimm gets pigeonholed as freak-folk, probably because her music is mostly acoustic But that’s a box she doesn’t fit into. She can wail to match Yoko at her most assaultive if she wants, but she’s just as likely to soar gently over an artsy, psychedelic backdrop. Her latest album Chasing an Illusion is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing Sunnyvale at 8 PM tomorrow night, June 8; cover is $15. Renata Zeiguer’s trippy, creepy Prozac rock project Cantina opens the night at 7. Grimm is also at Planeta, 295 E 8th St. on June 16, time and cover TBA.

Grimm recorded the album with what sounds like a vast cast of performers  – neither her site nor her Bandcamp page lists them – at Martin Bisi’s legendary Gowanus basement space, BC Studios. The natural reverb on the recording – which was done live to max out the sonics – is subtle yet vividly alive. Grimm, who typically wears her cards close to the vest, explains the album as being influenced by Ornette Coleman, and a pivotal moment when she ran into a number of her major influences, Ravi Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders among them, at Coleman’s funeral.

There’s a distinct Indian influence throughout the album’s eight often epic tracks. The opener, Ah Love is Oceanic Pleasure is a lush, rubato raga-rock soundscape of sorts, awash in austere strings, various plucked instruments and even a sax fluttering in the backdrop, high in the clouds. “You have to choose your freedom,” is the refrain.

Grimm’s harp flickers and ripples over a bittersweetly Lynchian Orbison-pop vamp throughout Beautifully Alone, which rises to a teeth-clenched midtown Manhattan scenario.. “I wanna be alone dangerously alone, beautifully alone,” she asserts.

Another raga-rock piece, Fear Transforms into Love (Journey in Turiya…) tingles with harp glissandos; true to the title, it reaches majestic, triumphant peak. I Don’t Believe You has a similar sweep with echoes of 80s dreampop, like the Cocteau Twins but more organic. “I wish that you would die, so that I could play outside,” Grimm laments. Yikes!

On the Floor contrasts Grimm’s balmy vocals with a simple, gritty electric guitar and violin arrangement. Tom Van Buskirk’s elegant drums provide a hypnotically symphonic sway for A Perfect World, a lush return to acoustic dreampop. Then Grimm goes in an unexpected 90s trip-hop direction with Keeping You Alive: her blithe understatement belies her…um…grim exasperation. The album winds up with the title track, a rustic blues amped with trumpet sailing over burning distorted guitar. “I feel dead inside,” Grimm rails as it gets underway and finally reaches an anguished peak. For those who wish that Nico had made Chelsea Girl with Arthur Lee instead, this is for you.

A Rare Brooklyn Show and a New Record From the Great Aimee Mann

You know that voice: cool, reserved, minutely nuanced. You know those melancholy major/minor changes and Beatlesque melodies. You know that withering cynicism, that jaundiced eye, those double entendres you wish you’d written. If you don’t, Aimee Mann’s latest album Mental Illness is as good a place to start as any. Not bad for somebody who’s been making music since the 80s.

She doesn’t play Brooklyn a lot – although she did record a live DVD there. A future daily New York music blog owner brought a date to that one, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in the summer of 2004. The date didn’t go anywhere – Mann probably would have seen that coming a mile away. Or maybe she’d say it was just as well.

Believe it or not, you can bring a date to see Mann in Brooklyn, because for some reason her June 26 show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg isn’t sold out as of today. Which is even crazier since fellow cynic, Silicon Valley satirist/songwriter Jonathan Coulton is opening the night at 8. It won’t be a cheap date since general admission is $35 –  in order to avoid the embarrassment of spending even more you’re going to have to pick up your tickets at the cash table at the Mercury Lounge before 7 PM on a weeknight. But it could be worth it.

The new album came out earlier this year and is streaming at Spotify. Even by Mann’s standards, it’s a subdued, gloomy affair. It’s mostly acoustic. Mann plays guitar and bass, Jamie Edwards filling the Jon Brion role on keys and guitar, with Jay Bellerose on drums and longtime sideman Paul Bryan on bass along with a lavish string section that gives this album genuinely epic grandeur in places.

The opening track, Goose Snow Cone paints a bleak, wintry chamber-pop picture of holding on by one’s fingernails. “Always melt at the feet of the devil I know,” Mann laments. “I just wanted a place but I ended up gone.” There are more drug metaphors here than on any Mann album since 2002’s iconic Lost in Space.

The  stately, waltzing Stuck in the Past, with its major/minor Beatles changes, is classic Mann, Richard Dodd’s stark cello rising to take centerstage: “Like drawing rings around Saturn,  a shadow is cast, but now it falls a pattern.” Another waltz, You Never Loved Me is all the more disconsolate for how sparse and direct it is: the tumbling Spectorian drums as the song winds out are an apt touch

Rollercoasters, a slowly swaying, fingerpicked ballad awash in fairground images, is one of the great drug songs ever, and maybe the best one on the album. White powder isn’t something Ward White has ever written about, but if he did, the song might sound like this.

Slow and lush, heavy like a thunderstorm, Lies of Summer doesn’t reveal whether the narrator is addressing a prisoner or a dead person until the very end:

Saw you at the fall
Picture on a closed circuit
Boy you lost it all it
Thinking you could rework it

The dancing string arrangement can’t mask the wrath in the art-rock anthem Patient Zero – consider,  just for starters, what that title implies.

News filtered over the transom
That a villain ended up with a part
You paid your respects like a ransom
To a role that was doomed from the start

The title Good for Me, with its shivery ELO stings, is sarcastic – of course, right? It’s about self-deception:. “What a waste of a smoke machine,” Mann intones, and then immediately launches into a litany of powder drug metaphors. She follows it with Knock It Off, a kiss-off anthem and the album’s most opaque number.

Mann revisits the doomed boxing imagery she worked so inimitably on 2005’s The Forgotten Arm in Philly Sinks, yet another waltz. Then she picks up the pace – just a little – with Simple Fix. Three guesses as to what this one’s about. After all this pain, you can hardly blame her for setting her sights on “prizes of adrenaline.”

The album winds up on a catchy and surprisingly simple note with Poor Judge (as in “my heart is a poor judge”). If Magnolia is Mann’s commonly acknowledged masterpiece and Lost in Space a less common one, this is in the same league.. You’ll see it on the best albums of 2017 page along with recent releases by Ran Blake and Dominique Eade, Alice Lee and Ward White.

Rachael Kilgour’s New Album Transcends Trauma

Rachael Kilgour is the rare artist who sounds perfectly good in the studio, but onstage takes her formidable vocal skills to a level that few singers even attempt, let alone reach. Her Lincoln Center show last year was absolutely shattering. She cried during one of that evening’s saddest songs – that’s how deeply she inhabits her characters. And she’s hilarious, too: few songwriters can be so much fun, and so insightful, pillorying rightwing hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance.

But most of the material at that show wasn’t the political satire she’s best known for. The majority of the set was Americana ballads from her latest album Rabbit in the Road, streaming at her webpage. She’s bringing that harrowingly melismatic voice and alternately plaintive and biting tunesmithing to a couple of New York shows this month. On May 12 at 7 PM she’s at the Commons Cafe, 388 Atlantic Ave.in Cobble Hill; take any train to Atlantic Ave; The following night at 8, she’s at Caffe Vivaldi preceded at 7 by another eclectic songwriter with a sense of humor, Orly Bendavid & the Mona Dahls.

And now that you know how ferociously political Kilgour’s previous output is, now’s the time to tell you that her latest release is far more personal. It’s a breakup album.

Aie aie aie.

Michael Franti used to write brilliant political songs and raps back in the day. Then he decided that schlocky top 40 love ballads were his thing – and fell off the map. Paul Weller once fronted one of the best and most political punk rock bands ever, the Jam…and never wrote a song worth hearing after they broke up. Did Kilgour run out of gas too?

As it turns out, no. Her lyrics on the new album can be just as incisive and edgy, and she can still write a catchy hook and an anthemic chorus with the best of them. It’s just her focus that’s changed direction. It seems that Kilgour got blindsided in a particularly messy divorce. She’s been outspoken about how she wants to break down the barriers between audience and performer, and that she sees the new material as being therapeutic for both sides of that equation.

So it’s comforting on more than one level that she’s succeeded at what she wanted to achieve: this is the rare heartbreak narrative that doesn’t come across as mawkish or cliched. The album opens with a soul-tinged, somewhat stunned miniature that sets the stage. Deep Bruises is where the shock sinks in, Kilgour trying to talk herself through an endless cycle of despair: It’s the one song that best evokes her soaring, Orbison-esque angst when she slides up to a note to drive a chorus home. Steve Wynn’s Tears Won’t Help You Now is a good point of comparison.

Ready Freddie is the ballad that Kilgour had the hardest time getting through at the Lincoln Center gig. It’s an attempt to cheer up her adopted daughter, someone she’s obviously close to and missed terribly when she wrote it. it’s a theme she revisits almost as fervently later on the record. By contrast, Up From Down is a kiss-off anthem, if a muted one, set to a pleasant if innocuous full-band folk-pop arrangement.

Anger rises in Still My Wife, the homey imagery that Kilgour opens with giving way to a cheating tale straight out of a classic country ballad. The dismissive patronizing title track is songwriter vengeance at its most subtle and satisfying: in case you haven’t already figured it out, never, EVER mess with one, they always get even in the end

Don’t Need Anyone echoes the defiance of Kilgour’s political work as much as her vocals echo Neko Case. “You think I need a lover to save me from my grief? I don’t need distractions, I don’t need your second hand relief,” she insists. Likewise, Hit By a Bus balances mixed feelings with vindictiveness: guess which one wins.

Kilgour has had great fun mocking Christian extremists (some people mistake her for a born-again because they don’t get the joke). So I Pray might seem like quite a departure, but it’s a wish, rather than a call to some patriarchal force, and a launching pad for vocal pyrotechnics in a live setting. Even here, Kilgour can’t resist a delicious dig: “I pray, to no one in particular, that they’ll help you find your way.” The album’s concluding cut, Break Wide Open is the only place where it feels overproduced: it doesn’t really add anything. Needless to say, it’ll be interesting to see what direction Kilgour goes in after this. We could use her stiletto wit and inclusive vision right about now.  

A Rare Music Impresario with Actual Talent

Lara Ewen may be best known as the irrepressible impresario behind the Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum, which with the ongoing disappearance of the downtown acoustic scene has arguably become Manhattan’s best listening room for folk and Americana sounds. But Ewen is also one of New York’s most magnetic singers, and a strong songwriter as well. Over the years, her music has gotten darker and gone deeper into gothic Americana, often in a Tom Waits vein. Her hardscrabble Queens roots may have something to do with that.

She’s playing the Scratcher Bar on 5th Street just east of Bowery on Feb 26 at around 7, when you might find fellow songsmith Kelley Swindall tending bar. It’s an intimate space, and a convenient time on a work night so getting there a little early wouldn’t be a bad idea: artists who book venues tend to be popular for reasons other than their art.

Ewen is the rare one who isn’t. Her definitive album is The Wishing Stone Songs, from 2013. But there’s other solid material in her catalog. A listen back to her 2007 cd Ghosts and Gasoline – which happily has made it to Spotify – reaffirms that. Her band on the record is excellent: much as there’s a late 90s influence, there’s no cheesy drum machine, no cliched trip-hop beat. Guitarist Howard Rappaport jangles and clangs, judiciously over the tight, low-key rhythm section of bassist Donald Facompre and drummer Jordan Lash.

Ewen sings in character, with unexpected nuance for someone who doesn’t come from a jazz background. One minute she’ll be serenading you with that crystal-clear, maple-sugar soprano, another she’ll be gritty, then maybe throwing some twang at you, depending on context.

The album’s opening track, Josephine, has a brisk, methodically vamping, hypnotic quality, an allusive portrait of bitterness. The Airport Song is one of those blue-collar character studies that Ewen writes so vividly, part country, part spacious big-sky tableau, Rappaport’s pedal steel soaring overhead. Likewise, the propulsive Untethered is a surreeal portrait of outer-borough disconnection and anomie, bringing to mind a first-rate early-zeros Brooklyn songwriter. Barbara Brousal.

Turning Blue sways along gently, a quietly savage portrait of a a woman settling for less than she should. The album’s most devastating track is Our Song, just Ewen and her acoustic guitar, a gorgeously bittersweet and unexpectedly generous post-breakup reflection.

The oldest track on the album, Clear, will resonate for anyone who wouldn’t trade this city for any other temptation. 20 Years Ago, an aging beauty’s lament, foreshadows where Ewen would go on her next album. Then Ewen picks up the pace with the brooding highway narrative Manahttan Kansas

Facompre walks jazz scales under Ewen’s Rickie Lee Jones-ish delivery in Misery Wholesale. The album winds up with Blessed, a hopeful love song to a down-and-out character, and A Way to You, which is a dead ringer for a well-known Dylan hit. While Ewen typically plays her most recent material onstage, she might bust out one or two of these if you’re lucky. 

Jim Allen Brings His Edgy, Metaphorical, Sardonically Purist Songwriting to a Rare Fort Greene Gig

The sound guy was drunk by the time Jim Allen hit the stage at around eight. That was back in 2003 at a long-gone Williamsburg hotspot, the Blu Lounge. Surprisingly, the building’s still standing. The first-floor venue space is a liquor store now.

When the sound guy’s girlfriend showed up, the two chatted and made out through most of the set. Until the encore, where Allen reinvented the old ELO radio hit Don’t Bring Me Down as a stark blues. By the second verse, the sound guy was bugging out.

That same year Allen put out his Wild Card cd (which is still available and streaming at Spotify). Tim Robinson’s neo-cubist front cover art is a black-and-white afterwork street scene: the joker in the deck has his jacket open enough to reveal some color. The back covers shows Allen out behind what appears to be one of the far west warehouses on 28th Street, Liberty Island out of focus in the distance behind him. The cd booklet photo captures Allen curbside, sitting in what’s left of a refrigerator with the door ripped off. Loaded images for a guy who’s made them his stock in trade for a long time.

In the years past, Allen has not been idle. Most recently, he’s fronted a fantastically catchy retro new wave band, Lazy Lions. And his solo work, which is sort of akin to a hybrid of Graham Parker and Dale Watson, is stronger and more lyrical than ever. Allen loves double entendres, aphorisms both old and brand-new, and litanies of images that weave a yarn, often a grim one. Where is this clever, often hilarious wordsmith and tunesmith playing tomorrow night, Jan 22? City Winery, or maybe the Rockwood,, right? Nope. The Beacon, a gig he’s more than earned over the years? No. He’s playing at 8 PM at Branded Saloon in Fort Greene. As a bonus, Tim Simmonds – who’s fronted both Captain Beefheart cover band Admiral Porkbrain as well as his own tight new wave/powerpop band, the Actual Facts – plays afterward at 9.

Listening back to Allen’s fourteen-year-old album reveals how well it’s stood the test of time. The best song on it is The Verdict. It’s a slow country ballad set in a courtroom. The narrator’s on trial for being stuck on some girl, and Allen makes it apparent that he’s going to get what he deserves. Which is what, exactly? The answer’s too good to give away. The album’s worth owning for that song alone – it’s a genuine classic.

The rest of the album’s good too. It begins and ends with metaphorically-charged commentaries on the elusive nature of fame. “You can keep your crown if it’s the thorny one,” Allen bristles on the opening number, King of the Jews; he doggedly plans on finding a “hidden spring” early on in the gospel-tinged final song, No One for Me. In between, Marc Rubinstein supplies honkytonk piano and bluesy, swirly organ, Steve Alcott’s pedal steel soaring over the purposeful pulse of drummer Barbara Allen, Pemberton Roach reminding why he’s one of the alltime heroes of new wave bass.

Allen follows with the simmering swamp blues I’ll Need You Then – as in “when the shit has well and truly hit the fan” – a showcase for his soul-infused baritone. There are a pair of murderous anthems. The first is A Little Bit of Love, where Allen encourages a down-and-out rival to go find Jesus, because “Maybe you can room with him.” The second, A Thousand Ways, is every bit as spot-on:

Chain him to a desk and share each week for forty hours
It won’t be long befor you have to send his family flowers
…or make him black and put him in the City of New York

There’s also the zydeco-tinged workingman’s lament Where the Heart Is; the Rockpile-style shuffle Black Black Sea; Blue Neon Light, which is Allen’s Swinging Doors; the drony, psychedelic Looking At You; the brooding, ominous, delta blues-flavored It Might As Well Rain, a big fan favorite at shows; and the jauntily snide blues Little Green Circles. Allen’s back catalog is consistently strong, but this might be the most solid one of the bunch, start to finish.

Amy Rigby Brings Her Hilarious, Cynical, Purist Songs Back to the East Village

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Amy Rigby‘s cult classic Diary of a Mod Housewife album. Divorced and living with her daughter Hazel in pre-gentrified Williamsburg at the time, the songwriter and former member of the well-loved East Village Americana trio the Shams imbued her catchy songs with equal parts C&W, classic Brill Building pop, pink-collar defiance and outrageous humor. Two decades later, Rigby is the rare rock songwriter who’s earned her own Genius page, and she’s returning to her old East Village stomping grounds, with a couple of 8 PM shows at Hifi Bar tonight and tomorrow, Nov 16 and 17.

She played a weekly residency here in May of last year and predictably packed the former Brownies space. The premise was to play a completely different set each night, which was hardly an issue considering her formidable back catalog, but became problematic since she was getting so many requests from the floor. This blog was in the house for the final show when she finally relented and treated the crowd to a gently swaying, quietly heartwrenching take of the towering, Beatlesque ballad Summer of My Wasted Youth. In light of what happened a week ago Tuesday, it’s even more painful to look back and realize that there once was a time when an aspiring songwriter could survive on unemploymen without once using a credit card, study country harmony and afford to drink cheap Polish beer in a Williamsburg bar.

Rigby did most of the set solo, the uneasy tremolo in her velvet voice matched by the Lynchian effect on her guitar. Rode Hard, a cynically upbeat honkytonk-flavored rocker on album, took on a special plaintiveness in stripped-down form, but also raised the quiet, steely indomitability at the end of the song .The real creeper of the night was the bolero-flavored murder ballad Keep It to Yourself, which ponders taking out a nasty, narcissistic ex just plausibly enough that it might not be just a fantasy.

There were plenty of Rigby’s signature funny songs too. The best was the faux bubblegum-pop tune As Is, with its litany of damaged goods in the dollar store, Rigby’s broke narrator rationalizing how she and her daughter were going to make the best of a dire situation. She introduced it with a nonchalantly harrowing story of how deeply impoverished she and her daugher had actually been back in the 90s. There was some rare material in the set as well, including the uproarious riff-rocking Hometown Blues, dating back to the songwriter’s restless Pittsburgh childhood, and a quaintly rockabilly-flavored song about trying to get a band off the ground in the 80s (memo to aspiring youngsters – it was a lot easier than it is now, and it was hard back then).

Rigby’s now-grown bassist daughter then joined her to duet on a Tex-Mex flavored tune and an Everlys-inspired ballad. Then Rigby’s husband Wreckless Eric – one of the few musicians whose sense of humor and knack for spinning a yarn can match hers – supplied a fiery Chuck Berry Strat shuffle on a hard-charging take of another funny favorite, Get Back in the Car, a song any exasperated parent can relate to. There were also plenty of quieter numbers in the mix as well; it’ll be interesting to hear what else the prolific Rigby has come up with since then.

Rachael Kilgour’s Soaring Lyrical Brilliance Holds a Lincoln Center Crowd Rapt

“This is satire,” Rachael Kilgour grinned as she launched into He’ll Save Me, the spot-on, searingly funny centerpiece of her most recent ep, Whistleblower’s Manifesto: Songs for a New Revolution, at her headline debut earlier this month at Lincoln Center .She explained that there have been instances where booking agents heard snippets of her music and passed on her, thinking that she was a Christian songwriter. Testament to the power of that satire.

“Mothers on welfare? Healthcare? Don’t you think I know better than to hand out rewards to sinners?” she sang as laughter broke out everywhere. And the punchline,“I know I’ll get my way, when it comes to Judgment Day,” was as subtly sinister as Kilgour possibly could have made it. Considering that she was following a brief performance by a generic folkie from Philadelphia whose own brand of corporate Prosperity Christianity that song lampoons, it made even more of an impact. It’s hard to think of a more deliciously subversive moment on any midtown Manhattan stage in 2016.

.While there are echoes of both Tift Merritt and Loretta Lynn in Kilgour’s resonant, nuanced mezzo-soprano, the closest comparison is Roy Orbison: Kilgour soars upward into the same kind of otherworldly, angst-ridden melismas. And she has the material to match that transcendent voice. The ache and anguish as she hit the chorus of Round and Round – which she sang a-cappella at the end, to drive it home – held the crowd rapt. Likewise, I Pray, a tender wish song for a lost soul, gave Kilgour a platform to swoop up into her most Orbisonesque chorus. Later she went back to simmeringly savage mode for a number that was ostensibly about forgiveness but turned out to be more of a kiss-off anthem. And In America, another satirical one where she finally dropped the smiley-faced Republican ingenue act for reality, drew the night’s most applause.

The two most heartwrenching numbers were dedicated to her stepdaughter. Kilgour herself teared up during the first one, and by the time she was done, there probably wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd. Kilgour explained that she’d gone through a divorce a couple of years ago, “And that sucked!” She related how her earlier material has a populist, global focus, and that writing herself through the pain was a new experience, one that she’s still getting used to. Kilgour wants to break down the barriers between performer and audience, which harks back to a hallowed folk music tradition, where pretty much everybody in the village was in the band. Ultimately, that leads to the kind of community-building Kilgour has focused on thus far in her relatively young career.

In context, the gallows humor of the catchy, swaying Will You Marry Me took on new and unintentionally ironic resonance. The rest of the set mixed low-key, simmering ballads with the kind of anthemic acoustic rock Kilgour does so well, many of the numbers drawn from her brand-new album Rabbit in the Road.

These free Lincoln Center Atrium shows, as the space’s program director, Jordana Phokompe explained beforehand, are designed to offer something for everyone. And she’s right – they do. Tonight’s performance at 7:30 PM features ecstatically fun Colombian-American psychedelic cumbia band MAKU Soundsystem. Considering how well their previous Lincoln Center performances have drawn, you should get to the space on Broadway between 62nd and 63rd early if you’re going.

Amanda Shires Brings Her Thoughtful, Vivid Nocturnes to SoHo

Amanda Shires was already an established presence on the Americana circuit before she met Jason Isbell. No doubt that connection has given her career an extra boost, but she’s been a first-rate fiddler and a distinctive songwriter since the early zeros. Her latest album, My Piece of Land – streamng at NPR– is Shires’ shout-out to her Texas roots and the red dirt music that she grew up with. The songs are sparse, most of them on the slow and pensive side, building a dusky, mysterious ambience with lingering electric and acoustic guitars, washes of steel, acoustic bass and brushed drums. The production is similarly purist and organic, with just enough natural reverb to max out the saturnine backdrop behind Shires’ gently articulated vocals. She’s playing the album release show tomorrow night, Sept 13 at 9 PM at City Winery. The venue doesn’t sell tickets: your best deal is to tell the door person that you’re going to the bar, which will set you back $18. And there’s plenty of space to stand if you don’t want to drink. Otherwise, you can take a table for more money.

The album opens with the spare, brisk shuffle The Way It Dimmed, Shires’ voice cautious and pensive:

Closer was never close enough
Closing time we watched the lights and sun come up
You begged me to stay and I slipped away
I remember the the fire and the way it dimmed
As a fire will sometimes do

The uneasily swaying Slippin’ looks back to early 70s Laurel Canyon Americana pop, with a similarly brooding, nocturnal ambience, Shires’ narrator considering how long it’s going to be for her honkytonking man to be seduced by “the curve of her shoulder, the length of the bar.”

Shires channels Amy Allison cleverness and Tift Merritt tenderness in Harmless, a disarmingly gentle cheater’s tale:

There’s some I can’t remember
A talented bartender
Way out in the cheap seats
The stars stare unblinking
The ones that know anything
Won’t be revealing

Shires finally rosins up her bow for Pale Fire, a spacious, deep-sky nod to the Vladimir Nabokov novel. The playfully twinkling Nursery Rhyme follows a loping western swing groove. Then Shires opens the eerie blues My Love (The Storm) with a couple of creepy scrapes on her fingerboard: her all-too-brief solo over burning electric guitar and organ midway through is the high point of the album.

The big rocker here, When You’re Gone is an improbably successful mashup of Abbey Road Beatles and late 90s Sheryl Crow at her most intense. Mineral Wells is a pensive look back to the scenery of Shires’ childhood:” “The only tree with leaves in Lubbock, with roots in Mineral Wells.” She takes a detour into moody, echoey, Fender Rhodes-driven southern soul with I Know What It’s Like: “With everyone standing around, I buckled and hit the ground,” Shires recalls. She closes the album with another brooding 6/8 ballad, You Are My Home, rising to a brushfire crescendo of stark fiddle and searing slide guitar. In its purposeful, meticulously assembled way, this is one of the most solidly captivating albums of the year.

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.