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Tag: songwriter

Phil Ochs – A Halloween Appreciation

What’s more Halloween than a guy who killed himself? Phil Ochs arguably left the planet as his era’s greatest English-language songwriter. But where his old pal and arch-rival Bob Dylan was still cranking out albums – at that moment, the uneven if imaginatively Romany-flavored Desire – Ochs’ career had stalled years before. He never got past a massive creative block and the damage to his vocal cords from a 1973 mugging in Tanzania, dead three years later at 36 after a long downward spiral.

But he left a body of work arguably greater than what Dylan had accumulated to that point. Where Dylan had invented psychedelic folk, Ochs’ mid-60s albums Tape From California and Pleasures of the Harbor took an extremely successful turn into 20th century classical music and art-song. His populist relevance, catchy tunesmithing, clever wordplay and innumerable levels of meaning were every bit as formidable as Dylan’s. And Ochs’ 1968 album Rehearsals For Retirement remains the most harrowingly detailed, metaphorically foreshadowed musical suicide note ever written.

So there’s no lack of irony that the opening track on the recently released Live in Montreal 10/22/66, streaming at Spotify, is Cross My Heart – as in, “Cross my heart, and I hope to live.”

As is the case with pretty much every artist these days, there are innumerable Ochs concert recordings bouncing around, most of them pretty dodgy. This lavish solo acoustic set from a part of the world where Ochs played some of his best shows is a soundboard recording, but a very good one. And the setlist is sublime – it’s as close to a definitive solo acoustic Ochs album as there is.

“You always come back, if only to yourself,” he muses between songs early in the show. Right off the bat, alienation and disillusion are front and center. “The answer is limbo and the harvest will be hard,” he sings in the otherwise much more optimistic, Britfolk-tinged Song of My Returning.

Serendipitously, it seems that most of Ochs’ between-song commentary was recorded as well, and he’s at the top of his surrealistic, sardonic game. He introduces a nimbly fingerpicked take of The Bells – his setting of the Edgar Allen Poe poem – with a joke about how Poe’s work has been banned from classrooms. “The word was tintinnabulation – they couldn’t find it in the dictionary, so they assumed it was LSD.” And his sly introduction to the metaphors of Cops of the World is pretty priceless.

All of Ochs’ richly worded lit-rock novelty hits are here: Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, Miranda, and The Party. As with a lot of the songs here, they actually rock a lot harder than in the albums’ far more ornate parlor-pop arrangements. As you would expect from a show from this point in time, the set is light on Ochs’ early, more prosaic, folkie material. We get the plainspoken ballad Joe Hill – a salute to the Utah labor leader executed for a crime he didn’t commit – as well as a defiant I Ain’t Marching Anymore, a low-key, knowing take of There But For Fortune, I’m Gonna Say It Now – the one number here that hasn’t aged well – and the encore, the cynically spot-on if rather obvious broadside Chaplain of the War.

Beyond the fact that the lyrics really jump out at you, what’s most striking is how strong a guitarist Ochs is. He toys with his strum, opening Flower Lady with a Like a Rolling Stone quote; as vivid ad verdant as Lincoln Mayorga’s piano is on the album version, this is might be even better. And his flatpicking in the more traditionally-oriented numbers is fast and fluid.

Yet as funny and insightful as Ochs is here, torment runs deep. “Portrait of the pain never answers back,” he sings nonchalantly in Flower Lady. A little later on, in an especially epic take of Crucifixion – his JFK assassination parable – it’s “Do you have a portrait of the pain?”

“The hour will be short for leisure on the land,” he reminds in Pleasures of the Harbor, the allusively grisly if elegant account of a sleazy seaside hookup and its aftermath. “The lonely in disguise are clinging to the crowd.” Shades are drawn at pivotal moments in three separate songs. On record, the sarcasm and angst in I’ve Had Her are muted: here, they practically scream.

The real revelation is an early version of Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore, which would become the understatedly shattering centerpiece of Rehearsals For Retirement. Ochs introduces it as “A study in levels of depression.” It’s a work in progress, in straight-up 4/4 rather than the slinky 6/8 album version, its doomed narrative a little different this time out:

Fiddler takes a sniff and picks up the fiddle
As you race from wall to wall, stumble down in the middle
And you’re torn apart
No lower point to start
And you feel you’d like to steal a happy heart

And while this album is a period piece, student protestors around the world still get shot. People still go to jail for weed. And in the Silicon Valley slavers’ gig economy, mentions of plaques in union halls may be quaint – but also a painful reminder that eternal vigilance is no less the price of liberty than it was in 1966.

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80s Psychedelic Rock Cult Hero Russ Tolman at the Top of His Uneasy Game at Pete’s Last Week

It feels so good to be alive.

That’s the punchline of a song called Shot You Down. In context, it’s one of the most vengefully delicious lyrics ever written. It’s arguably the best track on True West’s 1982 cult classic Drifters album. In his Pete’s Candy Store debut Thursday night, such that it was, True West bandleader Russ Tolman didn’t play that one. But he did play Hollywood Holiday. That’s the title track of the group’s first ep, a snarling mashup of post-Velvets rock, Americana and psychedelia.

The music media at the time called that stuff “paisley underground.” It’s a horribly inaccurate term. True West and their contemporaries the Dream Syndicate, Long Ryders, Green on Red and a whole bunch of other great bands weren’t exactly underground. As the mergers and acquisitions of the deregulated Reagan 80s devastated the radio waves, college radio suddenly was the closest thing to Spotify available at the time. All those bands ruled the college charts. 

And fashion had nothing to do with it. While most kids of the era were bopping to the cheesy sounds of DX7 synthesizers, these groups clanged out a gritty, sometimes trippy sound with the volume and fearlessness of punk but also a country twang and a willingness to go beyond punk’s three-minute marker.

The original incarnation of True West didn’t last long – they broke up in 1985. Tolman reunited the band for a memorable couple of  tours in the late zeros, and most auspiciously, joined forced with his old guitar sparring partner Richard McGrath and a series of collaborators for a well-received west coast tour last year.

Tolman’s a band guy – solo acoustic isn’t his default setting. But with one anthem after another, he reaffirmed that if anything, he’s an even better songwriter than he was thirty-plus years ago. On the surface, Hollywood Holiday is about a sleazy hookup. But it also might be about a murder. In very few words, Tolman built a series of scenarios which could have gone any number of ways: it’s up to the listener to figure out how they resolve, if at all.

And the tunesmithing was sublime. As with his lyrics, an unease and a frequent gallows humor pervade his music. The breakup tune Marla Jane and the wryly boisterous Something About a Rowboat – which as it turns out recounts a thwarted booze-fueled pickup scenario – were among the catchiest. Several others, notably the surrealistically apt Two Drinks From Genius brought to mind Tolman’s old college bandmate Steve Wynn, who was in the house. Was Tolman going to go up the fretboard for those two evil little chordlets as the chorus of Hollywood Holiday turned around? Yesssssss! He closed with a vicious, 60-style garage-psych number: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking To It: “You can sign my name to the story, because I won’t,” he intoned over its minor-key changes.

Shows like this you walk away from thinking to yourself, damn, after all these years, it still feels so good to be alive. Not to give anything away, but we may be seeing a lot more of Tolman in New York in the coming months: watch this space!

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.  

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.

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.

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.