New York Music Daily

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Wickedly Smart Metaphors and Catchy, Socially Aware Songs From Lara Herscovitch

A lot of the songs on Lara Herscovitch‘s new album Highway Philosphers – streaming at Spotify – pack a wallop rarely found in the normally sedate world of singer-songwriters. Take the album’s fifth track, You USA. The music may be low-key – just her intricate fingerpicking and lead guitarist Stephen Murphy’s airy washes – but the political content is fierce, and really captures the embryonic phase of the paradigm shift that’s sweeping the world:

We are underestimated, undeterred, here to stay
Pins in the rafters from the rally yesterday
Learning to look each other in the eye
Power grid’s gone down so we live like fireflies
Don’t look away USA

At at time where we’re finding Bernie supporters standing shoulder to shoulder with Trumpies at anti-lockdown protests, and just about everybody protesting the murder of George Floyd, something amazing is going on here. The whole world is uniting to rip those masks off ourselves…and also off everyone who profits from racism and divide-and-conquer strategies.

Another killer track is the Neko Case-ish Careful Porcelain Doll, a defiant tale of breaking away from a life of “paint by numbers in reverse.” The girl at the center of this story dreams of emulating her idol, Yankees home run champion and Gold Glove third baseman Graig Nettles, then trades that for adult domesticity…but ends the story with a spectacular Jacoby Ellsbury kind of move. For fans of the pinstripes, maybe it’s best that guys like DiMag and Bernie Williams didn’t try to make plays like that! We may not have baseball this year, but at least we have this song.

Most of the music here is pretty spare: just the bandleader’s acoustic guitar and clear, uncluttered vocals, Murphy’s terse electric fills and Craig Akin’s bass. There’s always a welcome subtext in these songs: Sailing to Newfoundland, for example, works on every level that quasi sea chantey’s title implies.

Fault Lines is Herscovitch’s eerily detailed counterpart to Dawn Oberg‘s harrowing End of the Continent; “I still wonder what that summer measured on the Richter Scale,” Herscovitch muses.

Castle Walls is a similarly vivid, wise tale of a European fling that didn’t work out. The album’s arguably funniest song is The Tiger and I, the most hilarious account of formula retail as circus ever set to music. Rise is also irresistibly amusing: it could be a Trump parable, or a satirical look at Andrew Cuomo’s ridiculously taxpayer-funded adventures with bridges to New Jersey. Or both.

There’s also In Your Corner, a gospel song about boxing – on a surface level, at least – and From a Dream, a surreal spoken-word narrative. Anyone who can’t resist clever wordplay, unselfconsciously soulful vocals and catchy tunes should check this out.

Sharon Goldman’s Brave New Art-Rock Album Weighs the Richness and Gravitas of Jewish Heritage

Since the early zeros, Sharon Goldman has made a name for herself as one of the world’s great tunesmiths. Although she sometimes gets pigeonholed as a folksinger, and she plays that circuit, her music has always had more of a classic pop sensibility. The Brill Building and the 80s – think, Elvis Costello – are frequent reference points. Until now. Goldman’s new album Kol Isha – A Woman’s Voice (streaming at Spotify) finds her going deeper into art-rock, as well as the musical roots of her Jewish heritage. As a lyricist, Goldman says a lot in very few words, crystallizing her imagery just as she does her anthemic verses and catchy choruses. The new album is a song cycle, and it’s as dark as anything she’s ever written. While the suite explores Goldman’s conflicted roots as a secular – and fearlessly individualistic – Jewish artist raised in the Modern Orthodox tradition, her tale of gentle resistance, and angst, and ultimately transcendence will resonate with anyone raised in any strict, traditional culture.

The core of the band is Goldman on acoustic guitar and piano, Stephen Murphy on guitars, Craig Akin on bass, Cheryl Prashker on percussion and Dan Hickey on drums. Goldman has never sung more strongly or dynamically: this album contains both her sultriest song ever – the lush piano ballad Rose of Sharon – and also one of her most hushed. That number, Three Stars, concludes the album, an uneasy recollection of a childhood Saturday night waiting impatiently for nightfall and the end of the Sabbath.

Is that an oud on Pillar of Salt, the witchy Lot’s Wife ballad that with electric instrumentation would make a killer heavy metal anthem? Yesssss! Brian Prunka adds ominous touches with that instrument there, as he does on the album’s title track

Red Molly’s Abbie Gardner adds a surreal but strikingly effective Americana touch on Lilith (Goldman has a thing for Talmudic hussies), just as Murphy does with his purist, bluesy slide work on Song of Songs, Goldman’s take on innuendo-fueled Old Testament erotica. She and Murphy do the same with their bluesy twin-acoustic work on The Sabbath Queen, a rather grim account of an Orthodox matriarch who’s about to pass out on her feet just at the moment that the celebratory weekly Shabbos meal begins. Middle Eastern blues, who would have thought?

Goldman returns to more straight-up bluesy terrain – through the gauzy prism of Mazzy Star, maybe – with In My Bones, pensively weighing the richness and joys of Jewish culture against  emotional and historical baggage. Similarly, The Bride awaits her impending nuptials not as the first day of a lifelong journey but “the beginning of the end,” awash in Laura Wolfe’s brooding violin and Goldman’s intricate fingerpicking.

She sings in both Engish and Hebrew in the enigmatic piano ballad Land of Milk and Honey:

The taste of blood and berries on my tongue as I wander ancient streets…
War overlooks fields of wildflowers, pieces buried in dreams…
There’s a soldier sleeping next to me with a gun on his shoulder
As we pass olive trees and barbed wire

Prunka’s opening taqsim on the album’s insistently anthemic title track might be the single most delicious musical moment, among many, here. “A woman’s voice is naked, forbidden, don’t raise that sweet sound in front of men,” Goldman sings with more than a hint of seduction. “It might arouse attention!”

Lest we forget, there are places in the world where a klezmer band with women in it wouldn’t be allowed to perform. Which seems to sum up the dichotomy Goldman is dealing with here: Biblical heroines defy the restrictions on them to do wonderful things, and thousands of years later, the theme repeats itself. While it helps to be a member of “The Tribe,” as Goldman reminds, to appreciate this, her narrative and anthems will resonate across cultures. And maybe generate some controversy, and maybe shift the cultural paradigm as much as she does the musical one, in the process. Goldman’s next New York show is Oct 13 at 6 PM at the Christopher Street Coffeehouse, in the basement of the church at 81 Christopher St. between 7th Ave. South and Bleecker.