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One of the Year’s Best Triplebills at Drom Last Friday Night

“We don’t play with horns that much,” Big Lazy frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich told the crowd late during their show headlining one of the year’s best triplebills at Drom Friday night. “Horns are,” he paused – and then resumed with just a flash of a menacing grin – ”Evil.” Then guest trumpeter Brian Carpenter and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring added a surreal acidity to the slow, ominous sway of a brand-new, ominously resonant film noir theme, Bluish.

“I wrote those harmonies to be as dissonant as possible,” Ulrich confided after the show. Which is ironic considering how little dissonance there actually is in Big Lazy’s constantly shifting cinematic songs without words. The trio’s sound may be incredibly catchy, but Ulrich really maxes out the ten percent of the time when the macabre  bares its fangs.

Case in point: the wistfully loping big-sky tableau The Low Way, where a single, lingering, reverberating tritone chord from Ulrich’s Les Paul suddenly dug into the creepy reality lurking beneath blue skies and calm, easygoing facades.

Drummer Yuval Lion and bassist Andrew Hall held the sometimes slinky, sometimes stampeding themes to the rails as Ulrich shifted from the moody, skronk-tinged sway of Influenza to the brisk Night Must Fall, finally firing off an offhandedly savage flurry of tremolo-picking to bring the intensity to a peak in a split-second. From there the group took a turn into tricky tempos with the surrealistic bounce of Avenue X and then the crushingly sarcastic faux-stripper theme Don’t Cross Myrtle, the title track from the band’s latest album (ranked best of the year for 2016 here). Big Lazy’s next New York show is Dec 4 at 10 PM at Barbes.

As the leader of the Ghost Train Orchestra, Carpenter is known as a connoisseur of hot 20s swing and obscure, pioneering jazz composers from the decades after. This time he played mostly organ and guitar with his brilliant noir rock band the Confessions, second on the bill: it’s hard to remember two groups this good and this dark back to back at any New York venue in recent months. Guitarist Andrew Stern played murderously reverberating, sustained lines in a couple of long, suspenseful introductory buildups in tandem with violinist Jonathan LaMaster, bassist Anthony Leva and drummer Gavin McCarthy keeping a taut pulse through a mix of songs that sometimes evoked Tom Waits’ brooding Americana or the uneasy chamber pop of the Old Ceremony.

Frontwoman Jen Kenneally worked every offhand wiggle in her vibrato to add to the songs’ distantly lurid allure, often harmonizing with Carpenter’s brooding baritone. A relentless gloom pervaded the songs, rising to a peak in the tensely stampeding City on Fire and then hitting a high note at the end with Blinding Light, which ironically described darkness closing in as the band stomped into the chorus. Fans of Lynchian sounds shouldn’t miss this crew, who hark back to Carpenter’s early 90s circus rock days.

Opening act the Claudettes have gone in a completely different direction since ripping the roof off Barbes on a twinbill with Big Lazy a couple of years ago. These days, gonzo saloon jazz pianist Johnny Iguana has muted his attack somewhat: the band came across as a sort of Windy City counterpart to Lake Street Dive. Which isn’t a bad thing at all – Lake  Street Dive are a great blue-eyed soul band.

New frontwoman Berit Ulseth channeled brass, ice and brittle vulnerability through the sarcastic I Expect Big Things and then the cruel punchline that followed, Declined. In yet another of the evening’s many strokes of irony, the group’s biggest hit with the audience was a Debussy-esque, low-key tone-poem of sorts about discovering a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The bandleader brought to mind New York beatnik jazz cult hero Dred Scott in the sardonically frantic barrelhouse instrumental You Busy Beaver You and then the slyly bluesy cautionary tale Creeper Weed, about how to avoid getting blindsided by one hit too many. They wound up the set with the understatedly gloomy The Show Must Go On (Then the Show Must End), part Waits, part early Steely Dan. The Claudettes tour continues; the next stop is back in their Chicago hometown at 9 PM on Nov 17 at the Hideout; cover is $12.

And as always, Drom – downtown New York’s most consistently diverse music room – has some cool upcoming shows. One especially interesting one is on Nov 25 at 10:30 PM, and it’s a rare free event there, with Polish crew Nasza Sciana doing vintage Slavic turbo-folk hits.

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Unmasking Steve Ulrich’s Mysterious, Murderously Fun Barbes Residency This Month

An icy, lingering tritone reverberated from Steve Ulrich’s 1955 Gretsch. “We end everything with this chord,” this era’s most esteemed noir guitarist joked. His long-running trio Big Lazy have been his main vehicle for suspense film themes, uneasy big-sky pastorales and menacing crime jazz narratives, but this month he’s playing a weekly 6 PM Saturday evening residency at Barbes to air out some of his more recent and also more obscure film work from over the years. This past Saturday he was joined by Peter Hess of Balkan Beat Box (who have a characteristically fun new album due out soon) on baritone sax and flute as well as a rhythm section. The final installment of this month’s residency is at 6 on March 25 and will feature Ulrich’s frequent collaborator, guitarist Mamie Minch, who will be playing her own scores to accompany a screening of Russell Scholl’s edgy experimental films.

At this past Saturday’s show, the quartet opened with Dusk, by Sandcatchers, “One of those tunes I’d wished I’d written the moment I heard it,” Ulrich revealed. Lonesome trainwhistle lapsteel bookended a melancholy, aptly saturnine waltz with exchanges of steel and baritone sax. They followed with an enigmatically chromatic, reggaeish new Ulrich original, just guitar, bass and drums. Echoes of 70s Peruvian psychedelic cumbia filtered through the mix, leading to a wry, descending solo by bassist Michael Bates. It was sort of the reverse image of the popular early zeros Big Lazy single Mysteries of the Deep.

From there the rhythm section launched into an altered bolero sway, Ulrich making his way through spikily strolling phrases and elegant descending clusters of jazz chords, down to an exploratory sax solo. Then Hess raised the energy to just short of redline: the dynamic wallop was visceral.

The one Big Lazy tune in the set turned out to have been inspired by Raymond Scott’s madcap Loony Tunes cartoon scores: “It’s pretty crazy,” Ulrich admitted. At its innermost core, it was a creepy bolero, but with a practically hardcore beat and a relentlessly tense interweave of sax and guitar, Ulrich and Hess a pair of snipers dueling at a distance.

Another new number, In the Bones was originally titled Lost Luggage, Ulrich revealed. A slowly unwinding, shapeshifting theme, it followed an emotional trajectory that slowly shifted from stunned shock to mournful acceptance. From there, the four made their way through a creepy cover of the Beatles’ Girl, packed with tongue-in-cheek Ellington quotes, then a murderously slinky instrumental take of Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me

Awash in a long series of bittersweet Americana riffs, a new ballad, Sister, was dedicated to Minch. Her music is more overtly blues based, but it’s as dark and deep as Ulrich’s: this was an insightful portrait. Ulrich sent the band offstage and then played a solo take of Latin Quarter, from Big Lazy’s 1996 debut ep. He explained that it was originally conceived as a mashup of salsa jazz and ghoulabilly – and that the gorgeous gold Gretsch he was playing it on had been a gift many years ago from a fellow swimmer at the Greenpoint YMCA. The guitarist’s shock at his poolmate’s generosity was mitigated somewhat when he discovered that its serial number had been sanded off.

Hess switched to flute for the title theme from Ulrich’s latest film score, a slyly surreal Asian-flavored 60s psychedelic rock tune, part Morricone, part Dengue Fever and part Ventures spacerock. He wound up the set with a single, droll verse of Sizzle and Pops, the name of the imaginary lounge duo with his wife. “You can guess who’s who,” Ulrich told the crowd. Charming 1930s/40s French chanson revivalists Les Chauds Lapins played after – more about that one a little later. Good news for film music fans from outside the neighborhood who want to catch the final night of Ulrich’s residency: both the F and G trains are running to Park Slope this coming weekend

The Top Thirty New York City Concerts of 2016

An informed snapshot of some of the most amazing performances across the five boroughs from a year that started out with some promise and ended with the whole world on edge and dreading the worst. Of all this blog’s year-end lists, including the 50 Best Albums and 100 Best Songs of 2016, this one’s the most fun to put together. And the most most individualistic: everybody’s got their own favorite concert moments. While it wouldn’t be hard to think of a hundred from the past year that deserve mention, that would be overkill. It all comes down to triage: apologies to the dozens of artists who played transcendent shows in this city in 2016 who aren’t represented here because of space constraints. Next year, dudes!

Concerts are listed chronologically; the very first one could be the best of the bunch.

Karla Rose at 11th St. Bar, 1/6/16
With her allusive lyrics, her silken voice and enigmatic stage presence, Karla Rose personifies noir. In 2016, out in front of her psychedelic, darkly cinematic twin-guitar band Karla Rose & the Thorns, she played Webster Hall, opened for first-wave punk legends the Dickies and the king of powerpop, Paul Collins. But her most intriguing show of all might have been this low-key trio set with World Inferno bassist Sandra Malak and pianist Frank LoCrasto, unveiling several new, mysterious numbers.

The 35th Anniversary of BC Studios, 1/15-16/16
Producer/guitarist/art-rocker/professional antagonist Martin Bisi booked a global cast of talent to perform and record a long timeline to commemorate his legendary Gowanus space, which might not last much longer if it isn’t landmarked. Highlights of the marathon weekend included slinky jazz punks Barbez, goth legend JG Thirlwell, haunting Middle Eastern noir singer and bandleader Ajda the Turkish Queen, a historic reunion of legendary 80s noiserock band Live Skull – who, back in the day, were better than Sonic Youth – and Bisi himself.

Gato Loco at Joe’s Pub, 1/29/16
The mighty psycho mambo band ambushed the audience with a battalion of baritone sax snipers throughout the space to bolster their explosive, darkly majestic reinventions of themes from the Verdi Reqiuem

Greg Squared’s Circle at Barbes, 3/6/16
The pyrotechnic multi-reedman and co-leader of Raya Brass Band – who’ve made frequent appearances on this page over the last few years – brought a bunch of A-list Brooklyn Balkan talent to work out about two hours’ worth of epically explosive new original pieces

Big Lazy and Mercury Radio Theater at Barbes, 4/1/16
The cinematic noir legends continue their monthly Friday night residency at Brooklyn’s best music venue; pound for pound, this twinbill, with the ferocious Philadelphia circus punk band, was probably the best of the bunch. Big Lazy’s best gig without a supporting act was probably this past May at the Lively, a great little Meatpacking District basement bar that lasted only a few weeks.

Kinan Azmeh and Erdem Helvacioglu at Spectrum, 4/9/16
Syrian clarinetist and Turkish guitarist join forces for a smoky, sinisterly ambient depiction of the horrors of war. Keep your eyes out for a forthcoming album of this material.

The Bright Smoke at Mercury Lounge, 4/14/16
Mia Wilson’s harrowingly intense art-rock band took their dynamic, explosively crescendoing live show to the next level at this one: it wouldn’t be overhype to say that they’re the closest thing to Joy Division that New York’s ever produced.

Greek Judas and Choban Elektrik at Barbes, 4/28/16
Greek Judas play careening psychedelic metal versions of classic hash-smoking and gangster music from Greece and Cyprus in the 20s and 30s. Choban Elektrik do the same with themes from across the Balkans, with organ and violin out front instead of screaming guitars. A real wild night, sort of like seeing the Doors and Iron Maiden on the same bill somewhere in the Aegean.

Ambrosia Parsley, Chris Maxwell and Holly Miranda at Hell Phone, 5/5/16
Short sets from the goth-tinged songbird and then the Arkansas gothic songwriter, followed by a raptly intense set from the cult favorite noir Americana singer, who showed off her chops on bothTelecaster and piano.

The Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York at I-Beam, 5/17/16
The room was so packed it was impossible to get inside, after the start of the great jazz pianist/composer/conductor’s shattering, angst-drenched suite reflecting horror and terror in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown on March 11, 2001. Watch out for the forthcoming album.

Eden Lane at Caffe Vivaldi, 5/29/16
Velvet-voiced jazz chanteuse Stephanie Layton channeled a century’s worth of existential angst and longing in front of her tightly swinging band, with a set packed with obscure treats from across the ages, including a vivid detour into the Erik Frandsen songbook.

Goddess, Ember Schrag and David Grubbs at a private party in Brooklyn, 6/3/16
Unsettlingly theatrical psychedelia, opaquely venomous Shakespeare-influenced Great Plains gothic songs and vast, deep-space guitarscapes to wind up one of the funnest nights of the year.

Lorraine Leckie at Pangea, 6/8/16
Backed by a tight, stripped-down version of her incendiary band the Demons, the eclectic songstress treated an intimate audience to everything from noir cabaret  to surrealistic art-rock. Her full-throttle Bowery Ballroom gig in November might have been even better.

 Attack and Tipsy Oxcart at Barbes, 7/5/16
Violinist Marandi Hostetter’s slinky, classic Levantine bellydance group made a great opener for the boombastic Balkan/Middle Eastern dance jamband.

Mariachi Flor De Toloache and Patti Smith at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/20/16
The all-female Mexican-American folk ensemble mesmerized the crowd with a plaintive set that ranged from mariachi, to rancheras, to some sly psychedelic rock. Then the queen of dark downtown New York art-rock and her band scorched through a characteristically fearless, defiantly populist, epic set of classic anthems and poignant newer material.

Robin Aigner and Kotorino at Barbes, 7/21/16
Brooklyn’s most deviously lyrical, torchy historical songwriter/chanteuse and her excellent, swinging Americana band followed by the darkly intense, phantasmagorical circus rock/art-rock/mambo crew

The Sway Machinery and Hydra at Joe’s Pub, 8/4/16
The debut of the ongoing collaboration between the psychedelic cantorial rock jamband and singer/composer Sarah Small’s lustrous, haunting Middle Eastern/Balkan trio with Yula Beeri and Rima Fand was every bit as entrancing as it promised to be.

Sandcatchers at Barbes, 8/9/16
Surfy, uneasy, richly psychedelic Middle Eastern jamband with a lapsteel along with guitar. Wow!

Bombay Rickey at Barbes, 8/12/16
Powerhouse singer/accordionist Kamala Sankaram brought her four-octave vocal range and also a sitar to a characteristically serpentine set of psychedelic cumbias, Bollywood, southwestern gothic themes and an electric take of a classic Indian raga.

Dan Penta at Sidewalk, 8/14/16
“Now that’s songwriting,” marveled one listener gathered in the back room of the East Village shithole where the harrowing, surrealistically intense frontman of great, obscure New York bands like Jagged Leaves, the Larval Organs and Hearth played a relatively rare solo set of relentlessly doomed anthems and dirges.

The Chiara String Quartet play Bartok from memory at National Sawdust, 8/30/16
The group’s new double-disc set of the complete Bartok quartets has a bristling, conversational quality, echoed by this performance of the sullen Quartet No. 1 and the chilling Quartets Nos. 3 and 5

Ben Holmes and Patrick Farrell at Barbes, 9/3/16
The hauntingly tuneful trumpeter and his longtime Yiddish Art Trio bandmate, pyrotechnic accordionist Farrell, played their creepy, carnivalesque new Conqueror Worm Suite, based on the Edgar Allen Poe poem.

Ensemble Fanaa at Rye Bar, 9/7/16
Otherworldly, microtonal tenor saxophonist Daro Behroozi’s eerily trippy gnawa-jazz trio with bassist/gimbri player John Murchison and drummer Dan Kirfirst slayed at their debut at Barbes back in July. They were even better in this cozy downstairs South Williamsburg boite.

Anbessa Orchestra at Barbes, 9/9/16
The fiery guitar-and-horn-driven Ethiopian psychedelic funk band put on a pretty ferocious show here back in May. This one was even hotter, sweatier and wilder, with some auspicious new material.

Hearing Things at Barbes, 9/11/16
Another band who slayed at a Barbes show that earned a rave review here, but whose next gig at the Park Slope hotspot was even hotter. Saxophonist Matt Bauder, organist JP Schlegelmilch and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza spun and stomped and slunk their way through a darkly psychedelic mix of surf and go-go originals.

The Allah-Las at Baby’s All Right, 9/17/16
About an hour and a half of lushly catchy three-minute retro psychedelic jangle, clang and twang, fueled by the overtone mist from Pedrum Siadatian’s twelve-string. That the best song of the night was a surf instrumental speaks to the quality of this band’s tunes.

The Attacca String Quartet and Jeff Lynne’s ELO at Radio City, 9/18/16
A bucket-list show. The Attaccas impressed with their ability to hold a sold-out crowd who didn’t seem likely to have any interest in composers like John Adams, but the ensemble kept their attention with a blazing, smartly curated mini-set. Visionary art-rocker Lynne’s band included only one remaining member from the iconic mid-70s lineup, and they played mostly radio hits instead of deep album cuts. But the new, young-ish ensemble was stoked to share the stage with one of the world’s alltime great tunesmiths, and he sang as strongly as he did forty years ago. Not bad for a guy who notoriously hated touring and playing live.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at National Sawdust, 10/2/16
Along with the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York’s Fukushima suite, this was the most intense show of the year, the composer/conductor stern and enigmatic out in front of his mighty big band as they blustered and lurked through his crushingly relevant new conspiracy theory-inspired suite

Satomi Fukami, Masayo Ishigure and others at Merkin Concert Hall, 10/5/16
A feast of spiky, interwoven Japanese koto sounds. featuring the music of legendary 20th century koto virtuoso and composer Michio Miyagi

LJ Murphy in the East Village, 10/8/16
The charismatic noir blues bandleader was at the top of his game, skewering security state paranoia, smarmy East Village gentrifiers and little Hitlers of all kinds while his explosive three-guitar band the Accomplices careened and roared behind him.

Steve Ulrich and Mamie Minch at Barbes, 10/14/16
The debut live collaboration between this era’s definitive noir film composer and the darkly compelling resonator guitarist/blueswoman, a live score to Windsor McCay’s pioneering early animated film The Flying House, turned out to be even more haunting than expected. Then they played some blues, and some Johnny Cash

Sahba Motallebi at Symphony Space, 10/21/16
This concert never could have been staged in the pyrotechnic tar lute virtuoso’s Teheran hometown, because she’s a woman. Her slashing volleys of tremolo-picking and whirlwind riffage were pure adrenaline. That this was a duo performance with another woman musician, percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand made this a special slap upside the head of Islamofascists everywhere.

The Spectrum Symphony with organists Janos Palur and Balint Karosi at St. Peter’s Church, 11/4/16
Possibly this century’s only New York performance of concertos for organ and orchestra featured a richly textural take of the Poulenc concerto plus the world premiere of Korosi’s menacingly cinematic Second Concerto for Organ, Percussion and Strings plus works by Mendelssohn and Bach. Pound for pound, the most mighty, titanic, epic show probably staged anywhere in this city this year.

In 2015, women artists ruled this list; this year, acts were split evenly along gender lines. Tellingly, even more so than last year, about sixty percent of these shows were either free or a pass-the-bucket situation. Clearly the action in this city, in terms of live music at least, is on the ground floor.

The Best, Most Darkly Cinematic New York Show of 2016: Mamie Minch and Steve Ulrich at Barbes

The best show of 2016 in New York – at least the best one where this blog was in the house – was in mid-October at Barbes, where guitarists Mamie Minch and Steve Ulrich played a live score to silent films supplied by filmmaker Russell Scholl. And it was unquestionably the the year’s most cinematic, which makes sense considering both the context and the artists involved. Ulrich gets lots of work for film and for PBS, when he’s not fronting his slinky, Lynchian reverb guitar band, Big Lazy. Minch plays her own darkly individualistic, wit-infused take on classic country blues and Americana when she’s not running New York’s only woman-owned instrument repair store, Brooklyn Lutherie,. Both players have shows coming up. On Dec 6 at 6:30 PM, Minch is part of an excellent triplebill with fellow oldtime country blues purveyor Eli Smith and rustic 19th century style string band the Four O’Clock Flowers at the American Folk Art Museum, playing songs on the time-honored theme of death and mourning to coincide with the museum’s latest, wonderfully creeyp exhibition. Then she’s at Barbes at 8 on Dec 16. Ulrich is at Spectrum on Dec 10 at 7:30 PM with his Big Lazy bandmate, drummer Yuval Lion, where they’ll join Bob Dylan keyboardist Mick Rossi, Barbez‘s Peter Hess and Zion80‘s Jon Madof for a night of similarly creepy improvisation; cover is $15.

The night’s first movie at Barbes was a surrealistically nostalgic Coney Island tableau by Scholl, Minch singing a sad waltz that she’d originally written as a member of the badly missed oldtime harmony quartet the Roulette Sisters. Low and somber, she built a similarly moody Brooklyn oceanside scenario, the amusement park as a metaphor for passion that could go drastically wrong. It’s her Wall of Death.

Then Ulrich joined her for a brief set of his own shadowy film noir compositions while another Scholl pastiche – a defiantly individualistic, snidely anti-authoritarian work, like a Donald O’Finn mashup without the endless parodies of oversexed tv – flickered on the screen behind them. The two musicians have collaborated a lot over the past couple of years. Hearing Minch play Ulrich’s signature, menacing chromatics on her resonator guitar was a real treat, Ulrich supplying his usual macabre, resonant twang through a skeletally dancing number with hints of Romany jazz, then a morose graveyard stroll, Ulrich’s angst-fueled insistence against Minch’s steady, mournful chords. They wound it up with tricky syncopation and more rain-drenched chromatics that gave way to reflecting-pool psychedelia as the film hit a comedic coda.

Minch scored the night’s final film, Windsor McCay’s pioneering 1921 early animation flick The Flying House, chronicling the adventures of a man who motorizes his home and then takes it up into the clouds in order to escape the evil bankster who wants to foreclose on it. You want relevance? Minch switched slowly and masterfully from one oldtime blues tuning to another. interpolating those graceful blue notes into the score as she retuned, moving seamlessly through gemtly waltzing, pastoral passages, bouncily romping interludes, elements of psychedelic folk and 70s British art-rock, hardly styles that you would associate with someone regarded as one of this era’s great blueswomen. After the movie. the two treated the crowd to a cover of Johnny Cash’s Committed to Parkview – a Hollywood nuthouse if there ever was one – as well as a take of the Beatles hit Girl that really brought out all the menace in a femme fatale. They closed out the night with a solo Ulrich jazz tune and then Minch’s funereal rendition of the Bessie Smith murder ballad Sing Sing Blues. Only in New York, folks.

Big Lazy: 2016’s Ultimate Halloween Band

What better way to kick off Halloween month, 2016 than with the world’s slinkiest, most shadowy instrumental trio, Big Lazy? They play both kinds of Halloween music, the trick-or-treat stuff as well as the sinister. In all seriousness, they’re a lot closer to the latter than the former. Guitarist/founder Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion return to their monthly first-Friday-of-the-month, 10 PM residency this coming Friday, Oct 7 at Barbes.

It’s a fair guess that the people who were running Punk Magazine back in 1976 caught the Ramones at CB’s more than a few times that summer. And at least some of the hippies at the Village Voice back in the 60s might well have seen Phil Ochs at Folk City more than once. If you buy the premise that this blog is to New York what, say, Punk Magazine was to this city forty years ago – or what the Voice was a decade before then – it makes sense that New York Music Daily would be in the house for several Big Lazy Barbes shows in 2016. The funnest one might have been the most recent and cleverly improvisational, where Lion was just plain having a ball with all sorts of counterintuitive rhythms and syncopation, and Michael Bates – who shares a jazz pedigree with Hall – took over on the four-string. Another fun set was a couple of months back when Kill Henry Sugar‘s Dean Sharenow, a frequent Ulrich film score collaborator, sat in on drums, bringing his signature snare sound along with a dry wit to match the bandleader’s unparalleled, bleak sense of humor.

But the year’s best Big Lazy show – this blog has caught pretty much all of them – wasn’t at Barbes. It was at the Lively, a refreshingly laid-back basement bar located in the Meatpacking District, of all places. That joint had nice people working there, cheap drinks (at least by the standards of that neighborhood), a real stage in the back and a fantastic PA system. Sadly, this year’s strongest contender for “best Manhattan venue” barely lasted a couple of months.

But what a show Big Lazy played there. They ripped through Princess Nicotine, a machinegunning, barely three-minute minor-key ghoulabilly sprint that Ulrich wrote as a soundtrack piece to an obscure early 20s short film of the same name. The creepiest number of the night was Skinless Boneless, a slowly swaying, macabre tableau adrift in oceans of guitar reverb and tremoloing tritones. They didn’t do their serial killer strut version of Piazzolla’s Pulsacion No. 5, or their uber-noir cover of Thelonious Monk’s Epistrophy, both of which they aired out at Barbes this past summer, but they did do the early Beatles hit Girl, reinventing it as a dirge in the same vein as their deadpan take of Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me. And they did some new stuff, including one serpentine mini-epic that swung from neo-Nino Rota Fellini score, to more rocking and psychedelic, to sheer terror in places. As at Barbes, there were couples up front, dancing. Which is what noir is all about, anyway: grabbing what you can while the shadows close in.

Beninghove’s Hangmen and Big Lazy in Brooklyn: Noir Music Heaven

Considering that we’re only in March, it’s hardly safe to say that the twinbill coming up this Monday the 14th at around 9 at Manhattan Inn, with Beninghove’s Hangmen and Big Lazy, is the best one of the year. The April 15, 10 PM doublebill of Desert Flower and Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons, at Sidewalk, of all places, looks awfully good. And there will be others. But as far as dark and blackly amusing sounds are concerned, it doesn’t get any better than Monday’s lineup in Greenpoint.

Big Lazy’s set last Friday night at Barbes was surprisingly quirky. Gallows humor, and funny quotes from other songs are familiar tropes for the noir cinematic trio, but frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich was having an especially good time with them: Mission Impossible, My Funny Valentine, Caravan – which Ulrich has covered murderously well in the past – and a whole bunch of others. And a trio of creepy cover tunes: Girl, by the Beatles, a stabbing version of an Astor Piazzolla tango and an absolutely lurid take of John Barry’s You Only Live Twice, with a savagely tremolo-picked solo midway through.

It was kind of a weird night, if a good one. The crowd wasn’t the usual mobscene that this band draws. Out front at the bar, it looked like the prom bus from Jersey or somewhere in Alabama had just disembarked. Scarier than Big Lazy’s originals – even Park Slope isn’t safe from yuppie puppy zombie apocalypse anymore. But in back, people were dancing in an oasis of reverb guitar and pitchblende basslines.

This Monday’s opening act, Beninghove’s Hangmen work the same turf: raindrenched wee hours crime jazz tableaux and more overtly humorous interludes. Like Ulrich, frontman/multi-saxophonist Bryan Beninghove gets a lot of film work, so his instrumentals can shift shape from, say, blithe to brutal in a split second and the segue doesn’t seem the least bit jarring. Case in point: the title track to their deliciously creepy upcoming album, Pineapples & Ashtrays.

And they’re more of a jamband than Big Lazy. While a lot of their material can be grim, and ghoulish, and sometimes downright morose, they can also be hilarious. The best example is Zohove, their instrumental album of Led Zep covers, streaming at Spotify.. Zep’s music can be awfully funny by itself, and Beninghove’s reimaginings are even funnier.

On the opening track, Kashmir, Rick Parker’s elephantine trombone snorts and Beninghove’s spectacularly swirling soprano sax lines over the stomp behind it elevate it to Vesuvius heights. Heavy new wave rhythm from drummer Kevin Shea (of another even funnier band, Mostly Other People Do the Killing) and bassist Ezra Gale (of dub reggae crew Super Hi-Fi, who are also hardly strangers to funny songs) might be the last thing you might expect to work in a cover of Misty Mountain Hop, but it does. And the guitar is trippy behond belief: Eyal Maoz’s droll Spinal Tap bends over Dane Johnson’s Jabba the Hut Space Lounge electro-breakdown.

What Is and What Never Should Be is a droll mashup of quotes:You Can’t Just Get What You Want, ad infinitum. Likewise, the album’s title track, a sort of a greatest-riffs collection, cleverly disassembled in the same vein as what you find in how-to books like “Play Guitar in the Style of Tony Iommi.”

The group’s version of Immigrant Song substitutes Bennghove’s sax and Parker’s trombone for Robert Plant’s bleat – and it’s priceless. A shivery twin guitar solo decays toward the noir the band’s known for, over dancing bass to match Beninghove’s bluesy tenor spirals

It’s amazing how they reinvent D’yer Maker as uneasy, metrically tricky noir ska, and then an Afrobeat epic, And the Specials quote at the end is LMFAO too. The album ends with a slinking, incendiary take of When the Levee Breaks fueled by blue-flame slide guitar worthy of Jimmy Page himself. It’s the one place on the album where the band actually seems to take the material seriously, and it might be the best track of all. Get this and get a roomful of Zep fans laughing their collective asses off. Beninghove’s Hangmen usually play at least one Zep cover at most of their shows, so we’re likely to get some of this buffoonery Monday night in Brooklyn.

Film Noir Instrumentalists Big Lazy and Italian Singer Julia Patinella Haunt the Crowd at Barbes

As the story goes, Julia Patinella‘s first live appearance at Barbes lasted for about two bars.worth of music “But what two bars!” said Big Lazy frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich, as he introduced the singer early in the band’s set there last month. The two first met in the wee hours there. She’d done what a lot of musicians do when it’s past midnight and the bands are finished: she broke out her guitar and took a stab at entertaining her friends with a couple of Italian folk songs, completely unplugged.

Uh uh. Like a lot of venues, Barbes has a strict curfew on music, and they enforce it. But unlike the bartender who did the enforcing, Ulrich was entranced. Being a devotee of Italian music and heavily influenced by both Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone, Ulrich asked Patinella if she’d sing with the band. The result turned out to be a couple of hauntingly affecting, nocturnally lilting numbers, the first with Romany tinges, the second a playful commentary on how women deserve just as much fun in the sack as guys do, complete with sardonically low-key orgasmic vocalese. And as comfortable as she was with this material, maybe considering her Sicilian heritage, this was something of a departure for her since she’s focused mostly on flamenco lately. Years from now, when Patinella is playing big stages around the globe, she can tell the world that she was discovered by Big Lazy.

For their part, the iconic noir instrumental trio hung back with a moody jangle to match Patinella’s nuance. Their own material was just as dynamic, and considerably darker, as you would expect from this creepy crew. Their show on New Year’s Day here featured a lot of highway themes and big-sky ambience: this set was a particularly murderous one. Bassist Andrew Hall used his bow more than usual, painting pitchblend swaths underneath Ulrich’s lurid chromatics, lingering blues phrases drenched in reverb, and the occasional savage flurry of tremolo-picking. It’s a mystery how this guy manages not to break strings.

Mystery was the theme for the rest of the show, part horror surf, part crime jazz, part shapeshifting cinematic sweep. Drummer Yuval Lion seemed more amped than usual as the band stabbed and pulsed through a cover of Piazzolla’s Pulsacion #5, then later the surrealistic sprint Princess Nicotine – a new theme for an old silent short from the 20s. Otherwise, the menace was relentless, through the slinky shadows of Don’t Cross Myrtle, Swampesque and one of the creepiest songs of the night, Influenza, which Ulrich wryly pondered about renaming. If dark sounds are your thing, Big Lazy are your band. Their monthly Friday night Barbes residency continues this Friday, March 4 at 10. T’hey’re also at Manhattan Inn in Greenpoint on March 14 at around 9 on what might be the years’s best twinbill, with similarly macabre, surfy, shapeshifting soundtrack instrumentalists Beninghove’s Hangmen.

Big Lazy Bring Their Lurid, Creepy, State-of-the-Art Noir Back to Barbes

How many bands have there ever been who were at their peak twenty years after they started? On one hand, just getting to the twenty-year mark as a band is quite the achievement. But composer/guitarist Stephen Ulrich just keeps getting creepier and more eclectic. And it’s safe to say that this edition of Big Lazy, the world’s most consistently haunting, reverb guitar-fueled instrumental band is the best ever. Which is not to be dismissive of original drummer Willie Martinez, who only left the group due to the demands on his schedule as a star of latin jazz and salsa. Nor is this a dis at original bassist Paul Dugan, whose darkly frenetic pulse was such an important part of the band’s first incarnation from about 1996 through 2007.

But the new rhythm section of Andrew Hall and Yuval Lion is the best ever, and the most consistent with Ulrich’s bleak, rain-drenched vision. Back in the day, the band made their home at Tonic, the late, lamented Norfolk Street hotspot for adventurous, jazz-influenced music. Since last year, maybe predictably, the band has made Barbes their home base. They’re playing there again on August 7 at 10 PM.

Between them, Hall and Lion give Ulrich a more minimalist groove than this band has ever had. And yet, they also get featured more prominently on solos, Hall using his bow for extra stygian resonance, Lion rattling the traps like a poltergeist left over from when Manhattan’s Record District (where you bought turntables and vinyl) was bulldozed to make way for the World Trade Center. It may not be safe to say that any one band in town is the very best, but it is safe to say that Big Lazy never play anything remotely the same way twice.

Ulrich saves his bloodthirsty volleys of tremolo-picking and savage chord-chopping when he really needs to take the energy to redline or bring a sonic narrative to a murderous peak (film soundtracks are his regular gig – Big Lazy is his fun project). He’ll often intersperse a loping highway theme or great plains noir atmospherics amidst all the crime-jazz chromatics and wall-bending noir surf riffs. Although on record, menace is the band’s stock in trade, onstage Ulrich can be very funny, quoting from all sorts of jazz songs and movie themes. Once or twice a set, he’ll put down the guitar and break out his lapsteel for high lonesome wails or lingering, floating body-in-the-pool sonics. And much as most of the songs are instrumentals, occasionally they’ll have a guest take a turn out front: one of the coolest moments in the trio’s recent shows has been where oldtime music maven Mamie Minch joined them for a nonchalantly Lynchian, plaintive version of Crazy.

When Ulrich regrouped Big Lazy in 2013 after a six-year hiatus, that was big news, and this blog covered them not once but five times that year and in 2014. Which explains why the band has been absent from the front page here since this past January. But this blog hasn’t been absent from Big Lazy’s Barbes shows this year, beginning in January and then in each of the last three months. In case you haven’t already figured it out, one more thing that’s safe to say about this decidedly unsafe band is that they’re worth seeing more than once. At the end of the year, along with the best albums and best songs lists, there’s also a list of the best concerts in New York and at least one of these gigs will be on it – the May show in particular was pretty amazing.

This Saturday, January 24: A Great Night for Noir

This Saturday night, Jan 24 is a good one for noir music. At 7 PM LJ Murphy and his band the Accomplices are slumming at Sidewalk, bringing the nattily dressed, charismatic songwriter’s menacing urban narratives to life over careening, darkly bluesy rock. Then at 10 Big Lazy, New York’s preeminent noir instrumentalists for the past couple of decades, are headlining at Barbes. What’s the likelihood of being able to see two band this good on the same evening? Nights like this are why we live in New York. This blog’s covering both shows. No need to sign up or meet up or anything, just come along for the ride.

Big Lazy’s latest album, Don’t Cross Myrtle (a cautionary deep-Brooklyn reference) was ranked best album of 2014 here: it’s an absolute masterpiece of noir. Bandleader/guitarist Stephen Ulrich hit a high point with his soundtrack to the documentary film Art & Craft last year, then kept going with this one. At the album release show late in the year at the Manderley Bar in the Sleep No More building in Chelsea, the band was a little low in the mix, something that won’t be a problem at Barbes. But they didn’t let it phase them, turning in a performance that matched the haunted mood they created in the studio. Bassist Andrew Hall (who also happens to be first chair bass in the Greenwich Village Orchestra) opened the stygian waltz Swampesque with pitchblende bowing before Ulrich entered with a wash of shivery, ultraviolet reverb. Deep in its black heart, the song’s a blues, a twisted, monstrous one.

Drummer Yuval Lion kicked off the frantic Just Plain Scared, a big crowd-pleaser from right around the turn of the century, with a suspensefully tense gallop until Ulrich came in with his lingering, ominous phrasing, part downtown jazz skronk, part Bernard Herrmann. Then Hall took a verse and took it even further into the depths before Ulrich wrenched the band onto the express track for a harrowing ride to the end of the line. In much the same vein as Marc Ribot‘s noir soundtrack pieces, the band built Black Sheep out of a seemingly innocuous phrase of the utmost simplicity, then took it on a stroll through uneasily pastoral, Bill Frisell-ish territory.

They staggered through the tricky tempos of Avenue X, a shadowy, chromatically menacing original that Ulrich took his time with, finally reaching for the rafters with some hacksaw tremolo-picking. He went off on a more digressive, rather sardonic tangent on the loping highway theme The Low Way, then led the band through the mysterious improvabilly of Night Must Fall with his clusterbombing, reverb-drenched attack.

Charlie Giordano of Bruce Springsteen’s band guested on accordion on a plaintively swirling take of Unswerving, a slowly swaying lament. Baritone saxophonist Peter Hess – of Slavic Soul Party, and a frequent Big Lazy collaborator – joined them on the sepulchrally dubby Bring Me the Head of Lee Marvin. Then the band’s original drummer Willie Martinez took a turn on creepy congas on the new album’s opening track, Minor Problem. They closed with arguably the most menacing, slowly stalking number of the night, Skinless Boneless, followed by the Link Wray-tinged Human Sacrifice. It’ll be interesting to see who they might pull out of the woodwork for a guest appearance at the Barbes show – last time here it was Mamie Minch, putting a twisted spin on Patsy Cline.

The 100 Best Songs of 2014

If you count youtube clips, how many songs were “released” in 2014? Five million? Ten million? Considering the vast amount of material that’s out there, you can’t consider this page to be gospel any more than you can any other blog’s best-of-2014 list.

But it is a seriously good playlist. At first it seemed like a good idea to simply pull all of these songs into a Spotify playlist and call it a night, but that didn’t work since a lot – perhaps the majority – of the artists here aren’t on Spotify. But you can follow the links on this page and hear every song except for one mystery track which is one of the best of them all. Bookmark this page and enjoy!

As was the case last year with Matthew Grimm’s West Allis, one song stood apart from the pack this year as far as sheer visceral impact is concerned and that’s The Great Escape by artsy New York Americana band the Sometime Boys. Kurt Leege’s guitar provides an elegant, elegaic intro for frontwoman/guitarist Sarah Mucho’s carefully modulated, wounded, brittle vocals, which rise to a full gospel wail as the song hits a peak. It’s a bitter reflection on the lure of victory and the harsh reality of defeat, from the perspective of someone gazing into the night from a window in lower Manhattan. If you’ve ever faded away into yourself, scowling out at the glimmer in the distance and wishing you were there and not slaving away at some stupid dayjob – or contemplating suicide – this could be your theme song. It’s from the band’s album Riverbed, streaming here.

As with this year’s Best Albums of 2014 and Best NYC Concerts of 2014 pages, there’s no ranking here other than the #1 song of the year. For the sake of fairness, songs are listed in rough chronological order by the date they first got some attention at this blog, irrespective of release date. Which means that the last songs on the list aren’t the ass end of the list: they just made their first appearance here in December. To be clear: Karla Moheno’s mysterious Time Well Spent, which leads the rest of the pack here, is a lot different than Jennifer Niceley’s uneasily balmy Land I Love, the last song here. But they’re both worth a spin. Here we go!

Karla Moheno – Time Well Spent
A slinky, cruel noir blues dirge about deceit and revenge. Moheno’s genius is that her narratives are allusive; you have to brave the shadows to figure out what’s going on and who’s being killed. If the Sometime Boys hadn’t put out an album this year, this song, from her album Gone to Town, would occupy the top spot. Listen here.

Jessie Kilguss – Red Moon
The folk noir bandleader’s brooding, Spanish Civil War-inspired tableau could also be a present-day account of freedom fighters on the run from just about any gestapo – the NSA, Mossad or ISIS. It’s all the more powerful for Kilguss’ portrayal of the political as personal. From the album Devastate Me. Spotify link

Ward White – Bikini
This swaying, snarling art-rock narrative isn’t about beachwear: it’s a cruelly sardonic narrative set on a now-uninhabitable South Pacific atoll right after an atom bomb was set off there, gently ominous guitar multitracks subtly going awry over keyboardist Joe McGinty’s pillowy mellotron. From the album Ward White Is the Matador. Listen here

Marianne Dissard – Am Lezten
A portrait of total emotional depletion so vividly detailed it’s scary. And you don’t need to speak French to understand it – although that makes it all the more poignant. From her gorgeously orchestrated art-rock album The Cat. Not Me. Listen here

The Wytches – Gravedweller
Don’t let this song’s apparent references to zombies – which could simply be metaphorical – scare you away. Drenched in toxic reverb, this is a morbid, Middle Eastern-tinged horror surf number, and it’s genuinely evil. From the album Annabel Dream Reader. Listen here, free download

Willie Watson – Rock Salt & Nails
One of the year’s biggest buzz songs. Everybody covered this morose old murder ballad from the 1800s, nobody more starkly or hauntingly than the former Old Crow Medicine Show guitarist. It’s a version worthy of Hank Williams, no joke. From the album Folk Singer Vol. 1. Listen here

Ember Schrag – William for the Witches
At her Trans-Pecos show in October, the gothic Americana bandleader dedicated her careening Macbeth-inspired anthem to “all the Republicans back home,” ramping up the menace several notches with her litany of spells as guitarist Bob Bannister veered from monster surf, to ominous jangle, to a little skronk,  captured here on this video.

LJ Murphy – Fearful Town
At the Parkside back in May, noir rocker Murphy’s show was a going-away party of sorts for pianist Patrick McLellan, who took out his angst on the piano keys, gently and elegantly exchanging creepy, lingering noir tonalities with guitarist Tommy Hoscheid as Murphy drew a morosely surreal portrait of a DiBloomberg era East Village of tourist traps and the grotesqueries who congregate there. This youtube clip is the studio version.

Benmont Tench – You Should Be So Lucky
Tom Petty’s organist released his debut album this year and this is the title track, as viciously brilliant a kiss-off anthem as anyone’s ever written, set to tersely murderous, bluesy Laurel Canyon psychedelia. Watch the video 

Big Lazy – Human Sacrifice
The cult favorite NYC noir soundtrack trio makes horror surf out of a flamenco theme, with its savage clusters and sudden dips and swells, and allusions to a famous Duke Ellington tune (via the Ventures). From the album Don’t Cross Myrtle, rated #1 for 2014. Listen here

Gord Downie & the Sadies – Budget Shoes
An ominously reverb-drenched southwestern gothic tale fueled by Mike Belitsky’s artfully tumbling, Keith Moon drums. Singer and longtime Tragically Hip frontman Downie traces the steps of a couple of desperados “walking through the valley of ghosts,” one with his eyes on the other’s superior footgear. From their album Gord Downie, the Sadies & the Conquering Sun. Listen here

Ernest Troost – Old Screen Door
A wailing, electrifying murder ballad. Troost succeeds with this one since the only images he lets you see are incidental to what was obviously a grisly crime, “lightning bugs floating through a haze of gasoline” and so forth. A teens update to the Walkabouts’ vengeful anthem Firetrap, from the album O Love. Listen here

Changing Modes – Ride
The band keeps the menacing chromatics going over a brisk new wave pulse, frontwoman/keyboardist Wendy Griffiths’ venomous lyric driven to a crescendo by a snarling Yuzuru Sadashige guitar solo. From the New York art-rockers’ album The Paradox of Traveling Light. Listen here

HUMANWINE – Our Devolution Is Televised
Tthe closest thing to the Dead Kennedys that we have these days: macabre chromatic Romany punk rock set in an Orwellian nightmare that very closely resembles today’s world. The recurrent mantra is “Can’t you feel the lockdown?” From the ep Mass Exodus. Listen here, free download

The Brooklyn What – Too Much Worry
Almost nine minutes of white-knuckle intensity, relentless angst and psychedelic guitar fury. A serpentine homage to early Joy Division, there’s an interlude where it evokes a tighter take on that band doing the Velvets’ Sister Ray, then a long, volcanic guitar duel worthy of the Dream Syndicate. From the year’s best short album, Minor Problems. Listen here

Briana Layon & the Boys – Cut My Man
The dark metal/powerpop rockers open the song with an icy, watery guitar lead over a sketchy, muted riff, frontwoman Layon joining in the ominous ambience and then rising toward murderous rage, airing out her wounded low range and in the process channeling the Sometime Boys‘ Sarah Mucho. They take it out as a waltzing danse macabre. From their album Touch & Go. Listen here

Cheetah Chrome – Stare into the Night
It’s the closest thing to the Dead Boys (right around the time of their mid-80s comeback) on that band’s iconic lead guitarist’s new album, Solo, most of its searing tracks recorded almost twenty years ago and seeing the light just now. It’s about time. Spotify link

The Annie Ford Band – Buick 1966
A cinematic, noir mini-epic that shifts from a creepy bolero to a waltz to scampering bluegrass and then back, fueled by Tim Sargent’s knee-buckling, Marc Ribot-like reverb guitar lines. From Ford’s debut album. Listen here

Golem – Vodka Is Poison
Over a rampaging circus punk stomp, bandleaders Annette Ezekiel Kogan and Aaron Diskin trade verses about why it either “Makes you round, makes you soft, makes it hard to get aloft,” or “Makes you happy, makes you free, makes you wish that you were me!” From the album Tanz. Spotify link 

The Fleshtones – Hipster Heaven
A hellish, Chuck Berry-flavored chronicle of the band’s old New York neighborhoods being swallowed by hordes of narcissistic gentrifiers fresh out of college but acting like kindergarteners. From their album Wheel of Talent. Watch the video

Guess & Check – Some DJs
An aptly downcast janglepop tale that will resonate with anybody who’s walked into a party all psyched and then realizes in a split second that it’s really going to suck. In other words, that it’s full of trendoids who are all a-twitter since some DJ just plugged his phone into the PA system! From their album Entanglement. Listen here

Orphan Jane – Lost Mind
A menacingly theatrical circus rock tune that builds from a sarcastically whiny, vaudevillian verse to an explosive choir of voices on the chorus. From their album A Poke in the Eye. Listen here

Mitra Sumara – mystery song
Mitra Sumara are one of New York’s most fascinating bands. Singer Yvette Perez’s group plays obscure psychedelic rock and funk covers from Iran in the 1960s and 70s. This particular number was the highlight of this year’s annual Alwan-a-Thon, a celebration of sounds from across the Middle East held at downtown music mecca Alwan for the Arts. But nobody seems to know what the song is called. It sounds like Procol Harum but more upbeat, with some seriously evil funeral organ. If anybody knows the title, please pass it on! It was the third song on the setlist that night.

The Reigning Monarchs – Thuggery
Sort of a Peter Gunne Theme for the teens, an intense, explosive monster surf instrumental with a slashing, off-the-rails guitar solo midway through. From the album Black Sweater Massacre. Listen here

Curtis Eller – The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon
A riverbed grave, a Cadillac stalled out on the tracks and Henry Kissinger shaking it all night long serve as the backdrop for this snarling parable of post-9/11 multinational fascism. From the historically-inspired Americana cult favorite banjo player’s album How to Make It in Hollywood. Listen here

The Jitterbug Vipers – Stuff It
A co-write with Elizabeth McQueen from Asleep at the Wheel, this sassy oldtimey swing tune by the Texas stoner swing band has the sardonic wit of a classic, dismissive Mae West insult song. From the album Phoebe’s Dream. Listen here

Della Mae – Heaven’s Gate
A bitter, ghostly newgrass tale that begins with the fiddle mimicking the ominous low resonance of a steel guitar, then eventually goes doublespeed. Is this about a suicide, a murder, or both? Either way, it’s a great story. From the album This World Oft Can Be. Watch the video (WARNING – you have to mute the audio ad before the whole album streams)

Bad Buka – Through the Night
A big, blazing, full-on orchestrated minor-key Romany art-rock epic, the title track from this searing, theatrical Slavic art-punk band’s new album. Listen here

The Devil Makes Three – Hand Back Down
The wild punkgrass crew take an unexpected detour into surrealist stoner swamp rock with a cynical antiwar edge, from their album I’m a Stranger Here. This video is a live take.

Marissa Nadler – Firecrackers
A menacingly opiated, reverb-drenched, mostly acoustic Nashville gothic ballad, painting a booze-fueled Fourth of July scenario that does not end well. From the folk noir icon’s album July. Listen here

Aram Bajakian – Rent Party
This instrumental by the former Lou Reed lead guitar genius kicks off with a bouncy funk riff into a minor-key tune that’s part newschool Romany rock, surf music and Otis Rush blues – then the band hits a long, surreal, muddy interlude reminiscent of 80s noiserock legends Live Skull as Shahzad Ismaily’s bass growls to the surface. From the album There Were Flowers Also in Hell. Listen here

The Delta Saints – Crazy
The centerpiece of the Americana jamband’s Drink It Slow ep is a nine-minute epic that works a slow, slinky noir blues groove with all kinds of up-and-down dynamics, a precise, angst-fueled guitar solo and every keyboard texture in this band’s arsenal. Listen here

Rosanne Cash – World of Strange Design
An harrowing Appalachian gothic tale that could be about a returning soldier’s family falling apart, or maybe just metaphorical, about a guy who “Set off the minefield like you were rounding first.” From the album The River & the Thread. Watch the video

Laura Cantrell – Washday Blues
This era’s most poignant, compelling voice in classic country music at her aphoristic best, cleaning up a lifetime’s worth of disappointed metaphors against a backdrop of steel guitar and mandolin. From the new album No Way There from Here. Spotify link

The New Mendicants – High on the Skyline
An enigmatically alienated folk-rock anthem that’s equal parts Strawbs Britfolk and lushly clangy, twanging Byrds from this psychedelic pop supergroup. “I’ll show you how deadly close faraway can be,” Teenage Fanclub frontman Norman Blake intones in his stately delivery. From their album Into the Lime. This live acoustic take isn’t the album version but it’s still really good.

Ihtimanska – Hicaz Hümayun Saz Semaisi
The most gripping and most distinctively Middle Eastern of all the tracks on the Montreal Turkish traditional music duo’s debut album. Listen here

Siach HaSadeh – Kuni Roni/Maggid’s Niggun
A darkly dancing North African-tinged diptych: the oud’s ironically triumphant run down into the abyss midway through might be the high point of the improvisational klezmer band’s album Song of the Grasses. Listen here

Son of Skooshny – Untold History.
This intense, richly arranged, artsy janglerock anthem traces an uneasy early atomic age childhood with an offhanded savagery: with Steve Refling’s keening slide guitar, it’s the hardest-rocking and most overtly angry song on the new album Mid Century Modern. Listen here

New Electric Ride – Marquis de Sade
This trippy vintage 60s psych tune casts the old philosopher as a stoner, from a funky Cream intro, through a little early Santana and then a galloping proto-metal interlude fueled by Craig Oxberry’s artful drums before some very funny vocals kick in. From the album Balloon Age. Listen here

Tammy Faye Starlite – Sister Morphine
A showstopper by the irrepressible chanteuse who’s carved herself out a niche for sardonic but spot-on reinventions of songs by brilliant and difficult people: Nico, Iggy, and others. She slayed with this one live at her Marianne Faithfull tribute/parody at Lincoln Center back in March. Watch the video

Isle of Klezbos – Noiresque
Shoko Nagai dazzles with her glimmering, darkly neoromantic and blues-tinged piano on this bracing latin- and Middle Eastern-tinted theme, shifting seamlessly between waltz time and a swing jazz groove. From the album Live from Brooklyn. Listen here

Jenifer Jackson – All Around
This flinty anthemic backbeat rock tune builds a mood of quiet apprehension via a wintry seaside tableau – it wouldn’t be out of place in the Steve Wynn catalog. From the stunningly eclectic Austin songwriter’s album Texas Sunrise. Listen here 

The Baseball Project – 13
Arguably the best song on the new album, 3rd – frontman Steve Wynn takes unsparing aim at at the A-Roid scandal over a corrosively sarcastic spaghetti western backdrop. Watch the video

John Zorn’s Abraxas – Metapsychomagia
Guitarists Aram Bajakian and Eyal Maoz and bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz juxtapose puckish wit with flickering menace, building from an uneasy bolero groove to a staggered Middle Eastern monster surf stomp, both guitarists ranging from lingering and twangy to frenetic and crazed, epic art-rock infused with swirling noise. Title track from the new album. Watch the video

Martin Bisi – Invite to Heaven Hell
One of the most deliciously tuneful things the dark art-rocker has ever done, building a stygian spacerock ambience, like the Chuch or the Byrds at their most psychedelic, with hints of peak-era Sonic Youth peeking through the pulsing guitars, with disembodied vocals, soaring trumpet and a dead-girl chorus in the background. From the album Ex Nihilo. Listen here

Ichka – Glaziers Hora
This Alicia Svigals tune is a showcase for soaring solos from everyone in this fiery klezmer band, over a misterioso staccato rhythm. From their album Podorozh. Listen here

Jaro Milko & the Cubalkanics – Herido
A mix of Del Shannon noir with a creepy bolero: it’s arguably the strongest track on the psychedelic cumbia band’s creepily slinky new album Cigarros Explosivos. Listen here 

Holly Golightly & the Brokeoffs – For All that Ails You
With its mournful train-whistle guitar and stalking, noir blues sway, it’s uncommonly dark for even this creepy gutter blues/noir Americana band. From the album It’s Her Fault. Watch the video

The Mystic Braves – There’s a Pain
A briskly scampering noir blues recast as period-perfect 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelia, from the album Desert Island. Listen here

Barbez – Mizmor Leasaf
Italian poet Alfonso Gatto’s bitter wartime elegy, Anniversary, recast as an eerily reverberating, dirgelike noir soundtrack piece from the album Bella Ciao, which explores haunting Italian Jewish themes. Watch the video

Spottiswoode – Butterfly
With its anxiously fluttery, tremoloing intro, swooping clarinet and elegant electric harpsichord, it’s a characteristically moody, richly orchestrated chamber pop anthem. From the album English Dream. Listen here

Action Beat & G.W. Sok – Sentence Machine
A noisier take on what Joy Division did with Atrocity Exhibition, seemingly a Kafkaesque account of a tortuous execution machine, set to a choir of sawing, stabbing, frantically pinwheeling guitars. From the ex-Ex frontman and British noiserock band’s collaborative album A Remarkable Machine. Spotify link

Karikatura – Eyes Wide
A bracing latin reggae tune and the title track to the band’s new album, frontman Ryan Acquaotta chronicling what happens when the real estate mob decides to take over a sketchy part of town: “With the luxury developments they’re packing in, propaganda that the neighborhood is back again, watch whoever is moving in after, blowing their cover.” And then the displacement of the people who call it home begins. Listen here

The Skull Practitioners – Another Sicko
An out-of-focus vocal from guest Tom Derwent, long drones, allusions to funk, twisted bent-note mental asylum screams from Steve Wynn lead player and frontman Jason Victor going on for what seems minutes and an ending that the band finally allows to completely disintegrate. From the New York noiserockers’ ep ST1 – also available on cassette. Listen here

Zvuloon Dub System – Alemitu
An ominously organ-fueled minor-key instrumental that blends otherworldly Ethiopiques into a moody Israeli roots reggae groove. From their album Anbesa Dub. Listen here

The Last Internationale – We Will Reign
The fearless, politically-fueled Bronx rockers slayed with this snarling, defiant, Patti Smith-style anthem at the Mercury back in June, the title track from their new album. Watch the video

Hannah Thiem – Phavet
If you listen very closely, you’ll realize that the cinematic, intense violinist/composer’s slinky electroacoustic mood piece is a one-chord jam, as it shifts from an echoing, dancing, hypnotically bracing theme to a thicket of overdubs where Thiem becomes a one-woman string sextet.. From the ep Brym. Listen here

Amanda Thorpe – Willow in the Wind
With its haunting, subdued anguish, the intense Britfolk/art-rock chanteuse’s noir tropicalia version of Tin Pan Alley wordsmith Yip Harburg’s song surpasses any other take on it, fueled by drummer Robert di Pietro’s ominous tom-toms and misterioso cymbal work. From the album Bewitching Me. Spotify link 

Nick Waterhouse – Sleeping Pills
With echoey Rod Argent electric piano and baritone saxophonist Paula Henderson’s smoky lines, this was the most lurid song of the night at the LA psychedelic soul music maven’s show in Greenpoint back in June. From the album Holly. Watch the video

Puss N Boots – GTO
The darkest and arguably best song on the album No Fools, No Fun, a detour toward Eilen Jewell-tinged ghoulabilly by the the Americana super-trio of Norah Jones, guitarist/singer Sasha Dobson and bassist Catherine Popper. Watch the video

People – Supersensible Hydrofracked Dystopia
Fiery jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson, irrepressible drummer Kevin Shea (of NYC’s funnest jazz group, Mostly Other People Do the Killing) and bassist Kyle Forester (from Crystal Stilts) toss off this barely minute-long but cruelly spot-on punk jazz miniature from the album 3xaWoman. Watch the video

Coppins – Great Day for Living
A sarcastic dystopic pre-apocalyptic narrative set to a reggae-tinged groove from the eclectic, funky, rootsy Toronto band known for their bagpipe funk. From the album The Prince That Nobody Knows. Listen here 

Marah – The Old Riverman’s Regret
A sad, vividly resigned oldtimey folk waltz, looking back nostalgically on 19th century commercial river rafting. From the album Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, a mightily successful detour into Americana by the highway rock band. Listen here

Carsie Blanton – Don’t Come Too Soon
Sly, innuendo-fueled oldtime hokum blues from the torchy New Orleans chanteuse. Listen here, free download

Millsted – Televangelist
Over an uneasy, hammering pulse, the New York punk/metal band work murderously direct East Bay Ray-style horror-surf riffage that spirals out in acidic sheets of reverb, hits a misterioso interlude and then rises again. From the album Harlem. Listen here

The Butcher Knives – Could Be the End
The New York Romany/latin rockers’ slinky shuffle kicks off by nicking the intro from Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives and morphs into steady brisk spaghetti western rock, with a cool, offcenter Ethan Cohen banjo solo out. From their album Misery. Listen here 

The Bakersfield Breakers – Longing
A sad, spiky mix of honkytonk, incisive blues and Britfolk licks and moody ranchera rock via guitarist Keith Yaun’s virtuoso multitracks. From the album In the Studio with the Bakersfield Breakers. Listen here

The Jones Family Singers – Bones in the Valley
A funky update on an ancient, eerie spiritual livened with a combination of graveyard imagery and a message that’s ultimately hopeful, a launching pad for some impassioned call-and response. From the Houston gospel-soul band’s album The Spirit Speaks. Listen here

The Old Crow Medicine Show – Dearly Departed Friend
As much as the bluegrass road warriors are best known for explosive party music, this is a somber graveside requiem for an Iraq War casualty, with a creepy, spot-on redneck surrealism. From their album Remedy. Listen here

Andrew Bird – So Much Wine Merry Christmas
The funniest of the Handsome Family covers on Bird’s tribute to the iconic Americana surrealist duo, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of. One brilliantly twisted, literate Americana songwriter deserves another. Listen here

The Grisly Hand – Western Avenue
A ringer here, the title track from the Kansas City band’s 2012 debut, sounding like the Jayhawks circa Sound of Lies backing Neko Case. Yeah, that good. Their new album Country Singles is pretty damn good too. Listen here

Edward Rogers – What Happened to the News
Fueled by Byrdsy twelve-string guitar, it’s a snide swipe at how the media-industrial complex distracts us from what’s really going on. Fron the Britrock maven’s Kevin Ayers-inspired new album Kaye. Watch the video

Bombay Rickey – Pilgrim
Frontwoman Kamala Sankaram’s wickedly precise, loopy accordion winds through a misterioso, lingering, surfy stroll with ominous bass and alto sax solos, the latter building to a spine-tingling coda. From the psychedelic Bollywood-inspired band’s album Cinefonia, the year’s best debut release. Listen here

Sharon Jones – Retreat
The brooding, practically exhausted version that this era’s definitive soul-funk singer delivered out back of the World Financial Center back in June was considerably more ominous and menacing than the version on the record. From the album Give The People What They Want. Listen here

The Immigrant Union – Anyway
The epic title track from the lush Australian psych-pop janglerockers’ latest album has plaintive harmonies and a slow psych-pop sway much in the same vein as the Allah-Las. Listen here

Debby Schwartz – Hills of Violent Green
A lushly luscious folk noir anthem and a showcase for some literally breathtaking, swooping upper-register vocals by the former Aquanettas frontwoman (and current Ember Schrag bassist). Fron the Satan You Brought Me Down ep. Listen here 

Wormburner – Drinks At the Plaza Hotel
Fiery Stiff Little Fingers style punk-pop, a couple of smalltime scam artists trading faux-sophisticated banter and having a great time seeing how much they can get over on the snobs. From the album Pleasant Living in Planned Communities. Listen here

Banda Magda – Trata
A gorgeously swaying Middle Eastern-tinged Greek party tune with rippling hammered dulcimer, cheery brass and animated guy/girl vocals that builds to a towerine, majestic peak. Frmo the pan-global New York art-rock/jazz/Middle Eastern band’s album Yerakina. Listen here

Alsarah & the Nubatones – Bilad Aldahb
A bristling, broodingly expansive oud solo by the late, great Haig Magnoukian leads into a dusky lament lowlit by Rami El Asser’s stately frame drum work. From the New York Nubian funk revivalists/reinventors’ album Silt. Listen here

Mary Lee Kortes – Big Things
An irrepressibly jaunty hi-de-ho swing tune: the intense, soaring Americana tunesmith/singer slayed with this at the Rockwood a couple of months ago. From the album Songs from the Beulah Rowley Songbook ep – and possibly appearing on her forthcoming, long-awaited Songs of Beulah Rowley album, a thematic collection centered around a tragic, talented 1930s/40s cult favorite songwriter. Listen here

Mark Rogers & Mary Byrne – Green Gold Violet
A starkly vivid, hypnotic, wounded late-afternoon folk noir tableau, Rogers’ luminous dobro paired against Byrne’s tensely fingerpicked stroll. From the album I Line My Days Along Your Weight. Listen here

Matt Ulery – The Farm
The lively flair of this harmony-driven, climactic chamber pop number understates its corrosive portrayal of rural hell. From the eclectic, cinematic bassist/composer’s album In the Ivory. Listen here

The Larch – Mr. Winters
The jangliest track on the ferociously lyrical New York psychedelic new wave rockers’ new album In Transit is a metaphorical, nonchalantly ominous sort of a mashup of Squeeze and powerpop legends Skooshny. Listen here

Lachan Bryan & the Wildes – The CEO Must Die
A brutally insightful look at the psychology of going postal from the Australian Americana songwriter/bandleader’s purist, impeccably crafted album Black Coffee. Listen here

The OBNIIIs – No Time for the Blues
The closest thing to Radio Birdman that we have right now, lead guitarist Tom Triplett ripping through volleys of chromatic. Surprisingly, the studio version on the Third Time to Harm album is even more volcanic t han the live version on their Live in San Francisco album. Listen here

Jay Brown – Fox News (Jesus Save Me).
Snidely hilarious faux gospel from the Americana songwriter. Anybody who watches that channel should be tied to a chair and forced to listen to this on loop. LMFAO. From the album Beginner Mind. Listen here

Lorraine Leckie – The Everywhere Man
This song about a party-hopping serial killer originally appeared on the album Rudely Interrupted, her elegant chamber pop collaboration with social critic Anthony Haden Guest. But the simmering, noir version on her latest album Rebel Devil Rebel takes the energy up several notches. Listen here 

Mesiko – Mockingbird
A distantly disquieting, pastorally-tinged art-rock anthem with early 70s Pink Floyd resonance: “Put away the mockingbird inside your lungs, keep your cellular calls to a minimum,” drummer Ray Rizzo sings as the band rises to a squall. From the album Solar Door. Listen here

Kelley Swindall – The Murder Song
A talking blues destined to become a Halloween classic. The dark Americana songstress credits her acting coach for helping her get in touch with her dark side on this one – yikes! From her album Pronounced [KEL-lee SWIN-dul] or something like that. Listen here

O’Death – Isavelle
The most ornate, and arguably most menacing track on the individualistic, creepy circus rock/Americana/noir cabaret band’s new album Out Of Hands We Go, a murder ballad fueled by Bob Pycior’s icepick violin. Listen here

Dina Regine – Broken
A brooding yet brisk latin-tinged groove with Steve Cropper-esque guitar: “You beat the wall for your past oppressor – sometimes spirits treat you real kind but most of the time they mess with your mind,” Regine sings with a gentle unease. From the New York soul-rock cult figure’s long-awaited album Right On, Alright. Listen here

Wounded Buffalo Theory – You Have Left Me
A gorgeously angst-fueled art-rock anthem that builds to a thicket of chiming guitars; axeman Kurt Leege takes a rare turn on lead vocals and knocks it out of the park. From the New York art-rockers’ album A Painting of Plans. Listen here, free download

Sam Llanas – To Where You Go From
The elegant, regret-laden final cut from the soulful BoDeans frontman’s new solo album The Whole Night Thru, a vivid, broodingly nocturnal highway theme. Watch the video (be careful – you may have to mute an ad at the beginning since this is a full album stream)

Jessi Robertson – You’re Gonna Burn
Deep inside this volcanic noir soul anthem, it’s a bitter, menacing blues, resonant, sustained lead guitar lines fueling its big upward trajectory as the New York noir Americana singer airs out her powerful voice. From the album I Came From the War. Listen here

Opal Onyx – Arrows Wing
The atmospheric New York art-rockers’ anthem begins as folk noir before rippling keys and atmospheric washes of cello take it even further into the shadows. From the album Delta Sands. Listen here 

Metropolitan Klezmer – Baltic Blue
The shapeshifting klezmer/latin/psychedelic cumbia group cleverly move between grooves as alto saxophonist Debra Kreisberg’s slow, haunting theme heats up, mashing up the blues and Hava Nagila with soulful solos from throughout the band. From the live album Mazel Means Good Luck. Listen here

The Yiddish Art Trio – Guilt
Clarinet powerhouse Michael Winograd wrote this evocative, enveloping theme that pairs his wary, airy lines with dark, full-throttle washes from Patrick Farrell’s accordion, evoking the majesty of a classical organ prelude. From the group’s debut album. Listen here

Mark Sinnis – Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me
Originally released by the dark country crooner’s original band, art-rockers Ninth House, this reinvents this haunting, crescendoing anthem as low-key but no less intense Americana. From the album album It’s Been a Long Cold Hard Lonely Winter. Here’s a live version

Robin Aigner – Greener
This pensive oldtimey number’s Gatsby-era setting is the exact opposite of what it seems to be, Rima Fand’s violin and Ray Sapirstein’s trumpet flying over a tensely flurrying, flamenco-tinged beat. From the brilliantly lyrical, deviously funny New York tunesmith/chanteuse’s album Con Tender. Listen here, free download

Jennifer Niceley – Land I Love
Swooshes and gentle booms from the drums and gorgeously lingering pedal steel color the song’s Lynchian Julee Cruise atmospherics, the Tennessee songstress brooding over her pastoral imagery and how that beauty “is never coming back.” From the album Birdlight. Listen here

If you missed the explanation on the Best Albums page, all the classical and most of the jazz is more likely to be found at this blog’s older sister blog Lucid Culture.