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Savagery and Transcendence From 80s Icons the Dream Syndicate in Hoboken

There was a point during the Dream Syndicate’s set at the Hoboken Arts and Music Festival last night when bandleader Steve Wynn took a split-second pause to adjust a pedal during a menacing, lingering Telecaster solo. Without missing a beat, lead guitarist Jason Victor stepped in with some steady, light-fingered jangle and clang. What could have been a do-over for a lot of jambands turned into one of the evening’s most sublimely unanticipated moments.

Later, during an epic take of How Did I Find Myself Here – the title track of the band’s new album  Wynn pushed Victor about as far as a bandmate could without crossing the line into sadism. Victor didn’t flinch, building a razorwire thicket of sound with his tremolo-picking over the relentless, spring-loaded pulse of bassist Mark Walton and drummer Dennis Duck. It was the most intense of many similar interludes throughout the show: he and Wynn probably dueled out more machete chords during that song than you’d get in an entire Dick Dale concert. After the show, more than one person in the crowd called it transcendent.

That a band as iconic as the Dream Syndicate would sound even better now than back in the summer of 1986 at Maxwell’s, where they careened through a roughly 90-minute set weighted heavily with material from their Out of the Grey album, defies logic. One explanation is the presence of Victor, Wynn’s longtime sparring partner from his Miracle 3 band. Another is that this rhythm section are a lot slinkier now than they were thirty years ago. When Duck took a tongue-in-cheek quasi conga line break during a swingingly reinvented take of Armed With an Empty Gun, the effect dovetailed perfectly with Wynn’s sardonic lyric. Likewise, Walton’s looping groove in How Did I Find Myself Here – which is the band’s Can’t You Hear Me Knocking – was the icing on Wynn’s vast black-velvet tableau.

They opened with Halloween, the macabre, pulsing closing track on the band’s 1981 debut album. Wynn took the first solo, shifting effortlessly between icepick harmonics and ominous washes of reverb. For the most part, they kept the solos and dueling tantalizingly brief, from a pounding, Stoogoid take of Out of My Head to the hypnotically circling encore, Glide.

The early favorite Definitely Clean was slightly less frenetically paced than usual but no less adrenalizing. Walton teased the crowd with the famous bass intro to That’s What  You Always Say, which when they got to it was more of a steady, satisfying upward climb than the time bomb of the album version.

Master of suspense that he is, Wynn found a new way to ramp up the intrigue in the frantically pounding would-be suicide jumper narrative The Days of Wine and Roses: he stopped it cold, midway through. And then surveyed the crowd, motionless with the rest of the band. A few laughs died away – how much more pregnant was this pause going to get? Triplets could have popped out in the time it took before Wynn leapt back in with a flash, the band finally taking it out in a blast of chord-chopping.

Another highlight was a stunningly restrained take of Filter Me Through You, from the new album, underscoring its bittersweetly elegaic imagery. Even in this band’s most exhilarating moments, the darkness never disappears: this song is one of Wynn’s most soulful. I won’t be here forever, he’s telling us: this is the beauty I’ve found here, and it’s yours if you want it.

Hot on the heels of this volcanic show, Wynn is characteristically flipping the script. His next gig is a solo acoustic house concert in Jersey City this Saturday, May 19, email for info.

As far as the rest of the festival was concerned, it was sad to miss the early afternoon set by incendiary Middle Eastern-inspired horror surf band Beninghove’s Hangmen. But it was fun to catch Richard Lloyd in “on” mode, making his way through a catchy mix of recent numbers and Television classics. Hometown guitar hero James Mastro – who seems to make it onto every single good bill here at the festival – held down the dirty rhythm while Lloyd spun out the hooks.

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The 50 Best Albums of 2017

Scroll down for links to stream each of the albums here…except for the very newest one, which happens to be #1.

The best and most relevant album of 2017 was Fukushima, by the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York. This haunting, epic five-part suite is not a narrative of the grim events of March 11, 2011, but rather the Tokyo-born pianist/bandleader’s reflection on personal terror and horror in the wake of the worst nuclear disaster in world history.

Fujii’s stock in trade is not political music. Her vast catalog – over eighty albums as a leader or co-leader since the 90s – encompasses everything from epic improvisational soundscapes, to dark, acerbic piano compositions, rainy-day Japanese-flavored jazz-folk and collaborations with a global cast of artists. This may be her greatest achievement to date, as lush and sweeping as it is anthemically tuneful. And as a response to greed-fueled attempts to cover up the deadly environmental damage caused by the meltdowns, it’s as savage as Shostakovich’s greatest symphonies or Charles Mingus’ political broadsides.

It’s not streaming anywhere at present (end of December 2017), but it’s just out and available from Fujii’s Libra Records. Watch this space for a link! 

Vast research and triage went into the rest of this list. If you count multitasking as listening, an extremely ambitious listener can digest maybe three new albums a day. That’s about 1200 albums a year. An extremely ambitious music blogger can sample several thousand and then attempt to make sense of the very best. As in previous years, these albums are listed in rough chronological order considering when they were received here, rather than in any kind of hierarchical ranking. Which would be absurd, anyway – if an album’s one of the year’s fifty best, it’s got to be pretty damn good.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade – Town & Country
Protest jazz, icy Messiaenic miniatures and luminous nocturnes from the noir piano icon and his brilliant longtime singer collaborator. Listen at Spotify 

Ward White – As Consolation
The best rock record of 2017 is a surreal, twistedly psychedelic, ferociously literary masterpiece, from the guy who also put out the album ranked #1 here in 2013. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Dream Syndicate – How Did I Find Myself Here
Iconic noir songwriter Steve Wynn regrouped his legendary, influential 80s band, who picked up like they never left off with a mix of psychedelia, dreampop and volcanic jams. Listen at youtube

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Not Two
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s latest large-ensemble recording, blending elements of Middle Eastern, Indian music and jazz is an album for our time: turbulent, restless and packed with poignant solos from a global lineup. Listen at New Amsterdam Records 

Son of Skooshny – Matchless Gifts
Wickedly lyrical songwriter Mark Breyer, longtime leader of powerpop cult favorites Skooshny, carries on with this richly jangly magnum opus, which collects his best songs of the last ten years or so. Listen at Bandcamp 

Phil Ochs  – Live in Montreal 10/22/66
What’s the iconic 1960s political firebrand doing on a list devoted to new music? This is new – a never-before-released set of many of his most shattering songs. It’s probably the definitive solo acoustic Ochs album. Listen at Spotify 

Charming Disaster – Cautionary Tales
The New York noir supergroup – led by Jeff Morris of lavish, dark, latin-flavored rockers Kotorino and Ellia Bisker of parlor pop existentialists Sweet Soubrette – expand their palette from murder ballads to apocalyptic anthems, spy themes and a novelty song that had to be written. Listen at Bandcamp 

Alice Lee – The Wheel
The long-awaited new album by one of the most brilliantly lyrical, sardonically insightful, captivating soul singers and songwriters to emerge from this city in this century. Listen at Bandcamp 

Changing Modes – Goodbye Theodora
Postapocalyptic art-rock, noir surf and snarling dreampop are just the tip of the iceberg on the keyboard-driven, female-fronted cult favorite New York band’s seventh album. Listen at Spotify

The Mehmet Polat Trio – Ask Your Heart
Serpentine, uneasily picturesque, dynamic Middle Eastern, African and Balkan themes from the virtuoso oud player and his eclectic group. Listen at Spotify 

NO ICE – Come On Feel the NO ICE
The Brooklyn What’s Jamie Frey continues as part of this careeningly diverse group, arguably the best band to come out of Brooklyn in the past five years. Fearless soul-rock, unhinged post new wave and loud, enigmatic anthems with a killer, spot-on sense of humor. Listen at Bandcamp

Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
Morose, muted, characteristically slashing acoustic waltzes and orchestral pop from the perennially relevant psychopathologist. Listen at Spotify 

The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
Sardonic, bitingly insightful new wave for an age of greed and narcissism from this era’s preeminent powerpop supergroup. Listen at Spotify 

Orkesta Mendoza – ¡Vamos A Guarachar!
The world’s darkest and slinkiest southwestern gothic psychedelic cumbia noir mambo band. Listen at Bandcamp 

Los Wemblers – Ikaro Del Amor
That a four-song ep could make this list testifies to how genuinely incredible, and improbable it is. Legendary in their native Peru, where they started almost fifty years ago, this psychedelic cumbia family band jam as eerily and otherworldly as they did when they first emerged from the jungle. Listen at Spotify 

The Uzelli Psychedelic Anadolu compilation
Spanning from 1975 to 1984, this collection of kinetic Turkish psychedelic rock and funk seems even more current in this era of surreal cross-cultural mashups, comprising songs by artists including Erkin Koray, Asik Emrah, Ali Ayhan, Deniz Ustu Kopurur and others. Listen at Spotify 

The Sadies – Northern Passages
The moodily jangly Canadian gothic cult favorites’ hardest-rocking and most psychedelic album. Listen at Bandcamp 

Morricone Youth – Mad Max
The iconic New York noir cinephiles’ first release of the year – one of a planned fifty recordings of scores for films they’ve played live to over the years – is far darker and more southwestern gothic-oriented than the road warrior film’s plot. With a Karla Rose vocal cameo, too. Listen at Spotify 

James Williamson and Deniz Tek – Acoustic K.O.
Two iconic guitarists who largely defined the uncompromising Detroit proto-punk sound of the 1970s flip the script with an acoustic ep of lushly orchestrated Stooges classics. Listen at Spotify 

Andina: Huayno, Carnaval and Cumbia – The Sound of the Peruvian Andes 1968-1978
Seventeen trebly, reverby, even rarer tracks than the psychedelic cumbia unearthed by Barbes Records on the iconic Roots of Chicha compilations. Los Walker’s are the best-known group here; Los Compadres del Ande, Los Jelwees and Huiro y su Conjunto, among others, are also included. This isn’t just chicha, either: there are horn bands and cha-cha groups here too. Listen at Bandcamp

Melange – Viento Bravo
The Spanish Nektar jangle and swirl and spiral through one brooding, psychedelic art-rock mini-epic after another. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Legendary Shack Shakers – After You’ve Gone
Unstoppable after twenty years on the road, the iconic ghoulabilly/noir Americana band dive deeper into their twisted, swampy roots. Guitarist Rod Hamdallah makes a furiously triumphant return. Listen at Spotify 

Mames Babegenush – Mames Babegenush With Strings
Dynamic, lush, soaring, swooping brass-and-reed-fueled original klezmer dance numbers and anthems from this powerhouse Copenhagen unit. Listen at Spotify

Briga – Femme
The Montreal-based violinist’s eclectic, incisive mix of Romany, Balkan and klezmer sounds, with a little psychedelic and hip-hop flavor. Listen at Bandcamp

Saffron – Will You
Magical singer Katayoun Goudarzi and sitarist Shujaat Khan team up with Rolling Stones saxophonist Tim Ries, pianist Kevin Hays and others for this hypnotic, otherworldly reinvention of centuries-old Indian carnatic themes. Listen at Rockpaperscissors 

Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa
Newly digitized, rare, otherworldly 1970s and 80s Somali psychedelic rock, funk and Afrobeat from cassettes and master tapes buried to hide them from bombing raids. Amazing stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Arthur Lee & Love – Coming Through to You: The Live Recordings 1970-2004
Four sprawling discs comprising most of this psychedelic rock legend’s best songs, which he rocks the hell out of in concert. Most of this stuff is previously unreleased, and further proof that Lee’s career was far from over by the time he was done with Forever Changes. Listen at Spotify 

Steelism – Ism
Friends of Dean Martinez meets Morricone Youth in this surreal, catchy mix of keening steel guitar-driven instrumentals. Powerhouse soulstress Ruby Amanfu guests on a track. Listen at Spotify 

Neotolia – Neotolian Song
Pianist Utar Artun’s acerbic, moodily cinematic, sometimes jazz-inspired Turkish ensemble with the great Jussi Reijonen on guitar and oud. Listen at Soundcloud 

Dalava – The Book of Transfigurations
Slashingly eclectic ex-Lou Reed guitarist Aram Bajakian and his singer wife Julia Ulehla join forces and reinvent haunting, often harrowing Moravian folk songs with a psychedelic edge.Listen at Bandcamp 

Vigen Hovsepyan – Echoes: Revived Armenian Folk Music
The evocative singer/guitarist’s brooding, eclectic ballads and anthems from decades past, featuring the great oudist Ara Dinkjian. Listen at Spotify 

Money Chicha – Echo in Mexico
This is psychedelic south-of-the-border funk band Grupo Fantasma proving how deeply they can go into heavy psychedelic cumbias. Listen at Soundcloud

Castle Black – Trapped Under All You Know
Layers of reverb guitars flickering and roaring through the shadows, Leigh Celent’s power trio put out the best short rock album of 2017. Listen at youtube 

The Sweetback Sisters – King of Killing Time
Hard country, early 50s style from the eclectic, purist, badass duo of Emily Miller and Zara Bode with a great band behind them. Listen at Bandcamp 

Clint Mansell – Loving Vincent soundtrack
A classic 21st century horror film score. It’s not a horror film per se, but you can see the madness coming a mile away. Listen at Spotify 

Ella Atlas – The Road to Now
Enigmatic, allusively torchy singer Tarrah Maria’s band put out one of the most Lynchian releases of the year, joining forces with Lost Patrol guitar mastermind Stephen Masucci. Listen at Bandcamp 

Kelly Moran – Bloodroot
Enigmatically glistening, baroque-tinged multi-keyboard instrumentals inspired by many species of woodland greenery. Listen at Bandcamp 

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Flying Microtonal Banana
On which the well-loved Aussie psychedelic band took their initial leap into eerie, Middle Eastern-tinged microtonal music. Listen at Bandcamp 

Nina Diaz  – The Beat Is Dead
The Girl in a Coma bandleader gets ornate and cinematic with this dark, 80s new wave-style collection. Listen at Spotify 

Funkrust Brass Band – Dark City
High-voltage, rat-a-tat original Balkan brass anthems from this huge Brooklyn ensemble fronted by Charming Disaster’s Ellia Bisker. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Warlocks – Songs from the Pale Eclipse
Jangly, punchy, catchy 60s Laurel Canyon-style psychedelic rock – in lieu of a new album by the Allah-Las, this one will do fine. Listen at Bandcamp 

Galanos – Deceiver Receiver
With a gutter blues influence, some Thee Oh Sees dark garage-psych and some Black Angels ambience, this group are sort of the X of creepy 21st century rock. Listen at Bandcamp

Chicano Batman – Freedom Is Free
Organist Bardo Martinez and his shapeshifting band swing kaleidoscopically between latin soul, Zombies-style psych-pop, hard funk and Isaac Hayes-style epics. Listen at Bandcamp

Bridget Kearney  Won’t Let You Down
One of the year’s catchiest albums features Lake Street Dive’s killer bassist playing most of the instruments, through a mix of powerpop and new wave-flavored sounds. Listen at Bandcamp  

Algiers – The Underside of Power
Politically-fueled punk soul meets postrock meets postapocalyptic film score in gritty singer Franklin James Fisher’s ominously smoky narratives. Listen at Spotify 

Eric Ambel – Roscoe Live Vol. 1
One of the most distinctively brilliant, entertaining rock guitarists of the last couple of decades at the top of his game at an upstate outdoor festival with a killer band. Listen at Bandcamp 

Red Baraat – Bhangra Pirates
Wave after wave of undulating, crescendoing, cinematic, insanely danceable original brass-fueled live bhangra jams. Listen at Spotify 

Olcay Bayir – Neva/Harmony
Quietly intense new versions of ancient Turkish ballads and Balkan songs from the nuanced Turkish singer’s debut album. Listen at Spotify 

Gogol Bordello – Seekers & Finders
Amazing how fresh and energetic the original Eastern Bloc punks sound after all these years. Tight, catchy, never boring. Listen at Spotify

Ihtimanska – Yuz Yuze
A low-key but bouncy duo album of biting, minor-key Turkish and Bulgarian tunes from the duo of reedwoman Ariane Morin and accordionist Yoni Kaston. Listen at Bandcamp 

Daniel Ruiz – Purple Bird and Other Strange Songs
A haunting mix of of Doors and Nick Cave-influenced dark psychedelic rock and pop  from this Spanish songwriter. Listen at Bandcamp

The Long-Awaited New Dream Syndicate Album: Best Rock Record of 2017?

Steve Wynn is probably the greatest rock songwriter of all time. In terms of sheer output, tunefulness and consistently brilliant lyrical vision, he left Dylan and the Stones in the dust in a previous century. Since then, literally hundreds of songs later, he hasn’t let up. His latest and arguably most ambitious project has been to release a new album with his legendary, recently reunited 80s band the Dream Syndicate. Long story short: their dark, epic, surprisingly diverse new record How Did I Find Myself Here – streaming at youtube – could be the best album of 2017. Find out when this year’s best-of page goes live here in December!

[If you know the backstory, skip down a couple of paragraphs to find out what new album sounds like] Back in the 80s, when half the world was bopping to synths, a bunch of guys – most of them in northern California – created a savage new sound equally informed by psychedelia, punk and Americana. The critics of the day, doofuses that they were, dubbed it “paisley underground.” In reality, it didn’t have anything to do with paisley, the musicians were hardly what you’d call hippies, and they weren’t exactly underground either. In the 80s, as Reagan-era deregulation created a tsunami of media mergers and a resulting tidal wave of radio blandification, the college airwaves became what Spotify is now: the place kids go to find out about new bands.

The Dream Syndicate ruled college radio, and were frequent tourmates with the era’s biggest college radio act, REM. Even without the new album or recent reunion tours, the Dream Syndicate’s place in history would be secure. It’s safe to say that without Wynn’s signature blend of dueling guitars, pyrotechnic jams, gallows humor and tersely literate, brooding lyricism, there probably wouldn’t be any such thing as Yo La Tengo, and Sonic Youth would have been just another CBGB hardcore matinee band.

That’s a mighty heavy legacy to carry into the studio, but Wynn and the group pick up like they never left off.  If the Dream Syndicate hadn’t broken up in 1989, would they have embraced dreampop, and spacerock, and the far reaches of psychedelia that they do here? We’ll never know. What is certain is that the band are just as feral, yet focused as they were thirty years ago. The lineup changed in the 80s, and it has again: taking the place of the band’s last lead guitarist, the purist, bluesy Paul B. Cutler, is Wynn’s incendiary Miracle 3 bandmate and sparring partner Jason Victor. Behind the guitars, bassist Mark Walton and drummer Dennis Duck provide the sturdy support that music of this magnitude requires. If there’s anything to distinguish a Dream Syndicate album from a solo Wynn effort, it’s that this rhythm section’s backbeat drive empowers these epics to reach their destination. 

The first track, Filter Me Through You refines the dreampop influence that Wynn first touched on in his 2010 Northern Aggression album, but with the angst and guitar push-pull of the Miracle 3. It’s Wynn’s signature post-Velvets riffage through a glass, darkly, with an elegaic edge, “So that you can’t miss me when I’m gone,” as he puts it.

With its vast, swirling reverb-guitar atmospherics, Glide moves further into spacerock: an unrepentant hedonist’s anthem, it could be the great lost track on a Church record from the late 80s, Wynn and Victor subtly swapping good-cop and bad-cop roles. Out of My Head blends the skull-splitting twin-guitar assault of the band’s iconic 1981 debut The Days of Wine and Roses into an acidically whirling vortex over a steady, tense pulse: it’s hard to tell whose guitar is whose.

Wynn loves the occasional wry reference to his back catalog: Walton’s bass lick that opens 80 West is a prime example. This is one of those fantastically allusive film noir narratives that Wynn writes so well: even as his voice rises to a scream on the chorus, it’s not clear exactly what kind of horrible thing the driver in this desperate high-speed scenario did when he finally snapped. “The only thing that scares me more than getting caught is to stop and think about the live I’ve got,” Wynn’s frantic protagonist explains.

Like Mary is a classic Wynn character study: lyrically, it’s the album’s most harrowing track, a catchy, tensely muted, grim portrait of a woman who may be a child killer…or just an Oxycontin casualty. “In her dreams there were people watching as they lowered her into the ground,” Wynn intones, ‘In her dreams she was beautiful, lying on the floor.”

Wynn and Victor slash at each other through gritty tube amp distortion, searing upper-register wails and distorted roar as The Circle motors along: it’s the closest thing to The Days of Wine and Roses here. The biggest surprise is the title track, eleven echoey, enveloping minutes of psychedelic noir funk that rises to a searing, distortion-and-feedback-infused sway. With its latin soul allusions and eerily starlit Rhodes piano, it’s sort of the band’s Can’t You Hear Me Knocking. Original Dream Syndicate bassist Kendra Smith makes a welcome vocal cameo in the hypnotic and unexpectedly upbeat closing cut, a droning, pulsing, Indian-inflected psych-rock tone poem of sorts. 

The Dream Syndicate are currently on tour in Europe – where they are huge again – and return to New York for a stop at Bowery Ballroom on December 2. The equally legendary Richard Lloyd of Television opens the night at 9; general admission is $25, and be aware that this might sell out.

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!

80s Psychedelic Guitar Legend Russ Tolman Makes a Rare Stop in Brooklyn

Russ Tolman was the leader of one of the 80s’ most legendary guitar bands, True West. Though never as famous as their pals the Dream Syndicate – Tolman and Steve Wynn were in the equally legendary Suspects, and Wynn contributed some gloriously savage lead guitar to True West’s cover of Pink Floyd’s Lucifer Sam – Tolman’s songwriting was no less brilliant. And True West were every bit as incendiary live, fellow Telecaster player Richard McGrath dueling it out onstage with Tolman night after night. The band’s first two albums, Hollywood Holiday and Drifters are iconic: with its brooding layers of reverb guitar and Tolman’s ominous lyricism, the latter is easily one of the fifty greatest rock records ever made.

The original True West lineup hung it up in 1985; there were some sporadic but rewarding reunion tours in the mid-to-late zeros. All the while, Tolman has been releasing albums here and there, from Byrdsy folk-rock to low-key electronic experimentation. If he’s ever played Brooklyn before, it’s been a long time; if he hasn’t, then his show at Pete’s on Sept 14 at 8:30 PM will be his debut in the borough. Either way, he’s overdue.

Tolman’s latest recordings are a couple of singles. With it stomping beat and a whirling lead guitar line that brings to mind another great 80s guitar band, the Rain Parade, Marla Jane could be an upbeat track from True West’s peak era. Something About a Rowboat switches in a mandolin for the Tele Tolman might have played it on thirty years ago. Tunewise, this breakup anthem is just as strong – it’s interesting to compare Tolman’s flinty vocal delivery with the bravado of True West frontman Gavin Blair. Awfully heartwarming to see such an important, underrated artist from back in the day still at it and still at the top of his game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Gorgeously Jangly Paisley Underground Rock Masterpiece from Girls on Grass

The first thing that hits you right off the bat about Girls on Grass‘ debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – is the guitars. Two Telecasters, one in the left channel, one in the right, with multitracks in various places. Barbara Endes and Sean Eden’s playing is judicious, wickedly smart, purist and catchy as hell. There’s fifty years of Americana and tasteful, jangly rock in those matter-of-factly measured changes, and long crescendos, and solos that could go on for twice as long and you’d still want more. Girls on Grass know to always leave you wanting something else.

Girls on Grass play what was called “paisley underground” back in the 80s. Blending the twang of Bakersfield country, the insistent chordal pulse of the Velvet Underground and the electric blaze of Neil Young & Crazy Horse, bands like Steve Wynn‘s Dream Syndicate, True West and Green on Red earned a devoted fan base on college radio and in sweaty clubs across the country, and, soon after, around the world. Girls on Grass work that turf with a tightness and tersely imaginative ferocity that would have made them stars in that demimonde. Who knows, if we’re lucky other bands will hear them and we’ll get a paisley underground revival. They’re playing February 19 at Matchless in Williamsburg at 10 PM; cover is $10

The album’s opening track, Father Says Why is a plainspoken young rocker’s escape anthem with a spiraling, hair-raising solo filled with eerie bends over a a tight rhythm section. Too Pretty bounces along on an altered Bo Diddley beat before it straightens out at the chorus, Endes’ narrator broke and brooding over a girl she’s got a crush on…but that girl’s from New York, and gorgeous, and probably out of reach.

What They Wrought looks at the sheer force it takes to build a city…and that the talent and energy that went into building this one will probably never be repeated. The clanging, spiraling solos and contrast between the guitars in each channel has a similar craft and majesty. The band slows it down a little with Fair, a swaying C&W ballad: “I’ll take what comfort I can get, real or imagined,” the sad girl in the story admits.

Drowning in Ego opens and closes with a scampering Tex-Mex flair over drummer Nancy Polstein’s hard-hitting 2/4 stomp and another searing guitar solo midway through. The vindictive When the Pleasure Ends is a dead ringer for the Dream Syndicate (with a woman out front); the way the unhinged lead line slowly pulls away from the center is nothing short of delicious. The twin solo after that’s as tasty as it is intricate, too.

Pissin’ Down a Road starts off as a chain gang song and then hits a gorgeously hypnotic post-Velvets groove, spiced with lingering guitar flickers; it doesn’t even change chords til the turnaround into the second chorus. The way the second guitar echoes the first is an especially neat trick. The nonchalantly savage Return to Earth is another Dream Syndicate soundalike with its multi-channeled jangle and clang, Dave Mandl’s bass finally bubbling over the roar and crash as the song winds up to a mighty peak.

Karen Waltuch’s spare viola enhances the country sway of How Does It Feel. Dave We Love You sends a brisk electric bluegrass shout-out to a guy who “carries twenty film critic books under his arm….someday you’ll teach at NYU.” The final track, with its hints of Hendrix and gospel, is the 6/8 ballad One of the Guys, a fond nod back at someone who was a needed, steadying influence on a rugged individualist during her confused adolescence. There hasn’t been an album in this style of music this good since another band with girls in their name, Girls Guns & Glory, put out theirs in 2014. Like that one a couple of years ago, this is an early contender for best rock record of 2016.

Haunting Noir Psychedelia and a Rare Williamsburg Show by Fernando Viciconte

“Everything you’re saying turned out wrong,” Fernando Viciconte muses. “Busted and broken or dead and gone.” Then a Farfisa keens, way back in the mix. And then the song explodes. The song is Save Me, the opening track on his new album Leave the Radio On, streaming at Bandcamp. And it’s killer. Sort of the lost great Steve Wynn album.

Viciconte hails from Argentina originally. Got his start in LA twenty-odd years ago, fronting a band called Monkey Paw. Eventually landed in Portland, Oregon. Wynn heard him and gave him the thumbs-up, as does his Baseball Project bandmate Peter Buck, who plays a lot of guitar on the album. You could call this noir psychedelia, for the sake of hanging a name on it, and you wouldn’t be off the mark, although there are a lot of different flavors here from both north and south of the border. It’s one of the best records of the year (and it is a record – you can get it on vinyl). Viciconte is making a rare New York swing, with a gig on November 27 at 9 PM at Pete’s. He’s also at the small room at the Rockwood tomorrow night, the 25th at 8.

The album’s second cut, The Dogs, is a lot quieter and vastly more surreal, with a similar sense of desperation and doom: Viciconte airs out his balmy, Lennonesque voice as the fuzztones come in with a swoosh of cymbals and a big exhaust fan blast of reverb. El Interior blends uneasy organ and mariachi horns into its Patagonian gothic resonance, an allusive tale of return and despair.

Icy, trebly layers of acoustic guitar mingle with eerily stately piano as So Loud gets underway, then picks up with a shuffling border rock groove up to a murderous series of drumshots out. The slow, brooding 6/8 anthem Friends and Enemies traces the last days of a dying relationship over Daniel Eccles’ elegaic guitar and pedal steel lines. Viciiconte hints that he’s going to take The Freak in a growling garage rock direction, but instead rises toward circus rock drama and desperation, David Bowie as covered by southwestern gothic supergroup Saint Maybe, maybe.

Paul Brainard’s pedal steel and then Buck’s mandolin sail woundedly above Viciconte’s low-key, defeated vocals and steady acoustic guitar on another elegaic number, the vintage C&W-inflected Kingdom Come:

Stay in pale moonlight
Stand your ground and choose your side
We don’t believe you anymore
We’ve all crawled on your killing floor

Then the band picks up the pace with the backbeat-driven Burned Out Love, part blistering paisley underground anthem, part wickedly catchy late Beatles. The gloomiest number here, White Trees takes a turn back down into spare folk noir:

When you left the table, who followed you home?
The knives and daggers left flesh and bone
The moon moon was shining on that cursed white stone
And you were crying and crying, trying to let it go

The catchiest yet arguably most haunting of all the tracks is the surreal In Their Heads, with its echoey blend of backward masking and ghostly narrative of childhood memories of an execution. One can only imagine what Viciconte might have witnessed, or heard about, during his early years in Argentina in the days of los desaparecidos. The album winds up on its most Beatlesque note with the title track: “Illusion is only skin deep, like raindrops on your wall,” Viciconte broods, “It all comes to an end in the blink of an eye.” Enjoy this dark masterpiece while we’re all still here.

Dark Rocker Tim Foljahn Headlines an Excellent Kiam Records Night in Williamsburg

Much as CMJ just gets more and more pointless every year, there always seem to be a handful of fantastic multiple-act extravaganzas amidst the startstruck and the entitled and the dilettantes who haven’t yet gotten the message yet. And as much as most record labels have become just as pointless in this age of streaming, and endless touring, and licensing, there are a small handful who are actually artist-friendly and are doing good work. One of those is Jennifer O’Connor‘s Kiam Records, who are hosting an excellent multiple-band bill at Union Pool on October 14 that features vividly lyrical songsmith Amy Bezunartea at 9 PM followed by the wickedly tuneful, guitar-wielding O’Connor herself, and brillliantly dark, lyrical rocker Tim Foljahn headlining. Cover is $10.

Foljahn’s latest album – his first since his creepy 2012 psychedelic masterpiece Songs for an Age of Extinction – is titled Fucking Love Songs. It’s streaming at Kiam Records’ bandcamp page, a loosely thematic mix of brooding mood pieces that’s a lot more straightforwardly rocking than Foljahn’s more recent material. Prime example: the opening track, Wild Tonight. Who would have imagined Foljahn playing vampy, Stonesy Lakeside Lounge rock? He does here, expertly, his terse fretwork mingling with his fellow six-stringers Tom Beaujour and Smokey Hormel, O’Connor and Bezunartea adding period-perfect 70s Glimmer Twins harmonies.

Track two, Beloved, puts a reverb-drenched, Lynchian spin on a gentle Everlys-style waltz. Plain As Day works a snarling swamp-rock vamp that brings to mind Tom Shaner at his loudest and most agitated. Likewise, River follows a slow, nocturnal southern soul groove – with a fond nod back toward George Gershwin – simmering with echoey Rhodes piano and eerily watery, vintage chorus-box guitar. With its blackly smoking baroque organ and web of nimble acoustic fingerpicking, Legends explores love during wartime, hopg against hope.

Jon Langmead’s uneasily pouncing drums propel Étant Donnés (“Being Given”), an angst-fueled, catchy stomp that’s sort of a mashup of Arthur Lee and Matt Keating, with a guitar hook that might or might not be a sardonic Rick James reference. Beast reverts to moody soul-tinged balladry in the same vein as Steve Wynn or recent Richard Buckner. Sun Moon Thing reworks Iggy Pop’s Nightclubbing as a spare, lingering guitar blues.

Thanks adds distant gospel touches to luminous third-album Velvets folk rock. The album winds up with the unexpectedly if guardedly optimistic Garden Lady, which wouldn’t be out of place on the Jesus & Mary Chain’s Darklands album. Beyond the pensive lyrical theme, the connective tissue throughout this album is reverb, sometimes a little, occasionally a lot: it gives these carefully crafted, thoughtfully played songs extra sepulchral lustre. It’s good to see someone with such a vast and diverse back catalog as Foljahn – who’s played with everybody from Cat Power to Steve Shelley – still at the absolute top of his game.

A Rare Show and a Rare Gem of an Album by Shanghai Love Motel

Even in an era when obscurity has become a badge of honor, New York band Shanghai Love Motel are almost apocryphal. They don’t play a lot of gigs, so when they do, it’s a pretty major event. They basically play two styles of music, both of them looking back to the dark guitar-fueled underside of the 80s: stomping, growling paisley underground psychedelic rock, as well as more artsy, low-key, sometimes jazz-tinged new wave guitar pop. What distinguishes them more than their catchy hooks and biting guitars is their savage, literate lyrics: bands who can be this loud seldom have words as good as the music. Their lone album so far, Thrum, is streaming online – and to further intrigue you, their lyrics are all up online as well. They’re playing a rare NYC date at the Parkside on July 10 at 10, where they’ll be rejoined by their longtime guitarist Adam Russell ; cover is $5.

The band’s two main songwriters, guitarist Bryan Brown and bassist Bill Millard, each have their signature styles. Brown goes more for the hypnotically growling, understatedly menacing post-Velvets/Neil Young sway that the Dream Syndicate immortalized. Millard’s songs tend to be somewhat more low-key but no less sinister. The album’s opening track, by Brown, is King of Memory, a dead ringer for an early Steve Wynn number, its narrator a metaphorical monarch who has “lost more than you have purported to know” circling the wagons over a classic early 80s groove. Millard’s Snapshots from the Sinister Cathedral blends elegant jazz-tinged phrasing from Brown and keyboardist David Smith:

Meet me at four in the morning
At the Cathedral of John the Mundane
Assuming old Johnny’s in shape to get out of the rain
We’d better bring plenty of coffee
And pictures of places we like
And jokes we can aim at whoever is hogging the mic

Brown’s Too Good Too Soon sets a surrealistically smart-ass kiss-off lyric to Stratocaster-stung Tex-Mex soul: it’s the kind of song that John Sharples would cover. Another Brown tune, Almost Gone stomps uneasily between major and minor keys, its angst-fueled theme bringing to mind Matt Keating in hard-rocking mode, lit up by a couple of jaggedly sunsplashed guitar solos. As period-perfect paisley underground rock goes, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Millard’s almost imperceptibly crescendoing I Was the Dog opens with a verse that Elvis Costello would be proud to call his own and just gets more savage from there:

With all due respect, I don’t believe respect is due
They know now what the world spins ’round.
Somebody figured out that it ain’t you
The only truth that you know is that you’ll never know the truth
Another stoner paradox for terminally gullible youth…

Millard and Brown co-wrote Burning Bush, an enigmatic, ominous glimpse of a metaphorically-charged postapocalyptic landscape spiced by spiky mandolin and watery chorus-box guitar: is this an obit for the evil of the Bush/Cheney years, maybe?

Drummer Mark Hennessy pushes Millard’s Flip in Style with a vintage 60s Stones gorove, toward Replacements territory. Brown’s Strong Silent Type is the most low-key, nocturnal track here. The album’s most searing, torrentially lyrical number is The Universal Skeptical Anthem, a tour de force rant by Millard:

Spare me the line about machines for going back in time
And all the crying over moral turpentine
I get a whiff about a couple of state lines away;
That’s enough for maybe 90 billion days
Spare me the flag-wagging huckleberry knuckleheads
That can’t tell who’s the monster and who’s Frankenstein…

After the unhinged octaves of a guitar solo, the band segues into Brown’s Ruined Man, a sardonically syncopated look at world where “They resell mystery in burial mounds, with lots marked Resigned or Content.” The album comes full circle with How’s Dr. Ving, by Millard, a mashup of Elvis Costello and the Dream Syndicate. If this is the only album the band ever does, they’ve got themselves a cult classic – but we can always hope for more. See what they have in store for the future at the Parkside.