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

It feels so good to be alive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

The 50 Best Albums of 2014

Of the hundreds of thousands of albums released every year, maybe ten percent of them are worth hearing. That’s about twenty-five thousand albums, possibly a lot more – it’s harder to keep track of the numbers than it was in the previous century. A very ambitious blogger can hear bits and pieces of maybe twenty percent of that total. That’s the triage.

A very, very ambitious blogger can hear, at best, maybe ten percent of that small sample, all the way through, at least enough to get the gist of what those few hundred albums are about. So consider this list – and the Best Songs of 2014 and the Best NYC Concerts of 2014 lists here – a celebration of good music released in 2014 or thereabouts rather than anything definitive. Links to listen to each album are included: whenever possible, the link is to an ad-free site like Bandcamp or Soundcloud rather than Spotify. So bookmark this page and come back to enjoy what you might have missed.

Every few years, there’s one album that stands out above all the rest, which transcends genre. This year, that was Big Lazy‘s Don’t Cross Myrtle, a creepy collection of reverb-drenched, Lynchian songs without words and desolate highway themes. Even by the standards of frontman/guitarist Stephen Ulrich’s previous work for film, tv and with this band, he’s never written with more delectable menace. Stream the album via Spotify.

Before the rest of the list kicks in, there are two ringers here from a couple years ago: Great Plains gothic tunesmith Ember Schrag‘s The Sewing Room, a quiet, allusive, disarmingly intense masterpiece (at Bandcamp), and a considerably more ornate and more chromatically-charged release, Philadelphia-based Turkish art-rockers Barakka‘s Uzaklardan (at Reverbnation). Both albums came over the transom too late to be included in the 2012 list here, but each of them is a real gem.

Beyond the choice of Big Lazy as #1, there’s no numerical ranking on this list. For fairness’ sake, the remainder of the fifty are listed in more-or-less chronological order as they first received attention here, without taking release dates into consideration. So the albums at the end aren’t the ass end of the list – they just happened to have been reviewed here at the end of the year. To be clear, the Ministry of Wolves, the last act on this list, are every bit as enjoyable as creepy surf band the Reigning Monarchs, who lead the rest of the parade:

The Reigning Monarchs – Black Sweater Massacre
Marauding crime-surf instrumentals from an unlikely cast of 90s powerpop types. Stream the album via the band’s page

Curtis Eller – How to Make It in Hollywood
Wickedly literate, historically rich, pun-infused and unexpectedly rocking Americana from the charismatic roots music banjoist. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Karla Moheno – Gone to Town
Nobody writes more intriguing noir musical narratives than this inscrutable chanteuse. If Big Lazy hadn’t put out their album this past year, this one would be at the top of the pile with a bullet. Stream the album via Soundcloud

Marissa Nadler – July
Arguably her best album, the atmospheric folk noir chanteuse and storyteller’s lushly enveloping adventure in Pink Floyd-style art-rock. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Marianne Dissard – The Cat. Not Me
A stormy, brilliantly twisted, angst-fueled, epically orchestrated art-rock album by the French southwestern gothic avatar and Sergio Mendoza collaborator. Stream the album via Spotify

Aram Bajakian – There Were Flowers Also in Hell
Darkly blues-inspired, characteristically eclectic, moody instrumentals by the last great lead guitarist from Lou Reed’s Band. Stream the album via Spotify

Rosanne Cash – The River & the Thread
A pensive southern gothic travelogue set to terse Americana rock, arguably as good as Cash’s iconic Black Cadillac album from a few years ago. Stream the album via Spotify

Laura Cantrell – No Way There from Here
The lyrically strongest and most musically diverse album yet by this era’s most compelling voice in classic country music. Stream the album via Spotify

The New Mendicants – Into the Lime
A janglefest of gorgeous Britfolk-infused powerpop from Joe Pernice of the Pernice Brothers, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and the Sadies’ Mike Belistky. Stream the album via Spotify

Siach HaSadeh – Song of the Grasses
Slowly unwinding, raptly intense improvisations on classic Jewish cantorial and folk themes from over the centuries. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Son of Skooshny – Mid Century Modern
Mark Breyer achieved cult status in the 90s with powerpop vets Skooshny and continues to write biting, lyrically rich, beautifully jangly songs. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Isle of Klezbos – Live from Brooklyn
A deliriously fun concert recording by the mostly-female, pioneering New York klezmer whirlwind. Stream the album via Bandcamp

New Electric Ride – Balloon Age
Period-perfect, fantastic mid-60s style psychedelic rock in a Dukes of Stratosphear or Love Camp 7 vein. Stream the album via Bandcamp

The Baseball Project – 3rd
Catchy, characteristically insightful powerpop, paisley underground and janglerock from Steve Wynn and Peter Buck’s supergroup, rich in diamond lore from across the decades. Stream the album via Spotify

Ichka – Podorozh
Meaning “journey” in Russian. the new album by the Montreal klezmer group blazes through bristling chromatic themes. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Jaro Milko & the Cubalkanics – Cigarros Explosivos
The Firewater lead guitarist’s adventure in psychedelic cumbias comes across as a sort of a Balkan version of Chicha Libre. Stream the album via Bandcamp 

Bad Buka -Through the Night
A harder-rocking, more theatrical take on Gogol Bordello-style Slavic punk from these New York guys and girls. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Gord Downie, the Sadies & the Conquering Sun
Ominously jangly southwestern gothic and paisley underground rock from the Canadian Americana band and the Tragically Hip frontman. Stream the album via the band’s page

Cheetah Chrome – Solo
It took practically twenty years for this searing, intense album by the punk-era guitar icon to see the light of day, but the wait was worth it. Stream the album via Spotify

Andrew Bird – Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of
The cult favorite Americana songwriter plunders the catalog of another similarly literate, frequently creepy Americana act, the Handsome Family, for an insightful and lyrically rich collection of covers. Stream the album via Soundcloud

Guided by Voices – Cool Planet
If the last of the final four albums from the indie powerpop band’s marathon of recording over the last two years is really their swan song, they went out with a bang. Stream the album via Spotify

Golem – Tanz
A wickedly hilarious, blistering mix of edgy punk rock, crazed circus rock and straight-up hotshot klezmer. Stream the album via Spotify

Matt Kanelos – Love Hello
Pensive, allusively lyrical Radiohead-influenced psychedelia and art-rock from the popular NYC jazz and rock keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Spottiswoode – English Dream
Purist, richly arranged, artsy janglerock with psychedelic and Britfolk tinges from the cult favorite lyrical songwriter and bandleader. Stream the album via Bandcamp

The Skull Practitioners – ST1
Searing, pummeling, catchy noiserock and riff-driven jams from Steve Wynn lead guitarist Jason Victor’s explosive trio. Stream the album via Bandcamp

HUMANWINE – Fighting Naked
Creepy, menacing, chromatically-fueled narratives from an all-too-plausible, Orwellian nightmare future from the politically spot-on Vermont band. Stream the album via Bandcamp – free download

Amanda Thorpe – Bewitching Me: The Lyrics of Yip Harburg
The riveting Britfolk chanteuse reinvents songs by the Tin Pan Alley figure as noir-inflected janglerock, backed by a stellar NYC band. Stream the album via Spotify

Changing Modes – The Paradox of Traveling Light
Frontwoman/multi-instrumentalist Wendy Griffiths’ band’s most ornate, intricately crafted art-rock masterpiece, with the occasional departure into punk or powerpop. Stream the album via Soundcloud

The Bakersfield Breakers – In the Studio with the Bakersfield Breakers
These New York surf and twang instrumentalists put their own kick-ass spin on a classic Telecaster-driven sound from the early 60s. Stream the album via Bandcamp

The Sometime Boys – Riverbed
One of the most distinctively unique bands on this list, they blend newgrass, country blues, funky rock and Nashville gothic into a spicy, anthemically psychedelic, lyrically intense blend. Stream the album via the band’s page 

The Immigrant Union – Anyway
The Australian band – a Dandy Warhols spinoff – craft deliciously catchy Rickenbacker guitar janglerock. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Bombay Rickey – Cinefonia
The year’s best debut album is by spectacular, intense singer/accordionist Kamala Samkaram’s ornate, intricate, surfy Bollywood-inspired art-rock band. Stream the album via Bandcamp 

Hannah Thiem – Brym
Lush, moody, Middle Eastern and Nordic-inspired violin grooves and cinematic soundscapes from Copal‘s dynamic frontwoman/composer. Stream the album via Soundcloud 

The Larch – In Transit
Characteristically urbane, insightfully lyrical, Costello-esque powerpop with searing lead guitar from the highly regarded New York quartet. Stream the album via Bandcamp

The OBNIIIs – Third Time to Harm
The twin guitar-driven Austin garage punks are probably the closest thing we have to Radio Birdman these days. They released two albums this past year, one a sizzling live set, and this studio release which is more psychedelic and every bit as volcanic. Stream the album via Spotify

The Wytches – Annabel Dream Reader
Arguably the darkest album on this list, this harrowing collection mines the desperation of living at the fringes of society, set to scorching, reverb-drenched noir rock. Stream the album via Spotify.

Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons – Rebel Devil Devil Rebel
The Canadian gothic chanteuse returns to her fiery, electric Neil Young-influenced roots with this stampeding effort, driven by guitar great Hugh Pool’s ferocious attack. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Ward White – Ward White Is the Matador
The most intricately literate of all the albums on this list. Nobody writes more intriguing, or menacing, rock narratives than this New York tunesmith. And he’s never rocked harder, either. Stream the album via Bandcamp 

Jessie Kilguss – Devastate Me
The title is apt – the NYC folk noir singer/bandleader offers a quietly shattering. impeccably crafted collection of Nashville gothic and paisley underground rock. Stream the album via Spotify

Mesiko – Solar Door
One of the most tunefully eclectic albums on the list, the debut by Norden Bombsight’s David Marshall and Rachael Bell with all-star drummer Ray Rizzo has postpunk, paisley underground, psychedelia and kinetic powerpop, sometimes all in the same song. Stream the album via Bandcamp

O’Death – Out of Hands We Go
A characteristically careening, ominous mix of Nashville gothic, oldtimey, circus rock and noir cabaret from these Americana individualists. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Chuck Prophet – Night Surfer
One of the great lead guitarists in rock, Prophet is also a great tunesmith who spans from psychedelia to janglerock to Americana and powerpop. Stream the album via Spotify

Wounded Buffalo Theory – A Painting of Plans
The New York art-rockers have never sounded more focused, or more intense on this richly ornate, psychedelic collection. Stream the album via the band’s page, free download

Mark Rogers & Mary Byrne – I Line My Days Along Your Weight
A brooding, plaintive and vividly lyrical folk noir masterpiece, Byrne’s tersely evocative lyrics and luminous vocals over a darkly magical web of acoustic textures. Stream the album via Spotify

Jessi Robertson – I Came From the War
Combat is a metaphor for all sorts of angst on the riveting soul and Americana-influenced singer/bandleader’s intricate, atmospheric latest release. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Metropolitan Klezmer – Mazel Means Good Luck
An especially wild live album by this deliciously shapeshifting, latin and reggae-influenced New York Jewish music juggernaut. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Matt Ulery – In the Ivory
The jazz bassist’s lush, rippling compositions blend soaring neoromantic themes, edgy improvisation, cinematic instrumental narratives and frequently haunting interludes. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Jenifer Jackson – TX Sunrise
One of the most diverse songwriters here, she’s done everything from Beatlesque bossa pop to psychedelia to Nashville gothic. This is her deepest and most rewarding dive into Americana, comprising both classic C&W and southwestern gothic. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Mark Sinnis – It’s Been a Long Cold Hard Lonely Winter
A death-obsessed hard honkytonk album from powerful baritone crooner and leader of cult favorite dark rockers Ninth House. Stream the album via Spotify

The Brooklyn What – Minor Problems
The best short album of 2014 has explosive, dynamic guitar duels, a catchy anthemic sensibility, psychedelic intensity and edgy, sarcastic wit. Stream the album via Bandcamp

Robin Aigner – Con Tender
Historically rich, period-perfect, sultry and often hilariously lyrical tunesmithing equally informed by stark southern folk music, vintage blues and oldtimey swing jazz. Stream the album via Bandcamp, free download

The Ministry of Wolves – Happily Ever After
The second album of creepily theatrical art-rock songs based on Grimm’s Fairy Tales by the all-star band of Botanica‘s Paul Wallfisch, Alexander Hacke and Danielle de Picciotto from Crime & the City Solution and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds co-founder Mick Harvey. Stream the album via Spotify 

If you’re wondering why there’s hardly anything in the way of jazz or classical music here, that stuff is more likely to be found at this blog’s older sister blog, Lucid Culture.

The Skull Practitioners Bring Their Tuneful Noiserock Assault to Grand Victory

The Skull Practitioners are just about the ultimate Halloween band – but not in a campy way. There’s no way any other group could have played as genuinely menacing, or deliciously noisy a set as the trio of guitarist Jason Victor, bassist Kenneth Levine and drummer Alex Baker did that night at Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick. The reason that their reverb-drenched noiserock assault works so well is because their songs are so catchy. They’re always going off the rails in one way or another, but there’s always a tune somewhere – even if it’s about to come unglued. They’re bringing their mix of savage jams and deceptively tight tunesmithing to Grand Victory in Williamsburg on December 9 at around 9:30.

These days everybody agrees that Victor is the best guitarist ever to play in Steve Wynn‘s band – and now, also in the Dream Syndicate, considering that Wynn has resuscitated his legendary 80s paisley underground outfit. And since Victor is always out on the road dueling with Wynn, he hasn’t had much time off for this project until the last couple of months, when they’ve been playing out a lot. That probably explained why they were as tight as they are their twisted debut cassette (which is also streaming at Bandcamp).

At the Halloween show, they got in and got out, Ramones style: seven songs in half an hour, then called it quits. Levine’s catchy bass riffage in tandem with Baker’s tersely bounding drums anchored Victor’s smoldering, anguished bends and swoops laced with shards of feedback when he wasn’t burning through a catchy chorus with the kind of rich Telecaster roar that few other guitarists – maybe Orville Neeley of the OBNIIIs – can generate. A tight, purposeful groove anchored the opening instrumental, Victor leaping through a cloud of reverb into a furious chorus and then winding his way through a rattlesnake of a string-wrenching solo.

A couple of friends of the band took turns hollering vocals that might or might not have been made up on the spot, just like much of the music. The band worked a biting, minimalist early 80s postpunk Gang of Four/Wire riff on the second song, but with more gravitas and edge than either of those bands. They segued into the ominous, Dream Syndicate-influenced third number, Victor flailing around wildly until he’d found his footing as the band took the song doublespeed and then back to a careening sway. The song after that had a chugging Train Kept a-Rolling style rhythm, Victor alternating between savage bluesmetal and raw, reverb-drenched noise. From there they hit an insistent, metalish attack, like a punk take on early Iron Maiden, then did a couple of numbers that could have been James Williamson-era Iggy Pop but more unhinged, Victor ripping his way through catchy Kinks-ish riffage, tense Dream Syndicate jangle, a funny Link Wray quote and a teeth-gnashing tremolo attack that pulled and eventually ripped away from the song’s central riff. So no matter how far out he went, the song never got lost. Listening back to a cheap recording of that show, along with a bunch of equally savage tracks the band cobbled together in the studio recently, is reason to believe the Grand Victory gig could be even more intense.

The Baseball Project’s 3rd Album: As Much Fun As an Unassisted Triple Play

The Baseball Project‘s new album, simply titled 3rd, sends you straight to Retrosheet. Baseball may not be the national pastime anymore, but this album is as deep and rich as the lore and the lure of the game. For fans, it’s pretty close to heaven – and for those who aren’t, it won’t alienate anybody because the tunes are so memorable and the playing is so flat-out excellent. What began as a one-off Steve Wynn side project has grown from a well-conceived novelty into a perennial World Series contender. The band is Hall of Fame caliber: Wynn (the Stan Musial of rock) on guitars and most of the lead vocals along with REM’s Peter Buck and Mike Mills plus the Minus Five’s Scott McCaughey and Linda Pitmon, who reasserts herself as the best and most consistently interesting rock drummer out there. The album isn’t up at Spotify yet, but the band’s first two are, so keep an eye out for it.

What makes the Baseball Project ultimately so much fun is that their songs celebrate the weird, the obscure and the tragic rather than the obvious. So many songs about baseball are cheesy and don’t really have a lot to do with the game, but the Baseball Project plunge into the history and the personalities involved, as well as what it’s like to be a diehard fan (and these guys really, really are). Although Wynn, the bandleader, has adopted the Yankees as his team, he’s written insightfully and poignantly about the Boston Red Sox, among other teams, on past albums. This time out, players from the Evil Empire are represented by four songs, while the Atlanta Braves – Mills’ and Buck’s team – also get plenty of props.

The first track is Stats, a pseudo-Ventures spacerock stomp with a seemingly random litany of numbers recited by Pitmon: random, that is, until you realize that’s Nolan Ryan’s season-record 383 strikeouts, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak…and then the guessing gets really good. For those who don’t know, stats are crack for baseball fans and so is this song.

Two of the best songs here, neither of which namecheck the player involved, are the most depressing. From Nails to Thumbtacks traces the career arc of one of the early steroid casualties, Lenny Dykstra, who went from spare outfielder with the Mets to sudden and prodigiously beefed-up stardom with the Phillies, only to wind up behind bars after a long, long downward spiral. “You gotta be high to fall this far,”McCaughey intones over a backdrop that’s part Ramones, part new wave. And 13, arguably the best song on the album, looks at the A-Roid scandal with even more of a caustic eye than Wynn cast on Roger Clemens in the gorgeous Twilight of My Career, from the band’s first album Frozen Ropes & Dying Quails. Over a corrosively sarcastic spaghetti western tune, Wynn explains how Alex Rodriguez took #13 as his Yankees uniform number since Babe Ruth wore #3, but ultimately it was hubris rather than bad luck that scuttled the third baseman’s assault on Henry Aaron’s home run record.

Wynn evokes his classic 2001 riff-rocker Strange New World in Hola America, the brooding account of Cuban defector Orlando Hernandez, whose World Series stardom with the Yankees obscures the alienation he must have felt while estranged from his family in a new culture. McCaughey celebrates Dock Ellis, not for the Pirates pitcher’s acid-fueled no-hitter, but for his abbreviated start on May 1, 1974 when he decided to hit every batter in the Cincinnati Reds lineup as payback for what he perceived as hotdogging – and also to energize his lacklustre team, a ploy that actually worked! Mystified manager Danny Murtaugh pulled Ellis five batters into the first inning, but the hurler’s message had been heard loud and clear.

The mid-90s REM-style powerpop hit To the Veterans Committee makes a soaringly persuasive case for enshrining longtime Braves centerfielder Dale Murphy in the Hall of Fame. Not only was Murphy one of his era’s top power hitters, he made the tricky transition from catcher to centerfield – where he won more than one Gold Glove – and he also was (and maybe still is) a competent piano player!

Box Scores celebrates a great tradition that someday may only be accessible on your phone, but as Buck reminds, “Every summer, every day, the box scores keep me sane.” The only really obvious track here, The Babe, sends a shout-out to the Sultan of Swat over a regal Hey Jude pulse lowlit by some deliciously watery vintage chorus-box guitar. Another tribute to a home run king, They Don’t Know Henry makes haunting 60s style garage-psych rock out a tip of the cap to Henry Aaron.

McCaughey cynically ponders what makes the low-budget Oakland A’s so good – and connects the dots between Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter and the recently retired, mostly mediocre Dallas Braden – over a slinky Stones/T-Rex groove. Mills and Pitmon share vocals on Pascual on the Perimeter, memorializing the afternoon when the Braves’ eccentric righthander ostensibly got lost on the way to the ballpark – and wouldn’t you know it, Phil Niekro started in his place. Part Dream Syndicate, part True West and maybe part Yo La Tengo, it’s got some of the best snarling, burning guitar of any of the tracks here.

Larry Yount, a pensive folk-rock number by Wynn, recalls the older brother of Hall of Famer Robin Yount, whose single big league appearance ended before he’d thrown a pitch. He hurt himself while warming up after coming in from the Astros bullpen late in 1971 and never again appeared in a game.

The material gets funnier as the album goes along. The Baseball Card Song is a country patter tune rippling along with Buck’s banjo and a rapidfire rap by Wynn…see, he’d held onto the collection he’d amassed as a kid until this big Wall Street guy offered him some stock in a startup in exchange, and then the fun really starts. Another patter song riffs on both Johnny Cash’s Boy Named Sue and Heart’s Barracuda, a sideways look at a fireballing Red Sox righty who never won a single Cy Young Award despite his 511 career victories. Instead of the usual tired round-the-bases metaphors, the wry faux 70s boudoir soul number Extra Inning of Love looks at another kind of game you play at night from the perspective of a pitcher rather than a batter. And the album ends with Take Me Out to the Ballgame done Ramones style.

There’s also the They Played Baseball, a folk-rock rogues’ gallery of sorts: “Durocher had his lip, and Bob Welch his great big wine, Piniella had his temper, Mendoza had his line and it’s a fine line,” McCaughey grins. Which perfectly sums up this album, and this band: if you know who those guys are, this is for you. Now let’s get Steve Wynn to throw out the first pitch at a Mets home game sometime this year!