New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: steve wynn

The 50 Best Albums of 2020

This is a playlist, plus a small handful of albums that can’t be heard anywhere online. You can listen to everything else here, the majority of it ad-free. It couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

What’s most obvious about this list is that the music rarely reflects the fascist nightmare of 2020. Most of these albums were recorded in 2019, or right before the lockdown. Although there’s been an unprecedented amount of archival live material dumped on the web in the past six months or so, only five of the picks on this list fall into that category.

The other obvious and disturbing trend is that there’s less rock music on this list than there’s ever been since this blog went live in 2011. That’s because many of the albums here – almost all of those being either jazz or classical releases – were recorded with nonprofit or government money, or by the few remaining record labels. It’s impossible to count the number of artists who relied on tour money to fund their records and were unable to put out new albums because of the lockdown.

Beyond the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Albums are listed in rough chronological order of when they were reviewed here, which seldom coincides with official release dates, if such dates existed. Ultimately, the big takeaway here is reason for optimism: 2020 may have been hell, but artists around the world somehow found a way to keep putting out new music.

The number one album of the year, with a bullet, is the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s Data Lords. It’s the big band composer’s darkest and most fearless album, and arguably the most relevant record released in the past year. In the end, it’s very optimistic. Everything on this vast, sweeping collection was written and recorded before the lockdown, but Schneider prophetically and mercilessly pillories and parodies the tech Nazis behind it. This comes across as the most improvisational release Schneider has ever put out, but knowing her, everything here could just as easily be composed all the way through. Her rage and satire are as venomous and funny as anything Shostakovich or the Dead Kennedys ever recorded. And after she’s done savaging the would-be architects of the New Abnormal, the album’s second disc celebrates the beauty and grandeur of nature and the real world – rather than the virtual one – with characteristic lushness and a side trip to Brazil.

The best short album of the year was The Living End, by Karla Rose. Karla Rose Moheno, of irrepressible swing trio the Tickled Pinks, may be best known for her nuanced, smoldering vocals, but it’s her similarly subtle, often haunting songwriting that sets her apart from the legions of great singers around the world. This is just a fraction of what she has in the can: if the rest of it is this good, the full-length record is going to be amazing. There’s some starry soul, a little streetwise New York rock and a rampaging southwestern gothic-tinged anthem that you will see on the best songs of the year list. Listen at Spotify

Another album that stands apart from the rest of the list is Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975. It’s a gargantuan triple-disc set comprising material from two concerts in Germany, each with a completely different but brilliant lineup, getting a first official release after floating around the web for years and in the cassette underground before then. On one hand, it’s completely unfair to compare the other albums here to these sizzling, epic performances by a guy who was probably the greatest bassist in the history of jazz and definitely one of the ten greatest composers of alltime. On the other, this will give you goosebumps. Listen at Spotify

Ward White – Leonard at the Audit
Witheringly funny, hyperliterate, semi-linear narratives set to catchy janglerock with sinister cinematic overtones from the king of implied menace in rock tunesmithing. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – The Universe Inside
Steve Wynn’s legendary, noisy, dueling psychedelic band’s trippiest, most cinematically desolate, epicaly jam-oriented album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

Ted Hearne  – Place
A crushingly satirical, cruelly hilarious, minutely detailed exploration of how gentrification has destroyed Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with a backdrop of surreal avant garde sounds, art-rock and protest gospel music. Listen at Bandcamp

John Ellis – The Ice SIren
The brilliant jazz saxophonist takes a brilliant and unexpected plunge into the waters of noir cabaret and chilly cinematics, with a sweeping big band behind him. Listen at Spotify

High Waisted – Sick of Saying Sorry
Guitarist Jessica Louise Dye’s band makes a shift from surf rock to gorgeously bittersweet powerpop and other retro sounds. Listen at Bandcamp

Péter Szervánszky/Szekesfovarosi Orchestra –  Bartok: Violin Concerto No. 2
Like the Mingus record, this is probably an unfair addition to the list. But it’s spellbinding, and the only album the Hungarian virtuoso ever appeared on, recorded on an x-ray plate under the Nazi invasion in 1945. Listen at Spotify

Alina Ibragimova/Russian State Academic Symphony Orchestra  – Shostakovich: Violin Concertos No.1 and 2
In the year of the lockdown, these two fiercely antifascist, poignant pieces have never had more cultural resonance. Not streaming online.

Alban Gerhardt/WDR Symphony Orchestra  Shostakovich: Cello Concertos No.1 and 2
It makes sense to pair this iconic, scathingly angry, wickedly sardonic and thoughtful interpretation with the ferocity of the one above. Listen at Spotify

Gregg August  – Dialogues on Race
The powerful jazz bassist’s haunting, majestic big band explore the divide-and-conquer implications of racism and the the 1955 murder of Emmett Till with somber grace. Listen at Bandcamp

Niv Ashkenazi – Violins of Hope
The virtuoso violinist teams with pianist Matthew Graybil to celebrate obscure, poignant repertoire by composers murdered or imperiled during the Holocaust. Listen at Spotify

Balothizer – Cretan Smash
They make slashing psychedelia and thrash metal out of classic, haunting Greek revolutionary and hash-smoking anthems from the 20s and 30s. Listen at Bandcamp

The Psychedelic Furs – Made of Rain
A grimly swirling, potently lyrical return to form by one of the greatest bands who defined the new wave and goth movements of the 80s. Listen at Spotify

Steve Wynn – Solo Acoustic Vol. 1
What do you do if you’re an icon of noir-tinged, careening rock and you can’t tour like you always did until the lockdown? You reinvent those songs, many of them iconic, as equally menacing acoustic numbers. Wynn has seldom sounded so stark, or so dark.  Listen at Bandcamp

Ben de la Cour – Shadow Land
A concept album of sinister mini-movies and murder ballads from the dark Americana crooner and bandleader.Listen at Bandcamp

Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore – their debut album
The first trio record by the soulful, often haunting Balkan and klezmer trumpeter with guitarist Brad Shepik and multi-percussionist Shane Shanahan was worth the wait. Listen at Bandcamp

Sylvie Courvoisier – Free Hoops
One of the elegant pianist’s most menacing yet also one of her funniest albums with her long-running trio featuring Drew Gress on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums. Listen at Bandcamp

Summoner – Day of Doom Live
The year’s best heavy psychedelic rock record is a cannon of doom metal riffs, searing two-guitar epics and gritty bass. Listen at Bandcamp

Morricone Youth – The Last Porno Show: Original Soundtrack
What an absolutely gorgeous, sad score, evoking the fatalism of a decaying porn theatre with echoes of Tschaikovsky, David Lynch noir and ornate 70s psychedelia. Listen at Bandcamp

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Chunky Shrapnel
An appropriately epic double live album by these anthemic, quirky, Middle Eastern-fixated Australian psychedelic road warriors. The best possible advertising for their live show: when we take our world back from the lockdowners, we can see them live again. Listen at Bandcamp

Vigen Hovsepyan – Live in Paris 2017
The impassioned Armenian guitarist/singer fronting a ferocious band with duduk player Harutyun Chkolyan and pianist Havard Enstad in front of a packed house on a barge docked along the Seine. The slashing minor-key energy is through the roof: you really feel like you’re there. Listen at Spotify

Dennis Davison – The Book of Strongman
The former Jigsaw Seen frontman’s solo debut, where he plays all the instruments, is a series of historically-informed, metaphorically bristling psychedelic janglerock narratives that scream out for the repeat button. Listen at Bandcamp

Office Culture – A Life of Crime
Seething satire and very subtle but corrosively lyrical narratives – like Margaret Atwood backed by the Human League – on the Brooklyn 80s parody band’s cruelly hilarious debut. Listen at Bandcamp

Dawn Oberg – 2020 Revision
The searingly lyrical, irrepressibly funny pianist and protest song stylist at the peak of her power, singing truth to power about racist cops killing innocent black people in San Francisco, and fascist political overreach in general. Listen at Bandcamp

Immaterial Possession – their first album
Deliciously individualistic, macabre psychedelic rock informed by but hardly limited to classic 1960s sounds, with bracing Balkan and Middle Eastern overtones. Listen at Bandcamp

Trio Tekke – Strovilos
The Greek psychedelic band look to the Middle East as much as to the first wave of Greek psych-rock bands from the 60s, and the underground hash-smoking classics of the 20s and 30s.  Listen at Bandcamp

Mahsa Vahdat  Enlighten the Night
Over an elegant, brooding piano-based band, the Iranian singer employs the words of both iconic Persian poets and contemporary lyricists to celebrates freedom and hope for the future in the face of increasingly grim odds. Listen at Spotify

Susan Alcorn – Pedernal
Resonant, dynamic, often haunting vistas by this era’s great virtuoso of jazz pedal steel and her similarly inspired quintet. Listen at Bandcamp

Lord Buffalo – Tohu Wa Bohu
Are their sprawling, hypnotic guitar jams metal, psychedelia or film music? Whatever you call it, this is one of the best albums of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

The Pocket Gods  – No Room at the (Holiday) Inn
Who would have thought a Christmas record would make this list? Actually, this is more of a protest album, a scathing, wildly multistylistic mix of pro-freedom songs to raise your spirits and give you hope. Arguably the best album ever from perennially prolific frontman Mark Christopher Lee. Listen at Spotify

Superfonicos – Suelta
The slinky Texas-Colombian band’s debut album is a mix of tropical psychedelia, cumbia, skaragga, Afrobeat and salsa jams. The band’s secret weapon? Reedy gaita flute. Listen at Soundcloud

Mehmet Polat – Quantum Leap
Haunting, high-voltage, plaintively modal Turkish and Balkan songs from the brilliant oud player and bandleader Listen at Bandcamp

Fantastic Negrito – Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?
The incredible oldschool soul album Prince wished he’d made but never did. Like Prince, this guy plays pretty much all the instruments too. Listen at Spotify

Emily Barker – A Dark Murmuration of Words
Hauntingly imagistic, tersely arranged, Americana-tinged narrative songs from this lyrical Australian songwriter and her band. Listen at Bandcamp

The Plastic Pals – It Could Be So Easy, Free and Fine
A scorchingly lyrical, deviously funny short album by these Swedish connoisseurs of the edgiest sounds to emerge from 60s American psychedelia, 70s powerpop and 80s punk/ Listen at Bandcamp

Mamie Minch – Slow Burn
Characteristically sly, slashingly lyrical, erudite original steel guitar blues from the sometimes haunting, sometimes hilarious blues guitarist/chanteuse.Listen at Bandcamp

Scott Robinson/Milford Graves/Roscoe Mitchell/Marshall Allen – Flow States A riveting improvisational quartet record, featuring the first-ever collaboration between iconic drummer/cardiac medicine pioneer Graves and AACM sax titan Mitchell, plus the Sun Ra Arkestra’s ageless Allen and Robinson as ringleader on bass sax. Not streaming online.

Duo Tandem – Guitar Duos of Kemal Belevi
Gorgeously interwoven, largely minor-key acoustic Middle Eastern music with elegant climbs, moving basslines, exchanges of roles and lead lines.Necati Emirzade is typically in the right channel, his bandmate Mark Anderson in the left. Listen at Spotify

Amanda Gardier – Flyover Country
Fiery, picturesque, midwestern gothic-tinged modal jazz from this rising star alto saxophonist and her similarly edgy crew. Listen at Spotify 

Sigurd Hole – Lys/Morke
Solo bass has rarely sounded so haunting or interesting. Maybe recording it on a deserted Norwegian island had something to with the desolately gorgeous vistas here. Listen at Bandcamp

The Icebergs – Add Vice
This is the album where frontwoman/poet Jane LeCroy’s punchy, lyrically slashing cello rock trio took their songs to the next level, as psychedelic as they are ominously cinematic. Listen at Bandcamp

Sara Serpa – Recognition
The brilliant, lustrous singer/composer confronts the genocidal legacy of European imperialism in Africa in the corrosively lyrical, lushly enveloping soundtrack to her debut film, a collage of archival footage taken in Angola under Portuguese imperialist rule in the 1960s. Listen at Bandcamp

Ran Blake/Christine Correa – When Soft Rains Fall
An angst-fueled, saturnine duo album of hauntingly reinvented standards and originals by the veteran singer and her long-running, iconic noir pianist collaborator. Not streaming online.

JD Allen – Toys/Die Dreaming
Dark, careening modal intensity from this era’s most intense tenor saxophonist/composer and his energetic, newish trio. He’s been building toward this big sort-of-comeback for a long time. Listen at youtube

Ren Harvieu – Revel in the Drama
A lavish, immaculately layered, brililantly produced trip through decades of soul, from pre-Motown sounds through the 90s from the edgy British chanteuse.  Listen at Bandcamp

Sarah Brailey/Experiential Orchestra and Chorus – Ethel Smyth: The Prison
The world premiere recording of one of this pioneering early 20th century woman composer’s most important, philosophically rich works, a somber, lavishly orchestrated, uninterrupted sixteen-part 1930 song cycle Listen at Spotify

Victoria Langford – Victoria
Swirling, stormy orchestration and religious imagery as a metaphor for interpersonal angst in the singer/multi-keyboardist’s debut album, arguably the best rock debut of 2020. Listen at Bandcamp

The Electric Mess – The Electric Mess V
Sizzling psychedelic punk and janglerock from this darkly careening, female-fronted New York band. Listen at Bandcamp

Rachelle Garniez/Erik Della Penna – An Evening in New York
Retro charm and devilish levels of detail in this New York-themed collection of originals and reinvented swing tunes from the iconic accordionist/chanteuse and the subtly slashing, brilliant Kill Henry Sugar guitarist/frontman. Listen at Spotify

Michael Hersch – I Hope We Get the Chance to Visit Soon
A chilling live concert recording of the harrowing 21st century classical composer and pianist’s suite, inspired by a dear friend whose ultimately futile struggle with cancer was not helped by experimental drugs. Listen at Bandcamp

ARC Ensemble – Chamber Works of Walter Kaufmann
A rapt, often hypnotic, starkly engaging collection of rare works by a Jewish composer who escaped the Holocaust to follow his muse and write orchestral Indian music. Listen at Spotify

How The River Ganges Flows compilation
Gripping, slaring, ancient Indian carnatic music for violin and percussion captured on 78 RPM shellac records between 1933 and 1952, newly rescued from the archives. Listen at Bandcamp

Matthew Grimm – Dumpster-Fire Days
Just to keep you listening all the way through, this is one of the most searingly lyrical albums on this list, from the charismatic, politically fearless songwriter who recorded the song that topped the Best Songs of 2013 list here and once fronted legendary Americana rockers the Hangdogs.

. Listen at Spotify

Steve Wynn Reinvents Classics and Rarities with a Dusky, Haunting Acoustic Ambience

Hot on the heels of the Dream Syndicate‘s radically psychedelic, echoingly haunting new album The Universe Inside, bandleader Steve Wynn has totally flipped the script with his spare yet no less hauntingly intimate new release, Solo Acoustic Vol. 1. Beyond the Dream Syndicate’s guitar duels and increasingly vast panoramas, Wynn has toured solo acoustic on and off since his teenage days in the 80s. Yet, outside of side one of the legendary/obscure Straight to the Swapmeet ep, there’s never been a solo acoustic Wynn album until now.

You could call this his Lightnin’ Hopkins record. The legendary Texas bluesman would stop into a studio or radio station in between gigs along the highway, put down some tracks and sell the master for gas money. Wynn, a big Bill Callahan fan, went into the artist formerly known as Smog’s favorite Austin studio late last year and got a grand total of 26 songs from his vast back catalog in the can in a single marathon eight-hour session. This initial volume is up at Bandcamp, and there’s another on the way.

There are plenty of “so THAT’s what this song is all about” moments here: the devil is always in the details in Wynn’s noir-tinged tableaux, and sometimes that can get subsumed in the roar of the guitars. Wynn is also as interesting to listen to on acoustic as he is on electric. In fact, some of the spare, dusky versions here are arguably better than the originals.

That could easily be said for the catchy, vamping take of Manhattan Fault Line, which opens the album. It’s one of the few straightforwardly autobiographical numbers in Wynn’s book: a lifetime Los Angeleno, he was 34 when he left town for New York with his tail between his legs…and never looked back.

The version of Merrittville isn’t the only quiet one out there: the slow, watery menace of the Dream Syndicate’s performance on the Live at Raji’s record is an icy gem. Even the name of this town has a crushing sarcasm: what a horrible place for an irrepressible bon vivant to be on the run from rednecks and bible bangers!

Anthem is a real revelation, its desperate narrator still awake and staring at the screen as all the channels on tv are signing off. There’s also more than a hint of desperation in the version of Love Me Anyway here.

Similarly, the doomed narrative of Like Mary stands out even more than in the original, Wynn’s acoustic guitar running through a vintage amp with just a tinge of tremolo, heightening the Lynchian ambience. HIs terse, incisive picking ramps up the mystery in Morningside Heights, while this solo version of Carry a Torch has a welcome, unexpected if somewhat muted musical savagery to match the lyrics.

Freak Star, one of Wynn’s most careeningly evocative songs from the past ten years or so, is one of the album’s best tunes; “Something told me commonsense was not a game you play,” he reflects. The real rarity here is the cynical, Highway 61 Dylan-ish Is There Something I Should Know. The obvious choicefor this record is a deliciously twisted take of My Old Haunts, Wynn switching out the original’s blithely sarcastic oldtimey swing atmosphere for a much more pointed, low-key character study.

Layer By Layer is the most overtly Lou Reed-influenced number here: it”s not clear to what degree this is about religion, or surveillance, or both. There’s also an inventively strummed, brief solo take of Crawling Misanthropic Blues and a terse version of Shades of Blue, although without that bittersweet Dream Syndicate quote on the intro that literally takes your breath away  – if you know Wynn’s turbulent history, anyway. Is it fair to pick an album of old songs as one of the best of the year? They sure don’t sound old here.

Ward White’s Leonard at the Audit – Best Rock Record of 2020 So Far

Since the early zeros, songwriter Ward White has been on a creative tear matched by few other artists, ever. In context: Bowie in the 70s; Aretha in the 60s; Elvis Costello from 1977 to about 1985; and Steve Wynn pretty much since birth. Hall of fame company. And White just doesn’t stop: his tenth and latest album, Leonard at the Audit, is streaming at Bandcamp. In terms of searingly literary lyricism set to imaginative, catchy rock changes, White is pretty much unsurpassed these days.

This particular record is probably the closest thing to White’s sinister nonlinear song cycle Bob – rated best rock record of the year here in 2013 – that he’s released since then. The album title reflects parallel narratives: Leonard Cohen’s 1960s flirtation with Scientology, and a seemingly mundane but actually much more grim story that looks back to the deadly geopolitics of the Bob record. Is this a sequel? Maybe.

The opening track, Bubble and Squeak, is White at the top of his imagistic, slashing game. A creepy cast of characters from the deep state along with an undertaker’s assistant make their entrance, none of them identified by name. “If you tangle with the Pharisees, be prepared to give up a son,” White warns. Musically, this sounds like the Police, built around a recurring guitar figure that White calls “seasick.” The band – Andrew Bird keyboardist Tyler Chester, Jakob Dylan drummer Mark Stepro and bassist John Spiker – maintain a low-key new wave pulse alongside him.

White goes for a more lush, ornate, briskly backbeat-driven feel in Not the Half, probably the only song to date to make the connection between Dylan Thomas final post-barroom collapse and lockdown-era respirator deaths. Above the watery web of guitars, the story references a hostage but also issues of artistic posterity or lack thereof.

The voice of a seemingly stoned and enlightenment-fixated Cohen alternates with someone whose marriage is going to hell on the express track in the similarly enveloping, jangly Ice Capades – or maybe it’s just a single narrator. The journey to the center of White’s songs is always a challenge, but an irresistible one.

Awash in hazy mellotron and icy chorus-box guitar, the Pink Floyd-inflected title track weighs the sacred against the profane – alongside what might or might not be a plane crash. The next song’s “Kleenex/Phoenix” rhyme is one of White’s funniest lyrical moments ever, and the litany of 70s references afterward are just as amusing, as is the central guitar hook – in a skeletal art-rock song about a contract killing, no less.

Likewise, the opening clang of Edmund Fitzgerald Is a Wreck (DAMN, White nails everything 70s here!), a sick, distantly late Beatlesque, characteristically image-rich Wisconsin death trip.

The backdrop shifts ten years forward into allusive 80s powerballadry with Try Me. The suspense and the black humor are relentless:

I was talking to the funeral director
Asking him how much this might all cost
He said “It’s hard to put a price on a relationship with God”
I said “Try me”

The surrealism reaches fever pitch in Dreaming of Dentistry, a druggy El Lay tableau akin to Floyd doing a sneering take on 70s lounge-pop with more than a hint of southwestern gothic. Dead People Fucking is one of White’s more Costelloesque numbers, referencing James Joyce, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, and others with wry imagery that’s part Shakespeare, part Warren Zevon.

White sets the ominous gambling metaphors of You Gotta Have a System to a slow, lingering sway:

Lucky with queens, but not in spades
I told you to hit me!
Diamonds retreat where the heart invades
You might as well double down

He winds up the record with the Bowie-esque Pornographic Ennui, connecting the bloody dots between dirty pix and police state ruthlessness:

He was a man who liked machines;
On cocaine it was guns, on beer, anything that runs on gasoline

If it still makes sense for there to be such a thing as a music blog in December 2020 – let’s hope there is – you’ll see this again, high on the best albums of the year list.

The Dream Syndicate’s Most Epic, Psychedelic Masterpiece: A New Double Vinyl Record

The Dream Syndicate distinguish themselves from the legions of jambands out there with the sheer intensity and focus of the guitar duels between bandleader Steve Wynn and lead player Jason Victor – and their songs’ carefully crafted narratives. One of the band’s signature moves is to take Wynn’s tightly wound three-and-a-half-minute riff-rock gems and thrash the hell out of them.

Their new double viinyl album, The Universe Inside – streaming at Bandcamp – takes a turn in a radically different direction. It’s a suite, by far the band’s most psychedelic record: history may judge this as the fullest realization of the vision Wynn introduced on the band’s influential debut, The Days of Wine and Roses. There are element of jazz, art-rock and latin music here, but ultimately this is its own animal.

Bassist Mark Walton more or less loops a catchy, dry, trebly riff as Wynn and Victor triangulate in a spare exchange with guest Stephen McCarthy’s lingering guitar-sitar to open the album’s twenty-minute first track, The Regulator. Shards of reverb and sputters of sparks from the amps punctuate those succinct phrases amid the swirl and pulse: Chris Cacavas’ echoey electric piano becomes the icing on this space cake. With drummer Dennis Duck and percussionist Johnny Hott’s supple shuffle groove, Carlos Santana’s late 60s jams come to mind, but also Isaac Hayes’ sprawling psychedelic soul vamps – and Meddle-era Pink Floyd, and Angelo Badalamenti’s David Lynch film themes.

There’s a spoken-word vocal that concerns soothing the soul and blown fuses, both things this band know something about. Marcus Tenney’s one-man horn section wafts through the mix – some sax, some trumpet, sometimes both, frequently evoking Sonny Rollins’ work on the Stones’ Waiting on a Friend. It ends as you would expect it

The groove expands, the spacerock becoming more drifty in the second track, The Longing. This tragedy occurred “Like it happened moments ago, distant across the chasm…the harder you try to fix it, eliminate, deep-six it, all that remains is the longing,” Wynn sings, pushing against the top of his register.

The three six-string guys – that’s McCarthy on six-string bass here – trade off warmly major-key Ticket to Ride phrases as Apropos Of Nothing gets underway. It’s a classic, cynical, allusively grim Wynn narrative

What were you expecting
What did you become
Apropos of nothing
Chain reaction before the fall

And just when the band have lulled you into an alterred state, they hit a crunchy, roaring What Goes On drive.

The sardonic jousting that introduces the instrumental Dusting Off the Rust – a line from The Regulator – is one of the album’s funniest moments. This one’s a gritty slinker, a trippy dichotomy of punchy riffs and swirling cascades in the same vein as the spidery Topanga Canyon Freaks, from Wynn’s iconic 2001 Here Come the Miracles album.

The record’s final cut, The Slowest Rendition rises from a web of aching bent-note cries, to a pummeling drive and then a brooding, summery haze. Elegantly animated interplay aside, it’s one of Wynn’s most haunting, death-fixated songs. “Chaos flickers in the night” on “this silent, darkening, empty beach,” his disembodied narrator bracing for what comes next as the sax winds down. It’s an apt ending from the guy who wrote John Coltrane Stereo Blues. If there’s still a reason, or a means, for music blogs to exist at the end of 2020 – let’s hope there are – you will see this high on the annual best album of the year list here

The Legendary Dream Syndicate’s Latest Album Is Their Most Political and Lyrical One Yet

“You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way,” Dylan said. But the Dream Syndicate proved him wrong. It’s mind-blowing how a band who put out their first album in 1981, broke up in 1989, regrouped early in this soon-defunct decade and influenced pretty much every noiserock and psychedelic band since are arguably better than ever. Their latest album These Times – streaming at youtube and available on autographed limited edition vinyl – is their quiet one so far.

As quiet as the world’s most brilliantly feral jamband gets, anyway. The janglerock ticks more tightly, and frontman/guitarist Steve Wynn goes deeper into his recent explorations of dreampop and psychedelic soul, taking advantage of drummer Dennis Duck’s slinky capabilities (anybody who thinks he’s just a four-on-the-floor rock guy hasn’t seen the band play John Coltrane Stereo Blues live). It’s also one of Wynn’s lyrically strongest albums, and his most allusively political one.

The first track on the record is The Way In, Wynn’s vampy downstroke guitar over a nebulous dreampop backdrop:

What a tangled web
What a piece of the puzzle
Hot licks and rhetoric
A syntactical muzzle
And we can’t begin
Until we find a way in

Put Some Miles On is the most motorik song the band’s ever done , a wryly defiant commentary on the wear and tear of the road, literally and metaphorically Wynn goes deeper into that theme with the haunting Black Light, its spare, resonantly jangly guitar and eerily blippy keys over a midtempo swing groove:

Crawled out from beneath the rock
Crustacean rough and steely strong
A weathered eye with a ticking heart
I know where and why but not how long

Awash in watery 80s guitar, Bullet Holes is a catchy backbeat hit over a classic Wynn two-chord verse, contemplating the ravages of time and knowing where the bodies are buried:

Barely surviving
Shell shocked, struck by lightning
And alone
Death defying
Acceptance without trying
Walking on gilded air
Down the boulevard without a care
Something reminds me
Nothing left to bind me
I see the bullet holes
The history that no one knows
Just the way the story goes…

Still Here Now is just plain gorgeous, a bitterly resolute midtempo anthem that picks up with incisive piano and distantly unhinged sheets of Jason Victor guitar, building to his first tantalizingly savage solo here:

I sing the song in vain
And I know there are those
Who might feel the same
Stunted by light
I just guess I wasn’t thinking right

The slyly allusive revolutionary anthem Speedway comes across as less lyrically dense Highway 61 Dylan:

Banging on the shuttered doorway
The owner is fast asleep
Gonna work it out this time
Maybe just for keeps

Recovery Mode is a brisk, new wave-tinged tune: the momentary guitar duel between Wynn and Victor is spot-on and like nothing they’ve ever done before. It’s a tense, metaphorically-loaded late Trump-era scenario:

You came to the right place
You got a kind face
What if your saving grace
Was lost in the chase

Duck opens The Whole World’s Watching with a sly lowrider clave groove, bassist Mark Walton turning up his treble for a little funk flash as the guitar swirl grows denser and more abrasive, distorto organ flitting through the mix. “Differentiate the sides,” Wynn instructs: “Same wrong, different time.”

The growlingly propulsive Space Age could be a snide come-on to a groupie, or an even snider commentary on politics as spectacle. The band wind up the record with Treading Water Underneath the Stars, a crushingly cynical eoo-disaster parable over lingering Meddle-era Pink Floyd atmospherics. It goes without saying that this is one of the best albums of the year.

Why did this blog wait so long to pitch in and spread the word? Waiting for the band to come back to town! Good news: there’s a 2020 tour in the works, keep your eye on Wynn’s tour page.

Another Withering Lyrical Rock Masterpiece by Ward White

It’s time we put Ward White up there in the pantheon with Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Rachelle Garniez, Steve Wynn, Ray Davies and any other first-ballot hall of famer you can think of. Over the last fifteen years or so, the now LA-based White been on a creative tear to rival any one of those songwriting icons. Bowie’s work in the 70s is a good comparison, although where the Thin White Duke would reinvent himself just about every year, White has crystallized a classic three-minute janglerock sound, often veering off to the psychedelic side. 

Lyrically speaking, nobody writes more compelling, allusively macabre narratives. The devil is always in the details: in this case, the crack in the porcelain, the kind of soap in the bathroom, the objects on either side of where the dead bird has fallen out of the sky. White’s 2013 release Bob got the pick for best album of the year here, but that might just as easily be said for anything he’s put out since, including his latest one, Diminish, streaming at Bandcamp. As usual, White keeps his songs short, everything less than five minutes, some less than three. White plays all the guitars, elegantly and tersely, joined by keyboardist Tyler Chester and the low-key rhythm section of bassist John Spiker and drummer Mark Stepro.

It opens with Titans, its plotline as inscrutable as its melody is straightforward and hard-hitting. Twin guitar leads roar up to a menacing, chromatic chorus: it’s one of White’s louder numbers. An infant’s death and a possible terrorist attack may be related, or just parallel events. “This is no time for dreams,” is the mantra: welcome to the end of the teens, USA.

Noise on 21, a punchy backbeat anthem with blippy organ, is a classic White urban tableau, the yuppies upstairs staying up late just to seal another sordid deal while the narrator reaches breaking point: “Some things that you should never see are happy in the shadows, now it’s time to go home.”

Back to the End, with its cruelly Beatlesque chorus-box guitar, is a throwback to White’s late 60s psych-pop period a few years ago, a characteristically allusive, twisted scenario tracing the ugly logic of a S&M scenario: “Cannibals don’t waste their time with darkening the roux.”

Canopy, a brief, catchy number with uneasily warpy 80s synth, is one of the more unselfconsciously poetic songs in White’s catalog, contemplating endings from contrasting viewpoints

Awash in jangle and starry synth orchestration, Flood paints a grim picture of dysfunction on a Hollywood film set, with a shout to Baudelaire:

Send a dozen roses up to Noah’s favorite failures
Don’t believe the rumors of a plague upon this town
This bar never closes and it’s filled with drunken sailors
For every one, an albatross who should have let him drown

Watch the Hands is the great lost track from Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces: “Your best laid plans will never bite you in the ass unless your turn your back and leave them starving,” the child killer taunts.

With White’s lingering, detfly textured guitar multitracks, Cowboy could be the most gorgeous, bittersweetly surreal number here. It’s White’s La Chute:

Tell Bob I’m not busy being born, or dying, just alive
Some flights leave too early out of Kennedy
And some pricks play the Castro card for years

White puts a fresh spin on an old myth in Sodom, bristling with Syd Barrett-ish changes, sardonic backing vocals and glammy guitars.

Some call us sacrilegious
The chafed and the chosen few
You polish your barnyard idol
I’ll tarnish the ewe

Alternately balmy and burning, Every Night I Have This Dream is another of the murder ballads White is unsurpassed at – it’s not clear whether this is really a dream or not:

Double nickels all the way
I can’t afford to lose the day
They pop that trunk trunk and we are done, and I’m not going out that way

White puts a sinister edge on a mashup of blithe Bacharach 60s bossa-pop and watery, artsy Beatlesque jangle in Uncle Bob (Akron), the album’s most corrosively cynical number. That’s hardly a surprise, considering it’s a tale from the campaign trail told by the manager of a candidate who turns out to be something less than ideal

The album’s final cut is The Living End, a somber, mostly acoustic portrait of defeat as harrowingly detailed as Richard Thompson’s Withered and Died:

Buried with your artifacts
Pharaoh’s favorite son
Too late to think of what you’ll do with what you’ve done

You’ll see this in a few days on the best albums of 2018 page.

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.

Girls on Grass Bring Their Deliciously Edgy Jangle and Clang to an Excellent Park Slope Triplebill Tonight

Girls on Grass play a deliciously jangly mashup of Americana rock and serpentine, guitar-fueled psychedelia, with a dash of punk. At their most epic, they sound like the Dream Syndicate with a better singer out front. Which is not to dis Steve Wynn, who’s been a hell of a singer for a long time, it’s just that there’s no way he can hit the high notes that Girls on Grass frontwoman Barbara Endes does. She and the band are headlining a rare, excellent triplebill at Union Hall in Park Slope tonight, Augusr 5 at 10 PM. Creepy Nashville gothic band Karen & the Sorrows open the show at 8, followed by first-class honkytonk and outlaw country crooner/bandleader Cliff Westfall; cover is $10. Then Girls on Grass are at Bowery Electric on the 15th at 8:45 for the same price.

The one time this blog was in the house at a Girls on Grass show was way back in March at Halyards in Gowanus. The interplay and tradeoffs between the two guitarists was breathtaking, Luna’s Sean Eden playing bad cop with his noisy, bluesy, head-on riffage against Endes’ slithery cascades and eerie passing tones, when she wasn’t flinging bits and pieces of chords against the wall or clanging her way up to a big, resounding chorus. Bassist Dave Mandl swooped and dove way up the strings, more haphazardly than anyone else in the band while drummer Nancy Polstein swung the tunes, hard, and contributed soaring vocal harmonies as well.

What was coolest to see was how much material the band has that’s not on their gorgeously tuneful 2016 debut album Trouble I Wrought. They played that janglefest, but they also did a bunch of louder material, leading up to a paisley underground cover of X’s The Once Over Twice. If memory serves right, the most menacing number was the riff-rocking Street Fight, a spot-on oldschool Brooklyn scenario; the most psychedelic, shapeshifting, longest song in the set was Return to Earth, which veered from  post-Neil Young highway rock to slithery psychedelia and back. It’s a fair guess they’ll rock out pretty hard at Union Hall’s recently reopened downstairs room too. While neither opening act is as loud, they’re both worth seeing too.

A Clinic in Purist Guitar Rock from Eric Ambel and Esquela

“Who needs pedals?” Eric “Roscoe” Ambel asked the party people in the house at a private event at Bowery Electric last week. His pedalboard was acting up, so he pulled the plug on it. Running straight through his amp, switching between a vintage black Les Paul and his signature Roscoe Deluxe Tele model by Stonetree Custom Guitars, Ambel put on a clinic in lead guitar, playing a mix of old favorites and material from his new gatefold vinyl album, Lakeside. Behind the guitar icon and head honcho of the late, great Lakeside Lounge were Brett Bass on bass, Phil Cimino on drums and Spanking Charlene‘s Mo Goldner taking on a Keith Richards role on second guitar. They kicked off hard with Song from the Walls, the angry, acidic riff-rock opening track on Ambel’s 1995 Loud and Lonesome album.

It’s amazing how few notes Ambel uses, considering what kind of chops the guy has. Everything counts for something: the lingering bends on the simmering, amped-up Jimmy Reed groove of Here Come My Love; the gritty, enveloping roar of the anti-trendoid broadside Hey Mr. DJ; the sunspotted, precise blues bite of Don’t Make Me Break You Down. Spanking Charlene frontwoman Charlene McPherson lent her powerful pipes to the vocal harmonies on Have Mercy, a soul-infused number that she wrote with Ambel. They sent a shout-out to the Ramones with Massive Confusion, then chilled out with Gillian Welch’s Miss Ohio. Ambel’s playing the album release show on April 29 at around 8:30 PM at Berlin (in the basement under 2A). He’s doing double duty that night: after his set, he’a adding “power assist guitar” with the ferociously funny Spanking Charlene.

The opening act, Esquela – whose album Canis Majoris Ambel recently produced – were excellent too. They work a country-oriented side of paisley underground twang and clang. The push-pull of the two guitarists, Brian Shafer’s snaky, sinuous leads against Matt Woodin’s punchy, uneasily propulsive drive had an intensity similar to great 80s bands like True West and Steve Wynn‘s Dream Syndicate. They also hit hard with their opener, Too Big to Fail (as in, “too rich for jail”), frontwoman Becca Frame’s big, wounded wail soaring over the twin-guitar attack and the four-on-the-floor drive from the band’s main songwriter, bassist John “Chico” Finn and drummer Todd Russell.

From there they hit a wry Del Shanon doo-wop rock groove with It Didn’t Take, went into stomping mid-70s Lou Reed territory and then rousing Celtic rock with Need Not Apply, a snarling look back at anti-Irish racisim across the ages. Their best song was a bittersweetly swaying dead ringer for mid-80s True West, but with better vocals and a careening, shoulder-dusting Shafer solo. Or it might have been an echoey psychedelic number that they suddenly took warpspeed at the end. They brought up harmony singer Allyson Wilson, whose soulful intensity was every bit the match for Frame’s – which made sense, considering that she usually can be found singing opera and classical repertoire at places like Carnegie Hall. Her most spine-tinging moment was when she tackled the Merry Clayton role on a slinky cover of Gimme Shelter.

The band closed with Freebird, a sardonically funny, Stonesy original that Finn wrote to satisfy all the yahoos who scream for it. Perennially popular indie powerpop road warriors the Figgs – who haven’t lost a step in twenty years – were next on the bill. Which was where the whiskey really started to kick in – this was a party, after all. Sorry, guys – for a look at what they sound like onstage, here’s a snarky piece from Colossal Musical Joke week, 2012.

An Exhilarating Paisley Underground Instrumental Album from Dave Miller

Guitarslinger Dave Miller plays adrenalizing, catchy instrumental rock informed by Americana, soul music, pastoral jazz, noiserock and postrock. There’s nobody out there who sounds remotely like him. He’s so good that you might actually want to go to the small room at the Rockwood at midnight, where he’ll be on April 3, or to Greeenpoint, where he’ll be at Manhattan Inn at 10 on April 6. He’s got a sensational new album, Old Door Phantoms, which hasn’t officially hit yet, although there are a couple of tracks up at Bandcamp and some tantalizing live stuff at his youtube channel.

It opens with a roar and a clang with Found Towns, a swaying, stomping, burning paisley underground instrumental, like a song from True West’s second album minus the lyrics. As it goes on, there’s a push and pull and eventually a fullscale battle between guitar tracks, much as Russ Tolman and Stephen McCarthy would do thirty years ago. Eventually Ben Boye’s electric piano joins the melee, then they decay in a haze of reverb exhaust and Quin Kirchner’s tumbling drums. It’s a hell of a way to kick thing off.

Bison Disciple works a warmly familiar 70s Americana rock riff into a more swinging soul groove anchored by Boye’s electic piano. If the Band hadn’t been a bunch of stoned Canadian hippies, had some real balls and took some real chances, they might have sounded something like this. As it goes on, it gives Miller a chance to bellyflop into classic 60s/70s Westside Chicago blues. The Things I Don’t Know shifts into drifty mellotron-fueled, twinkling spacerock, part Nektar, part early Built to Spill, the ghost of Jerry Garcia looking on approvingly. Last Call makes an abrupt move into insistent 80s noiserock, then hits a stomping Motown-inflected pulse from Matt Ulery’s bass, blending the two with a wry edge as the keys go spiraling up into a bubbly nitrous web.

Animsm blends slow, slinky Bill Frisell pastorals with a little Hendrix and a tinge of evil Steve Ulrich/Big Lazy noir – in fact, as it builds steam and then subsides, it could be a less lithe Big Lazy. Wry allusions to the Cure, Hendrix and the Ventures pop up as For Too Much Longer gets going and then it hits a sprinting, bittersweet highway groove, then edges toward enigmatic dreampop before skittering back toward the surf. With its mammoth cinematic sweep and good cheer, it sounds like a more explosive American take on Los Crema Paraiso.

Miller keeps the epic intensity going with the towering 6/8 paisley underground sway of Tree Worship, sort of a mashup of 1984-era Dream Syndicate and MC5 freakout.The album winds up wih a noisy, snarky cover of the surf classic Telstar, with a crash landing ending that puts the original to shame. What a breath of fresh air this is. Let’s put Miller on a triplebill with Girls on Grass and the new Dream Syndicate and make paisley underground the sound that all the cool kids listen to just like they did thirty years ago. This one’s one of 2016’s best with a bullet.