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Dark Country Crooner Mark Sinnis Puts Out His Most Haunting Album

Purists complain when their favorite style of music changes. Sometimes they have a point – drum machines and bling-bling hip-hop product placements in country music? Barf.

But consider: if a style doesn’t change, that means it’s dead. Mark Sinnis personifies the cutting edge in this era’s country music, aware of tradition and immersed in it yet taking it to genuinely exciting new places. While his new album It’s Been a Long Cold Hard Lonely Winter (streaming at Spotify) is his deepest immersion in hard honkytonk, he also sounds like no other artist in country music anywhere. It’s what you get from a guy who grew up on the classics – Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, most obviously – but as a musician, cut his teeth playing new wave and gothic rock. Doktor John of the Aquarian called his music”cemetery and western,” and the term stuck. It’s an apt way to describe Sinnis’s doomed vision and individualistic blend of classic C&W and Nashville gothic.

It’s a long album, well over an hour’s worth of music, almost unthinkable in today’s world. Themes of drinking to kill the pain, death and life beyond the grave recur throughout it. Sinnis’ resonant baritone, always a strength, has never been more soulful or expressive, or more highly nuanced. He was good fifteen years ago fronting ferocious dark rockers Ninth House – who’ve been through a million lineup changes, and are still more or less active – but he’s great now.

Lee Compton’s trumpet and Brian Aspinwall’s pedal steel team up to give the album’s Texas shuffle of a title track an ominous southwestern gothic touch. Sinnis sings Wine and Whiskey and the Devil Makes Three with George Jones inflections without making it blatantly derivative. Interestingly, Aspinwall’s mellow steel work gives a cover of the Ernest Tubb honkytonk hit Driving Nails in My Coffin an almost Hawaiian feel.

Six Feet from Eternity opens with the story of Mary Ann Slouson, who died at age thirty on August 25, 1854 – Sinnis’ birthday. A World with No Tomorrow, unlike what the title would suggest, is optimistic – with its slow Memphis soul groove, jaunty trumpet and unexpectedly biting garage rock guitar from virtuoso Smokey Chipotle (who colors the rest of the album with classic honkytonk licks straight out of 1962), it seems Sinnis got the visitation from his pal on the other side that he was hoping for.

Sitting at the Heartbreak Saloon has a Tex-Mex sway and the feel of a Conway Twitty hit fromthe 70s with better production values and a more boozy milieu. Sunday Mourning Train works a period-perfect grim 1968-style Johnny Cash chunk-ka-chunk shuffle. Cemeteries and Centuries broodinglyand hypnotically contemplates “Sobering realities,” as Sinnis puts it, “Like waiting for a train, one by one we go.” A lingering, slow cover of the George Jones classic He Stopped Loving Her Today revisits that ambience a little later on, fueled by Zach Ingram’s funeral parlor organ.

On a Cold Night in December sets a haunting overnight train narrative to a loping southwestern gothic beat. Open Road of Memories has a bittersweet, nocturnal bounce, a mid 60’s-style Nashville September song. Down Old Route Number Nine makes a dirge out of Merle Travis Sixteen Tons-style country blues, swaying along with Stephen Gara’s resolute banjo. And Sinnis puts an update on Johnny Cash spoken-word pieces from the 60s with The Angel of Death. The album winds up with another Cash soundalike, In Harmony, a catchy if utterly morbid coda that makes uneasy peace with the inevitability of the grave. There are also a couple of remakes of older Sinnis songs here: a surprisingly gentle take of the corrosive kiss-off anthem Mistaken for Love, and a lustrous version of the Ninth House classic Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me. You’ll see this here again in a few days on the Best Albums of 2014 page.

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The 30 Best New York Concerts of 2012

Of all the end-of-the-year lists here, this is the most fun to put together. It’s the most individual – everybody’s got a different one.  Last year’s list had 26 shows; this year’s was impossible to whittle down to less than 30. What was frustrating was looking back and realizing how many other great shows there were. Erica Smith, Rebecca Turner, Love Camp 7 and Pinataland all on the same bill at the Parkside? The club didn’t list it on their calendar. Neil Young in Central Park? Completely spaced out on that one. Pierre de Gaillande’s Georges Brassens translation project, Les Chauds Lapins and Raya Brass Band at that place in Tribeca in January? That night conflicted with Winter Jazzfest. The Brooklyn What at Littlefield, Rachelle Garniez at Barbes, Ward White and Abby Travis at Rock Shop, Spanglish Fly at SOB’s…all of those conflicted with having a life. But it was still a great year, arguably better than 2011.

Of all the multiple-act bills, the longest marathon, and arguably most exhilarating show of the year was Maqamfest on January 6 at Alwan for the Arts downtown with slinky Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat, haunting vintage Greek rembetiko oud band Maeandros, torchy Syrian chanteuse Gaida, rustic Iraqi classicists Safaafir, deviously intense Palestinian buzuq funk band Shusmo and then a crazy Middle Eastern jam with the brilliant Alwan All-Stars. Maqamfest 2013 promises to be just as good.

Rather than trying to rank the rest of these shows, they’re listed chronologically:

Walter Ego at Otto’s, 1/28/12 – the witty, brilliantly lyrical multi- instrumentalist/songwriter, minus his usual theatrical shtick, instead running through one clever, pun-infused, catchy song after another.

Eva Salina at the Ukrainian National Home, 3/31/12 – this was the debut performance of brilliant Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina Primack’s new band with Frank London on trumpet and Patrick Farrell on accordion. She swayed, lost in the music and sang her heart out in a bunch of different languages over the haunting pulse behind her.

Closing night at Lakeside Lounge, 4/30/12 with co-owner Eric Ambel’s Roscoe Trio, Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith’s band, Mary Lee Kortes, Boo Reiners from Demolition String Band, Charlene McPherson from Spanking Charlene and many others giving the legendary East Village rock venue a mighty sendoff.

Little Annie, Paul Wallfisch and David J at the Delancey, 5/7/12 – the smoky, sureallistically hilarious noir cabaret chanteuse, Botanica’s brilliant keyboardist playing three sets, and the legendary Bauhaus bassist/songwriter/playwright at the top of their brooding noir game.

Ben Von Wildenhaus at Zebulon, 5/14/12 – at one of his final shows before leaving town, the noir guitarist played solo through a loop pedal and turned the club into a set from Twin Peaks.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices at Otto’s,  6/16/12 – backed by the ferocious piano of Patrick McLellan, Tommy Hochscheid’s classic Stax/Volt guitar attack and a swinging rhythm section, the NYC noir rock legend careened through a politically-charged set of songs from his reportedly phenomenal forthcoming 2013 album.

Black Sea Hotel in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, 6/17/12 – the trio of Willa Roberts, Corinna Snyder and Sarah Small sang their own otherworldly, hypnotic a-cappella arrangements of surreal Bulgarian folk songs from across the centuries, their voices hauntingly echoing in the cavernous space of an old synagogue.

Veveritse Brass Band at Barbes, 6/28/12 – over the absolutely psychedelic, bubbly pulse of the trubas, this ten-piece Balkan jam band burned and roared and turned the club’s back room into a cauldron of menacing chromatics and minor keys.

Kotorino at Joe’s Pub, 6/29/12 – transcending a series of snafus with the sound system, the lush, artsy chamber-steampunk band evoked other countries and other centuries throughout a set that was as jaunty and fun as it was haunting.

Aaron Blount of Knife in the Water with Jack Martin from Dimestore Dance Band at Zirzamin, 7/9/12  – although the two hadn’t rehearsed, Martin evoked the ghost of Django Reinhardt against the reverb cloud swirling from Blount’s guitar amp, through a mix of moody, gloomy southwestern gothic songs.

Magges at Athens Square Park in Astoria, 7/10/12 – the Greek psychedelic rockers played a long show of spiky, often haunting songs spiced with Susan Mitchell’s soaring electric violin and Kyriakos Metaxas’ sizzling electric bouzouki – it seemed that the whole neighborhood stuck around for most of it. Too bad there wasn’t any ouzo.

Neko Case out back of the World Financial Center, 7/12/12 – the stage monitors weren’t working, which messed up opening act Charles Bradley’s set, but Case, Kelly Hogan and the rest of the band didn’t let it phase them, switching up their set list and playing a raw, intense set of noir Americana.

Niyaz at Drom, 7/22/12 – a  long, mesmerizing cd release show by the artsy Canadian-Persian dance/trance ensemble, frontwoman Azam Ali slowly and elegantly raising the energy from suspenseful to ecstatic as it went on.

Dimestore Dance Band at Zirzamin, 7/23/12 – since reviving this group, guitarist Jack Martin has become even more powerful, more offhandedly savage and intense than he was when he was leading them back in the mid-zeros when this witty yet plaintive gypsy/ragtime/jazz band was one of the finest acts in the Tonic scene. This show was a welcome return.

The Secret Trio, Ilhan Ersahin and Selda Bagcan at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/28/12 – the annual “Turkish Woodstock” began with short sets of haunting classical instrumentals, psychedelic jazz and then the American debut of the legendary psychedelic rock firebrand and freedom fighter whose pro-democracy activism landed her in jail at one point.

Bettye LaVette at Madison Square Park, 8/8/12 – the charismatic underground soul legend took songs from acts as diverse as George Jones, Paul McCartney and Sinead O’Connor and made them wrenchingly her own, a portrait of endless struggle followed finally by transcendence.

Bombay Rickey at Barbes, 8/11/12 – jaunty, jangly, surfy , psychedelic Bollywood rock fun, with guitar, accordion and frontwoman Kamala Sankaram’s amazing operatic vocals.

Daniel Kahn & the  Painted Bird at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/12/12 – grim, politically spot-on, lyrically brilliant klezmer-rock songwriting from the Berlin-based bandleader backed by an inspired New York pickup group.

Ulrich Ziegler at Barbes, 8/17/12 – of all the single-band shows, this was the year’s most intense, over an hour of eerie. reverb-driven noir cinematic instrumentals from genius guitarist Stephen Ulrich and his inspired colleague Itamar Ziegler, celebrating the release of the album rated best of 2012 here.

The Byzan-Tones at Zebulon, 8/22/12 – the recently resurrected Greek psychedelic surf rockers traded in the electric oud for Steve Antonakos’ lead guitar, and the result sent the haunting, Middle Eastern-fueled energy through the roof.

J O’Brien and Beninghove’s Hangmen at Zirzamin, 9/10/12 – a fascinatingly lyrical, characteristically witty set, solo on twelve-string guitar, by the former Dog Show frontman followed by New York’s best noir soundtrack jazz band at their most intense and psychedelic.

The Strawbs at B.B. King’s, 9/11/12 – it’s amazing how almost 45 years after the psychedelic/Britfolk/art-rock band began, they still sound strong, their lyrical anthems still resonant even in a stripped-down acoustic trio setting.

Sam Llanas at Zirzamin, 9/11/12 – rushing downtown to catch a solo show by the former BoDeans frontman paid off with a riveting, haunting set of brooding, austerely nocturnal songs, especially when J O’Brien joined him on bass.

Sex Mob at the World Financial Center, 9/27/12 – the downtown jazz legends got the atrium echoing with a hypnotic, absolutely menacing set of classic Nino Rota film themes – and they didn’t even play the Godfather.

Julia Haltigan at 11th St. Bar, 10/2/12 – the eclectic southwestern gothic/Americana/soul siren and songwriter at the top of her torchy, sultry, intense game, backed by a brilliant, jazzy band.

M Shanghai String Band‘s cd release show at the Jalopy, 10/5/12 – an hour of cameos from too many New York Americana luminaries to name, followed by two long sets from the massive oldschool string band, moving energetically from bluegrass, to Appalachian, to sea chanteys, gypsy sounds and Britfolk, sometimes fiery and intense, sometimes hilarious.

Theo Bleckmann backed by ACME, crooning Phil Kline song cycles at BAM, 10/25/12 – this was the premiere of Kline’s lushly enveloping chamber-rock arrangements of his acerbically hilarious Rumsfeld Songs, his eclectic Vietnam-themed Zippo Songs and his brand-new, luridly haunting new Sinatra-inspired cycle, Out Cold.

The Arturo O’Farrill Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra at Symphony Space, 11/2/12 – in the wake of the hurricane, O’Farrill decided to put on a couple of free concerts to lift peoples’ spirits. This was the first and better of the two nights, the brilliant latin big band pianist joined by special guests including Anat Cohen, Sex Mob’s Steven Bernstein, Rafi Malkiel and Larry Harlow, playing long, broodingly intense, towering themes, many of them based on classic Jewish melodies.

Katie Elevitch at Zirzamin, 12/16/12  – goes to show that you can’t really count the year’s best concerts until the year’s almost over. Backed by her fantastic four-piece band, the haunting, intense rock siren improvised lyrics, roared, whispered and seduced the crowd in the plush space with her voice and her achingly soul-inspired songwriting.

Gorgeous Esoteric Psychedelic Sounds from Magges

Some of popular New York Greek-American band Magges‘ music is incredibly haunting, packed with Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics. Some of the songs on their new album 12 Tragouthia (meaning “12 Songs,” streaming all the way through at their Bandcamp site) have a rousing gypsy quality; some are simply upbeat and happy. Some of them definitely qualify as psychedelic rock, while others are obviously folk tunes. With all the esoteric, trippy rock from outside the English-speaking world in the 1960s and 70s having gone global over the last decade, it’s time that fans of groups like Chicha Libre and Dengue Fever discovered the Greek side of the equation. That’s what Magges brings to the table (along with lots of ouzo at their rock club gigs): it’s unbeatable party music. Their signature sound blends the twin bouzoukis of frontman Kyriakos Metaxas and Nick Mandoukos, with Steve Antonakos on acoustic rhythm guitar, Ken Forrest on upright bass and Spiros Edgos on drums, with Susan Mitchell adding her signature intensity on violin on several tracks.

The hardest-hitting tracks fall under the category of remebetiko, the Middle Eastern-flavored “Greek blues” which was equally popular with hash smokers and the freedom fighters battling the dictatorship there in the 1930s and 40s. The long, intense opening cut, Ego Maggas Fenomouna works its way from a big, crescendoing minor-key twin-bouzouki intro into a stately, stalking anthem, sort of a less ponderous counterpart to a bitter Russian dirge. The band goes happy and spiky with Ouzo and its catchy major/minor shifts, then back into the shadows again with Ena Vrathi Pou’Vrehe, its thunderstorm of bouzoukis and Mitchell’s steady, catchy hook against suspenseful, biting, ringing staccato riffage. Athikopnigmeni, one of the most psychedelic cuts here, is basically a one-chord jam with a series of unexpected dynamic shifts: deep thickets of bouzouki picking, and a stark, minimal vocal interlude that plays call-and-response with the instruments as the song grows more intense and elegaic, with allusions to the Byrds’ Eight Miles High.

They follow that one with Pente Magges, which has a Boulevard of Broken Dreams vibe, but slower and without the tango beat, a motor scooter sputtering away at the end. Twisting and turning on a chillingly beautiful two-bar twin bouzouki interweave, Haremia Me Diamandia turns a rembetiko anthem into Greek psychedelic rock. Se Kitazo sets Greek folk to a gypsy jazz shuffle, yet another reminder of how influential and widespread gypsy sounds had become before World War II. There’s also the bouncy minor-key folk-rock of Giati Glykia Mou Kles; the tensely bitter, expansive rembetiko anthem Ximeromata; Thalasies Handres, with its tricky rhythms and singalong chorus, and a couple of rapidfire dance numbers that speed up faster and faster, daring whoever’s on the dance floor to keep up with them. Count this as one of the most fascinating and fun albums of 2012; stream it here.

Bad Guys Take Care of Business on Their Home Turf

The nonsequential current history of good music in New York continues today with Magges, who played a marathon show in lovely, tree-lined, well-shaded Athens Square Park in Astoria Tuesday night. “No Greek disco….only the music we grew up with, and love,” explained bandleader/electric bouzouki virtuoso Kyriakos Metaxas. The son of Evangelos Metaxas of the popular Trio Bel Canto, he’s keeping a legacy alive with this group, whose name is Greek slang for “bad guys” or “cool cats.” Magges’ website calls their repertoire “country music from another country.” This time out, the well-loved Greek-American band mixed up long medleys of folk tunes, hits from the 60s and ended with a long set of rembetiko, or as Metaxas put it, “Greek blues,” the haunting Middle Eastern-flavored, mostly minor-key songs from the underground resistance against the dictatorship of the 1930s and 40s, which was the stuff that resonated most intensely with the crowd. Since this was a public park, they didn’t bring along the ouzo that they share with the crowd at rock clubs. But the music was no less intense, and drew a similarly ecstatic reaction from the crowd. Along with the bouzoukis of Metaxas and Nick Mandoukos, the ubiquitously brilliant Susan Mitchell played violin alongside equally ubiquitous and brilliant acoustic guitarist Steve Antonakos (who didn’t take any of his famous solos), plus Ken Forrest on upright bass and Spiros Edgos on drums.

It was kind of funny how although a lot of the music had an American rock influence, the songs that rocked the hardest were the most indelibly Greek-flavored ones. They opened with a swaying, minor-key anthem with a gypsy-rock feel, Mitchell’s violin textures stark beneath the spiky, richly intertwined harmonies of the two bouzoukis. She took the first of several shivery microtonal solos on the second one after one by Metaxas, over a stately, almost martial groove; then they segued into a tangoish number with hauntingly gorgeous Arabic-tinged modes. A lively, sprightly Macedonian-style dance; a bubbly, upbeat tune with the bouzoukis leapfrogging the highest frets and what sounded like a warier, more angst-driven version of the same song followed.

Mitchell gave a psychedelic folk number from the 60s a chamber-pop feel with layers of lush atmospherics as the bouzoukis traded rapidfire licks. Like another song later in the set, it could have been a cumbia if they’d slowed it down a little: despite being from the other side of the globe, it sounded a lot like the Peruvian surf rock of Chicha Libre or Los Destellos. They slowed it down with a swaying Mediterranean ballad, then played a gypsy cimbalom tune on the bouzoukis and brought back the cumbia-ish bounce. Then they went into the rembetiko, which is when the dancing, and several spontaneous singalongs and clapalongs emerged throughout the crowd. Mataxas opened the first tune with a long, ominous solo taqsim, the rest of the band following him into the shadows, where they stayed for most of the rest of the evening. Suspenseful Arabic scales pulsed and then soared over rhythms that varied from slinky to martial to defiantly exuberant. One was a dead ringer for the French Revolutionary anthem Les Partisans; the single best song of the night was the next-to-last one, a furtive, chillingly apprehensive theme that paired off Mitchell’s violin against a plaintive thicket of Middle Eastern melody ringing and clanking from the strings of the bouzoukis. Magges have a brand-new album out simply titled 12 Tragouthia [12 Songs]; watch this space for upcoming NYC dates, whether indoors or out. And fans of Italian folk music can check out the weekly Wednesday 7 PM series of concerts here that continue through August 29.

Mark Steiner and Susan Mitchell Haunt the Delancey

Every now and then, the more-or-less weekly Small Beast gathering upstairs at the Delancey will bring back an artist or two who made this the night for intelligent rock in New York back in 2008-09. A couple of weeks ago it was David J, Little Annie and the night’s founder, Paul Wallfisch of Botanica; this week it was Mark Steiner and His Problems. Steiner had a long and memorable run as the leader of Piker Ryan and then Kundera here in New York in the late 90s and early zeros. Now based in Norway, he and his only Problem this time out, longtime collaborator and violin sorceress Susan Mitchell played one of the most haunting rock shows this town has seen in a long time. And he did it with virtually all new material: he’s never played or sung better.

Steiner’s signature sound is a reverb guitar-fueled menace. In a stripped-down context like this, he builds tension by muting the strings and then letting the chords explode in a shower of overtone-drenched clang and twang. Inscrutable and methodical, Mitchell provided a sepulchral, otherworldly contrast with her custom-made five-string hybrid violin/viola, raising the sonics to the level of epic grandeur with apprehensive microtonal swirls, funereal Balkan tones and haunting, sustained atmospherics: there’s no other string player out there who achieves such high intensity so effortlessly. One of the night’s more memorable tunes was a swampy, syncopated rock song that evoked the Gun Club, Steiner’s enveloping baritone giving it a luridly seductive edge. Another more anthemic song reminded of an early song by the Church, tense syncopation giving way to a richly interwoven, roaring series of variations on an open guitar chord. Steiner switched chords counterintuitively throughout the set, but Mitchell kept up. The best of the new songs matched an ominous Syd Barrett-inflected verse to a roaring, anthemic, surf-tinged Radio Birdman chorus that picked up with a percussive ferocity at the end. They closed with a couple of covers: one a sly, tongue-in-cheek faux pop song by an Australian band, basically a litany of drugs that get harder as the song goes on, and then a macabre tango-flavored number [by Gowanus Somebody? didn’t recognize the name of the artist] that Mitchell ended with a ghostly slide down the fingerboard. Several of these songs are scheduled to be recorded, an auspicious development as it’s been awhile since Steiner put out an album.