New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: sweet bitters

Celtic Americana Trio the Henry Girls Play a Rare, Intimate Barbes Show

Where does one of the most interesting and unique bands in Ireland play when they come to New York? Barbes! The harmony-rich Henry Girls – multi-instrumentalist singing sisters Karen, Lorna, and Joleen McLaughlin – have an intimate 8 PM gig there on March 18, quite a change from the big concert halls they’ve been playing on their current US tour. Their latest album Louder Than Words is streaming at Soundcloud.

There’s no other band who sound like them. While much of their music is rooted in oldtimey Americana, they’re just as likely to bust out a brooding traditional Irish ballad. They mash up American, Irish and Scottish influences and have an unorthodox core of instrumentation anchored by Joleen’s concert harp, Lorna’s accordion and mandolin and Karen’s fiddle, ukulele, piano and banjo. On album, they’re backed by an acoustic rock rhythm section; it’s not clear from the group’s tour page if they’ll be by themselves or they’ll have the whole band with them.

The album’s opening track, James Monroe, is a swaying, angst-fueled minor-key ballad, spiced with a punchy chart by the Bog Neck Brass Band. Presumably it predates the guy with the Doctrine. Then the sisters take a leap forward a couple hundred years into the present with The Weather, a cheery, bouncy number that’s part oldtime hillbilly dance, part Brilll Building pop. Likewise, Maybe has a lushly yet rustically arranged current-day folk-pop feel – it wouldn’t be out of place on a Sweet Bitters album.

Driven by Ted Ponsonby’s rich web of acoustic guitars, the catchy, anthemic, backbeat-driven No Matter What You Say could be a Dixie Chicks tune, but with organic production values. The sisters’ spiky instrumentation and soaring harmonies add an extra surreal edge to a shuffling cover of Springsteen’s creepy roadside anthem Reason to Believe.

The Light in the Window, the most Celtic-flavored tune here, manages to be as ominous as it is wistfully elegaic, Karen’s fiddle rising over Liam Bradley’s clip-clop percussion. Home paints a broodingly detailed, sweepingly orchestrated tableau set amongst the down-and-out. The sisters’ gorgeous take of the old proto-swing tune So Long But Not Goodbye compares with the version by longtime Barbes band the Moonlighters.

It’s Not Easy sets a flamenco melody to a gentle country sway: it’s sort of this band’s Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. Producer Calum Malcolm plays churchy Hammond organ behind the sisters’ harmonies, and a gospel choir, on the album’s closing cut, Here Beside Me. If Americana or Irish sounds are your thing, get to Barbes early on the 18th.

Unselfconsciously Intense, Insightful, Vivid Tunesmithing from Sharon Goldman

Sharon Goldman is one of the most criminally underrated tunesmiths of the last ten years. Lately she’s split her time between leading her own band, playing solo or as one-half of lyrical folk-pop duo the Sweet Bitters (whose impromptu show this past spring was one of the most memorable concerts anywhere in New York this year). And as much as her clear, unaffectedly shining vocals were always a strong suit, lately her voice has taken on a lot more gravitas: she has become a shattering singer. On her new album Silent Lessons, she channels both the subtlest and the most overwhelming emotions with a gentle and graceful understatement that’s all the more haunting for how quiet it is.

Her lyrics are a clinic in how to paint an indelible picture with the simplest images and symbols. Although Goldman can be uproariously funny, her songs tend to be brooding, if sometimes guardedly optimistic. As usual, her band is fantastic: Thad DeBrock (who also produced) working his typical magic, building a glimmering web of acoustic and electric guitars, adding elegant touches from piano and keys over the terse groove of bassist Jeff Allen and drummer Doug Yowell.

The opening track, Left Turn takes a mundane, random bike ride through the neighborhood and turns it into a haunting tale of restlessness and spinning one’s wheels: Springsteen would have done well to have written this thirty years ago. As Goldman’s narrator sees it, she’s almost invisible as she pedals her way around the block: she “can’t get lost or found.” Debrock’s judiciously jangling, artfully layered guitars slowly build to an uneasy lushness. Likewise, the nebulous, wintry atmospherics of Her Secret underscore the story of a woman alone on the train platform, knowing that her clandestine affair is only keeping her in a rut. And Goldman’s terse fingerpicking in tandem with Noah Hoffeld’s stark cello provide a shadowy backdrop for Amy, someone’s mysterious, now-deceased ex who still manages to cast a wide shadow.

A Night to Forget is an unexpectedly driving, noir-tinged, Patti Smith-flavored electric rock nocturne, its narrator hell-bent on tying one on and forgetting everything she’s left behind. Valentine’s Day, which builds from opaque washes into another anthemic rock number, bitingly assesses how double standards still separate the boys from the girls, and ruin lives in the process. Pocket Full of Sun works a charging, Grateful Dead-tinged groove with an almost defiant optimism, gorgeously multitracked acoustic guitars and a surreal, metaphorically-charged lyric that goes unexpectedly dark. And Let You Go takes a catchy, syncopated oldschool country ballad into more opaque, pensive territory, another disarmingly simple story whose doomed plotline becomes crystal-clear as it goes along

As vivid as those songs are, the title track is the masterpiece here. It’s one of the best songs Goldman’s ever written, and it packs a gentle wallop. Her careful, precise but wounded vocals absolutely nail the “four in the morning of your soul” ambience of a woman sleepless and alone, abandoned and embittered and sobered by the reality that she isn’t blameless in how she ended up there. “What do you see in the stillness when you feel blind, and you need all six senses to know what to find?” she asks, hushed and low: the matter-of-factness in her delivery is what makes it so chilling, just Goldman’s voice and acoustic guitar and the cello. It’s over in barely two minutes and it’s one of the best songs of the year.

Goldman’s next live appearance is on 12/17 at 9 PM EST at Concert Window, where she’s doing a “pre-release pyjama party” streaming around the world from her living room. She’ll be taking requests and answering questions. It’s a pay-what-you-want show; “tickets” are available now. And the show isn’t going to be recorded or archived: it’s a literally once-in-a-lifetime event.

A Month’s Worth of Nightcrawling, Part One

Don’t you just want to smack people upside the head when they say ignorant things like “There’s no good music in this city anymore?” Obviously, those people are either spending time in the wrong neighborhoods (Bushwick), or they aren’t paying attention. This past month has been amazing as far as live shows in New York are concerned. What’s the likelihood of seeing Katie Elevitch and Matt Keating back to back, for free? It happened, after Sunday Salon 23 at Zirzamin. She was the special guest to play after a characteristically lively exchange of tunes bristling with puns, double entendres and catchy hooks from the likes of Walter Ego, LJ Murphy, Lorraine Leckie, Tamara Hey and other usual suspects. Keating was a last-minute booking.

Elevitch’s music is more about setting a mood and building to a feral crescendo, or a quieter, more mystical ambience; Keating’s songs are narratives set to catchy changes that build to a similar angst-fueled intensity. While Elevitch’s music looks to soul and jazz and Keating draws on Americana for his tunes, ultimately they both reach back to punk rock for their energy. Keating is a cynic; Elevitch finds hope against hope despite crushing reality (during last year’s hurricane, a tree came crashing through the roof of her house and caught her on the head – she seems none the worse for it). Keating has a cult following across the country and in Europe; Elevitch plays the Hudson valley circuit and is well liked there.

What were they doing in Manhattan? Having fun. Elevitch played solo on acoustic guitar, stripping down a mix of new material and songs from her previous album Kindling for the Fire to their skeletons. From a sultry whisper to a full-on roar, she worked her way through pain and exasperation and emerged triumphant and sweaty from the workout. Likewise, Keating ran through a mix of slowly unwinding favorites like Lonely Blue and The Fruit You Can’t Eat as well as a handful of more soul-influenced songs from his latest album Wrong Way Home. But the highlight of the set was a LMFAO cover of Twist and Shout, done as Lou Reed would do it, Keating said. And he nailed it. It’s as good a song to parody Reed with as you could imagine: where the melody jumps around, Keating did just the opposite. It wouldn’t be fair to give away any more of the joke – when the video comes out, it’s going to go viral. Watch this space for future Elevitch shows in NYC; Keating is back at Zirzamin at 8 PM playing after the Dog Show’s equally lyrical, intense Jerome O’Brien on May 13.

The following Saturday night, Dawn Oberg played her second-ever New York show (the first one was the previous night at Desmond’s). A popular draw in her native San Francisco, she’d come to do the dives of New York. Somehow she’d found herself at the dreaded Bar East (the former Hogs and Heifers space on the upper east), playing solo on electric piano. What’s the likehood of getting what was essentially a private show from someone so entertaining? Well, it happened – only in New York, folks. Much as her new album Rye may be one of the year’s best, Oberg is even better in person: she airs out her vocal range, she’s a terrific gospel/soul pianist and she brings her intricate torrents of wordplay, endless puns and literary references to life with more energy than you would expect, considering how subtly and carefully rendered the studio versions are. And for someone whose music is fueled by a seething anger spun through layer upon layer of sardonic humor, she’s more lively and upbeat in person (it’s tempting to call her vivacious or even sweet, but she might take exception to that). She opened the set with the deviously funny Old Hussies Never Die, a track from her previous album Horticulture Wars (she cannot resist a pun, ever), then later did the wry (pun intended) title track from the new one along with the unselfconsciously wrenching, doomed, elegaic Cracks and the wickedly catchy, personal-as-apocalyptic alienation anthem End of the Continent, working its earthquake metaphors for all they were worth. From here she went on to far better-attended shows in Nashville and Austin before winding up her tour in her hometown. Here’s hoping she makes it back to town sometime.

The following night, salonniers John Hodel and LJ Murphy kicked off the feature set at Sunday Salon 24 with nonchalantly slashing songs about imperfect strangers who should avoid each other no matter what, and also the kind of crowds you find in bars on a typical Tuesday morning: not pretty. But the music afterward was. Americana songwriter Sharon Goldman had been booked for a solo show, but fortuitously, her pals Nina Schmir and cellist Martha Colby were in town. Back in 2009, Goldman and Schmir released a tremendously good, eclectic album as the Sweet Bitters, so this was a rare NYC reunion of sorts. Both Goldman and Schmir are brilliant singers – Goldman being more crystalline and Schmir more misty – and gave the sound guy a workout as they switched back and forth between mics, necessitating constant tweaks to make sure both voices were where they needed to be in the mix. The harmonies were exquisite, especially as Colby grounded the songs with a moody, haunting sustain. The show reached a peak with Goldman’s haunting, ominous Clocks Fall Back, a chilling early winter narrative set to a ringing, funereal guitar melody. “Women in gowns sparkle downtown as the tired crowd walks their route,” the duo sang, painting as evocative a portrait of current depression-era New York as anyone has written. Finally getting a chance to hear this song live was arguably the high point of the year, concert-wise. The trio also made their way nimbly through the machinegunning vocal gymnastics of Schmir’s Tom Thumb (On Brighton Beach) as well as Goldman’s nonchalantly ominous 9/11 memoir, Tuesday Morning Sun. Goldman will be at the First Acoustics Coffeehouse in downtown Brooklyn on June 1, joining her co-conspirators of the Chicks with Dip songwriters’ collective in their celebration of their remake of Joni Mitchell’s Blue.