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Tamara Hey Brings Her Wickedly Funny, Smart Story-Songs to the Rockwood

Tamara Hey’s soaring voice has charmed and captivated audiences here in her native New York for over a decade. She writes meticulously detailed, magically crystallized three-minute pop songs which, just like her vocals, are disarmingly deep. She’s also one of the great wits in music: an edgy sense of humor infuses everything she writes, even in the gloomiest moments. And her punchlines have O. Henry irony and Amy Rigby bittersweetness.

Yet even in Hey’s most optimistic scenarios, there are always dark clouds somewhere in the distance. She also happens to  be the rare conservatory-trained musician who doesn’t waste notes or let her chops get in the way of saying something as directly as possible, musically or lyrically. She’s playing the small room at the Rockwood on July 1 at 6 PM as part of an intriguing lineup. You know how it is at that place: run ‘em in, run ‘em, off without any regard for what the segues might be like, but in this case the 5 PM act, lyrical parlor pop band Paper Citizen make a good opener. And the 10 PM and midnight acts – southern gothic keyboardist/singer Sam Reider and guitarslinger Mallory Feuer’s fiery power trio the Grasping Straws – are also worth seeing, if you can hold out that long on a work night.

Hey played her most recent Rockwood gig to a packed house back in March. “Thanks for choosing me over Stormy Daniels,” she grinned, appreciating that everybody wasn’t pulling up CNN on their phones instead. Hey’s hilarious opening number, Your Mother Hates Me set the stage. Anybody who’s been in a relationship long enough to meet the ‘rents can relate. The resentment simmering just beneath Hey’s steady fingerpicking was visceral, and the jokes – especially the one about guys’ moms assuming that the girlfriend is a slut – were too good to give away.

She took her time working her way into Miserably Happy, the title of her 2008 album, drawing a few chuckles along the way as she picked up steam – it was like Blondie’s Dreaming, but wide awake, and with a stronger singer out front. Hey went back into stingingly funny mode after that with another new one, Rainy Rainy Cloud, a drivingly anthemic, snarky, spot-on portrait of a jealous frenemy.

She followed We Lean on Cars – a bittersweetly vivid portrait of North Bronx adolescent anomie – with Umbrella, a similarly imagistic, mutedly jazzy rainy-day tableau. Round Peg, a subtly slashing commentary on women’s body image and ridiculous societal pressures, was next and drew rousing applause.

Hey dedicated a stripped-down take of the powerpop gem Somebody’s Girl to fellow songsmith Lorraine Leckie, who was in the house and had dedicated her song Nobody’s Girl to Hey at a recent Mercury Lounge gig.

Isabelle, a plaintive folk-rock ballad with an evil twist, pondered the potential of a newlywed friend getting subsumed in her new marriage. Then Hey picked up the pace again with Drive and its understated escape subtext. 

After Girl Talk, which rose from a goth-tinged bassline to a powerpop insistence, Hey closed with David #3 – an absurdly funny tale about guys women really should stay away from – and encored with the gentle Thanks a Lot, New York, NY, a shout-out from an artist who doesn’t take her hometown for granted. Something like this could keep you enchanted on the first of the month down on Allen Street.

Tamara Hey Represents for Real New Yorkers at the Slipper Room

The dichotomy that runs through Tamara Hey‘s music is edgy, funny, picturesque New York-centric lyrics set to catchy, upbeat tunes with a purist pop sensibliity. Likewise, she balances the crystalline, unselfconscious charm of her vocals with what can be devastatingly amusing, deadpan between-song commentary. Her music has special resonance for those who consider themselves oldschool New Yorkers: Hey is sort of a songwriting Woody Allen of the Lower East Side…minus the celebrity and the ugly backstory. She’s playing the Slipper Room (Orchard and Stanton, upstairs over the big tourist restaurant) on July 1 at 7:30 PM; cover is $10.

And because there’s always an element of surprise when she plays live, she’s worth seeing more than once: this blog managed to catch a grand total of three of her shows over the past year at the Rockwood. One was a solo gig; two were with melodic bassist Richard Hammond, who managed to do double duty as rhythmic center and lead player, no easy feat. And the songs ran the gamut. One of the most charming numbers was Oscar & Bud, a vivid, minutely detailed portrait of a retired ex-showbiz couple who happen to be the narrator’s key people (i.e. they’ve got her spare keys – it’s a New York thing). That song looked back to vintatge Tin Pan Alley.

But Hey likes to mix it up. Drive, with its soaring chorus, 9/11 reference and get-me-the-hell-out-of-here theme, looked back to new wave, as did Miserably Happy (title track to her cult classic powerpop album), which evoked Blondie’s Dreaming. The rambunctiously pulsing, doo-wop tinged Alphabet City, a shout-out to familiar LES haunts which have lately been disappearing one after the other, took on a bittersweet quality. Likewise, We Lean on Cars, a snapshot of middle-school North Bronx anomie circa the early 90s. Hey and Hammond also ran through some more wrly entertaning snapshots of city life: David #3, weighing whether or not to succumb to the allure of a Mr. Wrong, who happens to be a Red Sox fan; Mexico Money, a droll tale of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat; and You Wear Me Out, a clever number about how macho guys sometimes turn out to be the most insecure ones. The C-Note may be long gone, Lakeside Lounge too, and Cafe Pick-Me-Up is moving to East 7th Street, but Tamara Hey still represents for the neighborhood.

And when she’s not playing gigs, she’s busy running Alphabet City Music, who offer economical and informative courses in guitar and applied music theory for players of all levels. This blog covered her introductory music theory course last year and found it both immensely challenging and also immensely useful. By the way, just in case anyone might assume ulterior motives, i.e. sucking up to the prof, to explain why this blog has been at so many of her recent shows, let’s set that record straight. The course was offered during the summer; two of those shows were in the fall and one was this past January.