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A Diverse, Smartly Lyrical New Album and a Fort Greene Release Show From Karen & the Sorrows

Karen & the Sorrows are one of New York’s most most individualistic Americana bands. For those who might think that’s like being the best cumbia band in Iceland, keep in mind that Americana, hip-hop and reggaeton are this city’s default styles of music right now. The band’s brooding first album traced the narrative of a ghost story from lead guitarist Elana Redfield’s native New Hampshire. Their new one, The Narrow Place – streaming at their music page – also covers a lot of dark territory, but it’s a lot more eclectic. It’s inspiring to see how much the group has grown musically. They’re wrapping up their current US tour, with an album release show at 10 PM on Sept 22 at C’Mon Everybody; cover is $10.

Drummer Tami Johnson keeps a stark, practically hypnotic beat as the album’s first track, Back Down to the Dirt gets underway: frontwoman/guitarist Karen Pittelman’s wary, soaring voice delivers an aphoristic, metaphorically-charged cautionary tale. Producer Charles Burst plays bass; on the rest of the album, Gerard Kouwenhoven keeps the four-string groove going.

Redfield’s pedal steel mingles with Julia Read’s fiddle behind Pittleman’s precise, chirpy vocals in Can’t Miss What You Never Had. a moody tale of 99-percenter longing for something better. The Wire is an ominously swaying noir Americana rock anthem that brings to mind the Walkabouts: “J.B. Flatt” supplies the funereal Hammond organ behind Redfield’s resonantly edgy guitar lines.

Pittelman’s bittersweet vocals bring to mind Amy Allison in the brisk, backbeat-driven Nowhere:

All these bones
On the other shore
How my sister sang
But I don’t sing no more

Take Me for a Ride is a big, aching, seductive rocker: “Here comes my girl in a flatbed Ford…let me take you out on the town, don’t care what those folks say,” Pittelman insists. Then she makes it clear that “I”m just the man who loves you” in the brisk highway rock number after that.

In The Price of the Ticket, Pittelman draws inspiration from James Baldwin’s assertion that artists should always reevaluate their work. It’s a bitter but resolute anthem for anyone who’s had to make a break with the past:

Write your notes back to home
In an alphabet they can’t read
Save your change for the phone
But no line could ever reach back

The album’s best and most allusively political song is the southwestern gothic-tinged Walk Through the Desert:

When they write what has happened here
It will seem so clear,
Like they knew
All that loss, all the haze and fear
It will disappear like the truth

The band go back to the country for the sad breakup ballad Do It For Myself. I Was Just Your Fool stomps along with some bitter theatrical imagery. The album winds up with Everything We Had, an unexpectedly welcome southern soul number.

Apropos of changing gender roles, isn’t it funny how the typical chick role in this band, i.e. the bass player, is a dude, while the women in the group play the rhythm guitar, lead guitar and drums? Maybe we’ve finally smashed the glass ceiling in music…or we’re just going back to an earlier era when groups like the Carter Family – or bands in villages across the world – divided up responsibilities among whoever was available to play regardless of who had the Y chromosomes.

Clever, Unique Harmony-Driven Sounds from the Tara Lynne Band

The Tara Lynne Band distinguish themselves with their unique blend of vocal harmonies. They’re the only Brooklyn rock band with a three-person frontline, bandleader/guitarist Tara Lynne joining voices with singers Zac Gilbert and Jerielle Morwitz. Ironically, the most powerful voice in the band belongs to bassist Sarah Mucho, better known as the electrifying frontwoman of eclectic, literate string band the Sometime Boys; she also contributes harmony vocals here.  As you might expect from a group whose core shares a theatre music background, their sound is bright, shiny and cheery, often with a droll sense of humor. Lynne’s songs are a sort of dreampop-flavored take on early 70s, Bob Welch-era Fleetwood Mac, and also draw heavily on hippie rock influences from that time, the band’s signature harmonies soaring along with occasional piano or organ over a lush bed of acoustic guitars. Their new album Time Lapse Orchids is streaming all the way through at their Reverbnation page.

The album’s title track sets wry stoner allusions over drummer Tami Johnson’s trip-hop groove; like many of the songs here, it grows more hypnotic as it goes along, the guitars eventually dropping out for a string synth, then popping back in again. Where a lot of drummers would play The Tourist as a backbeat shuffle, Johnson keeps an elegantly tumbling drive going: “A thousand careless whispers to a wall/ Drink the Kool-Aid, close your eyes and fall,” the voices intone.

Let Us Away has a bouncy sway with echoey electric piano and some very cool, contrapuntal guy/girl vocals. They work that trick again on the album’s funniest original, a country tune titled Whiskey Soaked Revelations, looking at a late-night barroom romance in the sobering light of day: “I’ll never send you roses or teddybears from California, ’cause i know you’d throw them out,” Lynne and the band assert. And they use the device again a little later on Better Than Me, which sounds like the Grateful Dead with a Bushwick accent.

The album’s catchiest track is Koi Boi, Neil Young acoustic Americana updated for the teens. Other than that, the most straightforward rock song is the anthemic closing cut, Awake in a Dream, with a gorgeous organ solo midway through. Ode to Temptation reaches nebulously for anthemic heights before it morphs into a stoner jam; likewise, The Veil hints at a vintage Dead ba-BUMP groove, with lush harmonies and surreal lyrics. And the funniest song here is a deadpan country cover of Billy Idol’s 80s hit Eyes Without a Face – the harmonies are so off-key that it’s impossible not to laugh, then there’s a hip-hop break that’s almost as amusing.

Karen & the Sorrows Take Country Music to Creepy New Places

Brooklyn band Karen & the Sorrows’ new ep Ocean-Born Mary isn’t your average country album. It’s a four-song suite based on a ghost story first introduced to the group by pedal steel player Elana Redfield. Mary seems to have been born onboard a pirate ship. As the story goes, her appearance so touched the ship’s captain that he backed off a sinister plan to slaughter the entire crew. And was so taken by this baby that eighteen years later, he tracked her down in rural New Hampshire and married her! But karma got the best of him. Turns out she liked him a little too much and came up with a plan to put an end to his lengthy absences at sea: she killed him by sealing him behind a wall, a la A Cask of Amontillado! Reputedly the house still stands and is haunted by the ghost of both the captain and his wife.

Frontwoman/guitarist Karen Pittelman’s high voice reminds a bit of Amy Allison and Dolly Parton in places – she’s got a coy, fetching edge at the top of her register and she uses effectively when she needs to drive a phrase home. The rhythm section of Tami Johnson and bassist AJ Lewis keeps it simple and oldschool, as does Redfield, whose judicious, tersely incisive playing is a good match for these allusive, attractive but distantly menacing songs. The first one is titled Persephone, and starts with a bass drone until it picks up with a backbeat and the pedal steel; Redfield’s jagged electric guitar gives away her punk rock background. “Calling, calling, calling from the underground,” is the refrain: this is a restless ghost. That one segues into Caged Bird, a swaying soul ballad in 6/8 time with some surprisingly biting guitar: “If you don’t come back to me why should I ever set you free,” the ghost asks. The best, and most ominous track here is A Plague on Your Houses, a brisk but brooding minor-key shuffle. The album ends with All the Oceans, which starts out slowly and then works its way up to a singalong chorus that’s just a little too blithe to be for real: this is a vengeful ghost! For those who might say that this isn’t oldschool, hard country, let’s not forget that like every other style of music, country keeps evolving, and Karen & the Sorrows are taking it to a place it’s never been before, a good and creepy one. Karen & the Sorrows play the album release show at Rock Shop in Gowanus tonight, the 28th at around 9.