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Courtney Marie Andrews’ Brooding Departure into Retro Americana Is Her Best Career Move

Courtney Marie Andrews’ latest album Honest Life – streaming at Spotify – sounds like a Melba Montgomery record from the early 70s, but with different production values. And it doesn’t sound anything like what Andrews has ever done up to this point. If there ever was a musician who’s earned a new lease on her artistry, it’s Andrews. As Americana, it’s more Memphis than Nashville, drawing a straight line back to Dusty Springfield. Among current artists, Tift Merritt is the obvious reference; Margo Price is also a point of comparison. In other words, Andrews’ strikingly purposeful turn in a retro direction isn’t dadrock – or momrock. She’s playing the Mercury on May 8 at 8 PM; cover is $10.

The album is short: ten songs, most of them around the three-minute mark. Many of the arrangements don’t have a rhythm section, which enhances the intimacy. Awash in Charles Wicklander’s gospel piano and Steve Norman’s distant lapsteel, anchored by Andrews’ bittersweetly swaying acoustic guitar riff, the opening track, Rooking Dreaming contains a pretty devastating admission. “I was too broke, too shallow to dive deep,” Andrews intones, an unexpected mea culpa from a recent refugee from the corporate pop machine. “I am a passenger to somewhere, I do not yet know the name…I am a when will I see you again,” she explains with guarded hope as the song ends, very much unresolved. She revisits that theme later on the title track, a bluegrass tune reinvented as quasi-gospel, spiced with her own tastily tremoloing guitar solo.

This Is Not the End, a lost-love lament, has a similar backdrop, but no drums, just steel, piano and Andrews’ delicate acoustic fingerpicking. Irene has a dramatic flair, a cautionary tale for a potential drama queen: “You are a magnet Irene, sometimes good people draw troublesome things.” Andrews throws in a funny, chugging solo on the low strings to drive the point home.

With nifty honkytonk piano balanced against washes of steel, How Quickly Your Heart Mends brings to mind Merritt’s early Nashville material. Let the Good One Go is slower and drenched in vintage soul, marinating in yet more of that terse, gospel-tinged piano. Table for One, a stark band-on-the-road narrative, comes across as one part Lowell George, one part Townes Van Zandt: “Found peace in the Redwoods, lost it twenty miles later,:” Andrews laments. Themewise, Put the Fire Out follows to a logical conclusion: get off the road. It wouldn’t be out of place on a recent Laura Cantrell album.

Andrews’ ache in 15 Highway Miles is visceral: “If fate is a dart that you throw at a map, then you can’t count on fate, you can count on that.” But the ending is optimistic. The album’s final cut, Only on My Mind is a quiet stunner, a devastating, string-drenched portrait of shattered dreams, with a cruel allusion to a popular Louis Armstrong hit. This is a good, reflective headphone album for a summery Sunday afternoon with a pitcher of lemonade and a scone…or a solitary stroll along the Brooklyn Prom, or the piers on Emmons Avenue, water bottle in your backpack, flask in your pocket.

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Amanda Shires Brings Her Thoughtful, Vivid Nocturnes to SoHo

Amanda Shires was already an established presence on the Americana circuit before she met Jason Isbell. No doubt that connection has given her career an extra boost, but she’s been a first-rate fiddler and a distinctive songwriter since the early zeros. Her latest album, My Piece of Land – streamng at NPR– is Shires’ shout-out to her Texas roots and the red dirt music that she grew up with. The songs are sparse, most of them on the slow and pensive side, building a dusky, mysterious ambience with lingering electric and acoustic guitars, washes of steel, acoustic bass and brushed drums. The production is similarly purist and organic, with just enough natural reverb to max out the saturnine backdrop behind Shires’ gently articulated vocals. She’s playing the album release show tomorrow night, Sept 13 at 9 PM at City Winery. The venue doesn’t sell tickets: your best deal is to tell the door person that you’re going to the bar, which will set you back $18. And there’s plenty of space to stand if you don’t want to drink. Otherwise, you can take a table for more money.

The album opens with the spare, brisk shuffle The Way It Dimmed, Shires’ voice cautious and pensive:

Closer was never close enough
Closing time we watched the lights and sun come up
You begged me to stay and I slipped away
I remember the the fire and the way it dimmed
As a fire will sometimes do

The uneasily swaying Slippin’ looks back to early 70s Laurel Canyon Americana pop, with a similarly brooding, nocturnal ambience, Shires’ narrator considering how long it’s going to be for her honkytonking man to be seduced by “the curve of her shoulder, the length of the bar.”

Shires channels Amy Allison cleverness and Tift Merritt tenderness in Harmless, a disarmingly gentle cheater’s tale:

There’s some I can’t remember
A talented bartender
Way out in the cheap seats
The stars stare unblinking
The ones that know anything
Won’t be revealing

Shires finally rosins up her bow for Pale Fire, a spacious, deep-sky nod to the Vladimir Nabokov novel. The playfully twinkling Nursery Rhyme follows a loping western swing groove. Then Shires opens the eerie blues My Love (The Storm) with a couple of creepy scrapes on her fingerboard: her all-too-brief solo over burning electric guitar and organ midway through is the high point of the album.

The big rocker here, When You’re Gone is an improbably successful mashup of Abbey Road Beatles and late 90s Sheryl Crow at her most intense. Mineral Wells is a pensive look back to the scenery of Shires’ childhood:” “The only tree with leaves in Lubbock, with roots in Mineral Wells.” She takes a detour into moody, echoey, Fender Rhodes-driven southern soul with I Know What It’s Like: “With everyone standing around, I buckled and hit the ground,” Shires recalls. She closes the album with another brooding 6/8 ballad, You Are My Home, rising to a brushfire crescendo of stark fiddle and searing slide guitar. In its purposeful, meticulously assembled way, this is one of the most solidly captivating albums of the year.

Tift Merritt and Eric Heywood Play Intimate, Gorgeous Existentialist Americana at Lincoln Center

The last time Tift Merritt played a hometown show, she sold out Rough Trade in Williamsburg. Thursday night at the Lincoln Center Atrium, the seats were full, and there were plenty of people lined along the wall toward Columbus Avenue watching her take a break from the ongoing Andrew Bird tour for a rare duo show with guitar genius Eric Heywood. Where was everybody else? For most people in this city, Lincoln Center is a lot easier to get to than Williamsburg.

Whatever the case, the show was in a lot of ways a reprise of Emmylou Harris’ concert across the street the previous night. Where that one was a launching pad for innumerable, soulful, intense solos from guitarist Jedd Hughes and pedal steel player Steve Fishell, this one gave Heywood a platform for his purist, incisive, similarly lyrical chops, on both pedal steel and acoustic guitar. It helped that he had Merritt’s equally intense, tuneful songs to play those solos on.

Merritt has never sung better, varying her delivery from the angst-ridden, throaty chirp she’s been relying on over the last few years, to every possible shade of crystalline and clear. Midway through the show, she and Heywood moved to a central mic, then backed away from it and the volume actually rose as Merritt leaned back and belted. Admitting to being especially wired on caffeine, she made good on a promise to chat up the crowd. Some of her banter coyly hinted at background on her vivid yet enigmatic storytelling. She explained how the friend whose North Carolina beach house Merritt had rented had misidentified herself in one particular balmy, summery number. And Spring, Merritt’s hauntingly insistent anthem about living at peak intensity (this one lit up by Heywood’s creepy, smoky pedal steel) turned out to be inspired by the tree outside Merritt’s apartment window. But her most revealing comment was that “no song is about any one thing,” which capsulizes her m.o. as a writer.

Sweet Spot revealed itself not as a love song but as an individualist’s forlorn lament, longing for an escape to where she can be finally be herself. Moving to the piano, Merritt described Small Town Relations as “vicious,” and sang that portrait of smalltown nosiness with a dismissive vengefulness that hit a cruel, whispery sneer on the final verse while Heywood matched her simmering rage line for line. Later on, he colored the all-acoustic songs with elegant flatpicking, tersely bending leads that mirrored his work on the steel, and even flickering Pat Metheny-esque pastoral colors on a hypnotic, vamping number toward the end of the set. Merritt sent a graceful, Aimee Mann-tinged shout-out to buskers with one anthem, weighed existential angst versus contentment on Traveling Alone and Still Not Home, hit a plaintive, wistful peak early on in a raptly gorgeous take of Feel of the World and encored with a quietly triumphant version of Feeling of Beauty. Merritt and Heywood have since returned to the Andrew Bird tour (which, judging from their Central Park Summerstage show in late June, is amazing); the remaining dates are here.

A Killer Andrew Bird Concert Sets the Stage for a Similar Show from Tift Merritt

What’s the likelihood of seeing Andrew Bird and Tift Merritt on the same stage, let alone in the same band? It happened at Central Park Summerstage this month when the two Americana music icons joined forces, Bird on violin and a little guitar, Merritt on rhythm guitar as part of a dynamic five-piece band with pedal steel, bass and drums, jauntily exchanging verses with the Chicago songwriter in a set heavy with Handsome Family covers from Bird’s new album Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of.

“In my opinion, Brett and Rennie Sparks are the greatest living American songwriters,” Bird told the sold-out crowd, and he could be right. And Bird, whose own songs are as haunted, and morbid, and literate, and relevant as the Handsome Family’s catalog continues to be, is the ideal person to cover them, if anybody is. Bird and Merritt continue on Bird’s summer tour; Merritt gets a momentary break for a rare, free duo show of her own with Americana guitar genius Eric Heywood coming up on August 7 at 7:30 PM at the Lincoln Center Atrium. Early arrival is a must: 6 PM wouldn’t be too soon since she’s one of the rare artists who still sells out pretty much every room she plays.

Bird opened his show with a handful of intricately rhythmic, solo songs, fingerpicking his violin like a mandolin, his Spinning Double Speaker Horn behind him providing spooky, keening effects as he built layers of loops that spun back hypnotically through the mix. From there the band joined him, eventually gathering in a circle around a central mic before dispersing as the concert built momentum. They moved methodically through a nonchalantly bouncing take of the Handsome Family’s Danse Caribe, a moody, allusive version of Sifters, all the way through to the first encores, the fire-and-brimstone cautionary tale MX Missiles, which made a creepily apt segue with Handsome Family’s Cathedrals. On the way there, the young, touristy crowd were treated to uneasy versions of Tin Foil, Dear Old Greenland, Effigy and the understatedly savage post-9/11 anti-Bush/Cheney parable When the Helicopter Comes. The group also took their time through a lingering, ominous version of Pulaski at Night and the sardonic Something Biblical. With his wary, precise vocals matching the incisive focus of his violin playing, Bird was an intense presence, holding the group together as if they were on a secret mission. Merritt’s indomitable energy and soaring harmonies made a strong complement, livening the more upbeat, country-flavored numbers with her smoke-tinged wail.

The 30 Best NYC Concerts of 2013

Of all the year-end lists here, which also include the year’s best songs and best albums, the best New York concerts list is usually the most fun to pull together. For one, it’s the most individual. The Bushwick indie rock clique may go to all the same shows together because they’re terrified of giving anyone the impression that they can think for themselves, but among the 99%, everybody has their own unique bunch of favorites from the past year.

This is also the easiest list to assemble. Every year, there are thousands of songs and hundreds of albums to sift through; the number of shows is thankfully a lot more manageable.

But this year, tragedy struck. The night of January 19, arguably the best New York rock show of 2013 featured a headline act whose core members would be murdered only a few months later. Lush art-rock/dance-rock band the Yellow Dogs topped the bill at the now-shuttered Public Assembly as part of a phenomenal lineup which began with female-fronted dreampop band Butter the Children, then reggae/soul band Osekre & the Lucky Bastards and the Brooklyn What playing a scorching, intense album release show for their latest one, Hot Wine. The Brooklyn What would go on to share another bill with the Iranian expats before a disgruntled ex-bandmate ambushed the group in their sleep in south Williamsburg in mid-November.

Otherwise, the game plan for this page was to list twenty shows. In the process of whittling the number down, it became obvious that there was no way to fairly choose any less than thirty. This city may be mired in a crushing economic depression, but somehow New York musicians rose above it and made 2013 a year to remember. The 29 other best shows of the year, from this perspective anyway, in chronological order:

Changing Modes at Spike Hill, 1/19/13. It was cool to be able to sneak away from the Brooklyn What/Yellow Dogs extravaganza around the corner to see this slashingly lyrical, female-fronted, keyboard-driven art-rock/new wave rock crew. They were missing one of their three singers, but the music was still killer.

Molly Ruth at Zirzamin, 1/27/13. From November of 2012 through this past July, when the club closed suddenly, this blog booked a lot of shows at the basement space on Houston Street. Given a supportive venue and unlimited access to New York’s best talent, what an amazing time that was! Molly Ruth’s fearless charisma and wickedly acerbic, assaultive punk-blues songs made for one of the best nights there.

Richard Thompson at Joe’s Pub, 2/5/13. Absolutely no plans to see this, tickets being as ridiculously overpriced as they were. Publicist sends an eleventh-hour email: wanna go? Sure! The veteran rocker who might be the greatest guitarist of all time – and maybe the greatest rock songwriter of all time – was at the top of his game, leading a power trio.

Jerome O’Brien and Beninghove’s Hangmen at Zirzamin, 2/18/13. This wasn’t one of the nights booked by this blog, but it could have been: the former frontman of literate punk/R&B rockers the Dog Show airing out old classics and deviously witty new material, solo acoustic on 12-string guitar, followed by saxophonist/composer Bryan Beninghove’s careening, menacing, psychedelic noir surf/crime jazz band.

The Polyse Project and Shofar at the Lincoln Center Atrium, 2/21/13. The two Polish groups made their US debut playing obscure, haunting folk tunes from the pre-Holocaust Polish-Jewish badlands along with equally haunting, lingering jazz reinventions of some of those themes.

Trio Tritticali at Zirzamin, 2/24/13. Of all the shows booked by this blog at this venue, this was the most fun. Not only did the eclectic string trio play a sizzling mix of original indie classical, tango and Middle Eastern material, they also served as house band. Lorraine Leckie, Walter Ego and a bunch of other A-list songwriters got the benefit of a brilliant string section behind them.

Black Sea Hotel and Lorraine Leckie at Zirzamin, 3/3/13. The three women of the otherworldly Balkan a-cappella group and the Canadian gothic songstress might not seem like the ideal segue, but they built a dark ambience that Leckie and her band set ablaze.

Daphne Lee Martin at the Way Station, 3/6/13. The torchy, deviously literate songwriter and her killer band aired out songs from Martin’s excellent new album, refusing to let a horrible sound mix and a loud bar crowd that wouldn’t listen distract them from their sultry, sometimes luridly swinging intensity.

Tift Merritt and Simone Dinnerstein at Merkin Concert Hall, 3/21/13. The Americana chanteuse and classical pianist began their duo show with the lights off and kept them low throughout a deliciously nocturnal mix of chamber pop and art-rock.

Drina Seay at Zirzamin, 3/24/13. One of the great voices in Americana brought her sophisticated countrypolitan band for a mix of noir blues, honkytonk and more rocking songs.

Serena Jost at Joe’s Pub, 4/9/13. The cellist and art-rock songwriter brought her brilliant band and burned through songs from her equally brilliant new album A Bird Will Sing.

Brazda and Big Lazy at Barbes, 4/12/13. Eclectic singer Shelley Thomas’ edgy Balkan group followed by the first live show in six years by NYC’s most thrilling noir instrumental band.

The Sweet Bitters at Zirzamin, 4/21/13. A rare, impromptu NYC show by A-list tunesmith Sharon Goldman and Nina Schmir’s folk-pop duo plus cellist Martha Colby, mixing otherworldly harmonies, edgy lyrics and a triumphant good-to-be-back vibe.

Eva Salina at the American Folk Art Museum, 5/3/13. One of the most intense, original voices in Balkan music, in a riveting, rare solo show: just vocals and accordion.

Bryan & the Aardvarks at Subculture, 5/14/13. The glimmering, nocturnal, vibraphone-driven Americana jazz sextet put on one of the most lushly evocative, richly noir shows of the year.

Emel Mathlouthi at the Alliance Française, 5/22/13. Even without her full band – who were absent due to visa issues – the Tunisian Siouxsie Sioux played a subtle yet ferociously intense mix of Middle Eastern art-rock and Arabic liberation anthems.

A Conspiracy of Beards at Drom, 5/24/13. The mighty all-male San Francisco choir sang their own imaginative large-scale arrangements of Leonard Cohen classics that were haunting and intense but  just as often playful and funny.

Eilen Jewell at City Winery, 7/9/13. The Queen of the Minor Key with her amazing band featuring lead guitarist Jerry Miller, one of the most sizzling players in Americana.

The Go-Go’s at Coney Island, 8/1/13. Who would have thought that the original, breakthrough all-female new wave band would still be together (with a new bassist) thirty-three years after they started…and that they’d sound more rambunctious than ever?

El Gusto at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/3/13. While we’re on the topic of old bands, this bunch of virtuoso Algerian chaabi musicians were making their US debut fifty-three years after they’d broken up, in 1960. And they picked up right where they left off.

The Larch at Bowery Electric, 8/8/13. Playing mostly new, unrecorded material, Brooklyn’s finest psychedelic new wave outfit were at the top of their sardonically lyrical, guitar-fueled game.

Rosin Coven and Amanda Palmer at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 8/9/13. AFP was as fearless and charismatic and fun to watch as you could possibly want, but the story here was the opening act, whose wild, canivalesque art-rock upstaged the headliners.

Kotorino at Joe’s Pub, 8/29/13. Speaking of carnivalesque, this Brooklyn circus-rock outfit keeps getting larger and more menacing, this time out playing the album release show for their excellent second album Better Than This.

Till By Turning playing bassoonist Katherine Young’s Four-Chambered Heart at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Brooklyn, 9/6/13. This isn’t a classical music blog, but Young – who has made a name for herself in jazz improvisation as well as chamber music – established herself as one of the most individualistic and powerful composers in town with this chilling suite, inspired by Olivier Messiaen’s prison camp epic, Quartet for the End of Time.

Matthew Grimm at Rodeo Bar, 9/13/13. The former and occasionally current Hangdogs frontman – who’s sort of the Stephen Colbert of heartland rock – played a mix of wryly hilarious and white-knuckle intense Americana rock and powerpop numbers from his latest album Songs in the Key of Your Face.

Salaam at Alwan for the Arts, 10/26/13. Multi-instrumentalist Dena El Saffar’s eclectic Middle Eastern band burned through a mix of originals and classics from Iran, with special guests from her brother Amir’s equally intense jazz quintet.

Carol Lipnik, Villa Delirium, Big Lazy and Mamie Minch at Barbes, 10/31/13. The queen of Coney Island phantasmagoria with her noir chamber pop band, followed by John Kruth’s gleefully twisted circus rock outfit, NYC’s creepiest crime jazz/noir instrumental band (yeah, they made this list twice – they’re that good) with all-purpose retro Americana siren Minch taking a characteristically lurid turn in front of the mic.

Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard at the Asia Society, 11/16/13. The Iranian fiddle player and composer joined with the santoor virtuoso for a glimmering, wrenchingly intense suite inspired by the harrowing experiences of their fellow citizens during the Khomeini years.

LJ Murphy & the Accomplices at the Parkside, 11/23/13. This list ends on a high note with this city’s most politically aware, charismatic noir rocker and his scorching, blues-infused band, careening through a mix of old classics and newly reworked material.

Basia Bulat Brings Her Anthemic, Nuanced Americana to Bowery Ballroom

A cynic might say that Basia Bulat is Tift Merritt with bangs. Both artists are distinctive, nuanced singers, write artsy Americana-tinged songs and make excellent studio albums. Merritt funds hers by touring incessantly. Bulat is Canadian, and since the Canadian government funds their artists, she gets the benefit of big-studio production that most American acts can’t afford. She’s at Bowery Ballroom on Nov 23 at 10 PM, playing songs from her latest album, Tall Tall Shadow; general admission tix are $15.

Most of the songs on the album follow a steady trajectory up from the verse to a big anthemic chorus, like the catchy title track, with a long crescendo up to the bridge. By contrast, the cautious, stripped-down acoustic ballad Five, Four is sort of Neko Case without the noir. Promise Not to Think About Love takes a bouncy Appalachian folk tune into the zeros, something like Mary Lee Kortes‘ Nothing Song with more of a pop feel. Is that a dulcimeer with a lot of reverb on it?

It Can’t Be You artfully pairs mandolin and concert harp, Bulat’s vocals channeling a vivid agitated/wounded dichotomy. Wires is more optimistic: with its big stadium production, ebow guitar paired with twinkling electric piano for a verse, this is the CBC radio hit. The City with No Rivers brings back a brooding mood, an unexpectedly successful blend of Americana and 80s darkwave.

Paris or Amsterdam paints a memorably wistful folk-rock scenario: it’s not clear if Bulat’s narrator is waiting in the station for a missing lover or a ghost, adding to the unease. Likewise, the misterioso pop hit Someone, its techy keys contrasting with plaintive strings, could be either a lost-love lament or an elegy. Bulat’s elegantly cinematic, nocturnal scene draws you in to catch all the details. Never Let Me Go, the next-to-last-track, pairs a guardedly optimistic lyric with a nebulous trip-hop tune. The album winds up with From Now On (an original, not the Supertramp hit), which takes what’s essentially an Appalachian ballad and turns it into a stately piano-based chamber pop anthem. It’s too bad that albums this accessible so often aren’t anywhere near this smart; consider this a sleeper candidate for one of the best albums of 2013.

A Gorgeous New Album from the Wailin’ Jennys’ Ruth Moody

Banjo player/songwriter Ruth Moody – one-third of perennially popular all-female Americana roots trio the Wailin’ Jennys – has just released a new album, These Wilder Things, her second as a bandleader. It’s excellent for so many reasons. First is David Travers-Smith’s purist but lush production: many of the songs follow a familiar trajectory from a skeletal intro and then bring in the instruments one by one until there’s a fullscale bluegrass orchestra motoring along. As one would expect from a member of the Wailin’ Jennys, the songwriting is strong – Tift Merritt comes to mind – and the playing is tremendous.

The opening cut, Trouble & Woe, a stark gospel-flavored minor-key banjo tune, is basically the Wailin’ Jennys since the whole band’s on it. As it picks up steam, the bandleader’s brother Richard Moody’s viola and Adrian Dolan’s fiddle join with Sam Howard’s bass, the viola firing off a nonchalantly searing solo as it winds out. One And Only, a gently swaying country song, blends delicious layers of slow-burning electric guitar from Adam Dobres, rising and falling around a tersely biting slide guitar solo.

Where so many others have failed, Moody pretty much succeeds at reinventing the old Springsteen radio hit Dancing in the Dark as sprightly seductive retro acoustic swing a la Lake Street Dive. The title track takes the volume down with Moody’s pensively airy vocals over hypnotic gospel-tinged piano: “We can’t be tamed, these wilder things,” she insists quietly. She keeps things hushed and ethereal with the brooding, restless Trees for Skies, while Mark Knopfler gives a clinic in terse multitracking on the even more brooding Pockets: “We took the roads most would avoid,” Moody asserts, unintimidated by anything that might imply.

The spare piano waltz Make a Change evocatively builds an evocative calm-before-the-storm ambience, pedal steel lingering in the background. One Light Shining blends Dolan’s mandolin with guest Jerry Douglas’ dobro, followed by the delicate, Celtic-flavored Life Is Long and then the quietly elegant, similarly low-key Nothing Without Love, a big anthem stripped to just the essentials. Moody will be on tour this summer; watch this space for possible NYC dates.

Yet Another Smart, Purist Album from Kim Richey

Kim Richey is one of those songwriters that Americana music fans take for granted. Every so often she puts out a new album, and it always ends up being pretty much what you’d expect: smart, impeccably crafted, with tasteful playing, lots of catchy hooks, plenty of detail and wise observations in the lyrics. Her latest one Thorn in My Heart is her seventh in a career that began in the mid-90s. Back then she was ahead of her time, someone who didn’t come out of country music but found herself a home there, more or less. Since then she’s circled closer around that center, every now and then selling a song to some New Nashville type. The viability of that business model having plunged so dramatically has put Richey out on the road more consistently, not such a bad thing since nobody does her songs as well as she does. She’s playing Joe’s Pub tonight with her band at around 10:15; tickets are $15 and are still available as of now.

As usual, Richey has surrounded herself with a cast of quality Nashville sidemen: the core of her touring band, guitarist Neilson Hubbard and mandolinist/multi-instrumentalist Dan Mitchell plus guitarists Will Kimbrough and Kris Donegan, bassist Michael Rinne and drummer Evan Hutchings, along with Wilco’s Pat Sansone (formerly of Jenifer Jackson’s band) on keys and Trisha Yearwood guesting on harmony vocals. Richey likes to write with people: as with her previous album, Hubbard gets a lot of co-writes here.

The title track is a terse midtempo backbeat country ballad that wouldn’t be out of place in the Tift Merritt songbook. “I’m fighting a battle with the undertow, it’s hard to hold your hand when you’re letting go,” the narrator grouses. Something More sets a brooding southern gothic narrative against spiky banjo and Sansone’s surreal funeral-parlor organ. And No Means Yes is an oldschool country cheating song in waltz time.

Angels’ Share, a co-write with the 1861 Project’s Thomm Jutz, builds a slow, summery, crying-in-your-beer ambience up to a bittersweet organ break: Lucinda Williams comes to mind. Richey has a couple more collaborations with Jutz here: I’m Going Down, an escape anthem with more bristling banjo, gospel piano and a trip-hop beat, and Everything’s Gonna Be Good, a slow, cautiously optimistic gospel-tinged ballad.

By contrast, the album’s best song, Come On – co-written with Mike Henderson – brings back the escape imagery over snarling guitar-fueled garage rock riffage. The other Henderson collaboration, Take Me to the Other Side, is also a gem, working its way up from a doomed Appalachian country-gospel theme. I Will Wait (written with Henrik Irgens) is sort of Richey’s Long Black Veil.

London Town, co-written by ex-bandmate Nate Campany, is a trip-hop song in disguise with tasty, moody trumpet fills interspersed amidst the jangle. And Richey moves to harmony vocals on the catchy Americana rock anthem Breakway Speed, a BoDeans-flavored collaboration with Mando Saenz with a wry Johnny Cash quote as its centerpiece. On one hand, Richey isn’t breaking any new ground here; on the other hand, it’s hard to imagine anyone else who mines a pensive acoustic-electric Americana vein as subtly and consistently well as she does.

Tift Merritt and Simone Dinnerstein Play Their New Album Live

[Repost from NY Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture]

Earlier generations might not be able to handle the concept of of juxtaposing Appalachian and classical music on the same stage. But songwriter/bandleader Tift Merritt and pianist Simone Dinnerstein have their fingers on the pulse of the future. Thursday night at their sold-out duo performance at Merkin Concert Hall, they held the crowd riveted with an intense, intimate performance that put each musician’s strengths under the microscope as they made unexpected connections between traditions from throughout the ages on both sides of the pond, Dinnerstein’s fiery baroque and Romantic interludes alternating with Merritt’s elegantly plaintive chamber pop. Most of the material was drawn from the two’s nocturnal song suite, Night, just released (and reviewed here).

The stage set foreshadowed what the concert would be: a pair of comfortable padded chairs at either side of the stage in low light from a couple of floor lamps. Merritt teased the crowd – “We’re not going to talk to you …we’re still not going to talk to you” – as the two made their way from Schumann, through a solo acoustic version of Merritt’s  plaintive Only in Songs, then glimmering themes by Schubert and Purcell. Dinnerstein’s gravitas and flinty irony balances Merritt’s biting wit and mercurial persona: they are very different peas in the same pod and obviously good friends. Merritt has established herself as a southern intellectual in the tradition of Faulkner and Welty; Dinnerstein represents for the old guard. Of the many eye-opening moments at this concert, the most impressive were when the two ventured into jazz, with a take of Billie Holiday’s Don’t Explain that was so sensual it was lurid, and a bit later an expansive, commissioned work from Brad Mehldau, I Shall Weep. Swing is a rare quality in a classical musician, but Dinnerstein has it: both she and Merritt have futures in jazz if they feel like it.

But it’s more likely that they’ll continue to cross-pollinate. Dinnerstein revealed a fondness for George Crumb and played resonant dulcimer lines inside the piano behind Merritt’s finely nuanced, wary mezzo-soprano. Merritt told how Dinnerstein had introduced her to an operatic rendition of the English folk ballad I Will Give My Love an Apple that Merritt instantly recognized from its slightly less antique American folk version – and then they played it as moody, lingering  art-rock. The biggest hit of the night was Dinnerstein’s rapidfire romp through the Allemande and Courante (make that tres courante) from Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G Major. Although Merritt admitted to being shy about playing the piano in front of her bandmate, she impressed with her own tersely brooding, gospel-fueled take of Small Talk Relations.

Dinnerstein’s subtle dynamic shifts followed a trajectory from bittersweetly neoromantic to bracingly modern throughout Daniel Felsenfeld’s Cohen Variations, a suite based on Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne. After Merritt sang a rapt, quiet version of Patty Griffin’s Night, the concert reached its peak with the plaintive, crescendoing, saturnine anthem Feel of the World, which Merritt had written for her well-traveled grandmother. The duo encored with a very clever mashup of Gabriel Faure’s Apres un Reve with La Vie en Rose, which Merritt sang in flawless French. The two are soon off on US tour; the schedule is here. Dinnerstein is also at the Greene Space for an on-air performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on March 28 at noon; the performance is free but tickets are required.

Tift Merritt and Simone Dinnerstein Bring Down the Lights

Tift Merritt, southern intellectual, put out what was arguably the most delicious guitar album of 2012 with a searing rock band including both Marc Ribot and Eric Heywood. Having convinced the eminent noir guitarist to play country and the country pedal steel virtuoso to play noir, Merritt has taken an abrupt detour into moody art-rock with her new album Night with pianist Simone Dinnerstein. As the title implies, it’s a nocturnal song cycle. As a singer, Merritt has never stopped growing: here she reminds that she’s just as competent at jazz as Patsy Cline probably would have been had she lived. As a songwriter, Merritt doesn’t appear to have any ceiling, leaping effortlessly from oldschool C&W to hypnotic chamber pop. Although she made her first big splash playing Bach – her recording of the Goldberg Variations topped the classical charts a few years back – Dinnerstein’s close attention to emotional detail makes her a perfect bandmate for Merritt in more Romantic moments such as these. The whole album is streaming at NPR (don’t forget to mute the sound for about the first thirty seconds of ads). They’re playing Merkin Concert Hall tonight, March 21 at 7:30 PM; as of this writing, tickets are still available.

Only in Songs sets the tone, a understatedly aching, terse, almost skeletal waltz, voicing a longing for a place “where people believe things can really change” and all the implications of that line. Merritt gives it the same kind of understated, crepuscular tension that Sam Llanas often evokes in more subdued moments. From there Dinnerstein takes over and they segue into an English translation of Schubert’s Night & Dreams, marvelously lowlit by Merritt’s harmonica in the background. Don’t Explain reaches beyond Billie Holiday wee-hours mist to a vivid ache as Dinnerstein alternates between spacious block chords and rapidfire, precise ripples – third-stream vocal jazz has seldom been so affecting.

The two reinvent Dido’s Lament, a Henry Purcell theme, with a plaintively neoromantic gleam. I Shall Weep at Night, a co-write with jazz piano icon Brad Mehldau, is a showcase for Dinnerstein’s ability to channel any emotion she wants, moving from creepily hypnotic to a big reflecting-pool crescendo and then back.

Merritt blends both starkness and bluesy sophistication into a solo guitar version of Wayfaring Stranger. Dinnerstein anchors her arrangement of a Bach E Minor Prelude (Bach wrote more than one: this one’s numbered BWV 855a) with an understatedly jazzy touch in the lefthand. The acoustic version of Merritt’s Still Not Home here strips it to a lingering, bluegrass-tinged, restless unease. The duo follow a hypnotically dreamy take of the old folk song I WiIl Give My Love an Apple with Merritt’s Colors, which with its guarded optimism and nuanced vocals against minimalistically resonant piano has the feel of an early Dolly Parton classic.

Cohen Variations, a series of solo piano variations on Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne by Daniel Felsenfeld, builds to an austere, wary, indie classical edge. It’ll resonate with anyone who’s ever sat down at the piano to play  Hallelujah and thought, “hmm, let’s make this really dark.”

The two elevate the title track, a Patti Griffin tune, to an elegant majesty. With Merritt’s nuanced, smoky vocals, Feel of the World is an uneasy, gospel-tinged reflection on triumph and joy that without a firm grip would be lost forever. The only time the record falls flat is at the end, with a brave but misguided attempt to redeem a cloying easy-listening radio ditty. Otherwise, chamber pop doesn’t get any better than this.