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Rachelle Garniez Brings Her Irrepressible New York Wit, Charisma and Songcraft to the East Village for Two Shows

Accordionist/multi-instrumentalist Rachelle Garniez was the first artist ever covered at this blog. Considering how the music blog demimonde is as crowded, and generally anonymous, as a Chinatown mall, if you’re going to hang your shingle out there, you want to go into business with a bang, really make it count, right? Four and a half years after that hot August night on the Lower East Side, Garniez – widely considered to be the gold standard for New York songwriters – has seen her career skyrocket, touring worldwide with her own group as well as playing in edgily shanbling blues/swing/Carribean/klezmer kitchen-sink band Hazmat Modine. Garniez also has a killer new album, Who’s Counting, just out and a couple of shows coming up on December 7 and 14 in the intimate, sonically exquisite piano room at Pangea on Second Ave. between 11th and 12th Sts. Cover is $15

For Garniez, ecstasy and despair are two sides of the same coin. She sings in character, and she’s got a million of them. deadpan ingenue, wide-eyed schoolgirl, hazily smiling hippie chick, opera diva, slinky silent film-era flapper. And also venomous oldschool punk rocker, outraged 99-percenter, wounded veteran of the psychic wars. irrepressible bon vivant, born-and-raised streetwise New Yorker with a sentimental streak as wide as Broadway at Park Place. Many of those characters inhabit the same song. Garniez loves to work that live, just as much as she likes to mess with the audience. One of her favorite shticks is to open a number, or write a first verse, that leads you to believe that the song’s going to be blithe and contented all the way through – and then she flips the script.

The last time this blog caught her live – at Barbes back around Labor Day – she actually didn’t mess with the crowd much. Instead, she was all about the songs. This was an intimate duo show with her regular bassist/sparring partner Tim Luntzel, who took centerstage on the macabrely funny Flat Black, a jaunty bass-and-vocal blues. Otherwise, he hung in the shadows and supplied a slinky backdrop, Garniez opening on accordion with the uneasily summery Manhattan Island, segueing from there into Tourmaline, a big crowd favorite with its bitter metaphors of semi-precious stones who go unappreciated. The high point of this particular show was Vanity’s Curse. She played that one on acoustic guitar, an Elizabethan-tinged Britfolk guitar waltz that goes on for awhile as a cozily nocturnal portrait of domestic contentment (and decor) before Garniez rips off the mask and reveals the source of where all that luxe came from.

Then she went to the piano for New York Minute, saloon jazz in the same vein as Mose Allison – if he’d been a girl from the Upper West in the days before yuppification, instead of a guy from Mississippi. The rest of the show ran the gamut of styles and her rich back catalog. There was the strutting, aphoristic Weimar blues Just Because You Can; God’s Little Acre, a defiantly hilarious kiss-off to a fling from the past turned Facebook stalker; and the understatedly grim existentialist gospel of the new album’s title track, all spiced with stinging, extemporaneous between-song banter. If this sounds like fun, it ought to be even more so next week in Garniez’s old East Village stomping ground.

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Simmering, Relevant, Lyrical, Cutting-Edge Americana Rock Sounds from Fireships

Accessible and anthemic as Fireships are, they’re also as cutting edge as rock bands get these days. More often than not, they play a style of music that barely registered on the radar fifteen years ago: you could call it Americana chamber pop. As Americana became this city’s, and this nation’s default music, it seems that a lot of musicians in that style wanted to create something more hefty than, say, country blues, but also more substantial and tuneful than Coldplay or Fleet Foxes. That’s not the only hybrid that Fireships cultivate: frontman/guitarist/banjoist Andrew Vladeck writes fearlessly populist, Dylanesque narratives, and the band gets gritty with some pretty straight-up highway rock from time to time. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp; they’re playing at the big room at the Rockwood on November 30 at 9 PM. Drinks at the Rockwood are scary expensive, and they enforce a drink minimum there, but you can get a seltzer for three bucks.

After a bit of a false start, the album gets cooking with Going Down Fighting and its mashup of Penny Lane Beatles, gospel and strummy Americana, a moody but ultimately optimistic anthem for the current global depression. Living the Dream follows even more of an epic, Roger Waters-inflected sweep, the violins of Hannah Thiem – who’s also a darkly brilliant solo artist in her own right – and guest Skye Steele teaming with Lauren Balthrop’s electric piano to provide a pillowy backdrop for Vladeck’s vividly torrential lyrics.

Likewise, Long Shadow takes Blonde on Blonde Dylan into Deer Tick territory as Vladek paints a grimly picturesque but defiant portrait among the down-and-out:

I went away to get my blood changed
Had my wires rearranged
You might think that I’m acting strange
I’m just acting tough
I fired a shot thru the floor
The circus ran straight for the door
You asked me what I did that for
I guess I I had enough…
Flying cars and ricochets
Not a soul escapes unscathed
You might think those were the days
The best left to the past…
Blinds are drawn and a deadbolt clicks
Those dirty dogs will rip you to bits
All that funky junkie shit, you just ask my mates…

Countdown Time also traces a troubled trajectory, a gloomy drinking-and-driving anthem set to an oldschool disco groove: “Kill the rocket boosters, we’re on cruise control, we’ll make a tiki bar out of the console,” Vladeck intones. Then drummer Jason Lawrence and bassist Chris Buckridge push the fiery revolutionary anthem Chasing the Sun with a symphonic Phl Spector ba-bump beat, Vladeck channeling both the angst and the withering dismissiveness of a milllennial generation sick of living without a future and those who’d steal it away: “You can’t distract us, you’re old and your done,” he snarls.

Likewise, All We Got reflects on a now-or-never choice of sticking with a broken system or breaking free: it’s the Wallflowers updated for the teens. Vladek again looks back to Spector with the ballad Words Escape Me. Carried Away builds an ominous, oldtimey bluesy ambience, shivery strings mingling with Vladeck’s steady fingerpicking. The most savagely funny number here is Passing Knowledge of the Sexes, a spot-on, creepily cynical look at the realities of online dating.

Fantasy is another really funny track, caustically chronicling how people fall for celebrity culture: “Are you meant to hang from a velvet rope?” Vladeck challenges. The album winds up with the dreamily surreal 99-percenter folk-rock of Unplug the Stars. If you want to know what the smart kids are listening to these days, this is it.

Rachelle Garniez Stuns and Seduces the Crowd at Pangea

Many cognoscenti in the New York music scene consider Rachelle Garniez the best songwriter in town, and some would argue that she she might simply be the best songwriter anywhere. A couple of nights ago at Pangea she bolstered that argument, playing to a rapt and wildly appreciative hometown crowd in a duo show with bassist Tim Luntzel. Despite having to sit because he was in a walking cast, he supplied terse, elegantly elastic lines to anchor Garniez’s acerbic, erudite, occasionally feral playing as she alternated between acoustic guitar, accordion and piano.

As a performer, Garniez is devastatingly funny, although her songs often pack a wallop that comes from the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. One of her favorite tropes is to introduce them via slow, contemplative, frequently psychedelic intros that give her a launching pad for deviousy surrealist, deadpan humor that seems completely fresh and off-the-cuff but is actually more thoroughly composed than anyone realizes. What varies from show to show is the punchlines: it’s impossible to think of anyone who has as much fun flying without a net as Garniez.

And there’s always something relevant lurking behind the jokes. What seemed like it would be blissed-out musings on deep-forest beauty turned in a split second into caustic commentary on global warming…which then introduced a sly, vamping, bluesy stripper theme. That one she played on accordion, accenting the song with some unexpected horror on the low end and then a coyly sinister flatline motif at the very end. Likewise, she painted a dreamy early morning riverside scenario and then flipped the script, tying it into the perils of gentrification. That led into the metaphorically slashing if gently waltzing Tourmaline, the semi-precious gem in the title a metaphor for all things not quite perfect, or accepted, embellished with Garniez’s usual umpteem levels of meaning. As Garniez tells it, anyone who might dis you for having something in common with that stone “Is only just snow on your screen.”

Playing piano, she made the connection between Facebook and crack cocaine (Garniez is equally disdainful of both) in the gospel-tinged God’s Little Acre, an unrepentant kiss-off from a former party animal who’s been tracked down (or stalked) by a fling from a past decade. And in a bouncy, blackly amusing new one, just bass and vocals, she explained that at her funeral, she doesn’t want any ordinary Cadillac hearse: she wants an El Camino instead. How many other songwriters would identify a funeral flower car by its make and model, never mind using that image as a metaphor?

Beyond an irresistibly funny, sarcastically operatic shout-out to Jean-Claude Van Damme and his  endorsements for antidepressants, the best song of the night was a starkly baroque-tinged new guitar song inspired by her European tourmate Kyrie Kristmanson. Yet again, Garniez filled in the details of what would seemingly turn out to be a comfortable, sympathetic portrait of an old lady and her tchotchkes…but revealed the source of the money funding all the decor as “The bludgeon and blade.”

And she is New York to the core. Feeding off the crowd’s energy, she wound up the set with People Like You, which opens as an uneasiy and ambiguous Far Rockaway reminiscence, then takes on a blithe, boppy Rickie Lee Jones bounce before Garniez drops the artifice and bares her fangs, in a withering sendup of gentrifier status-grubbing:

It’s people like you who don’t know pride from shame
It’s people like you who always stay one step ahead of the game
It’s people like you who never place a face before a name

Then she quoted from Taylor Swift and brought down the house.

Garniez is just as fearless when it comes to having special guests: other vocalists might be intimidated by sharing the stage with singer Carol Lipnik and her otherworldly, soaring four-octave range, but not her. Lipnik and pianist Matt Kanelos delivered plenty of thrills with a spellbinding, melismatic take of Oh, the Tyranny, a hauntingly awestruck track from their new album Almost Back to Normal. A little later, torchy chanteuse Angela McCluskey provided some plaintive intensity of her own in a Billie Holiday-inspired diptych, pianist Paul Cantelon providing brilliant, Debussy-esque ripples and lustre.

Garniez has a long-awaited new album due out on November 13; her next gig is at Barbes on Sept 3 at 8 PM. Lipnik continues her weekly Thursday 7 PM residency at Pangea this month. And McCluskey and Cantelon debut their new dancefloor groove band, Saint Bernadette – with Garniez on accordion – tonight, August 26 at City Winery at 7.

Rosanne Cash Delivers Her Best Album Since Her Classic Black Cadillac

Rosanne Cash is one of those artists we take for granted. Another year, another tour, maybe another great album. So on one hand, her latest one The River & the Thread comes as no surprise. As a songwriter, her voice is wise, and knowing, and all too aware. On this one, both musically and lyrically, Richard Thompson is the obvious comparison – through imagery as loaded as a Civil War Gatling gun, Cash is always fighting off the gloom. As a singer, she just gets more and more nuanced: in the years since her last greatest shining moment, Black Cadillac, she’s using her resonant lower register a little more: Jenifer Jackson‘s recent work comes to mind. As expected, her husband and musical director John Leventhal’s guitar, bass and keyboard work is eclectic, and as subtle as the vocals, at the same time packing a soulful wallop. This is definitely the best thing Cash has done since 2006, which makes sense considering that the album revisits so many of the brooding themes that made Black Cadillac a genuine classic. Cash also has a New York show on Feb 22 at 7 PM at the Metrpoolitan Museum of Art, but it’s sold out. In the meantime, you can hear the album on Spotify.

The opening track A Feather’s Not a Bird sets the stage for most of what’s to come. Stark, noirish strings, minor keys and spare, bluesy lead guitar over a swaying beat anchor Cash’s litany of metaphors for a legacy that weighs heavily on her: “A feather’s a not a bird, the rain is not the sea, a stone is not a mountain but a river runs through me.” The Sunken Lands is more rustic – mandolin is the lead instrument – and reminds of Mary Lee Kortes, a narrative of toil and woe that could be set in the age of slavery…or the current age of near-slavery.

The ghost of Cash’s father continues to haunt her, particularly on Etta’s Tune, a bittersweet, vividly imagistic look at a conflicted family: “We kept the polished bass guitar, we kept the tickets and the reels of tape to remember who we are,” Cash recalls, with an understated anger for the loss of pretty much everything else. Then she switches gears with Modern Blue, a vintage 60s-style psych-folk number held aloft on a lush bed of acoustic guitars, like a Lee Hazelwood song but with better lyrics – and Carol Lipnik‘s swinging rhythm section of drummer Dan Rieser and bassist Tim Luntzel.

Tell Heaven sticks with the folk-rock, but more pensively, Cash assessing the dubious power of prayer: “The empty sky may never take our burdens,” she muses. The Long Way Home looks back to late 60s Jimmy Webb-style countrypolitan, and once again to Johnny Cash: “Summer rain was heavy, almost as heavy as your heart, a cavalcade of strangers came to tear your world apart.” Then World of Strange Design brings the Appalachian gothic back: it could be a harrowing tale of a returning soldier’s family falling apart, or simply a metaphorical tale about a guy who “Set off the minefield like you were rounding first.” Derek Trucks guests on guitar on that one.

With a string section (Dave Mansfield on violin and viola and Dave Eggar on cello) that begins pillowy and quickly turns ghostly, Night School is a haunted, restless look back at at a relationship that’s probably done for good: one of the most compelling things about Cash’s songwriting is that she always lets the images tell the story, tantalizing the listener and leaving open the possibility for multiple interpretations. By contrast, 50,000 Watts, a duet with Cory Chisel, employs layers and layers of guitars and electric piano in a jaunty tribute to gospel radio. The Nashville gothic reaches a peak with When the Master Calls the Roll, a death-fixated Civil War soldier’s tale. The album ends with Money Road, a mashup of fire-and-brimstone Bible imagery and 70s radio pop much in the same vein as Tom Petty’s Runaway. It almost goes without saying that this is one of the best albums of the year.

Best Halloween Show of 2013: Carol Lipnik, Villa Delirium, Big Lazy and Mamie Minch

Is there a style of music that John Kruth can’t play? On Halloween, he brought his witty, ghoulish circus-rock band Villa Delirium to Barbes on a triplebill that was as darkly entertaining as it promised to be. Vllla Delirium are as eclectic as Kruth’s other project, Tribecastan but more grounded in classic Americana than the Middle Eastern, Romany and Central Asian sounds that kitchen-sink instrumental unit explores. As the band name implies, there’s a gleefully dark humor to most of Villa Delirium’s songs. This time out, Kruth switched between mandolin, acoustic guitar and wood flute, alongside the band’s not-so-secret weapon, Tine Kindermann on vocals and singing saw, plus Kenny Margolis on accordion and multi-keys and Doug Wieselman on bass clarinet and mandolin.

Kruth kicked off the night with one of a handful of canivalesque waltzes, followed by the surreeal La Vie de Madame Tussaud, sung in French by Kindermann, with the first of several shivery, sepulchral saw solos. A little later on, she sang the Doors’ Crystal Ship in German, its creepy Weimar psychedelics enhanced by a minimoog solo where Margolis played through a choir patch, adding an uber-goth edge.

Kruth grinningly delivered a mash note to a flirtatious ghost who was hot in her time over Message to You Rudie riffage, followed by the first of a handful of pretty country waltzes, a klezmer-tinged tune and then Kindermann’s Russian/klezmer spoof Nyet Is All You’ll Ever Get. They went a little further west to the Balkans for a murderous tale about the Countess Bathory, who reputedly bathed in virgins’ blood as a medieval precursor to botox. Then they did their funniest song of the night, a droll waltz sung by Kruth that twisted the story of the pied piper into a cautionary tale about how you should never stiff a musician.

A wistful, Celtic-tinged accordion waltz evoked Rachelle Garniez; a little later, they got the audience singing along on the swinging blues tune Calling the Monster Back Home, then the barrelhouse Jerry Lee-style anthem Turning up the Burners in Satan’s Steakhouse with Margolis rocking the piano keys. They wound up their set with the psych-folk waltz What Is the Moon on Tonight: “What is the moon on, mescaline or blow, and where can I get some, I just wanna know,” Kruth deadpanned. He was so taken by Wieselman’s first spiky, rapidfire mandolin solo that he asked for another one and presumably got what he wanted; the crowd roared for more.

Probably because the music was so good, the amateurs didn’t show up until late in headliners Big Lazy‘s second set, and by then it was past midnight. By then, guitarist Steve Ulrich, Andrew Hall (first chair bassist of the Greenwich Village Orchestra) and drummer Yuval Lion had stalked their way through murderous back-alley crime jazz romps, a couple of western swing-tinged blue-sky themes, slasher skronk and a pitchblende lament or two. The most spine-tingling moment of the night was when Mamie Minch came up to join them for a Lynchian version of Crazy. Most women who cover the song sing it whimsically, or bittersweetly; Minch sang it as if it had happened to her and she was living the cruel aftermath, working her way up to the top of her register and then eventually taking a long slide down into her moody alto, adding the occasional, flickering, bluesy melisma as the band tiptoed through the mist behind her. And Minch’s talents aren’t limited to reinventing the Americana songbook; she’s also adept at repairing guitars. She’s recently hung out her own shingle: if you’ve dropped your vintage Martin on the peg and split it down the back, she knows how to get it back in shape.

And Carol Lipnik and Spookarama, who would have been an equally good choice of headliner, opened the night, the chanteuse wowing the crowd with her four-octave range as she sang with an otherworldly resonance through her trusty echo pedal. Pianist Dred Scott played circus blues, noir jazz and hypnotic, Asian-tinged minimalism over Tim Luntzel’s slinky bass as Lipnik ran through a mix of phantasmagorical favorites and the darkly enigmatic, hypnotic songs she’s recently been adding to her repertoire. Right before her encore, she quoted Rumi, which pretty much spoke for itself: “My shadow is only as beautiful as your candle.”

Halle & the Jilt: Oldschool Soul with a Fresh, Dark Undercurrent

A cynic might say that the recent explosion of female-fronted oldschool soul bands are all trying to be the next Adele. But the reality is that most of them have been going for as long or longer than she has: the main reason why Sharon Jones isn’t on commercial radio is because her little label doesn’t have the payola money. Meanwhile, fantastic acts like Clairy Browne & the Bangin’ Rackettes, the Right Now and Meah Pace are packing small and midsize clubs. Halle & the Jilt work a lot of that same turf: for a taste of some of the lusciously noir cutting edge of retro soul music, they’re playing the album release for their second one, Three Roads Home, at the big room at the Rockwood tonight at 7.

Frontwoman Halle Petro goes for a steamy but biting oldschool soul vibe. Her voice is more crystalline and direct than most of the other retro soul mamas; when she’s not wailing full steam, her vocals often have jazz nuance. Petro’s not-so-secret weapon here is guitarslinger Michael Gomez, best known for his purist but often slashingly pyrotechnic work in careening minor-key gypsy/jamband Hazmat Modine. The album’s production is anything but slick, and all the better for it. At first listen, the funky opening track, Kiss My Ghost sounds like she’s saying “kiss my nose.” Petro sings vengefully over Tim Luntzel’s dancing, boomy bass, Jim Wert’s prominent drums and Gomez’ distorted funk guitar: “Are you happy when you kiss my ghost?” she demands. Did  she kill herself? Was she killed instead? Did anybody really get killed? The answer isn’t clear, and it’s intriguing.

The second track, Confessions is a feast of oldschool, jangly Memphis soul guitar under Petro’s nonchalant alto. Signs – which appears here in both live and studio versions – works a surprisingly interesting, artsy take on standard coffeehous singer-songwriter fare. Graveyard of the Ocean sets shipwreck metaphors over a cleverly creepy blend of noir funk and gothic folk. One suspects it might have a past life as a country song, reinforced by the presence of a broodingly torchy electric version of Wayfaring Stranger (which is actually fantastic – it wouldn’t be out of place on a Jennifer Nicely album).

Take What I Can Get pairs Petro’s elegant kiss-off narrative against echoey blues harp and nonchalantly unhinged, bluesy wailing from Gomez. Trees has a catchy, upbeat sway, Petro’s voice taking on a clipped, sardonic edge in the same vein as Hannah Fairchild of Hannah vs. the Many.

“You’re just a paper doll,” Petro adds casually on the burning, crescendoing, funk rock tune 10 East. Carry Me Home, a catchy 60s-style soul ballad, is a showcase for Gomez’ inspired, oldtime blues work with a slide on resonator guitar. The album winds up with a doo-wop soul number.

Beautiful, Haunting, Evocative Mining Songs from Jan Bell

Jan Bell has one of the most distinctive and beautiful voices in any style of music. She’s never sung or written more vividly or poignantly than she does on her new concept album Dream of the Miner’s Child. A miner’s granddaughter, she traces the seam of coal that runs under the Atlantic from Wales to the Carolinas to make connection between the traditional songs of the Yorkshire mining country where she grew up, and the Appalachian ballads of her adopted land. A small ocean liner’s worth of Americana talent, including her bandmates from the acclaimed all-female Maybelles, joins her on this virtually all-acoustic collection recorded at various stops around the world. Soaring with vocal harmonies and prominent violin, it’s a richly purist, gorgeously subtle album, much of it propelled with a casually expert country swing by bassist Tim Luntzel and drummer Brian Geltner.

It opens with a briskly plaintive version of Jean Ritchie’s The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore (referring to a railroad rather than a New York subway line), Bell’s honey-and-nettle vocals contrasting with an austerely soaring Rima Fand violin solo. Yorkshire Water, an elegant chamber pop-flavored original, sets nuanced harmonies from Melissa Carper and the Be Good Tanyas‘ Samantha Parton over spare lines from Truckstop Honeymoon guitarist Mike West and pianist Katie Euliss.

Bell does Trixie Smith’s oldtime Mining Camp Blues closer to Davis Sisters-style country, joining harmonies with Alice Gerrard, Megan Palmer supplying rustic fiddle ambience. The title track, a wistful duet with Jolie Holland, looks back both to the 1925 Vernon Dalhart version as well as the original 1907 Welsh mining disaster ballad. Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town, a duet with Will Scott, is considerably more subtle – and strangely evocative – than the haphazard Pogues version.

Another Bell original, Elsecar Grace aka John Willliams, carries a cruelly ironic narrative with a vintage soul/gospel melody. Her midtempo take on Darrell Scott’s haunting You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive is nonchalantly chilling, while Juliet Russell adds her voice to an absolutely otherworldly a-cappella duet on Brian O’Higgins A Stor Mo Chroi.

M Shanghai String Band’s Philippa Thompson and Hilary Hawke join Bell on her Maybelles bandmate Karen Dahlstrom’s The Miner’s Bride, a brooding tale of a mail-order marriage in the old west made even more ominous by Thompson’s ghostly singing saw. Casey Neill shares vocals and adds electric guitar on a gently insistent, impactful take of Billy Bragg’s workingman’s anthem Between the Wars. Bell follows that with a Woody Guthrie lyric, Union Sea and makes ragtime-tinged antique pop out of it.

The catchiest of the originals here is Aunt Molly Jackson, the Carper Family (Melissa Carper, Beth Chrisman, Jenn Miori and Brennen Leigh) adding rich harmonies to this brisk oldschool C&W number. The most British of the tracks here is Carried by the Wind, Bell joined by Salty Pink’s Amelia Sauter and  Leah Houghtaling. Bell and Palmer end the album with an a-cappella take of the traditional Irish ballad Factory Girl. Life in mining country on both sides of the Atlantic was hard; Bell and her all-star cast deliver these songs with a potent bittersweetness that reflects both the hopes and grim realities of the people who created them, at the same time adding memorably to the repertoire. It’s not a stretch to imagine future generations of Americana musicians referencing the Jan Bell versions of many of these songs: this album secures her place among the finest and most individualistic musicians in that world. Bell plays the album release show at Barbes at 8 PM this Friday, Dec 14; high-voltage Balkan band Sherita (a Raya Brass Band spinoff) kicks off the evening at 7.