New York Music Daily

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Tag: torch song

Heather Holloway & the Heebie Jeebies Draw You Into Their Gently Haunting World

Nobody in New York sings I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with more subtly resigned, haunting resonance than Heather Holloway. And she does it with a gentle, wistful smile. With her serene, almost ghostly presence in front of her eclectic, simmering swing combo the Heebie Jeebies, she doesn’t fit the stereotype of your typical torch singer. She’s like a messenger from a lost era of smoky hotel bars and black-and-white film sets, quietly intimating that you should join her in a return to a more pleasant time when after work meant cocktail hour rather than trudging to the night job just to pay a share of the rent. She and the band have a Wednesday night 7 PM residency at the lobby bar at the Hotel Chantelle at 92 Ludlow St; they’re also at Radegast Hall, a regular haunt, on June 6 at around 8. If Lynchian sounds are your thing and you can handle the Ludlow Street strip – or, for that matter, if it breaks your heart to see how the area’s been devastated and turned into a playground for the entitled and pampered – her show might provide some solace.

She played at Radegast on a misty weeknight last month, the perfect ambience for her calmly bittersweet reinterpretations of a bunch of well-worn standards. Holloway’s delivery is disarmingly direct: she doesn’t use much vibrato, and then only at the end of a phrase, and there’s none of the over-the-top vampiness that so many other chanteuses work. Julie London comes to mind; so does Bliss Blood, although Holloway doesn’t have either singer’s sharp edges. What she does is more nebulous, and enveloping – and completely inscrutable. The band behind her provides the bite, particularly accordionist Albert Behar, whose terse spirals and fluttering lead lines added to the solitary Les Deux Magots atmosphere, matched by guitarist Adam Moezinia’s precise, distantly Django-influenced clusters and cadenzas. Meanwhile, bassist Joanna Sternberg showed off the same irrepressible sense of humor on bass that she does when she plays guitar and sings her front-porch folk songs, swooping up and down the scale and taking a couple of cheerily balletesque solos.

Maybe because the little front stage at the entrance to the big beerhall didn’t have room for everybody, Holloway placed herself out in front of them on the floor, almost motionless, with the poise of a wirewalker or a mime. Even the upbeat material – Sunny Side of the Street and Blues Skies, for example – had an opaque quality and a distant unease. By contrast, she found deep-sky longing in When You Wish Upon a Star. St. James Infirmary was somewhere in the middle, part bitter blues lament, part confident self-penned requiem. With an understated grace, Holloway has slipped into a niche just past the edge of the shadows before you hit girl-down-the-well Julee Cruise territory, and if you’re here in town you have plenty of chances to see her.

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A Masterpiece of Noir and Southwestern Gothic by Bronwynne Brent

One of the best collections of dark Americana songwriting released over the past several months is Mississippi-born singer-guitarist Bronwynne Brent’s Stardust, streaming at Spotify. It has absolutely nothing in common with the Hoagy Carmichael song. What it does recall is two other masterpieces of noir, retro-tinged rock: Karla Rose’s Gone to Town and Julia Haltigan‘s My Green Heart. Brent’s simmering blue-flame delivery draws equally on jazz, blues, torch song and oldschool C&W, as does her songwriting.

The album’s opening track,The Mirror sets the stage, twangy Telecaster over funereal organ and Calexico’s John Convertino’s tumbling drums. “The mirror knows the cards that were dealt,” Brent accuses, “You were never there.” Keith Lowe’s ominously slinky hollowbody bass propels Another World, its eerie bolero-rock verse hitched to Brent’s dreamy chorus. She could be the only tunesmith to rhyme “felon” with “compellin’.”

The unpredictably shifting Don’t Tell Your Secrets to the Wind picks up from spare and skeletal to menacingly lush, with biting hints of Romany, mariachi and klezmer music: Nancy Sinatra would have given twenty years off her life for something this smartly orchestrated. By contrast, the banjo-fueled Devil Again evokes the dark country of Rachel Brooke. “You’re just a prisoner watching shadows dance, dancing to your grave,” Brent intones, then backs away for a twangy Lynchian guitar solo. She keeps the low-key moodiness going throughout the softly shuffling Dark Highway, Hank Williams spun through the prism of spare 60s Dylan folk-pop.

When You Said Goodbye brings back the southwestern gothic ambience, with artful hints of ELO art-rock. “When you said goodbye I knew that I would die alone alone,” Brent muses: the ending will rip your heart out. By contrast. Heart’s On Fire, an escape anthem, builds to more optimistic if wounded territory:”Well, you learn from your mistakes, sometimes the prisoner gets a break,” Brent recalls.

Already Gone builds shimmery organ-fueled nocturnal ambience over a retro country sway: spare fuzztone guitar adds a surreal Lee Hazlewood touch. Bulletproof gives Brent a swinging noir blues background while she shows off her tough-girl side: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Eilen Jewell catalog.

Heartbreaker leaves the noir behind for a spare, fingerpicked folk feel, like Emmylou Harris at her most morose. Lay Me Down blends echoes of spare Britfolk, mariachi, creepy western swing and clever references to the Ventures: “Distance grows between us, doesn’t that just free us?” Brent poses. She ends the album on a vividly Faulknerian note: “Guess I can’t stop drinking, not today,” her narrator explains,” You may think that I’m lonely and running out of time, but I’m not the marrying kind.” Add this to your 3 AM wine-hour playlist: it’ll keep the ghosts of the past far enough away where they can’t get to you.

Bliss Blood and Al Street Bring Their Eclectically Lynchian Torch Songs to Freddy’s

Bliss Blood isn’t your typical Lynchian chanteuse. She’s as subtle as she is eclectic. With her coolly enigmatic, nuanced alto delivery, she brings to mind low-key cult favorites from the 50s like June Christy and Chris Connor. Retro as she is, she’s also completely in the here and now, putting her own simmering, low-flame spin on sinister, seductive songwriting, but also on purist pop that draws on artists as diverse as Ray Davies and Lee Hazlewood. Her latest album, Unspun, with longitime guitarist and collaborator Al Street, made the top albums of 2015 paage here. The two are playing an intimate Brooklyn show on December 29 at around 7:30 PM at Freddy’s. Another tunesmith who draws on more rock-oriented, similarly purist if somewhat more recent influences, the  sardonically lyrical Scott Phillips a.k.a. the Monologue Bombs opens the night at around 6. It’s a rare opportunity to see Bliss Blood’s duo project outside of her usual swanky haunts like Hamptons hotspots and the Soho Grand Hotel.

This blog most reently caught the duo in Wiilliamsburg at the well-loved and badly missed Brooklyn Rod & Gun Club (yeah, it’s been awhile). Blood played her trusty ukulele while Street aired out his bottomless bag of jazz, flamenco and blues licks., sometimes adding fiiery surf tremolpicking, occasionally anchoring the songs with biting, trebly basslines. Blood has lent her voice to more diverse projects than most singers with her command of distant menace – noise-punks the Pain Teens, acoustic blues band Delta Dreambox and one of New York’s original oldtimey swing bands, the Moonlighters being just a few – but this show was pure, Lynchian noir. The scampering swing number they opened with turned out to be a red herring, followed by a proto-Vegas noir tune, evoking an era when the casinos were still desert sand. The slowly swaying tune after that mashed up oldschool 60s soul and bittersweet 30s swing…then they hit the afterburners and took it doublespeed, Street firing off volleys of circling Sam Langhorne-style 60s blues riffage.

Blood’s tunesmithing shifts keys constantly, and counterintuitively: you never know what’s coming next, but it’s a good bet that the song’s going to be a real haunter. As jaunty and fun as Blood can be, there aren’t many songwriters who can channel longing and despondency as vividly yet distantly as she can. One prime example at this show was a gorgrously pouncing ballad that wound up with a rain-drenched Street janglerock solo. Their cover of Secret Love put the original Doris Day version to shame while alluding to the C&W guitar of the Loretta Lynn hit. After that, they did a waltz lit up by Street’s hornets-nest chord-chopping. He did the same thing on the sultry, misterioso Entropy, one of the new album’s standout cuts.

Another of the album’s best numbers, No One Gets It All came off as part restrained, lurid 60s Henry Mancini noir pop, part opaque janglerock, with an oldtime swing shuffle groove. From there the duo ran through blues, and flamenco tinges, alluded to Lady Day’s I Cover the Waterfront, veered toward more straight-up jazz, took a high-energy detour into Tex-Mex and then back to wounded, lowlit Twin Peaks territory with a chilling take of Palace of the Wind. It was a night of lots of styles and lots of stylish picking, a good indication of the depth of this duo’s troubled and alluring catalog.

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.

Erica Smith Is Back with a Vengeance

Erica Smith is one of the most diverse and most shatteringly evocative singers in New York. She got her start in oldtime folk music – we’re talking eighteenth century, sea chanteys and such – then went deep into Americana, then played everything from janglerock to psychedelia to torchy jazz with her backup band the 99 Cent Dreams. Most recently, she’s been enlisted to sing the Linda Thompson role in the Shootout Band, the downtown NYC supergroup who specialize in Richard and Linda Thompson songs. Smith is also one-third of the amazing all-female gospel frontline of Lizzie & the Sinners. But she hasn’t lost a step writing and performing her own plaintive, pensive, sometimes exhilarating originals. She’s doing a relatively rare (at least, these days) solo gig on May 31 at 9 PM upstairs at 2A on an excellent bill with fellow Americana guitarist/singer Monica Passin, a.k.a. L’il Mo, with wryly edgy, politically-fueled American Ambulance frontman Pete Cenedella headlining at around 11.

Smith’s most recent solo show was on a similarly kick-ass quadruplebill at the Jalopy back in February with Passin, the witty, historically-inspired, lyrically brilliant Robin Aigner and then the coyly whimsical, multistylistic violin-accordion duo the Wisterians. Smith opened with one of her most picturesque, intense numbers, River King, a waterside tableau that puts a terse update on classic Fairport Convention. Her new material was also strong: a bittersweet, fingerpicked oldtimey Piedmont-style blues; an even more bittersweet, summery waltz set in Corlear’s Hook Park on the Lower East Side; and an angst-driven narrative written on the eve of a Colorado blizzzard, with flight cancelllations and their immense implications. And she treated the Americana purists in the crowd to a downright haunting, brooding take of Wayfaring Stranger and a low-key, simmering version of the old folk standard Pretty Saro, from her cult favorite album Friend or Foe.

The rest of that night could easily have been anticlimactic but it wasn’t. Passin pulled off the rare feat of playing lots of guitar solos, solo acoustic, and managed to make them work without sounding skeletal and ungrounded. Aigner cut loose with that richly ambered, jazzily nuanced voice of hers, singing sly hokum blues, metaphorically-loaded Depression-era historical narratives and allusively snarling ballads. And the Wisterians – violinist Karl Meyer and accordionist Brooke Watkins – matched Aigner one-liner for one-liner with a clever, sometimes vaudevillian set that spanned from oldtime Americana, to Belgian barroom dance music, to edgy, chromatically-fueled Balkan folk.

A Gorgeously Noir New Album and a Little Italy Gig by Bliss Blood and Al Street

There’s an embarrassment of riches up at Bliss Blood‘s Bandcamp page. With the irrepressibly jaunty, harmony-driven, Hawaiian-tinged Moonlighters, she pioneered the swing jazz revival here in New York in the early zeros. She got her start before that as a teenager in the 80s and early 90s fronting noise-punk cult heroes the Pain Teens. But she’s also a connoiseur of noir. She first explored those sounds thematically with her trio Nightcall, which she stripped down to a duo with guitar sorcerer Al Street. The two have a gorgeously shadowy new album, Unspun, up at Bandcamp and plenty of gigs coming up. Their next one is a trio set with reedman Ian Hendricikson-Smith on March 29 at 8 PM at Epistrophy Cafe, 200 Mott St. (Kenmare/Spring).

Blood has been one of the most intriguing and enigmatic singers in this city for a long time. A master of nuance and innunedo, she can be playful, or swoony, or downright sultry one second, and sinister the next. She’s just as strong and eclectic as a songwriter: she has a thing for foreshadowing, and subtle metaphors, and clever double entendres: Street has a fluency and edge on acoustic guitar that most players only dream of achieving on electric: forget about nailing the kind of sizzling, flamenco and Romany-influenced riffs with the kind of nuance he employs without help from amps or pedals.

The new album’s first track is Alpha, a flamenco-tinged cautionary tale about a guy whose “fingers are always on the snare” – as she explains, you don’t want to be on the banks when this particular levee gives way. Entropy has a distantly injured pulse that’s as dreamy and Lynchian as it is ominously steady: “Now the laws of all transgression have all been broken but a few/So don’t pretend we didn’t bend the universe in two,” Blood broods. Then they pick up the pace with the droll, innuendo-fueled hokum blues shuffle Give Me Lots Of Sugar, a dead ringer for a Bessie Smith classic. And though you might think following that with a song called It’s So Hard would be pretty self-explanatory, it’s not: Blood’s insistent ukulele anchors a pensively torchy, bossa-flavored anthem.

Lucia, a lively flamenco swing instrumental, gives Street a launching pad for all kinds of nimble spirals. No One Gets It All, the album’s most haunting track, has a surreally captivating lyric to match its bittersweetly gorgeous melody. It seems to be a defiantly triumphant if deeply wounded existentialist anthem:

Satiated, sinking in your sweet domain
Waking to a distant and whispered call
Stirring to the echoes of a fractured song
Reflection’s fading, no one gets it all

It’s Comfortably Numb without the stadium bombast.

The two take a richly nuanced detour toward the Middle East with Nuyaim, then hit a steady noir swing strut with Pitfall and its wry chronicle of romantic missteps. Please Do (I Like It So Much) mines a vintage C&W sway, while Rustbelt works a catalog of sly junkyard innuendos over a cheery swing tune. Then they float their way through Snowmelt, a reverb-drenched, hypnotically Lynchian mood piece.

Tying My Tail In Knots sets more of those devious innuendos to a chirpy drive with an unexpected 90s quirk-pop tinge. Street does a mighty impersonation of a balalaika on the angst-fueled but ultimately triumphant title track. The album winds up with Vixen, a femme fatale theme infused with unexpectedly Stonesy blues guitar. Multiple levels of meaning reverberate throughout these songs: it would take a novel to count them all. It goes without saying that this is one of 2015’s best releases (some context: noisy postpunks Eula, lyrical new wave revivalists Lazy Lions, avant art-song siren Carol Lipnik, noir duo Charming Disaster, and Paula Carino’s double entrendre-fueled Regular Einstein all figure into that equation).

Bliss Blood and Al Street work fast. They’ve got a new single, Clash by Night up at Bandcamp, a brisk, strummy, resolute individualist’s anthem. “Solitude, not loneliness,” is the central theme, a cause for any rebel.

Carsie Blanton Brings Her Sultry Southern Sound to the Rockwood and Elsewhere

Torchy New Orleans chanteuse Carsie Blanton is doing a different kind of American tour this year, inspired as much by her wildly popular blog as well as her music. She’s playing clubs, but she’s also appearing at sex toy shops. Here in New York, her first stop is at Babeland at 43 Mercer St. on July 12 from 3 to 5 PM. Then she’s playing the third stage at the Rockwood at 8 PM on July 13 for $10 plus a $10 drink minimum. Her aptly titled new album, Not Old, Not New is up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download: you should grab it.

Is the album about sex? It’s more about innuendo. Blanton’s pillowy voice may be seductive, but in a genuine rather than campy or over-the-top way. She’s got a great, purist jazz combo behind her: Neal Caine on bass, Joe Dyson on drums, Rex Gregory on sax and clarinets, Kevin Louis on trumpet, Shane Theriot on guitar and David Torkanowsky on piano. The opening track, Azaleas sets the mood immediately, Blanton musing how “nothing evil can assail ya” against a sunmery backdrop of resonant piano, terse bass, brushed drums and balmy, muted trumpet. Blanton matches sly wit with southern charm on the slow, slinky Laziest Gal in Town, enhanced by a gently smoky bass clarinet solo. Then she and the band pick up the pace with the ragtime-flavored Heavenly Thing, a vibe they maintain on Two Sleepy People, a portrait of two lovers in the wee hours who’ve run out of gas yet can’t bear to part. It’s more coy than Daria Grace‘s unforgettably endorphin-infused version.

Blanton’s slow, wounded take of You Don’t Know What Love Is has a vividly stripped-down arrangement that contrasts brooding piano against fluttery tenor sax. Then she romps through a brisk take of What Is This Thing Called Love, spiced with a spiky Jason Marsalis vibraphone solo.

They go back to slow, low-key ballad mode for the picturesque Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans. Blanton offers Sweet Lorraine from the perspective of a woman who’s getting gaymarried, with a slow, soulful piano-based arrangement that mirrors the album’s first song.

The funniest, most innuendo-fueled track here is the swinging hokum blues tune Don’t Come Too Soon. Blanton brings down the lights again with a slow, warmly wistful version of I’ll Be Seeing You and winds up the album with the title track, a miniature for just solo voice and acoustic guitar. Fans of oldtime Americana and swing jazz are in for a treat with this one.

Amanda Thorpe Goes Deep Into the Noir in Yip Harburg’s Torch Songs

Nobody sings a moody grey-sky melody with as much moving, wounded poignancy as Amanda Thorpe. Although she’s best known as a purveyor of uneasy, rustic Britfolk-influenced rock and chamber pop – she’s the closest thing to Linda Thompson this generation has produced – Thorpe has also been singing jazz since the 90s. And she’s just as hauntingly adept at it, shifting meticulously and sometimes wrenchingly from one emotion to another in a pensive alto. She’ll caress the lyrics on a verse and then hit a wailing, anguished peak on a chorus. But where she works her magic best is in between those extremes.

Thorpe’s new album Bewitching Me: The Lyrics of Yip Harburg was springboarded by a chance introduction to Ben Harburg, grandson of the ubiquitous swing era lyricist. Thorpe reinvents a bunch of old chestnuts as well as several  rarities from throughout Harburg’s career, backed by a tight band recorded mostly live in the studio. Sexmob‘s Tony Scherr plays tersely eclectic guitar, ranging from wee-hours, tremolo-tuned saloon jazz to vintage soul to the downtown grit he’s best known for. Rob Jost plays bass with an edgily incisive, woody tone; Robert di Pietro on drums with his typical, minutely focused nuance; plus Matt Trowbridge on keyboards, Serena Jost on cello and Ray Sapirstein on trumpet. Joe McGinty guests memorably on organ on a shatteringly wounded, nocturnal, oldschool soul-infused take of I’m Yours. Scherr switches to bass on a wryly jaunty, Anita O’Day-style take of Buds Won’t Bud alongside guests Michael Fagan on guitar and Nancy Polstein (Thorpe’s bandmate in the late, great Wirebirds) on drums. And Ben Harburg duets with Thorpe on a droll, tonguetwisting bonus track, I Like the Likes of You, over a bouncy pop backdrop.

Her stab at turning Over the Rainbow into a janglerock anthem, Scherr channeling Bill Frisell, is about as good as anything anyone’s been able to do with it. But her take of the other standard Harburg’s best known for, Brother Can You Spare a Dime, is a quiet knockout, rising out of a creepy, ambient intro with a thinly restrained anger, bringing it into the post-Bush era with a muted vengeance and vivid sense of abandonment. With its haunting, subdued anguish, Thorpe’s noir tropicalia version of Willow in the Wind is even better, fueled by di Pietro’s ominous tom-toms and misterioso cymbal work. Thorpe and the band work their way into It’s Only a Paper Moon as subdued Lynchian noir, then wind it up with an unexpected snarl fueled by Scherr’s bristling chords. And her misty, lushly waltzing, Adrift on a Star raises the doomed deep-sky intensity to a hushed peak.

Jost’s stark cello mingles with Scherr’s sparkly guitar as Paris Is a Lonely Town unwinds into Beatlesque psychedelia. Likewise, the jazziest tune here, April in Paris gives Thorpe plenty of room to remind how much a notoriously romantic city can amplify absence and regret. Old Devil Moon gets a lingering Nashville gothic treatment that grows more sultry the deeper Thorpe goes into the song: the old devil’s definitely up to no good here. Thorpe reinvents I’m Yours as slow swaying, jangly, organ-fueled oldschool soul and follows it with the album’s most sensual number, Last Night When We Were Young, Thorpe airing out her upper register with a lushly breathy, spine-tingling presence.

There are also a couple of considerably more lighthearted songs here. Thorpe has devilishly deadpan fun with all the tricky rhymes and innuendo in When I’m Not Near the Man I Love over the band’s tiptoeing red-neon ambience. And she gives Then I’ll Be Tired of You a swinging vintage soul-infused interpretation. The album’s liner notes compare the chemistry between Thorpe and Scherr to Julie London with Barney Kessel, or Mary Ford with Les Paul, and while this rocks harder than either of those duos ever did, the comparison holds true. As noir music and torch songs go, it doesn’t get any better than this. It this album the best of 2014 so far? It’s one of them.

A Killer Live Album from Kelli Rae Powell

More artists should make live albums, and it’s a good thing that Kelli Rae Powell’s latest one is a concert recording. Immortalizing her show in the late winter of 2012 at the Jalopy – Powell’s and every other New Yorker’s favorite oldtime Americana hangout – it’s the devious, ukulele-wielding firecracker singer and retro songwriter at the top of her game. Interestingly, the tracks don’t follow the sequence of songs in the set, at least the second set, from which at least some of these numbers were taken (trying to guess which ones is part of the fun – the place was sold out, but if you weren’t there, you missed a hell of a show). It was fun seeing how much pure sonics could be generated by a simple lineup of Powell on either uke or acoustic guitar, plus her purist bassist husband Jim McNamara, M Shanghai String Band harmonica sorcerer Shaky Dave Pollack, and Matthew Brookshire guesting on vocals on a couple of tracks.

The album, understatedly but meticulously produced by Terry Radigan, opens with Grace, a steadfast tribute to a cigarette-smoking, cocktail-drinking Iowa lady: Powell keeps one of those traditions very much alive. The track titled Summertime here is not the jazz standard but a happily dizzy original, Powell’s narrator stunned and smitten and unselfconsciously touched to find that not everything in the world is grim and dreary. Powell keeps the opiated, dreamy mood going with Sweet Dorina, a “drinkaby” (cross between a drinking song and a lullaby) dedicated to her longtime Jalopy bartendress pal.

The hokum blues-inspired Give Me a Man works on many levels, mostly as a sideways tribute to an honest guy with rocks in his mouth who may not be the world’s biggest charmer, but at least he calls ‘em like he sees ‘em.  Selfish as Fire, a duet with Brookshire, works a ferocious booze-drenched atmosphere much in the same vein as the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York. The band brings it down with the subdued but seductive December and then a tribute to Powell’s Iowa home, The Flood, a wryly aphoristic, pensive ballad.

Piece of You is the last of the sweet ones: from here on, the album grows fangs and won’t let go. The Cowboy Song, a big audience hit, sways along defiantly: the girl in the bar won’t settle for not being taken seriously, and the jokes have as much snarl and bite as chuckles. Bury Me in Iowa City, another pretty somber midwestern nocturne, is followed by Grateful, which seems like a semi-former hellraiser trying to come to terms with her checkered past and possibly less checkered future with mixed results.

The band takes it all the way up at the end. The studio version of Midnight Sleeper Train is the drinkaby to end all drinkabys, but this one is more aggressive and plays up the underlying unease of a woman hellbent on putting a lot of space between her and some bigtime disappointment. Likewise, the album version of Don’t Slow Down, Zachary is all harrowing undercurrent, a band-on-the-road narrative that the girl in the story never wants to see end because she can’t bear to go back to the unnameable place she ostensibly calls home. Here, Powell works the double entendres and puns, and the crowd loves it. She and the band end it with Some Bridges Are Good to Burn, which ends her previous studio album New Words for Old Lullabies on a smoldering note; here, she wrings out every ounce of vengefulness and sings the hell out of it. Powell’s next show is on Sept 21 at 9ish at the Jalopy, of course, opening for Lara Ewen.

A Killer Free Download From Drina Seay

New York songwriter and bandleader Drina Seay seemingly came out of nowhere to become one of the great voices in pretty much every style of Americana music. For her, Americana means jazz and soul music in addition to country and blues. Her blend of all these vocal styles is one of the things that distinguishes her; the other is her songwriting, which draws equally powerfully on all of those genres as well. For the moment, she has an intriguing ep of original songs available for free download at her site. The lineup here features her on acousttic guitar along with Homeboy Steve Antonakos doing his usual virtuoso job, this time on both acoustic and electric, backed by Skip Ward’s terse bass.

The first song, Don’t Keep Me Waiting Too Long works off a catchy rustic fingerpicked bluegrass riff, Seay”s voice alternately stern and alluring, Antonakos firing off a sizzling solo. It wouldn’t be out of place in the Mary Lee Kortes songbook. The second cut, a big, torchy concert favorite, is Chase My Blues Away. Seay’s lurid, aching, reverbtoned vocals have a Neko Case menace matched by Antonakos’ blue-flame slide guitar: it’s one of the best songs written by anybody in this town in recent years. The last track, Whatcha Gonna Do, brings back Seay’s blend of bluegrass and classic pop chops. Watch this space for future show dates.