New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: townes van zandt

Hauntingly Vivid Nocturnes and a Couple of Intimate May Shows from Hayes Carll

If Townes Van Zandt hadn’t drunk himself to death – or if he was born in the 80s – he’d be doing what Hayes Carll is right now. Pretty much everybody’s favorite outlaw Americana songwriter has a two-night stand coming up at Joe’s Pub on May 16 and 17 at 7:30 PM. Advance tix are $25 and as of today are not sold out, which is especially weird since he usually plays Bowery Ballroom or the Bell House when he’s here in town.

His spare, unselfconsciously haunting latest album, impeccably produced by Joe Henry, is Lovers & Leavers, streaming at Spotify. It kicks off with the aptly desolate Drive, spacious tremolo guitar and organ looming distantly over elegant, skeletally fingerpicked guitar and brushed drums. If the Highwaymens’ albums had an organic feel instead of all those cheesy sythesizers, they would have sounded like this. It’s a bittersweet lament for a restless spirit who can’t be corralled: “Burning both ends of the candle and you pretend that you don’t care.”

Sake of the Song is as much of a shout-out to any down-and-out songwriter as it is a salute to Carll’s brooding road-dog influences, from Hank Williams to Dylan and Elvis and Tom Waits, a gorgoeusly slinky Nashville gothic ballad:

Hitchhike and bus ride and rental cars,
Living rooms, coffeehouses, rundown bars
Ten thousand people all alone under the stars
All for the sake of the song

Good While It Lasted offers a bitter, more personal look at the downside of late-night barroom tunesmithing, part Waits, part Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan. That last muted cymbal hit will rip your face off.

The hushed waltz You Leave Alone is a vivid southern existentialist character study:

One conversation
One short-term destination
Can lead to a lifetime
Away from home
But no plan’s worth making
All the big dreams are taken
When you leave this world
You leave alone

Withs its lingering pedal steel and melancholy chromatics, My Friends could be John Prine, or the late-90s Jayhawks, or the Walkabouts doing their country thing. Carll brings back the subtle gospel tinges with The Love That We Need, a crushingly sardonic portrait of a marriage that’s lost its lustre. Love Don’t Let Me Down, the album’s title track more or less, has the feel of a lovelorn 60s Don Gibson ballad recast with the spacious, desolate ambience of the album’s opening cut.Likewise, Love Is So Easy is roller-rink soul done as Americana. The album winds up with an a final character study, casting a disconsolate, restless woman as a Jealous Moon. It’s no wonder why Carll likes small venues, considering how well these songs are suited to them.

Fred Gillen Jr. Makes Yet Another Good Record

It’s hard to believe that Fred Gillen Jr. has been making albums for almost 20 years now. His latest, Silence of the Night is one of his best, and arguably his most tuneful, a mix of acerbically lyrical, Americana-flavored janglerock and grittier electric songs that stand up alongside Steve Earle’s louder stuff. In a style of music that’s all too often drenched in obviousness and cliche, Gillen doesn’t go there: he has a bloodhound’s nose for a catchy hook, he tells a good story and he’s never sung better than he does here. There isn’t a hint of fakeness, or affectation in his casual, intimate vocals, or for that matter in his songwriting either. Although there isn’t as much of an overtly political stance to these songs as in his past work – during the Bush regime, Gillen was one of the most insightfully enraged voices of reason around – his songs still have a penetrating social consciousness. As someone who long ago adopted Woody Guthrie’s “this guitar kills fascists” for his six-string, Gillen keeps a close eye on the world outside and its most telling details. All seventeen tracks on the album are streaming at his Bandcamp site.

The opening cut, Morphine Angel offers a somber elegy for an addict, “blinded by your own sun’s dying light” – it wouldn’t be out of place in the BoDeans catalog. Later on, he revisits that theme – it’s a familiar one in his repertoire – with a more broad appraisal of the price of addiction in a dead-end town. The album’s surprisingly bouncy title cut looks at love as “a dockside shanty, lit by Christmas lights, painted like a carnival against the endless silence of the night.” Gillen follows that with Vanity and its casual country-rock sway, a vivid cautionary tale (and good advice) for these Orwellian times.

Find a Rodeo, a country ballad, laments the loss of good songs on the radio, among other things. One of the album’s strongest tracks, the Springsteen-ish Halloween Day at the VA leaves a chilling trail of images, a litany of damage and lost hope, among them the Afghan war vet who returns home too messed up to restart his old Kiss cover band. The growling, bluesy, metaphorically-charged Black Butterflies goes back to roaring Americana rock, something akin to Will Scott relocated to the Hudson Valley.

Shotgun contrasts a catchy janglerock tune with a brooding lyric that examines the consequences of getting married too soon, followed by the powerful Walking That Line, an abortion chronicle that makes a worthy sequel to Graham Parker’s You Can’t Be Too Strong. Only Sky ponders how possible it is to make a genuine escape, followed by the nonchalant come-on ballad Lean on Me.

A couple of tracks veer toward the sentimental, but they’re not throwaways. This Old Car, complete with fuzzy dice and air freshener, makes an apt flipside to Everclear’s Thousand Dollar Car. Sappy as the lyrics are, This Town Is Our Song has an irresistibly tasty acoustic guitar hook. There’s also Dinosaur Bones, a creepy, apocalyptic voice-and-drums number as well as a tantalizingly brief, bristling twangrock instrumental and an attempt to end the album on a lighthearted note. It’s another solid chapter in the career of a songwriter who’s not unknown – his recent collaborations with Pete Seeger have received well-deserved praise – but whose work would enrich the lives of a wider audience than it probably has. Fans of John Prine, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and the rest of the Americana songwriting pantheon ought to get to know him.

Creepy Apocalyptic Songs from Tim Foljahn

Tim Foljahn’s new album Songs for an Age of Extinction, out on Tuesday on Jennifer O’Connor’s Kiam Records label, is a masterpiece of gloomy, psychedelic retro rock. As the title implies, it’s about as far from optimism as you can get. Musically, like Rachelle Garniez (see yesterday), Foljahn looks back to other eras for his influences; swirling Pink Floyd grandeur, doomed Nick Cave neoromanticism, hushed gospel rapture and a dark rustic folk ambience that reminds of Swiss-based cult songwriter Bobby Vacant. Foljahn’s baritone voice is often hollow and haunted; when it’s not, the former Townes Van Zandt and Cat Power collaborator takes on a laconic country twang. Much as many of the arrangements are often ornate, they’re also terse: no wasted notes here. The lyrics are a litany of apocalyptic signs – it’s not clear whether the world ends because of nuclear war, Fukushima-style poisoning, global warming or all of the above. What is clear by the time the morbidly starlit, ten-minute closing instrumental comes around, building artfully from a minimalist light/dark dichotomy to an inescapable vortex, is that it’s gone for good.

With its oscillating layers of sitar mingling with guitar, the hypnotic title track, which opens the album, draws a straight line back to George Harrison. “Dying trees stand shore to shore, animal lovers in their midst, we’re heading for your holy war,” Foljahn sings with a tired, stoic resignation. The second cut, All Fall Away is a doomed gospel tune with a gorgeously ominous, all-too-brief Wurlitzer organ solo. Faded gracefully blends Kirsten McCord’s cello with washes of Foljahn’s slide guitar for an ambience that’s part Atomheart Mother-era Floyd, part Richard Buckner, with an ending that simply and cruelly seals the deal. With its web of blues-tinged fingerpicked guitar, the dark folk War Song is the closest thing to Bobby Vacant here, building matter-of-factly to atmospheric ambience with slide guitar, nimble bass, violin and echoey Rhodes piano behind a forlorn soldier’s tale.

New Light hypnotically overlays two sets of lyrics in the same vein as David J’s Stop This City, a warmly bucolic scenario contrasting with an apocalyptic nightmare. The god in Foljahn’s God Song is strictly Old Testament: “I’m not gonna leave you a sign, and I’m not gonna leave you alive,” he announces while the band channels Country Joe & the Fish at their creepiest circa 1967. Foljahn’s stinging, reverb-toned acid blues licks against a macabre funeral organ dirge give this song a mighty, surreal wallop, setting up the deathly spacious sonics of the closing theme. Without question, this is one of the most haunting albums of recent years: let’s hope it turns out to be a cautionary tale rather than a prophecy. Foljahn, O’Connor and their bands are currently on tour, with a stop at Union Pool on March 4 with Amy Bezunartea and Kleenex Girl Wonder opening the show at 8.