New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: townes van zant

Haunting, Brilliantly Lyrical Noir Americana from Ben De La Cour

Crooner Ben De La Cour brings to mind Townes Van Zandt, and also a young Ward White. De La Cour shares a similarly cynical worldview and world-weary, rakish persona, and sings in an assured baritone that he would probably prefer was fueled by quality bourbon, although rotgut might do the job in a pinch. And as he makes clear from the git-go, he’s no stranger to being in a pinch. He tells a good yarn, is a hell of a lyricist and has a thing for windmills. Vocally, Nick Cave is the obvious comparison, but De La Cour doesn’t rip him off wholesale: where Cave looks to Ireland for inspiration, De La Cour goes to the dark side of Nashville – his adopted hometown – or the Mississippi gulf. His brilliant new album Midnight in Havana is streaming at his music page,

The opening track is Mobile Bay, awash in a lush bed of acoustic and electric guitars, with accordion and Meredith Krygowski’s violin adding subtle cajun tinges. De La Cour keeps his imagery close to his vest in this one: do those bells across the water imply that the doomed narrator’s ex is marrying some other guy, that there’s a hurricane on the way, or both?

The band builds from bassist Jimmy Sullivan and drummer Erin Nelson’s steady Nashville gothic shuffle to an afterdark Tex-Mex rock blaze – the BoDeans circa 1993, feeding the fire – with Evelyn:

Pain lay deep in every track as we crossed over the border
But only one of us came back and I was so much older
And if I had it all again I’d probably make a couple changes to the end, Evelyn

Anybody Like You puts a bluegrass spin on the opening tune, with a disarmingly charming Freewheeling-era Dylan lyrical feel. Hold On takes a hard turn into grimly surreal fire-and-brimstone blues: “It makes me sick to think of Charley Patton in his grave, if he rose up they’d put him right back down in there again,” De La Cour rails. Walkin Around with the Blues is a less successful detour into Allman Brothers redneck rock.

The Last Last Dance nicks a familiar REM riff for a booze-drenched, doomed hookup scenario: “They say pick your poison, for all I know you do,” De La Cour’s narrator explaining that “At the emotional soup kitchen, I’m down at the front of the line.”

With its snarling guitars from lead player Ryan Dishen, Ain’t Going Down That Road brings to mind the Bottle Rockets in a particularly dark moment:

I heard Mr. Williams say we’re all just sitting around a hole in the ground
Shutterbugs are just far-out weird while the rest are just hanging around…
Some folks gotta feel the heat before they ever see the light
But I ain’t going down that road tonight

Brandywine Bouquet shifts into slowly swaying Blonde on Blonde territory, while Windmills and Trees offers both droll environmentalist relevance as well as a little insight into everybody’s favorite power source. But De La Cour can’t resist bringing back the gloom with the viscerally uneasy Down to the Water’s Edge:

I can see that light in your eyes, is it love or is it fear
If I could tell one from the other maybe neither one of us would be here

The album closes with the offhandedly ominous title track, an allusive tale that sounds a lot more like Matt Keating – or a Russell Banks short story – than anything Cuban. Time after time, De La Cour takes a theme that others would only scratch the surface of, and plunges to its murkiest, terminally depressed depths. Get to know this guy – he has a ceiling as high as both Van Zandt and White, and will hopefully last a lot longer than the former.

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.

Murder Ballad Mondays Makes a Mean Return to Fort Greene on the 21st

A monthly residency is a sneaky way to keep your fanbase coming out without stating the obvious, that they could always blow off your show this month and catch you next time around. After all, who can keep track of when the third Thursday of the month is going to fall, other than the band playing that night?

A lot of touring artists use small New York venues as an anchor when they’re here – or as a rehearsal room, basically. Barbes is home base to many of the elite among them, most notably Big Lazy (first Friday of the month at 10) and Rachelle Garniez (first Thursday at 8). There are also a trio of good acts using Sidewalk to keep themselves sharp: guitarist Lenny Molotov’s bitingly lyrical original oldtime swing band the Fascinators (first Saturday at 8), Mac McCarty‘s careening folk noir Kidd Twist Band (first Saturday at 9) and the darkly eclectic, avant garde-inclined Lorraine Leckie (third Friday at 11, including tonight the 18th).

This blog’s favorite monthly residency is Murder Ballad Mondays at Branded Saloon. Like Paul Wallfisch‘s late, lamented Small Beast at the Delancey, it’s blogbait. Any lazy blogger can save himself or herself four or five separate nights out and catch several of the best acts in town all on the same bill on an off night that doesn’t conflict with anything. And it’s become a hit with the local Fort Greene contingent.

Last month’s was a prime example: with cold rain pelting the slush outside, torchy noir singer Ellia Bisker and her guitarslinging Charming Disaster conspirator Jeff Morris packed the place and treated folks to a deliciously lowlit, lurid evening. They used to treat the crowd to at least a short set, but lately they’ve been teasing everybody with just a song or two. This time out their contributions were a slinky version of a shadowy, swing-infused new number with some hilarious rhyme schemes as well as Murderer, Charming Disaster’s signature song of sorts, a coldly wary, subtle cautionary tale reminding that the perfect crime has no witnesses.

Jessi Robertson set the bar high right off the bat. Hauntingly resonant, deeply soul-infused vocals fused with lead guitarist Rony Corcos’ similarly lingering, bluesy lead lines and elegantly jangly phrasing. Part of Robertson’s appeal is that her big crescendos sometimes seem triumphant and celebratory when they’re actually venomous, and their first song was a prime example. They also made their way through the bristling underbrush of a folk noir number and closed with a fiery PJ Harvey cover.

Liz Tormes, this city’s leading exponent of murder ballads, brought the ambience down to a blue-flame intensity, mining the catalogs of Peter Rowan and Bill Monroe, her own calmly and murderously alluring repertoire and closed with a stark Elizabethan suicide song. Former Snow frontwoman Hilary Downes sang a calmly brooding version of the Townes Van Zant classic Pancho & Lefty. And Mudville – singer/keyboardist Marilyn Carino and brilliant bassist Ben Rubin – kept the simmeringly ominous ambience going with noir cabaret takes on the Misfits and Tom Waits as well as an even more allusively venomous original.

That’s what makes Murder Ballad Mondays so interesting – it’s taking the concept of songs about killing people far beyond the time-honored Britfolk/Appalachian tradition. The more you know about music, the more you realize just how much we have in common: no matter the culture, people around the world just love to kill each other. And then write about it. This coming Murder Ballad Monday on March 21 starts at 8 sharp and features Charming Disaster, Elisa Flynn – whose rapturously haunting voice is matched by her historically-informed, erudite tunesmithing – and others TBA who will probably be just as good.