New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: wallflowers band

Purist, Potently Lyrical Janglerock, Americana, Powerpop and Soul From the Bastards of Fine Arts

For the past several months, the Bastards of Fine Arts have been working up a formidable body of catchy, anthemic, purist rock songs via a mostly-monthly residency at 11th Street Bar. The project took shape as a challenge of sorts, songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Matt Keating and his lead guitarist co-conspirator Steve Mayone hell-bent on writing a new song every week. Their project caught on with social media and went viral. Fast forward to 2018, they’ve got a full band now (Jason Mercer on bass and Greg Wieczorek on drums) and a catalog as vast as a band who’ve been around for five times as long. Which means they can mine it for the real gems.

Playing as a duo at the American Folk Art Museum in May of last year, they were at the point where they were working every style they knew (and they know a lot!). Sam Cooke ballad? Check. Lou Reed (a guy Keating is unsurpassed at imitating)? Doublecheck. Honkytonk anthem, Wallflowers janglerock, wistful Americana waltz? Triplecheck.

A year later at an early 11th Street gig, they’d pulled the band together and had built up a set that transcended its origins. They opened with their catchiest number, the gorgeously bittersweet I’ll Take the Fall, Keating both self-effacing and witheringly cynical at the same time. Another even more vindictive number traced the story of an ex that the song’s narrator spies out on a date with some dude. On the way out of the bar, she drops her coat; the dude picks it up for her. Keating’s narrator would have left it there.

Because part of the project is “what style CAN’T we do,” there are plenty of jokes to go around, some more inside than others. Switching to piano, Keating turned a Mayone ballad into a gospel tune; Mayone added some sardonic metal licks to a Keating soul number. They worked a bossa groove, Mercer spiraling all over the fretboard during a more recent number, Walk in the Park, a rare instance of a song of theirs which doesn’t seem to have a cynical undercurrent.

In a very subtle Elvis Costello vein, they vamped along on a bouncy soul-blues tune for a good three minutes, at least, without changing chords once. At the end of the set, they brought up Keating’s daughter Greta, who flashed some incisive chops on Strat as well as a similarly edgy lyricism and soaring vocals. Most children of great musicians don’t go into music for obvious reasons; Greta Keating, like Amy Allison and Jakob Dylan, is every bit as formidable as her dad was when he was in his early twenties. Here’s hoping she sticks with it. The Bastards of Fine Arts are back at 11th Street Bar on Dec 18 at 9 PM.

Joshua James Brings His Gothic Americana to the Mercury Tonight

Joshua James plays a surrealistic 21st century take on Nashville gothic and folk noir. He likes minor keys and ominous nature imagery. The production on his new album, My Spirit Sister – not yet streaming at Bandcamp, but due there at the end of the month and serendipitously available on vinyl – manages to be sleek and digital without dulling the edge of James’ song cycle. There’s an understatedly symphonic sweep to what’s essentially a theme and variations. He’s got a gig tonight with his band at the Mercury at 8. If you didn’t already get your $15 advance ticket, it’ll cost you three bucks more, which is as pricy as that venue gets these days. But James is worth it.

The album’s indelibly catchy opening track is Broken Tongue. It’s like the shadow side of a 60s Simon and Garfunkel folk-rock hit, with shivery digital reverb effects on the many layers of guitars over a steady backbeat anchored by bassist Isaac Russell and drummer Timmy Walsh. In his flinty twang, the Nebraskan songwriter ponders alienation and the struggle to communicate through the debris of a lifetime worth of damage.

As the similarly brooding yet propulsive Coyote Calling moves along, the guitars of James and Evan Coulombe slash and stab through the digital haze: in a subtle way, it’s the album’s funniest song. It segues into Real Love, a creepy hitchhiking narrative which mirrors the opening track. Is the “mighty wind that’s gonna lift you up” a tornado, a fire-and-brimstone religious metaphor, or both?

The crushing, distorted electric guitars return in Golden Bird, a druggy, apocalyptic tale that unwinds amidst the contrast of high lonesome, reverbtoned guitar twang and a crushing, distorted chordal attack. James paints an understatedly cynical portrait of rural white ghetto nickel-and-diming: it’s like Tom Waits backed by Jessie Kilguss’ band.

In a swaying Wallflowers/Deer Tick rock vein, Pretty Feather is the first pop-oriented number here. Backbone Bend, which nicks the chord progression from a familiar Prince hit, strays further beyond Americana than any of the other tracks. Losin’ My Mind is a tasty reverb guitar-fueled update on vintage 60s acoustic Dylan. In Dark Cloud, James weaves a richly detailed story about a young couple hanging on by their fingernails: you can see the end coming a mile away, but it still packs  an impact. The cycle winds up with the Springsteen-folk of Blackbird Sorrow, which is a decent song, although the ending is too pat: dark clouds don’t usually vanish from the sky as fast and inexplicably as they do here. It’ll be interesting to see where James goes after this.

Texas Art-Rock Jamband and Neil Young Collaborators Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real in Williamsburg Tonight

If the idea of blowing off work or school today to wait for hours in the suddenly scorching sun for this evening’s free MOMA Summergarden event – where the new Neil Young album is being premiered over the PA at 6 out behind the museum – doesn’t appeal to you, there’s a relatively inexpensive alternative tonight at Brooklyn Bowl where Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, who back Young on the record, are playing their own stuff at around 9. Cover is a reasonable $15. That a band that packs stadiums coast to coast hasn’t sold out this comparatively smaller venue testifies to something really troubling as far as live music in New York is concerned.

The group’s latest album Something Real is streaming at Spotify. The opening track, Surprise, is exactly that, kicking off with a wry Pink Floyd quote and then hitting a bluesy metal sway over an altered version of the hook from Sabbath’s Paranoid .Then they make a doublespeed Blue Oyster Cult boogie of sorts out of it. The title track is a straight-up boogie: “I got tired of trying to please everybody…you’re just a name in a picture frame,” the bandleader rails, then bassist Corey McCormick, percussionist Tato Melgar and drummer Anthony LoGerfo take it down for a searing, blues-infused solo. These guys don’t coast on their bloodlines: Lukas and Micah Nelson play like they really listened to their dad…at his loudest.

Set Me Down on a Cloud has a pretty straight-up, growling Neil-style country-rock sway. Don’t Want to Fly has a similar groove, a dark stoner blues gem that David Gilmour would probably love to have written. Ugly Color is an unlikely successful, epic mashup of Santana slink, Another Brick in the Wall art-pop and BoDeans highway rock. Speaking of the BoDeans, the ballad Georgia is a tensely low-key ringer for something from that band circa 1995.

This brother outfit goes back to boogie blues with the strutting I’ll Make Love to You Any Ol’ Time. Then they blast through Everything Is Fake in a swirling hailstorm of tremolo-picking. The album winds up with an amped-up cover of Scott McKenzie’s famous 1967 janglepop hit San Francisco, Neil Young cameo included. It’s sad how so few children of noteworthy rock musicians have lived up to their parents’ greatness – on the other hand, it’s heartwarming to see these guys join the ranks of Amy Allison (daughter of Mose), the Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan and Sean Lennon. And these guys rock a lot harder than all of them.

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.

Chicago Farmer’s New Album Tells Some Good Stories

Cody Diekhoff’s wryly aphoristic, darkly amusing country-folk songcraft evokes icons like John Prine and Steve Earle while it fits in with the top tier of current-day Americana artists like fellow Chicagoan Joe Pug. Recorded under Diekhoff’s performing name Chicago Farmer, his new album Backenforth, IL is just out and it tells a catchy bunch of tales. In a big city, his misfit characters would be called nonconformists – in a a rural area, they’re more likely to be considered smalltime criminals, and he’s got a soft spot for them.

The opening track, Everybody in This Town is the musical standout here. It sounds like the Wallflowers backing John Prine, with a Joe Day organ break that’s beyond gorgeous, something that keyboardists will be nicking years from now. Drawling over it, Dieckhoff contemplates the rougher side of smalltown life and how everybody’s business is everybody else’s.

The next track is Working on It, a swaying honkytonk tune with some tasty dobro. A song that breaks the fourth wall might not be the first thing you would think of in country music but this one does, and it works. A stoner folk tune with bite, The Twenty Dollar Bill at first seems like it’s going to turn into a sentimental tale about missing the old folks but takes quickly an unexpected turn that’s too good to spoil here.

With its bubbling pedal steel and brisk bluegrass shuffle beat, Backenforth is another song that at first sounds a lot more happy and laid-back than it turns out to be. The swaying, all-acoustic 200 Miles Away is a mystery story, with a country-blues feel like the stuff that’s been coming out of Brooklyn lately. The best tale of all of them here is The Jon Stokes Prison Break Blues, a scampering account of a smalltime crook who busts out of jail, with some unexpected punchlines – it’s a story worthy of Woody Guthrie.

The edgiest song here, another one that brings to mind Woody Guthrie, is Who on Earth, a scathing broadside directed at holier-than-thou hypocrites:

I got a ticket for a busted headlight
It’s 11 AM, sunny and bright
Limit’s 55, I was doing 57
Now I don’t know how I’ll get into heaven

And it gets better from there. The album ends with Backseat, a jaunty country-folk shuffle. Dieckhoff gets around a lot – it’s not unrealistic to think he might hit New York one of these days, watch this space.

Saint Maybe’s Debut Album: A Southwestern Gothic Rock Classic

Things As They Are, the debut album by Tucson supergroup Saint Maybe, sounds like the great lost sequel to the Dream Syndicate’s 1983 classic Medicine Show. That’s not to say that Saint Maybe are a ripoff: in their most anthemic moments, they evoke Willie Nile; at their jangliest, they remind of the Wallflowers, or Neil Young, or even Dylan, which makes sense since this project features Bob Dylan drummer Winston Watson. What they play is retro 80s psychedelia with some great tunes and deliciously unhinged, off-kilter lead guitar from the Patti Smith Group’s Oliver Ray. Guitarist Chris Sauer – who a few years back put out the intriguingly dark Desert Whale Ghosts – is also part of this project, as is southwestern gothic guru Craig Schumacher. If this album had come out in 1985, it would have a cult following today; without question, it’s one of 2012’s best.

These songs are long, typically unfolding slowly over seven or eight minutes, intricately arranged with layers of guitars and keyboards. The opening track, Everything At Once (And More) is a psychedelic tour de force. Ray’s surreal lyrics can be deliberately off-the-cuff and inscrutable, but he can really nail a phrase when he wants: this one’s a study in paradoxes. “We wanna live forever before we die,” he intones over a catchy, simple blues riff that eventually decays to a fluorescently hypnotic Brian Jonestown Massacre-style interlude layering ethereal mellotron against crashing fuzztone guitar.

With its bristling layers of acoustic and electric guitars, Houses for Ghosts reminds of paisley underground legends True West as the band mingles aphoristic, apocalyptic Steve Wynn-style imagery over a backbeat with pulsing keys: “Is that a dust storm approaching, the highway’s disappeared, they’re building houses for ghosts.” With its oscillating Rhodes piano, fuzz bass and staccato reverb guitar, the funky Delicate Prey owes a debt to Wynn’s desert rock classic Here Come the Miracles. By contrast, She’s Alright works a brisk but casually nocturnal country groove, a launching pad for another series of surrreal lyrics and smartly terse Americana guitar solos. It’s Dylanesque in the best possible way.

The Dream Syndicate influence really starts to show itself on the broodingly swaying Way with Words: the way they work a slow, steady crescendo, riding a sunbaked slide guitar lead (is that Schumacher? Sounds like him) is artful to the extreme. The centerpiece here is the epic Everything That Rises, driven by a venomously twisting Ray guitar riff. Rising from the ashes slowly with a wry Grateful Dead reference, it coalesces into a roaring, jangling, hallucinatory swirl, a wickedly catchy chorus and then a long bridge that builds to a devastating crescendo over wild layers of chord-chopping:

What’s that coming down the line
The question? Fires answered in your eyes
Are we to be reduced to ash
Or will we choose to be free at last?

They keep the Medicine Show menace going full throttle with the even longer Take It Easy (But Take It), a jaggedly catchy 6/8 anthem echoing with reverb guitar, pulsing drones and more of that offhandedly vicious slide guitar, the organ finally taking over to drive the hauntingly surreal narrative home. If that song is the album’s John Coltrane Stereo Blues, the title track is its Merrittville, a low-key but murderous Americana rock dirge with some deliciously terse, bluesy wailing by Ray. As much crazed improvisation as there is here, the orchestration is meticulous: an enormous amount of creativity went into this album. Let’s hope this isn’t the last we hear from Saint Maybe.

Tom Shaner’s Long-Overdue Solo Debut: Worth the Wait

For those who’ve followed Tom Shaner’s career since his days in the early zeros fronting Industrial Tepee – the great southwestern gothic rock band that should have been as famous as Calexico or Giant Sand but never was – his new album Ghost Songs, Waltzes and Rock n Roll is long overdue. Ironically, though billed to Shaner solo, it’s far more lush and richly arranged than anything he did with that band, in fact, the best thing he’s ever done. The music blends layers of jangly, twangy, spiky, occasionally searing electric and acoustic guitars over a nimble rhythm section, ornamented with deviously flickering keyboards, mandolin, banjo and the occasional wry electronic effect. Songwise, there are echoes of Steve Wynn, the Byrds, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave in its most pensive moments.

Shaner’s nonchalant, laid-back vocals are sort of a cross between Lou Reed and the Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan. The songs’ lyrics are terse, cynical and clever: they’ll resonate especially with anyone who’s weathered the same storms as Shaner has during these past few years as the New York he came up in slid closer and closer to New Jersey. Although many of the songs have a dusky desert feel, a familiar urban milieu recurs throughout the album. That factors in heavily on the funniest song here, the deadpan, early Elvis Costello-ish Unstoppable Hipster, as well as the considerably more spare, haunting Downtown Has Done Damage, which reminds of the Church around 1986 or so.

Sinner’s Highway sets a surreal, sordidly Lynchian scene to snarling minor-key rock: a late-period Industrial Tepee tune, it reminds a lot of Steve Wynn, with a wry quote in the solo guitar outro. Another one from that era, Sister Satellite manages to be dreamy yet bracing as its layers of guitar mingle and then surge.Then Shaner evokes another well-known late 90s/early zeros band, White Hassle, with Forever Drug, spiced with tongue-in-cheek samples and hip-hop turntablism.

She Will Shine is crushingly caustic: over punchy, syncopated, Jayhawks-flavored rock, Shaner relates how a girl who couldn’t hack it in the big city is ostensibly leaving for better things in the country, but “when the lid is lifted, everything is shifted…her time is complete, the future is a one-way street.” Rosa Lee, a big concert favorite, works a more pensive, regretful vein.

Shaner pairs Foreverland, a creepy reggae song, with the nebulous, only slightly less creepy psych-folk anthem Silent Parade. Where Grief Becomes Grace, an echoey desert rock dirge, is as broodingly evocative as anything Giant Sand ever did. A cover of Tom Waits’ Cold Water picks up the pace with a gospel-fueled menace, black humor in full effect.

Only slightly less dark colors close the album. Everything Is Silver returns to a romping Elvis Costello vibe: it’s the opposite of what it seems. And My House is Green builds a moody acoustic Velvets ambience. But not everything here is as dark: there’s Sun Girl #2, with its lushly gentle Sunday Morning sway, and Streets of Galway, a lively Irish tune. One of the best albums of 2012, no question. Shaner plays the release show – assuming the subways are back up and running – at the Knitting Factory on Nov 7 at 8:30 PM.