Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Amy Allison – Sheffield Streets

Her best album. Amy Allison in many ways is the quintessential cult artist, possessed of a fan base that borders on rabid and an equally avid following among her fellow musicians, even if she never broke through to a mass audience. Which is somewhat mystifying until you consider the climate of the music business she grew up in (her now out-of-print albums with her 90s indie rock band Parlor James remain locked in a Warner warehouse somewhere). Allison already has a couple of genuine classic country albums to her credit, her debut The Maudlin Years and Sad Girl. This one is both musically and lyrically richer and considerably more diverse, ranging from characteristically gemlike, tersely metaphorical country songs to jangly pop to saloon jazz (including a duet with Elvis Costello on her dad Mose Allison’s wry, brooding classic Monsters of the Id, with the Sage himself on piano) And her voice has never sounded better – like all the best song stylists, she’s able to say more in a minute inflection than Kelly Clarkson could relate in an entire box set. Sheffield Streets is also notable for its purist sonics, producer and former Lone Justice drummer Don Heffington imbuing it with the warm feel of a 70s vinyl record.   

The title track (and its charming video) effectively captures a bittersweetness and yet a fearlessness, as happens to anyone with a sense of adventure caught in a drizzle on unfamiliar turf: “I found a bar and curled up like a cat/I wrote a song on a beer mat.” The gently matter-of-fact, commonsensical second cut, Calla Lily takes existential angst and replaces it with a striking logic and purposefulness. The Needle Skips is vintage Amy Allison, with its vividly metaphorical oldtimey feel: “It’s funny how we lived so many moments, in the minutes of a song that came and went,” Allison reminding that it’s the scratches on the album that give it character.

I Wrote a Song About You sardonically looks at rejection as a self-fulfilling prophecy, set to a swaying country backbeat. A duet with Dave Alvin on an older song, Everybody Ought to Know actually doesn’t work as a duet (Allison realized that with considerable amusement after recording it), but both singers are at the top of their game as honktonk crooners. Hate at First Sight is a juvenile delinquent take on Brill Building pop; Come, Sweet Evening is a flat-out gorgeous nocturne, welcoming the darkness rather than shying away. The single best cut on the album is Dream World, both its bruised, exhausted protagonist and the bums on the street outside looking for escape in dreams, Allison taking care to wish those less fortunate a similar good night. The album winds up with another equally brilliant number, Mardi Gras Moon, its narrator popping pills and drinking: “I hear the distant music of the band/I’m losing all the feeling in my hands,” wishing she hadn’t made the trip to New Orleans only to be jilted. Rich with layers of meaning, shades of emotion and understatedly beautiful playing, this is a classic. Let’s see – for Amy Allison, that makes three. She plays the cd release show for Sheffield Streets at Banjo Jim’s on July 19 at 7 PM

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July 3, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Song of the Day 6/2/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Tuesday’s song is #421:

Steve Wynn – Invisible

The ultimate wee hours walk home song, bars all closed, sun coming up, and you’re feeling completely bulletproof:

 

I’m alone but I’m surrounded by predators and prey

They all turn to butter by the light of day

Nobody sees me as I spread their remains

On my toast in the morning

 

From the 1999 Pick of the Litter cd. By the way, Wynn and his band the Miracle 3 play the classic Dream Syndicate album The Medicine Show all the way through at the Bell House on 6/27 at 7:30 PM.

June 2, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Willie Nile – House of a Thousand Guitars

This one makes a good segue with the just-reviewed Beefstock Recipes anthology. Willie Nile is New York through and through, having chronicled the darker side of this town from one end to the other in one memorable song after another over the last two decades and even before then. Onetime bearer of the curse of being “the next Dylan,” woefully misunderstood by a succession of big record labels who didn’t have the slightest idea of what to do with him, he resurrected his career in 1999 with his aptly titled Beautiful Wreck of the World cd and hasn’t looked back since. He may be a cult artist here, but in Europe he’s a star, consequently spending most of his road time there. House of a Thousand Guitars, his latest cd has everything he’s best known for: big anthemic hooks, smartly metaphor-laden lyrics, a socially aware worldview and the surrreal humor that finds its way into even his blackest, bleakest songs. Half of the cd was recorded with the ferocious live band who backed him for years and appeared on his most recent cd and dvd, Live from the Streets of New York; the other half features starker, often piano-based arrangements.

 

The title track makes a more upbeat take on what Leonard Cohen was doing with Tower of Song. Nile reminding that John Lee Hooker, alive or dead, will still kick your ass. He follows this with Run, a catchy powerpop anthem with characteristically searing, tasteful guitar from Mellencamp axeman Andy York. Track three, Doomsday Dance is laced with tongue-in-cheek black humor set to a fast backbeat

 

The inspiring, upbeat Love Is A Train is a feast of lush guitar textures, as is the next cut, Her Love Falls Like Rain, layers of acoustic and electric falling in beautifully jangly sheets. The piano ballad Now That the War Is Over is an older song that makes a welcome, apt addition here, a haunting, Richard Thompson-esque portrait of a damaged Iraq War veteran. It’s quite a contrast with the optimistic (and deliciously prophetic) riff-rocker Give Me Tomorrow, written right before the election, ablaze with surreal, metaphorical imagery.

 

The next track is another stomping riff-rocker, Magdalena, fondly known by some of Nile’s fan base as My Now-and-Later because back in the day – what was it, ten years ago? – when he debuted the song, that’s what the chorus sounded like (it actually has nothing to do with cheap candy). Other memorable tracks here include the big ballad Little Light (as in, “All I wanna see is a little light in this cold dark world), the elegiac Touch Me (a tribute in memory of Nile’s brother John) and what has become a requisite on every Willie Nile album, a big Irish ballad, this one titled The Midnight Rose, a fast number spiced with tasty barrelhouse piano. The cd wraps up with a characteristically indelible New York tableau, When The Last Light Goes Out On Broadway. In a year where it looks like New Yorkers are on the fast track to reclaiming the city from the hedge fund crowd and the gentrification that until the last few months or so threatened to destroy it, Nile couldn’t have timed this album any better.

April 22, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Song of the Day 3/14/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Saturday’s song is #501:

Steve Wynn & Australian Blonde – King of Riverside Park

From the Momento cd, the great noir rocker’s 2001 collaboration with this Spanish rock band, one of the first albums to be recorded collaboratively on separate continents over email. This is its high point, a gorgeously Byrdsy individualist’s anthem told from the point of view of a bum in the park who triumphantly stands outside it all. “This is my life, ain’t nothing gonna bring me down, I’m the King of Riverside Park.” Strangely, nothing up in the Steve Wynn section at archive.org (297 live shows and counting!), although it’s on a live at Lakeside bootleg from 02 or so.  

March 14, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: LJ Murphy at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 11/8/08

Cult artist and noir songwriter LJ Murphy’s return to the New York stage after a few months’ absence was a triumph, in fact extraordinary. Even with the depression and all the horrible things the Bloomberg administration has brought to the city, it’s hard to remember such a happy time here and the musicians playing right now are feeding off that feeling, bigtime. Saturday night at Banjo Jim’s, Murphy delivered an especially intense show backed only by Amsterdam-based pianist Robert Bosscher, who proved to be the best musician Murphy’s ever played with, hands-down (and Murphy’s always been a magnet for first-rate players). Murphy’s songs are rich with bluesy melody, and Bosscher – a jazz guy playing rock and blues, and loving it – seized every opportunity. The two opened auspiciously with the stark, minor-key Geneva Conventional, a terse, knowing number about selling out, Bosscher evoking Donald Fagen at his most purist. Bosscher’s fluency with a multitude of styles immediately became apparent on the tongue-in-cheek Damaged Goods as he colored it with Floyd Cramer-style slip-key work. And then when they came to the solo in the haunting country song Long Way to Lose, rather than reverting to honkytonk, Bosscher went into high-Romantic, Roy Bittan ballad mode. There were also echoes of mid-period Joe Jackson in some of his playing. 

 

“I wrote this during a different administration,” Murphy triumphantly announced as the two launched into a fiery version of the minor-key Weimar blues that serves as title track to his latest cd Mad Within Reason. Beyond the charisma, the scathingly smart lyrics and the tunes, another reason Murphy’s always worth seeing is that he’s constantly rewriting. Just when you think you know one of his songs, he’s completely revamped it and usually it’s even better than before. This time around, the duo reinvented the formerly Chuck Berry-ish Nowhere Now as a bouncy post-Ray Charles hit, recast the savage afterwork saga Happy Hour (“About young Republicans getting their freak on,” Murphy snarled) as neo-Velvets done like Tom Waits might, and turned the previously neo-Velvets rocker Another Lesson I Never Learned into a creepy Steve Wynn-esque blues.

 

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that there was as much talent in the audience as there was onstage, many of New York’s best rock songwriters (Murphy is highly esteemed by his peers) screaming for an encore. They got one with the soulful cautionary tale Sleeping Mind. This being Banjo Jim’s, the sound was characteristically excellent. This had to be the musical high point – so far – of what’s been a truly historic week.

November 10, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment