The Oxygen Ponies’ 2009 album Harmony Handgrenade was a ferocious, lyrical art-rock masterpiece, one of the best releases of recent years: you can find it on our Best Albums of All Time list. Written during the waning days of the Bush regime, it’s a chronicle of love under an occupation. On the band’s new album Exit Wounds, frontman Paul Megna revisits similarly tortured terrain, this time more personal than political. For the most part, this is an album of snarling kiss-off songs, with psychedelic, anguished epic grandeur juxtaposed against stark Leonard Cohen-esque passages. The band this most closely resembles is Australian art-rock legends the Church, both in terms of the stunningly catchy simplicity of Megna’s melodies, the hypnotic sweep of the production and the clever, literate savagery of his lyrics.
“The velvet rope around your neck pulled you away,” he intones in his signature rasp in the opening track, Hollywood, as the band pulses with a trancey post-Velvets sway behind him. “Did you sell your face so you could buy the farm out at Maggie’s place?” he asks. But this isn’t merely an indictment of a starstruck, clueless girl: it indicts an entire generation. As Megna reaffirms later on with the amusing I Don’t Want Yr Love: after a pretty hilarious Lou Reed quote, he makes it clear that he doesn’t “want to be anywhere you are ’cause all the people there are blinded by the stars.” The outgoing mantra of “nobody loves you anymore” is just plain brutal: it makes a great outgoing message for anyone in need of some post-breakup vengeance. And the cello-driven This Disaster offers a more expansive view of the wreckage leading up to the big dramatic rift, Megna musing that “If all we have left is one technicolor kiss, I’d rather be the standin than the star.”
Hope and Pray is pure schadenfreude – it could be the great missing track from the Jesus & Mary Chain’s Darklands, but with better production values. “Hope the further down you go, the higher is the climb,” Megna snarls. He follows that with the bitter lament Good Thing, crescendoing out of spare, plaintive folk-pop with a cynical fury:
This is a call to everyone
Wake your daughters, rouse your sons
Take your aim and shoot to kill
So your friends don’t hurt you
‘Cause others will
Hornet, a dead ringer for a Steve Kilbey song, offers a backhanded compliment to a femme fatale, “Dancing around like a flame in the fire/As hot as it gets you don’t have to perspire.” They revert to Jesus & Mary Chain mode for Wild Animals, a more subtle putdown: “You think you’re smart, that each work of art ended up a failure,” Megna taunts. The indomitable Drink Myself Alive packs a punch, its undeterred narrator only willing to change his wicked ways if the girl who’s bedeviled him will do the same. With a distantly Beatlesque swing, Land That Time Forgot wouldn’t be out of place in the Spottiswoode catalog: it works both as a tribute to an individualist and a nasty slap at trendy conformists: “You’re walking around ahead of the crowd, such happiness is never allowed,” Megna sneers. He reprises that theme on the sparse, more gentle Jellybean with its torrents of lyrics:
Everyone around me is just sharing the same brain…
I guess they find it’s easier to be part of the whole
Searching for a reason why they buy the shit they’re sold.
The album ends on a completely unexpected note with the pretty, backbeat pop hit Christmas Every Morning. The album is out now on insurgent Brooklyn label Hidden Target Records, the same folks who put out Randi Russo’s brilliant new Fragile Animal a couple months ago. This one’s in the same league: it’s hard to imagine a better album than this coming out any time this year. Watch this space for upcoming NYC dates.
Sad music isn’t depressing – on the contrary, it’s just the opposite. That’s why it’s so popular. This is one sad album – and a very ambitious one. On Singing in the Dark, Irish/American singer Susan McKeown has taken a series of poems dealing with death, depression and madness from over the centuries and set them to music, along with a choice cover of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem that offers just a glimmer of a respite. She sings them clearly and directly, with a tinge of a brittle vibrato which fits these lyrics well – she goes in with both eyes open but not quite steady, and at its best the effect is nothing short of chilling. Among Americana singers, Kelli Rae Powell comes to mind.
Over darkly reverb-drenched, Richard Thompson-esque electric rock, McKeown takes Anne Sexton’s A Woman Like That (Her Kind) and uses it to transpose the archetype of a witch to the present day, “a woman that is not a woman” ostracized for her sadness and unafraid to die for it. A Gwendolyn Brooks poem, That Crazy Woman is set to a swinging 6/8 piano melody: “I’ll wait until November, that is the time for me,” McKeown sings with a quiet defiance, and a nod to Nina Simone. Renaissance poet John Dowland’s death-obsessed In Darkness Let Me Dwell gets a subdued, Andalusian-flavored treatment, while 19th century Irish poet James Clarence Mangan’s The Nameless One, one of several suicide songs here, gets a low-key, acoustic folk arrangement.
The most ambitious track here is The Crack in the Stairs, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s vividly imagistic depiction of clinical depression set to an minimalist, atonal piano melody by contemporary Irish composer Elaine Agnew, taking on a macabre music-box touch as McKeown chronicles the dust on the furniture and the piano hidden beneath a lock rusted shut. Richard and Linda Thompson again come to mind on Mad Sweeney, a brooding rock arrangement of a traditional song about a king whose madness literally returns him to a state of nature, and also on Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis’s Angel of Depression. McKeown wrings every drop of pain she can muster out of the chorus: “Oh yes, I’m broken, but my limp is the best part of me…and the way I hurt,” guitar limping along to drive the point home. There’s also the evocative, jazz-tinged smalltown death vignette Good Old World Blues, an Elis Regine-inspired version of Violetta Parra’s bitter, sarcastic Gracias a la Vida and an understatedly gloomy take of the traditional Irish song So We’ll Go No More A-Roving to wind up the album. Susan McKeown plays Highline Ballroom on January 15.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #851:
The Oxygen Ponies - Harmony Handgrenade
This album is about love under an occupation. Recorded during the last months of the Bush regime, it’s an attempt to reconcile the search for some sort of transcendence with the need to overthrow the enemy. Savagely lyrical, swirling and psychedelic, the New York art-rockers’ second cd was one of the great albums of 2009. Frontman Paul Megna offers Leonard Cohen-inflected menace through the eyes of a metaphorical, suicidal messenger on the skeletally crescendoing Love Yr Way; savages suburban smugness with the garage rock of Fevered Cyclones and the backhanded, sarcastic The War Is Over, and evokes the great Australian art-rockers the Church on the desperate, titanic anthem Finger Trigger: “Anything to dissipate the grey skies falling.” A vivid portrayal of a time and place that nobody who lived through it wants to remember. What is it that happens to those who can’t remember the past? So far this one hasn’t made it to the share sites; it’s still available from the band, whose follow-up is due out in a few months and reputedly maintains the power of this one.
It’s hard to think of a better dark rock triplebill anywhere else in New York this year. Martin Bisi came in with a blast of psychedelic guitar fury and ended quiet and creepy: in the middle, he and his band energized the crowd, leading them into a couple of bars of pure pandemonium during the break on the clever, satirical Goth Chick ’98 and getting them dancing to the pounding riff-rock of Mile High – Formaldehyde. Likewise, a new song, Fine Line (soon to be released as a split 7″ from Post Consumer Records with a Bisi remix of a Serena Maneesh track) mixed slinky Steve Wynn style noir rock with gypsy tinges, and a screaming crescendo at the end. Bisi’s bullshit detector is set to stun: introducing a pretty unhinged version of the trippy gothic anthem Rise Up Cowboy, he remarked how its cynical use-and-be-used ethos could be playing itself out anywhere in Williamsburg at that particular moment. He explained how the metaphorically charged sprawl of Sirens of the Apocalypse (title track from his excellent 2008 album) plays off gender-based stereotypes – bad men, like Hades, who abducts Persephone from a playground, and on the other side the familiar Sirens: “It feels like home,” he commented dryly, adding that since he’d just invited Flaming Fire’s Justina Heckard onstage, the band now had a siren up there with them. She contributed vocals along with all kinds of acrobatics using an illuminated hula hoop.
Boston-area rockers Humanwine absolutely and colossally kicked ass. The noir cabaret crew’s frontwoman Holly Brewer is a dramatic, compelling presence – she was impossible to turn away from. With a sinister grace, she kept time by signalling along with the lyrics on many of the songs – sign language, maybe? Many of them seem to be set in an imaginary, pre-apocalyptic fascist state called Vinland, which is essentially America under the Bush regime. “Support your right to report…get it on tape!” she intoned sarcastically on their opening number – although that might have been an encouragement to watch the watchers. It built to a magnificent stomp out of a stately waltz rhythm. She and the band drove the point home, song after song, throughout a dusky southwestern gothic-tinged anthem and a tricky gypsy-ish number: they do not like living under a police state. “Cameras watching!” Brewer reminded yet again, following with a pregnant pause for anyone who might not have been paying attention. “It takes every one of us to bring them to their knees,” she insisted on a warmly wistful folk-tinged number. A Nashville gothic song emphasized the “paranoia rushing through your hands…can’t you feel the lockdown?” They wound up the set on with the deliriously triumphant bounce of a gypsy-rock anthem, sort of like the Dresden Dolls but done with Vera Beren-class menace. The audience reaction was explosive – now if only they’ll take those ideas home with them.
Confidently fingerpicking her acoustic guitar and laying down the occasional loop for an extra layer of melody, Marissa Nadler made as compelling a figure as Brewer did, but went at it the opposite way – she drew the audience in, warmly casual and conversational, sometimes in understatedly stark contrast to the anguished intensity of her songs. Many of her songs were new, and all of them were excellent – she’s on a roll. She’s also a lot more diverse than she used to be: there’s green and grey alongside the pitch black in her sonic palette now. Linda Draper is the obvious comparison: fast fingers, striking imagery and trouble around every corner. “Inside a room a cold wind blows; there are two of us in there.” The nonchalance was chilling. “The ghost has dreams, wants to leave – wind her up to speak,” Nadler sang gently on the next number. She switched guitars frequently, playing a twelve-string on a stately, brooding lament. A cover of Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat was as casually intense as the original; she closed the set on an insistent note. “Someone once called us a dying breed,” she mused, quietly but formidably unwilling to accept it.
Arguably his best album. As the title suggests, this is something of a calm after the storm for Fred Gillen Jr. Most musicians waited out the Bush regime uneasily; many, like Gillen, railed against the occupation, notably on his landmark 2008 collaboration with Matt Turk, Backs Against the Wall. Battered but optimistic, Gillen’s latest, Match Against a New Moon is his most memorably tuneful album. Ironically, the spot-on social commentary he’s best known for (this is a guy who appropriated Woody Guthrie’s “This guitar kills fascists” for his own six-string) is largely absent here. This cd goes more for a universal, philosophical outlook. At this point in his career, the songwriter Gillen most closely resembles is the Wallflowers‘ Jakob Dylan: he’s got a laserlike feel for a catchy janglerock hook, a killer chorus, a striking image and a clever double entendre.
The expansive, smartly assembled janglerock anthem that opens the album, Come and See Me, wouldn’t be out of place in the Marty Willson-Piper catalog. It sets the tone for the rest of the cd:
When all your relations are in prison or the grave
And you can’t remember what they took, only what you gave
And you are grateful that they’re gone ’cause they can’t hurt you anymore
Come and see me
With its big, anthemic chorus, The Devil’s Last Word takes the point of view of a guy whose favorite hangout spot is the train tracks: he likes living on the edge. The catchiest track here, a monster hit in an alternate universe where commercial radio plays good songs, is the Wallflowers-ish Don’t Give up the Ghost. It ponders a way out of the shadows of a difficult past, a quest for “some kind of answers or at least some questions finally worth asking.” An image-drenched carpe diem anthem for a troubled girl, Flicker gently points a way out: “We only get a moment to flicker in the night, a match against a new moon.”
The metaphorically-charged Americana rock shuffle Land of Hope could a Matt Keating song. Lay Me Down has the raw feel of a lo-fi acoustic demo that probably wasn’t meant to be on the album, but it made the cut because of the magic it captures, exhausted yet immutably optimistic. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah has been done to death by scores of inferior singers, but Gillen’s strikingly understated, conversational version is nothing short of souful. He follows it with a couple of dark rock narratives: the crescendoing junkie anthem Light of Nothing, which sounds like a sober mid-70s Lou Reed – if that makes any sense – and the vivid slum narrative Primitive Angels, which could be vintage, i.e. Darkness on the Edge of Town-era Springsteen. The album closes on an upbeat note with the hopeful You May Be Down. Gillen, who plays most of the instruments here, doesn’t waste a note, whether on guitars, bass, harmonica or even drums; Paul Silverman’s organ and Eric Puente’s drums contribute with similar terseness and intelligence, along with vocals from Catherine Miles and Laurie MacAllister, and Abbie Gardner contributing lapsteel and harmonies on Hallelujah. Gillen still plays frequent NYC area shows; watch this space.
The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Sunday’s song is #53:
Leonard Cohen – The Future
Give me crack and anal sex
Take the only tree that’s left
Stuff it up the hole in your culture…
I’ve seen the future, brother, it is murder
The legendary prophet of doom’s most specific, and most accurate predictions, set to a swoopy goth-disco backing track. Title cut from the 1992 cd.
On the cover of his third solo album, Mark Sinnis, frontman of dark rockers Ninth House stands with his back to the camera, staring into a glaring New York sunset from a rooftop somewhere in Queens. The picture captures the subtext here far less subtly than Sinnis’ songs do: this is a requiem for lost time, lost hopes and by implication a lost time and place. It is a classic of gothic Americana. Richly and masterfully produced, electric guitars, strings, keyboards, lapsteel and accordion weave their way tersely into and out of the mix behind Sinnis’ remarkably nuanced baritone. Sinnis has been a good singer for a long time – he is an extraordinary one here, going down low for Leonard Cohen murk or reaching for Johnny Cash irony. If Ian Curtis had been an American, and he’d lived, he might sound like Sinnis does on this album.
The title track sets the tone for what’s to come, a slow, swaying, sad requiem, Sara Landeau’s sparse tremolo guitar mingling with Lenny Molotov’s lapsteel and Annette Kudrak’s plaintive accordion. It’s utterly hypnotic. The centerpiece of the album, or one of them anyway, is 15 Miles to Hell’s Gate, classic country done chamber goth style:
Fifteen miles to Hell’s Gate
And I’m a thousand miles from home
From New York City
The one that dragged me into a hole
I’m in my own purgatory
Where I pay for my sins each day
And I pay dearly
While my youth slowly slips away
He picks it up a little on the second verse. It’s gently and masterfully orchestrated.
Originally released on Ninth House’s 2000 album Swim in the Silence, the version of Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me [#290 on our 666 Best Songs of Alltime list – Ed.] recasts the song as slow, Leonard Cohen-esque country sway, Sinnis’ pitchblende vocals quite a change from his usual roar when Ninth House plays it live. Fallible Friend, a catalog of failure and deceit, goes for a dusky southwestern feel capped by Ninth House guitarist Keith Otten’s perfecly minimalist fills. An understatedly desperate account of a drunk driver just trying to get home in one piece, Follow the Line takes on a hallucinatory, wee hours feel with Kudrak’s swirling accordion front and center – when Sinnis finally cuts loose and belts on the second verse, she’s there to calm him down. The Fever (not the Peggy Lee standard) could be a John Lennon song, a bitter metaphorically charged tale of alienation and rebellion.
Of the other originals here, wobbling funeral parlor organ makes the perfect final touch on the brooding Skeletons. Scars is gospel as the Velvet Underground might have done it, Out of Reach transformed from its original electric menace to haunting death-chamber pop with Ninth House keyboardist Matt Dundas’ piano and stark cello from star New York string multistylist Susan Mitchell. There’s also the ghoulish country shuffle In Harmony, the uncharacteristically sunny Quiet Change, and the album’s last song, a death-fixated, quite possibly sarcastic gospel clapalong. The covers are also terrifically inventive: Nine While Nine captures the song’s grim grey tube train platform ambience far better than Sisters of Mercy ever did, Otten perfectly nailing the menace of the song’s simple hook; St. James Infirmary rips the deathmask off the song’s inner goth, lapsteel pairing off warily against tense piano; and Gloomy Sunday gets a new final verse from Sinnis, who leaves not the slightest doubt as to what that one’s about.
Sinnis’ first solo album Into an Unhidden Future was a treat for Ninth House fans, a diverse, often radically rearranged acoustic mix of hits and rarities. His second, A Southern Tale was more country-oriented and surprisingly more upbeat. This is the best of them, in fact arguably the best thing that Sinnis has ever recorded. Mark Sinnis plays Otto’s on May 16 at 11, with a date at Small Beast at the Delancey coming up in July.
Mark Sinnis, frontman of Nashville gothic rockers Ninth House plays his solo acoustic show at least as frequently, maybe more than he does with his band. Celebrating the release of his third solo cd, The Night’s Last Tomorrow, he held the goth night crowd at the Slipper Room rapt Sunday night with his most energetic solo performance in a long time. Most recently, he’d been mining a quietly creepy, Leonard Cohen-esque, minimalist style. This time out, backed only by extraordinary string player Susan Mitchell – doubling on electric violin and electric cello – he alternated between a stygian croon and an unleashed roar, his acoustic guitar amped almost to the point of distortion. Still, the show maintained the same kind of nuance of his most recent acoustic gigs – it’s not often that you see a guy who plays with a band as loud as Ninth House projecting gently with a laid-back, black velvet Johnny Cash style delivery.
Fifteen Miles to Hell’s Gate, the opener, is a furious stomp when done by the band, a not-so-subtle swipe at a no-longer-edgy New York where the fashion-centric shallowness of indie rock overshadows the real thing. This one downplayed the local angle, an elegy for dashed hopes and dreams. Mitchell’s gracefully descending violin gave the offhandedly dismissive Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me considerable added poignancy; their version of Saint James Infirmary unleashed the song’s inner goth, culminating in a flurry of Balkan violin madness. Another new one, Fallible Friend, a catalog of disillusionments, flipped the script with a trick ending; the gospel-tinged That’s Why I Won’t Love You became more of a backwoods funeral, Mitchell again adding white-knuckle intensity. She switched to cello for a macabre janglerock version of the once-banned classic Gloomy Sunday. They encored with the Ninth House concert favorite Follow the Line, a characteristically passionate tribute to drinking and driving, “poison” becoming “whiskey” as Sinnis let the word slip out, Freudian style, on the second verse. Watch this space for a review of the album, his best solo effort to date.
File this one under “new noir songwriters” alongside Mark Steiner, the Oxygen Ponies and Mark Sinnis. Fans of those guys as well as the two who started it all, Tom Waits and Nick Cave, will enjoy Mark Growden’s new cd Saint Judas. Like Waits, Growden blends blues with a smoky noir cabaret feel; as with Cave, Growden projects a downtrodden yet randy gutter-poet facade. The Bay Area songwriter/accordionist/banjoist has a fantastic steampunk band behind him – recorded live in the studio, they turn in a passionate, rustically intense performance. Fiery blues guitarist/lapsteel player Myles Boisen, cellist Alex Kelly, horn player Chris Grady, bassist/organist Seth Ford-Young and drummer Jenya Chernoff all deserve mention here.
Most of this stuff, predictably, is in minor keys. The album’s second track, Delilah (no relation to Tom Jones) gets the benefit of a balmy trumpet solo from Grady that lights up the pitch blackness underneath. The title track is the best song here, an uncharacteristically jaunty, cynical, funny number which recasts Judas as a patron saint of the insolvent and dissolute: “Bottoms up to you, buddy, ’cause somebody has to take the blame.” They take it down after that with a slow country ballad as Nick Cave would do it: “If the stars could sing they would surely sing of you,” Growden intones.
They pick it up again after that with a swaying, stomping minor blues, Boisen’s electric slide guitar wailing against one of many tight, inspired horn charts here. Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man gets a slow, Tom Waits-ish blues treatment, followed eventually by a sizzling number that mingles fiery electric slide with Growden’s banjo, a mournful elegy told from the point of view of a coyote who lost his mate to a trap, and an extremely cool, thoughtful, Asian-tinged solo horn taqsim that gives Grady a chance to show off his mastery with overtones – it sounds like he’s playing a shakuhachi. They close with an ersatz gypsy waltz and a lullaby.
This album won’t be to everyone’s taste. As great as so many noir artists are, it’s a stylized genre. For vocals and lyrics, Growden doesn’t go outside the box – some will find his exaggerated drawl affected and his lyrics derivative and contrived. But the quality of the musicianship and the richness of the arrangements – the songs wouldn’t suffer a bit if they were simply instrumentals – offer considerable compensation. LA-area fans have the chance to see Growden play the cd release show for this one on March 16 at 8 PM at the Hotel Cafe, 1623 1/2 North Cahuenga in Hollywood.