Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Sly New Spin on Classic Sounds from Dave Lindholm and Otto Donner

“SHE’S GOT IT! Yeah baby, she’s got it! I’m your [muffled, incoherent], I’m your fire, your desire!”

You’ve heard it before, well-intentioned but clueless non-English-speaking European musicians of a certain age aping iconic Americana roots styles. A lot of those players were hippies and were probably so stoned at the time they didn’t realize how badly they were embarrassing themselves, so they get a pass. But if the idea of a Finnish version of Mose Allison or early Lou Rawls might sound icky to you, that’s ok. You just need to hear Dave Lindholm and Otto Donner’s More Than 123: it will completely change your mind about European bluesmen. These guys absolutely own what they do – they completely nail the idiom with just as much or even more imagination than the Americans who were doing it the first time around. To say that this album is a trip to hear is an accolade, not an insult.

Lindholm is the guitarist and singer in the band; what does Donner do? Well, he’s the conductor. OK – maybe the idea of a blues band needing a conductor might seem like a red flag, but in this case, it’s not – if the horn charts here are his, he’s a genius. Whatever the case, it’s an irresistibly fun record. It’s an absolutely original, unique blend of 60s soul and blues…but with arrangements straight out of 1948! Lindholm’s smoky baritone betrays his Finnish roots, but he’s completely on his game as sly oldschool blues crooner, and the band is coolly sensational. For example, check out the inventive, period-perfect conversationality between Tero Saarti’s suave muted trumpet and Manuel Dunkel’s tenor sax on the opening track, Why I Smile Again.

The second track, Oh Don, is an innuendo-charged murder ballad straight out of the Hazmat Modine playbook, with Lindholm’s guitar wailing over the cosmopolitan, hushed brushwork of drummer Mika Kallio. “They’re gonna take you to Yellowstone, but I can take you to the moon,” Lindholm croons on the briskly noir-tinged, Mose Allison-esque I’m Right, Dunkel spiraling down to Riitta Paakki’s rippling piano as the arrangement grows more suspenseful. The lushly gorgeous blues ballad Where You’re Walking Now artfully features Mikko Heleva’s Hammond organ taking over for the entire ensemble as Paaki’s piano goes unexpectedly terse and biting, and then back up again. An equally wry, bittersweet ballad, True Life works a methodically killer crescendo beginning with Pepa Paivinen’s baritone sax handing off to Dunkel’s tense, expectant tenor and then the trumpet to take it all the way up. The band channels Magic Sam circa 1967 on the shuffling I Know My Boulevard before closing the record with an unexpectedly dixieland-flavored march, Lucky Johnny’s Gone, a diptych of sorts whose centerpiece is a church organ processional. Without question, one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable and utterly original albums of recent years, in whatever style you choose to call this. It’s out now on the Finnish label Tum Records.

February 26, 2012 Posted by | blues music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 8/26/10

Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #887:

Amy Allison – Sheffield Streets

The best album by one of the best-loved cult artists in Americana music. For awhile back in the 90s, Allison could do no wrong: her wry, tersely and often wickedly lyrical alt-country albums The Maudlin Years and Sad Girl are both genuine classics, but this 2009 gem outdoes them since it’s a lot more stylistically diverse. And Allison’s finely nuanced voice is at the peak of its quirkily charming power here. There’s a duet with Elvis Costello on her dad Mose Allison’s wry, brooding jazz classic Monsters of the Id, with the Sage himself on piano; the clever litany of bizarre street names in the title track; the metaphorically loaded, wistful When the Needle Skips (a tribute to vintage vinyl, among other things); the genuinely haunting Dream World, with its down-and-out milieu; and the bitterly evocative Mardi Gras Moon, its jilted narrator high on pills and booze, losing the feeling in her hands on a night which is unseasonably cold in every possible way.

August 26, 2010 Posted by | country music, lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Mose Allison at Madison Square Park, NYC 6/30/10

What’s the likelihood of seeing someone this good in a public park, for free? This being New York, we take this kind of show for granted. We shouldn’t. Transcending what must have been an awful monitor mix early on, saloon jazz legend Mose Allison, his bassist and drummer ran through a set of both iconic and more obscure songs from throughout the Sage of Tippo, Mississippi’s career. There was a nonchalance in how the band moved methodically from one song to the next, but there was none in the playing: there was an ever-present sense of defiance in the way Allison punched at his chords, with a judicious bite. Maybe he was venting his frustration of having no piano in the monitor, slamming out a brightly aggressive wash of notes early on that sounded like Stravinsky. Although he would probably laugh at that comparison – Allison has always downplayed his brilliance.

But at 82, he remains a formidable link in a chain of classic Americana that goes back to Robert Johnson and before (the trio played a swinging number written by Johnson’s stepson, Robert Jr. Lockwood, featuring a gleaming, elegantly legato piano solo). His encore was a Willie Dixon number, he told the crowd, but one which went back to Sister Rosetta Tharp. Her version is the spiritual Bound for Glory, redone by Dixon and recorded by Little Walter as My Babe, and now turned into My Brain, which Allison said with characteristic sardonic wit “was losing power, twelve hundred neurons every hour.” Which he can get away with saying because it’s so far from reality. Allison’s voice still has the same sly breeziness that’s been his trademark since the 1950s, and while he stuck mostly to a swinging, chordal attack on the keys, his fingers haven’t lost much of anything either.

And as good as the covers were (especially an unusually stark, rainy-day version of You Are My Sunshine, which Allison took care to note was written by former Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis, and an imperturbable version of Percy Mayfield’s You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down), it was the originals that everybody came to hear and which resonated the most. Your Molecular Structure is just as good a come-on as it was ages ago; the cautionary tale In the City echoed a more dangerous time in New York before gentrification that’s on its way back with a vengeance. Your Mind Is on Vacation struck a nerve: playful as the lyrics are, it might be the first great anti-trendoid anthem. “I’m not disillusioned, but I’m getting there,” he sang wryly on a number from his new, Joe Henry-produced album The Way of the World. And Kidding on the Square is still beyond hip, Allison both mocking and embracing the exuberance of its jazzcat (or faux-jazzcat) vernacular.

There are some other worthwhile jazz shows coming up at Madison Square Park: John Ellis and Double Wide at 6 PM on 7/21, and James Carter’s Organ Trio on 8/4 at 7.

July 1, 2010 Posted by | blues music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

The Lucid Culture Interview: Amy Allison

As a songwriter, lyricist and singer, Amy Allison is esteemed by her peers and owns a devoted cult following throughout the US and Europe. Elvis Costello – who appears on her new cd Sheffield Streets, just out today – happens to be one of those fans. A charming, charismatic and very funny performer, she’s released four previous albums under her own name as well as two with her 90s indie rock band Parlor James. In a rare, candid interview, Allison reveals some of the secrets of her craft along with some surprising insights into her songs as well as herself: she’s a lot tougher than she looks.

 

Lucid Culture: In concert, you interact with your fans a lot. Yet you’re also hard to read, some might say inscrutable. Is this deliberate, maybe a function of having grown up as the daughter of someone famous [jazz piano great Mose Allison]?

 

Amy Allison: I have no idea. I don’t think anything I do is deliberate. I almost always feel like a fool. My father wasn’t famous in the usual sense. Nobody where I grew up knew who he was.

 

LC: You do a mean Lawn Guyland accent. Did you grow up there?

 

AA: Yes, I did. I’m good at a lot of accents though.

 

LC: Was that in the celebrity part of town?

 

AA: Very funny. I don’t know if Smithtown had a celebrity part of town but it wasn’t our neighborhood.

 

LC: I believe you’re the youngest of four children, is that right?

 

AA: No, I’m in the middle. I have a sister four years older and twins – a brother and sister – one  year younger.

 

LC: I imagine music was a big part of your childhood. Or did you rebel?

 

AA: Music was a big part. I played the piano and the flute and listened to lots of different types of stuff. It was definitely important to me.

 

LC: I get the impression you were something of a hellraiser when you were in your teens, is there any truth to that?

 

AA: No, I was way too chicken to raise hell but I was a bit of a clown. I could make my friends laugh. I was more rebellious in college.

 

LC: I also understand you don’t compose on the guitar, is that correct?

 

AA: Yes, I only started playing guitar to accompany myself in the last ten years or less. I always compose in my head.

 

LC: This is the parental question that any good musician probably hates, but I’ll ask it anyway. To what degree has your dad influenced you? I mean, the two of you have a very similar sense of humor, a finely honed sense of irony, you always go for the mot juste….

 

AA: I’m very flattered that you hear a similarity. His music is very “him” so I grew up with that humor and irony and pithiness. I think I’m influenced by him in many ways.

 

LC: Everybody knows that your dad is a big fan of yours – and obviously the feeling is mutual. Was it always like that?

 

AA: Yes, I would say so. I always thought he was great.

 

LC: You received a great deal of acclaim as a country songwriter, with your albums The Maudlin Years and Sad Girl. You were coming up just as alt-country was getting popular, in fact you managed to catch that wave as I recall. How did you first start listening to country, back when all the kids were listening to U2 and Bon Jovi?

 

AA: Well, I was far older than a kid when the kids were listening to those guys but I know what you mean. This is how it happened: I saw Loretta Lynn on TV when I was eleven or twelve on the Mike Douglas afternoon variety show. She was his co-host for a week. I loved her and started looking for her records which were very hard to find at the local Sam Goody. Also, my older sister used to buy Porter and Dolly and Tammy Wynette records. We thought their hair was hilarious and we loved the melodrama. I liked country from that time on and started writing country songs in college. I would find armed forces LP’s that had great stuff on them at the local library. I remember I loved Gary Stewart then, he was on the radio. I had written a lot of songs before I dreamed I could ever perform them. I was scared shitless at the idea of singing in public.

 

LC: The idiom you were writing in then was fairly simple, but your lyrics have always been very sophisticated. So what you were doing was urban country in a sense. Do you see that as an oxymoron?

 

AA: No, because great country writers are very sophisticated, what with their humor, wordplay and use of metaphor. But I think I do bring a more urban slant to it ’cause that’s my experience. I was also trying to be sad and funny at the same time.

 

LC: You still write country songs, but you’ve expanded your repertoire into straight-up rock and jazzy pop as well. Did that just evolve, or was that a deliberate choice on your part?

 

AA: It wasn’t really deliberate. I think it just evolved.  I was just listening to different things and I think you naturally want to branch out and write as many types of things as you can.There’s always some other side of yourself you’d like to express. I guess country was the linchpin, is that the right word? The idiom I started from. I never think “I’ll write such and such kind of song,” I don’t feel like I can control it, I’m just happy when I get an idea for any song. It’s really been a natural evolution, I guess.

 

LC: Like Elvis Costello, you love wordplay, double entendres and puns. How did he come across your work?

 

AA: Well, I think Jamie Kitman, They Might Be Giants’ manager, sent him a cassette a long time ago. Then when my first album The Maudlin Years came out a few years later it ended up on his Top 500 Albums of Alltime list in Vanity Fair, so then I knew he really liked the songs. He was a huge influence on me. One of my favorites. I remember finding out that he liked country music and it made so much sense.

 

LC: And what does he do on the new album? 

 

AA: He sings one of my father’s tunes, Monsters of the Id with me. We weren’t together though, he recorded it at Don Heffington’s – the producer’s – studio in LA. I couldn’t be there at that time so I missed him.

 

LC: Your two most recent albums, No Frills Friend and Everything and Nothing Too were both produced in Scotland, by Davie Scott of the Pearlfishers. How did you make that connection?

 

AA: Through Lindsay Hutton, my good friend in Scotland who wrote and suggested I open a few shows for Amy Rigby and I did. Davie who was based in Glasgow played guitar with Amy and with me. Then Lindsay suggested I come back the next summer and try recording with him. I barely knew him but had a good feeling about it. I went there and we did five songs and loved it. So I went back and finished No Frills Friend. I love Davie and so I went back and did Everything and Nothing Too with him as well a few years later.

 

LC: I’m curious about how your working process goes, as a songwriter. Many of your songs are thematic, or there’s a narrative there. I’m thinking everything from Garden State Mall, a shopping trip as a metaphor for something far deeper, or your signature song, The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter. How do you get started with a song? With a title, a hook, a chord progression?

 

AA: For me, it’s usually a line, it doesn’t always end up as the hook or the title but it’s a hook of sorts, for me anyway, something that satisfies me somehow and makes me want to write a song around it. Often it’s just a first line and I write from there. If I get a good one of those I know I’ll have a good song from it eventually. I always remember where I was when I got the “seed” for a song.

 

LC: Which comes first, words or melody?

 

AA: Usually a combination, even if the melody changes, the words usually come with some sort of melodic thing.

 

LC: You don’t have to answer this one if you don’t want to, but a lot of the songs are sung from the point of view of a sort of lovable klutz, who can’t seem to pull her life together. And there’s a bittersweetness to it. To what extent does that persona mirror your own life?

 

AA: Pretty much.

 

LC: You titled one of your albums Sad Girl. Yet you’re also one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Are you really a Sad Girl at heart?

 

AA: Yes, that’s why I have to be funny! It’s a coping mechanism!

 

LC: A lot of people don’t realize that dark music is actually a way to get through hard times, rather than just being depressing. Some of your songs are dark as hell, I’m thinking of two of my favorites, No Frills Friend which is sung from the point of view of a woman who’s so desperate for companionship that she’ll go out with a guy who won’t even say a word to her. And then there’s Turn out the Lights [Lucid Culture’s pick for best song of 2007], which as a metaphor is pretty self-explanatory. Has anybody ever come up to you and said, damn, No Frills Friend, that’s me! You saved my life! 

 

AA: It’s nice when people really feel like you captured something they’ve felt or experienced. I think my songs always have something positive, hope or humor or a prettiness to counter the dark. I think that’s most effective. By the way, I never thought of No Frills Friend as a romantic thing. It was just a friendship. and I think of it as just “I’m tired, you’re tired, life is lonely, being social is a strain, but you don’t need to put on a show for me, if you don’t feel like talking or you just wanna walk around I won’t demand more of you” and Turn Out the Lights is sort of my “I’m just in this for myself” anthem. I think I was thinking of the music business in a way. Of course it can be about anything. the suicide thing is sort of a joke, like, “I don’t care, I’m just gonna retreat into myself, I don’t need you.” It’s kinda defiant. And that’s why there’s a freedom and optimistic feel to it, in spite of itself, at least musically. Hey, I just thought of a song I loved as a kid, World Without Love by Peter and Gordon. Turn Out the Lights is kinda like that.

 

LC: As a singer, you’ve evolved into a song stylist: you can make a very dramatic statement with just a minute inflection in your voice. What singers do you admire most?

 

AA: Thank you, that’s hard ’cause there are so many. I always loved singers. All kinds. I loved a lot of the old country singers, Lefty Frizzell, Kitty Wells, etc. I loved Larry Kert from West Side Story when he sang Maria on the Broadway soundtrack album (not the movie), I loved Billie Holiday – in particular the early years, we had an album in the house of her with Teddy Wilson and Lester Young etc. from the 30’s. I loved Jeri Southern – another album we had in my house, called You Better Go Now was a favorite. Michael Jackson when he was a little boy. I’ll have to think and make a list. A million of them. I listen a lot to Dinah Washington lately, I don’t know why, I just like her. And this woman Ella Johnson who my father told me about who sang with her brother Buddy Johnson’s band in the 40’s and 50’s. Those records are great and I find her sound so refreshing ’cause it is unaffected and artless but so unique and full of personality. I heard a girl last year named Nicole Atkins on, of all things, a tv commercial, and I immediately checked her out. She has some really good songs and a lovely voice. I thought she was gonna be a big star. Maybe she sorta is, and I just don’t know it?

 

LC: I think the commercial worked against her. But I like her songs too. Now in addition to your own work, you’ve also sung with a number of other acts, the Silos and others. Where else can we hear that voice of yours?

 

AA: Christy McWilson and I did back-up on a Mudhoney record, but I don’t know how much you can hear me on that. I sang on the latest Last Town Chorus CD. I sang on They Might Be Giant’s records and on several Silos records. I did a beautiful song with Walter Salas-Humara on a Silos record called The Only Story I Tell. Some people tell me that’s how they first heard me and became a fan. And of course I had Parlor James with Ryan Hedgecock in the 90’s but those CD’s are locked in Sire’s vault. Oh, and Davie Scott and I are co-writing and singing an album together. We’re halfway done and very excited about that.

 

LC: Did it bother you when some of the media were less than kind about how you sing? I remember this or that magazine bitching about how they thought it was too nasal…

 

AA: Oh, I should start a collection. Nobody has a clue as to how to describe it. But nasal, yeah that’s a common one. It used to hurt me but people just don’t know how to listen to something that’s different. And natural. It’s just the way I sound. I was in a cab talking once and the cab driver said “Excuse me, are you Amy Allison?” It’s my real voice.

 

LC: Let’s talk about the new album Sheffield Streets. Who’s on it, can you name some songs, in fact it’s out today, June 16!

 

AA: It’s just out on the Urban Myth imprint I’m glad to say. This guy Dan Bryk who runs it is so nice and a great singer/songwriter. I did that song of my father’s with Elvis Costello and Dave Alvin sings on one of mine. I had great musicians on it, all based in LA. Don Heffington who produced it is a really great drummer and knows so many great players and they all love him. Some song titles: Calla Lily, The Needle Skips, I Wrote a Song About You, Mardi Gras Moon…..

 

LC: Is my new favorite Come Sweet Evening on it?

 

AA: Yes it is.

 

LC: How about Dream World?

 

AA: Yes, and Van Dyke Parks plays accordion on that!

 

LC: How about The Ballad of Amy Winehouse, which is up on your myspace?

 

AA: No, that was a joke. Don wanted to put it on as a bonus track. He says it sounds like an old field recording which I think was the idea.

 

LC: How did that song come about? Two girls drinking wine in the afternoon and then decide to write a funny song about smoking crack?

 

AA: Yes. How did you know it was the afternoon?

 

LC: I get the impression you got into the wine early…

 

AA : No wine was involved though. We were totally sober. My good friend Olivia who lives in Portland, Maine and I were in her house, and I was reading a Rolling Stone article about Amy Winehouse and I started screaming out “Blake Fielder-Civil, that’s her true love’s name, crack is wack and that’s a fact”……and we both started riffing on it in those voices and Olivia played guitar and we recorded it onto her laptop. We also did an Obama song. But we didn’t finish that one in time to record it.

 

LC: Do you ever get sick of people at your shows screaming out for songs you haven’t played in ages, for example, Drinking Thru Xmas, when it’s the middle of July in some hot club?

 

AA: No, I appreciate that. And I sing it no matter what time of year it is. I try and do all of them, and, as you know, I’m not afraid to screw up.

 

LC: Does the avidity of your fan base ever drive you crazy? Like, you can’t get a moment’s peace after you leave the stage?

 

AA: I don’t think it’s like that! I can handle it, believe me, I appreciate people coming up and saying nice things.

 

LC: Who are you listening to these days? Here’s a chance to big-up your favorite acts…

 

AA: I’m listening to the Urban Myth catalogue right now, and not just cause they took me into the fold. I love Lee Feldman, he’s been playing piano with me at shows and Chris Warren is great. I think they’re a fine group of artists. But truthfully I listen to mostly old stuff. Or nothing.

 

LC: I know you’ve done some touring in Europe, any plans to take the show on the road over there again?

 

AA: I wish. If I could afford it, I would.

 

LC: I know you lived in Sheffield in the UK, in fact the title track from the new album Sheffield Streets enumerates a whole list of streets there. Do you know Jarvis Cocker, or was this before Pulp got really big?

 

AA: No, I wish I knew Jarvis, I love him! And I love his songs, I’m a big fan. I think I was in Sheffield a little bit before Pulp got started. And I was just writing songs and keeping them to myself then. I married a guy from there  – we’ve been divorced for awhile – and we lived in an area called Nether Edge. The name of my album as you know is Sheffield Streets and the CD package has pictures on the inside that I took when I lived there.

 

LC: What’s your take on how the music business has evolved, with the death of the major labels, especially since you used to be on one? Is the Balkanization of the mass audience a blessing or a curse?

 

AA: I hope it’s a good thing. It sure needed to change. I guess the dinosaurs have to die off to make room for humanity, right? Ha, ha. I don’t know, I don’t really think on that scale. All I know is I get a rash when I talk to most people in the “industry”. 

 

LC: What’s next for Amy Allison, after the album comes out? What’s the next project? Would we ever get so lucky as to get a live album?

 

AA: I think that would be fun. But I’d probably screw it up and make a lot of mistakes.

June 16, 2009 Posted by | interview, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Concert Review: Mose Allison at the Jazz Standard, NYC 3/13/09

Mose Allison may have celebrated his eightieth birthday on the stage here last November, but he hasn’t changed a bit over the last (how many?) decades, giving new meaning to the phrase “absolutely undiminished.” Right down to his vise-grip handshake. There ought to be a PBS American Masters documentary about this guy (the BBC released Mose Allison: Ever Since I Stole the Blues in 2006 – the Europeans are always a step ahead of us). The great songwriter/chanteuse Amy Allison’s dad shares his daughter’s droll wit and rich appreciation for Americana, in his case blues and jazz. It’s impossible to imagine Tom Waits – or for that matter, Dr. John – without him. Friday night’s show with his trio was typical, a clinic in tasteful, jazz-infused saloon blues piano songs infused with dry wit and occasional gallows humor.

 

This was a song set: when he soloed, he kept it brief and terse, seldom going for more than a verse at a time. There’s still nobody who plays like him – it’s hard to get through a set of blues without falling back on a familiar phrase or two, but Allison pulled this one off without them. Instead, it was lots of sharply percussive chords, brushing through the passing tones without making it obvious, and no wasted notes. Like his vocals, his phrasing on the keys is still the definition of cool. The band jammed their way into a particularly timely Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: “Am I just plain greedy?/Do I worry about the ozone layer?/Do I worry about my new hairspray?” he asked with the usual half-a-wink in his voice. His cynical, apocalyptic side was further represented by the casual, laid-back Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, and a bit later, Ever Since the World Ended: “Remember how we went around lying about how we felt?” he mused. His trademark sly, sophisticated side was most entertainingly on display in the slow swing blues My Backyard – “where a maven of sorts forsakes his cohorts” – as well as the old Nat King Cole Trio brush-off song No Particular Time (when “you better bring along your glasses because I’m hard to find”). And there was plenty of dark understatement in a playful version of If You Only Knew, and the psychos-on-the-street saga Monsters of the Id with its eerie 1-5# hook.

 

As usual, the sound in the room was crystal-clear and the audience was still, following his every move: this place draws a crowd of real music fans, not just tourists.  

March 15, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Amy Allison at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 1/31/09

An understated clinic in expert songcraft, double entendres, metaphors and just good fun. Tonight Amy Allison was all business (aside from reciting a scatalogical jumprope rhyme from her childhood that just crossed her mind, she said). Backed by Madison Square Gardeners guitarist Rich Hinman on Telecaster and the redoubtable Lee Feldman adding marvelously incisive, smart piano, the cult artist ran through a brisk, thirteen-song set comprising mostly new material. Of the older stuff, the tongue-in-cheek Garden State Mall was the biggest hit with the absolutely packed house (it was practically impossible to enter the bar), Feldman adding some beautifully authentic oldschool honkytonk licks (on the out-of-tune piano) to Allison’s big enchilada The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter. A quiet, subdued version of the as-yet unreleased Anywhere You Are Is Where I Am hinted that it has all the makings of a classic vocal jazz song – what Allison could do with that one backed by her dad (Mose Allison) and his band!

 

The most striking of the new ones was a remarkably optimistic, even triumphant song, a starkly celebratory nocturne called Come, Sweet Evening. “I can’t wait to see the dying of the light, a deeper blue,” she implored with characteristic mystery and restraint. She got almost all the way through the catalog of names in Sheffield Streets, the wry tribute to her onetime UK home, without forgetting a handful (“I’ve never gotten all the names right,” she laughed). The crowd implored her for an encore, so she indulged them with one of her very best (a request, naturally), the suicide anthem Turn Out the Lights. A vividly direct, unsparing portrayal of clinical depression, it must not be an easy song to sing, but Allison made her way through it methodically just as she does with her lighter fare. It would have been nice to be able to stick around for brilliant Americana rock guitarist Tom Clark and his band the High Action Boys, but the crowd proved even more overwhelming than the cold outside.

February 1, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review – Amy Allison – Everything and Nothing Too

Her best, strongest collection of songs. That’s quite an achievement for someone who already has a couple of genuine classic albums under her belt, The Maudlin Years and Sad Girl. Amy Allison is a master of the mot juste, the double or triple or quadruple entendre: no wonder Elvis Costello likes her so much. Until lately, she wrote country songs imbued with an inimitably droll wit and charm: it’s hard not to fall for the elegantly phrased klutz in all things romantic that she played to the hilt earlier in her career. But it’s never easy to tell whether she’s laying it on the line, messing with your head or doing both at the same time, and that’s the secret to her success. That, and that exquisite voice, which has taken on a darker tone recently, with a gravitas that didn’t used to creep into her often sidesplittingly funny lyrics. Technically speaking, she’s a terrific singer with soaring range and surprising power for someone whose twangy timbre falls thisclose to cartoonish. That she took that voice, ran with it and made it a thing of such strange, unique beauty testifies to her smarts as a musician (probably runs in the family: her dad is saloon jazz legend Mose Allison, without whom Tom Waits probably wouldn’t exist, or at the least wouldn’t be so popular).

Like her criminally underrated previous album No Frills Friend, this one is basically pop songs set to jangly, mostly midtempo guitar rock arrangements, a style Allison has mastered as she did country music, ten years ago. The cd kicks off with Don’t Go to Sleep, a jazzy pop gem that sounds like a dead ringer for something from mid-60s London. The next two tracks, Don’t You Know Anything and the album’s title track highlight Allison’s knowingly wise, terse lyricism. The fast, bouncy Out of Sight, Out of Mind wouldn’t be out of place on one of her country albums.

Right about here, it gets dark in a hurry. The next cut Troubled Boy, a snapshot of a (predictably) failed romance between a couple of troubled people, only hints at what’s to come. After that, Allison takes no prisoners on the what-on-earth-do-you-see-in-that-loser diatribe Have You No Pride? Then the sun sinks under the horizon, with Rose Red:

Snow White, Snow White
I’m Rose Red
Keep the wolf from my door
I will be a hothouse flower
And I’ll never go out anymore

It’s one of her most affecting and powerful songs, as is the album’s centerpiece, the depressive anthem Turn Out the Lights.

In my room
Far from the crowd
My bed’s a tomb
My quilt’s a shroud
I’ve had my fill
Of restless nights

I’d just as soon
Turn out the lights

It’s arguably her best song, an apt companion piece to the equally haunting title track from her previous album (sung from the point of view of a woman who’s so lonely that she’s willing to go out with a guy who literally won’t say a word to her). But just as everything seems to be ready to fall into the abyss, the album picks up with a rousingly guitarish cover of the Smiths’ vitriolic classic Every Day is Sunday, and concludes with a charming duet between Allison and her dad on his song Was – peep her myspace for the youtube video.

Allison is hilarious onstage: if you haven’t seen her you owe it to yourself, you are in for a treat. She plays Banjo Jim’s on Sat Apr 14 at 6 PM, then Mo Pitkins at 7:30 PM downstairs on Apr 19 and upstairs on Apr 26 at the same hour. Cds are available online and at shows.

April 11, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment