Beautiful moment from last night: gentrifier girl wanders into the small room at Rockwood Music Hall. Perky and perfectly coiffed in an expensive mallstore way, like someone who was on the Disney Channel’s My Super Special Yuppie Puppie Prom Night around 2007. Meanwhile, onstage, the Whispering Tree’s Eleanor Kleiner raises her voice in a plaintive wail: “They left me here by the side of the road!” Gentrifier girl promptly scoots out the door and doesn’t come back. Any time a band can clear that element out of a New York club, that’s a victory. Meanwhile, the crowd who’d gathered for the four-piece band’s Friday night set was rapt: when they ended one song cold, mid-phrase, there was a stunned moment of silence before the whole band started grinning and then everybody belatedly burst into applause.
The Whispering Tree manage to be extremely accessible without compromising the intelligence of their music. To say that Kleiner sounds like an edgier version of Tift Merritt, or Shelby Lynne in a pensive, cosmopolitan moment, doesn’t do justice to the originality of her songwriting or her unaffected, disarmingly direct vocals. The band were amazing: they simply don’t waste notes, the guitarist hanging back tersely until it was time to deftly fade one early song up with hazy jangle and clang, or finally cutting loose with some slashing, smartly thought out blues on the evening’s final number. Likewise, the bassist chilled out in the pocket until he took a juicy, slipsliding solo on a radical reworking of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, reimagined as swinging, minor-key gypsy jazz. That Kleiner could wring genuine emotion out of “bluebirds can fly, why can’t I” was unexpected, and impressive to say the least.
But it was the originals that stood out the most. Kleiner played most of the set, including the eerie, apprehensive, minor-key Something Might Happen, on piano, with a brooding, gospel-infused style. The Trees, told from the point of view of one of them amidst the encroachment of city sprawl, took on a towering existential angst: like everyone else, trees long to be free, too. Likewise, they launched into Go Call the Captain, the title track from their most recent album (which received a rave review here last year), with a mighty thump – and yet, when it came to Kleiner going on the attack about how “false prophets, liars and thieves rule the world,” she didn’t go over the top. Instead, she let the lyrics speak for themselves (there’s more about the song on the band’s blog – mighty good stuff). They wound up the set with an unexpectedly fiery guitar-fueled rocker, No Love, a potently metaphorical, bitter anthem that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Penelope Houston’s albums from the 90s.
Dark, prolific rock songwriter Mark Sinnis’ long-running band Ninth House may be on life support at this point, but his solo career is thriving – he sold out the House of Blues in New Orleans the last time he played there. The powerful baritone singer’s fourth and latest solo album, The Undertaker in My Rearview Mirror, is arguably his deepest and darkest. A loosely thematic collection of songs with a cautionary “carpe diem” message, it’s a mix of Johnny Cash-influenced Nashville gothic along with artsy, atmospheric rock, including a handful of Ninth House songs radically reinvented as hypnotic, brooding ballads. The quavery wail of Lenny Molotov’s lapsteel seeps from many of them like blood from a corpse; other than Sinnis’ pitchblende vocals, that’s the album’s signature sound. Zach Ingram provides deft, low-key keyboard orchestration on several of the songs, along with Ninth House drummer Francis Xavier, and Matthew Dundas’ incisive, gospel-tinged piano on three tracks.
The title track is a talking blues of sorts, a metaphorically-charged race with a hearse that wryly nicks the melody from Sympathy for the Devil, Molotov weaving back and forth across the yellow line in a duel with former Ninth House guitarist Bernard SanJuan. The angst-ridden Injury Home plays down the bluesiness of the Ninth House original in favor of atmospherics and a nonchalantly slashing Dundas piano solo. Peep Hole in the Wall was a standout track on Ninth House’s 2000 breakout album, Swim in the Silence; the version here is even creepier. Likewise, Cause You Want To takes an balmy wave pop song and makes a dirge out of it, courtesy of Susan Mitchell’s lush string arrangement. The most death-obsessed tracks here are the straight-up country numbers: 100 Years from Now, a voice from beyond the grave, and Sunday Morning Train, which looks grimly at the marble orchard as it passes by (the metaphors don’t stop coming here). Yet the closest thing to Johnny Cash here, a solo acoustic track, is also the most upbeat and optimistic.
With Xavier’s distantly echoey drums and mariachi trumpet, their version of Ghost Riders in the Sky imaginatively recasts it as an apprehensive border ballad. They also redo Merle Travis’ Sixteen Tons as a revenge anthem, with lyrics updated for the new Great Depression, a theme they revisit with the bitter, tango-flavored Hills of Decline. The two most visceral tracks here both feature Randi Russo on vocals: a majestically orchestrated, vertigo-inducing version of Death Song (another Ninth House number) that chillingly pairs off her haunting stoicism against Sinnis’ morbid croon, and the David Lynch-style noir pop duet To Join the Departed in Their Dream. On her new album Fragile Animal, Russo sings with tremendous nuance; her vocals here are nothing short of exquisite.
The album ends with an uncharacteristically lighthearted singalong (lighthearted by comparison to everything else here, anyway), I’ll Have Another Drink of Whiskey, ‘Cause Death Is No So Far Away. A shout-out to Shane MacGowan, it’s a bittersweet enticement to seize the moment while it’s still here, even if that’s only to drink to forget how soon that moment will be gone. It’s also the funniest song Sinnis has ever written: if you can get through the turnaround into the chorus without at least cracking a smile, either you have no sense of humor, or you don’t like to drink. Count this among the increasingly crowded field at the top of our picks for best album of 2011.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #655:
Kelly Hogan – Because It Feels Good
Hogan got her start in the obscure but smartly adventurous indie band the Jody Grind. She was a good singer then; by 2001, when she released this cruelly underrated gem, she’d become one of the most hauntingly compelling voices in any style of music. And as much as she can haunt, she can also be very funny. Backed by a killer twangy Americana band, she’s a David Lynch girl on the lush tremolo-guitar soul ballad I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You. She’s more of a Russell Banks character on the countrypolitan kiss-off to a white trash guy, No Bobby Don’t. The misty, creepy Speedfreak Lullaby reminds of Mazzy Star; Please Don’t Leave Me Lonely has a vintage 60s Dionne Warwick feel. The best of the bunch is the Nashville gothic (You Don’t Know) The First Thing About Blue. There’s also the echoey, sparse ballad Stay (an original, not the oldies radio hit); a spare, poignant version of Randy Newman’s Living Without You, and a Smog cover done as Castles Made of Sand-style Hendrix. Why an album so good would be so hard to find is a mystery: other than at Hogan’s myspace, which has some of the tracks, it simply doesn’t exist online. And if you stream the songs there, be careful, you have to reload the page AND clear your browser after every play or else you’ll be assaulted by a loud audio ad.
Grim, lurid and gorgeously tuneful, Frankenpine’s new album The Crooked Mountain is definitely the darkest album of the year so far – and it might be the best. We’ll sort that stuff out at the end of the year. In the meantime, the dozen Appalachian gothic songs here will give you goosebumps. A hundred years ago, when the music that inspired this album was the soundtrack to daily life, that life was short and hard and these songs reflect that, even though all but one of them (John the Revelator, reinvented as lush acoustic psychedelia) are originals. To her credit, frontwoman/guitarist Kim Chase doesn’t drawl or otherwise try to countrify the songs: her casual, plaintive unease is plenty bracing. Banjo player Matthew Chase teams up with bassist Colin DeHond, creating a fluid underpinning for Ned P. Rauch’s resonator guitar and mandolin, Liz Bisbee’s violin and Andy Mullen’s accordion.
Inspired by Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, the opening track, Texas Outlaw spins off the riff from the Stones’ Paint It Black, with some rich harmonies and tense, bluesy violin. One of the few lighthearted moments here, La Fee Verte is a tribute not to absinthe but to the kind of gypsy jazz hole-in-the-wall that might serve it. Prototypical undercover reporter Nellie Bly’s trip to a grisly 19th century New York insane asylum gets immortalized on the richly lyrical, absolutely macabre Blackwell Island, a song that wouldn’t be out of place in the Moonlighters’ catalog. And Faceless Weaver turns a catchy garage rock verse into bluegrass, with a starkly inscrutable lyric and some neat handoffs from one instrument to another.
Rauch sings the blistering, cynically resolute murder ballad Never Lie: “I’m gonna lie my way into heaven when I shoot my way to hell.” Over Your Bones paints a sad, ghostly wartime tableau that could be set in the south in 1864, or in Afghanistan right now. They follow the fiery minor-key instrumental Wolf at the Door with the rousing, Pogues-ish down-and-out chronicle Baltimore, and then Cold Water, which leaps abruptly from hypnotic ambience to rolling, rustic beauty. Convict Grade, a title track of sorts, has the kind of stoic optimism – or at least resolute conviction – that’s found throughout so many rustic tales of hard time. And the most gripping of all the tracks might be the eight-minute epic Eye of the Whale, a surreal, grisly seafaring narrative with a stunner of an ending. There are scores of Americana roots acts with great musical chops and harmonies, and plenty with good original songs and lyrics, but few who combine them with this kind of originality and singleminded intensity. O’Death fans will love this stuff. Frankenpine plays a “steam powered battle of the bands” at Theatre 80 St. Marks on Feb 19.
For the better part of the last ten years, Lorraine Leckie has been writing dark, deadpan songs that owe as much to punk – at least the spirit of punk – as they do Americana. Her new album Martini Eyes is deliciously ghoulish, and it’s her best one yet. It’s her Nebraska: simple, spare arrangements, most of them with just vocals and acoustic guitar or piano. If Patti Smith had gone Nashville gothic instead of punk, she might have sounded something like this
The real gem here is Don’t Giggle at the Corpse. It might sound funny, but it’s not, at all: it’s a blackly cynical depiction of a funeral. “Take a sip of wine…here we go, it’s time for the show, don’t giggle at the corpse,” Leckie warns, completely serious, perfectly capturing the temporary insanity that comes with grief. “I wish this town would burn to the ground – I loved him a lot, show him what we’ve got,” she muses out loud. It’s a profound theme for a year that’s had too many funerals.
Leckie follows that with a couple of distantly Tom Waits-ish ones. Trouble is a stark, witchy blues: things die and summer turns to winter wherever this girl goes. “Crazy girls are easy to love/By morning you’ve had enough,” the off-center narrator of Red Light intones – she’s written her paramour’s name on her walls in lipstick, and crayon, and god knows what, and what makes it poignant is that she’s just sane enough to know she’s crazy. And the 6/8 murder ballad Hillbilly will strike a nerve with anyone who’s survived the gentrification that’s blighted New York, or anywhere: girl from the sticks comes to town, wants to be a star, blithely steals another girl’s guy…and gets what’s coming to her.
The unexpectedly hilarious track here is I Met a Man, a simple, cabaret-ish piano tune about scoring drugs all over the world. “Coppers all around me like rain,” sings Leckie – and then runs off to Amsterdam to score again. The album winds up with Listen to the Girl, a stark yet encouraging theme for brooding individualists, and the off-kilter title track, laden with regret for a lost love who might or might not have left under his own power. One of Leckie’s greatest strengths as a songwriter is what she leaves out, and this is a prime example. Count this as a late addition to the rapidly closing list of the best albums of 2010.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #783:
Mark Sinnis – The Night’s Last Tomorrow
As the leader of dark, artsy Nashville gothic rockers Ninth House, Mark Sinnis and his ominous baritone have been a forceful presence in the New York music underground since the late 90s. Lately, he’s been devoting as much time to his solo acoustic project, most fully realized with this one, his third solo release, from early 2010. It’s an obscure treasure and it’s probably the best thing he’s ever recorded with any group. This one mixes brand new tracks with a couple of radically reworked Ninth House songs and classic covers. 15 Miles to Hell’s Gate, a not-so-thinly veiled requiem for a New York lost at least for the moment to gentrifiers and class tourists, is a stampeding rockabilly number just a little quieter than the Ninth House version. Likewise, the lyrically rich Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me (which made our Alltime Best 666 Songs list) doesn’t vary much from the original, although the Cure-inflected Quiet Change is….um, quite a change. With a new last verse, Sinnis’ version of Gloomy Sunday leaves no doubt that it’s a suicide song. Likewise, the cover of St. James Infirmary is definitely an obituary, although the Sisters of Mercy’s Nine While Nine is a lot more upbeat, a vividly brooding train station vignette. The catchy, rustically swaying Skeletons and the downright morbid, Johnny Cash-inspired In Harmony wind it up. This is one of those albums that’s too obscure to have made it to the usual share sites, although it is available at shows and at cdbaby.
This is sort of our weekly, Kasey Kasem-inspired luddite DIY version of a podcast. Every week, we try to mix it up, offer a little something for everyone: sad songs, funny songs, upbeat songs, quieter stuff, you name it. We’ve designed this as something you can do on your lunch break if you work at a computer (and you have headphones – your boss won’t approve of a lot of this stuff). If you don’t like one of these songs, you can always go on to the next one: every link here will take you to each individual song. As always, the #1 song here will appear on our Best Songs of 2010 list at the end of the year.
1. Norden Bombsight – Snakes
Still can’t get enough of their careening art-rock intensity. This might be the best track on their most recent album Pinto, which you’ll see when we do our 50 Best Albums of the year list.
2. Los Neuronautas – Congregacion
Hypnotic tuneful minimalist post Joy Div rock from this Queens band.
3. The Whispering Tree – Go Call the Captain
Title track from their excellent new Nashville gothic album.
4. The Thrift Store Cowboys – Scary Weeds
Southwestern gothic 6/8 ballad, totally Walkabouts – Amanda Shires’ vocals channel Carla Torgerson.
5. Kelli Rudick – Blood & Honey
Stately 6/8 twelve-string guitar instrumental – art-rock dirge meets the baroque
6. Jonny Rumble – Crapola
Catchy snarling anticonformist rock smash.
7. Francis Cabrel – Encore et Encore
We had a list of 2000 or so songs that didn’t end up making the cut for the alltime best 666 songs list that we just finished this past summer. This is one of them, from back in the 80s: “Tu t’arranges pour eviter le miroir.”
8. Jessica Pavone – Cast of Characters
Alternately explosive and ambient violin/guitar rock instrumental – characteristically fun and intense.
9. Elizabeth & the Catapult – I Can Always Dream
Dark intelligent NYC indie pop, live on Daytrotter.
10. Jordan Reyne – The Brave
Rustic New Zealand gothic. Pretty cool Blair Witch video too.
This is sort of our weekly, Kasey Kasem-inspired luddite DIY version of a podcast. Every week, we try to mix it up, offer a little something for everyone: sad songs, funny songs, upbeat songs, quieter stuff, you name it. We’ve designed this as something you can do on your lunch break if you work at a computer (and you have headphones – your boss won’t approve of a lot of this stuff). If you don’t like one of these songs, you can always go on to the next one: every link here (except for #1 this week) will take you to each individual song. As always, the #1 song here will appear on our Best Songs of 2010 list at the end of the year.
1. Klezwoods – Cuperlika
Centerpiece of the Balkan/klezmer/Middle Eastern band’s titanicallly good new cd Oy Yeah. Put it up on the web somewhere guys, you’ll sell a lot more records!
2. Serena Jost – Stay
Characteristically stark and compelling solo cello art-rock song from her forthcoming cd.
3. Band of Outsiders – Graveyard
Absolutely off the hook post-Velvets guitar madness, live at the Parkside this year. They’re at Bowery Electric on 9/23 at 10 opening for Richard Lloyd.
4. Ninth House – Down Beneath
Frontman Mark Sinnis was making this video in a cemetery in upstate New York when he noticed that the seemingly random grave he’d chosen to lie on belonged to one Mary Ann Larson, who died on Sinnis’ birthday in 1853. Coincidence? The band play the cd release show for their new one on 9/24 at at UC 87 Lounge, 87 Ludlow St. at 11.
5. Amy Bezunartea – Doubles
Hang with this – it’s worth your 3 minutes. Not your average girl with acoustic guitar, described by her label (Jennifer O’Connor’s project Kiam) as “kind of Joni meets Magnetic Fields” but better. Free download.
6. Zikrayat – Ish-Showq Mihayyarni
Classic obscure 50s Egyptian film music from the movie ‘Aziza’ starring Naima Akif, live at Galapagos last year. The song starts about 1:20 into the clip. They’re at Moustache (Lex and 102nd) at 8 PM on 9/24.
7. The Poludaktulos Orchestra – Rajkos
Brass band intensity – the missing link between Greece and Serbia, with Klezwoods’ amazing guitarist.
8. Gertrude Michael – Sweet Marijuana
Via night of the purple moon – precode movie music from 1934.
9. Amanda Thorpe – River Song
The dodgy sound reflects the crappy venue this was recorded at, but Thorpe’s voice transcends it – a classic that sounds as good as it did a couple of years ago.
10. Los Incas Modernos – Terremoto
An early Peruvian surf band – you can get lost in this stuff on youtube.