Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. The brain trust here has decided to take a weekend vacation in Philly (which should tell you what kind of brains you’re dealing with here): more reviews and other fun stuff here very soon. In the meantime, Saturday’s album is #724:
Sharon Goldman – Semi-Broken Heart
Conclusive proof that there actually is such a thing as intelligent folk-pop. The New York songwriter’s 2004 album is sort of an American version of Shoot out the Lights: in a more quietly harrowing way, it chronicles the disollution of a relationship. Against a lush, lusciously jangly backdrop of acoustic and electric guitar and keys, Goldman stoically but plaintively lets the story unveil: the disillusion of Make-Believe and Happy Ever After give way to the wounded Uncertainty and Blue Rain. The big concert favorite (in another era, it would have been a huge radio hit) is Stained Glass Window, a casually chilling epiphany. The richly sweeping, clanging Change gives way to the NYC tableau Never-Ending Skyline, where a glimmer of hope appears. Finally, at the end, Goldman allows herself some righteous rage at the duplicitous cad who broke her heart. Moral of this story: never mess with a songwriter. They always get even in the end. The one thing this album doesn’t have is Goldman’s signature sense of humor: when she’s on her game (check out the Subway Song from her 2007 follow-up album Shake the Stars), she’s off-the-charts hilarious. A little sleuthing didn’t turn up any files floating around, but the album is still up at cdbaby (where there are samples of all the tracks) and at Goldman’s site.
This is an album for jellybean thieves and those who love them. Not only is Sharon Goldman one of this era’s most brilliant tunesmiths, she also has a sweet tooth. If her lyrics are to be taken at face value, she also steals ice cream – or appropriates other peoples’, anyway. Behind her bright, shiny, catchy classic pop melodies and her symbolically charged imagery, there’s a devious streak. Sometimes it’s very funny, sometimes poignant, sometimes both at once. Perfect example: Short Brown Hair, the opening cut on her new album Sleepless Lullaby. It’s a classic Snow White/Rose Red dichotomy: the narrator’s cute blonde little sister gets all the attention, but this pensive, brooding brunette has something up her sleeve (actually in her pocket). By the end of the song, she emerges resolute and unchastened. That sense of triumph and indomitability has always been a backdrop on her previous albums, especially the 1999 cult classic Semi-Broken Heart, and it comes to the forefront here.
What’s new here is Goldman’s turn toward an Americana sound, backed tersely and soulfully by guitarist/mandolinist Thad Debrock, bassist Mark Dann and drummer Cheryl Prashker. Dann’s production is remarkably purist: the album has rich, practically analog vinyl feel, vocals up front, drums tastefully in the back, no cheesy autotune or computerized instrumentation anywhere.
The rest of the songs paint vivid pictures, especially the fingerpicked ballad Winter’s Come Around Again, a woman traipsing around in the snow looking for any possible sign of warmth. The title track, a slow, 6/8 country ballad is a knockout. Goldman has always been a good singer – on this album she has become a brilliant one, unselfconsciously plaintive and wounded. “I lie awake with my big mistake” comes across as understatement rather than overkill, enhanced by some soulful slide guitar work by Pat Wictor. House of Stone, a Rich Deans cover, is a country blues tune: with its succession of bitter imagery, it stands up alongside Goldman’s originals here. And the Americana-tinged Letters, a kiss-off ballad that starts out characteristically subtle and gets as vicious as she’s ever allowed herself to be, is righteously wrathful. Goldman then flips the script with Weekend Afternoon, a blithely upbeat country/pop hit.
The 6/8 jazz-pop song Time Is an Airplane is one of her most musically sophisticated numbers – and it namechecks the Cyclone rollercoaster at Coney Island, which makes it even harder to resist. Goldman wraps up the album by reinventing the Simon and Garfunkel chestnut Hazy Shade of Winter as piano-based art-rock, discovering a wintriness missing from the psych-pop arrangement of the original. It’s yet another display of smartly tuneful, captivating songcraft from one of the best songwriters you may have never heard of. Goldman’s next gig is at Brewed Awakening in Metuchen, NJ on Dec 16; watch this space for New York dates.
Artsy pop tunesmith Elaine Romanelli transcends any label you might be tempted to peg her with. She’s a tremendous singer – her soaring high soprano is sometimes poised and playful, sometimes brooding and bitter. Her songs are vivid, aphoristic, often metaphorically charged; many of them have an indelibly urban, New York-centricness about them. The inspired backing unit on her latest album, The Real Deal includes Josh Fox on guitar, Andrew Fox on piano, Clay Wilson on bass and Dave Gluck on drums along with lush, rich arrangements from the “Screaming Strings,” Patricia Cole on violin and Larry DiBello on cello.
“The salt you pour each day has left its sting,” Romanelli admits on the cd’s opening cut, Song About the Trees, but she’s insistent on pulling herself up out of misery. The evocative Iraq war wife’s tale, aptly titled Lament, packs a wallop: “Now the tours are longer and they happen every year…pray the chopper sets him down, pray that he can still walk,” the poor woman pleads over a machine-gun drumbeat. Merry Go Round, with a choice string arrangement, is wryly metaphorical:
Take off the training wheels
Try not to be afraid
Go for a test run
Go back and think some more
Go into hiding
Curl in a ball on the floor
Or stay on the merry-go-round…
Romanelli follows that with the 6/8 piano ballad Faust Revisited, a subtly caustic, insightful look at what some people might consider while contemplating plastic surgery:
And I yearn to be perfect
But I wonder if maybe by now it’s too late
‘Cause I grew up with this face
Which never was beautiful
So there’s years of old feelings
They’d have to replace
With a jaunty, wickedly catchy janglerock bounce, Not a Love Song is not the sneering Public Image Ltd. broadside but a soaring, Sharon Goldman-style pop hit. Stupid Boy, like its storyline, begins sultry and goes bitter fast, all the way into a killer chorus. Fly picks up the pace, revisiting the treadmill theme of the third cut but more optimistically this time, its narrator trying to nudge a bedraggled friend out of her comfortably sad routine. The rest of the album includes Naughty Lola, which blends a sultry lounge feel with janglerock; the scrambling punk-pop shuffle Unapologetic like something off the Go Go’s comeback album God Bless the Go Go’s; a Celtic-tinged a-cappella ballad, a bouncy piano pop number and finally, after all that, the crazed vaudevillian romp Pour Me a Drink – she and the band have earned it. Elaine Romanelli plays the cd release for The Real Deal at the Bitter End this Thursday, May 20 at 8.
You heard it here first: Tift Merritt is the future of American pop music. What she sings isn’t particularly edgy, but it’s not stupid. Last night the North Carolina-bred songwriter made fun of the promoters who’d moved her scheduled show at Rockefeller Park indoors even as the sky was clearing. She was spooked by the prospect of playing in a high school: “Not a good time,” she recalled, practically shuddering. Which made sense. As catchy and warmly accessible as her songs are, there’s a welcome intelligence in her writing, and her voice is a dead giveaway. Her songs come across as something of the missing link between Sheryl Crow and Aimee Mann (Merritt loves those major/minor changes that Mann works so masterfully). Vocally, Linda Thompson is the obvious comparison. Merritt’s recorded work plays up her stoic resignation and haunting sense of nuance, her voice sometimes dropping off the table for dramatic effect much in the style of the legendary Britfolk chanteuse; last night she also showed off a grit and a liveliness that doesn’t always cut through in the studio.
Playing solo, alternating between acoustic guitar and electric piano (and electric guitar on one song), she won over a tough crowd with casual charm and one memorable tune after the next. As Roscoe Ambel famously said, if a song sounds good at its barest, stripped down to just guitar and voice, it’ll sound great with a band. Much of what she played could have been ecstatically fun with a good crew behind her – you know how much musicians love a smart, intuitive tune. Using just your typical building-block major and minor chords, she introduced three new songs along with several from her most recent studio cd Another Country. Of the new ones, the best was a fast yet pensive backbeat-driven number exploring the theme of finally figuring out to what to do once you’ve gotten what you want after years of searching high and low. Of the less brand-new songs, Broken, a vivid, bitterly soaring anthem evoking the struggles of her early days in music, packed a punch as did Keep You Happy, with its crescendoing chorus and realization that tying your happiness to another person’s is bound to drag you down there with them. Merritt also impressed with her gospel-tinged piano work on a handful of ballads as well as a bouncy yet somewhat eerie soul-inflected number. She even went up the scale to end one of them with a fun Floyd Cramer flourish.
In a level playing field without the now-flatlining major labels, Merritt’s success gives hope to a new generation of writers creating accessible yet intelligent pop music, Ward White, Kirsten Williams, Nicholas Howard and Sharon Goldman among legions of others. Merritt is based in New York now, so we ought to see more of her in the months to come which promises to be a treat considering what a songwriting roll she’s on right now.
A folk-pop masterpiece. If you consider that statement an oxymoron, give a listen to the Sweet Bitters‘ full-length debut. The cd features the absolutely unique and individual voices and songwriting of Sharon Goldman and Nina Schmir (formerly one of the sirens in Aimee Van Dyne’s harmony-driven band). Goldman, who’s got three first-class albums of her own out, is one of those rare talents who could write a catchy, fun pop song seemingly in a split second. Like her songwriting, her vocals are almost breathtakingly warm and direct, delicately nuanced but completely unaffected. Schmir is more complex and oblique, both vocally and writing-wise, with just a tinge of smoke in the voice, blending a contemporary urban folk vibe (think Dar Williams) with oldschool Brill Building charm. Both are poignant, very bright and can be very funny – humor is a function of intellect anyway. Over a terse, impeccably tasteful, un-autotuned and drum machine-free mix of acoustic and electric guitar, rhythm section and Schmir’s incisive piano, the two blend voices and offer up an indelibly New York-flavored mix of struggle, despair and triumphant joy.
For the most part, Schmir’s songs are the darkest here. The cd’s opening cut Vegas is a knowing Harder They Come update for the end of the decade: “It’s all going nowhere fast.” From the opening lines of Last Time This Way, as the narrator grabs a cookie and some wine and runs out to meet her boyfriend, you just know that this is not going to work out well. Tom Thumb (on Brighton Beach), a quintessentially urban tale, is visceral with regret and longing. But then there’s the playfully metaphorical Little Aliens, driving out the demons with a lullaby.
Goldman’s Secret Scar is a great, crescendoing rock anthem disguised as pretty acoustic pop – one can only wonder what the BoDeans (or Ninth House, for that matter) could do with it. Falling Into Place is another catchy urban tale, perhaps the only song ever to immortalize Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. “If I believed in god I would close my eyes and pray,” she sings in the imagistic, regret-laden acoustic Firefly. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek, upbeat Susie Sunshine, with its delicious layers of harmonies and lyrics, is less gloating schadenfreude than surprise that maybe things haven’t been so bad after all, in the years since Susie was in her prime (that was in college, Goldman wants you to know). But the centerpiece of the album, and one of the best songs released this decade, is Clocks Fall Back. If anyone is alive fifty years from now and wants to understand what New York was like at the end of the decade, let them listen to this, a towering, majestic harmony-driven anthem, vividly and unforgettably juxtaposing images of clueless excess and grinding poverty over a bittersweet, swaying 6/8 melody slightly evocative of Simon & Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade of Winter. The cd closes, something akin to sweet after bitter, with a love song: the guy can watch all the bad action movies he wants, but the girl’s not going to let him finish that pint of ice cream without giving her a bite!
The Sweet Bitters play the cd release for this one at Kenny’s Castaways on May 30 at 7.
Saturday night’s show at Pete’s Candy Store was a quintessential New York experience, two solid hours of urbane, cosmopolitan tunesmithing. The Sweet Bitters opened, Sharon Goldman and Nina Schmir taking turns playing guitar and singing lead, Schmir doubling effortlessly on piano, each singing harmony on the other’s songs. Goldman’s been a star in the under-the-radar New York songwriter community for awhile now, but Schmir was the real surprise tonight. Two years ago, the former backup singer from Aimee Van Dyne’s band was out of music completely; tonight, she held the crowd in the palm of her hand. Combining these two talents was something of a stroke of genius: both have a way with catchy hooks and eloquently witty lyrics which are often downright hilarious.
They opened with a Goldman song, Clocks Fall Back, the gorgeous opening track on the new Sweet Bitters ep with its rich harmonies and evocative rush-hour lyric. Schmir followed with the subtly satirical Rich Little Poor Girl, its sarcasm ever more apt as the New York that she and Goldman represent slides further into suburban torpor.
“I was an 80s girl before I turned into a folkie,” Goldman laughed as she launched into a stripped-down cover of In Between Days by the Cure. What a revelation that was: like Melomane frontman Pierre de Gaillande’s version of Overkill by Men at Work, or Ward White’s cover of Abba’s Dancing Queen, Goldman reached down deep into the song and pulled out a wellspring of emotion that she sent flying over Schmir’s pointillistic piano work. In their hands, what could have been schlock was anything but. The rest of the show was all originals, reaffirming the two womens’ singular sense of purpose: to cram as many catchy hooks into the set as time would permit.
“Now we’re going to play a Roches song that’s not by the Roches,” Goldman deadpanned at the end of the show, and the two women ran through a spot-on parody, a chipper, cheery summer camp singalong about little aliens taking over the world. Sleepy little aliens, as it turns out. It wouldn’t be fair to give away the rest of the joke.
Alice Lee was next on the bill, one of the best songwriters in New York before she was priced out of town like so many others. Soul music is her reference point – her 2004 album Lovers and Losers is one of the best in that style to be released in the last several years – but she’s always had a fondness for Brazilian sounds. She’s been living in Guatemala recently, and going deep into all kinds of tropicalia. Despite some technical difficulties (for some reason, it was impossible to get her acoustic guitar in the sound mix), she kept the crowd riveted throughout her hourlong set. Like the duo on the bill before her, Lee also has a devilish sense of humor, but her songwriting is stormy, passionate, frequently exasperated. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Using a variety of guitar tunings and singing in four languages, she played a mix of mostly new material along with covers from Brazil and elsewhere south of the border. The best songs on the bill were an audience request, the absolutely brilliant, Nina Simone-inflected Where Are You My Love, and a slow, pensive new one in 6/8 time. Yet another reminder that we shouldn’t take people like Alice Lee for granted: if you haven’t seen your favorite singer or band in awhile, maybe you should while you still can.
The astonishingly good, catchy, wickedly smart debut from the Sweet Bitters, two of New York’s most unique songwriting talents. When she’s at the top of her game, Sharon Goldman is one of the world’s foremost pop tunesmiths, alongside Aimee Mann and Elvis Costello. Her full-length debut (released under her former name Sharon Edry) is one of the best artsy pop albums ever made, a feast of luscious guitar and keyboard textures. Nina Schmir first made a mark in the New York scene as one of the superb harmony singers in Aimee Van Dyne’s band. Since that group broke up, she’s been plying her solo work, acoustic songs imbued equally with devious wit and haunting intensity. She’s also a tremendously good singer (as one would imagine from someone who worked closely with Van Dyne), with a velvety high soprano rich with subtlety and emotion. Goldman is just as subtle, with a slightly lower register and a casual, completely unaffected, almost conversational style. The duo’s layers of harmonies on this album are often wrenchingly beautiful. Each songwriter contributes two songs to this effort.
The first, Clocks Fall Back is a total 60s throwback, an instant classic with its lush bed of chiming acoustic guitars and soaring harmonies, an unforgettable melody that lingers like Hazy Shade of Winter or California Dreaming. Goldman’s evocative lyrics paint a vivid yet characteristically nuanced, somewhat melancholy picture of twilight New York, 2008.
Falling Into Place, another Sharon Goldman number is perhaps the Sweet Bitters’ Perfect Day, the song’s narrator breezing along Seventh Avenue (in Brooklyn, naturally) hoping to see her main squeeze: “Only gravity keeps me from flying,” she smiles. It’s another indelible New York (or make that Brooklyn!) moment.
Nina Schmir’s Last Time This Way bounces along on a classic piano pop melody, with tasteful strings in places. ““Don’t say silly things that make your ears ring,” she cautions. The album’s final track is the somewhat jazz-inflected, pensive, intriguingly titled Monterey SPBG. The Monterey in the song is actually a town in the Berkshires (although it’s not named here); SPBG stands for Suckling Pigs and Baby Goats, which was a silly working title Schmir came up with in characteristic fashion while playing the song for a friend in a park in Chinatown. A truck passed by, the phrase emblazoned on its side, and suddenly the tune had a name. For a little while, at least.
The album is available online and at shows. The Sweet Bitters play Saturday, March 22 at 9 PM at the Perch Café, 365 Fifth Avenue in Park Slope.
Sharon Goldman’s second full-length effort is a triumph of catchy melody, witty lyricism and subtle humor. It will shatter any preconceptions you might have about singer-songwriters being a bunch of self-absorbed whiners who can barely sing or play guitar yet think the whole world wants to hear about every minuscule facet of their miserable, lovelorn lives.
Goldman grew into a songwriter the right way. Joined a competitive bunch of other writers who pushed each other to new heights. When it was time to record, she didn’t hire a bunch of studio hacks: by then, she’d connected with a close-knit group of talented musicians who play for the sheer joy of it, who know that ultimately, the song dictates what needs to be done. All you have to do is listen. Goldman is really more of a rock/pop type than a folkie, a master at blending major and minor chords, dynamics and writing catchy hooks that linger in your mind for days.
She’s also an uncommonly good singer. There are legions of songbirds with nice voices out there, but Goldman’s strength is that she knows how to use hers. Honest, unaffected, completely unafraid, and fun in an effortless, conversational way. Ultimately, the reason why Goldman’s albums sound as good as they do is that she’s a purist. She doesn’t go for cheesy synthesizers, dated trip-hop production or sing in that awful, affected white “r&b”-inflected style that Sarah McLachlan made so popular and her legions of followers sadly adopted. Instead, on this album you get that great voice, tasteful layers of acoustic guitars, strings and occasional percussion, tastefully arranged and produced.
The album opens with The Subway Song, a hilarious, picture-perfect tale of the train ride from hell:
“There was this smelly guy standing next to me
He wore dirty jeans and a t-shirt saying ‘This way to Williamsburg’
….the train was creeping the whole way
How could this happen when you were waiting for me?”
Thinking that she’s boarded a N train to Brooklyn, she discovers that she’s on the way to Astoria. So she transfers to the G train. Oh, shit! There you have it: an indelible New York moment. This is one of those songs that was waiting to be written for decades (I guess the New York Dolls did it, but not nearly this well). Believe it or not, it has a happy ending.
Other tracks include the surreal, amusing Bad Day and the country-blues tinged title track:
“Do you double dare me to open up my eyes
And look at where we’re going instead of asking why?”
The high point of the album is Suburban Sunshine, Goldman’s greatest shining moment so far, a snide dismissal of outer-borough conformity. A genuine classic: this smoldering, minor-key broadside ranks with Pretty for the Parlor by LJ Murphy and Amy Allison’s version of the Smiths’ Every Day Is Sunday in the pantheon of exquisite musical autopsies of a horrid time and place. It’ll resonate vividly with anyone who spent far too many years with bated breath, waiting for their first chance to get out for good. Because as Goldman so accurately puts it, suburban sunshine “feels heavier than rain.” And if she stays where she is, she knows that she’ll eventually disappear.
Fans of Aimee Mann, Erica Smith and Mary Lee’s Corvette will find plenty to feast on here. Fine album. Four bagels. Fresh from the oven at Essa Bagel with melted butter…mmmm…..delicious. Cd’s are available online and at shows. .