It’s easy to be cynical about Jana Herzen’s new album Passion of a Lonely Heart. For one, the idea of a label head (she runs Motema) putting out a record brings to mind things like Leonard Chess’ adventures behind the drum kit during a Muddy Waters session. And while at first glance it might seem that this is an attempt to cash in on the ever-increasing popularity of torchy oldtimey swing and Americana, Herzen is doing it in an original and richly captivating way. Hearing this album is like discovering Karrin Allyson for the first time: it’s eye-opening. Herzen’s songs ought to resonate with an audience as wide as Allyson’s, maybe Norah Jones’ – their sophistication will satisfy the most hardheaded folks in the jazz camp, yet her tunes are accessible enough to catch on with the pop crowd.
Lilke Allyson, Herzen’s songwriting is strong, as is her instrumental work (guitar is her axe). Her nuanced mezzo-soprano makes a perfect vehicle for a mix of jaunty, often deviously witty originals along with some choice covers. Her choice of instrumentation – just acoustic guitar and bass – pays off handsomely. While she cites the 1976 Ella Fitzgerald/Joe Pass collaboration Fitzgerald and Pass…Again as her main influence, the ambience here reaches back further than that to the classic Sarah Vaughan collaborations with guitarist Barney Kessel and bassist Joe Comfort, notably 1962’s Sarah +2.
Herzen doesn’t sound anything like Vaughan, though. Her gossamer, sometimes airy delivery is disarmingly down-to-earth and unadorned. Her inflections reflect the lyrics to the nth degree: she chooses her spots to swoop down to a seductive purr, sail with an unselfconscious joy and explore the territory in between. Bassist Charnett Moffett’s approach is methodically agile, adding warmly nocturnal colors without cluttering the spare arrangements.
The album opens with a coyly nuanced, understatedly sultry take of Henry Nemo’s ‘Tis Autumn, just bass and vocals. It’s a showcase for the kind of contrasts that Herzen can deliver, cutting loose with a carefree “beeline to the sound” and then with a simmering sensuality when she hits the point where “it’s just to help that old mercury climb.” An elegant oldtime swing tune, Bali Holiday evokes a Pacific island of the mind circa 1937, Moffett capping it off with a twinkling solo way up the fingerboard.
A poignantly intertwined guitar/bass intro kicks off the title track and then shifts to slow, pillowy swing, Herzen hitting a gently powerful crescendo as reverie shifts to sobering reality with a knowing bittersweetness. The duo follow that with an absolutely brilliant reinvention of Chick Corea’s Spain (I Remember), swinging from haunting, gothic-tinged angst to a flamencoesque romp, a style the duo revisit later with more sensuality on the bolero-inflected My Latin Love. Then on Earth’s Heart Beats, Herzen reaches back for a vintage soul vibe over syncopated What’s Going On guitar, Moffett playing a period-perfect tiptoe funk line undeneath.
Night Blooming Jasmine is a gracefully sad, dynamically charged ballad with distant Cape Verdean tinges, a style Herzen embraces with a moody cover of Cesaria Evora’s Sodade. Secrets are Safe With Me builds a gorgeously brooding noir cabaret atmosphere with elegantly precise, bluesy guitar. There’s also a summery take of Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares For Me, and Here With You, which blends carefree Afrobeat and Mexican folk sounds. Herzen covers an awful lot of ground here to create one of the most enjoyable and eclectic vocal albums in any style of music in recent months.
Robin O’Brien is best known is one of this era’s most electrifying singers, someone whose finessse matches her fiery, soulful wail. As compelling and original a singer as she is, she’s also an eclectic songwriter, as much at home in 60s-style psychedelic pop as hypnotic 90s trip-hop, British folk or garage rock. Over the last couple of years, insurgent Chicago label Luxotone Records has issued two intense, riveting albums of her songs, Eye and Storm and The Apple in Man, label head George Reisch mixing her voice and serving as a one-man orchestra in the same vein as Jon Brion’s work with Aimee Mann. Her latest release, The Empty Bowl – “a song cycle about romantic hunger” – is her first collection of brand-new material in over a decade, and it was worth the wait. She’s never sung better: ironically, on this album, she reaches up the scale less frequently for the spine-tingling crescendos she’s best known for, instead using the subtleties of her lower register throughout a characteristically diverse collection of songs. Reisch’s orchestrations are gorgeous – typically beginning with a wary, stately riff and simple rhythm and build to a lush, rich blend of organic, analog-style textures.
Some of these songs rock surprisingly hard. The most bone-chilling, poweful one is There’s Somebody Else in My Soul, a psychedelic folk-rock song that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Judy Henske’s late 60s albums. Like Henske, O’Brien cuts loose with an unearthly wail in this eerie, minor-key tale of emotional displacement, driven by eerie, reverberating electric harpsichord. Likewise, on the hypnotically insistent, aptly titled Suffering, O’Brien veers back and forth between an evocation of raw madness and treasured seconds of clarity. And Sad Songs, a slowly uncoiling anthem packed with regret and longing, evokes Amy Rigby at her loudest and most intense.
The most suspensefully captivating song here is Lavendar Sky. Reisch opens it with a ringing, funereal riff that brings to mind Joy Division’s The Eternal. An anguished account of hope against hope, it builds with richly interwoven guitars, jangling, clanging, ringing low and ominous and then takes a completely unexpected detour in a practically hip-hop direction. Other songs here build from stately, melancholy Britfolk themes, notably Gold, a haunting, metaphorically loaded traveler’s tale similar to Penelope Houston’s efforts in that vein. There’s also Stranger, which rises from a tense simplicity to a swirl of darkly nebulous, otherworldly vocal harmonies; The Weave, a brooding, cello-driven tone poem; and the closing track, Foolsgold, another traveler’s tale, Reisch’s piano plaintive against the strings ascending beneath O’Brien’s apprehensive river of loaded imagery.
Kathy starts out funky and builds to a menacing garage rock shuffle: it could be a song about revenge, or maybe about revenge on an unreliable alter ego. The rest of the material isn’t anywhere near as bleak: the opening track, Deep Blue, sways with a Joni Mitchell-esque soul vibe, some marvelously nuanced vocals and a tersely beautiful arrangement that slowly adds guitar and keyboard textures until the picture is complete. Anime builds gracefully from a circling folk guitar motif, with a dreamy ambience; and Water Street, a hopeful California coast tableau, sets O’Brien’s Laura Nyro-style inflections against sweeping, richly intricate orchestration. It’s nice to see O’Brien at the absolute peak of her powers both as a songwriter and a song stylist, fifteen years after the big record labels’ flirtation with her.
As we do pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album was #472:
Jenifer Jackson – Slowly Bright
This 1999 release was Jackson’s quantum leap: it established her as one of the world’s most astonishingly diverse, intelligent songwriters. Her vocals here are memorably hushed and gentle: since then, she’s diversified as a singer as well. The songwriting blends Beatlesque psychedelia with bossa nova, with the occasional hint of trip-hop or ambient music. Every track here is solid; the real stunner that resonates after all these years is When You Looked At Me, with its understated Ticket to Ride beat, swirling atmospherics and crescendoing chorus where Jackson goes way, way up to the top of her range. The title track, Anything Can Happen and the vividly imagistic Yesterday My Heart Was Free have a psychedelic tropicalia feel; Whole Wide World, Burned Down Summer and I’ll Be Back Soon are gorgeous janglerock hits; So Hard to Believe balances tenderness against dread. The catchiest track here may be the unexpectedly optimistic, soul-infused Look Down; the album closes with the lush, hypnotic, blithely swaying Dream. And believe it or not, this classic is nowhere to be found in the blogosphere or the other usual sources for music, although it’s still available from cdbaby. Her forthcoming one, The Day Happiness Found Me is every bit as good, maybe better; it comes out in December.
Pretty much every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #499:
Erika Simonian – All the Plastic Animals
A cult classic from 2004. Simonian’s wryly literate lyrics range from sardonic to casually savage, set to precisely fingerpicked, austere melodies sung in a minutely nuanced voice that can be deadpan hilarious…or absolutely brutal. An air of disillusion and betrayal creeps in with the opening vignette, sarcastically titled Food From the Cow, followed by the even more sarcastic Pretty Good Wife; the cabaret-inflected Self Made Drama Machine, a kiss-off to a selfish bitch; and Mr. Wrong, an amusing pickup scenario predictably on its way to going awry. The most unforgettable song here is Bitter and Brittle, a vivid portrait of the edge of madness; the blackly humorous Eternal Spinsterhood is awfully good too. Surprisingly, this one is AWOL from the usual sources of free music, but it’s still available from cdbaby, where there are also clips from each song. Simonian continues as a member of lyrical indie rockers Little Silver and the entertaining, punkish Sprinkle Genies.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #532:
Linda Draper – Bridge & Tunnel
Quietly and methodically, New York tunesmith Linda Draper has established herself as an elite lyrical songwriter. This 2009 release is the best and slightly most rock-oriented of her six consistently excellent, melodic albums. In a cool, nuanced voice, backed by her own nimbly fingerpicked acoustic guitar and a terse rhythm section, she stakes out characteristically sardonic, richly literate territory from a defiant outsider’s point of view. With its chilly organ background, the title track (Manhattanite slang for “suburban moron”) packs a quiet bite; the nonconformist anthems Sharks and Royalty and Broken Eggshell reflect a similar gentle confidence. Pushing up the Days is a snarky, pun-infused kiss-off, while Time Will Tell reverts to the psychedelic stream-of-consciousness vibe of her earlier work. The charmingly rustic Last One Standing hints that there could be a third choice besides leading or following; there’s also a casual, fun cover of the Stones’ Mother’s Little Helper. Here’s a random torrent via The Terminal; cd’s are still available via Draper’s site, with a highly anticipated new one due out sometime around the end of 2011.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album was #536:
Ward White – Pulling Out
One of the world’s most literate rock songwriters, Ward White’s sardonic, sometimes scathing lyrics use devices usually found only in latin poetry or great novels – but he makes it seem effortless, maybe because he’s got a great sense of humor. He’s also a great tunesmith, and a first-class lead guitarist. Choosing from among his half-dozen albums is a crapshoot, since they’re all excellent. This one, from 2008, has a purist janglerock vibe, with keyboardist Joe McGinty turning in his finest, most deviously textural work since his days with the Psychedelic Furs. It opens with the bitter Beautiful Reward; Getting Along Is Easy cruelly chronicles a high-profile breakup; Let It All Go hilariously examines family dysfunction in Connecticut WASP-land. Miserable contrasts the catchiest tune here with the album’s most morose, doomed lyric. And The Ballad of Rawles Balls (White was once their bass player) immortalizes the legendary, satirical New York cover band from hell. There’s also bleak, jaundiced chamber-pop and a Big Star homage of sorts. Too obscure to make it to the share sites, it’s still streaming at White’s own site, where copies are also available. And his latest, 2011 release, Done with the Talking Cure, is just about as good as this one.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #538:
Bobby Vacant and the Weary – Tear Back the Night
We picked this as one of the best albums of 2009. It’s as much a masterpiece of simple, potently imagistic wordsmithing as it is musically, multi-instrumentalist George Reisch a.k.a. The Weary giving these haunted, alienated songs the gravitas they deserve with some stunningly eclectic arrangements. Stand in Time gets an elegaic, vintage Moody Blues chamber pop treatment, while the surprisingly witty Waveflowers paints a portrait of slipping away in the night against a vividly nocturnal mid-period Pink Floyd style backdrop. Bobby Vacant opens the album by cautioning everybody to stay away; by the end, he’s willing to open the door a crack. In between, he chronicles acid casualties, sold-out ex-idealists and the down-and-out on the Arthur Lee-esque Clark Street and the snide country-rock romp Dylan’s Dead. The death obsession goes front and center on the dirge Some Walk; the most powerful songs here are the title track, a creepy post-party scenario, and Never Looking Back, a bitter, morbid escape anthem set to a triumphant janglerock tune that will resonate with anyone who ever felt surrounded and threatened by people who just don’t get it. Too obscure to make it to the sharelockers, it’s still available from the excellent Chicago label Luxotone, where you can hear the whole thing. Bobby Vacant continues as a solo artist while running another excellent upstart label, Switzerland’s Weak Records.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #551:
Greta Gertler & Peccadillo – Nervous Breakthroughs
Recorded mostly in the late 90s but not available outside Australia until 2004, this is a lush, sweeping classic of chamber pop and art-rock. With her sometimes stratospheric high soprano voice, sizzling keyboard chops and playful, unpredictable songwriting, Gertler comes across as something of a down-to-earth Kate Bush (hard to imagine, but try anyway). With a rock band and string section behind her, she veers from the Supertramp-style pop of Happy Again and the vividly anxious Highest Story to more austere, windswept pieces like Away and the quirky I’m Not a Lizard, and even a blazing Russian folk dance, The Hot Bulgar. The bitterly triumphant, intensely crescendoing Moving Backwards is the real killer cut here, although all the tracks are strong. With its killer chorus, Julian should have been the big radio hit; there’s also a boisterous Aussie football song, and the bouncy, Split Enz-ish Charlie #3. Mysteriously absent from the blogosphere and the sharelockers, it’s still available at cdbaby. Gertler has since taken her game up yet another notch as leader of the symphonic rock crew the Universal Thump, whose current album in progress is every bit as good as this one. You may even see it on this list someday.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #553:
Dan Bryk – Pop Psychology
A caustic, wickedly tuneful concept album about musicians’ struggles to reach an audience in the last dying days of the major label era, 2009. Treat of the Week scathingly chronicles a wannabe corporate pop star’s pathetic fifteen minutes of fame; the deadpan 60s Britpop bounce of Discount Store masks its sting as an anthem for the current depression. The Next Best Thing, with its slow-burning crescendo, looks at people who’re content to settle: the funniest song here, Apologia is a faux power ballad ballad, a label exec’s disingenuous kiss-off to a troublesome rocker who dared to fight the system. The classic here is City Of… a cruelly spot-on analysis of music fandom (and its Balkanized subcultures) in a Toronto of the mind; Street Team, a spot-on, Orwellian look at how marketers attempt to create those Balkanized audiences; My Alleged Career, an alienated distillation of how Bryk’s music was probably received in the corporate world. The rest of the cd includes a pretty ballad, a musical joke, and the ironically titled closing cut, Whatever, a bitter piano ballad: “Whatever doesn’t kill me can still make you cry,” Bryk insists. Mystifyingly, this one hasn’t made it to the sharelockers yet, but it’s streaming at Spotify and it’s still available at Bryk’s site, where you can also hear the whole thing.
You know that Jolie Holland has a new album, right? Like everything else she’s done, her new one, Pint of Blood, is worth owning – and it’s quite a break with her earlier stuff. A collaboration with legendary downtown New York rhythm section guru and Marc Ribot sideman Shahzad Ismaily, this is her most straightforward, rock-oriented effort. But the rock here is graceful and slow, with lingering, sun-smitten atmospherics that occasionally shift back to the oldtime Americana she’s explored since the late 90s. A lot of this reminds of vintage Lucinda Williams. In her nuanced Texas drawl, Holland evokes emotions from bitterness to anguish to – once in awhile – understated joy. As with her previous work, this is a pretty dark album.
The opening cut, All Those Girls is a characteristically gemlike dig at an equal-opportunity backstabber, lit up with an echoey, hypnotic electric guitar solo. Remember, with its resolute Ticket to Ride sway, longs for escape, working a bird motif for all it’s worth. The pace picks up with the casually swinging, oldtimey groove of Tender Mirror, its warmly gospel-infused piano and organ and Ismaily’s judicious, counterintuitive bass accents. And then Holland dims the lights again with Gold and Yellow: “The night is over before it started,” she intones.
The real stunner here is June, a warily swinging oldschool Nashville noir tune with creepy, swooping ghost-bird violin and a gorgeous melody that’s over all too soon at barely two and a half minutes. With its oldschool soul overtones masking the lyrics’ dark undercurrent, Wreckage, would make a standout track on a Neko Case album. Then Holland flips the script with the unexpectedly bouncy, blithe, Grateful Dead-flavored folk-pop of Littlest Birds, winding out with one of Ismaily’s signature bass grooves. The Devil’s Sake, a sad, ominous 6/8 country ballad with gorgeous layers of s of acoustic, electric and steel guitars as well as reverberating Rhodes electric piano brings to mind Dina Rudeen’s most recent work. The album closes with Honey Girl, a companion piece to the opening track, and Rex’s Blues, a stark piano tune that’s part dustbowl ballad, part Mazzy Star.
In a year that’s been full of self-reinvention for Holland, she’s also started an absolutely killer new project with another oldtime music maven, Mamie Minch, who currently call themselves Midnight Hours. Watch this space for upcoming NYC dates.