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.
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. 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.
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.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #569:
Lenny Molotov – Illuminated Blues
A virtuoso guitarist equally adept at delta blues, vintage Appalachian folk, early jazz and rock, Lenny Molotov is also an acerbic, brutally perceptive songwriter and lyricist. This is his latest album, from 2010, an eclectic mix of all of those styles: if the Dead Kennedys had tried their hand at oldtimey music, it might have sounded something like this. Here he’s backed by a rustic, inspired string band including bass, drums, fiddle and blues harp. The early Dylanesque Wilderness Bound chronicles a symbolically-charged journey its narrator never wanted to make; Book of Splendor and the eerily hypnotic Ill Moon hark back to the delta, while Glorious evokes Woody Guthrie. The classic here is Freedom Tower, dating from the early days of the Bush regime, a witheringly sarcastic sendup of fascist architectural iconography (he says it much more simply and poetically than that). David Reddin’s Blues follows a similar tangent, a sardonic modern-day outlaw ballad, its killer on the run caught in an Orwellian snare. There’s also the swinging Faded Label Blues, a wryly bitter Jelly Roll Morton homage; the quietly defiant Devil’s Empire, and the bucolic waltz New Every Morning, which leaves no doubt where Molotov stands: “There’s just two kinds of music under the law/The real live blues, and zip-a-dee-doo-dah.” This one’s real hard to find, but still available at shows – or check the blues bin at your local used record store, if you have one.
Our exhaustive July-August NYC live music calendar is finally, finally 99% complete…at least as complete as it ever gets, considering that we update it every day. More new stuff coming soon! Also, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #571:
Penelope Houston – Pale Green Girl
Best known as the leader of late 70s punk rockers the Avengers – who were sort of the American Sex Pistols – Penelope Houston subsequently forged out a brilliant career as a much quieter, mostly acoustic tunesmith. She’s literally never made a bad album. Among the many cult classics in her catalog, this 2004 release gets the nod, if only for its consistency all the way through. Aside from the Avengers, it’s her hardest-rocking effort to date, with a late 60s psychedelic pop vibe fueled by gorgeous twelve-string guitar. As you would expect, it’s eclectic, ranging from the hopeful, jangly Take My Hand, to the sad, ghostly Aviatrix, the disarmingly poppy, metaphorically-charged Flight 609, and the quietly savage outsider anthem that serves as the title track. Bottom Line veers from dark reggae to jangly Byrdsiness; Privilege & Gold, Walnut and Snow are bitterly vivid, lyrical Britfolk-inflected laments; the album ends with Soul Redeemer, the searing account of a rape survivor, and a lushly beautiful cover of John Cale’s Buffalo Ballet. This one hasn’t made it to the sharelockers, surprisingly, but the whole thing is streaming at myspace (don’t forget to reload the page after each song or else you’ll be assaulted by a loud audio ad) and it’s still available from Houston’s site.
Today is Day Two of the Montreal Jazz Festival and the core crew here is taking it in: details soon. In the meantime, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #583:
Marty Willson-Piper – Nightjar
The preeminent twelve-string guitarist of our time, Marty Willson-Piper is also a powerful and eclectic lyrical rock songwriter, much like Steve Kilbey, his bandmate in legendary Australian art-rockers the Church. This 2009 masterpiece is every bit as good as any of his albums with that band. Willson-Piper proves as adept at period-perfect mid-60s Bakersfield country (the wistful A Game for Losers and the stern The Love You Never Had) as he is at towering, intense, swirlingly orchestrated anthems like No One There. The album’s centerpiece, The Sniper, is one of the latter, a bitter contemplation of whether murder is ever justifiable (in this case, there’s a tyrant in the crosshairs). There’s also the early 70s style Britfolk of Lullaby for the Lonely; the casually and savagely hilarious eco-anthem More Is Less; the even more brutally funny Feed Your Mind; the blistering, sardonic rocker High Down Below;and the vividly elegaic Song for Victor Jara. Here’s a random torrent; the cd is still available from Second Motion.
Saturday night at the Bell House, James McMurtry kept switching guitars and then retuning them. More often than not, he didn’t bother to hit his pedal to find the right pitch: he didn’t have to. Although he played a lot of songs on acoustic guitar, this was the rock set. It was just as much about the tunes as the endless torrents of lyrics chronicling the disenfranchised Americans hanging over the line between blue-collar poverty and complete destitution. Forget for a minute how vivid his narratives are, or how memorably he’s captured the silent majority’s endless struggle to claw their way out of the poverty trap: he’s also a mighty interesting guitarist. After several rapidfire verses of Choctaw Bingo, a characteristic, offhandedly savage chronicle of the Oklahoma crystal meth economy, McMurtry and his band left behind the bluesy, Come Together-ish shuffle and let the tune explode in a blast of raw guitar fury straight out of R.L. Burnside. Childish Things swung with a snarling, sour mash-fueled groove, part Stones, part Steve Earle. Too Long in the Wasteland took on a careening desperation. And his best-known song, We Can’t Make It Here, stomped with a hypnotic desert-rock vibe complete with a flange guitar solo before the last chorus. “We were gonna drop this from the set list, but it’s still relevant – which sucks for everybody but us,” McMurtry dryly told the crowd. He was being sarcastic of course: in better times a songwriter of his caliber could fill Madison Square Garden. He’s played the song a million times, yet he doesn’t seem to be sick of it, maybe because the most potent chronicle of the economic devastation left behind by the Bush regime resonates as powerfully today as did five years ago. McMurtry drew a line in the sand and dared any Bush-apologist CEO to cross it:
Some have maxed out all their credit cards
Some are working two jobs and living in cars
Minimum wage won’t pay for a roof
It won’t pay for a drink and you gotta have proof…
Take a part time job at one of your stores
Bet you can’t make it here anymore
The stories, obviously, are what the crowd came out for, and McMurtry gave them plenty. His characters will squeeze a discarded soft pack in the case that the person who tossed it away might not have noticed that there was still a smoke or two inside. They regret the choices they’ve made, the kids they shouldn’t have had, they drink too much and do too many drugs, they think about giving up completely but they never do. Ultimately, McMurtry and his endless parade of the debt-ridden and the angst-ridden are optimists, if only because the idea of doing anything other than carrying on is impossible to imagine. Surprisingly, one of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the night was one of the most subtle, the disarmingly allusive Restless. Other songs went for the jugular: Levelland, with its cruel, almost caricaturish tableau of Midwestern anomie, satellite tv dishes and cover bands playing Smoke on the Water. Ruby and Carlos, done solo acoustic, kept the suspense going all the way through to the end, where the shellshocked veteran from the first gulf war lets the land line ring and misses the call from his long-lost, now-injured ex. And The Lights of Cheyenne glimmered distantly, capturing the casual, occasionally dramatic cruelty of life in small western highwayside towns, and the temptations to throw it all away in a futile shot at escape.
And it was good to kick off the night early with a show by another literate rocker whose narratives are just as vivid and intense. LJ Murphy’s songs chronicle the same parade of characters, albeit in a more urban milieu. At Banjo Jim’s, he and his band ran through a similarly bluesy set full of “cops on horseback, sleeping drunks and men who work three jobs” in a pre-condo era McCarren Park, pink-collar happy hour crowds too clueless to realize how exploited they are, CEOs getting a hard time from the dominatrixes they love so much, and imperfect strangers who never fail to drive away anyone who gets too close.