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.
Less than two weeks til our best 666 songs of alltime countdown reaches #1…and then we start with the 1000 best albums of alltime. Friday’s song is #13:
Phil Ochs – Another Age
“We were born in a revolution, and we died in a wasted war…if that was an election, I’m a Viet Cong,” Ochs rails in the hardest-rocking song he ever recorded. Bob Rafkin’s ferocious, melodic bassline is the centerpiece of the studio version on the death-obsessed Rehearsals for Retirement, 1969; the version on Live in Vancouver, released posthumously in the 90s, has a gentler janglerock feel.
Arguably his best album. As the title suggests, this is something of a calm after the storm for Fred Gillen Jr. Most musicians waited out the Bush regime uneasily; many, like Gillen, railed against the occupation, notably on his landmark 2008 collaboration with Matt Turk, Backs Against the Wall. Battered but optimistic, Gillen’s latest, Match Against a New Moon is his most memorably tuneful album. Ironically, the spot-on social commentary he’s best known for (this is a guy who appropriated Woody Guthrie’s “This guitar kills fascists” for his own six-string) is largely absent here. This cd goes more for a universal, philosophical outlook. At this point in his career, the songwriter Gillen most closely resembles is the Wallflowers‘ Jakob Dylan: he’s got a laserlike feel for a catchy janglerock hook, a killer chorus, a striking image and a clever double entendre.
The expansive, smartly assembled janglerock anthem that opens the album, Come and See Me, wouldn’t be out of place in the Marty Willson-Piper catalog. It sets the tone for the rest of the cd:
When all your relations are in prison or the grave
And you can’t remember what they took, only what you gave
And you are grateful that they’re gone ’cause they can’t hurt you anymore
Come and see me
With its big, anthemic chorus, The Devil’s Last Word takes the point of view of a guy whose favorite hangout spot is the train tracks: he likes living on the edge. The catchiest track here, a monster hit in an alternate universe where commercial radio plays good songs, is the Wallflowers-ish Don’t Give up the Ghost. It ponders a way out of the shadows of a difficult past, a quest for “some kind of answers or at least some questions finally worth asking.” An image-drenched carpe diem anthem for a troubled girl, Flicker gently points a way out: “We only get a moment to flicker in the night, a match against a new moon.”
The metaphorically-charged Americana rock shuffle Land of Hope could a Matt Keating song. Lay Me Down has the raw feel of a lo-fi acoustic demo that probably wasn’t meant to be on the album, but it made the cut because of the magic it captures, exhausted yet immutably optimistic. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah has been done to death by scores of inferior singers, but Gillen’s strikingly understated, conversational version is nothing short of souful. He follows it with a couple of dark rock narratives: the crescendoing junkie anthem Light of Nothing, which sounds like a sober mid-70s Lou Reed – if that makes any sense – and the vivid slum narrative Primitive Angels, which could be vintage, i.e. Darkness on the Edge of Town-era Springsteen. The album closes on an upbeat note with the hopeful You May Be Down. Gillen, who plays most of the instruments here, doesn’t waste a note, whether on guitars, bass, harmonica or even drums; Paul Silverman’s organ and Eric Puente’s drums contribute with similar terseness and intelligence, along with vocals from Catherine Miles and Laurie MacAllister, and Abbie Gardner contributing lapsteel and harmonies on Hallelujah. Gillen still plays frequent NYC area shows; watch this space.
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.
As a kid Matt Keating had a summer job working the counter at a 7-11 (next time you dis the 7-11 clerk, keep in mind the guy could someday be one of the great songwriters of his time – it’s happened at least once already). The title of Keating’s new album alludes to that teenage gig and also to a line from the album’s opening song, a ironic tale of missed connections with a trick ending that more than hints at revenge or schadenfreude but turns out simply sad. It sets the tone for the rest of the album, a lot closer to the stark, mostly acoustic Americana flavor of his 2006 Summer Tonight cd rather than the electric clang of 2008’s Quixotic (simply one of the greatest janglerock records ever made.) Sparse electric and upright bass by Jason Mercer and minimal drums by Mark Brotter drums underpin Keating’s judicious layers of acoustic and occasional electric guitar and keyboards. As usual, his lyrics are terse, crystallized and loaded with double meanings that run the usual gamut from bitterness to melancholy to unhinged anger, along with a couple of surprisingly upbeat, even wise numbers.
Cut number two on the cd, Daddy’s on the Roof, looks at family dysfunction from a kid’s snidely matter-of-fact point of view, tensely shuffling verse giving way to sarcastically blithe chorus – when everyone around you is crazy, sanity can be a liberating force. The catchy, swinging anthem Louisiana posits the personal as the political, a hauntingly allusive tale of love gone wrong at the end of a Gulf Coast road trip at the worst conceivable time. A vividly wistful Claudia Chopek string arrangement provides the atmosphere for the uneasy lullaby Go Down, a feeling amplified in the Cheeveresque anomie ballad Tree Lined Streets.
A metaphorically charged country-flavored tune, The Writer Next Door reminds how much you have to be careful living in these little New York apartments – you never know who might immortalize the things you regret saying most! Remember When, stately and gospel-tinged, takes where Lennon went with Imagine and makes it personal:
Listen without ears
See without our fear
Look without our years
Remember when we went
Carolann Solebello is one of the three women in well-loved Americana-folk band Red Molly. One of the reasons for Red Molly’s popularity may be the way they skirt cliches – their unselfconscious, refreshingly down-to-earth sensibility is all too seldom seen in the ostensibly “poetic” world of folk music and singer-songwriters. As with her main band, Solebello relies on comfortable, familiar chords and changes on this cd (her first solo effort in nine years), but with a potent, metaphorically loaded lyrical style and that soaring voice that frequently evokes another extraordinary Americana singer, Mary Lee Kortes of Mary Lee’s Corvette. The production is rustic and oldschool, a tastily melodic mesh of acoustic and electric guitar textures.
All That I’ve Done Right is a perfect example of how Solebello works. It’s a straight-up country song, a mother addressing her daughter. But it’s not mawkish or sentimental, in fact in its own characteristically understated way it’s kind of harrowing, a “faded chorus girl” looking for a grain of hope in her kid and coming up with it – sort of. Likewise, Michigan, a nimbly fingerpicked tale of a would-be New York expatriate who’s “sick of living underground, sick of being tightly wound.” It has a trick ending, one that’s as sadly universal as it is funny. Another first-class track here is Behind the Door, images tumbling in a vivid evocation of how to walk away from the past – or is it possible to do that at all, Solebello ponders?
The rest of the album mixes shades of light and dark. The opening track, Home, is a memorably uneasy traveling song:
Said goodnight to my soul
Jesus went in that great big hole
Throwing rocks but still I roll
Shibboleth is a teeth-gnashing anthem, Steve Kirkman’s reverb-drenched lapsteel sheets matching Solebello’s angst note for note. The pensive Dance with Me features producer Fred Gillen Jr. sitting in on mandolin. And on Michael, an old lover tries to reconnect with her – while she may be “clinging to an oar in a sea of memories” she wisely decides against it as Kirkman’s deliciously evocative electric guitar ending seals the deal. The album winds up with the Gillian Welch-inflected Ties That Bind and a subdued ballad, Long Time Gone. The whole album is as smart as it is accessible – just like Solebello’s other project. And it’s a clinic in how to write a good folk-pop song: other songwriters should get their hands on this to see how it’s done.
The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Wednesday’s song is #155:
Richard Thompson – Mascara Tears
Big vicious rock anthem from the iconic British guitar god’s 1992 Mirror Blue cd, one of his best:
Mascara tears, bitter and black
Spent bullet through a hole in my back
Salt for the memories, black for the years
Black as forever, mascara tears
The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Sunday’s song is #158:
Richard Buckner – Lil Wallet Picture
She backs up the U-Haul and within minutes he’s gone out on Route 95:
That takes so many lives
One of them was mine
Hand me that little wallet picture from 1985
One more time
The indie songwriter’s best song, from the Devotion and Doubt album, 1997.
This could have been a savagely cynical alternative to the glut of lame Valentine’s shows – but that would have been easy, and predictable. Along with all the wit and the double entendres, there’s a bitterness in Matt Keating’s songwriting that often boils over into rage, sometimes repentant but sometimes not. Yet his Sunday evening show at the Rockwood wasn’t about that. Counterintuitively, backed by his wife Emily Spray on harmony vocals and the equally estimable Jon Graboff on pedal steel, Keating offered hope against hope. It made a good counterpart to the Chelsea Symphony’s alternative Valentine’s Day concert earlier in the day several blocks west.
The trio opened with the gorgeously sardonic anthem Candy Valentine, a big audience request that he doesn’t often play – it’s sort of his Saint Stephen (Grateful Dead fans will get the reference). Switching to piano, Keating evocatively painted an unromantic Jersey tableau in tribute to the late Danny Federici, the vastly underrated original organist in Springsteen’s E Street Band. Back on guitar, Keating threw out another pensive tableau, then picked up the pace with the decidedly unrepentant,upbeat country song Wrong Way Home. The high point of the night, and one of the few moments that actually wasn’t a surprise, was Lonely Blue. It built slowly, ambient Graboff versus incisive Keating guitar, Spray channeling Lucinda Williams but with twice the range and none of the alcohol – she was that good. The song’s unhinged alienation rose as the instruments built tensely to a sledgehammer crescendo that transcended the presence of just the two instruments and voices onstage – Keating is known for fiery, intense performances and this was characteristic. They brought it down after that, closing with the warily optimistic Louisiana, a standout track from Keating’s 2008 Quixotic album, as well as 2007’s Summer Tonight, pedal steel enhancing the song’s bucolic sway. Keating’s characters seldom get what they want – this time they got a little and the audience, silent and intent between songs, got a lot.