Thursday, February 3, 2011
It's been far too long since the last "No Hank, No Cash, No Merle," but this is good news. The previous shows were prompted by my nauseous response to NYC's endless tributes to Hank and Cash. In the last year, however, the trite smooch-fests and yee-haw birthday parties have died down. The pendulum has swung back towards original songwriting.
It may be counterintuitive, but the country scene thrives once it's relegated to the back pages of Time Out Magazine. Nowhere is this more apparent than at http://www.brooklyncountry.com/, where show listings and CD reviews are always forthcoming. Even a casual perusal of artists featured there makes it clear that roots bands are increasingly embracing pop sounds and more ambitious arrangements.
I think this exchange can go both ways, which is why I feel free to cast my eyes towards pop artists such as those featured at this Monday's show. Joe Ungie and Alasatir Ottesen are the furthest thing from honky-tonk, yet their tasteful, lush approach to indie rock has just enough rootsy sensibility to force the Bluegrass Police to lower their slingshots. For now.
Uttering the words "Baroque pop" in the wrong bar will earn you a mouth full of chicklets. Luckily, this is Brooklyn, not Florida's panhandle, and music fans come to shows with open, hungry ears. Clearly, Alastair Ottesen is in the right place.
Ottesen's web presence is mercilessly free of long bios. There are no eleven-paragraph press releases, laundry lists of studiedly cool influences, or cute stories about piano lessons at age 2. Not even an interview with an online zine where he mentions Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Rather, his sites showcase stark collections of songs, each one heavy with shimmering vocals, tasteful, piano-driven arrangements and soaring choruses.
On Ottesen's eponymous debut, the influences hover at the surface, but never cloyingly so. Although instantly recognizable, none of his references obscure the bright originality of the songwriting. Think Elliot Smith but not depressing; Beach Boys without the Brian Wilson worship; the Beattles without your parents singing in the car.
A new album is in the works at Vanity Sound in Brooklyn. If the more recent track "Used to Be Somebody" is any indication, there's plenty of sonic joy on the way. Because sometimes music feels so good, everyone has to clap along.
For tour dates and info: Website
"Used to Be Somebody"
Our band first came to know Joe Ongie as a soundman at Hill Country in Manhattan. At every show, he listened patiently to our requests, tweaked everyone's monitor mixes, and performed his duties effortlessly without any seething hostility. For years we wondered what his problem was.
It turned out that Joe was a visual artist, producer, and musician with four albums under his belt. When I say "visual artist," I don't mean that drama queen you knew in undergrad who was always sobbing in the dorm. I mean this, a serious body of work which includes colorful portraiture.
Ongie sings while playing bass, immediately distinguishing himself from throngs of dumped strummers. When he isn't backing the likes of Aimee Mann and Minnie Driver, he fronts his own project, which showcases breezy, melodic pop and hooks reminiscent of Elvis Costello.
Unlike guitar pickers, bass players are not allowed to make mistakes. One bum note sends shivers of dread straight to everyone's knees. Luckily, Ongie has an easy confidence that puts bandmates at ease and allows the blue-eyed soul of his compositions to shine through.
For tour dates and info: Website
Nick Beaudoing (The Doc Marshalls)
A non-pro bass fisherman and member of two state bars, this copyright law nerd leads the Doc Marshalls (remotely, from Tennessee). Their recently completed album, "Look Out, Compadre," is slated for release soon.
For tour dates,info, and blog: Website
"Why I'm Leaving" (rough mix)
Monday, October 26, 2009
What is it with indie rock? They get the best radio stations, the toniest blogs, South By Southwest, and adoring cherubic-faced fans from Generation Y. By contrast, Americana artists get rural NPR affiliates, obscure folk festivals, and bearded 30 year-olds in snap shirts with scoliosis. And don't get me started on the guys.
No matter. These days, with file sharing and low revenue digital sales becoming the norm, both genres are putting a brave face on career paths akin to Pickett's Charge. Until the smoke clears, all sides seem to be rallying around the banners of what they know: write songs, record, tour. Repeat.
It probably doesn't matter that indie rockers typically limit their flirtations with country music to the genre's Mount Rushmore-in-waiting. Hank, Cash, and Merle covers somehow don't sound as tired when delivered without the faux-twang and honky-tonk instrumentation. But covers aside, roots music and Americana arrangements seem to be finding their way into indie rock songs. Artists such as Jenny Lewis, A.A. Bondy, M Ward, and Neko Case have no trouble walking the line between both styles.
This month's "No Hank, No Cash No Merle" features the same humble host flanked by two NYC indie artists whose songwriting ventures well beyond casual dalliances with roots music, albeit to different degrees. Curly-haired chanteuse Alana Amram wouldn't shy away from the label "country rocker", while native-born Texan Hightower Smith would likely flinch at being tagged "Americana".
Maybe it's time to allow their music to speak for itself. Do we have time for one more poorly-constructed war metaphor? Bombs away!
ALANA AMRAM & THE ROUGH GEMS
Songwriters with "bass player" on their resume often develop a knack for placing hooks front and center. Maybe it's the straightforward nature of the job itself -- learn the chords, keep the beat -- that leaves bassists free to observe what works and what doesn't. Alana Amram has lent her bass chops to a number of projects, including NYC's straight-faced 80's-style rockers the Fame and, more recently, Lights.
Her latest solo project, Alana Amram & the Rough Gems, is largely a family affair, with mom, sister, and father (prominent jazz composer, David Amram) in tow. Rounded out by a cast of first rate local performers, the Rough Gems are a versatile vehicle for her most country-influenced effort to date. Amram's jangly acoustic guitar and reverb-kissed melodies recall the best elements of the Byrds-era California country rock.
But the good news doesn't stop there. Amram eschews worshiping at the altar of Gram & Emmylou in favor of tapping into subtler folk influences like Fred Neil and John Prine. In an age when the name "Gram Parsons" appears in 90% of all press kits, that's a breath of fresh air.
For tour dates and info: Myspace
Let's begin by stating the obvious. Hightower Smith may be a native Texan but he is no country picker or oh-my-darlin' balladeer. You won't find him yelping Ray Price covers at urban BBQ joints or yodeling "Bonnie Barbara Allen" to approving folk nerds in turtle necks at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago.
Not anymore, anyway. Smith did his share of country gigs and festivals with local honky-tonk outfit, the Doc Marshalls, years ago. He has long since left cowboy chords behind, releasing two solo albums, "Sisteen", and more recently, "What It Did." In between playing residencies throughout NYC and doing a few tours of duty on bass with the power pop band Say Hi, Smith has maintained a brisk writing pace, with an eye towards completing a third album.
Although standard country arrangements are mostly absent from Smith's work, he leads with his acoustic guitar -- not his voice -- reining in his more rock-oriented impulses with lush, droning chords and hypnotic melodies a la Elliot Smith and Jeff Buckley.
FIVE QUESTIONS WITH HIGHTOWER SMITH
You’re definitely not a country artist, but did growing up in Texas affect your songwriting in any way?
HS: I just wonder how I missed the good stuff. Johnny Cash was my grandfather's favorite, my mom danced in honky tonks all through her 20s, dad was a Texan most of his life, and still no country music cut with the MTV and rock mags that I was into. Bottom line: FM country in the 80s and 90s was not good around Dallas. I didn't catch onto the classics until long after leaving.
Are there any country, folk, or Americana songwriters whose work you admire?
HS: Of course, but it's the usuals (like...Hank, Merle, Cash).
Have genres like “ Americana ” and the unfortunately named “alt-country” painted themselves into a corner by latching onto clichéd themes like trains, booze, small town malaise etc? Is there anything country music writers can do to keep things fresh?
HS: Yeah, my ears go wood when I hear about trains, and states in the U.S., and whiskey, and yeah. Sometimes it's simple as talking about a different drug (Cocaine Blues is still my favorite Cash song). But Jeff Tweedy is the guy I think of first, far as someone who started off Americana and then skewed. Who can put a finger on it? The man reminded us that drug-taking sometimes comes with handshaking, and which kind of handshaking was he talking about again? More poetry, more inner life.
Indie rock artists like A.A. Bondy, Bon Iver, Neko Case, and M. Ward have released albums that slyly integrate roots instrumentation and Americana-flavored arrangements. Do you see these genres intersecting in any meaningful way? Am I an asshole for asking?
HS: I like Americana in the hands of rock musicians, because rock is more democratic with instruments and ideas. When there are more sounds and more metaphors rubbing against each other in a song, it gets weirder and richer.
These days, an indie artist is expected to record his own music, do his own promo, book shows and tour on his own dime, and give away mp3’s for free. Then what?
HS: The White Stripes sold the triple-inchophone, Julian Casablancas has already priced the box-set edition of his new record, Nine Inch Nails has been selling them for several albums' worth. If you're not profitable from touring, improve the art direction of your merchandise.
The big goal remains the same, with or without graphic-designed key chains: show us with your art what you're into as an artist.
For tour dates and info: Myspace
NICOLAS BEAUDOING (The Doc Marshalls)
Unapologetic bass angler and accordion-slinger Nick Beaudoing leads NYC's Cajun & honky-tonk troubadours, the Doc Marshalls. At the conclusion of their upcoming Southern tour in November, the band will retreat to the studio to begin work on album # 3 and prepare for their first European tour, in July, 2010.
"Kernow" (4-track demo, unreleased)
For tour dates and info: Myspace
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Are you aware that you may be the victim of abuse? Hopefully, you’re sitting down. This is a delicate issue.
Sociologists believe that up to 40% of music fans in NYC have been forced to listen to irritating covers of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash against their will. Unsuspecting targets are frequently lured to dark, sparsely-populated locations, only to find themselves trapped in a nightmare where thrift store urban cowboys force themselves upon them, usually in the key of G. Victims are inevitably ashamed – not only for having paid nearly $6 for a can of PBR – but often for having taken Brooklyn Vegan at its word. What was billed as a “Toe-tappin’, yee-haw, chicken-fried good time” was, in reality, a crime.
DID YOU KNOW?
• You may have been abused by someone you know and/or have been dating?
• Victims may feel they “deserved it” for wearing a western shirt with pearl snaps?
• That Johnny Cash partially plagiarized “Folsom Prison Blues”?
• That subjecting people to sing alongs of “I Saw the Light” is illegal?
Fortunately, there is a songwriter night entitled “No Hank, No Cash, No Merle”, where healing can take place and PBR is a mere $3. This month’s installment features three dedicated pickers with a unique perspective on where country music should be going.
What a difference a banjo makes. Troubadours are so commonly associated with the guitar that the mere sight of a songwriter plucking five strings is enough to raise eyebrows. Rest assured that Hilary Hawke's instrument of choice has nothing to do with novelty. A native of upstate New York, she's equally adept at driving her compositions with rollicking Earl Scruggs picking, tasteful Appalachian frailing, or a Pete Seeger-style strum. Instead of indulging in needlessly flashy displays of virtuosity, Hawke leads with her voice, allowing the high quality of her songwriting to shine through.
None of this is news to anyone who has listened to her latest release, "Goodwill". Lovers of Gillian Welch, The Be Good Tanyas, or Lucinda Williams would do well to give the CD a spin from beginning to end, the way music fans savored albums in the Good Ol' Days before mp3's. Those expecting bluegrass themes will instead find more progressive material infused with lush harmonies, crisp arrangements, and sharp lyrics that invite repeated listens.
For tour dates and info visit: www.sonicbids.com/hilaryhawkeband
"Going By Highways"
In country music, life experience counts for something. Unless your business is churning out sugary pop or puppy love ballads for the Tween Generation, things like wisdom, an original voice, and a knack for seeing the mundane with fresh eyes are talents that pay enormous dividends. Amazingly, NYC's Jeep Rosenberg is blessed with all three.
Staying put is something most songwriters go to great lengths to avoid. As a civilian peacekeeper for United Nations missions in Mozambique, Haiti, and Kosovo -- now retired -- Rosenberg has never allowed himself to get too comfortable with a single perspective or world view. His wanderlust has led him to explore the world beyond his Southern roots, from the folk revival scenes of D.C. and Los Angeles to the armed forces and even academia, where he earned an MFA in poetry.
But let's not allow an unusual biography to obscure the songs themselves. They stand just fine on their own. "Silver Bluff Estates", Rosenberg's latest offering, finds the former peacekeeper exploring the misunderstandings that prevent people from seeing eye to eye.
"Darling, I Miss You When You're with Me"
For tour dates and info visit: Jeep Rosenberg's website
Nicolas Beaudoing (The Doc Marshalls)
The host of "No Hank, No Cash, No Merle" leads NYC's Cajun and honky-tonk outfit, the Doc Marshalls. In addition to embarking on a Southern tour in November, the Doc Marshalls will be showcasing at the Americana Music Conference in Nashville on September 19 (Douglas Corner) and September 20 (The Basement).
"St Dymphna" (from the CD, "Honest for Once")
"Hurricane is Playing" (4-track demo, unreleased)
For tour dates and info: Myspace
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
There are plenty of talented country songwriters in NYC, but for the most part they go unnoticed. Check the local music listings in this town, and you'll inevitably come across the same patronizing qualifiers: "hoedown", "hootin' ", "hollerin'", "hootenanny", "hell-raisin' ", honky-tonkin'" (all beginning with an "h" for some reason). What's missing is the word "hillarious", which is how most of Gotham's music cognoscenti would describe the scene if they were being a tad more honest with themselves.
The idea behind this music series is to showcase local country & Americana performers who are committed to the craft of songwriting. Accordingly, this is no opry, tribute, hoedown, or Hee-Haw medicine show. There will be no delirious yelping of "one more time!" before yet another fiddle solo during "Folsom Prison Blues" (cf. the Doc Marshalls). Instead, we'll be featuring three songwriters performing originals in a genre they genuinely love. What better tribute to Hank, Cash, and Merle?
So, who are these people with nothing better to do on an evening in July?
Irish-Australian singer-songwriter Vincent Cross doesn't hyphenate his genre of choice: bluegrass. Since arriving in the city in 2006, he has championed the high lonesome sound with his band, Good Company. In addition to leading a monthly jam at Banjo Jim's, "Strictly Bluegrass", Cross has kept a high profile in all the local roots music haunts, from Freddy's Back Room to Hill Country and Rockwood Music Hall.
His latest release, "Home Away from Home", avoids irritating cliches of the genre, such as references to "hollers" or ballads where girls named "Polly" or "Katie" are murdered by farm-raised sociopaths. Instead, Cross uses traditional bluegrass instrumentation to address the pitfalls of life in the big city.
Visit Vincent's Myspace for upcoming shows and info.
After years of fronting his own band, local guitarist and mandolin picker Matt Wissler is lending his chops to a wide range of local country outfits. Despite playing bass for the Whisky Rebellion, mandolin for the Ambassadors of Love, and lead guitar for the likes of Jake Leg Strutters and the Red Tail Hawk Band, Wissler also has his own solo acoustic project the works.
Far from being just another jerk who learned all his pentatonic scales, this multi-instrumentalist brings tasteful country tones to a scene short on first rate pickers. A great admirer of tunesmiths like John Prine and Guy Clark, Wissler has no qualms about professing his love of "singer-songwriter" as a genre.
"What Am I Supposed to Do Without You"
Trivia: Member of a secretive Free Mason-style society that runs the NYC country scene.
Nicolas Beaudoing (beau-dwanh')
The host of "No Hank, No Cash, No Merle" fronts NYC's Cajun and honky-tonk troubadours, the Doc Marshalls. Since forming in 2001, this five-piece has released two albums, No Kind of Life (2005) and Honest for Once (2008). Album number three is simmering in its own juices, awaiting its release in early 2010.
"Why I'm Leaving" (unreleased)
Visit the Doc Marshalls' Myspace for upcoming shows.