If you are reading this, music must be an organizing principle of your life, and I’m wondering how your 2020 was. What worked for you in a year when getting together to play was close to impossible, being inside with others discouraged, tours and gigs canceled, and all venues shuttered? A soul-killing circumstance, but one that still bore some sweet fruit—and I am not thinking of the vaunted “pivot to streaming video” or whatever it was we were supposed to be doing—but for example, the explosion of music in Prospect Park, where over the warm months, live music—especially Jazz—spilled out from every stand of trees. This outpouring of long-deferred joy peaked on November 7th when Biden won Pennsylvania and declared victory. As media outlets announced the news, New Yorkers took to the streets to celebrate. If you were lucky enough to be around Grand Army Plaza that day, you’re bound to remember it too.
Part of that joyful explosion included the hip sounds of the Wayne Tucker Band—a leading exponent of 2020’s outdoor music. Featuring twin brothers Wayne (on trumpet) and Miles (on tenor saxophone—I can’t be the only one confused by this) Tucker and a great band (including the wonderful Diego Ramirez on drums), this groovy quintet filled the area with Jazz harmony, rhythm, and soul. Grand Army Plaza denizen and new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer joined the celebration, and was even caught on camera boogieing to their music. I’ve been lucky enough to catch the Tucker group several times since the summer and it always gives me a warm feeling. They were even there today (January 17th!), pleasing the crowd with a funky version of “That’s The Time I Feel Like Making Love To You.”
Among the many other improvisors I heard in the park this year were Michael Blake, near the bandshell, and on the Flatbush side, Caleb Curtis, Vinnie Sperrazza, Noah Garebedian, and Stacy Dillard. Further afield in Brooklyn, Dana Lyn of Hadestown and Mother Octopus gathered some great musicians outdoors in Kensington to play Bach Fugues. The sounds of Bill Frisell, Tony Scherr, and Kenny Wolleson could be heard on the sidewalks of Brooklyn, among other streetside offerings.
But because music events could not be advertised, there were no formal outdoor concerts this year in New York City. And since March, there have been no indoor concerts either. The Owl Music Parlor has missed you all—players and listeners alike—and the community we’ve built over the years. The Owl is proud to have provided a stage for so many wonderful musicians, and while we all impatiently await a time when we can safely gather again, I wanted to steer our community—especially the non-playing supporters who are nonetheless essential members—towards the wealth of album releases that came out of the greater Owl family last year. Every one of them is available on Bandcamp, and I unreservedly recommend all the selections here. These albums are all ones that spoke to me artistically and aroused my admiration.
A brief but important note: In 2020, the many divisions in our society were laid bare. This year showed how hard it is for artists and cultural workers to survive. And the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on communities of color, along with the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others, plentifully demonstrated how Black, Indigenous, and People of Color continue to face racism, violence, and neglect.
Musicians of color, belonging to both groups, deserve our support, and they are sorely underrepresented in the listicle below. The Owl needs to do better at creating and providing a welcoming space for BIPOC artists and is committed to a campaign of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our booking when we reopen.
A lot of people have asked me how they could support The Owl during this period. Thank you all for that. Don’t know when we can reopen, but I don’t think it will be until we can do it without masks. It’s a small place, there’s a lot of singing, and you can’t drink anything in a mask. Whenever we do, please come back to listen or play, and in the meantime please go to Bandcamp (not Spotify) and buy the records listed below. The artists deserve your support and this batch of music is unbelievable!
An impressively talented musician and writer with healthy doses of Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley in her (among countless well-absorbed influences), Krieger effortlessly evokes the wised-up, doomed slacker cool for which one might turn to Kurt Vile, for instance. But where someone of that school might wear on you with their indifferent two chord songs, Krieger’s girl drifter challenges the critics with a universe of actual musical excellence. Her melodious voice and guitar playing are always dead on and—a particular point of excitement for me—rather than fronts, she plays with her excellent band, which comprises Rob Taylor on bass, guitarist Jacob Matheus and drummer Eladio Rojas. This gift for group interplay, unusual in a singer-songwriter with some real fingerpicking skills (check the Drake-ish Every Once In A While) is a sweet bonus to a package that is already overflowing with great melodies, musical moments, and powerful, take-no-prisoners lyric writing. Much abetted by the sympathetic production of Adam Schatz.
This long-awaited collection by Michael Sachs and band does not disappoint. Sachs’s gentleness and modesty is such that when he built his group, although he sings quite well, his first version of the group, instead of a bassist and drummer, featured co-lead singers Tomas Cruz, and Kim Mayo. While he busied himself mostly with synths and occasional clarinet, Sachs’s singing bandmates incarnated the material to perfection. Only after a good stretch of time (years, I think), of performing in this trio format did the additions of Sam Decker on keyboard bass (and saxophone) and drummer Pete Moffett round out the excellent live incarnation of this project. Nonetheless, the sonic vision of Sachs was clearly the driving force from the beginning. In the scope of his musical ambition, Sachs could be a Generation Y Brian Wilson and this his Pet Sounds. It’s that good. He’s also one of the few songwriters who is funny. His dark, I suppose, humor shows up in the lyrics dealing with emotional failures and quotidian scenes of technology, commuting, and selling time-shares, and even more in the fearlessly playful and ironic musical juxtapositions.
Another outstanding musician with the rare gift of humor, Alec Spiegelman here creates a spare, even austere indie rock landscape that might remind one of early Spoon? With softer singing and more beauty in the music. A kind of magic trick is done here because it always sounds very minimal, but when I mentally checklist the elements, there’s a good amount going on. Whatever the secret is, it’s an arranging and production skill in addition to his hyper-intelligent lyric and music writing. Add to this his high level wind playing and songwriter’s favorite-utility-guy instincts, which account for the vast number of projects involving Spiegelman. This album also features his harmonica, nylon string guitar and keyboard work. A welcome reggae feeling infuses the spacious, funky rhythm section work of drummer Robin MacMillan and bassist Andrew DiMola. Lyrics generally address a romantic other from a lonely place, but without wallowing. “Sucks to like you,” for instance, at 0:11 minutes long, is shorter than the Brian Lehrer Show theme music on WNYC.
Another Owl favorite, the very talented Ian Davis released two collections in 2020. One, bearing the Elizabethan sounding title Dull Care, is on the short side and features Davis on everything, plus guest guitarist Adam Brisbin. The other, Passing Phase, is full length and features the entire Ian Davis Rock Band, all great musicians (including a key collaborator in the Owl scene, drummer Jason Burger), and all of whom are credited for the production. Davis, who was recently pursuing a higher education degree in composition, obviously can make it all happen on his own, but in whatever way the duties were shared, this full band effort has lots of layers of rewarding listening. A thrifty, but not lazy, lyricist who often lets the well-crafted melodies do the heavy lifting, Davis shares with Krieger the distinction of using the “f” word effectively in a song, a temptation for many, a win for few. It struck me only now that there might be a little Beck in Davis. Beck has, or had, a knack for truly beautiful music with almost spookily relaxed vocals, like “Chemtrails” and “Nobody’s Fault But My Own”. Today I would sooner go to Davis for my fix of that musical beauty, and for the warm, unstrained singing that marks both this solo work and the band Davis co-leads with Katie Vogel, Relatives.
Speaking of Ian Davis, one night last year I was stopped in my tracks by an instrumental cover of one of his songs in an excellent set by the improvising trio Drinking Bird. From Drinking Bird’s Tree Palmedo, with helpers again including drummer Eladio Rojas, comes a very fine song album with echoes of Paul Simon and Robert Wyatt. Like fellow singing trumpeters Eric Biondo and Alex Toth—or Chet Baker, come to think of it—Palmedo’s breath control or other mysterious skills (trained facial muscles?) seems to guarantee particularly focused, high, clear-as-a-bell singing. NEC-affiliated like many of the young musicians on the Owl scene, Palmedo has a considerable palette of styles that mesh interestingly but never jarringly here; the effect is compositional. Chorales, Funk, Pop Rock—a more acoustic ensemble-driven Owen Pallet comes to mind. And as John Entwhistle proved for The Who, a rock unit with an in-house trumpet (plus flugelhorn) can be grander and more orchestral than one with strings. Especially when the ubiquitous Alec Spiegelman pitches in on winds.
I also heard a hint of Wyatt/Soft Machine (I’m thinking this) in Wendy Eisenberg’s quarantine album Dehiscence, which turns out to be the scientific word for wounds or seed pods bursting open. They, too, managed the two-albums-in-a-year feat with the added release of Auto. Both albums are seriously adventurous and artistic, the latter involving more musicians, the former relying on Eisenberg’s unusually guitaristic playing and often double-tracked light, musical singing. The compositions are intricate but not belabored, and frankly avant-garde, with skittering, off-kilter rhythms and odd phrase lengths, unconcerned about losing less-adventurous listeners or appeasing any remnant of the “music industry.” I always appreciate when key landmarks such as Punk are discernible anywhere in someone’s body of work, and Eisenberg checks this box, although with their labyrinthine guitar pieces and gossamer vocals, it’s hard to say where it gets in. But it does—not least in the confrontational lyrics dealing with a past abuser.
Another artist who acknowledges the existence of Punk, gravitating in this case to a steady beat, is Nick Llobet, an eerily beautiful singer and stylish rocker whose group youbet brought out an excellent album, Compare and Despair, in 2020. “I feel like I have zero control” he keens in “Cycle,” one of the catchy and satisfying songs that make up this rather harrowing, yet fun, album. I could go on, but just go listen to it.
A young master of the adjoining worlds of Jazz composition, soloing, and free improvisation, in 2020 Richards released Supersense. Her fine album brought to my mind Grachan Moncur’s astounding Blue Note LP Evolution (which I confess, took me most of my life to hear but is certainly a durable landmark in the development of these languages). She’s cracked the code of getting the tunes and the playing to flow seamlessly without sacrificing complexity; the music is advanced. Intriguingly, the physical album comes with a scratch and sniff card of “scent creations” by olfactory artist collaborator Sean Raspet, an innovation which was intended to in some ways to add liveness to the record listening experience. One could imagine Richards making the news as a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient sometime soon, as has her principal foil here, pianist Jason Moran.
Continuing in the Jazz/New Music vein…I mentioned Caleb Curtis earlier, whose brawny, lusty and precise alto playing has frequently graced the Owl stage. His Doing Nothing Is Hard Business, a trio record with Mark Ferber and Rashaan Carter, came out in 2020 and is a fine example of his articulate sound and the funky, free flowing forms and feels he favors.
One of the hardest-working musicians in a hard-working bunch, folk singer Ali Dineen is also one of those most committed to positive change. Her moving album Hold On was released right before the pandemic struck. There is no stark line between her art and her activism, but she also pens strong love and personal songs. Her singing is marked by melismatic, sweet turns, frequently abetted by background vocalist Amy Carrigan. You can hear them sing like sisters here on the truly uplifting “I Knew How”—incidentally a very strong production effort by Woodstock-based studio veteran Danny Blume. A more R&B side of Dineen, who is fond of breaking out into Aaron Neville’s old hit “Tell It Like It Is” after closing time, comes out in the soul ballad “Hungry Ghost.” The rest of this collection runs to an idiosyncratic, ethereal, ragtime song vocabulary in which Dineen specializes, but previews of new sounds are always coming with this fast moving, ever-searching artist, who also teaches and is a key performer at the very cool Jalopy Theatre and school in Red Hook.
Kyle Morgan, who works under the name Starcrossed Losers, has been putting tracks on Bandcamp on a monthly basis rather than releasing an album all at once. Each track leads to some of the others. A nice place to start is “Broken Love.” Undeniable beauty. In “Mamma Take My Hand,” the vocal harmonies and pump organ Morgan uses to enhance his spacious finger picking and singing arrangements are replaced by an electronic wash which includes slide guitars with infinite sustain. Both treatments work quite nicely.
The closely associated and irresistably likeable Frankie Sunswept, another mainstay of the Jalopy side of the Owl family, also released songs on Bandcamp regularly in this period and should be putting out an entire album around the time I get this piece finished. One of the things that has awoken fanship in me in recent years is the exciting nexus of music these two share with frequent collaborators Rachel Housle and Sean Cronin, both fine songwriters and great ensemble players; please watch this space for a concert featuring all these artists soon after reopening is possible. One such night was one of the first things we sorrowfully canceled back in March when the city was first shutting down.
The affecting words of Taylor Ashton’s Pretenders, coupled with his extremely good-sounding singing, banjo and guitar playing, could be a talisman for anyone struggling with a moment of temptation and doubt in their romantic relationship. Ashton’s lyrics speak with nuanced directness to matters of the heart. While the warmth of this collection does rest on the honesty of the words, much of it is also in the soulfulness of the well-crafted compositions and skilled record making. The former music industry used to work efficiently to put lifetime recording and touring careers in the hands of a good looking, whole-package artist like Ashton, or at least sell of a few hundred thousand copies each of a few of their records. One hopes the new music industry will still find a way to do so for him and the other deserving musicians of his generation; it certainly seems to be sleeping on major-star-walking-among-us artists, with undeniable mainstream appeal, like Ashton, Elizabeth Ziman, and Akie Bermiss.
Traces of XTC and Radiohead are audible in new artist Damon Isaac Smith’s Rivers Of Regret EP, which you can take to mean advanced, glossily recorded music and accomplished, even flawless musicianship and singing. Compositions are free of guesswork, but studded with moments of daring. Fans of highly compositional singer-songwriters like Gabriel Kahane would probably make a convivial discovery here.
Two other artists that share with Smith the distinction of being alumnae of the mysterious—to me—“Paul Green School Of Rock” are The Cradle and Arc Iris. Arc Iris (whose charismatic lead singer Jocie Adams emerged not from the School Of Rock but the well-known group The Low Anthem) confined themselves this year to a “silly EP of workout music” which can be heard here. Dialed in for aerobics, these songs aren’t as sensitive as other Arc Iris works, but they’re still musical and provide a venue for keyboardist Zach Tenorio-Miller’s irrepressible virtuosity.
The Cradle did an amazing, outsider-art-feeling, African-tinged set at The Owl back in 2019. Bringing to mind Devendra Banhardt and Dirty Projectors, among others, The Cradle, neé Paco Cathcart, released this extremely listenable collection, which is only six songs, but there’s also this one, running to 20 songs, and I think I saw two more on Bandcamp which were collaborations from 2020. This level of output for a young person with “thirty or so previous releases” is stupefying to me. And while I could not go through this many recordings thoroughly, everywhere I dropped the needle was beautiful.
An appealingly horsey singing voice of which I was briefly reminded while listening to Cathcart is that of the equally prolific Jeffrey Lewis, who puts out some of his records on Rough Trade but also direct releases material to Bandcamp. His 2019 and 2020 tapes are both available there (as of 2020), and I highly recommend dropping a few dollars to get the 2019 one, if only to hear the 13-minute “Psycho Heart,” which rivals Dylan’s leviathan songs of this year as marathons of well-rhymed truth telling. Although the value of personal revelation and risk—a real ethic of saying what is hard to say, at whatever cost—is widely shared by the fine artists on this list, Lewis sets the bar especially high in this category and I don’t think it’s pushing it to suggest that he’s one of the best songwriters around. He’s also extremely funny and a very talented comic book artist.
Like Lewis, but unlike every other artist on this list, I think, the very active Adam Schatz put any of his Bandcamp offerings “behind the paywall.” His collection Play – A – Long Drones, Tones & Discovery Zones was imaginatively made for you to jam along with, and the pieces are long so you can really stretch out. Two of the free ones are more or less drone backgrounds, which I dutifully soloed over but it sounded much better when I stopped. A third, the groovy “Running Hundreds,” was really fun to play to.
Music for vibraphone, marimba and sythesizer is the newest record from this talented mallets player. Described by the artist as “a record that is somewhere between acoustic, electric, composed, improvised, classical contemporary and ambient,” the pulsing, patterned, subtly environmental sounds gathered here make a relaxing and hypnotic soundtrack for a quiet quarantine evening with a loved one.
The lexicon of styles and motifs in guitarist Gregg Belisle-Chi’s new album ensõ falls beyond category…. perhaps closer in style to Bill Frisell than Marc Ribot, to name two foregoing telecaster-toting types, but I found myself thinking maybe more of Jim Black’s Alas No Axis. No doubt there are more apt comparisons, but the thought that both have links to Seattle might mean something. Regardless, Belisle-Chi’s musicianship is superb, his compositions skew moody – always a selling point for me – and interesting, and it’s a treat to hear another side of Jason Burger, whose tastefulness on song projects like Ian Davis’s, above, conceals a reservoir of gladiatorial intensity. With bassist Matt Aronoff glueing it together.
– Oren O’Blivion, Jan 2021