Ladies and gentlemen, Gotham’s antique-garde marches onward! Though banjo tinkerer and carnival barker/band leader Curtis Eller continues to rage raggedy in the North Carolina hinterlands, many in the New York City-based group of musical folklorists have gone quiet in recent years. (What say you, Pinataland?) Even Kill Henry Sugar, once a vibrant staple in the folk/anti-folk scene, continues to haunt the Brooklyn venue Barbes but hasn’t released a new LP, if the Internet is to be believed, in some 11 years.
That is where we enter the specter of Erik Della Penna. Della Penna, a songwriter with a brilliant ear and quick wit best known for exercising the guitar and banjo strings in Kill Henry Sugar and Hazmat Modine, has been on a solo streak of sorts, releasing two LPs in two years. And his new addition to that canon is an anything-but-slight EP, Rainy, on Jaro Medien. The eight-song affair, by contrast, is as uplifting as Kill Henry Sugar’s albums were shadow-strewn.
The signifiers are also, for Della Penna at least, stunningly contemporary. “Hot Messiah”, Kill Henry Sugar’s 2010 opus, sang and whistled and moaned through filters of early American radio and the Mississippi Delta blues. On “Rainy”, though, Della Penna often sounds like he’s auditioning for the role of David Byrne in Talking Heads. The first single, “Change the Weather”, rings positively Byrne-ian, with hooky guitars but an on-tempo kind of lyrical sing-song. (Insert image of Della Penna in the Big Suit here.) “The Dr.’s Wife” goes a step further into modern pop or rock territory, with a chorus that calls to mind Paul Simon circa “Graceland”.
Don’t be fooled by all the guideposts and supposed modern reverence, though. Della Penna mines deep here. And he still keeps his cards close to his chest on the places from where he’s pulling reference points. “Jazz”, yes, yes, complete with clarinet, is more commentary on that titular form than it is canonical, with a folksy but rapid-fire acoustic guitar that leads Della Penna through rivers of well-timed but delightfully off-kilter lyricism. A sample from the opening stanza: “Don’t give me that jazz / It’s giving me the cancer / I need a performance enhancer/ That will help me kick the blues / And find the answer to the question you refuse / To ever answer / Don’t give me that jazz.”
“Strange Music”, a gem in the Tom Waits tradition, makes it sound like its guitar and banjo are being filtered through a busted music-box (complete with one-legged ballerina). Della Penna’s ghostly vocals are packed to the brim full of reverb. “Don’t Need Money” isn’t necessarily memorable for its poesy-ish guitar but, instead, a walking bass line that appears and disappears seemingly “at random”, occasionally adding a slide or thump to underline a Della Penna quip. “What Am I” is a heartbreaker in every sense of the word.
There are slighter moments. “Wherever I Am”, at under four minutes, is emotive but maybe not the best closer. I wanted it to open its arms and expand the scope a little broader than it did. But it’s still a hell of a song, the sort of Steinbeck-eulogizing narrative Springsteen has been trying to stick the landing on for years. Elsewhere, it’s easy to wax nostalgic for Della Penna’s second half in Kill Henry Sugar. The stiff electronic drums of “Change the Weather” work just fine but you cannot help but wonder how amazing the percussion could’ve been in Dean Sharenow’s able hands.
All in all, Rainy continues the sonic exploration Della Penna mined on last year’s An Evening in New York, sans the Waze directions and metropolitan points at which to gawk and gander. It’s a fine, fine collection – one that breathes deeper than its eight songs suggest. And, beyond all of that, it’s fuel for anyone pushing to see the antique-garde make a comeback in the 2020s – and that’s no slight praise.