It’s been a decade since New York City antique-garde duo Kill Henry Sugar – they of “cinematic gravitas,” quoth the Village Voice — released the beautific folk collection Hot Messiah. But, despite the lag in the discography department, Erik Della Penna, the band’s guitarist, has been keeping busy.
In 2013, he joined roots act Hazmat Modine as guitarist/co-vocalist/songwriter, a triple threat of sorts; a live LP and two LPs followed, including this year’s Box of Breath. In 2018, he offered a song for the film All These Small Moments. And, just this summer, Bay Street Theater in New York extended a run of Broadway classic Annie Get Your Gun on which Della Penna arranged music and orchestrated.
But before we get to the new Twenties – Della Penna already is pegged to accompany frequent collaborator Natalie Merchant in Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series in 2020 – Della Penna has a treat, a love letter, if you will, for his fans: an 11-track “solo” LP based on a recent NYC-themed European tour and his astute, even literary-minded observations of Gotham. (It’s available now online.)
I use quotes around “solo” because the LP, appropriately titled New York Songs, is largely culled from existing recordings from the Kill Henry Sugar library and prominently features percussionist Dean Sharenow. (The material is clipped, not re-recorded, Henry purists.) There’s “Yankee Talk,” Hot Messiah’s spare-yet-complex volk ballad on capitalism; the rousing history lesson “Tammany Hall,” off 2007’s Swing Back and Down; even the bouncy “Puerto Rican Day Parade.” (Sadly, this being about NY, Della Penna couldn’t include the gem “Mussolini,” a personal favorite off 2003’S Sell This Place.) There’s no doubt this is brilliant material – though who doubt that need to take a listen close – and it’s kinda fun to revisit it, fresh and out of context. Della Penna also gets his kicks out of some nifty new sequencing, starting with the 4/4 drum lead-in to “Long Ago” and ending, appropriately, with a song about leaving New York.
But the real gold Della Penna has mined here are three “new” songs, at least one of which he’s been kicking around Kill Henry Sugar live sets since 2013.
That aforementioned song, “Wonder Wheel,” has a lilting, lullaby-like effect to it that’s accentuated by Della Penna’s gauzy acoustic guitar and his deliciously deployed falsetto. (A horn, immaculately recorded, offers an interesting countermelody to Della Penna’s singing. Verdict’s out on whether the sparse, though fairly straight-forward percussion is provided by Sharenow.) The song that follows it also is new, the bluesy “High Rise,” which features yodeling, jaw-harp and Hammond organ to flesh out its tales of trying to live well in a cluttered cityscape.
The final song, though, is where Della Penna nails it. It’s a nugget of sharply understated roots-rock – think the dusty blues scales without the whammy-bar implications of “blues-rock” – where Della Penna offers observations about a woman who is “done with New York Town,” as well as him. (“She moved to Santa Fe/ She couldn’t stand the sound of sirens every day/she couldn’t stand the smell of the bourgeoisie/ can’t stand your town, mostly can’t stand me.”) An interesting piece of commentary on romantic disillusionment, it’s also a fitting fugue for flight, in this case the new homestead being located in New Mexico.
There are no bombastic revelations, no fireworks, contained herein, just the odd intimacy and immediacy for which Della Penna is known. On New York Songs, which he released following the “Evening In New York” tour with Rachelle Garniez, Della Penna plays the role of tour guide, stressing less the historical implications of his once- and future-antique-garde cohorts and more the nuances and shadows of the Big Apple. Yeah, there’s been no shortage of musicians offering their interpretations of North America’s de-facto cultural capital – obligatory Sinatra plug of “New York, New York” here – but Della Penna stakes his own claim to ownership. Though this is heavy on the archival stuff, it’s still pretty enlightening – and worth the download for the new songs alone.