By Dave Cuomo
Photo by Judith Levitt
When he got up to play, I thought he looked out of place at the open mic. It wasn’t that he didn’t look like a decent musician, exactly the opposite. He looked like a perfect musician, too perfect to be at an open mic. His hair and stubble were both the exact right amount of slightly overgrown, with the hair hanging just a little in his eyes. His face had a mature look of professionalism, with a hint of relaxed apathy. He sat down with a weary confidence, and strummed his acoustic guitar. When he started singing, his voice said exactly what his appearance did—that he knew his shit. It was a good pop voice, perfect for hitting high notes on catchy pop folk ballads, but with just a hint of a whiskey fed croak peaking out from behind it, giving an air of authenticity to what he was singing.
There is an art to the folk song these days. The trick is to make it contemporary and just poppy enough to be exciting and relevant, while still remaining true to the honest and earthy folk aesthetic. Too gooey and sweet, and you’re a pop singer trying to fake folk integrity, too folky and bland and you become pigeon holed, resigned to a graveyard that consists of all five of your fans analyzing the hell out of your songs until you wish you’d never written them.
The song he played pandered perfectly to both sides of the equation, with abstract artsy lyrics, a stripped down sound, and a rootsy melody with just the right dose of grandiosity and pop. Over the course of not one, but two catchy as hell choruses in one song, I could feel it already getting stuck in my head, a fate I happily resigned myself to for the next few weeks.
Finding Alex Lowry at an open mic these days is a rare treat. He’s more likely to be found packing clubs on the Lower East Side and in his beloved Williamsburg, or touring in support of his debut solo album, Awful Joy. The album is a mature reflection of how far Lowry has come as an artist and songwriter since leaving behind his native Kansas to come to New York and devote himself fully to music.
For years Alex labored in Kansas, playing angular progressive rock with a post-punk flair. It was intricate and heavy on the artistry if lacking in accessibility. He had come as far as he could in the Midwestern scene, having played upwards of 200 shows and selling out the area’s best clubs when he decided it was time to take his career to the next level.
Arriving in New York, he cashed in his chips as an art rocker for the more accessible and earthy sounds of the urban folk revival now sweeping the city. Bringing the experience and discipline that he gained from his art rock days to bear on the new sound, he is creating music that is timeless and groundbreaking, capable of winning legions of fans for its earnest folk sensibility and exquisite craftsmanship. Capping the folk sound off with a healthy dose of pop melody, the songs are as accessible as they are artistic and innovative. With his new signature songwriting in place, Alex spent the next year perfecting his performance at open mics, trying out different backing lineups with some of the city’s best musicians to find just the right sound.
On Awful Joy he has found that sound. Fueled by Eric Feigenbaum’s production (I would go so far as to compare it George Martin in scope and creativity), Alex’s progressive pop folk takes on a completely new life. Acoustic guitars combine with a heavy beat and all sorts of clever instrumentation, such as the pipe organ that accentuates the chorus to “What You Got.” Mix in the impressive backing vocals of fellow songwriters Sarah Bowman and Paula Valstein and you have yourself some moments of aching beauty.
More than just the production though, the songs themselves come through as a force to be reckoned with. “Juke Box Heart,” the song I first heard him play at the open mic sounds as exciting here as it did live that night, but on the album it still competes for attention with several other stand out tracks. They are catchy and innovative folk- rock songs with clever lyrics fueled by Alex’s quirky vocals. Despite all of the layered production, the natural acoustic feel is never completely lost. Context is key on the album and Eric and Alex managed to put it together in such a way that each song flows seamlessly into the next, creating an album that twists and turns taking the listener on a memorable journey.
January of the New Year finds Alex on the road aggressively touring the country after his first successful tour last summer in support of the new album. He is joined by longtime friends and collaborators, The Bowmans, impressive folk innovators in their own right, and together they are poised to see some real success this year. On the road and working hard, they are out spreading the word of the exciting new sound that New York is generating. I think it's safe to say that the rest of the country will agree it is a sound we've all been waiting a long time to hear.
For more info about Alex, the tour and the new album check out www.lowrymusic.com
Block Magazine is proud to be partners with JezebelMusic.com, a music promotion company dedicated to the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint and the musicians that play there.
Block Magazine is proud to announce its partnership with JezebelMusic.com, a music promotion company dedicated to Williamsburg & Greenpoint and the musicians that play there.