Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Big Star confirmed for rare Brooklyn apperance

Alex Chilton has enjoyed one of the most enigmatic careers in pop music history. With the #1 opening salvo of "The Letter" in 1967 (written, contrary to popular belief, by Wayne Carson of "Always on My Mind" fame), Chilton and the Memphis-based Box Tops enjoyed a string of blue-eye soul hits that defined the era for more pop-conscious listeners. When the band dissolved in 1970, Chilton attempted to capture the zeitgeist as a New York-based folkie, but soon returned dissolute to Memphis. Reacquainting himself with Chris Bell, another young songwriter who proved to be his musical and personal foil, Big Star emerged from the ashes of Bell's Icewater, with the duo sharing frontman duties. Although only moving a modicum of copies, #1 Record and Radio City would have a profound influence on post-1980 pop that is perhaps only rivaled by Kraftwerk and James Brown; while musically anachronistic, Chilton's mordant -- even embittered -- lyricism would have a profound impact on the likes of Michael Stipe and Paul Westerberg. (Rerecorded by Cheap Trick, "In the Street" was subversively featured as the the theme song of That 70s Show.) With their record label (Ardent, the rock division of Stax Records) nearing insolvency and unable to cope with his heroin addiction and unrequited desires for Ardent executive John Fry (who himself lusted for the straight Chilton), Bell formally left the group after #1 Record, contributing only two songs to the trio-dominated Radio City. By the time Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens reconvened to record the wistful, chimerical Sister Lovers in the aftermath of Watergate, Beatlesque songcraft had been supplanted by extemporaneity and edginess. The result is an unwieldy masterpiece with equal footing in tradition (the bookending cover of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On") and the unknown (a prescient rendition of the Velvets' "Femme Fatale", which Chilton makes his own amid such enduring ballads as "Nighttime" and "Big Black Car"). By 1977, Chilton had come full circle from his pop idol origins, opening for the Talking Heads at CBGBs; since then, he has put out a dependable -- if slightly ennui-laden -- string of indie albums steeped in punk blues, chanson, and the eclecticism that Big Star only began to hint at. Chris Bell's fate was less than fortuitous; struggling valiantly with his addiction amid a newfound devotion to Christianity, he died in a car crash less than a year after Chilton's Bowery stint.

In 1993, Chilton and Stephens reformed Big Star with John Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies. Since then, they've toured intermittently and released a couple of albums that generally fall into the ho-hum, indifferent vein of Chilton's later oeuvre. In spite of this, their November 18th show at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, the group's first full performance in New York in nearly a decade, will likely be one of the best of the year; if recent YouTube videos are any indication, Chilton has retained his stage dynamism, while Auer and Stringfellow are sympathetic to the original records. Tickets (rather pricey at $35.00) are available here. Keep an Eye on the Sky, a box set featuring rarities and favorites, is out next Tuesday.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Review: Sidetracked by Hercules and Love Affair

By and large, 2009 has been a transitional year for dance music. Tired of the solipsism of the electro scene (epitomized by A Cross The Universe, Justice's snooty travelogue of a documentary), critics none well versed in the mythopoeia of the groove have posited that everything from UK funky (the latest -- and well executed -- British regurgitation of early 90s diva house) to the all-too-spare strains of dubstep will mark the next paradigm shift in the genre. But throughout it all, Brooklyn-based producer Andy Butler has remained consistently prolific, recording several singles (and one album) under the Hercules and Love Affair moniker that defy ready categorization. Expropriating the walking bass lines that are all but metonymous with disco sleaze, Arthur Russell's Cageian horn arrangements, and the musique maudite of Antony Hegarty, Butler has arrived at a sound that is irrefragable proof of the idiom's continued evolution. With no less of an authority than Frankie Knuckles (the New York disco/Chicago house pioneer) having produced a remix of the hit "Blind", one can't help but feel that Butler -- who, like many of the genre's initial factotums, is openly gay and not averse to a good lyric -- has revitalized what was a moribund tradition.

Tying together 70s underground disco faves Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, Gino Soccio, local upstarts In Flagranti, the early avant-dance revivalist Danny Wang, Todd Terry's epochal cover of Phreek's "Weekend", and the new Hercules single ("I Can't Wait", five minutes of truly sybaritic fun) into a cohesive whole, Sidetracked is an exhilarating mix -- so exhilarating that Butler's nuanced segues may keep you from hitting the dance floor altogether. An inveterate and relentless crate-digger, Butler's choices lend the anthology a gravitas far beyond the years of its compiler. While his three-minute deconstruction of "Weekend" (taken from the relatively rare "Retouched by the Hand of Todd" club mix, not the overplayed, hip-hop influenced radio edit) will probably not garner the DJ any new fans, the Buzzard and Ray Martinez cuts will surely bemuse the contemporary generation of banger-reared hipsters. The absence of "Grand Central Shuttle" is conspicuous, but as a subversive exercise and a party album, Sidetracked succeeds on all counts.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

MyPod: "10 Bricks" by Raekwon

When I was a little tot, Brooklyn-born MC Raekwon pioneered mafiosi rap with 1995's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, that peculiar yet profoundly influential subgenre of turn-of-the-century hip-hop which inspired anomalies (RZA's brief yet intense penchant for run-of-the-mill soul samples) and aberrations (the lamentable rise and fall of Irv Gotti). As the splendors of thug life became an indelible trope of commercial hip-hop for nearly a decade, Raekwon nonetheless stood apart. For one thing, he had been immersed in the street culture for much of his youth, lending his recordings a verite, brooding, and almost Scorsesean quality that others (onetime Fort Greene resident 50 Cent, for starters) could never dream of emulating. Moreover, like many of his Wu-Tang compatriots, he's a prodigiously talented wordsmith.

Nonetheless, the much-anticipated Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2 is an incredibly risky gambit in the eclectic waters of 2009. Fifteen years removed from the hardcore era that the Clan will always be emblematic of, hip-hop is as fractured as rock was in 1975. Produced by the late J Dilla, album cut "10 Bricks" is a valiant -- and, I daresay, visionary -- repudiation of the Autotuned gloss that permeates the charts, the signpost to a new space that true believers have anxiously awaited. Fusing the klaxons and expropriated noise of Dilla's final recordings with clarion blaxploitation horns and strident lyrics that recall the gritty Nineties, Raekwon is back with a vengeance. Preview the track here.

WFMU Fest comes to Brooklyn

If you've experienced the misfortune of a long automobile ride lately, you'll know that many of New York's corporate radio stations can grow a tad irksome after about twenty minutes. For those of us who are too impecunious for satellite radio and can't depend upon FM-powered iPod docks in the five boroughs, independent station WFMU (91.1, 90.1 for Hudson Valley readers) is something of a lifesaver, broadcasting an irreverent mix of contemporary indie, rare groove, 50s honky tonk, Duke Ellington, sleazy garage sides, and just about anything else you could possibly imagine. They also host the already-venerable Free Music Archive, dole out concert tickets on Twitter, and sponsor a pretty groovy record fair every year. Don't let the "station whose name has become like a secret handshake among a certain tastemaking cognoscenti" appellation throw you off -- Hot 97 and Q104.3 just pale in comparison.

A month from now, the Jersey City-based station will be coming to Brooklyn with the inaugural WFMU Fest. As the concert market bottoms out, seminal no wavers Teenage Jesus & the Jerks (featuring the inimitable Lydia Lunch) will be headlining the final concert on October 3rd. Esoterics will also delight in a rare performance on October 1st by Wumme's finest exports -- Faust. Coalescing around the same scene that included such Teutonic perennials as Kraftwerk, Neu!, Amon Duul II, Ash Ra Tempel, and Cluster, they were the first to cross over to an international audience; The Faust Tapes, reissued by the incipient, pre-jetliner Virgin Records, sold over 100,000 copies in Britain. Neophytes should check out Outside the Dream Syndicate, a collaboration with LaMonte Young associate/composer/filmmaker Tony Conrad; it is one of the first extant examples of interdisciplinary musical minimalism, presaging the fusion recordings of Peter Gordon, Arthur Russell, and Laurie Anderson by several years. Budget-conscious listeners may want to consider the $12 October 2nd show, featuring Allentown grunge revivalists (we're not kidding) Pissed Jeans.

For more info, click here.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Featured Concerts: 8/28-9/5

08/30: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Preacher in the Knife
Music Hall of Williamsburg (66 N. 6th St.)
7 PM
$5 advance/$7 door

Following in the ribald, insouciant British folk-rock tradition of Roy Harper and Steeleye Span, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (who, I should add, are very American) have earned plaudits from the L.A. Times for their "big, open-hearted anthems". Sharpe (nee Alex Ebert of dance-punk lodestars Ima Robot) is known for baring his chest and feet onstage, but with stagecraft not a priority for many of today's groups, there's no need to begrudge him. The equally singular Preacher in the Knife borrow equally from Nick Cave and calypso, making this show one of the bargains of the month.

09/03: Brazilian Girls Sound System
The Bell House (149 7th St.)
7:30 PM

The Brazilian Girls' polyglot lyrics and tropicalia-cum-Left Bank aesthetic have earned them celebrity fans (David Byrne) and a coveted spot on Verve Records; nevertheless, as critic Nitsuh Abebe astutely noted over three years ago, "They have fans, yes-- devoted ones-- but there's no coherent market for them to aim at. They have their swank global groove, but they're too arty to home in on worldbeat fans or VIP loungers. They make freethinking dance music, but their grooves are too earthy to count on the electronic crowd, and they're too upscale, too going-out-music, to count on rock geeks." With Brazilian Girls Sound System, bassist Jesse Murphy (who is also playing a solo set) and drummer Aaron Johnson are valiantly attempting to strip away the artiness with musicians from the John Scofield Band, the Saturday Night Live house band (weird enough)... and, most quizzically of all, Paul Ryder from the Happy Mondays (not the more logical -- and temperamental -- Shaun). Interesting, at the very least.

09/02: Titus Andronicus, The Smith Westerns, The So So Glos
Monster Island Basement (128 River St.)
8 PM

Playing on a bill as perfectly complementary as coffee and pie, Titus Andronicus' avant-Springsteen theatrics culminated in The Airing of Grievances, one of last year's best rock albums. Meanwhile, Bay Ridge outcasts the So So Glos -- arguably better known for their role in the formation of the Market Hotel than any of the music they've produced -- are the long-prophesied American answer to The Clash, infusing indie with the timeless kind of despondent heart and soul that will leave you spinning Tourist/Terrorism over and over again. Meanwhile, Chicago's Smith Westerns bridge both approaches with garage-y fulminations on the usual adolescent frustrations.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ellie Greenwich: 1940-2009

As the world mourns the symbolic end of the Camelot era with the passing of Ted Kennedy, another icon of those halcyon days -- Brooklyn-born songwriter Ellie Greenwich, best known for the Brill Building era standards "Be My Baby", "Da Doo Ron Ron", "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)", "River Deep Mountain High", "Chapel of Love", and "Leader of the Pack" -- has also died. Although she never parlayed her talents into the solo stardom attained by contemporaries like Carole King and (to a much lesser extent) Fred Neil, Greenwich -- who collaborated on many of her hits with another Brooklynite, then-husband and lyricist Jeff Barry -- played an integral role in advancing the role of women in the music industry; along with Sylvia Robinson, Greenwich was one of the few female producers/business professionals active in the late 60s and early 70s, having recorded the likes of Dusty Springfield and The Raindrops (another collaboration with Barry) and discovered fellow Brooklynite Neil Diamond. In the eighties, she enjoyed renewed attention with the Tony-nominated Leader of the Pack, an autobiographical musical revue that featured Greenwich and Spector-era stalwart Darlene Love in its initial 1985 Broadway run.

Along with the Mann-Weil songwriting team, Greenwich-Barry were among Phil Spector's most prolific collaborators; the relatively simple structures of "Da Do Ron Ron" and "I Can Hear Music" -- coupled with Spector's agitprop productions -- played a key role in the crystallization of what the late feminist critic Ellen Willis described as "a counter-tradition in rock and roll that had much more in common with high art -- in particular avant-garde art -- than the ballyhooed art-rock syntheses." It is this tradition that has prospered and prevailed over time, and continues to inspire new generations of musicians to this day. With "Be My Baby" sounding almost as fresh today as it did in 1963, her songs will endure for years to come.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

MyPod: "Give Blood" by Rain Machine

Their ineffable presence notwithstanding, TV on the Radio are among the most unlikely -- and natural -- beneficiaries of the hype machine that has enveloped the Brooklyn musical renascence. Specializing in near-discordant melanges of free jazz, conventional indie rock, electronica, and avant-hip-hop, Tunde Adibimpe, Kyp Malone, Dave Sitek, and their merry men have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that it is all music in the end, garnering approval from both elder statesmen (David Bowie guested on their remarkable breakthrough, Return to Cookie Mountain) and the masses (Dear Science peaked at #12 on Billboard) alike; Sitek's patented production style -- incorporating Enoesque filigree and just a tinge of that vituperative Myrtle Avenue funk -- has graced albums from artists as diverse as Scarlett Johannson, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and local sensation Telepathe, while dexterous drummer Jaleel Bunton just guested on the Phenomenal Handclap Band's debut LP and seems to have matured into a latter-day Al Jackson.

With so much talent suffused into the rhythm section alone, it's easy to lose sight of guitarist Kyp Malone's distinctive contributions. Just as the initial success of Roxy Music hinged upon the underlying tension between Bryan Ferry's penchant for 40s anachronisms and the aforementioned Eno's space-age flair, it is Malone that brings an imperious hunger, an inimitable falsetto, and improvisatory glee to the synths and automatonic loops of Sitek and Adibimpe. Without Malone, the band would be something along the lines of the Yeah Yeah Yeah's artier, contraries cousins (think Dig! all over again); with him, their genre-bending panache will be secure for years to come.

After nine years, Malone is poised to step into the spotlight next month with the self-titled debut of his his much anticipated solo project, Rain Machine. Not wanting to be disingenuous and misrepresent what will surely be sui generis, I will say that the advance single "Give Blood" -- streaming here -- is an intensely soulful effort that manages to recall Outkast, Captain Beefheart, Alex Chilton at his most feral, and John Lee Hooker over the course of three minutes. With a tremulous blues guitar riff that may as well be anathema to his hipster constituency, Malone isn't playing around here -- and there's no doubt that Rain Machine may be one of the year's finest albums. Be sure to add this one to your iPod.