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.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Sean Paul cancels free MLK show

As per a press release I just received from the Borough President's office, dancehall superstar Sean Paul -- currently touring relentlessly behind his new album, Imperial Blaze -- has canceled a free show at Wingate Park in Crown Heights tonight due to a throat illness. It is believed that the extended tour contributed to his medical condition. According to the performer, "I am really disappointed that I will not be able to appear. I've been working very hard these last few weeks, to deliver the album to my fans. I was looking forward to performing the new tracks in Brooklyn." Trinadian soca king Machel Montano will be taking his place on a bill that also includes his direct progenitor, calypso pioneer Mighty Sparrow. With the humidity finally relenting today, don't miss this show!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Todd P. featured on NPR, going legit

When someone writes the definitive chronicle of the 2000s Brooklyn music explosion in fifteen to twenty years, promoter Todd Patrick will stand in the foreground as one of its most integral -- and humble -- scenemakers. The idea of putting on a semi-illicit $5 show with unknown artists in desolate industrial spaces almost reeks of cliche in music geek circles, but through a mixture of equanimity (there's no clear "Todd P." or "Brooklyn sound" a la the San Francisco bands championed by Bill Graham forty years ago, even if his programming leans closer to noise rock than dance music) and Teutonic precision (see the man running around a venue thirty minutes before showtime and you'll wonder why he isn't working for Goldman Sachs, a decided lack of business acumen notwithstanding), he's made underground music palatable to the mainstream -- or at the very least, the higher-browed culturati.

While this NPR profile of the man is hardly revelatory, there is one interesting tidbit -- after years of summonses, increasing visibility and last-minute show changes, Todd P. is opening a "fully legit rock club" in the fall. No word on where the venue will be, but with the Knitting Factory finally completing their move across the East River in a couple weeks, expect much in the way of good local live music throughout the winter.

The Coolest Tribute Band Ever?

The metier of tribute bands, odd exceptions like Lez Zeppelin notwithstanding, is usually characterized by off-key vocals, carefree unprofessionalism, and rushed tempos -- everything you didn't love about the original group. But while they are nominal exponents of that crowd, you probably won't find Arthur's Landing butchering 70s rock hits at a bar anytime soon. Comprised of nearly all of the musicians who collaborated with downtown composer/disco artist Arthur Russell in his multi-faceted career -- including such notables as Modern Lovers bassist Ernie Brooks, Allen Ginsberg acolyte/performance artist Steven Hall, and fellow composer/trombonist Peter Zummo -- the loose collective of musicians has played a myriad of venues in recent months, ranging from the Issue Project Room in Gowanus to the Diesel store in Manhattan. (An insouciant type who loved ABBA and placed koala bear iconography on his records, Russell probably would have approved of the latter venue.) Even though the composer always divvied up his stable of collaborators while recording -- the patrician Brooks almost never played on Russell's dance records, while percussionist Mustafa Ahmed isn't audible on the folk-rock recordings that graced last year's posthumous Love is Overtaking Me -- the repertoire of Arthur's Landing is strangely holistic, ranging from the unreleased "It's a Boy" to the classic dance hit "Is It All Over My Face" (check out this performance with Nomi of Herclues & Love Affair on YouTube).

According to their MySpace, the group is releasing a re-recording of the latter track (titled "Love Dancing" after the original version of the song) featuring the vocal talents of Nomi and Xavier (and produced by local leftfield DJ Brennan Green) this fall. In the interim, you can catch them with Xavier at Williamsburg's Zebulon (258 Wythe Av.) tomorrow night at 10 PM. In addition to all of the usual suspects, it wouldn't be surprising if a special guest (such as Elodie Lauten, who occasionally gigs with the group) is among their ranks.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Show Review: Animal Collective at the Prospect Park Bandshell

In a 1981 interview with Geraldo Rivera, Jerry Garcia astutely compared the legions of Deadheads to licorice eaters. "Our audience is like people who like licorice," he said. "Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice." The same could be said for Animal Collective, the Baltimore-born and locally-based musical confederation (as witnessed by guitarist Josh Dibb's indefinite hiatus from the group, they can hardly be thought of as a band in the traditional sense) who have captivated mainstream audiences and the cognoscenti alike since releasing the acclaimed Merriweather Post Pavilion -- either their magnum opus or the summit of popular music's decline into irrelevancy, depending upon your perspective -- back in January. More than any other group under the "indie" aegis, the members of Animal Collective are fundamentally outre, an affront to the coldly calculated and expertly manicured veneer of the hipster epoch; in other words, they're kind of like those prematurely hirsute guys who were never invited to the society parties in high school and probably spent their earnings from RadioShack on copious amounts of certain flowering buds. Or, more reductively, they never set out to be hip, even as the urban vanguard latched on to them with unexpected aplomb. Just as the Dead remained relatively static and complacent in their ways as their instrumentation evolved, it's difficult to envision the cogent quartet doing anything differently in fifteen years -- even as a new generation of not-so-impecunious students and dreamers follow them on tour.

Saturday's concert -- marking the end of the 2009 Celebrate Brooklyn season -- was an exercise in contrasts. Young families frolicked with each other on the lawn; an aging Park Slope rocker and his Bay Ridge companion (the accent and her gushing admiration for Vesuvio's were the giveaways) downed Rocher chocolates by the box, demonstrating that the two rival nabes will indeed live in harmony someday; and yes, plenty of my not-so-impecunious peers were there, searching in vain for a party scene that never quite manifested amid the electronics and copious pot smoke. While the beat was crucial to Merriweather Post Pavillion's hits ("Brothersport" and "My Girls"), AC's roots in freak folk and the Beach Boys' psychedelic era have continually precluded them from indulging in anything close to a four-on-the-four rhythm, and Saturday's set maintained that contrarian tradition. While a select number of pop visionaries (Wilson, Perry, Eno, Russell) foresaw the dissipation of the beat into spatial luminescence, Animal Collective's rapid ascent into the collective unconsciousness has expedited this process overnight -- no small feat.

After a set of disco standards ("Make Me Believe in You", "Cymande") from XXXChange, veteran LA DJ Dam-Funk played an hour-plus set of 80s boogie and electro-funk, ranging from the predictable ("More Bounce to the Ounce") to his own self-produced tracks. Unlike most mixmasters, who seamlessly blend (or in the case of hip-hop DJs, jaggedly cut) between tracks, he saw it fit to speak over nearly every transition. This was beneficial in some instances (from the standpoint of a collector of those records, identifying them was a nice gesture), but the constant chat soon grew irksome.

And then it was time for the headliners. Opening with a reworked version of the hymnal "Grace" -- an unreleased curio and fan favorite -- Animal Collective seemed to be in perfect synchronicity with the audience. All of their recent material ("Summertime Clothes", "Guys Eyes", "Lion in a Coma", the abovementioned tracks) were performed in relatively faithful renditions that doubtless placated the new fans, but it was on their more esoteric material -- including a suite of "Fireworks" and "#1" from 2007's Strawberry Jam -- that the band truly shone. Much as the Dead's studio recordings were only springboards and loose templates for their live flights of fancy, Animal Collective indulge the live setting as an incubator of new ideas and spontaneous improvisation, a fearless stance in an era where so many artists merely "play the record", irrespective of genre.

By the time of "Lion in a Coma", a great time had been enjoyed at all. Kudos to Animal Collective and Celebrate Brooklyn for an amazing night of music.

Soul and Country come to Brooklyn

If you're a traditionalist dismayed by Bjork's incipient move to Brooklyn Heights, have no fear -- the next month is going to be a veritable cornucopia of delights for local roots music enthusiasts. On top of the 3rd annual Coney Island Rockabilly Festival (check the archives for details), the Brooklyn Soul Festival will be touching down at the Bell House on August 28th and 29th. While we can't guarantee that discerning trainspotters will find any records of substance at Saturday's Vinyl Record and Vintage Clothing Festival (this has been the province of paunchy, middle-aged veterans of the British northern soul scene for time eternal), performances by such unheralded legends as the venerable Roscoe Robinson (Friday), "Georgia Grinder" Hermon Hitson (a potential heir to the Otis throne whose promising career was derailed by a 1968 assault case; also Friday), and Maxine Brown (of "We'll Cry Together" fame) will doubtless make up for the deficit.

In mid-September, Southpaw will be hosting the sixth annual Brooklyn Country Music Festival. A melange of new traditionalists and more idiosyncratic groups (ranging from the "whackabilly" of The Defibulators to the M Shanghai String Band), this celebration of the burgeoning local country scene never fails to entertain. If you can only attend one night, don't miss September 17th's triple whammy of The Defibulators, Sean Kershaw & the New Jack Ramblers (featured in a Village Voice piece on the scene last year), and Alana Amram (the daughter of David Amram).

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Review: Everything Goes Wrong by the Vivian Girls

For anyone who still harbors the steadfast convictions that dance music is only for louche trendoids at pickup joints and the exigency of hip-hop only manifests in an ironic – and slightly dated – context, the Vivian Girls represent nothing less than a paradigm shift in popular music. For anyone who has long succumbed to the Bacchanalian thrall of the dance floor and forsook Guided by Voices for Talib Kweli a long time ago, the Vivian Girls still represent a paradigm shift in popular music. While we can safely assert on the cusp of the 2010s that rock and roll – that peculiar leviathan borne from backwoods cross-fertilization that, like any form of vernacular music in good standing, won’t go away any time soon – has experienced an unforeseen and incredible renascence over the past ten years, feral vitality has been subsumed by the brutal ardor of the conservatory.

As early as 1969, even a Bozo boor like Jim Morrison could definitively proclaim that “rock is dead” and foresee the rapid proliferation of what were then quaintly known as tape machines; within half a decade, “Autobahn” and “Love to Love You Baby” fulfilled the mandate of the lead Door’s prognostication with flying colors. The reactionary torrents of punk and some of its derivatives notwithstanding, contemporary pop is a process in enumerating upon those templates, arguably culminating in the spazzed-out bliss of pre-808s Kanye and the psych-funk furor of Ratatat and Black Moth Super Rainbow. Tellingly, when some of the working-class rapscallions of Britain’s housing estates took to more artistic inclinations in the early 00s, it was speed garage – a frantic variant of drum and bass – that served as the direct antecedent for their grimy experiments. While Dave Longstreth and Ezra Koeing are very talented individuals and seemingly genial guys, their relationship to Jerry Lee and Carl Perkins is tangential at best. Like Cleopatra and Funny Girl, the manifestos of the contemporary rock renaissance are aurally arresting but have no substance – nada, kids. Rock (irrespective of the divisive indie/corporate divide… you say bad, I say worse) has entered its Getz/Brubeck era of conscious obsolescence and avaricious omniscience. This is not to say that what Longstreth and company are doing is unlistenable (Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks” will be a standard on par with “Ipanema” or “Take Five” in fifty years, just wait and see) or entirely duplicitous (they’re using rock instrumentation, after all), but it’s deserving of a new sobriquet.

Everything Goes Wrong is the title of one of filmmaker Seijun Suzuki’s better efforts, and if Japan’s answer to Russ Meyer ever deigned to strap on an electric guitar and write 36 minutes worth of three-chord rock and roll, it would probably sound something like this. Having moved from the postindustrial milieu of the Brooklyn DIY circuit to the Plasticine depths of Los Angeles myriad freeways, the Vivian Girls have managed to channel that city’s deleterious energy into something greater than the sum of its – or their – parts. From Ali Koehler’s jazzy (and utterly taut) drumming to Cassie Ramone’s assured (and almost decipherable) vocals, the Vivian Girls have lived up to the nihilistic promise of “Such a Joke” and “Where Do You Run To”. As the titles of “Tension”, “The End”, and the epic “Double Vision” (dig Ramone’s primitive, Neil Young-via-Kevin Shields fretwork), they’ve extended their lyrical purview to more transcendental and universal concerns in a way that would make Durrell and Nin furrow their eyebrows in despair. This is a hulking piece of licentious, incendiary riffage: an off-white nexus where the scene’s prevailing Ivy aridity meets Faulknerian ramshackle bombast in a dual to the death, with the latter camp ballasted by Kickball Katy’s William Calley bass.

Nearly three decades ago, The Minutemen, Husker Du, and – most lamentably of all – The Replacements descended into modest pedantry, unable to reconcile their baser concerns with the scepter of maturity. As the Vivian Girls have ably demonstrated, you can have your cake, eat it too, and somehow beat your more recondite peers to the finish line. As for this album’s relevancy to the future of rock and roll and pop music in general? As the great Paul Nelson once ruminated, it “defines it, expands it, explodes it. Burns it to the ground.”

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Featured Concerts: 8/17-8/22

A relatively quiet week, as to be expected during the dog days of August. Still, there are a couple of interesting live choices for your perusal.

Islands, Das Racist, Radical Dads
The Bell House (149 7th St.)
7:30 PM
Having toured with the likes of Beck, Islands frontman Nick Thorbun is a spiritual cousin of funk/folk/hip-hop eclectic, producing a prolific stream of albums over the past decade that fall under such unlikely rubrics as folk and progressive rock. A must-see.

Amy Ray, Toshi Reagon
The Bell House (149 7th St.)
7:30 PM
Although they've been unfairly pigeonholed over the years as everyone's favorite socially conscious and openly lesbian folk-rock duo, the Indigo Girls have put out several pleasant records over the years. Performing songs from such solo efforts as Didn't It Feel Kinder (and maybe "Closer to Fine"), Amy Ray will renew -- or restore -- your faith in singer/songwriters.

Show Review: Brooklyn Steppers and High Places at It Came From Brooklyn

Fifth Avenue's Museum Mile is less than a half hour by subway from Borough Hall, but to invoke the time-honored wisdom of Neil Young, it's a "million miles away" culturally. Yes, Chuck Close's more enduring works and Warhol's Mao portrait may be enshrined in the Met; yes, Nicky Siano played some shindig at the Cooper-Hewitt last year; yes, Ratatat performed at the Guggenheim as early as three years ago. But for the majority of stodgy (and not-so-stodgy) Upper East Siders, the Brooklyn arts renaissance is redolent of the same exotica that once permeated the SoHo and East Village scenes in earlier decades. Rather than gradually ingratiating the two disparate entities through the usual means of avarice and acquisition, former gallery owner and current Guggenheim special events coordinator Bronwyn Keegan came up with the brilliant idea of bringing Brooklyn's best writers and musicians to the Guggenheim itself. The result is the It Came From Brooklyn series, which kicked off on Friday with performances by an eclectic variety of local talents.

After a deliriously smarmy comedy set from former Saturday Night Live writer (and Brooklyn resident) Leo Allen, Bed-Stuy's own Brooklyn Steppers dazzled the audience with a medley of popular songs and intricate drum solos. Although the audience seemed to initially treat the ensemble with an air of blaseness -- it's a marching band, after all -- the prodigiously talented Steppers (some musicians are still in grade school) transcended the usual drumline theatrics and the venue's poor acoustics. By the end of their twenty minute set, nearly every member of the crowd was hollering with rapturous glee, a testament to their burgeoning talents. If a local Lindsay Buckingham is looking to spruce up his arrangements, look no further.

With an arsenal heavily dependent "layered recordings, improvised loops, and percussion," fellow Bed-Stuyers High Places were ideal for this type of event -- their lilting music does not require immediate attention, but such focus hardly detracts from appreciating them. Vocalist Mary Pearson's funereal bassoon playing recalled the postminimal stylings of trombonist Peter Zummo and multi-instrumentalist Jon Gibson, while knob-turner Rob Barber seemed to be in awe of his surroundings, thanking the audience on several occassions and citing the Brooklyn Steppers as "the best openers they've ever had." While their twisted, amelodic sounds may not be for everyone, the group is well on their way to cementing their place on the vanguard of the Brooklyn scene.

Overall, It Came From Brooklyn was a testament to how far our borough has come as an arts mecca over the past decade. I -- and, quite likely, many others -- eagerly anticipate attending September's show.

Friday, August 14, 2009

BrooklynBio: Arthur Rhames

As the world mourns the passing of madcap free jazz drummer Rashied Ali, it is important to note that Ali's legacy extends far beyond the sonic pyrotechnics of Ascension and New Directions in Jazz Music. Long after his halcyon days in the mid-sixties, the prolific Ali continued to champion musicians of the same iconoclastic pedigree as John Coltrane and James "Blood" Ulmer. Among the less fortuitous of these collaborators was Bed-Stuy native Arthur Rhames, a fusion prodigy whose intermittent career and rampant egotism belied a talent that, in Ali's estimation, was on par with the "greatest musicians God ever put on this Earth." Today, Rhames' imprimatur is the stuff of forgotten indie labels and luminiferous memories, but his recondite profile has cast a towering shadow among the cognoscenti well into the 2000s: Vernon Reid of Living Colour described Rhames' guitar style (he also played tenor sax and melodica to rapturous acclaim) as "frightening" in an interview conducted three years after the musician died of AIDS complications in 1989, and even the laconic Bill Frisell cited Rhames as an "overwhelming" presence, adding that he had "never seen the guitar played that way." Like another multi-instrumentalist named Arthur who helped to define the epoch, minimalist composer/dance auteur Arthur Russell, Rhames' output was uniquely variegated, a jarring confluence of influences that ranged from his Hare Krishna faith (he was a regular at the Krishna temple at 439 Henry Street in Cobble Hill, a brisk fifteen-to-twenty minute walk from the Eagle's offices) to R&B to free jazz to the stentorian excesses of Mahavishnu Orchestra. As such, it's hardly surprising that this style only became germane to record company scouts in the wake of his untimely death -- when drummer and steadfast collaborator Charles Telerant mentioned that he had played with Rhames to Brian Bachhus of Verve Records, the A&R executive offered to sign the enigmatic local legend to a career-making deal on the spot -- an offer that was rescinded when Telerant informed him that Rhames had been deceased for three weeks.

Garnering his initial reputation (ballasted by a profile in Guitar World) as the pubescent guitarist with local jazz-funk trio Eternity, "the Brooklyn Flash" embraced the jazz orthodoxy in his early twenties, busking frequently in Union Square in various permutations with Telerant and a trio configuration that included pianist John Esposito and Jeff Siegel on drums. The few recordings of Rhames from this era, collected on a tribute album recorded with Ali (The Dynamic Duo Remember Trane and Bird) and a lone live album (Live from Soundscape) find him increasingly dependent upon the tenor saxophone and emulating Coltrane's late-period deconstructionism (the Trio's microtonal take on "I Got Rhythm" from Soundscape is a competent demonstration of this approach). In 1984, Rhames (credited as "Butch") contributed pedestrian guitar and keyboards to Positive Power by Steve Arrington's Hall of Fame, an obscure boogie-disco effort.

Rhames remains an elusive figure even in jazz circles, but a reappraisal seems to be on the horizon. An official website showcases scintillating rock fretwork from his Eternity days and highlights from the the mellifluous jazz recordings that eventually manifested, while an unreleased duo album with Telerant was recently released to favorable notices.

Ego considerations notwithstanding, it's difficult to ascertain why Rhames failed to attain even a modicum of success in the insular world of jazz. As an instrumentalist, his crossover appeal to pop audiences was limited at best; moreover, as an African-American gay man who refused to compromise with the duplicity of the music industry, he may have simply been too ahead of his time.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Review: Silk Flowers (2009)

Multifariousness will likely define the musical legacy of the 2000s; as a friend remarked recently, the postmodern bricolage of Beck's Odelay was so far ahead of its time in 1996 that no one could have possibly anticipated the influence of that aesthetic. Yet this genre-spanning amenability came at the sacrifice of several longstanding forms, and whether you want to chalk it up to Bush-era hubris or the transition of musical breeding grounds from the dishabille of suburban basements to Five Colleges gravitas, the goth is as blithely anachronistic as shoulder pads at the cusp of the 2010s. From what I've seen, Aviram Cohen, Ethan Swan, and Peter Schuette do not take their lyrical cues from Robert Smith or Ian Curtis, but their debut album -- released concurrently with Quentin Tarantino's likely-misbegotten comeback attempt Inglorious Basterds -- is something of a distant cousin of that director's oeuvre on the surface; while Cohen and company may never be partial to black eyeliner and bondage pants, the pastiche element (channeling and reconstituting the usual touchstones of Closer, Flowers of Romance, Mask, a tinge of 20 Jazz Funk Greats, and -- duh -- Pornography) is almost too cloying to fathom at times.

Ever so occasionally, however, the specious kind of pastiche that has been inculcated to us in overt and not-so-overt ways by the trepidatious postmodern hegemony over the past forty years can be successfully subverted -- witness the Astaire-meets-They Live By Night lunacy of Pierrot le fou -- and that is precisely what this Brooklyn-based trio does here. While the Curtis-on-helium vocals that permeate about half the tracks lend the proceedings an air of inveterate studiousness, other tracks (the mostly instrumental "Costume", "Shadows in Daylight") are suffused with decadent Teutonic-via-"Let's Go to Bed" synthesizers and loping drums that suggest a repudiation of the past. The arrythmic, distorted drum machines (one of those counterintuitive textural innovations rarely touched upon since Mtume's mid-70s stint with the Miles Davis) of "Night Shades" will mollify contemporary Brooklyn audiences, but it also hints at their far-reaching potential.

It is only inevitable that the Brooklyn scene will soon produce a Music from Big Pink or There's A Riot Goin' On for the disaffected masses of Generation Y, a musical conflagration of past and future that will lead to yet another paradigm shift in popular music. Silk Flowers is a taste of that looming change, and a subtle reminder that the best is yet to come.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Knitting Factory re-opens in Brooklyn with Les Savy Fav

Since the late 80s, Tribeca's Knitting Factory has hosted postminimalist composers like Elodie Lauten and Arthur Russell, my friends in the Mighty Handful (who recently broke up due to the usual extenuating circumstances), Allen Ginsberg (who read his Selected Poems in a celebrated five-night engagement mere months before his death), scores of ska bands, Sixties commune ensemble YaHoWah 13, and even esteemed academic/Hudson Valley folk legend Harry Stoneback. It's the kind of curatorial diversity that you seldom see at Brooklyn shows these days, which is what makes the venue's upcoming move to Williamsburg so exciting.

After months of anticipation that built to a crescendo when the So So Glos announced a performance in their fall tour itinerary, it appears that local indie rock veterans Les Savy Fav are christening the new space on September 9th. One of the few groups anthologized on the seminal This Is Next Year: A Brooklyn-Based Compilation (2001) that are still active, "beardo" (as per his Pitchfork TV show) Tim Harrington's merry band of understated musicians are nothing less than a living history of local alternative music at this juncture. From the anarchic post-hardcore of early efforts like 3/5 to the dance-inflected art punk of 2007's Let's Stay Friends, they've always been ahead of the trends. Don't miss this.

Crate Dig: John Fahey/Peter Lang/Leo Kottke (1974)

Somewhere in the endless stream of Liza Minnelli albums and worn-out Camelot soundtracks at Park Slope's venerated Record and Tape Shop, I came across this totemic countercultural gem. Rugged, paunchy -- and, in Fahey and Lang's case, already balding when this album was released in 1974 -- these cats were the unlikeliest of hippie idols (the rising sun and pliant birds of the cover completely notwithstanding, of course). Aside from their atypically self-reliant spirit (Fahey owned the independent Takoma Records long before creative control was fashionable) and dexterous mastery of fingerpicked blues stylings, what tied these musicians together was a commitment to virtuosity that exploited the spectrum of diffidence -- thus obviating any appearance of "virtuosity" in the textbook sense. For Fahey and his fellow "American Primitives", the unclassifiable and nebulous was a signpost to such genres as protean noise rock (Fahey's final recordings), New Age (Kottke's 80s output), and traditional blues (the motif that recurs throughout Lang's career).

Released five years after Takoma's greatest success (Kottke's debut, 6 and 12-String Guitar), this compilation was released with the consumer in mind; indeed, Kottke appears courtesy of Capitol Records. Listening to the bluesy "Cripple Creak" and "Red & White" today, it's difficult to fathom the guitarist's eventual retrenchment into Windham Hill somnambulance, although he probably was always the closest to Leon Redbone of the lot. Lang is even more of an anomaly, having eschewed music for a career as an animator throughout much of the 80s and 90s, and his playing is characterized by a certain hesitance here. While "St. Charles Shuffle" and "When Kings Come Home" are shamelessly derivative of Fahey and Kottke to the point where they come off as rote exercises, those strands converge into a highly individual style on the culminating "Thoth Song", a laconic melange of psychedelia, whitewashed folk, and traditional blues.

Although he never attained the relative commercial prominence of Kottke, Fahey -- a garrulous academic (he held a graduate degree in folklore studies from UCLA) and cult hero whose musical interests dovetailed more with the Velvet Underground than whatever the fellow adherents of Swami Satchidananda (his guru of circumstance) were listening to at the time -- emerges as the most commercially-oriented of the three on this release. "Revolt of the Dyke Brigade" is the guitarist at his effusive best, mixing front-porch bluesiness with caustic humor, but "On the Sunny Side of the Ocean" and "In Christ There is No East or West" constitute the dirgelike pap that necessitated the punk revolution. It's a marvel that Fahey couldn't carry a tune, or else these songs would have been indistinguishable from the products of the L.A. hit machine of the epoch. (Fahey would soon rebound with 1975's Old Fashioned Love, a bloozy collection of ragtime and jazzy pop that may be his best effort.)

All in all, John Fahey... is a satisfactory introduction to the American folk vanguard of the 1970s. Whether this is anybody's cup of tea amid the bravado of 2009 is anyone's guess, but the enduring popularity of Fahey amid younger listeners and Kottke's relentless touring schedule (he's playing the Hamptons soon) suggests that fingerpicking guitar is here to stay.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Featured Concerts: 8/08-8/15

08/08: Big Daddy Kane, Rahzel, Blitz the Ambassador, Emilio Rojas, Retro Kidz
Prospect Park Bandshell
7 PM

One of the most revered figures of the golden age of hip-hop, lifelong Brooklyn resident Big Daddy Kane -- best remembered for the seminal It's a Big Daddy Thing -- has exerted a tremendous influence on commercially-oriented MCs (Jay-Z was his protege in the early nineties) and the contemporary alternative scene. Along with Chuck D, Kane was one of the first rap lyricists to combine lyrical acuity with the braggadocio of the streets, providing an essential template for the Wu Tang collective and most New York MCs since 1990. Among the opening acts are Ghananian polymath Blitz the Ambassador (whose globe-trotting Stereotype was just released to favorable reviews) and hi-top fade revivalists the Retro Kidz, whose 1987 electro sound will doubtless thrill any fans of the era.

8/08: Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival: The Juan MacLean, Young Love, Designer Drugs, many others
The Old American Can Factory (232 3rd St.)

4 PM

No, the line-up is not nearly as interesting as I had initially envisaged. But the Juan MacLean are a formidable live act, and DJs like Ayres and Roxy Cottontail will transport you back to the glory days of The Shank or Studio B. Young Love is a dubious choice, but their dearth of new material means that they've probably been cooking up some interesting tunes over the past few years. With 12 hours of dancing at a rate commensurate with those charged by the avaricious promoters of modern clubland, a deal is a deal.

08/15: Publicist, Ian Svenonious, Justin Miller, Jacques Renault, Lovefingers
Market Hotel (1142 Myrtle Av.)
12 AM

Co-promoted by the venerable Todd P. and the fellows behind San Francisco's Donuts parties (they've hosted Lindstrom and techno innovator Juan Atkins in recent months), this off-kilter dance extravaganza features Washington post-hardcore veteran/indie impresario Ian Svenonius, disco revivalist Jacques Renault, and minimalist blogger/producer Lovefingers. If that isn't enough of an incentive, the cover includes free vegan baked goods.

08/08: Seasick Steve, The Woes, Pete Bernhard
Southpaw (125 5th Av.)
8 PM

While he often looks like a disheveled and potentially deranged panhandler who frequents the R line, rest assured: Seasick Steve is much cooler than we could ever hope to be. Trained as a blues guitarist by K.C. Douglas (the writer of "Mercury Blues"), Steve (nee Steven Wold) has spent much of his life as an itinerant train-hopping hobo, busker, and migrant worker. That said, his music industry acquaintances are nothing short of stellar -- a pal of Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell on the folk circuit in the 60s, he produced Modest Mouse's debut album in the mid-nineties and befriended Kurt Cobain while living in Olympia in the late eighties. Properly discovered in his own right after moving to Norway in 2001, the bluesman -- and recent British sensation -- is best known for his diverse array of customized instruments, including the "Three-String Trance Wonder" (a hollowbody guitar with only three strings), a one-stringed diddley bow, and the "Mississippi Drum Machine" (a wooden box that he stomps on). Opening are The Woes, an Americana/country blues outfit quite compatible with Steve's ramshackle style.

08/15: Six Finger Satellite, Pterodactyl, Pop 1280
Southpaw (125 5th Av.)
8 PM

More than the effete purists in Neutral Milk Hotel, Six Finger Satellite were the most influential indie rock band of the mid-to-late nineties. Embracing Eighties revivalism and the sounds of krautrock well before either became fashionable, their legacy ranges the gamut from James Murphy and John MacLean of DFA Records fame to the local noise rock scene. Openers Pterodactyl purvey a brand of spacey noise rock that is quite copacetic with the headliners' extreme sound.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Mighty Sparrow (and Sean Paul) come to Brooklyn

Much as the Tammany Hall machine once wooed prospective supporters with riotous block parties during its late nineteenth century heyday, Marty Markowitz has all but secured my vote this year with his strident dedication to the arts. Over the past two years, Markowitz-sponsored neighborhood music festivals (like Coney Island's Seaside Summer Concerts) have brought Brian Wilson, John Sebastian, Donna Summer, and Blondie (the latter two in the coming weeks) to Brooklyn... gratis. This is a far cry from my childhood a mere decade ago, when events of the same pedigree seemed to be the perpetual stalking grounds of cover bands and doo-wop groups that may or may not have featured the original members. (While I will readily concede that some vocal groups have aged gracefully and the "tribute band" moniker should not be equated with censoriousness, the exceptions are far outnumbered by the middling masses.)

But I digress.

Occassionally, Marty's cadre of programmers will hit a homer so far out of the park that the increasing vicissitudes of life in the city become immediately worthwhile. This is exemplified by Caribbean Night -- the capstone concert of the Martin Luther King Concert Series at Wingate Field in Crown Heights on August 24th -- which, as part of a time-honored borough tradition, will feature the 74 year old (and thoroughly inimitable) Mighty Sparrow.

Although Harry Belafonte was anointed as the King of Calypso after his mammoth popular successes in the 1950s, the actor/singer/activist was naturally reticent to accept the title. Throughout the Caribbean, the Grenada-born Sparrow (who grew up in Trinidad and has spent considerable time in Queens) has defined the idiom for generations of fans. Blending effusive lyrics that touch upon social commentary and more ribald matters to beats and horn arrangements that presaged funk, the music of Sparrow (nee Slinger Francisco) was -- and is -- a hedonistic, intransigent antithesis to the catholic interpretations of Belefonte; in the process, he has embraced more contemporary styles such as soca. (Indeed, Sparrow last won the prestigious Carnival Road March music prize in 1984, well into his fifties.) Briefly signed to RCA at the behest of Belafonte in the late 50s, Sparrow's extemporizations -- evoking, according to Robert Christgau, "African roots, interracial revenge, interracial sex, male-female relations, and cannibalism" -- failed to resonate with a Middle America already bedraggled by the exotica of early rock and roll, and the calypsonian promptly retreated to Britain.

One of the more ardent champions of Sparrow's oeuvre was Van Dyke Parks, the diminutive songwriter best known for his collaborations with Brian Wilson and the 1968 commercial folly Song Cycle. Parks's follow-up to Song Cycle, the beguiling Discover America (1972) was a de facto tribute to the singer and his cohorts (including the irascible Lord Kitchener), with Parks covering the whimsical "Jack Palance". Their connection culminated in 1974's Hot and Sweet, a seldom-heard Sparrow album produced by Parks that stands as one of my most coveted albums. (Does anyone have a copy?)

Sparrow is opening for dancehall sensation Sean Paul, but it would be a disservice to your musical palette if you failed to experience him in the flesh. And as its a free show, why not?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Clay Cole and the Paramount Theater

Although this blog is mainly geared towards contemporary music, one would be remiss in dismissing Brooklyn's storied musical heritage. Long before the borough's ascendancy in the popular eye of the 2000s, the Paramount Theater -- located at the intersection of Flatbush and DeKalb Avenues on the border between Fort Greene and the downtown district -- served as the premier venue for three generations of pop acts in a reign that spanned the jazz and rock eras. From a celebrated Duke Ellington performance in 1931 to Miles Davis's flippantly cool jazz to the theater's halcyon days in the late Fifties, when Little Richard and Chuck Berry regaled northern audiences with their provocative fusion of country and R&B music, the Paramount was nothing less than a microcosm of the pop charts. Alas, all good things must come to an end, and 47 years ago this August 23rd (as per Eagle historian John Manbeck), the redoubtable theater closed, having been purchased by Long Island University in 1960 as the cornerstone of their Brooklyn campus. (Soul progenitor Jackie Wilson, "Mr. Excitement" himself, was the final performer.) Although the 4,124-seat Paramount was equipped with full theatrical facilities, films were the bread and butter of the theater's profits; as ticket sales began to be eclipsed by television, the behemoth movie palaces of yesteryear simply couldn't compete with the new medium.

After a legendary payola scandal destroyed the career of rock and roll factotum Alan Freed in 1958, Clay Cole stepped into the void as one of New York's most recognizable musical ambassadors. Described as a more urbane version of American Bandstand and the Buddy Deane Show (the inspiration for Hairspray), the Clay Cole Show introduced audiences to Chubby Checker (who first performed "The Twist" on the program), Brooklyn's own Neil Diamond, and late comedians George Carlin & Richard Pryor in their pre-countercultural incarnations. Cole also took over promotional duties at the Paramount, with his ten-day 1960 Christmas spectacular breaking the venue's all-time box office record. It would not be an understatement to say that Cole played an integral role in keeping the nascent flames of rock and soul alive when so many of their initial exponents had been neutralized.

Disenchanted with psychedelia, Cole left the music business in 1968 to pursue a behind-the-scenes career as an Emmy-winning director of television specials. Although he has retired to North Carolina, Cole returned to Brooklyn this past March for a symposium and revival show honoring the Paramount Theater at Long Island University (while the theater now functions as the university's gymnasium, enough of the original structure -- including the cherished Wurlitzer organ -- has been preserved to allow for occasional concerts featuring many of the same performers who played there 50 years ago). And, most intriguingly of all, the former impresario is releasing his memoir -- Sh-Boom! The Explosion of Rock 'n' Roll (1953-1968) -- this October. If the accompanying publicity is any indication, local fans can expect plenty of Paramount stories in this essential addition to the body of rock literature.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Show Review: Dan Deacon/Deerhunter/No Age

It seemed illogical and just a tad bemusing on paper. Although Dan Deacon, Deerhunter, and No Age are among the most popular crossover acts to have emerged from the indie scene, their respective styles couldn't be any more disparate. The enigmatic Deacon, who is arguably better known for his showmanship than his musical output at this stage, fuses wordless adenoidal vocals (Philip Glass on Ritalin would not be an exaggeration) with electronic instrumentation; it's dance music absolved of its funky underpinnings. With roots in Brooklyn and Georgia, Deerhunter's imaginatively loping take on psychedelia and relentless touring garnered a huge fanbase throughout 2008. Finally, the ruffians in No Age have embraced the contrarian strains of primeval punk rock, all the while subsuming their classicism in the requisite dollops of noise that are somehow equated with ingenuity in the eclectic waters of 2009. It may be a coldly calculated sound, yet it somehow remains imprinted on the brain -- musical Ubik, if you will.

Initially scheduled as part of the free Pool Parties series at East River State ParkKent Avenue in Williamsburg, yesterday's inclimate weather forced the show to be moved to nearby Brooklyn Bowl on North 11th Street. With a capacity of around 600, the bowling alley (one of only five left in the borough) could not comfortably accommodate the large turnout, fueling the flames of irreverent commenters on the popular BrooklynVegan blog; before long, a second show was hastily added. Despite the initial fracas, the show did not turn into a boondoggle like the final day of the All Points West festival in New Jersey -- indeed, some commenters were referring to the first concert as "the concert of the year" before midnight.

After an opening act, the three headliners performed "round robin" style. For the uninitiated, this uniquely Baltimorian style of performance involves all acts performing on stage at once, switching after every song. It is certainly more egalitarian than the traditional mode of performance (a boon to the musicians), while the format inherently lends itself to a more varied type of show -- one where inter-band collusions are very common. In a highlight of the evening, Dan Deacon spontaneously dueted with Deerhunter's Bradford Cox (a truly genial soul who thanked audience members while waiting in the very long queue).

Lacking much of the usual histrionics, the Deacon songs were by far the weakest of the evening. On his last tour, the rotund Baltimorean was joined by an ensemble of live musicians who added a new level of panache to his frantic compositions. The Brooklyn Bowl set, on the contrary, skewed heavily towards note-by-note recreations of material from his latest album (Bromst); without the net of the backing band, Deacon was forced to attend to his array of clangorous machines instead of indulging in the crowd dancing that he prefers. No Age also yielded towards their album in their pro forma set, but the throng of dancers towards the front of the stage reminded skeptics that there is still room for odd gesticulations at rock and roll shows. Thank heavens.

It was Deerhunter that stole the show for me. Since seeing them well over a year ago, the permanently emaciated Cox (like Joey Ramone and Michael Phelps, he suffers from Marfan syndrome) has matured into a Morrisonian frontman, controlling the audience with a gravitas not seen all that often among today's diffident musicians. While Microcastle and Cryptograms were good albums, hearing those songs in their live iterations only reinforced their preeminence. Truly captivating stuff.

As the show concluded with a Dan Deacon light show and a two-way drone jam between No Age and Deerhunter, I smiled. It certainly wasn't the best show o
f the year, but all three acts had beat the odds with grace.

MyPod: "Deadbeat Summer" by Neon Indian

Neon Indian have yet to release an album, but you wouldn't know that from the hyperbolic plaudits that can be found in Rolling Stone and recent Pitchfork posts. Comprised of Austin-via-suburban Dallas auteur Alan Palomo (best known for his work with Ghosthustler, perhaps the only group in recent history to make it on an MTV channel without releasing a single album) and Brooklyn-based video artist Alicia Scardetta, the band stands on the putative forefront of the nascent "chillwave" movement -- which, for all the furrowed eyebrows out there, is a mediaspeak descriptor for post-MGMT electro/psychedelic rock that will likely enter the popular vernacular for about three minutes in October (c.f. new rave, freak folk). This is probably a good thing, as Palomo and Scardetta are actually pioneering a new -- and most unclassifiable -- metier equally informed by avant-garde art, saccharine pop, the backwoods breakbeats of Black Moth Super Rainbow, and the enduring legacy of such quintessentially Texan mavericks as Roky Erickson. Spurious hype notwithstanding, they are the real thing.

With a paucity of good summer songs this year (Pitbull's "Calle Ocho" was on the radio in March here in New York, while the apocalyptic, timorous "Voodoo City" by YACHT evoked visions of William Burroughs on the beach), Neon Indian have stepped improbably into the void with "Deadbeat Summer". Over a bed of detuned synthesizers and heavily processed lo-fi guitars, Palomo murmurs vacuous lyrics (a la Michael Stipe circa 1983) before concluding that "it's like a deadbeat summer". The bass and drums may lack the "momentum" discerned by Pitchfork's reviewer -- indeed, the beat is more comparable to a hip-hop or left field dub reggae production than anything by Gary Numan or the Human League -- but for those of us who have been looking to replace "Genius of Love" with a contemporary song on our summer mix CDs for some time now, this will certainly suffice.

Psychic Chasms, their first full length release (at 30 minutes, it's been alternatively described as an EP and an album... go figure), is due on October 13th. Until then, sate your taste for the new sound by downloading "Deadbeat Summer" for free at Prefix magazine's website.