Streets of your town: This week's concert offerings, featuring Yellow Dogs, Xray Eyeballs, Slick Rick, Adam Kolker and more
If there was a single theme to the year we just put behind us, it was unrest. That Time named "The Protestor" its person of the year should be a sure enough sign of that.
That chaos reigns is also evident to anyone who's spent time at a show by the Brooklyn band XRay Eyeballs (Jan. 2, Mercury Lounge). Led by San Francisco transplant O. J. San Felipe and rounded out by a po-faced army of punk-rock vets, the group toes a gloomy line between goth and garage, writing big, doomy songs that could serve as a soundtrack to a particularly spirited night of grave-robbing. Where bands like the Misfits ratcheted up their spookiness to—quite literally—comic proportions, XRay Eyeballs prefer steady shiver to Monster Mash. Their shows are slapdash and calamitous, and they often end with San Felipe playing his guitar in the audience or kicking and twitching as he's passed over the heads of fans. In the video for the band's first single, "Crystal," San Felipe spasms and trips as his bandmates gleefully stab his voodoo doll likeness; the band's shows are driven by that same dark energy.
Yellow Dogs (Jan. 4, Glasslands) do some twitching and spasming themselves, all within their fierce, fitful songs. They’re also no strangers to politically-motivated dissent. Formed in Tehran in 2006, the band had its music declared illegal by Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and, after playing a handful of risky underground shows and netting a slot on the soundtrack to the indie film No One Knows About Persian Cats, they relocated to Brooklyn in 2010. Their music, fortunately, lost none of its bite in the transition. The songs on their fantastic In the Kennel EP are lean and snarling, pairing the curdled funk of bands like Gang of Four with the bug-eyed bellowing of the Sex Pistols. You can hear other British bands kicking around in the group's tightly-wound guitars and elliptical rhythms: the dead-eyed nihilism of Joy Division, the acrid humor of The Fall. Mostly, though, they sound determined, a riot of sound dead set on raging against the enclosing night.
Compared to XRay Eyeballs and Yellow Dogs, saxophone player Adam Kolker (Jan. 3, Iridium) may seem downright reserved. Don't be fooled: the songs on his 2008 album Flag Day are a dense, delirious tangle, notes darting in odd, unlikely directions. He tears the floorboards from Neil Young's "Don't Let it Bring You Down," letting its forlorn melody twist lonesome in the wind. This year's Reflections is no different. It opens on a note of distinct unease, a cluster of out-of-sync chords exhaling nervously over and over. The notes crystallize and vanish like hot breath in cold air. Even lighter numbers, like the lithe, lovely "Reflection," are speckled with odd notes of unease—a resolution to a minor, a dangling melodic phrase. In a recent interview, Kolker attributes much of his style to listening to what's happening around him. It's little surprise that some dissonance is going to find its way in.
Like Yellow Dogs, Preservation Hall Jazz Band (Jan. 7, Carnegie Hall) also suffered a period of uncertainty, wondering when and how they could continue as a unit. And, also like Yellow Dogs, some of that had to do with the government. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the subsequent mismanagement of relief efforts—an event that, itself, caused no small number of uprisings—the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was effectively locked out of the building from which they took their name, unable to return until April of the following year. As tragic as that setback was, it's almost fitting—in a way, the ensemble is better understood as an idea than as a band. Since its inception in the 1960s, the group has been home to a rotating cast of seasoned players, but the mission has remained steadfast: to represent the rich musical history of their native New Orleans. Anyone with even a passing interest in popular music knows what to expect: big, swinging rhythms, beaming, gospel-derived vocal melodies, and horns that pitch and sway like a giddy drunk raising up a full glass of bourbon. It's proof that even a callous, inefficient government can't conquer a determined spirit.
Which, naturally, brings us to Slick Rick (Jan. 6, Brooklyn Bowl), who was enjoying a modestly successful career on the hip-hop oldies circuit when aggressive INS agents apprehended him as he was re-entering the United States following a cruise ship performance in 2001. Rick, who was born in London to Jamaican parents and moved to the United States as a youth, careened in and out of jail intil 2006, when then-Governor David Paterson granted him a pardon (He recounted his struggles to navigate the legal system in a candid NPR interview). Despite his travails, Rick isn't so much a political firebrand as an impish rabblerouser. On his best-known songs—among them "A Children's Story" and "Mona Lisa"—he weaves dizzying narratives over rubbery production, with a wry detachment and a weakness for a corny punchline that rivals Woody Allen. Many rappers experience a precipitous dip in both ability and believability once they cross the other side of 40, but on "Need Some Bad," a song he recorded with DJ Premier for the here-and-gone Jonah Hill movie The Sitter, Rick sounds as jovial as ever, dropping goofy X-Rated punchlines over Premier's cartoonish production. His return couldn't be more welcome—after all, every revolution needs some comic relief.
It's no accident that most revolutions begin with the young. In order to get off the ground, protests require the perfect alchemy of determination and dogged belief in life's possibilities.
Accordingly, two bands this week—Yellow Ostrich (Jan. 5, Music Hall of Williamsburg) and reunited hardcore vets Lifetime (Jan. 7, Europa)—capture those qualities in equal measure. The former began as the bedroom project of Alex Schaaf, who stacked and looped his tender, tentative voice over quick flashes of guitar and boxy percussion—treating it more like an instrument than a conduit for lyrics. His songs reflect the innocence of youth, many of them made up of simple strings of syllables ("Hahahaohhoho") or mythical, storybook creatures ("WHALE"). But even in Schaaf's sunny worldview, darkness is creeping in around the edges. The yearning ballad "Mary" concludes with Schaaf resignedly admitting, "Mary you are doing drugs—don't you think we know?" It's an admission that innocence can only get a person so far.
If Schaaf is characterized by his optimism, Lifetime are consumed by sincerity. During their initial run in the 1990s, the New Jersey group put the brakes on hardcore's hammering rhythms and injected it with a full dosage of fearless sincerity. In doing so, they carved out a unique niche, one that imagined dewy-eyed sentiment expressed by a barrel-chested circle pit enthusiast. It was potent proof that aggression and earnestness worked best in tandem. They've been reuniting sporadically since 2005, and this Brooklyn show promises to deliver raw emotion at top volume. As they put it in a song from their searing 1995 masterpiece Hello Bastards, "Irony is for suckers."