10:03 am Jan. 9, 2012
If the opening weeks of 2012 are trying to teach us anything, it's not to confuse the improbable with the impossible. To wit: A presidential candidate used to holding rallies to empty rooms can suddenly surge to prominence, a band best known for occupying arenas in the '80s can turn up in a downtown folk club to play a show for 250 people, and the deep, dour, world-weary voice bellowing from behind a backdrop of rickety guitars might just belong to a 17-year-old kid.
The kid in question is King Krule (Jan 11, Mercury Lounge, Jan, 13, Glasslands), known to his parents as Archy Marshall and to particularly dedicated indie obscurantists as Zoo Kid, the name under which he used to record. His songs are equally fickle, powered one minute by sputtering dubstep rhythms, the next by little more than threadbare guitar and Marshall's voice. About that voice: thick, glottal, and at times sounding like Edwyn Collins drunkenly attempting a Billy Bragg song at karaoke, it's the one constant throughout the King's unpredictable songs; the awkwardness of adolescence marvelously personified.
There's a different kind of awkwardness at work in the music of Girls (Jan. 14, Terminal 5), the San Francisco band that has steadily risen to unlikely levels of popularity on the back of two LPs and the bizarre backstory of frontman Christopher Owens, who was raised as a member of the cult the Children of God until he was a teenager. That a kid who was sheltered from rock music for the bulk of his formative years could write songs so clearly steeped in its history is one of the band's improbable miracles. Both their first album—blithely titled Album—and this year's superior Father Son Holy Ghost play like pop history on shuffle, making stops at '50s rockabilly, nervous new wave, and even heartfelt gospel-R&B, Like King Krule, the songs twitch with nervousness and naiveté, but where Krule stumbles over his lyrics, Owens sings his bell clear, with disarming tenderness. A few of the Internet's more cynical corners have raised hackles about Owens' pulp novel backstory, but there is very little gimmickry to the music itself—making the band's slow creep out of the shadows of indie rock into more mainstream consciousness something of a surprise. Songs like the bounding "Magic" or poodle-skirt ballad "Saying I Love You" could have been born in the Brill Building, proof that some trends simply defy prediction.
In truth, Girls occupy a middle ground between the gangly adolescence of King Krule and the radiant guitar-pop of The Lemonheads (Jan. 11, Knitting Factory Brooklyn), who arrive in New York to play their breakthrough album, It's a Shame About Ray, from start to finish. Both Girls and the Lemonheads feature a troubled, astonishingly good-looking frontman with a knack for irresistible choruses and a passing vocal similarity to Elvis Costello. But the Lemonheads—which, at this point, is essentially just an alias for that frontman, Evan Dando—owe more to the loose jangle of '80s college rock than to '50s jukebox hits. Even 20 years on, Ray still sounds resplendent, Dando's wounded croon gliding across brisk, tumbling guitars. Though Dando earned a reputation in the '90s for alarming unpredictability, by all accounts those days are behind him. The conceit of playing albums from start to finish may have become wearying, but this is one instance where it makes sense to stick to the script.
Sticking to a script is probably not the guiding principle for any of the shows to be performed by the bloodshot blues-rock band Endless Boogie (Jan. 12, Union Pool) during their month-long residency at Union Pool this month. The band stretch out songs out until they're miles long, creating plenty of real estate for guitarists Paul Major and Jesper Eklow to run loose. In fact, the songs are often just elaborate excuses for extended solos; hip-swiveling groover "Mighty Fine Pie" barrels through a full two minutes of growling guitars before scorched-larynx vocalist Top Dollar turns up to cough out a series of increasingly dirty punchlines. Some of the band's members are employees of the indie label Matador. Luckily, whatever self-awareness that pedigree entails doesn't blunt the force of their spectacularly crude blues.
Jazz, of course, thrives on the power of the unexpected—the surprising figures and phrases that emerge from endless improvisation. Two acts at opposite ends of the spectrum—veteran pianist McCoy Tyner (Jan 10-11, The Blue Note) and obstinate Chicgo jazz outfit Herculaneum (Jan. 10, Cake Shop)—understand the power of the open end. There are similarities in the music to be sure; both offset big, bold, declarative phrases with jittery, free-roaming solos. Tyner's work, both as a member of John Coltrane's early '60s group as well as on his own groundbreaking solo albums, is a clear predecessor to the younger Herculaneum (whose founding member, drummer Dylan Ryan, is quickly establishing a sterling reputation in the Chicago jazz community). Tyner's colorful post-bop, particularly on albums like 1967's The Real McCoy, had a kind of giddy velocity, with the pianist both taking extended solos that feel like woozy walks through midnight city streets, and also laying a firm foundation for whirlwinds of saxophone. Herculaneum's music is slightly more chaotic—they harden Tyner's freewheeling post-bop into something sterner and more angular. Songs like "Temporary Orca," from their excellent new album Olives & Orchids moves like a giant piece of Industrial Revolution-era machinery, all whistles and pops and frantic trembles. Both are united by their limitless capacity to surprise.
The music of Swedish metal act Graveyard (Jan. 12, Bowery Ballroom) is not without its own measure of chaos. They're what might happen if Endless Boogie condensed their roaming blues jams into compact, white-hot comets of sound. Their latest album, Hisingen Blues, is as vicious and blinding as a razor blade pinwheel, taking the wild-eyed mania of early Judas Priest and the unabashed hookiness of AC/DC and dosing it with a kind of delicious meanness. What sets Graveyard apart is their ability to bury irresistible hooks beneath the surface snarl. "Burying Truth" claws like a caged tiger, but its chorus is speckled with a series of sugary "oooh oooh oooh"s—making for one of hard rock's sweeter surprises.
In fact, one of the greatest things about living in New York is that it offers unexpected pleasures in seemingly limitless supply. The potential for discovery is especially high at a show headlined by the winsome indie pop group Field Mouse (Jan. 12, Cake Shop). On their own, they make the evening worthwhile. Their songs are lazy and soothing, vocalist Rachel Browne's delicate, sighing alto tugging along the group's beguiling songs like a child in a toy store. They share the bill with a trio of equally bewitching bands—Emperor X, who deliver oddball pop music populated by swollen synths and strange noises, Gracie, whose single "Treehouse" is hazy and weird, shrouding bleary vocals in nauseous electronics, and Infinity Hotel, who deliver driving, determined rock.
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