Streets of Your Town: this week's concerts, with Katy B, Steve Earle, Petula Clark, and more
Streets of your town is a selection of the week's concert offerings in New York.
The latest full-length by the Ohio group Cloud Nothings (Jan. 26, The Studio at Webster Hall) is called Attack on Memory, but it could just as well be called The Recklessness of Youth. Recorded with Steve Albini—the legendary audio engineer known as much for his refusal to take a "producer" credit as his defiantly hands-off approach in the studio—Memory hurtles through its 33 minutes, a fierce, snarling rush of sound that sucks up and spits out stacks of records by '90s emo stalwarts like The Promise Ring and Sunny Day Real Estate on its way to total collapse. Primary Cloud Dylan Baldi's voice sounds like it's being scraped across concrete, and there's a desperate velocity to the music that can only come from a 20-year-old who's watching in a cold panic as the last seconds of his adolescence stream through his fingers. "I need time," he howls at one point, then finishes the sentence with, "to stay useless." Isn't that the ultimate plight of youth? All that energy and nothing to do with it.
The problems of 22-year-old British singer Katy B (Jan. 25, Drom) are less philosophical. In the best song on her very good debut album On a Mission she first complains, "These days, can't find a man to please me," and then, "No boy is on my level, believe me." That defiant veneer comes cloaked in some of the loveliest electropop since Kylie Minogue, most of it provided by lauded UK producers Benga, Geenus, Zinc, and Minute Man. They fog-and-polish splinter genres like dubstep and garage, making tracks that sparkle instead of gurgle and croak. For all the music's fizziness, Katy's resolve never falters. That she;s a graduate of the same music school as both Amy Winehouse and Adele is little surprise—her music combines the impatience of youth with the kind of adult tenacity it takes to separate yourself from equally able peers. She's the poised partier pushing her way purposefully through the dance club, setting her sights on her target before moving in for the attack.
Nada Surf's (Jan. 24, Bowery Ballroom) days of scoring teenage rage are long behind them—if they were ever truly there to begin with. Their moment of disaffection lasted for about three-and-a-half minutes in 1996, the duration of their one-and-done chart hit "Popular." Since then, they've evolved into a cunning adult guitar-pop group, writing songs that sound like long, relaxed sighs. Their latest album, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy raises the bar again, at times mirroring the tumbling momentum of early R.E.M. The one constant is frontman Matthew Cawes' uncanny ability to resolve tentative verses into gliding choruses. "It always feels like I'm waiting for something," he laments early in the record. Katy B and Dylan Baldi can probably relate.
Steve Earle (Jan. 23, City Winery) has spent some time waiting, too. Like Dylan Baldi, he began his career early, penning a string of tightly-wound rockabilly numbers for people like Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley (though the latter never actually recorded his songs) before releasing his first proper record in 1986, the crisp country rock Guitar Town. Earle's youth was anything but carefree: he lost most of his twenties to drug abuse, including a particularly crippling addiction to heroin. A prison stint for a drug bust in 1994 forced him to clean up, and since then his work has been both rowdier and astonishingly focused. His greatest gift is his narrative skill. At the beginning of the recent I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, he documents his brushes with darkness before triumphantly declaring, "Most of the time I wouldn't said them days was gone/ but now I'm givin' it another whirl/ didn't know I was gonna live this long/ now I'm sittin' on top of the world." Maybe it's true that you're only as young as you feel.
Or, perhaps, you're only as old as you feel. On the gorgeous Wit's End, one of two records he released last year, 35-year-old songwriter Cass McCombs (Jan. 25, Bowery Ballroom) documents an entire lifetime of loneliness and loss in a hushed voice over organs and guitars twinkling like cities seen from an airplane at night. McCombs’ baleful tenor is perfectly suited to the material—he can pull off a lyric like "If I'm alive or dead, I don't really care" without sounding mawkish. But what strikes most is the music's fragility—it feels both as delicate and as gossamer as rice paper. "The Lonely Doll," which recalls both Bob Dylan's "Fourth Time Around" and a slowed-down "Norwegian Wood," sways like a couple sleepwaltzing, just a ghostly acoustic guitar and a flicker of xylophone. It's an arresting testament to the power of a calculated slowness.
The music of Antony & the Johnsons (Jan. 26, Radio City Music Hall) is just as tender as McCombs', but there's also a greater air of tragedy. Maybe that’s because of Antony Hegarty's voice. A buttery tenor that occasionally melts into a creamy falsetto, it makes each line sound as though it's a part of a final aria delivered by a willowy heroine standing at death's door. For this performance, he'll explore his music's theatrical leanings in full. Organized by MoMA's Chief Curator Klaus Biesenbach, the performance will put Antony in front of a 60-piece orchestra, and will feature elegant sets, costuming, and lighting painstakingly designed to complement the music, placing it somewhere to the left of pop performance and more like modern opera. That such a thing is feasible is a testament not only to Antony's extraordinary talent, but to pop music's surprising ability to age gracefully.
Pop’s come a long way since Petula Clark (Jan. 24—28, Feinstein's at Loews Regency) first started recording in the '50s and became famous for “Downtown,” and she’d come a long way even by then. Clark was touring her native Britain before she was even 13. Her music ranges from playful symphonic trifles to, eventually, big, Broadway-style pop numbers. Like Antony's, Clark's songs are built for the stage. "Downtown" was her biggest hit, and it sounds like the overture for a promising musical, its sunny, cheer-up message mirroring its wooshing strings and Clark's perky voice. Her appearance at Feinstein's is her first club show since the 1970s, and downtown New York has changed considerably since she first hit it big. These days, disappearing into "places where they never close" is bound to lead to no good. Or, at the very least, a brutal next-day headache.