Streets of Your Town: This week’s concerts, with Gotye, the Darkness, tUnE-YarDs, Jay-Z, and more
Playing the prognosticator in pop music is about as safe a bet as, say, guessing the outcomes of major sporting events. Then again it's just as fun when you're right.
But mark this down: 2012 will be the year of Gotye (Feb. 6, Bowery Ballroom). The Australian singer, born Wouter De Becker, began generating Internet buzz late last year on the back of his deceptively malicious breakup song "Somebody That I Used to Know"—buzz that was bolstered when the Canadian quintet Walk Off the Earth uploaded a video of them covering the song while sharing and playing a single guitar. (The stunt doesn't seem to have hurt them, either. Gotye's original video has 62 million views; Walk Off the Earth are already up to 48 million). Gotye’s song, a duet with New Zealand singer Kimbra, is sneaky both in execution and content. It opens small, with a tiptoeing bassline and a xylophone as shivery as spider's legs, as Gotye, in a whisper, recalls the last days of a dying relationship. When it hits the chorus, Gotye—in a reedy tenor almost uncannily reminiscent of Sting (in a good way)—lays out the heart of his complaint: Sure, I dumped you, but I can't believe you don't want to be friends. The song's saving grace is that it lets the woman fight back. Where Gotye's voice is classic passive-aggression, Kimbra goes for the throat, sneering, "Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over/ but had me believing it was always something that I'd done." That the song ends in a two-way argument underscores the fact that these two were never meant to be together in the first place. The rest of his just-released third record, Making Mirrors, is fuller and bolder, ranging from pleading, Peter Gabriel-style art pop to oblong kook-fests that recall early Eels, but it's "Somebody" that truly sticks. Just a month and a half after this show at the 550-capacity Bowery Ballroom, he'll be playing Terminal 5, which can hold 5,000 people. Anyone who laid odds on this five months ago, when he played a tiny room during CMJ, would already be cashing in.
Anyone already going to the Gotye show would do well to get there early for openers Sea of Bees (Feb, 6, Bowery Ballroom), whose songs are more mysterious and, it must be said, more rewarding even than the headliners. That the band—essentially one Julie Ann Bee—isn't bigger is one of indie rock's more recent frustrations. Her 2010 release Songs For Ravens was perfect, a batch of witchy folk music where reverb clung to guitar chords like fog around a streetlight. Bee’s voice is a peculiar coo, the sound of someone who has seen strange and terrible things, and will tell you about them if you follow her into her strange woodland home, sit next to her rocking chair and lean in very, very close. It's standout is the chugging "Sidepain," which opens with Bee sighing "Where did all the good men go?" before the band rushes in to carry her through an improbably jubilant reel about the sad reliability of loutish men. She and Kimbra would have a lot to talk about. (For more candid tales of loneliness and heartache, wait one night for a headline performance by the excellent Dum Dum Girls (Jan. 7, Music Hall of Williamsburg), who were written about more fully on December 19).
For those who, instead of irony, prefer to believe in a thing called love, there's the return of the Darkness (Feb. 4 & 6, Irving Plaza), a band that existed in the early '00s seemingly with the intention of lampooning hard-rock tropes and, instead, ended up living them. Their reunion traffics in several layers of what can be best termed meta-nostalgia—a yearning to revisit a past that, itself, exploited a yearning to revisit the past. The group's 2003 album, Permission to Land was, depending on who you talked to, either a celebration of '80s heavy metal or a snide mockery of it. Vocalist Justin Hawkins sang in a high, affected falsetto and their song soften contained as many winks as riffs. But the band's affection for rock clichés soon bled over into real life: their second record stalled and Hawkins had to check into rehab for alcohol and cocaine abuse. That they can return so many years later for a two-night stand implies that there was perhaps more affection for their particular brand of spandexed schitck than might be expected.
Those seeking a more straightforward take on hard rock should instead spend time with JEFF the Brotherhood (Feb. 8, Death By Audio) or Screaming Females (Feb 11, Music Hall of Williamsburg). These bands exist at opposite ends of the sonic spectrum. JEFF the Brotherhood, made up of brothers Jake and Jamin Orrall, burns the music down to its husk, resulting in a exhaust-coughing road hog that recalls MC5 and the Stooges. Last years We Are the Champions found them expanding ably into bloodshot '70s stoner metal, slathering their songs with thick, greasy distortion so they ooze instead of hurtle. Screaming Females take the opposite approach. Their songs hinge on the astonishing guitar work of frontwoman Marissa Paternoster, whose blistering, fretboard-leaping solos are the stuff of heavy metal fantasy. On the forthcoming Ugly, produced by Steve Albini, the group finally fully delivers on the promise of their raucous live shows. Paternoster's guitar streaks angrily through the songs, a snarling tornado flattening everything in its path. In doing so, she's flashing two of heavy metal's prized qualities: virtuosity and volume.
Both of those qualities also figure heavily into the music of Merrill Garbus, who records and performs as tUnE-YarDs (Feb. 9, The Allen Room at Lincoln Center) (irregularities hers). Her latest album, w h o k i l l (ditto) was recently named the best of 2011 by the critics who vote in the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop poll, making it one of the most intoxicatingly stubborn victors in years. It radiates arty incongruence and deep-seated joy in equal measures. Garbus samples her voice and spits it back out in both short, tight bursts and long, looping phrases, her melodies careering like a drunk driver on a deserted superhighway. The resulting songs at times feel like the mating songs of some strange Technicolor jungle tribe, lots of throbbing toms and giddy whoops. What makes them so riveting is that the harder you try to unravel them, the knottier they become. That same unhinged energy translates into her live shows where Garbus, beaming from ear-to-ear, face streaked with fluorescent paint, leads her audience in a revelry that's part performance piece, part wild rumpus.
For a counterbalance to all that merriment, you have three options. The first—and fiercest—is the Kills (Feb. 11, Terminal 5), who are celebrating their 10th Anniversary (and who have also brought JEFF The Brotherhood along for an opening set). Frontwoman Allison Mosshart is as menacing as Merrill Garbus is cheery. She prowls the stage, pantherlike, a sharp black streak who sings every line like it's a dare. They've grown starker and meaner and more compact since their debut; last year's Blood Pressures was vastly underrated, a record that took the bleakest moments of reggae and the blues and '70s rock and blended them together to create a thick, bubbling, venomous concoction. It's the perfect soundtrack to midnight graverobbing—an activity during which you're just as likely to encounter the U.K. band Veronica Falls (Feb. 9, Music Hall of Williamsburg). The Kills approach with fangs bared, but Veronica Falls are more likely to cast a hex than draw a knife. Their self-titled debut is full of spooky songs submerged in reverb that at times recall the '90s Britpop band Lush. The deliriously dead-eyed "Misery" plays like a minor-key rewrite of Rilo Kiley's "Portions For Foxes," vocalist Roxanne Clifford solemnly cooing, "Misery, taking over me" like a forlorn ghost whiling away an eternity in a rocking chair in the darkest room of a haunted house. Around company like this, Bill Callahan (Feb. 8, The Allen Room at Lincoln Center) almost seems like a stand-up comic. Indeed, wry humor is one of Callahan's secret weapons. In both is solo work, as well as the records he recorded as Smog, Callahan smuggles a rapier wit in a loner's rain-drenched trenchcoat. His deadpan baritone only heightens the effect. On "America" from last year's Apocalypse he traded trenchant observations about the country with silly ones, taking in global warfare and David Letterman with the same wry detachment. His music shades a singer-songwriter's no fuss compositional approach with dark shadows. In his hands, even a simple plucked acoustic guitar sounds ominous and baleful.
All that moping requires an equal counterbalance of celebration, and few people do triumph better than Jay-Z (Feb 6-7, Carnegie Hall). Since he began his career 16 years ago, he's become the hip-hop equivalent of a respectable classic rock act—the kind of durable, long-running but still-rewarding staple who's been around the game long enough to know what a satisfying show requires without stooping to simple clichés. Case in point: at this pair of shows at Carnegie Hall, he'll be backed by a full orchestra, and proceeds from ticket sales will go to fund both the United Way of New York City and his own Shawn Carter Scholarship Foundation. To see Jay-Z live is to realize all at once both the incredible heft and frequent brilliance of his catalog. Near the middle of his celebrated 2010 show at Yankee Stadium, he followed "99 Problems" with "Jigga What Jigga Who," "Big Pimpin'" and "Hard Knock Life"—throwing off three indisputable hits mid-set as if they were B-Side afterthoughts because he knew full well there were more where they came from. His success suggests that there is, perhaps, another way to get to Carnegie Hall: conduct your career as if you're convinced getting there is inevitable.