Streets of Your Town: this week's concerts, with Frankie Rose, Saul Williams, Regina Spektor, and more
The second record from Brooklyn's Frankie Rose (Feb. 21, The Knitting Factory) is called Interstellar, and the title is appropriate. Its first notes appear like a spaceship in the distance—fuzzy, unnatural shapes that gain volume slowly. Then, suddenly, with a giant whoosh, they're upon you, a blinding flash of "ooh"s and "ahs" streaking through supernova drums. The record, which Rose recorded with the producer Le Chev, is a far cry from its predecessor; where that one doused Sonics-style garage rockers in buckets of reverb, Interstellar nicks its best tricks from the Cure circa Pornography, or gauzy, synthy bands like the Wake and Section 25 who rounded out the post-Joy Division roster of Manchester's Factory Records. There are other influences, too—the ethereal haze of the Cocteau Twins, the milky vocal layers of Lush—but Rose and Le Chev don't thieve wholesale so much as take and incorporate. In fact, what characterizes the record more than anything else is its eerie aura of otherness. It's there in Rose's cooing, Martian-girl vocals and the sci-fi synths Le Chev surrounds them with, as if the whole record is being beamed in via hologram from some far off craft. It ends with "The Fall," where Rose's turquoise voice is orbited by a black ring of cello.
The ominousness is more pronounced in the music of Prince Rama (Feb. 23, Glasslands), the Brooklyn/Boston trio that never met an audience they didn't want to unsettle. They operate from the same base of synths and spooky vocals as Frankie Rose, but their music is harsher, more percussive, and more threatening. The songs on last year's Trust Now E.P.—its title more a threat than a comfort—feel like they were ripped from a forest cult's hymnal. The truth isn't too far off: Sisters Taraka and Nimai Larson met drummer Michael Collins at a Hare Krishna farm in Florida. But while those chants are designed to bring on inner peace, Prince Rama's feel like they were crafted to wake the devil. It's a quality they share with the music of White Ring (Feb. 23 Shea Stadium), the duo whos music, once upon a time, was referred to as "witch house." That genre name is already antiquated, but it makes sense—the tempos are slow and creaking, the synths are haunted-house eerie and Kendra Malia's vocals flicker and fade like a ghost in the graveyard. MNDR (Feb. 23, Studio at Webster Hall), another New York electronic duo, prefer a more forthright approach. Amanda Warner's voice is poutier and prettier—less ethereal coo and more dancefloor diva. Their music is similarly punchy—burbling science-lab keyboards that crackle around Warner's voice like bolts from a tesla coil. There's a different kind of experimenting going on on Mischief & Mayhem, the collaboration headed by violin player Jenny Scheinman (Feb. 20, Le Poisson Rouge) and featuring Nels Cline, Jim Black, and Todd Sickafoose. Even amid such impressive collaborators, Scheinman mostly takes the reins, yanking the songs along with corkscrewing leads that alternately recall country fiddles or cockeyed classical sonatas. On "Devils Ink," it groans and heaves with an almost supernatural sorrow. Combine it on a double-bill with Prince Rama's bug-eyed chattering, and you'd have the perfect soundtrack for an exorcism.
You can hear some of that darkness, too, in Tramp, the transfixing new record from Sharon Van Etten (Feb. 24, Music Hall of Williamsburg) (written about more extensively last month. Her songs are drawn from down deep and quake with a combination of sorrow and rage. As affecting as it is, sometimes, you're just looking for the latter, which is where Pop. 1280 (Feb. 24, Public Assembly) comes in handy. A hard about-face from the meekness that has seeped into indie rock over the course of the past decade, Pop. 1280 never met an audience they didn't want to shove. Sometimes literally: frontman Chris Bug often roams far offstage, flinging his wiry frame angrily into the crowd as his band churns on behind. It suits the music, a greasy, primal throb that recalls infernal ancestors like the Birthday Party. That the source of their anger is never spelled out makes it feel that much more nefarious. Pop. 1280 may have the market cornered on blind fury, but for a long time in the late '90s, there were few people angrier than DMX (Feb. 23, S.O.B.'s). On albums like the menacing Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, DMX barked vicious murder verses over horror-movie synthesizers. The albums often paralleled real life: For much of his career, DMX spent as much time in prison as onstage, even after allegedly converting to Christianity in 2009. He's slated to release his seventh record, Undisputed, next month, but whether it will match the chilling ruthlessness of his early work remains to be seen. Saul Williams' (Feb. 20, Maxwell's) anger springs from a different source. The poet and rapper—who gained national attention in 2008 through his pay-what-you-will collaboration with Trent Reznor, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust!, mostly directs his ire at political and social injustice, attacking, as he puts it on "Pedagogue of Young Gods," "Warped values" and "Hollow men." Last year, he quietly released Volcanic Sunlight, an album that at times recalls the dense art-rock of TV on the Radio or the less chaotic moments of Nine Inch Nails. He still doesn't sound happy; on lead single "Dance," over the kind of rubberband post-punk bass line that was the secret weapon of every band from Brooklyn in the early '00s, he seethes, "Dance, dance where the streets are paved with gold/ and the angels and the gods do what they're told." It's the precise moment where disenfranchisement turns to bitterness. It's a similar sentiment to the ones found on the latest record by dour Scots the Twilight Sad (Feb. 25, Music Hall of Williamsburg) With the occasional consultation of famed knob-twiddle Andrew Weatherall (they credit him as the "anti-producer"), they've crafted a collection of songs as smudged as fresh newsprint. Funeral organs ooze into steel-stiff guitars, the drums heave and whallop and the grim choruses roll in thunderstorms. In 2001, the Frames wrote a song called "What Happens When the Heart Just Stops." Twilight Sad seem to have made it their mission to find out.
Marketa Irglova's (Feb. 22, Joe's Pub) connection to the Frames is somewhat more literal. Since 2005, she's been a member of the Swell Season with Frames frontman Glen Hansard, a band that rose to prominence of the success of the film Once, which starred Hansard and Irglova. She released her first solo record last year, and it sounds the way you might expect: light, delicate, and alternately tender and wounded. The record recalls, at times, the quieter moments of Joan Baez or Regina Spektor (Feb. 23, Rose Theater at Time Warner Center)—herself returning to the stage after a brief absence. If Irglova's songs are shy and retiring, Spektor's are brassy and full-throated. Her personality has become more pronounced over each of her five records, balancing quirky playfulness with arresting vulnerability. She's a supremely gifted lyricist; each of her songs are built like small, two-character plays and loaded with rich, specific dialogue. "You are my sweetest downfall," she sighs to a lover that she's leaving on the devastating piano ballad "Samson." He finds out in a note she's left on the table and does the thing you do in a situation like that: he goes glumly back to bed.
There are similar breakups all over the latest album from Islands (Feb. 25, Le Poisson Rouge) the onetime indie pranksters who have, over time, settled down and straightened up, swapping punchlines for melody lines. On A Sleep and a Forgetting, principle member Nick Thorburn recounts the details of a particularly crushing split against the same kind of softly twinkling surf pop favored by Vampire Weekend. Where that band's lineage can be traced directly back to the mid '80s, Islands record collection seems crammed with '50s treasures. "Oh Maria" is nearly a note-for-note rewrite of Roy Orbison's tender "Leah," while "No Crying" shoop-shoops like the slow dance at a sock hop. "If I don't feel bad, is there something wrong?" Thorburn asks on the latter, as a backing trio of pomade-coiffed Thorburns harmonizes the same line behind him. That he has to ask is an indication of how familiar his sorrow has become. The other option, of course, is revelry. Heartless Bastards (Feb. 24, Webster Hall) may have begun as a bruised blues outfit, but they've let a little more sun in with each new record. On Arrow, they dabble in rootsy rock and roll a la Creedence Clearwater Revival and shimmering flange-guitar wizardy, on "Simple Feeling," that recalls Led Zeppelin at their most mystic. At the center of all of this is Erika Wennerstrom's once agonized, now jubilant howl. It's a roaring reminder that not all things need fade to black.