Streets of Your Town: This week's concerts, with Young Jeezy, Estelle, Craig Finn, Matthew Dear, and more
"I know a thing about darkness," goes a line from "Love Goes On!" by the late Australian band the Go-Betweens; "darkness ain't my friend." Heartfelt though that sentiment may be, there are a host of bands playing New York this week that beg to differ.
Chief among them is the Pygmy Shrews (Feb. 29, 285 Kent), the volcanic New York trio who are, sad to say, playing their final show. Their music was a rude and violent as a jackhammer, cross-wiring the reckless velocity of garage punkers like Naked Raygun with the bug-eyed fury and scraping guitars of the Jesus Lizard. It was music that was as exhilarating as it was terrifying, its tarry sonics and punishing speed as simultaneously thrilling and horrifying as the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Their sudden expiration feels not so much like a collapse as it does a race car bursting into flames while hurtling down the track.
But they are survived by a number of similarly-minded bands who share their penchant for minor keys and unsparing sonic ugliness. Pop. 1280, (Feb. 3, St. Vitus) written about more extensively last week, have the same squinting maliciousness and walloping guitars. There's also Tombs, (Feb. 3, Union Pool), the Brooklyn metal band whose songs approach slowly, like eerie, slouching shadows on a black horizon. On last year's masterful Path of Totality, they alternated moments of dense, blinding fury with foreboding instrumental passages. The end result felt like being stuck in a time loop of devastating tornadoes and the nauseating calms that precede them.
Metal legends Deicide (Feb. 3, The Gramercy) keep things simpler. Fronted by outspoken atheist Glen Benton, Deicide have been turning out seething, mile-a-minute death metal for the past 25 years. Their latest, last year's To Hell With God is just as ruthless as anything in their catalog, turning Benton's unholy bark loose over guitars that hurtle forward like a cloud of hornets. Unearthly Trance (Feb. 1, The Acheron), from Long Island, create the same effect at half the speed. Theirs is music that creeps, painstakingly slow tempos and guitars that crush like falling marble columns.
And there is Young Jeezy, the rapper whose music often has more in common with early '80s goth than it does contemporary hip-hop. He hasn’t strayed far from the formula he perfected on 2005's excellent Thug Motivation, stretching his raspy voice over eerie, icicle synths, and exhorting his audience to achieve success via sheer cutthroat determination. Six years on, his music is as bracing—and as uncompromisingly bleak—as it was when he started. He applies the menace of Pop. 1280, the nastiness of Deicide and the control of Unearthly Trance to hip-hop, yielding startling results.
Jeezy, of course, is aided in his sermons by a cast of supporting players, implying that even the most determined of us can't entirely make it on their own. It's a lesson that will get further support in a series of shows by pianist Monty Alexander (Feb. 27 – March 4, The Blue Note) this week. The Jamaican-born pianist, who has played with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Frank Sinatra, has always retained a deep love for the music of his home country. It's that affection that will be on display most prominently during these performances, particularly at a pair of shows featuring reggae legends Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare, with other special guests listed, tantalizingly, as "To Be Announced." Alexander's reggae work is surprisingly credible, his limber, snakelike playing a perfect complement to the music's gently-bobbing low-end. Even if the unannounced special performers turn out to be low-wattage, the combination of Alexander, Dunbar and Shakespeare is guaranteed to thrill. As also, is The Robert Glasper Experiment (Feb. 28, Highline Ballroom), where the jazz pianist also calls in support from a select roster of friends and admirers. On the upcoming Black Radio, he's joined by Erykah Badu Lupe Fiasco and Yasiin Bey—or, as he used to be known, Mos Def. The album stakes out a cozy middle ground between burbling jazz and a more laconic strain of hip-hop, landing somewhere close in tone and aesthetic to the first few records by A Tribe Called Quest. At least a few of these guests will join this week's performance, where they will hopefully allow the album's limber grooves to stretch out for as long as the spirit moves them.
A union of a more modest scale will take place a few days later, when Jennifer O'Connor shares a bill with early '00s indie underdogs Kleenex Girl Wonder (Mar. 4, Union Pool) Both acts are tremendously appealing to small pockets of fans. Kleenex, the project of compulsive songwriter Graham Smith, in particular is overdue for recognition as a pioneer of the kind of lo-fi pop songwriting that now defines large segments of indie rock. His excellent 1998 album Ponyoak wouldn’t sound out of place were it to be released next week: it impishly buries stellar, irresistible choruses under layers of fuzz and distortion. O'Connor's approach is perhaps more subdued but no less engaging. On last year's I Want What You Want, she alternated between timid folkiness and the kind of brittle indie rock that characterized the best records by Liz Phair and Sebadoh. The one constant was O'Connor's gorgeous, rain cloud voice, tangling both sides up in an unmistakable shade of blue. Estelle (Feb. 28, Irving Plaza) also traffics in varying varieties of sweet and sour on the forthcoming All of Me. Her breakthrough "American Boy" was all sparkle and fizz, but the music on her new record tends toward the kind of earthy neo-soul that came largely out of Philadelphia in the early '00s. "Love the Way We Used To" seesaws between sleek chorus and oblong jazz-lounge verse; "Break My Heart," which features a typically boisterous cameo from Rick Ross offers a kind of slow-burn '70s funk and "Speak Ya Mind" snaps and crackles, Estelle offering cheeky, limber rapping over a bone-brittle snare. "All you have to do is speak ya mind and let 'em know/ tell 'em everything you meant to say and never said before," Estelle sings, to the tune of Adina Howard's "Freak Like Me." From her, taking a stand sounds as easy as whistling.
Another group of artists appearing this week have little trouble speaking their minds. If anything, they can often be a bit too verbose – few of them moreso than Craig Finn (Mar. 1, Maxwell's). Earlier this year, the Hold Steady frontman released Clear Hearts, Full Eyes, on which he forsook the bar band bluster of his day gig for gentle, largely acoustic songs. What remained undiminished was his rightly-lauded narrative lyricism. A full, earnest exploration of Finn's Catholic faith, Eyes is tender where the Hold Steady can be boisterous.
"I've got a new friend and my new friend's name is Jesus," Finn croons on the rambling bluegrass number early in the record. That he can pull off such startling sentiment without raising eyebrows is a testament to his great gift. It's a gift that clearly served as an inspiration to Patrick Stickles (Feb. 29, Shea Stadium). Singer and guitarist for the ragged punk group Titus Andronicus, Stickles shares Finn's penchant for lengthy narratives crammed with sly historical references and vivid imagery. His appearance this week is being billed as "An Evening with Patrick Stickles," a night devoted more to his writing than his singing. Despite that, this could be a very good thing: Stickles is a gifted writer with a passionate point of view (the long piece he wrote about playing a 2009 party for the Vice website remains a must-read), and what vignettes he'll be sharing over the course of this show remain anybody's guess.
Indie rock hardly has the market cornered on thoughtful writers: Though he's not often mentioned in the same breath as superlative lyricists like Jay-Z and Nas, Prodigy (Feb. 27, S.O.B.s), one half of the long-running group Mobb Deep, is also a gifted storyteller. The songs on the group's perfect debut The Infamous read like an update to The Art of War, Prodigy delivering survival instructions over eerie, scuffed productions. He applied that same skill to his wrenching autobiography My Infamous Life, in which he dealt unsparingly with his battles with sickle-cell anemia and the betrayal of both family members and close friends. His gift is in full force on the recent Mobb Deep E.P. Black Cocaine, a short serving of bracing songs that may not restore the group's solid commercial stature, but it certainly reinforces their abilities. Prodigy is in some small way a forefather to young groups like Main Attraktionz (Mar. 4, Glasslands), who pair his physical rhyming style and unflappable swagger to sleeker, synthier productions.
Matthew Dear (Mar. 2, Bowery Ballroom) may have started out sleek and synthy, but lately he's been evolving into something of a debonair crooner—part David Bowie, part Bryan Ferry. He was supported by a full band—including a small brass section—on the tour for last year's menacing Black City, which seemed to imagine the kind of music that would be playing in hell's supper club. On this year's Headcage E.P., he tiptoes back toward more overtly synthy terrain. It is likely this show will offer some combination of the two impulses. Dear is in town the same week as his labelmate Dabrye (Mar. 2, Glasslands) the alter ego of the producer Todd Mullinix. Dabrye's music is more minimal than Dear's: a few flecks of sound, a blipping beat and some bands of sound that materialize and dissipate like tiny rainbows. It's electronic music stripped to its barest essence.
Which is an approach favored by both Fred Frith (Mar. 1) and Elliott Sharp (Mar 2.), both of whom will be appearing at John Zorn's venue The Stone. Frith is more ruthlessly minimal—his 2011 album Reel was comprised of strange shrieks and clatters—sounds like strangled train whistles, the jittery tone of someone twisting a radio dial. By contrast, Sharp seems almost like pop music (and, indeed, he frequently performs straight-ahead, melodic works). He is downright garrulous, taking the pitch-and-wail characteristics of classic rock guitar and turning them inside out, forcing strange squawks and animalistic howls from his instrument. His 1995 album Interference is almost industrial in its gristle and grind—the sound of one man playing in an empty factory, with the lights out.