Streets of Your Town: This week's concerts, with Royal Baths, Four Tet, Big K.R.I.T., and more
Broadly speaking, goth is having a bit of a comeback.
The genre, characterized mostly by minor keys, eerie synths, and dour singers, has shed some of the melodrama it had when Robert Smith, in red lipstick and with high-piled hair, sat shivering away inside a cave during the "Love Song" video.
But the genre's essential gloominess remains, seeping into contemporary indie rock like ink bleeding into a white linen tablecloth.
Take Royal Baths (Mar. 5, The Knitting Factory), the duo of Jeremy Cox and Jigmae Baer, whose eerie, sneering debut Faster, Harder is equal parts goth melancholy and lecherous, leisure suit leer. Cox sounds like the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano, and shares his penchant for seething lyrics expressing violently repressed sexuality through clenched teeth. The music is stark and shivery and, paired with Cox's devilish panting, seems as fascinated by inner darkness as outer. "I love my damaged girl," he coos nastily in the title track over trembling guitars. Robert Smith sounds downright romantic by comparison.
Toronto's Trust (Mar. 8, Mercury Lounge), also a duo, is perhaps a bit more overt in their gothiness. Royal Baths' music is made for humid pickup joints, but Trust is more interested in dancing with tears in their eyes. They layer breathy and austere vocals over blinking synths, vaguely recalling early Depeche Mode. There's a menace to the music, to be sure—their songs swoop in like a murder of crows, blocking out all available light.
ZAZA (March 10, Piano's) are a bit less severe but just as spooky. Songs like "Sooner or Later" consist of hypnotic percussion and guitars that twinkle like distant stars, with high, pleading vocals drifting out from deep within the shadows. Their songs wouldn't sound out of place on the last few Radiohead records—illusive, barely-there ballads where elements flash and fade like the northern lights.
To speak of Jane's Addiction (Mar. 6, The Wellmont) in the same breath as such merchants of gloom might seem absurd. But as grand and arena-beating as they became, their best efforts were also characterized by a certain, unsettling sense of darkness. Even their latest effort, The Great Escape Artist—which is neither as bad as you've been led to believe or as good as it ought to be—feels distinctly troubled. Under the guiding hand of TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek, the group produced a record that paired the hallucinogenic nightmares of their early work with muscular riffing. Frontman Perry Farrell these days seems stuck in a perpetual acid trip, reeling off the weird visions he accumulated over a lifetime of experimenting. He could teach Royal Baths a thing or two about creepy.
Julia Holter (Mar. 6, Le Poisson Rouge) may not exactly be creepy, but she certainly traffics in a kind of unsettling, otherworldly mysticism. Her breathtaking new record Ekstasis seems to exist across multiple musical planes: the gauziness of ambient music, the stubborn structures of neo-classical, the delicate, drifting vocals of (for lack of a better term) chillwave. There is certainly no shortage of fairylike singers in under-the-radar pop music, but Holter's particular brand of enchantment feels particularly bewitching. The shimmering bands of sound and Holter's measured, laconic singing are what might happen if someone finally figure out how to make New Age music compelling.
Daughter (Mar. 9, Mercury Lounge) are similarly spare. The project of songwriter Elena Tonra, it initially scans as folk, with its hushed acoustic guitars and breathy, mournful vocals. But there's something else at work here. "Throw me in the landfill, don't think about the consequences," Tonra moans spitefully on "Landfill." The exterior may be delicate, but there's broken glass beneath the rice-paper wrapping.
When it comes to minimalism, however, it's tough to beat Jozef van Wissem (Mar. 5, Le Poisson Rouge). His songs—which are somehow both ominous and hypnotic, consist of spiraling melodic phrases harshly plucked out on a lute, an instrument that hasn't gotten a ton of play outside of Early Music performances. His collaboration with the director Jim Jarmusch (more on that here) results in songs that wouldn't sound out of place in one of Jarmusch's films: rigid, circular lute melodies unspooling over sawing violin or wheezing accordion. Like Holter's music, it is both riveting and unnerving.
The group Diamond Terrifier (Mar. 6, Zebulon) dispenses with melody altogether. Their songs—made up mostly of drones, really—vibrate rudely, strangled saxophone notes plunged in digital effects and then yanked taffy-like out to create tones that sound like alien military test signals. If you didn't see ghosts, but could hear them, this is what they would sound like.
Just as mysterious, but for different reasons, is the group Levek (Mar. 7, Shea Stadium). After a demo that dabbled in strange, noisy indiepop with far-off, breathy vocals and oddball movie-soundtrack arrangements, they released the stunning single "Look on the Bright Side" on the Father Daughter label. Where their demo was almost willfully abstract, "Bright Side" was a note-perfect replication of the kind of relaxed, roaming soul music favored by Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield. Sweet falsetto vocals were carried over a bobbing bass line swaddled in creamy orchestration, a jabbering wah-wah guitar entered and vanished. The band has released nothing since then, making this appearance all the more tantalizing.
Like Levek, Django Django (Mar. 10, Glasslands), from Edinburgh, Scotland, write songs anchored in a steady groove. Their entire aesthetic can be summarized by the song "Default," where a towering stack of vocal harmonies is balanced on top of a thudding, four-on-the-floor beat and the whole package is wrapped up in barbed-wire guitars. If The Beta Band had made a record with Gang of Four, this is what might have resulted.
And then there is Four Tet, (Mar. 10, Le Poisson Rouge) whose elegant techno has been gradually evolving since its first appearance 13 years ago. The alias of London's Kieran Hebdan, Four Tet's songs are threadbare where Django Django's are bursting. This is a good thing: Hebdan knows how to massage a groove, starting with mere suggestion of sound and moving to something lithe and sensual. "Circling," from 2010's There is Love in You adds elements gradually, a cluster of synth notes steadily gaining volume the way an atom picks up molecules. Hebdan navigates each pulsing second with the precision of a skier.
But sometimes you don’t want precision, and for those times, there's Colleen Green (Mar. 8, Death By Audio). Distortion clings to the Oakland-based musician's songs like lint to old clothing. Shambling charmer "I Wanna Be Degraded" threads a Ramones-like vocal hook through stern machine and a guitar that sounds like it's being played through a tin can telephone. The results are thoroughly charming—bedroom pop that snarls as much as it smiles.
Cheap Girls (Mar. 6, Knitting Factory) are more direct but no quieter. Their latest album Giant Orange, produced by Tom Gabel of Against Me!, rents a flat somewhere between punk and power-pop, blending the former's aggression with the latter's cheery tunefulness.
Shellshag (Mar. 11, Death By Audio) blend Green's knowing shabbiness with Cheap Girls' pop instincts. Theirs is ornery music, squealing guitars doing battle with the sugar-smack vocals of Johnny Shell and Jen Shag. With a little more spit-shine, their songs might just wriggle their way onto rock radio. You get the feeling that nothing could be further from their minds.
The same goes for New Zealand's Capsul (Mar. 7, Cake Shop) and Toronto's Teenanger (Mar. 8, Cake Shop). Like Colleen Green and Cheap Girls, they exist at opposite ends of the sonic spectrum. Capsul's songs are tinny and defiantly underproduced. The drums sound like beer bottles and the guitar sounds like someone dragging a chain-link fence over a gravel pit. Teenanger are hurtling, high-wattage rock that vaguely recall the Australian band The Saints—scabrous guitars clanging over doomy vocals.
But both bands embed their songs with deep, irresistible hooks, a steady anchor amid the chaos. All of these bands would do well to study the trajectory of the Men (Mar. 7, 285 Kent). Though they started out surly, their new record, Open Your Heart is an expansive masterpiece, one in which the group dabbles in punk, garage and country with equal panache. It's a measured, carefully balanced record, one that makes the argument that perhaps rough and smooth can simply be two sides of the same band.
On his warm, absorbing mixtape Return of 4Eva, the Mississippi rapper Big K.R.I.T. (Mar. 8, Highline Ballroom) has neither the time nor the patience for anything underdone. Released as a free download last year and produced entirely by K.R.I.T., the album displays a stunning battery of carefully-sculpted R&B beats and greasy rock rhythms that serve as a backdrop for K.R.I.T.'s deeply-felt rhymes about determination, belief, and success. K.R.I.T. pours himself into his verse—"Dreamin'," which sands down and loops a clip from the Brothers of Soul's "Dream,"—is K.R.I.T.'s autobiography in short form, each line going a little deeper and hitting a little harder than the one before. "I ain't rapping about dope, nor did I sell it," K.R.I.T. raps, "I guess the story of a country boy just ain't compelling/ A&R's searching for a hit, I just need a meal." You can hear the despair in his voice as the song progresses, until the final act, when hope arrives and K.R.I.T. addresses the listener directly: "It's safe to say that dreams come true I guess/ Don't let nobody tell ya – try for yourself." The naked conviction in his voice is all the convincing anyone could need.