Streets of Your Town: This week’s concerts, with Fiona Apple, Odd Future, the Wedding Present, and more
The announcement last month, via the Twitter account of Epic Records CEO LA Reid, that there would be a new record from Fiona Apple (Mar. 23, Music Hall of Williamsburg) "in the next few weeks" was alarming for several reasons.
First, it implied that Apple, both a major talent and a famously vocal artist, had quietly completed an album that no one really knew she had even begun. The symptom of our present age is over-reporting with every bad joke and passing thought gruelingly documented on social media or leaked via hacked cell phone or nosy intern. That an album's worth of Apple songs could have somehow been assembled while no one was looking is an oddity that rivals the Loch Ness Monster. Secondly, the tweet implied an unusual act of cooperation between artist and label. Apple's last record, the whirligig Extraordinary Machine was notoriously delayed when it failed to meet Sony's expectations, which led to hand-wringing, petition-signing, and impassioned lobbying from her fans. Reid's Tweet seemed to indicate that not only had an album been completed, it had passed muster without any hemming, hawing, or bickering. As it turned out, Reid's communiqué was premature—his statement was later clarified, with the release date revised to "sometime in 2012." What the record will sound like is anybody's guess. A few weeks ago, though, Apple revealed the title, a 23-word mouthful (<i>The Idler Wheel is Wiser...</a> and so on) that is still a good 70 words shorter than the title of her 1999 masterpiece, When the Pawn… etc. etc. etc. Apple performed her first show of the year in Austin at SXSW, but apart from that small taste, the general tone of the new songs remains a relative mystery. Enjoy it while you can: in this era of overexposure, Apple has managed the one trick that's hardest to pull off: legitimate surprise.
Secrecy and surprise were two of the things that fueled the juggernaut known as Odd Future (Mar. 20, Hammerstein Ballroom) around this same time last year. The group, a 12-member entourage of rabid Los Angeles teenagers headed by producer and mastermind Tyler the Creator, drew equal amounts of praise and ire—the former for their relentlessly dark, prurient, and queasily fascinating hip-hop songs, the latter for the indefensible casualness with which they wrote about rape and violence. The firestorm has cooled somewhat—Tyler has sworn off sexual assault as subject matter—but so has some of the enthusiasm. The group spent much of last year flooding the market with lackluster albums from their various offshoots whiles their most gifted and charismatic member, Earl Sweatshirt, was sent to reform school in Samoa by his mother. That Odd Future seems to coming apart is disheartening—beneath the ugly lyrics were the kind of grim, unnerving backing tracks that had mostly vanished from hip-hop, and Tyler the Creator's voice is fantastically skin-crawling, even if his words were often difficult to take. One hopes it’s not all soon just going to be a tale of squandered potential.
When it comes to keeping a low profile, few can beat the musician known as Jandek (Mar. 23, Vaudeville Park). He spent the better part of three decades releasing chilling folk music in a kind of ruthless anonymity before making a shocking about-face in 2004 with his first live performance at a music festival in Scotland. He's been playing live ever since, though he continues to refuse interviews or do anything to actively contribute to his own celebrity. He doesn't have to: his creepy, primitive songs—which usually consist of little apart than a few plucked strings and his own terrified voice—are enough to ensure his legend for decades to come; he may not be anonymous anymore, but he is still impossible to know. Though the music of Amen Dunes (Mar. 19, Le Poisson Rouge) is much more linear than Jandek's, it still aspires to that kind of death-haunted horror. On their riveting 2011 album Through the Donkey Jaw, principle musician Damon McMahon crooned impressionistic lyrics in a woebegone tenor through an icy latticework of guitars. You could almost see the spirits hovering ominously between each note. The ghosts in the music of Batillus (Mar. 23, The Acheron, with the excellent Brooklyn group Hull), feel far more threatening. The quartet writes big, lumbering songs that surge forward slowly and nastily, combining the weight and deliberateness of doom with the scorched vocals of black metal. It hits like a titanium medicine ball hurled directly at the chest. Guerilla Toss (Mar. 19, Death By Audio) bypass the gravitas and instead simply go bananas. Their songs are multicolored weirdo exclamations combining the derring-do of the Slits and Kleenex with the obstinate no-wave experimentalism of recent bands like Ponytail. Guitars are bent like steel girders in an earthquake, percussion stutters and ricochets, and odd, disembodied yelps—presumably by vocalist Kassie Carlson—pogo across the melee. It's some of the most bizarre, invigorating music being made by any young band today.
There is much of that same spontaneity in the music of Nass Gnawa (Mar. 24, Zebulon), the trio of Brahim Fribgane, Hassan Ben Jafar, and Said Damir. Like their peers in desert blues outfit Tinariwen, their songs are constructed from hypnotic spirals of guitar and oud, and depend on a steady, throbbing back beat for forward momentum. Gnawa is the name of a particular strain of music from sub-Saharan Africa meant for both religious praise as well as earthly celebration. It is expertly designed to suit those ends: with each go-round the repeated lyrical and musical phrases take on a kind of supernatural transcendence. It is impossible not to be drawn in under its spell. Spoek Mathambo (Mar. 22, SOB’s) is from a different part of Africa, and if Nass Gnawa's mirage-like chord patterns could only be born in the heat of the desert, Mathambo's thumping electro reflects the bustle of his native Johannesburg. Mathambo, born Nthato Mokgata, calls his music "Township Tech," and you can hear traces of traditional African music—skipping highlife guitar, clattering percussion—peeking out from behind the layers of neonlike synth. It's an unusual cross-wiring, and those colliding elements, topped with Mathambo's strange, heat-warped vocals, make for music that's as brash and energetic as it is delightfully difficult to pin down.
Daniel Martin-McCormick, who records as Ital (Mar.21, Knitting Factory), writes slippery, syncretic music, too. The first song on his woozy debut, Hive Mind, opens with a stuttering Lady Gaga sample and proceeds toward an eerie—and eerily prescient—manipulation of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You." The album moves from fever dream ambiance to clattering, haphazard dance rhythms and back again; that it's impossible to find secure footing is one of its most alluring aspects. The signposts for Grimes (Mar. 23, Mercury Lounge), the Montreal singer Claire Boucher, are a bit easier to spot. There's the rubbery keyboards of Kraftwerk, the chugging percussion of Neu!, and the tiny, jubilant vocals of '80s pop singers like Pebbles and, to a lesser extent, Debbie Gibson. In decades past, these disparate influences kept to opposite ends of the record store—the former the provenance of old, self-serious dudes, the latter appealing primarily to teenage girls. Grimes forces them to inhabit the same song—most rewardingly in the billowing "Vowels = Space and Time," suggesting the Internet has finally closed the space between the genres once and for all. On their debut, the New York group Violens (Mar. 24, Cameo Gallery) avoided these kinds of stylistc mashups, favoring instead a kind of spry synth-and-guitar pop that recalled bands like OMD and Tears for Fears. But their new single, "Unfolding Black Wings" hints at a bit more restlessness. It opens with a barrage of drums, a flash of dissonant guitar and the kind of hazy, layered vocals that used to turn up on My Bloody Valentine records. By the time it hits the chattering spoken-word section, they sound nervous and out-of-control—a surprising and welcome change from their cool and well-mannered music in the past.
Cool and collected is something Bowerbirds (Mar. 23, Bowery Ballroom) do well. Since 2006, the group have been adding only the slightest layers of atmosphere to their rustic folk—a bit of grizzled electric guitar here, some filmy keyboards there. The focus remains the tangled voices of Philip Moore and Beth Tacular, which feel prayerlike in their solemnity and tranquility. There are also prayers all over the debut from We Are Augustines (Mar. 22 Webster Hall), a group comprised of former members of the critically-acclaimed but commercially cursed Pela. A desperate tale of substance abuse and, ultimately, suicide, Rise, Ye Sunken Ships could have been a crushing downer, but the group instead puts the focus on determination and survival, learning how to weather life's difficulties instead of surrendering to them. Their songs push forward with gritted teeth and battered hearts, occasionally recalling the similarly heart-on-sleeve music of Gaslight Anthem and Frightened Rabbit. Like those bands, We Are Augustines find their way to huge, pleading choruses that quench like cool water after a long walk under hot sun. The recently-reactivated Wedding Present (Mar. 21, The Bell House) have, over the course of their career, also demonstrated affection for sweetness and noise. The group has rotated through enough members since they began in 1985 to populate a small village. The sole constant has been frontman David Gedge, who dissolved the group in 1997 to pursue the lighter Cinerama with his then-girlfriend Sally Murrell. When that relationship ended, so did Cinerama, causing Gedge to reactivate the Wedding Present. Musically, their recent work has been closer to the lean, shinier Cinerama songs than the fantastic noise-pop they delivered on albums like 1991's Seamonsters. Their ability to surprise may have shrunk some, but not their ability to satisfy.