Streets of Your Town: This week's concerts, with Bruce Springsteen, Andrew WK, David Johansen, and more
10:05 am Apr. 2, 2012
Five years ago, Bruce Springsteen (Apr. 6, Madison Square Garden) wrote a song that surprised nearly everyone who heard it. It wasn't that its content was incendiary—he'd done that before—or that it was some strange digression into free jazz or drone. "Girls in Their Summer Clothes," the song in question surprised people because it was, more or less, a melodic facsimile of the kinds of songs written by the Magnetic Fields (Apr. 3, Beacon Theatre), right down to the boardwalk merry-go-round organs and the Boss's bottom-scraping baritone. It wasn't that it seemed unlikely Springsteen would have heard of the Magnetic Fields—he's spent as much time over the past 10 years flashing his indie rock bona fides as his political sympathies—it was that, on the surface, their two aesthetics seemed whole galaxies apart. Springsteen was the earnest troubadour; The Magnetic Fields's Stephin Merritt was the arch, overeducated ironist. What that analogy conveniently neglects is the greater commonality in their music: they've both spent the better part of their careers playing characters.
On his latest album, Wrecking Ball, Springsteen—inarguably a multimillionaire—gamely and convincingly takes on the role of a beleaguered blue-collar worker, a fact that seems to irk people who require their pop music to have high levels of verisimilitude. On the new Magnetic Fields album, Love at the Bottom of the Ocean, Merritt writes from the perspective of a meth-crazed assassin, an abstinent Christian teenager, and a straight man who falls in love with a drag performer. Both Springsteen and Merritt also treat songwriting like art projects, fiddling with different genres and styles the way a child might twist a Rubik's cube. On Wrecking Ball, Springsteen fuses American and Irish folk music for a combination that is sometimes rousing, sometimes ungainly. Merritt, on Ocean, returns to the fizzy synthpop that characterized his early records, though much of the charm of early Magnetic Fields songs has been replaced by a persistent torpor. Neither is among their creators' best work, but that's hardly the point. Both Springsteen and Merritt are songwriters of the old school, and creation is their primary goal. Give each another two years, and they'll turn up again in different clothes.
When he released his debut album I Get Wet a decade ago, Andrew WK (Apr. 2, Webster Hall) was also accused of being a formalist but, unlike Merritt and Springsteen whose work has an air of nobility, WK was viewed by some as a charlatan. He, arguably, brought some of it on himself: I Get Wet was the sonic equivalent of emptying three dozen Pixie Sticks into a glass and chugging the whole thing—race-car hard rock that ran on jet-engine organ lines, cartoon-colored guitar riffs and roaring, arena-size backing vocals. It seemed more like a mockery of metal than a celebration of it, except that WK so fully committed to the record's chief aims—those being partying, having fun and having fun at parties—that the cynicism soon gave way to a big, goofy embrace. Which was WK's whole point in the first place. He exudes relentless good cheer, bounding across the stage, leading the crowd in exuberant, ridiculous shout-along refrains and whipping his greasy black mane around from the show's first note to its last. It's one part performance art, one part birthday party clown act, but it's never less than fully sincere and fully uplifting (WK also works as a life coach). To paraphrase one of WK's own lyrics: he does what he likes, and he likes what he does.
In a way, WK's style of happy trash-thrash is a direct descendent of the decadence and debauchery praticed by David Johansen (Apr. 6, Highline Ballroom). He perfected high artifice with the New York Dolls in the early '70s, and has been casually shapeshifting ever since, dabbling in bleary blues and, as Buster Poindexter in the '80s, tongue-in-cheek lounge music. It's been a decade since his last solo record, and set lists from shows he played late last year favored the folk and early rock and roll he covered with his band the Harry Smiths. Anyone looking for a rollicking glam carnival act might be disappointed, but Johansen's a seasoned enough performer to bring spark to whatever musical guise he assumes.
As with Johansen, the one constant in the 50-year career of Chick Corea (Apr. 5, Highline Ballroom) has been his unwillingness to stay in one place. In the late '60s and early '70s, he was a key player in jazz's avant-garde, with albums like the terrifically stubborn Is composed of terrific knots of electric piano and subway-clatter percussion. That obtuseness abated somewhat on his work with Return to Forever, the ever-fluctuating fusion group he assembled in 1972 that hybridized elements of free jazz with simmering Latin percussion, elastic funky rhythms, and cool R&B melody lines—with the occasional, and arguably ill-advised, nods toward prog rock. Through each iteration, Corea's wild, impulsive playing has remained the locus that all the other elements orbit around. His dashing, carefree electric piano lines are instantly recognizable, no matter what scenery surrounds them. He roamed even further afield earlier this year with The Continents, a concerto he composed that places his impish playing at the center of stately, symphonic arrangements. Even in this regal setting, Corea's childlike restlessness peeks through.
If the through-lines in the careers of Corea and Johansen have been their firebrand personalities, the music of the British musician known as SBTRKT (Apr. 2, Music Hall of Williamsburg) operates at the other extreme. An alias developed by the British producer Aaron Jerome as a way of removing himself from his music entirely, SBTRKT is dedicated to the annihilation of personality. "There's a real trend toward selling yourself," he complained to the Australian website The Vine in October. "I've always had the belief that people should respond to the music foremost, not … the story of the person who made it.” Accordingly, SBTRKT wears a mask on stage—a day-glo variation on ceremonial headdresses worn by pagan jungle tribes—and refuses to use his birth name in any materials associated with the project. Which would lead you to believe that his music will be icy and mechanical, but the opposite is true. The songs on his self-titled debut album are built from lithe, slinky synths and topped with the kind of pained, passionate vocals normally found on contemporary R&B songs. It's a kind of spiritual sister album to the debut by fellow Brits the xx, but where that group's songs often felt deliciously detached, there's an emotional ache to SBTRKT's music that—ironically—makes it feel more human and relatable. Perhaps it's by sublimating the personal that SBTRKT achieves the universal.
The music of Craig Taborn (Apr. 3–8, Village Vanguard) is similar in mood to that of SBTRKT's, though its roots are in jazz, not R&B. The songs on his 2004 album Junk Magic cross-wired elements of ambient music with the darting melody lines of free jazz, making for songs that sounded both nostalgic and futuristic at the same time. Though last year's stunning Avenging Angel was more conventional, glimpses of Taborn's affection for electronic music still peeked through. The murmuring "Diamond Turning Dream," with its languid, pointillist approach, felt not too far removed from the ambient work of Brian Eno and in the dreamlike "Glossolalia," notes blinked like bulbs on an old switchboard. It's music that's as elegant as it is periodically unsettling.
The same can be said of Keep Shelly in Athens (Apr. 2, Glasslands), a Greek electronic duo who rose to quick and unlikely prominence on the strength of a few early singles. In truth, some of the appeal was in the mystery: the duo crafted mournful, atmospheric songs topped with dreamy vocals that recalled the Cocteau Twins or Dead Can Dance. That such music sprung from unknown origin made it feel much more bewitching. A bit more is known about its makers at this point, but just barely. The singer goes by Sarah P., the producer by a Greek/Cyrillic moniker best approximated as RPR, and their songs still feel strange and otherworldly. Synths roll out like late-afternoon clouds, and Sarah's voice is at times commanding, at times spectral and wraithlike—fitting for music that draws you in only to shut you out.
A similar haze settles across the music of the Michigan psych group The People's Temple (Apr. 6 Death By Audio). Their debut album, released last year on the excellent Chicago label HoZac, owes an equal debt to the American rock of the '60s and to mid-'80s Kiwi-pop bands like the Clean and the Bats. They surround sneering vocal melodies with a thicket of overgrown guitar, evoking a kind of cigarette-smoking, streetcorner cool. On the rollicking "Axe Man," vocalist Alex Szegedy bellows "What's the use of coming down?" Their songs vibrate with that same reckless abandon.
More by this author:
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