Streets of Your Town: This week's concerts, with Pulp's return, 'Chickfactor's 20th Anniversary, Kraftwerk at MoMA, and more
The British band Pulp (Apr. 10–11, Radio City Music Hall) were never high on the list of likely reunions but, if it was going to happen, it makes sense that it would happen now. Whether it's G.O.P. wags pretzel-bending presidential statements on the economy gap so they're "class warfare," or the ongoing Occupy marches that take place somewhere in this city at least monthly—regular as bills and magazine subscriptions—there's been more heated analysis of the social strata lately than in a High School discussion of an E.M. Forster novel.
Class warfare was always, of course, Pulp's whole thing. It's undoubtedly most pronounced on their perfect 1995 album Different Class, whose lead single "Common People"—the last dance at every Outcast's Prom of the Mind since its release—depicted a wealthy art student slumming it with the lower class lover to see what it felt like. In the rocket-ride opening track "Mis-Shapes," frontman Jarvis Cocker sneers, "We won't use guns, we won't use bombs,/ we'll use the one thing we've got more of.../ that's our minds." Those concerns crop up across other records, too; the underrated This is Hardcore felt like a low slink through some city's seedy underbelly; His 'n' Hers was an arch deconstruction of exhausted gender roles. The trick to pulling off such brainy, scholarly stuff—besides the whizz-bang instrumentation and five-mile-high choruses—was always Cocker, who calmly eviscerated his targets like a master chef cleanly cutting through a steak. Decades since they were first penned, all those barbed verses about social alienation feel downright prescient.
The emotional yang to Pulp's hyperintellectual yin was the early '90s genre often flippantly referred to as "twee," generally a pairing of rambunctious guitars with whispery vocals and rickety rhythms, nearly always in service of sweet, spun-sugar melodies. For the majority of that decade, the scene (also known as indie pop) was documented by the 'zine Chickfactor, which celebrates its 20th Birthday with a series of methodically-curated concerts. (Apr. 10–12, The Bell House). For fans of the music Chickfactor covered (and championed), the lineup provokes the same giddy thrill more centrist music fans get when they look at the Coachella lineup (that they were both announced within the same week seems a convenient coincidence). As with Coachella, the biggest draws are the reunions—among them, beloved cuddlefolk duo The Softies, fuzzed-out Motown lovers Aislers Set and the ragged garage-pop of Small Factory. But the highlight of the week, by any measure, is the reunion of Black Tambourine, whose blueprint for pairing thundering guitars with Pam Berry's ghost-of-a-schoolgirl vocals is being intently studied by bands that just formed last week. For a series of groups once defined by their outsider status, it feels like vindication.
In their own way, Kraftwerk (Apr. 10–17, MoMA) were just as dryly analytical as Pulp, but their concerns weren't so much rich vs. poor as they were human vs. robot. After an early stab at electro-jam rock, the group refocused, turning out six definitive electronic records in a row on which they sublimated anything like actual human emotion in favor of detached, often digitized vocal delivery and steel-beam synth lines that mimicked the blank-stare program-execution of primitive computers. Their austere approach gained them unlikely followers—Grandmaster Flash famously sampled "Trans-Europe Express" on his breakout hip-hop hit "The Message," while scores of bands have covered Kraftwerk’s songs over the years—and their penchant for ruthless innovation within their chosen milieu only grew grander over time (they eventually constructed lifelike replicas of themselves to perform the song "The Robots" on their 1981 tour). Their appearances at MoMA, during which they'll perform eight of their most important records in order over the course of eight nights, has been sold out since roughly 75 seconds after tickets went on sale in February, but it nevertheless provides an opportunity to revisit what the band did so well. At a time when social networking and mobile technology are vastly lauded as positive developments—ways to make our world smaller—Kraftwerk's chilly synths and stiff-joint beats are welcome reminders of the soul-sucking ghosts floating in machines. Computers may seem friendlier than they did 30 years ago, but that's only because they've figured out the most effective way to hypnotize: by posing as your friends.
For those frustrated that they couldn't nab tickets to any of the shows—and, if Twitter is to believed, there are more than a few—Littlefield is offering a compelling alternative. Called Krautwerk Condensed 1- 8 (Apr. 10, Littlefield), the show features an array of avant-gardists—among them, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, Julie Cafritz of Pussy Galore, and Pete Nolan of Magik Markers—offering their takes on the Kraftwerk catalog. If their respective résumés are to be believed, they'll likely swap the cool, affectless demeanor of the originals for something wilier, noisier, and nastier.
Wily, noisy, and nasty are three words that describe the Massachusetts hardcore band Converge (Apr. 14, Music Hall of Williamsburg), but to mistake them for anarchic would be selling them short. Their light-speed, blistering songs are almost astonishingly composed, millisecond guitar notes speeding along on a precise, deliberate flight pattern. They've retained their force and precision over time: their last album, 2009's Axe to Fall was a kind of sonic hailstorm, notes raining down relentlessly, vocalist Jacob Bannon running angrily through the storm, arms flailing, eyes bulging. The chief pleasure in the band is not only the visceral impact, but in paying close attention to the meticulous construction. It's a symphony of well-planned chaos, sped up to a blur and amplified at a gazillion decibels.
Mastodon (Apr. 11, Roseland Ballroom) used to operate according to a similar M.O. of ruthless brutality. Their early records were vicious and snarling, fusing hardcore's corkscrew riffing with brief flashes of proggy noodling. That last part got more pronounced as the years have gone on, to the consternation of their more purist fans but to the ultimate benefit of their music. It may have lacked the blast furnace intensity of early efforts like Leviathan, but 2009's Crack the Skye was a haunting, elegant masterpiece, swapping infernal grunting for straightforward singing, delivering an eloquent rock opera about suicide and the afterlife. They're joined by the similarly complex Opeth, who stray further and further from heavy metal with each release. Like Mastodon, their early work is blunter: 2001’s breakthrough Blackwater Park was dense yet wildly swirling. Heritage, released late last year, is more controlled, built from interlocking spirals of guitar and undergirded with layers of synth and piano. It's tricky, mathematical metal, all the dense construction of Converge at a fraction of the speed.
When he was a member of the group Don Caballero, Eric Simms' songs also tended toward the dense and mathematical. Since forming Tanlines (Apr. 12, Bowery Ballroom) with Jessie Cohen, however, he's veered defiantly in the opposite direction. Their debut full-length, Mixed Emotions, arrives just in time for summer, a fizzy concoction of big, grinning synthpop that sidesteps empty nostalgia by concentrating on inlaying its songs with hundreds of little details: spry Caribbean-style synth xylophones in "Yes Way," speedy Latin-pop style acoustic guitars in "Lost Somewhere," a shuffling bossa nova groove in "Cactus." They're just as good when they're playing it relatively straight. Thumping anthem "All of Me" could have easily soundtracked the outro of any '80s teen film, but when it arrives at its hands-in-the-air, glitter-raining-down chorus, you're grateful for the flashback.
Like Tanlines' math-rock prologue, Shabazz Palaces (Apr. 13, S.O.B.s) also comes with an unlikely backstory. In the early '90s, principal member Ishmael Butler recorded under the name Butterfly with Digable Planets. That group spun out paisley-patterned jazz-rap with conscious-yet-sunny lyrics, but the music Butler makes with Shabazz Palaces is darker, hinting at universal dischord and an encroaching dystopia. The 10 songs on Shabazz’s excellent debut Black Up are comprised of queasy sonic backdrops—computer-like hums, splotches of synthesizer, and rhythms that often mimic the skeletal rattle of early industrial music. Butler's voice, which is occasionally piled high with eerie layers of digital distortion, remains studiously detached—a space-age oracle warning of dark things to come.
There's an undercurrent of darkness to the new record from Dr. John (Apr. 12–14, BAM) on which his time-tested combination of deep blues and bayou R&B sizzle gets an assist from the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach. "Revolution" opens with John excoriating "blind eyes of justice/ deaf ears of power." It's little wonder: even seven years later, his hometown of New Orleans is still struggling with the residual effects of Hurricane Katrina, and John—never one to mince words in the first place—is the area's natural ambassador. Forty years on, the crags in his voice have only deepened, and the shadows in his songs have grown taller. Auerbach's production approach recalls Daniel Lanois' work with Bob Dylan on Time Out of Mind, making the songs dance like ghosts in a graveyard. For this run of shows at BAM, Dr. John will be joined by Auerbach, as well as Irma Thomas, Ivan Neville, the Dirty Dozen Brass band, and a host of others, making for a raucous celebration of his rich musical history.