12:21 pm Apr. 24, 2012
That Squeeze (Apr. 28, Roseland Ballroom) and Nick Lowe (Apr. 25, Town Hall) should arrive in New York within a few days of one another is a nice musical coincidence. Both artists dissect the same subject—generally, the peculiarities of romance—with a distinctly British wit. In the music of Squeeze, it often seemed their punchlines were employed to conceal a deep hurt. In "Black Coffee in Bed," frontman Glenn Tilbrook—singing words penned by the band;s chief lyricist Chris Difford—itemizes a recently evaporated relationship through the series of faint physical traces it left behind. The song's narrator may tartly conclude, "There's nothing of your love that I'll ever miss," but the time he's devoted to documenting it indicates the opposite. Lowe's approach is more removed. In his best-known song, "Cruel to Be Kind," he reduces himself to a kind of romantic Keystone Cop, repeatedly toppled by an indifferent lover. His persona on the gently bobbing "Sensitive Man" from last year's sublime The Old Magic isn't much different. "Lately when I go to steal a kiss/ I feel you pulling away," he sighs over the kind of spunky piano and dawdling acoustic bass that used to turn up on old Elvis ballads. Unlike Difford's plight, you get the sense that things for Lowe will work out just fine.
A similar sensibility has filtered down to two other British exports appearing in New York this week—the Vaccines (Apr. 23, Webster Hall) and the Big Pink (Apr. 23, Bowery Ballroom). Of the pair, the former is closest to the mix of wryness and romanticism proffered by Squeeze. Their spry and, frankly, underrated debut What Did You Expect From the Vaccines? pored over the complicated politics of failed relationships; its best song—a rambunctious number that imagined the Strokes covering the Ramones—was built around the refrain "If you wanna come back/ it's alright, it's alright/ it's alright if you wanna come back," but the sentiment wasn't so simple, since it involved the dread of realizing you'd slept with an ex. The Big Pink take Lowe's wry detachment a step further. Their strongest song, "Dominoes," is a booming ode to the drunken conquest, the two band members moving from woman to woman with little in the way of emotional investment.
Allo Darlin' (Apr. 24, Mercury Lounge) and Kathleen Edwards (Apr. 28, Webster Hall) take breakups much more seriously. The former, a British band who craft instantly-endearing guitar pop, are responsible for the best record of 2012 to date. Full of startling emotional depth and fearless, vulnerable lyrics, Europe catalogs stark changes in two relationships—the romantic kind between two people, and the kind between a person and the music they love. The two are intertwined: though it's never explicitly stated, there is the sense that frontwoman Elizabeth Morris is pining for the kind of emotionally unavailable, perpetually miserable man who can only relate to the world around him through his record collection. The album ends—not coincidentally, "on the day a famous pop star died"—with Morris clear-eyed and ready to move forward while her would-be partner espouses adolescent proclamations like, "records can hold memories." Her quiet realization of their incompatibility is one of the year's most heartbreaking musical moments. Edwards' breakup songs are similarly wrenching but more directly based on real-life: She divorced from her husband and longtime bandmate Colin Cripps in 2010. Their breakup doesn't saturate the songs on Voyageur, her latest album, so much as hover over them. The gently chugging "Empty Threat" relays an argument in hints and implications; "Change the Sheets" references "margaritas and sleeping pills" before concluding "change the sheets and then change me." Edwards' previous records were characterized by rich, rambling alt-country—her debut, Failer, is arguably one of the genre's best, but Voyageur, produced by Edwards' new paramour, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, is moodier and more opaque. The blurry borders of its songs mirror the numb heart at its core.
Jack White (Apr. 27, Webster Hall) suffered a few break-ups recently, too. First, his band, the White Stripes, disintegrated; then, a few months later, it was his marriage to Karen Elson (amicably, it seems—they invited friends to a divorce party). So it's perhaps not a tremendous surprise that he's finally decided to go it alone. Blunderbuss, his first solo record, plays like the soundtrack to The History of Rock & Roll as written by Jack White. There's the expected flirtations with country and blues, but there's also fuming, stomping rockers ("Sixteen Saltines"), sweeping glam-folk ("Hypocritical Kiss") and a sizzling cover of Little Willie John's R&B panic-attack "I'm Shakin'." For his shows in Austin at South By Southwest, White brought along not one, but two bands—an all-woman band who assisted on the country-influenced numbers, and an all-male one for the rockers. This way, presumably, if one of the groups breaks up, he'll have a backup.
And just because you break up doesn't mean you can't get back together. North Carolina's Archers of Loaf (Apr. 26, Bowery Ballroom) split in 1998 after releasing four albums of acerbic indie rock. Their turbulent first two records, Icky Mettle and Vee Vee are their best, throwing the throaty vocals of Eric Bachmann—who would record as Crooked Fingers after the band's dissolution—against barbed wire guitars, There's a palpable sense of frustration in their songs, as if Bachmann is constantly punching against forces beyond his control. His cynicism—particularly about indie culture—seemed canny and satirical during the band's first iteration. These days, it seems prescient.
Some of that fury is present in the music of Ceremony (Apr. 23, Mercury Lounge), the California punk band whose fourth album, Zoo, cruises more than it bruises. The gangs of guitars on songs like "Citizen" are many in number but polite in tone, egging on the song's rocketing drums like spectators cheering on marathon runners. The elastic riffs wrapped across "Quarantine" have more to do with late '90s Britpop than late '70s NYC (or California, for that matter), but live, they scrape off the gloss and emphasize the volume. They've still got a ways to go before they catch up with Melvins (Apr. 29, Webster Hall). The pioneering Washington group pulverize, their 600-ton riffs thumping into the stomach like a boozy prizefighter in a bar scuffle. That they prefer a slow crawl to a stampede makes their devastation that much more severe. Theirs is a sustained, steady pummeling, designed for maximum sustained agony. The black metal band Inquisition (Apr. 26-27, St. Vitus) also likes to take their time. Though they deliver fair amounts of machine-gun riffing and heart-attack percussion, their eeriest moments are also their slowest. "Desolate Funeral Chant," from last year's spellbinding Ominous Doctrines of the Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm, sounds like a transmission from hell itself, chilling demonic vocals stalking steadily across angrily lapping guitars.
Inquisition's songs flirt use the supernatural to unsettle, but Raekwon (Apr. 26, BB King's) knows the most chilling stories come from real life. After suffering a long fallow period in the late '90s/early '00s, the Wu-Tang Clan rapper mined his past for inspiration, releasing a sequel to his perfect 1995 solo debut Only Built for Cuban Linx that matched its predecessor's fury and ferocity note-for-note. He's been fully rehabilitated since then; he turned in a toothy appearance on Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and last year he released Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang, another in a series of confrontational crime narratives that set his gravel-bucket voice against film-noir productions. For this show, he'll be joined by Action Bronson, a Queens rapper who takes more than a few stylistic cues from the Clan, but leavens his verse with surrealist humor and enthusiastic celebrations of fine cuisine.
The Bad Plus (Apr. 24-29, Blue Note) take cues from their contemporaries, too, but not in the expected ways. The jazz trio routinely looks outside the genre for inspiration; their catalog is full of covers of acts as disparate as Nirvana, Pink Floyd and Interpol. In lesser hands this kind of maneuver might come of cheeky or kitschy, but the Bad Plus are expert players. Their cover of Nirvana's "Lithium" turns the original inside out, building the song around a drunken, tumbling-down-the-stairs piano part and letting the rhythm stop and start fitfully, creating a distinct sense of unease. Their original songs are just as arresting—slow, twilight waltzes draped with shadow and willfully off-kilter.
The reigning king of slow, twilight waltzes, though, is Abel Tesfaye, who has released a pair of bewitching, dusky R&B records for free as the Weeknd (Apr. 25, Music Hall of Williamsburg). You can hear elements of the past in his songs—more than a few of which, as you might expect, are concerned with breakups. His high, desperate tenor bears more than a passing trace to a young Michael Jackson's (his latest album, Echoes of Silence, opens with a cover of Jackson's "Dirty Diana"), but his sleek, layered production recalls everyone from '80s R&B outsiders like Terence Trent D'Arby to the current crop of laconic chillwave bands to Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti. With its slinky synth lines and throbbing rhythms, Tesfaye's music is not for the club—it's for the bedroom. In other words, better for preventing a breakup than recovering from one.
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