9:57 am Apr. 30, 2012
Anyone tempted to disparage Williamsburg as the home of disaffected record clerks and bearded homebrewers would do well to remember that its most famous musical export is not the Rapture or LCD Soundsystem, but Barry Alan Pincus—better known to theater fans and suburban grandmothers as Barry Manilow (May 1-2, Radio City Music Hall). Manilow today occupies a peculiar place in pop music; while there has been no shortage of artists since his mid-'70s heyday who have employed similar methods, it is nearly impossible to unlock Manilow's specific influence. That's partly because he's always been more concerned with crowdpleasing than with developing a clear artistic voice—there will never, for example, be a Barry Manilow/Rick Rubin project; given that he has spent the last several years performing his own show in Las Vegas, consider this run of shows a kind of homecoming.
There's another homecoming taking place near Manilow's birthplace later in the week, this one in celebration of the return of Jonathan Toubin (May 6, Brooklyn Bowl). Easily one of the city's best and most charismatic D.J.s, Toubin has been hospitalized since December, when a taxi plowed through the front wall of the hotel in Portland, Oregon where he was sleeping after a D.J. gig, pinning him to a wall and leaving him critically wounded. To the incredible relief of family and fans, Toubin recovered, and Sunday's party will be both a celebration of his health and a testimony to how beloved he has become. In Toubin's weekly New York Night Train events, he favors rambunctious soul 45s from the late '50s and early '60s—the kind of music that seems scientifically engineered for dancing. Expect the same at the party celebrating his return.
Some returns are more spiritual than geographic. Mike Watt, J. Mascis, and Murph (May 2, Le Poisson Rouge) all orbited around one another in the mid '80s, Watt first with the Minutemen and then with fIREHOSE, and Mascis and Murph with Dinosaur Jr. Though all of the bands fit squarely in the American indie rock underground, their aesthetics could not have been more different—Watt's bands tended to favor tiny bullets of sound that pummeled relentlessly where Dinosaur Jr. was given mostly over to slacker takes on acid-eaten psych rock. It's difficult to tell what the trio—who bill themselves as Hellride East—will play when they share the stage, though a strange hybrid of their seemingly oppositional sounds would be a rare thrill.
An even stranger combination is that of Tommy Stinson of the Replacements and, most recently, Guns 'n' Roses, HR from pioneering reggae/hardcore group Bad Brains, and Alan Vega of '70s synth assassins Suicide (Apr. 30, Bowery Electric). The event is a benefit for Lucinda's Kids, a charity established for the children of music fan Lucinda Gallagher, who took her life in December so, like the celebration for Toubin, the night will focus on music's power to unite and to heal. Whether the three headliners will collaborate remains to be seen.
There's a bit more stylistic harmony to the artists playing the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry festival (May 3-5, BAM's Peter J. Sharp Bulding). Curated by Bryce and Aaron Dessner of the band the National, the three-day event seems, in many ways, a direct reflection of their peculiar sensibilities. The group flirts with avant-classical impulses as often as they do moody, dour indie rock, so its little surprise to see experimentalists like Buke & Gass and the eerie neo-classical ensemble Victoire spinkled amongst National simpaticos like Sharon Van Etten and Beirut. It's this obstinate sensibility that keeps the bill interesting—furious guitar-torturer Hubble shares a bill with emotive indie rockers the Antlers and the festival's first night is headlined by the Walkmen, a band that often seems—in both sound and appearance—like the National's evil twins, their songs spiked with flashes of maliciousness where the National radiate earnest intent. Where many festivals aim to create a kind of overstuffed genre smorgasbord in order to appease a variety of tastes, Crossing Brooklyn seems specifically designed to stretch its audience—placing comfortable sounds alongside uncomfortable ones and reveling in the friction that results.
Hugh Masekela (May 1-2, Jazz Standard) is also an artist without a clear sonic home base. Though loosely rooted in jazz, Masekela has a tendency to wander around the borders. His 1968 hit "Grazin' in the Grass" radiated lithe, sinuous soul, he sat in with Fela Kuti in the '70s, and his appearance on tracks by the Byrds and Paul Simon seemed to make his true music citizenship even more indistinct. The one consistent factor has been Masekela's sweet, sonorous playing—bell-clear notes that streak across the top of his songs like jet planes on a clear afternoon. As the title of his 1972 classic states, Home is Where the Music Is. It's that sentence more than any other that best defines Masekela's career.
Fellow trumpeter Roy Hargrove (May 1-6, Village Vanguard) shares Masekela's penchant to roam. In 2000, he collaborated with the R&B singer D'Angelo on what would become his masterpiece, Voodoo and revealed his love for hard bop on 2008's masterful Earfood. Hargrove is a musical omnivore whose greatest gift—aside from his nimble, reactive playing style—is bringing his deep love of jazz to bear on myriad other genres.
James Chance (May 3, Brooklyn Bowl) also spent the majority of his career bringing a jazz sensibility to music that falls decidedly outside that arena. In his late '70s work with his band the Contortions, he used his saxophone to drill angry holes through the center of stubborn, snarling funk licks and itchy, agitated guitar. The result was music that had the defiance of punk but out jazz's stubborn disregard for melodic convention. He opened his best known song, 1979's "Contort Yourself," by howling, "It's better than pleasure/ it hurts more than pain," in his throaty, hectoring voice. The music he makes, with its lithe, liquid rhythms and strangled-cat saxophone, embodies a similar contradiction.
Chance's music felt threatening because of its sheer sonic brutality, but Marilyn Manson (May 2, Wellmont Theatre) went for the more overt shock. Though the overblown theatrics and rich Goth costumes of his late-'90s stage show seem now the sort of thing that would appear in a Tim Burton-directed Broadway musical, at the time, his dress-up Satanism seemed a genuine menace. This was by design. Manson—known to his parents as Brian Warner—is one of pop's canniest provocateurs, able to zero in on middle-class superstitions about faith and morality and exploit them with a calm confidence. His star has dimmed considerably since his heyday, and it's unlikely he'll be able to mount the same elaborate stage show that he could back in the years when people still purchased C.D.s. But his new record, Born Villain, and the chilling video that accompanies its title track, suggest that Manson still is able to deliver the same sinister thrills for those who choose to listen.
The pianist Andras Schiff (May 2, Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall) has also been waging a war against narrow preconceptions, though perhaps without the grand theatrics of Manson. The classical pianist—whose deft, emotive playing has garnered universal acclaim—called attention to "racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and chauvanism" in his native Hungary in an impassioned letter to the Washington Post last year, provoking no small amount of response from his countrymen. Schiff's letter is like his playing—deeply-felt, but also calm and ruthlessly precise, making an impact without flourish or indulgence. That he is considered one of the world's greatest pianists makes this performance feel that much more essential.
Though they operate well within a pop vernacular, Shearwater (May 6, Le Poisson Rouge), like the National, have generally approached it from a classical mindset, paying close attention to the intricacies of songwriting and fashioning each section not as verses and choruses but as movements. Unfortunately, this attentiveness eventually waterlogged their music—2010's Golden Archipelago felt hopelessly sluggish and overcooked. So they band did the logical thing: they stripped everything back to the bare boards. This year's deeply satisfying Animal Joy is lean and muscular, its songs hurtling forward and building to great, noisy climaxes. Frontman Jonathan Meiburg's piercing tenor—which, at times, captures the clammy desperation of late-period Scott Walker—gives his songs a terrifying urgency.
It was James Mercer's similar dedication to craft that, in part, led him to dissolve the nine-year lineup of the Shins (Apr. 30, Terminal 5), replacing the band with musicians that could better realize his ever-expanding pop vision. The new, grander scale comes through on this year's Port of Morrow, which retains Mercer's fondness for melodies that curl like question marks, but surrounds them with rich, booming music. "No Way Down" offsets alt-country ramble with spastic percussion and "40 Mark Strasse" opens eerily similar to the Band's "The Weight" before settling into an arid '70s California-rock groove. It's regal, mannered pop music—as polite as it is flawlessly-built.
Every now and then, though, rock music benefits from messiness. On their single "Bloodshot Eyes," bizarre Chiacgo psych band Outer Minds (May 3, Cake Shop) turn out a trio of rough-and-tumble numbers pasted together with bleary organ and shouted, off-mic vocals. The results are giddy and irresistibly haphazard. Coke Weed (May 2, Cake Shop), from Maine, apply the same approach to country music. Their just-released debut is full of the kind of songs you sing after emptying a bottle of whiskey into your stomach—slurred vocals, sobbing lap steel and campfire acoustic guitar—call it the last will and testament of an alcoholic cowboy. Indian Rebound (May 3, Big Snow) is slightly more together: their buzzing indie rock recalls pioneers of the form like Beat Happening, particularly since it's topped with a baritone vocal that's earnest in intent and wobbly in pitch. For something brighter and more engaged, there's Habibi (May 3, Mercury Lounge), who blend dead-eyed female vocals with spindly guitar lines in a way that's similar to Girls At Our Best or Aislers Set. Their songs are relentlessly hooky—to hear the chorus of single "Sweetest Talk" once is to be singing it for the rest of the day—but they coyly underplay their hand, keeping their singing soft and leaving plenty of empty space between the instruments. Their music is more alluring because it feels more mysterious. But no new band has the market cornered on mystery more than Dirty Beaches (May 4, Bowery Ballroom), The product of one Alex Hungtai, their songs are the kind of things Chris Isaak might record if he had only a Casio keyboard and an old cassette deck with a condensor mic. Hungtai's delivery is full of rockabilly sobs, but the music behind him grinds ominously, like it was scraped from the score of a David Lynch film. The end result is deeply unnerving—a dark shadow at the end of the hall when you think you're the only one at home.
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