Streets of Your Town: This week's concerts, with Beach House, the Promise Ring, Lee 'Scratch' Perry and more
If you've ever wanted to attend a séance, but can't be bothered tracking down a medium, a crystal ball, and 900 candles, you could instead just listen to the music of the Baltimore duo Beach House (May 15, Bowery Ballroom). Their best songs feel like a kind of supernatural communion—Victoria Legrand's melancholy voice billowing up through layers of guitar and keyboard that glitter like tossed diamonds. Their early records focused on slowness, but on 2010s Teen Dream, they added a vital ingredient: elegance. Bloom, which will be released on Tuesday, is even more radiant. Though they haven't radically altered their formula—it's still just Legrand's voice sailing across crystal-sea instrumentation—it feels simultaneously soothing and spooky: a translucent spirit floating in a darkened room.
The metal bands Loss and Pallbearer (May 19, St. Vitus) also commune with the spirit world, and also do so through a similar conduit of crawling tempos and yearning, desperate vocals. Where Beach House shimmers, though, they cough black smoke. The spirits that populate their songs are more troubled: the lurching songs on Loss's grim debut full-length bear titles like "Cut Up, Depressed and Alone" and "Open Veins to a Curtain Closed," and Pallbearer's 10-minute songs seem to radiate grief and anguish. Though both bands are loosely categorized as "funeral doom"—shorthand for crawling tempos and gut-rumbling, drop-tuned guitar—Loss vocalist Mike Meacham employs a voice that's all growl, no tone, while Pallbearer's Brett Campbell pleads and wails like an angel plummeting to earth. The music's inexorable trudge is as grim as a Bela Tarr film.
There's more brightness in the music of Bill Frisell (May 15-20, Village Vanguard) and Olof Arnalds (May 14, Rockwood Music Hall), two artists working from two distinctly different folk traditions. Frisell plays American country music like only a jazz musician can, pitch-bending pedal steel, layering in slowpoke guitar, and resting it all atop acoustic bass that imagines Mingus spending a long month out west. To call it "pastoral" feels redundant—Frisell's approach to country is tender and sublime, radiating like a blue moon on a chilly prairie night. Arnalds mostly operates from within the Scandinavian folk tradition. Her songs have all the witchy mystery of the early music of her native Iceland, but she undercuts it with moments of genuine, startling sympathy. She's in town to debut songs from her first album written entirely in English, though it's doubtful a change in vernacular will dampen her music's deep-seated mystery.
But it's impossible—and unwise—to talk about the folk tradition without talking about Willie Nelson (May 16, Wellmont Theatre), whose cockeyed career arc has found him helping to invent a genre that became known as "outlaw country," working tirelessly to raise awareness of the plight of America's farms, and forming a close friendship with Snoop Dogg over one particular shared interest. In recent years, it's become easy to take Nelson for granted, which is why his early work—like Shotgun Willie and Red Headed Stranger—should warrant annual return trips. In them, you'll hear country music unvarnished and often as arresting as Johnny Cash's American series. "You can’t make a record if you ain't got nothing to say," Nelson famously sang early in Shotgun Willie's title track. Fifty years on, he still hasn’t run out of things to say. He's also inspired plenty of followers. Father John Misty (May 18, Mercury Lounge), or Josh Tillman, formerly of bleary-eyed folksters Fleet Foxes, plunges traditional American music in buckets of reverb and echo, but in loose, rambling songs like "I'm Writing a Novel," you can hear the same loose-gaited country that Nelson helped invent.
Gaslight Anthem (May 16, Music Hall of Williamsburg) pull Americana in the other direction, amplifying it and adding muscle tone and two-day stubble. In truth, they're more Springsteen and Social Distortion than Willie Nelson, but they share his love of hard-luck stories delivered with as much heart as dry humor. That their forthcoming album is produced by Brendan O'Brien—who has worked with Springsteen and Pearl Jam—indicates a desire to bulk up their sound even further. Lead single "45" roars forward cometlike, comparing life and friendship to a 7" single, a comparison that doesn't sound nearly as hokey when delivered by Brian Fallon's torn-denim voice.
About the only thing Arrington De Diyonoso (May 15, The Stone), formerly of experimentalists Old Time Relijun, has in common with Brian Fallon is that vocal tone. But where Fallon leans deep into Natty Light rock & roll, Diyonoso howls and yelps above taut, stabbing guitars. The closest comparison would be late '70s noiseniks the Pop Group, but there's an avant-jazz undercurrent to Diyonoso's songs that group lacked. On his 2009 album Malaikat dan Singa his sneers and growls while sax chokes and guitars flail nastily in the shadows. It makes sense, then, that he'd be appearing at The Stone, the same week its artistic director, John Zorn (May 16, The Stone), is appearing in a benefit show for the venue. The two are, in a way, sonic siblings. Zorn's music is also brash and thrashing, loosely based in rock but, like De Diyonoso's, also prone to violent fits of sound. Zorn's show promises "Many Special Guests" which, given the composer's influence and reach, are sure to share his love of the obtuse.
Though they're not on the bill, the duo of Therese Lanz and Stef MacKichan, who perform as Mares of Thrace (May 15, St. Vitus), also skew confrontational. Their scuzzbucket sludge metal veers from hardcore hammering to moments of almost elegiac guitar work, Lanz's bloodcurdling screech making the music feel feral and unhinged.
For slightly more hospitable sounds, there's the N.Y.C Popfest (May 17–20, Multiple Venues). Now in its sixth year, the festival showcases bands that combine heartsick sentiment with sugary guitar pop (one of this year's headliners is Allo Darlin', previewed earlier this month). Catnaps, from Philadelphia, are almost defiantly primitive, little-girl vocals curling up inside yarnlike guitar. Cola Jetset, from Madrid, are more opulent and luxurious. And long-running indie heroes Comet Gain, imagine what happens when romantic infatuation goes sour. David Feck's wry, hyperliterate lyrics recall those of Swell Maps' Nikki Sudden, and his bands clambering music is the perfect accompaniment for his wry prose.
If you twist the knob on any of these elements—the huge hooks, the heartsickness—up a few notches higher, you end up with the Promise Ring (May 20, Irving Plaza), who are reuniting after a 10-year hiatus. Though they're rarely spoken about in the same glowing terms as fellow emo pioneers Sunny Day Real Estate or Braid, their influence on pop music is far more tangible. With each record, frontman Davey von Boehlen's grasp on songwriting grew stronger and more assured, until the band's music began resembling the very guitar-centric pop music that would start turning up on the radio a few years after their expiration. Like the bands playing Popfest, the heart at the center of Promise Ring songs was almost always broken, but von Boehlen's ability to make even the saddest sentiment radiate optimism is one of the reasons their music has aged little since the early '00s.
Sometimes, the quickest way to get over heartbreak isn't to moon about it, but to dance it out. There's not a trace of sadsackery in the music of Big Freedia (May 17, Santos Party House), arguably the most popular practitioner of the New Orleans music colloquially known as "sissy bounce." Though its gut-punching low end, rat-a-tat percussion, and julienned vocal samples recall Miami bass, bounce music also incorporates a healthy helping of racy, chant-along, sloganlike lyrics. Sissy bounce is further distinguished by the fact that its performers are proudly and overtly gay—a notion still distressingly foreign to most mainstream hip-hop. The music of Big Freedia—the genre's best known and most deeply-loved ambassador—sounds like a million firecrackers going off at once, crackling percussive explosions with Freedia hollering lascivious instructions out from the center of the din like the world's most flamboyant football coach.
Flamboyance is a trait both Lee "Scratch" Perry (May 17, Gramercy Theatre) and the British producer Kindness (May 17, Le Poisson Rouge) are more than a little familiar with. With his garish, multi-colored outfits and surreal, stream-of-consciousness monologues about aliens and Santa Claus, it can be easy to forget that Perry is a genuine musical innovator, largely responsible for creating the spooky, echo-laden reggae subgenre known as dub before he burned his legendary Black Ark studios to the ground in 1980 believing it to be possessed by evil spirits. Like Perry, Adam Bainbridge, who records as Kindness, excels in moments of cacophony. "That's Alright," the best song on his very good U.S. debut World, You Need a Change of Mind, liberally samples Trouble Funks' "Still Smokin'," but dubs in the kind of fetching female vocals that used to turn up on old Pebbles singles. For this, Bainbridge should exercise caution: one day before the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch passed away, Trouble Funk's record label issued a lawsuit for that group's use of their work. If they get an earful of what Bainbridge has done, it might be in his best interests to stay in the U.K. for a while.
For sampling of another variety, there's the Great GoogaMooga Festival (May 19 & 20), in which some of New York's best restaurateurs set up shop in Prospect Park alongside bands like the Roots, Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires, and Hall & Oates. The concept is brilliant in its simplicity: a quick case could be made for the fact that good food is the new music—it invites obsessive behavior, can generate both staggering superlatives and stinging rebukes, and offers the same opportunities for cataloging and comparing ("I haven't been to Num Pang—but have you been to Porchetta? You haven't?" and "I liked that place back when it first opened, but it's become so mainstream lately.") You could argue that eating at a stand at the Great GoogaMooga is akin to seeing an indie band play a festival set. And it's precisely that kind of argument that affirms that the Great GoogaMooga is an idea whose time has come.