10:03 am May. 21, 2012
That the first appearance of Jaime Meline, the rapper known as El-P (May 21, Santos Party House), was on an 1997 album called Funcrusher Plus offered a good indication of the thematic arc he intended to follow. Over the course of the next decade and a half, both on his own records and the records he produced, El designed production backdrops that felt like rotting thirtieth-century cities—beats that sound like metal gnashing against metal, synth stabs that buzz like shorted-out lights and all manner of ominous mechanical hisses and whooshes. His lyrics were appropriately grim: "Quarter in hand at the light for the squeegee man/ Adult life, squeegee man shot—cop's hand," he rapped in "Squeegee Man Shooting" on his harrowing 2002 masterpiece Fantastic Damage, before concluding, "Homeless hustle lost to the dark of the blue curtain." He retains that jut-jawed menace on Cancer 4 Cure, his first album since the dissolution of Def Jux, the hip-hop label he founded as a platform for artists who shared his future-shock worldview. He begins "Tougher Colder Killer" announcing, "To the mother of my enemy: I just killed your son" as primitive computers malfunction behind him.
That song features an appearance by the Atlanta rapper Killer Mike (May 24, Brooklyn Bowl), whose thrilling, kinetic R.A.P. Music, was entirely produced by El-P. The combination of Mike's aggression and El-P's dystopic production results in one of the year's best records. A similar sense of malice infected the music of the Afghan Whigs (May 23, Bowery Ballroom), who spent the better part of the 90's chronicling romantic dysfunction in songs that merged black-smog rock and roll with curdled R&B—the perfect setting for frontman Greg Dulli's sinister lyrics. The Brooklyn singer Allison Weiss (May 27, Death By Audio) is just as emotionally frank, chronicling her inner landscape over a coil of barbed guitar with a voice somewhere between a yelp and sob. But the bar for romantic dysfunction was set 30 years ago by Morrissey, whose 53rd birthday will be celebrated at an event called At Last I Am Born by the well-respected Smiths cover band the Sons and Heirs (May 22, Union Hall).
There's a different kind of oppressive bleakness in the music of Meshuggah and Baroness (May 23, Terminal 5), two metal bands who share a bill this week. The former take an experimental approach to death metal—a genre that's generally not amenable to rule-bending. Every Meshuggah album since their 1991 debut has been a little knottier and a little more cerebral, with ten-ton split-second riffing battling time signatures that careen with the fickleness of abstract jazz. What impresses about Meshuggah is that they're equally committed to both ideas; typically, when a metal band decides to get experimental, sonic brutality is the first thing to go. Meshuggah's music bludgeons as it baffles. It makes sense that their opening act would be Georgia's Baroness, who share their experimental bent. If Meshuggah at times seem like the world's surliest Rush fans, it's tempting to inspect Baroness's knuckles for traces of the punk rock magic marker “hXcX” that didn't come off in the shower. That acronym is the telltale sign of a hardcore fan, and the stern, throaty vocals and clambering guitars that fill Baroness's songs rank a close second. On 2009's masterful The Blue Record, they constructed dazzling, labyrinthine songs that revealed new compositional layers with each listen. The forthcoming Yellow & Green goes even further, softening their assault slightly and aiming for the kind of mainstream crossover Metallica found with their self-titled black album.
Tokyo's Church of Misery (May 25, Cameo Gallery) prefer to keep things simple, delivering a sweltering batch of '70s stoner metal that draws inspiration from such time-tested metal tropes as serial killers and Satan. YOB (May 23, The Bell House), who opened a set at the Roadburn festival in 2010 by announcing "We're gonna play four songs and that'll be one hour," slow metal down to an agonizing pace, their songs lurching forward like a 500-pound sloth. Though they're not nearly as brutal, the California band Thrice (May 24, Best Buy Theatre) also ruthlessly discard convention. Over seven albums, their obstinate post-hardcore has grown gradually more artful and expansive; their just-announced hiatus (once this tour is done) is likely to give them time to think up more avenues to explore.
The Gossip (May 22, Terminal 5) know plenty about artistic transformation. To listen to their first few outings—a pair of giddily slapdash and defiantly indie junk-blues records—is to marvel that they're even the same band. The sonic turning point came with 2006's Standing in the Way of Control, which wisely shifted its attention from slavering riffs to frontwoman Beth Ditto's colossal, soul-diva voice, surrounding it with laserlike synths and thumping dance rhythms. Early word on this year's A Joyful Noise has been decidedly mixed, with intended producer Mark Ronson dropping out early in the proceedings and its electropop lead single sounding distressingly wispy, like a misfired mid-'80s Stevie Nicks single. Regardless, the group's power is a live act is nearly peerless—Ditto works herself into a fury, routinely disrobing on stage and beaming her voice up like a searchlight into the sky.
For the bulk of the '90s, Garbage (May 22, Webster Hall) also bummed smokes at the intersection of rock and dance music. They’ve returned with Not Your Kind of People, a record that retains both the sizzle and sneer of their early work. Kissey Asplund (May 24, Cameo Gallery) applies an adventurous spirit to R&B. Her songs are rigid and robotic, her lithe voice gliding ghostlike over big, blocky synths. The latest album from the Norwegian producer Lindstrom (May 25, Webster Hall) is just as physical, bomblike percussion exploding between strobe-like flashes of electronics. And Slum Village (May 23, B.B. King's) use thundering rhythms as a contrast to their easy, nimble verses. They've persevered after the death of founding member J. Dilla in 2006, maintaining a sound that mirrors his scratched-soul production and boom-bap beats.
At first glance, guitarist Charlie Hunter (May 22, The Stone) would appear to be at the other end of the musical spectrum. The music he performs is rootsy and organic—straightforward, conversational guitar leads that stroll nonchalantly through songs that draw equally on both jazz and funk. But close inspection reveals a few nuances: he spent the early '90s playing guitar in the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, a duo that ably mimicked both the heady politics and nuclear production style of prime Public Enemy and in 1996, he covered Bob Marley's classic Natty Dread in its entirely. Though his own songs grow from familiar musical roots, he's hardly a traditionalist. His custom-built guitars—with seven or eight strings as opposed to the usual six or 12—allow him to play both guitar and bass lines simultaneously. A flashier musician would flaunt this odd skill with gaudy overplaying, but Hunter isn't interested in empty showmanship. His 2009 album Gentleman, I Neglected to Inform You You Will Not Be Getting Paid is impressively subdued, a collection of dusky R&B songs that mostly center around a single melodic phrase that's repeated, expanded and reconstituted throughout. But what stands out most about Hunter's playing is the clarity and focus. Where other players run blind down dark improvisational alleys, Hunter's primary focus is melody. His limber, prodigious playing is always in service of the song.
It's an approach not too different from that of Jack White (May 21 & 22, Roseland Ballroom), who has also been known to curb his virtuosity in order to deliver an indelible hook. In his glory years, Slash (May 22, Irving Plaza) had mastered the art of doing both; the gleaming leads that spiral through Guns 'N' Roses songs are often more memorable than the choruses—and certainly more memorable than anything he's done since. In such company, the playing of Tara Jane O'Neill (May 24, Zebulon) seems subdued, but that doesn't make it any less impressive. Her songs are moody and spare, instilling the mathematical precision of post-rock with the warmth of folk music.
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