Streets of Your Town: This week's concerts, with Radiohead, tUnE-yArDs, OFF!, and more
Common wisdom about Radiohead (May 28, Prudential Center) speaks of their past truths as if they're Galilean miracles: the way they transformed from risible buzz-bin one-hitters to a startlingly emotive Britpop band to art-rock wizards to fearless electro pioneers in the space of about 15 minutes. Or how they shrugged off a record business that was no longer working for them and dreamed up a distribution system that capitalized on something they were good at: surprise. But the truth is, the hard part is what to do next. Because once you've established a reputation for changing the medium, the onus is on you to figure out new ways to change it every couple of years. It says something about the caliber of a band's reputation when simply releasing a good record can be considered a disappointment. Word from this tour is that the group's latest feat is figuring out ways to fuse the two halves of their career, instilling the dreamy electronic music of their later years with the rock muscle of their youth. Which means previously ghostly songs like "Kid A" are given flesh, definition and groove, and new songs, like the throbbing "Identikit," get swaddled in silvery guitar lines. After decades of total reinvention, they've finally stopped to fine-tune. The German producer Sascha Ring, who performs and records as Apparat (May 31, Gramercy Theatre), has expressed a fondness for Radiohead, and you can hear some similarities in his moody vocals and oceanlike synths. The California band Lemonade (June 2, Music Hall of Williamsburg) splits the difference: their blinking, ambient tracks match Apparat's moodiness, but their whalloping dance numbers are pure, fizzy summer fun. Autre Ne Veut (June 1, Shea Stadium) is like Lemonade on a budget—his bedroom dance songs seem to imagine what might happen of Terence Trent D'Arby recorded Introducing the Hardline on a 4-track, his pinched falsetto bouncing off rubbery synths like a gleaming ball in a pinball machine. Porcelain Raft (June 1, Mercury Lounge), the project of Mauro Remiddi, takes the base of dance music and slows it down, leaving cavernous spaces between the beats that he fills with heaps of gauzy synths and his own trembling voice.
Like Radiohead, the violist Nadia Sirota (June 2, The Stone) also has a knack for combining emotion with experimentalism. Though she has appeared on albums by Grizzly Bear, Arcade Fire, and the National, and is a member of the aggressively forward-thinking ensemble yMusic—which performs pieces commissioned by artists like St. Vincent's Annie Clark—her most arresting work remains her own. The songs on her 2009 album First Things First are breathtaking, whipping from moments of lush, romantic rapture to cold Hitchcockian terror. The 14-minute "Escape" feels as frantic as a panicked sprint through a haunted forest at midnight, Sirota's viola lines coming clipped and desperate and then collapsing in a fit at roughly the halfway mark. And on "The Night Gatherers," sound pools slowly, wisps of viola clustering together like a cloud of fireflies hovering in the country sky. Live, Sirota has a tendency to breathe heavily as she performs, a characteristic that has gone from odd affectation to defining trait. After all, who can blame her? Music this intense can be difficult to keep up with. The guitarist Dustin Wong (May 29, Zeublon), of late, great, Baltimore noiseniks Ponytail, also takes a distinct approach to composition, stringing together clanging guitar patterns that twist and sparkle like suncatchers. It's a trick he more than likely learned from Thurston Moore (May 31, Roulette) the Sonic Youth guitarist and frontman whose solo work also moves from moody and expressive to snarling and boisterous. tUnE-yArDs (June 1, Terminal 5) sticks to the latter, writing frantic, percussive songs that yelp and leap and bound. And the Coathangers (May 30, Death By Audio) are more aggressive still, bending rock and roll into strange, obtuse angles that recall the primitive avant-punk of the Raincoats and Girls At Our Best.
There's melancholy in the music of Psychedelic Furs (June 1, Landmark on Main Street, Long Island) as well, but if Sirota's version is stormy and spooky, theirs is both tart and resigned. In their loveliest song, "The Ghost in You," frontman Richard Butler pines for a lover who is haunted by something paralyzing but indistinct. The story is told in images and impressions: falling angels and frozen clocks stand in for romantic inertia. Butler's voice seems specifically designed to convey this kind of longing—a salty British croon often feels suited to the narrator on an Evelyn Waugh audiobook than a rock frontman. Though they were never as hard-charging as peers like Echo & the Bunnymen nor as cartoonishly gloomy and outsized as the Cure, their albums, particularly 1985's Forever Now, proffer a ruined form of pop music that was certainly spawned by post-punk, if not entirely indebted to it. The synths on Furs records wheeze and chirp, and the guitars clang and jangle, but the guiding impulse beneath them is undeniably pop. They aren’t as publicly celebrated as many of their contemporaries, but a return to their music finds it not only surprisingly durable, but also a secret forefather to the kind of wry, highly literate rock music that is increasingly in vogue. Two other bands take a more direct route to nostalgia: OFF! (May 29, Bowery Ballroom), the hardcore band fronted by Keith Morris—of '80s stalwarts Black Flag and the Circle Jerks—deliver split-second throwback punk songs and Soft Moon (May 31, Music Hall of Williamsburg), with their cooing vocals and chilly synths, could practically serve as the Psychedelic Furs' opening act.
It is difficult to talk about 'highly literate' music and not mention Talib Kweli (May 28, Le Poisson Rouge). Both his work with Mos Def in the pioneering hip-hop group Black Star, as well as his solo albums, are defined by stunning lyrical craftsmanship, songs that are quick to both decry political injustice and lament the state of commercial hip-hop. On the spectacular "Get By," which earns its searing Nina Simone sample, he spins a dizzying narrative that's part biography, part political tract, assailing both the creators of an unjust system and the victims who play lazily into its hands. It is perhaps for this reason he is more respected than loved; though he's frequently cited on lists aggregating the greatest M.C.s of all time, his commercial status is strictly underground. Longtime admirer Jay-Z summarized it almost too-perfectly in "Moment of Clarity," rapping: "I dumb down for my audience/ and double my dollars," adding that, "If skills sold … I'd probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli." The upside, though, is that opting for a devoted audience instead of a large one has allowed Kweli to do almost anything he wants, meaning he can either stay the classic hip-hop course, as he did with last year's crackling Gutter Rainbows, or roam into fiery futuristic R&B, as he does with the soul singer Res under the name Idle Warship. The through-line is his ruthless—and impressive—refusal to compromise. The L.A. rapper Busdriver (May 30, Santos Party House) takes Kweli's same dedication to craft but injects an off-kilter sense of humor and grinding industrial production. The producer Statik Selektah and M.C. Termanology (May 29, S.O.B.'s) are more traditional; the former builds boom-bap beats, the latter lays easygoing rhymes over top. The Crystal Ark (May 30, Music Hall of Williamsburg) are spookier and synthier, trancelike minimal electro with detached, spoken-word vocals. If theirs is a 3 a.m. party, Galactic's (May 31, Brooklyn Bowl) is a blazing mid-afternoon summer barbecue, their blaring New Orleans horns and firecracker rhythms turning any day into Mardi Gras.