8:28 am Jun. 11, 2012
In just four short years, Brooklyn's Northside Festival (June 14-21, various venues) has gone from a scrappy upstart with a lineup that tended toward the brow-furrowingly obscure to one of the most savvily-curated, forward-thinking rock festivals in the country (a country that needs another rock festival like it needs another fast-food franchise). This is largely because Northside is mostly unconcerned with what festivals are expected to deliver. There's no creaky reunion act, no quasi-mainstream crossover band, and the closest thing to a bankable classic rock headliner is GZA performing his breakout debut Liquid Swords in its entirety, backed by the Latin funk band Grupo Fantasma. Instead, Northside is more interested in appeasing the adventurous listener. And so you get the vibrant desert-blues Tuareg-Berber band Tinariwen, from the Saharan Mali, sharing a stage with Brooklyn experimentalists Buke & Gase; there's room for the haunting, cavernous doom-folk of Amen Dunes and the drowsy, dreamy pop-rap of Kitty Pryde, the rococo pop of Jens Lekman, the dirgey garage of the Black Belles, and Kid Sister's wiseass hip-hop. If the lineup feels a bit like an RSS reader come to life, it's no wonder—many of the stages are curated by blogs like Stereogum and Brooklyn Vegan and reflect their determinedly provincial tastes. As October's CMJ festival gets greyer and hoarier with each passing year, Northside seems to point the way to a new kind of festival, one whose draw isn't familiarity but curiosity.
If Northside Festival points a way toward indie rock's future, both the dB's (June 15, Le Poisson Rouge) and Jonathan Richman (June 12, Bowery Ballroom) provide links to its past. The former delivered discs of bright jangly guitar pop in the '80s and have reunited this year after several decades of dormancy, while Richman's wiseass lyricism and conversational delivery created the template many of today's indie bands studiously follow. EPMD (June 14, Herbert Von King Park) were trendsetters in a different sense, crafting pioneering hip-hop records characterized by their brash lyrics and adventurous spirit. The Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot also have an adventurous spirit, but their recent public performances, including one in Red Square, have landed them in prison. The Benefit for Pussy Riot (June 12, Death By Audio), featuring a D.J. set by the Beastie Boys' Ad-Rock, will raise money to aid their cause.
By those standards, Little Jimmy Scott (June 11, Blue Note) is more of a traditionalist—but by no means does that make him ordinary. With his eerily high, trembling voice, Scott often sounds like a ghost singing from the shadows of a haunted house—even when he's performing romantic jazz standards. It's no wonder David Lynch enlisted him to sing the chilling "Sycamore Trees" in the series finale of "Twin Peaks." Scott's gorgeous voice—its robust vibrato and helium-light tone—seem to radiate heartache and loneliness. He's no stranger to either: his devastating voice is a side-effect of Kallman's syndrome, a disease that stunted his growth and prevented him from going through puberty—making his songs of unfulfilled love feel that much more painful and trenchant. Contractual woes snuffed out his career just as it was starting in the early '60s, but a high-profile piece in the Village Voice in 1988 and his devastating rendition of "Someone to Watch Over Me" at Doc Pomus's 1991 funeral went a long way to generate the kind of awe Scott deserves. You can hear the hard years in each sustained, sobbing syllable. "A lot of people, like me, carry sadness with them for the rest of their life," he said in a 1997 interview. "I don't think I'll ever lose the expression of that. But, in a strange way, that sadness has finally brought about some happiness in my life."
Wresting beauty from difficult circumstances is what Philip Glass (June 13, Issue Project Room) does best. Unfolding slowly, Glass's stark, repetitive works go from ruthlessly austere to quietly devastating, their minimalism feeling almost panicked and desperate. Trumpeter Terell Stafford's (June 12, Village Vanguard) playing is more combustible, tight clusters of notes that spiral like frantic fireflies. Like Stafford, the rappers Q-Tip (June 15, Irving Plaza) and Yasiin Bey (June 14, Apollo Theater)—who was once known as Mos Def—also have an affection for jazz. The former employed it liberally in his groundbreaking work with A Tribe Called Quest; the latter took its cadences and rhythms, cross-wired them with funk and rock and topped them with provocative lyrics across a string of celebrated albums (on his own and as half of Black Star). The Los Angeles rapper Blu (June 12, S.O.B.'s) follows closely in Q-Tip and Bey's footsteps, marrying densely-composed, slice-of-life lyrics to dusty throwback beats. Kool Keith (June 14, Brooklyn Bowl) has no patience for nostalgia. Though his heyday came in the late '90s, his bizarre, stream-of-consciousness rap has always been stubbornly futuristic, pasting hilarious non-sequitirs to squelching, futuristic productions.
The Australian band Royal Headache (June 13, Cake Shop) seems to exist somewhere between both the future and the past. Late last year, they released their debut album in their home country on the peerless punk label R.I.P. Society, and it took only a matter of weeks for the buzz to travel across the ocean (last month, the New York's What's Your Rupture? label issued the album stateside). A few seconds into the first song, and it's clear what all the fuss is about. Royal Headache straddle two worlds, larding giddy mod and R&B tempos and melodies with the kind of scuzzbucket garage guitars wielded by the grimier end of the modern indie-rock spectrum. But the group's secret weapon is vocalist Shogun. Sounding alternately like a young Rod Stewart and an old Bob Pollard, Shogun pleads and hollers and bounds over the roaring sea of guitars, a soul preacher of the old style in ripped-up, beer-stained rock & roll garb. Witness "Psychotic Episode," which hurtles forward like a flaming comet searing through a snowbank; as viscerally thrilling as it is, it's fairly straightforward punk rock until Shogun enters, bouncing across the lyric, "I am the anti-psychotic" like it's the first line of Otis Redding's "Shake!" Call it rip-roaring mod existentialism.
There's also a slight debt owed by Royal Headache to the band Reigning Sound (June 13, Maxwell's), who have been layering soul music with blinding sheets of guitars since 2001. Roomrunner (June 15, Cake Shop) are more primitive but no less satisfying, their greasy balled-up guitars landing like a drunk boxer's right hook. Daughn Gibson (June 14, Cameo Gallery) is quieter but no less imposing, his Elvis-by-way-of-Nick-Cave croon spilling like shadow across bare musical backdrops. The band Fun. (June 16-17, Terminal 5) operate at the other extreme—though they are best known for the inescapable "We Are Young," that song is arguably the weakest on their second record Some Nights, which mostly finds inspiration in the stacked harmonies and theatrical presentation of bands like Queen and the Sweet. For grandiosity of a whole different kind, there's Yamantaka // Sonic Titan (June 13, Mercury Lounge), the breathtaking Canadian duo who perform their dreamy, droney art rock in kabuki makeup amid elaborate handmade sets. It's an arresting visual (to say nothing of the video and illustration work they make), perfectly suited to their hypnotic music, which seems to imagine an alternate universe where the Cocteau Twins collaborated with Black Sabbath.
Yamantaka // Sonic Titan at times seem to be operating somewhere to the left of Jupiter, but the British R&B singer Michael Kiwanuka (June 13, Highline Ballroom) is almost defiantly earthy. There's very little that's remarkable, in this age of Adele, about being a soul singer who hews closely to the genre's classic sound. But what makes Kiwanuka so remarkable is that, where many of his fellow soul revivalists hone in on the genre's more jubilant aspects—the blaring horns, the crackling drums, the elastic grooves, Kiwanuka instead recalls the broken, wounded soul of artists like Bill Withers and Donny Hathaway. The songs on his stirring debut Home Again are more James Taylor than James Brown, Kiwanuka's rich voice often backed only by acoustic guitar. There are no party anthems here; Kiwanuka sings like a man whose heart is broken, but rather than pleading out the pain, he instead sighs, dabs his moist eyes, and settles into a park bench to calmly share his sorrow with the first stranger who'll listen. For a less gifted singer, such mellowness could quickly give way to toothlessness. But Kiwanuka's careful, deliberate delivery and sorrowful voice give his music a genuine tenderness. "What will it take to believe I can run?" he asks on "Worry Walks Beside Me" "What will it take? When will I be done?" He sings it like a man who knows the answer is always just out of reach.
The New York singer Alice Smith (June 17, City Winery) shares Kiwanuka's romanticism, but her music, which veers from slinky R&B stomp to luxurious jazz croon, is more hopeful. Brighter still are the songs of Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens (June 13, Littlefield), whose songs, with their flashes of organ and twinkling piano, play like sweaty Sunday-morning worship services as conducted by the Shirelles. Laura Marling (June 14, Prospect Park Bandshell) and Glen Hansard (June 12, Housing Works) both draw on folk music to fuel their songs of love gone awry; hers are hushed and mysterious, his are earnest and desperately yearning. All that sorrow needs a counterweight—for that, there's the rapper Fat Tony (June 11, Glasslands), whose bright delivery and futuristic production recalls some strange hybrid of Kanye West and OutKast. Florida emcee SpaceGhostPurrp (June 12, S.O.B.'s) is more menacing—his hoarse voice and horror film backing tracks are distinctly unnerving. Michael Kiwanuka wants to talk out his troubles; SpaceGhostPurrp is looking for revenge.
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