10:35 am Jul. 23, 2012
Chances are, if you've read anything about the R&B singer Frank Ocean (July 26, Terminal 5) in the past week, very little of it had anything to do with his music. In an emotional post on his Tumblr on July 4, Ocean admitted that his first true love was with a man, a brave confession made braver by both the fact that Ocean is a member of the hip-hop collective Odd Future—who have raised ire for their aggressively homophobic lyrics—and that contemporary R&B is a genre that tends to value traditional gender norms almost as much as buttery hooks. When his peers—including those in Odd Future—celebrated his decision, it seemed as if one of the last vestiges of intolerance in popular culture was slowly beginning to crumble. But if there is any downside at all to Ocean's laudable frankness, it' s that the publicity generated by his sexuality is beginning to overshadow the incredible wonder of his music, which is just as indifferent toward R&B traditions as his Tumblr statement. On his stunning major-label debut channel ORANGE, he blithely deconstructs contemporary soul music, stripping it back mostly to just beats and blank space, and letting his lithe, Prince-ly tenor glide through the openings as elegantly as a figure skater on empty ice at night. "Sweet Life," which opens with the clever rejoinder "The best song wasn't the single/ but you weren't, either") revolves around simple, twinkling jazz organ, and "Bad Religion," where Ocean candidly spells out the source of his heartache ("I can never make him love me") to a taxi driver, plays like a modern-day "Purple Rain," Ocean laying his heart bare over a melancholy church organ. The sparseness of the music heightens the power of the confession. Other members of the Odd Future crew—specifically, Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt (July 26, Best Buy Theater)—offer a different kind of candor, spelling out the lurid, violent, and often stomach-turning contents of their darkest fantasies over grimy beats. In terms of content, British singer-songwriter Charli XCX (July 28, Bowery Ballroom) is closer to Ocean. On songs like "Stay Away," she offers tales of emotional desperation over bleary minor-key electropop. THEESatisfaction (July 24, Fort Greene Park) occupy the space between Charli and Ocean. The duo of Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White, both of whom are outspoken lesbians, alternate between silky soul and hard-hitting hip-hop, imagining a world in which Queen Latifah collaborated with En Vogue.
There's certainly a political component to the music of Os Mutantes (July 28, The Well) as well—or, at least, there used to be. When the group was founded in 1966, their chosen style—a rambunctious combination of traditional Brazilian music and fuzzed-out American acid rock—enraged authorities, and their outlandish costumes and unhinged, seat-of-their-pants stage show raised hackles from both fans and their parents alike. As such they became a symbol of the counterculture and a target for political suppression. But, as is often the case with groups that were persecuted in their prime, time has proven Os Mutantes as visionaries. The music on their first four albums is a kaleidoscopic combination of crackling electric guitars, bossa nova bongos, and day-glo sci-fi harmonies—the stuff of bizarre dreams and B-Movies. The group splintered during the late '70s and spent the next several decades resisting all offers to reunite (including, famously, one by an enthralled Kurt Cobain in the early '90s) until 2006, when three of the group's founders and a host of supporting players performed at London's Barbican. An album, Haih Or Amortecedor followed in 2009, which offered a serviceable facsimile of the group's late-'60s gonzo aesthetic. Noticeably absent from the reconstituted Mutantes is founding member Rita Lee, who continues to pursue a solo career in Brazil. Without her, the group is still impish and impressive but slightly incomplete—a clown car with conspicuous legroom. King Khan (July 26, House of Vans) aims for the same kind of screw-loose live revelry as Os Mutantes. His army of sound, backing band the Shrines, deliver a sweltering take on R&B, leavening it with garage-rock grease and sideshow stage antics. Purity Ring (July 24, Le Poisson Rouge) are musically softer and stranger—tending toward a more angelic take on dubstep—but their live show is just as arresting, featuring an array of synth-connected colored lights that make sounds when struck. For something more visceral, there's Agalloch (July 26, Music Hall of Williamsburg) and Gates of Slumber (July 23, St. Vitus). The former delivers a meditative take on black metal that incorporates the swirl of shoegaze; the latter is pure, satisfying hard-rock bluster.
Os Mutantes feel like a carnival, but in many ways, music festival Catalpa (July 28-29, Randall's Island) actually is one. The event presents a mind-boggling assortment of bands, arguably designed to appeal to a wider audience than nearly any other summer festival. To put it in carnival terms: whatever your pleasure, Catalpa's got the attraction. Where else would you find perennial jam band Umphrey's McGee playing two sets the same day as dark-pop chanteuse Zola Jesus and neo-disco crew Hercules & Love Affair? If the festival has any kind of narrative through-line, it's a dedication to rhythm. Even the rock bands on the bill—among them, Matt & Kim and the Black Keys—write songs that are rooted in one kind of dance music or another. The lineup is padded with an array of both D.J.s and producers, as well as a stage devoted to reggae—curated, naturally, by High Times magazine—that offers little in the way of big names, but plenty of languid, humid one-drop roots music. Small surprise, then, that Sunday's headline performance is Snoop Dogg, performing his classic album Doggystyle from start to finish—few artists working today better encapsulate Catalpa's chosen nexus of beats and blunts more perfectly. And while other artists are beginning to play fast and loose with the full-album concert concept, if Snoop's performance at Rock the Bells in 2010 was any indication, festival-goers should plan to hear a faithful recreation of his 1993 breakthrough, right down to the last skit. So much for the theory that weed impedes concentration. And if you're looking to whet your appetite for easygoing narrative rappers before heading to Catalpa, Slick Rick (July 28, Gramercy Theatre)—arguably Snoop's closest forefather—brings his own brand of lascivious storytelling to town just a day before the Doggystle performance. Those finding Catalpa light on guitar acts will find more than a few to choose from elsewhere in the city this week. The Roanoke, VA duoEternal Summers (July 28, Mercury Lounge) inject fizzy, frantic indiepop with heaps of sugary hooks. Another duo act, Beach House (July 23, Central Park Summerstage) takes that same formula and slows the tempo to a languid crawl. And Olympia band Milk Music (July 23, 285 Kent) channels the spirit and sound of early-'80s hardcore (with a touch of grunge) for their own brand of take-no-prisoners punk.
Once, the music of Wilco (July 23-24, Prospect Park) contained just as many side streets and sonic detours as the best summer festival. After shaking off decidedly alt-country beginnings, the group began dosing their compositions with thick, foggy static, blank-stare bass lines, and unkempt coils of guitar, courtesy of legendary experimentalist Nels Cline (who joined the band in 2004). That urge to experiment crested in the middle of the last decade, but while the band's songwriting has slowly moseyed back toward something like traditional indie rock, it still contains the odd flashes of madness. Case in point: "Art of Almost," the surging, seven-minute nervous breakdown that opens their most recent record, The Whole Love with a surge of sinister drone and a splash of percussive arrhythmia. The album mostly mellows after that, though unruly elements occasionally peek through the mannered exterior. The group's concerts are much the same way—well-behaved favorites like "Via Chicago" and "California Stars" are mixed in with arty upstarts like "Spiders, Kidsmoke," and some of the wily experimentalism of the latter type—particularly, Cline's scraping guitar lines—starts to claw its way into the former. In the end, its as if someone laid a transparency containing a picture of the group's former self on top of a photo of them in the present day. The image that results is both familiar and strange. Gaslight Anthem (July 24, Webster Hall) take a more straightforward approach to traditional American music, soldering arena-worthy choruses to barreling bar-rock (Bruce Springsteen is a noted fan). Lyle Lovett (July 28, Wellmont Theatre) and Gary Clark Jr. (July 28, Central Park Summerstage) are more traditional, still. The former explores back-porch country stomp on his latest, Release Me, while the latter has been breathing new life into the blues through his virtuoso guitar playing and honeyed voice.
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