11:25 am Jul. 30, 2012
There was a time when no bands' influence loomed larger on indie rock than the Zombies and the Left Banke (August 5, Highline Ballroom). Their chosen formula—rich, layered vocal harmonies, regal melodies, and string sections generously, like thick vanilla frosting—was studied and duplicated by bands like Belle & Sebastian and Camera Obscura for much of the early '00s. That the obsession has, by now, mostly dissipated only allows for a better appreciation of the originals. As with many great bands, the Zombies' best-known number, "Time of the Season," is also their least-representative. That song is a slow-creeper with almost comically glassy-eyed Summer of Love harmonies, but the rest of their best album, Odessey and Oracle, is devoted to sumptuous chamber pop, with rolling pianos and rococo strings swaddling the high-arcing vocals of Colin Blunstone. As an opening band, the Left Banke are the perfect complement. Touring for the first time since 1970, the group's lavish orchestral pop is more indulgent than that of the Zombies; songs like the sweeping "Walk Away Renee" and trembling "Pretty Ballerina" sounding better suited to dance recitals than rock clubs. The version of the Left Banke currently performing is a bit of a Frankenstein, featuring founding members George Cameron and Tom Finn, but not vocalist Steve Martin Caro or principle songwriter Michael Brown. Their presence was so crucial to the group's sound that omitting them detracts noticeably from the group's signature beauty—a tiny chip in an ornate porcelain vase. The music of Icelandic powerhouse Sigur Rós (July 31, Prospect Park Bandshell) is just as majestic but more otherworldly, with glimmering bands of sound expanding like the Northern Lights. If the Zombies and the Left Banke represent the softer side of the '60s, Baby Shakes (August 4, Cake Shop) and Chain & the Gang (August 4, Maxwells) are its dark alleys. The former deliver gut-punching garage rock with a girl-group twist, while the latter, fronted by ex-Make-Up frontman Ian Svenonius, are the kind of back-alley blues that used to soundtrack B-movies about motorcycle toughs.
Singer Al Spx also understands the pull between darkness and light. She may have renounced religion, but that doesn't mean that her songs aren't still gospel. On her aching debut as Cold Specks (August 1, Glasslands), Spx—a pseudonym she uses to avoid upsetting her deeply Christian family—delivers a batch of beautiful, tragic folk- and blues-inspired songs comprised mainly of waltzing acoustic guitar, violin, and Spx's desperate rasp. The canny will catch the Biblical illusions she laces throughout (in "Holland" she sings "We are many, we are many," which sounds like an expression of solidarity but as actually a reference to the demon-possessed man in the Gospel of Mark), but the album's connection to gospel music is more thematic than literal. Its title, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, is the perfect indication of its aesthetic, one where images of violence and beauty sit side-by-side. Like the best gospel songs, those on Expulsion focus on the pain of the physical, stunningly summoning the agony of feeling morassed in endless heartbreak and disappointment. But, also like the best gospel songs, it doesn't stop there. Spx's hope for deliverance may be physical rather than spiritual, but her message is the same: You will get out. British band Mumford & Sons' (August 1, Pier A Park) take on country and folk is sunnier and cheerier, though their lyrics are often equally grim. Avant-garde jazz saxophonist Marty Ehrlich (August 1, The Stone) breezes through a whole host of styles, switching effortlessly from swaying waltzes to moody percolating, reggae-inspired workouts. And Habibi's (August 5, Fulton Street Market) cure for existential angst is to simply dance it away. The group's loose-limbed indie pop owes a passing debt to bands like Heavenly, but they pepper it with a giddiness that charms.
If the beauty of Cold Specks songs is more understated than that of the Zombies, the elegance of the xx (August 2, Terminal 5) is smaller still. The British band's 2009 debut was the definition of a slow-burner, its brooding, detached, pseudo-goth songs at first seeming impenetrable. Because their beauty revealed themselves only after multiple listens, acclaim hit not in one tremendous burst, but more like the wave in a baseball stadium—fanning out slowly but steadily and growing more enthusiastic as it went—eventually gaining the attention of people like Rihanna, who sampled the xx's waltzing-skeleton opener "Intro" on her most recent album. That the group would be embraced most enthusiastically by members of the hip-hop and R&B community is hardly surprising. The best parts of their debut owe a clear debt to the slinky production and pleading vocals of contemporary soul except, on the xx, it sounds like the confessions of love and fears of infidelity are being murmured softly by a couple as they drift off to sleep together. The trouble with such slow-build music is that it makes crafting a follow-up difficult. An unknown group can afford the luxury of a gradual buildup, but fully appreciating the xx's minimalist approach requires patience. Teasing out a few new songs at this, their first New York show in almost two years, might be a way to prime that pump. Family Band (August 1, Union Pool) also play it cool. Their goth folk is as shivery as ghost stories told by firelight. Deftones (August 5, Jones Beach) are unsettling, but in a different way. Perennially, and incorrectly, lumped in with the execrable rap-rock movement of the early '00s, the group's churning art-metal is the stuff of panicked 3 a.m. nightmares. Washed Out (August 2, House of Vans) play it both ways. On album, their hushed and relaxed, but live they opt for maximalism, turning their bedroom lullabies into dance-floor fillers.
The sonic palette of the Malian couple Amadou & Mariam (August 4, Central Park) has also expanded considerably, though their transformation took place over the course of several years. Their early records were mostly full of the light, skipping guitars of traditional African highlife, but on 2004's Dimanche a Bamako, produced by genre-gumbo impresario Manu Chao, they began to undergird their lilting, throaty vocal melodies with thumping rhythms and fill up the backgrounds with odd ambient sound and wild, off-kilter instrumentation—darting pennywhistles, field recordings from street markets. The result was an odd—and oddly perfect—union of traditional African music and the restlessness of the best contemporary indie rock. Their latest album, Folila takes that union to its logical conclusion. Featuring collaborations with Santigold, TV on the Radio, and the rapper Theophilus London, the album is the group's most dextrous yet, hinting at funk, dance-pop, and art rock while still remaining rooted in the duo's signature, highlife-derived sound. While other such collaborations feel forced—ham-fisted attempts by record labels to nudge more difficult artists into the mainstream—on Folila the songs feel strikingly organic, natural outgrowths of restless tastes. The classic records by Public Enemy (July 30, Wingate Park) also contained whole universes of sound—thanks mainly to the wild-eyed sound collage aesthetic of pioneering producers the Bomb Squad. Though their sound in recent years has favored lean, percussive funk music, Chuck D's lyrics have lost none of their bite. Aesop Rock (August 3, Irving Plaza), despite the current rise of very similarly monikered rapper A$AP Rocky, reasserted himself this year with Skelethon, another dose of surrealist hip-hop made stranger by his thick, lazy flow.
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