10:40 am Aug. 6, 2012
Last year, Bloc Party (Aug 7-9, Terminal 5) vocalist Kele Okereke thought he was out of a job. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he told of sitting in a café on 8th Avenue and suddenly spotting the rest of his band walking up to their rehearsal space without him. "I hope I haven't been fired," he mused. Okereke has since claimed the story was a joke, but it inadvertently reveals the formula that made Bloc Party's music so engaging—dance grooves dosed with a heaping helping of panic and insecurity. Bloc Party rose to prominence alongside several similarly-sounding bands—Franz Ferdinand being the most notable—experiencing the kind of mob mentality that tends to help in the short-term even as it's undermining a young band’s ability to establish a specific identity. Which is a shame, because the U.K. quartet always seemed a bit more ambitious than their dance-punk counterparts—a little more willing to embrace the kind of choruses that scrape arena ceilings, a little more deft at dissecting the sticky politics of interpersonal relationships in their lyrics. Their jittery new single "Octopus" dials that barrel-chested ambition back a bit. A nervous blast of electro-shock guitar and morse-code electronics, with Okereke doing his best Robert Smith pout over top, the song is mercifully free of anything that smacks of trendspotting. Instead, it sounds like the work of four young men cautiously trying to make an old contraption hum again. Its modest scale may be its greatest charm. Ghostface Killah, headliner of the coincidentally-named Wu-Block Tour (Aug 8, Highline Ballroom), reached his creative peak around the same time as Bloc Party. His attempts at reinvention have been mixed, but his bravado as a live performer has few hip-hop equals. Like Bloc Party, !!! (Aug. 9, Damrosch Bandshell) work from a template of rubbery bass and jabbing guitars, but where the former use it to hint at inner unease, !!! offer a deep-dive into a dance inferno. Both bands are expanding on a blueprint sketched out in part by the B-52's (Aug. 9, Irving Plaza), who explored dancefloor anxiety while their peers were bashing out randy punk rock. And since the mid-'90s, with his band the Dub Narcotic Sound System, Calvin Johnson (Aug. 10, The Vander Ende-Onderdonk House) has offered his own version of angst-in-the-pants dance music, though this show with Lungfish's Daniel Higgs might skew a bit more avant-garde.
The Swedish group Little Dragon (Aug. 10, Prospect Park Bandshell) are more sultry than stressed-out. On their 2011 album Ritual Union, the coy, come-hither vocals of Yukimi Nagano stroll far out front, beckoning mysteriously above the band's blinking electronics like a glassy-eyed psychic luring nighttime passersby from a table outside her shop. Their greatest skill is gathering up a host of genres and boiling out the fat: "Precious" borrows dubstep's tummy-rumbling bass, but none of its hyperactive synth pyrotechnics; The stern keyboard line in "Little Man" feels like it was lifted from a loose tape at Kraftwerk's Kling Klang studio, but it's reduced to a microsecond of sound, leaving plenty of space for Nagano to coo, "There's something missing in your soul." That line seems to summarize her problems—the songs on Ritual Union are mostly concerned with distant men whose indifference constantly thwarts Nagano's affections. If the album is to be believed, her response has been to generate an indifference of her own. She sings with calculated aloofness to a man whose attention she no longer needs. Joan Jett (Aug. 9, Coney Island) has always taken the more aggressive approach. If Nagano retreats into iciness, Jett’s best songs are the ones where she skews combative. Her ethos is contained in the hook of one of her most loved songs: “A girl can do what she wants to do/ and that’s what I’m gonna do.” Christopher Willits (Aug. 8, Cameo Gallery) and Photek (Aug. 11, MoMA PS1) take Little Dragon’s electronic minimalism further afield; Willits crafts gently-lapping tides of sound, while Photek’s are more anxious and agitated. Heavenly Beat (Aug. 8, Public Assembly) falls somewhere between the two, blending shoegaze’s breathy vocals with pointillist synthpop arrangements. St. Lucia (Aug. 11, Brooklyn Bowl) evokes the operatic New Wave of ‘80s pioneers like Yaz (and contemporaries like Yeasayer) while Alt-J (Aug. 7, Glasslands) pairs that same yearning and grandeur with milky, sprawling guitar-based backdrops.
There’s nothing relaxed about the music of the French band Gojira (Aug. 9, Santos Party House). Since their formation in the mid ‘90s, the group has, with each record, twisted the lens on their dizzying tech-metal a little more, exploring greater levels of detail and complexity. This year’s L’Enfant Sauvage, which comes after a four-year wait, is the group’s most confident and engaging work to date. Songs whip from taut jackhammer riffing to lurching, brontosaurus stomp, making them feel dangerously volatile. They balance this violence with a clear fondness for the symphonic. Frontman Joe Duplantier gets frequent support from ghost-choir backing vocal tracks, which makes songs like “Mouth of Kala” feel almost requiem-like in their grandeur. The formula works surprisingly well—the high-precision, detuned guitar work feels yellow-eyed and threatening; the demon chorale is just there to take sick pleasure in singing the last rites. Thematically, Sauvage is meant to continue the group’s fervent environmentalism, but they write in a way that’s oblique enough to allow multiple takes. “Pain is a Master” opens with a Dupltantier crawling through the grass, “destroyed by awful hands.” Whether that agony is global or personal, the band delivers it with the same snarling force. There’s a different—but no less impressive—technical proficiency at work in the Either/Orchestra (Aug. 7, Jazz Standard). The group pivots from smoky Ethio-jazz to dusky tango to blaring bebop as quickly as Gojira flips from stalk to assault. The volatility in the songs of Champaign, Illinois band Braid (Aug. 9, Bowery Ballroom) is all internal. Recently reunited to play their 1998 breakthrough Frame & Canvas from start to finish, the group strapped heartbreak to swiping guitars and seesawing tempos, making for music that mirrored the turbulence in the lyrics.
There’s plenty of heartbreak in the music of Lucinda Williams (Aug. 6-7, Bowery Ballroom; Aug 9-10 Music Hall of Williamsburg), but where Braid tend to wallow, Williams is more apt to briefly consider, then move on. She opens her latest album, Blessed, by taking giddy pleasure in surgically dismantling a lousy ex. “You say you feel like a failure and you wish you could take it all back,” she sneers, before announcing “Honey, I gotta tell you: it’s a little too late for that.” Her music is just as barbed—since 1998’s justifiably-revered Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, she’s travelled the heartworn highways of country music and occasionally applied her bewitching rasp to loose, roaring, down-home rock and roll. It’s the perfect combination—there’s an undeniable ache in Williams’ voice, each well-worn crag a testament to steely resilience. And though she displays a novelist’s skill at creating narratives that are as rife with turmoil as they are rich detail, the protagonists in Williams’ songs—like the singer herself—are never defeated. They absorb each blow, acknowledge the losses, and—most importantly—brush themselves off, set their jaw, and move defiantly forward. Old Crow Medicine Show (Aug. 6, Central Park) reach further back in country music’s history, delivering the kind of grinning rambles pioneered by Hank Williams and Flatt & Scruggs. M. Ward’s (Aug. 7, Prospect Park) music is smokier and folkier, Townes Van Zandt shot through with California disaffection. Williams would probably find more in common with the rollicking New York group Low Cut Connie (Aug. 11, Mercury Lounge), who saddle whiskey-bar rockabilly and country with cheeky lyrics about hooking up and falling out.
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