10:41 am Aug. 20, 2012
If you were to compile a list of all of them, it would seem that the names of most summer music festivals are chosen explicitly to give no impression of what they actually offer. For the AfroPunk Festival, (Aug 25–26, Commodore Barry Park) its name is its entire raison d'être. Now in its eighth year, the festival remains committed to its title idea, showcasing African-American artists who proudly defy conventional notions of genre. That the festival openly defines itself in terms of race is important—when it began, there were comparatively few African-Americans in highly visible rock bands, and the few artists who took a less conventional approach to hip-hop and R&B existed mostly on the margins. That many of the biggest names in this year's lineup—among them Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae and TV on the Radio—operate squarely inside the mainstream is evidence of how much the rest of the world has gradually come around to the festival's way of thinking. As compelling as those headliners are (and you would be hard pressed to find three better live acts than the trio just mentioned), the undercard continues the festival's contrarian spirit. Purple Ferdinand writes tiny, trembling R&B songs that she mostly performs on ukulele; Flatbush Zombies take a gonzo approach to hip-hop, dishing out daffy rhymes over humid tropicalia and twinkling jazz organs; and the Memorials vacillate between two unlikely extremes: chrome-plated heavy metal and glassy-eyed shoegaze. That those two genres don't naturally coexist is precisely the point. Though he's not on the bill, Danny Brown (Aug. 25, MoMA PS1) also embodies the AfroPunk spirit. His randy hip-hop crams dirty punchlines into dusky musical backdrops, but in interviews he speaks effusively about the influence of Love and Joy Division on his music. Which means there's also a decent chance he's a fan of Peter Murphy (Aug. 26, The Well), whose pitch-black work with Bauhaus extended the nocturnal dread of Brown's beloved Joy Division into the early '80s while grafting on a morbid sense of humor. Murphy's solo work has been brighter—last year's Ninth was practically strident—but his vampiric moan keeps clouds around the periphery. Nu Sensae (Aug. 20, aDeath By Audio) embody the nihilistic spirit of Murphy's old band, if not the sound. Their latest, Sundowning, is a furious batch of minor-key punk rock that scratches and claws like a frantic man trying to escape a burlap sack. They're like a revved-up version of Quicksand (Aug. 24, Bowery Ballroom), who delivered similarly scraped-up hardcore in the mid '90s before breaking up at the end of that decade. Like so many of their peers, they've returned, and their deliberately grueling, bottom-heavy songs sound no worse for wear.
Matthew E. White (Aug. 20, Mercury Lounge) prefers a feather to a jackhammer. On his debut album Big Inner, he combines the oddball West Coast pop sensibilities of Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson with the understated soul of Bill Withers. The result is not only one of the year's best debuts, but one of its best records, full-stop. White is a genius arranger—he delivers his verse in a murmured baritone, mostly over parched guitar and percussion that's as gentle as a baby's heartbeat. But at roughly the midpoint of each song, a gang of weary, funereal brass shuffles into frame, blessing each song with a breathy sensuality. White's lyrics match the mood; in the gently heaving "One of These Days" he purrs, "I wanna lay next to you when our glory fades," which could be either a post-coital reference or a post-mortal one. In "Will You Love Me," which builds to a bright, brassy finale worthy of Otis Redding, he quotes the Scripture, sighing "Darkness can't drive out darkness—only love can do that." Love—or, more specifically, slow, silky sexuality—is the motivator on Big Inner, and when White whoops "Jesus Christ, he is our friend" in the Band-like "Brazos," his revelation feels as physical as it does spiritual. Hurray for the Riff Raff (Aug. 26, Mercury Lounge) ) also walk the line between earth and heaven, country and soul, thanks mostly to the wrenching vocals of frontwoman Alynda Lee Segarra, who is able to evoke both Carole King and Billie Holiday in the space of a single syllable. Nite Jewel (Aug. 23, Le Poisson Rouge) is just as soulful, but more ghostly; Ramona Gonzalez's breathy alto floating phantomlike amid lacy synths. It Is Rain in My Face (Aug. 20, Pianos) and Tubetops (Aug. 20, Glasslands) take a similar approach. In the former, Matt Jones's R&B-influenced vocals skip and trip through blurry electronic landscapes; the latter is more direct, pairing a vocal approach that recalls '80s boundary-pushers like Terence Trent D'Arby (now Sananda Maitreya) with blinking keyboards. But for the most direct route to the sensual, it's impossible to beat Al Green (Aug. 22, The Beacon Theatre) Though his live shows can be notoriously erratic, the high points are as close to pure ecstasy as music gets.
Which is essentially the formula that propelled the 19-year-old rapper Kitty Pryde (Aug. 22, Santos Party House) to internet fame. The video for her breakout single "Okay Cupid" begins with Pryde moaning "Get out of my room!" and features her alternately clicking away on her laptop and roaming suburban Daytona with her teenage friends. The song's charm is in how completely guileless and seemingly uncalculated it is. In truth, Pryde doesn't rap so much as recite her lyrics as if she's reading aloud from her diary, and her lazy, gum-crack delivery is perfectly suited to the filmy electronic production. Pryde has engendered no small amount of anger over what some people see as a limited skill set, but the gleeful, unworried amateurism of her music is precisely what makes it so much fun. On top of which, the majority of her verses are impishly funny: "Catch me at the middle school chatting up skateboarders/ I hoard high school sophomores/ that want whores and listen to hardcore," she yawns in "Justin Bieber," which has less to do with the titular superstar than you might think. Coming from any other source that kind of braggadocio might seem crass, but Pryde's laconic delivery makes her boy toys sound like they're Pokemon—dumb, desexualized and, ultimately, not that important (that verse ends with an indifferent Pryde abandoning them at a punk show). It is youth's giggliness and fickleness and joyfulness perfectly distilled. Piper and Skylar Kaplan, the sisters in Puro Instinct (Aug. 24, Glasslands), master the same mixture of giddiness and detachment, but their canvas is a diamond sea of guitars. AraabMUZIK's (Aug. 20, Central Park Summerstage) relationship to hip-hop is more direct than Pryde's—he fires drum hits like tommy guns on tracks that have been utilized by everyone from Cam'Ron to 50 Cent (his live manipulations of the drum machine are mesmerizing). Brian Jonestown Massacre (Aug. 25, Webster Hall) are known for a more straightforward kind of anarchy; their career has been dotted with a series of raucous mishaps, but their loose-limbed brand of '60s jangle-pop is as intoxicating as ever.
It is perhaps a colossal (and hilarious) understatement to say that Pauline Oliveros (Aug. 21, The Stone) operates at the opposite end of the spectrum from Kitty Pryde. Where the latter skips merrily through a candy-colored A.D.D. wonderland, Oliveros has spent the better part of her career exploring a concept she called Deep Listening. Philosophically, it's at odds with much of the way music is consumed today; where ease of access has yielded a glut of 15-minute-fame pop stars, Oliveros advocated for an immersive, meditative kind of musical absorption. The work she created with the Deep Listening Band was designed with that notion in mind, making for works where ominous drones rose from silence like steam clouds from sewer grates at midnight and rippling patterns of piano and electronics yielded more texture and shape the longer they went on. For this performance, Oliveros will be donning her accordion and teaming with the avant-garde percussionist Susie Ibarra, whose own work also manages a mix of tranquility and mystery. The combination of the two is likely to yield the kind of music that completely absorbs, even as it's raising gooseflesh. Glenn Branca (Aug. 24, Public Assembly) has also worked with the kind of eerie, sustained tones Oliveros composes, but he's just as comfortable writing works of fierce, stabbing guitar that betray a clear post-punk influence. The metal band Krallice (Aug. 25, St. Vitus) parks at an intersection between the two, largely because founding member Mick Barr's playing style bears some clear neo-classical influences—shrouded, though they are, in piles of distortion. Pianist Ethan Iverson (Aug. 21, Village Vanguard) and trumpeter Christian Scott (Aug. 24-25, Blue Note) also split time between multiple genres. Iverson plays piano for the Bad Plus, a jazz band with a fondness for Radiohead covers, and Scott regularly fuses hip-hop and post-rock to his exuberant jazz compositions.
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