Fall Preview 2012: Music, featuring Jay-Z, Bob Dylan, New Order, Florence & the Machine, and more
For the next several days, our critics look forward to the fall season in movies, music, books, television and more. Click here to keep up!
If you're looking for a vivid illustration of the inexorable, unvanquishable forward march of time, you could do a lot worse than the one that nature provided for us. Every year, the bright crackle of summer slowly gives way to the heavy sigh of fall; skies darken, leaves change and New York settles into a kind of placid tranquility, like a grandfather settling into an afghan. As if to drive the point home further, the artists arriving in New York provide kind of a time-lapse photograph of the last hundred or so seasons of pop music.
Existing in a kind of eternal autumn is Bob Dylan (Sept. 4, Capitol Theatre), who has seemed craggy and yellowed ever since he released his first record 50 years ago. Dylan once famously wrote "I was so much older then/ I’m younger than that now," but what's remarkable is that his career has borne that sentiment out. Despite what he's often said to the contrary, his classic records are propelled by both a deep political purpose and a clear reverence for his folk forebears. Summer Dylan was a feverish blast of sound and heat but Autumn Dylan is defined by nothing more than his impish sense of humor. Love & Theft, his 2001 album, nicked whole verses of classic blues songs and then announced its larcenous intentions right in the title and Modern Times giddily swiped an old Memphis Minnie lyric about Ma Rainey but made it about Alicia Keys. When asked by Rolling Stone if the title of his forthcoming record, Tempest, indicated he was nearing the end of his career—Shakespeare's final play, after all, was The Tempest—Dylan deadpanned, "Shakespeare's last play was called THE Tempest. The name of my record is just plain Tempest. It's two different titles." If you've ever entertained notions of seeing Dylan live, there's no good reason to wait much longer to do so. His voice may be reduced to a charred croak, but his band still finds new corners and alleys in decades-old songs, and Dylan's commitment to fully altering both the cadence and the melody of some of his best-loved compositions is just another way of letting a little warm light into a lived-in room. Though they are in some ways Dylan's peers, Crosby, Stills & Nash (Oct. 17, Beacon Theatre) don't have his penchant for reinvention; they prefer to deliver the hits as written, choosing crowdpleasing over shit-stirring. Which has alienated the somewhat from their occasional bandmate Neil Young (Sept. 29, Central Park Great Lawn) who, like Dylan, is more interested in moving forward—a fact underscored by simple glance at his co-headliners for this benefit gig, Foo Fighters, The Black Keys, and Band of Horses—young men who like to sound old. The same can be said of Conor Oberst (Nov. 21, Carnegie Hall), whose work since leaving Bright Eyes has tended toward decidedly autumnal roots rock, and Avett Brothers (Sept. 18, Central Park), whose riled-up, stomp-and-holler country is unabashedly backwards-looking. Florence & the Machine (Sept. 15, Jones Beach ) look even further back; their sumptuous music contains all the same trills and flourishes as rococo chamber music, as directed by Florence Welch's grand, triumphant voice. The Roots (Sept. 7, Capitol Theatre), exist in a space between those extremes. Their studio work remains consistently adventurous, but they acquit their live shows with marksmens' dexterity and a penchant for protracted jams that would have impressed the Grateful Dead. Stylistically, they owe more than a little to Roy Ayers (Sept. 26-30, Blue Note http://www.bluenote.net/newyork/index.shtml), the wily vibraphone player who synthesized jazz and funk in the 1970s and created a host of bottom-heavy dance classics in the process. McCoy Tyner (Oct, 26-27, Jazz at Lincoln Center), a contemporary of Ayers, was somewhat more direct but no less adventurous, though his chosen milieu was spiraling post-bop. And the Brazilian songwriter Gilberto Gil (Nov. 8, Carnegie Hall),seems to have learned from everyone from Dylan on down, helping to invent Tropicalia in the late '60s but betraying more of a jazz influence where his peers favored deep-fried psych rock. Brad Mehldau (Oct. 5-6, Jazz at Lincoln Center)followed a similar path, drawing not only on veterans like Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny, but contemporary artists like Radiohead. He is, if you will excuse the pun, a man for all seasons.
Sometimes tragedy forces an artist through the seasons of their career faster than they can handle. That was certainly the case with Joy Division, when vocalist Ian Curtis committed suicide just four short years into their lifespan. His surviving bandmates foundered briefly before re-emerging as New Order (Oct. 19, Roseland Ballroom), thought their career as of late has been as fractious as ever. Though they've been an on-again/off-again concern for years, a final falling out between bassist Peter Hook and frontman Bernard Sumner in 2007 caused Hook to suddenly announce on a radio show that the band had split up—which generated no small amount of alarm amongst its remaining members. Since then, things have been sticky: Hook formed a band called The Light, which plays Joy Division songs, while Sumner, drummer Stephen Morris, returning keyboard player Gillian Gilbert and Hook's replacement, Tom Chapman, have been performing as New Order (partially, if quotes from Sumner are to be believed, as a way to spite Hook). Recent setlists indicate this is essentially a greatest hits tour, with a handful of Joy Division favorites—among them, "Isolation" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart"—to leaven the mix. There may something naturally contentious about bands at this particular season of their career: The Jesus & Mary Chain (Sept. 13, Irving Plaza), who have been around roughly as long as New Order, have also had a turbulent career, with Jim and William Reid—the brothers that form its backbone—often being at odds. Always a docile live act, their power is in the force of their sound—dust-clouds of guitar burying their downcast croon. By contrast, Morrissey (Oct. 10, Radio City Music Hall) has no interest in burying the hatchet with the rest of The Smiths—displaying an admirable tenacity in the age of the cash-grab reunion. Now without a record contract, Morrissey has hinted his retirement may be as few as two years away. If history has taught us anything, it is that Moz is not a man to waiver on such commitments. David Byrne (Sept. 25, Beacon Theatre) and Bob Mould (Sept. 7, Williamsburg Park) have also been largely uninterested making amends. The former instead has collaborated with St. Vincent on a bold, throbbing new record which they'll be supporting with a series of dates together. And while the latter may have little interest in reforming his band Husker Du, that doesn't mean he's immune to nostalgia. On this fall appearance, Mould will be playing Copper Blue, his album with post-Husker band Sugar, from start-to-finish. A reunion of Aimee Mann's (Oct. 29, Bowery Ballroom) band from the '80s, 'Til Tuesday, is just as unlikely—but also unnecessary. Since her 1993 solo debut, she's set the bar for savvily-arranged, hyper-literate rock music. In an ironic twist, the one band from that era that has managed to return is Swans (Oct. 10, Bowery Ballroom), the aggressively misanthropic and fantastically pummeling outfit led by Michael Gira. The version of Swans that plays on their new album The Seer contains both new and original members, but their commitment to raising a ruthless sonic assault remains unchanged.
And then there's the opposite end of the spectrum—artists that seem to exist in the heat of an eternal summer, either unaffected by shifts in the winds of trend or commerce, or able to adapt to them instantly. There is perhaps no better example of this than Jay-Z (Sept. 28, Barclay's Center) who is, at this point, the closest thing hip-hop has to a classic rock star. Though he began his career nearly 20 years ago, his defining characteristic—particularly over the course of the last several years—has been his peerless ability to push forward not by clumsily aping trends or relying solely on the weight of his hefty reputation, but by writing songs that—for better or worse—could only belong to him. "Run This Town," the No I.D.-produced first single from his 2009 album, was built around a worried guitar line and "On to the Next One" stuttered and stammered and collapsed like a bit of finely-aged electroclash, waiting around for a revival. Any other rapper would either collapse or overinflate inside such unconventional surroundings, but Jay-Z calmly navigates through it, creating hip-hop records that are both commercial juggernauts while simultaneously seeming to exist outside of genre altogether. Much of that, no doubt, has to do with his voracious musical taste. In a 2009 interview, he bestowed compliments on Grizzly Bear (Sept. 24, Radio City Music Hall), and he and wife Beyonce turned up at one of the group's Brooklyn shows that same year. The group's multilayered vocals and pastoral melodies recall the work of another hip-hop favorite, Bon Iver (Sept. 19, Radio City Music Hall), who returned to his usual sedate environs after a bravura appearance on Kanye West's hip-hop opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Animal Collective (Oct. 5, Williamsburg Park) take those same stacks of vocal harmonies and lay them out in the sun to warp, surrounding them with haunted-castle organs and medicine ball drum hits. The sunniest moments of the French duo Justice ( Oct. 21, Hammerstein Ballroom) could almost play like a cartoon version of that—relentlessly uptempo major-key dance music propelled by giddy, chirpy melodies. There's little giddy or chirpy about Public Image Limited (Oct. 9, Music Hall of Williamsburg). Though the group may have been wiser to time its reunion about a decade sooner, when a bevy of guitar bands were nicking its abrasive, dance-punk sound, there was always something more menacing about Johnny Rotten's post-Sex Pistols outfit that those young whippersnappers never quite managed.
Some changes of season can bring with them new life, which is by and large the case with the fourth Electric Zoo Festival (Aug. 31-Sept. 2, Randall's Island). Dance music—currently enjoying its fourth or fifth generational cycle as the Next Big Thing—is music that feels perpetually young. The artists on this year's bill run the spectrum, from the uber-poppy, uber-sleek music of French producer David Guetta (who, at 44 years old, might be a bit more autumn than spring) to the glitchy hipster exclamation-point dance songs of Brooklyn's Nick Catchdubs. The music, with its big, blinking keyboards and sternum-wrecking bass drops comes alive outdoors, where its streaks of sound can stretch out into infinite black space. All Tomorrow's Parties (Sept. 21-25, Pier 36) is decidedly more reserved. Transplanted from its longtime home at a New Jersey country club to Pier 36, the festival's prize is not so much its stellar lineup as the fact that said lineup is specifically curated. This year, the bill was assembled by The Afghan Whig's Greg Dulli, who has chosen longtime collaborator Mark Lanegan, The Roots and Hot Snakes, and who has recently benefited from the last-minute addition of Frank Ocean, who has cancelled most of his other summer tour dates. The 20th Anniversary celebration of the label Thrill Jockey (Sept. 15, Webster Hall)is mellower still, emphasizing their dedication to jazz-derived post-rock. Esperanza Spalding (Oct. 26, Apollo Theater) goes about her jazz fusion in a different way, splicing in elements of hip-hop and R&B. Chan Marshall, who records as Cat Power (Oct. 23, Hammerstein Ballroom), has also been known to incorporate elements of soul into her emotive indie rock, though her forthcoming record, Sun, promises a return to the starker environs of her earlier work. Fiona Apple's (Oct. 10, Capitol Theatre) albums are just as emotionally turbulent; her latest—whose title is too long to warrant reprinting—is also relatively stripped down, featuring just piano, percussion and Apple's astonishing voice. The xx (Oct. 26, Paradise Theater) belong in this school of murmuring R&B as well, having more alluring shadows and empty space than Marshall and Apple combined. Matthew Dear's (Nov. 17, Webster Hall) music has lately been full of different kinds of shadows. His astonishing new record, Beams, imagines Roxy Music as fronted by Mephistopheles—dark, churning dance music full of eerie shrieks and guided by Dear's deep-set infernal bandleader vocals. That's what happens when seasons shift, right? Darkness sets in sooner than you'd expect.