Streets of Your Town: this week's concerts, with Cat Power, the Weeknd, Saint Etienne, and more
Six years ago, Chan Marshall was a champion. After years of struggling with alcoholism and depression, she was sober and happy, and had just released The Greatest, her seventh album as Cat Power (Oct. 23, Hammerstein Ballroom), which was full of dusky soul songs on which Marshall's voice, once a baleful howl, revealed new depth and contour. Her music, once jagged and nervous, now felt relaxed, dawdling instead of lunging. But on Sun, her riveting new record, the old sadness has returned. "Never knew pain like this," she sighs in the brittle opening track "Cherokee," "Everything die." The reversion is not without reason: Marshall split with longtime boyfriend Giovanni Ribisi during the final stages of the record and, accordingly, Sun is full of lyrics about loss and grief and sadness. If there is any upside to such colossal heartbreak, it's that the music crackles with new life. Where The Greatest had a tendency to settle into torpid easy listening, Sun bristles with an energy and tension that Marshall hasn't demonstrated since her 1998 masterpiece Moon Pix. It also allows for a few rays of hope: on "Nothin' But Time," which bears a not-coincidental resemblance to David Bowie's "Heroes," Marshall sings to Ribisi's daughter, "Hey Jude"-style, "Your world is just beginning…and you got nothin' but time." It beams into the last half of the record like a ray of light through a dusty pane. The xx (Oct. 26, Paradise Theatre) do breakup songs better than almost anyone else. Their new record, Coexist, opens on a note of sustained longing that continues through the 10 tracks. Titus Andronicus (Oct. 22, Shea Stadium) also have a breakup album under their belt, except theirs is called The Monitor, and it's about the breakup of America during the Civil War (and also, sort of, about frontman Patrick Stickles' breakup with his girlfriend). Their new album, Local Business, doesn't have quite the same ambition, but it's still full of ragged punk songs and topped with erudite lyrics. Long-running grindcore band Napalm Death (Oct. 27, Gramercy Theatre) are blunter and more ferocious. Their split-second songs feel like a series of late-night heart palpitations, loaded with thundering drums and eviscerating riffs. Tombs (Oct. 27, St. Vitus) move slower, preferring to create a kind of sickening claustrophobia with crashing waves of sludgy guitar.
There isn't much connecting Tombs to Esperanza Spalding (Oct. 26, The Apollo), other than the fact that both are interested in testing the boundaries of musical styles that can often feel ossified. For Tombs, it's heavy metal. For Spalding, it's jazz. Her Grammy-winning Chamber Music Society was smooth and soothing, grounded in Spalding's gliding acoustic bass work and spruced up with little filigrees of violin and piano. There were nods toward bossa nova (the percolating "Really Very Small") and free jazz (her drifting, formless cover of the standard "Wild is the Wind"), and the focus was Spalding's inventive touch as an arranger and singer. Radio Music Society—which was initially intended to be packaged with its predecessor—feels not so much like an about-face as an extension. Shifting slightly from jazz to lissome r&b, Spalding develops a sound located somewhere between Jill Scott and Chick Corea. Her playing is busy, but never distracting, providing a darting beacon for her band to follow. The Chicago group The Sea & Cake (Oct. 22, Le Poisson Rouge) also work from a foundation of jazz, blending it with elements of krautrock and indiepop. The Bill McHenry Quartet (Oct. 23–28, Village Vanguard) take a slightly different approach. McHenry's role is more pronounced, threading robust saxophone lines through wide-open arrangements. The r&b group The Weeknd (Oct. 25, Terminal 5) specialize in slow-burn, frontman Abel Tesfaye's longing voice twisting through pulsing electro-soul. That's also the musical basis for the duo THEESatisfaction (Oct. 25, Glasslands), who merge billowing soul with tough hip-hop, recalling pioneering artists like MC Lyte and TLC.
During their ‘90s heyday, the British group Saint Etienne (Oct. 26, Webster Hall) also sought out the soulful side of electronic music. Their 1991 debut Foxbase Alpha opened by rendering Neil Young's sad-sack ballad "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" into a slinky make-out song, fitted with glinting house synths and a thumping backbeat. As time went on, their music deepened: their 1998 masterpiece Good Humor incorporated elements of lounge and classic French pop, letting Sarah Cracknell's delicate voice glide lazily between rivulets of guitar and bright blocks of piano. At the time, it almost felt like a more mature, demure version of Swedish pop groups like Ace of Base—the grown-up yin to their bubblegum yang. Over time, the band's albums became more sporadic—a full eight years separated their previous album from this year's Words and Music by Saint Etienne, but their music has lose none of its fizzy charm. As its title implies, Words and Music is about the relationship between artist and listener, and its glowing songs—which still gleefully mine the same stores of '90s pop and dance music—are the perfect vehicle for such emotionally candid expressions of devotion. It's a perfect comment on music's ability to achieve timelessness. The German duo Mouse on Mars (Oct. 22, Santos Party House) started up around the same time as Saint Etienne, though their music has always been glitchier and trickier and more experimental. They rounded some of the sharp edges on 2004's Radical Connector, but this year's Parastrophics returns them to their roots, packed with staticky future-shock dance music. Grimes (Oct. 25, Music Hall of Williamsburg) has more in common with Saint Etienne: Claire Boucher’s lush electronic music is what might result if someone perfected a merger of Stacy Q and Kraftwerk. And the Boston group Bent Shapes (Oct. 24, Death By Audio) are brighter still, writing limber jangle-pop that recalls the bright-eyed swoon of bands like Aztec Camera.
There's not much swooning in the music of Crosby, Stills & Nash (Oct. 22, Beacon Theatre). The quintessential '70s folk group—who are touring without occasional partner Neil Young—are storytellers more than sonnet writers, and the music on their 1969 debut nicked some of the haze and mysticism from British folk bands like Pentangle, blew away the smoke, and used what remained to tell stories about long journeys and absent friends. Decades later, their emphasis on breezy melodies and high, keening harmonies can be seen as a forerunner to younger bands like Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses. The group has been touring sporadically over the course of the last several years, and the just-released CSN 2012 shows they're still capable of note-perfect facsimiles of their best-loved songs. Nearly 50 years since they began, their yellow-edged folk music can be put to the purpose for which it's always seemed suited: nostalgia. Father John Misty (Oct. 23, Music Hall of Wililamsburg) can be seen as one of CSN's disciples; his debut album, Fear Fun, is full of the same kind of lonesome, mystic folk music. Heartless Bastards (Oct. 27, Irving Plaza) are just as rootsy, but their edges are rougher, and their songs are dominated by Erika Wennerstrom's mighty howl. Those Darlins (Oct. 26, Glasslands) are scrappier and screwier, delivering boot-kicking country with a punk rock snarl—the same snarl that was found in the music of the Avengers (Oct. 25, Littlefield), the San Francsico punk band fronted by Penelope Huston. Of the original members, only Huston and guitarist Greg Ingram remain, but if they can capture even a fraction of their old fire and spite, it will hardly matter.