12:10 pm Nov. 12, 2012
Over the course of the past 30 years, few pop narratives have been as fascinating to follow as Madonna's (Nov. 12–13, Madison Square Garden). History has handily proven that anyone who dismissed her early on as a featherweight pop thrush was guilty of a colossal misjudgment. In retrospect, it's obvious that there was never a single moment when Madonna wasn't fully, shrewdly involved in the careful creation and development of her image. The canniness and timeliness of her multiple transformations ranks as one of the 20th century's great works of performance art, one where the singer deftly isolated the specific social anxieties of the moment—most notoriously, religion and sexual prudishness—and threw the entire weight of her superstardom against them. From lesser performers, such open confrontation can feel like empty publicity stunts, but there was always the unmistakable shadow of Deeper Meaning behind even Madonna's nervier maneuvers. They never felt like crude jokes or flippant rabble-rousing—they felt like genuine questions. She is one of the few pop stars of the '80s (and of that small number, the only woman) to survive that decade with both her fame and her audience intact. She demonstrated, repeatedly, her ability to both appropriate and synthesize new sounds with a deftness that rivals David Bowie. And if her recent albums haven't packed the same giddy thrills as those she made in her peak years, their merits are often understated. "Gang Bang," from this year's cheekily-titled MDNA, is a glitchy, lit-up bit of minimal techno topped with a sinister, perfectly-underplayed vocal, and the broken-traffic-light blink of "Superstar" is slow-burn Europop that fizzes like a Fourth of July sparkler. The corresponding tour, which Madonna has described as "A journey from darkness to light," has not been without its share of controversy, but this time, the objectionable content was largely political. That she continues to prod when her stardom is firmly established is just further proof of Madonna's restless, contrarian nature. She keeps pushing, even when she has nothing more to prove. Divorce '80s Madonna from that iconoclasitic streak, and what you get is Kreayshawn (Nov. 15, Irving Plaza), who drops jokey rhymes over high-gloss electro production to varying effect. Though they're worlds apart sonically, Rickie Lee Jones (Nov. 14, New York Society for Ethical Culture) and Alice Cohen (Nov. 14, Union Pool) are more natural companions: both are iconoclasts guided by a depply personal vision. The former's craggy voice is perfectly suited to her downcast country, and the latter brings the same sense of spookiness to bedroom synth songs. Mirah (Nov. 15, Joe's Pub) is subdued, too—ghosts haunt the dark corners of her wispy, whispery folk songs. Matt & Kim (Nov. 15, Terminal 5) are instead defined by their euphoria, their cheery live shows often feeling like pep rallies for theatre kids. Tony Bennett, (Nov. 18, Westbury Music Fair) too, is known for his spirit of both joy and generosity. As one of the last great performers of his generation, he still is able to brand familiar melodies with his distinctive twinkle.
The Brooklyn songwriter Sharon Van Etten (Nov. 15, Town Hall) has also undergone a bit of a transformation over the past few years—though not one as eye-popping or attention-getting as any of Madonna's. Her first two records hewed close to conventional singer/songwriter fare, Van Etten's smoky voice curling upward between bare bars of acoustic guitar. They were lovely and unassuming, and Van Etten sang with a combination of woundedness and controlled desperation. All of that changed on this year's remarkable Tramp. With subject matter drawn from years of being involved in a relationship that was mentally and emotionally abusive, the record unflinchingly exposes new layers in Van Etten's personality—chiefly defiance, bitterness, and slow, seething rage. Its grim, roiling songs perfectly capture the contradictory impulses in a destructive relationship. In propulsive first single "Serpents," Van Etten sneers, "You enjoy sucking on dreams/ so I will fall asleep with someone other than you," but ends the song sighing, "Everyone changes in time/ I hope he changes." The music mirrors that emotional tension. Guitars swell like black smoke from a house fire, drums thunder and crash, and Ven Etten presides over the whole affair like a sorceress calmly casting violent spells. Whatever sunlight appears is fleeting, and choked with soot. David Bazan (Nov. 14, Mercury Lounge) is similarly ambivalent about happy endings. When he recorded Control in 2002 under the band name Pedro the Lion, he took a cold look at corporate soullessness, telling the story of a craven executive who meets an untimely end as a result of marital infidelity. At this show, he'll perform that record in its entirety, and its grim message seems distressingly relevant even a decade on. Ani DiFranco (Nov. 16, Music Hall of Williamsburg; Nov. 17, Town Hall) takes a broader view of protest. Her frenetic early songs fused punk tempos with folk arrangements and vivisected bad lovers and outmoded gender norms with equal vigor. She's mellowed over time, edging lately into light funk, but the spirit and fire of her initial outings continues to inspire followers. One of whom might be Kaki King Nov. 13, Le Poisson Rouge) Her guitar playing is similarly feverish—a pointillist's take on contemporary folk music. Horse Feathers (Nov. 14, Knitting Factory) are quieter, writing contemporary lullabies for quiet, snowy nights. Dead Heart Bloom (Nov. 12, Mercury Lounge) started out dark and folky, but have lately edged closer to sparkling, melodic indie rock, incorporating elements of '60s pop into their wide-open arrangements. Pomegranates (Nov. 14, The Rock Shop; Nov. 16, The Delancey) are brighter and fizzier, their brisk and effervescent guitar pop nestling hard-candy melodies in layers of sticky fuzz. Corb Lund (Nov. 14, Hill Country BBQ) reaches further back, pulling from '50s rockabilly and country to sing songs about elusive Goth girls and long, drunken nights. He's got a kindred spirit in Bobby Bare Jr., (Nov. 15, Mercury Lounge) whose songs also saddle country music with contrary subject matter, though on the whole they're even louder and more rollicking and raucous. Curtis Stigers (Nov. 13–14, Blue Note) makes music for after those rowdy nights are over. His muted guitar tone and soothing voice are the sound of soft candlelight and shooting stars on warm nights.
The darkness in Matthew Dear's (Nov. 17, Webster Hall) songs is far more menacing. Like Madonna and Sharon Van Etten, Dear has also become something of a whiz at reinvention. He began his career crafting minimal techno songs, with electronic tones that blinked like Christmas lights flecked between barely-there, pinprick rhythm tracks. That started to change on 2008's Asa Breed, which revealed Dear's increasing fondness for conventional pop structures and laconic, conversational vocal melodies. This year's Beams takes that tentative experimenting to its logical, stunning conclusion. A pitch-black descent into seedy nightclub culture, Beams is the kind of record David Bowie might make if he were entering his Lodger phase now instead of in the late '70s. It's bleak and claustrophobic, doomy and threatening. Its songs seem coated with a kind of black ooze—Dear's voice is a slithering baritone that belongs to the creepiest kind of salivating late-night bar predator. The hyperactive "Overtime," with its bounding percussion and rubbery synth, feels like the last, panicked plea of an oversexed lounge lizard who's getting increasingly desperate as he feels the night drawing to a close. "Fighting is Futile" is one long, nauseous throb—the aural equivalent of a helpless mouse being worked slowly down the long gullet of a boa constrictor. Grimy and undulating, Beams is the diary of a creaking Casanova sloughing into his last days. If there is a female equivalent to the character Dear creates on Beams, it can be found in the music of Lydia Lunch (Nov. 15, Knitting Factory). The fearless experimentalist excels at topping cockeyed, acute song structures with vocal lines that are simultaneously alluring and threatening. Things are even bleaker in the music of Atriarch (Nov. 17, St. Vitus). The metal group traffics in slow-moving doom, charred riffs gliding forward like pitch-black glaciers. Revocation (Nov. 12, The Studio at Webster Hall) are faster, teeth-bared thrash metalists with mathematically-impossible riffs and scraped-larynx vocals. That metal assault meets free jazz looseness in the music of Barrsheadahl (Nov. 13, The Stone), a trio comprised of Krallice's Mick Barr, Child Abuse's Tim Dahl, and Storm & Stress drummer Kevin Shea. San Francisco band the Mallard (Nov. 18, Death By Audio) funnel eeriness into the reverb-heavy sounds of pysch rock, imagining the Dum Dum Girls performing from the bottom of a well, while Naomi Punk (Nov. 16, 285 Kent) gives the same approach a nihilistic bent, slowing the tempo and reducing vocals to a pained howl. Duckspeak (Nov. 14, Goodbye Blue Monday) applies a similarly ghostly aesthetic to folk music—their version of the old spiritual "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down" is stark and chilling. And Sean Price (Nov. 13, Santos Party House) has raised menace to an art form. Since his lean 2005 debut Monkey Barz, he's used decaying soul loops as a backdrop for muscular takedowns of inferior rappers. He shows no signs of stopping on his latest, the cleverly-titled Mic Tyson. "Playing for keeps? Keep playin'/ I'll slam your ass on your face 'til your fuckin' teeth breakin'" he vows in "Bar-Barian" as a sped-up 45 chirps away behind him. Price is a prizefighter, and every song is a new round.
But for all of the virtues of transformation, there's something to be said for remaining the same. The reunion album for the metal band Soundgarden (Nov. 13, Irving Plaza)—who, for a time in the mid '90s, were mistaken for grunge—came with a promise by the band to pick up just where they had left off and, for the most part, it does. Where they left off, of course, was spiking brawny hard rock with enough poisonous bad vibes to turn arena-ready choruses acrid and instill would-be anthems of triumph with a distinct sense of unease. A reunion after their 1997 demise was inevitable in the same way that all band reunions are inevitable these days, and King Animal does its best to color within the lines, even if those colors are strictly shades of black and gray. The only light comes from Chris Cornell's red-orange yelp, which remains astonishingly undimmed. It casts bright rays across Kim Thayil's soot-lined riffing—like a man taking a lantern down into a dark cave. …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead (Nov. 16, Irving Plaza) give similarly bleak songs grander scope. Their latest album, Lost Songs, is a confident leap after series of missteps, blending the loose punk of the group's early days with just a dash of the art rock tendencies that bloated their later efforts. The Who (Nov. 14, Barclay's Center) know more than a little about freighting rock & roll with grander ambitions. On this tour, the band—essentially just Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry and a coterie of hired guns—will be performing their 1973 double-album Quadrophenia in its entirety, an ambitious feat, even for a band of their stature. (If you can’t make the show, BAM is hosting “A Quick One While the Who’s In Town,” a set of movies featuring the band.) At the other end of the spectrum are New York band Reagan Youth (Nov. 17, Grand Victory), whose clipped, leftist hardcore launched a full-frontal assault on racism and conservatism throughout the 1980s. Fellow locals Mr. Dream (Nov. 14, Shea Stadium) have inherited their anger, though their music is slower and more menacing, a recreation of bands like the Jesus Lizard or In Utero–era Nirvana. Pharoah Sanders (Nov. 15, Birdland) shares that reckless spirit, but preceded it by decades. The music he recorded for celebrated avant-garde label ESP was fierce and frenetic, and even later compositions like "The Creator Has a Master Plan" are characterized by his raucous, free-roaming style. Bow Ribbons (Nov. 15, Zebulon) at times seem to operate from a base of free jazz, topping spare, loping, and occasionally abrasive arrangements with Willow Gibbons' parched, gorgeous alto.
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