Streets of Your Town: this week's concerts, with X, B.B. King, Public Enemy, and more
Though they are rarely mentioned in the same breath as the Ramones or the Damned, the Los Angeles band X (Nov. 30, Irving Plaza) occupies a distinct place in the history of punk rock. Though they can't lay claim to invention of the genre, nor can they be credited with ramping up its confrontational spirit in the same way as the Germs or G.G. Allin, what X did was subtler and—in many ways—trickier: they introduced to punk an appreciation for narrative. In retrospect, their 1980 debut Los Angeles feels like the first installment in a four-part film series (one that ends with 1983's More Fun in the New World), chronicling the lives of a series of interlinked, Carver-eqsue characters whose lives pinball from one dire circumstance to the next; when love appears, it is either fleeting or fractured. Much of that has to do with the braided vocals of John Doe and Exene Cervenka, who trade off in the roles of suitor and scorned. Where many of their contemporaries took a scowl-and-howl approach to songwriting, X's music was more audibly informed by rockabilly and country, the guitars bounding, twanging, and twisting as often as they battle-rammed forward at full force. The group has been intermittently active since Doe and Cervenka's divorce in 1987, but their live power remains largely undiminished. There's a bit of X in the New Jersey band Titus Andronicus, (Dec. 1, Maxwell's; Dec. 2, Webster Hall) who also focus largely on writing hyperliterate, narrative songs influenced as much by classic rock as wily hardcore. Suicide, (Nov. 29, Le Poisson Rouge) the duo of Alan Vega and Martin Rev, were contemporaries of X, but their songs were constructed from icy synths instead of roaring guitars. With his band Butthole Surfers, Gibby Haynes (Nov. 27, Union Pool) also tested the limits of punk rock, creating acid-eaten noise collages that—on pioneering albums like Locust Abortion Technician—were as bleak and chilling as the blackest heavy metal. Dinosaur Jr., (Dec. 1, Terminal 5) on their 1987 album You're Living All Over Me—the anniversary of which they'll be celebrating at this performance—also seemed inspired by heavy metal. J. Mascis's guitar tone was as smudged and gunk-encrusted as Tommy Iommi's on any early Black Sabbath record, but they replaced the fire-breathing vocals with a stoner's laconic drawl. Mascis's playing also owed a fair amount to Neil Young, (Nov. 27, Madison Square Garden) whose languorous solos and frayed-end songwriting presaged much of the scuzzier sound of late-'80s college rock. On the other side of the college rock spectrum were bands that sounded a lot like Dead Stars (Nov. 30, Grand Victory) who refine X's melodic sensibility into clean-glide guitar pop. Things are wilder and woollier at Black From the Grave. (Nov. 30, Knitting Factory) Sponsored by the organizers behind long-running festival Cavestomp, the show blends the grime of garage rock with the slow-smolder of r&b. Its headliners, the smoky-voiced blues singer Andre Williams and Blowfly, the pioneer of the dirty soul song, navigate both genres expertly. Not nearly as expertly, of course, as B.B. King (Nov. 29, B.B. King's). To say anything about his legacy would be saying not nearly enough—his lyrical leads and nuanced phrasing are so deep-set in music history it's hard to believe they did not always exist. Like King, saxophonist Joe Lovano and trumpeter player Dave Douglas (Nov. 21–Dec. 2, Village Vanguard) can also lay claim to the invention of distinct playing styles; Douglas blends jazz timing with European folk and klezmer, while Lovano's playing darts from breezy and melodic to the high-tension avant-garde.
There's a more diffuse sort of tension in the music of the Oklahoma group Other Lives (Nov. 28, Bowery Ballroom; Nov. 29, Music Hall of Williamsburg). The songs on their 2011 album Tamer Animals drift like lonely spirits through the dark rooms of a haunted house. The album is shot through with a combined sense of melancholy and menace; strings drift through the background like distant voices at a séance, guitars tremble like bare tree branches in wind, and songs like "Dust Bowl III" begin as ballads but gradually take on a disquieting severity—booming percussion and thick feedback rolling in, black and sudden as storm clouds. "As I Lay My Head Down" feels like someone wrested the unsettling harmonies of "Happiness is a Warm Gun" loose from their moorings and let them float forlorn into the inky night sky. Surrounded by such chiaroscuro instrumentation, Jesse Tabish's burnished tenor functions as a kind of lighthouse; it cuts through the clouds, searching stoically for the presence of life, offering not consolation so much as warning. The songs on Tamer Animals are bleak and tempestuous and they get more treacherous the deeper in you go. Ghostory, the latest record by School of Seven Bells (Nov. 28, Music Hall of Williamsburg) is just as spooky—and with good reason: its milky, dreamlike songs are part of a concept album about a young girl haunted by spirits. The concept behind the blistering new record from High on Fire (Nov. 30, Bowery Ballroom) is even headier. Its furnace-blast songs tell the story of an imagined twin of Jesus Christ who died at birth and was condemned to travel through time, undertaking an endless series of mythic adventures. The Canadian band Menace Ruine (Dec. 1, The Acheron) is more loosely concerned with myth. There's a lonesome, wandering minstrel quality to frontwoman Geneviève Beaulieu's keening alto, which makes their music—a dense thicket of synthesizers and droning guitars—feel mysterious and medieval. Hilly Eye (Nov. 30, St. Vitus), fronted by Amy Klein, who used to play guitar in Titus Andronicus, are similarly eerie, at times recalling the clanging Sonic Youth songs that were piloted by Kim Gordon. The music of Sky Ferreira (Nov. 28, Glasslands; Nov. 29, Mercury Lounge) is more soothing; though her breakthrough single, "Everything is Embarrassing," was defined by gently-pulsing electronics, other moments on her latest E.P. recall the acute folk of Aimee Mann. The Super Vacations (Nov. 29, Death By Audio) are thornier, constructing bleary-eyed psych rock with clawing guitars and morose vocals. Nightlands (Nov. 29, Glasslands) are even dreamier; their effervescent, multicolored pop songs drift and twist like a feather in a spring breeze. Japanese band ZZZs (Nov. 26, Glasslands) have no time for such niceties. Their songs are all lunge and attack, jabbing guitars and hollered vocals. They'd make a nice counterweight to Rhyton (Nov. 27, Union Pool), whose similarly experimental music favors open-ended jams that sound—in the most charming possible way—like a high school free jazz ensemble recorded on an old cassette deck.
Rappers are often known as much for their origin stories as much as their music, but few have had a past as turbulent or twisting as the Philadelphia M.C. Freeway (Nov. 26–27, Highline Ballroom). His brushes with fame and repeated disappointments from lack of the same are the stuff of the best X songs: he was signed to Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella records nearly a decade ago, hand-picked by Jay himself and almost immediately named one of the roster's breakout stars. On his 2003 debut Philadelphia Freeway, his grainy, urgent flow scraped against crystalline production like sand on a windshield, and every song had the scrappiness, power, and unpredictability of a young prizefighter. But a spiritual crisis in 2005 caused him to rethink his aims. He took a pilgrimage to Mecca and recommitted to his Muslim faith, and his records since then have been defined by an emphasis not on swagger, but increasing lyricism. The best of these is The Stimulus Package, his 2010 collaboration with the producer Jake One. On it, Free sounds more determined than ever, punching determinedly through Jake's production, which ranges from rubbery to sleek and gliding. It's the voice of someone who’s lived at life’s extremes and who knows the only option is to push confidently forward. Public Enemy (Nov. 29, Irving Plaza) have also existed in extremes. Their late-'80s albums wrote the instruction book for fierce, politically-minded hip-hop, but they became increasingly marginalized as the years wore on. Now, though, they have evolved into a truly spectacular live band—fleshed out with a boisterous brass section and allowing songs to expand and contract on the fly. Their records have gotten stronger, too—confident works from elder statesmen settling into new roles. Bronx rap crew Camp Lo's (Nov. 28, Knitting Factory) music often matches the ferocity of early Public Enemy; their thrilling Black Hollywood feels like the unearthed soundtrack from a lost '70s cop movie. Like both Freeway and Public Enemy, Talib Kweli (Dec. 2, Brooklyn Bowl) made a name for himself balancing astute lyrics with taut production. His albums have gotten brighter since his debut with Mos Def as Black Star in 1998, relying on the kind of shimmering strings and galumphing bass lines that are found on classic Philly Soul records. Darcy James Argue's Secret Society (Nov. 30, Jazz Gallery) are tenser and more controlled; their riveting 2009 album Infernal Machines was full of shadowy music that drew equally on noir jazz and post-rock.