Streets of Your Town: this week’s concerts, with Coldplay & Jay-Z, Amanda Palmer, Mighty Sparrow, and more
Because of its size, diversity and intimidating reputation, New Year's Eve in New York City has a tendency to cause what the writer Douglas Coupland once called 'option paralysis'—the tendency, when confronted with an overwhelming number of choices, to become exhausted and choose nothing. It has become—by repetition more than actual fact—the Biggest Party of the Year, and there is the tendency to feel an obligation to grant the evening the Importance that years of repetition have made it seem like it deserves. In that sense, there can hardly be a better complement to New Year's Eve than Jay-Z and Coldplay (Dec. 31, Barclay's Center). In the entire realm of popular music, few people do capital-I Importance better. Though it's tempting to dwell on their superficial differences, in so many ways the two acts couldn't be more alike. Though his early records were characterized by a pugilist's tenacity, Jay-Z has lately been more interested in figuring out ways to make hip-hop fluent in arena rock's grandiosity. To that end, he's succeeded spectacularly: his songs, over the past several years, have increased in sweep and scope, and he's mastered the kind of musical Big Moments that translate well to large rooms. It's no wonder he's become such good friends with Chris Martin. Like Jay, Martin and Coldplay thrive on a measure of knowing overstatement. The songs on last year's Mylo Xyloto, nick tricks from hipper acts like M83 and Arcade Fire, but outfit them with a sense of regality those bands mostly shy away from. Both Jay-Z and Coldplay write songs that feel triumphant, outfitted with confetti-cannon choruses perfect for a night where the delivery is more important than the statement. It's fitting that Jay's onetime rival Nas's (Dec. 31, Radio City Music Hall) New Year's Eve show is taking place at Radio City Music Hall. While Jay's music has become more and more about spectacle, Nas remains focused on scripting smaller-scale dramas. His latest album, Life is Good, tackled divorce and fatherhood with a journalist's sobriety, solidifying his reputation as hip-hop's most reliable storyteller. Amanda Palmer (Dec. 31, Terminal 5) exists somewhere between those two poles. Though her direct, unadorned lyricism has won her countless fans, she also has a well-documented jones for the theatrical. Case in point: for this show, she's eschewing her own material in favor of playing Prince's Purple Rain from start-to-finish. Blonde Redhead (Dec. 31, Irving Plaza) takes a similarly artful approach to indie rock, draping Kazu Makino's breathy vocals over tense, twitching instrumentation.
Blending theatre and lyricism is also a chief concern of the New Jersey group Titus Andronicus.(Dec. 31, Glasslands) If they were a playwright, they'd be David Mamet, delivering Big Ideas through prose that's by turns vulgar and rapier-sharp. After their 2010 masterpiece The Monitor, which used the Civil War as a metaphor for both a messy breakup and the bitter class rivalry between certain factions of American culture, they've pared things back a bit. Their latest, Local Business is a leaner record full of shorter songs that displays a clearer affinity for late '80s punk and hardcore. What remains constant is the acrid attitude. The album's first line is "OK, I think by now we've established/ everything is inherently worthless," and the remainder feels like an expansion on that theme. All of this would land as adolescent sarcasm if not for the masterful writing voice of frontman Patrick Stickles, who comes off like a man who desperately wants to believe that the good will out, but is starting to worry that he's deceiving himself. They've learned more than a few tricks from The Hold Steady,(Dec. 31, Wellmont Theatre) but where Titus's music brims with moral indignation, The Hold Steady are more concerned with taut narrative, crafting Bukowski-esque tales littered with sly nods to pop culture, populated by characters who are fond of the seedy side of town. That's the same spot where much of Matthew Dear's (Dec. 31, Le Bain) latest record, Beams, is set. A bleak, throbbing clubland overrun by icky, aging Casanovas, it follows the lounge lizard caricature to its creepy conclusion, the equivalent of wandering into a strange, low-lit bar in a warehouse district, hours after the ball has dropped in Times Square. Merchandise (Dec. 31, 285 Kent) are brighter and boomier, their songs blending New Romantic drama with oozing, syrupy guitars. They're sharing the bill with the outstanding Blanche Blanche Blanche, whose idiosyncratic, no-budget synthpop is as weird as it is instantly winning.
Like Titus Andronicus, calypso legend Mighty Sparrow (Jan. 5, B.B. King's) also gained early attention for his lyrics and, also like Titus, many of those lyrics were politically-minded. His early his "No, Doctor, No," cast a jaundiced eye on double-talking politicians, "Russian Satellite" offered a critical take on the space program, and the bouncing "Kennedy & Kruschev" was a weary appraisal of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He also had an appreciation for a well-crafted dirty joke. In the cheeky "Big Bamboo," he asks his lover what it will take to keep her faithful, to which she replies, "Sparrow, all I want from you/ is a little, little piece of the big bamboo." As with most legends, his earliest work is the strongest; the albums he recorded in the late '50s and early '60s are full of springing tempos and swiveling horn charts, a brighter and more jubilant second cousin to American swing. He often inexplicably performs backed by a small army of synthesizers, which can do his songs the incredible disservice of making them seem chintzy. On rare occasions, he's backed by the kind of full band that gave his original recordings such vibrancy and joy. Here's hoping this is one of them. Rachelle Garniez's (Jan. 3, Barbes) music is moodier, but it's characterized by her strange, gripping voice, which routinely swoops from soprano to baritone within a singly syllable. The single she recorded for Jack White's Third Man series, "House of Peace," is the best song Elton John never recorded. The music of Nerve City, (Jan. 3, Union Pool) whose sole member remains insistently anonymous, is sparser than Garniez's, brittle guitar and monophonic keyboards recorded on bedroom equipment. LVL UP (Jan. 3, Big Snow) take the same aesthetic and speed it up, writing jittery songs full of bruises and scrapes.