10:45 am Jan. 7, 2013
Perhaps because by its very nature pop music is performative, there will always be something alluring about its recluses. They exist across musical genres and in different strata of fame. The r&b singer D'Angelo and the indie folk artist Jeff Mangum were two of music's most lamented disappearing acts until they both resurfaced—triumphantly—in the past two years. Sly Stone, on the other hand, is one of the most notorious. He resurfaces periodically, too, delivering scattershot performances that serve as a reminder that sometimes rock's recluses are better off in hiding. And then there are artists like Shuggie Otis (Jan. 10, Highline Ballroom). Unlike Mangum, D'Angelo, and Stone, who were all widely praised during their initial success, Otis's critical veneration began largely after he'd already disappeared. The son of famed musician Johnny Otis, Shuggie kept company with luminaries like B.B. King, Etta James, and Frank Zappa and scored a chart hit with the Brothers Johnson's version of his soft soul number "Strawberry Letter 23." After a pair of well-received solo albums, Otis released Inspiration Information in 1974. Like so many albums by pop recluses, Inspiration failed upon its initial release and derailed its creator's career, only to be rediscovered and revered in the decades that followed. In its lithe grooves, you can hear the blueprint for later "open-ended soul" albums like D'Angelo's own Voodoo. Otis's re-emergence now seems strangely timed—there's no obvious anniversary to commemorate or pop-culture resurgence to capitalize on. But, then, isn't it the prerogative of the pop recluse to be idiosyncratic? The guitarist Charlie Hunter (Jan. 7, The Living Room) has also spent the better part of his career following his own impulses. His wryly-titled 2012 album Not Getting Behind is the New Getting Ahead dishes the kind of smoky funk and jazz-noir best suited to a postmodern detective film. Saxophonist Donald Harrison (Jan. 8, Blue Note) is similarly relaxed. His music gently borrows from bop to build loose, ambling songs with notes that are more percussive than tonal. Robert Glasper's (Jan. 10, S.O.B's) music is also defined by its rhythm and its stylistic restlessness. His latest, Black Radio is a collaboration with contemporary hip-hop and r&b artists, among them Erykah Badu and Lupe Fiasco. In his prime, Dr. Lonnie Smith (Jan. 13, Jazz Standard) also copped moves from the popular music of the era. His late-'60 albums like Turning Point douse both soul and jazz with healthy helpings of psychedelia. There's a similar haze over the music of TEEN (Jan. 10, Bowery Ballroom), whose 2012 album In Limbo, with its distant vocals and strange synths, felt like it was being piped in from deep space.
There's a bit of spaciness on Ghost, the debut E.P. from Sky Ferreira, (Jan. 10, Santos Party House) but it's tempered by moments of startling rawness.Ferreira is something of a shape-shifter. On the wistful "Sad Dream," her reedy voice and the song's despairing melody recall reserved songwriters like Aimee Mann. But that delicate number is immediately followed by "Lost in My Bedroom," a grinding bit of robo-pop that shares "Sad Dream"'s forlorn romanticism but pounds it with walloping jackhammers of synth. The whiplash transformation is telling. Ferreira, who splits time between singing and modeling, has been a victim of record label waffling since 2011. She's used the dalliance to hone her skills, working with Dev Hynes of Blood Orange (who also produced the latest record by Solange Knowles) and cultivating the persona of a clear-eyed artist who will not be told what to do or how to behave. As a result, she's become one of pop music's more fascinating and unpredictable young breakouts—an artist clearly chasing her own vision, no matter how often it changes shape. There's some wistfulness to the New York band Callers (Jan. 7, Mercury Lounge) as well. Sara Lucas's voice is sturdier and more robust than Ferreira's, and it beelines up the center of the group's lacey guitars like a freight train hurtling through snowfall. Jolie Holland's (Jan. 13, Jalopy Theatre) voice is just as tough, but her chosen backdrop is ragged, frayed-end alt-country. The edges of Hippy's (Jan. 7, Glasslands) songs are frayed, too; their modest indie rock shares the same earnest melodies and rollicking arrangements of groups like the Clean. The songs of Ski Lodge (Jan. 11, Shea Stadium) are more genteel, sparkling guitars framing sighing vocals. It's the same tack taken by Light Heat (Jan. 12, Cake Shop), the new project by Quentin Stoltzfus of the underrated Philadelphia group Mazarin. Their latest single, the beatific "And the Birds," is a masterpiece of construction, spirals of piano pirouetting beneath wheezing organ and percussion that clacks like an old freight train. Built By Animals (Jan. 11, Cake Shop) are far more minimal. Recalling slowcore acts like Bedhead and early Low, the group's songs feature little pinpricks of guitar and Nick Crane's old soul vocals. The Spookfish (Jan. 8, Pete's Candy Store) is just as quiet, clicking drum tracks draped with gauzy primitive synthesizers, making lullabys for dozing robots. The Soft Moon (Jan. 8, Mercury Lounge) showcase the darker end of electronic music. Their hard-driving, synth-based songs recall the early industrial music of acts like Nitzer Ebb and Front Line Assembly.
The rapper Wale (Jan. 7, Bowery Ballroom) also underwent a bit of shapeshifting since he first appeared in 2005. Back then, his music emphasized clever production that capitalized on the go-go music of his native Washington, D.C., pairing it with lyrics that routinely dismantled an industry he dismissed as insipid ("You ain't got a chance/ if you ain't got a dance" went the hook to 2007's "D.C. Gorillaz," mocking commercial hip-hop's obsession with choreography over lyricism). A pair of mixtapes built on, of all things, old Seinfeld samples (called, appropriately, The Mixtape About Nothing and More About Nothing) used the sitcom's subject matter as a jumping-off point to discuss racism and hypocrisy. He's softened somewhat since signing to Rick Ross's Maybach Music in 2011. That year's Ambition set his insistent rhyme style against sumptuous, high-gloss production numbers. His lyrical focus shifted, too, with the lion's share of them given over to celebrating his triumphs. And though he sounded more jubilant as a result, he also sounded more common, less the dogged outsider, more the comfortable star. It's a position that he wears well, even if it's a far cry from how he began. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, (Jan. 13, The Bell House) on the other hand, still mostly hew close to the formula that defined their ragged work in the late '90s. The group's m.o. is in their name, working from a base of American blues but detonating it with the recklessness of punk rock. Advaeta (Jan. 9, Big Snow) are just as noisy; their latest single, "Chaoz," groans and growls, Sara Fantry's sirenlike vocals piercing the thick fog of guitars. The music of Niki & the Dove (Jan. 12, Bowery Ballroom) is far lusher and prettier, blinking synths sparkling like constellations around Malin Dahlström's cooing vocals.
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