Streets of Your Town: this week's concerts, with Shelby Lynne, John Cale, Jessie Ware, and more
Speaking candidly, few words in the English language are less compelling than "solo effort from the drummer of Fleet Foxes." That band's lachrymose bleating is stultifying enough without the fear it was somehow mutating into new strains. As it turns out, any fear was completely misplaced. John Tillman's debut as Father John Misty (Jan. 14, Bowery Ballroom) is wholly separate in mood and sound from his full-time gig, spurning the Foxes mealy Americana in favor of rich, well-defined roots rock with clean edges and focused melodies. For proof, look no further than "Well, You Can Do It Without Me." The song ambles like a Buffalo Springfield outtake, loose Al Kooper-like organ snapping its fingers alongside a stoned acoustic strum, and Tillman calling out hypocrites and warmongers with the detached cool and tie-dyed righteousness of a late-'60s one-hit hippie protest singer. Which is not to imply Tillman's palette is limited. Fear Fun skips from wild psych to square-dance Americana with wild abandon, containing as much rich color and as many disparate stories as a Howard Finster painting. If Tillman's stories border on the fantastic, Shelby Lynne's (Jan. 14–15, City Winery) are insistently earthy. Her latest album, Revelation Road, sets sepia-toned, deep-focus snapshots of everyday occurrences against warm, swaying country music. Like Shelby Lynne, the alt-country duo Freakwater (Jan. 15, The Bell House) also focus on storytelling, but they’re more interested in exploring darkness—regret, heartbreak, and despair figure heavily into their sterling songs—than providing comfort. A more literal read on darkness can be found in the music of Neurosis (Jan. 19, Brooklyn Masonic Temple). Since 1985, the group has been slowing the tempos of metal to a sickening lurch, uncorking a new kind of power and ballast in merciless slowness. Their songs surge and bubble like thick black blood. There's also black blood running through the veins of Triple Hex (Jan. 17, The Gutter) The group fuses the feral howl of the Stooges with the wild abandon of a '50s biker film, drawing dark power from Dave Hex's sinister drawl and clawing guitar. Their performance at CMJ was a study in controlled menace—a late-night trawl through a grimy, abandoned subway tunnel. Obits, on the other hand, don't stalk—they hurtle. The latest project of Rick Froberg of Hot Snakes and Drive Like Jehu, the group tidies up punk rock while retaining all of its bug-eyed drive. Roomrunner (Jan. 18, Shea Stadium) are just as fast but twice as messy, scattering static across thundering riffs and shattering songs like "Undo" into slender shards of guitar. It's a trick they may have learned from Mission of Burma (Jan. 18, Bowery Ballroom), who invented a kind of Dadaist take on punk rock in 1979 and then broke up for 19 years, reconvening in 2002. Since then, their music has lost none of its vitality or originality, constructed from guitars bent at defiantly obtuse angles. Compared to Mission of Burma, Nude Beach (Jan. 18, Mercury Lounge) sound like traditionalists. That's hardly a bad thing; the songs on their splendid second record take classic rock's love of yearning tunefulness and effectively scale it down to operate on indie rock's two-bit budget.
John Cale (Jan. 16, 18–19, BAM) is also someone who has spent a career swinging between the poles of avant-gardeism and convention. The two opposing aesthetics joined most seamlessly (and famously) in the Velvet Underground, the group he formed with Lou Reed in 1964. His solo career after being booted from the group in 1968, however, was marked by an increasing fascination with figuring out ways of forcing his experimental impulses to operate within at least superficially traditional musical frameworks. His 1970 masterpiece Vintage Violence concealed bleak songs with existentialist lyrics inside warm, ruminative rock. Sonically it may have been similar to the chamber pop of bands like the Left Banke, but philosophically it recalled what Scott Walker had attempted a few years earlier—figuring out ways to make the song's content battle its form. He continued those experiments over the ensuing records, peaking on 1973's Paris 1919, which he'll be performing in full on the final two nights of his stay at BAM. That record showcased Cale at his most refined and delicate, rich in both lyrical and sonic detail. Songs like "The Endless Pain of Fortune" and the title track painted vivid portraits with expertly arranged instrumentation and masterfully controlled verse. The first night of Cale's residency will be a tribute to his former Velvet Underground bandmate Nico, on whose solo effort The Marble Index Cale featured heavily. The performance will feature appearances by Sharon Van Etten, Kim Gordon, Alison Mosshart, and Greg Dulli, all of whom owe portions of their catalog to Nico's influence. Cale's former partner Lou Reed (Jan. 16, Housing Works) has careened even more wildly through a series of artistic phases and has met with more widely-varying levels of success. His performance is also a tribute—to his contemporary and mentor Allen Ginsberg, whose sole musical offering First Blues was recently reissued, songs from which will be played by Reed and his collaborators. Daniel Higgs, Arrington De Dionyso, and Kid Millions (Jan. 14, Death By Audio) also have a mean experimental streak. The raison d'être of the three musicians' bands—Lungfish, Old Time Relijun, and Oneida respectively—often seemed to be to create typhoons of sound, drawing as much on free jazz as punk rock. The combination of their wild energies is almost certain to result in chaos. The music of Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras (Jan. 19, Knitting Factory) is quieter, but no less strange. Both create startling songs that alternate suffocating drones with moments of startling beauty. Nate Wooley (Jan. 17, The Stone) would make a natural collaborator. His approach to jazz also vacillates between chaos and order, sounding equally comfortable with both.
Any messiness in the music of Jessie Ware (Jan. 17, Bowery Ballroom) can be found in its subject matter. The U.K. singer typically tackles matters of the heart, alternating moments of romantic euphoria with moments of stark vulnerability. Sometimes, those happen in a single song. In her rapturous breakout single "Wildest Moments," Ware depicts love as a shapeshifter, implying that the very things that make romance tumultuous are the same things that make it successful. The lines "We could be the greatest" and "We could be the worst of all" show up back-to-back, suggesting that the pause between affection and anger is often as brief as a single breath. It's a nuanced, complicated view of love, one that Ware retains throughout the length of her Mercury Prize-nominated debut Devotion. Musically, the album recalls late-'90s acts like Everything But the Girl and Morcheeba, Ware's robust, soulful alto arcing and diving over languid, elegant electronic backdrops. There's a maturity to Ware's album that's underscored by its title; other buzzy debuts rush, full of fizz and giddiness, only to evaporate like teenage crushes. Devotion feels deliberate and considered—grown-up love songs determined to go the long haul. Emeli Sande (Jan. 17, Webster Hall) writes similar songs. Her underrated debut Our Version of Events also considered love's complications, but its showpiece was Sande's remarkable voice—a red-rocket racer that shot up dazzlingly through crackling production that melded r&b with agitated dance beats. But both Sande and Ware owe inspiration to Smokey Robinson (Jan. 17, Count Basie Theatre), who was exploring similar themes long before both were born. He's four years removed from his last solo record—2009's gentle funk outing Time Flies When You're Having Fun—but his glorious voice has lost none of its fine rasp or conversational ease. The Chapin Sisters (Jan. 17, Pete's Candy Store) also sing about love, but their songs are quieter and more restrained. Their beautiful 2010 album Two clears plenty of space for their voices to float, ghostlike, in the darkness. The music of Christy & Emily (Jan. 19, Big Snow) is fuller, embracing '70s rock and eerie British folk with equal enthusiasm. The only thing Fleetwood MacBook (Jan. 19, XPO 929) cop from '70s rock is their name. Their music is a fascinating, abrasive collection of synthetic squawks and drones that sounds like someone pouring water on an old PC. MS MR (Jan. 16–17, Mercury Lounge) have a more polite approach to electronic music. Their ice-cold dance music isn't too far afield from Jessie Ware's. Both set soulful vocals and vulnerable lyrics amidst thumping, insistent dance rhythms. In the end, it feels appropriate—what would love be without a healthy pulse?