Streets of Your Town: This week's concerts, with Iceage, Big Freedia, Loudon Wainwright III, and more
In the opening scenes of a documentary shot for Pitchfork TV, the management team for the New Orleans artist Big Freedia (Jan. 25, Brooklyn Bowl) are hashing over the pros and cons of a label deal that would put Freedia in charge of his own imprint, allowing him free reign to widely release both his own music as well as the music of like-minded artists. On the surface, it screams promise: the label is locally-owned and has a solid reputation, and Freedia has been teetering on the verge of national celebrity since the turn of the century. His manager Renée, however, is not convinced. "Bounce music is full of samples," she laments, "already, that's a restriction." That such a minor detail should hamstring such an outsized performer—even momentarily— seems like a bitter punchline, especially given the obstacles Freedia has already overcome. Freedia—born Freddie Ross—is openly gay (still, distressingly, a stumbling block in the world of hip-hop), and has risen to prominence on a shoestring budget with songs largely that boast impishly racy lyrics. He's become the face of New Orleans bounce music—the genre his manager was fretting over—which is essentially a distant cousin to Miami bass and is characterized by split-second sampling, shout-along hooks, and beats that collapse the solar plexus. And while Freedia has no real recorded work to speak of (largely due to the dilemmas outlined in the documentary), that hardly matters. His live show is riotous and raunchy, Freedia decked out in a multicolored costume and hollering his X-Rated refrains as dancers—and scores of audience members—take to the stage, bend over and emphatically bounce their derrieres. It's unbridled euphoria, a wild tornado of a party that respects no boundaries. In quite a different way, the composer Vijay Iyer (Jan. 23, Jazz Standard) also stubbornly refuses compartmentalization. Though he lacks Freedia's sass and pizzazz, his measured, moody work also roams across stylistic borders, blending jazz phrasings and classical structures with the sharp melodies of Indian music. There's gentleness and mystery in the music of the xx (Jan. 24–25, Hammerstein Ballroom) as well. The British duo craft whispery songs consisting of feather-light electronics and cottony vocals that feel like deep secrets spoken late at night. Where the xx construct their songs from synths that glow soft as nightlights, the music of Widowspeak (Jan. 22, Mercury Lounge) is built around skeletons of guitar that twitch and sway eerily. Heaven's Gate (Jan. 21, Shea Stadium) are also no stranger to eerieness; like Widowspeak, their music hearkens back to the early '90s, but where Widowspeak often recalls the doomed romanticism of Mazzy Star, Heaven's Gate is ensconced in the swirling clouds of shoegaze. Half Waif’s (Jan. 22, Cake Shop) songs are just as spectral. Nandi Rose Plunkett's ghostly voice hovers alongside melting icicles of sound like an eerie spirit haunting a deserted church. Ellie Goulding (Jan. 21–22, Terminal 5) contrasts that same gentle vocal approach with rich, elaborately-sculpted production. Great Thunder (Jan. 24, Death By Audio) are scuzzier and sleazier, greasy slabs of guitar slathered across drowsy vocals.
On its surface, "I Remember Sex," from Older Than My Old Man Now, the 22nd album by Loudon Wainwright III (Jan. 26, Carnegie Hall) also seems to promise sleaziness—as do the opening lyrics describing, in some detail, the mechanics of the act. But after a few moments the song, a duet with Barry Humphries' Dame Edna character, gives way to something else—revealing itself to be not merely a song-length dirty joke, but rather a rueful meditation on aging, drenched in acid humor. That method is one Wainwright has perfected over the course of his 45-year career. Albums like 1973's wry and masterful Attempted Moustache employed a combination of finely-honed narratives and sly humor to make large points about love and loss. Older is his most clear-eyed and sobering record to date, staring down the grave with unflinching resolve. That all comes to the fore in the delicate "The Day That We Die," a duet with his son Rufus—his relationship with whom has been famously fraught. The song opens with the elder Wainwright soberly summarizing his many fallings-out with his children and, if not quite taking responsibility for his shortcomings, at least allowing that he has tried to become a better person. It's warm and rambling and wistful, and it's easy to appreciate the sentiment of the song without realizing the dark subtext implicit in its appearance in a collection of songs about death. It's more than just a public apology—it's one man realizing he is running out of time to make amends. Femi Kuti (Jan. 26, Webster Hall) had a similarly troubled relationship with his father, Fela. Though he chose to live with him during the early part of his life, the two had a falling out when Femi foreswore cigarettes and marijuana, started his own band, and refused his father's offer to run a nightclub. They eventually reconciled, and the younger Kuti's recent album Africa for Africa is full of the kind of steady-boil Afrobeat for which his father was renowned. The family ties are murkier for Christopher Owens (Jan. 21–22, Bowery Ballroom). The former frontman of the San Francisco rock band Girls was raised in the communal cult the Children of God before breaking free as a teenager. His solo album Lysandre documents his first tour with Girls, and the personal travails it provoked. Ra Ra Riot (Jan. 22, Music Hall of Williamsburg) are themselves no strangers to personal turbulence. After losing drummer and principle songwriter John Ryan Pike in a tragic swimming accident in 2007 and cellist Alexandre Lawn—whose playing was instrumental in the group's sound—just five years later, they've retooled, writing songs that employ dance rhythms and sparkling synths. Ducktails (Jan. 23, Le Poisson Rouge) have moved in the opposite direction. Their first few records—primarily the work of Real Estate member Matt Mondanile—were moody and synthy; recently, Mondanile's bulked up the instrumentation while retaining a cool core, writing songs that mimic the smooth amble of '70s soft rock. Majical Cloudz (Jan. 23, Death By Audio) are closer to that band's old sound, threading soulful vocals over thrift-store keyboards. Literature (Jan. 25, Cake Shop) are far more caffeinated, their songs brimming with bright melodies and bounding guitars, a stunning approximation of '80s Manchester. There's no such merriment in the music of rapper Antwon (Jan. 24, Santos Party House). His stunning album End of Earth recalls the dystopic horror of Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein, grinding industrial rhythms competing with Antwon's ghost-in-the-machine rapping.
That same nihilism is present in the music of the Danish group Iceage (Jan. 25, 285 Kent; Jan. 26, Home Sweet Home). Their 2011 album New Brigade was thrilling in its ruthlessness, sounding like rallying cries for a blank-eyed army ready to go into battle with bayonets and bared teeth. Fittingly, the songs struck like machine-gun bursts—brutal and concise. They pulsed a kind of thrilling malice, ice cold and plummeting like stalactites. Early live performances reflected that penchant for concision. Their first New York performance lasted a full 20 minutes, but the brevity made it more punishing; they had done a concert's worth of damage in the amount of time it normally takes to sound check. Like Joy Division, who they resemble in spirit and worldview, if not entirely in sound, the group has taken some heat for their flirtation with fascist imagery, concerns frontman Elias Ronnenfelt has laconically dismissed. Such dangerous fascination is a part of punk's history, but in Iceage's case, it's particularly unnecessary. The group is plenty chilling on their own. Chelsea Wolfe and King Dude (Jan. 26, Music Hall of Williamsburg) are menacing in their own way. The former winds her ghostly voice wraithlike through spare, chilly instrumentation while the latter employs a deep-set baritone to extol the virtues of Satan over a minor-key strum. That kind of stuff used to be the provenance of heavy metal—and it still is, to some degree, but it's nowhere to be found in the songs of the Swedish group Graveyard (Jan. 25, Bowery Ballroom; Jan. 27 Music Hall of Williamsburg) Their blues-based, melodic hard rock emphasizes tunefulness over terror, and their lyrics speak of determination and hard-won triumph. If Graveyard pull most of their influences from the late '70s and early '80s, the New Hampshire band MMOSS (Jan. 25, Union Pool) go further back. Their delirious songs conjure the dark side of the Summer of Love, layered minor-key vocal harmonies and funereal organs sounding like a never-ending hallucination. Growlers (Jan. 24, Knitting Factory; Jan. 25, Union Pool) transpose surf music and sea shanties with that same wooziness, writing the kinds of songs that sound like they might bellow up from an ancient sunken pirate ship. Ex-Cops (Jan. 22, Glasslands) are brighter and prettier, bleeding the weight from shoegaze but retaining the cotton-candy harmonies and seafoam vocal lines. The Dreebs (Jan. 22, Death By Audio) are a menacing dark star in the same galaxy. Their songs have the lockstep groove of German bands like Can, but they're darker and more churlish. Pianist Matthew Shipp (Jan. 24, The Stone) would appreciate that tumultuousness. His own music—particularly his 2012 outing Elastic Aspects—have often felt just as thrillingly chaotic, his melody lines running mad, amelodic curlicues around the barest instrumental backdrop. The result has all the furious kinetic energy of bees trapped in a glass jar.