Streets of Your Town: This week's concerts, with Lindi Ortega, Cat Power, ESG and more
The video for "Cigarettes & Truckstops," the title track from the second record by Canadian country singer Lindi Ortega (Jan. 31, Joe's Pub) looks like an old home movie—wobbly Super 8 footage of Ortega and her beau browsing record stores, hitchhiking and hanging out at a dusty, deserted gas station.
It creates a sensation of instant nostalgia, as if you're stealing a look at someone else's yellowed memories. That mood runs throughout Cigarettes, a record that's full of rust-covered rockabilly and rollicking, boot-stomping honky-tonk. The grit between the notes is almost tangible—the unnerving "Murder of Crows" seethes like a boozy troublemaker in a dirt-cheap saloon, and Ortega opens the rummy waltz "Demons Don't Get Me Down" sighing, "I wish I had some whiskey, and I wish I had some weed."
Ortega's persona is the perfect complement to the music's loose stomp. The character she creates is like a biker's pinup tattoo come to life, her girlish voice perfectly suited to convey both malice and vulnerability. That she embodies both so effortlessly is a testament to her lyrical prowess. The woman who offs her lover in "Murder" feels like the same woman who's musing—in a weary, smoky voice—about the afterlife in "Heaven Has No Vacancy" one song later. Ortega isn't so much a singer as an actor, and Cigarettes & Truckstops is her existentialist western.
Another Canadian songwriter, Kathleen Edwards, (Jan. 30 – 31, City Winery) nailed this same trick in 2003 with Failer, her perfect debut. Her latest record Voyageur tells of loves lost and gained with a poet's precision. Chan Marshall, who records as Cat Power (Jan. 29, Terminal 5) also contains a multitude of emotion. After veering a bit too close to AM radio soft rock on 2006's The Greatest, she returned to more dangerous sonic terrain with last year's stunning Sun, which spoke of both hurt and hope in equal measure. That's the same back and forth that occurs in the bewitching music of Dead Heart Bloom (Jan. 30, Mercury Lounge). Essentially the project of frontman Boris Skalsky and guitarist Paul Wood, the group pitches miragelike lyrics between hushed acoustic guitars. Alice Smith (Jan. 29, Rockwood Music Hall) is enamored of older music, too, but hers is mostly derived from the woozy torch songs of '30s jazz. And then there are The Lumineers, (Feb. 1 –2, Terminal 5) who dress up cloying, overenthusiastic pop songs in old clothes. Shovels & Rope (Jan. 31, Bowery Ballroom) are more understated and more satisfying, Cary Ann Hearst's molasses-thick alto ladled generously over rustic instrumentation. Tegan and Sara (Jan. 28, Beacon Theater) started out owing a considerable debt to folk music, but they've transformed over the course of the last 17 years, layering sugary melodies into spiky New Wave, better suited for a nightclub than a coffeehouse.
It's music that owes a little something to the Scroggins sisters—Renee, Valerie, Deborah and Marie—collectively known as ESG (Jan. 30, Bowery Electric). The group emerged in New York City in the early '80s, at around the same time post-punk had begun to sidle up cautiously alongside dance music. Where many of their peers ended up producing songs that put a heavy emphasis on a sense of agitation, ESG veered coolly in the opposite direction.
Their 1983 album Come Away With ESG still sounds completely out of time; most of its songs consist of a simple, thumping rhythm track, a steady-boiling bass line and shouted, Martian-schoolyard jump-rope chants from the Scroggins sisters. The loose, limber grooves and wide-open spaces between the notes feel weirdly cosmic.
Though they never scored a bona fide hit on their own, their songs are still familiar, having been generously sampled by the likes of Public Enemy, the Wu-Tang Clan, Gang Starr and even rock groups like Liars. They've reunited periodically over the last 20 years, recording the odd album along the way, but their progress was slowed in 2007, when drummer Valerie was indicted for workers' compensation fraud. This show provides not only a final opportunity to experience the Scroggins' strange magic, but to marvel at how gloriously out-of-step they remain.
Some of that moodiness has been picked up by Ultraista (Jan. 28, Music Hall of Williamsburg), but where ESG's songs cruise like sleek spaceships, theirs glow like futuristic cities. The product of Nigel Godrich—best known for his work producing Radiohead—drummer Joey Waronker and vocalist Laura Bettinson, they veer from lean and propulsive to buzzy, synth-driven dance numbers. Sparer still is Aksel Schaufler, the German producer who records as Superpitcher (Jan. 30, Cameo Gallery). His songs are all split-second splashes of sound – a kind of pointillist take on dance music. There's a similar bang and clatter to the music of The Mast (Jan. 29, Glasslands), but the mood is eerier and more imposing, streaks of minor-key synths and lurching percussion feeling like the perfect soundtrack to an abandoned ship stranded in deep space. Vensaire (Jan. 29, Cameo Gallery) are even weirder and woozier, writing glassy-eyed songs that scatter bits of slack-key guitar and glitter-like electronics against a dreamy, gauzy musical backdrop. Celestial Shore (Jan. 31, Silent Barn) are just as strange, but they situate their dreamy, oblong melodies within deliberately detuned and obstinate indie rock. The promise of obstinacy is more literal at the Pre-V-Day Riot Grrrl Cover Bands Show (Feb. 1, Death By Audio), where a host of yet-to-be-named bands will cover classics by Joy Division, the Distillers, Stiff Little Fingers and more.
That same level of raggedness and rowdiness defines the music of Ty Segall (Feb. 1 Webster Hall; Feb. 2, Music Hall of Williamsburg). The San Francisco guitar player cycled through a host of bands – including a few projects with like-minded bruiser Mikal Cronin—before concentrating the majority of his energies on cultivating a solo career. Where some of his peers in the West Coast garage scene—like Thee Oh Sees—infuse their ragged songs with a sense of mysticism or – like The Fresh & Onlys – a preternatural gift for melody, Segall is primarily interested in creating rock for rock's sake.
He's philosophically similar to T. Rex, whose music he covered in an E.P. appropriately titled Ty Rex: what matters is the volume of the riff and the sweetness of the hook. To that end, he's been alarmingly consistent. His 2010 album Melted was full of scorched chords and cocksure vocals, a slow-smoldering hunk of rock attitude.
His opener at the Webster Hal show, Mac DeMarco, is stranger and slyer. The loose jangle of the songs on his second record – titled simply Mac DeMarco II, recall the bashful melodies of Scottish indie pioneers Orange Juice. The influential New York band Quicksand (Jan. 30 – 31, Webster Hall) match Segall in decibels, but where his songs are grounded in melody, theirs are desperate and yelping. Parquet Courts (Feb. 2, 285 Kent) offset punk fury with wry humor. Their debut, Light Up Gold, is a lyrical feast, cockeyed, astonishingly astute verse perfectly paired with bent-wire riffs.
If Parquet Courts are brainiacs, Punks on Mars (Feb. 2, Shea Stadium) are theatre kids, dishing out pouty, powder-puff glam with glittery choruses and rollercoaster riffs. Outside World (Jan. 28, Death By Audio) strip out the attitude but maintain the melody. Their irresistible debut sounds like a cassette excavated from a college radio library in the mid '80s, loaded with bright riffs and pie-eyed melodies that build an unlikely bridge between early R.E.M. and the Raspberries. Easter Island (Feb. 1, Cameo Gallery) are just as tuneful, but their guitars are drier and the corners sharper, suggesting anxiety more than optimism.