Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Thomas Dolby, 5.03.06, Joe's Pub

by Charlotte Deaver

Twenty-five years after his hit record, The Golden Age of Wireless, and over fifteen years after releasing much music at all other than ringtones, Thomas Dolby is once again on tour. Performing mostly old (but some newer) material at Joe's Pub last month, he sang as he twirled around numerous buttons and knobs for a loyal audience of once-and-long-time fans.

Even if you don't know the name of the song, most of us have heard his hit from the early 1980s, "She Blinded Me With Science." I remember the entire record, though, so it was fun to hear all those songs, like "One Of Our Submarines" and "Radio Silence."

Thomas Dolby wants to show us that he's a conceptual artist, but his music is pure pop. And there's something super pretentious about that. Clearly a shy sort of fellow, he comes across as one who doesn't get out of his basement or behind the great curtain very often. What would his body do on stage without all that equiptment? It's practically prosthetic, he's so tethered to it. He presents himself as some kind of technological Nordic wizard, wearing a huge, burdensome trenchcoat, which he shed, thankfully, mid-set. And all the while, let's face it: he's going for the rock beat, and so are we. He made a big deal about wishing he didn't have to play his major hit, kind of complaining about it a bit. But why? That's his bread and butter! That's his gift horse. I just wanted to shout, "Get over your ass and PLAY THE SONG!" (Some friends of mine will be pleased to hear that I did NOT, in fact, shout anything to the performer that night.)

And all those machines: what are they? In an interview for NPR he explained that although the sound source for most of the music was his computer, he has a "fetish for big dials and knobs." Taking old field measurement equipment from royal navy or us airforce, including an Ascylascope from the 1940s, he "gutted them out and retro-fitted them for midi."

Because he's all alone up there on stage, looking slightly freaky and uncomfortable, (playing with himself, playing with his toys) I found myself wondering what kind of music he listens to, if he goes to see live music, if he's married and if his wife brings him dinner everynight in his vast, sprawling (I imagined) basement, like the scientist in the movie "The Fly." A shortish, stocky guy, he definitely works out a lot (but not, of course, at a public gym (I'm making this up completely): he's got more equipment in his basement for that).

It's as though he really WANTS to get funky, but can't quite do it, socially; he has to do it by himself. This is a guy who's got a lot more fetishes, or SHOULD have a lot more fetishes, than for just dials and knobs. He's not someone who would ever tour with a band, even though some fat bass and guitars would generate a lot of heat for an otherwise dry, masterbatory, and even perhaps narcissistic performance that is geared towards nostalgia, and not, unfortunately, for immediacy.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

"We Love Illegal Cheese!"

by Charlotte Deaver

We do. We really love illegal cheese.

At a recent magical evening in an East Village community garden, a few friends presented a dinner offering of some diving illegal cheese. As I recall, this cheese hailed from Italy, and its delicious and illicit presence made its mark on the entire evening -- the flowers, the green, the lights, the families and friends enjoying themselves amidst this tiny, idyllic spot buried in the heart of the East Village, and the crazy sculpture made out of exotic found objects. . .

"What shall I love if not the enigma?" (Georgio de Chirico, in contemplation of Nietzsche, 1911).

"When you have found a sign, turn it backwards and forwards on all sides; look at it full face and in profile, three-quarter face and foreshortened; make it disappear and notice what shape is assumed in its place by the memory of its appearance" (de Chirco).

"I have often meditated on this strange phenomenon of human absence in the metaphysical aspect. Every profound work of art contains two solitudes: one which can be called "plastic solitude," which is that contemplative pleasure derived from the happy construction and combination of forms (dead-live of live-dead elements or materials; the second life of the nature morte still-lifes considered not in the sense of a pictorial subject but as the spectral aspect, might apply as well to a supposedly living figure). The second solitude is that of signs, an eminently metaphysical solitude for which all logical possibility of visual or psychological education is automatically excluded (de Chirico, "On Metaphysical Art," 1919).

"[A] new sort of air has flooded into my soul. I have heard a new song, and the whole world now seems completely transformed to me. The autumn afternoon has arrived with its long shadows, clear air, and cloudless sky. In a word, Zarathustra has arrived" (Nietzsche).

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Mark Kozelek, Bowery Ballroom, 5.24.06

by Charlotte Deaver

Mark Kozelek's last CD, Tiny Cities, was released as a Sun Kil Moon effort, but for marketing purposes only: a Sun Kil Moon title, apparently, sells better than one by Mark Kozelek. The tour, however, was billed as a solo act, with Red House Painters' guitarist Phil Carney as Mark's only accompaniment at the Bowery Ballroom on Wednesday night.

Playing solo here about a year ago, Mark was a pill. Never one to pull out the charm, he kvetched and moaned all night before practically stalking off stage abruptly. I had been blown away by the Ghosts of the Great Highway tour, which included several guitarists and strings and such, but solo, he disappointed, especially because of how easily annoyed and sour he could become. Ultimately a solo show by Mark Kozelek is still worth it, for any number of brilliant versions of songs he might play. And besides, as I've written elsewhere on this site, his brooding darkness is a major part of his appeal.

Wednesday night, however, Mark had no problem making music and enjoying himself. The audience was still, rapt. We were in his pocket from his first stride on stage, and we stayed right with him the entire set, which lasted about an hour and forty-five minutes.

I love the way Mark Kozelek finds his way into a song, like he's underwater, making his way to the surface, groping for light and air through the murky bottom of a river. With his eyes closed (always), he'll start a piece by singing a few opening notes, way back from the mic, like a test. Is my voice there? Have we repeated the intro chords for long enough? Are we feeling this song and this music enough yet to drive it home?

Finally, the answer is "yes." And the music is on.

No pictures, as I lost my camera last week, and also know that Mark hates pictures, even without flash. Having parked myself right at the center of the stage wall, I was able to scribble down the set list by using the monitors as a desk:

1. Michigan - unrecognizable as such until the first vocal and lyric.
2. Trucker's Atlas
3. Tiny Cities
4. Down Colorful Hill
5. Make Like Paper -- he warned us that we'd be blown away by this one, and he was right.
6. Glenn Tipton
7. Cruiser
8. Salvador Sanchez
9. Convenient Parking
10. Duk Koo Kim
11. Jesus Christ Was An Only Child
12. Carry My Ohio

The two encores were mysteries to me and the surrounding listeners I asked, the lyrics of which included something about salt water taffy and the Jersey Shore, and also a window that looked out onto Church Street. Mention was made of Williamsburg (where, Mark noted, one is not allowed to enter over the age of twenty-five. He's just figuring that out, I guess because, as he announced, he doesn't have a myspace site, he doesn't drink, and he doesn't do drugs). Lyrics to the second encore included the lines: "breathe, my love, wake my love . . . we spread her around."

I remember thinking last time that it would be great if Mark could feed a little more off the love he gets from his audience, and not insist on being so pissy. Sure, he can be however he wants and we'll still show up at his performances and buy his CDs and appreciate his irascible qualities. But why not show up for the love, too? I think he left the stage a little happier this time, and I know I and many others left the club equally charged.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Susana Baca, Joe's Pub, 5.19.06

(photos: Ana de Orbegoso)

by Charlotte Deaver

Last Thursday night Peruvian singer Susana Baca performed at Joe's Pub. I went with a large group of people, several of whom are also Peruvian and had been supporting and loving her music for years. Clearly, Susana had many admirers in the audience, as many an "Eso!" indicated. Although some songs are so heartbreaking and deeply moving that it seemed no one breathed at all, other times everyone in the club was on their feet, reveling in the raucous festivities.

When Susana dances, always barefoot, of course, she's so physically riveting you can't take your eyes off of her. And that sensuality translates directly through her voice, which was not as "on," though, in this live performance, as her body and her band were. Her pitch and texture are not as accurate or full as on recordings, but her smoking-hot, power quartet know exactly how to highlight the best of her musicianship, which includes the way she moves on stage.

I didn't know much about Peruvian music, so I kept hearing some flamenco influences. Afterwards I learned that the influence was in fact Peruvian, when that crucial instrument, the cajon, a kind of box drum that the musician both sits and plays upon, was introduced to Spain via Peru.

As wonderful as Susana was, I really fell in love with the band, the cajon-player (Juan "Cotito" Medrano) and guitarist (Rafael Munoz, I believe) in particular. And the arrangements were amazing, which I later learned are to be credited to bassist David Pinto.

The new CD, Travesias, is out on the Luakabop label, and it's magic. Mark Ribot is the guitarist on the CD, but I think I'd rather see the not-so-famous guitarist she tours with that I mentioned above. This band is a real unit, not simply accompanists or soloists, and they are the reason Susana Baca achieves such a dreamy, participatory, shared experience when she performs. Like a true community, there is no music without all the separate parts, integrated into one experience.

Listen to "Guillermina," from Susana Baca's new CD, Travesias: Guillermina (mp3)

Art Brut & We Are Scientists, Knitting Factory, 5.17.06

Are there any new great things to say about Art Brut? They're all over the place these days, and I just saw them last month at Southpaw. Never a band to disappoint, though, they seemed to rock even harder and at the same time more playfully this time. Guitarists Ian Catskilkin and Jasper Future spaz out just beautifully together, and man does Freddy Feedback love her bass. I must have finally truly heard her for the first time the other night because her arrangements and fat sounds kept sounding better and better with every song.

The more I see Art Brut, the more I understand their ethics and rhetoric. They inspire their audience not just to grab onto joy, but to use that joy to create something with it. Eddie ends every show by asking us what we've been up to creatively since we saw him last, sounding like a new breed of punk Charismatic for the ecstasy generation. Have we made anything? Written something? Played any music, he asks? You certainly don't have to take him seriously - this is, after all, rock and roll. But choose to, and you might welcome the wee little nudge.

When, before the show, I talked to Eddie and asked him if he would describe his music as punk (not a very riveting question, I know), of course he said yes. But a friendly kind of punk, he said, or something close to that. I called it "pure punk love" (as I had in my last post on Art Brut) and he seemed to like that fine. I also told him he looked like he'd lost some weight and he seemed to like that even better (see picture's from last November's show at Northsix for proof!). He told us excitedly that the band would be playing a brand new song tonight, but also expressed the slightest hint of first-time jitters regarding the unvieling of new material for the first time.

Eddie's childlike nervousness and his gleeful, over-stimulated mode of overcoming it are part of his charm ("I know I can, I know I can. It doesn'’t mean that I don'’t love you, one more try with me above you," from "Rusted Guns of Milan"). He was actually quite generous with his time, especially considering that he was trying to be a good date to his gorgeous wife, to whom he seems adorably (and understandably!) devoted, and at the same time be the gracious curator. And he definitely was. He was also just as funny as he is on stage, but even sweeter. No airs. Just pure punk love.

Several bands opened and played downstairs in the Tap Room, all part of the Eddie-Argos-curated evening at the Knitting Factory. Art Brut 47, a.k.a. We Are Scientists, were the surprise openers upstairs in the mainspace. I had never seen them before, and they reminded me how full-sounding and elemental a tight trio can sound. I love all the extras in a band, but strip down to guitar, bass and drums, add some smart, melodic songs and good voices, and be sure to supply a guitarist who needs no help cranking out intricate riffs and thick chords, and there's not much more rock and roll will ever need.

Unfortunately, I lost my camera that night, and offer none of my own pictures. Amrit has pics and review at Stereogum, and Brooklyn Vegan has lots of pics and links to more reviews.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Home Sweet Home: Photographs by Beth Fladung, May 4 - June 10, Redux Gallery

by Charlotte Deaver

If you are in or near New York City, don't miss Beth Fladung's photography exhibition at Redux Gallery (116 East 16th Street, just off of Union Square, 12th floor). The show will be up until June 10th.

Beth's been photographing motels and their long-term residents for several years now, having first taken notice of this largely unrecognized and marginalized sector of American society while living in L. A. in 1999. Although I've seen many of the photographs along the way, viewing them together and all in one room creates an effect much larger and more powerful than the individual pictures can do on their own, as a friend of Beth's noted at the show's opening.

What I think becomes evident in the photos is Beth's gift of combining her aesthetic eye with her social conscience, and using her unmistakable love for people and life in general to not just "capture" an image, but to encourage an audience's engagement with the photograghs and the subjects within them. For me, her pictures work to lessen the often distancing subject/object relationship that's inherent in all photographs. In Beth's photos, the viewer is beckoned, not pushed cooley back. Her work invites us into see the humanity in places many would turn their eyes away from, even though (or precisely because) we could all be in similar situations were it not in large part for good luck and fortune. "Come look," her pictures say: "There are amazing people and lives in here. Let's get to know them." Some of the residents are welfare recipients, but most of them are low-wage workers, families, children, grandparents, and students who pay lots of money to live week-to-week in these run-down motels. Many who can't scrape together the savings for first and last month's rent, therefore, find themselves in motels, struggling "to make a home and to create comfort and stability for themselves and their families in spaces that signify transience" (press release).

In participation with Redux Gallery this exhibition was presented by FADER magazine, the May Photography issue of which contains a several page spread on Beth's work. You can also see more pictures at her website, Below are some pictures of Beth and friends at the gallery opening on May 4th.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Pinback to back: 5.9.06, Northsix and 5.10.06, Irving Plaza

by Charlotte Deaver

After two nights of Pinback, and all the great shows I've seen in the past month, I might not be able to handle much more excitement. Pinback has been one of my favorite bands for a couple of years -- I happened to download some songs from iTunes one day in search of some new music (didn't know about music blogs back then!) and within days I bought all their CDs.

As a hard-core guitar girl, I love the sounds they get from their instruments, the way they attack the strings, how they seem to base melody upon what the guitars can do, rhythmically and sonically, and still make it drive hard and sweet. This is a band that intuits what the body wants from its rock and roll, and what it wants, I discovered on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, is a bass that's played like a Les Paul. Seeing them live, I finally understood what they actually do with their guitars: Rob Crow, who usually plays a Les Paul, also sometimes foregoes his six-string to accompany Zach (Armistead Burwell) Smith IV on bass. Rather than thump along with bottom notes, though, Zach in particular plays intricate chords, rythyms, and melodies on his bass, often doubling up what Rob is doing, but octaves below. You can hear the effect of this technique on songs like "Prog," which killed live, and "Soaked," whose lovely funkiness was just stunning: "surprised by joy," I was, just like the poet said.

At Northsix I noticed that they played all my favorite songs, like "Fortress," "AFK," "Non-Photo Blue," and "Prog" much faster than on their recordings. After the initial adjustment to the quicker tempos, I realized this is obviously quite intentional. They want a song to be fast and madcap, like it's running away from itself. The precision of their string-picking and plucking is, at least to me, almost scary. I have a hard enough time staying on the beat with a simple arpeggio - while they never once skipped or lulled. Not one mistake. Now, mistakes are fine -- you know, like that old Lovin Spoonful song "You didn't have to be so nice [or f&@k*ng perfect, Zach and Rob], I woulda liked you anyway" -- but they just don't make them!

The Irving Plaza show was better, I think. The sound was both cleaner and thicker, and although Pinback is not a very demonstrative band (but intense, gentle), you could tell they were feeding off the larger, rowdier crowd (a little frat, unfortunately - one reason to stick with Northsix!). The people way up front were very nice, though, and I met a great girl with a camera and some excellent tatoos (she's blogging on this too, so go check out her blog and her myspace site.

Rob rarely spoke to the audience, although at Northsix he took a bathroom break, running through the crowd to the back of the club and then running back quickly to get on the with the music. "At least I didn't do what GG Allin did," he said with a shit-eatin' grin (pun intended). Other than a moment here or there, the band's energy was entirely focused on the music -- no thank you's, no introductions, no crowd-teasers. I was up front for both shows, and yelled some compliment to them after a particularly rocking song at Irving Plaza. Those of us close enough to the stage could hear Zach squeak out a little smile and a "thank you," and we laughed, happy for those little shared moments of band/audience love. And of course, that was the only time he talked the whole night. But he wasn't, after all, on stage, with his band, his bass, and a swarm of fans, there to have a conversation. At least, not a verbal one.

Check out more excellent photos at Brooklyn Vegan.

At Northsix:

At Irving Plaza: