Monday, May 28, 2007

Formerly Harmony Burlesque

Picture if you will a vision of the future from 40 years ago, a Jetsons-styled robot in the process of exploding, with springs and sprockets flying out. Now imagine the robot is the Feelies fronted by Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna trying to imitate Joan LaBarbera and you’ve pretty much got the idea of Baltimore's Ponytail. (Or you could elaborate and liken them to Don Caballero imitating the Feelies [still exploding], a comparison I thought of while watching them, then dismissed, then found out they are going on tour with Battles, who are, I don't need to tell you, ex-Don Cab). About three of their songs fulfilled the promise implicit in all the above - I'd see them again!

The headliners were Japan's DMBQ. Based on the couple of records I'd heard, I thought they might deliver the straight-up early 70s stoner rock in a more uncut fashion - as it happens, their divagations into more noodle-y space jams were not unwelcome and they pulled it all together with a 5-minute closing wall of sound feedback blare from the guitars and bass while disassembling the drum kit and thrusting pieces of it into the crowd, finishing with most of its parts heaped up in almost vulnerable looking little monument.

The other main feature of the evening was the Pakistani Tea House on Church Street, courtesy of Tahir - you can read what these Yelpers have to say about it, but ignore the ones who are grumpy about the decor - it doesn't aim to be anything more than a fluorescently-lit steam table joint with exceptionally tasty food.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Far From the Madding Crowd

Headed to DUMBO for a show at an improbable venue, the Water Street Restaurant and Lounge, which is the sort of place for which the term "fern bar" was invented - unambitious cuisine served in a genteel decor whose pretensions to fine dining are somewhat at odds with the large television over the bar showing sports. The music was in their downstairs space which is large and generally a fine place to hang out - lots of oddly placed columns, though, which must serve some structural requirement as they don't serve any other and generally make the stage end a bit cut off.

In any event, some ambitious young promoters chose the spot to assemble an evening around Jarboe (now styling herself The Living Jarboe). Anyone who followed the evolution of the New York underground rock band the Swans through the 80s and 90s has a pretty good notion of who she is and what to expect at a show. Her voice is quite low-pitched and she has a strongly emotive-expressive style. On the continuum of singers comparable in one way or another, she falls somewhere between Nico and Diamanda Galas - more technically proficient than the former, not trying to be so dazzling as the latter. Her set was quite perfectly balanced - not much more than seven or so long-ish songs, totalling around 40 minutes, accompanied by adept but not flashy acoustic guitarists (with effects pedals) and Michael Evans (once of God Is My Co-Pilot) on a pared-down drum kit. Although her credit on the first Swans record on which she appeared was "scream", she is quite a conventionally beautiful singer when she wants to be.

Her aesthetic ambience (and that of her audience) is quite noticeably "goth" - while her music is not stylistically so different from what you get at the average "freak folk" show, the far greater incidence of tattoos and black fingernail polish in the crowd and onstage stakes a certain claim (although the distribution of seasonally unsuitable headgear between indie rock and goth shows is comparable).

The promoters also livened up the between-band segments with the short films of Czech neo-surrealist Jan Švankmajer, who I also didn't realize was quite so gothic - more literally so than the black nail crowd as his work includes filmic realizations of several Edgar Allan Poe short stories and Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, the ur-text of the 18th and 19th century Gothic literary school. I'd recommend a newcomer to Švankmajer start with "Dimensions of Dialog" currently available on Youtube in two parts, although it seems like something that might not last long - while you're at it this excerpt from the film with music by astonishing French bassist Joëlle Léandre also merits a gander.

The show was well worth the trip and, stepping out just after midnight into the third consecutive perfect evening of early summer weather (a balmy 75°F), I ascended to the Brooklyn Bridge promenade, thanked God I wasn't at the beach or anything, and took in the immensity of the city night.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Yksi, Kaksi, Kolme

I stopped by Artists and Fleas on North 6th Street in Williamsburg and had a poke through someone's dollar bin which yielded a post-Mutantes solo Rita Lee (circa 1980) about which there isn't much to report - if the term BraPop doesn't exist, I hereby coin it. If the most interesting thing that can be said about a record is that it was allegedly popular with the British royal family...

A better score was Shalamar's second from 1979 called Three For Love - their records are always worth picking up because they usually contain a couple of keeper songs that wouldn't necessarily make it onto a greatest hits collection. The band itself (best known subsequently, if at all, for launching Jody watley's solo career) typifies what I consider the golden era of disco music which actually started circa 1979 when the Comiskey Park Disco Demolition Night was supposedly signaling its end. After all the Studio 54 mania, Time magazine stories, your aunt taking disco dancing lessons etc, the serious dancers and clubgoers (Blacks and Latinos, gay whites) whose music it had been to begin with, resumed dancing and never really stopped.

The early 80s brought the Paradise Garage and West End records, S.O.L.A.R. records in Los Angeles (Shalamar's label), and the first few Madonna singles (not to forget Taana Gardner, Fonda Rae, some of Sylvester's best work, Teena Marie, The Weather Girls etc) and was also the last time dance music recordings were made by live musicians (improvements in electronic instrument technology and the changing aesthetics which spawned house and techno left, by the mid-80s, Washington D.C.'s go-go music as the last genre exempt from the drum machine).

Anyway, Shalamar are pretty easy to return to periodically and I do, though Jody Watley's solo work never caught my attention to the same extent and while her exercise video was not her finest aesthetic hour, she's become sufficiently financially independent that she no longer deals with record companies and puts out her records herself, which I can only applaud. Slowly this is bringing me around to her 2006 release The Makeover which only has one really remarkable song but I've returned to it quite a few times as well, called "Bed of Roses", a collaboration with jazz-inflected electronica group 4 Hero that shows her and them to great advantage - which is really all I meant to say.

Internal Combustion

Listened twice today to Internal Combustion by percussionist Glen Velez - an excellent record! The CD is a 2003 reissue on the Schematic label of what was presumably a vinyl release in 1985. The record is almost entirely solo percussion pieces for various frame drums - North African and Central Asian variants of the humble tambourine, the Irish bodhran and so on.

The pieces are generally repetitive with a regular pulse and no extreme dynamic shifts - a gentle avantgarde-ism that should appeal to anyone who likes Steve Reich's early percussion work (on which Velez has played). The exquisitely precise timbres of the instruments and the fact that the recording captures all their nuance is where much of the beauty lies. Often in Western music, popular and in the concert hall, "exotic" percussion instruments are employed for a bit of passing color and are tucked off to the side of the stage or recorded listening field. In this case, they are in the foreground and miked with such detail that your head could be inside the drum (in a good way!). Every snare rattle and ping of finger on taut goatskin drumhead is delicately rendered.

I also very much like the fact that such quintessentially acoustic music keeps reminding me of experimental electronic "dance" music, particularly Thomas Brinkmann, a similarity that probably hasn't escaped the folks at the Schematic label, whose usual stock in trade is just such music.