Clown College

Body language tells us Mark Stewart is a guy who wants to rock out, reeling and scrunching his face with each riff; the guitarist sometimes looks bored playing serious composition in Bang on a Can's house band. Polygraph Lounge, which played the last three Tuesdays at CBGB's Gallery, lets Stewart indulge just about every adolescent whim shy of snorting glue. Hence "American Cheese Woman" ("Velveeta, stay away from me") and "The Nutcracker Suite" rendered with duck calls.

Stewart and Rob Schwimmer, a session keyboardist and film composer—Garth to his Wayne—are the manic clowns everyone hated to love in high school. Where jokester duo They Might Be Giants cloaks serious songwriting (yes, check out Factory Showroom) in whimsical arrangements, Polygraph tarts up folly with a schmear of music. Fearsome prowess helps. Stewart's use of guitar effects is unparalleled, which is no put-down: He nails artists, periods, subgenres with processing alone. (Distinguishing Pete Townshend's E chord from Jimmy Page's is a matter of import here.) These two can hook anything in the deep ocean of pop effortlessly, which frees up their attention to wring melody from a theremin, daxophone, PVC bassoons, and cardboard alpenhorns (e.g.). The stage looked like the Cat in the Hat ransacked a gamelan.

Rock 'n' Roll High School: polygraph lounge’s schwimmer with regular guest melissa fathman
photo: Cary Conover
Rock 'n' Roll High School: polygraph lounge’s schwimmer with regular guest melissa fathman

Instrumental-hijinks-meets-low-satire suggests Spike Jones (or maybe John Zorn's Naked City), but Polygraph isn't even aiming that high. Sixth-graders would find the audience-participation jellyfish number juvenile, and frankly it was spooky how much their parents got into it. Mid-grade Weird Al was about par, as in their "Livin' la Vida Polka." But when inspiration strikes, Stewart and Schwimmer can mock'n'play with the best of them. Laurie Anderson's literary abstractions on Moby-Dick could learn from Polygraph's CliffsNotes medley, including "Whiter Shade of Whale," "I've Just Seen a Whale" pace Lennon-McCartney, and Ahab à la McCartney solo: "Moby I'm amazed at the way you elude me all the time." If this sounds embarrassing, all the more reason to spend time with Polygraph Lounge. One man's regression is another's liberation. —David Krasnow

Hit Me With Your Best Shot

After watching the Yeah Yeah Yeahs work for 30 minutes last Wednesday at the Mercury Lounge, a jealous young Williamsburger groused that singer Karen O "had learned a lot from Pat Benatar," which is only true if you think O's white leather boots and black leather belt mean more than the band's songs. They don't, even if the songs owe Eight-Eyed Spy and the Cramps a buck each. Guitarists Nick Zimmer and Brian Chase keep it simple, switching sounds moments before you need them to and making sweet ruckus when the art gets too thick. O leads with her smile and never shakes it. She's smiling as she tugs her tank top back into place, shoulders a mic stand like a beast of burden, or high-kicks into the chorus. The smile is an involuntary guarantee that whatever mileage the outfits and references get them, it's gravy on top of how good it feels to make a small band sound huge and shout about life. In their debut EP's hit, "Bang," the lyric "As a fuck, son, you sucked" comes off like a complaint, but live, with the smile and the stutter-step, it's just another bad memory erased by rock music. The Ronnie Spector-Sonic Boom duet (not really) "Our Time" was the penultimate tune, but the emotional closer: "Well, it's the year to be hated, it's our time, our time, to be hated." Now it reads like a 9-11 anthem, but I didn't think that watching the band. I thought, "Right—you know how good you are, and you know you're gonna get big and feel the backlash." On cue, the guy made the Benatar crack. But you'll be milking that night for all it's worth soon enough, son. —Sasha Frere-Jones

Baby Steps

Zero 7 didn't quite work up a sweat behind their dub rhythms and dulcet jazz licks last week at Irving Plaza, but they did seem a little wet behind the ears. U.K. producers Sam Hardaker and Henry Binns staged tryouts to find musicians and singers to work with for their trip-hoppy debut album, Simple Things, released earlier this year. When the album was nominated for Britain's quality-over-commerce Mercury Prize in July, they had only played a handful of gigs; by the time Zero 7 showed up for their stateside debut on December 11, they had only been performing together regularly for three months.

Hardaker and Binns did an admirable job of meeting the challenge for electronic music stage shows: making geeky guys with keyboards seem interesting. Swathed in the muted blues and purples of the stage lighting, the pair surrounded themselves with a cadre of musicians and a trio of talented singers, at times imbuing a warmer, jazz-cabaret feel to the cavernous club. As they do on the album, vocalists Mozez, Sia Furler, and Sophie Barker impressed with their soul-singing abilities and danced enthusiastically during the occasional extended, space-age funk jam.

These moments of spontaneity and musical adventure were too few, however. Hardaker and Binns seemed content to play it safe, leading their troupe through mostly note-for-note renditions of Simple Things' 12 songs; the night was often less invigorating than simply inoffensive. The highlight, then, came at the close, when the enthusiastic crowd, chock-full of expat Brits, demanded a third encore. Zero 7 obliged, but their inspired performance of Sly and the Family Stone's "Hot Fun in the Summertime" was odd for a December evening (even a warm one) in New York. Hardaker finally revealed some personality, even as he revealed the band's neophyte nature with a wry explanation: "It's all we've left to play." —Bill Werde

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