Titter to a Screech

"View of Chinaman using flatiron" hardly sounds like the pinnacle of yuks, but according to the meticulous, gag-by-gag "Lafometer" that silent-comedy star Harold Lloyd produced after a showing of his 1928 film Speedy, that shot drew the picture's heartiest response. As popular as Chaplin or Keaton in his day, Lloyd also pioneered the art of test-screening films, reshooting or cutting as required; for Speedy, shot on location in New York, a somewhat subjective scale runs up one side of the Lafometer (Titter, Chuckle, Laugh, Outburst, Scream, Screech), with hundreds of "Humorous High Spots" (e.g., "Harold rubs Bert's neck") listed along the bottom. The jolly Asian's heated derriere-branding is the finale to a battle royale between hired hoods and sporting-goods-wielding codgers (a Gangs of New York parody before the fact)—and the only joke to penetrate the second-loudest category.

Seventy-five years later, the gag still kills, to go by this correspondent's Lafometric approximation at a Town Hall revival on March 23—but so do plenty of others. With the three-piece Alloy Orchestra providing supple accompaniment, the charms of Speedy (Lloyd's last silent film) were translated effortlessly across the decades, packed with glimpses of pre-Depression New York (especially in the generous Coney Island sequence) and physical comedy of Rube Goldberg intricacy. Aptly titled, Speedy is as fast-paced as it is genial, a dozen-laughs-a-minute valentine to the city's incomparable energy.

Fall-down funny: Alloy scores Speedy.
photo: Courtesy The Harold Lloyd Trust
Fall-down funny: Alloy scores Speedy.

The Alloy Orchestra's original score featured the sort of junkyard percussion (manned by Ken Winokur and Terry Donahue) that would do Tom Waits proud, including a bedpan conscripted as a gong. Synth master Roger C. Miller turned on a dime, stride-inflected runs switching to frantic to crackerjack organ when Lloyd enters Yankee Stadium. (Babe Ruth has a cameo.) The Alloy's augmentation notwithstanding, the best sound of the city that Sunday was the delighted shrieks of children, piercing the room and floating off the charts. —Ed Park

Brain Dance

Whether it was just wishful thinking or a sarcastic in-joke, the title of the Warp records showcase at Webster Hall last Wednesday—the Ultradance Tour—was worth a good giggle. After all, fans of the experimental U.K. electronic-music label are better known for chin scratching than rump shaking. And sure enough, at 10 p.m. a third of the dancefloor was occupied by cross-legged ravers, apparently musing to the twisted breakbeats of Ned Brackett, a skinny young man with a laptop.

The crowd rose, however, when beatmaker Prefuse 73 (a/k/a Scott Herren) took the stage, his face nearly obscured by Liebeskind-like glasses and a voluminous cap. Recently transplanted from one Dirty South (Atlanta) to another (Barcelona), Prefuse 73 works at the nexus of bump, blip, and glitch. His neck-snapping hiccup-hop didn't exactly invoke full-on bump 'n' grind, but rather a vigorous head-nod 'n' shuffle.

In the past, Prefuse 73 has proved his indie-rap cred by touring with Mr. Lif, but this was a solo outing, so the only visual excitement was Mr. Herren pounding the pads of his MPC-like tiny bongos. The music had enough micro-composed details, however, to make up for his lack of onstage presence. Previewing cuts from his upcoming One Word Extinguisher, Prefuse 73 deftly tossed together Native Tongues' jazziness, beatbox boogie, and stuttering needle drops into woozy cuts that sounded like hip-hop eating itself.

More single-minded was the hour-long DJ set from Brit Andrew Weatherall, whose stark dance music added up the dark edges of electro, techno, and acid into an elegant proof. After Weatherall's hypnotic minimalism, the more-is-more approach of the U.K. duo Plaid was a mood-killer: Their jittery, crystalline beats and eerie, circus melodies quickly emptied the room. Still, a few hardcore dancers remained, trying to trace the rollercoaster beats with their fingertips. —Michael Endelman

The Back 40

Somewhere between burlesque and Beethoven, there's Dave Douglas. The trumpeter celebrated his 40th birthday at the Jazz Standard last week in an autobiographical showcase featuring 10 of his previous bands. Douglas kicked things off with an acerbic tone, turning a Latin thing into a lazy thing and back again, without diluting the ginger guitar or tin-heavy drums. On night two, he orchestrated a few 30-second tunes with viola and cello that managed to sound both chilling and cute. Your faithful reviewer slept on night three, but the fourth found pianist Uri Caine bringing syncopation—a pounding left hand and tumultuous right—and Monk-like color to uncluttered chords, producing a gray, dirty sound that swung sharply as Greg Tardy tweezed sweetness from a cornet. Caine was joined on night five by tenorist Seamus Blake who pleaded vigilantly as the pianist funked a Fender against Douglas's shrill triads and cascading whines.

Even when Douglas's attempts to micro-divide notes in his quick runs seemed labored, the friction was haunting. During several choruses, he dissembled his trumpet and produced a shallow wheeze. Whether these antics got in the way of this music or were the music, listeners lapped it up. "Every night, a different crew—all equally insane," Douglas said before tenderizing Mary J. Blige's "Crazy Games." Insane, but not inane, gimmicky, indolent, or any of the other pagan paradigms some had predicted. And though Freak In, Douglas's acrid and loopy new laptop-driven jazztronica album, did not propel when he performed it live the final night, it still reeked of salty innovation. —Daniel King

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