Counterprogrammed against last Tuesday's axis-of-evil ratings stunt, a double bill at Irving Plaza provided contradictory glimpses into the state of the Britpop empire. Barely out of their teens (and named for a 32-year-old Tim Buckley album), Starsailor are the new NME-sanctioned heroes of trad/Dad rock. Suffice to say, if Travis and Coldplay had a baby (illegal in most states), it would make a mewling, windy noise akin to the arena-ready balladry on Starsailor's debut, Love Is Here. In the flesh, pretty boy James Walsh's banshee tremolo took on a puppyish quality, but as on record, the hooks were buried under a wonderwall of undifferentiated tumescence.
More than a decade ago, the Charlatans hit upon a disposably middle-of-the-road version of the Madchester sound: light house beats and Stonesy vamps, powered by the psychedelic swirls of a Hammond organ. Even the title of their first chart success, "The Only One I Know," seemed to foretell one-hit-wonderdom. But six albums into a journeyman career that has survived more than the whims of fashion (keyboardist Rob Collins died in a car crash in '96; their accountant later stole half a million dollars from them), the Charlies last year released Wonderland, a libidinous, sunbaked party monster of a record. Frontman Tim Burgess's relocation to L.A. and newfound interest in '70s soul are the official reasons for the new euphoria, but highs less natural than UV rays and Curtis Mayfield might be involved: The closing track, an undulating Sly Stone homage, was originally titled "Ianocce"an anagram. It's now called "The Ballad of the Band." At Irving, Burgess's new Mayfield-modeled falsetto was accompanied by matching superfly moves. The band was most energetic assuming the Screamadelica-era Ecstasy swagger of "Judas" (about said accountant), or emulating fellow Mayfield fans Lambchop, down to pedal-steel flourishes, on "A Man Needs to Be Told." If Starsailor stick around, they should be hitting their stride round about 2014. Dennis Lim
Don't Look Back in Anger
Maybe the only band ever to write a happy ode to New Hampshire, Brooklyn's Lil' Fighters (at Galapagos on January 28), offered the crowd a joke: Their signs read "Dischord Records presents The Lil' Fighters, from Washington, D.C." In fact, only guitarist Walter Martin (of former next-big-thing Jonathan Fire*Eater) hails from D.C., and the Fighters are indubitably the Dischord antithesis. Replete with la-la-la's and whistling, their pared-down melodies, in a Jonathan Richman-meets-Donovan vein, are angry about just about nothing. Focused on cats ("Little Mai"), the reliability of friends ("Take a Message to Fiveash," concerning bassist Matt Fiveash, who gets to chant his own last name), and attractive people ("Boys and Girls"), they forsake cuteness for innocent exuberance. The members took turns at the mic, collective-style, and refreshingly uninhibited Milan McAleveythe nominal frontmansang with gusto about such pursuits as "making love on the carpet."
Following the Fighters, the six-piece Lonely Samoans turned out political country-folk tunes. "Flower shirts instead of leather jackets," explains Samoa, a native of Japan and past guitarist of the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, who opened his set urging protest of the WEF. "I Told You So" was prefaced with Enron lamentation, and in numbers like "Mr. Corporation," Samoa observed, "I look around, and I feel so comfortable!/I can hardly wait for lunch/I go to a fancy cafeteria." Sporting an enormous hat with a trembling two-foot-long feather, Samoa dates the birth of this country venture to summer 2001, when he was listening to bluegrass and Gram Parsons, and suffered "numerous failed Internet dates." But, as he writes on his Web site, Rainbowpig.com, "When we cry together, things aren't so bad." Hillary Chute
Herb is a screamer; that's about as much as we know. The long-suffering accompanist of seventysomething lounge ax Kiki du Rain, he's spent decades working the ivories, waiting for her to wrap up her stem-winding monologues, suffering through her nightly references to him as a "gay Jew retard foundling." Beaker to her Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, he mostly looks as if he's about to be squashed, although during her all-out Gracie moments, astute Herb-watchers may catch him in a George Burns smile. It's not until he gets a vocal part that he erupts, as in my all-time favorite Kiki & Herb number, Britney's ". . . Baby One More Time." "GIVE ME A SIGN!" Herb shrieks, pounding the keys like they were responsible for leaving him in that orphanage in Pennsylvania all those years ago with only the deranged Ms. du Rain to protect him.
This month Justin "Kiki" Bond is reviving last year's Herb-free act at Joe's Pub, so it's only fair that Kenny "Herb" Mellman got a solo shot too, stomping their old ground at Fez with a series of Sunday night gigs. Like Bond, Mellman didn't stray so far from the team's surefire formula: a few self-deprecating jokes, a timely indie favorite ("I'm not not not not not not not not . . . "), Rumours, some new wave classics (the Cure, Siouxsie), Merritt, even a Low number from the K&H Christmas set. For a showstopper he beat his partner at her own game, taking on both the Mary J. and Meth parts of "You're All I Need/Ain't No Mountain High Enough" in a medley of medleys that led to a Prince mishmash concluding, audience delirious, with his fetching backup singers (the Mellmen?) answering the immortal question "Shall we begin?" with the eternal rejoinder "Yes, Lisa." It turns out the kid sings pretty well, too, although he still screams a lot. Relax, Kenny: You a star now. We caught the vapors. Josh Goldfein
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