Christmas fell early at Irving Plaza, with the fa-la-las and ba-da-bas (and do-we-dos) echoing 'round the hall. Cuddly Jim O'Rourke would make a fair Santa if he spoke up a bit: He's got a seemingly magical ability to be everywhere at once, dispensing gifts to alt-rocker boys and girls all around the world. His new Halfway to a Threeway EP (Drag City) is emblazoned with toys, a stuffed frog, and a white-snooted bear called Chompers. Worshiping Luc Ferrari and jamming with Sonic Youth, O'Rourke has a surprising way with a ditty. Rolling guitar licks borrowed off Sam Prekop kept the music soft and fuzzy until, in the finale, Black Sabbath and White Light/White Heat reared their heads. But don't put your kid on O'Rourke's lap. There's more than a little of Brian Wilson in his reticent genius. The EP's title track, which tells of loving and pulling the plug on an accident victim, is just too tenderly sung for comfort.
And what do you want from Saint Jim this year? Why, it must be Stereolab's Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night, a bright bauble of retro-futuro pop he produced with John McEntire. The elves worked overtime on it, replacing the gimcrackery of Dots and Loops with tricky polyrhythms. Cobra, like Dots, aspires to the sound of machine production (the sleeve is printed in Raygun's idea of UNIVAC typeface), and seeing humans pull it off was a neat study: Okay, that disco thing is Tim Gane's fast strumming, that's a cheesy old Moog bit Laetitia Sadier tamps out, it interfaces just so with Morgane Lhote's glossier keyboards. And those are just maracas?! It's nice to see a band work up sweat, even (or especially) wooden soldiers like Stereolab. À la Nutcracker, they began the set stiff with concentration,relaxing when they broke into Transient-era guitar workoutseven Sadier donned stringsreminiscent of no one so much as the Modern Lovers. Now there was a band you could trust your kids with. David Krasnow
Amateur Hour and a Half
Cobble Hill's burgeoning Smith Street restaurant row doesn't start hopping until dinnertime on Saturdays, but by noon there's already a line outside Halcyon. At night this stylish new record/coffee/toy/furniture shop showcases name DJs, but on Saturday afternoons there's an open sign-up for the turntables, first come, first served. You can get the same deal at the Riverton Lounge on Orchard Street every Monday night, but while Riverton's sets are a skimpy half-hour, Halcyon will spot you a luxurious 90 minutes.
A recent morning found Dwayne Cole, a waiter who works afternoons at nearby Al di La, successfully negotiating with the rest of the queue for the first slot. As he settled into a jazzy Felix Hernandez-type vibe, his kids took advantage of the store's "vintage" couches and board games and its well-stocked snack bar. There are no limitations, although most mixmasters favor some form of dance music. "We've only had one disaster," says Ben Wild, who started the store with some friends after a weekly listening party outgrew their apartment. The offending turntablist was "all over the map," says Wild. "New wave, soul, disco . . . "not unlike your correspondent's room-clearing dusk set last week.
Spinners from all five boroughs show up to try their hand: collectors, aspiring club jocks, locals looking to break into the biz. Nelson "DJ Nelske" Muñoz, a steel salesman, is getting into promotion; George Sulmers runs the underground hip hop label Raw Shack. Lamont "Big L" Ward, who works in the front office of the LIRR, was invited back for a nighttime gig after a few afternoon visits.
For many, though, it's just a chance to do their thing in a friendlybut publicatmosphere. "It's laid-back," says Eric Schmidt, a consultant from Woodside. "No one sweats you if you drop something." Josh Goldfein
The All-Embracing Showman
"Jesus isn't here to judge you. . . . Why are you so scared?" Hmm, could it be because a guy who looks like the diminutive offspring of an '80s aerobics instructor and a pro wrestler is hugging you? Resplendent in blue eye shadow and lavender spandex, Bobby Conn stepped off the Knitting Factory stage during his first number last Friday and began embracing innocent concertgoers, exuding both deranged intensity and the unmistakably acrid smell of two weeks on the road.
Though Conn's recently been compared to Beck, the self-described "Judeo-Christian entertainer" never winks at the audience to share in the jokein fact, nobody, including Conn himself perhaps, can be quite sure whether there's a joke at all. Leaving behind the foolproof melodies, Jackson 5-style funk, and mighty power chords of his 1998 release Rise Up!, Conn now plays a rather listener-unfriendly, amorphous metal disco. Backed by a violinist (Monica BouBou, black bell-bottomed jumpsuit, red fright wig) and a DJ (LeDeuce, purple and lavender unitard, Von Trapp-like blond hair), Conn swerved from psychotic pseudoreligious sermons to dreamy violin interludes to classic-rock guitar riffs. One of the catchiest moments, "Virginia," was a call-and-response in garbled French.
As an encore, Conn executed a cover of Badfinger's "Without You." Flashing a light into his face to ghoulish effect, he screamed like a banshee, giving the song its full dimension as a celebration of abject need. Though "Without You" been a hit for both Harry Nilsson and Mariah Carey, it's unlikely Conn's version (which appears on his new EP, Llovessonngs) could climb the charts. This reviewer, who had barely recovered from seeing Liza Minnelli the previous day, could not help but notice the similarities between the two: Both derive sustenance from their public and both were ready to do anything for entertainment. It's reassuring to see that crazed, obsessive showmanship is still alive and well. Elisabeth Vincentelli
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