Bill Callahan's voice is changing. It's not just that he's stopped singing through a coffee can, or whatever he used in the prepubescent lo-fi days of his musical project, Smog. It's as if all those dives into his own bathysphere of miserablism have plumbed depths that resound in rounder, mellower baritones with each recording. On the latest, Knock Knock (Drag City), Callahan's deep tannic twang now recalls, bizarrely enough, Kenny Rogers though we may wait forever for that gentleman purveyor of chicken dinners and Internet casinos to go public with a sentiment as Smoggy as "I was a teenage spaceship."
We also may wait forever for Callahan to toss promotional glow-in-the-dark Frisbees between songs as part of his live act something Kenny used to do. A pity, since Smog shows could use a little showbiz oomph, and the grade-schoolers who sing so sprightly on two of the new album's tracks apparently couldn't make it on tour. On Knock Knock, Callahan's fractured fairy tales finally breathe, his booming drawl set free by robust, if uncredited, production and playing by several tenured fellows of the Drag City College of American Studies. But at the earlier of two SRO shows at Tonic last Sunday night, a solo Callahan slunk back into the high-school bedroom of yore. Fumbling with a muddy, just-out-of-tune guitar, he sang soulfully but with a ticlike recurring grimace as his sole facial expression. Nothing about his deadpan performance indicated that he knew he was onstage, which made everyone else so much more aware of the fact: hypnotized, the audience followed him as they would a daydreamer about to walk into the path of a car.
The meandering set mixed new material with closet classics like "All Your Woman Things" (a Swiftian account of being left stranded in a sea of brassieres that is probably best delivered without affect). Knock Knock's "Held" lacked its rousing "We Are the Champions" stomp-and-clap track live, yet it built up a VU-worthy drone. When Callahan sang, "I am moving away, moving away," he backed away from the mike to demonstrate; some people tittered appreciatively at the pun. Me, I was relieved to see that his legs still worked.
It's odd that Callahan's live self is so fixed, since his recorded one is so mutable. But they're not so different. Both frame the suicidal self-obsessive's question what would the world be like if I wasn't here? as the philosophical joke that it is. And sometimes the joke is even funny. Sally Jacob
Losing My Religion
"Anyone out there want a religious experience?" shouted mega pop idol Enrique Iglesias as he sped up and down the Madison Square Garden runway. Iglesias was climaxing his two-hour Lat-teen-a lustfest by completing his transformation into the God of Romance with yet another midtempo shlock-bomb, "Experiencia Religiosa." Moments earlier, we had witnessed the Michael Jackson dangling-from-a-flying-harness ritual, where Iglesias supplicated a lover to "Stop playing with my heart" as Garden security pulled a posse of beguiled Dominicanas, Mexicanas, and Colombianas from his heels.
Iglesias is the ultimate Latin pop fabrication, a finely crafted nugget of chart-topping radio amor ear candy, cashing in on his father Julio's name recognition and trademark trill while cultivating an immaculate Matt Le Blancen- Español look. Still he insists he's a Cinderella story in his introduction to "Si Tu Te Vas," bemoaning the fact that his first smash single was rejected by several record companies. His defenders point out that unlike Mexican smarm king Luis Miguel, Iglesias has written about half of his recorded oeuvre, and his voice does manage to carry the biggest room in New York.
The relentless three-chord lite-rock format Iglesias employs allows him to strike quite an array of dramatic poses, some, with his bandmates, unsurprisingly homoerotic. More than one of his romantic ballads have the taxing quality of a Cat Stevens dirge, and not even the occasional soca break or rambling cover of "La Bamba" can lend him an air of authenticity. But the numbing revelation that unlike his father, he is not a star but an amazing simulation never seems to matter to his frothing faithful, a stunning manifestation of the ascendant Hispanic entertainment dollar. "Turn around, baby, and let me see that ass!" shouts a suburban Latina as she topples over a railing into the seat next to me. Launching into "Desnudo," the emperor is about to shed his clothes. "I'm naked, confessing that I lied," he intones wistfully, "I'm guilty of having loved/Do what you will with me." Ed Morales
Operating on a grand scale begets a certain glory in jazz, and those who arrange for large ensembles are often pegged as the music's big thinkers. But what about leaders who sagely calibrate smaller groups? The quartet Sherman Irby led at the Vanguard last week had a clever equilibrium, and on Thursday night the young alto player used each of his associates with a marked judiciousness. Sculpting the shifts a brief banishment of pianist John Hicks, or a promenade solely in the company of drummer Willie Jones III Irby portrayed himself as an ad lib architect. His impromptu moves were elaborate, even if his orchestra consisted only of four people.
Irby plays his horn in a similar way. One of the few young leaders to make that long walk from Smalls to the Vanguard, he remains somewhat shrouded audience-wise. But his singularity is beginning to be noticed. Big Mama's Biscuits (Blue Note) made it to several best-of lists last year, and commentary stressed the cunning simplicity of Irby's lines. Like Arthur Blythe before him, the Tuscaloosa homeboy is tickled by Ali's butterfly/bee dichotomy; with the kind of deliberate grace that's usually part of an older player's lingo, he proves himself different from his peers by often opting for the mariposas. Last week's otherwise urgent "Call To Order" contained a floating passage where his alto lithely drifted in tempo. It was startling, radical, and gorgeous.
The current party line says James Carter's bluster brings avant-garde elements to the mainstream. Trading sensationalism for stealth, Irby does too. Thursday's most tantalizing moments came on a "Take the 'A' Train" duet with bassist Gerald Cannon. Reminiscent of Air's spin on "Buddy Bolden's Blues," it demonstrated that abstract thinking is key to Irby's sound. Insinuation is a powerful tool, and the saxophonist's authority stems from the way he sweetens his drama with a gripping nonchalance. Moving slow might just put him in the fast lane. Jim Macnie
All Bridge, No Chorus
Crank up John Hudak's Brooklyn Bridge (Shirocoal), and the warbling hiss and buzz you'll hear won't be what your ears pick up as you stand on the bridge, but the vibrations you feel in your bones as you touch it: the wind playing the cables like a colossal lyre, the constant procession of cars and their grinding hum, the hollow resonance of the anchorage, the entire structure pulsating and readjusting itself, a wave that grows more wrinkled the more closely it's observed. The disc's four long pieces are the sound of the bridge itself, processed into blurry, hovering rumbles and overtone-rich whistles. They aren't exactly drones they have a lot of variation, moment-to-moment but they're essentially static, like time-lapse photography.
Hudak's been living near the bridge for seven years, and recorded its support wires, piping, and boardwalk with contact microphones last January. "They pick up much more of the vibrational quality," he says. "It gives you more of an intense sound, like using a stethoscope to listen to somebody talking." The pieces that ended up on the disc are constructed from short samples, stretched and magnified to play up the particular timbres and textures he likes. You have to step back from their meditative duration (the shortest is an 11-minute recording of a low, metallic tone, like a dying gong) to notice their patterns: a periodic bass hum from a deep creak in the beams, moments of emphasis that must be from passing cars. Hudak's also released recordings of weather, insects, trees, and a pond, all of which bear his stamp as much as their sources'. Brooklyn Bridge is essentially a nature recording, too you don't hear the noises of people and their machines directly, but the presence of a permanent and complicated fixture. Douglas Wolk
The Bold Soprano
From Teresa Stratas to Kiri Te Kanawa to Bryn Terfel, the road to Broadway is littered with classically trained singers who deluded themselves into thinking that if they could do Verdi, they could do Cole Porter as well. If only it were that simple. . . . But Dawn Upshaw is a rare exception, negotiating both classical and American music theater repertoires with consummate grace and empathy.
The ever-enterprising singer (she may have been the first soprano to roll on the floor during her Carnegie Hall recital debut) ventured to Joe's Pub to perform songs from her latest CD, Dawn Upshaw Sings Vernon Duke. Vernon who? Upshaw acknowledged she hadn't even heard of the composer until producer Tommy Krasker brought him up. Duke was closer in sensibility to European art song composers than to his jazz-influenced American contemporaries not only is tapping your foot to his tunes an exercise in futility, you can't really hum along either. But he wasn't much of a challenge to Upshaw: as celestial in voice as she is earthbound in demeanor (no temper tantrums or marrying Greek tycoons for her), the singer made everything sound utterly easy. Opting for understanding over grandstanding, Upshaw demonstrated a flawless technique that never overpowered delicate songs like "Round About." Her stage presence was economical as well a cocked eyebrow and a sly sideways glance were enough to act out Ogden Nash's goofy "The Sea-Gull and the Ea-Gull," for instance. Guest pianist Fred Hersch gamely piped up on "I Like the Likes of You." Whether the soprano was smiling at Hersch's fumbling suitor or his fumbling singing wasn't clear; after all she herself looked endearingly nervous at times, as if she'd just realized that performing to a couple of hundred people sprawled out on velvet cushions is as hard as facing anonymous thousands at the Met.
Though Upshaw didn't quite muster enough wistful joy on "Taking a Chance on Love" (from Cabin in the Sky), she concluded her set on a sublime note as she strayed from Duke's arid songbook. For three minutes, Marc Blitzstein's "I Wish It So" was the most poignant song ever written. Time suddenly stood still, and it felt as if even the subway, which until then had been audibly rumbling under Joe's Pub, was holding its breath. Elisabeth Vincentelli
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