Preserving its central element of willing torture, Stereo Total have turned karaoke into an art form. At the Bowery Ballroom last Wednesday, singer Françoise Cactus had the stiff demeanor of a woman whose boyfriend had just pushed her on stage and enjoined her to sing. But instead of launching into karaoke classics like “Wind Beneath My Wings,” Cactus, backed by German keyboardist/guitarist Brezel Göring and Austrian bassist Maria Zastrow, battled her way through a set list that read like a particularly well-stocked East Village jukebox: KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight,” Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s “Push It,” Sylvie Vartan’s “Dilindam” and “Comme un garçon,” and Serge Gainsbourg’s “Couleur Café.”
While Cactus’s body language screamed “Get me out of here!,” her sly smiles let on that she was enjoying herself after all; it made all the difference between mortifying embarrassment and tongue-in-cheek entertainment. (You wouldn’t guess it from her awkward stage presence but the singer spent several years in Les Lolitas, a French garage-rock band.) Göring, rock’s answer to the feisty uncle who always leads the conga line at weddings, extorted basic New Wave synth lines from his battered keyboard (propped on two chairs), while Zastrow pranced around striking Elvis poses behind her aviator glasses.
Singing in at least five languages, a number of which they didn’t seem to entirely comprehend, the Berlin-based trio gave their material the pared-down Casio-pop treatment that the Flying Lizards used on Leiber and Stoller’s “Money” almost 20 years ago. But whereas Lizards leader David Cunningham was a composer and producer with avant-tendencies who coolly deconstructed familiar hits, Stereo Total trod the thin line between knowing haplessness and poker-faced pomo tribute. Typically, their own songs sounded like the too-cool-for-school jokes of gifted forgers (“Supergirl,” for instance, is a dead-on pastiche of Gainsbourg’s “Ford Mustang”). In Stereo Total’s endless gallery of mirrors, nothing is “original” anymore, and nobody understands what the hell it is they are singing. Truly, pop no longer knows any borders. —Elisabeth Vincentelli
History is caught in all our throats, and aphorisms can leak into the most unconventional jazz solos. But as trumpeter Dave Ballou led his trio through an evening of originals at the Internet Café last Thursday, he dodged cliché after cliché. Phrases that had the capacity to erupt took a graceful bow instead. Skeletal figures inverted themselves to show brilliant plumage. Almost every decision led the music away from the okey-doke.
The 35-year-old Ballou has been working around town for a couple of years, padding intermittent jobs with at-home teaching gigs. Interests and talents have lately nudged him into collaborations with fertile thinkers such as Marty Ehrlich and Maria Schneider, who are likely taken with his blend of ingenuity and craft. Effectively connecting the dots between Blue Mitchell and Bill Dixon (okay, maybe Woody Shaw and Kenny Wheeler), the trumpeter knows that derring-do is never fully served by mere squawkery. On his new Amongst Ourselves (Steeplechase), a keen sense of analysis accompanies the most aggressive moments. Call it cool-headed compulsion.
Trios can ill afford ball droppers: bassist Mark Helias and drummer Jeff Williams were crucial to the show’s success. Helias has a knack for turning a charcoal sketch into an oil painting, a valued skill for Ballou’s sometimes pointillistic canvases. The warmth of his sagely plunked Morse code balanced the evening’s icier moments (a few of the trumpeter’s more technical moves still carry the rigors of classroom life), and like Williams’s tempo turnabouts, they helped cast the leader as a punctuation fiend. The trumpeter’s sprawling lines often contained a parenthetical afterthought or two, and semicolons often jolted the rhythmic flow. Combined with his horn’s timbral variety–medieval flourish, muted blat, and at one point an auburn sigh reflective enough to make you think a botanical garden had blossomed on East 3rd–they implied Ballou’s at the spot Dave Douglas found himself a few years ago: ready to put a lot of technique and a load of ideas into play. He strikes a blow for singularity without treating the familiar as an enemy. —Jim Macnie
That Asian Dub Foundation even have a revolutionary message to accompany their music is significant in this time of trendy, manufactured anger; that they’re being heard is basically a bonus. The East London quintet’s aggressive songs of political injustice are propelled by raw jungle beats and double-time dub bass lines. Unlike their comparatively subdued first album Rafi’s Revenge (due out in November on Slash/London), the band’s New York live debut was packed with tension and electricity.
Dr. Das, ADF’s bassist and founder, introduced the opening song, “Naxalite,” about a late-’60s peasant uprising in West Bengal, as “what the Union Jack sounds like” (a jab at British imperialism?), and from there the energy level soared. Guitarist Chandrasonic, his instrument tuned and effected to sound like an electric sitar, played a classical-sounding Indian melody over programmer Sun-J’s crushing beats and DJ Pandit G’s scratched-in snippets and textures. The best ADF songs serve as a musical metaphor for the group’s relentless melting-pot philosophy. The jungle segments of “Black White,” which Chandrasonic described as “the battle for the memory war,” were linked by dub bridges, while Master D slipped in and out of a dancehall-inflected raga ragga. Sun-J came out from behind his sampler bank to dance, à la Bez from Happy Mondays, to “Taadeem,” the band’s transcendent remix of and tribute to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (from last year’s Star Rise compilation). Twenty-year-old MC Master D bounced about menacingly like a young Ad-Rock, yelling “We will rise again,” sending the crowd into a frenzy. With no U.S. releases to date, it was a testament to Asian Dub Foundation’s punk-rock spirit that normally hipper-than-thou New Yorkers were getting down at the drop of a beat. —Eric Demby
If Mary Cleere Haran didn’t sing so well with that pure and reedy voice of hers, she’d make a solid living as a stand-up comic. Her patter is so amusing it takes a while to realize that as she’s chatting, she’s also bucking cabaret trends by not interspersing her songs exclusively with autobiographical information. Instead, she gives funny and barely detectable lectures.
In her fall-semester stop at the Algonquin’s Oak Room (through October 10), she’s expatiating on Ira Gershwin and younger brother George, who would have been 100 this Saturday. Not that the program, “The Memory of All That,” is abstruse graduate-course material. Haran limits it to Gershwin 101, noting in her description of the remarkable George that he was “so swarthy his five o’clock shadow was four o’clock shadow.” She explains, as she puts down the mike and sings “The Man I Love” atop a piano, that the song had been cut from three musicals before Helen Morgan popularized it, atop a piano. Moving the mike stand aside for “I’d Rather Charleston” (which she dances), she offers a few paragraphs on Adele Astaire, who introduced the song and who, Haran reminds the audience, was as delectable a Gershwin interpreter as brother Fred. Haran gives a rundown of the musicians in the Girl Crazy orchestra pit–Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, and Jimmy Dorsey, among them–before swinging into Ethel Merman’s “victim-y” number, “Boy! What Love Has Done to Me!” (What Haran could do but doesn’t is analyze why, as a generally reflective man, lyricist Ira so often espoused the “Who Cares?” attitude.)
Haran doesn’t confine instruction to her comments, but works it into the music as well, wisely relying on her accompanist and collaborator, Richard Rodney Bennett, who knows the Gershwin piano rolls and, where possible, plays what Gershwin himself played. There’s also plenty to be learned about the Gershwins’ staying power–their timeliness and timelessness–in the medley of “Sweet and Low-down,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” and “Fidgety Feet.” ‘S wizardry. —David Finkle