Frankenstein meets the Wizard of Oz in an abandoned shoe store— who wins? Jad Fair and Yo La Tengo took their grudge match to a sold-out crowd at the Bowery Ballroom Friday night to settle the score.
Jad is the mad scientist. Half Japanese, the band he started 25 years ago with his brother David, builds little monsters of indie rock from loose limbs and lightning. Closer to Kansas, Yo La Tengo take the opposite approach, trapping songs in the wild so they can pull them apart slowly. Yo La work hard, but often it seems like a piece is missing: one song lacks a heart, another a brain, and a little courage now and then wouldn’t hurt.
On their new record together, Strange but True, they come out even, maybe because they never get in the same ring. Jad sings lyrics David wrote in the form of pseudotabloid stories, while Yo La Tengo toss off shards of songs to set a tone: aggro on “Texas Man Abducted by Aliens for Outer Space Joy Ride,” country for “Circus Strongman Runs for PTA President.”
In person, it was no contest. With his goofy charisma and poignant meter, Jad is an irresistible front man, singing and playing guitar unencumbered by “technique.” The band stuck to his material, including two of the three new songs about monkeys, a perennial Fair Brothers theme. After trying several variations on the lineup, they settled on a two-drummer combo (Georgia + Ira, with James dependably on bass) that lit up “Charmed Life” and “U.S. Teens Are Spoiled Bums” like Roman candles.
The obligatory covers drew from a common fakebook. “I’m Straight” acknowledged that, like Jad, Jonathan Richman also spent the ’70s making faux-naive folk art out of the Velvets and Chuck Berry. Daniel Johnston’s “Speeding Motorcycle” won the loudest cheers of the night: is outsider art the last punk? (True naïf Johnston, who has collaborated with both, is an obvious touchstone; the band played his “Casper the Friendly Ghost” on WFMU a week earlier.) But the best was yet to come: a bracing encore of “Rebel Rebel,” starring Tara Key of opener Antietam on guitar. Which just proves that an authentic pop moment can be bigger than the best ideas of any one scene, even if it’s a dinosaur. On Monster Island, no one beats Godzilla.
— Josh Goldfein
A few years ago, I compared Andrew Hill’s canon to Myst, the hide ‘n’ seek CD-ROM that simultaneously confounds and compels each time the mouse is clicked. With landscapes steadily mutating, traps become inevitable. But they’re edifying, too— spending time in one of the virtual culs-de-sac helps you grasp the maze’s infernal logic. The 61-year-old Hill, whose rep as Blue Note’s most engaging egghead will forever be intact, recently fashioned a new book for a new band. But judging by a couple of the pianist’s shows at the Jazz Standard last week, the Myst analogy still holds: the center of his tunes is a moving target.
Complexity is assumed in jazz— even a simple blues offers enough tangential elements to make the music intricate. Hill the moody structuralist takes this point as a matter of pride. One of the more beguiling pieces from Thursday night’s show was in 15/8, a time signature that, when combined with the kind of harmonic depth the composer typically offers, needs to be addressed with loads of finesse to be persuasive. The horn line of Marty Ehrlich, Jay Collins, and Ron Horton danced the dance of the dedicated, but the music never gained the focus it demanded. Even with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Billy Drummond linked in thought and deed, the action was wayward, with the leader’s sometimes abstruse comping effectively muddying the waters.
But the packed house at Friday’s first set caught a glimpse of the mastery that earned Hill his credentials in the mid ’60s. The Chicago-born leader used to fib about being a Caribbean native, and at one point the ensemble— billed as an update of his classic Point of Departure band— toyed with a dazzling samba that flaunted its ersatz eccentricity. Rhythm sections are crucial to Hill’s music: Drummond and Colley were expert in bringing both discipline and pliability to the tunes, especially during an extended lament that contained the kind of blatant swing cadences Hill doesn’t usually prescribe for his groups. Framed by the effervescent logic of the groove, the pianist’s quavers took on a poetic cogency. And when Ehrlich joined in to ratchet up the action (drawing the biggest applause of the night), it became clear: one of jazz’s most approachable avant-gardists had regained a big chunk of his vitality. — Jim Macnie
No Guts, No Glory
Dance music in a club setting functions on a visceral level, quite literally: disco, techno, even trance all get a groove going when pumped straight into the nexus of nerves at the solar plexus, the body’s center of kinetic energy. This is why “party” begins with “PA.”
Last Saturday’s Basic Channel/Chain Reaction party (the kind that you don’t find out the location of until a couple of hours before the event; it materialized in low-ceilinged digs in Dumbo) sported a superb set of woofers that was all but wasted on live performances from Pole and Scion. These acts, like the others affiliated with the fastidious Berlin label Chain Reaction (Basic Channel is its now defunct parent organization), regard club mix as centrifuge— starting with deep housetechno repetitions, titrating out any vestige of melody, and dropping the beats and bass out from underfoot. The remnant: a powerful pulse pinned to its rotating perimeter. When this works— as it does dizzyingly well on releases by Porter Ricks (two people), Various Artists (one person), and Vainqueur (another one person, Rene Löwe, who’s also half of Scion)— it spins you right round like a record, baby. So much for the low-end theory.
Except that it’s quite difficult to get the Chain Reaction method to work consistently. For instance, the problem with Pole, the solo project of Chain Reaction’s dub plate engineer, Stefan Betke, is that it strains toward a purely digital version of dub: an interesting contradiction in terms conceptually, but one less than fascinating to hear actually played out. It half works as effervescent analgesic on Pole’s new self-titled album (Kiff), on which a constant, fizzy crackle tickles Cab VoltSuicide throb in a lukewarm bath of lurching synthetic bass that aims for King Tubby but barely meets the Residents. Live and loud, the Pole set actually hurt a bit; shuddering spasms landed stinging blows mid sternum like a bad case of acid reflux.
Scion, the next act, aimed closer to the heart, pummeling away with velvet-gloved blows that were dreamy, insistent, definitely danceable, and not so darned hard to digest. Afterward, Peter Kuschnereit, a/k/a Substance (the other Scion guy), commenced an interminable set on the turntables so fraught with error that whenever he successfully matched a beat, obliging audience members clapped (having necessarily given up on dancing, what else could they do?). His retro-electro selections gave a hint of what ’80s nights must sound like on the continent (Laid Back’s “White Horse” figured prominently). Finally, Löwe took over turntable duties in the wee hours; it was a shame that he didn’t proffer a Vainqueur set instead, to revive the pulse of the by-then-dying party. — Sally Jacob
Ribbed For Her Pleasure
Straight guys don’t get Duncan Sheik. A mostly gay-appearing or female crowd filled the Bowery Ballroom last Thursday, where Sheik and his sensitive ensemble played a lugubrious two-hour set in support of his sophomore effort, Humming. The few straight men cuddled openly with their girlfriends. Sheik’s soothing pop, laden with diaphanous textures and Indian tablas, created a decidedly coffeehouse atmosphere, helped along by Chinese orb lanterns and washes of azure and emerald light. Sheik has the dubious distinction of being the only pop artist today carrying on the tradition of the arto-intellectual male singer-songwriter. His ’80s predecessors— Sting, Peter Gabriel, Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon, David Sylvian— all went missing when acid jazz and trip-hop replaced pop fusion as the college graduate’s sexmusic of choice.
Sheik’s self-consciousness about his unfashionable genre accounts for his adorable bashfulness. Despite extensive touring, he still seemed nervous and awkward onstage, as if he’s more accustomed to closing his bedroom door and jamming for his four-track home studio. He apologized frequently. When he said, “I hope it doesn’t bring back any bad memories,” of his debut album’s “In the Absence of Sun” (included on the soundtrack of The Saint— “a bad movie,” according to Sheik), you suspect he might have been worried about conjuring his own bad memories of the song, not yours.
All these quirks, in someone so well-scrubbed and bred at Andover and Brown, serve as a respite from most rock-n-roll boys’ swaggering arrogance. He’s a rock star you could dominate. And plenty of women like submissive men. A coterie of fashion chicks, one of them reportedly Sheik’s girlfriend, boogied orgiastically at the edge of the stage to Sheik’s decidedly unfunky numbers like they’d been hypnotized into thinking he was James Brown. Sheik’s voice broke like a prepubescent kid sometimes, as he switched between his capable midrange, an unconvincing bass, and a falsetto to die for. When Sheik hit that passage of high notes in his opening song, “Rubbed Out,” he undoubtedly wet some fans’ underwear. But such ecstasy is difficult to sustain, especially for a wimp. — James Hannaham