Named for Jacques and given to an aptly oceanic sense of drama, Cousteau belong to the venerable lineage of pop minstrels who tether romantic distress to tumescent arrangements and a quivering baritone. But the London quintet’s glutinous variety of sleazy listening is less idiosyncratic and more smoochily in touch with its MOR-ness than its obvious forerunners—think the Tindersticks cured of city sickness or Scott Walker unburdened by death-angel visitations. The resulting sob stories, as showcased on Cousteau’s self-titled debut, are confidently overripe and more than a little square. In an ideal world, these songs would be in permanent rotation on Lite FM.
At Joe’s Pub last Thursday, the visual presentation conjured up fresh layers of resonance. With their natty threads, fine bone structure, and well-worn air of dissipation, Cousteau suggested a boyband grown up all wrong, weathered by age and seedy circumstance into a slithery lounge act. Square-jawed frontman Liam McKahey reinforced the point with a knowing striptease: The tie came off almost immediately, and then the jacket, revealing a short-sleeved shirt and abundantly tattooed arms. By the fourth number, he looked like a Morrissey song come to life.
His voice, meanwhile, bore echoes not so much of Walker but of great Scott’s soul-friendlier descendants: early Bowie and late Ferry. (Even more than on record, though, guitarist Robin Brown’s dilated solos seemed to have strayed in off an altogether whiffier cheese plate.) The overall effect was emollient, with the grating exception of “Mesmer,” a sacrilegious ramble through the embers of Nick Drake’s “Cello Song.” Bereft of its pre-chorus timpani salvo, “Last Good Day of the Year” still asserted itself as pianist-songwriter Davey Ray Moor’s finest moment, complete with sashaying “Walk on By” bossa backbeat and a flügelhorn intro that should cause Burt himself to grin approval. A wonder of retro-pop pastiche in a set that spanned what a Cousteau title calls “(Shades of) Ruinous Blue,” “Last Good Day” provided the most devastating hue by far. —Dennis Lim
Sons and Lovers
“It’s a crime not to have danced to Orquesta Aragon in the Havana of the ’50s,” exulted a sixtysomething Cubano as he bounced out of Town Hall on December 1. Orquesta Aragon had just blown through NYC like a warm trade wind—politricks may deprive Cubans of material comforts, but America only gets the Orquesta every year or so, while Cuba tunes in to its lunchtime radiocast every weekday. Founded in 1939 by double bass player Orestes Aragon, the charanga group (violins, flute, percussion) took off on the wings of their new, danzón-rooted rhythm, called cha-cha-cha, in ’48, after violinist Rafael Lay replaced an ailing Aragon as leader. In ’82, Lay died in a car crash and was replaced by his son, violinist-vocalist Rafael Lay Jr.; most of today’s lineup are vets or “sons of”—a total of 11 musicians, plus Armando, the band’s silver-haired dancer, a master of the spring-coiled yoga of salsa.
On Saturday, these plump Cupids—dapper in beige suits and shiny black shoes—offered mucho to love. Opener “Popurit 3,” a medley of the Orquesta’s ’50s-to-’60s danzones, showcased their miracle weave of yearning choruses, trilling flute, and glistening strings gliding over succulent Latin beats. This group knows to lay back and take its time. Midset tunes “La Gioconda” and “Sin Envidia” (from Orquesta’s new En Route) and Lazaro Gonzalez Sibore’s tearing violin solo prefaced the ecstatic power of the later delirium, with the audience singing along to chestnuts like “Nosotros” and begging for old favorites. Seniors abandoned seats to crowd the aisles and scream, “Otra!” while young females, magnetized by the Orquesta’s crisply synchronized hip rolls and songs de amor, flooded the stage. —Elena Oumano
Sale of the Half-Century
“I am the Buddha now,” says B. George. “I have no records. I’m completely cured.” George has parlayed his 47,000 LPs into the nonprofit, 1.7 million-disc ARChive of Contemporary Music, which he claims is the largest American collection of post-1950 popular recordings—its goal is to amass two copies of everything. A trusted research tool for record labels, music publishers, researchers, and historians, the ARChive has been operating on the cheap throughout its 15-year history; lately, George has been hoping to scrape together funds to buy the ARChive its own building. “I laugh when Lincoln Center gets a $37 million building for half a million records,” he says. (The Performing Arts Library has a lot of other stuff, too, but his point remains.)
September 11 left the ARChive more unsteady than ever. Its world music collection was four blocks away from the World Trade Center, and now badly needs air filters and cleanup equipment. The main collection, about 12 blocks away, is fine, but the big problem is the cancellation of the usual year-end benefit party; without it, the ARChive will be seriously short on funds. To help make up the difference, the twice-annual record sale-mass kibitzing session at its 54 White Street headquarters has been extended to nine days.
The sale’s CDs are a weird assortment of label donations, priced to move: a crate of Michael Feinstein Sings the Hugh Martin Songbook for $5 apiece, import Blondie greatest-hits at $4, the Apocalypse Now Redux soundtrack for $3. The LP bins are filled with triplicates of stuff that’s already in the collection, some “collectible,” mostly random (the Roches’ Keep on Doing, sealed, two bucks: Score!). And the first edition of the comprehensive new wave reference guide Volume (published by George in 1980) is $15. The sale continues through Sunday, December 16; for information, go to www.arcmusic.org. —Douglas Wolk