Clown College

Body language tells us Mark Stewart is a guy who wants to rock out, reeling and scrunching his face with each riff; the guitarist sometimes looks bored playing serious composition in Bang on a Can’s house band. Polygraph Lounge, which played the last three Tuesdays at CBGB’s Gallery, lets Stewart indulge just about every adolescent whim shy of snorting glue. Hence “American Cheese Woman” (“Velveeta, stay away from me”) and “The Nutcracker Suite” rendered with duck calls.

Stewart and Rob Schwimmer, a session keyboardist and film composer—Garth to his Wayne—are the manic clowns everyone hated to love in high school. Where jokester duo They Might Be Giants cloaks serious songwriting (yes, check out Factory Showroom) in whimsical arrangements, Polygraph tarts up folly with a schmear of music. Fearsome prowess helps. Stewart’s use of guitar effects is unparalleled, which is no put-down: He nails artists, periods, subgenres with processing alone. (Distinguishing Pete Townshend’s E chord from Jimmy Page’s is a matter of import here.) These two can hook anything in the deep ocean of pop effortlessly, which frees up their attention to wring melody from a theremin, daxophone, PVC bassoons, and cardboard alpenhorns (e.g.). The stage looked like the Cat in the Hat ransacked a gamelan.

Instrumental-hijinks-meets-low-satire suggests Spike Jones (or maybe John Zorn’s Naked City), but Polygraph isn’t even aiming that high. Sixth-graders would find the audience-participation jellyfish number juvenile, and frankly it was spooky how much their parents got into it. Mid-grade Weird Al was about par, as in their “Livin’ la Vida Polka.” But when inspiration strikes, Stewart and Schwimmer can mock’n’play with the best of them. Laurie Anderson’s literary abstractions on Moby-Dick could learn from Polygraph’s CliffsNotes medley, including “Whiter Shade of Whale,” “I’ve Just Seen a Whale” pace Lennon-McCartney, and Ahab à la McCartney solo: “Moby I’m amazed at the way you elude me all the time.” If this sounds embarrassing, all the more reason to spend time with Polygraph Lounge. One man’s regression is another’s liberation. —David Krasnow

Hit Me With Your Best Shot

After watching the Yeah Yeah Yeahs work for 30 minutes last Wednesday at the Mercury Lounge, a jealous young Williamsburger groused that singer Karen O “had learned a lot from Pat Benatar,” which is only true if you think O’s white leather boots and black leather belt mean more than the band’s songs. They don’t, even if the songs owe Eight-Eyed Spy and the Cramps a buck each. Guitarists Nick Zimmer and Brian Chase keep it simple, switching sounds moments before you need them to and making sweet ruckus when the art gets too thick. O leads with her smile and never shakes it. She’s smiling as she tugs her tank top back into place, shoulders a mic stand like a beast of burden, or high-kicks into the chorus. The smile is an involuntary guarantee that whatever mileage the outfits and references get them, it’s gravy on top of how good it feels to make a small band sound huge and shout about life. In their debut EP’s hit, “Bang,” the lyric “As a fuck, son, you sucked” comes off like a complaint, but live, with the smile and the stutter-step, it’s just another bad memory erased by rock music. The Ronnie Spector-Sonic Boom duet (not really) “Our Time” was the penultimate tune, but the emotional closer: “Well, it’s the year to be hated, it’s our time, our time, to be hated.” Now it reads like a 9-11 anthem, but I didn’t think that watching the band. I thought, “Right—you know how good you are, and you know you’re gonna get big and feel the backlash.” On cue, the guy made the Benatar crack. But you’ll be milking that night for all it’s worth soon enough, son. —Sasha Frere-Jones

Baby Steps

Zero 7 didn’t quite work up a sweat behind their dub rhythms and dulcet jazz licks last week at Irving Plaza, but they did seem a little wet behind the ears. U.K. producers Sam Hardaker and Henry Binns staged tryouts to find musicians and singers to work with for their trip-hoppy debut album, Simple Things, released earlier this year. When the album was nominated for Britain’s quality-over-commerce Mercury Prize in July, they had only played a handful of gigs; by the time Zero 7 showed up for their stateside debut on December 11, they had only been performing together regularly for three months.

Hardaker and Binns did an admirable job of meeting the challenge for electronic music stage shows: making geeky guys with keyboards seem interesting. Swathed in the muted blues and purples of the stage lighting, the pair surrounded themselves with a cadre of musicians and a trio of talented singers, at times imbuing a warmer, jazz-cabaret feel to the cavernous club. As they do on the album, vocalists Mozez, Sia Furler, and Sophie Barker impressed with their soul-singing abilities and danced enthusiastically during the occasional extended, space-age funk jam.

These moments of spontaneity and musical adventure were too few, however. Hardaker and Binns seemed content to play it safe, leading their troupe through mostly note-for-note renditions of Simple Things‘ 12 songs; the night was often less invigorating than simply inoffensive. The highlight, then, came at the close, when the enthusiastic crowd, chock-full of expat Brits, demanded a third encore. Zero 7 obliged, but their inspired performance of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime” was odd for a December evening (even a warm one) in New York. Hardaker finally revealed some personality, even as he revealed the band’s neophyte nature with a wry explanation: “It’s all we’ve left to play.” —Bill Werde

Oracles of ‘Delphia

In the middle of the Philadelphia Experiment’s blowin’ session at Bowery Ballroom last Friday, Roots drummer and walking embodiment of charisma Ahmir “?Love” Thompson told an anecdote to impart the depth of the camaraderie that brought him and bassist Christian McBride into an all-star jam with pianist Uri Caine and guitar master Pat Martino. “When Christian and I were in music class [at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts], any time we were playing anything in the key of D, we’d turn it into a James Brown tune. Gershwin, Bach . . . ” He broke off, ’cause McBride and Caine were already proving the point, rushing headlong into an abbreviated vamp of “The Big Payback.” ?Love joined in with the backbeat and a grunt-filled vocal, a wide goofy smile on his face.

Of course, if anyone assumed that this one-off gathering by three generations of jazz-minded Philly experimentalists was going to be anything but a sweaty, groove-filled goof, they weren’t paying attention to the joy exhibited by their self-titled album, stocked with City of Brotherly Love-associated tunes (Sun Ra, Grover, “Philadelphia Freedom,” etc.). Sales show that few did—the crowd getting off on the group’s soul-jazz smoothies was mostly made up of Wetlands types and funkheads having a blast playing call-and-response with McBride’s encyclopedic knowledge of classic basslines.

It took Martino a while to get into the pocket. Busy constructing fluid but hi-IQ lines, he finally got his Jimmy Nolen on with help from Philly tenor Robert Landham’s sax on a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” that the soloists turned into a greasy, modernist stew. Caine, on the other hand, was in the center of the action all night long, establishing an intimate rapport with ?Love—it seemed like they were trying to inhale the entire Ramsey Lewis Trio songbook at every turn. You had to wonder what a music class between them would’ve produced. —Piotr Orlov

Wu Clan Time

Dave Weckerman was the most charismatic Feelie by default. In the ’80s heyday of that notoriously unprepossessing band, he would set up his milk carton of percussive tricks by Stan Demeski’s proper drum kit, hunch over his mic with maracas, a tambourine, or maybe a wood block, and focus his intense gaze on the feet of guitarists Glenn Mercer and Bill Million, as if he couldn’t bear to watch their frantic playing. Feelies shows at Maxwell’s were religious experiences, and then owner Steve Fallon couldn’t even advertise them in this newspaper—you had to spot the notice in the Pier Platters window on your way to the PATH. “But when Steve couldn’t get another band, he knew he could always call us,” says Weckerman. “If Smashing Pumpkins couldn’t make it—time for Yung Wu.”

The Wu was Weckerman’s band, a lighter, steadier version of the Feelies’ itchy rhythms. Eventually every other member was a Feelie too, and that lineup made a record for Fallon’s Coyote label. The Feelies broke up 10 years ago (after Million left in the night for Florida) and Yung Wu hadn’t played in 13, but four weeks ago Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo called to ask if they could open the first of his band’s eight Hanukkah benefits at Maxwell’s. It wasn’t hard: Mercer and Demeski still rehearse every week with Weckerman and his old gang, and they’ve played some shows together as Sunburst.

Except for one new song, they stuck to the record. Eyes closed, fleece zipped even under the hot lights, Weckerman revisited ringers like the Stones’ “Child of the Moon” and his own “Empty Pool,” covered by Yo La on their first LP. The six of us old enough to remember were thrilled. “See you in 2014,” Weckerman said at the end. More like two hours: For their own encore, Yo La brought him and Mercer back for a five-song Feelies set of increasing proficiency, culminating in a radiant “When Company Comes.” It turns out there are some benefits to reliving 1991. —Josh Goldfein