Me’shell Ndegeocello’s head is a barometer. She plays music in time signatures even Stephen Hawking couldn’t count, and when her unstable soul-jazz fusion fizzes and frays, she sets her brow into a pair of parentheses, as though concentration could call the music into focus. When her band settles into a syncopated groove, she smiles contentedly, and her shoulders bob like a bantamweight’s early in a bout.
Her July 26 show at the Stephen Talkhouse, a small club in Amagansett, Long Island, began more than an hour late—another victim of Friday traffic on the L.I.E.—and felt hurried even during 10-minute jams. In jeans, a striped knit cap, and a red Black Panthers T-shirt, the bassist and her six-piece band began with “Better by the Pound,” a cover of Funkadelic’s 1975 lecture against the call of pleasure, and focused mostly on other songs from her latest record, Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape. Increasingly the bastard daughter of Joni Mitchell and Angela Davis, she’s grown more political with each record, though also less doctrinaire.
She’s not the first lefty to condemn corporate sponsorship, expensive sneakers, and media devils, but the part in “God.Love.Money” about the Devil hosting TRL and having a great apartment (on the Upper East Side, no less) is new, as is her thematic focus on breast-feeding in “Dead Nigga Blvd. (Pt. 1).” And in the latter song, she refuses to point the usual finger of oppression, insisting, “Niggas need to redefine what it means to be free.”
For Ndegeocello, freedom comes from improvisation, which she has called the metaphorical root of the African American experience. She steers her music toward its sources, slipping Prince, the Police, and Bob Marley into jams. Of course, improvisation is also a private pleasure, not a public one, and Ndegeocello is no showman: She never acknowledged the crowd (who paid $60 for a 65-minute show), didn’t play any of her few songs a casual fan might recognize, and didn’t speak beyond introducing the band. Effusiveness? That she reserves for her bass solos. —Rob Tannenbaum
White Light/White Heat
Last week’s deadly storm shook Tonic with rumbling bass crescendos and lit the crowd in blue flashes through the skylight, but it was no match for the vocalist tucked unassumingly toward the back of the stage. Catherine Jauniaux is sublime. Her power draws not on the Romantics’ awesome Nature, but from the dizzying, unplumbed depths of the psyche.
Performances in New York by Jauniaux—who has lived in France since the mid ’90s—are as rare as hailstorms. She used to be one of the most singular performers in the Downtown improv scene, which is saying quite a lot. Her vocal parts traverse folk song, art song, glossolalia, and visceral eruptions in the space of measures, beats. She often strikes the dramatic intervals of a chanteuse, but her singing is rooted in folk music. Last Friday, she floated snatches of minor-key melodies in an unforced, pellucid alto over the muscular understatements of drummer Christine Bard and Mark Ribot’s sensitively strangulated guitar riffs. If anyone understands Jauniaux’s loving caress of a phrase and her need to torture it beyond recognition, it would be Ribot.
As she demonstrates on her new Home (RecRec), in a duo with percussionist Bill Gilonis called Hat Shoes, Jauniaux is no stranger to lyrics and song form. Pieces tend to be brief, and structured as narratives, conversations; she likes the manic, taunting repetitions of playground chants. That these are often married to rather existential propositions (as in “Ce Grand Néant”—”This great nothingness”) does not reflect irony. Jauniaux is always close to her source material—she’s more Brothers Grimm than ethnomusicology prof. Even when she wags an index finger between her lips to create a second vocal part, Jauniaux’s humor is dark and a little unnerving; she chills the spine while boggling the ears. Others (like Shelly Hirsch and Diamanda Galas) have used a sotto voce rushing of air through half-articulated syllables to suggest the speaking of the subconscious. But no one has so convincingly summoned the legion of conflicting voices within each of us; the ability to selectively mute them is a working definition of sanity. —David Krasnow
Kiss Me, I’m Canadian
As a breeding ground for rock stars, mild-mannered Canada gets a bad rap. It’s hard to snarl about tidiness and socialized medicine; goofball exports like Barenaked Ladies and Rush aside, our northern neighbors haven’t riveted stadiums in the states since Bachman-Turner Overdrive. But if any band can bury that wussy reputation, Toronto-based Sloan—with a penchant for hooky, tongue-in-cheek arena-rock anthems and a prolific album-release schedule to rival Weezer—has got the scissor-kicking, deep-knee-bending stamina. Judging from the worshipful crowd at their Bowery Ballroom gigs on July 25 and 26, U.S. audiences are starting to feel the fervor that’s made Sloan a household name up north.
Sloan kicked off Thursday’s two-hour set with the opening track from this year’s Pretty Together, “If It Feels Good Do It.” While early Sloan albums dabbled in Anglophilic shoegazery and peppy retro power-pop, Pretty Together summons the big-guitar showmanship of Badfinger and Cheap Trick. “If It Feels Good” is old-fashioned, mullet-sporting, volume-cranking arena rock, with a shout-out—”This song is for people who know what rock and roll is about”—lifted verbatim from Kiss’s Alive III. Sloan continued to channel the Great Tongued Ones for the rest of the show, down to the tribute stickers on the guitarists’ axes. After 10 years, seven albums, and at least two rumored breakups, Sloan’s got a lot to sing about, and the band laced its set with material from as far back as 1994’s Twice Removed. Die-hard fans shouted the words to every song. But Sloan kept it nice. Launching into the show’s closing number, One Chord to Another‘s “The Good in Everyone,” frontman Chris Murphy grinned self-effacingly as he exhorted the crowd to sing along. “Please, if you wouldn’t mind, we’d be very grateful if you joined in,” he said, before assuming a guitar-god stance, twisting his fingers into devils’ horns, waggling his tongue at the audience Gene Simmons-style, and preparing to rock. —Darby Saxbe