Joined at the Heart

“Wow, that is one slippery stage,” Jason Trachtenburg camps, kicking off the December residency of the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players “on Ice” at Fez. The smoke machine creates the illusion of ice, or so we’re told, and stage decor, featuring big cutout snowflakes, channels ghosts of Christmases from ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s past. Pianist-guitarist Jason explains the slides projected by his wife Tina: Purchased from estate sales, they form the basis for his lyrical expostulations into the lives of the deceased. It’s borderline exploitative, but utterly entertaining, judging from the raucous response to “Look at Me,” an ode to “two retired military nurses from Seattle.”

The hyper, Ducky-like Jason writes and sings sweet melodies like the best ramshackle VU cabaret, and is a master of the non sequitur. Rachel, his nine-year-old daughter and drummer extraordinaire, is grace under pressure; in one song, she sings the refrain “Riding on the plane to hell,” hits the final beat unfazed, then rubs her eyes. The image flashed during “September 1962 (My Wife’ll Be So Excited)” is a severed mannequin head, conjuring Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home, a Heartache,” and giving the lie to simple notions of holiday cheer.

In the haunting “Winter,” Jason sings, “Winter is here/Everyday is getting colder” before wondering plaintively, “How’d we get so cold?” He returns with the promise of “a mental health umbrella,” then later rhymes Middle America with hysteria. Of their CDs, Jason says, “You’re not going to find these things in too many other places, except our living room.” By then, the Fez had become an extended living room and the audience honorary members of his naughty but nice family. —Mary Jacobi

Axl to Grind

Judging from those Cowardly Lion braids, Axl Rose knows he’s no longer king of the jungle. At the Garden on Thursday, Guns ‘N Roses sounded big and bold, but they played it safe: Their first dozen songs were all Appetite for Destruction standards, except for two from the Use Your Illusion albums and similarly ancient covers of Wings’ “Live and Let Die” and Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Rose thanked us for “selling out this motherfucking thing—it really helps a lot,” a bad omen for the first North American G’NR tour in nine years. (As of now, at least eight dates have been canceled, including a Bay Area New Year’s Eve show.)

Rose’s kind words preceded Appetite‘s “Out ta Get Me,” which made for a particularly revealing transition. When G’NR recorded that song, Rose’s crucifixion was still a fiction, but now the “they can’t catch me” lyrics sound less like a boast and more like the nostalgic complaint of someone who can’t get himself arrested anymore. Rose later launched a grinning diatribe against the Times‘ “Jonny Pareles”: “If you’re gonna lie, then you’re a pussy.” This served as a lead-in to “Patience,” thus transforming a sensitive song about not having sex into a paranoid one about getting fucked.

If Rose is indeed knockin’ on has-been’s door, at least he’s keeping everyone guessing. The three new songs mostly just mystified the audience, especially the video footage of MLK and Tiananmen Square during “Chinese Democracy.” My friend wondered if guitarist Buckethead wears a KFC bin on his head as comment on recent capitalist reforms in China. Sure, why not? And maybe Axl Rose handing out Krispy Kremes to the front row was the last gasp of a cultural revolution. —Greg Milner

Fifth Annual Real Life Consumer Guide

Five years ago, we found wide pricing disparities on new releases downtown. Since then, Napster came and went, distributors stopped fixing “minimum advertised prices,” loss-leading big-boxers invaded Manhattan, major labels consolidated into massivity, Tower and Wiz faced oblivion, and annual blank CD sales hit 6 billion—one for every potential consumer on the planet.

So what did this do to neighborhood prices? Nada. We shopped for a basket of 20 items at nine emporia on or below Union Square, and found it still pays to hoof around. Prices held steady at the low end, although at chains they’ve edged up. Retail warrior Circuit City is no threat to neighbor Virgin, beating it by a dollar at most. Bargains are in the “new” bins at indies like St. Mark’s Sounds or J&R or online. You could always download with Shereaza or eDonkey or whatever the kids are into today, but only a cheeseball would give a gift labeled with a laundry marker. Besides, you wouldn’t want to be hauled off to a naval brig like those file-swapping Annapolis middies.

Here are some highs and lows: Mariah Carey, Charmbracelet (Def Jam): J&R $10, Virgin $15. Bob Dylan, Live 1975 (Sony): Sounds $17, Tower $22. Missy Elliott, Under Construction (WEA): Sounds $14, Sam Goody $20. El-P, Fantastic Damage (Definitive Jux): $12.50, Virgin $19. Liars, They Threw Us All in a Trench . . . (Mute): Sounds $13, Virgin $19. Jason Moran, Modernistic (Blue Note): $13, Virgin $19. Red Hot & Riot (MCA): J&R $12, Other Music $18. Rocket From the Tombs, The Day the Earth Met . . . (Phantom): Kim’s $13, Virgin $17. Stocking Stuffers: PM Dawn, The Bliss Album: Sounds 88 cents. In zine: Other Music $1. Liz Phair, Whipsmart: Kim’s $1. Nat King Cole three-CD set: Tower $10. Gene Simmons & Paul Stanley autograph session: Virgin, free with purchase of $25 book. —Josh Goldfein

Addresses: J&R Music World, 23 Park Row; Mondo Kim’s, 6 St. Marks Place; St. Mark’s Sounds, 16 and 20 St. Marks Place; Other Music, 15 East 4th Street; Discorama, 186 West 4th Street and 40 Union Square East

Radiation Vibe

If the Republican sweep was a manifestation of suburban consumer paranoia and the confusion of the opposition, no power-pop band is better built to soundtrack the solace of the misguided and the defeated than Fountains of Wayne. In front of a quickly sold-out Bowery Ballroom the second week of November, New York suburbia’s resident Greek chorus didn’t stray from the pathos of smiley-faced dead-end existence, or from the crunchy hooks that underpin the unmanageable desires and stilted emotional ambition portrayed in their songs. Instead, FoW haunted the audience with these themes. In light of the recent elections it seemed very “this is what you want, this is what you get.”

Like voters scared straight, the outer-boroughs-based characters in Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger’s songs are convinced of how the world works. They know their place, that they get what they paid for, and have memorized the late-night LIRR/NJT schedules on which their life cycles run. But FoW’s charms as pop architects hint at something else entirely. Inside their puns, bridges, and the quietly tunneled backup vocals lie liberation and hope. Back in the Clinton era, when Fountains were sadly dismissed as pleasant alt-pop ephemera for the radio-guided worker bees, this seemed ironically cute. Now, it seems crucial.

Apparently their rabid audience agrees. The band’s first NYC show in three-plus years had a slight sense of a town meeting, if only because anyone in attendance could well have been the lyrics’ beautiful loser. The slightly countryish new items on the agenda (new album next year) were rightfully treated with attentive respect. And old favorites like “Sink to the Bottom” and “Leave the Biker” were sung along with lustily, like the Main Street Tavern jukebox hits they always should’ve been. And who knows, the way things are going, humming “Utopia Parkway” may be the only joyful distraction those of us forced to drive the Bush-constructed highway to hell will soon have. —Piotr Orlov

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