My Def Jux Baby Tee

“We’re putting all these old routines to bed tonight,” announced El-P when he took the stage at around 11 p.m. Anyone expecting the Definitive Jux post-Christmas party at Bowery last Friday to be a victory lap, a communal high five, or a pat on the back for a year well-done was about to have their mesh hat knocked crooked (if it wasn’t already). Just days after “Santa Christ,” as El-P referred to him, visited all the nice rhymesayers and beat junkies, Definitive Jux pulled one last batch of presents out of their bag: new acts, new songs. Dig the new breed.

Definitive Jux v. 2.0: Made up of Camu Tao (Nighthawks, MHz Crew) and Metro, S.A. Smash was the evening’s curveball. With a full-length due soon, the duo’s set was new to almost everyone not on the label. And while their odes to throwback jerseys, shout-outs to the Ohio State Buckeyes, and choruses of “That’s gangsta” seemed to throw some of the more straight-fat-laced kids in the audience for a loop, Aesop Rock and El-P certainly got open to it, shouting along to every chorus.

El’s set was shared with the West Coast legend Murs, who brought a welcome bit of fun (he rocked pajama bottoms for most of the night) and whose End of the Beginning is waiting in the on-deck circle with an early 2003 release date. Sharing the stage was Aesop Rock, who had been MIA for much of the second half of the year. Backed by RJD2, the group passed the spotlight and freestyled to Freeway’s “Line ‘Em Up”; Murs did the running man, and Aesop Rock debuted some punishing tracks off his upcoming Bazooka Tooth, including a stunning manifesto-style screed with El-P called “We’re Famous.” Ending with a dedication to Jam Master Jay, and making room for RJD2, who lowered the blood pressure on the evening with his cut-and-paste act, the Definitive Jux massive bounded off the stage. It was just a sneak preview. —Chris Ryan

On the Metro

A “sedate library” is how Morgan Geist, one half of Metro Area, described the setting at their Joe’s Pub gig last Friday. He wasn’t far off—with the dark, lush interiors, and grown-up dinner tables, the hushed atmosphere seemed more appropriate for a jazz band than a dance outfit. But as a testament to Metro Area’s supremely catchy material, audience members could be caught wiggling involuntarily in their seats.

The duo performed live hook-laden house music with the assistance of two violinists, Mike Kelly and Rohan, a trumpet player, James Duncan, a percussionist, Carlos Hernandez, and singer Dei Lewison. One song after another showed that house doesn’t have to be thumping, browbeating, or bombastic to make a point. Geist and Darshan Jesrani take their cue from the last days of disco, updating it with tech-house techniques. They use vocals sparingly to augment a section; they don’t blast every available instrument at once. Whole minutes languish in robotic shimmer, extending the groove into a long, playful trance, an occasional hard edge or abrasive shock slicing through the softness.

On record, the songs sound simpler than they really are; in a live setting, they’re rounder, more complete. They fill out, become more voluptuous, the live strings adding sharp, bright flourishes to songs already shining with optimism. Latin influences are more readily discernible, and the cheeky claps on “Miura” seem less cheesy at full blast from a big system. But for all their improvisatory complexity, Metro Area hold true to their less-is-more aesthetic, setting their continually sublime instrumental head music to an infectious, wicked beat. —Tricia Romano

Making the Banned

Since the release of their debut, 2000’s Let’s Get Free, dead prez had their label collapse from under them, were rumored to have signed to Roc-A-Fella, have been practically banned from performing in most city venues, and, despite strong socialist leanings, are meant to be dropping a new album on Sony in the spring. In the meanwhile, though, the collective-minded and contradiction-happy duo—M-1 and—have been displaying a keen gift for small-scale capitalism, generously doling out what the industry’s invisible hand can’t provide.

Their show at S.O.B.’s the night after Christmas drew a sold-out crowd of the type of folks who booed the opening DJ when she played Jay-Z and cheered vociferously both when burned an American flag and when M-1 brought his mom onstage midway through the set and presented her with flowers courtesy of his R.B.G. (Revolutionary but Gangster) family. dead prez have also filled the gap by self-releasing a mix tape of new songs, the most politically incendiary of which is “Know Your Enemy,” where the group asks, “Wanna stop terrorists?/Start with the U.S. imperialists/Ain’t no track record like America’s.” But from dead prez’s grassroots perspective, the real foe is the corporate homogenization of artistic expression. The solution: Fight fire with fire. They may have named their new project Turn Off the Radio, but if you do that, you’ll never catch their message. They turn Aaliyah’s “We Need a Resolution” into “We Need a Revolution,” crooning at the hook, “I’m tired of strugglin’.” On an update of their hit “Hip-Hop,” they borrow a phrase from Khia: “My neck, my back/They put a noose on my neck/Put whips on my back.” Slickly merging high and low, the group got the crowd certifiably crunk. Not bad for a couple of socialist moralists with no sense of humor. —Jon Caramanica

Some You Just Believe In

It started out on a high note. A swirly, syrupy, recorded sax-and-strings intro with colored lights reminiscent of the game show set in Magnolia. A dapper band walked on. And then there she was: diffident, bemused, flipping her long blond hair over her shoulder, tallish and skinny with a red shirt and black guitar, trying to break your heart again.

Aimee Mann‘s show at the Beacon last month was like a date with an old crush: full of vague, sweet, unresolved feelings, but inevitably tinged with disappointment. The lush melancholy her music invokes in the privacy of your rainy-windowed bedroom was diminished in the 2800-seat theater, washed out by the starlights rotating off the disco ball. Save for a few loungey space-pop fillips by the extremely able keyboardist, her arrangements barely departed from the recordings, and the nearly uniform tempos lulled, sometimes dragged. The fucked-up sound mix didn’t help, blurring her sharp-witted lyrics even as the audience mouthed along (Aimee Mann fans are too respectful to sing).

“There’s lots more people here than I ought to be playing for,” Mann confessed disarmingly, if correctly, a few songs in. “It’s gonna be one of those nights where I start forgetting stuff and breaking strings.” Sure enough, she muffed the words to her 1995 hit “Ray” even after inviting a thrilled female fan onstage to whisper them in her ear. But somehow, as the night wore on, we only felt closer. Buzzing on caffeine, Aimee riffed nervously with the audience in her low, dorky voice (“I love rock n’ roll? I live rock n’ roll?? I am fuckin’ rock n’ roll! Is that what you meant to say?”), and told how her bitter-rock-star song “You Could Make a Killing” was actually inspired by a searing crush on Noel Gallagher. By the second encore, when she got everyone to clap along to the old “I Should’ve Known,” the whole thing was more than good enough for people like me. —Anya Kamenetz

Change Is Gonna Come

By all cynical accounts, operating a volunteer-based community choir that preaches change to the modern age seems neither artistically challenging nor financially appealing. But tell that to the Polyphonic Spree. And tell that to David Brown, the founder and choirmaster of New York’s 100-person Metro Mass Choir, who’s obsessed with conveying his non-denominational take on faith. The MMC’s holiday show Friday, December 20, at Town Hall opened with a film montage of kids proselytizing change, featured a yuletide medley sing-along, and closed with Broadway diva Daphne Rubin-Vega and an all-female African drum circle leading a rumba-fied take on the gospel standard “Children Go” that threatened to turn the theater into a dance party for the older set. To get with the MMC, you gotta internalize “All You Need Is Love” as part mantra, part stand-up routine. Brown, the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, has a minister’s insistence when addressing the flock—whether he’s goofing on his own homosexuality, or telling a story about racial sensitivity. He’s funny and pulls few punches (though his oratory could still use a stronger jab).

It’s the choir that makes the message flow. Non-professional singers whose body language betrays the moment the songs simply take them over, the Metro Mass are a force in numbers alone. But Brown’s arrangements give them something progressive to shout. Tying Bruce Springsteen’s post-9-11 lament “Into the Fire” to the heart of “Amazing Grace,” or recasting a Phil Collins tune as an excursion into Graceland—vocally raging, the drum circle rolling—are joyful acts of one-world populism, staged by a pickup crew. And when you see a petite, middle-aged woman unironically sporting a Berliniamsburg haircut, contorting to sing a Phil Collins tune with all the power she can muster, you have to imagine her soul’s somehow involved. —Piotr Orlov