Live: Starring Drops Caps, Sparkle Prog At Spy Music Fest


Starring, Dustin Wong & Dan Friel, White Out, PC Worship
285 Kent
Saturday, July 7

Better than: Next week’s Crimson ProjeKct appearance, perhaps?

It may have ended with a dazzle, but this Northern Spy Records-curated night of intriguingly difficult music did not commence auspiciously, at least for this reviewer.

After missing PC Worship—whom a whiney friend-slash-editor on the scene characterized approvingly as “Buttholes-y globs of noise swirl”—there was what felt like an interminable wait for White Out to set up Tom Surgal’s drums and Lin Culbertson’s electronics. The reason for the delay soon became apparent with the nonappearance of the collaboratively inclined duo’s advertised guest, the great free-jazz saxophonist Charles Gayle, whose lonely mike stand mocked our attention as the show went on, if tentatively. Surgal’s incantatory tom-tom rolls and cymbal highlights generated the Higgs bosons necessary for Culbertson’s loops, yodels, chimes, and flute flights to matter, creating a modest improvised universe in the process, although nothing as extreme as, say, 2009’s Senso with Jim O’Rourke and Thurston Moore.

Guitarist Dustin Wong and keyboardist Dan Friel established the gritty parameters of their own sweet cosmos within moments of hitting the stage, with Friel fingering and pedaling out a nasty, raw, and jubilant variation on what could have been an ancient Keith Emerson fanfare for the common head nodder. As Friel noted in a memorable 2008 interview, “Electronic noise and catchy melodies totally have raging boners for each other.” Wong, smiling receptively, soon began piling looping riffs and licks on the Parts & Labor co-founder’s madcap melodies. Having laid down their set’s template, more or less, the duo repeated it as necessary until a sort of communal nirvana eventually emerged.

Don’t look to Starring for transcendence, however. They’ve got far too many abrupt turns, beguiling codes, and knees to the cosmic groin for that. A quintet that includes four music-school grads as well as past and present members of Pterodactyl, Skeleton$, and Talibam!, Starring’s set consisted exclusively, as far as I could tell, of its lithographically confrontational new Alphabet City of a sophomore album, ABCDEFG-HIJKLMONP-QRSTUV-WXYZ.

Exuding confident eccentricity, the quintet warmed up with “———-oooooooooooooo,” a lust song wherein wild-haired Peachy’s Farfisa trance gives way to Matt Marlin’s shakers and wallops. Starring epitomizes Northern Spy’s boundary-dissolving aesthetic. Punk, prog, metal, jazz, and classic rock infiltrate songs that blend genres into shifting sonic Venn Diagrams. In “the best,” guitarist Clara Hunter proclaims Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” hook as the affectless centerpiece of a dense, ever-changing commentary on, possibly, “the best” itself. During “aphonia,” a heavy, erotic tune in 7/4 about writing trumping speech, Hunter sings of a “smooth operator” while Amy Cimini’s viola launches into the stratosphere.

Starring plays ADD rock—Hunter has called it “sparkle prog”—in the tradition of bands from Pere Ubu to Deerhoof. The band sounded refreshingly future-primitivist after White Out and the Wong-Friel experiences, and its new album couldn’t be a more natural follow-up to its 2010 debut, Wife of God. It’s interesting to imagine the group translating its graphic audacity from album to stage, because who other than critics and other obsessives really looks at song titles anymore? And insofar as they’re one of the more thoughtfully visceral groups around, why get on their (lower) case?

Critical bias: “Get over here, Disco!” from Starring’s Wife of God arguably best song title of 2010.

Overheard: A funny story about 285 Kent’s bartender mistaking a request for a slice of lime for something about “doing a line,” which he was firmly opposed to.

Random notebook dump: Charles Gayle, please come to the white courtesy phone.

Starring set list:
the best

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