By Alan Scherstuhl
Better Than: A rock show without comedians.
It’s rare that a singer/songwriter/performer possessed of a huge mess of facets has that one killer song that unites the host of them. But sprightly Anya Marina, whose pop you may remember from such gotta-break-through cross-promotional platforms as Supernatural, Grey’s Anatomy, and Twilight: Not the One With the Crazy Birth Scene, is savvy and talented enough to have crafted “Move On,” the blazing kick-off track from 2009’s Slow & Steady Seduction Part II. It’s a genre-pretzeling showcase of much of what makes her hard to resist, a greatest hits playlist crammed into a three-act three minutes:
Opening her short set at Rockwood Music Hall Saturday night, “Move You” still dazzles. The first minute of it finds Marina in distinguished coffee-shop mope mode, expressing breathy uncertainties about how some asshole’s been treating her. But the music is pensive/sensual rather than pensive/miserable: A swirl of descending acoustic guitar chords indebted in equal parts to Antonio Carlos Jobim and White Album-era John Lennon. Like much of her three full-length records, it’s perfect for anyone who’s ever wanted to crawl up inside “Cry Baby Cry” and just die.
Anya Marina performs again December 19 at Brooklyn’s Union Hall.
But one minute in comes the kick and the snare. Over a powerful, rudimentary loop-like beat, the mope is transformed into a hectoring dynamo, telling that asshole what she’s going to do to him — and remixing pensive tropicalia into something that would kill at Zumba class. By minute three, the guitars have dropped out, the beat is unleashed, and Marina’s in full chant-along emcee mode, until at last, in the final fifty seconds, all the melodic seeds planted earlier flower at once, twining over, under, and through each other, that descending chord swirl now somehow a celebration. (If you hear a suggestion of Jobim’s “Aguas de Marco” — well, Marina covers that elsewhere on the record.)
Much of the rest of her set — and her strong recent album, Felony Flats — develops the individual modes through which “Move You” gushes. The tender “Hot Button” works gorgeous, moody “Dear Prudence” changes for another tale of being made to feel small by some prick; this one, though, never erupts, instead inviting you to sink in and feel. (Live, John-Flor Sisante’s warm, inventive keyboard work was something to savor.)
The harder-edged “Flinty,” throughout which Marina and her guitar fruitfully snarl, is another small suite, its punk tinged with Jobim and Abbey Road, especially in its multiple climaxes. Her cover of T.I.’s “Whatever You Like” is all scrappy urgency and — as she insists in one of her charming, roundabout intros — is absolutely not a joke. Stripped of its persuasive big beat, T.I.’s offer of transactional sex “so wet, so tight” here seems desperate, a go-nowhere fantasy not far removed from Marina’s promise to “Move you around” — a smart recontexualization that still soars as performance.
Again and again hip hop, langorous Brazilian pop, indie-spirited club beats, and flecks of Beatle-ishness turn up throughout Marina’s catalog. For all her good taste, she’s also game for aping the current pop moment. A couple years back, her “All the Same to Me” was fun ersatz Gaga, and in 2012 she’s accomplished nothing less than penning the world’s greatest non-Taylor Swift Taylor Swift song. That’s “Notice Me,” the sticky-tart why-haven’t-we-hooked-up? confection so sharply formulated she’ll probably have to close with it the rest of her career.
Like a “You Belong With Me” written for critics and record-store dudes, it’s a first-rate crush song that evokes one of those high school friendships where two kids who could (maybe should?) be seducing each other just don’t get around to it. Here, they get baked and listen to records. Marina lists album titles, the rockist’s equivalent of the small-town signifiers Swift doles out: “Rubber Soul, Paul’s Boutique, Check Your Head, Public Enemy.” (The meter apparently wouldn’t accommodate “It Takes a Nation of Million to Hold us Back.” Like the musicians she admires, Marina’s best songs are generous with hooks and thrills: the delicious line “I’m so high/ I might be invisible,” the two different choruses, one pleading “Notice me/ I’m the one in your bed” and another, wordless, lifting for the heavens on what being noticed might feel like.
Her voice is sturdier in concert than you might expect, as on record she tends toward the wee and breathy. On a warm-up cover (with Roger Greenawalt on ukelele!) of the Beatles’ “I Call Your Name” Marina let loose a bit, suggesting she often holds back; she has been a radio personality and a podcaster, and favors close-up dishing to belting.
The show started at the unholy hour of 7 p.m., which meant only two dozen people heard Marina not quite get all the words of “I Call Your Name.” That also meant that the “and friends” portion of the evening – stand-up comedy sets from Sara Schaefer and Nikki Glaser, the hosts of the You Had to be There podcast and an upcoming MTV show – suffered a bit from a steady trickle of late arrivals. But Schaefer has chosen the awkward moment as her medium, so she knows how to ace a set while acting for all the world like she’s stiffing. Glaser is more upbeat. Many of her best jokes are little mines set off by polite ambiguities in our spoken language, and her closer — about how getting good at Fruit Ninja will greatly improve one’s skill at fingering — has something of the same build-and-build-and-release structure of “Move You” or sex itself.
Critical Bias: All three performers have gotten me through more than their share of treadmill hours.
Random Notebook Dump: More of these casual hybrid comedy/music pairings, please!
I Call Your Name (with Roger Greenawalt)
Comedy from Sara Schaefer and Nikki Glaser
Anya Marina discusses a nosebleed during which she ejected a “mass” that she calls “an almost baby”
Anya Marina describes having once had it bad for some Portland guy who was always “negging” her, a sad situation that had the happy result of inspiring “Hot Button.”
LINK: “negging” http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=negging
Whatever You Like
Anya Marina rehearses the two lines she’s been given in Amy Schumer’s upcoming TV show. Schumer, onstage with her sister Kim to sing “Sociopath,” listens, waits a beat, and then announces “We’re going to go another direction.”