Sunday, August 17, 2014

Bulletproof Spoon

In 1961, sultry entertainer Ann-Margaret recorded I Just Don't Understand, a minor key ballad with a haunting melody that made perfect sense coming from the pen of co-writer Marijohn Wilkin, who also co-wrote the perennial classic Long Black Veil. Producer Chet Atkins gave the song the full treatment, with harmonica, male backing vocals (probably The Jordanaires) and, most outlandishly, a stinging fuzz guitar, apparently only the first or second time such a sound had appeared on a record. The song - and the sound - caught the ear of John Lennon who, according to Mark Lewisohn, just had to sing it. While The Beatles were unable to recreate the fuzz guitar, the song made it into their live set and (after being requested by "Kathleen, Carol and Pauline of Bradford") was recorded at the BBC in 1963.

The Beatles version was essentially lost to history until 1994 when the first Live At The BBC collection came out. By then, people new to the recording were able to bring all their knowledge and feelings about Lennon to bear when listening to the song, investing what could simply be a terrific (if slightly kitschy) relic with extra significance. From what we know of Lennon's conflicted feelings about women - the jealousy, the neediness - its easy to see what attracted him to the song. It's also not the first time he took on a track that had originally been sung by a woman, adding to the intrigue. I Just Don't Understand has had some legs, being recorded a few more times in the 60's and 70's, but no one was searching Jerry Reed's version for psychological insights.

Now we have it resurrected again by Spoon, the one cover featured on They Want My Soul, their first album in four years. They also avoid any fuzz guitar, letting piano drive the song, but there version is interesting window into the emotional territory of the album. Unlike John Lennon, we don't know a heck of a lot about Britt Daniel, Spoon's leader, except that he's a rock & roll true believer, probably as much of a fan of the music now as when he began his career in 1991. As pointed out in the recent article in The New York Times Magazine, Daniel often approaches songwriting analytically, bringing disparate elements from things he loves together in new ways, creating endless nesting dolls of references, inside jokes and homages. Despite those magpie tendencies, Spoon has a immediately identifiable sound, often due to the alternating swagger and vulnerability of Daniel's voice, which has grown grittier over the years and is one of the marvels of rock.

He pushes that burr beautifully in I Just Don't Understand, and all over They Want My Soul, sounding better than ever, but also more defended. We've come a long way from the late-night thoughts of Everything Hits At Once (Girls Can Tell, 2001): "I go to sleep but think that you're next to me." I used to feel guilty playing that in the office after my colleague had been dumped - it cuts to the bone in a way that Spoon doesn't really do any more. The subtext of the album title is "they want my soul - but they ain't getting it." In truth, this is the direction the band has been going in since Gimme Fiction, their breakout album from 2005, and They Want My Soul is their most bulletproof album yet.

That hard, brilliantly textured exterior, perhaps partly due to new production partners Dave Fridmann and Joe Chicarelli, makes for a killer headphone listen, encaging me on the streets of NYC like a Mobb Deep record. Hip hop is not as off-kilter a reference as you might think, as Jim Eno's drums have never been more processed. Let Me Be Mine even has some of the badass Gary Glitter strut of Kanye's Black Skinhead. Inside Out, the second cut, starts with a deep, melancholy groove led by Eno's fat snare, almost outsized in relation to the other instruments. I can almost hear a remix with Chance The Rapper telling a sad story about his grandmother over this beat. Inside Out also features marvelous celestial keyboards which I suspect are from new guy Alex Fischel rather than long-time member Eric Harvey. Fischel came to Spoon from Divine Fits, Daniel's new-wave leaning side project, and his electronic sensibility was one of the delights of their 2012 album.

Eno is the other key member of Spoon and his brick-hard snare is the first sound you hear on They Want My Soul, kicking off Rent I Pay, a great mid-tempo slow burner that sets the tone for the album from the jump. With its aphoristic, pissed-off refrain, it's a bit bitter and as such has companions in Do You, Knock Knock Knock, Outlier, the title track, I Just Don't Understand and Let Me Be Mine, making for a slightly malevolent listen. I don't think Daniel wants us to read too much into that, however. As he said in Paste magazine earlier this month: "...if there's a band that's...doing something vaguely threatening, it appeals to me. I like it." It's as if he's playing with moods and emotions, the same way he assembles the layers of the tracks in the studio.

And those layers sound fantastic, often pairing artfully scuzzy guitars with the sleek gleam of the rhythm section, like a rusted car riding on a chrome-plated chassis. Many of the songs also have a driving urgency that sets the pulse racing, even if you're not sure what Daniel is singing about exactly. Outlier fades in with a pumping bass line, organ stabs, and dry acoustic strumming, lending a windswept air to whatever atmosphere by which you happen to be surrounded. It also contains the priceless couplet "And I remember when you walked out of garden state/You had taste, you had taste." Another classic line comes in the title song: "Educated folk singers want my soul/Jonathon Fisk still he wants my soul/I got nothin I want to say to them." Jonathon Fisk is the name of a song from Kill The Moonlight, Spoon's fourth album, about a kid who bullied Daniel in high school. So you wonder - is Daniel still wounded by Fisk or is he just adding another layer to the glass onion?

In the end it doesn't matter. Spoon has one of the best, most consistent catalogs in rock, earning them the right to be self-referential. They've soundtracked my life since 2005, when I Turn My Camera On triggered an investigation into their past and an investment in their future. They were also one of the bands that made me commit wholeheartedly to the magnicent music of our time and to do my best to stay on top of it, inadvertently leading to this blog. For that, they have my soul. Not to worry, Britt - we don't want your soul, just more terrific records like this one, whenever you and your compatriots are so moved to make them.

Spoon is on tour in the U.S. and Europe throughout the fall.

Catch up with a playlist of some of Spoon's greatest songs.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Bandcamp Bump: Debby Schwartz, Eddie Dixon, Etc.

It remains to be seen if Bandcamp will save the music business, but one thing is certain: there's a whole lot of music to be found there. It has a lower bar to entry than iTunes or Spotify, giving up and comers an opportunity to make their stuff available for streaming and download. They've also recently added "fan accounts" as a way to build community on the platform. Signing up gives listeners a chance to follow artists and other fans to keep up with what's going on and share information. They also have an app, which lets you listen to anything you've bought on all your devices and discover new music through a customized feed. That low bar to entry does mean that you have to wade through a lot of lo-fi, derivative and frankly amateur stuff to find the gems, but they are there to be found.

Last year, I touted the quirky pleasures of Historian and the rock classicism of Journalism - yes I did make a crack about underused graduate degrees - and I still return to both of them. The latter's latest is not on Bandcamp, but easy to track down on Soundcloud, another bottomless well of sounds. Isadora's EP - a Top 20 record from 2013 - is still available to download for $7 along with their stunning new track, Come On Back. [Correction: Journalism's 1324 EP Recently popped up on Bandcamp]

Finding the good music on Bandcamp isn't always easy. Fortunately, there are guides like Lizzie Plaugic, who picks a few of her discoveries and shares them every Thursday via Letters From Bandcamp on the CMJ site. While I've found a few things thanks to her digging (like the naive charms of Palmz) I'm going to share a couple of my own favorites that I came to me via quite different methods.

Debby Schwartz is an old college friend of mine who is a music lifer. She's best known for her time in The Aquanettas, an all-female power-pop band that disbanded in 1995 after some rough treatment from the industry - an old story, except they were on an indie label. Talk about bad luck. Their 1990 album, Love With The Proper Stranger, has aged well - give it a spin on Spotify. So when I heard from Debbie that she had a new EP out, Satan You Brought Me Down, I headed immediately to Bandcamp to check it out.

Debby's contralto has grown deeper and richer in the intervening years but retains that little quaver of vulnerability that makes it so easy to connect with her singing. Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar and working a seam of Americana that is slightly hypnotic and emotionally resonant, she's come up with five winning songs here. Hypnotic turns to haunting on All To Become Somebody, thanks to Pat Gubler's expert work on the hurdy gurdy and a melody that seems as old as time itself. Both the EP and upcoming album were produced by former Voidoid Ivan Julian with a sensitivity to Debbie's voice and live yet dimensional sound. Flashing back to seeing The Aquanettas at Brooklyn Woodstock, I never could have imagined that Debby would be making her strongest music 30 years later. Believe it.

People are coming out of the woodwork at an increasing rate to see if AnEarful will feature their music. Eddie Dixon is one such person and I was glad he did, especially after a couple of listens to what turned out to be his fourth album. Yes, he's been around awhile - besides his own music, Dixon has lent his multi-instrumental talents to a wide variety of music, from Ralph "Soul" Jackson to rapper Serengeti.

Bump Key takes you on a tour through some fractured Americana, with echoes of Wilco, Tom Waits and Michael Chapman. More Bugs Than Birds and In The Morning When It's Late are standouts but the capper is closing track, You Are Not A War. With a groove that gets under your skin and some louche cabaret piano, this song sticks with you. Dixon's dry voice and wry sensibility anchor the project and the production is well thought out but feels organic. Dixon is on to something - climb aboard.

Now, pardon me while I check out Eddie's three other albums - on Bandcamp, of course.


Saturday, August 02, 2014

Fela On Film

"But I say I didn't die, because my name is Anikulapo. I have death in my pouch. I can't die." - Fela Anikulapo Kuti

There was a minor Facebook kerfuffle among my circle a few years ago when an old college friend reported that he had seen Fela! on Broadway and the dancing was "better" than when he had seen Fela in concert back in the 80's. This confounded many of us. By what metric could you compare the professionally trained dancers performing top-flight choreography by Bill T. Jones to the moves of the women, many his wives, who danced on stage with the real Fela?

This conundrum is at the heart of the divide between music as it arose in Africa, where it was a part of daily life, and as it came to be established in Europe, where it develped into a profession with a rigid structure of training and performance. Although it is only glancingly addressed, the conundrum is also at the center of Finding Fela, a new movie about the Nigerian musical legend directed by Alex Gibney.

The film begins with Fela on stage in Berlin in 1978, so magnetic you can't look away, proclaiming "I want you to look at me as something new, that you don't have any knowledge about. Because most - 99.9% - of the information you get about Africa is wrong." After a tantalizing snippet of performance, we get a brief introduction to the shambles (and shame) of post-colonial Nigeria, the violent context from which Fela emerged.

Then we cut to the team that created Fela!, working on the show two years before it debuted. This kind of access is to be expected from Gibney, known for politically charged documentaries like Taxi To The Dark Side and We Steal Secrets. From there the movie proceeds to go back and forth between Fela himself, detailing his life and career, and Fela! the show, with both backstage footage and long clips of a performance.

Much of what we see on both sides of the story is fascinating. Few musicians in history have lived a life like Fela's, and there is no doubt that Jones and his talented crew were utterly sincere in their quest to bring that life and his music to the Broadway masses. However, that didn't prevent a nagging discomfort I had throughout the film, the feeling of being sold to, as if there was something vaguely promotional about the enterprise. As a reel for investors in Fela!, it's hard to imagine something better than Finding Fela - not that it needed any help, as the show was boosted to Broadway by the deep pockets of Jay-Z and Will Smith.

To be fair, that nagging sensation was easily put to the side as I became absorbed in the archival footage, some of it from Music Is The Weapon, a 30 year old documentary based around Fela's bid to become President of Nigeria. We see him in Kalakuta, the compound in which he effectively seceded from Nigeria, educating and employing dead-end young men, and performing at The Shrine, his club. We learn about his middle-class Christian upbringing, and his school days in London, where he got bitten by the jazz bug. By all accounts he was a mediocre trumpeter and a terrible student - "He was a dunce," says his son Femi.

When he returned home, he connected with genius drummer Tony Allen, forming a jazz band that was going nowhere fast. For many years, the dominant music in Nigeria was High Life, a Ghanian import and mainly lighthearted sounds for dancing. As it began to fade, there was active competition among musicians to create a successor. Fela hit on a combination of American funk, mainly via James Brown, and Afro-Cuban rhythms along with the dying strands of High Life, to create Afrobeat, which took off like a rocket.

It quickly becomes clear that Fela's main talent was as an architect, synthesizer and collaborator. In fact, there was no one thing that he was best at. His voice had a limited range and sometimes wavered around the key. While his tone on the sax was distinctive, his intonation was questionable and his solos often revolved around a few stock phrases. On the organ, he could deploy odd chords and harmonies that never quite settle into the songs. While he was always in the groove unlike his hero James Brown he was not a great dancer. His mastery was in how he brought everything together, orchestrating the intricate rhythms, conducting the horns, driving on the band with his unstoppable energy and natural charisma.

Gibney seems to almost parcel out that charisma, as if to avoid giving too much competition to Saha Ngaujah, who created the role of Fela for the stage. While Ngaujah is undoubtedly terrific, it's hard not to see the artifice when confronted with the real thing. The music is also somewhat parceled out, by necessity as the average Fela song is about 20 minutes long. However, as the ubiquitous Questlove points out, "The more it repeats, the more it affects you," so the question remains what first-timers will ultimately take away from the film. Hopefully, they will investigate further - and with a classic like I.T.T. or Sorrow Tears & Blood, instead of the movie soundtrack, which is a good listen but mostly contains edited versions of his songs.

As successful as his early Afrobeat singles were, Fela didn't really hit his peak until he defined himself in opposition to the powers that be following a drug raid on Kalakuta. His first confrontational song (and probably the first in Nigeria) was Alagbon Close, which detailed then harsh conditions in the prison of the same name. From then on, he became more and more outspoken against the corrupt government and military. They didn't take it lying down, responding with a brutal attack on Kalakuta, during which the police burned the place down and savagely threw Fela's mother from a second story window, causing the injuries which claimed her life a year later.

Tony Allen is asked if Fela changed after this devastating experience: "No. He became triple or double of whatever he could be before, you know? No, this time, now he's really...mad." Mad as in angry and also a little crazy. Less than a year after the attack, he married 27 women in one ceremony, claiming the desire to live "a meaningful life" in line with Yoruban tradition. Michael Veal, author of Fela: The Life and Times of an African Icon and one of the well-used talking heads in the film, explains that Fela's approach to polygamy was far from traditional. While some of the mechanics (mostly scheduling) of the domestic arrangements are discussed, the film glides by the discontinuity between Fela's attitude toward women and his message of freedom and sovereignty.

Complex, contradictory, confounding - Fela was all of these things and more. But the music rarely faltered. When nearly every member of his crack band Africa 70 quit over financial issues, he had Egypt 80 up and running in no time. From his first official album, Open & Close, in 1970, until the last in 1992 he released nearly 45 albums, many of them excellent. Thanks to a couple of comprehensive reissue programs, they're all available (I have nine on my iPod now, including the great posthumous release, Live In Detroit 1985) on CD and LP, not to mention Spotify and Bandcamp, so there is no reason Fela shouldn't be an essential part of your musical life, as he is for me.

Since I am already a fan, it's quite possible that I'm not the precise audience for Finding Fela, although it always rewarded my attention and certainly deepened my understanding of the context of his music. As Bill T. Jones states near the beginning of the movie, his impetus in creating Fela! was to stem the growing tide of ignorance about Fela's life and music in the years following his death from AIDS in 1997. While that's an honorable impulse, and the musical served to inject some Afrobeat back in the culture, there's also the matter of what you give up about an artist as powerful and individual as Fela when you advocate for them via a different medium.

The structure of Gibney's movie had me hoping he was going to address that issue, and the contrasts between art and artifice that I brought up above. He comes very close during the end credits, when we see a performance of Colonial Mentality by the Broadway cast, featuring a very special guest: Femi Kuti on saxophone. He's more of a virtuoso on that instrument than his father was and he blows the roof off, in a stunning solo that totally collapses the difference between the imitation of a performance and performance itself.

So in the the end Finding Fela may not be as incisive as I hoped but see it, and don't stop there - keep going until you find the real Fela.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Book Of Fab

They were the Japage 3 (detail of a photo by Jürgen Vollmer)

My wife and I are big fans of The Compleat Beatles, the 1982 documentary that chronicles the story of the Fab Four from beginning to end in a scant 119 minutes. Consistently entertaining, the movie perfectly captures the wonderful arc of their fascinating and incredible journey in a way as satisfying as great fiction. When the Anthology series came out, we relished all the new details along with the astonishing footage and wonderful unheard music, but we missed the concision that made the earlier film so much fun.

So when I heard about Mark Lewisohn's All These Years project, which is to be a three volume history of the boys from Liverpool, with the first book, Tune In, weighing in at nearly 1,000 pages, I was slightly unsure whether it was all too much. Would this be a trainspotters account, full of dull facts and inane arcana that add nothing to a tale already well-told elsewhere? Since it was Lewisohn, I had to see for myself. After all, he wrote The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, which is one of my favorite books about them, along with several other books that contribute to his reputation as a thorough researcher and lively writer who tells it as it was, without hagiography.

I'm pleased to report that Tune In is an unequivocal delight, a thrilling Dickensian epic page-turner that will without question go down as the definitive book on the subject. As each chapter went by, as the unlikely twists and turns continued to accrue, I continually asked myself How is this ever going to work? How are these dead-end kids (and in Ringo's case almost really dead - the doctors told his mother three times he wouldn't survive the night after he was struck down with peritonitis at the age of six) ever going to become The Beatles? And even when they do become The Beatles, how are they going to become any good? And when they do become good, how are they going to get from Love Me Do to Love You To - and beyond?

I still don't know how Lewisohn answers that last question as Tune In ends on the eve of the recording session for their first album. But let me tell you, even though I sort of know the end of the story, the suspense is killing me. So how does Lewisohn pull off this feat of legerdemain? Part of the answer lies in the notes at the back of the book, which lay bare the incredible synthesis of primary source material, prveviously published works and original interviews that it took for him to arrive at his engaging narrative. Another one of his secrets was "spending six hectic months" in Liverpool, which lends an unmatchable atmosphere to the book.

As an example, read how he describes the epochal moment in 1961when Brian Epstein made the journey from his Nems music store to the Cavern Club to see what all the fuss was about:

"The club was just a two-hundred-step walk from Nems, but November 9 was one of those smoggy, cold early-winter days in Liverpool, so damp that smuts glued to skin, so dark that the sooty buildings lost detail and car headlights couldn't put it back. Flights were canceled at the airport and foghorns groaned over the Mersey sound: the cawing seagulls and booming one o'clock cannon. The businessmen [Epstein and his assistant Alistair Taylor] picked a path through narrow Mathew Street, between Fruit Exchange lorries and their debris, and at number 10 Paddy Delaney showed them along the dimly lit passage and down the greasy steps."

This is how it's done, and it's just one of many, many moments that he expertly brings to life. Another thing that makes the book essential is how those twists and turns end up straightening out the story by adding the missing steps, such as the role of music-plugger Kim Bennett, whose persistence and vision kept The Beatles chance of getting a recording contract alive when Brian Epstein was meeting brick walls at every turn.

Lewisohn's solid musical sense further informs his writing, detailing the entire context of the milieu of the early Beatles, from influences to competition, and includes a clear-eyed look at their own burgeoning talents. Trust me, when he calls a tape of jam sessions featuring John, Paul and Stu "inexplicably, a horror," he's dead on. And if you've ever read Mick Jagger's assertion that the Stones were Willie Dixon and The Beatles were Luther Dixon, that will all become clear here.

Tune In will also give you an endless supply of anecdotes for conversation such as the pure gold of the time when Stu Sutcliffe sold half a painting for enough money that John was able to convince him to blow some of it on purchasing a bass guitar and amplifier. This was something no one else had been willing to do up to that point, and became a crucial step in their evolution. Why only half a painting? Well, it was heavy, painted on two boards, and after carrying one part of it, Stu and his friend Rod Murray just got distracted on the way to collect the other half...

Read it - and then join me in the wait for volume two.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mnd Movies

There will come a time when the summer will end. The days will grow almost unnoticeably shorter and there will be a fragrance in the air - almost just a memory - as the first leaf browns, then dies, fluttering to the ground dry and crisp. Passing thoughts of fun times had and as yet un-had will skid across your mind and you will consider unpacking your weekend bag fully for once. But not yet. There's still a little time. What will it be? The Bolt Bus to Boston? Or the Jitney to that friend of a friend's share house out east? The ocean will be cold.

Those summer jams are starting feel a little aggressive, almost dictatorial in their imprecations to dance and have a good time. Something a little cooler is called for, and that's when that download from Stones Throw, still sitting in your DropBox, comes to mind. Yawn something...Yawn Zen - that's it. By Mndsgn. You've heard his slippery electronics in a collabo with Jonwayne on one of those cassettes but aren't sure what else he has to offer.

The first track, Yawn, is more of a question than an answer. Two chords strum back and forth and a little squelchy synth explores the places between, sliding into Homeward with its ticking drums and more querulous chords. Sheets lopes along deliberately, vocals drifting through the mix. What are they saying? Not important: you're into Frugality now, which alternates something almost funky with the inner thoughts of R2D2. Robot dreams. Exchanging is like breathing, which is scientifically accurate. Oxygen in, carbon dioxide out. More vocals, ba ba ba and something about where we belong. Sounds about right. Where else would you be right now? Breathe in, breathe out, exchanging your inside with your outside. Drift off.

Convert brings you awake slightly, with it's half-remembered wisp of a Mount Kimbie groove. No need to move to it, though, you're basking in the Arklite now, glass chimes tinkling and sparkling in the golden rays. Camelblues navigates by sonar, its blip...blip maintaining a steady distance from the shore. There's a sketch of a love song in there, like a dangerous text re-written and then deleted.'s so committal. Txt (Msgs) might be the one that gets you up, at least to plug your phone in. There could be a dinner invitation on the way, or at least a call for drinks before that rooftop bar goes under mothballs.

Damn, it's AM. Slept through. Or is that just the name of the song? Chimes tinkle, gentle waves lap the shore, and then you are up, for the Afternoon Shuffle. Open the fridge, some leftover Chinese and an iced coffee. What's new on Netflix? The line of light on the ceiling has grown diffuse and then disappeared as the sun goes behind the building across the street. Zen brings the moment to a close, 12 songs passing in an instant. But what is an instant? And what is a moment? Is a minute different than an hour, qualitatively speaking? Did this day even happen? Ting. There's that text. Companionship and cocktails await, beyond the dusk. You just have to get there.

Mndsgn's Yawn Zen, a "study in the absence of struggle," is out on August 26th, just in time for the last days of summer. Check your Txt (Msgs).

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Beck: The Central Park Shuffle

I don't always buy the t-shirt. There has to be a synergy between the quality of the concert, the design of the shirt, and the price. As my daughter and I made our way into the Rumsey Playfield Summerstage area for Beck's concert on July 1st, I took note of the shirts at the merch booth. Cool designs, decent prices, but even though I just declared Morning Phase the best album of 2014 (so far), I still didn't buy right away. For some reason, I've never seen Beck live before, and the one bootleg I heard (from the Newport Folk Festival in 2013) was a little uneven. So, he was going to have to seal the shirt deal from the stage.

First up was The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger, who took the stage right around 7:00 PM, while the sun was still hot. They came out strong with Too Deep, which kicks off their terrific album Midnight Sun, before burning their way through seven other songs from the album with barely a pause. It was an impressive display; Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl were in fine form and have assembled an extremely able band to bring these songs to life. I would especially like to know who the other guitarist was - his work was stellar throughout, often coaxing nasty or strafing sounds out of a big Gretsch. Some in the audience weren't so impressed, however, and preferred to talk - their loss.

The GOASTT ended with a cover of Syd Barrett's Long Gone, which was fleshed out brilliantly from the spare original and fit their sound, and Sean's voice, perfectly. With The Dakota only blocks away, I couldn't help thinking how proud Sean's father would be of him - after all, he wasn't born playing guitar like that, or writing songs like Great Expectations. While I've loved his work from the beginning, he continues to evolve and has shown impressive growth in the last few years since we saw The GOASTT at the South Street Seaport in 2010. The main difference is that now the songs match the strength of the band. Make up your own mind when they play a free concert in McCarren Park later this summer.

Before we knew it, The GOASTT's gear had been removed, the audience had tightened up, and Beck came out with six other musicians. They had barely spread out across the stage when they launched into Devil's Haircut from the classic Odelay album. It sounded fantastic and I suddenly realized that I had woefully underprepared my daughter. Morning Phase was the first album of his I've loved in a while and is the one we've played the most recently - but it's really only one side of Beck, as she was learning quickly. "I think you're going to want a lot more Beck on your iPod after this," I whispered to her. She nodded enthusiastically.

The crowd had exploded from the first fuzz-guitar riff and were now boogieing happily as the sun set, but no more so than Beck's band who just seemed amped. They lept nine years into the future, playing a glammed up take on Black Tambourine from Guero, which easily bested the studio version and kept the energy up. Soul Of A Man was warmly received but dissipated quickly when Beck launched into an unbelievable a cappella version of One Foot In The Grave, accompanying himself on the harmonica. He's a slight man, narrow in the shoulders, but he seemed larger than life as he roamed the stage in his dapper attire, blowing and singing for his life. The crowd ate it up and I flashed back to seeing Bowie at the Garden in 1983; I'm not sure I've seen another performer play the crowd with such skill, all the while making it look easy. At one point he mentioned that this was the first time he had played Central Park...legally. If he ever has to return to busking you can be sure his guitar case would runneth over.

He returned to the mic stand, put on his guitar, and conjured up The New Pollution, another blast from Odelay. It sounded beefier than the album version, thanks to the three guitars and two well-equipped keyboard players (including former Jellyfish Roger Manning) and clattered to a halt to ecstatic applause. Beck then related how he wasn't sure how to order the show, whether to start slow and build up or vice versa. He decided to sequence the set like a W: up, down, up - "you know what a W looks like!" On the left side of the stage, Smokey Hormel, for it was he, strapped on a mandolin while Beck and multi-talented Jason Falkner (who looks uncannily like he could be Beck's brother) picked up acoustics. The beautifully conceived background changed to a bucolic scene and they began Blue Moon from Morning Phase. This was what I had been visualizing in the months since I bought the tickets: standing in the night air listening to a perfect rendition of one of Beck's brilliant new songs. The reality was even better, as they brought a little more energy and drama to the song and, despite a few instances of feedback, the sound was rich and beautiful.

Lost Cause from 2002's Sea Change continued the acoustic set, which was completed by a gorgeous take on Country Down from Morning Phase. In eight songs he had covered six albums spanning nearly two decades of work and I found myself gaining a whole new appreciation for his achievements and talents. It also dawned on me that he was putting his whole career on shuffle play. Bowie crossed my mind again as the band struck up the title track to Modern Guilt. While the assumption of characters and personae is in no way as pronounced with Beck, like Bowie he has created a space for himself where he can pretty much do anything he wants. Also like Bowie, he's a great dancer and a bit of a cipher. Even though there are certain things we know about him - a bad breakup precipitated the introspection of Sea Change, he's a Scientologist, he's currently happily married to Marisa Ribisi - we connect with him on stage mainly due to sheer skill as opposed to self-revelation.

He's no robot, though - he forgot a few of the words to Modern Guilt, blaming it on the weed smoke wafting up to the stage; maybe it's because it's not a very memorable song. Think I'm In Love from The Information (2006) always sounded a little like an Odelay outtake but was engaging and propulsive here, driven by Justin Stanley's mesmeric bass, working that Taxman groove nicely, before the virtuosic band morphed it into Donna Summer's I Feel Love - jaw-dropping and delightful. Then came the moment it seemed many were waiting for: the bluesy slide that opens Loser. The crowd roared and it occurred to me the sheer cussedness Beck must have had to avoid becoming a one-hit wonder. He delivered it without apparent reservations, feeding back on the energy of the audience and rapping far more nimbly than he did 20 years ago. We all sang along with our own versions of "soy un perdedor" and the Rumsey Playfield became a total party - maybe the best party in town. The urban strut of Qué Onda Guero kept it going, pushing the sweaty mass towards ecstasy.

Beck's shuffle button then ended the party brilliantly, with a moody, fractured take on Paper Tiger, which led into a set of three songs from Morning Phase. Heart Is A Drum was pure bliss and the vocal tour de force of Wave was flawless, seeming to draw on a deep well of emotion, mesmerizing the listeners. Waking Light was even more epic than on the album, and as the finale crashed and burned, I thought: "This is it - the perfect end to the show, an apotheosis, as it is on the album."

Of course I was wrong. Three more songs followed, ending with a duo from Guero, the playful Girl and the slamming E-Pro, cunningly giving us all a chorus of "na-na na-na-na-na" to sing along with as we danced him off the stage. And of course there was an encore, including hilarious versions of Sexx Laws and Debra from Midnite Vultures, his r&b flavored album from 1999. He gave us the fully monty of James Brown spins and moves, even dropping to the stage, only to have Sean Lennon come out and throw a cape over him. Fun. The fun continued with the real final song of the night, Where It's At, another stomper from Odelay. As the band slid into a vamp on The Rolling Stones's Miss You, Beck introduced all the players and gave each one a little solo spot, including Lennon, who delivered a nice little tambourine jam. Eventually, they returned to Where It's At before cutting it off and linking arms to bow and soak in the applause and well-earned ovations.

Despite some ups and downs in his career, Beck is a master performer with a deep catalog to draw from - why he ignored the chameleonic Mutations (1998) in the set list, I'll never know - who is at the top of his game and currently on the road with the best band and tour of the summer. Catch him. Did I buy the t-shirt? Hell Yes.

Do the Central Park Shuffle on Spotify (minus One Foot In The Grave).

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Make Time For Black Hours

Listen. It's a storyteller's trick, this command to lean in and pay attention - it may just now have worked on you, in fact - and one Hamilton Leithauser deploys with great effectiveness in 5 AM, the opening song from his brilliant debut solo album, Black Hours. "Listen...summer's coming," he intones to the accompaniment of piano and strings, "Slow down...don't chase crowds,'cause I'm right here." It's a mini-overture to both song and album in which he's literally instructing you how to engage with his music. Then the arrangement of strings and winds gains fervor along with his voice: "Do you ever wonder why I sing these love songs? When I have no love at all? Is the life you seek filled with senseless ease? Do you need someone just to cool your blood?" The rhythm section of upright bass and tambourine brings Kurt Weill to mind - but with lyrics by Faulkner and sung in a gleaming tenor to pierce your heart.

Of course, it's all a feint - "I'm right here," he sings, all the while he's constructing this lovelorn persona. Call him "Hamilton Leithauser" if you want to distinguish him from the actual person of the same name. Observed from the outside, Hamilton Leithauser (the real one) seems to be someone who values deep human ties and connections. After all, his wife, Anna Stumpf, sings on one track and has been on tour with Leithauser, playing keyboards and singing back up, while her brother, Nick, is the tour drummer. Paul Maroon, who co-produced and plays guitar on most of Black Hours, is, like Leithauser, an ex-member (or on "extreme hiatus" from) The Walkmen, the band they formed in 2000.

The Silent Orchestra picks up the pace, almost like a film's first scene after the credits. Leithauser's string arrangement has the sweep and pluck of an old Peggy Lee number, with piano and Marimba upping the bounciness. "When you get bored of your mind, come and find me," Leithauser sings, issuing the invitation with which all art summons us. The combination of the two-step beat with the dark and vaguely surreal lyrics is incredibly effective. This is a landmark song. As thrilling as it has been to hear Leithauser's development over the course of The Walkmen's catalog, he's taken another leap here.

The third song, Alexandra, is one of two produced by (and co-written with) Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij. It's shamelessly romantic, with a huge beat, wheezing harmonica, and Batmanglij's irrepressible backing vocals. Like their other collaboration, I Retired, it's one of the lighter tracks on Black Hours. In the movie I'm creating in my mind around the album, these two songs are performed by the character onscreen as he tries to get his life back on track.

11 O'Clock Friday Night returns us to the more subtle and complex sound of the first two songs and has quickly become an essential part of my musical life. Some compositions just entwine with your soul in an ineffable way, like they've always been there just waiting to be heard. Morgan Henderson, of Fleet Foxes outdoes himself here, playing bass, percussion and marimba. Both he and Richard Swift, who drums on most of the album, are as important to Black Hours as Leithauser and Maroon. That said, St. Mary's County finds Leithauser in full crooner mode, singing over piano and strings. As on the rest of the album, his phrasing is precise and original.

Self Pity begins with a ghostly sound that leads into a two-note riff, with Leithauser singing in a spooky high register. Halfway through, a near reggae beat is introduced along with a dub influence. It's entirely unexpected but feels completely inevitable. Writing a song with a turn like that is a sign of real skill, and one Leithauser pulls off on more than one occasion. I Retired does it, too, sliding into a woozy singalong that wouldn't be out of place if sung by Elvis Presley with The Jordanaires. It's just to the right side of jokey, and sensibly fades out.

I Don't Need Anyone has a patented Maroon guitar figure that any fan of The Walkmen will find familiar. Leithauser gives his all, powering over the strings and organ. "Don't know why I need you. I don't need anyone," he sings, a universal cry of the lonely person trying to put a brave face on their solitude. Even if you know Leithauser's wife is right there with him in the studio, singing back-up, you believe every sad word "Hamilton Leithauser" sings. Bless Your Heart stars out in a ruminative mood, pushed along by Morgan Henderson's bongos and Amber Coffman's dreamy vocals. Then the beat picks up in another one of Leithauser's crafty transitions, with the song gaining a epic fervor as he wails wordlessly. Another spellbinding song and one that will stay with you.

Unless you have the deluxe version of the album, The Smallest Splinter is the final song. It features an indelible melody and finds "Hamilton" seeking redemption ("Give me a kiss and tell me I'm alright) and forgiveness ("Show me the man who never disappoints"). It's a fitting end to Black Hours, completing a satisfying song-cycle and a strong argument for the album as a form. And yet...the vinyl release comes with an additional four songs on a one-sided 12" (also included in the tracks available for download in a variety of formats using the code provided). They're also available on iTunes and I strongly recommend that you make the investment one way or another.

These are in no way B-sides. All four songs are as strong as anything on Black Hours proper - in fact they may be more essential than the two Batmanglij songs. Not only do they occupy the same emotional territory, they expand the sonic palette a bit, whether via the the hymn-like horns of Waltz or the Neopolitan sweep of In Our Time (I'll Always Love You). The latter song also contains a hopeful ending to the movie in my mind: "Today is the day/That we're starting again/If I don't look the same/Well that's gotta be a good thing." Utrecht, however, finds "Hamilton" alone again, with just his acoustic guitar and a bed of strings, and the final final song states bleakly I'll Never Love Again. The story, if there is one, fills in a little here: "You liked your hollow world/I guess you're just that kind of girl/And now you'll never know why/ You were thrown to the dark/from the center of the spotlight," and finally: "Your songs may live on, but I don't sing'em." Credits roll, and the silenced audience files out of the theater.

Black Hours is the culmination of everything Leithauser has been working toward over the last few years, a vision of timeless, elemental singing and songwriting that harkens back to the past while remaining resolutely of the present. His work here vaults him to the highest rank of contemporary artists, and one with a bright future irregardless of what happens with The Walkmen.

He can deliver this material live, as well, based on the short set I saw at the BAM Harvey Theater as part of WNYC's Radio Love Fest. The charming suavity he displayed with The Walkmen was still in full effect along with a coiled excitement about his new songs. The band was great and will likely get tighter with a little more time on the road. They'll have plenty of opportunity as he is touring extensively throughout the summer and fall, both on his own and opening for Spoon and Broken Bells.

And what of the othe members of The Walkmen besides Leithauser and Maroon? None of them are sitting on their hands. Revered drummer Matt Barrick is also a talented photographer and will surely have no trouble getting session work. Peter Matthew Bauer and Walter Martin, who shared bass and organ duties in the band, have new albums of their own out, with varying success. Martin's record, We're All Young Together, calls on a who's who of indie rock (Karen O, Nick Zinner, Matt Berninger, Alec Ounsworth) to put across songs supposedly for the whole family - to my ears it's a smug as a Laurie Berkner album, from the overly cute lyrics to the affectedly casual way he sings. Not for me. Bauer's Liberation!, however, is an appealing and slightly ramshackle affair, with hints of the folkier sides of The Rolling Stones and The Faces. His voice is very relatable, reminding me of Paul Westerberg at times, and the songs are sturdy and sometimes soaring. It's a solid, enjoyable album and seems to hint at more places to go for him.