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Songs, Songs, Songs

THE DEATHRAY DAVIES at Spaceland, February 13

Even among indie aficionados, the Deathray Davies’ clever-dick but catchy name is better known than their music. But after four albums (though the first couple were effectively solo concoctions by alpha ’ray John Dufilho) and a steadily heavier tour schedule, the murmurs are spreading, as evidenced by a respectably full Spaceland.

The Deathrays are an unashamed throwback, summoning the ’60s and early ’70s with sufficient aplomb and songwriting savvy to render genre irrelevant. With just rope lights illuminating the stage, and six shaggy musicians aboard, DRD’s live show conjures an early Pink Floyd psychedelia largely absent from their more to-the-point, Kinksy and quaint recordings. Adding to the communal vibe is some dude with a ’fro who — in the tradition of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the Happy Mondays — apparently has the sole job of shaking the maracas and his thang.

This is a convincing, road-hewn act, and the players thoroughly relish their palpable onstage chemistry. But essentially the DRD are about songs, songs and more songs, Dufilho’s oft-understated utterances flowering beneath bassist Jason Garner’s balmy harmonies and some charmingly nonconformist arrangements. Rather than dwell upon last year’s well-received Midnight at the Black Nail Polish Factory, the DRD comfortably traverse their back catalog, modifying the set list as they go. “The Medication’s Gone” (from ’02’s The Day of the Ray) is an effective appetizer: bouncing unison riffs mottled with keys and trickles of guitar. The wistful yet optimistic “They Stuck Me in a Box in the Ground Pt. 4” (an ongoing epic throughout the DRD’s discography) and the more driven “How To Win at Roulette” slip 3-D spex on the set before the irresistible flagship, “Is This On,” closes the night as deftly as it might open a vintage sitcom. Well worth your evening when they return (at the Troubadour, April 4).

ROSS GOLAN & MOLEHEAD at the Troubadour, February 17

Here’s an intriguing prospect: a three-piece that never sounds flimsy; an acoustic guitar-centered outfit that’s rarely strummy; an act highly politicized yet not high-volume, opinionated yet sufficiently educated to transcend rebel-without-a-clue venting. Ross Golan is a 23-year-old upstart who conjures Andy Kaufman’s eccentric aspect while boasting inexplicably seasoned songwriting smarts. Molehead are an established L.A. session section (bassist Billy Mohler and drummer Bryan Head — geddit?) who’re a master class of intuitive synchronicity, studied understatement and propulsive, dig-deep pulses.

Golan & Molehead celebrate a rainbow of references, including roots reggae, chunky ’70s R&B, honky rap and rays of summery soul. At first, Golan’s voice, on the opening songette, “Revolutionist,” strikes a little flat compared with the recorded version on the group’s debut disc, Reagan Baby (due in April), but as they segue into the Eminem-aimed tongue-backlashing “Dear Slim,” he hits his stride, adroitly negotiating its sarky, syncopated strains. The album standout “Move,” with its Marley-ish fist-in-the-air defiance, induces involuntary body-bobbing, a testament to built-to-last composition and a rhythm team who ooze inevitable, chewable grooves. While humor is intrinsic to Golan’s poetry, even his most blatantly comic outing — the many-a-true-word-spoken-in-jest “Martha Stewart” — is tune enough to transcend novelty status.

Ross Golan & Molehead should own the country’s campuses and coffee shops by the end of summer: They’re instantly appetizing but leave layers of flavor to peel back over time; dish plenty of post-bong nod-fodder for the slackers; yet are embedded with shards of conspiracy-theory shrapnel for the armchair revolutionaries (few have called out Bush & Sons Inc. the way RG&M do on “M.I.A.” and “Blinded by the Right”). Taken on any level — micro, macro, toe-tapping or finger-pointing — Ross Golan & Molehead compromise nothing. (Paul Rogers)

ERYKAH BADU, ROOTS at Universal Amphitheater, February 11

When Erykah Badu came barreling onstage, diaphanous gown flowing around her body, then dropped dramatically to the floor and rolled through a series of strenuous modern-dance moves, it wasn’t immediately apparent that she was packing a bellyful of baby. Later, when she was down to a form-fitting ensemble, stroking her stomach while singing the line “I got a little pot in my belly” from “Cleva,” it was obvious that the high priestess of R&B (neo-soul is dead, son) was at least five months along. It didn’t slow her down. For over two and a half hours, Badu combined down-to-earth witticisms, poetry, modern dance and a song catalog that is one of the richest and most ambitious in contemporary soul/pop.

“Back in the Day” rolled into “Suga Free”; the Mary Jane Girls’ “All Night Long” was deftly woven into the mix; an acoustic version of the glorious “A.D. 2000,” inspired by the death of Amadou Diallo, was followed by “In Love With You.” While songs from Mama’s Gun made up the bulk of the set, last year’s Worldwide Underground was proudly represented (a revamped “Danger”; “Back in the Day,” which was turned into a sing-along; and the sublime “I Want You”). Badu was in great voice, and continued to puncture her media-misrepresented haughty persona with tongue firmly, often hilariously, in cheek. Ironically, the show was undermined by Badu’s very enthusiasm for performing. Poor pacing and gimmicky interludes stalled momentum and dragged the concert beyond the endurance point for all but the most hardcore fans.

The Roots’ show, which would have been a career high for most acts, was a tad restrained for them. The crowd bounced back very little energy, despite Black Thought and Questlove amping the material at every turn. Only after a dazzling medley of crowd-pleasing covers (from Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” to L.L. Cool J’s “I Need Love”), a drum-vs.-percussion set, an astounding bass solo and a rapturously received surprise appearance by Talib Kweli (performing his classic “Get By”) did the audience finally seem to get it: They’d been in the presence of brilliance all along. (Ernest Hardy)


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