THE EPOXIES, THE SCENE CREAMERS at the Troubadour, March 16
Portland's Epoxies are irrepressible, but they manage to be so without being trivial; this is a band playing new wave as if it is in fact new — new wave as a shout! Roxy Epoxy's body hums like a battery, and his group's name is lit up behind them — a common tactic, but somehow refreshing. Why shouldn't they be in lights? Why shouldn't they emerge from the mist, looking motley, sounding sacred? New wave's an amped-up version of the mundane, a Bible written in eyeliner. The test of it is whether you can set aside your own distrust of the absurd. The test is whether you can allow yourself to believe, and in doing so stumble over your own absurdity. The Epoxies play like Bible Belts testify, playing with an intensity far exceeding their format. The Epoxies are the color pink once it stops being cute and becomes, instead, rife with possibility.
The Scene Creamers are mincing, effeminate and furious. This is lounge music crackling like twigs breaking. There's a sense of something being sought and something being found. True, some of the lengthy intros go on too long, lines cast over the river and into brush. But when the hook sinks, it's a worm your teeth squirm to. "Protests are like funerals — you still have to go": The apparent cynicism has more to do with idealism than your typical kiss-don't-kill spiel (true idealism is never blind, idealism looks at reality's maw and spits into it). The Scene Creamers' songs occur within the larger rant of their performance as a whole; between rattled sabers, you see them winking. Talking of Hitler's Wagnerian doom, they offer a musical narrative of their own, a glitzy ooze of a story that casts Bush as the Wicked Witch of the East, twitching beneath the house of an audience's intent. Accurate? Perhaps not. But because their scenario's interesting, it's more true than any oft-mouthed slogan.
SCANNER scores Alphaville at Veterans Wadsworth Theater, March 15
A packed house is made to understand that "All things weird are normal in this whore of cities" — a meditation of Lemmy Caution in Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, the futuristic metropolis in which he suddenly finds himself (literally and metaphorically). As "Ivan Johnson," his cover as a reporter for Figaro-Pravda is used as a ruse as he soundly routs logical thugs and nonchalant seductresses in his hotel room (within the first 10 minutes). Robin Rimbaud, a.k.a. Scanner, underscores the action with the sound of metal forks on wires, telegraphic incontinence and suppurating drones matching the beating heart of the evil supercomputer Alpha-60. Onscreen, symbols of the past and present (ca 1965, including neon, Dick Tracy, Nosferatu, skinny ties, tape computers and the Instamatic™ camera) suggest that the future will not bring earth-shattering change overnight — rather, it is a slow acclimation to something vaguely futuristic but deeply rooted in an ever-present "now." "No one has lived in the past . . . and no one will live in the future" — this and other aphorisms are delivered by the voice of Alpha-60 (played by a throat-cancer patient with an electronic voice-box).
Scanner (whose next project involves combining all Swans songs into one 45-minute piece) pulls and prods unseen buttons and levers occasionally, delivering a hazy helix of feedback unobtrusively at a table on one side. Alpha-60's slow speech pattern implies superficial understanding of its words, when in fact large chunks of data slip away unnoticed, lost in the ongoing struggle to listen and understand its logic. Heads are shaken in the affirmative; "no" means "yes," and the question "Why?" has been outlawed. Scanner's score occasionally overrides the dialogue, but the original Paul Misraki score (with its film noir trumpet stabs and chunky, lurking drums) is largely retained. (David Cotner)
THE STREETS at El Rey, March 11
More than most kinds of music, dance tends to follow a bottom-up trajectory. A song gets a good reception in the clubs; an entrepreneurial label pounces on it; and then maybe (probably not) music critics discover it. The American reception for England's the Streets has been just about the opposite — all press accolades, little in the way of sales.
Essentially The Streets, a.k.a. Mike Skinner, combines backing tracks drawn from two-step and speed garage (the U.K.'s leading form of dance music) with emceeing that recalls day-in-the-life-style hip-hop. He's been called a U.K. analogue to Eminem, but Skinner's lyrics are clumsier and lack high drama. Chronicling a life of Playstations, fast food, kung fu flicks and weed, Skinner shows the perspective of an Eminem fan, not Marshall Mathers himself. What makes this act a particularly hard sell over here is how un-universal it sounds, what with the cockney accent and the fact that speed garage hasn't done that well outside of London. It's hijinks on the dole, like Trainspotting, the Musical. Oh wait, Trainspotting took place in Scotland? Well, my point exactly . . .
At El Rey, the night before his American television debut on The Tonight Show, Skinner showed the wisdom of his own lyrical self-evaluation: "Cult classic, not best-seller." Accompanied by a three-piece band, Skinner had more energy than your standard rap act; his compositions were full of high-tension keyboards à la the string theme to Jaws, and the stutter-step rhythms were surprising at first, though their slipperiness quickly grew predictable. Skinner delivered his lyrics in a speak-sing, and lazily strolled the stage, either bored half to death or half in the bag. It worked. His apathy provided a star-in-waiting quality that distinguished him from most underground rappers, the closest thing he has to U.S. peers. By comparison, the night's opening act, Busdriver, was earnest enough for a poetry slam.
Halfway through his set, Skinner's indifference became infectious. "I'm going to invite a girl from the audience up here to pour beer over my head," he said. Two women stood onstage, and he handed an open container to the one dressed in white. "You gotta make some noise when she pours beer on my head," he told the audience. The lady in white poured the can all over herself and her friend in pink, ignoring Skinner entirely. He kept talking: "In its own little way, my body was trying to say that you better stop drinking brandy." (Alec Hanley Bemis)
CHARLES LLOYD QUARTET at the Jazz Bakery, March 15
There are a few artists who can lift you, center you, lend proportion to a universe that can seem completely out of whack, and Charles Lloyd is one. This saxist-flutist's music from the '60s, when he was a big-selling jazz-pop crossover phenomenon, was plenty good, but any four bars he's blown since his late-'80s return from semiretirement, especially in the last several years, stamp his enormous growth as a musician and a human being.
Lloyd proved it again at the Jazz Bakery on his 65th birthday, after a late start due to an allergic flare-up. On tenor, in the course of blues, Latin bumps and cosmic grooves, he poured out the fastest and the stillest of improvisations with an infinity of animal inflections, and a tangible yet transparent tone through which you could see the atoms behind the illusions. On flute, he swung with bop insistence but could trail off into breaths and overtones as subtle as the tremblings of leaves in a morning breeze. His statements on a specially built wooden soprano sax removed all traces of that instrument's whiny quack in favor of a dry Arabian resonance. He rocked and salaamed to the rhythm, eyes squinted shut so he could see the music's shape. And after all the sacred seriousness, he could wryly ask whether you'd want to hang with a Texas rube or a Frenchman who digs Charlie Parker. Lloyd is an all-time great; don't doubt it.
After the wounded meditation of Lloyd's latest recording, the post-9/11 Lift Every Voice, the music on this night was a shock, which was mainly down to pianist Geri Allen. Allen has been quietly supporting Lloyd on and off for years; now she's speaking in her own voice, adding layers of dissonance to her drones, challenging the ethereal sax with thorny, percussive harmonic counterpoint, surpassing her early-'90s peaks of fiery intellectuality with a fully rounded expression of her fiercely tender genius. All the while, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Eric Harland, tigers of a slightly younger stripe, wrestled sinewy rhythms fully within themselves yet at the edges of their formidable technical powers — when Harland exploded into his solo, it was downright scary. Don't fuck with peaceful artists; they bite. (Greg Burk)
AMERICAN HI-FI at the Troubadour, March 14
Stacy Jones isn't doing too shabby for a guy who used to play drums in Veruca Salt. Strolling onstage just after 10 p.m. with brewskis in hand and looking more Brit-jaded than Midwest wholesome, the singer introduced American Hi-Fi as "just a rock band." O, false modesty: With The Art of Losing, the L.A.-based quartet have unleashed a generation-galvanizer on par with Nevermind, even the post-grunge rush of maiden Foo Fighters. Call it hyperbole if you want, but when's the last time you saw a pit spontaneously erupt west of Robertson Boulevard?
Whether having back-burnered his muse for too long or blessed with reservoirs of energy, Jones acts like a guy making up for lost time. Though American Hi-Fi were in the nation's capital 12 hours previously doing a radio show, that didn't faze their more dedicated stalkers. "I saw you guys this morning in D.C., and now you're here in front of me. Do you realize how crazy you are?" Jones ate up the love, but after burning through gem after pop-punk gem, he suddenly remembered the chapter on attitude from the rocker's handbook, snapping, "The fuck are you laughing at?" In need of a midset breather, the Hi-Fi explored their "sensitive side" with a mellow track — not the band's strong suit, but they rebounded hard with a cover of the Jam's "In the City." And while it's easy to read the Standard Bar reference in "Break Up Song" as currying favor with the locals, the real reason people go apeshit over this tune is the roll call of Cheap Trick, My Bloody Valentine, Pixies and Back in Black — you know, the kinda records ex-lovers fight over.
Meanwhile, the Troubadour either undersold tickets by accident or the label was trying to manufacture demand, because sold-out shows don't usually have this much elbow room, and you professional clubbers know you can't overestimate that kinda comfort. Either way, Island/Def Jam knows it's stumbled onto something good. (Andrew Lentz)
SONDRE LERCHE, NADA SURF at the Knitting Factory, March 10
There are few things more frustrating to relate than a great performance followed by a good one, but that's exactly what happened at the Knitting Factory last Monday. From the moment Sondre Lerche hit the stage with the gorgeous "You Know So Well," his falsetto ringing out at the end of each chorus like Jeff Buckley back from the dead, the capacity crowd was mesmerized. And his sassy, jazz-inflected rhythms — more "The Girl From Ipanema" than "Kind of Blue" — only deepened its infatuation.
But his songwriting was the real intoxicant. This 20-year-old Norwegian upstart hasn't been mining Kurt Cobain or even Donovan for his melodic ore. He's from that Cole Porter/Burt Bacharach school of pop schmaltz that graduates tunes so complete, they seem to jump off the sheet music before arrangement or performance is even contemplated. The bumpy staircase of diminished chords that bounced the listeners into the comfy "Things You Call Fate" underscored that Lerche's songs come fully furnished. And yet his folkie vocal delivery was so understated, his lyrical flow so unforced, that you had to approve when he sang, "It's just the attitude . . . or in fact the lack of it" on "Living Lounge." This sweet kid had all the cool of Fred MacMurray on My Three Sons, but on a stage that's seen its share of self-important rock posturing, he sounded very hip indeed.
So when Nada Surf closed the show with the mundane poetry of an ordinary life thoughtfully examined, over the same old 4/4 beats, it only served to illustrate why the term "alternative rock" no longer makes any sense to the slow trickle of escaping Lerche fans. And Nada Surf didn't suck — "Blizzard of '77," "Hi-Speed Soul" and "La Pour Ça" were all pleasant songs, expertly performed — but after Lerche's unconventional fusion of flamboyant pop and anachronistic rhythms, their overly long set of predictable fare sounded pretty dull. (Liam Gowing)
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DJ VADIM at Temple Bar, March 14
The Russian Percussion Tour isn't the horde of chest-thumping Cossacks you might expect. In real life, Moscow-born, London-raised DJ Vadim has an accent as thick as Gilles Peterson's, though fashionwise he was rocking it traditional in serf's beard and peasant cap. With no more than guest vocalist (and wife to Vadim) Yarah Bravo plus DJ First Rate (of Scratch Perverts fame), what started out as disappointment at the absence of live musicians rumored to appear soon gave way to the ecstatic realization that the Tour is at its most ass-kicking in nuclear-family mode.
"Do we have any Ninja Tune fans out there?" asked Bravo. Er, does a Siberian grizzly shit in the tundra? But tonight's living-room intimacy didn't mean forsaking the global. Just before launching into "Pacifist," from the new U.S.S.R.: The Art of Listening, Bravo asked, "How do you all feel about going to war against Iraq? We consider this next track an open letter to the powers that be, especially George Dubya Bitch and his little puto Tony Blair." Rarely is clubland's political task force this focused — or head-nodding.
The set's real power came from a gradual paring to the essence, the beats. After losing Bravo and then the fidgety fingers of First Rate, who wore the stylus down to a nub after some mad soloing, the night was sweetest with just Vadim and his crate-digging instincts. Delving deep into the Quannum/Solesides catalog with dribs and drabs of Project Blowed and everything from James Brown to Björk in between, the mad Russkie made nary a peep nor did he even acknowledge the audience. Then again, with folks bouncing and body-rocking well after the lights came up, he didn't need to say shit. (Andrew Lentz)