Live: Yann Tiersen Gets Playful at Irving Plaza

Yann Tiersen
Irving Plaza
Friday, April 27

Better than: Most of the Philip Glass and Stephin Merritt music I’ve heard.

Skylinef, Yann Tiersen’s seventh studio album, is only the second album of his current deal with Anti- and, like 2010’s Dust Lane, it pioneers sonic territory structurally different from the old-fashioned chansons that have been on heavy rotation in downtown Manhattan bistros for months. Gone are the sparse, folk-inflected dreamscapes people remember from 2005’s Les Retrouvailles or the twin 2001 releases of L’Absente and Yann’s score to the French film Amélie. Fewer acoustic instruments appear, and those that do are distorted or displaced by vintage synthesizer textures. Instead he gives us propulsive drums and wailing guitars hot enough to rival early Roxy Music. Continue reading “Live: Yann Tiersen Gets Playful at Irving Plaza”

Etta James, R.I.P.

Etta James used to tell a story about meeting Billie Holiday in which Holiday told her — fatherless wild child to fatherless wild child — not to let the bad men and drugs that were going to come her way destroy her. Something about that brief conversation must’ve stuck, because despite many misadventures with drugs and men over the years, James was sober by the time I met her in the early ’90s and carefully planning the comeback which won her new contracts, tours, awards, and laurels. James lived to see her role as a musical pioneer boldly re-inscribed in America’s public memory, then capped her legacy with a magnificent final album mere months before her death in Riverside, Calif., on January 20, just five days short of her 74th birthday. Continue reading “Etta James, R.I.P.”

Pazz & Jop 2011: Carol Cooper on Keny Arkana’s Rebellion, Chart Pop’s Disco Revivalism, and Voters’ Fear of Gospel

These days American pop music sounds too fat and happy, so full of its own global importance that would-be anthems like “Born This Way” and “Run the World (Girls)” come across as insular and petulant, rather than triumphantly universal. Even their companion videos look more like carnival rides than artistic expression. Which is not to say that contrived artistry never works — the country scene is notorious for overthinking how certain singers, concepts, and songwriters might go together. Acts like the novelty trio Pistol Annies hit a sweet spot between humor and truth that brought to mind the Roches and inspired longing for the Dixie Chicks. Big & Rich, meanwhile, gave teens their own hip-hop hillbilly theme song with “Fake I.D.,” replete with bluegrass fiddle and banjo riffs. I also love the typically country juxtaposition of soft voice/hard lyric as illustrated by Ronnie Dunn’s mournful pragmatism on “Cost of Livin'” and Sunny Sweeney’s deceptive bravado on “Drink Myself Single.” It’s hard for my r&b homegirls to match country candor when singing through so much routine signal processing, but Nicki Minaj’s Rihanna-assisted “Fly” proves how sweet two bionic babes can sound once they unleash their inner TLC on the perfect power ballad. Continue reading “Pazz & Jop 2011: Carol Cooper on Keny Arkana’s Rebellion, Chart Pop’s Disco Revivalism, and Voters’ Fear of Gospel”

Meshell Ndegeocello Gets Crafty on “Weather”

“Weather” isn’t the first Meshell Ndegeocello single to fall into the category of “freak folk,” but the album of the same name (Naive) is her first that can be comfortably filed under that genre. Classical and country elements have often enhanced Ndegeocello’s melding of jazz, rock, global funk and hip-hop; since 1993, her live shows have included acoustic string cameos and interludes. She used banjo loops and a harmonica on the jazz instrumental “Luqman” in 2005, and made Chris Bruce play country banjo over flanged keyboard pads and vocals on 2009’s “Crying in Your Beer.” Continue reading “Meshell Ndegeocello Gets Crafty on “Weather””

A Look at Pop Around the Globe, From Operatic Creole Harmonies to Riot-Grrl-Inspired French Rappers

The end of the year brings a flurry of world music albums with commercial intentions ranging from the archival to the optimistically opportunistic. Some, like the Creole Choir of Cuba’s Tande-La or Vlada Tomova’s Balkan Tales, accompany tours by the outfits that made them; others are heavily branded theme compilations — brain candy for collegiate introverts, mood music for bars and boutiques. Continue reading “A Look at Pop Around the Globe, From Operatic Creole Harmonies to Riot-Grrl-Inspired French Rappers”

David Guetta’s Dance Music Melting Pot

People were so busy comparing Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” to Madonna’s “Express Yourself” earlier this year that they didn’t notice the similarities between the lead single from Gaga’s new album and French DJ/producer David Guetta’s 2009 Kelly Rowland collaboration “When Love Takes Over.” Indeed, when you strip both artists down to their sonics, the cultural revolution represented by Guetta’s two most recent records could be potentially more significant than anything yet manifested by Gaga. Continue reading “David Guetta’s Dance Music Melting Pot”

Live: The Boogaloo! Party Keeps It Moving at Nublu

Boogaloo! with Spanglish Fly, DJ Turmix
Friday, July 8

Better than: Paying twice as much to watch the same crowd drink and not dance.

It could have been a disaster — subway service to Loisaida was screwed up (again), it was raining, one of the club’s turntables was on the fritz, the band had had mere hours to warn Facebook fans to feed their own heads since the club would serve no booze due to a sudden (but temporary) problem with their liquor license. Not only did people from different age groups, classes, races, and boroughs come, they cheerfully paid to dance their asses off in a dry bar roughly the size and shape of a large railroad flat. Continue reading “Live: The Boogaloo! Party Keeps It Moving at Nublu”

More Than Words: Going Polyglot With Concha Buika and Les Nubians

In the ’60s and ’70s danceable jazz-pop in foreign languages made American radio more exciting: Jorge Ben’s “Mas Que Nada” charted when recorded by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66; it was followed by Miriam Makeba’s remake of “Pata Pata” in 1967, Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” when covered by Santana in 1970, and Manu Dibango’s irresistible “Soul Makossa” in 1972. Something about each single’s arrangements, rhythms, and vocals allowed these crossover miracles to seduce stateside listeners who only understand English. Continue reading “More Than Words: Going Polyglot With Concha Buika and Les Nubians”

The Rebirth Brass Band Bring Their Brashness to “Treme”

During the first episode of HBO’s Treme, members of the Rebirth Brass Band and the show’s trombone-playing character Antoine Batiste end a jazz parade in front of a neighborhood bar owned by Batiste’s ex-wife, LaDonna Batiste-Williams. The uncomfortable nature of their reunion is underscored when the younger band members try to flirt by asking why she left Antoine. “You wanna know what went wrong?” she replies, dryly. “Married a goddamned musician. Ain’t no way to make that shit right!” Continue reading “The Rebirth Brass Band Bring Their Brashness to “Treme””

Vampires, Fairies, and Succubi: Inside the Shapeshifting Mind of Laurell K. Hamilton

Ardeur: 14 Writes on the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Series
Edited by Laurell K. Hamilton
Smart Pop, 224 pp., $14.95

Laurell K. Hamilton writes supernatural mysteries — overtly erotic and political thrillers that sell millions of copies around the world. Sometimes her protagonists are actual detectives or police surrogates; other times they’re vampires, fairies, succubi, or necromancers. Bizarre though such casting may seem, during the early ’90s Hamilton began proving the viability of blending gothic romance, horror, Celtic mythology, and the police procedural. Her books now top the New York Times bestseller list with surprising regularity, and her international fandom is almost as avid and well-organized as Neil Gaiman’s.

Despite comparisons to the currently higher-profile Twilight and Sookie Stackhouse properties, those multimedia franchises appear little better than updated rewrites of Dracula compared to the complex story arcs Hamilton crafts — for a moody necromancer named Anita and a fairy princess called Merry. Moreover, Hamilton’s witchy, combat-ready heroines intentionally evoke tragic tribal avengers like Britain’s warrior-queen Boudicca more than Joss Whedon’s Buffy — with all the depth and sociological resonance such a distinction implies.

That’s why the critical essays in Ardeur: 14 Writers on the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Series couldn’t arrive at a better time. After more than eight years of authorial blogging and online fannish debate, the many controversies raised by the characters and content of 18 Anita Blake novels get formally addressed, not only by fellow novelists like Lilith Saintcrow and Vera Nazarian, but by “role-play” game writers, professional academics, and the author herself.

The pieces explore Hamilton’s signature innovation of juxtaposing zombies (the ugly living dead) and vampires (the pretty living dead) against shape-shifters (viral, hyperabundant life) in interpersonal situations where body image, body strength, and bodily urges all loom equally large in determining character motivation. They discuss the symbolic meaning of unrepentant female violence in a series about female empowerment. And they examine the pivotal moment in book six when Hamilton transformed her quasi-virginal, sexually repressed vampire executioner into a sex-positive, polyamorous maverick.

Hamilton confesses the autobiographical nature of her process. Plotting by subconscious impulse, she playfully indulges then explodes the rules and tropes of classic horror fiction. Some essayists have a better grasp of exactly how and why she does this than others. But all the contributors agree that, despite the fact that Hamilton habitually defies conventional pacing and audience expectations, her stylistic transgressions function to liberate not only Anita Blake, but the narrative potential of horror fiction itself.

Published in: Village Voice, April 6, 2010