1/2) Eleventh Dream Day and Come at Mercury Lounge (New York, Nov. 25)
Thalia Zedek and Chris Brokaw of Come sat with electric guitars for a short set of down tunes built around high notes — tunes that came most to life in the instrumental passages, with words less messages than structures. Zedek carries the world-weariness of a Slavic Anna Magnani (having flown into New York that day, she apologized for the rawness of her voice, blaming it on the fact that she couldn’t smoke on the plane); for her last number, she picked the first couple of notes of “California Dreamin’.” I took it for a joke, a false beginning to a song that would turn out to be the opposite, but she continued on with an absolutely lethal version of the Mamas and the Papas’ first hit, taking it into Puritan graveyards, the death’s head angels on the tombstones staring back at the singer as she left the song on the ground.
Eleventh Dream Day — guitarist and main singer Rick Rizzo, drummer and sometime singer Janet Bean, bassist and sometime guitarist Doug McCombs, joined by friend Mark Greenberg on organ, bass and drums, and by powerful guitarist Tara Key on two numbers — play infrequently these days, especially outside of Chicago. You’d never know it. With their first song Rizzo drove the music to levels of intensity it takes the best bands five or six numbers to approach. It seemed impossible that the band would ever get back there, but again and again it did. Rizzo has an insistently ordinary, mild-mannered, reasonable, amiable demeanor; what comes out of his mouth as he sings, his voice on an even keel, avoiding almost all dramatics, is a creature of decency and desperation. But as a guitarist Rizzo is without limits, and if the lines he plays have definition, the creature pumping them out has none. He’s a well without a bottom, a creation of fury, resentment, revenge, someone who gives his songs no reason to stop. Bent over to the breaking point, leaning back on his heels, he still looked ordinary, like Bill Paxton — not the good, sort of dumb Paxton of “Twister” and “Titanic” but the friendly, class-clown killer vampire Paxton of “Near Dark.” From beginning to end the band found the song within the song, some core of rhythmic momentum, building on itself, that the song didn’t have to give up, and Eleventh Dream Day seemed to take it not as theirs but as something to be used and then put back in the song. One jarring note: Among the many talismans on Key’s guitar was an old reflector campaign button, showing a profile of John F. Kennedy from one angle, “The Man for the 60′s” from another. I don’t recall “the ’60s” being referred to as “the ’60s” — that is, conceptually — in l960, which means some adman, or maybe Arthur Schlesinger Jr., if not Andy Warhol, was way ahead of his time.
3/4) Cannanes and Steward, “Communicating at an Unknown Rate” (YoYo) and Cannanes, “Electro 2000″ (Insound Tour Support, available at www.insound.com)
This Australian combo is playful before it is anything else. The long “Savage” certainly is, with its bright little synth notes, and Frances Gibson’s sunny, thoughtful voice asking herself questions and a guitar chiming in like a particularly considerate friend. But it keeps on, until the repetitions in the small riffs that build the tune unsettle the notion that it’s headed for a happy ending, like the way that Charlize Theron, in most of her movies, sparkles like a spring and then ends up dead. I don’t know where “Savage” ends up, except that it’s nowhere near where it started, even if, on paper, the notes would say the two places are exactly the same.
The five-song “Electro 2000″ is even sunnier, a dream-pop manifesto, but has anyone ever woken up from a dream as gorgeous as “You Name It”? This is Gibson again, walking through fields of flowers while the Northern Lights spread salacious rumors about her and she plays the Go-Go’s “Our Lips Are Sealed” in her head. In 1983 it might not have seemed so striking, but today you won’t hear anything this band is doing anywhere else.
5) Nick Talevski, “The Encyclopedia of Rock Obituaries” (Omnibus)
Four hundred ninety pages of dead people, even including writers, and not just Lester Bangs. Too much about the lives, not enough about the deaths, but it’s a start.
6) Drive-by Truckers, “Alabama Ass Whuppin’” (Second Heaven)
The name of this country-rock band and the title of its live album sum up the attitude the Drive-by Truckers mean to substitute for whatever else they might need. But halfway through, even they seem tired of it.
7) Neil Young, Friends & Relatives, “Road Rock” (Reprise)
As an apparent stopgap in lieu of the long-awaited many-CD first installment of his multi-many-CD career retrospective, Young offers a recent tour document: note-for-note cover versions. Of his own songs.
8/9) “Amazons of the Avant-Garde” at the Guggenheim (New York, through Jan. 7)
Context revealed the second-spookiest work in this show of mostly promiscuously colored pre- and immediately post-revolution paintings by female Russian artists, which runs in galleries alongside the big, superpopular Armani retrospective. (Sponsored by InStyle: “My favorite magazine!” my companion said. “When people ask me if I’m looking forward to anything, I always say, InStyle!”) Nadezhda Udaltsova (1885-1961) might not have spoken so clearly anywhere else, but here, with her 1915 “Red Figure,” she was a mediator between commerce and the eternal, which is one of the things an artist is supposed to be. In the frame an orange-red cubist woman, slight and slim like the Armani mannequins, sat in a mostly cubist room of infinite style — a room that, with a half-circle of a back window letting in the light, took in the styles to follow, from de Stijl to art deco to ’50s moderne. In its predictiveness, the picture had a harsh, dismissive authority; I mean, you can feel stupid looking at it. Yet the woman is casual in her all-encompassing modernity, on top of the century as if it had already happened and she’s thinking it over.
The No. 1 spookiest piece was Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) in “Grimaces in Art,” a futurist poster from a 1913 number of the journal Teatr v Karrikaturakh. She posed in a peasant’s headdress, with her face painted so violently that the woman then in her early 30s looked 80 — a comment, perhaps, on how old Russian peasant women in their 30s actually looked. But the picture was less historical than primeval: Goncharova’s cheeks, chin and forehead were scored with heavy black lines, cuneiforms, signs, unreadable Paleolithic cave symbols or proto-writing. What you see, along with the heroic shout of modernism, are wrinkles so deep you could stick your fingers in them, unless you see the marks of badly healed scars cutting down and across the face so brutally you can almost feel the knife that would have put them there.
10) Bijou Market hot sauces (1015 Decatur St., New Orleans)
Along with the vast array of submissive Bill and dominatrix Hillary postcards, and the usual do-you-dare hot sauce brands — Open Grave, Capital Punishment, Last Rites, Sudden Death — there was, this year, Bubba’s Best (“As Usual Comes Up a Little Short”), Hillary’s Diet Sauce (“Made From Pure Whitewater — for Use in Place of Health Insurance”) and, among various Lewinsky products, the Monica’s Down on Your Knees hot sauce, with the label picturing what seemed to be permanently attached versions of what Lewinsky herself once hopefully called her “presidential kneepads.” Compared with last year, when Decatur Street shops displayed T-shirts printed with photos of a joyously smiling Monica with semen dripping down her chin, this was a big step toward national reconciliation. Or something.