The highpoint of my week was the P.J. Harvey show at the Knitting Factory in New York on Wednesday (see below), but Thursday brought a solid double bill (which almost turned into a sublime triple bill, with the tantalizing possibility of a secret Beth Orton show at Piano's -- but I couldn't get in) of Angela McCluskey and Jolie Holland, both at Joe's Pub. I still feel like there's something a little corny about Holland's shabby-chic retro shtick, but she put on a captivating show. Her singing is oddly instrumental in style -- almost like a great swing violinist or trumpeter -- and her phrasing is dagger sharp and always surprising.
Earlier in the evening was McCluskey, a spectacular singer with an unforgettable Billie Holiday/Janis Joplin scratchy voice. She's an erratic songwriter, but a few of the tracks on her upcoming "The Things We Do," to be released on June 15, are excellent. Expect to see one in this column, if they become available online. Unfortunately, she was backed by a dull, unimaginative rock band that, despite McCluskey's best efforts, doomed the show to mediocrity.
It's always sad to see exceptional vocalists sabotage their music by lazily choosing the most generic accompaniment available. In this, as well in a number of vocal similarities, McCluskey reminded me of Martha Wainwright, Rufus' prodigiously talented younger sister. Wainwright, who doesn't yet have a record out (although I hear she's finally got a recording contract), is, I think, one of the more promising young artists out there, destined to be a star. But she's recently put together a band that contrives to make her music sound like utterly boring adult alternative rock -- which it is not. Time for a producer, Martha.
"Shame" and "It's You," P.J. Harvey, from "Uh Huh Her"
A week ago, I heard P.J. give a spectacular show at the Knitting Factory. The thrill of hearing her incantatory, incandescent music performed in such a small space was marred only by the idiot behind me who kept proclaiming loudly to the girl next to him that there were only two P.J. Harvey songs he liked, and that the concert was really boring him. A word to the wise: Dissing P.J. Harvey isn't a great way of picking up chicks at a P.J. Harvey show. If only the poor, bored fool had known to scalp his ticket on the sidewalk, where they were going for as much as $1,000.
Harvey was in New York in support of her brilliant new album, "Uh Huh Her," released yesterday on Island. "Uh Huh Her" is a stark, minimal album, the polar opposite of 2000's "Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea" and its wall-of-guitar stadium-rock gloss. The record feels like a collection of demos -- not in the usual sense, but in that it often seems as though Harvey is merely demonstrating what notes she plans to sing, what chords she plans to play on the guitar. Even the darkest, most ferocious material here has an eerily subdued quality that makes it all the more powerful. As always with Harvey's music, there is a certain sameness to these songs, particularly harmonically, but the cumulative effect is staggering. "Shame" and "It's You" are my current favorite tracks from the record, but "Uh Huh Her" really should be experienced as a whole. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)
"Madonna," CocoRosie, from "La Maison de Mon Reve"
There's something faintly Victorian about CocoRosie: two sisters holed up in their 18th Arrondissement Paris apartment, singing nursery-rhyme songs in impossibly wizened voices as, in the background, the rain falls and a lonely music box plays. The Casey sisters, Bianca and Sierra, create an extraordinarily evocative atmosphere of cloistered, sometimes uncomfortable, privacy, but it's their voices that really steal the show. You've heard, on "Lady in Satin," the sound of Billie Holiday on her death bed; this is the sound of Billie Holiday from beyond the grave. As with any art this unusual, CocoRosie sometimes slips dangerously close to self-parody, their voices pulling a little too flagrantly out of tune (at the same time, in different directions), or sounding just a bit too much like the helium squeak of Alvin and the Chipmunks. This happens a few times on the otherwise gorgeous "Good Friday," which, until this week, was the only MP3 of theirs I'd found online. Turns out there's more: the bizarre lo-fi trip-hop of "By Your Side," which would be great if it weren't for obnoxiously ironic lyrics, and "Madonna," which is perfect. Free Download: Madonna
"You Make Me Feel," Milosh, from "You Make Me Feel"
Finding information about Mike Milosh is not easy. Better Propaganda, which is where I heard this song, has only a brief, astonishingly incompetent bio (sample: "His voice floats in on delicate waves that explode into exhilarating being"). The Web site for his label, Plug Research, does not mention Milosh at all. And a Google search leads to some German electronic music pages and little else. This song makes me want to find out more, though. At first it sounds like typical lap-pop, with a delicate, clicking beat and little ambient swirlies of sound, but Milosh's singing takes it in an entirely different direction. It reminds me of Sade, with that perfectly calculated, slightly-behind-the-beat cool, or even of Meshell Ndegeocello and her complex, impossible-to-pin-down phrasing, and his skewed, tight-as-a-glove harmonies sound like the work of D'Angelo. It's odd to hear someone singing so explicitly within the idiom of modern R&B over a track that could have been taken from Björk's "Vespertine," but it works beautifully. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that his voice floats in on delicate waves that explode into exhilarating being. Free Download: You Make Me Feel
"Balloon Maker," Midlake, from "Bamnan and Slivercork"
I knew I would love this song from the very beginning, with that beautiful, soft-focus horn sample playing in the background. The obvious reference point for this music is the playfully grand orchestral pop of the Flaming Lips. But while the Lips increasingly favor shiny, slick sounds, this song has a shabby, crackly gramophone sound that I find immensely appealing. The record comes came out yesterday on Bella Union, and I look forward to hearing the rest. I found this MP3 through Fingertips, an excellent resource for finding free MP3s on the Web. Free Download: Balloon Maker
"He Loved Him Madly," Miles Davis, from "Get Up With It"
If you're going to spend 99 cents on a track, it might as well be very long, right? As a rule, any track longer than 10 minutes is not available for individual purchase on iTunes or the other stores, only as part of an album. But for some reason (maybe the work of evil "jazz purists," who continue to miss the point of Davis' '70s recordings) this 32-minute masterpiece, from 1972's "Get Up With It," is an exception, and can be yours for a measly 99 cents. "He Loved Him Madly" was Davis' tribute to the recently deceased Duke Ellington, but rather than the stumbling, staggering, weeping motion of a dirge, it is absolutely static -- everything here is eerily elongated and unnaturally still, with the tone set by Davis' harmonically beautiful, ambiguously voiced electric organ playing. The stillness must have appealed to Brian Eno, who cited this track as one of the most important influences in his development of ambient music. He said the track has a "very strange atmosphere, as if you are standing in a clearing hearing different instruments at different distances from you." That very tangible quality of space in the track makes a great textural bed for Davis' trumpet when it finally enters, 16 minutes into the track, manipulated ever so delicately with a wah-pedal, to create an enthralling, serpentine sound. This is 99 cents well spent. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)