Last week I went to see Blonde Redhead play at Irving Plaza in New York. Although I think their shows could have more energy if they didn't use quite so many pre-recorded tracks (I wish they'd either perform more stripped-down versions of their songs, or just go ahead and hire a keyboardist), they can still be a great live band, and this was a great show, far better than the last few times I've seen them play.
My favorite part of the evening, though, was a brief opening set by Bianca and Sierra Casady, otherwise known as CocoRosie. I wrote about them months ago, and since then their music has just kept growing on me. Devendra Banhart is clearly the visionary of the odd little corner of the music world that they, along with Joanna Newsom, Vetiver and others, inhabit, but at the moment I find myself more often craving Cocorosie's centuries-old rainy-day lamentations than Banhart's wide-eyed mini fantasias.
With just a guitar, a miniature harp and a fearsome array of small musical toys and electronic noisemakers, the sisters did an impressive job of conjuring the uneasy, static air of their record. And their voices (an aging, ailing cat on helium, impersonating Billie Holiday) are just as astonishing in person. One of the highlights was the final song of their set, "Beautiful Boyz," for which they were joined by the redoubtable Anthony, of Anthony and the Johnsons. The song is not on their record, but has recently been made available for download exclusively on the iTunes store. Highly recommended.
"Live Like a River Town," Stars Like Fleas, from "took the ass for a drive"
Of the many bands trying to combine song craft with true, flexible, reactive group improvisation, none I've heard is quite so successful as Stars Like Fleas, a project headed by vocalist Montgomery Knott and composer/multi-instrumentalist Shannon Fields (of the Silent League). And few bands have the resolve to push their music as far toward formlessness, as well as the skill and concentration to coax that formlessness into something listenable, coherent and beautiful.
Ferran Adria, the Spanish mad-scientist master chef, famously makes a "liquid ravioli," held together as if by magic by a chemical reaction between calcium chloride and a kelp extract called alginate, and dissolving into soup the moment it is cut into. The analogy to Stars Like Fleas' music should be clear as soon as you've listened to it. "We never set out to make difficult music," Fields told me by e-mail, "we set out to resist canned musical forms that are pounded into your head since birth and that, as they become well-worn clichés, lose their emotional power. I always hoped that the music we made as Stars Like Fleas couldn't be dismissed as 'cerebral,' as music for intellectuals, because in many ways it's anti-intellectual music."
"Live Like a River Town" is from the band's first record, "took the ass for a drive," which has never officially been released. The track has been made available as part of a two-disc compilation by a French online music magazine called A Découvrir Absolument, all of which is available for free download. Fields told me that at the time the song was recorded, he and Knott were listening to a lot of early recordings of shape-note singing, as well as Roscoe Holcomb records, and music by American composers like Harry Partch and Charles Ives -- but if you think that list of potential influences gives you a pretty good idea of what the music will sound like, I think you'll find that you're mistaken. As long as we're on a Stars Like Fleas kick, you should also download "As Hard As You Want," (free download) from the band's brilliant 2003 record "sun lights down on the fence." Free Download: "Live Like a River Town"
"For Kate I Wait," Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, from "The Doldrums"
Last week I featured a track by Panda Bear, a member of the Animal Collective. Panda Bear's music has continued to grow on me, and this week I have a track from Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, the first non-Animal-Collective-related release on the band's Paw Tracks label. It's astonishing to me, given how bizarre the Animal Collective's music is, that they've managed to find such a kindred spirit, someone whose music has the same chaotic elegance and non-verbal eloquence. Though drawing on a range of Lite FM sources that the Animal Collective ignores, Pink's music unmistakably hails from the same alternate universe. The strangeness of Pink's work has critics scrambling to describe it: A reviewer at Dusted compares Pink to David Hockney and Bruce Nauman, while my buddies over at Pitchfork suggest half seriously that the record is an extended parody of the Magnetic Fields' "69 Love Songs." I'll confine myself to saying that this music is both very unusual and very beautiful. Free Download: "For Kate I Wait"
"All My Friends," Pavement, from "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: LA's Desert Origins"
Ten years after its original issue, Matador has re-released Pavement's classic "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain," including a handful of B-sides and rarities, and a second disc full of previously unreleased songs. "All My Friends" is the best of them. Everything's here: Malkmus' unmistakable lyrics and singing, so sharp, so dull, so bored and witty; Kannberg's guitar distortion and feedback, always hitting the unexpected note, always vying with the vocal and occasionally, gloriously, overwhelming it; and the soon-to-be-fired Gary Young's wobbly drumming, veering between moments of Ringo-style sloppy perfection, and moments of genuine incompetence. Free Download: "All My Friends"
"All of Our Hands," Joseph Arthur, outtake from "Our Shadows Will Remain" Despite his poetic turns of phrase, his melodic gifts, the sonic delights and moody atmospherics of his production style, there's always something mushy and vague about Joseph Arthur's work, both lyrically and musically. In this, he reminds me of Jim White and Joe Henry, two other singer-songwriters who I admire and listen to frequently, but whose work never quite comes into sharp enough focus to leave much of a lasting impression. But while he may speak vaguely, Arthur often speaks very beautifully as well, and on the Internet-only "All of Our Hands" he eloquently mourns the state of the world over a dirging two-chord riff: "We are all the same spirit, we are all the same love/ but still somehow we've chosen to slaughter the white dove/ There is only one energy, just different sets of clothes/ for human beings to dress up and protect what no one knows." Yes, it's a little overly solemn, a little New-Age sappy, but the topic requires a certain degree of solemnity, and Arthur's delivery sells the poetry of the words while de-emphasizing their sentimentality. A video from the song, featuring footage of the Iraq, Osama Bin Laden, the Twin Towers burning and Sudan, can be viewed here. Free Download: "All of Our Hands"
"Sora," Gutevolk, from "Suomi"
Gutevolk is the solo project of a Japanese woman named Hirono Nishiyama, who has worked as a vocalist with the great electronic artist Nobekazu Takemura. "Sora," from 2003's "Suomi," sounds quite a bit like some of Stereolab's more utopian electronic avant-pop -- except that the music is made with all acoustic instruments (guitar, cello, piano, drums, as far as I can make out). It's lovely, but a short excerpt from Gutevolk's upcoming "Twinkle" sounds even better, so I look forward to hearing more. Thanks to Fat Planet for the tip. Free Download: "Sora"
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Have an opinion about this week's downloads? Check out the Wednesday Morning Download thread on Table Talk.