Music notes: Unexpected highlights

A round-up of the last couple weeks’ music listening, most of it live: Sweeney Todd, Destroyer and Magnolia Electric Co., Built to Spill, Lysistrata, The Comas, and some chubby kids from Michigan with really, really amazing hair.

1. Sweeney Todd at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre

I’m not a huge Broadway musical fan. Not that I don’t enjoy them; they just need to be well done, and my entry point is a lingering suspicion that the music never quite justifies its middlebrow existence. It takes a lot to agree to subject yourself to being surrounded by an audience made up primarily of high school music and drama students from Bergen County and points farther west — know what I mean?


I’d been eager, though, to see the current revival of Sweeney Todd, given both the darkness of the original (there’s something delicious about a musical whose protagonist is a serial killer) and the nature of this specific production: rather than the enormous stage apparatus you usually find, with a barber’s chair perched atop a trap door and chutes that whisk Todd’s victims to the basement (where they’ll be made into meat pies), everything here is stripped to the minimum: eight chairs, a coffin that doubles as multiple pieces of setting, a ladder, buckets of blood, and ten actors, who all play their own instruments. (Patti LuPone on tuba is alone worth the ticket price; Lauren Molina, grinning like Tim Burton claymation as she saws away at her cello, is a close second.) The effect: even greater emphasis than usual on the tragic interchangeability of the victims.

Most readers probably know the show and have read about this version by now. If not, check this out. I include ST here because I wasn’t prepared for how compelling it would be, especially the music. Sondheim’s extraordinarily complex harmonies, overwhelming when offered by a full orchestra and chorus, turn out to be creepier than ever when every line is cut to one instrument or one voice. What remains is just enough to pass over your throat like the whisper of a razor, threatening to cut.

2. Destroyer and Magnolia Electric Co., live at Avalon

Stephanie and I have been Jason Molina fans for a while, since Songs:Ohia days, but more than ever with the incarnation of his new band, Magnolia Electric Co. When we saw them at Knitting Factory a couple years ago, they seemed to be channeling Crazy Horse, with upwards of ten pieces on stage, including fiddles, horns, and female backing vocals. At Avalon last week they were down to five, a lot less country and a lot more Jersey bar rock and roll. Nothing particularly bad about it, except Molina’s punk rock attitude, which seemed a little out of place. (He kicked an empty cup into the crowd at one point, gave cell-phone photographers the finger.) That and he played mostly new songs, a majority of which no one had ever heard before. We enjoyed it, but were somewhat disappointed, given how much we’ve liked the last two albums and the band’s previous performance, brief as it was — they’d been cut short by a midnight show, an annoying habit Knitting Factory needs to kick.

The unexpected highlight of the night: how Destroyer, the opening act, would so utterly show up Molina’s band, a surprise in spite of the fact that Destroyer’s Rubies is handily the darling indie release of the season. Dan Bejar (the New Pornographers’ often overlooked third wheel) delivers like a Muppet chanting beat poetry with a nasal twang over songs that range from operatic early Bowie to full-bodied rock and roll, every once in a while threatening to turn a corner into “Hava Nagilah.” Melodramas of a tortured artist you can’t quite take seriously but whose pain registers nonetheless. I’ve never fully signed on to the New Pornographers; until now I probably would have placed A.C. Newman’s solo record at the top of their stack, though I like the two or three earlier Destroyer records I have (and will shortly be getting the rest of them). But this set left me completely in awe. A good chunk of the crowd was there for Bejar and Bejar alone; the place thinned out when his set ended. At one painful point, someone yelled: “Why are you opening for Magnolia?” I assume Destroyer will headline the next time. You’d be a fool to miss it.


3. Built to Spill, You In Reverse (in stores April 11)

A month or two ago I wound up with a copy of the new BTS album, only it had an annoying anti-piracy warning that cut through every track — a voice that would come in wailing: “Who is Mike Jones?” Still, I could tell this was going to be good.


Having had a clean copy for a week or so, and having listened to it pretty much non-stop, I have to say: You In Reverse is more than good. More than a comeback. This may end up being the record of the year, and yes, I’ve heard the new Flaming Lips album, too. Take the single, “Goin against Your Mind,” which opens the album, and has been on iTunes for a while now: an eight-minute up-tempo assault (with a hell of an infectious chorus) that only slows down once to let you catch your breath. It’s as good as anything else they’ve recorded, and these indie godfathers have quite a catalog. I read somewhere (the little free Filter mag?) a critic’s suggestion that this album lands squarely between the straightforward power pop of 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong with Love and the sonic bliss of 1999’s Keep It Like a Secret, my favorites among their albums. I think that’s about right. It’s familiar, but it’s not the same-old same-old. It’s been five years since they’ve released anything, and I never quite took to the last one, but you better not have written them off for good: they seem to have more than enough for round two. I can’t think of anything else that sounds this good at the moment. Watch while they shame all the cute little arctic monkeylets back to whatever bloc party they escaped from.

4. Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata, New York City Opera


File under: blueball-inducing anti-war protests. I saw Adamo’s first opera, Little Women, a few years ago, and the leap from Alcott to Aristophanes is as big as you’d imagine. The first seemed to reference Copland as much as anything. This one’s a blend of Gershwin and Bernstein. The first act, which sets up the story of the sex boycott planned by Greek women to end a war between Sparta and Athens, picked up noticeably when the Spartans arrived and began to sing in Elmer Fudd-ese. Try to picture a bunch of Spawtans singing about the need to bwing hawmony to aw the states of Gweeze! Then visualize the libretto scrolling over the stage. It was fun enough, but at break we wondered where all the bawdiness of the original had gone. Act II answered the question, as most of the men spend the second half of the opera clutching their painfully obvious swollen members. I was underwhelmed at first, especially given Adamo’s status as one of our most noted contemporary opera composers. The jokes seemed slapstick, the libretto sophomoric. A little too close to Broadway, in my mind, and not quite as compelling as the Sondheim had been, for that matter. But the final number redeemed it all: where everything else had been percussive Technicolor comedy, the last few minutes were moody, Benjamin Britten on bad acid. War will never end, the gods tell us. You’ll be lucky if you get a few breaks here and there. It made the earlier one-offs where the Spawtans and Athenians call each other “imperialists” and “terrorists” suddenly as serious as those words should be taken.

5. The Comas, live at Warsaw, and some chubby kids from Michigan with some really, really amazing hair, live somewhere on the LES I can’t remember precisely

My friend Nicole and her band kicked some serious ass Saturday night in Greenpoint, at the Polish cultural center. I’d seen them at Pianos a while ago, just when they were back from the studio, and they’ve clearly got their shit even tighter since then. It was another example of the opening act seriously showing up the headliners (in this case, some band called Hard-Fi; I’d never heard them and hope not to again). After their set we hung out upstairs in some lodge room with vintage “wood” paneling and a terrific painting of a boyscout, which everyone fantasized about nicking.

From there we hopped back in our friend Gill’s Land Rover (which made the trip to nether-Brooklyn much more convenient) and made our way back to the city. Man, I hate the Lower East Side on weekends. I can see why people go to Brooklyn to begin with. We sluffed from place to place, each one packed with bad music and worse clientele, bridge-and-tunnel boys in untucked striped dress shirts, girls with too much makeup and a starved greyhound look in their eyes. All of this to confirm once again why we more often than not stay cozied up at Fresh Salt. We finally settled into a nasty little place south of some park. (Sorry for the lack of specifics; it had been a long night already by this point.) A band was setting up and they looked just horrifying enough that we couldn’t help but want to hear them. Plus there were big, soft couches and only about half a dozen other people there (we doubled the crowd when we arrived). I can’t remember the name of the band, but they were from Michigan: four or five barely legal emo kids who hadn’t quite shed their baby fat but looked like they worked out a lot, trying hard to get it to go. Most amazing of all was their hair. In silhouette it looked like they were going for Robert Smith (though none of them wore eyeliner or lipstick, at least not that I can recall). But they all had the same bleached-out frosting job. We decided they must be called “My Mom Owns a Beauty Parlor.” Come to think of it, those hairdos resembled something you’d expect to see on a slightly overweight suburban Michigan hairdresser. The kids sounded tight, though, even if the genre was unbearable. You had to give them credit for bringing their act to the city; I’m sure this was a momentous event for all their friends at home: on tour in New York! Who knows, they may very well be on Disney channel next year, at the top of the iTunes charts, buying overpriced real estate in that very neighborhood. Dave took 400 pictures that night; I’ll ask him to upload a couple later today so you can get the full effect.

When the boy band finished its set, a sleazy emcee in a long black leather coat took the mic and thanked us all for coming. We made our way to the exit. Was it our collective age? The fact that at least a couple of my friends look like rockstars? Did they think we were from a label? I can’t say, but both the emcee and the cutest of the Michigan boys chased us out the door, CDs in hand. If we’d liked them, they panted, we should keep an ear out for their new record. It was a little surreal — could this place actually exist, a crummy little cave in the bowels of the city, midwestern rubes offering up power chords to the rock and roll gods? — but it was also the most real thing I’d seen in a while, and unexpectedly touching: completely outside any hype machine, without capital or glossy press coverage, here was music that transcended its place of origin, wearing its little emotions right on its sleeves, heavily hairsprayed manes quivering to the beat above puffy pink play-doh faces.

Update: Here are a couple of shots by Dave that try to give some idea of the glory that was the boy band’s hair.

Boy Band 1

Boy Band 2

2 responses to “Music notes: Unexpected highlights”

  1. Nathan Waterman says:

    the sweeney todd cast looks like the arcade fire 10 years from now.

  2. […] If I were 22 all over again, Dan Bejar would be my Stephen Malkmus: as it is, I’m too late on the scene to be willing to unpack the dense web of references that make up most of his lyrics. No matter: I like the ones I get right off, playful little references that make you realize how fun the music is. (I’ve always assumed the band named itself after the KISS album, but a prophetic warning on “A Dangerous Woman Up to a Point” has me thinking otherwise now: “Those who love Zeppelin will eventually betray Floyd / I cast off those couplets in honor of the void.” What exactly would it mean to betray Floyd? And what relation would such a betrayal have to “the void,” let alone the impulse to honor it?) But the songs themselves convince you that there’s more going on here than just verbal fun and games. Gone are the early-Bowie-wannabeisms that sometimes plagued Destroyer’s first few records; there’s still a tendency toward the operatic, but it’s opera that rocks, not rock wanting to be opera, as I realized last spring when his live set bum rushed me and left me for dead. Infinitely more interesting than his New Pornographers bandmates, Bejar trades in a brand of smart rock that draws you in even as you realize he may be just as willing to drive you away. […]