Enfant Terrible

You might have been forgiven for expecting nothing but well-behaved, cutesy pop from the March Records anniversary get-together last Friday. But what’s a ninth-birthday party without the bad kid acting out—in this case, Graham Smith, a/k/a Kleenex Girl Wonder? Early on the first night of the two-part affair at Brownies, Smith made an unannounced appearance backed by some of his high school friends (the band played on Saturday, too), taking a maladjusted turn away from the rest of the evening’s polite offerings.

The “informal practice disguised as a show,” as Smith put it, focused mostly on songs from 1999’s Ponyoak and newer material, including a few tunes from the recent double CD Smith, which is actually an album interspersed with a juvenile rock ‘n’ roll adventure narrative. On record, Kleenex Girl Wonder continues to outgrow the Guided by Voices Jr. tag, experimenting with a widening palette of sounds and textures, but live, Smith and his buddies translated his University of Wisconsin-grown one-man lo-fi overdub sessions into an unvarying facsimile of arena rock. Pounding drums, occasional squealing bent notes, and two thudding basses provided the backdrop for Smith’s autobiographical tales of postadolescent love and frustration, plus a truncated cover of Journey’s “Any Way You Want It.” It’s a little beside the point that after their punchy opening number, the anthemic “Reunited Airlines,” the set gradually became casual and sloppy. But when even the lilting folk pop of “So Right, It’s Wrong” and the summery jangle of “Tendency Right Foot Forward” were subsumed by the monster rock extravaganza, it was a sign that either the band isn’t capable of anything else or Smith was simply trying to be contrary when surrounded by coyness. And if the latter’s the case, it’s hard to decide whether to laugh at his stubbornness or wish he’d grow up. —I-Huei Go

Once and Again

Producer-host Jack Kleinsinger described last Thursday’s concert at Lincoln Center as an arranger’s workshop. He lined up a big band, the all-female jazz orchestra Diva (my favorite hair band), and three veteran orchestrators: Slide Hampton, the longtime NYC trombonist who writes regularly for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra; Tommy Newsom, a frequent contributor to the Diva book; and Bill Holman, one of the great living figures in the art of jazz orchestration.

Yet the term “workshop” wasn’t quite accurate, as these three weren’t introducing works in progress but pieces that have already proved their worth. Hampton and Newsom presented themselves as star soloists, Hampton most winningly with a forceful treatment of Thelonious Monk’s “Little Rootie Tootie” and a recasting of “Night in Tunisia” in 5/4 time. Newsom, whose toothy grin made me nostalgic for the years I spent falling asleep in front of Johnny Carson, surprised the audience as a tough tenorist of no small ass-kicking ability—as he demonstrated on “Tickletoe,” his homage to Lester Young.

Still, Holman, who’s based in L.A. and couldn’t remember the last time he appeared in New York, was the star of the evening. Like the others, he played a mere three charts (one of which was his 45-year-old revision of “Stompin’ at the Savoy” done for Stan Kenton), but that was more than enough to justify his reputation. Holman closed with a tour-de-force treatment of “Just Friends,” conceived along the lines of a dynamic improvisation in which the trombones spin endless variations for one chorus after another. Bringing together three seventysomething males and a dozen-odd, much younger females, the show was a concise encapsulation of where the jazz orchestra has been and where it’s going. —Will Friedwald

Ghosts in the Machine

Though electro started as party-people music, with “Planet Rock” pumping up the jams via Kraftwerk and Parliament, some nu-skul electro artists take an altogether different tack. As the head of the Interdimensional Transmissions label and the distribution company Star 67, Ectomorph’s Brendan Gillen has supported electro tunes that are kitschy (Detroit Grand Pubahs’ “Sandwiches”) and quirky (I-F’s “Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass”). But if Ectomorph’s rare live appearance at FUN on March 14 was any indication, things are about to get a little darker.

Robot voices are almost a requirement in electro, and Ectomorph made sure of their presence. Wearing a Britney Spears T-shirt, Gillen’s partner, Erika Sherman, triggered the set with a toy megaphone, intoning the lyrics in a vocoderized monotone. The pair’s stern faces made them look less like musicians than computer technicians, and when Gillen’s Akai sampler quivered under the pressure and crashed (abbreviating the set), that’s exactly what they became.

Though they were methodical, the music was far from sterile or clinical. The sounds they made were ghostly, leaving dank psychedelic trails that were more haunting than happy. Everything seemed submerged; synths gurgled and percolated, leaving only ripples in the sand. But Gillen and Sherman were hindered by a sound system so quiet you could speak without shouting, and the bass was nearly nonexistent—without it coiling around the beats, the music felt anorexic. Unprotected by the cloak of a big, warm bassline, the group spent the short set creating waking nightmares, in which they juxtaposed pretty, almost childlike whimsical washes with songs more sinister than Afrika Bambaataa ever imagined. While the grit has been wiped clean from electro’s shiny surface, Ectomorph carved enough grooves in their polymorphous breaks to create something like restrained funk. —Tricia Romano

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