Do the Carlton Banks

Given that Khaela Maricich, one-half of Portland, Oregon’s electro-pop duo the Blow, tends to see sex as essentially a consumer transaction beholden to the cold logic of supply and demand, it’s remarkable that her show at NYU last week was free. The band’s twitchy, postmodern love songs mix personal melodrama with technological alienation and economic necessity—”All the girls, they’re sitting on a pile of gold,” she sang, “and the boys, you know they want it.” In summation: “It’s economic/They need the warmth that we export.” Her consumer-driven view of intimacy makes sense: She tends to write songs about people she desires but can’t have, and that doesn’t just make her feel disempowered and helpless, but also suspicious about what made her want them in the first place. (“Maybe I just want them cause I know they’ll reject me,” she suggested.)

Meanwhile, her musical partner, Jona Bechtolt, cued up the scuttling laptop pop that populates their latest full-length, Paper Television, from the balcony, leaving Maricich alone in the spotlight and turning the show almost into performance art. “This is the silly sax bridge,” she announced when the time came. “No big deal, you dance through it.” And she did, whipping out the Lawnmower, the Sprinkler, the Shovel, the Lasso, the Robot, and the Carlton Banks. Later, as she worried a boy might pawn off her heart for cheap on “Hock It,” she proffered up an imaginary one in her hand, twitching her fingers along with its pulse.

Beneath these boy-girl allegories, though, there’s another drama playing out here, between the human voice and white noise. It’s a classic tale of the individual’s struggle against technology: Even as Bechtolt’s electro-kitsch props up Maricich’s lyrics, it’s so chintzy it calls her honesty into question. Fortunately, that’s exactly what she’s after—Paper Television is more or less the byproduct of that tension. “I still believe in the phrases that we breathed,” she sang, before being drowned out by a storm of squiggles, blips, and snares.


Colonial Williamsburg Tastes Meet NYC Williamsburg Sensibilities

On Fridays, there’s a homeless man who plays electric guitar outside my building. We affectionately call him “Guitar Bob.” This irks and confuses Guitar Bob, because he genuinely believes that he’s Joe Walsh. To his credit, he does play a mean solo on “Hotel California,” and can also unflappably recite pretty much any mundane autobiographical detail of “his” life. Frankly, Guitar Bob is that awesome kind of crazy—fun, and committed to his delusions. If he was actually talented and obsessed with stoner pop, he’d probably rock just like Dr. Dog.

Inasmuch as your enjoyment of it depends mostly upon your level of cynicism and your definition of “authenticity,” We All Belong is like the Colonial Williamsburg of psych-pop. Most of the music here consists of cloned sounds from the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and the Band layered on top of one another, and if the best tunes (“Alaska” and “Don’t Pretend”) are any indication, the Big Pink imitation is the glue: Ragged vocals match ragged playing, with all the instruments falling drunkenly together on the same deliciously lazy beat while sunny harmonies crest and crash in time with straining guitars and drums. As ’70s revivalists go, Dr. Dog are uniquely non-twee: They proudly flaunt their obsessions with sex and weirdness, and they don’t bother couching them in elitist ironies. They’re totally authentic about being inauthentic. Like Guitar Bob, that makes them easy to love.


Some Thunder, But Too Much Lightning

Yeah, it’s supposed to sound that way. “Some Loud Thunder,” the title track off CYHSY’s sophomore release, is a fun, crisp pop song—all hand claps and cowbells and jangly guitar—fed through a haze of radio static, like it’s crackling between AM channels on a long drive through the desert. A nostalgic gesture, I guess. But it’s also hard not to be skeptical. This is a band that emerged in 2005 as though genetically engineered in some East Village basement to generate blogger appeal. Their first, self-titled disc was packed with all the hippest rock references—Talking Heads, Neutral Milk Hotel, etc.-—but instead of being angular and crisp, those influences sounded as if they’d been left out in to the sun too long and melted into something warped and druggy. Frontman Alec Ounsworth sang like David Byrne and looked like a waiter at a vegan restaurant; like true hipsters, his band was accelerated and responsive, a psychedelic amoeba consuming rock idioms and excreting catchy little bits of digested zeitgeist. Take Thunder‘s dance-punk confection “Satan Said Dance,” which wraps its pumping beat and twitchy chants in a swarm of electronic squiggles, belches, and bleeps, a rapturous sound that nonetheless sounds absolutely redolent of the Rapture. On top of all this, they had a silly name, and enough “DIY integrity” to flatten a polar bear. If they didn’t happen to be so good, CYHSY would’ve been a pretty ingenious bit of meta-parody. As it stood, they were that rare rock item: a postmodern band that seemed to be genuinely, excitingly weird.

Sadly, knob-twiddling wooze-hound Dave Fridmann makes them sound very aware of all this on
—the producer’s atmospheric flourishes have always been heavy handed, but here they muddle tightly conceived pop tunes that would’ve sounded better scrappy. Too often, there’s simply not enough of the band in the mix. What the record does have, though, is a collection of truly great melodies, and when the music focuses directly on them—meditating on simple chords—that new sense of sound and space offers moments of pure euphoria. “Emily Jean Stock” finds Ounsworth’s strangled yelp riding the crest of a gorgeous Technicolor harmony, and the sub-aquatic “Five Easy Pieces,” ripe for a Cameron Crowe love scene, is an equally beautiful bit of cycling mist. Time for a new producer. Two words: Danger Mouse.


All-Star Stooges Make Brit Bleakness Cool Again

Thirteen years after Blur released Parklife, frontman Damon Albarn finally has its natural successor: a quintessentially English pop record. Truthfully, anything else would have been an awful waste of talent. Albarn’s latest stooges include ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon, Afrobeat legend Tony Allen, and former Verve guitarist Simon Tong. There’s also producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, who does a predictably masterful job of framing the essence of his subjects instead of pissing in a circle around them. The music, however lean, is the most poignant vision Albarn’s devout Anglo-centrism has offered: a beautifully dark, boozy, overcast dream of London, cinematic in its scope and careful in its craft. Like all dreams, the meaning is in the details: the kinky slackness of Simonon’s bass, the muted exoticism (however underemployed) of Allen’s drums, the echoey fuzz of the vocals, and the electronic sounds that skip, scuttle, and blip mischievously within otherwise cheekily formal rock structures.

Mainly, though, it’s Albarn’s innocent melodies that do the job, gleaming through the album’s pervasive fog to lend his London its bittersweetness. While the singer’s heavy ironies have often left his characters feeling hollow and detached, hollowness and detachment are kind of the point here. They don’t just characterize the working-class lifestyles that dominate his writing, they make the nostalgic sounds of the Britpop canon he’s always trying to evoke seem all the more spectral and ghostly—howling out of pubs and alleyways, and blowing through the patched coats of his shiftless, bombed-out proles. If the Arctic Monkeys’ debut captured the cool nihilism of a new British youth, leave it to a wiser genre-mining Anglophile to show the brats what bleakness really is.


Oliver Twisted

At 57, Tom Waits is still looting the archives of American popular music for venerated images to mangle and corrupt—he remains our preeminent iconoclast. Orphans, his new three-disc set of rarities and new recordings, finds him barking, chugging, and yowling his way through pretty much the whole Waits spectrum, its Elvis-style shuffles, lo-fi piano ballads, garage-rock grinds, Tin Pan Alley standards, and blues shouts all as twisted and contorted as his singing face.

This is nightmare music—a blue-collar purgatory made of American mythology and populated by its grotesques. Drowsy murderers interpret tremulous love ballads, petty thieves howl and stomp out simmering spirituals, and ex–altar boys looking to screw “women who look like nuns” mill amid cherry-lipped angels with scapular wings covered in feathers and electrical tape. All of Tom’s familiar sonics appear herein, from lurching, industrial clang-and-bang to cemetery polka to boozy smut.

The melodies Waits uses here—stripped from parlor tunes and hymns—are timeless and emblematic, but the way his voice deliberately corrupts them, both entreating and rebuffing, always makes the gratifications they offer uncomfortable ones. “It’s a pattern of invitation and rejection,” Aidan Day once wrote about Dylan, “in which the audience—alienated from easy absorption—is forced to attend closely to the transactions between voice and words.” Whether he’s telling a story or even reading an encyclopedia entry about bugs (“Army Ants”), Waits— a moonlighting actor who’s always known that music is theater—remains amazingly conscious of what those transactions mean, and how they can shape his myths. In “The Pontiac,” one of several spoken-word recordings on the “Bastards” disc, Waits plays a man talking his son through the family’s automotive history. He speaks about body panels and showroom models as if they were first kisses, and as he hits the most delicious bits, the hypnotic rhythm of his growl sloooows and softens whimsically. The effect is mesmerizing, and a type of national mystique is evoked.

But the real magic lies in the friction between Waits and his music. Maybe it’s the moaning and shrieking—or the strange future sounds that tend to drift through his old-world America—but Waits doesn’t seem to occupy his songs as much as stalk them, huffing and puffing, growling through the keyholes, and, when all else fails, cooing gruffly to the lady of the house. Ultimately, he’s always somehow displaced, anachronistic. What defines his characters, by contrast, is how they’re all indelibly rooted to the conditions of their lives, to a specific time and place, even if it’s a bar stool or a prison cell. However desolate or damned, those lives seem to make a kind of narrative sense. Waits, orphaned by his own tunes, seems to envy them that.


Canadian Mopehead Makes Banality Sexy

It was always clear, somehow, that Metric’s Emily Haines was more than a pretty voice backstroking through Broken Social Scene’s guitar swirl. Clearer now is that she’s also more than a Canadian indie-rock femme fatale mugging for cultural capital with slick hooks and faux misanthropy. On this more intimate solo album, Haines’s musical accompaniment is spectral and emaciated— everything except her piano billows around the pleasant remoteness of her vocals like stale smoke.

That minimalism reveals what distinguishes her from scores of other mopeheads. Like Thom Yorke, she’s capable of being both bitterly cynical and sentimentally optimistic (“Our hell is a good life,” she sings blithely), which is tricky. Furthermore, her facility with melody and words reveals that she’s a poet by nature but doesn’t exude any self-aggrandizing obsession with sounding poetic. In fact, most of her best moments derive from the fact that she’s really, really good at writing about banalities. Artists like Haines and Jeff Tweedy seem to have come to the same conclusion about coping with accelerated culture that online porn moguls—always more sophisticated in these matters—came to about a decade ago: In a world that’s been saturated by fantasies, the last vestiges of romance and perversity lie in a kind of heightened normalcy. Stripped of their cosmetics, some tunes on Knives Don’t Have Your Back seem underdeveloped, but they prove what always needs to be proved in the vortex of postmodern pop—that an artist like Haines can do more than hide behind her influences. It’s refreshing, not having to disdain someone this unabashedly hip.