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M Shanghai String Band: The Homiest Band in Williamsburg

M Shanghai String Band are an Americana act in a hipster neighborhood, named after a Chinese restaurant in Thai-overrun Williamsburg. When non-leader Austin Hughes sings the titular line of the band’s hymnal “No Home in This World,” it seems self-referential, except that he’s part of the homiest show going. It’s so comfortable, in fact, that I didn’t mind spending time in the basement “den” of the M Shanghai Restaurant on a sweltering June evening. The band’s monthly shows have an informal feel: Regulars crowd the fold-out seats and snake up the stairs, while band members crowd around one mic, Grand Ole Opry–style, and the audience sings along.

Of course, it helps to have a few pork buns in you. “We’re willing to fall flat on our face in front of everyone there,” Hughes tells me. Though he spends the most time front and center during their shows, Hughes claims the 11-person outfit has no frontman. The band maintains a fluid membership; most write songs, and each takes a role in management. Sometimes they make decisions via a Yahoo poll.

It all started in 2002, when bassist Harrison Cannon assembled some friends to play at the restaurant owned by May Lui (the “M” in M Shanghai). Some members knew each other from previous bands like Very Pleasant Neighbor, Babe the Blue Ox, and Beekeeper. They first played on intermittent Thursdays; after switching to their current slot, every first Saturday of the month, the audience grew. Those regulars soon became friends; many return every month. Naturally, the band’s ties to the restaurant are strong: M Shanghai often end the night by inviting the bartender up to sing a Flaming Lips cover, and the song “Tic-Tac-Toe Chicken” inspired a garlicky dish now on the restaurant’s menu.

“Tic-Tac-Toe Chicken” is a raucous number redolent of farmhouses and county-fair sideshows, but Hughes says the band mostly sings about the city: “We write about where we’re from, because the immediacy of your environment is an American folk-country-bluegrass tradition.” The band also avoids the bluegrass party-band trappings that put silly covers before serious songwriting: They’re preparing their third full-length in two years. Though another Shanghai String Band—who play traditional Chinese instruments—might confuse interested parties, Hughes doesn’t worry about his group’s unique status. “We’re not the run-of-the-mill Williamsburg band, certainly,” he notes, before he gets distracted. “But isn’t the food great at M Shanghai? Believe me, that’s part of our enthusiasm about making this event happen.” Try the juicy pork buns, then argue. 

M Shanghai String Band perform at the M Shanghai Restaurant Bistro & Den July 5

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On the Genius of ZO2

Look up any pic of Z02, and you won’t believe your peepers: The Brooklyn power trio, all boasting meaty pecs, resemble a Forever 21 train wreck starring Nuno Bettencourt, that one guy from Wolfmother, and an Italo-cokehead from Syracuse who digs Tiësto and Daughtry. Are these guys fucking with us? Maybe. The boys are, after all, currently filming one of them band-trying-to-make-it-big TV series for the Independent Film Channel: Z Rock, scheduled to premiere this August, is a reality/fictional comedy fusion also starring the delicious Joan Rivers, weed-smuggling survivalist John Popper, and Gilbert Godfrey (no witty qualification needed).

So yeah, those skin-tight tank tops and J. Lo shades could be nothing more than cheap costumes. Then again, over the last four years, ZO2 have done all the things that working hard-rock bands do: release a couple of albums (Tuesdays & Thursdays and Ain’t It Beautiful), and tour with Poison and Kiss. (Which might explain the outfits, by the way: They could be gifts from Paul Stanley’s personal wardrobe.)

But who really gives a crap about authenticity? This is rock ‘n’ roll, after all. For a couple decades now, lily-white suburban transplants obsessed with Thurston Moore have dominated this town. But ZO2, real or not, pray to far older New York deities. Joey Cassata and brothers Paulie and David Z hark back to a classic age when second-generation Italian- and Jewish-Americans actually born around here (or at least in Jersey or Long Island) dipped Zeppelin bombast in swarthy virility. We’re talking early-’70s behemoths like Cactus, Sir Lord Baltimore, Blue Öyster Cult, and, yes, early KISS.

Even better, ZO2 aren’t one of these retro/stoner acts—indie dorks who discovered Physical Graffiti in their late twenties. The trio comes off as a kind of hybrid: dudes following up teenage Zep worship with Aerosmith, the Crüe, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, etc. Then somebody lent them a copy of Wolfmother’s debut, which kind of blows, but it taught the band how to ground K-Rock modernity in boogie’s primal life-force. These guys are far better than the ‘Mother, in fact, because they appear to possess all the sleaze ‘n’ cheeze central to classic rock. Retro bands don’t understand this stuff: Despite some sturdy power-riffage, they’re like sexless test-tube clones genetically prevented from equating “guitar” with “cock,” and thus all the (absolutely necessary) bad-taste machismo that flows forth from said formula.

Of course, this is all nothing but guesswork. I’m not sure if I would ever want to hang out with these knuckleheads to learn the truth. But none of that matters: At least ZO2 has given New York its groove back. And that’s aces.

ZO2 play Arlene’s Grocery (arlenesgrocery.net) July 25

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Unkool Thing

The guitar, that noble ax, is always threatening to go the way of a six-stringed dodo bird—killed off by electronic bleeps, slayed by skinny boys wielding laptops. Thankfully, Brooklyn trio the Muggabears is keeping the dissonant flame of mid-’90s indie rock alive, one self-released EP at a time. For a band whose name was inspired by a bunch of F.A.O. Schwarz stuffed toys—frontman Travis Johnson was shopping at a mall in Dallas when the cuddly moniker struck him—the Muggabears can rock. Hard. The way people used to before it became inexplicably passé to give in to those simple, primal impulses, like dry-humping the distortion out of a Marshall stack.

Though they’re most certainly sick of the comparison by now, the band’s closest cousin is certainly Sonic Youth—and not just because bassist Emily Ambruso is the Kim to Travis’s Thurston, either. There’s the same palpable joy in shaping white noise into almost-chords, in battering a fretboard with a drumstick, in guitars roughed up and—if my eyes didn’t deceive me—licked onstage at a Mercury Lounge show. For all their high-decibel teenage riot, the Muggabears can still cite a gentler genesis that’s maybe evident beneath the feedback, but perhaps not: Nick Drake, John Lennon, Tortoise. Travis is enamored of noise, creatively sculpted and—technical proficiency be damned—with no apologies from someone who’s “not able to wail or anything.”

“We’re all primarily guitar-rock fans,” he explains (and this from a man who introduced each song during an October set as a different track by the Smashing Pumpkins). “It seems like a dying breed. More and more people are taking easy ways out, like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what to do to make this more interesting, so I’ll put some drum machine in there.’ ” Rest assured, there’s no such au courant fakery here, though the Muggabears’ latest EP,
Night Choreography, does close with an uncharacteristic number, “She-Bears,” which flaunts twangingly off-tune guitar and Emily’s background vocals pushed out in reverse through a delay pedal. “We kind of wanted it to sound like a séance that a bunch of kids on a Boy Scout rip were having,” Travis explains; “The Radiohead cover of ‘Kumbaya,’ ” offers drummer Gabriel Wurzel.

Elsewhere, “Goth Tarts” comes off like the Afghan Whigs, all barely submerged violence: “You shouldn’t have children, you shouldn’t read books/You shouldn’t have a mouth, my friend, no more wounded looks.” Lately they’ve been playing an unreleased song, “Guitar Feelings,” in which Travis wrestles with the eponymous instrument like it’s a recalcitrant electric eel. The Muggabears might not be taking a blowtorch to the status quo, but if they can bring some genuine emotion—and a touch of danger—back to the overshredded six-string, it’s quite an accomplishment by anyone’s reckoning.


Muggabears play Glasslands Gallery December 6

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Hope Solo

Brooklyn’s Sam Champion were one of the only unsigned bands to play this year’s Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee. They knew someone, and that someone passed along some music to the promoter, lead singer Noah Chernin got a call, and that was that. To celebrate, the quartet made up 1,500 Sam Champion wristbands: Instead of taking bong hits backstage post-showtime, they walked around and politely asked curious festival-goers to check them out. It worked. “Between our two sets, probably a few thousand heard us,” bassist Jack Dolgen tells me.

They probably didn’t need to do this, of course. “In this town, you can’t sit around and wait for people to do shit for you,” Chernin explains. Consequently, Sam Champion have shared bills with tons of top acts—Ween, the Hold Steady, Cold War Kids—without the assistance of a manager or booking agent. They network themselves, and they’re pretty good at it, too. They have to be—their limited experiences with the label system have all ended badly. Their first record, Slow Rewind, was released on Razor & Tie in 2005, but that relationship didn’t really work out. “Mainly, the a&r guy got fired,” Chernin recalls. “He was the one championing us, no pun intended, and after that they didn’t seem to know what to do with us. So we split.” Last winter, the band funded the recording of their second full-length, Heavenly Bender, by hooking up with Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the arts. Dolgen spearheaded this initiative himself.
The result: 12 songs steeped in time-honored two-guitar rock, backed by Chernin’s wry, nasally, self-deprecating delivery. It’s a little Malkmus-heavy at times, but more often it’s pure south-of-the-Mason-Dixon barback rock. They’re indie guys who still listen to a shit-ton of classic rock; the band agrees that Heavenly Bender would make a perfect summer guitar-pop album.

Summer is (finally) over now, of course. I ask when the new record will ever see the light of day, and they all shrug their shoulders pensively. “We’ve given it a light push,” Dolgen says. “Well, more like a nudge.” Drummer Ryan Thornton mildly disagrees: “Yeah, but it has been sent around.” Chernin breaks the awkward silence that follows: “This time, we’re just waiting for the right situation to present itself, and we want to make sure the person who puts out the record cares about it as much as we do.”

Sam Champion have several CMJ shows this week: Tuesday night at both Club NME at the Annex and Pianos, Wednesday at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Thursday at the Gothamist House, and Saturday at the Orchard Bar; stay up to date at www.myspace.com/samchampion.

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Just Another Diamond Day

I wanted to address the elephant in the room right away, though I’m talking with Ladybug Transistor founder Gary Olson in more of a basement, really, situated in a 100-year-old house on a sleepy street in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn—the recording studio for all six of the Transistor’s delicate, baroque-pop-heavy records. In April, longtime drummer San Fadyl passed away after a severe asthma attack; obviously, it hit the band hard, and I wondered if they’d thought about shutting off the Transistor for good.

Olson doesn’t clam up, dodge the question, or seem remotely annoyed. “If you’ve ever heard him play, his touch and feel is very distinctive, in terms of anyone we’d play with—it was really special, and he brought a lot of character to the band,” he says, pausing for a moment, looking off to the side, reflecting. “So it was a huge thing for us. But continuing seemed like something we should do.”

A tough choice, but a good one for fans of near-perfect indie-pop albums, something the Transistor has delivered for more than 10 years now, most recently with Can’t Wait Another Day, their fifth release for Merge. Members have come and gone, but Olson and crew have developed an approach to lush-sounding pop songs, favoring subtle orchestral arrangements powered by piano and guitar leads. Just listen to Day opener “Always on the Telephone,” which pairs a surf-tinged guitar with Olson’s baritone and Frida Eklund’s sugary backing vocals: The result is a timeless sound that contributes both to the band’s consistency and its relatively low profile. “I don’t think our music is that strange, but I think in a way, since we were never a hyped band, that may have contributed to our longevity,” Olson says, catching my confused look. “Maybe if we’d have gotten hugely popular, there would have been more tension in the band and pressure to do stuff, instead of working the way we do. I guess that’s a rather romantic way of looking at it.”

 

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High on Life

One night, someone threw a beer can at Mary Pearson of Brooklyn indie-pop duo High Places. She laughed. Thinking back on it, her bandmate, Rob Barber, stares into his tea and squints: “I mean, throwing something at us is like walking into a petting zoo and punching a baby deer.”

Fact: What High Places do is cuddly, but it’s also anomalous—doe-eyed, highly rhythmic psychedelia built from layered glass clinking, wayward vocals, and echoed thuds of cardboard boxes and small drums. The approach is 21st-century computer-aided D.I.Y.: “Ninety percent of the stuff we record is through the little hole,” Rob confesses. “You’re not supposed to tell people that!” Mary exclaims, sitting up abruptly. “I don’t care. I mean, that little hole is, like, great.”

That little hole is great—what’s really great is that High Places aren’t afraid to use it. The nine minutes of music on their first seven-inch present a weird sense of economy: Short pop songs made with household items on a shoestring budget recall Pacific Northwestern revolutionaries like Beat Happening, but somehow, Rob and Mary transpose folky minimalism into a lush, intimate world more synonymous with dance music, a dub record, or Martin Denny’s transportive exotica. “When we started, we wanted to be the most un–New York– sounding band we could be,” Rob says. “I thought we’d be invisible here.” But really, city folk probably have better jungle dreams than people actually living in the jungle—broadscape on a small scale makes perfect sense.

In any event, vaguely arty bands from Brooklyn aren’t supposed to be so unabashedly sweet, so sincere. Rob explains that he spent his teenage years on acid but now doesn’t touch drugs or alcohol. “I wondered why you couldn’t get that feeling by … well, take this tree here.” He grabs a leaf. “No, I’m not going to do that—that’d be so corny.” It’s a liability. But good, clean fun is an ambiguous goal. “We tried to make an instructional video about how you could have a great experience without doing drugs—” Mary relates. “But we realized it was just the trippiest thing,” Rob finishes.

For all the reasons High Places shouldn’t work, they do. They’ve become a fixture at small venues in Brooklyn, and have played out-of-the way shows at schools in Michigan and even a biker bar in remote Alaska. “I thought we were gonna get beaten up—two people told me it was the best night of their entire lives,” Mary beams. “Someone [at another show] in Michigan yelled, ‘Play some more inoffensive music!’ ” She laughs again. We all laugh.

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Dracula in Disneyworld

As fresh-faced Columbia grads, the four guys in Vampire Weekend are aiming to perfect the smartest brand of party rock since David Johansen moonlighted as Buster Poindexter. Not to mention the weirdest. Crying out for a record deal, they’re unlike any other band going in New York, offering up a killer blend of funked-up Afrobeat, slick ’80s pop, and polite punk. And their lyrics—mixing references both low- (Peter Gabriel, Louis Vuitton) and highbrow (Oxford commas, mansard roofs)—are by turns goofy and whip-smart. Their musical influences are symptomatic of just how much stuff people can absorb these days: Cuts like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” mix Radio Disney bubblegum with the diluted world music of Paul Simon’s Graceland, whereas “APunk” could be a toss-off from the Clash’s Sandinista. Still, doesn’t their band name sound like a black-metal group from Scandinavia? “It fits the music,” guitarist Ezra Koenig explains. “Although, once you get past the ‘vampire’ part and you realize it’s more about ‘vampire-plus-weekend,’ then it kind of makes sense.” Sure.

Sitting in a Lower East Side Mexican restaurant, the guys don’t seem comfortable with the whole interview thing—they’re new to the grind. So, to better figure them out, why not consult one of the last bastions of truth: Facebook profiles! Koenig, who talks the most and comes off like a young Rivers Cuomo, wisely keeps his private. But for the others, it’s open season. Keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij loves Day-Glo hip-hop hoodies and any TV show that “takes place in New York in the ’80s.” Tall, lanky, and eloquent, Chris Tomson is tagged as the band’s drummer, treasurer, and “team dad”; bassist Chris Baio jokingly describes his internship at a record label as “living off the fat of the land.”

The future of this band all rests on this summer: They’ve embarked on their first nationwide tour, sharing bills with acts like Tokyo Police Club, Shout Out Louds, and Ra Ra Riot. What’s impressive is that they did most of the preparations themselves, including filling out the proper tax forms to become incorporated and buy a van. This is a feat, considering that most start-up touring acts can’t even find a place to sleep. So how’d they do it? “We did some research and stuff,” Koenig coyly replies. Smart-asses.

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Martial Lawless

After I finish interviewing Aa in what could reasonably be called a front yard in Fort Greene, band ringleader Aron sheepishly says, “Well, if you feel like staying and playing drums with us in the show this weekend”—at Brooklyn promoter Todd P’s annual Roosevelt Island barbecue—”you really should.” So we rehearsed. I went into the basement and banged on a bass drum and bells like a juiced-up five-year-old for about an hour and a half. There’s that. Fourth wall broken, code of journalistic ethic destroyed. But with Aa it made sense—Hank, a drummer in that weekend’s show and coincidentally a music writer, sympathized: “Normally, I’d get hung up about it too, but at their first shows, they just used to hand drums out to random people in the audience and, y’know, tell them to hit them.”

“Big a little a”—the proper pronunciation, derived from a song by ’70s anarcho-punks Crass—are currently four guys, three of whom play drums and yell, and one who triggers samples, plays keyboards, and, well, yells. And while chummy anarchy often yields the musical equivalent of diarrhea, Aa is ostensibly a band about discipline. Yes, they’re a punk drum circle making an awesome racket. Yes. But while trance backbeats within bands like the Boredoms or (sometimes) Animal Collective twist into aspiring African, reggae, and calypso syncopations, Aa sound martial—a high-school drum corps finding meditative value in trampling their conductor. John Atkinson’s high-pitched keyboard squeals writhe above the din like a lost flautist; other times, the samples and drones lay a bed for more rattling, light-footed percussion. I suggest that they get some timbales, to let a little slightly funky Tito Puente in. “Congas!” chirps John. “We will never have a drum you have to play with your hands,” Aron adds, frowning. Their debut, gAame, is a hair over 30 minutes and still sounds too long. They’re a band with an internal logic. We rehearsed songs multiple times, with direction; when the weekend barbecue came, I’d come to find the way things fit, rise, and fall, rather than just, you know, seeing how hard I could hit a drum over and over again. But the effect is still sometimes like a bolt of lightning that strikes and hangs in the air for half an hour. And though it’s hard to figure out what they could possibly do next, the trick is—I learned this the hard way, hands covered in blisters—trying to appreciate the glow, not just the flash.

Aa play Glasslands July 13, myspace.com/rolynhu

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How Great Thou Art

O’Death is not a jam band. But just to fuck with them a bit, I suggest they might be. “There were people twirling and shit the other night!” I point out.

Violinist Bob Pycior is not amused. “No, we’re not,” he retorts matter-of-factly, shooting me an ice-cold stare. But vocalist/guitarist Greg Jamie seems to realize that I’m just being a prick; through his thick, black beard, he laughs at the absurdity of the question. O’Death, like the song from which they took their name, do not tell tales of flowers or rainbows or the notion of One Love. Instead, fables of burials, sour women, and the perils of sin are familiar subjects.”But, I do love it when people dance at our shows,” Jaime confesses. “It’s a great feeling to see that.”

Indeed, last month, a sizable crowd was dancing, moshing, convulsing
in the Williamsburg art space/music hole Glasslands as the quintet raged. O’Death’s fans generally don shit-eating grins and know all (or at least most of) the lyrics, screaming them back at the band for the set’s duration. And yet this is Appalachian-inspired hoedown music with gothic undertones galore. The guys are sort of mean onstage, best exemplified by Jamie’s stoic, gruff demeanor—he stares almost through the audience with a detached gaze, ignoring all the people going apeshit in his peripheral vision.

Honoring the hand-me-down folk/bluegrass tradition wherein words are changed or forgotten over time, O’Death avoid relying on set lyrics—a very weird notion in this day. “Some have more sounds than actual words,” Jamie tells me. Indeed, at Glasslands, he did a fair amount of growling and howling. His voice is nasally at times, cloaking annunciation and further adding to his stature as a dark, scary guy who’s nonetheless nonchalantly adept at commanding an audience.

O’Death have built a loyal following with Head Home, initially self-released, but remastered in the spring once labels here and abroad started showing interest, with Brooklyn indie Ernest Jenning grabbing them an hour before their SXSW showcase. Jamie says the album was recorded in a single weekend. “We rushed the process initially,” he explains. But now, “with the prospect of having it sent out to even more people, we wanted to get it right—the chaos we’re trying to build with our sound.”


O’Death throw their record re-release party June 15 at Luna Lounge, overalls (ironic or not) are optional, lunalounge.com

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The Shriek Subsides

There was a time for Joan Wasser when walking into a rock club felt like stepping into the ring. It was the ’90s, and she found herself cranking out frenetic violin runs—and shrieking—in frustration-rock band the Dambuilders. “I was always trying to prove that I could do everything that the boys could do,” she says. “I had such an attitude. I had a tough-guy problem. I wanted to be bulletproof.”

You’d never know it based on her latest project, the jazz- and soul-primed outfit oddly named Joan as Police Woman. (The name originated after a friend commented that the then–bleach blonde, polyester-pantsuit–wearing Wasser looked like Angie Dickinson in the ’70s cop show Police Woman.) For many, her new album, Real Life, will seem uncharacteristically mellow and vulnerable. Since the Dambuilders’ breakup 10 years ago, Wasser has kept busy supporting other musicians and, in turn, learning a bit about herself. Touring with Rufus Wainwright as a solo act prepared her for the spotlight, while playing in Antony and the Johnsons taught her that it’s OK to be quiet.

But the biggest challenge for a woman once known for her piercing, tough-guy scream was finding her singing voice. “I wanted to sound like Sarah Vaughan or something,” she says. “Like, ‘Why don’t I sound like that?’ Well, you’re not that.” Wasser eventually settled into a drawling croon that sounds natural and effortless, even as it’s fluttering up into the high notes. And as a whole, Real Life is powerful but delicate, strong but unlikely to pick a fight. The album’s most strangely captivating track, “Eternal Flame,” accents a tune about what it must be like being the Statue of Liberty with lusty whispers and melismatic gospel backups, all provided by Wasser. Other tracks thrive on their simplicity, like the subdued and weary “The Ride” and the dark unrequited-love lament “Christobel.” Mentor Antony co-penned “I Defy,” a soulful duet she described at a recent show as “about being proud of being a freak.”

Though the album has fleeting moments of violin, Wasser now operates mainly on piano and guitar. “All of my emotional outpouring was not happening through the violin any longer, and I was starting to feel crazy,” she says, adding, “You can’t really write songs on the violin.” But she also received help in the studio from bassist Rainy Orteca and drummer Ben Perowsky, who support Wasser’s live sets whenever logistically possible, including an upcoming European tour. Real Life got a warm reception after its release there last year, making Wasser anxious for the stateside debut. “Now that people care overseas, I do want my country to care,” she says. “Just a little bit.”


Joan as Police Woman play the Gramercy Theatre June 6 with Rufus Wainwright, gramercy-theatre.com