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Blake Mills

The White Dude with a Guitar thing has been going on for a while — like, since the instrument was invented and people had emotions they wanted to sing about. But in recent years, locking yourself up in a room and writing songs about heartbreak has become a bit of a cliche. Who’s to blame? Is it Bon Iver? Is it sophomores in college? Is it Urban Outfitters? It’s probably all three. That’s why when you have a singer-songwriter like Blake Mills, an artist who actually knows what he’s doing behind six-strings, it’s something of which you should take note. Make it a date night. Just don’t wear a fedora.

Wed., Oct. 1, 7:30 p.m., 2014

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Lianne La Havas

The 23-year-old Brit has sung backup for Paloma Faith and toured as a supporting act for Bon Iver and Alicia Keys, but now having paid some dues on the road, she has the singer-songwriter bona fides to shoulder a worldwide tour of her own. On her debut studio album, Is Your Love Big Enough, La Havas threads the needle between soulful vibrato and throttling electric guitar, a combination that gives her a refreshing unity of opposites, with the kinky hair and sidelong glance to keep listeners guessing as to how innocent her edge might be.

Tue., April 9, 8:30 p.m., 2013

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Anaïs Mitchell

Earlier this year, alt-folk songstress Anaïs Mitchell played a covetable opening slot at Radio City Music Hall for Bon Iver. She has a close relationship with the lo-fi, folkish band over the years and has collaborated with their frontman Justin Vernon on a few songs in the past. But it’s on her own dusky, moody, confessional songs, especially those on her latest Young Man in America—the songs she’s performing tonight—where she shines brightest.

Mon., Dec. 3, 9 p.m., 2012

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Avan Lava

Electropop trio Avan Lava has a defined voice: Think Bon Iver with a propulsive backbeat and a synth line that recalls Cyndi Lauper or a ’90s boy band for hipsters with two left feet. The pet project of Fischerspooner members Le Chev, Ian Pai, and Andrew Schneider, the group avoids the nihilism that pervades the music of much of their contemporaries in favor of the type of irrational exuberance CMJ needs.

Wed., Oct. 17, 2:30 p.m., 2012

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Live: Bon Iver and Frank Ocean Are Trying to Break Your Heart

Better Than: Seeing either of these guys in a festival setting, which seems to be the only way you’re going to these days.

Last night Fader magazine and Vitamin Water’s collaborative Uncapped tour series hosted their grand finale at the Lower East Side’s Angel Orensanz Center. The performers were billed as “surprise guests,” though rumors flew leading up to the door’s opening at 8 p.m. Some reported that Bon Iver would stop by after his recent run of Radio City Music Hall shows. Others buzzed that Frank Ocean would be making an appearance after his stint at ATP. In the end, the surprise was much bigger than we thought: Frank Ocean and Bon Iver would be playing together.

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For the couple of hundred lanyard-slinging media and RSVP-savvy concertgoers who got in, the scene that greeted them couldn’t have been more fitting for the artists about to take the stage. The Angel Orensanz Center, now a contemporary arts community space, was built as a 19th-century synagogue, complete with looming Gothic arches and three-tiered balconies. Bathed behind tufts of smoke and a faint blue-and-red glow, a stool stood in front of a microphone stand suggested that the show would provide the kind of intimacy that fans have come to expect from both of the night’s headliners.

There’s no denying that Frank Ocean and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon share certain lovey aesthetics; both are singer/songwriters beneath their fronts, both evoke pit-of-your-stomach sadness set against happy nostalgia, both find solace in the peculiar pairing of heartbroken, story-telling R&B and the washed-out pulses of alt-rock. Both have been recruited onto projects by Kanye. (No, Kanye did not make the appearance that many of us had hoped he would.) Bon Iver won the Grammy for Best New Artist last year, and Frank Ocean is a frontrunner this year. Last night, both artists wore headbands — it worked better for one than the other.

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Frank Ocean rocking that Karate Kid look

Ocean, an L.A.-via-New Orleans native, has a smooth, self-assured, schoolboy charm to him, one that’s born out of shyness than cockiness. Aside from his spot-on vocals, this quiet confidence and smiling gentleness is Ocean’s greatest asset on stage. Over the course of an hour-long set, the singer — backed by a suited two-man band (No John Mayer) — went through hits like “Thinking About You,” “Novacane,” “Sweet Life,” and “Pyramids,” often sparking a choir-like echo from the audience amid his gorgeously executed octave-spanning hooks. “We Made It in America” and “Strawberry Swing” came as additional, unexpected highlights, dense with warm memories of forgotten youth and the American Dream. One of the most spectacular things about Ocean is that he delivers the same sentiments with the same force live as he does on his records.

Vernon’s brand of nostalgia is reflected in him as well; tall, white, beardy, quiet, mumbly, reverb soaked, and born from a cabin in the woods. But the Vernon whose “Lump Sum” and “Skinny Love” undoubtedly sparked millions of late-night phone calls between long-lost lovers has changed since his second album (or maybe it was his Grammy win). The Bon Iver that took the stage last night — complete with a ragtag band of fellow shaggy, beardy fellows (No John Mayer) — did not deliver the log-burning, campfire warm-and-fuzzies that one might have expected. It was only on the reverb-drowning, autotuned echo behind “Woods” that Vernon ever truly owned the stage on the same level of precious familiarity as his music.

“Calgary,” a personal favorite, was performed with pomp, the horns far outweighing the angst behind Vernon’s moans. “Creature Fear’s” quiet folksy twangs were played live as a massive, crashing battle of reverb. “Holocene” and “Skinny Love” cued massive sing-a-longs, of course, though by then, his smooth-jazz jam-band stage act was more and more reminiscent of an indie Dave Matthews Band. And while Bon Iver’s fans remained true with most of the audience singing in unison to “Skinny Love” long after Vernon had left the stage, he proved better on the iPod than in the flesh.

Critical Bias: Earlier in the evening, I joked that Frank Ocean would make me tear up. And then he actually did.

Overheard: “He’s not gay. That’s not politically correct. He’s not bi, either. He’s just not mad at a penis.” — Deep discussion of Frank Ocean overheard in the media area. Oof.

Random Notebook Dump: John Locke spotted in the VIP.

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The Ten Best Concerts in New York This Weekend, 9/21/12

In no particular order, here are ten can’t-miss shows in New York this weekend. For the Voice‘s full rundown of New York events, hit up villagevoice.com/datebook.

See Also:
All Tomorrow’s Parties Preview: Founder Barry Hogan on the Festival’s Move to New York City
Fear of a Talibam! Planet
Three Reasons Why Old Records Are Bigger Than Ever

This year's ATP curator Greg Dulli and his own Afghan Whigs headline on Saturday night.
This year’s ATP curator Greg Dulli and his own Afghan Whigs headline on Saturday night.

All Tomorrow’s Parties at Pier 36 (Friday-Sunday)
Since its birth in 1999 and its across-the-pond, American debut in 2002, All Tomorrow’s Parties has become a second Christmas, saved in the Google calendars of music fans across the country. This year, the artist-curated festival travels up the Garden State Parkway from last year’s location, Asbury Park, to Manhattan’s Pier 36, where it will be making its New York City debut with Greg Dulli in charge of booking. Friday, he’s got Frank Ocean, Philip Glass, Lee Ranaldo, Janeane Garofalo, and Hannibal Burress all set to perform, and on Saturday, his own Afghan Whigs headline a bill that includes The Roots, José González, Mark Lanegan, Emeralds, and the Antlers. Sunday, finally, features Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Hot Snakes, Thee Oh Sees, Braids, and Jonathan Toubin–so pace yourself accordingly. — By Nick Murray

Talibam! at Secret Project Robot (Friday)
Kevin Shea, the freewheeling drummer for Brooklyn’s ridiculously intrepid avant-everything duo Talibam!, is waxing about adding “rapping wordsmith” to his already extensive résumé. He has crowned himself MC K-Wizzle; his Talibam! partner in genius, keyboard guru Matt Mottel, has taken on the name MC Moaty Mogulz. Talibam! perform Friday at Secret Project Robot. Continue reading Brad Cohan’s “Fear of a Talibam Planet.

Bon Iver at Radio City Music Hall (Friday-Monday)
It’s been a little over a year since indie-folk troubadour Justin Vernon released Bon Iver’s self-titled second album of echoey, intricately orchestrated confessionals. Since then, the soft-rock-leaning Bon Iver won a Grammy, Vernon released a dubstep single (with James Blake), and he and his bandmates booked a four-night residency at Radio City Music Hall, which begins September 19. In a way, the cavernous Music Hall is the ideal setting for the members of Bon Iver, who, on record, seem to revel in letting their instruments envelop Vernon’s voice on songs such as “Holocene,” forcing listeners to struggle and strain to make out harmonized, high-pitched lyrics like the song’s “and at once I knew I was not magnificent.” The setting makes you work a little harder. The first two dates feature folk artist Anaïs Mitchell, who’s duetted with Vernon in the past. Doug Paisley opens the show on September 21; Polica on September 22. — By Kory Grow

Wayne Krantz at the Highline Ballroom (Friday)
The hyper-inventive guitarist leads a trio–and devoted hardcore following–through look-out-below improvisations that dangle tantalizingly on the cusp of chaos and ecstasy. Although he released his first rock album earlier this year, tonight’s lineup finds the avant-funk dervish unspooling his high-anxiety riffs alongside bassist Nate Wood and longtime associate Keith Carlock, who currently numbers among the most powerful percussive forces on the planet. — By Richard Gehr

Gang Gang Dance+Sun Araw at Public Assembly (Friday)
Musically speaking, Gang Gang Dance concerts are often as unpredictable as their records, which meander along a course of squeaky synth parts, echoey cymbalism, and frontwoman Liz Bougatsos’s worldbeat-inspired glossolalia. This primal quality–something they’ve passed off as experimentalism even though their most recent polyrhythmic musical polyglots follow some algorithm–this fluid trait is the reason they’re able to play three nights in Brooklyn at different venues, beginning with tonight’s concert. Plus, it’s been a little over a year since they released their last LP, Eye Contact, which might have given them enough time to discover some unexpected new sound to exploit. — By Kory Grow

‘Mr. Saturday Night’ w/ Roman Flugel at 12-Turn-13 (Saturday)
Roman Flugel is one of Germany’s great mid ’90s success stories: He fell in love with the new music coming out of Detroit and Chicago, and drew on his music studies and raw talent to create an unusually nuanced, diverse body of work. His early releases with Jorn Elling Wuttke as Acid Jesus and as Alter Ego are classics, and he’s been one of the major forces behind the Playhouse, Klang, and Ongaku labels. Last year’s Fatty Folders confirmed he’s still making some of the most vital house around. With residents Eamon Harkin and Justin Carter. — By Kristal Hawkins

Fanfare Ciocarlia at Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, Pace University (Saturday)
Formed in 1996, when a German producer visiting a small Romanian town convinced several talented locals to band together, Fanfare Ciocarlia (meaning “skylark brass band”) has since become the world’s best-known Balkan/Romani band of its horn-driven ilk. The twelve-piece group plays fast, exciting music that punctuates Turkish, Serbian, and Macedonian numbers with Bollywood and Western covers. (You may recall FC’s “Born to Be Wild” from the closing credits of Borat. — By Richard Gehr

Metric at Radio City Music Hall (Sunday)
Frontwoman Emily Haines’ first words on Metric’s latest LP go, “I’m just as fucked up as they say,” and while that may be hyperbole, it’s the group’s quirky-yet-catchy approach to newer-wave that has set them apart from the social scene they came up with. Earlier this year, they released the well-received Synthetica, and despite containing their slickest production yet, their slightly off-kilter approach to musical hooks makes the sleekly synthetic sheen work. It’s not so much “fucked up” as delightfully askew. With Half Moon Run. — By Kory Grow

Daniel Bell
Daniel Bell

‘Mystikal Disco’ w/ Daniel Bell+Patrick Russell at 269 Norman Avenue (Sunday)
Back in early ’90s Detroit, Dan Bell turned bleeps and blips and the sounds of robot squirrel chatter into tracks like “Losing Control,” pioneering the indomitable groove that would be known as minimal techno. The Richie Hawtin collaborator also ran 7th City and Accelerate. Mentalux man Patrick Russell is something of a Detroit rarity: He loves disco edits, acid, jack, and experimentation more than techno purism. With Jackson Lee and Ben Jenkins. — By Kristal Hawkins

‘Einstein on the Beach’ at Brooklyn Academy of Music (Through Sunday)
Despite its game-changing reputation, it’s been 20 years since the epic collaboration between Philip Glass and avant-garde director Robert Wilson has been performed in New York. Those with low blood sugar, a weak bladder, or the tendency to slip into a state of hypnosis when exposed to prolonged minimalism have the option to come and go as they please. — By Aiden Levy

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Into the Woods

It’s been a little over a year since indie-folk troubadour Justin Vernon released Bon Iver’s self-titled second album of echoey, intricately orchestrated confessionals. Since then, the soft-rock-leaning Bon Iver won a Grammy, Vernon released a dubstep single (with James Blake), and he and his bandmates booked a four-night residency at Radio City Music Hall, which begins September 19. In a way, the cavernous Music Hall is the ideal setting for the members of Bon Iver, who, on record, seem to revel in letting their instruments envelop Vernon’s voice on songs such as “Holocene,” forcing listeners to struggle and strain to make out harmonized, high-pitched lyrics like the song’s “and at once I knew I was not magnificent.” The setting makes you work a little harder. The first two dates feature folk artist Anaïs Mitchell, who’s duetted with Vernon in the past. Doug Paisley opens the show on September 21; Polica on September 22.

Wed., Sept. 19, 8 p.m.; Thu., Sept. 20, 8 p.m.; Fri., Sept. 21, 8 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 22, 8 p.m., 2012

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Colin Stetson

He’s a multireedist who specializes in bass saxophone, a behemoth instrument tamed by Anthony Braxton, Hamiet Bluiett, and few others who dare to take on the beast. He also tours with Bon Iver, and has played with Feist, TV on the Radio, and others, but these bands all stem from more avant-garde origins than what first meets the ear. Stetson’s 2011 solo release, New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, is beyond category—some tracks mine Blind Willie Johnson, others sound like a T-Rex chasing a velociraptor.

Tue., April 3, 8:30 p.m., 2012

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Skrillex Gets Deep on the Cusp of the Grammys

This Sunday, the music business celebrates itself with the 54th running of the Grammy Awards, where the impossible task of categorizing pop music is made plain. Songs from diametrically opposed genres butt up against one another in the Big Four categories—Album, Record, and Song of the Year, as well as Best New Artist—which stubbornly cling to their five-nominees-a-year rule despite the Academy Awards opening their Best Picture field to a possible 10.

The list of nominees in this year’s Best New Artist category makes the point about music’s sprawl well: There’s the lite country-pop of the sibling act the Band Perry; the syllable-splitting hyper-color antics of Nicki Minaj; the tenacious St. John’s–bred hip-hop of J. Cole; and the feelings-swaddled exercise in 21st-century tastefulness Bon Iver. And then there’s Skrillex, the business name of a 24-year-old named Sonny Moore, a dance producer who is one of this year’s most nominated artists. Moore, under his own name, sang with the rock band From First to Last in the mid ’00s; upon leaving the band, he went into producing, and then he dove into the world of electronic-based music. His look—inky black locks on one side and a smooth-shaved head on the other, oversized black glasses, pale skin, clothes that look like they were picked up at a garage sale held by a Soundgarden tribute band’s lead singer—has resulted in him being a meme as much as a musician, with bloggers Photoshopping his haircut onto unsuspecting cats and animated gifs transforming his twiddling of controls into the making of sushi or of macaroni and cheese. (It’s unknown how many of the people responsible for such handiwork are actually fans of his music. But does it matter?)

Last week, Skrillex played a series of shows across New York, which he advertised as a “takeover” of the city. Tickets to all the shows sold out quickly. On Friday night, he was at Roseland, where he went on at 2 a.m.; but the crowd’s response to him was as overcaffeinated as someone who was up at 11 after a full night’s sleep. For nearly two hours, he pummeled the crowd with songs and visuals (with nods to Mortal Kombat and Call of Duty). Looking down at Roseland’s floor from the balcony, I saw hands being waved, heads undulating up and down, every person turned toward the stage and watching Moore as he twirled knobs, nodded along, and tucked his hair behind his ear. If there was a lull in the crowd response, I missed it.

Much is made of the “drop” in Skrillex’s songs—that point where the bass dives deep into the listener’s ears, accompanied by skittering electronics that bring to mind a particularly balky dot-matrix printer spitting out a banner that says CONGRATULATIONS!!! or WE LIKE TO PARTY!!! or a similarly excitable (and long) statement. But that shortchanges the energy that courses throughout his music up to that point. When it’s loud, his music’s grinding bombast makes it sound like an heir to the nu-metal likes of Korn (whose 2011 album, The Path of Totality, contains a couple of Skrillex productions). It might be rooted in electronics, but the sort of dancing it elicits is more of a mosh than a two-step. It’s all climax, all a moment where Skrillex can interject with a screamed “Put your fuckin’ hands up” and have the crowd oblige automatically because they already feel that much joy. (On Friday, he was commanding the crowd to do this two songs in.) You could say that it’s the polar opposite of the music put out by his Best New Artist rival Bon Iver, who uses reverb and sax and falsetto as a cloak, as a way to move imperceptibly along a stream of melody and feeling for the length of his songs. Skrillex, by contrast, shoves and chugs and gets to where he wants to go—only to spin off toward another destination almost immediately after he has arrived.

Since nu-metal imploded in a great fireball of self-loathing and daddy issues at the beginning of the millennium, mainstream rock has seemed somewhat rudderless, with stations that play new tracks either falling by the wayside or just retreating into the safer territory of classic rock. (New York’s most recent entry in the rock-radio race, WRXP, flipped to an all-news format last year, three and a half years after it rose from the ashes of smooth-jazz CD 101.9.) But the sort of electronic music that Skrillex is making seems like a logical next step for people into hyperaggressive, ball-busting rock, or at least a progression more logical than becoming a fan of the ad-agency-approved rock put forth by those bands that parlayed their Best New Tracks status on Pitchfork into commercial placements. Where the Papa Roaches and Puddle of Mudds would get tripped up was the adolescent attitudes in their lyrics, which successfully channeled a specific subset of the growing male brain for a brief period but which quickly seemed embarrassing, fodder for one of those “I Heart the Decades” clip shows to laugh at in retrospective.

In contrast, Skrillex’s music has minimal lyrics, and they seem pretty much beside the point; even the most potentially nu-metal-in-spirit songs (“I want to kill everybody in the world/L-O-V-E, L-O-V-E , L-O-V-E/I want to eat your heart,” repeated by a pitched-up voice, comprise the lyrics to “Kill EVERYBODY”) are leavened by all the other stuff going on around them. The beats lurch and bounce, the gears sound like they’re opening up portals into parallel dimensions, and when the drops hit, it’s like an endorphin rush to the brain. Which is why in a live setting, the crowd goes absolutely nuts from note one, with even those people who might not have been convinced going in succumbing to the drop and bouncing along.

mjohnston@villagevoice.com

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Beyonce, Nicki, and Merrill Get Optimistic

The most ecstatic noise in Beyoncé’s “Countdown” doesn’t come when B flutters through the vowel-stretched “Boyyyy” at the song’s outset, nor does it come from the blats of brass, nor does it come when she delightedly wraps her voice around the newly minted term of endearment “Boof.” It’s buried so deep in the song’s stuffed-to-the-gills mix that it reveals itself only after her ode to fidelity and baby-making has been fully taken in: It’s an undergrowth of moans, pulsing in time with the rat-tat-tat drumline and underscoring the sensual pleasures that go hand-in-hand with the romantic splendor detailed in the lyrics. The close listener gets rewarded with the knowledge that, why, yes, she did have quite a bit of fun while trying to make that three from the two.

“Countdown” was both one of the standout tracks on Beyoncé’s 4 (#26 album) and a yawp of unbridled joy. And joy was at a premium in 2011, a year that was full of hard times—calamities both man-made and natural, economic uncertainty, the sour political side of the ’90s revival finally manifesting itself. It’s probably not accidental, then, that the song placed high on this year’s poll. Indeed, a lot of the albums and singles that performed well had a sense of wonder about themselves, inviting the listener along on journeys that veered into unexpected places with gusto.

Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” not only had a feel-good story attached to it—it was the Little Bonus Track That Could, a Pink Friday afterthought-turned-Hot 100 force—but it also sparkled sonically, its tale of infatuation manifesting itself physically and seeming to spill out of Minaj’s brain at the speed of light. The upstart uptown genre-melder Azealia Banks used her breakout single “212” as a way to figure out just what she could do with her mouth, whether it was shifting back and forth between ferocious rapping and silky singing, or flicking “that tongue, tongue d-deep in.” Wild Flag’s album (#4) was the work of four veterans of the now-retrofied ’90s indie-rock world who disdained the looking back engaged in by so many of their peers and instead created something wholly new, swearing blood oaths to each other and to the transformative power of rock and roll. Lady Gaga’s (#24 artist) maximalist approach to pop involved throwing as many things that she could—mermaid-sex fantasies, Clarence Clemons, a pro-gay marriage lobbying campaign—at whatever wall happened to be nearby, but her reactions when any of them stuck seemed absolutely giddy. And while Rihanna’s Calvin Harris–assisted “We Found Love” (tied for #18) was a brick house better suited for listening during dance-floor blackouts than anywhere else, its central, endlessly repeated conceit of finding “love in a hopeless place” could have doubled as a palliative for any politics-watcher wondering where all the optimism of 2008 had gone off to.

Even the entrants on my ballot that dealt with more somber themes had something pushing them underneath—PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, my co-No. 1 and the poll’s second-place finisher, quivered with knowledge that the world was in a dark place, its optimism manifesting itself with the declarations that something was wrong, and that the global situation shouldn’t be the way it is right now. Charli XCX’s “Stay Away” was a song about heartbreak that doubled as a realization of the importance of letting others into one’s heart, even if it resulted in some damage here and there; Patrick Stump’s “Everybody Wants Somebody” (from his solo debut Soul Punk, the other record topping my list) was a warning about unrequited love that wrung the joy out of protecting one’s heart so convincingly, it almost argued in favor of longing for someone else.

Before this year’s ballots were even sent out, many outside observers had tagged Bon Iver’s falsetto-swaddled, reverb-drenched second album, Bon Iver, as the likely pick for No. 1; it had Meaning and Artistic Growth, and Justin Vernon was coming off a year where he got an all-important co-sign from last year’s landslide albums-poll-winner Kanye West. To these ears, it sounded mushy and furtive, the work of a dude getting lost in his own depths for the sake of feeling even worse about having done so later; I found myself wishing that he’d edited himself a bit, so his points shone through more. (Although the constant information flow of the current age has made me a little more impatient, other records that could be classified as having “ambiance” also figured out ways to slyly do that or at least hint to the listener that one would be forthcoming.) That w h o k i l l—the second album by Merrill Garbus’s tUnE-yArDs, a shot across the bow that blended the personal and political into a stunning proclamation of faith in the self that quite literally begs “Don’t take my life away” at one point—marched to the top spot instead could speak to an unspoken desire to wrench one’s ears and brains out of the constant stream of bad news and appreciate the miracle that is being fully alive and present in the world, no matter what external, extenuating circumstances might exist.

mjohnston@villagevoice.com