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Transformer: Ezra Furman’s Songs of Innocence

In the spring of 2016, Ezra Furman rediscovered the title for a potential song on his phone, which acts as his digital notebook. “Suck the Blood From My Wound,” which he had written down earlier that year, was just a phrase — the note on his phone didn’t contain any chord structures or lyrical ideas. But he couldn’t get the words out of his head for weeks.

When he finally sat down to write the song, a wild allegorical story poured out of him: A narrator, who has woken up bleeding in the “crock of a tree,” and his angelic lover with feathery wings are on the run from a violent government. They race away in a red Camaro from a hospital the angel had been held in, a pair of queer outlaws uncertain about their fate but determined to defy their oppressors.

“[The song] suggested a whole world and a whole situation,” Furman says on the phone while backstage at Montreal’s Bar Le Ritz. “I was like, well, either I could put this in a drawer somewhere and be like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what that was,’ and say, ‘That was probably too ambitious.’ Or I could actually see it through.… I had to finish it, and it really kind of turned into the whole record.”

The song, which mixes epic E Street–sized chords with a crunchy electric bass sound and affected drums, ended up as the first track on Furman’s recently released record, Transangelic Exodus (Bella Union). Furman refuses to call it a concept album — he refers to the collection of songs as “a cluster of stories on a theme” and a “half-true memoir” instead. Some of the tracks hem more closely to the fictional narrative (like “God Lifts Up the Lowly,” in which the narrator and his angel stop in an alley for the night and tear a tracking device out of their car), and some are more grounded in reality (like “Maraschino-Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill,” which evokes the anxiety that comes from eyeing a dress as a male in public). But they all explore the feelings that come with being persecuted and marginalized as an LGBTQ person in modern America.

Furman, 31, often wears dresses and lipstick onstage and off, but he identifies as queer, not transgender — despite the clear nod to trans people in his album title. Over the phone, he often talks slowly and can sound at times as if he’s zoning out, but he’s actually just choosing his words very carefully. He admits that his gender identity can be hard to encapsulate, and he adds that he’s used to having people fit that identity into a neat narrative box.

“For a few years now [I’ve watched] who I actually am in the real world be the story, and nobody ever gets that story quite right,” Furman says. “I briefly went with this term ‘gender fluid,’ and then it became kind of the tagline about me. And I didn’t fully grasp what it means to most people who call themselves gender fluid. I think I just do being male different.”

Furman grew up in Evanston, Illinois, an idyllic suburb north of Chicago, as the son of a stock-trader father and technical-writer mother. He and his two brothers all caught the artistic bug: Younger brother Jonah was the singer of the indie punk band Krill, which broke up in 2015, and older brother Noah is now a visual artist. Ezra’s parents introduced him to classic rock and folk songwriters like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, but he quickly graduated to an obsession with punk bands ranging from Green Day to the Clash. Around age 14, he discovered Lou Reed, who has become his idol — as a songwriter, lyricist, and bisexual icon who shifted through a variety of identities throughout his career (Furman also wrote a book in the 33 1/3 series on Reed’s seminal 1972 album, Transformer).

Furman formed the Harpoons as a student at Tufts in 2006, taking cues from Dylan and blending them with more standard 2000s indie rock. From 2012 through 2015, he released three solo albums, which refined his retro rock sound and featured more aggressive lyrics that hinted at the inner anxiety he was feeling about his sexual identity.

The sound of Transangelic Exodus, by contrast, is dark, even murky at times, to fit the thematic mood. Anchoring it all is the lead single “Driving Down to L.A.,” which starts with an eerie guitar line and drops an explosive fuzzed-out chorus that is the musical equivalent of a shrapnel bomb. The harmonica, strings, and saxophone of his older records have been replaced with drum machines and thick distortion.

This increasing sense of artistic exploration and expanding musical palette correlates with the fact that he’s becoming more comfortable in his skin each year. He didn’t wear a dress onstage until 2011, a few years after graduating and while still with the Harpoons — and even then, he downplayed the concept as a rock star alter ego that he only embodied in front of a concert crowd. Now he’s clearly out, and though he still idolizes Reed as a songwriter and lyricist, he’s more interested in achieving new sonic textures. In a statement announcing the release of the album, he noted that he aspired to match innovators in an array of genres, such as Kendrick Lamar, Beck, and Tune-Yards.

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That’s not to say that the influence of his hero is totally absent — the cello on “God Lifts Up the Lowly” would fit comfortably in a Velvet Underground set, and album closer “I Lost My Innocence” sounds a lot like Fifties bubblegum pop. But most of the retro sounds, from the sax to the occasional vocal “oohs” and “wahs,” now sound like they’ve been sent through some kind of futuristic robotic filter.

Furman wrote all of the record’s thirteen tracks on a guitar, but over the course of eight months, he and the four members of his band — formerly called the Boyfriends, now called the Visions — meticulously reworked each song. They recorded the album in a Chicago studio built by Tim Sandusky, who engineers most of Furman’s output and plays multiple instruments in his touring band. Furman calls Sandusky — who has also worked with the electronic r&b group Lolawolf — the group’s “secret weapon,” and he’s constantly digging to find sounds not heard anywhere else.

“We’d change chords, change the entire approach, and then after doing that throw that version out and start again,” Furman says. “I was afraid to do it, because I was like, ‘Are we going to overthink these songs and just take the life out of them by rehearsing and arranging them to death?’ But we had an active goal the whole time never to do that.”

“Exodus,” the other word in the album title, is not just standing in for escape — it’s also a nod to Furman’s religious side. He’s an observant Jew who aims to stick to the Orthodox tradition of praying three times a day, and he keeps kosher when he can on the road. Jewish themes and references are becoming more common in his songs. On his last EP, Big Fugitive Life, from 2016, one song titled “The Refugee” chronicles his grandfather’s escape from Nazis in Poland during World War II. At the end of “God Lifts Up the Lowly,” he sings part of a Jewish prayer.

So does Furman plan to fight back in real life against the forces that confront the hypothetical trans angels? His answer is an emphatic “yes,” and these days he’s “obsessed” with getting people to register to vote. He had planned to set up voter registration booths at every concert on his tour (partly inspired by the rise of Donald Trump, whom he groups together with others in America who “disregard the plight of the vulnerable”), but logistical complications delayed that idea.

Although he’s frustrated and often frightened these days, he’s also hopeful. On the album’s poppy closer, “I Lost My Innocence,” he’s confident and defiant in the final verse: “I found my angel on a motorcycle/I’m a queer for life/Outlaw, outsider.”

“At the same time as fear and paranoia were growing, a need for solidarity and hopeful togetherness was also growing in me, and I think the record has both of those,” he says. “As you’re more afraid, you look more for a guardian angel who can help you. Or who you can help.”

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This Week, Spend an Hour with Jen Kirkman, the Queen of ‘Drunk History’

Jen Kirkman is an incredibly talented comedian, writer, podcaster, and drunk historian. Stepping out from an often behind the scenes role at Chelsea Lately, she’s become a national treasure with an amazing book about loving the life you live (I Can Barely Take Care of Myself), a beloved public journal of a podcast (I Seem Fun), and a tremendous Netflix special (I’m Gonna Die Alone). But potentially eclipsing all that are her incredibly charming and passionate appearances on Drunk History. This week, she’s just one of the multi-faceted, ridiculously talented comedians gracing the stages in New York. Here’s the best comedy happening this week.

Wednesday, August 26:

Damaged and Proud

QED: A Place to Show & Tell (27-16 23rd Avenue, Astoria) , 8:30 p.m., $5

Comedians are the quintessential “sad clowns” driven to seek attention and laughter from strangers thanks to a host or neuroses, addictions, and straight-up mental illness. So why not celebrate that? Damaged and Proud faces those demons head-on, this month tackling depression, disabilities, drug addiction, and suicide. Sounds depressing, but the old saw that comedy is tragedy plus time isn’t a cliché for nothing. Queens native Jon Fisch heads up an amazing lineup of openly damaged goods.

The Front Room (Brooklyn Comedy Festival Edition)

The Knitting Factory (362 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn), 8:30 p.m., Free

The little festival that could keeps on rolling this week with a host of special edition showcases from the borough’s favorite regular shows. If you had to pick just one to attend, this would be a great option. With both Sean Patton and Amber Nelson on the lineup, it threatens to be an out of control, wild and woolly great time that will test exactly how much you can laugh over the course of two hours.

Lemonade Stand Variety Show

The Stand (239 3rd Avenue), 10 p.m., $10

Everyone’s heard the one about the person who says, “I’m a singer and an actress and a sketch improviser,” and gets the response, “So you’re a waiter?” But it’s no joke that most New York bars and restaurants employ enough talent to stage a Broadway revival. The Stand is grasping that resource with both hands, mixing in professional stand-ups and musicians with homegrown singer-songwriters, poets, and improvisers. Guest hosts Emily Tarver and Pete Lee lead this menagerie of entertainers.

Thursday, August 27:

Impro(VS)tandup (Brooklyn Comedy Festival Edition)

Union Hall (702 Union Street, Brooklyn), 8 p.m., $10

There’s a long-standing feud between the two comedy disciplines of Improv and Stand-Up. Which one’s harder? Which one’s better? Which one is more annoying and self-indulgent? This show gives you the chance to decide for yourself, with high quality stand-ups and great improv teams each doing their own thing… then doing the other thing. Sometimes the laughs are unintentional, but it’s always hilarious.

Live on Broadgay

Littlefield (622 Degraw Street, Brooklyn), 8:30 p.m., $10

If I told you there is a show where mostly gay men reenact a classic episode of Sex and The City, you’d probably picture a campy night in a black box theater in the East Village. Add in the fact that everyone involved is a comedian and it’s in Brooklyn and the silly, campy, fun factor goes up to 11. Matteo Lane, Julio Torres, and Joel Kim Booster are just part of the crew taking the piss at the Fabulous Foursome in this awesome night of retro drag comedy.

High Voltage Comedy Night

Verboten Culture (54 North 11th Street, Brooklyn), 7 p.m., $5 in advance

Here’s another chance to see the high energy, outlandishly hilarious Amber Nelson this week! She is truly an unpredictable delight to watch, with cat-rapid comedy reflexes that can shift the set’s gears at any moment. She’s joined by a group of equally amazing and fun comedians that truly live up to the show’s name, including loudmouth goofball Derek Gaines and the incredible Chloé Hilliard.

An Hour with Rachel Feinstein!

The Stand (239 3rd Avenue), 8 and 10 p.m., $5

Rachel Feinstein can do it all — jokes, characters, voices, charm, and snark. She is unfailingly ingratiating, whether explaining the difference between A Tool and A Douche, doing an impression of her mom, or running an off-the-cuff riff. Her Comedy Central Half Hour was a stellar showing and now she’s got a full hour of witty, charming bits on deck.

Friday, August 28:

Awkward Sex… and the City

The Pleasure Chest (1150 2nd Avenue), 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., $15 in advance

Everybody loves talking about sex, especially the awful, awkward parts of it. As proof, this sexy-silly storytelling show is celebrating two full years of comedians rehashing the most mortifying carnal moments they’re willing to share. With guests Emma Willmann and Phoebe Robinson, the anniversary is sure to hit some new and bluntly embarrassing highs.

Remember Your Spirit

The Creek and The Cave (10-93 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City), midnight, Free

Andy Sandford is exactly the type of comedian who would call shenanigans on some phony spiritual enterprise, just created for the purpose of bilking the trusting masses of their hard earned money. Deadpan observations about the things we should have all already realized were stupid and ridiculous are his stock and trade. So it’s fitting he’s one of the featured comedians on this show whose premise is that it is run by exactly that sort of lowlife scum.

Saturday, August 29:

The Wonderful World of Boning: Sex Ed With a Sense of Humor

Union Hall (702 Union Street, Brooklyn), 7:30 p.m., $8

Remember in fifth grade, when the boys and girls were spirited off to separate rooms to sit and watch squirm-inducing videos on Your Changing Body? Well, now you can get some laugh therapy for that trauma by watching the terrible sex-ed videos of our youth along with an actually entertaining sex educator and a host of hilarious stand-up comedians. Hey, you might even learn about Why You Have Hair There.

Creek Cave Live

The Creek and The Cave (10-93 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City), 10 p.m., Free

Rob Haze and Kevin Iso are two very funny young comedians, who are more than worth the price of (free) admission. Throw in another dozen of NYC’s up-and-comers and a free beer just for coming, and you’re basically getting paid to enjoy yourself.

Sunday, August 30:

Ted Alexandro

Gotham Comedy Club (2018 West 23rd Street), 8 p.m., $26

There is not room enough in this column to properly sing the praises of Ted Alexandro. He is undeniably one of the absolute best comedians working in the city (or country, for that matter), with an ease and flow onstage that belies the fact that his set is built with the artistry and intricacy of a Swiss watch. A really funny Swiss watch, of course. He’s also an avid community organizer who regularly uses his notoriety to speak out about racism, sexism, and general human dignity. You don’t need to know that to enjoy his hour, but knowing you’re supporting such a Good Guy should help ease any guilt you feel at how indulgently enjoyable it is.

Monday, August 31:

The Loud Boys Show

Pianos (158 Ludlow Street), 7 p.m., $5

Let’s just declare this Amber Nelson week, because she’s everywhere! Lucky you! This show brings together four comedians, two hosts, and lots of singing, dancing, and free candy. And yes, one of those comedians is the aforementioned Amber Nelson. But the awesomeness doesn’t end there. Nick Vatterott is also on hand to add a second dose of quick, funny, unexpected hilarity to the show.

Tuesday, September 1:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QaDk0wG-HWk

Jen Kirkman

Bowery Ballroom (6 Delancey Street), 9 p.m., $20

For someone who spends her time talking about the pros of being divorced and childless, fighting off sexist internet trolls, and hosting an audio-diary style podcast from the confines of her bedroom, Jen Kirkman is incredibly pleasant and fun. She does all these things with such humor and openness, that it’s impossible not to immediately be on her side. And if you didn’t fall in love with her during her appearances on Drunk History, you are clearly a soulless monster.

Northern Discomfort

The Stand (239 3rd Avenue), 8 p.m., $5 with code VOICE online

Godfrey is almost too much charisma and talent to be confined to fifteen minutes in one of our city’s wonderful, but relatively small clubs. Watching his fun, funny, physical set in this setting is absolutely enjoyable, but also feels a little like flying too close to the sun. Then again, maybe that’s that makes it all the more enjoyable. So strap on your wax wings and check him out.

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STRONG SWIMMERS

Amanda Sudano and Abner Ramirez are the sound of new Nashville — that is, both musically trained since childhood, Ramirez through school in his native Jacksonville, Florida, and Sudano by her mother, Donna Summer. Both transplants to the country-music mecca, they met after a Sunday church service, and that was that. The duo that now goes by Johnnyswim was born. Taking their name from Johnny, a cat that was once chased into a river by Ramirez’s dog, the band makes jubilant folk, blues, and pop. Their earthy sound, replete with hand claps and knee slaps heard on nearly every track, is lent a somehow audible element of authenticity, having actually been produced below the Mason-Dixon line (and not, say, in Brooklyn). Last month, they released A Johnnyswim Christmas, and we’re still grateful for the batch of non-nauseating holiday tracks. Catch them up North tonight and tomorrow.

Wed., Dec. 17, 9 p.m., 2014

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TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL

Her video for “Hi-Five” reminds us of the weird My So-Called Life Halloween special with the gym full of sock-hopping ghosts, minus the Claire Danes monologue. And this is only one reason we like her. Angel Olsen has managed to produce this vintage, ever-reverberating sound of what seems like all current indie pop, but still stays true to her St. Louis roots. She sports a haircut and style similar to what seems like all Urban Outfitters catalog models, but still makes it look consistently cutting-edge. In short, she knows this scene and she wears it well. But the songs on this year’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness speak, or rather sing, for themselves, glowing, opulent testaments to lost love. Wallow with her, and fellow heartland band Lionlimb, tonight.

Mon., Dec. 8, 8 p.m.; Tue., Dec. 9, 9 p.m., 2014

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GOLDEN GIRL

Kimbra, or Kimbra Lee Johnson, can be pared down to her influences. Her vocal stylings are kind of Nina Simone and her over-the-top dance moves have a touch of Prince, but her crazy eyes are all Björk. The New Zealand singer is best known for collaborating with Gotye on depressing break-up/creepy stalker hit “Somebody That I Used to Know,” but her solo work is both more erratic and more striking. This year’s “Miracle,” off her latest album, The Golden Echo, sounds like electropop gone disco, and is bursting with an energy befitting the manic singer — just take a gander at the music video in which she seduces postal workers with her red hot pants. She performs tonight with Brooklyn’s own Empress Of.

Thu., Nov. 6, 9 p.m., 2014

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WEEZING STRONG

Is the “Blue Album” the best all time? Is that even a question anymore? Yeah, Pinkerton was under-appreciated and may have pegged emo a good seven years ahead of its weepy golden age. Yeah, Maladroit was a critical darling and half the internet will explain to you why. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But 1994’s “Blue Album” will always sound like high school, no matter when or where in America you went to it, and coming home for Thanksgiving every subsequent year after. Rivers Cuomo and the boys will probably never birth another record that’s as consistently cathartic through and through, but that doesn’t mean we’re not still game for whatever they’ve got on the horizon. Tonight Weezer returns to promote Everything Will Be Alright in the End, their ninth album, which dropped earlier this month. The title’s promise is hefty, but when it’s made by a band that we have so many pleasantly nostalgic ties to, we’re inclined to believe it.

Mon., Oct. 27, 8 p.m., 2014

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Kaytranada

Haiti-born, Toronto-bred Kaytranada is on fire right now. After launching his career under the guise of Kaytradamus, he shifted to the alias Kaytranada in 2012. As a producer and DJ who has been on the scene for a mere four years, Kaytranada’s catalog is already fairly prolific, with 13 projects and 16 remixes under his belt. Now, he’s started working with rap’s freshest emcees, including Mick Jenkins, GoldLink and Vic Mensa. His latest release “Rain,” starring Mick Jenkins, samples the Ann Peebles song, “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” Kaytranada morphs the song to indeed make you feel like you’re standing in the middle of a serene downpour.

Wed., Oct. 8, 8 p.m., 2014

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Iceage

On their just-released third album, Plowing Into the Field of Love, Danish punks Iceage have caught fans off guard by eschewing their signature post-punk noise for something a little darker; more country-tinged and Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds sounding — complete with strings and a horn section. Frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s vocals still brim with attitude and punk angst, though, and in a recent interview with Noisey he defiantly explained the new sound by saying the group wanted to “destroy some of the expectations on what kind of band we are. We belong to no one.” Still punk as fuck, then.

Sun., Oct. 12, 8 p.m., 2014

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Milky Chance

Velvety-throated German vocalist Clemens Rehbein forms one half of Milky Chance, the mellow indie pop outfit that layers mellow and palatable melodies over the gently bopping beats of DJ Philipp Dausch. Though their sound has wide appeal, Milky Chance’s signature songs are surprisingly emotive, even forlorn. What their 2013 debut Sadnecessary lacks in variety it makes up for in catchiness and light, melancholic melodies.

Mon., Oct. 13, 8 p.m., 2014

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Gardens & Villa

With a band name like Gardens & Villa, one would expect a continental sound and a certain level of refinement as the bare minimum. Thankfully the Santa Barbara five-piece has achieved all this and more since 2011 when Secretly Canadian released their self-titled synth-driven pop debut Dunes. The songs are the focus more than anything else, and when paired with producer Tim Goldsworthy (Cut Copy, Hercules & Love Affair),they expertly unite the physical and digital like a reinvigorated Tango in the Night or Phil Collins’ worldly jungle grooves. “Bullet Train” has an eerie fluttering flute solo played by guitarist Chris Lynch, while polar opposite “Colony Glen” channels the cold-wave of Depeche Mode. It’s rare these days to see a band that really knows how to appreciate the beauty of analog, but somehow G&V manages to do this with a galactic fever.

Tue., Oct. 7, 8 p.m., 2014