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Ryan Adams Made His Beacon Theatre Show A Spiritual Homecoming

There was Ryan Adams, onstage Wednesday evening at the Beacon Theatre with TVs stacked behind him emitting a white-noise glow. It was a curious sight, evoking the nonstop stream of political mayhem that surrounds us now, making it nearly impossible to tune out anything at all. But this was something else, an intimate night that saw Adams returning to the place he referred to as his “spiritual home”: New York.

Incense set the mood, which was full of a reverence you don’t experience much at shows anymore; these days, they’re often more content to be captured than music to be experienced. It was a welcome change to see more eyes than iPhones taking in this show — in part because concertgoers were met with flyers reminding them to avoid using any kind of flash photography, lest any sudden bright light trigger Adams’s Meniérè’s disease, the inner ear disorder that can induce hearing loss, vertigo, and tinnitus.

Across a two-hour set, Adams laid out a career-spanning 23 songs, beginning with the explosive “Do You Still Love Me?,” the lead track off Prisoner, the first album of originals Adams has released since the dissolution of his six-year marriage to Mandy Moore (and a song that finds a way of making power chords sound hesitant and hushed). There’s plenty of heartbreak laced through Adams’s sixteen albums, but the six songs he played from Prisoner (including one from its accompanying album of B-sides) cut like knives. Because Adams’s personal life has become so public, his set felt like one giant therapy session, oscillating between uncertainty, angst, grief, and healing, as he moved from the raw intensity of solo stripped-down tracks like his iconic cover of Oasis’s “Wonderwall” to anthems with the vigor of Bruce Springsteen, such as “Outbound Train.”

Adams continued to stun throughout the evening with dreamy guitar solos on “Everybody Knows” and “When the Stars Go Blue.” The transition from the wistful “English Girls Approximately” into the wailing of “Prisoner” was perhaps the most intense moment of the show, with Adams’s smoky vocals serving as a rallying cry. The gritty “Cold Roses” segued into the roaring “Shakedown on 9th Street,” and the undertones of heartbreak were balanced by a keen sense of self-awareness. Ryan didn’t speak much between songs; that was something he saved for the end, letting his one-liners roam freely between the faux encore and finale. But words weren’t necessary to connect with fans — the music did the work. As Adams closed his set with a solo, harmonica-driven performance of “New York, New York” and the classic cut “Come Pick Me Up” from his solo debut, Heartbreaker, it felt like the perfect goodbye to an old friend, creating a sense of familiarity that will forever make him an honorary New Yorker.

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The Jazz Singer: Jose James Brings His New Album To New York

José James needed to get something off his chest. He was a little more than halfway through his lively 90 minute set Thursday night at The Bowery Ballroom, where he eased through a collection of songs mainly from his terrific new album, Love In the Time of Madness, an unapologetically R&B effort.

“You know what,” he said in his quiet storm baritone, “I love New York, man, cause you guys fucking get it….The response has been totally amazing. My fans are totally rocking with me on this new development, and I want to say thank you for that, because it means a lot. And the only people who haven’t really been are a couple of jazz journalists who just want everything to stay like it’s 1957 in their imagination. Cause when black people think about 1957, no motherfucker wants to go back to that shit. ‘Oh, you mean when Miles Davis got his fuckin’ head split open by a white cop outside of Birdland, yeah, let’s go back to that.’ ”

Yes, there were, and still are, those police—at one point in the show, James sampled Richard Pryor from 1974 repeating, “Cops put a hurtin’ on your ass, man, they really degrade you”—but he was also alluding to the jazz police, that diffuse, unlicensed brigade—plainclothesmen, if you will—that decide who, and what, is legitimate. (Miles in 1957, yes; Miles in 1975, not so much.) They used to be critics, but today—being there are few paid critic gigs—they are historians, educators, or institution heads. They can be festival organizers and label execs. Some are even musicians. They tell you who’s a sell-out (while their rent or mortgage is secure). They are Damien Chazelle characters.

The singer’s frustration with the jazz police—my words, by the way, not his—is understandable. He happens to be an excellent singer, and a versatile one, who can sing jazz, and sing it awfully well, but also soul, R&B, and pop, even rock as in “Anywhere U Go,” from his 2014 record While You Were Sleeping. What should be a blessing is, to some apparently, a curse. (Call it the curse of George Benson.)

James’s last album, Yesterday I Had the Blues, a tribute to Billie Holliday on the centenary of her birth, was a jazz record, and a fantastic one, where James was backed by the substantial rhythm section of Jason Moran, John Patitucci, and Eric Harland. When I last saw him live, in May of 2015 at Harlem Stage, where he sang from that release, he told the audience that he learned about jazz through hip-hop samples—which seems like a perfectly fine gateway—and said, “It was all cool, cool black music.”

James was born in 1978 in Minneapolis—he has the style of a Chuck Foreman spin move—but his sensibility feels early ’80s New York, where many of us grew up on radio stations like BLS and KTU before we discovered BGO and KCR. You sense James’s latest, which could’ve been produced by, say, a Maurice White circa 1984, would’ve had consistent play on Hal Jackson’s WBLS Sunday classics as well as Vaughn Harper’s show, ’round about 1 in the morning.

On Thursday, besides being joined by the dancer Maisha Morris on “To Be With You”—“y’all didn’t know you were going to get some art up in this motherfucker”—he was accompanied by only the superlative Nate Smith, a one-man band on drums and programming who has a thoughtful new release of his own, Kinfolk: Postcards From Everywhere, with jazz musicians like Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Lionel Loueke, and Gretchen Parlato.

Two highlights from James’s new album are duets—“Let It Fall,” with Mali Music, and “I’m Yours,” with the gospel singer Oleta Adams—a reminder of the vitality of the vocal tandem in classic R&B. (Think Marvin and Tammi; Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack; Rick James and Teena Marie; heck, even Rick James and Smokey). At the show, James managed to pull these off by himself, the former while he went down on ballroom floor, among the standing-room audience. He ended the show by picking up an electric guitar for an inventive interpretation of Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands.” (Cool black music again.)

Earlier, he shared another story, this one about the recently-deceased songwriter-producer Leon Ware, whom he had spent some time with. “He looked at me,” James recalled, “and he said, ‘I know you, man. I was just like you. You’re just like me. I love jazz, too. I started in jazz. Marvin [Gaye] started in jazz. We all love that, man, but I see something else in you. I just want you to think about that. You don’t have to do nothing with it right now, but I just want you to think about that.’ ” James paused. “And now he’s gone. So I’m thinking about it, y’all. I’m thinking about it. And that’s all I got to say about that.”

The crowd cheered. If the jazz police were there, undercover, they remained silent.

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Josh Ritter, Lee Ranaldo, Richard Thompson and More Pay Tribute to Leonard Cohen

“Leonard Cohen has a pill for every illness,” said Josh Ritter shortly before Tuesday night’s tribute to the Canadian songwriter—titled “Sincerely L. Cohen”—at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Less than three months after Cohen’s death, a group of more than a dozen songwriters and musicians gathered in Brooklyn for a loving, thoughtful tribute to Cohen’s life in music and poetry.

With a first-rate collection of local musicians led by Josh Kaufman, and including Walter Martin (keys), Annie Nero (bass) and Ray Rizzo (drums) serving as the house band, a parade of artists ranging from Elvis Perkins to Lee Ranaldo took the stage during the two-plus hour performance.

The backing band was modeled, roughly, after the extensive, impeccable touring outfit Cohen had gathered over the last decade of his career, right down to the three backup singers. Comprised of Cassandra Jenkins, Leslie Mendelson, and Jocie Adams, the trio added phenomenal depth and richness to many of the evening’s finest performances.

The show’s boldest decision came early, when Delicate Steve opened proceedings with an instrumental version of Cohen’s signature tune “Hallelujah,” a song with which fellow performer Lenny Kaye shares a deeply personal connection.

“When my daughter was in Junior High School, she did a dance routine to Jeff Buckley’s version of ‘Hallelujah’ the same year Jeff disappeared. That’s my favorite memory of her,” Kaye shared prior to the show, before reflecting on the legacy of Cohen’s art. “Leonard used his music and his words to plumb the depths of his soul and to try to find his place in the universe.”

After offering a moving reading of Cohen’s profane 1966 novel Beautiful Losers, a book Lou Reed had recommended to Kaye in the early 70’s, the legendary guitarist provided a mid-show highlight with his raucous rendition of 1977’s “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On,” a song Kaye describes as the most “brutally honest song Leonard ever wrote.”

Cohen, the lifelong poet, has always been appreciated for his lyricism, but Kaye’s performance, with its ecstatic Bo Diddley beat, highlighted one of the most noteworthy running themes of last night’s tribute: the primacy of Leonard Cohen’s sheer musicality. Cohen’s complex sense of melody and rhythm was evident in the disparate range of styles on display, from the robotic funk of Steve Salett’s “First We Take Manhattan,” to the reggae-folk of Osei Essed’s “Diamonds in the Mine,” to the rootsy country of Teddy Thompson’s “Tower of Song,” to the deep soul of Amy Helm’s “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye.”

Helm based her rendition on Roberta Flack’s 1969 version of the song. “Digging into this tune I realized, wow, it’s a very simple but very difficult melody. It’s very tricky to sing,” Helm said the day before the concert.

During the second half of the twenty-song show, however, a more familiar model of solo-acoustic showmanship provided the biggest highlights. Josh Ritter’s “Chelsea Hotel #2” was the evening’s most impassioned performance, while Richard Thompson, the only performer on the bill who could claim to be a bona fide folk contemporary of Cohen’s, offered note-perfect performances of “Bird on the Wire” and “Story of Isaac,” two songs from Cohen’s 1969 masterpiece Songs From a Room.

“Leonard is a great lyricist,” Thompson told The Voice. “He keeps it simple and direct, but uses the poet’s full palette of language. At a time when the pop and folk lyric were beginning to express a lot more, this was pioneering.”

With their laundry lists of rapidly rotating performers, tribute shows can fall victim to a lack of a unifying theme, but Tuesday night’s show was a carefully constructed, expertly structured production, complete with tasteful snippets of poignant Cohen interviews interspersed throughout.

“What is the proper behavior in a catastrophe?” Cohen asked over the P.A. during one such moment, in an interview from 1992. “You say, I’m conservative? I’m liberal? I’m pro-abortion? I’m against it? It seems to be completely inappropriate to the gravity of the situation.” Immediately following the interview, Adam Weiner launched into an irreverent rendition of the prescient apocalyptic tale “Everybody Knows.”

“Everybody knows that the boat is leaking,” he sang. “Everybody knows that the captain lied.”

That Cohen’s music has never felt more timely, or more necessary, was not lost on many of the night’s performers. “What I will forever have from Leonard is a comrade in the loving, peaceful resistance,” explained Holly Miranda, who performed “I’m Your Man,” before Sincerely L. Cohen, which also served as a benefit for the Preemptive Love Coalition, an organization that aids Syrian and Iraqi refugees. “He’s taught me to be vigilantly thoughtful and ferociously kind. To let the light shine through the cracks. To care more, and forgive more.”

“Leonard’s taught me that a perfect mixture of cynicism and optimism is at the heart of great things,” Ritter added. Cohen’s sense of bitter optimism was on full display during the joyful encore ensemble performance of “So Long Marianne,” complete with a full crowd sing-along led by Will Sheff.

Speaking for every single performer and fan in attendance, Sheff ended the special evening with a simple display of gratitude: “Thanks for the songs, Mr. Cohen.”

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In These Dark Times, Shirley Manson and Garbage Are Better Than Ever

As the frontwoman and primary songwriter of Garbage, Shirley Manson has spent the past twenty years pledging allegiance to her demons. And as the world gets darker, she’s been feeling it. “This year has been crazy, I must admit,” she told the Voice on a phone call. “It just feels like a bomb went off.” This is where her music comes in: Garbage’s mission, Manson says, is staring into the chaos, weaponizing it, and reclaiming it. “I must remind myself — or else I’d never be able to get out of bed — that despite this year seemingly being chaotic, frightening, and bewildering, there are also great things that happen, and people do extraordinary things.”

[pullquote]Manson didn’t seem intimidated — if anything, her stage presence has grown more powerful.[/pullquote]

It’s been over twenty years since the band — Manson, Duke Erikson, Steve Marker, and Butch Vig — came together in Madison, Wisconsin, and they’ve since lost their hold on the Billboard charts. But their celebratory, sorrowful spirit continues to resonate with audiences worldwide. June’s independently released Strange Little Birds , their sixth LP, marks a return to the glossy grunge of their self-titled debut and, on Monday, helped them pack Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield for a two-hour set spanning their entire discography and emotional spectrum. Speaking a week before the show, Manson was fretful about  playing a sprawling outdoor venue. “I like darkness, and with outdoor open areas, you’re unable to control it in the same way,” she says. Being the “pessimistic Scot” that she is, she “like[s] to go in with a little trepidation [so she can be] surprised and delighted” by the results. 

She should have been delighted with her performance, and she certainly looked that way onstage. Judging from her dramatic antics and impassioned interjections (“Let’s go, boys!” she boomed midway through “Stupid Girl,” as the band neared the bridge), Manson didn’t seem intimidated — if anything, her stage presence has grown more powerful. “During our hiatus, I started working with an acting coach, because I was doing a TV show [Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles] at the time,” she explains. “She totally changed the way I move onstage — I feel like talk is cheap at this point.”

The enigmatic alt-rock icons’ setlist leaned heavily on the big hits (“I Think I’m Paranoid,” “Stupid Girl,” “Special,” “Vow,” “Push It”) and highlights from the new album (“Empty,” “Blackout,” “Beloved Freak”) but Garbage still kept the die-hards happy, with searing takes on lesser-known cuts like “Shut Your Mouth,” from Beautiful Garbage, and Bleed Like Me‘s “Sex Is Not the Enemy” (the latter of which Manson dedicated to the LGBTQ community).

After an evening of cathartic highs and relatively few lows (the momentum-killing, mid-set twofer of Strange Little Birds ballads “Beloved Freak” and “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed” notwithstanding) Garbage saved their most explosive statement for last — “#1 Crush,” a paean to doomed, delirious love included first on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and, probably, on practically every mixtape made by an angsty, lovelorn teen thereafter. Eyes closed, Manson stretched her hand out over the crowd, grasping at some phantom on the other side as she moaned a destructive creed: “I will burn for you/Feel pain for you/I will twist the knife and bleed my aching heart/And tear it apart.”

On first listen disturbing, the song’s latent violence took on a more comforting tone in light of life’s horrors at large in 2016. After all, Garbage may be a band, but they’re ultimately saboteurs, diving down into the void with relish so that we might realize we’re not alone, that all pain will pass if you let it. “In our band,” Manson said, “We like to look at the shadows, because we like to see what we’re up against.” Judging from their live show, Garbage couldn’t be better equipped for the task.

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Kevin Morby Came Home to NYC at Rough Trade

Just before his encore at Rough Trade last night, Kevin Morby played two songs alone on stage. The first, “Black Flowers,” which appears on his latest record, Singing Saw, was one of many he dedicated to specific friends that evening, mentioning each by name. The second was a cover of a Townes Van Zandt track “No Place to Fall,” which he dedicated to all of his friends and family, many of whom were in the room, since Morby’s musical roots in New York run deep. He’s made albums honoring the city (2013 solo debut Harlem River) and documenting a wandering lifestyle (2014’s Still Life), but Singing Saw finds him fully embracing the bluesy, jangly, West Coast ease he’s settled into since relocating to Los Angeles several years ago.

Van Zandt is something of a spirit animal for Morby. Both grew up in Texas, with prominent matriarchs named Dorothy by their sides (Van Zandt would list a boat named after his mother as one of his few possessions in a 1994 divorce settlement; Morby’s guitar, an homage to which appears on Singing Saw, is named after his grandmother). Morby wears his sonic references on his sleeve — another big one, especially vocally, is Bob Dylan — which gives his catalog a dusty, antiqued feel, a sound he no doubt honed while playing bass in indie folk outfit Woods. After a brief dalliance in lo-fi garage rock project the Babies, which Morby formed with Vivian Girls alum Cassie Ramone to release two albums in 2011 and 2012, he immediately returned to the folksier sound. Harlem River and Still Life certainly captured his penchant for Van Zandt and Dylan, at times so much so that Morby’s vibe sometimes came off as slightly hollow and performative, despite those records’ loveliness. Singing Saw, on the other hand, feels authentic, robust, and comfortable, and Morby’s live performance accentuated that at every turn.

And what a sharp bolo tie it was!

Clad in a cornflower blue suit and bolo tie (both of which he wears in the video for “Dorothy”), backed by a band swathed in faded chambray, Morby wants to give off the impression that these songs are as lived-in as the maybe-vintage denim. They aren’t all personal — searing early single “I Have Been to the Mountain” is his answer to the protest anthem, penned after Eric Garner’s death — but the stories are told through a consistent, dreamlike lens that paints Morby as a loner in some raw wilderness. Save for those two solo songs at the end of his set, though, this is not a one-man affair. Morby’s band stands in for the rugged terrain; Meg Duffy’s unfurling guitar solos and wispy backing vocals are like haunted desert spirits, while bassist Cyrus Gengras plucks out deft, rambling lines. And longtime drummer Justin Sullivan knows when to imitate the jagged outcroppings of a rocky cliff, scratchy scrub, or the gentle sway of a lonely creek. Together they work as one surging, authoritative unit, bringing a timeless air to older tracks as well as the new.

Morby was a bit sheepish about playing two back-to-back shows in NYC — he’d hit Mercury Lounge the night before — stating that he didn’t want to repeat any of his stage banter. He praised summertime in New York, shouted out old buddies, and asked if anyone at Rough Trade had seen both performances, eliciting sparse cheers from a dedicated few in the crowd. On his previous tour, he’d only brought Sullivan along, prompting a heckler to ask where the band was; recounting that story, he smiled and said, “Here they are!” seeming grateful that they were so dedicated to helping him bring Singing Saw to life. And though the LP has a distinctly Californian vibe, Morby’s reverence for the five boroughs was palpable throughout the show, most especially when he was introducing his penultimate number, “Parade,” as one about the city. Its first lines could be spoken as encouragement to any resident — “If you come to find out who you are, may you find out who you are” — but it was also an admission that no matter which coast Morby inhabits, the true New Yorker never really leaves.

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Kevin Morby Rocks Rough Trade

Kevin Morby was a bit sheepish about playing two back-to-back shows in NYC — he’d hit Mercury Lounge the night before — stating that he didn’t want to repeat any of his stage banter. He praised summertime in New York, shouted out old buddies, and asked if anyone at Rough Trade had seen both performances, eliciting sparse cheers from a dedicated few in the crowd. 

On his previous tour, he’d only brought drummer Justin Sullivan along, prompting a heckler to ask where the band was; recounting that story, he smiled and said, “Here they are!” seeming grateful that they were so dedicated to helping him bring Singing Saw to life. And though the LP has a distinctly Californian vibe, Morby’s reverence for the five boroughs was palpable throughout the show, most especially when he was introducing his penultimate number, “Parade,” as one about the city. Its first lines could be spoken as encouragement to any resident — “If you come to find out who you are, may you find out who you are” — but it was also an admission that no matter which coast Morby inhabits, the true New Yorker never really leaves.Lindsey Rhoades

Photos by Alex Pines for the Village Voice

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A Slightly Off Son Lux Played National Sawdust Last Night

Several weeks ago, at the utopian Form Arcosanti festival in Arizona, I watched Son Lux, a Brooklyn three-piece who play what could be called “math pop” — precise, angular, surprising compositions that are alternately funky and operatic — perform a radiant, cathartic set. Their incredible talent as musicians and performers easily made them one of the highlights of a deeply stacked lineup that weekend.

Last night, the band closed out their several-months-long tour with a set at Williamsburg’s intimate, visually striking National Sawdust concert hall. Unfortunately, this final bow was lacking in comparison to their astonishing showing in the desert. The intervening weeks had clearly taken a toll on frontman Ryan Lott, who started Son Lux as a solo project. He uses his voice with as much precision as his bandmates, Rafiq Bhatia and Ian Chang, play their guitar and drums, respectively, and Lott’s performance (his endearing tics include applauding his own songs and playing air guitar) is the centerpiece of their act. But it became clear not long into their set at National Sawdust that his voice and energy weren’t at their peak. He coughed occasionally from the stage and wasn’t able to hit many of his songs’ transcendent high notes. It was frustrating to see such talented artists unable to do justice to their creations, especially in such a good venue.

That’s not to say the show wasn’t enjoyable. The band’s impossibly tight playing and unconventional song structures create a suspenseful, simmering energy, sometimes tricking the audience into applauding multiple times before a tune ends. Chang is mesmerizing on the drums, where he often pulls off detailed rhythms in bizarre time signatures, building the base for Lott’s vocal and keyboard antics. Bhatia — who opened the show with his own band (which consists of Chang and bassist Jackson Hill, a frequent Son Lux collaborator) — inspires awe with guitar solos that demonstrate his aptitude for both the technical and the avant-garde, floating from shredded arpeggios to feedback noise and then back again. The setlist was predominantly drawn from Son Lux’s 2015 album, Bones, and arranged to feel like a narrative whole. The re-emergence of lyrical themes like the wordplay “This moment change is/Changes everything” gave the performance a feeling of seamlessness.

Near the show’s end, Lott paused to thank his band members and tour-mates in an emotional speech in which he let slip that Son Lux will not play in the U.S. again until 2017. It’s unfortunate that they were not at their full power for their final New York show of this year. But even weakened, Son Lux are a formidable musical force. In 2017, when we can assume they will have recovered from this round of touring, it’s not hard to imagine them taking over the world. 

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Nothing Compares 2 of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes Performing Solo

Just one night after Madonna enraged Billboard Music Awards viewers with an anemic rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Kevin Barnes demonstrated precisely what it takes to cover that particular Prince song. A voice as rich as Sinéad O’Connor’s helps, certainly. But it’s absolutely crucial that the singer be — or at least sound — heartbroken. More important than hitting the high note in “nothing” is making the quiver that creeps in at “to you,” a moment later, feel genuine.

In a rare solo date at Le Poisson Rouge, Barnes nailed it, which makes total sense: As frontman and songwriter of Athens, Georgia’s of Montreal, he’s made a specialty of capturing emotional distress in honest, excruciating, and sometimes ecstatic detail. The band’s two-decade, thirteen-album career has chronicled a roller coaster of marital reveries and rifts and reconciliations that ended in Barnes’s separation from his wife a few years back, with every peak and valley immortalized in hyperliterate songs that evolved from psych-pop to funk to the Seventies New York art-punk of last year’s Aureate Gloom.

The poet laureate of self-scrutiny took the stage Monday in a glam-rock casual costume of pink blazer and ruffle-neck shirt, a guitar slung around his neck and a curtain of hair falling rakishly over his right eye. Barnes’s look referenced Rimbaud as much as Prince, which seemed appropriate for a set that also featured a brief poetry reading. His delicate performance of “Nothing Compares 2 U” anchored a piano interlude midway through the 75-minute show, and he prefaced it with the rueful observation that “the cool thing is, [Prince] lives on CNN now.”

It was neither Barnes’s darkest joke nor his most devastating song of the night. (“Nothing Compares” wasn’t even his only cover of a beloved, recently deceased artist; he also played David Bowie’s “Hang On to Yourself,” an inspired choice for acoustic guitar.) Those moments were reserved for the new material that dominated the set. In a pair of coruscating compositions that Barnes intimated we’d hear on the next of Montreal album, due out in August or September, he addressed a recent ex-girlfriend. “It’s cool to date a suicidal person,” he said, “because it takes the pressure off. You don’t have to think about long-term plans.”

The song that followed defused any offense his alarmingly flip comment might have caused. “My lady’s back at home, cutting herself and sending me photographs,” Barnes sang in a monotone that sounded more depleted than apathetic. His second missive to the suicidal woman, a piano ballad, oscillated between callousness (“You can’t really martyr yourself when no one gives a fuck”) and tender longing. “Won’t you always be there?” he belted in the chorus, really earning the show’s cabaret setting. “I almost cried,” he admitted when it was over.

Barnes complemented his psychoanalysis of his ex with a handful of beloved tracks from of Montreal’s 2007 album, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? — a masterpiece that elevated a breakup and its ensuing breakdown into a stunning personal metamorphosis. His spare, slowed-down arrangements of upbeat depression anthems like “Gronlandic Edit” and “Suffer for Fashion” emphasized the pain recorded in those songs’ lyrics, a reminder that Barnes is at least as cutting an observer of his own fluctuating mental state as he is of anyone else’s. That emotional acuity — not riding a white horse through Roseland Ballroom or getting naked onstage — is what makes him such a captivating performer and songwriter.

Last night’s Hissing Fauna selections were so utterly altered from their original versions that it seems impossible to tell what of Montreal’s promising new songs will sound like in their final, full-band form. But considering that real-life turmoil has always been an essential ingredient in Barnes’s recipe for poignant pop, there’s certainly reason to be hopeful.  

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Anohni’s ‘Hopeless’ Politics Take Over Park Avenue Armory

I grew up in a Northern California town whose bumper stickers spoke for its citizens, where you were in the minority if your Subaru wasn’t plastered with “Coexist” spelled out in symbols of faith, next to “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” and “Celebrate Your Inner Goddess.” Anohni’s show last night at Park Avenue Armory, part of the the Red Bull Music Academy Festival, felt like tailgating in my hometown, a series of well-meaning political statements whose lack of nuance, already obvious on the artist’s record Hopelessness, was amplified to resonate, hollow, between the rafters of the Armory’s enormous drill hall. Anohni never spoke during her performance, which was essentially a piece of video art with an extravagant soundtrack, rarely exploiting the possibilities of the near-infinite space in which she presented her work.

The night started with video of Naomi Campbell dancing seductively, projected onto a massive screen behind the stage. According to the program it was an outtake from the video for “Drone Bomb Me,” and it lasted for a far-too-long fifteen minutes. When the lights finally came up to reveal the stage, we saw three people: Anohni, in a white robe with a layer of gauzy black fabric draped over her face; Daniel Lopatin, a/k/a Oneohtrix Point Never, who collaborated on the album; and Christopher Elms, who has worked with both Anohni and Björk. The two men stayed put behind their desks, with Anohni moving slowly around the stage, never revealing her face.

That meant the star of the show was the screen, which over the course of the evening featured a series of close-up videos of twenty women lip-syncing the songs. All were artists, most of whom work in New York; Shirin Neshat, Leslie Cuyjet, Vanessa Aspillaga, and Kembra Pfahler made appearances, and the show closed with a monologue, first presented at the World Economic Forum, by Aboriginal artist Ngalangka Nola Taylor. In most cases it was one woman per song, and Anohni herself didn’t appear on the screen until near the end.

This gimmick created an intense focus on the lyrics, which had the unfortunate effect of enhancing their clunkiest buzzwords. “Terrorism,” “child molesters,” “North Koreans and Nigerians,” and the repetition of “Obama” (from the track of the same name) brought down whatever atmosphere the beats and synths created. This is the least appealing outcome of protest music: a sacrificing of eloquence for messaging. Even worse, Anohni was only sort-of saying it herself, having displaced culpability onto the disembodied women towering over her.

To be sure, there were highlights, and they were, not coincidentally, the album’s more ethically ambiguous songs. “4 Degrees,” already an ominous epic, became thunderous in the cavernous space. The song’s title is a reference to the devastating effects of a seemingly small rise in global temperature, seductive in its visceral beat and clever in its death-wish lyrics: “I wanna burn the sky, I wanna burn the breeze/I wanna see the animals die in the trees.” Anohni let her spectacular voice loose to repeat the song’s mantra, “It’s only four degrees,” while reaching both higher and lower in her vocal range than she does on the recorded version. I caught myself feeling uncomfortable for so thoroughly enjoying the adulation of environmental destruction, which is precisely the point of the song.

Wonderful, too, was “Drone Bomb Me,” a slinky dance number about extrajudicial targeted killings that, despite its troubling race and gender politics, successfully demands that the listener consider their complacency about drone warfare. What these songs have in common is their poetry: rather than tackling their respective issues head-on with explicit accusations, Anohni gets a valuable message across by wrapping her critique in the evocative lyrical style that carried her to fame as the leader of Antony and the Johnsons. Stripped of flourishes and down to their electronic core, these tracks sounded fantastic and had an even greater impact last night than they do on record.

As a highly visible trans artist who, like Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, was forced by her existing acclaim to transition very publicly, Anonhi has a fan base with high expectations for her political engagement. She has risen to fulfill those expectations eagerly and broadly, using every opportunity she gets to make big statements about politics, gender, warfare, climate change, healthcare — the list goes on and on. But by hiding in person behind a literal veil and putting her words in the mouths of other women — overwhelmingly of color, which she is not — Anohni displayed an unwillingness last night to do the actual work of activism. Her poor use of the space and lack of performance were disappointing, yes, but her invisibility was the biggest letdown of the night. Despite its flaws Hopelessness is a valuable album; we can only hope that Anohni will one day confidently claim her own work.

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Japan’s Babymetal Just Slayed New York With Sweetness

There’s a rabid, swirling moshpit of sweaty dudes with bushy beards, decked out in rock-band T-shirts, and an aggro, two-guitar lineup sporting corpse paint and spewing growly, speedy metallic riffs atop double kick drums. Fans’ fists thrust into the air in salute. But they’re not making the classic metal horns — they’re making the sign of the “Fox God,” the “patron saint” of Japanese idol band Babymetal.

The group is three teenage girls — Moametal, 16, Su-metal, 18 and Yuimetal, 16 — who sing, dance and are unbearably adorable all over the stage, backed by a very talented band. Think of it as Disney-era Britney Spears fronting Slayer. Plus an extra side of cuteness, minus creepy underage sexiness.

Is it a gimmick? Yes. Does it work? Definitely. Babymetal sing almost exclusively in Japanese, and one can imagine, as with Menudo, if the girls “age” out of the band, equally precious and endearing hopefuls will be waiting to don sparkly tights, pigtails, and petticoat skirts. With the giant team of Amuse, Inc. behind them, plus lyricists and songwriters Tsubometal and Kitsune of Metal God, Babymetal have won over, and then slayed, crowds across the world. The 2,100-person-capacity Playstation Theater sold out weeks in advance; overseas, the band headlines London’s Wembley Arena (capacity: 12,500) and Tokyo Dome (55,000) back home in Japan.

But their New York crowd — an eclectic mix of Japanese fans, middle-aged white guys, and cotton-candy-haired girls in cat-ear headphones, all of whom are uniformly mesmerized and enthusiastic — swooned, almost literally, when the girls spoke a few words in English. (One utterance: “You make me happy!”) The NYC audience didn’t care if they didn’t speak Japanese; Babymetal prove music is really the universal language, even if translation uncovers less-than-revelatory lyrics. “Doki Doki Morning,” according to the band’s website, goes: “Straight, straight/My bangs’ end makes a straight line/It’s a cutie style…. Today’s lip gloss shall be that? This? That? Which?” Not exactly Anthrax, but it works.

One of the band’s best-known tunes, “Gimme Chocolate!!,” begs the question: Are Babymetal too saccharine? Thankfully, due in no small part to the exceptional metal chops of their band, and the winning contrast between the heavy music and the girls’ seemingly genuine glee, they manage never to be cloying. They’ve even won over big names in the metal world: Much of the metal press loves them, as do Dragonforce and Metallica.

Coming out for their encore in shiny hooded cloaks, Babymetal, flashing their dimpled grins and Fox God signs, looked like an adorable coven of teen witches, the drama, energy, and theatrics of the fourteen-song set — with tightly choreographed, aerobically challenging routines — entirely fitting for the concert’s Broadway location. Even the most jaded concertgoer must have left with a growing Grinch heart, and probably a Fox God T-shirt, too.