Sigur Rós: Hopelandic Springs Eternal

Sigur Rós have inspired more terrible music writing than any other band in the past decade; to get the ball rolling, I’ll submit some of my own. Faced with the prospect of reviewing the Icelandic art-rock quartet’s 2002 album, with an unpronounceable title—officially, it’s ( ), but go ahead and call it Parentheses next time you bring it up down at the bar—and eight unnamed prog-dirge tracks to contend with, I took the liberty of assigning song titles myself: “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight,” “Big Bottom,” “Stinkin’ Up the Great Outdoors,” etc. Hilarious. When a dude resorts to Spinal Tap jokes, you know he’s sunk.

Of course, their gleefully pretentious eccentricity is only half the problem. (Though it’s a pretty big half: The lyrics to ( ) are all sung in the made-up language Hopelandic, which seems to allow for half a dozen syllables at most, revolving around the phrase “You sigh” or, if you prefer, “You’s high” repeated ad infinitum.) Sigur Rós songs are brutally delicate works of otherworldly beauty and pulverizing volume, towering monoliths of reverb, viciously bowed guitars, volcanic bass, glistening strings, braying horns, and the yearning castrato wails of frontman Jón Thor Birgisson, who sings like Vaseline feels. Such theatrics can turn even our brightest critical minds into bewildered travel writers, summoning up glaciers, oceans, caverns, cathedrals, lunar landscapes, endless summers, nuclear winters. As interview subjects, the boys are shy to the point of implosion; look up video of their chat on NPR’s “Bryant Park Project” sometime for a near-silent, cringe-worthy train wreck worthy of the U.K. version of The Office. Their music is an enormous, engulfing vacuum—any meaning you want it to have, you have to project on it yourself. Many a Hollywood director (Cameron Crowe, Wes Anderson, Gregg Araki) has tried. But that’s a mug’s game, whether you’re a professional or an amateur; better you take a seat, assume a slack-jawed expression, and just let the jams overwhelm you.

Which is what we’re all doing, last Tuesday night at the Grand Ballroom, lured into a state of joyful paralysis five minutes into their first tune: “Svefn-G-Englar,” the band’s biggest hit, a slow, booming, organ-heavy crawl wherein Birgisson mewls what for all intents and purposes is “It’s youuuooouuuu” over and over and over, standing bolt-upright and mechanically sawing a violin bow over his guitar strings, an oft-repeated nervous tic that assists mightily in making us all deaf as well as mute. The cumulative effect leaves us rapt, motionless, awestruck, as though we’re either 10 miles underwater or orbiting Jupiter. Dismiss these guys as deeply, irretrievably corny if you must, but I’m up for anything or anyone who can break your typical indie crowd’s nonchalant lethargy, that passionless throng of digital-camera-brandishing automatons, filling up their Flickr pages without a flicker of real-life enthusiasm. Plenty of flashing lights here, too, but the bulk of the audience is too reverent to move.

Next comes “Glosoli,” off ( )‘s far less knuckleheaded 2005 follow-up, Takk, a massive and hypnotic bassline slithering over a steadily clomping kick-drum rhythm like mastodons on the march. (Shit, I’m doing it again.) Then “Se Lest,” which begins as a toy-factory lullaby, buttressed by a plinking vibraphone and Sigur Rós’ in-house all-female string quartet, Amiina; mid-song, just to keep everyone company, out trots a five-man horn section (complete with tuba), seemingly dressed as Clockwork Orange droogs, emerging from the wings and traipsing past the front row and onstage, slowly transforming the tune into a jaunty oompah waltz. Such theater, along with a few confetti cannons near show’s end, is all we’ll get in terms of showbiz; no effusive stage banter, thanks. The band’s strongest statement, in fact, is to perforate one tune with 30 to 45 seconds of dead, motionless silence, daring someone to break the spell. No one does. The song kicks back in, and is soon once again incredibly, incapacitatingly loud.

Whether this stuff works on record is debatable—the isolated moments of bombastic triumph mostly justify the long, languid, syrupy lulls—but in concert, Sigur Rós are damn near a religious experience, with all the rapture and righteous bloodshed that implies. (The following night, the band played a special small-scale gig at MOMA, the tickets for which were sold out literally before they went on sale, whereupon Brooklyn Vegan commenters started murdering each other in the streets.) So consider the band’s new record, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, a splendid excuse to tour. It starts promisingly: “Gobbledigook” (haw, haw) is much shorter (three minutes!) and more organic than usual, a bouncy acoustic-guitar tumble, like someone fast-forwarding through “Solsbury Hill” or Collective Soul’s “The World I Know” and lalala‘ing merrily over top. Not every song crams 10 pounds of space-age studio artillery into a five-pound bag, which is nice. But the second half descends into a nigh-indistinguishable string of piano ballads, Birgisson in fine, angelic voice as always, but still cooing delicate gibberish whether his medium is Hopelandic or Icelandic. The quieter and more naked the songs get, the less power they have—Sigur Rós depend on excess, sonic and visual and emotional.

In that more desirable vein, as a Grand Ballroom capper, we are beaten over the head with “Popplagið,” the unofficial title of ( )‘s closing number, featuring the mother of all apocalyptic crescendos, the last three minutes or so conjuring up more sound and fury than Radiohead and Metallica combined. Right before the wave crashes, a wayward young lass leaps onstage and makes as if to hug Birgisson; a security guard materializes and very, very politely shoos her away before the messianic singer, hypnotized by his band’s own bombast, can even open his eyes to notice. It is the majesty of rock.


Coldplay’s Insurmountable Fire

Your songs are too long. And you’re too repetitive, and you use the same tricks too much, and big things aren’t necessarily good things, and you use the same sounds too much, and your lyrics are not good enough.

So, apparently, went Brian Eno’s rather brutal critique of Coldplay, delivered as part of his appeal to produce their new record, Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends (the title alone proves Eno right on at least one count), which he did indeed produce, as announced in the liner notes with the statement “Sonic landscapes by Brian Eno,” which, if he wouldn’t mind my critiquing him for a second, is incredibly fucking pretentious. Coldplay frontman Chris Martin merrily recounts his sonic landscaper’s gibes in the new Rolling Stone‘s cover story, sounding awfully cowed and sheepish for the guy whose band is charged with single-handedly saving the blockbuster-starved music industry: cowed by his competition (“I would still give my left ball to write anything as good as OK Computer“), cowed by his dizzying celebrity (“If your wife went out with Brad Pitt, you’d want to prove yourself, you know what I mean?”), cowed by the moderate backlash that greeted the band’s last record, 2005’s X&Y (“We were bigger than we were good”). On that last point, the radness of “Fix You” excepted, it’s tough to argue with him, or Eno, or the need for Vida to either perfect the band’s titanically sincere arena-rock mold or blow it up for good.

And indeed, the record’s first two and a half minutes—a throwaway intro called “Life in Technicolor”—are genuinely thrilling, a brief (and lyric-less!) master class in the tricks, the sounds, the repetition, the bigness that aided Coldplay’s rise to power. Eno’s sweetly pastoral synth landscape sets the tone, and soon it all piles on: the jangly electric-guitar riff, the cheerful acoustic to sketch out the simple chords, the rumbling bass and drums to give those chords muscle and propulsion, the ecstatically clanging piano, a few joyful oh-oh-oh‘s from Martin just to remind us who’s in charge here—a steady and true and exhilarating 150-second rise in volume and intensity that’s pure “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and if it doesn ‘t quite blossom into a full, magnificent anthem the way “Streets” did, the point is made. But part of that point is that this is Coldplay’s instinct—go for the gold, the jugular, the fist-pumping knockout—and most of the rest of Vida aims to subvert it.

Which doesn’t mean it’s too terribly difficult. The usual specters (U2 and Radiohead, mostly) hang over it, but Vida‘s true genesis is the Arcade Fire. Though not a “concept album” in any meaningful way, its tone throughout is soaring, portentous, desperate, elliptically political, and widescreen in terms of both geography and emotion: East and West, life and death. “Cemeteries of London” gives way to “Lovers in Japan.” From the onset, Martin’s hunting big game: “God is in the houses/And God is in my head!” he wails on “Cemeteries”; “Those who are dead are not dead/They’re just livin’ in my head,” he mews a few tracks later on “42.” Major motifs: snow and rooftops. Major theme: Life During Wartime, though that’s often abstract, and blessedly so. (Martin is far from embarrassing, but Eno is not incorrect that Coldplay’s lyrics, in terms of the music’s articulate grandiosity, aren’t quite good enough: Bono probably would’ve reached a more profound conclusion than “Soldiers, you’ve got to soldier on.”)

As to Eno’s simplest and truest declaration—that every single Coldplay song feels like it’s 10 minutes long, even if it’s actually only, like, three—Vida tries to solve the problem by breaking up the few longer tracks into jolting mini-suites. (Hey, “Clocks” was great and all, but that piano riff just went on forever. ) So “42” starts as a soft, lonely piano ballad, dead-ends into a harsh, knotty, Kraut-prog jam, then barrels into a discordantly peppy pop-tart chorus (“You didn’t get to heaven, but you made it close!”). And “Yes” starts as a slow, ominous rumble (Martin dropping his cavernous croon down to Crash Test Dummy depths) with spry klezmer strings slicing overhead, then abruptly bursts into a gauzy My Bloody Valentine shoegaze daydream, Martin’s normally sleek falsetto squeaking amid swirling guitar-hero blasts, as though he actually did give his left ball to write something as good as OK Computer and got ripped off.

This approach guarantees that you won’t get too bored, and the band’s old tricks have renewed power when deployed in smaller doses: a small piano-and-falsetto conclusion redeems the plodding lead single, “Violet Hill.” Eno, meanwhile, busts his ass to actually justify that sonic-landscape business. The strident strings that drive “Viva La Vida” confidently push the tune to rousing iPod-commercial heights, and “Lost!” is a deep and immersive and startling organ-and-handclaps march: He builds the cathedral, Martin brings the sermon. But though the result is biblical, it’s not neon-biblical: What makes the Arcade Fire’s Win Butler so effective at Life During Wartime shtick is that he howls and quavers as though he’s actually dying, as though his cathedral’s under siege and the organ’s only there to drown out the gunfire. Martin’s too sweet, too soothing for this wetwork. He tries hard to imagine how it feels to feel like you’re dying, but he can’t evoke it. Closing track “Death and All His Friends” tries to work itself into a climactic frenzy, cranking up the speed and intensity while trying out one of those life-and-death group shout-alongs that Butler leads so effortlessly, but Coldplay’s giving up their huge home-field advantage here—you don’t best your rivals by aping them. And when the pastoral Eno flourishes that started Vida off so promisingly return for a quick coda, Martin reverts back to his suavely crooning self, but blows it with his first four words: “And in the end . . . . ” Bam, you’re thinking Abbey Road, and while Vida is far from a dog, it’s just another unflattering comparison that the record itself needlessly invites—an extremely overconfident way to handle a crisis of confidence. Big isn’t necessarily good, no, and bigger isn’t necessarily better.


On Weezer’s Mystifying Red Album

I’ve had a three-second loop from the new Weezer record stuck in my head for about 48 hours now, Rivers Cuomo snarling “I don’t wanna get wit’cher program” in my ear as I eat, as I sleep, as I stagger around in the heat. As a statement of defiance, it’s actually quite soothing, those punky, overdriven guitars a source of great comfort and nostalgia. As always, it sounds like there’s a lot of them—a George Lucas CGI army’s worth. As with George’s craft, alas, the years have not been kind to our heroes. But they’ve been kinder.

The band’s sixth full-length, Weezer, a/k/a The Red Album, is the most bewildering assault yet from an exceptionally strange band, vacillating from terrible to terribly affecting at Cuomo’s whim, but insouciant and profoundly immature throughout. The bit stuck in my head is awkwardly tacked on to the very end of “Dreamin’,” a sweet, fanciful power-pop monument to his refusal to accept reality or adult responsibility, complete with a lovingly rendered, multi-part vocal harmony describing one of his daydreams in detail (“I am running!/Through the meadow!”). Two of the first three songs rhyme something with underwear. Hit single “Pork and Beans” concludes its magnificently bratty chorus with “I don’t give a hoot about what you think,” the key word there being hoot. “Troublemaker” declares Cuomo’s intent to be a rock star and avoid banal nine-to-five domesticity, which he summarizes as “Marrying a beyotch/And having seven keyods.” And “Everybody Get Dangerous” is a ludicrous ode to suburban rebellion: playing hockey without pads, lighting roadkill on fire, going 65 in a 25 in your parents’ Tercel. The song begins thus:

When I was younger
I used to go and tip cows for fun, yeah
Actually I didn’t do that
‘Cause I didn’t want the cow to be sad
But some of my friends did

The whole album feels like a 16-year-old’s histrionic temper tantrum; on Tuesday, Rivers will turn 38. Whether your consider The Red Album deliciously childlike or unbearably stupid depends entirely on your mood: As a six-minute litmus test, proceed directly to “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn).” The parenthetical is not a joke; the song might be. It’s a rock opera, I suppose, aimed at a generation that first heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a joke in the Wayne’s World movie. In intervals of 20 seconds or so, it goes from dorky rap-metal to wimpy white-guy folk to military-parade choral harmony (quote: “After the havoc that I’m gonna wreak/No more words will critics have to speak”) to yelpy piano pop to synth-driven new wave to a Shakespearean spoken-word interval wherein Cuomo reiterates: “If you don’t like it, you can shove it. But you don’t like it—you love it.” Weezer’s greatest moments have always sounded slightly deranged: Consider the mighty Pinkerton‘s semi-erotic pleas to the band’s barely legal Japanese-schoolgirl fans. But “Greatest Man” proudly invites you to conclude that these dudes have lost it.

By “it,” I mean their minds, not necessarily their touch. And even if you initially respond to the tune with revulsion, keep in mind that everyone hated Pinkerton at first, too, and even 2005’s reviled Make Believe generated the band’s biggest single, “Beverly Hills.” It’s just that The Red Album follows in that song’s footsteps: lyrics so aggressively dumb they’re almost genius. Almost. Is Cuomo that inarticulate, or is he amazingly good at articulating the feelings of inarticulate teenagers in their own words? Much of this record isn’t so much good as it is entertainingly mystifying: a 16-car pileup that may or may not have been staged for your benefit. “Heart Songs,” from the title on down, is objectively lousy: a lazy frat-pop groove (sounds like LFO, actually) wherein Rivers basically just lists bands and songs he likes, with phrasing so stilted and obvious that you can barely call the result “lyrics”: “Mr. Springsteen said he had a hungry heart,” “Michael Jackson’s in the mirror,” etc. But he sounds so reverent—so daunted, almost, by the greatness of Joan Baez, Quiet Riot, etc.—that the result is winsome anyway, especially when he harks back to 1991 (“I wasn’t having any fun”) and someone throws on a record with a particularly disturbing cover: “Had a baby on it/He was naked on it.” Rivers Cuomo considers “Smells Like Teen Spirit” one of his “heart songs.” What the hell do you say to that?

Ultimately, there’s too much here to bemusedly puzzle over and not enough to just crank up. The record goes into freefall on the back end, when the famously autocratic Cuomo inexplicably lets the other dudes take a crack at fronting the band: Brian Bell sings like Uncle Kracker; Pat Wilson sings like the drummer. So perhaps it’s best just to fixate on what everyone’s gonna remember about The Red Album: “Pork and Beans.” Specifically, the video. Honestly, the video’s pretty brilliant: a joyous summit of various YouTube superstars (the “Numa Dance” guy, the “Chocolate Rain” guy, the “Leave Britney Alone” guy) run gleefully amok. That shot of the band, in white lab coats and goggles, rocking out while standing completely still as a series of Mentos-and-Diet-Coke geysers erupt behind them is fantastic, a perfect encapsulation of their goofy/awkward appeal. But the undeniable chorus aside, the song itself is lyrically daft as well, like some kind of songwriting improv challenge wherein Cuomo had to work in whoever or whatever popped up on his TV at the time: Rogaine, Oakley shades, Timbaland. Oakley shades? Really?

Thus, roughly 90 percent of my affection for the song is tied to the video. And while it’s tempting to interpret the clip as Weezer’s way of soothing and defending all these easily mocked YouTube guys—”I’m-a do the things that I wanna do/I ain’t got a thing to prove to you”—it’s highly probable that the “Chocolate Rain” guy long ago stopped giving a hoot about what you think; Weezer needs his cachet far more than he needs Weezer’s. “Pork and Beans” will go down as a loopy tribute to the fluky Internet superstars who now command the audience and affection that the old alt-rock elite just can’t rouse up anymore. The Red Album is an often fascinating glimpse into how a band deals with that, but it also underscores how it happened in the first place.


David Byrne: Sonic Architect

“So, what do you want to know?” asks David Byrne, beaming beneath a straw fedora, as erudite and affable as ever, even with a couple busted ribs. “What’s not apparent?” He’s gesturing to an ornate antique organ, the only adornment to this cavernous 9,000-square-foot hall in the Battery Maritime Building in Lower Manhattan. A bewildering farm of tubes and wires runs out from the back and snakes along to the walls, the towering columns, and the pipes looming overhead, as if the instrument itself were on life support. Not much, at first blush, is apparent.

David would like it if you came and had a go at the organ. Or, more accurately, the venue itself. Playing the Building, his partnership with arts gurus Creative Time, is basically an interactive experimental-music station, a chance for you (and/or your kids) to pretend you’re a member of Einstüerzende Neubauten for a couple minutes. Each key on the organ connects to a tube, which connects to some facet of the building, which dutiful whirls or clanks or whistles or saws at your command. The tones are generally arranged low to high on the keyboard, though you can’t exactly play “Stormy Weather” on it; it’d be more satisfying, perhaps, to rattle off a few full-keyboard slides, Bugs Bunny/Jerry Lee Lewis–style, though so far, everyone seems too polite (or too fearful of busting the thing) to do this. Probably just as well. Your choice, though. Spray-painted in yellow onto the cement floor at the foot of the organ is a simple request: “Please play.”

Holding court and testing errant keys a few days before the exhibit’s grand opening this past Saturday—it’s now open to the public Friday through Sunday, from noon to 6 p.m., until mid-August—David stresses that he’s not a musician here, but a facilitator. It’s his gift to the masses: “It’s nice that they can come in and play the thing,” he says. “It’s not a piece of music that you download or you buy, something like that. It’s something that you actually have to sit and do.” Furthermore: “You can see how it works. It’s not like a piece of software where the actual workings of it, unless you’re a real techie, are completely hidden to you. It’s pretty easy to see which ones are blowing air.”

The ex–Talking Heads frontman—who, after a couple decades of fantastically strange projects (deadpan PowerPoint presentations, a McSweeney’s-approved faux Bible treatise entitled The New Sins, that musical about Imelda Marcos, etc.), finally feels like he’s shed the Rock-Star-Makes-Art tag and can stand on his own as a conceptual artiste—first mounted Playing the Building at an old factory in Sweden a couple years back. He remembers fondly the empowerment it engendered among folks there: “They didn’t feel inhibited about playing the thing. They didn’t feel like they were amateurs and only professionals can play it. They didn’t feel like it requires a composer or a musician to play, because obviously it’s not like a regular instrument. So that, I think, helped loosen people up—and kids and adults and whatever, they all felt they could have a few minutes fooling around on it.”

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But the piece has added resonance in New York City, first of all from the real-estate angle, stemming the tide (albeit briefly) of all our weird, old, eccentric buildings slowly succumbing to Starbucks franchises and McCondos. This will be the public’s first trip to the Battery Maritime Building’s second floor in decades, and care was taken to preserve the atmosphere: Short of the obvious, rudimentary cleanliness/safety issues, Byrne chose to leave the raw, industrial, bluntly intimidating space largely alone. (Which may explain why you have to sign a waiver to get up there.) “The EDC [Economic Development Corporation] . . . their motivation is to get some developer in, which I think is eventually gonna happen here,” Byrne says. “Somebody’s gonna do something in here that’s more commercial than this. But in the meantime, they like having this kinda stuff in, because it draws attention to the space, gets it in the news a little bit.”

What’s also NYC-specific is the “music” itself, specifically its strong resemblance to the ambient, everyday street noise we either take for granted or push out entirely via noise-cancelling iPod headphones: The organ can sound remarkably like traffic, like construction, like an old building wheezing as you walk by. (The sort of thing, coincidentally, you’re probably more attuned to if you’re on a bicycle. Byrne is an avid cyclist, which is how, unfortunately, he got those busted ribs—he recently wiped out on West 14th Street, upon which two cops appeared and immediately wanted to know if a) he’d been drinking and b) he was David Byrne. Yes to both questions.) Playing the Building gives you the chance to rehear the city’s true heartbeat and control it.

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Stopping by Saturday afternoon for the grand opening, there’s a line of 20 to 25 people patiently waiting to do just that—intriguingly, many choose to attack the organ as part of a duet, though you can’t exactly play “Heart and Soul” on it either. Very small children seem more impressed with the noise they can make slapping their hands on the keys than the bells and/or whistles themselves; slightly older kids tend to prefer staring at the guts of the thing, the intricate wiring and pressure gauges visible within. Some people stroll around tracing the vines to the noisemakers they lead to; others just lie on the concrete floor, close their eyes, and soak it all in.

Perhaps the simplest statement being made here is that You, Too, Can Be a Musician, a salient point when the monolithic music industry that helped boost Talking Heads to prominence is in free-fall, but a young, unknown musician has more weapons and potential outlets than ever. This is not David’s only dalliance with this idea: On his excellent blog/journal at, he recently discussed his attempt to design a carpet of 100 guitar pedals that everyone would have to walk on to enter a benefit for the Kitchen. While this was an even more physical, visceral method of impromptu music-making, he hadn’t anticipated a few problems—women in high heels, for example: “Well, we had problems with the building manager on that piece, so I had to pull it out,” he tells me. “But I’ll try it again somewhere else.” It’d be nice if he had an infinite amount of time, and a never-ending glut of available and charismatic places to do that. But in reality, he might want to hurry.


The Swell Season’s Victory Lap

The word Glen Hansard uses to describe the last couple years of his life is unfathomable. Fair enough. Glen’s just walked onstage at Radio City Music Hall, whereupon an exuberant, sold-out crowd immediately gave him a standing ovation simply for showing up, an affable Irish dude clutching a resoundingly beat-to-shit acoustic guitar, the wood completely worn through in spots along the path his forceful right hand travels as he strums. This is a tactical visual choice, of course, a sly way of pointing out that I’m Still the Same Affable Irish Dude, and also I’ve Been Doing This For a Long Time, and maybe a little I Can Play This Fucker So Loud and So Hard You Can’t Even Hear the Chord Anymore. For his first number, he stands at the lip of the stage, both guitar and voice unamplified, bellowing into a loving abyss. You have never heard an exuberant, sold-out crowd go so silent.

Glen is bellowing “Say It to Me Now”—he’s got the most appealingly melodic shouting voice in the busker-folk canon—and the song is one of the shoutier tunes on the soundtrack to Once, the unfathomably beloved indie flick/DIY musical, also starring Czech Republic singer-songwriter Markéta Irglóva, who is now Glen’s bandmate (in the Swell Season) and girlfriend. (He’s 38. She’s 20. Not bad, dogg.) This is their victory lap—in February, the pair won the Best Song Oscar for “Falling Slowly,” the tender, plaintive, florid, agreeably goopy guitar-and-piano ballad at the film’s winsome heart. The absurdity of a film so tiny garnering such massive acclaim—coupled with the Oscar-ceremony producers haplessly cutting off Markéta’s speech, leading host Jon Stewart to drag her back out again after the commercial break to finish it—made for the second-cutest Best Song moment in Oscar history. (Nothing will ever top the Three 6 Mafia.)

So now here they are, beaming brightly and happily, backed by a tasteful decaf-coffeehouse band, singing their plaintive, goopy songs about the heart battling the brain and whatnot, wistfully reminiscing about walking by this enormous venue in wonder just two years ago, when they couldn’t sell out a place bigger than Piano’s. The trick to something like this—a relatively small and humble outfit inexplicably achieving huge popularity—is to somehow make a shed like Radio City feel like Piano’s. “Glen turns every room he plays into a big living room,” one concertgoer raved to me the next day; this is an intricate art. Hence the show-opening a cappella gambit; hence the long, cute, rambling banter between songs. Another word Glen uses a lot is thanks, pronounced tanks; over two hours, he unleashes several wayward, affable monologues the crowd just eats up, apologizing for the occasional curse word (“We’re Irish—it’s a thing we do”), explaining his culture’s traditional divorce ceremony (the wife points at her husband’s junk and says, “No”), and indulging in a bit of New Age self-help patter (“The heart is a lion driving a train full-speed on ice”). Markéta is even less polished, earnestly explaining to us how she strives to turn her mistakes into life lessons before singing a sweetly submissive ballad (“I kiss your face/Stroke your hair/Wash your tired feet with care”) and pulling her sister onstage, literally out of the crowd (like 20 rows back, too), to sing a tune from the soundtrack of the original ’70s version of The Wicker Man. (No, not the one where Nicolas Cage, dressed in a bear suit, punches a woman in the face, alas.)

You have to love these people; you find yourself fighting the urge to protect them, nurture them, nurse them back to health though they’re far more robust in their own way than even Erykah Badu was on this stage a couple weeks back and even Dolly friggin’ Parton was the week before that. Glen and Markéta’s voices expertly intertwine, his keening falsetto just as expert as his shouting, her upper register blessed with the legato loveliness of a violin. Not everything they lay their hands to rises above typical easy-listening Starbucks patter, but the moments that do shoot through the roof: The killer moment in Once is still the epic, wordless climax of “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” Glen snarling, Markéta wailing, an epic, furious, nearly punk-rock squall overtaking them both.

Of course it’s worth noting that Glen’s an old hand at this, this affable-superstar business. Tonight, he plays several tunes by the Frames, his long-running Irish arena-rock band, on hiatus mostly since the film blew up, but still plenty huge themselves, in certain circles: 2004’s Set List is improved mightily by one of the most raucous, vocally enraptured crowds in live-album history. The best Frames songs share the same DNA that made Once so magnetic: “What Happens When the Heart Just Stops” is one long, graceful crescendo, expertly threaded out a measure at a time, until Glen’s pounding on his beat-to-crap guitar and howling disappointment over and over like it’s the most optimistic word in the English language. The triumph here lies in making master craftsmanship like that look easy, look natural, masking professional elegance in homely DIY denim. Glen and Markéta reel off two ebullient Van Morrison covers, let their violin player unleash an effects-pedal-heavy arty piece from his own solo album, and haul up opening band and fellow Irishmen Interference to plow through the Once track “Gold,” the band’s lead singer practically dancing in his electric wheelchair. Just more welcome houseguests in what is, for the moment, the biggest living room in New York City.


Andrew W.K. Parties Weird

“Would anyone like to share this beer with me?” asks Andrew W.K., just another gracious and Christ-like gesture, five loaves and two fish distilled into a single, gleaming bottle of Bud Light, but still enough to sate and thrill the masses. Or, in any event, what mere fraction of the masses can cram into this tiny basement New Museum performance space Thursday night, a very staid and academic-recital sort of vibe, well-coifed downtown sorts of folks primly seated in orderly rows, watching their messiah throttle a grand piano.

Andrew plays piano like Bugs Bunny does when he’s trying to wake someone up: theatrical one-finger plinks, swooping jackhammer chords, lots of Jerry Lee Lewis full-keyboard slides. Our evening’s program, in fact, begins with several boogie-woogie freestyle numbers, drum-machine-aided vignettes in duet with laconic guitarist Matt Sweeney— simple, goofy jams in which Andrew just free-associates. “I had some notes that I’d made to give me a starting point, sometimes, lyrically,” he explains to me afterward. “But I misplaced those notes.”

We’re winging it, then. One raucous chorus goes: “Everybody’s dancin’ like a douche.” Another slower, more contemplative number begins:

There were times
When I ate four meals in one day
I was trying to gain weight.

Andrew’s disciples respond to this silliness with giggling, clapping, grinning, enthusiasm. He cuts an appealingly disheveled figure, clad in all white as always, tall, rangy, greasy-haired, animated. Animated doesn’t quite capture his manic energy, though. Japanese animated. He fidgets mightily on his piano bench, lurching back and forth, ready to explode.

And then, the duet portion of our program concluded, he explodes. He plays a few older songs. Ones you might remember. Songs about partying. And puking. And doing one until you’ve done the other.

It has been seven years since I Get Wet, Andrew W.K.’s violently ecstatic major-label debut, a stupendously empty-headed pop-metal extravaganza whose song titles tell the whole story: “It’s Time to Party,” “Party Hard,” “Party Til You Puke,” “Fun Night,” etc. (Japanese bonus track: “Make Sex.”) I Get Wet was basically like getting punched in the face over and over again (hence his famously bloody nose on the cover), but in the best possible way. This is a popular construction in Andrew’s universe. “Days like this really remind me of why performing is so exciting,” he tells me. “Because it’s really just absolutely horrifying. Absolutely terrifying. But in the best way. ‘Cause there’s really nothing bad that could really happen. Well, injury maybe. And I have been injured, so.”

So. Watching stately, demure, well-coifed downtown sorts of folks react as Andrew starts roaring through songs called “We Want Fun” and “Ready to Die” is a mesmerizing and joyous affair: One by one, people start to get up and dance. It’s watching them realize that such a thing is acceptable, is the thing. They look shocked, and then overjoyed, at this breakthrough. As if they’ve been wheelchair-bound all their lives and just now realized they could walk. Or that Andrew, messianic as always, suddenly made it so. This is his gift, and his gift to you. He makes you dance like a douche, and then he offers you a beer.

Andrew has retained this power in the years since I Get Wet, both in subsequent records (2003’s The Wolf and 2006’s Close Calls With Brick Walls) and with his increasingly bizarre slate of extracurricular activities. These days he’s got his fingers in numerous bewildering pies, sideline careers all unified only by the idea that a) they make no sense and b) he initially doesn’t want to do them. He’s made forays into the lecture/motivational-speaker circuit (“That was why it appealed to me, because it seems really stupid—it seems like not a good thing to do”); teamed up with three other partners to open a downtown club called Santos’ Party House (“It seemed like probably the most impossible, difficult, challenging, unreasonable, extreme kind of undertaking you could do”); and produced reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry’s next record (“I think he liked the idea because it made absolutely no sense. There was no logic to us working together. But I think he liked that I was young and excited and hungry and would do anything to make him happy. And I have”). Andrew’s attraction to revulsion is almost pathological: recently unveiled thoroughly disquieting portraits of himself, clean-shaven, hair elaborately feathered, lips almost pornographically pink. Like a male model. “Those pictures, when I first got them, I was horrified,” he says. “I didn’t want anybody to see them. And I thought that the last thing I would want to do is show it to one person, let alone put it on the World Wide Web. But again . . . ”

Yes. Andrew started doing solo shows because he’d tired of the hard-touring, full-band lifestyle. “I was feeling very vulnerable back then, so I wanted to build a huge band and build a huge sound and build huge songs that I could put in front of myself—not to hide myself, but to make me feel stronger than maybe I felt,” he recalls. “And now it’s all about trying to expose, and put myself in the most compromising, awkward position. For some reason, it feels really good.”

He threatens new music, new albums to come. But too much planning is also antithetical to the concept here. Spontaneity begets discomfort begets elation. Which brings us back to the New Museum, a flurry of new converts now skipping around Andrew’s grand piano as he leads us through a climactic “I Love NYC” (chorus: “I love!/New York City!/Oh yeah!/New York City!”), forcing us to really love it for once.

“I would never normally dance at a show,” he notes afterward. “It would take something special to make me dance. Maybe what it would take is someone really humiliating themselves to that extent, so no matter what I did, I couldn’t be more of a fool than the guy in the spotlight.” This is how jesters become kings, how messiahs are born. “You guys are doing so well!” he bellows at the ebullient crowd. “So well. I love you. I love you very, very much.”

Watch Andrew W.K. read from a new Paul Frank children’s book (and why not?) May 25 at McNally Robinson in Soho


Flight of the Concords: Total Stud Muffins, Apparently

It would appear that lots of women want to have sex with those dudes from Flight of the Conchords, and I can’t decide if this makes them a wild success or a miserable failure. In any event, it’s bizarre. “I love you, Bret!” some overheated lass will blurt out during one of the many, many, many faux-awkward pauses during the comedy duo’s sold-out show Tuesday night at Town Hall, and when Bret’s partner, Jemaine, looks faux-despondent, another overheated lass will blurt out “We love you too, Jemaine!” to cheer him up. Hoots of lust and adoration nearly drown out their every utterance. They are aloof, keytar-brandishing, hirsute New Zealander playboys. When the boys start faux-bragging about their kissing acumen and threaten to set up a kissing booth out in the lobby after the show, a violent mass orgasm seizes hold of the crowd. It’s unclear who, if anyone, is joking.

I trace the appeal—though not necessarily the sex appeal—to the way Bret and Jemaine say the word yes. In their flatlined, deader-than-deadpan NZ accents, it comes out as yiss, hard and stoned and robotic, and it kills me every time. If their slight but bewilderingly wonderful HBO show consisted of nothing but the two of them answering questions in the affirmative, it would still be bewilderingly wonderful. They portray hapless wannabe rock stars, bumbling losers—no money, no babes, no style, no class, no hope—who rue their cosmic plight via relentlessly goofy pop jingles, poised on the razor’s edge between homage and parody. They Might Be Midgets. Their attempts to woo ladies, best exemplified by “The Most Beautiful Girl (in the Room),” are disastrous and offensive; their hip-hop dalliances, whether profane (“Motha’uckas”) or sweetly surreal (“Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros,” a clash between their MC alter egos), are unlikely to get them signed to Def Jux, let alone Def Jam.

So. The show casts Bret and Jemaine as feeble, asexual losers. But those same songs, slapped on a self-titled, full-length CD by Sub Pop, earned the band—they’re not a duo, they faux-protest, but a band—a Top 3 Billboard debut. (Which isn’t hard to do these days, but let’s keep this positive: A 2007 EP, The Distant Future, won a Grammy, which is somewhat harder.) Furthermore, they now fill sizeable midtown theaters with nubile young ladies. This is basically like having a crush on Beavis and Butt-head. Evidently, the best way to make yourself look sexy and cool in real life is to portray an idiot on television.

In defense of those nubile young ladies, we’re talking about really good songs. “Inner City Pressure,” which begins Tuesday night’s love-in, is a mournful poverty lament with loopy rhymes (muesli/abuse me, high finance/secondhand underpants) and nervous synth-pop undertones; “If You’re Into It” (not on the CD, alas) was the most romantic (and realistic) love song of 2007. Though they futz around with French pop occasionally, this isn’t breakneck Ween pastiche: Usually Bret and Jemaine aim for the “awkward white Prince/Marvin Gaye impersonation” sweet spot that’s remarkably popular these days, though that legacy is so daunting you have to either play it off as a joke or act really, really detached about it. (A friend basically ruined Hot Chip for me by pointing out that they sound exactly the same.) Onstage, propped up casually on stools, looking remarkably more suave and manly than they do on TV (the camera adds 10 pounds of gawkiness), the Conchords nonchalantly but expertly fart around with synths and guitars and a drum machine or two. The tunes hold up just fine even when you’ve memorized every punchline, but the star attraction tonight is the stage banter, delivered in that same shell-shocked monotone. (It’s no surprise that the best impression these guys do is of robots, though Bret does a pretty good “whale trying to send a text message.”)

That such cheerily inane banter (the differences between New York and Old York, Bret’s imaginary children, that whole kissing thing) drives the ladies wild is profoundly confusing, though. Does the tone and effectiveness of an act like this change now that they’ve somehow become sex symbols? Can they still pass themselves off as clueless losers? It’s an uneasy feeling, especially when you add the long, languid wait until the next season of the HBO show, most probably delayed until 2009. As Bret has noted explicitly, Second-Album Syndrome is a real concern here: years and years to develop the material for the first season/album, but months at best to rustle up enough halfway-decent stuff for the follow-up. Which is why Tuesday’s most heartening moment is a new song, a sort of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” or “People Who Died” moment wherein Jemaine runs down his failed romantic history—with Felicity, no electricity; Emily, no chemistry; Stan turned out to be a man—while Bret portrays an amalgamation of all those former lovers in choral form, leading Jemaine to sing things like “Who amassed my ex-girlfriends into a choir and asked them to sing?” and “Shut up, girlfriends-from-the-past choir.” It was really catchy, honest. Whether the sentiment rings true now that these guys are total stud muffins is, happily, beside the point. It worked out pretty well for Prince.


The Gospel According to Dolly Parton

You want to know, so I’ll tell you: Yes, Dolly Parton told jokes about her breasts. Several. The one explaining why Thursday night’s triumphant Radio City Music Hall hootenanny had been delayed a few months—she’d thrown her back out, you see, pulling her husband out of the giant craters she’d formed in their foam mattress by sleeping face-down—was slightly too wordy. The one addressing her political ambitions was more pleasingly succinct. “People ask me, ‘Dolly, why don’t you run for president?’ ” it begins. “And I say, ‘Don’t you think we’ve had enough boobs in the White House?’ “

Cue cheers, guffaws, adoration. If the phone’s ringing at 3 a.m., I would like Dolly Parton to answer it. What she’d say is less important than how she’d say it, the bewildering power of her voice alone, a relentlessly chipper chirp that seems a half-step or so higher than it really ought to be. A voice far more voluptuous and entrancing than her cleavage; for someone who looks like the exact opposite of Olive Oyl, she sure sounds an awful lot like Olive Oyl. Flaunting contradiction is a hobby of hers: She’s a gorgeous vision tonight, wrapped in a sparkly, opulent white dress, singing “Coat of Many Colors,” a timeless ode to love triumphing over abject poverty via handmade clothes, while strumming a sparkly, opulent white autoharp. “I leave no rhinestone unturned,” Dolly notes, one of several shopworn one-liners she’s used to acknowledge both her fortune and the gleefully garish ends she puts that fortune to. “You know I need the money,” she jokes, surveying the well-heeled, rapturous crowd before her. “It costs a lot to make somebody look this cheap.”

Dolly has an actually really excellent new album, Backwoods Barbie, that struggles—a little defiantly, a little defensively—to reconcile Dolly’s body with Dolly’s soul. The title track sternly warns us not to write her off as a vapid, ditzy blonde, not to judge the book by its cover, as it were: “I’m a real good book.” Thursday’s show avoids the record’s loopier notions: stunt covers of “Tracks of My Tears” and Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy,” a kiss-off song called “Shinola” that manages not to use the word shit (instead, you get jibes like “Your attitude stinks and I hate it”), etc. She has bigger fish to fry. Onstage, she’s a whirlwind of giddy energy, a torrent of Oh boy!‘s and All right!‘s, regaling us with Hee Haw–worthy one-liners (“You know you’re getting old when you go from taking acid to taking antacid”), reminiscing about her “horny Baptist” Tennessee family, pimping her child-literacy program, briefly swiping back at the tabloids who’d apparently reported that her tour is in “shambles,” announcing that she’d prefer to die onstage (not right now, but whenever her time comes), and slinging indelible slices of country-pop cheesecake: “Two Doors Down,” “Thank God I’m a Country Girl,” “Why’d You Come Here Lookin’ Like That,” “Islands in the Stream” (no Kenny, alas), the mighty “Jolene.” Her bustling backing band (often strumming four guitars simultaneously, very Glen Campbell meets Glenn Branca) fights like hell to keep up: During one 45-second stretch, Dolly plays harmonica, fiddle, and banjo. There’s also a bizarre interlude wherein she reads allegedly fan-generated questions off a note card:

Q: “Is it true you’ve had plastic surgery?”
A: “Not this year.”

Even the show’s less riveting moments—her backing band’s dopey five-minute medley of pop-music history (oh, great: “Wipeout”), the beautifully sung but draggy new ballad “Only Dreamin’ “—blow harmlessly by in a jetstream of goodwill, harmless filler while we wait for her to belt out “I Will Always Love You” (with a shout-out to Whitney Houston “for making me a bunch of money”) and to barnstorm through “9 to 5.” Both are proof of Dolly’s consummate power as both entertainer and songwriter, skills equally evident on Backwoods Barbie, particularly the adultery lament “Cologne,” which in its first line (“You ask me not to wear cologne/She’ll know you’ve been with me alone”) vaporizes 98 percent of all other adultery laments. Near show’s end, she apologizes in the event she’s offended anyone, which is unlikely; having electrified the crowd into shouting the chorus to “9 to 5” en masse, she strides triumphantly offstage, changes up her outfit, and strides right back for the encore to unleash Barbie‘s “Jesus and Gravity,” which is not, in fact, another joke about her breasts, but instead describes the only two things she really needs. (The first is more important.)

Generally, this is a terrible idea: following your biggest hit with your little-heard newest. The Radio City masses, dancing in the aisles just a few seconds ago, politely sit down and prepare to indulge her. But it’s tremendously endearing how out of hand “Jesus and Gravity” gets, a triumphant gospel-pop thunderclap that pours on the backing-choir effusions and the soaring high notes and the biblically grandiose choruses until even a roomful of godless city slickers are feeling downright Pentecostal—one more delicious paradox for the road. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but Dolly wins over absolutely everyone by being both. By the end of the song, everyone’s standing again.


Paul Simon at BAM: Will and Grace

All you need to know about the history of white American rock stars dipping into the deep well of African rhythm—the awkward discomfort, the comical stiffness, the jovial audacity, the goofy guilelessness—can be summed up by the sight of David Byrne dancing. He’s dancing right now, in fact, onstage at BAM’s Opera House Wednesday night, a lithe, white-haired string bean with the musculature of Gumby and the joie de vivre of a five-year-old. Some of us have two left feet; David has seven or eight, all bolted to the floor. So he wiggles in place, juts his chin out like a Pez dispenser, flings his elbows to and fro like they’re fires he’s trying to put out. It’s undeniably funny and stupendously endearing. He is singing “You Can Call Me Al.”

We’re here for the second phase of BAM’s month-long triptych in praise of Paul Simon, the grand master of the awkward/comical/jovial/goofy American-African exchange program. The month started with a week of shows honoring Simon’s ill-fated Latin doo-wop musical, The Capeman, and ends next week with five shows devoted to The Hits. In the middle, we’ve got “Under African Skies,” celebrating the apex of his multicultural dalliances: Graceland and, four years later, 1990’s quite possibly superior Rhythm of the Saints. Tonight is opening night, sold out as hell and packed with an odd menagerie of celebrities (Susan Sarandon! Steve Buscemi! Wallace Shawn!) in thrall to a global alliance of guest stars: Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Vusi Mahlasela from South Africa, Kaïssa from Cameroon, Luciana Souza from Brazil. But though he’s only around for a couple songs, Byrne almost runs away with the thing, howling “I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore!” to raucous applause and profound amusement. On Graceland‘s “I Know What I Know,” as he repeatedly shouts “In the back of my head!”, all the old tics—the yelps, the bleats, the shouts, the effete howls—come bursting out.

Only Simon himself inspires that same kind of crowd elation, and for most of the evening, he’s content to lurk merrily in the background. After Ladysmith Black Mam-bazo starts us off—black pants, white sneakers, huge smiles, high-kicking with aplomb, and unleashing chorally elegant streams of mmm mmm mmm mmm‘s and em em em em‘s—and Vusi pounds out a few tunes (including “The Boy in the Bubble,” one of American song’s few instances of what could even conceivably be called “iconic accordion”) in his vivacious, volatile, almost cock-rock wail, Simon wanders onstage as if by accident, haggard but tremendously cheerful, bounding about and mock-conducting his band, including a drummer and three boisterous percussionists. He’s so enthusiastic, in fact, that he accidentally plows over a mic stand during “Gumboots,” slapping an embarrassed hand over his mouth and sheepishly bending over to hand the mess back to a stagehand.

But soon he’s resting on the drum riser or wandering back offstage entirely as someone else takes the lead. Kaïssa tackles the (relatively) surlier stuff, dismissively growling “I got to go/I got to go” on “Proof” like a typical harried Brooklynite while delicately lifting the train of her bright yellow dress to bounce around in a complete circle. Souza, meanwhile, is the mournful one, her voice a clear, deep pool of great unease submerging the Steve Reichian pipe-banging hypnosis of “Can’t Run But” or tangling with a funereal muted trumpet on “Further to Fly.” But even when you can’t hear Simon’s actual voice, you’re overwhelmed by his authorial voice, his sheets-of-nouns approach to songwriting, that strange mixture of deft melody and erudite wordiness. He never settles for “You can’t quit me, babe” when he can draw it out as “Oooh my storybook lover/You have underestimated my power/As you shortly will discover,” but the flourish always feels natural, feels necessary. And the power is oddly enhanced when such jumbles are delivered in foreign accents: neurotic wordplay as a second language.

Paul will probably never cast as deep and dark a shadow over young indie-rock turks as, say, Springsteen, though Vampire Weekend’s cheeky Afro-pop jams have inspired a raft of Graceland comparisons, accurate or not. Such foreign-exchange mischief will always sound a little strange, a bit like facile tourism to some more cynical ears. (Does Simon have his own “Stuff White People Like” entry yet?) But with a few notable exceptions—Talking Heads’ “(Nothing but) Flowers” for one, for which I considered throwing $100 in cash onstage as a bribe/request—Graceland is as good as it gets, from Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s ethereal, chill-inducing “Homeless” harmonies on down. But tonight the Rhythm of the Saints tunes hit the hardest, deeper and fuller and more complex, percussively and emotionally. A few times on that record, Simon lays bare the seams that bind the Only Living Boy in New York to the African menagerie that entranced him and that he sought to emulate. Called back for an encore, the boys launch into “The Cool, Cool River,” its rhythm complex and foreboding, far more severe and ominous than Simon’s usual fare. But from the onset, he sings with more intensity—in a hit-parade atmosphere like this, it’s always a pleasure when the grand marshal finds a tune that still moves him, that still resonates, that he can deliver with a little more muscle beyond his standard gotta-keep-the-crowd-happy reflexes. Everything about “River” just feels different, BAM’s lights pushed out and shining on the crowd now: Pay Attention. And the song climaxes at its softest point, the eight-handed drum assault fading momentarily into the deep background, with just Simon’s voice and guitar at the forefront, a lonely voice broadcasting as if from a lonely outer-borough apartment:

I believe in the future
We shall suffer no more
Maybe not in my lifetime
But in yours, I feel sure

Nearly two decades on, it doesn’t look like he was right about that. But he makes you believe it anyway. And once he has, Paul Simon finally plays “Graceland.”

Paul Simon plays at BAM April 23 through 27


The New Folk Paradigm

I have a pronounced weakness for product-placement foxy-librarian coffeehouse folk: the quirky, buoyant female voices that endeavor to sell us Old Navy sweaters, sell us ultra-thin laptops, sell us Rhapsody subscriptions, sell us tear-jerking Grey’s Anatomy catharsis. Staten Island siren Ingrid Michaelson, whose tunes have peddled the first and last items on that list, now stands center stage at the Fillmore/Irving Plaza, clad in cat-eye glasses, a knit hat, and tight jeans she’d bought that very day from Forever 21 (Ingrid is quite the banterer, not to mention the pitchman), strumming tenderly and bellowing mightily through her attempt to sell something quite different: a Radiohead cover. “Creep,” specifically. Her voice is bright, quavering, evocative, stretching vowels to the breaking point and clipping consonants to the bone—razor-sharp T’s, peach-soft O’s. “You’re so very special,” she moans, the first two times that line comes around; building to the climactic final chorus, she opts for the surlier “You’re so fuckin‘ special”—take that, radio edit!—to rampant audience whoops.

We’re live at the Hotel Café Tour, a bizarre round-robin of mostly interchangeable sad-bastard singer-songwriters, trading off multiple three-song mini-sets and singing gaily along to each other’s saccharine choruses. A “Hey, isn’t this song on the Garden State soundtrack?” sort of affair, 90 percent women, 10 percent men atoning to their significant others for all the attention they’ve lavished on their NCAA brackets lo these past few weeks. Ingrid is the underdog, the Cinderella, the Davidson College of the product-placement foxy-librarian coffeehouse-folk milieu, unsigned and unloved until she dumped a bunch of tunes on MySpace, snagged the right pair of ears, and shortly thereafter could be heard on prime-time TV bellowing, “All we can do is keep breathing” as Sandra Oh hysterically ripped off her wedding dress. This crowd, too, loves her. Literally. “I love you, Ingrid!” one ebullient lass howls. “I’m sorry!”

Ingrid, too, can be very literal. Her other hit, “The Way I Am” (the Old Navy one), has a light upright-bass bounce, a bright, clean, snuggly, laundry-detergent sort of feeling, and begins thusly:

If you were falling
I would catch you

Tonight she also plays “The Hat,” her achy falsetto flourishes wrapped around nervously jangling acoustic guitars, voicing expository sentiments that could’ve been written—or just spoken, or maybe even merely thought—by a high-school sophomore, but delivered as though they were Gospel, as though nothing on earth could be more important:

I knitted you a hat of blue and gold
To keep your ears warm from the Binghamton cold
It was my first one
It was too small
It didn’t fit you at all
But you wore it just the same

But it goes bad!

So it’s Christmastime [Sleigh bells audible here]
It’s been three years
And someone else is knitting things for your ears

As has been noted recently in these pages, as the music industry burns, our future as listeners, viewers, and conspicuous consumers is tied up in young women named Ingrid, Feist, Cobie, Kimya, Leona, and Yael. (We’ll get to Yael in a second.) As apocalyptic visions of the future go, Ingrid’s really not so terrible: She has great, goofy crowd rapport, a just-us-girls casualness, clearly understanding that the key to success in the product-placement foxy-librarian coffeehouse-folk milieu is to not get too uppity, too confident, too comfortable. Be vulnerable. The best song on Girls and Boys, the record benefiting from all this attention, is entitled “Breakable,” and discusses the fragility of our hearts, our bodies, etc. Her most warmly received bit of crowd banter this evening regards her long-standing fear that she’ll die alone. But a lot of rapturous disciples in this crowd would have to die first for that to happen.

Yael Naim, bright and beaming and resplendent in a purple dress, is a slightly less neurotic vision, commanding her own sold-out crowd at the Bowery Ballroom a week earlier. Hers is a more exotic, sophisticated sound: Born in Paris, and an alumna of the Israeli Defense Forces, she can croon her sweet, moody, birdlike pop songs in English, French, or Hebrew, wielding lovingly rendered clusters of consonants even rougher than Ingrid’s. You know her from the commercial for the tiny-ass laptop. Yael’s clomping-piano number “New Soul” chirps along happily in the MacBook Air ad—”La la la la la la la la la la la la”—and, like the MacBook Air itself, the tune is wafer-thin, undeniably appealing, largely extraneous. Onstage, the night after the release of her self-titled debut, she is bubbly beyond belief, her English lyrics avoiding ennui and opting for plain ol’ restless boredom: “Far far, there’s this little girl/She was praying for something to happen to her,” cooed with the giddy air of someone to whom something big has happened.

I kept closing my eyes, furrowing my brow, and trying to magically transform her into Sade. Not quite. Yael’s backing band is loaded with skeezy-looking faux-jazz dudes—the Venn-diagram circles of “fretless-bass owners” and “douchebags,” if they do not perfectly align, are really, really close (like five-seconds-before-the-solar-eclipse close). But this approach still gives her a wider palette than her product-placement foxy-librarian coffeehouse-folk brethren; whereas Ingrid can sound like the Sundays, or Tracy Bonham, or (and this is odd) Terror Twilight–era Pavement, Yael can summon weirder and more worldly fare. She, too, has a jokey pop-zeitgeist cover tune: Britney Spears’s “Toxic,” done up slow, sultry, spy-intrigue style. Onstage, though, she breaks up the tune’s mock-seriousness by mischievously impersonating her bandmate’s goofy synth squiggles, mewling like a cat.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen someone as plainly thrilled to be onstage as Yael is. She revels in the Bowery Ballroom’s outcry of joy when she finally launches into “New Soul,” and maybe 20 minutes later, deciding that the encore she’d just done was insufficient, she drags her amused band through the song again, tacking on several additional “La la la la la la la la la la la la” choruses, clearly just improvising, unwilling to leave the stage, refusing to let this moment go. For all her moaning about knitting hats and dying alone, Ingrid too has that happy-to-be-here ebullience, and maybe that’s what resonates with artists like this, what accounts for their modest success and rampant marketability as the rest of the music world goes to shit. Cheer up, everyone. All we can do is keep buying.