Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Saturday Night Desire Comes in All Shades – Larkin Grimm at Cafe Bourbon Street, 02/07/09

“Pouring on the garbage and it’s filling up my car
My suffering is meaningless and sticking like the tar
That smothers all grass and lets me drive it to the bar"
And if you want to handle me, just tell me who you are”
-Larkin Grimm, “Dominican Rum”

The weather finally broke and broke so hard it felt like I was some kind of desperate explorer staggering over the cracking ice-skin of the world and just trying to keep my footing Saturday night.  But I might have been staggered in other ways, when I think about it.

First to Ruby Tuesday for the second night of the Lost Weekend 6th Anniversary weekend, after last night’s terrific sets by Night Family and Sandwich, caught the frontman of Moon High doing a solo set that was beautiful.  Maybe colored by news of her death, but he carried the sense of a Blossom Dearie or Peggy Lee in his restrained, smoky delivery. 

The Beatdowns did one of the best sets I’ve seen them break out in a while, 10 songs, one cover, no fat.  In an era where we’re choked with bands regurgitating past trends and genres without any away-from-the-scene conceptualization or care, Matt Benz’s songwriting has taken up Ray Davies gauntlet and grafted heavy emotional content and the weight of his experience to the music of his childhood.  That he does this without the songs getting too weighty or didactic is a testament to the songs and the band.  They can be inconsistent, but it’s a beautiful thing when it’s working and it was working Saturday night.

After that, trekked north to see Larkin Grimm at Cafe Bourbon Street.  Her new record, Parplar, is probably my favorite thing out of the Young God stable since the last Angels of Light record and she stopped in Columbus en route to Knoxville’s Big Ears festival.  Through a dismal, largely indifferent turn-out, she and her three band members wrung some beauty out of what was basically a public rehearsal.

And good lord, what a band.  Elizabeth Deviln, used her voice for percussion and high-pitched hillbilly shape-note singing, and her autoharp for chiming, mandolin-like runs and percussive thickening behind Grimm’s sweet snarl and guitar.  John Houx getting both pizzicato string-section stabs and low-end dulcimer-like plucking recalling Joni Mitchell’s playing on Blue, and bringing a whole drum choir out of a tiny hand-held tambourine, his leg, and a microphone, knowing exactly when he needed to be a conguero and when he was manning tympani.  And the violinist introduced as “Sha-nay-nay”, painting backgrounds out of razor-blades and orchids, somewhere between Henry Flynt and Jessica Pavone.

But as with anything, the best band in the world doesn’t matter without the songs behind it, and Grimm’s songs are a wonder.  In form, they can conjure Kurt Weill and Indonesian gamelan and echo through Hazel Dickens and Nina Simone but the singularity of the vision and the intensely individual quality never wavers.  The songs are full of a mystery that teeters on the precipice of anticipation and dread, never quite knowing where they’ll land when they inevitably fall. 

At the same, time, there’s that sense of being in love with the falling, with the tragedy.  Embracing everything that matters, spiritual and sensual, while watching the world crumble around you.  When she sings, on “Blond and Golden Johns”, “This mouth has wrapped around some things / More delicious than the songs I sing”, followed with  a sigh and a hum, it’s boastful as much as or more than seductive, you know exactly who’s in charge, and she doesn’t ever let you think she needs you for anything.  The perfect show for a night when the climate shifts suddenly and it looks like everything’s falling apart.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Cry of Dreams – Antony and the Johnsons, The Southern Theater, 02/04/09

“I wonder, in all of science fiction, if there have been
two universes this discordant, or what it means
that there can be a suffering so intense its balance only
exists somewhere in the next life.”
-Albert Goldbarth, “The Elements”

No, I didn’t go to the Antony show in 2002.  At the time I’d heard that record but thought it was a novelty, it didn’t click for me until the second album but that, and the new one The Crying Light, are both wonders.  So even though he’s playing in NY at Town Hall while we’re there, I wanted to see him at the Southern and support something like this coming to Columbus in the first place.

Matthea Baim opened on electric guitar and her voice and guitar, including loops and delay, set up a low key expanse of silence and expectation, the rhythms yawned wide and stretched, and I didn’t leave struck by any of the songs specifically but I also left intrigued to hear more of her.

Antony came out on piano and vocals, backed by Julia Kent on cello, Maxie Moston on violin (who I last saw playing with Baby Dee at the Knitting Factory last fall), Rob Moose on violin, acoustic guitar and vocals,  Parker Kindred on drums and vocals, Jeff Langston on bass, and Doug Wieselman on reeds and electric guitar.

The arrangements and orchestrations on record, many done by Nico Muhly and Moston, sculpt landscapes and cityscapes out of ice and spun sugar so the songs are light filtering through them, the arrangements sometimes work as a lens and aperture, changing the granulation and field of vision of the writing.  In this smallish group, every move had a chamber music purpose, the two violins dueling like two guitars, or one setting up the line while the other scraped dark maroon and brown behind the lit main imagine, like a Rembrandt painting or a Hogarth etching. 

The text matters, matters deeply, if you don’t believe in the desire to carve someone’s name on the back of the sun or a boy shedding his self like a chrysalis and becoming a girl, then not only am I sorry for you, but the songs just won’t work.  At the same time, it’s a mistake to confuse his keening, swirling vibrato and octave jumps for sadness, the cry in his voice gathers people like the preacher on the mount and as it acknowledges the way the world will fail you and betray you it reaches for the sky because things can be different and better, even if it’s only inside ourselves.

I had chills and gooseflesh all over and found myself in tears during “The Crying Light” and wanted to dance the Slim Harpo hipshake during “Shake that Devil” replete with vintage jukejoint shout-vocals and a sax solo worthy of the late Lee Allen or David “Fathead” Newman.  And the cover of “Crazy in Love” may have been the best cover of anything I’ve ever heard.  If there’s a better show this year, it will have been a great year.  And with Chuck Prophet, last night’s Larkin Grimm, and some top-notch local sets by El Jesus, The Beatdowns, Night Family, and Sandwich, the year’s already shaping up to be aces.