Friday, March 07, 2008

Brooklyn Heights

Dirty Projectors @ The Forum 29/2/08
Yeasayer @ The ICA 6/3/08

I hate writing pretentiously about ‘scenes’ or ‘risings’ (and it is pretentious because it assumes a right on behalf of the writer to define what scenes are and where they come from), but there’s little point in denying that there is a particularly exciting pocket of musical activity in Brooklyn, New York right now. There’s Vampire Weekend’s brainy, zany and hugely enjoyable quirky pop, and even MGMT’s relatively straightforward woozy psychedelia has its merits, although I can’t help feeling they are by some distance the least interesting of these bands.

Dave Longstreth’s Dirty Projectors are a longstanding project with a constantly shifting line-up only just beginning to gain more widespread attention in the UK (and no doubt Longstreth would be delighted with his Album of the Year award from this very blog!). In the current set-up, Longstreth is flanked by two beautiful and talented young women and bolstered by a terrifyingly precise drummer making a vast range of noise from a skeletal kit. Longstreth himself strides around the stage like a lurching colossus, with his guitar maintained well above traditional height. It’s an ungainly but dominant demeanour that neatly encapsulates the simultaneously madcap but rigorously controlled nature of this music.

There are so many ideas crashing against each other – unconventional vocal harmonies (definitely not from the Brian Wilson or Crosby, Stills and Nash schools but from another place entirely), African guitar picking, dissonant noise grafted from hardcore punk and heavy metal somehow all find a home in the same song. Yet every idea is situated in a specific space, and after a while it becomes clear that every stab from the drums, every unexpected flight of fancy in Longsreth’s voice, every burst of savage chaos, has been meticulously organised. Not only does it sound riotous, dazzling and impressive, it also sounds like tremendous fun.

Performing as part of the Owen Pallett’s Maximum Black Festival – Longstreth’s sheer artistry simply makes a mockery of the other artists on the bill, who all disappoint in some way. Frog Eyes are pompous and tedious, self-importantly trying to make very basic and plodding rock music sound wildly ambitious, and failing transparently. I admire Ben Chasney’s Six Organs of Admittance on record, but there’s a massive problem with this meandering, noise-based music live. Chasney hardly engages with the audience at all, and his female guitarist is content simply to interrupt the otherwise rather pleasing minimal folk explorations with shards of eardrum-perforating noise.

This could potentially have been interesting – but it didn’t have to be this loud. I don’t think music has to sound pleasant or beautiful – indeed, all art should aim to capture some of the conflict and turbulence at the heart of life as well as the happiness – but the overall effect of this was extreme physical discomfort. In another time and place, I would have appreciated the collaboration between Alexander Tucker and Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))), but I just wasn’t in the mood for lengthy hypnotic drones by this point. Plus coming immediately after Dave Longstreth’s dense flurry of creativity, it just sounded rather empty and hollow. Unfortunately, this lead to a rather soporific mood and atmosphere, so I left without hearing Owen Pallett’s own headline set as Final Fantasy.

Last night at the ICA provided me with my first opportunity to see the excellent Yeasayer (another Brooklyn band) in a live setting. What an extraordinary spectacle it was too. John Kell came away feeling much of the band’s set had been ‘too hippy’, and to some degree I take his point (the lyrics certainly have a tendency towards spiritualist and communitarian sentiment). However, I felt strangely satisfied that such a fashionable buzz band could incorporate quite so many totally unfashionable elements, from the use of fretless bass (possibly the first time I’ve ever seen this instrument deployed by an American underground rock group) and synth drums to the ridiculous dress sense of their long-haired, moustached bassist.

It certainly wouldn’t be going too far to describe Yeasayer’s music as ‘progressive’. It is rhythmically imaginative, structurally unconventional and harmonically intricate, juxtaposing a wide variety of influences from across the globe. On the bright, muscular single ‘2080’ they come across as Tears for Fears crossed with Arcade Fire, and this turns out to be no bad thing. Elsewhere, they meld west coast honey-dripping vocal harmonies with unpredictable, thrilling musical left-turns.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the recreation of the album’s complex layers of sound requires frequent resort to samples and backing tapes, although the group gamely compensate for this with a very physical performance. Watching singer Chris Keating jerk and spasm uncontrollably around the stage (and, towards the end, within the audience) is an oddly compelling experience. A heavy rock element, rather constrained by the album’s sophisticated production, is brought to the fore here, and everything seems louder and more bombastic than on record. Some of the intricacies are arguably lost as a result, but there’s so much energy and tension in this performance that it doesn’t really matter. ‘No Need To Worry’ becomes more emphatic and trudgy, whilst the closing ‘Sunrise’ is a celebratory outpouring of chaotic joy, the band joined by their support act to hammer out rhythms on a variety of percussion instruments with appropriately wild abandon. The combination of bristling confidence and fearless invention suggests there may be longevity in this fascinating group.

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