The Wrens with Campfire Crush and Giant Judys
Saturday · Southgate House
The last time The Wrens released a record — 1996's blissfully fuzzy Secaucus — The Strokes were still in private school uniforms and Bill Clinton thrashed a guy whose post-election source of income came courtesy of a penile enhancement product (coincidence?). After years of label woes, love gone bad and life in general, New Jersey's best-kept secret finally resurfaced with last year's The Meadowlands, a salty yet engaging song cycle of uncompromising authenticity (sometimes to a fault).
The sparse opening track, "The House That Guilt Built," is an immediate indication of things to come as bassist/keyboardist Kevin Whelan ruefully sings about "what life has done to me." But that's not necessarily a band thing: Even the melancholic downers ("Happy," Thirteen Grand," "13 Months in 6 Minutes") emit rays of hope. That said, the mid-record duo of "Hopeless," a shimmering gem akin to Superchunk at their late-era best, and the New-Wave-meets-Pixies buzz of "Faster Gun" are a welcomed reprieve from the claustrophobic atmosphere. Elsewhere, the textured slow burn of "Boys, You Won't" hits deeper with each spin (like the rest of the record) and the gritty "Per Second Second" sounds like Bob Mould on a sugar kick. Hailed as a master work in some quarters — Magnet, Pitchfork and the Village Voice's Robert Christgau are among its more rabid champions — The Meadowlands is an undeniable experience, sure to translate well to the band's noted live excursions. (Jason Gargano)
Ember Swift with Katie Reider
Saturday · Jack Quinn's
We're guessing Canadian singer/songwriter Ember Swift is waaay tired of hearing her career and music compared to Ani DiFranco's. She might call it "lazy journalism" (a musician's term for when critics call them out on the obvious), but it would almost be irresponsible to not mention DiFranco when looking at the obvious parallels. Swift uses Folk music as her jumping off point but also forays into Jazz, Middle Eastern sounds and other forms and isn't afraid to ride a Funk groove if it's called for. In fact, "fearless" is a good way to describe Swift's upcoming release, Disarming (due stateside in June), which is as lyrically dynamic as it is musically.
Her effusive writing style allows her to dig deep into current political concerns ("Tapped & Wired," "Sucker-Punched"), affairs of the heart ("Splinter") and personal, "life's big journey" yarns ("Boise," "Disarming"). What makes Swift so, ahem, disarming is her clever way with words, which brings a little lightness to heavy issues. Turning the "Frequently Asked Questions" Web link concept into an actual song is just one example of Swift's brassy charm. "FAQ" runs down the laundry list of questions you might have for her at a show ("Do you have a record out?" "Is this your first time here?" "Where's your limousine?") and then proceeds to answer each one of them (hey, why do an interview?). She even poses and answers the eternal Ani question ("Have you heard of Ani DiFranco?"; "Well, hasn't everyone? The more artists who are activists the better!"). Well, since she brought it up, Swift's professional trek also includes, as mentioned, outspoken political activism, running her own label, distributing her own records and a stabbing, elastic vocal delivery (not to mention the trilling harmonies) which bears more than a passing resemblance to Ms. DiFranco's. But Swift's personalized music and virtuoso songwriting abilities do deserve to stand out on their own. We're sure she wouldn't mine having Ani's massive fanbase. With more releases like Disarming, it shouldn't be long before she does. (Mike Breen)
The Flatlanders with Reckless Kelly
Sunday · Southgate House
When The Flatlanders formed more than 30 years ago, they became the world's first supergroup in reverse. Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock were great musicians and songwriters when they banded together in 1971, that seminal greatness translating easily to their solo careers. But a funny thing happened on the way to now for The Flatlanders. As more and more time wedged itself between the band's dusty past and the present accolades for Ely, Gilmore and Hancock individually, the more mythological The Flatlanders became. When their lone album was re-released in the early 1990s, it merely reinforced the impossibly high opinion that had grown up around the album in the previous two decades. It also generated a huge enough response that the trio saw the wisdom in resurrecting the band in a time that was more sympathetic to their Honky Tonk Country/Rock/Tex-Mex hybrid; 2002's Now Again marked their first collaboration in 30 years. The Flatlanders regrouped immediately after the Now Again tour after having decided to take a deserved rest.
"It was one of those things," says guitarist/vocalist Ely. "We never even planned on making another record after the Now Again tour. But we were working really good as a band and I suggested to Butch and Jimmie, 'Let's keep this energy going."
The result is another Flatlanders triumph, Wheels of Fortune, and another glorious tour (which they might be recording for a proposed live album). Most bands with a 30-year hiatus in their resume would be rustier than a 1972 Datsun, but The Flatlanders aren't like most bands. They're legends. (Brian Baker)
TV on the Radio with The Sundresses
Monday · Southgate House
TV on the Radio has the perfect name. The band's atmospheric creations are the soundtrack of a TV show that's never existed. Emerging from the same Brooklyn neighborhood that's produced many a Post Punk darling of late (including Cincinnati natives The National), TV on the Radio is the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist David Andrew Sitek and singer Tunde Adebimpe, whose visual art backgrounds have clearly influenced the collaboration. Unlike many of its fellow exports, the band treads ground not thoroughly tilled. Last year's wonderfully enticing four-song EP Young Liars — which featured guests spots from Yeah Yeah Yeahs' guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase (Sitek produced YYYs' Fever to Tell) — left its many converts yearning for more. They've gotten their wish. The recently released Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes takes Young Liars' basic template (ominous synths, punchy beats, angular guitars) and expands it to cinematic heights. Take "Dreams," for instance. Opening with a plaintive drum beat, the track kicks into gear via a soaring synth riff, rubbery bass, droning guitars and rich, layered vocals, highlighted by Adebimpe's strangely unique delivery. And the guy's got a way with words. Try this from "Dreams": "I know your heart can't grieve/What your eyes won't see/But you were my favorite moment/Of our dead century." The addition of multi-instrumentalist Kyp Malone adds yet another tasty ingredient in the band's already pleasing recipe. (A recent appearance on that thing Carson Daly calls a late night talk show featured a five-piece touring unit.) Even the a cappella track "Ambulance" sounds like an otherworldly transmission, recognizable yet entirely distinctive. Yeah, Adebimpe might sound like Security-era Peter Gabriel at times. But TV on the Radio emits from a channel not readily experienced. Its vivid soundscapes are the stuff of, yes, dreams, at once glorious and scary, conjuring fragments of our subconscious in an appropriately unpredictable manner. (JG)