The Streets Run into Warsaw:
“Let's Push Things Forward”
The night we started bombing Iraq, I was at Warsaw seeing the Streets. They're a British hip-hop group that centers around Mike Skinner, a 23-year-old who has pushed the musical form into new and uncharted territories. Part of the challenge he faces in America is that his music is not what we consider hip-hop. It's a parallel universe, with unfamiliar beats and a different rhyming style (more like spoken word), referred to as “British garage.” It was born in the clubs over there around 1996, and combines elements of house music with more traditional bass lines. It's very off-kilter, but with a distinctly British veneer, something you’d expect out of an industrial English town: British charm with rough edges. Skinner's lyrics are extremely detailed and quick-flowing, but it’s more than his accent that takes getting used to.
That wasn’t apparent on March 19, though. The crowd (the place was packed) knew every song, mainly white hipster kids in their 20’s (except for the two poor prepubescent boys who came with their mother and were obviously not psyched about that). The music was a perfect fit: You really can't dance to it, but it's fun to listen to.
I had heard rumors that the Streets were awful live. The previous week they had appeared on Jay Leno, and, well, the performance was not very good at all. But at Warsaw they seemed to have found their groove. Despite the mistake of the DJs spinning Tribe and Dre songs before they came on (because Skinner’s music is nothing like that), the show was fabulous. It took a while for the crowd to really get into it, but as the evening progressed the music got looser and the vibe began to sink into everyone until some people actually were shuffling around and bobbing their heads. The band was great, and Skinner’s vocal partner on stage (who handled a lot of the actual singing on the choruses) was a perfect counterpoint to him.
The music evolved into various forms: at times reggae, at times R&B. At other times a De La Soul rhythm surfaced and then was gone again. Skinner knew how to work the crowd—to get them fired up he promised that if they stayed nutty through the show (only about an hour or so), he’d stage-dive and surf the crowd. Sure enough, he kept his promise and took a header off the amps and rode the crowd for a while before coming back to finish up the set. Then he mooned us all and said good night. Walking away from the show, I was (and still am) convinced that the Streets are a new breed that is going to push the hip-hop boundaries a little further—and that's a good thing.
Nada Surf, Again:
“I miss you more than I knew”
Let Go, the new CD from Nada Surf, is an absolute gem. Their previous work, The Proximity Effect, was good, but this new effort is a whole lot better and smarter. Matthew Caw’s voice and the band’s music are in top shape. It’s almost like a compilation album: You hear lots of influences, but none stick out glaringly. While I was listening, I wrote: Cheap Trick, Flaming Lips, Stone Roses, Ryan Adams, Matthew Sweet, Radiohead (The Bends), and some general ’80s new wave influence. This is a pop record, but this is the pop record you’ve been waiting for from these guys.
The first tune, “Blizzard of ’77” is just guitar and vocals, but the constant strumming and well-written lyrics create an incredibly catchy song, one that I replayed a lot.
“The cars were just lumps in the snow/ and then later/ tripping in 7-11/ the shelves were stretching out of control/on a plane ride/the more it shakes/the more I have to let go...I know I have got a negative edge/that's why I sharpen all the others a lot.”
The next seven songs run the gamut from fast and furious (“Happy Kid,” “Hi-Speed Soul," “The Way You Wear Your Head") to an off-kilter rhythm that explodes into a pounding march (“Fruit Fly") to a quiet Sunday afternoon echo-vocal (“Blonde on Blonde") to a sparse, despair-ridden tune that transforms into an uplifting wave of emotion (“Killian’s Red”). Unfortunately, the gas seems to run out a bit after that. The last four songs, while good, are just not up to par with the rest of the disc.
Nonetheless, the band has upped the ante on what people can expect to hear from them. The music and lyrics they sing match so perfectly on every song that it's eerie. Everything hits at just the right time. In “Fruit Fly,” a low bass strumming accompanies the viewer watching the fly. When the lyrics switch to the fly’s point of view, the music completely shifts as the fly realizes it has no choice: “What can you do but go on?”
Nada Surf’s songs all sound old, sound familiar, sound new, sound like you've never heard them before—and that just speaks to their fine craftsmanship. About halfway through the album I was trying to figure out who they sounded like when I realized that I was remembering a song from their previous work. It’s a good sign when you begin to have such a distinct sound that comparisons don't matter anymore—you are now a point of comparison in your own right.
The Revolution Will Be Televised:
“I thought I saw you crawl back for more”
Calla is a conundrum. Their music is quiet, moody, madman musings. It’s also explosive waves of sound that rival the Cure in their Disintegration period. The usual suspects are evident here: Joy Division, Death Cab, Pixies, Leonard Cohen-style creepiness. They also have a rock sensibility reminiscent of the Afghan Whigs. But Calla is more than the sum of their parts.
Some tracks on their new CD, Televise, are strong and quiet, like a bouncer that you know wants to kick your ass, but can’t while people are looking. “Strangler” is a breathy, creeping, layered attack on your ears, with hungry guitars underneath the latticework, playing with your emotions—like a madman in the corner whispering to you. The percussion in “Monument” sounds like it’s under water, and the tonal guitars remind me of a slow-motion harem dance. “Astral” drifts in slow like the tide, the drums muted, presenting a dreamy walk through the desert on peyote. “Don’t Hold Your Breath” finally delivers on the promise of explosion, the brooding bass line and barely decipherable lyrics morphing into a chaos of noise that brings a big release. “Televise” has a more conventional rock feel, with drums pounding the whole time and the waves of sound washing up on your beach constantly, letting you sink into the wet sand.
The rest of the album holds to this formula, and the CD is perfect for the end of the night, or the next morning when you’re coming down from a trip. It’s a masterpiece of moodiness and despair and unfulfilled promises. The only disappointment was that the songs never exploded like I wanted them to. There were many opportunities when the tension was so high that letting it go would have felt so damn good.
But maybe I just didn’t have my stereo turned up loud enough. When I saw them at the Mercury Lounge they were throbbing and intense, manipulating everyone’s emotions in the packed house. The sound was rawer, more emotional, and it enveloped me, moving my pulse and echoing around inside my soul. Their full-on explosions countered the sparseness of their songs. They work the silence very well.
Reminding me of a Massive Attack with guitars (the way they tiptoe around you until you’re dizzy and then begin increasing the volume to overwhelm you), Calla is not in it for the short haul. They have crafted a very good album, and an even better new music. They were phenomenal live, and if the CD brings you to the brink of their world, the live show is when they kick you screaming into it.
More info on all these bands can be found at their websites:
Grant Moser is an art writer and frequent contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.