Photo by Andrew Thomas Huang
Almost two and a half years ago, Björk spilled her guts to the world. On the album Vulnicura, the often reclusive musician wrote intimately and emotionally about her breakup with the artist Matthew Barney. It was a public purging of a high-profile heartbreak, a direct and exquisitely rendered “fuck you” to a shmuck – long before Beyonce squeezed her lemons into Lemonade. “I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions,” Björk sang on the thin ice of “Black Lake,” voicing the sentiments of a million millennial women waiting for their men to join them in the 21st century.
Ms. Gudmundsdottir is finally ending the Vulnicura phase of her astonishing three-decade artistic career. As she told me in an interview for the LA Weekly a few weeks ago, she has begun work on a new album and feels “the Vulnicura cycle is complete.” She delivered her last performance of the album at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles Tuesday night. And what a – shall we say, in deference/reference to her infamous 2010 Oscars outfit — swan-song farewell it was.
Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil have made history and song together for more than a half century. In the mid-’60s, they fomented the Tropicalia revolution in their native Brazil. They were imprisoned and exiled for their troubles, an experience documented in Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, Veloso’s memoir, one of the best and most important music autobiographies you’ll ever read.
The two elder statesmen have reunited for a tour, which brought them to the cavernous Microsoft Theater in LA last night. It was just the two of them and their acoustic guitars on the mammoth stage — two graying septuagenarians — with sometimes the audience joining along. Veloso’s voice in particular gets more hauntingly beautiful every time I see him; he may now be my favorite artist of all time (sorry Bruce). Having been a “soft Brazilian singer” (to borrow a phrase from one of his songs) — albeit one fond of static disruptions and eruptions — his whole life, he hasn’t blown out his cords one bit. If anything, they’ve become more supple, precisely tuned instruments. Gil, the former culture minister, sounds a bit raspier, but when he took the high notes and Caetano the low, the paired melodies took my breath away.
It made me think of a comment Carrie Brownstein had made earlier that day, in her on-stage conversation with LA Times critic Lorraine Ali, at the Los Angeles Festival of Books, about how she and Corin Tucker offer two narratives instead of the usual one as the front people of Sleater-Kinney. Veloso’s and Gil’s narratives have long entwined in a dialogue about race, colonialism, pop culture, and politics. Thinking of a way to explain to others the importance of the show, I thought it’s like seeing Dylan and Marley on stage together — if Dylan could carry a tune. These men are giants, who sing mostly in Portuguese, but also in Spanish and English. And then, sure enough, they closed with Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” Maybe I was reading into it, but was the refrain — “Every little thing’s going to be all right” — a message to the many Brazilians in the audience, as their country goes through perhaps the most intense political and economic tumult since the 1960s? The leftist regime that Gil was once a part of is under investigation and attack, in a country whose cultural icons still remember how it felt to be locked up by a military dictatorship.
But that was a subtext in an evening that was all about two of the most beautiful voices you might never hear together again, singing a half-century’s worth of songs of freedom.
Marissa Paternoster has a great rock’n’roll voice. The lead singer of New Jersey garage rock trio Screaming Females (ie the screaming female of the Screaming Females) stretches vowels like they’re taffy, pinching and shaking them with a piercing vibrato. In their cover of Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” for the AV Club Undercover, “off” becomes a bellow and a solo. It’s the opposite of Tay-Tay’s thin reed, though the energy of this version owes a lot to that song’s compositional pop perfection. Plus there’s the way Paternoster holds off on playing her electric guitar until after the silly spoken break — and then rips into it, peeling off a lead as loud and unapologetic as her vocal burrs and the bangs covering half her voice. Yes, she screams with her guitar too. Think Chrissie Hynde, PJ Harvey, Corin Tucker, Johnny Rotten, Mick Jagger, David Johansen.
The critical karaoke I performed to the Runaways’ “California Paradise” at the EMP Pop Conference in LA in 2013 has been posted online as part of a CK package from the Journal of Popular Music Studies — this is academia made fun party people! You can hear me speak it over the music or just read the text, your choice. There are some other great pieces here, such as Karen Tongson’s moving ode to Jose Esteban Munoz, Radiohead’s “Creep,” and queer utopian moments.
Great news to start a week that otherwise seemed likely to be full of zeitgeist doom and gloom: Sleater-Kinney have announced that they will be releasing their first album of new material in a decade, AND will go on tour. No Cities To Love will be released January 19/20 by Sub Pop Records; if it’s as good as the first single, “Bury Our Friends,” released today, it’s a doozy. Together Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss released some of the best albums of the late ’90s, early ’00s, taking the bristling energy of the Riot Grrrl movement to dizzying heights; if you don’t believe me, buy the Sleater-Kinney box set, Start Together, being released tomorrow.
Since 1995’s The Woods, Tucker became a mom and fronted her own band; Weiss drummed with Quasi and Stephen Malkmus and the Hot Jicks, and Brownstein reinvented herself as a comic actor on a little show called Portlandia. They got back together early this year, recording in secrecy. John Goodmanson, who recorded and produced most of those records, is back for No Cities To Love. The video for the new song features filmmaker and writer Miranda July, another early ’90s graduate of Olympia-area Grrrrl Studies. Check it out:
Caetano Veloso’s voice breaks cement and hearts. Last night at the Hollywood Bowl, the Brazilian legend sang one of his oldest compositions, “Baby” (written with and made famous by Os Mutantes), in the tender falsetto and multisyllabic lilt that’s uniquely his. He can also rap, play some mean rock guitar , and do elegant gestures with his long dancer hands that end with a middle finger raised — pretty badass for a septuagenarian. I’ve been a huge fan since my Puerto Rican boyfriend made a video about me set to the song “Branquinha,” and I fell in love with that 1989 album, Estrangeiro. Like Springsteen, Veloso’s an artist aging not just gracefully but pointedly — his voice more supple, his material more risky. He’s a romantic and a rebel, who in the 1960s got jailed AND exiled for his music. Not even Pussy Riot can claim that.
Too bad much of the lame-o LA crowd suffered through Andrew
Bland Bird then began exiting halfway through Caetano’s set. This is history people: One of the greatest musicians of our time — singer of postcolonial protest love songs about tropical truths — in one of the world’s greatest venues; stop worrying about traffic for once. I do wish KCRW and the Bowl hadn’t stacked the bill and made us wait so long for the headliner. Devendra Banhart was funny and weird and sometimes charming and sometimes annoying and has a beautiful voice when he just sings. His Spanish songs sounded somewhat unnervingly tropicalia-esque, but at least he chooses great role models. It was a trilingual night under the stars. Viva Veloso!