Diamanda Galas: Death Will Come and Will Have Your Eyes
Thursday May 12 and Saturday May 14 at Red Bull Music Academy at 258 W 118th Street
Believe me when I tell you that this one is worth the trip uptown. The Red Bull Music Academy Festival is back, and as usual their title isn’t the only thing that’s a bit of a mouth full. They always seem to be asking a lot of their guests, most of whom probably don’t wanna take some class on the anatomy of so-and-so and would just like to please hear some dang music. If you count among the purists, here’s at least one show on the month-long list of festival happenings (through May 22) that qualifies as required listening.
The old-school avant-garde performer Diamanda Galas has been enchanting (and terrifying) audiences for more than 40 years with her snake-tongued vocal styling, a practice all its own and one that has found no match or even a close imitator. Her unique range takes some getting used to– it’s a bit like hearing a foreign language for the first time. Her hissing and artful stuttering cut like Samurai swords, slicing at the air, cracking and quivering with the force of a whip.
It can be hard– so very hard– to grasp at first, but the pitch-black depths of human suffering and rage Diamanda traverses are a realm that few artists have dared to venture so far into– or if they have, their attempts look weak and disingenuous compared to Galas’s stuff.
At first, it’s easy to discern all manner of not-exactly musical influences in her vocals: speaking in tongues, the cry of seagulls, auctioneer speed-talking, college-level debate, spoken word, and Satanic rites. But as otherworldly as her music can sound, it actually has roots in real musical traditions from the Middle East and Greece, which hints at Diamanda’s very first musical experiences performing Greek music with her father.
And while Diamanda’s approach is about as experimental and out-there as it gets, her pained screeching tugs at some deeply held primal reflexes– at first, her music seems like nothing you’ve ever heard, but after a while Diamanda’s wales reach the amygdala, or whatever you wanna call the part of our skull reserved for what’s left of our diminutive monkey brains. Suddenly, the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and it becomes clear that her music isn’t dwelling in totally unfamiliar terrain at all. Instead it’s more useful to think of Diamanda’s work as reviving ancient spells that are so much a part of being a human that they’re engraved onto our bones. The emotions she explores are dark ones to say the least, and usually dwell at the bottom of a fathomless pit in the human psyche– it’s where you go when you’re having the worst acid trip of your life, or an existential crisis– our fear of death lurks here. Who knows how she got there– by making a deal with the devil? Accidentally stumbling onto a time-tripping talisman?
But Diamanda’s wicked-sounding songs aren’t aimed at being high-minded, alienating art rock or pretentious compositions written for nothing and no one. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite– for much of her career, Diamanda has also been an activist. In the ’80s she was an outspoken advocate for AIDS patients, at a time when there were few solutions, death was certain, and suffering was at its height. Fear and ignorance often trumped empathy, but Diamanda bravely spoke out, often at her own peril. As she told the Quietus in 2009, “Oh, there’s ‘the AIDS woman’, there were a lot of magazines that called me that.” (Her brother died in 1984 of AIDS-related causes.)
Clearly, the emotional intensity of Diamanda’s live performances and her music in general draws from genuine passion for speaking out against injustice (historical and current). Besides calling out powerful actors for their inadequate response to the AIDS epidemic, Diamanda has spoken out (or screamed) about a number of other issues including the Armenian genocide, exile, and the diaspora. It’s heavy stuff to be sure, but Diamanda’s work never seems bogged down by its political concerns, it’s far too raw to ever be considered inaccessible.
Psychic Selves, Hypoluxo, Trash Gendar, Fax Machine America
Wednesday May 11, 8 pm at Sunnyvale: FREE
Don’t be deceived– if at first Fax Machine America sounds like another Ariel Pink wannabe band, try, try again. Sure, tracks like “Nightmare” certainly fall into Ducktails/Mr. Pink territory, but this Bushwick band’s got range. Tread lightly if you’re afraid of earnest lyrics (Fax Machine actually, actually have a song called “True Love,” and they mean it), but if you stick around, you’ll be rewarded with songs about what happens after the sun goes down on the honeymoon.
In “Nice to Meat You,” for example, we meet a scared, single, bitter young fellow who threatens to paint his nails black and sings about being “young, dumb, and full of cum, don’t know where we’re comin from,” and “I’m afraid of meaning nothing.” Sounds bleak enough for me.
In the meantime, we’ll be treated to stripped-down post-punk tunes from Psychic Selves, who write music that can sometimes sound like it’s straight outta the late-1970s UK indie rock scene. There’s a sort of cutesy economy of emotion happening here, an endearing shyness alongside riffs that are catchy as anything from Wire or The Clean.
Kid Congo & the Pink Monkey Birds, Savak
Wednesday May 11, 9 pm at the Bell House: $15
Remember that time we interviewed Kid Congo Powers, of the Gun Club, The Cramps, the Bad Seeds, and now Kid Congo & the Pink Monkey Birds fame? Heh, well I certainly do. Or maybe I should say I recall with stunning clarity the meltdown that I had prior to the conversation.
While holding my phone, preparing to plunge head-first into what I was convinced was going to be the most humiliating phone call of my fan-girl life, I suddenly became so distressed, so disassociated that I forgot how the dial pad worked. It was as if that urban myth about LSD living in your spinal fluid forever had come true. Surely, I thought, I’d triggered a flashback during my pre-interview stress-reducing stretchercises, since the phone that I held in my hand no longer appeared to be a Steve Jobs communications device/Candy Crush console, but a complicated instrument whose sole purpose was to destroy me.
This device would act not simply as a megaphone, set to emit a piercing cackle at the first sign of my lowliness, but a pocket-sized projector. I would be forced to look Kid Congo, or at least his floating hologram, right in his all-knowing eyes throughout the interview. He would immediately understand that I was nothing more than a groveling little girl. “BAHA what a stuuuuuuuupid question,” I could already hear him saying. My own headline would read something like, “Writer Totally Screws Up Interview With Kid Congo Powers and is Immediately Disowned By Everyone Ever.”
But as it turns out, Powers is the nicest fellow anyone could ever hope to speak to and even though I developed a psychosomatic stutter and showed signs of sudden-onset wet brain throughout the interview, he was very gracious with me.
I should have known this would be the case. The Cramps brought him on even though Powers recalled that, at the time, “I barely knew how to play, I could barely make three chords.” Not to mention you’d have to be a complete freakin’ angel to put up with Jeffrey Lee Pierce (RIP), a notorious jerk to rival Lou Reed (RIP 2). Somehow, Powers has maintained this easy charm well into gentlemanhood. He’s also kept and honed his incredible sense of style (I mean, who else could get away with pairing a fuzzy Russian hat with a striped suit for days on end?) and has managed to avoid looking like so many other aging rock n’ rollers who turn a corner and come out looking like John Varvatos and Ed Hardy had an orgy and then puked all over them.
Powers’s approach to music has mirrored the rest of his trajectory: he’s evolved, but never strayed too far from his original sound. There’s a lot to be said for staying true to yourself, and Kid Congo’s done that better than maybe anyone else of his generation and scene.
La Luz, Las Rosas, High Waisted
Thursday May 12, 8 pm at Market Hotel: $13
Are you feeling worn out? Disconnected from the things that really matter in life– the holy trinity of good food, good drink, and good times? It’s been, what, like maybe three whole weeks since you last woke up somewhere you don’t remember falling asleep? You even did your laundry this week, didn’t you? Sounds like you’re getting old. Fast.
But don’t reach for your hot water bottle and La-Z-Boy catalogue just yet. There’s still a chance to stop time in its tracks by getting caught up on the latest in self-described “party” pop rock, the kind that’ll help you gyrate those ailing hips again.
Combine cutesy heartfelt sing-song vocals, classic surf guitars, and a willingness to engage in extended instrumental interludes (especially on their “Acid Tapes”), all against the backdrop of ’60s psych instrumental sensibilities and unabashed pop lyricism, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for High Waisted. It’s surprising to see that this LES band hasn’t blown up in a big way just yet– all the right stuff seems to be there, ready for a surf-pop takeover: a charismatic front woman with ever-changing pastel mermaid hair who loves pizza, approachable upbeat rock, and a commitment to making “every show a party.” Oh, and they actually know how to surf. Like, I’m pretty sure Urban Outfitters is making some phone call right now.
However, High Waisted did ditch those pleasant lo-fi vibes on their brand new iTunes-only debut album, On Ludlow, for some rather slick production. Personally, I prefer those “Acid Tapes,” and I don’t know if I can ever quite come to terms with the fact that they didn’t name their band High Wasted. But here’s to hoping they can still channel some of that early rawness into their live shows. (If you can’t make this one, another show coming up next week, May 18 at Shea Stadium with L.A. Witch.)
La Luz make dreamy surf rock, the kind that makes up the inner-soundtracks of people who casually plan bank heists and drugstore ripoffs (and get away with it every time). The band hails from Seattle– roots that we’re convinced temper the gleeful forces inherent in this kind of upbeat beach-rock, slapping it with a permanent storm cloud and an upside-down smile. It’s like Eeyore was handed a guitar and told to write something that Quentin Tarantino would like. Look out for their forthcoming album on Hardly Art.
It was high time that something of a ’70s rawk revival bled through this overabundance of psychedelia-loving garage rock. Las Rosas, for example, sound like the Black Lips if they had a thing for that era’s stadium guitar hits, the only difference being that “The Roses” aren’t harvesting inspiration from cocaine-fueled tours on smelly buses packed with cigarettes and hookers. At least we don’t think they are.