One-Man (and -Woman) Bands
The joys of flying solo.
Sinning aside, a lot of fairly mundane things happen in the bedroom of a hip-hop artist. Boston's Edan Portnoy is a mop-topped rapper/producer/DJ whose rough-hewn style is the result of many hours spent alone, practicing and dreaming alongside his record collection. The homemade cover art of his second album features the bodies of Beatles-era Brits (complete with Nehru jackets) topped by the cutout faces of famous rappers—it's a perfect visual for the music inside. Glistening psychedelic harmonies collide with harsh drum samples, while Edan raps about turning "your scene to tangerine" ("I See Colors") or messing with Thor's hammer ("Promised Land") in the furious cadence of his late-1980s rap idols. Not everything is rose-colored: With its backward loops and disorienting echo, "Smile" is one of hip-hop's first hacks at a bad acid trip.
Owen Pallett's live shows are like optical illusions. Armed with only a violin and a foot-operated sampler, the Torontonian assembles his songs bit by bit: A short line of plucks forms a backbeat, bowed strings add a hint of Psycho-drama, and Pallett's workmanlike voice rises above the fray. "The CN Tower Belongs to the Dead" captures some of the awkward charm of his one-man performance. The song grows steadily from its meager pizzicato and seesawing bass line as Pallett finds romance in the world's tallest freestanding structure on land—underscoring his sentiments with a piercing, kick-out-the-resin solo halfway through. The track "Please Please Please" prances along a string line, with Pallett breaking momentarily from his placidity: "Ask yourself: Are you a slut?" he accuses coolly, before yelling back at himself, "NO YOU'RE NOT!" Sometimes you are your own worst critic.
Kieran Hebden's last album, Rounds, found inspiration in the doe-eyed, family-style British folk scene of the late 1960s and '70s. His latest, Everything Ecstatic, careens between perfect, in-the-pocket pop symmetry and total group dysfunction. "Smile Around the Face" may be one of the friendliest and most conventionally structured tunes Hebden's ever done, anchored by drums that recall Hall and Oates and a bright chorus that recalls a dozen well-mannered kettle whistles. In contrast, "Sun Drums and Soil" is as primal as the title suggests, thick with sprawling drum circles, free jazz freak-outs, and dozens of would-be soloists circling each other with suspicion. It devolves from there until Hebden's sampler distills the melee into a sighing horn line and a single tap of a piano key.
The idea of an all-vocal, note-for-note solo rendition of The Who Sell Out does not inspire confidence. But Haden is no novice when it comes to kookiness—she spent the 1990s in that dog, a squeaky pop-punk quartet heavy on cello and violins. Her tribute to the Who's playful 1967 album is alluring, with multi-tracked hums, meows, purrs, yowls, and bah-bah-bahs subbing for all the "proper" instruments. (Haden sings as well, but her elfin take on Roger Daltrey is the most pedestrian element of the mix.) She even covers the original album's fake commercial jingles, redoing "Heinz Baked Beans" as an efficient doo-wop beat-box number. The focused chug and windmill guitar of "I Can See for Miles" get redone in the style of a scatterbrained barbershop quartet, while the already-trippy "Armenia City in the Sky" sounds even stranger with Haden's howls and birdcalls approximating Pete Townshend's backwards guitar.
One's first reaction to France's M83 is usually that this is an awful lot of sound for one person to be generating. Anthony Gonzalez traffics in suffocating, ambient swirls, industrial noise, and foamy coos. His second album demonstrates little concern for traditional songwriting technique. The bedlam of "*" is interrupted by sharp, random bursts of silence, while tracks like "I Guess I'm Floating" or "Fields, Shorelines and Hunters" tell stories through textures and mood rather than couplets and choruses. "Don't Save Us From the Flames" is a monstrous track that alternates between overpowering, arena-sized slabs of guitar riffs and rolling drums, and Gonzalez's soft-spoken verses. Don't be fooled by all the noise—think of it as a security blanket that carefully protects Gonzalez's weepy, melancholic core.
Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College. He is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman, about H.T. Tsiang, his imagined rival Pearl Buck, and the often contentious community of Americans writing about China in the 1930s and '40s.
Audio excerpts from: Beauty and the Beat © 2005 Lewis Recordings; Has a Good Home © 2005 Blocks Recording Club; Everything Ecstatic © 2005 Domino Records; Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out © 2005 Bar/None Records; Before the Dawn Heals Us © 2005 Mute Records. All rights reserved.