It took some serious wrangling, this being my usual Thursday-night dead zone, but I actually did manage to make it over to the Cutting Room tonight for the latest edition of Thru the Walls, ASCAP's nightclub series showcasing composer-performers whose works occupy the interzone between "art music" and "pop culture." I've long wished to catch one of these events, but tonight, there was an especially compelling reason to do so, and his name is Corey Dargel.
In an earlier post, I revealed my enthusiasm for Dargel's upcoming CD, Less Famous than You. Robert Gable subsequently -- and rightly, I might add -- boasted that he and others (including Time Out Chicago's Marc Geelhoed) were already on the Dargel bandwagon. Truth be told, I was already slightly aware of this 28-year-old, Texas-born, Brooklyn-based composer-performer's work, which I'd dubbed "elegantly skewed electronic art song" in TONY some time ago. Still, it wasn't until I heard the new album in full that I really sat up and took notice of what was developing here.
If the record demanded my attention, tonight's short set clinched the deal. Dargel's songs are carefully wrought, but it's not the craftsmanship that wins you over so much as it is the droll observations, clever wordplay and genuine heart in his lyrics. From his laptop, he summoned sunny melodies, plush cushions of layered voice and twitchy beats. Sheila Donovan provided gently strummed Telecaster riffs, and César Alvarez played saxophone and wooden flute; both supplied backing vocals and percussion.
What's more, all three performers brought genuine stage presence to the event. Donovan, in particular, projected an air so utterly distanced and aloof as to become completely irresistable -- she was the girl you couldn't have, so you wanted her all the more. Her two turns as lead vocalist, on the other hand, were so unaffected as to propose a nearly alt-country humility. And when Dargel provided falsetto backup for a talky Alvarez vocal, it was as if Antony Hegarty had spurned his Johnsons in order to coo in Lou Reed's ear for a spell.
Always mindful that I was allegedly supposed to be absorbing an evening of "new music," I nonetheless continually made connections to smart pop I'd enjoyed in the past. That Dargel's voice evokes Morrissey is often heard; more than one person has also suggested an affinity to Stephin Merritt, in both craft and content. For me, though, it sometimes went deeper: The fourth tune in the set, which featured a dry vocal by Donovan and rude tenor sax blurts from Alvarez, reminded me of the Waitresses (you know, "I Know What Boys Like"), except that Dargel's music was more like a conservatory trained Vince Clarke taking a whack at ska.
There's more to say, and the place to do so will present itself soon. For now, I'll turn your attention to a fine, provocative essay by Lanier Sammons at Sequenza 21. A lot of what's bubbling in my head was elegantly expressed there. Dargel's album is due in April; in the mean time, you can find a handful of MP3s on his website.
I most assuredly don't want to sell the other performers on tonight's showcase short -- especially Chris Tignor's fine electroacoustic consort Slow Six, a band I've been trying to catch since well before its debut album, Private Times in Public Places, gently insinuated itself into my TONY Top Ten list last year. The initial encounter did not disappoint, and I was especially intrigued by a new vein of grainy dissonance that has seeped into Tignor's more recent compositions. But I'll save further comment until after the group's upcoming Joe's Pub date with violinist Todd Reynolds on December 17. And while I don't feel that my late arrival and initial position in the back of the room allowed a fair evaluation of the set by composer-laptopper Douglas Geers and violinist Maja Cerar (joined at the end by another laptopper, Liubo Borissov), what I heard was intriguing enough to make me purchase a copy of Music for Fish, a CD the three performers released under the collective name Sønreel. On headphones, their immersive music accompanied my long march back to the office -- the price of having been sprung early tonight.
Kayo Dot - Choirs of the Eye (Tzadik)
Tod Dockstader - Aerial #1 (Sub Rosa)
Deerhoof - The Runners Four (Kill Rock Stars)
Sønreel - Music for Fish (self-released)
Dead Kennedys - Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (Manifesto)
Mark Wastell - Vibra #2 (Longbox)