Perfection for a song is, in my opinion, the capacity for endless replay. Imagine a cassette with heads as big as planets, tape unspooling endlessly into the void, notes vibrating through atmospheres, endlessly. The song shuddering off of that tape, appropriate for all times, all seasons, all strata, has got to empty space as it fills it. It’s got to be a tall drink of water that leaves you thirsty when the last drop touches your tongue. It’s got to be “Is There Any Love” by Trevor Dandy.
The song is a cut off of Good God! A Gospel Funk Hymnal, one of the indispensable compilations on the Numero Group label. The crate diggers at Numero have spent years unearthing forgotten funk, sometimes bringing entire labels back from the grave. Funk traveled far and wide, and Numero has followed, exhuming brilliant music from the genre in places as disparate as Cleveland and Israel. Good God!, as its title indicates, is a collection of funk songs with religious themes.
Gospel music brings to mind crimson choir robes swinging, vigorous hand claps, sweaty brows, brawny piano chords charging up to unabashed celestial refrains. It also evokes quiet, soulful pieces thick with contrition, despair, or gratitude. The genius of “Is There Any Love” is that it weds the two. It’s a song with a righteous funk motor propelling a heart so broken it can only repeat a desperate question again and again, until the absence of an answer is its own reply.
It floats gently into an album saturated with pew-quaking fervor, like a buoyant little gem. On first listen, it seems entirely unremarkable, almost unfinished, as if it were waiting for the horn players to finish their smokes and lay down a sweaty overdub. Upon the 10th spin, its flat surfaces begin to disclose hidden corridors of sound and feeling. The heartbeat of a kick drum births fluttering pulses of bongo. The flanged hand claps echo like the cracking of a prophet’s bones. And those hard-panned voices intone, over and over, “Is there any love” — a question sans question mark, a recognition of mortal entrapment, a challenge to heavens that, all too often, seem empty. The song, in its spacious self-denial, mirrors and mourns that emptiness.
Trevor Dandy sees a world devoid of love. Perhaps he would be cheered to know that, for possessing this song, the world is one resonant heartbeat closer to perfection.
The world works on the energy of opposing forces, and High Places is no different. Its two members couldn’t be further apart: Mary, 24, majored in orchestral bassoon performance and grew up in small-town Michigan, while Rob, 34, was studying visual art and engaging in the punk and hardcore music scenes. The group’s songs are just as surprising.
They manage to take elements of electronic and noise music and merge it with tropical rhythms and sweet-sounding semi-spoken vocals to make some counterintuitive — and surprisingly danceable — pop songs. When asked about his vision for the group, Rob told the music download website eMusic, “I thought it would be cool to channel something like Beat Happening and filter it through Black Dice.”
Their technique is admittedly haphazard and results in songs that are sometimes surprising, even to the duo. The songs start off without much direction in mind, but according to Rob, “Lyrically is when it starts to take hold for me as far as what the song really feels like … before that it just seems fragmented.” The real magic, it seems, comes from the collaboration: They’ve even gone so far as to describe themselves as a trio, saying, “It’s almost like a third person making the music.” Certainly, High Places is more than the sum of its parts, both members with their own diverse and differing background adding something to the entire process.
Mary and Rob met in Brooklyn in 2006 and High Places started as an experiment that was only supposed to last a summer. It soon became clear that High Places was something more and Mary abandoned her plans to continue to graduate school: “A lot of times, you learn what you don’t want to do from school…. I want to break all of these rules I just learned.” They released a number of limited-edition seven inches and compilation tracks that were compiled into an album by eMusic, then released on CD by their new label, Thrill Jockey. Their self-titled debut full-length album is out Sept. 23, and marks significant growth for the duo. Partly to account for this growth, according to Rob, is their exhaustive touring, especially with “Lucky Dragons, who construct music in a lot of similar ways, using acoustic sounds and piecing them together into a bigger picture.” Mary added, “You learn so much from seeing a band play every night that you can’t help being influenced by something.”
Xiu Xiu, Jamie Stewart’s passive-aggressive pop outfit, has long thrived on raw transitions from whispers to shrieks, from clean guitar tones to squeals of errant synth, from melody to melodrama. His work is a theater of contrasts that has spellbound hipsters, noizeniks, and emo kids for nearly a decade. The group played for a sweaty throng at Garfield Artworks a couple weeks ago as part of their annual autumn tour. Cloistered in the back of the jam-packed gallery, they carved out a concise medley of recent tracks with their collection of gongs, drums, keyboards, and whistles.
Xiu Xiu’s performances show that violence is the obverse side of intimacy, or even its precondition. In Stewart’s world, where overt emotions emanate from closeted tragedies, ironies are mourned, not smirked at. Were it not for his mad lyrical finesse, this whole messy Xiu Xiu affair would simply be over the top. But Stewart’s rage, remorse, and libido show themselves in palpable images that create narratives all by themselves: a glass heart clinking, a little girl with her head shot open, a deformed penis.
These images embody the tenderness and fury of Xiu Xiu with more efficacy than even Stewart’s on-stage histrionics. In fact, his stories enable his spectacle. In art, certainly, “nothing exists in itself”; it’s up to the writer to make real the contrasts that ultimately burn us to the ground or freeze us to death. Stewart does this with words, and takes it a step further, showing with his delivery that even our contrasts (male versus female, love versus hate, noise versus music) are fabrications, and wicked ones at that.
Noise groups like Yellow Swans and Prurient were well chosen as the preface to Xiu Xiu’s act. When plugged into a thicket of tabletop electronics, a guitar no longer acts like a guitar. In the hands of such groups, a plucked string will unleash a magma-bath of distortion for a half-minute after it’s been touched. It enacts sonic violence that is as captivating as it is impossible to trace. When Xiu Xiu take the stage, they give that dynamic a bitter heart, a nostalgic mind, and abused genitals. In their songs, the buried abjection of the past blossoms wretchedly in the present. Deceptive violence lurks in the band’s own name. One expects aural clutter from the articulation of the two capital “X”s in “Xiu Xiu,” but the name, when spoken, dissipates in the gentlest doubled hush: “shoo, shoo.”