Manhattan Music

Dan Bern, Matthew Ryan: But Seriously, Folk …

For weeks, Dan Bern’s publicist has been e-mailing breathy reminders that a San Francisco newspaper columnist said that Mr. Bern was one of just two singers whose work remains relevant after Sept. 11. Like much of the hyperbole written about Mr. Bern, a ponderous, heavy-handed folkie, this is pure bunk; if anything, bubble-gum pop has become more important than ever. Three months ago, I felt slightly dirty each time I cued up “Oops! … I Did It Again.” Now, it’s the aural equivalent of comfort food.

But Mr. Bern’s New American Language (Messenger Records) and Matthew Ryan’s Concussion (Waxy Silver) are two albums that do feel weirdly prescient:

serious-minded folk rock for what’s supposed to be a serious-minded era. Unfortunately, neither disc fulfills its potential; instead of feeling pure and invigorating, this music tries too hard. It’s too bad, because both singers deserve to be heard.

Like most of Mr. Bern’s work, New American Language (which was recorded well before September) seems to be self-consciously striving to be Important. Its flat-footed topicality and forced irony (his folk-rock band is called the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy) mars Mr. Bern’s appealing voice and his knack for crafting catchy tunes. Overly (and overtly) referential, Mr. Bern writes songs as if they were hummable Thomas Pynchon novels, with signifiers and self-satisfied winks in every line.

Instead of adding layers, this tendency to overassert his lineage is annoying. It’s unfortunate, because Mr. Bern’s gravely voice has some of the same charm as Billy Bragg’s, and his charging folk-rock melodies have surprising staying power. But really, how many times can you listen to a song about “the church of Holy McDonald’s”?

Matthew Ryan, like Mr. Bern, often gets compared to rough-edged singers like Tom Waits. Where Mr. Bern’s prickly-edged voice at least sounds natural, Mr. Ryan’s sounds weirdly forced; it’s as if he secretly has a smooth and very pretty tenor but is desperate to convey a sense of working-class grit.

Mr. Ryan also has a knack for writing catchy folk rock; like Lucinda Williams, for whom he recently opened on tour, Mr. Ryan is able to express heartache and desolation without overdoing it.

Nathaniel Merriwether: Feel the Lovage

Nathaniel Merriweather also concerns himself with weighty issues: namely, how to get freaky with the ladies. It’s about time that Mr. Merriweather, a.k.a. Dan (“The Automator”) Nakamura, is recognized as one of the country’s most prodigious musical geniuses of the last half-decade, the producer responsible for Dr. Octagon’s Dr. Octagonecologyst , the Handsome Boy Modeling School’s So … How’s Your Girl? and the Gorillaz’s recent eponymous effort. Lovage: Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By (75ARK/Tommy Boy) continues this delicious run.

And it’s doing a public service to boot! As Prince Paul intones (under the nom d’amour Chest Rockwell), “Barry White used to work / Shoot, even ABBA used to work the way I was doing my thing / But man, you put this on and the ho’s just go wild.” Over the course of the next deliriously slick and sleazy hour, they’re joined by a coterie of like-minded paramours (Faith No More’s Mike Patton, Kid Koala, Afrika Bambaataa, Blur’s Damon Albarn) to unfurl music that would be raunchy if it wasn’t so funny.

“Pit Stop” might as well begin with the line, “I never thought I’d be writing this kind of letter …. ” (It’s about a female driver who picks up a male hitchhiker.) With Jennifer Charles’ hot-and-bothered vocals and Prince Paul muttering things like “I pulled in to your truck stop,” it’s hard not to laugh, but Mr. Nakamura’s production is, as always, greasy and just right. Mr. Bambaataa’s “Herbs, Good Hygiene & Socks,” a mock-interview set over wah-wah guitars and bongos, includes this useful advice: “Wash your ass every day … and brush your bref at least two or three times every day wif your teef and then wash your face.” Don’t want to get a chick pregnant? “Well, you need different pairs of socks, you know.” To be extra safe, don’t play the album’s heady, heavy-breathing remake of Berlin’s “(Sex) I’m A.”

Lovage comes right to the brink of feeling like a novelty act. Mr. Nakamura has made an art form of over-the-top slapstick set to high-art sounds. Think SNL ‘s Ladies’ Man narrated by Jonathan Franzen.

Local Jazz Flavors

There are a group of jazz musicians playing in and around the city-pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker being foremost among them-that have been making such consistently great music that it can be hard to keep up. Positioned to the left of the mainstream, draped in quasi-mysticism and almost righteously avant-garde, these musicians seem intimidating at first blush.

But there are three new albums from local artists that are both surprisingly accessible and deserving of attention. The Nommonsemble, drummer Whit Dickey’s latest offering (served up by Brooklyn-based super-indie label AUM Fidelity), is a perfect example. For a drummer, Mr. Dickey’s work is very circular; he seems to focus on breathing as a motif. On Life Cycle (AUM Fidelity)-backed by Mr. Shipp, reed man Rob Brown and violist Mat Maneri-Mr. Dickey evokes John Coltrane’s later work and Albert Ayler’s honking experiments. Mr. Brown is typically graceful, reining in improvised jazz’s tendency to be obtuse, and Messrs. Shipp and Maneri show the fruits that are born of playing together dozens of times each year.

Craig Taborn leads a more conventional trio in the latest of Thirsty Ear’s wonderful Blue Series, a project that Mr. Shipp is producing. From Light Made Lighter ‘s opening salute to Thelonious Monk on “Bodies We Came Out Of,” Mr. Taborn signals that he is part of a quickly accessible lineage-perhaps surprising to those who know his work as a sideman to the often thorny James Carter and Tim Berne. Bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Gerald Cleaver serve as perfect counterweights to Mr. Taborn’s fleet and spiky style.

Like the Nommonsemble, the Cosmosamatics-Sonny Simmons and Michael Marcus on reeds, William Parker on bass, Jay Rosen on drums-show on their eponymous album (on Boxholder Records) that you don’t need to overwhelm in order to be cutting-edge. This is a surprising lesson to learn from a group that includes the notoriously freewheeling Mr. Simmons, who made his mark with his “out” E.S.P. recordings in the 60′s and 70′s. Anchored by Mr. Parker’s nimble bass, Mr. Simmons and Mr. Marcus improvise themes that float over and around each other.

The dozens of live shows in the city every night can make it paradoxically hard for a novice to discover new music. Any of the aforementioned musicians would be a good place to start. Find something you like and pull the thread: William Parker will lead you to Mingus-esque big-band experiments; Matthew Shipp to cerebral and diffident delights. But do partake ….