Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Verve Play Second NYC Show, 4.29.08

After surviving multiple breakups, The Verve are back. The British rockers, best known for their late-nineties single "Bittersweet Symphony," played the second of two shows at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. It's been years since the band, currently in its original four-person lineup, last toured the United States. Despite this, Tuesday night's concert proved that they can still put on a great live show.

The Verve opened the night with "A New Decade," the first track on 1995's A Northern Soul. Lead singer Richard Ashcroft's voice was clear and resonated throughout the venue, holding its own against the psychedelic swirling sounds of the accompanying music. The setlist featured a large number of songs from 1997's Urban Hymns, even though the band has plenty of older material along with plans to release a new album this year. That being said, the band did play a few older songs that included a b-side and "Already There" from their 1993 full-length debut, A Storm in Heaven. They also included two new songs: "Sit and Wonder" and "Love is Pain."

Though I didn't have the best seats in the house, it was clear that the band members were having a good time. Ashcroft was a mesmerizing free spirit, lightly dancing on his bare feet as he pumped his fists and motioned to the crowd. He continued to prance around slightly even when he picked up the guitar for various songs. Ashcroft was also fairly chatty throughout the night. In addition to voicing the occasional "thank you" and making a slight public service announcement that warned against dropping acid in the studio, he told the crowd a variety of anecdotes, referring to stopping at the Chelsea Hotel during their first time in New York and a subsequent disastrous gig. He ended the story by saying that the experience had been great anyway, since it was New York after all, resulting in a roar of approval from the crowd.

Guitarist Nick McCabe and bass player Simon Jones were also fairly energized, and shared a warm moment towards the end of the night when the two of them hugged at the conclusion of "Come On." While the night had its mellow moments with songs like "Sonnet" and "The Drugs Don't Work," the set grew increasingly upbeat as the show went on. "Rolling People" was a raucous hit with the crowd, with flashing lights accentuating the beats at the start of the song. "Lucky Man" was also incredibly popular with the concertgoers and it seems the entire crowd was singing along. And "Come On," the last song before the encore, turned into controlled chaos in its final minutes with lights flashing at every millisecond to accompany the cacophonous music. But while it was neat to witness this, it might not be a bad idea for the band to opt for a less intensified light show during the end of that song.

The Verve finally performed "Bittersweet Symphony" at the end of the night, playing the song first during a two-song encore. Screams echoed through the crowd as the familiar string samples filled the air and many sang along as Ashcroft, donned in a black coat that was slightly reminiscent of the song's iconic music video, launched into the verse. While Ashcroft performed with enthusiasm, he stopped a couple of times, choosing to let the crowd sing during some of the song's crucial moments. Cliche as it may sound, I couldn't help singing my heart out during the song as it brought back a lot of memories. Though the song is considered a classic at this point, it's hard to believe that it's actually a decade old.

The night finally ended with a performance of "Love is Pain," one of the aforementioned new songs. It was an upbeat way to end the night. The song contained a dance element that made me wonder if the band is going through some kind of New Order phase, but people seemed to have a mixed reaction to it as they left the show. The sample used during the song was a bit much, but I am interested to hear what the final cut will sound like if the band chooses to record it for the next album.

All in all, it was a great night and it looks as though The Verve will be able to make a pretty solid comeback. Even though they didn't play a lot of new material during the show, the band sounded fresh and seemed happy — a good sign for the future.

(You may also view this review here).

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Cry-Baby: A Broadway Review

Despite my close proximity to New York City, I've never really bothered going to Broadway shows. The first time I went to a show was about four years ago when I saw Hairspray. I really enjoyed the musical, since I was a fan of the original John Waters movie. So I was pretty interested when a friend of mine told me about an opportunity to go see Cry-Baby, another John Waters-inspired musical that just opened on Broadway. It has been a while since I watched the movie it's based on, but I also remember enjoying it quite a bit.

The Marquis Theater, which is where the play is running right now, was pretty packed when we went last night. We were also fortunate enough to have orchestra seats, which made viewing the show a lot more pleasurable. But while I found the musical fairly cute and did laugh a few times during the night, I have to admit that it's not the best show I've ever seen. After all, even though I haven't gone to many Broadway shows, I have seen plenty of amateur productions and movies that have been based on them. The best shows have the types of songs that can't get out of your head for days, the types of songs you might find yourself singing for no particular reason.

Unfortunately, Cry-Baby wasn't as memorable as it could have been. The musical, set in the 1950s, features plenty of songs that are derivative of the era's popular hits. But the songs lack a flavor that could help the musical carve a stronger identity for itself. And while some of the show's dialogue had its witty, mildly vulgar moments, it lacked the makings of an instant classic. Though I laughed heartily at a few lines, there were also a few parts where an obvious joke just fell flat.

That being said, the choreography did shine on occasion. I particularly liked elements of "Girl, Can I Kiss You?" and "Jailyard Jubilee" had the whole crowd applauding thunderously at the end. A dance sequence that required the men in the cast to tapdance while wearing license plates at the bottom of their shoes was incredibly energetic and well done. In addition, I did enjoy some of the supporting cast members quite a bit. Harriet Harris — who I personally remember most for her role in an early episode of The X-Files — was great as the old-fashioned Mrs. Vernon-Williams, delivering many of her lines in excellent deadpan. And Alli Mauzey, who played delusional Lenora, a girl vying for Cry-Baby's affections, was fantastic. While her insane-girl routine could have easily worn thin, she just became hilariously loopy as the musical progressed, and got some very loud applause during the curtain call.

But ultimately, as I said, the musical was just "cute." It just couldn't match the quirkiness of Hairspray and even though John Waters is a creative consultant for this production, it lacked the crass ridiculousness of his work. While it was a fun night out and a change from my usual routine for me to go see it, I'm not sure Cry-Baby will have much longevity on Broadway.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The French Kicks Complete Mercury Lounge Residency, 4.15.08

With their latest album currently available online via iTunes and hitting stores in May, The French Kicks are keeping themselves busy with a series of tour dates. On Tuesday night, the band completed a three-week residency at New York City's Mercury Lounge by playing an intimate, sold-out show.

The band took the stage shortly after 11 p.m. with the trademark opening drum riff of "One More Time" filling the room before frontman Nick Stumpf launched into the song's mournfully melodious vocals.

Stumpf crooned into his mic throughout the night, jerking his body around slightly to match the tight rhythms of the accompanying music. While his movements were far from violent, he was clearly feeling the music, especially when he managed to knock the mic stand offstage in the middle of "One More Time." Luckily, no one was hurt and the show continued without a hitch as a concertgoer shoved the stand back.

The French Kicks showcased numerous songs from Swimming, their newest record, with Stumpf simply introducing a couple of the songs according to their track numbers. The new material, which isn't a tremendous departure from the band's previous work, featured infectious elements of pop and garage rock and was well-received by the audience.

But the band also made it a point to include earlier material throughout the show. Stumpf referred to songs like "Crying Just for Show" from One Time Bells as an "oldie," and the audience cheered excitedly and bopped to the beat when the band played the title track from 2004's The Trial of the Century. Towards the end of the night, the band went the old-school route with a high-spirited cover of The Troggs' "With a Girl Like You."

Stumpf remained a gracious performer throughout the night, naming his bandmates both during the beginning and end of the show, and thanking the crowd at the end of numerous songs. While he kept his hands free of instruments at times, he spent the majority of the concert taking alternate turns at playing the guitar, keyboard and bass. Similarly, guitarist Josh Wise took over lead vocals for a few songs, indicating that this is a band that doesn't mind mixing things up from time to time.

It seems the night was ultimately a success for the band, who came back for a two-song encore as the lingering audience cheered for more. The French Kicks may not make the kind of music that can capture large audiences and fill up stadiums. But their somewhat minimalist, catchy hooks are well suited for smaller settings, where their live shows are capable of surpassing the energy of their mellower studio recordings.

(You may also check out this review here.)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Emerging from "Unaccustomed Earth"

Jhumpa Lahiri — author of Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake — made an appearance at Barnes and Noble's Union Square location in Manhattan last Tuesday. The appearance marked the release of her latest collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth.

The evening itself ended up being much shorter than I anticipated, due to the fact that the Barnes and Noble staff seemed eager to get everyone out of the store as quickly as possible. I couldn't blame them, as a rather sizable crowd had gathered for the reading, but I wish there had been time to hear more from Lahiri. After she read from the title story of Unaccustomed Earth for about 20 minutes, Lahiri answered only three questions from the audience before the book signing began.

Though I was mildly disappointed that there wasn't much time for a more expansive discussion, I am glad that I went. I actually wrote my undergraduate senior thesis on The Namesake, so I felt as though things had finally come full circle.

And senior thesis aside, I do have a special place in my heart for Lahiri's first two books. The Namesake was the first Indian-American novel I'd ever bothered tackling and it was exciting for me to read about characters that had a background so similar to my own (even though I'm not of Bengali origins). This prompted me to seek out a copy of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies, which I found beautiful and tightly constructed. As a result, I found myself eagerly anticipating the arrival of Unaccustomed Earth.

Having completed the short-story collection this weekend, I am happy to say that I enjoyed it. Lahiri's prose remains clear as she continues delving into issues of identity, familial and romantic relationships, and isolation. I found the title story and the three-part "Hema and Kaushik" the strongest in the collection — the latter had an interesting narrative style and both stories addressed the subject of loss in a way that triggered my emotions. There is a strong emphasis, as seen in The Namesake, on the lives of second generation Bengali Americans as they build their lives in a world so different from the one their parents grew up in.

But while I could relate to aspects of these stories and while I would give Lahiri's efforts a solid B+, I realized that I did have a few issues — not necessarily with the book itself, but perhaps with how it might be received by the public.

Lahiri has not broken any new ground with this collection. This is something that she herself has admitted, even saying that she tends to write about what she knows (typically upper middle class Bengali Americans with advanced degrees in engineering, literature, and so on).

In a way, this is perfectly fine. It would be hypocritical of me to find fault with this when so many authors have become famous for writing about the same subject repeatedly. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the world of the "beautiful and the damned." Jane Austen wrote about romance in a particular portion of English society. And yet both are celebrated as great authors to this day.

That being said, a lot of people are beginning to point out the repetition in Lahiri's writing as a flaw of some kind, as if she's the only person in the world to do this. And though I can understand why she focuses on this tiny sliver of Indian and Indian-American society, I have to admit that I find it a bit problematic as well. I don't take fault with her writing, but I worry about the way the outside world might view Indians and Indian immigrants as a whole.

Much of Lahiri's writing depends on presenting readers with a glimpse into the Bengali American experience as she knows it, causing the press, critics, and some of her readers to focus rather intently on her "Indian identity." And because of that, I often worry that the public is getting a rather one-note view of the Indian diaspora. On the surface, many of Lahiri's stories tend to be bleak, filled with characters who struggle with their dual cultural identities and fight with their parents or children. Most of the marriages are unhappy; the few real love stories have a tendency to end tragically or with significant others cheating on each other. While Lahiri herself never seems to be trying to imply that this is what it means to be an Indian American, I am beginning to wonder if others might start viewing this particular group of immigrants as a particularly miserable bunch.

I guess my main issue here isn't with Lahiri herself then, but with the lack of variety in diasporic fiction. I love reading books by other authors of South Asian descent, because it gives me a chance to know that the world of fiction now has room for people that are somewhat similar to myself. But while there are other South Asian authors in the world, aside from Lahiri, I really don't think there is enough variety in the fiction offered to the general public.

The majority of stories out there — whether they're written by Punjabis, Bengalis, or Gujaratis — tend to present Indian immigrants and their children as people perpetually struggling with their cultural identities and a sense of loss. And while loss is always a part of the immigrant experience, I can't help but wonder why we can't see a more diverse array of Indian American characters in fiction. Even when the authors try to present other themes in their works, these themes get tied up in the concept of being Indian or being an immigrant, leaving the public with what I feel is a very skewed perception of a particular society.

And so while I admire authors like Lahiri and continue reading their work, I'd really like to see more diversity in diasporic fiction out there today. A little less angst could go a long way.