Kimberly Chun

Sly ‘n’ sincere


SONIC REDUCER "Move while you’re watching me / Dance with the enemy — here is my remedy!"

Though the production is vaguely "Toxic," don’t confuse this Brit with Britney. Little Boots, a.k.a. Victoria Hesketh, may be a dulcet, highly infectious dead-ringer for Britney Spears — sporting a sweeter voice and ‘tude, judging from her lyrical preoccupations and her popular homemade YouTube snippets showing the Boots covering Kid Cudi or Cyndi Lauper.

And as El Niño continues to batter our doors, one can’t help but wonder what a steadily heat-seeking, viral-vid starlet like herself makes of the chill falling over pop, both under- and overground in the form of, say, Cold Cave and the xx? Lo, behold synthpop prime mover Phil Oakey of Human League, dueting with Hesketh on "Symmetry," off her debut, Hands (Atlantic), which finally sees its stateside release this week.

"Maybe it sounds cold, but I think it sounds really cool as well. That’s the whole thing, the detached Human League thing," explains Hesketh, 25, phasing in and out by phone from London.

"I’m just really interested in electronic music and inspired by it, so I kind of got into it from that angle, being a fan of the sound and the records."

Today’s colder, sparser synth minimalism perhaps reckons more honestly with the instruments themselves, with a sound that isn’t trying to resemble anything other than itself. Its quiet aggression resonates perfectly with the cold wind of austerity that has been long blowing through the music world. That harder, tougher, oft-pared-down synth sound also jibes with the continuing cultural fascination with the ’80s: rhyming perfectly with fashion’s studded stilettos and architectural leather, it reads like armor against pummeling economic times.

Hesketh is completely frank about the hardscrabble pop environment she’s found herself in — and the way understandable fiscal conservatism is affecting the art and craft of music-making. "I think the industry doesn’t really have any money, and I’m not selling very many records, so they’re just playing it really safe because they’re scared to invest money in anything that’s too weird and can’t fit," offers Hesketh, who’s had Ellie Goulding, Music Go Music, and Marina and the Diamonds on repeat lately. She says that timidity doesn’t bleed into the formation of such delectable nuggets as the Madonna-esque "Stuck on Repeat" and the Telepathe-like "Mathematics," which sees Hesketh winningly rhyming Fibonacci with Pythagoras while entreating, "But the only formula I know will work for us / Is that when we’re together in the sum of our parts / It’s far greater than what we added up to at the start."

That juxtaposition of every-girl vulnerability is full frontal on Hesketh’s solo electric piano version of "Stuck on Repeat," one of the most popular of her DIY, laptop-made videos. Flanneled shoulder to camera, hair dark and bushy, in Paul Frank monkey jammies, she sings to herself — and to the Webcam — in a way that makes one think that you and Hesketh are sharing an intimate moment, much like meeting Lily Allen via MySpace, and peering through a tiny window into her world. But even good things must end. "I don’t do [those videos] anymore," Hesketh says flatly. "I did them a lot, so it’s a bit boring. but yeah, it definitely helped as a way to get exposure. Now I’m kind of having a break from them and doing something new." Namely performing throughout the U.S., in the flesh: these Boots walk onto the Fillmore stage March 9.


With Class Actress and Dragonette

Tues/9, 8 p.m., $15–$20


1805 Geary, SF



Where Fairport Convention meets Fleetwood Mac, the Denton, Texas, band convenes for its sublime new The Courage of Others (Bella Union). With Matthew and the Arrogant Sea. Thurs/4, 9 p.m., $16–<\d>$18. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF.


It’ll be a hoot when the SF psych-drone nature boys cavort with the Lungfish savant. With Carlton Melton and Electric Jellyfish. Fri/5, 9:30 p.m., $7. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF.

Education of a felon


FILM Filmmaker Jacques Audiard has described his new film, A Prophet, as “the anti-Scarface.” Yet why do this gripping, gritty feat of moviemaking — tutored though not neutered by the schools of grim social realism and grimy magical realism — that disservice? Why deny this heartfelt yet tough-minded entry into the prisonsploitation ranks of Cool Hand Luke (1967), Papillon (1973), and HBO’s Oz?

A Prophet‘s forebears are couched in the lyrics of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” and Bertolt Brecht’s “Mack the Knife” (Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s version wheezes warmly over the final credits) and lurk in the memoirs of Edward Bunker and Jean Genet, rather than in the Grand Guignol fantasy of a snow-blind Al Pacino introducing us to his little friend. Yet much like Scarface (1983), A Prophet bottles the heady euphoria that chases the empowerment of the powerless and the rise of the long-shot loner on the margins — permutations of the capitalist success story and odes to hard-working individualism familiar to, say, Michael Mann fans. Still, that swirl of programmatic referents shouldn’t discount the inspired rigor of A Prophet, which — in its almost-Dickensian attention to detail, devotion to its own narrative complexity, and passion for cinematic poetry — rises above the ordinary and, through the prism of genre, finds its own power.

The supremely opportunistic, pragmatically Machiavellian intellectual and spiritual education of a felon is the chief concern of A Prophet. Played by Tahar Rahim with the guileless open-faced charisma reminiscent of River’s Edge-era Keanu Reeves (though Rahim is more agile and pliable than the reserved Reeves), Malik is half-Arab and half-Corsican — and distrusted or despised by both camps in the pen. When he lands in jail for his six-year sentence, he’s 19, illiterate, friendless, and vulnerable enough to get his shoes snatched straight off his feet his first day in the yard. His deal with the devil — and means of survival — arrives with Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), temporarily locked up before his testifies against the mob. Corsican boss Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup, who resembles a scary, sketchy Father Christmas) wants him dead, and Malik, loudly propositioned by the would-be stoolie in the showers, is tagged to penetrate Reyeb’s defenses, namely his cell, with a blade hidden in mouth.

The bittersweet irony is that the man Malik must kill, at the risk of being killed himself, seemingly turns out to be the first to show him any kindness. During their brief, bloody tryst, the cultured Reyeb advises his assassin to educate himself behind bars, offering him gifts of books. And after Malik’s gory rebirth, as first a protected, contemptible serf serving the Corsicans, it turns out that the teenager’s a seer in more ways than one. From his low-dog position, he can eyeball the connections linking the drugs entering the prison to those circulating outside, as well as the machinations intertwining the Arab and Corsican syndicates — just as he happens to see, and confide in, the dead Reyeb, too. It’s no shock that when Cesar finds his power eroding and arranges prison leaves for his down-low, multilingual crossover star that Malik serves not only his Corsican master, but also his own interests, and begins to build a drug empire rivaling his teacher’s.

Throughout his pupil’s progress, Audiard demonstrates a way with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment, and when Malik finally breaks with his Falstaffian, castrating patriarch, it makes your heart skip a beat in a move akin to the title of the director’s last film. It’s like several other exquisitely imperishable scenes in A Prophet: a sequence that aims for the chaotic, sensuous intercourse of a close-range shoot-out; the image of a sacrificial deer arcing through the air; the sight of Malik, awkward in a business suit, taking his first plane ride; a vision of a fragile rainbow coalition of crime. This Eurozone/Obama-age prophet is all about the profit — Malik is a biracial, border-crossing player who has translated his survival skills into power-grabbing opportunity — but here he’s imbued with grace, even while gaming for ill-gotten gain.

A PROPHET opens Fri/5 in Bay Area theaters.

Foam, creams, Commis, and me


Oh, Commis, why couldn’t you have been holding down your current patch of Piedmont Avenue when I was spending much of my time in a teensy one-bedroom nearby? Then I could have swung by and experienced your wonderful food on a regular basis, that much sooner.

Here in this spare, elegant, moderne space, you get a three-course prix fixe, period — but what an often fabulous fix to be in. On a recent evening, I got to sample the dishes that earned Oakland native chef James Syhabout — a veteran of renowned molecular gastro epicenters El Bulli, the Fat Duck, and Mugaritz, as well as Coi and Manresa — a Michelin star. It’s the only one in the East Bay apart from Chez Panisse’s — and you can see, and taste, why the inspector was seduced.
The meal unfolded with a housemade soda and amuse-bouche: this time it was a light and lovely hibiscus and lime soda. The amuse-bouche: a much-commented-on regular that wittily mimicked a poached egg but subbed the white for an onion puree with a sprinkling of granola — it was a kind of unveiling, a brief tribute to breakfast, and you immediately yearned for more.

I coveted my neighbor’s incredibly complex, flavorful cabbage soup, poured over with a green garlic custard. It was much more interesting than my own appetizer: sweetbreads that were rich and meaty but not intriguing enough to surpass the soup. My entree, however, was all mine, thankfully: the duck, rare slices and shredded sections from the leg, was utterly delicious and perched on a bitter counterpoint of pureed parsnip. Black cherries and arugula offered small explosions of sweet and peppery flavor. I could take a pass on my savory dessert of warm Carmody cheese on a kind of pastry, accompanied by still more arugula — instead I would have gladly tucked away my dining companions’ delightful, refreshing panna cotta and chocolate tile with vanilla ice cream and yet more signature crunchy bits. The absinthe gelee made the perfect little finish. All said, Commis is challenging — as befitting Syhabout’s time with chefs like Ferdinand Adria (read: foam alert) — intense in its flavors and whimsical in its textures, at moments incredibly delicious, and an actual bargain at $59, judging from the epicurean ride you’re taken on.

3859 Piedmont Ave., Oakl.
(510) 653-3902

Noise Pop 2010: Magnetic Fields at the Fox


Spare but touching, playful yet perched oh-so-formally on chairs with music and notes on hand, accomplished and unafraid of the occasional sour or dissonant note. Yep, that’s the Magnetic Fields.

The ensemble had the sold-out mob in their precious paws on Feb. 27 at Fox Theater — from opener “Lindy-Lou,” off the 6th’s Hyacinths and Thistles to “Falling in Love with the Wolfboy” to a haunting version of “Acoustic Guitar.” “Yes,” yowled one fan when the group announced “I Don’t Want to Get Over You.” Even the group’s “B” set (the “A” set list will be performed at the March 1 Herbst show) was, as Claudia Gonson put it, teeming with “awesomeness.”

The combo could do no wrong — magnetism worked in its favor, though you got the impression that the band was still working out the kinks, still psychically at the start of their tour. They were a bit casual, a bit messy — Stephin Merritt sticking to ukulele and Gonson pointing up helpfully when she’d try and miss that exact right high note.
Overall it was lesser-known player Shirley Simms on autoharp and sweet, sweet vocals that particularly plucked at audience heartstrings. Meanwhile guitarist John Woo and cellist Sam Davol kept it the melodies in line admirably, and Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler lurked in the deep background, on squeezing out small, subtle textures on the accordion.

And why pick any nits when the songs’ sheer wit were capable of withered all reservations away. Off-key instances, off-kilter jokes about child prostitution, and such wonderfully right-on songs — in the end, the pleasure was ours, warts and all.

Noise Pop 2010: Scout Niblett, Sonny and the Sunsets at Cafe du Nord


More impressions of Noise Pop, comin’ right up.

Blame it on a lingering head cold but I was bummed that I had to skulk off before Citay took the stage on Feb. 25 at Cafe du Nord. I got there just in time for Niblett, however: the Portland, Ore., performer was a solo powerhouse, conjuring estrogen-fueled might with a plaintive wail and some blissfully crunchy riffs for a packed house. At the risk of waxing rockist, I only wished it were even louder and harder.

The next day Sonny and the Sunsets hit the sweet spot at Cafe du Nord with some great garage rock. Why aren’t we all listening to “Death Cream” and “Stranded” on some fantastic, nonexistent radio station? And how much more fun can this Sonny Smith project — part Kelley Stoltz band, part Citay, part Fresh and Onlys — get? Smith’s songs hark to some of my favorite veins of ‘50s sentimental pop and ‘70s dirty rock, and with this lineup the stars appear to be aligned. Need more proof? The back of the room was riddled with girls dancing among themselves, swaying to the music.

The Growlers — sprawling and shaggy, with plentiful volume — had the misfortune of following S&S, but don’t feel to sorry for them. A good portion of the crowd — supporters and family, no doubt? — bellied up to the front to document the proceedings.

Noise Pop 2010: Yoko Ono and Deerhoof at the Fox


Noise Pop — the quality sounds and sonic surprises always amaze, no matter how few or many shows you catch.

I didn’t get to gawk at as much as I’d like, considering I was suffering from a bad case of the sniffles. Still, Yoko Ono, live with the Plastic Ono Band on Feb. 23 at Fox Theater, was nothing to sniff at.

Deerhoof opened with a softer, more subdued set than usual. The Bay Area faves seemed a mite overwhelmed by the big room and opulent surroundings: drummer-founder Greg Saunier said as much as he pondered how “pretty” the venue is. Nevertheless the combo quickly gained steam and confidence, as Satomi Matsuzaki twirled, danced, and gestured on the side of the stage and the entire group switched instruments and uncharacteristically tackled a few covers (the Ramones’ “Pinhead” and Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country,” the latter dovetailing perfectly with Saunier’s ethereal falsetto). I like my Deerhoof louder, in a more intimate venue, but the band was the perfect choice to prep the audience for Ono.
The lady herself contextualized her place in pop and conceptual art: a video montage unfurled a lengthy, select overview of her career. When she finally arrived onstage, yes, she screeched, yowled, chattered, and generated more noise than melody. Those vocables are some of her major contributions to the rock canon — and her ooh’s, aaach’s, and howls sounded just as challenging today, if more familiar to ears trained to the ‘00s underground.

There were quiet elegiac moments, in the form of, for instance, the beautiful new “Higa Noboru,” as Ono slipped easily into chanteuse mode and son Sean Lennon accompanying her on piano. The ace Plastic Ono Band tackled a good share of Ono’s latest album, **Between My Head and the Sky** — tracks like “Healing, “Waiting for the D Train,” and “The Sun Is Down” — throwing in a fabulously playful cartoon video and a turn by virtual reality pioneer, writer, and composer Jaron Lanier on Laotian flute, sitar, and shakuhachi.

Lennon said he met Lanier as a 10-year-old and marveled then at how many instruments Lanier knew how to play. “Jaron said the key to learning so many instruments is to believe time doesn’t exist,” quipped Lennon.

And Plastic Ono Band’s rendition of “Death of Samantha” and “Mind Train” made time stand still in the best way possible. The former, a bittersweet rocker that ended with Ono standing stock-still at center stage, was played for the second time live (the first was at the Plastic Ono Band performance in NYC earlier in February), and the latter was likely the highlight of the evening, mesmerizing with its free-floating, unfurling **Bitches Brew**-style funk.

The finale or second encore began with an Onochord flash-along: tiny disposable flashlights marked with the date and venue were left on at our seats at the start of the show, ready to flicker “I love you” in code toward the stage. But the “Give Peace a Chance” sing-along with Petra Haden and Deerhoof soon eclipsed even that. Sloppy, ragged, moving — it was the icing on the cake. We piled onto the BART, storm or no storm, feeling struck by lightning and energized by what we had just witnessed.

Snap Sounds: ApSci



Best Crisis Ever

(Quannum Projects)

Kudos go out for the NYC-Australian ApSci for not so much keeping it real but plenty surreal. The hip-hop-electro duo takes it further out on their second Quannum full-length — and into a motor-mouthed, frantic future.

Collaborators Dana Diaz-Tutaan amd Raphael LaMotta dive into spastic wavo bop (“Under Control,” “Cubic Zirconia”), Lady Gaga-esque pop (“Crazy Crazy Insane,” “Let’s RIP the Town Up”), and broody raps (“Afford Me This Poetry”), with a brief sidetrip(-hop) to old-school REM (“Swan Swan H”). The overall effect equals banging fun, while retaining a palpable sense of the personal. And long may the drama continue at Camp ApSci.

Snap Sounds: Kammerflimmer Kollektief




(Staubgold, released March 2)

At first sonic glimmer, Germany’s Kammerflimmer Kollektief wax too softly, too New Agedly to stir many passions apart from recollections of browsing self-help bookstores and listening a mite too closely to the soundtrack of a massage.
But this gently unfolding, boldly meditative recording by Thomas Weber, Heike Aumuller, and Johannes Frisch (Weber’s initial bedroom-recording project, which later morphed into a sixpiece collective, has found its latest, likely most efficient incarnation as a threesome) manages to harness a quiet power — consolidated with mere piano, double bass, synthesizer, guitar, electronics, and harmonium — in service of something far much more insinuating than most music that purports to rock. Numbers like “There’s a Crack in Everything” build with a cunning care that seems designed to explode into some sort of shattered noise free-fall, yet that never quite happens in Kammerflimmer Kollektief’s universe — and Wildling is all the better for its makers’ lack of artifice.

Sing, spelunker, sing


SONIC REDUCER How many degrees of separation can be charted between the soulful, indie-folk natural men of the Cave Singers and the cut, tanned, laundered, and pugnacious bruisers and thugettes of Jersey Shore? Way fewer than you, or Snooki, would think.

“I’m all about it. It runs in my veins,” says Cave Singer Pete Quirk from downtown Seattle, taking a lunch break from his toils as a bike messenger and struggling to be heard above the din of jackhammers and a seemingly invisible, stalking squeeze-box player. He grew up on the shore, albeit on a more rustic stretch, which fostered mischievous fun like pool-hopping rather than cop car riding. “I’ve only seen the commercials, and I was so frightened by it. I got a glimpse of a guy punching a girl — so horrific.” Still, he adds, “Things seem a little less dramatic when you’re a kid. It wouldn’t be on TV if it wasn’t overblown.”

Of course, who knows what sort of reality show would focus on the Cave Singers, though the group’s origins could read like the stuff of potentially high drama considering songwriters Derek Fudesco, ex of Pretty Girls Make Graves and Murder City Devils, and Quirk, once of Hint Hint, share the same house — best friend-style, not Surreal Life-style. (Drummer Marty Lund, formerly of Cobra High, bunks elsewhere.) “People would fall in love with us, you know,” speculates Quirk, 34, gamely. “We’re just three lovable guys cruising around the country. It’s like that movie 3 Men and a Baby — just no baby. Music is the baby.” Quirk would like to be the Tom Selleck of that bunch. “But I’d probably Steve Guttenberg. But Guttenberg is cool because he’s down to earth.”

That’s an asset for these beach-, cave-, and nature-loving nu-folkies, who dive deeply into a breast-beating, witchy breed of acoustic rock on their brighter, more upbeat second long-player, Welcome Joy (Matador, 2009). A fleet of frisky, Feelies-like rhythm guitars drone with infectious optimism on “I Don’t Mind,” transmogrifying into kick-off-your-shoes pop bliss for “W” and the plucky, clickety-clack climax of “Hen of the Woods,” before taking it down a few gleaming notches for a bongo-laced, incantatory “Shrine.” The arc of Welcome Joy‘s tracks is crucial, miming the passage of a fiery orb across a midyear sky.

Why such joy? “We all went to therapy together like Metallica, y’know,” quips Quirk. But really, folks, Quirk qualifies, “we always sit around, and Derek will play a guitar line, and we’ll just be jamming, and it will bring up a cinematic image, and we’ll go with that. A lot of the songs at the time seemed joyful, for whatever reason. It seemed like there was a lot of beach imagery, or just youthful things we remembered doing in the past.”

It’s all organic down in the Fudesco and Quirk basement, where they practice and demo, decorate and sing freely, as Quirk puts it. There’s safety in that man cave — and in this band, apparently. “We’re best friends and housemates,” Quirk offers, amid the city clamor and chatter of kids with petitions. “We’re each other’s second wives or something — we help each other when we’re down. It’s like a Rotary Club down there.”


With the Dutchess and the Duke and the Moondoggies

March 9, 8 p.m., $12–$14


628 Divisadero, SF



Speedy’s Wig City cashes in with the seventh annual event showcasing Glen Earl Brown Jr., the B Stars, the Royal Deuces, Big B and His Snake Oil Saviors, the Mystery Men, Whiskey Pills Fiasco, and Misisipi Mike and the Country Squires. Thurs/25, 8 p.m., $10. Knockout, 3223 Mission, SF.



Double Leopards diva Marcia Bassett serves up metal-flake No Fun noise candy alongside electronic dreamweaver Christelle Gualdi. With Vodka Soap and Bill Orcutt. Thurs/25, 9 p.m., $7. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF.



“Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Steinbeck, and South Asian exotica are a few of the touchstones for ex-Concretes vocalist Victoria Bergsman. With El Perro Del Mar. Tues/2, 9 p.m., $15. Café Du Nord, 2170 Market, SF.

Snap Sounds: Elephant9



Walk the Nile

(Rune Grammofon)

Norwegian power trio Elephant9 lays on the acid-laced, “wildly cavorting in fields of fusion” prog — light on the kraut and pop, more in tune with the jazz — on their second long-player, Walk the Nile.

The focus here is the Hammond organ, rising above the group’s furious improvisations and unpredictable tonal shifts. Keyboardist Stale Storlokken (Supersilent), drummer Torstein Lofthus (Shining), and bassist Nikolai Eilertsen (National Bank) rove through such varied jams as the manic, Melt Banana-eesh “Hardcore Orientale” and the more ruminative, slow-building “Habanera Rocket,” like it’s the most natural thing in their wild kingdom. Long may these Scandinavian powers roam.

Snap Sounds: The Bundles



The Bundles

(K, March 9 release)

“Don’t forget about your friends!” pleads Kimya Dawson from the thick of her new down-low supergroup of anti-folk pals and other rough ‘n’ ready types.

Raw rhymes and undercutting quips are the order of the day for Dawson, Jeffrey Lewis, Jack Lewis, and Anders Griffen when they gathered at the Dub Narcotic Studios in Olympia, Wash., last year under the watchful, playful eye of Karl Blau, who ended up joining in for the fun. “The cowboys and the punkers,” howls Dawson, “the fuckers that I conquered!” — all are welcome for these humble and hummable, rambunctious sing-alongs, which evoke both primitive skiffle and rockabilly combos as well as kindred K DIY-ers. The witty lyrics are the real joy here, though when the mellotron begins to wail and the tambourine, snare, and guitar starts to swirl, as they do on “Pirates Declare War,” you can see a long and fruitful coagulation, beyond easy quips and facile joke songs, ahead for the Bundles.

Approximately infinite, still


MUSIC The simplest, most singular words and images have always been Yoko Ono’s most potent artistic tools — depth charges designed for maximum impact, unexpected wit, and subtly change-inducing effect. And though words like “empowerment” feel too tapped-out to draw from the same power source as Ono-connected words like “yes” (the title of the retrospective that opened a new generation’s eyes to the woman too long associated with her late husband John Lennon), it’s outright empowering to see the septuagenarian Ono continuing to harness the same intuitive courage that led her to create 1960s performance art works like Cut Piece (1964).

Exhibit one: A Hole (2009) — a plate of glass pierced with a bullet hole, beneath which are the instructions “A HOLE GO TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE GLASS AND SEE THROUGH THE HOLE” — on display in December at Gallery 360 in Tokyo. Playing off the image of holes that recurs in her work — and nodding to the title phrase’s femme-y glory and, er, half-assed curse — Ono entreats us to look at gun violence from both the shooter’s and the victim’s perspectives, while clearly harking to Lennon’s shooting death.

It’s a startling window — or portal, much like the tunnel to the Dakota where Lennon was killed — leading back to one of the darkest periods of Ono’s life. “There are so many windows like that in the world now,” Ono says by phone, surprisingly girlish-sounding on the edge of 77 and her Feb. 18 birthday, and off-the-cuff (“We can wing it — come on!” she urges, when I bring up that her people asked to see my questions). “One is the shot, one is the hole that you see when you’re shooting, and the other is the hole that you see when you’re shot!”

Ono’s mind is clearly on her February NYC Plastic Ono Band shows, which will include original members and big-wiggies like Eric Clapton and Klaus Voormann, as well as wildly disparate successors such as Scissor Sisters and Kim Gordon. (Plastic Ono Band’s plastic lineup includes son Sean Lennon, Cornelius, and Yuka Honda when it tops Noise Pop on Feb. 23.) But the thought of A Hole is obviously still charged for her.

At first she didn’t recognize it as a piece triggered by Lennon’s killing. “At the time there were four shots — that was for my husband. Then, I think — I don’t know if it was intentional or not — but the idea was to first get John and then get me, too. So when I was going around the door [at the Dakota at the time of Lennon’s shooting], I saw the glass made a hole, and a hole toward me. But luckily, the angle of the bullet didn’t come at me.

“It’s amazing, you know,” she continues with a sigh. “For the longest time I was creating canvases with a hole to see the sky. Then suddenly I didn’t want to do another hole to see the sky. I thought, ‘OK, why don’t I do a glass with a hole-way — and I didn’t connect it with John’s death at all. I was just thinking about all the holes that are made by shooting people in the world now. There are so many wars. Then I realized it might be coming from that experience.”

Few can face their most horrific moments and darkest fears and make art from them — and amid a decade-shift of such uncertainty, the time is now to look to Ono’s bravery under the burn of the spotlight. In response to the sexism, violence, and hatred she’s encountered, she continues to ply her own unique, unabashed voice, influenced by Kabuki and traditional Japanese music. Her page-size ads announcing “War Is Over! / If You Want It” appear even now in weeklies like this one. She still makes music and art in the face of the boos and hisses she’s caught from backward Beatles fans who think of her as the “ugly Jap” who broke up the band of lovable mop-tops.

Exhibit two: Ono’s latest album, Between My Head and the Sky (Chimera, 2009), her first release working with the name Plastic Ono Band since 1975’s Shaved Fish (Apple). Plastic Ono Band is a name Lennon dreamed up when told about an Ono performance utilizing four plastic stands with tape recorders in them. The loose gathering of rock cohorts — encompassing not only Clapton and Voormann but also the Who’s Keith Moon, Billy Preston, Yes’ Alan White, and Phil Spector — is a precursor to that utopian, gang-of-like-minded-friends quality embedded in so many experimental rock ensembles today.

Lennon and Ono’s son — and Ono’s current music director — Sean Lennon suggested resurrecting the project. “Sean said, ‘Mommy, would you mind if we record as Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band? Bring up Plastic Ono Band again!” Ono recalls. “<0x2009>’Why do we do that? You want to do that?’ I said, and I thought about it and thought the reason why I was blocking that name was because John and I used it and, I mean, John thought of it, and for me. And when John passed away, I just blocked it, you know.”

“The thing is, many people are, like, ‘Are you kidding? You don’t do it with your son! You just don’t do it — it’s just the most difficult thing to do,'” Ono continued. “And I got a bit scared. I said, ‘Oh, dear, did I say anything I shouldn’t have?’ But my position was right. I didn’t have any problem about it, and it just worked out very well.” The album does stand out among Ono’s shockingly deep discography. It embraces elegiac acoustic beauty and poetry (“Memory of Footsteps”), playful and still-surprisingly sexy funk (“Ask the Elephant”), and ambient experiments (“CALLING”) that recall her most brilliant avant rock recordings, à la Fly (Apple, 1971), in addition to her call-outs to the dance-floor (“Walking on Thin Ice”).

The key, Ono believes, is that Sean listened to everything by his mother and father, as well as the Beatles. “He knows all of them, but not in the way that most fans just listen to something. Because he’s a musician, he knows the intro, the bars, the what-comes-next kind of thing musically, very well. So if I say, ‘Why don’t we do it something between “Why” and “Mind Train”? He’s, like, ‘OK.’ So it’s very, very good that way. Our creative conversation didn’t start from scratch. It started from all the knowledge that he had of my music, you know.”

Sean’s studies take on an air less of filial obedience than newfound respect when one considers the last time he collaborated with his mother, on Rising (Capital, 1995). “He was 17 and he was a very different animal then,” Ono says chuckling. “Luckily, he’s grown up to be a very unique and talented musician. But in those days … I went with him and his band — and it was a bit difficult. You know, just 17, and they were very cocky. They really felt like they were doing a favor for me! Of course, I just wanted to give Sean a musical experience.”

As gratifying as it is to see Sean and younger generations finally appreciating her work, Ono continues to be propelled by other forces. Despite her well-documented activities, including seeing to the licensing of Lennon’s music for products like last year’s The Beatles: Rock Band game, she still jots down ideas for new artwork and song lyrics. “It’s my security blanket” she explains matter-of-factly. “In a sense, without art or music or being able to express myself that way, I would have died a long time ago, I’m sure.

“You see, I think music is a very important thing for the world, and I just want to cover the world with music and art,” she continued. “I think art — meaning art with a capital A, is the thing that can really bring change in the world,” Ono muses. “Politicians don’t have much respect for art — that’s why they just ignore it — and we can just do whatever we want in a way, through that kind of situation where there’s a big hole. They think we’re not powerful, so they just ignore us — that’s where we can do all sorts of things and change the world.” 


With Deerhoof

Feb. 23, 8 p.m., $39.50

Fox Theater

1807 Telegraph, Oakl.

Snap Sounds: Scene of Action



20 Minute Hourglass


San Francisco needs its own Stone Temple Pilots, no? One with a good dose of Killers sprightliness?

Scene of Action may satisfy. The second EP by the local group with a dullsville name shows off highly polished alt-rock replete with big guitars, boffo NIN-style beats, and loud orchestrations designed for major Evanescence-esque drama. The occasional tender harmony even surfaces on “What’s a Boy to Do.” Commercial, yes — with a dash of eccentricity that just might get them noticed beyond the 20-minute showcase set.


Lip-smacking kalbi burrito action at John’s Snacks and Deli


You didn’t even know you needed a kimchi taco till you began to hear about those trucks down in LA, didja? Sure, Namu at the Ferry Building delivers the Korea-Mex goods on Thursdays, but what about every other day of the week?

There’s absolutely no place to sit at John’s: it’s essentially a bodega with the teeny behind-the-counter operation that makes Yamo look like a kitchen stadium. Still, you can get all kinds of delectable pan-Korean specials to go. I haven’t tried the kimchi bulgogi hot dog or the soon doobu tofu stew or the japchae noodle yet, but I have dug the kimchi soft taco with bulgogi beef and sauteed kimchi and its messy, saucy goodness. The kalbi burrito comes with a deep pocket of fresh lettuce and salsa, crunchy and crisp amid the kimchi-flavored rice and savory hunks of short rib.

So is it authentic? Well, is a burrito real Mexican cuisine, hombre? I’ll leave those worries to the purists and instead concentrate on these getting the maximum amount of kimchi from my foil-wrapped snack into my waiting maw.

John’s Snack and Deli
40 Battery, SF
(415) 434-4634

Film Pick: “Terribly Happy”


The Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) is the obvious corollary for this coolly humorous Danish import, though director/co-writer Henrik Ruben Genz’s firmly dampened-down thriller of sorts is also touched by David Lynch’s parochial surrealism and Aki Kaurismäki’s backwater puckishness.

Happy isn’t quite the word for handsome, seemingly upstanding cop Jakob (Robert Hansen), reassigned from the big city of Copenhagen to a tiny village in South Jutland. There he slowly learns that the insular and self-sufficient locals are accustomed to fixing problems on their own and that cows, trucks, and other troubles have a way of conveniently disappearing into the bog. When buxom blonde Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen) whispers to him that her husband Jørgen (Kim Bodnia) beats her, Jakob begins to find his moral ground slipping away from him — while his own dark secrets turn out to be not so secret after all. More of a winkingly paranoid, black-hearted comedy about the quicksand nature of provincial community and small-town complicity than a genuine murder mystery, Terribly Happy wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but that doesn’t stop this attractively-shot production from amusing from start to finish, never tarrying too long to make a point that it gets mired in the bog that swallows all else.

Bonus Danish poster:

Snap Sounds: Lord Newborn and the Magic Skulls



Lord Newborn and the Magic Skulls


What sort of magical concoction do you get when you mix SF skater and musicmaker Tommy Guerrero with LA keyboard jock and Beastie Boys player Money Mark?

The extravagantly named Lord Newborn and the Magic Skulls, which gets an equal assist from Shawn Lee of Clutchy Hopkins. Sweet soul-dappled psychedelia is at the root of Lord Newborn’s fresh sound, awash with juicy jets of foggy prog and low-rider funk. No stupor-group they — I dug the moody meanderings chugging out of this disc long before I actually got a gander at the credits. Consider this the best album from all concerned of late — or just ignore the names and pretend this is a down-low, late-‘60s Latin rock-soul-jazz gem dug from grammy’s crate.

Check out the video for “A Phase Shifter I’m Going Through”

which is a bit of a slacker parody of Kutiman‘s still-mindbending “The Mother of All Funk Chords”


Even Steven


FILM The beautifully complexioned Michael Cera is giving him a run for the scratcher bucks, but I continue to believe in Steve Buscemi as the patron saint of geeks everywhere. Still as bug-eyed and teeth-chatteringly anxious as a terminally neurotic pug — and now slightly thinner of hair and skinnier of bod — Buscemi has been bringing a ravenously hungry Ichabod Crane air to his portraits of suburban angst lately, last witnessed in Youth in Revolt, as Cera’s pop in the throes of a midlife crisis. You didn’t question Buscemi’s pressure-cooker rage at his cinematic offspring’s budding rebellion: he’s been there and done that, man — and darn if he’ll put up with it from his revolting kid.

That cameo was far too brief, so luckily along comes Saint John of Las Vegas to give Buscemi-philes a good long, yummy drink of our nerd overlord. His goofy Mr. Pink anti-cool has weathered nicely into a finely wrinkled facsimile of those nicotine-stained, pompadoured and comb-overed casino codgers you can find dug in on Vegas’ Fremont Street.

John’s a gambler fed up with the long odds and late nights, running from a vaguely sketchy past, so he has decided to consciously choose the straight path. "I never had a desk job before, but I watched it on TV," goes the opening voice-over. Read: a solid cubicle job at an auto insurance company. Breaks in the off-white monotony are spent flirting with sexy coworker Jill (Sarah Silverman) who has a penchant for slapping smiley faces on everything from her file folders to her fingernails. Apparently John isn’t the only one determined to put a happy face on life.

After summoning the courage to make a play for a raise (and Jill), John is enlisted by his tough little man of a boss (Peter Dinklage) to become a fraud inspector. He’s placed under the tutelage of Virgil (Romany Malco of Weeds) — this is, after all, very, very loosely based a certain Divine Comedy. Off our would-be pals go on John’s tryout case, Virgil aloof and knowing and John empathizing with the many quirky characters they encounter: a naked militant (Tim Blake Nelson) here and a circus performer with an out-of-hand flame suit (John Cho) there.

When their journey ends, you can’t help but be disappointed because you really don’t want this sweet-natured first film by director-writer and onetime Silicon Valley hotshot Hue Rhodes to end. It’s such a treat to watch Buscemi work, pulling the spooky-tooth tics and rattled nerves out of his bag of mannerisms. And it’s fitting that he has arrived here, because from its star to its bit players, Saint John offers a gentle Hail Mary to the usually less-than-visible guys and gals in the cameos.

SAINT JOHN OF LAS VEGAS opens Fri/12 in Bay Area theaters.

Burn notice


SONIC REDUCER Eat your veggies. Don’t play in traffic. Follow your intuition, a.k.a. your muse. Judge a superstar by her voice not her frump factor. And watch for low-flying planets.

Words to heed, if not live by, since we seem to be reading the well-worn wrinkles and begging for guidance from musical wise women — pillars amid the sky-shattering winter storms, as health-care reform gets severely shaken and everyone ducks those flying shards of survival anxiety. We look to Patti Smith at Herbst, holding forth with gravity, grace, and acceptance, or even Susan Boyle, warbling like a songbird, stylist or no. So it’s an unexpected pleasure to cop a healing, soothing teacup of a chat with Scout Niblett, née Emma Louise, avid practitioner of astrology and maker of the beautifully raw new The Calcination of Scout Niblett (Drag City).

The U.K. native and onetime East Bay resident passes through town briefly for a Noise Pop show on Feb. 25 at Cafe Du Nord, and she has an astrology-informed perspective on the losses that marked the far-from-awesome recession of ’09-10 and the recent, seemingly endless processional of celebrity deaths: Saturn is squaring Pluto, an alignment that has particularly touched the Libra singer-songwriter, as well as unsuspecting others.

“I think people in general are still being affected by the tension in the sky,” says Niblett from her home in Portland, Ore. “We’re all going through it, but some of us are nailed on the head.” The effect for her: “It feels like I’m grieving for a life that I used to have or the person I used to be.”

As a result, Niblett dreamed up a series of songs like the corrosive “Strip Me Pluto,” a tune that, she explains, “is really to do with letting go of things, especially things that you think make up yourself and are completely attached to and identify with. In a sense that attachment causes you suffering, really. Learning to let go of things is your ticket to feeling better.”

“Don’t be scared, my child / It’s so clear tonight … I’m scared I’m not doing me right,” she wails on one shaved-raw track, “Ripe With Life,” under the recording ministrations of Shellac’s Steve Albini, as a stark, shark-like electric guitar twists and moans beneath a hollowed-out voice that recalls Cat Power, PJ Harvey, and the bluesmen — like John Lee Hooker — that Niblett loves. Much like the cover shot of Niblett waving and not drowning but bearing a menacing-looking blowtorch, the song comforts and unsettles, looks straight into the eye of fear. It’s a charm for troubled times.

For Niblett, the stars demanded more introspection on her fifth full-length. “I’ve noticed before that all the albums seemed to have these relationship-oriented songs, kind of celebrating my life through other people. This one wasn’t about that, but it was about me looking at myself, not with rose-colored glasses, but realistically and seeing things in my life that are dysfunctional.”

The cosmos also called for music in which “you can hear every single thing that’s happening,” and sounds that have been run through, as one track title puts it, an “IBD,” or Inner Bullshit Detector. Niblett will be testing at least one song further soon. In addition to giving a free chart reading as part of a forthcoming Drag City contest, she plans to offer 100 different versions of Calcination‘s title track on the label site, each numbered and available for download only once.

“My idea is to see how much the song will change after playing it that many times, kind of as an experiment for myself,” Niblett says. Unfortunately she’s only recorded 20 so far. “I kind of didn’t realize what I got myself into,” she exclaims. “Now I’ve started recording, and I’m like, ‘Omigod, what was I thinking?'”


Feb. 25, 8 p.m., $12–$14

Cafe Du Nord

2170 Market, SF



This Matador electro-rock combo coagulated from the Blood Brothers’ remains. Wed/3, 9:30 p.m., $5. Cafe Du Nord, 2174 Market, SF.


Bring out your beaniest for the second annual heavy metal chili cook-off and get serenaded by Hot Fog and ezeetiger. Sun/7, 1 p.m., free. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF.


Gillian Welch’s steady hand cranks out immaculately recorded, tender country rock in a ’70s-era backwoods-moderne flavor. Tues/9, 8 p.m., $25. Fillmore, 1805 Geary, SF.

Slow burn: The Clientele lights ‘Bonfires on the Hearth’


Bonfires on the Hearth

By Kimberly Chun

“Charmed, I’m sure,” you wanna mutter humbly as the guitar vamps enter sparkling and B-3 commences humming on “I Wonder Who We Are,” the opening track of the Clientele’s latest, Bonfires on the Hearth. Less purple-shaded and melancholy than 2003’s The Violet Hour (Merge), less hard-cornered and haunted than 2005’s Strange Geometry, and further embellished with sitar drone and autumnal brass, Bonfires shows the London band still tucked into its distinct universe, a nook of ‘60s-wracked pop that’s nostalgic but never truly derivative. It’s mood music that finds its strength in softness.

Sonic Reducer Overage: Prefuse 73, Mates of State, and more


The way to prep yourself for more rain — go out a lot.

Mates of State
The once-SF based Kori Gardner and Jason Hummel Re-Arrange themselves and land at two different SF spots in one fell swoop. With the Red Wine Boys and John Hodgman. Sun/31, 8 p.m., $25 advance. Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. (415) 820-9669. Also Mon/1, 8 p.m., $20. Cafe du Nord, 2170 Market, S.F. (415) 861-5016.

By Kimberly Chun

The way to prep yourself for more rain — go out a lot.

Mates of State
The once-SF based Kori Gardner and Jason Hummel Re-Arrange themselves and land at two different SF spots in one fell swoop. With the Red Wine Boys and John Hodgman. Sun/31, 8 p.m., $25 advance. Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. (415) 820-9669. Also Mon/1, 8 p.m., $20. Cafe du Nord, 2170 Market, S.F. (415) 861-5016.

Oh Captain, My Captain
The Portland, Ore., indie-rock it sweetly past the point of no return. With the Burning of Rome and the Aimless Never Miss. Sun/31, 9 p.m., $6. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. (415) 923-0923.

Nevermint (Grand Lake) from Bob Thayer on Vimeo.

Grand Lake
Oakland is for lovers — and these lake-lubber indies, playing this SF Indie Fest date. With Two Sheds, Fake Your Own Death, and kuma/koshka. Tues/2, 8:30 p.m., $10. Thee Parkside, 1600 17th St., SF. (415) 503-0393.

Freedom breakfast: French toast — not just Wonder Bread anymore



bananas foster boulevard cafe sm 013010.jpg
Dusted: Bananas foster french toast at Boulevard Cafe. Photo by Kimberly Chun.

Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s just the rain, or maybe it’s just breakfast, but French toast has been looking pretty damn good lately. Especially when you’re a wild bruncher like moi. Et vous? If you’re in agreement, get that sweet tooth tout suite to Toast Eatery in Noe Valley and Boulevard Cafe in Daly City.

You gotta be a butter fan to dig Toast’s croissant french toast. It’s a squashed, egg-battered, fried mound of sweet breadiness. Love it or leave it. You don’t get anything else — not even a fruit garnish. The butteriness can get overwhelming, but then all that creamy stuff didn’t seem to do Julia Child much harm.

Even better, the bananas foster french toast at Boulevard Cafe, perched on the edge of John Daly Boulevard off the Highways 280 and 1 interchange. Whipped cream, thick Texas Toast-y bread, lots of caramelized bananas, and cinnamon, girl. A bonus: No wait since Boulevard has to be one of the hugest diners in the Bay, in a midcentury-space-age building that jives perfectly with the ‘burby delights of the City of Daly. Free parking makes it a last-minute must for all those kids tired of circling Valencia Street in vain.

1748 Church, SF
(415) 282-4328

2 Poncetta, Daly City
(650) 755-3400

All together now


SONIC REDUCER What do you get when you mix air and earth, combine boisterous and baroque exuberance and densely layered yet bouncily buoyant guitars, incorporate baby Scorpions with full-blown ELO?

Voila, you just ordered Citay, the city’s musical mega-maximalists — now jumpier, rockin’-er, and more exhilarating than ever, judging from the sound of the new ‘un from this fab fantasy confab of Bay Area music-makers, Dream Get Together (Dead Oceans), all united under the imagination of one man: songwriter and guitarist Ezra Feinberg.

“I love the first album [Important/Frenetic, 2006], and I love Little Kingdom [Dead Oceans, 2007]. But whenever I listen to Little Kingdom, I’d think, God, this is sooo mellow,” drawls the chatty Feinberg by phone as he maneuvers between the raindrops and tollbooths, making his way to, sorry, the citay by the Bay. “I don’t really feel like I’m this mellow. This doesn’t feel like me. So in a sense, it’s just been a more honest record. This record is more excitable, and I’m more excitable than Little Kingdom.”

Picture a well-attuned supergroup of SF musicians like Warren Huegel (Tussle), Josh Pollock (Daevid Allen’s University of Errors), Diego Gonzalez (3 Leafs), Sean Smith, and Tahlia Harbour — a dream get-together, if you will — woven together and levitating blissfully, beneath the intense gaze of Feinberg and longtime collaborator Tim Green (Fucking Champs) as they constructed the ornate “sonic architecture,” as Feinberg puts it, of Dream Get Together.

That edifice took a year to make — “I don’t churn it out,” Feinberg confesses — as the group assembled parts like the space-rock synth solo by Howlin’ Rain’s Josh Robinow, heard on “Hunter,” and flotillas of crazily interlocked, airborne guitars. (“I like a lot of what is considered to be pretty bloated and overly athletic 1980s heavy metal guitar playing,” Feinberg says.) Drummer Huegel turned to a full rock kit, in contrast to the last album, and the vocal harmonies came to the fore. The result: songs like the title track take classic rock as its starting point then swoop and soar and leave you shaking your shag, tucked in your party van, and marveling at the sound of a rippling guitar solo in flight. “I wanted to take Citay as it was known on the first two records and blow it up, set a grenade to the first two albums,” Feinberg muses. “It’s like the other albums went off their meds.”

The phrase Dream Get Together refers to a specific relationship, also the center of this collection of songs. “It’s about how difficult it can be if you have a fantasy of a relationship with somebody and it’s met with the reality of that other persona and the real relationship,” explains Feinberg. But it also nods to the dream community of musicians that Citay itself seems to have become — despite the issues of scheduling so many busy players (“Omigod, you have no idea,” the bandleader moans. “It’s a logistical nightmare”) — it’s the same idea, or dream, of supportive, collective art- or music-making that has inspired so many in recent years.

“Citay has become this solo project that also has aspects of a collective because there are so many people,” Feinberg observes. “We’re all friends, and we encompass so many bands in San Francisco — I think there’s something really ideal and beautiful at the heart of what Citay has become.”

Now if we can only get our dream on — together.


With Fruit Bats and Extra Classic

Fri/29, 9 p.m., $15


333 11th St., SF



Seventies-era Cali-rock was the starting point for the off-and-on-again-Oaklanders’ next-level To Realize (Lovepump Unlimited). With Late Young, White Cloud, and Raccoons. Fri/29, 9:30 p.m., $6. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF.


The Toronto post-rock thinkers make a rare appearance, toting the recent Other Truths (Constellation, 2009). With Happiness Project and Years. Tues/2, 8 p.m., $16. Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF.


Yes, mo’ super-heated Afro-rock-inspired awesomeness, pweeze. With the Actors. Tues/2, 9:30 p.m., $10–$12. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF.


Oh, say, can you see Kelley Stoltz, Ty Segall, and the Sandwitches joining with T.O.S. for this Stand with Haiti benefit. Tues/2, 9 p.m., $10–$50 sliding scale. Café Du Nord, 2170 Market, SF.

Post-apocalyptic post-irony


SONIC REDUCER Riddle me this, Indie Rocker: what happens when life kicks the nice, cozy crutch of irony out from under you? Where do you go the morning after cynicism, after tearing it all down and finding the ground crumbling below? The joke may be on guess who. And you’re not out of line to hear the latest albums by Magnetic Fields, Spoon, and Vampire Weekend as the equivalent of the apocalyptic scenarios cluttering nearby cinemas like The Road and The Book of Eli — post-crash-and-burn manifestations of the late-’00s that stare into the bombed-out, blank face of hopelessness.

Sure, it’s a postmodern dilemma, this crisis of what-next. The ’90s made it so easy to snark sourly — we were all in on the joke yet went for the money shot. The ’00s began with a dot-com crash and towers crumbling, and as prez-for-a-decade Duh-bya settled into terrorize the populace, it became easy to feel the sourness curdling into bitterness. How do you turn a brave face to the future when you were defined by knowing jadedness? Talking about you, Spoon, justifiably embittered by being wooed and ditched by Elektra Records. You, Magnetic Fields — too forbiddingly smart-ass to ever be “Seduced and Abandoned,” as the words of your new song go. And you, Vampire Weekend — seemingly constructed around the cynical premise of appropriating Afropop jangle by way of early childhood exposure of Graceland (Warner Bros., 1986). Which way out?

“Everybody loves you for your black eye,” sings Britt Daniel at the onset of Spoon’s Transference (Merge). From the title that references the transfer of emotions from a patient to therapist, to the song trajectory that implies the end and beginning of relationships, Transference sees Spoon — playing the Fox Theater April 13 — questioning the whys and wherefores of love. Clinical takedowns aren’t surprising from a band that has always boasted a razor-sharp suspicion of easy emotions and facile pop hooks and prided itself on its tough-minded lyrics and honed musical contours. Those sharp corners haven’t changed altogether, but halfway through around the ambient throb of “Who Makes Your Money,” the piano-driven blues of “Written in Reverse,” and the Velvets adoration of “I Saw the Light,” the music begins to break down. And open up, culminating in Spoon’s tenderest love song, “Goodnight Laura.” The baby talk of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge, 2007) — and its prescience concerning a certain Lady pop idol — has morphed into more adult feelings, and Transference sounds like a moment when Spoon’s defenses fell and Daniel discovered new reserves of power in vulnerability, while foregrounding fall-down-the-stairs piano and fizzing horror-filmish effects.

“You can’t go around saying stuff / Because it’s pretty / And I no longer drink enough / To think you’re witty.” Despite the characteristically clever phrasing, the Magnetic Fields aren’t mincing words with “You Must Be Out of Your Mind,” the opener of Realism (Nonesuch), which comes clad in the girl-symbol packaging to go with the boy plastered on the band’s last full-length, Distortion (Nonesuch, 2008). The group (at Fox Theater Feb. 27 and at Herbst Theatre March 1) has decided to play nicely this time around — whether or not you believe in realism or authenticity — promising “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree” and barbs done up in buttons and bows and late ’60s and early ’70s folk instrumentation. And in stark contrast to the candy-coated shit-fi of Distortion, Realism wallows in its startling all-acoustic, electronics-free loveliness, buffeted by umpteen mille-feuille pastry layers of autoharp, flugelhorn, harmonica, violin, sitar, and lashing rattle. Still knowing — and aware of the contrivances embedded in its aural reality show — Stephin Merritt and crew also appear to be daring their audience to embrace old-school beauty, an artifice like any other, along with sentimentality and traditional folk song values. Next stop, children’s tunes?

The most pleasant surprise must be Vampire Weekend’s new Contra (XL). The counter-revolutionary tendencies hinted at in the title apply to the group’s increasingly irreverent attitude toward its source material — making the Vampires sound less like Paul Simon than Panda Bear acolytes as they close in on those 808s and ’80s electro beats. As listenable as they are, Vampire Weekend (at the Fox Theater April 19-20) makes you work for your kicks, your pop hooks, embedding the kalimba thumb piano of “Horchata” in house-y synth and percolating rhythms, which melt naturally into “White Sky,” a union of African polyrhythms and electronic pointillism. The tour de force troika closers — “Giving Up the Gun,” “Diplomat’s Son,” and “I Think UR a Contra” — send the listener into a rippling sea of beats and a seething MIA-style South Asian grime-down that lightly pokes fun at privilege, before floating on a peaceful sea of TMI paranoia. Increasingly complex and satisfying, Vampire Weekend is growing out of its baby fangs.