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From noises of the street to the tunes of their souls

Singer-songwriters fill Disney Hall with joy and anguish, from the profane to profound.

January 10, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

Urban music is, stereotypically, beat-driven and heavy, pushing people's buttons as it pours out of somebody else's car radio. But twist the phrase -- into "Songs of the City," for example -- and suddenly, "urban" loses its funk. "Songs of the City" sounds like a folk-life anthology, not a radio format. It's genteel and almost pastoral.

That mood filled the air Tuesday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, as a long and stellar list of indie-pop songwriters reflected on their lives within and between cities. Probably the quietest evening of the L.A. Phil's "Concrete Frequency" series about music and the metropolis, "Songs of the City" offered nothing as boisterously evocative as the Zappa or Boulez pieces featured on other nights. Most participants waxed gently about cramped apartment life, touring or traffic, though a few let in some street noise.

Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo introduced the program. The mutant sounds of new wave rock did not follow. Instead, the Glendale band Biirdie set a romantic mood, invoking the turtleneck troubadour-ism of early Paul Simon.

Thirteen acts got two songs each, as the others lounged on coffeehouse-ready couches onstage. Tin Pan Alley scion Franklin Bruno, punk titan John Doe and Norwegian polyglot Sondre Lerche proved truly urbane. Others coasted on the pretty intimacies of folk-pop.

Standouts stuck closely to the night's concept. Van Dyke Parks and Inara George offered two songs infused with the scattered energy of metropolitan living -- George's dizzying "Right Is Wrong," and Randy Newman's kaleidoscopic "Vine Street," which Parks recorded on his 1968 cult classic album "Song Cycle." Bob Mould's furious "Thumbtack" linked romantic and geographic displacement.

Zooey Deschanel, accompanied by songwriter-guitarist M. Ward, followed a torchy take on the vintage "Lonely Town" with the Screamin' Jay Hawkins blues "I Put a Spell on You," whose relationship to the city theme is secondhand at best (it was featured in "Stranger Than Paradise," Jim Jarmusch's masterpiece of urban anomie). Her ranting vocal was good enough to make up for her blowing the theme.

But it was Kyp Malone of Brooklyn's genre-melting band TV on the Radio who claimed the keys to the imaginary city. Playing an effects-rigged acoustic guitar, Malone offered music that brought the city to skin-prickling life.

The first, with an unprintable title, moved from a whistle to a scream as it evoked the generalized hostility of a bad day downtown. Uttering obscenities that may have never before echoed through this venerable hall, Malone used his multi-octave voice to turn them into bitter prayers.

Then came the night's final number, a sort of tone poem that Malone described as "post-urban." "Winter Song" meditates on death and timelessness, expressing a longing for the arms of the natural world that only a city boy could feel. After much pleasure but little catharsis, "Songs of the City" finally proved as magical as a night lost in strange streets, within the madding crowd.


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