The CD-release show at Schuba's for Baby Teeth's White Tonight ( www.babyteethmusic.com ) brought back warm fuzzy memories.
The last time I saw band leader Abraham Levitan and Bobby Conn play together was in 2004 at the old Bottom Lounge on the day Ronald Reagan died. Levitan and I had a merry time cracking sick, sick jokes but given the circumstances, the deceased and the artists involved it was the right thing to do. It was appropriate since Baby Teeth ( including guitarist Jim Cooper and drummer Peter Andreadis ) have a reputation for skewing the American ideal ( white picket fences, the old-world view of romance/marriage and the objects of our right to happiness ) while Conn routinely rips the conservative corporate mind set with a vengeance. I felt terrible for forgetting their combined snark, especially since the times call for it more than ever.
Conn and his lovely wife, violinist/vocalist Monica BouBou, still make a striking pair long after matrimony and the start of their family. Conn still wears mascara, a track suit and monstrous funky pumps in performance. Only the glitter eye shadow seems to be gone, although his bite certainly hasn't. The Conns are still up to elevating punk-infused hard glam rock into vicious commentary and wouldn't have it any other way.
The opener, "Greed," was all heavy deep guitar chords and wayward noise and gave Conn the chance to let loose with that one of a kind voice of his. Equal parts drawl, snarl and fanged falsetto, his phrasing comes out in a psychotic rush and has the sting of a slap to the face with a sand dipped wet towel. But if I had forgotten how brilliant the Conns were their take on Eurythemics "Love Is A Stranger" set me straight.
While Annie Lennox trilled and pirouetted through the song like an elegant wounded angel BouBou, over the den of Conn's guitar shrieks and the atonal chording she pulled from her violin, sang with such flatness that she sounded like a zombie. That they made the song sound more appropriate to the lyrics and far more disturbing than the original overall suggests that their upcoming album should be a hoot.
In the time since I saw him, Levitan has also jumped into matrimonial bliss, although White Tonight would have you think otherwise. It's a spacious, clean, big-sounding pop album about ennui, where fame and the fast life get ditched by responsibility and age and Levitan spends almost all of it looking back with muted regret. No longer the star in the room, he croons on "White Tonight," "I took all of my money/and bought myself a big old couch...," but the punch line is that the man sounds deliriously happy.
That Levitan smiled from ear to ear for this show made White Tonight almost a big fat put-on. This is what you could expect from Baby Teeth, since, after all, these are the same guys who made a yearlong project of recording a new song every week ( labeled "52 Teeth" ) . For this show, Baby Teeth spent the night threading that ennui into bouncy pop while making their dour subject sound like a workout on Romper Room. From the squiggly synth lines snaking through "White Tonight," to the epic production of "Space" ( which appropriately is about that most intimate of activities, spacing out ) , to the tragic tone of "Diamonds," Levitan sings with such hearty tones that you can actually hear him smiling on the record.
But if there was any suggestion of pretention the show was undone by the set closer, Harry Nilsson's "Without You." The original recording is the penultimate power ballad, a recording so dense and packed with overwhelming emotion that it tilts precariously into bathos ( of course you can't laugh at it since it spent weeks as the number one single in the country and nabbed the Grammy for 'Record of the Year' in 1971 ) . With Conn on vocals and BouBou joining Baby Teeth they ran wild with it, flipping the song with all the grace of tipping over a cow. Spot-on and goofy, yes, but between Conn's faked sobs; Conn and Levitan ripping through the chorus ( "I can't live ... if living is without you..." ) as if they were storming the beaches of Iwo Jima; and BouBou and Cooper going apeshit on strings, it was satirical and respectful. Does it get better than this? Naaaaaaah...
I will readily admit that I consider American Idol a sham. The show is blatantly contrived, with faked suspense, audience manipulation and such a hard sell that all the flash tends to obscure what the show is supposed to be about: talent. Granted, without it we wouldn't have had Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia, Adam Lambert or ... Clay Aiken. It's doubtful that the show would have lasted this long without inaugural winner Kelly Clarkson, and at her sold-out show at The Venue last weekend she showed why.
This stop on the "Stronger Tour" was hugehuge stage set-up, huge sound, huge lights and Clarkson's huge voice smack in the middle. The show was set up to overwhelm since, after all, Clarkson is from Texas, the land of "Nobama" and oversized everything.
So did she bring it? Well, sorta... In the first 10 minutes "Since You Been Gone" kicked the energy over the top and set Clarkson's strategic hit parade into overdrive. Early on a percussive, bass-heavy "Heavy In Your Arms" had such gravity, thunder and drama that it nearly upended the show. Next to it, though her set list was loaded with her biggest hits, they seemed a touch bland by comparison. Sure, "My Life Would Suck Without You," "Einstein" and "Mr. Know It All" turned The Venue into a tweaked-out circuit club at rush hour and Clarkson sounded invested in eachwell, almost.
Late in the set during "Stronger" when she sang, "You try to break me but you see/what doesn't kill you makes you stronger...," with all the feistiness she could muster, I still couldn't buy it. The song is no "I Will Survive" ( Gloria Gaynor ) , "Better Be Good To Me" ( Tina Turner ) or "It Hasn't Happened Yet ( John Hiatt ) , but what made those recordings classics was the heart and abandon those vocalists invested. Clarkson didn't really burn until the stripped-down version of "Never Again," which was careful, choked and free from any slickness. The closer, "Miss Independent," was even better, with Clarkson ripping loose and singing and shaking her ass like her soul depended on it. It's undeniable that the woman has talent to spare, but until she learns to wed her heart and soul to what comes out of her mouth she will remain a pop tart.