What should have been the last musical event of 1998 (although de facto the first of 1999, i.e. 2 a.m. New Year's Eve night), Kristeen Young at the local Goth club Mother, never happened for me: when I got to the club at 1 a.m. the creature at the door told me it was too crowded. So I had to go home disappointed.
It’s not like I hadn’t seen her perform before; I’d been to a handful of her shows over a span dating back to mid-1997 (not long after I discovered her solo album Meet Miss Young and Her All-Boy Band); but it had been nearly a year since the last time she’d played New York.
But as it turned out it was only a few weeks later that she made a return engagement, this time at Coney Island High.
I'd been antsy for days anticipating it, and ended up getting down there so early that the venue hadn't even opened its doors yet. So I went across the street and CD shopped until it was time. As I walked up the stairs to go back down the stairs again (they have two floors but only one entrance -- at least this week [7/99 and oh by the way the club has since closed]) I could hear Miss Young soundchecking "...HI-TEK," and when I got into the main space she was going through parts of "Mouth to Mouth" and "Enemy." A nice appetizer.
Then a bit of a wait until she took the stage; as it started there were very few people there (though a few more by the end). But 8:00 bands frequently play to small houses no matter who they are.
She opened with "Night Blindness,” one of the songs that forms the solid middle range of her new album Enemy, and it was great to hear her pounding keyboard riffs at full concert volume, as well as her full-bore mid-register and her true soprano upper register. (Only in the register break does she occasionally hit a thin note.) After which drummer Jeff White went into the intro paradiddle to "Take Me," and I was transported. It's one of my favorite songs on Enemy (the quasi-"Kashmir" one), and a great live song: the crashing keyboard washes were even more effective than they were on the album.
I think it was at this point that she took off the black sweater she was wearing to reveal her sleeveless red jumpsuit as she set the keyboard going on "Have you ever worked with anything HI-TEK" and took center stage with the boom microphone. In the fairly dim stage light I didn't notice at first that she had bandaids up and down both arms (a fashion statement), and clothespin "epaulettes." When she bounced up and down between vocal sections it was rather a "Mummy as aerobics instructor" effect.
"...HI-TEK" is a barnburner of a song, with its uneven-meter riff and hectoring speak-then-sing vocals, and was no disappointment this time around (including visually, with her ballet moves all about the stage).
She returned to the keyboard to play a song which I spent most of its length trying to think if I recognized it; it's very much in the "Enemy" group of driving-verse-and-stop-for-chorus songs which sound rather alike. It turned out to be a new song (maybe titled "Honest") they were playing for the first time out.
Back to the center-stage microphone for the rousing triple-time Enemy opener "Year of the Woman," which I'd never heard her do live before. This was the one song where they seemed to have a bit of ensemble trouble: the tempo of the self-playing keyboard seemed slower than the album version, and the drummer kept getting a little ahead of it. Still a strong song, however.
Next was "Enemy" itself (the one about her Native American heritage), not a great favorite but a very good live version (this one she played herself), followed by one I like a lot, "Mouth to Mouth," another big keyboard riff it can play alone while its mistress prowls the stage.
Then she announced last song, and I was a little startled; it didn't seem possible the set was over so soon. The finale was "Marley's Ghost," the one song she did from her previous Meet Miss Young... album. A very complicated, very busy song the pair do on a dime, highlighted by Miss Young's full-bore screaming (a little more musical this time). And then it was over.
I think it seemed so short because I was waiting for her to do perhaps my two favorite songs of hers, "Skeletons" and "Incubator" (which she'd done the last two times I'd seen her), and that was a disappointment; but on the whole it was a very good show.
And I didn't even have to wait another near-year to see her play again:a mere few months later she returned to New York to play at Downtime, a club I'd never previously been to.
Downtime is a touch posh, and seems more like a bar with music, rather than a music space with a bar, if you know what I mean. We grabbed a table near the front.
I spotted Kristeen Young standing along the side waiting to go on, and went over to say hello. The first question from the peanut gallery, of course, is "But what was she wearing?" This time it was a kind of peasant dress with a flared skirt, all in shades of black and gray; her hair (also black, in case anyone doesn't know) was done up in tiny braids and decorated with small white flowers; I noticed when I went up to her that she had something written or drawn on the backs of her hands, but it wasn't until mid-set when she took off the short black jacket she was wearing over the sleeveless dress that one could see she had lettering from shoulders past her wrists reading (right arm) OBLIGATORY (left arm) TATOO. The whole effect, in my friend's apt phrase, was "Dorothy goes to Hell."
There's a curious paradox about Kristeen Young. I was noticing this time, watching her walking around getting set up to play, that her body English when she's not performing is rather demure, and in conversation she's quiet and a bit shy. But once she gets on stage, she's completely uninhibited. It's tempting to succumb to cheap amateur psychoanalysis and remember her talking in interviews about her strict religious upbringing (similar to Tori Amos, as it happens), and think about the theory that in performing we present our inner selves (we'd say things in a song we'd never say in real life), and speculate that her everyday demeanor is still obedient to her upbringing, while her performing style and mode of dress is in rebellion against it. But there's also the fact that in interviews she's expressed puzzlement that people think she's weird; and it's clear that to her there is no paradox, that it's all her.
Well, enough of that. Finally she was ready, along with her drummer Jeff White, and as with the last set I saw she kicked off with the squirrely synth riff of "Night Blindness." It doesn't rock as hard as some -- in fact it's almost a fast ballad -- but the crashing keyboard riff on the chorus lifted me out of my chair a couple inches. As always the power of her voice was a distinct pleasure.
Again following the previous set, White rolled into the tasty drum intro tothe heavyweight "Take Me." Last time it was a highlight; this time it was a little off from that, but still most satisfactory. (Similar remarks apply to the half-spoken, hammering "Have you ever worked with anything HI-TEK?" which has several times been the best thing she played, but this time, late in the set, was merely very good.)
She played two new songs, one she'd done last time, a pretty typical fastish pounding rocker; the other, next to last, was more complicated, and really terrific. It began with an obsessive little high-register keyboard riff and then lurched into a syncopated main mid-register riff; the opening came back later to be developed as the bridge. It's one I'm eager to hear again.
She also did the ballad "Sacrifice," probably my least favorite track on Enemy; a straightforward piano ballad, its lyrics overextend the metaphor of "music is my muse," and the vocal style oversells the material.
She closed the set (there was no encore) with "Enemy," another solid midlevel song.
Among the best songs she did was "Mouth to Mouth," one of several where she sets the keyboard going by itself and does ballet moves with the microphone stand about the stage; the song's striking layered keyboard riffs and variety of vocal inflections make it a perennial strong live number.
But the finest moment was mid-set, where she started up the nagging little chord-alternation of "Incubator," and I slumped with delight in my chair; I knew I was in for it now.
It had been nearly a year since I'd seen it performed, and that was before I'd gotten to know it from the new album. And something she hadn't previously done in live performance was play the additional countermelodies of the song "live," moving back and forth from the keyboard microphone to the center-stage microphone.
It's a remarkable piece, to say the least, especially watching her act it out with copious hand-gestures; and the performance was tremendous, every squeak and simper dead on the mark. Thinking about it later, I realized that (in keeping with the Oz reference and remembering that Shirley Temple was originally supposed to play Dorothy) it's kind of a demented version of "On the Good Ship Lollipop," while at the same time the carefully-composed extreme vocal mannerisms are actually somewhere in the vicinity of Schoenbergian sprechgesang (Lollipop Lunaire?). It's also a kind of mini-catalog of what Miss Young is capable of vocally, not only the goofy upper register but the lower register (illustratively on the line "gets me down"), full-blare mid-register, and coloratura flourishes.
Is "Incubator" her best song? In the flush of seeing it done so wellso recently, I think so; certainly it’s her most characteristic (not typical; something like "Mouth to Mouth" falls in that category) in the way it covers all the bases of her art within the compass of (in the end) a unitary work of art.
[the name of this mini-essay is]
I've noted before that while watching Kristeen Young I feel the alternating tendencies to be swept up by the performance, and to laugh. I would never want her (or anyone else) to think I was laughing at them, and so I've given some thought to the phenomenon.
There's one kind of laughter that occurs, where the music is so intense that I can hardly stand it, to which my reaction is a laugh of delight (which sometimes turns into a whimper of surrender). In the middle of something like "...HI-TEK" or "Incubator" I'm very apt to react like that.
But the other kind of laughter is caused by a rhetoric of extremity, to which the Goth impulse is very prone.
Understand, I'm very susceptible to the Goth impulse; I'm what Robert Christgau described as a "technical depressive" (the kind of person, he pointed out, liable to love the second Portishead album); the darker and gloomier the music, the more I like it.
But at the same time, when I take a half-step back from it, it gives me fits of giggles, say, to look at the band names/album names/song names of various Goth outfits (My Scarlet Life, My Dying Bride, Switchblade Symphony, etc. etc.).
Still, there's a considerable difference between ironic distance (which for me anyway is only half a step from getting back into the flow) and cynical detachment (where the laughter would be dismissive).
So if I find myself laughing a bit at the outrageousness of "Incubator," say, or the Cure's "Siamese Twins" ("Is it always like this?") -- which is only one of my favorite songs in the world -- it's only a kind of respite from the jawdropping power that the song will have on me again in a matter of seconds.
(In light of the above, it was a charmingly appropriate coincidence that the song the Goth DJ was playing when our party arrived at CBs Gallery another few months on was the Cure's "Siamese Twins.")
Beginning the set again with "Night Blindness" and "Take Me,” and following it with the rousing “Mouth to Mouth,” Miss Young and Mr. White played a stronger, more engergetic (and much louder!) set than on previous occasions.
In the interval before introducing the next song (which now has a title: "Everything Is Mine Because I Am Poor”), she commented on her “American Ammunition Vest,” which was festooned with a plethora of toy objects (guns, binoculars, etc.—“a walking trash heap,” she pronounced it—many of which were used as props throughout the show); combined with her Girl Scout shorts and hat and camouflage tank top…well, she was dressed “as usual.” As I noted before, “Everything…” is a terrific song, a pleasure to hear again.
Then she set her keyboard going with the ominous pair of piano notes for "Skeletons." I hadn’t heard her perform the song for quite a long time, and live the spooky atmosphere and the sudden shattering vocal are even more gripping. A peak of her output…which was immediately followed (waiting not for applause) by the familiar and welcome “taunting” chords of that other peak, the astonishing "Incubator." On the previous occasion it had easily been the hightlight in a solid show; this time around, a nearly-as-good peformance didn't stand out quite as much in a stronger setlist more powerfully played.
The show leveled off just a bit after that with the as-usual quite good "Enemy" and a fairly effective "Have you ever worked with anything HI-TEK?" (which started merely OK and built to a fine roar by the end).
The surprise of the set was the quiet, very melodic ballad "Human Kind" (from her previous album Meet Miss Young...), the one with the acoustic-guitarlike keyboard sound. Just to prove she can do a conventional, and excellent, piano ballad when she chooses to. Though she followed it with the inexorable hammer&tongs of "Year of the Woman."
Before she closed the set with "Marley's Ghost" (also from Meet Miss Young...) she remarked that we were so quiet it was making her nervous. Didn't affect a bravura performance of the song, one of the busiest and most...well...striking from that album, with its most melodious screaming.
Since she was the last act of the evening, we were successful in bringing her back for an encore, the headlong "BOOMerang." All in all, it was easily the strongest of the three shows I’d been fortunate enough to see this year.