Music Review: Antony and the Johnsons

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The essential tension in Antony and the Johnsons' music is between the precise chamber-rock arrangements and Antony Hegarty's precarious falsetto.

When the septet performed Tuesday night at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, there was another notable contrast: between Antony's cryptic, evocative lyrics and his rambling, garrulous remarks.

Antony didn't speak until he had performed almost a third of his set. But after the transgender singer-pianist finished "For Today I Am a Boy," he expanded on its theme by suggesting that all world leaders should be required to switch genders for a time. In a sense, Antony did that himself, singing of his desire to be "a powerful girl" and appropriating girl-power star Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love," which the Johnsons stripped of its go-go beat.

That excision wasn't surprising, since the group isn't much on thumping grooves. "Kiss My Name" briefly erupted, and the latter part of "Shake That Devil" was very nearly rock-and-roll, but most of the set was closer to French chanson or Brecht-Weill cabaret. Antony warbled against and around his own piano, occasional guitar or saxophone, symphonic percussion outbursts and droning strings that recalled the Velvet Underground (as well as such modern composers as Crumb and Penderecki).

Although the group's new song "The Crying Light" addresses ecological fears, Antony is no Al Gore. Temporarily forsaking falsetto to discuss the pope, Hiroshima and "masculine archetypes," the singer was free-associative and utterly personal. Such Earthly songs as "Another World" were potent not because of their universality but because of Antony's singular sensibility.

-- Mark Jenkins

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