Zebulon is softly lit. There is a candle at each table and 11 dim globe lamps hang overhead. It is a small place, about the size of four large bedrooms.
In front of me, a couple is sitting at a table playing with a dog. To my right is the bar, lined with men in their ’30s donning beret-like caps, beards, sweaters, scarves and glasses of whiskey. Seeing this, it’d be hard to guess that a man with one of the largest indie albums of 2006 — if not the largest — is playing here tonight.
But the people ahead of me reveal the truth. The couple is switching places with two young black men — one in a t-shirt and baseball cap, one in a button up shirt and beanie. Beyond them is a table of girls with long, dark hair and swept bangs, sitting next to men with long sideburns, glasses and blazers. When Kyp Malone walks in, the entire place goes quiet, but only because the music has briefly stopped. Few people look at him — most of them are having quiet conversations with the people next to them. Malone greets someone at the door, exchanges a few words with the gentleman at the table next to me, then talks to a few people sitting at the bar before heading towards the stage.
If the name Kyp Malone doesn’t ring a bell, it should. Malone plays guitar and sings in a little group called TV On the Radio. Last year, TV On the Radio released their sophomore CD, Return to Cookie Mountain, their first on major label Interscope. It was highly critically acclaimed and appeared on 99.999999% of year end Top 10 lists. They sold out practically every show they played, and probably sold a lot of copies of the album, as well (but I can’t find any figures).
The show is supposed to start at 9. It’s 9:31 and a man with a laptop is sitting at the stage. I have no clue who he is, because only Malone is on the bill. Between 9:08 and now, the number of people in the cafe has easily doubled. The man starts singing – some people are listening, others aren’t, even though he is rather difficult to ignore. The couple sitting next to me is drawing.
His beats are filled with a rich ringing, like an organ or harpsichord effect. His vocals are dense, hidden under layers of delay and mutation – it’s difficult to tell what he’s saying, but he makes it work. By the second song, more people are listening, but only half the audience claps when he finishes. We don’t learn his name because he’s not on the bill and he doesn’t announce it. Or if he does, his mic is too low and the audience is talking too loudly for anyone to hear it. (Later, Malone tells us this first guy’s name is Jordan Austin.)
By 9:55 there are so many people here that you can only get 5 feet inside the door.
Malone takes the stage. He’s humble, funny, down to earth. He starts by saying, “the last time I played here, I talked about writing new songs… but I didn’t.” His performance is just his voice and an acoustic guitar – no laptop, no other musicians.
Like when he’s in TV On the Radio, Malone uses his voice to maximum capacity. He’s sliding up and down notes quickly, quivering his voice, making ample use of that breath-taking falsetto. He grows intense, using howls, shouts and groans, but he never over-does it. He manages to always find the right balance for each component.
Lyrically, his solo work is similar to the content of TV On the Radio, as well. He plays mostly songs of love and longing, very straight-forward but poetic, with light simile and metaphor.
The music is the biggest difference, and what a difference it makes. It’s difficult to imagine material of this nature being played on just one acoustic guitar, but Malone manages it easily. He doesn’t drench the notes in sound or effect, he just keeps it simple, and it’s for the best. The result is that the music feels more intimate, which complements the lyrical matter well. Musically, his influences are showing through more clearly in this format, old blues being a dominant theme. His sense of humor shows through, as well, with lines like “I’m standing naked in front of you with castration fears,” and “pimps down, hoes up.” It must have been Malone who contributed the line “cover your balls, ’cause we swing Kung Fu” on “King Eternal” from Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes.
Unfortunately for Malone, the crowd isn’t spectacular. A woman cackles loudly during a rather quiet number, and he immediately takes this as an opportunity to fix a cable that is hissing, so he stops in the middle of the song. People’s cell phones are ringing, and more than that, people are answering them. One can’t help but get the feeling that a lot of these people are here more because of the ability to say that they were here than to actually pay attention. Or maybe they’re just pissed because Kyp Malone is playing music by Kyp Malone and not TV On the Radio. But this isn’t TV On the Radio, this is Kyp Malone, and as Kyp Malone, he is doing exactly what he should be doing, and he’s doing it very, very well.
I can’t find any of Kyp Malone’s solo material for the life of me. But I chose the following TV On The Radio track for this post, because it’s one of my favorites, and because I think Kyp Malone’s vocals are particularly great on it.