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SPRING ARTS 2017 — albums: Barry, Betty & Blondie

Manilow, finally out, readies New York-themed album

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Aussie singer Betty Who will release her sophomore album ‘The Valley’ on Friday, March 24. (Photo courtesy RCA)

The new release schedule is light on megastars but heavy on new offerings by some of our most acclaimed musical artists. The details for most of the higher-profile new albums expected in 2017 have yet to be announced, but there is still a strong slate of new music coming our way over the new few months.

March starts off with the much-anticipated second album by English star Ed Sheeran, whose “÷” (pronounced “divide”) hits Friday, March 3. Also slated for release are the latest ambitious concept album by openly gay troubadour Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields’ “50 Song Memoir.”

Four of indie-pop’s most popular bands have new offerings on the way: the Shins on March 10 with “Heartworms,” then Spoon a week later with “Hot Thoughts,” and Real Estate unveils “In Mind,” the follow-up to their much-lauded 2014 release “Atlas.” Conor Oberst and his “Salutations” adds to the indie onslaught, sure to be a big weekend at area record stores.

Also due on March 17 is the 14th studio album by veteran alternative synthpop titans Depeche Mode, “Spirit.” Capital Pride veteran Betty Who unleashes “The Valley” on March 24. That same week comes “Damage and Joy,” the first new album by seminal alt-rockers Jesus & Mary Chain in 18 years.

March 25 brings the second solo album by Ladytron vocalist Marnie, “Strange Words and Weird Wars.” We can expect more glistening dance-pop as Goldfrapp offers their first album in four years, “Silver Eye,” on March 31. The same day the great Aimee Mann returns with her long-awaited new album, “Mental Illness,” the first release in five years for the gifted singer, songwriter and musician.

March is also highlighted by new albums from British boy band Take That, the always-funky Jamiroquai, Canadian dance/pop singer Nelly Furtado, a three-disc set of American standards by the one and only Bob Dylan, the latest by rapper Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan, and the much-anticipated new album by British up-and-comer Tinie Tempah. 

April 7 will be a big day for indie-rock fans as new albums by Father John Misty, the New Pornographers and Cold War Kids all arrive. The same day brings Future Islands, who will follow-up their synth pop classic, 2014’s “Singles,” with “The Far Field.” Electronica will also be well-represented as EDM duo the Chainsmokers, known for their smash “#SELFIE,” release their debut album “Memories … Do Not Open,” and the self-titled third album by openly gay Venezuelan DJ and electro-wizard Arca will also hit retailers.

The first new solo release by pop singer Michelle Branch in 14 years, “Hopeless Romantic,” also hits on April 7. So does the self-titled debut album by Nancy and Beth, a duo featuring Megan Mullally (Karen from “Will & Grace”) and Austin-based musician Stephanie Hunt.

On April 14, the freakishly talented Norwegian artist Sondre Lerche is back with his eighth album, “Pleasure.” The following week brings legendary crooner Barry Manilow and “This is My Town,” his first new album since he married his longtime partner in 2015.

Acclaimed Danish dream-rockers Mew, featuring the solemnly beautiful vocals of the incredible Jonas Bjerre, return on April 28 with “Visuals.” Also expected in April are new albums by the dynamic pop singer Bebe Rexha, veteran hard-rockers Incubus, and British post-punk revivalists Maxïmo Park.

The biggest event in April, of course, is the 10th annual Record Store Day held on Saturday, April 22. St. Vincent has been named Record Store Day Ambassador. Given the big anniversary and the meager and lackluster selection for the Black Friday Record Store Day last November, this year’s roster of new releases and exclusives is reportedly jammed with outstanding titles that could include — well, anything really. It shouldn’t be long before the list of Record Store Day titles starts leaking to the public, so keep your eyes peeled.

May kicks off with Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Blondie returning with their first album in three years with “Pollinator” on May 5. Queer-punk duo PWR BTTM unleashes their utterly distinct sound and vibe with their second album, “Pageant,” on May 12. Also on the 12th is the latest offering by the massively successful country-rock hybrid Zac Brown Band, “Welcome Home.” May 19 will be exciting for fans of electronic dance-pop, as the legendary duo Erasure, featuring the always-amazing vocals by gay pop icon Andy Bell and the electronic mastery of his longtime musical partner Vince Clarke, return with their 17th album, “World Be Gone.” It sounds like the album might be unusually political — the press release states the UK duo gives “the world and recent political upheavals a thoughtful examination.”

It may not be Fleetwood Mac, but Buckingham/McVie will be as close as you can get without Stevie Nicks. Their new album, the first ever from Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie as a duo (albeit backed by Mick Fleetwood and John McVie), is scheduled for May, but a firm release date has not yet been announced. Also expected in May is “Binary,” the latest from the independent folk-rock icon Ani DiFranco.

Stretching into June, the big release early in the month is the latest from country titans Lady Antebellum, “Heart Break,” which is set for June 9. There are a few big-name artists who had been expected to unveil new albums this spring but have yet to announce release dates, so at this point a spring release date could still be possible but some will not doubt stretch into the summer:  Sheryl Crow, Lorde, Drake, Charli XCX, Katy Perry, St. Vincent, Beck, Christina Aguilera, Gorillaz, Kanye West and Kelly Clarkson, among others.

And then there are always surprises. Bruce Springsteen has been sitting on a finished new studio album for a year and could drop it at any time. In this era of surprise and sudden releases instead of the traditional build-up, who knows what great new music might unexpectedly come our way this spring.

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Music & Concerts

May pop-up performance features women composers

Whitman-Walker Health and the Goethe-Institut present ‘Kept Under Glass’

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(Image via ‘Kept Under Glass: Unheard Women’s Voices’ Facebook event page)

Whitman-Walker Health (1701 14th St., N.W.) and the Goethe-Institut present “Kept Under Glass: Unheard Women’s Voices,” a multimedia street concert, May 5-6 on the corner of 14th and R Streets.

This free event features songs about love and a longing for connection by rarely heard Austian and German women composers, including medieval chants, classical opera and early 20th century works.

The four performances will take place over the course of two evenings at Whitman-Walker’s new cultural center, The Corner at Whitman-Walker. Performances will last 30 minutes while three performers, each in their own window, sings to sidewalk audiences on the other side of the glass.

Event times and other information is available on the event’s Facebook page.

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This queer ‘Genera+ion’ doesn’t care what you think

HBO Max ‘dramedy’ follows the stories of a group of queer students

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Justice Smith stars in ‘Genera+ion.’ (Photo courtesy HBO Max)

If there’s anything pop culture has taught us, it’s that the future belongs to the young.

It’s a statement of the painfully obvious, of course; the patterns of our existence are shaped and defined by the repeating cycle of generations succeeding each other, to the point that we take it for granted. Yet for the same reason, it’s a fact that is easily forgotten – or, perhaps more accurately, ignored – when we are living in the present.

This is especially true if we belong to the generation that “owns” the present, who have suffered through the frustrations of coming of age under the thumb of our elders and are in no hurry to pass the baton to the kids who are next in line.

Pop culture, however, has a way of reminding us that our days are numbered. Driven by the fires of capitalism, which are in turn stoked by the tastes of the most lucrative demographic (and we all know which age bracket they belong to), it repeatedly confronts us with glimpses of our own inevitable irrelevance – and that’s terrifying.

Which is why the history of pop culture is also the history of youth rebelling against age, and while the individual skirmishes in that eternal battle might go either way, only the most delusional among us could doubt which side will always prevail in the end. Usually, these are the ones who respond with the most violent distaste when they see a vision of the world as imagined by young people; clinging to the hope they can hold fast against the winds of change, they dismiss, decry and disparage, attempting to exert control by invoking the same core beliefs and traditional values their own elders used to control them.

Today’s kids, however, will have none of it.

Consider, for instance, the case of gay singer/rapper/songwriter Lil Nas X, who just last week shoved aside the homophobic boundaries of the music industry – yet again – with the debut of the spectacularly subversive video for his newest single, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” in which the out Lil Nas appears first wearing a body-hugging sequined onesie, then sporting full Marie Antoinette drag, and finally clad in underwear and a pair of stiletto heels as he performs a lap dance for the Devil himself.

In an Instagram post marking the release, addressed to his own 14-year-old self, Nas fully acknowledged that he was “pushing an agenda… to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.” It was not an apology, nor an attempt at damage control over an inevitable backlash he already knew would be fierce. Nas was throwing down the gauntlet – it was a given there would be an outcry against the no-holds-barred queerness of the video, and he was sending a clear message that he was there to take on all challengers.

These included the predictable right-wing suspects, like “Blexit” founder Candace Owens and anti-trans South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, but also fellow musicians like rapper Joyner Douglas, who lamented in a pearl-clutching tweet that Nas had “dropped some left field ish & all our kids seen it” – joining many other homophobic commentators who trotted out the time-worn and long-discredited idea that any expression of queer sexuality is harmful to children. What’s telling is that while many of these attempts at “cancellation” come from younger voices (most, but not all of them, overtly right-leaning), the justifications behind them are based in ideologies that can safely be called ancient.

Needless to say, Nas has been more than up to the task of swatting aside all these objections in the still-ongoing social media fray, and it has been truly glorious to watch.

At 21, Lil Nas X is a voice that rises from a generation waiting in the wings, and it’s a generation that won’t wait quietly. They’ve caught on to their own inevitability, and they’ve decided they’re just going to go ahead and claim their time right now.

It’s that particularly “now” spirit of youthful rebellion that can be felt in “Genera+ion,” the HBO Max “dramedy” that premiered earlier this month and follows the interwoven stories of a group of queer students at an Orange County high school. Created by father-daughter team Daniel and Zelda Barnz, it depicts the struggles of teens as they try to make sense of their sexuality in a world defined by adults – and often, by the baggage those adults carry with them from their own struggles.

Widely compared to “Euphoria,” HBO’s other show about the severely dysfunctional hidden sex life of high schoolers, it’s a series that opts for a lighter spin. This manifests in the sure-fire humor to be found in typical comedic cliches of teen stories – awkward gaffes, clueless adults, “Mean Girl” style social politics, etc. – but can be found, albeit more subtly, in its handling of dramatic tropes, too. In its pilot episode, for instance, it introduces the relationship between defiantly queer star student Chester (Justice Smith), who has been slapped with his third violation of the school’s “dress code,” and new school counselor Sam (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) with a scene in which the assumptions of the older man color his perceptions of the younger, resulting in an attempt at guidance that – at least in the beginning – seems more a response to his own inner conflicts than anything being felt by his new charge.

The joke might not seem apparent to those conditioned to assume a power dynamic weighted on the side of an older-and-ostensibly-wiser authority figure, but for anyone who can remember being a kid forced to listen to advice from a grown-up who doesn’t even understand your problem, it’s unmistakable.

“Genera+ion” teases the possibility of an inappropriate relationship blossoming between Chance and Sam, and introduces similarly salacious storylines as it interconnects its young characters’ lives – we meet closeted bisexual Nathan (Uly Schlesinger), whose Grindr-esque hook-ups include his sister Naomi’s (Chloe East) boyfriend, as well as Greta (Haley Sanchez) a Latina with a deported mom and a lesbian crush on artsy and seemingly free-spirited Riley (Chase Sui Wonders), and all of that is just in the first episode – and in each case, our expectations are smashed in short order, along with any egoistic presumption that we know better than they do.

It probably goes without saying that “mainstream” reactions to the show have been mixed. Many critics, such as Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, have resorted to snark as they attempt to characterize it, according to conventional notions of storytelling and aesthetics, as an angsty teen drama that tries too hard. But “Genera+ion” transcends these kinds of assessments. It may be messy, confusing, shallow, and even shocking – but that’s the world its teen ensemble (as well as their target audience) lives in.

They may make questionable choices, they may even suffer for those choices, but in the words of a pop culture boundary-pusher from another era, they are “quite aware what they’re going through.”

After all, the clueless adults have already proven they don’t know how to make it better. Why should they listen to anything we have to say?

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The challenges of conducting in a pandemic

TWC’s first Black maestro Eugene Rogers on COVID and inclusion

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Dr. Eugene Rogers, artistic director of The Washington Chorus.  (Photo courtesy of TWC/Sundeep Studios)

When renowned conductor Dr. Eugene Rogers was announced as artistic director of The Washington Chorus (TWC) in February 2020, he was thrilled. As the first African-American maestro in the Grammy Award-winning choral ensemble’s 60-year history, he was eager to get to work. In midsummer, when he was in fact handed the reins to the chorus, the state of the world had changed dramatically and consequently conducting had too, yet he remained equally enthused.

By the end of the year, despite unprecedented challenges, TWC successfully managed to virtually present its popular annual holiday concert, “Candlelight Christmas,” as well as the moving short music film “Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow,” a TWC-commissioned work by acclaimed composer Damien Geter inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rogers grew up singing gospel and R&B in rural Halifax County, Va. He sang everywhere – up and down dirt roads and from the altar at church. A love for music prompted him to earn a bachelor’s degree in choral music education from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and the Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees in choral conducting from University of Michigan.

“Who grows up knowing what a conductor does?” Rogers asks. “But from my first conducting class I was hooked. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I’d been put on earth to conduct.”

And now knowing there are people of color who look to him for inspiration, Rogers takes his background as a Black conductor seriously. Through his presence on the podium and repertoire, he draws an increasingly diverse following to the classical music scene and beyond.

In addition to TWC, Rogers is Director of Choirs at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he lives with his husband Mark, a music lover though not a musician.

WASHINGTON BLADE: During a pandemic, what exactly is conducting?

DR. EUGENE ROGERS: For me it depends on the scenario. Here at the University of Michigan I’m in person with my classes. It’s the same but with precautions – we wear masks and the singers stand 12 feet apart. The space seats 300 plus with only 30 people or so in the room.

With TWC, my work is mostly remote. Still, the connection remains strong. The artistic work and inspirational motivational work as a conductor, the logistical work of increased planning, those elements are all there except in a different format.

BLADE: What else is the same?

ROGERS: Even with masks and Zoom, I’m still connecting with people and there’s always the musical merit – the craft, the art of what we do. And that’s why I’m not afraid for the future – if we can get 113 people at virtual rehearsal engaging with this art form even though it looks so different, that tells me we’re not going anywhere.

BLADE: This must require some flexibility.

ROGERS: Because of my background, I grew up able to improvise in styles. I’ve always brought that to my work. An ability to read the audience, change it up. That has benefited me during the pandemic.

I won’t lie — the stress level has been high when you have to throw everything and reinvent.

But together with my nimble, creative colleague Stephen Marc Beaudoin [TWC’s executive director], we’re not afraid to think outside of the box. We’re not afraid to make choices that look different from a traditional symphonic chorus.

BLADE: What’s your favorite music?

ROGERS: Whatever I’m studying at the moment. I love classical equally to folk, idiomatic music, as well as popular music. It changes with my mood, and the story I’m telling in a concert. I don’t have limits.

Right now, my life is mostly classical because I teach grad students who are going to be conductors. Currently I’m in a Mendelssohn and Bach world. Not a bad place to be.

BLADE: As TWC’s first African-American artistic director is inclusion on your mind?

ROGERS: Yes, inclusion ranks high with musical excellence and community.

TWC has a long relationship with conducting local youths. And I’m only hoping to expand that with relationships with HBCUs in the area and DCPS. I started off as a high school teacher.

We’re also creating the Mahogany Series, an annual concert focusing on the artistic contributions of black and Latinx and American Indian communities – symphonic, operatic, musical theater, jazz or blues.

I want to add more chairs to the table. To honor what TWC has done in the past and expand on it.

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