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Buttery new Mika album assembles pastiche of throwback pop polish

As hit singles dried up, out singer/songwriter shows no sign of creative disenchantment

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Mika My Name is Michael Holbrook review, gay news, Washington Blade
(Image courtesy Republic Records)

First, I gotta get something off my chest: despite having released a glowingly wonderful new album, Mika has irritated me.

First, his current “Tiny Love Tiny Tour,” which kicked off last month and is on hiatus before resuming in November in Europe, featured a pathetically paltry three dates in the continental U.S. (there were two others in Montreal and one in Mexico City). Um, seriously? Your first U.S. tour in six-and-a-half years and you can only give us three dates? Not even a Miami show, where you actually live and recorded the new album? WTF?

I toyed with the idea of trekking up to New York for his show there, but am so glad I didn’t — he only played a paltry 70-minute set and completely ignored his last album, the 2015 masterpiece “No Place in Heaven.” He admitted in a recent Rolling Stone interview he used the no-frills U.S. dates to test material to unveil in a full-fledged production for the European dates. Um, gee, thanks. I mean, yeah, he’s a way bigger star in Europe so no surprise he keeps his eggs mostly in that basket, but this was such an egregious “fuck you” to his U.S. fanbase, it’s positively insulting. 

It’s hard to be too upset however as his new album “My Name is Michael Holbrook” (***1/2 out of four), out last week, is almost as good as “Heaven” and its equally solid predecessor “The Origin of Love” (2012). 

The 36-year-old openly gay pop singer/songwriter has hit an unfair sales slump. All his big hits were from his first two albums (“Life in Cartoon Motion” and “The Boy Who Knew Too Much”). They’re hook-laden ear feasts, too, but the last two albums and the new one feature a leaner, more sophisticated pop craftsman that sadly hasn’t caught on. Sales for “Origin” and “Heaven” paled in comparison to the first two records and yielded no major hit singles either here or abroad. “Popular Song,” an Ariana Grande duet, hit no. 87 on the Hot 100. His biggest hit, “Grace Kelly” was a worldwide smash in 2007 but only made it to no. 57 here. 

Washed up at 36? What’s going on here? Thankfully, artistically that’s not the case.

Written entirely by Mika (in most cases with a bevy of co-writers) and a new production team (Mark Crew and Dan Priddy) “Holbrook” is a lean, glistening pop gem featuring deceptively tight hooks; logical, cascading chord progressions; witty lyrical observations; tons of trademark falsetto vocals; and an overall buttery, easy-on-the-ear sonic shellac that flirts at first with an impression of slightness but ultimately so bombards you with catchy choruses you succumb to its charms even when you try to keep it at bay. 

Among the standouts are ‘70s-flavored “Paloma,” which starts off as a slightly out-of-tune piano ballad, kicks into a lite bossa nova shuffle, then builds into a finish with strings and choir; the Fleetwood Mac-ish “Sanremo” with its sunny, loungy vibe; and effortlessly breezy and slinky “Dear Jealousy.” 

First single “Ice Cream” is a sexy, catchy ear worm. The party continues with “Tomorrow” (“who gives a shit about tomorrow?”), another falsetto-soaked charmer. Opening cut “Tiny Love,” is catchy but feels a little pretentious and Beatles-derivative. Much later in the album, “Stay High” keeps the party going with a watusi groove and Monkees-esque chorus. 

Only occasionally does the album reveal flaws — “Cry” is a bit lame (but not horrific) and screams “B-side.” “Platform Ballerinas” gives things some unexpected rock crunch but feels jarring; Elton John-ish “I Went to Hell Last Night” is just OK and was “Tiny Love Reprise” really necessary? It’s different enough to be its own full cut but gets too big, overblown and soundtracky. A kids’ choir comes in, another character enters — it ultimately falters under its own pretentiousness. 

That might sound like a lot of quibbling for a three-and-a-half-star review, but the stuff that thrills works so exceedingly well, you just kind of take it and run with it. It’s the musical equivalent of delicately curated but highly accessible textile exhibit — there’s a sense that a lot of these pieces could have come from thrift store finds, but there’s just too many of them and almost no junk that you know you were falsely lulled into thinking this was easy to assemble. No single element is particularly original but it’s so expertly executed, you sense a master pop excavator is continuing work at his peak powers. 

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Music & Concerts

The Atlantis to showcase musical legends of tomorrow

New venue, a near replica of original 9:30 Club, opens next month

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A look at the interior of the original 9:30 club. (Photo public domain/Library of Congress)

A new nirvana for music fans opens next month adjacent to the 9:30 Club. Dubbed The Atlantis, this intimate venue embraces a 450-person capacity – and pays homage as a near-replica of the original 9:30 Club.

The $10 million venue comes courtesy of I.M.P., the independent promoter that owns and operates the 9:30 Club and The Anthem, and operates The Lincoln Theatre and Merriweather Post Pavilion.

The Foo Fighters will inaugurate The Atlantis on May 30, which is also the 9:30 Club’s anniversary. Foo Fighters lead singer Dave Grohl, during a concert in 2021, kicked off speculation that I.M.P was planning to open a new venue, noting that, “We’ll probably be the band that opens that place, too, right?”

Other big names on the inaugural 44-show run roster: Franz Ferdinand, Barenaked Ladies, Third Eye Blind, Spoon, and Billy Idol.

To thwart scalpers, The Atlantis utilized a request system for the first 44 shows when they went on sale two weeks ago. Within four days of the announcement, fans had requested more than 520,000 tickets, many times more than the total 19,800 available. All tickets have been allocated; fans who were unable to snag tickets can attempt to do so in May, when a fan-to-fan ticket exchange opens.

While I.M.P. oversees multiple larger venues, “We’ve been doing our smallest shows in other peoples’ venues for too many years now,” said Seth Hurwitz, chairman of I.M.P. “We needed a place that’s ours. This can be the most exciting step in an artist’s career.”

The 9:30 Club holds 1,200 people, while The Anthem has space for up to 6,000.

“This will be where we help introduce new artists to the world… our smallest venue will be treated as important, if not more, than our bigger venues. If the stories are told right, both the artists and the fans begin their hopefully longterm relationship. Its stage will support bourgeoning artists and the legends of tomorrow,” Hurwitz said. Hurwitz and the team developed a tagline for the new venue: The Atlantis, Where Music Begins.

Hurwitz got his start at the original 9:30 Club, originally located at 930 F St., N.W. He was an independent booker of the club for the first six years and then he bought it, and managed the move from its original location to its current location in 1996. The venue first opened in 1980.

Audrey Fix Schaefer, I.M.P. communications director, provides further insight. “We were missing small venues in our umbrella. Big acts don’t start in stadiums. We need a place for emerging artists and for the community to discover new acts. The Atlantis can help new artists grow.”

While design elements are still coming into focus, Schaefer says that the space will be intimate, with almost no separation between the artist and the crowd. “There will be energy on both sides of the stage,” she says.

Although The Atlantis is set to be a replica of the original 9:30, I.M.P. has spared no expense. Schaefer notes that the sound and light systems use the latest available technologies, similar to next door at the current 9:30 Club.

The Atlantis takes over the footprint of now-closed Satellite Room. The venue will have at least two bars flanking the stage; cocktails but no food will be available.

Schaefer notes that since its early days, 9:30 Club and I.M.P. “has always been a place where people are welcome. People come and feel safe with us.” 9:30 Club has hosted several LGBTQ Pride parties, the BENT dance party series, and other events for LGBTQ patrons. Particular acts of note during the kickoff run include Tegan & Sarah and Tove Lo.

The Washington Blade was a neighbor to the 9:30 Club at its original F Street location back in the 1980s. Despite their proximity, noise wasn’t an issue for on deadline nights, when Blade staff worked late hours.

“We would of course work later hours back then,” said Phil Rockstroh, a longtime Blade staffer, in a 2016 Blade interview. “Everything was typeset and done by hand without computers and fax machines so getting through deadlines was much more time consuming.”

Rockstroh said the noise wasn’t a distraction.

“It wasn’t too bad as older buildings were constructed more solidly,” Rockstroh said. “There was only one entrance to the building and you entered so far to the elevator that went up to the other floors and then continued down the hall to the entrance to the 9:30 Club. Frequently at night if I was coming or going, there were people spilling out the doors.”

“The Blade has always had a friendly relationship with the 9:30 Club,” he added.

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Music & Concerts

National Philharmonic to perform classical, contemporary works

Violinist Melissa White returns

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The National Philharmonic will host “Beethoven’s 7th” on Saturday, April 15 at 8 p.m. at Strathmore.

Past and present will collide in this performance of contemporary works and classical masterpieces. Maestro Piotr Gajewski will direct Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja, Anthem for Unity for Orchestra” Violinist Melissa White will also return to the Philharmonic to perform Florence Price’s sweeping, melodic “Violin Concerto No. 2.”

Tickets start at $19 and can be purchased on the Philharmonic’s website.

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Music & Concerts

Bruce & Janet & John Legend, oh my!

Slew of iconic acts hitting the road after pandemic cancellations

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Janet Jackson is among the iconic acts touring this spring.

Pop and rock icons are releasing their pent-up pandemic frustrations by mounting huge tours this spring and summer. After three years of canceled and postponed shows, everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Janet Jackson is hitting the road at long last. But save your coins because the TicketMaster algorithms are driving ticket prices to astronomical highs. Here are a few highlights from D.C.-area venues this spring. Although some of the iconic acts aren’t coming until summer — Beyonce, Madonna, Pink — several others are hitting the road this spring.

ANTHEM
Betty Who plays March 10; Keyshia Cole headlines the All Black Extravaganza 20 Year Anniversary tour on March 18; the Yeah Yeah Yeahs come to town on May 3; Seal brings his world tour to town on May 10; and the beloved Pixies are back on the road with a new North American tour stopping here on June 10.

9:30 CLUB
Don’t miss Gimme Gimme Disco, an Abba dance party on March 18; Inzo arrives on March 31, followed by Bent on April 1; Ruston Kelly brings his The Weakness tour on April 17 along with Purr; The New Pornographers show on May 19 is sold out but there are tickets available for the May 20 show; The Walkmen have added a fourth show on May 23 because the other three shows are sold our;

CAPITAL ONE ARENA
Living legend Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are back with a vengeance, playing one of four area shows on March 27. (They’re in Baltimore the night before.) If you missed out this time, don’t worry, Bruce is playing Nats Park in September as well as at Baltimore’s Camden Yards. April 1 brings the R&B Music Experience, including Xscape, Monica, Tamar Braxton, and 112. Blink-182 comes to town on May 23. And this summer watch for Sam Smith to continue his hot streak, bringing his “Gloria” tour to town on Aug.4.

JIFFY LUBE LIVE
Janet Jackson makes her highly anticipated return to the stage this spring, arriving in our area on May 6 along with guest Ludacris. The LGBTQ ally and icon has promised new music on her upcoming “Together Again Tour,” which follows the pandemic-related cancellation of her “Black Diamond Tour.” Jackson also plays Baltimore’s newly renovated CFG Bank Arena on May 13.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS
John Legend plays two nights at Wolf Trap on June 2 and 3; Charlie Puth follows on June 4. Wolf Trap also hosts the Indigo Girls on June 7 just in time for Pride month. Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with the Smithereens at the Birchmere on March 17. Fans of ‘80s alternative will be lined up for the Church also at the Birchmere at April 4, followed by Suzanne Vega on April 26. Amy Grant returns to the stage this spring and plays the Birchmere on May 2. Echostage plays host to a slew of buzz worthy shows this spring, including Ella Mai on April 8 and Fisher on May 12.

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