Live: Relaxed Muscle Gets Real At The Whitney

jarvis_relaxedmuscle.jpeg
Who's Zoo? feat. Relaxed Muscle
Whitney Museum of American Art
Saturday, April 7

Better than: Another Monday morning.

The Scottish choreographer Michael Clark's body of work has been about marrying opposites—underscoring his works with the music of the Fall and David Bowie, mingling professional dancers with amateurs onstage. In his just-completed residency at the Whitney Biennial, Clark continued those themes with Who's Zoo?, an abstract, yet charged performance set to songs by Pulp and Relaxed Muscle, two bands led by the singer/songwriter/DJ/author/all-around artistic overachiever Jarvis Cocker.

Pulp (whose reunion tour makes stops at Radio City tomorrow and Wednesday) is florid and expansive, creating anthems out of situations both small and grim; best known here for its withering putdown of class tourism "Common People," the band's last three albums (Different Class, This Is Hardcore, and We Love Life) are absolute treasures, chronicling the painful aging of not just Cocker and his bandmates but of a generation burned out on the hedonism it embraced if not wholeheartedly, then at least willingly enough to indulge in more than their fair share of excesses. Relaxed Muscle—which released one album, A Heavy Night With... (Rough Trade), in 2003—isn't Pulp's polar opposite, but it's much more suited for a club basement than a Glastonbury headlining set; while it retains Cocker's trademark wit, its songs are bare-bones, riding on the barely disguised erotic energy coursing throughout them as much as their music. "Sexualised," in which Cocker sneeringly reels off a list of those parts of the world that erotically charged (basically, everything ever) over grinding guitars and a relentless dance beat, probably sums up their world view best.

Who's Zoo? combined the work of these two acts in an effective way, with the first half of the performance being given over to a courtship of sorts—the professional dancers engaging in a pas de deux while Pulp's songs coursed around them. "F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.," a darkly anthemic song about the terrifying charge offered by romance, served as the performance's flex point; the nontrained members of the company came on to act out a sort of semaphore to the militaristic chorus, and once they'd receded from the stage the lyrics—"why me? why you? why now?"—projected onscreen behind the dancers as their bodies yawned into each other. The Relaxed Muscle line "I'm thinking about starting a zoo," from "Beastmaster," also flicked across the wall, and almost immediately after the energy shifted into something more erotic, the pros changing out of their costumes into black-and-white getups that showed more skin, bodies mingling and merging.

It was here, also, that Cocker came in, sporting a paint-spattered tan blazer (with RELAXED MUSCLE splayed across the back) and a black mask, which he eventually pulled up to reveal his face painted green. Cocker is a consummate frontman and remained so in this guise, facepaint and all, but his Relaxed Muscle persona (he performs under the alias "Darren Spooner") has him curdling his voice in a way that at one point brought to mind the paint-peeling yelp of Mudhoney's Mark Arm; the eroticism on display isn't quite angry, but it's aggressive, and thrilling in a dark way similar to the heaviest parts of Pulp's "This Is Hardcore." In keeping with the zoo theme, he at one point brandished a whip; during "3-Way Accumulator," as he sang about touching an unidentified person all night long, he handed out treats to certain audience members. (Whose zoo, indeed.) His overwhelming charisma took some of the performance's focus off the dancers—an unintentional side effect, sure, but also an unsurprising one given the singer in question and the rarity of these tracks being performed in a live setting over here.

For the big finish, a dancer threw open the curtain and let the Saturday afternoon sun flooded the gallery as Cocker launched into "B-Real," in which a drawn-out guitar lick flowers into a song-length jab at the notion of authenticity. Everyone bowed; the audience clapped and hooted. Covered in green facepaint and wearing a matching, ribcage-outlining shirt, he saluted his troupe, and wished the crowd a happy Passover and Easter. That was it; there could have been more, of course, but it was probably better to leave the crowd wanting.

Critical bias: Pulp is one of the best bands of the post-MTV era, but I I really, really love Relaxed Muscle, too.

Overheard: "I've seen him 15 times now, but never like this."

Random notebook dump: The bodysuits worn by some of the dancers in the performance's first half were a color scheme that I could only describe as "Slim Goodbody ombre."

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