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Nico Muhly’s New Territory

by Stephen Brookes, The Washington Post, 8/23/08.

You had to get way, way off the beaten track to hear the gifted young composer Nico Muhly perform on Thursday night. Originally booked into the Birchmere, Muhly switched at the last minute to a more intimate hall at the Church of the Ascension in Silver Spring, and it turned out to be a smart move. Performing with folk singer Sam Amidon and composer-pianist Thomas Bartlett (along with violist Nadia Sirota and Oren Bloedow on drums), Muhly presented a genre-busting mix of indie rock, folktronica and Steve Reich-flavored “serious” composition that thrived in the unconventional space.

Muhly, who turns 27 Tuesday, is the reigning It Boy of New York’s downtown music scene, and in his black clothes and shock of multidimensional hair, he fully looked the part. But Muhly has considerable talent, as he proved in works like “Keep in Touch” (a tour de force for Sirota, with Muhly accompanying on keyboard and electronics) and “Skip Town,” whose insistent patterns exploded with confidence and exhilarating, cathartic vitality.

The climax of the concert was a riveting performance of “The Only Tune,” from Muhly’s new album, “Mothertongue.” Starting with a quirky little folk song called “The Wind and the Rain,” Muhly built “Tune” into a searing, explosive powerhouse that defies categorization: a work of brain-bending originality and power.

Not everything on the program was as satisfying, though. Neo-folkie Amidon delivered a number of traditional American songs in an affected, faux-Appalachian twang that grated more than it convinced.

And while the self-described “insomnia pop” of Bartlett (a.k.a. “Doveman”) was pretty enough, songs like “Ghost” and “The Cat Awoke” were sung with such vague, breathy softness that they vanished almost as soon as he whispered them into the microphone.

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