Throughout the 49-minute set, Russell focuses on songs for his voice and cello. (A trombone player and a keyboardist are also involved.) Russell’s cello is often amplified, and occasionally moves into distorted timbres that are easy, now, to hear as forerunners of 1990s indie rock.
Some of the lyrics will be familiar to fans of a posthumous Russell compilation, “Another Thought,” among other recordings. But these unhurried live takes are less suffused with echo effects than the familiar versions, allowing the disarming clarity of Russell’s voice to hypnotize anew.
SETH COLTER WALLS
Within the Darkness, Resilience
Rennie Harris is one of the great dance makers of our time. In adapting hip-hop dance to the concert stage, he is at once authentic, imaginative and affecting. Critics have been saying that for decades, but in all that time concert stages were pretty much the only places you could see what we meant. The availability of his work on video or online has been close to nil.
That changes this weekend, briefly, as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater streams his “Lazarus” on its website. Recently, Harris has done his most ambitious work not for his own small Philadelphia-based troupe, Puremovement, but for the enormously popular Ailey group. The hourlong “Lazarus,” created in 2018 for the Ailey company’s 60th anniversary in tribute to its founder, is the most elaborate.
Despite the Ailey troupe’s reputation for inspirational art, “Lazarus” isn’t exactly uplifting. Much of it reads like a nightmare, a dense and turbid vision of African-American history, a tortured questioning of how to survive as a black man in a white world, in Ailey’s day and now. Images of violence and pain abound, haunting in their awful beauty.
And yet “Lazarus” does inspire. Long skeins of glorious dancing — of quick-stepping, rhythmically complex Philadelphia footwork delivered in a cool, quiet manner — speak of inheritance, resilience, even confidence. More than a resurrection, “Lazarus” is a reminder of dark days before the current ones, and of how to dance through them with your eyes open.
A Star Is Prepared
The micro-narrative Rina Sawayama broadcasts through her Instagram handle, @rinasonline, points to the spirit of her artistic project. A Japanese-born Briton with a background in modeling, Sawayama made her musical debut in 2017 with “Rina,” an EP colored by the unique anxieties of digital life (e.g., “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome”) and indebted to pop from the early 2000s.
For her first full-length album, “Sawayama,” which is out on Friday, she has culled from a wider-ranging set of sonic influences. Bucking any expectations of stylistic cohesion, the record splices distorted, nu metal guitar riffs with slick pop hooks (“XS,” “STFU!”), embraces retro synths (“Love Me 4 Me”) and even tries a bit of adult contemporary balladry (“Chosen Family”). These songs model the creative promise of music in the streaming era: Like her digital-native peers, Sawayama has access to infinite sources of inspiration and limited interest in convention.
It’s a challenging time for pop artists to make a splash. Their corner of the industry tends to cling to old-school album-rollout theatrics — press engagements, billboard advertising, late-night-TV performances — that have largely been stunted by social distancing measures. But this is where Sawayama’s efforts to cultivate a digital community (her fans call themselves “Pixels”) are likely to pay off. She makes a fitting pop star for this moment, when many of us are online more than ever.
Issa Rae may be best known and beloved for creating and starring in her own HBO series, “Insecure” (Season 4 premiered on Sunday), but she deserves our eternal gratitude in this pandemic for a phone call she placed in 2018.
When BET canceled “The Rundown With Robin Thede” that July, Rae contacted Thede to develop her next project. That call resulted in “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” which debuted on HBO in 2019. (Unfortunately, it is not among the titles the cable channel is giving free access to this month, but you can view several of the show’s segments on YouTube.)
Before “The Rundown,” Thede was the head writer for “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore” on Comedy Central. In “Black Lady,” she shines in the spotlight, which she shares with Quinta Brunson, Ashley Nicole Black, Gabrielle Dennis and a coterie of other comedy greats and actors who guest star. Mixed in with the stand-alone sketches, like “Basic Ball” and a spoof on the 1980s sitcom “227,” is a running bit that is rather pertinent to our current moment: Thede, Brunson, Black and Dennis as themselves at a literal end-of-the-world party. Throughout the show’s six episodes, we revisit them as they cycle through their emotions, play Uno and compare the bags they packed for the apocalypse.
Thede deserves the Emmy for best variety sketch series, as well as the award for best actress in a comedy; she is the glue holding the sketches together and delivers laugh-out-loud moments as a sexually charged Motown frontman, a pseudo-intellectual who sees conspiracies in everything and a groom who can’t bring himself to say “I do” at his wedding.
We’re still doing Emmys this year, right?
SEAN L. McCARTHY
Lots of Movies, No Tickets Required
Even in the best of times, it’s hard to find a theater showing short films, foreign movies or offbeat independent cinema for young people. Those projects have always been the province of the New York International Children’s Film Festival, which last month canceled its final weekend to help halt the spread of the novel coronavirus. Instead, the festival announced the 2020 award-winning films on its social media channels and streamed its Best of the Fest shorts program.
But it didn’t stop there. In late March, the festival started a blog featuring a series of recommendations: Long Takes, Short Takes and Your Takes. Long Takes offers descriptions and trailers of outstanding features (and one TV series) from past festivals, along with streaming information. Short Takes provides links to free brief works. (It also incorporates talking points.) Your Takes consists of creative home projects, like a video tutorial on making stop-motion shorts. Families can sign up to receive all the material in weekly emails.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, the festival will add new titles to its blog. Current highlights include the animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Revolting Rhymes” (an ingenious take on fairy tales), by Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer, and “Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth,” a film directed by Philip Hunt and inspired by Oliver Jeffers’s best-selling picture book. (It will be available to stream on Friday.) And don’t miss Elizabeth Ito’s “Welcome to My Life,” a mockumentary about an amiable teenage monster just trying to fit in, and Joel Ramirez’s “Piñata Love,” the tale of an ardent devotion that requires no words.
Give Us That Old-Time Drama
If you love live theater and have some tolerance for the grouchy back-and-forth of Twitter arguments, you may have seen recent debates about whether videos of plays and musicals are acceptable substitutes. Pick a side. Or just straddle the divide and enjoy a form of theater never intended for live, onstage performance: audio drama. A dynamic genre from the early days of radio, audio drama has experienced a podcast-enhanced renaissance, with a big assist from Audible, which in 2017 started a $5 million fund to support plays for the ear.
Theater lovers could begin there, or with BBC Radio 4’s back catalog, but for sheer daring and nerd-powered pleasure, try a collection of podcasts from the playwright Mac Rogers: “The Message,” “LifeAfter” and “Steal the Stars.” High concept and story driven, the shows still tend toward the humane. Listen to a season while you jury-rig face masks or sanitize groceries. And prick up your ears for a roster of Broadway and Off Broadway voice talent, including Gideon Glick, Karen Pittman, David Zayas and Ashlie Atkinson. The stories — terrestrial and otherwise — explore the limitations of technology and the illusion of control. His protagonists are ordinary (or ordinary-seeming) people coping, more and less gracefully, with big, weird phenomena, which some of us might find extremely relatable.