Decades of Pop-Stardom on Display When Morrissey the Entertainer Takes the Stage

This past Saturday, while perched on a marble railing above the lobby of the beautiful recently restored Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York, before a sold-out concert from Morrissey, it was easy to find the former Smiths front-man’s face: on badges fans had stuck to their winter coats. It was there, after a fashion, in the many fans who had adopted some version of his famous floppy pompadour and it was there, more officially, on sale—posters, mouse pads, and somewhere between 14 and 18 different T-shirts. It was even on the drink tickets, which were in the style of tiny $1,000 bills with Moz’s face right in the center.

Once the show started, however, it was a bit harder to find. Morrissey, now 53 and almost halfway through his fourth decade as a pop icon, spent much of the show lit from behind or above, making him appear in silhouette. He ran off stage frequently (mostly to change shirts), and often turned his back on the audience. It wasn’t even entirely clear if the face in the center of the kickdrum was his or if it was the drummer, or someone else entirely.

At the same time, he spent long stretches of the show reaching out to touch the audience, as is his custom—holding hands, locking eyes, and accepting gifts. He ended this concert, as he does most, by pulling fans onto stage to hug him (anyone who jumped on stage unbidden during this portion was put in choke hold by security and hurled back into the crowd). It’s his show. His famously fanatically and devoted fans, who came in all ages and ethnicities, from gray-haired men in dad jeans to pink-haired seapunk 20-somethings, were there not just to see him, but to connect with him and bask in his presence. But then why did he seem to go to such lengths to take their eyes off of him?

Morrissey has spent these many years painting himself into a unique corner—wildly, internationally famous for being honest and introverted. These are two things that are hard to maintain; it’s much easier to be famous for playing the guitar, or having nice boobs. He’s paid the price for trying to maintain the former: his off-the-cuff comments and attempts to honestly engage with his interviewers have gotten him labeled everything from a racist to a xenophobe, a closeted thug, and a terrorist sympathizer. The latter is no less vexing—how can you be a pop star and still pose as a wilting wallflower? Part of his answer in the last decade and a half has been to largely abandon that pose, becoming in middle age more of a blustery bruiser, less the person the wallflower fan is than the person they might wish they were. No longer does he stand in the corner and mutter that someone ought to hang the DJ; now he defiantly says what he believes and dares anyone to disagree from within the broad-shouldered and square-jawed build of a Guy Ritchie character.

His legions fans and virtually unquestioning adulation among critics (separate from the tabloid journalists who seek to make a quick buck from stirring up controversy) are also something of an albatross. Walking into the show, my head was swimming with images of various hopelessly devoted Morrissey fans I’d know or seen over the years: the black haired, facially-pierced backpack patch-sporting girls I’d know in high school and college, the fanatically over-identifying Mexican-American fans in William E. Jones’s Is It Really So Strange, or the wafer-thin androgynous boys from just after college. I have been reading rapturous writing about the man most of my life. Take, for example, this quote from Simon Goddard, author of Songs That Saved Your Life, who told The Believer in 2004 that “Morrissey solo has become more of a religious experience. It’s all about what he represents. It’s sort of like kissing the papal ring.”

Could the man just put on a good show, have a beer, and go to bed? Is it possible for him to be other than transcendent? Given the show I saw Saturday, I’d say it definitely is—which I don’t mean as an insult. His voice is strong, he’s in great physical shape (unsurprising for relatively wealthy man in his fifties in 2013), and he seemed at times genuinely engaged, especially when showing graphic videos of animal cruelty as he sang “Meat is Murder.” Still, other times felt strongly rehearsed. The way he left the stage to change shirts just before launching into “Let Me Kiss You” so that he could tear it off and hurl it into the crowd at the moment he sings “Then you open your eyes / And see someone you physically despise,” felt as if it had been done thousands upon thousands of times before.

And, of course, it has. No matter what we might fool ourselves into believing, performances are rehearsed. We just don’t want them to feel that way. An audience wants to feel present at a spontaneous bit of electric presentness by their idol, to share a perfect bit of time together. And this weekend, they got to. If Morrissey didn’t perform exactly as someone might expect, well, I’m sure they could go fuck themselves, as far as he cared. He did exactly what he wanted. And in the end, that’s the most Morrissey thing he could have done, which is what everyone was after in the first place.

Illustration by Kevin Alvir.

Around The World and Back Again: Taiwanese Pop Comes To CMJ

No one came to see Chemical Monkeys. Not that that there wasn’t anyone in the audience during the set of the Taiwanese trio, who sound like an earnest early ’00s pop rock act—picture, for example, a particularly turgid Linkin Park song sung in Mandarin—but that as their time on stage wore on, it became clear that no one was here specifically to see them. Friends chatted, drinks were ordered, and the small, glowing tubes and tiny pitchforks which everyone in the audience but me seemed to have been informed to buy via secret message—the garbage can just outside the venue was full of their bulbous cardboard and plastic packaging—stayed listlessly by everyone’s side.

No wonder their songs were so dour. There they were, one of three bands handpicked by their own government, flown around the world to New York City, to play a packed concert to a crowd of largely their own countrymen, people who should already be well aware of who they were, and they’re greeted with indifference. The other two groups were more fortunate. 831, five fresh-faced young men with boy-in-the-cubicle-next-door good looks whom it’s tempting to call a boy band, but who were described as an “Alternative Rock band” by the pink, teardrop-shaped fans handed out by perky volunteers standing near the venue’s entrance. The fans, a marvel of full-color printing, featured pictures and descriptions of each band (apparently, I’d missed that Chemical Monkeys’ songs “center[ed] on themes of Love, Peach, Strength & Friendship”). Finally, there was Da Mouth, whose name is something of a semi-intentional trans-language pun, “da” also meaning “big” in Mandarin (“Big Mouth,” “Da Mouth”—both good). These bands, and hundreds of their fans, packed into Union Square Ballroom toward the beginning of CMJ. It was one of the week’s stranger events.

First off, there was the venue. Despite spending nearly a decade attending shows in New York, I’d never been to or heard of it before. Its low ceilings and blue lights seemed more suited to a wedding reception than a pop spectacle. This turned out to be the case: the sound cut out several times while bands were on stage, and the sound mix was often wildly off, the instruments far too loud and the vocals far too soft.

Then there was the broader context. Why had these bands traveled the nearly 8,000 miles from Taiwan to New York? To conquer America? Ever since Korean artist Psy horsey-danced his way to having one of the world’s most-watched YouTube videos, America has been having something of an Asian pop moment. So, in a way, there could not be a better moment for pop groups from another small democratic, capitalist Asian nation to attempt to break into America. While the room may have been full (with a line to get in stretching around the block), it was full of Taiwanese and Chinese ex-pats, excitedly murmuring in Mandarin. The people who organized the show must have been expecting this, as they had raffles and quizzes in between acts entirely in Mandarin, making the entire evening basically impossible to access for anyone who didn’t speak the language. It was more than a little bewildering—why fly halfway around the world to play for your home crowd?

Perhaps, at least in part, to hold firm the wall that keeps K-Pop acts away from Mandarin-speaking audiences. Taiwanese music is largely sung in Mandarin, the officially encouraged language throughout much of Southeast Asia. Mandarin music (or “Mandopop”) is made, marketed, and wildly popular all over Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and, since the late 1980s, Mainland China. And K-Pop is gunning for its devotees.

Mandopop has more than a few advantages. Its bands don’t have to deal with the rigid strictures of dance, appearance, and general clean living imposed by K-Pop’s overlords, dubbed “cultural technology.” For all their playfulness, many K-Pop bands can often seem painfully stifled. Taiwanese acts, on the other hand, seem to be having a good time—flipping their hair, breakdancing, jumping around. A recent video from 831, for example, features dancers with their faces painted like Heath Ledger’s Joker, or wearing stormtrooper helmets. It’s not exactly Black Flag, but it’s pretty out there compared to the rows of identical girls and boys that make up most pop idol groups from Korea.

Da Mouth are also fun and fancy free in contrast with Korea’s bands of musical replicants. The group’s two-girls-one-guy lineup led the showcase’s organizers to call them “the Taiwanese Black Eyed Peas,” although their relentlessly thumping over-the-top dance sound, as in their song “Are You Afraid,” puts them more in line with modern Rihanna or Ke$ha, fellows in the extremely popular genre of “anonymous people shouting over dance beats.” They also know how to put on a show. They were dazzling to look at (one member wore his hair bleached a kind of straw yellow, styled straight up in the air, and held in place by a crown), and soldered on, unaffected, through some sound hiccups.

831 make some of my favorite videos, but they were more flummoxed by their sound problems. The band seemed disoriented for much of their time on stage, and kept saying they couldn’t hear themselves sing over their overly loud guitars. We in the audience couldn’t, either.

Judging from Seabrook’s description, K-Pop acts know how to put on a dazzling live show. This may be the only place they have Mandopop beat, as two of three bands were lackluster. Luckily, live performance might be the least important element of 21st Century multimedia pop stardom. Mandopop devotees have a little breathing room. Taiwan should feel free to stop flying its acts all over the globe, and just let them make some more fun videos.

Follow Chris Chafin on Twitter.

Prolific Wunderkind Ty Segall Releases Yet Another Album This Year—And It’s Completely Different

Fans of sludgy, lo-fi, aggressive rock have only had one name on their lips this year: Ty Segall. The 25-year-old Californian, whose shaggy blond hair and baby face make him look like a young Thurston Moore, has already put out two albums in 2012. One, Slaughterhouse, has a spaced-out wall of guitar sound, while the other, Hair, is a lo-fi, feedback-filled, shambolic psychedelic trip. These records are the best kind of genre exercises: wildly fun and playful, but still operating within conventions that make them easy to listen to. Both records were deemed “Best New Music” on Pitchfork (average score: 8.45), and praised up and down the blogosphere. Stereogum spoke for many fans and critics when they called
 Slaughterhouse “a confident attempt at
making the ‘evil, evil space rock’ Segall
has repeatedly cited as his ideal sound.”

So why, on his third album of the 
year, Twins, is he leaving all that behind? “The whole ‘evil space rock,’ thing—honestly I wish I’d never said that,” Segall admitted recently while on a rare break in his European tour. Confronted with that Stereogum quote, his usually implacable Californian good–naturedness is punctured for a rare moment. “Evil space rock is one ideal sound,” he says, sounding a little baffled. “But, we like doing different stuff.”

From the opening chords on the new album, that’s clear. The screeching, lo-fi, dirty metal sound of almost all his other records (save, perhaps, last year’s tuneful Goodbye Bread) is gone. In its place is an unusually mature, structured, and melodic collection of songs. There are layered vocal harmonies, female backup singers, bridges, and snappy, memorable choruses. That’s not to say it’s not heavy—there are still plenty of lightning bolts of guitar wizardry. But the mix has calmed down, the notes all have plenty of space to breathe, and the background fuzz is at a minimum. At times, Segall almost sounds like 1990s Britpop kings Supergrass (especially on the album’s opener, “Thank God For Sinners”) or even Revolver-era Beatles. (“The Hill” has moments that sound like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” or, as Segall calls it, “that song where they say ‘Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream.’”)

Segall sees the record as more of an evolution than a departure. “I wouldn’t say that I have to sound distorted and gnarly and messed up on recordings for me to be happy with them,” he tells me. “I’ve always wanted to get that clean sound.” Indeed, the past year have seen a whole raft of lo-fi artists, from Frankie Rose to the Vivian Girls, attempting to release more full-sounding, mature albums. Segall is just another in a long line.

Not that he necessarily had any of this planned going in. When I ask him what his inspiration for the new record and its new sound was, he pauses for a moment. “Well, you know, I got this fuzz pedal that I really liked, and I really wanted to use. I was like, okay, start here and see what happens.” Some things never change.

Follow Chris Chafin on Twitter.

Searching for Love in Gothenburg with Jens Lekman

Jens Lekman—global vagabond, indie heartthrob, singer-songwriter, romantic Don Quixote, and international music star—is just about to release his fourth proper album, I Know What Love Isn’t, when I meet with him in Gothenburg, Sweden. It’s also his first release in almost five years. Between his debut in around 2003 and his last album, 2007’s Night Falls Over Kortedala, Lekman was reasonably prolific, releasing three albums and ten EPs. While some songs popped up on multiple releases, fans could count on some kind of new Jens Lekman single or EP or album popping up every few months. Then, suddenly, there was nothing.

“A lot of people thought I had writer’s block,” Lekman tells me, “but it was the opposite of that. There were just so many songs coming out. What I had probably was a finishing block—if there is such a thing. I felt like I was trying to do what I always did, which was just to make a loose collection of recordings and throw them together. But the album was trying to tell me that it wanted to be an album, and I wasn’t really paying attention to that.”

I’m having something of a hard time paying attention to Lekman myself. We’re sitting on a park bench, sipping coffee and munching doughnuts under a tree, while a roller coaster roars behind us and children run by screaming with errant candy wrappers and stumbling parents in their wake. I’m on a short vacation to Sweden, which I’ve given myself as a thirtieth birthday present, and I’m staying in Lekman’s hometown of Gothenburg on the country’s far western coast. As it happens, he was in town at the same time. He suggested we meet at Liseburg, a huge, leafy, and slightly rinky-dink amusement park that sits just on the edge of town—picture Disney’s Main Street, U.S.A. if it were Nordic, mixed with a few large modern roller coasters, arcades, and performance venues. “It’s the largest [amusement park] in Northern Europe,” Lekman tells me with a rather bemused tone.

In the days leading up to our interview, whenever I would tell a local that I was meeting going to Liseburg, they would frown slightly and ask me why (to be fair, they also reacted this way when I told them I was spending my vacation in Gothenburg). The general consensus was that it’s the kind of place you go once and never again. Lekman agreed: “First time, you vomit, basically. Then you know what it’s like.”

Much of Lekman’s work is about his hometown. He slouches lovesick around its public transport, neighborhoods, and even its many, many convenience stores. When he sighs in one early song, “Have you eaten your banana from 7-11?” it’s hard to imagine cramming more repressed romantic feeling crammed into a snack question.

“Gothenburg used to be a really tacky place. This was Gothenburg,” he says, gesturing at the tourists and souvenir sellers that surround us. “It was green moon bunnies, shrimps, people playing bingo. Music and culture was just desperate people trying to replicate what was going on in the U.S. and the U.K. It was horrible.

“You couldn’t sing about trams in the ’90s,” he continues, referring to Gothenburg’s self-consciously old-fashioned public transportation system. “You would have been killed if you did that. You would have been laughed at. But, all of a sudden, in the first years of the new millennium you could do that. There was like newborn pride, almost like a patriotism, over that. It really had its roots in what was not cool about [Gothenburg] rather than what was a little cool about it.”

There’s another supposedly uncool thing that has been central to Lekman’s work: sincerity. None of his songs wink at the listener, though they can be funny. He always puts himself at the center of the narrative, trying desperately to accomplish something. That can be something grand, like falling in love, but as often as not it’s something ordinary—he wants to get home from a party, or ride his bike up a hill, or have a good time at a party—but circumstances conspire to make him ridiculous. On “The Opposite of Hallelujah,” he’s taken his little sister to the beach to try to have a heartfelt talk with her about life. “I picked up a seashell to illustrate my homelessness,” he sings. “But a crab crawled out of it, making it useless.” This is fairly typical. He’s a kind of good-natured, lyrical Harold Lloyd, doing his best in an absurd universe. Despite his continual frustrations, especially with love, Lekman never sounds despairing. He simply packs up and tries again, with a new girl, in a new country, on another night.

At least, that was the case. There’s a creeping melancholy at the edges of I Know What Love Isn’t. Strike that; it’s not at the edges—it’s front and center. It’s in the mournful piano interlude that bookends the record, in the long, low sax solos that pepper the record, in Lekman’s extra slow and sleepily downtrodden singing. Hell, it’s right there in the title. It sounds like something a confused and sad person says when they break up with someone for reasons they can’t really articulate or something you to tell yourself when looking back at a relationship that ended for reasons you don’t understand. Is this what happened to Lekman?

“I would say about sixty-six percent is autobiographical,” he tells me. “For a while, I was worried that it was too personal. I was worried that I was just putting out my diary and that no one would be able to relate to it. The way I wrote was very—as opposed to the way I wrote before, when it was more like I had an idea for a song and the song was done already when I wrote it. For this record, I just started writing to see where it would take me, basically. And I started drawing from personal experience, and personal things that had happened to me, and then the stories started taking shape on their own.”

This wasn’t the only thing that makes this an unique entry in Lekman’s catalogue. Previously, Lekman assembled his albums by writing and recording a whole raft of songs, and sending them around to his friends. “You know what Eurovision Song Contest is?” he asks me, referring to the American Idol-like trash TV spectacle that captivates all of Europe every year. “They had like one of those. They’d call me up, and be like, ‘Song number three: five points. Song number four: eight points,’ and I’d put together a chart, and it would come out as an album.” Love, conversely, started out as an album, with the order and flow of the songs mapped out from the start. This is hardly a musical revolution for the world at large, but it felt that way to Lekman.

Eventually, Lekman and I say our goodbyes. “Do you like rollercoasters?” he asks me, and I have a sudden burst of anxiety, because I can’t tell what answer he’s looking for. I can’t even necessarily remember if I do like rollercoasters or not. Finally, I venture a yes. “Well, in that case, you should check out Balder,” he says, gesturing at the park’s famous antique wooden rollercoaster. Thirty minutes later, he’s gone, and I’m still waiting in line for my ride. It occurs to me that I’m only there in case I run into him later, so I’ll have something to talk to him about.

As it happens, I do run into him again. That evening, Lekman invites me to join him and his friends at Mastthuggskyrkan, an imposing, nearly century-old church that sits towards the edge of town on the side of a steep hill. We drink wine and smoke cigarettes while the sun sets over the city. There’s an outdoor concert whose sounds waft up to us as we chat, in English, for my benefit. Eventually, the last light fades, fireworks go off over the concert, and we all split up. Lekman has to go to bed because he’s taking his father to a concert the next day.

More than anything, I Know What Love Isn’t sounds like Jens’s break-up record. A man who has spent most of his adult life running away from other people seems to have finally had his heart broken. Earlier in the day, I suggested this to Lekman. Has the way he looks at relationships changed as he’s grown older? He’s 31 now. Is he looking for something more permanent in his life? Has it gotten harder to just pull up stakes and move on at the end of a relationship?

He takes a long pause before answering. “Maybe. Well, let me just quote Candi Staton: ‘Young hearts run free.’ It’s harder when you’re older to get dumped.” It may have gotten harder, but that doesn’t mean Lekman has given up tilting at windmills.


Follow Chris Chafin on Twitter.

Animal Collective Returns with ‘Centipede Hz’

Centipede Hz, the new album from electronic soundscape creators Animal Collective, thunders out of the gate like none of their other work. The lead track “Moonrock” is a feverish ride on the back of the thunderous beat of a live kick drum. And that’s not the end of the live instruments: guitars strum, keyboards hit, and you can almost hear the drumsticks clacking. For most bands, this isn’t big news. But for Animal Collective, an outfit largely famous for their abstruse textural landscapes, it’s a revolution.

The quartet has always had a
bit of an identity problem. They’re
 an experimental band who can make
droning long-form songs that are
supremely challenging to the average
listener; they’re the pop band whose tracks “My Girls” or “Summertime Clothes” wouldn’t sound out of place synced to commercials for hybrid cars; they’re the band who, according to the internet, was “created by/for/on the internet,” yet they were so terrified of their music leaking online that every review copy came with a 300-word excoriation of file-sharers and a timeline for when it was permitted to mention having heard it on Facebook (August 1).

It’s hard to think that the same group that made “My Girls” also made aggressively rocking, inaccessible tracks like “Transverse Temporal Gyrus Part 1.” But perhaps this willingness to veer around, to make left turn after left turn, is what Geologist, the man largely responsible for the band’s heady layers of samples, means when he says Hz “feels like an Animal Collective record” since change is the only thing constant across their catalog. “We like to feel like every record is a bit of an unexpected departure,” he says.

But the band’s newfound focus on live instruments doesn’t mean they’ve come back down to earth too much. In addition to forging new musical terrain, Hz is also a full-on concept album, focusing on “the afterlife of radio signals.” There are garbled radio noises in the intros and outros of most songs, out of which swell songs, like “Father Time,” in which a ghostly semi-tropicalia beat shimmers into life before fading away.

In fact, much of the album feels like woozy station surfing, which is a good way to think of the non- teleological evolution of the band. If Centipede Hz isn’t for you, change the dial. “There’s enough in our discography that you can sort of pick and choose what sides of Animal Collective you like,” says Geologist, “without—I hope— being offended when we do something you don’t like.”

Antony Hegarty Gets Synesthetic for Swanlights

Antony Hegarty is one of those artists that America produces but never seems to quite know what to do with. Technically born in England, yes, Hegarty grew up in America, and it’s where his music, under the name Antony and the Johnsons, became more-or-less famous for its ethereal, emotional nature, and the way repeated phrases grow new tendrils of meaning through repetition and Hegarty’s evocative, ghostly, undulating voice. He’s a darling in England, where his 2005 album I Am a Bird Now won the Mercury Prize, a sort of combination Grammy and MacArthur Genius Grant. But, when I told my usually-in-the-know friends I was going to see a one-time-only piece from Antony commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art, I got mostly blank stares. Hegarty’s work can be hard to access — it has no hooks, no beats, usually not even a proper chorus or verse. That is not his mission. Instead, he broadcasts directly to a listener’s heart using his powerful, ghostly voice over simple arrangements.

It was fitting, then, that the show (concert? event? installation?) Swanlights mostly featured Hegarty singing alone on the stage at Radio City Music Hall, a tiny figure at first silhouetted behind a screen, then alone under the stage’s impossibly towering curve save for some playful lasers which danced around him and a sort of pixelated paper asteroid which hung over his head and was slowly pulled apart over the course of the show’s two or so hours.

The show also featured stunningly emotive arrangements for a 60-piece orchestra by Nico Muhly, lasers designed by Chris Levine that could expand into vast green and purple clouds or dance like tiny fairies, and the aforementioned asteroid created by Carl Robertshaw, which I am sure served a metaphorical purpose which escapes me. The night took its name and themes of poetic environmental alarm from Hegarty’s most recent album, but it featured songs from all four of his releases. Originally planned to take place in MoMA’s towering atrium, a space which has hosted similar multimedia events from artists like Pipilotti Rist and Marina Abramovic (Doug Aitken’s work was similar in spirit, but also grew beyond the atrium), the addition of the orchestra made it too big – it had to find another home.

Despite moving a few blocks downtown, the work is “in the same vein,” as the above pieces, explained Klaus Biesenbach, Chief Curator at Large of MoMA and Director of MoMA PS1, and the man who’s been working with Hegarty for three years to make Swanlights a reality. “I am interested in this idea, what you would call in German synästhesie. This idea of the unity of what you see and what you hear and what you experience. So of course, I’m also very interested in Antony.”

If anything involving a two-hour orchestral laser show at one of New York’s most monumental theatres by one of the world’s greatest modern art museums can be said to be odd, then the origins of this project are indeed extremely odd.

“A couple of years ago, I visited an artist upstate, and Antony and I just ended up being the two people who travelled together,” Biesenbach explains. “And while being with this artist upstate — the artist actually was Marina Abramovic — [Antony] found this huge branch of a tree. He took it with him to the city, and I remember how he we got it into the train. Then I saw a little poem he made, and I kind of recognized that tree branch in it, and then I saw that drawing in Swanlights, where there’s a little introduction book. First I see it in a poem, and then I recognize the branch somewhere in a drawing, and in the end it ends up in his music. I think I’m fascinated by this [method of] really looking at the whole world and very holistically making something out of this that is otherworldly, perhaps because that is what he is.”

This movement — tree branch to poem to drawing to song — solidified Biesenbach’s instincts that Hegarty was on the same synesthetic mission as him. Indeed, sitting in the audience of Radio City, with lights changing from tiny pinpricks to vast color fields as Hegarty’s voice seemed to momentarily latch onto and ride the swell of the orchestra before pushing off and soaring above it, it was easy to see that Biesenbach’s instincts were correct.

“I’m intrigued that there is no difference between his opinions, his daily experience, no gap between who he is and what he does,” Biesenbach continues. “So he is really a true artist. Which is pretty fascinating, I think.”

Get Dressed for Your Holiday Party With Help From Travis Sylvester

We’re deep in the middle of holiday party season, a time of love and cheer, brotherhood amongst men, and, if we’re being real, deadly competition for total sartorial dominance. There’s only person we  want in our corner: Travis Sylvester, the most nattily-dressed man in Brooklyn. Sylvester can be found most weekends behind racks of tweed blazers and corduroy bow ties in his stall at the city’s best market for the classically-minded, The Brooklyn Flea, hawking his wears to celebrities like Danny Glover, Chris Rock, and Seth Rogan (as well as everyday joes like us). Sylvester was kind enough to share some strategic advice–what five things should no gentleman be without this busy party season?

The Bow Tie
Bow ties have been big all year: it wasn’t uncommon to see them paired with seersucker shorts and short-sleeved dress shirts in the sweatiest days of summer. Sylvester suggests varying the prints or material for the holidays: golds, reds, or a holiday plaid in a non-traditional material like velvet can give you that extra edge you need to stand out from the hoi-polloi. “A lot of times, bow ties have a stuffy image,” he explains, “but I try to change that. They’re sophisticated and seriously fun. You can have a short-sleeved dress shirt and trunks on and jump in the jacuzzi with a bow tie.” 

Nice Socks
"Never wear boring socks–ever." While socks might seem like a small thing, Sylvester is as emphatic about this as anything else we talk about. Socks are “a statement piece, like ‘what’s going on there?’” he says. Don’t worry about overdoing it: “It’s cool when your socks don’t match anything you have on.”  Indeed, the night we met, he was wearing aqua socks with beige-and black saddle shoes.  

A Tailored Blazer
A well-fitted blazer is a holiday essential. Sylvester likes pieces with “ticker pockets”–small watch pockets above the hip pocket–and a double-vent in the back, which helps them lay flatter on men with trim frames. Take it to your local tailor for the best results.

A Nice Watch
James Bond might want you to buy a $2,000 watch that can tell time underwater, but that’s not really necessary says Sylvester. “Keep it simple,” with a Timex or even a Casio he advises. Just look for one with a leather band and gold or silver face–the smaller the better. “Watches are doing too much stuff these days, ” he says. “It’s like a Swiss Army watch. Just tell the time.”

The Fitted Shirt
“A shirt sets the tone for your whole outfit,” he says. You need one that fits, obviously–no blousing around the waist–but what about color and pattern? He has a few ideas: “With a good white shirt, you can’t lose. But I like to take risks, so I might do a wool or some ginghams, or stripes.” What about the eternal question: tucked or untucked? Sylvester is always tucked, except, he says, at the end of the night. “At the end of the night, my shirt’s untucked and my bow tie’s open.”

Travis Slyvester is at the Brooklyn Flea every weekend, has a bow tie website launching Christmas morning, and can be found on Twitter at @TravtheSplendid

Handmade Decadence & Vintage Super Soakers at Urban Oasis The Palms

In the lobby at The Palms, there are five Super Soakers in a glass display case. “We had to source each of the Super Soakers individually,” I was told by merchandise manager Jeffrey Opdyke. “I mean, these things are rare on eBay. I wanted to really represent the classic aesthetic.” This attention to detail is evident all over the new indoor/outdoor pool, bar, and pop-up shop from 3rd Ward and a handful of other New York-based arts and events companies. The paint inside The Palms is the perfect shade of white and yellow, in stripes of an ideal width. The pools are pristine. The food is quality. The drink selection is enviable. Everything in the tiny shop is interesting, from the current issue of Spanish design bible Apartmento, to the miniature rubber duckies, and of course, to those Super Soakers, which sell for $55 each.

The Palms is not oppressively perfect, not a “Oh god, is my shirt nice enough to be here?” kind of place. It’s perfect is exciting, liberating even. It inspires total trust in the masterminds behind this month-long celebration of summer in a reclaimed parking lot in Queens. Everything you touch, whether it’s a chilled bottle of prosecco, a lobster roll, or the bottom of a dumpster, which house the swimming water, is just as you’d want it to be. So why not touch everything? The Palms claims to be an “ode to the Boca Raton of a bygone era,” but what it conjures in less specifically-minded visitors is a mix of mid-century vacation destinations filtered through a DIY lens: Ocean’s 11 and Don Draper’s fateful trip to LA as interpreted by Michel Gondry. The interior of the space—a reclaimed bank, the vault now full of designer T-shirts and reasonably priced sunglasses perching on safety deposit boxes—is the kind of perfect that seems imported from another outer borough, Brooklyn. There’s not a hair out of place.

The outside, though, is where the real action is. Deck chairs are arranged in a semi-circle around a ping-pong table. There are squares of astroturf for lounging on as you nibble lobster rolls from the Red Hook Lobster Pound or tacos from Mexicue (available on different weeks), or have your photo taken by nightlife photographers. Then, of course, there are the pools, which are, from a certain angle, perfect. Stand in one of them, and all you can see are beautiful people lounging half-naked, giggling, and kissing under oversized Christmas lights, as rented lifeguards shoo away anyone who tries to bring a drink onto the deck (something that’s strictly forbidden). You can feel lush foam padding under your feet, listen to the hum of the filters (yes, the water is filtered), and just exhale in a profound way New Yorkers rarely get to do without a trip to the Catskills. Walk down the wooden stairs towards the striped changing tents on one side of the DJ booth, and the illusion unravels a bit. That deck is just a series of 2x4s cobbled together and suspended improbably high in the air—you can walk right underneath it, in fact. The pools, as has been widely advertised, are just steel containers of various sizes, although calling these retro-fitted steel receptacles “dumpsters,” while technically accurate, seems a tad misleading.

To me, though, this makes the whole thing immensely more charming. The visible seams of The Palms put it in the finest Andy Hardy “Let’s put on a show” tradition. It’s DIY luxury, homemade decadence. It’s also a fucking blast, even though most of the crowd is a little more attention-seeking and Eurodisco than I normally like, and, as a vegetarian, I can’t partake in the lobster rolls. (And yet, I didn’t have the best abs in the room.) Still, it’s impossible not to be dazzled.

So, get there early, buy a soju cocktail, or smuggle in some weed — as my nose told me more than one person had — and enjoy yourself. That’s what it’s there for.

All Photography by Karen M Plemons