'Estonia': The Country's Acclaim for Depeche Mode May or May Not Explain so Many Long Faces

Occupied and brutalized for most of the past century, the only post-Communist Nordic nation, this newly independent country, in this eclectically arranged and intentionally diffused account, represents for Alexander Theroux an object lesson in cultural nationalism.

Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery

Length: 352 pages
Author: Alexander Theroux
Price: $29.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2011-11

"A collapsing tiny box-set of a republic that is dark as a cave in winter, shit-cold for most of the year, a strange ignored dorp with no ice-free ports, a queer language, curious laws, rummy food, eccentric people, funny money, and a veritable forest of unreadable signs." This formidably erudite, incorrigibly vexed novelist follows his wife, Sarah, to this Baltic nation in 2008, where she paints on her Fulbright grant scenes of its stolid towns.

Brother of the equally waspish travel writer Paul, Alexander Theroux, meanwhile, skulks, fulminates, studies, and walks wherever he can, soaking up the frigid atmosphere of its people, who totter about "round, turnip-nosed, bulbous". Their hair may resemble a cock's crow, or a potato's shade of brown. Estonians may garden naked in summer, but they remain sour-faced when meeting his gaze.

They represent an evolutionary oddity, for in a place where 54 percent of the population is female, its young women whisk about in tight jeans, Goth-accentuated makeup, and impassive hauteur while their middle-aged counterparts appear "concave" and dumpy. This remains a mystery to me, this mid-life transformation from leggy goddess to hunched crone, but as one of Estonia's many misogynistic proverbs puts it: "Young maidens and white bread age rapidly."

Theroux wanders -- once on a bus whose engine sounds like an opened potato-chip bag's rustle -- its blue-bleached, white-bright landscapes. They, in this half-forested realm, dominate a flat and chilly niche for a population less than that of the Gaza Strip. The citizens of this land, ranked first worldwide in accident-prone mishaps and second in alcohol consumption, endure as they have within their little outpost for thousands of years. They share linguistic roots more with their Finnish cousins than their Latvian and Lithuanian neighbors to the south. Estonia squirms between two ancient antagonists, Germany and Russia.

"The Nazis visited, but the Soviets stayed." Occupied and brutalized for most of the past century, the only post-Communist Nordic nation, this newly independent country, in this eclectically arranged and intentionally diffused account, represents for Theroux an object lesson in cultural nationalism. It's a third alternative more genial than Benjamin Barber's global clash between "Jihad vs. McWorld". Reasoning that such small lands survive more on their own terms than those of multinational capital and ideological capitulation, Estonia for Theroux turns more intriguing the less genial it becomes.

Tellingly, the place is absent from 1001 Places To See Before You Die. Stranded as he is for Sarah's academic year, he must navigate "a ramble through the periphery" with little guidance from books or guides. "I bucked up, although I was never warm. I had heard Estonia got milder, that many are cold, but few are frozen."

Such levity is welcome in what can be (as with his themed essays The Primary Colors and The Secondary Colors, or his daunting if rewarding novels Darconville's Cat, An Adultery, and Laura Warholic, or the Sexual Intellectual) a challenging encounter with a cranky autodidact. He appears to remember everything he has read, and he shows this frequently with citations from an unpredictable shelf.

Theroux intersperses, in the style of such forebears as W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice's Letters from Iceland, a diverse array of digressions. In a chapter ostensibly given over to "Antiques", six pages castigating the Israeli occupation of Palestine enter the contents. Newer fulminations against such outrages as waterboarding and the trial of former Nazi guard John (or Ivan) Demjanjuk join habitual rants about American illiteracy and laziness, part of the vast jeremiad that expanded the satire of Laura Warholic.

The author takes comfort doggedly if bitterly in a nation with little luxury despite its high levels of technology. (Skype was invented here, and nearly everyone reads and uses cellphones for every function that can be digitized). He rallies against the Estonian determination not to play his welcoming host. He knows that to the Estonians he looks as if another Ugly American. Oddly, the stoicism of the people and the difficulty of the language drive Theroux, an already contrary character, into a stubborn effort to account for the glum mood of his dour hosts. (Estonia's acclaim for Depeche Mode may or may not explain so many long faces.)

This is where the book turns intriguing, if more in glimpses than sustained analysis. How long can a people sustain surliness? "Grimly you begin to see good manners take effort, attention, style, but rudeness takes none." In bewildering Estonian, "smile" and "turnip", at least to Theroux, appear as if near-cognates.

Not that he seems cheerful. Theroux delights in putting down his hosts along with his fellow Americans. He despises Bush and praises Obama. He hates US foreign policy and suspects Zionism. He remains a New England type, flinty and sharp. He deploys bombast, overkill, and ridicule to pepper his perennial pop-up targets of greed, lassitude, and stupidity.

He includes here his caustic if characteristic habit of lists, ruminations, and rants. For all his predilection for careful observation of how people look, sound, and move, he inflates, if maybe in sly self-deprecation, the impact others have on him -- rather than vice versa. In a chapter on Sarah's fellow Fulbrighters, "The Whole Squalid Lot", he returns to what has captivated him since his debut 1972 trio of short stories Three Wogs, and which dominates long stretches of Darconville and Laura: the admiration of amplification.

He claims to name Sarah's fellow Fulbright grantees: "Katerina the Crank, Benny Profane, Currants and Queel. The noxious Butterheads. Sairey 'Is That Your Nose or Are You Eating a Banana' Golomb who in a discussion we recently had actually thought the Ottoman Empire was a chain of furniture stores. The notoriously cheese-paring Belk, the miser. And how about Capybara?"

Theroux habitually gives such quaint, oddball names to those he excoriates or, far less often, encourages. This metaphrastic register -- heaping up recondite vocabulary, obscure obsessions, and highbrow observations -- may strain Theroux's voice on the page. Even in the comparatively compact (for him) Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery, a few pages for those new to this maximalist practitioner may suffice until one becomes acclimated to the wintry blasts of his prose.

His frostiness blends form into content. Not much snow, but a lot of bluster mixed with icy gusts typifies a land where March may be its sunniest month. Its people, Theroux finds, meet his lowered expectations. Try as he may to accommodate himself to their glares and guffs, Theroux struggles vainly to make sense of his inclement exile in this strangely dispassionate setting. "The advantage of consciousness can prove a disadvantage when the society you meet, the culture you confront, is almost imperious in its strangeness and the fealty it exacts of you in merely coming for a visit."

Perhaps, Estonia can be seen "figuratively as a tiny, self-sacrificing, hard-working wife to her husband, Russia, slaving away always to appease him, doomed to spend years appeasing her demanding spouse but asking meekly for nothing." The tart, sour, and tangy flavors of its pork, its predilection for dullness fueled by vodka, and its obsession with communal singing make Estonia a tiresome residence. In a chapter "What Did I Hate About Estonia?" such jagged gems prickle as this: "I hated their idea of their naïve, simpleminded singing like the Whos in Whoville as a sole defense against the guile of black-hearted totalitarianism."

Yet, another chapter, "Carmen Secularae", finds Theroux moving from a predictable diatribe against televangelists into a thoughtful consideration of the impact unbelief may wreak upon a nation so beaten down as modern Estonia. This analysis segues into an elegant defense of Pauline Christianity, one of many unexpected connections this ramble makes along its many peripheries. Theroux later adds (in an aside illustrating his command of a short remark amid so many long grumbles): "In the Bible there is no mention that the sky is blue -- we yet locate heaven there."

Full of endnotes, translating many phrases he quotes in their original languages, and graced by a few of the couple's photos and Sarah's plein air oil paintings, this provides a suitably quirky introduction to Theroux as an essayist and critic. Far better copyedited for Fantagraphics Books than was Laura, its publication by this press fits into this press's emphasis upon graphic novels and comic illustrators, too. As the author of two Fantagraphics short studies on Al Capp and Edward Gorey, Theroux's elliptical style and elongated perspective delineates an American tradition of satire that connects him to Thomas Nast's political and cultural caricatures of a century and a half ago.

I wish this handsome volume had a map, but then, Tallinn and the other major city of Tartu appear about it, in terms of notable Estonian locations. Instead, we rely on his onrush of big words and biting phrases to tell us about this forlorn entity. These chapters compile much that most may relegate to byways, detours, fumbles, and trivia, but he explains in a "Valedictory" his guiding principle.

"I daresay my Estonia is as much about me and my crotchets as it is about anything else, but as Thoreau pointed out in Walden, 'I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.'" He notes, "paranomasiacally, I left no Estonian unturned. Those who are less charitable may even insist that I left no turn unstoned." Catch the wit and the venom, the depth and the breadth, of this honest account of "a strange, unlooked-for place at the back of beyond" where "the fascination of its strangeness" renders it a fitting subject for a curious report by a memorably talented, ever off-kilter, chronicler of oddity.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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