CMJ Day Three: Making the Most of Shitty Options
Do yourself a favor
I have no idea how this sort of thing ends up happening, but last night's CMJ offerings, totaled up, probably made for the dimmest, least notable single night of the festival since I started covering the thing two years ago. There were some big, exciting shows in town, but most of the good ones (M.I.A. at Terminal 5, Stars at Town Hall, Springsteen at the Garden) didn't have a thing to do with CMJ. Even though I skipped opening night this year, at least the assuredly awesome Bouncing Souls/Lifetime nostalgia-fest was an option. There wasn't a single must-see no-brainer amidst all the Thursday night showcases, but that oddly ended up working out in my favor last night, since I ended up checking out a whole mess of bands I never would've bothered with otherwise, and some of them were great. That relative lack of options was how I ended up wandering into the Fader's Sideshow space yesterday afternoon and catching the vaguely depressing spectacle of power-pop lifers Imperial Teen playing to a deeply disinterested crowd where the median age was charitably two thirds that of the people onstage. It's ridiculous to complain about a series of free shows in the middle of the day, and the Fader has booked a whole bunch of great bands for their extended running party. But holy shit was that an irritating crowd, almost a parody of the typical CMJ audience, more concerned with snapping up free promotional bullshit and networking than paying any attention to the people onstage. Imperial Teen are total pros and probably no strangers to indifferent or hostile audiences; last time I saw singer/guitarist Roddy Bottum performing, he was playing keyboards for Faith No More, opening for Guns N Roses and Metallica at RFK Stadium in DC, my first concert. (Yes, you're jealous.) But at that Fader show, I started feeling strangely protective of the people onstage, mostly because they people around me seemed to have no idea how good they were. Their high-impact precision-engineered hooks unfailingly snuck up on me, and oldies like "Lipstick" and Jawbreaker-soundtrack nugget "Yoo Hoo" brought back the same unexpectedly euphoric 90s recognition-rushes that I got the day before when the Meat Puppets played "Oh, Me." The band deserved a better audience, and I hope they fond it when they headlined Southpaw later that night.
Voice review: Alfred Soto on Imperial Teen's The Hair, the TV, the Baby and the Band Voice review: Keith Harris on Imperial Teen's On Voice review: Robert Christgau on Imperial Teen at the Bowery Ballroom
One of the big trend-piece stories from this year's CMJ would have to be the omnipresence of the simultaneously dubious and encouraging dance-rap trend; Cazal-and-hightop types like Spank Rock and Cool Kids and Kid Sister and Santogold are all over the place this week, playing rap music to audiences who presumably don't listen to that much rap music. At the Highline Ballroom, the Canadian female rapper/male DJ duo Thunderheist opened up the schizophrenic Biz 3 showcase by demonstrating just how awkward and forced this sort of party-rap can sound in the wrong context. In a mostly empty, sparklingly clean room, rapper Isis stepped onstage in awkwardly hyped-up mode, pouring Grey Goose down front-row throats and lazily rapping over fake Baltimore club. Pretty soon, though, they wore down my defenses. Isis has a relaxed, breezy charisma, and though her vocals mostly just decorated the bleepy, jerky beats, she stayed confidently in the pocket and kept everything moving admirably. This gallery-rap stuff is quickly ossifying into a fairly rigid genre with distinct rules, but a group like Thunderheist, who settle into those boundaries with charm and panache, can justify all the hype they'll probably start getting really soon. There's a reason why every dance-rap fashion-plate raps over a sample of Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams": rapping over "Sweet Dreams" always sounds awesome. And so Thunderheist turned out to be a nice little surprise.
One of the tangled dangers of the whole gallery-rap boom, though, is that audiences can take all these time-honored club-rap signifiers, trap them between quotation marks, and turn them into jokes. And the recent indie-blog embrace of Tampa bass-monsters Yo Majesty, next up on the Highline stage, particularly reeks of novelty. Stylistically, Yo Majesty's similarities with their gallery-rap peers are pretty incidental, even if they do rap over "Sweet Dreams" just like everyone else. Instead, they do a fairly straight-up take on Miami bass, and I get the impression that if they weren't outspoken lesbians they'd be chasing the same crowds as, say, Pitbull and Trick Daddy rather than the overwhelmingly white mob that turned out for them last night. But then, Miami bass has always been knowingly funny, too, so the worst this crowd can do for them is to put another set of quotation marks around one that was already there. And the group (one rapper, one Lil Jon-sounding hype-person, one nervous-looking white male DJ with dreadlocks) evinces a self-possessed ballsiness onstage that turn those concerns into quibbles. They're already more famous for showing tits onstage (did it last night too) than they are for music. But the music is there: slippery lightspeed hooks, oldschool electro synth-sheen, guttural-roar sung choruses, effortlessly sound rapping. And if being gay might make it virtually impossible for them to find a traditional homegrown Southern-rap audience, it's just as well that the indie-kids like them.
Before last night, it had probably been years since I'd so much as thought about Texas hype-veteran thud-rockers ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, who inexplicably followed Yo Majesty at Highline, and I wouldn't have stuck around to watch them if there'd been much of anything else going on. But I'm glad I stayed. They've grown into a wooly assaultive beast: six guys onstage, two drummers on some songs, two keyboardists on others. Their slow buildups and soaring climaxes might be predictable, but they're also huge and thrilling. That second drummer might've been superfluous, but I got an almost physical rush when both of them would crash their cymbals in the same moment. They grooved hard throughout, and even the quietest parts had some Sabbath buried somewhere in there. Indie-rock, or at least popular indie-rock, has almost entirely moved on from the messy, juddering boom that Trail of Dead practices. These days they sound closer to the underground-metal center than they do to the indie one; they've got more in common musically with Baroness than they do with anyone on the Hype Machine charts. And so there's something noble about seeing these guys soldiering on hard years after their spotlit moment ended.
Voice review: Michael Hoinski on Trail of Dead's So Divided Voice review: Nikhil Swaminathan on Trail of Dead's Worlds Apart Voice review: Toby Echlin on Trail of Dead's Source Tags and Codes
I arrived at the Cake Shop's Cardboard Records showcase just in time to catch the last song from the Califonia trio Gowns, a band I'd never even heard of, and holy fucking fuck. "Cherrylee," the song I heard, is a pocket slowcore epic, starting out with an impressionistic dissolving minimalism and building gradually to a torn-apart scream. The music barely changes, but Erika Anderson's voice becomes a tremulous verge-of-crying roar: "You've gotta look me in the eyes and say that I don't believe / You've gotta look up at the water till you can't hardly see / You've gotta keep on going, you'll forget about me / You've gotta know," totally gorgeous and shattering. On the first couple of listens, almost every song on Red State, their album, is works the same quietly devastating way, like Beach House with nerves exposed. On the strength of that one song, they're probably the best thing I've seen this whole festival, and I need to see them again as soon as possible.
Upstairs in the record-store part of the Cake Shop, it was almost impossible to find a vantage-point to see the sundazed Brooklyn noise-pop duo High Places without blocking a whole lot of views or smacking people in the face with my backpack; I ended up precariously perched on a convenient chair up against a convenient wall. And it was worth the trouble, if only to see the equipment strewn across instrumentalist Robert Barber's table: drum-machines, tiny gongs, bells, bongos, stuff I couldn't recognize. Barber uses all that stuff to tap out liquid, complicated grooves while Mary Pearson sings simple, matter-of-fact pop melodies over it. The whole thing would sound a whole lot like Bow Wow Wow if it wasn't for the woozy Soft Circle sound-clouds that float through, prettifying even as they disrupt. It feels like a condescending backhanded compliment to say that a band has a naive, childlike charm, but Pearson actually plays recorder and toy xylophone and jingle-bell bracelets, kids' instruments, and there's an assured beauty to the way she uses those clear ringing sounds. I really liked them.
Voice feature: Mike Powell on High Places
In fact, the only band I saw all night that I didn't much like were the show's headliners, the Brooklyn spazzcore trio Pterodactyl. You know that old chestnut about how some A&R guy dissed an early Ramones show by saying that he got up to leave but that they were already done by the time he got out? That actually sort of happened to me here. I made it through about ten minutes, and as I was making my way out one of them said that the next song was their last because they had to clear out for a Vice afterparty. It's not that Pterodactyl is a band band; their yelpy, echoed-out jitters are all technically sound and turbulent as all hell. That thrashiness is impressive in its way, and they're usually nice enough to stick with one bassline for minutes at a time. It's just that I've been to enough noise shows to know when something is definitively not my thing, and this was it.
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