“This song is from a woman’s point of view,” MC Paul Barman nasally intoned Friday at the Westbeth (referencing so-serious hip-hoppers the Lox, he proclaimed himself the “bagel”). That lady had little more to say than “I can’t tonight,” as Barman channeled and mocked predictable perceptions of women—though she sure strung together some clever rhymes. From Barman to Wesley Willis to Ari Up, the 20th annual CMJ Music Marathon—structurally diverse owing to its sheer size—presented in sounds from way out, often free-your-mind-and-your-body-will-follow danceable.
Willis (Friday at Luna Lounge), a formerly homeless 230-lb black schizophrenic who poked at a “Demo”-set keyboard, held an extended head-butting session with a fan and challenged “the demons” to the nervous laughter of his Star Trek-ish audience. Songs in the Key of Z compiler and “Outside Music” panel moderator Irwin Chusid called him a “teddy bear,” a typically condescending term from this infantilizing assemblage of experts, who described the artists as having “ambition exceeding ability” and a “lack of self-awareness.” (Miriam Linna of Norton Records was the sole dissenter: The panel’s “intellectualism makes me vomit.”) Better “teddy bear” than “freak” and “imbecile,” words used to describe CMJ performers B.J. Snowden and Jandek. Erik Lindgren of Arf Arf Records confessed it unnecessary to give elderly Jack Mundrian royalties or even a copy of the comp in which his repertoire of real old rural tunes appears, while filmmaker Doug Stone pointed out to an unaware Chusid that Snowden was “very upset” to have her song on his disc.
The advent of self-playing Casio keys in the ’80s was assailed by these in-on-the-outsiders, but such simple equipment was put to excellent use by the boy-girl Winterbrief and Brooklyn’s also-lady-led Semiautomatic, who opened for Willis. Bis-influenced but past powerpuffed twee punk, the duos showed room for improvement, which is to say potential. Meanwhile, at the synth-pop showcase (Thursday at Lion’s Den), clean-cut New Clear Sky did a pulsing, only vaguely twee cover of Sabbath’s “Paranoid” with soaring vocals, more poking and programming. Though Le Tigre (Saturday at Thread Waxing Space) claim not to value mastery over their digital devices, their innovation mastered an overcrowded party. The two dudes from (the band) Princess, done up in coneheads and spacey suits, exemplified the enthusiastic crowd response with sharp synchronized onstage dancing, even executing the Running Man, MC Hammer-era glory! Kathleen Hanna’s bopping and shouting, though, outshone even the school dance shimmying.
Also winningly frolicsome was Bratmobile‘s Allison Wolfe (Thursday at Westbeth). Her dress drenched with lascivious Rolling Stones tongues, she was part gymnast, part majorette, kicking her legs, pumping her arms, lingeringly shaking her sexy ass at the audience, and even cartwheeling the length of the stage in the band’s final number, dedicated “to all the girls.” Petitioning the audience for a screwdriver (part of Bratmobile’s appeal is wanting to get drunk with them and storm the jukebox), throwing their new record into the crowd, and coyly joking that no boys were getting any “Lookout! pussy,” they chanted “Fuck you!” and “Girls rule!”, underscoring the music’s raw repetition—Molly Neuman even timed her drumbeats to her gum chewing.
That girls rule was uncontested at Saturday’s “Backlash” panel, although “complexity”— details ranging from the politics of Limp Bizkit fandom to wearing Gucci stilettos to sleeping with rock stars—was moderator Ann Powers’s theme. Joan Morgan Murray, executive editor of Essence and the only nonwhite respondent, referenced women’s selective myopia regarding sexism in music, because “If the beats are slammin’, they’re slammin’.” Most important, she pointed to controversial lyrics as a platform for public discussion of feminism. Powers, pop critic for The New York Times, also sagely cautioned against dropping one’s guard for “sensitive” emo boys. The “Womyn in Loud Rock” gathering rocked with the following stupidism, courtesy of a bystander from the metal act Crud describing what he told himself after lunching with three industry women: “I am one smooth prick.”
Speaking of slammin’ beats: People Under the Stairs—multiracial left-coast hip-hoppers with a Wes Craven film namesake—had ones as complex as their jokey rhymes (Thursday at Nix). Sez critic John Kenneth Muir, incidentally illuminating down-underers Tres One and Double K’s case: “Although some of The People Under the Stairs‘ moral explorations are simplistic, the film is a courageous one that exposes the dark consequences of the Reagan” —Clinton?—”revolution and revels in the joys of diversity and community.” Handsome Boy Modeling School spun studies in contrasts: Dan the Automator claimed it was past his bedtime, so it was understandable he seemed half asleep at the decks; Prince Paul recalled the early ’90s like Malcolm X caps (no Hammer or Running Man, though) with a sick mix culminating with Black Sheep’s “Choice Is Yours.” This or that, indeed.
Speaking of studies in contrasts: Pioneering Ari Up (Saturday at Wetlands), 14 when she became singer for the influential punk-rasta outfit the Slits, has a new format. Invoked at “Backlash” as never having abandoned her independent ideals, Ari marked her resurgence as an all-out Jamaican-style reggae performer on her own terms (although her best track was the Slits’ “New Town”). In a teensy pink iridescent miniskirt (which she eased down to reveal a sparkling thong) and spiky heels (to which she directed the audience’s attention), Ari, sensuously handling and flinging her ass-long dreads, flaunted overt sexuality onstage, even as her prepubescent daughter sang backup. Most representative was her anti-“grown-ups” song—and she certainly hasn’t yet been assimilated by that so-called corrupt world.
Burgeoning rock star youths the Mooney Suzuki (Saturday at Mercury Lounge) put on a searingly stompable and clappable set, deeply spazzing out all over the stage and spilling into the hysterical audience, lighting the drums on fire, and smashing the kit before stalking off the stage. Even their parents (in the audience) were getting down. And Jersey’s Rye Coalition (Friday at Wetlands) presented acrobatic feats: Frontman Ralph Cuseglio (heckled good-naturedly by Allison Wolfe’s screams of “manimal!”) climbed up and hooked his lower limbs into the seriously-high-up rafters, singing an entire song hanging upside down (although he came down to deliver a foxy, bitchy “Dazed and Confused”). Classic-rock touches resurfaced with Boston pop-punk three-piece Vic Firecracker (Saturday at Acme), who encored with a hard, edgy rendition of “Cinnamon Girl.” Less hopping but noteworthy was singer-songwriter Mirah, who seemed to care little about stroking the audience (she apologized for not being friendlier), playing gorgeous neo-folk at the packed K showcase (Thursday at Luna Lounge).
Boston’s new-not-nü-metal Cave-In (Sunday at Brownies) nearly brought the house down with staggering buildups out of otherworldly echoed-note asteroid showers. “Dazed and Confused” (yup) was drenched in moody purples and blues laced with lemon juice—almost as sweet as the intertwined falsetto and six-string tendrils on “Stream of Commerce.” Post-hardcore Red Scare (Sunday at Continental) would never let Zep streams run down their legs. Rigid rhythmic mazes, etched by sometimes two-note basslines and a minimalist, flaming (yup) drum set, checked torrential bursts of guitar and dragon-fire vocals. And trust ’em or not, sensitive ones addressed interpersonal relations, often with a gendered bent and shake-it beats: Shy Bostonians Karate (Friday at Brownies) shuffled on the sly, never disturbing the hush; the Dismemberment Plan (Friday at Thompson Center) pulled out and tore up the rug under their own uncertain feet. Cursive (Saturday at Westbeth) rubbed raw just right live. At the Drive-In (Friday at Irving Plaza) screamed, settled down, got up and down. Take that and spread it on your bagel.
—Nick Catucci & Hillary Chute
Those seeking respite from the legions of wishy-washy indie rock could find a few shows with wishy-washy techno, and one that left an impression. Leave it to ghetto tech—the bastard stepchild of Detroit techno—to provide CMJ’s most un-p.c. content; not coincidentally, the “Comin’ From Tha D” showcase (Thursday at Frying Pan) was also the techno highlight, with booty man Assault spinning a track (his own) that went: “Ho, take off your clothes, ho, get naked,” over and over again. Paris the Black Fu played the straight man, spinning blinding techno at a pace that would’ve challenged Jeff Mills for intensity and speed.
Ian Pooley (Saturday at Irving Plaza)—who usually plays good records, but doesn’t always play them well—couldn’t compensate for his less-than-exciting programming because his wax was so run-of-the-mill. Openers Rinôçérôse are a proper postmodern rock band, with samplers, numerous guitars, and a “light show” required of any respectable live techno band; they resembled Gus Gus minus a singer, which they really could’ve used.
If Armand Van Helden (Sunday at Centro-fly) hates house music so much, maybe he should do everyone a favor and stay home. For lessons on how to clear a dance floor, take a page from his set, which found the bearded one banging out hard house with the finesse of a robot and the soul of a machine. Opening act Artful Dodger managed to be fun and silly (and, unlike AVH, they bothered to mix well), playing their one big hit, “Re-rewind,” before their set slowly skidded to the depths of bad Hot 97 mix shows. And, really, someone should place a ban on U.K. MCs who shout “AAAARE YOUUUUU REEEEADDDY!” more than once. Detroit techno legend Juan Atkins (he showed!) had the unlucky fate of spinning to 30 people at three in the morning; I couldn’t blame him for his uninspired set, which slid from hi-tech jazz into watered-down, salsa-flavored house.