This is my first CMJ, and I was vaguely dreading it for a few days, imagining frantic dashes from club to club and mob-scenes of clamoring hordes trying to get into clubs and power-tripping fuckhead bouncers and frosted-tip publicists trying to sell me on Longwave. After one night, it’s kind of all that stuff (except no publicists yet), but it’s also really fun, running all over downtown with out-of-town homies and bouncing from club to club like I was actually, you know, somebody. And if I can somehow make it through the next three days on no sleep whatsoever, I’m pretty sure it’ll stay fun.
For one thing, CMJ headquarters are just fascinatingly spotless; somehow someone got away with turning Lincoln Center into college-radio dork paradise, gleaming floors crowded with socially awkward dudes with beards, indie bands that no one cares about playing to no attention whatsoever, booth after booth of people trying to push free two-song CD samplers that I can’t imagine ever listening to. CMJ attendees get free gift bags with a semi-useful field guide, a T-shirt no one will ever wear, and about fifteen pounds of CDs and flyers, and I will sell anyone my whole bag for five dollars. I missed most of a panel called “The Hoarse Whisperer” wherein fellow writers and blog adversaries politely debated the sexual politics of the Ying Yang Twins’ “Wait,” but the parts that I caught convinced me that the world is OK as long as someone somewhere is giving scholarly consideration to the implications of a gimmicky porn-rap song.
So the shows. At Tonic, Jason Forrest put on the best IDM live show I’ve seen other than Cex, which is saying exactly nothing. Forrest is a heavyish bald guy who puts out records of disco and pop samples cut up into jagged shards and rearranged into dizzily spiky experimentronic freakouts, and I can’t imagine any situation in which I wouldn’t rather hear the original disco and pop records. This ADD steez did, however, make sense in the context of CMJ, when everyone is running around and wondering what they’re missing at every moment. And Forrest was fun to watch for a minute, bouncing around like a spazz, yelling “Drum solo!” and pointing at his computer. But then a goofy middle-aged guy headbanging behind a laptop isn’t exactly a show, even if he does seem like a nice guy (which he does).
Riff Raff wrote in a listing a while ago that Parts and Labor remind him of Sum 41. To me, they’re more like Swingin’ Utters: garbled melodic howling over vaguely and self-consciously working-class no-frills punk, except this time with frills: nauseous scraping noise eruptions (of course) and sometimes also big gorgeous oceanic surges. So: Parts and Labor is pretty good! The band, who played at Tonic after Forrest, is made up of one bald beard guy with glasses, one frizzy-haired beard guy with glasses, and one no-beard guy with glasses (who may have had five o’clock shadow), and the frizzy-haired guy impressively managed to keep his glasses on when he was headbanging.
Over at the Bowery Ballroom, former Antipop guy Beans proved that he’s lost his greatest asset: his pink mini-hawk. There’s something racially weird about a black rapper performing with an all-white backing band, but I didn’t touch that with Cowboy Troy, and I’m not going to touch it now. More to the point: it was boring, bippity-bippity “eccentric” old-school rap over jerky snoozy Mo’Wax electropunk. Opening bands need to stop announcing it when it’s their last song; the crowd always cheers, and you always end up feeling guilty for wishing they’d get off the stage. But they needed to get off the stage.
I haven’t been able to hear Devendra Banhart the same way since my girlfriend said that his singing voice sounds just like Adam Sandler’s, which is totally true. Banhart’s new album turns down the Sandler factor, and it works beautifully: mostly-decrazified cooed falsetto vocals (sometimes in Spanish) over gracefully intricate full-band arrangements. But the full band thing doesn’t work for him so well in the live setting. The band was introduced as Hairy Fairy, and no one said Banhart’s name once from the stage. Maybe he was trying to be democratic, but Banhart needs to realize that he’s about one billion times more charismatic than any of the druid-robed beardy jokers in his band and that he should not be letting these dudes sing. Banhart took this democratic impulse to a ridiculous extreme when he invited two doofs from the audience onstage to use the band’s equipment and sing a song (really). He also let his band fuck up his songs with too much three-guitar noodling, giving the whole thing a weirdly Vegas showbiz sheen, like he was doing his Supernatural right there in front of us. Banhart seems pretty well-positioned to follow the Flaming Lips as the indie-rock band who gets to play jam-band festivals. But his set’s best moment came when gave his band a break for one song, standing at the edge of the stage and playing one song, eyes closed, captivatingly. Maybe he needs to bring back the Sandler.
There’s any number of reasons why the Purple Ribbon All-Stars show at the Knitting Factory should’ve sucked: the 3 a.m. start time, the crowd of drunk and tired music critics, the one bouncer guy who kept yelling at everyone to go somewhere else, the inaudible feeding-back mics, the dinky bassless sound, the absence of Bubba Sparxxx. Most of the people onstage didn’t look especially thrilled to be there. Sleepy Brown seemed to be singing backup even on his own solo song, and Killer Mike sat at the back and mopped his face with a towel after doing a couple of verses. But Big Boi, a man who absolutely does not have to play shows like this one, came through in a big way: busting out synchronized dance steps with the anonymous-rapper guys, spitting every twisty verse perfectly, promising a new Outkast album (which I’ll believe when I see), and thrilling the assembled critic dorks by doing old Outkast favorites “Southernplayalisticcadillacmuzik” and “Elevators.” The whole point of CMJ, as far as I can tell, is to expose writers and college DJs to new artists, to lay out the next year of hype at our feet. But the best guy I saw last night was Big Boi, somebody I already knew was great, somebody who the millions of people who bought the last Outkast album knew was great, somebody who still managed to surprise everyone just by being as great as we already knew he was. There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere, but I’m way too tired to figure it out right now.
More CMJ coverage at Riff Raff.