One thing about CMJ: time is valuable. As soon as one thing ends, another thing probably just started and you should be there five minutes ago if you’re even thinking about getting in. Anything that might be wasting even a few minutes of your time becomes a tremendous personal affront, and so you get stuff like Riff Raff bitching out a cabdriver for going past the venue. And so I had no patience for the curly-haired guy onstage at the Bowery Ballroom singing affected pinched Ben Folds power pop when the New Pornographers were supposed to be on. I found out later that the curly-haired guy was Dan Bejar and that the band was (probably) Destroyer. Bejar is one of the principal guys behind the New Pornographers, but he isn’t the principal guy, and his band didn’t have any of the exploding energy that the New Pornographers have at their best. And he can’t sing. And he was wasting my time. So fuck him.
Not that the New Pornographers were every my favorite band or anything. I’ve always found their records frustrating; they have great ideas, great little snatches of melody, but they seem too impatient to develop them. They careen into the next idea before their best hooks have a chance to sit in. Onstage, though, it all made sense. They sounded sharp and clear, hooks coming and going with assembly-line precision, showing absolutely no emotion even when the songs were bursting with energy, technicians hard at work. “Twin Cinema” and “The Laws Have Changed” were just perfect, sparkling gems of gorgeously engineered throwback guitar-pop, and the “hey la hey la” part on “The Bleeding Heart Show” sounded huge. I wasn’t even mad when Bejar came out to sing a few songs with them; it was like the others were showing him how to do this power-pop shit right. (No Neko Case; Newman’s niece is still filling in, but that was fine.)
Stream: “Use It” video
Here’s something I never realized: Lady Sovereign is a real rapper. I like her singles, but they have an air of novelty about them, like “listen to the cute little white girl making funny noises.” The stories of her hung-over set at the Knitting Factory earlier this summer didn’t seem to promise much. But she owned the stage at Webster Hall, like it wasn’t even weird for her to be in New York rocking a room that looked like the club from The Crow in front of a crowd that was totally just there for Aesop Rock. Her 20-minute set ended with a six-minute-plus epic called “Public Warning” with multiple beat changes, falling-down-stairs grime drums turning into cheesed-out Cali-punk guitars, Sov speeding her flow up to an incoherent blur and then slowing it down to an almost-metal scream. She just killed it. I was shocked.
Laura Veirs, who played across town at the Hiro Ballroom, is some singer-songwriter lady who can’t sing. That was fine, though; her set gave me a chance to call my girlfriend before Amadou & Mariam came on. CMJ is all about pacing, and it was about time for a break. Also worth noting: Laura Veirs’s bass player is a big middle-aged guy with a bright-red tucked-in shirt and pigtails. (Riff Raff has pictures.)
Amadou & Mariam‘s set was the first one I saw at CMJ where the crowd seemed genuinely happy to be there, radiating goodwill and cheering loudly and dancing goofily instead of just standing and staring like they were trying to decide whether they liked what was onstage or not. That’s probably because Amadou & Mariam aren’t a hipster thing; they’re a blind Malian couple who play joyously light and full and frisky polyglot Afro-pop, and their crowd was a weird mix of world-music types, dudes in flowing shirts who looked like Seal and cool grannies and dressed-up yuppie girls leaving their purses on the speakers to go dance. There weren’t a lot of CMJ passes floating around. Onstage, the couple didn’t have much of the rippling acoustic calm they show on their new album Dimanche a Bamako; they were there to play party music, howling over twisty, booming dance jams and Amadou Bagayoko’s guitar heroics. Bagayoko is a beast, stabbing through the conga-heavy funk with morse-code staccato pings and blooze wheedles, never sounding noodley even when he was noodling. I’m really glad I saw them instead of some indie-rock band.
Stream: “La Realite” video
The CMJ show I’d been most excited to see was probably the Screwed Up Click at Joe’s Pub. It seemed so perfect: a crew of mysterious Texas underground legends who rarely if ever leave their state, finally getting a chance to play a hyped-up New York show after Houston blew up. I never thought I’d get a chance to see them, and maybe I was right. Swanky clubs like Joe’s Pub never seem to have any idea how to handle big shows. They stand around while huge crowds swarm around their entrances, they yell at everyone to move around, and they seem to arbitrarily pick people to get in. Before moving up here, I didn’t think this Studio 54 bullshit still happened anywhere; now I see it about once a week. It’s hard to have any fun at a show if you need to argue your way in, but at a certain point it becomes a pride thing. At Joe’s, they told everyone in the crowd to get in a line, and then they ignored the line while Matt Sonzala and Oxy Cottontail, who had set the show up, pleaded with the bouncers to let people in. I was on the guest list for the show, but I waited outside for an hour before one of the bouncers told me that I should probably just go. In that time, I could’ve gone to see the Juan Maclean or Blood on the Wall or especially Grand Buffet. Time is valuable at CMJ, and these bouncers fucked a lot of people over. (Although I saw Anwar from American Idol on the street when I was leaving, so that’s something.)
Download: Grand Buffet’s “Americus (Live)”
I was worried that there’d be a similar mob scene outside the DFA showcase at Northsix, hipster vampires crowding the door and yelling at the bouncers that they were James Murphy’s former roommates or whatever, but no: nice door people, lots of open space, cheap(ish) beer, my roommate and a bunch of my friends already there. Everything should be so damn easy. Cut Copy started out sloppy but gradually sounded more and more triumphant as their set progressed. The band goes back and forth between raggedy, fuzzy indie-rock with flossy, romantic Francophile house like a more timid Out Hud. The Out Hud similarities continue: the band totally does that thing where one guy is sitting behind a giant board of electronics while other guys gamely bash away at virtually inaudible instruments, like they’re trying to convince everyone that they’re a band. But more than anyone else, Cut Copy reminded me of Q and Not U: charming gawkiness, audience clapalongs, big hearts. I almost wasn’t mad about the Joe’s Pub bouncers anymore by the time they got done.
Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom, who played next, were pretty much the opposite of Cut Copy’s bouncy warmth. Their album The Days of Mars is a pretty-great exercise in chilly beatless electronic textures, hypnotically deep percolating aquarium music, stuff that Coldplay should walk out onstage to. The record sounded amazing earlier this week when I was listening to it walking through midtown, but it’s one thing to hear this stuff when you’re walking under huge glass skyscrapers and entirely another to watch two people performing it. Gonzalez (a blonde woman in a polka-dotted housewife dress) and Russom (a skinny wizard dude who even looks like he should be in Tangerine Dream) stare straight ahead like mannequins, not even looking at their keyboards while they plunk out their towering ethereal tones. They seemed to be making an artistic statement out of testing my patience, and I guess I can respect that, but I still left after an incredibly long song and a half.
Status Ain’t Hood coverage of CMJ Day One
More CMJ coverage at Riff Raff