Hey, another picture of a rapper that I jacked from the Fader
CMJ home base at Lincoln Center was a big, ridiculous clubhouse, college-radio kids loose in the big city trying to grab as many free XM Satellite Radio stickers as possible and maybe even get to meet George Clinton! So the bands that played at the CMJ daystage (or the ones I saw, anyway) seemed like clubhouse bands, background music for kids grabbing free shit. It took a band like the Hold Steady, everyone’s favorite damaged-Catholic fake bar-rockers and Village Voice cover stars, to turn that into something like an advantage. THS unplugged, an absolutely ridiculous proposition for a band known for explosive blooz guitar solos and for a singer who can’t get through a show without yelling until his face is Northsix-curtain red. It was a joke, yeah, and it was funny: everyone sitting on the floor, drums played with brushes, bass player Gaven Polivka on shaker instead of bass. But it actually sounded pretty great. For once, the lyrics and keyboard didn’t drown in the rest of the band’s choogling roar, and Craig Finn was relaxed and at home onstage, a far cry from the psychotic math-teacher he is at night.
Download: “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”
If the Hold Steady is a fake bar band, I’ll take fake bar-rock over the real thing any day. Last year, the New York Times‘ Kelefa Sanneh wrote an article praising the living hell out of Dr. Dog, which is why I ended up at the Mercury Lounge on Friday night, showing up just in time to hear Sanneh telling the keyboard player that they’re his favorite band (seriously). Sanneh is one of the best critics working today, prolific and insightful and broad-minded. But holy Jesus is he wrong about Dr. Dog. Dr. Dog is fucking terrible. The band plays laid-back hacky-sack bar-rock, but it’s pretentiously wacky bar-rock; they don’t ever allow themselves to work up a decent groove before launching into some ka-razy time change, the bass player doing ahhahhahh hooting and the guy who looks like Tom Petty hopping around in a circle like an asshole and singing something about “grandpa washing dishes.” Every busted little guitar riff sounds like an 11-year-old trying to teach himself to play “Purple Haze.” I imagine this is what Little Feat sounds like, which is why I’ve never listened to Little Feat. (To be fair, the last song they played, the one that went “dewy dewy duh pah pah,” was I guess OK.)
Over at the Irving Plaza Rhymesayers showcase, I Self Divine was bringing the low-intensity indie-rap boilerplate: Bush is bad, I deal with everyday things everyday, that sort of thing. And he did the things that indie-rappers do: yelling all over the beat, staying everywhere except on top of it. The crowd, full of white kids desperate not to look clueless, screamed on cue, but I’m guessing that not too many of them rushed the merch table when he got done to cop his sort-of-OK album. Next up, Blueprint fared better, rapping over “Top Billin'” and “Billie Jean,” filling the stage by his damn self, and doing good things for trucker hats and cargo shorts. But Blueprint’s jokey low-key set was no match for the righteous wrath of albino Muslim monster Brother Ali, glowing with sweat two songs in and throwing words like knives. Ali raised my hackles for a minute when he said something about “These underground cats with dirty sneakers are going up up up up up while them motherfuckers with all the pretty shit are falling flat on they asses because of the fact that we about the music.” (I’m pretty sure Kanye wears immaculate sneakers, you know?) But all was forgiven when Ali just ripped through a heartwrenching a cappella about single-fatherhood and then transitioned right into a joyous singalong on “Forest Whitaker.” Ali’s label boss had a tough act to follow, and at first he didn’t look up to the job. Atmosphere has been touring as Slug and a live band for a minute, and I caught a revelatory Baltimore show a few months ago (I wrote about it here). But Slug seemed almost too confident at Irving, coming off like a lounge singer over the band’s watery funk arrangements. The great songs (“Always Coming Back Home to You,” “The Woman With the Tattooed Hands”) still sounded great, but there was something off-putting about Slug’s exaggerated confessional swagger and the way he kept telling people to smile. He seemed creepy. Things got better when the band took a break and Atmosphere’s reclusive other half, the producer Ant, came to the stage to DJ. It’s not entirely clear why Ant doesn’t tour with the group; he’s certainly comfortable onstage, pulling out deft little tricks like throwing the piano-rolling beat of Scarface’s “On My Block” under “Like Today.” Slug stepped right up too, burning through a reworking of Public Enemy “Don’t Believe the Hype,” changing it so it was about people talking shit about him on messageboards. It was like he all of a sudden remembered that he was doing a rap show.
Stream: I Self Divine’s “Ice Cold”
Stream: Blueprint’s “Boom Box”
Another rap show: I didn’t have to leave my hood to see Bun B at the CMJ-unaffiliated Hollertronix party at Southpaw. Bun’s set was crisp and efficient like the best hits-only rap shows, and it was over in half an hour. But it was a pretty amazing half-hour, almost all guest appearances, “Big Pimpin'” of course but also “Three Kings” and “Give Me That” and “Purple Rain” and “I Ain’t Heard of That” and “Grand Finale” and “Rep Yo City” and “Sippin’ on Some Syrup,” the sort of stuff that led Government Names to do this, only a couple of UGK tracks thrown in there. Bun has as much presence onstage as he does on record, standing tall at the middle of the stage, rapping up at the ceiling, voice tired but strong. Hollertronix themselves continued with their Ipod-Shuffle-like capacity to know exactly what I want to hear before I know it. They tend to play all the same stuff (though I lost five bucks when I bet Sean Fennessey that they’d go from “B.O.B.” into “Deceptacon”), and sometimes they fuck up on beatmatching, but their aesthetic is still just about perfect, everything I want to hear in one DJ set. When DJ Assault came on for a million-year-long version of “Ass N Titties,” it was time for me to stagger home and start cross-training for next year’s CMJ.
Stream: Bun B’s “Draped Up”
More CMJ coverage at Riff Raff