You can sorta see the Win Butler comparison, right? This is from the Bowery Ballroom; photo by Sidney Lo
by Bret Gladstone
Let’s get this out of the way first: CMJ is fucking lame. And I’m not just saying that because I haven’t slept all week and feel miserable. Simply put, to sell local students three-hundred dollar badges that don’t even guarantee them access to the mid-level shows they could plausibly see for fifteen dollars any other week isn’t just a rip-off. It’s kind of insipid. Especially considering that CMJ stands for “College Music Journal”. In the words of the girl standing in front of me at the Spoon show on Saturday: What-evah.
Ok, maybe that’s kind of reductive. Bravo CMJ. I shan’t knock the hustle (picked that one up at the DJ sets preceding M.I.A’s show on Thursday). First of all, NYU students totally deserve this. Besides, the con of marketing a purely capitalist venture as a philanthropic sanctuary for “underground” and “breaking” bands isn’t anything exclusive to this event. It’s not really doing anything that much different than, say, major labels who buy out “indie” boutiques to capitalize on their street credibility. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (also insanely lame) are one good example of this paradox: a band which became famous because a major corporation chose to market its exclusionary cool.
And it’s all very well and good and interesting.
But maybe it’s time to start thinking about what type of thinking this demographic targeting encourages. If you need a good example of how the lines between the marketplace and everyday reality have been skewed, it’s that today people are essentially defined by their tastes. “He’s a hipster.” “He’s a frat-kid.” I interviewed a twelve-year old musician on Tuesday who said he was “into noise” and coolly suggested we “should get the guitarist over “(a twelve-year old girl) for the discussion. Indie, Indie, Indie, I kept hearing this week. This is an indie venue. This is an indie band.
Those last two sentences neatly summarize the dichotomy which defines this “marathon.” What CMJ really embodies is the increasingly complicated relationship between independent rock and pop culture. Given that, the powers that be picked two very appropriate bands—Spoon and the Ponys—to headline one of its largest shows.
If garage rock is a study less in how to reject pop music’s major concerns than in how to conceal and manipulate them, the Ponys do garage rock very well. Hence the Sonic Youth references. Most of their songs consist of simple three and four-chord progressions embroidered with ringing drones and basic riffs, but all of them have that pleasantly refracted quality of things seen through a medium. In this case, that medium is noise. However messy their sound is, though, their music remains rooted in hook and melody. It’s just that those hooks and melodies are primarily carried by the instruments. The fact Jered Gummere does more shouting than singing actually enhances the soda-shop pop that lurks in their tunes, which is just as punk as the fact that their most aggressive lyrics (the lovely, crowd-dedicated “I Wanna Fuck You” or the sing-along “Let’s Kill Ourselves”) are welded to their sunniest chord progressions. Another punk thing about the Ponys is Gummere’s dogged insistence on sounding British. “I want to fuck yeew!” he yelled at us. “ I want to put my hahnds all over yeew!” Most were not flattered.
“He is the least sexy performer I’ve ever seen in my life,” a girl said. Her friend agreed and said he looked like the “psycho leader of a polygamist cult,” which made me laugh. Because what the hell does that mean? Actually, Gummere—who is tall, gangly, and wears his shirts buttoned all the way up—kind of evokes a slightly creepier relative of Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler. Maybe that’s not all that different from what she said.
So anyway, the Ponys were fucking LOUD. And LOUDNESS should be completely complimentary to the squall-rock that makes them appealing. Instead, those crackling storms of noise they command so easily were vastly under-employed at Roseland. Sure, this wasn’t the Ponys’ “scene.” That very fact could have been the catalyst for an inspired show. Instead, seeing them play conservatively for an admittedly conservative audience—especially with such a monster sound-system at their disposal—was incredibly depressing. Ultimately, the set became a self-fulfilling prophecy: Because the band seemed to be playing down to an ambivalent audience, they wound up seeming as ridiculous as they probably felt.
This was Spoon’s crowd, and while the varied “taste-groups” which comprised it may be constructions, the tension between them was definitely real. Groups of frat-dudes drinking out of flasks alternately groped each other homo-erotically and made loud passes at underage girls, rousing the ire of baby-boomer couples and meek indie kids unfortunate enough to be in their space. This too was lame. Spoon was not.
Spoon is a very, very good band, and the fact that Britt Daniel’s hair is always unkempt in exactly the same way—in addition to being emblematic of things pertaining exclusively to Britt Daniel—is actually a pretty good metaphor of why. This is a band that thrives on manipulating order and chaos; sound and space; form and noise. As a unit they can swing and strut with the crisp precision of a Motown session band—drums, bass, keys and guitar locked together as churning pistons in the same cleanly operating pop device—but the magic lies in how Daniel’s jagged guitar and coarse vocals (which eerily evoke one another) act as the ghost in the machine, short-circuiting that formula. The more space his band afforded him in their sound (“My Mathematical Mind,” “The Beast and Dragon Adored”), the more twitchy and dangerous his flare-ups became. The tighter their grooves were wound, the more deliberately sloppy he played.
Everything lay in those contrasts.
Mostly, Spoon works by implying a kind of subterranean energy that never gets fully actualized in their music. At their best, they can convey the impression that they’re barely holding onto the reins. But ultimately that’s just the power of suggestion. Even more than Britt’s hair, I can’t help but feel that those sonic sleights-of-hand completely represent this band’s identity: Everyone likes to talk about Spoon as a “mid-level” band constantly and unjustly halted at the gate of pop success. Truthfully, the very essence of their greatness is how they can feign being something larger than they are.
Appropriately then, they really enjoyed being rock stars for the night. Spoon performed to a backdrop of blue, pink, and orange glam-rock lighting, the PA system crackled and howled anthemically, and the band made a good showing of themselves. For his own part, Daniel did a large amount of profilinge—literally playing and singing while turned sideways on the microphone—and when The New Yorker has pegged you as an indie-rock sex symbol, why the hell not, right?
For all his gawky affectations, Britt Daniel clearly likes being a rock and roll frontman. A woman claiming to be Spoon’s former road manager once told me that the only thing he likes more on tour than pot is having his feet rubbed after a show, and that seemed as incredibly funny then as it does now. “Britt’s kind of a diva,” she said. She was drunk—she must have been, telling me something like that—and a dubious character at best. But after watching Daniel on Saturday night, I completely believe her. Whoever she actually was. The difference between me and most people is that I find this hilariously enhances Spoon’s awesomeness.
As they’ve become more comfortable and cocky in their own skin, they’ve found increasingly effective ways to embroider essentially skeletal rock. “The Ghost of You Lingers” took advantage of the venue, shooting seismic ripples of noise over Daniel’s croon . The best tunes of the night, however—“Underdog”, “Jonathan Fisk”, “Stay Don’t Go”, and “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb”—played their rhythm-and-soul up with a “treble horn” section which popped and swaggered pleasantly.
“Wow,” Daniel said after the band re-emerged for its encore. “That was a roar.” He also called the show the most important (or something to that effect) of the band’s career. That makes sense. After all, where but CMJ could a band like Spoon, for all their rock and roll acumen, pull something like this off? Maybe there’s a bright side to this CMJ thing after all.
Then again, maybe not.