Black Kids: your new worst enemies
Something unexpected happened to me at CMJ this year: I was moved. It very nearly didn’t happen, and it was over within a couple of minutes, but it felt something like a miracle. I’d showed up to the Cake Shop’s Cardboard Records showcase on Thursday night in time to catch High Places, a Brooklyn psyche-pop duo that’s been making some noise lately. But the Cake Shop, blessedly, was running on punk-rock time. When I walked down to the basement, I saw a woman, eyes closed in rapture, wailing out desperate drug-addled epiphanies while two guys behind her, both keeping their heads down and almost out of view, plunked out a few sad, minimal chords. It doesn’t sound like much when I sit here and try to describe it, but the singer’s voice just got more unhinged and pained as she went along, cresting into a weird crescendo of longing and resignation. She looked like she was trying not to cry, trying her best to convey the seriousness and hurt of the lyrics she was singing. After the song ended, I found out who the band was: Gowns, a California three-piece with noise-rock pedigrees. And I only heard one of their songs, but that song, “Cherrylee,” absolutely destroyed me. I probably missed the rest of Gowns’ set while I was upstairs bullshitting with friends by the bar, and I’m going to be kicking myself for that until the next time they come around. In the three years I’ve covered CMJ, I’d never experienced a moment remotely like that one.
No band plays its best show at CMJ, and nobody heads into it expecting a life-changing experience. CMJ basically takes all the most irritating aspects of New York showgoing (the absurdly huge guest-lists, the constant camera-flashes, the preponderance of chumps like me scribbling on notepads while the band is onstage) and magnifies them. It’s sort of fun in a five-day bender kind of way, but it’s also vaguely oppressive in the way it sucks you into its vortex for its duration. I saw a lot of good things during this year’s festival (Yeasayer, Devin the Dude, Vampire Weekend, Mika Miko), but the one great thing was very much a happy accident. If Thursday night had had a better lineup of shows or if the Cake Shop had been running on-schedule or if I’d spent another five minutes bullshitting, I would’ve missed it altogether. And next year, I probably won’t see anything like that either. CMJ isn’t set up to let you see anything moving.
Earlier this week, Idolator’s Jess Harvell made some noise by writing this: an argument about how accelerated hype-cycles and short-attention-span mp3 blogging have led to bands like the Black Kids receiving avalanches of love before they’re even close to being ready. I sort of agree with Harvell and sort of don’t. The Black Kids, a Florida indie-pop band, haven’t released any concrete product, and yet they’re blowing up indie-style based on the four songs they’ve posted on their MySpace page, which I guess comprise a free EP of sorts. Those four songs have yelpy vocals and tinny keyboards and fuzzed-out guitars, and so they sound a whole lot like half the bands who have blown up indie-style over the last couple of years. I don’t particularly like those four songs, and I didn’t go see any of the fifty bajillion CMJ shows they played. Harvell saw them at a Brooklyn Vegan daytime party and hated them, a sentiment I heard from a few others as well. I was at that same party, but I left before Black Kids took the stage because I figured it was more important for me to eat a sandwich. But I did see the band that played directly before them: Yeasayer, a Brooklyn band whose debut album came out yesterday.
Yeasayer, presumably, is just as green and unformed as the Black Kids, but I really really like them, and so does Harvell. Admittedly, Yeasayer’s evident influences (Peter Gabriel, Talk Talk) are both more interesting and more fully internalized than those of the Black Kids (Modest Mouse, the Cure). But the hype around Yeasayer is just as recent and furious as the hype around the Black Kids, and any statements about which band is more deserving of the hype or more ready for it say more about the people making those statements than they do about either band. The day Harvell’s rant hit the internet, I was talking with my friend Marc Hogan, whose laudatory Pitchfork review of the Black Kids’ MySpace tracks probably catalyzed a lot of their CMJ hype, and he made the point that the first-wave punk bands would also blow up in the press on the strength of their first couple of singles. Not all of those bands would turn into the Buzzcocks; some would end up as Eater or 999 or Slaughter & the Dogs. But this was still a fertile pop moment, and it happened because the music press was acting on enthusiasm, not grounded perspective. Criticism is important, but so is excitement. The problem with CMJ is that it’s set up as an exhausting marathon of hyped-up bands, and that constant parade of hype makes it easier to call bullshit on a new band than it does to get excited about them. I probably don’t like the Black Kids any more than Harvell does, but that doesn’t mean the blog-based excitement surrounding them isn’t valid. It just means that different people like different stuff. One of the good things about CMJ is that you can usually find something worth liking at just about any given moment. If you can’t, it’s probably just as important to go get a sandwich as it is to see some hyped-up band you know you’ll hate. Sandwiches are important too.