High Places: like Justice, except not
Death by Audio
December 10, 2007
Last night’s Fader 50th-issue party had a pretty stacked lineup: Justice’s scuzzed-up noise-house, Mos Def’s self-righteous mutating griot-rap, White Williams’s detached neon synthpop. Those three share some common ground: they all rock programmed beats and Y chromosomes and expensive clothes. But they’re nonetheless three very different acts working in different forms, and it’s hard to imagine any non-Fader-sponsored situation in which they’d all share the same stage. I like all three, and I was amped to get the emailed invite a few days back. When I pulled up to the Bowery Ballroom last night, though, it suddenly became apparent that a whole lot of other people had gotten those emailed invites: more, in fact, than the Bowery Ballroom could hold. The line out front was long, and it wasn’t moving. When anyone asked the bouncers, normally a lot friendlier, if they were still letting in people with invites or what, they grunted instructions to get to the back of the line. Up front, Diplo was texting people and trying to figure out how to get inside. Diplo wrote a Fader cover story a couple of years ago, and he’s probably the closest thing the magazine has to a patron saint. As we were exchanging pleasantries outside, Diplo pointed out another guy who was stuck waiting outside, one who I really should have noticed immediately: DJ Khaled. The spectacle of Khaled waiting outside the fucking Bowery Ballroom to see Mos Def and Justice was some real only-in-New-York shit; you would’ve thought that guy could just shout his way in anywhere. I’m sure Diplo and Khaled eventually got in just fine, but the fact that they had to wait at all didn’t bode well for me. I’ve been in situations like this before: stuck outside VIP-only parties, frantically texting friends inside and yammering about the Village Voice to any bouncer dumb enough to listen. If I’d stayed and waited another 45 minutes or so, I could’ve almost certainly made my way inside eventually. But outside-the-club scenes like this one are always dehumanizing and dispiriting enough to seriously compromise my ability to have any fun once inside, open bar or no. So I bounced. The Fader party wasn’t, after all, the only thing going on last night.
About a year and a half ago, I wrote a print-edition article about Todd P, the Brooklyn promoter who was, at the time, basically the only guy in town putting on DIY warehouse-space shows with any sort of regularity. (If I’m remembering right, Justice’s first American show was a Todd P joint.) Since then, he’s slowed down his insane schedule, but a whole lot of other promoters have picked up on what he was doing, and now there’s a really vibrant warehouse-show scene going on in Williamsburg and Bushwick, and promoters like Todd are now using semi-legit regular venues like Death by Audio as often as burned-out lofts or creepy neighborhood bars. There’s something vaguely exclusionary and elitist about this scene; Showpaper, the new zine show-schedule thing that Todd’s doing with a bunch of other people, anachronistically makes a point to not exist in online form, which makes it virtually impossible for anyone who doesn’t live in Williamsburg or Bushwick to stay on top of this stuff without attending at least one show a week. Still, once you get to these semi-concealed spaces, they’re completely warm and inviting; the scene at last night’s Death By Audio show stood in stark contrast to the one outside the Bowery Balroom on the other side of the river. Promoters like Todd have also embraced and nurtured a new set of Brooklyn bands who play with a sort of wide-open freeform innocence, one that doesn’t have a lot of time for either noise-rock confrontation or indie-pop structure. Yeasayer and Aa and Team Robespierre and High Places have pretty much nothing in common stylistically, but they’re all part of this winningly uncynical new wave of Brooklyn bands, and they’re all worth getting excited about.
If last night’s High Places show was any indication, these bands’ shows are even running on-schedule now. A year or so ago, virtually every Todd P show ran on punk-rock time, and I wouldn’t even leave the house until 10 or so. But by the time I made my way to Death by Audio last night, three of the four bands on the bill had already finished, and High Places were halfway through their set. High Places play delicate polyrhythmic pop songs that they totally drown in cloudy ambient sound-effects and structural interruptions and reverbed-out multitracked percussive dings. Those extra layers make their songs resonate like elusive half-remembered ideas, always just barely out of reach. Mary Pearson’s voice is a disarmingly frank sing-song that reminds me of the Blow’s Khaela Maricich, but she buries that voice under so many blankets of sound that it comes out enigmatic and mysterious, even onstage. In person, the duo isn’t especially performative, but there’s someting sweet and enormously likable about their presence. In a dark, packed room like Death by Audio, that voice reverberates around pleasantly, almost comfortingly. Pearson wears a bracelet made out of jingle bells, and instrumentalist Robert Barber’s table of electronics bounced unsteadily on the shaky stage. I don’t want to make last night’s show sound too utopian; the cloud of cigarette smoke at the semi-legal venue was pretty gross after you’ve gotten used to the legit-venue smoking-ban, and it’s not as though the place was entirely free of cooler-than-thou peacocking. But I logged several hours of subway time to see what amounted to twenty minutes of live music, and I don’t regret it even a little bit. I’ve been to enough industry parties and DIY shows to know the differences between the two very well. And nothing against the magazine or the bands involved, but I don’t know why I bothered with the Fader thing in the first place.
Voice feature: Mike Powell on High Places