You feel sorry for Surfer Blood, you really do. It’s CMJ Tuesday, there’s some invisible wheel turning, and when you walk into the basement of Cake Shop at 4:30pm on a sunny afternoon you all of a sudden know where the arrow stopped. Human sacrifice is still this festival’s weirdest ritual: the singling out of one act just naive enough to accept invitations to 11 or 12 different showcases, unmindful of the wear and tear and constant scrutiny. By Saturday, they’ll be an entirely different band, if they don’t break up before then.
But at Cake Shop, for the first one, they merely seem a bit dazed. The billion-band afternoon showcase delirious-soundman sound is not a great fit for these guys, who’ve surely been chosen in part by whatever cruel god runs this thing for how aptly they sum up any number of zeitgeists: Very Best/Fool’s Gold post-world rhythms, Free Energy pelvis-thrust Thin Lizzy revivalism, no-fi reverb and feedback, and just a hint of some early Weezer pop-metal formalism. Frontman John Paul Pitts rocks a yellow sweater and mumbles something about being “slaves to rave”; he also ad-libs the word “spiritual” into a song-title that already had the words “floating” and “vibes” in it–again, these guys are playing like 11 more times.
On to Free Energy then, a band a few months deeper into the hype-cycle and more confident for it, although their set at Steregum’s Webster Hall Studio showcase seems to confirm something we’ve been in denial about: frontman Paul Sprangers can’t sing. From the line outside, “Free Energy,” the band’s show-out anthem, sounds as galvanized as the recording we’ve been wearing out all year: dual leads, ’70s disco stomp, pleasing detours through everything in the narrow corridor from T. Rex to Tom Petty, glam rock being the lodestar but melody the priority, etc. Inside though, the band can’t quite locate the nostalgic swoon of “Something in Common,” though they look the part: Sprangers’ jeans are not getting looser, nor is his hair getting shorter, nor is his dislocated-elbow/knee-flex/Michael Jackson half-turn dance getting any less hard to watch. His stage banter is like the hippie version of an athlete’s press conference: “This show is seriously like a big deal for us”; it’s also “awesome,” “rad,” and “seriously awesome.” That said, Free Energy’s songs are beyond irrepressible: their set was probably the most fun I’ll see a room have all week.
The light guy does not do the Golden Filter any favors: frontlady Penelope looks more Afghan rug than be-scarfed goddess, dark and undramatically lit as it is in the basement of Webster Hall. Her band–tonight a trio, half drum samples, half live drums, steady four-four modern disco on both sides–gets the dreaded blank look: we’re supposed to dance now? She shakes it off, the implication of jewelry around her neck, cowbell in hand, playing the set she wants to play, even if no one there can quite figure out what to do with it. For whatever reason, you don’t worry about this woman’s feelings.
And then the evening’s finale: Cold Cave, reconfigured as a streamlined three-piece and better for it. In less than a year they’ve gone from affectless to huge and evil: “The Trees Grew Emotions and Died” is epic goth opera, Wes Eisold and Caralee McElroy trading barbed vocals, Dominick Fernow conjuring massive melodic washes of synthed-out sadness, the whole thing playing like the most depressed rave of all time. They are very convincing, three black-clad profiles at the front edge of the stage, pouring on more and more keyboards and drum machines and drowned-out vocals, the venue’s darkness suiting them just fine. It’s sad and romantic and a tiny bit scary, love duets for broken-up couples, noise music for kids who don’t know from Prurient, and it works. See ’em again tonight, if Vice will let you.