CMJ: Sian Alice Group and Julianna Barwick Take Back the Cake Shop; Holly Miranda Holds Court at Le Poisson Rouge


At Santos, not Cake Shop, but same idea.

Let’s make a vast generalization here: there is a certain male prerogative that responds to CMJ’s fever pitch of hype and borderline hostile audiences by becoming–for lack of a better word–Pavement. He will climb up on a stage, only to signal that he has no desire whatsoever to be there. He will eye the audience mistrustfully. He is, it often seems, not particularly concerned with doing a good job. This too–it will be made known–is our problem, not his. Unfair, maybe. But who at this point in the week is not sick of the bathetic tableau of a 23-year-old dude doubled over his guitar, grimacing?

In contrast, take Chouette’s day party yesterday at Cake Shop. At 5pm or so, the Sian Alice Group is in the middle of making tremendously pretty music, their frontwoman Sian Ahern alternating between husky, dirgy but sweet vocals and intricately struck rhythmic figures. There’s an audible attention to detail here–each bit of rolling piano and guitar in its right place, with the effects (the ubiquitous 2009 trio of reverb, echo, and delay) serving not to mask the melodies, but to highlight them. The band plays something like pop songs, but stretched to taffy, pulled taunt, with just enough variation to keep you guessing about what’s coming next. But perhaps most reassuring is the care that the band’s taking: even at mid-afternoon in a half-full room, they’re doing their best to get it right.

This is not what the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Louisiana solo songstress Julianna Barwick does. “I can be pretty off sometimes,” she told us, back in September. “I definitely don’t have perfect pitch and sometimes the notes don’t come out so pretty.” Not so much the latter: Barwick’s signature performance move is a stunningly awkward 30 seconds where she gets all her different vocal loops in order; at around a minute in, they all snap into place, around which point you suddenly can’t believe one person has produced something so gorgeous in such a short amount of time. Her choir background shows: pretty much every venue becomes a little bit more cathedral-like when she plays. Barwick is not afraid to veer into massage tape territory–she even makes her own new-agey dolphin/whale/seagull noises–and the spectre of Laurie Anderson looms probably equally large, but Barwick’s voice forgives all of that. It’s a lovely instrument.

Both women did a good job reclaiming some airspace at Cake Shop. And at over at Le Poisson Rouge, an hour later, Holly Miranda manages the same feat pretty much effortlessly, shaking off the requisite shouted crowd declarations of love (maybe this is what all these other acts do between showcases?) and quieting a noisy room down. She does so without a band, just one guy accompanying her, and so the arrangements are necessarily muted. But her voice is what got her recently signed to XL: firm at the high end, appealingly static-y, even raspy, lower down. She manages some flashy leads on guitar but generally leaves the instrumentation hypnotic and cycling, a very effective whisper over which she does the vocal equivalent. Her set is both calm and generous–two exceedingly rare commodities this week.