Music Hall Of Williamsburg
Friday, June 24
Better than: Watching broadcast TV without a DVR.
Explaining where I was going on Friday night engendered one of two single-syllable reactions from my friends: “Ugh!” or “Who?” Pomplamoose, the male-female duo from San Francisco who became famous for their organic-white-bread covers of “Single Ladies” and “Telephone,” tends to engender strong reactions from the people who know them, though, so when I explained to the confused that I was seeing (paraphrasing here) “that band that kept doing twee covers on TV during Christmas” their facial expressions turned into Mr. Yuk imitations.
So imagine my surprise upon arriving at the Music Hall of Williamsburg for the final night of a whirlwind four-city mini-tour and finding out that not only did they have enough fans to fill the place, the people in attendance weren’t serial collectors of twee Beyoncé covers; no, they were fans, people who sung along with every word of every song. Even the originals.
Pomplamoose—Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn—started off as a duo playing what they called “videosongs,” which they not-humbly claimed was a new medium. The two rules of the form: “1. What you see is what you hear (no lip-syncing for instruments or voice). 2. If you hear it, at some point you see it (no hidden sounds)”—basically they’re music videos where every sound is captured live to tape at some point, with no lip-syncing (overdubbing, however, does happen). While the historically exasperated might want to direct the duo’s collective attention to things like The T.A.M.I. Show, their twee covers of pop standards breathed capital-a Authenticity into songs that some people were aware of, but couldn’t enjoy without some sense of grafted-on gravitas; pointing out the idea that if they hadn’t glommed onto already-popular songs their Internet-sensation quotient would be not even half as large did little to stop people from referring to Pomplamoose as an “indie success.” The band helped, too; their one-two punch of claiming that they were innovators and big-upping the fact that they could make money from music online only further endeared them to the slippery, yet always self-reinforcing techie crowd.
Make no mistake, either; the readers and authors of these sites have come to the forefront as far as the way a good lot of people talk about music. Traffic for sites like Gizmodo and Mashable smashes that of even the biggest music sites. Money is being poured into digital music startups, some worth it, many not. The music-tech space is where so much of the good news (or at least good PR) is happening right now as opposed to the everything-is-terrible drumbeat that’s plagued the music industry in the post-Napster era. The result on the artist level? Bands or artists with built-in tech angles get the sort of positive exposure to non-music-centric audiences—this part is the key—that any artist, even those who might be at “superstar” level, would kill for.
During the show, SOTC pal Chris Weingarten (not in attendance, despite my efforts) was crankily retweeting the 140-character-or-less missives of people who were in the audience (he didn’t know any of them, just found them via Twitter’s sometimes-working search function). The word “hipster” cropped up twice. There was a sort of wonder about the idea of being out in Brooklyn—in Williamsburg, no less—on a Friday night. The people tweeting about seeing Pomplamoose were decidedly not the people who would be at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on most any other night (well, unless performances by other online darlings like geek-panderer Jonathan Coulton or the eternally panoptic Amanda Palmer were on the docket).
All of which is to say that if I’d thought for a minute about Pomplamoose’s potential to sell out the Music Hall of Williamsburg instead of just making jokes about Dawn’s thousand-yard-stare I probably wouldn’t have been surprised upon arrival on Friday: These were the mythical techie music fans that have driven me so crazy on Digg and Reddit, clinging to old-fashioned ideas of “real” and desperately trying to keep technology and popularity away from their music. I probably would, however, have been just as shocked at how enjoyable their show was at times. The duo for much of the night was augmented by a few backup musicians, giving their smooth-jazz indiepop a bit more muscle than one might expect. Most surprising was Dawn; when she’s not giving a camera a wall-eyed stare and singing R&B in affectless ways, she actually has a lovely, cigarette-smoke voice with a bit of an underbelly—think Feist, only with enough heft to sort of blow when she wants to.
It’s kind of too bad that the slowly blooming goodwill I had toward the assembled on stage (words like “nice” started creeping into my notebook at about the halfway point) was blown out of the water when they played “Telephone” (“Single Ladies” had come earlier in the set, and the ensuing songs had given me a chance to calm down a bit). Their version—here I should probably say that I think “Telephone” is something of an underrated career highlight for both B and Gaga, especially Beyoncé’s verse and the cell-phone sounds that are wound into the mix—was just dreadful and bloodless, eschewing the glitch-filled pomp of the original and replacing it with layers of voids. (Also, the bassline doesn’t really fit into the overall song very well.) Of course, the crowd seemed to like it, as they did the cover of Earth, Wind & Fire that followed (“September,” which isn’t top ten for EWF but which certainly has a bit of groove to it) and I just threw up my hands; yes, it was a technically competent cover but again it had the attitude of “cleaning this up”—read: getting rid of the funk—that plagues so many nu-grunge outfits and torturous American Idol contestants, not to mention other people with their eye on getting some of that YouTube cash. What infuriated me wasn’t the musicianship as much as it was the attitude perceptible around both crowd and audience, the idea that in order for music to be Taken Seriously it had to either be stripped of all its fun or pander directly to the crowd. Or both.
Critical bias: The number of times I wrote “I’m so confused” or its equivalent: Five.
Overheard: “When are they going to do the Angry Birds theme?”
Random notebook dump: You’d think that there would have been a lot more cell phones chronicling the evening, but apparently the bouncers shut that sort of behavior down right quick.