CMJ Day One: Hollerado, Mr. Dream, Delicate Steve, Chad Valley, Class Actress
Better than: Trashing a hotel room and sex acts with a shark.
In a CMJ world more than mildly dominated by moody bedroom electronica, Mediterranean sea-breezes, adolescent posse rap, and heaps of fashion-conscious twee and/or gloom, there aren’t nearly enough opportunities to catch muscular, meat-and-potatoes rock music.
So when Adam Moerder, singer and guitarist of Brooklyn three-piece Mr. Dream, asked the audience at Glasslands, “Do you guys like big dumb rock songs?” it was as much hypothetical meta-debate starter as it was refreshing banter. The relatively tame crowd at the Stereogum/Popgun showcase Tuesday night needed to think about the question a bit more before getting back with an answer, but they nevertheless seemed eager to stick around—and perk up when Titus Andronicus took the stage.
The twisted, melodic power pop of Canadian group Hollerado toed the Mensa border most closely. But the group showed no shame in embracing the carefree roll of careening rock clichés coming from every direction, churning out unpredictable jams that broke down with precision. Songs like “Fake Drugs” were emboldened with chorus effects, deep tom toms, and dueling guitars that had subtle tonal differences yet still operated in sync.
The aforementioned Mr. Dream was less Sum-41 and closer to Gang of Four, demonstrating more of a simmering dark thunder than the weighty glee of Hollerado. What seemed like tuning during soundcheck slowly turned into a crawling sort of atonal improv that was pleasantly quizzical. The band had a distinguishable power-trio feel, but they definitely pushed the limits of that arrangement. Moerder’s dry vocals and pained howls were still musical while abandoning typical melodic practices, in keeping with the group’s ability to mine the instinctual essence of punk for its more sophisticated and intellectual elements. Mr. Dream’s strong debut Trash Hit bathed the band in a mysterious elegance, some of which was lost in the hustle of a stripped-down CMJ performance, but the buzzing guitar lines and monstrous rhythm section fills still felt like an anarchistic puzzle.
It would be cruelly unfair to categorize the music of Delicate Steve as big dumb rock, even if some of the genre’s hallmarks—soaring guitar leads, whammy solos, big drums—are there. It’s infinitely more dynamic and resplendent, even if it appeals to some base instincts. His music has a distinctive storytelling quality in its purely instrumental guise. Live, his songs always seem to evolve, or at least sum up a particular given feeling or motivation at any moment. The booming, triumphant “Don’t Get Stuck” has a life-gratifying main riff, but last night Steve discarded everything but its essential elements and re-invented it each time he repeated it.
There were other non-rock related accomplishments during CMJ’s first day. British newcomer Chad Valley (Hugh Manuel) played the first of at least six shows he’s scheduled this week during the day at Pianos; he evoked the one-man new-wave affectations of Washed Out or Neon Indian, and his distinctive baritone soared over beats as sunny as they were industrial and harsh. Later, headlining the main room at Public Assembly, Class Actress—the stage name of Elizabeth Harper—continued to show her growing stage presence with an enthusiastic, mike-stand cavorting performance. Playing songs from her debut Rapprocher, she was barely visible at times yet remained the center of attention throughout; her synthed-out bedroom electronica was raunchy and lively in person, equally full of playful sexuality and a no-nonsense, ballsy rock-and-roll sensibility. It seems even the most glamorous electro kittens get the inkling for big, dumb, rocking cat-scratch-fever once in while.
Critical bias: I think I actually do like big, dumb rock songs. How should I feel about that?
Overheard: “And of course Titus Andronicus, the best band in the history of the world.”
Random notebook dump: Class Actress can wear the hell of out of a trenchcoat.