Reading the never-ending stream of CMJ coverage that’s taken over a very particular portion of the internet this week, you get the impression that people are seeing exclusively really great bands. Everyone’s always killing it or blowing minds, or rocking everyone in attendance to within an inch of their lives. This obviously is not true. Lots of bands, most of them even, are fucking terrible, and so it only stands to reason that over the course of five days, you will come across a few sub-par acts. But to admit that you have is to admit your own failure: Making your CMJ schedule is an art unto itself, after all, and it’s no one’s fault but your own if you’re not able to navigate around all the crap and correctly pinpoint something great. You know what, though? Sometimes we make mistakes.
I spent most of yesterday at my desk, with no solid plans for the evening. I considered going to the Mercury Lounge for The Extra Lens and John Vanderslice, and I considered going to the Brooklyn Vegan thing at Music Hall. But I also kept thinking about this notion of discovering new music at CMJ—walking into a venue, knowing next to nothing about the bands on the bill, and just taking it all in. This kind of thing has become less and less prominent at events like CMJ, now that every blog in the universe runs such extensive recommendations, and I find it sort of depressing: a very real type of thrill we used to experience all the time is slowly being taken away from us.
And so with that in mind, I decided on the Underwater Peoples and Chapter Music showcase at Glasslands. Air Waves, who I’m generally fond of, were on the bill, along with Andrew Cedermark and the band Crayon Fields, who I’d been meaning to listen to for a while. But there were other bands, too, bands I didn’t know anything about: Guy Blackman, La Big Vic and Fabulous Diamonds. Perfect. Except not.
The night got off to a lukewarm start. Guy Blackman is actually just a dude named Guy Blackman, who plays keyboard and writes completely inoffensive loungey pop songs with ridiculously straightforward lyrics. “This song’s called ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” he said at one point. “It’s about gays in the military.” His voice is refreshingly clean and sturdy, though, and his delivery is just dry enough to give the whole thing a subtly subversive feel.
Then things get bad: La Big Vic is a Brooklyn-based three-piece that incorporates two keyboards, a little bit of guitar, some violin, and vocals. On record, they don’t sound half-bad, with nicely atmospheric, tribal-sounding pieces that feel like the end of a really bad trip. Live, though, they’re a wreck. The tribal feel is all but gone, replaced by just straight-up off-key singing and sloppy playing. The programmed beats are thin and woefully uninventive, as are the dual keyboards. There are moments of life with the squiggly guitar parts, but not nearly enough of them, and the violin is basically inaudible. They have no idea how to pull this off in a way that’s at all powerful, and it sounds an awful lot like amateur hour. They have a record coming out, though. Just in time for SXSW, they tell us.
Next up is Fabulous Diamonds, a keyboard-drum duet from Australia. And in case you were wondering, yes, it seems the worst of Brooklyn’s “gauzy” electro nonsense has made it’s way all the way across the globe. The keyboard drones endlessly, while singing drummer Nisa Venerosa bangs out drum beats that Meg White would call laughably simple. It’s frustrating, too: there are moments when the keyboard finds a nice, simple repeating pattern, leaving the door wide open for something, anything, to happen. When the drums never get beyond a maddening, “thud… thud… thud…,” it starts to seem like they’re not even trying.
This is something I start to think about more and more as the night goes on: so many of these young bands seem to be doing the absolute minimum you can do in order to be able to say you’re in a band. No one’s going to win any cool-points for complaining that, “God, these kids don’t even know how to play their instruments!,” but it’s hard to ignore, and it’s made worse by the fact that everyone keeps telling them it’s ok.
And it’s not just the electro-minded bands, either. Even Air Waves, whose songs I find perfectly likable—they take the stage next, and seem to be going through the motions. They sound lazy and uninspired, powerless to combat the fact that they’re clearly losing the room. And then it’s more of the same with Crayon Fields, an Australian quartet that plays jangly, 60s-worshipping indie-pop. Again, it’s fine on record, but it falls flat live. When I leave halfway through the set, the crowd has thinned out considerably—probably just because it’s getting late, but hopefully for some other reasons too.