CMJ Day Three: You Know, There Are Actually Some Really Terrible Things at CMJ

10/22/2010 11:16 AM |

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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.

14 Comment

  • thank you for an HONEST review!!!

  • This reads to me as further proof that the L Mag is for old squares who don’t actually want to like anything at all new, and who don’t want anyone else to do so either.
    Let’s not try anything different, people. Oh, heavens no. Just go listen to more Ava Luna and Belle & Sebastian, and be happy with that.

  • whaaaaat that show was great, why are you so grouchy

  • people drink a lot at these festivals. then they feel obligated to attend more shows the next day, when they’re hungover and grumpy as fuck.

    writing critical reviews in that state does not add up to sunbeams and rainbows in the depiction.

  • Actually from having seen the show as well I think the reviewer was being more than generous. If this lazy crap impresses you don’t mug the messenger if they point out you’re a sap, eh?

  • good job bro! definitely takes a lot of courage to rip up-and-coming bands from a sector of the music world you admit to being only superficially familiar with. (Fabulous Diamonds would probably be very flattered that they didn’t sound like the White Stripes… good call.) Definitely a very nuanced reading all around — the showcase must have been REALLY AWFUL if, over several hours and six performances, there wasn’t ONE thing that happened that even slightly contradicted your thesis. Should have gone with the Vanderslice.

  • Mike Conklin is a novice writer. Air Waves seemed very excited to play.

  • These bands are all terrible. It’s pretty obvious that the people defending this crap are members of the bands because no one else would go out of their way to stick up for them.

  • “air waves seemed very excited to play.” talk about damning with faint praise. i can’t wait to go and check them out….

    i blame technology. just because you can make a studio-quality record (or single) on your laptop doesn’t mean you should, and certainly doesn’t mean you have the chops for a compelling, or even competent live performance. and it really doesn’t mean that other people have to like it.

    whatever happened to good old criticism? are the youth of today too coddled by their never-say-no parents and their fawning friends/peers to be able to deal with a review that isn’t all positive? there were 100s of bands at CMJ- some of them HAD to suck. sounds like mr. conklin found a few of them.

  • man i really hope i dont get this jaded when im older…yeah there are bad things out there..but these bands are def not it. when it comes down to it i just think mike has a different taste (dont like the hold steady or okervil river but thats just me!)…i was there with some friends and everyone i spoke to at the show had a really great time and seemed to be enjoying themselves

  • man i really hope i dont get soo jaded when im older…there are bad things out there but these bands are def not it…i think when it comes down to it mike has taste that runs outside of these bands sounds (not a big fan of hold steady or okervil river). more so I think that while this is an honest review of the show (something much appreciated) i feel as those writers these days tend to make it there business to crush newer/ buzz bands (all L mag has been doin over CMJ is trashing on bands)…in turn then being able to call themselves “writes/ critics” over being called a blogger. so to the commentators above jsut cause this dude is a hater doesnt make this article more credible than the bloggers and other sites who like these bands. all it means is that mike somehow convinced L mag that his music opinion is worth a damn and should be paid for it…only difference. mikes opinion is still an opinion. one of many.

  • Every band who played at CMJ sucked. Except for Ume. Fact.

  • Its so hard to navigate CMJ week. Some shows I went to cause its was a friends company’s showcase. Like you I also chose underwater peoples and for the same reason. The bottom line is out of the whole week you do discover a Gem or two plus you get some great bands that you may already love. But I totally agree with the bare minimum thing. A keyboard and some loops isn’t all it should take to be part of CMJ.

    However, those one or two awesome discoveries always seem worth it to me. Check out Incan Abraham and Hank and Cupcakes then tell me everyone sucked and it’s not worth it.

    http://www.musicvagabond.com/post/13479277… sucked.

    http://www.musicvagabond.com/post/74689900…

  • Mike, yr unfairly maligning the Fabulous Diamonds. I saw them a couple times in their native territory in 2005, and I can tell you that they are not in the slightest influenced by any of the Williamsburg cheap-keyboard bumblefuckery that seems to irritate you so. Feel free to think they suck (I don’t, for the record), but painting them with that brush is inaccurate and sloppy.

    Also, Guy is not just “a guy named Guy Blackman.” He’s a well-regarded musician and label owner (of the very label that threw the showcase, in fact) also from Melbourne, who is/was in a number of great bands.

    It’s all well and good to lament the fact that there are shrinking numbers of opportunities to discover cool new things through simple exploration, serendipity, etc. That you went 0-1 in an attempt to do so doesn’t really give you an excuse to go off on some neo-Andy-Rooney “Everything Sucks” jag.