CMJ Wednesday: The Golden Awesome, Grass Widow, BELL, Still Corners

10/20/2011 3:05 PM |

Not really Jeffs camera.
  • Not really Jeff’s camera.

So, a bit off a rough night for your intrepid correspondent. I turned away, rain-soaked, from a teaming 285 Kent Ave., uncomfortably brim-full almost right away, shortly before discovering that my camera had conked out before a shot was fired or a note was heard. Sigh. Well, not the most responsible act of music journalism perhaps, but let’s all be really real for a second and admit that constant audio-visual recording does tangibly take away from our enjoyment of live music. Because it does. Removed from the hot spot, not trying to get that perfect moment framed just right, I had a really swell time just taking in some music. Go figure!

Wandering from Kent over to the more inviting confines of Death by Audio, I took in a couple bands playing the unofficial showcase of local label, M’Lady’s Records. First were New Zealand’s The Golden Awesome, shoe-gazers in the classic heads down, squall up sense. As big as the guitar sound was, it was dwarfed by singer Stef Animal’s voice, run through a “seraphic harmonizer” to make it huge and strange. (It was a sound I associate mainly with British bands from the 80s, though alongside The Clean, Flying Nun signed quite a few shoegazers of their own, I guess.) It was ultimately more about the wash of sound than any distinct lyrical information being transmitted; that sound was sweet and enveloping. Despite some on-stage stasis they had an unassuming charm to them. Some dork yelled out “Occupy New Zealand!” When Animal poked her head up to hopefully ask, “What about New Zealand?”, he clammed up and left her hanging. Ha ha, people at shows.

Next came Grass Widow, my personal favorite of San Francisco’s new wave, avenging a near miss of their set at 285 yesterday (I will continue to miss great bands there all week, I guess). I continue to be impressed by the unusual quality of their songs, how they can float along sideways in such a way that even when you know a sharp, gang-shouted chorus is coming, it’ll startle you in the moment it occurs. Something like the older “Celebrate the Mundane” soldiered forth on bouncy, overlapping energy, where a song they announced as a forthcoming single carried a breezy, country-pop melody. I have a definite bias towards late-70s post-punk, it’s true, but reducing that genre to nasty thumb in the eye brutalism is flatly inaccurate. Take their closing cover of Wire’s “Mannequin”, as prime example. The original is a pop snarl, where theirs manages to go through all the same contortions, but translates them into a soft and feminine bop. If calling a band “post-punk” means anything, it’s an acknowledgement of an admirable ability to surprise.

Then, it was quick loop up and around the corner to catch BELL, who was putting on a free show that strayed far from Zebulon’s folky wine-bar comfort zone. Olga Bell’s voice—clear, strong, wildly expressive—has always been her band’s focus, and various line-up changes I’ve seen over the years have all sort of played around accentuating it with fluttering electronics or sweet keyboard melodies, making everything prettier and more delicate. Last night, with two percussionists and some fat synth hits, it was all about laying down a rock-solid foundation and letting her soar right over. I’ve been down on recent R&B revivalists in the borough (the How to Dress Wells of the world) because I don’t think the stuff they are channeling was worth much to begin with. Sorry, but Toni Braxton and Mariah Carey were pretty crap. Hearing BELL do a spot-on cover of Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody” clarified to me that the crux of my complaint is really on the taste-level. BELL took a genuinely great, minimal, weird song and accentuated those qualities even further. Without label or publicity support it’s not super surprising that the band’s first proper full-length, Diamonite, went under the radar earlier this year, but it’s a shame. Closing the set by applying the groove-based focus to that record’s stand-out “Meaninglessness” made it sound even better.

I wrapped the night up by catching Still Corners at Public Assembly. A London band signed whose debut album Sub Pop put out just last week, I’d never heard a note of their music before and came away at least a little impressed. It took a few minutes, both in terms of sound mix and stage presence for singer Tessa Murray to properly assert herself. She seemed a removed from her current time and place, asking the crowd “So, it’s quite late on now…how was everyone’s…(beat)…Wednesday?” A CMJ daze we all know too well. But when the guitars and vocals found their proper place, it was easy to see the appeal. Jagged guitar noise, plus motorik bass, plus detached, rainy day vocal melodies from French records made in the 60s. Looking them up after the fact, I see that the tragically cut-short Broadcast is a main point of reference, and with the tripped-out film projections that constantly ran behind them and all, I can see it. But, it honestly didn’t occur to me much watching them. They do have that alien sensibility, but it’s married to a more aggressive rock edge. It’s a promising cocktail of elements, though a perfectly seamless mix might still require tinkering.