Friday, October 22, 2010

CMJ #Offline Fest Day One: We're Making Jeff Klingman Go to the Whole Fucking Thing

Posted By on Fri, Oct 22, 2010 at 1:21 PM

Small Black, Image Courtesy Pitchfork
  • Small Black, Image Courtesy Pitchfork
Thursday began the experiment to see if Pitchfork, the most influential name in indie-rock at this point, can build a better CMJ Music Marathon from scratch right in the middle of the old bloated beast. That question will be considered in progress over the next three days. The first hurdle, trying to get hungover show-hoppers out of bed for a two o’clock start time and a full slate of concentrated performers, resulted in a faceplant of sorts. Brooklyn Bowl is a BIG room, and when occupied by a dozen or two people, it seems awfully empty.

The first act I saw was Dominique Young Unique, a pretty 18 year-old rapper from Tampa who, in tight black pants and imposing heels, was unquestionably the most stylish performer who would take the stage all day or night. Flanked by a DJ and a weird-looking Germanic guy in parachute pants, she rapped playfully, filthily, occasionally ferociously over fat synth hits, spurring wistful memories of obtained, and then hidden 2 Live Crew cassettes in this correspondent. Her energy level was tough for the 15 or so people in front of the stage at this point to reflect. She mugged for the astronomically high ratio of camera men, played to each audience member in turn, and tried to make a couple bearded shruggers wave their hands in unison. Sometimes her keyboard weirdo would do some goofy Fred Schneider call and response, and then pick up his big ol’ Korg to vamp with it like a keytar. It was a touch awkward watching her deal with her wildly inappropriate time slot, though definitely amusing. She looked like she was having fun bowling later, anyway.
Implausibly, the room seemed to clear out even more for John Hinckley, Jr.-resembling Mississippian Dent May, who was accompanied by a drum machine and a pal for harmony purposes. Now, I was certain that this guy was a ukulele player (he was/still is, but none was in sight), which sort of sapped any will to check him previously, and I have to say his deeply eclectic set was pretty impressive. A little country twang, some moony ballads, toes dipped into disco, Jens Lekman-y crooning, all handled with fine voice and a nicely self-deprecating ridiculousness (see lines like, “The softest boy in Mississippi would like to know why you’re so pretty”). He ended with a cover of Prince’s oft-covered “When U Were Mine,” making it sound like the Magnetic Fields this time around. The energy level in the room was about negative twenty at this point, though the set-closer was nice foreshadowing for the silent playing of Purple Rain from numerous giant flat screens later in the afternoon.

Lower Dens, from Baltimore, played loud, grinding shoegaze led by sulky adrogyne Jana Hunter. Hunter has been playing as a solo act to minor acclaim for a few years, and now has a band to compensate for her curious anti-charisma. In this short burst, the noise, which was occasionally underpinned by a tight motorik thrust, was refreshing if not terribly distinct from song to song. They brought a needed bit of fractured tension to the room, before evaporating rather quickly.

DOM’s was the first set that saw the room fill in a bit, nudging towards an approximation of fullness (the cue for the Pitchfork.tv crew to start filming, apparently). Dom, the singer, of DOM, sounds when singing and talking like a little gnome-man, but that works out well enough in the crowd-pleasing, bubblegum psych rock they play. Opener “Jesus” still sounds like such a hit, however many months later. His long, natted hair makes him look like Dave Pirner. The lights flickered on that long, natted hair veil, made him look like a monstrous skull face.

Word from their Central Park opening set for Pavement was that Times New Viking sounded atrocious on the big speakers. Combined with the diminishing returns of recent records, I was sort of convinced their time had passed. But, I dunno, there was something about their jerky little snarl of a set, which featured a lot of songs from their career best Rip It Off, that seemed right, still. Beth Murphy had a minor black eye, and what I can only assume was an ironic Green Day t-shirt (too much to hope that it’s explicitly worn to make fun of Wavves?). Stage banter veered towards misanthropic non-sequiturs like, “This is a new song. It goes out to Liverpool. Seriously don’t ever fucking go there,” which preceded trashy compositions, simultaneously bright and sullen. It all felt like a piss take, but a good one. Whether they were there, begrudgingly, because, “They need more money, cause they need more drugs” or not, they made me believe it.

OK, so at this point I know where I stand on Brooklyn’s Beach Fossils. They are surfy, nearly jaunty, pretty homogenous from song to song, perfectly fine, kind of a snore. As I didn’t want to shell out for a $15 mac and cheese plate, or $9 dollar cone of fries, or whatever, for the high-end in-house vittles, I caught a couple songs and then went on a suicide pizza-slice mission, missing the rest. They were in high energy, bounding around the stage at the start. Since the sun had just stopped streaming in the Bowl windows, the rich gold stage lights against the cherry red velvet curtains looked suddenly great. If you like them you probably would have liked it, I’d gather. I was eating a sub-standard slice of pepperoni.

Back for Small Black, who are now a pretty polished pop band, led by Josh Kolenik’s treated crooning (and charmingly goofy soulful dance moves). Light ripples of dancing filtered through the crowd, as their sounds veered from relaxed (I did not say “chill.” SHIT, I just did…) to robo funky. At one point I looked over to see a flatscreen vision of the pudgy Charlie Kaufman-face of Nic Cage in Adaptation for some reason, and that was surreal, though preferred to the looped Pitchfork.tv ads that had been filling the screens prev…oh wait, there’s one right over there.

Oh man, and then came Gold Panda, easily the most patience testing act of the night. You have to understand, I’d been there for a very long time, and to this point, acts had been flying by, knocking out their half hour and then getting the hell out, always a new set of shiny keys dangling just ahead. Gold Panda, a performer whose stage show consists of watching a guy in a hoodie dance with an Apple laptop, went on FOREVER. There were times when swirling flourishes and big, screwed-up hip-hop beats even made the bowling lane business dudes pull out some wobbly dance moves. The point of Gold Panda seems to be to find those grooves, wander as far afield as possible, and then eventually bring them back. Rather than starting a continuous dance party, it found the crowd texting with a slight arrhythmic intensity. At this point the question had to be asked: If you were going to create a new CMJ, replace the old one from scratch with a low-cost, geographically concentrated platonic ideal, would the evening involve being trapped in a room with a rave DJ while excited men in suits who were barely aware there was music being playing bowled and ate $13 dollar brisket sandwiches? Take your time to mull it over.

(Thought: Dominique Young Unique could have killed this time slot.)

It was a great relief when Wild Nothing took the stage some time later. When they started played soft and masculine guitar songs in panache-deficient flannel shirts and black tees, coming off live like music specifically for bland, handsome dudes, that relief was reconsidered. Like the sort of tunes you’d imagine would be played by an Abercrombie and Fitch store manager if he called a back-room meeting, and said, “Huddle up guys, it’s time to get sensitive.” Again, it was natural juncture for to wonder if extended curated bills are really a better alternative to CMJ’s scattershot overload. The impulse to check out on something that doesn’t interest you, and see what else is going on out there would seem to be the point, no?

Surfer Blood, touted far and wide as a singular success story of last year’s CMJ, and here sort of celebrating on a rival brand’s parade float, were at least partially redemptive for an evening whose wheels had come off. Having missed the 1700 gigs they played here last October, I was unaware of the Ezra Koenig-meets-Neil Schweiber from Freaks and Geeks charisma of frontman John Paul Pitt. Little Lord Fauntelroy certainly owns that stage, strutting like a dandy, breaking out theatrically brittle guitar bits for squealing college girls. His voice was rich, nicely roughing up to Walkmen levels on the screamy bits, smoothing out for the creamy ones. Maybe not the most exciting thing I’ve ever heard, but like, a group of musicians who you could see having quite a long performing career ahead of them.

And, despite the promise of a Maximum Balloon DJ set, that was it for me. Based on Day One evidence, Pitchfork is committed to fulfilling both the “music” and the “marathon’ aspects of CMJ in their bid to usurp it. I’m almost scared to head back over there. I’m going to pull a hammie! Keep me in your thoughts, dear readers.

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