The first days of CMJ 2013, as detailed in reports from nights one and two, were remarkably clunker free. The brittle streak couldn't last forever, and night three was at least a partial comedown from Wednesday night's buzz. Bad vibes crept into the Lower East Side. I saw security guards get into shouting matches with badge holders denied entrance to Santos Party House to catch The Preatures, an apparently white-hot band I didn't know existed until two days ago. Some crummy trends emerged and sleep deprived concert goers lost it a little, were spotted sleeping on venue couches. But still, thanks to a late save from a couple purely enjoyable performances, the balance of quality remained unusually high.
Hookworms, a zoned-in krautrock band from Leeds, England, played early on a Bowery Ballroom bill that would eventually feature Real Estate and "the shy one" from Foxygen. As an influence, the once-obscure locked rhythms of German bands from the 1970s has to rank as one of the most overused of the past decade. So, if you are going to give it a go and really register, you need both uncanny inter-band precision AND the sort of manic, unkempt energy that seems to be building by the second. Hookworms are pretty good at both. They are aided immensely by the harried, bum-ranting-on-a-street-corner intensity of singer MJ, who fiddled with a circuit box to blow his voice out to the rafters at key moments of derangement when he wasn't nearing peak spasm. As is often the case with shoe gaze-y, drone-y bands, it was a little too easy to space out on the sounds, not noticing that the songs themselves aren't really leaving much of an impression. They do have a bit of a kick, though.
My night had a paunchy middle section. It started with Washington, D.C. pop band GEMS playing the Mercury Lounge as part of a Windish Booking Agency showcase. GEMS are the suspiciously attractive duo of Lindsay Pitts and Clifford John Usher, who've been getting a fair amount of hype ahead of their very first EP, for a sophisticated pop sound they've coupled with carefully considered use of classy black-and-white Instagram images. For a brand new band they come fully formed, sounding always sexy but doomed, like a candle-lit dinner on the last night before the war broke out...or something. Yet while their striking appearance and catchy chorus swells made me think they'll probably be a big deal sooner than later, there was something about their live presence that I found pretty unappealing. The band is so self-consciously glamorous and yet so soft and so measured. Restraint isn't always a virtue. They didn't seem like real people up on stage, so much as actors portraying them. Someday soon in some grand room, they might be somebody's untouchable pop fantasy. Two feet in front of me at the Mercury Lounge, they seemed like catalog models cradling instruments.
If GEMS left me kind of confused about my feelings, a brief look at Belgian band Float Fall in the basement of the nearby Delancey sort of calcified that confusion into revulsion. Another drummer-less guy/girl duo attempting to make smoky, smoldering pop music without much edge at all. I admired the warmth that came from integrating a live French horn, rather than just using canned synth sounds. They seemed like fresh faced, lovely Belgian kids. But when young people set out to make music this excruciatingly soft and sedate, it just feels like we've all gone wrong somewhere.
It was one of those moments when you have to take a second to try to figure out who started this trend? We need a scapegoat! Hiking back to the Mercury Lounge, it hit me. The xx. UGH. We can totally blame this plague of sensual cuddle-core on The xx.
After those two bands, Aussie gal-next-door Courtney Barnett was a "Slurpee in the Sahara" on the refreshing scale. She's been one of the most beloved acts of CMJ this year, and her instantly charming, conversational folk-rock is very easy to love. She played guitar and sang in a talky mid-pace cadence, with help from a two-man, long-hair rhythm section. Her playing had a bit of 90s crunch to it, and didn't wander far from decades of standard pop-rock guitar. Her presence itself is what carried it, her air of relaxed honesty which wasn't really attempting to put forth any easily hashtaggable brand identity or faux-mysterious posing. She reminded me of a less petulant, more likable version of Giant Drag's Annie Hardy (obscure mid-00s reference, BAM!). In a song like the set-closing "Avant Gardener", she's so open about emotional distress yet still so self-deprecatingly funny and non-dramatic in her delivery that it really feels like a phone catch-up session with an old friend. She is delightful.
The night ended back in the persistently gross basement of Lower East Side chode palace The Delancey, where high-concept London duo Public Service Broadcast were weirdly making their only CMJ appearance. (Pre-announced, anyway. Less of a surprise that they've now been added to tomorrow's free Brooklyn Vegan party at Baby's All Right in Williamsburg.) On paper their approach seems a little too cute—two dapper instrumentalists using cut-up slogans from the authoritative voiceovers in British archival films as their vocals, and play while projections of that old-timey footage run behind them. In person it worked quite well. At first, with banjo in hand, I thought I had them pegged as Books-ish collagists. Once the electric guitar appeared, they seemed like confident rockers bridging the gap between the poppier side of late 70s post punk and the concisest parts of early 00s post rock. It was more fluid and more fun than it should have been, and a novel way to finish out the evening.
Tomorrow: Sleeping in! Probably reading Tweets about that Arcade Fire show!
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