CMJ Day One: Thurston Moore’s Penance Tour

10/22/2014 11:55 AM |

Though my first day of this year’s CMJ Music Marathon was spent at events not included in the festival’s schedule, I’m not sure you can say I “skipped CMJ.” In the midst of a tradition 34 years running, everything that happens in the New York music world this week—be it officially sanctioned showcases, anti-establishment bashes specifically meant to counterprogram against corporate sponsored events, or high-profile acts in town to capitalize on an uptick in interested media outlets—is rolled into an amorphous blob called “CMJ.” Would it even be so crazy to call staying inside my apartment on a rainy Wednesday, watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix, and making a mint chocolate milkshake “doing CMJ”? Something to consider.   

Last night I caught sets from Bo Ningen, PCPC, and Thurston Moore. A full accounting follows. 


Bo Ningen, a Japanese band living in London, are playing a half-dozen shows in New York this week and twice just at Baby’s All Right. Expecting them to live up to their advance billing as hair-spinning kawaii demon riff-monsters right off the bat, for just a handful of people at 6 PM on Day One, was maybe a bit unreasonable. Not that their heavy-metal power riffing was egregiously half-hearted, they’re just wise to pick their spots. Visually, they are striking. Singer Taigen Kawabe’s spooky-thin frame was made more dramatic by a form-fitting floor-length black gown. He sang in high, agitated yelps but between songs his soft-spoken, British-accented English was jarringly gentle. When not playing guitar, he went through elaborate hand and arm motions that could either have been the product of some ancient dramatic tradition, or something he just thinks looks neat.  

By the end of the set they’d worked themselves into form. Kawabe spent the last few songs stalking the sparsely populated floor, adopting improbable crane poses mid-riff before soloing frantically above his head. He vamped wildly for flash photography and sly camera phone shots, while his band hacked away behind him at increasingly worrying time-signatures. It was a nice hint of their potential panache, but I suspected that energy is expended in direct proportion to the number of people they’ve got the opportunity to wow. Expect the rest of their week to be considerably more epic. 

The first few minutes of PCPC‘s debut performance could have been the first few minutes of PCPC’s debut practice. The “supergroup,” or at least “combo-group,” made from Brooklyn bands Parquet Courts and PC Worship, started their set wandering through fields of overgrown drone, never nearing a coherent sound. Then, thankfully, they snapped into higher gear, best foot forward, riffs nearly aligned. It seemed like a conscious put-on from a dedicated prankster. Courts’ singer Andrew Savage would soon claim the band’s acronym stood for “People Committing Psychotic Crimes,” seeming pretty full of shit.

Savage traded vocal responsibilities with PC Worship singer Justin Frye, and Savage has the edge in natural charisma. The songs he led were more elastic and unpredictable and Frye’s more of a sludge-punk bash ’em up, though both styes were executed with conviction. They sounded like a combination of both bands, surprising though it shouldn’t have been. Worship drummer Shannon Sigley was especially pivotal, holding it together with tight thwacks in moments where the boys busied themselves with feedback wrangling. They ended, bleating the title refrain from Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild,” a move that seemed very 1990s for attempting to re-deflate a classic rock cliche that’d been flat for decades. A Xerox of a Xerox of a zine about a feeling.  

Enthusiasm for the band was strong among a still-thin early crowd who definitely showed up for the headliner. The goodwill was not unconditional. When Savage asked the crowd, “Have you had enough, or are you Thurston for Moore?” there was nary a pity chuckle to be heard. 

“We’re on a tour of Northeast black metal clubs. It’s our penance tour,” said Thurston Moore, earning genuine laughs. Though he was mostly, probably, at least 90% kidding (or maybe just referencing the time he called black metal dudes “pussies of the lowest order”), the offhand comment had the ring of deeper truth. When you’re loved for more than just your music, it can go both ways. Beyond Sonic Youth’s unfuckwithable body of work, Moore was an icon of graceful aging and enlightened manhood. A feminist art guy in a true lifelong soul partnership with a creative equal. That image was probably saintly out of proportion with reality all along. But after spending several decades as Cool Noise Dad to multiple generations, it’s understandable if not entirely fair that fans might feel personally betrayed by changes in personal circumstance. We all picked Kim. 

Still, divorced from that chatter (sorry), his new band sounded fucking great. It sounded more than a little like his old band. Prominently featuring Moore’s gently creaking voice and eerily warped guitar tunings along with eternally steady SY drummer Steve Shelley, it would. The replacement parts are significant. The gut-aimed contribution of Deb Googe, longtime My Bloody Valentine bassist, was extremely formidable. Second guitarist John Sedwards stayed mostly in the background, adding to the wall of pure oomph without demanding the equal spotlight that Lee Ranaldo would have. They kept to the punchier numbers of Moore’s new album, The Best Day, playing a more direct and focused set than I’ve seen him do for a long, long time. After poorly feigning a walk-off, they even encored Moore’s 1995 solo classic “Psychic Hearts” as a straightforward pop-punk blast. 

Focusing just on the music, setting feelings aside, Thurston Moore with something to prove is no minor pleasure.