CMJ Day 1.5: Thurston Moore Vs. the iPhone
Are you gonna liberate us girls from white male corporate oppression?
I skipped out on CMJ last night. Opening night is traditionally really slow, and even though I wouldn't have minded catching the nostalgia-overload Bouncing Souls/Lifetime thing at Webster Hall, I had a whole pile of wedding-present thank-you notes at home that weren't going to write themselves. And truthfully, CMJ is a physically taxing experience. For five days, you're running yourself ragged, bouncing around the city, arguing with bouncers, settling internal struggles about just how many $7 beers is too many. It's a good idea to give yourself a break whenever a hole comes along, even if it's right at the beginning. And so my big CMJ opening came late, at two this afternoon at the Soho Apple Store, where Thurston Moore played a set. If you're looking for overwrought symbols for the changing face of downtown Manhattan, you could do worse than a Thurston Moore set at the Soho Apple Store. It's fun to imagine Sonic Youth playing the exact same physical location twenty-five years ago, standing on a stage made out of used-up needles and bullet casings. These days, it's probably the cleanest room I've seen in New York. Among other things, Thurston is a walking symbol for what we're told was the old, dangerous downtown. He's still got the same haircut, and he's still tangling feedback up with delicate lost melodies, except now he has a kid and lives in Massachusetts and has Starbucks money in his checking account. But then he's also fully willing to venture out to Red Hook on a Tuesday night to see Prurient or whatever, which is not the sort of thing you see James Chance and Lydia Lunch doing these days. So: complicated.
Onstage this afternoon, he cut an awkward but genial figure, casually introducing all his bandmembers before he played a note. ("You guys know Steve. This is Bloodhammer.") He stuck mostly to songs from his new album, Trees Outside the Academy, which grows on me more every time I hear it. Trees is a largely acoustic record, which is something of a surprise, but most of the songs have the same ecstatic tangled-up rush as Sonic Youth tracks, and it's easy to imagine his usual band playing them. But all the violins and acoustic guitars add a certain warmth and texture, and it's easier to hear the craft in those riffs with the feedback stripped away. Bits of the album sound like Thurston singing for Espers. The record radiates a comfortable confidence; if it weren't for the unbelievably annoying archival recording of a 13-year-old Thurston fucking around with noises that ends the album, it'd be perfect to fall asleep to. Onstage today, the feedback made tentative returns, but Thurston never let the screeches overwhelm the songs, which had to be good news for the people upstairs in the store shopping for iPod speakers or waiting for technicians to look at their laptops. The sound was pretty surprisingly loud for a place of business in the middle of the day, and I kept glancing over my shoulder to see how the assembled shoppers were taking it, but nobody looked especially perturbed. The shoppers had mostly cleared out by the time Thurston finished his hour-long set and reemerged for encores with an electric guitar in place of his acoustic, but people would still wander upstairs, watch for a song or two, and then go back to browsing earbud options. I watched one middle-aged guy in a full business suit snap a bunch of camera-phone pictures on his way back from the bathroom. You wouldn't think that "Psychic Hearts," the old solo-Thurston nugget that closed out the show, would make for an ideal soundtrack for consumer-electronics shoppers, but I guess this is still downtown.
Voice feature: Kevin O'Donnell on Thurston Moore
When Thurston got done, I walked across town to the Cake Shop, where Vampire Weekend would've been finishing up a mid-afternoon set if they hadn't been running on punk-rock time; I got there just in time to catch the whole thing, blessedly. This was my first time seeing Vampire Weekend, a band of Columbia-grad indie-poppers who make a big point about injecting their uptight herky-jerk with liberal dollops of Afropop. My friend Marc has told me that nobody would give a damn about this band if it weren't for the whole gimmicky Afropop thing, to which I say: Yeah. Fine. Good. Without the circular guitars and lush keyboard-plunks and playful rhythm section, Vampire Weekend would just be a pretty good wordy neurotic indie-pop band. With that stuff, they're something infinitely more interesting. The contrast between their slippery grooves and their prim nasal vocals just fascinates. That's even more true in a live setting, where you can see Ezra Koenig standing on tip-toes whenever he has to sing something. The songs are catchy and wiry and brief ("That was our 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' in that it was over four minutes long," said Koenig after one new one), and they have a whole bunch of readymade singalong parts that remind me of earlyish Q and Not U shows except that New York crowds are way more shy about singing along than DC and Baltimore ones. This band is just enormous with possibility, and I'm excited to see what happens when they get around to releasing any actual physical product beyond a three-song EP.
Voice feature: Kevin O'Donnell on Vampire Weekend
One of the nice things about CMJ is that you run into people who tell you about things that are happening which don't necessarily officially have anything to do with CMJ itself but which you should probably see anyway. At the Vampire Weekend show, I ran into my friend Yancey, who told me that the Meat Puppets would be taking the stage a few doors up the street at Piano's, a rare and unexpected opportunity to see alt-rock legends in a surprisingly tiny and even more surprisingly not-uncomfortably-packed room. The band's original core, brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood, recently reunited after Cris went through some serious drug problems and also went to prison after a fight with a post-office security guard, a fight that also resulted in Cris getting shot in the stomach. After something like that, it only makes sense that this band might be a bit of a mess. They certainly looked like they'd seen better days. Cris, gray hair frizzed out in every direction, stood with his back to the audience for most of the set. Curt's gray t-shirt, which had a picture of a PlayStation controller on it, was soaked through with sweat a couple of songs in. And about half their songs, especially the newer ones, sounded like absolute ass: half-jokey bluegrass with grooveless drums and godawful bleated vocals. But this band has been playing zoned-out space-country for so long that they can pull off transcendent improv solos, solos that are usually better than the songs to which they are attached, seemingly at will. At times, the brothers seemed to launch off into those solos when they couldn't remember how the next part of the song went, and so a few of those songs stretched out to epic length, which worked wonders for them. And "Plateau" and "Oh, Me," gorgeous songs that come loaded down with extra piles of pathos for me and a whole lot of others in the room because of (let's be honest) Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York, just transcended. "Lake of Fire" not so much. The band closed out with a rendition of "Lake of Fire" that would've shamed a fifth-rate high-school cover band, intentionally dropping lyrics and falling all over the beat, finishing up with a genial Curt monologue about how this show was like when they would drink cough syrup at lunch in high school and how we should "have fun with your festival or whatever the fuck it is you're doing."