CMJ Day Two: Escaping the Basement
It's where they made me at
One of these things comes along every CMJ: a show so stacked top-to-bottom with critical favorites and new prospects that for the critics in the crowd it starts to feel like a clubhouse meeting except with more notebook-scribbling. At the Bowery Ballroom last night, something like half the crowd was made up of writers, bloggers, and photographers. And so the other half of the crowd, the people who came to the show presumably because they really like Deerhunter and/or Dan Deacon, those unconcerned with recording the show for posterity, end up basically becoming part of the show for that first half. I missed spazzpop openers Ponytail, a Baltimore band of such recent vintage that I never heard of them in all the time I was living in Baltimore, so my night started with White Williams, who plays sticky, sugary synthpop with a detachment that borders on disdain. Williams knows how to write a hook, and he works plenty of negative space and shimmery texture into his production, at several points playing a reverbed-out melodica. But Williams and his three-piece band (guitar, bass, laptop) studiously avoid offering any indication that they actually like the music they're playing or the crowd for whom they're playing it. In some ways, that removal made him an interesting fit for a crowd as interested in networking as it was in music. Still, as good as the songs sounded, the show made for boring spectacle, and the goofy computer-animations on the wall behind Williams didn't do much to alleviate that boredom.
Voice review: Zach Baron on White Williams at Mercury Lounge
No Age didn't have that problem. The LA guitar-and-drums duo is fundamentally a basement-show band, radiating the kind of cathartic energy that makes perfect sense in a packed-in tiny room but which can get lost even in a mid-sized club like the Bowery Ballroom. And they also do the Fall Out Boy thing where the guy who usually talks between songs isn't the same as the one who sings, which always bugs me for some reason. But the band still totally worked last night, mostly because virtually every one of their songs follows the same durable blueprint: a tense buildup followed by an explosively fierce climax, and then nothing. These songs are short and absolutely rudimentary, but they come equipped with great meat-and-potatoes indie-rock hooks, and those climactic moments punch hard. On "Everybody's Down," guitarist Randy Randall climbed an enormous amp and leaped off as the the big moment arrived, the sort of theatrical big-room trick that always, always works (ask Fall Out Boy). And on the last song, they invited a few goofy kids up to mosh onstage. Near the end, Randall handed one his guitar and lifted him up on his shoulders, and it's pretty impossible not to like a band that does that sort of thing. I'd like to see No Age stretch their tension-and-release buildups out longer than, say, two minutes, but for now they're great spectacle, and I'm eager to see them in an actual basement.
Voice review: Zach Baron on No Age's Weirdo Rippers
Next up was another natural basement-show inhabitant: Dan Deacon, who will continue to come off awkwardly in clubs like this one until he finally deigns to perform onstage. Deacon's reason for being is the sweaty crowded dance party, and so he always plays down on the floor, with his people. But then about 90% of the people in the club can't see him, and so you see concentric circles of diminishing enthusiasm radiating out from the fired-up center to the indifferent edges. Even from the balcony at the club, it was only possible to catch glimpses of the guy making the music. Maybe it's missing the point to expect an actual show, something to watch, when you go see Dan Deacon, but last night was a massive-scale performance whether Deacon himself wanted it to be or not. Near the set's beginning, Deacon asked the army of photographers to climb up onstage so that they wouldn't get in the way of the people trying to dance, but the resulting storm of flashbulbs, all pointed at the crowd now, made it virtually impossible to see anything, let alone Deacon. Playing on the floor, ideally, is a fundamentally democratic gesture, but when the point is to get up in the audience's grill and only a tiny percentage of it actually has any chance to get up there, it becomes more exclusionary than inclusionary. And Deacon's persistent commands to dance grate pretty quickly; nobody should need to be so forceful in asking a room of people to have fun. (When he's talking to the crowd, Deacon is charismatic and often hilarious, but [and I can't believe I haven't seen anyone else mention this] it's pretty much joke-for-joke stolen from the stuff Cex, another Baltimore dude, was doing five years ago to much smaller audiences.) I really like Deacon's jittery sugar-rush day-glo synth-splatters, but I just can't make myself have fun at his shows, and I always feel like sort of an asshole for it. Whether that's my fault or his is, I suppose, up for debate.
After all that, it was sort of a relief to see a guitar-bass-drums band take the stage, especially a great band, albeit one just as prone to attention-seeking performance-art bullshit as Deacon. Last night was my first time seeing Deerhunter, and so it was the first time I had to attempt to reconcile frontman Bradford Cox's aggressively desperate look-at-me antics with the band's assuredly surging drug-rock. A little while ago, guitarist Colin Mee quit the band and then returned a couple of weeks later, and it's easy to see why he might've wanted out; Cox must be just unbearable to work with. Cox gets a lot of mileage out of his ghoulishly unhealthy appearance; he's got Marfan syndrome, which makes him frighteningly skinny, and he often flaunts that skinniness, wearing dresses onstage and stuff like that. He also likes to get drunk and go on long, uncomfortable onstage tirades about whatever. Last night, he started out on his best behavior, taking the stage in street-clothes and limiting himself to a one-minute "I miss my mom" freakout. Before the encore, though, he stretched that same outburst out a whole lot longer before his band finally convinced him to actually play a song and get off the stage. By that time, at least half the crowd had cleared out, and when one guy tried to leave to go to the bathroom, Cox handed him a water-bottle and told him to piss in it instead. As provocation, Cox's whole thing is as obvious as it is unbearably self-absorbed. But then, it'd be a whole lot easier to ignore Cox's whole thing if Deerhunter wasn't such a great band. It took me a while to warm to their early-2007 album Cryptograms partly because I didn't immediately understand that it sounds a whole lot better when you eliminate all the boring drone-pieces from your iTunes and just leave the songs instead. And those songs are great. The band leans as hard on Spacemen 3/Sonic Youth fuzz-rock influences as, say, a Place to Bury Strangers do, but they also groove a lot harder. The basslines ripple and snake, and drummer Moses Arculeta often limits himself to a simple Eurodisco bass-drum pulse, keeping the guitar freakouts anchored beautifully. The image that'll stick in my head from last night won't be Cox begging for attention; it'll be Archuleta, head down, absorbed in his work, pounding that kick over and over while his arms hung motionless at his sides.