This year just seems sad. In the rushed pursuit to become the latest indie buzz band, no doubt some playful innocence has been lost. And in my not-so-rushed pursuit to be 35, I have no doubt that some of my innocence is long gone as well. After five CMJs in the last seven years, even New York City itself seems old hat to me--the greatest city in the world rendered mundane. The thrill of biking across the Williamsburg bridge is even gone. (There’s a terrifying tale to be told there, for another day.)
Tuesday night began with a misguided attempt to catch the Halloween Parade, something I caught traces of during my first trip here in 1999 and vowed to return to. Instead, thousands of people were crushed into a few blocks around Washington Square Park, creating a truly terrifying situation for anyone with untied shoelaces or—God forbid—a small child.
Thanks to the desired venue being on the other side of the parade in the west end, my plans to see high school hero Suzanne Vega were thwarted; she was one of many artists who first implanted romantic notions of New York City in me through music. Opening for her was my favourite MOR artist of late, Keren Ann, an Israeli/Parisian immigrant to New York whose 2005 album Nolita synthesized many of my favourite moody females (Vega, Cowboy Junkies, Anna Domino, Mazzy Starr), not to mention a similar nostalgia for impressions of 1980s NYC.
No matter—I missed them both, so it was off to Tonic to see So Percussion, whom I missed when they opened for Matmos in Toronto. Unfortunately, the dance venue in Tonic’s basement too often overshadowed the (extremely) subtle intricacies of So Percussion’s minimal bowed vibraphone compositions, to say nothing of their crinkling sticks. Not that the crowd noticed: they applauded the five minutes of ambient drone that happened while the band was still doing a line check.
I had hoped to catch a bit of the JDub night at Mo Pitkin’s after that, but Golem had cancelled and I had just missed the Luminescent Orchestrii. Instead, I got the Israeli band Nanuchka, led by a radiant woman with rock star lips, ready-whipped long hair, and powerful pipes. Even though the guitarist suggested a Shadowy Men move to the Mediterranean, not much of the band’s material made much of an impression. A final bid for the evening to see Sigur Ros associates Amiina at Joe’s Pub found the gig sold out.
Wednesday began at the Canal Room, where I hoped to catch both Beans and Mike Ladd on a bill with no discernible set times. I arrived while Beans had three songs left, ably backed by friends in Holy Fuck—a band whose career was kickstarted after only a few gigs when Beans discovered them and brought them to Coachella for their debut as his backing band.
What followed was sure to win this year’s Diamond Nights award (explanation to follow) for the most baffling set of the week. In this case, Vic Thrill consisted of two men entirely too old to act this ridiculous: one playing guitar, the other punching up the beats on his obviously recently acquired laptop while attempting to rock out on his guitar and whip around the clunky silver monstrosity wrapped around his neck. It was your worst nightmare of They Might Be Giants’ rockier older brothers—with none of the musicianship, mastery of melody, or absurdist wit. Oh, Vic Thrill are absurd all right, but they themselves don’t even know the half of it. Nonetheless, some misguided miscreants felt obliged to dance at the front, and some even more questionable types with pencils and pads jotted notes at the back. Nobody booed—instead, someone let off a post-Halloween stink bomb that spoke volumes. Later research turned up the odd fact that sexiest smart girl Tina Fey is working on a movie about this band--wtf??!!
A beautiful bike ride up through west Greenwich Village took me to the Absolutely Kosher showcase at R&R in the meatpacking district. The Affair is the label’s latest signing, boasting a compelling frontwoman who channels Debbie Harry’s drawl with considerably more passion, while the keyboards and guitar wrestle each other for the forefront of the band’s sound. They have one great song in them—but the rest of the set showed they’re a bit too quick to succumb to that formula. Hopefully their debut album in January shows a bit more diversity, but they're off to a great start. Get Him Eat Him followed that, and despite their great name—which practically invites heckling—this was simply college rock by numbers.
Over in Brooklyn at Northsix, the Late B.P. Helium sounded less like their Elephant 6 neighbours in Athens, GA then they did like terrible post-Happy Mondays British atrocities like The Music. Dreadfully dull, and the sparse crowd couldn’t be bothered to get worked up about it. Downstairs, MC Trachiotomy was a no-show, much to the mystification of organizers and other bands on the bill. It was an all-too-fitting ending to a disappointing evening.
Thursday night started out much better with the Thrill Jockey night at Tonic. Angela Desveaux and her band drove down from Montreal for a few hours, just to play the show and turn right back around, but they certainly weren’t punching the clock during their set. Playing borrowed instruments and going without a sound check, they didn’t have to do anything but plug in before they captured much of the magic heard on her Thrill Jockey debut, Wandering Eyes. Well-seasoned (and tasty!) guitarist Mike Feuerstack is a fine foil for Desveaux’s comfortable yet understated stage presence; his dry wit, note-perfect low harmonies and guitar leads coloured songs that can just as easily stand on their own. Desveaux’s voice is the perfect embodiment of heartache, and she sounds entirely natural: these notes just come to her, with no affectation or seeming sign of effort. Calls for duets and harmonies are sure to be pouring in the more people hear her record. The set was bolstered by several surprises: a cover of Gene McLellan (the “Nova Scotia legend” who wrote “Snowbird”) and Paul McCartney (“Roll With It”) as well as a hard-driving new song and a version of a Snailhouse song where Feuerstack sang lead. Comic highlight: bassist Eric admitting he belched in Angela’s face while she was tuning; Feuerstack responded by assuring the crowd, “In Canada, that means ‘I love you.’”
Other trivia: finally met the lovely and ageless Bettina Richards, aka Ms Thrill Jockey, who I embarassingly mistook for a random merch girl while buying a copy of Looking For a Thrill. Ouch! Apparently Feuerstack slipped her some Snailhouse and/or Wooden Stars recordings; let's keep our fingers crossed. He also introduced me to Desveaux, whom I interviewed over the phone for a piece in Exclaim that I was truly embarassed by (what's up with that first quote?)--so much so that I didn't bother making that connection for her when we met.
They were followed by Pit er Pat, who sounded like what I always wanted Blonde Redhead to be. The singer is dry, her keyboard lines sparse and the songs are slight, but it’s the drummer here who glues everything together with a melodic jazz approach to his electro-acoustic percussion. Even better: said drummer's name is Butchy Fuego. How cool is that? Of, if it's true, how cool was his mom? What could have become too mannered too quickly instead was a joy to hear live; how that translates to an album I have yet to experience.
Arboretum followed, but didn’t seem that different from any other rock band who recently decided to try their hand at being psychedelic. That was going down at the Knitting Factory, where (I believe it was) Moon and Moon featured an acid burnout (not, as rumoured, Devendra Banhart) fronting three percussionists, three keyboardists and a bassist making shockingly listenable hippie jams. I only caught one song before catching the PATH train to New Jersey; today was an early drive because the 5th annual Canadian-Brooklyn Brunch starts in a mere few hours!
More to come…