October 29, 2009
CMJ 2009: Terrible Records @ Pianos | 10.23.09
JezebelMusic.com @ Pianos
October 23, 2009 | Terrible Records CMJ Showcase
Brooklyn band Arms opened Saturday night’s Terrible Records CMJ Showcase with a breezy, blissed-out pop set, their casual tone clashing distinctly with frontman Todd Goldstein’s jagged movements and nervous between-song banter. Though clearly uncomfortable under the spotlight, his guitar playing was effortless; unfortunately, like the rest of the set, it was also somewhat passionless. The band seemed to be in a hurry to finish, neglecting to put emotion into the music – there was a lukewarm smiliness that persisted even through a song that was, according to Goldstein, “about the end of everything,” and while the lyrics were crisp and audible on the venue’s excellent sound system, they were delivered in a nasal monotone. The music was pleasant enough – barring an irritating excess of ooohs and aaahs in the backing vocals, sung in stock harmonies that wobbled off-tune occasionally to turn the dreamy pop into the stuff of nightmare – but quite bland, and easily forgettable.
The next set was all too brief. Toronto act Little Girls wasted no time in creating a stormy atmosphere, sending whorls of dark noise over ominously simple minor chord progressions that teetered on the edge of control. Frontman Josh McIntyre’s vocals wove skillfully in and out of the noise, shouting and singing with equal effect. The thrashing guitars piling up over the main chords threatened to descend into total anarchy at any moment but never did, drummer Anthony Gerace’s speedy yet metronomic percussion keeping them in line. Even when McIntyre started flailing around the stage, savaging the keyboard and then jumping into the audience, no one missed a beat, merely speeding up to match his convulsive dancing. The legendarily-jaded CMJ audience was surprised, to say the least, when this energetic tornado with his weird brillo-pad haircut landed in their midst, and he helicoptered around shouting his way through the last song all too briefly before crashing to an end and taking the set with him.
Blood Orange’s “performance” was a baffling non-event, as far as live shows go – aside from occasionally prodding his laptop to start the next track, Dev Hynes hardly moved. The guitar around his neck was more expensive jewelry than musical instrument. Occasionally Hynes plucked a note or choked a couple of words into a microphone that he spent more time regarding as though it was a strange growth out of the stage, but for most of the set he shuffled aimlessly with his back to the audience. At times he was even guitar-syncing, his plucking in no way resembling the sounds coming out of the speakers. Lip-syncing is apparently no longer artificial enough for the cynical CMJ set.
None of this would have been so frustrating if Hynes’ music itself wasn’t so much fun – bright, catchy guitar riffs with a sassy catwalk attitude; soulful and choppy grooves backed by trippy synths and dance beats – but none of this filtered into the non-action onstage. Closing their eyes, listeners might imagine they were hearing some great music on their headphones in the dark, but this was not a live show. Anyone applauding at the end was clapping for the computer.
Acrylics, a Brooklyn band celebrating the release of their new album, played a set of immaculately polished soft rock, reimagining the hearty pop music of their parents’ generation. Singer Molly Shea’s voice was surprisingly full-bodied but wasted on the trite blandness of her prepackaged-sounding lyrics—the listener could almost hear the “g”s in every “ing” verb being meticulously replaced with apostrophes for that rebellious rock’n’roll touch. The music churned chirpily in place, a stew of recycled 70s-rock riffs that shied away from innovation as if allergic. Meanwhile, singer-guitarist Jason Klauber maddeningly bobbed up and down to the beat, doing his part to weigh down the music with another round of excessive aahs and oohs. The wink-wink camaraderie between the two vocalists seemed forced and false, part of a strained band-wide projection of cohesion that reached a low point when Shea yelped “Take it away, Travis!” with incongruous pep during some unremarkable interlude. Whether or not Travis indeed took it away, the world will never know.
The last song opened with a keyboard line seemingly torn straight out of an early ‘90s video game, a cartoonish and surprising change of pace that seemed promising. Then Shea and Klauber dragged it back down with a cringe-inducing round of sing-song goodbyes that resembled nothing so much as a black-clad restaging of a Teletubbies episode.
Finally, Brooklyn’s Class Actress arrived to save the day. Singer-keyboardist Elizabeth Harper immediately had everyone’s attention as she whipped off her coat and started loping seductively across the stage with the first note of the opening song. Over a lush mess of nested ‘80s-style synth riffs layered just-right over a sharp and catchy dance beat, she flirted with the audience while maintaining a sleek composure, nevertheless pulling off a few demure pelvic thrusts at her sequencer. Harper’s voice was the star of the set: full, clear and bell-like, soaring just above the warm mesh of electro melodies, she struck an irresistibly smooth balance between sultry cabaret and blasé electro vocals. Halfway into the first song, most of the room was already dancing—enthusiastically, and for the first time all night. Harper’s lyrics weren’t especially profound, but this somehow seemed beside the point. People were finally letting themselves have a good time.
words and photos by Helen Buyniski