Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

So, I went to see Clap Your Hands Say Yeah last night at the Black Cat, and enjoyed the company of Mr. Information Leafblower, Ms. Cruel Sommer, and got to meet DCist colleague Ms.
Blogs t r e t c h
for the first time, as well (and, Amanda, I must say with all affection, your observation on the relative tallness of the audience...that's sort of the pot towering over the kettle, isn't it?). Elsewhere in the house, I was grokking the chilled-out vibe of some other cool MF, which must have meant the Upstate Life was there doing his thang as well. So holla atcha.

Sadly, while I didn't despise the show to anywhere near the degree that ILB did, I left the show feeling a little bit disappointed. The gory details are there for you absorption over at DCist. It's healthy, I think, to be skeptical of anything that comes down the pike arriving on a crest of obvious hype, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have certainly been blog-darlings for the bulk of the year. But the truth is, I spent a lot of time with their debut recording over the past two weeks as I boned up so as to offer the most-informed review I could for DCist, and along the way, I really fell in "deep like" with the record. In all honesty, their self-titled record is basically a filled-out EP, but these guys do have the songs. "Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood", "Over and Over Again" and "The Skin of my Yellow Country Teeth" are a trio of fuckin' cherry tunes that--I'm sorry--most bands would kill to have in their catalogue. In that sense, and on record, the hype is well founded.

So, let me be clear: I would have loved nothing more than to avoid jumping up and down on these kids' heads, but based upon what I saw live, these guys just aren't ready to play Division I ball. The type of music they play--recalling the droning groove of the always transcendant Feelies--really requires tightness and momentum, otherwise it reduces to loose, churning inertia. They came on like gangbusters out the gates, but the moment where they took their first long-ass pause after song 4, the band never got back what they had. Their running start devolved into endless pauses, endless silence between songs--and it exposed a couple glaring flaws: 1) these guys do not have much in the way of stage presence; they can't banter and won't try and 2) they don't seem to know how to play their own material! So many awkward starts to songs! You mean you don't know how your tunes begin? Worst!

The CYHSY performance did much to advance a theory I've been kicking around lately--that our recent crop of New York City bands are, more and more, emerging from the five boroughs with great big flaws that match their great big hype. We're very conditioned to think of New York City as the acid test of cultural value--taking Frank's lyric, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere" as a revelatory axiom (funny how no one ever comments on the lyric "I want to wake up in the city that never sleeps," by the way--I mean, if the city never sleeps, than what're ya doing snoozing, Frank, you out-of-touch greenhorn?). But, having made it there, CYHSY mostly made number two on the stage in DC. And I'm sorry, but we do have some standards here, be they vaunted or not.

The truth is, the Sinatra Axiom needs to be coupled with a Hometown Exception, obvs. These bands, in truth, haven't made it anywhere, and really need to get out of town to reality-test their performance in an environment that doesn't exacerbate and reinforce their bad habits. I was very gratified to find that Mr. ILB seemed to enthusiastically second this thinking of mine--he's a guy whose lived these streets I've merely walked.

Reading along with folks like Brooklyn Vegan, you sense a definite trend in the way these NYC-centric bands experience the early days of their budding hype. They build a hometown following. They bop from Rothko to Roseland out to the Warsaw and Southpaw, maybe on to the Knitter. Everyone blogs their ass off about them. Then they head on down to play SXSW, and not suprisingly, take a massive flotilla of homers with them, to the point that my friends in Austin send me panicked emails wondering why all the streets have had their names changed to Rivington and Ludlow. They come back to do a stand at the Mercury Lounge, then it's on to the inevitable CMJ showcase and plans for a gig at Irving Plaza sometime after the leaves change.

That's sort of a joke, but, you know what? It sort of ISN'T. The fact is, these bands are gigging endlessly in front of a crowd that's more than willing to do more than simply, tastefully wellwish--they want to anoint, to tastemake. And the diehardiest of them all can simply jet along with them. Now, it's a certainty that a well-tuned ear can pick up on critical feedback--I'm not trying to say that NYC is full of standardless suckers--but against the backdrop, alongside the steady drumbeat of hype, among the true believers it's real easy to tune that shit out. When you think about it, the way the Strokes experienced love and backlash in sledgehammer bursts alternating on daily overnight deliveries was a huge boon to them. If nothing else, it made them rehearse as if their lives depended on it, maybe even too much--there are undoubtedly people who still believe there was no live drumming on Room On Fire at all.

I can empathize with the fragile of ego and understand why a lot of bands might not want to take steady, regular doses of the bad with the good. But sooner or later, you've gotta ask yourself: is there any value from receiving feedback solely from the types of people who end up on Blue States Lose? When I see Clap Your Hands Say Yeah come out and fumble through the beginnings of songs, I'm seeing a bad habit that's become ingrained--and it's gotten to be that way because hometown crowds, excited by the prospect of participating in the start of something that felt like a big, fun, new thing, never came around to saying, "By the way, you might want to learn your new material."

All of this is just conjecture, of course. I really don't mind if the guys from CYHSY want me to blow it out my ass--I'm still rooting for them to win. But there's evidence. The resounding "Feh." that the world outside of Williamsburg greeted Fischerspooner with. Radio 4 followed up the superlative Gotham! with The Stealing of the Nation, a record so mediocre that you wondered where Gotham! came from in the first place. Or The Liars, who followed the magnificent They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck a Monument On Top with the wretched, unlistenable, ear-raping shitcob They Were Wrong So We Drowned. Did I mention stellastarr*? I read now that the Fiery Furnaces' drummer has bought Northsix. What do you think removing the pressure of winning bookings in NYC is going to do for that band? Will it inspire more of the lovely weirdness of Blueberry Boat, or the wince-inducing excess of Rehearsing My Choir (talk about ironic titles, the Furnaces' "choir" seems to find the new record to be a disaster!)?

What I'm trying to say, is that if you live in New York City, and you love a band dearly, set them free. Get them on the road. Get their shit tested in front of crowds that don't have a stake in their music, though, for God's sake, don't send them out of town until they can start, play, and finish every one of their songs with something approaching deftness. (Sarah, we likey the Nightmare of You--don't let this happen to them!) It's good to have friends and fans, but anyone who's ever met a Berkeley Democrat knows of the deleterious effects of constantly being told that everything you say and think and do is right and good and awesome. It's a big country, filled with cities and towns that have very real standards. And, yeah, if we have to, we'll cut you, sure as shit--and we won't cry about it neither. Don't talk about your name unless you're bringing some game.


jordan said...

i love blue states lose

death cab tonight...god i hope i can drink there...

Blogs t r e t c h said...

Yes, all 6+ feet of me certainly are included in my observation. I'm just always surprised when there's a lot of height anywhere in DC, as we tend to skew pretty low on that scale (in my humble opinion, though as noted, I've got a fairly useful vantage point from which to judge).

And I couldn't agree more with the home grown NY band fervor. The pep rally and the big game are two different things.

The Deceiver said...

Hee. Yeah, I think we are, on balance, pretty short. Just ask Ernie Grunfeld.

When I was in grad school, I knew a guy named BJ Hartman in Richmond who worked at a record store with me and DJed big beat and house and some of the club down in Shockoe Bottom. Dude was six-foot-eight and twisted his shock blonde hair into devil horns.

One time, we were both going to a show at Trax in Charlottesville. We were travelling in separate cars and he was leaving earlier than I was. As he was leaving, he was all: "So, look, if it's crowded when you get there, I'm going to hang out at the corner of the bar by the stage. You can look for me there." I laughed and said, "Dude, you're six-foot-eight with frickin' devil horns! You can hang out wherever you want, you'll probably be the first damn thing I see when I walk in the place!"

The Governess said...

I am 5'9" and the shortest of the family. A 6'5" brother. A 6'3" sister in law. Car trips are unfathomable.

for the first time in my life, I feel like a shrimp. But see, maybe I just surround myself with tall peeps? Because I never thought of DC as a "short city," per se?

Anonymous said...

Clap your hands politely and say "Why din't I go see Atmosphere at 930?"

Ryan said...

personally i think you are being a bit harsh. I see what you are saying out NYC hyped bands...and i get it. But personally, i live in baltimore and saw CYHSY at the bowery ballroom in sept, and they put on a really surprising show (i was more there to see the national, but left the show a fan of CYHSY).

I also saw them last night in baltimore, where they put on an amazing show, with no delays, no problems, no excessive guitar tuning, etc. Instead they put on a energized, driving, performance that was so intense the guy broke his harmonica. They came out for two encores because the crowd was right along with them, and finished the set with a great neil young cover.

So maybe they just weren't into it at the black cat because they know you pretentious DCers were sitting there over analyzing them instead of enjoying the show...or maybe they had an off day. either way, i wouldn't write them off.

But good point about the bands getting out and proving themselves outside of their "nursery" that is NYC.

Matthew Perpetua said...

The Furnaces are brilliant Choir conductors - they strategically deploy the most difficult third record in the history of Difficult Third Records, puncture some hype, shed some fickle fans, give the obsessives something to really sink their teeth into, and lower some expections so by the time Bitter Tea drops in a few months, it will be EXACTLY WHAT EVERYONE WANTS.

But really, the Furnaces have nothing to do with what you're talking about, since they are no one's local band.

The Deceiver said...

I think Fluxblog's led the way in informed support for the FF's recent output--and here you've reasoned well again. If we're just kicking cans here, then I'll cop to figuring you for having sussed this strategy correctly.

But I don't like this venue ownership idea--and it's got nothing to do with any Green Party "own the content and the means of distribution" media anxiety, buh-LEE-dat. I just don't think affording yourself the opportunity to nest at Northsix is going to do much to inspire a lean and tested band.

Anonymous said...

The owner of Northsix just became the drummer of fiery furnaces, not the other way around.

And in new york, northsix is considered a tiny venue when compared to the venues the fiery furnaces now play.

The Deceiver said...

Ahh. OKay. I stand corrected.

mediaeater said...

Spot on, the larger context of this
article is a solid observation. NYC
crowds for example used to be discerning. Hell now chiago audiences kick their ass (example: class action lawsuit on creed show) Hell it used to be fun watching a band find their space and go to boot camp in this city. Bands used to route their tours to show up in gotham last to avoid becoming fresh fruit for rotting vegetables. Like
stopping in Erie b4 getting to London to make sure you had your
collective shit together.

The blogster lemming effect is now
a problem. All it takes is one semi hipster blogger to say OMG and a dozen others follow suit. Pretty soon there is major label a+r weasel
fest in effect. They sign and and a band that had a shot if they stayed in the trenches and on their own or on a indie could have become a contender end up being eaten up
and forgotton. (the Jonathan fire eater effect)

There are dozen bands that come to mind but your CYHSY example was a good one., I fell prey early on to
the hype and thought for a second
what am I missing, went to see them
a few times, spun the disc more than
I should have asking myself did I miss a hipster meeting someplace
and still came up with marginal.

Then again I saw the Talking Heads
play Central Park for free in 80.

Discern is the better part of valor
for a reason. Where is the substantive statemenship of this prolific blogging bunch.

One popular and early on nyc music
blogger asked me yesterday is nyc
the only place that this massive
music post punk progressive pop
party blogsphere exists? are their other DMA's or cities that have the same type of critial blog music mass? (she put it more simply, P alleration mine). Yes i read you
and your in DC and I read one in chicago but is there the same amount of music blog mass in other cities
that could help vet the hype or at least help provide a larger POV?

Thanks for the great read.