Can rock and roll make you sick? And should we want it to? Day four of PopMatters CMJ Festival coverage.
The tickle in the back of my throat started on Thursday. It was the kind of thing that feels not quite normal, but not quite awful -- maybe it's nothing, but your psyche is dogged constantly that it's something. Especially when it's followed by the sniffles (those came Friday). Then the mild headache. Then the sleep deprived delirium.
This festival wears a person out. Night after night of late night shows, followed by long commutes home, followed by (for me) writing before bed. The daytime panels thankfully started after 11am, but that doesn't make the go of it any easier. Not to mention all the drinking, dancing, and who-knows-whatting that accompany any rock-heavy event. But it's almost as if getting a cold by the end is a Boy Scout badge. It's like if you aren't running a fever by Friday, you haven't been having enough fun.
But then again, there's always the bad kind of sick, which I felt come on strong Saturday as soon as I walked into Don Hill's and was greeted by pasty, pot-bellied men in pig masks playing ear-splitting metal while singing something about fucking virgins. The pig lead singer of this nightmare called Shat was ass naked and wearing a big, erect phallus in his crotchal region, with several additional penises perched atop his head. They followed the devirginizing song later with one that I believed had to be called "I Threw Up on Her Cunt" (I'm assuming, since those were the only lyrics) and closed the night with their love ballad, "Look at Those Breasts".
Shat obviously are a joke. They're gross guys who sing gross songs, and people like them because they're extreme and outrageous, yet tongue in cheek. But is that all they are? And just became they're a joke, does that mean we can't take them seriously -- or that we're "boring" or "prudish" if we do? I'm not saying that irony isn't useful or entertaining, but saying that something is ironic doesn't mean that it isn't also sickening. Personally, I don't feel any better about Shat's music knowing that everyone in the audience was winking and nodding throughout. Because when it comes down to it, Shat is making money off loud, obnoxious, vile, misogynistic crap.
For an entirely different change of pace, Shat were followed by Aidan Smith, whose vibe was '60s-ish quaint but who seemed to be thoroughly sick of himself. He played simply and sang sweetly, with a Ray Davies-esque accented voice; his lyrics were bursting with poetry and image. Yet, seemingly convinced that no one was listening or caring, he barely let the applause begin for one song before he would begin the next, and kept apologizing for even being onstage. After three songs, he mumbled "one more and then I'll let the rock music set in" and then went on to play, almost giving up before the end. The entire thing seemed more like a reluctant recital, from a cranky little boy whose Mommy made him do it.
The Koreans offered the night's second stark contrast: these boys from South London obviously lived for the stage. Their deliberate affectation and high drama were ultimately so distracting that, at least at the beginning, it was hard to pay attention to the music. Which was too bad, because beyond the scarves and got-the-Holy-Ghost dancing, the water dousing and spitting, the unnecessary hair tossing and highly practiced "rock" faces, the competition between lead singers Brent Newman and Oliver Hicks over who could be sinewy-er and more breathless, and the potentially offensive name (imagine a band called "The Chinese" or "The Negroes" and you get my point), the Koreans . . . were pretty fucking good. They were Mansun theatrical, Pulp sexable and Folk Implosion (a la "Natural One") funky: huge and melodic and hooky and fierce. I kept wanting to loath them, but found myself falling in love, wishing I could close my eyes and pretend their name was something completely politically innocuous.
But I saved my unqualified love for Clearlake. Casually entering the stage, the English foursome started unassumingly, quietly, building their sound in plaintive, methodical steps -- it was almost like watching a film in slow motion. Jason Pegg movements were tiny and graceful, fluid as if he were suspended in liquid. His bandmates -- Dave Woodward (bass), Sam Hewitt (keyboard), James Butcher (drums) -- all wore serious faces, focusing in like archers with a singular target. And the music. Oh, the music. If you fancy British rock in the vein of the Verve, the Doves or the Charlatans, I'll say this: Clearlake are the best thing going on at the moment, hands down. Their sound is expansive, earth-shattering, shiver-inducing; they play slow with mania, fast with steadiness, loud with temperance, quiet with ire. Despite that Pegg's voice was failing (which he blamed on a raucous few days in the city); despite the abbreviated set (CMJ sets are notoriously short); despite that they were obviously tired, their music crackles with inexorable life. It rushed through the crowd and set us into swaying fits, charged us with energy, rendered us helplessly enraptured.
And it made me feel better.