The thing I’ve always appreciated about CMJ is that it’s the ultimate in short attention span theater. It truly does feel like a “showcase,” not just because of the schmoozing industry people and free promos floating around on tables, but also due to the efficiency and rapidity of each band’s set within each concert. It’s like a rapid-fire onslaught of sensory overload, bam bam bam. If any of the bands offend your sensibilities, you can rest assured that their set will be over in just a few more minutes. Fortunately, tonight’s Astralwerks showcase never had me checking my watch.
Openers Inouk were the step-child (non-Astralwerks) band of the night, and took the stage virtually unnoticed, with no introductory greetings. As soon as they launched in, it became immediately obvious that this was no group of spunky indie ruffians, but highly polished musicians with big songs. Their music is marked by a fullness of sound (owing to the trio of guitars), frequent changes of time and tempo, and a playful treatment of genre and style. But more than anything else, this band is about vox. Damon McMahon really belts it out in a manner that is unmistakably impassioned and heartfelt. While onstage, he commented on the lighting: “Nice and dark. That’s good.” It was an accurate description of the music itself-somber and solemn, yet comforting and soothing. They have such a distinctively Britrock sound-at times not terribly far from the Coral or Doves-that it actually feels discombobulating when they open their mouths to reveal American accents.
Their strongest song, however, is also the gentlest-the subdued, folky “Somewhere in France”. Damon dedicated it to “all the college students.” [Eventual, half-hearted “woo!” from a few audience members.] “And all the girls.” [No “woo!”.] It was sort of an awkward, stereotypical rawkshow moment, but the raw beauty of the song well made up for it.
How to place the Golden Republic? They are more of the friendly ruffian sort, what with their fauxhawks and fresh-from-Kansas City demeanor. They also hinted at a multitude of styles, at times employing disco drumbeats and synths, at times aiming for more straightforward rock and roll. Some of their songs had an anthemic 80s quality, while “Make It” revealed their indebtedness to T. Rex. In their lesser moments, they verged a little too closely to the post-grunge of bands like Bush, but overall performed a pleasing set.
Once Sondre Lerche took the stage, it was like a wave of Beatlemania overtook the audience. I haven’t seen so many giddy, swooning girls and boys since well, since the last time I saw the Decemberists. The club was pindrop quiet as the flannel-clad Norwegian troubadour charmed everyone into a state of hypnotization. His guitar technique is clearly influenced by Brazilian music, and one can also detect a coy, Noel Coward sensibility in his lyrical style. Yet it was difficult to effectively analyze Lerche’s music when all I could think was “I can’t even begin to imagine how much play this guy gets.” In a state of disbelief I scrawled the following equation in my notebook: “Dreamy Headtoss + Infectious Pop Perfection = Cheating.”
He didn’t even have to be that smart or funny to seduce; his between-song banter involved little more than asking the audience if they were all “keeping it real” and that he “was down”-which managed to inspire peals of laughter. He inquired whether we were all record executives or just “Mr. Man on the Street,” and insisted that he’s testifyin’ to the latter. These failed attempts to demonstrate his aptitude with urban street slang was, of course, completely adorable. Toward the end of the set he promised a “big surprise,” and brought out The Golden Republic to back him up. While filling out the sound, the full band did nothing to distract the spotlight away from Lerche, and they concluded with a breathtaking performance of “Sleep on Needles.”
VHS or Beta made me immediately suspicious, with their ultrahip hairdos and black uniforms, but once I realized they were just a fantastic dance band, I let myself appreciate them unabashedly. Plus, such hyperfashion is somehow less irritating when it’s coming out of Louisville Kentucky rather than New York City. The band’s two-record discography has involved a fairly decisive shift from Daft Punk to post-punk, a genre jumping that has been derided by some. And while Craig Pfunder can easily be labeled a product of the Luke Jenner school of singing, their brooding, synth-driven songs ultimately prove irresistible. Pfunder commanded the masses to dance, and some movement did occur-a real accomplishment for a New York crowd. He also charmingly confessed his love for Sondre Lerche, comparing him to Prince, “because you kind of want to kiss him, but you kind of don’t because he’s a guy.” He then dedicated the next song to Lerche “because it’s a love song.”
Every VHS or Beta song could be a single. Of course, one might question whether this is because they’re all equally good or because they’re all equally the same. For now I give them the benefit of the doubt, and insist that the more problematic aspect of the band was the bassist’s hair. The Spinal Tap feathered mullet is not working for this man, and he’s in desperate need of an intervention.
At last, the darlings of Stockholm and tonight’s headliners took the stage: the Concretes. A flight attendant-style voiceover announced the band and introduced each of the nine members by name and instrument. Lead singer Victoria Bergsman floated on stage in an outfit that appeared stolen from a Christmas pageant; she was an angel with her wings ripped off, and came bearing a huge, multicolored bouquet of roses. Keyboardist Per Nystrom was dapper in a white suit. Guitarist Maria Eriksson looked like an early 20th-century doll in a puffy white blouse. As each attractive, well-dressed band member took the stage I became suddenly overwhelmed with an intense desire to be Swedish.
They broke into the lovely “Say Something New”, and each instrument, from keyboard to trumpet, sounded perfect. There was just one problem: singer Bergsman was virtually comatose. At first I thought stage fright might be the issue, then it became apparent that she was having a problem with her vocal monitor. Her voice is fragile as it is; tonight it was barely audible. She took to compulsively removing and putting back on her lace-cuffed fishnet gloves. Finally, after about nine songs something changed. Bergsman looked down into the face of a girl in front of the stage who was swaying, singing and obviously thrilled to be in the company of the Concretes. Finally, gazing into this girl’s face, the singer gave a slow, warm smile. She began tossing roses into the audience, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
A highlight was the band’s fantastically catchy, horn-driven single “Seems Fine”. Curiously, they performed a second, more laid-back and countrified version of it toward the end of the night. The set concluded with the pub-waltz “Warm Night”, which had the whole crowd (or at least my section of it) singing along with the “Ah-ah-ah” chorus. Finally things had coalesced. It felt like we were all in it together.
Narratively speaking, “Warm Night” should have been the last song, but the band returned for a two-song encore. They came back with the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You”, from the Some Girls album, an uproariously funny choice of a cover which turned dark and sweetly sinister through the Concrete filter. They left us with the sorrowful dirge “This One’s For You”, and though I would have hoped for a more uplifting finale, the performance was too endearing to complain about.