Colossal Musical Joke has come full circle. What started out thirty years ago as a bunch of bands playing for college radio disc jockeys has reverted to exactly that, which is probably a good thing. This year’s CMJ has been the smallest in memory – at least since the early 90s – but as usual, there were a handful of tantalizing shows hidden amidst the rubbish. One particularly good one was Wednesday night at Dominion, sponsored by the Taiwanese arts ministry. Odds are that only one of the three bands on the bill stands much of a chance of reaching any kind of substantial US audience, since native-born, English-speaking Americans tend to be xenophobes when it comes to music sung in unfamiliar languages. But musically speaking, if this show was representative of mainstream rock in Taiwan, it’s a hell of a lot better there than it is here.
Retro guitar pop quartet 1976 opened. While that’s the year that everyone in the band was born, they ought to call themselves 1986 instead. Zac, their guitarist seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of 80s British bands, from Joy Division to New Order to the Smiths to maybe even the Room or the Mighty Lemon Drops. For the most part, he stuck to a postpunk style that stubbornly resists the urge to find any kind of resolution or play chords straight-up. But he’s not just being wilful or lazy – he threw a couple of completely unexpected Hendrix allusions into the first song, possibly to make a point. Using a clean, effect-free guitar tone, he quoted Joy Division’s Novelty along with Hendrix in the first song, then followed with the catchiest number in the set, which didn’t mess with the 80s, going straight back to the Beatles. Frontman Raykai’s cool, throaty delivery would occasionally rise, giving voice to angst, but then go low and calm again over the skintight, upbeat pulse of the bass and drums. One song had a funky Smiths vibe (Raykai wore that band’s t-shirt); a couple of others had a bouncy post-Motown groove like the late Jam or Style Council. They saved their best song for last, a wickedly catchy juxtaposition of minor-key hopefulness with darker tinges. Having won the Taiwanese equivalent of a Grammy a few years ago, it was no surprise to see them draw the biggest crowd of the night.
All-female art-rock band Bearbabes (熊寶貝樂團) were sensationally good, a real find.They’re the band on the bill who stand the most chance of winning a US audience, if only because frontwoman/bassist Jia-Heng Chang sings in English sometimes, and well. Guitarist Chun Wei swayed and occasionally hurled herself around, completely lost in the music, whether firing off a gritty, distorted postpunk roar, biting garage-rock riffage or pensive jangle while Chang served as a second lead guitarist, switching from dirty fuzztones to watery, retro 80s melody lines. Drummer Meng-Chih Lu handled the occasional counterrhythms or switch to a tricky time signature effortlessly, while cellist Fei-Tsuei Luo added a bracing, classically-tinged edge.
Their songwriting proved to be diverse, and excellent, from the wistfully pastoral dreampop-flavored Year After Year, to the menacing, crescendoing,ornate minor-key art-rock intensity of Not Afraid, to the brief, contemplative folk-pop Firefly. Speaking mostly in her native language, Chang bantered sardonically with the crowd nonstop between songs: she seems to find America and Americans completely surreal, and very amusing. At the end of the show, they brought it down to just guitar and vocals for their big hit Rockable, an unexpectedly poppy, pretty song that Luo – who seems to be quite the ham – interrupted by trying to talk to the crowd in English. “You can find us…on the internet! And buy our cd…where…um, I dunno!” And then Wei hit her distortion pedal, and they totally punked out the song and smashed it to bits.
Echo were last. From an English-speaking perspective, it’s impossible to completely understand this loud, two-guitar band’s music: their lyrics might actually be very good. Their stage presence didn’t offer much evidence of that, from their very first song, where their frontman tried to get the crowd to clap along with an “uh, ah, oh” refrain, arena-rock style, a cliche that strong lyricists have no need to fall back on. The songs followed a tight, efficient format – tense verse into comfortable, anthemic, singalong choruses – that quickly became predictable, right down to the simple, screechy, sneering, glitter-splattered lead guitar. If they’ve got something to say, those melodies are an effective way to get their ideas across. But what was blasting from the stage hinted that they may be more about babes n’ booze than, say, what’s happening in Zucotti Park or its Taiwanese equivalent.