Friday, June 11, 2010

Top Five gigs to AVOID

We haven't had a Top Five for a while, so here we go with a music-themed one.

Well, it's more of a Bottom Five, really - the five most overrated bands we have to suffer on the Beijing gig scene. Hmm, and it might end up being a Bottom Six. So, sue me! My blog, my rules.

Beijiing's Top Five Most Overrated Bands

5= Hedgehog
Oh yes, there are many worse bands I left off this list, but the criterion here was overrated. Hedgehog are (or were - I've heard scores of rumours lately that they've split up, are getting back together, are contemplating changes of name/personnel/style, etc.) a tight little unit, and the energetic playing style of their tiny female drummer Atom is undoubtedly charming. But that's about all there is to them: they've only ever had a handful of songs, most of them sound the same, and the lead guy can't sing to save his life. This band's exaggerated popularity - particularly amongst laowai - is really pretty hard to account for.

5= Queen Sea Big Shark
The lead singer is - sometimes - quite sexy, and is growing in confidence as a performer.... but not, alas, in competence as a singer. Their decision to write and perform most of their songs in English is a woeful mistake, as all they seem to be capable of is Chinglish gibberish. And the occasional smattering of surf guitar isn't really enough to make their sound 'distinctive'. I thought these guys showed some promise when I first saw them 4 years or so ago, but unfortunately they have made absolutely zero progress in that time. Lately, though, laowai observers seem to have been starting to talk them up as somehow worth listening to. I can only assume that this is the result of their having now achieved 'veteran' status: some people falsely suppose that there is a correlation between longevity and ability.

4 Ourselves Beside Me
If Hang On The Box were still going, they would certainly have been in this list. Some people reverence their place in the history of the Chinese music scene as the first all-girl rock'n'roll band here - but, god, they were terrible. However, they were terrible largely because of their extravagantly self-promoting but egregiously untalented 'singer', Gia (her new band, Girl Kill Girl, don't make it into this list because nobody thinks they're any good!); the guitarist and the drummer were actually very competent (and could sing too, although they rarely did so in that lineup). Many of us had hopes that this, the guitarist's follow-up venture, might perhaps prove to be a decent band. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to nurture those modest hopes for very long, because they were adopted as one of the 'house bands' at the megalomaniacal Michael Pettis's D-22 bar, and thus we were soon suffering a tsunami of hype about how they were going to be 'the next big thing'. They're rather emphatically not: they're navel-gazing, self-satisfied, and very, very dull. And they usually do that pretentious thing of refusing to establish any contact with the audience at all, staring resolutely at each other throughout their sets (or, on a few occasions, playing with their backs to the audience).

RETROS (Re-Inventing The Rights Of Statues, they used to call themselves, although they seem to have given up offering that explanation/expansion of their cryptic acronym now) are musically a pretty good band. But they're a bit too up themselves. And a bit too monotonous. And a lot too depressing (think Joy Division - on a bad day). Their lyrics are very heavy-going, and often a bit inept. And, worst of all, like Ourselves Beside Me (above) they perform in a solipsistic trance, looking only at each other, completely ignoring their audience. They probably sound quite good on CD (particularly if you're gearing yourself up for an overdose of pills and vodka), but their live shows are desperately drab affairs.

2 Lonely China Day
This insufferably pretentious and self-satisfied trio oh-so-nearly made the top spot. I only refrained from putting them there because I have doubts as to whether anyone (in China) really thinks they're any good. I understand they're starting to gather quite a following overseas, and their sales are pretty much keeping their tiny label, Tag Team Records, afloat. But the last two or three gigs of theirs I've been to see in Beijing have been deserted. They can play a bit; and if rambling (semi-improvised?) experimental prog-rock is your thing, you might give them a go. I've given them a go a number of times, and they've never failed to disappoint: the occasional great - or at least interesting - moment, but long passages of painful tedium. The video art back-projections that sometimes accompany their gigs are usually the most interesting part of the show; when they perform without these, it's very difficult to give them more than 15 or 20 minutes of your attention. And their shows run 2 or 3 hours (allegedly; I really don't think anyone can ever have watched a whole one)! And not only do they look only at each other through most of the gig, they're usually wearing headphones as well - lost in their own smug little world; we might as well not be there (well, mostly we're not).

And so, in the top spot we have.........

1 Carsick Cars
The classic example of D-22's relentless over-promoting of a ho-hum act. These guys won a 'Band of the Year' accolade a couple of years back (I think it was the City Weekend one), which proves only that this is the one Chinese band that most laowai who don't really go to gigs very often have heard of. Jeff Zhang is a decent guitarist (though hardly stellar; frankly, I'd rather see him tighten up his basic technique than indulge in all this experimental torturing of his instrument with chopsticks and staplers), but he still can't sing for toffee. And, apart from the vapid but infuriatingly catchy Zhongnanhai, they haven't managed to come up with any memorable songs. Being banned from sharing the bill with Sonic Youth a few years ago was the high point of their career, an unexpected PR coup that probably explains whatever 'popularity' they continue to enjoy today - because it sure as hell ain't the music that's doing that.

What do these bands have in common? Well, they all have even-worse-than-average-for-Beijing singers (and that's bad). And three of them are distinguished by a perverse refusal to engage in any way with their audience. But what about the names, eh? Do the names not all SUCK mightily?

This is why band naming is so important. I'm not quite sure what the linkage is, but it's definitely there: bands with terrible names are almost always terrible bands.


The Weeble said...

I actually liked 'Queen Sea Big Shark' and 'Re-TROS' the first times I saw them. The former, which was called "Houhai Sharks" (a translation of its Chinese name) before someone decided it would be funny to go deliberately Chinglish, had a nice, vaguely Iggy Pop-like sound, I thought, and the latter was fine once. (Re-TROS also scored points for movingly asking that most timeless of all questions: "What will it be like? If the monkey become to be the king?")

The problem with all of these bands is that it's a massive circle jerk. Young Chinese kids decide they want to be popular with foreigners, so they imitate (badly) whatever overseas music they're told is hip, then write (badly) and sing (badly) in English to audiences that are almost exclusively foreign. D-22 has added a whole new stratum of wank to the equation: now in addition to playing music that is relevant only to foreigners, the bands are playing "experimental" garbage that is not actually enjoyable to anybody, probably not even the Svengali-like Michael Pettis. Don't even get me started on 'Zhonghanhai' and the number of language-exchange students who've creamed their jeans at the thought of finding something "subversive." May they all be sentenced to eternity in hell in the company of every tiresome expat rag writer and amateur documentary maker ever to gush over them.

Give me Brain Failure or Reflector any day: they may not pass muster with the shoe-gazing jack-pack at D-22, but they at least have fun and put on a good show.

Froog said...

Reflector, I feel, have got very bland and Brit-poppy in the last few years. I used to like them when they had a bit more of a punk edge to them. They can play, though, which sets them apart from most of the new bands to come on the scene in the last few years.

Brain Failure also fail to excite me much. Their occasional forays into English lyrics are predictably embarrassing. I always feel that my lack of knowledge of Chinese is saving me from suffering when I hear bands sing in Chinese (Secondhand Rose being the one major exception, because I glean from the audience that their lyrics are really clever and often freakin' hilarious). Best thing about BF, really is their name (although I gather in Chinese it's a more technical expression - something like 'Aneurism'?). I agree it's nice to see a band that has a solidly local fanbase rather than all these wanky Mandarin-student-pleasers from Wudaokou, but I don't think there's anything that wonderful about Brain Failure.

I didn't realise it was possible to disdain D-22 even more vehemently than I do! Congratulations!!

By the way, I think Stratum Of Wank could be a band name...