CMJ 2011: EMA, Islands


Photo Credit: Emily Malan

Webster Hall / Dominion NY – New York, NY
Live Review: 10/22/11

The biggest mystery of the night—of my entire CMJ week—is how Erika M. Anderson, ex-Gowns and now known as EMA, got to be stuck headlining for CSS at Webster Hall. She played way too early for a very young crowd whose music taste was questionable (huge applause and cheers went out to a certain rapper who came on before, all the while half yelling and half talking over some really rudimentary beats). Girl deserved better for her talents.

Anderson opens the set with “Milkman” from her 2011 debut album Past Life Martyred Saints. Compared to the record, this live version comes off harder: the guitars hit louder, the drums punctuate. Those very, very few who are there to see her responds with some heavy-duty head nodding. In heavy contrast to “Milkman” is “Marked.” “My arms, they are a see-through plastic,” she gently coos. As she sways slowly to the song, she caresses her microphone stand, her eyes closed. She continues, slightly growling, “I wish that every time he touched me left a mark.” It’s an intimate moment, sadly marred by the chatty crowd bedecked in fluorescent glow sticks and heart cutouts taped to their bodies.

Anderson is in her signature “EMA” necklace and white tee shirt with the words “EMPTINESS” in capitalized letters. She closes her set with “California” (the first line is “Fuck California,” and the brashness surprises a lot of the kids in the audience). At the end, she extends her right hand up to her face, thumb, index, and middle finger up like a gun. Her blonde hair covers her entire face. She freezes in the same pose as her album cover.

Down the block at Dominion NY, the sign outside promises an “Intimate Evening with Islands”; the venue isn’t lying. The basement doesn’t seat more than one hundred; it’s dimly lit, and barely anyone in the audience is talking—a huge contrast to EMA. In addition, I am sitting uncomfortably close (“intimately close,” even) to the stage.

While the rest of the band is dressed in black sports coats and black pants, Nick Thorburn is dressed in a light blue jacket and light-colored pants. He is clearly the star of the show. (None of the band members from the last time I saw them in 2008 are on stage here.)

Islands performs nine or ten songs from their new album, which Thorburn shares will be out February 2012. Some of the lyrical sentiments of the new songs are nice. At one point, Thorburn croons, “Don’t I love you? Isn’t the sky grey? Isn’t the moon blue?” One of the songs has Geordie Gordon joining Thorburn on the piano playing a doo-wop style melody. To say that Thorburn’s side project Mr. Heavenly with Honus Honus of Man Man is an influence on this song is an understatement. At one point, I said (to my notebook), “This sounds like ‘Van Helsing Boombox.’”

Islands does break out two old gems: “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby” and “Swans (Life After Death)” from the 2005 album, Return to the Sea.

“Yeah, this is from what we used to sound like,” Thorburn says. It’s a bittersweet sentiment. On the one hand, Sea is one great pop album from beginning to end. On the other, bands are expected to evolve, to change their sound. In this band’s case, sometimes change the entire band lineup.

Regardless, the crowd gets noticeably excited. It’s fun to see Thorburn actually dance to “Swans,” and get really into it—something we hadn’t seen in the first half hour.

All photos by Emily Malan

via Vivian Lee, 23 October 2011 7:01am |