Nice Cheekbones and a PhD:
John Maus and more
Hudson River Rocks
July 12, 2012
Nearby on the water, the space shuttle Enterprise sat atop the Intrepid museum's floating aircraft carrier to the right of the stage, a looming symbol of imperialism.
The first band to take the stage wereRoomrunner, featuring ex-Double Dagger drummer Denny Bowen. Despite successive technical failures which had them cynically imploring the crowd for a guitar loan, or jokingly reassuring us "it's all part of it", they still managed to impress with their sludgy riff rock.
Beneath the heavy, muscular guitar crunch and muffled fuzz of the vocals, there's a marauding rhythm to their songs - a catchy, lunging groove that forces you to respond in appreciation with rigorous head nodding. Highlights included the pile-driving riff assault of "Super Vague" with it's churning corkscrew twists of Sonic Youth style feedback, and the spiky, angular lurch of "Undo". Definitely a band to keep an eye on.
Next up was John Maus (the one I'd been waiting for), Ariel Pink collaborator and creator of his own brooding, reverb saturated synth pop. Having just discovered his addictive solo output earlier in April despite already being a fan of the warped 'freak folk' of Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, I couldn't believe my luck when this show was announced, and free, too!
Far from being your typical commodified pop star, Maus is a political science post graduate and holds an undergraduate degree in music composition, and in interviews he is a manically excitable explosion of dauntingly verbose yet empowering philosophies. Among them, a belief in the importance of sharing the experience of being here now and connecting with one another, to defy the mindless control of today's capitalist power structure.
In spite of these lofty ambitions, his music is bereft of the flippantly obscure experimentation one might expect. Instead, he crafts densely layered, emotionally direct pop which soars with sincerity and majestic grandeur.
Those who haven't witnessed his live performances might be tempted to write them off as autistic karaoke (he sings, wails, punches himself, claws desperately at his shirt as if experiencing a heart attack, and pogo jumps along to his backing tracks), but as Maus explains, 'the hysterical body' is the ultimate expression of the language of pop, as every night he pushes his physical presence on the stage to the absolute limit.
He wastes no time once he appears on the River Rocks stage. "Castles In the Grave", a 2010 demo which has been polished for his new 'A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material' release, sees Maus spasmodically bending to the beat in a kind of hunched Quasimodo posture, his face drawn taut beneath his constantly flopping hair. He grits his teeth, pulls at his hair, knots the fabric of his jeans in his hands and throws an almost involuntary tourettes-like punch to the side of his head then starts screaming, a sudden detonation of frantic, urgent howls peppered with the odd 4 letter word utterance, and the thrilled audience screams with him.
Maus quickly moves along, and the bounce of a drum machine signals the start of "Maniac". He seems on the verge of hyperventilating, his eyes bulge, uncontrollable tics send more blows to the side of his head from a hand which now seems possessed like something out of the 1946 horror classic The Beast With Five Fingers. He chants along to the gloomily purred vocal loop, "Yeah yeah yeah yeah, I'm such a maniac/you're such a maniac/we're fucking maniacs, we're fucking maniacs, ooooohoooh" and the crowd goes berserk as a snazzy shriek of synthesiser blasts through the verse.
He tips some water over himself and we are treated to the bizarre "Rights For Gays", a floating shimmer of synths which comes off lyrically as an equal opportunities policy proposal, with the catchy repeated mantra of "Right now, rights for gays, oh yeah/And medical care for everyone!". If he were running for president, he'd have my vote!
Then comes the first John Maus song I ever heard, "Do Your Best", an exquisitely moody echo-swathed piece of forlorn romanticism complimented perfectly by his deeply resonant low baritone. Here again in the lyrics, themes of connecting with others reinforce his musical objectives and the pursuit of pop's maximum emotional expressivity. "Reach out your hands to the one alone, in the city tonight". Maus fist pumps and gazes intently into the audience with a purposeful glare in his eyes as rapturous cheers erupt from all sides.
Other songs included the lovely twinkling arpeggiated synths of "Streetlight", the thumping bassline and stunning Wendy Carlos-esque keyboard solos of "My Whole World's Coming Apart", and "Keep Pushing On", during which he leapt down from the stage to pogo and headbang in front of the barrier, clutching at his chest as if going into cardiac arrest. He lifted himself, swung his legs over and scrabbled back up onto the stage, and without taking a breath, continued to bounce, his arms stabbing out into the air every now and then in sweeping emotive gestures. By now I noticed some clothing casualties from this frantic and tortured visceral display - one of the buttons of his shirt had come loose, and the zip of his jeans had also almost completely unfastened (steady on, ladies!).
He finished off with the glorious, god-like ascent of the anthemic "Believer" from 'We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves'. With arms outstretched, he yelled and whipped his hair around, swinging from side to side as if stuck on a giant spring, then stomped around the stage to stand with his knees locked together, a tangled ball of raw intensity. And with a final head smack he walked off the stage with the programmed sounds still pulsing after him and echoing in everyone's ears. This mesmerising and enigmatic performance was somehow utterly invigorating, with John Maus almost becoming a messiah figure of pop, resurrecting our primal connections with confoundingly simple yet deeply thoughtful music, and with eachother as human beings as well. Afterwards I was buzzing, I just knew I'd witnessed something phenomenally special. Go see him!
Behind his own small lighting rig and trademark 'trippy green skull' stage prop, he remarked on the dizzying steepness of the high stage, preferring to play solo at floor level with his gear set up on a low table surrounded by the crowd. Tonight his usually streamlined stage ensemble featured two drummers for an even denser noise.