Ah, the annual running of the music hipsters — aka CMJ. The annual College Music Journal’s music festival hits New York once a year in an effort to give fledgling bands the opportunity to get seen by industry honchos, journalists, bloggers, and the odd fan or two who forked over a pretty penny for a badge.
I started out my conquest of CMJ 2010 slowly, with a light day one – heading over to Lovin’ Cup’s back room performance space, Cameo Gallery to see Class Actress. I had high hopes for the Brooklyn-based artist also known as Elizabeth Harper after becoming a fan of her song “Journal of Ardency.” With it’s synth-heavy vibe and sexy vocal track, the tune is made to be played in a dark and dirty club to get all the ladies dancing in a lascivious manner. I thought it had true potential to be pretty amazing in the flesh.
Soon after I arrived Ms. Harper, wearing black harem pants and a white tank top, and her band took the stage. And as I said before, I was pretty excited to be there, having picked Class Actress as one of the bands I was most excited to see perform at CMJ however, I was really disappointed with the performance I witnessed. I’m not sure whether it was the sound or the backing band’s familiarity with the songs, but the keyboards sounded a bit off and sour.
That said, synths can sometimes inherently sound cheap and horrible, but this in combo with the surprisingly weak vocals by Ms. Harper was the kiss of death. While in the recorded material Ms. Harper’s breathy vocals come off as sexy, during a live show it just doesn’t work the same way. In fact, her tenuous singing voice didn’t come off as a stylistic choice so much as a questionable ability to sing in the first place. No amount of hip swiveling or running hand through hair was going to save this set from sinking.
I really don’t feel all that great about crapping on people’s performances because I know how hard it must be to get up there on the stage and put yourself out there for people like me to judge you, but I’d be lying to y’all if I didn’t really say how I felt about the show.
I almost couldn’t believe how bad it was — I stuck through the entire act hoping that those first few songs were just a fluke — that Ms. Harper had been struck with some kind of vocal performance amnesia and that any second she would snap out of it and I could breathe a sigh of relief– but when she broke into my aforementioned favorite Class Actress song, my worst fears were confirmed: Elizabeth Harper is way better in the studio than she is live. Which I guess is fine — it works for successful performers like Madonna and Taylor Swift, who pretty much cannot sing a lick onstage but still sell millions of albums and concert tickets — but knowing that I probably would think long and hard before ever seeing Class Actress again live.