Among the more endearing habits of the pop-music trade is its penchant for celebrating itself under the guise of doing business. Not just your quaint old coke snortings off the boob job of a transvestite hooker laying supine atop a mound of Ben Franklins under videotape surveillance of a CEO in nipple clamps and a drool ball, mind you -- that's common in any sector of commerce. I refer to that activity that has found its most ardent expression in the entertainment industry: the Fleshpile, where people on various ends of the job, including publicists, artists, producers, distributors, advertisers, and writers, all converge on one spot to schmooze, booze, and pretend to be friends. The "BMI New Music Night" at Slim's was a small-scale example -- not as grin-and-thrust en masse as your major music conferences -- but all the handshaking and chatter made it both awkward to move and difficult to hear the music. I stood with my back to one pillar for most of the night, squinting -- if this is possible -- with my ears. But then again, not much attention was granted the artists, except by those whose commonplace manner of dress (sweats, tiny backpacks) indicated that they were actually members of the public. Everyone else there seemed more intent on exchanging anecdotes and palm sweat.
The quality of the performances and music by JoJo, Train, and Liar ranged from middling to fair. This made the event more worthwhile than most other things happening at clubs that night, though slightly less worthwhile than staying at home. Musicianship: good. Originality, however, was rare. This sort of upper-end mediocrity soothes the Fleshpile; nothing onstage is so exciting as to break the rhythm of handshakes, yet nothing is so bad as to give one the impression that he or she is wasting his or her time. The live performances served as a sort of holographic background noise; movement in the periphery, rock in the ear.
JoJo, a band whose choice of name draws a swarm of question marks (Clown? Dogface Boy? Dancer? More Jo than Jo? A Spanish-language yo-yo?) were fun to watch: tight as a unit and moderately active onstage. Guitarist Brandon Arvonick has the ability to make playing simple chord progressions look like a heroic effort: strumming double time, shaking his guitar neck, staring at his fret fingers as if they held some gross bit of forensic evidence. Still, their songs are, one and all, highly reminiscent. Of what? It's that vague sort of similarity, where so many rock performers of yore and of late seem to rip off the same faceless ur-band, which did the pummeling-drums-churning-bass-guitar-feedback break first. That trick, which JoJo aped with great exactitude, hasn't been particularly inventive for decades, no matter how majestic Jane's Zeppelin made it seem. Then again, the vast majority of this club-rock stuff doesn't aim to break fresh ground, just to convince a bunch of 19-year-olds that they're hearing something new to the world. The Fleshpile chatted through the songs and then clapped at the end as if it had been listening.
Train were slightly more bothersome in their mediocrity. One Seattle gent I spoke with later said that watching Pat Monahan, Train's lead singer, was like seeing "Eddie Vedder with a different voice." That's fair, though I was thinking equally of Joe Cocker. Perhaps the nod here should go to the entire school of singers who ball up their fists, clench their faces, and emote so strenuously you'd think they were having an amusing stroke. Monahan was friendly, if ineloquent and a tad corny in his asides. "This song's about coming home," he mumbled. To sum up the band's sound I could either indulge in another one of those equations used often by both publicists and rock journalists (Temple of the Dog plus Goo Goo Dolls plus Lynyrd Skynyrd minus Ohio Players), or just reiterate that once again I'd heard it all before -- a shortcoming that loses my interest, however intense the crowd's adoration. If you want Lynyrd Goo Goo Pearl Jam, see Train. The music industry folk who nattered throughout Train's set would love you for it; they, like Dow Corning, are big fans of reliable formulas.
The Fleshpile deflated as the hours grew wee. After Train's set, the frequency of handshakes visibly decreased, and few verifiable business types remained in attendance. Boz Scaggs stopped stepping on my foot during his frequent breeze-bys. The evening was reclaimed by those wielders of tiny backpacks and hooded sweats, who were not, as of yet, involved in the music industry. (Perhaps some lucky day we all will be.) I extracted the pillar I'd been leaning against from my spinal column. Liar were the best band on the bill, not because they're a particularly creative force, but because they were less imitative than the others. On a good night, Liar are a worthwhile band, but on a bad one they're almost preternaturally goofy. When you have one of those frontmen who sports hair extenders and a cowboy hat (a la Alain Jourgensen or Rob Zombie) flanked by two identically dressed women (who are, incidentally, quite proficient on bass and fiddle), you have to wonder whether the costumery is loosey-goosey, or if you're witnessing some embryonic, half-formed shtick. (Seems to me when women in a band are made to dress in the same way, while the males can dress like individuals, the implication is "showpiece.")
Regardless, Liar are usually fun to watch, however imminent the danger of an endless "Kashmir" revamp. Frontman Eric McFadden performs in an advanced Southern-fried style more death cult than redneck. On this particular night, however, Liar took their sweet time in getting ready to play. At least 20 minutes passed while they stood onstage, tweaking their various instruments and cables. (At first, I thought they were performing a low-key version of a Blues Traveler song; but when the collegiates behind me started singing along with the chorus, I realized it was just the PA.) If the band hadn't actually come out and stood waiting like the rest of us, my patience wouldn't have started ticking down like a weary egg timer. Alas, they did. I listened to two songs and left like most of the Fleshpile. Whether the other industry types went to bed like me -- for I am, despite my distaste, part of the music industry -- instead of partying hearty, I don't know. All I do know is that the shower felt nice.