Our eyes are held open by matches and our ears have taken a hell of a pounding, but DiS has survived the annual five-day multi-venue reign of terror that is the CMJ Music Marathon 2009. This 29th incarnation of the festival was marked by the usual hype and rumors, and DiS fought off torrential rain, huge queues, and a brush with the NYPD to bring you this report.
Our first stop is at Le Poisson Rouge to see Bradford Cox in his Atlas Sound guise. Cox straps on an acoustic guitar, occasional harmonica, and a plaid shirt, and is backed by fellow Atlanta residents The Selmanaires. Is Bradford trying out a few Neil Young moves? There’s certainly a huge Crazy Horse-style guitar solo that rips right through one of the songs in this Logos-centric set, although the downbeat tone positions him closer to Tonight’s the Night than Ragged Glory. It’s a shift away from Cox’s recorded work under the Atlas Sound moniker, which might be a surprise to anyone expecting straightforward replication, but actually provides a neat counterpoint to the recorded versions of these songs. ‘Shelia’ is one of the best pop songs of 2009, and positively burns a hole through the venue when it emerges mid-set.
Broadcast are here as part of a whistle-stop tour with Atlas Sound and the Selmanaires, ostensibly to promote the spooked-out cut-ups of their recent joint album with the Focus Group. Reduced to a two-piece, Trish Keenan and James Cargill set up on either side of a huge cinema screen flooded with scratchy clips that will look familiar to anyone acquainted with the Ghost Box aesthetic. Keenan and Cargill tool away at FX boxes in total darkness, setting a tone similar to the Witch Cults… album and occasionally throwing in an old song for good measure. It doesn’t always work—this is bedroom music, designed to be listened to while hopped up on Benadryl and repeats of the Open University—but when they hit a solid groove there are few other artist who can touch them for sheer bewitching cool.
The reliably excellent Social Registry label has a showcase at CMJ, and I arrive just in time to see the last band of the night, DiS favourites Sian Alice Group. The crowd has dwindled as the clock ticks past midnight on a Tuesday, but a sparse backroom at the new Brooklyn location of the Knitting Factory provides a suitably eerie setting for them to genre-hop their way through an impressive set. They hit a fluid, motorik groove early on, and most of the weary crowd seem to have their eyes tight shut and are fully locked in, using the band as a halfway house between waking and sleeping.
Stumbling into the Mercury Lounge the next day without much idea of who is playing proves unfortunate when Mumford & Sons come on. An audience of Irish Americans talk loudly throughout the set, excitedly chattering about how wonderfully “rootsy” and “passionate” the band are, even thought neither of these qualities are on display. The following Bear Hands aren’t much better, sounding like a cold, flat emo band, which is surely the last thing the world needs right now. And a shirtless male singer. The world definitely needs less shirtless male singers.
Fortunately, Screaming Females are here to save the evening. The diminutive Marissa Paternoster may look like she’s about 12 years-old, but she has one thing that most other bands at CMJ don’t have: star power. Her voice is one of the most startling, blood-curdling sounds you could ever hope to hear—and it’s a glorious, nerve-rattling noise, filled with bundles of cracked emotion There’s a quote about Kurt Cobain having an “old soul,” and Marissa has that in spades. In truth, her voice isn’t far removed from Kathleen Hanna’s Bikini Kill-era stylings, but the Screamales (as they shall henceforth be known) have their own thing going on, with Marissa shredding into oblivion on her guitar and forcing the stoic crowd to abandon their cool and dance the night away.
Thursday starts with a set of bands curated by Brooklyn Vegan at Pianos on the Lower East Side. The fresh-faced Surfer Blood are one of the most hyped bands at CMJ this year, partly because they’re flooding the festival with shows, partly because they have a knack for crafting tuneful, memorable, melodic rock songs. ‘Floating Vibes’ has a neat Sonic Youth-y/Women feel to it, and promises much better things to come. Lovvers don’t seem particularly pleased to be here, but deliver a solid if unremarkable set of spiky punk that just needs a little more originality stirred into the mix to make a better impression.
Just before Montreal’s Duchess Says take the stage a very polite (shy, even) woman named Annie-Claude asks me for the time. Five minutes later she’s on stage, blurting out indecipherable lyrics, charging into the crowd, getting up in people’s faces, and generally wreaking havoc on the venue. Their music mostly consists of heavily processed electronics, but that’s all thoroughly eclipsed by the demented antics of Annie-Claude, who is either a superstar in the making or suffering from an extreme dual personality disorder.
The real stars here are the fabulously named JEFF the Brotherhood, a two-piece band from Nashville, Tennessee, who are led by the charismatic Jake Orrall. Orrall has a bowl haircut, a bumfluff moustache, and a raccoon tail tied to his guitar strap. He looks like he just stepped straight off the set ofDazed and Confused and JEFF’s music matches the image, as huge cheesy riffs vie for space with saccharine pop vocal hooks. The Cars, Devo and Weezer are all obvious touchstones, and Orrall has an innate understanding that the best pop has something not quite right about it. That sense of unease is heightened when he fixes the crowd with a dead-eyed stare and then takes a walk through the audience, brandishing his guitar like a sword in front of him. Excellent, loopy stuff, and their Heavy Days album is highly recommended.
The hype about The xx is considerable here, and their multiple sold-out shows at CMJ are positive proof that the word is spreading on this side of the Atlantic. Seeing them play in the unforgiving strip-light hell of the Genius Bar in the Apple Store is a bizarro world trip, but it’s testament to their strength as a live band that few people are thinking about where they are shortly after the music begins. Unsurprisingly, their set consists of the album, that Womack & Womack cover, and not much else other than a little banter. The xx aren’t ever likely to be an amazing live draw—like Broadcast, this is music that works better at home—but someone clearly had a wicked sense of humour when they were booking their CMJ schedule; an appearance at the NBC Experience Café, amid TV show paraphernalia and frozen yogurt vendors, followed this one.
More new bands are the order of the day at Webster Hall shortly after The xx finish. Tony Castles might be one of the worst band names ever, but they make up for it with some blissed out rock that consists of angular, tinny, stretched out guitar lines and oblique male falsetto, occasionally reminiscent of the dubbed-out experimental tracts of Scritti Politti’s Early. The following Bottle Up and Go offer up some pleasant but slightly pointless rock and roll retreads, filled with billowing sax and over-earnest but endearing vocals.
What follows is one of the big highlights of CMJ, as Brooklyn’s own Das Racist take to the stage. An audience swilling cheap beer and itching to dance is the perfect setup for Victor Vazquez and Himanshu Suri, who are joined by another rapper, a DJ, and various guests as their set of funny, intelligent, and gloriously dumb material provides welcome relief from the guitar-centric sounds elsewhere. ‘Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell’ remains their finest moment, but only an extremely hardened individual (admittedly, there are many of those at CMJ) wouldn’t find something to love here, as microphone stands twirl across the heads of the audience, a feverish chant of “Carlos Mencia” goes up, and the chaos all ends with them saying: “Thank you. We are the Vivian Girls.”
Suckers can’t follow that (who could?), but they make a decent attempt with their chant-a-long rock, which is one part Animal Collective, one part Yeasayer. They just need to find the part that sounds like Suckers and they’ll be on the right track, although they should really lose the MGMT-influenced face paint.
The DFA showcase is at Brooklyn Bowl, one of the biggest venues of the festival, and features a DJ set by James Murphy (who is clad in a pair of sandals. Are sandals the new Converse? Let’s hope not) who is followed by Yacht. There’s not much to the Yacht live experience—Jona Bechtolt plugs in his laptop and lets that do the work, then prowls the front of the stage with the heavily peroxided Claire L. Evans. But it’s great to hear this music at considerable volume, with a packed, enthusiastic crowd, who are totally wired on adrenaline as the closing one-two double whammy of ‘The Afterlife’ and ‘Psychic City’ are capped off by a bout of crowdsurfing from Evans.