Coverage by Amanda Farah and Nick Neyland.
The 30th anniversary of the annual CMJ Music Marathon brought plenty of surprises. Daft Punk and Phoenix jammed on a Close Encounters of the Third Kind riff at Madison Square Garden, Pitchfork set up its rival #Offline festival and got Kanye West to appear, and the hotly tipped Glasser had to endure a power cut at the Fader Fort and a raid by the cops in Greenpoint. In amongst the chaos, DiS sent Amanda Farah and Nick Neyland to investigate the five-day event in New York City.
The Phantom Band
The Phantom Band are a little overwhelming to behold—there are a whole lot of things happening on stage at once, and live they are much more forceful than their recordings. Everything is louder, nothing sounds particularly nuanced, but no aspect of their songs is lost. The vocals are still clear and crisp, every synth line is there, even if they might make your ears bleed (not such a terrible thing). And it’s always nice to have a band willing to go along with between song banter, in their case playing up their Scottish nationality for the Americans by referring to a melodica as ‘portable bag pipes’ and using a low ceiling for chin-ups. (AF)
Canada’s Braids have an innate understanding of how to subtly build a song until it stretches to breaking point. The band left audiences gleefully dumbfounded at most of their over-stuffed and justifiably hyped CMJ shows, which offered a jaw-dropping mastery of understated loops and gently plucked guitar melodies. This is music made in that netherworld between complete control and willful improvisation, similar to the kind of space Mogwai often occupies, but with enough character of its own to make Braids a palpable force to be reckoned with. Expect great things from their forthcoming Native Speaker album in January. (NN)
An alliance of Brooklyn bands Professor Murder and Tanlines, Restless People maintain the percussive focus of the bands that spawned them. They’re driven by a combination of generated and live drums, searing synth lines, and P Murder’s vocalist’s ability to really belt out a chorus. What Restless People do have is a guitar, which adds an edge that bass and synths can’t provide. Above all, they have a high spirited energy that makes their set genuinely fun; anyone who isn’t dancing is trying too hard to look bored. (AF)
There’s only one true star at this year’s CMJ and that’s Marnie Stern, who brings her never-ending arsenal of vagina jokes to multiple venues across the city. Forget the dull muso talk of shredding and guitar chops, the most endearing aspect of Marnie’s performances are the way she combines pointy rock tunes with poppy melodies and an infectious charisma that can melt hearts at thirty paces. She’s never going to get huge playing these prog-infested tunes, but it will be interesting to see how far she can push herself beyond the obvious Deerhoof/Throwing Muses crowd she attracts at present. A future in stand-up comedy is assured if this rock thing doesn’t work out. (NN)
Any band that describes itself as an ‘artists collective’ is going to send up a red flag, but we’ll make some allowances for MEN. They’ve got a massive mural backdrop, intricately painted jumpsuits, and some kind of strange carrot/stick hat that comes out briefly in the middle of the set. They were also charged with the bizarre task of following Salem; there’s no basis for even comparing the two, but those who left after Salem’s set missed out on competently programmed beats and a frontman who juggled his keys and computer while singing with emotion, but also found time to squeeze in a couple of karate kicks. (AF)
There is only one person happier to be here than Marnie Stern and that is Baths, a just turned 21-year-old Anticon artist from LA who brightens up an afternoon of derivative and stale indie-rock (I’m looking at you, Oberhofer and Young Man) at Pianos on Thursday. His work is a glitch heavy set of well-tooled beats mixed up with great welts of electronic noise, like Autechre with all the sharp edges ironed out into a more danceable whole. But Baths’ falsettoed vocals and warm between-song banter are also a big part of the appeal, and are likely to help widen his audience considerably in the coming year. His excellent Cerulean album is well worth checking out. (NN)
Blog curated showcases always lead to eclectic line-ups. Tamaryn seemed to crop up the week before CMJ as one to watch; for those who like sweeping, shoegazy guitar bands, she definitely is, particularly because she doesn’t hide her lovely alto under all of those guitars. DOM are playing the role of scruffy, mischievous alternative kids, thrashing around with messy, jangly guitars, proving the early 90s alt-rock revival is definitely on.
Closing out the night, the Drums provided ample evidence for the reputation they’ve earned. In an evening of solid sets, no other band has the same presence or interacts with the crowd in such a magnetic way. (AF)
Unfortunately, Kanye West’s brief but endlessly blogged about appearance at Brooklyn Bowl toward the end of CMJ overshadowed one of the fastest rising stars in hip-hop this year—namely Freddie Gibbs, who appeared in the same venue just hours before West made his entrance. Those comparisons to Tupac aren’t going to go away any time soon judging from this performance, but Gibbs is a more endearing presence than his obvious mentor, bemoaning the fact that he can’t smoke, joking about his hype man’s age, and stripping to the waist as he puts ever ounce of his being into the show. And in Str8 Killa No Filla, Gibbs has one of the year’s best mixtapes on his hands. (NN)
Yes, yes, there are lots of indie rock trios consisting of guitar/bass/drums, but Sky Larkin have a way of getting under your skin. No one can argue that frontwoman Katie Harkin has a sweet voice, nor that she herself is anything less than endearing. If it doesn’t come through in the records, it’s very clear live that Sky Larkin aren’t just performers, but people. When indie rock becomes completely disaffected, the ability to convey human emotions is going to have to be valued as something special. (AF)
Rampant anglophiles Kisses practice a kind of genial indie-pop that draws on the lightweight pop-dance textures of Saint Etienne and fuses them with the twee leanings of ‘80s underground indie figureheads such as the Flatmates and the Railway Children. Singer Jesse Kivel has even mastered a perfect post-Pains at Being Pure at Heart stance onstage, with his floppy cardigan, floppier fringe, and de rigueur Fender Jaguar guitar. Kisses’ music also fits into that New Foppishness bracket the Pains are paving, where the melodies are slight, a maudlin air pervades throughout, and the songs tell tales of impossible heartbreak. (NN)
Dinowalrus is a Brooklyn trio comprised of a former Titus Andronicus guitarist, a Depreciation Guild drummer, and a bassist/keyboardist with a reasonable aptitude for multi-tasking. While the guitar can get a bit buried in their recordings, it is definitely the focus of the live show. They’re planning, in their own words, to lead the Madchester 2011 revival, which means they’ve successfully mashed up dance beats with crunch guitar. Their new songs are stepping away from the abstract, art rock looseness of their early work, not necessarily more accessible, but definitely easier to dance to. (AF)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
The shortcut to becoming a buzz band at CMJ is to play as many shows as possible until someone takes notice. A case in point: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr, a Detroit outfit taking the same multi-performance approach that worked for Surfer Blood in 2009. At this stage, the gimmicks outweigh the talent—they’re in full NASCAR gear, dropping Beach Boys covers, with big flashing lights behind them. But there’s a warm charm to this music, which is strung up somewhere between Grandaddy circa Under the Western Freeway and the quirks of They Might Be Giants. The hype about this band will be (just about) justified if they put as much work into the sounds as they do the presentation. (NN)
Midwestern influences are starting to take hold in local Brooklyn bands, and hopefully some of those transplants were paying attention to Jonny Corndawg. The Nashville guitarist had the same rhythms and vocal twangs that the transplants in Brooklyn are desperately trying to ape for authenticity, but Corndawg has a personality, wit, and sense of humour that set him apart. His version of country is ruder, lewder, and generally more fun than anything that’s come out of the Grand Ole Opry. Perhaps all country music needs is more swear words and references to genitalia to crack the hipster market. (AF)
It’s a wonder that Salem agreed to play CMJ after the heaps of derision piled on them after this year’s notorious Fader Fort show at SXSW. The central problem with their live performance is the lack of effort put in—the beats feel spectacularly weak and filmy and Jack Donoghue giggles through his half-arsed raps, causing an air of complacency to settle in. After a few songs Donaghue finishes his limp-dick posturing and goes off to the side of the stage to chat with his friends while the band is still playing. In short: why should we care about their art when they appear to care so little for it themselves? (NN)
Times New Viking
If there is any doubt as to whether garage rock is still alive, it very much is. Ty Segall’s strengths are in the backing band: a furious guitarist and a seriously hard-hitting drummer. Ty himself can scream with the best of them, but his band makes you pay attention. By comparison, Ty Segall seem almost composed, even if they claimed to still be drunk from the night before at 3pm. If there’s any complaint to be made, they shouldn’t swap the keys out for a second guitar—you don’t realise what the keys add until it isn’t there. (AF)
Avey Tare spun songs all night long in his capacity as DJ at this Paw Tracks/Carpark showcase, with Geologist sitting close by and looking like he didn’t know what to do with himself (I initially thought he was manning the merch table). Their estranged Animal Collective bandmate Deakin opened the night with a reverb drenched set of melancholy pop songs, which are helped into life by the two sisters from Prince Rama and will hopefully make for a strong album at some point. Cloud Nothings offered respite from the night’s hazier trips into Altered Zones territory by delivering a set of raucously catchy punk songs, although we quickly slid back into the murk when Prince Rama followed. The latter are a fantastically odd looking band, with the sisters looking like they’ve been pulled straight from a Rosemary’s Baby-style cult, and pedaling music that veers wildly between the great and the terrible as it takes in Eastern mysticism, happy house keyboard stabs, and looped vocal mantras. (NN)
Johnny Flynn typifies the traditional singer-songwriter: One man, one guitar, and heavy reliance on the power of his words to hold the audience. Which he did, to impressive effect. The crowd, who seemed predominantly to be young women between the ages of 18-24, showed an enthusiasm and reverence we didn’t see for the rest of the night. It was a pleasant half hour to listen to the nice man’s soothing voice in an evening filled with high frequencies. Conversely, Porcelain Raft is one man, his electric guitar, and whatever weird and wonderful noise he can produce with pedals and what was programmed on his drum machine. Singer-songwriter brooding sounds much better with tape loops.
Cults were easily the hairiest band at CMJ. Their music is an odd mash-up of whimsical ‘60s pop-psych and shambolic ’80s indie rock, and it’s given a fitting visual accompaniment by the lank locks sported by most of the band members. Despite the name and appearance, there’s a distinct lack of sinister Manson Family-style vibes at work here, even if Cults do sample Jonestown leader Jim Jones on ‘Go Outside’. Instead, this group veers closer toward the upside of the hippy ethos, kind of like Peter, Paul and Mary infused with the shambolic fumbling of the earliest Pastels singles. (NN)
Chapel Club’s live sound could swallow you whole, with beautiful washes of guitar engulfing everything, punctuated by frantic leads. Their performance is conflicted, though. While the guitarists and bass player are running around the stage, narrowly avoiding crashing into one another, their singer has a hoodie pulled over his head and grasps onto his mic stand like he’d rather be hiding in a corner (their drummer looks strangely serene). Or maybe he’s the calm in the storm. Everything Everything, meanwhile, are the antithesis of the Chapel Club in terms of stage presence. The band is charismatic and energetic in a way you would hope a pop band would be. If that’s not enough, give them something for their flawless three-part vocal harmonies. (AF)
There’s a sizable puddle of puke greeting intrepid music fans stuffed into the Hype Machine’s showcase at the Backstage Bar just before Oh Land takes the stage. The disparity between foul-smelling venue and wholesome artist couldn’t be greater as the New York based Danish artist Nanna Fabricius hammers away on a big percussion machine that doubles up as a light box and balloon depository. It certainly makes for welcome respite from the drab jeans-and-t-shirt clad acts that make up the vast majority of performers at this festival. This is the kind of odd-pop field plowed by folks like the (late, lamented) One Dove and Moloko, with ‘Son of a Gun’ burning brightest at the centre of Fabricius’ short three-song set. (NN)