CMJ Music Marathon 2011,
Nov 01, 2011 Web Exclusive Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern
CMJ 2011 took over various New York City venues in mid-October. Most New Yorkers probably didn't notice, but it was a big deal to those in the indie music industry. Over the five days we witnessed a mixed bag of sets, with one of the clear standouts being Canadian duo Purity Ring. Other highlights included Zambri, Inc., EMA, and all the bands that played Under the Radar's CMJ party (including The Stepkids, Chad Valley, Still Corners, and others).
CMJ is often compared to SXSW, for good reason. Both are music industry-driven events also open to regular fans that take over multiple venues in a city with a strong music scene. But whereas New York City (and Brooklyn in particular) has a more fertile indie music scene than Austin, CMJ can't compete with SXSW in terms of the level of artists they're able to attract and the convenience of having most venues near each other. Whereas most SXSW events are in venues on and nearby Sixth Street, CMJ's two main locations (Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood and Manhattan's Bowery/Delancey area) are a subway ride away from each other. And there are other venues still scattered elsewhere. So for the evening showcases you have to pick which area you'll stay in. There's also only two or three truly compelling lineups each night, whereas SXSW offers several notable artists and showcases on a nightly basis. In short, CMJ is mainly a place to catch brand new artists, which is fine, except that we saw a lot of not so great ones this year.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011:
We eased into things on Tuesday night by catching only three bands. The first band we saw, Zambri, ended up being one of the high points of the whole week. Zambri is sisters Cristi Jo and Jessica Zambri. Hooray for Earth fans may recognize them as touring members/backup singers in that band. Their debut EP, Glossolalia, is due out November 8 on Kanine. But whereas the EP is a little too difficult and experimental to fully enjoy, the duo (plus backing band) had a much more immediate and impressive presence in a live setting at Cameo Gallery in Brooklyn. Hooray for Earth frontman Noel Heroux is married to Jessica Zambri and live Zambri sounds at times like a much darker in-law to Hooray for Earth—both have a similar high fidelity standard. The band was all dressed in black and made an impressive racket with their echoed vocals and tribal beats.
Next up at Cameo Gallery was Wise Blood. The trio would have had potential if they were an instrumental duo instead, as they were undone by their terrible vocalist, Chris Laufman. Laufman's cocky attempts at humor fell flat and his singing/rapping style didn't really gel with the weird jumble of sounds the rest of the band was making. "Holla, we're Blink 182," Laufman joked at the start. He then pretended he was performing at the larger GlassLands Gallery venue, and in general didn't seem to want to be there. He made fun of CMJ and implied his band was the only one worth seeing. "Twin Sister is playing [CMJ], I don't really care to see them. I only care to see myself. If I could be one of you, that'd be amazing," he said before going into the audience to watch his band play an instrumental part. And yet for all his cockiness he kept saying that he wished they could be playing a shorter set ("I wish my show was 15 minutes") and at one point he left the stage to get "another beer." If Laufman couldn't be bothered to put on a good show, then why should the audience be bothered to stick around?
"I always love good press. So if you're not the press you can leave. It's CMJ, you don't do a show unless it's for the press," said Laufman. It's probably just as well then that this press person didn't stay until the end of the set.
So we headed down the street to Public Assembly to check out Adventure at the Carpark/Paw Tracks showcase. Adventure was two guys and a bunch of synths. One had a cool massive mohawk, but lead vocalist Benny Boeldt was a bit nondescript and his weak voice couldn't compete with all those synths. For "Feels Like Heaven" Boeldt repeatedly sang, "This feels like heaven." Well, not quite. After a series of false starts Boeldt admitted, "It's been one of those days." With that we headed back to our hotel for the night.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011:
We spent all of the daytime hours on Wednesday at Under the Radar's CMJ day party at Public Assembly, which was sponsored by PRS Guitars. England's Chad Valley (aka Hugo Manuel) tried to get us all dancing at 1 p.m., energetically singing behind his lone synthesizer and armed with some infectious beats. "Sorry if it's too early for you," he apologized, but the audience wasn't complaining. Manuel joked that one song was written to be performed at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, to be held in London. "Plan B is to play a random pub in London [during the Olympics]," he added.
Norway's Casiokids were equally full of energy and for their last song they all switched instruments. Italian artist Porcelain Raft also did his one man band thing, his beats more ethereal than Chad Valley's. Then NYC-based Eleanor Friedberger took the stage with her backing band. The Fiery Furnaces member was playing songs off of this year's solo album, Last Summer. "My name's Eleanor. I'm deaf, but I'm here," she joked. She dedicated one song to Under the Radar, as it was "a song about Los Angeles," and also played a couple of new songs.
The lights dimmed for the last two bands, as both projected images over themselves. London's Still Corners successfully channeled both Broadcast and the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Connecticut's The Stepkids harkened back to '70s soul. The trio of session musicians were accomplished players, able to jam out, but also quickly bring everything back into focus.
Many thanks to all the artists who played the party and to PRS Guitars for helping to make it all possible. Too worn out to catch any more bands that night, we briefly wandered around Times Square in the rain, before calling it a night.
Thursday, October 20, 2011:
We started Thursday with an afternoon set from Dum Dum Girls in the lobby of the Ace Hotel. The all-female quartet were all dressed in black and for their short set (which was broadcast live on Seattle radio station KEXP) they mainly played songs from Only in Dreams, this year's superior follow-up to 2010's I Will Be debut album. The Chrissie Hynde-esque vocals of singer Dee Dee Penny could've been higher up in the mix and I wish they had played Only in Dreams highlight "Coming Down," but it was a treat to see a band in the lobby of a hotel, performing in front of a display of old books, bottles, and animal anatomy charts.
That night we tried to get into the Sub Pop showcase at the Mercury Lounge to see Memoryhouse, Still Corners, and a fuller set from Dum Dum Girls. But we arrived after they stopped letting in CMJ badges, so we headed around the corner to Pianos, a decision we'd later regret.
Pianos was co-hosting a showcase with New York City's Deli Magazine, but it was a big mess, as the venue was close to an hour and a half behind schedule and the sound quality was subpar. We expected Zambri to be mid-set when we walked in, but instead the prior band Forest Fire was still playing. Forest Fire got interesting when they got drone-y and started jamming out with some feedback, the guitarist rubbing his instrument against the mic stand as the singer sat on the floor. Zambri impressed as they did two nights earlier, except that the sound was markedly better at Cameo Gallery than Pianos. In one hand Cristi Jo Zambri held three microphones taped together, and in the other hand she clasped a regular mic, alternating between the two. At one point she seemed to be getting ready for Halloween, as she made weird monster-like growling noises as backing vocals. Despite the imperfect sound, Zambri cemented themselves as CMJ highlights.
Ill Fits had a tougher time overcoming the poor sound. The band is fronted by Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, who released a couple of buzzed-about solo records in 2008 and 2009 (the second one was on Saddle Creek), and also features members of MGMT, Amazing Baby, and Foreign Islands. All that talent didn't really translate and the six-person band needs better songs to live up to their pedigree. Robinson did a bit of screaming and even put the mic in his mouth at one point, but his vocals didn't seem strong enough to front a full rock band and by the end of the set he seemed tired and over it.
Coco Beware, the debut album by NYC natives Caveman, is enjoyable enough, but live they simply sounded terrible. They even opened with the three strongest songs from the album, but the vocals were buried in a wash of noise and feedback that didn't showcase the pleasant melodies of Coco Beware at all. Perhaps it could be chalked up to Piano's bad sound, which seemed overly loud and distorted all night, or maybe Caveman sounded this bad at all their other CMJ appearances (they apparently played around 10 shows that week). We'll never know, as we didn't get to catch them again, and after three songs at Pianos we couldn't stand it any more and went back to the hotel.
Friday, October 21, 2011:
We planted ourselves at the Mercury Lounge for all of Friday night for the Windish Agency showcase. First up was Los Angeles' Electric Guest, whose lead-singer, Asa Taccone, looked like he was a freshman in high school and had jittery mannerisms/dance moves that didn't quite work. The band has been produced by Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) and their last song had a neo-soul vibe, with Taccone trying to sing in falsetto. It may not have all worked, but at least Taccone was trying to entertain. (A couple of days later on the flight back to Los Angeles, Taccone was coincidentally sitting across the aisle from us.)
"We are short a guitar player, so this is going to be a little funky. Check it out," announced Gauntlet Hair vocalist/guitarist Andy R as the band (signed to Dead Oceans) took the stage. To quote Huey Lewis in Back to the Future, the band was "just too darn loud." The bass was especially too high in the mix, perhaps to overcompensate for the lack of a second guitarist. We left the room and headed to the bar.
TEEN is an all-female five-piece led by Here We Go Magic's Kristina Lieberson. Whereas I was very impressed by Here We Go Magic's set at Coachella earlier this year, TEEN fell flat. Lieberson's weak vocals were not aided by her clichéd lyrics that mainly centered on romantic relationships. "Listen to your heart outside" she sang at one point, whatever that means. A later chorus went, "Come back, come back, I don't want to sleep alone tonight." Lieberson admitted that big city dating was a challenge for her. "Sometimes in New York it's kind of hard to get a date, really hard," she lamented to the audience, to which several male audience members yelled out that they'd date her and other members of the band. This exchange was more entertaining than TEEN's plodding music. Until she works out TEEN's kinks, the charismatic Lieberson should stick with Here We Go Magic.
We were beginning to lose hope that we'd see any decent bands Friday night, but then along came We Barbarians. The trio were recent transplants from Long Beach, California, to New York City. While their style of music, comparable to The Hold Steady or Ted Leo, isn't exactly my preferred brew of tea, they played a no-nonsense and high-energy set of rousing punk anthems. The highlight was an unexpected cover of Brian Eno and David Byrne's "Strange Overtones." We Barbarians delivered in a way that few bands had at CMJ thus far.
Purity Ring, the band we'd been waiting all night to see, finally took the stage, in near complete darkness. The Canadian duo had an interesting setup. They performed in low light in front of a green and orange curtain and were lit mainly by a lantern—sometimes held by singer Megan James close to her face—and by a light inside a big bass drum that lit up when James banged on it. Fellow member Corin Roddick played a strange contraction made up of tubes that he hit. Roddick manipulated James' vocals, even when she spoke between songs, giving them a skipping effect. Purity Ring's beats were Knife-esque and the duo had a stage presence and level of performance art lacking in most bands we saw at CMJ 2011.
Purity Ring was a tough act to follow, but Small Black gamely tried. The so-labeled "chillwave" band had a keyboard that rested on a nifty table lined with lights, had other flashing lights on the stage, and were very bass driven. But the New York band exhibited a similar problem to many CMJ 2011 acts—the vocals of singer Josh Kolenik weren't quite strong enough to match the music his band was making. Also, the sound mix was a bit muddy.
Saturday, October 22, 2011:
We began the final day of CMJ 2011 in Brooklyn, back at Public Assembly in the afternoon for a Brooklyn Vegan party. We caught the end of The Stepkids, who wowed again, with "La La" expertly venturing into free jazz territory in the song's finale.
Blog buzz band Friends had funny stage banter, but much like their ho-hum name, they failed to make much of an impression. "In the spirit of Brooklyn Vegan, in between songs you should all give us really mean comments. Tell us our clothes are terrible. Tell us you want to punch us in the face," joked singer Samantha Urbani. Friends' music didn't garner such a strong reaction, but did motivate us to search for good music elsewhere.
A few blocks away over at Spike Hill, Radiation City were faithfully recreating their enjoyable (but only somewhat memorable) debut album, The Hands That Take You. Kid Savant had a similar setup to The Stepkids, in that they were clad all in white (except for their shoes) and had psychedelic abstract images projected on them. Instead of channeling '70s soul like The Stepkids, Kid Savant unfortunately traded in the same recycled New Wave sold by The Killers and The Bravery. But the more they rocked out, the better they sounded.
Our final CMJ evening began at Webster Hall. While waiting for EMA to take the stage, we had to suffer through a short set by the incredibly terrible African American drag queen Mykki Blanco, who rapped over a backing track. One choice STD-inspired lyric seemed to be "I don't know about those crabs, but I know not to go downtown."
EMA (Erika M. Anderson and cohorts) were much tighter than the ramshackle and low key SXSW performance I witnessed earlier this year, and there's little question that Anderson is a star in the making. Even her publicist told us after the set that this was the best EMA performance that she'd witnessed thus far. Anderson was wearing a telling white T-shirt that showed off one shoulder and featured an illustration of a laptop on it with the word "EMPTINESS" written in all caps on the screen. She also wore her signature EMA initialed necklace. The band abruptly started playing, interrupting The Smiths song that was on between sets. "The Grey Ship" sounded appropriately epic. At the start of one song Anderson paced the stage, as if trying to psych herself up as her band started playing. At one point Anderson crouched down at the edge of the stage and guided the hand of a girl in the front to play a riff on her guitar. The song ended with a wave of feedback and Anderson dramatically dropping the mic. During single "California," Anderson really put on a show, posing like a model between lines and playing with the microphone—swinging it between her legs, banging it on her head, putting the cord in her mouth, and wrapping the cord around her neck. Anderson had stage presence to spare and has really upped her game since SXSW. "I wasn't expecting everyone in New York to be so nice," Anderson joked, referencing that she was from the Midwest. Well, Ms. Anderson, we weren't expecting you to be quite so on fire tonight.
We then headed over to the Bowery Ballroom for our final CMJ 2011 showcase, that of 4AD records (and its various related labels, such as XL, Beggars, Young Turks, Rough Trade, etc.). British dubstep artist Joker was clad in baseball cap and a T-shirt that read "Billionaire's Boys Club" and played a glorified DJ set. He announced at the start that there were surprisingly no needles for his turntables and admitted that he wasn't very good at using CD mixers instead. Still, he soldiered on and some danced along to his beats, while others just stared. "Is everyone bored? Come on man, let's get it on," said Joker, addressing the non-dancing segment of the crowd.
Los Angeles' Inc. were, in a word, smooth. "We're taking it easy tonight," promised vocalist Andrew Aged, but one got the sense that they took it easy every night. Inc. channeled a more relaxed Prince and would almost be just as at home playing a smooth jazz festival as an indie rock event. It's a bit bemusing that they have been so embraced by hipster blogs. And yet, if you just gave into their smooth grooves it somehow worked. All the irony-free collective (which is led by Andrew and his brother Daniel Aged) needed was a saxophone; in that department Gayngs has them beat. But if Kenny G can perform with Foster the People on Saturday Night Live, maybe he can find the time to sit in with Inc. But alas that night Inc.'s surprise guest was instead none other than Mykki Blanco. We had seen the awful drag queen, seemingly stalking us, earlier that night opening for EMA at Webster Hall. But to our amusement, he/she sounded much better when supported by Inc.'s impeccable playing, rather than a lame backing track. Inc.'s members all had a firm handle of their instruments and some solos by the drummer and bassist had a jazz improvisational quality. If they can pick up the pace some more and transplant their live sound to wax (their underwhelming 3 EP did not prepare me for how good they'd be live), then Inc. might be on to something.
Our CMJ 2011 concluded with a few songs from NYC locals Gang Gang Dance. Like, Inc., I find it somewhat surprising that the band has been so embraced by hipster circles, as the band is very new age-y. A spinning triangle that read "Positive Energy" was projected behind the band, and their set began with a bunch of patience-trying weird noises that then morphed into an experimental drum circle, with one member kneeling at the front of the stage and holding up a drum for frontwoman Lizzi Bougatsos to bang on. It was all an overwhelming and impressive whirl of vaguely Middle Eastern sounds and beats, and it makes sense that the Gang Gang Dance is signed to 4AD, a label that also used to be the home of Dead Can Dance.
With a 7 a.m. flight back to Los Angeles scheduled for the next morning, we left Gang Gang Dance's set earlier than we would've liked. CMJ 2011 was a mixed bag, as any such event usually is. At festivals/conferences such as CMJ and SXSW, you end up spending a lot of the time wondering if you should be watching another band somewhere else, if you made the right choices about which artists to check out. You're constantly hoping for a great set to take you out of that feeling and instill in you the confidence that you're exactly where you should be, watching the right band at the right moment. At this year's CMJ, Purity Ring, Zambri, EMA, Inc., We Barbarians, The Stepkids, Chad Valley—and really all the bands who played Under the Radar's party—most instilled that positive energy.