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Twin Town High (vol. 8)
CMJ '02: Rock N Roll NYC
Wednesday 13 November @ 10:57:49
by Celeste Tabora & Paul Morel
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be immersed in the near-future of music? Even if just for a few days? Have you been faced with wanting to know what other bands are up to, but find yourself being too busy with your own band’s career to check anything out? The annual College Music Journal New Music Marathon—a.k.a. CMJ—held every fall in New York, is a good opportunity to answer your questions and solve these predicaments.
Some may knock CMJ, dismiss it as too overwhelming, crazy, a waste of time, useless or what have you—but I’m a believer. True, you may not be able to catch every single band you’d like to; but if a band is good enough, chances are you’ll hear about it somewhere in the four intense days that CMJ runs its course. CMJ, if approached with a positive mind, can be good for all the interested parties. Hundreds of music supporters pile into the various enchanting venues that New York City provides for this type of thing. Labels, promoters, managers, publicists, radio folk, writers, and photographers (you name it!) get a chance to check out prospective acts, thereby giving bands and their music greater exposure. Sure, a day before the festival begins you may find yourself wondering how the hell you’re going to pull it all off. With the educational panels, films, and shows galore—having the option of going from noon till 5 a.m. each and every day—in the end you’re most likely to find a deep fondness for at least one new-to-you band. And if you’re not going to a music festival for that, why are you going?
The CMJ panels are a chance for the Jane and Joe averages of the music world—college radio DJs, writers at small free papers—to fire questions at musical greats. Popular panels this year included a question and answer session with Tori Amos and one with legendary Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. “Rules of the Road” mulled over the ins and outs of touring, from booking agents to sponsorship agreements, and even to rider contracts! (No blue M&M’s in Celeste’s dressing room, thank you very much.) Then there were discussions about music marketing, radio, promotions, and of course, getting started in the music business with “So You Wanna Be A Rock And Roll Star.” The conference also featured Talkshops and mentor sessions, which are basically a more personal learning forum consisting of one-on-one conversations with songwriters, lawyers, producers, journalists, A&R reps, program directors and more experienced industry folk.
Admittedly, it’s not all seriousness and education all the time at CMJ. (As one open-bar party showed me, or as I showed one open-bar party. I don’t quite remember.) But that’s a good thing right? You can have some fun partying while you’re gaining and processing all that information! You can really have a good time though fatigued, sleepless, and often times hungry (the hectic schedule of quickly-hail-cab-to-next-venue-see band-and-repeat doesn’t leave much time for dinner). And if you’re surrounded by other equally cross-eyed, loopy music lovers, it doesn’t seem bad at all! What follows are a few highlights from this year’s CMJ, a heads-up for new music. Watch out, ‘cause some of these bands are bound to be making their way to town in the not-so-distant future.
Owls, Denali, Strike Anywhere
@ The Warsaw
Though Chicago based Owls’ (ex-members of Cap N’ Jazz, Euphone, Joan of Arc) set was only four songs long, that was time enough to recognize the prowess this band possesses. Their music consists of swirling guitars, intelligent drumming with a sharp bass that follows, avant-garde vocals—Owls are definitely one step ahead of the game, stylistically. Richmond, VA’s Denali (ex-members of Engine Down, Sleepytime Trio) is also clever, their main attraction being Maura Davis—an operatically-trained songstress who sounds like Gwen Stefani’s early singing style set to Portishead’s rockier hits. Strike Anywhere is harder, edgier metallic rock; if that’s your bag you’re sure to be pleasantly surprised by the band’s live antics.
This Boston band’s catchy, noisy brand of pop has earned them many comparisons to The Pixies, Hüsker Dü and Superchunk. Up-tempo power pop, fuzzy guitar, lo-fi production, and depressing mind-%@!#$& lyrics equal a great and promising band to invest in.
Enon, Black Heart Procession, Blonde Redhead, Calexico, !!!
@ Irving Plaza
If I could relive this show at least once a month, I would be so sorely happy for the rest of my existence. Just give Enon’s web-only song for November a listen (http://www.enon.tv) and you’ll see why they are widely known as true innovators of indie rock. Their fun and positive, jump-up-and-down stage presence and their danceable indie/electronic rock warmed up the night just right. San Diego’s Black Heart Procession’s serious musical demeanor followed and put the packed house in a trance just in time to be taken apart and away by New York’s Blonde Redhead. Simone, Kazu, and Amadeo’s brand of music is a favorite of many. They perform well-crafted melodic post-punk with sophistication and vigor. Arizona’s Calexico are pioneers in mariachi rock, and however strange it may be to see the band in such an urban setting, theirs was a much-appreciated and highly original combination of disparate genres. During !!! (pronounced chik chik chik) the show transformed into the most happening dance party. Getting into the Halloween spirit, the Sacramento band was costumed as disco balls, wearing all black with fragments of mirror-like squares attached to various parts of their clothing. Overall, it’s no wonder that I kept overhearing CMJ attendees proclaim that this “was the show to attend, hands down” throughout the festival.
Pretty Girls Make Graves
The Pattern, Pretty Girls Make Graves
Punk-Soul-Boogie fun: That’s a pretty on-the-nose description of Oakland’s The Pattern. They really know how to let loose while still looking fashionably cool. So when they come to town, have yourself a drink and light that cigarette, and make sure your ‘this season’ dancing shoes are strapped on and ready to go. Pretty Girls Make Graves seem to be on everyone’s lips these days, and it’s no surprise, what with their catchy post-rock finesse. This talented Seattle supergroup is coming up.
@ CMJ Daystage
Daytime shows are difficult enough. Imagine playing in a conference center when your music is meant for the atmosphere of dark, intimate clubs. Joel Petersen (also of the Faint) and girlfriend Geraldine trade off their multi-instrumentalist duties while a movie is projected onto a screen separating the two. The atmosphere wasn’t fitting, but sonically Broken Spindles is experimental and quite poignant.
Paris Texas, Owen, Aloha
@ ACME Underground
This was a well-rounded show packed wall-to-wall with music fans. If you’re familiar with indie rock and its regional sounds, this showcase was filled to the brim with the Midwestern variety. Paris Texas provided the guitar-driven rock; Owen, the earnest singer-songwriter, heart-wrenching sweetness (new album “No Good For No One Now” out Nov. 19); and Aloha, the avant-garde, angular experimentalism. Each perfect in their own right.
The Cherry Valance
The Cherry Valance
CBGB’s rough and tumble reputation was perfect for hosting The Cherry Valance’s rawk n’ roll. It’s classic, no-tricks-up-the-sleeve, strait-forward good ol’ rock and roll music. Let your hair down and let your head bang.
Donots, Sahara Hotnights, The Mooney Suzuki
@ Elbow Room
Donots are German pop-punkers, huge—like-Green Day-huge—in their home country. (And that’s pronounced do-nots, not doughnuts.) Sweden’s Sahara Hotnights riff on melodic punk bass lines, frizzy hard rock guitars, and catchy but tough pop melodies. They also put on a totally stimulating live show. The Mooney Suzuki play mod-ish garage rock that makes you sweat, and makes your hips swivel.
French Kicks, The Walkmen
@ Bowery Ballroom
Sweet melodies and perfect ’60s-influenced pop performed with rock vivacity. Many show-goers mention French Kicks as one of their recent favorites, and it’s easy to see why—their show was invigorating and put a smile on my face…even if this show went on really late. Having members of the beloved Jonathan Fire Eater helped The Walkmen get attention, but it’s their indie-meets-new wave sound (think Tears For Fears, but more poignant even!) that keeps them afloat. They are wonderful.
Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, Minus The Bear (AAM Radio Party)
@ Village Underground
Minus The Bear have played Minneapolis quite a few times, and you should already know how good this band is. But in case you don’t, their main attraction is their swirling guitar playing and careful progression within their songs. Not strait up-rock, but definitely forward. I aver it, and I aver it again—Ted Leo writes some of the best songs out there. He’s one of the few indie rock icons that I firmly believe deserves his hype. Leo’s kind of rock is reminiscent of the greats like The Jam & The Who. After already enduring most of the festival, many attendees were completely exhausted a day or two before Leo hit the stage; but going to this show was like getting my musical battery recharged!
Dub plus electronica plus pop punk plus ’70s keyboards equals zero—Zero Zero, that is! It’s danceable, groovin’ party music. You don’t have to think too hard to enjoy their music, but if you did, you’d definitely have something to process. Theirs is a mix of heady and visceral rarely to be found in dance music, which is probably why Zero Zero can bridge the gap between indie purists and electronic aficionados.
Sing-Sing, OK Go
@ Bowery Ballroom
Ladies in white Sing-Sing (a.k.a. Emma from Lush’s new project) perform their shoegazy electro-pop with dexterity. Emma and Lisa’s lovely feminine music will fill your ears, their charm will fill your heart, and their stunning good looks don’t hurt either! OK Go is like mainstream radio rock crafted for the indie pop crowd. At times, they show glimmers of The Cars.
Har Mar Superstar
Har Mar Superstar
@ Jane Magazine Party
Whew! This boy can whip it good. This crowd-pleasing mama-jamma is the party. He showed the whooping and hollering crowd the raunchy good time that they came for. You don’t have to be rich to be his girl, you don’t have to be cool to rule his world—ain’t no particular sign he’s more compatible with… Har Mar Superstar is it.
Hot Hot Heat, David Cross
@ Mercury Lounge
The best thing to come out of Canada since Doug & Bob MacKenzie is the band Hot Hot Heat! They blend ’60s mod, ’70s prog and ’80s new wave/pun, resulting in a mod-punk dance explosion, if you can picture it. This show was hosted by the oh-so-%@!#$&ing-funny David Cross, who gave out a taste of his new album Shut Up You %@!#$&ing Baby. (Oh please go buy it—it’s great!)
I, too, went to CMJ this year. But whereas Ms. Tabora is an old hand at this kind of thing, I’ve never been before. Suffice it to say that I was as a babe in the wilderness. Celeste spent four days seeing shows; I spent four days getting lost on the subway. Here are some thoughts on one of the few of the shows I did manage to catch. And an album review. Yeah, I know—kinda random. But these are the things I feel passionate about. (P.J. Morel)
I had no idea what I was getting into with this show. I went to see Har Mar, who played later that evening.
Oxes are three dudes from Baltimore—two guitar players and a drummer. One guitar player has his face contorted into a permanent scowl, the other a look of constant surprise. Before they begin, the drummer approaches the mic and says, “One day Eric Clapton sees Jimmy Page on the street, and he goes up to him and says, ‘so, I guess we’re both guitar gods now—how cool is that?’ And Jimmy Page says, ‘You have one second to get out of my sight, or I will kill you.’” It was an odd note on which to begin a show, to be sure; but things got much, much stranger when Oxes took to their instruments.
Oxes play a hyper kinetic kind of math rock, but labels like that can’t really explain the Oxes experience. Oxes feels like the unholy union between two bedroom shredders—the kind of guys who spent their high school years slaving to reproduce Kerry King solos note-for-note, band-or-no-band. The result is a music based entirely on wickedly hard guitar riffs, which Natalio Fowler and Marc Miller trade with the ferocious intellectualism of chess grand masters. It hardly sounds like a recipe for a good time, but it is.
What makes Oxes fun is their one-eyebrow-raised aesthetic. Their music is animated by the gleeful mischief of an idea taken too far. Moving through the audience with wireless systems hooked up to their guitars, unsuspecting indie kids like myself are caught in a disorienting melee of stereo riffage.
Fowler spits out a flurry of notes; Miller returns fire with an even wilder, more discordant lick. Back and forth, back and forth they go, the drummer pounding away furiously all the while; I’m somewhere in the middle, thinking, “What on earth was that I just heard? Was that beautiful? Was it awful? I think I’d like to hear it again.” But too late—here comes another volley.
Simian (Mobile Disco)
@ Hammerstein Ballroom
Alas, there isn’t much to say about Simian at CMJ. They put on a nice DJ set, but they didn’t really showcase the brilliance of their new album, We Are Your Friends. So please allow me to effuse about the record instead: this album is pop. It’s built around big, catchy, boy-band-style harmonies that beg for you to sing along, and Neptunes-inspired production keeps things bouncing. However, a number of clever elements conspire to keep things from getting cloying. One is the quirky and funky instrumental backing, which wouldn’t sound out of place on a David Byrne solo album. Another is the off-kilter lyrics, which pair facile and singable choruses with weird and sometimes troubling verses. Check the beginning of “Big Black Gun”: “Ain’t got a heart, just a big blue clock / And it’s all for you / Ain’t got a soul just a big black hole / And it’s all for you.”
Another nice feature of the album is the way it manages to touch on—just touch on, mind you—the current jones for retro rock sounds. The overall production is very crisp and up-to-date; but when singer Simon Lord lets loose with his voice, as on the chorus of the title track, his wailing “WE! ARE! YOUR FRIENDS!” takes on the bluesy ache of a young Eric Burdon. Simian even quotes a bit of Cream’s “Strange Brew” in the melody of “End of the Day.”
All of this adds up to a bold and juicy synthesis of pop styles across the decades. Simian’s brilliant performance on We Are Your Friends was shepherded along in part by Brian Eno, who the band thanks for “advice, oblique strategies and lending us toys,” (a quintessentially Eno-esque description itself.) And indeed, this effort does bring to mind classic bubblegum-with-a-brain albums like More Songs About Building and Food, the Talking Heads first Eno production. Simian are your friends, or should be, and you can be sure I’ll let yet know if and when Simian come to the Cities.