I’ve been living a double life. Mild-mannered hedge-fund secretary by day; music club crawler by night. As a newly inducted part of the corporate work force (sometimes a girl needs health insurance), attending this year’s CMJ Music Marathon & Film Festival was not the easiest task.
The weeklong festival, held this year from Tuesday, October 19 to Saturday, October 24, always seems to take over New York, leaving no venue untouched, shutting people out of shows headlined by no-name bands, and popularizing the plastic laminated badge as the newest accessory for all fall outerwear. Showcasing over 200 of the newest and brightest talents in the indie music scene, in venues from the East Village to Park Slope, CMJ remains one of the defining festivals for promoting and discovering next year’s indie chart toppers. Wanting to know what the taste-makers know I tried to run to as many shows as I could this year, but as usual it was all in vain, as one person can only cover so much ground.
Only getting out of work as the clock struck 5:00PM and starting the next day at 8:30AM, I was forced to do CMJ-lite. Yet, in 5 days I only got 20 hours of sleep, saw 20 bands, went to 8 venues in 2 boroughs, took upwards of 10 caffeine pills to stay awake (they’re legal people), and did a big number on my immune system. All in all, I’d say it was a success.
Worth Getting Sick For
Best Gutter Ball: Yo La Tengo
“This is the first bowling alley we’ve played after 25 years in the business,” Yo La Tengo frontman Ira Kaplan announced last Tuesday night at the Brooklyn Bowl. Playing a free show to kick off this year’s CMJ Festival, the indie-rock veterans delivered a set full of heavy psychedelic opuses, most lasting upward of 8 minutes. The New Jersey-bred trio played mind-blowing rock featuring Kaplan’s screeching guitar solos that defied gravity and clawed up the walls, filling the room with avant-garde rock soundscapes.
Yet despite the intensity of Kaplan’s performance (by the end he was leaking sweat from every pore), the singer didn’t fail to take full advantage of the unique venue. In the middle of “Sugarcube,” Kaplan unexpectedly ran off- stage, fleeing to one of the lanes, reappearing moments later stating simply, “Gutter ball,” before shredding on a guitar solo. While their future in the professional bowling circuit remains doubtful, Yo La Tengo managed to strike up a cacophony of sound, leaving their A-game on the lanes.
Yo La Tengo @ Brooklyn Bowl
Best Siren Song: Apache Beat
Karen O, Emily Haines, Natasha Khan; indie rock has its fair share of iconic alt-diva front women. Nothing is sexier than a commanding rocker chick on stage; the girls wanna be her and the boys want to, well, you know. To join these ranks I nominate Ilirjana Alushaj of Apache Beat, who played Santos Party House Wednesday night. With a husky voice a la Grace Slick and a tangled mess of hair that haphazardly fell over her face, Alushaj danced to the band’s brooding melodies, lost in her own world. Using the microphone as an extension of her body, she literally wrapped herself up in the music, twisting the chord over her arms and pulling it taut across the back of her head. Watching her I felt like a voyeur intruding on a private moment, but that only added to her mystique, making the whole set seem more intimate.
Best Dance Moves: The Drums
One of the most hyped bands playing this year’s CMJ Marathon (and the band I personally was most excited to see), The Drums headlined Webster Hall Wednesday night, playing their blend of surf rock set to doo-wop rhythms. Backlit by stark white lights and wearing buttoned-up shirts and severely cropped haircuts, the band’s flair for theatricality elevated the concert to level of a dramatic performance. Playing no small part in this was charismatic lead singer Jonathan Pierce, who, with affected poise and deliberate showmanship, danced in angular movements that bordered on Shakespearian acting. Pierce’s staccato, robotic dance moves and over-the-top posturing punctuated his emotional song style, giving the carefree summer jams an unexpected new depth. Midway through the performance unprovoked, Pierce announced, “This is pop music, nothing more nothing less,” but after the feeling I got while standing in that crowd, The Drums are definitely much ado about something.
Lets Go Surfing @ Webster Hall
Best House Party: Das Racist
It felt like every crazy 80s movie high school party I’d ever seen, maybe just minus the presence of The Donger. As Das Racist took the stage late Thursday night, the mood inside Santos Party House felt like the adults had gone on vacation and there was no school tomorrow. The three MCs rapped in unison over recycled tracks and by the time they were a few songs into the set the downstairs venue had already descended into pure mayhem. A frenetic energy bounded around the room like we were inside a life-sized game of Pong. As the band allowed fans to take the stage the line blurred between performer and audience, the microphone becoming a communal object. Fans danced on stage drinking beer, shedding their shirts and hanging off the MCs’ necks like Irish countrymen singing folk songs down at the pub. Microphone stands were sent surfing into the crowd, the basement swelled into an orgy of grooving bodies; it was Crazy. And if there weren’t house rules, this party could have gone all night.
Best Workout for Your Gluteus Maxium: Big Freedia
Park Slope music venue Southpaw was transformed in to a rather unconventional house of worship at the Bust Magazine showcase last Friday night. Dressed in the traditional metallic, booty-shorts vestments (wearing jeans myself, I was the one inappropriately dressed), women bent over, and thrusting them into the air, shook their money makers in tribute to New Orleans rapper and self appointed queen diva Big Freedia. A pioneering figure in Sissy bounce, which combines New Orleans bounce music with queer artists, the transgendered performer’s rapid-fire delivery on songs like “Azz Everywhere” and “Make Ya Booty Go” had the uncanny power to make women shake their asses at sound-barrier-breaking speeds. With her booming bass voice and Louisiana drawl Freedia, who is biologically a man but dresses and identifies as a woman, commanded us, “Y’all gonna dribble yo’ asses like a basketball.”
Though her performance had more ass than I’m normally used to (which for the record is an extremely limited amount), in a true religious sense, it was an awesome sight to see and I have to say – I’m a believer.
Better Off Sleeping
Worst Buzzkill: DOM
A much-talked-about band going into this year’s festival was DOM, a three-piece, scraggly garage surf-punk collective from Worchester, MA, who, although in their early twenties, resemble a bunch of High School students. Yet, though it all sounds good on paper, seeing them live the band didn’t do much for me. Ginger-haired lead singer Dom has the singing voice of a Smurf. DOM’s music is too indistinct to fit easily into the “chillwave” niche (or if you’d prefer the “gingerwave” category they’ve pioneered for themselves) and too fuzzed out to just straight up rock. Yes, I’ll admit their pop melodies did occasionally have me bopping along, but their sound wasn’t new or exciting enough to deserve all that buzz.
Living in America video
Worst Venue (Converted into a Slip’n’Slide): Backstage Bar
One of the best things about CMJ each year is the unexpected surprises; the last-minute addition to a line-up or the special guest who shows up announced (i.e. Daft Punk playing with Phoenix at MSG), but sometimes the unpredictability that can ruin best-laid plans. The line up for Hype Machine’s free CMJ party was substantial, including acts like Oh Land, Rye Rye, and VHS or Beta, but unfortunately some things are too good to be true. The bands performed at the Lower East Side’s Backstage Bar, upstairs at the back of a the narrow hall, where it was barely possible to find standing room; absolutely no one knew who was onstage at any given moment (at least none of the 20-plus people I asked). The only thing I was able to figure out was that they were running extremely behind schedule, surprise! So I spent my time waiting downstairs, dancing to the DJ sets in a mysterious pool of water, while employees kept coming by to cover the floor with cardboard and mop up the mess.
Which brings us to Surprise #2: Turns out a toilet overflowed and managed to flood the whole venue. We were dancing in sewage (though on the bright side, I did get to make up some new patented toilet-themed dance moves, i.e. The Flush); as the floor grew soggier and the hour later, I ended up leaving to see another show without getting to hear anyone I came there for in the first place. Wipe out, literally.
Worst Dirty Projectors Imitation: Ava Luna
What do you get when you combine electro-pop, blues, rock, soul and doo-wop? Exactly you’d think; a train wreck. I trekked to Public Assembly to see Ava Luna, a band started at Columbia University, because what I had heard of their sound intrigued me. But that all changed within five minutes of their set.
Ava Luna possesses all the elements of a great band; lead male with vocals that sound like The Black Keys’ Dan Auberbach, three female back-up singers with sweet harmonies, and a palette of electronic melodies at its base. However, juggling all these elements of sound and genre can be a precarious task — if the scales are tipped too heavily in any direction, the result can be chaos. And it was; sheer noise that was at odds with itself. The beautiful cooing of the girls got buried in a melee of jarring electronic chords and like some bad horror movie, the male singer’s gospel voice mutated into unpleasant shrieking. Maintaining the kind of sound balance they have set up requires a skillful hand, which, by way of example, the college students can look to another band that played the festival this year, Dirty Projectors. Maybe the collegiate bunch is just over-thinking it, but until they find a happy medium between all the elements, this pastiche is just too Lynchian to sustain itself.
Worst Studio 54 Flashback: The Lines at Every CMJ Venue
It was after midnight, it was below 50 degrees and I had already been standing in line for 20 minutes outside of Santos Party House. To say the least, by this point I was frustrated. I had a CMJ Press badge, I had gotten to the venue in plenty of time and for the past 20 minutes I watched people on various guest lists and those paying for tickets get escorted inside the venue. And it was cold.
The major problem with CMJ is that, because it’s in New York, there is no open festival space for all the bands to perform, so instead the concerts take place in different venues all around the city. Although a night of venue-hopping does have its own glamorous rock ’n’ roll ring to it, the problem is each venue has its own rules as to the capacity of concertgoers allowed inside. Furthermore, for almost all CMJ shows tickets are available for purchase to the public, which ultimately makes having a CMJ badge slightly pointless. Only a certain number of badges are allowed in at each venue, regardless of the fact they can cost up to $495. And finally further exacerbating the problem, multiple bands of interest can be playing at various locations throughout the night, but the later the hour, the less of a chance of getting in to any given venue.
And this is why I ended my CMJ by being shut out of the Ty Segall show at the Knitting Factory. The lack of organization and coordination within the festival is truly astounding, and you’ll forgive my rant, but being turned away after making the trek from Manhattan to Brooklyn at midnight stings.
Posing further problems for CMJ, there was some controversy generated by Pitchfork.com this year. The renown music website decided, of all possible weekends, to host its first-ever Offline Music Festival the very weekend of CMJ. Questions were raised and debated as to Pitchfork’s motives and the strong similarities between the festivals’ artist rosters. I won’t speculate as to the answers to these questions, but I can say with certainty that if I had had a pass for the Pitchfork Festival, I would have seen a lot more bands than I did at CMJ.
Worst Crime Against a Percussion Instrument: The Doers
I was uncomfortable. My palms were sweating and something about the whole thing just seemed wrong. Yet, I couldn’t look away. Everything about The Doers, one of two bands opening for Surfer Blood and The Drums Wednesday night at Webster Hall, was just… bizarre. Telling stories about pedophiles and businessmen set to Southern rock music, they seem like a less kid-friendly version of They Might Be Giants. This impression was furthered by the keyboardist, whose live performance left little to the imagination. Undulating his hips as he stroked the keys, he danced in a nerdy, sexual way that gave off an unsettling vibe, like an inappropriate children’s birthday party where the clown is drunk and the balloon shapes he’s making are not quite age-appropriate. I should have trusted my feelings of apprehension, because as the performance came to a close, he mounted his defenseless keyboard and violated it in ways I won’t even describe. Just — well, what can you say after seeing something like that? I don’t know what was more uncomfortable, witnessing or having to recount the events here.