The CMJ festival is a curious thing. While coming home one night on the 1 train, I overheard two confused-sounding middle-aged men next to me trying to determine what, exactly, the fest is. “I’m pretty sure that CMJ stands for College Music Journal. I think they’re like the Billboard of college rock, or something,” one of them said. He wasn’t that far off the mark — CMJ, or College Media Journal, publishes lists of the most played songs on college radio stations across the country. And every October, the organization hosts the Music Marathon, a New York City-wide series of panels and showcases that allow music biz bigwigs to scout out the #buzziest of #buzz bands. However, CMJ also functions as an excuse for smaller venues across the city to host a plethora of non-official events, many of which curate much more interesting content than the festival-approved showcases.
Indeed, there were a multitude of official and unofficial events, pre-events, after-parties, after-after-parties, and so on. Below, I’ve highlighted some of the most memorable moments and performances during my CMJ experience. To optimize my time, I spent Friday and Saturday nights at the Pitchfork/285 Kent-curated concerts in Williamsburg, Brooklyn — two events that, in my assessment, possessed some of the most impressive single lineups of any of the official or unofficial events that happened during the fest.
Most Revelatory Performance: Traxman
When I wrote about Traxman’s most recent album, TEKLIFE Vol. 3: The Architek, my observations mainly derived from headphones-based listening — from spending time alone with the album in my own, private headspace, mostly staring at a Word Document on my laptop screen. The record can certainly function in that mode of listening; the intimate, emotive samples that Traxman often employs have the ability to resonate on a very personal level, while the harsh synthesizer barrages that occasionally crop up only become even more hallucinatory when they’re cascading out of a pair of headphones directly into one’s ear. And yet, after seeing Traxman perform at CMJ, I’m left with the lingering notion that The Architek — and, indeed, much of footwork music — simply must be heard live in order to be fully engaged with. The producer’s set was absolutely massive, composed of highlights from The Architek such as “Blow Your Whistle” and “Buddha Muzik,” as well as a few choice cuts from fellow Teklife producer DJ Rashad’s exceptional new album, Double Cup. There’s a incredible crispness and an unbelievable clarity to hearing these sounds explode out of a PA system that simply can’t be matched when one listens to these tunes on headphones. Traxman’s music is sparse enough that it requires a substantial physical space in which to breathe, in which to float, and finally getting the chance to experience it in such a way was truly illuminative.
Most Unexpectedly Danceable Performance: Huerco S.
Over the past month or so, Huerco S.’s Colonial Patterns has lingered in my subconscious — I find myself drawn to listen to the album at the strangest, most unexpected times. Whenever I do finally spend some time with it, I seem to always find myself drawn further and further into its fractured depths. Which is to say: it is an exceptional record and one of my favorite electronic releases of 2013. But it’s not an eminently danceable work; driving rhythms occasionally crop up, but they’re always glimpsed through a dusty, cracked lens — a fact that made Huerco’s live performance a bit of a surprise to behold. For the most part, the producer dropped deep, straight-up house cuts, a marked contrast from the experimental murkiness that defines Colonial Patterns. Huerco delivered a thoroughly enjoyable performance, but it definitely veered toward more of a DJ set sort of vibe. Which is fine in its own way — his set certainly demonstrated some of the influences that he obliquely mediates throughout Colonial Patterns — but I would have loved to witness a live exploration of the fascinating aesthetic that he has carved out with his latest work.
Best Remix of Mariah Carey That I Heard from the Street: Saint Pepsi
Tragically, I wasn’t able to get into Saint Pepsi’s set at Glasslands, one of several debut New York performances by the producer during CMJ. After unsuccessfully attempting to sweet-talk the bouncer, I ended up just mingling around outside the venue for a little while, catching aural snippets of his set. One of the tracks that I was able to hear from outside was his recent flip of Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together.” It’s an ecstatic, joyous remix, and I would have loved to have been able to dance to the song inside the venue — but, alas, I was instead alone in a cold slight-drizzle on Kent Ave. However, the producer seems to be on the fast-track to greater recognition, so I’m sure that myself — and many others — will be able to get our live Pepsi fix soon enough.
Most Endearing Performance: Kelela
Kelela’s recent debut mixtape, Cut 4 Me, isn’t a perfect release, but it’s a strong enough first effort with some consistently impressive production. I was excited to see her perform for such a packed space, hoping that the energy of the crowd would fuel a live performance that might reveal new depths to the music on the tape. Unfortunately, the set fell slightly flat — her live vocals simply could not compete with a seemingly ever-present, much-too-loud backing vocal track. Still, it was difficult to truly walk away with negative feelings toward Kelela, for she just seemed so utterly awestruck to be performing in such a setting, repeatedly thanking the crowd for their support. It was a strikingly genuine display during the disorienting, sometimes disenchanting few days that are CMJ. Although she seemed rather nervous and her voice wasn’t quite as present as it could have been, her attitude on stage succeeded in making me hopeful for future offerings.
Best Acts That I Hadn’t Listened To Before CMJ: Homeshake/Perfect Pussy
Disillusioned and forlorn after my inability to see Saint Pepsi, I wandered over to 285 Kent (funny how all roads seem to lead to that venue) to see what was happening there. I had class the next morning, so I couldn’t stay for long, but I was able to catch a band that I had never heard of before, the Montreal-based group Homeshake. I was skeptical at first — their perhaps intentionally out-of-tune, guitar-centric sound seemed awfully like your average slice of Pavement pastiche. But I suspended my apprehensions, and soon enough I found myself getting into their melodic earwarms and weird contrapuntal guitar figures.
My other guitar-based epiphany of CMJ was Perfect Pussy, a noise-pop/punk band from Syracuse, NY. I’d heard about them through word-of-mouth but had never actually listened to their music before the festival. Their performance, however, was definitely one of the highlights. With an incredibly assured live presence for such a young group, they plowed through a series of extremely aggressive yet satisfyingly hook-laden tunes, and the rest of the audience seemed just as floored and invigorated by their commanding showing as I was.
While I certainly believe that some aspects of CMJ are problematic, one can’t deny the astounding number of talented up-and-coming bands that perform in the city. Of course, this is New York, so on any given night of the week and during any time of the year, there are an incredible number of new bands performing in an infinitude of venues and DIY spaces. Still, there’s a certain excitement, an energy — a unique intensity — to the experience of live music spectatorship during the CMJ festival that offers a fine contrast to the apathy and misanthropy that can sometimes haunt many of these New York locales.