CMJ Revisited

paramoreLet's Wrestle? Looks like they've got something else on their minds.

My main reason for attending CMJ this year was to check in on the locals and see how the festival was treating them. Most of my first two days were spent tracking the likes of US Royalty, Middle Distance Runner, True Womanhood and Deleted Scenes, but that still left plenty of time for other stuff. A rundown...

Scruffy-Sounding Foreigners Rule the Fest
I already wrote about New Zealand classicists Surf City, who lived up to lofty expectations I set for them. Two U.K. trios -- Let's Wrestle and Male Bonding -- were my other favorites of the week. I caught Let's Wrestle at SXSW and the fresh-faced lads impressed me with their clever pop tunes. The trio's debut album was cheeky fun -- idiosyncratic, self-deprecating lyrics and bouncy tunes. I wrote about it back in April and said: "feels sort of like listening to the Libertines, but without the crack. It's charming and at times great but lacks that 'we will destroy everything in our paths' swagger that you probably get from smoking crack." Well, I don't think the boys are on the pipe but there was certainly some swagger when I caught them a little after a little after 1 a.m. Friday night at Cake Shop. The small crowd that gathered was going bonkers. People were actually moshing and falling down and knocking microphones over on stage. The word infectious is grossly overused when describing bands these days but it fits with Let's Wrestle. The nimble bass lines, warm hooks and oh-so-British mannerisms are impossible to resist.

(Badges, claustrophobia and bloggers, after the jump.)

Male Bonding recently signed to Sub Pop and looks to be a nice find for the stalwart label. The band's defining moment of the weekend came very late Wednesday night in the crowded basement of the Delancey. Most people there were waiting for what was at that point a not-so-secret set by sultry festival buzz band The XX (more on them later). I was standing right by the soundman and after Male Bonding played its first song of slashing, spiky post-punk goodness he seemed alarmed. "Your guitar is feeding back like crazy!" he shouted to singer/guitarist John Arthur Webb. The response? "I know, that's me. It's how it's supposed to be." To which the soundman chuckled and replied, "Fine by me, just making sure I'm doing my job right." Then it was 20 more minutes of jagged pop songs cloaked in distortion and stop-start rhythms. Just the right amount of jarring -- nothing too overwhelming, but enough to keep you on your toes the entire time.

The other highlight was another foreign act -- less slapdash, more mindbending. Mi-Gu is a Japanese duo featuring drummer/vocalist Yuko and guitarist Shimmy. They played an afternoon set at Brooklyn's Bruar Falls on Friday for about 30 lucky folks. It started out as a delicate exercise in psychedelia and ended in a blast of Funkadelic glory. (Seriously, there was some "Maggot Brain" going on.) Things picked up when the duo was joined by Sean Lennon and Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto, Plastic Ono Band) joined on bass and Korg, respectively. Then it went from floaty to ferocious, highlighted by Lennon taking a turn on guitar and absolutely shredding during that "Maggot Brain" portion. (He's also quite a bass player.) With those two adding some low end, it became a truly dynamic performance. This was an especially pleasing show since Mi-Gu -- like Surf City, Male Bonding, Let's Wrestle and other foreign bands -- won't be hitting any other cities on this trip over to the States.

Badges? You Really, Really, Really Don't Need No Stinkin' Badges
Tuesday night. I (mildly) successfully navigated my way from Brooklyn to Manhattan to the Cake Shop to see Surf City, the one band I was not going to miss during the week. I had already spent close to five hours on a bus that day and was ready to stick to one venue for the rest of the night. So I get to the entrance and I'm told, "No more badges." What? The venue had reached its capacity for the number of people with badges they were letting in, a common occurrence at CMJ. (This is the opposite of my experiences at Austin's SXSW, by the way, where badge holders are treated like VIPs.) "Check back in a little bit," I was told. The regular cover charge for the show was $8. "If I pay $8 can I get in?" I asked. "Definitely." So I just paid the $8 because, well, it was only $8 and in New York that's nothing. So of course I get down there and the place isn't even half capacity.

All of those day parties with dozens of bands? Don't need any badges for those? That Bruar Falls show with Mi-Gu (and also Fake Male Voice, featuring Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio) was a non-CMJ show with an admission of $8. Let's Wrestle's late night Friday show -- no badge needed. At the Delancey on Thursday night I wanted to step outside for a minute because I was getting a bit claustrophobic in the tiny basement venue but was told that because there was a line to get in, I was not guaranteed re-entry if I had a badge. Seriously. So I waited in that dank, crowded room for five hours before things finally cleared up enough that I was let up for air. So basically, if you want to see tons of music in New York next fall, by all means go on up to CMJ, but don't feel like you have to buy a badge. Unless you want to attend some panels. Yeah.

Bloggers as the New Showcasers
One of the more interesting aspects of this year's festival was how bloggers were behind more and more showcases. Sure, labels and booking agencies still threw their own bashes, but they took a backseat when it came to the online element. If anything, CMJ felt like a coronation for BrooklynVegan, the everything-everywhere-always New York blog that presided over a whopping seven showcases featuring more than 30 bands. This raises an interesting point. We expect labels and booking agencies to showcase their bands -- after all, they are connected at the hip financially. But if bloggers are the new critics, should we be concerned at all that they are getting so buddy-buddy with all these bands? It's sort of like when bands would play radio station-sponsored shows. Play the HFStival, get played on the station a lot. I'm probably reading more into this than I should be -- bands are just trying to cram as many shows as possible into their schedules -- but might be something to think about.

NYC Venues Are Not for the Claustrophobic
A short rant: New York venues freak me out. Or at least the ones I spent a lot of time in last week. If only it was so simple as walking in the door and seeing the stage. No. You walk in, make your way through a maze of a bar, then usually go down some stairs into a tiny basement room with limited air flow where you're simply surrounded by overpriced beer and people who put much more thought into their outfits than you. The Cake Shop is a really neat little place but as a concert space it's barely functional. It's down in the basement, very narrow and the floor actually slants down. Someone described it as being like the Sarlacc Pit in "Return of the Jedi." It's a good thing there are small TVs hanging from the ceiling (one near the stage, one at the bar) or else you wouldn't be able to see anything at all unless you parked yourself right up front. The Delancey, Union Hall, Fontana's, Cake Shop -- all basement venues.

Stay Put
You can't help but compare CMJ to SXSW. And the main difference is that SXSW is so incredibly centralized whereas CMJ sprawls all over Manhattan and Brooklyn. If you have the energy, it's very easy to zig-zag all day between venues in Austin. My last two days at SXSW this year I hit 10 different venues each day. That's just not possible at CMJ. Take that above example of when I wasn't guaranteed re-entry to the Delancey -- either I stayed where I was, risked not getting back into the club I was at, or into another venue somewhere else, because by 10:30 p.m. or so most shows worth checking out had reached badge capacity.

So I spent a full seven hours at the Delancey on Thursday, seeing eight bands, only three of which I had any intention at all of seeing. It was actually kind of enlightening -- in Austin I hardly saw any bands that didn't impress me, mainly because I was able to find something I wanted to see at all times. So on that specific night I saw some truly awful bands (Yes Giantess, a third-rate Passion Pit knock-off -- already?; Reni Lane, who ended her set with a limp cover of Blondie's "Heart of Glass"), a couple of decent bands (Suckers, members of the new multi-part harmony brigade; Bear Hands, a post-punk quartet that never gets too rowdy), and a couple of the festival's buzz bands.

The Antlers never quite got going. Things were already ridiculously behind schedule by the time the trio took the stage and just when their soaring songs began ascending to proper heights to set was done. Young Brits The XX took the stage just after 2 a.m. and played their simple, sultry songs with steely-eyed sincerity.

By David Malitz |  October 27, 2009; 11:26 AM ET CMJ
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I think that's a good point with the bloggers/artists buddy-buddy thing. The line between "journalists" (whatever that constitutes anymore) and the people they write about is growing thinner everyday. Unless you're really not paying attention, you can see the influence of the blogger/Pitchfork style of writing (that is, having a pretty clear bias concerning just about everything) slipping into traditional newspapers. I'm also slightly disturbed by journalists who use things like Twitter to talk about the subjects that they write about for their employer in a personal way. I understand that to be a critic is to have an opinion, but there should still be a modicum of journalistic integrity.

Posted by: agl132 | October 27, 2009 12:21 PM

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