Louder Than War’s New York correspondent Carrie Quartly reports back on 2015’s CMJ Music Marathon.
Once again, new bands flocked to New York hoping to be discovered during the 35th annual CMJ Music Marathon, which featured over 1400 live performances and more than 80 participating venues in the city. The festival stretched across 5 exhaustive days, with late showcases finishing at 3 in the morning and daytime programming recommencing as early as noon.
Schedules inevitably clashed, and the official festival guide’s inaccuracy made trying to be everywhere at once even more difficult. On Wednesday, Menace, legendary late 70s forerunners of ‘Oi’, headlined The Grand Victory, but when I presented my badge at the door, I was given a look as if I’d been caught smoking in a children’s cancer ward. The staff told me the show hadn’t been approved as part of the CMJ programming, but nonetheless it was still listed on the website and in the festival guide. Same problem with The Membranes show there on Friday. I also headed out on Thursday to catch Protomartyr at The Knitting Factory’s Sub Pop/Hardly Art “Mutual Depreciation” showcase but their stage time was a misprint and the unplugged solo acoustic event had just started.
I began my CMJ at Baby’s All Right for the Burger Records showcase, walking in during the feel-good, sunny jams of mustachioed Canadian Michael Rault. Rault’s music incorporates the entire spectrum of guitar-based rock trough the ages in a scruffy everyman kind of way; there are gritty shreds and fuzz pedal stomps alongside the harmony-laced head-nodding riffs, but for me it lacked a certain magnetism to make it memorable. Playing last was the also eponymously named trio Fletcher C. Johnson, who were remarkably sober (an improvised beer bong was part of their stage gear the last time I saw them). Despite having a similar agenda to Michael Rault at first glance, Fletcher’s loveable, hooky anthems overpowered Rault and his current Burger buzz in a big way.
Between those two acts came Australian duo Gooch Palms like my superhero cartoon dream band, dressed in tube socks, matching yellow fringed capes, fishnet bralette and leather jockstrap. Their sound is equal parts rapid-fire Ramones style punk, The Cramps gone pop and The Powerpuff Girls. So many CMJ acts I saw lacked personality and had an unnecessarily expanded presence on stage with as many as 6 people on various instrumental duties, but The Gooch Palms (singer/guitarist Leroy Macqueen and drummer/vocalist Kat Friend, who plays with just one floor tom and a snare) were irresistibly charming with their clever simplicity, both through the spontaneous fun of their catchy songs, their colorful stage attire (or lack of it, in Leroy’s case) and entertaining stage repartee. It’s been instant love since I first saw them at Death By Audio in September 2014, so I was happy to see many potential new fans approach them with compliments at Baby’s.
I lingered for Wax Idols who I was really upset to miss but things were running late, and as soon as Foxes In Fiction hit the stage for the Brooklyn Vegan/Collect Records showcase it was time to give up and move onto Tender Trap in Greenpoint for Magic Shoppe, the only non-hometown act representing at the PopMatters showcase.
Boston sextet Magic Shoppe, led by Josiah Webb on lead vocals/guitar (and also featuring 80s Wormtown acid-garage veteran Kris Thompson of The Prefab Messiahs on bass), created a hypnotic and brooding swirl of neo-psychedelia recalling The Chocolate Watchband, The Standells and Spacemen 3. True to their name, there seemed to be some sorcery afoot within Magic Shoppe’s dissonant opiate of sounds.
I went back into Williamsburg for Menace because CMJ or not, I wanted to see the show. Although Menace had the same tuneful terrace-style choruses and working class aggression as Sham 69 and The Cockney Rejects, they were somehow never as popular. Perhaps this is due to them being more of a cross-over band and not aligning themselves with any one specific movement. Today however, their songs still have classic status, and there was that wonderful sense of tribal camaraderie among the moshers at The Grand Victory sharing a knock or a guzzle of beer. ‘Mad’ Morgan Webster stared us all down, challenging Brooklyn to claim the number one spot for most intense mosh pit of the tour while phlegm flew and floor monitors were overturned (we came in third during their last visit). Special shout out to the guy who kept yelling for “GLC” after they’d already played it…
On Thursday I went to the black box of Palisades for another Burger Records/KXLU showcase and regrettably just missed the lethal dance beats of underground local favorites Unstoppable Death Machines. I did make it in time for Howardian, the solo venture of Japanther co-founder Ian Vanek and right away, I liked his attitude. Vanek gave KXLU a shout out, and when people responded by politely clapping, he insisted he just wanted to acknowledge their support, and there was no need for that embarrassing exercise of back and forth social anxiety we’re all accustomed to at shows. He draped himself with a US flag stage prop and bashed out some no-nonsense chugging fuzz pop, including a song called “Be Fruitful” he introduced as being about fucking (which he spelled out “F-U-C-K-I-N-G” in case he hadn’t been clear enough).
Modern Vices were next, looking like a 1970s fashion spread with their neatly coiffed hairdos and vintage paisley print shirts. Sadly the main vice for this self-aggrandizing collection of youthful pretty boys was vanity. I am not one to discourage young bands (fellow Chicagoans Twin Peaks and The Orwells manage to have depth or at least some naïve enthusiasm and genuine adolescent anger to fall back on), but perhaps Modern Vices should play with their dicks a little longer then try again when they actually have life experience or something real to write about. Frontman Alex Rebek offered generic Joe Cocker power vocals to some hoary R&B-lite riffs while the others continually struck poses they obviously practiced regularly in front of a mirror (especially bassist Miles Kalchik), and I found the whole display rather annoying in its flimsy superficiality. As if things couldn’t get any more depressing, a drunk girl kept hysterically howling for “Pleasure Gun”, allegedly their best song, and her male companion congratulated her for doing her research… She easily surpassed the band in entertainment value with her awkward dance moves while shouting “You’re MODELS!” at the stage, saying “Hopefully a guy will like me one day and it will be that guy”. Clearly their music made an impression.
Thankfully Slim Twig‘s vision was a little broader, an exciting fusion of hard glam and experimental psych rock. Michael Rault joined in with some additional guitar towards the end of the set.
San Francisco’s Dirty ghosts were next, and became the highlight of the showcase for me. Band leader Allyson Baker directed her piercing gaze to the center of the room as she sang in her craggy, Joan Jett style, and the emotive minor key compositions were pleasingly fresh and different from the happy-go-lucky guitar jams that overran much of the bill.
I’ve been a fan of Cool Ghouls since their Alright cassette landed on Under The Gun Records back in August 2012 but had yet to see them live, and the unrelenting rhythms of their twangy tunes and uplifting, three part vocal harmonies did not disappoint in person. The music of Cool Ghouls is jaunty and upbeat, and while not necessarily always looking backwards for inspiration, a certain nostalgic kinship with 60s rock ‘n’ roll luminaries agreeably lingers throughout their songs. Not quite sure it was worth missing Protomartyr at The Knitting Factory for, but I’m glad I saw them at last. Michael Rault finished off the showcase but I was really beginning to tire of all the indie/blues guitar-based jam bands I watched and was craving something with a more varied palette of emotions and less smiling.
On Friday I went to The Grand Victory again for The Membranes, who only just got off their flight hours earlier after picking up their visas the same day. It was their first US show in 27 years, promoting their first new studio album in 26 years, a landmark event not to be missed. I hope eventually the visa process for UK touring musicians will improve (London-based band Cheatahs were forced to cancel their Tuesday and Wednesday CMJ appearances due to visa delays). Membranes frontman John Robb himself has been campaigning for a reform of the system since at least 2011, but so far it seems things have gotten even worse for bands. Despite all of this, The Membranes showed no signs of being jet lagged, and their performance was taut and high energy as they stormed through most of the songs from their cerebral science-themed concept album Dark Matter Dark Energy. They were among the most creative and ambitious bands in the 80s with their discordant off-kilter art-punk, and remain just as radical and cutting-edge today.
On Saturday, the final day of CMJ, I headed to an unofficial daytime show at a car wash hosted by AdHoc. I almost had a run-in with the inflatable tube man outside (it was pretty windy out), but I got the last wristband and wormed to the front for “Why Does It Shake?”, Protomartyr’s uneasy shredder of mortal dread and human frailty.
An unofficial Unblinking Ear showcase at Union Pool was next, featuring Snowmans of Love, Big Quiet, Gotobeds, and special guest Spray Paint. Unblinking Ear chief Paul Bruno certainly put together one of the most solid lineups I saw during the festival, a straightforward gathering of gifted songwriters with plenty of pop chops to impress even the fussiest music fan.
Brooklyn’s Big Quiet have that classic college rock sound as patented by Pylon and early R.E.M. (singer Marisa Cerio’s 80s American jangle aesthetic is unmistakable as she confidently wields her Fireglo Rickenbacker). They are forceful and angular in their delivery but have a great sense of humor as well. As with Big Quiet, recent Sub Pop signing Gotobeds wear their encyclopedic music knowledge on their sleeves (they are named after Wire’s drummer, and one of their catchiest singles, “New York’s Alright”, gives an old Fear song a modern update) but are smart enough not to try overburdening themselves with too many styles. The snotty racket of Gotobeds and their blatant disregard for their own personal safety during show finales makes ‘indie’ no longer seem like the dirty word it has come to be.
Spray Paint is one of my favorite bands right now, and their 4th full length LP was released by Australian imprint Homeless this past June. Their music is lawless, frantic and exhilarating, and they are master momentum builders with the deep rumble and abrasive clang of Cory Plump and George Dishner’s guitars on top of Chris Stephenson’s brain-bludgeoning drums.
I went back to the car wash to catch the noisy total eclipse that was Destruction Unit before walking to Rough Trade NYC for the 2nd annual Levitation showcase where the atmosphere was assisted by swirling acid trip color visuals by Drippy Eye Projections. Liverpudlian all-girl trio Stealing Sheep was on when I got there, wearing matching black body suits and round glasses and playing light, breezy lo-fi synth pop with delicate vocals. They were idiosyncratic with arty proclivities, but ultimately pretty forgettable.
Acid Dad thankfully woke me up a little with their raucous brand of “psych-punk”. From the name you’d probably expect some kind of 70s throwback with heavy fuzz tones, and you’d be right. Whitney is ex members of Smith Westerns and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and their music was very bright and laid back. Max Kakacek’s airy falsetto hung smoothly over some lazy neo-soul and disco funk guitar lines, but again, I was growing tired of the clutter of multiple musicians on stage playing music that would go unnoticed while waiting in line for a caramel frapuccino at Starbucks. Mild High Club were unfortunately just as exciting as their name. Imagine Mac DeMarco as a lounge act, minus the goofy charm. “Let’s have fun”, they kept telling the crowd without even cracking a smile, and it was the most lackadaisical and unconvincing attempt at spreading enthusiasm I have ever witnessed at a rock show. PLEASE NO MORE wispy and mellow psych funk bands with more than 4 people sharing the stage, EVER. Thank you.
I was looking forward to DRINKS, both of the beverage sort at this point and Tim Presley and Cate Le Bon’s new collaborative project. Presley’s wiry, oddball psych rock and Le Bon’s lilting freak folk combined to form unpredictable yet streamlined song structures almost reminiscent of Faust’s weird organic austerity. Their debut album Hermits On Holiday was released by Heavenly Recordings on August 21st.
Shannon and The Clams were the real reason I attended the showcase. Cody Blanchard’s plucky, staccato guitar lines should get anything with a pelvis a-shimmying, and Shannon Shaw’s spellbinding voice mixes the lovelorn elongated croon of Roy Orbison with the gravelly rasp of heavy belters like Janis Joplin. I was pleased to hear Dreams In the Rathouse favorites like “Rip Van Winkle” and “Ozma” alongside standouts from their latest release Gone By the Dawn, especially closer “You Let Me Rust”, a sad, twirling lament of neglected love.
I skipped Ringo Deathstarr for another dose of Spray Paint at Wild Kingdom, a tiny room above East River Bar on Bedford Avenue. There was a great house show atmosphere, and, although I saw many outstanding performances during the week, it felt more vital and real than any of the CMJ showcases I went to.
Next year I hope for a more accurate schedule and less unofficial or non-CMJ events to tempt me away from the main festival activities.
All words and photos by Carrie Quartly, you can read more of her writing on the site here.