Louder Than War’s New York correspondent Carrie Quartly reports back on the musical mayhem and sportswear sponsored excesses of this year’s CMJ Music Marathon.
Earlier I offered a personal guide to my CMJ 2014 artist and event lineup picks. Now, after a week of heavy day-drinking and accumulating armloads of free oversized t-shirts, drinks koozies, tote bags, protein bars, a microphone-shaped bath sponge to embarrass myself with in the shower and other fairly useless ephemera, I give you my official verdict on who was the best, who was the worst, and if it was all worth it in the end.
First, a few things I learned during my experience: Free pizza tastes better than pizza you paid for, live music photography and pro wrestling is basically the same thing, John Norris doesn’t like those cozy kinds of chairs you sink into because they make him look shorter in interviews, the carpeting in the lobby of the Rivington Hotel feels luxurious underfoot but is unpleasantly coarse to stroke with your hand (yeah, I tried it), picking a fight with construction scaffolding when wandering around drunk and lost is not a good idea, coconut water is disgusting…
And now onwards to the important part, the music! I am a fan of delivering the bad news before the good, so here are the bands I did not like and probably won’t remember after writing this article: Throughout the week-long festival, I saw way too many cute girl ensembles who failed to impress me even with their individual fashion sense and alternative haircuts. Manchester four piece Pins, who played the Never Better day party at Arlene’s Grocery on Wednesday, the 22nd, fell into this category with their solid but ultimately superficial and unsatisfying guitar rock. With drool-flecked references to Vivian Girls and The Velvet Underground from a malnourished music press creating a substantial buzz for this band, I was expecting a lot more. They were followed by the raging energy of punked-up trash pop Cincinnati trio Tweens, who completely crushed them and everyone else I saw that afternoon with relative ease.
Ultimate Painting opened the Panache Booking showcase at The Knitting Factory later that evening, but unfortunately they were more like a Thomas Kinkade than a Rembrandt. Trust me; I really wanted to like a Trouble In Mind band featuring James Hoare of Veronica Falls and Jack Cooper of Mazes. However, as Ultimate Painting they create a frustratingly feather light pastoral psychedelia that seems to deliberately lag in pace and is eye-gougingly bland in a live setting.
Guy Blakeslee from The Entrance Band was next, and he played a laboriously pretentious solo set with the assistance of some laptop loops, and the whole thing’s overwrought earnestness gave the room an awkward amateur poetry open mic night vibe.
The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die: This band might as well all adopt bullseye costumes for stage attire, because there is no shortage of ways to make fun of them, and they all know it. I will try and be constructive with my criticism, but where do I start? These guys are like Diarrhea Planet if they took themselves way too seriously. I lost count of the number of bodies onstage armed with various instruments and painfully sophomoric spoken word poetry, but I’m pretty sure there were at least 7 of them. Brooklyn Vegan hosted the free day party at Baby’s All Right on Friday, the 24th when the band played, and one of their several guitarists called the site “The most prestigious place to have your band called gay”, so at least he had a sense of humor when he was talking, because there was certainly none to be found in his music.
I knew from the off that South London’s Happyness was going to have to work overtime to win me over with a name like that (especially while I was living on less than 4 hours sleep), but they continued to rub me the wrong way as I listened to their songs. I am just growing tired of these 90s worshipping, breezy indie pop bands in their matching sneakers vying for my attention with the odd confrontational lyric and forced personality affectations, and their Norah Jones cover at Cake Shop the following day put the nails in their coffin for me.
Bands I loved: I already highlighted some favorite artists in my preview coverage who did not fall short of expectation (Meatbodies, King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard, White Fence, Reigning Sound), so below are a few of the inspiring surprises. I saw Dune Rats, “3 hyperactive stoner cunts” from Australia, play the exhaustive Panache showcase at Baby’s All Right on Friday (the last act hit the stage at 2:40 AM!), and a free day party at Cake Shop on Saturday. Dunies are cartoonish and lovably disgusting; two character traits which often seem to hold the keys to my heart. Bassist Brett Jansch lost a bet and had to go around wearing a condom, which he whipped off and hurled at his fellow bandmates at Baby’s, and later the Cake Shop stage carpet received an intensive spit shampoo courtesy of singer/guitarist Danny Beusa. Beyond this general buffoonery, they are just a whole lot of fun, and their catchy singalong shreds explode with a rabid, sun-drenched enthusiasm for life that I found impossible to resist.
Dinner is Danish singer/producer Anders Rhedin. His oratorical baritone and 80s throwback synth style recalls John Maus, but Rhedin’s meditative calm and understated Scandinavian wit makes him far less intense to watch. The two also share the same emphasis on human connection during performances, and Rhedin makes a few requests of the audience to hold hands with one another and to reach upwards towards the sky with their arms. Normally, this might make the uptight citizens of New York tremble with dread, but Dinner offers encouragement throughout the ordeal in his placid monotone (“My dear friends, you are doing so well…”). Remember the Peter Serafinowicz skit about the Dalek relaxation tape? Well, Dinner is sort of like that, but is actually genuinely skilled at putting large crowds of people at ease, people who formally adopt being unable to give themselves over to joy as a lifestyle choice simply by coming here to New York. He is also a fine entertainer; displaying a mastery of the aerobic treadmill dance, slinging a sweater over his face so that its sleeve sways like an elephant trunk on Ecstasy, and wriggling offstage to cut through the crowd on his back (“Sorry to whoever I almost decapitated with the microphone cable, but we all have to suffer…”, he quipped dryly during Cake Shop’s afternoon show). Dinner thrives on his abstruse, alien nature and mechanical dorkishness in the same way that Devo and Kraftwerk did before him, and it is strangely heartwarming and truly wonderful to witness.
LA duo Girlpool seemed to be playing everywhere for CMJ, but watching them was an undiluted special treat each time. Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad write incredibly resonant bare bones songs with a brutally unflinching vulnerability that is universally relatable to anyone who has ever gone through the angst-ridden aches of falling in love, struggling with self-acceptance, and being lonely; because let’s face it, as the pair sings in the heavy-hearted Plants and Worms, pain is indeed an endless cycle. What Girlpool achieves with their vocal harmonies and simple, stripped down guitar and bass arrangements is both quietly stunning and refreshingly honest. Their Jane EP is out on November 17th in the UK/EU and on the 18th in the US/CANADA.
I have wanted to see Shonen Knife for probably half my life, and it was great to finally get a cute girl ensemble at CMJ with none of that boring, stony-faced ice queen nonsense that I saw from the other all girl acts. Shonen Knife arrived onstage in matching Mondrian shift dresses and brought the enthusiasm of a hundred hyper adorable cheerleading squads, if a cheerleading dance routine was ever based around cool shit that actually matters like The Ramones, ramen noodles and ice cream… At The Knitting Factory’s Panache Booking showcase on Wednesday, they played Twist Barbie from their 1983 debut album Burning Farm, as well as the obligatory Ramones cover and several new ones from their latest effort Overdrive, which pays homage to 70s hard rock with lots of kitschy sweat band and devil horns posing, Shonen Knife style. It was well worth the wait and without a doubt one of the best things I’ve ever seen!
The Mystery Lights blitzed drunkenly through their afternoon set at Cake Shop on Saturday, the 25th. Mike Brandon, who impulsively quit his managerial job at a California Starbucks to pursue a musical career in New York, reeled unsteadily on his feet in a swamp of reverb while stooping down now and then to neck a bottle of whiskey that waited by his amp. It was a primal and eruptive performance like an unstable volcano suddenly spewing glowing hot lava; there seemed to be no escape from the band’s loud, beat-heavy twang in Cake Shop’s tiny, glittering basement, and it was all over almost before it had even begun. This was the second time I’d seen The Mystery Lights, and it could be the start of an addiction.
Portland’s Wampire previously consisted solely of principle songwriters Eric Phipps and Rocky Tinder, but have now expanded to a five piece. With both of their albums recorded by Jacob Portrait of Blouse and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, you can already imagine their entrancing and lavishly eclectic sound. I caught them on Thursday, the 23rd at The Living Room in Williamsburg, who were also offering free beer provided by Lagunitas Brewing Company (kerching!).
OBN IIIs worked hard on the stage both times I saw them, despite feeling rebuffed by the self-entitled CMJ scenester crowd, not to mention whoever stole their t-shirts from the merch table that first night… A New York audience is like a fussy, temperamental house cat; even if you’ve fed it grilled seafood Fancy Feast for a solid week and indulged its every whim with deluxe, all natural feather wand toys until you’ve given yourself dead arm syndrome, it can still be unclear whether or not it loves you back. Such was the case with the blank looking faces who gathered motionless at Baby’s All Right and Cake Shop to watch one of the most exciting rock ‘n’ roll spectacles of recent memory. I remember asking singer Orville Neeley a year earlier after being blown away by OBN IIIs at Death By Audio why he didn’t take a heavier lead role in his other band Bad Sports, and he answered that he liked playing guitar too much! During the CMJ shows playing mainly new material, Orville’s freedom of movement was somewhat more restricted than what I was used to seeing since he was once again on guitar duty, but the atmosphere was certainly no less thrilling and confrontational; if anything they seemed even more dangerous than ever before because they were pretty pissed off!
Protomartyr also deserve another mention in addition to what I said earlier in my preview coverage because they are fast becoming the best band of the new millennium, and every CMJ blogger who just gave them an honorable mention is now dead to me!
CMJ can still be a powerful platform for new discoveries and breaking bands, and I saw many varied and remarkable performances this year, but it’s also a haven for derivative wannabes and industry people with no love for the craft. It’s a lot better if you know your stuff going in and don’t slow yourself down too much with free pizza.
All words and photos by Carrie Quartly, you can read more of her writing on the site here.