Monday, November 3, 2008

CMJ 2008. Crap, I'm glad that's over.

Sitcom Serf CMJ Music Marathon

The plan - For CMJ this year, I am taking 6 years of SXSW experience to finally visit the festival that literally happens in my neighborhood. With hotel costs in Manhattan at ridiculous peak levels, this makes the fest a little less tourist-friendly than SXSW, but in most other ways, it is a strikingly similar journey for you and your meat-suit to go on. Day parties with free booze, somewhat annoyingly rammed official showcases at night, and after parties that I almost never see, although for those who can regulate their daytime intake, I hear they are great.

A CMJ badge is 495.00 USD. The only notable thing about this is that CMJ has managed to create a badge that is vastly more useless than any other festival. Ticket holders for venues trump badge-holders in line for around 15 USD paid the night before through, and day parties never require the badge. In fact I only saw one badge the entire time I was at CMJ, and that was a freebie for a major music company employee. Even over-seas visitors I met knew not to bother with a badge.

I was thinking about buying one anyway, to support the festival, but instead, I took the 500 bucks and purchased a pair of tickets for every venue I might have been tempted to enter, and then I spent the rest on CDs and Vinyl from every band I saw that I didn’t hate. The result was that I spent about 240.00 USD, not including alcohol, and I got some great booty.

3:00 Princeton @ Cake Shop (Pop Tarts Suck Toasted Showcase)
3:45 The Lisps @ Cake Shop (Pop Tarts Suck Toasted Showcase)
9:15 Ruby Suns @ The Delancey (New Zealand / Magnum PR Showcase)

I arrived at the Cake Shop so jazzed to see Princeton that I didn’t really notice that I had missed the show. Everyone there seemed to be in complete disbelief when I mentioned what time it was as this is the only time in festival history that a band has gone on 25 minutes early! The place was full and no one really cared in the end. I met the organizer, a very nice Staten Island blogger (POP TARTS SUCK TOASTED), and we did a collective shrug and went back to our lagers. I had my full beer and my first disc (BLOOMSBURY by Princeton – $5). Up next were the Lisps, a Brooklyn quartet, with a great live show and a diverse group of songs, every one of which I thoroughly enjoyed. I can honestly say that The Lisps are a very talented, and UNIQUE band. I don’t say that very often. It turned out we had a mutual friend who introduced me to Sammy, the petite melodica player, and I enthusiastically bought their disc (COUNRTY DOCTOR MUSEUM by The Lisps - $10). At this point, I got sidetracked chatting etc. with some long-lost music industry buds, and I didn’t get back into the music until 9ish, when I dragged a couple of people to see The Ruby Suns @ the Delancey. A very drunk, very funny Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords) was hosting, Jagermeister bottle in hand, while the Suns set up. The Ruby Suns are one of my favorite bands, after seeing them at SXSW 2008 (Fader Party), and this show was a thrill for me, so I called it a night after a high point. I already own all of their music.

3:45 The Naked And Famous (The Levi's® FADER FORT)
4:30 Chairlift (The Levi's® FADER FORT)
5:15 The Muslims (The Levi's® FADER FORT)
8:00 Plushgun @ OS Art House / John Street Bar (CMJ event)

Wednesday was the first day of the Levi’s / Fader party, held in a gallery space on the Bowery, converted and decorated by the artist Mr. Brainwash to look like an expressionist pop-art music temple. Needless to say, there is always a great lineup, free beer, and no room to breathe at the Fader Fort. The Naked and Famous played an amazing set before the crowd reached choking capacity. I had heard a track or two from them somewhere, so I was anxious to see what they had live. Their 2 EPs have a lot of great material on them, so I picked a couple up from their manager, who had actually emailed me in response to my trying to buy them online, which you can’t. Lead singer Alisa Xayalith sang and swayed, lulling us all in the first few rows, despite the jagged, powerful musical elements being thrust forth all around her. I took in a great 8 songs set, 2 CDs (NO LIGHT EP & THIS MACHINE EP by The Naked and Famous - $15) and a hand stamped 7”, which guitarist and vocalist Thom Powers was very proud of (rightly so Thom! - SERENADE - $10). Unfortunately, until an American label gets wise, you will have to buy their songs digitally. After a quick set-change, by the time Chairlift came on, I was fully entwined in prodding elbows and tangled feet, spilling my drink with no where to go. High from the last set, with plenty of reserves, I managed to soldier on. Chairlift carry a great aesthetic, with sweet lyrics reminiscent of the 1980’s, before love songs stopped being sweet and turned into two people hating themselves together. Caroline Polachek’s voice is so lovely to listen to live, with moments channeling Dolores O'Riordan and even Chrissie Hynde. Wow. I couldn’t get close to them, so I had to buy the record from Kanine Records online (DOES YOU INSPIRE YOU by Chairlift - $13). At 5ish I had been squirted to the back of the venue, with all of the other drinkers, but I had a nice view of The Muslims for the next half an hour. They are a pretty great poster-band for low-fi retro rock, which is one of my favorite live genres. After a walloping, I snuck out the door, and bought their 12“ w/ CD online from InSound (THE MUSLIMS by The Muslims - $15). Fans can download a free track at After some dinner and a little sobering up, we went to see some friends play called Plushgun, an discovered band, recently signed to Tommy Boy, and kitted out for live shows. The OS Arthouse is the strangest venue in New York City. What looks like a pool-table dive bar in the financial district has a full room in the back for rock shows. Not the best sound, but this was an official event. Plushgun are very pop dance, with songs like “How We Roll” etc. I definitely sort of drifted off a little. The guys I was with didn’t really understand it either. Oh well. The first band I didn’t buy a CD from probably won’t need the help. I can already see an army of Focus-driving teenagers jerking violently behind the wheel, one hand raised as they screech off to high school.

3:00 Princeton @ Crash Mansion ( Party)
4:30 Passion Pit (The Levi's® FADER FORT)
5:30 All The Saints @ Crash Mansion ( Party)
6:20 Motel Motel @ Crash Mansion ( Party)
7:00 Sarah Fullen @ Rockwood Music Hall (CMJ event)
8:00 A Brief Smile @ Crash Mansion ( Party)

Passion Pit at CMJ 2008
Passion Pit - Photo: Joe Pepin

On Thursday I finally saw Princeton do an early show at an empty Crash Mansion. I personally feel sort of privileged when the music is so great but the day shows are still relatively empty. Princeton are amazing songwriters AND performers with a cool, distinct sound. Their disc, called Bloomsbury, features 4 songs about the Woolfs, even though the band is from L.A. Oh well, The Thrills are still the best band to write solely about California since the Beach Boys, and they’re from Ireland! I had already listened to the disc, and I plan on buying several more copies to give away as XMAS presents. A quick handshake with the manager and I was off to the sea of humans at the Fader fort again. I managed to get one eye between a shoulder and a hipster hat to get a glimpse of Passion Pit, who was my Fader contact’s pick of the week. Though I was very impressed, standing in safety at the rear, I don’t know that it was the best show at Fader. Their disc though, which I bought online from Frenchkiss Records, is going to tickle several fancies (CHUNK OF CHANGE by Passion Pit - $9). At this point I was relatively aimless, so I just went back to Crash Mansion to support the organizers, whom I know and whose taste I respect. It was quite with no set up going on. All the Saints showed up 30 minutes late for their set, but before you grumble, know that they set up thinking they only had time for one song. Luckily for everyone, some time was scraped together, and the band even did a one-song encore. Loud and powerful, serious psychedelic rock from a three piece was just what I needed to get me up again. I grabbed a copy of their disc, while I listened to a little bit of Motel Motel’s opening two songs (FIRE ON CORRIDOR X by All The Saints - $10). Perhaps my ears were sore, but I had to go outside for a cigarette break in the middle of their set, and I never came back. Outside I met a friend, who promptly decided to whisk me away to Rockwood Music Hall to catch “this really hot girl who sings like an angel.” A rule I have always obeyed at festivals is to say, “YES” to as much as you can. If someone is enthusiastic about a band and he/she pays the cab fare, I don’t see why not. A young, sultry soul-singer, Fullen delivers an impressive vocal performance. Muted and heart-felt, she suited the space perfectly. Wine and cocktail seating was a nice change of pace for half an hour. Sarah Fullen and the Stanleys don’t have a physical recording that I saw (I don’t buy digital music), but I am sure they will soon. Rockwood is the sort of place where major labels still look for talent to sell to the elusive adult music-buyers of the world. It was packed, so when the set was over, I raced out for some air and back to Crash Mansion to catch the last band of the night, A Brief Smile. A Brief Smile came recommended by Princeton’s manager, and I am having a hard time categorizing them. It is definitely indie-rock, but I found myself focusing on, and enjoying all the voices in the music. Not the singing alone, but the shifts and instrumental accents everywhere. As confirmed by their CD, A Brief Smile can boast a very solid song-craft (NOW WE ALL HAVE HORNS by A Brief Smile - $10). Lead singer DL even gave me a second CD for free (R.E.S.T. by A Brief Smile). What a nice bloke!

*Note – I went and had a good listen to Motel Motel on MySpace after CMJ had finished, and I loved it. They are a diverse instrumentation with a Wilco soul, and they are unsigned! (NEW DENVER by Motel Motel - $15)

3:00 Blonde Acid Cult @ (The Levi's® FADER FORT)
4:00 Tally Hall @ Rehab (This Side Up Sounds, iRock iRoll, Filter Magazine)
5:00 The Broken West @ Arlene’s Grocery (Team Clermont Party)
7:00 Brent Amaker And The Rodeo @ National Underground (CMJ Event)
8:00 – Caitlin Moe @ Rockwood Music Hall (CMJ Event)
10:00 – The Giraffes @ Le Poisson Rouge (CMJ Event)

According the drummer of The Cold Cold Hearts, Blonde Acid Cult was the best band of the festival. That’s not a difficult opinion to agree with. If you like BRMC, then Blonde Acid Cult will excite you to the point of evacuation. I like BRMC very much, so I remained comfortable happy during BAC’s set, while BRMC addicts squirmed and screamed at a fever pitch. I grabbed a 12” and headed out of the Fader Fort while still at a respectable capacity (SHAKE IT LOOSE / KICK THE FUNK by Blonde Acid Cult - $10). Tally Hall was next at the This Side Up party, and they put on a wild, funny, and ultimately impressive live performance. If you don’t know them, think Beatles meets Tenacious D, locked in a basement with only Ben Folds and Young MC records to listen to. The result is better than the sum of its parts though, I assure you. A great comedic band, where the main joke is that it is not a joke! Had to order their CD online, as the Team Clermont party was dangerous near its conclusion (MARVIN’S MARVELOUS MECHANICAL MUSEUM by Tally Hall - $5). We made it to the party in time to see the headliner, The Broken West. TBW are a solid rock four piece, but they fall victim in my opinion to the Keyboard plague that is hitting a lot of bands now. I feel like since a lot of bands are legitimately using keys to push the genre boundaries, a lot of more traditional bands feel compelled to throw in some keys to avoid appearing backward. The result is that a lot of accompanying parts that used to belong to the lead guitarist or backing singer are now just transferred to the keys, and it makes the music a little droning. That being said, I enjoyed the show, despite the less than stellar-keys performance. From there we went outside to regroup when we saw 5 sharp dressed cowboys, all in black head into the National Underground with guitars and mic stands. Either the most disciplined roadie core on earth or a band worth investigating. The result was a Johnny Cash inspired group called Brent Amaker And The Rodeo, who until recently used to show up to gigs on 5 boss hogs. The music is flat, but I almost enjoyed it never the less, with Brent dawning a cape and leaving the stage at the end of last song, while the band rocked on. In the midst of a festival, with progressive rock, psychedelic bands etc. it’s hard to get excited about 6 songs in the same key at the same tempo, with the same beat. If I were at the VFW in Soda, TX, I probably would have felt differently. From there the evening only got worse. A second but watered down soul singer named Caitlin Moe at the Rockwood Music Hall, and a venue called Le Poisson Rouge in the West Village that made me feel like I had entered a parallel universe, which I quickly escaped, before The Giraffes even came on stage. The venue has a great sound system apparently, but it was just too huge for my mood. I will see The Giraffes another time.

*Note – Blond Acid Cult’s upcoming single, KICK THE FUNK is rockin! Preview it on their MySpace page.

3:00 – Jukebox the Ghost @ The Delancey
3:40 – Seth Kallen @ The Delancey
4:30 – DL Tashjian @ The Delancey

Seth Kallen - Photo: Alyssa Lesser

Seth Kallen at CMJ 2008By Saturday morning, I was debating whether to go out at all. Friday night’s music ended early, but the rest of the night seemed endless. Jukebox the Ghost and Seth Kallen were playing back to back at 3:00, so I figured I could see a small set or two and then retire. Jukebox is a tight indie-pop 3-piece from D.C. They are one of the bands I mentioned earlier who use the piano in such a way as to guilt and shame other bands to add keys, whether they need it or not, two singers, guitar, keys, drums and one energetic live show. I already own their album, so I trotted upstairs after to see Seth Kallen play an intimate set on the roof-jungle, accompanied by his band, with Ben Thornewill sitting in on keys. Ben was perched on a plant, playing a tiny keyboard, and he looked exactly like Schroeder from Peanuts. Seth Kallen has a strong voice with an almost country-folk twist to it. Almost. His rock songs are melodic and catchy, and I always enjoy his live show, even if he does cover early Oasis (which makes me feel ancient). I own his old CD, but I believe he has a new EP coming out soon. Although I am starting to feel every MySpace page claims that. Following Seth, I had a couple of free drink tickets and I recognized DL as the lead singer of A Brief Smile, so I stayed to watch him play a solo set. I liked the songs stripped down, even though he refused to play some of the ABS songs solo. At 5pm or so, I realized my CMJ was over. For those bloggers who can do 10 shows a day every day, my hats off.

7:00 Terre Roche and Sidiki Conde @ The Living Room (not CMJ)

Terre Roach and Sidiki Conde
Terre Roche (The Roches) is sharing the stage at the Living Room with her friend Sidiki Conde to sing a combination of African and Western songs, each with elements added from the other. Terre adds insightful translated English phrases and background vocals to Sidiki’s traditional African songs, and vice versa. The match produces an astounding performance, relaxed and uplifting. Sidiki himself is a fascinating guy. The audience instantly fell in love with him. Terre is such a great songwriter and lyricist; she really latches on to the pertinent and ironic with her lyrics, and blows you away with her solid, graceful guitar playing. Both have beautiful voices that meld together wonderfully, and I shouldn’t forget Pablo on Banjo, who must be periodically called to the stage, as he is clearly the most laid back man on the planet. A non-CMJ event, but as I was still in the same clothes as the previous day, I felt like it belongs in this recap. And if you live in New York City, you can see this show, which is running for the next 3 Sundays at 7:00pm at the Living Room.

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