Thursday, October 30, 2008

CMJ Review

For the WDUB website, I've started writing a regular column called "New Adventures in Hi-Fi." For the first column, I wrote about my experience at CMJ. Here it is:

CMJ 2008: The Full Experience

After toiling as an Assistant Music Director and watching my friends head off to the CMJ Music Marathon and Film Festival for three years, it was great to finally get my own opportunity to go. I was pretty pumped to go, so the two-hour drive to the Akron/Canton Airport and the subsequent flight to New York took forever. Once we were there though, we hit the ground running, not stopping until we left on Sunday.

For the first night, we picked the Bowery Ballroom as our first venue. We got here right as opener Corey Chisel and the Wandering Souls were finishing up. It was, needless to say, a bland beginning. Chisel has a great voice, but he wastes it on the same generic singer/songwriter stuff you can hear on any adult contemporary station. Following him was Shugo Tokumaru, a Japanese guitarist who dazzled us with some of the fastest hands I’ve ever seen. His set combined traditional American folk with Japanese avant-garde sounds, leading to a pretty enjoyable set. Following him was Audrye Sessions, a large, booming rock band that took cues from Muse and “Bends” era Radiohead. When the band let go and rocked out, they were fantastic, but their songs seemed to follow a similar pattern, and I had a hard time getting in to it as the set went on.

After these three bands came Love as Laughter, my first new discovery of CMJ. Lead singer Sam Jayne is an energetic and inventive singer who channels the best of blues-rock into an indie-influenced sound. While I thoroughly enjoyed the set, a lot of the crowd seemed disinterested, a fact not lost Jayne, who responded with halfhearted banter in between fantastic rock songs. Love as Laughter was followed by Wild Sweet Orange, an energetic and fun band that didn’t really offer anything that got me too terribly excited, but still led to plenty of toe-tapping and head bobbing.

All of these bands were the lead up to the headliner of the night, Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s. As a fellow Indianapolis native, I’ve followed these guys since their humble beginnings, so seeing them playing to a packed house in New York City was awesome. They delivered, playing a fantastic set that had the entire crowd transfixed and wanting more. I’m glad to see some Indy kids making it on the big stage in such a great way.

On Thursday, we attended panels during the day, but were treated to a lunchtime set by mullet-sporting Memphis Pencils, a seemingly stock indie group that wasn’t too inspiring. That night, we headed over to Webster Hall to check out a couple acts, first of which was my second great new find of CMJ, Lymbyc Systym. A two-piece instumental group that is reminiscent of Explosions in the Sky, the guys rocked out and definitely impressed me enough to buy their album after the set. They were followed by the first really bad group we saw the whole trip, Who Made Who. They were dance rock that basically ripped off The Rapture and were obviously trying too hard to be the next weird, super energetic stage act. Though the rest of the crowd loved it, I was not a fan. After them were Fujiya and Miyagi, a terrific group. While their music isn’t the sort of thing you’d hear at a dance club, the steady beats put you in a trance and you can’t help but nod your head in beat with the music.

Friday was a major night for us. We wanted to go to the Land of Talk/Broken Social Scene show at the Massonic Lodge out in Brooklyn, but they were only letting 45 CMJ badges in, so we got there super early, and it paid off big time. We were right up front for both incredible sets. Land of Talk kicked off and were truly impressive. The band is very cohesive together and lead singer Elizabeth Powell strums her guitar and sings with such gusto that even people that had never heard of them were getting really into the music. They ripped through songs from their EP “Applause Cheer Boo Hiss” and their terrific new album “Some Are Lakes,” providing one of the more satisfying shows of the trip.

After them came Broken Social Scene, one of the best live acts out there. Having already seen BSS three previous times, I knew what to expect, but I was nonetheless blown away again. Kevin Drew, Brendan Canning and Company ripped through tracks not only from their solo albums, but also a substantial amount of older songs and songs by some of the collective’s members’ bands, including Apostle of Hustle, Do Make Say Think, and Hawaii. Elizabeth Powell was on hand again to fill in the female vocals of tracks like “7/4 (Shoreline)” and “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl.” By the end of the night, everyone was dancing like crazy and begging for more. It sounds like BSS is going to take a bit of a break, but I can’t wait to see more.

On Saturday, we headed out to an AAM showcase at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Though we missed the band I was most excited to see, Annuals, we got to catch a few awesome groups. First up was Crystal Antlers, a heavy rock group that would have been a lot better had their lead singer not been screaming through every song. They were followed by the Ruby Suns, a New Zealand duo that use all sorts of pedals, loops, and live instrumentation to a create a very mellow, danceable sound. I had heard them before, but enjoyed their live show a lot more than I expected. All of these were followed by A Place to Bury Strangers, who put on the loudest show I’ve ever seen. At one point, the lead singer took his vocal mic and placed it next to his guitar amp, making it even louder. At another point, he was thrashing his guitar around, ripping off its strings after one of them broke. A fantastic set, but I’m not sure if my ears will ever recover.

This led us to our final showcase of the trip at the Bowery Ballroom on Saturday night. Kicking things off were All The Saints, a three-piece that sounded like if My Bloody Valentine had been Hendrix fans. After them was Marnie Stern, with one of the better sets of the trip. An incredible guitarist, Stern blasted through a series of songs, all with a huge smile on her face. Not only was the music good, but she seemed to be having so much fun that it wore off on the crowd. The last act we saw was Vivian Girls, my favorite discovery of my CMJ experience. Three girls from Brooklyn, Vivian Girls combine classic punk and 60’s girl group sounds, creating what a collaboration between The Ramones and They Crystals. Their first, self-titled album is only 20 minutes long, so the set was pretty quick, but the songs were all so unbelievable catchy and enjoyable it seemed like a lot longer.

Overall, CMJ was pretty great. There weren’t any really terrible bands that we saw. A few that weren’t great, but nothing that really made my ears bleed. My CMJ recommendations:

- Love as Laugter
- Margot & the Nuclear So and Sos
- Lymbyc Systym
- Land of Talk
- Ruby Suns
- A Place to Bury Strangers
- Marnie Stern
- Vivian Girls

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