Rachel’s CMJ recap +++ pics from 2 Wednesday day parties
words by Rachel Kowal, photos by Amanda Hatfield
Casiokids @ Public Assembly
Well, another CMJ week has come and gone. How did you fare?
Though Northside summoned a number of my favorite artists to town, the CMJ line-up was rather thin by comparison, so I made it my goal to catch as many new acts as possible this year. With help from BV's tightly scheduled day parties, I managed to squeeze in 46 bands. While it's all still fresh in my mind (ie, before I spend the next week hibernating), here's a recap of my week, complete with my favorite finds...
I kicked things off with trance-inducing, one-man knob twittler Sun Glitters. Figuring out how to bring life to headphone-friendly, sample-heavy music in a live audience setting can be a challenge, but the few I saw this week (Million Young, Chad Valley and Luxembourg's Sun Glitters included) were decent.
If last year was the age of the one-man laptop act, 2011 was rife with lo-fi, synth/guitar-heavy (mostly) male groups cloaked in reverb. Each band had its strengths: Sunglasses (great energy on stage), Gauntlet Hair, Guards (perfectly summed up the sound of the moment), 1,2,3, Balkans (nice balance of in-your-face guitars and sunnily-swaggering vox), Tiny Victories. But after a while, I confess they all started to blend together--especially since a good chunk of these bands came early in the week for me.
What did stand out for me in this category was San Diego's garage-psych outfit Tropical Popsicle. Instead of falling flat, the deadpan vocal delivery of Tim Hines pulled me in and kept my attention, making me forget about my plans to leave midset. Another pleasant surprise for me was Dive, the side project of Beach Fossils guitarist Zachary Cole Smith.
But after a rather slow start to the week when schedule issues and cancellations made me abandon my original plans, things definitely picked up midweek. I spent Wednesday evening shuffling around in the rain to some seven venues. From the synth-driven pop music of Norway's Casiokids (whom I managed to sneak in on my lunch hour) to the decent public radio-friendly folk-pop of The Lighthouse and The Whaler and Lissy Trullie's alluringly husky vocals, the day was full of pleasant surprises--not the least of which was John Maus, easily one of the highlights of my week.
As I walked through the door at 285 Kent, I immediately felt as if I had gone back in time. Thick music pumped from the DIY graffiti-covered space, through clouds of cigarette smoke. On stage, Maus shook with intensity as he addressed the mass of dancing, sweaty revelers. Beneath the shambling chaos of the quick synth riffs and simple drum lines is an unhinged but triumphant quality that is intoxicating. I had heard whispered stories of Maus shows before, but I never really understood the fervor until I saw it for myself.
Thursday was also packed with a number of good finds. I somehow found myself in the 7th floor of a swanky hotel for an "acoustic" (as in not electric; not unplugged) Dum Dum Girls set (though only 2/4 band members were present). Other highlights included the seriously talented and take-your-breath-away-beautiful dreamy folk-pop of Gem Club (who just released their debut album on Hardly Art), and Brooklyn's own, Headless Horseman who make fun, glitchy, hook-laden music with inventive beats (Their song "Wavlngth" was seriously one of my favorites all week.)
Friday, my band-count escalated rapidly, thanks to the BV day showcase at Public Assembly, which essentially had two bands playing each hour. I knocked out a few of the hyped bands in this fashion, including Chelsea Wolfe and Gauntlet Hair. (I also stepped over to Cameo briefly to catch a few adrenaline-packed songs from the Brooklyn duo Hunters.) With her beautifully haunting (but not annoying operatic) vocals Chelsea Wolfe was certainly one of the more memorable acts of the week. Would she be getting as much buzz if she didn't dress like "a medival [sic] reinactment [sic] person from Medival [sic] Times" (to quote an anonymous BV commenter)? Hard to say, but I have to give the woman credit--I couldn't take my eyes off her, and she was one of the few artists I caught twice. But my surprise favorite of the day show was Young Magic. Hip-hop and dark electro-pop may be unlikely bedfellows, but they sure make for quite an interesting pair. These guys are a force.
Other highlights of the day included the eye-catching electro-pop duo Purity Ring (love the name) and one of my favorite SXSW finds from earlier this year, Sea of Bees. At Webster Hall, Purity Ring's bass was so powerful at times that I almost forgot to breathe. Though the band relies on a lot of samples to craft their sound, they are far more interesting to watch due to their onstage chemistry and mysterious gold-piped instrument. Though nothing alike, my other favorite artist of the evening was Sea of Bees. Singer/songwriter Julie Baeziger's genuinely sweet demeanor and earnest acoustic performance are always a pleasant change of pace from the more aloof, laptop-driven artists that seem to sprout with the speed and frequency of mushrooms.
The week concluded not with a bang (I was turned away at the door of Brooklyn Bowl for Unknown Mortal Orchestra, whom I had hoped to end on), but with more of a slow fade-out. Forced to change my schedule at the last minute, I caught a few acts nearby, including Delicate Steve (how those five people were working from the same set list was a mystery at times given the haphazard nature of their sound, but it was fun to watch them put it all together), Races (pleasant and charming), Bleached, and about four minutes of the Kopecky Family Band (fun!) before hopping on the L and calling it a week.
So how does this year's CMJ stack up? Most people I spoke with seemed unimpressed. No doubt, the growth of SXSW--especially over the past few years--seems to have sucked some of the life out of CMJ. (It's hard to compete with free tacos, 76-degree days, and the compact nature of downtown Austin.) But like a hipster chick desperately scouring the racks at Beacon's Closet, I like the challenge of the frenzied search. There's good stuff in there hiding among the dross. You just have to look a bit harder.
Pictures in this post are from day parties at Pianos (We Listen for You) and Public Assembly (Under the Radar) on Wednesday. More of them below...
Chad Valley @ Public Assembly
Casiokids @ Public Assembly
Nerves Junior @ Pianos
Parlovr @ Pianos
The Pass @ Pianos
Guards @ Pianos
Arms @ Pianos