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Dress-up is all well and good, but as Halloween gives way to a day of candy-induced tummy-aches, there’s just no more room for disingenuous duds. CMJ is a like strip-search, and, even if you’re dressed for success (the Knife, Tapes N’ Tapes), no amount of style will save you from a lack of substance. Of course, the best bands aren’t afraid to bare it all: after all, they can back it up with a badass body, or, at the very least, a sweet set of boxers.

BELLES OF THE BALL
Dr. Dog, Figurines, Girl Talk


HONORABLE MENTION
The Apes, Beach House, Cold War Kids Casey Dienel, Elvis Perkins, Professor Murder, Rah Brahs, The Two-Man Gentlemen Band, WZT Hearts


NICE TRY, GUY
The Baumer, Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles, CSS, The Knife, Hotel Lights, The Knife, Lexie Mountain, The Mall, Mobius Band, Over the Atlantic, The Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower, The Slits, The Threat, What Made Milwaukee Famous


BATHROOM BREAKS
Canada, Genghis Tron, Kid Gray, Made in Mexico, Peppermints, Robbers on High Street, Shellshag, Shelley Short, Tapes ‘N Tapes


Belles of the Ball

DR. DOG @ Bowery Ballroom
Unlikely Belles, Philadelphia’s four-man Dr. Dog start off an early-Bowie rehash, opening with an unpredictably structured 3/3 space waltz. As the set wears on though, the two vocalists switch it up, moving to a heavier Michael Bolton (hey, the man has a great voice), a denser Tom Petty, and finish by channeling the Arcade Fire with a sing-along anthem (coincidentally using the phrase “wake up”). The sheer variety of songwriting is astounding, but somehow it all sounds like the same band. From the horn section spazzout (brought by Elvis Perkins’ backing band) of a roadtrip anthem, to the band’s epic ballads and dark waltzes, Dr. Dog is smart power rock at its finest: huge, heartfelt, and unconcerned with image or gimmick. (MM)


FIGURINES @ Mercury Lounge
Whether you like them or not (and I’ll only concede the genius of two of the three), long-running indie institutions like Modest Mouse, Spoon, and Built to Spill conduct themselves with a certain, inimitable poise. Confidence and cockiness aren’t the same thing, and the best rockers don’t need wham-bam to wow. From the second Figurines emerge, it’s clear they’re aiming for the upper class: after a striking solo rendition of “Race You,” singer Christian Hjelm continues with confident cool as his band powers through a set of off-kilter indie rockers. It’s not that he’s withdrawn, more that he’s focused: he bangs out an amazing performance like he’s already a lifer. With vocal allusions to Isaac Brock and the cool psychedelic slush of Tripping Daisy, the songs are perfected, pristine, exact in their gushing grit. These Danish dandies (as gosh-darn cute as they are) clearly champion sound over aesthetic, and, from the sound of it, they’re in it for a very, very long haul. (AP)


GIRL TALK @ Mercury Lounge
Gregg Gillis (aka Girl Talk) is living in an ‘80s teen romp. Setting up his computer, he’s a down-on-his luck loner, a nebbishy white-boy who likes to play with programs. When he takes the stage for real, it’s in plastic, orange-framed glasses and a turned-up collar—the nerd who’s discovered that the secret to cool is confidence. As he slams into his set—mashing the pulse of “My Humps” against songs by Neutral Milk Hotel, Biggie Smalls, and Ace of Base—a group of ladies begin to gather. He acknowledges them, but remains detached in his Tom Cruise cool. They dance around the DJ, touching him lightly as he gyrates zombie-style. Before long the jocks have also stormed the stage, stripping their Ts. Now, it’s a sea of skin, unrehearsed arms and legs bouncing around Gillis as he drops the beat. As the dancing gets down and dirty, it seems our swan prince is finally poised get the girl. But, instead, the girls get him, stripping the DJ down to his boxers. Like any teen hero, Gillis takes it in stride. After all, his is a Risky Business. (AP)


Honorable Mention

THE APES @ Knitting Factory Main Space
On No Need for Alarm, Del tha Funkee Homosapien makes love to Janis Joplin. Cream takes advantage of Jefferson Airplane. Each couple produces a love child. Each love child meets another, falls in love, then makes another baby to the soundtrack of anything Kill Rock Stars. Fuck all the old mods and new punks with their prissy make-up and discordant plans: baby, I’m an Ape Man. The only trouble is I don’t know whether to fuck or drive. Should I stay or should I go? (DN)


BEACH HOUSE @ Cake Shop
Sound checking reveals that Beach House—that’s Baltimore natives Alexander Scally and Victoria Legrand—intend to use lots and lots of reverb to recreate the echoing serenity of their self-titled debut. Indeed, all the elements are muffled, indistinct, and mysterious, from Legrand’s airy soprano and the fuzz-heavy organ tones to Scally’s eerie guitar slides. Black-box percussion moves them forward, but the songs—“Apple Orchard”, “Lovelier Girl”, “Tokyo Witch”, and the wonderful “House on the Hill”—seem to exist outside time, space, and commercial consideration. The perfect antidote for CMJ fatigue.  (JK)


COLD WAR KIDS @ Bowery Ballroom
Never has a mellow, muted guitar sounded so good. After hearing so much mediocre, but gratuitously loud, guitar yammering, the less-is-more approach feels like home. Cold War Kids bring some funk, some soul to the stage, and their relatively sparse arrangements make way for Nathan Willett’s vocals, which deftly steal the show. (Indeed, his falsetto rivals Justin Timberlake’s.) Invigorating and restrained, Cold War Kids know how to perform. Now they just need to learn how to end their songs. (MM)


CASEY DIENEL @ Living Room
Dienel’s Wind-Up Canary was an early 2006 favorite, with its old-fashioned instruments and rickety cabaret-style singing. Here, Dienel’s classical training shows in the skill with which she accompanies herself on upright piano, but it’s the voice—fragile and girlish but tinged with jazzy self-knowledge—that arrests you. “Everything is better in Manhattan,” she trills in her soft, breathy tones, and for the moment, she’s right. (JK)


ELVIS PERKINS @ Bowery Ballroom
That whole Conor Oberst as the new Bob Dylan thing was preemptive—have you heard Elvis Perkins? Way more accurate. Perkins played a set of stunning folk ballads and exuberant marches backed by upright bass, harmonium, trombone, and a marching band-style bass drum. Every song had a timeworn quality and, finally, some lyrics worth hearing. I’m always at a crossroads with the folk/Americana throwback thing: Perkins’ mimetic reprisal of the past with songs about soldiers and sweeper boys seemed alarmingly antiquated, if worn-in and familiar. But, if timelessness was what he wanted, he got it. (MM)


PROFESSOR MURDER @ Piano’s
If there’s one thing the world doesn’t need, it’s another set of cowbell-carrying dance-punks barking orders on the dance floor. But, when Professor Murder’s Michael Bell-Smith steps to the mic—with a whistle, black horn-rims, and an army-green polo—you’d be a fool not to drop and give him 20. Like an angry drill sergeant, he positively assaults the crowd, sticking hard with solid, staccato screams as heavy percussion smacks against wild buzz-saw guitar and dirty synth. I wouldn’t want to be in this guy’s platoon (he’s kind of terrifying), but it sure is fun watching him yell at other people. (AP)


RAH BRAHS @ Knitting Factory Main Space
Now, here’s an idea: how about connecting MBV with bagpipe music? Ok, so that’s just the moment I walked in, but the rest of the mess is just as delicious: turbo-charged loops filled with bass jiggery and a singer who belts like Corin from Sleater-Kinney. Throw in a dash of Andrew WK delirium and the smell is perfectly pungent. Oh, yes, it’s the funk. (DN)


THE TWO-MAN GENTLEMEN BAND @ Knitting Factory Old Office
Porkpies? Banjo? A song referencing the Titanic (the ship, not the flick)? Boyo, you are so far from home. The old-timey young’ns in the Two Man Gentlemen Band recognize this as they point out, “This is our last song before a louder band comes on.” As much as I’d love to point them in the direction of Park Slope, Brooklyn (or any gentrified venue yonder), these two men are in fact teaching every other band on the bill a valuable lesson: noise is nice, but kazoos bag chicks. Just an FYI. (DN)


WZT HEARTS @ Cake Shop
Room-shattering synthetic notes announce that Baltimore’s WZT Hearts (pronounced “Wet Hearts”) have manned their decks, two of them crouched over the green glow of laptops, one armed with an e-bowed guitar, and the final, critical member, poised with padded mallet sticks over a conventional drum set. WZT Hearts build giant watery, vibrating walls of sound—a bit like Growing, but less organic—which drummer Shaun Flynn sculpts and shapes through abstract, free-jazz drumming. Stunning. (JK)


Nice Try, Guy

THE BAUMER @ Fat Baby
Despite shamelessly simple song titles like “How the West Was Won” and “Lucky Strike,” the Baumer’s radio-ready indie emoting is actually pretty engaging. They drop straightforward riffs over preening (though pleasantly on-pitch) falsetto. And, the band’s members have all the right moves: they dress in hipster black; the singer caresses the mic with his mouth, raising his hands lightly like wind is blowing from below; and the guitarist shakes his dirty blonde hair wistfully as he drops into well-rehearsed rockstar poses. They’ve got the chops to be the 1 out of 1000 bands of this type that make it big. The only problem is, so do 999 others. (AP)


SARAH BORGES AND THE BROKEN SINGLES @ 169 Bar
What started out looking like a female-fronted rockabilly band quickly turned into another mediocre white girl singing the blues. Borges has a decent ear for melody, but her voice is ho-hum, and her vocal style can’t carry straight blues as well as more swingin’ stuff. Play to your strengths. If you went full rockabilly, you’d be a force. (MM)


CSS @ Pianos
The back room is packed, a pounding beat emerging from the narrow hallway that leads to the stage. “CSS?” I query, hearing a fragment of “The Bitch Says Yeah.” Foul-mouthed and ebullient, the band trades on the shock value of cute-girl voices saying “bitch” and “fuck.” “Off the Hook” is a distant street party; “Let’s Make Love (and Listen to Death From Above)” an insouciant come-on. Still, album cuts, played album style are all they’ve got at the moment. When you’re tired of being sexy, what’s left? (JK)


Hotel Lights @ Tonic
While former Ben Folds Five drummer Darren Jessee’s Hotels Lights manage an impressively accurate early-era Wilco imitation, they don’t seem to realize that they’re aping a bygone age. Sorry guys, but even the made men have moved on, and the books were long ago closed to new wise guys. And, while Jessee’s Tweedy-esque drawl mostly falls on the fair side of ‘90s alt-Americana, it sometimes waffles into unseedy alterna, reminding us that the line between Being There and the Gin Blossoms is thinner than you think. (AP)


THE KNIFE @ Webster Hall
Maybe I’m losing touch, but the hype and allure of this Swedish electro-pop duo is entirely lost on me. Judging by the crowd response, The Knife’s Wednesday night performance is set to be lauded as one of the top shows of CMJ, but I just don’t see it. Smothered in a myriad of lights and effects is a base of passable beats and mediocre melodies complimented by a vocal line reminiscent of the Siamese cats from Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp.” But hey, I guess that movie was pretty popular, right? Still, I’m content to pass on this trendy wave and ride the next one in. (SS)


LEXIE MOUNTAIN @ Cake Shop
Lexie Mountain (aka Alexandra Macchi) stands behind a series of tape decks, manipulating her vocals and pre-recorded samples into a shambolic howl of layered, disembodied sound. Playing a single, long continuous cut, she fiddles with her low-tech equipment, replacing one battered tape with another as the nightmarish sound builds. “Hello beast,” she murmurs at one point, acknowledging the rampaging art-noise creature she’s built and taming it, pied-piper style, with two recorders, tootled simultaneously. (JK)


THE MALL @ Knitting Factory Tap Bar
Oh, the legacy of At the Drive In and Brainiac. Isn’t it funny how so many of their followers fail to pick up on the subtleties? The Mall constructs a pile of sphincter-tight beats, vomiting guitars, and keyboard squeals—all played crisply and efficiently, mind you—yet remain vague and directionless. Give me three songs or give me. . . oh, you’re done. (DN)


MOBIUS BAND @ Mercury Lounge
There’s a reason the Postal Service is a side project and not a real band: keyboard-driven blip rock is a fun place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. Mobius Band crumble under the weight of their toys (pedals, processors, and knobs galore): their middling beats are too heavy for the Casio set, and far too cheesy for denizens of truly bitchin’ beats. If I were them, I’d bag both and start a Death Cab cover band. (AP)


OVER THE ATLANTIC @ Cake Shop
Kiwis Nik Brinkman and Bevan Smith are much harder-edged live than on their frothy jangle-pop recordings, wedding Teutonic beats to sunny melodic reveries. Brinkman sways in a corkscrew motion over his guitar, coaxing torrents of feedback while Smith plucks thudding bass lines from his instrument. Heads down, locked in their shared groove, they hardly seem to notice the audience at all. (JK)


THE PLOT TO BLOW UP THE EIFFEL TOWER @ Knitting Factory Main Space
Spastic Orgy. Jagger masturbation and a 13-point plan to jack Mick’s style. Boy Bonding. Teenage nads, hmmm, droooop! Soft-serve snark. Tight pants. Chords contort, James White blow. Forced responses—New York, you’re so quiet tonight. Dedications, goodbyes, and one last stage(d) dance. (DN)


THE SLITS @ Knitting Factory Main Space
Close your eyes for a moment. Empty your mind of all the records you’ve listened to, pictures you’ve mooned over, and all the interviews you’ve read. Erase everything you know and feel about them, and just listen. Then you’ll understand how I can walk out on infamous and undeniably influential Reggae post-punkers the Slits. They open with a trademark reworking of Massive Attack’s “Man Next Door.” They run though their hits (“FM”. “Shoplifting”, and “Typical Girls”; to Ari Up’s credit she concedes only two songs into the set, “it’s Wednesday and it’s after midnight; [the audience] has waited long enough”) without batting an eye. Yet, as a reunion act, the Slits sound less like post-punk pioneers and more like a tribute band covering themselves. Better luck tomorrow? (DN)


THE THREAT @ Bowery Poetry Club
For the first half of their set, the southern hip-hop collective spit circles around DJ Esquire in a freestyle cypher that oozed style and intelligence. This easily would have been one of the top small-act hip-hop perfortracks from their new self-titled LP. The standard cuts were littered with clichés (e.g. “Make money money make money money money!”) performed weakly, and did nothing to support the trio’s obvious talent. Ouch. (SS)


WHAT MADE MILWAUKEE FAMOUS @ Bowery
This is a band of four fine young men from Austin who make suhweet, succulent indie-pop/rock with a heart of, yes, gold. Engaging frontman, tuneful songs, competent lyrics, emotive delivery. Everything in its right place, but. . . but, it’s another band of fine young men from Austin who make suhweet, succulent indie-pop/rock with a heart of, yes, gold. (MM)


 


Bathroom Breaks

CANADA @ Mercury Lounge
Proof that working a crowd and working a groove are not mutually inclusive endeavors, Canada ape the inherent charisma of actual Canadian collectives like Broken Social Scene but take little of the compositional prowess. While the inclusion of two cellos in their repertoire is admirable, things go south when the strings are drowned out by painfully off-pitch vocals, half-baked chamber-pop melodies, and uninspired attempts at indie-rock anthemry. Why have seven pieces when you can’t write interesting parts for four? (AP)


GENGHIS TRON @ Knitting Factory Main Stage
Mild-mannered men from Philadelphia. Guitar. Bass. Programmed drums. And then… white noise… zzzzzz..  snort, huh? Now, I only see one man. He’s still screaming. And a machine. White noise… zzzzz.. When the hell are the Slits going on? (DN)


KID GRAY @ Canal Room
Kid Gray is what you’d get if you were to create a child from the genetic brew of Muse and Limp Bizkit with a dash of Eminem. Well, maybe if that child also had a schizophrenic meltdown. Between crotch grabs and doubled-over head bangs, this guy presented a mish-mash of falsetto coos, nü-metal screams, and spurts of half-cocked raps that left all but a few front-row revelers looking properly perplexed. You can’t say Kid Gray doesn’t have energy, though: he bobbed and flailed around the stage for nearly an hour to pre-taped beats cued up by the house DJ. If you closed your eyes for a moment, you could easily imagine that you were witnessing one of the awkward mash-ups from last year’s AmsterJam. (SS)


MADE IN MEXICO @ Knitting Factory Tap Bar
Made in Mexico have the general idea of what the package should look like, but turn up a few eggs short of a dozen. I bet they own a couple Jesus Lizard CDs and have a passing interest in Lydia Lunch. (Wow, those were the days, eh?) Surprisingly, they aren’t growing on me: meandering and asynchronous riffage becomes audio dry heaves—the musical equivalent of the dwarf talking backwards in Twin Peaks. Time to hit the bathroom stall and crack open a flask. (DN)


PEPPERMINTS @ Cake Shop
Either a train wreck or willfully weird performance art, Paw Tracks’ Peppermints is comprised of one pixie-haired punk chick on flying wedge guitar and two seemingly superfluous back-up players. These two stand ironically to one side, clapping hands and shaking tambourines as the guitarist slashes through her small repertoire of chords. Later, the cute librarian tambourine-girl takes up a guitar. All the sudden it’s a band,
rather than a skit, but, then, the skit was actually better. (JK)


ROBBERS ON HIGH STREET @ Bowery Ballroom
I wish generic indie-rock bands like this would pay attention to Spoon: you don’t need shitty guitar noodlings to make your mark. And, more importantly,  clunky hooks don’t hook. Use your instruments right—that is, do something with them. Forget whatever’s on High street; these boys need to steal a lighter touch and a few good ideas. (MM)


SHELLSHAG @ Knitting Factory Tap Bar
Ever wonder what sex with Tommy Lee would be like if he were 20 years younger, into acid, and fronting the White Stripes? Guess what: there’d be plenty of the standard, wild wam-bam, but it would still be really, really bad. (DN)


SHELLEY SHORT @ Living Room
Oregon’s Hush Records sponsors a sedate showcase, with patrons seated, sipping cocktails as a series of singer-songwriters come and go. When it’s her turn, sweet-voiced Shelley Short sings child-like songs about love, loss, hell’s bells and ponies. Her “Vie en Rose” includes nicely observed lyrics like “By the time I go to pieces/ You’ll be gone/ When the hands detach the leashes/ Move along,” but the show falls flat. Childlike whimsy is one thing, but this is just plain kiddy stuff. (JK)


TAPES ‘N TAPES @ Bowery Ballroom
First off, Josh Grier’s voice is weirdly throaty live. The bounciness of their best song, “Insistor”, got lost in the gruffness, and when he went for lower-end vocals it just didn’t play to his strengths. Second, the whole band seemed restrained and aloof, which in part had to do with the level of engagement the previous bands exhibited in comparison. Reading between the lines, that means, essentially, there was no reason for Tapes ‘N Tapes to headline this showcase of bands better than them. To their credit, the band did seem ill at ease with the level of success they’ve earned so quickly, and, concurrently, aware that they don’t necessarily deserve it. (MM)


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