CMJ Music Marathon 2008: From Top Draw to Taco Bell

[4 November 2008]

By Thomas Hauner, Steve Stirling, John Bohannon, and Vijith Assar

The Best

As the economy tanks, what better way to unload the remainder of your non-existent 401K than in one of the world’s most expensive cities, watching some of the music industry’s best and brightest hopes. Whether they were looking for a quick blast of blog action or a record deal, over 1,000 bands poured into New York City looking for that elusive ounce of praise that could elevate them from a gaggle of fans to the Gossip Girl soundtrack. With illegal downloading continually eroding record sales, live shows are becoming more and more significant, making showcase-style festivals such as CMJ even more important for bands looking for that big break. These days, not only do you need a good sound on record, you often need an even greater live sound—an aesthetic aura that will drag people out to your shows.

Yet, for every great artist PopMatters witnessed, there were others that were equally outstanding at the other end of the spectrum. Not only did our writers have to face some musical misfires, they also had to deal with lengthy logistical plans and venues that were often packed to capacity before the first curtain call, meaning that, on occasion, they had to concede defeat and move onto something else. Sometimes this brought them to an unexpected delight. At other times, this unexpected re-routing led them to hunker down in a Taco Bell. With panels and parties also on the agenda it’s not too difficult to understand how—after five days of taxicabs and taxing lines—our writers collapsed as easily as the economy. Below PopMatters charts the best and worst of CMJ 2008. (Kevin Pearson)

The Best

Theresa Andersson
I went back and forth between Andersson and the Mai Shi for my top slot of CMJ. Both poured passion into their short-but-sweet shows, absolutely captivating every soul in the room. A week later, though, Andersson’s soulful croon is still fresh in my mind, the ingenuity of her set still crystal clear. I not only became a fan of her New Orleans by way of Sweden persona, I became an admirer of her artistry. (Steve Stirling)


The Carps
Only because post-punk noise rock is having a comeback—musically and personally—do I include the Carps here. From Toronto, their unique but bare bass and drums set up is simply one component of their hair-raising sound and emotion: Distortion-drenched bass playing with aggressive drumming all absolved by soulful singing. Their studio work naturally allows for more inputs, but the raw power of their tag-team performances could solve our current energy crisis. (Thomas Hauner)


Company of Thieves
There is something endearing about old-fashioned harmonies and dynamics when paired with compelling songwriting and light-hearted onstage flair. An immediate intimacy and affability lends itself to the music. This is precisely what Chicago’s Company of Thieves brings to the table and it’s predictable that they evolved from a common love of the Beatles. But unlike most pipe dreams, they’ve developed a cohesive sound around singer Genevieve Schatz’s transcendent voice with colorful melodies and intelligent lyrics. (Thomas Hauner)


Friendly Fires
Friendly Fires faced the complicated role of opener more than showcase-ee the night I caught them. So while everyone was counting down to Lykke Li’s set, they launched an unsuspecting all out assault on the crowd’s senses. Their distinct British mash-up of Prince funk minimalism, supranational percussion, dust-buster infused distortion, and relentless sex-machine gyrating and energy turned us all into revelers without a cause. The shear excitement of their music and presence was enough to forget the surrounding CMJ melee, immersing oneself instead in the sweaty musical madness. (Thomas Hauner)


This jagged Irish punk rock duo tore apart their beats and measures at every opportunity with choppy riffs that made them sound at least twice as large as their lineup. Guinness recommended, earplugs required. (Vijith Assar)


This Brooklyn goth-tart performed not at a proper concert, but surrounded by label executives at a daytime panel about how to ink a deal with the majors; think guitar-based Evanescence complaino-rock spiced up with the rhymes Mike Shinoda wouldn’t dare put on a Linkin Park record. It might be Hot Topic marketable and she’s plenty dark, but the scariest part is what will happen when they add the Auto-Tune. (Vijith Assar)


The Mae Shi
They were a blast—plain and simple. As a music lover, it’s tough not to get wrapped up in the Mae Shi’s endless flow of energy. I didn’t know any of the songs, but I could tell that 50 percent or so of the crowd were veterans of Mae Shi shows, and now I know why. They bring an infectious brand of spazzed-out punk to the table, and by the end of their show I was right in the thick of it belting out the anthemic choruses that are a trademark part of their appeal. (Steve Stirling)


Janelle Monae
It’s pretty unusual for a CMJ artist to arrive with a legion of street-teamers, each touting larger-than life cardboard cutouts of their employer and hawking his/her respective album. If one does spot such aggrandizement, it’s likely to be sheer spectacle. But P Diddy’s dauphin, if you will, Janelle Monae was all guts. Seamlessly blending old-school balladry and sentiment with a brash neo-pop persona over space-age funk, Monae was an entertainer and singer nonpareil. (Thomas Hauner)


Looking back on the CMJ Music Marathon, it’s clear that Monotonix walked away from the festival as one of the most buzzed about bands. With their high-energy, Iggy Pop style diversions into absurdity, these three rockers from Tel Aviv not only proved themselves worthy of a lengthy career, but an expandable one at that. Once they get a great producer behind the making of another record, they’ll be blowing off much larger roofs. (John Bohannon)


The Octopus Project
The Octopus Project’s brand of electro-rock isn’t groundbreaking by any means, but their live performance is something special. The quartet take something close to a dozen instruments and make them their own, feeling every note, writhing with passion through every driving drumbeat and turning what could be a ho-hum concept into a living, breathing organism. (Steve Stirling)


Parts and Labor
It’s always good to come out of a festival with a band that you connected with on a level beyond the surface. Parts and Labor had been a name in my consciousness for some time now, but had never grabbed me until CMJ, and I can’t tell you how satisfied I was that I walked through the depths of Brooklyn that night. Such a brilliant, composed, and tight sound; not only does it leave room for interpretation live, but it makes for one hell of a record as well. (John Bohannon)


Emotional vocals laden with lost love and lamented mistakes coupled with guitar riffs that won’t bowl you over with artistry, but will with sheer power. Sure, it’s simple, straightforward bar-band rock, but Pela performs it exceedingly well. They said it themselves, as New Yorkers they “have a reputation to uphold”. They did right by Gotham at CMJ. (Steve Stirling)


Sian Alice Group
Going into a Social Registry showcase, one should be prepared to get a heavy dose of psychedelia. I was expecting more from the likes of Psychic Ills and Growing (and its not as if they didn’t deliver), but was most surprised by the density of the Sian Alice Group live translation. Their recordings are so sparse and open it’s hard to imagine that their live show would stir with such a psychedelic nature, creating massive walls of sound. I am holding out for a live record. (John Bohannon)


They Might Be Giants
By no definition are they “new” or “up and coming”, but instead They Might Be Giants are pillars of alt-indie rock. Not aiming to snag blogging glory—or even a distribution deal—kept them firmly grounded in their unabashedly nerdy lyrics and quirky rock, instilling a respectful but also mutual awe between band and audience. It was the sort of communal, hedonistic, political, inspirational, and a genuinely intimate rock experience that lingers in listeners, bestowing an incredible sense of absolute musical absorption and satisfaction. They’re not at all youngsters but institutions sprinkled throughout CMJ, like George Clinton and TMBG, rejuvenate your music aura, giving one hope in discovering the next phenom. (Thomas Hauner)


After seeing Tobacco twice during CMJ, it’s further confirmed that he is an analog synth man’s wet dream. Although the live translation doesn’t sway too far from the recording, the songs carry themselves, while the video accompaniment—full of dancing old ladies and Dusty Rhodes WWF clips circa-1991—kept us all visually intrigued as well. (John Bohannon)


The loud rockers are underrepresented among the CMJ hipster-centric audience (an issue for a whole other discussion), but Tombs filled the room with a sound so harsh and primitive that it was hard to leave the room thinking straight. Frankly, after a week hanging around with people that I will never be as cool as, they delivered exactly what I and approximately 100 other people needed. (John Bohannon)


Yo Majesty!
Sound problems. A half-packed house. The last show on the last night of a five-day long music festival. None of it mattered. Yo Majesty! seemingly have the ability to take any room in any situation and make it their own. The hip-hop duo got every one out of their seats, forced the sound guy to turn up their tracks, and in doing so rocked 150 weary CMJers. (Steve Stirling)

The Worst

The Worst

Saying that a singer sounds as though he swallowed the microphone during a performance could be seen as something of an insult… in this case it’s actually kind of true. The singer bounced around with the mic hanging out of his mouth, creating a hazy harsh fuzz over the simple new wave melodies being cranked out by the rest of the band. This duo (supported by members of Bonne Aparte) were decent when they were on point, but those moments were scarce. (Steve Stirling)


Boo and Boo Too
Lose the echo-soaked voice and the A Place to Bury Stranger rip-off riffs and we might have ourselves a band. These guys weren’t terrible, but the singer obviously had no confidence in his voice and the guitar riffs were about as mundane as Johnny Foreigner’s haircuts. There is at least potential here, and I would love to see this young quartet act on it. They just have to start being themselves instead of the sum of their influences. (John Bohannon)


Chester French
Aren’t those the Harvard dudes who got signed by Pharrell? They are indeed. And it seems signing a major-label deal prematurely already swelled their heads. Not only was singer D.A. Wallach miserably off-key and his vocals muddled—a bad thing if your style is saccharine lounge pop—but he was also dictatorial from the beginning, demanding the meager crowd put their “fucking hands up!” in a fascist fist just like him. They kept screaming orders, everyone shifting awkwardly each time, matching their desperate attempts at creating some sort of live experience. (Thomas Hauner)


Die! Die! Die!
Sometimes playing as if you were in front of a packed house can elevate your performance. Not here. These generally furious rockers looked confused and dejected by a meager crowd, who acted similarly towards their scattershot set as Die! Die! Die! romped and rolled around the floor, trying to play off a vibe that didn’t exist. (Steve Stirling)


I’m throwing every band that performed this evening under the “Worst” banner since it seemed like none of them would let me in. Save for a single lackluster set from Portastatic at the top of the evening, I spent all night walking around lower Manhattan from one club to the next only to be told that it was sold out or find an impenetrable wait outside the venue or learn that my supposed all-access pass was no longer being accepted. The only saving grace was a trip to Taco Bell. (Vijith Assar)


Johnny Foreigner
After going back and listening to this English trio, it’s hard to take anything they did seriously. Maybe it’s the fact that they were ten years too late coming to America with a sound that was already worn out by the time it worked its way into the mainstream here, or maybe it’s the fact that the songs were just plain boring. Either way, I’ll steer clear of any future American appearances. (John Bohannon)


When roughly 95% of your sound is genuinely banal, it takes one hell of a live performance to make up for it and convince people you are in fact singular and worthwhile. But alas Longwave fell pathetically short. Aside from their striving frontman—who was unassuming enough to simply blend in—they were depressingly listless and completely void of expression. I get that you’re from Brooklyn and playing in NYC for CMJ is no pithy achievement, but surely performing means something, anything, to you! Best to step aside for the dozens of other Williamsburg bands who are willing to play with some alacrity. (Thomas Hauner)


I don’t even know where to get started with this. What a train wreck of a set and an even worse portrayal of an MC way out of his prime and his realm. Go back to the drawing board and get off the Wu train. (John Bohannon)


Hype is a terrible thing, and I heard it in spades for Women in the weeks leading up to CMJ. They had performed a ton of shows in a two-day period and unfortunately I saw the last one in this series. It sounded distant and uninspired and while I’m willing to believe they’re a better band than that, they weren’t on this particular evening. (Steve Stirling)

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