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CMJ Artist Showcases: Day 1, 14 September 2005

Anticipation ran high as eager beaver journalists ran alongside music fans and industry types as we all looked for day one's hottest shows. While the old Italian man playing electro-polka in the subway offered the evening's absolute musical highlight, there were some other great moments along the way.

PopMatters @ CMJ 2005
CMJ Artist Showcases: Day 1, 14 September 2005

by Andrew Phillips and Peter Joseph

[Day 1: Showcases | Panels] [Day 2: Showcases | Panels]
[Day 3: Showcases | Panels] [Day 4: Showcases]

Anticipation ran high as eager beaver journalists ran alongside music fans and industry types as we all looked for day one's hottest shows. While the old Italian man playing electro-polka in the subway offered the evening's absolute musical highlight, there were some other great moments along the way. Of course, there were also some bad times as well, but it's all in a day's (or in this case night's) work. Here's how things broke down:

Belles of the Ball:

Holy Fuck indeed! Sporting a full backup band (with the aforementioned naughty name) indie-rapper Beans delivered his hyper-literate old-school rhymes with stunning rapidity. Spurning the conventional turntables, his crew employed a device of their own creation, what seemed to be an old-school film-cutter filched from the high-school photo lab. Yanking rolls of film through the machine - which looked like a mini-typewriter - Beans' "developer" issued stunningly strange scratching sounds over the MC's already excitingly experimental beats. When the instruments dropped out and the beat went silent, Beans spit even more blazing rhymes, raising and lowering his voice with reckless abandon and altering his pace with unconscionable skill. It was enough to get the indie-girls booty dancing and that in itself is all the proof you need: Beans is an MC without match and this was his shining moment.

There are only a few musicians capable of giving innovative, unique performances that hearken to past styles but are clearly new, unrepeatable creations. Jeff Buckley had the talent. Aimee Mann does. And it's becoming clearer that Feist does too. Her voice is husky and light, hitting high notes in a scattered, almost casual way. Her guitar playing follows the same style; it's not showy but instead saves the best notes for the sake of the songs. She has the ability of the great jazz singers to reinterpret covers and make them sound like her own. CMJ offered a chance to not just see her in front of a packed room or appreciative fans, but also see her play with both a live backing band and also show off her skills as a solo performer, sometimes playing with just an acoustic guitar and sometimes looping backing tracks of her own voice to sing an ethereal chorus for her. Her sound is easily accessible, but not because of any generic banality, but instead out of sheer loveliness.

Honorable Mentions:

When you encourage an excitable puppy you're bound to get bitten, eventually. Or so you'd think. Given carte blanche to do whatever he pleases, reigning psycho folkie Devendra Banhart's seems only to have advanced a more subtle sound. Live, he's put part his sinister spirit to rest, opting out of his screaming psycho role, for the charge of benevolent folkmaster. In any case, the hair to face ratio of Banhart's show has increased 600 fold with the addition of the appropriately named Hairy Fairies. Playing songs from his new record, as well as more fully orchestrated versions of older songs, Banhart and band have noticeably rounded off the edges. The vocals remain distinct, but seem less jarring. With three back-up singers much of the sting is taken from his sound; the result is something more soothing and spiritual for sure, but lacking its previous oomph. It's a different direction, but Banhart does impress with strange, soft melodies and beautiful harmonic delivery. His band's cutting '70s guitar lines are more reminiscent of subsequent folk rockers than the original folkies themselves, and one can't help but hear a post-Woodstock (still pre-sucking), Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young vibe floating across the room.

A laptop set has never looked so much like a fistfight. Jason Forrest danced so hard behind his glitchy, indie-electro beats that one could sense an imaginary mosh pit closing in. Scathing, distorted beats played across periodic cries for the audience to dance along. While the CMJ crowd is a little too uptight to respond in kind, after Forrest's performance, most crowds would degenerate into energetic ass-shakin' almost immediately. His "Respect the Cock" finale offered enough wacked out techno-raunch to last a lifetime, but I'd still welcome another dose.

Levy proves that when you start wandering around CMJ aimlessly, all bets are off, and anyone - even bands without big showcases and industry buzz - can rise above the rest. While they may not have the prettiest mugs, these fledgling NYC space-rockers packed Arlene's Grocery so tight that people were spilling out the door (for all I know they actually do have pretty faces; I couldn't see that well around the bouncer at the door). There's no hype, no buzz around the band, but they've got the numbers behind them (a hundred or so at least) and an energy to match.

Poor Velvet Teen. Here they were playing the top of the bill for a show in the Knitting Factory. Then they discover that some malcontent has spilled a glass of beer on their equipment. And then they discover that that beer first traveled through the malcontent's digestive tract before ending up on the equipment. And yet despite the trouble and the mental distress, the shaken band pulled itself together to deliver a heroic set of their poppy, alt-rock tunes.

Though they don't reinvent the wheel, they do take it for a damn good spin. Their leading man is just another example of a classic rockstar equation: [angular x (cheekbones)] + thinness = rockstar rating. Though their music is firmly rooted in rock, they have Pulp's sense of the epic grandeur of disco, and know how to kick the dance beats into high gear at just the right moment. Every song has just the right mix of keyboards and guitars, and the drums never let the song lag for a split-second. There are a lot of bands out there vying for attention, and who knows what band will finally get it, but here's hoping that Kissing Tigers gets their day in the sun.

In the time when "Beowulf" was still in the top-40, every village had its own drinking hall. And within each was the bard, probably with long blond locks just like our singer-songwriter Ox. While plucking a few quiet chords on their lute for emphasis, just like our Ox does with his guitar, these bards told tales about the town's people, their history, and the world around them, In Ancient Greece, Homer told stories about Odysseus and the Cyclops. And in the modern day, Ox tells tales of Trans Ams and flower children. Thousands of years from now historians will look back at Ox's epics about strawberry wine and North Carolina so that they may understand what culture in the '00s was really like.

The Grates play like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs but without the insufferable New York attitude. Instead, they seem sweetly naïve, performing on the Knitting Factory mainstage with a look of disbelief at their own good fortune. Lead singer Grates Patience sings with the yelp and yawps of Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill, but it's astounding just how happy she seems while doing it. Her onstage antics are goofy and hardly self-conscious, with sweetly awkward hand motions and a sincere pogo to occupy her during the instrumental breaks. The Grates could be the next Gossip; hell, they could even be the Gossip before the Gossip was ready to start being the Gossip. And of course, as if they even needed it, I might mention that these kids have adorable Australian accents. Who needs the Pacific Northwest when you can have the Down Under?

Nice Try, Guys:

Towing the line of bursting mainstream acts like Bloc Party and the Killers, Pela delivers sweet Emo-garage hybrid tracks, with studied hooks and often engaging vocals. There's not a thing wrong with their live musical delivery -- in fact the songs are well practiced and expertly performed. What's jarring is their absolute adherence to form. The tie-clad guitarist rarely moves, but when he does it with absurd intent, causing his curly black locks to bob slowly. The singer remains equally distant and aloof for most of the set. These boys are the big Brooklyn buzz, but hasn't anyone told them that don't mean what it used to? Here's to hoping they have some fun in the months to come - they could do very well, for a while at least. These boys are expertly riding the last wave of Brooklyn buzz, and they're worth checking out, but you better hurry before the wave hits shore.

Armed with the regulation Powerbook-plus-sampler, Caural is a one-man beat-producing machine, lightly tapping blinking buttons while he mixes drum sounds and cuts up jazz, soul, and funk samples. The sound might be good enough to listen to on your headphones, but if you want to get the idea of the live show without paying the dough, just peek into your IT department.

Despite their lead singer's unfortunate taste in Hawaiian shirts (yes, there are do's and don't even in the subterranean layers of fashion) this New York band caws its way to something approaching a solid sound. Not nearly as loud as that god awful shirt (ok I'll let it go) their brand of energetic piano rock was ornamented with distinct, straining vocals that added energy to the music, even if the boys themselves remained pretty still. These burgeoning boys just need to fill out their bottom a bit -- there's something just a little thin in the live sound - and they'll be ready for the ball.

When three musicians on drums, bass, and guitar can make a song sound as if it's just a chord progression, we have a problem. O'Conner's songs are the Ramones idea of folk; and the Ramones had no idea what folk even was. The songs are laid back and pleasant, but there isn't any nuance to the individual elements. They all start and then just keep going at the same pace and volume until they're over. O'Conner seems as though her voice could embrace a wider palette, but for now she's still working in primary colors.

This is what happens in an age where you can get both '70s Allman Bros rock 'n' roll and '00s emo in just a flick of the FM dial. As the bass and drums thrash out a high-speed emo rhythm the guitars exchange heavy metal riffs in a bit of countryfried slickness. The matched male-female harmonies are the hooks that pull this band up out of mosh pit, and what proves the best result of emo going mainstream: now that enough people are trying to play it, there's some emo bands might actually have good singers.

This duo from Amsterdam brought along plenty of gadgets for their performance: laptop, pedals, a digital projector. Their style follows RATATAT, as they play guitar and bass along with an array of pre-programmed backing tracks. And just as with RATATAT live, you can't help but wondering why they bother to play anything all, since the guitar parts they choose to recreate live are unimpressive. Audiences like to see singers or at the very least lead guitarists. After all, is there such a thing as a Rhythm Guitarist Karaoke bar?

Clearly these guys fell victim to too many SNL live performances with Jimmy Page and Puff Daddy. In addition to the adept DJ B Sharp, the group also includes a guitarist prone to holding up his guitar and mugging for the crowd, even though he can't actually play a solo. The core of the band is a talented rapper and an Uncle Cracker-soundalike who is willing to rasp out a song called "Patriot". Most awkward moment of the show: listening to a song called "U.S. History" with a crowd who expected it to be ironic, and then getting to a Kid Rock-style rousing, absolutely sincere chorus of "God Bless America".

Have you ever wondered what "Murder was the Case" would sound like with an indie band behind it? It seems that rap and rock can only follow two formulas: "Walk this Way" or the Judgment Night soundtrack. This Minnesota-based group has plenty of keyboards and samplers to back up some steady guitar, bass and drum action. Their music would be inventive in another genre, and the musicians do know how to pull off the sort of stops and starts that only deejays can usually accomplish. Unfortunately, their rapper rarely pushes his flow past midtempo quarter-notes. He might sound like Snoop, but the new, golf-playing Snoop rather than the old gin-and-juice-guzzler.

Mascott keep things simple. The duo stick to just a few lightly tapped drums and an acoustic guitar yet somehow develop a complete song. The female singer/guitarist knows not to sweat the lyrics and just make sure the melody sounds good. Lyrics aren't quite so vital if you can hit high notes like she can. It's only when she puts down the guitar and gets behind the Rhodes-style keyboard that the pair begins to sound like the Fiery Furnaces, only without the essential keystone of indie cred.

Bathroom Breaks:

By far the worst act of the night. Though most of the press photos only show the two leggy frontwomen, they are backed up by the sort of aging musicians who hang around Guitar Center and buy useless rackmounted preamps. Naturally, when they brought those high quality items to a performance in the sub-basement of the Knitting Factory, the machine quite understandably committed hari kari. The inevitable technical difficulties weren't helped by an unabashed diva attitude. Wait until you've moved up the ranks, and the stairs, before copping the attitude, ladies.

These Yorkshire, England imports are masters of the rock finale, if not much more. It might be jolly rollicking fun chugging beer and scraping a guitar across an amp, but it doesn't make up for a disjointed set. Soon to tour the UK with the the Kaiser Chiefs and Stephen Malkamus, the Cribs still have some work to do if they wanna get in good with the Jicks. Their slightly askew indie rock sound is promising, slipping in some video game-like guitar lines and fairly impressive vocals but the parts just don't work together. It's surprising since the three members are all related. But then, who says brothers actually think alike?

Though their first riffs sounded like the were pilfered straight from the Dead Kennedys's "California Uber Alles", Santa Rosa band New Trust quickly set up camp in the overcrowded disco-punk campground. There are already too many bands pitching their tents there; the lake has gone scuzzy and the outhouse is starting to stink (just like this metaphor). New Trust's vocals give away the fact that they weren't nursed on Gang of Four and weaned on the Slits. Instead, their leading man sings with all the theatrical panache of Judas Priest. His voice is strong, but the music feels tacked together in a too-late attempt to jump aboard the bandwagon.

This band is as close to pornography as a band can get, and not in a funny, meta-whatever Peaches sort of way. Like other bands tonight, they play off a male-female vocal duality. However, in this case it seems like more of a pimp-hooker duality. Lisa Light appeared on stage spackled in glitter and carrying a sleek, black electric violin that perfectly echoed the shape of her sleek black bustiere and miniskirt. In the moments when not sawing her violin to pieces, she dances like a bartender at Coyote Ugly, doing her best to distract us from Scott Blonde's flat vocals. No offense to her figure, but there's no chance of us not noticing.

Anyone who has ever picked up an acoustic guitar and tried to write a song knows what it's like to strum just a few chords and hear an orchestra an orchestra in your head. But it's much stranger, and not nearly as satisfying, to see someone else do it. The Naysayer is a single female, on stage with only her guitar to protect her. Her simplistic fall over a thin skein of notes and her quickly strummed downstrokes might be a full-blast Ramones song; her arpeggios a harp and symphony. But to us, it's just a faint sketch, we don't know whether the end result would be a Michelangelo or a cave painting.

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