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CMJ Artist Showcases: Day 2, 15 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 2, 15 September 2005

by Andrew Phillips, Peter Joseph, and Lou Friedman

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

Maybe it's just overexposure, but as day two of CMJ came, we find ourselves searching less for "the next big thing," and more for any band that didn't sound like "the last big thing." The interesting stuff is out there, you just have to know where to look. Lucky for you, we did:

Belles of the Ball:

The Arcade Fire, 2004's biggest surprise, is a surprise no more. CMJ's unofficial keynote performers -- hype around their shows were so huge that they had to raffle tickets off -- the band came through with an intense, yet playful set in the middle of Central Park. With more familiar material to choose from, thanks to the re-release of their pre-FuneralEP, the band mixed in "Headlights Look Like Diamonds" and "No Cars Go" with crowd favorites "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)" and "Rebellion(Lies)". The band remains a well-oiled machine musically, but leader Win Butler went a little insane. He worked the crowd affably, but something about the equipment pissed him off big-time and he wound up destroying a mic-stand. With avant-garde snatches of Electric Light Orchestra, the Talking Heads, and (God forgive me) Coldplay in their music, the Arcade Fire will never be boring. Some of the folks at the show might have taken a valium -- but only AFTER the set.

Honorable Mentions:

The only way to successfully pull off a satirical metal band is to also have a satirical road crew fully outfitted in "GOBLIN COCK - CREW" uniforms. Armed with the spiky black guitars that only Metallica fans buy, and wearing full-body black robes with hoods, Goblin Cock pounded out awesome metal. If the singer -- Lord Phallus, aka Pinback's Rob Crow -- didn't tell you the song titles, you would never know these earnestly-played songs were jokes. Why must we mask our love for metal in irony? I don't know the answer, but as long as it results in songs about The Land of the Lost and the "heaviest, most metal creature on earth -- Snuffleupagus" I have no complaints. Metal and Sesame Street, they're together at last.

This is what happens when high school ska bands grow up. The Chicago octet combines horns, violin and the usual guitars and keyboards to create a rock sound that falls somewhere between Belle and Sebastian and Bruce Springsteen. Their mini-rock orchestra swells and accentuates singer Matt Focht's fast-moving high notes and rock inflected verses. There may not be any upstrokes or Specials covers, but Head of Femur is so cheery, so upbeat, that you have to watch closely to keep from skanking.

Sailor suits or not, when XBXRX gives a command, you will obey. Or so it seems. With only a few words the band's lead singer inspired a mass sit-down in the middle of the Knitting Factory. Pausing for a four count the band then led the packed crowd - which actually did this - in a massive bounce to their feet. What followed was riotous synth-laced noise-punk layered with unceasing horror-movie screams. Instead of studied bows and tucks the band's guitarist and bassist issue unrelenting, full-body gyrations, tangling their instruments' cords as they each circle the stage in constant motion. Meanwhile the singer pogos like a young Jello Biafra, pumping his arm up and down like a slot machine handle while begging the audience to fire equal energy back at the band. I don't know if equal energy is really possible; would you accept our adoration instead?

Lost in all those good-timey, peaceful vibes, it's probably hard to imagine Mary having sex, unless you're Peter or Paul. Airy, inoffensive folk isn't made by living, breathing, horny people, is it? When delicate-folkies IDA issued the words "Fucking around on the floor/ We're Fucking against the door" in a beauteous three-part harmony, they finally cemented the sale. The band's lush harmonies and simplistic, sweet arrangements -- incorporating pump organ and violin alongside guitar and drums -- are unquestionably beautiful, but the music's pristine nature always seemed a little too distant and dainty. Now, it looks like I can ask one of them out on a date after all.

One MC dons marijuana-leaf necklaces while the other sports a zombie costume complete with skeleton-bone T-shirt. Their jokes are stupid and the rhymes are weak; so what's so great about these guys? Well, after five minutes with these two ridiculously eccentric rappers you begin to realize that the joke is on you. You're not supposed to laugh at them; you're supposed to laugh at the people who aren't laughing. The group's songs blast Jesus, advocate child labor, and, of course, hail the mighty Satan, but it's all really about getting a rise. And they do: the night's true excitement came when someone got pissed and started hurling pizza at the group. The band's reaction? They rubbed the slices against their crotches and said "If that was a dude, I'll fuck your girlfriend." Its first-class theater but only as long as somebody remains gullible enough to feed it. So will these boys continue to please crowds? Your guess is as good as mine, but if I was looking for a steady commodity to fuel my career, I'd choose gullibility over the dollar any day.

In my surrealist beachscape fantasy, Deerhoof's Satomi is Gidget and the Joggers are the Beach Boys. After a sexually tense game of Beach Blanket Bingo, the Deerhoof boys challenge the Joggers to a rumble of noodle-y guitar riffs. Things look grim for the Joggers until they lull the Hooves into peace with their unassailable hour-part harmonies. Once Satomi and her retinue awake, the only thing left to do is to go surfing along the Jersey shore.

Picastro's singer follows in the line of a number of recent female vocalists, mining the dark edges of folk in a way akin to older singers like Grace Slick and Nico. She issues throaty, affecting vocals over simple, subtle orchestrations. The band's guitarist adds discordant acoustic lines, allowing the edge to attack from two angles. The music isn't without melody, as the band's does rein it in, intertwining more standard, melodic guitar lines with the violinist's soft bows. If it's a subtle edge you seek, something slightly askew within otherwise solid and sweet orchestration, you may have found it here. Just don't expect them to do "Somebody to Love".

I never would have believed that a punk showcase would stay on schedule. I had planned to come see the full Troubled Hubble set after another set was delayed. Instead I walked in to a room filled with an audience rapturously clapping along to a song's slow part. The claps faded out as the band pulled through down the stagelights and reached a climax perfect for fan or critic. All that was left was the post-coital cigarette and an attempt to remember the other's name. T-something? I hope I remember, because I want to find out just want all the fuss is about.

The biggest rarity at CMJ is a relaxed band. After completely messing up a song, the band's guitarist scoffed a "what do we care? We're already signed." This self-assuredness is what makes their songs so inviting. The Natural History never take big, but they also don't grab hold of the passing trend and try to make their music fit. The songs are tried and true rock, flavored with the most vital element: charisma.

The press photos of Knife Skills worried me: two young Asian women sitting demurely wearing only white underwear and tees. Was this going to be some fetishistic cabaret? Alas, no, I got a welcome blast of artsy hardcore, backed by pounding polyrhythms that seemed to make the heat pulse around the audience. As the sweat began to form, it was like being transported back to your favorite high school hardcore show, packed in a sweaty, happy basement full of angry adolescents.

Nice Try, Guys:

The music of bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, and others from the Pacific Northwest all spoke to issues of isolation and desolation. The Jim Yoshii Pile-Up treks this same solitary road, with careful, solemn guitar parts, but the vocals never quite lift you out of the melancholy haze the way Gibbard's would. And the lyrics don't give you something to think about on your long drive the way Brock's do. Instead, you're just driving, lost in an alienated, foggy just like any other Starbucks employee.

Girl-driven, good-time pop never sounded as sweet as a second ago. Of course a second later the band broke their momentum by trading out their girl-next-door vocalist for the male singer's emo keen. SLGTM is struggling with the same issue that labelmates Rainer Maria went through for years: they're too nice to each other. They've got a great girl singing and an utterly unremarkable guy by her side who's demanding equal time at the mic. These things do eventually settle and the band is sure to soon realize where its strengths lie. Of course Rainer Maria had to work things out - those two singers were married. In this case there might be a much quicker solution to consider.

Whatever happened to that lost recording of Eddie Van Halen jamming with Creedence Clearwater, you know, Hot for the Bayou? What do you mean there never was one? Well, in any case I guess we'll have to settle for the bar-busting swamp-rock of the Living Blue. Perhaps it's the New York humidity, but everyone in the band is sweating almost from the start, as the band charges ahead with some blues/rock progressions, their lead guitarist zigzags between classic Fogerty riffs and finger tapping '80s solos. The Living Blue's idea of crossing genres may be narrow, but there's one thing for certain: If rock is what you came for, then it is rock you shall receive.

This laptop artist bounces his curly locks over utterly disjointed glitch rhythms as if somehow keeping time, even though the music isn't. The blips and bleeps are sparse and quiet - this guy doesn't pump the PA - but while the music isn't utterly engaging the placement of sounds and the sounds themselves do hold some intrigue. Doofgoblin is an artist of great potential; he just needs to join a band or start doing soundtrack work for techno movies set in outer space. Hey, everyone has a calling.

Finally CMJ gives me what it is I really want: a lute. This trio could steal my heart if their instruments weren't so woefully out of tune. The lute creaks and the electric guitar gives off a sour, oddly cello-like noise that brings to mind a wooden ship rolling in a storm. The lute is put away and a baritone sax introduced that utters sounds like a mournful foghorn. And then, the fog clears, and the band breaks into a jazzy, on-key number. Just when they were about to be keel-hauled (or bathroom-breaked), they suddenly gained their sealegs.

Trading on cigarette-stinking, bass-heavy rawk, Hail Social are the kind of group that you put in the back of a scene when the innocent starlet is being rescued from a seedy club by her friends (she wanted to do what the cool girls do!). The HS members look at home under quickly flashing blue and red lights and their sound is easily accessible, not remarkable stuff, just bad boys playing music for good girls. All that's missing is a nice bit of Dave Navarro eyeliner and these guys might get something going.

Bathroom Breaks:

Aloha screams surfer-jam-band in the worst possible way. Maybe it's just an unfortunate mental association made while mulling over their name as disjointed piano parts, xylophone, and space-rock guitar fall over promising, but utterly un-stirring vocals. While the band manages both steady piano rock tunes, and some attempts at outerspace exploration, they fail to commit to either with any real resolve. Instead they seem lost between the earth (plain piano rock) and the cosmos (space-rock), unable to venture out further and somehow also unwilling to head back home. After several years of sitting on a rock, it might be time to try the latter.

Part of the Lookout! Records showcase, the Reputation play the kind of pop punk that made the label its name. Think of this quartet as Josie and the, umm, Tomcats, playing songs that could be b-sides from the Josie soundtrack. Of course, those tunes were co-written by the likes of Babyface, each song a saccharine ball of bubblegum that only could be pulled off by a band featuring Tara Reid. The biggest add in cred points came when the Reputaton's leading lady told the crowd about how she spent the previous night asleep in a bus station. Wait a second´┐Ż Tara, is that you?

In the '90s, Nirvana's popularity swept over the world, leaving behind scores of teens eager to emulate their heroes' style. And so came Silverchair and dozens of other second-generation grungers. In the '00s, now that we have Animal Collective touring the country, we can expect bands like them to show up wherever the AC has sown its seeds. This young-looking quartet carries all the necessary unusual percussion, the delayed-drenched, processed vocals, and of course a pair of high school classroom light projectors covered in psychedelic patterns. Art rock is not longer just for art school anymore.

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