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CMJ Artist Showcases: Day 3, 16 September 2005

After show-stopping performances from heavyweights like the Arcade Fire and the New Pornographers, Friday looked to be CMJ's slump day -- attendees were fighting exhaustion and many of the 'big' bands were being held for the marathon's final Saturday push.

PopMatters @ CMJ 2005
CMJ Artist Showcases: Day 3, 16 September 2005

by Andrew Phillips and Peter Joseph

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

After show-stopping performances from heavyweights like the Arcade Fire and the New Pornographers, Friday looked to be CMJ's slump day -- attendees were fighting exhaustion and many of the "big" bands were being held for the marathon's final Saturday push. Paging through the schedule, one found a host of obscurities. Gosh, who wants to see some band no one's ever heard of? Oh wait... that the whole point of this thing! Sure, a few buzz bands made waves today, but the real winners were the little guys. They may not have been the chosen princes of CMJ 2005 but some of these folks are sure to be the belles of CMJ 2006:

Belles of the Ball:

Jon Spencer might be the monarch of white-man electric blues, but Langhorne reigns unquestionably on the acoustic end. Slim's songs may just be simple recreations of a classic style, but his incredible live show puts him heads above other contemporary bluesmen. On stage, he proves that his biggest talent isn't just that incredible, raggedy voice; he's also the most charismatic performer at CMJ. His set is filled with constant interruptions, jokes and amazingly successful audience call-and-responses. By the end, Slim has the audience eating out of his hand, eagerly calling out yeahs at his slightest invocation. He leaves on a high note, but right before the very last word, the last note, he pauses and makes one more wisecrack at his own expense. Then he's out, his crown firmly in place and perfectly intact.

Why can't we treat new rock more like advances in technology? No engineer was ever expected to reinvent the wheel, just improve on it. Add a motor here, a chassis there and (holy smokes) you've got a car where there was once a carriage. If we think of rock that way then the Washington Social Club just won the space race. Their songs are effervescent bursts of rock n' roll energy, their vocals and their riffs are spot-on. Best of all, you can tell that their music won't seem dated in a year because it's next year's technology. The Washington Social Club isn't trying to be "new," just trying to be good, and that's one of the newest ideas I've heard in awhile.

Honorable Mentions:

Beth Ditto is a victim of her own success, literally. Amidst a number of other short, stout women she angrily argued to get in the door of her own sold out show. But you couldn't fault security too much; she hardly looks the part of the energetic frontwoman. Of course, though she doesn't fit the slinky, slim singer mold, Ditto performs with the best of them (once she actually gets in the door), moving energetically as she tears into her transcendent, punky squeals. The music has been described as indie rock, rockabilly revival, post-punk, garage punk, riot grrrl and even lo-fi. Live, it's a little of each (I know that's not very helpful) and the mix is powerful enough that Ditto ends up having as a hard a time getting out the door as she had getting in.

Armless Hawaiian shirts are only worn by two types: gay bikers and noise musicians. The leather convention is next week, so my assumption when I smacked (literally) into a tall man in floral attire (who I didn't recognize as a member of Need New Body) was that Excepter had arrived. This avant-garde noise group buries a deep groove in its noisy jams. Like Black Dice, they use strange instruments and plenty of electronics to create random, inoffensive noises that eventually work to a rapturous climax. Maybe no one can offer an accessible introduction to noise, but with multi-harmonious elements behind occasional screams and a bevy of exciting sounds, these guys have a chance to at least give it a go.

Finally, someone's figured it out: a willingness to break-dance in front of an indie crowd is the key to gaining their attention. The Robot Ate Me (a one-man band) pulls out every stop to engage the crowd. He does sing-alongs, offers maracas, and even steps up to lead a breakdancing circle. Oh, and he plays music too, crouching alone with his guitar between countless electronic boxes and a small organ. The songs are driven by solid electronic backing beats and adorned with high-pitched emotive (not emo) vocals. There are plenty of other melodic elements thrown in -- he samples and layers electronics while he sings -- and the songs come off as beautifully layered as the prerecorded beats that push them forward.

These days, keyboards in rock bands are as common as cowboy boots, but at least Windsor for the Derby, put theirs to good use. The band can slow a melody down to molasses and still keep it sweet. They use guitar reverb liberally, washing over everything in a single echoing tone. Their music follows the same theory as minimalist painters like Ad Reinhardt: one color across an entire canvas can be just as impressive as a pointillist plethora.

When experimental music skirts dynamics in favor of full-on noise, it becomes more academically interesting than actually listenable. Two of the Punks sit on the floor, drumming up a holy racket but their drummer, thankfully, steers them from overindulgence but maintaining the structure with fractured beats. He makes the songs, like, actually enjoyable. Thus, the Punks' noisy experiments, their pedal-enhanced screeches and glockenspiel rumblings are more than just something for obscurist snobs to argue the merits of. They're something obscurest snobs might actually listen to as well.

Perfect for fans of Dalek, Subtitle raps over dark, clanging and ringing beats. Though Subtitle tracks don't go quite as far out as his brother MC's do, the vocals are leagues better. Subtitle's flow is frenetic and seems to be off the cuff, with more rhythmic moments than perfect rhymes. When the songs wind down, it's almost impossible to tell when he's finished rapping and is just talking, as his conversational tone still fits the beat. For Subtitle, rapping comes so naturally that he couldn't halt it if he tried.

This duo from Portland has that ever so rare thing: a string player that is actually good. Lisa Molinaro brings thick, rich tones from her viola while Kevin O'Connor switches between drums, keyboards, and a Powerbook. Talkdemonic sounds like a Fishtank session with the Dirty Three and the Notwist. Molinaro can play piercing notes like a sample from Hitchcock's Pyscho or send the sound into an electric hoedown that sounds like the Books.

Every day of CMJ needs at least one joke band so thank God Friday night had the Hawaii Show. From behind a giant, fake Marshall amp the bands pops out, wearing giant celebrity face-masks and sporting inflatable guitars. The songs are completely prerecorded, but that doesn't diminish the band's energy. It's great theatre a la Rocky Horror, and their set includes a song about a woodworking teacher who loses his arm - this is of course sung by a man wearing goggles and a bloody, armless lumberjack shirt. It's hilarious and the audience loves it, though I can only hope that the group never take themselves seriously enough to make a record -- it just wouldn't work without the visuals. The best moment comes during Ludachrist's "Get out the Way (I'm Gonna Get Crucified)" Just as the joke seems to have played itself out, on comes a guest-rapper, the notorious G.O.D. Praise the Lord!

While I have seen more energetic shows by this band, it's important to note that I still got punched in the crotch during their set; no foolin'. Despite the late slot and the waning crowd, Philly's finest freaks freaked out in all their noisy avant-hip-hop-bluegrass splendor. While their songs are decidedly hit or miss on CD, the band's strange fusions are endlessly intriguing live. Here, the utter intensity of their sound, and the ridiculous ambition of their work becomes unquestionably clear.

In matching black vests and skintight (also black) pants, these boys harness all the fey metal fury of Poison, maintaining a slick, sexy air. The singer struts his (stuffed?) stuff across the stage with ridiculous confidence, aping Steven Tyler at every turn. If you see one faux-hair-metal garage band this year this may as well be the one - of course if you don't see any, no one can really fault you.

Nice Try, Guys:

With lyrics like "My dandy voice make even the most Anti-choice granny's panties moist" who would have thought "alternative" rap might would ever get stale? I figured the genre was bound to be bronzed but, alas, it seems people have had there fill of acts like MC Paul Barman and CEX. BARR (aka Brendan Fowler) triumphs only because he embodies all of the awful stereotypes associated with his forebears. His lyrics are ridiculous, delivered in a painfully nasal voice, and his stage presence is frantic and disconcerting. But he's witty, and his banter is as likable as his beats are tired. It'd be an easy out to say that BARR is a total loser act, or to take the hip approach and call him a satirical genius. Really it's just the work of a middling jokester with a dirty mouth. He can be funny and as he hits his head with his stool you realize: someone can be AWESOME without actually being any good.

When Gloria Gaynor was at the top of the charts, fans of her music were still more interested in going to a club and dancing to "I Will Survive" than in standing around and watching her belt it out. Kudu's singer has an impressive operatic range and is definitely in the running to become a new disco diva, but seeing her up there shimmying on a cramped stage while two unimposing dudes hammer out the dance beats next to her is not as engaging as it could be. While I'll be on the listen for her in the clubs, here's hoping that the songs are coming from the DJ booth and not from the stage.

After twenty minutes it seemed a trick was being played; was it possible that this was performance art, some kind of band warming-up exhibition? Not so my friends; this Japanese noise-rock band is just wet behind the ears and they take forever to set up. Still, when they do play they remind us that "alternative" genres can be meshed more seamlessly than they are in America. Equal parts Melt Banana and Joan Jett - how's that for different types of alternative? -- the band teeters between feminine power rock and shit-insane FEMALE POWER RAWK with unfortunately inconsistent results. They're energetic, well-mannered (even during setup), and the members are oh-so-adorable, but this import seems to have shipped a little too early.

What would happen if you, me, and my asshole buddy threw something together tonight for an open-mic tomorrow morning? Slim Moon? Kill Rock Stars President "Slim Moon" may have great talent (and an eye for it as well) but his band is total kitsch. He has had years to flesh out the project, but the live material remains raw and unpracticed. From a five-minute repetition of the words "Fuck the President" to a slew of free-associations about how cows are really cars, the often silly wails and strange lyrical steps are fun for a one-off. The problem is that a cow isn't a car, even "bad" art isn't easy, and unpracticed silliness is entertainment of a very limited type.

Instrumental rock bands might be founded on good intentions, but they rarely translate into a good show. More Dogs' warm Farfisa organ and chiming vibes have a wide-eyed, Disneyland feel but their guitars give the songs a welcome crunch. But mostly, the compositions just feel half-finished. The members have some good ideas, but they haven't developed them enough to make them really engaging yet. A few years at the conservatory might be the best idea for these young, aspiring composers.

Bathroom Breaks:

Oh Sandra Dee/ what's become of thee?/ So, there's a boy you like?/ That's great, but spare the mic/ You're pretty and your friends are too/ But hairbrush mics would really do/ All-girl pop is well and good/ but you need something beneath the hood/ Don't leave the bedroom scene just yet/ One day you'll get a solid set/ Just sing inside, then giggle smartly/ you're not yet set for bigger parties.

The Harlem Shakes seem to work on the same principle as prep schools: nice ties and good haircuts are the keys to success. And is that a snotty, Plimpton-esque drawl I detect in the singer? So far, the Ivy League act seems to be working. But when it comes to the music, these boys are just empty suits. Their songs sound stolen from the Walkmen's scrap heap, and can't hide the 2002 expiration dates on most of their rhythms. Watch out boys, the chaps at the club won't look too kindly on failure.

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