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CMJ Artist Showcases: Day 4, 17 September 2005

Don't despair; by this time next year we'll be just about rested enough to give things another go, that is, unless the guys from Goblin Cock really do devour our souls.

PopMatters @ CMJ 2005
CMJ Artist Showcases: Day 4, 17 September 2005

by Andrew Phillips and Peter Joseph

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

It seems like only yesterday we set out on our lofty mission to cover CMJ. Of course, for some of us -- the one's who barely slept to bring you this coverage -- it sort of was. While it was impossible to catch all the CMJ belles, and less desirable to catch all the bathroom breaks, the bands we did see offered a stunning array of talent and skill. And so, through it pains us to return to our regular lives -- arguing in bars over the merits of lesser known Les Savy Fav singles instead of mixing with editors from Rolling Stone -- we now bring you our final report from CMJ 2005. Don't despair; by this time next year we'll be just about rested enough to give things another go, that is, unless the guys from Goblin Cock really do devour our souls.

Belles of the Ball:

"Wolf Parade are gonna lead the Canadian revolution." That's what that guy in the bar told me. And I believed him. Sure, he had the odor of deceit about him (quite literally I'm afraid) but I figured that means he spends most evenings scouting new bands. And plus, how often are guys in bars wrong? Ok, so I doubted, but smelly was on to something: since receiving the holy three-point from Modest Mouse spiritualist Isaac Brock, these boys have hardly wanted for cred. The Parade's debut, out next week on Sub Pop, is receiving big buzz. With so much anticipation, my snark-cycle is just begging for a put-put around the block. I'd love to report that it's all just the Canadian hype machine - which looks stunningly like Uncle Sam's, only with a huskier chest and a lower singing voice -- but I just can't. I'm a Brooklynite, but I'm ready to admit defeat; Montréal is poised to consume us all. Despite constant apologies for their stage presence, which was actually plenty impressive, Wolf Parade deliver an exhilarating live show, streaming deliciously dissonant indie rock -- a nod to Modest Mouse -- while incorporating moody atmospherics a la the Arcade Fire. And I've never seen someone beat chimes so hard with a maraca; that's rock 'n' roll baby! If "goodbye Williamsburg" and "hello Montreal" means music like this, I think I can cope. I mean, the Brooklyn-bound L does make stops in Quebec, right?

Honorable Mentions:

Q and Not U singer Chris Richards' band days are numbered (the group plays its last show this week) but this Dischord darling won't be long in mourning. He's already rolling with a new project, a solo endeavor whose name poaches parts of his own (chRIS PAUL RIChards). Standing alone atop his amplifier, Richards brandishes his guitar -- which in proper Guthrie fashion has the words "Make Sweet Love to Fascists" magic-markered on the body -- twisting his toes around a chair set in front of him to fiddle with effects pedals. Light, haunting effects-ridden acoustic sounds issue forth under equally airy vocals. He periodically toes the amp, sending the reverb coil into distress and nasty-sweet twangs across his lush melodies. His songs are strange floating numbers, with softly spoken vocals and beautiful sparkly guitar bits thrown in. Someone is bound to say it, so I may as well be the one: Q and not who?

If I was hired to film Back to the Future 4 I'd set it in San Fran's Haight Ashbury district. Doc hops back to the '60s and, while conducting some experiments with the brown acid, loses the flux capacitor at a party to a demented Syd Barrett (who, in a shocking twist, is also Biff's cousin). Doc returns to the present to discover that Syd has turned everyone back on to '60s psychedelia with his new act, Apollo Sunshine. Goody-two-shoes McFly wants to tell everyone what's happened. But Doc, remembering that he made a killing producing Frasier and doesn't have to do this shit, decides to release the findings from his brown-acid research directly into the reservoir, the Apollo Sunshine headline the love-in, and everything's groovy.

When I still lived in Massachusetts, I remember seeing Mary Lou Lord on the streets of Harvard Square performing with an acoustic guitar. She might not have been able to fill clubs, but she had such a passion for playing that she would go out and, well, play. This makes it so much harder to learn today, in a rare appearance, that Lord has been diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a voice disorder that causes involuntary muscle movements in the voice box (Diane Rehm of NPR also suffers from the same disability). Nothing could be harder for a singer to face, and it's heartbreaking to see the emotion on Lord's face as she struggles during her songs. She's clearly self-conscious, and her setlist focuses almost exclusively on themes of aging and death. And yet it hasn't diminished her talent; her voice isn't as full as it was, yet she whispers the words in well tuned, perfectly phrased lines and her performance is as affecting as it ever has been.

Midway through his set, a cover of Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down" perfectly captures both Eric Bachmann and the tone of the Bloodshot Records/KEXP barbecue. It's both an elegiac song for the simple life of working-class Southern neighborhoods and a narrative of a singer who wakes from a night of hard-living to realize he's isolated from the regular world. It's the sort of song that could make you despair over your own fate after a few hard nights at CMJ. Bachmann's sonorous, mellow voice warms and reminds me that living the musician's life isn't always lonely and that I'm among friends and fellow music lovers here. I realize that that there's no better way to enjoy life than with a few beers, barbecue, and a great singer to watch play like he's played everyday of his life.

These Florida punks are at home in the gutters, so cleaning up for an industry crowd aint quite their normal thing. Talk about a punk rock conundrum: what do you do when screaming "ANARCHY" is a turn-off? Well, you could always fall back on the songs. While the band's performance is noticeably subdued, their music remains fiery and energetic. Against Me's sound transcends the band's punk rock niche with jerking, plunky spaghetti basslines thrown across thickly throaty anthemic vocals. They're plenty spirited, but know enough to keep the spitting to a minimum. And it's a good thing, because without all the silly theatrics to thumb our noses at, we've got no excuse not to drop pretension and raise our middle fingers, in our pockets at least.

Zack Rogue, how do I love thee? Oh to have you as my belle. Your melodies so remarkably haunting, your Shins-like instrumentals so beautifully crafted, I'd take any excuse to tip the scales your way. But my readers will only believe so much. Playing almost all new songs? That's ok, they're pretty good. Keeping still and not pandering? That's just fine, they'll love you anyway. Some don't know you and you look nervous? Not to worry, you'll win them stunningly. What's this, the set is nearly over? Keep encouraged, some are listening. Picked a clunker to cap things off? That, my friend, could happen any day. Played a set short of stunning? Nice try friend, there's always next year.

Fronted by a self-proclaimed "Georgia-Rican", Cordero plays rock with distinct country and Latin elements thrown in. Her lyrics flow fluidly between Spanish and English, and the trumpet-inflected rock goes over well. The band's set is not the highlight of CMJ, but as the only band I saw all week to sing in Spanish it's an uncomfortable reminder of just how whitewashed rock music is, and why it shouldn't be that way.

Good things are coming for Eric Johnson, if he'll just hold on a little longer. Though peppering his first NYC performance in two years with old favorites, the singer primarily showcased his stunningly pristine new repertoire. Through trademark horn-rims the singer pressed both acoustic and electric pop with all the poise of his most respected peers. He quips halfway through his set that "All the kids who came for Wolf Parade will have to deal with his set" because "I discovered those guys." While this may or may not by technically correct, it advances an understandable, thinly veiled, sentiment. But he shouldn't be worrying; what he needs to do is start taking bets. These hot horses are just running up the odds and when the real race is run, the steady horse is at least sure to finish, unlike the one that shoots too fast out the gate.

Nice Try, Guys:

After a long week at CMJ, I was bone tired; thank god no one gave me a microphone. Lead singer Annie Hardy's complaints about her CMJ exhaustion - and the fact that she was playing a basement -- could have overshadowed the band's stunning White Stripesy rock tunes completely, that is, if the crowd hadn't begun to chide her. Hardy's Anton Newcombe-style retorts to the room's ridiculously silly taunts lightened the affair significantly, and she eventually found her groove again. What's amazing is that despite the bad vibes, the music that did seep through was pleasantly energetic, and so sweetly crafted that it almost made you forget the 'tude behind them. I can't fix the ratings for yah, Annie, but I won't stack them either. There's no doubt, on a better day, you could have been my belle.

At one point the Constantines' three guitarists raise their instruments upright in perfect unison, crashing them down in a fit of pure rock fury. It's an unquestionably cool theatric but I'm just not impressed. If indie rock were boxing, these guys would be class-A middle-weights; they pack a decent punch, but bump'em up a notch and their asses hit the mat. Of course, just because they don't deliver knockdown shots doesn't mean someone shouldn't be in the ring, or even that people shouldn't root for them. It's just that my locker room is full of bands like this. What I'm looking for now are punching bags.

CMJ is the best example of the vibrancy of rock music, but it also is the best example of how there are too many bands trying to play the same type of music. Kayo Dot has the right idea: form a music trust and consolidate your interests. Who cares if there are too many guitarists? This seven-piece conglomerate plays the type of art-metal that Mike Patton would approve of, throwing in the odd trumpet, upright bass, grand piano, and violin to balance out their animal vocals and heavy guitars. It's impressive, but I can't help imagining what it would be like if they joined with a few more metal bands. Seven is impressive, but seventy could give the Trans-Siberian Orchestra a run for its money

It's tough for me to comment on Bare. It's not that he isn't good at rock, and it certainly isn't that he doesn't know his country chops. S country star's son who decided to venture outside of the genre into punk and hard rock, I can imagine he and Hank Williams III have a lot to talk about. Bare's music has a feverish intensity to it, and it seems that he's constantly working hard. Yet I have to admit that his country-fried hard rock sound just doesn't touch my heart, which is made of 100% New England granite. He's a dedicated performer and his fans come out in full-force, but I'm afraid to say I'm back at the bar drinking by the time he reigns it in.

It seemed absolutely assured that, as a terrible act of bias journalism, these boys would be branded a bathroom break -- or that I'd actually take a real bathroom break and not say anything at all. They've opened for every band on the planet and I've made an art of making the headliner but avoiding their middling, mediocre sets. But, against all conceivable odds, they caught me coming out of the john. The band's new material, which comprised most of their set, is far more vital and driving than anything they've done before. It's not there yet, but they've discovered something, some tool or technique to tighten their poppy tunes. Or maybe this has been going on for awhile, and my deft avoidance has just rendered me completely in the shitter.

What is it about that Motor City? Now that most of the car companies have picked up and moved out, have they turned their factories over to mass-producing '70s rock bands? Like anything built in Detroit, Deadstring Brothers are a sterling example of American craftsmanship, with finely tuned organ vamps and smooth-riding harmonies. But '70s rock is a tough genre to make a name in, and not just because of the decade we're in. What the Deadstring Brothers need is something to set them apart from the crowd. Something to give their classic rock revival another dimension. I've got it! Forget Motor City, boys, from now on you've got to say you're Swedish.

As Ms. Moon puts it herself "even hand amputees say that they can feel me". Her lyrics are the highlight of her set, pairing the usual bravado with some clever lines. But mostly, her performance is listless. Her words never falter and she always stays completely on point, but the words roll off her tongue too easily. It was as if she wanted to prove that she was so good she could rap in her sleep. I'd believe it, but for someone this talented it wouldn't hurt to push the line a little more.

Benford is half the frontispiece of Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops. Backed by two multi-talented musicians who also appear in the Pinetops, she has enough talent to hold her own solo. Switching between mandolin and acoustic guitar, she sings a mix of Pinetops songs and other songs she has written. Between songs, she jokes about losing her night shift job at the factory that produces hotel room keycards. She's often so friendly between songs that you're surprised by how wooden becomes while actually playing. Her voice is crisp and beautiful, but she stands stock still and seemingly dispassionate no matter what the lyrics might be, a seriously disappointing trait for such a talented musician.

Now that even Dave Matthews isn't into himself anymore (thank you, Onion), we need a headliner for all the college spring flings. The Eames Era play perfect college rock, which should hold the bandmembers in good stead when they finally get to college! I honestly don't know the ages of this quintet of fresh-faced youngsters, but they seem too sweet to have spent much time away from home. Their songs are catchy and radio-friendly, and while they know a thing or two about writing good music they don't seem to have much life experience to share.

Bathroom Breaks:

Alas, dear seekers of pretension and woe; after days of wading through the muck, our tastes became so finely tuned and our hours so astutely planned that we managed to avoid all toady's bathroom breaks. Sure, we saw some middling acts, but nothing without at least some redeeming value. But don't despair dear reader; there's always next year's poo. And trust us, if crap emerges, we'll be sure to take a bathroom break.

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