CMJ 2004 New York NY - October 13 to 16, 2004

CMJ 2004 New York  NY - October 13 to 16, 2004
By Cam Lindsay, Helen Spitzer, Jasamine White-Gluz, Lorraine Carpenter and Michael Barclay Antony and the Johnsons With a sweet, rich voice and songs that seemed to float directly from his vocal chords, Antony held the roomful of blissing couples (in various gender permutations) in rapt attention for the entire set — this despite the wonky sounds occasionally emanating from his cellist's P.A. In the appropriately decadent, mermaid-friendly Coral Room, this fuzzy pink-clad cherub extolled the virtues of "those sweet, sweet boys from Bloomington" — his label, Secretly Canadian — and then returned to the piano for another heart-swollen ballad. His exquisitely relaxed performance concluded with a song about a bird-girl who may or may not fly away. "It's a tricky line isn't it? Because you don't know whether it ends happily." After playfully explaining that the ending depends on whether he plays a major or a minor, he decided on a mixture of the two, and a knowing wink to his new best fans. HS Battles This neo-prog super-group display more than just prowess and power, being capable of converting fans of the smoother sounds of Sally Timms and Pinback, between whom Battles found themselves sandwiched. Ian Williams from Don Caballero and drummer John Stanier (Helmet, Tomahawk) may be the initial draw, but it's guitarist/keyboardist Tyondai Braxton who's the real star here, running his pseudo-beat box vocals through various distortions and effects, dancing around in jagged time signatures and bringing much-needed stage presence. MB Lou Barlow Recently signing to Merge, indie rock's former poster boy premiered songs from his forthcoming solo album for the label. Fans seemed excited, however Barlow's decision to omit his best-known work made it difficult to keep a steady interest. His lack of professionalism working a new pedal though made for some valuable comedic moments. CL By Divine Right Added to the bill at the last minute, this improbably immortal Toronto rock combo boasted their new stripped-down line-up: Colleen Hixenbaugh left her keyboards at home and former guitarist Brian Borcherdt (in town with Holy Fuck) looked on from the audience with pride. New drummer Cam Giroux (Weeping Tile) returns to rock after stints with Luther Wright and Oh Susanna, and his new blood kicked Jose Contreras's increasingly psychedelic solos into overdrive. MB John Cale For the New York debut of his first song-based album in seven years, John Cale played in a converted church in mid-town packed to the rafters with fans that delighted in the walk through his back catalogue, including a memorable romp through the Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs." That VU song showed how comparatively complacent and adult Cale's solo work seemed, complete with a gum-chewing spiky-blond guitar player in a leather jacket. Yet for a 62-year-old, Cale still has some fire in his bones. MB The Caulfield Sisters This New York trio's slow-burning indie rock tunes seemed to levitate, like slimmed down versions of decade-old 4AD records by Lush, the Throwing Muses, Belly and the Breeders, contemporaries of singer/ guitarist/ accordionist Cindy Wheeler and bassist/backup singer Mary Guidera's old Miami-based band, Pee Shy. Guidera joked, "we just wanted to see if you were high" after Wheeler hammered away at her guitar throughout a spacey epic called "Box of Glass," the climax of an increasingly effective set. LC Circlesquare Kicking off the Output showcase, this young Vancouver duo delivered their minimal electronics and downbeat vocals with style. The CMJ program's absurd description of Circlesquare as "calm and comforting" was swiftly debunked by their brooding (if somewhat sexy) sound, not to mention the sinister visuals triggered by the singer, a junior Phil Oakey type. Flashing on two flat screens were shots of a vicious girl fight in slow-mo, blurry drab high rises and people being chased by giant smoke monsters, evoking 9/11 about a mile away from "Ground Zero." Hurts so good. LC Coheed and Cambria Seated and fully acoustic, prog-emo gentlemen Coheed and Cambria treated their fans to an unusual set. Clocking in at just over half-an-hour and playing songs that are usually omitted from their plugged in shows (like epic closer "The Light and the Glass"), the band was unusually playful onstage, and for folks who had grown accustomed to their "plugged-in" sets, this was an interesting treat. JWG The Cribs Comprised of twins and a younger brother, this Leeds-based band brought their exuberant brand of sloppy lo-fi gutter pop with a full deck of excessive bad behaviour to CMJ. Their catchy youthful anthems inspired a dance floor to open up, which featured the influential BBC Radio DJ Steve Lamacq bouncing around. Though it sometimes passed as a shambolic display of music, and even more so like a lesson in debauchery, their rebellious manner, mixed with catchy tag team choruses, made it hard not to love. CL Jamie Cullum British piano punk Jamie Cullum lit up the Irving Plaza with a presence obviously used to much bigger venues. With a set composed of originals and clever cover tunes, including Radiohead's "High and Dry" and Pharrell Williams' "Frontin'," Jamie made the girls scream and the jazz fans' heads bob. Leaping from his piano and running around the stage, while always being gracious to his back-up bassist and drummer, Cullum is too pop for a college music festival but just pop enough for MTV. JWG The Dears Our Canadian darlings packed the house at the Ace-Fu showcase. The band delivered a commanding set of favourites off of No Cities Left, closing on a melodic noisy finale that involved siren noises and swirling keys. The only complaint may have been that the Dears's sound and presence are too big for the modestly sized but reasonably dull Sin-E room. JWG The Duke Spirit Opening what was to be a strictly British showcase, London's the Duke Spirit blazed their way through a set of sexy feedback-driven art dirges. The six-piece travelled at a turtle's pace with mid-tempo scuzzy blues riffs testing the volume of the speakers. Singer Liela Moss slithered around like a seductive serpent, using an arousing coyness to deliver her sombre wails. If Royal Trux had the discipline to keep it together, this is what they could have aspired to be. CL The Fall There is an inevitable rush of both excitement and disappointment that comes with seeing the Fall. Of course they arrived an hour late and when they did take the stage the line-up was as unrecognisable as always. Mark E. Smith looked the worse for wear, but that's just old age and alcoholism catching up with him. Onstage, he delivered his barmy lyrics just like on record and did it without faltering. Aside from the riot-inciting mosh pit, the gig surprisingly flowed nicely, as the band held their own against the unpredictable rants and movements of their leader. CL Fancey "This next song's pretty stupid; it's about doing acid in Nova Scotia with my friend," said singer/guitarist Todd Fancey of the New Pornographers. Not exactly "A Part of Our Heritage," but there's something distinctly Canadian about this band's brand of slacker goofiness and feel-good rock. With a resonant guitar, a dizzy Wurlitzer and two- and three-way harmonies, the quartet unspooled upbeat melodies that got the crowd bobbing, smiling and occasionally laughing at remarks like, "here's another song that's just full of anger." LC Sage Francis Far removed from the free association and abstraction of his Anticon peers, Sage Francis sets his targets up and knocks them down with poetic precision: the war on terror, the state of America, apathy, his fans and his own self-deprecating self. Whether he's goofily teetering in ruby red heels, dropping a cappella rhymes or staring down the audience in an intense bug-eyed confrontation, Sage Francis is an incredibly compelling performer: Lenny Bruce one minute, Gil Scott Heron the next, Chuck D in his prime. With some help from fellow Non Prophet Joe Beats, Francis packed more into a devastating 45-minute set than you were likely to encounter during the cumulative CMJ experience. And he knew it. MB Gang Gang Dance Mmmm, not so good. This esoteric improv band has been plied with such disturbing adjectives as "shamanistic," "sinusoidal," "mystical" and "metapsychotic." Translation: freeform white funk, erratic noise, Yoko Ono-esque wailing and generous infusions of stock Eastern sounds making for an altogether cumbersome beast on the verge of asking for a mercy killing. To top it off, their lame looks and low-energy performance made for a dull show. Maybe recording is the band's forte, maybe their improv simply backfired, but this set was messy. LC Giant Drag Many have criticised Cat Power's disastrous live shows, but Annie Hardy most likely lives for them. As the main force behind this two-piece, she indolently warbled about teenage drama, snapped at her drummer for his inability to speed it up and shared a story with the crowd about having cocaine blown up her ass. Her stage presence was definitely mesmerising — a small, waifish girl sluggishly presenting her audience with songs about drugs, incest and bad lovers — but the allure was mainly just to see how destructive and candid her mouth could be. CL David Ryan Harris Strapped with a guitar and a soulful R&B voice, Harris engaged the rather lacklustre crowd with his Brian McKnight meets Babyface songwriting abilities. Although completely competent in both voice and guitar, his performance was at best background music. The most interesting moments were when he reluctantly broke into a Jeff Buckley cover of "So Real" and when he matter-of-factly gave the audience love advice. JWG Head of Femur Their 2003 debut was sadly overlooked but their roller coaster of a record is nothing, honey, compared to the three-ring circus that is Head of Femur live. The nerdily intense horn section bounced between tambourine shaking and unearthly backing noises, and the compelling front-man looks an awful lot like Mark Ruffalo, if he was actually Bob Wiseman, with the latter's penchant for twitchy stage antics. Head of Femur's unrestrained joyfulness and spazzy theatricality was unmatched by anything I've yet seen this year, and if they continue this way, they threaten to become next year's Arcade Fire. HS The Jessica Fletchers The Rainbow Quartz showcase would have been unbearably tepid if it weren't for the presence of the label's top bands, the High Dials, the Waxwings and Norway's Jessica Fletchers. Once you get over the fact that the singer looks eerily like a young Malcolm McDowell, he's a lot of fun to watch, with a friendly, funny energy and attitude befitting a rock'n'roll front-man. Though they didn't play the best songs from their album Whatever Happened to The?, their guitar and organ-driven psych-pop sunshine shone through with a little extra adrenaline. LC Jean Grae A too-long underrated MC who's finally starting to get her due, Jean Grae basked in the knowledge, deferring her entrance until the crowd was suitably stoked. Starting out feisty but quickly warming up to the crowd she cautioned us to keep hip-hop indie by actually buying the records: "when people come up at shows and say, ‘hey, I downloaded your record!,' what the fuck you think I'm gonna say?" Once turned on, she was on fire, with crackling lyrical genius and enough sexy confidence to make your hair stand on end. She punctuated newer material with quick hits off Attack of the Attacking Things, reminded us it's okay to laugh during a hip-hop show and was gorgeously flustered when John Legend, hot off his own performance with Kanye West at Madison Square Gardens, arrived to croon her songs. All hail the new queen. HS Jimmy Eat World The crowd at the well-attended Jimmy Eat World show was mixed, mostly divided amongst the MTV tweens dancing to uber-hit "The Middle" and old emo cry-babies who yearn for the 13-minute opuses found on Jimmy's breakthrough album Clarity. The band tried to please everyone but it was obvious they were siding more with the old emo fans. Lead vocalist Jim Adkins made references to Clarity onstage that made you think he was reminiscing about a fond childhood memory. The band was solid, playing the infamous opus "Goodbye Sky Harbor," as well as other less well-known tracks. The new material off Futures went over well, as they are still as catchy, hook filled and danceable as all fans hoped they would be. JWG Like Yesterday Like Yesterday are a NYC bred rock band that fuse unpretentious emo, à la My Chemical Romance, with some great rock melodies. The lead vocals have good scope and range, while the music tends to lean towards grunge-esque loud/soft patterns. These fresh-faced Taking Back Sunday protégés are a band to keep an eye on as they head out to tour the trenches. JWG Man Man Man Man will either give you a headache or cure it. A rambunctious mix of crazy percussion and synthy bits, the band played with fury and a seemingly organised chaos. Choruses are catchy, while their musical breakdowns are just plain scary, and the vocals are just unreal. The standout was definitely the drummer, who stood during the entire set and played like an utter maniac. JWG Juana Molina The Argentine chanteuse began with an explanation that in her home country people listen to "English speaking" music and don't know what the lyrics mean. She then slyly welcomed the audience to her "foreign" world and began a set that saw her multi-tasking between a keyboard, a guitar and some tricky effects pedals. Her playful banter included a much-needed explanation of a song about a pesky cat in her neighbourhood, which preceded a song filled with screaming meows. The gentle, hushed vocals of the other material worked magically against the soft electronics from the keyboards and the acoustics from the guitar, making for a beautiful set of melodic experimentation. CL Mr. Airplane Man A guitar/drums duo at the present moment has a lot of baggage to contend with, but the talented ladies of Mr. Airplane Man shrugged it off with a lot of style, playing gravelly rawk from the badass side of Boston. They have the stripped-down energy of the Casual Dots, the blues clues of the Black Keys and the irreverence of the Rogers Sisters. Propelled by the packed Mercury Lounge, they seemed genuinely thrilled by the excitable crowd, who hollered for one more even as their allotted hour drew to a close. Bonus points: sexy drummer playing one-handed Farfisa organ with sultry indifference. HS Runner and the Thermodynamics While Runner and the Thermodynamics claim to be more of an homage to '70s rock, their set at CMJ was more convincing of an early '90s grunge band. Their standard mix of Neil Young-esque rock numbers is definitely dated and this was only amplified by their use of plaid clothing. While the band shined during moments reminiscent of Mooney Suzuki's garage sound, they were rather uninteresting. JWG Saturday Looks Good To Me The quintessential CMJ band: cute, American, with fluffy pop songs, wry in-between song banter, on a hip-enough indie and playing an afternoon industry party where the crowd is really waiting for the next big thing on afterwards. Nothing challenging, just something that every college radio director who is afraid of anything edgy can get behind on their way to a future job as a beer ticket-dispensing publicist. Nothing against this band in particular — they're better than most of this mould — but why are there hundreds of them here this weekend? MB Sonic Youth Heavy on songs from their last two albums, Murray Street and Sonic Nurse, the celebratory CMJ kick-off set by indie rock's daddies (and mommy) was cool and chaotic all at once. Jim O'Rourke stumbled through a song or two, while eternal teenager Thurston Moore did funny, dumb stuff like pogo between songs and yell "party!" into Kim Gordon's mic. Mid-set, Moore slipped into the crowd holding his guitar up for fans to stroke and pull and claw, finally emerging a couple of minutes later empty-handed. Okay show, awesome souvenir. LC Sparta Sparta was admittedly tired from over-touring and taking the stage just after one a.m. at the Spin closing night showcase couldn't have been easy either. But the band performed with enormous velocity and energy, ripping through their emotionally- and politically-charged set. If this is them on a bad day, I'm anxious to see their well-rested performances. JWG Surferosa I can't quite hear the Pixies influence but that doesn't mean this Norwegian quintet isn't hot. The band's soaring synth rock anthems are alright on record, but the seething energy of their ultra-confident singer/keytarist Mariann and the guitarists' classic rock theatrics made the show great. In two-tone body suit with a banana motif, Mariann jumped, gyrated and writhed, kick-started sing-a-longs and got physical with the crowd, frequently jumping off-stage, yelling in people's faces and, at one point, grabbing a photographer by the shirt and pushing her (aka me) into innocent bystanders. Awesome! LC Mia Doi Todd Ms. Todd stood alone with an acoustic guitar and sounded like she'd be better on a bill with the McGarrigles or Joan Baez, not an Anticon MC. In the middle of her folkie set she launched into an entirely faithful and overly earnest cover of "The Times They Are A-Changin'." Though this was initially nauseating, the sweet-natured Todd transcended the tackiness of the gesture by playing it not as nostalgia but as an honest call to arms during the most divisive days in American history since Dylan first wrote the song. MB Saul Williams A poet, singer, rapper and spoken word performer all rolled into one, Saul Williams is to hip-hop what Patti Smith was to rock. Despite being a good-looking guy (who wears clothes that fit, damn it!), Williams is not the kind of hip-hop artist the media cares about, curtailing conventions and clichés with powerful politicised lyrics, mixed music (guitar, bass, two violins, drums, keys and canned samples and beats), versatile vocals and a dramatic stage presence, along with a bitch-slapping "Telegram to Hip Hop" postcard distributed around CMJ. LC Woolly Leaves With his precise phrasing and atypical rural/urban metaphors, Wil Kidman solo is not unlike restless Florida troubadour David Dondero, though with a sweeter voice and that particular southern Ontario scrappiness. A few years ago, Woolly Leaves was all raucous drums and electric guitar, but Kidman's CMJ performance took a sober, acoustic turn, which was a very good thing as it turns out because Kidman happens to be a rather brilliant songwriter. It was unexpectedly soothing to hear, on a blustery evening on the Lower East Side, stories of Ayr and "mushrooms in Guelph" while polishing off watery American beer. HS