Published Oct 24, 2011Seasoned or strategic CMJ Music Marathoners might possess the skills to sketch an elegant plan to dash from Manhattan's Lower East Side to Williamsburg, Brooklyn and back, squeezing in only the most anticipated of the 1,300 festival acts over five days. But the rest of us -- the majority -- are relegated to sticking to a couple of low-key showcases each night. This is both the frustration and charm of CMJ: somewhere amidst the chaos lies a wealth of interesting new music that you only find by accident.
At the Santos Party House, Wednesday night misses were sandwiched between hits. Caveman, whom you will most certainly hear more about in the coming months, tore a page out of the Grizzly Bear songbook with lush, layered harmonies and tracks accessible enough to wind up on supermarket speakers. Though they were at their finest with gentle, understated numbers like "Thankful" and "Dec. 28," the New Yorkers proved they're made of tougher stuff, capping off the set in a blistering rock freak-out.
Inc., a group best described as Occupy Wall Street hippie meets Dave Matthews Band, were the low of the night. The singers perched on stools and belted out feel-good tunes to a disinterested crowd. Bitterness was exacerbated by a last-minute set switch that pushed back headliners Twin Shadow into bleary post-midnight territory. The ever-dapper George Lewis Jr. and his band, though, managed to reinvigorate the evening with a blazing wall of lights, howling guitars and signature rock'n'roll swagger, rivalled only by the ladies of Wild Flag at Bowery Ballroom the night before. Though Twin Shadow's songs tend to meld together into one long hypnotic swirl, Lewis is compelling enough on stage to keep the show interesting.
On Thursday night, it was the makeshift venue that made the showcase. The seventh floor of the Thompson Hotel in the Lower East Side hosted a must-see acoustic set by Dum Dum Girls (though "acoustic" in this case included an electric guitar). Surrounded entirely by windows, the girls played in front a backdrop featuring the Empire State Building and a twinkling NYC skyline. "Coming Down," a slow sleepy number from the band's new Only in Dreams, was an unexpected highlight. Coupled with a free-whisky happy hour, the set washed away the workday, leaving the crowd blissfully sedated.
Toronto's Dinosaur Bones offered solace for those shut out of Pianos' popular downstairs venue later that night. Loud, raw and sounding a bit like Canada's answer to the Strokes, the five-piece offered a sincere set of rock'n'roll. (There was no stage, giving the venue a laid-back basement vibe.)
A handful of other Canadian acts also fulfilled their patriotic duty of representing their country throughout the week. Friday night, Torontonians Memoryhouse -- who seemed to be on the roster at every second showcase -- brought their wistful dream pop to Williamsburg's Glasslands ahead of Edmonton's electro pop stars Born Gold (formerly Gobble Gobble).
Early on, the schedule went haywire, pushing the latter act's time slot all the way back to 3:45 a.m. As testament to their famously wild live show -- complete with stilts, shovels, shimmering silver short shorts -- and the following they've garnered in Brooklyn, a significant number of people fought off exhaustion to stick around and join Born Gold's dance party.
Less than 10 hours later, some of that same crowd rolled out of bed and migrated down to Public Assembly to see Purity Ring's second-last CMJ set (technically, it was part of an unofficial showcase), with the Born Gold offshoot being one of the festival's most anticipated acts. The show lived up to the hype. Visually, the pair cultivated an eerie, ethereal tone with a backdrop of bright-coloured curtains, thoughtfully placed lights and a mystifying homemade matrix of pipes that sporadically lit up. (Those in the know were instructed to refer to it only as "science" in order to preserve the mystery.)
Megan James's sweet, haunting vocals built, paused, multiplied and distorted while she crept around stage in ballet flats with a mic in hand, bending, crouching and generally adding a theatrical element to the show. Corin Roddick, meanwhile, remained hunched in concentration at the helm of the science.
It was 2 p.m. with daylight pouring in from the back windows, but the packed room was transfixed by James's captivating mixture of wide-eyed innocence and palpable confidence. The set was a reminder that even at CMJ quality always wins over quantity. Except maybe when it comes to the free drinks.