MTV News At CMJ: Pizza, G.I. Joe’s Head And 1,000-Plus Bands

Our fearless reporters vow to push themselves to the limit to fully experience the massive music-biz convention.

NEW YORK — MTV News’ trek through the maze of venues and bands that is the CMJ Music Marathon continues. As we told you Wednesday (scroll down for prior CMJ reports), the festival is cluttered, confusing, exhausting, and, of course, a really good time.

FRIDAY, November 3 / SATURDAY, November 4

For all the whining, scrambling and gnashing of teeth that comes with it, sometimes CMJ is totally awesome. Like on Friday night, for example, when we were lucky enough to catch a Twin Cities doubleheader in the form of the mighty Hold Steady and the equally weighty Plastic Constellations, who, as luck would have it, played sets within minutes — and blocks — of each other. …

The Steady topped an impressive bill at the Annex, taking the postage-stamp-size stage after Dirty on Purpose and the Cold War Kids had already rocked the invite-only crowd (we’re not sure who this “private party” was for, but there were many casualties at the door, including our buddy Kevin — sorry Kevs). It was an abbreviated set, like many at CMJ, but it still packed plenty of punch, with Craig Finn and company blasting through a host of boozy standards from their new Boys and Girls in America album (“Stuck Between Stations,” “Chips Ahoy!” and the set-closing “Southtown Girls”) while the crowd pumped their fists. …

As soon as the last guitar note had faded away, we made a beeline for Pianos, arriving just in time to catch the Plastic Constellations plugging in. Conjuring a stumbling racket like their Minnesota forebears Hüsker Dü — and earning geek points for singing about decidedly “D&D” topics like dragons and swords and stuff — TPC windmilled their way through a terse 40-minute set featuring material from their criminally overlooked Crusades LP and a pair of hard-charging new tunes, all while looking like they were having the time of their lives. They rule. …

Uptown at the Nokia Theater, Austin, Texas’ premier drone merchants, the Black Angels, served up a head-nodding set of hypnotic psychedelic rock — in marked contrast to the frantic roots-rock of headlining duo the Black Keys. While the Angels’ influences are obvious — the Velvet Underground and Spacemen 3 being most prominent — they do the drone thing so well that any derivativeness is more than forgiven. They’re also enormously fun to watch: less for charisma or stage antics than for the way they interact musically, with each of the six members tastefully contributing to the whole rather than showboating. (Having said that, slugger Stephanie Bailey is just about the most bad-ass drummer we’ve seen all year.) …

Another of us headed over to the Mercury Lounge to check out some of Australian quartet the Drones‘ grunge-metal guitar torture. Alternating spare and bluesy riffs with all-out chaos, the band worked itself into psychotic fits of string-tearing, throat-shredding hysteria. Frontman Gareth Liddiard grew increasingly unhinged as the set wore on, grinding his boot into his effect-pedals while flinging himself across the stage. …

The music was equally intense but somewhat sweeter at the Bowery Ballroom, where adorable London quintet the Fields politely made their way through a set of lovely anthems. Built around frontman Nick Peill’s quickly strummed, effects-laden acoustic guitar, the group recalled a more lush, less meandering Broken Social Scene as simple riffs swelled into epic refrains. …

Denmark’s Mew took Fields’ ambitious sound and pumped it up even bigger, adding a psychedelic film display on a giant banner hung behind them. At first the group came off as a psych-rock Duran Duran with Kenny G on keyboards (seriously), but that impression didn’t last long: Singer Jonas Bjerre’s soaring tenor is truly arresting and a perfect match for the band’s polished art-pop. …

Back in Manhattan, Lavender Diamond turned in a sublime set at Joe’s Pub. Clad in a red velvet dress, kooky frontwoman Becky Stark delivered more LOLs with her loopy stage banter than a David Cross comedy night — and this was before the folksy quartet had played a note. When Stark opened her mouth to actually sing, it felt as if an angelic golden light had been cast over the room: The band is often lumped in with L.A.’s freak-folk scene, but its fairy tale-ish and precious qualities were more joyful than grating. The group is currently recording its debut full-length with former Pernice Brothers bassist-turned-producer Thom Monahan (Devendra Banhart, Brightblack Morning Light).

A completely different — but just as amazing — experience was to be had at the Studio B rave-up in Brooklyn, featuring Parisian dance duo Justice (a.k.a. Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay). The pair crafted a masterful set of slamming, sweeping peaks and valleys as the sweaty capacity crowd danced manically. Highlights included tracks from their Waters of Nazareth EP, a tweaked version of Justin Timberlake’s “My Love,” a remix of Franz Ferdinand’s “The Fallen” and the duo’s recent MTV European Music Award-winning (and Kanye West-enraging: see “Kanye Admits To Having Had A ‘Sippy Sippy’ (Or Two) Before EMA Rant” ) remix of Simian’s “We Are Your Friends.” At 4 a.m., the exhausted crowd was still yelling for more. …

On Saturday in Brooklyn, we bore witness to an afternoon of booze, BBQ and Bobby Bare Jr., all thanks to the good folks at Bloodshot Records. In keeping its longstanding tradition (and its decidedly alt-country bent), the label turned the hipster haven Union Pool into an old-fashioned honky tonk, complete with cold beer in the can, an honest-to-goodness campfire and, well, about 5 million bearded dudes in delivery-driver jackets. …

After downing several burgers and taking full advantage of Bloodshot’s somewhat laissez-faire approach to free drinks, we somehow made it to Northsix for yet another invite-only shindig, a multi-band monster that went under the billing “New York to London.” Once again, the beer was free and the room was hot, as a host of up-and-coming acts (most notably Illinois, who took great pleasure in antagonizing the industry-heavy crowd, and L.A.’s Pumpkins-esque rockers Silversun Pickups) made glorious noise. The party raged until 4 a.m. and, to be honest, we don’t really remember a whole lot, but we’re pretty sure one of our pals went a little heavy on the hospitality and was nearly booted for yelling “Australia sucks!” at the Phoenix Foundation (who are actually from New Zealand). …

Not far away, at Brooklyn’s coolest venue — Warsaw, a club tucked inside the Polish National Home, where you can get pierogies and sausage to munch on during gigs — the Secret Machines brought their ear-pummeling psych-rock and brain-tickling light show. It was the last gig on the act’s tour behind its latest LP, Ten Silver Drops, and featured the band playing on a specially designed circular stage that was set up in the center of the room. After nearly 90 minutes of roaring crescendos and space jams, the trio wrapped the night with a fuzzy feedback loop after ripping through a high-energy take of “First Wave Intact.” …

And finally, on Sunday, though CMJ was drawing to a close, we got the sort of unexpected treat that can make the fest so totally worth it. After stumbling up to Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn’s hipster main drag, to soothe our sore heads with some bloody marys, we found ourselves sharing a bar with none other than the Shins, who were in much higher spirits than us, tossing back beers and watching the New York Giants squeak past the Houston Texans. (OK, so they were actually sitting across the room from us, but whatever.) Serendipitous? Perhaps. A mirage? Most certainly not. After all, this is CMJ. And you never know who you’ll be sharing a bar with.

With no less than three hot-ticket shows occurring Thursday night — the Sub Pop Records showcase at the Bowery Ballroom, featuring the Shins; Hot Chip at Webster Hall; and the Horrors at the Annex — hands were wrung, schedules drawn up, plans made (then dashed) and curses uttered. Most CMJ goers were left with one of two daunting options: scrapping one show in favor of another, or arriving at a venue really early, making it through a bunch of bands they didn’t want to see and complaining about persistent foot pain and back aches from all the standing around — or maybe that’s just us.

THURSDAY, November 2

With no less than three hot-ticket shows occurring Thursday night — the Sub Pop Records showcase at the Bowery Ballroom, featuring the Shins; Hot Chip at Webster Hall; and the Horrors at the Annex — hands were wrung, schedules drawn up, plans made (then dashed) and curses uttered. Most CMJ goers were left with one of two daunting options: scrapping one show in favor of another, or arriving at a venue really early, making it through a bunch of bands they didn’t want to see and complaining about persistent foot pain and back aches from all the standing around — or maybe that’s just us. …

One thing CMJ attendees learn really fast: When it comes to getting into the conference’s biggest shows, your badge might as well be a “kick me” sign — unless you’re prepared to get to the venue a couple of hours in advance to wait in the doubtless already-long line of badgeholders. Oddest of all, when you finally get in, the venue is likely to be three-quarters full. (We’ve stopped asking why: It’s like when you see a lane on the highway blocked off for miles, without any construction in sight.)

This was the case at Thursday’s Sub Pop Records showcase at the Bowery Ballroom — which one of us was foresighted, smart, lucky, connected and (most importantly) sexy enough to get on the guest list for. We arrived in time to catch Portland, Oregon’s the Thermals, whose adenoidal mix of punk and pop was impressively on point. (We heard the Oxford Collapse, who preceded the Thermals, were also pretty great.) Next up were the Album Leaf, whose pretty, gauzy sound you’d think would go over like a Catholic-school slumber party in a live setting. However, head Leaf/keyboardist Jimmy Lavelle was accompanied by a full band (drummer, guitarist, violinist) who beautifully embellished the songs’ swelling, sonorous peaks. The evening’s headliners, the Shins, have some stellar songs and may have changed Natalie Portman’s life in “Garden State,” but live they’re a little snoozy. Frontman James Mercer is anything but, relegating himself to stage left so the keyboardist/bassist Marty Crandall — he of the terrible jokes — takes center stage. And although the band has a new album, Wincing the Night Away, due in January, they played old material at half-mast. It also didn’t help that they hit the stage at 1 a.m.; we decided to hit the hay midway through their set. …

At a packed Webster Hall, hotly tipped British electro outfit Hot Chip bobbed their way through a set that the NME described as “rousing” but we felt was closer to “eh.” They played the truly excellent songs from their sophomore album, The Warning, some not-so-excellent ones and bowed a couple of brand new-songs, too… all while hammering keyboards, tweaking knobs and jerking around like geeky salmons out of the brook. Of course, the crowd — which was loaded bloggers clutching Canon ELPHs, dudes in glasses effortlessly texting with one hand and, strangely, goofy white guys with afros — ate it up, but we would’ve liked to see a bit more of the Devo-esque moxy that separates Chip’s records from the millions of faceless electro-drones out there. …

Speaking of which, it’s one thing to hold up your cellphone for a favorite song, but the eerie blue/green glow of Sidekick and Razrs is lighting up the audience like an alien invasion at every venue (and majorly distracting from the stage action). If you’re there to rock, chill with the texting, OK cowboys? …

Anyway, during a set by Canadian odd-pop-rockers Malajube at the Mercury Lounge, we noticed a sign on the wall behind the soundboard that read, “No pyro/hazers smoke machines.” We don’t even know what hazers are, but we’re glad they’re not allowed because they might have caused the monstrously over-perfumed woman standing in front of us (perhaps a bandmember’s mom — or maybe an aunt, considering her whining about having to pay admission for the show) to burst into a chemical fireball. The band’s unusual fusion of pop hooks with off-kilter song structures works pretty well on record, but the mix was off and the keyboardist could roll out his falsetto a little less often. …

The Vice showcase a few blocks away was running about an hour behind schedule, leaving us to see the entirety of the Panthers‘ set. Now, there’s nothing wrong with worshipping Black Sabbath, but here’s the thing: there’s no smiling in metal. We’re OK with the Ozzyesque maniacal grin that says, “You think I’m leaning in to kiss you but I might take a bite out of your cheek,” but Panthers singer Jayson Green’s goofy smirk just didn’t work with his band’s dinosaur stomp, which heavily featured tracks from their upcoming album, Sweet Beast. One thing kept coming to mind as we watched him wail away: Andy Metalakis (or maybe it was Ozzy Milonakis). …

On the other hand, Atlanta’s Black Lips laid down a shambolic bubblegum/garage fusion that rocked the roof off of the joint. It was an odd situation: the shabby-looking-and-sounding quartet often wandered off-key, off-beat and off-kilter, but their enthusiasm, sense of fun and infectious songs made technical proficiency seem like just something else to laugh at. While the band is renowned for onstage misbehavior, on this night they kept it light: On the last song, the rhythm guitarist (who was actually wearing a shiny gold grill) smashed a beer bottle, played slide guitar with the neck and then dragged the jagged end across his shirt (although we didn’t see any blood). …

Friday looks even more jam-packed schedule-wise, as evidenced by the following IM exchange:

MTV News Reporter: Apparently, we need to go to the show right after work
CMJ-Dazed Fiancee: what?
CMJ-Dazed Fiancee: oh
CMJ-Dazed Fiancee: ok
MTV News Reporter: Because the line-up is Dirty on Purpose, Cold War Kids and then the Hold Steady
CMJ-Dazed Fiancee: well if thats what we gotta do
CMJ-Dazed Fiancee: so when does it actually start?
MTV News Reporter: 6:30, but nothing will probably happen until like 10pm
MTV News Reporter: AAAAARGH

WEDNESDAY, November 1

Sure sign that you’re at CMJ, #1: A guy in beer-mug pattern pajama bottoms and a fuzzy pink bunny hat is standing on the corner outside the downtown club Pianos. (He’s gotta be in a band.)

Sure sign that you’re at CMJ, #2: The singer of Somebody Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin utters this so-indie-it-hurts statement: “That song is on the colored vinyl re-release of our first album. There’s a couple [in the back of the club] if you want to buy one.”

Given the ridiculous number of shows by bands most people have never heard of, there are several ways to attack CMJ. You can dash frantically from one hipster set to the next, hoping to catch a song or two. You can opt to only see bands based on the ridiculous pictures next to their names in the CMJ festival guide. Or you can camp out all night at a club like the Knitting Factory, which has three stages on three floors, each hosting multiple acts (approximate total number of stairs climbed or descended by one reporter on this night: 1,800).

Some rewards of an evening at the Knitting Factory:

» The Two-Man Gentlemen Band, who wore Mark Twain-meets-”Clockwork Orange” white suits with suspenders and porkpie hats and played old-timey ragtime tunes on banjo, kazoo and stand-up bass.

» Dracula Zombie USA: Three women in wifebeaters and black miniskirts wearing dead-president masks, accompanied by a male cohort clad in a Dracula cape and George Bush mask. They played a dance-beat-fueled riot-grrrl mashup we’ll call punko — or maybe discunk?

» The Mall: The lead singer screams into a microphone fashioned out of an old phone handset. What more do you need to know?

» A well-dressed couple cuddling lovingly while seated on a red beanbag near a dumpster. A passerby sniffs, “Is that one of those things where they just fell into a trash pile and said, ‘Ha ha ha!’?”

» Rah Bras: The drummer, wearing a clingy halter top and a Mardi Gras mask, uses his thong-clad butt as an improvised percussion device. (Again, what more do you need to know?)

» A couple of hipster dudes blocking traffic on the steps as they try to jam their skateboards into a single backpack.

» Shellshag: As soon as we saw the 6-foot tall male singer in girl jeans, a skintight tank top (with a fake dress shirt collar and zebra-striped tie painted on it) and a cropped gold lame sweater holding a star-shaped guitar, we naturally thought, “joke band.” But then we heard the tribal, Melvins-ish sludge-metal sound he made with the girl drummer (wearing bells on her ankles and around her waist). Tribal metal sleigh-bell grunge is the next big thing — and guys wearing girl jeans with tank tops is the next big fashion statement.

» QUOTE OF THE EVENING: “Are you just trying to moderate my anger by putting your water on my banjo case?”

Elsewhere, the Club NME Party at Harmony Palace advertised performances by Brazilian synth rockers CSS, heavily hyped goth-punks the Horrors and “special guests.” While it’s usually a very bad sign when said guests go on first, they turned out to be the highly touted Swedish outfit the Sounds, who plowed through a bubbly set of highly danceable, new-wave-inflected material. Word gradually spread that CSS’ lead singer was feeling too ill to perform, and after an hour of truly inept DJ-ing (reportedly by the members of CSS who felt good enough to DJ, although if that were the case our ears beg to differ), the Horrors salvaged the evening with a stomping, in-your-face, 20-minute set of punk rock. Lead singer Faris “Rotter” Badwan leaped into the bewildered crowd, perilously swinging the microphone stand and screaming like a banshee. …

However, the evening’s best band may well have been the one with the least printable name. Holy F— are four guys from Toronto who play a wild brand of experimental electronic noise that somehow melds itself into a hard-core dance party. At the Canal Room, two keyboard/sound manipulators hunched over racks holding a mind-boggling number of wires while a rhythm section — containing an extremely nimble bassist and a monster of a drummer — held the whole shebang together. As the psychotic din gradually inspired some crowd members to actually (gasp!) dance, the group was joined by New York MC Beans, who barely paused for air between his poetic screeds. It’s often more entertaining to see a rapper accompanied by a live band than a DJ, and any MC who can keep up with a swirling mish-mash of electronic jams is clearly on his game. …

Over at the Mercury Lounge, the Mobius Band inadvertantly distracted us with their striking resemblances to local indie-rockers (drummer Noam Schatz could pass for Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan; singer/guitarist Ben Sterling looks a bit like ex-Luna frontman Dean Wareham). The Brooklyn-via-Massachusetts trio’s mellow glitch-rock has echoes of the Postal Service’s lo-fi electro, with shuffling beats underscoring melodies that veer from the mini-anthemic to the wistful. It took a little while, but the group finally worked themselves into a mellow groove that benefited greatly from sporadic, tiny crescendos. …

Further uptown, the Knife played a set filled with loads of tension (but not quite enough release) to an astonishingly packed house at Webster Hall. The group’s superb new LP, Silent Scream, was heavily represented, but the dance beats never kicked in for long enough to send the crowd into the raptures it was anticipating. Such sublime subtlety and menace can sometimes get lost in a live setting. …

But enough about music, let’s get to the first thing on many people’s minds: FREE STUFF! Similar in theory (if not in content) to the gift bags filled with iPods, designer clothing and blingage you read about A-list actors receiving at Sundance, the CMJ gift bag is a magical combination of promotional ephemera, plastic junk and CDs you will never listen to, with a couple of pins and the occasional “WTF?” item thrown in for good measure (this year’s: a G.I. Joe’s severed head). Here’s the breakdown of this year’s goodie bag, by the numbers:

» Number of fliers, publications and other paper-based products: 119, including a 94-page edition of the CMJ New Music Report, a poster for the Gorillaz’s “Rise of the Ogre” autobiography, a postcard with Borat’s face on it, and a flier for the Center for Neurofeedback and Integrative Health, Inc.

» Number of Energy Drinks: 1: UpShot — “the smallest, most powerful energy drink” and proud sponsors of the “Kickass Tour.”

» Number of Energy Drinks That Don’t Taste Like a Robitussin/Espresso Combo: 0

» Number of Condoms: 1

» Number of Promotional Cigarette Tins and/or sets of Monsters of Indie Rock trading cards: 2. The cards especially rule, conjuring up fleeting memories from our Donruss-fueled youths. Plus, now we’ve totally got a Bob Pollard in mint condition.

» Number of Action-Figure Heads: 1, promoting the return of “Kung-Fu Grip” G.I. Joe figures to Hot Topic Stores nationwide.

» Number of Sampler CDs: 6, plus a full copy of Public Enemy’s underwhelming New Whirl Odor. Best of the bunch? Either the disc for “powerful, aggressive” rockers Box of Poems (“Currently Unsigned”!) or the full-blown rancor of the sampler from Psychopathic Records: home to such luminaries as Insane Clown Posse and Dark Lotus and, as the raspy-voiced man on the disc tells us, “the label that runs beneath the streets.”

Tuesday, October 31

As music-industry conferences go, the CMJ Music Marathon is a rougher ride than South by Southwest. It’s more cluttered and confusing, with hundreds of bands playing at nearly 70 venues scattered across Manhattan, Brooklyn and Hoboken, New Jersey, between Wednesday and Saturday. Assembling a “must-see” list practically requires a degree in quantum mechanics with a minor in cartography. The lines are a bit longer, the crowds a bit angrier and the haircuts more asymmetrical.

Though Austin, Texas’ 20-year-old SXSW schmoozefest draws bigger names these days, CMJ is older (the 2006 edition marks its 26th year in the Big Apple), and it has catapulted more acts to stardom, with a list of alumni that includes U2, Beastie Boys, Soundgarden, Green Day and the Killers. It’s heavily attended by music-industry executives (and wannabes), college-radio personnel (ditto), musicians (yep) and even fans, some of whom will attend the discussion panels and speeches that take place during the day; all of whom will try their best to get into the most buzzed-about gigs and parties at night, and who will try to see (and rub elbows with) today’s most promising up-and-coming artists while spending as little money doing so as possible.

The most exciting shows, early in the week, look to be hyper-literate songsmiths the Decemberists, power-pop titans the Shins, L.A. buzz band the Cold War Kids, Swedish sibling duo the Knife and an unlisted show from boozy, Bruce-y Brooklyn rockers the Hold Steady.

None of this is news to the jaded types who attend the convention, but we’d like to think that at least some of our readers aren’t bloggers or publicists or business-savvy musicians, but real music fans who’ve probably never been to CMJ or SXSW (because passes to the weeklong conferences are expensive). So we’re going to try and bring the experience of CMJ to you. There will be loads of info about bands and music, but also about packed clubs, mile-long lines, surly bouncers and late-night quests for pizza. We’ll trek from the seediest clubs to the 2,000-capacity concert halls, analyze the vaunted CMJ gift bag, crash the discussion panels and as many parties as we can get into.

We’ve got an elite squadron of writers on the ground, gig lists in hand, ready to report and — most certainly — rock. Check one-two! Let’s do it!

[This story was originally published on 11.02.2006 at 2:01 p.m. ET.]