CMJ:Bands Dream Globally, Play Locally

By JON PARELES NY Times 10/25/10

The sweetest white lie of the CMJ Music Marathon came from the folky songwriter Lia Ices, leading her band at the Lower East Side club Pianos on Thursday night. While half the crowd chatted indifferently, she sang, “For only you I sing, for only you.” Yet Ms. Ices, whose debut album is due in January, was playing CMJ, along with more than 1,000 other groups, for precisely the opposite reason. She was seeking a chance to be heard, sooner or later, by a larger audience.

The five-day music marathon, an annual event since 1980, is a showcase for the hopeful and the tenacious: baby bands trying to convert blog mentions into tour dates, indie-circuit troupers reminding the world they still exist, a few big names seeking indie credibility. Kanye West performed on Saturday night at the #Offline Festival, presented at the Brooklyn Bowl by the online music magazine Pitchfork as a challenge to CMJ (and featuring repeat appearances by many CMJ bands).

A concert at Madison Square Garden by the French band Phoenix, with Dirty Projectors and Wavves, implied that indie-rock could reach a big audience; the elusive Daft Punk made a surprise appearance. Daniel Lanois, U2’s producer, brought the duo version of his band Black Dub — playing guitar with the soulful singer Trixie Whitley — to the tiny Rockwood Music Hall on Saturday.

Nearly all the CMJ showcases were club size. On the streets of the Lower East Side and Williamsburg, where most of the showcases took place, conversations revolved around T-shirt sales, licensing deals, corporate sponsors, tour arrangements and other ways musicians are making a livelihood now that they can’t count on sales of recordings.

Part of the marathon, for those who paid $295 to $495 to register, was a convention held at New York University, with panel discussions promising advice on surviving in the music business. Many exhibitors were Internet middlemen, promising evaluation, exposure and marketing — for a percentage of course.

Despite the raw number of bands, this was clearly a recession-era CMJ. With the Internet as a perpetual showcase for music, and blogs frantically competing to discover the newest acts, a live appearance at CMJ (or its larger, better-organized springtime counterpart, South by Southwest in Austin) is no longer the only way for a band to be heard.

This year, it seemed, CMJ was less of a magnet than in the past for bands from around the United States; apparently they saved their gas money and updated their Web pages instead. A huge majority of showcase slots went to musicians from New York City, particularly Brooklyn — which, luckily, has good bands galore. When Brahms, a synthesizer-driven band from Brooklyn, played an afternoon show on Tuesday, its lead singer, Cale Parks, announced that he had walked to the club from his day job.

The music too has grown leaner and more direct. Solo and two-member bands were all over CMJ, like Buke and Gass, who played dizzying two-guitar polyrhythms, and She Keeps Bees, a stark, bluesy guitar-and-drums duo. So were tracks played from laptops, like the perky electropop of Oh Land and the crashing beats and giddy falsetto of Baths.

Perhaps by coincidence, the last night of CMJ included a concert by the 1970s synth-pop hit maker Gary Numan, who could have heard echoes of his music (and his old equipment) throughout CMJ. But indie-rock has also been studying hip-hop, with its harsher, junkier sounds and bruising low bass. Salem, a three-member group that’s an unlikely combination of ethereality and low-end impact, played a set as murky and imposing as the smoke-machine haze that enveloped it.

Meanwhile hip-hop has been studying indie-rock; the teenage rapper Dominique Young Unique raced through tracks that kept switching genre. The rap group Das Racist proved it’s not a novelty act by shouting its way through smart, allusion-slinging songs that grapple with, among other things, identity politics and brand recognition.

Where indie-rock has long been a haven for experimentation, now bands are hunkering down to make people dance or offer simple, singalong choruses, suitable for the pop radio of yesteryear. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., from Detroit, piled on jokey visuals suggesting some satire of commercialism — Nascar-style coveralls, big light-up letters for JR JR — yet sang wistful love songs reminiscent of Hall and Oates.

Beach Fossils, from Brooklyn, merged surf-rock reverb with the catchy guitar layers of 1980s new wave. Zowie, from New Zealand, sang tough-girl taunts atop pushy dance-rock beats, part 1980s throwback and part club contender. And there was no shortage of singer-songwriters playing semiconfessional songs that would welcome TV or movie soundtrack placements.

But in a showcase as sprawling as CMJ, pop was far from the only option. Morning Teleportation, from Portland, Ore., and Royal Bangs, from Knoxville, Tenn., crammed ideas into songs that leaped impatiently, and gleefully, from style to style. Glasser and Prince Rama, in very different ways, treated songs like rituals — one meditative and hinting at Asia, one splashy and psychedelic. Braids, from Montreal, played rhapsodic songs, with stretches of tinkling Minimalism cresting in rock and surprisingly blunt lyrics, that reward long attention spans. Another Montreal band, Suuns, played a set of brilliant, riveting permutations on the drone.

Indie-rock can be nostalgic for its own past — perhaps rightfully so. Cloud Nothings, from Cleveland, played good old punk-pop as a nerd’s revenge, pounding and scrabbling to make good tunes frenetic. No Joy was one among many bands hunched over guitars and busily rekindling the tremolo, feedback and overtones of late-1980s shoegazer rock — a tingling, immersive experience that still can’t be downloaded.

Five days of the CMJ Music Marathon is an annual reminder of how much music is being made with more creativity than budget, and of the odds facing even the most determined players. One model for CMJ’s digital-era music careers was defined by the three-woman Supercute!, who had an indoor showcase on Tuesday but spent much of the festival on a Ludlow Street sidewalk by a chain-link fence, under a No Parking sign. The trio wore shiny clothes and strummed ukuleles while twirling Hula Hoops, singing tunes by Led Zeppelin and Melanie. (They have their own too.) They were selling CDs, accepting donations and working hard for every bit they earned.

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