My own personal CMJ companion and erstwhile guide, Amanda Marcotte, had to fly back to Austin Friday AM, so for the last two days I was left to my own devices. I elected to revisit Le Poisson Rouge and the Bell House to see what the showcases there had to offer. (You know what they say about the lure of returning to the scene of the crime.)
I got to LPR in time to catch about half of the set by Staten Island's own Cymbals Eat Guitars. It's hard not to love a band named after a sonic phenomenon. They are a very young outfit that's been getting a fair bit of love this year from the indie blogs (and Pitchfork, natch) -- to the point where they're about to open for Wilco and the Flaming Lips on some European hits. Frontman Joseph D’Agostino sings in heartfelt yelp that doesn't really do a whole lot for me, and it sounds like the kids could use maybe a touch more road-seasoning yet, but their blend of sunny hooks and grungy lo-fi textures is very artfully done.
Speaking of road-seasoning, sweet Christmas has it done wonders for singer-songwriter Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson. I first saw him a couple of years ago, opening for TV On The Radio at a very wet McCarren Pool Party. He was (endearingly) awkward in front of all those people; he clearly had a long way to go as a performer. Since then, he's released a critically-praised, confessional self-titled debut record, and his more ambitiously-produced followup, Summer of Fear, is just out. (FWIW, Time Out New York listed him as a "Musician to Watch in 2009" -- along with, uh, yrstruly.)
MBAR gets the Dylan comparison a lot, on account of his quirky, conversational phrasing and slightly nasally voice, but what really drives the point home is his band (which I am almost positive are not the same players I heard at McCarren), who all sound like they have committed every frame of The Last Waltz to memory.
In particular, MBAR's drummer is by far the best drummer I heard at CMJ -- even doing a simple backwards groove with hihat on 1 & 3, bass drum on 2 & 4, and a basic eighth pattern on maracas, he grooved like mad. Meanwhile, Miles has transformed himself from a shy, gawkish, introverted singer-songwriter into a full-bore showman -- I mean, check this shit out:
(Note the socks.) This all might seem just a little bit much if MBAR wasn't so disarmingly sincere and unaffected -- and the songs still feel intimate and personal, too, just painted on a bigger, brighter canvas. Plus, he was clearly having a fucking great time up there -- and how could you not, with such a killing band?
That was it for the LPR lineup, so I decamped to the Bell House for the Polyvinyl showcase. When I got there, James Husband & co. were on stage, clearly not having a good time. The leader's appeal for silence from the talkative, mostly indifferent crowd (who were there to hear the headlining band, Japandroids) did not have the desired effect. According to Wikipedia, this hit was their second ever gig as a band (the first was earlier in the day) and boy did it show. It seemed like there were probably some good songs in there, but when the rhythm section isn't hooking up, nothing else really matters.
Headlights did not have that problem. I'd never heard of the Champaign, Illinois-based group before, but they were the revelation of CMJ for me. The four of them share an authentically deep pocket and they listen to each other really well (which is a much, much rarer quality than you'd think). The first thing that strikes you are the gorgeous, ethereal vocal harmonies -- Erin Fein and Tristan Wraight's voices are surreally well-matched. And the songs are full of clean, jangly guitar lines and Franco-pop synth, with the occasional foray into noise and distortion. But even when all that is done impeccably well, I get bored really quick if the groove isn't happening. What made Headlights work for me was the great rhythm playing all around, (including Erin's tambourine playing -- always nice to see someone defy the usual but not-entriely unfair stereotypes about what happens when a singer picks up the tambourine).
I had a nice chat with Tristan after the show -- he kindly allowed me to buy him a Maker's and listened patiently while I gushed about his set. He also told me a great anecdote: as the band was loading up the vehicle from another CMJ set earlier in the day, they were approached on the street by a stooped and grizzled gentleman who buttonholed Tristan. Here was their conversation (approximately, as far as I remember):
"Guitar player, huh? What amp do you like?"
"Uh, Fender Twin, usually."
"That's a good amp."
"So you're obviously a player yourself. What's your name?"
At this point, Headlights bassist Nick Sanborn interjects:
"Wait. You mean Sonny Rollins' The Bridge Jim Hall?"
"You have got to be shitting me!"
Apparently a very enjoyable 20-minute conversation ensued.
Japandroids are a two-piece guitar-and-drums outfit from my hometown, Vancouver. They are loud and heartfelt and enthusiastically sloppy and their choruses are half-shouted on-the-nose lyrics like "We used to dream, now we worry about dying." It's crunchy, loose pop-punk, and the eighteen-year olds in the crowd went absolutely apeshit for it. I'm told at one point there was crowd-surfing, which I did not see because I left after three songs. My problem is this -- when you have a two-piece band, I think it's pretty important that at least one of you actually be able to sing and/or play an instrument at some minimally competent level. Two is good. One is sufficient (the White Stripes being the obvious Exhibit A here). Zero is problematic.
I definitely respect their balls-to-the-wall commitment, and it sincerely pains me to slag my hometown boys. I recognize I'm pretty much alone here, and I'm not proud of the curmudgeonly instincts this band brings out in me, but seriously. There's a fine line between a gritty, messy, primitive beat and an actual mess, but these guys are so far out on the wrong side of that, I cannot even begin to relate.
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CMJ Day One
CMJ Day Two
CMJ Day Three
MORE:CMJ Day Five