Heaven's Gate at 285 Kent -- one of the best sets I saw at CMJ. Hey you guys, come play at my house.After several years of attending the CMJ Music Marathon as a college radio music director, I've learned that wandering around on Ludlow Street hoping to "stumble upon" new music is a waste of time. Festivals like CMJ, in general, are ineffective ways to "discover" music -- these day they are mostly only a nice platform for international touring bands to work a tour around, since they can often receive government funding and logistical assistance to play showcases curated by their national arts councils.
Instead, this year I went for just the weekend, with a more careful agenda of unofficial showcases: Friday night's Pitchfork show with Merchandise, Metz, Hundred Waters, Death Grips, and DIIV; Saturday night's Arbutus Records show at Death By Audio; and the Sunday daytime showcase I booked with Hilly Eye, Heaven's Gate, So Cow, Squarehead and four more, presented by the Phoenix and WFNX.
In between, I also knew I really wanted to see Savages, who were on tour from the UK; Eternal Summers, a favorite I hadn't seen in months; and a not-CMJ-affiliated Sunday night show at Bowery Ballroom with Merchandise and Mac Demarco.
Savages (played Friday @ Public Assembly)At the awkward hour of 3pm, I found a tiny inch of space near the back of the bar at Public Assembly, which was packed out from wall to wall for Savages, a dark post-punk 4-piece from the UK who came to CMJ to play their first American shows. The band -- vocalist Jehnny Beth, bassist Ayse Hassan, drummer Fay Milton, and guitarist Gemma Thompson -- played their first show in January 2012 and remain unsigned. Their Friday afternoon was loud and mesmerizing; it was hard for me to do anything but hold my forearms, stare intently at the singer, and rock back and forth, listening to every word. Because of the way music journalism works, I'm sure their imminent record reviews will repeatedly only compare their front-woman to post-punk singers of her gender, like Siouxsie Sioux, but that is lazy. What Savages are creating is something less referrential, more careful, equally aggressive as they are entrancing. Here's a video from their Public Assembly set that I found on the Internet:
Eternal Summers "Millions" is definitely one of the best songs of 2012.Eternal Summers (played Friday @ Cameo Gallery)In the last moments of Eternal Summers' set at the Kanine Records showcase, Nicole Yun fell to her knees in front of her guitar amp, hitting her fret board into the amp to force out every ounce of noise possible. This was all after a set that found her shredding on the band's new songs, which are all inflicted with an air of noise and fierceness previously missing from the band's melodic indie-pop songcraft. The set was also heavy with hits from their recent album, Correct Behaviors, possibly one of the year's most underappreciated records. ("Millions" is the track to check out, if you haven't.) Eternal Summers have been playing around for a few years now, but the new songs they played during this set left me pretty confident that their best record is yet to come.
TOPS are the best.TOPS (played Saturday night @ Death by Audio during the Arbutus Records showcase)Something about Arbutus Records feels really pure. And a testament to that was their Saturday night show at Brooklyn's Death By Audio, far removed from the corporate sponsors and typical badge-only bullshit one might find surrounding real CMJ shows. The show's line up included acts from the label's Montreal DIY community: Blue Hawaii, Doldrums, TOPS, Majical Cloudz. For me, the highlight of their showcase was TOPS, who I wrote about during SXSW. Their LP Tender Opposites is one of my favorite records of 2012. Here’s a new video for a track from that record, “Double Vision”.
The Arbutus Records story is simple but inspiring: a bunch of friends moved into warehouses in Montreal, started making music and booking shows for each other, and eventually one of the dudes who lived in one of those spaces, Sebastian Cowan, saw the potential in it and started releasing CD-Rs by his friends' bands. I was reading an article on NME's site about Arbutus Records the other day and stumbled upon a particularly telling story about Cowan. Apparently he was working for Beggars and XL in the UK as an intern, when Sony offered him a full-time 5-year contract, but he stuck to his values instead. "I didn't wanna have such a creative time in my life sucked away, working for someone else that I don't even know if I really believe in," he told NME. "I thought, 'When am I gonna have my adventure?'" That sort of ethos seems to drive this label, which is more about ethics than aesthetics.
&amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;a href="http://heavensgate.bandcamp.com/album/high-riser-7"&amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;HIGH RISER 7&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;quot; by Heaven's Gate&amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/a&amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
Heaven's Gate (played Sunday @ 285 Kent)To be real, I could write enthusiastically about every band who played the Phoenix/WFNX showcase on Sunday. But the most startlingly excellent set was from Heaven’s Gate, who played late in the afternoon. Heaven’s Gate is made of some former members of Sweet Bulbs and Weed Hounds, two Brooklyn bands who I loved very much before they each disbanded. Their few recordings are scrappy noise-pop and shoegaze marked by Jess Paps’ moody vox. But live, the guitars and drums were more aggressive and confident. It left me feeling excited for their record. Until that happens I'll probably be spending a bunch of time bugging them to come to Boston and play at my house.Merchandise @ Villain
Merchandise (Friday night @ Villain / Sunday night @ Bowery Ballroom)Pitchfork’s line-up at Villain was an obvious choice for Friday night: Merchandise, Metz, Hundred Waters, Death Grips, DIIV, Angel Haze, and a bunch of other names pegged as “must sees” not just at CMJ, but in cities everywhere this year in general. I attended most excited to see Merchandise, whose most recent LP Children of Desire has been one of my most played over the past few months. In a short frame of time, songs like “Become What You Are” and “Time” have become some of my favorites of the year, partially for their singer’s gripping voice and partially for their poignant lyrics. On Friday night, they had some sound issues. It seemed to affect the mood of their set. (Unrelated to songs, this set included the best between-song stage banter I heard all weekend. Staring into the CMJ/P4k crowd who for some unthinkable reason seemed bored by this performance, Carson Cox said, “You all look very interesting. You all look like you have a lot to say.”) It was fitting that by the end of the set, a couple was making out amidst a push pit; like a perfect summation of the romanticism and chaos that Merchandise balance in their songs. On Sunday night at Bowery Ballroom, I saw Merchandise again, playing with Mac DeMarco and Wild Nothing. The sound was spot-on. I left with feeling a similar energy about this band that I did when I saw them at What We Talk About last month, a punk practice space in Allston. There’s something about their songs that are really striking; they really send you back into your mind and make you think about what’s important. I'm sure Merchandise had their reservations about playing at Bowery Ballroom. Until now, during trips to New York, they’d only played at warehouses and punk bars. They did call it "the most beautiful place we've ever played at" though. And at least this show had nothing to do with CMJ? In retrospect, nothing else I did this weekend really had anything to do with CMJ either.