The 35th annual CMJ Music Marathon – aka everyone’s best chance to burn through their remaining sick days by year’s end – took place last week and as always, the FREEwilliamsburg team was on hand taking in the sights and, more importantly, the sounds of the five day festival. Here’s what we took away from it all, aside from raging head colds.
Chris Quartly: I ended up saving the best until last this year, Lilys closed out the Brooklyn Vegan showcase at Baby’s All Right on Saturday and with 5 guitarists on stage, they blazed through a heavy dreampop set. With an ensemble cast of players from MGMT and Ducktails, the group were tight and laid down a wall of sound that was powerful without being impenetrable. The band are about to re-issue third record, Eccsame the Photon Band, but it was a treat to hear this rather nomadic artist, who has overseen some 70-plus musicians over the course of the band’s history, simply at all.
Honorable mentions: Protomartyr at Santos Party House, Solids at Cake Shop (featured image), Mercury Girls at Pianos, Cool Ghouls, Chocolat and Heaters at Berlin.
Peter Rittweger: Perhaps Protomartyr’s Joe Casey was as put off by the ten dollar well whiskeys at the bar as I was last Wednesday night, because, PBR swilling aside, he seemed stone sober as he took the stage at Santos Party House. His band may be a drinking band in the Hemingway tradition, but I previously suspected that a high level of intoxication may have played a hand in their live sets underwhelming me over the past couple of years. They’re the drunk dudes at the bar that are impossible to beat at trivia, sure, but they seemed to play with a renewed focus that suited them well. Sober or not, Casey’s band delivered a performance that I wouldn’t only qualify as their personal best, but also the best at CMJ by a considerable measure. That The Agent Intellect is their strongest source material to date obviously played a part, but the Detroit post-punks were out there with guns blazing, cohesively firing on all cylinders like a band with the chops to be the next big guitar band should.
Honorable mentions: Flagland at Palisades, PC Worship at Bowery Ballroom, Palehound at Pianos, The Album Leaf at Baby’s All Right
Coleman Bentley: Though the just-read-the-NYT-profile crowd and baby’s-first-pit antics definitely soured the overall experience, Destruction Unit nonetheless turned in one of the best sets of CMJ at the Panache Booking’s annual Baby’s All Right showcase on Friday. Bathed in walls of bristling feedback and the gloom of a darkened stage, Rousseau and co. churned through a characteristically hairball set of formless psych punk that left more than a few ear drums (and Baby’s Alright ceiling panels) very fucked up, indeed. Needless to say, if you somehow missed out on D-Unit this year, then you have some serious life stuff to reevaluate.
Honorable Mentions: Protomartyr at Santos Party House, Car Seat Headrest at Santos Party House
Chris Quartly: This isn’t the spirit of the question, but the biggest surprise was that this years CMJ marked my first visits to Palisades. Not for the lack of trying, it just hadn’t happened for a variety of reasons. Who knew Car Seat Headrest would rock so much live? Seeing legendary drummer, Budgie, with John Grant was a delightful surprise, but maybe the one thing that took me aback was PC Worship‘s set opening for Panda Bear. I’ve seen the band a few times and always enjoyed their sonic experiments, but here was a band with a really tight, concise set, almost like Sonic Youth going from Confusion is Sex to Goo.
Peter Rittweger: Part of me wants to tell you all about how much Car Seat Headrest blew me away, but Matador’s PR team and pretty much every blogger this week (including some of us) is going to do that. Instead… who the hell knew The Album Leaf had so much left in the tank? Post-rock is kind of “in” again thanks to Deafheaven, so it’s the perfect time for Jimmy Lavelle to fire up the ol’ Rhodes Piano and make us all contemplate our existence again. If you got out the door early enough to catch their 1 PM set at Baby’s on Friday, you were rewarded with an emotional, cinematic performance and free Bell’s Oktoberfest before the keg was kicked.
Coleman Bentley: Sure, the away-from-bedroom prowess of Car Seat Headrest was definitely a contender, but the award for biggest CMJ surprise unequivocally goes to Flagland. While always dependable songwriters and consummate showmen, the winking, Ween-indebted Brooklyn trio arrived at Palisades on Friday armed with two twisting, turning 15-minute epics that are sure to reduce everything you know about Flagland to rubble and rebuild it from the ground up. There are some wrinkles left to be ironed out—and a broken kick drum didn’t help—but with everything from face-melting bass solos to concept album story telling now on the table, the future of Flagland looks wet, wild, weird, and wonderful.
Chris Quartly: I’m going to nominate the Kanine Records showcase at Pianos, which seemed to amass most of the bands I was hoping to see, with the likes of Mercury Girls, Car Seat Headrest, Wildhoney, Expert Alterations, Mothers, Beverly, Eternal Summers and Shopping (more on them later), and more, all occupying the two floors over the course of the daytime. Other worthy nominations are Brooklyn Vegan’s Saturday showcase, which ran from midday until midnight, and the psych-heavy Float Upstream party at Berlin, where I caught Cool Ghouls, Chocolat and Heaters, all of whom vied for my favourite set of CMJ.
Peter Rittweger: Shade over drink prices aside, the Popgun/NME showcase at Santos Party House on Wednesday night really can’t be beat. Protomartyr outclassed everyone I saw last week, Car Seat Headrest proved they’re worthy of all the buzz, Yung managed a passable Sunny Day Real Estate impression and Hooten Tennis Club weren’t nearly as offensive as their name suggests. I left after Protomartyr, but I’m sure Downtown Boys put on an impassioned, high-energy performance as they always do, and Perfect Pussy is a good buzzy headline that everyone loves to love and/or hate.
Coleman Bentley: The good folks over at Ad Hoc definitely get some daps for their killer, non-CMJ Car Wash lineup on Saturday, the best official CMJ lineup probably has to go to Titus Andronicus, Ex Hex, and Spider Bags The Warsaw on Friday evening. The sell-out status and pierogis certainly bolster that argument, but really, just get out and see anyone of these bands live on their own and you’ll understand why all three on the same bill is so damn awesome.
Chris Quartly: There are many contenders here, and the interesting thing I find about CMJ is venues I don’t tend to go to end up bringing their A-Game to CMJ, the aforementioned Pianos being a prime example, Knitting Factory always seems to step up a level, and Baby’s All Right continues to draw most bands. However, the winners for me are again Cake Shop, who just about had every band I wanted to see (check their complete CMJ list here). Since we’re on the subject, Cake Shop has been steadily making improvements in the last six months, with free wi-fi downstairs, improved lighting, a new website, and small plates served upstairs; my already-favourite Manhattan music venue is reaching for even higher ground.
Peter Rittweger: I’m going to show some love for Palisades, because if I didn’t end up there every day, I at least debated it. The Exploding In Sound showcase on Friday nearly nabbed the gold medal in the “Best Showcase” category for me, and probably only lost out because I can see Big Ups, LVL Up, Flagland, Washer and Greys at Shea Stadium at least two or three times a month. If I wasn’t craving a venue change, I’d likely have stuck around for their show later that evening with Pity Sex, Makthaverskan and Teen Suicide. They score extra points for being the iron men too, with one of the few Sunday shows, highlighted by the criminally underrated garage duo PWR BTTM, Bethlehem Steele and Diet Cig.
Coleman Bentley: I have to give Palisades the nod here as well, largely on the back of Friday’s killer Exploding in Sound showcase and Saturday’s free and stacked Run For Cover Records throwdown. If you aren’t already showing this JMZ jewel some love, then now’s the time to start.
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY
Chris Quartly: I really wanted to see Shopping, but it just didn’t work out for a myriad of reasons, most of which aren’t good as they played multiple showcases I went to but left to see something else. Fool me once…
Peter Rittweger: You know what? This is the first year I saw basically everything I wanted to see. I would have liked to have stopped by the Collect Records showcase, because I’m a huge, unabashed fan of Geoff Rickley, but Wax Idols, another set from Creepoid (who are great, but I’ve seen several times before) and the atmospheric nu-metal of Lostprophets x Thursday are not enough to get me in the door. If Nothing hadn’t dropped off, I’d probably have made an appearance. I guess I’m voting for Nothing?
Coleman Bentley: LVL UP. That’s it. That’s all. These dudes are the best band in Brooklyn at the moment and yet a multitude of the usual CMJ variables (timing, friends, illness, etc) prevented from seeing them. Now let’s stop talking about it before I get worked up again.
Chris Quartly: I feel as though CMJ trimmed a lot of fat this year, literally in the sense that I wasn’t submerged in a vat of free pizza and beer at most shows. Similarly, there seemed to be less focus on established acts and larger venues and more on upcoming groups ploughing through set after set. This to me, is what CMJ is about; no gimmicks, just bands playing midday until 2am every night. I saw more bands that were new to me and finally managed to visit some new venues. Almost every event I attended ran on time, which is a big plus when you’re hopping around from venue to venue. Looking forward to next year already.
Peter Rittweger: This year’s CMJ felt different from the moment I walked through the door of the press mixer. For one, it was at The Dream Downtown instead of the Hotel on Rivington. They also fed us this time, instead of just getting us drunk (they got us drunk too.) I soon learned, via the mixer’s keynote speaker, Adam Klein, that CMJ’s ownership had changed hands (to he and his group), and the brand would be undergoing some changes. A tech day had been added to the “Music Marathon” and CMJ’s mission statement would be altered a bit to focus on foreign artists opening up new markets overseas. They’d also be working year-round to expose new artists to the masses, instead of only at the “Music Marathon.” These changes are likely necessary for the brand’s survival, and were somewhat evident with lots of foreign bands on CMJ bills this year (Car Seat Headrest, Makthaverskan and Yung are a few highlights.)
I’d agree with Chris and say that much of the fat seemed to have been trimmed. There were fewer showcases this year (or at least it felt that way) and the whole experience was less overwhelming than in past years. There weren’t many established bands (Panda Bear, Blonde Redhead and The Front Bottoms aside) distracting from the fest’s mission statement. Everything seemed to run smoother; as Chris alluded to. Almost every set was on time. The changes were mostly subtle and positive, but I felt an underlying “corporate” efficiency to everything. DIY venues were underrepresented, and the best showcase of the weekend wasn’t even affiliated with CMJ; whereas in past years they’d at least slap an “unofficial” tag on the placard. It reminds me of the Northside Festival, which was also revamped this year in a similar fashion.
In this context, one could read Destruction Unit playing in the dark and ripping soundproof pads off the ceiling at Baby’s All Right on Friday night as an act of rebellion. It probably meant nothing, and the narrative I’m outlying here requires equal parts cynicism and naiveté to entertain with a straight face. As I said above, change is probably necessary for CMJ to survive as a brand like all things “indie” in the post-internet, commodified content era. Conde Nast has, and will continue to come knocking. I’m not sure what the future will bring for CMJ. I’m glad the marathon will live on, at least for now, because it has been struggling; but I’m fearful that the Our Band Could Be Your Life-esque spirit and ethos of the “College Media Journal” will be forever lost, if it even exists anymore. Time will tell, and we will march forward with trepidation.
Coleman Bentley: As Roger Daltrey once howled, meet the new CMJ, same as the old CMJ. And while that may sound cynical (and lyrically a little off), the simple fact is CMJ didn’t need a full organ transplant as much as a shot of Botox here and a nip/tuck there. In the end, that’s exactly what it got, with a discovery-predicated show roster, music-first showcases, and a one-stop Dream Hotel hub leading the way. In the end, the experience didn’t differ too much from year’s past, but, in my increasing old age and stubbornness, that remains quite all right with me.