Frederick Foxtrott’s CMJ Music Marathon Review
This year I had three days in my schedule to attend College Music Journal’s annual marathon of music that takes place all across New York City. Over a thousand bands played over 200 venues over the past week. This does not even count the hundreds of unofficial CMJ events featuring a myriad of other shows. As a former server in New York’s late night Meatpacking District, I have come to value my nights and weekends. Now that I have a right and proper day job, I could see three nights of shows in a row. This is unheard of people.
It would have been great to have had the CMJ pass so that I could wander from venue to venue seeing only the bands I personally chose. However, I did not and was left to spectacles that only chance would provide. Sometimes, when I go to shows, I catch the rare opening act that blows my mind, or at least provokes me to think about buying their next EP. Other times I shake my head and wonder what possessed me to show up early yet again. This year at CMJ there was plenty of both scenarios. Over-all it was a great experience. I not only saw some of my favorite bands, but I also got the opportunity to introduce them to others as well. I wasn’t the least bit afraid that I had over hyped them, and they did not disappoint. The following reviews are from my notes, diligently taken over three nights and over many, many beers.
Thursday October 18th 2007
The Bowery Ballroom
The Grey Race
The Grey Race is a Travis-esque Brit rock band that would fit right at home on America’s lucrative adult contemporary radio stations. They were so unabrasive to the point of being silly. After immediately judging their sound, I leaned in a little closer to make out what they were saying. This is what I encountered: “Surrender me to the sky…your soul will rise… high…from here…” Not the most inspirational lyrics- but perfect for adult contemporary radio. Too bad The Grey Race missed the post-”grunge” commoditization of early-nineties rock and roll. They would have made a killing with the likes of Tonic, Semisonic, and Better Than Ezra. While indie music might have a reputation for failing to be marketable and radio-friendly, The Grey Race seems determined to change such stereotypes.
Stardeath and White Dwarfs
Wow! Okay, I know most bands with substandard talent and dull artistic skills often throw crazy colored track lights and bright white retina incinerators on stage in hopes that the blinding antics will somehow mask their egregious lack of anything interesting. But what happens when this same visual carnage is accompanied by radical lead-heavy metal riffs reminiscent of Black Sabbath circa 1970? With the faint scent of War Pigs lingering in the air, this Oklahoma City quartet impresses not only with an awesome light set-up, but also with their incredible sound.
Stardeath and White Dwarfs‘ lead singer Dennis Coyne, clad in a shamrock-green jumpsuit complete with rainbow colored leg stripes, thickened his vocals with cavernous reverb, while a droney synth-organ opened every pore of every show-goer so they could fully absorb the spectacle before them. Each member of this band worked off a constant beat that culminated in an epic dirge. Watching this show was like watching a live action Rainbow Brite episode while listening to Deep Purple on acid.
Complete with drum solos, this arena rock act transformed the sparsely populated Bowery Ballroom into a coliseum. This rare hybrid of modern experimental art-rock and truly classic heavy-metal can be compared to acts like The Mars Volta, but these upstarts have something truly singular about them. The set was far too short for these heavy handed rockers.
The Stardeath’s weirdness is a bit reminiscent of something that The Flaming Lips would conjure up. Speaking of which, I am not exactly sure what to think about Dennis Coyne’s relationship to Wayne Coyne, lead singer of the Lips. Dennis is Wayne’s little nephew. Thankfully, I wasn’t aware of this relationship before I penned my notes for the band, and I am confident that Stardeath and White Dwarfs have a future of their own, despite whatever may have fueled their initial up-rise.
Tiny Masters of Today
As brother and sister act Tiny Masters of Today began to set up their equipment (or should I say as Tiny Masters’ road crew set up their equipment), I looked around and thought to myself, “How is this show sold out? The venue is nearly empty” I had heard about this band from various music-zines. They have been praised by many highly influential music aficionados, including my own favorite obsession David Bowie who labeled them “genius”. The band lists other praises on their web site:
“These kids are heroes.”– NME
“…the coolest young band in the world right now.”– Observer Music Monthly
“…remarkable”– Newsweek Magazine
These little guys had plenty of press. My first guess as to why the venue was so empty was that people had forgotten that they had purchased tickets to the show. My later impression was that more astute people had been privy to better information than I had.
The kids came out and put their instruments on. I was afraid they were going to fall over from the weight of the guitars, especially Ada who lugged the bass as her drummer tuned it for her. They looked so nervous, but I had to give them credit. They were on stage at The Bowery Ballroom at ages 11 and 13. Ivan, the waif of a brother, looked so emaciated and malnourished that I am surprised he had the strength to lift his guitar. I would have chalked it up the harsh rock star life style, but I am pretty sure that he isn’t even out of middle school yet.
All sorts of cameras were brought out to videotape this momentous event, including a camera so large that the director who wore it needed a brace. This was obviously a big deal. In the middle of the floor, where the fans congregated, three chicks were getting a lot of attention from the director dressed in linen. They looked like sorority girls out at a club dressed for “indie” night. I also happened to notice that they had microphones and wires going up their shirts. What was this? Was this part of Tiny Masters’ act?
As the kids began their show, a lot of support came from the crowd. After all, they were just kids. The three sorority chicks danced like they were having a good time, while the camera zoomed in on them. Something struck me as odd about this show. It seemed entirely fabricated. The truth is that Tiny Masters of Today weren’t any good. The expression on their faces didn’t project apathy or angst, it was pure fear. The grown-up drummer kept looking for cues. He too looked afraid, like a parent at a recital mouthing the words with their child as they sing their solo. The guitar work was terrible. I began to understand that this in fact wasn’t a band at all. It is a project- a very adult project, exploiting these kids as a marketing tool. Who thought this shit up? I love you more than you will ever know Mr. Bowie, but what the hell were you thinking?
If this was an attempt to prove “indie” music’s mindlessness, then so be it. Every head bobbing audience member who didn’t get a bit creeped out by the whole affair was complicit. I feel kind of sorry for these kids. I hope they at least get a college trust fund out of the deal. This was the ultimate contrivance. I saw a glimmer of goodness, and I saw a sliver of their appeal, but the context in which it was displayed dismantled whatever legitimacy they might have had. Did the band know that the paid actors in the crowd completely detracted from their already suffering show?
Incidentally, on the last song I walked out of the venue to make a call. Standing there outside were the three sorority chicks receiving pointers from the director. After the motivational speech, the girls and the man dressed in linen returned inside and I followed. When I got back to the floor, the crowd had over doubled in size. The cameras were out filming again and the girls were having their good time in a much bigger crowd. I truly hope that they aren’t going to edit in 1990’s crowd to subsidize their own dearth of fans.
As I mentioned above, at the end of Tiny Masters, I counted 70 people including staff. By the beginning of 1990’s that number had over doubled. The crowd was ready for a show, obviously enjoying 1990’s immensely. They were a pretty generic rock band heavily influenced by The Rolling Stones. Before I noticed that a band member sported a lips and tongue logo on his shirt, I remember thinking, “Gosh will The Stones’ far reaching claw of rockdom ever shrivel and die?” They reminded me a bit of Kings of Leon with bell bottoms. The guitar was great. I had good time listening to him whale…I mean really whale. All together their show was about as blasé as this review.
Bill McCarthy came out and surveyed his instruments, polished the guitars, and folded his sweat rag with almost OCD precision. Rather than have someone else set his gear up, McCarthy had to have control. This can be either a very good or bad characteristic in a musician. Either the songs are performed with such methodical exactitude that it comes off sounding flat and too rehearsed, or it can end up sounding great, having the perfect balance of tight musicianship and passion. Luckily for us at the show, it was the latter. When the rest of the band joined him on stage the crowd applauded with zeal. This was obviously the show people had come to see, and after suffering a couple of very sub-par acts, they were eager to watch a show with talent. Stardeath had been a worthwhile hors d’oeuvre, but now it was past time for the main course.
Pela’s opener, Waiting on the Stairs, was slightly expected and entirely perfect. Although, I kind of wish they would have played it again in the middle and then again at the end. I could hear that song indefinitely. Their live performance bumped the emotive prowess of the songs to yet another staggeringly stupid level. It wasn’t until then that I realized how many times I must have listened to Anytown Graffiti. I knew nearly every word to every song. Other highlights included Cavalry and Song Writes Itself. With these songs, Pela played every note as if they were a singular and meaningful event.
I have always been nervous to see bands that I really love because I am afraid that my expectations will exceed their product. Pela met my expectations and then some. Tomislav Zovich’s drum work was ultra tight and inoffensively crisp. Nate Martinez’s guitar forms somewhat of the backbone of Pela’s sound. It is hard to visualize from listening only to the record but Martinez, who plays his brand of rock and roll with exceptional skill, is as much responsible for Pela’s success as is McCarthy’s lyrics and vocals. It was great to watch how the music was constructed and pieced together.
I was also pleased with Pela’s overall presence. McCarthy’s appreciation for the receptive audience was genuine. Between songs, and wiping the sweat from his brow, he made sure to thank the crowd with incredible enthusiasm. McCarthy constantly smiled and looked as if he was having an amazing time. This may be the most charming thing about Pela. The band looks as if they enjoy what they do together. It was Pela’s last show of the year before they return to a studio in California to record their follow-up to Anytown Graffiti. They played what seemed like a full set and I know the crowd would have preferred that they play two more just like it. Pela must be proud of their work and I wish them the best of luck on their new record.
British Sea Power
I didn’t bother to stay for dessert. Read my review of British Sea Power- Open Season.