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New York Cool - Music

CMJ at Pianos
Serious Business Records
CMJ's 27th Annual Music Festival
Pianos
Tuesday October 16, 2007

Written by Eric Atienza
Photographed by Amy Davidson

Opposite Photo: Two Gentlemen

 



For almost three decades the CMJ Music Marathon has stood at the forefront of a rapidly changing music scene. It’s become a place for unsigned acts and rising stars to showcase their talents and myriad bands over the years have catapulted from CMJ stages into the national spotlight. At Pianos in the Lower East Side on the first night of CMJ’s 27th annual music festival — spanning dozens of clubs and featuring over a thousand bands — it was Serious Business Records’ turn to exhibit some of its best. The seven acts on display performed in a wide variety of genres underscoring the breadth of the burgeoning label’s catalog, from folk to country to punk to guitar-heavy indie-rock and a few half-steps in between. Linked by a common record company, and occasionally by common band members, the real thread that bound these groups together was their independent spirit, dedication to creating great music on their own terms, and their by and large success in doing so.

Country/folk singer-songwriter Benji Cossa was up first. His offerings of melancholy yet ultimately hopeful tunes delivered by his soft, reedy, on-the-verge-of-faltering voice were completely disarming, delivering personal, touching tones. Cossa’s blending of traditional folk and country stylings with bits of modern rock rhythms created a quiet, pensive mood and conveyed deep and real feelings, seen most notably in a solo acoustic performance of his song “Bad Times are Killing Us.” Completely bare and infinitely expressive, the number was one of the standout moments of the evening.

Most of the backing band could have stayed on the stage as Cossa stepped off since almost everyone accompanying him also played in the next act, Rocketship Park. Continuing along the country music path the band was for the most part decent, standard fare with the occasional flash of brilliance. There was little variation from a mellow country mold in the group’s songs and yet a fantastic drummer and consistently killer vocal harmonies hinted at some serious potential.




Two Gentleman


The Two Man Gentleman Band rounded out the country/western portion of the evening in grand style. Playing a mix of bluegrass/tin pan alley country tunes the band was pure comedic theater. Dressed in old-timey suits, armed with not one, but two kazoos and never straying from their journeymen-country-gentlemen characters they provided ample answer to the question “What would They Might Be Giants sound like as a country band?” Their themes run the gamut from stereotypical country music fare of drinking too much and the death of a loved one to explaining why love is like the square root of 2 (it never repeats and it goes on forever) and extolling the virtues of heavy petting. Yes, heavy petting. Meaning exactly what you think it means. As notable as their hilarious songwriting and stage show is how good they actually were at their chosen style of music. Lyrically they may have been tongue-in-cheek but their skills at replicating a rarely-heard and long out of fashion musical style were certainly for real.

The night’s not-so-subtle guides towards rock and roll were the Unsacred Hearts. Playing blistering rock music with touches of Bay Area punk and 80s hardcore the band featured high powered, frenetic drums and bass, a wild, hack-sawing guitar and lyrics spit with such force and speed that — in the grand tradition of breakneck punk rock — it was hard to understand what was being said. The quartet brought with them a reckless, fuck-it-all attitude and an energy that would have seen Pianos torn to pieces 20 years ago. Fortunately for the club’s owners indie kids don’t slam. In a scene that relies heavily on irony and subtlety these four were an out-of-this-world tornado of fresh air.

Shifting gears slightly were the four pop-punkers of Looker. Their set’s catchy, super fun bounce-bounce-rock rhythm was absolutely infectious and more than anyone else that night they seemed visibly ecstatic to be on stage playing their music. At 10:15 on a Tuesday night in a small club in Manhattan they seemed to be having a better time than the rest of the city, and that kind of playful, on-the-sleeve enthusiasm is always compelling to watch and gives their music an entirely new dimension when seen live. Several one-note, saccharin, paper-thin acts have given pop-punk a terrible name, but Looker, happily, performs it like it always should be. Solid, hook-driven, and entertaining as hell.


Octagon



Though recently pared down to three members (perhaps Hexagon is now a more appropriate name?) the Octagon didn’t miss a beat as they railed out a set of feverish post-punk full of noise, dissonance, and a guitar that hasn’t yet forgotten that grunge ever existed. A raspy, leathery vocal channeling a mix of Cursive’s Tim Kasher and the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas added to the gritty feel of the songs and the band’s all-around explosive delivery resulted in one of the most visceral, truly outstanding sets of the show. There really isn’t much more to say, because the set was simply fantastic.


Sam Champion


Sean of Sam Champion



Sam Champion, the token non-Serious Business band in attendance, approached the stage to end the evening in dramatic fashion, strumming acoustic guitars, playing a set of bongos, and with a long line of patrons from Piano’s front bar in tow. Featuring an expansive, dark, incredibly deep sound they had no one element to define them but rather they excelled in every aspect that they attempted. They audibly displayed the individual pieces that went into each song and then seamlessly blended them all into one. This continual breakdown and reconstruction provided a complex yet hard-hitting cap to the night’s festivities.
Serious Business’ exhibition was a display of not only the incredible vibrancy and quality of the New York music scene — as every band that performed that night was based in New York — but also of the stylistic diversity present within. The make up of this line-up hinted at the enormity of the playing field in this city and the short, 30 minute sets from these bands clearly showed that this young label (founded in the early parts of this decade) is a very real player.





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