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New York Cool - Music

CMJ Music Festival
October 20-24, 2009
Various New York Venues

Reviewed by Lara Longo

Photographed by Michael Meyer

Opposite Photo:
Sarah D. Barthel of Phantogram

Some might say music festivals are best left to rural locales, where rolling hills, spacious venues, and friendly natives host thousands of invading festival goers. Then, there's New York City's CMJ Music Marathon, the city's quintessential music festival; the annual event features hundreds of bands and artists at venues across Manhattan and Brooklyn. A majority of the acts are up-and-comers, a flood of unsigned and unrepresented talent waiting to acquire some street cred playing New York's infamous club scene. This is, after all, the city that gave names to then unknowns: Dylan, The Ramones, Madonna, The Beastie Boys, Biggie, and an infinite number more.

Tuesday night of CMJ presented the usual opening night madness. Eager crowds, long lines, schedule delays, obnoxious media types. It was quite the relief to finally settle into The Canal Room. Soul folk guitarist Dick Krall took the stage without his usual backing band. The bespectacled Krall, with his warm vibrato and the hard strum of electric guitar, proved to be a-okay going at it solo. "This is too nice," he said to the sleek downtown crowd. "Getting Home," the newest song to his catalogue, had a Simon and Garfunkel-esque soft coo, somewhat of a change of pace from the set's driving rhythms. At his last number, Krall hoped off stage and played on the dance floor among the people who are hand clapping and stomping to the beat. He raised his glass in cheers to the crowd before exiting.

Next up, Jay Nash, another solo guitarist, offered earnest country twang. Nash's smooth legato and plucky guitar make for nice contrasts, as did his serious jamming versus his jokester asides. Amber Rubarth followed up with some more country-tinged soul singing, sounding much like Jenny Lewis (a la Rilo Kiley).

Val Emich
Val Emich

Closing the showcase was Val Emmich, with a high energy performance that surely rallied the audience to solider on to the next venue. Over at Santos Party House, Dinowalrus performed to a basement full of arm-folded, flannel clad hipsters and two roller-skating glam punks. The three-piece took turns twiddling knobs on assorted tech-toys and thrashing along to their brand of psychobilly-meets-surf rock. Before the boys closed with "Bead," lead vocalist, Pete, announced in a moment of goofy, mock-seriousness, "thanks for paying attention, I hope you learned something." Well, we did. Following suit in the laptopping/raw rock format, Harlem punched out big sound, at times solely instrumental. With an "old New York" aesthetic, The Stalkers, finished out the night with a raucous set worthy of a Tuesday night at CBGBs.

Zach Doney of Bang Bang

The Megaphonic Thrift


Day two of the CMJ music festivities found New York Cool at Lower East Side haunt, Pianos. We warmed up to the night with The Bodega Girls, an undeniably fun set. Their energetic electro-pop nuanced-rock has given the Boston-based band some recognition in 2009 and rightfully so. Coming halfway around the globe, New Zealanders Bang Bang Eche put on a show worth their 30-hour flight. The guys melded punk, electronica, and garage, for a stage show best described as spastic; living up to their name, Bang Bang's members took turns barreling through the crowd, bang banging their way to and from the stage. A few blocks away at The Suffolk, International Espionage got weird with head-to-toe black body-suits and headlamps. Next, The Megaphonic Thrift, from Norway, plowed through a program of effect-laden melodic rock. There were enough tech-toys covering the floor to make the room look more like that of a spoiled child. When all was said and done, the four-piece exited the stage with the speakers still ringing with feedback. One of the festival's most popular acts, Japanther, garnered the largest, most engaged audience who soaked up the lo-fi fuzz.

Dead Sexy Inc.
Dead Sexy Inc.

After the initial CMJ rush, we began to feel the festival fatigue on Thursday. Luckily, New York Cool meandered over to Ace of Clubs in time for their showcase. New York-based Elodie O brought the Parisian cool with trip-hop beats and dusky vocals. Singing in both English and French, Elodie O's breathy delivery made for a welcome departure from the previous night's rowdiness. This is what we imagine the European clubs in the 90's sounded like. Continuing with the Parisian electro-themed evening, Dead Sexy Inc took stage with aggressive disco-punk.

Shaka Ponk

Concluding the night of Francophilia was Shaka Ponk, a dance-pop group mashing rock guitar riffs with hip-hop undertones. After a few hours of Euro dance music, it wasn't hard to pretend we'd just flown into Charles de Gaulle hours earlier. But alas, we were still in New York City which, is never a bad thing.

Sarah D. Barthel of Phantogram


Romy Madley-Croft of the XX 2

Oliver Simm of The XX

Romy Madley-Croft of the XX

Friday night the skies opened up, sending the throngs of audiophiles into the closest venue. Fortunately, in Williamsburg, there were plenty of participating bars and halls to host the rain-soaked by the hundred. Steps from the Bedford Avenue L train at the Spike Hill, Baltimore's The Squaaks hit the stage, their nonchalant charisma dialing-up the simplicity and effortless cool of 90's indie-rock. The quartet proved straight rock n' roll doesn't need to be pretentious; you didn't have to listen hard for the occasional out-of-tune vocals but that's part of the appeal. Following, a small army found its way to the stage, Philly's Grammar Debate. Their alt-country flavor was just another refreshing change of pace from the week’s of hipper than thou posturing (that vibe mostly coming from the crowd). Soaring violin, weepy slide guitar, and twinkling keyboard plus lovely boy-girl harmonies made for a sound warm and lush. Friday's "must see" show at Williamsburg Hall of Music produced an equal amount of bloggers as it did ticket holders. Looking like a mod Cleopatra, Phantogram's Sarah Barthel pounded keys and purred, "nobody loves me" while guitarist/laptopper Josh Carter set the beat-heavy effects. Behind the duo were trippy projections which gave Barthel's spazzed out dancing the feel of a different era. For many CMJers, the pinnacle of the week would come with the year's most hyped-up band, The XX. Deemed England's teenage wunderkinds, the four piece certainly made their mark on the hard-to-impress Brooklyn crowd, from their hip Euro hair styles to their sullen, unaffected vocals. One festivalgoer from Germany told me, "I extended my trip so I could see them. They are huge overseas." Apparently, the same is true in the states. Amidst a relentless tour schedule, The XX performed spot-on cuts off their self-titled debut to much audience recognition. The moody, minimalist show went over brilliantly with the packed house; the band itself even seemed a bit shocked at their reception. Angelic dream-pop trio School of Seven Bells, followed. Spacey, ambient, and vaguely tribal, the School layers mystic threads of sound through the lens of modern day technology. A fitting closer to a mellow night.

CMJ hosted a good balance of established acts and undiscovered talent, as per usual. Undoubtedly, concertgoers will, in the future, be able to name drop some of the bands they saw "way back in 2009, before they were popular" or "years before they sold out." For now, the coming weeks will determine whether those unsigned groups made an impression or if the hyped-up groups lived up to their expectations.

Joshua M. Carter of Phantogram

Sarah D. Barthel of Phantogram



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