Built To Spill Over

The German word for it is Konsumterror— the fear that there's something you ought to be consuming and aren't. This year's CMJ Music Marathon was four straight days of Konsumterror. No matter what you were seeing, you had to be missing out on something at least as good. (Disclaimer: I used to work at CMJ, and still write for the company's New Music Monthly.) Throw in the fact that you needed to get to a lot of shows very early if you wanted to get in, and that everything that's usually true about the music industry is trebly so during CMJ, and you got a lot of very twitchy audiences: oh my God, so good to see you, aren't these guys great, oh look at the time, Built To Spill are doing a surprise gig at Tramps, gotta jet. . . .

But if you could ignore the furtive intra-biz hookups and the bummed singer-songwriters handing out stickers, there were treats everywhere: Sally Timms popping up at the Continental to do country covers and synchronized dance moves; Momus stopping by Luna Lounge to épater les music directors; the Rondelles, a charming trio of 19-year-olds, running the Crystals through a D.C. punk filter at Acme Underground. The most welcome development this year was that the tulip frenzy of the Big Break seems to be over. "Getting signed to a major" and "happily ever after" have nothing to do with each other any more. Tuscadero (two albums on Elektra) played to maybe 30 people, but there was a line halfway down the block for Zoobombs (one album on Emperor Norton). The make-it-new indie-rock world is very gradually coming to terms with hip-hop's innovations, too. A Brooklyn crew called the Arsonists turned up in the middle of Matador Records' bill and were spectacularly frisky and kinetic; on the other hand, K's hip-hop acts, Black Anger and Silent Lambs, proved that sometimes throwing your hands in the air means "forget it."

If the buzz this year had favorite categories, they were emo (the Get Up Kids, who have never heard of you either, sold out Coney Island High hours in advance, and Braid got a near- capacity Brownies leaping at four in the afternoon on Friday) and, happily, none-of-the-above. The biggest splash belonged to icu (pron. ee-koo), a studious but thrilling instrumental trio of upright bass, keyboards, and sequencer/ turntable/guitar/theremin, who recalled New Order in attitude and methodology, and used high-speed breakbeats like they'd come up with the idea themselves. His Name Is Alive slid back and forth along the Motown/MC5 axis, with one singer's delectable melisma balanced by the other's austere clarity. And it was hard to avoid Finland's infamous Paska (translation: "shit"), stripped to the waist and screeching into multiple mics— at the Continental, he attempted to cover "If You Don't Wanna Fuck Me, Fuck Off" and "Stairway to Heaven." A cappella. At the top of his lungs. Including the instrumental parts.

The most poignant moment, though, was Daniel Johnston's first local appearance in many years. He turned up late, gray and shaking, trying to be brave, and sang a brief medley to a Knitting Factory packed with his fans. Then he stopped, announced that he'd lost his lyric book and wouldn't be able to perform, stumbled through "Casper the Friendly Ghost," apologized again, and split. It was heartbreaking, it was five minutes long, and it gave people a head start on making it over to the Ideal Records show, or maybe Kill Rock Stars night. — Douglas Wolk


Think Small

Daniel Blumin of WNYU's New Afternoon Show offers an acerbic caricature of the college radio DJ as a malcontent "who can't communicate with other people and just plays Smog all day." But, as Blumin observes, the CMJ Music Marathon exposes most college radioheads as industry adepts and musical omnivores, social animals prowling Downtown clubland in pursuit of fresh thrills. The indie-versus-major debate ritually rehashed in panel discussions melts into air on the street: Never mind which side you're on, which line are you on? (And will your badge get you in?)

That said, as a college radio alum, I find that CMJ brings out the introvert in me, triggering a lapse into old-school indie consciousness (whether false or no). Any other week I'd be queuing up in the cold for Juan Atkins. But come CMJ, I seek more intimate shows that I can nestle into like my old dorm-room study pillow. Last week, I found these:

The Burnt Hair label showcase: Asha Vida's one-song set sputtered into life, glowed, and faded within 22 minutes; shadowy references (Jessamine, Bark Psychosis) flitted by as startlingly intense Robert Wyatt­like quavers emitted from the band's stealth rock star (Shh! Don't tell any A&R types!). Then, Mahogany propped MBV/Slowdive swoon upright with thoughtful, complex programming, shunning mere prettiness for higher geometry.

Edith Frost: A little bit country, a little bit Chairs Missing, Frost wrapped double down comforters of purr and strum around cool waltz and swing beats (tapped out at this show by Archer Prewitt, who'd just wound up his own gently transporting set).

The Squealer/Amish/Room Tone brunch: Tono-Bungay's noise improv spoke fluent prog-punk and showered the audience with drumsticks; Hall of Fame wove hammered rhythms and obsessive-compulsive phrases into a coarse yet delicate macramé; and Dymaxion filled holes left by MX-80 Sound with square pegs of neato dork-wave.

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