Built To Spill Over

All these gigs were small, but congenially crowded in ways they may not have been on other weeks. College radio's musical purpose may be perennially fragmented and broken up like love affairs (to crib from this year's fest rulers, the Mekons), but during CMJ, it's possible to find not one but many places to belong.

— Sally Jacob

Cross Currents

It's been a year of musical agnosticism, with no single zone of sonic activity compelling enough to warrant monomania. Indie-rock hipsters are now as likely to check out dance music, while club-music mags, responding to the ennui engendered by a decade of dance-and-drug culture, are broadening their coverage to include rock: usually instrumentalists such as Tortoise and Fridge, but sometimes proper bands, like The Verve or Spiritualized, who have some kind of narco-spiritual kinship with rave. Given this backdrop of confusion, perhaps it's not surprising that this year's CMJ featured almost as much top DJ talent as the Miami Winter Dance conference.

At Bowery Ballroom Wednesday, Lo-Fidelity Allstars made a brave but clumsy stab at incorporating the science of dance music into the attack of rock'n'roll. The band's debut, How To Operate With a Blown Mind, is an oxymoronic masterpiece of "darkside big beat," documenting the normalized malaise of British polydrug culture, where clubbers boast about getting "messy" on a cocktail of diverse chemicals. Onstage, unfortunately, the band's rave'n'roll hybrid offers neither the machinelike precision of a DJ nor the charismatic spectacle of a band. Still, the vandalized disco of "Blisters on My Brain" dazzled the ears like the Gallic glitterball house of Stardust and Daft Punk.

That same night, Speeed's four-floor, 24-DJ extravaganza promised big fun, but actually delivered (thanks to oddly sparse attendance) a disappointingly vibeless experience. In the cavernous, almost deserted basement, U.S. house gods Deep Dish wove an alternately honeydewed and harsh web of textured rhythm; later, "surprise guests" Sasha & Digweed, accustomed to audiences of several thousand, attempted to please a crowd that was simply absent. Elsewhere, old-skool nostalgia seemed to be the ruling flavor: Monkey Mafia's Jon Carter played a very peculiar remix of Prince's "When Doves Cry," Les Rhythmes Digitales's Jacques Lu Cont offered a pitched-up, helium-squeaky version of A Guy Called Gerald's "Voodoo Ray," and Glasgow's DJ Q dropped a crisp and spangly selection of disco cut-ups and filtered house. Just about the only breath of techno futurism came from Moby, who climaxed his set with a searingly celestial trance track, origin unknown.

Some of the week's best action was at parties not listed in the official program, but loosely affiliated to the schmooze fest and free to badge holders. On Thursday, New York hardcore techno label Industrial Strength brought gabba to the Sapphire Lounge. Lenny Dee resurrected the bombastic Belgian techno vibe of Brooklyn warehouse parties circa 1991; Parisian DJ Manu Le Malin stressed gabba's claims on the phuture with punishing yet atmospheric gloomcore. Later that night, Paul Oakenfold and sidekick Dave Ralph pleasured a packed Irving Plaza with sets of epic house and melodic trance that alternately tugged at the heartstrings (twinkly, plangent riffs) and insulted the intelligence (schlocky grand piano chords, Enya-esque Celt-diva vocals).

Like the Lo-fi's mishmash on Wednesday, the lineup at Irving Plaza on Saturday exposed the fallibility of live techno. Instead of transcendently tweaked-out turntablizm, Josh Wink opted for fitful, real-time performance of his own music. Then industrial dance veterans Meat Beat Manifesto churned out one torpid-tempo'd, quasi-funky track after another, making you wonder why main man Jack Dangers bothers hiring a live drummer if he just sounds like a state-of-the-art-circa-1990 breakbeat loop. With the post-MBM set from Wink never materializing, the night ultimately confirmed a stubborn truth about dance music: with scant few exceptions, it's a DJ thing.— Simon Reynolds

House Of Girls vs. Boys

"Maybe they didn't know how many acts we have," said Eric Babcock, trying to explain how his CMJ showcase was hijacked. Babcock's fledgling Checkered Past label had the marquee at Under Acme Friday night, but a bonus bill of Amy Rigby, Sally Timms, and Danielle Howle pushed his boy-heavy boho country roster back into the margins. Brainy crooner Lonesome Bob and smirky rocker Tommy Womack had to share an opening set and an empty club, and by 9 p.m. Checkered Past yielded to Righteous Ladies' Night.

The rambunctious Howle could be a hillbilly Elliott Smith. She flirts with the big time while recording for Kill Rock Stars, but if Smith's favorite Beatle is George Harrison, Howle's is John Fahey. She was followed by an unannounced audience member, who belted an a capella version of "I Will Always Love You." Timms was next, the clarity of her voice shining above the tense arrangements of Pulsar Dave Trumfio. And Rigby blew the crowd away with a roaring set that left her own band laughing as they raced to keep up with her. The door count was two paid admissions for every CMJ pass, but half of each walked out on CP's local signing, the placid-acid Schramms.

Only the diehards stuck it out for natural headliner Silos, who 10 years ago perfected a glorious White Light/Canned Heat sound that put them on the verge. Their misnamed new CP record Heater belies the warmth of that era with spare and spooky tales of loneliness and regret. Walter Salas-Humara still sings about driving, but instead of being cheered by a cool song on the radio, now he sounds like he's looking for someone to kill. His snarling guitar and a biting rhythm section chastened Mary Rowell's expansive violin, and eager fans seemed nonplussed. Adding insult to a 2 a.m. injury, execrable Ithaca "blues" singer Johnny Dowd heckled them as they left.— Josh Goldfein

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