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.

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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