Bands of La Mancha

Why did we do this? The Voice spent more money on beer during the CMJ Music Marathon than we’re getting paid to write it up, suffered the flashlight-toting douche bags they call security guards at Irving Plaza and Hammerstein Ballroom, and wasted valuable minutes scanning the names of countless shitty non-hip-hop bands approval-stamped by the shitty College Music Journal. Truth told, our purpose actually became clear on the Marathon’s first night, sipping free brews at the opening party, and anticipating the following exceptional acts. No discoveries here, other than perhaps the thriving state of semi-popular indie.

Quix*o*tic played the best show of CMJ Friday night at the Knitting Factory. Two button-cute women singers and one medical-masked man traded off on guitar, bass, and drums (including a simple snare with brushes) for alternately thunderous and whisperingly intimate renditions of their spare, bottom-heavy folk-metal songs and gothic, ’60s girl-group ballads. Here they covered Aaron Neville and Smokey Robinson; on record, they also reimagine Black Sabbath’s “Lord of This World.”

Before midnight Saturday, more fashionably blasé indie kids were asleep in Irving Plaza’s lobby than not; when Conor Oberst took the stage (as Bright Eyes), even they cheered for his thrillingly bombastic . . . well, everything: greasy, wine-swigging image; handsome crowd of co-ed, multi-instrumentalist backup musicians (on accordion, madolin, cello, etc.); and, not least, twitching, sweeping, sulky, ranting songs with choruses as overflowing as Conor’s heart and mouth. His grand gestures included leading everyone in a wordy but joyous a cappella chorus (“So hurry up and run/to the one that you love/and/blind him with your/kindness”), and leaning in for a long, unexpected kiss with his cute Asian flutist-guitarist.

Gogol Bordello: By the time these crazed Eastern European immigrants took the stage on opening night, the Voice was particularly primed (read: well-soused) for the eight-piece’s adrenalized Gypsy maelstrom. With accordions, saxes, drums,and guitars locking horns, manic Ukrainian expat Eugene Hutz vibed Iggy Pop and shouted about cultural displacement while getting pelted with beer. Very punk rock.

Recent law-school grad and preppy sexpot Elizabeth Elmore, formerly of Sarge, broke strings, nailed shots, and summoned every last shard of eloquent outrage from the darkly romantic punk-pop of her new foursome the Reputation at Southpaw on Saturday. With her neat, blond hair hanging over one eye, gently thrusting hips punctuating every electrifying accusation, and all men in attendance rapt, Elmore was truly on top of her game.

Merge Records showcase, Saturday at the Knitting Factory. Raise up! This one was for North Carolina, though no one was taking off their shirts and twirling them like a helicopter (all the better to hide our pale white bodies). Three of the Chapel Hill-based label’s best bands were represented, with Spoon frontman Brit Daniel drumming up the most pathos and biggest crowd with his acoustic set. Crooked Fingers’ Eric Bachmann croaked his way through a set of glum indie-folk songs and talked to a drunken Voice about how hot Chili from TLC was while Imperial Teen delivered flawless indie pop, catchy as fuck and spiritually wholesome, too.

Moldy Peaches, Friday at Irving Plaza. Playing what was billed as their farewell show, Adam and Kimya stuck mainly to their familiar porn-folk standards, which was fine with the Voice, which drunkenly sang all the words it could remember. Since they had already played the cute, touching “Jorge Regula” and the cute, disgusting “Who’s Got the Crack,” the top choices for Last Song Ever were exhausted. So they pulled out a cover awesome in its randomness: a rousing version of “Two Princes,” with assistance from chief Spin Doctor Chris Barron himself.

CMJ’s biggest act, Blink-182 side-project Box Car Racer, played a lukewarm, no-encore set of crunchy, catchy emo-pop at Hammerstein on Friday to a sea of crowd-surfing mall-punks, shrieking girls, and more than a few nonplussed parents. Travis Barker, with his inked-over chest, wild arms, and crackling beats, truly starred, although singer Tom Delonge’s metallic brap of a burp precipitated the night’s most enthusiastic applause.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Thursday at Irving Plaza. “They are an experience you must see to comprehend.” (That’s a quote from the CMJ press guide—the Voice was drinking at a bar and didn’t see this show, but can only assume it was great, given all the nice things everyone keeps saying about this band.)

Bumrushing the Media Gatekeepers: The Voice‘s bum got sore just thinking about this Thursday panel’s convergence of big-deal public-relations people. Girlie Action’s Michelle Haunold spoke of “cross-marketing social movements with music,” planting agents in chat rooms for false word-of-mouth, and how Seattle is “well branded.” The Voice asked how one can best “manipulate rock critics”; the nearly capacity PR crowd, thinking it was one of their own, laughed heartily. See ya next year! —Nick Catucci & Christian Hoard

From Cex to Calexico

Although it may take a few weeks in detox, about 60 solid hours of sleep, and a trip to a hearing specialist to recover from this year’s CMJ festivities, overall, it surpassed our expectations. But like most music fests, it ran the gamut.

Leading off the bands that kicked ass category was Jason Loewenstein, whose gritty vocals tore through the crowd almost as viciously as his heavy-metal-based, punked-out, classic-rock guitar licks. “Play the hit!” joked one heckler, to which the Sebadoh bassist quipped (with a charming, class-clown grin), “I just did.” Mixing up all the hits was the affable, turntablist extraordinaire Kid Koala, who morphed the likes of Björk, the Beasties, Kermit the Frog, and the Cure seamlessly over super-charged, aerobic hip-hop beats. Less bouncy, more goth, but equally as endearing was Cex, the self-proclaimed “white Eminem,” who rapped over samples and laptop beats about topics from revolution to his parents’ station wagon. “These guys are gonna get a lot bigger, I just have a feeling,” said some “perceptive” hipster referring to the Walkmen during their sold-out show at the Bowery Ballroom. Hmm, you think? Their early-U2 psychedelic-garage tonic hit the spot, although their smug, probably privileged frontman makes you want to sink your fist into his soft, white gut from time to time. “Fuck the Roxy!” screamed the disenfranchised Ipecac showcase fans during Isis‘s brutalizing set—one of the heaviest and most innovative metal acts, period. The Radar Bros. singer-guitarist, Jim Putnam, beamed like a ’60s acid guru-elementary school teacher, leading his pupils to the slaughter while the band’s hypnotic pop tunes diverted all eyes from the butcher block. Speaking of hallucinogens, the Secret Machines’ Pink Floyd-meets-Can soundscapes held the entire room captive, right up until their moment of self-destruction (but in a good way)—overheated equipment cut their set short.

The amicable, eccentric, and U.K.-hyped neo-folkster Devendra Banhart has an excellent new CD out, but his schizophrenic and disjointed set probably didn’t send folks rushing to the record store. Love Life delivered a strong, heady, dark, and drugged-out set, only shackled by the lanky bassist’s insistent hair combing (try a stronger pomade!) and Don Knotts-ian nosedive off the stage. But, damn, the guy didn’t miss a note!

High magistrate of the NYC underground Michael Gira‘s powerful solo set featured forthcoming Angels of Light tunes and classic Swans songs—”New Mind” on acoustic! Chris Brokaw (currently of Pullman and the New Year, ex-Come and Codeine) recited several nimble, six-string haikus from Red Cities and a version of Come’s “Recidivist” to an elated Boston contingent. And Lou Barlow resurfaced with new songs (played solo-acoustic) before plugging in for a Sebadoh reunion of sorts (minus Loewenstein)—the kids freaked out over “License to Confuse” and “Rebound.”

Coming up from a generation—or two—below are the Paper Lions, who drew an impressive crowd, with nearly everyone in the audience singing along to their driving, D.C.-influenced, post-punk songs. Boston’s (not Britain’s) the Beatings blew everyone’s hair back with their Pixies-inspired, raw-rawk sound. And Canyon kept up the intensity of their psychotropic-countrified tunes despite the impatient and boisterous World Inferno/Friendship Society fans.

The Boxes (Soundgarden meet the Runaways) and Glass Candy & the Shattered Theater (goth-punk-disco circa L.A. ’82) may be cute, endearing, and fashionable, but they’ve got a long way to go before their chops catch up to their struts. Unita‘s got the chops, but the jealously of frontman John Garcia came seeping through during his confusing diatribe about the success of former Kyuss bandmate Josh Homme’s Queens of the Stone Age. But that’s no surprise—their second-rate, retreaded Kyuss riffs (often played while sitting down) are simply Soundtracks for the Bored.

Hopefully the rest of CMJ’s panels weren’t as useless and disheartening as Music Marketing, Publicity, Promotion, led by Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby. Sivers cheerfully blathered on about “test markets,” comparing band promotion to Zima and Coors Lite, and encouraged “putting yourself in a niche.” He did offer some practical publicity tips, but for the most part, this guy was just a total cheeseball.

Greg Tate’s Burnt Sugar enveloped the crowd with their perfect hybrid of Miles-Hendrix-Bootsy-’70s prog-electronica-soul. Floating in similar embryonic fluids were the torpid and dreamy Calla, though their new numbers are way more up-tempo and rockin’ then their usual anti-gravity campfire lullabies. Aspera had four tubes of trippy candescent lights, strobes, and a smoke machine to necromance the eager and willing children of the unicorn. Calexico‘s day of the dead getups and noirish spaghetti-western tunes were perfect for Halloween—evoking images of rotting carcasses on moonlit desert highways and scarecrow silhouettes.

Overheard: A middle-aged Russian man to a long-haired alterna-rock kid in the bathroom of the Hilton: “Why are you all here, the New York City Marathon?” A man with two antennae sticking out of his head and football war paint smeared under his eyes: “We’re just here to play a show with our peers. . . . It’s not like any of us think we’re gonna get some record deal or something.” —D. Shawn Bosler & Ken Switzer