The Other Marathon
If it’s New York City Marathon week that means it’s CMJ Music Marathon week, which means it truly is a marathon week. (All the more so when Halloween and an Election show up in the same short space of time.) I’ve been around NYC long enough to become quite jaded as CMJ week approaches only, typically, to succumb and attend a few gigs to keep an idea of what’s going on in the indie world. This year, despite living upstate, was no exception: last Friday, I caught the bus to New York City (and back) so as to take in eight hours of music. My Marathon moments…
1) The Name Game. The most enjoyable part of the CMJ Music Marathon comes at a distance, studying the latest band names. They’re never quite as good in the flesh as in print, but how can you not believe you’re going to love Swearing At Motorists, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Tokyo Police Club, The Plot To Blow UP The Eiffel Tower, The Dark Side Of The Cop, Building Better Bombs or When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth?
2) Who Invented Day Shows? Used to be that CMJ meant panels by day, cocktails by evening and gigs by night. But ever since South By South West down in Austin invented the concept of day gigs, the calendar is now more complicated. The band you go to see tonight may have played twice already earlier in the day at semi-private parties or completely free gigs. They may be riding high. They may be fried. And you may be totally confused by the bounty on offer.
3) I Came All The Way For This? The Friday afternoon party at Piano’s looked like a good place to start my afternoon, at 3pm. And The Heights from the UK looked like they could be fun when I received an evite for their gig and checked out their myspace page: after all, most of us Brits understand the concept of ‘Jamaican Beer Eyes’. What we got was Piano’s starting its twelve steady hours of music a full one hour late and a bunch of Welsh rockers who brought nothing to the downtown New York table that wasn’t invented and perfected by a long line of illustrious home-grown acts stretching from the Velvet Underground to The Ramones to The Strokes. Talk about Coals To Newcastle. But let’s look on the positive side. From here, the only way was up.
4) So Many New Bars, So Little Time. To point out that I remember when Ludlow, Orchard and Eldridge Streets were no-go zones anywhere below Stanton only serves to indicate my age. Better perhaps that I come back down(town) as a visitor to discover yet more new bars I never knew existed. Fontana’s at the foot of Eldridge Street – down below Delancey, an area that was once ignored even by Chinatown – is a giant two-floor venue/bar complete with DJ booths, pool tables and a fully functioning basement venue. At 4pm this particular Friday, it was heaving with drinkers on top, gig-goers below and a gracious bartender who called me “sweetie”. But for the fact that there was daylight outside, you would have sworn it was midnight already. And while Piano’s was running on Jamaican beer eyes time, the Brooklyn Vegan party here at Fontana’s was running with straight-edge strictness, having already having hosted some seven acts, including Forward Russia! at the ungodly hour of 1pm.
Now, at 5 O’clock on the dot, The Thermals took what was probably a stage, though from the back of the room it was difficult to tell. The Portland group’s unashamedly uncompromising power-punk-pop typifies indie American rock circa 2006: something seemingly as unoriginal as a 4-piece guitar band playing with enough adrenaline and pronounced nerve as to suggest that there are still far-flung corners of conventional rock remaining to be fully mined. Fronted by the wiry, enthusiastic Hutch Harris, with bassist (and studio drummer) Kathy Foster bouncing about the stage in her dreads, The Thermals work as either a (Sub)pop act (‘How We Know’) or as politicos (‘Power Doesn’t Run On Nothing’). I like to take them both ways and relish that such bands still exist and that crowds of collegiate kids lap them up.
5) Norway’s Night. From Fontana’s, we returned to Piano’s, and headed upstairs for the Norwegian showcase. There we found not death metal nor teen poppers, but a proper smorgasboard of free food and my new favorite band of be-suited rhythm and blues obsessed Scandinavians since The Hives. We knew nothing of the quartet in front of us except that they were fully in our faces, loving every moment of their fifteen minutes, delivering raucous choruses, hyping up their retroactivity, playing at pyrotechnics and generally delivering the kind of get-happy, sing-along, us-Scandinavians-ape-the-Stones-with-a-straight-face kind of rock that is, indeed, particular to the far north of Europe. Oddly enough, checking out the music at their web site(s) reveals it to be synth-based and not totally unlike their fellow countrymen Aha. In the flesh, one would never have made such a comparison. Still, one of the better songs, both onstage and on record (the hypnotic and hilarious video for which you can see here) was called ‘Together’ – and the finale definitely included the chorus ‘Oh Fucking Yeah.’ The band was called Don Juan Dracula and you should book them for your Christmas party like, now.
6) Stereo Labs. Minutes later we were watching The Low Frequency In Stereo who, over three albums, have perfected a surf-drone sound akin to The Jesus On Mary Chain jamming with The Surfaris, complete with Rickenbacker arpeggios and blues-based riffs and who, when Nord Electro keyboard player Ørjan Haaland starts singing, suddenly sound very much like namesakes Stereolab. These are just points of reference though – while nothing on this planet any longer sounds new, The Low Frequency In Stereo are, parallel to The Thermals and hundreds of other bands, eking out their own little corner of their own particular niche. We loved them for it. And we were not alone. The act is collecting the kind of press kit that builds expectations. Third album The Last Temptation Of… is out any day.
7) Rickenbackers Rule. There was a longer changeover for 120 Days, and for good reason. The Norwegian ‘headliners’ stage set called for keyboards upon keyboards upon keyboards, drum machines, real drums, bass, guitar – and another Rickenbacker. Oh how we love our Rickenbackers at the Fletcher household, and how we wish we could get ours to emit the kind of sound 120 Days frontman Adne Meisfjord wrenched from his. And who knows, if we had an array of footpedals like Meisfjord, we might just be able to get close. 120 Days were experimental, droney, percussive, psychedelic and, at times, perfectly poppy – and if all that suggests something Spiritualized, the comparisons are not unfounded. They were less easily digestible than their predecessors but that hasn’t stopped Vice Records picking up their debut album. Presumably, Vice knows what we now know too: That Norway is the new Brooklyn.
8) Little People make a Big Noise. A cab ride over to the Canal Room brought us to the Astralwerks showcase, where we unfortunately missed Inouk and caught Damon McMahon, but fortunately were in plenty time for LA’s The Little Ones: their debut mini album Sing Song is quite simply the best new pop record out there, which might explain why terminally hip label Heavenly has released it in the UK. On stage, the quintet were all Beach Boys smiles and Beatles harmonies as brothers Brian and Edward Nolan Reyes waved their Rickenbackers and Hofners and delivered pitch-perfect harmonies to should-be hits like ‘Cha Cha Cha’ and ‘Oh, MJ.’ It’s not all poptastic perfection, however: beneath the Californian climate of their music lies an intricacy and imagination that breathes life into what should be a tired old formula. The Little Ones are not quite XTC, but they’re certainly smart. And they’re off on tour this month with aptly named label-mates The Small Sins who, fortunately, given our introduction to Don Juan Dracula, have dropped the white suits for something more collegiate.
9) Why Buy Music? At Piano’s, I picked up a laminate someone had left lying around. Turned out to be my voucher towards the CMJ Music Marathon sampler pack. Music that used to, back in the old days of these seminars, come in an array of cassettes, CDs and vinyl manufactured by specific labels, now comes as a digital code to enter at the iTunes store – through which I suddenly found myself downloading some 116 new MP3s, by over 100 acts, totaling 7.4 hours of music. And unlike those samplers of old, which I frequently kept sitting around for just one good song, if I don’t like someone here’s MP3, all I have to do is hit the delete button. Meantime, I have a week’s worth of new music to take on the road with me.
10) The Name Game Again. Indie acts don’t only call attention to themselves through their monikors: many are equally capable of a song title that begs to be heard in the flesh. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to my iTunes to take in ‘Dart For My Sweetheart’ (the Archie Bronson Outfit), ‘I Need Some Fine Wine and You, You Need To Be Nicer’ (The Cardigans), ‘For All The Tanning Salons In Texas’ (Chin Up Chin Up), ‘Please Visit Your National Parks’ (Oxford Collapse), ‘Cheer Up Emo Kid’ (Patent Pending) and, to conclude in highly appropriate fashion, Saxon Shore’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Streaming.’