Monday, October 22, 2007

CMJ 2007 brings the rest of the world's cool kids to the city that never sleeps to...not sleep

Who doesn’t love free alcoholic energy drinks, late night pizza on every corner, streets teeming with sexy rocker-types of both sexes…and oh yeah – nearly 1,000 bands to check out and ultimately pass judgment on? That’s what we thought.

For the past 27 years, the CMJ Music Marathon has set just that scene on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the Williamsburg/Greenpoint ‘hoods of Brooklyn. South by Southwest may have the warm weather and Shiner Bock beer, but CMJ is curated by the ghosts of New York’s rich, diverse, and often bizarre musical history.

Nevermind the music, the clubs, bars, venues, coffee shops, bakeries, and warehouses that hosts this gluttonous week of hipster excess are a trip in themselves: There’s the Cake Shop, a bi-leveled performance space on the LES that crams an espresso bar, full liquor bar, pastry counter, record store, and venue into about 1600 square feet. The Crash Mansion, on the venerated Bowery, is almost literally a den of rock: below grade, low ceilings, sweaty crowds, and a weird faux-rock paint job (reminiscent of the Abbey Pub). Looking for a little more space? Head across the Williamsburg Bridge to Studio B, and old school warehouse-type dance club with a tiny stage that always seems to attract some of the biggest acts at the festival, or to Midtown and the cavernous new Terminal 5. The best part? Hardly any of these joints are more than a 10 minute walk or subway ride apart.

Alright, alright, so we’ve set the scene and we’re ready to rock. With nearly constant music from noon ‘til 4am daily, picking just a few highlights is a task in and of itself. You can read about M.I.A.’s explosive set with The Cool Kids or Dan Deacon’s raging Mercury Lounge dance party anywhere, so we’re laying out the red carpet treatment for some of the smaller acts who rocked just as hard, but a little further under the radar.

Yeasayer was everything those in the know have been saying – flat-out, “holy shit” awesome. Not the most eloquent way to put it, but when you start with otherworldly musicianship and complicated, prog-rock arrangements and add soaring four-part harmonies over bits of pop and noise, you’ve got a gale-force challenge to the droney, derivative fuzz so popular in recent independent rock. Think of what “Pet Sounds” did to pop music in the 1960’s, and you may have an idea of Yeasayer’s potential.

Jim Bianco is one of the best performers in America, and there’s no need to be cheeky in saying so. If you’ve ever imagined Tom Waits’ gritty vocals and darkly wry lyricism against a backdrop of pop songwriting genius - a la Elvis Costello - then you may be looking for this Los Angeles-by-way-of-Brooklyn native. Armed with his stellar, New Orleans cabaret-inspired band and holding the crowd at rapt attention on Thursday night at The Living Room, Bianco is the one act of the CMJ week that left me scratching my head about the abilities of today’s A&R people to identify unique, universally appealing talent.

Freezepop have the distinction of being the only band on the forthcoming Guitar Hero III soundtrack that you’ve probably never heard of. This Boston band isn’t breaking any new ground with their bleep-bleep dance rock, but it’s well done and catchy enough to warrant more than a few listens – and their live set at the Rykodisc/Onion party on Friday night was just as hectic and hipshaking.

There you have it – a little glimpse at the chaotic wonder that is the CMJ Music Marathon. There’s free booze, there’s bands, there’s a whole lot of important (mostly in their own minds) folks to meet and befriend, but most of all there’s a reminder of how much fun it can be to discover a new favorite song to dance all night to.