To Be Seen and Heard All Around the Town
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By JON PARELES
Published: October 25, 2009
Surfer Blood, from West Palm Beach, Fla., was an emblematic band for the 29th annual CMJ Music Marathon, the five-day convention, showcase and stampede of bands that ended in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Determined to be heard by every potential dealmaker, tastemaker, blogger and music fan, Surfer Blood played about a dozen brief sets during the conference at clubs on the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn, and has another gig for good measure on Monday night in Brooklyn at Death by Audio.
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Joseph D'Agostino of Cymbals Eat Guitars. More Photos »
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Photographs by Josh Haner/The New York Times
Hercules and Love Affair, a project of the disc jockey Andy Butler, at Fillmore on Friday. More Photos >
Surfer Blood is self-starting and hardworking in the ways that fledgling bands have had to learn in order to survive. And its songs encompassed a broad stretch of CMJ’s 2009 musical spectrum: Velvet Underground and punk riffs, reverberating textures, African-style guitar filigrees, grunge crescendos, power-pop choruses headed for anthems and, yes, some surf-rock twang. All those sounds have been encouraged by college radio, Internet radio and indie-music blogs, and Surfer Blood strings them all together, skillfully and likeably. (All that’s missing is programmed dance beats and rapping.) The band’s CMJ blitz guarantees added recognition as Surfer Blood stays on the road for the next month and beyond.
The lure of CMJ, for virtually all of the 1,300 bands that played showcases this year, is simply the chance to be seen and heard. This year’s daytime program started with a bluntly titled panel discussion — “But How Will I Get Paid?” — that couldn’t fully answer the question. Attention may be all a musician can hope for in an era when recording companies are disintegrating, competition clogs MySpace, and the kinds of businesses that pay upfront for music — advertising and film and television licensing — are interested in isolated songs, not musicians’ careers. (At New York University, where panels were held, and in CMJ-mobbed places like Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side, musicians and managers were eagerly talking about those deals anyway.)
The competition clogs CMJ, too, so like Surfer Blood, many bands multiplied their chances to be seen, playing day parties and late-night shows that were unaffiliated with the conference but wouldn’t take place without it.
CMJ rightly claims to have offered early glimpses of best-selling, paradigm-shifting bands, from R.E.M. to Arcade Fire. But this year’s marathon didn’t yield an obvious contender. (With so many bands, however, the odds are good that hindsight will eventually change that.) Visa problems prevented appearances by the Very Best, a collaboration between a singer from Malawi and a European electronic production team, and Speech Debelle, the rapper who won the Mercury Music Prize this year. With the economic downturn limiting travel budgets, bands from New York and environs were as prominent as out-of-towners, although there were still visitors from Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, Britain, Denmark and Iceland, the home of Mum, whose songs evolved with charming unpredictability from plinking Minimalism to upbeat rock.
Luckily, New York is still incubating magnificent, dramatically dynamic bands like Cymbals Eat Guitars — whose stately songs erupt in outbursts of strumming and screaming — and the Antlers, who envelop their ballads of wounded introspection in majestic swells of guitars and effects. Theophilus London, a promising rapper-singer who favors electro tracks, lives in New York. So does Sharon Van Etten, who sang stark, riveting songs about loneliness and yearning in a lustrous voice.
New York can also claim Hercules and Love Affair, the project of the disc jockey Andy Butler, who mustered a glittering stageful of singers (in silver lamé) and dancers — one of the marathon’s few events with production values — to perform blipping, percolating songs that took heartbreak to the digital disco.
College and Web radio, for all their delight in new and obscure music, are also havens of cultishness and a kind of musical conservatism, praising new bands that revive some cherished sound that the pop mainstream ignored. So a good part of CMJ looks backward or delves into niches.
That’s not always bad. The scruffy, punky new wave of bands like Answering Machine, Pete and the Pirates, and Parlovr (a Montreal band pronounced like “parlor”) was endearing; so was the straightforward but supercharged punk of Lovvers. These United States, a band from Washington, fully fit the definition of an alt-country band, complete with pedal-steel guitar, but it’s a superb one, equally at home with quiet, morose tales and galloping punky-tonk adventures.
Fool’s Gold, from Los Angeles, fused grooves and vocal styles from across Africa, one of the rare worldbeat bands that doesn’t shallowly imitate its sources. There was also an African apparition: Janka Nabay from Sierra Leone, wearing a straw skirt and singing and dancing to recorded tracks of what he said was a 500-year-old tradition called bubu music. The tracks were modern, and the beat, fast and skeletal and driven by bell taps, was unstoppable, demanding wider dissemination.
Yet hearing all the revivalists and category-fillers at CMJ — shoegazers, synth-poppers, heavy-metal bands — can also make a listener wonder if, as Simon Balthazar of Fanfarlo sang, “The great ideas are wearing thin.” (Fanfarlo itself got many of its ideas from Arcade Fire and Beirut.)
Two highly touted bands — the XX from England and Cold Cave from Philadelphia — are dedicated, and largely derivative, throwbacks to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when punk met synthesizers. The XX was decidedly understated, matching its austere, quietly morose songs, while Cold Cave deadpanned its way through glum songs with a dissonant wallop, singing, “I’ve seen the future and it’s no place for me.” But the Montreal band Duchess Says, whose songs also rode big drumbeats and repetitive synthesizer riffs — fat ones from a Moog — was a lot more fun. Its singer, Annie-Claude, had herky-jerk stage moves that she carried into the audience, even climbing onto a fan or two.
Live shows, unlike recording studios, encourage musicians to let their music crest. The Temper Trap, from Australia, plunged into anthems of self-discovery with the martial drive of U2, vocals heading for falsetto and instrumental buildups that were clearly aiming for arenas. More pensive groups let the music surge from within, among them Choir of Young Believers, a brooding Danish rock band, and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Wheel, a band from Denver that looks folky — with acoustic guitar and bass fiddle — but sings about regrets and insecurities in choruses that turned rousing.
Musicians’ oldest livelihood, performing and touring, is still their most dependable one, and the CMJ gantlet — playing half-hour sets to distracted audiences in low-fi clubs — lets bookers, agents and potential tour mates see what YouTube still can’t deliver. Stage presence makes a difference, even if the stage is the size of a wading pool and half the audience is checking e-mail. While CMJ had no guaranteed next big thing in 2009, and the current music business might not know how to nurture one if it did, there were enough worthwhile next small things to deserve their moment of hard-won attention.
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