Sean McKee, Staff Writer
More so than any other festival, CMJ has always had a bad case of the “I-saw-it-first” itis. It’s hard to find a crowd at any of the over 1,300 performances without the adjoining desperation of bloggers, journalists and yes, adjunct college newspaper writers, waving their high-res DSLRs, complete with telephoto lens and external flash, ignoring the performance in the name of bragging rights.
The ramifications of this cannot be understated. It’s a frequent topic of conversation at the daily panels, with one notable instance from last year, which was a discussion about the nature of rock journalism, equating CMJ to a media-driven contest, where the purpose of everyone in attendance is to “win CMJ.” To win, you essentially need to operate less as a journalist or (God forbid) a fan of music, and more as a weather forecaster who predicted the next hurricane when everyone else predicted a light shower. The difference here is that exaggerated claims of oncoming meteorological destruction cannot actually create a hurricane. An exaggerated emphasis on a performer or slice of culture can only artificially inflate the value of an act like, let’s say, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (hypothetically).
It all comes down to the concept of buzz, e.g. publicity, brouhaha, and hype. And really, since when has hype been a good thing? The music industry, really the entertainment industry at large, is built on developing and creating hype. But it was not too long ago that hype was the business of con-men, swindlers and thieves, blowing into town claiming to have discovered the magical cure to all of the inflictions that town is plagued with, often times creating the ailments themselves. Why do we want to encourage this as an industry?
I say bully to that. The essence of performance is to create a bond with the audience, not to put up a shield of shallow wit for the sake of becoming the next darling of the Internet one week, forgotten as the next crop of hype-built bands shuffles in, once again rebuilding the house of cards destined to fall by a mild gust of wind. With my journalistic integrity on the line, I went with my gut, looking instead for the bands that fell under my own standards, however arbitrary or personal they may sound. Criterion for my attendance included things like “I liked them a lot before coming to CMJ,” or “they happened to be playing in the area I was in and I wandered in blindly,” or “because their name sounded funny,” which is just as arbitrary as “because Pitchfork told me so.” Most of the following bands (with a couple notable exception) fall under these categories…
Death, Cerebral Ballzy, Ninjasonik, Jersey Klan (Tuesday, October 18, Music Hall of Williamsburg)
The hot ticket the first night was Wild Flag, the new supergroup fronted by Sleater-Kinney vocalist, NPR music contributor, and Portlandia singer Carrie Brownstein. However, due to the hotness of its ticket and the limited badge entry (a regular occurrence with the larger shows), virtually nobody got into this show (at least, no one I knew). Fine by me; at the same time across the Hudson River in Brooklyn was the Afro-Punk “Death to Hip Hop” showcase featuring legendary Detroit proto-punk band, Death.
The New Jersey based hip-hop/punk group Jersey Klan hit the stage first, joined by an entourage of at least 3 or 4 extras who were just along for the ride. Their style was most akin to old school Public Enemy style hip-hop, updated with the aggressiveness of hardcore punk, sans the political rhetoric of Chuck D. They also symbolically kicked the show into overdrive when, during the finale of their set, they dove into the crowd and started a circle pit (an act they would return to create the rest of the evening).
The hip-hop was broken up by Brooklyn’s hardcore punk revivalists Cerebral Ballzy, fronted by the visibly and hopelessly inebriated Honor Titus, whose between-song banter was my favorite of the week (his slow, apathetic droll repeating “hey you over there… we’re having a party… hey you up there… fuck you, you’re up there and we’re having a party” was particularly hilarious). They were the prototype of a great punk band: fast, loud, short songs raging against the ills perpetrated by things like the MTA.
The night concluded with Death, who was doing punk a decade before a bunch of whiny kids from London called for “Anarchy in the UK.” The trio were recognizably from Detroit, with the occasional Motown sound seeping into the mix of garage punk. The crowd was understandably confused at first, since the evening symbolically jumped back about 40 years, but after the only soft ballad of the night, the energy in the room surged back, closing out what was potentially the most genuine showcase I would attend all week.
Casiokids (Saturday, October 22, Knitting Factory)
A retrospective of CMJ 2011 would not be complete without a mention of Norway’s Casiokids, who was arguably the most talked about band that genuinely deserved their hype. The group played several times throughout the week, including a stop at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory as a part of the AAM Promo showcase. Admittedly, Casiokids have been playing in Europe since at least 2005, and have been kicking around American hipster circles for a couple years, but 2011 seems to be their breakout year, starting with a stop at Austin’s SXSW in Spring and now receiving all sorts of love for their stints at CMJ.
A regular problem with shoegaze electro-pop is the adamant refusal of the band to recognize there is a crowd in front of them, resorting to light-show gimmicks to keep people entertained/distracted, resulting in an apathetic performance and an equally apathetic audience. Casiokids go for a much more performance-based route, blending LCD Soundsystem-style interlocking grooves and of Montreal pop hooks to accompany their stage show. While the half hour set I viewed was enthusiastic, it didn’t feature the Flaming Lips-esque animal costumes and puppet show that their other appearances had. A disappointment to be sure, but the tight rhythms and propulsive changing of instruments helped elevate the group from blog-stars with a weird gimmick, to a force to be reckoned with.
Casiokids’ “Det Haster!”
More Casiokids: http://soundcloud.com/search?q%5Bfulltext%5D=casiokids
Cerebral Ballzy “Cutting Class”
More @: http://soundcloud.com/cerebralballzy
Death “Politicians in my Eyes”
Jersey Klan “Dis Shit Right Here”