Heartbreaking Bravery

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CMJ: Day 4 Review

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With the fourth day of CMJ kicking off and the level of work required to keep up with the festival starting to take its toll, I slept through the alarm clock I had set to ensure I could catch LVL UP‘s early set at Palisades to kick off Exploding In Sound’s joint CMJ showcase and fourth birthday celebration. Running in just after the band had torn down left a sinking feeling that was quickly replaced with contentment as the Leapling project found its stride in a (mostly) solo set– the bassist from Dirty Dishes joined in on two songs– of gentle pop songs. Despite missing LVL UP, it was a wonderful way to sink into the day’s proceedings.

Flagland took a while to set up but even that couldn’t match the ambition or length of their new songs, which feel like a collection of fully-realized micro-punk songs condensed into a long-running, coherent whole. All of the songs the band was testing out were rooted in their dynamics and exceeded 10 minutes in length, finding intriguing ways to bridge the gaps between sections that were frequently radically different from each other, despite being housed in the same structure. Look out for their upcoming record because it’ll be one of the more fascinating releases of whatever time it arrives.

Swings, who have down-scaled their quiet aggression into something more quiet and moody offered up a set that acted as an epilogue of sorts to Flagland’s bold madness. They cycled through songs that felt tranquil but never uninteresting. Retaining the sense of mystery that made them so compelling to begin with, the band sounded confident and looked relaxed. They also provided one of the day’s most unexpected highlights by bringing out their current tourmate, Mal Devisa, to perform one of her numbers with the band backing her and Devisa delivered in full, giving a commanding one-song performance that drew what may have been the day’s loudest applause.

Dirty Dishes and Kal Marks played next, each offering different takes on off-kilter post-punk with grunge and shoegaze influences. The former opted to go the more serene route (while still making room for a few fiery moments) to tremendous effect while the latter dug deep into the sludgy darkness that permeates both genres when they’re at their most menacing. Back to back, it was an extraordinarily effective combination that established a sense of building momentum, which is a feat that a lot of lineups aim for but few ever accomplish. Both bands tested out new songs and each act had the audience’s attention held rapt. One practiced finesse while the other embraced chaos, acting as an intriguing sign of things to come.

Following Kal Marks’ explosive performance was another pairing, this one even more pragmatic: Washer and Stove. While the former’s been subsumed by the latter, they’re still their own project and have a genuinely great set of songs scheduled for release in early 2016. The vast majority of their set stuck to the new material, which is easily some of the duo’s best, while still making room for a few crowd favorites. After technical problems killed off Steve Hartlett’s guest solo towards the end of Washer’s set, he was joined by the last remaining member of Stove to lead Washer through their final songs as a quarter before they all took a break and reassembled for a Stove set.

Ostensibly a slight continuation of Hartlett’s previous project, Ovlov, his current one is making some serious moves. Even before Is Stupider‘s release, it’s clear that Stove’s harboring some of Hartlett’s career best-work and that the project contains, and is surrounded by, people who genuinely believe in this music. Crafting towering anthems of damaged hope and unwavering resiliency, it’s hard not to fiercely connect to what’s happening here, which is beginning to feel downright vital. “Wet Food“, the project’s current calling card, is one of the year’s finest songs and its best qualities are only amplified live, cultivating an unforgettable feeling of near-transcendence every time it hits (it’s one of the few songs that’s given me chills in a live setting on more than one occasion). Closing with a monstrous number that has an exhilarating outro section that stretches into forever, it’s difficult to think that this band doesn’t have huge things waiting for it, just around the wing.

Palm continued their massive 2015, which has seen them carve out a massively respected name for themselves, with another set of enviable musicianship and tight-knit chemistry. All of the band’s songs are puzzles with interlocking pieces that tend to immediately swivel into something genuinely unexpected and occasionally jarring (in the best way possible).

That kind of commitment to excessively complicated craft often leaves the players fairly confined so the transition from Palm to Greys was a startling– but welcome– one. Greys are one of the single most energetic live bands playing out on the circuit and they brought every inch of that inspired fervor to the Palisades stage where they ripped through a career-spanning set with reckless abandon, including a brand new song (“We wrote this like two days ago”, quipped guitarist/vocalist Shehzaad Jiwani) that sounded incredibly promising. It was a characteristically ferocious set that went a long way in proving that the band’s far from done.

The Spirit of the Beehive and Big Ups followed Greys, each bringing their own brand of manic energy to the Palisades stage. The Spirit of the Beehive, a five-piece, dipped into a raucous set of slacker pop songs with a surprising amount of emotion and nuance, while taking the volume back up to punishing levels. Stretching over their limited but enviable catalog, it was an extraordinary set from an act that still doesn’t seem to be getting the attention they genuinely deserve.

Big Ups, however, have been picking up plenty of attention and that focus is warranted. The band’s one of the best live acts in a city overflowing with bands trying to stake a claim to that throne but falling excessively short of Big Ups at their worst. Thankfully, that was far from the case here which saw Big Ups celebrating their own anniversary and pulling out one of the most blistering sets of the night, once again reminding everyone of their curious power.

Another act having a career-making year, Palehound, closed out the showcase with a set that prominently featured this year’s excellent Dry Food. As a few people were quick to point out, the band was playing as a trio and not as a quartet as the previous incantation of the band had been. Regardless, Ellen Kempner led her band through a set of songs that definitely managed to make an impression. Impressive musicianship abounded and the band landed every one of their blows, providing the showcase with a graceful exit.

As soon as Palehound’s set wrapped, despite not having eaten or drank anything for approximately 16 hours, I ran over to Silent Barn to catch the remainder of the Double Double Whammy showcase and got there just a song or two into what proved to be another memorable Downies set. The band, made up of various members from other great bands, was in fine form and playing with the sort of intensity you’d expect from a band that cites Radioactivity (and The Marked Men, by extension) as one of its bigger influences. Closing things out with a monumental track from their forthcoming LP, the band left the audience dancing and hungry for more.

Eskimeaux, playing out with a new bassist, quickly sated their appetites with another spellbinding set comprised of songs from O.K., which may very well be this year’s best record. Playing with their usual amount of grace, the band connected to their audience with ease, serenading them with tales of personal longing and unspeakable loss. Through it all, guitarist/vocalist Gabrielle Smith stayed the project’s centerpiece, striking a commanding presence that always felt welcoming rather than imposing, like a warm embrace from an old friend. In that near-familial sense, Eskimeaux succeeded in playing up the communal aspects of the recently re-opened Silent Barn to heartwarming effect. Before stepping off the stage, it was abundantly clear that everyone in the audience was on her side.

Capping the day’s events off was another incredibly strong set from LVL UP, half of which run Double Double Whammy, to an adoring crowd that was clearly there to show their support for everything the band’s done. After missing them at the very start of the day, catching them closing thing down only managed to bolster an already pervasive feeling of triumph. Tearing through their discography with gleeful determination, the band led a sizable late-night crowd in massive singalongs, and affirmed their love by delivering one of the day’s most memorable sets. It was yet another perfect ending to a day that offered absolutely no reprieve. Was it worth the effort? Absolutely.

CMJ: Day 3 Review

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After a loaded schedule on what was my first full day of CMJ, I probably should have tried to get more sleep but CMJ doesn’t really play by a logical set of rules and it demands the same from the people committed to covering the various goings on of the week, so as soon as I was up, I was running out of the door to rough trade to catch Shopping at Rough Trade for the second time in two days. The band didn’t disappoint, jumping into another wiry set delivered with verve and a casual ease that clearly demonstrated they weren’t anywhere close to succumbing to fatigue.

After a brief pause between sets, Ezra Furman (who has replaced The Harpoons with His Boyfriend) took the stage with a maniacal energy that translated into a surprisingly compelling live show. I hadn’t seen Furman’s live set for five years or so and the songwriter’s grown considerably as a performer in that time. Emphasizing the bluesier elements of his band, it seemed like every other few songs was a solid highlight and the band’s heaviest moments also tended to hit hardest. It was a memorable set that showcased Furman’s stray dog voice and zippy wordplay with enough force to make it stand out pretty easily.

Of course, that energy can also turn a little sour if things start going wrong and while Furman and his band never fell victim to that dynamic, it was difficult not to at least be a little frustrated with the massive assortment of technical difficulties that delayed Georgia’s set by approximately 40 minutes. Going from relatively contained (but very apparent) to volatile bursts, it was the kind of setback that left both the artist and the crew more than a little flustered.

Finally, after what seemed like two dozen patches, Georgia’s set started in earnest. It was something of a homecoming for the UK songwriter, as she’d previously worked at Rough Trade’s London location. Exhibiting impressive musicianship, the project (which currently plays out as a duo), put on a very convincing show and likely created a few converts. At the tail end of the set, there was some endearing fawning over the showcase’s next act: John Grant.

Grant’s a subversive songwriter, utilizing levity, pathos, and directness in ways that are frequently as disarming as they are entertaining. Playing out on his latest collection, the fantastic Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, Grant found a myriad of ways to make sure his singular voice was heard, loud and clear. Close to every song in Grant’s set straddled an enviable divide and would have worked as well as an opener as it would a finale. Of course, none of them would have been effective in the latter slot as the set’s rightful final number, “Queen of Denmark”, a wry, sprawling ballad punctuated by staggering walls of sound that find the band digging into the heaviness they’re capable of conjuring.

With “Queen of Denmark” bringing things to a tremendously satisfying conclusion, it was immediately back to organization and preparation before running out to Aviv for an unofficial show presented by Exploding in Sound, Gimme Tinitus, and Ipsum, featuring a characteristically stacked lineup of bands that aren’t afraid of embracing music’s inherent noise. Video Daughters were first up and content to dive headfirst into long noise explorations that eventually culminated in a chaotic, piercing number that likely came close to blowing the PA speakers.

It was a fascinating set that set the evening up nicely, acting as a perfect lede for What Moon Things, who are coasting on a perpetually-building wave of buzz and capitalizing on every opportunity with significant force. Mixing elements of grunge and post-punk in a way that feels unique is no easy task but the trio manages to pull it off with aplomb, ripping through sets of memorable songs that don’t back away from left turns or relative fearlessness. More thTuran a few pairs of notable ears were piqued by their final song’s ultimate descent into feedback.

Mumblr and Meat Wave took the next spots, in an eerie, déjà vu-inducing reprise of this site’s first official showcase almost exactly a year ago to the date of their appearance at Aviv. Only, this time, their roles were switched and both bands have shown exceptional growth in that time. Mumblr have been gradually settling into darker territory that slowly unfurls, effectively wrapping listeners up in its coils. While their old songs remain favorites, their new artistic direction’s a fascinating one with seemingly endless possibilities and quite a bit of potential.

Meat Wave, for their part, have been not-so-quietly putting together one hell of a year. The trio’s released an acclaimed record, gone overseas a few times, signed to SideOneDummy and sharpened their live show’s claws into something significantly more intense. All of the new songs the band played sounded considerably heavier and a lot more foreboding (and, as Exploding in Sound founder Dan Goldin mentioned, a lot meaner). Their five-song set (the planned schedule was kept to on a pretty severe level) was a definite highlight for me and I’m positive that’s true for a handful of others as well. After all, it’s hard to argue any Meat Wave set that includes the explosive, jaw-dropping outro of “Panopticon”.

Painted Zeros took the stage after Meat Wave cleared out, eager to continue to test material from their full-length debut (their first effort for Don Giovanni). The level of affection the band has for their new material is palpable and that affection was definitely channeled into their performance, which felt like an improvement on the last set I was able to catch them play (which was fairly impressive in its own right). The slowest, most delicate material played best in a setting that had almost exclusively disallowed anything resembling that band of music through four acts. It would have been a nice reprieve even if it hadn’t been deeply impressive.

Effectively bridging a gap and providing some much-needed air (while still managing to get in a few vicious punches), Turn To Crime and Yvette dragged things back into more primal territory. Turn To Crime did this on a slow-build basis (Meat Wave correctly noted their set’s hypnotic, trance-like effect) through songs that could simultaneously feel meandering and extremely calculated.

Yvette, on the other hand, made the most of their headlining slot by diving into their characteristic insanity. Over the course of the past few years, Yvette have released a handful of very good to great records, including Time Management, their most recent (and a 2015 highlight). The duo’s built up a solid following in that time, who revere their live show- and for good reason. The duo committed themselves to their performance, letting their clothes soak up their sweat and turn a few shades darker. Equal parts performance and process, it was a nearly non-stop barrage of searing noise-punk at a punishing volume that was never anything less than gripping and likely left a few people reeling. As they packed up, it was hard to imagine anything could follow, making it the perfect endcap to another very full day.