CMJ: Day 4 Review

by Steven Spoerl


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.