Heartbreaking Bravery

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Tag: CMJ review

CMJ: Day 5 Review

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Going to an afterparty running on minimal sleep was probably not the best idea and staying out until six in the morning was probably an even worse one but music festivals are a good excuse to get together with groups of friends that stretch across the country. I don’t know how I managed to only miss one band I’d planned on seeing to start my last official day of CMJ but I’m thankful I woke up in time to catch the last half of Sheer Mag’s set at AdHoc’s Carwash, which wasn’t a part of CMJ but was one of the best showcases of the week.

Of course, showing up to Sheer Mag that late meant being relegated to the back of the crowd, so I allowed myself to gain a modicum of composure and catch at least a little breath after jogging a full mile to make sure I didn’t miss their set completely. My effort was rewarded with an energetic, shambolic closing run that saw the band affirming themselves as one of DIY punk’s top-tier live acts. Protomartyr, playing on yet another bill with Perfect Pussy this year, brought their usual Very Serious stoicism to the table and handled themselves as capably as ever.

Potty Mouth, a band I’ve been trying to see for several years, took the stage after Protomartyr and immediately launched into a memorable set that showcased their infectious basement pop and surging confidence. Their latest EP, Cherry Picking, is a career highlight and enhances their more sugary sensibilities to striking effect. There’s a palpable love that the band brings to their live show, slipping through the cracks and presenting itself in an assortment of irrepressible smiles. If the crowd reaction of the crowd during an inspired cover of “No One Else” was any indication, the crowd fed off the band’s high spirits and channeled them into some of their own.

Up next was Pity Sex, who were playing new material– all of which sounded like career-best work the band– ahead of their forthcoming release. The band’s always had serviceable pop sensibilities but they’ve been expanded and maximized in thrilling new ways on their most recent material while still managing to retain their heavy, wall-of-sound shoegaze influence. As much as Pity Sex were hitting all the right notes and giving the audience a great show, I’d seen them before and after what Dilly Dally pulled off on the second night of CMJ, I made a split-second decision and sprinted a mile to catch all of Dilly Dally‘s set at Baby’s All Right as part of BrooklynVegan’s CMJ showcase.

Dilly Dally, once again, lunged fearlessly into a breathtaking set that covered both a large section of Sore, one of this year’s best albums, and their early singles. Only this time, the band had the benefit of Baby’s iconic LED backdrop, which aided the noir-ish moodiness of their grunge-leaning basement punk to a sublime perfection. Every member of Dilly Dally’s stage presence makes them come across like a loose cannon but guitarist/vocalist Katie Monks is particularly unhinged, wielding an outsize persona with a disarming amount of control in a way that marries something decidedly scrappy with a sense of spellbinding grace.

It’s an extraordinarily difficult line to walk and the band all but runs the tightrope with a disconcerting ease. The band managed to elicit several chills throughout their set but perhaps the fiercest bouts came during their jaw-dropping Drake cover, which proved to be a highlight yet again. Gnarled and unbelievably heavy, it’s a complete curveball but it fits in seamlessly with the band’s aesthetic making it a dangerous addition to the arsenal of weapons at their disposal. Once again, they closed with the gorgeous “Desire“, leaving yet another audience stunned in their wake.

As soon as I’d caught up with Monks for a quick spell, I sprinted the mile back to AdHoc’s Carwash at Hand & Detail in an effort to see all of LVL UP‘s set. Arriving just a song or two into their set, I immediately squared away on the side of the stage and settled in for another powerhouse set from one of the bands that’d helped me get settled into NYC when I moved in June. Mining their discography for a well-rounded selection of songs for their setlist, the songs from Hoodwink’d seemed particularly resonant, with a large bulk of the audience audibly singing along.

Porches., a band that’s amassed a large following over the past few years, followed LVL UP with a set of soft, ’80s-indebted rock songs. It was a set that seemed to act as a bit of a breather after the unrelenting intensity of the opening batch of acts and before the onslaught of the bill’s final two acts: Perfect Pussy and Destruction Unit. I’m not sure I would have ever had moved to New York or even started this site had it not been for the influence of the former act, so seeing them play to an exceptionally responsive crowd was a very heartening moment. Also heartening was hearing the roars of approval that met vocalist Meredith Graves‘ vitriolic attacks against Chris Ott at the start of their set and the possibility of losing funding for Planned Parenthood before another round of the band’s newest song, “The Women”.

After Perfect Pussy whipped the audience into a fervor, Destruction Unit took some time to set up, fell into a haze of feedback, called for the lights to be dimmed to their absolute minimum, and launched into what almost felt like an improvisational set of punishing noise-punk armed with a lot of hardcore influences. Cribbing heavily from their latest release, the band seemed to be pushing themselves and the crowd to the limits with bruising explorations that felt somewhat reminiscent of an exorcism. Ending with a long stretch of heightening feedback, as soon as the standby switches got flipped on their equipment, I was sprinting back to Baby’s All Right to catch another set from Meat Wave.

Arriving at Baby’s All Right as the band was setting up for the second time in 10 hours was a good feeling, even as the exhaustion of the week started to take hold. Meat Wave, as has been noted multiple times before, was a tremendously important band in the early development and direction of this site. As they went off on the Baby’s stage, their audience gradually grew in size and became increasingly vocal throughout, injecting some supplementary adrenaline into what was already a particularly charged set (which always seems to be the case with Meat Wave). “Cosmic Zoo” and a revamped “Brother” were easy highlights and saw the band locked into something that felt close to feral.

For the first time since the Worriers set that kicked the week off, I decided to take a step back and skip a set to have my second meal in 30 hours to ensure I didn’t keel over later on in the night. Two slices of a pizza, a soda, and an inNo Crying In Baseballning of baseball later, I was back at the lip of the Baby’s stage watching Mothers set up, anxious to see if they could match up with their advance buzz. The quartet met expectations and then cleanly surpassed them with a set of intricate, knotty indie pop songs that are equally unpredictable and enticing. Closing with the irresistible “No Crying In Baseball“, the band had all but convinced any skeptic that they were ready for the spotlight.

Once Mothers had unplugged, I was off to The Silent Barn for the secret Honor Press (Meredith Graves’ label) was hosting and got there just in time to catch a set from Aye Nako, who I’d been wanting to see for some time. After catching a few quick words with a delirious-but-composed (and clearly excited) Graves, I squared away in the Barn and was met with a thrilling set from the quartet. Sharp, concise, basement punk played with a snarl, it felt effectively venomous but never aggressively confrontational, making it accessible enough to pull in a fairly large audience.

Afterwards, it was time for what Graves (and, to be totally honest, myself) considered the pièce de résistance: Cloud Castle Lake. The Dublin-based band made their way over to the States for CMJ and used this showcase as their final stop. It wasn’t long before the band settled into its first groove and it was all over from that point forward. No band that week would come even remotely close to matching the layered spell Cloud Castle Lake cast on its small, awed audience.

Every member of the band flashed serious chops on their respective instrument(s) and the band conjured up towering tapestries that were extraordinarily moving, both in a physical and emotional sense. With everyone dancing, swinging their hips, and looking dazed as the band made their way through an endless stretch of intricate passages, I looked down to an overwhelmed Graves, who was seated against the wall, clutching her knees to her chest, and looking out at the band with pride and wonder. As a whole, it felt surprisingly transcendent and occasionally verged on a religious experience. No other band, save for maybe Dilly Dally, gave me as many chills in a single set.

Taking all of that into account, it probably wasn’t surprising when various members of Perfect Pussy seemed to have a little trepidation about following that kind of set. They needn’t have worried too much; the band’s third set of the week was arguably their strongest, an emotionally-fueled tour de force that saw all four present members playing out of their minds. Guitarist Ray McAndrew, for instance, broke strings on two separate guitars before finding some luck with a third. Thrashing their way through a raucous set, to what was easily one of the smallest (and most intensely invested) crowds I’d seen all week, they managed to provide an unforgettable endcap to the day’s incessant tide of truly memorable moments.

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 2 Review

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To get this straight, right off the bat: CMJ’s second day of festivities was the first day I participated in the proceedings so the title from this point forward will be reflective of the official festival dates and, due to the timely nature of the visual edits that something of this magnitude necessitates, there will be additional supplementary material to this post (and all of the forthcoming review posts) in the near-future.

The very first band I saw at CMJ wasn’t actually a band that I saw play; The Midwestern Charm were in town from Milwaukee, WI and deserve another mention in this space because, despite my best efforts, there level of press/exposure is still lacking (though their recent deal with Texas Is Funny is helping make some amends). After a brief hangout stint in the Artist’s Lounge and at a pizza place, I hopped a train to The Cake Shop where I’d hoped to catch the final two acts. Unfortunately, site favorites Diet Cig had just wrapped when I arrived. Balancing that misfortune out was the fact that I still arrived in time to catch all of Worriers’ set, a band I’ve attempted (and subsequently failed) to see at least five times over the past few months.

Worriers packed in a lot of material from their recent effort for Don Giovanni, Imaginary Life, including their career highlight “They/Them/Theirs“, which was an easy set highlight as well. Immediately after their set, which packed enough power to be memorable, I made the walk over to Santos Party House for NME’s unbelievably stacked showcase. As soon as I managed to sneak past security and into the venue before doors were opened, I linked up with Perfect Pussy, who have meant an extraordinary amount to both myself and this site (they can be at least partially credited for its existence).

I’d initially planned on attempting to catch every act on the bill but the prospect of a trip out to Chinatown with Perfect Pussy and a photographer from The Village Voice (who was dutifully shooting the evening’s events for the publication) proved too tantalizing. After sipping tea and watching everyone devour some dim sum, everyone made the trek back to the venue. The rest of the evening was spent running up and down a flight of steps separating two rooms that were hosting alternating sets.

Hooton Tennis Club were first up on the upstairs stage and managed to make a strong impression by virtue of stage presence and some genuinely catchy songs that skew heavily towards powerpop but have enough punk bite to avoid being pigeonholed into the genre. Car Seat Headrest were the next featured band and, riding a massive swell of buzz on the back of their deal with Matador, had a lot of expectations to meet and surpass. They mostly succeeded but were hampered early on by some strange sound issues. Everything had been resolved by the end of their set, which harbored enough heat to justify the intimidating amount of hype.

Well before Car Seat Headrest had wrapped their set, Seratones had kicked off what seemed to be a powerhouse set on the upstairs stage. Infusing blues, soul, and a healthy portion of straight rock n’ roll, the band came off as a towering force. Comparisons to Alabama Shakes seem inevitable but most will likely seem a little misguided. In any case, as soon as this band’s name starts circulating on a larger scale, they’ll be coveted by festivals and a frighteningly large army of people. As soon as the band closed their set, it was back down to watch Nico Yaryan take a considerable amount of time to set up before riding a few overwhelmingly pleasant songs into the territory of an oddly disjointed sleepiness.

Yaryan’s indie-folk outlier set warranted a return visit to the upstairs stage, where Yung kept my attention rapt by pouring everything they had into a ferocious set of hardcore-leaning basement punk numbers that was at least somewhat reminiscent of NE-HI, albeit a version of NE-HI that was a lot more pissed off. It was the perfect antidote to the preceding proceedings and acted a desperately-needed shot of adrenaline. Shopping (UK) kept that energy going downstairs with a set of minimal post-punk that had a lot of people dancing (myself included). Every song in the band’s catalog is deceptively complex but the band delivers everything with ease (and occasionally throw in a wink or a smile for good measure).

Protomartyr has been picking up all kinds of acclaim for their latest release and a hint of furthered confidence could be evidenced in the band’s characteristically deadpan presence. All of the new songs immediately stood out as highlights and kept a growing audience incredibly engaged (of the three times I’ve seen Protomartyr, this crowd was the most appreciative by far). Before their set ended, it was back to the stairwell for the umpteenth trip down the same flight of stairs to (finally) catch Downtown Boys.

While I’m still lukewarm on their recorded material, the band’s a juggernaut live. Vocalist Victoria Ruiz comes off like a vigilante dictator, espousing rousing political speeches about broken systems between songs (speeches that often serve as extended introductions to the song) before the very talented band finally joins her explosion. The crowd was whipped into a frenzy only a few songs in, which was my cue to run upstairs to catch Perfect Pussy.

As mentioned above, this site has a long history with the band (it was built primarily as an outlet for me to have a place to interview the band’s vocalist, Meredith Graves, who quickly became the patron saint of this place by featuring it in any way she could whenever she was given the opportunity). Even with that history running deep, I’d never seen the band play without their synth player, Shaun Sutkus. Sutkus was away on business (he’s still very much a part of the band, so rest easy, concerned parties) but everyone else was present and ready to go.

The band delivered a typically blistering set that included a new song entitled “The Women” that was written as a sort of pro-Planned Parenthood war cry. It was one of the first glimpses at the band’s new material, which they’re justifiably excited about releasing. Seemingly nothing but left turns, stop/start dynamics, and a variety of other compelling tricks, “The Women” is one of the most fascinating things that Perfect Pussy have ever played to an audience. While it didn’t quite get the roaring reception of “Interference Fits“, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s well on its way.

As soon as Perfect Pussy started winding down, I made a beeline for the basement to see a band I’ve waited nearly two years to see: site favorites Dilly Dally. Playing to a crowd at around one in the morning can be a difficult prospect, especially when you’re already dealing with the pressures that accompany having one of the most celebrated records of the moment. Throw in my own personal feelings about the band and the anxiety levels were high; could they live up? Dilly Dally responded by throwing down a monstrous set that exceeded the confines of the festival and quickly registered as one of the best sets of the year.

Every conceivable aspect of a live show was covered: the banter was entertaining, the band’s four members all fully committed to their stage presence, they conjured up a wall of sound that was enough to send shockwaves through my torso without ever having any sound issues, and at one point Katie Monks– the band’s vocalist/guitarist– got intense enough to break a string. Monks’ voice on its own is an incredibly powerful thing and she can wield it like a loaded weapon but when it’s supported the way it is by her bandmates, it becomes unforgettable.

By the end of Dilly Dally’s set, they’d played a handful of tracks from 2015 highlight Sore, “Candy Mountain“, and covered Drake with a surprising level of menace. It was a jaw-dropping set and provided the perfect note to end an opening day of showgoing. Unforgiving in its raw power and weirdly poetic nature, Dilly Dally’s performance set an unbelievably high bar and the rest of this week will be given an added element of intrigue: will anyone be able to top what they pulled off? It’ll be exciting to find out.