Flavorpill’s Favorite Moments from CMJ 2011

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CMJ’s over for another year, and now that we’ve finally gotten a decent night’s sleep, we’re in a better position to look back over a long and crazy week of drinking, queuing and gig-going. As ever, this year’s CMJ played host to a ridiculous number of bands, and while we know you can’t see everything, we did our level best to see… well, pretty much everything. So here’s a selection of our favorite bands from CMJ 2011 — both new discoveries and established names who put on particularly impressive shows — as chosen by our highly trained and highly caffeinated Flavorpill contingent. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’re going to go and slump on the couch for the next week or so.

Zola Jesus (Ace Hotel, 10.19 and Le Poisson Rouge, 10.19)

When we saw Zola Jesus a year ago during CMJ, the powerful voice backing the dark songs of existential peril was there, but tiny Niki Danilova’s stage presence wasn’t. Pacing the stage of Brooklyn Bowl, she seemed as though she wanted to get every song over and done with as quickly as possible. Something changed between then and now: Zola Jesus has become a rock star. From the cramped Ace Hotel lobby to Le Poisson Rouge, Zola Jesus’s epic Conatus songs shook with a live fury that was replicated in Danilova’s feral, hypnotic stage presence. — Russ Marshalek

Fidlar (Indigenous/Spaceland showcase, Cake Shop, 10.19)

As they reminded us many times during their set, “Fidlar” stands for “Fuck It Dog, Life’s a Risk.” If you think that’s stupid, you’d also probably roll your eyes at the Los Angeles band’s preferred subject matter — cocaine, surfing, cheap beer, not getting laid. We acknowledge that there a million young, Ramones-style punk acts out there doing basically the same shit, but we have to admit that Fidlar made it more exciting than most. They obviously have a great time onstage, and the bopping, moshing, shouting-along crowd were easily the most enthusiastic we witnessed at CMJ. By the end of the set, we were having a lot of fun in spite of ourselves. — Judy Berman

EMA (High Road Touring Showcase, Bowery Ballroom, 10.20)

It was a long night at Bowery Ballroom on Thursday. The incredible, passionate soul-rock band Alabama Shakes opened to a big, enthusiastic crowd, but were followed by three acts who ranged from “mediocre” to “tragically boring” to “fascinatingly terrible.” When EMA finally took the stage at around 12:30 am, there were far fewer audience members than her fantastic performance merited. EMA, whose real name is Erika M. Anderson, put out one of this year’s best and most wrenching albums, Past Life Martyred Saints, after an emotional split last year from her former experimental folk band Gowns. It’s been amazing watching her come into her own as a performer, and seeing her play it’s easy to imagine she will soon be playing to much bigger audiences. She exudes rock star charisma along with raw emotion, yet remains grounded and self-deprecating, smiling and making jokes to offset the melodrama of her music. One of the most intense moments of the set was her version of the Gowns song “Cherylee,” which, like many of her songs, seems influenced by abuse and deep trauma. She played the song solo and you could see the tears shining on her face. It was a deeply affecting and human moment. And then her band returned. And they rocked the fuck out. — Sophie Weiner

Psychic Ills (Life or Death PR showcase, Cake Shop, 10.20)

As far as bands who sound exactly like their name go, Psychic Ills are up there with the best of them. The veteran NYC experimental psych band’s music sounds like an ongoing freak-out, a churning mess of guitar noise anchored by the rhythmic pulse of Elizabeth Hart’s bass. Live, they’re a refreshingly unassuming presence (especially on a bill heavily weighted toward ironically scruffy Brooklyn kiddies with suspiciously expensive equipment) — they turn on, tune up, and drop into the darkest, most hypnotic grooves we hear all week. And when they’re done, they quietly thank the crowd and wander over to man the merch desk. Oh, that all bands were both so amazing and so down to earth. — Tom Hawking

Guards (Indigenous/Spaceland showcase, Cake Shop, 10.19)

Guards get a lot of press for their relationship to Cults — their frontman and songwriter, Richie Follin, is the brother of that band’s singer, Madeline Follin. But we would argue that Guards are the more intriguing of the two. Instead of doing a straightforward take on ’60s girl groups, they bury their backward-looking pop under layers of crashing guitars, adding some mystery and heft to the mix. Although the sound wasn’t perfect at Cake Shop, we definitely got the idea that Guards make the kind of music you could easily lose an afternoon spacing out to. — JB

Exitmusic (Windish Agency showcase, Pianos, 10.19)

Exitmusic are probably best known for being the musical outlet of Aleksa Palladino of Boardwalk Empire, but they really deserve to be appreciated in their own right. Their sound is dark, dense, and decidedly somber, with Palladino often singing through a Fever Ray-style vocal pitchshifter. It’s heavily goth-influenced, which means they’re right up with the current musical spirit of the times, but there’s also something post-rocky about the way their songs unfold at a slow, dramatic pace. Anyway, whatever you want to call their sound, there’s definitely more going on here than just another celeb vanity project. — TH

Double Dagger (Death by Audio, 10.20)

We interrupt this CMJ report to bring you the news that by far the best and most exciting performance this reporter saw between October 17 and 22 wasn’t a CMJ show at all — it was the final Brooklyn appearance by Double Dagger, the great Baltimore-based punk band that has just broken up after nine years. We’ve been on board with this minimalist, bass-drums-vocals trio since the beginning and have watched as they became stronger and more unique with each new release and tour. Over the years, their subject matter of choice has ranged from graphic design to urban development in their hometown to the politics of interpersonal relationships; what ties it all together is Double Dagger’s insistence on challenging their audience to step out of their hipster comfort zone and dare to give a shit about themselves, their scene, and the world around them, no matter how uncool that earnestness might be. Although we’ve never been disappointed in one of their performances — and we’ve seen them more times than we can count — Thursday’s show was nothing short of transcendent. Loyal fans crowd surfed, moshed, and picked up everyone who fell down. Frontman Nolen Strals must have spent half of their uncharacteristically long set in the audience. “Now, go start your own band,” he commanded us at the end of the night. In fact, while this blurb is nice and all, that would truly be the only adequate tribute to our favorite punk band of the 21st century. — JB

Titus Andronicus (Glasslands, 10.18)

Seeing Titus Andronicus live is kind of like going to church, our atheist friend said as we waited for a band to come on at Bowery Ballroom. Titus’ music, with its passionate idealism and cathartic lyrics, lends itself to a deep emotional connection with their fans. Particularly effective in a live setting are the songs that repeat one emotionally charged phrase for several minutes and allow their sweaty, overwhelmingly young, male audience to fist-pump and scream “YOU WILL ALWAYS BE A LOSER” or “YOUR LIFE IS OVER,” until it is imprinted on the skull of everyone within earshot. Titus pits can be pretty fun, and we try to participate, putting aside our lack of punk/hardcore show experience. However, it can be frustrating to be in the front at one of these shows that appear to emotionally affect so many people and see only one or two other girls pushing their way through a mass of guys.

Last night we learned that the show we saw Tuesday of CMJ week had been the last performance of the group with their current lineup. Amy Klein — Titus’ guitarist, violinist, writer, outspoken feminist, and founder of Permanent Wave — announced that she would be quitting the band to pursue her other musical endeavors, Amy Klein and the Blue Star Band and Hilly Eye. Her presence in the band will be sorely missed (especially on the songs with violin). As we think Amy would agree, regardless of who fills her place, us girls need to keep coming to their shows, and if we’re up for it, throwing ourselves in the pit with the other fans. There’s no reason for us to have such lack of representation in the audience for a band whose music speaks just as deeply to girls as to boys.

We’ll leave you with a quote from Amy’s Tumblr post announcing her split from the band:

“And to any girl out there who still believes that she will always be a loser, let me answer you with a quote from ‘No Future Part III:’ ‘That’s okay.’ I was one too. Trust me. You’re gonna be someone someday. It’s a crazy world we live in, one where even your biggest, loudest, wildest, rock’n’roll dreams can come true.”

Titus Andronicus Forever.” — SW

Bosco Delrey (Canal Room, 10.21)

Bosco Delrey was a man out of time at CMJ — he somehow ended up playing in the incongruous surrounds of Canal Room, a club that looks more suited to hosting commercial hip hop than rock ‘n’ roll, and he took the stage after a set from Hank and Cupcakes, a band who look like the second coming of Roxette and whose show encompassed, amongst other things, a hi-NRG mauling of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control.” And his scruffy ’50s leather-jacket-and-jeans aesthetic (his label boss Diplo calls him a “trash can Elvis”) was totally out of place in a sea of snappily-clad hipster types. And yet, somehow, he owned the place — like Alabama Shakes, his music is an utterly contemporary take on the classic blues and R&B, and he’s pretty darn impressive live (as is his drummer, who absolutely batters the shit out of his drumkit throughout). It doesn’t look like many people in the crowd were here to see him, but after his set, they’re crowding around the stage, all eager to know more. Mission: accomplished. — TH

Chelsea Wolfe (Brooklyn Vegan Day Party, Public Office, 10.21)

It’s weird thinking a rock band would be anything to write home about from CMJ 2011, but Chelsea Wolfe’s just that — a rock band, and a great one. Wolfe’s voice, backed by her gloomy, dark, straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll, is the perfect counterpoint to whatever chill-lo-glow-house might be buzzing around your iPod right now. And Wolfe writes songs, too, brilliant ones, with lyrics like “We could be two straight lines/ In a crooked world.” And when she sings that live, you want to be who she’s singing to. — RM

Xeno & Oaklander (Brooklyn Vegan day party, 10.21)

CMJ is filled with electronic bands who bring little more than a laptop to the stage. So it was a distinct pleasure to see Xeno & Oaklander spend a while filling four folding tables with old-school analog gear of all shapes and sizes, with an intimidating web of cords dangling in front of them. The Brooklyn duo of Liz Wendelbo and Sean McBride are at the forefront of the city’s coldwave movement, and their band picks up where late-’70s and early-’80s post-punks left off, adding a dash of Krautrock here and a splash of mid-’80s goth romanticism there, then encasing the entire sound in a thick sheet of ice. We don’t know a whole lot about this scene, but Xeno & Oaklander’s sharp sounds and tight performance convinced us that we need to hear more. — JB

La Big Vic (285 Kent Ave, 10.21)

It’s always hard to know how blog music is going to sound live. The strain of lo-fi bedroom pop that has become so popular in the last few years sometimes is really best left in the bedroom. Listening to an mp3 of La Big Vic somewhere on the internet, it’d be easy for you to imagine they’d be one of those bands who fall flat when put on an actual stage. You’d be wrong. Sandwiched between a host of totally incredible bands that included Laurel Halo, Matthewdavid, Com Truise, and DOM at an unofficial CMJ show last Friday at 285 Kent, La Big Vic put on a show that was consuming and impossible to ignore. Whatever you want to call their music, post-chillwave-electro-folk-with-violins, whatever, it’s totally compelling and gorgeous. — SW

Dustin Wong (Flavorpill/A Band Apart Showcase, Le Poisson Rouge, 10.22)

Lest you accuse us of bias here, let it be said that before Saturday night, this particular Flavorpill representative had never seen one of former Ponytail guitarist Dustin Wong’s solo shows — but we’ll certainly be seeing him again soon. An unassuming figure in a thrift shop cardigan, Wong took the stage accompanied by only a battered Telecaster, a loop pedal and a battery of effects, and proceeded to enrapture a tired and jaded Saturday night crowd with 45 minutes of improvised guitar music. He’s certainly not the first to construct a live show with a loop pedal, but the array of sounds he extracts from a relatively simple set-up is really quite amazing, a constantly evolving sound that unfolds layer upon layer upon layer. And if you blanch at the mention of “improvised guitar music,” then never fear. Despite the fact that you’re essentially watching what Wong probably does at home every night, his show never lapses into self-indulgence or suffers from lack of focus — it’s inclusive and engaging, giving you the sense that you’re sharing in the exploration of a remarkable talent. — TH

Delta Hotel (Flavorpill/A Band Apart Showcase, Le Poisson Rouge, 10.22)

And finally, while we’re discussing our showcase: Delta Hotel are one of our favorite up-and-coming Brooklyn bands, and they totally killed it at our show at (Le) Poisson Rouge on Saturday. We love their blend of indie pop and pop punk. If you yearn for the days of Blink-182 but also own a copy of Camera Obscura’s latest on vinyl, you should check out this band ASAP. In fact, they’re playing at Permanent Wave’s Halloween cover show this Thursday at Death By Audio, covering the underrated ’90s band That Dog along with a bunch of other awesome acts. You should totally hit it up. — SW