CMJ 2009 Wrap Up: The City And The Sea Of Sound

Like my editor Patrick Slevin said a few weeks ago, you can’t see everything at CMJ. No matter how well you plan, there’s too many bands, too many venues, and way too many cases of P.B.R. standing in your way, so why not just throw away the list and let the noise of the NYC underground carry you through five days of non-stop music, movies, and, of course, P.B.R?

It’s a fairly simple solution to a fairly complex problem, and, believe it or not, it works fairly well. You see a band, you meet some people, you go with these people to see another band, and after five days bumming around the city, you end up with a handful of new bands to look for in the record store and a few numbers to put in your phonebook. This festival is about new music (or so they told me) and you can’t really find something new unless you throw away the roadmap and take a plunge into the unknown sea of sound that overtakes this city for one week every fall. I saw the weird, the unknown, and the soon-to-be very well-known—and I liked it.

Of all the groups I saw over the weekend, I have to say the weirdest was a strange little quartet from Brooklyn called Suckers ( While all the members primarily play something pretty conventional (two guitars, bass, and drums), they know how to take things someplace freaky (and not simply thanks to effects pedals and light shows). The songs carry enough groove to keep your feet moving, but have enough subtle electronics, four-part harmonies, and ambiguous lyrics to keep your head working hard, too. Exciting news about the band: Apparently they’re about to start recording their debut LP with Chris Zane who’s also sat behind the mixing board with Passion Pit and The Walkmen. Hopefully, they keep up the weird, but to be honest, I think this band has enough raw potential that even if they strip down the rowdy noise and up the accessibility factor of the music, it would still be a satisfyingly quirky listen.

On the topic of rowdy and noisy, I was pleasantly surprised to find my new favorite New Zealand export roaming the Lower West Side in the form of Dunedin-based punk trio Die Die Die ( They’re aggressive, they’re loud, they’re edgy, they jump in the crowd regardless of whether or not their guitars get a little fucked up in the process. It’s everything I’ve loved about punk for the past half of my life. And to make things even better post-punk legend Steve Albini (Big Black) produced their 2007 self-titled debut. It sounds like he went and saw the band live quite a few times because even the recorded material takes you into a dank, dirty basement with the band playing in the corner of the room, while 20 or so New Zealand teenagers mosh, sweat and bleed to an interminable deluge of feedback and adrenaline.

Believe it or not, one girl from New Zealand I met that night told me that for the most part, bands in New Zealand either play reggae or spastic punk like Die Die Die. I get the reggae, but I also had a vision of New Zealand as a peaceful island in the Paficic; not exactly the most hospitable place for breeding punk bands. But then again, I guess it wouldn’t be paradise without punk rock.

Moving away from the loud and abrasive to the world of the light and sensitive, one of my favorite suprises this year was from Freelance Whales (, a band that I had never heard of until I saw their name on the line-up for Wednesday night at the Bowery Ballroom. Based in Queens, Freelance Whales sound like The Arcade Fire, but instead of a rowdy group of anthem-loving crusaders, these five kids sound more like a group of children exploring a rich uncle’s attic, heartbreakingly delicate, but inventive to the point of adventurous. The group’s optimistic melodies, childlike exuberance, and taste for eclectic instrumentation (glockenspiel, harmonium, banjo, and mandolin all accompanied the usual drums, bass, and guitar). The group has yet to truly “break” but when they do, make sure you have your copy of Where The Wild Things Are handy for nostalgia’s sake.

But while childlike innocence and diary page lyrics are great for starting things off and getting into a good mood, the best music for the night consists of bass and attitude, which I found over the I Am Sound showcase at the Bowery Poetry Club Wednesday night. After the weird-out from aforementioned Suckers, Golden Silvers (, another band that I’d never heard of but everyone in the damn venue seemed to know everything about, came onstage with drums, bass, keys, and swagger.

Golden Silvers’s debut album, True Romance, was described as “fireworks going off inside a pigeonhole” by The Guardian. Though they didn’t blow up the stage, there was still an air instability involved with the band as they rode thick, round bass lines and smooth, crooning vocals over waves of distorted Rhodes piano through an ocean of 21st century New Wave.

After the Golden Silvers left the stage, a band of about eight people popped out of the woodwork, lugging along with them enough percussion instruments to turn the Bowery Poetry Club into a drum circle, but thankfully the band, known as Fool’s Gold (, took the night in another direction, inciting a dancehall riot (and those are rare at indie show’s in NYC!) with their particularly incendiary take on afrobeat. The entire band rode a wave of solid groove from a drummer and two percussionists, while the rest of the band weaved in and out of each other’s instruments with such collective focus and organization, it’s difficult to believe the whole thing was as loose as it appeared. Saxophonist Brad Caulkins and guitarist Lewis Pesacov traded solos and harmonized on lead lines, while vocalist/bassist Luke Top’s creamy Hebrew lyrics blended strangely well with the Saharan groove behind him.