CMJ Music Marathon 2012
Breaking into venues and seeing the US's dominance being tackled from within, reports Chris Beanland
America's dominance seems to be on the wane – not just politically and economically but perhaps culturally too. It'll take a long, long time before any other country reaches American levels of success and influence – but miniscule, incremental shifts are there to be seen if you look hard enough. The world is calling. At CMJ this year the Taiwanese, Poles, New Zealanders and other nations less well known for their track record of musical exports are out in force. The effects right now are much like dropping a very small pebble into a very large lake – but it's an interesting aside to the changes we see in the world.
Elsewhere at CMJ – a kind of mini SXSW composed of industry conferences, big gigs and lots of small showcases around New York's Lower East Side and across the East River in Williamsburg – a majority of conversations we are party to earwigging upon muse on the swelling power of either the internet or the Canadian music scene.
Of the latter - their friends in the north are perhaps riling the Yanks a tad. Canadian satirists Brian Calvert and Chris Cannon recently suggested America should sideline Romney and Obama and elect Canada's president instead. Canadian bands are on a roll. Toronto's Metz cause one of the biggest stirs of the festival. We are lucky enough to sneak in (more of that later) to see them at Public Assembly in Brooklyn – and can report that they are indeed the real deal. A couple of tracks have a definite whiff of teen spirit about them – is that a Nirvana riff I can hear at one point? I ask a few other people standing around to check I'm not making this up. It certainly sounds that way. But what the hell – this Sub Pop-signed trio's racket is never less than enthralling. The track 'Headache', especially, is a onslaught of noise that begs for repeated listens.
What about the home team though? Murals come from Louisville, Kentucky and impress with some gentle country-tinged folk combined with a self-effacing air. They broaden things out too – playing with effects and daubing a canvas that shimmers in the same way that Yo La Tengo used to.
The opposite to this aesthetic is epitomised by the woeful New Yorkers Figo, who should be done under the trades description act (if such a set of rules exist Stateside). They claim to be “electronic dance dudes" but actually proffer a kind of chugging dadrock influenced by all manner of 70s bands that we've rightly forgotten about. One to avoid.
And while we're on the subject of crap, did someone mention Sky Ferreira? It's telling perhaps that as her set closes the muted reaction and eagerness of the audience to leave the room is infectious. Sky (a model) and her new single: coming to the soundtrack of every episode of the new series of Made In Chelsea, without a shadow of a doubt.
Deap Vally combine White Stripes stop-start schtick and Led Zeppelin fuzz n' wail into an urgent package. The duo from LA look weirdly like Brooklyn's sitcom sisters the 2 Broke Girls (Kat Dennings and that blonde one).
Londoners Savages are another band on a lot of lips this weekend, and you can see why. They are electrifying. Taut and passionate, of course – and clearly on a mission. Jenny Beth's oft-remarked upon Ian Curtis electric shock moves make her fascinating frontwoman material. In the 'crosses' column though – this is heavily revivalist, done-before stuff which borrows straight from 1979. Still, a privilege to see a band like this at such an early stage in their career.
And it made us happy to actually get in and see them – because we'd tried the previous night and failed. Thus is the problem with CMJ: you look at the line-up and think “Yes, I'll take The Walkmen, Death Grips and Q-Tip please.” But in reality, demand exceeds supply (ah capitalism – how we love you) and so you've got as much chance as smashing into the headline shows as you have of getting a smile out of a New York cab driver stuck on Broadway. In fact the situation can get so silly that we couldn't even get into a Local Natives show: so no review of that. Are you disappointed? Thought not.
Still, how can you grumble for long when you're surrounded by the greatest single cityscape constructed in human history, by people from probably every country in the world – all gathered in a place that's so busy, so braying, so addictive, so exciting. New York itself is the sine qua non of CMJ. And whether or not the country's really on the slide doesn't really matter ultimately. This city – and its thriving music scene – gets under everyone's skin.
Chris flew to New York with American Airlines (www.aa.com)