THREE DIFFERENT STORM systems threatened my existence during a ten-day stay on the East Coast this month. But that was nothing compared to the whirlwind of activity at the CMJ Music Marathon & Music Fest last week in New York City. Hundreds of bands and thousands of music industry rats came together in dozens of clubs, all looking to solve the identity crisis that alternative music has become. I went to see bands from all over the world. But first, there was New York itself to reckon with.
If cosmopolitan, claustrophobic NYC has a definitive alt rock sound in the '90s, it's the genre-mashing of rap, rock, funk, and/or trip hop brought forth by such Village stars as The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Cibo Matto, Luscious Jackson, and Soul Coughing. Indeed, CMJ's finest lineup was a Luscious-headlined showcase for Grand Royal Records--the Beastie Boys-spawned label with a taste for female and/or Japanese/American musicians. Grand Royal's coolest new act is Butter 08, a supergroup comprising Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto, Explosion drummer Russell Simmins, Beasties pal/artist Mike Mills (not of R.E.M.) and guitarist Rick Lee. Dressed incognito, Butter 08 brought down the house with an off-the-wall splatter of flattening funk, hardcore, danceable noise-skronk, and a "mysterious" guest rapper in a Yoda mask. Tokyo migrants Buffalo Daughter were just as worthy, filtering a rough-hewn synthetic detachment into some of the same hybrids. (Alas, this week's Butter 08/Buffalo Daughter tour is skipping Minneapolis, but they each have new records--Butter and Captain Vapour Athletes, respectively, both worth checking out.)
Amid all this fury were the sweeter Kostars, the side-project of Luscious's Vivian Trimble and Jill Cunniff, already well-known for the heartbreaking, de-funked love songs of their Klassics with a K. Lovely, yes--though it raises the question of why Luscious Jackson doesn't simply incorporate this lighter soul into their own set. (Likewise, let's hope Butter 08 doesn't detract from Cibo Matto's main gig.) The only near-dud of the evening, though, was yet another Breeders spin-off, The Josephine Wiggs Experience, who played unmotivated, mostly instrumental rock. Did someone say "Breeders reunite" already?
An altogether different NYC flava turned up in a spellbinding three-turntable demonstration by DJ Spooky. Already an overnight legend in Manhattan, Spooky (otherwise known as The Subliminal Kid) displayed a formidable, almost academic mastery of his art, churning out a way-funky soup of jungle breakbeats, wild time changes, and sheets of ambient noise. His sample vocabulary ranged from unidentifiable, primal sounds to specks of soundbites that injected subtle racial and political subtexts into the mix. Though CMJ's electronic offerings also included Orbital, Goldie, and DJ Shadow, Spooky was decidedly the talk of the town last week.
But my primary pleasures at CMJ came from hunting down the real international pop underground: bands from countries with a creative perspective outside of stagnating Amerindie scenes. In much of Europe, rock is actually subsidized by government arts funding (imagine that...), which explains why Switzerland pop oddballs Sportsguitar were obliged to play an unlikely gig at New York's Swiss Institute. So CMJ's Euro delegates were all too willing to supply me with such recorded goodies as Fancy, a swell Finnish cocktail pop record by The Pansies; a Finn compilation called Reindeer Rock '96; and an entire Dutch box set of rock, hip hop, funk, and "Latin/Caribbean music" from Holland.
Whatever brilliance is shining out of these countries seems destined to remain a secret unless the "alternative" industry and media can stop fixating on the U.S. and the UK. Case in point: I felt bad for Mad Dog Loose, an ingenius Belgian band that was booked into an overlooked eight-band showcase in a little Irish pub. Their show was a curious blast of pop and feedback (their lead guitarist had a mighty peculiar arsenal of chord progressions), though the lush orchestrations and more prominent singing on their Material Sunset (Bang!) is even more rewarding.
But I was pleased to see Sweden's The Cardigans affirm their place as one of the greatest foreign pop bands out there. Unfortunately, the Cards' U.S. major-label debut, First Band on the Moon (in stores Tuesday), is a bit more, uh, conventional alt pop than the time-warped swingin' beauty of their past Life--but it does deliver. Here's hoping the record initiates a Swedepop Invasion of '97, and propels singer Nina Persson to the cover of every magazine. Their challenging Welsh openers, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, were also a thrill. Unlike the current U.S. sythesizer fetishism that uses Moogs and Farfisas as mere gimickry, GZM's keys are wielded proficiently--and by the singer-frontman, no less. The band's semi-accessible squallor bridged '70s art rock (they are devoted Soft Machine fans whose U.S. debut covers SM's "Why Are We Sleeping?" and even names a song for ex-Machinist Kevin Ayers) with theatrical avant-garde; one suspects a rock opera may be in the works.
The Minnesotan bands in attendance were most of the usual suspects (and mostly ones with stable contracts already): Low, Semisonic, Polara, and The Kelley Deal 6000. Though I opted to catch most of these at home later, I'll report that Low transfixed a capacity crowd at the Knitting Factory on Wednesday, while the sold-out Semisonic show on Friday stranded a sidewalk full of fans on the Lower East Side begging for tickets.
As always, CMJ offered its mildly diverting assortment of daytime discussion panels offering a "comprehensive analysis of the alternative music industry." I avoided most of them, remembering how last year's debates on the validity of college radio vs. commercial-alternative revealed little more than pettiness and pointlessness. At one panel this year, moderator Bob Mould mumbled reluctantly through an ambiguous discussion of "artist moods" and "musical transitions," which included the ultra-introverted Stephen Merritt of Magnetic Fields/the 6ths fame, and ex-King Missile wordsmith John S. Hall. Panelist Kelley Deal had to cancel, and in any case, the discussion was going nowhere fast. Across the street, Village Voice music editor Evelyn McDonnell led a roomful of rock critics through the soul-searching topic, "Who Are We Writing For?" Things heated up when Philly gadfly and occasional CP contributor Chuck Eddy (who specializes in intelligent writing on "mainstream" artists) railed against the hip rock-crit establishment for being too insular, and too willing to collectively publish dozens of identical PJ Harvey raves per year. With the many new and promising bands on display that week, it was food for thought. (Simon Peter Groebner)
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