It's since grown to add the CMJ Film Festival, and has taken over clubs at all ends of Manhattan and Brooklyn, N.Y.
Like a bar that doesn't serve Bud Light, the event cracks wide open any and all music fans' willingness to explore for their next favorite artist or just a band that will suit their taste buds as they dip in and out of clubs and subways with their own ever-changing agendas. Here's a highlight reel of what I saw and heard around New York at this year's CMJ.
Wednesday, October 17
Sean Rowe at the Pirate Showcase at Fontana's in Chinatown
I arrived at the basement club Fontana's for Sean Rowe's acoustic set. My infatuation with his latest album "The Salesman and the Shark" started with its release a couple months ago, with songs like "Horses," "Downwind," "Joe's Cult" and "Flying" standing out immediately. The song "The Lonely Maze" reminded me that the end of a song can often be much more important and powerful than the first minute. You only have to make it to that point of the song once to know you'll return again.
Someday I'd love to see him with a full backing band playing all of the often enchanted arrangements of the album, but at CMJ it was just Sean Rowe acoustic. Armed with his baritone voice, his performance intensity, occasional whistling, poetic lyrics and guitar skill, he silenced the room. The show left the crowd with looks of amazement in its eyes as the set drew to a close. It was the perfect artist to launch me into this year's CMJ 2012.
I caught sets by a Cramps and Danzig-inspired loud, dark-wave New York band called Triple Hex upstairs at Pianos, watched the end of electronic dance artist Pictureplane at the Cake Shop, and later made my way to Buke and Gase at Le Poisson Rouge for a live taping of NPR Music/WNYC Soundcheck. I left abruptly to make it to Union Pool for what may have been my biggest highlight of the three days.
Matthew E. White at the Team Clermont Showcase at Union Pool in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Matthew E. White took the stage with his long brown hair, glasses and bushy beard. His eight-piece band -- complete with three horn players and a keyboardist behind a Fender Rhodes -- squeezed onto a tiny stage, playing favorites like "Steady Pace" and "Big Love" from White's release "Big Inner." The show transcended my high expectations, and in a room that size, it couldn't have been a better experience. Matthew E. White is currently on tour with the Mountain Goats and wrote the horn arrangements for the band's latest release, "Transcendental Youth."
Thursday, October 18
The Merge Showcase at the Mercury Lounge
William Tyler, known as the multi-instrumentalist of Lambchop, put on an engaging show, performing all instrumentals, mostly on an electric 12-string guitar. His unique fingerpicking style created melodies, dissonance, drones and beauty. It was impossible to not be visually fixated on his fingers and set in a trance by his playing.
Mac McCaughan -- the Superchunk, Portastatic, Merge founder -- went up next, playing what one might expect from his vast catalog of songs (by him, not from the vault of the Merge roster, though that would be fun, too). He claimed it was the second time he had ever played "A Small Definition" ever.
Though I would have liked to have stayed for Mount Moriah (who recently included a couple downloads from their KDHX session with their Merge debut), I was on a mission to the Sub Pop showcase all the way at Brooklyn's the Knitting Factory to see Poor Moon and METZ.
Sub Pop Showcase at The Knitting Factory
This show was packed with a wait list for concertgoers with badges. Poor Moon's set, though short, sounded almost identical to the album, with the vibraphone and instruments sounding close to the album recording. I have to admit, I've never been the biggest Fleet Foxes fan, but between this side project band and Father John Misty, I may soon be converted. They even threw in a cover of the Kinks' "Sitting by the Riverside." A nice surprise!
METZ's set was grinding, trudgy, pounding, dirty unadulterated punk rock with splashed vocal reverb and a packed house of people. Everyone knew what they were getting into, and the band didn't hold back. If you own the new METZ album and you aren't blaring it at full volume, you probably shouldn't be listening to it.
Reigning Sound at the Merge Showcase at Mercury Lounge
Next year, the Sub Pop and Merge showcases should at least be on the same island, because the half-hour subway ride there and back caused me to miss most of Mac of Superchunk and Fred Armisen play as Telekinesis' guest backing band. I heard 20 seconds of the song, and it was over. Reigning Sound played next, and I expected that their live set would go a little more garagy and wild. Then again, I had just seen METZ. Maybe it was too late at night to go full throttle into their sound. Or maybe it was the club. Either way, looking forward to hearing the forthcoming release on Merge.
Friday, October 19
Gold Fields at the Distiller Showcase at the Knitting Factory
This had to be one of the most surprising sets I saw at CMJ. From a band that may be best known for remixes of other artists like Yelle and Passion Pit, they blew all expectations.
Usually, a band made up of two drummers -- one with an electronic device of some kind -- a singer/guitarist and a bassist, isn't the type of band one would imagine remixing other artists songs and doing them well. From the start, the fuzz bass and tight songs sucked me right in. Live, Gold Fields manipulated their instruments -- knobs twiddling, guitar pedals distorting -- and added a few pre-recorded samples. Combine all that with their talent as musicians and you'll know why I was left overall impressed.
At one point the drummer smacked a cowbell and altered the reverb while playing it and hitting other drums. I'm not going to lie: I had no idea what sounds were coming from which instruments for many parts of the set. But I liked what they were doing. The only drawback for me with this band is their lyrics and slickness of some of their recordings; still Gold Fields is an impressive band. See them for yourself at their Off Broadway show opening for Diamond Rings on October 30. Think So Many Dynamos, the Rapture and Talking Heads.
Riot Act Publicity Showcase at Pete's Candy Store in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Agent Ribbons is a female duo from Austin that plays a crafty, vaudevillian style of DIY pop on an electric guitar and drum kit. Singer/guitarist Natalie Gordon leads with her beautiful and peculiar singing style and occasionally belting yells, as drummer Lauren Hess fills in with harmonies and duets. They charmed everyone in the small box-car-like room at Pete's and I was glad to find that they'll be playing at Lemmons in St. Louis on Friday, October 26.
I stayed for Lightning Love, a straight-ahead DIY hooky-pop band fronted by a female singer, who manages to make the line "I can't help having a good time" sound like she's singing "please shoot me in the head" in a poppy melody. That garnered some uncomfortable laughs from the crowd, but overall the lyrics are very clever and the band plays some great melodies. In some ways they remind me of St. Louis' own Scarlet Tanager or possibly Middle Class Fashion.
Talk Normal at the Knitting Factory
Back in Brooklyn and back at the Knitting Factory for another female duo, sounding absolutely nothing like Agent Ribbons. Talk Normal made some serious, mind-numbing noise as its singer drummed in the most odd, mathematical rhythmic patterns imaginable. Talk Normal's guitarist played in trance-like patterns and emitted noises that snarled in a hundred different ways. It was aggressive and peaceful at once.
Then back to Greenwich Village, I hopped from club to club, catching about six bands. Of all of them, I recommend the dream-pop, shoe-gazery of Field Mouse and Jinja Safari from Australia. I get the feeling you'll start hearing their distinct brands of indie pop in every commercial, if you're not already.
Icona Pop at Brooklyn Bowl
I've only heard one song from Australian electronic-pop duo Icona Pop prior to this: the enigmatic song "I Love It." This is probably the most buzzed about artist I saw at CMJ. There's probably 500 times more people working out to this song today since last Friday. This female duo had the massive crowd at Brooklyn Bowl dancing throughout the set, despite its new drum machine breaking toward the beginning of the set. What's so great about this song? Is it the aggression? The joy? The LMFAO-ness of the synth sounds? Her voice? The lyrics? Decide for yourself.
Hundred Waters at Piano's
I probably should have checked in for the night at this point, but instead I moved back to Pianos for Hundred Waters. A full band, plus amazing second percussionist/keyboardist/DJ produce a sound that's delicate and dreamlike, folky and electronic. Behind the band was a projection screen showing what looked like test films from the '60s -- the perfect music to wind me down after three days of CMJ. Must get to the hotel and make it to airport by 6 a.m.
All photos by Nick Acquisto.