Stereogum’s Top 8 From CMJ ’08

The crew here managed to fly through some 70+ sets of music last week, and boy is our abilty-to-wade-through-the-sadness-that’s-passing-for-buzzed-up-indie-rock tired. There’s a very scientific formula to attaining that coveted “Guess I should see this band ’cause everybody’s saying I should” status: The first criteria is, of course, a widely circulated Hype Machine single. But in its absence, and even more effectively in its support, just book at least 10 shows. That is: create a story out of yourself before anyone even has time to think critically. (I realize this is the approach even on non-CMJ weeks, but roll with me, I drank a lot of vodka these past 6 days. Yes that means today also.)

Even through a relatively depressed industry fest like this one, though, story-hungry writers always need to find and frame a next big thing. Always with the finding and the framing, those guys. So who capitalized on this year’s assemblage of the industry’s finest cog pieces? MTV says it was Passion Pit, the NYT says School Of Seven Bells or Friendly Fires, and I say after that rant do you really think I have one? OK, I sorta do. But instead of trying to shoehorn a new band into a breakout mold where there isn’t a clear one, I’ll instead avoid feeding the undue praise machine and just offer a quick list of the acts — young and old alike — that made this year’s CMJ a great and yes, memorable one (despite itself). Without further ado, my CMJ Top 8 of ’08:

8. Ponytail
Yes they played our show, but like some others on that lineup (read: all of ‘em), once wasn’t enough for me. I caught Ponytail again at FADER, and again at another day party, and each time I found Brandon’s thoughts to be on point: “Molly Siegel’s Ono yowls and chants have found a way to rest better within the rest of the band’s racket. Instead of feeling like she’s layered atop her cohorts, it all meshes into some sugar-freak whole.” Ponytail were this week’s ecstatic soundtrack.

7. Wye Oak
We learned a while back that Wye Oak haven’t yet quit their day jobs, but that could change soon. Jenn Wasner’s mix of sultry, sometimes country-inflected crooning, flipping to booming and overdriven guitars alongside Andy Stack’s multi-tasking on kit, keyboards, and harmonies, was a lesson in making the most of few members and command of basic songcraft. The duo’s 2008 release If Children fed most of the group’s 30 some odd minutes, but it was the new stuff — with its bigger hooks, thicker dynamics — that got the biggest response. Not sure when it’ll be done, but add that forthcoming record to your shopping list.

6. Tobacco
This week Fucked Up Friends, the solo effort from Black Moth Super Rainbow’s Tobacco is out on record. Last year, it came out in DVD form, and being at Merc in extreme darkness while the masked man had those screen projections tying Dom DeLuise to porn to ’80s aerobics videos was one of the week’s most spellbinding (and ass-shaking) 40 minutes. A passing familiarity with BMSR’s head trip/psych-hop Pennsylvania jams sets the scene for Fucked Up, which also leans on analog instruments to create the woozy, hip hop-inflected, occasionally dark-edged Tobacco cuts. The lights needed to be low to let the projections look right (and to maintain that “mysterious vibe” the BMSR dudes love to cultivate), but as a friend noted, it’s a shame that the crowd couldn’t get a sense for just how much of the all analog and tape machines was being created live — this wasn’t simple iTunes DJing, and it was on point.

5. Crystal Stilts
Yeah, if you’re detecting a trend (the trend where all the bands that played the Stereogum Late Night Show made this list), it’s because it’s true. But the Stilts have impressed me live for some time now, and increasingly each time I caught them this week. (Even if the first time was at 4-something AM and after a few too many — for everybody in the room.) A great debut record, and great to look at live, even if they don’t look at each other.

4. Crystal Antlers
From their self-released EP earlier this year to becoming Touch And Go’s most interesting recent signing, Crystal Antlers entered the fest as a band a lot of people had heard about, but not seen: Judging from talk on the streets and their quick blistering FADER set, the Long Beach crew more than delivered. In fact, if one band left CMJ buzzier, it’s likely these psychedelic punks. It’s difficult describing their anthemic blend of later day post-hardcore piloted by shimmering but crunchy guitar riffs, a ’60s boogie organ, the dynamic drums, and all that howling .. so just go to a show. If you do, you might see a band with shirts-optional, bongos being dry fucked, and nipples massaged to erection. I did.

3. The Music Tapes
The recently revitalized Music Tapes were transformative at Mercury Lounge this week. Main Music Tape Julian Koster was joined by two drummers, a bassist (with a flute at the ready), horn players, a guitarist armed with a violin bow, a 7′ Metronome and Static the singing television set (introduced dramatically in a way to tease the recent rash of Mangum sightings). Koster kept a steady smile through tunes from both 1st Imaginary Symphony For Nomad and the new For Clouds And Tornadoes, songs that are nautical (“Song For Oceans Falling”), extra-terrestrial (“Aliens”), and existential (practically everything else) in theme. Koster was often on that elephant-painted banjo, but he’d trade it for a guitar or keys or to bow his ever-present singing saw. His vibe is humble and quirky, simple yet otherworldly, and it extended to all facets of the live show. Pretty special.

2. Marnie Stern
Marnie is, simply, on fire right now. I’d seen her during SXSW ’06 when she was accompanied by an iPod Nano, and giving her In Advance Of The Broken Arm songs the Dan Deacon treatment seemed unfair to her tunes, as well as to her playing (when live tapping doesn’t sync with prerecorded tapping, it’s not pretty). Well, that’s all gone. Throughout the three times total I’d see her last week (our party, once at the Gothamist House in Gowanus, and my favorite set at Cake Shop), she was straight fire, supported with a guitarist and not-Zach-Hill-but-still-great drummer. The guitar goddess in her flared, armed with one of my absolute favorite LPs of the year in This Is It…, and with each minute I see a kinetic, singularly impressive star ready to pull shit into her orbit.

1. Gang Gang Dance
Well, this was the single show of the Fest for me, and for a lot of those at Webster Tuesday night. It’d been a long time since I’ve felt that sort of palpable (and deserved) anticipation in a room. From the Times love and the paparazzi-friendly faces in the room that night, to the critics’ continued tongue baths for their experimental output that’s folded into the ambitious, accessible Saint Dymphna (and its beast of a lead single “House Jam”), this was that rare, pure moment where hype, buzz, anticipation and merit conflated. And the resulting one hour set straight killed. See them this tour.

Well that’s it. That’s what I loved! I’m hearing lots of bands being thrown about as this year’s big buzz band, so if you have an opinion on the matter, tell us. Now, only five months to SXSW…