CMJ ’08: The Music Tapes & Wye Oak @ Mercury Lounge

Joining the Tobacco triumph a few days earlier, Mercury Lounge hosted a couple more of my favorite sets this fest in the recently revitalized (and recently Mangum-ized) Music Tapes, and Baltimore breakout Wye Oak. The successive sets were a contrast in styles — the Music Tapes presenting multi-membered ragamuffin ditties, Wye Oak a stripped duo of loud/quiet guitars, drums, and swirling electronics — but both combined to show why Merge (and label head Mac McCaughan, who played later in the night as Portastatic) still matters.

After main Music Tape Julian Koster sang a scene-setting song, set solely to banjo strums, his band joined him onstage: two drummers, a bassist (with a flute at the ready), horn players, a guitarist armed with a violin bow, etc. 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: still heavy on props like back in the day (yes the 7 Foot Metronome is still in on the act), songs coming stripped to an acoustic core or with ragtag, E6 brass band support. Early in the set Julian winked at the recent rash of Mangum sightings:

“We’d like to welcome someone who hasn’t performed live in a while until recently, please welcome to the stage … Static” (the name of his old school singing television set, not a nickname for Jeff). Static took lead on “The Television Tells Us,” did a duet with Julian later, and kept beaming a smile throughout. Silly as it might sound to some, I’m glad Jeff wasn’t there last night. For 45 minutes the Music Tapes brought some earnest, honest creativity to an occasionally dull CMJ, and that deserved the room’s undivided attention.

We learned a while back that Wye Oak haven’t yet quit their day jobs, but that could change soon. Word is they hit big at the Brooklyn Vegan party, and they were no less impressive at Merc. Jenn Wasner’s mix of sultry country-inflected crooning, flipping to booming and overdriven guitars alongside Andy Stack’s multi-tasking behind kit, keyboards, and harmonies, was a lesson in making the most of few members and basic command of songcraft. The duo’s 2008 release If Children fed most of the group’s 45 minutes, but it was the new stuff with its bigger hooks and bigger dynamics, that got the biggest crowd response. Not sure when it’ll be done, but add that forthcoming record to your shopping list. A few pics, and a few MP3s…



[Photos by Amrit Singh]

The Music Tapes – “Majesty” (MP3)
Wye Oak – “I Don’t Feel Young” (MP3)

Stream Music Tapes’ For Clouds And Tornadoes at Merge.