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Far From Prying Eyes

Baltimore at the Anti-CMJ

The City Paper Digi-Camô

By Michael Byrne | Posted 10/24/2007

CMJ Music Marathon

Oct. 16-20, various venues around New York

The CMJ Music Marathon feels like a trade show. Record labels--indie record labels, that is--publicity firms, and booking agencies get together for five days in lower Manhattan (mostly) to showcase their wares (bands) to a collection of journalists, music bloggers, radio programmers, and even fans. For the latter--or any of the prior not deemed press-credential worthy--tickets cost upward of $500 for open admission to any of the numerous venues, showcases, and bands on display (sort of: the big-name shows fill up fast). The lineups are mouth-watering for any indie kid: If a band playing CMJ isn't yet an "it" band, a CMJ appearance at least qualifies it to be. If there's one thing indie fans relish--and music bloggers feed on--it's catching hold of the latter before it becomes the former. There were, in fact, many more "lower-tier" bands in New York last week, something commented on more than a few times by music writers.

But it is, after all, a trade show, and Wolf Parade, the Decemberists, and Bloc Party (et al.) are already good and sold. Time to make room for the next big things.

That vibe--that you (fan or journalist) are there to be sold something--is as icky as it is pervasive. It leads to many bands playing mini-sets in lineups with other bands that may or may not have anything to do with each other. It leads to monstrosities such as Friday's Polyvinyl showcase at the Delancey, the sort of SoHo club where you pay $6 a beer for the privilege of pissing in a marble-filled urinal trough. Opening the lineup was Bling Kong, an ironic schlock-filled embarrassment--cheerleaders chanting out "V! Vagina!" and so forth--of a band that apes, of all things, Gravy Train. Stuck next was Picastro, Liz Hysen's lovely decade-old chamber-folk haunt, a performance much anticipated by this writer. What ensued was akin to seeing a snow leopard behind bars in a chatter-filled zoo. The songs were there, but their spirit got cold feet at the far end of the Holland Tunnel.

It's enough to make you want to get the hell out of Manhattan and away from CMJ. As it turns out, a good slice of Baltimore's musical contingent had the same idea. Baltimore repped a mere four bands at CMJ proper: the much celebrated Celebration (which filled up Brooklyn's Union Pool space on Tuesday night), Dan Deacon, Thrushes, and Ponytail, which delivered a squeal-filled good time of Deerhoof-ish art-punk at the Bowery. But most of Baltimore was 45 minutes and at least two subways away in Brooklyn's Bushwick area. Behind an unmarked door in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood is the Silent Barn, a house/venue with a junkyard view of stacked rusting cars. It's Brooklyn's answer to Floristree, and it was home to the anti-CMJ, four nights where your press badge didn't mean a thing. The temperature in the two-stage venue probably never dropped below 95 degrees, but still, it was a refreshing sanctuary from the chaos and artifice on the other side of town.

The Silent Barn hosted some of Baltimore's finest musical weirdos, including Dan Deacon, the Lexie Mountain Boys (in fake beards, stomping and singing a cappella), Wzt Hearts, Food for Animals, and Ecstatic Sunshine. Save for Deacon, who played Tuesday, it all went down at Thursday night's Carpark Records showcase.

Food for Animals put on a grand time of prog-rap duets, albeit muddled by a poor PA, and also made the observation, "There's more people from Baltimore in here than New York." But the highlights were Wzt Hearts and Ecstatic Sunshine. Wzt Hearts--playing a series of laptops, live drums, and guitar--put on a beautiful accident of soft-sided psych-noise to a seated crowd of 30 or so audiophiles. It was the sort of experimental set that goes so right you lose sight of beginning or end: a suspended sound moment.

Ecstatic Sunshine is more dynamic--and ultimately engaging--than Wzt Hearts but also plays from a relatively structured palette. Sunshine actually plays songs--if still at least partially improvised--something rare in the noise world where movements, if anything, define compositional boundaries. The band is one of the best introductions to oddball music you could hope for. Nothing in its oeuvre is particularly subtle or trying: guitar melodies--guitar riffs even--arc above ambient sounds and substrata rhythms, built from an effects rack rather than a laptop. Directions change in a heartbeat; a dark guitar downstroke--fed through a delay--becomes a rhythm, dark pulsing waves like putting a stethoscope to the outside wall of a train tunnel. But the band's name holds true, and the sun reappears from the sludge in distinctly pretty guitar lines that twist and swirl into a gorgeous finish.

It ends around 2 in the morning, and the crowd's thinned out. What's left are music fans. There's no hype, celebrity sightings, or press badges. Outside the zoo, there's just music.

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