For last year’s CMJ Music Marathon, we sent our New York-based writer Simone Jung into the smoke, the music, and the experience that is the four day event. Here is what she brought back from the four nights we sent her out. Check back over the next few days as we’ll be bringing you a new part each update day.
October 13th: Sonic Youth
New York City’s largest population of underground/indie rock music puts on a series of shows for four days. Although there were also a series of lectures and guest speakers throughout the days, it was the nightlife that intrigued me the most. Instead of jumping from one show to another to listen to one band, I decided to stay at Irving Plaza for the CMJ opening party featuring a few DJs, experimental bands and of course, Sonic Youth. For those special badge holders who slaved for months to have enough money to buy one, the advantages are not the same as those who pay twenty bucks to go to the one show. No special backstage pass, no special guest pass, not even a chance to get into the show earlier than the rest of the crowd. It pretty much was an expensive badge that gets you into shows for free (free of course, for the press).
When I started my journey downtown to Union Square, I was expecting a long line of people in front of the door; this was Sonic Youth. Turned out that it didn’t matter as much- when I arrived at Irving Plaza, I was greeted by the gushing wind and rolling tumbleweed across the front door. It was a ghost town. A line of maybe ten people crowed more than lined-up in front of the venue. A disappointing turnout for half an hour before the doors opened. Surprised and upset, I stood outside for the half hour in the early Fall cold and entered the club after undergoing a vigorous bag and body search.
The bands played. One by one, they entered the stage, played their set and cleaned up their equipment. Small groups of mid-50’s men and women stood in the middle of the shameful crowd like misplaced pieces of a glass menagerie. But what upset me most from the whole night was the crowd’s rude appreciation for the other bands playing that night. So what if Moving Units were the strangest group of men or that Saul Williams rhymes a little crazy, it is no excuse to completely discourage the band on stage. Besides Moving Units and Saul Williams, another strange yet entrancing band of the night were Brooklyn-based Gang Gang Dance. With the use of a guitar, drums, drum machine, and distorted vocals, Gang Gang Dance evolves and grows out from the lies of Bjork and Sigur Ros. None of their songs had any lyrics (at least that is what I choose to believe), but lead singer Liz Bougatsos grabs the attention of every man with her siren-like voice. As I turned my attention away from the stage and toward the crowd, the expression of every man’s face was priceless. They stood with eyes and mouths wide open, hands in pockets, and a glare so far away. If I were to tap one of them, I would have had some man drop dead in front of me.
Soon after Gang Gang Dance cleared the stage and the room nearly at full capacity, the time consuming slide show stopped and the screen rose to reveal a new set of musical instruments on the stage. Next, a short old man wearing a cardigan appeared on stage and picked up the guitar. By the sound of the crowd’s raging emotions, it seemed that the waiting was over and Sonic Youth had entered the stage. I was impressed by them. As their first song came to a close, the silent smell of marijuana filled my lungs. I stopped thinking about the music and started looking for the source of this timely drug.
October 14th: Sondre Lerche / Hot Rod Circuit
Another day, another show, another part of town. The day was perfect and the weather was a reminder that there are still beautiful fall days in New York City. I had my heart set on Sondre Lerche at the Bowery Ballroom on the lower, lower, lower East side, but after a change of heart, I dashed over to the west side to a small bar called SOB where the music was loud and the aroma of calamari from the restaurant next door was intoxicating. This was a night for change. It was a change of pace and a change of tastes. Instead of listening to the warming tunes of Lerche, I decided for some good ol’ Hot Rod Circuit and Alabama-based Northstar instead.
I arrived an hour late, but it was good travel time for three subway changes and moving East to West. As the expected bag and ticket check completed, I entered the bar with good intentions. No matter how good my intentions war, there was no way of escaping the amount of girls over boys. For an eighteen and older show, there was a lot of fourteen year old looking girls. It was as if the bands playing had a sign for free sex. The main attraction at this show was Saves the Day, but the larger outcome of Hot Rod Circuit fans baffled me as the band entered the stage. Like any band before them, they played their songs, but this band had someone special in the crowd. Just a few feet away from the stage was a tall young boy. He sang and danced along to every song Hot Rod Circuit threw out at him. Unfortunately, his dancing looked like convulsions and I was afraid he was going to throw himself on stage and submit his body for a more holy purpose.
In the end, the mixture of upbeat guitars and sad lyrics made my eyes roll into the back of my head- drool, snore. What would you do if you listened to emo music all night?
October 15th: The Faint / The Good Life
The time was 4.30pm, the place was Webster Hall. It was a rainy Friday afternoon in Union Square as I waited for the doors to open. Once again, the crowd outside the venue was miniscule and the rain didn’t help anyone. Once they opened, I walked up the steps into the main stage of Webster Hall and the bass from the large speakers rang in the ears of every person waiting for the first band to arrive. It was bad enough the music will be loud, but to curse the crowd with heavy bass and techno before is torturous. By the time the first band Broken Spindles entered the stage my heart was beating twice as fast. And my eyes opened at the sight of the elaborate on-stage presence; as if they did not want to be seen, Broken Spindlesdisplayed video that corresponded perfectly with the set list provided. I looked behind me to see the myriad of faces staring blankly into the void of a white screen. No movements on the faces and no uttered gasps of breath from the direction of the crowd as images of the church are emerged onto the screen. Barely audible words rose from the voice of lead singer Joel Petersen as he played. He is out of the ordinary with his lyrical skew of words and his mystical multiple instrument understanding. There is no underestimating the future success of Broken Spindles.
Soon after the bustling of the stage Son, Ambulance arrived. Sporting a bright green Sgt. Pepper shirt, Joe Knapp began his not-so-melodic interlude. As he exclaimed to the crowd “this is our release party,” screams of “play Katie” and “play Brown Park” were heard from the little voices in the crowd. Unfortunately, there were no little emo songs tonight. Instead, Son, Ambulance raveled into the songs from their newest album Key. Already established as a great songwriter on the same level as Bright Eyes, Knapp dominates the stage with hard-hitting solos and mass amounts of spit. Way to go.
Once the stage is mopped, Beep Beep made their way on the stage with singers Eric Bemberger and Chris Hughes (donning old skool marching band pants and glasses attached to faces with elastic bands). This is no ordinary geek band. They do not take on the same likings as Devo, but display unheard of experimental craziness. On the likes of Q And Not U and Moving Units, Beep Beep did not cease to amaze.
The stage parts and The Good Life entered. The crowd is not enthused and walked silently towards the bar in the back. With disregard for the feelings of the band, they chattered louder than Tim Kasher could sing. Without the knowledge of objective journalism in my mind, I believe The Good Life performed a perfect set with glowing neon lights. Their enthusiasm and stage performance cannot describe the passion inside Kasher’s voice and lyrics. They were the highlight of the show … until The Faint arrived.
Twenty minutes after The Good Life appeared, the Faint arrived on stage. The room went dark, the crowd was squished towards the front and the stench of drunken fat men gave aroma to the air. “FAINT! FAINT!” came screaming from one as he swayed the crowd. With every other word being “sex,” the Faint has accumulated a large crowd of dancing fiends from punk rockers to rap rockers. The stage is yet again set with large screens corresponding with the songs they played in their set list. The crowd sang along and danced with every effort to avoid the fat man pushing everyone out of his way. It was the end to a perfect evening.
October 16, 2004: Underoath / Further Seems Forever
Just one more day of music to go before the CMJ season ends for another year. I had packed away all my needs: notebook, pen, metro card, and headed towards the Knitting Factory in downtown New York. Almost shy, I entered the dark night club to a bombardment of black clothing. Not a single person (besides myself) wore a shirt any lighter than black. I thought I might have entered the wrong club or the wrong room, but I was right. It was just the mood of the night.
I stationed myself by a pole in the far right hand side of the club. I assumed if I stood here I wouldn’t get badly bruised or hurt by the later coming rush. The bands, Project 86, Me Without You, and Underoath, seemed to bring the crowd into terrible rants. They sang, they kicked and they punched each other’s lights out. I had never seen so many little hoodie-clad Asian boys kicking and screaming.
Mae and Further Seems Forever were huge disappointments. It was upsetting for Mae to be on the stage with such acts as Underoath, and the crowd didn’t show much interest in their set. Finally, Further Seems Forever entered the stage. In an unfortunate event that the band would be able to sing, Further Seems Forever attracted the smallest of crowds. A group of maybe fifty people surrounded the stage as the remaining members of a band Chris Carrabba left mustered up their courage to play new songs and old favorites. Not a very lovely sight to watch a band fall from its crowning presence as good underground hardcore to second rate pop.In the end, CMJ Music Marathon was an event that I would never forget; the people, the bands, and most importantly, the music that left a permanent scar in my brain. It was like going to see the Seven Wonders of the World; a moment you will never forget. Not only was this experience fun and exciting for me, but equally so for the bands and the fans. From subway rides to constant groping by security guards, I think that CMJ does something good for the community. It gives back a piece of life not many people have come to appreciate.
Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes” and the Art of Alienation
The hard-won wisdom about the human toll that capitalist alienation extracts is what makes Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes” so beautifully devastating
Someday, when the world finally loses Willie Nelson, there will be an eruption of sadness. He is an icon, yet many people will still be shocked at the depth and profundity of his body of work. At this point already, the unbroken length and quality of his career is almost without precedent in American music. He has simply been here so long it seems he has always been here doing what he does. And his music has defied easy categorization, slipping seamlessly between wide varieties of country music, jazz, and American standards. He is probably the artist for whom the term “Americana” was most properly invented.
Yet his career can be divided into rather neatly-defined stages. For many people, myself included, his most interesting stage is probably his brief stint with Atlantic Records in the early 1970s. Atlantic had just begun a Country division and Nelson was brought in as a cornerstone for that new endeavor. The experiment was not long; Nelson ended up recording only two albums under the Atlantic label, Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages, but the two albums worked out to be an essential bridge in Nelson’s gradual transformation from a fixture of the Nashville establishment to an iconic Outlaw and the singular artist we know and love today. Without these works, there is no path to Red Headed Stranger or Stardust or the collaborations with Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard that would come to define Country music in the decades to come.
Here I want to discuss the simple, singular genius of one song from this period, “Sad Songs and Waltzes” from Shotgun Willie. The song perfectly embodies the artistic maturity gained by Nelson’s long breakup with the Nashville machine. And the hard lessons learned by that process show up in the song’s spare production, which works with its deceptively simple lyrics to show how market economies alienate human beings from themselves and one another.
“Sad Songs and Waltzes” and Willie Nelson’s Career
Nelson was pushing 40 when Shotgun Willie was released. He was a longtime fixture in the Nashville music business, mainly as a songwriter (he was a hit maker for many other artists, writing songs like “Crazy” for Patsy Cline). As a solo artist himself, however, Nelson was constrained by the producer-centric power structures of The Nashville Sound. His ambitions were too large to be contained for long, however.
Nelson had already experimented musically. For example, he released a beautiful yet enigmatic concept album in 1971 called Yesterday’s Wine, which began the process of pushing his way out of the mold Nashville had formed him in. Eventually, he would leave RCA and Nashville altogether, moving to Austin, Texas and, in that strange mix of bikers, cowboys, and hippies, Willie Nelson as we now know him began to invent himself.
This is the world into which Shotgun Willie, and its third song “Sad Songs and Waltzes” was born.
With only a single guitar, alternating bass notes between plucky strums to create a (you guessed it) waltz, and backed by a distant steel guitar, the song begins “I’m writing a song all about you. A true song as real as my tears. But you’ve no need to fear it, ‘cause no one will hear it. ‘Cause sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.”
This utterly simply, yet devastatingly powerful opening tells the whole story. A man, an artist, is betrayed by his love and longs to express it through his art. The power of the marketplace makes this an impossibility. He is left both without a woman and without a song to mourn her absence. This is the purest tragedy.
Essentially the song, like many country songs, tells a story about a man who has lost a relationship with a woman. This is a rather normal part of human life, but human relations are flexible and people typically have the ability to craft new relationships in the wake of these breakups. The speaker in this song is deprived of that opportunity. The purpose of his art, the song he sings about writing, is to forge a relationship between him and his audience. His artistic expression is an extension of his humanity, his self. Sadly, this self does not exist outside the controls of the marketplace. His song will remain unsung because “sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.”
The chorus puts it in even more starkly economic terms. “It’s a good thing that I’m not a star. You don’t know how lucky you are. Though my record may say it, no one will play it. ‘Cause sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.” Perhaps if our singer were more famous he could escape the cage built for him by the music industry, but he is not. Therefore, any effort to make art from his pain — art that might forge a relationship between him and an audience — is in vain. No one would play it in the first place as it is not marketable.
One particularly interesting feature of this song is its meta approach to songwriting. It is, in simple terms, a song about a song. This is not a particularly novel concept in itself, with the supreme example probably being the first verse of Leonard Cohen’s ubiquitous “Hallelujah.” “Sad Songs and Waltzes” provides a fascinating twist on the genre, however. This is a song about another song that no one has heard, nor will they, for economic reasons that we will get into in a bit.
This is not merely clever, it is a formal feature that contributes to the song’s meaning. “Sad Songs and Waltzes” is a song is about alienation. And the singer of this song is so alienated from his personal art that he can only sing about it at a distance. It represents an ultimate form of alienation.
Alienation and Markets
Alienation is a devastating consequence of life lived under the control of markets. This is a central point in the writings of Marx and other critics of capitalism. The moving around of money in the quest to extract profit makes us all, in one way or another, cogs in a capital-producing machine, and Nashville certainly was and remains one of those.
Like many talented artists working in Nashville, Nelson had been alienated from the fruit of his labor. He was put to work writing songs for other people to sing to create income for his record company. And when we was permitted to record his music himself, it simply wasn’t Willie Nelson as we know him. Seriously, look at his early album covers and try not to laugh at how uncomfortably not Willie Nelson he looks.
And just as Nelson had been forcibly removed from his authentic self, alienation extends beyond our relationships with the products of our labor. It also emerges as a barrier between individuals, interfering with proper relationships among human beings. Forced to sell our labor for wages, other people lose their individual identities and become mere competitors, making human cooperation difficult to achieve. We become, above all, alienated from ourselves and other people on a natural, human level when subjected to the demands of money-making. We lose our status as fully embodied people, having been reduced to a figure in some equation to determine the bottom line.
Its hard-won wisdom about the human toll that capitalist alienation extracts is what makes “Sad Songs and Waltzes” so beautifully devastating. The betrayed singer is alone and must remain alone because he cannot spin his pain into enough profit for the bean-counters.
When Shotgun Willie was produced, Nelson had only recently emerged from the Nashville money machine. He had spent years conforming himself to the demands of that industry, stifling his creative self in service of its products. This professional history provides insight into the source of a career frustration that finally exploded into songs like “Sad Songs and Waltzes.”
The move to Austin, a place that was weird and incomprehensible to the logic of the Nashville scene helped break him from his binds. Hanging out with the hippies and hillbillies of that unique and idiosyncratic music scene allowed him to develop something closes to an authentic artistic self and it set the stage for his many career reinventions. He became, in many ways, country music’s best answer to Bob Dylan in this way.
When he eventually returns to Nashville it is as a bonafide “outlaw” with the rest of that movement largely founded on its rebellion against the Nashville Machine. Waylon Jennings’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” is a good example of how the Outlaw movement wore an open animosity against how Nashville’s system stifled individual creativity and forced it back down the throat of that very system. Capitalism being what it is of course, Nashville eventually found a way to coerce profit out of the artistic forms that rose up against it, bringing the enemy into the fold as it were. Outlaw Country became the defining sound of 1970s Nashville.
Still, Willie Nelson’s Atlantic Records period serves as an inspiration. It is a moment when an artist well into his career finds the strength to reinvent himself and claim significant ownership over his own art, taking a career full of alienation and molding it into a new form of art that would indeed forge powerful human relationships with a new audience for decades to come. It might even be said that he took a share of the means of production, with the product being Willie Nelson.
A Night with Northlane
Josh Hockey went to go see Northlane in Melbourne and took photographer Albert LaMontagne with him to capture the night.
Settling in to 170 Russell would have been nice, but as we stepped in at the allocated 6:30 door time we were greeted with the start of Void Of Vision’s set. Sprinting down the stairs and into the room, it was clear that moving the door time forward half an hour had definitely affected the crowd.
A decent audience had streamed in, but nowhere big enough considering the year Void Of Vision has had. Releasing their magnum opus album, Hyperdaze, they have been on an absolute tear, and it was clear during this set that they were going to keep going hard.
Opening up by bringing the heavy early, Void had the room shaking from the world go. An impressive light show and an almighty wall of sound filled the room with layers upon layers of adrenaline. Vocalist Jack Bergin led this assault, bringing as much energy as he possibly could, whilst utilising his seemingly endless amounts of stage presence.
New songs like “Babylon” and “Hole In Me” showcased their new sound, while “Kill All Your Friends” got the pit going like it always does. They finished strong with “Ghost In The Machine” and left their stamp on 170 Russell.
International act Silent Planet were up next. A pretty much completely new band to me, I was immediately impressed by the connection they appeared to have with their audience. From the word go, the pit was open, and everyone in the front few row was singing along with all the passion in the world.
Spoken word vocals mixed with harsh screams ensured that vocalist Garrett kept the audience on their toes. The instrumentals kept up this pace as well, with their hard hitting dark tones unrelentingly assaulting the ears of all listeners (in a good way).
Silent Planet sounded incredibly large all the way through, and definitely would have made themselves some new fans on the night. Their music appeared to be full of themes of mental illness, and political issues, which is absolutely super important in today’s societal climate.
Counterparts were up next. Definitely a well known band, the heavy Canadians immediately made clear the tone of the set announcing themselves with a call of, “Counterparts Schoolies Week Motherfucker.” They launched into their first song and it was immediately clear why they are as acclaimed as they are. Ridiculously tight and sounding stupidly massive, they had fans moving from the second they started playing.
The shit talking between sets would have been the highlight, but the songs themselves made it hard to top. Playing the old classics as well as the new heavy-hitters, there was as much two stepping as there was singing along. Also this was perhaps the first time in history I heard a pitcall of “schoolies 2019 motherfucker open it up,” which was an experience that I’m glad I had.
Dedicating a song to Australia’s very own Trophy Eyes, their massive sound continued unrelentingly. Coming towards the end, the set closed with a wave of crowdsurfers all diving and climbing towards the microphone, trying to get ahold of vocalist Brendan so they could scream his words right back at him. This set was great, and I’m quite sad I personally am not a Counterparts super fan so I couldn’t join in the fun. Next time boys. Next time.
Finally it was time for the big dogs, Northlane. The lights went down and hands went up, ready to go and awaiting the bands arrival impatiently, the audiences cravings would soon be met. Northlane charged onto stage and belted into “Talking Heads.” The movement was huge from the start, and the audience was off their feet and jumping non-stop all the way through.
“Details Matter” was a definite highlight of the set, with the ridiculously massive sound of one of the better songs of 2019 running rampant through 170 Russell. Headbangers were aplenty and moshers were in surplus. This continued even into one of their softer songs, “Rot.” The first song released by the band with vocalist Marcus Bridge, “Rot” went down an absolute treat as always.
Northlane are a ludicrously tight live band, and this became ever more clear as they smashed through “Citizen, “Obelisk”, and “4D.” New party song “Eclipse” had the room shaking as everyone refused to stop bouncing. The set began to come to a close as massive Alien single “Bloodline” was the definite highlight of the show. It has been one of my favourite songs of the year, and this rendition locked that in even more. Cannons and lights were ablaze and firing everywhere, and made this even more of a spectacle.
Leaving stage momentarily, Northlane returned as Marcus came back wearing a big sparkly coat. “Sleepless”, the closing track of the album was incredibly effective and touching live. And was a nice sombre end to the show, right before they launched into the timeless heavy classic, “Quantum Flux.” And goddamn was it massive.
Northlane are one of the best bands out there, and this show only locked that in.
Check out the images from the Northlane show:
All photos by Albert LaMontagne. Copyright 2019 Albert LaMontagne / Sound the Sirens Magazine. Please do not use or distribute these images without the permission of Albert LaMontagne. If you use these images without permission, you are a terrible person.