Over the course of the last several years, so much time and space has been given over to questioning the value and relevance of New York’s CMJ Festival that it hardly seems worthwhile to repeat the process here. The festival – now in its third decade – still puts forth a serviceable lineup of bands for anyone interested enough in burning the better part of a week shuttling from one end of the city to the other. What it’s lost, more than anything. is that sense of breathless discovery.
Indeed, many of CMJs best sets came from artists who were already on the verge of outgrowing it. Chief among these was Zola Jesus, who has gone from moaning ominously behind a haze of crackling static to using her baleful alto to command rich, turbulent minor-key pop. Fortunately, her live show has scaled up accordingly: as recently as last year, she was storming about the stage fitfully, seeming unsure what to do with her tiny body and eager to escape into the wings. At her headlining show at the Knitting Factory, she was almost frighteningly poised. Draped in a flowing white gown, she limited her movements to a few well-placed gestures and imposing stares, letting her body remain still and her formidable voice do all of the work. It was an effective tactic; though she is frequently pigeonholed as goth, her music comes not from a place of darkness so much as one of emotional need. She sang both of vulnerability and protection, and the dark corners and ripples of her voice proved the perfect vehicle for her pleading lyrics. It was a star-making turn.
Anyone seeking actual goth – a genre whose resurgence should be along any minute now – would do well to investigate Chelsea Wolfe. Wolfe’s music is as spooky as an old ghost story, specializing in the same kind of panicked desperation and melodic fragmentation that characterized the last Portishead record. Her show at Cake Shop on Thursday was deeply eerie – dressed in a long black tunic and spiked wristbands, a faux-Eqyptian headpiece running down the bridge of her nose, Wolfe looked better suited to spell-casting than singing. Her set, the bulk of which was drawn from her recent, underrated Apocalypse, swung from moments of hammering severity to those as small and frightening as a deathbed whisper.
The same could be said of Light Asylum who, during their set at the New Museum on Saturday Night, seemed to be taking With Sympathy-era Ministry on a tour of the art-punk scene of ’70s New York. Frontwoman Shannon Funchess sang in shrieks and hollers, slamming again and again into synth lines so stern and unyielding they felt like they were fashioned from wrought iron.
Also recalling a different New York were the Dum Dum Girls, whose late-night – or was it early morning? – Mercury Lounge set ably updated the bash and jangle of the Shangri-La’s with a biker gang’s attitude. Like Zola Jesus, the band has grown exponentially in a short period of time. Their latest album, Only in Dreams is steeped in separation and loss, but the pain in its lyrics is offset by Dee Dee Penny’s assured songwriting. Onstage, they present a unified front, all of them dressed head-to-toe in black, quaking and shimmying not so much in time with the rhythm as the reverb. The affect an air of emotional detachment – they say little and seem to be staring down the crowd rather than engage it, and at times, with the clanging guitars and spiraling harmonies, they seemed to create kind of cyclone of sound, one that either flattened or consumed everything in its immediate vicinity.
And as if to offer proof that CMJ still affords the opportunity for discover, one of the week’s most stunning sets came from the as-yet unsigned quartet Alabama Shakes. The group’s formula is simple, combining the chicken-fried roots rock of bands like My Morning Jacket with the scorched soul of Otis Redding or, more recently, Sharon Jones, but their execution is breathataking. Frontwoman Brittany Howard sings like she’s been alive for centuries; her voice moves from low soul croon to startling, craggy yelp, usually hitting impossible highs at around the same time the music goes from polite choogle to terrific roar. “I don’t wanna wait!” she belted out early in the set, as the band came rushing in behind her. She was eager for attention, and the impatience was palpable. A few more performances like this, and she won’t be waiting very long.