Ohmyrockness 5th Anniversary Party/Oya Festival @ Santos Party House

My CMJ begins when I stumble through the doors of Santos to be confronted by three Norwegians in short shorts and glittery tops. They are men. They are the men of Ungdomskulen. I quickly send a text to someone in the room about the glitter shirts. They are, empirically, awesome. But it is the music, not the aesthetics, that is moving the front of the room. Packed against the stage are all the usual CMJ kids: plaid shirts, tight pants, expensive cameras, notebooks stuffed in the spaces between textiles. But in this case, they are moving as Ungdomskulen closes their set with animated and amused aggression. At least one girl, having never seen the band before says, "That made my CMJ. That was the best thing I'm going to see." This is what bands from Norway come to do; impress you - you in the graphic t-shirts and winter hats inside, you - and in this case, they do.

From the Norwegian meat market, we run a quick jaunt downstairs to catch the last songs of Evan Voytas' set. He and I have never met but I once made an inside joke about him being confused and disoriented and he liked it enough to put it on his website. It is rare that anyone pulls press quotes that you actually like. Evan Voytas pulled an inside joke that I didn't expect him to get, let alone appreciate. He is wearing a cardigan sweater two sizes too big as he motors through "Higher" and "Astro" to close his set. "Astro" takes a particular level of commitment as Voytas resolves to sing it almost entirely in falsetto. Voytas packs his things in a neither confused nor disoriented fashion. The trip from California was long and maybe by the end of the week we'll know if it was worth it.

After Voytas, and a reasonable soundcheck, the night belongs to Small Black. The Long Island by way of Brooklyn set bring decks of synths and loops to burn. Backed by live drums and a wave of sound big enough to sink this basement in 10 feet of water, Small Black are the unquestionably the most exciting band of the evening. The electronic soundscapes feel more personal in person and the undulating synthesized melodies are more meaningful at higher volume. They play "Despicable Dogs" fourth out of six and when they're finished it's too soon. If there's a band to catch at CMJ 2009, in that way that small bands are still just small bands, it is Small Black.

Meanwhile, upstairs, I Was A King power through a set thoughtful, yet not unself-conscious, indie-rock songs. Even after I'd been prepped to hear them sound like Teenage Fanclub, they sound A LOT like Teenage Fanclub. This is far more of a compliment than it is an accusation of derivative influence. They are our second Norwegian act of the night and are expected back in Oslo in three days time. Their female guitarist is one of the more compelling parts of the evening, wailing on her whammy bar like it is joystick to an outdated videogame.

The night would end with dueling indie rock from Cymbals Eat Guitars upstairs and Real Estate downstairs. Cymbals Eat Guitars finds its stride in the middle of their set, channeling that time in the mid-1990s when music was about pain and independent labels marketed emotional catharsis to all those thousands of destroyed, hyper-literate, post-Smiths fans of this country. If Steven Malkmus was in the building, he wouldn't be upset, but he wouldn't be entirely impressed either. Real Estate provides a more mathematical, and at once lush, solution to the same problem: fuzzy guitars, delicate arrangements, and confusing song structure. It is far better than I just made it sound. And like that, the lights come up and we're asked to leave.

Listen :: Evan Voytas - "Astro"
Listen :: Small Black - "Despicable Dogs"
Listen :: Cymbals Eat Guitars - "Wild Phoenix"
Listen :: Real Estate - "Beach Comber"
Listen :: I Was A King - "Norman Bleik"

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