by Aaron Miles & Julianne Shepherd

Last week, Aaron Miles and Julianne Shepherd were compelled to attend CMJ 2003, the four-day conference in NYC wherein new music is showcased, and publicists get college radio directors trashed on free drinks. When they weren't raising hell, they took notes; here's the 411 on the hot shit and the not shit.

Aaron: Perhaps due to the inexplicable buzz surrounding Kentucky fried quintet My Morning Jacket, we were drawn to the CMJ opening party. Maybe MMJ were hiding from their boring music, but they look like Cousin It and the Hair Farmers--I didn't see their faces once. It was creepy and annoying, as was their tiresome "Skynyrd makes good with Neil Young at a Built to Spill show" sound. The party was salvaged when the instrumentalist-driven electronic trio the New Deal took the stage, hours late. Fortunately, the New Deal had a crucial progressive music element: they were interesting to watch. Much like Books on Tape (one Todd Drootin), who pieced together an abundance of sounds, beats and textures of all shape, size and aural friendliness. He rocked the hell out, slapping and tweaking his table full of gear, barely reigning in the chaos.

Things were looking up. Themselves, the duo Doseone and Jel, from the genre-bursting Anticon collective, demonstrated how their avant glitch-hop could be entertainingly executed live. The duo were joined by a third musician as they stood side by side, playing beats on trigger pads, tweaking synths and laying down rich textures while Doseone emoted his abstract poetics. (Catch Dose and Jel this week at Berbati's, Tuesday; see Up & Coming for more info.)

Later, Ming and FS incessantly scratched on four CD turntables over hiphop, drum and bass, and some rock. There was little continuity and the scratching made us itch uncomfortably. They closed by playing rock riffs on guitars and shouting "Fuck this oil war!" over an early Rage Against the Machine anthem, as a young lady danced on their table. Theoretically, it was a nice idea, and fun enough to watch for a minute, but ultimately felt like a frat party. It was especially strange coming after a tight set by melodic breakbeat producers ILS and before Karsh Kale, who played Middle Eastern-influenced music with a large band incorporating electronic and live musicians. They provided a sleepy but meditative close to the weekend and reaffirmed that music is evolving, not reverting back to the hairy past.

Julianne: Just before the hypnotic but not-quite-amazing White Magic (with the ghostly voiced Mira Billotte from Quix*o*tic), DC's Measles Mumps Rubella played, a scratchy dance band with reverbed ennui for vocals; the most interesting thing about them was the singer's stocking cap, which had the texture of a puffy bandage. Chicago's amazing Mahjongg was more successful at hotwiring the dance party; they dropped Latin polyrhythm bombs on the cowbell, sent telepathic commands that "dancing is fun," without tripping over the inevitable truth of their own artfulness. Speaking of fun, The Hold Steady--the new band with ex-Lifter Puller vocalist/poet of the everydude Craig Finn--deployed megatons of it, in thrilling guitar solos, narrative lyrics that spellbind like great American literature. Scrappy Finn sounds like a rapper with an MGD hangover, and I actually found myself screaming my head off at the sound of a whammy bar. (P.S. Their record, Almost Killed Me, comes out on FrenchKiss early next year. It's satisfying, edifying, electrifying--AKA mark your calendars.)

Mick Barr from Orthrelm loves The Zs: reason enough to hit their show at the Knitting Factory. Two sax players, two guitar players, two drummers plowed through about 30 pages of sheet music, kicking on an academic, New Music vibe. Isn't that what the Knit space was made for, anyway--mini-John Zorns bleating their brass in two-second blasts, but like, not boring? Alternately awesome, as the Zs' junked-up inverse: the Death Comet Crew, the pioneering hiphop ensemble featuring Rammellzee and High Priest, playing their first show in two decades. The four-track they were using was probably the same one from their last show, but it wasn't embarrassing at all--they played like they'd been anticipating this all along, excitement palpable, and better than their reissues on Troubleman. Wish some of that had bled into the sleeping-pill of a DFA Records Party. The Juan McLean, Colder, and various and sundry DJs were in a death-match for the boring award (though the soiree did have its high points, like a house mix of Sisters of Mercy's "Walk Away"). But nothing could kill the residual ecstasy of hearing seven tracks from Jay-Z's forthcoming Black Album at Baseline Studios in Manhattan, with Young Monsieur Hov himself navigating the mixing boards. (Though no The Blueprint, it'll be a decent swan song, with some extra-hot beats from Aqua, some "just okay" ones from Eminem, and a Rick Rubin-produced track that bumps like Falco at a demolition derby.) And NO, I did not ask Jay-Z if he was on Friendster, for the love of God.