Every fall, hundreds of bands migrate to New York City for the annual CMJ Music Marathon. Many of these groups are playing their first shows in NYC and for a lot of the audience — music journalists, college dj's and fans alike — it's their first taste of these young upstarts. My previous CMJ discoveries include such favorites as Courtney Barnett, Public Service Broadcasting, Foxygen, The Blow, Zola Jesus, Caveman ... the list is long.
CMJ 2014 was stellar; this was a great year for discoveries. I saw all or part of sets by nearly 67 bands over the course of five days (that's just a fraction of the 1300 in NYC). Here's a list of 10 great ones I'd never seen before, in the order I saw them.
This young English trio, which I saw at NPR member station WFUV's CMJ showcase, has a twisted, dry, 21st-century sense of humor and a musical foot in the fuzzy '90s. The song "Montreal Rock Band Somewhere" talks about scalping Arcade Fire's Win Butler and then wearing his hair. In another song there's the line, "Remember when we broke into the park and you got laid and I watched and you said that was fine." Unlike so much of what I saw at CMJ, these songs by Happyness distinguish themselves from each other in tone, rhythm and degrees of sadness and appropriately, happiness.
This Sydney, Australia trio thrives on sad songs sung in three-part harmony and strummed hard on acoustic guitar. The band includes Liz Drummond, Hannah Field and Annie Hamilton. I heard them for the first time playing live at one of my favorite venues, Rockwood Music Hall. It wasn't lost on me that it's the very same room that, four years previous, I first heard the lovely harmonies of First Aid Kit, a band that certainly shares a similarly comfortable aesthetic.
There's pretty good chance that on a random stroll into a club during CMJ, the group on stage is going to be some bare-bones garage rock band. And though few of these bands actually make music in the family garage as they did in the 1960s, the raw, nothing-fancy aesthetic marches on. Despite the rise of electronics, you're more likely to walk down the street and be accidentally whacked by a guitar than a keyboard. There's also a lot of psych rock and punk rock at CMJ, all guitar, bass and drums music with singers who often scream or talk or both.
It's a well worn path, and with rare exception it doesn't excite me much anymore. But once in a while it does and that happened when I heard the adorably-named New York band Sunflower Bean. This trio of Julia Cumming (voice/bass), Jacob Faber (drums) and Nick Kivlen (voice/guitar) makes music best described with all the usual adjectives for psych/garage/punk bands, with one exception — this band is full of surprises and shifts. There's an exhilarating feeling seeing this band live; I got the impression that they even surprised each other during the performance.
For some reason, most clubs think that when it comes to music, louder is better. The sound engineer at this venue put three mics on Itasca, a singer with just an acoustic guitar and then cranked that guitar so loud that the bottom end boomed and shrouded the subtlety of her voice. I walked all the way up toward the stage to get the speakers were behind me so I could finally hear her natural voice and much of the real guitar sound. It was beautiful. The young Los Angeles singer and her droning melodic acoustic guitar picking had my ears smiling. It's not that the music is happy — it's definitely not. I thought of the singer Tim Hardin and his song "If I Were A Carpenter" the way she picked that guitar. Her phrasing brought a quieter Sandy Denny to mind. Itasca's music is thoughtful, at a festival where artists seemed more likely to spit it out than think it through.
Before I left for CMJ, I listened to a few hundred songs, gave them star ratings and then put the highest rated bands on my schedule. Immigrant Union's song "War is Peace" was just about my favorite new song on my list of unknown CMJ bands. I put that song on All Songs Considered last Tuesday and the night before I came to NYC, I listened to their entire album. When it was over I listened to it again! It's rare that I do that. The songs were strong and memorable, the playing tasty and melodic; Immigrant Union was the band I most wanted to see. They didn't disappoint. Their harmonies which are wonderful are not studio trickery, it's there in the live show. Once again the sound mix at yet another club was awful, with the bass and drums burying too many of the vocal melodies and obscuring the funny/smart lyrics that make the songs so endearing. That said it was 1:45am and most everyone including the sound guy was pretty whipped. Still it was some of the best music i heard.
A man walks into a bar. He takes off his tie, but his dark gray, wrinkled suit hangs loose on his body. He gets a little tipsy, but instead of walking out the door he winds up on stage with a fierce swirling band of guitars and drums. The story's not true, but it was the image I conjured when I saw the Detroit band Protomartyr at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. Singer Joe Casey chugged his Narragansett beer (there were 3 cans on a barstool next to the microphone stand). His posture and words reminded me of the narrative poetry David Thomas of Pere Ubu would spout (Thomas often wore a suit as well).
This band has a magnetism that is mysterious in its attraction. I can't put my finger on it — it's partially the commanding beat and abrupt guitar. All I know is that as I got deeper and deeper into their audio vortex and trying to follow Joe Casey's purposeful ramblings, time seemed to speed up and slow down simultaneously and then it ended and then I wanted more. So fourteen hours later a man walks into a bar and hears Protomartyr again.
"I'm Aurora, I'm from Norway, I'm eighteen years old, so really I'm not allowed here." That's how Aurora Aksnes introduced herself to a packed Rockwood Music Hall. The petite singer with a lilting voice and a melodic pop sensibility is certainly someone I look forward to hearing more of in the coming year.
It's as if they dropped in from another planet, studied punk, prog and metal and then made something new out of all of those things. Bo Ningen is four dudes — two in dresses — two guitars, bass and drums, hailing from Japan not Jupiter and now based in the U.K. And what a show they put on, twisting and contorting their bodies and their faces. Those expressions were not the usual guitar faces, they were more like fish with lips pouting and cheeks swelling — totally bizarre and completely fascinating. Though they spoke in English, all the singing was in Japanese. I could only guess at the lyrics — maybe the songs were about alienation and a poke at pop culture? That's the beauty of words in other languages. I can bring my knowledge and imagination to a show and let the music carry my thoughts while I listen to blistering guitars and battered and patterned drums.
Amason is quirky Swedish group featuring members of Miike Snow, Gustav, Dungen and Idiot Wind. Its songs range from bouncy to atmospheric, with lyrics in English and Swedish, and the group's breezy sound feels almost like Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin or a '60s Brazilian pop band imitating a top Top 40 American band like Spanky and Our Gang, but Amason is better than that vapid pop. Amanda Bergman has a sweet clarity to her singing and though she is mostly the main vocalist she shares that role with a few of her male band mates. There's a lot going on in these songs. It sounds like very studied players starting with jam sessions before honing them into a fine, catchy, crafted songs.
Here's a band with a truly unique sound. Bon Iver or Jonsi would be the closest comparisons, but without the climatic moments those artists bring to their sound. The guitar playing is mostly undistorted and spare: There are punctuating moments of trombone and keyboards with delicate — sometimes high, always soft — vocals. I didn't walk away remembering a single melody and that's usually not a positive thing for me, but I loved living in this sound. It's fresh and calculated, rhythmic but not dancey. I don't know where this band is headed but I'm going to follow this sound with intrigue