There's a lot of mediocrity to sort through when you hop from one club to another during a festival like the CMJ Music Marathon, five days during which bands flock to New York. So when I find stuff that stands out, that pushes the inevitable evolutionary boundaries of rock, I get really happy. One of the main reasons I go to CMJ — now its 35th year of music festivities — is to discover something I've never seen before, but a large percentage of what I wind up seeing is bands playing formulaic tunes in standard 4/4 time, singing songs about "I want/love you" or "You don't want/love me" or "I hate you," etc., etc.
Still, of the 60 bands I caught at CMJ 2015, a few actually felt new, brought me joy and tears and made me a happy music fan. Below, you'll find at Top 10 list of bands I'd never seen before I arrived in New York for CMJ (along with a list of five that weren't new to me, but still blew me away).
My indefatigable CMJ buddy Jon Pareles of The New York Times mentioned their name to me, he was ready to see them for a second time that day. This Toronto quartet is the usual bass drums guitar but it all unfolds in unexpected, mysteriously and satisfying ways. Jasmyn Burke is their tone setting singer and though she's leading a rock band her musical reference point lies somewhere in the 1940s minus the schmaltzy romantic sound that might conjure up, replaced by a childish wonder I hear in someone like Joanna Newsom. The guitar has that beautiful frenetic noise you'll hear in Nels Cline (Wilco) with a power chord or three thrown in only at those perfect moments. The whole band is simply a sonic treat.
No one I saw at CMJ had the boundless spunk of Alex Luciano. She seemed a child fueled by cotton candy and Pop Rocks, leaping off drummer Noah Bowman kick drum one moment only to short stop an inch from the microphone to tell us about her lame date to the daddy daughter dance. Each song this New Paltz, N.Y. duo plays feels like an anthemic encore and all are eminently singable, lovable and memorable. There's nothing new here musically but every beat chord and word mattered to these two so much more than it seems to for so many bands I saw last week. Most save it for the last song, but here every song was meant to last.
I didn't know what to expect when the Alabama Shakes singer took the stage for the first time with her rock band Thunderbitch, but no one could have imaged Brittany Howard coming out in white face, sitting on a motorcycle wearing leather and donning a straight haired, short, black wig. The music was right out of the garage: no frills, all grit, nothing new, but that's the point. This band, made up of members of Nashville's Clear Plastic Masks and Fly Golden Eagle, simply shows that when rock is stripped down to its core and cranked full of talent it speaks volumes and thrills the soul.
I rarely stay in one spot at CMJ. I run from venue to venue on my road to discovery, but when I saw that three of the Epoch Collective of N.Y. bands/friends/artists were playing at The Silent Barn in Bushwick Friday night, I planted myself for hours of goodness. Told Slant is the project of drummer/singer Felix Walworth. What I love about his drumming is that it's a thunderous propellant, an essential element to the song without being up front and in the way of the voice and guitars. Felix stands behind a very large bass drum on a makeshift stand and plays organic rhythms on mostly bottom heavy drums with arms flailing in ways I didn't know was really possible. All the while his voice conjures up the hiccup of Sparks and deep power of Bryan Ferry or Lou Reed, but more fun.
What I love about the Epoch Collective is the way central players in one band become the backbone of another. So where Felix Walworth is the center of Told Slant, he's simply the pulse of Florist and where Oliver Kalb may play fiercely in Toad Slant or his own band Bellows, he's more backdrop and scenic in Florist. Florist is where Emily Sprague moves from backup guitarist to central poet and singer. These songs are sweet confessional tone paintings. A lovely contrast to the volume of the week.
Shopping are the muscular musical children of vital '70s political punk bands Gang of Four, Delta 5 and The Slits. Having had the fortune of seeing all those bands back in the day, I can say that Shopping are every bit as good as their predecessors. The members of this East London trio trade vocals void of the usual love and self pity and filled with observations and critique of culture. A must see. Their live show trumps the recordings.
The Big Moon
One of the most tuneful bands at CMJ this year was a London quartet with singer and guitarist Juliette Jackson, guitarist and singer Soph Nathan, bassists and singer Celia Archer and drummer Fern Ford. Their playing is good but together the songs and their performance made for such a memorable and joyous performance. I'm looking forward to their debut album in 2016.
With a dude behind a table full of gear, I was ready for a boring stare at a dial-twisting DJ set. Instead Bayonne entertained my eyes and ears with pounding rich bursts of sounds and a man possessed by electronics. Bayonne is the musical alter ego of Austin's Roger Sellers. It was one of the best and most inventive bits of sound/texture I saw this week and now I'm intrigued to hear what his 2016 debut on Mom + Pop Music has in store.
This staccato pop band wavers between arpeggiated guitar and electronics and a lilting, almost South African-styled guitar band at times. It's that melody between two of its members — guitarist Cody Fitzgerald and singer Molly Grund — that keeps these six musicians from being more than just another joyous indie rock band.
Miya Folick makes music that simply lulls me. She's a storyteller, a teller of tales that are personal and universal. And though I first fell for her music, I have to say that feeling her passion and presence here at this tiny venue is what really hooked me. Maybe it's that she studied movement and theater, perhaps it's her Buddhist upbringing and hearing chants as part of her life. Her performance was captivating and personal and that, along with already loving her songs made this performance one that will stay with me.
And five more...
The ten acts above were my CMJ discoveries, the musicians I'd maybe heard but never seen live. Now here are a few honorable mentions, folks I've seen before but who played such outstanding — and memorable — shows at CMJ I had to mention them.
John Grant: John Grant can't fake it, so when he's on, his shows are bristling, smart, honest funny, courageous and altogether brilliant.
Christopher Paul Stelling: A man and his beat-up, nylon stringed guitar brought tears to the eyes. He's stellar.
Oh Pep!: Charming songs with lyrical and structural twists and turns. I'm guessing this Australian band is going to find a big loving North American audience soon.
My Bubba: When the Icelandic/Swedish duo turned up for this Nordic Night show, the place was empty. So My and Bubba set up off stage in front of a row of couches sans microphones and amps and entertained the 20 or so of us who came. It's so lovely to hear voices unadorned and acoustic. Honestly a night of magic.
Eskimeaux: Gabrielle Smith and the rest of the above mentioned Epoch Collective of N.Y. artists have made the record I've listened to more than any other this year. O.K. will surely be in my year end top five. I've seen Eskimeaux a few times, but never on its home turf. It was magic to have an impromptu, audience-led singalong to the words of "I Admit, I'm Scared." Cathartic and loving.