If I knew anything more about Pela outside of their Thursday night performance at Mercury Lounge, I’d probably hate them. Pela strike me as a glorified bar band that—as evidenced by a small horde of young girls that lined the front of the stage—has a following. They put forth a brand of unapologetic, straightforward rock led by a charismatic frontman whose ambition likely outweighs his ability. That said—these guys can play. At face value, they gave one of the best performances I’ve seen thus far at CMJ. Pela galvanized a crowd subdued by the quieter Frances, utilizing a phenomenal group chemistry to lift the Mercury Lounge from a state of suspended animation. In a city where a holier than thou attitude can often reign over a performance, the unabashed lust for rocking Pela brought was refreshing.
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Frances matched my expectations almost exactly, which isn’t to say I was incredibly enthralled or disgusted by them. Heading into their set at Mercury Lounge, the only thing I knew about them was that they were an indie-pop outfit fronted by a Columbia Ph.D. So when a meek looking cat in glasses took the stage alongside a nerdy looking bassist, an energetic plaid-clad guitarist, and a pair of women who promptly picked up a violin and a melodica, I can’t say it was the shock of the century. Musically, Frances put forth a solid, albeit unremarkable product. Building tension through a minimalist string and faux-brass section served as Frances’ greatest strength, as they utilized the oft-overblown musical supplement with an artful restraint. Frontman Paul Hogan’s light, melodic voice was supported well by the cast of characters around him, who together create cohesive and pleasant tunes befitting of the college campus that birthed it.
Scouting for Girls sang about heartbreak. But they were never serious about it. In fact, they mostly found it funny in a self-deprecating way. Accompanying their amusing tales of unreciprocated love and envying James Bond’s libido were terse, tart tunes, readily consumed by a sizeable gaggle of enthusiastic girls. The London four-piece found humor in the present too, mocking the inevitable CMJ tech problems. Joking that their bass player was without an amp, Roy Stride, lead singer and keyboard player, said, “it’s only four strings.” Still, they were genuinely taken by crowd’s loud singing, and in the end their satisfaction and genuineness were a refreshing change from the surrounding parade of self-aggrandizement.
Piano pop and rock music, under the singer-songwriter genre umbrella, took a blow to its reputation thanks to people like Daniel Powter—which is totally fine if you enjoy listening to music at the hair salon. Nobody takes it seriously anymore. But we owe a lot to the genre (i.e. Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel) and Nathan Angelo could provide a boost to its reputation. He boasted an incredibly clear and powerful voice: As malleable as a Jason Mraz but infinitely stronger, yet not as weightless as Jay Kay’s of Jamiroquai. With a backing band that included another pianist, playing mostly organ, he added subtle touches to his funk sound, like curious syncopations, accents, and stops. When he wanted to, he serenaded with American-Idol vigor, but he seems to have his head on straight, opting for the low road. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”, played near the end of his set, was a simple reminder of why this genre is still so great and why it shouldn’t ignore people like Nathan Angelo.
As P Diddy’s only non-reality TV generated musical fosterage, Janelle Monae consequently possesses immense talent—and by default star-quality, because why else would Diddy be in the same sentence? And as Diddy’s new dauphin she is at once retrograde and innovative, feminine and masculine, mature and youthfully exuberant. She has chosen to craft her image and persona (thus ultimately controlling it to a large extent) as a nostalgic nod towards saddle shoes and Billie Holiday while at the same time writing songs about cyber-girls and alien invaders. All this mixes into one unflinching caricature, much like Stephen Colbert is impenetrable as a G.O.P. stalwart. She opened with her most popular song, “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!”, a galactic funk dance number that catapulted her energy into the set. But she then slowed it down immediately, singing a gorgeously slow and moving solo, accompanied only by electric guitar. What comparisons have been made to Holiday strike me as without merit. I found her stature and sheer singing might align with the French sparrow, Edith Piaf. Most of her songs revolved around her sociological alien experiment theme—a reaction to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis–singing, “Are we really living or just walking dead?” Though she never fully answered the question, her inexhaustible energy led her to moonwalking (Michael Jackson’s moves were practically hereditary at times) both into and on top of the crowd. As the complete package Janelle Monae is a name I expect we’ll hear a lot of.