[21 November 2013]
The buzz surrounding CMJ Music Marathon 2013, the 23rd year of the New York-based festival, has been fairly difficult to hear in the deafening swirl of the music blogosphere. Strange for one of the longest running and most consistent music showcases in the world. As a music writer, I’ve been disheartened to see many of my colleagues actively disparaging the showcase, seeming to delight in casting CMJ as old and stodgy, a relic in an age of bloated festivals and blog-buzz one-upmanship. Sure, humorless cultural monolith Arcade Fire can swoop in and play “secret” shows during the festival and be rightfully blamed for hogging the spotlight. They’re a band and a business, and that behavior is something to be expected from the leading purveyors of indie rock made for baby boomers. But music writers cackling over CMJ’s supposedly diminishing results? I don’t understand the bullying impulse. Here’s the point: CMJ, unlike any other festival in the country—including SXSW, which has become much more of a corporate event than CMJ—exists to highlight rising artists and new bands, not to tremble in self-congratulation during the usual indie blogosphere circle jerk. There is no CMJ headliner. There is no CMJ dance tent, or $12 CMJ Heineken, or CMJ event poster advertising the same tired circuit of acts making the summer festival run. Instead, there’s a vertigo-inducing list of bands most of us have never heard of, scattered around New York City, hoping to catch your attention. Shitting on CMJ is the equivalent of shitting on those bands. Really, what makes cynical music writers so upset about CMJ is its spirit of earnestness. Each new artist that treks to New York to play a few sets over four or five days does so to gain exposure, to use CMJ as a launching pad toward a wider audience. They’re trying, and trying isn’t cool.
This year at CMJ, I didn’t see a single band I’d seen before, and generally I tried to see bands I’d never even heard before. That’s the point of the showcase, with apologies to Win Butler’s new haircut. And I came away from my two nights at CMJ feeling thrilled about at least a half-dozen new acts. You can’t beat that math. So, consider this less a review than a recommendation. Let’s get to the music.
Geoffrey O’Connor (10/15, Force Field PR Showcase, Ran Tea House)
Geoffrey O’Connor plays a self-consciously melodramatic, John Hughes-tinged brand of synthpop. Think Twin Shadow with less sex. That’s not a slight—O’Connor’s music operates on the same cinematic uplift that saturated radio pop in the 1980s. His set was plagued by sound issues at the Ran Tea House, but you’d have to go a long way to obscure these melodies.
Free Time (10/15, Force Field PR Showcase, Ran Tea House)
Dion Nania writes jangling love songs, cast through a solid web of reverb. His band, Free Time, plays a timeless sort of rock ‘n’ roll. Watching the band lock into solid grooves with an easy confidence, I could just as easily imagine the songs pouring through AM radio as from the PA in front of me. Try them in the morning.
Celestial Shore (10/15, Force Field PR Showcase, Ran Tea House)
Brooklyn loves Celestial Shore, a hometown trio crafting a fairly unique blend of math rock and psychedelic pop. Bassist Greg Albert and guitarist Sam Owens trade lead vocals, each possessing a boyish tenor that grounds their wiry, shape shifting compositions in a wide-eyed earnestness. Drummer Max Almario is a sight to see, assaulting his kit with blurred arms and building complex polyrhythms, segueing into quiet brushing when his bandmates’ songs threaten to explode. I wished he’d let them bloom completely—when the band allowed itself to settle into something steadier than its usual post-rock riffing, it packed a surprising punch.
Theo Verney (10/16, NME Showcase, Glasslands)
Brighton’s Theo Verney could be lumped into the group of ‘90s indie rock revivalists, as he makes unfussy guitar rock that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Lollapalooza bill. But his reference points are what make him stand apart from the crowd—rather than cribbing from Dinosaur Jr. or Polvo or other indie gods, Verney emulates alternative radio rock staples like Nirvana and early Smashing Pumpkins. Up-tempo, fun, with a satisfying power chord crunch.
Porcelain Raft (10/16, NME Showcase, Glasslands)
Maruro Remiddi’s Porcelain Raft takes the fragile, snowy guitar work and clean vocals of early Death Cab for Cutie and adds the sense muscle so sorely lacking behind that band’s later work, beefing up his tracks with bass-heavy synths and hook-laden rhythms. Live, the band is even fuller than on record, surprisingly rock-oriented, sounding at times like a more straightforward Sigur Rós. The band’s set seemed cut short at Glasslands, but the dynamism evident in a handful of Remiddi’s songs would be enough to keep plenty of bands busy for the length of a record or two.
Eagulls (10/16, NME Showcase, Glasslands)
Leeds’s Eagulls will strike it big once it drops a proper LP—this is the type of angular, impassioned guitar rock the British press still goes crazy for, and rightfully so. When the band focuses its punk impulses on writing something less scorched-earth and more singed-eyebrows, the results feel explosive. Frontman George Mitchell’s onstage diffidence had an undercurrent of anxiety to it, which sapped a bit of energy from the band’s set. Still, tracks like “Nerve Endings” and “Molting” felt like instant classics, pure bursts of seething intensity. Once Mitchell finds his footing as a live performer, the band should be unstoppable.
Courtney Barnett (10/16, NME Showcase, Glasslands)
Australian singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett has a way with words. Watching her barnburner set at Glasslands, I found myself jotting down fragments of lyrics every other minute, vivid images and clever turns of phrase that seemed too great not to remember. A sample, from the incredible “Avant Gardener”: “The paramedic thinks I’m clever ‘cause I play guitar, / I think she’s clever ‘cause she stops people dying.” Barnett’s music is deceptively simple, big chords played with a solid rhythm section, all the better to focus on her words. Honest and bracing, with a solid dose of humor to keep things level.
Body Parts (10/15, Force Field PR Showcase, Ran Tea House)
David Byrne would be proud—Body Parts’s set featured a few choreographed dance moves, but the band has the chops to keep the focus on the music. All interlocking grooves and sultry male/female vocals, The Talking Heads are an easy reference point here, but Body Parts mixes complex harmonies, staccato guitar, and R&B rhythms to fantastic effects all their own. Who wouldn’t want to dance with them?
Joanna Gruesome (10/15, Force Field PR Showcase, Ran Tea House)
I did everything I could to avoid liking a band called Joanna Gruesome, but when you’re beat, you’re beat. The Welsh quintet will garner plenty of comparisons to fellow Cardiff alums Los Campesinos!, with both acts playing manic-depressive pop-rock driven by clever wordplay and spattered with welcome bursts of dissonant noise. It may not be the most fashionable type of guitar rock around, and the group didn’t do itself any favor swith that name, but the songs speak for themselves. Frontwoman Alanna McArdle has a bloodcurdling scream, and she knows where to unleash it for maximum effect. This is a band to soothe wounds and open them up, all at once.
The History of Apple Pie (10/15, Force Field PR Showcase, Ran Tea House)
The History of Apple Pie uses frontwoman Stephanie Minn’s understated, cooing vocals to maximum effect. Juxtaposed with the band’s serious guitar onslaught, Minn’s voice provides a cooling center to her group’s shoegaze-inflected rock. The band pays more attention to grooves than the average shoegaze group, giving its songs a shade of classic rock heaviness to mix with all that squall. Slow-building, slow-burning, captivating stuff, the kind of thing you need to see live to fully appreciate through the inevitable tinnitus the next morning.