CMJ 2011: Purity Ring + Gauntlet Hair + Electric Guest

Purity Ring

The Windish Agency showcase brought electro-pop wunderkinds Purity Ring, perhaps the finest new band CMJ 2011 has to offer, to the stage, along with a nicely eclectic roster of other acts.

Cuckoo Chaos

Cuckoo Chaos may not be quite the household name yet, but the band is already evolving before our eyes; during its set at Mercury Lounge on Friday night, the music introduced as newer by the group sounded leaps away from the earlier material with which Cuckoo Chaos opened its show. Those first songs bore a heavy -- too heavy -- resemblance to a former CMJ buzz band gone big: Vampire Weekend. Shimmying Afropop guitars, serious hi-hat workouts, tuneful bass -- it’s not necessarily a formula, but it’s not fresh, either. However, as Cuckoo Chaos’s set progressed, the band opened up those elements toward a more rhythm-centric, funkier sound. Its new material seems less about hooks and choruses than sustained energy and cyclical structures. Cuckoo Chaos could be onto something.

CuckooChaos-JesusFlagAmericanFish by NYLONmag

Electric Guest

Superstar producer Danger Mouse worked on Electric Guest’s forthcoming debut record. You get a sense of the sound, then: touches of classic soul thrown together with immediate hooks and simple beats. However, in Electric Guest’s hands, this type of music turned monochrome and uninspiring. Most of the fault lies with vocalist Asa Taccone, who generally sounds as if he’s auditioning for a Broadway musical (Jersey Boys, I think). Combined with hammy dance moves and stage banter, Electric Guest turned the atmosphere in the Mercury Lounge to something like a bad piano bar. Still, someone must see promise here -- Danger Mouse doesn’t need the cash.

Gauntlet Hair

Gauntlet Hair has been making a marathon out of CMJ, playing a number of much-hyped sets throughout the week. Tonight, it was short a guitarist, but the band still managed to pull off an impressive -- and extremely short, at under twenty minutes -- set. Gauntlet Hair plays a fairly traditional, familiar type of indie rock: loud-soft dynamics, impassioned vocals, somewhat danceable rhythms. The group’s trick is dousing all those ingredients in a heady solution of reverb and wall-of-sound dissonance, making its songs seem bigger in scope and harder to grasp. Even if you can’t put your arms around it all at once, it’s an exciting experience to try.


The five women of TEEN could give CMJ’s (arguably) most-sought-after act, Dum Dum Girls, a run for its money. Like that group, TEEN uses different tones of the female voice to engaging effect. Unlike Dum Dum Girls, TEEN gravitates toward a psych-inflected, insistently pulsing rock music. Droning keyboards and guitars call to mind Velvet Underground, as does the welcome grit that coats these otherwise pretty songs. The group must have an affinity for the Mod era, and it’s nice to see a band experimenting with sounds from an era somewhat overlooked by most current indie acts. TEEN has charisma to spare -- here’s to hoping it takes the world by storm.

We Barbarians

We Barbarians is a high-octane band. Guitarist David Quon and bassist Derek VanHeule bounded about onstage with more energy than any band has a right to have toward the end of CMJ week, and the Mercury Lounge crowd responded with equal enthusiasm. The trio plays rock music so straight-forward it’s almost at a ninety-degree angle. With shouted “whoa-oh-oh” choruses and pumping power chords, the group shares musical DNA with acts like The Gaslight Anthem and Against Me!, bands who occupy the liminal space between a fair degree of popular success among indie-oriented fans and a cold-shoulder from the critical community that informs that crowd. That is to say, this will be guilty pleasure music for some. But that’s fine, we can still intellectualize it -- We Barbarians is about feeling just as much as, say, ambient music is about feeling. In other words, the emotion here (in this case, fist-pumping earnestness) is more important than narrative, either lyrically or musically. Even when the band covered David Byrne & Brian Eno’s “Strange Overtones,” it made the song sound like a recent Springsteen outtake. Whatever. Raise a glass, spill some beer, have some fun.

We Barbarians - Headspace by buzzbands

Purity Ring

Purity Ring may walk away from CMJ with the crown. The electro-pop duo has been riding an enormous wave of blog hype, and they did not disappoint on Friday night. Programmer Corin Roddick plays some sort of strange, cyberpunk synth, banging on copper pipes jutting out of a wooden base to create different tonal drones over pre-recorded beats and his own live mixing. Meanwhile, vocalist Megan James uses her elegiac, girlish voice to devilish results, singing about drilling holes in eyelids with a disturbingly cute lilt; of course, Roddick is busy manipulating James’s vocals, shifting their pitch and cutting and looping them until he’s created a patchwork of jittery, alien -- and beautiful -- sounds. Purity Ring owes a huge debt to creepy Swedish synth-masters The Knife, from its juxtaposition of breezy pop melodies with frightening atmospherics, right down to the steel drum-esque synth sounds favored by both duos. But Purity Ring borrows more liberally from popular music; many of James’s melodies, when you pick them out of their warped casings, sound as if they could play on mainstream pop radio. “Belispeak,” the band’s finest track and the one that brought the house down at Friday’s show, is an easy contender for song of the year. Whenever Purity Ring finally releases an album, anyone else making electro-pop music will have to contend with what this band is doing. Until then, make yourself familiar with the handful of tracks floating around on the internet and tell everyone you got to them first.

Latest tracks by PURITY RING

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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