CMJ 2011: Purity Ring + Gauntlet Hair + Electric Guest
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 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.
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 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 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.
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.