CMJ Music Marathon 2013: 19 October 2013 - New York

Corey Beasley
Courtney Barnett. All photos by Kassy Balli.

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.

CMJ Music Marathon 2013

City: New York
Venue: Multiple venues
Date: 2013-10-19

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.


Courtney Barnett:


Porcelain Raft:

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

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