And then, just like that, CMJ 2015 was gone. From early afternoon last Tuesday, deep into last night, bands from all over the world, collectively numbering in the low four-digits, dominated most of Brooklyn, and shit, much of Manhattan too. As always, it’s impossible to master but easy to participate in to some degree, even if you wandered into your local bar like normal only to find some band standing there. To the festival’s credit, that strange air of inevitable collapse from a few years back has lifted a bit now. This year, the annual ritual seemed just that, like something deep and habitual that the music industry and overlapping city music scenes can never quite quit.
Here’s a tour of the best, worst, and most things we saw last week.
Tuesday night’s Kero Kero Bonito show was a cliff’s edge of pure fun, from which the rest of the festival week could only be a long hang-glide down. The second of two sold-out nights at Bushwick spot Palisades gave incontrovertible evidence of pure pop music’s total victory in infiltrating the underground, stealing its heart. The London trio play a sort of ultra-hip kids music, with lyrics about taking the perfect selfie, or how babies can be weird (I distinctly caught the line “like the film Aliens” in that one), that are almost completely devoid of transgression or aggression, but still played to a fist-pumping crowd at a DIY venue as if the words of some spike-necklaced punk hero. But the songs are funny and well-constructed, performed with an insanely likable enthusiasm. As strange as it might seem in context, objections to KKB would almost have to be on strictly philosophical grounds.
“This song’s about doing your homework so you can get rich!”
London’s Shopping were bubbling up on social media all week as one of the most-beloved breakout bands of the festival. Delivering the exact same level of energy set after set, carrying one of the week’s busiest schedules, it’s no wonder why. They do early 80s post-punk as filtered through its rediscovery in the early 2000s, and they do it quite well. But there was still something deflating in finding out that the sound of CMJ 2015 is the exact retro sound celebrated at CMJ 2004, rendered in slightly duller colors, its edges less frayed. Appreciation was easy, excitement proved tougher.
Stealing Sheep at Cake Shop.
Stealing Sheep, from Liverpool, seemed retro, too, but were tougher to place so specifically. Three-part psych-pop harmonies from the 60s, motorik drums from the 70s, and a combination of the two that’s previously been perfected by Stereolab in the 90s and tweaked by Broadcast and Electrelane in the 2000s. Those are some of the best bands of the recent past and not even particularly overused reference points at the moment, so the ladies’ taste-level is on-point. Like Shopping, the band was sharp, well-rehearsed, and totally effective at achieving their desired effect.
Both bands ran circles around the soft-rock stylings of Los Angeles Canadian Tobias Jesso, Jr., who played two packed Music Hall of Williamsburg shows with a near-toxic degree of smugness. He emerged from stage-left, as his band fired up the circus theme music to Curb Your Enthusiasm, as if we were about to greet some lovably grumpy discontent. Instead we got a faux-emotive dork, with a group of skilled hired hand musicians who he treated like a late-night talk show band, throwing them fun “challenges” like playing one of his songs “in the style of HAIM” only to fail entirely when that level of locked-in precision turns out to actually be pretty hard to pull off. Jesso is often portrayed as a throwback to the time of godlike piano songwriters like Harry Nillsson. But he’s almost certainly incapable of anything as fierce as “Jump Into the Fire”, something as effortlessly melancholy as “One Is the Loneliest Number”, something as nuke-blast devastating as “Without You”, or as bat-shit-cut-with-cocaine crazy as “Lime in the Coconut”. He can make his white-guy-dreadlocks band play through the theme to COPS to amuse himself, though. I found myself quickly wishing a new wave of outraged punks would spontaneously form on the venue floor in protest, rip pieces of railing from the balcony to beat on, refuse to tune their guitars. Seriously, fuck this guy.
Fred Thomas at Passenger Bar.
“Bad Blood” a standout from ex-Saturday Looks Good to Me singer Fred Thomas‘s 2015 album All Are Saved, is not an earnest acoustic guitar cover of a Taylor Swift song, cynically designed to generate clicks or launch thinkpieces on the Internet. Instead, it’s a flatly bitter lament about hitting a wall of indie-rock success, fighting through apathy and indifference to keep doing the one thing in the world you do well, and trying not to let that shit eat you up inside. Surprisingly he was playing his first CMJ, to a sparse group at Passenger Bar, where curious entrants had to shuffle awkwardly past his playing position. Overlooked among throngs of weaker would-be “next big things,” Thomas seemed to inhabit the borderline bleak reality of his own songs. But he brought craft, enthusiasm, and humanity anyway, lightly beaming to be doing it at all. To the extent that something as minor in real-world terms as a music festival set can ever be considered heroic, his set was.
Mitski at Mercury Lounge.
A quick show by Mitski, last year’s It Girl, further cemented the silliness of only valuing the next thing over the best thing. That she’s “First Love/Late Spring” played for over a year now and will probably have to play forever, didn’t dull it’s intimate beauty. “American Girl” a new song written in the Hudson Valley hideaway where she’s currently writing her next record, suggested a continuity in her sharp, heartfelt writing that’ll ensure obsession in an ever-growing fan base going forward.
PWR BTTM at Cake Shop.
Brooklyn’s PWR BTTM are a winningly bitchy glam duo who blur the line between power-pop precision and cock rock guitar soloing in writing intensely hooky songs about modern romance. Their charms are super immediate. Their first album just came out about a month ago, and an early afternoon Cake Shop crowd knew all the words.
Eartheater at Shea Stadium.
Four days into the festival, having seen scores of bands of differing quality, a creeping feeling set in that the whole thing might pass without seeing a single truly strange performance. That a discovery festival, supposedly made up of hungry new acts, might pass by only in well-rehearsed, backward looking, faintly familiar styles was becoming an existential concern. Where were they hiding all the half-baked, defiantly pretentious, maybe, possibly if improbably, next wave art-genius children?? A singularly odd, kind of off-putting, totally memorable set by Eartheater was a necessary corrective.
Ex-Guardian Alien member Alexandra Drewchin scratched at a translucent red, hair-metal guitar, dressed in two tones of preppy pink. Her songs seemed extemporaneously conjured in parts, and smartly constructed in others. She did deep Exorcist-y back arches, then jarred upright, left the stage to prowl the crowd. She announced her two brothers were in the room, and then sang weird psycho-sexual free associative lyrics anyway. She’d occasionally trigger a digital pedal that would drop her voice into a b-movie demon register without warning, then use that voice to recite dodgy spoken word. There’s recorded evidence that Drewchin can channel her eccentricity into transporting almost-pop songs. On stage she couldn’t be bothered. Thank God.
Yvette at Aviv.
Last week, the Village Voice declared Yvette the “Best Noise Band” in New York. (I made the same claim two years ago, but who’s counting?) Recent sets suggest they might be the best band in the city, full stop. The duo of guitarist Noah Kardos-Fein and drummer Dale Eisinger create an unholy blast of metallic noise, that’s probably literally damaging in close quarters for a naked, unplugged ear. But they use it as a tool, not an end-goal. Their work is very song-based, shaped while still feeling wild. It’s oddly melodic in the way that Liars or Wire can be, but there’s no point where you could accuse them of cynically swiping ideas wholesale, instead of just running with founding inspirations. They just put out a pretty sick new EP, that still falls short of the face-punch they are live. If you haven’t seen them play yet, you’re fucking up.
Downtown Boys at AdHoc Carwash.
For around eight hours on Saturday afternoon, the hollowed out shell of the Hand & Detail car wash on Lorimer St. in Williamsburg was packed with people, who came early for the buzziest top-down lineup of the week. (The grungy vans that brought them there were likely parked a few blocks over.) The “AdHoc Car Wash”, booked by the titular local promoters, was a marquee event for the festival without being an official part of it. On paper, the concept was the most peak “Williamsburg music scene” thing that has happened in the very stabilized neighborhood in years. In practice, it was slick and professional, almost nothing like the shambolic warehouse or empty lot shows that prevailed in 2006. The bill provided different shades of underground rock, again well-trod but confidently delivered. Sheer Mag delivered a young person’s idea of 70s dirtbag glam. Protomartyr played post-punk powered by old guy contempt. Pity Sex‘s alt-rock contained a hidden emo swirl.
A set by Providence’s Downtown Boys was the least referential, most alive. The band’s music is a crackling mix of hardcore punk, dance-party sax skronk, and body-shaking, open-throated, full-vent rage. Singer Victoria Ruiz provided a continuous stream of agitprop even between songs, ten subway stops to the left of Bernie Sanders. Decrying gentrification inside a clear example of its effect, she was defiant and unapologetic. The direct effect of overt punk politics remain sort of subtle to observe in the moment, though. A few dudes up front attempted to signal their allegiance with a 3 PM mosh-pit, but only got as far as shoving each other in a small cluster.
Destiny at Cameo.
To criticize CMJ for a lack of diversity is partly unfair, as the festival’s scope is wide enough to contain international pop, underground hip hop, big room electronica, and plenty of other stuff that can’t be written off as white-bread indie rock. But to experience it as intended, floating from room to room, the simple reality is that it’s much easier to stumble upon a new rock band of some variety than it is to walk in on a notable exception. (And they are rare enough to be a hot commodity. Jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington at le poisson rouge, for example, sold out in advance, capped their badge entry well shy of 7 PM.)
Early Saturday night/early Sunday morning, past the point of the festival officially ending, there were welcome signs of not-guitar-based life at the not-dead-yet Cameo Gallery. Destiny Frasqueri, who billed herself as Princess Nokia until quite recently, cycled through an eclectic set that jumped easily from 70s roller skate jams to late 90s breakbeats, once heard at abandoned roller-rink raves. Her reliance on backing tracks is holding her back at the moment, causing weird vocal overlaps that aren’t entirely intended. The charisma is real, though. Headliner Cakes Da Killa took the stage at some stupid hour, like 3 AM, playing for a crowd that had winnowed slightly just from human fatigue. But out of that sub-optimal material, Cakes conjured up a raging party anyway, those who stayed losing it twice as hard in memory of those who bolted. He was 100% over it, killing the house lights, pounding some drinks, giving the crowd commands for enjoyment. His rapid fire verses of raunchy sex and hilarious putdowns came with such speed and such effortless effect that the only possible conclusion was to note the guy’s ridiculous level of talent.