As usual, this year's CMJ Music Marathon, the 31st annual showcase, had a glut of offerings for the discerning (or not-so) indie rock fan. I never did manage to pick up my festival guide, but between the mobile site and various strands of buzz, I managed to catch at least one or two decent things every night. Following are a few highlights:
Popstrangers (Auckland, New Zealand), New Zealand Showcase at Le Poisson Rouge: Wall of discordant noise and trippy vocals, all with a dancey backbeat.Mahogany (NYC), Deli Showcase @ The Delancey: Earnest vocals by Andrew Prinz over trippy guitars and electronics. (And, wow, who was that leggy brunette playing 12-string?)
Miracles of Modern Science (NYC), Piano's: I love these guys: somehow, they manage to rock with nothing other than mandolin, violin, cello, standup bass, and drums, all played acoustic. Give the lion's share of the credit to vocalist/bassist Evan Younger, whose plaintive voice pierces right through your jaded shell. Probably the most sincere set I saw all week: they're like the Barenaked Ladies, without the snarkiness.
Sweet Soubrette (NYC), Deli Showcase at the Living Room: Dark, confessional lyrics delivered by the ukelele-wielding Ellia Bisker, who somehow comes across as sweet and charming while simultaneously laying waste to all your romantic notions of love and urban happiness. I wasn't sure whether to clap or cry, but she definitely got under my skin.
Races (L.A., CA), Cake Shop: Dreamy, high-energy 6-piece from Compton, blending 60's psychedelia with timeless folkiness, driven by Wade Ryff's Colin Meloy-like vocals.
Allison Park (Pittsburgh, PA), Highine Ballroom: This girl obviously has some svengali pushing her to become the next Pop Princess, available to play a shopping mall near you. The high hair and shameless self-promotion (via life-size posters of Park flanking the stage) would have been harmless enough, if her singing weren't so awful.
Talk Normal (NYC), Littlefield. About as different from Ms. Park as you can get: experimental NY duo featuring the fierce Sarah Register on guitar and Andrya Ambro on drums and vocals. What sounds like drone and noise is actually a highly orchestrated sonic assault: as if No Age joined forces with PJ Harvey. Thrilling and terrifying.
Grimes (Montreal, QC), Fader Fort: Claire Boucher looks like she's about 16, but had confidence to spare in a set that had her singing solo over a drum machine and synth pad. It was nominally dance pop, but with a strange, arty edge to it.
Savoir Adore (NYC), Santos Party House: Fun, dancey set from the Brooklyn four-piece which sounded lifted straight from the 80's, driven by Deidre Muro's dreamy vocals and Paul Hammer's deft guitar work.
French Horn Rebellion (NYC), Santos Party House. The coordinated lights and smoke machines were fun, but really this was just two guys with laptops and some drum machines, so a bit of a misnomer. But, when they did finally haul out a French Horn, people went absolutely Apeshit. Which is no surprise, coming from where I'd just been.
Walk the Moon (Cincinnati, OH), Santos Party House Fun, poppy rock on the anthem side of things. Half the crowd seemed to be wearing the same cowboys-and-indians facepaint as they.
Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs (Oxford, UK), Santos Party House: Intelligent dance music from the wiry Orlando Higginbottom, made large in a massive Native American headdress. Fun way to end a long night.
Grace Woodroofe (Perth, AU), Aussie BBQ at The Delancey, An incredible talent: deep dark voice, full of soulful intensity, better suited to jazz than indie. Still, who can blame the 21-year old for wanting to make a go of it in the rock world, esp. when Ben Harper signs you up as his opening act? Watch out for her.
Team Genius (NYC), Lonely Hearts Club showcase at The Living Room: Fun, a bit silly, striving to be Arcade Fire with its trumpet, synths and all-in chorus, but falling just short with its lack of cohesion.
Little Racer (NYC), Piano's: Quirky guitar riffs over lyrics about Norman Rockwell and the Beatles' "Till There Was You"
Jape (Dublin, IE), Piano's: High-energy electropop, threaded with your typical Irish charm and wide-eyed wonder. "It's an amazing thing to be alive and to be in New York," said lead singer/guitarist Richie Jape. Indeed.
Glass Anchors (NYC), Cake Shop: Twangy folk rock, led by the surprisingly overpowering Annie Sicherman. A welcome break from all the electropop.
Emperor X (Jacksonville, FL), Fat Baby: Extemely earnest/awkward singer-songwriter with a bit of too much ego for his own good, but still entertaining.
Filigar (Chicago, IL), Arlene's Grocery: Roots rock for frat boys, not very interesting but I'm sure they'll achieve some sort of popularity.
Hank and Cupcakes (NYC), Mercury Lounge: Wow, Cupcakes is like the new Annie Lenox: huge, outgoing personality, standing up on her bass drum like it was some kind of pulpit. Her husband Hank had about 47 pedals in front of him, generating all kinds of crazy electronic noise through his Fender. Probably the most entertaining set I saw all CMJ.
Hey Marseilles (Seattle, WA), Living Room: These guys are already huge in their hometown, but it was a real treat to see them out on the east coast, playing a tight, energetic set using cello, violin, acoustic and electric guitar, accordion and trumpet. Such gorgeous textures and harmonies, it only made sense to leave things there, even though there was still plenty of CMJ left to go.
Until next year...(More pics on the photo page.)