Tight, well-crafted songwriting, fuzzy pop and infectious soul color the first half of our CMJ Music Marathon, the 34-year-old music discovery festival that still prides itself on discovery — and rightly so. Here are a few of our favorites so far, according to Pat Healy and Chris Leo Palermino.
Ages and Ages
Ages and Ages would like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, and if they are able to do that, then hopefully they’ll teach the world an Ages and Ages song. The Portland band’s songwriting is so strong that they don’t even need every member to have a voice that fits so well with the voice of everybody else in the band. Onstage they appear simultaneously relaxed and ecstatic. They’re joyous but serious. Like, imagine if “Cecilia” was a really deep song. The combination of multiple male and female voices blending together so well has the same effect as Fleetwood Mac at their best, but the lyrics seem like they’re struggling with bigger moral conflicts. “Make yourself right, nevermind them, don’t you know you’re not the only one suffering,” they sing on “Divisionary ,” the sing-along-friendly title track of their latest album.
We had the good fortune of seeing L.A.-based rising folk mastermind Moses Sumney in the confines of a private apartment in the Lower East Side courtesy of Sofar Sounds, a volunteer-run organization which hosts private pop-up shows. The 24-year-old melody maker has collaborated with indie rock superstars Karen O and Beck, but that hasn’t gotten in the way of his mesmerizing solo show full of intimate lyrics, gorgeous voice exercises and electronic loops. (Those atmospherics he creates with his voice remind us that we should listen to Julianna Barwick more!) Then we saw him again the next night at Rough Trade. Sumney has a charming stage presence. He sings his between-song-banter, which he seems to realize is silly, but it's a good balance for his delicate songs. As for his voice and songwriting, imagine if Roberta Flack were Robert Flack. This is serious romantic music: There were lots of couples canoodling in the crowd. It's also worth noting that it will never not be fun to watch somebody build a Bobby McFerrin-style body beat with a sampler.
Saskwatch are a true melting pot of a band. The Aussie eight-piece — or were there nine of them cramped onto that small stage at Pianos? — combine crunchy guitars with Motown basslines and a four-man horn section. Presiding over the whole affair is singerNkechi Anele, dressed in a supervillain bodysuit. Her voice is reminiscent of original disco era singers like Thelma Houston; she has an impressive range, but you might not notice because her transition from high to low is effortless and there are no discernable bum notes. There’s definitely a revivalist aspect going on here, but what separates them from acts like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings is that live, they’re not afraid to pull out little bursts of psychedelia. This may not come across on their recordings, but this video for “I Get Lonely” is pretty trippy.
For fans of scuzzy psych rock, Chicago’s YAWN will be your new favorite band. We caught the four-piece, who have spent the previous five years building a reputation in Chicago’s underground scene, in their perfect environment: the basement of Cake Shop. Swagger, fuzzy riffs and occasional synths morph in late night-friendly tracks such as “Flytrap” and “Under the She.” They’re still a bit under the radar, but they’re well worth your time.
It’s always a highlight to see the international bands who come to CMJ to make their names known stateside. London-based CYMBALS — Is this caps-stylized band name thing a trend? — caught our attention with their synth-y dance rock. Vocalist and guitarist Jack Cleverly leads the charge with his brooding, emotive vocals against a totally ’80s backdrop. In a year, we’ll be glad we caught them on such a small stage.
Hey, it’s SPOOKYLAND! Another band from Austalia! Another band who like their name in all caps! That said, SPOOKLYAND aren’t just another band. Theywere referred to us from one of the main guys responsible for setting up showcases for the CMJ Music Marathon. And the guy was right-on in his recommendation. Thank you, Matt McDonald. The discernable influences in this Australian band’s sound include disparate rock touchstones as Neil Young and AC/DC. And we don’t just mention AC/DC because they’re also Australian, but the timbre of Marcus Gordon’s voice is on a similar register as Bon Scott, yet it’s a bit more nasally. They also both seem to enjoy singing about guns and blood. But SPOOKYLAND are no mere rock revivalists, there’s also some cool atmospheric overtones courtesy of Liam Gordon, the singer’s younger brother.
It’s hard to describe Girlpool, an L.A.-based guitar and bass duo without using the word “whine,” but this is one of the first times we’ve enjoyed whining! File this group in the twee pop category next to cult groups like Beat Happening and memories of your 4-year-old sister singing lullabies.
This music should piss me off. When I describe it, it'll sound pretentious — four dudes playing spacious, wailing vocal effected music that's likely in a difficult time signature — but the resulting sound is captivating and often eerie. It would have been perfect music for a druggy climax in a "Miami Vice" episode.It's less in-your-face than Captain Beefheart or U.S. Maple, so maybe with Adult Jazz, we've reached the age of accessible skronk.
French Style Furs
French Style Furs’ set at Fontana’s on Thursday night was a definite highlight. Attendance at the downstairs club was relatively sparse, which is surprising, given that the band features Cold War Kids kids Nathan Willett and Matt Maust alongsideNathan Warkentin of We Barbarians and a group of grooving auxiliary members, including a percussionist, a female vocalist and a horn section. If the people in the audience knew that the songs were inspired by a Trappist monk’s poetry, that had no effect on how much dancing they did.