Now that the haze of the 34th annual CMJ Music Marathon has cleared, we can stop shuffling from venue to venue and digest all that indie music we binged on for a week straight. Showcasing a total of 1,400 bands over the course of 5 days, it’s inevitable that some will be sonically regrettable, some will be aggressively “meh,” and others will deliver the heart-pounding, revelatory performances we all hoped we would see. Though we are mere mortals who admittedly could not attend every single showcase, here are our favorite ten picks of the week. You’ll thank us in 2015.
Mannequin Pussy’s Marisa Dabice took the stage at Oh My Rockness’ Tuesday night showcase at Cameo Gallery wearing a bathrobe (or at least a coat that looked like a bathrobe). It was a fittingly debauched garment for someone playing such degenerate music, as was guitarist Thanasi Paul’s creepstache, which made him look like a weird uncle. In fact, everything about Mannequin Pussy’s grungy bubblegum punk has a definite weird uncle vibe. Their prettiest song is called “Meatslave 2.” Dabice screams like she’s been scalded, and when she steps back from the mic, she flashes a Kubrickian hollow stare over the audience. It’s chilling. Their CMJ set was tight and banter-free, and closed with a sick cover of “Do You Love Me?”
Bands at CMJ don’t have the time or budget for stagecraft, so showmanship is pretty much limited to what they can express through their personality. Teen Men is fortunate enough to have an abundance of peculiarity and a flair for performance. Each of the Wilmington, Delaware’s songs has a corresponding visual projected on a screen behind the band. One song’s loud-quiet-loud structure is timed to Johnny Mnemonic-era computer animation during the soft verses and footage of explosions on the destructive chorus. The music is spindly indie pop in the tightly-wound vein of Talking Heads or The Shins. Two of the members of Teen Men are members of power pop lifers The Spinto Band and the other two are visual artists, which kind of sums up the whole thing: a power pop art project.
Whether they’re actual teenage girls or just look like them, the Prettiots are very good at performing smart-teen-girl ennui. Lead Prettiot Kay Kasparhauser is a disarmingly direct songwriter, sort of a like a funnier, NYC-native Best Coast. “Most of our songs are about boys, but this one is about a man,” she announced before launching into a love song about Law & Order: SVU’s Elliott Stabler. Goldberg plays a ukulele, that emblem of Manic Pixie Dream Girl-ism, but uses it to accompany lyrics about suicidal depression and cover The Misfits’ “Skulls.” Her sugary harmonies with bassist Lulu Prat underline the darkness of the comedy. Their video for “Boys (I Dated In High School) was directed by underground film OG Richard Kern.
Kate Boy has been buzzing for a while now (their song “Northern Lights” got Best New Track from Pitchfork almost two years ago), but the Stockholm-based pop group has yet to release an album or get a lot of press. Get used to seeing that name, though, because Kate Boy is for real. Singer Kate Akhurst is a star in the making. She’s like the audience’s personal trainer, with her soaring melodies, motivational lyrics (“free yourself, don’t anybody take control”), and yoga instructor’s body underneath her uniform. Kate Boy has it all: a cool street goth look, Swedish pop songcraft, layered percussion, and a deal with IAMSOUND, the label that launched Florence + the Machine and Charli XCX. Of all the bands we saw at CMJ, Kate Boy is the one most likely to have a big 2015.
Most bands trying to do the whole ’60s psych pop revival will lean on rote tricks like lo-fi vocals, organ-infused jams, and sunshine-dripping lyrics, but the Paperhead’s crisp, focused tones make the nostalgia grab somehow seem fresh (but, yes, there’s still plenty of organ.) The Nashville-based quartet take their psych seriously, too — halfway through their set at Union Pool, guitarist Ryan Jennings pauses the head-bopping to borrow a guitar from another showcaser in the crowd as his has been knocked out of tune. Seamlessly, the band returned to their hoppy blend of acid-country-pop with coming-of-age tunes like “Africa” that conjure the sugary dandyism of early Pink Floyd with Who’s Next-era riffs. Stepping on stage in unassuming clothes complemented by a “New York’s so cool” graciousness, the Paperhead grooved the crowd gently in front of a loop of psychedelic film clips that gave it all a graduate-level stoner vibe.
Imagine if the witches from Macbeth’s cauldron were bubbling up a delicious soup to share with their friends. That’s September Girls, a cool coven from Dublin that plays distorted garage pop that’s equally groovy and spooky. All four girls in the front trade singing and songwriting duties, with no-nonsense drummer Jessie (they don’t do last names) laying down a solid foundation for walls of shimmering guitars, trippy organ, and siren song harmonies. They’re Velvet Underground-level cool, but they’re Irish, so they’re very self-effacing and charming about it.
East London-based Splashh are a hodgepodge of ambient garage pop that came before it, borrowing former Pineapple Head, Colours, and INTL members for their lineup. With anthemic synth sounds, distorted vocals, and heart-stopping drums, Splashh delivers that same breathless joy-ride instinct that MGMT gave you six years ago. Singer Sasha Frantz Carlson, sporting a Jesus and Mary Chain t-shirt, led a legion of swayers in the crowd with the frantic shakes of his tambourine. It will be hard to dodge some Oasis comparisons for some of their earlier tunes, but just watch their sleepy, nostalgic music video for their new track “Colour It In” and you’ll see Splashh is way closer to Andy Bell than the Gallaghers.
Brisbane, Australia’s answer to James Blake is a muscular young man named Danny Harley, a romantic electronic singer-songwriter. His music feels like it’s for people who met at the club, but now that they’ve devoted to each other, they stay home in their tasteful condo and listen to the Kite String Tangle. He’s a talented singer, percussionist, sample-chopper, and shirt-wearer. He’s savvy, too; his cover of Lorde’s “Tennis Court” was enthusiastically received by the crowd at Glasslands.
A band that has not received nearly as much press as it should, She Keeps Bees have been championed by buzzed-about chanteuse Sharon van Etten — and for good reason. Brooklyn-based duo Jessica Larrabee and Andy LaPlant have self-recorded and released music from their home since 2006. Their DIY beginnings barely shine through, though, as Larrabee’s thrilling moans seem more at home in a dimly-lit club than a homemade EP. She Keeps Bees is like a haunting and highly combustible combination of Cat Power, Jefferson Airplane, and Nina Simone tracks — warm with soul and conviction. Best of all: in between the slinking-off-your-clothes grooves was Larrabee’s wildly entertaining and humble banter. “I smell like warm wool right now,” she announced into the mic. “I normally smell like tacos. I don’t know which one is better.”
If a band is going to do 80s revivalism in 2014, they better be committed to it beyond mere fashion. Berlin’s Ballet School has the fashion (guitarist Michel Collet took the stage dressed like a Dracula scarecrow, in an enormous trenchcoat and big black floppy hat), but they also make painstaking recreations of monochromatic New Romantic pop. Collet’s playing has to be seen to be believed, because his guitar sounds like a synth. It’s unrecognizable as a guitar, but the fact that it is gives Ballet School’s show a vibrant energy that a synth wouldn’t transmit. Irish chanteuse Rosie Blair has serious pipes, like a goth Mariah Carey. Nicholas Winding Refn should hire them to do the score for Drive 2.