For better or for worse, the prevailing attitude at this year’s CMJ Music Marathon seemed to be “excited and stressed, but less excited and stressed than last year.” Maybe it was because this year’s festival was overshadowed by the hefty lawsuit slapped on its parent company, or the fact that SXSW saw fit to announce its initial lineup during the same week. The entire music industry might have just been saving energy to focus on whatever Arcade Fire does next.
The lukewarm build-up inevitably carried over into the buzzband frenzy itself. For example, the UK culture embassy’s Music Is Great initiative is typically reliable, but at this year’s showcase, only rockers Duologue had the kind of spark necessary to grab attention during the marathon. (The lack of diversity on display might be a strong argument for sponsor Ben Sherman to start making womenswear again, too.) That night aside, there were still plenty of acts who could stand out in the whirlwind.
The Darcys – “The River”
It’s been a good year for Toronto artists, and indie rockers the Darcys are helping make that happen. They took on the unenviable task of following Zeus’ powerful set at their shared label Arts and Crafts’ showcase and managed to keep the energy levels high. Packed with sharp harmonies, the quartet’s new album Warring will please people who were underwhelmed by Local Natives’ sophomore effort, but packs a punch that’s distinctly the Darcys’ own.
Hookworms – “Away / Towards”
Indie rock’s psychedelic revival is steadily growing, and Hookworms are part of the trend’s British boom. At the FADER Fort, the band spoke little and let the relentless wall of sound do the talking. Their attention-getting 60s influences get fused with post-punk drive, and the effect is mind-numbing in all the right ways.
Thomas Azier – “Ghostcity”
Born in the Netherlands, based in Berlin, beloved by France: Thomas Azier is distinctly European, but was more than ready to make his American debut. The singer/producer’s songs come wrapped in black velvet and are made for nights that last just a little too long, and latest single “Ghostcity” is no exception. Azier may have regretted the absence of his backing band as he played his first-ever show in the US, but he held up just fine on his own.
Shine 2009 – “Eurozone”
You don’t hear of much coming out of Finland, but that may be about to change thanks to Shine 2009, who spent last week celebrating the release of second album Our Nation. With songs like “Eurozone” and “Suomen Sydän,” the duo is aware of its outside status, but knows it’s best paired with undeniable pop hooks. The band charmed its way through its set at the Cascine showcase, making for a strong midpoint to the festival.
holychild – “Happy With Me”
Synth-pop has no shortage of relatable frontwomen, but holychild’s Liz Niztico is a welcome addition to the fold. Whether she’s crushing hard or subtly subverting gender roles, she sounds like your new BFF. Producer Louie Diller is the other half of the duo, and the two make sunkissed SoCal jams that are prime for partying or just dancing alone in your bedroom.
Ah, the CMJ Music Marathon. Ahead of the circus of buzzbands, open bars, and impractical swag that took over NYC last week, I made a list of goals for myself that included things like “no puking,” “no crying,” and “no professions of love or hate.” (I like planning on having dramatic public meltdowns so that I Murphy’s Law my way out of them actually happening.) I’m proud to announce that I did not do any of these things, despite the stress induced by three different good bands playing at the same time in far-flung locations and having only consumed caffeinated beverages all day (#musicbloggerproblems). In between hating Pianos and mourning the closure of Brooklyn DIY venue Delinquency, I saw everything from Philadelphia rockers Free Energy to British YouTube comedians the Midnight Beast.
Five days spent away from being hunched over my laptop and interacting with the music industry in real life meant putting a microscope on what it is, exactly, that I do. I finally met a band that I’ve written about after seeing them for the fifth time in three months, and one of them said that he was aware of me “as an internet presence.” Several days later, I still have absolutely no idea of what this means, but if I’m memorable on the internet, that theoretically means I have some distinct viability as a blogger, right? For both of our sakes, let’s hope so.
In meeting so many new people, there’s also the pressure to qualify what you like and why you like it. I’ve taken to boiling my taste down to “French dance music and internet rappers,” though obviously I listen to music that goes beyond that. I’m trying to pin down why I’m so excited about Team Spirit when I thought my garage rock phase ended years ago; they have a higher production value and stronger pop sensibilities than some of their peers, and nothing can replace genuine good energy. That being said, it was also a pleasure to catch Gallic electro-poppers like Yan Wagner, Owlle, and Housse de Racket.
Other highlights included Citizens!, Avan Lava, We Were Evergreen, Conveyor, and the amount of grievously unhealthy food that I justified consuming. Gold Fields must be a very special band, because I stayed conscious for their 2:30 a.m. set on the last night of the festival. As much fun as CMJ is, it’s also pretty exhausting, so I’m going to keep working on recovering.
Anyways, here’s to the pursuit of vibes. Maybe you’ll catch me vomiting on Ludlow Street next year.
Miscellaneous other notes:
– Why did so many people ask me if I saw Skaters? (I wasn’t able to, though they were one of my picks for the week.) – I also did not see Foxygen, one of the more hotly tipped acts of the festival. Based on their name, I’m going to keep assuming that they’re sort of glam rock and wear a lot of neon. – Seeing Le1f at The Westway while it was packed with drunk bros was the second most uncomfortable I have ever been at a rap show. – If someone figures out how I can join Icona Pop if I’m not Swedish and can’t sing, please let me know. – Spotted so many dudes with great eyebrows. Keep up the good work, boys!
No one came to see Chemical Monkeys. Not that that there wasn’t anyone in the audience during the set of the Taiwanese trio, who sound like an earnest early ’00s pop rock act—picture, for example, a particularly turgid Linkin Park song sung in Mandarin—but that as their time on stage wore on, it became clear that no one was here specifically to see them. Friends chatted, drinks were ordered, and the small, glowing tubes and tiny pitchforks which everyone in the audience but me seemed to have been informed to buy via secret message—the garbage can just outside the venue was full of their bulbous cardboard and plastic packaging—stayed listlessly by everyone’s side.
No wonder their songs were so dour. There they were, one of three bands handpicked by their own government, flown around the world to New York City, to play a packed concert to a crowd of largely their own countrymen, people who should already be well aware of who they were, and they’re greeted with indifference. The other two groups were more fortunate. 831, five fresh-faced young men with boy-in-the-cubicle-next-door good looks whom it’s tempting to call a boy band, but who were described as an “Alternative Rock band” by the pink, teardrop-shaped fans handed out by perky volunteers standing near the venue’s entrance. The fans, a marvel of full-color printing, featured pictures and descriptions of each band (apparently, I’d missed that Chemical Monkeys’ songs “center[ed] on themes of Love, Peach, Strength & Friendship”). Finally, there was Da Mouth, whose name is something of a semi-intentional trans-language pun, “da” also meaning “big” in Mandarin (“Big Mouth,” “Da Mouth”—both good). These bands, and hundreds of their fans, packed into Union Square Ballroom toward the beginning of CMJ. It was one of the week’s stranger events.
First off, there was the venue. Despite spending nearly a decade attending shows in New York, I’d never been to or heard of it before. Its low ceilings and blue lights seemed more suited to a wedding reception than a pop spectacle. This turned out to be the case: the sound cut out several times while bands were on stage, and the sound mix was often wildly off, the instruments far too loud and the vocals far too soft.
Then there was the broader context. Why had these bands traveled the nearly 8,000 miles from Taiwan to New York? To conquer America? Ever since Korean artist Psy horsey-danced his way to having one of the world’s most-watched YouTube videos, America has been having something of an Asian pop moment. So, in a way, there could not be a better moment for pop groups from another small democratic, capitalist Asian nation to attempt to break into America. While the room may have been full (with a line to get in stretching around the block), it was full of Taiwanese and Chinese ex-pats, excitedly murmuring in Mandarin. The people who organized the show must have been expecting this, as they had raffles and quizzes in between acts entirely in Mandarin, making the entire evening basically impossible to access for anyone who didn’t speak the language. It was more than a little bewildering—why fly halfway around the world to play for your home crowd?
Perhaps, at least in part, to hold firm the wall that keeps K-Pop acts away from Mandarin-speaking audiences. Taiwanese music is largely sung in Mandarin, the officially encouraged language throughout much of Southeast Asia. Mandarin music (or “Mandopop”) is made, marketed, and wildly popular all over Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and, since the late 1980s, Mainland China. And K-Pop is gunning for its devotees.
Mandopop has more than a few advantages. Its bands don’t have to deal with the rigid strictures of dance, appearance, and general clean living imposed by K-Pop’s overlords, dubbed “cultural technology.” For all their playfulness, many K-Pop bands can often seem painfully stifled. Taiwanese acts, on the other hand, seem to be having a good time—flipping their hair, breakdancing, jumping around. A recent video from 831, for example, features dancers with their faces painted like Heath Ledger’s Joker, or wearing stormtrooper helmets. It’s not exactly Black Flag, but it’s pretty out there compared to the rows of identical girls and boys that make up most pop idol groups from Korea.
Da Mouth are also fun and fancy free in contrast with Korea’s bands of musical replicants. The group’s two-girls-one-guy lineup led the showcase’s organizers to call them “the Taiwanese Black Eyed Peas,” although their relentlessly thumping over-the-top dance sound, as in their song “Are You Afraid,” puts them more in line with modern Rihanna or Ke$ha, fellows in the extremely popular genre of “anonymous people shouting over dance beats.” They also know how to put on a show. They were dazzling to look at (one member wore his hair bleached a kind of straw yellow, styled straight up in the air, and held in place by a crown), and soldered on, unaffected, through some sound hiccups.
831 make some of my favorite videos, but they were more flummoxed by their sound problems. The band seemed disoriented for much of their time on stage, and kept saying they couldn’t hear themselves sing over their overly loud guitars. We in the audience couldn’t, either.
Judging from Seabrook’s description, K-Pop acts know how to put on a dazzling live show. This may be the only place they have Mandopop beat, as two of three bands were lackluster. Luckily, live performance might be the least important element of 21st Century multimedia pop stardom. Mandopop devotees have a little breathing room. Taiwan should feel free to stop flying its acts all over the globe, and just let them make some more fun videos.
I have a fun little tradition whenever CMJ rolls around: skipping CMJ entirely. Who needs to see that many up-and-comers striving to impress bloggers and record label reps? I even got an invitation to go interview a DJ as though that were some huge get for me and not a desperate appeal for any kind of press whatsoever. (You should hear how mad these people get when you tell them you’ll do a write-up for $20.) But all that aside, the thing about CMJ is it’s full of bands with eye-wateringly bad names. Which means the truly excellent ones stand out. Here are those actual groups and performers I perhaps could have brought myself to watch:
Chance The Rapper
Osekre and The Lucky Bastards
The Living Kills
The Ugly Club
We Can’t Enjoy Ourselves
You Bred Raptors?
Anyway: better luck next time, bands with “Young,” “Bear,” “American,” “Ghost” or “Beach” in your name! You all sort of blurred together.
Get ready to cheer on Rah Rah, the folk-rockers from the prairies of Regina, Saskatchewan. On their new album The Poet’s Dead, out now digitally on Hidden Pony, it’s clear that they’re a band that knows what it’s doing, delivering tight performances with plenty of personality. It’s music that speaks to wide-open spaces, jubilantly delivered and unafraid of getting expansive. Opening track “Art & A Wife” evokes a rowdy country jam session, while “20s” gets introspective. There’s energy and character to spare.
Ahead of the Canadians’ trip to New York for CMJ, I talked to the very polite multi-instrumentalist Erin Passmore about her hometown, touring, and being a “Prairie Girl.”
You don’t hear of much coming out of Saskatchewan. How does emerging from a smaller scene impact how you approach things?
There’s good and bad to it. Coming out of Regina, I think we get a head start, there’s not a whole lot coming out of it. We have a pretty tightly knit music community, which is obviously a lot smaller than you’d have in a big city. Through that, we support each other. When we’re making our way outside of the province and such, we do our best to promote each other. So if we came out of Toronto, I think it would be more difficult, because there are so many musical people to make a name for yourself. It’s probably more challenging.
Who are some other local acts from your scene you’d like to recommend? Jeanette Stewart, she’s got a pretty unique style. It’s a little bit grunge, a little bit singer-songwriter, but she can wail. There’s Julia and Her Piano out of Regina; she’s a pal of mine. She’s got an interesting style, and she’s incredible at piano. We’re kind of seeing this influx of harder bands, too. My sister-in-law is starting this sort of ’90s-inspired two-piece called The Spoils. It’s just really neat; there’s anything you could imagine. You just gotta look for it.
You’re all coming down to New York for CMJ. What are you most looking forward to? Just being back in the city. We were at CMJ last year, and it was incredible. The city is obviously ridiculous and amazing, but CMJ itself felt like a sort of homecoming because all of our management is there. It just felt like a really nice sort of family party, but in an awesome bar with really cool New Yorkers. It’s kind of neat being from a small town and coming in to see the big city.
It’s about finding your place, even in a totally different environment? Yeah, I think we’re pretty good at that now. We’ve been touring for so long, and I think we’re pretty good at finding a place for ourselves within our own little community. We’re basically like a family when we’re on the road, so it’s pretty easy to feel comfortable wherever you are. It’s a little bit of a nomadic life; you don’t really have your basic creature comforts. The van becomes your traveling home.
Your music has this sort of innately homey feel to it, too. Yeah, I totally agree with that.
Do you think that comes with just being the sort of person who can bring that feeling out? Over the past couple of years, we’ve just been experiencing what it’s like to go back and forth from home. I think through that we’ve really been able to analyze what that means for relationships and our hometown identity as we’re coming into these big cities. It helps you compare where we go and where we’re coming from. That inspires me in my songwriting, because you get this automatic outside perspective. Then you come home and it’s like, "Oh, right, things are completely different or completely the same here." Nothing’s changed.
How else would you describe Rah Rah? I think we do have that sort of prairie identity, that’s at the forefront of my mind. In Marshall’s and Kristina’s songs, we all sort of touched on that prairie storytelling: talking about where you come from and where your family comes from and where you are now. My songs have a lot to do with the disconnect that comes when you’re away from home a lot and the good and the bad that comes with that. The good perspective that you get, and you almost feel like an outcast when you come home because either things are all too familiar, like nothing’s changed, or nothing’s familiar anymore and you don’t really have that sense of home. At least that’s what I’ve been exploring in my songwriting. I think that a lot of the songs on this record are about what happens when you travel, what happens when you devote yourself to something that seems a little insane and [being] willing to ride that out and just experience it in the present and not get too caught up in the what-ifs.
Can you talk a little more about the prairie identity? Where we come from is not the smallest town, but in our own sort of community, around downtown Regina, pretty much everyone will know your business. It’s got that kind of small town aspect to it. From the prairie perspective, it’s less big city; it’s more finding peace in your surroundings. Which is interesting, because there’s not really any surroundings, it’s all just flat and you can see land forever. There are no huge buildings, there’s not a ton of people. The population is growing, but not on the same scale as a big city. As for the prairie identity, it’s this sort of relaxed way of being, I think. It’s a feeling like there are more important things than stressing yourself out as far as work or having to get someplace [goes].
What’s your favorite song that you’ve written? I really like where "Prairie Girl" ended up. That song started out as a sad little folksy country song, and now it’s got these old school pop elements to it. That’s probably the most thematically important one for me, because it’s about coming from the prairies and trying to make it in the world. You want to keep that prairie identity, but you also see all the shitty things about it, small town ideals. Trying to grow out of that is a little bit difficult sometimes, unless you get out of the city. I really like where that song ended up, and I think it’s the most honest thing I’ve written in a while. I was a little bit afraid of that, because I didn’t want to offend anyone in my hometown, I don’t want to offend my parents or anyone who really cares for the province. Because I do, too, but it’s more about, how do you change with a community that doesn’t really change? How do you change within a community that’s evolving beyond what you want it to? It’s kind of weird.
Wow, you’re definitely reinforcing the polite Canadian thing here. (Laughs) It’s purely by accident, I swear.
So that was a song where it was particularly exciting to watch it grow and change in the writing process? Yes. It’s been really amazing for me to see how many people identify with it. It’s a little nerve-wracking putting something like that out there and explaining that you’re not 100 percent happy where you are. But seeing everyone that identifies with this—I don’t want to say anthem, but I know a couple of friends of mine totally agree—even people in Ontario, they were singing along to every word at this one festival that we played at. I was like, "That’s so cool! Thank you for understanding!" It’s really cool to see it grow like that.
What can people expect from a Rah Rah show? We’re pretty energetic. We try to basically jump up and down and party onstage and really get the audience engaged. I think that’s one of the best things about our show; we love when people get into it and dance and we love interacting with them. We’ve got certain stage props; sometimes we have piñatas or balloons. We try to just amp it up a little bit, because we know that shows can get tedious. We try to go beyond that and make it really exciting.
It’s that time of year, when the music industry flocks to New York City for the CMJ Music Marathon. (It’s definitely not a sprint.) If you’re in town for the week, here’s a selection of acts to check out. Pace yourself.
Slam Donahue – “I Turn On”
A couple of Brooklyn everydudes put honest, relatable lyrics in weird pop contexts. It’ll make you feel better.
Avan Lava – “It’s Never Over”
These masters of futuristic funk put on an unforgettable show. Everything’s better with confetti cannons.
Le1f – “Yup”
Still going strong from the success of “Wut” this summer, the New York rapper has been continuing his upward trajectory on a tour with Das Racist and is set to play a number of high profile showcases this week, including MTV Hive’s and Pitchfork’s events. This song contains the line “The fabric of my life is a sexy fucking textile.”
Team Spirit – “Teenage Love”
Team Spirit, led by former Passion Pit keyboardist-turned-garage rocker Ayad Al Adhamy, just signed to Vice Records–in blood. (They’re otherwise not particularly comparable to Joy Division, though.)
Skaters – “Fear Of The Knife”
Skaters’ debut EP Schemers serves up some damn fine lo-fi rock. “Fear Of The Knife” suggests something bigger and brighter, a beach day song that still sounds good in the off season.
Osekre and the Lucky Bastards – “Why Are You Here?”
With an energetic live show, the Afropop outfit has become a fixture on the Brooklyn scene. New single “Why Are You Here?” is catchy and immediately memorable.
We Were Evergreen – “Baby Blue”
This London-via-Paris trio effortlessly charms with plenty of hooks and sweet harmonies. Indie pop doesn’t get much better than this.
Yan Wagner – “Forty Eight Hours”
This Parisian singer/producer punches up new wave influences to make sharp, resonant electro pop delivered with wit and wisdom.
Gold Fields – “Moves”
The rising Australian band makes driving electro-rock that’s set to take them far. The frenetic “Moves” showcases their sound.
Local Natives – “Sun Hands”
You loved this in 2010 and you still love it now, right? The LA indie rockers are back, and hopefully better than ever.