Like any music conference/festival, New York’s CMJ Music Marathon is a strange, unwieldy beast; like trying to wrestle the Marshmallow Man while drinking too much and giving yourself tinnitus… just, y’know, in New York. With over 1,300 bands across 80-odd venues, similar to SXSW a lot of your time is spent speed-walking from venue to venue, deciding at the last minute which bands you can stand to miss because the band you’ve just stumbled across have made you unexpectedly fall in love with them, only it’s through the backstreets of Brooklyn and dodging panhandlers and guys with designer beards in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Three thoughts apply in such situations:
a) Never trust bands in fancy shoes
b) Guitarist wearing a fedora? Leave right away
c) Be wary of complicated haircuts
With that in mind, CMJ was a blurry, boozy, bandy blast. And, shying away from some of the big obvious names (also, sorry, Courtney Barnett and King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, but we’ve all seen you guys recently) here are 10 acts who we’re going to give some arbitrary CMJ awards.
Award For Having A Healthy Appreciation For Australian Psychedelia: Sunflower Bean
A trio of precocious young talents with a helluva handle on how to deliver grungey psyche-pop. Adding to their coolness? While intro-ing ‘Tame Impala’, they changed its name to ‘King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’, revealing their love for antipodean psychedelia. Singer/bassist Julia Cumming is also a model, while guitarist Nick Kivien has a suitably impressive ‘fro, but their songs kick more arse than arse kicking machine set to 11, and in less than 12 months Sunflower Bean have gone from ‘aww, that’s cute!’ to a must-see.
Best Band To Prove That Not All Pun Band Names Suck: Purling Hiss
A fuzzed-out garage pop cacophony, Phillie’s Purling Hiss are often more brutal than a Barry Hall haymaker, but they possess a melodic bent that’s pure Barry Manilow. Well, maybe not ‘pure’ Manilow, but it’s damn pretty nonetheless. Sure, ‘Mercury Retrograde’ and ‘Learning Slowly’ being delivered at Cake Shop to a crowd of mop-haired banging heads might not be your mum clapping along to ‘Mandy’, but it’s better than a punch in the dick. So, look. Just see Mike Polizze and his buddies already.
Award for Most Likely To Be Called ‘The Future Of Australian Music’ Way Too Often: Tkay Maidza
One of the best moments of Sound Australia’s Aussie BBQ at The Delancey was Adelaide phenom Tkay Maidza not just spurring on dancefloor madness with the gut-churningly excellent ‘Handle My Ego’ and ‘U-Huh’… but then getting the grinning crowd to stomp like a Brontosaurus for ‘Brontosaurus’. Never mind the palaeontology nomenclature misnomer of the title — which I spent a later cab ride explaining to a buddy — Tkay Maidza announced herself in a huge way to a crowd not entirely familiar with her brilliant mix of rapidfire rap, discombobulated dubstep-cum-baile-electro-funk and piercing hip-hop. You can have your Iggy Azalea and Azealia Banks; Tkay Maidza is the bomb.
Most Unassuming Band Ever Award: Protomartyr
We’ve all got a world weary, grumpy buddy, right? But then when you’re out, from nowhere suddenly you spy a spark in his eyes and you know the night could end up with you both drunk and in Iceland, not knowing how you got there. Protomartyr are that mate; skeptical, sounding beaten down by life, but still hopeful. The Detroit band — who turned Knitting Factory and Cake Shop upside down — are where the morose verbiage of Interpol runs headlong into the raw power of the Stooges and the moodiness of Echo & the Bunnymen; their Under Color of Official Right album is one of the best of 2014, and you need to know about them right now.
Best Tracksuits Award: DMA’s
While it was cool that three of the bands at CMJ that inspired the most gushing praise and anticipation were Australian, each of Courtney Barnett, DMAs and King Gizzard & Lizard Wizard lived up to the billing. DMAs in particular decided to casually dunk the Aussie BBQ headlong into a wave of tracksuits, Lacoste and bucket hats, holding the crowd’s heads under a wave of indie nostalgia mixed with an almost arrogant disdain for coolness… and it was great. Their particular no-aesthetic aesthetic adds an air of geezer danger to their meaty slabs of Britpop; you don’t know what could happen at any moment, there could be an arms-around-each-other singalong, or an invitation to go outside. Which is fucking terrific.
Outstanding Achievement in the Field Of Excellence… And Cool Slacker Pop: Boytoy
The twin vocals and guitars of Saara Untracht-Oakner and Glenn Van Dyke put you in a headlock from the word go… the kind of headlock that you’re not certain is friendly or serious. The Brooklyn band excel at punchy guitar pop doused in slacker ‘90s guitar rock, and, given the dual-vocal-dual-guitars-no-bass treatment, it’s grimy as fuck but alluring as hell, like hurried sex in the back of Datsun 180Y.
The ‘High School Band… But Awesome’ Award: Dances
Three months ago at 1.21 Gigawatts fest, Dances seemed raw and a bit undercooked; their garage nerd chic feeling more high school throwback than anything substantially. Fast forward to CMJ though and the Brooklyn three-piece revealed their true guise, a mind-shredding riff-monster of epic proportions. By turns slinkily indie and ball-burstingly riotous, they’re more fun than a staring competition with Matt Le Blanc. Which, I dunno, I assume would be fun. Especially if you got him to say dumb Joey things. Anyway. ‘Doc Youth’ is ridiculously ace. Dances rule.
Best Band we’ve Ever Seen From Cincinnati* (*Not called The National): Tweens
Tweens mix of bratty punk and bubblegum pop is as infectious as *don’tsayeboladon’tsayebola* pink eye and more fun than farting on your housemate’s pillow. Singer Bridget Battle’s voice swings between sweet and snarling as good as anyone since Be Your Own Pet, and with it comes a cascading mix of slamming, fuzzed-out guitars and pop hooks that are equally a ‘90s throwback and a slap to the face of nostalgia. Anyone who thought Fastbacks were amazing will love them, and seeing Tweens twice at CMJ was a decision on par with Luke’s to trust Obi-Wan’s voice while in the Death Star trench.
Award for Hairiest Gig Attendees: Single Mothers
So… three things about Single Mothers. First: singer Drew Thomson has spent years being a gold prospector. An actual, goddamn gold prospector. Secondly: it was in a town called Swastika, in Ontario, Canada. Yep. Swastika. If you thought ‘Orange’ was a stupid name for a town, well, Canada’s got you beat, pal. Anyway. Three: Single Mothers’ purvey happens to be hairy young men with angst to burn and believe that shouty proto punk-rock is the best way to disseminate any emotions they may have had in their feels spots. i.e. anything and everything I personally have ever wanted or needed from a band. To say I love Single Mothers is to say that Shane Warne struggles with the concept of subtlety. Their lyrics are more toxic than the relationship between Essendon and James Hird, Thomson’s vocals sound like he’s got a chilli flake stuck in the eye of his penis, and with riffs heavier than the heart of a teenage girl that Taylor Swift ‘really speaks to’, they’re your new favourite band. Especially if you think The Bronx aren’t heavy enough any more.
Best Band Who Might Actually Be Wizards: Bo Ningen
It’s well documented how intense and mind-melting Bo Ningen are; but if you’ve witnessed one of their live shows — which is simply wave after wave of hair, riffage and psychedelia — you can’t forget just how cell-alteringly amazing they are. And, after a show at Baby’s All Right, and after singer/bassist/grand wizard Taigen Kawabe spent most of the band’s final song in the audience throwing mystical shapes, the crowd were dumbstruck silent for a long two-mississippi count while their brain-pans rearranged themselves back to a conscious plane… then everybody screamed and yelled for more. They’re where The Mars Volta meet Black Sabbath in the form of four Japanese guys wearing long flowing robes and their mission is to liquify human brains. Mission accomplished.
Honourable Mentions: Fat White Family, Bad//Dreems, DIIV, Honduras, Total Slacker, Me, Mainland, The Delta Riggs, Weird Womb, Las Rabas… and, like, everybody else ever.