As we approached last week’s CMJ marathon, thought-leading haymakers of all stripes were of a single mind: This year there just wouldn’t be much hay to make. There appeared to be no big story to chase, no overarching trend to memorialize, no barometric cluster of bands to hunt, no clearly identifiable narrative to manufacture. And a funny thing happened as we all set out anyway, for a week dedicated to seeing as many bands in our backyard as possible: We had fun! Imagine. We watched bands without thinking about what it all means in 2012, and let the art communicate its own agenda. Weird right? Naturally, as animals in need of patterns lest our minds disintegrate in the face of pure chaos, we found some themes. (For instance: The top three bands on this list have punk-roots and a violent tenor; also, people wore lots of hats!) But, relieved of any constricting meta-discourse, I wound up finding a high percentage of 50+ bands I saw this past week to be worth my time, and worth reporting back here.
Now, I know that the best part of CMJ having ended for many of you is that your Instagram feeds have resumed their regularly scheduled program of adorable dogs, immaculate sunsets, and fresh-picked CSA vegetables. But for those who haven’t quite had their fill of super-saturated cellphone shots from dank listening rooms just yet, here are ten more, documenting the best best things I saw at #CMJ 2012.
10. Chad Valley @ Pianos (I Guess I’m Floating Party)
On the new Chad Valley album Young Hunger, one-man band Hugo Manuel hooks up with some fantastic collaborators: Twin Shadow, Glasser, Active Child. At Pianos on Thursday, Manuel was in one-man band mode, which, given his production accumen and the size of his voice, is all he ever really needs. (Don’t tell that to the guys who play in his day job, Jonquil, though.) He triggered samples and keyed-up synths like everyone on Ludlow St., but otherwise Chad Valley was a standout amongst a suffocating field of solo knob-tweakers. There’s a chiffon, Balearic current to lots of what Manuel does, but this Brit’s best work recalls the sultry side of home country’s ’80s pop — the sensual new wave balladry built on pristine, soaring vocals and thoughtful electronic production. Young Hunger is out on 10/30 via Cascine. It will fit some people’s bedroom playlists perfectly. Stream the Twin Shadow collabo here to see if it fits yours:
09. Murals @ Pianos (I Guess I’m Floating Party)
Louisville, KY travelers Murals are a Band To Watch and Stereogum40 selection: meaningful designations that don’t necessarily ensure a worthwhile live show. (Trust me I know.) So it was a pleasure to see them translate their shifty, drifting brand of psychedelia live. The five-member crew organically interlocked noodling, warm-toned guitars and pivoted in and out of tricksy tempo-flipping sections with startling alacrity for such otherwise prettily zonked-out material. The list of CMJ’s best incense-pop bands was short: Murals filled it completely.
08. Kirin J Callinan @ Glasslands (Terrible Records Showcase)
The Australian Kirin J Callinan took Glasslands’ stage by himself, which is all he really needed to then take most of the room. Not everyone bit, but then, this was a performance calibrated to polarize. Salient features: a tank top that eventually came off; a semi-circle of effects pedals that looped, reverbed, backmasked, and phased his guitar strangulations; a coiled and awkward theatricality that was self-possessed and vulnerable and totally visceral. Callinan’s voice is tuneful and halting — psychobilly-redolent stuff with an operatic air. Callinan’s persona frames a nervy, curdling yet endearing charisma you can’t take your eyes from and makes you laugh and yet you probably wouldn’t let your young ones near. People won’t like it; the rest will love it. The latter will probably want one of the Kirin J Callinan commemorative towels he pedaled from stage, of which only four existed and could be used for anything you’d like (he began enumerating a substantial list of possibilites). The music was rarely conventional, mostly experimental, like Scott Walker with a thing for stomp boxes and Lux Interior and Nick Cave. He fixed broken guitar strings before his last song, not that any of the preceding material really required unbroken strings; but that last song was his stately b-side “Thighs,” which actually made fine use of all six of them. “Stream “Thighs” now, check out the weirder a-side “W II W” below, and look out for a full-length coming next year via Terrible Records.
Oh also: This Kris Moyes-directed video is worth watching, not at work.
07. Doldrums @ Public Assembly (Brooklyn Vegan Party)
As a going concern, Doldrums is the project of Montreal artist Airick Woodhead. For this past week, at least, Doldrums was a three-piece, with Woodhead joined by someone appearing to be his brother (on various digitalisms and backing vocals), and a drummer bringing acoustic vibration to the project’s ravey, sampledelic backbeats. Lineup stuff out of the way: Doldrums were utterly transfixing. In concert, Woodhead uses a turntable and an arsenal of electronic components to craft ebullient beds of looped and layered polyrhythm, and his versatile head-voice to punctuate it with incantory charm. The trio’s tattered clothing gave them a Lost Boys vibe, which is probably a fair way to characterize their whimsically alternative and precocious take on dance music. You can download their debut EP Empire Sound right here, and the more recent “She Is The Wave” single is an MP3 right now:
6. Hundred Waters @ Pianos (I Guess I’m Floating Party)
Florida’s Hundred Waters nabbed a Stereogum40 slot a few months ago, and after this week, will probably also land on most every list like this one. There’s a progressive approach to the band’s compositional sense — and to be clear, this is a band that doesn’t write songs so much as compose them. The members of Hundred Waters all excel at playing their instruments on a thoroughly refined level, and at knowing when not to play at all. Their arpeggios are classical, their sense of drama and space and volume is post-rock, their time signatures are prog, their delicate and interweaving vocal harmonies are choral. Live their beats were fat, with pockets deep enough to allure the hip-hop heads filtering in and out of whatever room I was watching them in (there were three: Pianos, Public Assembly, Villain). Shout out to the music school they may or may not have gone to; good job, everyone. Hundred Waters’ self-titled LP is out now via OWSLA, and the Thistle EP is yours to stream here:
5. Miguel @ Public Assembly (Brooklyn Vegan Party)
That’s Miguel up there hollering at me y’all. Obviously, this major label R&B Romeo is operating on a wildly different level/plane than the rest of this list, but in essence, that’s what makes him a perfect fit. This year Miguel was on a campaign to recast himself as a prime player in the internet-R&B screenplay starring figures like Frank Ocean and the Weeknd, and as such, this strategic CMJ play at the BrooklynVegan day party was shrewd if calculated. His four-song set was incredibly brief, and perfunctory and businesslike for Miguel I’m sure. But when your business is being a charming swoon-merchant with James Brown moves and an aphrodisiacal tenor, at an indie rock festival dominated by post-pubescent beards and PBR paunches that’ll do just fine. The best way to put it: The room filled an hour early for a set that was shorter than its soundcheck, and all you saw in the crowd afterward were smiles. I.e. Miguel success.
4. Le1f @ Glasslands (Terrible Records Showcase)
Le1f dropped his Dark York mixtape earlier this year (<">download it ASAP), and wound up on this year’s Stereogum40 list as a result, but he’s been turning heads as a producer and an obvious star in the making since 2005. Somehow it wasn’t until this past Tuesday at Glasslands that I saw him live; maybe because it wasn’t until this year that he felt strongly enough about his pure rap skills to put out a full mixtape that focused on his flow while leaving the production entirely to others. Le1f’s warped, murky, obfuscated (and totally compelling) work on Dark York snaps into startling focus live, where his charisma is off the charts. The overall mix is a mix of hip hop trap shit and strong notes from the ball culture underground, with Le1f emanating lithe elegance and oversexed swagger in the movements of his body, bones, flesh, face. Le1f is a star for the post-everything world. Or as a companion put it, “Le1f feels like what’s next.” If there’s a Le1f narrative, that is the logline. Here’s the Dark York standout:
3. METZ @ Knitting Factory (Sub Pop Showcase)
Meet CMJ 2012’s most talked about act. (At least, one of the three most talked-about acts.) What METZ managed this year deserves salute: The Sub Pop trio dialed into the spirit and muscular thrust of post-hardcore’s heyday so completely as to make a familiar sound feel fresh, sheerly by virtue of so perfectly recreating it. METZ’s sets were brutal and sharp, their movements about stage kinetic and crisp, their commitment to their moment so complete to be undeniable. Namecheck your Jesus Lizards and Hüsker Düs (and a hat tip if you can namecheck more than two METZ songs while your’e at it), all totally fine but meaningless enterprises when faced with a band this in command of its craft. METZ knew its lane and reveled in it, and was every bit the must-see everyone said they’d be. Stream the whole self-titled Sub Pop debut now, and grab this one to go:
2. Death Grips @ Villain (Pitchfork Party)
Few bands are as perfect at being themselves as Death Grips are at being Death Grips. They are the Platonic Ideal of themselves. Onstage, as in their noise/rap amalgam, Zach Hill and Stefan Burnett are flawless, striated vessels of an angst and aggression that is both primal and post-technological. You cannot be in the same room as their performance without hating something: the world, your environment, yourself. It is catharsis on some Aristotelian shit. Look at that photo, taken with a cellphone. In those light conditions a cameraphone renders an impressionistic image at best. MC Ride looks like a demon. Death Grips are perfect.
1. Savages @ Glasslands (Stereogum/PopGun Showcase)
It is uncouth to critically lionize a show you threw yourself. But being couth is overrated, or at least not an option in light of the fact that CMJ 2012 belonged to Savages. The band’s first US play came after a pretty, dreamy set from Port St. Willow at Glasslands Wednesday night, which meant the air was supple and primed to be torn by Savages’ knifing post-punk. There are links to PiL, Slits, Wire, in Savages’ genetic strands, and there is a force of nature in the startling presence and intensity of their frontwoman, Jehnny Beth. The set was penetratingly violent, in a more minimal and sparse but equally forceful manor as Death Grips or METZ; Savages brand of violence is equal parts mind and body, slicing a straight line from the cerebral cortex to the solar plexus. To put this performance in context: Dum Dum Girls, by most measures one of CMJ’s biggest bands, ably headlined our show. Afterward, nobody wanted to talk about Dum Dum Girls. Listen to “Husbands” listen to “Flying To Berlin”:
And that’s it. Until next year.