CMJ, for me, is like a little yearly slice of new music heaven. Despite the countless hours of trekking, consistently choosing music over food, and never quite mastering quickly finding my earplugs inside my purse, I love it just as much, if not more, than any year before. At CMJ, I am surrounded by “my people.” First, there are the freshest of bands popping up from the farthest corners of the globe and some well-established acts that travel very far and play small rooms to be discovered in a place they’ve yet to conquer. Second, a body of industry professionals and super music fans alike who have done hours of pre-festival research to map out an intricate, 5-day schedule worth every hour of constant standing. It becomes hard to count the number of times one is asked, “Who were the best acts you are looking forward to/have seen/can’t say enough about?” But somehow, it never seems cumbersome to answer. A week after the glorious madness concluded, I’ve sorted through the clouded web of “guitar rock,” sampling, sound disasters, and unexpected delights to bring you my favorites (even though you didn’t ask). Enjoy!
I started my festival off with this unassuming duo/group from Melbourne at an early Piano’s set. Their charm is in the atmosphere of sunny nonchalance that built slowly but surely over their short performance. Gentle and drifting ballads for introverts and lazy days, Good Morning’s dreamy, lo-fi sound is just as transportive on stage.
I fell in love with “Desire” a long time ago and have had these Toronto grunge punks on my festival must-see list for awhile. Katie Monks can snarl and howl with the most melodic embodiment of rage I’ve ever heard/seen. Controllably thrashing on a twinkling rooftop in Brooklyn, their set had enormous energy and some endearingly off-kilter banter snuggly tucked in between.
This Perth trio is not the next Tame Impala. They are an air-tight, brilliantly shimmering psychedelic pop outfit that put on a heck of a show all their own. Singer and guitarist Jake Webb’s voice is calm and inviting as it sails above coordinating guitar and basslines that climb and descend with ease. One of a few bands I saw three times, their mystic and cavernous tunes are just as crisply delivered live.
It is hard to forget Weaves once you’ve seen them. Jasmyn Burke’s all-consuming stage presence and unique timbre sets alight the intricate instrumentation that digs a deep irresistible groove into your musical brain. I have probably listened to “Motorcycle” over 50 times since watching Burke’s eyes roll as she simultaneously dismantled her mic stand, interchanged in some noodley improvisation of riffs with the guitarist, and nailed an dazzling version of the song below.
Part scientist, part literary buff, and part teacher, Cosmo Sheldrake is a musical genius whose sampling skills form a fresh modern sound from a plethora of the unexpected. The young musician from the UK and his lively electronic compositions are filled with curiosity and wonder and yet don’t stretch too entirely far away from something you might hear on radio. Sheldrake combines Mongolian throat singing, traditional English folk, some of the over 30 instruments he can play, and the natural sounds of things like the sun, the tearing of meat, and African tribes to form crunchy beats with character and drive. His set downstairs was inspiring in that it allowed listeners to experience music on a deeper level and from a different perspective than they might have otherwise at the rest of the festival. While he has played much larger stages, his intimate set was just as mesmerizing.
I had been waiting for months to see the lovely and talented Miya. Her music has a bewitching quality that is immersive and only stronger live. Like personified emotion, her presence and performance is enrapturing, complete with adorably honest banter. The familiar songs were as powerful as expected and the rest of her newer (or possibly older) material ran the genre gamut in way that only makes me excited for what she will release next.
Sometimes it is best to let your friends guide you – a motto I live by often at these festivals. This Detroit-based percussionist and producer extraordinaire is many steps away from my normal wheelhouse of music. When my friend insisted we not miss his set, I didn’t argue. Surrounded by a tangible haze of perspiration in the deep depth’s of Cameo Gallery with the hundreds of other people that knew this was Shigeto’s only performance at CMJ, it was hard not to get lost in the gentle, ethereal pulse that runs through his signature brand of electronica. The airy sensibilities embedded in his chosen samples give an overall affect of floating inside the bright sonic landscape he creates.
Vaults overcame a continual barrage of sound issues and a 45-minute delay to put on a stellar performance a bold, defined, and dark as their recorded output. Their art-pop has a distinguished majesty that fills any room it’s performed in. They create their music on stage as closely to its original formation process as possible, a rarity for a festival like CMJ and an absolute joy to behold.
This Icelandic act has been around for awhile, evolved in form, and only gotten better. Like most of the people they performed to at CMJ, I largely had no clue what they were saying or even what most of the songs were about. As true performers investing fully in their music, their live shows transcend any need for lyrical comprehension. Writhing and screeching and ripping into guitar parts, MAMMÚT are haunting, brooding showmen (and women) who represent the magic of their homeland well.
Watching Mothers is a full on experience. There is an urgency and a dynamic approach to the complicated songs that they have created. It is intriguing to listen to and watch unfold in organized chaos. Nowadays, there is a whole heaping lot of mediocre indie rock. Mothers soar far above that in an artful collision of dreamy contemplation and bursting spouts of heated emotion.
Another group that has that intangible Australian way with genre-mashing, electronic music, the mysterious duo play such a solid set live. A steady beat flows through their music that is engaging but not invasive. Jazz elements caress the singer’s upper octave bellows and entrancing tambourine skills. The whole thing is seductive, smooth and most importantly promising for the future of Slum Sociable.
To be honest, I saw this showcase from the very, very, very back of a crowded Cake Shop. All I could see was Alex Luciano’s little head bouncing around the whole stage. That, combined with the youthful tenacity and honesty of their music, was enough to make me want to see them every time they come through Philadelphia.
I really think all the best performances leave an impression and I couldn’t stop talking about this one. There is a certain monotony that sets in somewhere around Day 3 of seeing 18 bands a day do something fairly similar. Then, there is Jimmy Whispers: “the greatest bedroom popper in the tri-state area.” He’s actually from Chicago and has made quite the name for himself through his quirky live performances. Surrounded by an equally giggling group of 20 other spectators, I couldn’t get enough of Jimmy’s 25 minute set at Cameo Gallery. He spent a lot of time on the floor, some points singing backstage, and even crowd surfed in an attempt to touch the venue’s signature hanging strings. His bedroom pop is pretty good. But, a set that in ends a group slow dance and swaying hug to the sound of Jimmy singing along to Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” is a beautiful moment I won’t forget any time soon.
See you next year, CMJ!