The CMJ Music Marathon has been discussed for years as a struggling entity, despite its holding on as the East Coast's closest rival to Austin's SXSW for a couple decades. Struggling to lure names as big as they once did, yeah, but also struggling to survive at all. So, it was more than a touch ominous when yesterday's first-day launch coincided with this New York Times article, suggesting trouble much deeper than blogger sarcasm. Long story short, the suit alleges that CMJ might owe a cool million dollars to Metropolitan Entertainment, a promoter they brought on in the late 00s to alleviate debt. According to Metropolitan's John Scher, the merger fell through but the debt payments remain unreturned. Soooooo, that could be a problem! But that has little to do with a 2013 festival that's already underway.
There are 1400 bands playing the city in every room possible, every day from mid-afternoon to early the next morning, right now. We'll be out there too, catching the small sliver we can manage, and reporting back here. Last night was pretty good!
Detroit pop weirdos Jamaican Queens, who we've recommended to you like a billion times at this point, have been working hard this year. They take every Brooklyn gig they can manage, and go on endless mini-jaunts to all points in between to support their great debut album, Wormfood. On CMJ night one, they had a sparsely attended opening spot at Death by Audio (not actually an official CMJ gig, it turns out, but better than other Williamsburg options for their time slot). They've played these songs a lot, and at least last night they seemed a little unhinged inside them. Louder than you think, always, with mania at every edge. But for all their weird synth flares and flirtation with could-be annoying affect, they are essentially a well-composed glam-pop band. I'm not really sure basement shows are really the best way to see them? A chance for bigger rooms, better sound systems would probably suit them. But still, a song as good as "Water" is just never going to sound too bad.
The tail end of Empress Of's set suggested that Brooklyn's Lorely Rodriguez is probably going to do quite well in the enduringly popular Chvrches/Grimes mode of slightly skewed synth-based pop. It was as high energy and adamant as dreamy 80s music can get, even if she and her backing duo seemed a little small for the Music Hall of Williamsburg stage. Kelela, a young Los Angeleno R&B singer, seemed like she was made for it. She's been getting high praise recently for the release of her new mixtape, Cut 4 Me, which filters 90s pop influences through a more modern, more minimal aesthetic. It's a pretty common sound at the moment, but few young artists deliver it with Kelela's force. She seemed nervous, but thrilled, to be playing to a large crowd that's already familiar with her work. When she got to a song as forceful as "Enemy" (embedded below for y'all) she had the air a breakout star in wait. It might happen in as soon as Saturday when she plays the Pitchfork show at 285 Kent, actually.
Every year a new band, usually one from overseas who New Yorkers haven't had a chance to get cozy with yet, is declared the "winner" of CMJ. It's silly, and to the point that it isn't already predetermined by publications and publicity concerns, it's really arbitrary. That said, Wales band Joanna Gruesome is probably going to win CMJ.
They were preceded at the Force Field PR showcase last night by The History of Apple Pie, a weirdly named British band who played alternative guitar rock of varying shades. They had two female singers, who sounded better when bouncing off each other than singing solo, and a baby Jonny Greenwood who spent the set furiously ripping odd tones and bent riffs from his guitar. The sound mix was a little weird to my ears, never totally gelling. Worth a pop in if you find yourself in their vicinity, though.
J. Gruesome, who play roughly one billion shows this week, played their first ever U.S. show at around 1 A.M. at a venue called Ran Tea House. It's an actual tea house and sometimes event space on the same stretch of Kent Avenue as Glasslands and 285. Gruesome are an indie-pop band, melodic first and foremost, who've got noise and chaos always lurking nearby. Again, that might seem a pretty commonly attempted sound, but energy and emphasis are crucial. The band's guitarist played from the floor, creating his own little punk bubble. Singer Alanna McArdle has the crush-worthy coo that mid-80s mix-tapes were made for, but is maybe even better with her voice raised to a punk shriek. From cuddle to bludgeon in no time at all.