I'm not exactly sure how we decided that the number of bands included in this feature had to be eight. It’s an arbitrary amount, obviously, which was most likely blurted out about two drinks too far into a misbegotten editorial meeting a few years ago, and, eventually, because of a lack of any other more logically reasoned suggestions, simply became the number we'd stick with.
Now, it's something of a tradition, a feature I look forward to working on every year, and hopefully a feature some of you look forward to reading every year, if only so that you can complain about it among friends. Or, you know, among your anonymous internet friends.
And, about that: We know there are bands in this city other than the eight we chose to write about. We don’t delude ourselves into thinking this feature is exhaustive, or even that it incorporates an example from every single sub-genre of the New York City rock scene. It includes eight bands that have written a bunch of songs we really, really like, and that’s pretty much it, as far as criteria. What I like most about this year’s list is that it presents, I think, a nice sampling of bands that are at slightly different points in their career. You’ve got High Places, the Lisps and Team Robespierre, who have each already embarked on successful national tours or gotten a good amount of media coverage, even outside the city. And then you’ve got bands like La Strada and Famous Amos, who’ve somehow managed to fly pretty much under the radar. Most of the bands will be new to most people, with the noted (and vocal) exception of those of you who are so securely plugged into the fast-paced world of music fandom in 2008. Though, really, we think we’ve got some stuff in here for you folks as well.
The most challenging aspect of putting together this feature, even more so than the actual act of whittling a shortlist of dozens of bands down to eight, is trying to get everyone in one place, on one long, long day, for the photo shoot. In a way, though, it's also become the most rewarding part of the whole thing. For the second year in a row, we set up camp at the Bushwick Country Club, starting at 9:30 in the morning. (Special thanks to Reggie, by the way, the bartender who had yet to go to sleep, and who also served, at various times throughout the day, as stylist, art director and DJ for the shoot.) Bands wearily file in, eat bagels and mostly keep to themselves. Then, by the time noon (or, for nervous music editors, 11am) rolls around, people begin to drink and everyone loosens up, sharing stories about venues, local soundmen and other assorted odds and ends that are indigenous to the New York music scene. It’s a nice thing to see, considering how lonely being in a band in this city can be, how few opportunities there are for commiseration or even celebration.
And it really is a little bit of both: commiseration over the endless challenges of making anything creative work here, in the face of exorbitant rents and dwindling availability of affordable rehearsal spaces, and celebration of the fact that, well, at least they’re here, in New York, trying to figure it out. As much time as I spend writing bitchy blurbs about all the terrible bands that play here every night, I’m secretly still glad they’re around — if only because I know they’re just trying to follow in the footsteps of many of the most talented musicians in the country.
FORMED: “2005 in Sammy and César’s loft in the South Bronx.”
FAVORITE NYC VENUE: “Our favorite venue is Union Hall. Skippy is an angel. We always have so much fun playing there. And they love us, though we might have damaged the ceiling tiles at our last show.”
BEST THING ABOUT BEING IN A BAND IN NYC: “The bar is so high here that it really forces you to be exceptional and then rewards you for it. So many of our friends are becoming successful from just pounding the pavement in New York, pure and simple. There’s not many towns that offer that.”
AND THE WORST: “I don’t think we got paid more than 30 or 40 bucks for a show for a solid year after we started. Being a band in New York can be an expensive endeavor, but it’s still fun as crap.”
I was first drawn to the Lisps because, for the image accompanying the song ‘Chaos’ on their MySpace page, they used the photo from the Guinness Book of World Records of the world’s fattest twins riding motorcycles, which I was banned from my grammar school library for laughing at a gazillion years ago. Meaningless? Possibly. But it’s only the first of about a million things about their sensibility that I find so immediately lovable. They’re a pop band at their core, but they ease their way through the genre’s confining walls with not-so-subtle nods to old-time country and vaudeville. They’re led by once-couple César Alvarez and Sammy Tunis, both sticklers for simple, unforgettable melodies and spot-on call-and-response vocals. They released their debut EP, The Vain, The Modest, and the Dead, back in 2006, and they’ve just released their first full-length, Country Doctor Museum, on which they embrace their further-out tendencies. And they get bonus points for a willingness to don ridiculous costumes in photos. (The frilly blue shirts in the photo above are merely the tip of the iceberg, for reals.)
THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART
FORMED: “Last spring we formed to play at Peggy’s (keyboards) birthday party. It was really, really fun!”
FAVORITE NYC VENUE: “Cake Shop. Great coffee, snacks, and everyone who works there likes the Pastels and Black Tambourine — except Danny, who rages to Yacht Rock and Phillip Glass.”
BEST THING ABOUT BEING IN A BAND IN NYC: “EVERYTHING! New York is 100% awesome in every possible way!”
AND THE WORST: “Nothing! Well, maybe it would be cool if they could extend a subway line to Sweden.”
Whenever anyone asked me to list the eight bands we’d be featuring this year, I’d get to the part where I’d mention The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and pretty much every time, the person I was talking to would roll their eyes or shake their head and say something to the effect of, “Man, they’ve got to be either the best band ever, or absolutely terrible.” And it’s true: they were clearly always going to be mega-emo and stupid, or wonderfully self-aware and remarkably able to laugh at themselves. Fortunately, they are very much the latter, an indie-pop band in the truest scense of the term, cutesy and coy, with an abiding love for all-encompassing distortion and gentle, ever-present feedback. There are comparisons to be made to My Bloody Valentine, but beneath all the droning guitars and keyboards is a distinct type of jangliness that actually calls to mind much of the Teen Beat Records catalog. They’ve been playing around the city since early last year, and they’ve taken their act overseas, too, selling copies of their debut EP, which features five songs that total less than 15 minutes. They’ve also just released a 7” for their song ‘Kurt Cobain’s Cardigan’, the title of which probably says more about the band than I ever could.
FORMED: Summer 2007
FAVORITE NYC VENUE: Cake Shop
BEST THING ABOUT BEING IN A BAND IN NYC: “Small amps and soft cases make transportation easy.”
AND THE WORST: “Dodging parking tickets and insults from irate motorists as you double-park for load-in.”
There is something to be said, we think, for having a very new, very unproven band in your stable of artists to keep a close eye on. You get to chart their progress, and if you get on board early enough, you even start to feel this weird, totally self-righteous kind of pride when they do well. And so for us, taking the place of Bear Hands last year, that band is currently Famous Amos. A three-piece pop band from Brooklyn, they’ve just released their first EP, less than a year after forming, and it features one of our favorite songs of the year. ‘Chickenhawk’ begins with a sludgy, overdriven guitar and an irresistible vocal melody. “Take off those white knee socks, take off your mary-janes,” goads lead singer Jason Amos, before the song speeds up to double-time, the guitars get even louder, and dual vocals kick in. It comes to an abrupt end after about 45 seconds, by which point you’ll already be hooked. Their songs are playful and fun, with outstanding boy/girl harmonies, but they’re also incredibly noisy and endearingly lo-fi, with cymbals crashing everywhere. They’ve played a handful of shows all over the country, including a spot on one of Todd P’s parties at this year’s SXSW, so they’re off to a promising start for sure, and we’re rooting for them to keep it up.
THIS IS IVY LEAGUE
FAVORITE NYC VENUE: Highline Ballroom
BEST THING ABOUT BEING IN A BAND IN NYC: “A lot of the music stores in town have some amazing gear.”
AND THE WORST: “Having to carry it on the train.”
Alright, I’ve got to be honest about this one. When I first heard This Is Ivy League’s song ‘London Bridges’ I thought to myself, “Seriously, I don’t care who these guys are. They could turn out to be dog-killing, racist homophobes, and I’d still include them on this year’s list of eight bands.” It was that good, playing into my love of Simon & Garfunkel, Belle and Sebastian and bossa nova all at the same time, with a melody that I’ve sung to myself probably every day since I heard it. But then I did some research and learned that the band’s two members, Alex Suarez and Ryland Blackinton (!), are also members of Cobra Starship, an emo band you’ve probably seen during the closing credits of your favorite MTV show. This, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit, gave me great pause. Then I listened to a few more of their songs and decided I couldn’t, in good conscience, not include a band this good just because they do this other thing that a bunch of high-school kids love. They just released their self-titled full-length debut, and it’s full of songs that are even better than ‘London Bridges’. With the demanding schedule Cobra Starship is keeping these days, they don’t have a ton of time to dedicate to This Is Ivy League, but that doesn’t mean the record can’t still be the soundtrack to your summer.
FORMED: January 2007
FAVORITE NYC VENUE: Sound Fix
BEST THING ABOUT BEING IN A BAND IN NYC: “The inspiration of being around so much good music and the bustle and feel of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Venues and audiences are great too.”
AND THE WORST: “No forests or wild animals.”
There’s a constant battle going on in indie-rock circles, between proponents of a bare-bones approach, who argue that rock and roll is most appealing in its most stripped-down format, and those who will be limited only by the number of musician friends they can scrape up. You’ve all seen bands of late, with eight or ten people cramped together on a small, crowded stage — such a large group that you instinctively think maybe you’d like to be a part of it too. This is precisely the kind of vibe given off by La Strada — only you’re probably not nearly talented enough to be part of it. Led by singer and accordionist James Craft, the band, which features seven members, makes an awful lot of noise. Accordion, cello, violin, viola, bass, guitars, drums… it’s a lot to take in. They will instantly win over fans of Beirut’s first record, with their similarly indie-influenced take on Balkan folk music, and while it almost seems cheap at this point, those of you who really, really wish there was a new Neutral Milk Hotel record will probably find something here as well. They’re working on a new EP at the moment, on which we assume they will prove once again that tons of people playing relatively quiet instruments can make just as much noise as a few people playing through Marshall half-stacks.
FIRST NYC VENUE PLAYED: “Our first show was on a friend’s warehouse rooftop that summer.”
BEST THING ABOUT BEING IN A BAND IN NYC: “The best thing is getting to play on rooftops!”
AND THE WORST: “The worst is not getting to play on rooftops anymore!”
Among the many micro-scenes always popping up here in the city is the one promoter-extraordinaire Todd P has been carefully constructing for the past couple years. The bands he books at a revolving group of here-today-gone-tomorrow venues typically fall on the noisier side of the spectrum, inspiring lots and lots of dancing and flailing about by very, very sweaty people. Usually it’s not our thing, but we’ve got a pronounced weakness for Team Robespierre, a Brooklyn-based five-piece with more energy than we could ever imagine having. They’ve been playing shows for a couple years, and people are going understandably batty for their maddening mix of hardcore, punk, post-punk and electro-pop. Their songs incorporate driving, frantic guitars, fuzzy, swirling keyboard hooks, a hyper-active rhythm section and vocal contributions from just about everyone in the band. More chanted than sung, they practically beg for audience participation, and, more often than not, they are dutifully obliged, once and for all putting an end to the idiotic myth that crowds in New York City are joyless and boring. Their debut full-length, Everything’s Perfect, was released earlier this year, and by all means you should own it. But even more importantly, you’ll want to see them live.
FORMED: May 2006
FAVORITE NYC VENUE: “They aren’t ‘real’ venues, but Dead Herring House and Cinders Gallery.”
BEST THING ABOUT BEING IN A BAND IN NYC: “Diverse, well-attended shows.”
AND THE WORST: Rob: “Lax attitudes about smoking.” Mary: “There’s so much going on in NYC that it can be hard to get work done.”
Yeah, yeah, these photos look a little different than the others. And no, Mary Pearson and Rob Barber of High Places weren’t at the big group photo shoot at the Bushwick Country Club. But we don’t want you thinking they were thrown on at the last minute, somehow less deserving, in our eyes, of inclusion. Not true at all. Turns out High Places are almost impossible to pin down, because they’re constantly, constantly touring. Since releasing their debut EP in the second half of 2007, they’ve been winning fans all over the country, thanks in no small part to a rave review (8.2) on Pitchfork. But their star is rising fastest here in New York, where they’re converting people one by one with their peculiar but outstanding pop music. The duo employs strange, stuttering percussion and airy guitars, which are run through about a million effects pedals. Pearson’s gentle, childlike vocals sit nicely atop the whole thing, occasionally obscured by all the other sounds, but always adding a nice, accessible touch. They’ve done pretty well for themselves after releasing only an EP and some compilation tracks, having shared stages with Dan Deacon, Celebration, Health and the Atlas Sound. They’ve also got a tour scheduled with Deerhunter. Just think what’ll happen when they release a full-length.
FORMED: Summer-ish/Fall-ish 2007
FAVORITE NYC VENUE: “Bowery Ballroom has been the most fun so far.”
BEST THING ABOUT BEING IN A BAND IN NYC: “You can get girls to take their tops off at shows really easily.”
AND THE WORST: “Leaving boobs at shows and lugging gear back to your practice space in eight different cabs.”
No, it’s not violins. And no, it’s not violence. It’s vy-lenz, and we have no idea what it means, though we’re regretting not asking them about it. Formed from the ashes of the mighty (and mightily underrated) Lansing Dreiden, a band that was constantly maligned for what stupid people everywhere called “trying too hard” and being “willfully obscure,” but which we called being “creative” and “not idiots.” Regardless, Violens sees three of that band’s members heading in a slightly different direction. What was once psych-rock so noisy it almost had dashes of metal, is now psych-rock that’s leaning toward the sunnier side of things (just sunnier, not totally sunny), and so far it’s suiting them well. They played their first show back in October of 2007, and they’ve already found themselves opening for the Handsome Furs, MGMT and Yeasayer, with another show scheduled next month, opening up for Clinic at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Young bands will be jealous of their meteoric rise through the ranks, but when a band this good, with so much direction and potential, gets all the breaks they deserve, we find it pretty difficult to complain.
Naming eight NYC bands you need to hear seems like it would be an easy task, no? Yeah, well, it’s not. Maybe if we were a pocket-sized listings guide in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, it would be a different story, but here in New York it makes for a stressful, sleep-depriving mission. The difference between the eight bands on the previous pages and those that remain on this one is like the difference between a gold and silver medal at the Olympics — the only thing separating them is .009 seconds, or some other crazy miniscule measurement. And so we’d like to give credit to our silver medalists.
Motel Motel first caught our attention with the song ‘Coffee’, a five-minute retelling of a tale complicated by wine, cocaine and the eponymous stimulant. At its inception, frontman Eric Engel sounds wounded and defeated, but as the string section and chugging guitars gradually build up steam, his voice gives way to resounding urgency and vigor. We’ve got high hopes for their brand of rattling, old-timey country on their soon-to-be released full-length, New Denver.
THE SHOT HEARD ROUND THE WORLD
There’s a certain tone to The Shot Heard Round the World’s music that’s
hard to pin down exactly — light, wispy, dewy — that makes us want to
wrap ourselves in a blanket, put on Ten Songs for Town and Country, and
fall asleep in a field of flowers. Next month they’re slated to release
EP via Mountain Landis Records. If you love the Byrds, rejoice.
A few months back, Dan Deacon told Pitchfork
that Air Waves is taking the cake as his favorite new band. Allow us to
vouch for Dan Deacon’s intelligence, just this once. While Air Waves
may be predisposed to downtrodden folk, rounded out by a gentle pop
edge, there’s something strangely uplifting in the way Nicole Schneit
sings. You trust that no matter what gets thrown her way, she’s going
to fight through.
YOUR 33 BLACK ANGELS
Allow us to state the obvious: There are moments when Your 33 Black Angels sound an awful lot like the Velvet Underground. There, now that’s out of the way, and we can focus on the quirky subtleties of their 2007 debut, Lonely Street: staccato guitar licks, the candid grittiness of Josh Wesfal’s vocals, and a song about a girl named Sue. This year we’ll see their follow-up, and it should — if record label people are smart as we are — spur a bidding war among the indies.
It seems like yesterday — that’s probably because
it was, more or less — that this Brooklyn trio was grooming its
power-pop-meets-rock sound with regular performances at Pete’s Candy
Store. Now with a Daytrotter session under their belts and even a
snippet of their song ‘Colors That Lie’ featured on some MTV thing,
Meowskers’ scrappy piano-banging rock ‘n’ roll is beginning to pick up
TWI THE HUMBLE FEATHER
There are lots of bands out there lauded simply for their originality, bands that otherwise don’t deserve much attention. Twi the Humble Feather, while sounding like nothing we’ve ever heard, is not one of them. The exclusively acoustic three-piece come across as a live-action tape-loop of sorts, their chanting falsettos bleeding through cycles of finger strumming dwindles and swells. It’s part Gregorian chant, part Christmas carol and part Panda Bear’s Person Pitch unplugged. The forthcoming album is called Music for Spaceships and Forests.
So, there was this time about a year and a half ago when we first heard
the debut EP from Mussels, and we were all about it. Then they kinda
just didn’t play that many shows for a while, and we sorta forgot how
much we liked ‘em. Then they played a couple well-attended local shows
and went on a tour, and we’re just now getting around to listening to
them again. Really good stuff: smart guitar-based indie-pop with guitar
tones that would made Doug Martsch jealous.
Charles Burst got his start playing drums for the sadly broken-up NYC psych-rock band the Occasion, and now he’s off on his own, playing warm, organ-driven 70s singer-songwriter type stuff that we’re liking more and more with each passing day. Disclaimer: Burst just signed to the Ernest Jenning Record Co., which is owned by L Magazine friend and one-time contributor Pete D’Angelo. Don’t worry, though, because we really hate when our friends succeed and would never go out of our way to see that they do, unless we really, really meant it.