Over the past couple decades, a handful of U.S. cities have experienced brief moments in the music industry sun, with the bright lights of glossy magazines and large newspaper chains shining down upon their hard working local bands. There was the burgeoning Minneapolis scene in the late 80s, Athens and Chapel Hill at the center of mid-90s indie rock, Omaha and the Saddle Creek gang just a few years ago, and right here in New York back when it looked like either the Strokes or — gasp — electroclash were going to take over the world. Even right now, something might be going on in Philadelphia, though most of the people who think so happen to live in Philly or are New York Times reporters who, well, live in Philly.
I mention all of this because as I started working on this feature, struggling to cut a list of thirty or forty bands down to eight, I wondered briefly if maybe New York was gearing up for another run at the national spotlight. But in order for that to happen, there needs to be a noticeable stylistic or aesthetic sensibility common to a city’s best bands. And for better or worse, that’s not exactly happening here at the moment. The garage rock thing is long gone, and so is all the 80s revival nonsense that shamed us a few years ago. What we’re left with is a beautiful mess of styles, running the gamut of sounds people everywhere lump into the catch-all “indie rock” genre.
New York is overflowing with bands that share a common goal — to be recognized and even compensated for their art — and yet they all take vastly different approaches. Some of them have hit the local circuit as hard as they can, hoping to build up enough buzz in their hometown that it will somehow translate into larger-scale success, while others have taken their show on the road, hoping to win over fans in other cities so that they might branch out and find success that way. Still others don’t even know where to begin, left toiling away in bedrooms and over-priced rehearsal spaces, waiting for an opportunity to present itself. These last bands, it should be noted, are the ones you’ll never hear about, and the ones you shouldn’t hear about — because opportunities don’t present themselves in New York unless you’re actively searching for them.
What ties all these musicians together, more so than any stylistic similarity, is the far more meaningful fact that they’re all New Yorkers. Maybe they weren’t born here — ok, they probably weren’t born here — but they’re here now, trying to figure out how the fuck they’re supposed to pay rent while attempting to find success doing something they love. It’s not exactly a new story, but it is the quintessential New York story.
And one of the most common plot twists in the story is that, even in a city as cluttered with creative types as ours is, most of these bands are essentially alone. Sure, they’ll find themselves on bills with the same acts here and there, or maybe they’ll find themselves competing with those same bands for opening slots, but when it comes down to it, New York is a tough place to be if you’re in a band looking for a sense of community. Most musicians living here have to hold down day jobs in order to support their artistic endeavors, and outside of playing their own shows, the prospect of going out and supporting others is a daunting one, if only because everyone’s so fucking exhausted all the time — a problem we were making even worse when we asked our eight chosen bands to crawl out of bed at ten o’clock on a Saturday morning for a group photo shoot at the Bushwick Country Club.
At the same time, it was nice to see everyone together, eating bagels, drinking free booze and getting to know one another. There were times when it felt a bit like a high school dance, of course, with each band huddled together in separate corners — but let’s face it, indie rock is always going to be a little bit like a high school dance, albeit one for kids who didn’t go to their actual high school dances. When it came time for the big group shots (which, in keeping with the theme, bear a striking resemblance to yearbook photos), people had begun to loosen up, and, if only for a few half-drunken minutes, there was a genuine sense that everyone was in it together, sharing laughs and stories with 35 other people who understand exactly what it’s like to be in a New York City band.
It’s an important bond, and one that we shouldn’t expect outsiders to fully understand.
In the following pages, you’ll find eight of our favorite young bands, all of whom are making exciting, passionate music that we think needs to be heard.
When we think about brainy, over-educated New York City bands that are too smart for their own good, we typically imagine them coming from NYU. But we forget that there’s a little Ivy League school way uptown called Columbia, where the bar scene might not be as good, but, if Vampire Weekend is any indicator, New York’s next great bands may be forming right now. Listening to Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut, the Ivy League thing is impossible to avoid, and seeing them in person, it’s even harder; it’s as if they’re four missing members of Salinger’s Glass family. Their lyrics are endearingly wordy, delivered in a smooth, crystal-clear voice by singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig. The accompanying music is an expertly crafted, loving homage to first-wave ska, full of infectious, hard-to-follow drumming and squiggly guitar fills and melodies that reveal the influence of South African music — or at the very least, Graceland, which would be fine too. Always present, though, is their keen sense of melody as informed by American pop music. It is a mess of influences, obviously, but their vision of what they want to be is so studied and clear that the results are as perfectly tasteful and wonderfully charming as they are fresh and unexpected. And on top of that, it’s a rare band that can make songs about mansard roofs and Oxford Commas so universally enjoyable.
Music nerds love nothing more than discovering an artist who not only shares their own deep, unbridled love for the art form, but who proceeds to take it one step further, to a point where their entire existence is predicated on their ability to complete one particular work. Think about the Brian Wilsons of the world, the Neutral Milk Hotels, the Captain Beefhearts — they’re all known for one piece of career-defining work that almost put them over the edge. It would be presumptuous to make such a bold statement about Paul Hogan, who’s the mastermind behind Frances, but it doesn’t seem too far off, either. A frighteningly talented songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who’s working toward his doctorate in music at Columbia, Hogan previously released a solo record that was, oddly enough, titled Frances, and the band continues to play many of the songs contained on it, along with a handful of new ones. The material is beautiful and sad, centered around Hogan’s singing, but just barely; there are all sorts of horns and strings and toy pianos and pretty much everything else you can think of as well. It’s slow, dreamy pop music that makes you feel like you’re listening to something big that Hogan’s been trying to work out in his head for quite some time. Sounds to me like he has, but who knows… he’s the kind of musical mind you don’t want to doubt.
The night I decided to include the Jealous Girlfriends on this list, I went to go see them at the new Luna Lounge. I was worried that they’d disappoint, as I’d never seen them live before, and it would be too late to back out since I’d already emailed their publicist. About three seconds after they started playing, though, I realized none of that was going to be necessary. Holly Miranda, the band’s diminutive singer and guitarist stood cramped next to Alex Lipsin at the keyboard and proceeded to belt out this slow, kind of sultry song that made me think a) “Holy shit, this isn’t what I thought they sounded like, and I hope I don’t ever describe this in print as ‘sultry’, and b) “This is one of the strongest voices I’ve ever heard live in my entire life, and I don’t want it to stop.” Things got a bit more fast-paced throughout the rest of the show, as they rolled through one hook-filled dream-pop song after another, and Miranda never did stop singing. But she was joined by guitarist Josh Abbot, who shares singing duties on every song and provides the invaluable contrast that makes the band so interesting. They’re playing around New York what seems like every night at the moment, and so it stands to reason they’re only going to get better from here. An exciting prospect, for sure.
MY TEENAGE STRIDE
The 80s pop nostalgia that happened here and everywhere else in the world, a few years ago always seemed somewhat crass to me. For mostly middle/upper class white kids to go back and glorify the upbeat, lighthearted synth-pop that was all the rage in a decade that practically gave birth to the expression “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” it was almost like bragging. Even with the bands who ripped off famous 80s sad-sacks like Joy Division… something about it was always vaguely offensive. And it would be foolish to pretend My Teenage Stride wasn’t at least a little bit caught up in the whole 80s thing as well, but what frontman and main songwriter Jed Smith understands, and what so many others haven’t, is that the most impressive thing about all that 80s stuff were the songs, and not the stupid fucking clothes. The most obvious comparison to be made here is to the Go-Betweens, but there are also hints of lovably cheesy 60’s pop and a seemingly endless appreciation for Dylan’s sad-one-minute, funny-the-next schtick. There is, as there was with the Go-Betweens, a pronounced emphasis on the craft of songwriting — the belief that a good song is a good song, regardless of the chosen accompaniment. And their new full-length, Ears Like Golden Bats, is full of ‘em. Just so happens the accompaniment is expertly chosen as well, making it one of the best debuts of the year.
I’ve probably written about the Muggabears more than any other band in New York City over the past six months or so, and while I was admittedly nervous about over-doing it by including them on this list, I knew that if I were to leave them off, it would be dishonest. They’re another in a long line of young bands that are taking the business side of things into their own hands, self-releasing their three-song debut EP Teenage Cop, which earned them a good amount of buzz and blog-love around here last year. But now that they’ve released their second EP, Night Choreography, they’ve proven beyond any doubt that they’re deserving of a lot more attention. They’re constantly compared to Sonic Youth, which is fair, and to Pavement, which is also fair. But there’s also something darker at work, especially on the new songs — a sinister, foreboding sense of impending destruction that drives all of their best songs. They invariably start with a vocal melody so addictive that you can never quite predict the extent to which they’re going to tear it apart with huge, ringing guitar chords and sudden explosions of noise. It’s like they’re giving you a taste of something they know you’ll love, only to destroy it and replace it with something they love, confident you’ll eventually come around to that as well. And I think they’re right.
SHE KEEPS BEES
New York City is now and always has been positively lousy with Gram Parsons- and Joan Baez-loving folk singers. They’re an important part of the city’s musical framework, but truth be told, too many of them seem to get caught up in the traditional confines of the genre, and they wind up sounding like weird revivalists rather than forward-looking artists. It’s nice, then, to find someone like Jessica Larrabee, the main force behind She Keeps Bees, who could not only beat those people at their own game, on their own turf, but also bring enough clever variations and interesting song structures to the table that she stands to attract a slew of people who are interested in something a bit more challenging. Like so many other artists today, Larrabee just self-released her debut record, Minisink Hotel, which she recorded mostly by herself on her home computer. Surprisingly, the recording is amazing, providing the perfect stage for her deep, powerful vocals that will inevitably evoke comparisons to Cat Power’s Chan Marshall. She just embarked on an east coast tour, during which she’ll be accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Andy LaPlant.
From the moment the White Rabbits walked into the Bushwick Country Club for the group photo shoot we did for this feature, it was pretty clear they were content to sit by themselves in the backyard, smoking cigarettes, drinking bloody marys and just generally messing around. They were friendly to everyone else, and would prove to be among the most upbeat and fun throughout the day, but you got the sense they were equally happy hanging out with just each other — which they do, a lot, every single day. After moving here from Columbia, Missouri, the band found a loft in Bushwick, which they use as their rehearsal studio and living space. Such close quarters would be pretty intimidating for most bands, but it certainly seems to be working for the White Rabbits, who will be releasing their debut album, Fort Nightly, on Say Hey Records at the end of May. Their music is driven by a wild, boundless energy and a seemingly encyclopedic list of musical reference points, spanning many decades and genres as varied as ska, Afro-beat, post-punk, calypso and classic American indie-rock. All six members (including two drummers) feed brilliantly off one another, and it sounds like they’re inviting you to a party they’re excited to be throwing, with or without you.
Of all the bands appearing in this feature, there are perhaps none with less experience than Bear Hands. They’ve managed to keep a pretty low profile around the city, which is understandable, since they’ve been together for well under a year. And I don’t mean to get all stupid and bloggy up in this piece, placing lofty expectations on such a young band, but I can’t help getting over-the-moon excited about their infectious, complex take on what I think can best be described as post-punk. It reminds us of how Steve Malkmus and Pavement loved the Fall, but used country, folk and (sadly) prog influences to cover it up just enough so that they were never easily pigeonholed. Bear Hands does something similar, combining the punchy, slightly aggressive tone of post-punk with a heaviness and borderline dissonance that actually reminds me quite a bit of the Archers of Loaf and — don’t hate me for this — a band called Braid, who were among the best of the mid-90s emo bands everyone called “angular.” More important than any of that, though, and what I hope they don’t lose sight of after they’ve been around for a little longer, is that they seem to be as excited to be playing their music as we are to be listening.