When it comes to music of Washington D.C., Go-Go and early punk are probably the first sounds that come to mind. Still, GEMS — a new project from Clifford John Usher and Lindsay Pitts of Birdlips — is one of several young bands helping to shift that perception (See also: Priests). The duo’s lovely music is haunting and hypnotic with crisp Beach House-like guitar melodies, throbbing synth pads and the Pitts’ dreamy vocals. And while it doesn’t yet have a full-length record out, the band’s EP, Medusa holds a lot of promise thanks to striking pop songs like “Pegusus” and “Sinking Stone.” This is a new band already confident in its live show, and bound to fill bigger spaces soon.
The ideal way to witness Perfect Pussy is in a cramped room mobbed with fans, collectively losing their minds to the ecstatic, pile-driving fury. On stage, the Syracuse hardcore band’s set is somehow both the shortest and longest 15 minutes of unforgettable punk music you’ll see right now; an assured barrage of scorching guitars, feedback squall — and the powerful vocal assault of frontwoman Meredith Graves, who sings with an unfiltered and ecstatic rage.
Last year, the reputation of Perfect Pussy’s self-affirming live shows reached fever pitch after a string of now-storied early performances in DIY spaces — including the now-shuttered 285 Kent. Now, following its self-released, four-song demo tape, I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling, and a flurry of buzz following showcases during CMJ and SXSW, Perfect Pussy attempts to document that jolting sound on its first true LP, Say Yes To Love.
Blasting through an unrelenting eight songs and 23 minutes, Graves and the rest of Perfect Pussy — Ray McAndrew (guitar), Garrett Koloski (drums), Greg Ambler (bass), and Shaun Sutkus (keyboards) — sing with messy urgency about deeply personal topics, even when the words are largely indecipherable. From its themes of social injustice and censorship, gender politics and female empowerment, and battling the societal expectations of love and happiness, down to the name of the the band itself, Perfect Pussy is a confrontational and unapologetic band delving into some big ideas and stigmas. Yet, even amid the visceral noise and sludge, Perfect Pussy’s fearless vibrancy and honest emotion always shines through. It’s a sight to behold.
Ty Segall is practically impossible to keep up with. At only 26, the endlessly prolific garage rocker has been one of the most productive artists around, putting out more than 12 albums — and even more if you count other bands he’s affiliated with: Sic Alps, White Fence, and his new band Fuzz, to name a few.
Last year alone, he released three records — all of them excellent if you like your music loud, and filled with scuzzy riffs, catchy refrains, and bursts of noise. For most musicians, you might expect a break to refuel. But not Segall, who’s back now with yet another new album under his own name, Sleeper.
Unlike last year’s albums, Sleeper presents a new side of the Ty Segall we all know and love: The Bay Area-now-Los Angeles-based songwriter has dialed down the amps and the scorching guitar distortion for a surprisingly restrained, and mostly-acoustic collection of songs. Inspired and influenced by recent tragedies in his life — his father’s death and the subsequent falling out with his mother — songs like “She Don’t Care,” “Crazy,” and the title track are far darker and emotional than anything he’s done thus far.
Glasgow synth pop band CHVRCHES don’t even have a full album out yet; The Bones Of What You Believe is out Sept. 24 in the U.S. on Glassnote. But based on impossible-to-get-in shows at this year’s South By Southwest, and thanks to the strength of an EP and a couple singles — the indie pop jam of the year, so far, “Recover,” especially — it’s become one of the most buzzed-about young acts of 2013.
After finally catching one of the band’s recent New York shows at Music Hall of Williamsburg, it’s clear that hype is justified.
CHVRCHES’ dense electronic dance songs are mostly built around serrated computerized beats, layered synthesizers and chirping sampled voices created by Iain Cook and Martin Doherty, all of which propel Lauren Mayberry’s cute, yet commanding vocals that flutter and soars above the mix like embers in the night air. And with clean and buyoant pop hooks, CHVRCHES crafts the kind of memorable choruses on songs like “The Mother We Share” and “Gun” that can fill the club, and later, find yourself singing along to when no one is looking.
Yes, CHVRCHES is a young band. But throughout an incredibly polished 12-song set — where they debuted mostly new songs from the upcoming album that few, if anyone in the crowd had even heard, and then played a perfectly chosen Prince cover as an encore — CHVRCHES showed a confidence, both musically and in stage presence that’s rare at this stage in any group’s arc.
CHVRCHES is a promising band that seems to have arrived fully-formed, which makes it all the more enticing to watch where it will go next.
The dexterous, finger-tapping guitarist extraordinaire Marnie Stern gives a glimpse into her colorful Upper East Side apartment in New York City and performs an intense, bare-bones rendition of “You Don’t Turn Down.” This video was created as a pilot for a new project for WNYC’s music program Soundcheck.
Marnie Stern’s Living Room Is A Kaleidoscope Burst Of Color
by Michael Katzif for WNYC Soundcheck
The first thing that catches your eye when we walk into Marnie Stern’s rather spacious Upper East Side apartment is the shocking pink walls. Then, the swaths of patterned contact paper cut into giant geometric shapes. And then, the dark purple night sky ceiling complete with small painted white dots for stars. In fact, everywhere you turn is a bold, so-gaudy-it’s-awesome kaleidoscope burst of color.
For those who know her songs, this brash, colorful room fits with Stern’s musical aesthetic: A glorious mess of dexterous, finger-tapping guitar riffs and energetic melodies, thrashy noise and pummeling drums. Her fiery songs, especially on the superb, and fantastically-titled new album, The Chronicles Of Marnia, can be equally poppy and abrasive — in the best way. And on this sunny, early spring day, as the sunlight poured in through her large windows, those rich pink walls felt warm and inviting.
But, Stern clarifies, this is all pretty new.
The living room was only recently redecorated this way for her music video for her album’s latest single, “Immortals.” The idea for the video, Stern explains, was to turn her apartment into a living, breathing version of the album art from her 2010 self-titled album. That cover — a cute and intricately rendered watercolor painting by Stern’s best friend, artist Bella Foster — provided director Allie Avital Tsypin with the visual spark for the video’s chaotic mayhem and fun.
And knowing that the video’s surreal and hedonistic house show — including a horde of shirtless men, smashed lamps, torn feather pillows, and all — was filmed in this relatively posh upper Manhattan doorman building seems almost rebellious, like they got away with something they shouldn’t have.
In New York City, housing presents its own, let’s say, special set of logistical challenges, especially for someone like Stern who needs a spot conducive to writing, rehearsing, recording, giving guitar lessons, and decompressing after shows — or say, shooting a late night music video — without bugging roommates and neighbors. Or, bothering her dog Fig, for whom she bought a pair of dog earmuffs for hearing-protecting for when they’re on tour.
Stern also says that the neighborhood’s older demographic is calming, and without the pressure of livelier areas in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
“It isn’t trendy or hip at all,” Stern says, “I like that because it helps you focus on what’s important as opposed to your outfit when you go to the store or whatever.”
Still, inside this very “grown-up” building, Stern’s living room comes off both like a secret artist studio and a homey, lived-in space, with its somewhat mismatching flowery furniture, funky lamps and vases.
Oh, and a female mannequin torso, which she uses to stage photos of clothing she sells with her mother on eBay to make money. Stern says she enjoys eBay a lot because the immediacy of selling is gratifying because the results can be more tangible than music.
“With music, it’s all sort of a creative endeavor,” Stern explains, “where you’re making something and then you give it to the world, but you don’t really ever see — at least I don’t ever see any monetary results. With eBay, I take a picture of [an item], I list it, it sells, I get the money, and it’s satisfying.”
It’s always fascinating to get a glimpse into how an artist lives. It’s an opportunity to see not only where they make their art, but peak inside the artistic process. And as Marnie Stern delivered a captivating bare-bones solo performance of “You Don’t Turn Down” in her technicolor living room, it was clear that there’s nothing as satisfying and raw than Stern and her guitar. It was a perfect place to see where her earliest of song ideas first took shape.
There’s no way else to put it: Lucius makes some of the most delightful music you’ll hear all year. Fronted by the soulful soaring voices of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, and a battery of thundering percussion, this young Brooklyn quintet’s magnetic pop gems like “Don’t Just Sit There” and “Turn It Around” are instantly happy-making, but with just the right touch of bittersweet sentiment underneath.
This is a series of photographs commissioned by NPR reporter Padmanda Rama for her radio story on All Things Considered that aired in early February about New York City’s “Garment District.” The piece focused on two burgeoning young designers — Daniel Vosovic and Ann Yee — frantically finishing their collections in time for Fashion Week in a few days. While both are different points in their careers, they both equally rely on the resources and proximity of services in this section of New York.
At the time, I had never shot fashion-related photos, been around designers’ factories and studios, let alone been in that weird area of Midtown Manhattan, not that far from the bright lights of Times Square area, but far more workmanlike and, well, grimy. But I think it was that newness that allowed me to capture some of the details of these locations with fresh eyes.
For the rest of the images, view out the gallery below; and to hear the stellar radio piece, check it out at NPR.org:
On Sunday, Jan. 13, New York City’s Webster Hall was overtaken by 12 diverse musical acts from all over the world as part of globalFEST 2013. While I only recognized a small handful of names on the bill, the setup at globalFEST is perfect for wandering from stage-to-stage and sampling little tastes of bands without worrying about missing too much. And that’s exciting — it was a night of pure discovery.
The evening had a lot of memorable moments (NPR Music was there filming a whole slew of sets from the night, well worth checking out), but few as instantly winning as Mucca Pazza, a 30-piece Bizarro World circus of musicians and weirdo hipster cheerleaders, all decked out in colorfully clashing retro marching band uniforms. The Chicago-based group — which gets its name from the Italian phrase for “crazy cow” (also a name for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease) — has been banging around for years, but this was my first exposure to its visual and musical mayhem. It was a total blast.
Seeing this irresistible band of horns and violins, guitars and accordion all parade in and eventually take the stage is infectious, chaotic fun. But it’s also an incredibly coordinated and choreographed performance full of cheers and bursting with energy that is easy to get caught up in.
Typically my musical tastes default to introspective, darker music full of layers of noise and distortion and all of that. Yet watching Mucca Pazza reminded me of many similarly giant, celebratory acts I’ve seen over the years: The Flaming Lips and its confetti canons and furry animal costumes; Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ sprawling community singalongs; the gypsy punk anarchy of Gogol Bordello; and the roving What Cheer? Brigade who’s enlivened the grounds at the Newport Folk Festival with funked-up renditions of TV theme songs.
Mucca Pazza also brought to mind two big dance-friendly, smile-inducing bands that have won over crowds at globalFEST in previous years: The Ethiopian funk rock of Debo Band and the “Brooklyn Bhangra” group Red Baraat. And of course, all of these acts share some DNA with both traditional and modern genre-blending New Orleans brass bands that have been playing “forget about your worries and dance” music since, like, forever.
You can see and hear all of that in Mucca Pazza’s music. Yet what stood out the most was not only the feel-good aesthetic of Mucca Pazza’s live show, but how outright wackadoodle and entertaining it could be. If only my high school marching band was this crazy and fun.
Check out some other photos from the night:
While Exitmusic’s transporting debut Passage ruminates on brooding despair and frayed emotions, there’s a seductive romanticism to the heartache. In songs like “The Night” and the “Storms,” the married duo — Aleska Palladino and Devon Church — creates haunting, swirling soundscapes as they sing of loneliness, love, and regret. Still, amidst the cascading waterfalls of noise and Church’s cyclone of guitar distortion, there’s a soaring, rumbling beauty to these melodies as they flitter like burning embers in the night sky. And yet, all this is but a powerful, dreamy backdrop for Palladino’s alluring voice as it swells from quivering to full-throated thunder as in the epic chorus in “The Modern Age.” Exitmusic may be melodramatic and dark, but there’s no denying that the catharsis of Passage is as intense as any album you will hear in 2012.
For the hundreds of bands, music industry insiders, college radio programmers, DJs, and music fans who descend upon New York City every Fall, October means one thing: It’s time for the CMJ Music Marathon. Every year, a staggering number of showcases and parties, not to mention all the shows that normally are happening in the city, all with great music well worth checking out.
The appeal in a festival like CMJ is discovering relatively unknown baby bands and up-and-coming artists with a ton of upside. Some could become that “next big thing” that we’ll hopefully be talking about for the next year. And some may simply fade away.
Like Austin, Texas’ annual South By Southwest Music Conference, CMJ can feel logistically overwhelming when deciding where to go, and when (and how) to get there. But unlike SXSW and it’s relatively closely plotted venues, CMJ is far more spread out across Manhattan and Brooklyn — and so you may find yourself hoofing it all across town and over the river. So, (like SXSW,) you’ve got make choices and tightly map out your schedule if you hope to catch multiple things in a night.
My first CMJ was a total nightmare in some ways, mostly because I was expecting the ease of SXSW in terms of getting to venues, getting inside the venues, and seeing a ton of music back to back to back. Instead, I had to be more targeted, deciding on the one venue I wanted to camp out at and trust the showcase would present a lot of great options. Overall, I still saw a great deal of my favorite bands, and a lot of new discoveries.
Some highlights: Flying Lotus, Death Grips and Buke & Gase at NPR Music’s showcase; Telekinesis featuring Superchunk guitarist and Merge Records founder Mac McCaughan and Fred Armisen (of SNL and Portlandia fame) on bass! And a Brooklyn Vegan day party let me see a bunch of young bands — Hunters, Sinkane, Eternal Summers — and catch a packed but tiny show from R&B superstar on the rise Miguel.
BUKE & GASE @ (le) Poisson Rouge
Some bands claim to be DIY, but Buke & Gase truly embody it. The experimental prog-punk duo is named for the Frankenstein instruments they use: Arone Dyer plays a tricked-out bass ukulele through an impressive array of foot pedals. Aron Sanchez plays a hybrid guitar-bass through two homemade amp speakers — one for the bass strings, one for the guitar strings. As if that wasn’t enough, both members also simultaneously bang and stomp on a kick drum or wrap their feet with shakers and a “toe-bourine.” On paper, this could risk sounding like a gimmick, but the intricate riffs and bottom-heavy clanking rhythms Buke & Gase creates capture the imagination like few indie bands right now.
On the band’s debut Riposte, and its brand new EP, Function Falls, Buke & Gase expertly envelops Dyer’s chanting vocals with a big, souped-up mess of distortion, and fuzzy melodies that turn sharp corners into unexpected places. But this is also what makes the duo so exceptional to see live. In this NPR Music and Soundcheck co-sponsored concert — recorded live Wednesday at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York City during the week of the CMJ Music Marathon — Buke & Gase kicked things off with the hypnotic, aggressive “Hiccup,” delivering the perfect fiery jumpstart to the night’s lineup.
DEATH GRIPS @ (le) Poisson Rouge
Sometimes you walk out of a show unclear what you just saw. This appeared to be the case for many in attendance for Death Grips’ stunningly pummeling set at New York’s (le) Poisson Rouge during the NPR Music/Soundcheck showcase during the CMJ Music Marathon. From the California group’s The Money Store — which has been among the year’s best hip hop records — or the recently self-leaked follow up, NO LOVE DEEP WEB, Death Grips is all about challenging the listener with its boundary-pushing music.
On stage, Death Grips’ delivers a visceral assault on the senses thanks to deep, gut-rattling bass, serrated beats and samples and the brutal, stick-breaking drumming of Zach Hill. But even amid the caustic deconstructed grooves, the blinding strobe lights and visuals on dual monitors behind the group, it’s MC Ride who commands all the attention. Performing shirtless, the muscular and heavily tattooed MC is such a powerful frontman on stage, you cannot take your eyes off him as he flails and shouts with an imposing, unrelenting flow.
After the set, many in the crowd looked equally traumatized and totally blown away with huge grins, knowing they just saw something completely unlike anything they’d ever witnessed. Whether or not it’s “your thing,” that’s always the sign of a great show from a singular artist.
TELEKINESIS @ Mercury Lounge
“I’d like to thank Merge for getting me off my couch.” — Michael Benjamin Lerner, Telekinesis
At one point or another, we’ve all read about an extraordinary concert in some book, or in Rolling Stone, on Pitchfork, or just on social media and thought “Damn, I wish I was there.” It doesn’t make much sense fretting about missing out if Band X played its entire album front-to-back or Band Y played a surprise show at two in the morning. That’s life, right? Can’t be there for everything. But it is music geek human nature to feel the slightest twinge of regret.
Still, every once in awhile, if you go to enough shows, you luck into seeing something special that will make others seethe in nerd jealousy. For me, last night’s Telekinesis set — at Merge Record’s CMJ showcase at New York’s Mercury Lounge — was one of those times.
And it all started because I couldn’t get into the crammed-to-capacity Sub Pop showcase at Knitting Factory. Instead of waiting around in a line going nowhere, I sucked it up and hoofed it by L train and F train to see if I could catch one of my favorite bands play a few of my favorite songs.
When I walked in, I saw Fred Armisen milling about in the back during the end of Eleanor Friedberger’s set. Known to most from Saturday Night Live and Portlandia, I chalked it up to being a New York celebrity sighting — and him being a music fan. But soon, as Michael Benjamin Lerner — Telekinesis’ singer-songwriter and drummer, took the stage, I noticed Armisen pulling a Hofner “Beatle” bass out of its case. Whoa. Then, I noticed Mac McCaughan setting up stompboxes on the other side of the stage. McCaughan, guitarist and singer of Superchunk, and Merge Records co-founder, had played a solo set earlier that night, and obviously stuck around to lend a hand.
It was clear the room was in for a treat. I personally kinda lost my shit.
As Lerner explained near the end of set, he had not played a live show in a really long time, and was prodded by Merge to get off the couch, and fly here to New York for CMJ. But Lerner didn’t have a new working band yet — hell, most of his new songs weren’t really even finished yet. But instead of doing what he described as a “lame acoustic set,” he dropped a few emails to McCaughan and Armisen to see if they were interested in joining him for a few songs. Not only did they agree, they worked up an entire set of Telekinesis’ songs just for this night. No rehearsals either, just a bunch of scattered sheets of paper with the chord progressions mapped out.
They then proceeded to unleash a loose, exuberant set of some Lerner’s best songs (“Tokyo”, “Car Crash”) and even a new song from an album due out next April. Telekinesis’ real skill is in crafting perfect, bouncy power pop songs brimming with lilting guitar melodies and pounding drums and vocal melodies that you cannot help but sing along to. Lerner is one of the best out there creating indie pop melodies — and honestly it’s a bit baffling why he’s not huge yet. Hopefully with a new record coming next spring, he’ll reach more people.
Yet, as one might expect, there were a few awkward moments for a band that had never really played together. McCaughan and Lerner at one point realized they were playing two different (though admittedly similar sounding) songs — “Foreign Room” and “Coast Of Carolina.” Lerner joked that he just had a realization that two songs he wrote have nearly identical chord progressions. Other times, they missed a few cues or played a missed note, or were just not always locked in like a more fully practiced working band.
But really, no one seemed to care in the slightest: many in the crowd were just having a blast witnessing something special and rare — flubs and all. That raw energy and loose, jokey feeling carried through with many fans singing along to Telekinesis’ impossibly catchy choruses. It was just damn impressive and a boatload of fun. I still cannot believe I was there to see it.