CMJ. It’s here.

Well, here we go again. Another year, another never-ending line-up. I set out last night to make a short list of bands to check out, and here are just a few that stuck with me. There will be more to come!

Murals – Louisville, Kentucky

Photo courtesy of the artist Murals

a band that would have been in the Harold and Maude soundtrack had they only been around. Reminiscent of Vetiver… except you actually want to listen to them. I mean come on. There latest album is called On a Passing Cloud. The album art is terrible, but what it conceals is worth the listen.

“On a Passing Cloud”

Heavenly Beat – Brooklyn, NY

Photo courtesy of the artist Heavenly Beat

the part of Beach Fossils that didn’t become DIIV. John Peña creates “breezy, jazzy indiepop – complete with breathy vocals, sampled steel drums and pizzicato strings” (to commandeer the words of Bill Pearis, one of my favorite sources for all things pop). Yes, and yes. Captured Tracks did right to snatch this up. Stream the Talent EP.


Opossom – New Zealand
anthemic and lo-fi, a rare combo, but one that should be invoked more. And they consistently nail it. Sublimely scuzzy. This trio also gets major points for traveling from New Zealand.

Foreign Fields – Nashville, Tennessee by way of, you guessed it, Wisconsin
A departure from anything else in this list, and likely, from anything else you’ll see at CMJ. This is good stuff, folks. Not flavor of the week. Gem Club with a Bon Iver-like back story – the record was created in part in an abandoned building in Wisconsin in the dead of winter… that and in a sweltering Tennessee summer. Sad bastard music for the best of us. Apparently the song below was already featured on Parenthood like that show needs any help when it comes to coaxing tears out of its audience.


Other bands that are potentially worth checking out include, but are not limited to: Caged Animals, Foxygen, Mean Lady, Psychic Twin, Blonds.

I encourage you to check out the official CMJ site, where you can create a username and make your own schedule. And of course, there’s also Oh My Rockness, which never ceases to be helpful–especially when there are so many unofficial shows going on. Heck, even if you’re not in New York this week, they are both still great sources for learning about new music if you’re willing to do a little research.

Nils Frahm and his borrowed piano

It’s amazing how much tension can build with the repetition of a single note. I did not think I would make it through this 25-minute video, and now I want to watch it again. And then again for good measure.

From La Blogothèque:

We showed him the piano; it was as if we were introducing someone to him to the first time. He lifted the lid, hit a couple of keys, smiled and murmured, “He’s got character.” Later: “He’s unpredictable. I like it.” He played a little more, and called out to us once more: “Hmm… there’s a slight chance that I might break it. I get excited sometimes.” We didn’t tell this to our hosts; instead, we crossed our fingers.

On coming out: Frank Ocean’s note

A few days ago, Christian Bale visited a hospital in Aurora, Colorado, to check in with some of the victims from the tragic shooting that took place at the midnight screening of the latest Batman film.

Marketing ploy?

It’s getting harder and harder to tell these days. Marketing is getting clever. It wasn’t long ago that we used commercial breaks to jump up for a bathroom break or to grab a snack from the fridge. Today DVRs allow us to skip them altogether. And yet, companies have somehow convinced thousands to tune in to their spiel. McDonald’s has over 21 million likes on Facebook. Coca-Cola has twice that.

So when I heard about Frank Ocean’s now infamous “coming out” letter, I was skeptical. Not skeptical of the sentiments he expressed, his strength, or the authorship of the note. I was hung up on the timing of its release.

Frank Ocean (photo courtesy of the artist)

Though the letter was written last December, Ocean published it on his Tumblr account on July 3rd. His album, Channel Orange, dropped two weeks later.

Check out this screen shot (via the music tracking site of the chart for “Thinkin Bout You,” from his new album.

And lest you think the sharp increase in popularity coincides with the release of the album, here’s another screen shot, this time of “Swim Good,” the single that was released last fall.

Suspicious, no? The track nearly doubled in popularity at the beginning of July. Of course, proving Ocean’s announcement increased his listenership (in addition to garnering him a ton of press) doesn’t prove there was an ulterior motive behind it.

So I got my hands on the album.

Take a listen to “Thinkin Bout You,” the first full-length song from Channel Orange.

The words in the first hook are simple.

I’m thinking ’bout you (Ooh no, no, no)
I’ve been thinking ’bout you (You know, know, know)
I’ve been thinking ’bout you
Do you think about me still? Do ya, do ya?

But the emotion behind them is powerful. And the words in the verses have both a cool detachment (“No, I don’t like you, I just thought you were cool enough to kick it”) and a more vulnerable, heartfelt hope:

It won’t ever get old, not in my soul, not in my spirit, keep it alive
We’ll go down this road ’til it turns from color to black and white

And despite the straight-forward commentary on the plight of the poor, I can’t help but wonder if the track “Not Just Money” was also thrown onto the album with cynics like me in mind.

Please decondition yourself
It’s not just money
It’s happiness
It’s the difference between happy, being happy or sad

Despite the poignant announcement, Channel Orange is still rife with references to things like drugs, cops, and beautiful women with “big full breasts.” But I’m eager to hear what comes next. If it’s anything like the slow jam “Bad Religion,” which includes the line “I can never make him love me,” I’m all ears… even if the “him” in the song actually refers to God and not to a lover as many have speculated.

And one thing is for sure. Marketing ploy or not… I’m glad we now live in a world where coming out can boost sales instead of crippling them.

Keep it light with Celestial Shore

Celestial Shore (photo Amado Stachenfeld)

Look at these guys. They’re totally great, right? Their “About” section on Facebook reads simply, “fRiEnDs 4oReVeR.” And somehow that nonsensical mix of numbers and letters has the grammar stickler inside me smiling instead of cringing.

Check them out:



Brief and delightfully upbeat, Celestial Shore’s songs rarely hit the three-minute mark, but their pleasant melodies and quirky arrangements pour out of my speakers like cool, refreshing sweet tea on a summer day.



Ski Lodge in May

Ski Lodge – The Rock Shop, May 24th

I ducked into The Rock Shop last week for just long enough to check out a compact, 30-minute set from Ski Lodge, a band that arrived at its name mostly based on “how it looked and sounded” and for its double-duty as a metaphor, says singer/lead guitarist Andrew Marr in an interview with The Deli.  “It’s like an emotional place to escape to.”

Ski Lodge (photo Dominick Mastrangelo)

Primarily the project of Marr (previously of The Clementines) recorded, Ski Lodge expands to four on stage and boasts a fun, upbeat show full (what else?) of jangly guitars and retro swagger. Marr’s choice of what to bring with him to listen to on a desert island (“maybe The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead, Beach House – Teen Dream, The Walkmen – Lisbon“) reveals a lot about his sound.

Here’s “Chandeliers”

And “A Game”

You can stream (then buy) the s/t EP here.

Pop Fest and the Return of Saturday Looks Good to Me (with New Songs!)

Saturday Looks Good to Me + Wild Moccasins + Cola Jet Set – May 18th – The Knitting Factory

Last Friday I caught some super fun acts during the second night of Pop Fest. After listening to Orca Team all week, I was bummed to miss them. (They were apparently ahead of schedule at the Knitting Factory – what?) But I did see almost all of Cola Jet Set.

Cola Jet Set (photo courtesy of artist)

Hailing from Barcelona, Cola Jet Set predominantly make music in their home tongue, but I don’t have to dip into my high school Spanish much to know that their songs are infectious and upbeat. According to the group’s website: “their mix of surf, disco, punk, bubblegum and a lot of pop meld into an explosive cocktail that makes this disc more commonly prescribed than Aspirin” and though this is clearly the work of publicists, I have to say it’s a fantastic line and an apt descriptor of their sound.

Hear a couple of songs from Cola Jet Set:

But of course the big moment of the evening was the return of Saturday Looks Good to Me. I’ve listened to the band a lot over the years, but due to their retirement in 2008, I never had a chance to see them play until last week.

an old Saturday Looks Good to Me photo – they’re not that grumpy! (Doug Coombe)

Though they are clearly pros at crafting and performing distilled pop music, Saturday Looks Good to Me seemed genuinely excited to be on stage. Everywhere I looked there were big smiles, onstage and off. “How does it sound out there? Like 2004?” singer/guitarist Fred Thomas joked after a few songs. We had waited a long time for this.

“The last show we played in the United States before we stopped doing this was actually at the Knitting Factory downtown, or where the fuck Financial District, and it was weird. It was a little bit different than tonight.” singer/guitarist Fred Thomas revealed at one point to cheers.

Of course SLGTM played a number of old favorites (“Meet Me by the Water,” “The Girl is Distracted,” and “Alcohol”), but they also played a number of new ones from their upcoming album, to be released this fall.

Here’s a new one for you to hear. It’s called “Invisible Friend”

And of course, here’s “Alcohol”

A delightful show, full of crowd surfing on the part of many band members. Welcome back, guys.

Springing into Summer

The changing weather has me trading in my weepy winter jams for sunnier fare. Here are a few songs to help get you in the mood for the long, hot days.

Thieving Irons

Nate Martinez of Thieving Irons (photo courtesy of the artist)

The solo project of Brooklynite Nate Martinez, Thieving Irons crafted his upcoming album (Behold, The Dreamer!) from dreams and a found book. “We spend our whole lives amassing various experiences,” Martinez writes on his site. “Some traumatic, hopefully many more joyful. This album serves as a testament to my own.”

“So Long” by The Thieving Irons:

Eleanore Everdell and Jason Friedman of The Hundred in the Hands (photo courtesy of artist)

Named after a bloody battle in 1866 in which Crazy Horse led his warriors to conquer and slay 100 men, The Hundred in the Hands is a Brooklyn-based duo that specialize in dreamy electro-pop.

“Killing It” by The Hundred In The Hands:

Owen Ashworth of Advance Base(photo Marc Krause)

You fell in love with Owen Ashworth when he played under the cumbersome but endearing moniker Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. Owen’s back with a fresh project and a new album, A Shut-In’s Prayer, which just dropped this week. Close your eyes and picture yourself as a peanuts character as you listen to the intro to this catchy little ditty.

“New Gospel” by Advance Base:

Jessica Baldouf, Leif Anders, and Dwayne Paul Cullen of Orca Team (photo Ryan Furbush)

With their pleasant lo-fi/garage aesthetic , it’s not hard to see how Seattle’s Orca Team managed to nail a spot on the bill with veteran Ann Arbor group Saturday Looks Good to Me this Friday. Their new EP “Restraint” will be out this June.

“Vancouver B.C.” Orca Team:

Crinkles (photo courtesy of the artist)

Vermont-turned-Brooklyn 4-piece Crinkles have been making music together for years but just released their first LP in April. These guys impressed me when I saw them at opening night of Rooftop Films, and I look forward to hearing more from them.

“Elevator” by Crinkles:

Catching up with Fenster

The first time JJ Weihl and Jonathan Jarzyna met, they ended up playing around a friend’s kitchen table late into the night. And from there, things just started falling into place, including a window, which shattered on Weihl’s head during the whirlwind eight-day recording process, earning the Berlin trio the name Fenster (or “window” in German).
Here’s an interview I conducted with Weihl an Jarzyna about the early stages of their music and their debut album, Bones. Pieces of this interview made it into my Song of the Day write-up for Fenster’s “Oh Canyon” for NPR Music, so be sure to check that out, too.
How did you guys first meet and what made you decide to start making music together? What were the early stages of the band like?
JJ Weihl: The first night Jonathan and I met, we ended up in someone’s kitchen playing music with a bunch of dudes til dawn. It was a pretty natural collaboration. First we started busking together – playing Johnny Cash covers in bars to save some money and build up a studio. We started showing each other song ideas and found we really liked each other’s stuff.

Jonathan Jarzyna: We started playing together more frequently, writing new songs and arranging older song ideas together. In January of 2011, we decided to ask our friend Tadklimp to come record us. That’s when things became more focused and serious I guess.

What made you guys decide to settle in Berlin over Brooklyn?

JJ: We all live and met in Berlin and it’s the city where Fenster began.  It was never really a question. I’m from New York City but I’ve been living in Berlin for the past three years.

Jonathan: I grew up in Berlin, and Rémi [the band’s drummer] and I had never even been to the US before this last five week tour of ours which just ended. I mean, we loved New York but it’s not the easiest place to survive as a musician. We have a great and extremely inexpensive studio here and it’s where we’ve kind of grown up together as a band. We have plans to go back to the states, but Berlin is definitely a good base to have.

“Fisherman” by Fenster:

Is “fenster” German? Where does the name come from and what does it mean to you?

Jonathan: Fenster means window in German. We liked it because it’s sort of empty – just a view or portal to something. And a window fell on JJ’s head and shattered during the recordings of our first album, Bones.

JJ: I guess it’s something you usually ignore; it’s benign yet dangerous, apparently…

Could tell me more about the song “Oh Canyon”? The lyrics are kind of muffled, and once I saw them written out, I was surprised. For a song that sounds so upbeat, it’s kind of dark! What’s going on? 

Jonathan: “Oh Canyon” is about a loser with nothing to lose.

JJ: While the music sounds fairly innocuous, the lyrics beg to differ  “I’d stop the world to watch you fall/I love it when you’re low/ I’d hold the knife that cuts the rope/ I love it when you’ve broke.” The contrast between the music and the lyrics is meant to accentuate the song’s Schadenfreude – like, let’s have a party while we watch you suffer.

Where do the lyrics come from? What inspires you guys in the songwriting process?

JJ: I think we’re inspired a lot by dreams and cities. The way sounds collide with the unconscious – ghosts and traffic and the way some stories only make sense while you’re sleeping– but if you write down those fleeting images, you can still make them walk around in the daylight. 

Is this the first album for both of you or did you have previous musical projects? What was the recording process like? How did recording so quickly shape the sound of the album? Do you wish you had had more time in the studio?

Jonathan: I’ve been in lots of different bands over the years – some bands that toured and recorded a few records and some bands that fell apart before they really got started.

The recording process of Bones was super intense. JJ and I took a month before the recordings even started to make pre-recordings of all our song ideas – like little maps or sketches with musical arrangements and low-fi recordings. We asked our producer Tadklimp to come record the album, but we only had 8 days so we knew we had to be fast. We barely slept, and when we did sleep it was mostly in the studio, but we knew in advance what we wanted so it didn’t really matter how sleep deprived we were. Of course there is always room for happy accidents to emerge like small riffs, or outside noise infiltration – and we wanted it all to be included in the album.

JJ: We like imperfections and errors, so with the skeletons of the songs firmly in place, we allowed ourselves a bit of ornamentation.

I think the fact that we knew we would have so little time made us do a lot of preparation, and to distill our aestehtic at a very early stage in the recording process. Having too much time to prepare or re-work things can be a trap – it seems that things get better or evolve, but really initial ideas and instincts can just get muddier. So I think it was fortunate that we gave ourselves constraints and deadlines. Excess for us often leads to confusion, while limitations can ultimately grant us clarity.

“White to Red” by Fenster:

Listen Up!: 2012 So Far

The weather is just starting to warm back up again, but much of what I’ve been listening to so far this year has been a bit on the glum side. I’ll start with those and work my way to sunnier territory.

Perfume GeniusPut Your Back N 2 It [Matador]
Mike Hadreas continues to wow me with his sophomore album, which proves to be just as harrowing as his debut. Though Hadreas often covers dark emotional terrain (suicide, identity issues, addiction, homophobia), he does so with amazing grace. When he sings, Hadreas seems to somehow cleanse both himself and anyone within earshot.

“Dark Part” by Perfume Genius, live at the Mercury Lounge 4/2/12:

Orcas, s/t [Morr Music]

Given the backgrounds of its two members – hazy ambient dream popper Thomas Meluch (Benoît Pioulard) and post-minimalist composer Rafael Anton Irisarri, Orcas sounds a lot like you might expect, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. Good ruminating music. Someone get this for me on vinyl.

“Pallor Cedes” by Orcas:

Grimes – Visions [4AD]

Grimes was one of the only artists to literally make me stop in my tracks at SXSW last year… or as one friend put it, “I want to stop listening, but I can’t!” Thanks largely to her Muppet-like voice, Claire Boucher’s strange, experimental music feels both cringe-worthy and addictive. But whether you take it or leave, Grimes’ sound is as uplifting as it is infectious.

“Oblivion” by Grimes:

Fenster, Bones [Morr Music]

Fenster, meaning “window” in German, is a whimsical pop trio from Berlin with a dark side and a pension for Schadenfreude. For weeks I didn’t listen to any other album. They have the sparse lo-fi quality and male/female vox that made me fall in love with The xx a few years back… but they also have a warmth that the latter seemed to lack. I just interviewed founding members JJ and Jonathan. Look for that in the coming weeks.

“Oh Canyon” by Fenster:

Is Doo-Wop Dead?

A couple of months ago, I poured over an article detailing the decline of doo-wop with interest. No, I’ve never been a connoisseur of the genre, but it always brought a smile to my face when I heard one of The Ronettes or The Temptations. In fact, those dulcet girl groups and foot-tapping melodies seemed to be creeping up with increased incidence. Hearing a little doo-wop between sets at a trendy indie show is certainly not unusual.

So, in this – the very age of nostalgia – why isn’t doo-wop more popular? Are we simply too cynical to accept it? Might it still have its turn for a comeback? And how do you measure the vitality of a genre? Does it have to keep churning out new artists and producing new music for it to be “alive”?

If you’ve got answers, I’d love to hear them.

In the meantime, here’s a modest little compilation of some of the essentials. Maybe it won’t be enough to rekindle an interest in the genre or to launch a new era of doo-wop groups, but as long as these songs continue to net hundreds of thousands of plays on Youtube – a site that seems to be a far more popular source of boobs and baby animals – the genre hasn’t breathed its dying breath just yet.

“Then He Kissed Me” by The Crystals

“Who Wrote the Book of Love” by The Monotones

"He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world to make friends."

- Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being