5 great indie discoveries from the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City

Image Credit: Loren Wohl

The 31st annual CMJ Music Marathon took place in New York last week, bringing with it the typical deluge of (mostly) unsigned bands and a ravenous music press fueled by enthusiasm and free booze.

Featuring around 1300 acts spread over 80 venues across Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, the Marathon is as much an athletic test of endurance as the footrace from which it draws its name. But for all those bands looking to be the next xx or Arcade Fire – both of whom emerged triumphant from CMJ performances in years past – and for the savvy journalists looking to find them, it’s an exhausting and irresistible gold rush.

I wasn’t able to see all 1300 bands, of course, but I did nearly kill myself trying to (three consecutive nights ending at 3, 4, and 5am).

The five acts included here are the ones that stood out in what became a blur of dim stages and frantic subway rides. For maximum anticipation, I’ve ranked them in ascending order.

5. Hundred Waters

At the Lower East Side venue Pianos, I caught Gainesville Florida’s Hundred Waters–which a friend eloquently described as “what it would sound like if sea monkeys made music.” After seeing them live I’m almost inclined to agree. Their jittery pastiche of ethereal vocals, inventive percussion, and electronic undertones evokes an eclectic array of comparisons, from Sufjan Stevens to minimalist composer Steve Reich.

But don’t get hung up on those names — they’re signed to Skrillex’s OWSLA label (perhaps the only band on the bro-step king’s imprint that features a flautist) and just toured with the him and Diplo. The standout of the live set was their remarkable, nuanced drummer Josh Dulci, who nimbly handled the band’s polyrhythms and off-kilter time signatures.

4. Lovelife

Lovelife are a team of London lads who recently relocated to Brooklyn. Fronted by Lee Newell – formerly of the buzzy brit-rock group Viva Brother — and Ally Young of Mirrors, a synth-pop act from Brighton, Lovelife have more in common with The Weeknd and ’80s electro-funk than anything back home across the pond. Their self-produced El Regreso EP is a slick marvel of blue-eyed nü-R&B that’s practically dripping with synths and falsetto.

During their show on Thursday at Santos Party House, they ramped up the gravity and the gloom on tracks like “I’m No More” and “Brave Face,” highlighting a sense of anguished grandeur that the record only hints at. Clad entirely in black (of course), the group managed to combine their competing inspirations of the Smiths and D’Angelo — with a Kraftwerk electronic polish, no less — without looking the least bit ridiculous.

3. The Bailen Brothers

The openers of Tammany Hall’s lineup of throwback funk acts and brass bands were, strangely, a posse of white kids in their early 20s. But these ain’t no wannabe revivalists. The Bailen Brothers are lead by two classically-trained twin brothers who sang with the children’s chorus at the Metropolitan Opera, and the group gave a tight, cohesive performance as professional as it was exuberant. The compositions are impressively crisp, with a flawless brass section and two-part vocal harmonies to rival Simon & Garfunkel. Of course, they’re still young, fun-loving dudes, and the attendant energy and humor comes through on songs like “Girls on Bikes are Hot.”

2. Kiven

Speaking of bands whose musical chops exceed their years, the members of Kiven just graduated from the University of Southern California last year. And while they’ve all got day jobs in music marketing, they don’t sound too far from a full-fledged career as musicians themselves. All their work thus far has been self-produced and self-released — come on, they work in music marketing! — but no band with this much talent stays unsigned for long.

At least half the group have jazz or prog backgrounds – guitarist Danny Schnair studied jazz guitar at USC – which makes for a sound that is clean, precise, and rhythmically complex. But there’s also an element of hard rock that infuses their songs with a punky vitality. During their show on the tiny basement stage at the Delancey, the guys thrashed around and launched into extended solos with rock-star panache, piercing the frenzy with razor-sharp three-part harmonies. It was a remarkable marriage of furious prog-metal and grooves so precise you could dress them in Armani.

1. Death Grips

What can be said about Death Grips that hasn’t already been said about the Luftwaffe? They’re not exactly a “discovery” since they’re signed to Epic and are in the middle of a hostile takeover of the blogosphere, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit they were the most fun I had all week. Sandwiched between post-rock duo Buke and Gase and man-of-the-hour Flying Lotus at NPR’s Wednesday night showcase at Le Poisson Rouge, Death Grips came on and laid waste to the place.

Performing before two sideways-turned computer monitors playing what looked like found footage of a home invasion, the group proved to be possibly the only band in existence capable of starting a mosh pit at an NPR event. They also might be the only band in existence whose “Related Artists” section on Spotify includes Shabazz Palaces and Liturgy. It was like a caustic nightmare – a menacingly tattooed MC Ride shrieking into the mic, convincing himself and the audience that he’s a f—ing demon, and Zach Hill nearly leaping into the crowd from his drum kit. Yet it was also sickeningly fun, so much so that Arone Dyer, Buke and Gase’s tiny singer, joined the violence in the pit. When they played “Get Got,” the ferociously glitchy lead track off of The Money Store, the place almost rioted – a moment that, for me, was simultaneously terrifying and life-affirming.

Readers, were you at the festival? Give me your own favorites in the comments below.

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