The CMJ Music Marathon is an aptly-named beast unlike any I’d ever covered: Spread over five days, dozens of venues and hundreds of bands, there’s no way to approach it but picking a few events to check out and plowing ahead without considering what you might be missing out on. Ironically enough, I didn’t wear my press-approved badge once the entire week—and the only people I saw wearing theirs were the type who probably weren’t trying to have sex at any point. Instead, it was a largely insider-y event with a premium placed on networking and socializing—a localized South by Southwest. But the music still came first, because how could it not with so much to see, from the hotly anticipated to the completely unknown? I saw a few dozen bands, but these were the ones I thought worth handing out awards to.
Most Intriguing: Sky Ferreira
Sky Ferreira’s career has developed inconsistently since coming to minor attention some half-decade ago, leaving her in the strange middle ground between nascent star and mismanaged label castoff despite the fact that she’s young enough to still carry the under-21 Xs on the back of her hands when performing. When she comes on in a loosely-draped blouse and a frequently-tugged short skirt that whispers “barely legal,” I can’t help but think of the contradictory feelings between being grossed out at the reviews that leer with lascivious eye at her sexuality as the dominant factor of her music, and acknowledging that a knowingly coquettish presentation is deliberately in effect. The music, too, exists in some middle: Working with Garbage’s Shirley Manson seems to have produced a handful of anonymously grungy nail-draggers, but her best song is the non-Manson, non-rock hurt-girl-at-the-prom retreat “Everything is Embarrassing,” which draws the night’s largest cheer—and, along with being one of 2012’s finest singles, seems like the sonic direction her career should probably take. (The stripped-down balladeering of “Sad Dream” was also nice, despite the ceaseless audience chatter that threatened to drown out her voice.)
But those reservations I have about the knowingness of Ferreira’s image is wiped out when it becomes apparent how convincingly awkward she is: While singing, she leans slightly forward with one arm slouched at her side, like she isn’t quite sure how to carry herself; at one point, she even folds her arms between songs and can’t manage more than a mumbled “Thanks” to the audience. Bizarrely, this is sort of endearing. It makes a certain sense: Imagine making the transition to adulthood in the public eye without producing any definitive persona on which to hinge one’s sense of self: her image, music and career still resemble an Ouroboros of conflicting motivations and impulses, and if the uneven Ghost EP is any indication, it’s all still being worked out. Everything is embarrassing, indeed, but there’s enough going on to keep paying attention.
Most Conflicting But Sure, Why Not: Mac DeMarco
I have no qualms with DeMarco’s music: sunny guitar pop music that glides along a range of moods, from the giddily goofy “Rock and Roll Nightclub” to the pleasantly languid “Ode to Viceroy.” With two albums released in 2012 and seven CMJ shows to his resume, he seems poised as one of those breakout bands you’ll hear about on the blogosphere for days to come. His live show, built on devoted reference to the idealized “rocking out” routine struck by every teenager in his mirror, is quite entertaining, even if there’s a willful deception in the way DeMarco drops to his knees with thrashed head and pained expression during a song’s guitar solo despite the fact that he appears to be playing rhythm most of the time. But there’s something a little irksome about his casual party bro persona, quick to dispense a toothy laugh at the hilarity of his own punchlines, introducing songs with facile titles like “Derek Jeter,” breaking out a robotic Oscar the Grouch voice a little too often during the silences; not that there’s any reason to doubt the sincerity of his affectations but I’m not sure how much the music world needs a new Wavves, especially considering his music is more than strong enough to carry itself without the exaggerated jocularity. That’s a personal quibble, though, and certainly not enough to overwhelm the positives of his music. Let the buzzing begin!