This Little Underground: Boyfrndz and JMSN on the rise

Boyfrndz Jim Leatherman

Everybody set for Ralphfest 4 (Feb. 20-22, see page 46)? Well, suit up, because the city's biggest local memorial music festival is about to pop.

The Beat

In case you hadn't noticed, one of the core subtexts of this column is that small shows are the frontier. It's a point I keep hammering because the amazing train of future names that pass through right under your noses shouldn't just be the exclusive province of scene insiders. Tune in.

The latest reminder of this is the return of Austin's Boyfrndz (Feb. 10, Will's Pub). They played a little show at Uncle Lou's back in 2011 and totally fried my brain as a new act and blind discovery. Now, they're a signed band – on heavy Philly label Brutal Panda alongside certified ass-kickers like Whores, Black Tusk, Helms Alee, Cherubs and Kowloon Walled City – and they came back even bigger, better and more complete.

On multiple levels, Boyfrndz are magicians. First, they achieve the curious trick of being both intricate and monolithic. But more cosmically, their experimental rock manages to challenge convention without being an intellectual pill. Oh, they've got more than enough math for the geeks to chew on, but they can connect with the rest of us right at the viscera. That two-in-one there is a pretty rare rabbit to pull out of your hat, and it deserves all the world's credit.

Boyfrndz were already impressive early on with just their music and raw energy. But they're exponentially more so now with a grander, more finished sonic vision and a striking live presentation with their own sharp lighting scheme. Don't sleep on this upward band.

Caddywhompus, their New Orleans tourmates, also pack some wizardry of their own. Complex but not overwrought, the spirited tech-rock of this guitar-and-drums duo proves that angular dynamics and open, skyward melodies need not be mutually exclusive forces. Their approach is every inch as oblique as their name suggests, but rather than getting bogged down in an academic labyrinth, they take to the air with minimalist arrangement and maximalist playing.

Shape shifter: Photos from Boyfrndz, Caddywhompus, Crit and Lanterns at Will’s Pub

Fresh new band Crit was a juicy local discovery. Loaded with members of notable acts like Jr. Meowzer, Flashlights and Surfin' Serf, they actually began as a Weakerthans cover band for the New Year's party at Cloud 9, according to frontman McCarty Johnson. An immediately bright group with real potential, they play beefy, driving '90s-style indie rock that not only allures with a gentle-but-loud sound, but also intrigues with unusual edges and surprises. This is one to watch.

Despite some dubious beginnings, Detroit's Christian Berishaj is finally on his most serious – and most able to be taken seriously – project yet. After some years in the biz doing toolish pop stints as Love Arcade and Christian TV, he's now rising up in the deeper alternative R&B tide as JMSN (pronounced like the whiskey), appearing in guest spots alongside the likes of Kendrick Lamar. Unlike his early commercial-leaning iterations, it looks like he's approaching things from a completely different angle this time. That's a good thing, and the results show.

For a smooth R&B icon, this cat's got zero dressing room needs, looking instead like he just tumbled out of a grimy tour van and directly onto the stage. At his Orlando debut (Feb. 8, Backbooth), he rocked it in shorts, beard and a greasy Jesus mane. But don't get thrown by the grungy image. Like some sort of anti-Timberlake, this guy can lay down that white silk. He's armed with a stylish, airy, falsetto-kissed croon that can wring out the soul without oozing into parody.

Musically, his modern, minimal production is suspended in outer orbit. But in concert, he came packing a real rhythm section that gave his atmospheric sound some nice kick and bite. When Berishaj finally picked up a guitar, they were officially a full, live R&B band.

Tasteful music and creamy vocal curves like his add up to an impressive sum. But even more than that, his performance felt remarkably natural for someone who's a relative new jack to R&B. JMSN's looking pretty legit, and from the size and feel of this crowd, word is getting out.

About The Author

Bao Le-Huu

Music columnist.
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