CMJ 2015: Jake Isaac and Hooton Tennis Club @ The Living Room

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From left: Callum McFadden, Ryan Murphy, James Madden and Harry Chalmers of Hooton Tennis Club
From left: Callum McFadden, Ryan Murphy, James Madden and Harry Chalmers of Hooton Tennis Club.

I’ve often been called an anglophile. When it comes to my favorite books, movies, music – even people – an alarming amount hail from the U.K. I can’t help it. So imagine my delight upon arriving at The Living Room last Tuesday and seeing the many Union Jack-emblazoned posters hung around the room reading:

Music is Great

Britain and Northern Ireland

The snippets of conversations overheard around me only confirmed: I had accidentally landed at CMJ’s British showcase, hosted by Brit clothier Ben Sherman no less. I wonder how all those Brits felt, caged in by tiny ensigns dotting the stage as if it were a sports arena. It must be strange to feel an average amount of apathy towards your country on a daily basis, and then to be wrapped in the flag and delivered to an American audience. Could you imagine U.S. bands rolling up to London all Stars and Stripes? Somehow we don’t evoke novelty the same way.

Each act performing the showcase dealt with the patriotic décor in their own manner. Soul-folk singer Jake Isaac was a characteristically self-deprecating Englishman, professing that he wasn’t “as rock n’ roll as the last guy.” That’s a cuppa’ tea after sipping from a Styrofoam cup. But regardless of his degree of “rock n’ roll,” Isaac certainly didn’t fall short with his ability to work a room. Early on in his set Isaac unplugged his acoustic, stepped away from his kick drum and into the crowd where onlookers instinctively formed a circle around him as he sang. Isaac’s voice is at once booming and sweet, with just the right amount of rasp; a true soul vocal that sounds so natural it’s as if it’s falling out of his mouth.

CMJ exists largely to introduce and bolster emerging talent, so it’s rare to see a fairly unknown musician have this much charisma and pull with an audience. By the end of his set, Isaac had everyone clapping along and singing call-and-response style, a move I typically find cheesy, but his charm assuaged that reaction. He even made me (momentarily) like a track I otherwise abhor by weaving bits of Bob Marley’s “Don’t Worry About a Thing” into his own song.

I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about Jake Isaac doing big things in a few years time. He’s already got a handful of EPs under his belt (his latest being 2015’s Where We Belong on Rocket Music Records) and clearly knows how to sway an audience. I’d say he’s fit for proper stardom, and deserving of it too.

Hooton Tennis Club, the Liverpool foursome (no, not that Liverpool foursome) were chipper despite being horribly jet lagged. “We got in 36 hours ago, and we still haven’t slept,” quipped lead singer/guitarist Ryan Murphy. The lot of them looked like a pack of scruffy teens that wound up here by accident while cutting gym. But this slack attitude is part and parcel for Hooton. Their sound is effortless and often a product of improvisation-yielding pop songs that are just the right portions catchy and scrappy. But this ease is a good thing.  No one ever said that the best songs sound forced-quite the opposite in fact.

Their first record The Highest Point in Cliff Town is an impressive debut in that it asserts a cohesive sound immediately. This must have been something Heavenly Recordings picked up on, considering they signed them after only three gigs.  The record is heavily rooted in the nineties, and they admit to looking at bands like Deerhunter as massively influential.  There is a shabby professionalism to Hooton-sounding alive while looking exhausted and smothering honeyed pop melodies with lo-fi distortion; a sort of sonic rendering of a pretty boy dressed in dirty clothes.

Mid-way through their set bassist Callum McFadden plucked up a tiny Union Jack, stuck it’s tooth-pick-like pole through the strings in his headstock, and shimmied left to right, making it wave like a naval flag. Whether the gesture was out of patriotism or sarcasm I don’t know-but what would be more British than being sarcastic?

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