CMJ Day 1: Swedish Pop at the Bowery Ballroom

lykke li CMJ Day 1: Swedish Pop at the Bowery BallroomI imagined CMJ’s opening night to be a mightier affair. I envisioned stumbling home with my ears ringing from all the buzz-worthy showcases scattered across Manhattan and Brooklyn, cursing myself for not catching this one or that one. But there was no reason to stress the launch of the annual music and film festival last night. There were really only one, maybe two, must-see performances.

Lykke Li’s headlining gig at the Bowery Ballroom was certainly one of them—a veritable exclamation point at the end of a wildly successful year for the 22-year-old Swede. Lykke Li Zachrisson, as her hippie parents know her, walks a fine line between Euro pop chic and indie-rock eclecticism. In other words, Lykke is uniquely positioned for cross-continental success. Unlike some of her peers—the similarly blond and equally talented Annie and Robyn—Lykke pays no allegiance to pop purism. Released overseas in January and in August here in the states, her debut LP, Youth Novels, is too quirky to be labeled pop without a host of qualifiers: minimalist, gloom, folk, jerry-rigged. There’s hooks a plenty, but they’re laden with oodles of goodies, mostly courtesy of producer Bjorn Yttling (of Peter Bjorn and John). There’s kazoos, classical guitar, strings, cowbells, jittery synths, a stray trumpet. This is pop for junkyard diggers.

All of which is to say that Youth Novels and its insanely catchy lead single “Little Bit,” have been met with spasms of delight this year. Her Bowery show was predictably sold out last night (unlike her non-CMJ gig at the Music Hall of Williamsburg the night before). But before Lykke could go on, I, like everyone else, had to wade through the opening acts—that and the six giant flat-screen televisions in the bar downstairs, each offering various XBox 360 video games, including, of course, Guitar Hero. (Xbox, along with Zune and Doritos, are official CMJ sponsors.)

After London’s Micachu, the first of three opening acts, came Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson—the full name, as far as I could tell, of its guitar-wielding lead singer. While endearing at first, Mr. Robinson and his crew’s shambling pub rock—a sort of manic Crazy Horse—quickly wore thin, particularly Robinson’s yelping tenor. Better not to be under-rehearsed for CMJ, kids. England’s Friendly Fires were a significant improvement. The four lads, none of whom could have been more than 25, ran through a heady mix of electronica, post-punk, and jet-set disco that left their collared shirts sweaty and the crowd dazed and happy. Calling them Britain’s belated answer to Chick Chick Chick (!!!) is a little unfair, particularly considering all the guitar theatrics. A couple of times during his band’s 40-minute set, the guitarist grabbed a dust-buster (or the English version thereof) and ran it up against the pickups of his Fender, creating a series of whopping screams that echoed off the Bowery’s stonewalls.

So yes, good times. But I was tired; the crowds were growing restless. Where was Lykke Li? At around 11:30, she finally strutted onstage clad in her familiar hippie-goth ensemble: black high-heels, black fish-net stockings, black dress, big black tunic, a tangled mass of silver necklaces (one with a peace sign, one with a kazoo), and a mop of shoulder-length blond hair. Lykke may be a pop star in the studio, but she’s all rock onstage. As they did when I saw her at South by Southwest in Austin earlier this spring (often playing to just a handful of fans), tunes like “I’m Good, I’m Gone” and “Dance Dance Dance” jumped off the stage. Lykke’s Spartan stage set-up—one drummer, one guitarist, one keyboardist (all male, all dressed in black, all Burberry model beautiful)—forced her to revel in the songs’ rhythmic force rather then their quirky charm. (Listen, for example, to the difference between the studio version of "Breaking it Up," and a new live video of the same song.) Which, of course, got Lykke high-steppin’ and the crowd hootin’ and howlerin’.

Lykke only has one record to work with, so after she’d played her hits, including the ubiquitous “Little Bit” (“It’s the number one song for girls forever!” exclaimed a woman behind me), Lykke was forced to concede the floor. “I’m a debut artist and I only have ten songs,” she explained. “I have to do some covers, which are almost as good as my songs.” She ran through a snippet of Vampire Weekend’s “Cape Code Kwassa Kwassa,” snuck a sample of KRS-One in the middle of her “Complain Department,” and even transformed Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” into a seemingly improvised hip-hop jam that had the crowd chanting “Obama!”

Throughout it all, Lykke never lost sight of that potent combination of schoolgirl charm and ferocious attitude. And she clearly had a fantastic time. I could hear her necklaces jangling over the racket.