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Ra Ra Riot
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The final day of CMJ is rat race for the finish, and it’s not like An American Tail—modest mice only get so far, Fievel. As the last lap approaches, the only way to win is to back down the competition with a little tail weaving and an unbelievably nasty bite. But what happens when some hotshot set of whiskers skips the gnashing altogether, sprinting by like the race is already run? Well, for that my friends, we create a whole new class of contender…


WHERE DID THEY GET THESE GUYS!?
Ra Ra Riot


BELLES OF THE BALL
Cody Chesnutt, The Mooney Suzuki


HONORABLE MENTION
Bobby Bare Jr., cause co-MOTION!, The Dansettes, Deadstring Brothers, Kevin Devine, Portastatic, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, Saul Williams and CX Kidtronik, The Willowz


NICE TRY, GUY
Bears, Shawn Hewitt, Malajube


BATHROOM BREAKS
The Changes, Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos, Snowden


Where Did they Get These Guys!?

RA RA RIOT @ Midway
Name an out-of-nowhere buzz band. The Arcade Fire? Clap Your Hands? Neither had half of Ra Ra Riot’s energy coming out of the gate (and certainly not eight months after getting together). By far the Belles of the whole gosh-darn ball, the Syracuse-based band played six, count’em, six, CMJ showcases on the strength of a three-song demo. Increasingly aware and unbelievably enthusiastic crowds chattered before and after each performance—clamoring to spend their dough on a full-length record that doesn’t even exist. Why? Meshing airy melodies with butt-shaking beats and pleasant fiddle fills, the group’s anthems are pristine indie poppers whose spirits, once imbibed, are impossible to exorcise. Singer Wesley Miles, is as sweet-voiced as they come—a lovable David Byrne-alike whose words are packed with the wonder and whimsy of everyday action. Cello player Allie Lawn positively rocks her chair, bobbing her head and scrunching her face like an axe-wielding guitarist as the rest of the band powers thorough with unwittingly professional poise. Demos and sporadic shows are all well and good, but if these guys don’t quit their day jobs on their own, we the public will just have to demand it. (AP)


Belles of the Ball

CODY CHESNUTT @ Canal Room
Dressed in a cape of regal reds and golds, Chesnutt saunters out solo to announce his latest opus: an extended piece with multiple movements, from which he will perform selections. Immediately, the yellow flag begins waving furiously in my head: this could be the best thing ever, or a self-indulgent experiment in group torture. Fortunately, Chesnutt’s calculated presentation pays off. His untitled What’s Goin’ On-style soulpera reads like a lucid pass through the modern American songbook—the melodic delirium of Holland-Dozier-Holland, the experimentation of early ‘70s Stevie Wonder, and the conversational political voice of the Minutemen. His performance keeps step as his voice gains poignancy, highlighting a foundation of rock-solid songwriting. Like an NBC Olympic moment, this is what I dream of CMJ being about: an artist seizing the opportunity to demonstrate a measured leap of growth. (DN)


THE MOONEY SUZUKI @ Rebel
The Mooney Suzuki have had a tough couple of years: their major label attempt was ridiculed for its pop-friendly sound and Neptunes production and their outsider glamour diluted when they turned up as School of Rock‘s backing band.  Now, with a fourth album coming on V2, this quintessential NYC garage band seems to have found their feet again…crashing and roaring through People Get Ready gems (“Half My Heart,” “My Dear Persephone”), riffing ecstatically through “Electric Sweat” and “New York Girl,” and turning, on the new songs, even a little bit country. Graham Tyler still spasms and shudders like a guitar-playing Holy Roller and singer Sammy James Jr. still jumps off the drum kit and carries Tyler on his shoulders. Still, you can’t help but feel they’ve emerged from the label wars older, wiser and a tiny bit more appreciative of the chance to rock out, as very few bands can, night after night. (JK)


Honorable Mention

BOBBY BARE JR @ Union Pool
Just Bobby, a guitar and a kick-drum make an unholy racket as the Nashville legend scorches the earth with unfiltered electric blues. His heart-charging, 12-bar rants start at the Delta and rampage all the way up to Muddy Waters’ Chicago. When he pushes these field-gang moans to punk speed, you can hear rock ‘n roll being born again, just like it was the first time. Annihilatingly good. (JK)


cause co-MOTION! @ Northsix Downstairs
An unlikely highlight if ever there was one, cause co-MOTION singer Arno may have the thickest glasses of anyone at CMJ (and that’s saying something). Unabashedly dorky, his tone-deaf screams fall like Dead Milkmen belches, pulling the crowd kicking and screaming into cowpunk’s earlier, seedier age. The music—a wash of trebly, undistorted guitars—is frantic and biting, and even the band’s excursions into surf are unflinchingly abrasive. They may not be bred for bigger stages – strike that, they’re DEFINITELY NOT—but these guys can rock “Punk Rock Girl” in my basement any time. (AP)


THE DANSETTES @ Rebel
Four sharply dressed men in black suits and skinny ties ignite a hard soul “Green Onions” groove, all wall-shaking bass and driving drums. Then the Dansettes—Jamie, Jenny and Leah—shimmy onstage like a Williamsburg Supremes, in matching blue miniskirts, and the hand-clapping, girl-grouping, Stax-worshiping set begins. Each of the Dansettes takes a turn at the mic, pigtailed Jenny channeling Aretha in “The Scales Fell from My Eyes” and instigating a righteous flurry of call-and-response in single “Oh My Oh My.”  The blonde Dansette (didn’t catch the name) has a harder blues edge, wailing through the booty wiggling “Money Tree.” Oh yeah! Shake it! (JK)


DEADSTRING BROTHERS @ Union Pool
All you need to know about Kurt Marschke’s hard-rocking country band is that a) they mid-tour with outlaw countryman Shooter Jennings, b) their aggressive twangy sound is more like Exile on Main Street than contemporary country, and c) they’ve got an exotically beautiful harmony singer, Masha Marijieh, whose razor-cut cheekbones and curtain of straight black hair make her look like Pocahantas’ older, wiser sister. Tight harmonies, dizzying Rhodes runs, sweet lap-steel, and the bootkicking roadhouse blues make this set a winner. But shouldn’t they be the Deadstring Siblings? (JK)


KEVIN DEVINE @ Northsix Downstairs
While pseudo-folkies like Bright Eyes trade on the raw nature of their upper range, the end result isn’t necessarily edgy—sometimes it’s just cloying and unclean. Kevin Devine’s indie-folk takes a page form more pristine artists like the New Amsterdams and Page France—emotive indie rockers with post-pubescent voices that don’t crack in the chorus. His light, nasal tinge is supported by an impressive range, adding oomph to his traditional singer/songwriter fare. His heart-on-sleeve sincerity is welcoming, not overwrought, and the whole package is overwhelmingly likable. Towards the end of his set, he whispers into the mic that this is the biggest show he’s ever played. Not for long. (AP)


PORTASTATIC @ Northsix
Merge records impresario Mac McCaughan knows a thing or two about marketing. While he has a tendency to keen, curling high-pitched vocals around the soft swell of acoustic guitar and violin, he’d never let you call him emo. After all, that pejorative (unfairly applied to the very similar Promise Ring and sometimes attached to McCaughan’s other band, Superchunk) isn’t all that accurate, and, what’s more, it implies a level of overindulgence that isn’t exactly flattering. So, I won’t say that Portastatic are an awesome emo band; instead, let’s just call them a sensitive, often-inspired, indie-rock act. (AP)


WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH @ Northsix Downstairs
A Blood Brothers-style thrash-along—with two back-bending singers—these dino dudes have clearly rocked their fair share of basements. The vocalists trade punk jabs and high-pitched squeals as hard riffs bounce off the walls of North Six’s underground stage. Post-hardcore, post-emo—whatever you’d call it, it’s a dangerous genre, filled with prissy kids unearthing the scars of poor mother-son relationships. But, where similar bands indulge in ridiculous wordplay and simpleminded punk progressions, Dinosaurs let the wall of sound do the talking, indulging in long jams rather than ridiculously weepy tirades. Finally, something worth crying over. (AP)


SAUL WILLIAMS @ Canal Room
Mark my words: fifteen years from now, they will follow. No, I’m not talking about the arrhythmic, staccato flow—today’s poets, from the Game to the members of G-Unit, have co-opted it into their vision of people’s poetry. No, I’m not talking about the trash heap of noise, broken breaks, and double-time leaps—the ‘90s UK-Jamaica soundclash set it off and continue spinning it into deeper mashes. I’m talking about the combination of the above and a sense of purpose. Yes, “the ghetto is dancing off-beat.” Yes, “cash and murder should be added as elements [of hip-hop].” Yes, “maybe microphones shouldn’t be wireless, because they’ve strayed too far from the Source.” So, what does Saul Williams choose to do about it? Make music for the people. The only problem is, it’ll be fifteen years before most people follow. (DN)


THE WILLOWZ @ Rebel
These Orange County primitivists pump up the volume, distortion, and energy for their live show, turning loose-jointed garage blues tunes into crushing rock anthems. A new drummer in the back may be one reason for the intensity; he is in constant, cymbal-slashing, tom-banging motion, and late in the set, even gets a solo. The auxiliary guitar player is fun to watch too, lunging into the speakers for feedback and bicycle kicking the amps. Still it’s Richie James and Jessica’s show, locking eyes and bumping bodies as they crank out the mayhem of “Cons & Tricks.” (JK)


Nice Try, Guy

BEARS @ Northsix Downstairs
CMJ is no place for newbies. Wet behind the ears, though not without promise, Bears play a series of likable indie-pop songs, but the singer’s voice falls in and out of pitch, and the melodies themselves are under-performed. While some plod slowly—clearly their older songs—the upbeat tunes do show true potential, and when the band admits that this is their first out-of-town show (wow, it’s a pretty big gig guys) all criticism is abandoned. This is a band in serious transition, and it’s far too early to say either way. (AP)


SHAWN HEWITT @ Canal Room
Finally, somebody who wants to rock. Canadian singer Shawn Hewitt may sing a little off-key and write indulgent songs at times, but the wailing, the flailing, and the emoting are not for naught. Hewitt holds onto each skronky part and soul clap for dear life, imbuing every moment of his performance with a sense of purpose. The purpose itself is still unclear, but every so often he gets a roll going that tickles the curiosity. Follow the momentum, and let’s see where it goes. (DN)


MALAJUBE @ Northsix
A massive mix of idiosyncratic sounds and post-punk meanderings, Montréal’s Malijube are a delightful, if largely unfocused, mess. Underlying tunes creep through the cracks as back-and-forth screams coalesce in a genuinely jarring mix. At times atonal—but never losing its lock on melody—the band is readymade for the off-kilter college-rock crowd, but there’s still something I’m not quite buying. Maybe it’s just that they’ve shared a scene with Wolf Parade, but these boys are wearing “Montreal Music” like a boys-scout badge. They sure can start a fire, but are they real-deal Eagle Scouts or another set of wistful, wannabe Webelos? (AP)


Bathroom Breaks

THE CHANGES @ Rebel
The ink in my pen runs dry just as this band starts its lukewarm, indie-pop set, and I have to run to the corner deli to buy another one. Too bad. My only record of this Chicago-based, Shins-influenced quartet is a single word: boring. (JK)


MARGOT AND THE NUCLEAR SO AND SOS @ Rebel
An appearance by Thax Douglas signals that this is a Chicago band, big and orchestrated like Head of Femur, sweetly fractious like Bound Stems. The hall is packed just for them, full of 20-something college djs who can sing along to their baroque-pop ditties. It’s bland, emo-leaning stuff, though, made mildly entertaining by the antics of an auxiliary percussionist, who bangs the bass drum taiko style and executes a simian tambourine dance. Nothing special but, given the rapid fans, quite possibly about to be huge. (JK)


SNOWDEN @ Northsix
Bassist Corinne Lee raises her lush upper lip in a pseudo-sexy proclamation of rockstar status. It’s a dare: she’s challenging anyone to question her band’s crunchy cool. Well, I eat a big-boy breakfast and no one’s not gonna trick me with some Cheerio-box trinket. For all their aptitude and epic indie excursions, Snowden aren’t nearly as kickass as they think they are. Someone needs to tell them that acting like a rocker and actually rocking aren’t the same, and, no matter how well you dress up a store-bought brand, it’s no replacement for a homemade breakfast. (AP)

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