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Belles of the Ball

Ida Maria (Justin Charles / Flavorpill)

These artists didn't just rise to the CMJ challenge, they cleared the bar by leaps and bounds, offering the best performances of the entire event. What's more, this year's Belles really are up-and-comers, and a pretty international bunch to boot.

PopMatters CMJ crew: Stephanie Butler, Eddie Ciminelli, Dave Heaton, Katy Hershberger, Andrew Phillips, and Steve Stirling

Another CMJ has come and gone and what have we got to show for it? Not a lot... except for a whole rack of unbelievable upstarts and soon-to-be superstars. These artists didn't just rise to the CMJ challenge, they cleared the bar by leaps and bounds, offering the best performances of the entire event. What's more, this year's Belles really are up-and-comers, and a pretty international bunch to boot. Better get it together Yankee Doodles, because the rest of the world is coming, and it's more than ready to rock.


Ida Maria


Ed Askew, Datarock, Deer Tick, The Capstan Shafts, Dan Deacon, Essie Jain, Jukebox the Ghost, Carolyn Mark, New Violators, The Octopus Project, Slaraffenland , The Two Man Gentlemen Band, Wakey! Wakey!

Queen of the World

- Day 2 @ Knitting Factory

OH… MY… GAWD, indeed. By the time Norwegian rocker Ida Maria closes with that, her most popular sing-along phrase, it’s safe to say that I’ve lost all sense of space and time. I’ve fallen into a power-rock paradise where the moments are measured in rip-roaring riffage -- not CMJ showcase schedules. It’s the singer’s first appearance in New York and she doesn’t have a record, yet the camera flashes are blinding -- especially when she hops into the audience, grabs my shoulder, and lets out a body-shaking banshee cry. As modest as the space is, everyone in the room recognizes that an honest-to-God force has landed -- a power-rock goddess, a sure-fire superstar in the making. Whether tossing windmills on guitar, kicking the air, writhing on the floor, or just strutting her stuff, Maria -- backed by three woodwork-reveling blokes -- is unflinchingly earnest. And though her pristine pop songs are catchy and the singer is undeniably adorable, this isn’t some pseudo-rock striptease fantasy for pre-pubescents. Oh no, Ida Maria is a true-blue rocker through and through, and she knows how to bring the hammer down. (AP)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

Belles of the Ball

- Day 3 @ Cake Shop

Talk about an uphill battle: it’s been some 30 years since uber-obscure freaky folkster Ed Askew graced a stage, and when he finally reemerges, his sole accompanist doesn’t show. Casting an affable, aged image, Askew takes the spotlight apologetically, explaining that his Dylan-rasp-to-the-nth-degree dirges require a tiple (an old-school troubadour’s instrument) that isn’t in the room. In an act of unimaginable bravery, the singer decides to up the dissonance (his voice is an acquired taste with accompaniment) stripping his songs bare in a capella performances supplemented with short harmonica fills. The result is an unsung legend at his most vulnerable -- a hauntingly affecting troubadour gone epic in the face of adversity. (AP)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

- Day 5 @ Arlene’s Grocery

NYC’s slowest cabdriver nearly made me miss this miracle: the first-ever live performance by a ‘band’ that previously consisted of one tireless home-recorder, Dean Wells, releasing to a prototypical ‘small but devoted audience’. For his live debut he had a seasoned band learn his songs and then sang, guitar-less, in front of them. It was a genius move. His trusty 4-track recorder gets the job done, but hearing the songs played without fuzz revealed them to be better than anyone knew. What’s greater than finally seeing a band you love play live? Having the music take on a new life before your ears. This invigorating and absolutely revelatory performance confirmed that Wells is one of the great underheard pop-rock songwriters of our time, with smart, funny, moving songs that possess melodies like miracles. I haven’t felt so energized by live music in years. (DH)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

- Day 3 @ Blender Theater

Datarock’s new-wave-infused synth rock deserves its own accolades, but what makes them one of the most notable bands at CMJ is really their commanding live show. Dressed to the semi-sketchy nines, the Norwegian-bred band sport their trademark sweatsuits and shades -- appropriate apparel for choreographed calisthenics. Lead singer Fredrik Saroea crowd surfs while playing guitar and doesn’t miss a note. The band ends by singing along to “Time of My Life” with the original Dirty Dancing soundtrack vocals. Datarock has such an effect over their fans that the audience rocked almost as much to their rendition of the '80s soft-rock hit as the band’s originals. Almost. (KH)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

- Day 2 @ Bowery Ballroom

When sending concert-goers on a high-five relay race around the Bowery Ballroom is the most subdued part of a show, you know you're part of something pretty special. Deacon blew the doors off the Bowery, dishing synthed-up funk and glitched-out beats to caffeinate a packed house. Never relenting, Deacon charged through his hour-long set front and center on the dance floor, while sweat-drenched fans crowded his fold-out table and flashbulbs rained down from the stage above. He didn't let anyone catch a breath until he was through, and once the crowd could draw in a gasp of air there was little more to utter in exhalation but "damn." (SS)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

- Day 3 @ Cake Shop

With a rasp to strip the gravel off Tom Waits’ pavement, Deer Tick singer John McCauley is every bit the alt-Americana superstar. And, while his upper range is more Axl Rose than Waits-style down-and-dirty, he’s every bit as seedy as any Rain Dog: his skeevy moustache masks his age (he’s only 21!), and one can’t help but search to see if he has a pack of smokes rolled up in his shirtsleeve. When his mouth opens, it’s a much more classic, country vision: heart-felt, invigorated old-school Americana rockers coalesce with light twangy distortion, as upright bass ushers in slow-cooking, feel-good swing. In an age overridden with alt-country poseurs, it’s nice to see an indie rocker who could hang in an actual honky-tonk. (AP)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

- Day 4 @ the Living Room

The Living Room on a Friday night seemed like it’d be a chill, low-key location. Little did I know I was about to experience one of the richest, most ethereal female vocalists I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear. Essie Jain’s gentle folk songs might be forgettable if sung by a lesser singer, but her winning stage presence combined with an angelic voice and face to match make for a compelling live show. At times reminiscent of the breathy, husky styles of Cat Power and Beth Gibbons, Jain’s voice was clear and deeply resonant throughout the set. Combine all this with a sweet, lilting vibrato and you have the vocal equivalent of angel food cake with strawberries on top. (SB)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

- Day 1 @ Pianos

Jukebox is obviously a fan favorite -- the top floor of Pianos was positively filled with fans clapping in unison to Jesse Kristin's taps. The band crafts danceable indie rock with unique guitar and keyboard hooks. The three-piece combines Victorian-style keys with bare chords, quick-pounding drums, and the occasional guttural vocal note. Keyboardist Ben Thornwell and guitarist Tommy Siegel share singing duties, mixing catchy "ooh"s with Siegel's "meedely-meedlys" as tinkling piano melodies form the heart of their accessible, single-worthy songs. (KH)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

- Day 2 @ Knitting Factory

This is what CMJ is all about. I walked down to the Knitting Factory’s Tap Bar expecting another mediocre singer-songwriter strumming a guitar and crying into her Jameson’s. Instead, Canadian songstress Carolyn Mark’s relaxed stage presence and playful demeanor lend way to an excellent set of twangalicious country. Mark possesses a voice reminiscent of Loretta Lynn and the same strong sense of melody and phrasing as fellow Canuck (and sometime collaborator) Neko Case. Of course, her music has more humor than the former, and her voice seems more genuine and less reedy than the latter. By the end of the set, I found myself singing along with everyone in the bar, wishing we really could keep listening until the cows came home. (SB)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

- Day 5 @ Mercury Lounge

Between the band's tapered jeans and singer Per Borton’s wide-leg trousers and side-combed coif, New Violators look like they stepped straight out of 1986. The band’s proficiency for killer new-wavey dance rock is equally acute: Borton’s rich voice is like a velvet robe around new-wave instrumentals, three-tiered keyboards, and massive, driving beats. He swings his hips behind his guitar like the dynamic frontman he is, but though he looks the star, Boten can’t overshadow the other three bandmembers -- each powers through their own inspired solos. The melodies fill the venue and then move on to individual audience members, pumping bodies full of the urge to dance to the group's pristine Norwegian pop. (KH)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

- Day 3 @ Highline Ballroom

Prior to the Octopus Project's 40-minute set, Dan Deacon's spazztastic show had kind of set the bar. Oh, how quickly that can change. The Octopus Project are penetrating but still velvety smooth, a perfect marriage of electronica and rock that bursts with ingenuity and passion. Towering guitar played tag with synths and a bit of theremin as they weaved in and out of one another over ratchet-and-clank drum beats. It'll be a tough play to steal the crown from these guys. The Octopus Project just grabbed that thing and ran into the mountains. (SS)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

- Day 5 @ Galapagos

Oh my, this was something -- a burly men’s vocal chorus but also a forceful rock band with a frantic drummer. The men at the front pulled woodwinds or horns from nowhere, or pushed pedals and buttons that shrieked, lending the music even more complexity and texture. The lyrics sounded like challenges, to push further, do better, fight, and the ensemble's music was a fierce, inspiring reminder of the endless possibilities of sound. It seemed like they could do or play anything at any moment, and it would feel absolutely right. (DH)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

I don’t know what it is about banjos, kazoos, and pork-pie hats that makes the kids go crazy, but it’s clear that I’ve seen the future of musical comedy. With an upright bass player, a banjo, a small drum set, and various novelty bells and whistles, retro-Vaudeville pickers the Two Man Gentlemen Band got a jaded crowd of New York industry folk to clap, stomp, and shout out prime numbers (the last for their charming love song “Square Root of Two”). By the time they got around to a sing-along about William Howard Taft (“the last president to wear facial hair”), I was smitten -- these zinger-happy, fast-talking folkies are gentlemen indeed. (SB)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

- Day 1 @ Pianos

Wakey! Wakey! drifted between singer-keyboardist Mike Grubbs' catchy indie pop and powerful balladry, filling the room with lilting piano and rich violins. The band started out strong with an up-tempo song that included an a capella handclap break, then began a powerful ballad with vocals that both push through the drum beat and immediately fall to a whisper. When Grubbs gave the band a rest to perform some songs alone, he made the audience yell a syllable (he decided on "cheese") before launching into an intricate keyboard solo. His go at an ironic cover was actually not ironic at all, but a genuine reworking of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." He moaned his way through the lyrics for a heartbreaking, pared-down conclusion. (KH)

     * Get Away (Here We Go Again) MP3

     * Multiple songs MySpace

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