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Honorable Mentions

Yo Majesty (Myla DalBesio / Flavorpill)

There's really no shame to coming in second, not when the top tier's talent is essentially unassailable. The following folks each turned in roundly exceptional performances, and, if even half of them live up to their potential, we're gonna need a crane to get them all up the ladder.

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

There's really no shame to coming in second, not when the top tier's talent is essentially unassailable. The following folks each turned in roundly exceptional performances, and, if even half of them live up to their potential, we're gonna need a crane to get them all up the ladder.

The Apes, The Awkward Stage, Bella, The Caribbean, Cut Off Your Hands, Deerhunter, Paul Duncan, The Epochs, Georgie James, Harlem Shakes, Imperial Teen, Islands, Japanther, Kenny Young and the Eggplants, Mates of State, Monomen, No Age, Oh No! Oh My!, Old Time Relijun, Professor Murder, Casey Shea, Leah Siegel, Spoon, Stars Like Fleas, Tiger Bear Wolf, Weston, Yo Majesty


THE APES
- Day 4 @ Knitting Factory

DC band the Apes' expansive keyboards could have been taken from a fantasy movie score but -- even without a guitar -- great drum fills and strong bass lines keep the band in the rock realm. Giving a contemporary feel to the band's classic-rock-influenced sound, Breck Brunson's voice soars with high pitches and crescendos. The band exudes energy that the audience immediately catches -- the crowd dancing like their lives depend on it before eventually making their way onto the stage. Brunson, meanwhile, trades places and finishes the show in the now-empty audience area, surrounded by the few remaining fans on the floor. (KH)

     * Beat of the Double MP3

     * Multiple songs MySpace

THE AWKWARD STAGE
- Day 2 @ Knitting Factory

With six people and nine instruments crowded onto a small stage, Vancouver’s the Awkward Stage played intricate, feel-good pop. Leader Shane Nelken is a particularly solid songwriter with a keen ear for melody and a ripe sense of humor (their most recent release is entitled “Heaven is for Easy Girls"). Catchy and innovative: think Stars without the beeps and whistles or a sunnier version of Broken Social Scene. They really must be putting something in the water up North. (SB)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

BELLA
- Day 2 @ Knitting Factory

After stunner opener Carolyn Mark, Mint Records had to follow up with an equally impressive second act. Bella scored another big hit with a set of synthy keyboard-driven pop. The combination of Tiffany Garrett Sotomayor’s energetic drumming, Charla McCutcheon’s lilting voice, and Cameron Fraser’s solid guitar made for an unendingly peppy set. Surprisingly creative considering the simple lineup of drums, guitar, and keyboards, Bella’s intricate songs bring to mind a pared-down Architecture in Helsinki -- or the Mates of State with, you know, edge. (SB)

     * Give It a Night MP3

     * Multiple songs MySpace

THE CARIBBEAN
- Day 4 @ Mo Pitkins

The Caribbean’s music is quiet and un-flashy on record, rewarding close listening. On this night, though, it required no work at all to understand: the band smartly rocked up their songs, not by playing louder but by emphasizing drums and reckless guitar jams. The pop and mystery of their music were intact, just made more exciting by the added energy. And with the club’s remarkably crisp sound, every note and word hit with its intended impact. (DH)

     * French Radio MP3

     * Multiple songs MySpace

CUT OFF YOUR HANDS
- Day 2 @ The Delancey

Talk about catchy -- these New Zealanders’ tight indie rockers hook the uninitiated from the first chord. A throwback to the mid-‘00s neo-New Wave -- itself a throwback to actual New Wave (anyone remember that?) -- clean drums and thick guitars fall under synthy keyboards. Nick Johnston's power-pop vocal melodies, meanwhile, prop the rock outfit’s dancey tunes with just a bit of yelling. Other bands have done it, but you can’t help but notice Cut Off Your Hands is doing it really, really well. (KH)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

DEERHUNTER
- Day 2 @ Bowery Ballroom

Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox was right to point out that following Dan Deacon (who attained Belle status for his second year running) probably wasn't the best idea ever. It took a lot of the punch out of what was an otherwise solid set from the Atlanta four-piece. Cox's gaunt appearance makes it seem as he's put every ounce of his soul into his music, and, if that's the case, he had a lot to give. Deerhunter tightly delivered a set of emotionally driven, carefully arranged material that was both bristled by distortion and subdued by reverb and delay. These guys can stand up to almost any other show out there, just not the freight train of electricity that is Dan Deacon. (SS)

     * Multiple songs MP3

     * Multiple songs MySpace

PAUL DUNCAN
- Day 4 @ Mo Pitkins

A loop of drifting, cloud-like shapes floated on a screen behind Paul Duncan as he performed; the lights were otherwise off. A small touch, but it put the audience in the right state of mind for contemplative songs with both futuristic and ancient leanings. Electronics and sometimes cello backed songs that were either Nick Drake-like pastoral reveries or meditative chants. This felt like a continual surprise and continual drift -- a soothing moment within a sometimes exhausting festival. (DH)

     * Red Eagle MP3

     * Multiple songs MySpace

THE EPOCHS
- Day 4 @ BAM Café

This Brooklyn-based band blend beautiful pop arrangements with electronic adornments: two members take turns trading vocals that warm your soul while literally swapping guitars. Despite using loops and drum machines, the music is organic and possesses a real emotional core. “Himself” breaks out with quirky escalating melody, as sound blips pair with harmonizing “awwwwwww’s” that have every foot in the place tapping, while “Mouths to Feed” finds a band pulling off the best Radiohead song not recorded by Radiohead. From the perfectly timed drumming to the grooving bass, all the way to the voices that carry through registers during the chorus, the Epochs clearly know how to write a great pop song. (EC)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

GEORGIE JAMES
- Day 5 @ Mercury Lounge

Former Q and Not U-er John Davis fronts this DC act with Laura Burhenn with live help on bass, drums, and electric guitar. Davis brings his rock sensibilities to Burhenn’s singer-songwriter background, helping create guitar-driven indie pop rife with pitch-perfect harmonies. Her keyboard chords back his sometimes blues-tinged strumming, as Burhenn’s beautiful alto shines in songs like the sweetly melodic “Long Week.” But don’t get too comfortable: the pair will go on to hit you in the face with “Need Your Needs”, perhaps their most rock-fueled song, which boasts enough thin guitar twang to get you bopping. (KH)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

HARLEM SHAKES
- Day 5 @ Mercury Lounge

PopMatters wrote a scathing review of this Brooklyn quintet at CMJ 2K5. Looks like they took some lessons: now, two years later, the Shakes are an entirely different band... a good one playing sweet indie-pop and skewed, horn-driven doo wop. When Lexy Benaim sings “we can get drunk at the movies” in a slightly nasal croon, you can hear the affection that makes this love song nothing less than, well, lovely. All other band members sing behind him for a full chorus of '60s-style “oohs”. They added sax to their first song of the set, a nostalgic slow jam that savagely broke into expertly executed discord. Well done, guys. Not quite Belles yet, but you’re all done with Bathroom Breaks. (KH)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

IMPERIAL TEEN
- Day 5 @ Sound Fix

Starting with songs off their wiser, mellower new album was the right move to kick off an early-afternoon Saturday show in a place with a coffee-shop vibe, to an audience that was clearly half-asleep. Imperial Teen did work their way into more rocking, youthful ‘hits’, though, waking us up with pop energy, and volume. A reminder to bring earplugs to next year’s festival if ever there was one. (DH)

     * Shim Sham MP3

     * Multiple songs MySpace

ISLANDS
- Day 3 @ Highline Ballroom

This surf-symphony act is growing into the burly boots the music-media shoemakers have crafted for it, and it's not going to stop anytime soon. Islands draws from an eclectic set of influences that takes brush strokes from sunshiny psychedelic pop, classical composition, and experimental electronica. Their live show communicates a stern dedication to their craft and indicates, to me anyways, that they'll be around for quite a while -- whether they remain critical darlings or not. (SS)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

JAPANTHER
- Day 4 @ Knitting Factory

Take a pop-punk band and rub it with sandpaper: that’s Japanther. The group blends poppy melodies with muddled shoegaze rhythms for a dense, gravelly tone. No element is more or less dominant; every sound is completely woven together. All vocals are sung through telephone receivers, adding a fuzziness that matches the distorted instrumentation. The twosome stop dead for a full rest in the middle of a song, then pick it back up again in unison as if nothing happened. With their fun vocals overlaid with static, Japanther belong as much on a high-school mixtape as an indie-kid’s playlist… and that’s a really good thing. (KH)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

JUSTICE
- Day 5 @ Terminal 5

Hands down, Justice had the most penetrating effect on any audience at the Marathon. Walking through the cavernous, three-story Terminal 5 during their set, it was impossible to turn any corner without coming across someone dancing. The French duo stood behind their fortress of sound -- a towering stack of Marshall amps complete with a glowing crucifix in the center -- and declared war on the crowd. They pummeled the room with a relentless wave of hammering beats and disco-era synths, as a sea of people bounced and flailed in time. I think it's safe to say that these guys are on their way up fast and have taken the reigns as one of the premier electronica acts in the game today. (SS)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

KENNY YOUNG AND THE EGGPLANTS
- Day 4 @ Googie’s Lounge

When I was first perusing the CMJ Festival schedule, I made a mental note to see at least one band just because of their kick-ass/ridiculously absurd name. Made up of enthusiastic frontman Kenny Young, a bass player, and a guy on a drum pad, Kenny Young and the Eggplants presented insightful, funny lyrics in an unassuming and utterly unpretentious way. If the Mountain Goats and They Might Be Giants could somehow musically reproduce under another awesome moniker, this is what it would sound like. (SB)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

MATES OF STATE
- Day 3 @ The Annex

Dudes. Kori Gardner is pregnant. Like, easily about six months or so. She has another person growing inside of her, and yet the Mates of State still managed to rock harder and sound better than 95% of the bands at CMJ. Say what you will about your industry buzz, or about the latest, hottest thing from Norway or Idaho or Turkmenistan. Even at CMJ, there’s a lot to be said for consummate professionalism and experience. Mates of State (and their soon-to-be newest member) say it all. (SB)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

MONOMEN
- Day 2 @ Knitting Factory

What happens when you let a Thompson Twin join Joy Division? I’m guessing it sounds something like Norway’s Monomen. After a scream to start off the set and some unneeded vocal histrionics by the lead singer, the group settled in for the long haul -- playing surprisingly entertaining electro post-punk to satisfy the goth in all of us. They were at their best when all four band members hunched over their respective machines, concentrating on the beats and nothing else. If you wonder what Holy Fuck would sound like during an existential crisis, or what would happen if !!! lost about five members, dropped off the grid, and started reading a lot of Nietzsche, look no further. Monomen is your band. (SB)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

NO AGE
- Day 2 @ Bowery Ballroom

With few of their songs clocking in at more than three minutes, this tenacious LA twosome was built for the Marathon's short-but-sweet 45-minute sets. No Age kicked up the treble right from the onset and powered through nearly a full set of high-octane, noise-afflicted pop-rock. With just a guitar and a drumset at their disposal, No Age's stripped-bare tunes aren't going to win them any song-writing contests, but they do demand attention. And when you finish your set by doling out your guitar to the nearest fan, lifting him on your shoulders, and bouncing around the stage in a makeshift mosh pit, you're gonna get it. (SS)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

OH NO! OH MY!
- Day 2 @ The Delancey

It's nearly impossible not to at least tap your feet to Oh No! Oh My!’s rock-fueled indie pop. They accomplish sparse acoustic-based songs alongside solid rock numbers with high-pitched harmonies, shouting, and call-response vocals. They even add talk-sing verses for a punk feel within a sweet pop ditty. For all of its upbeat danciness, the band still employs badass guitar solos and thundering drums; “Wham Bam Thank You Spaceman” is a hard-rock song with eerie synth beats and scratchy guitars. Even the most cynical CMJer would find it hard not to nod along to such fun, well-executed songs. (KH)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

OLD TIME RELIJUN
- Day 4 @ Knitting Factory

Given that weirdo country noiseniks Old Time Relijun are actually one of the more off-kilter acts at Friday’s Panache showcase, the band should be applauded for reining in the skronk and accentuating the rock. Drums by Germaine Baca provide a galloping beat and clean heavy foundation, like bricks for the other band members to layer upon. Aaron Hartman plays the upright bass as if it were a much smaller electric, and Ben Hartman is impressive on saxophones (yes, plural -- he sometimes plays two at once). Middle Eastern hooks and additional drums, meanwhile, give the rhythm section an extra edge. Never missing a beat, singer Arrington de Dionyso wails over the ambling song structure, rounding out the band’s full, firm sound. (KH)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

PROFESSOR MURDER
- Day 5 @ Mercury Lounge

Who needs a guitar when you have two drummers? Frontman Michael Bell-Smith plays hooks on his set while Andy Craven keeps a consistent dance beat in the back. Even keyboardist Jesse Cohen taps on an electronic drum pad. Tony Plunkett anchors this six-string-less band with deep bass lines while the synth zooms on top. Bell-Smith’s staccato vocals channel a punk-dancehall vibe as he shrieks through purring vocal rolls. The band adds cowbell, a referee whistle, and a rooster crowing noise to their wild percussive sound for an energetic electro-punk performance. (KH)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

LEAH SIEGEL
- Day 4 @ the Living Room

I hadn’t meant to stay for Leah Siegel’s show following Essie Jain, but was persuaded by the noticeable murmurs floating through the room as she set up. Siegel has an impressive set of brassy, belty pipes, with a well-controlled, expressive vibrato that hearkens back to musical stars like Judy Garland and Doris Day. Propulsive, flowing bass lines were the heartbeats of this band, despite some impressive drum work and showy lead-guitar solos. (SB)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

CASEY SHEA
- Day 1 @ Pianos

Casey Shea plays songs to listen to on a Saturday morning while you stay in bed waiting for the shower water to warm. The lead singer of the Lower East Side band Undisputed Heavyweights, Shea used this upbeat solo venture to showcase a bluesy drawl. Enlisting the help of Heavyweight guitarist Jeff Jacobson allowed for two-part harmonies and lilting acoustic guitars. Fellow Heavyweight Wes Verhoeve joined the pair for the closer "Roll Your Windows Down," a slow folk ballad that ended Shea's polished show with a rough-and-ramble a capella chorus. (KH)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

SPOON
- Day 3 @ Blender Theater

Despite their long indie upbringing, Spoon is fundamentally a mainstream rock band. Though better than most musicians that appears on commercial radio, the Austin quartet is not overly unique or experimental, but, instead, unwavering. Britt Daniel’s voice often sounds British and changes depending on what he’s singing -- slightly reminiscent of Lou Reed at slower moments, Liam Gallagher at faster ones. The piano and guitar complement each other, trading dominance over a strong rhythm section. One song with a bit of a ghostly bent exists in the ether where synth sounds hang like fog on an English horse pasture. It's these permeating keys that really distinguish Spoon from other basic rock groups. (KH)

     * The Underdog MP3

     * Multiple songs MySpace

STARS LIKE FLEAS
- Day 5 @ Galapagos

There is a lot going on here: harp, stand-up bass, flugelhorn, piano, a bow-tie-wearing guitarist, and indecipherable vocals. Stars Like Fleas made a lot of noise -- strange and sometimes pretty -- but in an earlier appearance at Mo Pitkins, it was too much to handle. The next day, they proved that setting matters, reigning things in with this inspired set at Galapagos. In a more open room, the same music glowed. Audience members sitting cross-legged on the floor seemed pretentious the first night, but, by the second, I understood. (DH)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

TIGER BEAR WOLF
- Day 2 @ Cake Shop

Tiger Bear Wolf is as manic as its namesake in heat. The band’s eight members can’t fit onstage together, so some are forced to play their twisted orchestral punk from the floor. It's a bizarre hybrid of up-tempo distortion that utilizes trumpet, trombone, cowbell, and chirping bird noises. The vocals come in high-pitched screams and low moans, and the drummer plays so quickly you’re not sure he’s really doing it (could there be another percussionist hiding in the wings?). The band plays feverishly until reining it in with a low, drawn-out finish. (KH)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

WESTON
- Day 1 @ Mercury Lounge

What is it about those crazy hats? Though Weston is a punk band that’s been around for at least 15 years, this year’s CMJ appearance saw the group playing an acoustic show at the decidedly unpunk Mercury Lounge. Sitting on bales of hay, strumming guitars, and singing lyrics about love and loss, it was hard to picture these guys cow-tipping, let alone thrashing around in a punk band. Nevertheless, the simple setting called attention to the structure and lyrics of Weston’s songs, and a roomful of appreciative fans sang along to every word. (SB)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

YO MAJESTY
- Day 3 @ Highline Ballroom

These girls got grit. The one factor that dooms 90 percent of live hip hop acts is that, lyrically deft or not, if you don't control the crowd, you've got no reason to be on stage. This Jacksonville duo were fighting off the flu and still had stage presence to spare. One part lyrical prowess and the other a guttural crunk growl to smack the shine right off Lil Jon's grill, Yo Majesty had the Highline Ballroom whipped as they soldiered through their set, which featured everything from unabashed nudity to fist pumping to the Eurythmics. (SS)

     * Multiple songs MySpace

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