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CMJ's Hottest Bands: 10 Buzz-Worthy Breakouts

Each fall a thousand bands descend on New York City - here's a guide to the best, from the Uglysuit to Ponytail

October 27, 2008 3:25 PM ET

The Uglysuit

One afternoon this summer, Oklahoma City indie-pop sextet the Uglysuit were cruising on a highway on their way to Tulsa's D-Fest to support headliners like the Roots and All-American Rejects. It was a huge step for the band: a rare chance to leave their small town to play one of their biggest gigs yet. But frontman Israel Hindman thought they wouldn't make it when a cop cruised up behind them blaring his sirens. "We thought he was pulling us over, but he just blinked his lights to go around us," he says.

Chances are, the Uglysuit were obeying the speed limit. The group's six mild-mannered members are religious kids who met at a Christian school and honed their chops playing in church bands. On their self-titled debut disc — which they showed off at a packed CMJ show at the Cake Shop — they deliver 10 stunning tunes that range from Brit-pop-style ballads ("Happy Yellow Rainbow") to atmospheric, jazz-tinged explorations ("Brownblue's Passing") to gorgeous piano-powered anthems ("Chicago").

Believe it or not, before Hindman teamed up with his current chamber-pop outfit — which features frontman Colin Bray and his brother Crosby, alongside multi-instrumentalists Kyle Mayfield, Jonathan Martin and Matt Harrison — he fronted various screamo and hardcore bands. "It was just a stage in our life," says Hindman, adding that his parents and teachers were supportive of him playing such rebellious music. "But eventually we just wanted to go from playing fast punk to really touching people's hearts."

The Uglysuit may be a crew of deeply religious kids, but they've taken to the hard lifestyle of playing in a rock band: Mayfield even admits he enjoys a joint from time to time: "Smoking is a wonderful thing," he says. And the rest of the guys have gradually loosened up on pre-show prayer circles. "It's just what happens when you grow older," says Hindman. "Nowadays, it's just like, 'Man, I can't wait to get onstage and just play!' "

So what's up with very-punk-sounding band name? "We've always enjoyed dressing in ugly suits from thrift stores," says Hindman. "Everyone tells us we look like old men. We figured why not just go out front with the idea?" KEVIN O'DONNELL

Izza Kizza

Izza Kizza has never met Kriss Kross, but the tween duo changed his life. "They were the influence that made my career happen," says the Valdosta, Georgia native (born Terry Davis), who started a local rap group at age 11 and rocked a NASA jumpsuit at his Sullivan Hall CMJ showcase. "I would walk around the 'hood doing my verse with 10 dudes behind me, clapping," he recalls. "We did a song called 'It Was the Boom in My Trunk.' We didn't even have a car!"

Now 28, Kizza — who is signed to Timbaland's Mosely Music label and has worked with Missy Elliott — is churning out slightly racier verses. (Sample lyric: "Cool as a motherfucker, I'm Kizza Gretzky/Either respect me or kiss my testes.") But he hasn't lost his playfulness: His mixtape, Kizzaland (out now), is packed with wacky homages to nursery rhymes ("Georgie Porgie"), narcolepsy ("Red Wine") and the sticky-icky ("Ooh La La"). "I used to be a weed-head," he admits.

Pot habits aside, Kizza — who has, at some point, been a crack dealer, a fugitive and a gunshot victim — mostly keeps his past out of his songs. "Why would I want to talk about those experiences?" says the rapper. "That era makes me think about the people I hurt. And getting shot? That shit sucked!"
NICOLE FREHSEE

Chairlift

Chairlift, the indie-pop trio whose "Bruises" became the soundtrack to the newest iPod nano commercial, packed Piano's in what became the most popular CMJ showcase on Wednesday night. "Last year, we played this same exact room and there were only two people in the audience," singer/keyboardist Caroline Polachek said. "One of the people became our manager, and the other was Andrew VanWyngarden of MGMT." During their efficient five-song set they channeled the Zombies' psychedelia on "Garbage," and turned out the Björkish "Make Your Mind Up" and poppy new wave "Planet Health." As for the iPod ad, "Apple found us," Polachek says. "At first, we were like 'There's no way in hell they want us.' " DANIEL KREPS

Ponytail

Originally brought together by a painting professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore art-punk party band Ponytail make a joyful racket with an expressionist swirl of colorful noises, danceable grooves and howled onomatopoeia. Lead singer Molly Siegel spent Tuesday's show at Music Hall of Williamsburg shuddering and gazing at the sky like she was having a private tantrum. Letting loose a pre-verbal stream of ululations, squeals, trills and nonsense, the band cut a primal path that had the heretofore sedate audience clapping and dancing along. With eyes rolled back, a perpetual grin and loose limbs flopping about like a rag-doll's stuffed arms, Siegel's performance was more like a possession ritual than a rock show. When they closed with the aptly named viral MP3 hit "Celebrate the Body Electric (It Came From An Angel)," Siegel was seconds away from doing jumping jacks as the band rode their spastic dance-punk grooves and squishy guitar textures into almost half a dozen climaxes in the song's seven-minute run time. CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN

Bison B.C.

If Mastodon had spent more time listening to Anthrax, they might sound like Vancouver's Bison B.C. At the Knitting Factory's Tap Bar on Thursday night, the quartet fronted by bearded shouters/guitarists James Farwell and Dan And, mixed the speed and riffing of thrash with the low-range crunch of Southern-fried boogie metal, switching from half-time quarter-note thumps to dead sprints without warning, but always with a certain joyful bounce. Any intended evilness was betrayed by bassist Masa Anzai, who couldn't lose his enormous grin while pounding his three-string instrument. Bison thundered through a half-hour's worth of cuts from their debut, Quiet Earth, including the six-minute instrumental opus "Medication" and the stampede of "Primal Emptiness of Outer Space." Heavy, man. Real heavy. Jean-jacket heavy.
CHRIS STEFFEN

Friendly Fires

Mix disco-funk beats with industrial guitar noise and emo lyrics about shacking up with a loved one in a Paris apartment and you've got British four-piece Friendly Fires. At their first of five gigs at Williamsburg Music Hall on October 20th, the band delivered note-perfect versions of cuts from their excellent self-titled debut. That precision was mostly due to the fact that their robo grooves and synthesizer fills came courtesy of drum machines and pre-recorded loops. But there was some spontaneity: singer Ed Macfarlane hopped into the crowd to sing mid-set and occasionally picked up a drumstick to hammer away at a set of cymbals, and guitarist Edd Gibson played a dust buster through his guitar pickups to create what sounded like a kazoo funneled through a distortion pedal. Best part: Watching Macfarlane awkwardly twitch and spazz around the stage like David Byrne circa that "Once in a Lifetime" video.
KEVIN O'DONNELL

School of Seven Bells

There's a tribal quality to School of Seven Bells' synth-rock rave-ups that's echoed in the album art of their debut release, Alpinisms. Onstage at the Fader Fort Friday night, the New York trio — which features Ben Curtis, formerly of psych-rock heavy-hitters Secret Machines on guitar, and twins Claudia and Alejandra Deheza on vocals, synths and guitar — eschewed the album's slow trippy chill-outs and kept the drum-machine pumping and the tempos swift. The band trucks in fuzzy drones and the girls' close harmonies, recalling Stereolab (on "Connjur") and My Bloody Valentine ("Face to Face on High Places"), and their sound glowed like a warm orb in the venue's cavernous loft. CARYN GANZ

The Muslims

San Diego quartet the Muslims coolly combine an obvious love of the Kinks and other Sixties Brit-beat staples with a Strokes-like tautness, generating an exhilaratingly fresh garage-rock hybrid that seems to fizz out of the speakers. It's not hard to see why so many labels are falling over themselves to sign these guys right now (and why their CMJ gigs were all filled to capacity): The chugging "Parasites" is an insanely infectious four-minute thrash, and the way they apply their breakneck signature sound to Spacemen 3's shoe-gaze anthem "Walking With Jesus" is fearless. And before John McCain voters start writing concerned letters about national security, no, they're not actually Muslims. HARDEEP PHULL

Parts & Labor

Brooklyn-based Parts & Labor started out as a Sonic Youth-style noise-rock group, but they've evolved into an outfit that creates highly-structured electro-rock experiments that evoke German kraut-rockers Can or British experimentalists Throbbing Gristle. At the dilapidated Brooklyn venue Death By Audio on October 21th, the quartet unleashed deafening renditions of songs from their killer new disc Receivers, which were heightened by bassist BJ Warshaw and keyboard player Dan Friel tweaking sounds with numerous effects pedals and keyboard buttons. Highlight: the slow-building anthem "Satellites," which builds from a crunchy guitar-powered groove into a gale-force-level wall of keyboard blips, noise-rock guitars and the crew chanting "We roll our eyes back into our heads!" KEVIN O'DONNELL

Sebastien Grainger & The Mountains

Formerly the powerhouse drummer/vocalist in cuddly Canadian noise duo Death From Above 1979, Sebastien Grangier attacks his new role as frontman as if he's overjoyed to be free of the confines of his drum stool. At Wednesday night's Mercury Lounge set, Grainger hopped around, leaned back, tensed up his shoulders, fell to his knees and genuflected to his amp. He was relishing in his version of power-pop: a heavy sound that relies on triumphant choruses and punk energy, equal parts the Replacements and Eddie Money. Grainger was dapper in his overalls and button-down shirt, starkly contrasting with his three-dirtbag backing band who refused to take a break for anything. Even though he's moved from art-rocker to just plain rocker (his new album is due on pop label Saddle Creek), he's still got overwhelming amount of ironic distance, even snarkily adding onstage, "We're just gonna tune our 'axes.' " But don't tell that to the multiple young couples in the audience dancing, cuddling and kissing. CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Tobacco
When he's not fronting the day-glo psychedelic group Black Moth Super Rainbow, Tom Fec (a.k.a. Tobacco) turns out highly tuneful, vocodor-heavy synth-rock jams with titles like "Yum Yum Cult" and "Pink Goo." True, the super-groovy bong-water vibe is very similar to Black Moth's tunes, but when the stuff this jaw-droppingly great, more is definitely better. KEVIN O'DONNELL

Trash Talk
Playing three shows at three venues in one night, Sacramento punk powerhouse Trash Talk lived up to the short, fast and intense spirit that of their debut album — a self-titled blink-and-you-miss-it blur fueled by early, spazzy Black Flag and later, sludgy Black Flag. At the first show at Brooklyn's Europa, lead singer Lee Spielman gave his all, flailing around in the audience, doing somersaults and generally egging on the 50-or-so kids diving on each other's shoulders. On whether they could actually pull off doing three shows in one night, Spielman said, "I'll probably be dead. There's drink tickets at all these shows." CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN

The Coathangers
Playing an unauthorized CMJ show in muggy Brooklyn independent venue Death By Audio on Tuesday night, Atlanta's four-girl dance monster Coathangers got a mix of dancing and awed stares for their unhinged party music — a high-energy mix of no wave and frat-rock. Their short set drew mostly dancing and awed stares, a non-stop barrage of three-part screams, random swears, splintering tambourines and keyboard player Bebe Coathanger, who upped the energy by violently mashing her hands into her instrument. Their second record is due on Suicide Squeeze in April. CRW

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