Monday, November 01, 2004

week of Oct. 31-Nov. 6

"V.O.T.E." - Chris Stamey with Yo La Tengo
We'll begin this week with an Election Day Public Service Announcement, courtesy of the estimable Chris Stamey and the equally estimable Yo La Tengo. "V.O.T.E." is just a 30-second ditty, standard PSA length, and it's as straightforward as can be: go out and vote. You can read a little more about this here. I've linked you to the so-called "Rockin'" version; there is also a "Fifties" version and an "Old A.M. Radio" version (follow the link in the last sentence and you'll find those). I thank an informal group known as "Music Bloggers for Democracy" for calling my attention to this PSA and suggesting that everyone with a music blog link to it this week. If you need any more information about voting, this is a good place to start. While my own political inclination may be clear to anyone paying close attention here, let me add that this is not about who you vote for, it's about voting. In this oh so important election, it's crucial that the president who is elected is the actual choice of an actual majority, not the end result of low voter turnout or other circumstances that might keep voters away from the polls (or votes from being counted, for that matter). That said, back to the music.......

"The Final Arrears" - Mull Historical Society
Colin MacIntyre--doing musical business as the Mull Historical Society--is a master of the 21st-century one-man-band genre. In this day and age, creating all the music and vocals on one's own isn't the hard part; the hard part is making the end result listenable. To my ears, the digital sleight-of-hand utilized to become a one-man-(or woman-) band tends to shrink the space of the music, resulting in songs that sound claustrophobic within a minute or two. MacIntyre, who hails from the Isle of Mull off Scotland's west coast (there really is a Mull Historical Society there), knows how to give us the aural equivalent of a 19th-century landscape: fertile valley, distant mountains, and more sky than seems possible to fit on a canvas. With its lush melody and gracious pacing, "The Final Arrears" succeeds most of all because the lovely touches are applied with care, always towards the goal of allowing the music to breathe and flow. As usual, this is hard to describe in words, but trust me that it's not just about layering and layering effects. And just when we've heard enough, along comes a loopy orchestral break three and a half minutes in, steering the song towards an odd but engaging fade-out. "The Final Arrears" is the lead track on the Mull Historical Society's second CD, Us (XL Recordsings/Beggars Group), released last year; the MP3 can be found on the Beggars Group U.S.A. site. A new CD called This Is Hope was released in the U.K. in July; no word yet on if it's coming out in the U.S.

"Fortress" - Pinback
While one-man bands receive more gee-whizzy attention, there is a venerable two-man band tradition in rock'n'roll as well. This isn't where the two guys play all the instruments, but where a band is formed around two core members (think Steely Dan), with supporting musicians shifting from album to album. Such is the history of San Diego's Pinback, the brainchild of bassist Armistead Burwell Smith IV (honest) and multi-instrumentalist and singer Rob Crow. From the opening bass pulse and the quick drum pick-up, the song has immediate presence and energy; Crow's pleasingly gentle vocals floating on top of the itchy and precise rhythm section help create an ambiance at once urgent and relaxed. For all of the band's impeccable indie-rock credentials, I'd say that "Fortress" brings to mind another talented two-man band straight out of rock's mainstream--Tears for Fears. Consider it a compliment: at their best Tears for Fears combined musical sophistication and pop know-how to great effect. When Crow heads for his upper register--particularly when repeating the words "Nobody move" about two and a half minutes in--I'm hearing "Mad World" in the back of my head. It's a good thing. "Fortress" comes from the CD Summer in Abaddon, released this month on Touch and Go Records. The MP3 can be found on the Touch and Go web site.

"Hula Hoop" - Saratoga Park
I'll admit that when I first heard the peppy-generic acoustic riff in the intro, I cringed in anticipation of a bad-local-band-nightmare sort of effort. Then an electric guitar joins in and I'm paying more attention: is it my imagination or is the electric guitar offering a discordant counterpoint to the
acoustic riff? Not my imagination. Pretty cool. Then Paul Howard opens his mouth--melody spurting in all directions--and I'm hooked. Like Yo La Tengo (them again), Saratoga Park is a quirky band centered around a charmingly down-to-earth pair of husband-wife singer/songwriters who are far more accomplished than their lo-fi affinities might suggest. Be sure not to miss the electric guitar break-out around three minutes in, and how, leading back to that peppy intro, transforms it entirely into something wonderful. Here's one local band--they're based in Vancouver, Washington (who knew?)--that knows what they're doing. "Hula Hoop" comes from the band's self-released 2004 CD The Short Bus; the MP3 is available on the band's web site.

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