Monday, February 23, 2004

week of Feb. 22-28

"Sun A.M." - Moonbabies
Blondie meets the Cardigans meets some guy with a portable home recording studio in Sweden. This one wins me over in a couple of places: first, when the male vocals kick in in the chorus, that's a spiffy turn of melody there when said male (with the unflappable name of Ola Frick) nudges into a husky falsetto for just a syllable; second, shortly after that, when the guitars erupt like a bunch of rubbery saxophones, just about deconstructing the song on the spot, but nope, not quite, we're right back on the beat and off we go again, soon enough with acoustic guitars gently in the mix. And yet by the time Frick is back with the chorus again, there's now more space to hear the distant, thundery bass drums that were there last time also but I hadn't noticed. I'm pretty well sucked into it by now, however sugary a treat this may be. Moonbabies are (is? I never know how to handle the singular plurality of a band) a Swedish duo; "Sun A.M." comes from their second full-length CD, The Orange Billboard, released in January on Hidden Agenda records.

"Kissing the Lipless" - the Shins
Another shimmering piece of skewed pop from Albuquerque's finest. Driven by an itchy acoustic riff, the song unfolds unusually, its melody bending back and back again as tension is introduced by a sparse, expert use of electric guitar, some brilliant instrumental accents, and lead singer James Mercer's high-pitched expressiveness. What a great name, by the way, the Shins--what an overlooked body part, known only for being kicked, and yet rather important to our overall ability to stand on our own two feet. For a so-called indie band, these guys have a sophisticated grip on rock'n'roll dynamics. Like "So Says I," this song comes from the band's well-regarded 2003 release Chutes Too Narrow, on Sub Pop Records.

"Black Little Stray" - Shannon Wright
Intense, fuzzy, and compelling, "Black Little Stray" alternates between a cockeyed, big-bodied electric guitar riff and tensely quiet, nearly whispered vocal segments. Tanya Donnelly comes to mind as Wright works the edge between loud and soft; there's also something of the great band Television in the angular, sometimes dissonant ferocity of the guitar work. Shannon Wright is a Florida-born, NYC-based singer/songwriter who once fronted the admired indie band Crowsdell in the mid-'90s. I have no idea what she's singing about here, but the overall effect is spooky and effective. This song will be found on her new CD, Over the Sun, scheduled to be released in April on Touch and Go Records.

Monday, February 16, 2004

week of Feb. 15-21

"They Won't Let Me Run" - John Vanderslice
One of the most gifted musicians I've yet uncovered by seeking free and legal MP3s online, John Vanderslice is a powerful songwriter and unerring producer; the music he creates is melodic, beautifully textured, and consistently engaging. This song comes from his new Cellar Door album, released at the end of January on Barsuk Records. "They Won't Let Me Run" tells a sorry tale with an edgy sort of elegance and restraint, and shows off Vanderslice's gift for creating hooks not merely with melody but with instrumental accents--listen here to the repeating synthesizer motif at the end of each verse, and the stylish way it works against the beat to draw you in. If you have a chance, spend some extra time on his web site and check out his older material, including his work in the band MK Ultra. It's like a peep-hole into some grand, alternate, undiscovered musical universe; this stuff is seriously good, but no one (relatively speaking) knows about it. 

"Me and the Bean" - Spoon
The three-piece Austin band Spoon has been around since 1994; such is the frenetic pace of musical trends that in staying together for 10 years or so, the band serves as a link from a bygone sound (punk-roughened indie pop, a la the Pixies) to a newly emerging sound (emo-infused indie pop, a la Death Cab for Cutie), and does it by simply by sounding the same. If that makes sense. Anyway, this song, from the 2001 CD Girls Can Tell, is a concise, edgy confection, brought to life by the unexpected warmth of the keyboard riff and lead singer Britt Daniel's gruff melodicism.

"Better Than Me" - Rachael Davis
A stark track, featuring voice and banjo, but the 22-year-old Davis appears to have the chops to pull it off. With a fetching resemblance to the young Shawn Colvin, this Boston-based singer/songwriter sounds fresh and inspired to me in my current state of mind. Still reeling from my annual confrontation with quote-unquote mainstream music (I really have to learn to lay off the Grammy Awards once and for all), I feel particularly engaged by this sort of song performed by this sort of 22-year-old. Mass media depictions notwithstanding, young musicians in this country are not all about harsh rhythm, schmaltz, and/or heart-stopping shallowness. This song can be found on Davis's one and (to date) only CD, Minor League Deities, released in 2001.

Monday, February 09, 2004

week of Feb. 8-14

Note: The Fingertips server was down most of Sunday, February 8 and also a while on Monday, February 9. I hope these troubles are behind us, but in case you've been having difficulty getting to the site, that's why. Sorry for the inconvenience and/or frustration.

Okay, on to the music:

"I Resign" - the Bigger Lovers
Ah, for the days when bands made pop songs in 6/4 time! Well, okay, actually there never were days like that, but there should've been. Or maybe, against all odds, we're in them now. Here, in any case, are Philadelphia's answer to Fountains of Wayne, the Bigger Lovers, with their own version of pure pop for now-ish people. In a week when the so-called music industry is celebrating (why?) having successfully turned joy into commerce, let those of us who still get the shivers from a wonderful melodic turn or an unexpected harmony (rather than mere vocal histrionics) take the three-minute, sixteen-second gift the Bigger Lovers have offered and sink right into every last bit of it. From the offbeat swagger of the time signature to the offhand expertise of the arrangement to the wondrous climax, two-thirds of the way in, when the bridge melts back into the first verse, but without most of the lyrics, because words are no longer necessary, this is one cool tune. You'll find it on the band's third CD, This Affair Never Happened...And Here are 11 Songs About It, when it comes out next month on Yep Roc Records.

"Ordinary Town" - Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer
When I wasn't listening carefully, the music of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer sounded like country-folk wallpaper--just another acoustic guitar, just another singer with a vague twang, nicely-enough executed, but so what. I'll admit as well to a city person's inherent distrust of the violin when played as a "fiddle." But finally I'm listening carefully and as I do I'm at last hearing Carter's incredibly well-crafted (not to mention philosophically subversive) lyrics, neatly delivered with deadpan grace by Grammer, who smoothes the way for (yes) the fiddle and darn if I kind of sort of like it in this context. I'm sorry I myself hadn't paid more attention when they were still around; the duo was sadly cut short in its career when Dave Carter died suddenly, of a heart attack, in the summer of 2002. This song comes from their final CD, Drum Hat Buddha, released in 2001.

"End With A Fall" - Okkervil River
One of the most mysterious things in the annals of rock'n'roll is the matter of voice--how some bands or musicians can manage to develop a truly individual sound, a sound like themselves and no one else, while others struggle to emerge with a distinct voice, wearing influences a little too noticeably on their sleeves. (And then of course there are those many musicians with so generic a sound that they sound neither like themselves nor like anyone else specifically.) And yet sounding a little or even a lot like someone else, at first, is not necessarily a damning condition. Sometimes that's what a band needs to find its voice, even as there's no guarantee that it ultimately will. In any case, as this startlingly Wilco-like song from the Austin-based band Okkervil River illustrates, there can be a fine line indeed between a pleasing versus an uncomfortable resemblance. But despite the heavy Wilco vibe and singer Will Sheff's Tweedy-esque vocals, this song stands firmly on its own. Right away I hear a wonderful spaciousness in the mix--a literal sense of physical space between the drums, the guitar, and the singer. Spaciousness always pulls me right in, and is only achieved by bands that really know how to use their instruments (including in this case, brilliant shadings from an organ, or maybe more than one). The melodies too are very appealing and long: eight leisurely bars--an anomaly in our melody-free age. From the 2003 CD From the River of Golden Dreams (Jagjaguwar Records), this song grows and grows on me with repeated listens.

Monday, February 02, 2004

week of Feb. 1-7

"War" - Jonatha Brooke
This song, released on Brooke's 1995 CD Plumb, was written for the last Iraq war. I forgive her somewhat heavy-handed lyrics because, heck, at least she tried. (Not many did, or do.) If she could have known back then that this one would come around again quite so specifically, she might have sounded even more exasperated than she already does. "War" is one of the three MP3s Brooke has available to download on her music-filled site, which allows you to stream every song she has recorded. (Another worthwhile MP3 is her passionate take on the Christmas hymn "Emmanuel" as well; I'd have chosen it here but it seems a bit out of season already.)

"Artists Are Boring" - Kingdom Flying Club
Ben Folds meets the Smiths in this affecting yet jaunty little number from a Columbia, Missouri-based band with two (very) small-label CDs to its name. This song comes from the band's 2003 release, Non-Fiction, on Emergency Umbrella Records. Never mind that I'd like this for the title alone; I also like that for all its indie trappings (the not-quite-on-key-all-the-time vocals, the tinkly ambiance), there's something quite accomplished in the vibe here. I also love the fact that I only found out about this small band from Missouri through a recommendation on a French blog. And I can't even read French, and never would have known about the blog (called La Blogothèque) in the first place if one of the people who posts there hadn't written about Fingertips (in French, as noted) last week. So a guy in Philadelphia finds out about an obscure band from Missouri via a blogger in France. Vive l'internet!
"El Paso" - Felix McTeigue
I don't normally recommend MP3s with less than CD-quality audio (or at least near-CD-quality), but I also don't like to have etched-in-stone rules about anything. So when something simple, bittersweet, and disconcertingly haunting like this song comes along, here it is, lower sound quality and all. I don't know if I've ever heard anyone who actually reminds me of Phil Ochs before, but with McTeigue it's a gentle Ochs-ishness, without the passive-aggressive humor/anger. This song ambles along with a loopy sort of grace ("Van Halen's on the radio/The old stuff, Diver Down/Right before David left and Sammy came around"), completely engaging me by the end. McTeigue is a NYC-based singer/songwriter with one CD to his credit, 2001's Felix McTeigue. This comes from that, but probably sounds a little richer on the album.