Tuesday, July 11, 2006

week of July 9-15

"Something of an End" - My Brightest Diamond
A quirky, multifaceted pop song with cinematic ups and downs of the Kate Bushian variety, "Something of an End" is a good introduction to the compelling work of Shara Worden, one-time cheerleading captain of the Sufjan Stevens "Illinoisemakers," now doing business as My Brightest Diamond. I am not one to value all quirkiness as good, just as I don't criticize everything quirk-free as bad; I like my quirkiness to come with substance--to be fostered, in other words, by genuine expertise, rather than the boring and ultimately empty impulse to "shock" or "rebel" or simply "be different." I think the fact that Worden's father was a national accordion champion and her mother was a church organist is important; I like too that she studied classical music in college and, later on, studied composition with Australian composer Padma Newsome. "Something of an End" feels composed, in fact--its demarcated sections sounding at once distinct and tightly bound, its melodies and harmonies rich and unsimplistic. Keep your ears on the instrumentation throughout, as Worden uses strings in particular with marvelous flair. "Something of an End" is the opening track on Bring Me The Workhorse, the debut My Brightest Diamond CD, due out in August on Asthmatic Kitty Records. The MP3 is via Worden's web site.

"Breakdown" - Stella (U.S.)
Even as the guitars squonk and blaze, and even as singer Curt Perkins emotes with the best of them, and even though the song is called "Breakdown," there's something joyous in the air here, so powerful is the energy churning around this one. I'm engaged to begin with by how the song launches with a rhythm that manages to stutter and drive at the same time. When Perkins joins in, he's singing mostly one note against, mostly, a tom-tom beat, creating a pulsing sort of urgency--you know it's going somewhere, only it's hard to figure where. I was not prepared, however, for the glistening chorus, which depends upon the vivid arrangement of a simple three-note descent. I think it's Perkins' voice most of all that creates the hook--with the chorus, it becomes more full-bodied, as if there's a howl now hiding just behind the words he sings; and the transition from the five repeated notes that open the chorus to the next note, one step down: there, that's it, that's the moment here, for me, when the song lodges in my gut. Coincidentally enough, Perkins comes from musical parents as well, his father being a classical musician, his mother a Broadway singer. Stella (which adds the U.S. officially to distinguish itself from another, Europe-based Stella) is a quartet based in Nashville; "Breakdown" comes from its "new" CD, American Weekend--the new is in quotes because the album was finished in 1999, but tied up in legal problems for, literally, years. It was legally released, at long last, last week, on Yesman Records.

"Beanbag Chair" - Yo La Tengo
It's been a while since we've heard from this proto-indie, perpetually idiosyncratic Hoboken band. And, actually, when I first listened to this song, it kind of glided past my ears without making much impact. Okay, cute horns, but then what? Ira Kaplan's trademark whispery-wavery vocals, sure. I still wasn't convinced. But after living with it a while, I find myself charmed. I think it was (again) the chorus that did it. For here, in the middle of a peppy, horn-flecked tune comes an unexpectedly delicate, delicately harmonized melody--a melody that might fit comfortably in a folk-pop tune from the late '60s, perhaps, if set in an entirely different musical context. As with "Breakdown," I think I was hooked by more or less one note--in this case, the third note Kaplan sings in the chorus (as usual with YLT, the words are nearly impossible to discern). He's just singing the basic chord triad, starting in the middle, going down to the one note, then up to the five, but the quality of his fragile tenor at the top there, combined with the casual, difficult-to-pin-down backing vocals, makes this an exquisite moment, truly. Make sure not to miss, too, the subtly chaotic bridge section, beginning around 1:40; I won't try to describe it, but for a short while there it sounds like another song is playing at the same time. "Beanbag Chair" will appear on the next Yo La Tengo album, entitled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, set for release in September on Matador Records. The MP3 is via the Matador site.

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