Monday, July 30, 2007

THIS WEEKS FINDS
July 29-Aug. 4

Sorry for the delay this week. For reasons that will remain mysterious, the spam-blog-seeking robots at Blogger latched onto this blog and locked it down for a couple of days, believing in their tiny electronic minds that this was a spam blog. Human reason--for the time being--prevailed and I'm back in business.

"Remission" - Ryan Ferguson
Comfortably incisive from beginning to end, "Remission" is one of those blessed songs with a perfectly balanced feeling between the verse and the chorus. You know how a song can have a great chorus, but the verse is like treading water to get there; or conversely, some songs have a really interesting verse but then the chorus is flavorless. Here the verse is interesting and commanding, and yet leads to--rather than overpowers--the chorus, the brilliance of which is just subtle enough, in turn, not to overshadow the verse. The hidden trick behind all of this here, I think, is the strong working relationship between the words and the music. After that emphatic opening chord sequence--nicely textured with an added xylophone--listen carefully to the lyrics and note not merely the dramatic story line (this does not appear to be another tale of relationship woes, although it might work that way metaphorically) but how uncannily well the words scan with the music--that is, how the rhythm of the music allows the words to be sung exactly how they're spoken, without putting any stress on odd syllables. All too many pop songwriters write without much sensitivity to how the words will scan; whether accidentally or purposefully, Ferguson--previously in the locally popular San Diego quartet No Knife--emerges in this song as a master. "Remission" is from his first full-length solo CD, Only Trying to Help, set for release next month on Better Looking Records. The MP3 is via the Better Looking site. Thanks to the guys at 3hive for the lead.

"Act of War" - Owen Duff
Electric instruments are not required for a musician to create a sense of drive and urgency, as proven ably by this unsigned Briton, who prefers in fact whenever possible to play an actual piano rather than a keyboard. Although basically an unadorned piano and guitar piece (enhanced with thoughtful sound-touches along the way, however), "Act of War" shimmers with both rhythmic and melodic exuberance, underscored by a refreshing dollop of finesse. It's common for solo performers on the acoustic guitar to go explosive rhythmically, pounding more than strumming in an effort to prove their--I don't know: sincerity, musical prowess, emotional depth, who knows. Duff gives us rhythmic depth without pounding, and greatly enhances his offering here with a fetching, pliable melody line, using his delicate, Sufjan-like tenor with unexpected dexterity and gusto. "Act of War" is the opening track from Duff's seven-song debut EP, called A Tunnel, Closing In, which he released last year. The MP3 is available via his web site.

"Run-Away" - Super Furry Animals
The nutty Welshmen are back, singing in English this time, and kinda sorta just in time to provide hungry American pop fans with what is surely one of the summer of '07's spiffiest--albeit nuttiest--summer songs. The fuzzy background sound and Beach Boys-esque melody rockets us straight back to 1965 or so, with a side trip through the Twilight Zone, and our job is to hang on and enjoy the ride. Two keys to this song, to my ears: the two distinct drum patterns (modified Phil Spector beat in the verse; smoother, cymbally pulse in the chorus); and that swoony chorus melody with its wild dips and rises (I love the two notes you hear from about 0:41 to 0:43 in particular--a startling but perfect, Brill Building-y interval). I can't make out the lyrics too well but the moral of the story is crystal clear: "Those who cry and run away/Live to cry another day." The Super Furries have been making their loopy, psychedelic-ish pop since 1993. "Run-Away" is a song from Hey Venus!, their eighth CD, which is due out digitally and on vinyl near the end of August on Rough Trade Records. (The album will not be released in the U.S. on CD until 2008, apparently to coincide with the band's U.S. tour.) Thanks to Gorilla vs. Bear for the head's up. The MP3 is via Beggars Group, which just last week acquired Rough Trade.

Monday, July 23, 2007

THIS WEEK'S FINDS
July 22-28

"Elouise" - Maps
Buzzy, expansive, and richly melodic, "Elouise" is the work of shoegaze-inspired one-man band James Chapman, doing business from his Northampton (UK) home as Maps. But get this: unlike most if not all 21st-century bedroom rockers, Chapman developed his music entirely on a 16-track recorder in his apartment. Meaning he doesn't use computers. That knowledge will change how you hear this one, as the drones and beats and keyboards which drive the evocative, anthemic "Elouise" were all laid down the old-fashioned way, not manipulated by a laptop. (Note that the strings were added later; the album ended up being produced in Iceland by Valgeir Sigurdsson, who has worked extensively with Sigur Rós and Björk.) I'm loving the chorus in particular, with its simple but memorable descending melody line, and then--I'm a sucker for this move--the addition of those two extra beats in the measure beginning at 1:18 (the lyric when he first mentions "Elouise"). Listen too to how the guitars drop out in the chorus, adding to the lushness of the sound there. Chapman churns out humming, atmospheric music that forces everyone who writes about him to mention My Bloody Valentine, but to my ears this song has a lighter and more accessible feel than, by and large, the music that seminal band produced in its day. "Elouise" is from the CD We Can Create, which was released in the U.S. in June on Mute Records. (In the U.K., the CD came out in May and was last week one of 12 albums placed on the short list for this year's Mercury Prize.) The MP3 is available via Insound.

"Sinking Ships" - the Archibalds
Friendly, strumming acoustic guitars lead us into a good-natured, back-country rave-up with an unmistakable zydeco flavor, minus the accordion. And lookee here, as unlike as this one is from the Maps song above, the zydeco feel is responsible for one distinct similarity: the measure with the two extra beats, which you can hear here as soon as singer Joey Thompson opens his mouth (at 0:23, as he sings "Hey there, Mister Boll Weevil"). And once Thompson opens his mouth, extra beats or no, I'm hooked--as a singer, he's got one of those round, personality-laced voices that brings Ray Davies to mind, and as a songwriter he's got a casual, John Fogerty-like knack for neighborly, classic-sounding melodies. A quartet from Austin, the Archibalds play with the real-time gusto of a band that records live (whether they do or not); "Sinking Ships" is a song from the band's debut CD, O Camellia, which was released in March, jointly, by Breakfast Mascot Records and Austin's Superpop Records. The MP3 is courtesy of Breakfast Mascot.

"Horse and I" - Bat For Lashes
And it has inadvertently turned into Mercury Prize week, as Bat For Lashes, like Maps above, is one of the 12 finalists for the U.K.'s Mercury Prize for album of the year, as announced last Tuesday. As with Maps, Bat For Lashes also sounds like the name of a band but is one person--in this case, 27-year-old Natasha Khan. Building off an unadorned, almost awkwardly plain keyboard riff, "Horse and I" unfolds in an unhurried manner. Khan enters, singing, after half a minute; a ghostly synthesizer joins in shortly thereafter; and then, intriguingly, about halfway through, a military drumbeat takes on the rhythm of the keyboard riff, which now makes further sense in retrospect. Khan by the way has a marvelous voice--breathy and vulnerable in the lower register, achy-urgent in the upper register. The song has a fairy-tale vibe (horses, woods, destiny, etc.) that might be a bit precious were it not for the formidability of the music and arrangement. I'm especially taken by the juxtaposition of the other-worldly synthesizer and the martial beat--it's a combination I can't recall hearing simultaneously before (the short duet between the two sounds at 1:24 is an oddball highlight here). "Horse and I" is the lead track from the debut Bat For Lashes CD Fur and Gold, which was released last September in the U.K. on Echo Records; its U.S. release is scheduled for next week, on Caroline Records.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

THIS WEEK'S FINDS
July 8-14

"Deep Frieze" - Chris Letcher
Smartly put together and sharply produced, "Deep Frieze" offers a gratifying union of acoustic, electric, and electronic sounds, linked beneath rich, almost choral-like vocalizing. A crisply strummed acoustic guitar lies at the heart of this midtempo rocker, but other rewarding guitar sounds come to fore as well, along with a battery of good-natured knob-twiddly noises. I like how this song feels so ornate without actually wasting a whole lot of aural space: it sounds very layered and yet you can easily, at any point, pick out and label everything you're hearing--which isn't often the case when bands aim in this sort of baroque direction. Chris Letcher is a South African musician now based in London, and studying composition at the Royal College of Music, no less. In South Africa, he was part of a successful '90s band called Urban Creep. "Deep Frieze" is a track from Letcher's CD Frieze, which was released in March on the Sheer/2 Feet label. (In South Africa, it was out in November 2006, while in Europe, release is slated for September; globalization in music is sometimes very complicated.)

"Dancing Behind My Eyelids" - Múm
So this one takes a little while to get going: one minute of slow and quiet noodling, 20 seconds of a bit more activity, then a good half minute of engaging rhythm and instrumental melody, leading surely into...well, oops, there's another 20 seconds of quiet noodling. The singing starts at 2:30, which is bizarrely late, especially in song that's just about four minutes long. All in all a recipe for the kind of thing I don't have patience for, and yet in this case, I find myself rather charmed. Why? I'll tell you: I'm not sure. Maybe it's the happy tone of the noodly notes--those are very friendly-sounding synthesizers offering that reverie of a duet: the staccato pulse of a bass-like sound below and a chimey companion playing a smeerier sort of pulse up above. A drum at 1:00 breaks the trance and sets up a full-out breakthrough at 1:21, a wonderfully engaging bit of driving but melodic electronics, enlivened by starbursts of synthesizer glissandos. At this point it sounds like everyone's having so much fun--Múm is seven members strong--that the singers perhaps have forgotten their cues. There is a reprise of the noodly part with a friendly animal sort of noise added to the mix. Then the singing, and it's a strong ascending melody line we get from two singers who are not in fact the baby-voiced Kristín Valtýsdóttir, who has left the band. The melody line repeats four times, with -- still! -- instrumental breaks and we're through. Is this even a song? Not sure. But it will be on the Icelandic band's mysterious new CD, Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy, scheduled for release in September on Fat Cat Records. MP3 via Pitchfork.

"She's In Love" - Fourth of July
From semi-avant-garde not-quite-song-writing we go to pure easygoing indie pop. What makes this a killer track, however, is that underneath the goofy-peppy sound is a genuinely poignant tale of love gone awry. So yes we're in the land of "happy sound, sad lyrics" that is one of pop music's special gifts to the world. The endearing, vaguely sloppy vibe here belies the precision of the song, from the well-placed, more interesting than you might realize "ba ba ba" background vocals to the short-story-like quality of the lyrics. Singer/songwriter Brendan Hangauer utilizes the slick trick of opening and closing the song with the same lines: "She's in love with a photograph/And the idea things could last/Goddamn, I never thought of that"; and when you hear it the second time your heart kind of breaks. Fourth of July is a six-piece band from Lawrence, Kansas that came to life in 2001 as Hangauer's solo project. "She's In Love" is from the CD Fourth of July On the Plains, released in June on Range Life Records. The MP3 can be found on Insound, and also on Lawrence.com (I'm using the latter so it'll register on the Streampad player; Insound's MP3s don't).

Monday, July 02, 2007

THIS WEEK'S FINDS
July 1-7

"Intelligentactile 101" - Jesca Hoop
There's a Björk-like friskiness enlivening this song, from its invented-word title to Hoop's somewhat pixie-ish delivery. At the same time, this Northern California-born, LA-based singer/songwriter exudes a laid-back cool that's far more akin to a young Rickie Lee Jones than to the Icelandic wonder (Björk may be a lot of things but laid back isn't really one of them). "Intelligentactile 101" springs along with a finger-tapping boppiness, and in the boppy course of things Hoop rather casually gives us a generous array of melodies (there seem to be four distinct sections: verse, bridge, chorus, and something else) to capture her trippy lyrics, along with a winsome assortment of percussive accents, from clacky to tinkly to whirry. The opening melody has a particularly lovely lilt to it, but she slyly withholds its full effect until the song is more than half over: listen to how the same melody that opens the song (0:10-0:16) sounds later on, fleshed out ever so slightly with an elastic bass and spacey keyboard, enough to open our ears to the chord progression that lay latent beneath the tune. "Intelligentactile 101" is a song from Hoop's forthcoming debut CD, Kismet, scheduled for a September release on 3Entertainment/Red Ink, a Columbia imprint. Thanks to Filter Magazine for the head's up.

"White Dove" - John Vanderslice
Another slice of harsh reality served up with passion, precision, and beauty by one of his generation's leading, if under-publicized, singer/songwriters. Driven by fuzzed-out guitars, "White Dove" nevertheless leaves a lot of aural space in and around its attack; there are quiet sections, the acoustic guitar remains central throughout, and there are moments where the silence in between instruments is used as its own sort of beat. This approach strikes me as the musical equivalent of a movie that terrifies more for what it doesn't show than for what it does. Here, a horrible story from the past is retold, along with its lingering effect on the present, suggesting the pointlessness of expecting anything resembling peace here in the human realm and yet also, I think, the necessity of holding on to that dream. Or maybe that's just my personal addition. In any case, if you are not yet familiar with Vanderslice, a multiple TWFer, I urge you to explore his generous free and legal offerings; more details here, in the Select Artist Guide. "White Dove" is a song from his new CD, Emerald City, due out later this month on Barsuk Records. (Emerald City by the way is his caustic way of referring to the Green Zone in Baghdad; no, we're not in Kansas anymore.) MP3 via the Barsuk site.

"Rootwings" - the Sheds
Popular music's internet age has given birth to a whole heck of a lot of indie-rock duos--the duo being the most DIY-ish way of being a band, I suppose (less equipment, fewer people to pay, etc.). What they tend to possess in spirit and productivity, however, duos seem commonly to lack in songwriting acumen--a fact which makes Burlington, Kentucky's premier contribution to the field of indie-rock duos so unexpectedly wonderful. The Sheds feature a croony but homespuny vocalist, simple but personable arrangements, and truly rewarding music and lyrics. Also, female backing vocals when you least expect it. "Rootwings" is both short and truly sweet, and one of a number of nice songs from the band's latest CD You've Got a Light, which was self-released this spring and available, in its entirety, via free and legal download on the band's web site.