Monday, October 29, 2007

Oct. 28-Nov. 3

"Be Unhappy" - Maritime
I like how the basic, wet-blanket lyrical twist here--"Even if you find the love of your life/You could be unhappy for weeks at a time"--is mirrored in the music: at the heart of this peppy, summer-sunny tune are recurring suspended chords that block our sense of simple fulfillment (they're laid out right in the intro, at :03 and :06), like persistent clouds on a beach day. And listen to the guitar that plays these chords--a smooth, old-fashioned-sounding thing that wouldn't seem out of place offering insouciant licks in a jazz bar, and yet somehow, too, commingles successfully with the much itchier, vaguely punky second guitar. My ear even finds singer-guitarist Davey von Bohlen himself embodying the same aesthetic conflict, his high, graceful voice subtly contradicted by a raspiness just below the surface. That the music conveys us eventually to a bunch of "doo-doo-doo-doo"s is the culminating musical oxymoron in a song that so prettily seems to be assuring us that life isn't always pretty. You'll find this one on Maritime's new CD, Heresy and the Hotel Choir, the third album from this accomplished Milwaukee quartet, which was released this month on
Flameshovel Records. [RS]

"Ex-Guru" - the Fiery Furnaces
The Fiery Furnaces are fully a product of the 21st century: a brother-sister duo from suburban Chicago trafficking in oblique, experimental songwriting featuring intermittent snatches of backward-looking pop-rock, with lots of stylistic leaps, sonic mayhem, and lyrical perplexities along the way. Founded officially in Brooklyn in 2000, the Furnaces tend to elicit extreme reactions--some claim Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger as Captain Beefheart-style geniuses, others urge people to throw money out windows rather than pay for what the Fiery Furnaces have recorded. Me, I'm thinking that it's a vast knowledge of and appreciation for the music of the past that fuels their experimentation, which means, if they put their minds to it, they're fully capable of sounding quote-unquote normal too (as, for instance, they did on "Benton Harbor Blues," a previous
TWF pick). "Ex-Guru" gives us, this time, a brisk, ironic/nostalgic piece of rock such as Beck might concoct, delivered with a blasé sort of gusto by Eleanor, who must here know that the recurring lyric "She means nothing to me now" accentuates the aural illusion that a man is singing. (The lyrics, rather plainly about, indeed, an ex-guru, are funny and also I think a little sad.) Be sure to hang around past the Stevie Wonder keyboards to see where else this one wants to go: we get, first, a heavy burst of guitar and synthesizer (1:25) that sounds like the B-52s doing Led Zeppelin, which leads somehow into a baroque-y flute, horn, and harpsichord-like keyboard trio that helps finish things off. "Ex-Guru" is from Widow City, the band's fifth full-length, released earlier this month on Thrill Jockey Records. MP3 courtesy of Paper Thin Walls.

"Imaginary Girl" - the Silver Seas
Easy-going, super-likeable neo-mellow rock. Singer/songwriter Daniel Tashian sounds like a cross between James Taylor and Jackson Browne, with maybe a dash of young Billy Joel thrown in, and the music he crafts with producer/keyboardist Jason Lehning is a lovingly updated version of the kind of thing that was in the air back when JT and JB and BJ were plying their 1974-ish wares--we get something of JT's soulful swing, a bit of JB's star-crossed ache, and an agreeable interplay between the gentle but lively piano (a la Joel), with its cascading arpeggios, and some snappy acoustic guitar work. Tashian and Lehning were until recently doing business, in Nashville, as the Bees (U.S.); when they signed with
Cheap Lullaby Records they changed their name to rid themselves once and for all of the conflict with the British band the Bees. Tashian, by the way, is the son of Barry Tashian, front man for the Remains, the legendary '60s garage rock band from Boston (best known for the single "Don't Look Back," a highlight off the landmark Nuggets collection). "Imaginary Girl" is from the CD High Society, originally self-released in 2006, when the band was still the Bees; it's slated for a national re-release on Cheap Lullaby next month. MP3 courtesy of Cheap Lullaby.

NEWS FROM THE WEB SITE: Time's almost up for getting in on the latest Fingertips contest; the prize is the 3CD Dylan greatest hits package. Three runners-up will receive the single-disc version. Details are here. Deadline for entry is Tuesday October 30.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Oct. 14-20

"Dead Sound" - the Raveonettes
Simple and dense, loud and whispery, retro-y and up-to-date, "Dead Sound" continues this Danish duo's studied--and catchy--deconstruction of American rock'n'roll music from the late '50s and early '60s. What you hear here is what they do: take chords and melodies and guitar sounds that feel old-fashioned and familiar and mash them onto a wacked-out Phil Spector meets My Bloody Valentine assault of difficult-to-pin-down noise. These guys are sticklers for detail and like to constrain themselves (their first album, Whip it On, featured eight songs all in B-flat minor; their second album, Chain Gang of Love, was recorded, on the other hand, almost entirely in the key of B-flat major), which tells me that for better or worse no sonic detail is an accident. Here, I'm especially enjoying the guitar's narrative. It starts as a lonely echo in the background, with a simple remark or two (around 0:44)--kind of like a surf guitar looking for the beach. Next we hear it all but drowning in a buzzy vat of undifferentiated din (around 1:18), later to emerge in the spotlight with a reverb-drenched, Springsteen-y solo (beginning at 1:53) and soon to find its true place with a climactic bit of staccato surf-iness (from 2:20 through 2:32) before melting into the final swirl of noise, a lot of which at that point sounds like a harsh electronic wind. All in three and a half minutes, with appealing boy-girl harmonies. "Dead Sound" is from the Raveonettes' forthcoming album, Lust Lust Lust, scheduled for release next month (internationally; the band is currently without a U.S. label) on London-based
Fierce Panda Records.

"Sweet Love" - Melou
Not the Anita Baker song but its own sort of sleek and sultry. This "Sweet Love" is a slow and seductive cross between mainstream R&B, jazz, dub, and pop. Singer Annie Goodchild has a voice one must inescapably describe as "soulful," for perpetual lack of an effective voice-description vocabulary; her bandmates offer her an appealingly minimalist background texture in which the guitar, sax, bass, and percussion restrain themselves both individually and collectively; when any one of them feels like offering a languid lick or flourish, there's always plenty of aural space in which it can move, and no one abuses the privilege. (The final two minutes, all instrumental, take this skeletal approach through its interesting if maybe overlong denouement.) To me the song is anchored mightily by its juicy chorus, which in its hook illustrates yet again the latent power of three simple notes. Melou is a quintet with a globetrotting biography: Goodchild is from Boston, guitarist and songwriter Maarten Reijnierse is from the Netherlands, and they first got together in Guatemala; now rounded out by an additional mix of American and Dutch players, the quintet recorded its debut album, Communication, in Barcelona. "Sweet Love" is the third track on the album, which was released by Barcelona-based
Whatabout Music in June.

"Halfway to Hollywood" - Dick Prall
A good-natured minor-key shuffle with a few thoughtful touches along the way. Prall's voice occasionally brings Joe Walsh to mind, and of how many 21st-century rockers can we say the same thing? Come to think of it, there's something of Walsh's self-effacing goofiness in the air here as well, for reasons I can't immediately identify. The aforementioned thoughtful touches are a bit easier to pinpoint: the violin that joins surreptitiously at 0:46 and stays to lend a jaunty, '30s-ish style to the melody; the rumbly syncopated thud of tom-toms added to the verse the second time around, beginning at 1:22; and those yodelly yelps with which he finishes the lines at the very end, as he sings, "Say what they want." How does he manage to finish the word "want" with a yodelly "oooo"? Hm, so maybe I can after all identify some of the goofiness too. For good measure I like the way the song quite literally ends: we used to call that a "sting" back in radioland--the last note is banged out and it's over, abruptly. It seems to me that just about everything fades out these days. "Halfway to Hollywood" is from Prall's CD Weightless, released in September on Authentic Records, and the Chicago-based singer/songwriter's fourth. The MP3 is via Prall's

Visit the Fingertips Record Shop for direct links to purchase some of the albums that feature the MP3s you read about here. Look for the yellow-ishi [RS] at the bottom of reviews to indicate when a song's album is available via the Record Shop. When you buy through the Shop, you support Fingertips.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Oct. 14-20

"Make a Plan" - Saturday Looks Good to Me
Deftly built with riffs and sounds and cheery vocals, "Make a Plan" is infused with a charming sort of handmade vibe, like something modeled unexpectedly yet expertly with masking tape and cardboard. The introduction is an immediate example of the odd but sturdy construction I'm talking about--first we get the buoyant acoustic strum, straight out of a Harry Belafonte record or some such thing, then a thin slice of vague and fuzzy electric guitar, which together are capped by a low, fat, echoey line of four descending notes from a different guitar finished off with that comic book-y flanging. The net effect is simultaneously solid and odd. Then comes the kind of kooky melody, a long downward trip of doubled notes, sung with unhurried flair by SLGTM multi-instrumentalist and mastermind Fred Thomas. And how much like Ray Davies is Thomas sounding here? A lot, says me, especially for a guy from Detroit, and more especially when the song hits full Kinks mode during the bridge, from 2:05 through 2:30. I like how a piano suddenly appears at this point too, as if someone had just rolled one into the room so, okay, might as well play it. Saturday Looks Good to Me is an ensemble with a revolving lineup; Thomas has apparently worked with more than 75 people towards the end of putting SLGTM records together since 2000. "Make a Plan" is from the outfit's fourth full-length CD, Fill Up the Room, slated for release next week on
K Records. The MP3 is courtesy of K.

"Headrush" - Hot Springs
Grinding, spunky rock'n'roll from yet another intriguing band from Montreal. This quartet's distinctive sound is immediately dominated by the throaty, quavery voice of singer/guitarist Giselle Webber, who is in full command of what she's doing. After studying the voices of classic jazz singers, Webber found a new way to use hers. "You can contort and find these extra pockets of air in your sinuses and deep down in your gut," she told a Montreal newspaper a couple of years ago, "and eventually I learned that you can sculpt your voice in these crazy ways by fucking up sound inside your throat. That's my favorite way to sing." To be honest, I can't claim that it's my favorite voice to listen to, but the way Webber interacts with this stop-start-y, bottom-heavy music does have a sneaky appeal, combining a comfortable classic-rock drive with something fiercer and untamed. I like the chorus in particular, with its mixture of rushed triplets and dragged-out quarter notes, skipped drumbeats, and jumbled-together words (which are hard to decipher; the first line is "These glasses have been empty for too damn long"). Often I praise lyrics that scan impeccably with the music but for the sake of vehemence there is room in rock for songs in which the drive of the music requires the words to bend to its will. This kind of thing, I think, only works when the singer has a bit of "force of nature" about him or her; from what I'm hearing, I'd say Webber qualifies. "Headrush" is from the debut Hot Springs CD, Volcano (see? force of nature), released last month, in Canada, by the band's Quire Records imprint, via the big label DKD. The MP3 is found on the
band's site.

"See These Bones" - Nada Surf
If this song sounds like a sharp, pristine relic from some disconcertingly long-ago day when songs were songs and bands were bands, one good reason for this is that Nada Surf has been around pretty much since those days--this Brooklyn-based trio formed back in 1992. Or, as they note on their MySpace page, "Nada Surf has been a band 10 years longer than most of their living peers have been out of a car seat." Straightforward and memorable, "See These Bones" is given an assist out of the gate by a good opening line--"Everyone's right and no one is sorry/That's the start and the end of the story"--that in a nutshell describes the sociopolitical impasse in which we find ourselves. The heart of this one is clearly the glowing chorus, featuring one of those classic-sounding, power-pop-affiliated melodies that seems clearly to recall some other song or two (or five) and yet eludes specific identification. The lovely, pining voice of Matthew Caws is, as ever, the ideal vehicle for the soaring bittersweetness on display. "See These Bones" is a way-early peak at the band's next CD, which will be called Lucky and is not scheduled for release on
Barsuk Records until February '08. The MP3 is via Barsuk.

NEWS FROM THE WEB SITE: As noted a couple of days ago, the latest Fingertips Contest is offering as a grand prize the new 3CD Bob Dylan compilation, entitled, simply enough, Dylan. Details
here. The record company is also releasing a single-disc version of this; three of those are available to three runners-up. Deadline for entry is Tuesday October 30. And hey, whether you're a contest entering sort of person or not, if you happen to be a Dylan person, or perhaps would like to be, be sure to check out the iMix I've created featuring 15 Bob Dylan songs that have not once been collected on any of the many different greatest hits and best of compilations that his record label has seen fit to release over the years.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A quick note to let you know that there's a new contest posted on the main Fingertips site: you can enter to win the new 3CD Bob Dylan compilation, which they're simply calling Dylan (probably because they've already used up "Greatest Hits" and "Best Of"). What's notable about this one is that it spans his entire career, from his first CD in 1962 through to last year's Modern Times.

Dylan fans are already complaining--not without some merit--that the collection is pretty much of a retread; given the depth and breadth of Dylan's catalog, even a three-disc collection can end up, as this one has, pretty much just rounding up the usual suspects. One track that qualifies as an obscure gem, not previously collected on any of the other packages of Dylan's best stuff, is the song "Dark Eyes," from his nicely titled but otherwise forgettable 1985 album, Empire Burlesque. There are also a trio of songs from three of Dylan's lesser-heard '90s albums, Under the Red Sky, Good As I Been to You, and the truly great World Gone Wrong. Other than that, lots and lots of pretty high-profile tunes.

While I understand the fans' disgruntlement, the thing is, die-hard Dylan fans already have everything, so simply putting more obscure songs on the collection doesn't give aficionados any more need to own it than a package full of the big, safe hits. And if it's rarities the zealots are looking for, the record company has been reasonably good about offering those over the years through the so-called "Bootleg Series." A package such as Dylan is clearly being aimed at people who maybe don't otherwise have any Dylan CDs. As predictable as it seems to long-time fans, this new triple-CD set is now the best thing a new fan can buy to get lots of the major works in one place.

(Of course, if you enter the contest and win, you won't even have to buy it.)

I think maybe what the Dylan fans are really complaining about is how these packages serve to keep newbie fans continually in the dark about lots of other really good songs. And I completely agree. In fact, I've personally decided to do something about that: I've assembled an iMix playlist featuring 15 really great Dylan songs that have never, any one of them, been collected on any of the greatest hits and best of CDs that have been done to date. You can check it out on iTunes here. They may not be familiar to anyone who's not already a big fan, but these, too, are some wonderful songs. Check it out and see what you think.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Sept. 30-Oct. 6

"For Emma" - Bon Iver
"For Emma" has the steady, wistful ambiance of a determined trudge through the snow on a bright winter's day to fetch something you know in your heart isn't going to be there. Electric guitar lines bend languidly around crisp acoustic guitar chords, sleepy horns offer echoey punctuations in the background, and then, steadiest and wistful-iest of all, there's Justin Vernon--doing musical business as Bon Iver--with his mournful yet adamant falsetto telling some difficult to pin down tale of past love gone (probably) wrong. It's a song at once engaging and elusive: search past the meaty chorus and nicely textured atmosphere and listen for what's there (listen, for one, to how the electric guitar and the horns intertwine sonically) and then also what's not there. Beyond the chorus, and a brief wordless section near the end, Vernon opens his mouth only to sing two lyrical lines separated by a measure of music, and we hear them just twice. Which is to say the song marches along pretty much without any real verses. No wonder it sounds wistful. Vernon recorded this album holed up by himself in a cabin in the woods in the Wisconsin winter, in the wake of the dissolution of his former band, DeYarmond Edison. (No wonder he sounds wistful.) The haunted falsetto is new for this project, which gets its name from the French greeting "Good winter," although Vernon chose to leave off the silent "h" from hiver. "For Emma" is the semi-title track from the first Bon Iver CD, For Emma, Forever Ago, which was self-released in July.

"Quit While You're Ahead" - Southeast Engine
This one has a satisfying bottom-heaviness to it, due to a few different things I'm hearing: first, what sounds like a snare-free drum kit; second, the band's refreshing emphasis of the electric guitar's lower register; and then also the minor key in which the song is set. Southeast Engine is a six-man band but at their core they are led by guitartist/singer Adam Remnant (apparently an out of work middle school teacher) and drummer/percussionist Leo DeLuca, and I think the drum and guitar really drive the sound more than in most larger outfits--both of them play with a loose intensity that doesn't mistake muscle for bashing or rhythm for uniformity. The verses are dominated by the pulsing tom-tom, and some atmospheric guitar work, while Remnant, singing, withholds a bit, a tremulous edge to his voice. At the chorus, the song opens out dramatically, with its one-note lyrical lines enhanced by a phalanx of vocal harmonies, which sound both shouted and turned down at the same time, and its ominous message about the poisoning of our public sphere with lies and deception. Southeast Engine is from Athens--Ohio, not Georgia--but like its more well-known counterpart, also a college town with a spirited music scene. "Quit While You're Ahead" is a song from the band's new CD, A Wheel Within a Wheel, their third full-length, due out next week on
Misra Records. The MP3 is via Misra.

"Pluto" - Clare & the Reasons
Check out the earnest-goofy orchestral setting this one leaps from the starting gates with: all twittering pizzicatos, like some misplaced radio advertisement from the 1940s--pretty hard, I think, not to be charmed. (One of the things that rock'n'roll has yet to learn from classical music is that music can, in fact, instrumentally, be funny, can bring a smile to the face.) And then when Clare Muldaur Manchon starts cooing those earnest-goofy lyrics directly to the icy, undersized, woebegone, no-longer-a-planet, well, this one's a slam dunk, to my ears. "Pluto, I have some frightful news, dear," she begins--and lord, how about that blissful glide from the major to the minor chord as she eases from "news" to "dear," beginning at 0:22; be still my heart! And it's not just Muldaur who's charming us--she's got a coterie of able musicians along for this retro-groovy space ride, including backup singers who deliver jazzy accents and nifty three- (I think) part harmonies, an economical but vivid piano player, and a drummer offering some lovely muted drumming, all the while accompanied by those strings, who pluck and bow as required by the inventive arrangements. Manchon is the daughter of '60s music stalwart Geoff Muldaur; her husband, Olivier, is one of the seven members of the ensemble (he plays violin, piano, and saw). "Pluto" is the lead track on the band's debut CD, The Movie, released on
Frog Stand Records, a label started by Manchon and a friend of hers from her Berklee School of Music days. Thanks to 3hive for this one.

Visit the Fingertips Record Shop for direct links to purchase some of the albums that feature the MP3s you read about here.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Sept. 30-Oct. 6

* There's still time to enter the Ani DiFranco contest, but don't delay. The grand prize is Canon, the nicely-packaged, hand-picked two-disc DiFranco retrospective. Two runners-up will receive a copy of Fingertips: Unwebbed, which will disappear from the shelves here at year's end. There are also five prints of Ani DiFranco artwork available both for the grand prize winner, the runners-up, and two others. So five winners in all! Deadline for entry is Tuesday, October 2.

The Record Shop is now open for business: a page of links taking you directly to where you can buy some of the albums mentioned here week to week (and support Fingertips in the process).

"Adrenaline" - Emma Pollock
Emma Pollock has this heart-rending way of singing happy songs with a sad voice. "This adrenaline rush is keeping me high/Keep it coming around": sure sounds happy. (Sounds like a Phillies fan, I might add.) No doubt the bright piano chords sound happy as well. But her voice has too rich a texture for simple happiness--there's a subtle and soulful abrasion in it, and its substance seems fueled by breath, if that makes any sense. Cross a drawl-free Lucinda Williams with Harriet Wheeler of the Sundays and you're pretty close. In any case, scratch below the surface of the chipper accompaniment and inspirational lyrical snippets and you may both sense and hear that "Adrenaline" is more about life than happiness: there are wonders to be had, but only if you work to get out of your own way, and understand that they often come wrapped in unpredictable packages. "Adrenaline" can be found on Watch the Fireworks, the long-awaited solo debut by the former Delgados singer and guitarist, released in mid-September on 4AD Records. For more information about Pollock, (and to hear another great song of hers) check out the TWF review of "Limbs," released long before the CD arrived, from this past February. The "Adrenaline" MP3 comes via

"He Keeps Me Alive" - Sally Shapiro
Crystalline neo-italo disco from an enigmatic Swede who protects her privacy by forswearing face-to-face interviews and live performances, and by singing under an English-sounding pseudonym. (She is also more the voice than the creative force; Johan Agebjörn is the writer and producer of "Sally Shapiro" music.) And let me quickly add that whatever your preconceived notions about dance music may be (rock'n'roll has always had a testy relationship with dance music, even though rock itself more or less began as dance music), I suggest giving this one a fair shot and actively seeking out its various charms, which include, most prominently: Shapiro's icy-warm, doubletracked delivery; the pristine sonic atmosphere (this song is the musical equivalent of a meticulously cleaned and dusted room, all silver and white, with blonde woods, in the winter sun); and the sweeping and yet controlled melodrama of the chorus, both musically and lyrically. For the heck of it, check out also the piano-like keyboard that comes in around 1:55, a startling bit of organic-seeming sound in a cascade of beats and synthesizers. Shapiro may be on the verge of having a blog-rock cultural moment, though it could also be that the moment, because it's about to be here, has actually already passed. You know how it goes. "He Keeps Me Alive" is a song from Shapiro's CD Disco Romance, which was out last year in Europe, and will be released in North America this month by
Paper Bag Records. MP3 via Paper Bag.

"Anna Leigh" - the Sadies
And the perfect counter-balance to neo-italo-disco is probably something gritty and bluegrassy like this--although note that the boys in the band start this one off kinda smooth-like, with pretty harmonies (note, too, however, the wavery organ sound: all is not necessarily well). Soon enough, in any case, the finger-picking beat kicks in and we're all minor-key and traditional-sounding in pursuit of a forboding tale about a lover who dreams of her lover's demise and is trying to get him not to go on the trip he's about to take. Maybe it's just me but now that I'm thinking about it, I like this stark, fiddle-free approach to bluegrass, which to my ears accentuates the stalwart melody and gripping narrative. The Sadies are a quartet from Toronto who have been recording since 1998. They are perhaps best known these days as having been Neko Case's backup band, but it would seem they deserve a bit of their own spotlight as well. "Anna Leigh" is a song off their latest CD, New Seasons, which comes out this week on
Yep Roc Records.

Visit the Fingertips Record Shop for direct links to purchase some of the albums that feature the MP3s you read about here.