(as featured on This Week's Finds, Mar. 23-29)
"When Water Comes to Life" - Cloud Cult
Offbeat, earnest, eventually anthemic chamber pop from one of indie rock's quirkiest outfits, the Minneapolis-based Cloud Cult. Assembled in the middle of the '90s to support singer/songwriter Craig Minowa's ambitious songs, Cloud Cult solidified into a band through the end of the decade and began, with the new century, to record regularly--the new CD, entitled Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes), is the band's seventh of the '00s.
Launching off a gypsy-ish violin riff, "When Water Comes to Life" begins orchestrally, a variety of strings leading the way, both bowed and plucked. Even the drums, when they appear, sound like percussion in an orchestra more than someone banging on a drum kit. Minowa doesn't start singing until about a minute and a half in, and when he does, he repeats a simple, four-line verse over and over, as the music swells and transforms underneath him. The lyrics, meanwhile, are biblical and vaguely apocalyptic (visiting angels, the swirl of death and life, etc.). When the drums become rock'n'roll drums for good, at 2:36, the piece receives a powerful kick, heightened no doubt by the cumulative effect of the repetition and the ongoing musical and lyrical drama.
Cloud Cult was a pioneer in the still-developing "green band" trend, working at a commendably high level of environmental awareness across everything they do (although they do not tend to sing about it). Despite early offers of record contracts with established labels, Minowa kept the band independent largely because no record company could guarantee the level of environmental friendliness, manufacturing-wise, that Minowa's own Earthlogy Records could deliver (i.e. packaging from 100 percent postconsumer recycled, plus nontoxic shrink-wrap; oh, and for everything 1,000 CDs sold, Earthology plants 10 trees). In performance the band apparently offers quite the experience; two of the seven members are listed as "visual artists"--they paint onstage during concerts. Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes) is due out next month on Earthology, in association with the Rebel Group. MP3 via Pitchfork.
"Swimming" - Shelley Short
Chicago's Shelley Short seems singularly able to combine an idiosyncratic approach to acoustic guitar-based songwriting with a warm, welcome, easy-to-listen-to vibe. This ain't no freak folk, in other words. But Short's music does have its subtler oddities, including dissonant chords, unexpected sounds, and offbeat arrangements.
Listen, for example, to the minimal accompaniment utilized in the verse--a series of deliberate, three-note patterns, based on the simple ascensions we hear in the introduction but continually blurred by unexpected harmonics. Throughout the song, when she sings the verses, the accompaniment sticks to these three-note patterns, without any other rhythm or flourish--a simple, unostentatious, but actually very strange way to go about things.
When we get to the chorus, the 1-2-3 rhythm of the three-note pattern is reflected now in the acoustic guitar strum, and the melody slows down to one syllable per triplet. And so without (I don't think) changing the time signature, or the instrumentation in any major way, the chorus sounds like a whole different musical place than the verse did. Again, it's subtle, but distinctive. And get a load of that burbly guitar sound she uses in the second verse, to add to the song's watery setting. Very cool, but if you don't listen carefully you might not notice.
And hey I guess I've got an unintentional watery theme going so far, as "Swimming" comes from the CD Water For The Day, due out next month on Hush Records. MP3 via Hush. (For those who might have missed it, check out too Short's first appearance on Fingertips, back in February 2006.)
"Oh Yeah" - Morning State
End of watery theme, for those keeping score at home. Also, end of quirky theme, as "Oh Yeah" is about as straightforward as its title. Note that this does not mean it is uninteresting or lacking charm. Being unorthodox is not the only way to catch the ear.
This one works, for me, for its tight sense of pace and atmosphere, and for the unaccountably powerful chorus hook, which succeeds in large part via restraint. The verse--with its needly guitar line and steady bashing drum--feels itchy, and creates the sense that it's leading somewhere large and explosive. We get the setup--that single drumbeat at 0:26--and then...we get the bass player, who come to think of it was missing in action till now. He gives the song a satisfying, Split-Enz-y bottom, but nothing otherwise busts out. Russell Ledford sings in succinct, mournful phrases; no yowling for him. And follow the guitars, if you will. They too remain reined in during the chorus, but begin to burst at the seams as they lead into and then accompany the second verse. No one should be surprised when they get to make some noise a bit later on, but even that retains an air of forbearance--after all, how bad-ass a guitar solo can you inject into a two-minute, forty-second song?
Morning State is a quartet from Georgia, based in Atlanta but also considered local in Athens. "Oh Yeah" is a song from the band's debut CD, You Know People I Know People. It's the band's first CD, but, oddly enough, it's the second version of the album. To make what is probably a long and painful story short and unemotional, Morning State spent four months on the album previously, and were four songs into the mixing process, when the record label they were signed with went belly up. The producer offered the band a deal but they couldn't afford it; it was cheaper for them to go to Athens and record the entire album all over again. Which is what they did. The CD will be self-released in May.