Monday, May 12, 2008

This week's Fingertips MP3s: free and legal downloads from Stereolab, Tokyo Police Club, and Oh Darling

"Three Women" - Stereolab
     The semi-legendary, relentlessly inscrutable Stereolab--with their sexy vocalist, arcane musical references, and Marxist leanings--may never hit the big time, but they sure know how to entertain the left of center. Perhaps the first band to be called "post-rock," back in the early '90s, this British-based outfit were spinning out intellectually giddy genre-mashups when today's laptop-rockers were in preschool. As I'm not a long-time or super-knowledgeable fan, I always find myself surprised by how sunny and accessible a lot of Stereolab's music sounds at the simple level of listening--never-minding the underpinnings of influence and philosophy. You really don't have to know what they're doing--intermingling krautrock, lounge music, funk, jazz, '60s pop, and contemporary classical minimalism, among other things, leaning on vintage electronic instruments in the process--to like what you're hearing.
     On Fingertips, we last visited with vocalist Lætitia Sadier not too long ago, as her side project Monarde was featured in February; here, she sounds just as sultry-sophisticated (she sings in French again, as she often does), but a bit more light-hearted, as the music this time bubbles along with great pep and texture. Launched off a classic R&B groove, "Three Women" features a sneaky, meandering melody and a bright instrumental coalescence--I'm hearing Farfisa organ, marimba (or, perhaps, vibes?), trumpets, maybe even a celesta--that effortlessly evokes some other time and place without it being quite clear what time or place that might actually be. Sadier purrs, the music rolls along, and if we really have no idea what she's saying or why, well, this is Stereolab. Absorb the vibe, observe the craft, and enjoy the download.
     "Three Women" can be found the band's forthcoming CD Chemical Chords, not due out till August, on Duophonic UHF Disks/4AD. MP3 courtesy of Beggars Group.

"In a Cave" - Tokyo Police Club
     Buzzy, driven, incisive indie pop from a Toronto quartet with a knowledgeable vibe and the added attraction of having a singing bass player (discussed when last we met these guys). This songs strikes me as very smartly constructed--elements added at just the right time, pieces interacting with a casual sort of precision. Example of element added at just the right time: those unexpected, shouting background vocals that chime in at 0:49; example of casually precise interaction: the almost feedbacky guitar line that enters at 0:40 and, first, mimicks the melody line as it's sung but then continues even as the melody moves on (right into the shouting vocal part in fact).
     And what are they singing about? The cave is metaphorical, to be sure, and there's that nice touch about reversing the effects of being in the cave once deciding to leave ("All my hair grows in/Wrinkles leave my skin"), which is skillful way of extending the metaphor; beyond that we get a skittery atmosphere, both musically and lyrically, and we're left to figure out exactly what's going on on our own.
     As per last week's comment about web writers who disparage music when it's not "new" enough, TPC is likely to catch some flak in this regard--and already have, in fact: "Tokyo Police Club aren't smashing templates or changing lives," proclaims Stereogum, "but this stuff is catchy [as hell], easily digestible fun." Here's a clue for you to take around the web: anyone who does that "damning with faint praise" routine is revealing more about their own insecurities than about the subject at hand. Either like something, don't like it, or, even, partially like it--just do so clearly; ground it in observable fact. Is that so hard? "Easily digestible fun" means "this isn't really 'cool' enough for me to like but I like it anyway." Humbug. "In a Cave" is from TPC's debut CD, Elephant Shell (the phrase comes from this song; listen carefully), and is another sign that these guys mean business. It was released last month on Saddle Creek Records.

"Shoulda Never" - Oh Darling
     This one clicks for me in the chorus, at the end of the second line, when the melody steps slightly down, into that unresolved place, and just stays there (around 1:11). Goes to show yet again that you never know where a hook is coming from, or why. And this sort of thing doesn't happen in a vacuum--the whole reason that unresolved detour sounds so apt is because of everything that's come before it. For a relatively new band, these guys have recorded something that glows with preternatural charm and know-how.
     Right away note the juxtaposition of that staccato bass-and-guitar intro, a reliable implement in the rock toolbox at least since the Cars came along, and lead singer Jasmine Ash's pure, almost child-like tone--an intriguing blend that pulls us into "Shoulda Never," establishing the song's subtle push/pull of soft and hard, naive and experienced, female and male (the quartet features two men and two women, and includes a mixed-gender rhythm section--male drummer, female bass). Familiar-sounding in appealing ways, the song also offers its share of subtle surprises, one of my favorites being the whistly, almost flute-like synthesizer that creates a kind of lost-world ambiance, first heard in the instrumental break at 1:24.
     Formed in 2006, Oh Darling self-released an EP at the end of last year. The band's full-length debut is expected out this summer, on Nice Records. "Shoulda Never" can be found on both discs. MP3 courtesy of the band's wonderful-looking web site.

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