Monday, November 17, 2003

week of Nov. 16-22

"If I Were Smart" - Shelby Lynne
I've rarely heard an album as impeccably put together as Shelby Lynne's breakthrough CD, 2000's I Am Shelby Lynne. And I'm not one who necessarily likes impeccability as a production value; it's way too easy to seek precision but end up sounding precious and calculating, not to mention cold and boring. And yet the precisely effective choices that were made across the board, song by song, on that wonderful CD, gave the album a warm and inviting sheen, and turned a collection of nice songs into something lasting and memorable. Her next CD, Love, Shelby, was widely regarded as a misstep, and what I heard of it on the radio kept me away from it (although I will admit I've yet to hear the whole thing; hey, no one sends me this stuff, after all!). Her new one, Identity Crisis, is being touted as a return to form, and if this subtle and affecting song is any indication, I believe it.

"Late Bloom" - Amy Ray
Amy Ray's tough edge is often blunted within her Indigo Girls context; this concise, sparkling rocker lets it out in a guitar-driven melodic burst. The song comes from Ray's unjustly overlooked 2001 solo CD Stag. You hardly have to be an Indigo Girls fan to like this one, as they've never recorded anything quite so electric.

"The Little Things" - Matthew Ryan
Gruff, insistent, minor-key toe-tapper from a Pennsylvania singer/songwriter who has recently released his fourth CD, Regret Over the Wires. Don't worry, I had never heard of him before either, but this one makes me curious about what I've been missing. Both in title and in vibe, the song inevitably reminds me of Paul Kelly's "Dumb Things," for those who might remember that lost classic. Consider that a good thing.

* * *

Sunday, November 09, 2003

week of Nov. 9-15

"Tom the Model" - Beth Gibbons
Funny how I had always assumed, with Portishead, that it was the background guy who was responsible for the eerie, kitschy sort of weirdness that permeated the band's music--that, in other words, singer Beth Gibbons just sort floated her distinctive voice on top of the whole crazy, beautiful thing. I'm assuming differently now. Gibbons may be just plain weird herself. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!) This song is from a CD called Out of Season that was released last year in the U.K. and is out now in the U.S.; it is credited both to Gibbons and "Rustin Man," who is apparently a musician named Paul Webb (of the band Talk Talk). "Tom the Model" has in fact more Portishead-ish moments than most of the tunes on the CD, which by and large avoids that group's intense retro-soundtrack-y ambiance in favor of a quavering, downbeat sort of intimacy. I'm not sure at this point that I even like this song all that much, but in listening to it a number of times, I find I'm compelled by it nonetheless. It's a grey area that our "hot or not"-oriented culture overlooks, the idea that something may engage and reward you even if you wouldn't say it was "great" or "hot" or give it five stars or whatever. This is definitely worth a few listens to experience and absorb.

"Get Down Moses" - Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros
Dubby and energy-packed, this comes from the last, posthumous release from the late, lamented Clash co-founder. I'm always struck by how musical Strummer could be at his best. There's something fetchingly insistent about this tune and it probably has a lot to do with his guileless, open-hearted voice. Even when he sung in apparent anger, Strummer could warm my spirit, somehow, just from the sound of his voice. Having this new thing come out now, when there can be no more, is rather too poignant for words.

"Juanita" - Rachel Smith
So cross Sinead O'Connor with Jane Siberry and have the result emerge from a young Canadian musician currently pursuing a master's degree at Harvard and voila!: here's Rachel Smith. This playful, quirky song completely engages me, but I'll readily admit I'm a sucker for a songwriter with an intuitive sense of how to insert odd and unexpected elements into songs. Like what's with those "ah-ah"s in the verses? And okay, I'm also a sucker for songs with accordions in them, not to mention songs with memorable opening lines--in this case, "I'm not afraid of weakness/I'm afraid of power." Any number of things here hook me in; I sense an intelligence at work here and I listen with eager ears. They sure do grow wonderful musicians up there in Canada. "Juanita" comes from Smith's debut, The Clearing, which was released in 2001. Her next album, Famous Secrets, is apparently due out soon.

"Don't Let Us Get Sick" - Jill Sobule
An inspired cover by the sharp-witted Sobule, who carries a complex mix of irony and sincerity in her voice more effectively than almost anyone I can think of--save, perhaps, the recently departed Warren Zevon, who wrote this song. This can be found on Sobule's recently released CD The Folk Years 2003-2003. (That's not a typo.) The premise here seems to be relatively stripped-down production, but it's not just all guitar and voice--check out, for instance, the cool Salvation Army-band sound towards the end of this one. This link takes you to a page with a few MP3s on it; click on the song title to download this song.
We interrupt this blog to bring you an important announcement.

Fingertips, the web site, has a new, simpler address and a new, ad-free look. You'll now find Fingertips at:

Monday, November 03, 2003

week of Nov. 2-8

"Tomorrow on the Runway" - the Innocence Mission
A simple tune, cleanly produced, and beautifully sung, "Tomorrow on the Runway" is sweet, sad, and lovely without being cloying. If you're at all familiar with the Sundays, you may find lead singer Karen Pertis's voice eerily familiar-sounding. This one comes from the Innocence Mission's recent CD, Befriended, which was released in September.

"So Says I" - the Shins
Check out the deep-rooted '60s-pop vibe in this one, from its "Build Me Up Buttercup" swing to its Grass Roots-ish vocals and timely distortions. But "So Says I" is no nostalgia trip; there's something urgent and up-to-date going on here. Content-wise I'm still unpacking this song, as the lyrics rush by in a somewhat indecipherable whirl. But you don't have to understand every word to sense that this is the latest notable addition to that special club of songs presenting dark lyrics to a breezy tune. It occurs to me that this may truly be one of pop music's distinctive gifts, a memorable way to embody the underlying paradox of life itself. For those less in need of metaphorical inspiration, consider this a spiffy little song and leave it at that.

"Ice Water" - Peter Case
Down-home, shuffly folk-blues from a guy who has never managed to get the attention he deserves. One-time leader of American new wave pop group the Plimsouls, Case went on in the '80s and '90s to a solo career as troubadour-style storyteller. This song originally appeared on his highly recommended solo debut Peter Case (released in 1986); this version comes from an album called Thank You St. Jude, which found Case performing a collection of his best songs, rearranged in stripped-down, acoustic versions, recreating the feel of his road show. This one leaps from the speakers with glee and gusto.


Other new items posted to FINGERTIPS since 10/27:

* Badman Recording Co. added to Smaller Labels page (10/28)
* Rainbow Quartz Records added to Smaller Labels page (10/28)
* Frequently Asked Questions page added to site (10/31)