Sunday, December 28, 2003

week of Dec. 28-Jan. 3

"Dirty Diesel" - Paul Westerberg
It's a train song, and come to think of it, it makes perfect sense. Having (barely) survived his rough-and-tumble days leading the Replacements, Westerberg has emerged against the odds as a traditionalist, of the Keith Richards school, holding down his own particular, goofy corner of the rock'n'roll fort. And there sure does seem to be something endlessly inspiring about trains to the traditionalists of the world. The song itself is a bluesy chugger, not all that earthshaking, but well worth hearing for Westerberg's casually brilliant guitar work, and that endearing voice of his.

"The Soldiering Life" - the Decemberists
Not enough rock bands bring to mind Al Stewart anymore; this Portland, Ore.-based outfit gets points for that right off the bat. There's a fragile, 19th-century jauntiness to this song that seems particularly poignant given the harshness of the lyrical tableau. And just when you're not sure exactly if this is going anywhere, it breaks into a full-bodied chorus that's downright memorable. There's something here that recalls the Auteurs, as well, for those who know of that distinctive band's work. Give it a chance, I think it'll grow on you.

"Staring at the Sun" - TV on the Radio
These guys seem to be one of the hot NYC bands of the moment (or maybe their moment has already past; you know how insatiable they are for the latest and greatest in NYC). Critics are throwing all sorts of labels at them, most beginning with the word "post": post-punk, post-electronic, post-indie, post-whatever. What I know is that any band that begins a song with this lovely a series of wordless harmonies (think Brian Wilson-meets-21st-century-Brooklyn) is worth spending a little time with. Even the lyrics caught my ear ("We were all weaned, my dear/Upon the same fatigue"), and usually lyrics are the last thing I notice. All in all, it's an odd little song, just a groove, a vibe, and a half a melody, but it's fetching, and the singer is darned good. TV on the Radio is a Brooklyn-based duo with one five-song EP to their name, which came out this summer. See what you think.

Monday, December 22, 2003

week of Dec. 21-27

"All or Nothing" - Eddi Reader
Here in Fingertips-land, Eddi Reader is a superstar, a singer/songwriter whose grand outer charm is backed by spine-tingling emotional depth and spiritual awareness. Once part of the snazzy '80s band Fairground Attraction (known, if at all, for the retro-y single "Perfect," which made an alternative-radio splash in 1988), Reader has released one beautiful solo CD after another through the '90s and into the new decade. This song comes from her first solo album, Mirmama, which was originally released in 1992 and re-released by her current record label in 1997. (To access this MP3 on you'll have to first enter your email address. Look for Eddi Reader under the "Americana/Traditional" category.)

"Today is the Day" - Yo La Tengo
After two CDs that largely exercised the band's gentle, reflective side, along comes the ever-resourceful Yo La Tengo with a release that reverses the trend. This song first appeared on the band's last CD, Summer Sun, in a calm and quiet setting; in this version--available on a new, six-song EP--squawking electric guitars return with a glorious vengeance. There have been few bands in the history of rock'n'roll that have so engagingly explored both the loud and the soft. It's particular fun when they do it to the same song.

"I Radio Heaven" - Over the Rhine
Another goodie, this comes from Over the Rhine's rather brilliant 2001 CD, Films for Radio. Vocalist Karin Bergquist is a beguiling force of nature, guitarist/songwriter Linford Detweiler is way too thoughtful to be in a rock'n'roll band, and I'm going to keep writing about them until more people listen. "I Radio Heaven" joins an elite group of rock songs that get their drive and drama by focusing most of the melody on one note. "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Pump it Up" are two others; this one's sneakier-sounding, more elegant, and works up to a fevered pitch rather than banging away at the same level for the whole song (not that there's anything wrong with that). Wonderful stuff. (As with the Eddi Reader MP3, you'll have to enter your email first to be able to download. You'll find Over the Rhine in the "Alt-Pop" category.)

Monday, December 15, 2003

week of Dec. 14-20

"Everyone Chooses Sides" - the Wrens
Hard-edged, dramatic power pop, with all the delicious extras--anthemic minor key, crunchy guitars in the foreground, pounding piano chords in the background, and vocals straight out of 1979. (Please someone put me out of my misery and tell me who these vocals are reminding me of!) From the group's highly-regarded new CD, The Meadowlands, this is one glorious song, marred only by a technological glitch: the MP3 appears to cut out about 8 seconds before the end. No worries for me, however--there's more than enough song here for me to know I'm going to buy this CD.

"For You To Do That" - Mary Ann Farley
Smart, sharp, and short, "For You To Do That" hits the ears like a piece of aural '60s memorabilia, complete with some Spector-ishly spacious drum beats and a Beatlesque turn of melody. Vocally, Farley seems to be channeling equal parts Jill Sobule and Aimee Mann but with plenty of her own verve and charm in the mix. This song comes from the Hoboken-based Farley's second and most recent CD, My Life of Crime, which came out last year. Her debut, Daddy's Little Girl, was released in 1997.

"Chain" - The Fire Theft
Big, majestic song from three-fourths of the '90s band Sunny Day Real Estate, reformed with a new name and a daringly accessible sound. "Chain" blends loping progressive-rock beats and orchestral depth with itchier electronic colors and an indie-fueled rejection of formula. That said, this approach is not going to please everyone. Indie-rock zealots will decry the band's use of classic-rock motifs, while classic rock aficionados will hear the Fire Theft as derivative and soulless. Ah well. Such folks we must leave to stew in their own preconceived notions (a sour bath indeed). Me, I'm sort of thrilled to hear this--not because it's the best song ever recorded, but because it sounds vibrant, because it aims high, and because if rock'n'roll has a future after all, it's going to unfold in the work of bands such as the Fire Theft, who move forward with an inclusive grip on the past.

Monday, December 08, 2003

week of Dec. 7-13

"Unsound" - Bettie Serveert
Former mainstream rock'n'roll idols live forever (or maybe it just seems like it) on classic rock stations and in TV commercials. But what happens to the Bettie Serveerts of the world? There's no radio format (yet) for college-radio rock icons of the early '90s. I guess that's another thing the internet is for, particularly when said alt-rock icons are still making good music. "Unsound," from the band's 2000 release, Private Suit, features an appealingly insistent 11-note guitar line and singer Carol van Dijk's Chrissie Hynde-like blend of weariness and spunk. It's an engaging vibe, although perhaps more Martha and the Muffins than the Pretenders come to think of it. In any case, not many bands combine edginess and polish with this much style and ease; and having the Canadian-born van Dijk fronting a Dutch band is a hidden weapon, keeping Bettie Serveert from floating aurally into that strange place that European bands tend to go when their singers try not to have accents.

"Half Acre" - Hem
A lot goes on in a short amount of time on this lovely piece of bygone-like music. Hem is a NYC-based group that got together with the idea of making an album of timeless-sounding new music, and to do it the old-fashioned way--no digital recording, no samples or audio trickery of any kind. The lovingly arranged instruments are real and pure, as is singer Sally Ellyson's unerring, unsappy voice. This song can be found on the band's one and only CD to date, Rabbitsongs, released independently in 2001, then re-released by DreamWorks this year.

"Song for the Ending Day" - the Ladybug Transistor
I'm not normally enamored of this sort of trembly baritone voice, but there's something goofily endearing about this song, violins and all, particularly as it works itself towards full-fledged, "Walk Away Renee"-ishness two-thirds of the way through. This is no-holds-barred production-savvy pop and we don't hear enough of this anymore, says me. Okay, so I'm still unlikely to become president of the Trembly Baritones Fan Club, but it's a nifty little song. You'll find it on the band's recently released, eponymous album, their fifth.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Okay, and now here's this week's "This Week's Finds," as promised.

week of Nov. 30-Dec. 6

"Lost My Motto" - Cotton Mather
So these guys are probably tired of the word "Beatlesque," but how to avoid it when you hear that voice, those chords, that melody? And yet, as all too many bands over the years (decades, by now) have discovered, it's turned out to be pretty difficult to be both Beatlesque and, well, interesting. Something energetic and compelling too easily gets lost when bands find their singer sounds like John Lennon and their guitarist sounds like George Harrison. I give this Austin-based band a fair amount of credit for building a worthwhile catalog upon such a Beatle-y (not to mention Squeeze-ish) foundation. This song was originally recorded on their 1994 debut; this version is a re-recording, available on their 2000 EP, Hotel Balitmore.
"Paradise" - Tamara Williamson
And here we have yet another under-recognized female Canadian singer/songwriter with a rich, idiosyncratic sound. "Paradise" feels like a film or a short story, and yet, despite its length, never bogs down into mere vamping or noodling; the musical landscape unfolds with a steady beat, builds with layered drama, and is held together by Williamson's lithe voice. To download the song, scroll down to the CD "The Arms of Ed" and click on the word "Listen" next to track 12. The CD was released in 2001; she has a newer album, All Those Racing Horses, released this year, but as yet has no MP3s available from it.

"Ashes on the Highway" - David Dondero
I had to hang with this one a bit, not connecting that well to the alt-country-meets-Billy-Bragg opening. But I found that it acquired a certain charm as it developed; once again, it was a slide guitar that hooked me in. I never realized I liked slide guitar that much. Hmm. Anyway, this guy has apparently been floating around the indie-rock scene for about 10 years. The song is found on his new CD, Transient.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Drat! I forgot to put "This Week's Finds" in here last week. How did that happen? Clearly I'm a neophtye blogboy. But I'm going to stay at it, and eventually this will all run like clockwork. Possibly. Anyway, in the interest of thoroughness, I will now post last week's "This Week's Finds," and then follow up a little later with another post containing this week's "This Week's Finds." If that makes sense. Over and out.

week of Nov. 23-29

"Fell" - Rose Polenzani
Assured, full-bodied song from a singer/songwriter who, like Dar Williams before her, seems to be expanding beyond the "girl with a guitar" sound, to good effect. Think Suzanne Vega crossed with Lisa Germano, maybe, with a touch of Dar herself in there too. This one hooks me in the chorus, the way she sings slightly ahead of the lazy beat, which kicks in each time with that unexpected slide-guitar accent in the background.

"Porchlight" - the Kingsbury Manx
I hear echoes of early Pink Floyd and (of all things) Simon and Garfunkel in this gentle but assured song from a relatively unknown North Carolina band. I don't know how this particular vibe holds up over a whole CD, but this song spins a wonderful aura with care and nuance. The band has three full-length CDs out to date; the most recent is called Aztec Discipline and was released last month. "Porchlight" comes from the 2001 CD, Let You Down.

"Many Peaks" - Electrelane
Edgy, atomospheric instrumental from a British band that specializes in edgy, atmospheric instrumentals. This feels oddly like an amusement park ride that begins slowly, gains momentum and space, then bursts a couple of times into a double-time onslaught of guitar and keyboard before winding down. I hear a lot of life around the boundaries of this one, in the series of instruments that are brought in and out over the grinding, almost punky rhythm guitars in the background. Electrelane has one CD to date, Rock It to the Moon, from which this comes. (To get to the downloads on the site, click on the word "Downloads" on the main page and then follow directions.)