Monday, December 27, 2004

week of Dec. 26-Jan. 1

"At Her Open Door" - Dead Meadow
I am always partial to bands that can establish a distinct sonic presence quickly. The D.C.-based trio Dead Meadow does well this way, with its Led Zeppelin-meets-R.E.M. vibe: big, searing guitar lines mixed into the background, propelled by a fuzzy folk-rock vibe and chords that take you right back to the late '60s or early '70s (for instance, count along with each of the opening beats and when you get to seven--there, that's a combination of notes and sounds that speaks to us from the past). I also like the quality of singer-guitarist Jason Simon's voice, how it is not of the usual tone or timbre that I'm used to hearing with this sort of slurry, heavy-chiming environment--he's more Robert Smith (the Cure) than Robert Plant (Zep). The song weaves an insistent if nebulous spell through its largely indecipherable lyric section, then opens out at about 3:30 into an extended instrumental coda. Churning, psychedelic guitars come to the front, but listen too for the dreamy, choral-like synthesizers up on top. "At Her Open Door" will be found on the band's CD Feathers, scheduled for release in February on Matador Records. The MP3 can be found on the Matador site.

"Ballad in 2D" - Bill Ricchini
This song has a lot of things going against it, to my ears. I'm not a particular fan of lo-fi, "bedroom"-style rock'n'roll, which this most definitely is; while I like Elliott Smith's music, I'm not usually happy with anyone who sort of sounds like him; and I also tend to hold in suspicion songs with lyrics that don't scan well (i.e. when the singer has sometimes to put the emphasis on the incorrect syllable to make the line fit with the music). All these things apply to "Ballad in 2D," and, what do you know, I still think it's haunting and memorable--perhaps all the more haunting and memorable because it manages to transcend its potential drawbacks. Ricchini knows his way around the sounds at his disposal, but he doesn't overdue it--he uses layers organically, while other bedroom recorders tend to overcompensate and pile on in a way that sounds phony. But what sells me finally is the beautiful and beautifully presented chorus. Here Ricchini allows the simple but brilliant, Bacharach-esque melody to take center stage, much the way Ron Sexsmith so often does with his simple and brilliant melodies. "Ballad in 2D" comes from Ricchini's one and only CD to date, Ordinary Time, which was recorded (yup) in his bedroom in South Philadelphia and released in 2002. The MP3 can be found on Ricchini's web site.

"Whole Heap" - Emma McGlynn and the Monorails
Blistering and glistening, "Whole Heap" is an emotional freight train of a song. While Ani DiFranco inevitably comes to mind (ferocious acoustic guitar work, emotive singing, hyper-self-involved lyrics, self-owned record company), I think McGlynn is carving out her own sound within this particular niche. Both musically and lyrically harsher than "Impatience" (a Fingertips Top 10 selection earlier this year) "Whole Heap" uses blazing electric guitars and thrashing drumwork to crank the intensity up a few notches. Even in the more frenzied setting, McGlynn sings with uncanny precision--a sort of out-of-control control. And then I like how she pulls back at around a minute-fifty, running her voice through a filter, only to plunge forward into a full-fledged PJ Harvey-ish catharsis as the piece careers toward a distorted, plug-pulling end. "Whole Heap" is the lead track on McGlynn's Kamikaze Birdie CD, which was originally released last year on McGlynn's own Impatio Sound label; it was apparently re-released in September of this year with distribution through Genepool/Universal. The MP3 is available on McGlynn's web site. (Be aware that there are a number of audible "naughty words" along the way, in case you're playing this on your speakers where others can hear.)

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Monday, December 20, 2004

week of Dec. 19-25

"Memorial" - Explosions in the Sky
At once contemplative and majestic, the instrumental "Memorial" unfolds with precision and grace; it feels like a story someone is telling you in a language you can't quite understand. With chiming guitars, an expansive sense of song, and a controlled use of both ends of the volume dial, Explosions in the Sky sound like they must be from Europe somewhere. But what the heck, they're just a little old band from Texas, which gives me more faith in Texas than I might otherwise have (no offense to the many other Texans I don't know who would also give me faith in the place!). This is an edited version (it's still 6:23) of a longer (8:50) piece; one of just five long songs on the band's second CD, The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, released last year on the Temporary Residence label. You'll find the MP3 on the Temporary Residence site. "First Breath After Coma," another excellent song from the CD, is available as an MP3 through the Bella Union Records site (Bella Union is the band's label in the U.K.); the only reason I didn't choose that song over this one is because to access the MP3 at Bella Union, you have to give them an email address. I have no particular issues about doing that, but I prefer if possible not to feature MP3s with obstacles.)

"Kill to Know" - Amy Miles
Like Liz Phair before her extreme makeover, Amy Miles writes down and dirty songs and sings them with an appealing sort of blase-ness. The verse here is sly, itchy, and confrontational; the instrumentation effectively sparse but spacious. Well and good, left at that. But check out the chorus--even as the rhythm continues its unassuming chugging in the background, Miles here sneaks in a casually perfect melodic line (with the words "What is it that you want to know?"), something you might hear in a song by the band Garbage, or maybe in one of the Pretenders' older, poppier moments. A nugget of surprise in this homespun number, the chorus is subtly augmented by well-placed noodles on the electric guitar underneath and blossoming synthesizers above. This musical moment makes me smile each time it comes around, as does her voice the more I listen to it. "Kill to Know" is the lead track on the CD Dirty Stay-Out (2002), her only album to date. The MP3 is available on her web site.

"Here Comes Everybody" - Autolux
Breathy-noisy neo-psychedelic rock'n'roll from a well-connected new Los Angeles band. Don't miss the opening notes--they may sound like a throw-away electronic bangle but there's a lot going on here. First of all, listen to the sound itself: it's a strange and wonderful blending of a plucked string and a retro-future-y sort of synthesizer-static noise. Very cool. And even cooler that the octave interval the noise describes is seamlessly incorporated into the open-chorded introduction, and again later in the song. Turns out this bit is one of many engaging and sophisticated production touches you'll hear here. And guess why? Autolux was signed to DMZ Records, a label co-created by T Bone Burnett and movie makers Joel and Ethan Coen; Burnett is the producer here. Great to hear a gifted (older) hand at the dials for a new band--I think there are bountiful synergies to be encountered via such couplings; too bad the mechanics and economics of the music world don't often allow it. The song comes from the band's debut CD, Future Perfect, released in October; the MP3 is available on Insound.

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Monday, December 13, 2004

week of Dec. 12-18

"Howdy" - Danny Allen
This song is driven by a vivid, swampy-slowness that I wouldn't have previously identified as a sound that would pull me in. And yet "Howdy"--without a glistening melody or engaging complexity--pulls me in most assuredly. How does this work? Well, to begin with, the opening minor-key guitar arpeggio is satisfyingly skewed. Then Allen enters with his full-throated voice detailing a series of odd but concrete images. Before long an atmospheric steel guitar begins to issue languid phrases in the background. Then we arrive at the wordless bridge (around 1:25), a melodic moan in the middle of this overheated summer night of a song; the song sways, coalesces, gets under my skin. Danny Allen is a Californian who apparently led an L.A. band called Harvette a couple years back before striking out on his own. He's since returned to his hometown of Oakland, for what it's worth. "Howdy" is the title track of a CD released earlier this year on the Stanley Recordings label. The MP3 can be found on Allen's web site.

"Waiting For My Friends" - De Novo Dahl
Exuberant, theatrical rock'n'roll--one part Super Furry Animals, one part Queen, and one part something they must put in the water down there in Nashville. De Novo Dahl is a six-piece outfit that named themselves after author Roald Dahl, of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame; whimsy is part of the mix, in other words. So are a lot of sounds, and no I can't begin to identify them all. But what I like is how worked into the gleeful momentum of the song they all are--I didn't fully notice most of the shall we say more peculiar noises (chugging beeps, trilling boops, et al) until I listened a few different times (okay I noticed the screams right away), so otherwise transported was I by the whole over-the-top enterprise. I don't think I'm going to hear a more satisfying chorus for a while, for both its power-pop-goes-to-heaven chord progression and its unexpectedly silly-yet-poignant lyrical climax (I'll let you listen and discover it for yourself). "Waiting for My Friends" comes from a six-song EP the band released last year; the MP3, as usual, is waiting for you on the band's site.

"Transamericana" - Muckner
An exceedingly well put together song, with one masterful touch arising after another. This song is not only about traveling, it sounds like traveling: listen to the wordless vocal (hey! it's wordless vocal day) that drives the beginning of the introduction, underneath the drumbeat. It doesn't sound like a car, but it sounds like driving. "Transamericana" is propelled by a steady acoustic beat, some especially effective use of fingers-on-metal-guitar-strings sounds, and guitarist Dan Erb's gritty but gentle voice. The melody is at once urgent and soothing, full of subtle knowledge (listen to how it dips at the end of the second and fourth lines in the verse). And then the touch that seals it for me: how Lisa Smith (who plays bass and cello in the band) joins Erb in the chorus, but just on alternate lines. For some reason I really like that effect. Plus, on the first line she sings with him, she doesn't harmonize, merely sings the same notes. For some reason I really like that effect as well. "Transamericana" comes from If I Can't Talk to You, Then I Can't Talk to Anybody, released in mid-November on Buttermilk Records. You'll find the MP3 on the band's web site.

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Monday, December 06, 2004

week of Dec. 5-11

"Why" - Gina Villalobos
Every now and then someone new comes along doing something not-very-new so sparklingly well that it seems new all over again. Operating in the well-worn roots/Americana corner of the rock'n'roll world, Gina Villalobos invites a "usual suspects" list of comparisons--in her case, Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams seem to be the first names out of everyone's mouths--but I find her closest to the wondrous Kathleen Edwards, both in her rasp-inflected, emotive voice and in her capacity to channel some older and deeper rock'n'roll forces (think Neil Young in particular) and give them new life and force in the new century. From the minor key Tom Petty-ness of the intro, "Why" drives ahead with an authoritative stutter in the drum beat and a brilliant confluence and melody and voice in the second half of the verse: when she sings the phrase "If I can talk to what I see in the ceiling," my goodness. Listen to the second syllable of the word "ceiling" and see if your heart doesn't melt just a little. I won't try to describe it. The song is the third track on Villalobos' second CD, Rock'n'Roll Pony, released in June on the Kick Music label. The MP3 is one of six available on her web site, and all of them are good, including a satisfying cover of the old World Party nugget, "Put the Message in the Box."

"Forest" - Dealership
A certain sort of confidence is required to open a song with the line "Let's go, and I'll play all my songs," but singer Chris Groves has such a sweet-sailing voice that he has me right there--I'm thinking, sure, go ahead, play away. A do-it-yourself style trio from San Francisco, Dealership transcends its indie trappings through gorgeous melodicism and songwriting aplomb. The song is propelled by the juxtaposition of a jittery/infectious guitar line against a bell-like (and inexpensive-sounding) keyboard underneath a melody that cascades on itself, like noiseless fireworks arcing pattern upon pattern. When Groves arrives at the chorus, singing, "An electronic forest, a pixelated version" and then whatever he sings next (I can't decipher the words at that point), we are in a certain sort of pop heaven. That guitarist Miyuki Jane Pinckard adds some solid yet airy (go figure) harmonies to the proceedings only adds to the feeling of being transported somewhere quite lovely, if a little bittersweet. I like how the band doesn't waste the last minute of the song (which is when a lot of songs go into automatic pilot): listen to the edge Groves' voice acquires at around the 2:15 point, and then feel the band pull the energy back at around 2:30 only to kick into a punched-up sprint to the finish at 2:50 or so. It's all pretty subtle but I tend to like subtle. "Forest" is from the CD Action/Adventure, the band's third, released in August on Turn Records; the MP3 can be found on the band's web site.

"Hockey" - Jane Siberry
Anyone missing the hockey season yet? Well, in any case, it's past time to get some Jane Siberry up here on Fingertips. For those unfamiliar with the work of the magical mystical Ms. Siberry, this song at least hints, in lots of small and idiosyncratic ways, at her deep and abiding allure. It's all about childhood in-the-dying-light-of-late-afternoon-on-the-river hockey games, and Siberry's earthy poetry evokes the scene beautifully, not just pictorially--"You skate as fast as you can 'til you hit the snowbank (that's how you stop)"-- but logistically: the song turns in part on the idea of how the game would wind down as more and more kids are called in for dinner, a subtle (that again) and masterful touch. I'm particularly enchanted by characteristic Siberry lyrical asides; I've never seen anyone else write lyrics like this and probably never will: "He'll have that scar on his chin forever someday his girlfriend will say hey where.../He might look out the window...or not." "Hockey" originally appeared on her 1989 album Bound by the Beauty; this is a slightly re-mixed version, with dog barks introduced to remove a potentially offending (but actually quite charming in context) word. You'll find the MP3 on her self-owned record company web site.

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Monday, November 29, 2004

week of Nov. 28-Dec. 4

"My Fair Lady" - David Byrne
There's an almost Baroque stateliness to this churning little ditty from the estimable Mr. Byrne. While probably not a classic addition to the Byrne oeuvre (the subject matter--entrancing woman in a magazine--seems tired by now), this contribution to Wired Magazine's Rip. Sample. Mash. Share. project has its charms, beginning with the former Talking Heads leader's inscrutably ingratiating voice. I mean, there's nothing about this somewhat whiny, high-pitched, more than a little nasally voice that should engage us, and yet I find above all it's always his voice that draws me in, through all his incarnations over lo these many years. For a geeky, intellectual sort of guy he's proven himself to be a fearless singer; maybe that's what lends such deep appeal to the Byrne vibe. If nothing else, don't miss the grunt at 2:38--it's perfect. I'm also getting a kick out of how Byrne bleeds his voice directly into the synthesizer at the end. And hey there are one or two more well-delivered grunts in the last few seconds too.

"Away" - Greta Gertler & Peccadillo
The beginning of this song sounds interestingly slidey and sloppy, like a small orchestra warming up, but keep the piano's off-kilter theme in mind--it returns very effectively later. The intro gives way to a stripped-down, beat-driven verse, followed by a simple chorus sung over an oscillating violin line, at which point this so-called "chamber pop band" (an unusual combination of strings and winds, plus Gertler's piano and some percussion) kicks in to flesh the song out with a wonderful assortment of organic flourishes. (Check out the great, punctuating sound at the two-minute mark--I think one of the stringed instruments does that, but which one? and how?). Combining a crystalline sort of yearning quality to her voice (think Lisa Loeb) with a knack for layered vocals and striking instrumentation (think Kirsty MacColl), Gertler packs a lot into a three and a half minute pop song. While the melody is relatively modest, the package is assured and engaging; when the opening theme returns about two and a half minutes into the proceedings--that wonderful, lop-sided piano theme augmented by all sorts of knowing squeaks and squiggles from the band--I'm won over for good. "Away" comes from a brand new album, Nervous Breakthroughs, that was begun way back in 1998 but was only recently finished. The MP3 can be found on Gertler's web site.

"Helen Reddy" - Trembling Blue Stars
Naming a song after a singer seems a particularly fetching thing to me. For all I know this stems from my lasting devotion to the Replacements' "Alex Chilton" (one of the mysteriously great rock songs of all time), but what the heck, the world is full of strange and wonderful inter-connections. In any case, "Helen Reddy" is its own kind of good. Driven by singer Beth Arzy's simultaneously warm-yet-distant vocals, the song succeeds in evoking the evanescent nostalgia of listening to distant radio stations at night as a child; the way certain lyrics spring forward clearly ("These nights are made for sleeping") while others recede into the blurry aural landscape accentuates the mood and subject matter. The soft but steady beat, the subtle buzz of vague keyboard noise, and Arzy's Georgia Hubley-ish voice all bring Yo La Tengo to mind, but there's an airy warmth here that's different from that band's murkier sort of reserve. "Helen Reddy" is the lead track on the band's latest CD, Seven Autumn Flowers, released on Elefant Records in Europe and, apparently, on Bar/None Records here in October, although the Bar/None web site still doesn't list it anywhere. The MP3 can be found on the Elefant Records site.

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Monday, November 22, 2004

week of Nov. 21-27

"Can't Be Trusted" - One Star Hotel
At once bouncy and earnest, good-natured and serious, "Can't Be Trusted" takes a timeless Allman Brothers rhythm and infuses it with a Wilco-informed indie-Americana spirit. Singer Steve Yutzy-Burkey (also the band's guitarist and songwriter) has a comfortable, Tweedy-ish throatiness to his voice and an equally Tweedy-ish way of writing subtle and agreeable twists into his songs. In fact, for Wilco fans a bit befuddled by the band's tendency to deconstruct its songs over the last two CDs, One Star Hotel may come as a comfy aural balm--Wilco without the weirdness. But this Philadelphia-based quartet has a lot more going for it than mimickry. I like the way the main melodic phrase extends into a third measure, turning upward in a way that pulls you into the center of the song. Listen also for some extra sonic treats--twinkly synthesizer flourishes, controlled use of feedback, and, I think, a touch of harmonica buried into the texture as well. "Can't Be Trusted" can be found on the band's new CD Good Morning, West Gordon, to be released tomorrow on Stereo Field Recordings. This is One Star Hotel's first full-length CD; their one previous recording was a self-titled EP released last year. The MP3 can be found on

"Côte D'Azur" - Stirling
With no free and legal MP3s to be had from the new U2 CD, this one just might serve as an admirable substitute. Stirling is a band from Edmonton, relocated to Toronto, with a flair for Bono-like drama and Edge-like guitar riffs. This is the kind of song that walks the fine line between tension and bombast, but I think the bombast is held at bay by the concise, siren-like guitar line, the satisfying chord changes, and the fact that the whole thing drives by in three minutes. Never underestimate the power of keeping things short; had the band dragged this out to five minutes (the urge to do this is apparently compelling), I think my interest would have waned. Instead I find myself taken in by the urgent melodrama of it all. The song is the lead track on Stirling's debut CD, Northern Light, released in June in Canada; the MP3 is on the band's web site.

"Saddest Day" - Ephemera
A three-woman Norwegian band channeling Astrud Gilberto via Frente--yes, the world can be a wonderful place when we all just mingle together peacefully and see what happens. Bright, silvery, and airy, "Saddest Day" is that sweetest of pop confections: a sad song wrapped in an upbeat package. Stars in their native country (they received the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy earlier this year), Ephemera have released four CDs to date; this spring, a compilation disc called Score was released for the U.S. market. Not yet out of their 20s, Ephemera has nevertheless been together for 10 years now. "Saddest Day" was originally from the band's 2000 CD, Sun, which was their second; it is also found on a CD called Score, a compilation released for the U.S. market this past spring. The MP3 is on the band's web site. Thanks to visitor Jeff for the head's up.

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Sunday, November 14, 2004

week of Nov. 14-20

"Falling" - S
Combining a crackling edginess with a wash of electronica mystery, "Falling" feels like how the Sundays would sound with a bit too much caffeine in their system. While neither the itchy-bass-line-driven verse on the one hand nor the more expansive, open-chorded not-quite-a-chorus chorus might stand out on their own, they work niftily against each other to create more sonic drama than often contained in a mere four minutes. The effect is augmented through some distinctive electronic stitches between sections. S is the internet-unfriendly name (Google it and you'll get more than 1 billion results) that Seattle's Jenn Ghetto has been recording under since the late '90s; "Falling" can be found on her new CD, Puking and Crying, released in September on Suicide Squeeze Records. The MP3 is from the Suicide Squeeze web site.

"With Arms Outstretched" - Rilo Kiley
Far more charming than any relatively straightforward steel-guitar-laced strummer has a right to be. Whereas last week we heard the Geraldine Fibbers cross indie rock with country to explore some raw and prickly territory, this week note how Rilo Kiley mixes the same genres like they want to be your best friend, and, on top of that, they know that you want them to be too. To my ears, no small amount of Rilo Kiley's appeal--beyond intelligent songwriting and smart production skills--lies in singer/guitarist Jenny Lewis's disarmingly direct vocal style. What can I say? I do, I want her to be my best friend. At once familiar and fresh, "With Arms Outstretched" features a leisurely and timeless-seeming melody; when Lewis is joined about two minutes in by a chorus of ragged male voices (including Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst), that does it. It's all just too charming. The song comes from the band's second CD, The Execution of All Things, which was released in 2001 on Saddle Creek Records; the MP3 is on the Saddle Creek site. Their third and most recent CD, More Adventurous, was recently released on Barsuk Records (go the band's web site and you can hear it in its entirety).

"The Answer" - Bloc Party
Cross the Strokes with Joy Division, add a touch of the Jam for flavoring, and here you are. I'm not sure what they're singing about, but you don't have to know to know; the energy is exquisitely charged, the whole burbling thing about to blow. But wow: listen to the chords they take you through in the chorus, about a minute-twenty into the song, and the lyrics with which they take you there: "Grown in a parental fugue/Weight loss in self respect/Bomb, bomb, bomb us back together/A new way into a lost answer." Like I said, I have no idea what they're singing about. But my goodness they're singing about something, aren't they? I am encouraged to no end by a new generation of bands out there who seem to be moving intelligently into the future by being aware of the past, both musically and otherwise. Here's what the band members themselves say, on their web site: "Suffice to say there would be no band without the efforts of guitar bands formed in British and American towns in the 70s, 80s and 90s, as well as visionary writers and artists of various kinds whose work has informed the world and culture itself as it stands." "The Answer" comes from the band's self-titled debut EP, released in September on Dim Mak Records. The MP3 can be found on the band's web site.

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Monday, November 08, 2004

week of Nov. 7-13

"Ysbeidiau Heulog" - Super Furry Animals
I don't know about you, but me, after last week, I think I really need to listen to some rock'n'roll sung in Welsh. Good thing those wacky neo-psychsters Super Furry Animals are up to the task. "Ysbeidiau Heulog" (which translates as "Sunny Intervals") was the lone single off the band's all-Welsh Mwng, a CD released in 2000 on Placid Casual Records. As the band itself notes, "this one went right over the heads of the chart organisation." I find the whole thing sort of endearing--the goofy ELO-meets-Moby-at-the-cartoons vibe, the earnest cheerfulness of the incomprehensible lyrics, and, to top it all off, the translation ("I must say that we had some/Sunny Intervals, Sunny Intervals/But on the whole it was rather cloudy..."). Super Furry Animals were formed in Cardiff in 1993, and it should be noted that Mwng was not the band's first all-Welsh effort; their debut EP--Lianfairpwllgywgyllgoger Chwymdrobwlltysiliogoygoyocynygofod (In Space)--was also sung entirely in Welsh, as was their second EP, the somewhat easier to pronounce Moog Droog. The "Ysbeidiau Heulog" MP3 can be found on an adjunct site to the band's main web site.

"Lily Belle" - the Geraldine Fibbers
Last week also prompts a deep desire to listen to music from, oh, let's say, the mid-'90s--back when men were men, women were women, and presidents felt our pain rather than created it. And this song really puts you through the paces, which feels necessary this week, from its mournful, viola-driven introduction through its cathartic burst of rage later on. Singer Carla Bozulich is almost scarily unrestrained, her depth-laced voice alternating between a duskier version of Tanya Donelly and full-throttled Patti Smith-ish-ness (she more or less out-Pattis Patti before this one is done). The Geraldine Fibbers played their singular brand of country-folk-punk, or some such thing, through three '90s CDs. "Lily Belle" was the lead track on the band's 1995 debut, Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home. I know the feeling. The MP3 can be found on Carla Bozluich's web site, along with a nice assortment of others from both the Geraldine Fibbers and other Bozulich projects. Thanks to the good folks at 3hive for the head's up on this one.

"The Music Box" - Thebrotherkite
And now this muscular sort of power pop with a side order of noise is just the thing to nudge me back to life as we know it. Bristling with spirit and know-how, "The Music Box" rises far above typical indie-rock offerings through Thebrotherkite's songwriting wherewithal. After an introduction featuring a driving beat and ringing guitar theme, the song veers to the left as both the key and the time signature shift; the effect is at once unexpected and completely satisfying. The song holds its center around the tension between 6/4 and 4/4 measures, linked by a resonant melody (okay, so it's "Evergreen") and the recurrence of the opening guitar theme at crucial moments. Thebrotherkite is a five-piece band from Providence; what little press they've received so far relentlessly places them in the so-called "shoegaze" genre (one of the less wonderful coinages of recent decades, I'd say), but the band members have eclectic tastes and display an admirable sense of pre-'90s musical tradition. (For the record, I really don't think as many bands are influenced by My Bloody Valentine as internet music writers seem to believe.) "The Music Box" comes from Thebrotherkite's self-titled debut CD, released this summer on the Sacramento-based Clairecords. The MP3 is available on the band's web site.

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Monday, November 01, 2004

week of Oct. 31-Nov. 6

"V.O.T.E." - Chris Stamey with Yo La Tengo
We'll begin this week with an Election Day Public Service Announcement, courtesy of the estimable Chris Stamey and the equally estimable Yo La Tengo. "V.O.T.E." is just a 30-second ditty, standard PSA length, and it's as straightforward as can be: go out and vote. You can read a little more about this here. I've linked you to the so-called "Rockin'" version; there is also a "Fifties" version and an "Old A.M. Radio" version (follow the link in the last sentence and you'll find those). I thank an informal group known as "Music Bloggers for Democracy" for calling my attention to this PSA and suggesting that everyone with a music blog link to it this week. If you need any more information about voting, this is a good place to start. While my own political inclination may be clear to anyone paying close attention here, let me add that this is not about who you vote for, it's about voting. In this oh so important election, it's crucial that the president who is elected is the actual choice of an actual majority, not the end result of low voter turnout or other circumstances that might keep voters away from the polls (or votes from being counted, for that matter). That said, back to the music.......

"The Final Arrears" - Mull Historical Society
Colin MacIntyre--doing musical business as the Mull Historical Society--is a master of the 21st-century one-man-band genre. In this day and age, creating all the music and vocals on one's own isn't the hard part; the hard part is making the end result listenable. To my ears, the digital sleight-of-hand utilized to become a one-man-(or woman-) band tends to shrink the space of the music, resulting in songs that sound claustrophobic within a minute or two. MacIntyre, who hails from the Isle of Mull off Scotland's west coast (there really is a Mull Historical Society there), knows how to give us the aural equivalent of a 19th-century landscape: fertile valley, distant mountains, and more sky than seems possible to fit on a canvas. With its lush melody and gracious pacing, "The Final Arrears" succeeds most of all because the lovely touches are applied with care, always towards the goal of allowing the music to breathe and flow. As usual, this is hard to describe in words, but trust me that it's not just about layering and layering effects. And just when we've heard enough, along comes a loopy orchestral break three and a half minutes in, steering the song towards an odd but engaging fade-out. "The Final Arrears" is the lead track on the Mull Historical Society's second CD, Us (XL Recordsings/Beggars Group), released last year; the MP3 can be found on the Beggars Group U.S.A. site. A new CD called This Is Hope was released in the U.K. in July; no word yet on if it's coming out in the U.S.

"Fortress" - Pinback
While one-man bands receive more gee-whizzy attention, there is a venerable two-man band tradition in rock'n'roll as well. This isn't where the two guys play all the instruments, but where a band is formed around two core members (think Steely Dan), with supporting musicians shifting from album to album. Such is the history of San Diego's Pinback, the brainchild of bassist Armistead Burwell Smith IV (honest) and multi-instrumentalist and singer Rob Crow. From the opening bass pulse and the quick drum pick-up, the song has immediate presence and energy; Crow's pleasingly gentle vocals floating on top of the itchy and precise rhythm section help create an ambiance at once urgent and relaxed. For all of the band's impeccable indie-rock credentials, I'd say that "Fortress" brings to mind another talented two-man band straight out of rock's mainstream--Tears for Fears. Consider it a compliment: at their best Tears for Fears combined musical sophistication and pop know-how to great effect. When Crow heads for his upper register--particularly when repeating the words "Nobody move" about two and a half minutes in--I'm hearing "Mad World" in the back of my head. It's a good thing. "Fortress" comes from the CD Summer in Abaddon, released this month on Touch and Go Records. The MP3 can be found on the Touch and Go web site.

"Hula Hoop" - Saratoga Park
I'll admit that when I first heard the peppy-generic acoustic riff in the intro, I cringed in anticipation of a bad-local-band-nightmare sort of effort. Then an electric guitar joins in and I'm paying more attention: is it my imagination or is the electric guitar offering a discordant counterpoint to the
acoustic riff? Not my imagination. Pretty cool. Then Paul Howard opens his mouth--melody spurting in all directions--and I'm hooked. Like Yo La Tengo (them again), Saratoga Park is a quirky band centered around a charmingly down-to-earth pair of husband-wife singer/songwriters who are far more accomplished than their lo-fi affinities might suggest. Be sure not to miss the electric guitar break-out around three minutes in, and how, leading back to that peppy intro, transforms it entirely into something wonderful. Here's one local band--they're based in Vancouver, Washington (who knew?)--that knows what they're doing. "Hula Hoop" comes from the band's self-released 2004 CD The Short Bus; the MP3 is available on the band's web site.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2004

week of Oct. 24-30

"Neighborhood #2 (Laika)" - the Arcade Fire
A gut-satisfying drumbeat, sleighbells, and a distinctively plucked guitar concoct a great introduction here, and that's even before the bandoneon enters. I think this is a bandoneon; in any case, it's a charming, plaintive accordion riff, and it goes on to form the backbone of a compelling song from an eccentric Montreal quintet. With a prominent amount of shouting and/or fuzzy-megaphone vocalizing, this song is not a smooth listen; I needed to hear it a number of times before I began to like it, so hang in there before jumping to conclusions. "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)" is one of four numbered "Neighborhood" songs on the band's Funeral album, released last month on Merge Records, to wide acclaim. I should note that the Arcade Fire's emergence as one of the "it" bands of 2004 made me more than a little suspicious before I even heard them. I'm not normally prone to cynicism, but I mistrust pop music criticism's flavor-of-the-month tendencies, which are prompted by fashion rather than sound. (One critic, for instance, wrote, of the Arcade Fire, that "though the band utilizes nice melodies and lively arrangements, the nostalgia-steeped-indie-rock-orchestra pool was pretty much drained before The Arcade Fire dove in." Silly! Fashion designers may feel that a certain look is "done" once it's been too widely adopted, but musicians? An outlandish and elitist criticism. But I digress.) The MP3 is on Better Propaganda, a site which does not allow direct links, so you'll have to click on the "Free MP3" button in the "Selected MP3s" box to grab this one.

"The Dirt-Bike Option" - the Fauves
Gruff but lovable guitar pop from an underappreciated Australian band. That is, in Australia they're underappreciated; here in the U.S., they're completely unknown. But there's no way I for one am not going to like the heck out of a song with a sing-along chorus featuring this lyric: "Ooh, the dirt-bike option paid off/We never settled with the workers that we laid off." The rumbly guitars balanced by spiffy harmonies in the chorus and a wonderfully cheesy organ line are further merits. Plus I am bound to be partial to a song that arose as follows: "The title came from listening to Terry [Cleaver; the bass player] bang on backstage at a gig in Bateman's Bay about a new computer game he'd been playing; one in which he had 'exercised the dirt-bike option'. Songs about computer games are boring so the main lyric dealt with the somewhat unrelated topic of messiah complexes and cults living in fortified compounds." It seems poetic justic, somehow, that the world-weary, self-deprecating Fauves have now lasted longer than the early 20th-century art movement after which they named themselves. Formed in Melbourne in the late '80s, the band scored some commercial successes in Australia in the mid-'90s, but have struggled more recently to get themselves heard--a reality implied by the name of the 2000 single ("Celebrate the Failure") which contained "The Dirt-Bike Option" as a B-side. The MP3 is available on the band's web site, along with a number of other enjoyable B-sides and rarities.

"Graceland" - the New Pornographers
Big and exuberant, this likable rocker showcases the New Pornographers' enviable capacity to channel the sounds of bygone eras while still sounding fresh and catchy. "Graceland" (not the Paul Simon song) has the irrepressible drive and gleeful harmonies of, I don't know, an old Grass Roots song maybe. Built on top of a shuffly pair of ever-irresistible four-note intervals, the whole thing brings back the early '70s in some ineffable way. "Graceland" is posted on Insound; the song can be found on the Matador at 15 CD, which features 35 tracks spanning the 15-year history of Matador Records, released late last month.

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Monday, October 18, 2004

week of Oct. 17-23

"Lucky Jam" - Soft
A brand new band from Brooklyn, Soft has emerged Athena-like, fully-formed from the head of the internet. According to the band's John Reineck, Soft spent a year writing, rehearsing, and recording in their practice space without once playing in public or playing for anyone else at all. Not an approach that's going to work for everyone, but I for one am enjoying the payoff in Soft's case. It takes a certain amount of gumption and know-how to craft a compelling hook from a syncopated beat, but that's exactly what "Lucky Jam" does from its opening notes, as a lovely, Edge-like guitar rings out against a stuttering drum beat. After that, singer Reineck barely has to open his mouth to have me completely engaged, his voice channeling a bygone time of power-pop innocence (does the band Shoes still ring a bell to anyone?) even as the musical drive feels fully of the current 21st-century moment and the band's sophistication--for starters, listen to how guitarists Vincent Perini and Samuel Wheeler wind their instruments around one another--gives the song a subtle depth at every turn. "Lucky Jam" is posted on the band's web site. Soft expects to have a full-length CD ready by January.

"Jody Said" - Farma
Here's a beautiful, restrained, and idiosyncratic Americana-ish ballad from the formidable San Francisco quintet Farma. From a twinkly, slightly psychedelic start, "Jody Said" proceeds with great assurance over territory that would feel downright quirky if it didn't likewise seem so familiar. The song combines the gruff delicacy of Son Volt with the jazz-inflected chord flavors of Steely Dan, fleshing out the strong melody with a lazy, soaring steel guitar and noodly keyboards. When the verse returns after an instrumental break in the middle, everything coalesces, and as the melody gets to that place where it modulates and extends beyond the frame ("I'll be dreaming in this bar, eternally"), the enterprise levitates to that place where the effect of a song transcends the particulars of its construction. "Jody Said" will be found on the band's self-titled EP, soon to be released on Wishing Tree Records. The MP3 is on the band's web site.

"Second Winter" - Patty Moon
Right away the tremulous flute and drama-queen chords tell you this is borderline kitsch, and that's even before the cinematic wash of pop-electronica sweeps in to create an eye-opening Lulu-meets-Portishead vibe. (I'll quickly note that there's nothing wrong with borderline kitsch; Blondie has always walked that line to great effect as well.) When Patty Moon, the singer (Patty Moon is also the name of the band; they're from Germany) intones "I've been waiting all this winter for a true emotion"--gee, I hope Morrissey gets a royalty check for that line--the song defeats my resistance, winning me over on its own glorious-wacky terms: like any good pop song, it creates its own kind eternity from the forces that swirl around it here in this moment. And it will always do that. "To Sir With Love," after all, wasn't necessarily a great song, but it's always listenable, and it will always evoke the British mid-'60s pop scene in a way little else will. With enough exposure (and this is not necessarily likely to get that exposure), "Second Winter" could one day evoke the mid-'00s Euro-global pop scene in a similar way. The MP3 arrives via the worthwhile German MP3 hub Tonspion; the song is on the band's CD Clouds Inside, released this month in Europe on the Berlin-based Traumton Records.

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Monday, October 11, 2004

week of Oct. 10-16

"36" - Christina Rosenvinge
Singing accented English with a sweet sort of weariness, Christina Rosenvinge muses whisperily on the strains of growing older. Against a quiet guitar lick that sounds like the Nutcracker's "Waltz of the Flowers" theme turned sad and lonely, "36" is a lullaby for grownups, propelled by a sing-song rhythm and an exquisitely intimate accompaniment; I particularly love the desolate, distant, slightly dissonant background tones between verses, embodying time's doleful passage. The song comes from the Madrid-born Rosenvinge's second English-language CD, Foreign Land, released two years ago in Europe and slated for a U.S. release on Smells Like Records "soon," according to the SLR web site. Her first CD in English was 2001's charming, bittersweet Frozen Pool, also on SLR. The intimate sound of these two recent CDs represents a prodigious break from her past; you'd never know that in the late '80s, Rosenvinge was a huge pop star in Spain and Latin America as one half of the duo Alex y Christina. But she quickly tired of both the media attention and the musical constraints imposed by mass-market pop success. She left Alex behind to record three solo albums in the '90s, the last of which was produced in Sonic Youth's studio in New York City in 1996. Captivated by Manhattan, Rosenvinge eventually moved there and hooked back up with Steve Shelley and Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth, who ultimately helped her create Frozen Pool. The "36" MP3 can be found on the distribution/label site; thanks to Sixeyes for the head's up.

"Queen of Verlaine" - High Water Marks
Satisfying, buzzy-fuzzy pop from an unusual collaboration between American and Norwegian indie stars. Drummer Hilarie Sidney from the Apples in Stereo and Per Ole Bratset, of the Oslo-based band Palermo, began a long-distance songwriting relationship after the two met during an Apples in Stereo tour in 2002. Eventually Sidney, from Lexington, Kentucky, went to Norway to record with Bratset, in a hotel room of all places. The end result was so apparently gratifying that Bratset has since relocated to Lexington to turn the High Water Marks into a real band (the two other members also live in Kentucky). I like a lot of things about this song, beginning with the cheery, churning vibe, and including distinct elements like Bratset's appealing voice (and geez it's really really hard to describe voices in concrete words; that's probably why writers often resort to comparisons to other voices) and the use of a distorted guitar wave underneath the basic drive of the song. "Queen of Verlaine" comes from the band's debut CD, Songs About the Ocean, released last month on Eenie Meenie Records; the MP3 is on the Eenie Meenie web site.

"Did I Let You Down?" - Folksongs for the Afterlife
This duo from New York City creates an unexpectedly rich and effective sonic stew; don't let the group's name mislead you into expecting a simple strumming acoustic guitar and sappy lyrics. Out of the gate the song engages me with its trip-hop-meets-salsa-at-the-movies stylishness. Then Caroline Schutz's clear and airy voice takes over, and watch out--I don't think I've ever heard the word "fuck" sung with such offhanded beauty. Wait for the chorus and you'll see what I mean. This song also highlights the timeless appeal of a well-placed xylophone solo. "Did I Let You Down?" can be found on the group's sole full-length CD--Put Danger Back in Your Life, released last year on Parasol/Hidden Agenda. The MP3 is on the band's site.

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Monday, October 04, 2004

week of Oct. 3-9

"How's It Gonna End" - Tom Waits
Take the songs Tom Waits was writing for albums like Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years strip them of their darkly exuberant carnivalia--the raggedy clankings and tootings and snarlings--and you're left with something slinky and creaky like "How's It Gonna End." The song is a fascinating study in minimalist production; driven by little more than a plucked bass, intermittent tom-tom, and what sounds like a small section of staccato, barely-blown horns, Waits delivers a grumbly series of bleak, vaguely surreal scenarios, tied together by the repetition of the title phrase. Every now and then something else happens musically--a tuba plays one note; ghostly background singers emerge for a few lines; fingers screech on metal guitar strings--but the song plunks along all but unaware. It's almost as if he's playing in a room full of musicians, most of whom are simply listening. The effect is at once comic and tragic, bolstered by the lyrics' characteristic mix of skeletal storytelling and cryptic pronouncements ("The reptiles blend in with the color of the street/Life is sweet at the edge of a razor"). If you don't love Tom Waits you might consider learning to love him. The song is found on Real Gone, to be released tomorrow on Anti Records. The MP3 is available on Indie Workshop.

"Heaven or Las Vegas" - Cocteau Twins
Vast, cascading beauty, as sparkling-sounding today as when it was released 14 years ago. Guitarist Robin Guthrie has an unearthly ability to make a droning guitar shimmer with joy, and singer Elizabeth Fraser's fetching incomprehensibility works its usual magic, even as you can in this case actually understand words here and there. The Cocteau Twins weren't always as accessible as this, but surely this illustrates that accessible is not always a bad thing. The song (in a longer version) was the title track of the group's 1990 release, on 4AD Records. The MP3 is on the band's site.

"Bush Must Be Defeated" - Dan Bern
In the spirit of debate week, here is without a doubt the goofiest angry protest song I've ever heard. Talk about "on message": Dan Bern does not relent, but even as I'm positive that I do not need to hear him sing the refrain any longer (alright already! I get it!), it begins to sink in that the wacky rhymes that spill from his mouth ("Bush must be defeated/His goodbye coffee heated/His inaugural spats uncleated/His White House bed short-sheeted") work doubly well because of the inevitability of the refrain. This is not a subtle song, but there are only a few weeks left; those inclined to agree with the message need it in the air. "Bush Must Be Defeated" comes from an EP released last month entitled My Country II (Messenger Records); the MP3 is on the Messenger Records site. For those unfamiliar with his work, Bern is worthwhile getting to know. He's a bit erratic, but indomitable, fearless, and more than a little gifted as a Dylan-infused singer/songwriter.

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Monday, September 27, 2004

week of Sept. 26-Oct. 2

"Indian Summer" - Maplewood
One of a surprising number of current bands that are grooving, against all odds, to a very '70s mellow-rock vibe, Maplewood even has the one-word band name to seal the deal (think America, think Bread). But Maplewood brings more than nostalgia and anti-hip-hipness to the table here; the music is not only groovy, it's intelligent, brisk, and crisp. Both briskness and crispness are crucial if the mellow thing is going to work for me: a certain sort of clean and upbeat strumminess is necessary to keep the music from stewing its own sappy juices, while crispness--both of sound and arrangement--is probably what lends an air of intelligence to the effort in the first place. Listen, for instance, to the three-part harmonies, which kick in with the second verse: the two background voices are mixed perfectly, with just enough oomph to give the song a wash of beauty, while avoiding the "look at us singing in three-part harmony" effect one usually hears whenever a band has the cajones to try it in the first place. "Indian Summer" leads off Maplewood's self-titled debut CD, released earlier this month on Tee Pee Records. You'll find the MP3 on the band web's site.

"No Danger" - Inouk
Unfolding with singular style, "No Danger" offers the ear a series of intriguing, mysteriously slippery hooks at every bend. An opening, repeated, siren-like call of the guitar gives way to a twitchingly percussive second guitar, which is then joined by a third guitar, playing a churning, repeated melody line before a now-acoustic guitar punctuates the intro and the vocals start. The interweaving of the three electric guitars serves as an undercurrent against which the song develops in a very hard to describe manner, driven as it is by an almost compositional sense of complexity. By the time the chorus is repeated (and it's hard to hear as a chorus the first time around) I'm completely engaged: by the chugging major-minor fluctuation of the guitar, the literally offbeat call-and-response section (we suddenly lose a beat in the measure after the word "anyone" is repeated, but get it right back again), and then, in the literal last minute, the seamless introduction of new elements, including a new melody, a noodly new guitar sound, and (particularly unexpected and charming) a chorus of ghostly female back-up singers. "No Danger" is the title track to the band's first full-length CD, released in August on Say Hey Records. The MP3 is on the band's site. A NYC band with roots in Philadelphia, Inouk is worth knowing about and keeping an eye on.

"What's Your New Thing?" - Walking Concert
Kinda chunky, kinda poppy, and kinda edgy, just the way a good two-and-a-half-minute song should be. Walking Concert's founder, Walter Schreifels, has a long indie-rock history behind him by now, having started the bands Gorilla Biscuits, Quicksand, and Rival Schools before launching Walking Concert. Um, don't worry, I never heard of them before either, as I have never been musically drawn to the so-called "hard core" side of alternative rock. But apparently Schreifels was well-regarded in those circles, and something of a wunderkind, as he was but 16 when Gorilla Biscuits launched; the guy's still in his early 30s at this point. His background, in any case, brings an undeniable energy-burst to this likable little song, which displays an affectionate awareness of some of rock'n'roll's best pop, both older (early Who and Kinks and even David Bowie) and newer (the Replacements, Guided By Voices). "What's Your New Thing?" is found on the band's debut CD, Run To Be Born, released earlier this month on Some Records; the MP3 is on the label's web site. Thanks to 3hive for the head's up on this one.

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Monday, September 20, 2004

week of Sept. 19-25

"The Science of Your Mind" - The Comas
This song begins with the unlikely but immediately appealing combination of a Middle Eastern synthesizer line topped by a jazzy acoustic guitar noodle, then churns without hesitation into a swift, minor-key tale of love gone sour. Along the way are some tasty finger-snaps, spy-movie bass riffs, echoey drumbeats, and a nifty guitar solo. What's more, even as the screed of a spurned lover (cliche-ridden territory to be sure), the song yields some intriguing lyrics--I especially like the second verse, where the rejectee offers a series of reverse blessings ("May your days be long and cold" etc.). All in all, an accomplished effort. "The Science of Your Mind" is the lead track on Conductor, the band's third album, released last month on Yep Roc Records; the MP3 is on the Yep Roc web site.

"Pelz Comet" - The Kingsbury Manx
This North Carolina band is channeling an elusive '60s vibe--not Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson, as quite a number of indie outfits seem to be doing these days (not that there's anything wrong with that!), but some weird space in which early Pink Floyd and later Simon & Garfunkel dance to the same drummer, or at least acoustic guitarist. There is something timelessly hand-made and organic about this sound; if they are building on the past, they are creating their own structure, not just rearranging someone else's bricks, as it were. Notably more assertive than the band's previous TWF entry, the dreamy "Porchlight," this song has three distinct but interrelated sections. The first is driven by acoustic guitar riffs and is anchored by a simple, plaintive chorus ("Here I stand/Still waiting on you") that manages beyond expectation to stick in my head. The second section is instrumental, bringing in one electric guitar, and then two, for an intertwining series of snaky, perhaps even Beatle-y descending melody lines which establish a syncopated sort of presence only to dissolve into the third section: a piano-fueled, double-time coda. "Pelz Comet" comes from the band's third CD, Aztec Discipline, which emerged rather too quietly last October on Overcoat Recordings; the MP3 is on the band's web site.

"Nightly Cares" - Múm
So once and for all we should realize that Björk is not the only female singer in Iceland. Although when you first hear Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir's whispery, baby-girl voice, you may wish she were. This voice is probably an acquired taste. The song is an acquired taste, maybe, as well--building with almost painful slowness at the beginning, a distant-foghorn-like synthesizer repeating, without hurry, over atmospheric background noises of one sort or another, also distant-sounding. It's a minute and a half before the song moves into the foreground, acquires a solid--if slow--beat, and then, careful, here comes Kristín Anna, in all her whispery glory. But the band works with the sonic fabric so attentively that over time, the voice somehow begins to make sense. For all the trip-hoppy clickings and clackings around the edges, the music here has a warm and human feel--the drums are real (you can hear the wire brushes), a muted trumpet and a melodica (!) trade licks along the way, and, if I'm not mistaken (although lord knows I could be), that's an actual bowed saw in the background adding to the spooky majesty. The song is from the band's third CD, Summer Make Good, which came out in May on Fat Cat Records. The MP3 is hosted on Indie Workshop.

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Monday, September 13, 2004

week of Sept. 12-18

"Welcome Back" - The Trashcan Sinatras
There's something to be said for experience. So, sure, I had no idea the Trashcan Sinatras--a band I vaguely associate with the early '90s--were still around, but the fact that they are means that when they want to, the Scottish quintet can sound like this: crystal-clear, swaggery-assured, and quirky-pop-gorgeous. After making a minor splash with their debut CD, Cake, in 1990 (not to be confused with the band Cake, which I'll admit I've done)(or Sea and the Cake, for that matter), they proceeded to lie low through most of the decade, releasing only two other CDs, in 1993 and 1996, before re-emerging with Weightlifting (Spin Art Records) last month. Biding their time may have made sense, since their shiny, well-crafted, jangly Brit-pop is much more aligned (praise the lord) with the current music scene than it was in the middle '90s. I love this song's offbeat drive, an effect amplified by the insertion of two extra beats at the end of each verse. The chorus, for its part, acquires a keen hook simply by modulating through three great chords, underscored by a wall of full-tilt, almost Edge-like electric guitar. I like how even in a short (2:24) song, they let the guitar open out into a sly, wailing solo that might be mistaken for a heavy metal cliche if you don't listen closely. Vocalist Frank Reader (brother of the marvelous Eddi Reader) has an open quality to his voice that brings you back in time, managing to sound yearning without any over-acting. The song opens Weightlifting; the MP3 can be found on Filter Magazine.

"Isn't the Sun" - Cordalene
On the heels of last week's wonderful Paul Westerberg song comes another faux-'60s piece of perfect, slightly skewed pop, this from a little-known Philadelphia band. I'm loving the way the intro takes a bass line as old as the '50s and segues it into an itchy guitar riff, and that's really what makes the song so spiffy all the way through--that dusty bass line keeps knocking against the itchy guitars, and when they settle in together in the chorus with a kick that is somehow almost (but not really) swing-like, the result is all but swoon-full. Halfway through, the instrumental section works this out in a particularly charming way, as the guitar itself does a squonky riff on the bass melody. But I think my favorite moment of all is a lyrical one, when Mike Kiley (who's got a really nice power-pop voice by the way) sings, "And she looked at me with a breathtaking stare," breaking up "breath" and "taking" so resolutely as to give new shades of meaning to the word. The song comes from a release known simply as The Red EP; the MP3 is on the band's web site. Thanks again to Oddio Overplay for the head's up.

"Retour A Vega" - the Stills
I find this irresistible: the acoustic-guitar driven minor key beat, the tasteful use of violins, the French lyrics, and then, putting it completely over the top for me, the octave harmonies. Gotta love the octave harmonies. They were a great pop weapon in Squeeze's arsenal, and with the Kinks before that. As if this weren't enough, there's a crunchy little electric guitar bit in the middle. Put this on in the background with a crowd of people and everyone will start to smile without knowing why. Better yet, be the owner of a small record store, put it on with a store full of customers, and see how many people (remember that scene in High Fidelity with the Beta Band song?) come up and ask about it and buy the CD. The CD in question, by the way, is the soundtrack to the movie Wicker Park, and while I can't say anything about the movie itself (doesn't look like one I'm heading quickly to see), the soundtrack has a positively "ooh! pick me, pick me!" sensibility in terms of seeking to appear very of-the-moment in an almost-but-not-quite mainstream way. (Think Singles soundtrack, back in the early '90s.) In addition to the Stills, this one has the Shins, Death Cab for Cutie, Mates of State, and Stereophonics, among others. The MP3 comes courtesy of Vice Records.

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Monday, September 06, 2004

week of Sept. 5-11

"As Far As I Know" - Paul Westerberg
Last heard channeling Keith Richards, Paul Westerberg is back wearing Beatle-ier clothing this time. What at first sounded to me like a competent bit of neo-McCartney-ism has revealed itself, after three or four listens, to be a deeply endearing pop song. The charm is all around the edges: the ringing guitars offset by a ragged wash of fuzz; the '60s-perfect melody deconstructed by Westerberg's exquisitely unpolished voice; the whole thing driven by an earnest drumbeat as relentless as it is borderline goofy. And you want to hear subtle? Listen to the chords he works up to during that distinct, repeated melody featured near the end of each verse. In the introductory section, with just the guitar playing, the words are "that doesn't get kissed, that doesn't exist"; the second time we get to that point he's backed by the full band and sings "that never took place, that's easy to trace." Now listen as he's there the third time, singing "that doesn't resist, that doesn't exist," this time with a wondrous, elusive chord progression that augments the unfolding poignancy of the lyrics. At the same time, the song's ramshackle momentum has by now become utterly infectious, its tumbling percussiveness revealing a refreshing, solidly human presence in this age of loops and programs. The lyrics build to reinforce the impression, closing with: "I'm in love with a dream I had as a kid/I wait up the street until you show/That dream it came true/But you never do, no you never did/As far as I know." The song is on Westerberg's new album Folker, due out tomorrow on Vagrant Records.

"From the Station" - Soltero
Neil Young meets Elliott Smith meets the Kinks in this loping, loopy, quick-pulsed ballad. I like how the song starts right in, both musically and lyrically; I like even more how it keeps going: "From the Station" features an unusually long melody line, fully 16 measures (actually 14 in the first verse, then 16 in the other two). Most pop songs give out at eight measures, and lots of these only survive that long with a good amount of internal repetition, with measures three and five mimicking measure one, for instance. Here the melody descends and extends, aided marvelously by singer/songwriter/guitarist Tim Howard's appealing, high-pitched vocals, ghostly organ flourishes, and tasteful guitar distortions. While the Boston-based Howard does play all the instruments on this track, Soltero is in fact a four-piece band. They just haven't recorded a full-band album yet; previous Soltero releases (beginning with 2001's wonderfully titled Science Will Figure You Out) have been largely Howard's work. "From the Station" will be on the next Soltero CD, entitled Hell Train, to be released later this year. The MP3 is on the band's web site.

"Ugly Man" - Rickie Lee Jones
A jazzy shuffle, leisurely melody, and layered harmonies disguise an almost painfully personal protest song. Never mind the specifics of policies and decisions, Rickie Lee slices to the heart of the matter, which is GWB's inability to access his own (heart, that is). Maybe, like the Tin Man, he simply doesn't realize he has one. Look: thousands of years of human culture and spiritual wisdom tell us what living and acting from a heart-based center entails, and it has little to do with the appointed president's resolute disinterest in learning and growing as an adult human being, never mind his crippling inability to connect to the entirety of humanity rather than simply those similarly uninterested in learning and growing. "Ugly Man" comes from Rickie Lee's most recent CD, The Evening of My Best Day, which was released last year on V2 Records. The MP3 can be found for free on Salon, where Thomas Bartlett last week did a wonderful, Republican National Convention-inspired job gathering free and legal protest songs from a wide variety of notable artists. (As with most content on Salon, you'll have to watch a short commercial before being able to access this page, unless you are already a subscriber or decide on the spot to subscribe.)

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Thursday, August 26, 2004

week of August 29-Sept. 4

(Back from vacation, Fingertips is going live a few days early, in anticipation of another brief stint out of the office. Things should be back to normal for the Sept. 5-11 edition, and from that point onward into the--yikes--autumn.)

"Forces Regrouping" - the iOs
Resplendent neo-'80s pop with subtle bursts of warmth and charm in just about every line. After an ambiguous opening measure or two of vibrating synthesizer, the song quickly engages me with its sly juxtaposition of garage-like rhythm guitars and new wave-ish electronics in the introduction. This surely isn't your father's '80s music. I'm already won over when guitarist Chris Punsalan brings his agreeably buzzy voice to a neat, playful melody; that he is echoed in the second half of the verse, call-and-response-ishly, by keyboardist Autumn Proemm's dreamy background vocals clinches the deal. I like this. But the best is yet to come, and it's here: when the song goes into a stop-start section bridging the verse and the chorus (beginning with "And I could make it up to you"); the tension builds as melodic synthesizers play against a dark, fuzzed-up guitar; and then (wow) it breaks gloriously wide open as the song's killer hook appears out of left field--the sneaky resolution of the "Look for a sign" section, full-ahead tempo returning with a lovely melody, and Punsalan and Proemm briefly but effectively singing directly together, taking my breath at least somewhat away. Great new pop from a young NYC band. The song is one of three on the iOs' first release, an EP called Center and Stop; the MP3 is on the band's web site.

"Uptight" - Julian Cope
Every musical generation needs its own mad-genius-one-man-band-recluse, and Julian Cope will do nicely for the new wavers who came of age in the late 1970s. Making a name for himself as the leader of The Teardrop Explodes, Cope went on to a certain amount of success in the '80s as a solo artist, but it was all in and around a lot of weirdness, some drug-induced, some just natural for the eclectic Cope. The '90s saw him out of the mainstream pretty much entirely, yet as active as ever on a number of fronts, including writing his memoirs and founding his own mail-order record label. Currently he's spending time in a band called Brain Donor, and any band that can record an album entitled Too Freud to Rock'n'Roll, Too Jung to Die can't be all bad. So, anyway: "Uptight." It's a song from the early '90s that never made it onto any of his albums, and it's a nice if lightweight example of Cope at his most Peter Gabriel-mellow-funky. A brief pastoral-like bit of Chinese music at the outset leads to a relaxed but definitive groove, and when Cope opens his mouth you are his, so much beautiful authority does he carry in that voice. The whistled refrain in the second half saves the enterprise from floating away perhaps a bit too inconsequentially. The MP3 is on Cope's Head Heritage web site, his online musical community/record label. Thanks to Oddio Overplay for the lead.

"Pale Horse" - John Vanderslice
Another rich offering from the magnificent Mr. Vanderslice. Like "They Won't Let Me Run," this one comes from his powerful Cellar Door CD, released in January on Barsuk Records. When I first heard the two songs online in February, I latched onto the other, but after (finally) buying Cellar Door (see? it works!: post high-quality, full-length songs for free on the web and it'll convince me to buy the CD! how about that?), I find myself in thrall to the serious charms of this literally off-beat tune. The lyrics are derived from Shelley's "The Mask of Anarchy," the music is all Vanderslice: assured rhythm, impeccable melody, casually expert producion touches, all wrapped in a glistening 6/4 shuffle. This guy is serious, and yet almost impossibly accessible for such an independent spirit. Check him out, and tell your friends. He really deserves a much much wider audience. The MP3 comes from Vanderslice's web site.

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Monday, August 09, 2004

week of August 8-14

It's that time of year again: Fingertips will be on vacation for most of the rest of August. "This Week's Finds" will return for the week of August 29-Sept. 4. Actually, Fingertips will be back a few days early, so the Aug. 29 "This Week's Finds" will probably be up by Thursday August 26 or so.

I may personally be on vacation but remember that there is a huge amount of free and legal music waiting to be explored via other pages here on Fingertips. Good places to start are the Music Site Guide and the Artist Index; if you're adventurous, you might check out the Smaller Labels page and the Minor Hubs page as well. All these pages will point you to places on the web where good free and legal music is likely to be found. If you do, in fact, come across anything great along the way, drop me a line. You may discover a future "Find," and the world will be a brighter, more connected place.

Okay, now to this week's songs:

"I'm Happy But You Don't Like Me" - Asobi Seksu
Three minutes and nine seconds of giddy neo-new wave bliss. The melody is Blondie perfect; combine that with the band's capacity to unleash some serious but disciplined guitar noise and I'm all but swooning. Lead singer Yuki's innocent breathiness adds to the glory of a song that sounds to me like the bright flip side of one of the new wave's greatest singles, the bleak but invincible "Enola Gay," from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Asobi Seksu is a NYC-based band that offers songs in both English and Japanese, but prior understanding of Japanese is not required to enjoy this awesome piece of pop. "I'm Happy But..." comes from the band's debut, self-titled CD, which was released on Friendly Fire Recordings in May. You'll find the MP3 on the band's web site.

"Veda's Waltz - Christine Fellows
The label "chamber pop" has been floating around for the better part of a decade, and is typically used to refer to music made by indie bands which have incorporated traditional stringed instruments (e.g. violin or cello) into their sound. Normally the label seems to miss the mark (and often has the air of gimmickry about it) but in the case of Christine Fellows, the shoe fits agreeably: "Veda's Waltz" sounds like nothing so much as a pop song peformed by a small chamber ensemble, if that were something small chamber ensembles usually did. What makes it work, to me, is Fellows' strikingly immediate voice. Stripped of all pretense, her voice is underscored by the same sort of ineffable ache that characterizes the sound of the instruments she is singing with; she blends beautifully, gratifyingly with them--gratifying because I have never believed one has to sing like an opera singer to perform with "classical" instruments, even though that's been the presumption for, oh, a few hundred years or so at this point. Another engaging, idiosyncratic musician from Canada, Fellows was in a couple of bands in the '90s before striking out on her own, first with an album called 2 little birds in 2000 and then The Last One Standing in 2002, on which "Veda's Waltz" is found. The MP3 is on her web site.

"The Long Distance Four" - the Constantines
From the first note, the electric guitar here says "pay attention to this," and yet, how, exactly, is this achieved? I find it difficult to articulate (writing about music remains a basically ridiculous idea), but it's a two-guitar sound that rejects classic-rock, guitar-hero fire for a clipped, urgent riff below, accompanied by open-chorded harmonics above. Bringing Television to mind, it's a sound that puts you on call, and on edge, and then along comes lead singer Bryan Webb, sounding for all the world like Joe Strummer's Canadian cousin, with the late Clash leader's endearingly husky, offhanded capacity to carry a tune and his knack for spitting out startling, unexpected lyrics ("Collect the body of Isadora Duncan"??). Now I'm definitely paying attention, and I'm liking what I hear a lot. "The Long Distance Four" comes from the Constantines' first full-length CD, a self-titled disc released originally in 2001, and just re-issued by Sub Pop.

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Monday, August 02, 2004

week of August 1-7

"Whiskey Tango" - Tanya Donelly
Slinky and acoustic, "Whiskey Tango" shows off Tanya Donelly's rich, elastic voice and subtle facility with melody in a quiet and simplified setting. It's a new direction for the former leader of the band Belly, whose songs have not lacked for crunch, drive, and electricity in the past. On "Whiskey Tango," the under-appreciated Donelly looks for texture in smaller gestures--a slide guitar here, a wood block there--and brings her world-weary lyrics ("Of the art of making waves/I've had my lesson in spades") front and center. The song is as quiet as its implied tango beat, and might float by unnoticed were it not for the aching dignity of its minimal but lovely chorus--Donelly's use of a seventh chord and the elegant progression out of it when she sings "Of the art of speaking plain..." gives "Whiskey Tango" a small but powerful hook. The song is the effectual title track from her just-released Whiskey Tango Ghosts (4AD Records); the MP3 can be found on Insound.

"Gonna Never Have to Die" - Guided By Voices
The air of timeless rock'n'roll hangs brilliantly around this song, from Robert Pollard's Pete Townshend-like vocals to the old-fashioned drive of its big, snare-less beat and simple harmonies, to something at once larger and less definable in its deep and well-crafted ambiance. After a simple, itchy bit of acoustic guitar, the song grabs me instantly with the way each line in the first verse begins with one syllable drawn out over five distinct notes, complete with a wonderful, syncopated sort of hestiation in the middle. Okay, so it's kind of harder to describe in words than to listen to, but it creates an almost transcendent sort of wonder right smack in the middle of the action. There's even a counter-balancing resolution at the end of each line in the chorus, when, again, one syllable is stretched over five distinct notes, this time a simple back-and-forth between two tones. Yeah, like I said, harder to describe than to listen to. "Gonna Never Have to Die" is a song from Guided By Voices' soon-to-be-released CD, entitled Half Smiles of the Decomposed (Matador Records). After 20 some-odd releases spanning 17 years, Half Smiles will be GBV's last album--and therefore something of a momentous event in the indie world. And yet at the same time, leader Pollard has put the band through so many incarnations that it's safe to say that as long as Pollard continues to record, GBV fans will have a lot to look forward to.

"Verandi" - Björk
Mysterious, hypnotic, and bizarrely endearing, as Björk just about always is. "Verandi" combines the exotic ambiance and expansive percussiveness typical of 1997's Homogenic with a hint of the intimate sonic touches and gentle melodicism of 2001's Vespertine. I like how the almost martial regularity of the beat provides unexpected comfort through the aural adventure that unfolds here. Some of the non-Western-ness on display stems from work done on the song by "Bollywood" composer Jolly Mukherjee, but with Björk, a musical universe unto herself, you never know quite from where the unearthliness radiates. And what does it all mean? With Björk, you just don't ask. Bask in the sound of it, thrill to the countless moments of offbeat beauty, and be happy that she, at least, knows what she's doing. "Verandi" was originally released as a B-side to "Hidden Places," from Vespertine; the MP3 is on Bjork's jam-packed web site. Thanks to Fat Planet for the heads up on this one; the Björk site is so overflowing with words and links that I never previously noticed she had any MP3s up there at all.

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Monday, July 26, 2004

week of July 25-31

"The Rat" - The Walkmen
Brash and big and all but irresistible right out of the starting gate, from that first, fuzzy, unresolved chord, through the huge drum beats and the minor chord progressions, and that's even before the first verse kicks in. These guys just don't hold anything back, and the sonic result is exhilarating, combining the twitchy rawness of the Strokes with the aching spaciousness of early U2 and the artful drive of New Order. Singer Hamilton Leithauser sings with a hoarse edge, as if he's already overdone it and should be resting his voice already but forget about it, he's got this song to sing first, dammit. The Walkmen are from Washington, D.C. and have apparently been playing in bands together since the fifth grade. "The Rat" comes from their second CD, Bows + Arrows, released in February on the Record Collection imprint, which does its best to look like a quirky, independent label but is actually part of Warner Brothers. But I'm not complaining--more big labels should offer offbeat acts like Record Collection does, along with (heaven forbid!) free and legal MP3s. Back in the day, all we had more or less were the big boys to find our music for us, and they sometimes did a decent job. Times have changed, but good music is still good music.

"London" - Red Pony
While I am not a big fan of overly indie sounds, and am downright suspicious of lo-fi recordings, I find this song oddly endearing. Part of the appeal is the piano motif at the beginning; there's something about its plaintive melodicism that I will gladly follow anywhere. The vocals are simple to the point of naivete, the guitar tinny, the sound garage-y, and yet at the same time I hear in it a vitality and urgency that brings me back to great singles that used to emerge from the U.K. in the late '70s, each its own mini-universe of hopes, dreams, and vision. Red Pony is a bass-less three-piece band from Cardiff, Wales. They are label-less, also; "London" can be found on the band's web site.

"Far End of the Night" - Grant Lee Phillips
And then sometimes this is exactly the sound I want to hear: deep, polished, and timeless. Phillips, the driving force behind the '90s band Grant Lee Buffalo, has a knack for writing new melodies that you're sure you must've heard before, sings them in an arrestingly familiar voice, and wraps them in an exquisite acoustic setting. Phillips is also as skilled as an ancient troubadour at telling a sad tale with a gorgeous tune: while the music is lullaby-gentle, the vague story sketched is a foreboding one, evoking a journey through a dark, enveloping night in which, sings the story's narrator, "Time hangs like a noose before me." "Far End of the Night" can be found on Virginia Creeper, released earlier this year on Zoe Records; the MP3 is located on the site.

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