Monday, March 29, 2004

week of Mar. 28-Apr. 3

"Good Luck" - Eszter Balint
A potent melting pot of scratchy avant-funk and boho folk, "Good Luck" comes from a new CD by the world's only (I think!) Hungarian-born, NYC-based singer/songwriter/violinist/actress. From the opening syncopation of the brush-tinged drumbeat, I feel myself in good hands here, even as I'm never really sure what's going on. There's a bit of Suzanne Vega in Balint's deadpan spoken-sung delivery in the verses, and a touch of latter-day Tom Waits floating around the fringes of the production, particularly in the odd aural space created by the somewhat dissonant, squonky guitar work, the wash of vibraphone in the background, and the intermittent oddity (alarm clocks?). Whereas today's music scene encourages the often gratuitous tossing together of sounds, Balint appears to have earned the right to her idiosyncratic mish-mash, given her unusual background as the daughter of Central European avant garde theater artists. Balint's recently-released second CD, Mud, is available on Bar/None Records.

"Cars Can't Escape" - Wilco
While Wilco fans await A Ghost is Born (the next CD, due out in June), here comes a nugget left from the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions. While this may not grab your attention if you don't already love this seriously great band (okay, I already love them), there's a lot to hear here if you relax with it. To begin with, there's Jeff Tweedy's gift for meandering melody, and his perfectly matched lazy-but-insistent voice. (Has enough been made of Tweedy's unexpected but gratifying resemblance to the Kinks' Ray Davies?) This song is also a showcase for the band's unparalleled capacity to blend the acoustic and the electric, here most effectively embodied by the way a recurring melodic theme is passed from one sound to another. Based on the opening acoustic chords, the theme is developed into a melody by an unstable penny-whistle-ish synthesizer break, then handed to a banjo, which proceeds to pick it out against an increasingly cacophonous background of swirling, unidentifiable noises. In and around the musical nuances, lyrical phrases emerge here and there, hinting at hidden emotions and untold stories ("In my sleepless head our love's been dead a week or two"). Me, I'm looking forward to the new CD a whole lot. (Thanks to our friends at Glorious Noise for the heads up on this one.)

"Just Another Number" - the Cribs
In less than three minutes, this trio of brothers from West Yorkshire has done something subtly magical, uniting past and present sounds so seamlessly as to concoct something solid and memorable out of the union. While the song is driven by a high-pitched, crinkly guitar sound that brings the Strokes obviously and immediately to mind, the Cribs have done the brilliant service here of taking the Strokes' sound out of the well-worn Velvet Underground-Television family tree and cross-fertilizing it with less obvious influences, adding in particular a welcome dose of new wave pop (I'm thinking a band like the Teardrop Explodes) into the mix. You know this song is going in an interesting direction when the lead singer breaks into some good old "ooh-oohs" during the bridge-like chorus. And then there's the unexpected shift into unresolved, open chords as the guitar heads down into a normal register during the chorus-like bridge, and that wonderful point where the harmonies go into alluring octaves ("I disappear for hours/Over the smallest things, yeah"), followed by even more unanticipated "ba-da-ba-da-da"s, and okay at this point it's probably better to hear it than to have me describe it but it's pretty cool. This comes from the band's eponymous debut CD, released this month on Wichita Recordings, a small London-based label.

Monday, March 22, 2004

week of Mar. 21-27

"Line Up" - Elastica
Okay, so every now and then I want to silence the questions; I want something I already know and love, something I don't have to sit and listen to over and over and wonder, " this really good, or really not good?" It's such a crazy fine line, sometimes. And okay this may not be my favorite song from Elastica's memorable debut album (geez, nine years old already), but it sure starts the disc off with a crunchy wallop. Guitars don't squeak and squawk much more satisfyingly than Elastica's guitars; jammed against Justine Frischmann's bored-yet-sultry voice, the effect was captivating. There's even something endearing about the rhythmic grunting that intermittently accompanies the crunch here. While at the time it may have seemed that Elastica arrived rather way too late (long after the original new wave), in retrospect they act as a sort of bridge between a sound that had nearly died at that point and one that seems to be in the middle of a welcome resurgence here in the new century.

"Lazy Afternoon" - Bree Sharp
A different kind of crunch is on display here--brighter, punchier, and unabashedly mainstream-oriented. "Lazy Afternoon" is a straight-ahead rocker, fueled by crisp production, classic rock harmonies, and a heavy dose of Sheryl Crow-ish-ness. Despite her polish (and despite a truly sensational name) Bree Sharp seems to be rather unfortunately betwixt and between in today's music world: neither a teenybopper nor a baby boomer, she records like an indie rocker (i.e. she has her own label) yet sounds like Crow's younger sister. "Lazy Afternoon" comes from her second CD, 2002's More B.S., which probably did not receive as much attention as her 1999 debut, A Cheap and Evil Girl. That one came out on a small label (Trauma Records), and was juiced by something of a novelty song--"David Duchovny," a love letter to the X-Files actor (featuring the memorable couplet: "David Duchovny/Why won't you love me?").

"Never Believe" - Elf Power
Talk about a crazy fine line--what is the fine line between celebratory mainstream pop like "Lazy Afternoon" and celebratory indie pop like this song, from a dedicated bunch of "lo-fi" musicians based in Athens, Georgia (itself something of an indie-rock center-of-the-universe)? It's another question for the ages. Elf Power has one of those complex histories that indie fans are used to--overlapping bands with interweaving personnel and lots of funky names along the way (like Neutral Milk Hotel and the Olivia Tremor Control). Well, wherever they've been and whoever they are, this song is two and a half minutes of hard-driving, cathartic melody, with acoustic rhythm guitars buzzed by an advancing and retreating wall of electric fuzz and artful feedback. Singer Andrew Rieger's voice has its own sort of solid rock vibe to it, a wonderful amalgam of, oh, maybe Paul Humphreys (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) and Justin Hayward (the Moody Blues), somehow. "Never Believe" can be found on the CD Walking With the Beggar Boys, to be released in early April on Orange Twin Records.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

(It's finally here--the Fingertips Commentary. On the web site, the Commentary contains a few extra linked "footnotes" along the way, but the basic text is exactly the same.)

(The Fingertips Commentary will be a semi-regular feature, popping in every now and then when the mood strikes me.)


Earlier this year, a song called "45 RPM" was sent to a handful of influential British DJs. The song arrived on a white CD with the name "the Poppyfields" on it. There were no other identifying marks.

Wow, thought a few of these DJs. Pretty cool tune--at once jumpy and driving, with a catchy chorus, fervently sung, in the style of some of the popular new wave bands of the late '70s and early '80s.

"45 RPM" started showing up on British radio. No one seemed to know who the Poppyfields were but what the heck, a hot new band with a hot new single is all anyone's ever looking for.

Except that in this case the hot new band wasn't new at all. The Poppyfields were actually the Alarm--a band that does, indeed, date back to the new wave era.

Mike Peters, the band's leader, wrote "45 RPM" while the Alarm toured in the U.S. this past fall.

"We knew it ws good when we finished it," the 45-year-old band leader told the Philadelphia Inquirer in an interview published on March 8. "And we knew if we'd taken it to radio as an Alarm record, it wouldn't have a chance."

Thus the invention of the "Poppyfields"--named for a series of Internet-only CDs the band has been doing in recent years, called In the Poppy Fields.

"We felt we had nothing to lose," Peters said. "It seemed to be the only way we could get a fair hearing."

As the single moved into regular rotation on British radio, the Poppyfields abruptly needed some credible promotional material. In short order, the Alarm concocted a fake bio for a young punk band and even had a video shot featuring four teenaged musicians, play-acting convincingly.

The single rose into Britain's Top 30 before word finally spread about the Poppyfields' true identity.

The "45 RPM" ruse makes a great little story. There's even an interesting lesson to be learned, although it may not be what you expect.

Yes, the music industry shamelessly prefers image over substance, youth over age; yes, this inclination, while always in the air, has worsened over the years as market research has long since replaced gut instinct when it comes to what's played on the radio.

Even so, this situation--however frustrating and unfortunate--cannot be helped, because it is really an outgrowth of a larger problem that is all but intractable and in many ways isn't truly a problem at all.

This "problem" is that there is too much music.

Not too much music for music fans, no no no. There can never be too much music for us music fans. (Right?) But from the perspective of radio programmers, the amount of music available these days is nothing short of, um, alarming.

Think about it: when the Alarm started, in 1979, the entire history of rock'n'roll, from Bill Haley onward, was contained within the previous 25 years. The Beatles had arrived in America only 15 years earlier, ushering in a sound upon which the classic rock of the '60s and '70s would be based.

For rock'n'roll radio professionals in 1979, a working knowledge of most if not all worthy bands and albums in the rock genre--particularly the post-1964 rock genre--was not only still expected at that point (imagine that!), it was also quite possible to have.

Today, 1979 itself is 25 years ago. Rock'n'roll history is twice as long as it was back then, and the amount of music contained therein has multiplied many many (many) times beyond.

What is a commercial rock station, seeking an identifiable sound, supposed to do about this? Clearly, most seek a specialty. While this is often presented as a demographic necessity, I'm beginning to see formats as commercial radio's way of coping with there being too much music otherwise to filter and present in a cohesive manner.

While we tend to think of radio formats as genre-based--all-country stations, all-hip-hop stations, all-hard-rock stations, and so forth--radio may be more tellingly seen as segmented chronologically. When it comes to rock music in particular, commercial radio has effectively sliced off groups of years for us, presenting popular music in chronological clumps.

This trend began with the so-called "oldies" stations, which first appeared in earnest in the late '70s and early '80s. Pre-Beatles music--which sounded different in any case--was given its own sonic ghetto, and that seemed to work pretty well.

Until, that is, there was simply too much music to deal with--which happened, as far as I can see, between 1984 and 1994. Consider those the "tipping point" years.

This is when the "classic rock" radio format arose. Like the oldies format, the classic rock format sliced off a particular chunk of rock's history and stayed there, forever. In classic rock's case, the focus is on roughly 15 to 20 years' worth of music

Because classic rock cuts off somewhere in the early '80s, there have also emerged '80s rock stations that play music from the '80s only--another chronological clump of music.

This will continue to be necessary and will continue to happen as long as rock'n'roll continues to exist in some form or another.

But radio's need to slice rock'n'roll history into manageable aural chunks has left few rock-based stations either willing or able to mix older and newer rock music together effectively.

So when an "old" band like the Alarm records an otherwise current-sounding song, we may suspect age prejudice at work, but it's really more like organ rejection. With rock history divvied up into historical format/segments, it becomes difficult if not impossible for radio stations to pay attention to bands that stay around too long.

Thus the Alarm/Poppyfields, and the wacky irony that it's easier for a young band to get airplay sounding like the Alarm than for the actual Alarm to get airplay.

Unfortunately for the Alarms of the world, radio isn't changing; it can't. Radio was simply not designed to deal with such a thing as a 25-year-old rock band with new records coming out. The Alarm is on its own.

As are we, the thoughtful music fans of the world. Not only was it easier to program a radio station back in 1974, with only about 10 years' worth of useful music to choose from, it was a lot easier to be a music fan back then too. Nowadays there is no keeping track of everything. We need each other here because no one can do it on his or her own.

Such a reality may frustrate the determined collector and other sorts of quantitative-oriented aficionados. But maybe it's not otherwise so terrible. Maybe, without radio to guide us effectively, music fans will grow to rely on an intuitive, synchronistic sort of browsing, whether online or in actual record stores (as long as they continue to exist!), to find what pleases them.

Speaking from my own experience, I find that this type of approach to the music scene can lead to unexpected places full of wonderful, even magical sounds.

The truth is that no one will ever know all of rock'n'roll again. For some, this may be alarming. I think it's kind of exciting.

Monday, March 15, 2004

week of Mar. 14-20

"I Win" - Abra Moore
A stark, hypnotic minor key piano ballad from the sweet-voiced Abra Moore, returning after a long absence from recording. Once a member of the neo-bohemian band Poi Dog Pondering, Moore released two engaging solo CDs--Sing in 1995 and Strangest Places in 1997--then disappeared. She has had quite the experience in the interim. Clive Davis took Moore with him when he left Arista to start J Records; the new label wanted to run her through the Vanessa Carlton-Avril Lavigne machine, basically, with team-based writing and production, teenybopper songs, the works. Moore was open to the experiment going in, but found she couldn't live with the results, artistically. Despite having finished a CD called No Fear for J in 2002, the label--unusually--allowed her out of her contract, stopped the record's release, and let her keep the masters. Moore regrouped, re-established her independent vibe, and has now emerged two years later with the aptly named CD Everything Changed, just released last week on Koch Records. Moore is an engaging musical presence; blessed with a voice that is at once lithe and hardy, her subtle variety of vocal tone and emphasis gives this simple, brooding song a great deal of weight.

"Little Black Ache" - Bishop Allen
Punchy, quirky, and catchy, this one brings you back to the Kinks in 1965, but with a Pixies-like or perhaps an Ass Ponys-like edge. The sound is at once loose and tight, and I'll admit I'm a pushover for songs with a goofy call-and-response hook like this--"I've got my little black little ache"/("What you got?"). Now Brooklyn-based, the band was founded in Cambridge; they took their name from their location on Bishop Allen Drive in Central Square (the street itself was named after Bishop Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episopal Church, if you must know). "Little Black Ache" comes from the band's debut CD Charm School, which was self-released in May 2003. These guys have an appealing silliness to them, some of it planned (on the web site, where they present their lyrics, the band writes: "For increased prestige, we type them in Garamond"), and some not exactly (of the four members, two are named Christian but one of them is a man and one of them is a woman; go figure).

"Under Control" - Shutterspeed
Talk about bringing you back, here are five lads from Brisbane who come to you through a '70s rush of Keith Richards riffs, horn charts, swaggering vocals, and back-up "woo-oo-oohs." Lead singer Andrew Petersen has more than a little Southside Johnny in him, somehow--not that the decaying ambiance of an aging South Jersey beach town has anything in common with the up-and-coming subtropical splendor of Australia's third largest city. It's a small world after all, I suppose. While there's always a danger Shutterspeed will lose itself under the weight of its influences, the band's sheer brash energy pulls them through, to my ears; like Paul Weller (another guy grooving on that '70s thing), Shutterspeed at once mimics and rises above the mimickry. "Under Control" comes from the band's second album, Custom Made Hit Parade, released in June 2003.

Monday, March 08, 2004

week of Mar. 7-13

"Wouldn't Believe It" - the Get Up Kids
Without a killer chorus, "Wouldn't Believe It" might be an energetic but wispy bit of pop; on the strength of a few well-placed notes between verses, the song achieves true magnificence. While the harmonica-driven intro and Matt Pryor's boyish vocals favorably recall the Housemartins (a great British band from the mid-'80s), the simple, clipped phrases of the first verse lack impact. But wait: as the verse ends but before the chorus begins, an unexpected sort of miniature bridge builds the harmonic tension, particularly as the keyboard starts an insistent background pounding that all but shouts "Warning: killer chorus ahead." And it starts, Pryor singing "Did it occur to you too?" in a classic, descending fourth; then he sings "What was the worst it could do?" beginning an octave below where the chorus started, and for the word "worst" he jumps up a sixth, and there, music theory aside, that's the hook, and it's all happening so quickly and energetically that it leaves me breathless, as a killer chorus must, and casts a reverberant sheen on the entire song. And yikes it's much more plodding to write about than to listen to, so check it out. The Get Up Kids are from Kansas City; "Wouldn't Believe It" can be found on Guilt Show, their fourth CD, released last week on Vagrant Records.

"Wounded World" - Mission of Burma
Do I fear getting too soft around the edges here on Fingertips? Well, this'll solve that, and who better to stage the aural onslaught than the obscure-but-legendary Mission of Burma, a Boston-based art-punk band from the early '80s that finds itself together again in the 21st century. This song comes from the album ONoffON, slated to be released in May on Matador Records, and it shows the boys in fine, agitated form; from the opening lyrical sneer--"I'm a puppet, you're a puppet too"--the song blazes out of the gate, effortlessly recalling the heady musical scene which gave birth to this particular brand of intellectual noise. And yet for all its recapitulative fury, "Wounded World" seems very present at the same time; while the brash electric texture produced by the band's guitars and tape manipulations may be less of a crazy buzz than it was 20 years ago, there's still exhilaration to be had in the band's able juxtapositioning of noise and melody. The metallic bray of guitars halfway through the song is at once pure catharsis and outlandish fun.

"Impatience" - Emma McGlynn
An immediate sense of presence and personality shines through this song, which is quite a feat these days for anyone with an acoustic guitar, particularly anyone with quite so much of an Ani DiFranco fixation as Emma McGlynn. Like DiFranco, this U.K.-based singer/songwriter releases her own music on her own label, sings in a freewheeling and emotive style, and shows a lot of technical flair on her instrument. Similarities aside, McGlynn comes off as very much her own person; she's got a spiritually softer vibe, somehow, than DiFranco--something less prickly and self-absorbed comes through, even as McGlynn has clearly borrowed more than a few tricks from DiFranco's impressive bag of resources. "Impatience" is from an EP called 5th November that McGlynn released in 2001; a subsequent full-length CD, Kamikaze Birdie, came out last year. To download the song, right-click on the picture next to the song, then use the typical "save target as" approach to capturing the file.

Monday, March 01, 2004

week of Feb. 29-Mar. 6

"Off the Pedestal" - Wheat
Slinky and insistent, driven by a drone below and singer Scott Levesque's sleepy-assured vocals above, this song gives you a glimpse of what the Massachusetts-based band Wheat was up to before "I Met a Girl" became an adult-alternative radio staple (as it appears to be right now; it may yet go the full top-40 route). "Off the Pedestal" comes from the band's 1999 CD Hope and Adams, an album that created a buzz in indie circles as much for the band's disinterest in publicity as for the music itself--the album not only had no pictures of the band but didn't even list the members' names. This song has an appealing, busy sort of fuzziness--listen for the oddly cheerful marimba-like synthesizer mixed down into the drone; it's the kind of touch that subliminally adds texture and interest to a song that might otherwise sink from its own subtlety.

"Grace Cathedral Hill" - the Decemberists
More atmospheric and melodic magic from the Decemberists. Like XTC before them, this band has a way of putting a 19th-century veneer on rock'n'roll--truly a charming effect, the rare times someone can manage it. "Grace Cathedral Hill" can be found on Castaways and Cutouts, the band's 2002 debut. I enjoy how the pretty turns of the melody contrast with the harshness of some of the imagery, much as singer Colin Meloy's buzzy voice contrasts with the gorgeous lilt of the song. Eschewing the lo-fi vibe of many of its independent peers, this Portland, Ore.-based quintet creates exquisitely crafted music: from the space implicit in the opening strum of the acoustic guitar to the knowing addition of musical layers as the song develops, it's clear that strikingly capable hands are at work here.

"All By Myself" - the Ass Ponys
Maybe it helps if you've lived in Cincinnati (that's where they're from) and already own an Ass Ponys record or two; and I'm sure it also helps if you have memories of driving around in your parent's car just after getting your driver's license and hearing this Eric Carmen song played incessantly on the AM radio. That said, listening to Ass Ponys' leader Chuck Cleaver warbling '70s pop kitsch may not be the best introduction to this quirky band's substantial charms, but then again it could be just the thing. I've yet to hear their most recent two CDs, but can speak highly of Electric Rock Music, from 1996, which found the Ass Ponys on a major label, of all things. Don't be surprised, by the way, when this song all but grinds to a standstill about two-thirds of the way through--at once an awkward and all but perfect tribute to the pop melodrama therein unfolding. Like the band notes on its web site, the song is "performed only like Eric wishes he could have done it."