Monday, May 31, 2004

week of May 30-June 5

"Balloon Maker" - Midlake
Here's a band from Denton, Texas that's channeling a veritable history of British rock in one great, swirling package. I hear Salty Dog-era Procol Harum in here, a dash of Robyn Hitchcock, some Beatles of course, and even a touch of Radiohead, majestically and more than a little psychedelically mixed together. (I for one never realized how much Thom Yorke owes to Procol's Gary Brooker until these guys linked the two so clearly together.) "Balloon Maker" places you immediately in the middle of a fuzzy, orchestral wash of sound, and unfolds with quirky hesitations through the verse before unwrapping into a memorable chorus. Horns and chimes lend extra texture as the song develops, and before things get too stodgy, the synthesizer offers a dizzy solo three and a half minutes in. This song comes from the band's first full-length CD, Bamnan and Slivercork, to be released June 8th on Bella Union. The MP3 is located on the vast SXSW web site.

"Coin-Operated Boy" - the Dresden Dolls
The White Stripes have their guitar-and-drum, Led Zeppelin meets a couple of geeks from Detroit act; now we have the Dresden Dolls with their piano-and-drum, Kurt Weill meets a couple of punks from Boston act. It's hard to know what kind of shelf life this sort of duo will have, but the music ("Brechtian Punk Cabaret," as they label it themselves) certainly stands out in a crowd. And there are hints at a simmering sort of brilliance beneath what might at first glance seem like shtick. To begin with, there's the band's seemingly effortless knack for melody--the verse, for instance, is an extended line rather than a repeated phrase; the descending twist at the point when pianist/singer/songwriter Amanda Palmer sings "But I turn him on" is a great moment. The lyrics likewise reveal a sneaky capability, despite the pitfall of tromping through somewhat well-worn territory (lonely outsider imagining life with an artificial lover). Like here: "Coin-operated boy/All the other real ones that I destroy/Cannot hold a candle to my new boy and I'll/Never let him go..." Or, in particular, as the bridge starts, here: "This bridge was written to make you feel smittener/With my sad picture of girl getting bitterer." Note too that the narrator wants the robot not because she can't find a lover otherwise but because she's tired of how she easily chews up her real ones. Could be a band to pay close attention to. The song is found on the Dresden Dolls' self-titled CD, their first studio release, which came out in April; the MP3 comes from SXSW again.

"When I Wake Up" - the Fontaine Toups
I do like songs with "do-do-do-do"s in the them, I guess. Here's an appealingly straightforward rocker from the oddly-named band the Fontaine Toups--oddly named because the leader herself is, apparently, named Fontaine Toups. She used to be in a popular NYC-based band called Versus, which recorded five CDs through the '90s. "When I Wake Up" has a loose-limbed energy to it that plays well off Toups' Chrissie Hynde-like swagger. The song comes from the band's debut CD, released earlier this month on Teenbeat Records; the MP3 is located on the band's web site.

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Monday, May 24, 2004

week of May 23-29

"Their Biggest Win" - Robert Pollard
A quirky blend of the difficult and the catchy, "Their Biggest Win" starts with a series of unadorned electric guitar chords that don't quite mesh with a time signature; when the drums kick in, the beat appears to regularize, but hold on--when the bass, now, comes aboard the song shifts into yet another beat. Soon it's time for Pollard's voice, and even this is cause for a less-than-straightforward listening experience, as he starts off with a lower register sort of growl--I swear he sounds like Ian Dury for a moment or two here. The verse, such as it is, is an interesting series of semi-audible three- and four-syllable phrases that build melodically, rather than repeat. Just as I'm about to throw my hands up at how nothing ties together, suddenly everything ties together as the song bursts forth with a crunchy, sing-along-ish chorus. This time I can hear the words but I still don't know what he's saying. But hey, I'll admit I can't begin to explain Robert Pollard, long-time mastermind of legendary indie-rock band Guided By Voices. The guy has released about a hundred thousand records over the last 15 years or so, most as GBV, but sometimes as a solo artist. This song comes from a new solo CD called Fiction Man, part of something called the "Fading Captain" series (I have no idea what that's about). I do know that this is the first CD Pollard has put out since announcing last month that GBV will be splitting up by the end of the year. Which means there's probably a good three or four GBV CDs to come before then.

"Ventilaor R–80" - Ojos de Brujo
And now for something completely different. I will admit to being someone who appreciates the impact that hip-hop has on other music more than I enjoy the actual hip-hop I've heard, at least so far. This may be the melody thing, to begin with--I respond much more deeply to songs that have melodies and musical structure rather than rhythmic structure and a collage-y approach to sound. That said, the rhythmic and sonic innovation introduced to music by hip-hop is clearly a huge reservoir of inspiration for musicians around the world. Perhaps I simply have to get in the back door like this--stumbling upon a band from Barcelona that produces an exotic amalgam of hip-hop, flamenco, dance, and folk. Yeah so I'm really in over my head here, as flamenco is its own universe, full of its own rules and regulations; apparently Ojos de Brujo (which translates, I think, to Wizard Eyes, or something like that) flouts all sorts of conventions in creating their sound. In any case, I'm loving how the musical elements that are so overtly Spanish--the style and substance of the acoustic guitar, the precise flamenco rhythms--manage to work so exuberantly with the elements that derive from hip-hop (the rap-inflected vocals, the so-called "turntablism" effects). "Ventilaor R-80" is a song on the band's CD Bari, released in Spain in 2002; as released in this country this month, the song has been called "Ventilaor Rhumba." The MP3 comes from the Flamenco World web site.

"Kelly Grand Forks" - Joel R. L. Phelps & the Downer Trio
Joel R. L. Phelps has an unusual name and a down-to-earth electric guitar sound that's one part Neil Young, one part...well, someone else. My mind's not working too effectively this morning. "Kelly Grand Forks" chugs along with an urgent rhythm section tension that helps expand this song beyond the confines of a typical roots-rocker. Another independent singer/songwriter laboring in relative obscurity (it's big, big world out there of independent singer/songwriters laboring in relative obscurity), Phelps is gifted with a strong, throaty voice that pulls you in when he sings in the middle ranges, then just slays you when he goes for the higher notes. For what appears to be another jilted lover's tale, this song shows me an unexpected lyrical depth, enhanced by Phelps' delivery, and the accumlating force of the guitar work. "Kelly Grand Forks" is found on Phelps' new CD, Customs (12xU/Moneyshot Records). The MP3 comes via the 12xU label site.

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Monday, May 17, 2004

week of May 16-22

"The Wind Blew All Around Me" - Mary Lou Lord
Gorgeous, insistent, accomplished, and heart-rending. Mary Lou Lord takes a straight-ahead, jangly-guitar, up-tempo ballad and renders it heroic, somehow. "Look at me laughing, look at me joking, I've having such fun," she sings at the start, convincing you of exactly the opposite. While there may be nothing about "The Wind Blew All Around Me" that you haven't heard before, that's part of the joy of it: to remember that what moves the soul in a piece of music is rarely if ever a function of how "cutting-edge" it is. Genuine folk music has been moving souls for centuries, and this does, come to think of it, have the air of a sort of post-modern folk song--somewhat skewed, and charged with modern-day references ("My voice rang out like a dentist drill"), but with (as the title suggests) a timeless core. Lord's voice is just plain lovely and yet very real and present; when she gets to that descending melody at the end of each verse, particular with the harmonies that kick in after the first verse, I just about want to cry. The song comes from Baby Blue (Rubric Records), her recently released second studio CD, featuring a set of songs written by collaborator (and label-mate) Nick Saloman (otherwise known as one-man band the Beavis Frond). The MP3 is available through

"Burning Hearts" - My Favorite
I love when songs hit the ground running. In this case we have a ringing, melodic, guitar-ish synthesizer (or could be a melodica; singer Andi Vaughn apparently toots one) playing off a really big drum sound, like the kind you used to hear on Blondie records, and I am swept right in. As it happens, Vaughn has a bit of Debbie Harry's disaffected warmth (there's a paradox for you) about her voice, which adds to the grand orchestral decadence of the whole effort. As does the admittedly overwrought Hiroshima motif of the lyrics. To me, the song soars by combining a knowing sense of melody with a gift for vague but momentous-sounding lyrical phrases ("I was an architect, she was an actress/I drew the Eiffel Tower upon her dress/So we could see the world"). My Favorite--not my favorite band name, I must say--is from Long Island, New York; "Burning Hearts" is found on the band's 2003 double-CD Happiest Days of Our Lives (Double Agent Records). The MP3 is on the band's web site.

"Ghosts For Hire" - the Standard
From the tense two-note pulse of the intro, "Ghosts for Hire" opens into a stuttering sort of guitar-laced march, driven by a hypnotic guitar line and singer Tim Putnam's jittery vocals. The song centers around short, shadowy lyrical blurts that leave an ominous if inscrutable trail; there is no obvious verse/chorus distinction, no clear hook other than that wondrous, oscillating guitar driving through the heart of the song like blood coursing through the veins. The Standard is a Portland, Oregon-based band with two CDs to its name so far; "Ghosts For Hire" comes from the second, Wire Post to Wire, which came out in March on Yep Roc Records. The MP3 is on the Yep Roc site.

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Monday, May 10, 2004

week of May 9-15

"Primitive (The Way I Treat You)" - Ambulance LTD
The same young NYC band behind the gorgeous, spacey "Stay Where You Are" reveals a gratifying versatility as they've come forward with their first full-length CD. In place of the ringing melodicism of "Stay Where You Are," "Primitive" arrives with a down-and-dirty groove, complete with a stomping keyboard riff and squonky guitars. Singer Marcus Congelton alternates fetchingly between a blase, Lou Reed-i-ness in the spoken-sung verses and a sweeter, yearning vocal in the chorus. Here is one new band fully comfortable with the length and breadth of rock'n'roll history, a fact further revealed by what they've chosen to call their CD: LP. Gotta love that. The MP3 can be accessed through the TVT Records web site, but you will need to provide an email address and postal code to get it.

"Slung-lo" - Erin McKeown
Before there was Nelly McKay, on her teenaged rampage to become the next fresh face of pop, there was Erin McKeown, mining some of the same territory from a twenty-something perspective, but unfortunately (or not?) lacking McKay's publicity machine. This song has an old-fashioned, finger-snapping jauntiness to it (much like McKay's "David," which came later) that charms me enough to overlook the lyrical theme, which appears to be writer's block. I don't really like hearing from writers--be they book authors or songwriters--about writer's block. Either write, or don't; writing about having trouble writing is a cheap dodge (unless you're Charlie Kaufman), and usually boring as hell (unless you're Charlie Kaufman). But, heck, at least the vibrant McKeown doesn't belabor the point (the song's only 2:47). The MP3 can be found on's elusive but worthwhile MP3 storehouse (soon to be written up in the Music Site Guide). The song can be found on her 2003 CD Grand, released on Nettwerk Records.

"Grave's Disease" - Matt Pond PA
Another accomplished, nuanced, and engaging song from Matt Pond PA. While continually associated with the so-called "chamber pop" movement, for its use of cello and violin, the band is more instructively associated, to my ears, with '80s bands like the Cure (in its radio-friendly phase) and the Smiths--the Cure for its easy way with driving pop (not to mention a tone in Pond's voice that brings Robert Smith to mind), the Smiths for that band's idiosyncratic way of using upbeat but minor-key acoustic rhythms to drive their unusual yet accessible songs. Propelled by clipped, enigmatic vocal phrases, "Grave's Disease" unfolds with a gentle sort of urgency and a subtle acquisition of musical themes over the course of the song. It will be found on the band's new CD, Emblems, which is scheduled to be released next week on Altitude Records; the MP3 can be found on Insound.

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Monday, May 03, 2004

week of May 2-8

"Of Course It Is" - Clann Zú
I am immediately engaged by the way musical elements accumulate through the course of this song's unhurried introduction: first a warm, deep guitar and a spare bass; then the drum kit, cymbally and intriguingly off the beat; as the drums settle on firmer ground, the guitar moves up in register, and clarifies the riff; a rolling snare opens up both space and tension, the music gains in intensity, and then, at the moment of greatest frenzy, in comes something that sounds at first like a voice singing in another room. Actually it's a violin. Fully two and a half minutes thus pass before we hear the singer, a Bono-like lad from Australia named Declan de Barra. His entry galvanizes the rest of the piece, which has dynamics aplenty to offer during its second half, including some inspired drumming, dramatic violin colors, and a simple but unexpectedly poetic lyric that infuses the music with depth and grandeur, even as the music does the same for the words. The band comes from Melbourne; "Of Course It Is" can be found on an EP released in 2001. A full-length CD, entitled Rúa, came out in the fall of 2003, on G7 Welcoming Committee Records.

"Motel Sex" - Danny Cohen
With a musical history dating back to the early '60s, Danny Cohen is something of an underground legend, about which not much is known and a fair amount has been invented. But along the way he acquired some impressive fans--including Tom Waits and Ray Davies--and is about to re-emerge after decades on the fringe with a release on a semi-major label, entitled Dannyland. Cohen's voice may be quirky and unpolished but the overall musical package is anything but--the playing is beautiful and nuanced, the setting extraordinarily well-crafted, oozing with a full-bodied knowledge of rock history, and yet full of neat little surprises, particularly in the skewed edges of the guitar work. In a touch apparently indicative of his subversive humor, the song is really about Motel 6, but of course he couldn't use a company name like that so altered it by one letter. Dannyland is due out later this month, on Anti Records.

"Fashion Party" - Daniele Luppi
And when the aggressive harshness of human life in 2004 becomes too much for me, I have now a wondrous musical escape hatch. Daniele Luppi is an Italian composer who has written, produced, and arranged an album that is a living homage to the indelible sound of late '60s and early '70s Italian film scores. Inspired by composers such as Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota, Luppi has himself written music that equally evokes (to quote the precise and effective description on his web site) "a glorious, color-saturated world of zippy sports cars, plastic pop-art furniture, luxurious villas and all-night discotheques." And here's the thing: Luppi isn't some young, mad computer genius alone in a room with a 32-track digital recorder. Rather, he knew he could not legitimately recreate the music without employing the musicians who themselves had made it. And so he hired the three surviving members of Marc 4 to play his new compositions (Marc 4 was the name of the quartet that played on literally hundreds of '60s and '70s Italian film soundtracks, much the way the Funk Brothers played on so many Motown records). He even recorded everything in the studio of Marc 4 bassist Maurizio Majorana, where much of the original music was produced. The resulting sound leaps from the speakers: sprightly guitars strumming against a dark, slithery bass line, setting the stage for--of course!--a whistle. (Luppi, true to form, hired the same whistler employed famously for Sergio Leone's spaghetti-weseterns.) Much of the atmosphere and charm of the song, to me, emerges from the whistled melody's snarky intervals--that is, the musical distance between adjacent notes: half-steps here, minor-sixth leaps there, and many other sly twists. The whole thing is driven by an assured, funky beat, colored by a bit of Hammond organ below and a sexy trumpet up on top. The CD is called The Italian Story, and was released on Rhino Records in February.

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