Monday, June 28, 2004

week of June 27-July 3

"It Doesn't Really Matter" - For Stars
A simple piano refrain over a racing heart-like beat starts "It Doesn't Really Matter" with a thematically appropriate sense of unresolved tension. I mean, the whole idea of singing about something that doesn't really matter is a sort of paradox, if you're inclined to think in that direction. So, okay, the piano, the vague tension, and then comes Carlos Foster's distinctively fragile tenor, punctuated by crisp, vaguely dissonant electric guitar bursts; the tension accumulates even lyrically, as the first verse culminates with a thought-provoking line--"It doesn't really matter who you think you are"--that resolves neither melodically nor psychologically. The payoff comes in the chorus, as the guitar becomes a wash of noise under gratifying harmonies and a perfectly resolved melody. A trumpet arrives to add a gentle edge to the restrained instrumental break, then we're back to a quick verse, this time fleshed out with harmonies, still over the heartbeat beat. One more exultant chorus, a second trumpet solo, and we're done. Nice stuff. And I'm glad to see For Stars are still around; it's been long enough since their last CD that I'd been wondering if they existed any more. The song comes from the CD ...It Falls Apart, due out June 29 on the label known as Future Farmer Recordings. The MP3 can be found on Insound.

"Welcome to the Middle Ages" - the Playwrights
As hard and fast and angry and assured as an old Jam song, "Welcome to the Middle Ages" finds a new generation pondering the trade-offs of adulthood, with intelligence and venom. The introduction is simply a fade-in on a fuzzy electric din; then with a curt "one-two," the Playwrights dive in: vocals with declarative authority burst on top of a hard-driving, bass-heavy beat. The song rocks hard, instantly, but the 6/4 time keeps things jittery, and the unexpected instrumentation--hey, another trumpet in this one--and subtle changes keep your ear engaged. The lyrics are charmingly wordy; again the Jam come to mind when I hear singer Aaron Dewey spitting out more syllables than the line theoretically wants to have ("As I get older my conditions get better/But my expectations get lower..."). Located in Bristol, England, the Playwrights have one full-length CD to their name so far--Good Beneath the Radar, which was released in June 2003 by the Bristol-based Sink and Stove Records. "Welcome to the Middle Ages" comes from a Sink and Stove compilation CD called The Hospital Radio Request List Volume 2, which came out in the beginning of June 2004. The MP3 can be found on the band's site, as well as on the Sink and Stove site.

"Hungry Heart" - Jesse Malin
There's a good song from Jesse Malin's new CD that I've heard a few times on the radio. So of course I went hunting for a free and legal from the album, which alas don't appear to exist. While looking on his site, however, I found "Hungry Heart," and at the risk of turning this into Fragile-Sounding Tenors Week here (see For Stars, above), I could not resist featuring this one as well. Yes it's the old Bruce Springsteen song, but Malin grabs it by the throat (or maybe that's his own throat he's grabbing; he sounds like he's nearly strangling with odd pronunciations every now and then) and makes it his own. To begin with, he reins in the big, bashing, irresistible beat of the original, stretching it taut and slowing it down against a fuzzed-out guitar. Then Malin takes the aw-shucks, Everyman ache of Springsteen's version and gives us a Neil Young-meets-Brian-Wilson-at-Tom-Waits'-house vibe. With Springsteen, it was sloppy-goofy; Malin makes it weird-goofy, but I'm not complaining. Perhaps I'm rather too easily impressed when someone takes a familiar song and adds an edge of unfamiliarity to it, but I'm enjoying this. The song was released on a Bruce Springsteen tribute CD compiled by the British magazine Uncut in April 2003.

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Monday, June 21, 2004

week of June 20-26

"Year of the Rat" - Badly Drawn Boy
Woolly-hatted one-man-band Damon Gough returns to the do-it-yourself orchestral style that lent his first CD, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, its distinctive allure. Not that this sound doesn't have its share of potential pitfalls. I mean, add kettle drums to anyone this earnest and he runs the risk of sounding, shall we say, bombastic. And let's not even talk about the children's choir in the chorus. But BDB wins out here, I think, through sheer force of good will. Good will counts for a lot these days, as there is so blessed little of it to go around--or, more accurately, the people who have it are so rarely given a voice in popular culture. So, yeah, the tune is pretty simple, and the sentiments are pretty corny, but it sticks in my head, and I don't mind it hanging out there. Plus, I get the sense, like with Bewilderbeast, that this song is going to be an idiosyncratic part of an idiosyncratic whole, so much so that taking it out of context probably involves missing a certain amount of its effect. According to the Chinese zodiac, by the way, it is not the actual year of the rat, so I'm thinking he's making a political statement, telling us hey, buck up, stick together, we'll get through ("One plus one is one," he sings; and that's the name of the CD as well). So the slacker dude in the hat turns out to be one big Harry Nilsson-ish cornball, and I say good for him. The CD, on BDB's own Twisted Nerve label, released through XL Recordings and Astralwerks, is due out June 21. The MP3 comes from BDB's web site.

"On the Green" - I Love Math"
The song opens with a fuzzy, automated-sounding rhythm sound that goes on perhaps a little too long--I'm thinking "all right already" when I first hear it--and then, bang, the drum enters off the beat of the automated-sounding rhythm thing, incorporating it in an unanticipated manner. Soon enter guitar, bass, and harmonica, and we're suddenly in the middle of a home-spun, alt-country-tinged indie pop-rocker. What gives the song such presence, to me, are the extra melodic steps the music takes both in the verse and the chorus. Listen to how the verse doesn't just stick with the simple, repeated melody from the first two lines (as many songs might) but adds an asymmetrical line that gives the verse a chance to explore a few extra chords before heading back to the beginning. A similar moment of spiffy modulation happens towards the end of the chorus as well--and don't miss how the band extends this moment the second time the chorus comes around. We're not talking profound accomplishment here, but the great good melodic energy and vocal charm on display here make this song a keeper. I can find little proof of this group's existence except on the web site, where you'll find this MP3. There it says: "I Love Math is John and Jason from The Deathray Davies, Philip Peoples from the Old 97's and Aaron Kelly who is just a badass."

"Miracle Drug" - A. C. Newman
Okay, so speaking of Ray Davies (sort of), my goodness, Carl Newman could've been understudy for Mr. Davies on the Sleepwalker sessions. Only I don't imagine Newman was even alive in 1977, when the Kinks released that album. Minor detail. In any case, not only does Newman's appealingly nasal upper-register singing pay deep homage to Davies, the staccato crunch of the guitar has its own sort of Kink-iness to it as well. "Miracle Drug" isn't actually that much of a song; the chorus is just one line long (interestingly enough, he sounds rather a lot like John Lennon during this part), and the verses succeed more on the jumpy charm of the guitar-vocal interplay (and of course Newman's Ray Davies-ness) than on the breadth or depth of the songwriting, but hey it's summertime--short and catchy is just fine. And, as previously noted here, current rock'n'rollers who love and respect the Kinks gain a fair amount of love and respect on Fingertips from the get-go. "Miracle Drug" is found on Newman's first solo CD, Slow Wonder, released earlier this month on Matador Records. Newman is otherwise known for being the leader of the Canadian band the New Pornographers. The MP3 comes from the Matador Records web site.

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Monday, June 14, 2004

week of June 13-19

"Discretion" - Pedro the Lion
David Bazan, Pedro the Lion's mastermind (on some albums he's the whole band), has a brilliant rock'n'roll voice, burnished by what sounds like an unalleviatable ache. This is a voice that says, "I'm going to tell you a sad story and you're going to listen." Here, an incisive, bell-like guitar line propels a tragedy I can't completely decipher--but any song that starts with the line "Having no idea that his youngest son was dead/The farmer and his sweet young wife slept soundly in his bed" is not heading to a happy place. And yet the song has such presence and verve--Bazan writes long melodies, offers gratifying chord changes, and sings from his soul--that it feels stirring and heroic nonetheless. "Discretion" can be found on Pedro the Lion's recently released fifth CD, Achilles Heel (Jade Tree). The MP3 is available on the band's site.

"Captain" - Shapes of Race Cars
You could do worse than blast this song from your car's sound system with the top down all summer long. Provided it doesn't rain. And provided you have a convertible. But you get the idea: this here is a big, bashing dollop of tuneful, hard-driving, summer-anthemy energy. Shapes of Race Cars may be a new band, but the fact that they describe themselves as a "power trio" tells me what I need to know. It takes a certain amount of heart and guts to hit the rock scene with just guitar, bass, and drums: there's no room to hide, no aural space for mushiness or lack of clarity. What's more, these guys take what could've been an effective two and a half minute ditty and open it skillfully into an engaging four and a half minute mini-epic, thanks largely to an instrumental break that starts about two minutes in. Sailing out of chorus harmonies at that point, the song pulls back instrumentally, singer/guitarist Dylan Callaghan turns a high note into a thoughtful couple of "doo-ooo"s which are are mimicked on the guitar, launching a well-crafted, melodic solo that evokes nameless, bygone moments in rock history through both sound and gusto. "Captain" is one of six songs on a new, self-released EP called Apocalypse Hurts; the MP3 is on the band's web site. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the heads up.

"Airstream" - Low-Beam
Vaguely off-key keyboards (off-keyboards?) lend an appealing goofiness at the outset, but when the joint male/female lead vocals kick in, "Airstream" takes off, steadily acquiring an unexpected sort of classic majesty, like some great lost late '70s nugget--"Roadrunner" meets "I Zimbra" meets four 21st-century believers from New London, Connecticut. The repetitive, circular melody works in tandem with the driving rhythm and fuzzy-around-the-edges soundscape to create an inexplicably catchy song--its own sort of cruising with the top down summer song, come to think of it. And fans of unexpected instrumental entrances will no doubt appreciate the muted trumpet that wanders in during the last 50 seconds of this one. The band aims for an admirable sense of cohesiveness both musically and thematically; I like this explanation of the name, from the band's web site: "Low-beaming is night-driving along the river road on the long way there, navigating by moonlight, almost into the river sometimes. Or out to the lake in a traveling party and shutting the lights off behind the lead car. And full moon motorcycling through the woods, the visual soundtrack equivalent to a CCR song or maybe Elvis in the ghetto." "Airstream" was first released on a vinyl single in September 2003, then emerged on a six-song EP called Every Other Moment in March of this year; the MP3 is on the band's site. A full-length CD is in the works.

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Monday, June 07, 2004

week of June 6-12

"The Letter" - PJ Harvey
Energized by its ragged, syncopated beat, "The Letter" shows me within a measure or two that maybe, just maybe, I've been listening to a bit too much indie rock of late. Harvey's raw yet radiant assurance enlivens the music with a rich texture unlikely to be encountered in the lo-fi indie world. One of the most critically acclaimed singer/songwriters to come of age in the the midst of the "alternative rock" eruption of the early '90s, Harvey is back with her seventh CD, the just-released Uh Huh Her, on Island Records. The deep, fuzzy guitar that lends the song its arresting groove all but hypnotizes me even as Harvey's words--emerging in bursts between the guitar's funky drive--snap me to attention, as she effortlessly charges the act of letter-writing with brash eroticism, before resolving into cathartic wailing in the wordless chorus section. Listen to how she enriches the sound in the second verse, as the guitar is supplemented by a mysterious-sounding low-register vocal below and a judiciously added synthesizer above. Unfortunately the song is available through the creaky, ad-crazed Artist Direct site. The link above should take you to a page that allows you access to the download, rather than directly to the song; this is one of those that gives you a license allowing for a limited number of plays.

"You Are Not A Song" - Come Down
This NYC band is going to have to get used to being compared to Radiohead, as both the dreamy, melodic ambiance it creates and singer Mark Pernice's slurry, emotive voice rather quickly bring the great British band to mind. But sounding like another band is not a bad thing--I mean, "Beatlesque" is not an insult; neither is "Radioheadesque" (although maybe we need a better coinage). To begin with, there are far worse bands to embrace as a major influence. Second, if rock'n'roll is to remain vital in the 21st century, it's important for sounds to establish themselves independently of any one band--too much fragmentation and there are too many islands, no mainland. Plus, when the band itself has talent, the more one listens, the more the apparently derivative work emerges with its own attributes and charms. I like the engaging interplay between acoustic and electric guitars here, and am particularly enamored of the droning guitar that accompanies much of the way through, adding a subtle ache to an already wistful song. Check out how the drone stutters and reverberates with added intensity in the second verse, but never (quite) overwhelms the melody. "You Are Not A Song" can be found on the band's self-released Happy Hunting EP; the MP3 is available on the band's web site.

"Waiting for October" - Polaris
A bouncy slice of good-natured rock'n'roll originally featured on the mid-'90s Nickelodeon show, "The Adventures of Pete & Pete." I hear a big dose ofSteve Wynn in this track, for you Steve Wynn fans, both in the tone of singer Mark Mulcahy's friendly voice and in the goofy good energy of the whole thing. One particularly endearing element here for me is the echoey background harmonies in the chorus, recalling another bunch of good-natured rock'n'roll goofballs, Jonathan Richman's Modern Lovers. Polaris was "Pete & Pete"'s "house band," more or less; the band sprang from the core of a Connecticut-based band called Miracle Legion, which featured Mulcahy as singer and songwriter. Mulcahy, in turn, began his career in the mid-'80s as a Michael Stipe-inspired jangly-guitar indie-rocker, but transformed over the years into more of an emotionally forward singer/songwriter type and is said to have inspired none other than Radiohead's Thom Yorke (him again) somewhere along the way. "Pete & Pete" was one of those shows that acquired a devoted cult following (many fans consider it the best TV show ever, in fact) while operating just below the pop cultural radar screen. The music was a definite part of the show, and "Waiting for October" is apparently a fan favorite. The song can be found on a CD released in 1999 called, simply enough, "Music From The Adventures of Pete & Pete" (Mezzotint Records).

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