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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Monday, July 19, 2004

week of July 18-24

"The Wait" - the Pieces
I'm beginning to think that every city in the United States has its own version of the Fountains of Wayne, its own smart, history-savvy rock band ready to offer catchy, guitar-based pop to a world rather starved for the stuff. The Pieces appear to be Indianapolis's entry in the game, and a smart, savvy entry they are. While not as giddily brilliant as Fountains of Wayne at their best (e.g. "Mexican Wine," "Red Dragon Tattoo," "Radiation Vibe"), "The Wait" is a fine little tune with any number of nuggets of pleasure to enjoy along the way. Right off I love the tumble of chords that are packed together in the introduction, and how they settle on the actual key through the musical side door. The melody has the inevitable touch of Beatle-ish-ness to it, an effect augmented by guitarist/singer/songwriter Vess (?) Ruhtenberg's quasi-Lennonesque voice. I also like how the band incorporates bassist Heidi Gluck's vocals into the sound, something that stands them apart from forebears such as Big Star and the dBs, not to mention the Beatles; come to think of it, there aren't a whole lot of power pop bands featuring male-female harmonies. The moment in the middle where Gluck comes to the fore on the line "This is the part I hate" is a small but wonderful touch. (Gluck apparently sings lead occasionally as well.) "The Wait" can be found on the band's self-titled debut CD, released last year on Benchmark Records. The MP3 comes from the Benchmark Records web site.

"Silence" - Kate Earl
A little bit Dusty Springfield, a little bit Ricki Lee Jones, newcomer Kate Earl exhibits a good deal of something else all her own on this haunting bit of retro-soul (blue-eyed variety). Earl creates a masterful, unabashed Dusty in Memphis vibe (the strings! the flute!), but infused with an engaging sense of innocence, intimacy, and spontaneity. I fear the MP3 itself is a bit cloudy, sound-wise (although maybe it's just my overtaxed, six-year-old computer), but the song is still worth hearing. Born in Alaska, living now in California, Earl is slated to release a CD on the Santa Monica-based label Record Collection some time in the presumably near future, presumably featuring this song; the MP3 in the meantime can can be found on Earl's web site. Thanks yet again to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

"You Only Move Twice" - Jeniferever
A Swedish band with a penchant for long, spacious songs, Jeniferever appears to be inspired partly by the grand, spacey Icelandic band Sigur Ros and partly by the more structured, instrument-based spaciness of Radiohead or even Wilco. One of only four songs on the 37-minute EP Iris, "You Only Move Twice" is propelled by a harmonic-laced riff, a fractured sense of time and beat, and singer Kristofer's ragged-weary-breathy vocals. The song has a cool enough vibe to keep me engaged for a quite a while, but then really hooks me with an unexpected turn of events about four minutes in, when the vocals drop away, the underlying syncopated beat is stripped down and brought forward, and, then, almost gloriously, an array of real instruments, including horns and strings, are added to the mix, beautifully accentuating the unusual chords and intervals that have characterized the song all along. Then the instruments pull away with a melancholy bit of reverb and the song finishes with another unexpected turn--this time a string coda, which again displays the rather charming musicality of the band in a different setting. Iris was released this month on Big Scary Monster Records, a tiny London-based label. The MP3 comes from the band's site, and can also be found on Drowned in Sound.

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Monday, July 12, 2004

week of July 11-17

"Nowhere Again" - The Secret Machines
Itchy, driving, and full-bodied, "Nowhere Again" combines the melodrama of the more-influential-than-anyone-realized-they-would-be-at-the-time Echo & the Bunnymen with a 21st-century blast of danceable drone. Okay, so maybe they lifted part of the melody (consciously or not) from the old Kinks nugget "Lola"--what the heck, there are worse starting places, and the song proceeds in other directions before it's through. "Nowhere Again" creates some of its sonic interest by juxtaposing full-speed and half-speed tempos--in particular offering verses at full-speed, the chorus at half-speed, all against a constant, insistent beat. Not a huge innovation, but it does give the impression of texture when the chords aren't changing all that much. Likewise helpful are the half-speed piano and guitar flourishes that arrive in the second verse. Singer and guitarist Ben Curtis has a subtle, appealing rumble to his voice in the lower register, an anthemic edge to his upper register singing, and a knack for highlighting stark lyrical phrases along the way. The Secret Machines were assembled in Dallas but have since generated much buzz in their adopted hometown of New York City. "Nowhere Again" comes from the band's debut CD, Now Here is Nowhere, released in May on Reprise Records (that's how much buzz they generated--they're actually on a major label). The MP3 can be found on Epitonic.

"Sleeping and Tooting" - Rachel Goswell
The highly-regarded but spotlight-avoiding Rachel Goswell gained fans as the voice of the woozily atmospheric Slowdive in the early '90s. When she joined bandmates Neil Halstead and Ian McCutcheon as they morphed into the British-yet-alt-country-ish Mojave 3 in 1996, Goswell retreated to the background, playing bass and singing mostly background vocals as songwriter Halstead took the reins as lead singer. Those who have missed her vocal presence on recent Mojave 3 records will no doubt rejoice at the recent release of her first solo CD, Waves Are Universal (4AD Records), from which this song comes. Although crisp and upbeat, "Sleeping and Tooting" has an engaging air of bittersweetness about it thanks to its repeated use of minor key modulations. Goswell's airy yet well-rounded voice brings to mind the late, great Kirsty MacColl, which is always a plus in my mind. The song is so full of bright-sounding acoustic instruments and engaging production touches that I willingly overlook its lack of a center--there's no meaty chorus here to anchor things musically; I find the song scoots by (it's just three minutes) without completely sinking in. But maybe that's just me; in any case there are plenty of charms here to make it worth a listen. The American arm of the Beggars Group, which distributes 4AD Records, hosts the MP3.

"Habite Em Mim" - Arto Lindsay
Once a prominent figure on New York's so-called "No Wave" scene of the late '70s, guitarist/producer Arto Lindsay here issues an alluring bit of Brazilian-tinged, jazz-inflected, street-wise pop. Lindsay's voice is smooth and seductive enough to distract your ear from the vibrant grab-bag of rhythms, competing tones, and sly sonic effects that are going on throughout the song, even as the effects are ultimately what give "Habite Em Mim" its oomph. Heck, I barely notice that he's slipping back and forth from English to Portuguese, which is a pretty captivating effect itself. "Habite Em Mim" is found on Salt, released in May on Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe Records; the MP3 comes from Indie Workshop.

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Monday, July 05, 2004

week of July 4-10

"When the Day is Short" - Martha Wainwright
Brother of Rufus, daughter of Kate (McGarrigle) and Loudon (III), 28-year-old Martha Wainwright has played largely to the side and behind the scenes over the years, singing background vocals on albums by her better-known family members--starting with an appearance as a child on Kate & Anna McGarrigle's 1983 CD Love Over and Over. As it turns out, however, Martha is a singer/songwriter of spirit and intensity in her own right. While her voice has an appealing McGarrigle-ish waver to it, she sings way closer to the edge than her mother and aunt do, sometimes leaving me breathless at the aural risks she takes. I've been waiting to hear more since being captivated by her haunting "Year of the Dragon" on the family-filled McGarrigle Hour CD, released back in 1998. "When the Day is Short" has a lilting beat that belies Wainwright's not fully restrained vocal and lyrical furiosity. The song comes from a recently-released five-song EP (her third) with the eye-opening, R-rated title (which I will partially disguise, in case anyone might be reading this in a setting where such words might be less than appropriate) Bloody Moth--f--king As--ole; the MP3 is located on Wainwright's web site. I should note that the title track, called simply "BMFA," is well worth hearing, and is also available as an MP3; I chose "When the Day is Short" largely to avoid putting Fingertips visitors in an uncomfortable position should they be playing this page in a less than private setting.

"Seems to Me" - Surefire
While the production values are indie through and through, the resilient pop virtues of the songwriting here give this one a gratifying sheen and powerful presence. After a few measures of ringing arpeggios, the song hits upon a simple but memorable guitar riff; combine that with the minor-key twist of the Byrds-like melody and I feel gripped and ready for a big melodic payoff. But even as the verse drives forward, the apparent chorus doesn't quite resolve before the song pulls back. Rather than a payoff the song creates a sneaky sort tension, which is extended after the second verse and chorus by a short instrumental break, followed by a restrained bridge, and then, finally, and well worth the wait, the release: a series of wordless, syncopated, interwoven "oh-oh"s arrive to echo the opening guitar riff. While I'm not always a fan of falsetto singing, the way lead singer Ben Stapelman flits in and out of falsetto as the wordless section repeats against increasingly insistent instrumentation is what gives this assured piece of pop its heart, soul, and dynamic core. Surefire is a NYC-based band; "Seems to Me" comes from its debut EP, Solution. The MP3 can be found on the band's web site. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for finding this one.

"On Your Way" - the Album Leaf
I like how this song manages to sound both dreamy and grounded at the same time. Part of the effect is achieved through the use of octave harmonies--ah, yes, more falsetto vocals (did I say I didn't like them?); when paired with lower-register vocals singing the same notes, the result is captivating. Then there's the way the tinkly, almost desultory bell-like sounds at the aural top of the song work together with a determined and likable drumbeat below. Finally, note how Jimmy LaValle, the multi-instrumentalist who records as the Album Leaf, mixes an extremely reverb-y synthesizer and melodic bassline into the middle of the sound, out of which both the vocals and percussion emerge, dreamily. And yet grounded. "On Your Way" can be found on the Album Leaf's recently released CD, In a Safe Place. This is LaValle's second Album Leaf record, but the first one with any vocals--his previous effort was all instrumental. Although from Southern California, LaValle went to Iceland to record the CD, employing musicians from Sigur Rós and other Icelandic bands to help him achieve his atmospheric sound. The MP3 can be found on the Sub Pop Records site.

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