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.

Fingertips gratefully accepts donations, and suggests $5 or $10 a year as an affordable option.

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.

Fingertips gratefully accepts donations, and suggests $5 or $10 a year as an affordable option.

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.

Fingertips gratefully accepts donations, and suggests $5 or $10 a year as an affordable option.