Monday, September 27, 2004

week of Sept. 26-Oct. 2

"Indian Summer" - Maplewood
One of a surprising number of current bands that are grooving, against all odds, to a very '70s mellow-rock vibe, Maplewood even has the one-word band name to seal the deal (think America, think Bread). But Maplewood brings more than nostalgia and anti-hip-hipness to the table here; the music is not only groovy, it's intelligent, brisk, and crisp. Both briskness and crispness are crucial if the mellow thing is going to work for me: a certain sort of clean and upbeat strumminess is necessary to keep the music from stewing its own sappy juices, while crispness--both of sound and arrangement--is probably what lends an air of intelligence to the effort in the first place. Listen, for instance, to the three-part harmonies, which kick in with the second verse: the two background voices are mixed perfectly, with just enough oomph to give the song a wash of beauty, while avoiding the "look at us singing in three-part harmony" effect one usually hears whenever a band has the cajones to try it in the first place. "Indian Summer" leads off Maplewood's self-titled debut CD, released earlier this month on Tee Pee Records. You'll find the MP3 on the band web's site.

"No Danger" - Inouk
Unfolding with singular style, "No Danger" offers the ear a series of intriguing, mysteriously slippery hooks at every bend. An opening, repeated, siren-like call of the guitar gives way to a twitchingly percussive second guitar, which is then joined by a third guitar, playing a churning, repeated melody line before a now-acoustic guitar punctuates the intro and the vocals start. The interweaving of the three electric guitars serves as an undercurrent against which the song develops in a very hard to describe manner, driven as it is by an almost compositional sense of complexity. By the time the chorus is repeated (and it's hard to hear as a chorus the first time around) I'm completely engaged: by the chugging major-minor fluctuation of the guitar, the literally offbeat call-and-response section (we suddenly lose a beat in the measure after the word "anyone" is repeated, but get it right back again), and then, in the literal last minute, the seamless introduction of new elements, including a new melody, a noodly new guitar sound, and (particularly unexpected and charming) a chorus of ghostly female back-up singers. "No Danger" is the title track to the band's first full-length CD, released in August on Say Hey Records. The MP3 is on the band's site. A NYC band with roots in Philadelphia, Inouk is worth knowing about and keeping an eye on.

"What's Your New Thing?" - Walking Concert
Kinda chunky, kinda poppy, and kinda edgy, just the way a good two-and-a-half-minute song should be. Walking Concert's founder, Walter Schreifels, has a long indie-rock history behind him by now, having started the bands Gorilla Biscuits, Quicksand, and Rival Schools before launching Walking Concert. Um, don't worry, I never heard of them before either, as I have never been musically drawn to the so-called "hard core" side of alternative rock. But apparently Schreifels was well-regarded in those circles, and something of a wunderkind, as he was but 16 when Gorilla Biscuits launched; the guy's still in his early 30s at this point. His background, in any case, brings an undeniable energy-burst to this likable little song, which displays an affectionate awareness of some of rock'n'roll's best pop, both older (early Who and Kinks and even David Bowie) and newer (the Replacements, Guided By Voices). "What's Your New Thing?" is found on the band's debut CD, Run To Be Born, released earlier this month on Some Records; the MP3 is on the label's web site. Thanks to 3hive for the head's up on this one.

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Monday, September 20, 2004

week of Sept. 19-25

"The Science of Your Mind" - The Comas
This song begins with the unlikely but immediately appealing combination of a Middle Eastern synthesizer line topped by a jazzy acoustic guitar noodle, then churns without hesitation into a swift, minor-key tale of love gone sour. Along the way are some tasty finger-snaps, spy-movie bass riffs, echoey drumbeats, and a nifty guitar solo. What's more, even as the screed of a spurned lover (cliche-ridden territory to be sure), the song yields some intriguing lyrics--I especially like the second verse, where the rejectee offers a series of reverse blessings ("May your days be long and cold" etc.). All in all, an accomplished effort. "The Science of Your Mind" is the lead track on Conductor, the band's third album, released last month on Yep Roc Records; the MP3 is on the Yep Roc web site.

"Pelz Comet" - The Kingsbury Manx
This North Carolina band is channeling an elusive '60s vibe--not Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson, as quite a number of indie outfits seem to be doing these days (not that there's anything wrong with that!), but some weird space in which early Pink Floyd and later Simon & Garfunkel dance to the same drummer, or at least acoustic guitarist. There is something timelessly hand-made and organic about this sound; if they are building on the past, they are creating their own structure, not just rearranging someone else's bricks, as it were. Notably more assertive than the band's previous TWF entry, the dreamy "Porchlight," this song has three distinct but interrelated sections. The first is driven by acoustic guitar riffs and is anchored by a simple, plaintive chorus ("Here I stand/Still waiting on you") that manages beyond expectation to stick in my head. The second section is instrumental, bringing in one electric guitar, and then two, for an intertwining series of snaky, perhaps even Beatle-y descending melody lines which establish a syncopated sort of presence only to dissolve into the third section: a piano-fueled, double-time coda. "Pelz Comet" comes from the band's third CD, Aztec Discipline, which emerged rather too quietly last October on Overcoat Recordings; the MP3 is on the band's web site.

"Nightly Cares" - Múm
So once and for all we should realize that Björk is not the only female singer in Iceland. Although when you first hear Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir's whispery, baby-girl voice, you may wish she were. This voice is probably an acquired taste. The song is an acquired taste, maybe, as well--building with almost painful slowness at the beginning, a distant-foghorn-like synthesizer repeating, without hurry, over atmospheric background noises of one sort or another, also distant-sounding. It's a minute and a half before the song moves into the foreground, acquires a solid--if slow--beat, and then, careful, here comes Kristín Anna, in all her whispery glory. But the band works with the sonic fabric so attentively that over time, the voice somehow begins to make sense. For all the trip-hoppy clickings and clackings around the edges, the music here has a warm and human feel--the drums are real (you can hear the wire brushes), a muted trumpet and a melodica (!) trade licks along the way, and, if I'm not mistaken (although lord knows I could be), that's an actual bowed saw in the background adding to the spooky majesty. The song is from the band's third CD, Summer Make Good, which came out in May on Fat Cat Records. The MP3 is hosted on Indie Workshop.

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Monday, September 13, 2004

week of Sept. 12-18

"Welcome Back" - The Trashcan Sinatras
There's something to be said for experience. So, sure, I had no idea the Trashcan Sinatras--a band I vaguely associate with the early '90s--were still around, but the fact that they are means that when they want to, the Scottish quintet can sound like this: crystal-clear, swaggery-assured, and quirky-pop-gorgeous. After making a minor splash with their debut CD, Cake, in 1990 (not to be confused with the band Cake, which I'll admit I've done)(or Sea and the Cake, for that matter), they proceeded to lie low through most of the decade, releasing only two other CDs, in 1993 and 1996, before re-emerging with Weightlifting (Spin Art Records) last month. Biding their time may have made sense, since their shiny, well-crafted, jangly Brit-pop is much more aligned (praise the lord) with the current music scene than it was in the middle '90s. I love this song's offbeat drive, an effect amplified by the insertion of two extra beats at the end of each verse. The chorus, for its part, acquires a keen hook simply by modulating through three great chords, underscored by a wall of full-tilt, almost Edge-like electric guitar. I like how even in a short (2:24) song, they let the guitar open out into a sly, wailing solo that might be mistaken for a heavy metal cliche if you don't listen closely. Vocalist Frank Reader (brother of the marvelous Eddi Reader) has an open quality to his voice that brings you back in time, managing to sound yearning without any over-acting. The song opens Weightlifting; the MP3 can be found on Filter Magazine.

"Isn't the Sun" - Cordalene
On the heels of last week's wonderful Paul Westerberg song comes another faux-'60s piece of perfect, slightly skewed pop, this from a little-known Philadelphia band. I'm loving the way the intro takes a bass line as old as the '50s and segues it into an itchy guitar riff, and that's really what makes the song so spiffy all the way through--that dusty bass line keeps knocking against the itchy guitars, and when they settle in together in the chorus with a kick that is somehow almost (but not really) swing-like, the result is all but swoon-full. Halfway through, the instrumental section works this out in a particularly charming way, as the guitar itself does a squonky riff on the bass melody. But I think my favorite moment of all is a lyrical one, when Mike Kiley (who's got a really nice power-pop voice by the way) sings, "And she looked at me with a breathtaking stare," breaking up "breath" and "taking" so resolutely as to give new shades of meaning to the word. The song comes from a release known simply as The Red EP; the MP3 is on the band's web site. Thanks again to Oddio Overplay for the head's up.

"Retour A Vega" - the Stills
I find this irresistible: the acoustic-guitar driven minor key beat, the tasteful use of violins, the French lyrics, and then, putting it completely over the top for me, the octave harmonies. Gotta love the octave harmonies. They were a great pop weapon in Squeeze's arsenal, and with the Kinks before that. As if this weren't enough, there's a crunchy little electric guitar bit in the middle. Put this on in the background with a crowd of people and everyone will start to smile without knowing why. Better yet, be the owner of a small record store, put it on with a store full of customers, and see how many people (remember that scene in High Fidelity with the Beta Band song?) come up and ask about it and buy the CD. The CD in question, by the way, is the soundtrack to the movie Wicker Park, and while I can't say anything about the movie itself (doesn't look like one I'm heading quickly to see), the soundtrack has a positively "ooh! pick me, pick me!" sensibility in terms of seeking to appear very of-the-moment in an almost-but-not-quite mainstream way. (Think Singles soundtrack, back in the early '90s.) In addition to the Stills, this one has the Shins, Death Cab for Cutie, Mates of State, and Stereophonics, among others. The MP3 comes courtesy of Vice Records.

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Monday, September 06, 2004

week of Sept. 5-11

"As Far As I Know" - Paul Westerberg
Last heard channeling Keith Richards, Paul Westerberg is back wearing Beatle-ier clothing this time. What at first sounded to me like a competent bit of neo-McCartney-ism has revealed itself, after three or four listens, to be a deeply endearing pop song. The charm is all around the edges: the ringing guitars offset by a ragged wash of fuzz; the '60s-perfect melody deconstructed by Westerberg's exquisitely unpolished voice; the whole thing driven by an earnest drumbeat as relentless as it is borderline goofy. And you want to hear subtle? Listen to the chords he works up to during that distinct, repeated melody featured near the end of each verse. In the introductory section, with just the guitar playing, the words are "that doesn't get kissed, that doesn't exist"; the second time we get to that point he's backed by the full band and sings "that never took place, that's easy to trace." Now listen as he's there the third time, singing "that doesn't resist, that doesn't exist," this time with a wondrous, elusive chord progression that augments the unfolding poignancy of the lyrics. At the same time, the song's ramshackle momentum has by now become utterly infectious, its tumbling percussiveness revealing a refreshing, solidly human presence in this age of loops and programs. The lyrics build to reinforce the impression, closing with: "I'm in love with a dream I had as a kid/I wait up the street until you show/That dream it came true/But you never do, no you never did/As far as I know." The song is on Westerberg's new album Folker, due out tomorrow on Vagrant Records.

"From the Station" - Soltero
Neil Young meets Elliott Smith meets the Kinks in this loping, loopy, quick-pulsed ballad. I like how the song starts right in, both musically and lyrically; I like even more how it keeps going: "From the Station" features an unusually long melody line, fully 16 measures (actually 14 in the first verse, then 16 in the other two). Most pop songs give out at eight measures, and lots of these only survive that long with a good amount of internal repetition, with measures three and five mimicking measure one, for instance. Here the melody descends and extends, aided marvelously by singer/songwriter/guitarist Tim Howard's appealing, high-pitched vocals, ghostly organ flourishes, and tasteful guitar distortions. While the Boston-based Howard does play all the instruments on this track, Soltero is in fact a four-piece band. They just haven't recorded a full-band album yet; previous Soltero releases (beginning with 2001's wonderfully titled Science Will Figure You Out) have been largely Howard's work. "From the Station" will be on the next Soltero CD, entitled Hell Train, to be released later this year. The MP3 is on the band's web site.

"Ugly Man" - Rickie Lee Jones
A jazzy shuffle, leisurely melody, and layered harmonies disguise an almost painfully personal protest song. Never mind the specifics of policies and decisions, Rickie Lee slices to the heart of the matter, which is GWB's inability to access his own (heart, that is). Maybe, like the Tin Man, he simply doesn't realize he has one. Look: thousands of years of human culture and spiritual wisdom tell us what living and acting from a heart-based center entails, and it has little to do with the appointed president's resolute disinterest in learning and growing as an adult human being, never mind his crippling inability to connect to the entirety of humanity rather than simply those similarly uninterested in learning and growing. "Ugly Man" comes from Rickie Lee's most recent CD, The Evening of My Best Day, which was released last year on V2 Records. The MP3 can be found for free on Salon, where Thomas Bartlett last week did a wonderful, Republican National Convention-inspired job gathering free and legal protest songs from a wide variety of notable artists. (As with most content on Salon, you'll have to watch a short commercial before being able to access this page, unless you are already a subscriber or decide on the spot to subscribe.)

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