Tuesday, October 26, 2004

week of Oct. 24-30

"Neighborhood #2 (Laika)" - the Arcade Fire
A gut-satisfying drumbeat, sleighbells, and a distinctively plucked guitar concoct a great introduction here, and that's even before the bandoneon enters. I think this is a bandoneon; in any case, it's a charming, plaintive accordion riff, and it goes on to form the backbone of a compelling song from an eccentric Montreal quintet. With a prominent amount of shouting and/or fuzzy-megaphone vocalizing, this song is not a smooth listen; I needed to hear it a number of times before I began to like it, so hang in there before jumping to conclusions. "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)" is one of four numbered "Neighborhood" songs on the band's Funeral album, released last month on Merge Records, to wide acclaim. I should note that the Arcade Fire's emergence as one of the "it" bands of 2004 made me more than a little suspicious before I even heard them. I'm not normally prone to cynicism, but I mistrust pop music criticism's flavor-of-the-month tendencies, which are prompted by fashion rather than sound. (One critic, for instance, wrote, of the Arcade Fire, that "though the band utilizes nice melodies and lively arrangements, the nostalgia-steeped-indie-rock-orchestra pool was pretty much drained before The Arcade Fire dove in." Silly! Fashion designers may feel that a certain look is "done" once it's been too widely adopted, but musicians? An outlandish and elitist criticism. But I digress.) The MP3 is on Better Propaganda, a site which does not allow direct links, so you'll have to click on the "Free MP3" button in the "Selected MP3s" box to grab this one.

"The Dirt-Bike Option" - the Fauves
Gruff but lovable guitar pop from an underappreciated Australian band. That is, in Australia they're underappreciated; here in the U.S., they're completely unknown. But there's no way I for one am not going to like the heck out of a song with a sing-along chorus featuring this lyric: "Ooh, the dirt-bike option paid off/We never settled with the workers that we laid off." The rumbly guitars balanced by spiffy harmonies in the chorus and a wonderfully cheesy organ line are further merits. Plus I am bound to be partial to a song that arose as follows: "The title came from listening to Terry [Cleaver; the bass player] bang on backstage at a gig in Bateman's Bay about a new computer game he'd been playing; one in which he had 'exercised the dirt-bike option'. Songs about computer games are boring so the main lyric dealt with the somewhat unrelated topic of messiah complexes and cults living in fortified compounds." It seems poetic justic, somehow, that the world-weary, self-deprecating Fauves have now lasted longer than the early 20th-century art movement after which they named themselves. Formed in Melbourne in the late '80s, the band scored some commercial successes in Australia in the mid-'90s, but have struggled more recently to get themselves heard--a reality implied by the name of the 2000 single ("Celebrate the Failure") which contained "The Dirt-Bike Option" as a B-side. The MP3 is available on the band's web site, along with a number of other enjoyable B-sides and rarities.

"Graceland" - the New Pornographers
Big and exuberant, this likable rocker showcases the New Pornographers' enviable capacity to channel the sounds of bygone eras while still sounding fresh and catchy. "Graceland" (not the Paul Simon song) has the irrepressible drive and gleeful harmonies of, I don't know, an old Grass Roots song maybe. Built on top of a shuffly pair of ever-irresistible four-note intervals, the whole thing brings back the early '70s in some ineffable way. "Graceland" is posted on Insound; the song can be found on the Matador at 15 CD, which features 35 tracks spanning the 15-year history of Matador Records, released late last month.

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Monday, October 18, 2004

week of Oct. 17-23

"Lucky Jam" - Soft
A brand new band from Brooklyn, Soft has emerged Athena-like, fully-formed from the head of the internet. According to the band's John Reineck, Soft spent a year writing, rehearsing, and recording in their practice space without once playing in public or playing for anyone else at all. Not an approach that's going to work for everyone, but I for one am enjoying the payoff in Soft's case. It takes a certain amount of gumption and know-how to craft a compelling hook from a syncopated beat, but that's exactly what "Lucky Jam" does from its opening notes, as a lovely, Edge-like guitar rings out against a stuttering drum beat. After that, singer Reineck barely has to open his mouth to have me completely engaged, his voice channeling a bygone time of power-pop innocence (does the band Shoes still ring a bell to anyone?) even as the musical drive feels fully of the current 21st-century moment and the band's sophistication--for starters, listen to how guitarists Vincent Perini and Samuel Wheeler wind their instruments around one another--gives the song a subtle depth at every turn. "Lucky Jam" is posted on the band's web site. Soft expects to have a full-length CD ready by January.

"Jody Said" - Farma
Here's a beautiful, restrained, and idiosyncratic Americana-ish ballad from the formidable San Francisco quintet Farma. From a twinkly, slightly psychedelic start, "Jody Said" proceeds with great assurance over territory that would feel downright quirky if it didn't likewise seem so familiar. The song combines the gruff delicacy of Son Volt with the jazz-inflected chord flavors of Steely Dan, fleshing out the strong melody with a lazy, soaring steel guitar and noodly keyboards. When the verse returns after an instrumental break in the middle, everything coalesces, and as the melody gets to that place where it modulates and extends beyond the frame ("I'll be dreaming in this bar, eternally"), the enterprise levitates to that place where the effect of a song transcends the particulars of its construction. "Jody Said" will be found on the band's self-titled EP, soon to be released on Wishing Tree Records. The MP3 is on the band's web site.

"Second Winter" - Patty Moon
Right away the tremulous flute and drama-queen chords tell you this is borderline kitsch, and that's even before the cinematic wash of pop-electronica sweeps in to create an eye-opening Lulu-meets-Portishead vibe. (I'll quickly note that there's nothing wrong with borderline kitsch; Blondie has always walked that line to great effect as well.) When Patty Moon, the singer (Patty Moon is also the name of the band; they're from Germany) intones "I've been waiting all this winter for a true emotion"--gee, I hope Morrissey gets a royalty check for that line--the song defeats my resistance, winning me over on its own glorious-wacky terms: like any good pop song, it creates its own kind eternity from the forces that swirl around it here in this moment. And it will always do that. "To Sir With Love," after all, wasn't necessarily a great song, but it's always listenable, and it will always evoke the British mid-'60s pop scene in a way little else will. With enough exposure (and this is not necessarily likely to get that exposure), "Second Winter" could one day evoke the mid-'00s Euro-global pop scene in a similar way. The MP3 arrives via the worthwhile German MP3 hub Tonspion; the song is on the band's CD Clouds Inside, released this month in Europe on the Berlin-based Traumton Records.

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Monday, October 11, 2004

week of Oct. 10-16

"36" - Christina Rosenvinge
Singing accented English with a sweet sort of weariness, Christina Rosenvinge muses whisperily on the strains of growing older. Against a quiet guitar lick that sounds like the Nutcracker's "Waltz of the Flowers" theme turned sad and lonely, "36" is a lullaby for grownups, propelled by a sing-song rhythm and an exquisitely intimate accompaniment; I particularly love the desolate, distant, slightly dissonant background tones between verses, embodying time's doleful passage. The song comes from the Madrid-born Rosenvinge's second English-language CD, Foreign Land, released two years ago in Europe and slated for a U.S. release on Smells Like Records "soon," according to the SLR web site. Her first CD in English was 2001's charming, bittersweet Frozen Pool, also on SLR. The intimate sound of these two recent CDs represents a prodigious break from her past; you'd never know that in the late '80s, Rosenvinge was a huge pop star in Spain and Latin America as one half of the duo Alex y Christina. But she quickly tired of both the media attention and the musical constraints imposed by mass-market pop success. She left Alex behind to record three solo albums in the '90s, the last of which was produced in Sonic Youth's studio in New York City in 1996. Captivated by Manhattan, Rosenvinge eventually moved there and hooked back up with Steve Shelley and Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth, who ultimately helped her create Frozen Pool. The "36" MP3 can be found on the distribution/label site Midheaven.com; thanks to Sixeyes for the head's up.

"Queen of Verlaine" - High Water Marks
Satisfying, buzzy-fuzzy pop from an unusual collaboration between American and Norwegian indie stars. Drummer Hilarie Sidney from the Apples in Stereo and Per Ole Bratset, of the Oslo-based band Palermo, began a long-distance songwriting relationship after the two met during an Apples in Stereo tour in 2002. Eventually Sidney, from Lexington, Kentucky, went to Norway to record with Bratset, in a hotel room of all places. The end result was so apparently gratifying that Bratset has since relocated to Lexington to turn the High Water Marks into a real band (the two other members also live in Kentucky). I like a lot of things about this song, beginning with the cheery, churning vibe, and including distinct elements like Bratset's appealing voice (and geez it's really really hard to describe voices in concrete words; that's probably why writers often resort to comparisons to other voices) and the use of a distorted guitar wave underneath the basic drive of the song. "Queen of Verlaine" comes from the band's debut CD, Songs About the Ocean, released last month on Eenie Meenie Records; the MP3 is on the Eenie Meenie web site.

"Did I Let You Down?" - Folksongs for the Afterlife
This duo from New York City creates an unexpectedly rich and effective sonic stew; don't let the group's name mislead you into expecting a simple strumming acoustic guitar and sappy lyrics. Out of the gate the song engages me with its trip-hop-meets-salsa-at-the-movies stylishness. Then Caroline Schutz's clear and airy voice takes over, and watch out--I don't think I've ever heard the word "fuck" sung with such offhanded beauty. Wait for the chorus and you'll see what I mean. This song also highlights the timeless appeal of a well-placed xylophone solo. "Did I Let You Down?" can be found on the group's sole full-length CD--Put Danger Back in Your Life, released last year on Parasol/Hidden Agenda. The MP3 is on the band's site.

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Monday, October 04, 2004

week of Oct. 3-9

"How's It Gonna End" - Tom Waits
Take the songs Tom Waits was writing for albums like Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years strip them of their darkly exuberant carnivalia--the raggedy clankings and tootings and snarlings--and you're left with something slinky and creaky like "How's It Gonna End." The song is a fascinating study in minimalist production; driven by little more than a plucked bass, intermittent tom-tom, and what sounds like a small section of staccato, barely-blown horns, Waits delivers a grumbly series of bleak, vaguely surreal scenarios, tied together by the repetition of the title phrase. Every now and then something else happens musically--a tuba plays one note; ghostly background singers emerge for a few lines; fingers screech on metal guitar strings--but the song plunks along all but unaware. It's almost as if he's playing in a room full of musicians, most of whom are simply listening. The effect is at once comic and tragic, bolstered by the lyrics' characteristic mix of skeletal storytelling and cryptic pronouncements ("The reptiles blend in with the color of the street/Life is sweet at the edge of a razor"). If you don't love Tom Waits you might consider learning to love him. The song is found on Real Gone, to be released tomorrow on Anti Records. The MP3 is available on Indie Workshop.

"Heaven or Las Vegas" - Cocteau Twins
Vast, cascading beauty, as sparkling-sounding today as when it was released 14 years ago. Guitarist Robin Guthrie has an unearthly ability to make a droning guitar shimmer with joy, and singer Elizabeth Fraser's fetching incomprehensibility works its usual magic, even as you can in this case actually understand words here and there. The Cocteau Twins weren't always as accessible as this, but surely this illustrates that accessible is not always a bad thing. The song (in a longer version) was the title track of the group's 1990 release, on 4AD Records. The MP3 is on the band's site.

"Bush Must Be Defeated" - Dan Bern
In the spirit of debate week, here is without a doubt the goofiest angry protest song I've ever heard. Talk about "on message": Dan Bern does not relent, but even as I'm positive that I do not need to hear him sing the refrain any longer (alright already! I get it!), it begins to sink in that the wacky rhymes that spill from his mouth ("Bush must be defeated/His goodbye coffee heated/His inaugural spats uncleated/His White House bed short-sheeted") work doubly well because of the inevitability of the refrain. This is not a subtle song, but there are only a few weeks left; those inclined to agree with the message need it in the air. "Bush Must Be Defeated" comes from an EP released last month entitled My Country II (Messenger Records); the MP3 is on the Messenger Records site. For those unfamiliar with his work, Bern is worthwhile getting to know. He's a bit erratic, but indomitable, fearless, and more than a little gifted as a Dylan-infused singer/songwriter.

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