Monday, November 29, 2004

week of Nov. 28-Dec. 4

"My Fair Lady" - David Byrne
There's an almost Baroque stateliness to this churning little ditty from the estimable Mr. Byrne. While probably not a classic addition to the Byrne oeuvre (the subject matter--entrancing woman in a magazine--seems tired by now), this contribution to Wired Magazine's Rip. Sample. Mash. Share. project has its charms, beginning with the former Talking Heads leader's inscrutably ingratiating voice. I mean, there's nothing about this somewhat whiny, high-pitched, more than a little nasally voice that should engage us, and yet I find above all it's always his voice that draws me in, through all his incarnations over lo these many years. For a geeky, intellectual sort of guy he's proven himself to be a fearless singer; maybe that's what lends such deep appeal to the Byrne vibe. If nothing else, don't miss the grunt at 2:38--it's perfect. I'm also getting a kick out of how Byrne bleeds his voice directly into the synthesizer at the end. And hey there are one or two more well-delivered grunts in the last few seconds too.

"Away" - Greta Gertler & Peccadillo
The beginning of this song sounds interestingly slidey and sloppy, like a small orchestra warming up, but keep the piano's off-kilter theme in mind--it returns very effectively later. The intro gives way to a stripped-down, beat-driven verse, followed by a simple chorus sung over an oscillating violin line, at which point this so-called "chamber pop band" (an unusual combination of strings and winds, plus Gertler's piano and some percussion) kicks in to flesh the song out with a wonderful assortment of organic flourishes. (Check out the great, punctuating sound at the two-minute mark--I think one of the stringed instruments does that, but which one? and how?). Combining a crystalline sort of yearning quality to her voice (think Lisa Loeb) with a knack for layered vocals and striking instrumentation (think Kirsty MacColl), Gertler packs a lot into a three and a half minute pop song. While the melody is relatively modest, the package is assured and engaging; when the opening theme returns about two and a half minutes into the proceedings--that wonderful, lop-sided piano theme augmented by all sorts of knowing squeaks and squiggles from the band--I'm won over for good. "Away" comes from a brand new album, Nervous Breakthroughs, that was begun way back in 1998 but was only recently finished. The MP3 can be found on Gertler's web site.

"Helen Reddy" - Trembling Blue Stars
Naming a song after a singer seems a particularly fetching thing to me. For all I know this stems from my lasting devotion to the Replacements' "Alex Chilton" (one of the mysteriously great rock songs of all time), but what the heck, the world is full of strange and wonderful inter-connections. In any case, "Helen Reddy" is its own kind of good. Driven by singer Beth Arzy's simultaneously warm-yet-distant vocals, the song succeeds in evoking the evanescent nostalgia of listening to distant radio stations at night as a child; the way certain lyrics spring forward clearly ("These nights are made for sleeping") while others recede into the blurry aural landscape accentuates the mood and subject matter. The soft but steady beat, the subtle buzz of vague keyboard noise, and Arzy's Georgia Hubley-ish voice all bring Yo La Tengo to mind, but there's an airy warmth here that's different from that band's murkier sort of reserve. "Helen Reddy" is the lead track on the band's latest CD, Seven Autumn Flowers, released on Elefant Records in Europe and, apparently, on Bar/None Records here in October, although the Bar/None web site still doesn't list it anywhere. The MP3 can be found on the Elefant Records site.

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Monday, November 22, 2004

week of Nov. 21-27

"Can't Be Trusted" - One Star Hotel
At once bouncy and earnest, good-natured and serious, "Can't Be Trusted" takes a timeless Allman Brothers rhythm and infuses it with a Wilco-informed indie-Americana spirit. Singer Steve Yutzy-Burkey (also the band's guitarist and songwriter) has a comfortable, Tweedy-ish throatiness to his voice and an equally Tweedy-ish way of writing subtle and agreeable twists into his songs. In fact, for Wilco fans a bit befuddled by the band's tendency to deconstruct its songs over the last two CDs, One Star Hotel may come as a comfy aural balm--Wilco without the weirdness. But this Philadelphia-based quartet has a lot more going for it than mimickry. I like the way the main melodic phrase extends into a third measure, turning upward in a way that pulls you into the center of the song. Listen also for some extra sonic treats--twinkly synthesizer flourishes, controlled use of feedback, and, I think, a touch of harmonica buried into the texture as well. "Can't Be Trusted" can be found on the band's new CD Good Morning, West Gordon, to be released tomorrow on Stereo Field Recordings. This is One Star Hotel's first full-length CD; their one previous recording was a self-titled EP released last year. The MP3 can be found on

"Côte D'Azur" - Stirling
With no free and legal MP3s to be had from the new U2 CD, this one just might serve as an admirable substitute. Stirling is a band from Edmonton, relocated to Toronto, with a flair for Bono-like drama and Edge-like guitar riffs. This is the kind of song that walks the fine line between tension and bombast, but I think the bombast is held at bay by the concise, siren-like guitar line, the satisfying chord changes, and the fact that the whole thing drives by in three minutes. Never underestimate the power of keeping things short; had the band dragged this out to five minutes (the urge to do this is apparently compelling), I think my interest would have waned. Instead I find myself taken in by the urgent melodrama of it all. The song is the lead track on Stirling's debut CD, Northern Light, released in June in Canada; the MP3 is on the band's web site.

"Saddest Day" - Ephemera
A three-woman Norwegian band channeling Astrud Gilberto via Frente--yes, the world can be a wonderful place when we all just mingle together peacefully and see what happens. Bright, silvery, and airy, "Saddest Day" is that sweetest of pop confections: a sad song wrapped in an upbeat package. Stars in their native country (they received the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy earlier this year), Ephemera have released four CDs to date; this spring, a compilation disc called Score was released for the U.S. market. Not yet out of their 20s, Ephemera has nevertheless been together for 10 years now. "Saddest Day" was originally from the band's 2000 CD, Sun, which was their second; it is also found on a CD called Score, a compilation released for the U.S. market this past spring. The MP3 is on the band's web site. Thanks to visitor Jeff for the head's up.

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Sunday, November 14, 2004

week of Nov. 14-20

"Falling" - S
Combining a crackling edginess with a wash of electronica mystery, "Falling" feels like how the Sundays would sound with a bit too much caffeine in their system. While neither the itchy-bass-line-driven verse on the one hand nor the more expansive, open-chorded not-quite-a-chorus chorus might stand out on their own, they work niftily against each other to create more sonic drama than often contained in a mere four minutes. The effect is augmented through some distinctive electronic stitches between sections. S is the internet-unfriendly name (Google it and you'll get more than 1 billion results) that Seattle's Jenn Ghetto has been recording under since the late '90s; "Falling" can be found on her new CD, Puking and Crying, released in September on Suicide Squeeze Records. The MP3 is from the Suicide Squeeze web site.

"With Arms Outstretched" - Rilo Kiley
Far more charming than any relatively straightforward steel-guitar-laced strummer has a right to be. Whereas last week we heard the Geraldine Fibbers cross indie rock with country to explore some raw and prickly territory, this week note how Rilo Kiley mixes the same genres like they want to be your best friend, and, on top of that, they know that you want them to be too. To my ears, no small amount of Rilo Kiley's appeal--beyond intelligent songwriting and smart production skills--lies in singer/guitarist Jenny Lewis's disarmingly direct vocal style. What can I say? I do, I want her to be my best friend. At once familiar and fresh, "With Arms Outstretched" features a leisurely and timeless-seeming melody; when Lewis is joined about two minutes in by a chorus of ragged male voices (including Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst), that does it. It's all just too charming. The song comes from the band's second CD, The Execution of All Things, which was released in 2001 on Saddle Creek Records; the MP3 is on the Saddle Creek site. Their third and most recent CD, More Adventurous, was recently released on Barsuk Records (go the band's web site and you can hear it in its entirety).

"The Answer" - Bloc Party
Cross the Strokes with Joy Division, add a touch of the Jam for flavoring, and here you are. I'm not sure what they're singing about, but you don't have to know to know; the energy is exquisitely charged, the whole burbling thing about to blow. But wow: listen to the chords they take you through in the chorus, about a minute-twenty into the song, and the lyrics with which they take you there: "Grown in a parental fugue/Weight loss in self respect/Bomb, bomb, bomb us back together/A new way into a lost answer." Like I said, I have no idea what they're singing about. But my goodness they're singing about something, aren't they? I am encouraged to no end by a new generation of bands out there who seem to be moving intelligently into the future by being aware of the past, both musically and otherwise. Here's what the band members themselves say, on their web site: "Suffice to say there would be no band without the efforts of guitar bands formed in British and American towns in the 70s, 80s and 90s, as well as visionary writers and artists of various kinds whose work has informed the world and culture itself as it stands." "The Answer" comes from the band's self-titled debut EP, released in September on Dim Mak Records. The MP3 can be found on the band's web site.

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Monday, November 08, 2004

week of Nov. 7-13

"Ysbeidiau Heulog" - Super Furry Animals
I don't know about you, but me, after last week, I think I really need to listen to some rock'n'roll sung in Welsh. Good thing those wacky neo-psychsters Super Furry Animals are up to the task. "Ysbeidiau Heulog" (which translates as "Sunny Intervals") was the lone single off the band's all-Welsh Mwng, a CD released in 2000 on Placid Casual Records. As the band itself notes, "this one went right over the heads of the chart organisation." I find the whole thing sort of endearing--the goofy ELO-meets-Moby-at-the-cartoons vibe, the earnest cheerfulness of the incomprehensible lyrics, and, to top it all off, the translation ("I must say that we had some/Sunny Intervals, Sunny Intervals/But on the whole it was rather cloudy..."). Super Furry Animals were formed in Cardiff in 1993, and it should be noted that Mwng was not the band's first all-Welsh effort; their debut EP--Lianfairpwllgywgyllgoger Chwymdrobwlltysiliogoygoyocynygofod (In Space)--was also sung entirely in Welsh, as was their second EP, the somewhat easier to pronounce Moog Droog. The "Ysbeidiau Heulog" MP3 can be found on an adjunct site to the band's main web site.

"Lily Belle" - the Geraldine Fibbers
Last week also prompts a deep desire to listen to music from, oh, let's say, the mid-'90s--back when men were men, women were women, and presidents felt our pain rather than created it. And this song really puts you through the paces, which feels necessary this week, from its mournful, viola-driven introduction through its cathartic burst of rage later on. Singer Carla Bozulich is almost scarily unrestrained, her depth-laced voice alternating between a duskier version of Tanya Donelly and full-throttled Patti Smith-ish-ness (she more or less out-Pattis Patti before this one is done). The Geraldine Fibbers played their singular brand of country-folk-punk, or some such thing, through three '90s CDs. "Lily Belle" was the lead track on the band's 1995 debut, Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home. I know the feeling. The MP3 can be found on Carla Bozluich's web site, along with a nice assortment of others from both the Geraldine Fibbers and other Bozulich projects. Thanks to the good folks at 3hive for the head's up on this one.

"The Music Box" - Thebrotherkite
And now this muscular sort of power pop with a side order of noise is just the thing to nudge me back to life as we know it. Bristling with spirit and know-how, "The Music Box" rises far above typical indie-rock offerings through Thebrotherkite's songwriting wherewithal. After an introduction featuring a driving beat and ringing guitar theme, the song veers to the left as both the key and the time signature shift; the effect is at once unexpected and completely satisfying. The song holds its center around the tension between 6/4 and 4/4 measures, linked by a resonant melody (okay, so it's "Evergreen") and the recurrence of the opening guitar theme at crucial moments. Thebrotherkite is a five-piece band from Providence; what little press they've received so far relentlessly places them in the so-called "shoegaze" genre (one of the less wonderful coinages of recent decades, I'd say), but the band members have eclectic tastes and display an admirable sense of pre-'90s musical tradition. (For the record, I really don't think as many bands are influenced by My Bloody Valentine as internet music writers seem to believe.) "The Music Box" comes from Thebrotherkite's self-titled debut CD, released this summer on the Sacramento-based Clairecords. The MP3 is available on the band's web site.

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Monday, November 01, 2004

week of Oct. 31-Nov. 6

"V.O.T.E." - Chris Stamey with Yo La Tengo
We'll begin this week with an Election Day Public Service Announcement, courtesy of the estimable Chris Stamey and the equally estimable Yo La Tengo. "V.O.T.E." is just a 30-second ditty, standard PSA length, and it's as straightforward as can be: go out and vote. You can read a little more about this here. I've linked you to the so-called "Rockin'" version; there is also a "Fifties" version and an "Old A.M. Radio" version (follow the link in the last sentence and you'll find those). I thank an informal group known as "Music Bloggers for Democracy" for calling my attention to this PSA and suggesting that everyone with a music blog link to it this week. If you need any more information about voting, this is a good place to start. While my own political inclination may be clear to anyone paying close attention here, let me add that this is not about who you vote for, it's about voting. In this oh so important election, it's crucial that the president who is elected is the actual choice of an actual majority, not the end result of low voter turnout or other circumstances that might keep voters away from the polls (or votes from being counted, for that matter). That said, back to the music.......

"The Final Arrears" - Mull Historical Society
Colin MacIntyre--doing musical business as the Mull Historical Society--is a master of the 21st-century one-man-band genre. In this day and age, creating all the music and vocals on one's own isn't the hard part; the hard part is making the end result listenable. To my ears, the digital sleight-of-hand utilized to become a one-man-(or woman-) band tends to shrink the space of the music, resulting in songs that sound claustrophobic within a minute or two. MacIntyre, who hails from the Isle of Mull off Scotland's west coast (there really is a Mull Historical Society there), knows how to give us the aural equivalent of a 19th-century landscape: fertile valley, distant mountains, and more sky than seems possible to fit on a canvas. With its lush melody and gracious pacing, "The Final Arrears" succeeds most of all because the lovely touches are applied with care, always towards the goal of allowing the music to breathe and flow. As usual, this is hard to describe in words, but trust me that it's not just about layering and layering effects. And just when we've heard enough, along comes a loopy orchestral break three and a half minutes in, steering the song towards an odd but engaging fade-out. "The Final Arrears" is the lead track on the Mull Historical Society's second CD, Us (XL Recordsings/Beggars Group), released last year; the MP3 can be found on the Beggars Group U.S.A. site. A new CD called This Is Hope was released in the U.K. in July; no word yet on if it's coming out in the U.S.

"Fortress" - Pinback
While one-man bands receive more gee-whizzy attention, there is a venerable two-man band tradition in rock'n'roll as well. This isn't where the two guys play all the instruments, but where a band is formed around two core members (think Steely Dan), with supporting musicians shifting from album to album. Such is the history of San Diego's Pinback, the brainchild of bassist Armistead Burwell Smith IV (honest) and multi-instrumentalist and singer Rob Crow. From the opening bass pulse and the quick drum pick-up, the song has immediate presence and energy; Crow's pleasingly gentle vocals floating on top of the itchy and precise rhythm section help create an ambiance at once urgent and relaxed. For all of the band's impeccable indie-rock credentials, I'd say that "Fortress" brings to mind another talented two-man band straight out of rock's mainstream--Tears for Fears. Consider it a compliment: at their best Tears for Fears combined musical sophistication and pop know-how to great effect. When Crow heads for his upper register--particularly when repeating the words "Nobody move" about two and a half minutes in--I'm hearing "Mad World" in the back of my head. It's a good thing. "Fortress" comes from the CD Summer in Abaddon, released this month on Touch and Go Records. The MP3 can be found on the Touch and Go web site.

"Hula Hoop" - Saratoga Park
I'll admit that when I first heard the peppy-generic acoustic riff in the intro, I cringed in anticipation of a bad-local-band-nightmare sort of effort. Then an electric guitar joins in and I'm paying more attention: is it my imagination or is the electric guitar offering a discordant counterpoint to the
acoustic riff? Not my imagination. Pretty cool. Then Paul Howard opens his mouth--melody spurting in all directions--and I'm hooked. Like Yo La Tengo (them again), Saratoga Park is a quirky band centered around a charmingly down-to-earth pair of husband-wife singer/songwriters who are far more accomplished than their lo-fi affinities might suggest. Be sure not to miss the electric guitar break-out around three minutes in, and how, leading back to that peppy intro, transforms it entirely into something wonderful. Here's one local band--they're based in Vancouver, Washington (who knew?)--that knows what they're doing. "Hula Hoop" comes from the band's self-released 2004 CD The Short Bus; the MP3 is available on the band's web site.

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