Monday, December 27, 2004

week of Dec. 26-Jan. 1

"At Her Open Door" - Dead Meadow
I am always partial to bands that can establish a distinct sonic presence quickly. The D.C.-based trio Dead Meadow does well this way, with its Led Zeppelin-meets-R.E.M. vibe: big, searing guitar lines mixed into the background, propelled by a fuzzy folk-rock vibe and chords that take you right back to the late '60s or early '70s (for instance, count along with each of the opening beats and when you get to seven--there, that's a combination of notes and sounds that speaks to us from the past). I also like the quality of singer-guitarist Jason Simon's voice, how it is not of the usual tone or timbre that I'm used to hearing with this sort of slurry, heavy-chiming environment--he's more Robert Smith (the Cure) than Robert Plant (Zep). The song weaves an insistent if nebulous spell through its largely indecipherable lyric section, then opens out at about 3:30 into an extended instrumental coda. Churning, psychedelic guitars come to the front, but listen too for the dreamy, choral-like synthesizers up on top. "At Her Open Door" will be found on the band's CD Feathers, scheduled for release in February on Matador Records. The MP3 can be found on the Matador site.

"Ballad in 2D" - Bill Ricchini
This song has a lot of things going against it, to my ears. I'm not a particular fan of lo-fi, "bedroom"-style rock'n'roll, which this most definitely is; while I like Elliott Smith's music, I'm not usually happy with anyone who sort of sounds like him; and I also tend to hold in suspicion songs with lyrics that don't scan well (i.e. when the singer has sometimes to put the emphasis on the incorrect syllable to make the line fit with the music). All these things apply to "Ballad in 2D," and, what do you know, I still think it's haunting and memorable--perhaps all the more haunting and memorable because it manages to transcend its potential drawbacks. Ricchini knows his way around the sounds at his disposal, but he doesn't overdue it--he uses layers organically, while other bedroom recorders tend to overcompensate and pile on in a way that sounds phony. But what sells me finally is the beautiful and beautifully presented chorus. Here Ricchini allows the simple but brilliant, Bacharach-esque melody to take center stage, much the way Ron Sexsmith so often does with his simple and brilliant melodies. "Ballad in 2D" comes from Ricchini's one and only CD to date, Ordinary Time, which was recorded (yup) in his bedroom in South Philadelphia and released in 2002. The MP3 can be found on Ricchini's web site.

"Whole Heap" - Emma McGlynn and the Monorails
Blistering and glistening, "Whole Heap" is an emotional freight train of a song. While Ani DiFranco inevitably comes to mind (ferocious acoustic guitar work, emotive singing, hyper-self-involved lyrics, self-owned record company), I think McGlynn is carving out her own sound within this particular niche. Both musically and lyrically harsher than "Impatience" (a Fingertips Top 10 selection earlier this year) "Whole Heap" uses blazing electric guitars and thrashing drumwork to crank the intensity up a few notches. Even in the more frenzied setting, McGlynn sings with uncanny precision--a sort of out-of-control control. And then I like how she pulls back at around a minute-fifty, running her voice through a filter, only to plunge forward into a full-fledged PJ Harvey-ish catharsis as the piece careers toward a distorted, plug-pulling end. "Whole Heap" is the lead track on McGlynn's Kamikaze Birdie CD, which was originally released last year on McGlynn's own Impatio Sound label; it was apparently re-released in September of this year with distribution through Genepool/Universal. The MP3 is available on McGlynn's web site. (Be aware that there are a number of audible "naughty words" along the way, in case you're playing this on your speakers where others can hear.)

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Monday, December 20, 2004

week of Dec. 19-25

"Memorial" - Explosions in the Sky
At once contemplative and majestic, the instrumental "Memorial" unfolds with precision and grace; it feels like a story someone is telling you in a language you can't quite understand. With chiming guitars, an expansive sense of song, and a controlled use of both ends of the volume dial, Explosions in the Sky sound like they must be from Europe somewhere. But what the heck, they're just a little old band from Texas, which gives me more faith in Texas than I might otherwise have (no offense to the many other Texans I don't know who would also give me faith in the place!). This is an edited version (it's still 6:23) of a longer (8:50) piece; one of just five long songs on the band's second CD, The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, released last year on the Temporary Residence label. You'll find the MP3 on the Temporary Residence site. "First Breath After Coma," another excellent song from the CD, is available as an MP3 through the Bella Union Records site (Bella Union is the band's label in the U.K.); the only reason I didn't choose that song over this one is because to access the MP3 at Bella Union, you have to give them an email address. I have no particular issues about doing that, but I prefer if possible not to feature MP3s with obstacles.)

"Kill to Know" - Amy Miles
Like Liz Phair before her extreme makeover, Amy Miles writes down and dirty songs and sings them with an appealing sort of blase-ness. The verse here is sly, itchy, and confrontational; the instrumentation effectively sparse but spacious. Well and good, left at that. But check out the chorus--even as the rhythm continues its unassuming chugging in the background, Miles here sneaks in a casually perfect melodic line (with the words "What is it that you want to know?"), something you might hear in a song by the band Garbage, or maybe in one of the Pretenders' older, poppier moments. A nugget of surprise in this homespun number, the chorus is subtly augmented by well-placed noodles on the electric guitar underneath and blossoming synthesizers above. This musical moment makes me smile each time it comes around, as does her voice the more I listen to it. "Kill to Know" is the lead track on the CD Dirty Stay-Out (2002), her only album to date. The MP3 is available on her web site.

"Here Comes Everybody" - Autolux
Breathy-noisy neo-psychedelic rock'n'roll from a well-connected new Los Angeles band. Don't miss the opening notes--they may sound like a throw-away electronic bangle but there's a lot going on here. First of all, listen to the sound itself: it's a strange and wonderful blending of a plucked string and a retro-future-y sort of synthesizer-static noise. Very cool. And even cooler that the octave interval the noise describes is seamlessly incorporated into the open-chorded introduction, and again later in the song. Turns out this bit is one of many engaging and sophisticated production touches you'll hear here. And guess why? Autolux was signed to DMZ Records, a label co-created by T Bone Burnett and movie makers Joel and Ethan Coen; Burnett is the producer here. Great to hear a gifted (older) hand at the dials for a new band--I think there are bountiful synergies to be encountered via such couplings; too bad the mechanics and economics of the music world don't often allow it. The song comes from the band's debut CD, Future Perfect, released in October; the MP3 is available on Insound.

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Monday, December 13, 2004

week of Dec. 12-18

"Howdy" - Danny Allen
This song is driven by a vivid, swampy-slowness that I wouldn't have previously identified as a sound that would pull me in. And yet "Howdy"--without a glistening melody or engaging complexity--pulls me in most assuredly. How does this work? Well, to begin with, the opening minor-key guitar arpeggio is satisfyingly skewed. Then Allen enters with his full-throated voice detailing a series of odd but concrete images. Before long an atmospheric steel guitar begins to issue languid phrases in the background. Then we arrive at the wordless bridge (around 1:25), a melodic moan in the middle of this overheated summer night of a song; the song sways, coalesces, gets under my skin. Danny Allen is a Californian who apparently led an L.A. band called Harvette a couple years back before striking out on his own. He's since returned to his hometown of Oakland, for what it's worth. "Howdy" is the title track of a CD released earlier this year on the Stanley Recordings label. The MP3 can be found on Allen's web site.

"Waiting For My Friends" - De Novo Dahl
Exuberant, theatrical rock'n'roll--one part Super Furry Animals, one part Queen, and one part something they must put in the water down there in Nashville. De Novo Dahl is a six-piece outfit that named themselves after author Roald Dahl, of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame; whimsy is part of the mix, in other words. So are a lot of sounds, and no I can't begin to identify them all. But what I like is how worked into the gleeful momentum of the song they all are--I didn't fully notice most of the shall we say more peculiar noises (chugging beeps, trilling boops, et al) until I listened a few different times (okay I noticed the screams right away), so otherwise transported was I by the whole over-the-top enterprise. I don't think I'm going to hear a more satisfying chorus for a while, for both its power-pop-goes-to-heaven chord progression and its unexpectedly silly-yet-poignant lyrical climax (I'll let you listen and discover it for yourself). "Waiting for My Friends" comes from a six-song EP the band released last year; the MP3, as usual, is waiting for you on the band's site.

"Transamericana" - Muckner
An exceedingly well put together song, with one masterful touch arising after another. This song is not only about traveling, it sounds like traveling: listen to the wordless vocal (hey! it's wordless vocal day) that drives the beginning of the introduction, underneath the drumbeat. It doesn't sound like a car, but it sounds like driving. "Transamericana" is propelled by a steady acoustic beat, some especially effective use of fingers-on-metal-guitar-strings sounds, and guitarist Dan Erb's gritty but gentle voice. The melody is at once urgent and soothing, full of subtle knowledge (listen to how it dips at the end of the second and fourth lines in the verse). And then the touch that seals it for me: how Lisa Smith (who plays bass and cello in the band) joins Erb in the chorus, but just on alternate lines. For some reason I really like that effect. Plus, on the first line she sings with him, she doesn't harmonize, merely sings the same notes. For some reason I really like that effect as well. "Transamericana" comes from If I Can't Talk to You, Then I Can't Talk to Anybody, released in mid-November on Buttermilk Records. You'll find the MP3 on the band's web site.

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Monday, December 06, 2004

week of Dec. 5-11

"Why" - Gina Villalobos
Every now and then someone new comes along doing something not-very-new so sparklingly well that it seems new all over again. Operating in the well-worn roots/Americana corner of the rock'n'roll world, Gina Villalobos invites a "usual suspects" list of comparisons--in her case, Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams seem to be the first names out of everyone's mouths--but I find her closest to the wondrous Kathleen Edwards, both in her rasp-inflected, emotive voice and in her capacity to channel some older and deeper rock'n'roll forces (think Neil Young in particular) and give them new life and force in the new century. From the minor key Tom Petty-ness of the intro, "Why" drives ahead with an authoritative stutter in the drum beat and a brilliant confluence and melody and voice in the second half of the verse: when she sings the phrase "If I can talk to what I see in the ceiling," my goodness. Listen to the second syllable of the word "ceiling" and see if your heart doesn't melt just a little. I won't try to describe it. The song is the third track on Villalobos' second CD, Rock'n'Roll Pony, released in June on the Kick Music label. The MP3 is one of six available on her web site, and all of them are good, including a satisfying cover of the old World Party nugget, "Put the Message in the Box."

"Forest" - Dealership
A certain sort of confidence is required to open a song with the line "Let's go, and I'll play all my songs," but singer Chris Groves has such a sweet-sailing voice that he has me right there--I'm thinking, sure, go ahead, play away. A do-it-yourself style trio from San Francisco, Dealership transcends its indie trappings through gorgeous melodicism and songwriting aplomb. The song is propelled by the juxtaposition of a jittery/infectious guitar line against a bell-like (and inexpensive-sounding) keyboard underneath a melody that cascades on itself, like noiseless fireworks arcing pattern upon pattern. When Groves arrives at the chorus, singing, "An electronic forest, a pixelated version" and then whatever he sings next (I can't decipher the words at that point), we are in a certain sort of pop heaven. That guitarist Miyuki Jane Pinckard adds some solid yet airy (go figure) harmonies to the proceedings only adds to the feeling of being transported somewhere quite lovely, if a little bittersweet. I like how the band doesn't waste the last minute of the song (which is when a lot of songs go into automatic pilot): listen to the edge Groves' voice acquires at around the 2:15 point, and then feel the band pull the energy back at around 2:30 only to kick into a punched-up sprint to the finish at 2:50 or so. It's all pretty subtle but I tend to like subtle. "Forest" is from the CD Action/Adventure, the band's third, released in August on Turn Records; the MP3 can be found on the band's web site.

"Hockey" - Jane Siberry
Anyone missing the hockey season yet? Well, in any case, it's past time to get some Jane Siberry up here on Fingertips. For those unfamiliar with the work of the magical mystical Ms. Siberry, this song at least hints, in lots of small and idiosyncratic ways, at her deep and abiding allure. It's all about childhood in-the-dying-light-of-late-afternoon-on-the-river hockey games, and Siberry's earthy poetry evokes the scene beautifully, not just pictorially--"You skate as fast as you can 'til you hit the snowbank (that's how you stop)"-- but logistically: the song turns in part on the idea of how the game would wind down as more and more kids are called in for dinner, a subtle (that again) and masterful touch. I'm particularly enchanted by characteristic Siberry lyrical asides; I've never seen anyone else write lyrics like this and probably never will: "He'll have that scar on his chin forever someday his girlfriend will say hey where.../He might look out the window...or not." "Hockey" originally appeared on her 1989 album Bound by the Beauty; this is a slightly re-mixed version, with dog barks introduced to remove a potentially offending (but actually quite charming in context) word. You'll find the MP3 on her self-owned record company web site.

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