Monday, December 19, 2005

week of Dec. 18-24

Fingertips will be taking a break for the HOLIDAYS (there are more than one, you know!--Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year's Day, you name it); this is therefore the last "This Week's Finds" update for 2005. When next we meet again it will be Tuesday, January 3, of all things. In the spirit of the season, I offer an extra song this week. Hope all is sweet and peachy with all of you as this most excellent interesting year winds down and yet another begins. See you in '06....

"Smile" - Stone Jack Jones
Spacey, melancholy, arty folktronica: Leonard Cohen meets Portishead at Laurie Anderson's house. When it comes to the sort of noodly atmospherics employed in this nutty little song, I know that it's hard to differentiate cool/noodly from dumb/noodly--I mean, is the wavery, spitty sort of trumpet meandering in the background a stroke of genius or completely random? The answer is probably both, which doesn't help. One of the ways I see my way through foggy aesthetics like this is to latch onto small moments, and if there are enough of them in a given song, I presume the whole thing is working. The small moments here include: the simple, plaintive piano refrain that holds the structure of the song up; the first line of the song (I love songs with great first lines): "Let's pretend this is an opening/Let's pretend this is a door"; the aforementioned trumpet; the deadpan female backup vocals; the construction-site percussion; and the fact that the song sounds exactly like the opposite of a smile, and yet simultaneously manages to provoke one, somehow. Stone Jack Jones is a musician from Nashville who's been taken under the wing of producer Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney). "Smile" is from his forthcoming CD, Bluefolk, to be released in February on Fictitious Records. The MP3 is available via Jones' page.

"Air" - the Owls
Sweet floating misery in pop form from a Minneapolis-based foursome. I'll admit to being something of a sucker for list-like lyrics; in this case songwriter Maria May appears to be free-associating her way through heartbreak; when she gets to "No header, no footer/No girl, no boy," I am charmed for good. ("No hand to put my handshake in": also charming.) "There is only air/Where I used to care," which is the lyric in the chorus, is by the way a pretty powerful way of communicating post-breakup malaise. While normally I might feel the need for a bit more development in a song than this truly airy number offers, on the other hand, I could probably rationalize why the breezy repetition is thematically appropriate. Or something like that. I also really like the disconcertingly unusual use of male backing vocals under a female lead; why isn't this appealing sound used more often? "Air" is from an eight-song EP entitled Our Hopes and Dreams, released last year on Magic Marker Records. The MP3 is available via the Magic Marker site.

"My Kingdom for a Trundle Bed" - Bound Stems
A jaunty, toothsome bit of complex pop from an interesting quintet from Chicago. The vague, lightly swinging intro barely hints at the muscular, tumbly song to follow. I like how the melody is at once central and changeable: the way the words pump out with an ahead-of-the-beat syncopation, the exact notes changing verse to verse even as the overall melodic essence is strong and sure. And lots of words there are indeed, in a relatively short song; and while the meaning is elusive, and while I don't often get all that caught up in puzzling lyrics out, in this case they seem worthy and intriguing and appear to add up to a bittersweet tale of a broken relationship--which I intuit largely from adding the title to the lyrics (it would seem the narrator has to sleep on the floor for the night in his ex's apartment). "My Kingdom for a Trundle Bed" is a song from the EP The Logic of Building the Body Plan, released last month on Flameshovel Records. The MP3 is from the Flameshovel site. (Be aware that the song cuts off a bit abruptly at the end.)

"I Feel Like a Fading Light" - Kim Taylor
With a voice mixing Ricki Lee Jones and Karin Bergquist (Over the Rhine), Kim Taylor wins me over with this simple, lo-fi strummer-with-an-attitude. Given the sort of year we've all had, this seems about the most appropriate seasonal song I could offer, even as it's not actually a seasonal song at all. I love how the Florida-born, Cincinnati-based Taylor subverts the girl-with-guitar model with such an insistent, percussive number; even the guitar has an upfront, twang-ish but not really twangy sound that exudes tension rather than easy listening--even as, at the same time, the melody is comfortably catchy, her sweet-weary voice a wonderful instrument in and of itself. This is not standard singer/songwriter mush, and the world is a better place for it. "I Feel Like a Fading Light" was released as a single in August, and is available via Taylor's web site. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head's up. Merry Christmas to all ("whether you celebrate it or not," as per The Daily Show) and to all a good night.

Monday, December 12, 2005

week of Dec. 11-17

"Nervous" - Tessitura
Jonathan Williams sings in a warm, buzzy voice, rendered warmer and buzzier by his fetching tendency to sing in octave harmonies with himself. He further accompanies himself with clean, patient acoustic guitar licks; there's something of Pink Floyd's stately acoustic side in the air here, particularly when Williams spins out a line with such a haunting convergence of melody and lyric as this one: "Even in a dream/Things could seem far too real." There, I think, we arrive at the song's center of gravity, its point of pure allurement--it's not just the nice chord he reaches on the word dream, it's the way the word "dream" stretches out almost unaccountably, with a mysterious, standing-still sort of rising and falling. This is a real song, not just a guy with a nice voice strumming a nice guitar. (Not enough people these days seem to be able to differentiate between beautiful-sounding and actually beautiful, says me, and there we are yet again back at Ives' great distinction between manner and substance, but I'll steer clear of that particular soapbox for now.) Tessitura is a side project for Williams, who is otherwise a member of the fine, endearingly-named Cincinnati-based ensemble The Spectacular Fantastic. "Nervous" is a song on a new free-to-download split single featuring both bands; it can also be found on Tessitura's recently released free-to-download full-length CD, On the Importance of Being Confused.

"Juicebox" - the Strokes
Why does this 3:17 second song, with its hard-driving "Peter Gunn"-ish intro, seem so hard to get a handle on, intermittently harsh and irritating, and yet so simultaneously compelling? It's not just because singer Julian Casablancas is singing without the filter he put his voice through to create the band's trademark sound on their first two CDs; and it's also not just because he spends a bit of time actually sort of screeching. What I think is going on here is the result of an unusual songwriting effect: the melody undergoes a series of purposeful time shifts so that in each of the first three sections of the song, Casablancas is singing half as fast as the previous section. (When this is done at all, it tends to be done only with two sections rather than three.) Then, after the slowest of the three, he doubles back to the middle pace, and that's where the song hits its stride and delivers its best hook (the Stones-copping "You're so cold" part) and coolest moments (the subsequent guitar solo). If you don't tune in to the time trick, you might hear this song as more disjointed than it actually is; that "Juicebox" is disjointed at best and dreadful at worst is certainly what most online critics have decided, because it's never their job to assume that a band actually knows more about music than they do. "Juicebox" is the first free download from the band's upcoming CD First Impressions of Earth, their third, due out January 3 on RCA Records. Thanks to the gang at Glorious Noise for the lead on this one.

"Rise Up With Fists!" - Jenny Lewis
Jenny Lewis's vocal charisma is a powerful powerful thing. She's got that hyper-present Debby Harry sort of open-mouthed fullness, a way of singing that sounds like she's just talking; and yet where Harry used a constant sheen of icy irony to keep her distance, Lewis, while still keeping her distance, seems infused with some messy mixture of pain and passion that makes it feel like she's always right there in the room with you. After hitting the indie big-time last year with her band, Rilo Kiley, and their assured, well-regarded More Adventurous CD, Lewis has in fact sought the additional adventure of releasing a solo CD--called Rabbit Fur Coat, it's due for release in January on Conor Oberst's Team Love Records. As this track indicates, the album is steeped in a sort of rootsy, countrified, white-woman-soul sound: a Laura Nyro for the new millennium sort of thing, complete with the Kentucky-born Watson Twins harmonizing their hearts out in the background. The MP3 is available via the Team Love site.Thanks once more to Bruce at Some Velvet Blog for the head's up.

Monday, December 05, 2005

week of Dec. 4-10

"In State" - Kathleen Edwards
If you already know Kathleen Edwards, you'll be pleased to discover that she's recently made ten full songs, five from each of her two CDs, available on her web site as free and legal MP3s. If you don't already know her, use the opportunity to rectify the situation pronto. While Edwards is often compared, logically enough, to Lucinda Williams (the sweet-rough voice, the alt-country-americana vibe), what slayed me when I first heard her mighty first CD, Failer (2003), was how much she channeled Neil Young in his Crazy Horse mode. You maybe didn't expect it from a skinny 25-year-old from Ottawa; then again, as I've discovered time and again, do not underestimate Canada as an endless source of powerful music. The revelatory "In State," its muscular Tom Petty-ish-ness lit up by Edwards' heart-melting voice and a ripping arrangement, is the opening track on her excellent follow-up release, Back to Me, which came out earlier this year on Zoe Records (a subsidiary of Rounder Records). If I were inclined to make year-end best-of lists, it's a CD that would be in my top 10. Many thanks to Pop Matters for the lead on the new MP3 stash.

"I Will Always Find A Way" - Suffering and the Hideous Thieves
What an elusive vibe suffuses this song: it seems one part late '70s punk-turning-into-new-wave, one part '00s orchestral-indie-construction, and one part musician-from-another-planet epic. With its slow, swaying rhythm, "I Will Always Find A Way" makes the most of an exceedingly simple core riff (we're talking do-re-mi-re-mi-re) by handing it to a loose-limbed ensemble mixing strings, drums, keyboards, and goofy background vocals. Band leader Jeff Suffering has a British-sounding, congestive sort of wail that is oddly appealing, particularly when he goes off-key, which appears to be part of his vocal strategy. As for the burning question--is this his real name, really?--I can report that he does seem to take the name rather literally, both within his songs and without. "I've been wishfully thinking of leaving you/Since the day that we met" are the first words we hear him sing, with what appears to be a characteristic blend of sorrow and defiance. The record company's bio, in turn, quotes Suffering this way: "As of now, we will continue to put out obscure releases until the Lord comes back, or until we die, or can't rock anymore." "I Will Always Find A Way" is from the band's Ashamed CD, released in August on Lujo Records. Thanks to Jason at Mystery and Misery for this one.

"Another Sunny Day" - Belle and Sebastian
As charmingly twee and enigmatic as ever, Belle and Sebastian is back with a brisk, wonderfully melodic tune tinged with a slight, speeded-up country and western veneer, or as much of one as this eccentric Scottish band is likely to give us. Regardless of what he's singing about (often impossible to discern precisely), front man Stuart Murdoch--his high voice at once pure and reedy--almost always sounds laden with unbearable nostalgia for some far-off time and place that is only reachable via a rabbit hole or a wardrobe or some such magical portal. Here Murdoch delivers a voluptuous melody line most effortlessly: the entire verse is an extended melody, all 16 measures of it (compare that to standard pop songs, with their four-measure melodies at best). The shift in melody and chord that happens at the seventh measure wollops me in the gut every time (in the first verse, it's the shift that happens on the word "pardon" in the line "I told you, 'Beg your pardon'"); we move there into a second minor chord that cracks the song open--listen to how deeply inevitable the rest of the verse sounds, even as it's only half over at that point. And while you're at it, check out the nutty double-time snare beat the drummer offers up during the instrumental break at 2:24, just because it's nutty. "Another Sunny Day" is a song that will be on the band's next CD, The Life Pursuit, scheduled for release in February on Matador Records. The MP3 is available, somewhat secretively, via the Matador site. Thanks this time to Some Velvet Blog for the lead.

Monday, November 28, 2005

week of Nov. 27-Dec. 3

"Look At Her Face" - the Coral Sea
A terrifically put together song from a Santa Barbara-based band with a good-looking future. Offering dynamics legitimately deserving of the overused adjective "cinematic," the Coral Sea melds musical elements from a number of different decades, or maybe even centuries, to create an artfully assembled space that feels both layered and airy. The sense of urgency pervading the opening section is driven largely by the pulsings of a string quartet, of all things; when a simple, resonant piano line enters at 1:28, the song opens up magnificently, achieving a U2-esque grandeur even as singer/songwriter Rey Villalobos, with his sweet, pitch-perfect pop voice, keeps the enterprise rooted on earth rather than in the heavens somewhere. The son of a cinematographer (ah!), Villalobos is a classically-trained musician who lists Chopin among his influences; easier ones to pick out here might be the Beatles (John Lennon in particular), the Moody Blues, the Pixies, and Bends-era Radiohead, and yet this doesn't really sound like any of them. "Look At Her Face" is the opening song on the band's debut CD, Volcano and Heart, self-released under the Red Clover Records imprint in July. The MP3 is hosted on the band's site. Thanks to the gang at 3hive for the lead.

"Number One" - Catlow
Wielding no obvious sonic gimmicks, no "listen to me, I'm different!" antics, Natasha Thirsk, doing business as Catlow, has crafted a remarkably unformulaic piece of punchy, three-minute neo-'90s guitar pop. From the opening, off-beat crunch of the guitar, the off-kilter entry of the bass, and the restrained drumbeat, the song manages to feel both march-like and arhythmic. Hooks come and go before they settle in, as if seen from the aural equivalent of the corner of the eye. Listen for instance to the descending riff heard first in the introduction (11 seconds in): it kind of melts in on itself, describing a slippery series of diminishments that are quickly folded into the stuttering drive, leaving you not quite sure what you heard and whether it even made sense or not. This riff, however, recurs, and becomes its own sort of mysterious hook when Thirsk works it into the melody at the end of each line of verse (the "I am I am I am" part in the first verse). The chorus, in turn, is even more elusively catchy, with the clipped stop-start-ishness of the crunchy guitar and its lack of melodic lines to hang onto; what we get instead is Thirsk's light but powerful voice reaching successive climaxes before retreating in a sort of syncopated wave, falling then rising towards an unexpected chord that manages to lead us back to the verse without a traditional resolution. Thirsk comes from Vancouver, and gained a following late in the '90s and into the new decade with her former band, the Dirtmitts. "Number One" is the lead track on Catlow's debut CD, Kiss the World, released earlier this year in Canada on Boompa Records. The MP3 is via the Boompa site.

"Miles" - the Southland
Styles and tendencies in rock'n'roll tend to change pretty gradually when all is said and done, the definitive sound or sounds of one era blending seamlessly into another, and only emerging as definitive in retrospect--it's much easier, as an example, to talk about a "'90s sound" now than it was back when we were living through it. And so the '00s (more than half over already!) may seem so far to have produced a difficult-to-generalize sort of sound to date--particularly as there is by now such a longer and richer musical history for rock bands to be inspired by. I contend, however, that some characteristic sounds are emerging and this able and spiffy tune by a new L.A. band called the Southland pretty much nails one of them exquisitely. With its bedroom-rock-style mixture of acoustic and beat rhythms, "Miles" is not a song that could possibly have been produced in the '60s or '70s or '80s or '90s. I'm not saying this is gloriously original; actually the point is that it isn't--but it is enormously characteristic, and beautifully crafted. What wins me is the memorable chorus, with its bittersweet melody and that great, marshmallowy slide-guitar lick. "Miles" is a song from the Southland's debut CD, Influence of Geography, released in June on Ruffworld Records. The MP3 is via the Ruffworld site.

Monday, November 21, 2005

week of Nov. 20-26

"Nightlife" - Gustav & the Seasick Sailors
From its mellow Bruce Hornsby-ish piano introduction, this song picks up a crisp beat and some Hammond B3 accents even as it retains vague jazz-pop stylings (Steely Dan-ish chords, stuttering drumbeats) through the opening verse. But everything is a set-up for the brilliant chorus, in which the 21-year-old Gustav (born, it must be noted, without a right hand; he wears a special device to allow him to hold a pick) sings an irresistible melody, at once beautiful and anthemic, that seems like something John Mellencamp was trying to write but never quite managed to some 15 or 20 years ago. For a young guy, Gustav breathes out a fetching, Steve Earle-ish sort of weariness as he lets go of his syllables. While I'm not sure we're venturing into lyrical profundity here, the music makes it irrelevant to me. "Nightlife" is the lead track off Gustav & the Seasick Sailors' debut CD, Vagabond's Polka, which was released last year on Marilyn Records. The MP3 is hosted on the Marilyn web site. A 10-person collective from Sweden, Gustav & the Seasick Sailors are scheduled to release a second CD early in 2006.

"Episodes (Diphenhydramine)" - Pela
I have discovered a previously unrecognized affection in my musical tastes for the sort of voice that Pela singer Billy Swanson has. I will now describe it: okay, I can't describe it, not really, other than to say it's high, somewhat roughed-up, vaguely muffled and yet also incisive, with a keen edge. Beyond Swanson's immediate appeal, this strikes me as a cool song for a variety of reasons. To begin with, it utilizes the trick of having the accompanying music playing twice as fast as the melody line, which achieves the pleasing effect of it seeming like a fast slow song or a slow fast song. I also like the mysterious use of wordless vocal accents in the extended bridge-like section after the verse--by now we completely buy into the sense of movement and urgency, and yet the resolution is delayed by those ghostly "aaahs." The underlying sense of tension increases when Swanson dives next into his lower register ("as if I really knew myself," he sings, with an unexpected bit of Morrisseyan phrasing). Then arrives the great release with the strange one-word chorus ("Diphenhydramine"--which is by the way an antihistamine), sung with a fluttery array of chiming guitars floating almost out of earshot in the background. This song was one of five on the Brooklyn-based band's debut EP, All in Time, released back in May on the Brassland label. The MP3 comes via the Brassland site.

"Spiral" - XTC
Sometimes you just want the real thing, even if the real thing isn't quite as real and thing-like as it used to be. This "new" XTC song has been floating around the internet for a couple of weeks; I heard it when it first came out (thanks, Largehearted Boy!), and put it aside. Did it move me to tears? Did it make me swear that Andy Partridge is still a god-like master of the three-minute, fifteen-second pop song? Um, no. I loved this band in its day, and then some. But days move on, decades without names roll by, and the fine line between a groove and a rut (thanks, Christine Lavin) grows intractably indistinguishable. And yet: even awash in nostalgia (talk about a groove, the spiral in question is the path the phonograph needle traces while converting plastic to soundwave), the song is rich and smile-inducing, for its jaunty melody, effervescent instrumentation, and other bounteous XTC-isms: the fast-slow shifts in pace, the distinctive chord changes, and Partridge's inimitable goofy-earnest yowl. If these guys exist in their own particular bubble of sound and space, so be it. I suggest a visit now and then. And while I might not steer you towards the extravagant re-boxing of the band's most recent two Apple Venus CDs from which this tune (recorded in the '99-'00 time frame) emerges, I urge you to discover or rediscover English Settlement (1982), Skylarking (1986), or the somewhat more recent and underrated Nonsuch (1992). The MP3 is available via Toolshed (a music promotion firm).

Monday, November 14, 2005

week of Nov. 13-19

"Intoxicated" - Kids These Days
Wow: an instantly appealing song that proceeds to unfold in unanticipated ways. The chimey double guitar lines in the introduction lay out an initial melody both simple and memorable, playing as it does with the ever-engaging fourth interval. (Fourths tend to keep the ear in a satisfying state of suspension, you see.) I like also how in the introduction the intervals are not expressed cleanly, but are scuffed up with well-placed dissonances between the twin guitars. When the singing starts, the verse first affirms the melody (already sounding like an old friend) then glides into the effortless chorus; I love the effect of having the lyrics come up shorter than the musical line, leaving an instrumental measure that's just as much a part of the chorus as the words. And then, after two rounds of that, the song shifts--the rhythm section becomes itchier and lead singer Marc Morrissette explores the higher end of his range, giving the second half of the song an unexpectedly effective Radiohead-ian vibe. Kids These Days are a five-man band (all five write songs, apparently) from Vancouver; "Intoxicated" is a track from the band's debut CD, All These Interruptions, released this past spring in Canada on White Whale Records. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

"Sidewalk Chalk" - the A-Sides
I like how the garagey stomp that opens this song is incorporated into a shimmeringly upbeat bit of neo-power pop--it sounds cool, and also encapsulates this Philadelphia band's approach, which seems to draw simultaneously from two divergent '60s sounds: garage-rock psychedelia (think Nuggets) on the one hand, glistening orchestral pop (think Pet Sounds) on the other. The interesting result of this particular blend is how much more emerges in the sound beyond mere revival of the A-Sides' seemingly obvious, and admirable, influences (Kinks, Who, Beach Boys). Tuning more carefully in to the song's various charms--including a smiley descending melody and some great guitar interplay (Beatley lines contrasting with psychedelic howling)--I sensed the influences and confluences multiply. Now I'm hearing Robyn Hitchcock, I'm hearing XTC, I'm even hearing the Strokes--and I begin to realize how it's really the band's own spirit and musical capacities that I'm hearing most of all. While some rock'n'roll has appeared on the scene as if from another dimension entirely, most of the best stuff over the years is neither more nor less than a skillful distillation of previously available ideas. Picking out influences can be fun and instructive if the point is to understand a piece of music in a broader context; when influence-spotting becomes a reductive game (as it, sadly, does quite frequently with online music criticism), then this usually says more about the writer than the musician. "Sidewalk Chalk" is the lead track on the A-Sides' debut full-length CD, Hello, Hello, released in May on Prison Jazz Records. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

"Cowbell" - Tapes 'n Tapes
Cross They Might Be Giants with Pere Ubu and here you are. This is two and a half minutes of continuously strange, mysteriously catchy avant-pop. Driven by a rubbery bass, twitchy acoustic guitar, and slightly strangled vocals, "Cowbell" threw its first verse by me so quickly I didn't realize exactly what I was listening to, and then the chorus started and I really didn't know what I was listening to but I was completely hooked: the off-beat, villainous-sounding, sing-along melody is too cool for its own good. Tapes 'n Tapes is a Minneapolis threesome that's been around since 2003, if the band's web site can be believed, which it doesn't look like it should be. "Cowbell" comes from the band's first CD, The Loon, just released on Ibid Records. You'll find the MP3 on band's site

Monday, November 07, 2005

week of Nov. 6-12

"Cash Machine" - Hard-Fi
This decisive update of the Clash's "Magnificent Seven" sound--an irresistible blend of punk, pop, dub, and disco--is simple, uncompromising, harsh, elegant, and utterly marvelous. Opening with an echoey melodica, sounding like a forlorn traffic jam, the song leaps into an assured beat yet never rests solely on its groove: there is melody, there are chord changes, there are flawless production touches, and there is a story--the last fact of which makes me realize how few bands, for better or worse, actually do tell discernible stories. The minor key chorus--wonderfully set up, in major keys, by a pair of gliding syllables--is a glorious distillation of this young band's assured sound. And while many songs succeed nicely in today's mash-up, shuffle-crazy world with a kitchen-sink style of production, sounds tossed willy-nilly on top of one another in pursuit of a mysterious ambiance, "Cash Machine" reminds me of the brilliance of the opposite approach: even as Hard-Fi creates a large, swaggering presence here, there is not one wasted sound in the mix. It's a relief sometimes to be able to hear everything that you're listening to, especially when it's this good. Hard-Fi is a young foursome from the apparently dreary commuter town of Staines, west of London. "Cash Machine" is the lead track on the band's debut CD, Stars on CCTV, which was short-listed earlier this year for the U.K.'s prestigious Mercury Music Prize. The MP3 is available via Insound. The CD has been released so far in the U.K. only, originally on Necessary Records in late 2004, and re-released in conjunction with Atlantic Records in July 2005.

"Mary Lately" - Martha Berner
There's nothing wrong every so often with a straightforward acoustic-based ballad with a good melody; this one strikes me as a poignant yet gratifyingly sturdy example. Martha Berner is a Chicago-based singer/songwriter who has lived previously in Alaska, Israel, Thailand, and Wisconsin, among other places. Could be her itinerant background is what gives both the song and her musical presence an elusive sense of familiarity. There's her resonant voice, which sounds like a slightly duskier version of Sarah McLachlan, back when she was writing good songs; I hear a touch of Dar Williams as well, around the edges of her enunciation. At the same time, the overall vibe makes me think that this is what the Cowboy Junkies might sound like if Norah Jones were John Prine's sister and sang lead. Don't miss that place in the second verse when, instead of the slide accent you might expect, a slightly loony synthesizer is used instead. I think that's when I knew I liked this one. "Mary Lately" is a song off Berner's debut CD, This Side of Yesterday, released last month on Machine Records. The MP3 can be found on the Machine web site.

"Higher" - Soft
John Reineck has the sort of sweet, yearning tenor voice that I associate with great moments in power pop. And yet the wash of big, reverb-y chords and fuzzy, subtly psychedelic atmosphere brings the best of '90s shoegaze to mind. It's a potent combination--dreamy walls of glistening guitars, sweetly voiced melodicism; I'm thinking this NYC-based quintet is onto something. I like that they don't merely rest on the achievement of their basic sonic package, which they easily might have; the band cares enough about the craft of songwriting to give us moments along the way that seem like bonuses: not hooks in the classic sense of something that sits at the center point of the song's allure, but tasty twists and additions that give the piece extra weight and substance. I like for instance the moment in that bridge-like bit between the end of the verse and beginning of the chorus, at around 1:05, when Reineck sings "Can't even feel my feet or keep them on the ground"--it's like the song moves suddenly into this new, open space, as if you were in a room that revealed itself to be much bigger than you initially thought when you came in. Given the lyrical theme, I'd say the effect is not unintentional. "Higher" is a song off the band's just-released, self-released, self-titled first EP. The song is available via the band's site.

Monday, October 31, 2005

week of Oct. 30-Nov. 5

"White Daisy Passing" - Rocky Votolato
What's the difference between a boring, doleful singer/songwriter and compelling, doleful singer/songwriter? Aurally, not a whole helluva lot, sometimes. And yet it's this difference--which hits me clearly in the gut even as it's tricky to articulate--that allows me to like Elliott Smith and yet all too often really not like people who sound like Elliott Smith. And yet here's Rocky Votolato, all sweet-voiced and whispery, and yup, he grabs me right away. Maybe it's the crispness of the rhythm guitar. He may be sweet and whispery, but the song moves. This movement is based in both tempo and structure, as Votolato gets a lot out of the ever-engaging, Jackson Browne-ian relationship between a major chord and its relative minor (the introduction, for instance, is major; when he starts singing, he's in the relative minor, a pleasant but definite shift). Note too the sense of movement stemming from how he starts the chorus on the upbeat, straight out of the verse, and then leads us through a chord progression that pivots on a seventh chord. This seems particularly striking as he's getting just then to the saddest part of the song. (Seventh chords are usually good-timey things.) The lyric at this point is almost mind-blowingly painful, yet easy to miss in the strummy flow of the whole thing, so check it out: "I'm going down to sleep/On the bottom of the ocean/'Cause I couldn't let go/When the water hit the setting sun." "White Daisy Passing" will be on Votolato's debut CD, Makers, scheduled for a January 2006 release on Barsuk Records. The MP3 is up on the Barsuk site.

"Bang Theory" - World Leader Pretend
Maybe I'm crazy, but I'm beginning to sense an interesting rapprochement in the musical world that seems completely opposed to the tense polarity that suffuses the political world here in the U.S. in the new century. I'm hearing sounds that have for many years been rejected or ridiculed (for no actual good reason) seeping their way back into public awareness. ELO and early Elton John are popping up on store sound systems everywhere I go, making things seem happy and connected, and none of it somehow sounds like an accident. What this has to do with the New Orleans quintet World Leader Pretend, I'm not exactly sure, except that there's something in the big, swaggering sound here that reminds me of a neglected past, and bands I maybe used to make fun of (um, Simple Minds, for one), and now I don't really want to make fun. ("Can't we all just get along" and all that.) Okay, so lead singer Keith Ferguson teeters on the edge of macho-breathy histrionics--to my ears, the band creates such a large, burnished space for him to do it in, full of classic-sounding melodies and catchy instrumental refrains, that it all makes some kind of crazy messy sense. "Bang Theory" is the first song on the band's major-label debut, Punches; released on Warner Brothers Records in June, the label appears yet to be trying to work at some indie-like web buzz to get it going. If that means actually putting this free and legal MP3 out (via Filter), I'm all for it.

"Secret" - La Laque
Then again, maybe in the long run we prefer the sort of breathy histrionics likely to emerge from a band with a French name and a sultry lead singer singing in French. All the better if the band is from New York City, and the lead singer sings in French primarily because she's too shy to sing in English. La Laque is further notable for being a six-piece band, which is an unusual size in the annals of rock--and all the more unusual for its being made up of three men and three women. For all the apparent novelty of the music, this turns out to be an unusual song in less obvious ways as well, particularly for how it manages to sound at once like an ironic piece of chamber airiness and a chugging bit of post-punk-power-pop. Listen with admiration as "Secret" picks up a whole lot of drum-and-guitar noise in and around the violins after the minute and a half mark, yet does so with such ongoing panache that the band doesn't seem to break a sweat. "Secret" was one half of a shared single with the band Pas/Cal that was released on Romantic Air Records in June. The MP3 is available via the Romantic Air site.

Monday, October 24, 2005

week of Oct. 23-29

"Darkest Birds" - Nine Horses
David Sylvian is something of a self-contained and overlooked country in the geography of rock'n'roll history. From his teenaged beginnings in the band Japan--a Roxy Music-like art-glam-rock turned synth-pop band of the '70s and early '80s--Sylvian went on to pursue a left-of-center artistic path through the '80s and '90s. There were diffuse, ambiant-like solo recordings, featuring collaborations with like-minded experimental spirits such as Robert Fripp, Bill Nelson, and Ryuichi Sakamoto; there were forays into photography and avant-garde art installations; most recently came a solo CD of disconcertingly spare and challenging songs (2003's Blemish). In other words, he has kept busy doing all sorts of interesting things while remaining entirely obscure to the mass of music listeners here in the fad-crazy U.S. (Sylvian's is the sort of career, come to think of it, that seems possible only in Europe, unless you're maybe Laurie Anderson.) In the wake of Blemish's creative break/breakthrough comes Nine Horses, which finds Sylvian working with his brother Steve Jansen and an electronic composer/remixer with the arresting name of Burnt Friedman. On "Darkest Birds," Sylvian's husky, Bowie-meets-Ferry vibrato mixes luxuriously and effectively with an intimate, floaty, jazz-trumpet-accented verse and a louder, percussive chorus, both grounded in an organic-sounding wash of blippy electronica. Expect it to grow on you with repeated listens. "Darkest Birds" is the second track on the new Nine Horses CD "Snow Borne Sorrow," released last week on Sylvian's Samadhisound label. The MP3 is available via the sleek, artsy Samadhisound site.

"Catch a Collapsing Star" - the Mendoza Line
With a melody and spirit harkening back to the Dylanized '60s, "Catch a Collapsing Star" is as friendly as the corner pub, as crisp as an autumn afternoon, as happy-wistful as an old letter. I think I've become heedlessly, foolishly in love with Shannon McArdle's voice (first discussed when her other band, Slow Dazzle, was a TWF pick in August); her open, yearning sweetness mixes innocence and wisdom with uncanny balance. I'll try not to resent too much that she sings lead on only one verse here, as the lead vocals are otherwise handled by (I think!) bandmate Timothy Bracy. Then again, his raspy Steve Earle-ishness is really rather engaging as well, as is the nuanced mix of looseness and tightness on display throughout this rollicking tune. "Catch a Collapsing Star" will be found on the band's next CD, Full of Light and Fire, to be released next month on Misra Records. The MP3 is available via the Misra site.

"Words That I Employ" - Coach Said Not To
So this one starts like something unhinged and way-too-quirky-indie: a tick-tocky toy-like chiming noise and a woman's voice speak-singing an incomprehensible torrent of words. Some may immediately like this; me, I was just about ready to send the file to the Recycle Bin, but...I'm not sure. Something in the tone of the voice, something in the knowing flow of instrumentation, and then--wow, listen to the centering, glorious note singer Eva Mohn hits at 40 seconds, singing the word "sweet" (the lyric is: "Well that's so sweet/It makes me sick/It makes me sick and happy for you"). My goodness, she's got a real voice, and by real I don't mean necessarily beautiful (although it is, rather) or melodious but real as in full of depth and character. Likewise the band: they may herk and jerk with the best of them, but there is great strength of purpose and execution in their sound. I love the big, faux-classic-rock break in the middle section, around 1:30; and then best of all I love the subsequent return to the "that's so sweet" phrase--the note she sings at 2:23 melts the heart and nails the song, which now seems a satisfying, complete whole rather than a quirky parade of parts. The band name, by the way, comes, apparently, from a pamphlet the band members once saw detailing 101 ways to turn down a sexual invitation; they are number 71. "Words That I Employ" is a song off the band's debut, self-titled EP, which was released last year. A new three-song EP is due out shortly The MP3 is available via band's site.

Monday, October 17, 2005

week of Oct. 16-22

"The Vice and Virtue Ministry" - the Happy Bullets
Intertwining guitars, at once loopy and dainty, set the stage for this brisk, assured, and endlessly delightful tune. I am especially taken with lead singer Jason Roberts' fetching falsetto leaps--I love how his voice just flies upward at the end of a few key phrases, most of all when it happens so much in the middle of a lyrical line that he has to drop again as quickly as he went up. A five-piece band from Dallas (which includes Angela Roberts, Jason's wife, on bass), the Happy Bullets made the happy decision to work with producer Stuart Sikes (who has worked with Modest Mouse, the White Stripes, and the Walkmen, among others), whose sure touch enlivens this song in many different ways. I am unaccountably charmed, as an example, by the subtle acoustic strum that leads into the second verse (at 0:39), arising out of a maracas-like shaking sound just introduced out of the original loopy guitar line. And then of course there's the brilliant infusion of Kinks-ish spirit on display throughout. Being influenced by the Kinks is (praise the lord) no longer a novelty on the rock'n'roll scene, but I don't know that I've heard a 21st-century band take Ray Davies so delightfully into the here and now as these guys do. This isn't an homage and it's not nostalgia; Roberts doesn't even sound like Davies in any particular way. And yet this song so thoroughly embodies some key Kinksian vibe that if Davies had come of age in the '00s rather than the '60s his band I think would sound something very much like this. "The Vice and Virtue Ministry" is the title track from the Happy Bullets' second CD, released regionally in March on Undeniable Records; the album is set for a national release on November 1. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

"Chain Reaction" - 31 Knots
And now for something completely different: dense, complex, guitar-heavy neo-progressive rock from the Portland, Ore.-based trio 31 Knots. And yet I would not be here to foist this upon you if it were all intricate stop-start-y math-rock bloviation. Guitarist Joe Haerge plays with distinction, variation, and purpose, maintaining a shifting, surging energy throughout this long but engaging song. I'm thinking that not enough bands that record songs over five minutes understand how rewarding a more complex approach to song can be. Go back to those old Genesis records and you'll see that the songs were six, seven, eight minutes because they went places. The best part of "Chain Reaction" may well be the last two minutes, during which an intense instrumental break leads into a wholly new section of the song, including perhaps the most rewarding melodies of the whole piece. We've gotten a little too used to endless repetition padding out five-minute songs; here instead is a six-minute song that ends climactically, and leaves you wanting more. "Chain Reaction" comes from the band's fourth CD, Talk Like Blood, released last week on Polyvinyl Records. The MP3 is available via the Polyvinyl site.

"I Just Can't Fall In Love" - Bill Ricchini
And now consider this song, in yoga terms, to be the "counter-posture" to the previous song: open, flowing, melodic--an unabashedly "pop" song to re-wire the brain after all that intense intricacy. Here the hook is a simple-as-can-be five-note descent at the end of two of the four verse lines. Why does it slay me so? And yet it does, particularly when harmony vocals are added the second time around. The good-natured, '70s-style vibe pumps the song along at a nice clip, but it's that five-note descent that makes the song for me, and how well-suited it is to Ricchini's yearning, bittersweet voice. On another day maybe it's not enough to hang a song upon, but, hey, the sun is shining, the leaves are falling, and there's only so much intensity I can take in one sitting. Born and raised in Philadelphia, where he recorded his first CD bedroom-style to much acclaim, Ricchini is now New York City-based and signed to a small label. "I Just Can't Fall In Love" is from his second CD, Tonight I Burn Brightly, released in August on Transdreamer Records. The song is available through

Monday, October 10, 2005

week of Oct. 9-15

"Popstar Reaching Oblivion" - Flotation Toy Warning
"Popstar Reaching Oblivion" has the sort of fully-realized ecstatic sonic goofiness that MP3 collectors like to link to the Flaming Lips but harkens more firmly back to the likes of 10cc, Genesis (yes, they actually had a sense of humor), and Queen. One of the things this quintet from London does with much aplomb is present a straightforward melody via a crazy quilt of sounds--a neat effect not unlike the more widely acknowledged pop effect of singing sad lyrics to happy music. In this case, the end result is a satisfying confusion: the ear hears complexity and simplicity overlappingly, which somehow resolves the polarity. First, the song's basic, recurring melody, a line of lullaby-like gentleness, is introduced via a searing guitar solo (itself an interesting juxtaposition). The same melody is then re-delivered via layers of soaring and diving sounds, some vocal and some electronic and some created by who-knows-what, weaving and interacting in ways that are specifically elusive and yet link in the ear as an organic whole. Singer Donald Drusky's earnest British tenor, recalling a somewhat huskier version of Robert Wyatt, is the perfect vocal instrument for the dreamy loopiness of it all; the homely yet graceful horns arriving to mingle with the electronics during the second half of this strangely haunting number are yet more perfect. "Popstar Reaching Oblivion" comes from the band's debut CD, Bluffer's Guide to the Flight Deck, released in the U.S. in August on Misra Records (the CD was originally released last year in the U.K. on Pointy Records). The MP3 is available on the Misra site.

"Skywriters" - Nicole Atkins
If Chrissie Hynde were Jeff Tweedy's sister and Roy Orbison were their uncle...oh, never mind. I'm losing patience with my effort to create evocative analogies. But there's no denying the Hynde-like timbre in this NYC-based singer/songwriter's voice, nor the touching, earnest early '60s vibe infusing this shimmering, knowingly produced song. As for the Wilco connection, well, listen to those chord changes (check out for example where she goes with the word "the" in the phrase "the people below" in the chorus). And that unexpectedly intense guitar work that kicks in around 1:48. And the fact that it's really hard to follow what she's singing about, even as it doesn't sound all that complicated either. Let the song loop in your media player for a while and see how its various charms unfold. In the end I maybe like the ghostly, plucky, chiming synthesizer (?) line from the introduction most of all--at once weird and comforting, it brings me back a few generations musically for no reason I can particularly identify. "Skywriters" is one of nine songs on her first CD, Party's Over, self-relesaed earlier this year. The MP3 is available via The Deli.

"Once You Know" - Le Reno Amps
Scotland's answer to They Might Be Giants, Le Reno Amps are two guys (Scott and Al) from Aberdeen with an idiosyncratic sense of song, playful ideas about making lo-fi production come to life, and an enviable knack for melody. The modus operandi is stripped-down, always geared around their two voices and two guitars. But there's goofiness in the air too, lending an ineffable magic to the aural landscape. "Once You Know" sounds like it was recorded in a gym, with bouncing balls and/or stamping feet ingeniously employed as the rhythm section for this sharp and sprightly down-home ditty. The song gets off to a great start based on melody alone; when the "percussion" kicks in with the second verse, ably accented by some hardy background "hey!"s, the song is unstoppable. The fully-whistled verse that starts at 1:14 appears at that point both a crazy surprise and utterly inevitable. "Once You Know" is from Le Reno Amps' archly-titled debut CD LP, released under their own (ha-ha) Vanity Project imprint last year. The MP3 is up on the band's site. A second CD is apparently in the works for these guys, due out some time in 2006.

Monday, October 03, 2005

week of Oct. 2-8

"I Need A Moment Alone" - Ezra Reich
One part Bryan Ferry, one part B-52s, one part style-fixated NYC-based 21st-century rock'n'roller, Ezra Reich is, no doubt about it, just plain goofy. I can't claim to be big into musicians who throw a lot of energy into their "look," as such concern seems inevitably over-calculated. On the other hand, rock'n'roll history nevertheless indicates that one can never rule out a musician simply because he or she does cares about image/style, as there have been any number of worthy musicians (David Bowie, David Byrne, Prince, and the aforementioned Mr. Ferry come to mind) whose incisive sense of style was part of a rewarding musical package. One could also argue that a resolute lack of interest in so-called style can become its own sort of style (the entire grunge movement was more or less grounded in such an idea). In the end we listen with our ears, and in this case, my ears tell me this song is a fun, accomplished piece of pop, fusing elements of '80s synth-pop with Prince-ian bits of campy funk and who knows what else. It works unaccountably well, probably because if you're going to go over the top, you may as well go all the damned way. For me, when the female backup singer asks "You need a moment?" at 59 seconds, with all that deadpan come-hitherness, in the middle of an unexpected paean to self-reflection, well, I was pretty much hooked. "I Need A Moment Alone" is a song off Reich's soon-to-be self-released CD, Milkshake Arcade, which will be his second album. The MP3 is available via his site. Thanks to the redoubtable Largehearted Boy for the head's up.

"Doris" - the Dirty Three
I'm continually fascinated by rock'n'roll instrumentals, even as I remain skeptical of liking all that many. But every now and then one sneaks up and grabs me. "Doris," from the veteran Australian trio the Dirty Three, has a few great things going for it, from my perspective. Right away I love how the sharp, sliding rhythm is established by that great high-and-squonky guitar in the intro, and then how another guitar saws away with fuzzy fury at the bottom end of the sound. Aural landscape thus established, the middle part of the song is one grand, determined racket created by the unhinged interplay between an assortment of other, hitherto acoustic instruments (among which may be violin, mandolin, viola, and bagpipes), all underscored by the relentless beat, even as the drummer takes a backseat to the wild, vaguely Irish-sounding bray. It has the feel of a folk dance from the distant, re-forested future. About two and a half minutes in, the steady drummer re-emerges to drive this intense piece of music through its passionate conclusion. Dancers fall to the ground, exhausted and transcendent. "Doris" is a track from the Dirty Three's new CD, Cinder, slated for release next week on Touch and Go Records. The MP3 comes to us via the good folks at Filter Magazine.

"Darkest Hour" - the Spectacular Fantastic
And leave it to the Big Star-ian Cincinnati combo known as the Spectacular Fantastic to bring us back to solid ground with this brisk, likable, power-poppy chestnut. There may be nothing here my head hasn't sort of kind of heard before, but on the other hand, the sheer delight that courses through me as I listen tells my head that it is not my body's only musical input device. Though my head sure does enjoy taking what delights my heart and figuring out solid "reasons" for that delight. So, here, in the chorus, an effect I always love: how the melody associated with the words (in this case, "In the darkest hour") pulls up short of the harmonic resolution, which carries on afterwards, in the background, with that agreeably cheesy synthesizer line leading us into the resolving chord. The melody and chord pattern is pure basic traditional pop (straight out of "Heart and Soul") but performed with, yes, heart and soul by Mike Detmer and crew, this is music that will always sound fresh and vibrant to me. "Darkest Hour" is a song off the Spectacular Fantastic's new CD, The Spectacular Fantastic Goes Underground, released this week on Ionik Recordings. The MP3 resides on the band's site.

Monday, September 26, 2005

week of Sept. 25-Oct. 1

"God Is Going To Get Sick of Me" - Aberdeen City
Straddling the thin-wide line that forever separates Coldplay and Radiohead is the Boston quartet Aberdeen City, at least as they display their wares in this itchy, sharply-produced, knowingly melodic song. Lead singer Brad Parker, who also plays bass, sounds a lot like Thom Yorke and yet more solid and approachable, uninclined to take his powerful tenor towards the warbly stratosphere. As a matter of fact, the way Parker lays back in this song, allows himself to stay reined in by the hard-charging guitars that burst with creative authority in and out of the mix, sets up a transcendent moment three-quarters of the way through: the imperceptible, breath-taking glide he takes to move to the higher register between the phrases "support gets stronger" and "each time something"--well, that just nailed the whole thing down for me somehow. In addition to listening to the song, I suggest visiting the Aberdeen City web site, which features some truly arresting imagery related to the band's new CD The Freezing Atlantic: the bleak panorama offered is nearly sublime in its evocation of the ocean's terrifying day-to-day majesty, never mind the juxtaposition of the mysterious wrapped and upright bodies, some of which fade in and out of view. "God Is Going To Get Sick Of Me" is the third track on the new CD, the band's first full-length effort, scheduled for release on Dovecote Records next month.

"Pangs of Guilt" - the Bridge Gang
With the harsh but beguiling charm of an early Clash single, "Pangs of Guilt" delivers two brisk minutes of that affecting sort of rock'n'roll that's both very straightforward and oddly edgy. (Cross perhaps the Pixies and the Cars and maybe you're part of the way there, if you keep Jonathan Richman in your head as well; hm, these guys are from London but maybe they should've been from Boston?) The guitars have that "we just plugged them in and turned the amp on too loud" sound, the lead singer José (no last name to be found) yowls the sparse but engaging melody with no concern for his vocal cords, and the one-line chorus has the gut-satisfying resolution of classic garage rock. The Bridge Gang is a relatively new three-piece band with just a few recorded songs to date. "Pangs of Guilt" is a downloadable single made available via London-based Dogbox Records in the spring of this year.

"A Quoi Bon" - Delaney
There's something both fresh and comfortable-sounding in this homespun bit of trip-hoppy sing-songiness. Parisienne Christelle Delaney has a teetery pitch and a deadpan delivery that joins the beat-driven vibe with a what-the-heck sort of consonance. There's not that much to it--she basically repeats the same simple melody over and over, but the interplay of her voice, the giddily percussive acoustic guitars, and the spiffy beat is a tasty aural treat to my disaster-soaked ears. Be sure not to miss the oddball instrumental coda that starts at 2:43: first we get deliberate, off-kilter keyboard chords, then we get an increasingly assertive sort of stretchy-crunchy sound rising to the forefront, along with some random tinkles, before everything draws demurely to a close. The 33-year-old Delaney was 25 when she recorded "A Quoi Bon" for her self-titled debut CD; released in France in 1998, the disc just saw the light of day in the U.S. earlier this month, courtesy of L.A.'s introspective Pehr Records. Thanks as always to the hard-working humans at 3hive for the lead.

Monday, September 19, 2005

week of Sept. 18-24

"Love in Fear" - the Constantines
Stay with this one awhile. It starts with an uncomfortably jerky sense of time, as if the rhythm section is somehow trying to play two different songs simultaneously. For the entire first minute, the ear is given neither a firm beat nor a rooted melody to hold onto. Notice the keyboard relatively far down in the mix; its nuanced accents and jazz-inflected harmonics come to the fore a bit later. After a minute of this off-centered minimalism, the beat seems to coalesce--it remains syncopated and skeletal, but something's gathering, you can feel it, and sure enough, at 1:30, the drummer finally joins force with the bass and the guitars, and the song blossoms in a depth-laced, truly satisfying way. (Check out the chord progression in the chorus linking the phrases "What hangs above" and "when we love," it's just about worth the price of admission right there.) Everything backs off again a half-minute later for a stripped-down bridge before returning with yet greater intensity and spirit for the home stretch. The Constantines are a Toronto-based quintet founded in Guelph in 1999. "Love in Fear" comes from the band's forthcoming third CD, Tournament of Hearts, to be released next month on Sub Pop Records; the MP3 is via Insound.

"Eloquence" - Carter Tanton
Baltimore's Carter Tanton has been recording his own music since he was 15, but that doesn't come close to explaining how he projects such a strong and knowing musical presence at the still-precocious age of 23. "Eloquence" has a grand yet grounded urgency about it, which you can hear in both the assured, time-tested rhythm of the crisp acoustic guitar work and the keening timbre of Tanton's voice, which strikes me as an unexpected cross between Matthew Sweet and Richard Thompson. With the timeless vibe of a full-throttled blues stomp, "Eloquence" manages at the same time to sound very of the moment, fresh, and relevant. The song can be found on Tanton's Birds and Rain CD, released in July on Park the Van Records--which, I should note, is based in New Orleans, so let's hope they're all okay down there. The MP3 is hosted by Devil in the Woods, a small California-based label that apparently helps Park the Van sell some of their releases. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

"Michelle" - the Homesicks
Fetchingly melodramatic (see below*), nicely-produced indie rock from Israel, the sort of song where the '80s-style hooks pile up so flagrantly, one on top of the other, that my new wave-friendly heart ends up melted in a happy little puddle. Any number of the usual suspects are mushed together here--Joy Division to Bowie to Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark to the Pixies and then some--with great good verve and awareness. At the same time, the sampled-sounding synth riff that emerges at around 2:50 sounds like something that might only emerge from a Middle Eastern band. Occasionally globalization has its charms. The Homesicks are an unsigned five-piece band based in Tel Aviv; the MP3 comes from an intriguing-looking but largely Hebrew Israeli web site called Blind Janitor that I unfortunately can't make heads or tails of. Thanks very much to visitor Moran for the lead on this one. (*Shortly after posting this today, I noticed that last week I had described the Fleeing New York MP3 as "endearingly melodramatic." Busted! I'll admit I struggle as it is not to over-use certain favorite words when writing here week after week, but that's a bit too much repetition too soon, don't you think? Let's call this one, perhaps, "almost but not quite over the top," or something to that effect. And consider it another sign of life without a copy editor.)

Monday, September 12, 2005

week of Sept. 11-17

"Bloodline" - Orenda Fink
Orenda Fink means business. One-half of the the delicate Georgia duo Azure Ray, Fink, on a new solo CD, displays a striking new musical persona: tough, propulsive, and vibrant. This is indie rock at its most inclusive--revealing, in other words, a universal, accessible heart; and in so doing revealing that at the end of the day, the most salient labels are simply "good" or "not good." "Bloodline" is very good indeed, a soaring, memorable shot of powerful pop, its chugging, fuzzy-bass-heavy verse and shimmering chorus together hinting at something both menacing and transcendent. Fink has a resilient, familiar voice, with none of the fragile breathiness of her Azure Ray partner Maria Taylor (not that there's anything wrong with fragile breathiness, mind you!). When a song comes from seemingly nowhere and cuts to the quick like this, I am assured yet again of the universality of good music, despite the efforts of too many present-day indie rock zealots (be they fans, musicians, or critics) to protect their strange, isolated turf from perceived intrusions via over-thinking and under-listening. Someone like Ms. Fink can arrive and slap us to attention: when you have something to say, labels spontaneously combust. "Bloodline" can be found on her album Invisible Ones, released last month on Saddle Creek Records. The MP3 is available through both her web site and the Saddle Creek site.

"Hollywood Bowl" - Fleeing New York
Wacky, bashy, endearingly melodramatic Brit pop disguising itself as some sort of Motor City stompdown. This song has a bit of everything: smashingly crisp guitars, group chanting, rumbly pseudo-Western verses, boy-girl lead vocalists, and a truly loopy update on the old "wall of sound" idea, aided and abetted by some unhinged slide guitar work. For a trio, the Southampton-based Fleeing New York do create quite the sonic fuss. And then there's the '65 Beatles harmonics that kick in around 2:25, at once out of the blue and perfectly obvious. "Hollywood Bowl" is the latest single from the band, which has one mini-album to its name thus far. The MP3 is available via the groovy British site Drowned in Sound.

"I Ain't Saying My Goodbyes" - Tom Vek
Hey, kids--the robots are having a dance party in the anvil factory. Cool! Against a clanging beat, the London-based multi-instrumentalist Tom Vek has constructed a disarmingly catchy bit of post-post-punk pop, or some such thing. Adding delicious layers of texture to the Gang of Four-style metallic slashing that underscores the song, Vek wins me over most of all, rather unexpectedly, with his singing. He's got a strong, dry voice, with a hint of a funky sort of roundedness to it; even as he takes us musically through some of the itchy anxiety-land settled in earlier days by David Byrne and Adrian Belew-era King Crimson, it sounds differently compelling with the 24-year-old Vek singing vague, husky lines such as "I know I'm wasting precious time" and "All these young men obssessed with death." "I Ain't Saying My Goodbyes" is a track off Vek's debut full-length CD, We Have Sound, released in the U.K. this past spring and scheduled for a U.S. release on Startime International next month. Thanks once again to the fine fellows at 3hive for the lead.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

week of Sept. 4-10

"Remember New Orleans" - Barry Thomas Goldberg
Not even the world-weary Goldberg, who already sounded like he'd seen it all before, has seen anything like what happened here in the U.S. last week. To my ears, he hits an appropriate combination of sobriety and passion on this simple, ragged, emotional tribute to a devastated city. It's mostly a subdued acoustic guitar and Goldberg's effective Waits-via-Springsteen voice, but there are some subtle instrumental homages added along the way--a quietly menacing piano below (can't have New Orleans music without piano), sad strings above (striking me as a conscious nod to Randy Newman), and even a slowed-down "City of New Orleans"-ish harmonica flourish. The song is available via Goldberg's web site. The veteran singer/songwriter has furthermore decided to contribute the profits from his three CDs to the American Red Cross, to assist the massive relief effort. Thanks again to visitor Paul for the head's up.

"Funeral" - Band of Horses
Geez maybe I'm working thematically this week. In any case, Band of Horses is a Seattle-based outfit with a firm grip on an emerging '00s sound that I think of as Neil Young meets Radiohead (so, okay, we need a better name for this): a ghostly, left-of-mainstream blend of ache and atmosphere, part acoustic and part electric, featuring keen melodies and a slightly wobbly high-pitched tenor. Songs that start out too quietly usually make me antsy, but "Funeral" redeems itself the minute vocalist Ben Bridwell opens his mouth, less for the quality of his voice (which I do like) than for the arresting melody--a melancholy line that descends with one half-step ascent before the end, a line in fact so melancholy it needs only one, final minor chord to create a suffusing minor-key aura. When the fuller band kicks in, crisply, at 1:23, supporting the same ongoing melody, the piece acquires a history-laced depth, like something from the Band's catalog (a feeling reinforced by the Rick Danko-like "oo-oos" falsetto-ing in the background). Signed to mighty Sub Pop Records, Band of Horses has yet to release a CD, but four demos (including "Funeral") are available via the band's site. Thanks to the good folks at 3hive for the lead.

"Weather" - Annie Hayden
At least a happier-sounding song, even as the theme remains. And the happier sound is largely due to the karmic lift afforded by Annie Hayden's cheerfully crystal-clear voice (the lyrics, however, are not particularly upbeat, from what I can tell). "Weather" begins with a coy Hayden singing off the beat established by the piano, then moves briskly into a tune at once sweet and driving, steel guitar accents and sustained harmonies adding a rolling-field openness to the proceedings. Hayden's background is as indie as it gets (she spent the mid-'90s in a New Jersey-based band called Spent), but I applaud the polish she brings to the song; to my ears there's a lot to be said for musical prowess, at both the instrumental and production level. (Listen for instance to the masterful subtlety with which the plucked notes are articulated during the guitar break in the middle of the song.) Not that "Weather" doesn't have a fetching quirk or two--such as the charming way the song hesitates just past the minute mark, how that short burst of drumbeat drops us briefly into near-nothingness before she catches us and brings us back to the steady, yearning groove. "Weather" is a song from Hayden's long-awaited second solo CD, to be released next week on Merge Records. Hat's off to Alan at Sixeyes for noticing this among Largehearted Boy's ongoing torrent of music-related information a few weeks back.

Monday, August 29, 2005

week of Aug. 28-Sept. 3

"Fleur de Lis" - Slow Dazzle
Stylish, echoey guitar-laced synth pop with an interesting sort of urban-cowboy flair. Blessed by both atmosphere and motion, "Fleur de Lis" features a slinky melody and sneaky lyrics, delivered with weary-innocent panache by Shannon McArdle. I love how many distinct types of sounds this NYC trio blends into an organic whole: spacey synthesizers, lonesome-desert lead guitar lines, puffing keyboard accents, rattlesnake beats, and (best of all) a loopy sort of backwards-sounding guitar that steals the show at 1:37. Slow Dazzle features two-thirds of the songwriters in the neo-folk-rock-ish outfit the Mendoza Line (McArdle and Timothy Bracy); "Fleur de Lis" is the lead track from the CD The View From the Floor, released in June on Misra Records. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

"Come In Out of the Rain" - Engineers
Large and dreamy, "Come In Out of the Rain" is a shiny example of how much the so-called "shoegaze" sub-genre owes to a sub-genre that might otherwise seem at the opposite end of the sub-genre spectrum--namely, power pop. (Which only goes to show how insipid is the internet-propagated need to sub-genre-ize everything, but that's another story.) But listen to the beautiful tangent the melody takes from 0:48 through 0:53, which I know in my gut is a power-pop sort of embellishment, even as I can't possibly begin to explain why this is, and how it works within this spacious, grandly-textured sort of down-tempo anthem. I'm also hearing a good bit of early Tears For Fears here--partially because TFF doesn't get enough credit for pioneering the accessible end of the shoegaze/dream-pop sound, and partially because Tears For Fears producer Dave Bascombe apparently had a hand in the mix on the Engineers self-titled debut CD, from which this comes. The CD was released in June on Echo Records; the MP3 is available through Insound.

"Ear Nose & Throat" - Troubled Hubble
A particularly crisp and tasty iteration of the time-honored tradition of rock songs with one-note verses, "Ear Nose & Throat" is, perhaps, the first of these to work the word "otolaryngology" into the torrent of words usually unleashed in such circumstances. I especially like the combination of snare-free drumming and metallic guitars, which creates a satisfyingly crunchy-rhythmic environment for the medically-oriented lyrical overflow. One of the cool things about this sort of song, when done well, is how the lyrics flow past impressionistically, telling not a linear story but still achieving a certain sort of wholeness. Troubled Hubble is a quartet from outside Chicago with six self-released CDs (three full-lengths, three EPs) to their name before Making Beds in a Burning House was released in May on Lookout Records (and apparently on Eenie Meenie Records too, somehow; sometimes--often--the indie-rock scene is too complicated for its own good). The MP3 is available via the band's site. Thanks to BLCKYLLWBLCK for the lead.

Monday, August 15, 2005

week of Aug. 14-20

"Please Stand Up" - British Sea Power
Immediately spacious, majestic, and heart-warming, "Please Stand Up" updates a late '70s/early '80s sound not often aimed at, even in today's rock flea market, in which past styles are rummaged through with the speed and tenacity of the experienced bargain hunter. British Sea Power's vocalist, a chap who goes by the name of Yan, sings with great, husky Bowie-ish bravura, but what really nails things down here is the clean, melodic guitar line (courtesy of a chap who goes by the name of Noble) at the center of the sound. Playing both carefully and fiercely, Noble offers sweeping, middle-register intervals that seem always to yearn upward; and he knows how to lay back, never unduly asserting his sound and in so doing anchoring everything around him. "Please Stand Up" is from the band's second CD, Open Season (Rough Trade), which sort of blew by me when it was released back in April, but judging from this song I think I will find myself a copy post haste. The MP3 is available via Insound. Many thanks to Thomas Barlett at Salon for the tip.

"Heroics" - The Scribbled Out Man
Some songs are inexplicably endearing and this is one of them. But let's see, there must be a way to quantify the feeling, at least a bit. Certainly the stuttery guitar riff is fetching from the get-go; and the casual way electronics are used to create atmosphere without overwhelming the soundscape, very nice; and the way singer/songwriter/guitarist Paul Linklater flips into falsetto without warning, as the song builds, gotta love it; and then the way the whole song is just this accumulation of largely indecipherable lines, emerging relentlessly and with increasing (but controlled) frenzy. It's all very cool. The Scribbled Out Man is a four-man Canadian band fronted by Linklater, and includes drummer/cellist (not to mention engineer/producer) Don Kerr, who has worked with the great Ron Sexsmith. The band formed in 2003; its first full-length CD, All Different, was released last year on the net label "Heroics" comes from the CD; the MP3 is available via the band's site. Thanks to Alan at Sixeyes for the lead.

"Recovery" - New Buffalo
Snappy, airy, off-kilter pop from Australian singer/songwriter Sally Seltmann, who for whatever reason records under the name New Buffalo. Underscored by pipey keyboards and electronic handclaps, "Recovery" features a subtly wondrous mix of unexpected sounds, from '40s-style choral harmonies and sampled horn flourishes to a brilliantly textured wash of harp-like synthesizer. Seltmann's voice on its own has a compelling fragility, as if any note she tries to hold might abruptly crack; and yet she also sings back-up harmonies with heavenly gusto. The overall effect is something at once strange and familiar, wispy and solid. "Recovery" is the lead track on the second New Buffalo CD, The Last Beautiful Day, released overseas last year and slated for a North American release next week on the Canadian label Arts & Crafts. Seltmann wrote, arranged, and produced the CD on her own, and performed it almost entirely by herself. The MP3 is available via Seltmann's site.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

week of Aug. 7-13

"Freshman Thesis" - Thee More Shallows
A spacey synthesizer noodle leads into a classical violin motif, but notice from the start the strict, punctuating beat (laid out by an accompanying violin): as many changes as the song takes us through, the clock-like beat remains constant, central, sometimes upfront, sometimes implied via syncopation, eventually yanked into a searing metallic shuffle but still always there. You can tap your finger on your desk steadily throughout the song; I'm not sure why this characteristic engages me so but so it does. There is plenty else, however, to appreciate here, from singer Dee Kesler's plainspoken voice, and the words he sings (example: "Before I spoke in riddles I was worried someone would hear me/Now I know that no one really listens so I will just speak clearly"), to the lovely yet urgent texture created through the interweaving of bass, drum, programming, and the recurring violin. What hooked me for good was how unexpectedly the song is opened by melody from 1:30 through 1:45--what sounded to that point like an intriguing bit of minimalism is deepened by a precise series of delightful musical steps. And then somehow the pretty precision is itself deepened by the slashing coda. (A great touch at the very end: the beat finally stops, but the violin, briefly, endures.) "Freshman Thesis" is the third song on More Deep Cuts, the second Thee More Shallows CD, released last month on Santa Clara, Calif.-based Turn Records. The MP3 is available via the Turn site.

"Vermillion" - Mercury Rev
At once glittering and mysterious, "Vermillion" offers an instantly unique amalgam of sounds, combining the swift beat of an airy pop song with the chiming, floaty atmosphere of something still and new agey and, occasionally, the churning insistence of beat-driven electronica. It's up to Jonathan Donahue--he of the thin-high-wavery voice and idiosyncratic phrasing--to connect it all, but thanks in large part to the sturdy, inspiring melody of the chorus, he does. I have not personally followed Mercury Rev's career as it has wound along from the late '80s through the present day, so I won't trot out the apparently usual suspects when talking comparisons and influences; me, I hear echoes of glittery-mysterious bands of old, from Supertramp (remember "The Logical Song"? I'm betting Donahue does) to the Blue Nile. "Vermillion" is from The Secret Migration, released in May on V2 Records; thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

"Fall Apart Again" - Brandi Carlile
Do you know how, in a great recipe, two flavors can be combined in such a way that you can clearly discern both of them even as they intermingle to create a new, distinctive taste? Thus does this 23-year-old from rural Washington state marry the throaty depth of Lucinda Williams to Emmylou Harris's heavenly smoke. While I might wish for a somewhat more distinctive vehicle, song-wise, for this heart-searing voice, well, what the heck--she's only 23. Besides, if "Fall Apart Again" is not breaking any songwriting ground, that's really part of the point with Carlile, who admirably seeks a timeless vibe and pretty much hits it. I can keep listening to this because her voice is an ongoing revelation. As much as I'm cringing in advance of what Columbia Records may yet unleash in the effort to make Carlile bigger than Lucinda and Emmylou combined, I have to give the label credit first of all for signing her and second of all for (amazingly) allowing an actual full-length free and legal MP3 to represent her work on the web. So put aside, as I did, some preconceived notions (major label? country twang? professional production? Rolling Stone "artist to watch"? "Brandi"???) and check her out. "Fall Apart Again" is from the debut CD, released in July on Columbia's Red Ink imprint.

Monday, August 01, 2005

week of July 31-Aug. 6

"World to Cry" - the dB's
Listen to the opening salvo, just that first three seconds of guitar. No point in even trying to describe the sound (rubbery-chimy-dissonant-melodic?; like I said, no point), and the delicious sense of anticipation generated as it leads smack into the concise lines and elegant modulation of the rest of the intro. And then Peter Holsapple opens his mouth and there it is, the dB's are back. Who'd have thought? Alternative before there was alternative, indie before there was indie, the North Carolina-born, NYC-generated dB's pioneered what became known by the genre police as "jangle-pop": a post-punk (late '70s, early '80s) reformulation of '60s folk rock with chiming guitars and stellar melodies. These are indeed the dB's in their original formation--Holsapple, Chris Stamey, Will Rigby, and Gene Holder: the same guys who recorded the first two (some might say classic) dB's albums, Stands for Decibels and Repercussion. While this song might not on its own give you a sense of how resplendent this band could be back in the day if you don't already know who they are, neither (I don't think) will it disappoint you if you do already know who they are and what they were. The guitar riff from the opening three seconds spreads out as a recurring melodic anchor; Holsapple's sweet-weary vocal style is as charming as ever; and the song displays characteristic dB's smarts through its effective alternation of major and minor chords and 6/4 and 4/4 measures. "World to Cry" is one of an album's worth of songs the band recorded in Hoboken in January; while they await a record deal, the song is available as an MP3 on the band's site.

"Oh Mandy" - the Spinto Band
Radiohead meets the Electric Light Orchestra at Adrian Belew's house. From the neat staccato dissonance of the opening measures through its gorgeous chords and sprightly vibe, this is one brilliant piece of 21st-century pop, the simplicity and directness of its surface producing a song shot through with depth and strength. Notice for instance how the verse and the chorus are pretty much identical, musically, then notice how this similarity is used to ravishing effect when the song breaks off for an extended bridge at 2:00: the musical tension builds and deepens as the bridge shifts at 2:21--it seems as if we're heading back to the verse but instead the song veers a couple of times into a new, neatly unresolved chord before triumphantly returning to the verse at 2:36 with more urgent instrumentation and a wonderful new vocal harmony. This young seven-piece (!) band from Delaware--which has been recording since the band members were in middle school--has a sparkling future if this is any indication. "Oh Mandy" is from the band's debut full-length, Nice and Nicely Done, released last month on Bar-None Records. The MP3 is available via Many thanks to Bruce at Some Velvet Blog for the lead.

"Curious" - Holopaw
This is indeed a curious song, from a curious, difficult-to-describe band. One of the oddest things about "Curious" (besides perhaps singer/songwriter/guitarist John Orth's unearthly tenor) is how short it is--its delicate, stringed setting and offbeat melody (bringing early Genesis to mind, of all things) speaks of a song that wants to spread out, offer instrumental breaks, bridges, and other ornamental accoutrements. And yet somehow we go from beginning to end in about two and a half minutes. No matter: set your MP3 players on "repeat" and let it cycle through a few times in a row, which seems to be the best way to grasp the underlying solidity of this sprinkly, evanescent, haunting song. My ear was hooked for good by the melody line that begins for the first time at 0:36, and in particular the chord change at 0:39, but that might have been on my third or fourth listen. Holopaw is a band from Gainesville, Florida, named after another Florida town that no one in the band is actually from. "Curious" is a song off Quit +/or Fight, the band's second CD, slated for release next week on Sub Pop Records. The MP3 is available via the Sub Pop site.

Monday, July 25, 2005

week of July 24-30

"Down the Other Side" - Annie Gallup
Annie Gallup is a fierce writer, a teller of ravishing, compact stories, as funny and sensual as she is literate and subtle, and a vibrant peformer, with an idiosyncratic but immediately accessible, deeply expressive way of kind-of-talking, kind-of-singing her songs. While it's easy to keep all the emphasis on the words and their delivery (and too readily pigeonhole her as some sort of neo-beatnik folksinger), I am continually impressed by the music as well, which seems at once casually created and intensely crafted, at once sparse and rich; and she may not get too loud but without question she rocks. "Down the Other Side," for instance, has a swampy, seductive beat and some inspired electric guitar playing, even as the instrumentation is so spare that some of the percussion, it seems, is done by mouth. And yet it's true that with Gallup, we're never too far from the lyrics, like these: "Red-tailed hawk and a small white cross/ High on the Great Divide/ Drive on by until the tears I cry/ Roll down the other side": yikes, to explicate them further takes away their breathtaking poetry. She is the real thing, yet also the single most mysteriously overlooked singer/songwriter I've probably ever come across. Swerve, her magnificent 2001 CD, came and went without a trace--I discovered it only as it called to me from the corner of my local library where they sell used books and, occasionally, CDs. Finally she has a follow-up--Pearl Street, her fifth, released on Fifty Fifty Music, oh, in April. (I hadn't heard.) This is where "Down the Other Side" is from. (The MP3 is hosted on the Fifty Fifty site.) I just checked and found it was (no joke) the 97,854th best-selling CD on Amazon, where all five CDs of hers have now received a total of 7 reviews, at least two by the same person (a friend of hers, apparently). The world isn't fair, I know, but sometimes it really really isn't fair.

"Plan To Stay Awake" - the Deathray Davies
Compress "I've Just Seen a Face" and "It's the End of the World as We Know It" into two minutes and five seconds and here we are, listening to the latest fuzzy blast of power pop from the Dallas outfit named after the storied leader of the Kinks. This is as straightforward a rock song as can be imagined--a hurried tumble of words in the verse, a two-line, sing-along chorus repeating the title twice--yet it positively bristles with spirit and panache, proving yet again that the true power of music is suggested but never completely encompassed by its concrete components. Much like life itself, if I may broaden the metaphor. The Deathray Davies were born in the late '90s as the jokey stage name under which John Dufilho performed solo material that he couldn't use with Bedwetter, the band he was in at the time. He wrote, sang, and played everything himself on the first Deathray Davies CD in 1999. Dufilho is still the writer and singer but by the third CD in 2002, the Deathray Davies had morphed into an actual band. "Plan to Stay Awake" is from the The Kick and the Snare, released in May on Glurp Records. The MP3 is available via the Glurp site.

"Rotten Love" - Levy
A languid sort of majesty propels this oddly affecting song. Everything seems encased in an echoey, mournful blanket, from singer/guitarist James Levy's forlorn voice to the soft, chiming synthesizer lines and, even, the ringing wall of guitar that never quite blazes through to the forefront. Nothing, in fact, seems quite to burst through, even as the song moves at a steady clip; when all is said and done, lyrics about smelling the rotten love are perhaps best heard cushioned by the aforementioned mournful blanket. Levy is a NYC-based quartet that's been gathering an enthusiastic following since its founding in 2003; for the record, the band is intent on using all upper-case letters for its name but as luck would have it Fingertips usage policy (see web page yet to be written) forbids such silliness. "Rotten Love" was the title track on the band's self-released debut in 2004 and will again be when Rotten Love is released in somewhat different form later this summer by the U.K. label One Little Indian. The MP3 is available via the band's site.