Monday, January 31, 2005

week of Jan. 30-Feb. 5

"Judy Garland" - Veal
"If you looked like Judy Garland/I'd be over it in half a shake/But you stood there dumbfounded/You looked nothing like Judy Garland" is how this song that appears at least partially to be about being knocked unconscious begins. We're instantly right in the middle of something (although exactly what is part of the quirky mystery), a feeling enhanced by the smart cascade of (mostly) major chords, which change on the first beat of each measure, and the asymmetrical use of seventh chords (at "half" and "nothing"). I feel pulled in, delighted, and yet still completely unprepared for (okay, I'll use one of the music industry's hoariest cliches because nothing else quite applies) the killer chorus this leads into. I won't describe it (much; but do listen for those extra two beats, the crazy lyrics, and how sharp the harmonies suddenly are), but yes, absolutely, it's a killer chorus. Veal is a Canadian trio led by singer/guitarist Luke Doucet, whose cheery voice has a wonderfully elastic upper register. (The drummer, I feel compelled to point out, is simply named Chang.) "Judy Garland" comes from the band's third and most recent CD, "The Embattled Hearts," released in 2003 on Six Shooter Records. The MP3 can be found on the band's web site.

"The Adjustor" - the Octopus Project
A lo-fi-ish, white noise-y, scratchy-boopy instrumental with genuine warmth and charm. Which shows that all things are possible (good news for Eagles fans, I should note). A quartet from Austin, the Octopus Project sounds like a surf-dance band attempting to play jazz on R2D2's spare parts. First we spend an agreeable minute or so establishing the basic groove--a chiming sort of repeated melody propelled by a perfectly fetching sort of clickety-scratching percussiveness (sounding a bit like someone trying to play the snare drum on a broken guitar neck). Then come some (for lack of a better word) solos: the minimalist solo played by a squeaky-honky gizmo (sampled tricycle horn?) which begins at 1:13 is well worth the download by itself; so is the one played by what sounds like a sampled dial-tone, at 2:13. What makes it work so well for me is that, for all the electronic manipulation going on, the song still happens in an expansive aural space--due no doubt to the fact that the band uses actual drums and guitars along with the machines. "The Adjustor" can be found on the band's new CD, One Ten Hundred Thousand Million, their second, released last week on Peek-a-Boo Records (the label which spawned the group Spoon). The MP3 is available on the band's site.

"Misery is a Butterfly" - Blonde Redhead
Talk about a simple, repeated melody--"Misery is a Butterfly" succeeds, to my ears, largely because of the plain, recurring piano riff that serves as a backbone for this atmospheric, borderline melodramatic piece. There are strings, there's almost a dance beat popping up here and there, there are breathy-emotive vocals from guitarist Kazu Makino, there are Rachmaninovian chords, but time and again we get back to the piano riff, and everything seems all right again. Blonde Redhead is a veteran NYC-based trio that has gravitated over time from a Sonic Youth-style dissonance to a lusher sound that early fans of the band might not like very much. Me, I'm kind of intrigued by the still-somewhat-strange-ness of the whole thing. The song is the title track from the group's sixth CD, released last year on 4AD Records; the MP3 is found on the Beggars Group, U.S.A. web site.

Monday, January 24, 2005

week of Jan. 23-29

"Attagirl" - Bettie Serveert
With a charmingly slinky verse and disarmingly catchy chorus, "Attagirl" might not, still, have succeeded so well without the captivating presence of Carol van Dyk (alternatively spelled Dijk)--the Canadian-born, Netherlands-raised singer who fronts this veteran Dutch band. Rilo Kiley fans take note: Jenny Lewis may yet sound like this (she's cut from the same cloth), but there are ineffable aspects of tone and timbre that remain out of reach when you're only in your 20s. From start to finish we are in the hands of a comfortable and confident crew here; I like the scratchy-frenetic guitar in the background, subtly undermining the faux-bossa-nova ambiance, and of course I love that wordless "ohhh" in the bridge, alternating back and forth on a fetching fifth--the song gets expansive and smooth right there in just the right way, with layered vocals and a quivering complement of things being strummed (do I detect a mandolin, even?). This leads into a most excellent chorus, with an urgently sing-songy melody, words that sound, somehow, better as sounds--"Don't get stuck somewhere in the middle/You've paid all your dues and you're not a second fiddle"--than than they do as a sentiment, and a superb and snazzy off-the-beat finish: the way van Dyk breathes out "Attagirl" at the end is just too cool for words. "Attagirl" is the title track off the band's new CD, scheduled for release on Minty Fresh records on Tuesday of this week. The MP3 is available on the Minty Fresh web site.

"Sacred Heart" - Cass McCombs
This is the kind of song that convinces me that we are, truly, entering a new golden age of rock'n'roll. And I'm serious. When a 20-something guy like Baltimore's Cass McCombs can take all his influences (I hear '80s stuff here--a touch of Smiths, a dollop of New Order, a sprinkle of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark--and then '60s stuff too, such as his unexpectedly Dylanesque turns of phrase and word selection) and wrap them into something this timeless and thrilling (geez, I find simply the open, vibrating chord that starts the song bizarrely thrilling), and when he is one of many doing this very sort of thing, and yet each differently, here in the middle '00s, what else to call it? A new golden age. If I'm wrong, at least I'll go down swinging. In any case, rock has weathered a lot, including being eviscerated by Madison Avenue and shoved off the pop-cultural main stage by hip-hop, but even so there is something timeless at its core. Sure, you have to sort through an incredible amount of nonsense to find it (were there quite so many inept troubadours in the Middle Ages as there are unlistenable singer/songwriters in the Information Age?), but it is here to be found: specifically here with this gentle-urgent vocalist, singing his sweet descending melody with aching assurance; and generally out there, as McCombs is hardly alone on the scene with serious rock'n'roll talent and know-how. "Sacred Heart" is an advance single from his new CD, PREfection, set for release on February 1 on Monitor Records. The MP3 can be found on the Monitor web site. Thanks to the estimable record review site 75 or less for the lead on this one.

"Cover" - Engine Down
It's very easy to be very loud and very fast; it's significantly less easy to be not-quite-very loud and not-quite-very fast, and harder still to do so while exhibiting a strong sense of melody and craft. The Virgnia-based foursome Engine Down churn up a lot of dust here, but right away I hear plenty to separate this from the output of the many (many) loud and churning bands nowadays filling the web with their MP3s. They know some interesting chords, to begin with, and push us through them right away--you can hear how the whole musical ground shifts and shifts as the melody in the verse progresses. They have a sense of production perspective as well, allowing various elements to flow through the aural center of the song as the piece blazes along--a lead guitar line emerges from the noise here, a nice wall of vocal harmonies there. And to me the great hook is the off-beat delivery in the chorus: singing on the second and fourth beats here (the "Your cover has been blown" line) is an ineffably delightful twist in a hard-driving 4/4 song. Consider it all another vote for experience: Engine Down have been around since 1996; "Cover" comes from the band's fourth full-length CD, self-titled, released on Lookout Records in August 2004. The MP3 is available on the Lookout web site. Note that the link I'm providing here is not a direct link to the MP3, as per Lookout's policy; when you get to the page, look for the MP3 to the right in the "Track List" section--you can download it yourself from there.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

week of Jan. 16-22

"Sunday Bell" - Audible
The way the crisp guitars and simply articulated piano refrain leap into motion is instantly heartwarming; I already know I'm going to follow this song wherever it wants to go. I am quickly rewarded, as the first place it goes is into Mike Kennedy's appealing tenor--he sounds like an upbeat Elliott Smith, replacing Smith's wavering fragility with a bell-like resolution. The song gains a lot of power by its capacity to sound both sad and happy at the same tinme: the melody is bittersweet and descending, but the rhythm drives forward with vigor. Kennedy's wonderful voice bridges the dichotomy perfectly, effective at both the upper (listen to how he sings the word "decision" in the second line) and lower ends of his register (as the melody heads downward, his voice seems to expand and envelope the sonic landscape). I also like how the driving rhythm is interrupted in the bridge section, itself split into two parts: opening with a sharp, punctuating beat, the melody continues but the accompaniment glides into a swinging sort of two-step. This whole section is underscored by a subtle dissonant sustained note on the synthesizer (sounds like maybe a ninth), before resolving into a reprise of the main melody. "Sunday Bell" will be found on the band's debut CD, Sky Signal, scheduled for release on January 25th on Polyvinyl Records. The MP3 is available on the Polyvinyl web site

"I Won the Context" - Provan
Sometimes, very often, maybe even most of the time, it's just a little thing that makes a song fly. That's what we're looking for: songs that fly. Lots of songs walk reasonably well (even as, of course, many can't even crawl), but not many soar. That said, there is no--absolutely no--formula for how to fly. Often it'll be the plainest sort of extra touch (an almost random-seeming melodic twist, a particular chord in a particular place, the quality a singer's voice attains during one specific syllable) that launches a song, unexpectedly. In this case, it's singer/guitarist Joe Kelly's one-octave vocal leap in the verse--when he gets to the word "prize," to use the first example. It's a simple thing, could've even been an afterthought, but when he does that, to my ears, the song takes off. Of course, one might reasonably ask whether this little vocal leap would have had the same effect without everything else cool going on in this song: the punchy, inventive drum work, the way the melodic lead guitar works against the band's churning-crunchy sound, and the subtle strength of Kelly's voice itself the rest of the way--while he sings with the high yearning sweetness of many a power-pop frontman, he's got an underlying muscle to him (reminsicent, to me, of Peter Case, for those who know his stuff). So maybe it's not a simple thing after all, come to think of it. "I Won the Context" is a song from a yet-unreleased EP from the Brooklyn-based Provan, who have two previous EPs to their name. The MP3 can be found on the band's web site. Thanks to visitor Mary, from the PowerPop blog, for the tip on this one.

"Traffic" - Chad VanGaalen
With an endearing Neil Young-ish-ness to both his voice and the resolute idiosyncracy of his music, Chad VanGaalen is a Canadian bedroom rocker beginning to attract attention very much outside the bedroom. Crankily engaging from the get-go--there's something satisfying and brilliant about how he matches his high voice in the verse against a bass playing the same notes way below--"Traffic" pumps along with both grit and perkiness, a lo-fi production with hi-fi instincts. After 10 years of writing and recording literally hundreds of songs, VanGaalen put 19 of these songs together onto a debut CD, Infiniheart, released in a very limited way last March by Flemish Eye Records.
Slowly word began to spread; with the buzz really picking up by year-end 2004, the CD is now slated for a larger re-release this spring. "Traffic" is the closing song on VanGaalen's CD; the MP3 is available on the Flemish Eye web site.

Monday, January 10, 2005

week of Jan. 9-15

"We Can Have It" - the Dears
So this one begins quite literally as a lullaby--a soothing keyboard, a strumming acoustic guitar, a gentle sing-songy melody. And then the words: "Last night all the horrible/Things in life start through my dreams..." Okay, not your typical lullaby. Nor is it your typical rock song. The opening lullaby of despair continues for two full minutes, singer Murray Lightburn--who often sounds uncannily like Morrissey--here channeling David Bowie with the best of them while the band sustains interest and tension through subtle touches (listen for the melodramatic synthesizer blurts, and how the female backing vocals just sort of melt into place without your being aware they started). Then, at 1:59, the tempo kicks in double-time, electric guitar ticking a precise line against a complex drumbeat, and now there's a flute in there, and a harmonica, and now Lightburn is back, still Bowie-like but yearning now, repeating emotive lines like, "You're not alone" and "You never said I'd see you again." Eventually the song pivits once more, on this great line: "Someone somewhere says they’ve got it all/But that’s not even what we want/Not even close." From there the one-time lullaby closes as an incantation, the last minute featuring one line repeating over and over, instrumentation fading away, leaving only Lightburn and a muted chorus of voices. Pop music as therapeutic/spiritual adventure; just the thing for a Monday, eh? "We Can Have It" is the lead track on No Cities Left, the Dears' second full-length CD, released in October 2004 on SpinArt Records; the MP3 is found on the SpinArt web site.

"Slumberdoll" - the Autumns
On "Slumberdoll," the L.A.-based Autumns manage the wondrous but challenging task of being both lovely and noisy. A perky-chimy guitar and chipper drumbeat open the song, but then are suspended into a spacey wash as singer/guitarist Matthew Kelly enters with his voice distant and filtered. When his voice regularizes and the band kicks in, note that we're now hanging out in the musically tense fourth chord (that is, four whole notes up from the home chord--usually denoted with the Roman numeral IV; trust me, it's a time-honored place to hang out if you want to create tension). We're not there for long, but it's kind of fun that the song feels like it's starting there, because of the production choices leading up to this point. So when we return to the starting place, harmonically speaking, it feels wonderful. There'll be a five (V) chord in there too (e.g. around 1:08) to assist with the ultimate sense of resolution. But by now note how much noise the band has filled the song with; I particularly like the slanty discordant edges at least one of the guitars (there are a lot of guitars going on here) throws into the mix, and big open spaces the other guitars carve into the production. And yet an underlying sort of gorgeousness persists because of the unabashed use of the ancient I-IV-V progression. The return of the perky-chimy guitar helps too. "Slumberdoll" comes from the band's self-titled CD on Pseudopod Records, their third full-length (they've actually been together since 1992), released in September. You'll find the MP3 on the Pseudopod web site

"Finally" - Corrina Repp
Slightly skewed, minimalist folk-electronica from a Portland, Oregon-based singer/songwriter who was herself named by her parents after a Bob Dylan song. I like the carefully chosen sounds used to enhance the clockwork simplicity of the tune: a ghostly, bowed-saw-like synthesizer on top; a twangy, off-key guitar string randomly appearing in the middle of the sound; scratch-like swipes and buzzes of sound below. Repp's voice has a deadpan straightforwardness that reminds me of Suzanne Vega, while the unearthly, hodge-podgy aural ambiance brings Tom Waits to mind, albeit a more mild-mannered and less loony version of Tom Waits. Not much happens, ultimately, here, but on the other hand, I find that I can keep listening to it again and again with little sign of mental wear and tear. If nothing else, the entire song, for me, is completely redeemed by the whispered "okay" at 3:17 (of a 3:39 song). I'm in love with the way she says "okay" right there. "Finally" comes from Repp's second CD, It's Only the Future, released on Hush Records in November; the MP3 is on the Hush web site.

Monday, January 03, 2005

week of Jan. 2-8

"Fat Boys Are Not Athletes" - Imaginary Baseball League
Muscular and precise, this song is driven by a snare-less drumbeat and an itchy, energetic low-register guitar line. This is right away a wonderful thing, as rock'n'roll history is pockmarked by guitarists who tend to wail unaccountably in the upper register. But listen to how compelling and grounded and unpredictable the instrument sounds when the guitarist keeps his or her fingers up at the top of the neck. Singer/guitarist Aaron Robinson's urgent--but, also, not too high--voice adds to the tension and drive; he has the nervous edge of a David Byrne or Adrian Belew while staying largely out of their sort of upper-register singing. Robinson actually reminds me of Gary Clark, lead singer of the by now obscure Scottish band Danny Wilson (they had a hit in the '80s with the song "Mary's Prayer"); there is something reminiscent of the Blue Nile in Imaginary Baseball League as well--perhaps they have an affinity for Scottish rock bands. I for one wouldn't have expected it from a four-man band from the Nashville area, but clearly there's more to the music scene down there than the Grand Ole Opry. "Fat Boys Are Not Athletes" comes from Imaginary Baseball League's self-released 2004 CD Revive; you'll find the MP3 on the group's web site. Thanks to visitor Ben for the suggestion.

"Walking in the Air" - Seachange
A reverberant dream of a song, "Walking in the Air" sweeps me in and slows me down; it seems literally to require the listener to meet it on its own, decelerated terms. Using echoey synthesizers, aching minor chords, subtly shifting time signatures, and inventive production, Seachange succeeds in the more-difficult-than-it-seems task of creating real drama in a soft and langorous aural environment. The one-minute, ten-second introduction is itself a marvel of slowed-down luminosity; by the time the violin emerges from the background to add a sad, clean note over the gathering rumble, I feel my heart rate has already been slowed, my breathing deeper and more mindful. Singer/violinist Johanna Woodnutt's breath-filled soprano, singing largely indecipherable words, seems the ideal addition to the half-folk, half-psychedelic ambiance; what else, after all, could this song be called but "Walking in the Air"? Seachange is a six-piece band from Nottingham, England; the song, apparently not otherwise released yet, is available as a Christmas present on the band's web site. Thanks to the ever-vigilant Largehearted Boy for the tip.

"Silent Seven" - Controller.Controller
The Pretenders meet the Gang of Four via Public Image Ltd. Or something like that. In any case, this Toronto-based quintet has definitely found inspiration in some of the post-punk music of the late '70s and early '80s. But these guys seem to want more than anarchy or dissonance with their dancebeat; both in terms of melody and structure, "Silent Seven" is disarmingly well-crafted, unfolding with a simmering sense of grandeur. Funny, here's another song with a minute-long introduction, but how different the vibe than with the Seachange song. And here's another group with a nervous-edged vocalist, but here we have the exotic and powerful Nirmala Basnayake evoking Chrissie Hynde rather than David Byrne. As with many songs that I end up writing about, "Silent Seven" is another that delivers all the way through, rather than coasting towards a finish--note in this case the guitar chords that ring out, rhythmically, at around 3:45, and the nifty, satisfying change the instrument glides into at 3:50. This with the song nearly over. "Silent Seven" is the third track on an EP called History, the band's first recording, which was released in 2004 on Paper Bag Records. You'll find the MP3 on the band's web site.