Monday, February 28, 2005

week of Feb. 27-Mar. 5

"Woman King" - Iron and Wine
A timeless sort of mystery hangs in the air from the opening rhythms of this satisfying new song from Sam Beam, the one-man band who calls himself Iron and Wine. While the critically-acclaimed Beam in the past has been just a little too whispery-slow for my tastes, here he finds a propulsive, ancient-seeming groove to explore; combined with concrete, evocative lyrics, the results are deep, elusive, and magical. While his acoustic guitar is still center stage (I'm loving his slide work in particular), Beam delivers an outstandingly textured song through the use of precise percussion, engaging electric guitar accents, even what sounds like a woodwind-like synthesizer line. "Woman King" is the title track to a six-song EP released last week on Sub Pop Records. The MP3 is up on the Sub Pop site. Me, I'm going to go back and listen to some of his other songs again; maybe I'm now ready to hear what many others have been hearing in him for a while already.

"Ablaze" - Liz Durrett
Liz Durrett proves that slow doesn't have to mean boring, trombones aren't necessarily out of place in a moody rock song, and that Athens, Georgia isn't finished spawning worthy musicians. After a pensive, minor-key guitar intro, Durrett enters, awash in echoes and echoed by (yes) a trombone chorus. I am hooked by the oddly glowing shadowiness of it all. Durrett has a substantive duskiness to her voice, and a pleasing way of creating melody out of a minimum of notes. "Ablaze" is one of nine songs on her debut CD, Husk, which was released last week on Athens-based Warm Records. Durrett is a niece of the offbeat singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who produced the record. These songs were all written between 1996 and 1999, when Durrett was still in her teens; an album of newer material will apparently be released before the year is out. The "Ablaze" MP3 is available through

"Underwater Wave Game" - Pit Er Pat
A strangely engaging little song from a strange little guitar-free band. Keep your ears on the opening piano motif--an endearing string of ascending four-note clusters. They form the backbone of this indecipherable song; when they disappear in the chorus, we're a little disconcerted but some of the unusual intervals singer/keyboard player Fay Davis-Jeffers leaps to and from vocally become their own sort of hook, and before long we're swimming along again with the endearing piano. At about 1:55, however, I feel I'm in over my head as the song hits an almost dissonant stretch all the way to 2:45. But--hurrah--the piano motif returns triumphantly, and in so doing justifies the ornery section. All in all this sounds engagingly like, oh, I don't know--maybe the Waitresses singing Genesis after listening to Talking Heads '77. Or maybe not. In any case, I have been listening and listening to this, continually assuming I wouldn't actually end up featuring it but I kept hitting the play button again and again, finally alerting me to the fact that even if my brain can't figure out why I like this some other parts of me obviously do. The song will be on Pit Er Pat's full-length debut, entitled Shakey, to be released in early March on Thrill Jockey Records. The MP3 is available on the band's site.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

week of Feb. 20-26

"California" - Low
How much to keep sounding the same and how much to evolve and explore is a question that faces all bands that manage to stay together for more than a few years. Remain too much the same and risk staleness ("There's a fine line between a groove and rut," as Christine Lavin once sang); change too much and risk alienating fans who like how you sound already, thank you very much. And in the indie rock world, any change that smacks of "accessibility" is treated with the harshest of scorn, for reasons I have never quite figured out. In any case, here's Low, a band from northern Minnesota that cultivated a devoted following through the '90s while giving new depth of meaning to the word "slow" in the so-called "slowcore" genre. And here's a song from their latest CD, The Great Destroyer (Subpop Records) that moves with a nice crunchy, toe-tappy bounce. This is not the first upbeat song the band has recorded by any means, but so far they remain indelibly associated with their brooding, slow-burning material. Me, I'm enjoying the grit and intensity a band that knows slow brings to a peppier number. On the one hand, I love the big, fat, but still ambiguous chords that open the song, and drive its center; but on the other hand, check this out: right at the moment in the song where songs that have these kind of big, fat chords will break into a bashing, cathartic instrumental break (at around 2:00 here), Low, slyly, retreats into quiet--instead of big bashes we get a slow, ringing guitar and gentle harmonies, which simmer slowly together before delivering a final almost-bash. Pretty cool. The MP3 is available on the Subpop web site; the CD was released in January.

"Born" - Over the Rhine
Over the Rhine's Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have learned over the years how to make a singular sort of aching, exquisite music--at once brilliantly wrought and deeply relaxed, equal parts off-hand expertise and deep humanity. "Born" is soft and soulful, an acoustic strummer enhanced by melancholy, restrained steel guitar accents and a piano played with such a warm touch I want to curl up in bed with it. And then of course there's Bergquist's bewitching voice, which, if an acquired taste, is way worth acquiring. "Born" will be found on the band's new CD Drunkard's Prayer, set for release in late March on Back Porch Records. The MP3 is one of two from the CD now available at

"Sidestepping" - Doris Henson
From the largely ignored metropolis of Kansas City, Kansas comes this curiously named five-man band with a curious-sounding song. Over an itchy, bare-bones rhythm (drumbeat, erratically strummed guitar with some well-placed feedback), "Sidestepping" begins sketchily, singer Matthew Dunehoo's airy, high-pitched voice kind of toying with the lyrics at first. There seems not to be a verse or chorus; instead, Dunehoo merely sings a lazy, descending melody in between instrumental breaks. But, hey: the volume and intensity of the accompaniment cranks up a notch at around 2:13 and as this subtly new soundscape unfolds, I am transfixed. Everything is the same but different: the lazy descending melody is stretched and hung now upon dramatic chord changes, and Dunehoo's singing acquires an edgy substance that sounds appealingly to me like Brian Eno doing his best Ray Davies impersonation. "Sidestepping" comes from the band's new CD, Give Me All Your Money, their second, which will be released later this month on Desoto Records. The MP3 can be found on the band's web site. Thanks to the ever-resourceful, always incredible Largehearted Boy site for the lead.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Because of the holiday weekend in the U.S., "This Week's Finds" will be posted on Tuesday this week. The songs should be up by around 10 a.m. EST tomorrow, instead of the usual 1 p.m. Thanks for your patience, and your continued interest.

Monday, February 14, 2005

week of Feb. 13-19

"Silence" - the Layaways
An untamed growl of guitar noise lays at the heart of this pop confection, like a bit of crunchy frog sealed within succulent Swiss chocolate, as it were. It's a simple song, but the vibe works well for me, a vibe constructed through a combination of an appealing melody and a knowing ability to romp through some of the choicer specimens in rock'n'roll's sonic back catalog: from Jesus and Mary Chain-esque squalls of sound to Yo La Tengo-ish understated vocalizing to (this is the kicker, for me) a Cars-like use of catchy synthesizer riffs. While I'm generally all for the '80s touches that seem to be inspiring lots of today's independent bands, I particularly enjoy when there's integration going on rather than re-creation, however exuberant. The Layaways are a trio from Chicago; "Silence" is the lead track on the band's second CD, We've Been Lost, released in December on Mystery Farm Records (which appears to be simply a label set up by the band for its own releases). The MP3 is available on, if you have an account there. The band prefers you to download via Amazon if possible, due to bandwidth limitations on their own site, but if you lack access to Amazon, there is a direct link on the band's site. Thanks to visitor Jen for the tip.

"Aussie Girl" - Laakso
From Sweden comes this idiosyncratic, joyful blurt of a bittersweet song. Wrap Conor Oberst up with the Decemberists, give him a fetching little Swedish accent, speed him up and spin him around blindfolded, and maybe he'd sound like this. Any four-person rock band featuring one member who plays trombone, trumpet, accordion, and glockenspiel is going to immediately catch my attention, and I must say I do enjoy the subtle texture said member (David Nygård) delivers. For what is in fact a fairly precise song, there's an endearing fringe of sloppiness oozing out around the edges here, due I think to lead singer Markus Krunegård's wavery energy and unbridled spirit. And while a song bemoaning the torture of a (very) long-distance relationship is unlikely to break new ground observationally, I find that good pop music has the happy ability to keep me unworried about cliche. "Aussie Girl" can be found on the band's first and only full-length CD, I Miss You, I'm Pregnant, released on Adrian Recordings, a Swedish label. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

"Beautiful Close Double" - Damon and Naomi
I like how Naomi Yang's dreamy voice floats against a rooted instrumental base here. Too much of what is sometimes known as "dream pop," while perfectly agreeable, does tend to drift off into an airy sort of neverland. Damon and Naomi--two-thirds of the landmark indie band Galaxie 500, back in the day--keep things grounded in a variety of subtle ways. (Key word subtle: be warned this song can in fact sound as if it's merely drifting off into neverland if you don't pay close attention.) To begin with, the song is set against Naomi's classic-rock bass riff (sounds like "Cinnamon Girl" to me, actually). Second of all, drummer Damon Krukowski, while starting off cymbally and understated, echoing the bass line for a while, kicks out a few jams (subtly) now and again. Distant layers of muted trumpet add a distinct substance as well. As for Michio Kurihara's rubbery-sparkly guitar licks, well, they're pretty dreamy I guess, but what the heck, they're still cool. "Beautiful Close Double" is the song that opens Damon and Naomi's new CD "The Earth is Blue," set for release this week on the duo's own label, 20/20/20. The MP3 can be found on their site.

Monday, February 07, 2005

week of Feb. 6-12

"Inaction" - We Are Scientists
A playful yet blistering piece of dynamic guitar pop, "Inaction" is, actually, all action--two and a half minutes of alternately crunching and blazing guitar work supporting an edgy, propulsive melody. Singer/guitarist Keith Murray plays and sings with a bursting sort of restraint while his two band mates--what we've got here is a nice 21st-century version of a venerable rock institution, the power trio--punch out a pulsing backbeat. California born and NY based, We Are Scientists bristle with the sort of energy that may in fact only be available to this clean, three-pronged approach to popular electric music; I even think I hear an homage to Cream--rock'n'roll's first widely-acclaimed power trio--in the assertive guitar riff that pops in at 1:39. And yet there's nothing ponderous about this group; both the lyrics and Murray's delivery of them have a subtly goofy edge, perhaps to be expected from a band that includes the following instructions on their download page: "To download songs, click on the title. To stream an mp3, click 'stream'. To tie your shoes, twist the laces around each other as many times as you can, then light them on fire." "Inaction" comes from We Are Scientists' self-released 2004 EP, The Wolf's Hour; the MP3 is on the band's web site. Thanks to the good folks at 3hive for the head's up on this one.

"Alive With Pleasure" - Viva Voce
The opening juxtaposition of a buzzing synthesizer and a big old-fashioned non-digital drumbeat is distinctive, and an immediate sign that this husband-and-wife do-it-yourself duo will visit some interesting musical places before they're through. And, in fact, "Alive With Pleasure" feels like a few songs rolled into one, as the bashy introductory section--all drums, claps, and stomps--gradually wobbles into a slower, lovelier vocal section (wife Anita Robinson does the singing) with a Beatlesque melody and increasingly orchestral overtones. But before things sound too familiar, husband Kevin cranks out a loony, wah-wah-ish synthesizer solo seguing us into a coda that stompily reprises the introduction and there, we're done. Are we having fun yet? "Alive With Pleasure" is the opening track on the band's third and latest CD, The Heat Can Melt Your Brain, released in September on Minty Fresh Records. The MP3 is available on the band's web site.

"Blue Angel" - Rose Polenzani
And sometimes the ear needs just an acoustic instrument or two, a lilting melody, a simple but resonant human dimension to the music. (Especially after a Super Bowl loss, eh?) I have long admired Polenzani's vocal bravura--she can go to some really exposed places when she wants to--but in this song she reins it in in such a way that you hear it indirectly, like something you catch out of the corner of your eye but disappears when you look at it. One of the things I like best here is how she subtly shifts the rhythm on us as the song unfolds--what begins as a clear, softly swinging 3/4-time confessional pushes into a more urgent 2/4-time plea by the end, even as she sings the same notes. Instrumentally and lyrically reminiscent of R.E.M.'s "Half A World Away," this song like that one has a keening poignancy to it that also seems appropriate the day after. "Blue Angel" comes from a CD of home recordings Polenzani released this past October entitled August; the MP3 comes from her web site.