Tuesday, April 26, 2005

week of Apr. 24-30

"Walter Reed" - Michael Penn
Michael Penn can't catch a break. The guy spent the first half of his musical career battling the perception that he was "only" Sean Penn's older brother (when anyone was paying any attention at all), and now seems destined to spend the second half identified "merely" as Aimee Mann's husband. On top of this, he had his pop cultural moment early--bursting on the musical scene with the brilliant semi-hit "No Myth" from his first CD, March, he has sold relatively few albums since. During the '90s he found himself in one of those weird only-in-the-record-industry stories in which he was neither allowed to make a record nor to break his contract for four years. It also didn't help that he released what strikes me as his only weak-ish CD--2000's cleverly titled MP4 ('twas his fourth album, see)--right when his wife was hitting her stride in terms of widespread recognition and critical regard. Like I said, he can't catch a break, which is a terrible shame as he is the real thing, a seriously talented singer/songwriter with an indelible voice, an enviable sense of craft, and a proven knack for neo-Beatle-isms. Do yourself a favor and find his second album, 1992's Free-for-All, which is something of a lost classic. So, okay, "Walter Reed": a song from his next CD, Mr. Hollywood, Jr., 1947. Typically midtempo and crisp, the song alternates a subdued lyric with a classically Penn-ish melodic chorus hook. The CD is apparently going to be some sort of concept album, ruminating on American society in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The CD is slated for a summer release on Penn's Mimeograph Records, available through spinART Records. Thanks to Thomas Bartlett at Salon for the head's up on this one.

"Driver Education" - Amy Ray
Peppy, good-hearted NRBQ-style rock'n'roll from Indigo Girl Ray. With a tight little Hammond B3-enhanced groove, "Driver Education" finds the big-voiced Ray in a relaxed, even playful context, reminiscing about high school's emotional battlefields in a song alternating word-tumbling verses and an almost haiku-like chorus. While as a group the Indigo Girls have always maintained their integrity, success over the years seemed to morph their earnestness into an unnecessary sort of solemnity that undermined the heart and spirit of the music. In her solo work, Ray seems able to cut loose more, both musically and energetically, and the results are gladdening. "Driver Education" is not the only song to deal with emerging gender relationships from a teenaged perspective on her new CD, which is called Prom and was released earlier this month on Ray's own, not-for-profit Daemon Records label. The MP3 is available via the Daemon web site.

"Dirty Lives" - Love as Laughter
Sounding somewhat like the Replacements if they were just goofy rather than drunk and goofy, the West Coast band Love as Laughter has an immediately endearing sort of tight-yet-sloppy (or is that sloppy-yet-tight?) vibe to them; think the Shins crossed with early-'70s Rolling Stones and you're somewhere near the sound this outfit crunches out. I'll leave it to the relentlessly trend-focused indie rock writers on the web to figure out where these guys fit on the rock/indie-rock/retro-rock spectrum while I sit back and enjoy the heck out of the way they breathe vivid life into a sound too often ossified as "classic rock." So even as this one surely churns itself out "Bang a Gong"-ishly, there's way more to it. Listen to the opening guitar line, for instance: maybe it takes you back to the '70s, but the subtle, rubbery uncertainty of the notes themselves add new character to the sound, as does singer/songwriter/guitarist Sam Jayne's good-natured voice and capacity for writing rollicking melodies. The song comes from the band's new Laughter's Fifth CD, released this week on Sub Pop Records. The MP3 is available via Insound. Hat's off to Largehearted Boy for the tip.

Monday, April 18, 2005

week of Apr. 17-23

"April & May" - David Fridlund
Built around a simple but sturdy minor-key piano riff, "April & May" sounds like Ben Folds doing Kurt Weill, with the extra air of mystery provided by Fridlund's Scandanavian-inflected English. With only a double bass providing support for the piano, the song acquires a wonderful heft thanks to Sara Culler's expert backing vocals. I'm not quite sure how she manages to be so in sync as to almost disappear and yet so present as to be integral to the song's success, but there she is just the same. I love how she finally emerges on her own with some wordless vocals at the very end--a perfect finishing touch. And then oh yeah, before that, there's that magical little bit of synthesized harp or some such thing that chimes in, along with an acoustic guitar, around two and half minutes into the proceedings. I assume these are the responsibility of Johan T. Karlsson, who is thanked on the album for the "space echo and other small things that really made a difference." Fridlund is known in Sweden as leader of the trio David & the Citizens; "April & May" is the second track on his first solo CD, Amaterasu (Amaterasu is the Japanese Shinto sun goddess, just so you know; her name means "She who shines in the heavens"). Culler is in fact featured prominently throughout the disc, which will be released in the U.S. early next month on Hidden Agenda Records. The MP3 is available via Parasol Records, which is Hidden Agenda's parent label.

"Hole in the Road" - Jennifer O'Connor
Smart, engaging indie-singer-songwriter-rock from the NYC-based O'Connor. While her plainspoken vocal style quickly brings pre-2003 Liz Phair to mind, this is on the one hand a great starting point, to my ears, and on the other hand it becomes with repeated listens only a starting point, as O'Connor's ability to combine drive, melody, and cool lyrics helps to create her own particular vibe. This is one deftly written and produced song, flowing knowingly from a crisp acoustic rhythm guitar intro into a full-band propulsiveness. There in fact is where the song wins me over, as the band kicks in and is followed shortly by O'Connor now backing herself with octave harmonies. I remain ever the sucker for octave harmonies--that is, when the harmony vocal is singing the same note as the melody but either one octave higher or lower. I love this almost every time. At this point I begin to notice how certain lines from the lyrics jump out and resonate--"I didn't know I was a target till you made me feel like one"; "Maybe next time you'll remember to remember every time"--even as the song never pauses long enough to draw extra attention to the sad story being told. Nice stuff. "Hole in the Road" will appear on O'Connor's new CD, The Color and the Light, when it is released in early May on Red Panda Records. The MP3 is available via O'Connor's web site.

"For Real" - Okkervil River
Time and again here in the 21st century I am taken aback--pleasantly and resonantly--by the musical depth and breadth on display by the widest variety of independent bands and artists from both around the country and around the world. The Austin-based band Okkervil River--whose song "It Ends With a Fall" was a "This Week's Finds" pick in February 2004--is a great example of how rich and confident a sound awaits us from any number of relatively unknown ensembles. If last time I was perhaps a bit distracted by what I heard as the band's distinct Wilco-ishness, this time Okkervil River has a whole lot more on immediate display, offering up a vibrant, edgy song combining a range of sounds and emotion into one dramatic whole. "For Real" is marked by a palpable tension between constraint and unfettered release--heard most obviously in the juxtaposition of the quiet singing and loud guitar bursts in the opening section, and carried through most of all in singer Will Sheff's vocals, which alternate between a tender waver and an emotion-choked wail. This song is the second track on the band's new CD Black Sheep Boy, their fourth full-length disc, released earlier this month on Jagjaguwar Records; the MP3 comes to us via the record label site.

Monday, April 11, 2005

week of Apr. 10-16

"Boys and Children (Sing for Summer)" - Those Transatlantics
This song makes me happy--a bright blue flowering tree smell sort of silly happy, to be somewhat specific, while rather vague at the same time. What begins as a clean-cut sort of dreamy-jangly-sing-song-y pop song evolves through almost five minutes into an unexpectedly satisfying if goofy aural adventure. Anchored in the crisp, airy, layered vocals of Kathleen Bracken, "Boys and Children" chimes along sweetly for two full minutes, keeping the listener suspended in a what's-going-to-happen-next state of awareness before a fluttery fadeout brings us smack into a jaunty time change, as Bracken starts a fetching sort of call-and-response section with herself. Early Jane Siberry comes to mind, not only because of Bracken's vocal resemblance to Queen Jane but because of how the band as a whole combines playfulness with a resilient musical assuredness. Forty seconds later we fade again, only to revisit the opening melody, joyously re-set with a glistening new beat, underscored by happy keyboard riffs. And then the final payoff--a return to the call-and-response section, but now keyboard player Chris Hatfield joins in and addresses Bracken directly; the song ends with a goofy discussion of the song itself, set to music. Fun. Hailing from the funky central Michigan college town of Mt. Pleasant, Those Transatlantics were founded in 2003 and have two EPs out to date. "Boys and Children" appears to be a new song; the MP3 comes from the band's web site.

"Fudgicle" - the Lovely Feathers
Many are now aware that Canada is all but flooding us with high-quality 21st-century rock'n'roll, but I don't think we all know about this Montreal quintet with the odd name and a penchant for tight, punchy, somewhat off-kilter music. My goodness, just listen to the opening chords: it's a simple riff but it bursts with a substance and spirit that transcends the notes being crunched out. The Lovely Feathers feature a pair of twitchy vocalists, Mark Kupfert and Richard Yanofsky, both of whom waver between reined-in tunefulness and wigged-out Pere Ubu-ishness, but I'm with them all the way because of a wonderful recurring motif that appears, almost out of the blue, forty seconds in--a thorny guitar melody set off against a majestic, new-wave-ish synthesizer. How this arises and weaves into the confident drive of this urgent song speaks to me of a band that really knows what it's doing. On the other hand, what the hell are they singing about? Your guess is, probably, better than mine. "Fudgicle" is a song off the band's debut CD, My Best Friend Daniel, released in 2004 on a label called Love Your Diary; the MP3 is available via the band's site.

"What Happened to the Sands" - Pas/Cal

Detroit's answer to Belle and Sebastian, if Stuart Murdoch had a love-hate relationship with Brian Wilson. Smooth and peppy on the surface, this song offers an outpouring of sonic treats, from appealing melodies and spiffy chord changes to spacious drum beats, falsetto harmonies, and sleighbell accents, wrapped up in a listenable but mystifying structure. The time changes 40 seconds in and never changes back, and there seems to be neither a chorus nor, in fact, any discernible verses. And yet somehow it still feels very much like a song, which strikes me as both an interesting effect and a worthy accomplishment. "What Happened to the Sands" can be found on the band's second EP, entitled Oh Honey, We're Ridiculous, released in March 2004 by Le Grand Magistery. A full-length CD is apparently in the works. The MP3 arrives courtesy of band's site.

Monday, April 04, 2005

week of Apr. 3-9

"Old Shit/New Shit" - Eels
There is something weirdly comforting about hearing Mark Oliver Everett--aka E, doing business as Eels--unload a new cheerful/depressing song on us, just when we need it most. The driving beat, the distinctive chimes, the seriously despairful lyrics, the unaccountable moments of silence, and E's gruff but disarmingly melodious voice--all of it brings me back to, oh, 1996 or so. And yet (as he well knows) how much is very very different now than it was back when he had a minor pop cultural moment seeking some novocaine for his soul. Gliding by in an airy couple of minutes, "Old Shit/New Shit" is one of more than 30 songs on eels' upcoming double-CD Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, to be released later this month on Vagrant Records. The MP3 comes from the hard-working folks at Filter Magazine.

"This Time" - Lismore
An appealing amalgam of trip-hoppy textures and wistful melody, "This Time" launches off the repetition of two notes, the first repeated seven times, the second five times. The notes are adjacent to one another, which makes it a so-called "second" interval. It's an interesting interval because it's the most natural one when the notes are played separately (we're talking "do" to "re" here, one logical step up) and yet a jarring (in musical terms, "dissonant") interval if the notes are played at the same time. There is a compelling, depth-laden tension in the air, then, when a songs grounds itself in a second interval; Lismore works within and around the tension astutely, floating mismatched synthesizer lines on top, glitching up the middle with a variety of electronica fuzz, and anchoring the bottom with an actual bass and drum kit. That we are dealing with a singer with as warm a voice as Australia-born Penelope Trappes adds to the delicious juxtapositions here. "This Time" can be found on Lismore's debut full-length CD, We Could Connect Or We Could Not, released earlier this year on Cult Hero Records. The MP3 is available via the band's web site.

"Freakin' Out" - Graham Coxon
An unabashed shot of guitar rock, emphasis on guitar, from the former Blur guitarist. After nodding off to a few too many Blur songs that idled in one key, almost literally (and don't get me wrong, I mostly liked the band!), I find myself all but slapped to attention by the crisp and crackly sizzle immediately on display here. On top of its Clash-like swagger and British-punk energy, "Freakin' Out" adds enough fiery guitar work to spring-clean your brain in three and a half minutes. Anthemic riffs, solid arcs of sound, acrobatic fingerwork, and a way-too-cool solo, it's all here, wrapped in and around a just-this-side-of-insipid ditty. Great for blasting out the windows if the weather ever warms up and if it stops raining. "Freakin' Out" is the single from Coxon's latest CD, Happiness in Magazines, released in the U.S. in January on Astralwerks. (The record was originally released in the U.K. last May.) The MP3 is stored over at SXSW.com.