Tuesday, May 31, 2005

week of May 29-June 4

"It's All In My Mind" - Teenage Fanclub
Glistening, accomplished pop from a Scottish band that came together in 1989 and has never quite had its day. Look how much these guys pull out of a simple melody set against a clockwork, tom-tom-accented beat, and how effortlessly they do it--largely by playing against the regularities they set up. Notice, to begin with, how the melody line of the verse starts first on the downbeat and then, when it repeats, begins on the upbeat; this creates an off-centered feeling to what is actually a regular, 4/4 beat. But then notice what happens in the chorus (which is just the words "It's all in my mind" sung twice)--the beat is stretched to 6/4 for two measures, which manages both to ground the song and keep it slightly on edge. A minute and a half into things, we're returned to the first verse but the song has shifted subtly, tom-tom giving way to a fuller drum kit, some gorgeous but unexpected harmonies fleshing out the words and their dreamy message. That the whole thing culminates in a spaced-out guitar break three-quarters of the way through--I love how the song sort of floats into the guitar solo, as if catching up to it--is only fitting. "It's All In My Mind" is the lead track on the band's new CD Man-Made, their seventh, scheduled for release next week on Merge Records. The MP3 is available via Filter Magazine.

"The World in 1984" - Shearwater
This song has the echoey, majestic sadness of a forgotten photo album, an impression accentuated by the timeless melody, backward-looking lyrics, and singer Jonathan Meiburg's high, fluttery voice. There's something haunting and lasting at work here, something I'd locate somewhere in the graceful interaction between the minor and major chords and the way they play out through the central, plaintive piano refrain. Shearwater features two members (keyboard player Meiburg and guitarist Will Sheff) of the somewhat better-known Okkervil River; reflecting Meiburg's graduate-level involvement in ornithology (how does he have the time?), the band is named for a type of bird that flies close to the surface of the water. And the song comes from an album called Winged Life (released last year on Austin-based Misra Records), to continue the bird theme--although the phrase itself is William Blake's (is it my imagination or are independent rock bands the last bastion of literate culture in our post-literate world?): "He who binds to himself a joy/Does the winged life destroy;/ But he who kisses the joy as it flies/Lives in eternity's sun rise." The MP3, by the way, is hosted on the band's site.

"New Resolution" - the Heartless Bastards
Skeletal and elemental, "New Resolution" is driven by an aggressive drumbeat (hey, it's distinctive drumbeat week) and Erika Wennerstrom's achy-furious voice. She's got something of that back-of-the-throat roughness that makes Lucinda Williams cut me to the core sometimes, but in this case it's Lucinda crossed with Patti Smith, or maybe even Robert Plant. While "New Resolution" is rooted in a time-worn bass line, there is simultaneously a liberating vibe to this short and quirky tune, as if the band is gleefully writing its own rules as it goes. I for one find it impossible to argue with (not to mention half fall in love with) anyone who sings the following: "My new resolution is to be/Someone who does not care what anyone thinks of me/'Cause I don't even like myself half the time/And what's the use in worrying what's on other people's minds?" The Heartless Bastards are from Cincinnati; "New Resolution" can be found on the band's debut CD, Stairs and Elevators, released in February on Fat Possum Records, a label previously known for blues recordings. The MP3 is available via the band's web site.

Monday, May 23, 2005

week of May 22-28

"Waves" - Marjorie Fair
This is one of the most accomplished, forward-looking examples I've heard yet of the neo-soft-rock sound that seems to be bubbling up on the 21st-century rock scene alongside the neo-new-wave sound that's getting most of the attention so far. What makes "Waves" a particular pleasure is the band's success (Marjorie Fair is a band, not a person) in linking a sweetly melancholy America-esque sound with a grounded, indie-rock-style drive. Listen to the opening drumbeat: it means business, and prevents the jazzy chords that comprise the heart of the song (major sevenths and ninths and things like that) from turning mushy and dull. Likewise is the lovely melody--and singer Evan Slamka's equally lovely delivery of said melody--counterbalanced by some edgy guitar work; beyond the central, chiming riff there are droning accents that work to create palpable mystique throughout the piece, rising at last to the surface by way of a brief, reverberant solo beginning at 2:56. This mellow-rock meets indie-rock mix might almost seem its own sort of formula except for the fact that hardly anyone can do this effectively--it's not much of a formula if it isn't easily replicated, after all. "Waves" is a song off the L.A. foursome's debut CD, Self Help Serenade, which was released last year in the U.K. and is slated for a major-label stateside release in July. Capitol Records is cranking up the PR machine on this one, and while I am not always pleased by the way that manifests itself, I must remind myself that back in the day, the big labels regularly delivered good music to the masses; it's not yet too late (I don't think) for at least some of them to remember this.

"Ballad of a Lonely Construction Worker" - Cuff the Duke
There's a lost-epic feeling about this engaging, largely instrumental song, starting with its lengthy but chipper chimey-guitar build-up that comes complete with its own tempo shift (you hearing a "Free Bird" reference in that as I am?). It turns out the slower, weightier pace of the down-shifted part is where the song is heading; the second time the "Free Bird" section arrives, a crunchier, Neil Young-ish wall of guitar sound kicks in and singer/songwriter/guitarist Wayne Petti makes his delayed entrance (the song's two and a half minutes old already), his thin tenor emerging first as a mixed-down, off-pitch counterpoint to the increased instrumental fury, but as he reaches the lyrical climax--an invocation-like repetition of the phrase "It'll be all right"--he's right there in the center, handing the song back to the guitars. Together the rhythm and lead slash and churn with yet heightened intensity before melting away for Petti's final, quieter reprise of the same lyric from before with one subtle difference. "Ballad of a Construction Worker" is a song off the band's debut CD, Life Stories for Minimum Wage, released in 2002 on Three Gut Records; the MP3 is hosted on the Three Gut web site. A new CD from the band is expected this August.

"Ecoutez Bien" - Eux Autres
To counter big-label promotion and epic-style earnestness, here's a little shot of lo-fi goofiness--a brother/sister duo from Portland, Oregon offering a fetching two and a half minutes of garage rock a la francais. While it would never have occurred to me, for one, that crossing a chunky, freewheeling Stones vibe with spoken-sung lyrics in French would lead to anything in particular, there's something smiley and effervescent in the outcome. This strikes me as rather fascinating, actually, given how much Debbie Harry-style archness is channeled by singer Heather Larimer, but I guess that's another sign of the post-ironic world in which we live--that irony itself can now be used quite effectively to evoke sincerity. Add a distant but pounding piano riff, brother Nicholas' megaphoned backing vocals, a flurry of well-timed whoops, and a one-line chorus, and you have an odd hodgepodge of a semi-song on the one hand, an almost-classic-sounding pop cultural tidbit on the other. "Ecoutez Bien" is the lead track on the band's debut CD, Hell Is Eux Autres, released last year. The MP3 is available via band's web site.

Monday, May 16, 2005

week of May 15-21

"It Dawned On Me" - Calla
At once driving and atmospheric, "It Dawned On Me" combines a melodic, nearly New Order-like guitar motif and classic rock chord progressions with a dreamy wash of what I can only call beautiful noise--I'm listening and listening and can't quite figure out what exactly is behind the structure of sound that gives this song such weight and power. Given that two of the band's three members are credited not only with playing instruments (bass, keyboards, percussion) but also with "programming," I can only assume that some heavy-duty electronic know-how is partially responsible, but the beauty here is that the overall effect is extremely organic. Guitarist/vocalist Aurelio Valle's dark, breathy voice has a lot to do with the song's haunting nature, and, okay, if I can't help hearing a bit of "Don't Fear the Reaper"'s minor-key elegance around the edges here, there's nothing wrong with that either. "It Dawned On Me" is a song slated to appear on the Brooklyn-based band's next CD, their fourth, entitled Collisions, scheduled for release this summer. The MP3 is available via the band's web site.

"14th Street" - Laura Cantrell
Not unlike the kind of sweet, well-crafted singer/songwriter songs Nanci Griffith gathered so effectively on her much-admired Other Voices, Other Rooms CD, "14th Street" is at once breezy and poignant, held together by Cantrell's startlingly pure, somewhat Griffith-like voice and her admirable capacity to keep the musical focus strong and simple. This song could have taken an indulgent turn, production-wise, in any number of places but is ever held in check by the crystal-clear interaction between acoustic guitar, piano, drum, voice. Cantrell's decision to exploit the song's Brill Building roots (check out the sleighbell/drum accent that kicks in at 1:35; I love how the Spector beat is implied without it actively materializing) creates a fetching amalgam of traditional country and traditional pop. Cantrell is a Nashville-born, New York-based musician and radio host (her weekly "Radio Thrift Shop" program can be heard on WFMU) who recorded two highly-acclaimed CDs before quitting her day job at a Manhattan-based financial firm to do music full-time. These sturdy, tradition-minded recordings of hers have attracted a number of notable music-industry fans over the last five years, including Elvis Costello (who picked her to open for him on a number of his 2002 concerts) and the late John Peel, who in 2001 called her first CD "my favourite record of the last ten years and possibly my life." Written by a Portland, Oregon-based songwriter named Emily Spray, "14th Street" will be the lead track on Cantrell's new CD, Humming By The Flowered Vine, to be released on Matador Records next month. The CD, as usual for Cantrell, will mix her own songs with traditional songs and songs from other songwriters. The MP3 arrives via the Matador web site.

"Trance Manual" - John Vanderslice
There's a "Carpet Crawlers"-like sense of gorgeous contemplation underscoring this new tune from the underappreciated Mr. Vanderslice. Pristine without being boring, intricately produced without falling into the kitchen-sink syndrome, "Trance Manual" floats along in its own indelible world; again not unlike Peter Gabriel-era Genesis at their best, Vanderslice offers us lyrical imagery that manages the difficult trick of being both concrete and enigmatic, set against an almost orchestral sense of instrumental diversity. There's plenty of Vanderslice's production genius on display this time around, from the insistent chime-like drone that's never far below the surface to the precise but limited use of flute flourishes to the wonderful way he uses keyboards (I think) to sound like backward guitars to the incredible arrival of pizzicato strings just before the three-minute mark--a truly unexpected and instantly perfect touch. "Trance Manual" has just been made available as an MP3 on the Barsuk Records site; it will appear on the next Vanderslice CD, Pixel Revolt, due out in August.

Monday, May 09, 2005

week of May 8-14

"Glorious" - A. Graham and the Moment Band
There are certain sorts of on-and-off-pitch voices that are so immediately friendly and unassuming that they welcome you in like an old friend handing you a beer. Andy Graham has one of those voices. Then again, this entire song is kind of like an old friend handing you a beer, most of all the loose-limbed, sing-along chorus, featuring four of the English language's finest words--"Glorious/ Triumphant/ Optimistic/ Transcendent"-- woven together with spot-on pedal steel accents. Like Doris Henson, A. Graham and the Moment Band are another endearing, worthy band from Kansas City, Kansas. "Glorious" is the lead track on the band's 2004 CD This Tyrant is Free, released on Sonic Unyon Records. The MP3 is available via Lawrence.com, one of the better (if also unassuming) local/regional music resources on the web.

"Heavy Packer" - Amy Miles
Alternating tense, sparse verses with a spacious, gorgeous chorus, the NYC-based singer/songwriter Amy Miles here channels Martha Davis (remember the Motels? anyone?) to great effect. I find it relatively easy to lose patience with slow-building songs, but Miles holds my interest through the simmering opening minute and a half, with its ominous beat, evocative lyrics, and knowing touches--listen to the way the drum stutters on the fourth beat of every fourth measure, and how a deep synthesizer augments the staccato base line with a sustained series of almost below ear level notes. When the song arrives at the chorus--melody now slowed by half, showing Miles' voice off at its prettiest--the effect is glistening. Don't miss the elastic guitar accents underneath, without which the song would not have soared nearly as high. "Heavy Packer" comes from Miles' second CD, Noble Hatch, released in March on the Pcoop label, via Redeye Distribution. Noble Hatch, by the way, was the actual name of a boy Miles had a crush on in sixth grade in Arkansas; the album apparently reflects repeatedly back on that broken-hearted period of her young life.

"August Morning Haze" - Oneida
Like some strange psychedelic nugget from the '60s, "August Morning Haze" opens with a prickly, vaguely Near Eastern guitar line. In comes a sitar--no, wait, it's a banjo. Who'd have thought. Together they jangle towards an unexpected and quite satisfying harmonic resolution before veering off into the first verse. The words march out in precise, repeated rhythm (ONE-two ONE-two; I looked it up--it's trochaic tetrameter, I think), a tumble of landscape and nature images that hypnotize me entirely. I'm trying and I can't focus on their concrete meaning, and then, wow, there are those wonderful, resolving chords again. Instruments are brought in and out with wondrous subtlety--some strings here, an accordion there, all in service of the relentless trochees. "Pictures of Matchstick Men" meets XTC's Skylarking, if you squint a little. The song is the final track on Oneida's new CD, The Wedding, released last week on Jagjaguwar Records in the U.S., Three Gut Records in Canada. The MP3 is hosted on the Three Gut web site. Largehearted Boy pointed the way.

Monday, May 02, 2005

week of May 1-7

"Hold That Thought" - Trademark
Resplendent electro-pop from an Oxford synthesizer trio that apparently wears lab coats onstage. While drawing obvious inspiration from bands like Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Trademark immediately announces its own presence with the opening synthesizer riff, featuring a deeper, buzzier, funkier tone than their '80s forebears. The song swings along in a rapid 6/8 (maybe?) shuffle, and even as vocalist Oliver Horton's blase, slightly nasal delivery recalls the likes of Neil Tennant (of the Pet Shop Boys), there's something sturdier and more passionate going on here. Maybe because it was all new back then, and maybe there were serious technological limitations at the time, but '80s synth-pop had a distinct air of preprogrammed relentlessness to it--as if the groups got going by pushing a button and letting the machines do the rest. Listen, by contrast, to the way the introduction here leads into the first verse: how the rhythm shifts and the three interweaving synthesizers are redefined around the vocals--how in fact they are played musically rather than electronically, even though they are, still, electronic instruments. It may sound on the surface like the '80s but this is the '00s we're listening to, and a seriously wonderful new song. "Hold That Thought" can be found on Trademark's debut CD, Trademark Want More, released in the U.K. last year on Truck Records. The MP3 is available via the band's web site. Thanks to The Acousticwoodlands for the lead.

"American Grotesque" - Barry Thomas Goldberg
Straightforward old-school rock with a vibrant edge. Goldberg is a singer/songwriter in his fifties who's been kicking around the Minneapolis music scene for a couple of decades; his age and experience blaze through this simultaneously good-natured and apocalyptic song. Goldberg's deep, cigarette-stained voice brings the late Warren Zevon to mind, but there's an added Graham Parker-like snap and snarl to his delivery and something Dylanesque about the whole carnival-like enterprise, with its cavalcade of characters and situations set to a rollicking 3/4 beat. "American Grotesque" is the title track of Goldberg's most recent CD, released earlier this year. The MP3 is available on Goldberg's web site. Thanks to visitor Paul for the suggestion.

"The Guns of Brixton" - Nouvelle Vague
It's the Clash song, it's a French collective which has made an album transforming punk and new wave songs from the late '70s and early '80s into jazzy-poppy bossa nova-inflected tunes, and it's way more successful and alluring than it has any right to be. The idea to do this came from French producer/multi-instrumentalists Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux--Marc's idea, originally. (The web site claims that "Nouvelle Vague" means "new wave" in French and "bossa nova" in Portuguese; this seems cheeky to me, but cute.) The plan was to jettison the cultural context, focus on the strength of the song, and (a great touch) employ young singers who had never heard the original in the first place. On "The Guns of Brixton," Camille (she uses just her first name) brings a beguiling early '60s-style insouciance to the task, as the great Paul Simonon song is transformed into a jaunty lounge number with mind-boggling panache. Hear the incredible way she links the first verse to the chorus 48 seconds into the song, the audible out-breath she uses to get from the phrase "death row" to "You can crush us" etc. All through it of course is the crazy juxtaposition of this voice and these lyrics, but even that would not have been enough without the arrangement. What Collin and Libaux highlight most of all with this project is the sheer magic of musical arrangement, and the brilliance that can result when just the right instrument does just the right thing at just the right time without, somehow, sounding overly precise and calculated. One small example among many is the way a dark piano bass line is added at the beginning of the second verse--just perfect. Among the other songs covered by Nouvelle Vague on the CD are "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and "Making Plans for Nigel." Released overseas last June on the U.K.-based Peacefrog Records, Nouvelle Vague comes out this week in the U.S. on Luaka Bop Records. The MP3 is hosted by Insound.