Tuesday, June 28, 2005

week of June 26-July 2

"Between the Lines" - Sambassadeur
A sure sign of the robust state of Swedish rock'n'roll is how there really isn't a "sound" we here in the U.S. can pinpoint anymore to say: "Ah! That sounds like a Swedish band." Of course I'm sure that never really was the case in Sweden to begin with--clearly the country has had a diverse and potent music scene for decades. But only recently (thanks in no small part to the internet) have we on this side of the Atlantic been exposed to so much of it to begin to be truly impressed with the range of aural possibilities emerging from Stockholm, Göteborg, Malmö, et al. So here's the band Sambassadeur, a quartet formed in 2003, and here's "Between the Lines," a wispy, summery confection with earnest acoustic guitars and an early-'60s melody. Singer Anna Persson's pure, weightless voice conjurs Belle & Sebastian somehow, even as the song itself better resembles something from Kirsty MacColl's earlier years in its efforts to recapture something otherwise lost between the years 1962 and 1965. "Between the Lines" can be found on Sambassadeur's self-titled full-length debut, recently released on Labrador Records; the MP3 is available via the Labrador web site.

"In This Home On Ice" - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Alec Ounsworth has a voice like a mosquito, thin and buzzy, and he sometimes infuses syllables with the same swoopy anxiety that David Byrne specialized in back in the early days of Talking Heads. Beyond that, however, this suddenly visible Brooklyn quintet really doesn't have much to do with Talking Heads, early new wave, '70s or '80s art school rock, or any particular past moment in rock'n'roll, despite what you may be reading. What catches my ear here is the song's ongoing juxtaposition of edginess and resolution, most prominent in the way Ounsworth's metallic strangle of a voice works against the muted, pulsing drive of the guitars. But maybe the best example is at the end of the verse, a moment that sounds to me like the song's central pivot point (and best hook): the way the melody works through the same note twice with a classic (actually classical) chord progression through to the tonic, or home chord. Adding that extra line delays resolution even as it makes resolution all the more inevitable and delicious--extra-delicious, really, in the context of this nervous-seeming song. Don't by the way miss the wacky moment of Queen-ish anarchy in the bridge, which adds to the song's odd brilliance. "In This Home On Ice" can be found on the band's self-titled debut CD, self-released this month (and temporarily sold out); the MP3 is one of three available on the band's site.

"Raging Red" - Dear Leader
The idea that music has to sound different to be deemed admirable/worthy/whatever is a common underlying theme in many reviews you will read every which where, but it's a needless intellectual conceit, introducing a boggy layer between the sound itself and the world at large. Too many critics are so wrapped up in assessing whether a band is doing something "new" that they can't possibly be listening, simply, to the song itself and deciding whether it is good, which may or may not have to do with how much sonic ground it happens to be breaking. Never mind the fact that what critics tend to listen for to determine newness are typically surface-level characteristics (same guitar sound as Band X, same vocal sound as Musician Y) that can be concretely identified, versus ineffable aspects of the sound such as vibe, integrity, and spirit. That said, this is a big, bashing rocker from a Boston band fronted by Aaron Perrino (ex- of local indie favorites the Sheila Devine) and the way it is different than most songs you'll hear on the internet is that it's good: solidly constructed and passionately delivered, with a nice balance between the exclamatory verses and the anthemic chorus. Perrino is not above utilizing time-honored big-time rock tricks like stuttering a central word in the chorus, screeching beyond the capacity of his vocal cords, and a quick cut of silence before cranking into verse number two. "Raging Red" is a track off Dear Leader's debut CD, All I Ever Wanted Was Tonight, released towards the end of 2004 on Newburyport, Mass.-based Lunch Records. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

Monday, June 20, 2005

week of June 19-25

"Wait for the Wheels" - Goldrush
Five lads from Oxford, England who do not sound like Radiohead, Goldrush has been busy the last few years perfecting a British take on Americana music, with nods towards everyone from the Byrds to Neil Young to Wilco. In the process (as these things go with the right amount of talent), the band has developed a sound that seems pretty much their own (not to mention a record company in the U.K. that is their own). "Wait for the Wheels" begins (nice touch) like the end of a Neil Young/Crazy Horse song--a fuzzy blare of guitar, a flare of cymbals, a noodling bass--but the drummer picks up the beat and soon we're churning along to the crunch of a deep, circular interplay between guitar and bass. As singer Robin Bennett opens his mouth, the guitar peels away, which highlights the almost funky bass riff, while an acoustic guitar soon slips in to provide some sparkly texture underneath Bennett's friendly, slightly breathy voice. Electric guitars return rather janglingly in the somewhat syncopated chorus: listen to how both sides of the verse "I wait for the wheels/To turn" begin on the central upbeat between the second and third beats, which then drags the line into the next measure. You sense a stutter or shift even as the song retains its 4/4 drive. Bennett has something of Jeff Tweedy's casually pained depth while not sounding very much like Tweedy at all (except maybe a little in the chorus, come to think of it, particularly the second time, as the guitars really start buzzing and crunching); I really want to describe Bennett's voice as "chalky" except that I've never quite figured out what a chalky voice is. Ah well. "Wait for the Wheels" will be found on the band's U.S. debut CD, Ozona, scheduled for release in July on Better Looking Records. The MP3 is available via the Better Looking site; the other one there is equally as good, as is one more that's available on the band's site, which is a song from their first CD, Don't Bring Me Down, released in the U.K. in 2002.

"Lovesick" - the Arrogants
If "Lovesick" wastes no time flaunting one of pop music's greatest of chord progressions, so be it--either not enough people bother to employ it, or (more likely) it's not as easy to pull off as it may seem. Eschewing all distracting embellishments (there's no introduction, no instrumental break, and the chorus and bridge are effectively combined), "Lovesick" accentuates its classic-pop roots and in so doing, may just transcend them. I especially enjoy the messy-tight guitar work scorching a hole in the background, as well as singer Jana Wittren's endearing vocals, with their elusive almost-British-isms and sweet phrasing (the way she sings "you were the one" 15 or so seconds into the song melts my heart). If Harriet Wheeler from the Sundays sang lead for Blondie, they might have sounded, at least sometimes, like this. The Arrogants have released two EP-length CDs on Shelflife Records; "Lovesick" comes from their first, entitled Your Simple Beauty, released in 2000. The band's long-awaited first full-length CD is due out next month; it will feature 23 songs, most of them new, some of them reworked "oldies," including a new version of "Lovesick." The MP3 is available via the band's site.

"Salome" - Van Elk
Quiet, elegiac "Salome" overcomes its somewhat lo-fi trappings through the palpable mystery evoked by its simple setting and haunting beauty. There's such refinement at work within the aural landscape here that it casts a spell and I am hooked. I love the heartbeaty percussive accent that sounds like a squelched guitar chord and love even more the stately, wordless motif that winds its way repeatedly through the song. "Salome"'s mystery is enhanced by the dirth of information available about the duo calling itself Van Elk. Featuring former Mistle Thrush singer Valerie Forgione and Boston-area musician Ken Michaels, Van Elk (Val plus Ken, swirled around a bit) has the barest of internet presences--a web site with four songs to listen to, basically. No word about releases, no word about current work. I for one hope to hear more.

Monday, June 13, 2005

week of June 12-18

"Don't Like The Way" - New Estate
Rocking with a leisurely, feedbacky vibe, "Don't Like The Way" juxtaposes an edgy, shrill-but-likable guitar sound with a flowy melody and good-natured background chug that somehow puts me in the mind of Fleetwood Mac of all things (hm, maybe the song title also did it, bringing "Go Your Own Way" unconsciously to mind). In any case, the band has an intriguing sound going here, and while I am not one of the writers about music on the web who demands innovation above all else, I certainly am impressed when I come across a band that seems to have its own particular voice--something that has become more and more difficult to do without lapsing into unaccountable quirkiness here in the new century. I'm guessing that this Melbourne-based quartet--featuring, unusually, both three singers and three songwriters--may be worth keeping eyes and ears on. "Don't Like The Way" is the lead track on the band's CD Considering..., released this month on Kittridge Records; the MP3 is found on the Kittridge web site.

"Boots" - Noe Venable
Atmospheric and structurally engaging, "Boots" unfolds with precision and intrigue, anchored by Venable's able and appealing voice. While an acoustic guitar provides a centering pulse, this song moves well beyond standard singer/sonwriter fare, brandishing a varied instrumental palette with great subtlety and skill, while some of the melodic turns give me goosebumps. Venable is a Bay Area musician with a loyal local following; she plays in a trio featuring keyboards, violin, and various electronic devices. "Boots" is the title track to her second most recent CD, released in 2003 on Venable's Petridish Records. The MP3 can be found on her site; thanks to 3hive for the tip.

"60 Cycles" - the Spectacular Fantastic
First of all, check out the big bashy guitars in the intro and the way the lead and the rhythm guitars leap immediately into action with both a manner and sound that seem heartbreakingly old-fashioned (the lead guitar's tone is itself a blast from some indefinable past). Then Mike Detmer opens his mouth and he's got a great dollop of Westerberg-ish goofy humor about his voice even as he's not saying or doing anything particularly funny. And then, geez, is the hook in the chorus insanely good or what? I have no idea why, it just is: "And I try to be the same as you," he sings, and listen if you would to the notes he hits on the word "try" and "as" and somewhere in there is not only the secret to the hook but (maybe) the secret to life as we know it. (Maybe. It's a hunch, that's all.) While nothing here is new or different it sounds new and different precisely because it's not trying to be new and different, if that makes any sense. This isn't self-conscious retro rock, this is brand new classic pop, delivered with love and verve by the Cincinnati-based Detmer, who likes to work with a rotating cast of characters and call himself a band. "60 Cycles" is the lead track on a new EP entitled I Love You, all six songs of which are available as free downloads on the band's web site. Thanks to The Catbirdseat for the head's up.

Monday, June 06, 2005

week of June 5-11

"Aptitude" - Novillero
Anchored by a swinging piano riff, appealing chord progressions, and what seems an unusually hard-headed philosophy for a pop song, "Aptitude" is both immediately enjoyable and lastingly affecting. A quartet from Winnipeg founded in 1999, Novillero sounds like the real thing to me, capable of delivering music that is at once melodically and lyrically astute--no mean feat in our mash-up culture. The chorus is especially marvelous, rendered all the more effective for its jaunty bouncing between major and minor chords. Even better, it builds with each iteration--first delivered in a restrained vocal-and-piano setting, the chorus next arrives with the full band fleshing out the harmonics, and the third time with vocalist Rod Slaughter (he's also the piano player) singing an octave higher, adding a keening edge to both the music and lyrics. This works particularly well as the song has now shifted its focus: what began as a world-weary warning about how we are all limited by our inherent capabilities reveals itself (if I'm hearing it right) rather poignantly as a philosophy borne from disappointment in love. Complete with nifty horn charts. "Aptitude" is on the band's cleverly titled second CD, Aim Right For The Holes In Their Lives, which was released in the U.S. last week on Mint Records. The MP3 comes from the band's web site.

"Heart Pine" - the Sames
From its opening guitar pulse--sounding like a stressed-out siren--"Heart Pine" grabs my ear and doesn't let up. This is quite an accomplishment for a song lacking both melodic and harmonic diversity; here the whole clearly transcends the sum of its parts. With repeated listens I begin to understand how the insistent guitar accompaniment, at once slashing and chiming, works with the hypnotic melody (sung with slightly fuzzed-out vocals) to push the song forward with an urgent but subtly complex sort of drone--and then how the drone itself is slyly deconstructed as the song develops. Listen for instance to the way the second beat is dropped in the verse section--once the singing starts, you may notice the 4/4 time is marked out by the first, third, and fourth beats, which is a very gratifying rhythm (the fact that the drummer masks what he's doing adds to the effect). Listen too to how the song's limited chord changes are swallowed by the drone for a good minute and a half, creating an extra layer of tension before the release introduced by a perfectly timed bit of feedback at 1:35 and then (at last) a series of chord changes that I feel as if I'm hearing in my stomach more than my ears. The Sames are a quartet from Durham, North Carolina; "Heart Pine" is a song from their debut full-length CD, You Are The Sames, released in April on Pox World Empire. The MP3 is available via band's web site.

"Just One Breath" - Devics
What an instantly fetching voice Devics singer Sara Lov has, simultaneously strong and vulnerable, with great character and yet not odd in the way that voices with great character can sometimes be--think, maybe, Tanya Donelly (upper register) combined with Over the Rhine's Karin Bergquist (lower register) without, somehow, the potentially distracting idiosyncracies of either. The song glides along with grace and assurance, blending equally crisp acoustic and electric guitars with some baroque-ish keyboards in a cinematic sort of aural space, veering into the occasionally unexpected chord, with Lov always at the magnetic center. Devics are a duo from Los Angeles now living in Italy, multi-instrumentalist Dustin O'Halloran being the other half.
"Just One Breath" is a song off the band's new EP Distant Radio, to be released next week on Leftwing Records. The MP3 is hosted on the band's site, with Filter Magazine pointing the way.