Monday, July 25, 2005

week of July 24-30

"Down the Other Side" - Annie Gallup
Annie Gallup is a fierce writer, a teller of ravishing, compact stories, as funny and sensual as she is literate and subtle, and a vibrant peformer, with an idiosyncratic but immediately accessible, deeply expressive way of kind-of-talking, kind-of-singing her songs. While it's easy to keep all the emphasis on the words and their delivery (and too readily pigeonhole her as some sort of neo-beatnik folksinger), I am continually impressed by the music as well, which seems at once casually created and intensely crafted, at once sparse and rich; and she may not get too loud but without question she rocks. "Down the Other Side," for instance, has a swampy, seductive beat and some inspired electric guitar playing, even as the instrumentation is so spare that some of the percussion, it seems, is done by mouth. And yet it's true that with Gallup, we're never too far from the lyrics, like these: "Red-tailed hawk and a small white cross/ High on the Great Divide/ Drive on by until the tears I cry/ Roll down the other side": yikes, to explicate them further takes away their breathtaking poetry. She is the real thing, yet also the single most mysteriously overlooked singer/songwriter I've probably ever come across. Swerve, her magnificent 2001 CD, came and went without a trace--I discovered it only as it called to me from the corner of my local library where they sell used books and, occasionally, CDs. Finally she has a follow-up--Pearl Street, her fifth, released on Fifty Fifty Music, oh, in April. (I hadn't heard.) This is where "Down the Other Side" is from. (The MP3 is hosted on the Fifty Fifty site.) I just checked and found it was (no joke) the 97,854th best-selling CD on Amazon, where all five CDs of hers have now received a total of 7 reviews, at least two by the same person (a friend of hers, apparently). The world isn't fair, I know, but sometimes it really really isn't fair.

"Plan To Stay Awake" - the Deathray Davies
Compress "I've Just Seen a Face" and "It's the End of the World as We Know It" into two minutes and five seconds and here we are, listening to the latest fuzzy blast of power pop from the Dallas outfit named after the storied leader of the Kinks. This is as straightforward a rock song as can be imagined--a hurried tumble of words in the verse, a two-line, sing-along chorus repeating the title twice--yet it positively bristles with spirit and panache, proving yet again that the true power of music is suggested but never completely encompassed by its concrete components. Much like life itself, if I may broaden the metaphor. The Deathray Davies were born in the late '90s as the jokey stage name under which John Dufilho performed solo material that he couldn't use with Bedwetter, the band he was in at the time. He wrote, sang, and played everything himself on the first Deathray Davies CD in 1999. Dufilho is still the writer and singer but by the third CD in 2002, the Deathray Davies had morphed into an actual band. "Plan to Stay Awake" is from the The Kick and the Snare, released in May on Glurp Records. The MP3 is available via the Glurp site.

"Rotten Love" - Levy
A languid sort of majesty propels this oddly affecting song. Everything seems encased in an echoey, mournful blanket, from singer/guitarist James Levy's forlorn voice to the soft, chiming synthesizer lines and, even, the ringing wall of guitar that never quite blazes through to the forefront. Nothing, in fact, seems quite to burst through, even as the song moves at a steady clip; when all is said and done, lyrics about smelling the rotten love are perhaps best heard cushioned by the aforementioned mournful blanket. Levy is a NYC-based quartet that's been gathering an enthusiastic following since its founding in 2003; for the record, the band is intent on using all upper-case letters for its name but as luck would have it Fingertips usage policy (see web page yet to be written) forbids such silliness. "Rotten Love" was the title track on the band's self-released debut in 2004 and will again be when Rotten Love is released in somewhat different form later this summer by the U.K. label One Little Indian. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

week of July 17-23

"Idiocy" - the Double
Psychoanalyze this if you must, but I'm a sucker for weirdness contained within some semblance of normalcy. It's a difficult balance to maintain, for one thing--it's much easier simply to be weird, or normal. And boy do our black-and-white assumptions about what is "normal" after all need a continual technicolor tweak. This is one reason why I love the new "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" movie so much, and it's a good part of why I love this squawking piece of skewed but peppy pop from the Brooklyn-based foursome known as the Double. What on earth is guitarist Donald Beaman up to, first of all?: after a spacey intro dissolves into feedback, he draws the feedback out into the entire song, playing along without playing along at all, not in the wrong key (feedback doesn't really come in a particular key) as much as in another aural space entirely. The effect is fascinating, especially as vocalist David Greenhill (prone to the occasional odd whoop himself) romps along as if he's got a normal rock band behind him. He doesn't; beyond Beaman's subversive slashing, he's got a keyboard player (Jacob Morris) with his own sort of weird distortion going, pumping a muffled, organ-like sound into the mix, often via happy, beat-skipping blurts. Check out the clearing created when Beaman abruptly leaves the scene at 1:22 for about a half a minute (not counting one four-second feedbacky smudge at around 1:34). Did he need a rest? A drink of water? No worries, he's back with an indescribable vengeance for the song's abrupt conclusion. Weird. But not. "Idiocy" is the first song made available from the band's Matador Records debut, Loose in the Air, scheduled for release in September. The MP3 is available via the Matador site.

"War On Sound" - Moonbabies
Back to Sweden we go, and back to the duo Moonbabies (whose song "Sun A.M." was a previous TWF pick). Multi-instrumentalist/vocalists Ola Frick and Carina Johannason have a happy facility with a variety of pop languages (including but not limited to electronica, folk rock, and power pop) and a carefree touch in the studio. I like for instance how the martial drumbeat of the introduction, matched against a buzzing sort of keyboard, is augmented (and humanized) by the prominently-mixed in-breaths from (I think) both singers which launch every other measure. The song strips back, sonically, for the verse, with Frick singing, in Beck-like tones, against a fidgety electronic beat, Johannson harmonizing dreamily in the background. Everything ultimately is a set-up for the glistening chorus, a brisk yet soothing shot of melody, harmony, and comforting keyboard riff where cliches are forgiven ("It'll be all right") as great chords glide by. Listen in particular to where we end up when Frick sings "where everything's passing by"--how the chord shifts as the word "by" is extended: live in that moment and everything is always wonderful. "War On Sound" is the title track to an eight-song "mini-album" to be released next week on Hidden Agenda Records. The MP3 is available via Parasol Records, which is Hidden Agenda's parent label; thanks to Pitchfork for the pointer.

"Friend to J.C." - Mary Timony
Hailed in the '90s as part of the D.C.-based trio Helium, which trafficked in the indelible sub-genre known as "noise pop," Mary Timony veered in a quieter, quasi-medieval direction on two early-'00s solo CDs that puzzled some of her fans and exasperated her record company (the aforementioned Matador, as a matter of fact). Whatever the merits of her musical sidetrack, she decided a return to a harder sound was in order for her latest CD, Ex Hex, which was released--without a whole lot of fanfare--in April on Lookout Records. "Friend to J.C.," the album's second track, is an off-beat but rewarding piece of Liz Phair-ish indie-singer-songwriter-rock. A chiming guitar riff (backed by chimes, just for kicks) forms the song's sort-of-center, but Timony is too idiosyncratic a songwriter to let anything feel settled or familiar. And that strikes me as central to her appeal: like a foreign film in which you're never sure exactly where the story is going next, "Friend to J.C." unfolds in its own, unformulaic manner. The closest thing here to a chorus is a section anchored by a series of four chords that seem not exactly to match the pitch of her voice--which somehow or other seems to be its own odd sort of hook. The MP3 is available via both her site and the Lookout site.

Monday, July 11, 2005

week of July 10-16

"Flesh" - Islands
A dense, variegated rocker alternating time signatures, volume, and soundscapes to create a complex but memorable piece of (somehow) pop--almost as dense but way more memorable than this sentence, I should add. The introduction rocks and prickles in and out of a 7/4 beat like Television doing a Led Zep imitation; 50 seconds in, things quiet down as a mellowed-out electric guitar traces spare arpeggios before Nick Diamonds enters with his echoey and full-bodied tenor (Thom Yorke doing his Robert Plant imitation). This was already too much for me to absorb on one listen; my simple ears needed many repeats to begin to make sense of it, but along the way I caught melodies, chord changes, instrumental shifts, vocal qualities, and production touches that said "Keep listening." During one of my later listens, I realized how the band uses the same post-introduction quiet section three-quarters of the way through the song to lead back to the music from the introduction, which ends up, palindromically, as the coda also. Cool, and maybe even brilliant. Islands is the name of a new side project formed by Diamonds (known as "Niel") and Jaime Thompson (aka J'aime Tambour), who are two-thirds of the Unicorns, an eccentric, lo-fi Montreal band with something of a following. "Flesh" is one of two MP3s recently made available via Elliot Aronow's Simple Mission blog; thanks to Elliot himself for the head's up.

"Space They Cannot Touch" - Kate Miller-Heidke
I think sometimes my ear not only needs charm and grace but also proficiency--unmitigated, unapologetic proficiency. From Miller-Heidke's classically-trained soprano (used with a restraint almost unheard of in this age of "American Idol"-promoted histrionics) to her spiffy band's exquisitely laid-back accompaniment (imagine Steely Dan as Joan Armatrading's backup band), "Space They Cannot Touch" sounds like a song the indie-oriented '00s cannot touch. Vocal comparisons to Kate Bush may be inevitable--Miller-Heidke has some of mighty Kate's contained flutteriness and substantive breathiness--but her tone strikes me as purer, her ineffable idiosyncrasies more Siberry-ian, I'd say, than Bush-like. Be sure, by the way, not to miss the marvelous wordless flourishes of the song's last 30 seconds or so. That this all comes from a 23-year-old Australian singer/songwriter is wonderful; I love how the rest of the world is more than ever feeding worthy music back into our bloodstream, compensating refreshingly for the black hole created by the American music industry's abandonment of music itself as a virtue. "Space They Cannot Touch" is one of seven songs on Telegram, Miller-Heidke's debut EP, self-released in April 2004 but not yet heard much in this part of the world. The MP3 is available via her site.

"Mumble Mumble" - Get Him Eat Him
Not that there's anything wrong with a sparkling slice of quirky indie-rock mastery either--coming to us this time via a quintet from Brown University in Providence, a location not unknown for breeding quirky rock bands. "Mumble Mumble" is a short, spunky mixture of slashy guitars and tumbly words, held together by a good-natured melody, a knowing sense of production, and octave harmonies (gotta love octave harmonies). The chorus is particularly joyful, with its cascade of chord changes, nifty keyboard effects, and old-school Brit-pop allusions (both 10cc and Squeeze leap to mind). (In my musical-history-addled head, I see the song as a tribute both to Get Him Eat Him's former name--they began life as Grumble Grumble, but changed when threatened legally by the both obscure and defunct space-rock band Grimble Grumble--and to the brilliant Tilbrook/Difford song "Mumbo Jumbo." Even if it's not.) Singer/guitarist/songwriter Matt LeMay sounds like a wiseass, but a self-aware wiseass (he is, after all, credited on the bio page as "jerk, nerd, guitar"), which makes all the difference; many of rock history's best singers have had the air of self-aware wiseass about them. "Mumble Mumble" is a song from the band's full-length debut, Geography Cones, slated for release later this month on Absolutely Kosher Records. The MP3 is available on both the band's site and the Absolutely Kosher site.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

week of July 3-9

"Call It Clear" - Halloween, Alaska
A sustained synthesizer fades into a drum that sounds simultaneously like an electronica beat and a real drum being pounded by a real drumstick. The bass that quickly joins in is yet more intriguing, mashed somehow into a boopy sort of electro-sound for half of its repeating motif. This immediate and compelling blend of electronics and organics then releases into a meltingly warm two-chord guitar riff--a sound that has clear roots in jazz rather than electronica--and I'm pretty much hooked. Guitarist James Diers, it turns out, has a voice as meltingly warm as his guitar, with something of the husky depth one hears in Peter Gabriel, or the Eels' Mark Oliver Everett. This also makes me happy, and still happier I become as I note the indescribable series of precise, programmed sounds that work to create an electronic background of unusual (that word again) warmth. Halloween, Alaska is a four-man band from Minneapolis apparently specializing in infusing electronics with a deep human glow. The world can use the skill. "Call It Clear" is a song off the band's self-titled debut CD, originally released on Princess Records in 2004, and re-released by East Side Digital in April. The MP3 can be found on CNET's Thanks to 50 Quid Bloke (self-described "saviour of the music industry"!) for the lead.

"Shallow" - Halomobilo
So this one sways to a fat 3/4 beat and is introduced with a barrage of heavy guitar work (I will continue to find lower-register guitar playing refreshing as long as most rock guitarists express themselves predominantly on the high notes). A bonus: within the first 30 seconds of the song, the singer uses the word "whilst," which sounds unaccountably endearing to my American ears. The entire song, come to think of it, sounds unaccountably endearing to me. I think it's the head-bobbing chorus that does it in particular: the measure-long notes and diving intervals work especially well with the muffled sort of angst that singer Mark Burnside has itching at the back of his throat (and occasionally throwing his pitch off in a strangely effective way). Even the lyrical imperative ("I won't be a shadow/No, I won't be so shallow") is unexpectedly touching, but perhaps not surprising from a group describing itself as "a heartfelt, commercially acceptable, big sounding rock band." Halomobilo was founded in Chelmsford, England in 2002; they have yet to release a CD. "Shallow" is available as an MP3 on the band's site.

"Across the Bridge" - the Great Lakes Myth Society
Sounding like a song from some lost epic indie-folk rock opera, "Across the Bridge" weaves banjo, violin, and increasingly dramatic vocal choruses around a sure beat and a sturdy, gratifying melody. Lead vocalist James Christopher Monger bears a smile-inducing resemblance to Paul Heaton of the Beautiful South (and the Housemartins before them), singing with open-hearted gusto both alone and in larger groups. The Great Lakes Myth Society are five guys from Ann Arbor with a geographical fixation and a keen sense of socio-historical drama, not to mention an unusual way with words. As their web site notes: "Like five applehead men soaking in their respective freshwater tombs, feeling the pulp return to their faces, each day brings the delicious pain of life and the endless need to create." Indeed. "Across the Bridge" is one of 15 songs on the band's self-titled debut CD, released in April on their own Stop, Pop, and Roll label. Thanks to Salon's "Audiofile" for the lead, which came from one of the intriguing summer-oriented playlists Thomas Bartlett has been posting there recently. The MP3 is hosted on the Stop, Pop, and Roll site.