Monday, August 29, 2005

week of Aug. 28-Sept. 3

"Fleur de Lis" - Slow Dazzle
Stylish, echoey guitar-laced synth pop with an interesting sort of urban-cowboy flair. Blessed by both atmosphere and motion, "Fleur de Lis" features a slinky melody and sneaky lyrics, delivered with weary-innocent panache by Shannon McArdle. I love how many distinct types of sounds this NYC trio blends into an organic whole: spacey synthesizers, lonesome-desert lead guitar lines, puffing keyboard accents, rattlesnake beats, and (best of all) a loopy sort of backwards-sounding guitar that steals the show at 1:37. Slow Dazzle features two-thirds of the songwriters in the neo-folk-rock-ish outfit the Mendoza Line (McArdle and Timothy Bracy); "Fleur de Lis" is the lead track from the CD The View From the Floor, released in June on Misra Records. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

"Come In Out of the Rain" - Engineers
Large and dreamy, "Come In Out of the Rain" is a shiny example of how much the so-called "shoegaze" sub-genre owes to a sub-genre that might otherwise seem at the opposite end of the sub-genre spectrum--namely, power pop. (Which only goes to show how insipid is the internet-propagated need to sub-genre-ize everything, but that's another story.) But listen to the beautiful tangent the melody takes from 0:48 through 0:53, which I know in my gut is a power-pop sort of embellishment, even as I can't possibly begin to explain why this is, and how it works within this spacious, grandly-textured sort of down-tempo anthem. I'm also hearing a good bit of early Tears For Fears here--partially because TFF doesn't get enough credit for pioneering the accessible end of the shoegaze/dream-pop sound, and partially because Tears For Fears producer Dave Bascombe apparently had a hand in the mix on the Engineers self-titled debut CD, from which this comes. The CD was released in June on Echo Records; the MP3 is available through Insound.

"Ear Nose & Throat" - Troubled Hubble
A particularly crisp and tasty iteration of the time-honored tradition of rock songs with one-note verses, "Ear Nose & Throat" is, perhaps, the first of these to work the word "otolaryngology" into the torrent of words usually unleashed in such circumstances. I especially like the combination of snare-free drumming and metallic guitars, which creates a satisfyingly crunchy-rhythmic environment for the medically-oriented lyrical overflow. One of the cool things about this sort of song, when done well, is how the lyrics flow past impressionistically, telling not a linear story but still achieving a certain sort of wholeness. Troubled Hubble is a quartet from outside Chicago with six self-released CDs (three full-lengths, three EPs) to their name before Making Beds in a Burning House was released in May on Lookout Records (and apparently on Eenie Meenie Records too, somehow; sometimes--often--the indie-rock scene is too complicated for its own good). The MP3 is available via the band's site. Thanks to BLCKYLLWBLCK for the lead.

Monday, August 15, 2005

week of Aug. 14-20

"Please Stand Up" - British Sea Power
Immediately spacious, majestic, and heart-warming, "Please Stand Up" updates a late '70s/early '80s sound not often aimed at, even in today's rock flea market, in which past styles are rummaged through with the speed and tenacity of the experienced bargain hunter. British Sea Power's vocalist, a chap who goes by the name of Yan, sings with great, husky Bowie-ish bravura, but what really nails things down here is the clean, melodic guitar line (courtesy of a chap who goes by the name of Noble) at the center of the sound. Playing both carefully and fiercely, Noble offers sweeping, middle-register intervals that seem always to yearn upward; and he knows how to lay back, never unduly asserting his sound and in so doing anchoring everything around him. "Please Stand Up" is from the band's second CD, Open Season (Rough Trade), which sort of blew by me when it was released back in April, but judging from this song I think I will find myself a copy post haste. The MP3 is available via Insound. Many thanks to Thomas Barlett at Salon for the tip.

"Heroics" - The Scribbled Out Man
Some songs are inexplicably endearing and this is one of them. But let's see, there must be a way to quantify the feeling, at least a bit. Certainly the stuttery guitar riff is fetching from the get-go; and the casual way electronics are used to create atmosphere without overwhelming the soundscape, very nice; and the way singer/songwriter/guitarist Paul Linklater flips into falsetto without warning, as the song builds, gotta love it; and then the way the whole song is just this accumulation of largely indecipherable lines, emerging relentlessly and with increasing (but controlled) frenzy. It's all very cool. The Scribbled Out Man is a four-man Canadian band fronted by Linklater, and includes drummer/cellist (not to mention engineer/producer) Don Kerr, who has worked with the great Ron Sexsmith. The band formed in 2003; its first full-length CD, All Different, was released last year on the net label "Heroics" comes from the CD; the MP3 is available via the band's site. Thanks to Alan at Sixeyes for the lead.

"Recovery" - New Buffalo
Snappy, airy, off-kilter pop from Australian singer/songwriter Sally Seltmann, who for whatever reason records under the name New Buffalo. Underscored by pipey keyboards and electronic handclaps, "Recovery" features a subtly wondrous mix of unexpected sounds, from '40s-style choral harmonies and sampled horn flourishes to a brilliantly textured wash of harp-like synthesizer. Seltmann's voice on its own has a compelling fragility, as if any note she tries to hold might abruptly crack; and yet she also sings back-up harmonies with heavenly gusto. The overall effect is something at once strange and familiar, wispy and solid. "Recovery" is the lead track on the second New Buffalo CD, The Last Beautiful Day, released overseas last year and slated for a North American release next week on the Canadian label Arts & Crafts. Seltmann wrote, arranged, and produced the CD on her own, and performed it almost entirely by herself. The MP3 is available via Seltmann's site.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

week of Aug. 7-13

"Freshman Thesis" - Thee More Shallows
A spacey synthesizer noodle leads into a classical violin motif, but notice from the start the strict, punctuating beat (laid out by an accompanying violin): as many changes as the song takes us through, the clock-like beat remains constant, central, sometimes upfront, sometimes implied via syncopation, eventually yanked into a searing metallic shuffle but still always there. You can tap your finger on your desk steadily throughout the song; I'm not sure why this characteristic engages me so but so it does. There is plenty else, however, to appreciate here, from singer Dee Kesler's plainspoken voice, and the words he sings (example: "Before I spoke in riddles I was worried someone would hear me/Now I know that no one really listens so I will just speak clearly"), to the lovely yet urgent texture created through the interweaving of bass, drum, programming, and the recurring violin. What hooked me for good was how unexpectedly the song is opened by melody from 1:30 through 1:45--what sounded to that point like an intriguing bit of minimalism is deepened by a precise series of delightful musical steps. And then somehow the pretty precision is itself deepened by the slashing coda. (A great touch at the very end: the beat finally stops, but the violin, briefly, endures.) "Freshman Thesis" is the third song on More Deep Cuts, the second Thee More Shallows CD, released last month on Santa Clara, Calif.-based Turn Records. The MP3 is available via the Turn site.

"Vermillion" - Mercury Rev
At once glittering and mysterious, "Vermillion" offers an instantly unique amalgam of sounds, combining the swift beat of an airy pop song with the chiming, floaty atmosphere of something still and new agey and, occasionally, the churning insistence of beat-driven electronica. It's up to Jonathan Donahue--he of the thin-high-wavery voice and idiosyncratic phrasing--to connect it all, but thanks in large part to the sturdy, inspiring melody of the chorus, he does. I have not personally followed Mercury Rev's career as it has wound along from the late '80s through the present day, so I won't trot out the apparently usual suspects when talking comparisons and influences; me, I hear echoes of glittery-mysterious bands of old, from Supertramp (remember "The Logical Song"? I'm betting Donahue does) to the Blue Nile. "Vermillion" is from The Secret Migration, released in May on V2 Records; thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

"Fall Apart Again" - Brandi Carlile
Do you know how, in a great recipe, two flavors can be combined in such a way that you can clearly discern both of them even as they intermingle to create a new, distinctive taste? Thus does this 23-year-old from rural Washington state marry the throaty depth of Lucinda Williams to Emmylou Harris's heavenly smoke. While I might wish for a somewhat more distinctive vehicle, song-wise, for this heart-searing voice, well, what the heck--she's only 23. Besides, if "Fall Apart Again" is not breaking any songwriting ground, that's really part of the point with Carlile, who admirably seeks a timeless vibe and pretty much hits it. I can keep listening to this because her voice is an ongoing revelation. As much as I'm cringing in advance of what Columbia Records may yet unleash in the effort to make Carlile bigger than Lucinda and Emmylou combined, I have to give the label credit first of all for signing her and second of all for (amazingly) allowing an actual full-length free and legal MP3 to represent her work on the web. So put aside, as I did, some preconceived notions (major label? country twang? professional production? Rolling Stone "artist to watch"? "Brandi"???) and check her out. "Fall Apart Again" is from the debut CD, released in July on Columbia's Red Ink imprint.

Monday, August 01, 2005

week of July 31-Aug. 6

"World to Cry" - the dB's
Listen to the opening salvo, just that first three seconds of guitar. No point in even trying to describe the sound (rubbery-chimy-dissonant-melodic?; like I said, no point), and the delicious sense of anticipation generated as it leads smack into the concise lines and elegant modulation of the rest of the intro. And then Peter Holsapple opens his mouth and there it is, the dB's are back. Who'd have thought? Alternative before there was alternative, indie before there was indie, the North Carolina-born, NYC-generated dB's pioneered what became known by the genre police as "jangle-pop": a post-punk (late '70s, early '80s) reformulation of '60s folk rock with chiming guitars and stellar melodies. These are indeed the dB's in their original formation--Holsapple, Chris Stamey, Will Rigby, and Gene Holder: the same guys who recorded the first two (some might say classic) dB's albums, Stands for Decibels and Repercussion. While this song might not on its own give you a sense of how resplendent this band could be back in the day if you don't already know who they are, neither (I don't think) will it disappoint you if you do already know who they are and what they were. The guitar riff from the opening three seconds spreads out as a recurring melodic anchor; Holsapple's sweet-weary vocal style is as charming as ever; and the song displays characteristic dB's smarts through its effective alternation of major and minor chords and 6/4 and 4/4 measures. "World to Cry" is one of an album's worth of songs the band recorded in Hoboken in January; while they await a record deal, the song is available as an MP3 on the band's site.

"Oh Mandy" - the Spinto Band
Radiohead meets the Electric Light Orchestra at Adrian Belew's house. From the neat staccato dissonance of the opening measures through its gorgeous chords and sprightly vibe, this is one brilliant piece of 21st-century pop, the simplicity and directness of its surface producing a song shot through with depth and strength. Notice for instance how the verse and the chorus are pretty much identical, musically, then notice how this similarity is used to ravishing effect when the song breaks off for an extended bridge at 2:00: the musical tension builds and deepens as the bridge shifts at 2:21--it seems as if we're heading back to the verse but instead the song veers a couple of times into a new, neatly unresolved chord before triumphantly returning to the verse at 2:36 with more urgent instrumentation and a wonderful new vocal harmony. This young seven-piece (!) band from Delaware--which has been recording since the band members were in middle school--has a sparkling future if this is any indication. "Oh Mandy" is from the band's debut full-length, Nice and Nicely Done, released last month on Bar-None Records. The MP3 is available via Many thanks to Bruce at Some Velvet Blog for the lead.

"Curious" - Holopaw
This is indeed a curious song, from a curious, difficult-to-describe band. One of the oddest things about "Curious" (besides perhaps singer/songwriter/guitarist John Orth's unearthly tenor) is how short it is--its delicate, stringed setting and offbeat melody (bringing early Genesis to mind, of all things) speaks of a song that wants to spread out, offer instrumental breaks, bridges, and other ornamental accoutrements. And yet somehow we go from beginning to end in about two and a half minutes. No matter: set your MP3 players on "repeat" and let it cycle through a few times in a row, which seems to be the best way to grasp the underlying solidity of this sprinkly, evanescent, haunting song. My ear was hooked for good by the melody line that begins for the first time at 0:36, and in particular the chord change at 0:39, but that might have been on my third or fourth listen. Holopaw is a band from Gainesville, Florida, named after another Florida town that no one in the band is actually from. "Curious" is a song off Quit +/or Fight, the band's second CD, slated for release next week on Sub Pop Records. The MP3 is available via the Sub Pop site.