Monday, October 31, 2005

week of Oct. 30-Nov. 5

"White Daisy Passing" - Rocky Votolato
What's the difference between a boring, doleful singer/songwriter and compelling, doleful singer/songwriter? Aurally, not a whole helluva lot, sometimes. And yet it's this difference--which hits me clearly in the gut even as it's tricky to articulate--that allows me to like Elliott Smith and yet all too often really not like people who sound like Elliott Smith. And yet here's Rocky Votolato, all sweet-voiced and whispery, and yup, he grabs me right away. Maybe it's the crispness of the rhythm guitar. He may be sweet and whispery, but the song moves. This movement is based in both tempo and structure, as Votolato gets a lot out of the ever-engaging, Jackson Browne-ian relationship between a major chord and its relative minor (the introduction, for instance, is major; when he starts singing, he's in the relative minor, a pleasant but definite shift). Note too the sense of movement stemming from how he starts the chorus on the upbeat, straight out of the verse, and then leads us through a chord progression that pivots on a seventh chord. This seems particularly striking as he's getting just then to the saddest part of the song. (Seventh chords are usually good-timey things.) The lyric at this point is almost mind-blowingly painful, yet easy to miss in the strummy flow of the whole thing, so check it out: "I'm going down to sleep/On the bottom of the ocean/'Cause I couldn't let go/When the water hit the setting sun." "White Daisy Passing" will be on Votolato's debut CD, Makers, scheduled for a January 2006 release on Barsuk Records. The MP3 is up on the Barsuk site.

"Bang Theory" - World Leader Pretend
Maybe I'm crazy, but I'm beginning to sense an interesting rapprochement in the musical world that seems completely opposed to the tense polarity that suffuses the political world here in the U.S. in the new century. I'm hearing sounds that have for many years been rejected or ridiculed (for no actual good reason) seeping their way back into public awareness. ELO and early Elton John are popping up on store sound systems everywhere I go, making things seem happy and connected, and none of it somehow sounds like an accident. What this has to do with the New Orleans quintet World Leader Pretend, I'm not exactly sure, except that there's something in the big, swaggering sound here that reminds me of a neglected past, and bands I maybe used to make fun of (um, Simple Minds, for one), and now I don't really want to make fun. ("Can't we all just get along" and all that.) Okay, so lead singer Keith Ferguson teeters on the edge of macho-breathy histrionics--to my ears, the band creates such a large, burnished space for him to do it in, full of classic-sounding melodies and catchy instrumental refrains, that it all makes some kind of crazy messy sense. "Bang Theory" is the first song on the band's major-label debut, Punches; released on Warner Brothers Records in June, the label appears yet to be trying to work at some indie-like web buzz to get it going. If that means actually putting this free and legal MP3 out (via Filter), I'm all for it.

"Secret" - La Laque
Then again, maybe in the long run we prefer the sort of breathy histrionics likely to emerge from a band with a French name and a sultry lead singer singing in French. All the better if the band is from New York City, and the lead singer sings in French primarily because she's too shy to sing in English. La Laque is further notable for being a six-piece band, which is an unusual size in the annals of rock--and all the more unusual for its being made up of three men and three women. For all the apparent novelty of the music, this turns out to be an unusual song in less obvious ways as well, particularly for how it manages to sound at once like an ironic piece of chamber airiness and a chugging bit of post-punk-power-pop. Listen with admiration as "Secret" picks up a whole lot of drum-and-guitar noise in and around the violins after the minute and a half mark, yet does so with such ongoing panache that the band doesn't seem to break a sweat. "Secret" was one half of a shared single with the band Pas/Cal that was released on Romantic Air Records in June. The MP3 is available via the Romantic Air site.

Monday, October 24, 2005

week of Oct. 23-29

"Darkest Birds" - Nine Horses
David Sylvian is something of a self-contained and overlooked country in the geography of rock'n'roll history. From his teenaged beginnings in the band Japan--a Roxy Music-like art-glam-rock turned synth-pop band of the '70s and early '80s--Sylvian went on to pursue a left-of-center artistic path through the '80s and '90s. There were diffuse, ambiant-like solo recordings, featuring collaborations with like-minded experimental spirits such as Robert Fripp, Bill Nelson, and Ryuichi Sakamoto; there were forays into photography and avant-garde art installations; most recently came a solo CD of disconcertingly spare and challenging songs (2003's Blemish). In other words, he has kept busy doing all sorts of interesting things while remaining entirely obscure to the mass of music listeners here in the fad-crazy U.S. (Sylvian's is the sort of career, come to think of it, that seems possible only in Europe, unless you're maybe Laurie Anderson.) In the wake of Blemish's creative break/breakthrough comes Nine Horses, which finds Sylvian working with his brother Steve Jansen and an electronic composer/remixer with the arresting name of Burnt Friedman. On "Darkest Birds," Sylvian's husky, Bowie-meets-Ferry vibrato mixes luxuriously and effectively with an intimate, floaty, jazz-trumpet-accented verse and a louder, percussive chorus, both grounded in an organic-sounding wash of blippy electronica. Expect it to grow on you with repeated listens. "Darkest Birds" is the second track on the new Nine Horses CD "Snow Borne Sorrow," released last week on Sylvian's Samadhisound label. The MP3 is available via the sleek, artsy Samadhisound site.

"Catch a Collapsing Star" - the Mendoza Line
With a melody and spirit harkening back to the Dylanized '60s, "Catch a Collapsing Star" is as friendly as the corner pub, as crisp as an autumn afternoon, as happy-wistful as an old letter. I think I've become heedlessly, foolishly in love with Shannon McArdle's voice (first discussed when her other band, Slow Dazzle, was a TWF pick in August); her open, yearning sweetness mixes innocence and wisdom with uncanny balance. I'll try not to resent too much that she sings lead on only one verse here, as the lead vocals are otherwise handled by (I think!) bandmate Timothy Bracy. Then again, his raspy Steve Earle-ishness is really rather engaging as well, as is the nuanced mix of looseness and tightness on display throughout this rollicking tune. "Catch a Collapsing Star" will be found on the band's next CD, Full of Light and Fire, to be released next month on Misra Records. The MP3 is available via the Misra site.

"Words That I Employ" - Coach Said Not To
So this one starts like something unhinged and way-too-quirky-indie: a tick-tocky toy-like chiming noise and a woman's voice speak-singing an incomprehensible torrent of words. Some may immediately like this; me, I was just about ready to send the file to the Recycle Bin, but...I'm not sure. Something in the tone of the voice, something in the knowing flow of instrumentation, and then--wow, listen to the centering, glorious note singer Eva Mohn hits at 40 seconds, singing the word "sweet" (the lyric is: "Well that's so sweet/It makes me sick/It makes me sick and happy for you"). My goodness, she's got a real voice, and by real I don't mean necessarily beautiful (although it is, rather) or melodious but real as in full of depth and character. Likewise the band: they may herk and jerk with the best of them, but there is great strength of purpose and execution in their sound. I love the big, faux-classic-rock break in the middle section, around 1:30; and then best of all I love the subsequent return to the "that's so sweet" phrase--the note she sings at 2:23 melts the heart and nails the song, which now seems a satisfying, complete whole rather than a quirky parade of parts. The band name, by the way, comes, apparently, from a pamphlet the band members once saw detailing 101 ways to turn down a sexual invitation; they are number 71. "Words That I Employ" is a song off the band's debut, self-titled EP, which was released last year. A new three-song EP is due out shortly The MP3 is available via band's site.

Monday, October 17, 2005

week of Oct. 16-22

"The Vice and Virtue Ministry" - the Happy Bullets
Intertwining guitars, at once loopy and dainty, set the stage for this brisk, assured, and endlessly delightful tune. I am especially taken with lead singer Jason Roberts' fetching falsetto leaps--I love how his voice just flies upward at the end of a few key phrases, most of all when it happens so much in the middle of a lyrical line that he has to drop again as quickly as he went up. A five-piece band from Dallas (which includes Angela Roberts, Jason's wife, on bass), the Happy Bullets made the happy decision to work with producer Stuart Sikes (who has worked with Modest Mouse, the White Stripes, and the Walkmen, among others), whose sure touch enlivens this song in many different ways. I am unaccountably charmed, as an example, by the subtle acoustic strum that leads into the second verse (at 0:39), arising out of a maracas-like shaking sound just introduced out of the original loopy guitar line. And then of course there's the brilliant infusion of Kinks-ish spirit on display throughout. Being influenced by the Kinks is (praise the lord) no longer a novelty on the rock'n'roll scene, but I don't know that I've heard a 21st-century band take Ray Davies so delightfully into the here and now as these guys do. This isn't an homage and it's not nostalgia; Roberts doesn't even sound like Davies in any particular way. And yet this song so thoroughly embodies some key Kinksian vibe that if Davies had come of age in the '00s rather than the '60s his band I think would sound something very much like this. "The Vice and Virtue Ministry" is the title track from the Happy Bullets' second CD, released regionally in March on Undeniable Records; the album is set for a national release on November 1. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

"Chain Reaction" - 31 Knots
And now for something completely different: dense, complex, guitar-heavy neo-progressive rock from the Portland, Ore.-based trio 31 Knots. And yet I would not be here to foist this upon you if it were all intricate stop-start-y math-rock bloviation. Guitarist Joe Haerge plays with distinction, variation, and purpose, maintaining a shifting, surging energy throughout this long but engaging song. I'm thinking that not enough bands that record songs over five minutes understand how rewarding a more complex approach to song can be. Go back to those old Genesis records and you'll see that the songs were six, seven, eight minutes because they went places. The best part of "Chain Reaction" may well be the last two minutes, during which an intense instrumental break leads into a wholly new section of the song, including perhaps the most rewarding melodies of the whole piece. We've gotten a little too used to endless repetition padding out five-minute songs; here instead is a six-minute song that ends climactically, and leaves you wanting more. "Chain Reaction" comes from the band's fourth CD, Talk Like Blood, released last week on Polyvinyl Records. The MP3 is available via the Polyvinyl site.

"I Just Can't Fall In Love" - Bill Ricchini
And now consider this song, in yoga terms, to be the "counter-posture" to the previous song: open, flowing, melodic--an unabashedly "pop" song to re-wire the brain after all that intense intricacy. Here the hook is a simple-as-can-be five-note descent at the end of two of the four verse lines. Why does it slay me so? And yet it does, particularly when harmony vocals are added the second time around. The good-natured, '70s-style vibe pumps the song along at a nice clip, but it's that five-note descent that makes the song for me, and how well-suited it is to Ricchini's yearning, bittersweet voice. On another day maybe it's not enough to hang a song upon, but, hey, the sun is shining, the leaves are falling, and there's only so much intensity I can take in one sitting. Born and raised in Philadelphia, where he recorded his first CD bedroom-style to much acclaim, Ricchini is now New York City-based and signed to a small label. "I Just Can't Fall In Love" is from his second CD, Tonight I Burn Brightly, released in August on Transdreamer Records. The song is available through

Monday, October 10, 2005

week of Oct. 9-15

"Popstar Reaching Oblivion" - Flotation Toy Warning
"Popstar Reaching Oblivion" has the sort of fully-realized ecstatic sonic goofiness that MP3 collectors like to link to the Flaming Lips but harkens more firmly back to the likes of 10cc, Genesis (yes, they actually had a sense of humor), and Queen. One of the things this quintet from London does with much aplomb is present a straightforward melody via a crazy quilt of sounds--a neat effect not unlike the more widely acknowledged pop effect of singing sad lyrics to happy music. In this case, the end result is a satisfying confusion: the ear hears complexity and simplicity overlappingly, which somehow resolves the polarity. First, the song's basic, recurring melody, a line of lullaby-like gentleness, is introduced via a searing guitar solo (itself an interesting juxtaposition). The same melody is then re-delivered via layers of soaring and diving sounds, some vocal and some electronic and some created by who-knows-what, weaving and interacting in ways that are specifically elusive and yet link in the ear as an organic whole. Singer Donald Drusky's earnest British tenor, recalling a somewhat huskier version of Robert Wyatt, is the perfect vocal instrument for the dreamy loopiness of it all; the homely yet graceful horns arriving to mingle with the electronics during the second half of this strangely haunting number are yet more perfect. "Popstar Reaching Oblivion" comes from the band's debut CD, Bluffer's Guide to the Flight Deck, released in the U.S. in August on Misra Records (the CD was originally released last year in the U.K. on Pointy Records). The MP3 is available on the Misra site.

"Skywriters" - Nicole Atkins
If Chrissie Hynde were Jeff Tweedy's sister and Roy Orbison were their uncle...oh, never mind. I'm losing patience with my effort to create evocative analogies. But there's no denying the Hynde-like timbre in this NYC-based singer/songwriter's voice, nor the touching, earnest early '60s vibe infusing this shimmering, knowingly produced song. As for the Wilco connection, well, listen to those chord changes (check out for example where she goes with the word "the" in the phrase "the people below" in the chorus). And that unexpectedly intense guitar work that kicks in around 1:48. And the fact that it's really hard to follow what she's singing about, even as it doesn't sound all that complicated either. Let the song loop in your media player for a while and see how its various charms unfold. In the end I maybe like the ghostly, plucky, chiming synthesizer (?) line from the introduction most of all--at once weird and comforting, it brings me back a few generations musically for no reason I can particularly identify. "Skywriters" is one of nine songs on her first CD, Party's Over, self-relesaed earlier this year. The MP3 is available via The Deli.

"Once You Know" - Le Reno Amps
Scotland's answer to They Might Be Giants, Le Reno Amps are two guys (Scott and Al) from Aberdeen with an idiosyncratic sense of song, playful ideas about making lo-fi production come to life, and an enviable knack for melody. The modus operandi is stripped-down, always geared around their two voices and two guitars. But there's goofiness in the air too, lending an ineffable magic to the aural landscape. "Once You Know" sounds like it was recorded in a gym, with bouncing balls and/or stamping feet ingeniously employed as the rhythm section for this sharp and sprightly down-home ditty. The song gets off to a great start based on melody alone; when the "percussion" kicks in with the second verse, ably accented by some hardy background "hey!"s, the song is unstoppable. The fully-whistled verse that starts at 1:14 appears at that point both a crazy surprise and utterly inevitable. "Once You Know" is from Le Reno Amps' archly-titled debut CD LP, released under their own (ha-ha) Vanity Project imprint last year. The MP3 is up on the band's site. A second CD is apparently in the works for these guys, due out some time in 2006.

Monday, October 03, 2005

week of Oct. 2-8

"I Need A Moment Alone" - Ezra Reich
One part Bryan Ferry, one part B-52s, one part style-fixated NYC-based 21st-century rock'n'roller, Ezra Reich is, no doubt about it, just plain goofy. I can't claim to be big into musicians who throw a lot of energy into their "look," as such concern seems inevitably over-calculated. On the other hand, rock'n'roll history nevertheless indicates that one can never rule out a musician simply because he or she does cares about image/style, as there have been any number of worthy musicians (David Bowie, David Byrne, Prince, and the aforementioned Mr. Ferry come to mind) whose incisive sense of style was part of a rewarding musical package. One could also argue that a resolute lack of interest in so-called style can become its own sort of style (the entire grunge movement was more or less grounded in such an idea). In the end we listen with our ears, and in this case, my ears tell me this song is a fun, accomplished piece of pop, fusing elements of '80s synth-pop with Prince-ian bits of campy funk and who knows what else. It works unaccountably well, probably because if you're going to go over the top, you may as well go all the damned way. For me, when the female backup singer asks "You need a moment?" at 59 seconds, with all that deadpan come-hitherness, in the middle of an unexpected paean to self-reflection, well, I was pretty much hooked. "I Need A Moment Alone" is a song off Reich's soon-to-be self-released CD, Milkshake Arcade, which will be his second album. The MP3 is available via his site. Thanks to the redoubtable Largehearted Boy for the head's up.

"Doris" - the Dirty Three
I'm continually fascinated by rock'n'roll instrumentals, even as I remain skeptical of liking all that many. But every now and then one sneaks up and grabs me. "Doris," from the veteran Australian trio the Dirty Three, has a few great things going for it, from my perspective. Right away I love how the sharp, sliding rhythm is established by that great high-and-squonky guitar in the intro, and then how another guitar saws away with fuzzy fury at the bottom end of the sound. Aural landscape thus established, the middle part of the song is one grand, determined racket created by the unhinged interplay between an assortment of other, hitherto acoustic instruments (among which may be violin, mandolin, viola, and bagpipes), all underscored by the relentless beat, even as the drummer takes a backseat to the wild, vaguely Irish-sounding bray. It has the feel of a folk dance from the distant, re-forested future. About two and a half minutes in, the steady drummer re-emerges to drive this intense piece of music through its passionate conclusion. Dancers fall to the ground, exhausted and transcendent. "Doris" is a track from the Dirty Three's new CD, Cinder, slated for release next week on Touch and Go Records. The MP3 comes to us via the good folks at Filter Magazine.

"Darkest Hour" - the Spectacular Fantastic
And leave it to the Big Star-ian Cincinnati combo known as the Spectacular Fantastic to bring us back to solid ground with this brisk, likable, power-poppy chestnut. There may be nothing here my head hasn't sort of kind of heard before, but on the other hand, the sheer delight that courses through me as I listen tells my head that it is not my body's only musical input device. Though my head sure does enjoy taking what delights my heart and figuring out solid "reasons" for that delight. So, here, in the chorus, an effect I always love: how the melody associated with the words (in this case, "In the darkest hour") pulls up short of the harmonic resolution, which carries on afterwards, in the background, with that agreeably cheesy synthesizer line leading us into the resolving chord. The melody and chord pattern is pure basic traditional pop (straight out of "Heart and Soul") but performed with, yes, heart and soul by Mike Detmer and crew, this is music that will always sound fresh and vibrant to me. "Darkest Hour" is a song off the Spectacular Fantastic's new CD, The Spectacular Fantastic Goes Underground, released this week on Ionik Recordings. The MP3 resides on the band's site.