Monday, November 28, 2005

week of Nov. 27-Dec. 3

"Look At Her Face" - the Coral Sea
A terrifically put together song from a Santa Barbara-based band with a good-looking future. Offering dynamics legitimately deserving of the overused adjective "cinematic," the Coral Sea melds musical elements from a number of different decades, or maybe even centuries, to create an artfully assembled space that feels both layered and airy. The sense of urgency pervading the opening section is driven largely by the pulsings of a string quartet, of all things; when a simple, resonant piano line enters at 1:28, the song opens up magnificently, achieving a U2-esque grandeur even as singer/songwriter Rey Villalobos, with his sweet, pitch-perfect pop voice, keeps the enterprise rooted on earth rather than in the heavens somewhere. The son of a cinematographer (ah!), Villalobos is a classically-trained musician who lists Chopin among his influences; easier ones to pick out here might be the Beatles (John Lennon in particular), the Moody Blues, the Pixies, and Bends-era Radiohead, and yet this doesn't really sound like any of them. "Look At Her Face" is the opening song on the band's debut CD, Volcano and Heart, self-released under the Red Clover Records imprint in July. The MP3 is hosted on the band's site. Thanks to the gang at 3hive for the lead.

"Number One" - Catlow
Wielding no obvious sonic gimmicks, no "listen to me, I'm different!" antics, Natasha Thirsk, doing business as Catlow, has crafted a remarkably unformulaic piece of punchy, three-minute neo-'90s guitar pop. From the opening, off-beat crunch of the guitar, the off-kilter entry of the bass, and the restrained drumbeat, the song manages to feel both march-like and arhythmic. Hooks come and go before they settle in, as if seen from the aural equivalent of the corner of the eye. Listen for instance to the descending riff heard first in the introduction (11 seconds in): it kind of melts in on itself, describing a slippery series of diminishments that are quickly folded into the stuttering drive, leaving you not quite sure what you heard and whether it even made sense or not. This riff, however, recurs, and becomes its own sort of mysterious hook when Thirsk works it into the melody at the end of each line of verse (the "I am I am I am" part in the first verse). The chorus, in turn, is even more elusively catchy, with the clipped stop-start-ishness of the crunchy guitar and its lack of melodic lines to hang onto; what we get instead is Thirsk's light but powerful voice reaching successive climaxes before retreating in a sort of syncopated wave, falling then rising towards an unexpected chord that manages to lead us back to the verse without a traditional resolution. Thirsk comes from Vancouver, and gained a following late in the '90s and into the new decade with her former band, the Dirtmitts. "Number One" is the lead track on Catlow's debut CD, Kiss the World, released earlier this year in Canada on Boompa Records. The MP3 is via the Boompa site.

"Miles" - the Southland
Styles and tendencies in rock'n'roll tend to change pretty gradually when all is said and done, the definitive sound or sounds of one era blending seamlessly into another, and only emerging as definitive in retrospect--it's much easier, as an example, to talk about a "'90s sound" now than it was back when we were living through it. And so the '00s (more than half over already!) may seem so far to have produced a difficult-to-generalize sort of sound to date--particularly as there is by now such a longer and richer musical history for rock bands to be inspired by. I contend, however, that some characteristic sounds are emerging and this able and spiffy tune by a new L.A. band called the Southland pretty much nails one of them exquisitely. With its bedroom-rock-style mixture of acoustic and beat rhythms, "Miles" is not a song that could possibly have been produced in the '60s or '70s or '80s or '90s. I'm not saying this is gloriously original; actually the point is that it isn't--but it is enormously characteristic, and beautifully crafted. What wins me is the memorable chorus, with its bittersweet melody and that great, marshmallowy slide-guitar lick. "Miles" is a song from the Southland's debut CD, Influence of Geography, released in June on Ruffworld Records. The MP3 is via the Ruffworld site.

Monday, November 21, 2005

week of Nov. 20-26

"Nightlife" - Gustav & the Seasick Sailors
From its mellow Bruce Hornsby-ish piano introduction, this song picks up a crisp beat and some Hammond B3 accents even as it retains vague jazz-pop stylings (Steely Dan-ish chords, stuttering drumbeats) through the opening verse. But everything is a set-up for the brilliant chorus, in which the 21-year-old Gustav (born, it must be noted, without a right hand; he wears a special device to allow him to hold a pick) sings an irresistible melody, at once beautiful and anthemic, that seems like something John Mellencamp was trying to write but never quite managed to some 15 or 20 years ago. For a young guy, Gustav breathes out a fetching, Steve Earle-ish sort of weariness as he lets go of his syllables. While I'm not sure we're venturing into lyrical profundity here, the music makes it irrelevant to me. "Nightlife" is the lead track off Gustav & the Seasick Sailors' debut CD, Vagabond's Polka, which was released last year on Marilyn Records. The MP3 is hosted on the Marilyn web site. A 10-person collective from Sweden, Gustav & the Seasick Sailors are scheduled to release a second CD early in 2006.

"Episodes (Diphenhydramine)" - Pela
I have discovered a previously unrecognized affection in my musical tastes for the sort of voice that Pela singer Billy Swanson has. I will now describe it: okay, I can't describe it, not really, other than to say it's high, somewhat roughed-up, vaguely muffled and yet also incisive, with a keen edge. Beyond Swanson's immediate appeal, this strikes me as a cool song for a variety of reasons. To begin with, it utilizes the trick of having the accompanying music playing twice as fast as the melody line, which achieves the pleasing effect of it seeming like a fast slow song or a slow fast song. I also like the mysterious use of wordless vocal accents in the extended bridge-like section after the verse--by now we completely buy into the sense of movement and urgency, and yet the resolution is delayed by those ghostly "aaahs." The underlying sense of tension increases when Swanson dives next into his lower register ("as if I really knew myself," he sings, with an unexpected bit of Morrisseyan phrasing). Then arrives the great release with the strange one-word chorus ("Diphenhydramine"--which is by the way an antihistamine), sung with a fluttery array of chiming guitars floating almost out of earshot in the background. This song was one of five on the Brooklyn-based band's debut EP, All in Time, released back in May on the Brassland label. The MP3 comes via the Brassland site.

"Spiral" - XTC
Sometimes you just want the real thing, even if the real thing isn't quite as real and thing-like as it used to be. This "new" XTC song has been floating around the internet for a couple of weeks; I heard it when it first came out (thanks, Largehearted Boy!), and put it aside. Did it move me to tears? Did it make me swear that Andy Partridge is still a god-like master of the three-minute, fifteen-second pop song? Um, no. I loved this band in its day, and then some. But days move on, decades without names roll by, and the fine line between a groove and a rut (thanks, Christine Lavin) grows intractably indistinguishable. And yet: even awash in nostalgia (talk about a groove, the spiral in question is the path the phonograph needle traces while converting plastic to soundwave), the song is rich and smile-inducing, for its jaunty melody, effervescent instrumentation, and other bounteous XTC-isms: the fast-slow shifts in pace, the distinctive chord changes, and Partridge's inimitable goofy-earnest yowl. If these guys exist in their own particular bubble of sound and space, so be it. I suggest a visit now and then. And while I might not steer you towards the extravagant re-boxing of the band's most recent two Apple Venus CDs from which this tune (recorded in the '99-'00 time frame) emerges, I urge you to discover or rediscover English Settlement (1982), Skylarking (1986), or the somewhat more recent and underrated Nonsuch (1992). The MP3 is available via Toolshed (a music promotion firm).

Monday, November 14, 2005

week of Nov. 13-19

"Intoxicated" - Kids These Days
Wow: an instantly appealing song that proceeds to unfold in unanticipated ways. The chimey double guitar lines in the introduction lay out an initial melody both simple and memorable, playing as it does with the ever-engaging fourth interval. (Fourths tend to keep the ear in a satisfying state of suspension, you see.) I like also how in the introduction the intervals are not expressed cleanly, but are scuffed up with well-placed dissonances between the twin guitars. When the singing starts, the verse first affirms the melody (already sounding like an old friend) then glides into the effortless chorus; I love the effect of having the lyrics come up shorter than the musical line, leaving an instrumental measure that's just as much a part of the chorus as the words. And then, after two rounds of that, the song shifts--the rhythm section becomes itchier and lead singer Marc Morrissette explores the higher end of his range, giving the second half of the song an unexpectedly effective Radiohead-ian vibe. Kids These Days are a five-man band (all five write songs, apparently) from Vancouver; "Intoxicated" is a track from the band's debut CD, All These Interruptions, released this past spring in Canada on White Whale Records. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

"Sidewalk Chalk" - the A-Sides
I like how the garagey stomp that opens this song is incorporated into a shimmeringly upbeat bit of neo-power pop--it sounds cool, and also encapsulates this Philadelphia band's approach, which seems to draw simultaneously from two divergent '60s sounds: garage-rock psychedelia (think Nuggets) on the one hand, glistening orchestral pop (think Pet Sounds) on the other. The interesting result of this particular blend is how much more emerges in the sound beyond mere revival of the A-Sides' seemingly obvious, and admirable, influences (Kinks, Who, Beach Boys). Tuning more carefully in to the song's various charms--including a smiley descending melody and some great guitar interplay (Beatley lines contrasting with psychedelic howling)--I sensed the influences and confluences multiply. Now I'm hearing Robyn Hitchcock, I'm hearing XTC, I'm even hearing the Strokes--and I begin to realize how it's really the band's own spirit and musical capacities that I'm hearing most of all. While some rock'n'roll has appeared on the scene as if from another dimension entirely, most of the best stuff over the years is neither more nor less than a skillful distillation of previously available ideas. Picking out influences can be fun and instructive if the point is to understand a piece of music in a broader context; when influence-spotting becomes a reductive game (as it, sadly, does quite frequently with online music criticism), then this usually says more about the writer than the musician. "Sidewalk Chalk" is the lead track on the A-Sides' debut full-length CD, Hello, Hello, released in May on Prison Jazz Records. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

"Cowbell" - Tapes 'n Tapes
Cross They Might Be Giants with Pere Ubu and here you are. This is two and a half minutes of continuously strange, mysteriously catchy avant-pop. Driven by a rubbery bass, twitchy acoustic guitar, and slightly strangled vocals, "Cowbell" threw its first verse by me so quickly I didn't realize exactly what I was listening to, and then the chorus started and I really didn't know what I was listening to but I was completely hooked: the off-beat, villainous-sounding, sing-along melody is too cool for its own good. Tapes 'n Tapes is a Minneapolis threesome that's been around since 2003, if the band's web site can be believed, which it doesn't look like it should be. "Cowbell" comes from the band's first CD, The Loon, just released on Ibid Records. You'll find the MP3 on band's site

Monday, November 07, 2005

week of Nov. 6-12

"Cash Machine" - Hard-Fi
This decisive update of the Clash's "Magnificent Seven" sound--an irresistible blend of punk, pop, dub, and disco--is simple, uncompromising, harsh, elegant, and utterly marvelous. Opening with an echoey melodica, sounding like a forlorn traffic jam, the song leaps into an assured beat yet never rests solely on its groove: there is melody, there are chord changes, there are flawless production touches, and there is a story--the last fact of which makes me realize how few bands, for better or worse, actually do tell discernible stories. The minor key chorus--wonderfully set up, in major keys, by a pair of gliding syllables--is a glorious distillation of this young band's assured sound. And while many songs succeed nicely in today's mash-up, shuffle-crazy world with a kitchen-sink style of production, sounds tossed willy-nilly on top of one another in pursuit of a mysterious ambiance, "Cash Machine" reminds me of the brilliance of the opposite approach: even as Hard-Fi creates a large, swaggering presence here, there is not one wasted sound in the mix. It's a relief sometimes to be able to hear everything that you're listening to, especially when it's this good. Hard-Fi is a young foursome from the apparently dreary commuter town of Staines, west of London. "Cash Machine" is the lead track on the band's debut CD, Stars on CCTV, which was short-listed earlier this year for the U.K.'s prestigious Mercury Music Prize. The MP3 is available via Insound. The CD has been released so far in the U.K. only, originally on Necessary Records in late 2004, and re-released in conjunction with Atlantic Records in July 2005.

"Mary Lately" - Martha Berner
There's nothing wrong every so often with a straightforward acoustic-based ballad with a good melody; this one strikes me as a poignant yet gratifyingly sturdy example. Martha Berner is a Chicago-based singer/songwriter who has lived previously in Alaska, Israel, Thailand, and Wisconsin, among other places. Could be her itinerant background is what gives both the song and her musical presence an elusive sense of familiarity. There's her resonant voice, which sounds like a slightly duskier version of Sarah McLachlan, back when she was writing good songs; I hear a touch of Dar Williams as well, around the edges of her enunciation. At the same time, the overall vibe makes me think that this is what the Cowboy Junkies might sound like if Norah Jones were John Prine's sister and sang lead. Don't miss that place in the second verse when, instead of the slide accent you might expect, a slightly loony synthesizer is used instead. I think that's when I knew I liked this one. "Mary Lately" is a song off Berner's debut CD, This Side of Yesterday, released last month on Machine Records. The MP3 can be found on the Machine web site.

"Higher" - Soft
John Reineck has the sort of sweet, yearning tenor voice that I associate with great moments in power pop. And yet the wash of big, reverb-y chords and fuzzy, subtly psychedelic atmosphere brings the best of '90s shoegaze to mind. It's a potent combination--dreamy walls of glistening guitars, sweetly voiced melodicism; I'm thinking this NYC-based quintet is onto something. I like that they don't merely rest on the achievement of their basic sonic package, which they easily might have; the band cares enough about the craft of songwriting to give us moments along the way that seem like bonuses: not hooks in the classic sense of something that sits at the center point of the song's allure, but tasty twists and additions that give the piece extra weight and substance. I like for instance the moment in that bridge-like bit between the end of the verse and beginning of the chorus, at around 1:05, when Reineck sings "Can't even feel my feet or keep them on the ground"--it's like the song moves suddenly into this new, open space, as if you were in a room that revealed itself to be much bigger than you initially thought when you came in. Given the lyrical theme, I'd say the effect is not unintentional. "Higher" is a song off the band's just-released, self-released, self-titled first EP. The song is available via the band's site.