Monday, December 19, 2005

week of Dec. 18-24

Fingertips will be taking a break for the HOLIDAYS (there are more than one, you know!--Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year's Day, you name it); this is therefore the last "This Week's Finds" update for 2005. When next we meet again it will be Tuesday, January 3, of all things. In the spirit of the season, I offer an extra song this week. Hope all is sweet and peachy with all of you as this most excellent interesting year winds down and yet another begins. See you in '06....

"Smile" - Stone Jack Jones
Spacey, melancholy, arty folktronica: Leonard Cohen meets Portishead at Laurie Anderson's house. When it comes to the sort of noodly atmospherics employed in this nutty little song, I know that it's hard to differentiate cool/noodly from dumb/noodly--I mean, is the wavery, spitty sort of trumpet meandering in the background a stroke of genius or completely random? The answer is probably both, which doesn't help. One of the ways I see my way through foggy aesthetics like this is to latch onto small moments, and if there are enough of them in a given song, I presume the whole thing is working. The small moments here include: the simple, plaintive piano refrain that holds the structure of the song up; the first line of the song (I love songs with great first lines): "Let's pretend this is an opening/Let's pretend this is a door"; the aforementioned trumpet; the deadpan female backup vocals; the construction-site percussion; and the fact that the song sounds exactly like the opposite of a smile, and yet simultaneously manages to provoke one, somehow. Stone Jack Jones is a musician from Nashville who's been taken under the wing of producer Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney). "Smile" is from his forthcoming CD, Bluefolk, to be released in February on Fictitious Records. The MP3 is available via Jones' page.

"Air" - the Owls
Sweet floating misery in pop form from a Minneapolis-based foursome. I'll admit to being something of a sucker for list-like lyrics; in this case songwriter Maria May appears to be free-associating her way through heartbreak; when she gets to "No header, no footer/No girl, no boy," I am charmed for good. ("No hand to put my handshake in": also charming.) "There is only air/Where I used to care," which is the lyric in the chorus, is by the way a pretty powerful way of communicating post-breakup malaise. While normally I might feel the need for a bit more development in a song than this truly airy number offers, on the other hand, I could probably rationalize why the breezy repetition is thematically appropriate. Or something like that. I also really like the disconcertingly unusual use of male backing vocals under a female lead; why isn't this appealing sound used more often? "Air" is from an eight-song EP entitled Our Hopes and Dreams, released last year on Magic Marker Records. The MP3 is available via the Magic Marker site.

"My Kingdom for a Trundle Bed" - Bound Stems
A jaunty, toothsome bit of complex pop from an interesting quintet from Chicago. The vague, lightly swinging intro barely hints at the muscular, tumbly song to follow. I like how the melody is at once central and changeable: the way the words pump out with an ahead-of-the-beat syncopation, the exact notes changing verse to verse even as the overall melodic essence is strong and sure. And lots of words there are indeed, in a relatively short song; and while the meaning is elusive, and while I don't often get all that caught up in puzzling lyrics out, in this case they seem worthy and intriguing and appear to add up to a bittersweet tale of a broken relationship--which I intuit largely from adding the title to the lyrics (it would seem the narrator has to sleep on the floor for the night in his ex's apartment). "My Kingdom for a Trundle Bed" is a song from the EP The Logic of Building the Body Plan, released last month on Flameshovel Records. The MP3 is from the Flameshovel site. (Be aware that the song cuts off a bit abruptly at the end.)

"I Feel Like a Fading Light" - Kim Taylor
With a voice mixing Ricki Lee Jones and Karin Bergquist (Over the Rhine), Kim Taylor wins me over with this simple, lo-fi strummer-with-an-attitude. Given the sort of year we've all had, this seems about the most appropriate seasonal song I could offer, even as it's not actually a seasonal song at all. I love how the Florida-born, Cincinnati-based Taylor subverts the girl-with-guitar model with such an insistent, percussive number; even the guitar has an upfront, twang-ish but not really twangy sound that exudes tension rather than easy listening--even as, at the same time, the melody is comfortably catchy, her sweet-weary voice a wonderful instrument in and of itself. This is not standard singer/songwriter mush, and the world is a better place for it. "I Feel Like a Fading Light" was released as a single in August, and is available via Taylor's web site. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head's up. Merry Christmas to all ("whether you celebrate it or not," as per The Daily Show) and to all a good night.

Monday, December 12, 2005

week of Dec. 11-17

"Nervous" - Tessitura
Jonathan Williams sings in a warm, buzzy voice, rendered warmer and buzzier by his fetching tendency to sing in octave harmonies with himself. He further accompanies himself with clean, patient acoustic guitar licks; there's something of Pink Floyd's stately acoustic side in the air here, particularly when Williams spins out a line with such a haunting convergence of melody and lyric as this one: "Even in a dream/Things could seem far too real." There, I think, we arrive at the song's center of gravity, its point of pure allurement--it's not just the nice chord he reaches on the word dream, it's the way the word "dream" stretches out almost unaccountably, with a mysterious, standing-still sort of rising and falling. This is a real song, not just a guy with a nice voice strumming a nice guitar. (Not enough people these days seem to be able to differentiate between beautiful-sounding and actually beautiful, says me, and there we are yet again back at Ives' great distinction between manner and substance, but I'll steer clear of that particular soapbox for now.) Tessitura is a side project for Williams, who is otherwise a member of the fine, endearingly-named Cincinnati-based ensemble The Spectacular Fantastic. "Nervous" is a song on a new free-to-download split single featuring both bands; it can also be found on Tessitura's recently released free-to-download full-length CD, On the Importance of Being Confused.

"Juicebox" - the Strokes
Why does this 3:17 second song, with its hard-driving "Peter Gunn"-ish intro, seem so hard to get a handle on, intermittently harsh and irritating, and yet so simultaneously compelling? It's not just because singer Julian Casablancas is singing without the filter he put his voice through to create the band's trademark sound on their first two CDs; and it's also not just because he spends a bit of time actually sort of screeching. What I think is going on here is the result of an unusual songwriting effect: the melody undergoes a series of purposeful time shifts so that in each of the first three sections of the song, Casablancas is singing half as fast as the previous section. (When this is done at all, it tends to be done only with two sections rather than three.) Then, after the slowest of the three, he doubles back to the middle pace, and that's where the song hits its stride and delivers its best hook (the Stones-copping "You're so cold" part) and coolest moments (the subsequent guitar solo). If you don't tune in to the time trick, you might hear this song as more disjointed than it actually is; that "Juicebox" is disjointed at best and dreadful at worst is certainly what most online critics have decided, because it's never their job to assume that a band actually knows more about music than they do. "Juicebox" is the first free download from the band's upcoming CD First Impressions of Earth, their third, due out January 3 on RCA Records. Thanks to the gang at Glorious Noise for the lead on this one.

"Rise Up With Fists!" - Jenny Lewis
Jenny Lewis's vocal charisma is a powerful powerful thing. She's got that hyper-present Debby Harry sort of open-mouthed fullness, a way of singing that sounds like she's just talking; and yet where Harry used a constant sheen of icy irony to keep her distance, Lewis, while still keeping her distance, seems infused with some messy mixture of pain and passion that makes it feel like she's always right there in the room with you. After hitting the indie big-time last year with her band, Rilo Kiley, and their assured, well-regarded More Adventurous CD, Lewis has in fact sought the additional adventure of releasing a solo CD--called Rabbit Fur Coat, it's due for release in January on Conor Oberst's Team Love Records. As this track indicates, the album is steeped in a sort of rootsy, countrified, white-woman-soul sound: a Laura Nyro for the new millennium sort of thing, complete with the Kentucky-born Watson Twins harmonizing their hearts out in the background. The MP3 is available via the Team Love site.Thanks once more to Bruce at Some Velvet Blog for the head's up.

Monday, December 05, 2005

week of Dec. 4-10

"In State" - Kathleen Edwards
If you already know Kathleen Edwards, you'll be pleased to discover that she's recently made ten full songs, five from each of her two CDs, available on her web site as free and legal MP3s. If you don't already know her, use the opportunity to rectify the situation pronto. While Edwards is often compared, logically enough, to Lucinda Williams (the sweet-rough voice, the alt-country-americana vibe), what slayed me when I first heard her mighty first CD, Failer (2003), was how much she channeled Neil Young in his Crazy Horse mode. You maybe didn't expect it from a skinny 25-year-old from Ottawa; then again, as I've discovered time and again, do not underestimate Canada as an endless source of powerful music. The revelatory "In State," its muscular Tom Petty-ish-ness lit up by Edwards' heart-melting voice and a ripping arrangement, is the opening track on her excellent follow-up release, Back to Me, which came out earlier this year on Zoe Records (a subsidiary of Rounder Records). If I were inclined to make year-end best-of lists, it's a CD that would be in my top 10. Many thanks to Pop Matters for the lead on the new MP3 stash.

"I Will Always Find A Way" - Suffering and the Hideous Thieves
What an elusive vibe suffuses this song: it seems one part late '70s punk-turning-into-new-wave, one part '00s orchestral-indie-construction, and one part musician-from-another-planet epic. With its slow, swaying rhythm, "I Will Always Find A Way" makes the most of an exceedingly simple core riff (we're talking do-re-mi-re-mi-re) by handing it to a loose-limbed ensemble mixing strings, drums, keyboards, and goofy background vocals. Band leader Jeff Suffering has a British-sounding, congestive sort of wail that is oddly appealing, particularly when he goes off-key, which appears to be part of his vocal strategy. As for the burning question--is this his real name, really?--I can report that he does seem to take the name rather literally, both within his songs and without. "I've been wishfully thinking of leaving you/Since the day that we met" are the first words we hear him sing, with what appears to be a characteristic blend of sorrow and defiance. The record company's bio, in turn, quotes Suffering this way: "As of now, we will continue to put out obscure releases until the Lord comes back, or until we die, or can't rock anymore." "I Will Always Find A Way" is from the band's Ashamed CD, released in August on Lujo Records. Thanks to Jason at Mystery and Misery for this one.

"Another Sunny Day" - Belle and Sebastian
As charmingly twee and enigmatic as ever, Belle and Sebastian is back with a brisk, wonderfully melodic tune tinged with a slight, speeded-up country and western veneer, or as much of one as this eccentric Scottish band is likely to give us. Regardless of what he's singing about (often impossible to discern precisely), front man Stuart Murdoch--his high voice at once pure and reedy--almost always sounds laden with unbearable nostalgia for some far-off time and place that is only reachable via a rabbit hole or a wardrobe or some such magical portal. Here Murdoch delivers a voluptuous melody line most effortlessly: the entire verse is an extended melody, all 16 measures of it (compare that to standard pop songs, with their four-measure melodies at best). The shift in melody and chord that happens at the seventh measure wollops me in the gut every time (in the first verse, it's the shift that happens on the word "pardon" in the line "I told you, 'Beg your pardon'"); we move there into a second minor chord that cracks the song open--listen to how deeply inevitable the rest of the verse sounds, even as it's only half over at that point. And while you're at it, check out the nutty double-time snare beat the drummer offers up during the instrumental break at 2:24, just because it's nutty. "Another Sunny Day" is a song that will be on the band's next CD, The Life Pursuit, scheduled for release in February on Matador Records. The MP3 is available, somewhat secretively, via the Matador site. Thanks this time to Some Velvet Blog for the lead.