Monday, December 18, 2006

This is the last week you can put your name in for the Lucinda Williams giveaway in progress right now on the Fingertips Contests page. Once more, with feeling: I've got two copies of the newly re-released, two-disc Car Wheels On A Gravel Road to give away for nothing at all but the time it takes to send an email. Two winners will be selected at random; deadline for entry is December 24. Details here.

Note that the Fingertips home office will shut down (mostly) between December 23 and January 1. (The contest winner, however, will be contacted during that week.) The next edition of "This Week's Finds" will appear on Tuesday January 2. Wishing everyone in the meantime the happiest of holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice, New Year's Day, and then some: all holidays are for celebrating); see you in '07....

week of Dec. 17-23

"Grain of Salt" - the Morning Benders
A completely endearing blend of do-it-yourself-ish indie rock and pure pop know-how. Let me start, for a change, at the end: the fact that this thing closes out with a rave-up guitar solo--and if I better knew my guitar sounds I could tell you what kind of guitar it is; it's a distinctive and familiar one, to be sure, with a deep feel of rock history about it--says a lot about the Morning Benders' impressive musical instincts. It's nothing I'd've expected and yet now of course it sounds perfectly inevitable, particularly following the coda-like extension the song takes before the solo kicks in. From beginning to end, in fact, "Grain of Salt" oozes charm and craft in equal measure, from the shuffly bashings of drummer Julian Harmon (I feel as if I just about see his elbows flying as he pounds away on the two and four beats) to the effortlessly merry melody, sung with easygoing grace by Chris Chu, and the happy happy chord progressions that enliven it. With repeated listens, I grow more and more impressed with the ability of this Berkeley, Calif.-based foursome to sound so simultaneously spontaneous and durable--a very friendly combination. "Grain of Salt" comes from the band's debut EP Loose Change, which was self-released earlier this year, sold out, then re-released in September (with one extra song) on Portia Records. The MP3 is via the band's site.

"The Vague Angels of Vagary" - Vague Angels
Even though this came out in March and has nothing whatever to do with Christmas or the holiday season of any kind, I like featuring a song by a band named Vague Angels this week. It seems like all we can hope for these days, and maybe all we actually need. And never mind any of that: this free-flowing, structure-free song is itself extraordinarily cool. Rolling firmly to a strong yet elusive train-like rhythm, "The Vague Angels of Vagary" seems, well, vaguely to be about trains, and journeys, and searches. NYC-based singer/songwriter/novelist Chris Leo (brother of Ted) speak-sings the odd but engaging lyrics like Lou Reed with a higher voice and no leather jacket; he seems more bemused by what he sees that pissed off. What hooks me with this one: the energetic, good-natured, descending guitar riff that keeps the song afloat--relentlessly it climbs back to its apex and spills yet again downward while Leo goes on about train track tundras and the WPA and the MTA. "The Vague Angels of Vagary" is from the CD Let's Duke It Out At Kilkenny Katz' (yes there's that weird floating apostrophe in the title), released earlier in the year by Pretty Activity. The MP3 is via the Pretty Activity site; thanks to the Deli for the head's up.

"All I Ever Get For Christmas Is Blue" - Over the Rhine
This year's directly related holiday tune comes from longtime Fingertips faves Over the Rhine. Karin Bergquist is in fine, bittersweet form while partner Linford Detweiler lays down crystalline piano lines with unearthly deftness. This song comes from Over the Rhine's new Christmas CD, featuring original Christmas songs, entitled Snow Angels. The instantly intimate and enveloping sound here is no accident; Detweiler himself has written, "We hope that Snow Angels is a record that becomes part of the landscape for small gatherings of people who love each other." If justice is served, it will be, but then again the world as we are living in it is not is not known, alas, for great justice at a macro level. We are left to do what we can individually, and in small groups. Do yourself, at least, the favor of checking this song out--and the one other MP3 available from this CD, "Darlin' (Christmas is Comin')"--and then buying the CD if you like the vibe and think maybe an unabashed album of new Christmas songs is its own sort of wonderful thing (and hey I think so and don't even celebrate the holiday myself!). These guys have developed a deep, rich, and very personal sound over the years that is a wonder to behold and deserves a wider audience than they have thus far reached. If you'd like to hear more be sure to check out the Over the Rhine entry in the Select Artist Guide for pointers to other free and legal MP3s of theirs.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Don't miss the Lucinda Williams giveaway in progress right now at the brand new Fingertips Contests page: I've got two copies of the newly re-released, two-disc Car Wheels On A Gravel Road to give away for nothing at all but the time it takes to send an email. Two winners will be selected at random; deadline for entry is December 24. Details here.

And no you didn't imagine it--there was no podcast uploaded for the week of Dec. 3-9. Turned out to be one of those weeks. The Fingertips podcast will return by week's end, featuring the picks for the current week of Dec. 10-16. Thanks for your patience!

week of Dec. 10-16

"Sonic Boom" - Andy Partridge
As buoyant, crisp, and driven as any number of great XTC songs Partridge wrote in his years as that seminal British band's principal singer and songwriter. And why shouldn't it be? This was one of more than 100 songs Partridge had accumulated over a couple of decades that never made it to an XTC album for a variety of reasons. They've come to the light of day, along with many alternate recordings of songs XTC did release, on the eight so-called Fuzzy Warbles CDs Partridge has released over the last three years or so. The series has been gathered this fall into one spiffily-designed boxed set (The Fuzzy Warbles Collector Album) that is a crazy overload of songwriting goodness for XTC devotees. From disc number seven, "Sonic Boom" is an ode to loud music--in particular to the role an electric guitar can play in the redemption of a listless teenager--that is not itself, cleverly, a particularly raucous song. (After all, extolling the virtues of loud music in a really loud song would not speak to the unconverted.) Instead we get cheerful, crunchy pop with a really great guitar sound. For me, the siren-like riffs that ring from the intro are the key to the song's presence and depth. Listen in particular to the second verse, beginning around 0:55, and how the guitar at that point remains in that higher register to puncutate the lyrics with semi-dissonant squawks. And then, wow, the concise guitar solo, from 1:37 to 1:55, is a brilliant bit of controlled chaos that might pass you right by if you don't pay close attention. As with the vast majority of the songs on all the Fuzzy Warbles CD, the irrepressible Partridge does all the singing and playing.

Fingertips Exclusive MP3!: The Fuzzy Warbles collection is packed with cool songs, so in the spirit of artistic overflow represented therein, I'm offering this week a second Andy Partridge song as special bonus MP3--the delightful "I Don't Want To Be Here." Thanks to Toolshed, Steve Young, and Andy Partridge for this exclusive free and legal download. The link will be available for three weeks only. Enjoy!

"Rehab" - Amy Winehouse
I find three things about this song irresistible. First, the glistening retro sound: from the snazzy horn charts and string flourishes to the big drum beats and Winehouse's sharp, spacious, soulful vocal, everything blends to deliver a loving '60s sheen that manages at the same time to sound current and new rather than merely nostalgic. Second, that cockeyed refrain in the chorus--the way she drags her recalcitrant "no, no, no" (alternately: "go, go, go") just a bit off the beat is nutty and beguiling. I don't know why. The third wonderful thing is how Winehouse--who is quite the notorious (and loose-lipped) carouser over there in the U.K.--manages to turn a song about going through an alcohol recovery program (or, rather, not) into an almost gospel-like stomper. There's something poignant in the effort, despite the swagger in Winehouse's voice. "Rehab" is the opening track off Back to Black, the young singer/songwriter's second CD. Her first album, Frank, came out in 2003 when she was just 20. That one was a jazz-inflected effort that she has since been quoted as saying is an album she never liked. Her new one is shot through with Phil Spector-meets-Motown girl-group sounds from the early '60s; if "Rehab" is any indication, Winehouse is a well-suited practitioner of that distinctive musical vocabulary. Released on Island Records in the U.K. in October, Back to Black is scheduled for a March release here in the States, on Universal.

"Reflecting Light" - Sam Phillips
Sam Phillips is a musical hero of mine; few if any singer/songwriters I've encountered can match her ability to capture poetic insights, sometimes bordering on the genuinely mystical, within the everyday, agreeable realm of the three-minute pop song. Her Beatlesque 1994 masterpiece, Martinis & Bikinis, was a triumph of songwriting and production; her two CDs (so far) of the 21st century have found her working in a starker, quieter setting, with acoustic instruments--the songs on both Fan Dance (2001) and A Boot and a Shoe (2004) often sound as if they were laid down in one room, in one take. A sweet, melancholy waltz from the latter CD, "Reflecting Light" shines with sad spirit and forlorn dignity; there's a '20s-like brio to the string arrangement, while hard-earned enlightenment runs through its lyrical veins: "Give up the ground under your feet/Hold onto nothing for good/Turn and run at the mean dogs chasing you/Stand alone and misunderstood." Phillips' association with the TV show Gilmore Girls--she wrote the show's original score and her songs have been prominently featured--has given this song a second life and a slew of fans she would have otherwise never reached. Her next CD, apparently to be called Don't Do Anything, will be released some time in 2007. And not a moment too soon.

Monday, December 04, 2006

week of Dec. 3-9

"Angelo" - Megan Palmer
Smart piano-based pop that puts me in the mind of Jonatha Brooke both for its savvy songwriting--this thing has both bounce and venom--and for Palmer's vocal style; she sings with something of Brooke's timbre and sometimes crack-voiced phrasing, without at all sounding like a knock-off. Palmer is a violinist, of all things, and her instrument adds a nice depth to the unfolding of the song--listen for instance to its role in the instrumental part of the bridge that begins at 1:29. The violin is typically an ensemble instrument, whether playing in classical, country, or (occasionally) rock, and it strikes me that violinists may therefore have a leg up when it comes to knowing how to blend instruments into a cohesive whole. In any case, Palmer does a great job of that here, using the piano, violin, electric guitar, and percussion with great aplomb. One nice example is how the song emerges from the bridge at around 2:10: first a chime plays a lazy three-note melody (I kept thinking the doorbell was ringing when I initially heard that), out of which the violin emerges, slurring in with an answering couple of notes, underneath which the guitar then plays its own little dancey variation. It's a small but indicative moment in a song that's both immediately appealing and satisfyingly substantive. "Angelo" is a song from Palmer's debut CD, Forget Me Not, which was released this summer on tiny Sunken Treasure Records. The MP3 is available via her site.

"Red Gold" - A Passing Feeling
This is one of those "you had me at the intro" songs: the ringing chords, hinting at but not quite utilizing dissonance and/or feedback, and so carefully placed in that universally appealing 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3 pattern--but actually no, they extend past the "obvious" resolution with chord number seven of the progression and manage to re-resolve with an additional, eighth chord. This NYC-based quartet will hang the entire song upon this series of nicely articulated chords and it works because of what it sounds like when Brian Miltenberg starts spitting out the words: it sounds like his life depends upon every syllable. And I do mean spitting: he rivals Joe Strummer as the rock vocalist who for me most easily conjures visions of sweat and saliva hitting the microphone with each lyrical declaration. (This is a compliment by the way.) A Passing Feeling had a Fingertips Top 10 song earlier this year with "Book of Matches," from their debut EP. Now they have a debut full-length CD called We Might Not Sleep At All This Year, which was released in November on 75 or Less Records. That's where you'll find "Red Gold"; the MP3 is up on the 75 or Less site.

"Roselin" - Maia Hirasawa
We're back to the piano but this one is so charming and exquisite I needed to put it in the mix this week, figuring that separating the two songs with that blast of melodic indie-punk will kind of cleanse your palette. And in any case I can surely use the beauty right here and now, breathing it into me like a supple, restorative wine. "Roselin" starts daintily enough, heading almost but not quite towards preciousness, but right away with a great melodic sensibility. And I'll tell you where it just slays me--mainlining the beauty part right here--is in the chorus, which has as winsome and plaintive a melody as I've heard in a long time: notes that sound ancient and familiar and fresh and coy; as a bonus (for me, anyway) it's got a touch of early Jane Siberry about it, adding to the depth and charm. When she sings "Don't know what I should do/What I should get"--ahhh. Just that: ahhhh (more h's are useful). She even sings the "ahhh" for us right at that point: how convenient. Maia Hirasawa is a half-Swedish, half-Japanese musician who sings in English in Stockholm with an unplaceable accent; "Roselin" is from her self-released EP entitled My New Friend, which came out back in April (and is now sold out). The MP3 is available via the really impressive, information-packed blog It's a Trap, which is devoted to Scandanavian music. Thanks to Avi over there for permission to link, and thanks too to Hedvika at the great Getecho blog for the original lead. Hirasawa by the way was recently since signed to the Stockholm-based Razzia Records and will have a full-length debut available in March 2007.

Monday, November 27, 2006

week of Nov. 26-Dec. 2

"Phantom Limb" - the Shins
Rarely have I heard a rock'n'roll songwriter sing inscrutable lyrics with such heartbreaking sincerity as the Shins' front man, James Mercer. Over time I've decided it's quite an alluring, perhaps even unique, attribute. Most if not all of pop music's traffickers in willfully opaque lyrics sing with more emotional flatness, maybe a bit of an ironic smirk, or sometimes even aggressive overcompensation. But Mercer has figured out how to be sincere, even movingly sincere, while singing words that only intermittently (at best) reveal any straightforward meaning. Clearly he, at least, knows what he's singing about--which is exactly what keeps me going back to tease out whatever meaning I can. And at that point, Mercer's ability to write subtly beautiful melodies becomes another alluring feature of his songwriting. To think of his songs simply as "catchy" (Google "Shins" and "catchy" and check it out) sells Mercer way short, because he's doing much more than writing songs to hum after one listen. As one example, listen to the secondary melody he uses from 0:18 to 0:24--it follows the ascendant opening melody, employing now a couple of minor chords to end the verse in an unresolved place, just in time to return to the surging melody that we began with, although even then he alters the tail of it a bit. I love too the unexpected falsetto note he hits at 0:58 and the subsequent turn the melody takes there in the middle of what is probably the chorus. It's almost as if he's writing classical motifs rather than pop melodies, and your ability to note them and hear when they recur greatly adds to the pleasure of your listening experience. "Phantom Limb" is the first single from the band's much-anticipated third CD, Wincing the Night Away, which will be officially released next month on Sub Pop Records. The CD however has been "leaked" online as of October, causing much hubbub in blogoland. The MP3 is now available legally via the Sub Pop site.

"Decider" - Prototypes
A buzzy, deadpan, neo-new wave rave-up. The appeal here is all in the vibe: there's something steely and electro going on with that astringent drumbeat and ringing guitar line; at the same time singer Isabel Le Doussal's uninflected speak-singing in the verse adds something mysterious and earthy to the beat-driven proceedings, which churn away with unrelenting vigor. The chorus, meanwhile, adds enough melody and bouncy synthesizer to make the return of the steely-electro section seem appealingly inevitable. Keep your ears open for unexpected additions to the sonic palette: the percussive, off-kilter metallic accents at around 1:20, for instance; or the whistly, arcade-game chirping that pops up around 2:36; and is that an accordion near the end? I think maybe. Prototypes are a French trio with one full-length CD released so far in the U.S. "Decider" can be found on a new EP called Je Ne Te Connais Pas, released for free online last week by Minty Fresh Records.

"Giver" - Patrick Watson
I'm guessing there aren't a lot of indie rockers who know who Steve Reich is; Montreal's Patrick Watson has actually played with the man. This suggests the U.S.-born, Canada-raised pianist/singer/songwriter Patrick Watson is at the very least an interesting, multifaceted musician. "Giver" suggests he also knows a thing or two about writing and performing a stylish pop song. To begin with, there's Watson's rich, echoey tenor, which maintains its character even soaring occasionally into the falsetto-sphere. As I listen repeatedly I'm struck by the song's great texture--without piling on instruments or effects, it delivers a gratifying sense of motion and change throughout. Some of that has to do with the effective use of time signature changes (relatively rare in three and a half minute rock tunes), and some may have to do with the underlying, Beatle-like sense of jauntiness in the air--the Beatles were nothing if not masters of texture in pop music. And okay maybe I have a soft spot for the guy because he loves Debussy. If more people loved Debussy the world would be a better place. "Giver" is a track from the CD Close to Paradise, which was released in Canada in September on Secret City Records; this is Watson's third CD but Secret City's very first release ever. The MP3 is available via the Secret City site. An American release is expected next month, although you can already buy it electronically via iTunes. Thanks to the Listen for the lead.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

week of Nov. 19-25

"Song About Dying" - The Casting Couch
Have I been in a rut? Do I always put the quiet songs second? This has occurred to me. And maybe there's nothing wrong with that. But this week I'm starting quiet, and maybe a little sad. Though not as sad as you'd think from the title. And it doesn't stay completely quiet, either. I really like the variety of instruments that show up here--hand bells, clarinet, a horn of some sort, a (I think) theremin(!)--but even more I like how these instruments just kinda sorta play, they just do their thing without fuss, making an ensemble blending hand bells, clarinet, a horn of some sort and even maybe a theremin sound like well, yes, doesn't everyone? Meanwhile, singer Wendy Mitchell has just the right sort of crack in her not-quite-twangy voice for this down-home alt-country meets chamber pop lullaby. The Casting Couch is based in Austin, but combines the talents of musicians from both Texas and Athens, Georgia. "Song About Dying" is from the band's debut full-length CD, Row Your Boat, which was released on I Eat Records at the very end of last year. The MP3 is available via the I Eat site. Thanks to Alan at Sixeyes for the lead.

"Radio" - Apes and Androids
If this sounds at first like just another blippy bit of electro-rock sung by another nasally vocalist, well, okay, it is a blippy bit of electro-rock sung by a nasally vocalist--but it's also a whole lot more. If you want a hand-hold, here's one point that gave me a clue this was something significant: after the opening melody, where it sounds like it's just a nasally guy singing blip-rock, check it out: at 0:23, a chorus of voices opens up, somewhat Queen-like but not exactly, and they're not singing any words, just an extended "oh," but oh what an "oh"--there are a copule of interesting descending lines and nice chords in there even as the lead singer joins in on top with a resolutely dissonant "counter-oh," as it were. Whoa. And then: the initial melody returns but now there's an awesome chord in there, somehow, at 0:43. Listen to that and and then best of all listen to how it comes back at 0:59 with backing harmonies. Whoa-ho. Soon a vaguely Middle Eastern synthed-up guitar lines plays against soaring harmonies, then stops for a gliding funk break and we regroup back into blippiness before a big bashy wash of sound closes things out, like some sort of robot orchestra kicking out the jams. This is seriously unusual and engaging, always a good combination. A relatively new band, Apes and Androids is from New York City and appears to be wowing live audiences wherever they go. "Radio" is available via the band's web site. Perhaps you haven't heard the last of these guys.

"In the Countryside" - Benjy Ferree
This one is weird (but enjoyable!) in a whole different way, as Washington, D.C.-based singer/songwriter Benjy Ferree gives us a crisp, head-bobbing ditty that sounds like an American version of a British music-hall romp, funneled through a nebulous '60s filter (T. Rex? the Kinks? Thunderclap Newman??). This is, in any case, one style of old-timey music that Bob Dylan has yet to wrap his arms around. We get a bit of fiddle, a little whistling, and a guitar trying to sound like a tuba, but mostly we get Ferree's high, appealingly robust voice--sounding not completely unlike Robert Plant, if he were on the front porch singing to the neighbor's children, perhaps in Tennessee. "In the Countryside" is from Leaving The Nest (Domino Records), Ferree's first CD, which was originally released in the D.C. area last year as an EP. The MP3 is via the Domino site.

Monday, November 13, 2006

week of Nov. 12-18

"Sedition's Wish" - 31Knots
Even as I am historically oriented towards the simple-sounding music that falls under the "pop" umbrella (the intelligent edge of the umbrella, in any case), I don't think that anyone's musical tastes are as rigid and unyielding as, say, American radio has long assumed. Sure, I love a smart and catchy pop song; but I also love something as dense and prickly as this song from the dense and prickly Portland, Ore.-based trio 31Knots. Mind you, I still need something to hook me, but the hooks don't always have to be soaring melodies and warm-and-fuzzy chord changes. For instance, once I'm accustomed to it, the clumpy melody of the verse, mirrored simultaneously by a meticulous guitar, has its own special charm. It's a careful-sounding, somewhat homely refrain that becomes the oddball backbone of this vaguely threatening song--and so even when the guitar explodes into almost incoherent noise (e.g. 1:14), note how you can still sing that central melody along with the noise, and how the noise halts at exactly the right moment for the refrain to return (1:25). My favorite iteration of the melody is in the middle of the song when an unexpected trumpet joins in (1:44), accompanying much as the guitar had originally, but not directly mirroring the vocal notes; instead it plays a semi-dissonant countermelody that gives a Kurt Weill-ish air to the proceedings, somehow. We get a bit more noise, a bit more horn, and then a smoother, flow-ier section as a coda. This is not a pop song, but it's less than four minutes long; it's not "catchy" but it sure engages me. "Sedition's Wish" can be found on the band's new EP, Polemics, which was released last week on Polyvinyl Records. The band also expects its fourth full-length CD, The Days and Nights of Everything Anywhere, to be released early next year.

"Bird of Cuzco" - Nina Nastasia
Hollywood-born, New York City-based singer/songwriter Nina Nastasia has a pretty, unadorned voice that brings Suzanne Vega to mind, a bit, but not precisely, as Nastasia sounds more ordinary on the one hand (Vega's voice has always had an unearthly air) and yet also richer and rounder: the ordinary made extraordinary through breathtaking clarity and presence. Or something like that. This sad and stately acoustic guitar piece, adorned with cozy, precise piano accents, seems eerily aligned with the sort of day it's been out my window today--a gray, rainy, wet-leaved day that looks dreary yet somehow also comforts; the day and the song alike manage to be melancholy and heartening at the same time, a feeling-state I'm not sure there's a word for in English. "Bird of Cuzco" is from Nastasia's CD On Leaving, her fourth, which was released in September on Fat Cat Records, a British label. As with her previous discs, Nastasia has teamed again with engineer Steve Albini (don't call him a producer, he hates it), who has worked with a mighty range of alternative and indie musicians from the '80s through the '00s, including big names such as the Pixies, Nirvana, and P.J. Harvey. The MP3 is via Insound.

"She Had a Dream" - Elanors
Don't miss the opening combination of insistent drumming and sugary strings, an uncommon juxtaposition that lends a curious vibe to this idiosyncratic and gorgeous piece of music. The Chicago-based duo Elanors, featuring singer/pianist Noah Harris and wife Adriel Harris on guitar and backing vocal, paint big orchestral pictures of a familiar-seeming yet singular variety. (For the CD, Elanors have borrowed two players from the band Judah Johnson, for whom Noah plays keyboards.) Brian Wilson comes to mind, partly because of the orchestral aspirations, but mostly because of just how in-its-own-world this song seems. Having spent a certain amount of time reacquainting myself with Pet Sounds in recent weeks, I was struck anew by how thoroughly peculiar a sonic reality it presents, a peculiarity rooted somewhere in the marriage of the songs he wrote, the voice he sung them in, and the instruments he employed and how he employed them. With Elanors, a similar sort of splendid peculiarity is in the air. Note for instance the drumming again, which with or without the strings is just plain unusual, keeping up as it does a unflagging but continuously inventive triplet rhythm, three beats for each beat of the 4/4 measure, until the very end (oh and don't miss too that point, at 3:57, when the drum actually stops, just seconds before the end of the song; it's almost a revelation). "She Had a Dream" is a song from the band's second CD, Movements, released last month on Parasol Records. The MP3 is via the Parasol site.

Monday, November 06, 2006

week of Nov. 5-11

"Fifteen On Ice" - Tall Hands
Singer Justin Raisen has sure enough got Lou Reed's blasé NYC dude delivery down pat, but with a twist: while Reed tended to sing as if the apocalypse were just around the corner (not that this fazed him, mind you), Raisen sounds as if he actually knows how to smile. Not that he is smiling, but that he knows how, he and the other five members of Tall Hands. You can hear it in the upbeat piano riff that drives the song forward, and most of all in the tumble of unruly rhymes Raisen lets forth. He rhymes "sarcophagus" with "none of this"; he rhymes "cover" and "recover." And he likes rapid-fire rhyming, syllable-matching beyond even internal rhyming into something more manic: "Some kind of believer/total underachiever/dialing up a receiver/but the receiver won't see ya/and I won't see ya either." Tall Hands is a six-man band with enough personality, or ego(s), to consider themselves their own new genre, which they have named "boat rock." From what I've read so far it seems people are taking this as a joke, and maybe I'm crazy, but I actually hear it, and it starts in the banging piano background. If you want to hear it too, follow me specifically to the 2:02 mark and listen how the entire instrumental backing falls into step with that regular 1-2-3-4 piano beat, with nothing in between. The effect, for lack of a better word, is oceanic. I'm hearing some string sounds in here too, which accentuates the oceanic feeling. Close your eyes and check it out. Tall Hands released its self-titled EP a couple of weeks ago on the Pulse Recording label. The MP3 is via the's "band of the day" feature.

"Skara Brain" - Feathers
If the first 45 seconds or so of "Skara Brain" sound something like a small ensemble warming up, this is an ensemble the likes of which has not been heard too often before. We get a spaghetti-western-like guitar trading noodly licks with a cheery vibe, a combination that by itself makes this song worth listening to. And it's only just beginning. Don't miss too, in the introduction, the scratchy-echoey guitar noises, along with the electro-expando noises that sound like an old idea of what the future was going to sound like. Then we get a slinky beat, with psychedelic flourishes, and we're off. Except of course a minute or so later when the song appears prematurely to be ending. No worries--it's just an excuse for a new rash of strange sounds: scratchy-blippy-funky synthesizers, deep clownish drums, tinkly-pipey organs, and who knows what-all else. We never lose the beat after this; we also never lose the sense--difficult to attain in an instrumental--of the unexpected being ever around the corner. It's sort of like an Almodovar movie, where you can never guess, scene to scene, what's going to happen. Best of all, even though an instrumental, it definitely feels like a song, not just an extended groove. The trio from Miami calling themselves Feathers (not to be confused with Canada's The Lovely Feathers) just had their five-song "mini-album" Synchromy released on the Boulder-based Hometapes label last week. The MP3 is via the Hometapes site.

"Bike" - May Or May Not
It's sextet week, as May Or May Not is a six-piece band from Chicago. It's also lots-of-instruments week, as you'll hear a variety of horns on this one and, yes, that's a clarinet too. The horns carry a Latin American feel and yet, also, not, which is actually sort of endearing. Sometimes pastiche can be perfectly charming; assembled with the right sense of crazy, good-hearted spirit, music doesn't have to follow any particular "rules" about what's "authentic" or not. To my ears, this song is just way too much freewheeling fun, from the out-of-place (but not) horns to the '60s-style vocals to (best of all) the severe syncopation that gives the chorus its off-kilter hook. Whenever anyone knows enough about music to do something like that, I tend to pay attention. "Bike" is the title track to a four-song EP released on Two Thumbs Down Records in September. The MP3 is courtesy the Two Thumbs Down site.

* It's Election Day in the U.S. tomorrow. Don't forget to vote! As a reminder, or extra motivation, or whatever, here are two bonus Election Day songs:

** "Road to Peace" - Tom Waits (In this song from his new, triple-CD collection of career-spanning odds and ends, Waits allows himself to be a lot more direct in his lyrics than we are used to this grizzled mad genius being. Check it out.)

** "Banks of the Hudson" - John Hall (The former Orleans headman with a smart, tradition-savvy ballad; Hall himself is running for Congress in New York's 19th District and is well worth supporting if you happen to be someone who believes that democracy is a good thing. Hall was even "privileged" enough to be one of 20 Democratic candidates across the country whose supporters were targeted in recent days to receive dirty-trick "robo-calls" so I'm particularly supportive today. Only in the loony universe of one-party demagogues must election results be determined by trickery and deceit.)

Monday, October 30, 2006

week of Oct. 29-Nov. 4

"Last Cast" - The End of the World
A compelling mid-tempo rocker that's equal parts unresolved chords and resolving melodies. It's also equal parts playful bass line and insistently bashing cymbals, and as I listen I'm thinking these two things are related, somehow, as both oppositions--the harmonic one and the one within the rhythm section--foster a really chewy sort of dynamic, half unsettled and half really comfortable. I haven't praised the trio concept in a while, so I think I'll do that here, noting (yet again, for long-time Fingertips visitors) how satisfyingly present a trio is in a rock context: with guitar, bass, and drums, nothing is buried, no sound unaccounted for; I find it a welcome relief, sometimes, from the sort of sonic overload that the digital age has often brought upon us. This is another in a long (long...) line of songs that I like but have no idea what they're about; what brings a song like this to life, lyrically, anyway is when individual lines jump out and intrigue; the one that does it for me here is: "Now it's the quiet ones/That we watch out for." Again, no idea what's going on, but I'm definitely curious and engaged. The End of the World are from New York City; "Last Cast" is a song from their debut full-length CD, You're Making It Come Alive, which was released earlier this month on Flameshovel Records. The MP3 is via the Flameshovel site.

"Breakable" - Ingrid Michaelson
Deconstructing waltz time beyond recognition, Ingrid Michaelson here breathes fetching new life into a 3/4 piano ballad. The Brooklyn-based Michaelson sings with a choppy sort of breathiness, and gives me the impression that even she doesn't quite know which way a note is going to go until her elastic voice lets it fly. I will do us all the favor of not drawing on the usual comparisons that seem to beset any woman who plays the piano, even when she sounds pretty much nothing like the person everyone is always compared to. Instead I find myself drawn to her freshness, a not-quite-like-anyone-else quality that she presents in a most familiar-seeming container. Many little things along the way are just a bit different, from the plaintive same-note harmony vocals matched against the pumping piano that open the song to the minimalist snare and percussion she calls on to provide distinctive rhythmic support. "Breakable" is a song from Girls and Boys, Michaelson's second CD, which was self-released in May. The MP3 is available via her web site. Thanks to Bruce at Some Velvet Blog for the lead.

"Harvest (Within You)" - Clinic
If this one doesn't hit you on first listen, I urge you to listen two more times. That's when it really began to sink in for me, and now of course I'm not sure why I didn't hear it the first time, but music is a mysterious thing--maybe even more so when created and performed by an enigmatic band from Liverpool that wears surgical masks and costumes in all their publicity photos, and apparently while performing as well. Against a "Lust For Life" rhythm, "Harvest" unfolds with (sorry) almost clinical precision, with Ade Blackburn's nasally-twitchy voice accompanied by ghostly harmonies, a funereal organ, and a really really great-sounding guitar, all skeletal and portentous. "Harvest (Within You)" is a song from Visitations, the band's fourth CD, released in the U.K. and digitally this month on Domino Records. (The U.S. hard copy will not arrive until January.) The MP3 is available via the Domino web site.

Monday, October 23, 2006

week of Oct. 22-28

"Axes" - The Low Frequency in Stereo
To begin with we get a surf guitar over a crisp beat. Another guitar joins in for a few measures, then leaves. Surf guitar riff re-establishes itself. Next to enter is a Doors-like organ. At this point I for one would not have understood that exactly what was missing was a trumpet but what do you know: the trumpet, appearing at 56 seconds in, is utterly perfect. The whole song, as a matter of fact, seems to unfold with impeccable charm and precision all the way through, as each sonic element--the surf guitar, the organ vamp, the trumpet, and Hanne Andersen's breathy, somewhat distant vocal, when she finally starts singing (over a minute into the proceedings)--contributes its own distinct ingredient to the musical stew. The band, from Norway, seems to call themselves, interchangeably, Low Frequency in Stereo, and The Low Frequency in Stereo. Not a big distinction but I'm kind of a stickler for details; I'm going with "The" at this point. Reading about them a bit I see that they've been tied since their founding in 2000 to the so-called "post-rock" genre, but I personally have trouble with that label, which seems an unnecessary way to distinguish fresh sounding rock music (interesting instrumental combinations and song structures) from previous sounds, overlooking the fact that rock music at its best is always growing and stretching. "Axes" is from the CD The Last Temptation Of..., scheduled for release next week on Gigantic Music. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

"Fata Morgana" - Gary Lucas & Gods and Monsters
A fast-picking bluesy, slidey shuffle with an odd sort of homespun character. Lucas sings of the legendary enchantress with a cartoony sort of croon on top of the almost old-timey music; the combination of the rapid-fire acoustic guitarwork, the old-fashioned melody, and Lucas's vaguely unhinged presence creates an unexpected blast of merrymaking. Lucas is something of a cult-hero guitarist, with experience ranging all the way back to playing with Captain Beefheart during the last incarnation of his Magic Band in the early '80s; among the impressive array of musicians he's collaborated with are Lou Reed, Patti Smith, John Cale, Bryan Ferry, Matthew Sweet, John Zorn, Dr. John, Jeff Buckley, and (yes) Leonard Bernstein. Gods and Monsters is being billed as a sort of New Wave supergroup; certainly its members are of interest, since Billy Ficca (Television) plays drums and Ernie Brooks (the Modern Lovers) bass. What's more, Jerry Harrison from Talking Heads (and previously also the Modern Lovers) had a hand on the knobs in here (and is playing with the band on the road). And actually Jonathan Kane (Swans) plays drums on most of the songs although Ficca's here on "Fata Morgana." The song is from the CD Coming Clean, which was released at the end of September on Mighty Quinn Records.

"Circles" - Porter Block
If "Circles" is as vaguely pastoral, skillfully produced, and giddily melodic as an old XTC song, this is no accident. Peter Block and Caleb Sherman, doing business as Porter Block, are the first to report that their biggest influences are the Beatles and XTC. It's wonderful enough to see a new band that understands XTC's brilliant but underrated contributions to rock'n'roll history; it's all the better when the band in question handles its influences this comfortably. I hear a lot of indie bands that seem to have this unconscious need to sound exactly like their musical heroes, down to out-and-out vocal mimickry. I am relieved right away by Porter Block in that they write XTC-ish songs without having a singer who sounds at all like Andy Partridge (or Colin Moulding, for that matter). In any case, the chorus here in particular offers winsome XTC resonances, both musical and lyrical (including the very Andy Partridge-like word "whirligig"), and if you don't have any particular knowledge of or interest in XTC (but why not??), it doesn't matter, as the lilting 3/4 melody stands beautifully on its own two feet. "Circles" is from the CD Suburban Sprawl, scheduled for release next month by Engine Room Recordings. The MP3 is via the band's site.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Don't forget you can hear all three songs on the weekly Fingertips podcast, along with commentary that might or might not be much like the blurbs you see here. And there's a bonus song each week, too. Podcasts are usually online by Friday; more info about all that here.

week of Oct. 15-21

"Eyelashes" - the Panda Band
Loping along with a kitchen-sink variety of sounds and musical moments, "Eyelashes" is a song that I think will satisfy both those who enjoy songwriting craft and those with short attention spans. After a three-second introduction, we are thrown right into the middle of the song, as the chorus comes first. Just as I'm getting acclimated to the expansive soundscape, featuring an unnameable wall of sound that doesn't appear to be any particular instrument or background vocal, the song pulls back to a quieter section, but even that shifts quickly, as the singer and acoustic guitar are joined first by a cheesy organ (I mean that in a good way) and some skittering electronic percussion, leading us soon enough into an engaging instrumental section. The song isn't quite a minute old yet. And, as it turns out, the instrumental interlude, too, keeps moving and keeps us guessing--the 24-second break beginning at around 54 seconds in itself has three different sub-sections, including one of the coolest (and oddest) guitar "solos" I've heard in a while (check it out starting around 1:06, after the flurry of electronic twittering--it's pretty low in the mix, and for all of its alternating dissonance it almost doesn't sound like somebody playing an instrument). Even as the song can be parsed into these semi-describable chunks, the impressive thing is that "Eyelashes" holds its ground with great panache, offering a rollicking musical adventure in a concise space. The Panda Band is a quintet from the large but remote city of Perth, Western Australia. This song is from the band's debut CD, This Vital Chapter, which was released in Australia this summer, and given a U.S. release last month on the Filter U.S. label. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

"The King is Dead (But the Throne Is Not Ours)" - Causa
Mysterious and restrained and yet also fast-paced, mixing electronics and guitars with Radiohead-like aplomb. The melody urges the song forward and upward against a particularly appealing beat; I like how well-articulated and almost minimalist it is, achieving a satisfying complexity without simply piling on the digitally-manipulated sounds. The Spanish lyrics add to the enigmatic feel, thanks to the complete failure of my high school Spanish to rescue more than one or two words from the flow. And talk about great guitar solos, this one, beginning at 2:09 and closing out the song, is probably what ultimately sold me here; it's a repetition of nine basic notes, but yanked out of the instrument in an itchy, urgent, and increasingly freaked-out way. Love it. Causa is a quartet from Buenos Aires, Argentina that has been around since 1999. "The King is Dead" is a song that has not yet appeared on an album of theirs; it's available as an MP3 via the band's site.

"Fearful" - Beat Radio
Part lullaby, part benediction, "Fearful" is one beautiful and tender song, yet possesses not an ounce of sappiness, which limns its sturdy truthfulness in clear, almost breathtaking strokes. Most love songs, let's be honest, defeat their own intentions through mawkish exclamations, both musical and lyrical. Somewhere in the interplay between Brian Sendrowitz's vulnerable vocal, the subtle but progressive tension of the acoustic instrumentation (listen to the drumbeat, for instance), and the rock-solid melody, the song achieves a luminous clarity that doesn't have to rely on bromides or histrionics. "Fearful" is from the band's debut CD (they call it an LP, god bless 'em) The Great Big Sea; the MP3 is available via the band's site. As a matter of fact, the entire album is there to be listened to and downloaded as free and legal MP3s (god bless 'em). A New York City four-piece, Beat Radio has been written about all over the place, but I noticed them first only recently via the Sixeyes blog.

Monday, October 09, 2006

week of Oct. 8-14

"Turn This Thing Around" - El Presidente
Turn it up, shake it out, and beware as this uncomplicated, preposterously addictive tune is likely to stick in your head for the next several days. Boasting a smashing neo-glam-rock sound that bridges everyone from David Bowie to the Bee Gees to Prince to the Scissor Sisters, this quintet from Glasgow makes music that leaps from the speakers, certain to sound at home on everything from a transistor radio (should any still exist) to a Mac Pro. With their feisty dance-rock riffs and falsetto vocals, El Presidente edges neo-glam-rock ever so close to camp (and truly glam rock and camp are never that far away), and yet, for me, "this thing" stays on solid musical ground largely for the crazy sincerity of its exhilarating chorus. When Dante Gizzi (great name) sings "Let me go back to where we were," the melody not only resolves impeccably (and deep in the gut) but I hear an unexpected dollop of genuine pathos that no amount of squeally vocals can quite dispel. "Turn This Thing Around" is a song from the band's self-titled debut, which came out last October in the U.K., finally to be released in the U.S. last month on Red Ink Records, a Sony imprint. The MP3 is courtesy of the fine folks at betterPropaganda. If you want to hear the whole album, you can stream it at the band's new U.S. site.

"Songs That No One Will Hear" - We Are Soldier We Have Guns"
Okay so while I would never have identified this, in advance, as a favorite songwriting trick, as soon as I heard it I knew it was: having the introduction in a different key from the song. And, who knows, maybe that won't always work for me either, but in this case I find the effect entrancing, in large part because of the thoughtful, atmospheric beauty of the guitar work that comprises the introduction. The playing is both crisp and echoey, its gentle alternation between major and minor chords creating a continual sense of something about to happen and yet also there being no hurry to get there. Then, 40 seconds in: we change keys, we get a sense of movement in the guitar, something chimey chimes in, and Malin Dahlberg adds her delicately powerful voice to the mix. Even as the atmosphere remains restrained--almost slipping into near silence at one point--the song has tremendous character, perhaps because of the next thing I notice: for all the gentle meanderings of the sonic landscape, this song has a real melody to offer. You could speed this baby up and set it to a big bashing rock beat if you wanted to (not that I want to!), because of the range of motion in the notes. I think it's all too easy here in the 21st century for musicians, fiddling with digital gizmos, to lose track of the great gift of melodic elasticity. On a screen everything flattens. It's a theory, at least. We Are Soldiers And We Have Guns is a duo from Gothenburg, Sweden; "Songs That No One Will Hear" comes from their cleverly-titled EP To Meet is Murder, which is scheduled for release later this month on Stereo Test Kit Records. Many thanks, as always, to Hedvika at the excellent Getecho blog for the lead.

"Ain't No Reason" - Brett Dennen
Another simple and compelling tune, but set in an entirely different musical universe than the one occupied by El Presidente (see above). Brett Dennen is one part Ron Sexsmith and one part Steve Forbert, with maybe a sprinkle of John Prine, repackaged by the universe into lanky (he's 6'5") 20-something redhead with a wise-beyond-his-years vibe, a memorable voice, and some spiffy songwriting chops. He seems to have the distinctly Prine-like ability to be simultaneously goofy and serious, sometimes within the same sentence ("I don't know why I say the things I say/But I say them anyway"), and a Sexsmithian flair for sad, vivid melodies. Forbert kicks in because of the woodsy ache in his tenor, and the sense I get that he's going to out on the road playing his guitar for the next 30 years also. "Ain't No Reason" is from Dennen's second CD, So Much More, slated for release next week on Dualtone Records.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

week of Oct. 1-7

"Technology" - the Whigs
Take the crunchy drive of the Strokes but loosen it up, make it sound a little more fun than hip, a little warmer than cooler, and you've got a quick sense of this exuberant trio from the semi-legendary indie rock oasis of Athens, Georgia. Just about all I need out of this song is that great barrage of fuzz-toned guitar chords in the intro--I mean, how primal and cool and perfect is that sound? Perhaps lead guitar is overrated after all, when so much dazzling musical force can be channelled through crisp, chord-based pounding. And yet the song hardly stops there, working itself up into two separate hooks--one delivered as those great intro chords return (at 0:30), the other right after that, where the chorus centers on one note (beginning at 0:44) with shifting chords underneath, leading to the line "Technology it needs me." There are great rock'n'roll precedents for this kind of one-note melody, but two of the monumental examples that occur to me ("Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Pump It Up") use it in the verse rather than the chorus. Coming here after all the chord-crunching it seems like its own sort of brilliant release. "Technology" is a song off the Whigs' debut CD, Give 'em All a Big Fat Lip, which was self-released last year, then re-released in September by ATO Records. The MP3 is via the ATO Records site.

"Too Many Pictures" - the Sheds
Listening to "Too Many Pictures," I develop a theory on the spot: it's hard to be quirky and nice at the same time, musically speaking. Usually something that's quirky involves a prickliness of one kind or another--maybe some unusual vocals and/or lyrics, some challenging sounds, or at the very least some jarring twists and turns in the overall musical structure. To sound "nice," on the other hand typically involves a significant amount of both prettiness and gentleness. So, yes--hard to be jarring and soothing simultaneously. One would think. But here come the Sheds, a duo from Kentucky that is more than happy to oblige. How do they do it? Well, clearly having a flowing melody and gentle instrumentation helps (as do those perky "ba-ba-ba" backing vocals). So the niceness is right up front. Whereas the quirkiness is subtler, based in the band's lo-fi vibe, disarmingly unaffected vocals, and naked-seeming lyrics. "My family has a history of cancer/Addictive personalities/A tendency for excess intake/And our hearts are big": that's awfully quirky writing. And yet maybe here they've figured out where the quirky and the nice can overlap after all--in poignancy. Most of all, this song is poignant, as the narrator, rigorously honest with himself, describes his (quirky!) human need for the cigarettes he knows he shouldn't smoke, singing a melody which takes plaintive, almost unplanned-sounding turns, sometimes upwards and sometimes downwards. "Too Many Pictures" is from the band's recently self-released CD, The Sheds Quit Smoking, and all the songs do in fact have something to do with smoking. The MP3 is via the band's site; as a matter of fact, the entire CD is available there for free and legal download. Thanks to the music blog Each Note Secure for the lead.

"Been Here Before" - Jeremy Enigk
Dreamy, grand, and effortlessly melodic, "Been Here Before" has many graces but to me its most notable achievement is its reclamation of a progressive rock aural vocabulary into a 21st-century pop setting. Enigk's haunting vocal resemblance to Jon Anderson (Yes, anyone?) is not the only thing that sets off the prog-rock bells in my head (although it helps); there's also the majestic ambiance (the soaring mountains and spreading valleys of sound), the supple use of 7/4 time, and okay maybe the organ solo too. Whatever happened once upon a time to make progressive rock the whipping boy of critics and music hipsters, who the hell cares anymore. In the hands of a talent like Enigk's, the music comes across like a revelation. "Been Here Before" is packed with more musical ideas than most musicians realize are possible in a four-minute pop song--a series of fully-formed melodies and structural shifts that flow fluently and beautifully together. Lead singer of the pioneering but oddly controversial '90s band Sunny Day Real Estate, Enigk more recently headed up the Fire Theft (with two Sunny Day compadres); now he's got a solo CD coming out, his second. It's called World Waits and is scheduled for release later this month. "Been Here Before" is the second track on the record.

Monday, September 25, 2006

week of Sept. 24-30

"Wind Change" - Artisan
Crisp, rhythmic, and melodic, "Wind Change" sparkles with a not often heard sort of acoustic/electronic energy. Certainly there are any number of people out there attempting to combine these two disparate sonic camps; a sub-genre even emerged early in the '00s--"folktronica"--that sought to name at least some of these efforts. And yet achieving a bona fide blend of acoustic and electronic instruments is harder than it may seem to the dial-twiddling crowd: what we tend to get are either blurry tunes heavy in atmosphere but light in actual song-iness, or simple guitar songs with distracting effects thrown in. None of that, however, for Artisan, a British outfit which combines a Simon & Garfunkel-like sprightliness with melodies and vocal stylings that owe a lot, in a wonderful way, to Thom Yorke. The beats here are so subtle and well-conceived they often sound like little more than guitar-body percussion, which merely reinforces how central the guitar work remains, through both the complex, chord-changey verse and the simple, sing-along chorus. I've rarely for instance heard harmonic accents worked so organically into a song without drawing undue attention (listen at 1:27 to see what I mean)--just one example of the stylish musicianship on display. "Wind Change" is available as an MP3 on the band's site. It's a demo but the band tells me that at this point it's as finished as it's going to be for some time. Sounds pretty good as is.

"No Backbone" - the Lemonheads
Talk about songiness: Evan Dando at his best always specialized in songiness of just about the best kind--the power pop kind. Now first of all, turn the volume up on this one. No, louder. You want to be sure to properly absorb the guitar barrage (and hey that's the venerable J Mascis on lead, how 'bout that?). And talk about the blending of disparate sounds: what about that wall of guitars and Dando's husky-honey voice? I think the potential to combine an all-out sonic assault with sweet melody has always been the grand allure of that intractable genre known as power pop. What "No Backbone" does particularly well is sound barely contained so much of the time--not just J Mascis but also drummer Bill Stevenson (with certfied punk credentials of his own), just bashing first, asking questions later. It's a tricky balance, since a finely-wrought pop song is actually a pretty strict container, without a lot of room for loosy-goose drama. Written, as a few Lemonheads songs have been, by Tom Morgan, of the not-terribly-well-known Australian trio Smudge, "No Backbone" is a lean and shining container indeed, but the ensemble drives and pushes and keeps making it sound like implosion is but a few measures away. Until, that is, that wonderful part where things get a bit quieter, at around 2:20 (and doesn't Dando sound intensely Costello-like right there?), for maybe 15 seconds, and then, never mind, the band is back and we're kicked in the butt till someone pulls the plug at a tidy 3:09. "No Backbone" is a song from the Lemonheads' self-titled new CD, due out tomorrow on Vagrant Records. No, the Lemonheads haven't had an album for a long time (10 years); it's a whole new band this time except for Dando. The MP3 is courtesy the AOL Music Indie Blog.

"Doctor Blind" - Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton
Lead singer for the band Metric and one-time member of the ramshackle Broken Social Scene ensemble, Emily Haines strips things down here for a haunting, piano-based reverie with a pointed message. I'm immediately attracted to the time-signature challenges in the chorus, which lend a meaty flavor to an already tuneful piece--I think she abuts a measure of 5/4 to a measure of 7/4, but I could be wrong; it's beautifully articulated and engaging in any case, with Haines singing in a weary, not-quite-deadpan voice. Everything is draped in lamentation (listen to how the strings sound when they join those ghostly echo-noises in the background), which is perhaps as it should be when the subject turns, as it seems to here, to our society's sickening reliance on pharmaceutical products for our quote-unquote well-being. And actually I'm loving those echo-noises, whatever they are (unearthly guitars? distorted vocal samples?); they acquire a more prominent place in the background during the last minute or so, sounding like a chorus of alien ghosts trying to warn us, through a some sort of interdimensional doorway, about something we wouldn't understand anyway. "Doctor Blind" is a song from the CD Knives Don't Have Your Back, coming out this week on Last Gang Records. The MP3 is via Filter Magazine.

Monday, September 18, 2006

One bit of news to start the week: the Fingertips podcast now exists. The first one, featuring last week's "This Week's Finds," went up on Friday. I'm going to try to get them online by Wednesdays in general, once I get better at the process. More information here.

week of Sept. 17-23

"Brother" - Annuals
This expansive group of North Carolina youngsters (front man Adam Baker is 19) sound like the Arcade Fire's younger American cousins. This is a good thing. Like that great Montrel band, Annuals show an impressive grasp of instrumental melody (note the recurring violin refrain), musical dynamics (they do both loud and soft with impressive character), and idiosyncratic production tricks as they transform a lilting, pastoral opening (complete with crickets) into a hard-driving rocker, showing both patience and passion in the process. It takes well over half the song to arrive at the visceral, propulsive beat that becomes its destiny--a beat that actually swings if you think about it: one-two; one-two. I really like when the percussion steps to the forefront at 2:45 and we hear the beat in a stripped-down and yet still nicely textured setting, and like as well the unusual guitar solo that led into the percussive section, at 2:26--unusual both for the complexion of the sound (not the typical searing guitar solo) and for the way it allows itself to be enveloped by the slightly unhinged background; typical guitar solos demand the front-and-center seat, perhaps at the cost of a richer musical flavor. Nice stuff from a promising ensemble. "Brother" is a track from the band's debut CD, Be He Me, scheduled for release in October on Ace Fu Records; the MP3 is via the Ace Fu site.

"Day's Looking Up" - Paul Michel
With its melancholic descending guitar line and casually assured presence, "Day's Looking Up" sounds like some great lost classic rock ballad, particularly when we arrive at the chorus. What a beautiful, inevitable melody we get there, and what great lyrics: "Hope is an only child/And change is a desperate fool/Waiting for jealousy to clear out the room." These are great not because they are unutterably profound (that would be asking a lot) but because of quite literally how they sound in the setting: big fat concepts to match the big fat beauty of the musical line. I am also impressed with the words because Michel is going for it here--he's aiming at something beyond "I love you, baby" or "You hurt me, baby" while at the same time avoiding the two biggest problems in pop lyrics, which are 1) cliche and 2) obscurity. Mainstream pop veers towards cliche; indie rock veers towards obscurity, and I'm not equipped to say which is worse but neither is particularly satisfying. A Washington, D.C.-based singer/songwriter, Michel has also spent time in bands, and it shows in his singing--his voice is packed with more power and elasticity than the typical singer/songwriter, gliding effortlessly up and down to notes both higher and lower than they sound. "Day's Looking Up" is a song from
the CD These are Beautiful Things, released last year on Magic Bullet Records. Michel has a new CD called A Quiet State of Panic scheduled for a November release on Stunning Models on Display Records.

"Changing Emily" - Special Patrol
Anyone remember Pure Prairie League? Although I have never been a particular fan of that sort of country-pop-rock, there's no doubt that the once-upon-a-time ubiqitous "Amie" had a certain compulsive charm. And everything sounds better draped in nostalgia anyway, so if a trio from Adelaide, South Australia decides to come along in 2006 and channel some Southern U.S. country-rockers from three decades ago, if the melody is there, and the harmonies, and if the effort has verve and more than a little compulsive charm of its own, what the heck. I'm on board. There is definitely something about the layered harmonies of the chorus, with those high voices on top, that just seems so comfortable and right. I like how the song in fact starts with the chorus, which is not something you hear every day--there's just a ringing, vaguely Credence-like guitar line and boom, the chorus. I'm surprised more people don't try that. Two of the guys in Special Patrol--the singer/guitarist Myles Mayo and drummer Rob Jordan--have been playing music together since ninth grade, and have known each other since second grade; they began recording in 1999. The band has been in its current form since 2003. "Changing Emily" is a song from theirupcoming CD, Handy Hints From The Undertaker, to be released in October in Australia on Mixmasters Records.

Monday, September 11, 2006

week of Sept. 10-16

"Into the Open" - Heartless Bastards
From its dreamy opening--the echoey, faraway keyboard, the reverby vocal--"Into the Open" kicks into an intensely engaging reverie of a midtempo rocker. And there: I wrote at least one sentence about this marvelous Cincinnati trio without extolling the unearthly talents of singer/songwriter/guitarist Erika Wennerstrom. She opens her mouth and the world shifts; she has the sort of voice that reminds me why I listen to music. When it's aligned with such a stirring, almost sing-song-y tune, I can do little except sit and receive, rather insight-less. Notice by the way she doesn't sing in her full voice at the beginning, in the echoey intro. And hey that's an actual introduction, almost like the old days--a separate part of the song that leads into the rest but is never repeated. That's kind of cool right there. Anyway, she doesn't really start singing singing till after that--the line that starts (David Byrne-ishly) "And I find myself..." Just listen to that. Every syllable is imbued with substance in a way you can neither teach nor describe. Interestingly, Wennerstrom's lyrics here employ Talking Heads-style declarations, sometimes repeated, as Byrne was wont to do. This strikes me as very likable, somehow, since otherwise the music and vibe, which wanders into some room-shaking noise here and there, has nothing to do with the older band. "I've got a wind in my face": listen to that. Sit and receive. Wennerstrom is the real thing, and so's her band. "Into the Open" is the first song on their new CD, All This Time, released in August on Fat Possum Records. The MP3 is available via the Fat Possum site.

"Little Sounds" - Judah Johnson
Judah Johnson is a band, not a person; and "Little Sounds" is not so little, but rather a large, yearning sort of rock song, at once familiar- and fresh-sounding, which is a nice combination. Just that great up-and-down sliding guitar line in the intro is enough to hook me; vocalist Daniel Johnson's substantive yet tender vocal delivery is another plus. And yeah I don't suppose we can know, stuck inescapably in our own cultural moment, whether the band's ear-grabbing use of electronic accents in the midst of such a big-sounding piece of rock is going to sound really cool in the long run or really dated. While I'm having a hard time focusing on what the song is about, get the sense that it's all very sad, an impression furthered by the intriguing "Ooh Child" reference in the bridge (with the lyrics inverted: "Ooh, child/It won't get easier/It won't get brighter"). Made me wonder for a moment if the Five Stairsteps were a Motown group (Judah Johnson is from Detroit), but no, I see they were from Chicago (thanks, Wikipedia!). "Little Sounds" is from the band's second full-length CD Be Where I Be, released in late August on Flame Shovel Records. The MP3 is via the Flameshovel site.

"O Love is Teasin'" - Isobel Campbell
So like a lot of people lately I've been listening carefully to the gruff but lovable Bob Dylan, pondering at no small length his deepening embrace of traditional song structures, admiring the tenacity, really, with which he has pursued his troubadour destiny, which has a lot to with being at once a great student and interpreter of songs from the dustier alleyways of folk music. Things return and return again to the storied Anthology of American Folk Music and a-ha, here's where I start talking about Isobel Campbell, in case you thought I'd forgotten. The melty-voiced Scottish cellist/vocalist, and one-time member of Belle & Sebastian, has a CD coming out later this fall that, of all things, is directly inspired by the recordings from the late '20s and early '30s that Harry Smith famously collected and released in the early '50s that propelled the American folk movement later that decade. This seems even more unexpected than her highly unexpected collaboration earlier this year with Mark Lanegan. "O Love is Teasin'" is, apparently, a traditional song that Campbell has arranged, and it's subtle and very simple (just guitar and voice with two--count 'em, two--soundings of a chime) but if you slow down you might just find it as achingly gorgeous and haunted as I do. Of course even if you slow down it's over pretty quickly (it's just 1:57); my suggestion is listen to it a few times in a row to catch all of fragile, breathy moments Campbell offers while delivering this almost medieval-sounding melody. Her distinction is that her voice is at once pretty and imperfect, which has an arresting effect in this minimally presented song. "O Love is Teasin'" is from a CD that will be released in November on V2 Records called Milkwhite Sheets--an album of "psychedelic lullabies," according to the press material. The MP3 is available via Pitchfork.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

week of Sept. 3-9

"Like a Lily" - Out of Clouds
Unlike the other three seasons, which fade into their successors, summer ends with the sense of a door slamming. Everyone seems to hate it, but truly we are co-conspirators: against the reality of the Earth's steady revolution, we insist on seeing a sudden end where there is none. So okay, it may be cool and rainy, and school buses may be back on the streets, but me, I'm not going to lose the full seasonal experience, and offer a most summery-sounding song to help recover calendar reality. Out of Clouds is an earnest six-piece band from Gothenburg, Sweden with an obvious affinity for innocent '60s pop sounds of both the British and American variety. But don't mistake the gentle piano chords, easy beat, and tender harmonies as purely an exercise in retro-ness; to my ears, "Like a Lily" has a vital and appealing heart. Singer Joel Göranson's voice isn't just sweet--listen closely and you'll hear a subtle edge; it's Brian Wilson with Thom Yorke mixed in. The chorus nails this all down for me with its unfolding melody and continually interesting series of chords. "Like a Lily" is the lead track on the most recent Out of Clouds EP, Into Your Lovely Summer, self-released in June. The MP3 is from the band's site.

"Nature of the Experiment" - Tokyo Police Club
Listen to how quickly this band builds a compelling song: first comes that buzzy, lo-fi bass, then a quick cathartic grunt, then that really wonderful guitar line, at once chimey and dissonant, both careful and slightly unhinged. And then to top it off a splendid opening line-- "We've got our tracks covered/Thanks to your older brother"--that plunks us right into the middle of a conflict of some sort, while simultaneously recalling spiky Britpop from some previous generation or another. We're just 16 seconds into the song at this point; when the whole thing is only two minutes you clearly have to hit the ground running. The singer, Dave Monks, is also the bass player; and it could be my imagination but it strikes me that when the lead vocalist is the bass player, the bass is inescapably more interesting--let's face it, a guy who sings lead is used to being heard, not blending into the background. A young band, the Toronto-based Tokyo Police Club sounds rough around the edges but the song is a winner, a skittering blend of melodic bursts and lyrical salvos ("It's an ancient Russian proverb/I doubt it's one that you've heard") set to an invigorating Gang-of-Four-ian beat. "Nature of the Experiment" is from TPC's debut EP, A Lesson in Crime (Paper Bag Records), slated for a U.S. release in October. It was originally released in Canada in April. The MP3 is via the Paper Bag site.

"Overgrown" - Darling New Neighbors
From Austin comes a different sort of rough-around-the-edges band. Darling New Neighbors is a trio that plays a lopsided, homespun sort of indie pop that veers, song to song, in a variety of directions. "Overgrown" is their take on something resembling country, but I don't think you have to think you like country to like a tune that manages to sound so heartfelt and, well, goofy at the same time. Elizabeth Jackson's forthright, naive-seeming alto, with its penetrating falsetto, seems the perfect vehicle for this landscape-driven tale of love gone wrong. All three members of the band play multiple instruments (things like mandolins and accordions and ukeleles); Jackson herself takes a solo on the violin in the middle of this one that goes on and on and makes me smile every time I hear it. "Overgrown" is the first song on the band's debut CD, Every Day is Saturday Night, released in August on I Eat Records. The MP3 is via the I Eat Records site. (Note a delay of about five seconds at the beginning of the MP3; don't worry, it'll start.)

Monday, August 28, 2006

week of Aug. 27-Sept. 2

"Los Angeles" - the Rosewood Thieves
After the old-timey piano intro, the first thing you're likely to notice here is singer Erick Jordan's spunky vocal resemblance to John Lennon--whom he readily acknowledges as one of his musical heroes. (There's even a lyrical reference to "that bird that flew," for good measure.) If this already seems like a good thing, you're home free with this song; if however you're trained to be disapproving of transparent influences, I urge you to relax that learned reflex and simply listen to whether the song is pleasing. Me, I find "Los Angeles" a rousing good time, for a variety of reasons. The engaging melody and crisp production are a good part of it, but to me songs often prove their mettle in the details--the little things that go on that didn't "need" to be there but, with their presence, make everything else seem deeper and stronger and truer. I like, a lot, the meandering course the melody takes from the fourth into the fifth measure of the verse--the part, in the first verse, where it sounds like Jordan is simply singing a drawn-out "ahhh" but it actually turns out to be an "I." Formally this is called a "melisma"--where a group of notes are used to sing one syllable--and is more characteristic of classical than pop music. I also like the stutter (literally an extra beat) in the melody line--you hear it in the seventh measure in the introduction, and each time that point returns in the verse. Sometimes the more subtle the touch--like the way the piano intro is revisited in the middle of the song but with a major chord momentarily underneath (at 2:38)--the cooler the effect. All in all this seems the work of a band that knows what it's doing. The Rosewood Thieves are a quintet from New York City. "Los Angeles" is one of seven songs on the band's debut EP, From the Decker House, released last month on V2 Records.

"Lowlife" - Scanners
I'm in love with the opening riff here, with its fuzzy, restrained, melodic yet unresolved appeal; when it leads into a memorable opening line--"I know you're not ready to live/Are you ready to die?"--I am solidly hooked. And even more is going on right away (check out that ghostly keyboard thing hovering above everything else), most notably the unexpected use of Sarah Daly's violin, which provides a plaintive undercurrent to her full-throttled but pop-savvy vocal style. (I'm thinking she sounds like Grace Slick and Siouxsie Sioux's somewhat more mild-mannered love child.) The more I listen to this song the more I am impressed with its precision and timeless pop know-how; while sounding completely contemporary, "Lowlife" displays a vitality that cuts across the generations--I hear all rock decades from the '60s onward in different aspects of this song, which in another time and place might've been blaring from all of our car radios out on the wide open road but as of now is just a really cool little song you can download for free on the net. Bob was right: things have changed. "Lowlife" is from this London-based band's debut CD, Violence is Golden, which came out in June on Dim Mak Records. The MP3 is available via the Dim Mak site.

"Lullaby in A" - Bel Auburn
A lovely melody placed over tasteful blips of tweaky fuzz and feedback, "Lullaby in A" starts slowly, almost as an incantation. A minute in, the song opens up sonically, but something of a reverie remains, as the earnest verse repeats and repeats--there's no chorus, just an interlude of upward-swelling guitars and noise--against an assertive drumbeat and subtly shifting backdrop mixing the electric and the electronic. At around 2:50 we float into a new (but still lovely) melody; this one however slides quickly and refreshingly into a harsher section full of hammering guitars and electronic swoops before quieting back down and, soon, fading into a vibrating electronic wail. And, yes, okay: are they taking what Radiohead and Wilco have done and making it perhaps prettier, perhaps poppier, perhaps easier to listen to? Probably; and I for one say hooray for them. I love Radiohead and Wilco to pieces and have and will follow them anywhere (hey, I've even listened to the end of "Less Than You Think," willingly, twice). But it's a big planet, and there's a lot of ways to make great music, only one of which is by being blindingly original. (Remember too that a whole lot of blindingly original music is also unlistenable; very little of it is effective pop.) Most of this rock'n'roll game is about absorbing and repositioning what someone else already did. And oops I guess I'm back on the "it's okay to have obvious influences" soapbox, so I'll step down merely to note that Bel Auburn is a quintet from Ashland, Ohio; "Lullaby in A" is a song from the band's second CD, Lullabies in A and C, self-released in mid-August and available as well as a free and legal download on the band's site.

Monday, August 21, 2006

week of Aug. 20-26

"Walking the Plank" - Apollo Up!
A winning combination of melody and invective, "Walking the Plank" sounds as sharp and blistering as an early Elvis Costello or Joe Jackson song. But this is no wearisome nostalgia trip, as there's likewise something very present and unbeholden to anyone about this trio's disciplined, fiery sound. While vocalist Jay Leo Phillips (also the guitarist) has an Elvis-like timbre, his voice is deeper, and rougher around the edges; plus, he has his own intermittently explosive guitar to play off against, which seems clearly to add to the intensity of his performance. (And that's the funny thing about most of those early EC gems--they rocked, but, largely, and strangely, without any sort of lead guitar sound.) Being a trio is no small point of differentiation--I really think that trios, at their best, offer rock energy that is as pure and focused as it comes. No matter how noisy a trio gets, there's something concentrated and essential about the sound it makes; you can always hear each instrument precisely if you listen, which I find bracing somehow. "Walking the Plank" is the lead track off the band's Chariots of Fire CD, their second, which was released in June on Theory 8 Records. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

"Put On Your Light" - Hezekiah Jones (with Clare Callahan)
A slow, bittersweet foot-tapper, if such a thing is possible. But go on and see if your foot doesn't for some reason want to tap along to this sad and swaying tale of troubled love. It's not just the minor key that lends the song a woebegone air; listen too to how the achy melody is often sung off the main beat (the one your toe is tapping, remember)--this fosters a resistant, unsettled, I might even suggest unhappy vibe. Meanwhile, there's a duet going on between the almost ghostly-sounding Callahan and the full-voiced Jones (whose name is actually Raphael Cutrufello), but it's an odd duet. Callahan starts, Jones joining in to finish the end of both lyric lines in the verse. They sing the chorus together, but with the lyrics offering one side of a love relationship hitting a rough patch, the effect is disconcerting. By the presence of the duet, we are seemingly given both voices--both sides of the battle, as it were--and yet they're singing the same words; they're even singing the same musical notes, with no interval harmonies at all. The two lovers of the story sound all the sadder and more isolated as they sing without the other really hearing; the listener meanwhile is unnerved for lack of any clues about who's done what, who's "right" and who's "wrong," who to believe, who to side with. Very lovely and very sad. Cutrufello recently released the first Hezekiah Jones CD, Hezekiah Jones Says You're A-Ok, on Yer Bird Records, but "Put On Your Light" isn't actually on it; it's available as an unreleased song via the HJ site.

"Town" - Richard Buckner
There's no question, to my ear, where the center of this brisk but meaty song is: the first line of the chorus, that vocal leap Buckner takes at the end. The entire song is built upon short lyrical snippets and small melodic intervals; but there at the end of the opening line of the chorus, the last interval of the snippet, heading upward, is a fifth. A leap up always sounds larger than the interval actually described, and so right away there's something startling and pleasing about it. I like how, the first time we hear it, Buckner is singing the word "down" as the melody jumps up. I like even more the grand character of this gruffly smooth (or maybe smoothly gruff) voice as it is exquisitely revealed in the process of taking, and making, that leap. Buckner heads to and hits just the one five-steps-up note, and yet as he holds it his voice stretches and intensifies in marvelous ways, every time that line-end comes around. It's a subtle but beautiful and memorable hook right there; what solidifies it as the center of a beautiful and memorable song are the chords Buckner employs to create the structure around the hook. They are neither novel nor tricky but they are invitingly true and inevitable, a sweet descending series falling away from the initial leap upward. I keep wanting to hear this part over and over, and it sticks in my head for hours afterwards. "Town" is the first song on Buckner's upcoming CD Meadow, which has a lot of one-word song titles for some reason. The CD--Buckner's eighth--is set for a September release on Merge Records.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

week of Aug. 13-19

"Ghosts of York" - As Tall As Lions
"Ghosts of York" manages the clever trick of being both atmospheric and emphatic, combining the feel of a more noodly type of guitar rock with the smart, concise dynamics of a great pop song. Look at the ground covered here, so quickly: we get an introspective guitar line for all of 13 seconds before the vocalist sings a slow, emotive section for maybe another 15 seconds, and then, bam, the drummer hits the ground running, yet with everything around him still feeling restrained; at the same time you may notice a wall of sound building the energy towards something bigger. This is already engaging, very much so, but these guys have barely started. Just past 50 seconds, the sonic tension cracks open into a clear, decisive melody (note the nice use of octave harmonies right here), and even this is just a set-up for the central hook at 1:06--the melody there featuring a deeply pleasing modulation from a minor chord to the major chord one full step below. (There's probably a name for that, theory-wise, that escapes me.) This is the part that completely slayed me, and even after this there's more, including a bridge with a trickier time signature, then a dramatic building-back of the wall of sound, and then a combination of the time tricks and the wall at the very end. Good stuff. As Tall As Lions is a foursome from Long Island; "Ghosts of York" is a song from the band's self-titled debut CD, released last week on Triple Crown Records. The MP3 is available via Insound.

"Heartbeat" - Angela Desveaux
Sometimes there's little as satisfying as a good old-fashioned song--nicely unfolding melodies and a sense of verse-chorus-verse structure, confidently presented, with an assortment of little touches so perfect that you barely even notice them. Because she does this so well, and because there's an air of alt-country about her, and because she's from Canada, Montreal's Angela Desveaux may have trouble escaping Kathleen Edwards comparisons, but hey, all up and coming musicians are going to be compared to somebody, and Edwards is one of the very best singer/songwriters of our day--good company, says me. I think you know you're in the hands of a true talent when there doesn't necessarily seem like there's anything unusual going on, and yet you're hooked anyway. Desveaux here has hit upon a simple-sounding but resonant underlying motif: that basic 5-4-3-4-3-4 melody that drives the song, sung in that gently swinging rhythm, with her friendly, reedy voice the perfect accompaniment. Songs like this develop in ways that seem pretty much inevitable, even when they aren't at all. For instance, despite my assurance about verse-chorus-verse structure, Desveaux here actually throws something extra between the verse and the chorus that's like a pre-chorus--a great hook in its own right, and not a bridge. And it doesn't matter; it all seems precisely as it should be. Listening to it, I feel the world, if only for four minutes and twenty-six seconds, is also precisely as it should be. Quite a feat during these unsettling times. "Heartbeat" is available via her web site, a stand-alone song. According to the site, an album is coming soon.

"Burn This Flag" - Boy Omega
Well it's been at least a little while since we've dipped back into the Swedish talent pool, so here's Boy Omega, the working name of a certain Martin Henrik Gustaffson. To begin with, do yourself a favor and try to listen to this straight out of "Heartbeat"--the segue is rather striking, if I do say so myself. Even as it's driven by an acoustic guitar, "Burn This Flag" starts out all itchy and unsettled, a feeling augmented both by Gustaffson's Robert Smith meets Conor Oberst vocal style and by the blippy-scratchy percussive accents. I am slowly but surely realizing that I love much of what electronica has to offer, sound-wise, when musicians bring it structurally into something resembling a song rather than presenting it in a relentless, beat-oriented setting. Gustaffson here crams a lot of know-how into a relatively short space: strong instrumental hooks, crisp production, an incisive melodic theme, and unexpected sounds, among other things; unusually for me, I'm left here feeling as if the song could actually have been longer than it is. That's almost always a good sign. "Burn This Flag" is from Boy Omega's forthcoming EP, The Grey Rainbow, scheduled for an October release (in Europe) on Riptide Recordings, a German label. The MP3 is via the Riptide site. Hat's off to the consistently enlightening Getecho blog for this one.