Monday, January 30, 2006

week of Jan. 29-Feb. 4

"Star Witness" - Neko Case
A mysterious, echoey, and rewarding waltz from the highly-regarded Case, itinerant singer/songwriter and member of the indie "supergroup" the New Pornographers. What depths she hits here all across the board: her voice at once lithe and husky, the subtly indelible melodies, the expert arrangements, and (I always love this) the array of extra touches that round the music out so fetchingly--the amusement-park howl at the beginning, the reverby guitar that accompanies, the organic drum sound, the vivid but elusive lyrics. Case sketches a story I can't quite follow but it doesn't seem to end happily. Don't miss the yodeling leap she takes so unexpectedly and perfectly at around 3:42--just another touch that keeps you both engaged and mystified. There's something in the whole thing, from her vocal presence to the unearthly vibe, that puts me in the mind of the great Syd Straw, from another era of indie/alternative rock--so if any of you know and love Straw I'm pretty sure this is going to be a big winner for you as well. "Star Witness" is a song from Case's forthcoming CD, the intriguingly titled Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, scheduled for release in early March on Anti Records. The MP3 is available via the Anti web site.

"Meet Me Here" - Loveninjas
Every now and then a bit of lo-fi sneaks through the usually lo-fi-resistant gates here. But how could I resist a chorus like this? I couldn't. So perhaps we can all forgive the thin, filtered vocals and tinny electronic percussion that the decidedly offbeat Swedish trio Loveninjas employs on this track to glory in the pop-heavenly melodies. As undeveloped an aural landscape as we've got here, these guys give us the full three-part hook: two different ones in the verse, and then the glory of that killer chorus. Apparently this quirky Swedish outfit specializes in goofy/naughty English lyrics, but this song seems genuinely sweet (although it probably isn't). Apparently, too: "Loveninjas is not really a band. It’s a concept." So says the web site; it continues: "I was playing with a small electronic piano in the autumn of 2004 when a nice melody evolved. 'Sweet Geisha Love' was about the dilemma of a young, female assassin; to kill or to make love. Now that I had a song I figured I might as well start a fake band. I decided on writing about death, sex and Japanese girls only. It’s a good way stimulate creativity." It's signed by a guy named Tor; the three who went on to perform the songs live wear costumes, including ninja-style masks. Sweden is an interesting place. "Meet Me Here" is available via the Loveninjas web site; it's difficult to tell if it's been released on a CD at this point but I'm guessing not.

"Chinese Rug" - Wes McDonald
There's something refreshingly old-fashioned enlivening this low-key but still hard-driving number. Except for some recurring film noir-ish/femme-fatale whispering, nothing unusual goes on here at all: the song just rocks, McDonald pushing it forward with an assured sort of throaty, snarly growl that's one part Steve Earle, one part Graham Parker, one part balding-guy-with-scaggly-hair-in-jeans-who-maybe-looks-like-a-plumber. Seems to me McDonald has Earle's natural ear for a quick melodic hook as well--look how effortlessly the chorus kicks some seriously catchy butt. A refugee from one of the U.S.'s original hotbeds of alternative rock (Athens, Georgia), McDonald lives now in the hotbed of not very much (Birmingham, Alabama). After a stint in a very Athensy "jangle-rock" band called the Ohms, he went on to record three solo CDs without acquiring too wide a following. This time around he's enlisted the help of Ken Coomer, ex- of Wilco and Uncle Tupelo, who helped out with the production, also acquiring a bit of a PR help along the way. Not that there's anything wrong with that: we've gotta hear about this stuff somehow. "Chinese Rug" is a song from the forthcoming CD 1:50 In The Furnace, scheduled for release in April on Skybucket Records.

Monday, January 23, 2006

week of Jan. 22-28

"Fraud in the '80s" - Mates of State
For a keyboard-and-drum duo, Mates of State manage to build a warm and involving sound. The key, I think, is their willingness (and ableness) to be truly musical rather than try to hang too much (an entire song) on too little (beats and maybe a short riff); everywhere you turn this song has been fleshed out and thought through--there's genuine meat on its catchy and likable bones. Listen for instance to the central keyboard line in the main part of the introduction: most songs that float a melodic riff like that will run it for two measures and vamp it a while, pounding it into your head until the song actually begins. Here, however, the keyboard is playing an actual melody that extends a full eight measures, leading directly into the start of the verse. Singer/keyboardist Kori Gardner has an upfront but soft-edged voice and sings with a fetching looseness, playing with notes in just the right way, adding flourishes that draw attention to the melody rather than her vocal prowess. I like how the throbbing, Laurie Anderson-ish synthesizer we hear in the song's "pre-intro" returns as the backbone of the bridge that keeps the wonderful chorus at bay until 1:38. Worth the wait, it is, yet even then the song doesn't stop giving; I especially like the deep, rounded sound that kicks in around 3:22, all fuzzy chords, bashy drums, and now the bass is allowed to stretch out a bit after hiding behind the keyboard most of the song. Oh, and I couldn't figure out a smooth way to work this into the song description, but note that Gardner and drummer Jason Hammel are married. "Fraud in the '80s" will be on their forthcoming CD Bring It Back, scheduled for release in March on Barsuk Records. The MP3 is hosted on the Barsuk site.

"Jane is Fat" - Oh No! Oh My!
And sometimes it's one pure thing in a song that slays me, so go figure: in this case it's the way vocalist/guitarist/bassist/etc. Greg Barkley unaccountably, idiosyncratically, and yet irrestistibly stretches out the last syllable at the end of the first line of the verse by ricocheting a fifth up and down and up and down. Against that crisp strumming background it's oddly brilliant. Then notice (well really how will you not notice?) how at the end of the verse (balancing out the bouncing?) he holds just one note far longer than might be expected, or even otherwise desired, given the shrillness of his upper register. The song teeters dangerously on the edge of lo-fi purgatory during what appears to be the chorus, with its unintelligible, sloppy-gang call-and-response and tweeting synthesizer, but, no worries, it holds together thanks largely to the sharp dynamism of the acoustic guitar. There's an extra payoff in the coda following the second chorus, in which Barkley's warbly tenor reveals an unexpected depth and poignancy, against a spaghetti-western guitar line. Don't ask, but it works. Oh No! Oh My! is a trio from Austin, but two of them appear to be living in Nashville now, and they only just recently changed their name from the Jolly Rogers (decidedly less '00s/indie-sounding, huh?). "Jane is Fat" is from a nine-song self-produced CD made available this past October when they were still the Jolly Rogers; the MP3 is available through their as-yet still-pirate-ish web site. Apparently a full-fledged CD is in the works and will be released soon. Thanks to Catbirdseat for the lead.

"Come Up" - Devics
This one's just gorgeous. Don't be deceived by the lounge-like piano and drum sound at the beginning if you don't like a lounge-like piano and drum sound; once singer Sara Lov opens her mouth, we're transported way way beyond surface-level cocktail-hour piffle. Such sweet strong character emerges as Lov breathes music into the words over Dustin O'Halloran's assured touch at the piano; when she arrives at the simple sad sing-along chorus, the piece has acquired a melancholy grandeur not often heard from the indie world. As noted last time Devics were featured here, their music reminds me, admirably, of Over the Rhine: Lov has a lot of Karin Bergquist's aching soul, with a less idiosyncratic timbre, while O'Halloran accompanies her with a sensitivity akin to the great Linford Detweiler. "Come Up" is a track from the L.A.-based duo's next CD Push the Heart, to be released in early March on Filter US Recordings, a label associated with Filter Magazine, which hosts the MP3.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

week of Jan. 15-21

"Ramblin' Man" - Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan
Every now and then, for reasons I can neither understand nor articulate, a swampy, bluesy romp sounds like just the right thing to me. Normally I don't connect to this stuff. In this case, however, I've no doubt that the crazy combination of Mark Lanegan's deep gruffly voice (doesn't he sound like Steve Earle doing a Johnny Cash imitation? sort of?) and Isobel Campbell's quintessential whisper-fairy lilt is too brilliantly odd to overlook. Around this vocal odd couple is built a ghost-town shuffle, complete with a deep twangy guitar, whip crack accents, and, at the perfect moment, a lonesome whistle. Lanegan some may remember as the voice of Screaming Trees, the grunge-pop growlers from Washington state, and sometime member of Queens of the Stone Age; Campbell, from Glasgow, spent six years or so as cellist and vocalist with Belle and Sebastian. Somehow or other they decided to collaborate on an album together and this Hank Williams cover is one of the results. "Ramblin' Man," originally available on an EP at the end of last year, will be on the CD Ballad of the Broken Seas, to be released later this month on V2 Records. The MP3 is available via Better Propaganda.

"Stay" - the Attorneys
If Queen had been a power pop garage band, they might've sounded like this. So it's big and brash and just this side of over the top (Toto wasn't all bad, were they?), but I am genetically unable to resist the kind of chorus this one breaks into, never mind the melodies that lead us there: one four and five chords up the wazoo, it's just irresistible. The Attorneys, a trio from Brooklyn, appear to be gleeful pop ransackers, ready and willing to combine sounds from the '60s, '70s, and '80s (heck, maybe they sneaked the '90s in there too) into one juicy slice of merry bombast, with slashing guitars and histrionic harmonies to spare, all the while careening along that fine line that separates pure pop from ripe cheese. The band has recently self-released its first CD, entitled Sparrow Gardens/Pencil Factory, a 19-song extravaganza divided into what are called two "chapters"; "Stay" leads off the "Pencil Factory" section. The MP3 is hosted via the electronic press release site

"Sleepless" - Philip Fogarty
Okay so this sounds like Peter Gabriel a bit. Maybe a lot. But the more I listen, the more it doesn't matter, for a couple of reasons. First of all, the song positively shines with an austere, semi-minimalist beauty--Fogarty wastes few notes and fewer sounds in creating an aural landscape suffused with tension and yearning. This comes across as not so much a standard song as a meditation around one central motif--the part where he sings "And I'm wide awake"--that happens to be perfectly placed and pitched enough to carry the entire enterprise. After I listened a few times the melody there started to give me the shivers. Listen too for the elegant, chime-like piano punctuations, which deepen the musical effect. The other reason why the Peter Gabriel echo doesn't matter to me is because, well--how many people out there are busy sounding like Peter Gabriel? Pretty much nobody, as everyone seems to be busy trying to sound like the Gang of Four. But come to think of it, Peter Gabriel was putting out a lot of really good music there in the late '70s that was edgy in its own way; he had a lot more to offer than just being your sledgehammer. Fogarty is an Irish musician with one previous CD to his name (1999's Endangered Breed); "Sleepless" is a track off his new Short Stories EP, a digital-only release that came out in December and is available via his web site.

Monday, January 09, 2006

week of Jan. 8-14

"Robert J." - 13ghosts
At one level this is the sort of comfy-sounding, down-home strummy-guitar song that often does not catch my ear. And yet I know there is a variant of this sort of thing that I like, and "Robert J." from the Birmingham, Alabama-based 13ghosts is a good example of this variant, and I'm sitting and listening and trying my best first to ascertain and then to describe what, to me, separates a non-descript rootsy-country-Americana song from a standout track. The word that arises as I attempt to figure this out is "tension." A song can sound simple and laid-back and yet be suffused with depth and characte--and tension is what makes all the difference. How, in this case, is that tension achieved? From the start we hear a strikingly plain acoustic guitar, upfront and exposed, no rhythm section, no steel guitar accents, and it strikes me that in this case the slower rather than the faster strum sounds more vulnerable, more real--tenser. Likewise singer Brad Armstrong's voice, the next thing we hear, has a vulnerable, semi-breaking sort of warmth that adds tension to the sound. Further, we have the melody, which extends beyond the four measures commonly heard with this sort of strummer--the verse instead rambles on through eight measures, and that lengthening, yes, fosters tension. Even as more instruments enter and the pace picks up, everything stays crisp and precise, which is also come to think of it an aspect of the tension. Finally, the lyrics bring it home, telling a concrete yet also elusive tale, the words balancing between the offhand and the profound: "His fingernails were a mess/All the dirt and promises/he'd been clinging to for so long." "Robert J." is one of 21 songs on 13ghosts' sprawling Cicada CD, which was released locally in the fall of 2004; it was reissued for national release on Skybucket Records in late November 2005. The MP3 is available via the Skybucket site.

"Carly (Goddess of Death)" - the Capes
Spiffy energetic Britpop with that great good combination of skill and goofiness that often separates the wheat from the chaff in this particular corner of the rock'n'roll world. From the sharp, appealing guitar riff in the intro, the song successfully blends an almost-but-not-quite dissonant slash into a delightful pillow of a song. And as for that big fat irresistible hook in the chorus, I'm enjoying it even more for its strong echo of the great old Jam (them again!; see last week's entry) single "Eton Rifles": consciously or not (and remember, non-U.K. visitors, the Jam was truly a huge huge band in England back in the day), the Capes manage to transform what was a menacing melody into something much warmer and fuzzier, and offer a long-awaited musical resolution to the ominous, open-chorded hook the Jam originally created. And not to harp too often on length, but the fact that this one clocks in under three minutes is to me another sign of pop greatness. "Carly" is a song off the Capes' debut CD, Hello, released in October on Hard Soul Records. The MP3s is available via the Hard Soul site.

"At Least Like Melissa" - Sara Culler
Sara Culler first came to my attention through her compelling work on David Fridlund's impressive Amaterasu CD from last year. Apparently she and Fridlund have worked together over there in Sweden for quite a while (she sometimes sang backup vocals with his band David and the Citizens) and are a couple, romantically speaking, as well. Culler has recently started blogging and putting some of her solo songs up online. This is a curious one to be sure, beginning with its off-balance title; Culler is clear to emphasize the "like" and this changes everything doesn't it--it's not a comparison anymore, it's an exhortation, and a somewhat desperate-sounding one if you think about it. The feeling of desperation is borne out both musically and lyrically; the song pivots upon an ongoing interplay between reserve and unhingedness. Me, I'm on board from Culler's first Sinead O'Connor-like bursts of emotion as she spits out single syllables at the end of the first verse, and how that is immediately followed by an overflow of spilling words in the first line of the chorus. Suppressed violence somehow lurks around the edges here--this isn't the quiet gentle thing it might seem. Culler as a solo artist is unsigned; the MP3, hosted via the record label that puts Fridlund's stuff out, is available through her blog.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

week of Jan. 1-7

"Court Report" - Little Man Tate
Borrowing something basic and anthemic from the Jam and their progeny (Blur in particular), Little Man Tate is not however content being simply mod or neo-mod; instead, this Sheffield foursome draws satisfyingly from rock'n'roll's many decades--I hear an unexpected shot of late '60s/early '70s blues-rock in the mix as well as the itchier, garage-y bashings prevalent here in the mid-'00s. And yet check out the lyrics: "Well he's a cross dresser honey, he fights for his team/He dishes out a kickin' with a thong under his jeans/He's a cross dresser honey and it don't seem right." The song manages to capture the goofy-poignant-violent goings-on with unexpected finesse, from the barroom harmonies finishing the lyric "Switches channels to Eastenders/Cleans his house in his red suspenders" to the pitch-perfect, Paul Wellerian way the words "skinhead cross dresser caught" scans in the chorus. Named, I suppose, after the wonderful 1991 Jodie Foster movie of the same name, Little Man Tate is unsigned and as yet without even a self-released EP or CD; "Court Report" is one of eight free and legal MP3s the band has available on its web site.

"Blood and Marrow" - Amandine
This song's slow sad accordion-laced swing puts me in the mind of the Band, as does the tune's intriguingly timeless sound. Lyrics about fathers and mothers and blood and mourning deepen the effect gracefully. Amandine is a Swedish quartet featuring not only guitars and drums but glockenspiel, trumpet, and theremin (!) along with the evocative accordion, and yet truly one of the best instruments on display is Olof Gidlöf's tender high tenor, which sounds at once firm and fragile, weaving in and out of the spotlight with the other distinctive sounds. Nothing happens in a hurry, and nothing sounds unusual if you're seeking sheer novelty; what is, however, unusual is how Amandine does not confuse restraint with boredom, or vice-versa. The song moves slowly, but it does move: chords change, melodies unfold, there are hooks and climaxes and knowing touches throughout. "Blood and Marrow" can be found on the band's debut CD, This Is Where Our Hearts Collide, released in November on Fat Cat Records, a British label with a penchant for signing Scandanavian bands. The MP3 is hosted on the band's site. Thanks to Thomas Bartlett at Salon for the lead here.

"America's Boy" - Broadcast
On the surface "America's Boy" seems the sort of groove-based song I don't readily connect to, as I tend to keep hankering for a sturdier melody to keep me happy. And yet there was something here that piqued my interest from the outset--first and foremost the soaring, New Order-ish synthesizer line, and how it is immediately complicated on the one hand by its specifically changing character (as it reaches its full interval--a sixth, I think--it morphs into something vast and choral-like) and on the other hand by the starchy, blippy way the electronics are continually stretched and scratched out of their pure tones into something harsher and yet also more compelling. Vocalist Trish Keenan's appealing voice--somewhat but not completely deadpan--doesn't float on top as much as find itself sandwiched in between the semi-heavenly synthesizer above and the semi-deranged clockwork electronica below; the effect is at once earthier and weirder than standard-issue electronica. The song's single-like length--a brisk 3:34--is another thing that gives me a pop hand-hold through some of the oddness. Once a quintet, Broadcast is now a duo, just Keenan and bassist James Cargill; "America's Boy" is a song off their Tender Buttons CD, released in August 2005 on Warp Records. The MP3 is available via Insound.