Tuesday, February 28, 2006

week of Feb. 26-Mar. 4

(Sorry for the delay this week here on the blog. I had a heck of a time accessing Blogger yesterday, for no apparent reason.)

"Munich" - Editors
All siren-like guitars and deep drive, "Munich" is an engaging puzzle. With a full-bodied bravado owing much to British forebears such as Ian McCulloch (Echo & the Bunnymen), vocalist Tom Smith repeats a limited number of minimalist phrases, sketching the sketchiest of stories, at the center of which is a terrific chorus that breaks one of my personal cardinal rules of songwriting: never force the singer to accent the wrong syllable for the sake of the music. And yet here's Smith singing "People are fragile things, you should know by now/Be careful what you put them through," the music forcing him to sing "fragile" unintelligibly, with equal accents on both syllables. But: so much for cardinal rules. Because of the song's resplendent atmosphere, because of Smith's engaging delivery, and, maybe most of all, because of the poignancy of the remark itself, it works. In fact I find myself half believing that the offbeat enunciation was purposeful, that to more effectively make the point he did not allow himself the vulnerability required to say what he's saying clearly. In any case, "Munich" strikes me as a sharp new take on the sort of sound some British bands (Joy Division and Ultravox too, along with Echo) were exploring back in the early '80s. Sure, you can ask: "Munich? Huh?" But to ask is to miss the point of a mystery rendered strong and true by the chiming guitars, the driving beat, the resonant lyrical fragments, and (my favorite touch) the ghostly minor seventh traced by what sounds like a synthesizer through the heart of the chorus. "Munich" is a song off the band's debut CD, The Back Room, to be released in the U.S. in March on the Fader Label (it came out in the U.K. last year). The MP3 is one of the many new ones recently made available via the SXSW web site. (Lots of browsing left to do there to be sure.)

"Tales From the Sea" - Shoot the Moon
The rollicking charm of this homespun adventure is apparent from the get-go: the open-ocean piano/guitar vamp of the introduction, and then that immediate "hey, cool!" part when the phrase "captain of the ship" is ever so slightly delayed before the word "ship," in a way that sounds like a wave breaking across the bow. While the loose-limbed, orchestral feel makes comparisons to Montreal's more well-known export, the Arcade Fire, semi-inevitable, Shoot the Moon doesn't ooze that band's edgy anxiety even as there's a certain sort of tumbly similarity to the sound. I'm finding it hard to follow exactly what's going on (there are hints of all sorts of high-seas drama unfolding), but it's all backdrop to the engaging music, with its oceanic ebbs and flows. Ever the sucker for octave harmonies, I particularly like the ones I'm hearing in what may be the chorus (the whole song is pretty loose-limbed, come to think of it) because it sounds, unusually, like female vocals on top (the band's lead singer is actually Nadia Bashalani, but she takes a backseat on this song). Shoot the Moon is a three-man, three-woman band with one self-released CD under its belt--an eight-song EP called Where Stangers Live, which came out last year. The MP3 is available via their MySpace page.

"Camellia" - Buried Beds
The sparse, clunky-ish drumbeat that opens "Camellia" gives you no idea at all of the sultry, yearning song that follows. But a soft keyboard enters, and the hint of a slide guitar, and then Eliza Hardy opens her mouth. Ahh: she sings close in your ear, with a beautiful tone, but torn up just a bit. Really nice. Another way she engages me at the outset is the four-measure melody she starts with--it leads into the verse, and is heard only once more, at the very end. That's an unusual touch; at the beginning it lengthens the melodic line almost mysteriously; at the end it provides an aching sort of closure. As alluring as Hardy's voice is, she sounds maybe even better when joined in harmony by her original bandmate Brandon Beaver in the chorus (Buried Beds began as a duo, expanding since then to a quintet); of course this may also be because the chorus itself is gorgeous, with all the low-key assurance of a lost pop standard. Featuring an unusal array of instruments (including mandolin and viola), Buried Beds is a Philadelphia band that arose from something called the New Planet Art Collective, a community of writers, artists, and musicians not far from the University of Pennsylvania; "Camellia" is a song off the group's debut CD, Empty Rooms, which has been available at band gigs since last year but has been more officially released last week. The MP3 is available via the band's web site.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

week of Feb. 19-25

"Letter to the World" - Dead Heart Bloom
With its Pink Floyd chords, Beatlesque strings, and Neil Finn-ish melody, "Letter to the World" is both lovely and deep, always a gratifying combination. The loveliness stems from a beautiful major-to-minor melodic refrain set against an exquisitely restrained instrumental background; the depth emerges first from Boris Skalsky's rich voice, with its Lennon-like timbre, and, as with the loveliness, is encouraged by the pristine production. Formerly the bassist and keyboard player with a D.C. band called the Phasers, Boris Skalsky is now doing the one-man singer/songwriter/performer/producer thing as Dead Heart Bloom. To his credit, however, Skalsky seems at the same time to enjoy collaboration, bringing guest musicians in where needed (and thus avoiding the claustrophobic feeling that often afflicts bedroom rock productions). And he clearly knows what he's doing: listen to how beautifully everything is layered together, from those mournful string quartet flourishes to his firmly centered piano motifs to that forlorn guitar crying echoes in the distance. Dead Heart Bloom's debut, self-titled CD will be released in March on KEI Records, but is now available to download, for free, via the Dead Heart Bloom web site. Do yourself a favor and check out other songs on the album, as Skalsky manages, impressively, to range far and wide sonically even while sounding in the end very much like one band.

"Sunbaby" - the High Violets
And yet sometimes of course I feel like all the fuzzed-up grind of a real band. I will forever be partial to the sort of sound the High Violets aspire to, a shoegazey sort of churny-chimey drive, with an angelic singer floating along on top of all the rumbly electricity. I've been sitting with this song for a number of weeks, putting it aside in the past for what I kept hearing as the lack of a completely satisfying hook; but this week, coming after the precise beauty of the Dead Heart Bloom song, this sounds quite satisfying indeed (the segue is really good, if I do say so myself). (And okay, I know, not many of you guys may necessarily listen to each week's songs one after the other, but be aware that they are in fact selected as threesomes, each balancing something off against the other two.) One of the mistakes I made previously was not turning the volume up high enough: this song just does not achieve its full minimalist-hypnotic effect without the right volume. (When the rhythm and lead guitars start to sort of melt into each other, you're just about loud enough.) Singer Kaitlin Ni Donovan has both a cool name and a fetching way of singing the word "you" differently each of the six times she sings it in the chorus. She has a fetching way of singing "sunbaby" too, just kind of snapping the word "sun" off the roof of her mouth. The High Violets are a Portland, Oregon-based quartet; "Sunbaby" is a song from their new CD, To Where You Are, released at the end of January on Reverb Records. The MP3 is available via the band's web site.

"Clouds" - the Submarines
No doubt if every song were in three-quarter time, the concept would wear thin, probably quickly. But as this is an unlikely development, songs that bounce along with three beats to the measure frequently carry an automatic, bonus air of wistful joy about them. The duo calling themselves the Submarines accentuate this wistful-joyful dichotomy as singer Blake Hazard's intimate, ache-laced voice is offset by a bubbly keyboard riff; likewise does the pair manage to fuse a groovy '60s vibe (I keep think I'm hearing musical allusions to early Joni Mitchell in here--hey she sang about clouds too--but they slip away when I try to pin them down) with a more somber 21st-century electronica edge. Hazard and John Dragonetti, the other Submarine, were once a couple, broke up, went and wrote a bunch of songs separately, and may now be reunited; it's kind of hard to tell from the convoluted bio posted on the Nettwerk Records site. Likewise difficult to discern is when their debut CD, called Declare a New State is coming out--sometime in the spring, it seems. In any case, "Clouds" is one of three good songs from the CD now available as free and legal MP3s on the band's site. Many thanks one more time to Bruce from Some Velvet Blog for the lead.

Monday, February 13, 2006

week of Feb. 12-18

"Don't Know Why (You Stay)" - The Essex Green
Previous songs I've heard from The Essex Green have had their charms somewhat blanketed by the earnest groovy-'60s vibe laid on with such love and attention that it all grew a bit thick--everything from specific guitar sounds to the character of background harmonies and the tone of flute flourishes seemed almost too studied, or maybe too precious. Or maybe it was just the songs didn't stick. But the band is back soon with its third full-length CD (The Cannibal Sea) and it sounds like things may be really clicking for them this time. "Don't Know Why (You Stay)" has the crisp swagger of a great old Lindsay Buckingham tune, building a compelling whole from the steady, knowing layering together of its various parts; when the Mamas-and-Papas harmonies come in to flesh out the chorus, they seem the perfect embellishment rather than a cute bit of retro style. And darn if I don't love to death the mysteriously engaging vocal leap taken each time on the second "I don't know why" of each chorus. Too bulky to describe in words, just listen. It's mysteriously engaging, you'll see. The new CD is due out in March on Merge Records. The MP3 is available via Toolshed (a music promotion firm).

"Sweet Heart Said" - Shelley Short
Not much of a fan of pre-fabricated Hallmark holidays, I offer a prickly-cute, offbeat sort of Valentine's Day salute, courtesy of the prickly-cute, offbeat Shelley Short. With a timeless, deep-folk melody, charming percussion, and an arresting violin accompaniment, the song clangs along with a determined stop-start-iness; it's like someone deconstructing the McGarrigle sisters. Short's new album, Captain Wild Horse (Rides The Heart of Tomorrow), is as endearingly enigmatic as the title suggests, a sometimes hypnotic amalgam of soft but often off-balance sounds, recorded in a purposeful sort of lo-fi sheen, if such a thing is possible. Short is a refugee from both art school and the Pacific Northwest who has settled for the time being in Chicago ("for no good reason," notes her bio). Captain Wild Horse is her second CD; it will be released tomorrow (Valentine's Day!) on Hush Records; the MP3 is courtesy of the good folks at Hush.

"Not Going Home" - the Elected
Glistening and stately, "Not Going Home" is a spiffy and captivating example of a new sort of rock that's been emerging here in the 21st century, a rock that merges the big and the small in subtle and distinctive ways. While taking a lot of sonic cues from the smooth pop-rock of the '70s, this is not really anything like that sort of stuff. The band's own record label refers to this song as the album's "stadium-sized centerpiece" but I really think they've got it mislabeled; it's only stadium-sized to the extent that the stadium fits onto the HDTV screen in the family room. And to be honest that's really what's so intriguing and different here. Blake Sennett and company here take an expansive melody, rig it up with layers of vocals, underscore it with a ringing, reverb-ing guitar line, and still give us something precise and intimate. Sennett's voice has a wonderful, mouthy sort of character that gives his whispery high notes an unnerving amount of depth. I can't nail this down with words, but the sonic space here is introspective rather than extroverted; even the all-but-shouted vocalizing of the song's final minute sounds personal and close at hand rather than arena-big. Sennett is Jenny Lewis's songwriter partner and guitarist in Rilo Kiley; the Elected is his side project, and the band's album Sun, Sun, Sun (Sub Pop), coincidentally or not, came out the same day in January as Lewis's more widely publicized solo endeavor, Rabbit Fur Coat. The MP3 is available via the Sub Pop site

Monday, February 06, 2006

week of Feb. 5-11

"Electricity + Drums" - the Apparitions
From its almost startling, stripped-down, Frank Zappa-meets-the-Stones opening, "Electricity + Drums" picks up full-out rock'n'roll flavor, but with any number of idiosyncratic turns and shifts. I'm particularly enjoying how the song blends the straightahead ambiance of a basic, three-chord rocker while actually sneaking a lot more into its simple-seeming container. The overall sound seems familiar in a rootsy-rocky somewhat-Southern sort of way and yet also slightly off and unusual, like when you dream you're in your own house, and you know it's your own house even as it doesn't look like your house really looks. Stuff keeps happening: different vocalists show up (three of the band members sing), chords modulate, guitars churn and squeak in unexpected combinations (the band also features three guitarists). I don't think I've often for instance heard these two sounds in one song: the down-and-dirty, feedbacky, "get ready to rock" electric guitar sound at :33 and the siren-like octave accents that chime in around 2:18. They are from two entirely different rock-guitar universes. The Apparitions are a five-man band from Lexington, KY; their second CD, As This Is Futuristic, was released last month on Machine Records. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

"Sonic Parts" - Khoiba
Slow, moody electro-pop from the Prague-based quartet Khoiba (apparently pronounced ko-EE-ba). Listen to how vocalist Ema Brabcova keeps us paradoxically enveloped and off-balance through the purposeful meanderings of the song's subtle yet robust melody. The quiet verse--based around the always lovely alternation between a minor one and major four chord--appears to resist a time signature, which right away tells me that we're dealing with something interesting. (Standard-issue electronica, after all, is all about beats; beats are all about steady time signatures--in other words, a regular, symmetrical rhythm, however fuzzed-up and complicated by programmed effects.) Electronica accents, subtle at first, more up front as the song develops, are therefore used for their aural contributions, not just for their rhythms. Even as the chorus acquires a steadier beat, Brabcova's plaintive, hanging-off-the-beat, fully human voice (listen to how she lets it crack and wobble, softly but definitively, whenever it wants or needs to) dominates almost hypnotically. "Sonic Parts" is a song off the band's debut CD, Nice Traps, released in September on Streetbeat Records. The MP3 is available via the band's site. (Khoiba, by the way, is an invented name, which strikes me as a particularly brilliant move for a band in the Google era.)

"Blue Skies" - the Young Republic
I think it's safe to say that not many rock songs have begun with this particular combination of strings, flute, and drums. It sounds like a small orchestra has arrived to serenade you out your window (and here you didn't even know the sun was out and the flowers were blooming). It's a charming, earnest bit of acoustic fuss and bother, leading right into a quick, lightly-stepping piece of pop, full of expansive melodic lines and grand ensemble energy. Vocalist Julian Saporiti uses his thin, guileless voice with great verve, as if physically buttressed by all the musicians who've agreed to play along. The net effect is a rather precise amalgem of Belle and Sebastian and the Arcade Fire, but only achieved by a band not attempting specifically to sound like that at all. The Young Republic is Boston-based nonet (and how often do I get to use that word?); they once in fact had 11 members, and all are Berkee College of Music students. "Blue Skies" comes from the band's new, eight-song Modern Plays CD. The MP3 is up on the band's site. Thanks to Bruce at Some Velvet Blog for the head's up.