Monday, March 27, 2006

week of Mar. 26-Apr. 1

"5 Verses" - Jeremy Warmsley
One part noodly-introspective bedroom rock, one part expansive pure pop, knitted together with fuzzy 21st-century beats, "Five Verses" wins me over more for its unfettered vitality and than for its closely-told boy-meets-girl story. (I'll readily admit that I had to get past the "They met in a karoake bar..." opening; and yet I like to think that the singer/songwriter is more or less daring us to stick with him after that one.) Warmsley is a half-French, half-English troubadour, based in London, with a winning mixture of humility and cheek; his web site tells us that he "makes electronica with songs in them," which is as brilliant a self-description as I've seen from a musician in quite a while. For me it's the great swooping melody that rules this one--the steady dip down, the giddy leap up at the end of a couple of lines in each verse. And don't miss the wacky little wordless bridge in the middle (around 1:40)--it's literally an "ooh" and an "ahh" but what a great chord change that is. The song comes from Warmsley's 5 Interesting Lies EP, released in November on Transgressive Records in the U.K. The MP3 is available via his site, thanks to a head's up from Hedvika at the excellent Echo blog.

"In the Beginning" - the Stills
An exceedingly likable and well put-together song from this fine Montreal band. First we get one itchy electric guitar scratching out a gallopy one-two beat, the inherent tension of the sound accentuated by the background happenings--shimmery cymbals marking the beat while keyboards and guitars gather, seem ready to burst forward yet holding back in a drone-y, almost tuning-up sort of way. Then, at 0:39, bam: we get a focused, quickly memorable instrumental melody, the song now crackling with a great, swelling energy that I'm tempted to call "wholesome" for reasons I can't quite pinpoint (perhaps because it sounds so organic, owing more somehow to folk music than rock'n'roll). I am particularly smitten with the section that links the verse to the simple chorus: first heard at 1:26, it couples the percussive guitar of the intro to a melody so friendly it's actually rather inspiring; listen for the Hammond organ flourishes that add to the chewy texture. Note too how the false ending leads to an "outro" that nicely mirrors the intro. "In the Beginning" will appear on the Stills' forthcoming CD Without Feathers, due for release in early May on Vice Records. The MP3 comes courtesy of Vice.

"Love Revolution" - All Mighty Whispers
Another song with a vibe at once friendly and polished, this one wrapping itself in an ineffable sort of groovy-'60s wash: the effortless melody, the bassline hook, the head-bobbingly agreeable beat (complete with real drums), and the busy but unidentifiable background fill combine to ooze an unbearable nostalgia for a past that never quite existed. On top of it all comes singer Peter Hill's voice, a pleasantly reedy instrument given a wonderful double-tracked substance that helps make "Love Revolution" sound both as light as air and as solid as a big comfy chair. I can't always identify a producer's impact--and often his or her job is to sound like no one was producing it at all--but in this case I tip my metaphorical hat in the direction of Grzegorz Czachor, the Polish producer enlisted to create this spiffy piece of expert pop, and to the Norwich (U.K.) trio behind the music for enlisting him. "Love Revolution" is the title track of the band's self-titled debut CD, released in Februrary. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

Monday, March 20, 2006

week of Mar. 19-25

"Y Mas Gan" - Sinéad O'Connor
Make no mistake: Sinéad O'Connor is a magical singer; the various twists and turns her career have taken, many of them controversial, have maybe blinded us to how deeply talented she really is. We were given another chance to figure this out last year, in the most unexpected of ways, as the often hair-free Irish singer recorded an album of roots reggae covers entitled Throw Down Your Arms (self-released in October on a label she calls That's Why There's Chocolate and Vanilla). It was the kind of well-intentioned but confusing-to-the-mass-media effort that was destined to look like a sort of stunt and fade away. I pretty much missed it, telling myself "Well, I'm not really much of a reggae fan anyway" and leaving it at that. Then I stumbled last week upon this MP3 at and I realize I may have missed a treasure. This song has great musical character from the get-go, revolving around the mischievous dialogue between a melodic bass line and sly horn chart that unfolds against the familiar loping reggae beat. O'Connor's voice has an incredible purity at its center, and she has learned to sing with a stunning sort of restraint, almost as if she were able to whisper with her mouth wide open. Listen for her overdubbed, upper-register harmonies, which offer a series of brilliant, unanticipated intervals in the service of the melody and the message. O'Connor traveled to Jamaica to record the CD in Bob Marley's Tuff Gong recording studio, with the help of master reggae rhythm section/producers Sly and Robbie; she even went so far as to use at least one musician on each track who played on the original. Here she sings a song recorded first by the Abyssinians in 1972. Most of the words are not in English; she may or may not be playing entirely by whatever rules that practitioners and/or fans believe may govern the genre; all I know is that the end result is not only beautiful but distinctly inspiring.

"Roscoe" - Midlake
After a chuggy bit of Fleetwood Mac-ish keyboard vamping, we find ourselves abruptly in the middle of an unfathomable tale involving stonecutters, mountaineers, and an odd sense of displacement in both time and space. As difficult as it is to get grounded here lyrically, I feel myself completely embraced musically, and this is I believe one of pop music's most wondrous gifts: the capacity to juxtapose accessible music with mysterious lyrics (just as powerful a combination, I think, as the more often discussed idea of setting sad lyrics to happy music). Too often it seems bands feel the need to push into obscurity both musically and lyrically, and while this no doubt can have its own rewards, it rarely works that well for the uninitiated listener, or for anyone seeking great pop music, which requires some amount of listenability by definition. Longtime Fingertips visitors may recall Midlake for the majestic "Balloon Maker," a stylish piece of Brit-inflected neo-progressive pop from the band's debut CD in 2004. "Roscoe" sounds almost nothing like that, its Stevie Nicks groove transforming singer/songwriter Tim Smith's voice into that guy from Bread this time, although his Thom Yorke-ish tone is still pleasantly apparent. A five-piece band from Denton, Texas, Midlake will release its second CD, entitled (unfathomably enough) The Trials of Van Occupanther, on Bella Union in July. The MP3 is available via World's Fair, a music promotion site.

"Don't Be Afraid, I've Just Come to Say Goodbye (The Ballad of Clementine Jones)" - Spider
Sometimes this song pulls the listener in to such a whispery-quiet place it seems I can hear not merely the acoustic guitar but the very act of strings being plucked and the guitar's body shifting on the thighs of the guitar player. We're talking intimate sound here, and yet what's so bracing and engaging is how much else is going on even in this very personal setting: a wistful flute comes and goes, as does a french horn, a lonely yet precise wood block, and, even, some backward-sounding electric guitar lines, everything coming and going with so much gentleness that you don't realize something has been until it's not again. At the center of everything is Jane Herships, doing musical business as Spider, and it is her semi-trembly yet articulate voice that anchors the effort and keeps it from veering off into some sort of lo-fi abyss. If you think it's easy to sing this closely and precisely and unwaveringly in pitch, you haven't tried; and if you think it doesn't make a difference, you haven't heard enough singers who can't do it. "Don't Be Afraid..." is from Spider's eight-song CD, The Way to Bitter Lake, which was released earlier this year. The MP3 is hosted on her MySpace page. (Have patience with the download, sometimes MySpace takes a while to figure out you're there.)

Monday, March 13, 2006

week of Mar. 12-18

The massive music orgy otherwise known as SXSW gets underway in Texas this week: more than 1,300 artists from around the world performing at a crazy variety of venues in Austin over a five-day stretch (you do the math--that's 260+ acts a day). In salute of this ear-boggling enterprise, all three picks this week come from the really worthwhile storehouse of more than 700 MP3s the SXSW folks have amassed on their website. Here are three of the best ones I've come across so far (in addition to the ones featured over the past couple of weeks--namely, Editors and Guillemots). And there are plenty more where these came from, so check it out yourself, if you have the time.

#807 - Pieta Brown
With great offhand authority, Pieta Brown sounds like Kathleen Edwards taught by Rickie Lee Jones to stand in for Tom Waits; "#807" is all sturdy melody and slinky atmospherics, delivered with a dusky, jazzy sort of smolder. Words are carressed, slightly slurred, Brown's voice alternating between soft and broken, and yet (here's the impressive thing) never overwhelming the musical movement. I love the combination of intent and spaciousness created by the interplay between the understated drumming and the forlorn electric guitar (hat's off to guitarist and co-producer Bo Ramsey), and how Brown lays herself in among them, rather than seek attention histrionically, as so many singers these days appear taught to do. I'm not a fan of generic bluesy-folksy stuff, but the minute I hear a song with a strong sense of its own center like this, I feel rivetted. Daughter of singer/songwriter Greg Brown, Pieta (pronounced pee-ETT-uh) has recorded three CDs to date; "#807" is from her latest, In The Cool, released in September 2005 on Valley Entertainment.

"Breakfast in NYC" - Oppenheimer
Mid-tempo synth-pop enlivened by its splendid juxtaposition of a heavy, drone-propelled beat and sweet soaring vocals. Subtract the synthesizers--both the fuzzy, deep one and the dingly high one--and the song is revealed at its core to be Beach-Boys pure (the very first word, even, is "Summer"), its Brian Wilson-y sing-song verse setting up a heart-bursting hook in the chorus. It's a hook that packs a grand wallop for almost no apparent reason: the melody takes what sound like joyful leaps both upward and downward that all turn out to be that most pedestrian of intervals, the third. A third is the basic building block of music; all chords are based on thirds. And yet here the interval sounds towering, revelatory--probably due to both the singer's immaculate tone and the irresistible use of echo harmonies as the thirds alternate achingly between major and minor chords. Ahhhh--just brilliant. Oppenheimer is a duo, first names Shaun and Rocky, from Belfast, Northern Ireland; they are thus far keeping information about themselves close to the vest. I can't discover, for instance, which one is the lead singer, but I do know that the band's debut CD is expected out in June on Bar/None Records.

"Hunger" - Nicolai Dunger
A joyous re-working of Van Morrison's classic sound (ah, if only Van the Man himself hadn't forsaken this vibe so entirely in recent decades; I miss it, is all). "Hunger" is all free-wheeling drive and shake-it-out passion, complete with warm piano riffs, soulful organ lines, surf-guitar accents (!), and hot horn charts. The wonderful combination of Dunger's no-holds-barred vocal style and the song's tumbly energy makes me certain when I say: Give me good over "new" any day of the week. All too many rock music writers, online and otherwise, issue noisy disapproval when they hear "nothing new" in the music of this or that band, but since when is newness a categorical virtue? Quality is the only thing it seems to me we should be paying attention to, and previously unheard sounds do not have the corner market on quality, says me. But I digress. As for Dunger, he was once a promising soccer player on the Swedish national team who was discovered by a producer who happened to walk by as Dunger sang on the balcony of his apartment in the small city of Piteå, on the Gulf of Bothnia in northern Sweden. That's their story and they're sticking to it. Dunger has been recording CDs for European release since 1996; "Hunger" can be found on his latest, entitled Here's My Song, You Can Have It...I Don't Want It Anymore, to be released in the U.S. tomorrow on Zoe Records.

CONGRATULATIONS by the way to the Fingertips visitor in the Netherlands who was the winner of the Fingertips Best of 2005 CD, his name randomly drawn from among the first 100 to fill out the no-longer-available Fingertips Visitors Survey. Stay tuned, however, for another survey, and another CD drawing, scheduled for later this spring.

Monday, March 06, 2006

week of Mar. 5-11

"Who Left the Lights Off, Baby?" - Guillemots
"I don't think there's a greater art than writing a three-minute pop song that people can sing when they're drunk," says Guillemots' singer and songwriter Fyfe Dangerfield (nee Hutchins). Okay, so this one's five minutes; but who's counting when it's this good-natured, finger-snappy, and brimming with loose-limbed musicality. "Who Left the Lights Off, Baby?" harkens back to Dexy's Midnight Runners ("Come On, Eileen," anyone?) for some of its rollicking spirit, but seems to be operating in a universe entirely of its own. On the one hand effortlessly catchy, the song on the other hand has some unusual things going on in the background and around the edges, such as the wash of spacey keyboards that accompanies most of the way through, the beepy synthesizer outburst at 2:03, the crunchy guitar that slashes in off the beat at around 2:42 (sounding as if another song has accidentally starting playing on my MP3 player at the same time), and then that startlingly hot sax solo that closes things down. Some of the song's ineffable originality may have to do with the multinationality of the band: while Dangerfield is from England, the guitarist is from Brazil, the drummer from Scotland, and the bass player is from Canada (she's also a woman, and is actually playing the double bass). "Who Left the Lights Off, Baby?" is a song off From the Cliffs, the band's eight-song EP due out next week on Fantastic Plastic. The MP3 is one of the hundreds of free and legal downloads available via the SXSW web site.

"Certain Kind of Light" - Gus Black
"Certain Kind of Light" is crisp, itchy, and immediately recognizable and appealing: recognizable because, yeah, the basic chord pattern is a well-well-worn path, appealing because, well, it's an incredibly engaging shift to most people's ears. Why else is "867-5309/Jenny" such an indelible part of rock'n'roll history? This time around L.A.-based singer/songwriter Gus Black takes on the classic progression, and the freshness here, to my ears, has to do with the song's brisk, syncopated feel. Rather than take us on a straightforward, Tommy Tutone-ish 4/4 power pop rave-up, Black, with his potent, elastic tenor, delivers a delicious sense of tension via the rhythm and meter. (Extra points for him for doing so in under three minutes.) I can't always decipher time signatures successfully, but something to do with three rather than four is happening here: note how the rhythm section lays out an urgent series of six beats, while you can simultaneously count a slower 1-2-3 under the basic melody. As far as the basic chord progression goes, I could start talking incoherently about relative minors and subdominants and all that, but in looking at a keyboard I noticed this: the chord pattern is rooted in the fact that any minor chord is converted to a major chord by simply taking its top note up a half step. There's something powerful here, symbolically: just a half step separates minor from major in this instance. Light/dark, good/evil--supply your own metaphor. In the meantime we've all but forgotten about good old Gus Black, whose fourth CD, Autumn Days, is set for U.S. release March 21 on Cheap Lullaby Records; apparently it's been out in Europe since last summer.

"Audrey in the Country" - Envelopes
I know, I know: she's singing out of tune. But bear with me, and her, as together we try to make it okay anyway. Lead singer Audrey (yes) Pic gains some points back for her endearing, Parisian accent (many of us Americans find what we call "foreign accents" unaccountably endearing, for some reason). And maybe the accent somehow makes the pitch problems a little more bearable, but in the end chalk it up to one of pop music's most mysterious (infuriating?) qualities--namely, that singing in tune is not a prerequisite for success. So stay with this quirky, bouncy little song and see if it doesn't work for you too somehow. For me, when the band kicks in fully, at around 0:28, the swelling, bright blue joy of the melody and the perky, melodious accompaniment takes over and suddenly, life is bright and bouncy. The presence of what sounds like a Hammond B3 organ in the swirly mix definitely helps. No doubt this is some sort of quirky, autobiographical thing but I'm not spending a lot of time trying to figure it all out, I'm just enjoying the romping-through-the-meadows sound of the ensemble, which creates a sonic innocence in the context of which the off-key singing perhaps almost makes sense. Envelopes is (are? never sure how that works) a quintet featuring four guys from Sweden, and Audrey, from France; "Audrey in the Country" is a tune from the band's first CD, entitled Demon, which was released last summer in Europe on the Psychotic Reaction label. The MP3 is available via the band's web site.