Monday, April 24, 2006

week of Apr. 23-29

"To No One" - Daylight's for the Birds
Lush, swirly, airy noise in service to melody--call it shoegaze if we must (must we??), but I'd much rather dig into the sound than attach that odd (if apparently indelible) label to a sonic reality this deep and rich. The aural palette favored by this NYC-based quartet lends an immediate tension to the amorphous introduction, as two predominant sounds emerge, vibrate, and grow through the first drum-free, beat-free 45 seconds--one sounding like a synth-enhanced guitar, metallic and pulsing, the other a choral wash of keyboard. Listen carefully for two things arising from that: a submerged melody line by something that sounds like a faraway organ, and a flute-like synthesizer sound that flutters into being from the noise and eventually takes up the melody begun by the "organ." I really like this flute-y thing, which seems so unexpected and yet weaves so organically into the ongoing texture (the storied "no lead guitar" sound characteristic of whatever we want to call this genre). The way the drummer drums skippingly around the beat through the verse is another indelible part of the airy soundscape, along with singer Amanda Garrett's surprisingly strong voice: in lieu of the wispier vocal stylings often heard in this environment, Garrett sings with pop-like heft and character, even when she's mixed back into the whorl of it all. Daylight's for the Birds is a NYC-based quartet that features, among others, Phillip Wann, formerly of On!Air!Library! (which disbanded last year). The MP3 is available via the Deli, a fine online publication about the NYC rock scene. (The MP3 is also up on the band's MySpace page, but Fingertips at this point will not to link to MySpace downloads because they cause too many problems for too many visitors.)

"Firecracker" - the Hot IQs
Without frills or warmup, a stark, meaty guitar lashes out one of music's most compelling progressions: a major chord alternating with the minor chord one-half step down. Laurie Anderson famously wrote a long, strange, avant-garde pop song ("O Superman") that featured only this progression and nothing else; the contemporary composer John Adams has displayed his own recurring fascination with this simple, resonant interval. Pretensions to great art aside, these two simple chords sound just fine, thank you, when churned out by an actual rock band; the fact that the Denver-based Hot IQs are even a power trio (guitar, bass, drums) seems even more fitting. Let the minimalists seek meaning in inexorable repetition; me I'm happy that the song discovers a few other chords (I particularly like the Nirvana-ish progressions in the bridge, beginning around 1:35) and some incisive melodies as well. Singer/guitarist Eli Mishkin has a pleasing semi-nasal voice that rounds out nicely in its lower register, while drummer Elaine Acosta, refreshingly uninterested in pounding us into submission, has a marvelous way of letting the slashing guitar inhabit the bottom of the sound. As for bass player Bryan Feuchtinger, well, I don't have much to say, but I didn't want to leave him out. "Firecracker" comes from the Hot IQs' debut CD, An Argument Between the Brain and Feet, which was released on a small Denver label late in 2004, and given a national digital re-release last week on SpinArt Records.

"Springtime Can Kill You" - Jolie Holland
Rather than killing you I believe that spring is the perfect time of year for, among other things, a song this ripe and unhinged. Sounding like a lounge-based, accent-free Björk, Holland skates, slides, and flutters through the tune, all but deconstructing its wonderful melody--and making it all the Tom Waits-ishly more wonderful in the process. Holland by the way is actually making the opposite point her title implies, itself a neat songwriting trick: "If you don't go get what you need/Something's going to break on the inside"; springtime kills the part of you that needs to be killed, in other words; in other words, the blossoms and colors and scents and breezes force you to be as alive as you actually are all the time without realizing it, or at least try. The song, the title track on her new CD (released last week on Anti Records) features an upright bass, baritone horn, and Holland's fun-house whistle, and it's all crazy perfect. The MP3 is available via the Anti web site. "So get out get out of your house," she purrs. So saying, I will.

Monday, April 17, 2006

week of Apr. 16-22

"What Do I Know" - Peter Walker
Sharp and assured, this song is enlivened by the juxtaposition of a tight beat and a relaxed melody. Despite a stark and itchy guitar-and-drum backdrop straight out of, I don't know, an early Joe Jackson record maybe, Walker sings with a cool, deft calm that really centers this short song--he seems in fact to be singing perpetually off the beat; combined with how the lyrics tend to clump into three-syllable groups, Walker creates a sense of unexpected space in a rigorously marked 4/4 environment (each beat itself often slashed out by double-time rhythm guitar eighth notes). And in a song that's not much more than two and a half minutes, I wouldn't expect a kick-out-the-jams guitar solo, but I'm impressed by the sonorous and genuinely interesting 25-second turn Walker takes on his instrument, from which he gets a neat bagpipe-y sort of droniness. "What Do I Know" is the last song on Young Gravity, Walker's second CD, which was released last week on Dangerbird Records. The MP3 is via Walker's web site.

"Preludio" - Hacia Dos Veranos
Every now and then my non-instrumental-oriented ears glom onto an instrumental that they decide they like, at which point my brain has to kind of catch up and figure out why. Usually to no avail. All I can say here is that I find the combination of the mellow, vaguely Latin-sounding electric guitar and haunted-mansion organ unaccountably fetching. Every time the organ takes center stage--the riff first heard around 0:59--and then begins to sound maybe more like a haunted merry-go-round, I feel like smiling. When music makes me smile, I know I'm liking it, but usually, again, in a way my brain isn't necessarily contributing to. And then, okay, just when I think I'm sinking into this brisk, semi-wacky vibe, along comes an organ sustain, at around 2:43, telling me something's up, something new. When the organ finally releases its chord, almost a full minute later, what do we get? Crazy-loud-strident guitars, that's what. Cool! Hacia Dos Veranos ("Towards Two Summers") is a trio from Argentina; their debut EP, called Fragmentos de una tarde somnolienta (Fragments of a sleepy afternoon, perhaps?), was released was released in South America in 2005 on Muy Moderna Records and then in the U.K. in January 2006 on I Wish I Was Unpopular, an archly-named division of Unpopular Records. The MP3 is available courtesy of the band.

"Day OK" - Spiral Beach
Slinky spunky and skewed, "Day OK" sounds like no sort of music we might, pop-culturally, expect from four teenagers, even if they are from the musically advanced nation of Canada; but then again, I think teenagers in the 21st century have a whole other thing going on than either a) teenagers did in previous notable generations (i.e. baby boomer teens) or b) the current cultural stereotype (i.e. multi-tasking, iPod-addled techno-zombies) would have you believe. I love the ghostly, accordion-like keyboard riff that sets the jaunty tone, I love the gleeful syncopation, and I love the effortlessly quirky hook in the chorus, the repeated words bouncing what sounds like a minor third back and forth in a major setting, somehow. Singer Maddy Wilde has more depth of character in her voice than one often hears in singers quite literally twice her age (she's got a great name, too). Whether this is a lucky early-career home run or indication of eventual superstardom--well, to quote Peter Walker from above, what do I know. The song is great, however. It can be found on the band's new 10-song self-titled, self-released CD. The MP3 is available via the band's site. Thanks to the very hard-working Largehearted Boy for the lead.

Monday, April 03, 2006

week of Apr. 2-8

Fingertips will be on vacation the week of April 9 through 15. The next "This Week's Finds" update will appear on Sunday, April 16 (yes, Sunday! I think!), for the week of April 16-22. Go plant some flowers and talk to a tree or two; see you after the break...

"Dislocated (London Version)" - the Playwrights
A splendid, dense, and affecting 21st-century amalgam of the Gang of Four and the Jam from an intense young British quintet. It's the melodica, to begin with, that has me paying attention, playing its wistful refrain in the intro underneath the slashing siren-like guitar dissonance that everyone like to call "angular." After that the song belongs to vocalist Aaron Dewey, a singer with a somewhat one-dimensional tone and not necessarily a great range but an arresting presence, at once matter of fact and disconcerting. Dewey doesn't quite sing what it sounds like he's singing, and doesn't quite say what he's actually saying (I strongly suggest you head to the band's web site, click on "lyrics," and follow the words as he sings; it really changes the experience of listening to the song). "Dislocated" has a closed-in melody, with one note rarely moving more than a step or two away from the previous note, and yet look at what Dewey does with it: in the chorus, for instance, when he sings "I am feeling"--it sounds like some great leap he's taking between "am" and "feeling" and yet it's just one full step. I'm fascinated by stuff like that. While music this urgent and serious-sounding can readily bog down in its own dire potency, the Playwrights save themselves by the poignancy they mix into the stark, slashing drive. ("This is what happens when people open their hearts," Dewey sings at the end.) "Dislocated" was a song previously released on a CD single, and re-recorded (thus the "London version") for the band's first full-fledged, widely-released CD, English Self Storage, which came out in March on Sink & Stove Records in the U.K., and is set for release in the U.S. later this month.

"Cold December" - Matt Costa
Sweet-voiced Southern California-based singer/songwriter Matt Costa has done here what I had previously considered impossible: he's taken today's (overly) prevalent jam-band-fed, laid-back-singer-songwriter vibe and made a good song out of it. Nothing against jam-band-fed, laid-back-singer-songwriters (or their fans), mind you; they're all (by and large) pleasant fellows (they're all fellows) making pleasant sounds. But they tend not to write songs, according to what my ears want and need. They seem instead ever-so-groovily content to combine aimless melodies and a few sturdy chords while they do their whispery-lazy, just-loping-around act or their hyper-wordy-and-rhythmic act. Costa sounds cut from the same cloth, but he's got a lot more going for him, in my opinion. I hear it right from the start: over an itchy acoustic guitar he's singing a real melody, and he even lets the melodic line end in an unresolved chord. Next thing we know, the song shifts, and we get a full-fledged pop hook, bright and emphatic and redolent of some old '70s AM radio hit or another. And yet we're not even at the chorus, leaving some unnamed complexity in the air. When we get there, the song actually folds in on itself introspectively--another unexpected, song-conscious touch. "Cold December" is the first track on Costa's new CD, Songs We Sing, released last week on (uh-oh! Jack Johnson's label!) Brushfire Records. The MP3 is via his site.

"Inside of Me" - Starlight Mints
That opening cascade on the piano tells you a lot of what you need to know here. It comes at you from all sides, sounds like four people trying to do one glissando and half knocking the drummer off his stool in the process. It's a great intro to a stompy, glam-infected rocker that maintains a slightly crazy edge throughout. I love it when a band that can get truly weird--as Starlight Mints can--choose to keep it more or less under wraps and offer up their version of a straightforward pop song; the weirdness still seeps out through the seams. That's a good thing. I like in particular the portentous reverb-y guitar that rings out every so often, and those loopy ELO harmonies that kick in around 3:00. The lyrics raise an eyebrow as well, as much as I can make them out ("So come inside and be my skin and bones"?). What's in the water out there in Norman, Oklahoma anyway? The Flaming Lips are from the same town as these folks. "Inside of Me" is a track off the band's new CD, called Drowaton, which is due out later this month on Barsuk Records. The MP3 is hosted on the Barsuk site.