Monday, June 26, 2006

week of June 25-July 1

"Ta Douleur" - Camille
Here's a song that's simultaneously really funky and really cute--and let's face it, not a whole lot of funky music over the years could also be called cute. Camille (she's from France, where it's pronounced "cam-EE") is best known in the U.S. for being one of the alluring voices on the oddly appealing Nouvelle Vague CD (the one where '80s new wave singles were reimagined as bossa-nova-tinged lounge songs); over there she quickly parlayed the success into a high-flying solo career. I love the timbre in her voice, and how willingly she stretches it in all directions--down so low the notes reduce to a dusky whisper, up high for accents sweet and sailing. And then of course there's when she abandons singing altogether for a wide range of percussive sounds, which come in an impressive range of gasps, raspberries, and unnameable ululations. Voice and hand-claps in fact make up most of the "instrumentation" here, prompting the music critic community to a) immediately compare her to Björk (because of Medulla, the Icelandic wonder's a capella album) and b) dismiss her as a simple-minded Björk knockoff (largely because Medulla is an often difficult listen while Camille's music strikes everyone as catchy and pleasant). Never mind most of these same critics at the time berated Björk for her self-absorbed difficulty. Never mind that Björk (whom I love dearly by the way) did not invent percussive a capella singing. I invite one and all, as always, to listen with ears; it's no crime to succumb to charm, and almost impossible, I think, not to during the closing half minute when a quiet bridge section turns into a wide-open, beat-crazy hoedown, complete with (I think!) trombone. "Ta Douleur" comes from the CD Le Fil, which was released in 2005 in France on Virgin France; it was released in the U.S. earlier this month on EMI's Narada label. Thanks again to Getecho for the lead.

"Kurt's Theme" - Foma
As intense and urgent as it is likewise good-natured and ramshackle, "Kurt's Theme" features a melody that I fear will lodge in your head rather too firmly after you've heard it a couple of times. With prominent strings and a profusion of minor chords, the song might veer towards melodrama were it not for a concurrent sense of playfulness that gives me the sense of its having been constructed with masking tape and styrofoam (I mean this in a good way)--the different elements jammed against each other in the hope that it all somehow holds together. Hear that portentous orchestral drive? Oops, it stops on a dime for a quiet section suddenly sung by a female vocalist, which leads into a pretty section with a plaintive violin motif, which (oh no!) runs headfirst into a peremptory blast of spastic guitar. That kind of thing. Foma is sort of a band, and sort of not a band, anchored by Edward Burch and based in the happening musical town of Albuquerque, New Mexico. "Kurt's Theme" is a song from the quirky concept CD Phobos, recorded with seven musicians and released locally this spring on Little Kiss Records, an Albuquerque-based label. The release went nationwide earlier this month. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

"Second Best Death" - Maybe Smith
So we've heard the staticky, squeaky-clackety electronics before, we've seen the one-man, laptop-generated bedroom rock thing before, and let me first say that there's nothing wrong with having heard something before. So-called "innovation" is way overvalued in our 24/7 world; we all want the newest, while overlooking the fact that a far more important value than "new" is "good" and that they are not always the same. But then the lap steel guitar comes in and okay, I've got to hand it to Colin Skrapek, the Canadian here doing musical business as Maybe Smith: that's a new one. But (remember, this is more important) it's good, too. What's even better is the entire song, with its lovely melodies, touching harmonies, and subtle hints of Elvis Costello in his songwriting heyday--in word choice, vocal tone, and musical sturdiness alike. "Second Best Death" is the title track to a seven-song EP released earlier this year on his own, Saskatoon-based Sir, Handsome Records. The MP3 is available via the Sir, Handsome web site. Much obliged to Sixeyes for the lead.

Monday, June 19, 2006

week of June 18-24

"Colorguard" - Division Day
An insistent drive, accentuated first by a wash of reverberating synths and then a searing guitar line, gives "Colorguard" some good hard substance; at the same time there's a great warm softness at its core too, in the form of singer Rohner Stegnitz's dulcet tenor, and the beautiful repeating melody in the chorus. There's nothing too complicated going on here, but that's really part of the effectiveness of this song. What I like is how I can clearly hear its various parts--the subtle, affecting octave harmonies once the second verse starts, the clear contribution of the bass, the clean, stratospheric lead guitar lines. I'm thinking that a lot of times, this sort of song (whatever sort of song it is) and this sort of music (again, whatever you might call it) often gets harmed by a sort of "piling on" that goes on in the recording studio. Great structures of amorphous sounds are constructed, and it can be cool in its own way, but sometimes it's cool too to be able to hear everyone. The stronger the song, the more it's okay. Division Day is a quartet from California; "Colorguard" is a song off the band's debut full-length CD, Beartrap Island, self-released this spring. The MP3 is via the band's site.

"Harrowdown Hill" - Thom Yorke
I don't know if I've ever heard such a funky riff used at the core of such an un-funky song; this is not nearly the most significant thing going on, but it may be the easiest to notice; and it may be more significant than it at first seems. What Yorke is doing here is as mysterious as it is marvelous, combining disparate elements (funky guitar, programmed beats, sustained synthesizer, tense lyrics) into a completely cohesive and moving piece of music. (The song addresses a tragic, Iraq-related controversy in the U.K., involving a former UN weapons inspector who apparently killed himself--though some believe otherwise--after unintentionally finding himself in the middle of a political scandal.) In taking a much-publicized break from his day job as Radiohead's frontman, Yorke has, to my ears, redefined the idea of what a singer/songwriter--it feels weird to call him that but that's what he is here--can do. "Harrowdown Hill" has the beating (and aching) heart of a traditional, organic song, and yet is presented in an all-out, 21st-century sonic landscape. Two aspects of the song strike me as key to its haunting success: one is the synthesizer that plays an offbeat but continuous pattern of single notes sustained typically for seven or eight seconds at a time, in a muted yet majestic, organ-like tone; the other is Yorke's voice, which is rather naked and up front, draped with maybe a slight echo to fit in to the electronic vibe but also fragile and shakily human. "Harrowdown Hill" is a track from Yorke's highly-anticipated CD, The Eraser, to be released in July on XL Recordings. A word on this MP3: it's available via Ampcamp, a super-fine online CD store, part of their ongoing "MP3 du Jour" offerings. I am assuming two things: 1) that these songs are all very much legally offered, and 2) that Ampcamp fully expects us to find them and download them. If I find out otherwise, I'll have to remove the link, but in the meantime, here you are.

"Scene It All Before" - the Minor Leagues
Any band seeking to sound like "Ray Davies fronting the Clash with Phil Spector on production" (as per the web site) is going to get my attention quickly, and that is apparently what singer/keyboardist Ben Walpole has in mind for the Minor Leagues, give or take the quartet's own individual sense of do-it-yourself quirkiness. In any case, "Scene It All Before" is a breezy yet satisfyingly chewy morsel of pop goodness, from its nostalgic horn charts to its grand swinging chorus and its intermittently goofy background vocals. Like any number of great old Kinks songs, this one has three solid, well-put-together parts; I particularly like how the melody in the chorus spills over its expected container, blurring the distinction between measures in a loose-limbed and agreeable way. And I will say that Walpole does manage to sound eerily like a cross between Davies and Mick Jones--especially eerie for a guy from Cincinnati. "Scene It All Before" is a track off the CD The Pestlience is Coming, which was self-released last week. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

Monday, June 12, 2006

week of June 11-17

"Throw My Weight" - Samsa
An extraordinarily satisfying three minutes of power-trio British indie pop. The guitar rings out and drives forward with nicely interesting chords, the drum cuts a powerful and more than a little complex beat, and singer Oli Deakin (also the guitarist) has an unexpected richness to his voice, singing with an intriguing blend of forcefulness and fragility. The thing, to me, that nails this one down as truly memorable is the great, double-hooked chorus: first, the catchy simplicity of the "I run for cover/From one to another" part, with its diving then rising thirds, sounding at this point like some lost pop classic; and then, the killer twist as the chords modulate through a really gratifying couple of shifts, ringing guitar sirening away over the top of it all. Samsa is from Leeds, in the U.K.; it's Oli's brother Jamie throwing down the engaging drumbeats, while the bassist, Harry Wood, is a non-brother. "Throw My Weight" can be found on the band's first EP, called "First, The Lights," which was self-released last summer. The EP sold out; all three songs are now available as free downloads on the band's site.

"For Money or Love" - the Like Young
I don't know how these married couples manage to play in a band together (there are a number of them out there at this point), never mind be the only members in the band, never mind make good music, never mind stay married. But here's the Chicago-based duo who call themselves the Like Young doing all that with what sounds like great good energy to spare. This short, stomach-rumbling rocker has an incisive appeal to my ears, having a lot to do with the sturdiness of the melody and singer Joe Ziemba's pitch-perfect rough-rocker voice. When wife Amanda joins in for one lead vocal line in the chorus, this too seems perfect. While the overall ambiance is "garage," there's something more sensitive in the air here, despite the visceral beat and short simplicity of the tune. "For Money or Love" is a song from the band's third full-length CD Last Secrets, which was released last month on Polyvinyl Records. The MP3 comes from the band's site.

"The Friday of Our Lives" - Audiotransparent
Slow-burning and deeply atmospheric, "The Friday of Our Lives" mixes actual instruments and fuzzy noise with impressive deftness. Portishead leaps to mind as a reference point, but this is one of the few times I've heard a band that reminds me of Portishead without simply sounding pretty much exactly like them (only not as good). The male lead singer in this case (one Bart Looman) creates an immediately different aural palatte; so does the lack of overtly trip-hoppy touches (no record scratches or obvious samples in the beats, for instance). With its muted (and subsequently unmuted) trumpet, soft keyboards, and brushed drums, "The Friday of Our Lives" manages to carry itself almost like a torch song even as the megaphoned vocals and dissonant bray of background guitar effectively and engagingly deconstructs the ambiance. Audiotransparent is a quintet from the Netherlands; this song has been sitting around in the listening pile for a few months, slowly growing on me. It comes from the CD Nevland, released in September 2005 on Living Room Records, a Dutch label. The MP3 is via the band's clean and attractive web site. Thanks to to Getecho for the head's up, way back when.

Monday, June 05, 2006

week of June 4-10

"Benton Harbor Blues" - the Fiery Furnaces
A brother-sister band known for idiosyncratic experimentation here delivers a delightful piece of almost classic-sounding pop (copping the keyboard and/or bass riff from the Four Tops strikes me as a neat touch). The fact that the Furnaces have revealed the capacity to spin out something this traditionally appealing (even if it is a remix) changes everything, to me. It's just like knowing Picasso could draw beautifully when he wanted to; that he could and chose not to makes all the difference. In any case, everything else I've heard from the Fiery Furnaces (which I may go back and listen to again) has struck me as almost perversely odd (music critics like to call this "challenging"). But here they are, chugging to a keyboard-filled Motowny groove sounding both at home and still (if you listen closely) satisfyingly edgy. The drums have a pasted-on electronic itch to them that tells you this is more than a nostalgia trip, and singer Eleanor Friedberger's delicious, drip-dry delivery has no reason to sound so good in this context but boy does it. Don't miss the mini keyboard concert that arrives at around 1:56, which features both ghostly flourishes and an organ-like series of ascensions and descensions. "Benton Harbor Blues" is, from what I've read, pretty much of an anomaly on their latest CD, Bitter Tea, which was released in April on Fat Possum Records; the rest of the disc is apparently still odd, including the original version of this same song. The MP3 is available via the Fat Possum site.

"Anti-Anti" - Snowden
Hard-driving and precise, "Anti-Anti" displays some characteristics of what is too typically (and unfortunately) called "post-punk" (its own sort of "town that makes no sense"), but I like the sonic elements this Atlanta-based quartet brings to the sound, including maybe most of all that beat-breaking synth-like guitar line (or is it a guitar-like synthesizer?) heard first at the end of the intro, and later on as well. Okay, perhaps it seems like a small and potentially random touch, but as it resurfaces it becomes its own sort of left-field hook in the context of the fuzzy, slashing, quasi-funk on display. Singer Jordan Jeffares sounds at once breathless and blase--an unusual, even uneasy combination--and the lyrical snippets that smack you as they go by only add to the vague tension. "Anti-Anti" is the title track to the band's debut CD, scheduled for release in August on Jade Tree Records. The MP3 comes via the Jade Tree site.

"Death of the Party" - the Keene Brothers
Sounding like Michael Stipe's long-lost brother, Robert Pollard has out-R.E.M.'ed R.E.M. with this lovely but typically inscrutable song. Just go ahead and try to listen to and make sense of the lyrics, if you can even understand them. But no matter at all: when the smoothly jangly verse opens into the chorus, it's like being bathed by sunlight after a cool rain. Pollard, for the uninitiated, spent years as the prolific mastermind behind the Ohio-based proto-indie band, Guided By Voices. I couldn't make heads or tails of those guys most of the time; I was pretty sure that among the 30 or so tracks on each of their 900 albums were buried treasures I'd never have the fortitude to discover. Since GBV disbanded in 2004, Pollard has merely gotten more spread out, but no less prolific, and no more understandable. "Death of the Party" is a song from the album he recorded with the relentlessly unknown but highly regarded Tommy Keene under the name of the Keene Brothers, entitled Blues and Boogie Shoes; this is however merely one of three collaborative CDs Pollard is simultaneously releasing this month as part of something he calls the "Fading Captain" series. He's lost me logistically, but musically, for this one, I'm right on board--it's a beauty. The MP3 is hosted via the old Guided By Voices web site, which still operates. Inscrutably.