Monday, July 31, 2006

week of July 30-Aug. 5

"Gone Gone Gone" - John Ralston
This one may start like just another weepy, acoustic ballad, but John Ralston has much more up his sleeve than weepy balladry, of the sort often practiced by the current pack of jam-band-inspired troubadours. First, when the full band kicks in after 19 seconds, the strength of the original melody becomes surprisingly evident. What sounded tinkly and precious with just an acoustic guitar playing now sounds vigorous and involving. I think it's the drummer in particular: that just off the second beat accent he throws in, which adds unplaceable depth while likewise playing nicely off the ascending bass line. But then there's also the fact that having a band to sing against brings something meatier out in Ralston's voice, which veered towards the over-senstive (cute?) before the band rescued him. The real killer is the chorus, which sizzles with spirit, his voice transforming in its higher register into an instrument of power and bite, complete with a nicely emoted expletive (watch out who's around when you listen). "Gone Gone Gone" is from his debut CD, Needle Bed, re-released in June on Vagrant Records after an earlier self-release. The MP3 is via his site.

"Odi et Amo" - Jóhann Jóhannsson
What we have here is a Latin poem from the first century B.C. set by an Icelandic composer to a string quartet and piano, with, oh yeah, a computerized voice "singing" the words. I invite you not to run away but listen once, twice, maybe three times, and see if you don't become as mesmerized as I now am by the unearthly ambiance, the spellbinding combination of organic instruments, heart-rending melody, and subtle electronics. The vocal range is what classical people would call a "countertenor"; we can just call it "really high, but still male." The poem is short, a so-called "elegiac couplet"; it's repeated twice, with a plaintive yet tense instrumental break between. The words translate, roughly, to: "I hate and I love. Why do I do this, perhaps you ask?/I do not know. But I feel it happening, and I am tormented." Remember, this is a computer singing. The effect is startling, both intellectually and emotionally. While getting his start as a rock guitarist, like everyone else, Jóhannsson quickly expanded his artistic scope beyond "guy in a band" to "avant garde guy with projects"--said projects including something called Kitchen Motors ("record label, think tank, art organization"), an ensemble called the Apparet Organ Quartet, and a dance/music collaboration called IBM 1401, A User's Manual. "Odi et Amo" is from Jóhannsson's first solo CD, Englabörn, which was released in 2002 on Touch Records. Thanks again to the delightful Getecho blog for the lead. Jóhannson's next CD will be a recording of the music from IBM 1401, rewritten for a 60-piece orchestra, due out in October on 4AD.

"Pillbox" - Tomihira
Returning to a more expected context now, but still dreamily so, Tomihira being a San Francisco trio favoring a dreamy-droney-distorty guitar sound that makes everyone have to mention My Bloody Valentine so, there, that's out of the way. "Pillbox" has a lot of things going for it, to my ears: an immediately distinctive instrumental hook, a delicate melody, a delicate melody set against some heavy guitar work (better, often, than a delicate melody on its own), a throaty vocalist, and a lower-register lead guitar solo, to name a few of them. Trodding the classic I-IV-V chord path, the song, gliding along without any obvious sort of chorus, oozes a crafty, slinky authority, with its syncopated beat, atmospheric guitars, and that sexy lead singer (Dean Tomihira, who lends the outfit his name). "Pillbox" is a song off the band's debut CD, Play Dead; the song is one of six free and legal MP3s the band has available on its web site. They also offer you the entire CD for only $5, in case you like what you hear.

Monday, July 24, 2006

week of July 23-29

"To Go Home" - M. Ward
Smart, sharp, and exceedingly well put together, "To Go Home" presents the formerly sleepy-voiced M. Ward in an appealingly band-like and energetic setting. And let me stop and put a good word in here for exceedingly well put together recordings. Not enough people, I don't think, speak up for them, as the indie world in particular has been often hijacked by lo-fi zealots pushing a radical (and often unlistenable) agenda of naive, accidental-sounding songscapes. But making a lo-fi recording is simply an aesthetic decision, not a moral one, and no less or more artificial a construct than a smartly produced recording. And I guess I'm digressing. Me, in any case, I listen to the opening measures of "To Go Home," with their rousing wall of acoustic sound, spacious drumbeats, and next-room piano chords, and I'm smiling before anyone starts singing. ("Well put together," I nod to myself.) When M. opens his mouth 45 seconds in, I'm further engaged by his roughed-up, reverbed-up voice, full of musical spirit in a way I hadn't heard before. The fact that Neko Case is also one of the people who eventually sings has me smiling all the more; her seasoned brilliance is a blessing everywhere she goes. "To Go Home," a Daniel Johnston song, is the second track off Ward's upcoming CD, Post-War (yeah, I wish), slated for an August 22nd release on Merge Records.

"Major Arcana" - the Isles
If Neil Finn had been in the Smiths, they might've sounded something like this. Certainly, Isles vocalist Andrew Geller does not mind bringing Morrissey to mind, both in voice and (this is what nails it, actually) in the melody lines he sings. And let me quickly add that there's nothing wrong with this. The Smiths had truly one of the most distinctive band sounds in the history of rock'n'roll; by merit, they should in fact have produced a lot more Smiths-esque bands in their wake than have yet risen to prominence. It was a sound that was never just about Morrissey's voice--it was Johnny Marr's guitar, of course, and most of all those melodies that always sounded like they were composed mostly of black notes on the piano: those odd and relentlessly minor-sounding intervals Morrissey just couldn't help singing. Geller's doing that here too. At the same time, the song has a crisp pop know-how to it, which is where the Neil Finn part comes in. I like for instance, the unexpected "oo-oo-oo" flourish at the end of the chorus. Not Smiths-like at all, that. "Major Arcana" is the lead track on Perfumed Lands, the band's debut CD on Melodic Records, set now for release next month in the U.K. and in October in the U.S. Interestingly, Melodic Records is based in Manchester, in the U.K., exactly where the Smiths are from; the Isles however are from New York City, of all places. Thanks to the gang at 3hive for the head's up.

"In Every Direction" - So Many Dynamos
Every now and then I find myself attracted beyond reason to the sort of deadpan speak-singing So Many Dynamos vocalist Aaron Stovall employs in this simultaneously skewed and tightly presented song. For me, the tight presentation is key, and this song is as blistering and disciplined, with its two-guitar assault and time-signature tricks, as it is slightly unhinged. A good microcosm of the song's idiosyncratic allure is the instrumental break at 2:03, which starts out sounding like they're unplugging the guitars, knocking over the amps, and heading offstage, but instead leads into a guitar line with an incisive melodic theme that sounds like it must've been at the heart of the song all along and yet actually wasn't. Before long a chorus of voices is joining in and I have no clue what's going on anymore, but at this point perhaps it's time to chuckle at the band's palindromic name and call it a day. "In Every Direction" is a track from the St. Louis-based quartet's second full-length CD, Flashlights, to be released in September on Skrocki Records.

Monday, July 17, 2006

week of July 16-22

"This Life" - La Rocca
A comfy stomp of a piano riff leads, brain-buzzingly, into a song as brash as it is cheerful, as expansive as it is, also, introspective. This young Irish band will bring some inevitable early-U2 comparisons, both for the country of origin and for singer/guitartist Bjorn Baillie's semi-resemblance to a young Bono. But the comparison doesn't hold for long, to my ears. There's some deep-seated, rather un-U2-like awareness of down-and-dirty classic rock suffusing the groove these guys lay down here, to begin with. And anyway, this quartet isn't quite so Irish as all that--one of them is from England, they started playing together in Cardiff (in Wales, you know), and have actually been living in L.A. for a while now. "This Life" is a track from the band's debut full-length CD, The Truth, due out in August on Danger Bird Records. The MP3 is courtesy of the Danger Bird site.

"Too Much Space" - Lisa Germano
With its sad, rich, reversing arpeggios, "Too Much Space" has the beautiful-doleful vibe of one of Tom Waits' ballads-gone-awry. Germano's voice of course is far prettier than his (whose isn't?), but she's got a deep ache in it as well, and offers idiosyncratic touches that give the proceedings a Waitsian sense of the off-kilter. Her evocative violin adds one mournful flavor; the feedbacky guitars that enter in the second half of the song--screaming like disintegrating aliens during certain moments--add another perhaps less expected one. Having written personally, almost uncomfortably, about love and addiction on previous albums, Germano is apparently tackling death this time around, on her wonderfully-titled In the Maybe World CD, to be released next week on Young God Records. She's traveled a long and winding road since her commercial heyday as John Mellencamp's violinist, but it seems one of her own choosing and I for one hang on her every word at this point. The MP3 is available via the Young God web site. Many thanks to the blog for the head's up.

"Postcards From Italy" - Beirut
Probably not enough rock songs begin with a strumming ukelele. And that's not nearly the most charming/unexpected instrumental flourish in Beirut's bag of tricks. You get horns, you get tambourines, you get a brisk two-step rhythm, you get appealingly old-fashioned melodies, and best of all you get singer/mastermind Zach Condon, all of 20 years old (actually 19 when he recorded this), sounding for all the world like a cross between Rudy Vallee and Morrissey. So, yes, it's kind of another one-man-band thing, but Condon first of all believes solidly in organic instruments (no laptop rock for him), and he also believes in recruiting talent--Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeremy Barnes, most notably, who offers up a serious hodgepodge of old-country percussion, crucial to the endearingly Eastern European sound Condon has almost inexplicably concocted. Condon is from Albuquerque and now lives in Brooklyn; he left college after one day and went instead to live in Europe. In Amsterdam he was accidentally exposed to Balkan brass music (it's a long story) and the rest is now indie-pop musical history. "Postcards From Italy," careening around the blogosphere since the spring, is a track off Beirut's debut CD, Gulag Orkestar, released in May on Ba Da Bing! Records. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

week of July 9-15

"Something of an End" - My Brightest Diamond
A quirky, multifaceted pop song with cinematic ups and downs of the Kate Bushian variety, "Something of an End" is a good introduction to the compelling work of Shara Worden, one-time cheerleading captain of the Sufjan Stevens "Illinoisemakers," now doing business as My Brightest Diamond. I am not one to value all quirkiness as good, just as I don't criticize everything quirk-free as bad; I like my quirkiness to come with substance--to be fostered, in other words, by genuine expertise, rather than the boring and ultimately empty impulse to "shock" or "rebel" or simply "be different." I think the fact that Worden's father was a national accordion champion and her mother was a church organist is important; I like too that she studied classical music in college and, later on, studied composition with Australian composer Padma Newsome. "Something of an End" feels composed, in fact--its demarcated sections sounding at once distinct and tightly bound, its melodies and harmonies rich and unsimplistic. Keep your ears on the instrumentation throughout, as Worden uses strings in particular with marvelous flair. "Something of an End" is the opening track on Bring Me The Workhorse, the debut My Brightest Diamond CD, due out in August on Asthmatic Kitty Records. The MP3 is via Worden's web site.

"Breakdown" - Stella (U.S.)
Even as the guitars squonk and blaze, and even as singer Curt Perkins emotes with the best of them, and even though the song is called "Breakdown," there's something joyous in the air here, so powerful is the energy churning around this one. I'm engaged to begin with by how the song launches with a rhythm that manages to stutter and drive at the same time. When Perkins joins in, he's singing mostly one note against, mostly, a tom-tom beat, creating a pulsing sort of urgency--you know it's going somewhere, only it's hard to figure where. I was not prepared, however, for the glistening chorus, which depends upon the vivid arrangement of a simple three-note descent. I think it's Perkins' voice most of all that creates the hook--with the chorus, it becomes more full-bodied, as if there's a howl now hiding just behind the words he sings; and the transition from the five repeated notes that open the chorus to the next note, one step down: there, that's it, that's the moment here, for me, when the song lodges in my gut. Coincidentally enough, Perkins comes from musical parents as well, his father being a classical musician, his mother a Broadway singer. Stella (which adds the U.S. officially to distinguish itself from another, Europe-based Stella) is a quartet based in Nashville; "Breakdown" comes from its "new" CD, American Weekend--the new is in quotes because the album was finished in 1999, but tied up in legal problems for, literally, years. It was legally released, at long last, last week, on Yesman Records.

"Beanbag Chair" - Yo La Tengo
It's been a while since we've heard from this proto-indie, perpetually idiosyncratic Hoboken band. And, actually, when I first listened to this song, it kind of glided past my ears without making much impact. Okay, cute horns, but then what? Ira Kaplan's trademark whispery-wavery vocals, sure. I still wasn't convinced. But after living with it a while, I find myself charmed. I think it was (again) the chorus that did it. For here, in the middle of a peppy, horn-flecked tune comes an unexpectedly delicate, delicately harmonized melody--a melody that might fit comfortably in a folk-pop tune from the late '60s, perhaps, if set in an entirely different musical context. As with "Breakdown," I think I was hooked by more or less one note--in this case, the third note Kaplan sings in the chorus (as usual with YLT, the words are nearly impossible to discern). He's just singing the basic chord triad, starting in the middle, going down to the one note, then up to the five, but the quality of his fragile tenor at the top there, combined with the casual, difficult-to-pin-down backing vocals, makes this an exquisite moment, truly. Make sure not to miss, too, the subtly chaotic bridge section, beginning around 1:40; I won't try to describe it, but for a short while there it sounds like another song is playing at the same time. "Beanbag Chair" will appear on the next Yo La Tengo album, entitled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, set for release in September on Matador Records. The MP3 is via the Matador site.