Monday, August 28, 2006

week of Aug. 27-Sept. 2

"Los Angeles" - the Rosewood Thieves
After the old-timey piano intro, the first thing you're likely to notice here is singer Erick Jordan's spunky vocal resemblance to John Lennon--whom he readily acknowledges as one of his musical heroes. (There's even a lyrical reference to "that bird that flew," for good measure.) If this already seems like a good thing, you're home free with this song; if however you're trained to be disapproving of transparent influences, I urge you to relax that learned reflex and simply listen to whether the song is pleasing. Me, I find "Los Angeles" a rousing good time, for a variety of reasons. The engaging melody and crisp production are a good part of it, but to me songs often prove their mettle in the details--the little things that go on that didn't "need" to be there but, with their presence, make everything else seem deeper and stronger and truer. I like, a lot, the meandering course the melody takes from the fourth into the fifth measure of the verse--the part, in the first verse, where it sounds like Jordan is simply singing a drawn-out "ahhh" but it actually turns out to be an "I." Formally this is called a "melisma"--where a group of notes are used to sing one syllable--and is more characteristic of classical than pop music. I also like the stutter (literally an extra beat) in the melody line--you hear it in the seventh measure in the introduction, and each time that point returns in the verse. Sometimes the more subtle the touch--like the way the piano intro is revisited in the middle of the song but with a major chord momentarily underneath (at 2:38)--the cooler the effect. All in all this seems the work of a band that knows what it's doing. The Rosewood Thieves are a quintet from New York City. "Los Angeles" is one of seven songs on the band's debut EP, From the Decker House, released last month on V2 Records.

"Lowlife" - Scanners
I'm in love with the opening riff here, with its fuzzy, restrained, melodic yet unresolved appeal; when it leads into a memorable opening line--"I know you're not ready to live/Are you ready to die?"--I am solidly hooked. And even more is going on right away (check out that ghostly keyboard thing hovering above everything else), most notably the unexpected use of Sarah Daly's violin, which provides a plaintive undercurrent to her full-throttled but pop-savvy vocal style. (I'm thinking she sounds like Grace Slick and Siouxsie Sioux's somewhat more mild-mannered love child.) The more I listen to this song the more I am impressed with its precision and timeless pop know-how; while sounding completely contemporary, "Lowlife" displays a vitality that cuts across the generations--I hear all rock decades from the '60s onward in different aspects of this song, which in another time and place might've been blaring from all of our car radios out on the wide open road but as of now is just a really cool little song you can download for free on the net. Bob was right: things have changed. "Lowlife" is from this London-based band's debut CD, Violence is Golden, which came out in June on Dim Mak Records. The MP3 is available via the Dim Mak site.

"Lullaby in A" - Bel Auburn
A lovely melody placed over tasteful blips of tweaky fuzz and feedback, "Lullaby in A" starts slowly, almost as an incantation. A minute in, the song opens up sonically, but something of a reverie remains, as the earnest verse repeats and repeats--there's no chorus, just an interlude of upward-swelling guitars and noise--against an assertive drumbeat and subtly shifting backdrop mixing the electric and the electronic. At around 2:50 we float into a new (but still lovely) melody; this one however slides quickly and refreshingly into a harsher section full of hammering guitars and electronic swoops before quieting back down and, soon, fading into a vibrating electronic wail. And, yes, okay: are they taking what Radiohead and Wilco have done and making it perhaps prettier, perhaps poppier, perhaps easier to listen to? Probably; and I for one say hooray for them. I love Radiohead and Wilco to pieces and have and will follow them anywhere (hey, I've even listened to the end of "Less Than You Think," willingly, twice). But it's a big planet, and there's a lot of ways to make great music, only one of which is by being blindingly original. (Remember too that a whole lot of blindingly original music is also unlistenable; very little of it is effective pop.) Most of this rock'n'roll game is about absorbing and repositioning what someone else already did. And oops I guess I'm back on the "it's okay to have obvious influences" soapbox, so I'll step down merely to note that Bel Auburn is a quintet from Ashland, Ohio; "Lullaby in A" is a song from the band's second CD, Lullabies in A and C, self-released in mid-August and available as well as a free and legal download on the band's site.

Monday, August 21, 2006

week of Aug. 20-26

"Walking the Plank" - Apollo Up!
A winning combination of melody and invective, "Walking the Plank" sounds as sharp and blistering as an early Elvis Costello or Joe Jackson song. But this is no wearisome nostalgia trip, as there's likewise something very present and unbeholden to anyone about this trio's disciplined, fiery sound. While vocalist Jay Leo Phillips (also the guitarist) has an Elvis-like timbre, his voice is deeper, and rougher around the edges; plus, he has his own intermittently explosive guitar to play off against, which seems clearly to add to the intensity of his performance. (And that's the funny thing about most of those early EC gems--they rocked, but, largely, and strangely, without any sort of lead guitar sound.) Being a trio is no small point of differentiation--I really think that trios, at their best, offer rock energy that is as pure and focused as it comes. No matter how noisy a trio gets, there's something concentrated and essential about the sound it makes; you can always hear each instrument precisely if you listen, which I find bracing somehow. "Walking the Plank" is the lead track off the band's Chariots of Fire CD, their second, which was released in June on Theory 8 Records. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

"Put On Your Light" - Hezekiah Jones (with Clare Callahan)
A slow, bittersweet foot-tapper, if such a thing is possible. But go on and see if your foot doesn't for some reason want to tap along to this sad and swaying tale of troubled love. It's not just the minor key that lends the song a woebegone air; listen too to how the achy melody is often sung off the main beat (the one your toe is tapping, remember)--this fosters a resistant, unsettled, I might even suggest unhappy vibe. Meanwhile, there's a duet going on between the almost ghostly-sounding Callahan and the full-voiced Jones (whose name is actually Raphael Cutrufello), but it's an odd duet. Callahan starts, Jones joining in to finish the end of both lyric lines in the verse. They sing the chorus together, but with the lyrics offering one side of a love relationship hitting a rough patch, the effect is disconcerting. By the presence of the duet, we are seemingly given both voices--both sides of the battle, as it were--and yet they're singing the same words; they're even singing the same musical notes, with no interval harmonies at all. The two lovers of the story sound all the sadder and more isolated as they sing without the other really hearing; the listener meanwhile is unnerved for lack of any clues about who's done what, who's "right" and who's "wrong," who to believe, who to side with. Very lovely and very sad. Cutrufello recently released the first Hezekiah Jones CD, Hezekiah Jones Says You're A-Ok, on Yer Bird Records, but "Put On Your Light" isn't actually on it; it's available as an unreleased song via the HJ site.

"Town" - Richard Buckner
There's no question, to my ear, where the center of this brisk but meaty song is: the first line of the chorus, that vocal leap Buckner takes at the end. The entire song is built upon short lyrical snippets and small melodic intervals; but there at the end of the opening line of the chorus, the last interval of the snippet, heading upward, is a fifth. A leap up always sounds larger than the interval actually described, and so right away there's something startling and pleasing about it. I like how, the first time we hear it, Buckner is singing the word "down" as the melody jumps up. I like even more the grand character of this gruffly smooth (or maybe smoothly gruff) voice as it is exquisitely revealed in the process of taking, and making, that leap. Buckner heads to and hits just the one five-steps-up note, and yet as he holds it his voice stretches and intensifies in marvelous ways, every time that line-end comes around. It's a subtle but beautiful and memorable hook right there; what solidifies it as the center of a beautiful and memorable song are the chords Buckner employs to create the structure around the hook. They are neither novel nor tricky but they are invitingly true and inevitable, a sweet descending series falling away from the initial leap upward. I keep wanting to hear this part over and over, and it sticks in my head for hours afterwards. "Town" is the first song on Buckner's upcoming CD Meadow, which has a lot of one-word song titles for some reason. The CD--Buckner's eighth--is set for a September release on Merge Records.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

week of Aug. 13-19

"Ghosts of York" - As Tall As Lions
"Ghosts of York" manages the clever trick of being both atmospheric and emphatic, combining the feel of a more noodly type of guitar rock with the smart, concise dynamics of a great pop song. Look at the ground covered here, so quickly: we get an introspective guitar line for all of 13 seconds before the vocalist sings a slow, emotive section for maybe another 15 seconds, and then, bam, the drummer hits the ground running, yet with everything around him still feeling restrained; at the same time you may notice a wall of sound building the energy towards something bigger. This is already engaging, very much so, but these guys have barely started. Just past 50 seconds, the sonic tension cracks open into a clear, decisive melody (note the nice use of octave harmonies right here), and even this is just a set-up for the central hook at 1:06--the melody there featuring a deeply pleasing modulation from a minor chord to the major chord one full step below. (There's probably a name for that, theory-wise, that escapes me.) This is the part that completely slayed me, and even after this there's more, including a bridge with a trickier time signature, then a dramatic building-back of the wall of sound, and then a combination of the time tricks and the wall at the very end. Good stuff. As Tall As Lions is a foursome from Long Island; "Ghosts of York" is a song from the band's self-titled debut CD, released last week on Triple Crown Records. The MP3 is available via Insound.

"Heartbeat" - Angela Desveaux
Sometimes there's little as satisfying as a good old-fashioned song--nicely unfolding melodies and a sense of verse-chorus-verse structure, confidently presented, with an assortment of little touches so perfect that you barely even notice them. Because she does this so well, and because there's an air of alt-country about her, and because she's from Canada, Montreal's Angela Desveaux may have trouble escaping Kathleen Edwards comparisons, but hey, all up and coming musicians are going to be compared to somebody, and Edwards is one of the very best singer/songwriters of our day--good company, says me. I think you know you're in the hands of a true talent when there doesn't necessarily seem like there's anything unusual going on, and yet you're hooked anyway. Desveaux here has hit upon a simple-sounding but resonant underlying motif: that basic 5-4-3-4-3-4 melody that drives the song, sung in that gently swinging rhythm, with her friendly, reedy voice the perfect accompaniment. Songs like this develop in ways that seem pretty much inevitable, even when they aren't at all. For instance, despite my assurance about verse-chorus-verse structure, Desveaux here actually throws something extra between the verse and the chorus that's like a pre-chorus--a great hook in its own right, and not a bridge. And it doesn't matter; it all seems precisely as it should be. Listening to it, I feel the world, if only for four minutes and twenty-six seconds, is also precisely as it should be. Quite a feat during these unsettling times. "Heartbeat" is available via her web site, a stand-alone song. According to the site, an album is coming soon.

"Burn This Flag" - Boy Omega
Well it's been at least a little while since we've dipped back into the Swedish talent pool, so here's Boy Omega, the working name of a certain Martin Henrik Gustaffson. To begin with, do yourself a favor and try to listen to this straight out of "Heartbeat"--the segue is rather striking, if I do say so myself. Even as it's driven by an acoustic guitar, "Burn This Flag" starts out all itchy and unsettled, a feeling augmented both by Gustaffson's Robert Smith meets Conor Oberst vocal style and by the blippy-scratchy percussive accents. I am slowly but surely realizing that I love much of what electronica has to offer, sound-wise, when musicians bring it structurally into something resembling a song rather than presenting it in a relentless, beat-oriented setting. Gustaffson here crams a lot of know-how into a relatively short space: strong instrumental hooks, crisp production, an incisive melodic theme, and unexpected sounds, among other things; unusually for me, I'm left here feeling as if the song could actually have been longer than it is. That's almost always a good sign. "Burn This Flag" is from Boy Omega's forthcoming EP, The Grey Rainbow, scheduled for an October release (in Europe) on Riptide Recordings, a German label. The MP3 is via the Riptide site. Hat's off to the consistently enlightening Getecho blog for this one.

Monday, August 07, 2006

week of Aug. 6-12

"La Cage Appat" - Peppertree
So how much fun is this song? We get, out of the gate, a wonderful, mysterious tension built by a question-answer style alternation between a gently strummed electric guitar and a chimey organ. This kicks open into a melodramatic series of now-the-guitar-is-chimey chords, then pulls back again into a restrained verse, in French, reinforcing the song's engaging sense of back-and-forth, of doing this then that, being here then there. See too how the musical accent is all off the beat, which generates more tension (listen to the guitarist to get the clearest sense of what's driving the song rhythmically here, that ringing line you can hear between all the regular beats). Where it's leading is to the heart-opening chorus, and I know exactly when this song lodges in my gut: it's the surging-up melody in the (I think) third line, at about 1:06; and it's not just the melody surge, it's the chord underneath: listen to how suspended and unresolved that baby is. I love this a lot. There's a great culturally far-away sound (to my American ears) that I'm also loving all the way through--some antique French-Canadian essence seems to be driving this thing, a sense reinforced by the unexpected "ba-ba-bas" singer Patrick Poirier unleashes near the end. And it's all done in three minutes. Most excellent. According to Babel Fish I see that Poirier actually means "pear tree," and I don't doubt there's a joke there, as the Montreal-based band displays quite the quirky sense of humor on its still-sketchy web site. "La Cage Appat" is the lead track on the band's debut CD, self-released (I think) last year. The MP3 is available via the band's site, and came to my attention thanks to the fine feathered folks at 3hive.

"Take Me Back" - Furvis
While the Peppertree song knocked me out right away, "Take Me Back" won me over steadily, over time. I think maybe the bashy guitar onslaught at the beginning blinded my ear (if I can engage in a bit of willful synesthesia) to the tune's nicely constructed subtleties. The first verse is sturdy and amenable, four repetitions of a four-measure melody (three, really, with a guitar "coda"), until after the fourth time around, where we suddenly modulate through a couple of new chords, hit a brisk hand-clap, then go back into the verse. But things are now different: the melody this time extends into all four measures, and runs together to join the segments, including the end bit with the modulation and hand-clap. And then we get a sort of aural clearing--the insistent guitars peel back, as the chorus is sung against an acoustic rhythm guitar and lead electric guitar that sounds distorted into a steel-ish tone, while the melody takes some nice Wilco-y detours. And yeeks the more I dryly describe this the less interesting it probably sounds. My advice is listen, a few times. Furvis is a young quartet from the Boston suburb of Newton, with one self-released EP to its name so far. "Take Me Back" is one of the band's as yet unreleased songs; the MP3 is available via their web site.

"Lonely Land" - Trentalange
Barbara Trentalange has a voice, all smoke and ash, made for singing about barstools and shotglasses and no-good men and infinite gazes. It's a blessing and a curse, actually--because, I mean, really, how seriously can we take this slightly too cliched tale of a shadowy figure in a bar? Well, maybe not all that seriously--until my friend the chorus arrives, and oh boy: the soaring harmonies, the grand sad elegance of the melody, the despondent cello (which arrives the second time through) all work to transform, basically, everything. This song sticks with me, hard. On top of that, the chorus also yields a lyrical gem--the story of a woman meeting a shady man in a bar may seem a cliche, but the catch phrase "Follow me to lonely land" is brilliant in its catchy concise complexity--just want I want from a good pop song. So if "Lonely Land" does indeed walk that sometimes fine line between cliche and transcendence, perhaps it's doing so, to interpret this generously, to teach us that transcendence may yet be a heartbeat away, even when we least expect it. In any case, Trentalange is the latest project from Barbara Trentalange, formerly the lead singer of a Seattle-based band called Spyglass; she also toured in a recent incarnation of Crooked Fingers. "Lonely Land" is a song off the forthcoming CD, Photo Album of Complex Relationships, scheduled for an October release on Coco Tauro Records. The MP3 is available via her site.