Monday, September 25, 2006

week of Sept. 24-30

"Wind Change" - Artisan
Crisp, rhythmic, and melodic, "Wind Change" sparkles with a not often heard sort of acoustic/electronic energy. Certainly there are any number of people out there attempting to combine these two disparate sonic camps; a sub-genre even emerged early in the '00s--"folktronica"--that sought to name at least some of these efforts. And yet achieving a bona fide blend of acoustic and electronic instruments is harder than it may seem to the dial-twiddling crowd: what we tend to get are either blurry tunes heavy in atmosphere but light in actual song-iness, or simple guitar songs with distracting effects thrown in. None of that, however, for Artisan, a British outfit which combines a Simon & Garfunkel-like sprightliness with melodies and vocal stylings that owe a lot, in a wonderful way, to Thom Yorke. The beats here are so subtle and well-conceived they often sound like little more than guitar-body percussion, which merely reinforces how central the guitar work remains, through both the complex, chord-changey verse and the simple, sing-along chorus. I've rarely for instance heard harmonic accents worked so organically into a song without drawing undue attention (listen at 1:27 to see what I mean)--just one example of the stylish musicianship on display. "Wind Change" is available as an MP3 on the band's site. It's a demo but the band tells me that at this point it's as finished as it's going to be for some time. Sounds pretty good as is.

"No Backbone" - the Lemonheads
Talk about songiness: Evan Dando at his best always specialized in songiness of just about the best kind--the power pop kind. Now first of all, turn the volume up on this one. No, louder. You want to be sure to properly absorb the guitar barrage (and hey that's the venerable J Mascis on lead, how 'bout that?). And talk about the blending of disparate sounds: what about that wall of guitars and Dando's husky-honey voice? I think the potential to combine an all-out sonic assault with sweet melody has always been the grand allure of that intractable genre known as power pop. What "No Backbone" does particularly well is sound barely contained so much of the time--not just J Mascis but also drummer Bill Stevenson (with certfied punk credentials of his own), just bashing first, asking questions later. It's a tricky balance, since a finely-wrought pop song is actually a pretty strict container, without a lot of room for loosy-goose drama. Written, as a few Lemonheads songs have been, by Tom Morgan, of the not-terribly-well-known Australian trio Smudge, "No Backbone" is a lean and shining container indeed, but the ensemble drives and pushes and keeps making it sound like implosion is but a few measures away. Until, that is, that wonderful part where things get a bit quieter, at around 2:20 (and doesn't Dando sound intensely Costello-like right there?), for maybe 15 seconds, and then, never mind, the band is back and we're kicked in the butt till someone pulls the plug at a tidy 3:09. "No Backbone" is a song from the Lemonheads' self-titled new CD, due out tomorrow on Vagrant Records. No, the Lemonheads haven't had an album for a long time (10 years); it's a whole new band this time except for Dando. The MP3 is courtesy the AOL Music Indie Blog.

"Doctor Blind" - Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton
Lead singer for the band Metric and one-time member of the ramshackle Broken Social Scene ensemble, Emily Haines strips things down here for a haunting, piano-based reverie with a pointed message. I'm immediately attracted to the time-signature challenges in the chorus, which lend a meaty flavor to an already tuneful piece--I think she abuts a measure of 5/4 to a measure of 7/4, but I could be wrong; it's beautifully articulated and engaging in any case, with Haines singing in a weary, not-quite-deadpan voice. Everything is draped in lamentation (listen to how the strings sound when they join those ghostly echo-noises in the background), which is perhaps as it should be when the subject turns, as it seems to here, to our society's sickening reliance on pharmaceutical products for our quote-unquote well-being. And actually I'm loving those echo-noises, whatever they are (unearthly guitars? distorted vocal samples?); they acquire a more prominent place in the background during the last minute or so, sounding like a chorus of alien ghosts trying to warn us, through a some sort of interdimensional doorway, about something we wouldn't understand anyway. "Doctor Blind" is a song from the CD Knives Don't Have Your Back, coming out this week on Last Gang Records. The MP3 is via Filter Magazine.

Monday, September 18, 2006

One bit of news to start the week: the Fingertips podcast now exists. The first one, featuring last week's "This Week's Finds," went up on Friday. I'm going to try to get them online by Wednesdays in general, once I get better at the process. More information here.

week of Sept. 17-23

"Brother" - Annuals
This expansive group of North Carolina youngsters (front man Adam Baker is 19) sound like the Arcade Fire's younger American cousins. This is a good thing. Like that great Montrel band, Annuals show an impressive grasp of instrumental melody (note the recurring violin refrain), musical dynamics (they do both loud and soft with impressive character), and idiosyncratic production tricks as they transform a lilting, pastoral opening (complete with crickets) into a hard-driving rocker, showing both patience and passion in the process. It takes well over half the song to arrive at the visceral, propulsive beat that becomes its destiny--a beat that actually swings if you think about it: one-two; one-two. I really like when the percussion steps to the forefront at 2:45 and we hear the beat in a stripped-down and yet still nicely textured setting, and like as well the unusual guitar solo that led into the percussive section, at 2:26--unusual both for the complexion of the sound (not the typical searing guitar solo) and for the way it allows itself to be enveloped by the slightly unhinged background; typical guitar solos demand the front-and-center seat, perhaps at the cost of a richer musical flavor. Nice stuff from a promising ensemble. "Brother" is a track from the band's debut CD, Be He Me, scheduled for release in October on Ace Fu Records; the MP3 is via the Ace Fu site.

"Day's Looking Up" - Paul Michel
With its melancholic descending guitar line and casually assured presence, "Day's Looking Up" sounds like some great lost classic rock ballad, particularly when we arrive at the chorus. What a beautiful, inevitable melody we get there, and what great lyrics: "Hope is an only child/And change is a desperate fool/Waiting for jealousy to clear out the room." These are great not because they are unutterably profound (that would be asking a lot) but because of quite literally how they sound in the setting: big fat concepts to match the big fat beauty of the musical line. I am also impressed with the words because Michel is going for it here--he's aiming at something beyond "I love you, baby" or "You hurt me, baby" while at the same time avoiding the two biggest problems in pop lyrics, which are 1) cliche and 2) obscurity. Mainstream pop veers towards cliche; indie rock veers towards obscurity, and I'm not equipped to say which is worse but neither is particularly satisfying. A Washington, D.C.-based singer/songwriter, Michel has also spent time in bands, and it shows in his singing--his voice is packed with more power and elasticity than the typical singer/songwriter, gliding effortlessly up and down to notes both higher and lower than they sound. "Day's Looking Up" is a song from
the CD These are Beautiful Things, released last year on Magic Bullet Records. Michel has a new CD called A Quiet State of Panic scheduled for a November release on Stunning Models on Display Records.

"Changing Emily" - Special Patrol
Anyone remember Pure Prairie League? Although I have never been a particular fan of that sort of country-pop-rock, there's no doubt that the once-upon-a-time ubiqitous "Amie" had a certain compulsive charm. And everything sounds better draped in nostalgia anyway, so if a trio from Adelaide, South Australia decides to come along in 2006 and channel some Southern U.S. country-rockers from three decades ago, if the melody is there, and the harmonies, and if the effort has verve and more than a little compulsive charm of its own, what the heck. I'm on board. There is definitely something about the layered harmonies of the chorus, with those high voices on top, that just seems so comfortable and right. I like how the song in fact starts with the chorus, which is not something you hear every day--there's just a ringing, vaguely Credence-like guitar line and boom, the chorus. I'm surprised more people don't try that. Two of the guys in Special Patrol--the singer/guitarist Myles Mayo and drummer Rob Jordan--have been playing music together since ninth grade, and have known each other since second grade; they began recording in 1999. The band has been in its current form since 2003. "Changing Emily" is a song from theirupcoming CD, Handy Hints From The Undertaker, to be released in October in Australia on Mixmasters Records.

Monday, September 11, 2006

week of Sept. 10-16

"Into the Open" - Heartless Bastards
From its dreamy opening--the echoey, faraway keyboard, the reverby vocal--"Into the Open" kicks into an intensely engaging reverie of a midtempo rocker. And there: I wrote at least one sentence about this marvelous Cincinnati trio without extolling the unearthly talents of singer/songwriter/guitarist Erika Wennerstrom. She opens her mouth and the world shifts; she has the sort of voice that reminds me why I listen to music. When it's aligned with such a stirring, almost sing-song-y tune, I can do little except sit and receive, rather insight-less. Notice by the way she doesn't sing in her full voice at the beginning, in the echoey intro. And hey that's an actual introduction, almost like the old days--a separate part of the song that leads into the rest but is never repeated. That's kind of cool right there. Anyway, she doesn't really start singing singing till after that--the line that starts (David Byrne-ishly) "And I find myself..." Just listen to that. Every syllable is imbued with substance in a way you can neither teach nor describe. Interestingly, Wennerstrom's lyrics here employ Talking Heads-style declarations, sometimes repeated, as Byrne was wont to do. This strikes me as very likable, somehow, since otherwise the music and vibe, which wanders into some room-shaking noise here and there, has nothing to do with the older band. "I've got a wind in my face": listen to that. Sit and receive. Wennerstrom is the real thing, and so's her band. "Into the Open" is the first song on their new CD, All This Time, released in August on Fat Possum Records. The MP3 is available via the Fat Possum site.

"Little Sounds" - Judah Johnson
Judah Johnson is a band, not a person; and "Little Sounds" is not so little, but rather a large, yearning sort of rock song, at once familiar- and fresh-sounding, which is a nice combination. Just that great up-and-down sliding guitar line in the intro is enough to hook me; vocalist Daniel Johnson's substantive yet tender vocal delivery is another plus. And yeah I don't suppose we can know, stuck inescapably in our own cultural moment, whether the band's ear-grabbing use of electronic accents in the midst of such a big-sounding piece of rock is going to sound really cool in the long run or really dated. While I'm having a hard time focusing on what the song is about, get the sense that it's all very sad, an impression furthered by the intriguing "Ooh Child" reference in the bridge (with the lyrics inverted: "Ooh, child/It won't get easier/It won't get brighter"). Made me wonder for a moment if the Five Stairsteps were a Motown group (Judah Johnson is from Detroit), but no, I see they were from Chicago (thanks, Wikipedia!). "Little Sounds" is from the band's second full-length CD Be Where I Be, released in late August on Flame Shovel Records. The MP3 is via the Flameshovel site.

"O Love is Teasin'" - Isobel Campbell
So like a lot of people lately I've been listening carefully to the gruff but lovable Bob Dylan, pondering at no small length his deepening embrace of traditional song structures, admiring the tenacity, really, with which he has pursued his troubadour destiny, which has a lot to with being at once a great student and interpreter of songs from the dustier alleyways of folk music. Things return and return again to the storied Anthology of American Folk Music and a-ha, here's where I start talking about Isobel Campbell, in case you thought I'd forgotten. The melty-voiced Scottish cellist/vocalist, and one-time member of Belle & Sebastian, has a CD coming out later this fall that, of all things, is directly inspired by the recordings from the late '20s and early '30s that Harry Smith famously collected and released in the early '50s that propelled the American folk movement later that decade. This seems even more unexpected than her highly unexpected collaboration earlier this year with Mark Lanegan. "O Love is Teasin'" is, apparently, a traditional song that Campbell has arranged, and it's subtle and very simple (just guitar and voice with two--count 'em, two--soundings of a chime) but if you slow down you might just find it as achingly gorgeous and haunted as I do. Of course even if you slow down it's over pretty quickly (it's just 1:57); my suggestion is listen to it a few times in a row to catch all of fragile, breathy moments Campbell offers while delivering this almost medieval-sounding melody. Her distinction is that her voice is at once pretty and imperfect, which has an arresting effect in this minimally presented song. "O Love is Teasin'" is from a CD that will be released in November on V2 Records called Milkwhite Sheets--an album of "psychedelic lullabies," according to the press material. The MP3 is available via Pitchfork.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

week of Sept. 3-9

"Like a Lily" - Out of Clouds
Unlike the other three seasons, which fade into their successors, summer ends with the sense of a door slamming. Everyone seems to hate it, but truly we are co-conspirators: against the reality of the Earth's steady revolution, we insist on seeing a sudden end where there is none. So okay, it may be cool and rainy, and school buses may be back on the streets, but me, I'm not going to lose the full seasonal experience, and offer a most summery-sounding song to help recover calendar reality. Out of Clouds is an earnest six-piece band from Gothenburg, Sweden with an obvious affinity for innocent '60s pop sounds of both the British and American variety. But don't mistake the gentle piano chords, easy beat, and tender harmonies as purely an exercise in retro-ness; to my ears, "Like a Lily" has a vital and appealing heart. Singer Joel Göranson's voice isn't just sweet--listen closely and you'll hear a subtle edge; it's Brian Wilson with Thom Yorke mixed in. The chorus nails this all down for me with its unfolding melody and continually interesting series of chords. "Like a Lily" is the lead track on the most recent Out of Clouds EP, Into Your Lovely Summer, self-released in June. The MP3 is from the band's site.

"Nature of the Experiment" - Tokyo Police Club
Listen to how quickly this band builds a compelling song: first comes that buzzy, lo-fi bass, then a quick cathartic grunt, then that really wonderful guitar line, at once chimey and dissonant, both careful and slightly unhinged. And then to top it off a splendid opening line-- "We've got our tracks covered/Thanks to your older brother"--that plunks us right into the middle of a conflict of some sort, while simultaneously recalling spiky Britpop from some previous generation or another. We're just 16 seconds into the song at this point; when the whole thing is only two minutes you clearly have to hit the ground running. The singer, Dave Monks, is also the bass player; and it could be my imagination but it strikes me that when the lead vocalist is the bass player, the bass is inescapably more interesting--let's face it, a guy who sings lead is used to being heard, not blending into the background. A young band, the Toronto-based Tokyo Police Club sounds rough around the edges but the song is a winner, a skittering blend of melodic bursts and lyrical salvos ("It's an ancient Russian proverb/I doubt it's one that you've heard") set to an invigorating Gang-of-Four-ian beat. "Nature of the Experiment" is from TPC's debut EP, A Lesson in Crime (Paper Bag Records), slated for a U.S. release in October. It was originally released in Canada in April. The MP3 is via the Paper Bag site.

"Overgrown" - Darling New Neighbors
From Austin comes a different sort of rough-around-the-edges band. Darling New Neighbors is a trio that plays a lopsided, homespun sort of indie pop that veers, song to song, in a variety of directions. "Overgrown" is their take on something resembling country, but I don't think you have to think you like country to like a tune that manages to sound so heartfelt and, well, goofy at the same time. Elizabeth Jackson's forthright, naive-seeming alto, with its penetrating falsetto, seems the perfect vehicle for this landscape-driven tale of love gone wrong. All three members of the band play multiple instruments (things like mandolins and accordions and ukeleles); Jackson herself takes a solo on the violin in the middle of this one that goes on and on and makes me smile every time I hear it. "Overgrown" is the first song on the band's debut CD, Every Day is Saturday Night, released in August on I Eat Records. The MP3 is via the I Eat Records site. (Note a delay of about five seconds at the beginning of the MP3; don't worry, it'll start.)