Monday, October 30, 2006

week of Oct. 29-Nov. 4

"Last Cast" - The End of the World
A compelling mid-tempo rocker that's equal parts unresolved chords and resolving melodies. It's also equal parts playful bass line and insistently bashing cymbals, and as I listen I'm thinking these two things are related, somehow, as both oppositions--the harmonic one and the one within the rhythm section--foster a really chewy sort of dynamic, half unsettled and half really comfortable. I haven't praised the trio concept in a while, so I think I'll do that here, noting (yet again, for long-time Fingertips visitors) how satisfyingly present a trio is in a rock context: with guitar, bass, and drums, nothing is buried, no sound unaccounted for; I find it a welcome relief, sometimes, from the sort of sonic overload that the digital age has often brought upon us. This is another in a long (long...) line of songs that I like but have no idea what they're about; what brings a song like this to life, lyrically, anyway is when individual lines jump out and intrigue; the one that does it for me here is: "Now it's the quiet ones/That we watch out for." Again, no idea what's going on, but I'm definitely curious and engaged. The End of the World are from New York City; "Last Cast" is a song from their debut full-length CD, You're Making It Come Alive, which was released earlier this month on Flameshovel Records. The MP3 is via the Flameshovel site.

"Breakable" - Ingrid Michaelson
Deconstructing waltz time beyond recognition, Ingrid Michaelson here breathes fetching new life into a 3/4 piano ballad. The Brooklyn-based Michaelson sings with a choppy sort of breathiness, and gives me the impression that even she doesn't quite know which way a note is going to go until her elastic voice lets it fly. I will do us all the favor of not drawing on the usual comparisons that seem to beset any woman who plays the piano, even when she sounds pretty much nothing like the person everyone is always compared to. Instead I find myself drawn to her freshness, a not-quite-like-anyone-else quality that she presents in a most familiar-seeming container. Many little things along the way are just a bit different, from the plaintive same-note harmony vocals matched against the pumping piano that open the song to the minimalist snare and percussion she calls on to provide distinctive rhythmic support. "Breakable" is a song from Girls and Boys, Michaelson's second CD, which was self-released in May. The MP3 is available via her web site. Thanks to Bruce at Some Velvet Blog for the lead.

"Harvest (Within You)" - Clinic
If this one doesn't hit you on first listen, I urge you to listen two more times. That's when it really began to sink in for me, and now of course I'm not sure why I didn't hear it the first time, but music is a mysterious thing--maybe even more so when created and performed by an enigmatic band from Liverpool that wears surgical masks and costumes in all their publicity photos, and apparently while performing as well. Against a "Lust For Life" rhythm, "Harvest" unfolds with (sorry) almost clinical precision, with Ade Blackburn's nasally-twitchy voice accompanied by ghostly harmonies, a funereal organ, and a really really great-sounding guitar, all skeletal and portentous. "Harvest (Within You)" is a song from Visitations, the band's fourth CD, released in the U.K. and digitally this month on Domino Records. (The U.S. hard copy will not arrive until January.) The MP3 is available via the Domino web site.

Monday, October 23, 2006

week of Oct. 22-28

"Axes" - The Low Frequency in Stereo
To begin with we get a surf guitar over a crisp beat. Another guitar joins in for a few measures, then leaves. Surf guitar riff re-establishes itself. Next to enter is a Doors-like organ. At this point I for one would not have understood that exactly what was missing was a trumpet but what do you know: the trumpet, appearing at 56 seconds in, is utterly perfect. The whole song, as a matter of fact, seems to unfold with impeccable charm and precision all the way through, as each sonic element--the surf guitar, the organ vamp, the trumpet, and Hanne Andersen's breathy, somewhat distant vocal, when she finally starts singing (over a minute into the proceedings)--contributes its own distinct ingredient to the musical stew. The band, from Norway, seems to call themselves, interchangeably, Low Frequency in Stereo, and The Low Frequency in Stereo. Not a big distinction but I'm kind of a stickler for details; I'm going with "The" at this point. Reading about them a bit I see that they've been tied since their founding in 2000 to the so-called "post-rock" genre, but I personally have trouble with that label, which seems an unnecessary way to distinguish fresh sounding rock music (interesting instrumental combinations and song structures) from previous sounds, overlooking the fact that rock music at its best is always growing and stretching. "Axes" is from the CD The Last Temptation Of..., scheduled for release next week on Gigantic Music. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

"Fata Morgana" - Gary Lucas & Gods and Monsters
A fast-picking bluesy, slidey shuffle with an odd sort of homespun character. Lucas sings of the legendary enchantress with a cartoony sort of croon on top of the almost old-timey music; the combination of the rapid-fire acoustic guitarwork, the old-fashioned melody, and Lucas's vaguely unhinged presence creates an unexpected blast of merrymaking. Lucas is something of a cult-hero guitarist, with experience ranging all the way back to playing with Captain Beefheart during the last incarnation of his Magic Band in the early '80s; among the impressive array of musicians he's collaborated with are Lou Reed, Patti Smith, John Cale, Bryan Ferry, Matthew Sweet, John Zorn, Dr. John, Jeff Buckley, and (yes) Leonard Bernstein. Gods and Monsters is being billed as a sort of New Wave supergroup; certainly its members are of interest, since Billy Ficca (Television) plays drums and Ernie Brooks (the Modern Lovers) bass. What's more, Jerry Harrison from Talking Heads (and previously also the Modern Lovers) had a hand on the knobs in here (and is playing with the band on the road). And actually Jonathan Kane (Swans) plays drums on most of the songs although Ficca's here on "Fata Morgana." The song is from the CD Coming Clean, which was released at the end of September on Mighty Quinn Records.

"Circles" - Porter Block
If "Circles" is as vaguely pastoral, skillfully produced, and giddily melodic as an old XTC song, this is no accident. Peter Block and Caleb Sherman, doing business as Porter Block, are the first to report that their biggest influences are the Beatles and XTC. It's wonderful enough to see a new band that understands XTC's brilliant but underrated contributions to rock'n'roll history; it's all the better when the band in question handles its influences this comfortably. I hear a lot of indie bands that seem to have this unconscious need to sound exactly like their musical heroes, down to out-and-out vocal mimickry. I am relieved right away by Porter Block in that they write XTC-ish songs without having a singer who sounds at all like Andy Partridge (or Colin Moulding, for that matter). In any case, the chorus here in particular offers winsome XTC resonances, both musical and lyrical (including the very Andy Partridge-like word "whirligig"), and if you don't have any particular knowledge of or interest in XTC (but why not??), it doesn't matter, as the lilting 3/4 melody stands beautifully on its own two feet. "Circles" is from the CD Suburban Sprawl, scheduled for release next month by Engine Room Recordings. The MP3 is via the band's site.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Don't forget you can hear all three songs on the weekly Fingertips podcast, along with commentary that might or might not be much like the blurbs you see here. And there's a bonus song each week, too. Podcasts are usually online by Friday; more info about all that here.

week of Oct. 15-21

"Eyelashes" - the Panda Band
Loping along with a kitchen-sink variety of sounds and musical moments, "Eyelashes" is a song that I think will satisfy both those who enjoy songwriting craft and those with short attention spans. After a three-second introduction, we are thrown right into the middle of the song, as the chorus comes first. Just as I'm getting acclimated to the expansive soundscape, featuring an unnameable wall of sound that doesn't appear to be any particular instrument or background vocal, the song pulls back to a quieter section, but even that shifts quickly, as the singer and acoustic guitar are joined first by a cheesy organ (I mean that in a good way) and some skittering electronic percussion, leading us soon enough into an engaging instrumental section. The song isn't quite a minute old yet. And, as it turns out, the instrumental interlude, too, keeps moving and keeps us guessing--the 24-second break beginning at around 54 seconds in itself has three different sub-sections, including one of the coolest (and oddest) guitar "solos" I've heard in a while (check it out starting around 1:06, after the flurry of electronic twittering--it's pretty low in the mix, and for all of its alternating dissonance it almost doesn't sound like somebody playing an instrument). Even as the song can be parsed into these semi-describable chunks, the impressive thing is that "Eyelashes" holds its ground with great panache, offering a rollicking musical adventure in a concise space. The Panda Band is a quintet from the large but remote city of Perth, Western Australia. This song is from the band's debut CD, This Vital Chapter, which was released in Australia this summer, and given a U.S. release last month on the Filter U.S. label. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

"The King is Dead (But the Throne Is Not Ours)" - Causa
Mysterious and restrained and yet also fast-paced, mixing electronics and guitars with Radiohead-like aplomb. The melody urges the song forward and upward against a particularly appealing beat; I like how well-articulated and almost minimalist it is, achieving a satisfying complexity without simply piling on the digitally-manipulated sounds. The Spanish lyrics add to the enigmatic feel, thanks to the complete failure of my high school Spanish to rescue more than one or two words from the flow. And talk about great guitar solos, this one, beginning at 2:09 and closing out the song, is probably what ultimately sold me here; it's a repetition of nine basic notes, but yanked out of the instrument in an itchy, urgent, and increasingly freaked-out way. Love it. Causa is a quartet from Buenos Aires, Argentina that has been around since 1999. "The King is Dead" is a song that has not yet appeared on an album of theirs; it's available as an MP3 via the band's site.

"Fearful" - Beat Radio
Part lullaby, part benediction, "Fearful" is one beautiful and tender song, yet possesses not an ounce of sappiness, which limns its sturdy truthfulness in clear, almost breathtaking strokes. Most love songs, let's be honest, defeat their own intentions through mawkish exclamations, both musical and lyrical. Somewhere in the interplay between Brian Sendrowitz's vulnerable vocal, the subtle but progressive tension of the acoustic instrumentation (listen to the drumbeat, for instance), and the rock-solid melody, the song achieves a luminous clarity that doesn't have to rely on bromides or histrionics. "Fearful" is from the band's debut CD (they call it an LP, god bless 'em) The Great Big Sea; the MP3 is available via the band's site. As a matter of fact, the entire album is there to be listened to and downloaded as free and legal MP3s (god bless 'em). A New York City four-piece, Beat Radio has been written about all over the place, but I noticed them first only recently via the Sixeyes blog.

Monday, October 09, 2006

week of Oct. 8-14

"Turn This Thing Around" - El Presidente
Turn it up, shake it out, and beware as this uncomplicated, preposterously addictive tune is likely to stick in your head for the next several days. Boasting a smashing neo-glam-rock sound that bridges everyone from David Bowie to the Bee Gees to Prince to the Scissor Sisters, this quintet from Glasgow makes music that leaps from the speakers, certain to sound at home on everything from a transistor radio (should any still exist) to a Mac Pro. With their feisty dance-rock riffs and falsetto vocals, El Presidente edges neo-glam-rock ever so close to camp (and truly glam rock and camp are never that far away), and yet, for me, "this thing" stays on solid musical ground largely for the crazy sincerity of its exhilarating chorus. When Dante Gizzi (great name) sings "Let me go back to where we were," the melody not only resolves impeccably (and deep in the gut) but I hear an unexpected dollop of genuine pathos that no amount of squeally vocals can quite dispel. "Turn This Thing Around" is a song from the band's self-titled debut, which came out last October in the U.K., finally to be released in the U.S. last month on Red Ink Records, a Sony imprint. The MP3 is courtesy of the fine folks at betterPropaganda. If you want to hear the whole album, you can stream it at the band's new U.S. site.

"Songs That No One Will Hear" - We Are Soldier We Have Guns"
Okay so while I would never have identified this, in advance, as a favorite songwriting trick, as soon as I heard it I knew it was: having the introduction in a different key from the song. And, who knows, maybe that won't always work for me either, but in this case I find the effect entrancing, in large part because of the thoughtful, atmospheric beauty of the guitar work that comprises the introduction. The playing is both crisp and echoey, its gentle alternation between major and minor chords creating a continual sense of something about to happen and yet also there being no hurry to get there. Then, 40 seconds in: we change keys, we get a sense of movement in the guitar, something chimey chimes in, and Malin Dahlberg adds her delicately powerful voice to the mix. Even as the atmosphere remains restrained--almost slipping into near silence at one point--the song has tremendous character, perhaps because of the next thing I notice: for all the gentle meanderings of the sonic landscape, this song has a real melody to offer. You could speed this baby up and set it to a big bashing rock beat if you wanted to (not that I want to!), because of the range of motion in the notes. I think it's all too easy here in the 21st century for musicians, fiddling with digital gizmos, to lose track of the great gift of melodic elasticity. On a screen everything flattens. It's a theory, at least. We Are Soldiers And We Have Guns is a duo from Gothenburg, Sweden; "Songs That No One Will Hear" comes from their cleverly-titled EP To Meet is Murder, which is scheduled for release later this month on Stereo Test Kit Records. Many thanks, as always, to Hedvika at the excellent Getecho blog for the lead.

"Ain't No Reason" - Brett Dennen
Another simple and compelling tune, but set in an entirely different musical universe than the one occupied by El Presidente (see above). Brett Dennen is one part Ron Sexsmith and one part Steve Forbert, with maybe a sprinkle of John Prine, repackaged by the universe into lanky (he's 6'5") 20-something redhead with a wise-beyond-his-years vibe, a memorable voice, and some spiffy songwriting chops. He seems to have the distinctly Prine-like ability to be simultaneously goofy and serious, sometimes within the same sentence ("I don't know why I say the things I say/But I say them anyway"), and a Sexsmithian flair for sad, vivid melodies. Forbert kicks in because of the woodsy ache in his tenor, and the sense I get that he's going to out on the road playing his guitar for the next 30 years also. "Ain't No Reason" is from Dennen's second CD, So Much More, slated for release next week on Dualtone Records.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

week of Oct. 1-7

"Technology" - the Whigs
Take the crunchy drive of the Strokes but loosen it up, make it sound a little more fun than hip, a little warmer than cooler, and you've got a quick sense of this exuberant trio from the semi-legendary indie rock oasis of Athens, Georgia. Just about all I need out of this song is that great barrage of fuzz-toned guitar chords in the intro--I mean, how primal and cool and perfect is that sound? Perhaps lead guitar is overrated after all, when so much dazzling musical force can be channelled through crisp, chord-based pounding. And yet the song hardly stops there, working itself up into two separate hooks--one delivered as those great intro chords return (at 0:30), the other right after that, where the chorus centers on one note (beginning at 0:44) with shifting chords underneath, leading to the line "Technology it needs me." There are great rock'n'roll precedents for this kind of one-note melody, but two of the monumental examples that occur to me ("Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Pump It Up") use it in the verse rather than the chorus. Coming here after all the chord-crunching it seems like its own sort of brilliant release. "Technology" is a song off the Whigs' debut CD, Give 'em All a Big Fat Lip, which was self-released last year, then re-released in September by ATO Records. The MP3 is via the ATO Records site.

"Too Many Pictures" - the Sheds
Listening to "Too Many Pictures," I develop a theory on the spot: it's hard to be quirky and nice at the same time, musically speaking. Usually something that's quirky involves a prickliness of one kind or another--maybe some unusual vocals and/or lyrics, some challenging sounds, or at the very least some jarring twists and turns in the overall musical structure. To sound "nice," on the other hand typically involves a significant amount of both prettiness and gentleness. So, yes--hard to be jarring and soothing simultaneously. One would think. But here come the Sheds, a duo from Kentucky that is more than happy to oblige. How do they do it? Well, clearly having a flowing melody and gentle instrumentation helps (as do those perky "ba-ba-ba" backing vocals). So the niceness is right up front. Whereas the quirkiness is subtler, based in the band's lo-fi vibe, disarmingly unaffected vocals, and naked-seeming lyrics. "My family has a history of cancer/Addictive personalities/A tendency for excess intake/And our hearts are big": that's awfully quirky writing. And yet maybe here they've figured out where the quirky and the nice can overlap after all--in poignancy. Most of all, this song is poignant, as the narrator, rigorously honest with himself, describes his (quirky!) human need for the cigarettes he knows he shouldn't smoke, singing a melody which takes plaintive, almost unplanned-sounding turns, sometimes upwards and sometimes downwards. "Too Many Pictures" is from the band's recently self-released CD, The Sheds Quit Smoking, and all the songs do in fact have something to do with smoking. The MP3 is via the band's site; as a matter of fact, the entire CD is available there for free and legal download. Thanks to the music blog Each Note Secure for the lead.

"Been Here Before" - Jeremy Enigk
Dreamy, grand, and effortlessly melodic, "Been Here Before" has many graces but to me its most notable achievement is its reclamation of a progressive rock aural vocabulary into a 21st-century pop setting. Enigk's haunting vocal resemblance to Jon Anderson (Yes, anyone?) is not the only thing that sets off the prog-rock bells in my head (although it helps); there's also the majestic ambiance (the soaring mountains and spreading valleys of sound), the supple use of 7/4 time, and okay maybe the organ solo too. Whatever happened once upon a time to make progressive rock the whipping boy of critics and music hipsters, who the hell cares anymore. In the hands of a talent like Enigk's, the music comes across like a revelation. "Been Here Before" is packed with more musical ideas than most musicians realize are possible in a four-minute pop song--a series of fully-formed melodies and structural shifts that flow fluently and beautifully together. Lead singer of the pioneering but oddly controversial '90s band Sunny Day Real Estate, Enigk more recently headed up the Fire Theft (with two Sunny Day compadres); now he's got a solo CD coming out, his second. It's called World Waits and is scheduled for release later this month. "Been Here Before" is the second track on the record.