Monday, December 18, 2006

This is the last week you can put your name in for the Lucinda Williams giveaway in progress right now on the Fingertips Contests page. Once more, with feeling: I've got two copies of the newly re-released, two-disc Car Wheels On A Gravel Road to give away for nothing at all but the time it takes to send an email. Two winners will be selected at random; deadline for entry is December 24. Details here.

Note that the Fingertips home office will shut down (mostly) between December 23 and January 1. (The contest winner, however, will be contacted during that week.) The next edition of "This Week's Finds" will appear on Tuesday January 2. Wishing everyone in the meantime the happiest of holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice, New Year's Day, and then some: all holidays are for celebrating); see you in '07....

week of Dec. 17-23

"Grain of Salt" - the Morning Benders
A completely endearing blend of do-it-yourself-ish indie rock and pure pop know-how. Let me start, for a change, at the end: the fact that this thing closes out with a rave-up guitar solo--and if I better knew my guitar sounds I could tell you what kind of guitar it is; it's a distinctive and familiar one, to be sure, with a deep feel of rock history about it--says a lot about the Morning Benders' impressive musical instincts. It's nothing I'd've expected and yet now of course it sounds perfectly inevitable, particularly following the coda-like extension the song takes before the solo kicks in. From beginning to end, in fact, "Grain of Salt" oozes charm and craft in equal measure, from the shuffly bashings of drummer Julian Harmon (I feel as if I just about see his elbows flying as he pounds away on the two and four beats) to the effortlessly merry melody, sung with easygoing grace by Chris Chu, and the happy happy chord progressions that enliven it. With repeated listens, I grow more and more impressed with the ability of this Berkeley, Calif.-based foursome to sound so simultaneously spontaneous and durable--a very friendly combination. "Grain of Salt" comes from the band's debut EP Loose Change, which was self-released earlier this year, sold out, then re-released in September (with one extra song) on Portia Records. The MP3 is via the band's site.

"The Vague Angels of Vagary" - Vague Angels
Even though this came out in March and has nothing whatever to do with Christmas or the holiday season of any kind, I like featuring a song by a band named Vague Angels this week. It seems like all we can hope for these days, and maybe all we actually need. And never mind any of that: this free-flowing, structure-free song is itself extraordinarily cool. Rolling firmly to a strong yet elusive train-like rhythm, "The Vague Angels of Vagary" seems, well, vaguely to be about trains, and journeys, and searches. NYC-based singer/songwriter/novelist Chris Leo (brother of Ted) speak-sings the odd but engaging lyrics like Lou Reed with a higher voice and no leather jacket; he seems more bemused by what he sees that pissed off. What hooks me with this one: the energetic, good-natured, descending guitar riff that keeps the song afloat--relentlessly it climbs back to its apex and spills yet again downward while Leo goes on about train track tundras and the WPA and the MTA. "The Vague Angels of Vagary" is from the CD Let's Duke It Out At Kilkenny Katz' (yes there's that weird floating apostrophe in the title), released earlier in the year by Pretty Activity. The MP3 is via the Pretty Activity site; thanks to the Deli for the head's up.

"All I Ever Get For Christmas Is Blue" - Over the Rhine
This year's directly related holiday tune comes from longtime Fingertips faves Over the Rhine. Karin Bergquist is in fine, bittersweet form while partner Linford Detweiler lays down crystalline piano lines with unearthly deftness. This song comes from Over the Rhine's new Christmas CD, featuring original Christmas songs, entitled Snow Angels. The instantly intimate and enveloping sound here is no accident; Detweiler himself has written, "We hope that Snow Angels is a record that becomes part of the landscape for small gatherings of people who love each other." If justice is served, it will be, but then again the world as we are living in it is not is not known, alas, for great justice at a macro level. We are left to do what we can individually, and in small groups. Do yourself, at least, the favor of checking this song out--and the one other MP3 available from this CD, "Darlin' (Christmas is Comin')"--and then buying the CD if you like the vibe and think maybe an unabashed album of new Christmas songs is its own sort of wonderful thing (and hey I think so and don't even celebrate the holiday myself!). These guys have developed a deep, rich, and very personal sound over the years that is a wonder to behold and deserves a wider audience than they have thus far reached. If you'd like to hear more be sure to check out the Over the Rhine entry in the Select Artist Guide for pointers to other free and legal MP3s of theirs.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Don't miss the Lucinda Williams giveaway in progress right now at the brand new Fingertips Contests page: I've got two copies of the newly re-released, two-disc Car Wheels On A Gravel Road to give away for nothing at all but the time it takes to send an email. Two winners will be selected at random; deadline for entry is December 24. Details here.

And no you didn't imagine it--there was no podcast uploaded for the week of Dec. 3-9. Turned out to be one of those weeks. The Fingertips podcast will return by week's end, featuring the picks for the current week of Dec. 10-16. Thanks for your patience!

week of Dec. 10-16

"Sonic Boom" - Andy Partridge
As buoyant, crisp, and driven as any number of great XTC songs Partridge wrote in his years as that seminal British band's principal singer and songwriter. And why shouldn't it be? This was one of more than 100 songs Partridge had accumulated over a couple of decades that never made it to an XTC album for a variety of reasons. They've come to the light of day, along with many alternate recordings of songs XTC did release, on the eight so-called Fuzzy Warbles CDs Partridge has released over the last three years or so. The series has been gathered this fall into one spiffily-designed boxed set (The Fuzzy Warbles Collector Album) that is a crazy overload of songwriting goodness for XTC devotees. From disc number seven, "Sonic Boom" is an ode to loud music--in particular to the role an electric guitar can play in the redemption of a listless teenager--that is not itself, cleverly, a particularly raucous song. (After all, extolling the virtues of loud music in a really loud song would not speak to the unconverted.) Instead we get cheerful, crunchy pop with a really great guitar sound. For me, the siren-like riffs that ring from the intro are the key to the song's presence and depth. Listen in particular to the second verse, beginning around 0:55, and how the guitar at that point remains in that higher register to puncutate the lyrics with semi-dissonant squawks. And then, wow, the concise guitar solo, from 1:37 to 1:55, is a brilliant bit of controlled chaos that might pass you right by if you don't pay close attention. As with the vast majority of the songs on all the Fuzzy Warbles CD, the irrepressible Partridge does all the singing and playing.

Fingertips Exclusive MP3!: The Fuzzy Warbles collection is packed with cool songs, so in the spirit of artistic overflow represented therein, I'm offering this week a second Andy Partridge song as special bonus MP3--the delightful "I Don't Want To Be Here." Thanks to Toolshed, Steve Young, and Andy Partridge for this exclusive free and legal download. The link will be available for three weeks only. Enjoy!

"Rehab" - Amy Winehouse
I find three things about this song irresistible. First, the glistening retro sound: from the snazzy horn charts and string flourishes to the big drum beats and Winehouse's sharp, spacious, soulful vocal, everything blends to deliver a loving '60s sheen that manages at the same time to sound current and new rather than merely nostalgic. Second, that cockeyed refrain in the chorus--the way she drags her recalcitrant "no, no, no" (alternately: "go, go, go") just a bit off the beat is nutty and beguiling. I don't know why. The third wonderful thing is how Winehouse--who is quite the notorious (and loose-lipped) carouser over there in the U.K.--manages to turn a song about going through an alcohol recovery program (or, rather, not) into an almost gospel-like stomper. There's something poignant in the effort, despite the swagger in Winehouse's voice. "Rehab" is the opening track off Back to Black, the young singer/songwriter's second CD. Her first album, Frank, came out in 2003 when she was just 20. That one was a jazz-inflected effort that she has since been quoted as saying is an album she never liked. Her new one is shot through with Phil Spector-meets-Motown girl-group sounds from the early '60s; if "Rehab" is any indication, Winehouse is a well-suited practitioner of that distinctive musical vocabulary. Released on Island Records in the U.K. in October, Back to Black is scheduled for a March release here in the States, on Universal.

"Reflecting Light" - Sam Phillips
Sam Phillips is a musical hero of mine; few if any singer/songwriters I've encountered can match her ability to capture poetic insights, sometimes bordering on the genuinely mystical, within the everyday, agreeable realm of the three-minute pop song. Her Beatlesque 1994 masterpiece, Martinis & Bikinis, was a triumph of songwriting and production; her two CDs (so far) of the 21st century have found her working in a starker, quieter setting, with acoustic instruments--the songs on both Fan Dance (2001) and A Boot and a Shoe (2004) often sound as if they were laid down in one room, in one take. A sweet, melancholy waltz from the latter CD, "Reflecting Light" shines with sad spirit and forlorn dignity; there's a '20s-like brio to the string arrangement, while hard-earned enlightenment runs through its lyrical veins: "Give up the ground under your feet/Hold onto nothing for good/Turn and run at the mean dogs chasing you/Stand alone and misunderstood." Phillips' association with the TV show Gilmore Girls--she wrote the show's original score and her songs have been prominently featured--has given this song a second life and a slew of fans she would have otherwise never reached. Her next CD, apparently to be called Don't Do Anything, will be released some time in 2007. And not a moment too soon.

Monday, December 04, 2006

week of Dec. 3-9

"Angelo" - Megan Palmer
Smart piano-based pop that puts me in the mind of Jonatha Brooke both for its savvy songwriting--this thing has both bounce and venom--and for Palmer's vocal style; she sings with something of Brooke's timbre and sometimes crack-voiced phrasing, without at all sounding like a knock-off. Palmer is a violinist, of all things, and her instrument adds a nice depth to the unfolding of the song--listen for instance to its role in the instrumental part of the bridge that begins at 1:29. The violin is typically an ensemble instrument, whether playing in classical, country, or (occasionally) rock, and it strikes me that violinists may therefore have a leg up when it comes to knowing how to blend instruments into a cohesive whole. In any case, Palmer does a great job of that here, using the piano, violin, electric guitar, and percussion with great aplomb. One nice example is how the song emerges from the bridge at around 2:10: first a chime plays a lazy three-note melody (I kept thinking the doorbell was ringing when I initially heard that), out of which the violin emerges, slurring in with an answering couple of notes, underneath which the guitar then plays its own little dancey variation. It's a small but indicative moment in a song that's both immediately appealing and satisfyingly substantive. "Angelo" is a song from Palmer's debut CD, Forget Me Not, which was released this summer on tiny Sunken Treasure Records. The MP3 is available via her site.

"Red Gold" - A Passing Feeling
This is one of those "you had me at the intro" songs: the ringing chords, hinting at but not quite utilizing dissonance and/or feedback, and so carefully placed in that universally appealing 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3 pattern--but actually no, they extend past the "obvious" resolution with chord number seven of the progression and manage to re-resolve with an additional, eighth chord. This NYC-based quartet will hang the entire song upon this series of nicely articulated chords and it works because of what it sounds like when Brian Miltenberg starts spitting out the words: it sounds like his life depends upon every syllable. And I do mean spitting: he rivals Joe Strummer as the rock vocalist who for me most easily conjures visions of sweat and saliva hitting the microphone with each lyrical declaration. (This is a compliment by the way.) A Passing Feeling had a Fingertips Top 10 song earlier this year with "Book of Matches," from their debut EP. Now they have a debut full-length CD called We Might Not Sleep At All This Year, which was released in November on 75 or Less Records. That's where you'll find "Red Gold"; the MP3 is up on the 75 or Less site.

"Roselin" - Maia Hirasawa
We're back to the piano but this one is so charming and exquisite I needed to put it in the mix this week, figuring that separating the two songs with that blast of melodic indie-punk will kind of cleanse your palette. And in any case I can surely use the beauty right here and now, breathing it into me like a supple, restorative wine. "Roselin" starts daintily enough, heading almost but not quite towards preciousness, but right away with a great melodic sensibility. And I'll tell you where it just slays me--mainlining the beauty part right here--is in the chorus, which has as winsome and plaintive a melody as I've heard in a long time: notes that sound ancient and familiar and fresh and coy; as a bonus (for me, anyway) it's got a touch of early Jane Siberry about it, adding to the depth and charm. When she sings "Don't know what I should do/What I should get"--ahhh. Just that: ahhhh (more h's are useful). She even sings the "ahhh" for us right at that point: how convenient. Maia Hirasawa is a half-Swedish, half-Japanese musician who sings in English in Stockholm with an unplaceable accent; "Roselin" is from her self-released EP entitled My New Friend, which came out back in April (and is now sold out). The MP3 is available via the really impressive, information-packed blog It's a Trap, which is devoted to Scandanavian music. Thanks to Avi over there for permission to link, and thanks too to Hedvika at the great Getecho blog for the original lead. Hirasawa by the way was recently since signed to the Stockholm-based Razzia Records and will have a full-length debut available in March 2007.