Monday, January 29, 2007

week of Jan. 28-Feb. 3

"In Transit" - Albert Hammond, Jr.
With a name that sounds surely like he must be some rough-and-tumble Delta bluesman, Hammond is, rather, simply the guitarist in the Strokes--oh, and also the son of the guy who co-wrote the '70s hits "It Never Rains in Southern California" and "The Air That I Breathe." Neither of those connections, however, set the stage for this chimey, brightly-paced, instantly likeable song. While the sharp guitar lines are reminiscent of something you'd hear from the Strokes, the vibe is lighter, airier, and poppier. Hammond betrays an unexpected affinity for ELO (there are moments when his voice in fact sounds eerily like Jeff Lynne's), complete with that old band's penchant for sky- and space-oriented sounds and imagery. Listen here how the melody in the verse seems literally to float in space above the double-time background; then in the chorus, the idea of floating in space is accentuated by those Star Trek synthesizers. (Hammond sings about how he "went too far" just as the background implies "where no man has gone before": cute.) "In Transit" is the lead track from Yours To Keep--the first solo album released by any member of the Strokes. The CD was released back in October in the U.K. (where the band have always been huge); the U.S. release is slated for March, on New Line Records. The MP3 comes from the New Line site, via Filter.

"Chemicals for Criminals" - Manic
After a short atmospheric recording studio noodle, this one leaps out of the speakers with remarkable assurance for a new band. We get an incisive melody, a strong, sly beat, and ringing guitars shot through with a hint of dissonance, all held together by singer Paul Gross's full-throttled delivery that, like the song itself, manages to combine indie spunk with the sort of blazing poise one expects from an arena band. This is one of those unusual songs where the hook comes at you in the first line of the verse: that melody is the centerpiece of the song, and as often as it's repeated, it manages to continually engage me. Maybe it's the octave harmonies (gotta love those octave harmonies); maybe it's the fact that it's based on the same notes as "Whistle While You Work." "Chemicals for Criminals" is a song off this L.A. foursome's debut release, Floor Boards, a five-song EP on Suretone Records that came out last week. The MP3 is via Suretone. As a matter of fact, right now Suretone is offering the entire EP for free on its site; follow this link and it's yours, after you unzip it.

"Girl in a Tree" - the Young Republic
Back we go to the Young Republic, and back we go to that resonant two-chord progression I wrote about a few weeks ago. This time it's supported with this marvelous Boston band's vivid and inventive instrumental sensibility: we get a variety of strings, we get a flute, and I think a trumpet, and maybe a tambourine and a mandolin? The eight members of the Young Republic are classically trained and obviously play and think like a true ensemble, but instead of being subsumed by an actual orchestra (in which you don't hear, for example, a single violin as often as "violins"--a different sound), they play in a setting in which each voice can be heard distinctly. The perky way the two central chords are presented in the intro, on a sprightly variety of dueling stringed instruments, is but one example. And let not the sophisticated musicianship allow us to lose sight of another of the band's primary assets, which is singer/songwriter/rhythm guitarist Julian Saporiti, whose textured ache of a voice recalls an earthier version of Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch. "Girl in a Tree" is a song from the band's most recent release, YR7, which yup is their seventh release; the MP3 is via the band's site. And I would be remiss if I didn't point out that the Young Republic is one of the 13 bands featured on the Fingertips: Unwebbed CD, which is available currently for a $12 donation.

Monday, January 22, 2007

This is the last week you can enter the current Fingertips contest, the prize this time being a 12-inch vinyl copy of Be Your Own Pet's debut album (Be Your Own Pet). Turntable not included. Deadline is January 25; all the details are here. And have you heard about the Prize Closet blowout? Gifts for cheap! Those details are here

week of Jan. 21-27

"Down in the Valley" - the Broken West
Big Star meets Wilco; irresistibility ensues. With its muscular tom-tom beat, feedbacky guitar, sloppy-tight harmonies, and organ solo, "Down in the Valley" walks that great great line between power pop and garage rock--a line walkable only by bands that really know what they're doing. As a matter of fact, although the year is young, I think I'm going to be hard-pressed to find in 2007 another chorus as infectious as this one. Two things in particular make it work so well. First, the set-up: after the verse (starting at 0:38) we get a two-line lead-in before the chorus, and the chords that finally usher us in are both perfect (a classic series of resolving steps) and imperfect (they're hardly actually there; rather they are largely implied). This is why, I think, we're left in such a delicious state of anticipation at 0:46, waiting for the chorus to give us the resolution we crave. (It does.) Second, the harmonies, and specifically the harmony in the seoncd line of the chorus, where the melody repeats but the vocal harmonies, has shifted. What I'm talking about: compare the sound of the harmonies on the word "sundown" (0:50-51) (the voices are singing the same note) to the harmonies on the words "no one" (0:57-59)--here the backing vocal splits off, going up a whole step while the melody goes down a third and we get that mysterious fourth interval for a note and there, that does it for me. Perhaps for you too, now that I mention it? The Broken West is a young quintet from Los Angeles who sound as broken in and familiar as an old pair of slippers. "Down in the Valley" is from the band's disarmingly titled debut CD, I Can't Go On, I'll Go On, to be released tomorrow on the excellent Merge label.

"Carouselle" - Nicole Atkins
Attentive Fingertips visitors may remember Atkins from the delightful "Skywriters," a song from her self-released debut CD that spent a few months on the Fingertips Top 10 late in '05. Shortly thereafter, she was snapped up by none other than Columbia Records, which will release her next full-length CD this spring. In the meantime, an EP quietly emerged at the tail end of '06 called Bleeding Diamonds, and from it, "Carouselle": a charming amalgam of Kurt Weill and, oh, maybe Jenny Lewis? (Aha: an appropriate confluence, given Weill's obsession with the name Jenny!) Alternating between a minor key, cabaret-ish piano vamp in the verse and a sweet, swinging Brill Building-y chorus, the song offers a bittersweet, idiosyncratic, smartly-crafted tribute to a demolished seaside amusement park ride. Atkins so sneakily blends typically discrete musical styles that you have to pay close attention to realize she's up to something unusual. While you're paying close attention, I urge you to listen as well to the depth of character in her voice; if you don't concentrate, she may sound simply like another breezy-voiced flavor of the month, but no no no, she's a keeper, with that rich, unexpected, and beautifully controlled vibrato and a simmering sense of passion kept just below the surface. I dare you to listen to how she sings the word "fantastic" (1:34) and not find your heart skipping a beat; or maybe you'll just fall in love on the spot, as perhaps I have. The eagerly-awaited Columbia full-length does not yet have a release date.

"To Live and Die in the Airport Lounge" - My Teenage Stride
Buoyed by the same brand of upbeat moodiness that characterized many an old Smiths song, "To Live and Die in the Airport Lounge" is a sparkly bit of catchy but inscrutable guitar pop from the Brooklyn-based one-time one-man-band My Teenage Stride. Jedediah Smith is the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who launched the band, by himself, a few years ago; for a good part of the new CD, however, he assembled a stable foursome, and will perform live with them now as well. While I cannot personally vouch for the claim that Smith is "a living compendium of virtually every pop style that has existed from 1956 through the present," as per his PR material, who am I to argue? He's apparently written more than 500 songs in his still-young life, and I've only heard four of them. I will say that Smith's music does exude an easy-going expertise; check out how nicely he blends the two (maybe three?) guitar sounds that drive the piece, and check out too his dexterous vocal layering--I really like how his extensive use of same-note harmony vocals serves to render all the more glowing the harmonies that subsequently differentiate. "To Live and Die in the Airport Lounge" is a song off Ears Like Golden Bats, the new My Teenage Stride CD, slated for a February release on London-based Becalmed Records.

Monday, January 15, 2007

A new Fingertips contest is up and running, this one of particular interest to you vinyl junkies out there. I have one copy of Be Your Own Pet's debut album (Be Your Own Pet) in a spiffy, unopened 12-inch vinyl package. Complete with two sides and everything. Details here.

week of Jan. 14-20

"Sorry" - Youth Group
Crisp, glistening music that breaks no particular ground and yet makes me happy in a bittersweet sort of way and compels me to go back and listen again. This one launches with a crystalline guitar line, seven precise notes twice in a row, and check out the "off" interval on the fourth note in the second set--an ever-so-slightly jarring but actually amenable change that right away suggests a well-crafted song. I like too the subtle contrast between the song's brisk pace and singer Toby Martin's sweet and somewhat languorous delivery. Those who remember the British band James may hear some pleasing resonances here; this song boasts the soaring yet fleet-footed touch of that band's best work. I've said it before and no doubt I'll say it again: "good" is a far more important value than "new" when it comes to judging music; criticism based largely upon something not being "new" or "different" enough is almost always facile and suspect, in my opinion. Youth Group is a quartet from Sydney, Australia; "Sorry" is from the band's new CD, its third, entitled Casino Twilight Dogs, which is scheduled for release in the U.S. next week on Anti Records. The MP3 is via the Anti site.

"Barracuda" - Miho Hatori
Born in Tokyo, transplanted to Manhattan in the '90s, Miho Hatori became known later in the decade as the singer in the experimental duo Cibo Matto, which combined facets of trip-hop, rock, and Latin music in a vibrant multicultural mélange. Now she's got a solo CD, called Ecdysis, on which she emerges as a frisky-quirky eccentrically accented 21st-century musician with maybe even more trans-global chops than the reigning queen of frisky-quirky eccentrically accented 21st-century musicianhood, Björk. While happy enough around beats and programming, Hatori likewise employs on her CD a globetrotting battery of esoteric organic instruments--repique, zabumba, timbau, and Indian ankle bells among them--that lend an earthy sincerity to the sound. "Barracuda" in particular is propelled by an exotic drumbeat, a slinky, Latin-esque keyboard riff, and a stuttery monkey-call-like counter rhythm. Head full of transcultural metaphysics (she counts Joseph Campbell as a major influence), Hatori writes both concretely and obliquely, which is a fetching combination: I sense the real world very much around her, even as I can't make heads or tails of what she's talking about most of the time. The culiminating section in which she sings multilayered Portuguese (I think?) lyrics against that jungly backbeat, plus some sort of accordion, (starting around 2:20) is exuberant fun. Ecdysis was released on Rykodisc in October; the MP3 is via Toolshed, a music promotion company.

"Deadringer Deadringer" - the Book of Daniel
I have something of a soft spot for singers who don't have pretty voices who sing pretty melodies, from Bob Dylan and Tom Waits to Shane McGowan and Peter Garrett and then some. Sounds like Gothenburg's Daniel Gustaffson is a budding member of the group; older brother of Boy Omega's Martin Henrik Gustaffson (who also plays in Book of Daniel), Daniel G., leading his loosey-goosey, eight-person ensemble, doesn't grumble like Waits or go gruffly off-pitch like McGowan but his voice sounds mostly like he thinks he's still talking rather than singing--which makes the melodic charm of this swingy, homespun tune all the more charming, to me. There's something of Moondance-era Van Morrison in the air here, filtered through a rollicking Swedish-pop sensibility. When the band joins in for a bit of call and response (around :43), it's hard not to smile. Later on, the extended trumpet solo (starting at 2:51) is just plain cool. "Deadringer Deadringer" is from the Book of Daniel's debut full-length CD, Songs for the Locust King, which was released late in November on Riptide Recordings in Germany, and then again in late December (I think; the precise date is oddly difficult to discern) on the Malmö-based Black Star Foundation label. The MP3 is available via Riptide.

Another year, another carrot, as Bugs Bunny used to say. Is it time again for your annual, exremely modest contribution? Or time, perhaps, to contribute for the first time? As always, $5 or $10 donations are entirely welcome, while larger donations give you an opportunity to take a gift from the Prize Closet (have you checked out the new arrivals?). Click here to get the transaction underway, courtesy of Amazon.

Monday, January 08, 2007

week of Jan. 7-13

"Black Mirror" - the Arcade Fire
Only a couple of times every half-generation or so are rock fans treated to music from a band so sure and firm and complete that they sound only like themselves even as each song introduces new aspects of their sound. After just one CD--2004's Funeral--the Arcade Fire appeared to be one of these bands. This song, from their much-anticipated second release, Neon Bible, suggests this Montreal septet is the real thing indeed. Over an ominous opening rumble, acoustic guitars strum a couple of insistent, unresolved chords and I'm immediately intrigued. Win Butler then lends his distinctive warble to a solid, descending melody as a vague, indescribable sound roils around him and then, check it out: a piano, somewhat distantly, pounds out four ascending (again unresolved) notes, withdraws, returning to underpin the abbreviated chorus (just the words "black mirror" repeated). See, one of the things this band does so well--and uniquely, I think--is use their instruments orchestrally, employing recurring themes as motifs that are not simply the melody the singer is singing. Another asset on display is how Arcade Fire songs can effortlessly spin out in unanticipated directions. Listen, for instance, to the dramatic turn taken at 1:20--Butler's voice leaps up into that "I may be coming unhinged" range while dynamic chords forge into surprising new territory before linking at 1:37 back to the chorus (1-2-3-4! goes the piano). Don't miss another turn at 2:17, when Butler sings an emphatic French phrase over an increasingly frenetic but still indescribable musical background; and then, ahh!, the offhandedly marvelous theme the strings play from 3:12 (announced by that great dissonant trill at 3:11), leading the song back into the ominous rumble we started with. Neon Bible is due out in early March on Merge Records; the MP3 is available in a hidden sort of way via the band's mysterious site.

"Tickle My Spine" - Looker
Punchy, uncomplicated punk-pop with an undercurrent of something richer and inscrutably appealing. I like how the head-knocking rhythm of the verse alternates with a just slightly swingier feel, almost like a sped-up Supremes song, in the chorus. Singer/guitarist Boshra Alsaadi has a voice at once higher and musically stronger than one usually hears from a woman heading a hard-rocking unit like this one. Having fellow guitarist (and band co-founder) Nicole Greco on backing vocals adds a pleasing richness to the brisk, careening vibe. In fact, three of the band's four members are women (only the drummer is male), which messes up music writers seeking to put them in either the well-worn "girl-band" box (Go-Gos, Donnas, etc.) or the "woman singer/male band" box (Blondie, Garbage, etc.). Haven't seen anyone put them in the Elastica box but there at least was one other band with three women and one man, at least for some of its life, for what it's worth. "Tickle My Spine" is a song dating back to Looker's 2004 EP, On the Pull; after hitting the studio in 2006 to record some demos with none other than Richard Gottehrer (who produced the debut CDs for both Blondie and the Go-Gos), Looker is set to release its first full-length CD, Born Too Late, later this week. The MP3 is available via the band's site. Thanks to the Deli for the lead.

"And Now the Day is Done" - Ron Sexsmith
One of the most talented singer/songwriters of his generation, Ron Sexsmith writes wondrous, lasting songs with apparent ease, but without (yet?) a lot of widespread recognition outside of his native Canada. I've stopped trying to figure out how he can keep writing so many good songs without resorting to studio trickery or drastic stylistic alteration, but ten albums into his recording career he seems endlessly able to amuse himself with a guitar, a cache of sturdy chords, and a direct vocabulary of plain words delivering heartfelt messages. Clearly his singing voice serves him well, to begin with--that achy, rounded tenor of his, as warm and tremulous as Tim Hardin's or Jeff Buckley's but with a touch of someone else entirely, like maybe Jackson Browne or, more obliquely, Elvis Costello. And even as his songs have been produced in various ways, often in a band setting, sometimes with flourishes like horn charts or strings, what remains front and center are his dual core talents as singer and songwriter. The elegiac "And Now the Day is Done" is Sexsmith at his quietest and prettiest, but listen carefully to discern how beautifully produced it is--what sounds like a stark guitar and voice number is given great depth and warmth by subtle embellishments deep down in the mix, not to mention Sexsmith's deft touch as a guitarist (check out that glistening hammer-on at 2:48). "And Now the Day is Done" is the final song on his CD Time Being, which was released back in May in Canada, finally to be coming out in the U.S. tomorrow on Ironworks Music, an independent label co-owned by Kiefer Sutherland (really) and Jude Cole. The new CD was produced by Mitchell Froom, who had his hand on the knobs for Sexsmith's marvelous first three CDs; among the musicians playing on the album are Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher, from Elvis Costello's band the Impostors. The MP3 is available via Salon.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

week of Dec. 31-Jan. 6

"Here's Your Future" - the Thermals
Let's hit the ground running here in '07, shall we? Bracing and uncompromising, "Here's Your Future" is a two-and-a-half-minute blast of literate, crafty 21st-century punk rock from a band that walks the walk. (The Thermals made news early last year for turning down a $50,000 request from Hummer to use a song of theirs in a commercial.) Fueled by a fast five-chord guitar riff, "Here's Your Future" is both bleak and poignant; the song offers only the comfort (if you can call it that) of standing up and facing uncomfortable facts in a world incapable of saving itself, a world that looks again and again for salvation in exactly the wrong place (note opening chord from the church organ). Singer/guitarist Hutch Harris pummels his guitars and sings without quite singing while bassist Kathy Foster plays one-woman rhythm section--the band had lost its original drummer late last year so that's Foster bashing away on the drums as well. (Since recording, they've enlisted a new drummer and are back to being a trio.) From Portland, Oregon, the Thermals have been at it since 2002; "Here's Your Future" is the lead track from The Body, The Blood, The Machine (Sub Pop), the band's third CD. While not necessarily a concept album, this one features songs that apparently envision the U.S. as being governed by Christian fascists. Not sure how much envisioning that took. The MP3 is available via the Sub Pop site.

"Guitar Swing" - the Winks
At the core of this peculiar but compelling song is the primordially affecting two-chord progression that works magic just about wherever it goes: this is the one where a major tonic chord alternates with the minor mediant chord--that's the I and the iii, as they say in music theory land. In "Guitar Swing," the chords underpin a cryptic song with an insistent beat and the unusual if not unique instrumental combination of cello and mandolin. In a wavery tenor that sounds, somehow, both heartbroken and indifferent, singer/mandolinist Todd MacDonald intersperses the largely impenetrable lyrics with Delphic pronouncements--"Sleepers know the facts"; "Tuxedos are only as strong as your heart"--that engage and mystify simultaneously. Meanwhile, bandmate Tyr Jami uses her cello both as rhythmic texture and melodic color, and sings a bit too, with a smiley-er tone than her partner. Don't miss the "wa-wa" duet section, beginning at 2:23, during which MacDonald and Jami explore the I-iii alternation with earnest whimsy. The Winks are a Montreal-based duo that use a rotating cast of 13 musicians to fill in as needed. "Guitar Swing" is a track off the band's Birthday Party CD, which was released on Ache Records in November. Birthday Party is the band's second full-length, widely released CD, but their eighth CD in all (the first five were limited-edition CD-Rs; they've also done a split with their side-project, Tights). The MP3 is via the Ache site.

"Hollywood" - Eastern Conference Champions
Any band combining gorgeous melody with ghostly electronics is going to bring Radiohead to mind at this point, and the suburban Philadelphia band Eastern Conference Champions certainly does that here. I will note--as I have in the past--that it is no sin for one band to remind us of another; I always believe a good song is a good song. "Hollywood" is a very good song indeed, its delicate, soaring melody telling an elusive tale of loss and disappointment, accompanied only by percussion and synths and maybe some samples. I like how the song feels expressive and expansive and even organic without any guitar in the mix. Maybe it has something to do with the sleighbells. Lead singer Josh Ostrander has a thin, high voice, not unlike Thom Yorke's, that sometimes crackles with syllable shifts; he is joined here on backing vocals by Maura Davis of the group Ambulette, a nice touch that accentuates the lullaby-like nature of the song (as do those sleighbells) while creating a little distance from the Radiohead-ish vibe. If you'd like to hear the band in a tenser, more driving mode, check out, additionally, the song "Nice Clean Shirt." Both songs can be found on ECC's debut EP, The Southampton Collection, was released on Retone Records back in March. The band was signed shortly thereafter to Suretone Records, but what a difference two letters make--Suretone is an offshoot of Interscope Records, part of the Geffen family. ECC's next full-length will be out on Suretone this spring.