Tuesday, February 27, 2007

week of Feb. 25-Mar. 3

"23" - Blonde Redhead
A ravishing combination of guitar noise and melody. I'm a sucker for the combination of guitar noise and melody, particularly when the melody comes, as here, via a breathy, difficult to decipher soprano. Kazu Makino may as well be singing in Serbo-Croatian for all I can understand her; the only thing I'm picking up is that she's actually saying "two-three" rather than "twenty-three" (so, no, no tie-in to the Jim Carrey movie; just an unexplained coincidence! bwa-ha-ha!). And let me get more specific about the guitar noise, because it's a particular kind, the kind where the chords just seem to melt or bend continually into one another; the guitar is played (via a pedal of some kind?) more like a keyboard, with a sustained tone rather than in discrete strums of any kind. (Ah, note how the song is introduced by a few keyboard chords. Another unexplained coincidence?) I invite you to go back and listen to the entire song and try only to hear the guitar rather than the singer. It's almost mind-blowing. Blonde Redhead is an intriguing, international, NYC-based trio--Makino's from Japan; her bandmates are twin brothers Simone and Amedeo Pace, from Italy. "23" is the title track to Blonde Redhead's forthcoming CD, the band's seventh, scheduled for release in April on 4AD Records. The MP3 is available via Spinner, the AOL Indie Music Blog.

"Hard Line" - Jill Barber
Anything this sharp and snappy is pleasant enough to listen to from the get-go, but for me what renders it memorable is Barber's voice. Just a quarter step away from a twang, Barber may sound somewhat like Nanci Griffith, and maybe also somewhat like one of the McGarrigle sisters, or both of them, but the Halifax, Nova Scotia-based singer/songwriter is truly her own singular self. In a way, the snappy vibe is almost a distraction--I get caught up bobbing my head and tapping my toe and I don't really listen, much the way one gets caught up in daily living and forget, for days on end, simply, to be. And yet, of course, the paradox is one needs the form to give rise to the essence. So I wouldn't trade the snappy vibe here for anything. And I keep listening, keep trying to sink fully into this indescribably rich and playful and sweet and knowing voice, even while bobbing my head and tapping my toe to a song that acquires a deep and meaningful momentum underneath the peppiness as it unfolds. "Hard Line" comes from Barber's second CD For All Time, which was released last year in Canada on Outside Music. The MP3s is available via SXSW, one of the hundreds of new free and legal MP3s recently posted there for the 2007 festival.

"You! Me! Dancing!" - Los Campesinos!
This song's almost excruciatingly slow build is completely worth it when the payoff arrives: the itchy, catchy, joyful guitar riff that announces the true beginning of the song (well over one minute after it actually starts) and propels us giddily through the rest of it. There is, however, way more to "You! Me! Dancing!" than fun guitar work, and exclamation points; Los Campesinos! are a seven-piece band from Cardiff with a no-holds-barred instrumental sensibility--glockenspiel (that's the tinkly xylophone-like sound) and melody horn (a type of melodica) are both prominently featured among the free-spirited mix. And talk about free spirits: all seven members of the band have taken on the last name Campesinos! (with punctuation). Thickly accented lead vocalist Tom Campesinos! upends rock history with his unexpectedly endearing persona. In the past, a thick British accent has been all about punk posturing. Here it's just a guy who's not sure about his dancing ability. "You! Me! Dancing!" is a song from the band's self-released EP Hold On Now Youngster, which came out last year; the MP3 is via the BBC (and hm I have to investigate the BBC music sites more carefully; could be a good source of free and legal music). Signed to the British label Wichita Recordings towards the end of '06, the band's first label release, a seven-inch single called "We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives," came out this week in the U.K. The band, bless their seven hearts, is giving it away for free (as a .zip file) on their website.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

week of Feb. 18-24

"Hardcore Hornography" - Michelle Shocked
Michelle Shocked has the happy ability to sound completely unfettered and at home in a multiplicity of musical styles; you can now add straight-up New Orleans party music to her impressive list of genre performance credentials. And leave it to Shocked, a born activist and good-natured hell-raiser, to serve up this traditional good-time music with an added jigger of social awareness, hot sauce included: "That was one blow job you won't forget/ I ain't talkin' 'bout Katrina yet/ When that brass band starts to play/ Lay back and think of the U.S.A." Mardi Gras spirit infuses both melody and accompaniment; there is so much movement in the roisterous sound that you'd swear this must have been recorded while everyone was marching down St. Charles Avenue. Shocked plays here with the Newbirth Brass Band, trumpeter Troy Andrews, and a trombone player so authentic his name is simply Trombone Shorty. After flirting with mainstream folk-rock success back in the late '80s, Shocked has gone on to record an idiosyncratic string of albums, including an ambitious yet free-spirited trilogy (yes, three separate CDs) released last year on her own Mighty Sound record label. Her next CD is due out this summer; another trilogy appears to be in the works. "Hardcore Hornography" is offered up for Mardi Gras and to bring awareness to the ongoing plight of New Orleans, which remains largely abandoned by the federal government. The song is available for via her web site. Thanks to Bruce at Some Velvet Blog for the head's up.

"If That's the Case, Then I Don't Know" - the Electric Soft Parade
At once squonky and lithe, the latest effort from the British brother duo the Electric Soft Parade features anthemic chords and resounding beats, scuffed up fetchingly with fuzzy guitars and electronic blips and boops. Add Alex White's nicely vulnerable, Brit-poppy vocals and the whole manages to trump the sum of its parts--quite an accomplishment, as the parts themselves are pretty darned keen. A casual know-how informs both the song structure and the production; we get a masterly mix of rhythm and melody, guitar and drum, busy-ness and spaciousness, loud and soft. The loud-soft thing is especially cool, since the White boys (Tom's on drums) aren't offering a standard sort of "here's the soft part, here's the loud part" approach as much as utilizing the dynamic range of sound throughout, much as a first-rate black and white photograph will display the blackest black, the whitest white, and many gradations of grey in between. Another cool thing is the nifty coda: note at 4:02 how the song's drive shifts gears, the beat moving to swinging triplets, before the drums pretty much disintegrate, electronically. Or something like that. The song will be found on the band's next CD, No Need to Be Downhearted, their third full-length, scheduled for an April release on Better Looking Records. The MP3 is via the Better Looking site.

"Limbs" - Emma Pollock
A lovely piano refrain, composed of a careful series of arpeggios, runs through this pensive acoustic ballad. The song builds to it slowly--piano is part of the central sound from the outset, but the anchoring refrain is not heard until 1:12, and from there it accompanies the verse as it proceeds, falling away during the understated chorus. Overall, "Limbs" advances with a beguiling sort of relaxed meticulousness: not a guitar string, not a piano key is used without precision, and yet, perhaps because of Pollock's warm, and warmly recorded, voice, the effort seems easy-flowing, almost impromptu. The song seems to emerge from some mysterious, unflappable inner space; despite the strong melody, the effect is still somewhat trancelike. Emma Pollock, from Glasgow, was one of the founders of the well-regarded '90s band the Delgados, who were also responsible for founding the important independent record label Chemikal Underground. The band split amicably in 2005; Pollock has been signed to 4AD Records since. Her solo debut is forthcoming at some unspecified date. "Limbs" is so far a free-standing song. The MP3 is courtesy of SXSW.com, which has just unleashed its latest storehouse of free and legal MP3s, oriented now towards the 2007 festival happening next month in Austin.

Monday, February 12, 2007

week of Feb. 11-17

"Every One of Us" - Goldrush
We don't seem at a loss here in the still-young year for brilliant, glistening rock songs. Here's another, from the fine British band Goldrush. I love how the guitars add texture and tension to the song's galloping beat, both the wavery synth-y line that arches like a siren above and the waves of skittery feedback-like chords that fade in and out below. But maybe the best thing on display here is Robin Bennett's voice, which I find deeply affecting--a rubbery and slightly trembly tenor that at certain moments bring Ray Davies to mind (as, happily, do the melodies). And please listen to the words, which start out poignant and then turn transcendent, as the song makes that rare, exceptional link between the socio-political and the interpersonal. What begins as a moving statement on 21st-century alienation gains depth and spirit as the perspective angles in on a single human heart: "And if nothing is the way that it was/ Well there's one thing you can be sure of, because/ We are not the way that we were/ She will forget about you/ So forget about her." The title phrase proceeds to assume two competing, plaintive meanings. Nice nice work. "Every One of Us" is a song from the band's new CD, The Heart is the Place, which is set for release next week in the U.K. on Truck Records, an impressively robust label run by Bennett and his brother Joe, who is also in Goldrush. The CD has been out since mid-January on City Slang, the band's German label. No word yet on a U.S. release date. The MP3 is available via City Slang.

"City Morning Song" - Sarah Shannon
With its sunny, late-'60s/early-'70s swing and bright-eyed production, "City Morning Song" has seemingly little to do with the noise pop favored by Shannon as lead singer of the mid-'90s band Velocity Girl. And yet, what, to my ears, made that band's fuzzy, atmospheric music work so well was Shannon's airy voice floating above the busy, churning din. Remove the busy, churning din and here's her airy voice, set free in a vastly different musical landscape, in which we can now hear its attractive, meatier, Laura Nyro-ish-ness, especially in her lower register. Loving reverberations from a bygone era suffuse this snappy little number: the sly time-signature stutter that perks up the piano chord section introducing and anchoring the song; the piano itself, all guileless chords and happy rhythm; and, but of course, the trumpet--emerging in the background at 1:10, and you don't quite hear it, but hear it enough to make the short solo (1:42) smilingly inevitable. (Burt Bacharach, at least, would be smiling.) Shannon clearly feels at home here--City Morning Song is her second solo CD, and her previous effort, a self-titled album in 2002, found her likewise reveling predominantly in a '70s-flavored land of horns, keyboards, and evocative rhythms. City Morning Song was released last week on the Chicago-based Minty Fresh Records; the MP3 is via the Minty Fresh site.

"Advice for Young Mothers to Be" - the Veils
Based charmingly, if unexpectedly, upon classic doo-wop chords and melodies, this song has a mysterious appeal that I'm still trying to figure out. I like, to begin with, when songs are simultaneously accessible and weird. And yes, I have to say that the sound of a young indie band singing anything that sounds remotely like doo-wop is immediately odd--but, also, resoundingly familiar because of the time-honored musical setting. So, there: accessible and weird. And the accessible weirdnesses thereafter pile on, from Finn Andrews' quavery, croon-y baritone to the lilting, semi-reggae-ish shuffle this comes wrapped in to the inscrutable lyrics and indirect Smiths-like vibe--I can't put my finger on that one precisely because Andrews doesn't really sound like Morrissey but there's something in, maybe, his delivery that does the trick: try when he sings "The friends who care still call you on the phone" (1:18) or the words in the chorus "Your advice for young mothers to be/ Will never find the words, darling believe me" and see if you can't hear it. "Advice for Young Mothers to Be" is from the Veils' second CD, Nux Vomica, which was released in the U.K. last fall on Rough Trade Records, and is scheduled for a U.S. release in April on Great Society Records. Andrews, by the way, is son of Barry Andrews, once of XTC and later of Shriekback. Based in New Zealand, the Veils are now a trio; they were a quartet on their first CD, The Runaway Found (2004), and everyone but Andrews from that incarnation is gone.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The midwinter blowout continues at the Prize Closet, where contribution gifts are now available for $9 and $12. Thanks to the hale and hearty crew who've contributed! See what it's all about here.


week of Feb. 4-10

"Thank God for the Evening News" - Fulton Lights
Satisfyingly moody and intriguingly entitled, "Thank God for the Evening News" unfolds with vivid style over an unhurried beat and minimal chord changes. Now then, I like chord changes and pretty much thought I required a good number of them in a song; and yet here's one with maybe two chords in it and I'm quickly and continually engaged. Well. How can this be? Certainly the beat beguiles, combining an electronica-like ambiance--including the subtlest sort of clanky, scratchy noises and thin, smashy drums--with organic sounds, including in particular a nice assortment of strings, employed with great color as the song progresses. Could it be that Andrew Spencer Goldman, the driving force behind Fulton Lights, uses the texture of the beat in lieu of chord changes, as its own sort of structure and substance? It's a theory. What he also has going for him is a wavery tenor, and a billowy melody for it to sing--moving and rising and sinking enough to distract you from the single-minded chord structure. The lyrics, at once dreamlike and caustic, add to the stylish desolation, like this recurrent series of lines: "I've seen blurry vision/I've seen slow explanations/I've seen false advertising/And wholesale degradation." "Thank God for the Evening News" is a track off the debut Fulton Lights CD, self-titled, which is due out next month as a joint release on Goldman's own Android Eats Records and Catbird Records, a label associated with the estimable blog The Catbirdseat. The MP3 is via the Fulton Lights site.

"Eye for an Eye" - Telograph
Here's a band from Washington, D.C. with a song that sounds like an intriguing cross between, oh, maybe Echo and the Bunnymen and early R.E.M. Singer Andy Boliek definitely has something of Ian McCulloch's deep-throated, romantic baritone, while the glistening guitar lines and soaring refrains bring you back to the early '80s in a number of ineffable ways. Even so, I don't hear this as simply a throwback or retread; there's something crisp and present in the sound. I like the hunger conveyed by Boliek's yearning, repeated return to the E-flat and D notes near the top of his range (for instance, as he sings "border" at 1:02), and love how the bittersweet atmosphere is enhanced by an extended melody that takes us, with a tender sort of briskness, through a lovely series of chords (no shortage of modulation this time!) that to my ears give the song both lift and depth--listen, for instance, from 1:24 to 1:54. "Eye for an Eye" is one of five songs on Telograph's debut EP, Little Bits of Plastic, which the band released on January 1. The MP3 is via the band's site.

"I'm a Broken Heart" - The Bird and the Bee
Awash in an echoey, vaguely '60s-like aural landscape, "I'm a Broken Heart" reveals itself to be brand new at its core, a combination of electro-retro sounds that we've never quite heard before. Inara George sings the coy melodies with a beautiful airy tone, while keyboardist/producer Greg Kurskin surrounds her with a warm but quirky mix of jazzy sounds, the line between electronic and organic completely obscured. On their MySpace page, the duo describes their music as "a futuristic 1960's American film set in Brazil." While this inspired pronouncement doesn't quite nail this particular song's sound, an alternative self-description, "psychedelic Burt Bacharach," is right on target: if you have doubts, check out the extended horn work, from 2:50 to 3:19, particularly the staccato-y melodrama starting at 3:06. That's Burt on some sort of drug, all right. George by the way is daughter of legendary Little Feat leader Lowell George, who died back in 1979 when she was five; Jackson Browne is her godfather, and sang on her first solo CD, All Rise, which came out early in 2005. "I'm a Broken Heart" is from the debut CD for the Bird and the Bee, which was released, interestingly, on Blue Note Records (normally a jazz label). The MP3 is via the fine folks at betterPropaganda.