Monday, March 26, 2007

week of Mar. 25-31

"I Knew" - 22-Pistepirkko
Memorably described once as "nothing you've heard before, from nowhere you've been," 22-Pistepirkko is an odd, enduring trio from Finland that plays an unpredictable sort of surfy garage pop. Founded in the northern village of Utajärvi in the early '80s, the band, named for a common European ladybug, does seem to have a faraway sound; there's something in singer PK Keränen's high-pitched, accented, warbly English that appears to be coming to us from some other dimension of space and time. "I Knew" lopes along with a combination of early-'60s effects--the pre-Beatles beat, the sugary strings, and the surf guitar--that don't actually sound like they've been successfully combined before, and certainly not with a high-pitched, warbly singer. "I Knew" is a song from the band's most recent CD, Drops & Kicks, which came out back in 2005. They've yet to release a CD in the U.S., but are about to record for the first time with an American producer, suggesting the possibility of a Stateside release when the time comes. Another hint: the band visited North America for the first time ever this month, for a short tour which included an appearance at SXSW. The MP3, in fact, is courtesy of the SXSW web site.

"Gimme Shelter" - Patti Smith
Smith--truly one of the most inspired interpreters in rock history--manages here to take a familiar song, not change it very much, and still make it entirely her own. See, for instance, how she replaces the falsetto "oo-oo" vocals at the beginning with a languid slide guitar, and how different it sounds and yet strangely similar too. Growling and snarling and gargling through one of Mick and Keith's best compositions (apparently Keith wrote most of it), Smith gives me the impression she overheard Bob Dylan giving singing lessons to Little Richard and liked the sound of it. And get a load of how she handles the tail end of the song, famously delivered by gospel singer Merry Clayton on the original Stones recording, here performed with extended moans and an almost trancelike roar. She's now in the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, but she's still alive and kicking. "Gimme Shelter" is one of twelve intriguing covers Smith has assembled for her CD Twelve, due out next month on Sony. She's doing offbeat Dylan ("Changing of the Guards") and Wonder ("Pastime Paradise"), mainstream Cobain ("Smells Like Teen Spirit") and Airplane ("White Rabbit"), and a bunch of "how did Patti Smith decide to sing this?" sorts of things ("Everybody Wants to Rule the World"? "The Boy in the Bubble"?). The MP3 is via Pitchfork.

"Rainbowarriors" - CocoRosie
A dreamy wash of rhythm and atmosphere, "Rainbowarriors" manages to sound simultaneously very current and altogether timeless. Rarely have I heard a song brought so beautifully to life by hip-hop scratches and other electronic goodies as this one--for once they seem not like random accessories but the very stuff and pulse of the music. I also don't think I've heard a piece of resolutely 21st-century pop with such an ancient-sounding refrain at its heart. I mean, check out the chorus, first heard at 1:07: the ghostly harmonies that enrich the melody are positively medieval in timbre and interval, bringing to mind countertenors and Gregorian chants. CocoRosie is the half-Cherokee sister duo of Sierra and Bianca Casady, whose exotic and itinerant background found them separated for almost 10 years before Bianca appeared without notice at Sierra's apartment in Paris in 2003; somehow, they knew they were supposed to start recording music together, and did, and have been inseparable ever since. CocoRosie is one of those groups with its own inscrutable mythos and I'll be honest, I have no idea what to make of stuff like this, from the record label's web site: "Rainbowarriors horse gallop through miles of balmy grass roads all the way to the swingset swamps. They witch water and have witches for fathers; they hear disharmonies of sadness sung by drunken glowworms. They sleep in swollen barns; they sleep through silver nights." O-kay. "Rainbowarriors" is the lead track from CocoRosie's forthcoming CD, The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn. (O-kay.) MP3 courtesy of Toolshed.

* * * *
NEWS from the full Fingertips web site:
** Thanks to all who entered the Merge sixpack contest. Winners will be contacted by the end of the week. Look for a compiled list of "best of the '00s" (so far) CDs on the Contests page also before the end of the week. Also: look for a new contest shortly thereafter.
** The Fingertips Commentary has returned, here
** Note that the Fingertips home office will be shut down for something resembling Spring Break between the approximate dates of April 1 and April 8. The next "This Week's Finds" update will appear, as if by magic, on or about April 9.

Monday, March 19, 2007

week of Mar. 18-24

There are still a few days left to enter the Merge Records Promo Sixpack Contest. Winner receives six full-length, promotional versions of quality Merge Records releases, including the brand new Arcade Fire CD, Neon Bible. Details on the Contests page at the Fingertips web site. Deadline for entry is Friday, March 23.

"Moth in a Cloud of Smoke" - All Smiles
Some songs take a while to build interest while others capture the ear effortlessly. One way isn't necessarily better than the other, but "Moth in a Cloud of Smoke" strikes me as one of the latter--quickly likable and affecting. First comes ten seconds of a pensive yet propulsive piano line, and check out the unusual simplicity here: the right and left hands are each playing just one note at a time, no chords or flourishes. You don't actually hear that too often in an age when technology all but demands more of everything--more notes, more layers, more sounds. The piano is then joined by percussion and acoustic guitar: still simple but now with a crisp, alluring drive. Ten seconds or so later, Jim Fairchild opens his mouth and the package is complete. He's got one of those sweet, rich voices, high but not squeaky or breathy--a great power pop voice, I'd say, only he's not singing power pop here, but something more introspective and knowingly hesitant--the melody in the verse is deliberate and contained within a surprisingly small interval (he's working with just three adjacent notes) for how open and expansive it sounds. For the chorus we get a fuzzy guitar and a melody breaking beyond the confines of the original interval; I'm hearing an echo of Brian Wilson now as Fairchild reaches further up melodically and by the way gives great chord too. All Smiles is the performing name Fairchild is using on his first solo CD; and he's the first ex-Grandaddy member to record on his own after that band broke up, rather badly, last year. "Moth in a Cloud of Smoke" is a song from the forthcoming All Smiles CD, entitled Ten Readings of a Warning, to be released next month on Dangerbird Records. The MP3 is via Filter Magazine.

"Good Girl" - Astrid Swan
I'm coming upon a certain number of breezy, swingy songs these days, and I'm sure there's some hidden sociological message in it that I'll restrain myself from commenting on for the moment. What I will instead comment on is this: mere breezy-swinginess is not enough to make a good song. This can get confusing, since breezy-swingy songs are cheerful and make us feel good. For me, however, the song still has to be there, and it turns out I may in fact be harder on breezy-swingy songs than songs with other basic sounds, since I listen carefully to be sure I'm not being tricked into automatically equating feel-good-ness with goodness. Or something like that. Here, however, I'm convinced we're dealing with goodness. One clue: six seconds after establishing the breezy-swingy mood, it's abruptly withdrawn. Kind of a musical tease, which subsequently renders the ultimate sound all the more persuasive. (Note too how the song's most dramatic section, a bridge that starts around 2:08, likewise eschews the upbeat swing for something moodier.) Another clue: Astrid Swan's voice, which has something of Neko Case's fluid and convincing solidity both lower down and higher up. Finally, at the height of the breezy-swingy chorus, Swan strays into off-kilter chords, attractively minor and/or diminished sounding. And, okay, it doesn't count for anything but I also happen to think Astrid Swan is one of the coolest names in show business. Swan is a singer/songwriter from Helsinski; "Good Girl" is from her CD Poverina, which was released in 2005 in Europe and is at long last getting a stateside release on Minty Fresh Records this spring. MP3 courtesy of Minty Fresh.

"Naturally" - Middle Distance Runner
Middle Distance Runner, a quintet from Washington, D.C., appears to be a group of guys with a well-developed sense of humor. ("Middle Distance Runner," says their web site, "is what you would be left with if you took every nu-metal, frat-rock, and emo band, put them into a poorly insulated spaceship, and then drove it into the sun.") As with the breezy-swingy thing, we have to be careful around such bands--easy it is to mistake "funny guys" for "good music." This one even starts with hand claps. Cheery--one might even say jokey--hand claps at that. From there, the song acquires a sly sort of urgency, singer Stephen Kilroy delivering the eyebrow-raising lyrics with an easy-going slidiness. (The song appears to be about a guy who messes around romantically and kind of hopes he gets caught out and stopped already.) I love the chorus, with its abrupt 6/4 time change, as the words pour out beyond the boundaries of the 4/4 measures that precede it. "Naturally" is the lead track on the band's self-released debut CD, Plane in Flames, which came out back in June 2006. The MP3 is courtesy of the band. Give the guys some hand claps.

Monday, March 12, 2007

week of Mar. 11-17

There's a new Fingertips Contest up and running--the prize this time is a Merge Records Promo CD Sixpack: six full-length, promotional versions of quality Merge Records releases, including the brand new Arcade Fire CD, Neon Bible. Details on the Contests page.

"Tape It" - WinterKids
Perky British pop with that brilliant blend of polish and DIY-ishness that so often characterizes, well, music that I think is brilliant. Beyond the simple but delightful opening guitar line, one of the things that caught my attention early on here was that 10-second instrumental break from :30 to :40--not only is that an unusual place to have an instrumental break, listen to what it sounds like: the sing-songy glockenspiel (or some such xylophone-like thing) on top, the dissonant rhythm guitar below. Fun. Also, not a couple weeks after noting how the Los Campesinos! singer uses a heavy British accent, unusually, in a non-punk lyrical setting, here we have James Snider doing the same thing at the head of this Surrey-based quintet. A 21st-century trend? This time the song seems basically to be about remembering (or not remembering?) to tape an episode of a favorite TV show. Oh, and don't miss that deeply satisfying chord in the chorus on the word "leave" in the phrase "leave it in"--you can hear it first at 1:02. I've got nothing to add, just listen. "Tape It" was released by the band as a single last year and is due out on WinterKids' first full-length CD, entitled Memoirs, scheduled for release in the U.K. this week on Little House Records. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

"What Light" - Wilco
Relaxed, quirky, comfy, slightly odd, oddly elusive: yup, it's Wilco all right. It starts off with unusual clarity--upbeat strummy guitar, and is that a straightforward steel guitar, after all these years?; and these words: "If you feel like singing a song/ And you want other people to sing along/ Just sing what you feel/ Don't let anyone say it's wrong." As I think about it, this is not a bad way to approach music in the internet age, when there are always plenty of people, fingers ever poised above their oily keyboards, ready at a moment's notice, 24/7, to say it's wrong, wrong, wrong. Because of course what counts is not being right or good or authentic or generous but being first. (The first song I heard from this yet-to-be-released Wilco CD was posted--illegally! boo!--on a blog where one of the first comments on the post was: "A ghost is bored." Been waiting three years to use that one? Now what?) Ok, I'm digressing. I pretty much like anything Jeff Tweedy opens his mouth to sing because his voice is just so real and likable, and because even when it's not all that obvious, he's using honest melody to tell his fragmented, quizzical songs. "What Light" is a song from the band's forthcoming CD Sky Blue Sky (and hey is that a Laurie Anderson reference? I'm thinking yes), which leaked onto the internet last week, well in advance of its May 15 release date, on Nonesuch Records. The band, in response, has offered an official stream of the CD for two short periods of time on its web site, and also, now, this somewhat hidden but entirely free and legal MP3. Thanks to Alan at Sixeyes for the lead.

"Are You Sleeping" - Sara Culler
And talk about a likable voice: Sweden's Sara Culler opens her mouth and some part of me melts a bit. "Are You Sleeping" begins as a placid march, with a gentle one-two keyboard/drum riff. With the verse come lyrical blurts, rushed between beats in a clipped but also smile-inducing way (I think it's that voice of hers, that beguiling tone she gets even singing in rushed bursts); but notice in and around the singing how the music is building by way of that swooping, supple bass line. It's setting us up for something, and that something turns out to be a sweet, expansive chorus--a great sing-along thing set against a whimsical pastiche of blippy, ringy sounds, having the effect of being produced by some intricate Rube Goldberg-like apparatus. Listen to the words, too: as far as I can surmise, she's trying to wake us up, she is, with that ever-powerful awareness of how much of our lives we quite literally sleep through. "Are You Sleeping" is a brand-new song off her brand-new EP, Miss Takes - Light the Night!, self-released this week--just in time for her SXSW debut, as part of a series of WOXY-sponsored concerts at the festival. I also feel impelled to point out that Sara is one of the 13 wonderful artists featured on the Fingertips: Unwebbed CD, which is currently available for a $12 donation to this here web site; details aplenty are a click away.

Monday, March 05, 2007

week of Mar. 4-10

"Heretics" - Andrew Bird
Andrew Bird has a sleepy, elastic way of singing his elusive, layered songs, and intermittently odd enunciation too. He uses solid, understandable words to create incomprehensible treatises on something resembling life, eschewing standard hooks and catchy melodies for carefully laid out, intertwining instrumental themes and snippet-like melodic motifs. The effect, once I let myself sink into it, is mysteriously convincing; not only do I return and return and get more and more out of it, I begin to believe that Bird is a unique talent--let the genre-meisters attempt to lay a genre on him, but there is none for what he is doing. The Chicago-based Bird has a bachelor's degree in violin performance from Northwestern, and might have double-majored in whistling if they had offered the right courses: Bird puts his lips together, blows, and a most eerie, flute-like whistle emerges--but you won't hear it in this particular song. You will hear the violin, however. "Heretics" is from his new CD, Armchair Apocrypha, to be released later this month on Fat Possum Records. If you really want to hear the whistling, I suggest buying the CD--it's really quite good, in an elusive and mysteriously convincing way. The MP3 is available via Toolshed.

"No More" - Julie Doiron
A variation of the often effective one-note song ("Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Pump It Up," et al) is the repetitive lyric song, where one or two words will repeat in each lyrical line but in each case matched with different subsequent words (Leonard Cohen's haunting "Who By Fire" comes to mind; and there are others, just don't ask me to name them right this moment). So here's Julie Doiron, from the Maritimes in Canada: "No more singing in the woods/ No more singing in the car/ No more singing in the streets/ No more singing in the bar," and so forth. Clearly the risk with such songs is that they will be, um, repetitive. But in the right hands, there is also the chance to make a certain kind of incisive and mesmerizing statement, and I think we have something like that going on here. Musically, the hypnotic, minor-key insistence underscores the lyrical focus, creating an uneasy sort of drive. The uneasiness, I think, is furthered by the rhythm guitar, which strums a relentless chord on the backbeat but somehow seems almost, each time, to miss the beat (you can hear its sneaky hesitation most clearly during the instrumental break at 1:20 or so). Whether Doiron is singing about the end of a relationship or something more threatening, such as the end of the chance--in this dire, dour day and age--to live a happy, expressive life, is unclear. Known more often for slower, quieter tunes, she wisely wraps things up quickly, which allows the repetitiveness to make the point without driving us crazy--as a matter of fact, even as the song clocks in at just 2:15, the lyrics--but for some lingering "No more"s, are through by 1:02. "No More" can be found on the CD Woke Myself Up, Doiron's seventh, which was released by Jagjaguwar Records in January. The MP3 is available via the Jagjaguwar site.

"Machines" - Kiss Kiss
A full-bodied, melodramatic, squeaky, squawky, feverish, yet winsome waltz. Back to violin rock we go, but this time the violin's electric and ghostly and mixed in with a kitchen-sink electronic orchestra featuring a variety of synthesized sounds and sound effects. "Machines" barrels along like some mad contraption, the three-quarter time lending a bizarre, 19th-century air to its careening, semi-apocalyptic ambiance. I'm a big fan of songs that balance control and chaos like this, and this tumbly juggernaut definitely seems simultaneously unhinged and tightly directed. Singer Josh Benash all but roars here and there, while electric violinist Rebecca Schlappich yanks off-kilter strains and the occasional squeal from her amplified strings, all to that familiar carousel beat. The whole wild ride is over in two and a half minutes, leaving the listener a bit breathless and quickly ready to go back and do it all over again. Kiss Kiss is a quintet from upstate New York who have named themselves after Roald Dahl's book of (often macabre) stories, for adults. "Machines" appears on the debut Kiss Kiss full-length, entitled Reality vs. the Optimist, which was released last month on Eyeball Records. The MP3 is via the Eyeball site.