Tuesday, May 29, 2007

week of May 20-26

"Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe" - Okkervil River
This sort of anxious, cinematic indie rock is bound to remind many of us here in 2007 of the Arcade Fire, and yet let's note right away that this Austin-based quintet has been around since 1998, so do the math, as they say. From its wonderful if off-kilter title to its highly disciplined if slightly unglued sense of both song and production, "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe" strikes me as pretty brilliant from beginning to end. Front man Wil Sheff is a wordy sort of guy (he's spent some time writing music criticism for a living, as I recall), but rather than do as other wordy sorts of guys do and cram too many syllables into lyrics ("look at all my words!"), Sheff's a savvy enough songwriter to have figured out how to manipulate triplets and time signatures to embrace the extra syllables (you'll hear this for the first time at 0:22, when he sings--I think--"When the love that you locked in the suite says there's no crying"). So he's a wordy guy who makes room for the music, which makes sense when you've got a crack outfit around you like this. Me, I'm especially enjoying the drumwork: listen throughout to how Travis Nelsen uses all of his drums, from snares to toms to bass drum, with great energy and sensitivity. Part of me keeps waiting for Okkervil River to break through in at least an Arcade Fire-ish sort of way, but part of me keeps suspecting that this band may be too literate/inscrutable for mass consumption. I mean, take a look at what Scheff has written about the concept of downloading music (hint: he relates it to a Borges short story) and you'll see how literate I mean. (Also read it because it's interesting.) "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe" will be the lead track on Okkervil's River upcoming CD, The Stage Names, which is slated for an August release on Jagjaguwar Records. The MP3 is via the Pitchfork blog.

"My Rights Versus Yours" - the New Pornographers
Last week we heard from Kathryn Calder's lesser-known band (Immaculate Machine); this week her more well-known group steps to the forefront (and she steps a bit to the rear, as the fabulous Neko Case happens to be the senior female vocalist in the band). Carl Newman's affinity for late '60s and early '70s pop is yet again on full display, from the Brian Wilson-y beginning to the feel-good shuffliness of the rhythm section, once the rhythm section gets going (hang with it, it takes a while). Cross Bob Welch-era Fleetwood Mac with the Monkees and you're almost here. The twist is that this Canadian ensemble is clearly up to something serious ("My Rights Versus Your Rights": not a classic pop song title) while setting their observations to music so breezy you can bob your head to it while reading your trashy novel on the beach with your iPod on and no one's the wiser. (Just don't tell Will Sheff.) "My Rights Versus Yours" is an advance MP3 from the band's upcoming Challengers CD, due in August on Matador Records. This one I also heard about via Pitchfork, which had for the longest time previously been yielding little of interest to me. Go figure.

"Cage in a Cave" - Rasputina
A different sort of '60s vibe is in the air here--something quirkier and more psychedelic. And then something also having nothing to do with the '60s at all, as there were not, to my knowledge, any groups with two cellos and a drummer doing business during the Summer of Love. This idea belongs exclusively to Melora Creager, the founder and leader of Rasputina, whose goal in starting the band back in 1992 was to "make funny, depressing music with nothing more than cellos, singing and electricity." (In fact, when Rasputina started up, there were six cellos in all.) As "Cage in a Cave" illustrates, Creager captures a unique, full-bodied instrumental energy with her cello-based rock music, avoiding the frilly feeling one often hears when strings are an afterthought. A big part of the overall appeal is Creager's strong, irresistible voice and her capacity to write real melodies, as too often, to my ears, those inclined to noodle with odd instruments forget that we still need a true and sturdy melody to hang onto. Classically trained and an art school student to boot, Creager is an authentic character, obsessed with historical events and elaborate, vaguely Victorian costumes. And yet on Rasputina's upcoming CD, Oh Perilous World, Creager has partially let go of the historical content because, according to her press material, she decided that current events have become more bizarre than anything she could dig up from the past. Although the past still intrudes here and there, as in the lead track ("1816, The Year Without a Summer") and for that matter "Cage in a Cave," which seems to deal at least in part with Fletcher Christian, the man who was the leader of the mutineers on the Bounty back in 1789. The CD will be released in June on Creager's Filthy Bonnet Recording Company.

Monday, May 21, 2007

week of May 20-26

Note that next week's update will appear on Tuesday May 29, because of the Memorial Day holiday here in the U.S.

"Lost Again!" - Morningbell
Pop songs tend not to be amenable to significant changes happening within them. In the interest of putting one basic idea across in just three or four minutes, they normally stick to one tempo, one key, one time signature, one vocalist, one type of feeling. This is also why melody lines are inclined to be short, often no more than four measures long, sometimes just two--concise melodies that repeat often being easier for the ear to grasp in a relatively brief span of time (not to mention easier for less-than-inspired songwriters to write). Fortunately for pop aficionados everywhere, however, there are always bands that come along and toss concerns like this out the window. And so we have "Lost Again!," which begins as a crisp acoustic shuffle, acquiring a quick shot or two of Queen or maybe ELO-like harmonies as the verse sneaks a 16-measure melody into an spiffy, upbeat framework--except of course for that time signature change and slowdown at the end. This slowdown leads, after the second verse, into a chorus in which tempo and feel are completely transformed--the pace slows, the harmonies change character, and the chords transmute from being predominantly minor to predominantly major. (Note one common element: an extended melody again, this time just about 12 measures long.) And then maybe best of all, the instrumental break that begins innocuously enough at 1:20 steps out into a thoughtful and full-fledged guitar showcase, the likes of which bring (oh no, them again!) Steely Dan to mind more than standard-issue indie rock. "Lost Again!" is from Morningbell's third CD, Through the Belly of the Sea, which is slated for a June release on Orange Records. And as yet another sign of the band's freewheeling ethos, the CD is billed as rock's first "Choose Your Own Adventure" album--a different story unfolds depending upon which order you choose to listen to the tracks.

"Brotherhood of Man" - the Innocence Mission
The combination of Karen Peris's voice and the melodies she writes for her voice to sing kindles unspeakable poignancy with its stark beauty. This is music that might pass you by if it's playing in the background as you're fumbling to pay for your takeout coffee but it is music that rewards keen attention with its rich, ageless sense and sensibility. Peris's distinctive, breathy-yearny voice renders profound the melodic simplicity, aided by husband Don's ringingly well-chosen guitar lines and subtle organ flourishes. This is also, I would argue, the sound of a small group of experienced musicians (Mike Bitts is in there on bass as well, but you have to listen closely) who are in it for the love of the music--and, in the case of Karen and Don, love of each other. Which sounds corny but the rarity of two people getting along so beautifully in both song and deed for this long--the band has been recording since 1986--transcends corny to all-out awe-inspiring. "Brotherhood of Man" is the opening track from the CD We Walked in Song, released in March on Badman Recording Company. The MP3 is via Insound.

"Dear Confessor" - Immaculate Machine
Friendly and welcoming, "Dear Confessor" launches off a vintage Elvis Costello beat and doesn't look back. It's that note that singer/guitarist Brooke Gallupe hits on the second syllable of the word "relax" that does it for me--that's where I sink in and let them take me where they're going to take me. There's an inexplicably comfy vibe permeating the music this Vancouver trio generates that I couldn't put my finger on until, reading about the band on their web site, I discover that Gallupe and singer/keyboardist Kathryn Calder "have lived down the street from each other since elementary school." It all begins to make sense. Another victory for a long-term relationship (and another example of how abnormal they actually are, and impossible to manufacture simply because we're told we're supposed to want one; and okay end of soapbox!). "Dear Confessor" will be found on the CD Immaculate Machine's Fables, scheduled for release next month on Mint Records. This will be their third full-length release. (Bonus fact: Kathryn Calder is also a member, since 2005, of the expansive, beloved Canadian ensemble the New Pornographers.)

Monday, May 14, 2007

week of May 13-19

** Two quick things:
1) Monday May 14 is the deadline for the Mason Proper contest, so if you're reading this while it's still Monday, there's still time to enter if you email before the end of the day; details here. Don't be shy!
2) Fingertips was one of the sites involved in selecting nominees for what have been dubbed the Music Blog Awards. They're seeking votes in a variety of categories, so if you like doing that sort of thing go here and place your votes. Be aware that this is all related to the year 2006. Well, you know what they say: better late than really really really late.

"Kid On My Shoulders" - White Rabbits
With its familiar but not quite placeable vibe--a slithery sort of explosiveness is in the air--"Kid On My Shoulders" jumps along to a nervous piano line and scratchy guitar riffs, its half-stepping melody adding to the jittery ambiance. Apparently a love of '70s ska was among the things that drew the band mates together, and you can certainly detect a bit of that genre's twitchiness here, but only to the extent that White Rabbits are using a knowledge of ska to forge their own sound--much the way, it occurs to me, that, back in the day, Steely Dan used reggae to inform a song like "Haitian Divorce." And I'm going to take the Dan reference and run with it, since the more I listen, the more I hear a Steely-ishness around the edges here--not the sedate, groove-oriented Dan of the '00s but the musically distinctive and subversive SD of the '70s; even the vocalist here (and I'm not sure who it is as the band has two lead singers) delivers with a slightly high-pitched Fagen-esque snap (listen from 1:46 to 1:51 for a strong example). White Rabbits is a six-man band from Missouri currently doing business in Brooklyn. "Kid On My Shoulders" is a song from the band's debut CD, Fort Nightly, scheduled for release next week on Say Hey Records; the MP3 is via the Say Hey site.

"While You Were Sleeping" - Elvis Perkins
Hypnotic, cryptic, and sweetly melancholy. Also, bracingly produced: what sounds like a simple song for acoustic guitar and voice becomes over a leisurely six minutes an idiosyncratic chamber piece featuring percussion, strings, horns, and some weird, resonant, blowy sort of instrument that I can't quite place. For everything that is ultimately strummed or beaten or blown or bowed, the arrangement is more subtle than lush, instruments simultaneously playing and calling to mind the silence that exists when they're not playing. Listen, for instance, to the moment the main drum beat enters--not till 2:06--and see how it enters your gut at the same time and only then do you realize that before that, it wasn't there. This is a song I've been living with a long time, slowly but surely entranced by its meandering lyricism, waiting for the right week, the right combination of sounds to place it between, and I think its time has come. You may have already heard tell of Perkins' tragic back story, but for the record: father Anthony Perkins died an AIDS-related death in 1992, when Elvis was 17; mother Berry Berenson was on one of the two planes that were flown into the World Trade Center on September 11, just 53 at the time. Maybe we all imagine an extra layer of sorrow braiding through the music as a result but to my ears, yes, there is a sublime sort of sadness infusing both his words and his voice. "While You Were Sleeping" is from Ash Wednesday, released in February on XL Recordings. The MP3 is available via Insound.

"Take Me to the Ballroom" - Moonbabies
The ineffably charming Swedish duo Moonbabies, longtime Fingertips friends, are back with a new CD that charms in the usual Moonbabies way, which is to say elusively. With their adroit blend of crisp acoustic guitars and fuzzy electronics, these guys are hard to pin down sonically--a sense reinforced by both time-signature trickery in the verse and a distinct rhythmic shift between the verse and the chorus. Another thing that keeps the sound pleasantly off-kilter is how multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Ola Frick and keyboardist/vocalist Carina Johansson share the lead vocal duties, and here it's the male voice (Frick) which gets the dreamier vocal, in the chorus, while Johansson handles the more matter-of-fact poppiness of the verse. I could be wrong but I'm thinking that historically, when male and female voices trade like this within a song, it's the woman who gets the dreamy chorus. For added perspective, see previous Moonbabies TWF picks here and here. "Take Me to the Ballroom" is the semi-title track of the new 'Babies CD At the Ballroom, slated for release later this month on Parasol Records. The MP3 is via Parasol.

Monday, May 07, 2007

week of May 6-12

Have you entered the new contest yet? The prize this time is a full-length CD plus a 7-inch vinyl single from the band Mason Proper, a recent "This Week's Finds" featured artist. You don't have to have heard of them to win, and you never know, they might just become your new favorite band.

"Flesh and Spirits" - the Gena Rowlands Band
With a free-flowing vibe, unusual instrumentation, and a vocalist who sounds like an actual grown-up, "Flesh and Spirits" has very little in common with what we've come to think of as "indie rock," and we are all the better for it. Centered around a ruminative electric piano and some itchy, jazz-tinged drumming, "Flesh and Spirits" avoids veering off into a loungey vagueness thanks largely to Bob Massey's rich, evocative singing--there's something in his voice that adds appreciably to the music itself. Listen to the chorus in particular and how, following the violin's lead, he transforms a relatively simple ascending melody (beginning at 1:02) into something sensational and heart-opening. Like the title's dichotomy, the song seems built on twin supports of matter and essence, which keeps the piece grounded even during its more abstract moments (for instance, the edgy instrumental break that starts at 2:49, matching mournful string lines against a sputtering electronically enhanced beat). The Gena Rowlands Band--no relation to the actress of the same name--is an ensemble from Washington, D.C. that Massey assembles whenever and however he feels like it from a rotating cast of a dozen musicians; "Flesh and Spirits" is the title track to the group's third CD, which was released last month on Lujo Records. The MP3 is via the Lujo site.

"All the Same Mistakes" - Mieka Pauley
The Boston-based, Harvard-educated Pauley sings here like a tantalizing cross between Cat Power and Sarah McLachlan, with a smidgen of Suzanne Vega thrown in. The crisp, disciplined production highlights the song's canny melodic appeal, and just when you think you've heard what it has to say, things take one left turn, and then another. First, around 2:30, the song all but grinds to a halt, reborn briefly as a lilting, slow-motion waltz and then transforming again through its original setting into an unexpectedly blistering recapulation, complete with slightly phased vocals, electric guitar, and bashy drums. "All the Same Mistakes" is a song that will be found on Pauley's next CD, scheduled for release this summer. The MP3 is available via her site.

"Kid Gloves" - Voxtrot
Then again, not that there's anything wrong with what we've come to think of as indie rock (see Gena Rowlands band entry, above), as I think is clear from this casually splendid new track from the Austin quintet Voxtrot. This one has a neo-New-Romantic feeling, with its '80s-club beat and melodramatic melody. (And speaking of the so-called "New Romantics," am I being fooled by the name overlap or is there something vaguely Ultravox-like going on with these guys?) What transports this one, for me, in particular is that part of the chorus when Ramesh Srivastava sings: "I have no choice but to put you in back of me"--geez, everything about that line melodically and harmonically is just plain wonderful, from the chord underpinning the word "choice" to the satisfying way the melody inches up by whole steps then dives back down a fifth (and, as always, much better to listen than to read about it). Voxtrot may be the best-known band in the U.S. that has yet to release a full-length CD, thanks to some sizable web love over the last couple of years, but "Kid Gloves" is in fact from their forthcoming debut non-EP release, entitled simply Voxtrot, set to be out on the Playlouder label later this month. The MP3 is via Spinner, the AOL indie music blog.