Monday, June 25, 2007

June 24-30

"Kidstuff" - Tenderhooks
This song wallops me with its late-'70s new wave vibe but I can't put my finger exactly on why. Put early Elvis Costello, the 1977-79 Kinks, Television, and the Undertones in a blender and this song maybe pours out, with its ringing guitar line, observational wordplay, and solid pop melody. The production quality has a strong whiff of past glory about it thanks to those driving dual guitars and the enveloping rhythm section but again the sensation is vague rather than specific. The closest correlation I hear is with singer Jake Winstrom, whose high, sandy-warbly voice brings the legendary Undertones singer Feargal Sharkey to mind. But what of that unglued guitar break, beginning at 1:55 but becoming deviant by around 2:10? There's nothing late-'70s about that at all; while some may call it "shredding" (a term for the superfast playing style that arose out of heavy metal and prog rock), I hear something more aural than pyrotechnic about it--as if guitarist Ben Oyler is trying to make a cool sound rather than merely to sound cool. Like a good band in any era, this Knoxville quartet--often billed as alt-country but this song has nothing obvious to do with that genre--appear to be adept students and willful experimenters, so that in the end, the pieces of the past you hear become part of a vivid and present experience. "Kidstuff" is from the band's Vidalia CD, which is slated for release this week on Rock Snob Records.

"Trouble" - Over the Rhine
As the noisy part of today's music scene is dominated almost fascistically by those obsessed with what is bright and shiny and new, there fortunately remain many musicians to listen to who are not simply brand new, thank goodness. To think of the depth and richness we would lose if we really were only listening to the latest MySpace and Pitchfork sensations--but no worries, we're not, and never will. Because some of the best new bands will stick around and hone their art in fruitful and unanticipated ways over the years, just as some of today's most wonderful not-new-anymore bands themselves once gleamed with the newcomer's glow. Long-time Fingertips favorites Over the Rhine are a categoriocal example of how impressive musicians can become as they have the chance to mature and write and perform together. Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have had a particularly enriching path as a married couple making music together; the connection apparent in their performance is a wonder to behold. Sly, engaging, and timeless-sounding, "Trouble" is a crisp and catchy tune that is one part cabaret, one part tango, one part orchestral pop, and all parts Bergquist, whose voice is as sultry and idiosyncratically alluring as ever. "Trouble" is a song from the band's forthcoming CD, entitled The Trumpet Child, to be released in August on the band's Great Speckled Dog label.

"Move = Move" - Wheat
And this one oozes the ramshackle charm of 1967-or-so Rolling Stones (the melody to my ears partially echoes "Sing This All Together Now"), without any of the silly bad-boy posturing. And yet "Move = Move" likewise feels rooted right here in the indie-rock-saturated '00s, with its sculpted sound and stray electronic lagniappes. There's a real looseness on display that I find totally wonderful in such an otherwise brisk and focused tune, epitomized by the almost haphazard way the harmony vocals weave in and out of both awareness and alignment. Wheat is a thoughtful duo from Massachusetts that began life in the late '90s as an art project; "Move = Move" is a song from the band's loquaciously titled CD Everyday I Said a Prayer for Kathy and Made a One-Inch Square, their fourth, which was released last month on Empyrean Records. The MP3 is courtesy of Spin.

Monday, June 18, 2007

June 17-23

"Elusive" - Scott Matthews
Tense, fragile, emotional, and intelligent. Listen to how the verse develops over an intriguingly minimal guitar accompaniment--he plays not chords, not a standard finger-picking pattern, but something more resembling a bass line. Vague keyboard washes add deep atmosphere, particularly as we get to the chorus. While not sounding specifically like Jeff Buckley--Matthews' tenor seems more constricted, and pretty much lacks Buckley's famous vibrato--there's still something Buckley-like in the air here in the strong yet delicate melody and the sense of dramatic vulnerability suffusing the song. Matthews is a British singer/songwriter and this song has already been a big sensation in the UK, from an album called Passing Stranger that was released there in October 2006. "Elusive" recently won a major UK songwriting prize, the Igor Novello Award; Passing Stranger is now being readied for U.S. release on Universal Republic, probably in the early fall.

"Always on the Telephone" - the Ladybug Transistor
Evocative minor-key 21st-century folk rock, with saxophone. Although here, for sure, is a band with its roots deep in the 1990s--associated with the storied Elephant Six Collective, the Ladybug Transistor in fact released its first CD back in '95. The personnel has changed over the years and it's a bit of a loosey-goosey outfit to begin with; it taxes me beyond my breaking point to determine, via all available press materials, who precisely is in the band at this point. (I do know that the band, tragically, lost their original drummer, San Fadyl, in April, to a fatal aesthma attack.) Through the years and the lineup shiftings, the band's sound remains ever centered around Gary Olson's sensitive baritone and his lovely capacity to convert something vaguely '60s-like into something vaguely contemporary. I'm taken this time by the unexpected entrance of the saxophone (only, um, now I guess you'll expect it) at 1:47--a sharp, lonely sax it is, its achy street-corner wail unlike anything one normally encounters in '00s indie rock. "Always on the Telephone" is the lead track from the band's new CD Can't Wait Another Day, which was released on Merge Records earlier this month. The MP3 is via Spin. Veteran Fingertips visitors, do you remember the band's previous TWF pick, in December '03? Refresh your memory.

"Rain" - Bishop Allen
Punchy, precise pop from the punchy and precise Bishop Allen, the Brooklyn-based band best known, in the web world, for releasing 12 separate EPs last year--one each month, each named for the month, each with four new songs (except for August, which had 14 live tracks). A band this productive has probably mastered the art of writing songs about more or less anything; this one appears to be, rather simply, about a rainy day. Between the snappy-clappy beat, the spirited, uncomplicated melody, and Justin Rice's high-pitched yet appealing voice, "Rain" is charming from beginning to end. I like how the lead guitar enters about halfway through (1:38) with a squawk or two, as if it was literally waking up, just in time for a recalcitrant sort of anti-solo. "Rain" is a track from the forthcoming Bishop Allen CD, The Broken String, slated for release next month on the Dead Oceans label. The MP3 is via the band's site.Bishop Allen is another band with a previous TWF appearance in the semi-distant past; unfortunately, the song selected back in March '04 is no longer available. With this new song, I'm happy to take the boys off the Artists Formerly Listed on the Master Artist List List.

Monday, June 11, 2007

June 10-16

"Speech Marks" - God Love You For a Liar
A continually engaging, skillfully constructed song from an unknown, unsigned UK band. Nice chords, indecipherable time twists, hardy melodies, intriguing lyrics, multiple hooks--"Speech Marks" packs it all into four and a half minutes, while adding a bit of goofy 10cc-like pop drama for good measure (I'm referring to the "phone conversation" segment, beginning at 2:26; and don't miss the answer given to "Do you believe in God?"). Vocalist Gareth Moss has a pliable tenor that suits the shifty music well, sometimes veering towards David Byrne-like rubberiness, sometimes doing a bit of crooning, but not for long, since he's not afraid to leap back and forth into his falsetto. I'll admit my eye was caught by this band before my ear was--they describe themselves as "owing as much to Kate Bush as they do to The Smiths," a claim that does my heart good in a "maybe the world isn't going to hell in a handbasket" sort of way (I mean, four guys in a rock band calling Kate Bush a major influence? Only in the 21st century.) The band by the way exchanged a '90s-style name (Plastik) for the much '00s-ier God Love You For a Liar within the last year, when they expanded from a trio to a quartet. "Speech Marks" is a song from their first CD, How Much Is Enough? that is not only available for free online at their web site but is genuinely good.

"The Underdog" - Spoon
So check out the handclaps (0:58) in this one: probably the most difficult-to-clap-along-with handclaps in the history of rock'n'roll. Knowing how meticulous Britt Daniels, Jim Eno and company are, this can't be an accident, so it strikes me as a good-natured if inscrutable joke in the middle of a good-natured if inscrutable (not to mention crisp and punchy) song. Launching off a relentlessly strummed, one-chord acoustic guitar riff, "The Underdog" features Spoon's characteristic sense of instrumental restraint--however many or (more often) few sounds are combined at any given point, one can always hear all of them distinctly--and yet delivers it in an easy-going, shuffly musical setting. This creates a wily tension throughout; even when the horns arrive, they don't cut loose but keep their distance, never overpowering either the acoustic guitar or Eno's precise percussion (he refuses to hit or shake too many things at once). The one excessive thing you'll hear--also no accident, I assume--is that repeating guitar chord (G major, if I'm not mistaken), not only in the beginning but in the middle (where it extends for 10 measures, blatantly two measures "too long") and then at the end, where it persists an almost excrutiating 18 measures before it sounds like someone has shot the guitar (or the guitarist). If you like this song even a little, I encourage checking it out within the context of the whole CD, in which it sounds mysteriously irresistible. The CD--entitled Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (yet another good-natured if inscrutable joke?)--is the band's sixth; it's scheduled for release next month on Merge Records.

"Perdu" - Watoo Watoo
As breezy and refreshing as a mojito in the shade by the beach on a hot day, "Perdu" disappears as quickly, too: the song's just a hair over two minutes long. With its melt-in-your-ears keyboard and brisk, semi-boss-nova-y groove, the song might fall into the "pleasant but generic" rut but for its immediately captivating melody, thirst-quenching chord changes, and the pure, breathy voice of Pascale, the singer. The French lyrics add measurably to the allure. Watoo Watoo is a husband-wife duo who live in Bordeaux and go by first names only (his is Michaël). They've recorded in an off and on sort of way since 1997. "Perdu" is from their new CD, La Fuite, which was released today on Letterbox Records. I'm pretty sure that this song will sound all but perfect on almost any mix you feel like putting together for yourself for the warm weather to come. Remember to thank Letterbox for the MP3.

Monday, June 04, 2007

week of June 3-9

"We Are Waves" - Dirk Darmstaedter
Crisp, polished, and incisive in a Neil Finn-ish sort of way, "We Are Waves" alternates itchy, restrained verses with a gorgeous, crashing-to-the-shore sort of chorus. And yet--if I may stretch the metaphor to the breaking point, as it were--much the way a crashing wave is simultaneously composed of the water being pulled back to sea, so do I hear in the chorus an engaging sort of counter-movement that gives the song extra depth and presence. What I'm talking about in particular is the way the chorus leads with a straightforward A major chord but then, even as the melody takes that engaging leap up, from the fourth to the seventh note (0:56), the chords retreat from the plain power chords one might expect into something more complex (perhaps suspended?; listen at 0:58, on the words "open sea"); listen further to how the chords take two more unexpected steps before finding A major again. The chorus might have been blandly catchier without the subtle complications, but it's richer and more gratifying with them. Darmstaedter, by the way, is an interesting dude--he split his childhood years between Hamburg, Germany, where he was born, and northern New Jersey, where he lived with his family from ages 5 to 11. After spending a few teenaged years busking through Europe on his own, he returned to NJ by himself to finish high school with his old friends, and eventually found himself back in Germany in the late '80s with a band (the Jeremy Days) and a hit single. After the band dissolved in 1995, Darmstaedter began recording solo albums. In 2002, he co-founded Tapete Records and has recorded a few CDs there, the latest being Our Favorite City, which came out in March. That's where you'll find "We Are Waves"; the MP3 is courtesy of Dirk and Tapete.

"But Will Our Tears" - Soy Un Caballo
Handmade semi-electronic EU pop from a French-singing Belgium duo with a Spanish name (which translates to "I am a horse") and at least one English-titled song. When it comes to this sort of semi-lo-fi-ish duo music, it can be a fine line for me between something bright and alluring and something simply bubble-headed, but I think this one crosses onto the right side of that boundary for a few reasons. I like the peppy yet melancholy guitar line that opens the song, and provides an undercurrent for the electronics that follow--it grounds the song in something human and three-dimensional. I like that the electronics that follow help characterize the song but never dominate it; there are stretches where you're hearing just guitar and drum and voice here, and when some sort of keyboard joins in, I feel as if the actual concrete keys themselves are present in the soundscape somehow. Speaking of the drum, note how the electronic beat is supplemented--and quite often replaced--by an actual drumkit (listen around 0:32, when it's first noticeable), played with a wonderful carefree touch. And I like Aurélie Muller's upfront, deadpan voice and how well it wraps itself around the unadorned melody--back and forth on a third interval and then, oops, a delightful jump from the one to the five note. (Funny how striking it always sounds in a pop setting for a singer to leap beyond a standard third interval.) "But Will Our Tears" can be found on the band's debut CD, Les heures de raison ("The hours of reason"), which was released last month on the Belgian label Matamore. The MP3 is via the band's site. Thanks to the ever-reliable Hedvika at Getecho for the lead.

"Clue" - the Contrast
Funny thing about this elastic, elusive thing called power pop. Sometimes we (i.e. power pop fans) want almost slavish devotion to form (even though none of us know exactly what the hell the form actually is), other times a new twist helps render the form all the more heart-rending and addictive. The Contrast, a band from Peterborough, Cambridgeshire (the UK, don't you know), gives us a few prominent power pop earmarks--notably the guitar sound, an ineffable combination of the crunchy and the jangly, on display in a prominent riff, and the punchy (maybe compressed?) drumming. But then they deliver a couple of twists. First and foremost, a vocal twist: while classic power pop singers usually deliver in one sort of sweet tenor or another (think Alex Chilton, Matthew Sweet, Carl Newman of the New Pornographers), singer David Reid sings in a throaty, emphatic baritone. If Richard Thompson wanted to make a power pop record, it might sound a bit like this. Second, at 1:54: it's a piano. Like a regular sounding piano. Not your everyday power pop instrument, but it's not here for long, and then again, listen to how it pounds out those percussive chords--piano as percussion makes some sense in power pop, which is often (but not always! there are no rules, remember) characterized by an insistent (though often subtle) beat. "Clue" is from the Contrast's fifth album, Underground Ghosts, which came out in mid-May on Rainbow Quartz Records. The MP3 is via Insound.