Monday, September 24, 2007

Sept. 23-29

* The latest Fingertips contest features Ani DiFranco gifts. The grand prize is Canon, the nicely-packaged, hand-picked two-disc DiFranco retrospective. Two runners-up will receive a copy of Fingertips: Unwebbed, which will disappear from the shelves here at year's end. There are also five prints of Ani DiFranco artwork available both for the grand prize winner, the runners-up, and two others. So five winners in all! Deadline for entry is Tuesday, October 2.

* The Record Shop is now open for business: a page of links taking you directly to where you can buy some of the albums mentioned here week to week (and support Fingertips in the process).

"That's That" - Cass McCombs
With its rolling, ringing, nostalgic sheen, "That's That" glows with an almost breathtaking sort of pure pop grace. This is one beautiful piece of work, rendered palpably touching by the self-control that characterizes the song from start to finish. For even with its crisp, head-bobbing rhythm, "That's That" offers us a lesson in sonic restraint: guitars that withhold as much as they play, silvery melodies that ache off the swing of the beat, and subtlest but maybe best of all, that warm, rounded, tom-tom sound that keeps a hurried pulse in the background, forever implying a crashing release that never arrives. McCombs, furthermore, has a voice that sounds on the surface sweeter than it actually is--listen carefully and you'll hear a homely, vaguely adenoidal tinge to his tone that sounds oddly enough like a benefit, offering a bit of an edge to the silky melody line, and underscoring the awkwardness of the young man/older woman affair recounted here. "That's That" is from McCombs' forthcoming CD, Dropping the Writ, due out next month on
Domino Records. MP3 via Pitchfork. (Oh and if you still haven't heard "Sacred Heart," a 2005 Cass McCombs song that's been ensconced in the Fingertips All-Time Top 10 for quite a while, visit the chart and check it out.)

"Everwise Muskellunge" - Rats With Wings
The Brooklyn-based band Rats With Wings has a predilection for synthesizer sounds most bands prefer to avoid: rubbery flugelhorny ones, chimey squeaky ones, cheesy tromboney ones. Let me quickly say that I might normally prefer to avoid such sounds also. And yet let me quickly also say that through some combination of vibrancy and laptop-infused invention, the whole here becomes far more than the sum of its strange, synthesized parts. With its solidly constructed melody, spacious sense of structure (note how many different chords the tune seems to feel comfortable resting on), and inscrutable lyrics, "Everwise Muskellunge" grows increasingly comfortable and engaging--but no less odd--with each listen. (A muskellunge by the way is a large fish, in the pike family; here it is apparently stuffed and mounted on the wall, from which vantage point it stares at the narrator, who both talks to it and imbues it with an unearthly sort of perspicacity.) At the heart of the band is the duo Brendan Fitzpatrick and David Hurtgen, who have played together in various guises for 15 years; they got the name for this latest incarnation from Woody Allen's memorable description of pigeons in the movie Stardust Memories. "Everwise Muskellunge" is a song from the band's self-released Tiny Guns EP, which came out last month, and includes a seriously striking version of Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf." MP3 courtesy of the

"Summer's Ending" - Steve Goldberg and the Arch Enemies
Well okay summer has actually already ended, but just barely, and in any case the indelible complexion of late summer/early fall is delightfully embodied in the words, the music, and the spirit of this charming song. The bittersweet cello that leads into the first verse--with its singular way of sounding upbeat and sad at the same time--is just a hint of the tuneful orchestral treat the Pittsburgh-based Goldberg has in store for us, with its nicely incorporated string, woodwind, and brass parts. I like how, even so, the guitar and drums--the only "normal" rock instruments on display--are still given their due; the guitar plays an important textural role, and the drums are woven into a larger percussive sound with a nifty sort of homespun finesse. And boy was this homespun: the self-titled album from which this comes was recorded over eight months as Goldberg's senior project as a music student at Carnegie Mellon University; all the musicians on the album (a total of 22 instruments employed) were CMU students as well. Goldberg even sang into a microphone that was custom-built by an electrical engineering student. And perhaps it took an actual college student to so evocatively capture summer's end, with its looming, double-edged departure scenes ("I couldn't wait to leave/But now I want to stay"). Kind of gets you right in the stomach. The CD is available via Goldberg's
web site, as is the MP3.

Visit the Fingertips Record Shop for direct links to purchase some of the albums that feature the MP3s you read about here.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Sept. 16-22

* Be on the lookout for a new section on the main Fingertips web site entitled "The Record Shop": a page of links taking you directly to where you can buy some of the albums mentioned here week to week (and support Fingertips in the process). This should be up by week's end, if all goes well.
* Likewise be on the lookout for a new contest, to be posted later in the week. The prize this time: Canon, the nicely-packaged two-disc Ani DiFranco retrospective.

"Slow Years" - Men Among Animals
An irrepressible air of the madcap permeates this sly and slightly manic piece of pure pop from the Danish quartet Men Among Animals. One of the many fun things about "Slow Years" is how misleadingly it begins: I'm not sure what sort of song is being signalled by the throbbing bass line and portentous guitar noodles of the intro, but I don't think it's the gleeful hookfest that follows when Lasse Nielsen opens his mouth at 0:12. Nielsen sings with a yelpy but agreeable doubletracked tenor (a voice that makes "most bluebirds quiver and almost all librarians faint," according to the band's MySpace page); check out the likable way he takes those upward sidesteps in the verse, away from the notes you think he's going to hit. This is fun in its own way but all the more so for how it sets up the chorus, which has the simple, unstraying melody of a lost classic. I like too how the band augments the proceedings with some flavorful work of their own, including an extended instrumental break that begins at 1:16 with a previously heard guitar riff and stretches way out from there, first with a glissando-crazy haunted-house organ, then (my favorite part) a guitar solo that consists pretty much of one note, bent and strained for 15 seconds or so. Don't miss it. "Slow Years" comes from the CD Bad Times, All Gone, which was released last week in Europe by the small but tasteful German label
Tapete Records, which is run by Dirk Darmstaedter. The MP3 is via the Tapete site.

"Million Dollars Bail" - Peter Case
Before he was frontman for the little-known (but influential) power pop band the Nerves and the better-known Plimsouls, Peter Case eked out a living playing guitar in coffeehouses and busking on the San Francisco streets. After the Plimsouls had their 15 minutes of new wave fame in the early '80s, Case revisited his roots, re-emerging as a road-toughened troubadour in the later part of the decade, and recording a couple of fine albums in the process. In the years since, Case has all the more convincingly grown into the role; nowadays he sings his finger-picked songs about hard-luck characters with the deep, rough-hewn authenticity of the folk and blues balladeers he admired as a teenager. "Million Dollars Bail" is an old-fashioned protest song--guitar, voice, and indignant lyrics. And yet notice the lack of vitriol, the palpable dignity of the stark yet nuanced performance--he sounds too centered to have to convince us he's right, and too right to have to point fingers and yell. He's singing about our two-tiered justice system (John Edwards may want to contact him for a campaign song), but he's not ranting and demanding changes--he lets the story tell itself, and lets us know, in the end, what's really at stake: "But there's a sentence passed on every soul, someday we all must die/When the question's not who pulled the switch, it's how you lived and why." You'll find "Million Dollars Bail" on the CD Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, which was released last month on
Yep Roc Records. The MP3 is courtesy of

"Salvador" - Jamie T
"Salvador" takes full advantage of its three and a half minutes, filling both the time and space it has with an enticing, cross-genre stew of sounds and rhythms. After a slow intro featuring oddly ancient-sounding electric guitars, the song takes off with a ska-infused beat, at once propulsive and snaky, and atmospheric, often sinister guitar accents. Just as we adjust to this unexpectedly captivating soundscape, the young Briton introduces an unhurried rap verse, which slides into the churning musical terrain quite nicely. As do the threatening "hoo! hah!" background vocals a bit later, somehow. His working-class singing accent has caused a bit of a row in England, as it turns out 21-year-old Jamie T (née Treays) is from well-to-do Wimbledon, and attended a posh school, but all I'm thinking we should care about is does the song work? I say it does. (And would point out that Joe Strummer, the son of a diplomat, was hardly a hooligan either.) "Salvador" is from Jamie T's debut CD Panic Prevention, which was released in the U.S. at the end of August on Caroline Records. (The record came out in the U.K. back in January and is one of the 12 nominees for this year's Mercury Prize.) The MP3 is via

Monday, September 10, 2007

Sept. 9-15

"Diamond Heart" - Marissa Nadler
Hang with this one for just a little while. Nadler sings with a distinctive sort of warble, and the song starts with her in full warble. (Nadler is often grouped with the so-called "New Weird America" and/or psych-folk movements, with the likes of Devendra Banhart and Johanna Newsom, in which unusual vocal stylings are de rigueur.) She also seems to be singing from the end of an echoey hallway; her guitar, meanwhile, vibrates with an unearthly, harp-like throb. Lyrical substance is difficult to decipher but odd prominent phrases emerge at the outset--"jezebel crown," "reliquary eyes." And yet somehow, quickly, the song gathers a deep, resonant beauty, like something unearthed from an ancient time with only a few scratches; even the echoey hallway ultimately adds a mysterious aural texture to what is a heart-breakingly gorgeous song. And this is folk-song gorgeous not pop ballad gorgeous (not that there's anything wrong with that), meaning we get the unfolding gravity of timeless melody rather than a burst of hooks. By the time she reaches for the climactic words of the chorus--"Oh my lonely diamond heart"--with a sigh at-once world-weary and angelic, all thoughts of weird warbling have vanished in the presence of sheer musical wonder. "Diamond Heart" is the opening track on Nadler's CD Songs III: Bird on the Water, which was released in the U.S. last month on
Kemado Records (it had been released in the U.K. earlier in the year, on Peacefrog Records). The MP3 is courtesy of Insound.

"Radio Nowhere" - Bruce Springsteen
Hang with this one a bit also. It's not complicated, it's got a grinding, muddy sort of sonic sensibility, and yeah okay he's done any number of better songs (he's Bruce Springsteen, for crying out loud). But this song is a creeper, sticking in the head and heart after a few listens. What I like right away is that, independent of the thick rocking ambiance, this doesn't really sound much like a Bruce Springsteen song--the melody and chord progression may be plain but they do not specifically call to mind any of the Boss's big anthemic blasters of the past; this one even has a touch of power pop about it that strikes my ears as unexpected. I like too that it's just three minutes seventeen seconds, as Bruce has not been known for economy of statement in recent years (or maybe ever). I love the subject matter, as the song laments the abject soullessness of satellite radio: "I was trying to find my way home/But all I heard was a drone/Bouncing off a satellite/Crushing the last lone American night." And yes I like the music too--simple and direct it may be, but vivid and driven as well, thanks in part to his estimable compadres in the E Street Band. All in all "Radio Nowhere" feels like a reassuring rallying cry from one of our mightiest living rock legends, a guy who I might add has attempted to be a decent human being (no mean feat!) despite nearly being crushed by the "star-maker machinery" back in the '70s and '80s. The song comes from Springsteen's forthcoming CD, Magic, slated for release on Columbia Records in early October (although the vinyl is coming out, actually, at the end of this month). MP3 via

"When I Say Go" - the 1900s
Guided by a jaunty piano and sung with a Carole King-like forthrightness by Jeanine O'Toole, "When I Say Go" is a potent piece of midwestern indie pop that rewards careful listening with its inventive sense of arrangement. To begin with, this Chicago septet features three vocalists and here utilizes two of them: O'Toole is the Kingly one, singing the verses, while Caroline Donovan handles the choruses; they sound almost the same but kind of not, also. Listen as well for the careful use of strings, which intermittently lend the song a very parlor-like sensibility, other times adding the air of, almost, a hoedown. Sometimes a small touch means a lot, like the way the piano, after pounding out basic major and minor chords until then, releases, abruptly, into a somewhat thornier arpeggio (at around 1:18; sounds like maybe a major 7 chord). This may not be something you consciously note but it alters the mood on the spot, all the more so because of its subtlety. On the other hand, not subtly at all, the song breaks in the middle (starting at 1:38) for a bracing guitar solo, a scant 10 seconds of expert, squonky deconstruction that is not to be missed. "When I Say Go" is a song from the band's debut full-length CD, Cold & Kind, slated for release early next month on
Parasol Records. The MP3 is courtesy of the band's site.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Sept. 2-8

There's still a wee bit of time to enter the latest Fingertips Contest; the deadline for entry is midnight EDT but truth be told if you get your email in by tomorrow morning that'll be fine also. Three winners will each receive a copy of a new compilation CD entitled This Is Next, featuring 15 songs from a variety of well-regarded non-major-label artists, including Neko Case, the Shins, and Spoon.

"To the Dogs or Whoever" - Josh Ritter
A ramshackle folk rock tall tale overrun by breakneck lyrics and underscored by colorful keyboards. The literate Ritter--who designed his own major in American History through Narrative Folk Music, at Oberlin--cuts loose a bit here, singing with an off-the-cuff charm that unites generations of gonzo lyricists, from Greenwich Village beatniks to punk-rock snarlers clear through to late 20th-century hip hop rhyme masters. (And okay, also that guy from Minnesota, but I was trying to give Ritter a break and write about him without mentioning that particular influence.) I like the way he appends a vaguely boozy, sing-along style chorus to the rapid-fire verses, which adds to the good-natured vibe. I get the idea that Ritter wants us right away to remember (this song opens his new CD) that he's not the overly earnest singer/songwriter he's often portrayed as in the glowing reviews he's been receiving since the beginning of this decade. The album title is another hint: The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, and if the words don't reveal a tongue planted firmly in cheek, the cover, featuring one red-crested Roman soldier's helmet and an early-'60s album cover font, should do the trick. The CD was released a couple of weeks ago on Sony/BMG. The MP3 is via
Ritter's site, where you can also by the way stream the whole album.

"Belgian Beer and Catholic Girls" - Siberian
With its ringing wall of guitars and croony lead vocalist, the Seattle quartet Siberian reminds me how much a good chunk of the music identified online as shoegaze owes to early U2; but U2 of course isn't cool anymore so they are rarely mentioned except in a disparaging way by the shoegaze-friendly but snark-infested blogosphere. Meanwhile, Finn Parnell, Siberian's aforementioned crooner, reminds me how much Thom Yorke sounded like Bono sometimes on The Bends, for what it's worth. In any case, what we have here is a song with a chiming, bittersweet power to it, due primarily, I think, to its unusual, three-sectioned structure. In place of the standard verse-chorus framework (one or two verses followed by a chorus, followed by another verse or two and another chorus, etc.), "Belgian Beer and Catholic Girls" is divided into three distinct and relatively equal sections, each a melody that's repeated. At the heart of this structure is the arresting second section (beginning at 1:01 the first time), featuring a mournful melody that is simply a sixth interval going back and forth, back and forth, over chords that alternate between minor and major. This then yields to a third section that aims at a heart-rending sort of resolution before pulling up short in the song's center (1:48) and starting over. When the promised resolution at last arrives, after the song cycles back through its three sections, the song literally stops right on that long-awaited note. Nicely done. "Belgian Beer and Catholic Girls" will be found on Siberian's debut full-length CD, With Me, scheduled for release next month on
Sonic Boom Recordings.

"Nothing Burns Like Bridges" - Penny Century
Penny Century vocalist Julia Hanberg sings with a breathless vigor that helps transform this attractive bit of fleet, late-summery pop into something that strikes me as substantive and lasting. There's an air of some earlier era floating around in the cheery mix of keyboards and what sounds like a trumpet; the chorus's infectious, speeded-up echoing of the old Linda Ronstadt nugget "Different Drum" adds to the ineffable nostalgia, as does the brief bit of boy-girl dueting halfway through. That said there's something entirely of the here and now in the band's sound--in particular its gleeful blend of the homespun and the precise; I keep thinking that a lot of this sounds sort of sloppy except that it actually isn't at all. The song flies across one's field of awareness in a zippy 2:07 and the first thing I'm tempted to do when it's over is hit the play button again. Penny Century is a sextet from the village of Östersund, in northern Sweden. "Nothing Burns Like Bridges" is a song from the band's debut CD, Between a Hundred Lies, which was released two weeks ago on
Letterbox Records. The MP3 is via the Letterbox site.