Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Fingertips returns, with free and legal MP3s from My Brightest Diamond, and more

"Inside a Boy" - My Brightest Diamond
     Shara Worden, once again up and running as My Brightest Diamond, has the uncanny ability to create the most expansive musical landscapes within the bounds of what seems merely to be a three-minute forty-second pop song. "Inside a Boy" shimmers, boils, drives, plunges, and aches with an idiosyncratic zeal that should thrill Kate Bush fans, and appeal to anyone with curious ears and an open heart. After an ethereal opening section, featuring a twinkling electric guitar line underneath a heavenly wash of sound, the song finds its central motif--a dark, diving theme that acquires a fierce, orchestral feel as it recurs throughout the piece. Worden produces and arranges her songs, and one of her signature talents is integrating inventive string arrangements with some serious rock'n'roll drumming and, when it seems a good idea, some noisy electric guitars as well. The end result is curious and satisfying.
     For all of the musical drama unleashed, the song is more lyrically sparse than it might seem, given the inherent theatricality of Worden's elastic voice. The words, instead, arrive like poetry, and pack a metaphysical wallop: "We are clouds, we are vistas/Like fawns and shape shifters/Our ages can never be found out/No our edges keep moving further out."
     The song can be found on the CD A Thousand Shark's Teeth, an album with a number of other jewels to be discovered. It's scheduled for a June release on Asthmatic Kitty Records.

"Fire" - Alibi Tom
     Rapid-fire handclaps play off a crisp guitar lick for a series of quick measures and then--bang: I feel like I'm smack in the middle of a full-grown, fully-developed song--as if I opened a hallway door and discovered a band playing behind it. The verse presents an interesting aural contradiction: it feels very active, with a jumpy melody and the continuation of the crisp guitar line, but chord-wise, we're pretty much standing still--as far as my ear can pick out, the entire verse revolves around one chord. (And if it's not precisely one chord, the verse feels harmonically in one basic place all the way through.) The net effect is of serious anticipation, because whether we're aware of it or not, our ears, when listening to music (pop music, specifically), continually anticipate the next chord, as each chord arrived at becomes its own center on the one hand yet implies its displacement on the other. There's always another one coming, and we know it.
     This is no doubt a good part of why the chorus, when it arrives (at 0:39) seems so wondrous--it comes after 25 seconds of this paradoxical sort of itchy-standing-stillness. Also, it's a pretty great chorus, all effortless melody and breezy harmony. Now that I think about it, the idea of matching a dynamic melody to a single chord strikes me as the equal-but-opposite effect of having a one-note melody over a changing chord pattern, which is a well-established rock tradition (classic examples being "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Pump It Up"). Note, by the way, how, after the chorus but before the next verse, the song fully incorporates the introductory section (handclaps and guitar). This speaks to attention to craft; I always like that.
     From Gothenburg, Sweden, the five-piece band Alibi Tom used to be the six-piece band Out of Clouds; as Out of Clouds, they were previously featured here on Fingertips in September 2006. "Fire" is from Scrapbook, the band's debut as Alibi Tom, slated for release in Europe next month on a new British label called Leon. MP3 via the band's site.

"Right Away" - Pattern is Movement
     Songs rarely manage to be simultaneously catchy and unusual, but the distinctive Philadelphia duo Pattern is Movement has done it with this odd amalgam of noise, cabaret, and glee. Launched off a fuzz of sound that sounds like a sustained accordion (but probably isn't), "Right Away" hooks me, um, right away--as soon as the singing starts, with the lovely, harmonized melody that becomes the backbone of this sturdy, crazy little number. The oddities are too numerous to list (don't miss the cartoony violins that arrive like meddling relatives to punctuate the lyrics), but topping them all is probably the piano solo at 1:45--just past the midpoint of the song, right where a more traditional band would put the blazing guitar solo, we get instead a muddle of notes such as might happen if you put your hands down anywhere on the keyboard and just sort of let them sit there while you drummed your fingers in place.
     Speaking of drumming, sort of, pay attention to the percussion here. Despite an overall rhythm that is nearly mechanical in its one-two-three-four-iness, Chris Ward's drum work is continually creative, utilizing all manner of pitch and accent to keep the texture interesting. Some of this has arisen out of necessity--the band used to have five people in it; down to just a drummer and a keyboard player (Andrew Thiboldeaux, who also sings), Ward has found it useful to be more ingenious. If in so doing he accentuates the duo's overall vibe of purposeful but wacky vigor, all the better.
     "Right Away" can be found on the band's third CD, All Together, which is due out next week Hometapes Records.

* News from the web site: The Fingertips Record Shop has been metamorphosed into the Fingertips Store. You'll now find there a larger assortment of CDs, both current releases and back-catalog classics, along with DVDs and books and maybe some other odds and ends over time. It's still boutiquey; the point is to offer only highly recommended items--the selection is expanded but not enough to get you lost in choice overload. To make this change possible, and a much easier thing to create and maintain at my end, the Store is now an all-Amazon affair. There is no extra cost to you at all; you'll buy things there at standard Amazon prices, and still support Fingertips in the process. Check it out when you have a chance.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Fingertips Top 10 update

Since last we checked into the Fingertips Top 10, some changes have been made. As of April 22, here's what it looks like:

1. "Beyond the Door" - 13ghosts
2. "Boys" - the Autumns
3. "Neal Cassady" - the Weather Underground
4. "Cat Swallow" - the Royal Bangs
5. "Bodyguard" - Dawn Landes
6. "Torn Blue Foam Couch" - Grand Archives
7. "To Be Gone" - Anna Ternheim
8. "Big Sound" - the M's
9. "One, Two, Three!" - I Make This Sound
10. "Buildings and Mountains" - the Republic Tigers

There have been six changes in the chart since the last blog post about it in February, the most recent addition being Anna Ternheim's lovely "To Be Gone." As Fingertips only features high-quality free and legal MP3s, you really can't go wrong with anything written about on the site, but the Top 10 is my way of pointing you towards ten especially wonderful songs at any given time. Songs remain in the Top 10 for a maximum of three months, before they are retired to the Retired Top 10 Songs page, logically enough.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Fingertips says: Take a break!

Fingertips declares Spring Break! In honor of Earth Day and Turn Off Your TV Week, there will be no official "This Week's Finds" selections this week. The Fingertips Home Office will be open all week, so site updates are otherwise likely. Fingertips invites you, meanwhile, to ponder this: we do not, as a culture of educated human beings, generally benefit from filling up all available time and space simply because the space and time seems there to be filled. The mainstream media has proven that beyond argument this election year, with its microscopic idiocy and macroscopic myopia. The blogosphere, alas, proves it everyday. Fight the demon of space- and time-filling and remember to breathe, turn off your screens, and say hello to a nearby tree or two. It won't talk back; it has nothing but time. We might learn a thing or two.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Free and legal MP3s from the Royal Bangs, Anna Ternheim, and the Acorn

* Check out a new feature on the Fingertips web site: the Fingertips Flashback, which takes you back to a free and legal MP3 featured somewhere in the deep dark recesses of "This Week's Finds" history, and still currently available online. This time the song receives an aural introduction, courtesy of Outshouts technology.

"Cat Swallow" - the Royal Bangs
     A potent display of ramshackle rock'n'roll that brings the Replacements to mind both for the sloppy-tight ensemble playing and for lead singer Ryan Schaefer's simultaneously offhanded and passionate voice, which is agreeably Westerbergian. The Bangs aim for a glitchy sort of sound, but only at the very beginning and at the very end are these glitches electronic in nature; otherwise, the band achieves its goals via a squeakily insistent, oddly memorable lead guitar line, cymbals-heavy percussion, the well-timed use of phased vocals, and, eventually, a clickety-clackety sound that might in fact be electronic after all but feels organic even if so. All in all there's a certain wild grandeur at play as the piece shambles and swings along. I like how a searing instrumental break suddenly finds the band backing off, at 2:44, to offer a wonderfully subdued bit of guitar work that sounds completely different from what they've been doing but also, somehow, seamlessly part of the whole.
     A quartet from Knoxville that is an outgrowth of Schaefer's previous band, a trio called the Suburban Urchins, the Royal Bangs have been together since 2004. "Cat Swallow" is from the band's second CD, We Breed Champions, due out next month on the Akron-based label Audio Eagle, a high-spirited outfit with the unambiguous message "Buy our fucking records!" on its home page.

"To Be Gone" - Anna Ternheim
     Sad songs don't always have to be slow, nor do pretty songs. Both sad and pretty, "To Be Gone" nevertheless moves at a steady, initially slinky, and ultimately almost finger-tapping pace, while Ternheim's accented but clear and open-hearted singing style suggests, I think, greater pathos in this hardy setting than most singers convey who seek a melancholy ambiance through hushed tones and drowsy pacing. None of that mush for Ternheim here; "To Be Gone" is a firm-footed beauty, combining a keen if ineffable nostalgia with crystalline presence in the here and now. While there does seem to be something very late '60s- or early '70s-like going on here, the effect is peripheral--listen directly and it disappears.
     At the heart of this song is a gorgeous, melancholic moment in the first line of what appears to be the chorus (although the lyrics shift from one iteration to another): it's when the melody pushes forward but the chords lag behind, going seemingly in the opposite direction of where your ear seeks resolution. You can first hear this at 0:36 and then again, somewhat more clearly, at 1:13. I can't completely describe this but the effect of the entire line is almost breathtaking.
     Ternheim is from Stockholm, and released her first CD in Sweden in 2004 to great acclaim. "To Be Gone" was available on that CD, and is also now on her first U.S. full-length, Halfway to Fivepoints, coming out next week on Decca Records. The CD features mostly songs from Ternheim's 2006 Swedish release, Separation Road, along with the older single "To Be Gone" and a few other songs from EPs and/or bonus discs from Sweden.

"Crooked Legs" - the Acorn
     Opening with an appealing if unassuming bit of finger-picking, "Crooked Legs" begins like pretty much any 21st-century indie rock song written by someone who listened to a lot of old Paul Simon records (him again!; see last week). Except...listen carefully to the background percussion underneath the acoustic guitar. It's syncopated, with a distinctly non-rock'n'roll flavor to it. That's hint number one that this song may not end up where it appears at first to be going.
     Hint number two: the trumpets that glide in at 0:48. There is some musical force seeking to enter here from beyond the realm of either standard-issue indie rock or gimmick-driven blog rock. You can hear it come to full expression at 1:09, when the complex, polyrhythmic percussion kicks in and we find ourselves in the middle of a genuine musical adventure. Which is only fitting, given the real-life adventure on which this song (and album) is based. "Part biographical narrative, part surreal fairy tale," as the band describes it, the CD Glory Hope Mountain was inspired by the harrowing story of Gloria Esperanza Montoya (her name roughly translates to the CD's title), mother of the Acorn's singer and songwriter Rolf Klausener. Barely surviving a childhood of poverty and abuse in her native Honduras, Montoya eventually found her way to Montreal without any money or contacts and slowly made a new life for herself.
     Writing a concept album about your mother is however not the best way to win over your bandmates, but the power of the story, and the accompanying music, got everyone on board. The Ottawa-based Klausener researched the history and mythology of Honduras, and listened to recordings of the country's folk music; he became particularly inspired by the rhythms of the Garifuna music indigenous to the area, which developed from a blending of native traditions with music that came over with slaves who arrived from West Africa. The final product was less specifically about Montoya than a dream-like musing on the individual's struggle to live a meaningful life.
     The Acorn began as a solo project but ultimately became a band when Klausener decided that being a bedroom rocker wasn't all that much fun. There are now five members. Glory Hope Mountain was released on Paper Bag Records in Canada this past fall, and saw its official U.S. release last month. MP3 via Paper Bag.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Three new free and legal MP3s from Fingertips

"C'mon Baby Say Bang Bang" - Jane Vain and the Dark Matter
     I like songs that bother to lay down a full-fledged instrumental melody--i.e. when an instrument (typically a guitar, sometimes a piano, sometimes something else) plays a melody that is not the same melody the lyrics have in either a verse or in the chorus. That's what we're greeted with right away here (0:00-0:14); and, as a bonus, we immediately get that same melody repeated by a high, squeaky, but somehow endearing instrument that is either a high-pitched guitar or a guitar-like synthesizer and as much as I keep listening I can't tell which it is.
     That high-pitched guitar-like thing returns at 1:42, when we are shown how the opening instrumental melody weaves into the main body of the song, which turns out to be in the verse. And while, okay, this sort of thing is not the be-all and end-all of songwriting, the craft and attention it takes to do something like this speaks of a band conscientious about the musical atmosphere it seeks to create. Atmosphere does seem to be Jane Vain and the Dark Matter's specialty, from their fanciful name to the slidey, slinky rhythm to the smoky singing of Jamie Fooks (there is in fact no "Jane Vain") to, most of all, the subtle dynamism of the musical landscape which unfolds along the way here. While the word "atmospheric" in music writing refers typically to spacey washes of psychedelia or shoegaze, these guys create atmosphere in a solider, truer sense of the word, via rhythm and harmony and texture and variety and a most satisfying, if somewhat dreamlike, acuity. The violin that adds some nifty drama between 2:55 and 3:05 had actually sneaked on the scene back around 2:20, without fanfare, and fades away afterwards without a trace. This is that kind of song.
     Jane Vain and the Dark Matter are a quartet from Calgary. "C'mon Baby Say Bang Bang" is from the band's debut CD, Love Is Where the Smoke Is, which was released in January.

"Volatile" - the Old Haunts
     CBGBs may be dead and gone, but here's a trio from Olympia, Washington that has at least one foot firmly planted in 1977. Combining the pretty-yet-prickly guitar lines of Television with the earnest-yet-comic punk drive of the Ramones, "Volatile" seems simultaneously well-crafted and slapped together, if such a thing is possible. What attracts me most about the song is its offhandedly industrious character: the band just keeps on plugging away, twiddly guitar leading the way, creating the most wonderful, busy-sounding thereness in the background that actually seems more the heart of the song, in a way, than do the melody and lyrics. This sensation is reinforced by the lyrics themselves, which aren't really about very much other than the narrator assuring us that he's "volatile," and literally spelling it out to be sure we understand.
     The stringy, nasally vocal stylings of singer/guitarist Craig Extine bring Tom Verlaine directly to mind, accentuating the Television-like sensibility; the fact that this anxious-sounding character, so clear about his emotional turbulence, bothers both to spell the word he's singing (a concept usually reserved for more positive attributes like r-e-s-p-e-c-t and l-o-v-e) and take lovely little "ah-ah-ah" breaks in his singing is both charming and, basically, funny. The trio also includes drummer Tobi Vail, ex- of Bikini Kill, the pioneering '90s "riot grrl" outfit. "Volatile" is a song off the band's new CD, Poisonous Times, coming out this week on Kill Rock Stars. MP3 via Kill Rock Stars, which is in fact the name of a record company, if you were wondering.

"Sun Down" - Nick Freitas
     From Kill Rock Stars to Team Love we go--Team Love being another unlikely record company name, pointing in the opposite direction, and co-founded by Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes). With its delicate but determined chug and wistful vocalizing, "Sun Down" is the sort of brisk, contemplative guitar and piano piece that you would have heard back on a Paul Simon record in the '70s. Check out that evocative electric guitar he's using--listen at 1:41 in particular; now that's just a wonderful, decades-old sound you don't hear much on a '00s indie-rock platter (and I don't guess I should be calling it a "platter" but that's how nostalgic the sound is). This song offers pleasures which are so low-key they might have slipped right past me were it not for the song's eminently pleasing center of gravity--I won't call it a hook because it's not quite that, but the way the melody takes that three-note ascent at the end of the verse (first heard at 0:24) is the kind of beautiful, slightly unexpected songwriting touch that goes a long way towards nailing an entire song into place.
     "Sun Down" is the title track from Freitas's forthcoming CD, his fourth, and his first for Team Love. Freitas--one-time staff photographer for Thrasher magazine--recorded the CD pretty much on his own, in a studio he pretty much built himself in a shed in his Los Angeles backyard. It's slated to hit the streets next month. MP3 via Team Love.