Jan. 4-10

"The Puritans" - Casador
     From Argentina by way of Italy comes a young man named Alessandro Raina, doing musical business as Casador. And moody-but-beautiful musical business it is--a shuffly, echoey, minor-key lament, with a crispness and sense of purpose not often found in independently produced debut EPs. And yes, "The Puritans" manages to be both echoey and crisp at the same time, which is not an ordinary accomplishment; indie rockers in the '00s have tended to slop reverb on songs like whitewash on an old barn wall, boosting appearance without needing to clean anything up underneath. Raina instead uses an octave-lower harmony line to enhance his vocals in the verse, and maybe those lower vocals are touched up with a slight reverb, or maybe it's that chiming, reverberant bass at the bottom, but the end result is a rich, spacious vocal sound without tramping mud all over the rest of the mix.
     One sign of the sonic clarity is how naturally the song can drift back and forth between louder/faster and softer/slower without creating any aural jolt. The introduction offers a sonorous interplay between acoustic guitar and the aforementioned bass; they are joined first by the vocals, and then, kicking the volume and tempo up a notch, the drums. Keyboards arrive at the chorus (0:54), adding another notch to the song's insistence, but right after that, at 1:34, we are taken back down to the quiet music of the introduction, which, with the addition of a few remarkably well-placed notes on a piano, feels almost thrillingly introspective at this exact moment.
     "The Puritans" is the title track of Casador's two-song debut EP, which is apparently based on the ancient tale of the sword of Damocles. Both songs are available on the Casador blog; a third song will be yours if you order the physical CD version of the EP.

"Fever" - Trentalange
     More minor-key moodiness, but quite the different aura this time; with twiddling synths, a noir-ish surf guitar line, and an ominous dance beat, "Fever" sounds like the soundtrack to a spy movie starring the Bee Gees, with Annie Lennox singing lead. Okay not exactly, but that'll get your mind working in the right direction.
     Trentalange is Barbara Trentalange, former lead singer for the Seattle-based quintet Spyglass, and last heard around these parts in August 2006, when her first solo CD was released. Beyond the immediately successful mood established here, "Fever" works particularly well because the chorus delivers a payoff on the verse's setup. Although nothing wildly different is happening in the chorus--the general mood and tempo remain the same--two particular attributes win me over. First, the vocals open up. While Trentalange sings with a smoky (and doubletracked, and maybe phased?) restraint in the verse, she gives herself more emotive freedom in the chorus, singing without obvious effects, and layering on the harmonies with just the right amount of drama (be sure to check out those Lennox-like howls she hides in the background). The other winning point in the chorus: the unresolved melody line at the end. And okay I'm kind of a sucker for unresolved melody lines, but even more so when they come in an unexpected context such as this upbeat, loungey rave-up (the song in fact seems to be taking place on a dance floor). That we are then led into a particularly noodly synthesizer line makes it sound like she's winking at us, telling us that things after all aren't exactly what they seem.
     "Fever" is the lead track on the forthcoming Trentalange album, Awakening, Level One, scheduled for release next month on Coco Tauro Records, which appears to be her own label.

"Worm's Head" - Joker's Daughter
     If Gnarls Barkley can refer to themselves as the "odd couple" (as per their 2008 album), then what to make of this pairing of Helena Costas, a London-born singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist of Greek Cypriot extraction, and Danger Mouse (himself half of Gnarls Barkley)? A really really odd couple?
     And what to make of this odd-couply music, part pastoral airiness, part Twilight Zoney strangeness? There are uncanny lyrics--"The horses turn into cows/And sheep lie on the edge of the road"--and an off-kilter heaviness to a beat that kind of wants to be lilting but isn't, really. There are warm acoustic instruments and wayward keyboards and electronic effects that sound like a combination of a theremin and an old-fashioned radio dial trying to tune in a station. Through it all, Costas--a classically trained violinist, among other things--sings with an unperturbed, slightly breathy sweetness, almost as if no one has told her exactly what she's singing about. Not that I have any idea either. And how short this is! Just when you're ready to sink into the mystery of it all, it's over. Rendering it all the more mysterious, I suppose.
     "Worm's Head" came out as a digital single in November, a 7-inch vinyl record in December, and will be on the debut Joker's Daughter album, The Last Laugh, when it comes out in February, on Team Love Records. MP3 via Team Love.

Jan. 11-17

"Blank Test" - Smothered In Hugs
     So listen to that opening melody (beginning at 0:15), remove the primal drumbeat, and think about what this sounds like: it's not merely based on the standard I-IV-V chord progression, but it's rooted in an early-rock setting of that progression--three successive ascending notes, each a whole interval apart, each accompanied, in order, by one of those I-IV-V chords. The verse of the hugely popular and evocative song "All I Have To Do Is Dream" uses this exact pattern, in a swaying, Everly Brothers soundscape, but this was hardly the only example. Enough other doo-wop era songs grounded themselves in this simple structure for it to carry forever an ineffable air of bygone times about it.
     Which is what, to me, helps make "Blank Test" so satisfying, somehow: it manages to conjure the past while presenting the melody in not one but two contemporary frames--the opening, percussive section and then the sped-up version (first heard at 1:23), after the song's prominent tempo change. Interestingly, it was this second, faster version that first sounded most nostalgic, maybe because there was kind of a double-nostalgia at work, this speedier section likewise echoing the late '70s via the Ramones and Blondie, bands which also mined '50s and early '60s melodies and chord progressions for use in their faster and harder-rocking compositions.
     Smothered In Hugs (named after a Guided By Voices song) is a quintet from the picturesque and music-laced island of Prince Edward, way out there in the Atlantic Time Zone. "Blank Test" is the lead track on the album The Healing Power of Injury, set for release next month on Collagen Rock Records, a local collective that Smothered in Hugs has established with three other bands from the Maritimes.

"White as Diamonds" - Alela Diane
     Alela Diane (born Alela Diane Menig) is associated with the so-called "psych folk" and/or "New Weird America" movements, but as with the previously featured Marissa Nadler, similarly associated, there is nothing freakish or discomfitingly idiosyncratic about this young California-raised, Oregon-based singer/songwriter. On the contrary, "White as Diamonds" strikes me as solid as a genuine folk song, with the added benefit of a great--if offbeat--hook. This hook isn't part of the chorus (there is in fact no chorus), it's not even a particular turn of phrase or melody; instead, it's her ongoing use of what is officially called melisma, which is when a singer uses several notes to sing one syllable of a lyric.
     Rooted in ancient, sacred music, utilized in classical music, and rendered histrionic by most American Idol contestants, melisma can be not only aurally engaging but emotionally powerful in the hands of the right singer. Diane nails it so well that, as noted, the melismatic recurrence is, really, the song's great hook. Listening to her singing "white as diamonds" (0:16) or "I was sifting through the piles" (0:51) (melismas on "sifting" and "piles") or "a tangled thread" (1:01) (check out that upward flutter as she stretched the second syllable of "tangled" out, briefly but indelibly), something inside me opens to her, completely. The song has both a homespun feel, accentuated by the plaintive fiddle accompaniment, and a solemn rhythmic throughline, almost like an old Civil War song, but--in part because of the repeated melisma--is buoyed by a curious sense of the unexpected, which comes to the fore during the bridge (2:04), when the song's beat is overtly disrupted by a shift in the drumming.
     "White as Diamonds" will be found on Diane's To Be Still CD, coming out on Rough Trade in February. MP3 courtesy of the Beggars Group web site. [FS]

"I Know My Ocean" - the Traditionist
     Guitar, bass, small drum kit, a harmonica flourish or two, an amiably insistent melody, a one-line chorus--turns out you don't need that much to make an effective and affecting song. Well, okay, there's also a banjo. Slide guitar too. And that droning sound beneath the mix pretty much the entire time. And those great lyrics, blending a stream-of-consciousness feeling with some startlingly focused observations.
      What Joey Barro, in fact, has put together, hiding behind a name that looks like a word but isn't, is a deceptively complex song hiding out as an easy-going one. Building upon sonic territory pioneered of course by Bob Dylan (guitar, harmonica, wordy lyrics crammed into tight musical spaces) and more recently explored by fellow Southern Californian Peter Case (whom he resembles vocally, somewhat, in a good way), Barro, working with friend and producer Tim Bluhm, has constructed a wide-open delight of a song, all forward-moving flow and evocative texture--it's one of those songs that goes by in something of a blur, and yet every time your ear specifically tunes in, there's something interesting going on.
     Barro is based in Huntington Beach, California, and is better known around those parts as front man for the band the Antiques. His new album actually started life as an Antiques CD, but became something different over the course of an extended recording schedule. Season to Season will be out on Better Looking Records in March; "I Know My Ocean" is the last track, and a really nice last track it is. MP3 via the Better Looking site.

Jan. 18-24

"Shampoo" - Elvis Perkins in Dearland
     What may seem like a throwaway, the twiddly gathering of odd-ish creaks and whistles we hear in this song's opening 25 seconds or so, is in retrospect an intriguing hint of the powerful agglomeration of sound that Perkins and his idiosyncratically-named band pump out as this one ramps up. Among the instruments the group plays are upright bass, saxophone, pump organ, harmonica, harmonium, trombone, banjo, and clarinet. (This is not your father's rock band.) I advise turning up the volume so as best to hear the deep and mighty sonic breaths that propel this cryptic dirge forward. Perkins sings with an offhanded, cumulatively heart-rending ache; a startling phrase or two comes to the surface ("Black is the color of a strangled rainbow," for one); but the song's meaning lies more in the convincing churn of the the musical and lyrical momentum than in precise denotation. (In other words: I don't know what he's actually saying.)
     Perkins was featured on Fingertips around the time of his 2007 solo debut CD; check out that review for the executive summary of his sad backstory. He's been playing, with long-time friends, as Elvis Perkins in Dearland at least since then. The band's self-titled debut CD is due out on XL Recordings in March. MP3 via the Beggars Group web site. [FS]

"First Avenue" - Hollowblue
     First come the blurred piano chords and crazed cello bleats. Next we hear the speaking voice of hard-bitten, semi-anarchic American novelist Dan Fante delivering the hard-bitten, semi-anarchic lyrics that he wrote for this song by the Italian band Hollowblue (however that collaboration came about). The words make sense yet the sentences don't ("Drag your laundry down First Avenue"? "Spend some time with your drugstore mind"?), but with his voiceover-announcer-from-hell intonation, he sells it to you anyway. "I've got a pair of socks I like better than you"--well, okay, sure, if you say so, Dan. (And he does, twice.)
      Turns out the jittery, slippery, loopy opening section is over before you can quite absorb it; at 0:27, the band fully takes over, the lyrics now reintroduced over a brisk, noir-ish Continental beat, sung in heavily accented English by the engaging front man Gianluca Maria Sorace. While Sorace's breezy earnestness and reedy tenor brings Fante's nutty non-narrative to a more grounded and inclusive place, in my mind it's cellist Ellie Young who provides the heart of this likable dadaesque melodrama. First we heard those wild, horn-like blurts accompanying Fante. She returns at 0:48 with strong, gypsy-ish bowing and then uses a muscular 25-second solo in the center of the song (1:40) to make a strong argument for the cello as a rock instrument, and it's less maybe about the solo itself than how great the song sounds when Sorace returns in full force afterward.
     "First Avenue" is the lead track from Hollowblue's CD Stars Are Crashing (In My Backyard), which was released in Europe last year on Midfinger Records, an Italian label. MP3 via the band's site.

"I Have Laid in the Darkness of Doubt" - Mazes
     For better or worse, we live in expansive musical times. Back in the 20th century, which some of you may remember, a band would work hard (or, maybe, not so hard) at being successful, and usually not succeed. That much hasn't changed. Sometimes, when a band was very successful, one of the members might form an offshoot, a so-called "side project," for a variety of reasons, but the starting point was that the original band had gained some traction, was relatively well-known. A side project would often arise, in fact, as a way of giving less involved members of an established band a chance to be leader. Today, side projects sprout like dandelions in the indie music meadow. Bands with little or no widespread recognition routinely spawn side projects, sometimes more than one.
     I am not judging this, just pointing out the change. People seem genuinely to have more music coming out of them than hours in the day, and obviously more ways than ever to record and distribute it. And if there had been some small-minded, last-century-oriented part of my brain that did want to judge this phenomenon, it has been silenced once and for all by Mazes, a side project of the worthy but not very well-known Chicago band the 1900s (previously featured on Fingertips in 2007, by the way). Edward Anderson and Caroline Donovan from that band have joined up with Charles D'Autremont to form the trio Mazes, and the result here is a gorgeous bit of sturdy, sort-of-lo-fi Americana tinged unexpectedly with gospelly overtones. "I Have Laid in the Darkness of Doubt" floats along with a backwoods sort of poise, picked and strummed and percussed on top of what surely sounds like a chorus of crickets, in no hurry to go anywhere, without even a chorus to distract us. Every time I listen I'm surprised how quickly it's over.
     This is one of 11 songs on Mazes' self-titled debut CD, scheduled for a March release on Parasol Records. MP3 via the Parasol site.

Jan. 25-31

"No One's Better Sake" - Little Joy
     A delight from beginning to end, "No One's Better Sake" rolls along with a shuffling, organ-infused island beat and a casual sensibility that belies how beautifully this little song is put together. What we have here is that rare pop composition that is constructed around a full 16-measure melody--listen and you'll see how the entire verse is an unfolding melody (from 0:18 all the way to 0:54), even as the song's gentle, world-pop sway implies a simpler melodic framework. The chorus does its magic in eight measures, as the organ comes back to the fore and the song's lone, exquisitely placed minor chord just melts the heart there at around 1:04. (At least, it feels like the only minor chord; I could be wrong about that.)
     Singer/guitarist Rodrigo Amarante has an endearing, laid-back vocal style that gives the lyrics the quality of a developing conversation; he often sings as if he's just then deciding what to say. At the same time, Amarante's processed vocals call to mind the Strokes distinctive vocal sound, which may be no accident: the trio Little Joy is a side project for the Strokes' drummer, Fabrizio Moretti (the third member is singer and multi-instrumentalist Binki Shapiro). Amarante, it should be noted, is far more well-known in his home country, Brazil, than Moretti is in the U.S.; he gained fame as a member and eventual leader of the Brazilian band Los Hermanos, which is currently on hiatus.
     "No One's Better Sake" is a song from Little Joy's self-titled debut album, which was released in November on Rough Trade Records, to not a whole lot of fanfare. The band took its name from their favorite bar in Echo Park, the section of LA where they lived while recording the album. MP3 once again via the Beggars Group web site, which has had a great run of offerings lately. [FS]

"Americana" - Jessie Kilguss
     What I like right away here is the clarity in Kilguss's voice. The overall mood--upbeat, spacious, minor-key, with a piano pulse--has a familiar, Sarah McLachlan-like sheen to it (and nothing, it should be noted, remotely Americana, the genre, about it). But Kilguss does not milk the drama with any extra vocal ache or wooshiness. This makes an immediate difference, to me. Music of this general sort does not usually come with a restrained singer. (Maybe her previous career as an actress keeps her from having to get all melodramatic vocally.) Kilguss has a pretty tone--prettiness is the first thing to go when histrionics set in--and she doesn't even lose it in her upper register, which is where many pop sopranos get all airy and blowy. At the same time, she doesn't have one of those "hey listen to my pretty voice" kind of voices either. Restraint, again, is the key.
     The other principal thing I like about "Americana" is the left turn the song takes at the chorus. First we get a brief hit of string-like synthesizers, as the piano either disappears or is overwhelmed, and the word "Americana" sung anthemically, but then, hey--check out that unexpected chord shift (1:08) as she sings the word a second time over accompaniment that lags engagingly behind the beat. One more unforeseen chord awaits us at 1:20, and by now it's apparent that this elusive-sounding chorus is driven by neither melody nor lyrics but by a surging, almost orchestral musical flow. The lyrics alone on paper do not begin to suggest the music, which is not a disconnect but a testament to the songwriter's musical imagination.
     You'll find "Americana" on Nocturnal Drifter, Kilguss's second album, which she self-released earlier this month.

"Apple Eye" - Evening Magazine
     Marrying an old-fashioned "sound of Philadelphia" sweep to 21st-century electronics and indie-rock flavorings, Evening Magazine makes music that shouldn't probably work but in this case does, however idiosyncratically. A nine-piece collective from (yes) Philadelphia, the band is led by guitarist/vocalist David Disbrow (formerly of the band BC Camplight) and engineer Kevin Francis (who plays synths too), and features a trumpeter, trombonist, flutist, and harpist, among others. For all the colorful instrumentation, the band doesn't feel the need to fill in all the aural blanks. As a singer, Disbrow has a somewhat fragile presence, and the music gives him space to establish this presence; in fact, he usually isn't singing on top of much more here than an acoustic guitar and a drumbeat. The arrangement is reminiscent of classical music, which is more willing than rock to explore dynamics via having instruments just stop playing for a while. Rock musicians, if they're holding an instrument, they want to play it pretty much constantly.
     What makes it all work for me is nothing more complicated than a pleasing melodic interval. Actually, a relationship of intervals. After the relaxed, horn-driven intro, the melody in the verse, itchier, finds Disbrow singing a rapid-fire series of tones. Staying on the first note for six or seven iterations, he slips down just a half-step for four syllables and then up five steps of the scale for the last three. Disbrow sounds particularly fragile at the top of the leap--so much so that the note, while actually the tonic of the scale, the home base, sounds unresolved, just a bit off, adding to the muted urgency of the ambiance fostered by that half-step-down, big-leap-up combination.
     "Apple Eye" is the lead track off the band's debut EP, The Ride Across Lake Constance, released this month on Ohso Records, which appears to be the band's own imprint. Thanks to the band for the MP3.

Feb. 1-7

"River of Dirt" - Marissa Nadler
     A master of atmosphere, Marissa Nadler can maintain her delicate, otherworldly vibe even when she adds percussion and electric guitar to her spidery sound, and even when the music chugs along at a toe-tapping pace. A lot of the aura has to do with that spooky voice of hers, encased in reverb, and the words that voice is singing--weird words, full of romance, escape, and sorrow (the titular metaphor appears to be referring to death itself). The echoey, keening lap steel that hovers in the background heightens the familiar strangeness of it all.
     Nadler may be adding band-like instrumentation to her sound, but it's hardly a standard sort of rock band she's got going here. Listen, first, to the drumming, which moves forward with an idiosyncratic blending of rims and toms, and a most judicious use of cymbals--what you hear in the intro from about :06 onward is what propels the entire song; it's a subtly peculiar sound, seeming at once mechanical and homespun. Then check out the aforementioned lap steel guitar, which howls and sings with uncanny luminosity, mixing in and around an electric guitar and also Nadler's own backing vocal tracks, often stressing notes that set it apart from the melody and harmony and yet join everything mysteriously together. Beautiful, compelling music we have here.
     Fingertips regulars may recall Nadler from the oddly gorgeous 2007 song "Diamond Heart," which ended that year among the top 10 favorite free and legal MP3s here. "River of Dirt" is from her forthcoming (and fourth) CD, Little Hells, which is slated for release next month on Kemado Records. MP3 via Kemado.

"Shotgun Wedding" - Blue Horns
     With its thorny guitars and yelpy vocals, "Shotgun Wedding" brings the early work of the late great New Zealand band Split Enz rather immediately to mind, but that's only because I'm old and remember them. It's probably an accident. (They didn't really do the thorny guitar thing, anyway. Thorny keyboards, thorny strings, maybe. Yelpy vocals, definitely.) Perhaps less of an accident is the way the band's clearly voiced dual guitar sound recalls another '70s band, Television, although this is jumpier and poppier than what Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd were doing. These guys are like Television's kid brother, just wanting to have a bit of actual fun. (Television was cool and great but not much fun.)
     "Shotgun Wedding"'s charm, to me, has to do with its commanding spirit of loose tightness (or is it tight looseness?)--an aural sense and sensibility that characterizes a lot of great rock'n'roll through the years. You want it to sound spontaneous and alive, but you also want everything just so. There's nothing muddy or muddled here; the two guitars play cleverly together, and you can always hear what each one is doing if you stop to listen. The song rollicks to a spiky, shuffly beat, singer Brian Park (he also plays one of the guitars) unleashes his warbly falsetto with exquisite precision (check out the note he hits at 0:52, which pretty much sold me on the song), the guitars take a break from their prickly, tick-tock dueting to give us a little "Heat Wave"-y swing (1:19), and the whole thing wraps in 2:40.
     Blue Horns is a quartet from Portland, Oregon. "Shotgun Wedding" is the lead track on the band's self-titled debut album, which was self-released at the end of last year.

"People Got a Lotta Nerve" - Neko Case
     The mighty Neko Case is back with a soon-to-be-released album and an initial song that took a while to sneak up on me, as it were. To be sure, her voice is as spellbinding as ever, with that rich lower register, that clarion upper register. And this one does have an immediate, breezy-jangly appeal. I just wasn't sure about the song itself. I kept hearing the chorus, with its simple-sounding, repetitive core, and was too distracted to listen to what was actually going on.
     The words were the first to penetrate. Over what may sound like a throwaway melodic line, she sings "I'm a man-man-man, man-man-maneater/But still you're suprised-prised-prised when I eat you." It turns out this is a bouncy, casual, humorous-seeming way of nailing a painful and complicated interpersonal tendency among us humans that would take me a full paragraph to explicate (I don't have the room; I'll leave it to you to ponder.) And then, the music: the way the second series of repetitions, on "surprised," lag at half-rate, and behind the beat, helps deliver the complex, wistful payoff far better than the words alone would. Eventually, too, I noticed she has two different melodies for the two verses, which feels curious and elusive. You keep needing to go back and listen again. Don't miss, also, that rueful seven-note run on the guitar before the second verse starts (beginning at 0:56), a C-sharp scale that comes up one note short, leaving us on the most unresolved C note possible (in this difficult scale it's considered a B-sharp, to be precise). She uses this same pattern for the song's cryptic coda, as she sings: "It will end again in bullets fired," which strikes me as an allusion to Chekhov's famous theatrical principle.
     So there's a little more here than meets the eye. And, "People Got a Lotta Nerve" comes with a nifty promotional gimmick to boot. For every blog that posts this song, Case and her record label, Anti, will donate $5 to the Best Friends Animal Society. Today is in fact the last day the promotion is in effect, so I'm in under the wire. Phew. The new CD, Middle Cyclone, is due out in early March. (There's a nice video on the making of the album, worth watching, here.) MP3 via Spinner. [FS]

Feb. 8-14

"It Hurts Me All the Time" - Faunts
     Breezy and melancholy is a seductive musical combination, trickier to master than it may at first seem. The big problem when aiming for both pretty and glum at the same time is avoiding glib pastiche; in this day and age when knob-twiddlers rule the world, it's easy enough to combine disparate moods and sounds and harder than ever to make it sound a convincing whole.
     "It Hurts Me All the Time" blows right past any difficulties from the get-go: first comes that extended intro mixing sprightly synths and low-level dissonance, and then (eventually) the decisive opening lines: "You could never love me/The sky is black above me," sung with pitch-perfect doleful-sweetness by Tim Batke (one of three Batke brothers in this five-man band). Scored or sung the wrong way, lyrics like that might set off the twee alarm, but not only is Batke's voice burnished with a subtle throatiness one might not expect from a soaring pop tenor, get a load too of that clanging guitar noise going on as a backdrop to the bubbling synthesizers accompanying him--a visceral signal of the song's mixed message. And then there's also the smooth, repeated synthesizer theme that's more or less an instrumental hook for the song--a pretty line aired with an eerie, organic fragility; a line which, as well, carries with it a distinct echo of Joy Division's famously melancholy "Love Will Tear Us Apart," which further undermines the sweetness.
     "It Hurts Me All the Time" is a song from the CD Feel.Love.Thinking.Of., the Edmonton band's second album (not counting last year's remix album), to be released next week on Friendly Fire Recordings. MP3 via Friendly Fire. [FS]

"The Horizon" - Stina Stjern
     Straightforward rock'n'roll with a scuffed-up edge, assured vocals, and a subtly powerful melody. The guitar work here is especially wonderful, all rough and crunchy and bendy, with a dissonant flair and offhanded discipline. There's a rumbly guitar at the bottom of the mix that gives the song a beat-up gravitas, and there's a rhythm guitar pretty much playing lead (I tend to like that, now that I think about it), and there's probably a regular rhythm guitar in there too but by and large everything coheres so agreeably that my mind resists further efforts to pick it apart. I'm just enjoying the vibe, a lot. Stjern herself says she's "a sucker for good melodies and edgy white trash rock music (whatever that is)," so there's as good a description as any. And be sure to pay attention to that great coda (3:06): a full minute of churning, squeaking guitars, held together briefly by a circular lead guitar line before disintegrating into a squonky puddle.
     Born in Norway and now based in Copenhagen, Stina Stjern has one of those natural voices that gives the illusion that she's speaking more than singing; there's something in her full-bodied tone that brings to mind another wonderful Scandinavian singer/songwriter, Ebba Forsberg, but yikes that's an analogy that's going to mean nothing to almost everyone. Well, look her up someday. And then here's something that reminds me of nobody at all: Stjern has hand-knit (as in yarn and needles) covers for the 7-inch vinyl version of the single; she's made a video of many of the covers, accompanied by the song. MP3 via Stjern's web site.

"Two" - the Antlers
     For a tune that pretty much loops over and over, "Two" has an uncanny--and almost unbearable--amount of grit, substance, and heartache. The song is part of a tightly-themed album called Hospice, which is clearly based on a tragedy in front man Peter Silberman's life, a tragedy which is only amplified by his free-flowing but unpitying lyrics, his dry, falsetto-like tenor, and the music's tinkly, buzzing, hypnotic momentum. For all its gathering, contraption-like force, "Two" retains a hand-hewn quality that adds to the pathos; and just listen to those pensive piano chords that appear intermittently (first at 1:53), commanding attention despite--or maybe because of--their quiet matter-of-factness. They're kind of heartbreaking in their own way.
     And I'm not normally a lyrics-focused kind of guy but this song demands a reading, so check it out when you have a chance. "Two," by the way, is subtitled "Or, I Would Have Saved Her If I Could."
     The Antlers' first release, in 2007, was a solo project for the Brooklyn-based Silberman; the band has since evolved into a trio, with more players joining in for the album. "Two" has been circulating around the blogosphere since last fall; Hospice is set for self-release next month. MP3 via the band's site.

Feb. 15-21

"The Sun Ain't Shining No More" - The Asteroids Galaxy Tour
     Every now and again the stars align and a song with all the makings of a pop sensation sneaks its way into Fingertips. Be not afraid; it is, rather, a cause for celebration when something this brash and delightful likewise reveals itself to be a worthy three and a half minutes of your time.
      A bracing amalgam of sounds past and present, "The Sun Ain't Shining No More" sparkles with energy and know-how--a '60s-like R&B stomp with a bright, contemporary haircut, held together with a bashy beat, laid-back but super-groovy guitar licks, and the garage-edged baby-doll voice of Mette Lindberg. Moderately paced but full of movement, the song manages to create a deep groove without breaking a sweat. Auxilliary sounds--strings, chimes--are used prominently but succinctly. And this is one groove that tends lovingly (and unusually) to its melody, the pliability of which is enhanced by Lindberg's curious and expressive voice.
     TAGT was founded by Lars Iversen in Copenhagen in 2007, although Iversen says he had the sound for the band in his head before it even existed. While Iversen and Lindberg are the core of the group, which has expanded to six players for live shows, they consider themselves neither a duo nor a band but a collective which will continue to shift as the music and the interconnections unfold over time. "The Sun Ain't Shining No More" was originally heard on the band's Around the Bend EP (the title track to that became part of an iPod commercial), and will likewise appear on the forthcoming debut CD, Fruit, to be released in April on Small Giants Records.

"Buddy" - Iran
     Talk about retro--this one swings with a '50s vibe, complete with doo-wop style backing vocals, a nostalgic bass line, and a simple piano vamp. At the same time, there is something unsettling in the air here. Aaron Aites' plainspoken, unstylized voice is not, to begin with, what one expects in a musical environment typically peopled by smooth crooners. Even less expected are the guitarists Aites brings along with him, one of whom is Kyp Malone, who is better known as part of TV on the Radio.
     At first we get a slashing chord or two, and a bit of reverb. Thirty seconds in, a new guitar sound enters and grows in strength--a buzzing, high-pitched line playing a slow series of extended, vibrating notes. No doubt there are two guitars doing this but the net effect is one voice, which grows increasingly louder and more insistent as the song unfolds. (The band, a trio, features two guitarists--Malone and Aaron Romanello--and Aites, a multi-instrumentalist.) The instrumental break (1:15) highlights the song's developing juxtaposition: easy-going, old-fashioned sway meets tense guitar noise. The edgy, extended notes continue and intensify, and notice how the "oo-oo" backing vocals open out into something weirder and more diffuse along the way, becoming part of the background wash. By 2:20, Aites himself is getting louder, if only to be heard; at 2:30, the atmosphere explodes with wailing guitars and unidentifiable noise that reaches a peak ten or so seconds later and then, with disconcerting ease, withdraws, leaving the easy-going vibe intact. The screechy guitars, however, have the last word, taking longest of all to fade away.
     Iran, the band, is not by the way named for the country, but for a character in the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the book which gave birth to the movie Blade Runner). The song "Buddy" was originally released on an EP late last year, and appears on the band's new CD, Dissolver, released last week on Narnack Records.

"St. Paul" - Ann Vriend
     Lastly this week I have another song that's been out in the world for a while, but unlike the previous two, this one has received next to no online attention to date. I pretty much stumbled upon it during my first run-through of the new SXSW MP3s. Serendipity rules.
     A singer/songwriter from Edmonton, Vriend has a voice that sounds a bit like Kate Bush doing a Nanci Griffith imitation (or maybe it's Nanci Griffith doing a Kate Bush imitation; I can never figure out which way to go with that sort of comparison). "St. Paul" is a smooth strummer with a timeless core; once the song kicks into gear, after a minute or so, it sounds like something that must have always been around, something rock solid, stratospheric, and maybe even a little Dylanic (the organ that comes to the fore two-thirds of the way through contributes nicely to that last impression). This is one of those fortunate songs in which the chorus emerges as increasingly deep and revelatory, both musically and lyrically, each time it recurs. In it, she sings, "What if I dare to risk it all/Be free wherever I found myself," and the words on the screen can't begin to convey the richness of the aural experience, the way the unexpected melodic upturn at "wherever" and upgraded resolution at "myself" together spring the song into a grand new dimension, while both conveying and deepening the stated yearning (which is, truth be told, one of the deepest human yearnings of them all).
     "St. Paul" is from the album When We Were Spies, Vriend's third, which came out back in March 2008. Yet to create any stir in the blogosphere, she will be performing next month down at SXSW, which may help; the MP3 is via the SXSW web site.

Feb. 22-28

Fingertips is taking a late winter vacation. There will be no "This Week's Finds" this week. The home office will be shut down through February 28. "This Week's Finds" will return on Monday March 2 (or, okay, maybe Tuesday March 3).

For those who would like some new music, albeit without the usual commentary, here are links to five songs I've been listening closely in recent days (or, in some cases, weeks). Any one of these may yet end up featured with a review, but you can take a listen in advance and see how they strike you:

* "My Maudlin Career" - Camera Obscura
* "Better at the End of the Day" - Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles
* "The Ancient Common Sense of Things" - Bishop Allen
* "Everything All at Once" - the Rest
* "The Sun and the Earth" - Middle Distance Runner

Note that three of these bands--Camera Obscura, Bishop Allen, and Middle Distance Runner--have been previously featured on Fingertips. You can look them up via the Master Artist List. Bishop Allen has appeared twice previously, in fact (note to self: put these guys in the Select Artist Guide already).

And consider taking the time you're saving this week by not having to read three lengthy MP3 reviews and using it to become a fan of Fingertips on Facebook or, perchance, a follower of Fingertips on Twitter. It's easy and, apparently, fun.

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