THIS WEEK'S FINDS
JULY - AUGUST 2006
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THIS WEEK'S FINDS
week of July 9-15
"Something of an End" - My Brightest Diamond
A quirky, multifaceted pop song with cinematic ups and downs of the Kate Bushian variety, "Something of an End" is a good introduction to the compelling work of Shara Worden, one-time cheerleading captain of the Sufjan Stevens "Illinoisemakers," now doing business as My Brightest Diamond. I am not one to value all quirkiness as good, just as I don't criticize everything quirk-free as bad; I like my quirkiness to come with substance--to be fostered, in other words, by genuine expertise, rather than the boring and ultimately empty impulse to "shock" or "rebel" or simply "be different." I think the fact that Worden's father was a national accordion champion and her mother was a church organist is important; I like too that she studied classical music in college and, later on, studied composition with Australian composer Padma Newsome. "Something of an End" feels composed, in fact--its demarcated sections sounding at once distinct and tightly bound, its melodies and harmonies rich and unsimplistic. Keep your ears on the instrumentation throughout, as Worden uses strings in particular with marvelous flair. "Something of an End" is the opening track on Bring Me The Workhorse, the debut My Brightest Diamond CD, due out in August on Asthmatic Kitty Records. The MP3 is via Worden's web site.
"Breakdown" - Stella (U.S.)
Even as the guitars squonk and blaze, and even as singer Curt Perkins emotes with the best of them, and even though the song is called "Breakdown," there's something joyous in the air here, so powerful is the energy churning around this one. I'm engaged to begin with by how the song launches with a rhythm that manages to stutter and drive at the same time. When Perkins joins in, he's singing mostly one note against, mostly, a tom-tom beat, creating a pulsing sort of urgency--you know it's going somewhere, only it's hard to figure where. I was not prepared, however, for the glistening chorus, which depends upon the vivid arrangement of a simple three-note descent. I think it's Perkins' voice most of all that creates the hook--with the chorus, it becomes more full-bodied, as if there's a howl now hiding just behind the words he sings; and the transition from the five repeated notes that open the chorus to the next note, one step down: there, that's it, that's the moment here, for me, when the song lodges in my gut. Coincidentally enough, Perkins comes from musical parents as well, his father being a classical musician, his mother a Broadway singer. Stella (which adds the U.S. officially to distinguish itself from another, Europe-based Stella) is a quartet based in Nashville; "Breakdown" comes from its "new" CD, American Weekend--the new is in quotes because the album was finished in 1999, but tied up in legal problems for, literally, years. It was legally released, at long last, last week, on Yesman Records.
"Beanbag Chair" - Yo La Tengo
It's been a while since we've heard from this proto-indie, perpetually idiosyncratic Hoboken band. And, actually, when I first listened to this song, it kind of glided past my ears without making much impact. Okay, cute horns, but then what? Ira Kaplan's trademark whispery-wavery vocals, sure. I still wasn't convinced. But after living with it a while, I find myself charmed. I think it was (again) the chorus that did it. For here, in the middle of a peppy, horn-flecked tune comes an unexpectedly delicate, delicately harmonized melody--a melody that might fit comfortably in a folk-pop tune from the late '60s, perhaps, if set in an entirely different musical context. As with "Breakdown," I think I was hooked by more or less one note--in this case, the third note Kaplan sings in the chorus (as usual with YLT, the words are nearly impossible to discern). He's just singing the basic chord triad, starting in the middle, going down to the one note, then up to the five, but the quality of his fragile tenor at the top there, combined with the casual, difficult-to-pin-down backing vocals, makes this an exquisite moment, truly. Make sure not to miss, too, the subtly chaotic bridge section, beginning around 1:40; I won't try to describe it, but for a short while there it sounds like another song is playing at the same time. "Beanbag Chair" will appear on the next Yo La Tengo album, entitled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, set for release in September on Matador Records. The MP3 is via the Matador site.
THIS WEEK'S FINDS
week of July 16-22
"This Life" - La Rocca
A comfy stomp of a piano riff leads, brain-buzzingly, into a song as brash as it is cheerful, as expansive as it is, also, introspective. This young Irish band will bring some inevitable early-U2 comparisons, both for the country of origin and for singer/guitartist Bjorn Baillie's semi-resemblance to a young Bono. But the comparison doesn't hold for long, to my ears. There's some deep-seated, rather un-U2-like awareness of down-and-dirty classic rock suffusing the groove these guys lay down here, to begin with. And anyway, this quartet isn't quite so Irish as all that--one of them is from England, they started playing together in Cardiff (in Wales, you know), and have actually been living in L.A. for a while now. "This Life" is a track from the band's debut full-length CD, The Truth, due out in August on Danger Bird Records. The MP3 is courtesy of the Danger Bird site.
"Too Much Space" - Lisa Germano
With its sad, rich, reversing arpeggios, "Too Much Space" has the beautiful-doleful vibe of one of Tom Waits' ballads-gone-awry. Germano's voice of course is far prettier than his (whose isn't?), but she's got a deep ache in it as well, and offers idiosyncratic touches that give the proceedings a Waitsian sense of the off-kilter. Her evocative violin adds one mournful flavor; the feedbacky guitars that enter in the second half of the song--screaming like disintegrating aliens during certain moments--add another perhaps less expected one. Having written personally, almost uncomfortably, about love and addiction on previous albums, Germano is apparently tackling death this time around, on her wonderfully-titled In the Maybe World CD, to be released next week on Young God Records. She's traveled a long and winding road since her commercial heyday as John Mellencamp's violinist, but it seems one of her own choosing and I for one hang on her every word at this point. The MP3 is available via the Young God web site. Many thanks to the sabas.jud.as blog for the head's up.
"Postcards From Italy" - Beirut
Probably not enough rock songs begin with a strumming ukelele. And that's not nearly the most charming/unexpected instrumental flourish in Beirut's bag of tricks. You get horns, you get tambourines, you get a brisk two-step rhythm, you get appealingly old-fashioned melodies, and best of all you get singer/mastermind Zach Condon, all of 20 years old (actually 19 when he recorded this), sounding for all the world like a cross between Rudy Vallee and Morrissey. So, yes, it's kind of another one-man-band thing, but Condon first of all believes solidly in organic instruments (no laptop rock for him), and he also believes in recruiting talent--Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeremy Barnes, most notably, who offers up a serious hodgepodge of old-country percussion, crucial to the endearingly Eastern European sound Condon has almost inexplicably concocted. Condon is from Albuquerque and now lives in Brooklyn; he left college after one day and went instead to live in Europe. In Amsterdam he was accidentally exposed to Balkan brass music (it's a long story) and the rest is now indie-pop musical history. "Postcards From Italy," careening around the blogosphere since the spring, is a track off Beirut's debut CD, Gulag Orkestar, released in May on Ba Da Bing! Records. The MP3 is available via the band's site.
THIS WEEK'S FINDS
week of July 23-29
"To Go Home" - M. Ward
Smart, sharp, and exceedingly well put together, "To Go Home" presents the formerly sleepy-voiced M. Ward in an appealingly band-like and energetic setting. And let me stop and put a good word in here for exceedingly well put together recordings. Not enough people, I don't think, speak up for them, as the indie world in particular has been often hijacked by lo-fi zealots pushing a radical (and often unlistenable) agenda of naive, accidental-sounding songscapes. But making a lo-fi recording is simply an aesthetic decision, not a moral one, and no less or more artificial a construct than a smartly produced recording. And I guess I'm digressing. Me, in any case, I listen to the opening measures of "To Go Home," with their rousing wall of acoustic sound, spacious drumbeats, and next-room piano chords, and I'm smiling before anyone starts singing. ("Well put together," I nod to myself.) When M. opens his mouth 45 seconds in, I'm further engaged by his roughed-up, reverbed-up voice, full of musical spirit in a way I hadn't heard before. The fact that Neko Case is also one of the people who eventually sings has me smiling all the more; her seasoned brilliance is a blessing everywhere she goes. "To Go Home," a Daniel Johnston song, is the second track off Ward's upcoming CD, Post-War (yeah, I wish), slated for an August 22nd release on Merge Records.
"Major Arcana" - the Isles
If Neil Finn had been in the Smiths, they might've sounded something like this. Certainly, Isles vocalist Andrew Geller does not mind bringing Morrissey to mind, both in voice and (this is what nails it, actually) in the melody lines he sings. And let me quickly add that there's nothing wrong with this. The Smiths had truly one of the most distinctive band sounds in the history of rock'n'roll; by merit, they should in fact have produced a lot more Smiths-esque bands in their wake than have yet risen to prominence. It was a sound that was never just about Morrissey's voice--it was Johnny Marr's guitar, of course, and most of all those melodies that always sounded like they were composed mostly of black notes on the piano: those odd and relentlessly minor-sounding intervals Morrissey just couldn't help singing. Geller's doing that here too. At the same time, the song has a crisp pop know-how to it, which is where the Neil Finn part comes in. I like for instance, the unexpected "oo-oo-oo" flourish at the end of the chorus. Not Smiths-like at all, that. "Major Arcana" is the lead track on Perfumed Lands, the band's debut CD on Melodic Records, set now for release next month in the U.K. and in October in the U.S. Interestingly, Melodic Records is based in Manchester, in the U.K., exactly where the Smiths are from; the Isles however are from New York City, of all places. Thanks to the gang at 3hive for the head's up.
"In Every Direction" - So Many Dynamos
Every now and then I find myself attracted beyond reason to the sort of deadpan speak-singing So Many Dynamos vocalist Aaron Stovall employs in this simultaneously skewed and tightly presented song. For me, the tight presentation is key, and this song is as blistering and disciplined, with its two-guitar assault and time-signature tricks, as it is slightly unhinged. A good microcosm of the song's idiosyncratic allure is the instrumental break at 2:03, which starts out sounding like they're unplugging the guitars, knocking over the amps, and heading offstage, but instead leads into a guitar line with an incisive melodic theme that sounds like it must've been at the heart of the song all along and yet actually wasn't. Before long a chorus of voices is joining in and I have no clue what's going on anymore, but at this point perhaps it's time to chuckle at the band's palindromic name and call it a day. "In Every Direction" is a track from the St. Louis-based quartet's second full-length CD, Flashlights, to be released in September on Skrocki Records.
THIS WEEK'S FINDS
week of July 30-Aug. 5
"Gone Gone Gone" - John Ralston
This one may start like just another weepy, acoustic ballad, but John Ralston has much more up his sleeve than weepy balladry, of the sort often practiced by the current pack of jam-band-inspired troubadours. First, when the full band kicks in after 19 seconds, the strength of the original melody becomes surprisingly evident. What sounded tinkly and precious with just an acoustic guitar playing now sounds vigorous and involving. I think it's the drummer in particular: that just off the second beat accent he throws in, which adds unplaceable depth while likewise playing nicely off the ascending bass line. But then there's also the fact that having a band to sing against brings something meatier out in Ralston's voice, which veered towards the over-senstive (cute?) before the band rescued him. The real killer is the chorus, which sizzles with spirit, his voice transforming in its higher register into an instrument of power and bite, complete with a nicely emoted expletive (watch out who's around when you listen). "Gone Gone Gone" is from his debut CD, Needle Bed, re-released in June on Vagrant Records after an earlier self-release. The MP3 is via his site.
"Odi et Amo" - Jóhann Jóhannsson
What we have here is a Latin poem from the first century B.C. set by an Icelandic composer to a string quartet and piano, with, oh yeah, a computerized voice "singing" the words. I invite you not to run away but listen once, twice, maybe three times, and see if you don't become as mesmerized as I now am by the unearthly ambiance, the spellbinding combination of organic instruments, heart-rending melody, and subtle electronics. The vocal range is what classical people would call a "countertenor"; we can just call it "really high, but still male." The poem is short, a so-called "elegiac couplet"; it's repeated twice, with a plaintive yet tense instrumental break between. The words translate, roughly, to: "I hate and I love. Why do I do this, perhaps you ask?/I do not know. But I feel it happening, and I am tormented." Remember, this is a computer singing. The effect is startling, both intellectually and emotionally. While getting his start as a rock guitarist, like everyone else, Jóhannsson quickly expanded his artistic scope beyond "guy in a band" to "avant garde guy with projects"--said projects including something called Kitchen Motors ("record label, think tank, art organization"), an ensemble called the Apparet Organ Quartet, and a dance/music collaboration called IBM 1401, A User's Manual. "Odi et Amo" is from Jóhannsson's first solo CD, Englabörn, which was released in 2002 on Touch Records. Thanks again to the delightful Getecho blog for the lead. Jóhannsson's next CD will be a recording of the music from IBM 1401, rewritten for a 60-piece orchestra, due out in October on 4AD.
"Pillbox" - Tomihira
Returning to a more expected context now, but still dreamily so, Tomihira being a San Francisco trio favoring a dreamy-droney-distorty guitar sound that makes everyone have to mention My Bloody Valentine so, there, that's out of the way. "Pillbox" has a lot of things going for it, to my ears: an immediately distinctive instrumental hook, a delicate melody, a delicate melody set against some heavy guitar work (better, often, than a delicate melody on its own), a throaty vocalist, and a lower-register lead guitar solo, to name a few of them. Trodding the classic I-IV-V chord path, the song, gliding along without any obvious sort of chorus, oozes a crafty, slinky authority, with its syncopated beat, atmospheric guitars, and that sexy lead singer (Dean Tomihira, who lends the outfit his name). "Pillbox" is a song off the band's debut CD, Play Dead; the song is one of six free and legal MP3s the band has available on its web site. They also offer you the entire CD for only $5, in case you like what you hear.
THIS WEEK'S FINDS
week of Aug. 6-12
"La Cage Appât" - Peppertree
So how much fun is this song? We get, out of the gate, a wonderful, mysterious tension built by a question-answer style alternation between a gently strummed electric guitar and a chimey organ. This kicks open into a melodramatic series of now-the-guitar-is-chimey chords, then pulls back again into a restrained verse, in French, reinforcing the song's engaging sense of back-and-forth, of doing this then that, being here then there. See too how the musical accent is all off the beat, which generates more tension (listen to the guitarist to get the clearest sense of what's driving the song rhythmically here, that ringing line you can hear between all the regular beats). Where it's leading is to the heart-opening chorus, and I know exactly when this song lodges in my gut: it's the surging-up melody in the (I think) third line, at about 1:06; and it's not just the melody surge, it's the chord underneath: listen to how suspended and unresolved that baby is. I love this a lot. There's a great culturally far-away sound (to my American ears) that I'm also loving all the way through--some antique French-Canadian essence seems to be driving this thing, a sense reinforced by the unexpected "ba-ba-bas" singer Patrick Poirier unleashes near the end. And it's all done in three minutes. Most excellent. According to Babel Fish I see that Poirier actually means "pear tree," and I don't doubt there's a joke there, as the Montreal-based band displays quite the quirky sense of humor on its still-sketchy
web site. "La Cage Appât" is the lead track on the band's debut CD, self-released (I think) last year. The MP3 is available via the band's site, and came to my attention thanks to the fine feathered folks at 3hive.
"Take Me Back" - Furvis
While the Peppertree song knocked me out right away, "Take Me Back" won me over steadily, over time. I think maybe the bashy guitar onslaught at the beginning blinded my ear (if I can engage in a bit of willful synesthesia) to the tune's nicely constructed subtleties. The first verse is sturdy and amenable, four repetitions of a four-measure melody (three, really, with a guitar "coda"), until after the fourth time around, where we suddenly modulate through a couple of new chords, hit a brisk hand-clap, then go back into the verse. But things are now different: the melody this time extends into all four measures, and runs together to join the segments, including the end bit with the modulation and hand-clap. And then we get a sort of aural clearing--the insistent guitars peel back, as the chorus is sung against an acoustic rhythm guitar and lead electric guitar that sounds distorted into a steel-ish tone, while the melody takes some nice Wilco-y detours. And yeeks the more I dryly describe this the less interesting it probably sounds. My advice is listen, a few times. Furvis is a young quartet from the Boston suburb of Newton, with one self-released EP to its name so far. "Take Me Back" is one of the band's as yet unreleased songs; the MP3 is available via their web site.
"Lonely Land" - Trentalange
Barbara Trentalange has a voice, all smoke and ash, made for singing about barstools and shotglasses and no-good men and infinite gazes. It's a blessing and a curse, actually--because, I mean, really, how seriously can we take this slightly too cliched tale of a shadowy figure in a bar? Well, maybe not all that seriously--until my friend the chorus arrives, and oh boy: the soaring harmonies, the grand sad elegance of the melody, the despondent cello (which arrives the second time through) all work to transform, basically, everything. This song sticks with me, hard. On top of that, the chorus also yields a lyrical gem--the story of a woman meeting a shady man in a bar may seem a cliche, but the catch phrase "Follow me to lonely land" is brilliant in its catchy concise complexity--just want I want from a good pop song. So if "Lonely Land" does indeed walk that sometimes fine line between cliche and transcendence, perhaps it's doing so, to interpret this generously, to teach us that transcendence may yet be a heartbeat away, even when we least expect it. In any case, Trentalange is the latest project from Barbara Trentalange, formerly the lead singer of a Seattle-based band called Spyglass; she also toured in a recent incarnation of Crooked Fingers. "Lonely Land" is a song off the forthcoming CD, Photo Album of Complex Relationships, scheduled for an October release on Coco Tauro Records. The MP3 is available via her site.
THIS WEEK'S FINDS
week of Aug. 13-19
"Ghosts of York" - As Tall As Lions
"Ghosts of York" manages the clever trick of being both atmospheric and emphatic, combining the feel of a more noodly type of guitar rock with the smart, concise dynamics of a great pop song. Look at the ground covered here, so quickly: we get an introspective guitar line for all of 13 seconds before the vocalist sings a slow, emotive section for maybe another 15 seconds, and then, bam, the drummer hits the ground running, yet with everything around him still feeling restrained; at the same time you may notice a wall of sound building the energy towards something bigger. This is already engaging, very much so, but these guys have barely started. Just past 50 seconds, the sonic tension cracks open into a clear, decisive melody (note the nice use of octave harmonies right here), and even this is just a set-up for the central hook at 1:06--the melody there featuring a deeply pleasing modulation from a minor chord to the major chord one full step below. (There's probably a name for that, theory-wise, that escapes me.) This is the part that completely slayed me, and even after this there's more, including a bridge with a trickier time signature, then a dramatic building-back of the wall of sound, and then a combination of the time tricks and the wall at the very end. Good stuff. As Tall As Lions is a foursome from Long Island; "Ghosts of York" is a song from the band's self-titled debut CD, released last week on Triple Crown Records. The MP3 is available via Insound.
"Heartbeat" - Angela Desveaux
Sometimes there's little as satisfying as a good old-fashioned song--nicely unfolding melodies and a sense of verse-chorus-verse structure, confidently presented, with an assortment of little touches so perfect that you barely even notice them. Because she does this so well, and because there's an air of alt-country about her, and because she's from Canada, Montreal's Angela Desveaux may have trouble escaping Kathleen Edwards comparisons, but hey, all up and coming musicians are going to be compared to somebody, and Edwards is one of the very best singer/songwriters of our day--good company, says me. I think you know you're in the hands of a true talent when there doesn't necessarily seem like there's anything unusual going on, and yet you're hooked anyway. Desveaux here has hit upon a simple-sounding but resonant underlying motif: that basic 5-4-3-4-3-4 melody that drives the song, sung in that gently swinging rhythm, with her friendly, reedy voice the perfect accompaniment. Songs like this develop in ways that seem pretty much inevitable, even when they aren't at all. For instance, despite my assurance about verse-chorus-verse structure, Desveaux here actually throws something extra between the verse and the chorus that's like a pre-chorus--a great hook in its own right, and not a bridge. And it doesn't matter; it all seems precisely as it should be. Listening to it, I feel the world, if only for four minutes and twenty-six seconds, is also precisely as it should be. Quite a feat during these unsettling times. "Heartbeat" is available via her web site, a stand-alone song. According to the site, an album is coming soon.
"Burn This Flag" - Boy Omega
Well it's been at least a little while since we've dipped back into the Swedish talent pool, so here's Boy Omega, the working name of a certain Martin Henrik Gustaffson. To begin with, do yourself a favor and try to listen to this straight out of "Heartbeat"--the segue is rather striking, if I do say so myself. Even as it's driven by an acoustic guitar, "Burn This Flag" starts out all itchy and unsettled, a feeling augmented both by Gustaffson's Robert Smith meets Conor Oberst vocal style and by the blippy-scratchy percussive accents. I am slowly but surely realizing that I love much of what electronica has to offer, sound-wise, when musicians bring it structurally into something resembling a song rather than presenting it in a relentless, beat-oriented setting. Gustaffson here crams a lot of know-how into a relatively short space: strong instrumental hooks, crisp production, an incisive melodic theme, and unexpected sounds, among other things; unusually for me, I'm left here feeling as if the song could actually have been longer than it is. That's almost always a good sign. "Burn This Flag" is from Boy Omega's forthcoming EP, The Grey Rainbow, scheduled for an October release (in Europe) on Riptide Recordings, a German label. The MP3 is via the Riptide site. Hat's off to the consistently enlightening Getecho blog for this one.
THIS WEEK'S FINDS
week of Aug. 20-26
"Walking the Plank" - Apollo Up!
A winning combination of melody and invective, "Walking the Plank" sounds as sharp and blistering as an early Elvis Costello or Joe Jackson song. But this is no wearisome nostalgia trip, as there's likewise something very present and unbeholden to anyone about this trio's disciplined, fiery sound. While vocalist Jay Leo Phillips (also the guitarist) has an Elvis-like timbre, his voice is deeper, and rougher around the edges; plus, he has his own intermittently explosive guitar to play off against, which seems clearly to add to the intensity of his performance. (And that's the funny thing about most of those early EC gems--they rocked, but, largely, and strangely, without any sort of lead guitar sound.) Being a trio is no small point of differentiation--I really think that trios, at their best, offer rock energy that is as pure and focused as it comes. No matter how noisy a trio gets, there's something concentrated and essential about the sound it makes; you can always hear each instrument precisely if you listen, which I find bracing somehow. "Walking the Plank" is the lead track off the band's Chariots of Fire CD, their second, which was released in June on Theory 8 Records. The MP3 is available via the band's site.
"Put On Your Light" - Hezekiah Jones (with Clare Callahan)
A slow, bittersweet foot-tapper, if such a thing is possible. But go on and see if your foot doesn't for some reason want to tap along to this sad and swaying tale of troubled love. It's not just the minor key that lends the song a woebegone air; listen too to how the achy melody is often sung off the main beat (the one your toe is tapping, remember)--this fosters a resistant, unsettled, I might even suggest unhappy vibe. Meanwhile, there's a duet going on between the almost ghostly-sounding Callahan and the full-voiced Jones (whose name is actually Raphael Cutrufello), but it's an odd duet. Callahan starts, Jones joining in to finish the end of both lyric lines in the verse. They sing the chorus together, but with the lyrics offering one side of a love relationship hitting a rough patch, the effect is disconcerting. By the presence of the duet, we are seemingly given both voices--both sides of the battle, as it were--and yet they're singing the same words; they're even singing the same musical notes, with no interval harmonies at all. The two lovers of the story sound all the sadder and more isolated as they sing without the other really hearing; the listener meanwhile is unnerved for lack of any clues about who's done what, who's "right" and who's "wrong," who to believe, who to side with. Very lovely and very sad. Cutrufello recently released the first Hezekiah Jones CD, Hezekiah Jones Says You're A-Ok, on Yer Bird Records, but "Put On Your Light" isn't actually on it; it's available as an unreleased song via the HJ site.
"Town" - Richard Buckner
There's no question, to my ear, where the center of this brisk but meaty song is: the first line of the chorus, that vocal leap Buckner takes at the end. The entire song is built upon short lyrical snippets and small melodic intervals; but there at the end of the opening line of the chorus, the last interval of the snippet, heading upward, is a fifth. A leap up always sounds larger than the interval actually described, and so right away there's something startling and pleasing about it. I like how, the first time we hear it, Buckner is singing the word "down" as the melody jumps up. I like even more the grand character of this gruffly smooth (or maybe smoothly gruff) voice as it is exquisitely revealed in the process of taking, and making, that leap. Buckner heads to and hits just the one five-steps-up note, and yet as he holds it his voice stretches and intensifies in marvelous ways, every time that line-end comes around. It's a subtle but beautiful and memorable hook right there; what solidifies it as the center of a beautiful and memorable song are the chords Buckner employs to create the structure around the hook. They are neither novel nor tricky but they are invitingly true and inevitable, a sweet descending series falling away from the initial leap upward. I keep wanting to hear this part over and over, and it sticks in my head for hours afterwards. "Town" is the first song on Buckner's upcoming CD Meadow, which has a lot of one-word titles for some reason. The CD--Buckner's eighth--is set for a September release on Merge Records.
THIS WEEK'S FINDS
week of Aug. 27-Sept. 2
"Los Angeles" - the Rosewood Thieves
After the old-timey piano intro, the first thing you're likely to notice here is singer Erick Jordan's spunky vocal resemblance to John Lennon--whom he readily acknowledges as one of his musical heroes. (There's even a lyrical reference to "that bird that flew," for good measure.) If this already seems like a good thing, you're home free with this song; if however you're trained to be disapproving of transparent influences, I urge you to relax that learned reflex and simply listen to whether the song is pleasing. Me, I find "Los Angeles" a rousing good time, for a variety of reasons. The engaging melody and crisp production are a good part of it, but to me songs often prove their mettle in the details--the little things that go on that didn't "need" to be there but, with their presence, make everything else seem deeper and stronger and truer. I like, a lot, the meandering course the melody takes from the fourth into the fifth measure of the verse--the part, in the first verse, where it sounds like Jordan is simply singing a drawn-out "ahhh" but it actually turns out to be an "I." Formally this is called a "melisma"--where a group of notes are used to sing one syllable--and is more characteristic of classical than pop music. I also like the stutter (literally an extra beat) in the melody line--you hear it in the seventh measure in the introduction, and each time that point returns in the verse. Sometimes the more subtle the touch--like the way the piano intro is revisited in the middle of the song but with a major chord momentarily underneath (at 2:38)--the cooler the effect. All in all this seems the work of a band that knows what it's doing.
The Rosewood Thieves are a quintet from New York City. "Los Angeles" is one of seven songs on the band's debut EP, From the Decker House, released last month on V2 Records. The MP3 is via Pitchfork.
"Lowlife" - Scanners
I'm in love with the opening riff here, with its fuzzy, restrained, melodic yet unresolved appeal; when it leads into a memorable opening line--"I know you're not ready to live/Are you ready to die?"--I am solidly hooked. And even more is going on right away (check out that ghostly keyboard thing hovering above everything else), most notably the unexpected use of Sarah Daly's violin, which provides a plaintive undercurrent to her full-throttled but pop-savvy vocal style. (I'm thinking she sounds like Grace Slick and Siouxsie Sioux's somewhat more mild-mannered love child.) The more I listen to this song the more I am impressed with its precision and timeless pop know-how; while sounding completely contemporary, "Lowlife" displays a vitality that cuts across the generations--I hear all rock decades from the '60s onward in different aspects of this song, which in another time and place might've been blaring from all of our car radios out on the wide open road but as of now is just a really cool little song you can download for free on the net. Bob was right: things have changed. "Lowlife" is from this London-based band's debut CD, Violence is Golden, which came out in June on Dim Mak Records. The MP3 is available via the Dim Mak site.
"Lullaby in A" - Bel Auburn
A lovely melody placed over tasteful blips of tweaky fuzz and feedback, "Lullaby in A"
starts slowly, almost as an incantation. A minute in, the song opens up sonically, but something of a reverie remains, as the earnest verse repeats and repeats--there's no chorus, just an interlude of upward-swelling guitars and noise--against an assertive drumbeat and subtly shifting backdrop mixing the electric and the electronic. At around 2:50 we float into a new (but still lovely) melody; this one however slides quickly and refreshingly into a harsher section full of hammering guitars and electronic swoops before quieting back down and, soon, fading into a vibrating electronic wail. And, yes, okay: are they taking what Radiohead and Wilco have done and making it perhaps prettier, perhaps poppier, perhaps easier to listen to? Probably; and I for one say hooray for them. I love Radiohead and Wilco to pieces and have and will follow them anywhere (hey, I've even listened to the end of "Less Than You Think," willingly, twice). But it's a big planet, and there's a lot of ways to make great music, only one of which is by being blindingly original. (Remember too that a whole lot of blindingly original music is also unlistenable; very little of it is effective pop.) Most of this rock'n'roll game is about absorbing and repositioning what someone else already did. And oops I guess I'm back on the "it's okay to have obvious influences" soapbox, so I'll step down merely to note that Bel Auburn is a quintet from Ashland, Ohio; "Lullaby in A" is a song from the band's second CD, Lullabies in A and C, self-released in mid-August and available as well as a free and legal download on the band's site.
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