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JULY - AUGUST 2007



THIS WEEK'S FINDS
July 1-7

"Intelligentactile 101" - Jesca Hoop
There's a Björk-like friskiness enlivening this song, from its invented-word title to Hoop's somewhat pixie-ish delivery. At the same time, this Northern California-born, LA-based singer/songwriter exudes a laid-back cool that's more akin to a young Rickie Lee Jones than to the Icelandic wonder (Björk may be a lot of things but laid back isn't really one of them). "Intelligentactile 101" springs along with a finger-tapping boppiness, and in the boppy course of things Hoop rather casually gives us a generous array of melodies (there seem to be four distinct sections: verse, bridge, chorus, and something else) to capture her trippy lyrics, along with a winsome assortment of percussive accents, from clacky to tinkly to whirry. The opening melody has a particularly lovely lilt to it, but she slyly withholds its full effect until the song is more than half over: listen to how the same melody that opens the song (0:10-0:16) sounds later on, fleshed out ever so slightly with an elastic bass and spacey keyboard, enough to open our ears to the chord progression that lay latent beneath the tune. "Intelligentactile 101" is a song from Hoop's forthcoming debut CD, Kismet, scheduled for a September release on 3Entertainment/Red Ink, a Columbia imprint. Thanks to Filter Magazine for the head's up.

"White Dove" - John Vanderslice
Another slice of harsh reality served up with passion, precision, and beauty by one of his generation's leading, if under-publicized, singer/songwriters. Driven by fuzzed-out guitars, "White Dove" nevertheless leaves a lot of aural space in and around its attack; there are quiet sections, the acoustic guitar remains central throughout, and there are moments where the silence in between instruments is used as its own sort of beat. This approach strikes me as the musical equivalent of a movie that terrifies more for what it doesn't show than for what it does. Here, a horrible story from the past is retold, along with its lingering effect on the present, suggesting the pointlessness of expecting anything resembling peace here in the human realm and yet also, I think, the necessity of holding on to that dream. Or maybe that's just my personal addition. In any case, if you are not yet familiar with Vanderslice, a multiple TWFer, I urge you to explore his generous free and legal offerings; more details here, in the Select Artist Guide. "White Dove" is a song from his new CD, Emerald City, due out later this month on Barsuk Records. (Emerald City by the way is his caustic way of referring to the Green Zone in Baghdad; no, we're not in Kansas anymore.) MP3 via the Barsuk site. [RS]

"Rootwings" - the Sheds
Popular music's internet age has given birth to a whole heck of a lot of indie-rock duos--the duo being the most DIY-ish way of being a band, I suppose (less equipment, fewer people to pay, etc.). What they tend to possess in spirit and productivity, however, duos seem commonly to lack in songwriting acumen--a fact which makes Burlington, Kentucky's premier contribution to the field of indie-rock duos so unexpectedly wonderful. The Sheds feature a croony but homespuny vocalist, simple but personable arrangements, and truly rewarding music and lyrics. Also, female backing vocals when you least expect it. "Rootwings" is both short and truly sweet, and one of a number of nice songs from the band's latest CD You've Got a Light, which was self-released this spring and available, in its entirety, via free and legal download on the band's web site.



THIS WEEK'S FINDS
July 8-14

Apologies for the delayed update this week. It's a summertime thing. Note that there will be no "This Week's Finds" next week; the next update will appear here on or about Monday July 23. Another summertime thing.

"Deep Frieze" - Chris Letcher
Smartly put together and sharply produced, "Deep Frieze" offers a gratifying union of acoustic, electric, and electronic sounds, linked beneath rich, almost choral-like vocalizing. A crisply strummed acoustic guitar lies at the heart of this midtempo rocker, but other rewarding guitar sounds come to the fore as well, along with a battery of good-natured knob-twiddly noises. I like how this song feels so ornate without actually wasting a whole lot of aural space: it sounds very layered and yet you can easily, at any point, pick out and label everything you're hearing--which isn't often the case when bands aim in this sort of baroque direction. Chris Letcher is a South African musician now based in London, and studying composition at the Royal College of Music, no less. In South Africa, he was part of a successful '90s band called Urban Creep. "Deep Frieze" is a track from Letcher's CD Frieze, which was released in March on the Sheer/2 Feet label. (In South Africa, it was out in November 2006, while in Europe, release is slated for September; globalization in music is sometimes very complicated.)

"Dancing Behind My Eyelids" - Múm
So this one takes a little while to get going: one minute of slow and quiet noodling, 20 seconds of a bit more activity, then a good half minute of engaging rhythm and instrumental melody, leading surely into...well, oops, there's another 20 seconds of quiet noodling. The singing starts at 2:30, which is bizarrely late, especially in song that's just about four minutes long. All in all a recipe for the kind of thing I don't have patience for, and yet in this case, I find myself rather charmed. Why? I'll tell you: I'm not sure. Maybe it's the happy tone of the noodly notes--those are very friendly-sounding synthesizers offering that reverie of a duet: the staccato pulse of a bass-like sound below and a chimey companion playing a smearier sort of pulse up above. A drum at 1:00 breaks the trance and sets up a full-out breakthrough at 1:21, a wonderfully engaging bit of driving but melodic electronics, enlivened by starbursts of synthesizer glissandos. At this point it sounds like everyone's having so much fun--Múm is seven members strong--that the singers perhaps have forgotten their cues. There is a reprise of the noodly part with a friendly animal sort of noise added to the mix. Then the singing, and it's a strong ascending melody line we get from two singers who are not in fact the baby-voiced Kristín Valtýsdóttir, who has left the band. The melody line repeats four times, with--still!--instrumental breaks and we're through. Is this even a song? Not sure. But it will be on the Icelandic band's mysterious new CD, Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy, scheduled for release in September on Fat Cat Records. MP3 via Pitchfork.

"She's In Love" - Fourth of July
From semi-avant-garde not-quite-song-writing we go to pure easygoing indie pop. What makes this a killer track, however, is that underneath the goofy-peppy sound is a genuinely poignant tale of love gone awry. So yes we're in the land of "happy sound, sad lyrics" that is one of pop music's special gifts to the world. The endearing, vaguely sloppy vibe here belies the precision of the song, from the well-placed, more interesting than you might realize "ba ba ba" background vocals to the short-story-like quality of the lyrics. Singer/songwriter Brendan Hangauer utilizes the slick trick of opening and closing the song with the same lines: "She's in love with a photograph/And the idea things could last/Goddamn, I never thought of that"; and when you hear it the second time your heart kind of breaks. Fourth of July is a six-piece band from Lawrence, Kansas that came to life in 2001 as Hangauer's solo project. "She's In Love" is from the CD Fourth of July On the Plains, released in June on Range Life Records. The MP3 can be found on Insound, and also on Lawrence.com (I'm using the latter so it'll register on the Streampad player; Insound's MP3s don't).



THIS WEEK'S FINDS
July 22-28

"Elouise" - Maps
Buzzy, expansive, and richly melodic, "Elouise" is the work of shoegaze-inspired one-man band James Chapman, doing business from his Northampton (UK) home as Maps. But get this: unlike most if not all 21st-century bedroom rockers, Chapman developed his music entirely on a 16-track recorder in his apartment. Meaning he doesn't use computers. That knowledge will change how you hear this one, as the drones and beats and keyboards which drive the evocative, anthemic "Elouise" were all laid down the old-fashioned way, not manipulated by a laptop. (Note that the strings were added later; the album ended up being produced in Iceland by Valgeir Sigurdsson, who has worked extensively with Sigur Rós and Björk.) I'm loving the chorus in particular, with its simple but memorable descending melody line, and then--I'm a sucker for this move--the addition of those two extra beats in the measure beginning at 1:18 (the lyric when he first mentions "Elouise"). Listen too to how the guitars drop out in the chorus, adding to the lushness of the sound there. Chapman churns out humming, atmospheric music that forces everyone who writes about him to mention My Bloody Valentine, but to my ears this song has a lighter and more accessible feel than, by and large, the music that seminal band produced in its day. "Elouise" is from the CD We Can Create, which was released in the U.S. in June on Mute Records. (In the U.K., the CD came out in May and was last week one of 12 albums placed on the short list for this year's Mercury Prize.) The MP3 is available via Insound. (Note that MP3s from Insound, while readily downloadable, will not show up on the Streampad player.)

"Sinking Ships" - the Archibalds
Friendly, strumming acoustic guitars lead us into a good-natured, back-country rave-up with an unmistakable zydeco flavor, minus the accordion. And lookee here, as unlike as this one is from the Maps song above, the zydeco feel is responsible for one distinct similarity: the measure with the two extra beats, which you can hear here as soon as singer Joey Thompson opens his mouth (at 0:23, as he sings "Hey there, Mister Boll Weevil"). And once Thompson opens his mouth, extra beats or no, I'm hooked--as a singer, he's got one of those round, personality-laced voices that brings Ray Davies to mind, and as a songwriter he's got a casual, John Fogerty-like knack for neighborly, classic-sounding melodies. A quartet from Austin, the Archibalds play with the real-time gusto of a band that records live (whether they do or not); "Sinking Ships" is a song from the band's debut CD, O Camellia, which was released in March, jointly, by Breakfast Mascot Records and Austin's Superpop Records. The MP3 is courtesy of Breakfast Mascot.

"Horse and I" - Bat For Lashes
And it has inadvertently turned into Mercury Prize week, as Bat For Lashes, like Maps above, is one of the 12 finalists for the U.K.'s Mercury Prize for album of the year, as announced last Tuesday. As with Maps, Bat For Lashes also sounds like the name of a band but is one person--in this case, 27-year-old Natasha Khan. Building off an unadorned, almost awkwardly plain keyboard riff, "Horse and I" unfolds in an unhurried manner. Khan enters, singing, after half a minute; a ghostly synthesizer joins in shortly thereafter; and then, intriguingly, about halfway through, a military drumbeat takes on the rhythm of the keyboard riff, which now makes further sense in retrospect. Khan by the way has a marvelous voice--breathy and vulnerable in the lower register, achy-urgent in the upper register. The song has a fairy-tale vibe (horses, woods, destiny, etc.) that might be a bit precious were it not for the formidability of the music and arrangement. I'm especially taken by the juxtaposition of the other-worldly synthesizer and the martial beat--it's a combination I can't recall hearing simultaneously before (the short duet between the two sounds at 1:24 is an oddball highlight here). "Horse and I" is the lead track from the debut Bat For Lashes CD Fur and Gold, which was released last September in the U.K. on Echo Records; its U.S. release is scheduled for next week, on Caroline Records.



THIS WEEK'S FINDS
July 29-Aug. 4

"Remission" - Ryan Ferguson
Comfortably incisive from beginning to end, "Remission" is one of those blessed songs with a perfectly balanced feeling between the verse and the chorus. You know how a song can have a great chorus, but the verse is like treading water to get there; or conversely, some songs have a really interesting verse but then the chorus is flavorless. Here the verse is interesting and commanding, and yet leads to--rather than overpowers--the chorus, the brilliance of which is just subtle enough, in turn, not to overshadow the verse. The hidden trick behind all of this here, I think, is the strong working relationship between the words and the music. After that emphatic opening chord sequence--nicely textured with an added xylophone--listen carefully to the lyrics and note not merely the dramatic story line (this does not appear to be another tale of relationship woes, although it might work that way metaphorically) but how uncannily well the words scan with the music--that is, how the rhythm of the music allows the words to be sung exactly how they're spoken, without putting any stress on odd syllables. All too many pop songwriters write without much sensitivity to how the words will scan; whether accidentally or purposefully, Ferguson--previously in the locally popular San Diego quartet No Knife--emerges in this song as a master. "Remission" is from his first full-length solo CD, Only Trying to Help, set for release next month on Better Looking Records. The MP3 is via the Better Looking site. Thanks to the guys at 3hive for the lead. [RS]

"Act of War" - Owen Duff
Electric instruments are not required for a musician to create a sense of drive and urgency, as proven ably by this unsigned Briton, who prefers in fact whenever possible to play an actual piano rather than a keyboard. Although basically an unadorned piano and guitar piece (enhanced with thoughtful sound-touches along the way, however), "Act of War" shimmers with both rhythmic and melodic exuberance, underscored by a refreshing dollop of finesse. It's common for solo performers on the acoustic guitar to go explosive rhythmically, pounding more than strumming in an effort to prove their--I don't know: sincerity, musical prowess, emotional depth, who knows. Duff gives us rhythmic depth without pounding, and greatly enhances his offering here with a fetching, pliable melody line, using his delicate, Sufjan-like tenor with unexpected dexterity and gusto. "Act of War" is the opening track from Duff's seven-song debut EP, called A Tunnel, Closing In, which he released last year. The MP3 is available via his web site.

"Run-Away" - Super Furry Animals
The nutty Welshmen are back, singing in English this time, and kinda sorta just in time to provide hungry American pop fans with what is surely one of the summer of '07's spiffiest--albeit nuttiest--summer songs. The fuzzy background sound and Beach Boys-esque melody rockets us straight back to 1965 or so, with a side trip through the Twilight Zone, and our job is to hang on and enjoy the ride. Two keys to this song, to my ears: the two distinct drum patterns (modified Phil Spector beat in the verse; smoother, cymbally pulse in the chorus); and that swoony chorus melody with its wild dips and rises (I love the two notes you hear from about 0:41 to 0:43 in particular--a startling but perfect, Brill Building-y interval). I can't make out the lyrics too well but the moral of the story is crystal clear: "Those who cry and run away/Live to cry another day." The Super Furries have been making their loopy, psychedelic-ish pop since 1993. "Run-Away" is a song from Hey Venus!, their eighth CD, which is due out digitally and on vinyl near the end of August on Rough Trade Records. (The album will not be released in the U.S. on CD until 2008, apparently to coincide with the band's U.S. tour. So much for a summer song!) Thanks to Gorilla vs. Bear for the head's up. The MP3 is via Beggars Group, which just last week acquired Rough Trade.



THIS WEEK'S FINDS
Aug. 5-11

"Crown Victoria" - Robbers on High Street
An unmistakeable Kinks-iness animates this boppy little nugget--the opening clearly echoes "A Well Respected Man"--but that's just the beginning of "Crown Victoria"'s charms. Working with noted Italian film composer Daniele Luppi, who had previously never worked as a producer on a rock album, the NYC-based trio Robbers on High Street have found their British Invasion-y '60s sound enhanced with a Spaghetti Western-y '60s sound, and damn if it doesn't work rather well, if only because in retrospect all those sounds kind of blend together historically anyway. So, the slowly-strummed chord that starts the song happens not on an acoustic guitar (as per the Kinks) but on a twangy, throbbing guitar straight out of Ennio Morricone. (An acoustic guitar soon joins in, however.) The piercing organ that chimes in around 0:38? Spaghetti time again. All this insider homage-ing will get us only so far, however. To me, the song takes off when we get to the chorus, which has a swingy, winning melody, deftly enhanced when the organ begins to add some swoopy, ascending lines below. Keep an ear open for the bass next, which plays some acrobatic lines itself when the second verse comes along. And stay tuned for the wacky (but still somehow retro-y) duck-like sounds (maybe they're just vocals? hard to say) in the instrumental coda. "Crown Victoria" is from the CD Grand Animals, released in July on New Line Records. The MP3 is courtesy of New Line.

"Throwin' Shapes" - Minus the Bear
Bright, brisk, and determined, this song is in the mix this week not just because I like it but because it sounds exactly right between its two TWF-mates. And I can't say why that is, at all. I do know that I particularly enjoy the interplay between Jake Snider's yearning vocal style and the painterly guitar licks brushed around him by the gifted David Knudson. I am also captivated by the comfortable but unplaceable soundscape here--although the opening recalls Haircut One Hundred (I kid you not), there's something in the blend of beat and arrangement that sounds neither like typical '00s indie rock nor like the music of any particular past era. It's easy enough to do that if you're just trying to be weird, but this Seattle quintet manages to sound at once fresh and familiar. "Throwin' Shapes" is a song off the band's Planet of Ice CD, scheduled for release later this month on Suicide Squeeze Records. The MP3 is via Suicide Squeeze.

"Escape City Scrapers" - Mono in VCF
Another quintet from Washington State; very different music. The sublime mystery of this song is how something that threatens at first to be syrupy and too retro for its own good ends up, rather quickly, sounding so pure and vibrant. Clearly a lot of credit here belongs to singer Kim Miller (such a substantive and alluring voice!), but let's pay attention as well to the grand aural structure that supports her reverb-laced vocals, which is nothing less than a creamy orchestral souffle that knowingly marries Phil Spector-ish majesty with darker James Bond-ian swank. Either way, yes, we're back in the '60s, inspiration-wise. At the same time, this is no slavish tribute. Mono in VCF understands its influences (the band's name is a nod towards Spector, who recorded in mono; VCF stands for voltage-controlled filter, which is a Moog synthesizer gizmo) but transcends them through a willingness to be creative on its own terms as well. Although the echoey strings and occasional drum bashes help build a sort of "wall of sound" (Spector's famous production effect), the band here steers clear of both the "Phil Spector beat" (think "Be My Baby") and any girl-group-style pop tune; what we get instead is a snakey, spy-movie melody, some wonderful piano interjections, and grand washes of synthesizers that sound maybe like something Portishead might have done if someone took their sampler and turntable away. All in all, a sweeping and memorable bit of work from this unsigned (but probably not for long) Tacoma band with but one four-song EP to its name so far. (The debut album is expected either late this year or early next.) The MP3 is via the band's site; thanks again to the 3hive gang for the head's up.



THIS WEEK'S FINDS
Aug. 12-18

"Shade" - Portugal. The Man
While I don't think much of the band name--inexplicable punctuation is a pet peeve--I'm finding this slinky, vigorous, genre-resistant song has etched itself slowly but steadily into whatever part of my mind that's responsible for making songs stick in it. There's something prog-rock-y about it--the fairy-tale-like guitar riff that opens the piece, for instance--as well as something more Led Zeppelin-y in lead singer John Gourley's Plant-like yowl and Page-like guitar heaviness. Those synthesized strings floating in from above, and the band's gift for unexpected, rhythmic melody? That's a bit of Radiohead, perhaps. At the same time, the drum sounds are so up front and organic that it puts me in the mind of some classic rock track or another even as the overall vibe is good old '00s indie rock. All in all an attractive and successful stew of sounds and vibe from this young trio from the Northwest. Gourley and bassist Zach Carothers grew up together in Alaska, of all places; they are based now in Portland, Oregon, which is drummer Jason Sechrist's hometown. "Shade" is from the band's CD Church Mouth, which was released last month on Fearless Records. The MP3 is via Spinner, the AOL indie music blog.

"One Man" - Eulogies
Listen to how "One Man" plays with us pace-wise. The melody proceeds in an unhurried way, very much in the range of what is (too often) called a "midtempo rocker" (Google that phrase and it comes up 10,000 times; two of 'em right here, I must add, in the spirit of full disclosure). But the rhythm section chugs along in double time, creating a briskness and vibrancy the famous midtempo rocker often lacks. Eulogies is a trio featuring the singer/songwriter Peter Walker (previously featured here in April 2006); the band in fact came spontaneously into existence as Walker realized on his last tour how well he and the two musicians playing with him were jelling. I was impressed last year with Walker's sure touch as both a singer and songwriter, and am again this time around. I like the subtle but evocative hooks he has going in the chorus--first, to me, just the marvelous way his falsetto bends a bit before settling on the word "I" (and what a great, yearning note that is, too); second, how the melody deftly centers itself between the beats, creating this wonderful, bittersweet sense of movement. A bonus: the lyrics display the same subtle power. Walker sings: "I learned something/In the nick of time/I'm only one man"--and while the song doesn't reveal enough detail to know exactly what he learned and why it was just in time, the wistful atmosphere suggests a complex sort of heartache, and a good news/bad news type of education. "One Man" is from Eulogies' self-titled debut CD, due out in September on Dangerbird Records. The MP3 is via the Dangerbird site. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

"Time is a Lion" - Joe Henry
Joe Henry has one of those really familiar-sounding voices for a guy who doesn't get a whole lot of exposure in the scheme of things. Part of the lack of widespread exposure has to do with the fact that he's spent a fair amount of time singing songs with that voice that have been purposefully arcane, oddly cluttered, and more than a little, shall we say, difficult. He has been quoted as calling his 2003 release Tiny Voices "intentionally chaotic," saying that it was "like a Bunuel film shown on the side of a building during a rain storm." This time around, lo and behold, he has decided to aim for clarity and if this song is any indication, he's at least part of the way there. "Time is a Lion" has the sort of barroom swing the likes of which labelmate Tom Waits might concoct, but where Waits tends to deconstruct and croak, and Henry previously might have piled on sounds and squeezed away the melody, he this time opts for a surface-level smoothness, even as the percussion beats out a distinctive pulse and the piano alternates between music hall chords and jazzy washes. Lyrically Henry is full of resonant pronouncements and abstract narrative of the sort Bob Dylan has specialized in since the late '90s. Good stuff. "Time is a Lion" is from Henry's forthcoming Civilians CD, to be released next month on Anti Records. MP3 via the Anti web site.



THIS WEEK'S FINDS
Aug. 19-Sept. 1  vacation edition

* The Fingertips Home Office will be closed between August 20 and Sept. 3. To avoid leaving everyone empty-handed for two weeks, I'm offering you one reviewed MP3, plus a list of five others I've been listening to lately. Any one of these--or none of them--may yet end up as a TWF pick; see what you think if you have the time to check them out.

* And don't forget the new Fingertips Contest is up and running through September 4. 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.

* Finally, the latest Fingertips Commentary, "The future (or not) of the album," has prompted some thoughtful responses; you can read the original essay and see what some readers have been adding to it over here.


"Boy With a Coin" - Iron & Wine
As Sam Beam continues to flesh out his homespun sound, he sounds better and better, to me. The strong, sure acoustic-guitar rhythm propels "Boy With a Coin," but the electric and percussive accents--including hypnotic handclaps--add so much texture and substance that this right away feels like far more than standard singer/songwriter fare. I particularly like the blurty punctuations the electric guitar begins to make at around 1:18, and how they subsequently lead to a marvelous instrumental break beginning around 1:32. The tightly harmonized female backing vocals are another background element that contributes centrally to the alluring vibe. I'm not sure what he's singing about but the overall effect is mysterious to the point of being outright spiritual, a sense accentuated by the droning electric guitar that haunts the background during the second half of the song. "Boy With a Coin" will be found on The Shepherd's Dog, Iron and Wine's third full-length CD, which is due out in September on Sub Pop Records. The MP3 is via the Sub Pop site. [RS]

Vacation Special: five MP3s, minus reviews:
"Nothing Burns Like Bridges" - Penny Century
"Setting Fire to Sleepy Towns" - the Sleeping Years
"For Science Fiction" - Maritime
"From a Tower" - Love Like Fire
"100 Days, 100 Nights" - Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings

As noted, you may yet read about one or more of these in an upcoming TWF update. In any case, all are worth hearing. "This Week's Finds" will resume in its regular guise on Tuesday, September 4.





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