"Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh" - Say Hi
     Say Hi, which started life in 2002 as Say Hi To Your Mom, has always been lumped into the lo-fi crowd, which seems the fate of anyone who goes the "bedroom rock" route, writing and recording and playing the instruments and fiddling with electronics pretty much alone at home. But let it be stated for the record that Eric Elbogen, Say Hi's Seattle-based mastermind, is now, even if he hasn't always been, much more than a lo-fi rocker. This guy knows how to put a song together, and doesn't mind showing us.
      And yet the cool thing is that "Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh" is sophisticated in what strikes me as a new and impressive way. The music is by and large uncomplicated and yet completely well-rounded, by which I mean the various sounds and sections and rhythms blend to create a whole that doesn't merely sound like this or that part of it. Too much lo-fi music is maddeningly one-dimensional, sounding as if the creator can't quite picture the end result while putting the pieces together. Here, Elbogen works with discrete elements--the syncopated horn-like synthesizer of the introduction, a repeating bass drum rumble, crisply recorded acoustic guitar (complete with finger squeakings), a direct, garage-y lead guitar line--and stirs them into a brisk, cohesive, elusive song about an alluring girl and what he may or may not be doing with her. His reverby vocals slide beautifully in and around the precisely constructed landscape, singing a rapid-fire melody that seems more casual than it actually is. The simple repeated syllables of the chorus (and the title) similarly belie the savvy required to weave them into this bewitching little song.
     "Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh" is from Say Hi's new album, Oohs and Aahs, released this week on Barsuk Records. MP3 via Barsuk. [FS]

"My Maudlin Career" - Camera Obscura
     And speaking of reverb, well, here you are. Camera Obscura has built a sturdy sound around a spacious, melancholy reverb, affecting not just lead singer Tracyanne Campbell's voice but, it seems, the entire rest of the band as well. Combine this with a knack for nostalgic beats and bittersweet lyrics and we end up pretty much suffused with a happy kind of sadness that only certain kinds of pop songs can deliver. This one carries an extra bonus ironic twist, as the song's narrator, contrary to all musical cues, insists by the end that she will not be sad again. As the extra bonus ironic saying goes, good luck with that.
     The (reverbed) keyboard motif that launches the song and recurs throughout is the spine which supports the whole--ongoing, upward-yearning octaves and near octaves that can almost sound optimistic if you're not listening carefully, and against which Campbell's disconsolate purr feels particularly star-crossed. Pianist Carey Lander is apparently playing ABBA's piano on this track, which seems to me another ironic touch, another way the band is playing with bubblegummy nostalgia but finding their own present-day substance in the process.
     "My Maudlin Career" is the title track to the fourth Camera Obscura album, due out next month on 4AD Records (this will be the band's fourth record label in four tries). MP3 via the band's site.

"The Sun and Earth" - Middle Distance Runner
     Drumming plays a tricky role in rock. Without drums, there's no rock to be had. You need them. But you also don't really want to notice them. Because there's almost no difference between noticeable and too noticeable when it comes to drums, and once they're too noticeable, the song doesn't have much of a chance.
      One of the reasons I like "The Sun and Earth" so much is because drummer Erik Dean (also one of the band's founders and songwriters) has found a way to give the drums a defining place within the song without overwhelming the sound. It's pretty much all tom-toms here, which is one way to move the sound down in the mix--you notice it more in your gut than in your head. That singer Stephen Kilroy has such an appealing and elastic tenor helps, also, keep the drums in the background, where they belong, even as they remain simultaneously central to the developing vibe. When the pleasing, tumbling tom-toms stop entirely for the quiet bridge at 2:39, and the narrator expresses his bewilderment at being left by a lover, he surely does sound awfully alone.
     Middle Distance Runner is a quintet from Washington, D.C. that may now actually be a quartet (available information appears contradictory at this point). They were featured once before on Fingertips, in March 2007. As noted at the time, these guys put forth a jokey front (check out their web site's FAQ, for example) but if they are smart enough to know that the Earth is in fact closer to the Sun in the winter (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), and then to use this as a viable metaphor in a song, then they're not nearly as dumb as they look, as it were. "The Sun and Earth" is a song from the band's EP (called, it seems, EP), which was self-released in the fall, but getting a renewed push as the band hits the road this spring. Thanks to Filter for the head's up.

MARCH 8-14

"The Ancient Commonsense of Things" - Bishop Allen
     The Brooklyn-based duo Bishop Allen is one of the most likable bands in the kooky and sometimes unlikable world of indie rock. They are, indeed, likable at every level of activity, from the general vibe of their songs to the individual musical components employed to, even, the band's sense of graphic design and their collective prose voice.
     "The Ancient Commonsense of Things": even a likable song title, yes? Makes you kind of relax, stop Twittering for a minute and just breathe. We were human beings before we chained ourselves to one sort of keyboard or another. As the lyrics offer the merest of sketches, the music quickly envelops you with its at once cheerful and intimate presence--it's a soft song that sounds loud, a fast song that feels easy-going. Bright and lively percussion drive the piece--mostly sticks and clicks and xylophone--while the minimalist lyrics compare time-tested objects (a hammer, a clothespin, a cork) to the power of a soul mate. And it works, in part because of singer Justin Rice's quizzical voice, which does both plain-spoken and buoyant equally well. The song might have benefited from one more verse, but Rice's repetition of the titular phrase is so simultaneously jaunty and curious that I'm kind of digging the "less is more" approach. And whether that's a bass solo or a guitar solo there at 1:40, I like its plucked sparseness--just these particular notes, in this particular order, over that clicky-clacky-chuggy-chimey background.
     While Rice and Christian Rudder, who met at Harvard, are the two-man core of the group, Bishop Allen performs with other musicians, who are at least informally band members while the recording and touring goes on (a current video shows a band of five, in fact). "The Ancient Commonsense of Things" can be found on Grrr..., the band's new CD, being released this week on Dead Oceans. MP3 via the band's site. [FS]

"The Strangers" - St. Vincent
     Annie Clark, who by herself is St. Vincent, is an elusive talent. Be seduced by her charming, idiosyncratic voice, with tinges of jazz singer about it; be intrigued by her lush, unusual arrangements; be surprised by that wallop of crazed guitar noise (it's a taste of what is known as "shredding") that invades an otherwise airy-sounding song two-thirds of the way in. (Then again, she's repeatedly singing about painting the black hole blacker, so maybe this isn't so airy after all.) Get to the end of the song and be unsure about what you just heard, but with the feeling that you want to hear it again.
     Clark was inspired on this new album--entitled Actor--by some of her favorite old movies, including older Disney features, envisioning each song as a sort of "secret film score," according to her press material. There is surely a touch of '40s cartoonishness about the short vocal/orchestral intro, the (perhaps synthesized) string- and woodwind-flecked instrumentation, and the recurring backing vocal stylings, which sound furthermore as if processed through an old radio receiver. The song slides along with a glistening retro sheen that blithely contradicts the substantive quirkiness underneath, which includes: a melody that refuses to have any part of the beat; unabashed orchestral maneuverings; subtle injections of electronics; and the lack of any particularly recognizable structure. (Note in the melody a sort of deconstruction of the '20s nugget, "Bye Bye Blackbird"; could this relate to the "black hole blacker" bit?) Clark has said that she wanted to make the songs on the album "technicolor animatronic rides." Whatever such a thing is, "The Strangers" is surely one of them.
     Born in Oklahoma, Clark, like Bishop Allen above, is based in Brooklyn, surely one of the great hubs of '00s indie music. "The Strangers" is the first song on the new album, St. Vincent's second, which is due out in May on 4AD Records. MP3 via 4AD.

"The Economic Chastisement" - Kinch
     This song has a central time-signature complication going on but it took me any number of listens to notice. Which speaks to a songwriting feat I'm particularly fond of: not merely a time-signature complication, but a complication that doesn't draw undue attention to itself. I like when the unusual is disguised as normal. (A related trick, similarly tasty: disguising the normal as unusual.)
     Basically you've got an ongoing three-beat rhythm regularly interrupted by one two-beat rhythm--I'm guessing two 6/8 measures followed by a 5/8, but who knows. The more interesting thing is how this asymmetry is adroitly masked. First, notice the pulse-like drumbeat, which for the first minute sounds quite literally like a heartbeat, implying a steadiness that isn't actually there. Second, for all the implied motion in the song, the melody is focused on one note for a whole lot of the time. It gets kind of mesmerizing, particularly in combination with that cycling, just this side of comical piano vamp that kicks in at around 1:20. Another point of distraction is how the song comes to a near-complete stop during that brief, immobile chorus or bridge or whatever that is between verses. We notice that, but we don't notice the fact that there's no way to tap your toe to the song consistently even when the song starts moving again.
     Kinch is a four-piece from Phoenix; their name is the nickname given to Stephen Daedalus by (stately, plump) Buck Mulligan in Ulysses. "The Economic Chastisement" is the title track to a three-song EP the band self-released last month. If the title carries with it the weighty suggestion that we're all complicit in the rearing up of the so-called Great Recession, I have the feeling the band would be satisfied. They themselves are looking for no handout--the EP is available as a free and legal download on the band's web site, as is their entire first full-length CD, released last year. "These songs are meant to be shared," the band writes. "Please feel free to send them to anyone you like." It's a different kind of stimulus package.

MARCH 15-21

"Loaded" - The Idle Hands
     Simple, driving, and evocative, "Loaded" has the cool dry makings of an underground anthem about it. Embodying a musical vector that starts in the late '60s with the Velvets (Loaded, in fact, was the name of the last true Velvet Underground album) and runs through '70s Bowie, '80s Smiths, and '90s Oasis, The Idle Hands here deliver a casually brilliant, sharply-produced bit of neo-Britpop that's positively resplendent in its matter-of-fact-ness, if that makes sense. Surely it outshines the majority of the either under- or over-thought-out indie rock music that's all but strangling the internet (not to mention, this week, the city of Austin, Texas) by decade's end. Almost always the amount of naiveté or frippery on display in a song is inversely proportional to the underlying musical solidity of the enterprise. "Loaded" is nothing if not sleek and to the point, even if the point is a world-weary one.
     The ongoing trick for quality rock'n'roll, however, is how to keep the simple from being, simply, boring. "Loaded" catches and holds the ear in a number of ways. I like the rubbery synth line that traces a satisfying upward and downward path in the intro; I like the forceful but blasé baritone of singer Ciaran (no last name given), a voice at home with lyrics alternately cultivated and dissipated--bringing Morrissey (no first name given) to mind yet without sounding like a mindless acolyte. I like the somewhat unusual (in indie rock) use of internal rhyme--there's nothing too strict going on here, but if you pay attention you'll hear words being rhymed that do not always end a lyrical line. I like the perfect balance of fuzz and jangle in the guitar sound, and how neither sound overwhelms the song. And most of all I like the direct but vivid chorus, built upon the most basic three notes in the musical scale, just do re mi, but it's all about putting them in the right order, to the right rhythm, with the right chords.
     Featuring two Irish brothers and three Americans, the Idle Hands are based in Minneapolis and are readying their full-length debut for an American release this year. "Loaded" was originally on an EP released only in the U.K. in 2006; it will appear on the new CD as well.

"Permanent Scar" - O+S
     Orenda Fink has been a freewheeling musical spirit since the disbanding of Azure Ray in 2004, having in the years since released a solo CD, a CD with a project called Art in Manila, and, now, an album as the group O+S. This one is recorded with bassist Cedric LeMoyne, formerly of the band Remy Zero, and an old friend, performing under the name Scalpelist (thus O+S). The basic idea here was to take field recordings from around the world, turn them into loops and beats that could be incorporated into songs, and see what happens.
     Now I don't know about you but when I hear about songs using loops and beats I tend to pull my head back into my shell and wait for something that sounds like an instrument to come into earshot. Fortunately, despite the splicey nature of the underlying structure, O+S from the start was aiming for more than rhythmic gimmickry. "We listened to a lot of David Lynch soundtracks, 10cc, and old 4AD records," Fink has said. "I was looking for this balance of light and dark." The combination of David Lynch and 10cc surely got my head popping back out. And you can hear it right away on "Permanent Scar"--the glitchy beat isn't established for even 10 seconds when a graceful, almost New Order-y synthed-up guitar line emerges to bring musical order to the landscape. Fink's vocals are both airy and strong enough to take center stage; once she starts singing, everything going on is built around her, not in spite of her. And everything, on top of the beat, is musical: an elegant keyboard motif comes and goes; ghostly synthesizers float through the background but do so with an actual musical line, not just random atmospherics; after some opening double-tracking, the vocals acquire harmonies that are specific and interesting, not just a wash of sound.
     "Permanent Scar" is from the O+S's self-titled debut album, to be released next week on Saddle Creek Records. [FS]

"Harold T. Wilkins" - Fanfarlo
     Sparkly and quirky-poppy in a way that harkens back to early Talking Heads, "Harold T. Wilkins" shows off this London-based sextet's capacity to turn its interest in historical obscurities into offbeat but engaging pop. (The band named itself after the poet Baudelaire's one novella, so they're serious about this stuff.) Wilkins was a British journalist who wrote on a number of subjects, including the paranormal; one specialty of his was researching ancient flying-saucer sightings. You won't catch any of that from the song, however, in part because David Byrne-ish singer Simon Aurell sings in that way that lets you hear individual words more than complete sentences. You might wonder why a band would use specific, obscure references only to present in such a way as to keep them obscure, but it's no different, really, from any song in which you can't fully understand the lyrics. And I for one would rather encounter unintelligible lyrics about an obscure British writer (he also, it seems, reported on early TV experiments) than about another relationship gone bad.
     The song's full name is actually "Harold T. Wilkins, Or How To Wait For A Very Long Time," and I'm feeling a strong sense of expectation throughout the song, produced first and foremost by that recurring mandolin motif in the verse--a short, cycling figure that doesn't resolve as much as set us up for endless repetition. The chorus loses the mandolin and picks up an authoritative beat and some appealing melodic twists, and yet in the end fosters a renewed sense of anticipation via its unusual structure: it features six lyrical lines, following a rough AABBCC rhyme scheme, while the music offers an ABCDCD pattern. Which is to say it would have sounded finished after four lines; the extra two leave us less resolved as we glide back into waiting mode.
     You'll find this one on Reservoir, the band's first full-length CD, which was self-released last month. MP3 via SXSW, where the band is playing this week, along with 700,000 others.

MARCH 22-28

"Water and God" - All Get Out
     Four strong beats on the drum and bang, not two seconds in and we're delivered right to this song's big hook, first heard as a synthesizer melody played against a loud, bashy background. When the verse starts, the song retreats--lower volume, itchier vibe--to build the tension that rises as we await the inevitable, triumphant return of the Hook. But wait: more tension first, because when said Hook returns, we initially hear it as a quiet vocal melody against one staccato guitar line. This then adds to the feeling of blessed release when we finally hear the central melody full-fledged, as the driving chorus it was meant to be, at 1:17 (and thereafter).
     The melody itself is simple: first, a basic upward progression (the one, three, four, and five notes of the scale) in B minor, then a repeat of the notes with one difference--the first note shifts one whole step down, to the A instead of the B, which magically turns the B minor chord previously outlined into a D major chord (exploiting the tantalizing closeness between any minor key and its relative major). This is not a new trick, but it's a catchy one. There is nothing much new going on in this song at all and I for one say praise the lord. As noted on Fingertips with some regularity: "new" is a pointless measure of value in music; all that matters is "good." New does not automatically equal good any more than does good automatically equal new. If only a music critic or two understood this.
     All Get Out is a foursome from Charleston, S.C.; the name derives from the phrase "loud as all get out," which the band uses as its URL. Unlike most bands that strive to be loud, however, these guys still want the music to sound like music, which is another part of this song's charm. "Water and God" has appeared on both of its first two EPs, most recently a self-titled disc released near the end of 2008 on Favorite Gentlemen Recordings. MP3 via the SXSW web site, one last nod here to the mammoth festival that wrapped up this past weekend.

"Rome" - Dog Day
     The first five seconds of "Rome" sound like something straight off Murmur (the song's title does have the letters R.E.M. in it, yes?), but as soon as the floating synthesizer enters, sounding spookily like a voice, and the easy-flowing yet complex rhythm takes hold, I feel myself transported into some different if equally mysterious sort of place. Bassist Nancy Urich, singing lead here, offers a slightly distant, semi-transparent vocal style that both pulls us in and keeps us at a distance, while the band's seemingly foggy sensibility disguises a grand capacity to burn and churn (see the extended coda, that starts around 3:48, for a glimpse of it).
     There's a lot going on here, but the central compelling feature on display, to my ears, is the fluid use of shifting time signatures. The verse appears to be constructed of three measures of 6/8 time plus one measure of 8/8 (that's my guess, anyway); the chorus offers standard 4/4 time, yet with seamless transitions. Listen to how the recurring guitar line, which shepherds us through the 6/8 measures, adapts itself without a hitch to 4/4 time as well (compare the music that begins at 0:16 to 1:16, for instance). Or, for a particularly simple yet inventive shift, check out the break that begins around 3:06: it's just a straight, unadorned drumbeat; somewhere along the way we go from four to six beats but there's no way to tell exactly where.
     Dog Day is a two-boy, two-girl quartet from Halifax. "Rome" is from the band's new album, Concentration, to be released next month on the Canadian label Outside Music.

"Airplanes" - Local Natives
     Incorporating humor and substance, intricacy and simplicity, "Airplanes" feels terrifically well-conceived and well-performed. From the oddball grunts and groans that start things off to the strong instrumental parts to the offbeat way the lyrics and music match up, everything in this moderately paced, appealingly percussive song works to produce great texture and a satisfying sense of presence. Local Natives is a L.A.-based quintet with three singers and often an extra drummer; the way this song achieves both lightness and heaviness has a lot to do with the playful musicality of each band member. (For a delightful look at this exact characteristic, check out the band's backyard video in which they cover "Cecilia.")
     "Airplanes" is about singer Kelcey Ayer's grandfather, an impressive family personality (and longtime Boeing engineer) who died when Kelcey was two. Ayer's falsetto-y tenor, at once good-natured and forlorn, has a lot to do with how the song manages to incorporate both lightness and heaviness as it unfolds, as do the smartly arranged harmonies that help him out. It's a mature sensibility for a young band. If they can navigate the tricky interpersonal politics of keeping five creative folks together in one ensemble, Local Natives have a serious shot at success, however success is defined on the 21st-century music scene.
     When the band's debut CD, Gorilla Manor, is released, you'll find "Airplanes" on it. The album--which gets its name from the nickname given to a house the band members shared for a while in the Silverlake section of Los Angeles--is "forthcoming," says the band. Which might mean they're shopping it around, hoping to find a record label that wants to release it for them. Maybe they had some luck last week in Austin? In the meantime, MP3 via the band.


"Davy Crockett" - South Ambulance
     Friendly, skewed, comfortably messy, unexpectedly melodic, and totally what I want to hear this week. Could be the way the introduction takes Radiohead's "No Surprises" and recasts it as a goofy, upbeat adventure, could be the homespun nature of the big-hearted beat and wall-of-sound vibe, or maybe it could even be the snug nostalgia of the title ("Davy Crockett" evokes a bygone childhood as well as any proper name I can think of), but this song surely makes me smile. I love music that makes me smile out of pure instinctive reaction, not because it's literally funny (truthfully, I have no idea what's going on lyrically).
     There's something Beach Boysy in the dense, tuneful, vocally-oriented setting here, but this is no ironic/retro homage; "Davy Crockett," rather, sounds like something Brian Wilson might do right now if he happened to be 25 again and working in a Swedish band in the 21st century. Even at his Pet Sounds apex, there was something handmade and idiosyncratic about Wilson's lush creations; South Ambulance has likewise put this half-churning, half-soaring concoction together with seemingly as much duct tape as megabytes. Even as background harmonies contribute texture and floating synthesizer lines add an almost majestic sheen, the sometimes straining lead vocals keep us from gliding into woozy bliss. As if to drive home the point, the mix changes at around 2:28 to expose these voices, for 10 seconds or so, minus the reverb you almost didn't notice until it's stripped away; and they may sound harsh and slightly out of tune but they also feel abruptly present: you can suddenly sense mouths and lips and cheeks and microphones in a way that seems reassuring and handcrafted. Music peopled by people, not programmed and looped.
     South Ambulance is a quintet from Stockholm that has been playing together since 2003. "Davy Crockett" is the lead track from the band's latest EP, entitled EP#4, released this week on Indiecater Records, a digital only label based in Dublin. Two more South Ambulance EPs (#5 and #6) are due out on Indiecater before year's end.

"No Twig" - the Silt
     A sauntering, harmony-laced, downtempo showcase for some kooky guitar work, "No Twig" has the melody and ambiance of something off American Beauty as performed by Will Oldham. A Toronto trio with unusual musical talents, the Silt (as in "fine sand carried by running water") is compromised of guys who are known to play instruments such as bass flute, trombone, and bass clarinet, while the drummer, one Marcus Quin, plays the bass and drum at the same time, probably for some very good reason which I just can't happen to imagine.
     In "No Twig," however, it's all about the guitars, which appear subdued and orderly for the first minute or so, while the song is dominated by some deft group harmonies, only to begin playing flourishes, between lyrical lines, that give Wilco a run for the money for their odd textures and twangy-tinkly dissonances. Meanwhile, singer Ryan Driver, left on his own, has a quavery voice that enjoys exploring the elastic spaces around the actual melody, furthering the impression that at any moment this thing could just fall apart, mere anarchy loosed upon the tune. But memories of those beautiful harmonies linger, and eventually they return, the guitars settle down, somewhat, and this long but engaging piece of twisted Americana finds its ending.
     I have no explanation as to why a song like "No Twig" can sit quietly in my listening folder for a couple of months when suddenly, on one brisk light blue late March day, it strikes me as a song that needs to be heard, shared, written about, contemplated. But such is the way music works (in my brain, at least). "No Twig" can be found the CD Cat's Peak, released in January on Fire Records in the U.K.; the disc had been previously self-released in Canada in 2007.

"City Lights (Days Go By)" - Bob Mould
     There's something uncharacteristically sprightly and limber about this new song from one of indie rock's pioneers. It's not just that vibe-like synth line in the intro (although that's pretty darned sprightly); and it's not just that he's singing in his more nimble upper register rather than that forbidding lower register of his; it's really the whole melodic structure and instrumental framework that lends this song a refreshing openness that Mould's work hasn't had, from what I've heard of it over the years.
     I'm going to have a hard time explaining this one, but Mould has tended previously to write songs that, whatever their various merits, seemed mired in very specific sorts of chord changes and melodic patterns. Right from the start, "City Lights" breaks free with its opening melody--a melody that starts high and descends, and a melody that not only features but begins with held notes (the "Days go by" part, with each word held for two beats). It's a very small thing that nonetheless generates a notable aural change for Mould, who typically writes music directly to the lyrics, one note for each syllable except maybe at the end of the line. Even as the song unfolds through some turns and changes that are distinctly Mouldian (listen for instance to the chorus, that interval he describes at 1:28 as he hits the word "need": now that's Bob Mould), the ongoing sense of flow and uplift has him sounding oddly Paul Weller-like. (Who has his own issues, come to think of it, when it comes to being mired in a sonic rut, but never mind.) Even with that drone that Mould manages to imply via the production--there's actually not one particular instrument droning, but it somehow feels like there is--this song moves, and buoyantly.
     "City Lights (Days Go By)" is a song from the new CD, Life and Times, to be released next month on Anti Records. MP3 via Spinner.

APRIL 12-18

"Vacationing People" - Foreign Born
     At once ambling and deceptively precise, "Vacationing People" has the satisfying pop complexity of a late-era Beatles song, without being otherwise Beatlesque in any obvious way (though come to think of it, singer Matt Popieluch has a buzzy voice that can sometimes bring George Harrison to mind). While the song does have verses and a chorus, it also employs a repeating bridge, which results--unusually--in the bridge getting more air time than the somewhat elusive verses do. This kind of thing is subtle but effective: structural intricacy, when there still is structure (versus complete free-formedness), gives a pop song an ineffable sort of richness that charms the ears.
     And what I think I like best here is how the song makes a hook out of something that is not inherently hooky. And let's see if I can explain that. I'm talking about the chorus, which we hear the first time at 1:06. It's a sort of call and response, with Popieluch singing a simple melody that meanders, ascendingly, around a shuffly beat that is surely influenced by one sort of world music or another (the press material says benga, which is from Kenya, but I don't know enough to corroborate that); the answering vocals offer the same four-note response each time, three of the notes simply repeating before closing with one whole-step descent. The fuzzed-up bass and some tinkling guitar lines mesh with the shifty rhythms and the whole thing far exceeds the sum of its parts, forging a hook out of not one particular thing you can point to. By the second time it comes around, it sounds like an old friend.
     Foreign Born is a quartet from Los Angeles. "Vacationing People" is a song from the band's debut CD, Person to Person, scheduled for a June release on Secretly Canadian. MP3 via Secretly Canadian.

"Exclamation Love" - Ariel Abshire
     After listening to a few too many songs and/or bands that seek to grab listeners by the collar with their quirkiness or their histrionics or their sheer volume, I find "Exclamation Love" to be a balm to the spirit. There's nothing here but a fine song and a confident but disciplined singer. Yeah, she lets a note or two rip now and then, but it's much more Neko Case than "American Idol": a sweet seasoning of reverb enhancing full-throated tones of startling purity. I keep waiting for her voice to wobble, vibrate, or crack with practiced emotion but she's having none of it. The closest Abshire gets to an emotional "trick" is at 3:40 when she starts flitting up to falsetto as she drags out the first syllable in "exclamation"--she's just moving one whole step up but the shift in tone gives it the effect of a dire leap. The song is already two-thirds through, and at that point it's no trick at all but a natural culmination of the journey.
     And who needs histrionics when there's this: "Why don't you love me like you used to?" she sings at 1:36, then follows it with "I still love you like I used to" and listen to how she just plain spits out that last to. Check out, also, how the electric guitar uncorks a bit here, for playful emphasis, only to retreat into the mix thenceforth. Sometimes a little quirkiness can go a long way.
     Abshire is from Austin and maybe it's time I mention that she's 17 years old. Apparently she's been singing around town since she was 11. "Exclamation Love" is the title track to her debut CD, released last year on Darla Records. MP3 via Thanks to Bruce at Some Velvet Blog for the head's up.

"The Letter" - the Veils
     Finn Andrews and company return with an assured piece of rock'n'roll theater: engaging, well-performed, and rewardingly dramatic, featuring a full-fledged, recurring instrumental motif the likes of which has all but disappeared from the 21st-century rock scene. I'm talking about the ringing guitar line that opens the song; at least, I think that's a guitar--the sound is slippery and intriguing, and even though you can sing the melody easily back to yourself, you can't quite tell what's making it. When the theme returns later, braided into that sleek, idiosyncratic chorus, I can't help but smile with a wordless sort of delight at the vivid economy on display. "She wrote the letter down" is all Andrews sings, twice, and--via that delay between "letter" and "down," and the delicious melodic sidestep he takes on the second "down"--yet manages to open up a world of struggle and drama. I can't figure out what else he's singing about but, as is often the case (see above) when a gifted singer gets hold of a good song, it doesn't seem to matter.
     As noted last time around, Andrews is the son of Barry Andrews, once a sideman in XTC, later frontman for Shriekback. The Veils have gone through a variety of incarnations since their 2002 inception; the current, multinational quartet features two from New Zealand (including Andrews), a German, and a Brit. "The Letter" is from the band's new CD, Sun Gangs, released last week on Rough Trade Records. MP3 via the Beggars Group web site. [FS]

APRIL 19-25

"Pastures" - We The They
     Crisp, well-recorded modern pop with a knowing touch of the '60s about it, "Pastures" does in fact put me in the mind of open fields: this feels like a romp in the fresh air compared to a lot of what our glitchy, mashed-up, over-programmed decade has produced. No laptops were harmed in the creation of this song.
     From their quick Roy Orbison nod at the beginning (both lyrically and vocally) to their winsome Kinks-meet-the-Beach-Boys vibe, We The They manages to look backward without getting stuck there. Familiar snippets of words and melody shoot by, the background harmonies soar (and, sometimes, sink--check out that merry down-sliding note at 1:15), and everything is enlivened by the briskness of the beat and an underlying silliness that one can't quite put one's finger on but it's definitely here somewhere. Front man Robert Wayne has a rubbery voice that is equally convincing emoting and being a goofball. Consider it a useful skill.
     "Pastures" is a song from the band's three-song EP The Shabby Road Sessions, which came out last year in a limited self-release, then a digital release; and then, more recently, a video for the song has caught on amongst those who like to watch their music, so much so that the EP is going to be re-released this summer on an actual record label. No word yet on which one. The band is likewise at work on their first full-length album, which they're hoping to release before year's end.

"Somebody Tried to Steal My Car" - Super700
     This one is sleek, smoky, and melodramatic in a way that it's not possible to be if you don't have a stage full of people in the band. Nothing against trios--because I love trios--but there's something that sheer size brings to musical ambiance. Things simmer into existence in a large-ensemble crucible that otherwise wouldn't materialize.
     It's also difficult to be this sleek, smoky, and melodramatic, I should note, without a sleek, smoky, melodramatic lead vocalist, and Ibadet Ramadani scores high on all counts, and then some. Above everything else her voice gives the song its power because there's something darker and untamed lurking just below her enticing, sugary tone. Ramadani's two backing singers are her sisters, which adds uncommon resonance to the vocals, especially during the recurring wordless melody we hear first during the introduction (which features, by the way, wonderful melodic movement and hinges on an unusual ninth interval). Lyrically, the song unfolds with dream-like leaps in narrative, while Ramadani's poise and power gives lines like "Although I was raised by wolves/I want to be a tiger" their bite, as it were, and turns the chorus's follow-up refrain ("And if I was a tiger/What would you be?") into a resonant mystery. (Okay, should be "were," but oh well.)
     Super700 are based in Berlin. "Somebody Tried to Steal My Car" is a song off the band's second CD, Lovebites, produced by Rob Kirwan (who has worked with U2, Elastica, and New Order, among many others) and released at the end of February on the German label Motor Music.

"I Must Be Dreaming" - the Monolators
     Doing their best to find the Venn Diagram intersection between Buddy Holly, Jonathan Richman, and, say, Win Butler is the L.A.-based quintet the Monolators, all the while skating somewhere along that fine line that (sometimes) separates garage rock from indie pop. Backed by speeded up, bottom-heavy Cricket rhythms, vocalist Eli Chartkoff here employs an endearing sort of yelling/singing to express the defiant disappointment of the unlucky in love.
     Keeping this from becoming just another edgy bit of indie angst is the band's forcefully choreographed primitivism, driven by tom-toms, handclaps, a feverish bass line, and reverb-laced guitar squawks. As a group they never stray too far from their inner Buddy Holly: check out how the 30-second instrumental break in the center of the song (beginning at 1:13) begins with the band flying in different directions only to coalesce (1:31) into full Cricket mode. These are some of rock'n'roll's most primal rhythms. They still work because they never stopped working; we just sometimes stop paying attention. This is song is less homage than reminder.
     The Monolators began life in 2002 as a trio, stripped down at one point to a husband-wife duo (Eli and his wife Mary), and now appear to be a five-piece. You'll find "I Must Be Dreaming" on the CD Don't Dance, the band's third, which was released this past fall. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head's up.


"If Eilert Loevborg Wrote A Song, It Would Sound Like This" - Broken Records
     We begin with a mournful folk melody, played on cello and accordion, full of sad old-country wisdom. An added mandolin leads to a tempo shift, and now we're tapping our toes, but we're still sad. Music is like that sometimes. Tragedy is in the air; Eilert Loevborg (or Ejlert Løvborg) is in fact Hedda Gabler's flawed, doomed ex-lover in the Ibsen play. I haven't been able to discover why this seven-piece Scottish band chose to write a song from the point of view of this particular character, but ours is not to question why. Listen instead to Jamie Sutherland's commanding, rough-edged baritone and the unerring ensemble playing, led by the swift, crestfallen cello.
     There's a Northern air about all this--some elusive mix of Nordic and Scot, perhaps--but also something Eastern European, and then dawns the realization that at heart, old-country music blends nearly into one, from many different cultures. This might have to do with the violin (or fiddle) that lives in the center of so many folk traditions, or it might have to do with something deeper and more primordial in the human spirit. All I know is this band--whose members also play piano, trumpet, and glockenspiel in addition to guitar, bass, and drums--has a full and satisfying presence, the song a cumulative power. By the time Sutherland, with convincing torment, sings, "And does your husband know the lies that we've kept?/And has he ever felt that warmth from your bed?" (1:31), I feel that inner shift that happens when musical notes and instruments and voices combine in a way that touches the soul. We can sometimes point out when it happens but never can we ever truly say why.
     "If Eilert Loevborg Wrote..." is from Broken Records' debut CD, Until the Earth Begins to Part, scheduled for a May release on 4AD Records. MP3 via 4AD.

"Fetal Horses" - John Vanderslice
     Long-time Fingertips hero John Vanderslice returns on a new record label but with more of the wonderfully produced, smartly written music that has characterized his work to date. "Fetal Horses" is not necessarily a grabber but is a grower at once beautiful and unsettling.
      The first handhold into the piece, for me, is that gorgeous transition from the end of the verse to the bridge, as he sings, "I wanted you/To come back to me again." The line begins, actually, as if the beginning of the verse again, but drifts on the "you," which meanders--while also enhanced by octave harmonies--into the rest of the line, hewing to a heartbreaking melody that is vintage Vanderslice, its beauty simultaneously enhanced and subverted by disquieting piano fingerings, deftly placed strings, and, oddly, the wheezing, high-pitched carnival organ that plays through much of the song. Keep an ear on both piano and organ, as they each seem sometimes to be accompanying a different song than this one, offering enticing juxtapositions and textures that play off the beauty much as the grim and elusive lyrics do. The guitar solo at 1:58 is another jarring-but-engaging highlight.
     "Fetal Horses" is from the CD Romanian Names, to be released next month on Dead Oceans. And here's a nice JV touch: the first 100 fans who pre-ordered the CD received an immediate download, plus a nicely-packaged snippet of the actual analog master tape used in recording the album. MP3 via Dead Oceans. [FS]

"Sound the Alarms" - Immaculate Machine
     With a clipped, martial beat, multifarious percussion, and gang vocals, "Sound the Alarms" has the vibe of something at once urgent and good-natured. It's hard not to feel welcomed in by a song that begins: "Bad luck, my generation/The good ideas have all been taken." Most of the lyrics, except the title phrase, are subsequently swallowed up by the ambiance, but a worthy ambiance it is, with the refreshing feeling of musicians actually playing and singing together at the same time in the same room. We're I think supposed to get worked up about something, but not quite so worked up that we want to put down our instruments.
     And I say yes, if you're going to have a song dominated by a strong, repetitive beat, do exactly this: throw all sorts of percussive sounds into the mix, and if some of them sound like pots and pans, all the better. Invite a guitar in for a scorching solo two-thirds of the way through and you've just about got your song. (To be clear, I speak here without irony. I like this a lot. Sometimes I like tragic, sometimes I like fun. It's a big world.)
     A quintet from Vancouver, Immaculate Machine is fronted by childhood friends Brooke Gallupe and sometime New Pornographer Kathryn Calder; the band, at that point a trio, was featured on Fingertips in 2007. "Sound the Alarms" is from their fourth full-length CD, High on Jackson Hill, released this week on Mint Records.

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