MAY - JUNE 2008

May 4-10

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"Animé Eyes" - The Awkward Stage
     This one has the driving grandeur of mid-'70s Roxy Music, but with the arty quirkiness replaced by power-poppiness: "Animé Eyes" positively rings with clarity and catchiness. And yet there's more going on here than might be immediately apparent. Inspired, I imagine, by the subject matter, the verses are based on a pentatonic scale, the five-tone scale historically associated with Asian music. The pentatonic scale has an inherent sing-songy nature (at least, to my Western ears), which serves the goal of a pop song nicely, even as it also lends a slightly exotic je ne sais quoi to the musical setting (especially since the pentatonic underpinning here is subtle; no jokey musical cliches--think "Turning Japanese"--for these guys).
     In the chorus, the music shifts subtly but firmly back to a Western orientation, even as there are now some Japanese words being sung--another sure-footed but subtle touch. The guitar break that comes at 2:16, however--all pentatonic. Songs that mix straight-ahead, simple-sounding pop with behind-the-scenes craft strike me as close to brilliant most of the time. It helps, I think, to have as charismatic a singer as Shane Nelken, the mastermind behind the Awkward Stage, whose voice has the sort of melodramatic gravitas we heard a lot of back in the New Romantic days of the early '80s, but floats along with less pomposity--he even distorts it through some sort of filtering that keeps him from sounding too full of himself.
     "Animé Eyes" is from the CD Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights, to be released next month on Mint Records.

"Strawberry Wine" - Trevor Exter
     Finger-picking and generally slapping around a beat-up cello, Trevor Exter makes music that is both seriously unusual and thoroughly, pleasingly accessible.
     First off, dig the long, funky introduction. I don't usually like long, funky introductions, but I have never before heard one coaxed and charmed and pulled and plucked out of a cello before. In Exter's hands, the instrument generates a soft, incandescent groove, neither bass-like nor guitar-like--nor especially cello-like either, given his unconventional technique. It's kind of mesmerizing, and gets even friskier once the singing starts (after two and a half minutes) and the cello is used as punctuation, in a variety of creative, textured ways. Then again, once the singing starts, it's hard to keep one's ears entirely on the cello, since Exter has a grand instrument right there in his throat--a lithe and buttery tenor, full of soul but light as air. Never before (I don't think) have we heard a cello and a voice perform so intimately and knowingly together, since the cellist and the vocalist are usually two different people. The galvanizing impact on the fabric of the song--the way the cello riffs and rhythms work so tightly in and around the vocal lines--is hard to overstate. And let's not overlook the song itself, which is more than just a pleasant groove; he's written a spiffy hook in there as well (the "trembling, shivering, I am under your spell" part).
     Exter grew up, home-schooled, in upstate New York, found the cello at an early age but never took to classical music, and eventually spent a lot of time in South America absorbing a rich array of Brazilian pop into his psyche and repertoire. He's come and gone from New York City over the years, but is currently back there, gaining a following for the crazy, lovable thing that he does, playing both solo and with a band. "Strawberry Wine" is a song off his CD Flying Saucer People, which was self-released this year. MP3 via Exter's site.

"Yer Motion" - Reeve Oliver
     And then there remains, even now, much power in the simple formulation of "rock band," just three or four folks banging and strumming and hitting their regular ordinary guitars and drums and maybe a keyboard. Reeve Oliver is, in fact, a band--a trio, from San Diego. "Yer Motion" has nothing unusual going for it except that it happens to be a great song. (And are you tired yet of writers and bloggers who act like music that isn't somehow "new" is somehow bad? A great song is always a revelation.) So let me rephrase this: "Yer Motion" sounds really different than most songs because it's good and, well, a lot of the 7.8 trillion songs currently circulating online (that's an exclusive Fingertips estimate) do not actually qualify as "good."
     Why is it good? Energy, arrangement, performance, and (always the kicker, for me) melody. One thing "Yer Motion" does exceptionally well is build on itself: the verse is immediately engaging, with its alternating major and minor chords; then we get a second section that grabs the ear even more, and it turns out to be merely a transition into the chorus, which to my ears is the melodic climax of the song, with its sophisticated twists and tight tight harmonies. Nicely done.
      Reeve Oliver has been around since 2000. Signed by Capitol Records in 2006, they were among the bands that were summarily dropped when Capitol merged with Virgin early last year. "Yer Motion" can be found on the band's Touchtone Inferno album, their second full-length, which was self-released digitally at the end of 2007, and is now coming out on CD. A bonus: the album features a great retro look, from the font to the design to the cool B&W photo. Also nicely done.

May 11-17

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"Three Women" - Stereolab
     The semi-legendary, relentlessly inscrutable Stereolab--with their sexy vocalist, arcane musical references, and Marxist leanings--may never hit the big time, but they sure know how to entertain the left of center. Perhaps the first band to be called "post-rock," back in the early '90s, this British-based outfit were spinning out intellectually giddy genre-mashups when today's laptop-rockers were in preschool. As I'm not a long-time or super-knowledgeable fan, I always find myself surprised by how sunny and accessible a lot of Stereolab's music sounds at the simple level of listening--never-minding the underpinnings of influence and philosophy. You really don't have to know what they're doing--intermingling krautrock, lounge music, funk, jazz, '60s pop, and contemporary classical minimalism, among other things, leaning on vintage electronic instruments in the process--to like what you're hearing.
     On Fingertips, we last visited with vocalist Lætitia Sadier not too long ago, as her side project Monarde was featured in February; here, she sounds just as sultry-sophisticated (she sings in French again, as she often does), but a bit more light-hearted, as the music this time bubbles along with great pep and texture. Launched off a classic R&B groove, "Three Women" features a sneaky, meandering melody and a bright instrumental coalescence--I'm hearing Farfisa organ, marimba (or, perhaps, vibes?), trumpets, maybe even a celesta--that effortlessly evokes some other time and place without it being quite clear what time or place that might actually be. Sadier purrs, the music rolls along, and if we really have no idea what she's saying or why, well, this is Stereolab. Absorb the vibe, observe the craft, and enjoy the download.
     "Three Women" can be found the band's forthcoming CD Chemical Chords, not due out till August, on Duophonic UHF Disks/4AD. MP3 courtesy of Beggars Group.

"In a Cave" - Tokyo Police Club
     Buzzy, driven, incisive indie pop from a Toronto quartet with a knowledgeable vibe and the added attraction of having a singing bass player (discussed when last we met these guys). This song strikes me as very smartly constructed--elements added at just the right time, pieces interacting with a casual sort of precision. Example of element added at just the right time: those unexpected, shouting background vocals that chime in at 0:49; example of casually precise interaction: the almost feedbacky guitar line that enters at 0:40 and, first, mimicks the melody line as it's sung but then continues even as the melody moves on (right into the shouting vocal part in fact).
     And what are they singing about? The cave is metaphorical, to be sure, and there's that nice touch about reversing the effects of being in the cave once deciding to leave ("All my hair grows in/Wrinkles leave my skin"), which is skillful way of extending the metaphor; beyond that we get a skittery atmosphere, both musically and lyrically, and we're left to figure out exactly what's going on on our own.
     As per last week's comment about web writers who disparage music when it's not "new" enough, TPC is likely to catch some flak in this regard--and already have, in fact: "Tokyo Police Club aren't smashing templates or changing lives," proclaims Stereogum, "but this stuff is catchy [as hell], easily digestible fun." Here's a clue for you to take around the web: anyone who does that "damning with faint praise" routine is revealing more about their own insecurities than about the subject at hand. Either like something, don't like it, or, even, partially like it--just do so clearly; ground it in observable fact. Is that so hard? "Easily digestible fun" means "this isn't really 'cool' enough for me to like but I like it anyway." Humbug. "In a Cave" is from TPC's debut CD, Elephant Shell (the phrase comes from this song; listen carefully), and is another sign that these guys mean business. It was released last month on Saddle Creek Records. [FS]

"Shoulda Never" - Oh Darling
     This one clicks for me in the chorus, at the end of the second line, when the melody steps slightly down, into that unresolved place, and just stays there (around 1:11). Goes to show yet again that you never know where a hook is coming from, or why. And this sort of thing doesn't happen in a vacuum--the whole reason that unresolved detour sounds so apt is because of everything that's come before it. For a relatively new band, these guys have recorded something that glows with preternatural charm and know-how.
     Right away note the juxtaposition of that staccato bass-and-guitar intro, a reliable implement in the rock toolbox at least since the Cars came along, and lead singer Jasmine Ash's pure, almost child-like tone--an intriguing blend that pulls us into "Shoulda Never," establishing the song's subtle push/pull of soft and hard, naive and experienced, female and male (the quartet features two men and two women, and includes a mixed-gender rhythm section--male drummer, female bass). Familiar-sounding in appealing ways, the song also offers its share of subtle surprises, one of my favorites being the whistly, almost flute-like synthesizer that creates a kind of lost-world ambiance, first heard in the instrumental break at 1:24.
     Formed in 2006, Oh Darling self-released an EP in November '07. The band's full-length debut is expected out in August, on Nice Records, which is their own label. "Shoulda Never" can be found on both discs. MP3 courtesy of the band's wonderful-looking web site.

May 18-24

Due to the Memorial Day Weekend holiday in the U.S., there will be no "This Week's Finds" next week.

"Goes On Forever" - the Catalysts
     Anchored by a shimmering guitar-and-harmonica sound that will take you back to the '60s even if you were never actually there, "Goes On Forever" is one part pure breeze, one part bittersweet homage to times gone by. The relentless good nature of the solid backbeat and genial melody is counteracted by enough suspended chords in the chorus to give you the impression of clouds passing in front of the sun. The words tumble out in a sort of Dylanesque swirl; some of the ones that I can catch do in fact, either coincidentally or not, appear to refer to music from the '60s and '70s ("I'm a Believer," "It's a Beautiful Day," and the way the title phrase comes right after the word "dream," which calls the old Todd Rundgren song to mind).
     The Catalysts is a band name, but there's really no band at this point--just a guy named Ulric Kennedy, from Glasgow, with a history in a number of independent bands dating back to the late '80s. Kennedy is a bass player by trade, and he lays down a particularly interesting bass line here--listen closely and you'll hear how he plays bass more like a lead instrument than a bit player in the rhythm section: not only is the bass given the melodic lick that drives the entire song, but Kennedy also plays sustained notes that frequently drop the bass out of the rhythm altogether. It's not the kind of thing your ear is supposed to notice consciously, but it does add subtle sonic interest to the song as it develops. And don't miss the fake fade-out--not subtle at all, but mysteriously alluring nonetheless.
     Kennedy is getting the Cloudberry Records treatment for this new Catalysts release: a three-inch CD-R three-song single, released in a hand-numbered batch of 100; "Goes On Forever" is one of the two "b-side" songs on the "Autumn Everywhere" single, due out next month. MP3 courtesy of Cloudberry.

"Out at the Wall" - Soltero
     This song has an unexpectedly spacious presence for something so relatively quiet and contemplative, thanks in part to the in-the-distance production effects, which include a hammering, machine-like noise, an electronic surf sound, the whistle of a ghost train, and echoey, drop-like percussion accents, with some mysterious tinkly sounds thrown in for good measure. And it's not just the sounds themselves that create the space, it's the fact that these sounds are dropped behind the tidy pulse of an acoustic guitar. Note too how the reverb that Tim Howard uses on his voice feels somehow crisper than the often muddy wash of reverb we tend to hear in indie-land in this day and age; while muddy reverb veers sonically towards both the claustrophobic and the impersonal, what Howard does here feels open and vulnerable.
     Quiet, contemplative songs also don't tend to move along in this brisk and shuffly sort of way, which is another juxtaposition that enriches the vibe. Then we get that part of the song in which Howard unleashes his upper register, at which point the guitar pretty much drops out and it's all the echoey ghostly carryings-on in the background. Cool stuff.
     And the theme this week so far, unintentionally, is bands that aren't bands, since Soltero this time around is pretty much a solo effort for Tim Howard (over the years, Soltero has sometimes been a band and sometimes not; Howard's previous appearance on Fingertips back in '04 was also a solo affair). "Out at the Wall" is a song from the new Soltero CD, You're No Dream, being released this week on the Pennsylvania-based label La Société Expéditionnaire. MP3 via the label's site.

"Rebel Side of Heaven" - Langhorne Slim
     I have a soft spot for songs that start off the tonic chord--that is, songs that open on a chord that feels obviously not the song's home base. I'm never sure how we even know this so quickly but we do. Listen to the first three or four seconds of "Rebel Side of Heaven" and you'll hear it yourself, and then enjoy the way the song slides itself into the tonic, then--oops--out again, before settling in at 0:12, just before the singing starts.
     And what singing! Langhorne Slim (nee Sean Scolnick, who grew up in Langhorne, Pennsylvania) has a high-pitched warble that manages still to be warm and approachable, kind of like if Jeff Tweedy were singing with Neil Young's voice. With its good-natured swagger and great horn charts, the song is a rollicking good time, but unlike the vast majority of rollicking-good-time rock songs, it's neither uncomfortably dumb nor way too long. The lyrics, in fact, are not only idiosyncratic and engaging, but feature at their heart what strikes me as a novel idea ("And though we have sinned all of our lives/We ain't going to hell/Well we're going to the rebel side of heaven." Whether he got it from something he read or made it up himself, it beats the pants off the lyrics to most good-timey songs in the rock canon.
     "Rebel Side of Heaven" is from the debut, self-titled Langhorne Slim full-length, released last month on Kemado Records. MP3 via Kemado. [FS]

June 1-7

"My Mistakes Were Made For You" - the Last Shadow Puppets
     If the Decemberists were to write a James Bond theme song, they might come up with something like "My Mistakes Were Made For You." Echoingly atmospheric, with melodramatic strings, an ominous surf guitar, and melancholy horn charts, "My Mistakes Were Made For You" has at the same time a pleasantly wordy feel, which strikes me as an unexpected twist for a song with this sort of spy-movie vibe. (Songs from James Bond movies are, rather, renowned for the relentless fatuousness of their lyrics.)
     Another amiable difference here is Alex Turner's simmering vocal delivery; more well known as the front man of the Arctic Monkeys, Turner here turns from the more frenetic, ejective singing style he uses with his "other" band to a softer, almost soulful sort of approach. Turner does not lose his accent (apparently a Sheffield accent) while singing; while American me is accustomed to hearing an accent like this in a hard-rocking setting (a cliche perhaps but that's mostly what we hear of it here), I can't say I've been treated to it in quite this context before. I find it rather charming.
     The Last Shadow Puppets is a collaboration between Turner and his friend Miles Kane, who's also in a band called the Rascals. "My Mistakes Were Made For You" is from the duo's debut release, The Age of the Understatement, which came out last month on Domino Records. [FS]

"Black Lungs" - the New Frontiers
     Here's a prime example of an oft-repeated Fingertips theme: music does not have to be new to be great. A band need not blaze trails to be worthy. I think we'd have more consistently good music being played out there, in fact, if bands weren't so often trying too hard to be different.
     A quintet from Dallas, the New Frontiers do not try to be different; they try to be good. With "Black Lungs," they succeed, for reasons that are a bit difficult to pinpoint, since this appealing, well-crafted song seems to be trying not to stand out; it sounds like something we've all loved for a long time and kind of take for granted by now. But let's see: that crying, arcing guitar line that launches the song is one terrific thing; singer Nathan Pettijohn is another, with his tender-rugged voice and his refusal to leap into falsetto, even when the song threatens to go there; and then there's the chorus, which delivers a great back-door hook--which happens right around the words "back door," in fact. The hook delights me, because it sounds like we'd already heard the hook (the leap up at 0:56, around the words "everything's fine"), and then, in the second part of the chorus ("don't you kick me out the back door"), the melody slyly returns to the eighth-note pattern used in the first part of the verse and that just nails everything together. There's something old-timey and classic at work here. Close your eyes and breathe it in.
     The New Frontiers were previously known as Stellamaris, and recorded one CD in 2005 under that name. "Black Lungs" is the opening track on Mending, their first CD as the New Frontiers, which was released in April on the Militia Group. [FS]

"Boarded Doors" - the Morning Benders
     The Morning Benders return with their elusively familiar brand of sturdy yet off-kilter pop. "Boarded Doors" shuffles between a cartoony menace (that prickly guitar, that schemingly descending melody line) and a yearny sort of wistfulness, to great effect. Chris Chu sings so casually he may as well be talking, but the more I listen, the more impressed I am with his tone and tunefulness. The entire band tends to sneak up on me like that--they sound like they're just sort of rehearsing, but underneath the informal surface lies a tight little song and a lot of expertise.
     I'm fascinated by the concise, unresolved chorus, which gives us a quick shot of something that sounds like a backward guitar and perfectly placed "oo-oo" backing vocals and then vanishes before one quite realizes hey, that was the chorus. If, in fact, a song could have a verse and a bridge and no chorus (which I think is impossible by definition) then the Morning Benders have managed to write it.
     An amiable quartet from Berkeley, California (they claim to have met while all working on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at Disneyland), the Morning Benders released their first full-length CD last month, called Talking Through Tin Cans, on +1 Records. MP3 courtesy of Spinner. [FS]

June 8-14

"Being Here" - the Stills
     There's a mystery to the majesty of good pop music. Seemingly lacking both surface-level complexity and a weighty philosophical foundation, pop music has always been dismissed by "serious" musicians and critics as insubstantial at best, culturally harmful at worst. What pop's most supercilious critics don't understand, however, is that just because pop isn't "high art" (whatever that really is) doesn't mean it can't, in the right hands (underline that part), be an artistically valid mode of creative expression. Pop music cannot be dismissed simply because it does not measure up to the standards of so-called "serious music" (whether classical or avant-garde); that would be like criticizing a cat for not being a dog.
     And so can an apparently simple composition like "Being Here"--even the title communicates the ultimate in unadorned declarations--deliver something ineffably beautiful and moving in a swift three and a half minutes. You've heard these chords before, and the plain descending melody, centered around four adjacent notes. You've heard the guitars, you've heard the large, anthemic vibe. Whatever this song has can't and won't be "explained" by its constituent parts. There's something in the sound, in the presentation, and maybe in singer Tim Fletcher's big-hearted voice (a voice that brings to mind the late, lamented Stuart Adamson, of the Scottish band Big Country), that rivets the ear, that makes me, in any case, stop, listen, and feel truly--if mysteriously--affected.
     "Being Here" is a song off the Stills' third album, Oceans Will Rise, which will be released on the Arts & Crafts label in August. This is the Montreal quintet's third appearance on Fingertips (check the Master Artist List for details). Thanks to Jonk Music for the lead. MP3 courtesy of the Canadian music magazine Exclaim.

"Loud and Clear" - the Last Town Chorus
     And this, oddly enough, is the second song called "Loud and Clear" now featured on Fingertips (the first being this one, from the duo Pink and Noseworthy), for those keeping score at home. This "Loud and Clear" is particularly well-named, because Megan Hickey, who plays lap steel guitar and sings, has a sweet, clear-toned voice and a round, indelible sound, as she plays her instrument using effect pedals not typically employed, creating both dreamy textures and memorable lead lines in the process. This is not your Grand Ole Opry lap steel. Hickey has an instinctive feel for just how much to glide and bend her notes, avoiding country cliches while invigorating the song with inventive shapes and sounds.
     Although originally a duo, the Last Town Chorus has since 2004 been the Brooklyn-based Hickey playing with a changing ensemble of musicians. "Loud and Clear" is a single from an as-yet untitled CD, to be released at some as-yet unspecified date by Hacktone Records. (Warning: the Hacktone web site is a Flash-based nightmare; enter at your own risk. You're far better off checking out Hickey's "travelogue," a regularly updated blog featuring pictures and thoughts from her life on the road, posted via cell phone.) MP3 via Hacktone.

"I Lost the Monkey" - the Wedding Present
     From its gentle, even poignant opening, "I Lost the Monkey" blossoms into a loud-but-controlled midtempo construction of prepossessing precision, with consistently impressive guitar work and a brilliant chorus.
     Just listen to those guitars--whether it's the semi-dissonance of the second "intro" (the extended instrumental after the quiet opening verse, starting at 0:34) or the melodicism that emerges in the middle of the chorus, and then more prominently in the second verse (starting around 1:57), the guitars are used here with unusual care and sensitivity. This is not just a couple of guys strumming to fill in empty space. And then there's that terrific chorus, which is rendered all the more affecting by lead man David Gedge's restrained, almost whispered vocals, which make no effort to rise above the guitars, but somehow create a quiet clearing in the middle of the noise in which they can nonetheless be heard.
     A veteran band from Leeds, the Wedding Present has been through a number of lineup changes since its formation back in 1985; by now, the only constant through the years has been Gedge, now 48. (Note that in 1992, the Wedding Present released a new single on the first Monday of every month--a very internet music scene-like thing to do, well before the birth of the internet music scene.) For their new album, El Rey, the band has brought studio whiz Steve Albini back to the controls (Albini previously engineered CDs for the band in 1989 and 1991; he does not want to be called a producer, by the way). I've no idea what the rest of the album sounds like, but this one soars. [FS]

June 15-21

"Hymn #101" - Joe Pug
     Had the Bob Dylan haunting the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961 and 1962 augmented his sociopolitical preoccupation with a wide-eyed spiritual awareness, he might have composed a spare, literate neo-folk marvel such as "Hymn #101." Carefully written and plainly presented (just guitar and voice, thank you), "Hymn #101" glows with humanity and intellect, its simple Dylanesque melody hosting any number of unexpected observations and descriptions, delivered with a voice that channels not only the great one from Hibbing but multiple generations of "next Dylans" as well, from John Prine to Steve Earle to Josh Ritter and then some.
     While a potent cultural critique is layered into the song's semi-mysterious lyrics, what moves me the most here are the moments when Pug reveals a metaphysical depth not often encountered on the indie scene. The conclusion he works up to is all but breathtaking: "Will you recognize my face/When God's awful grace/Strips me of my jacket and my vest/And reveals all the treasure in my chest."
     "Hymn #101" can be found on Joe Pug's debut EP, Nation of Heat, self-released in May; MP3 via his web site. And by the way, can this be his real name? Joe Pug? His biographical information is so scanty that I suspect he's intent on another Dylanesque maneuver: romantic obfuscation of his past.

"Hold On" - Windsor For The Derby
     "Hold On" indeed: this song begins with an extended introduction, featuring a rhythm both brisk and soothing. Listen closely and for all the apparent movement you really can't discern a whole lot of obvious activity: there's a guitar strumming without quite wanting to call too much attention to itself, there's a fuzzy organ that seems to dissipate as soon as you hear it, there's a bass that appears to be playing only one note the whole time, and all one minute and six seconds of the intro features an alternation between just two chords, separated by a simple half-step.
     Then the vocals start, rather wispy and mixed down in that Yo La Tengo, resolutely-indie sort of way. But pay attention at 1:20--we finally hear a third chord. It's a great moment but it flows quickly by, and is itself easy to miss except that the song shifts and deepens at this point. Though exactly towards what end we still don't know. (Remember: hold on.) The melody leads us through a few more chords rather quickly (considering the context), the verse repeats, and then, at long last, two full minutes in, the chorus arrives, complete with--of all things--soaring, Brian Wilson-inspired backing harmonies. Nothing about this song signaled that it was going there. It's a startling juxtaposition, and well worth the long and subtle buildup.
     Led by Dan Matz and Jason McNeeley, Windsor For The Derby has gone through a number of personnel changes since the group's formation in Austin in the mid-'90s. The band is now a quintet; Matz and McNeeley, recently relocated to Philadelphia, are the only the remaining original members. "Hold On" is a song from the CD How We lost, the band's eighth, released last month on Secretly Canadian records. MP3 via the Secretly Canadian web site.

"SK Final" - Ndidi Onukwulu
     Happy-sounding blues, with horn charts, "SK Final" hides its musical inventiveness beneath a brassy, old-fashioned vibe. Onukwulu is a British Columbia native born to Nigerian parents, and in her songs seeks to combine blues, jazz, and African music. Check out, for instance, how the song starts: those reverberant drum beats are not directly blues-based, but evoke another continent's rhythms. When Onukwulu starts singing, she's accompanied further by an acoustic rhythm guitar, softly marking the beat as she sings off of it, while an electric guitar soon begins to supply gentle flourishes that, again, bring a world-music flair to the musical landscape.
     In the end, however, "SK Final" is dominated by pretty much two things: Onukwulu's vibrant alto, with its fleeting vibrato, and those snappy horns, which kick in right before the chorus. While providing traditional horn-chart-y punctuation to the lyrics, the horns also offer a mellower sort of instrumental aside (1:07, for example; even better, 1:39) that to my ears gives them a sneaky and enticing spirit, even when finishing the song off in full rave-up mode, as Onukwulu assures us, with frisky defiance, that she's not going to cry over you again. Like I said, happy blues.
     "SK Final" is the lead track on Onukwulu's second CD, The Contradictor, released this week on the Vancouver-based label Jericho Beach Music.

June 22-28

"Was I On Your Mind" - Jessie Baylin
     "Was I On Your Mind" has the hallmarks of a great pop hit--hooks, craft, canny performance--and yet is unlikely to be anything of the sort here in 2008, just because who the hell knows anymore. The music market is as unhinged as the oil market. History teaches us, however, that craziness is always an aberration in the long run. There is no reason to assume that a song as crisp, well put together, and engagingly sung as this one won't again find favor with the general public, but, alas, it'll probably be too late for Ms. Baylin.
     Fingertips, of course, exists in a sort of alternative universe in which what matters is the song, the spirit, the intelligence, the ineffable spark of human-to-human connection. So as far as I'm concerned this song is already a hit--an incisive example of how it's really really okay to apply polish and know-how to songwriting, at least when such things avoid cliché and are grounded in a voice, both lyrically and musically, that's feels real, solid, true. With her dusky alto and nimble delivery, the New Jersey-born, L.A.-based Baylin sounds to me, fetchingly, like Shawn Colvin doing a Sam Phillips impression; to the insistently upward, yearning melody of the chorus, she adds a textured presence that pretty much melts me. I like too how even in the context of this smartly produced number, little quirks can be found, including how the end note she hits repeatedly on the word "wrong" strikes the ear as unresolved, and how she breaks the songwriter "rule" of making the title the most repeated phrase in the song (which in this case would be "Tell Me I'm Wrong").
     You'll find this one on Baylin's new CD, Firesight, released this week on Verve Forecast. Produced by Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney), this is the 24-year-old's second album; the first, You, was an iTunes-only self-release. [FS]

"Say Yes" - Afternoons
     This one carries the wacky, group-sing, neo-hippie vibe of the Polyphonic Spree but with the added benefit of really solid songwriting.
     "Say Yes" unfolds with a jaunty, trumpet-led rhythm augmented by a loopy backing vocal that brings the Star Trek theme song to mind. In the indie world, lots of songs pretty much end there--quirky, big-ensemble intro, and that's all we get. To its credit, "Say Yes" develops resoundingly beyond its minute-long intro, presenting us next with a verse featuring a non-repeating melody that stretches out for more than 40 seconds, incorporating 18 measures of music. That's all but unheard of in a rock band, but then again, Afternoons are an idiosyncratic rock band at best, being a seven-piece ensemble that includes two drummers, a trumpet player, and a classically trained opera singer. Three of the seven players were in the L.A.-based band Irving, which has been put aside now that that band's side projects have apparently overshadowed the main act (another Irving offshoot is Sea Wolf).
     The chorus, by the way, is nicely thought out too, and an apt counterpart to the extended verse: simply the words "say yes," architected into the bouncy trumpet refrain of the introduction. For something this big-hearted and loose-limbed, "Say Yes" is a pretty tight composition. It will eventually appear on Afternoons' debut CD, which is recorded but seems to lack, thus far, a release date. The band has been selling EPs at shows in L.A. but that's about it so far. MP3 courtesy of Irving's web site. Thanks to Filter for the tip.

"Operate" - William F. Gibbs
     He's got a name like a character actor or a middle school principal, but he's got the dreamy voice of a romantic troubadour, a guy who's seen enough to abandon his dreams but hangs onto them anyway.
     A steady, unhurried piano ballad with an immediately engaging melody, "Operate" comes alive via a combination of Gibbs' singing (don't miss the phased harmonies at 1:47) and some lovely, understated guitar work. From the outset, an acoustic guitar plays in tandem with the piano, but often just at the edges of awareness; sometimes you can hear fingers moving along strings more prominently than the actual notes, which adds to an interesting sort of tension the song sustains between movement and languidness. Best of all are the dreamy slide guitar licks that get a little showcase from 1:06 through 1:32, returning in only the most whispery way through the rest of the song.
     "Operate" is a track from My Fellow Sophisticates, Gibbs' debut CD, released earlier this month on Old Man Records.

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