MAY - JUNE 2009

MAY 3-9

"Die Young" - the Sweet Serenades
     Despite the bright guitar line, winsome beat, perky synthesizer, and, even, bongos(!), this melodic toe-tapper is poignant through and through. (Sad lyrics to happy music is a perpetually satisfying pop music trick.) The band's Martin Nordvall here trades vocals with guest Karolina Komstedt from Club 8, and the story is a wistful, disconnected one: smitten, he sings how he loves to linger in the morning and watch her breathe; she, forty seconds later, "not looking for love," sings, "In the morning/You stay a little too long." Ouch.
     One of my favorite moments happens early, as the song is still setting itself up: when Nordvall sings "I haven't been myself lately" (0:35), the words "been myself" form a sort of triplet, the second two syllables each coming ahead of the beat while--this is the cool thing--underneath, one of the guitars slashes three evocative chords precisely in rhythm with all three parts of the syncopated phrase. Okay, subtle, but it's the kind of thing that to me signals a song of merit and purpose. I like too how one of Komstedt's two heavy introductory sighs--before you actually hear her begin singing--come right ahead of that lyrical line.
     Based in Stockholm, the Sweet Serenades are Nordvall and lead guitarist partner Mathias Näslund, who have apparently been inseparable since finding one another wearing the same then-hip Soviet CCCP hat and riding similar bikes as teens in 1991. "Die Young" is from the band's full-length debut, Balcony Cigarettes, released last month on Leon Records.

"Easy" - Deer Tick
     For a band with roots in Rhode Island, this one has something of the big, lonesome prairie about it, provided that you put a garage somewhere in the middle of that prairie and plugged a guitar or two into it. We'll need a drum kit too. And a carton of cigarettes.
     After the spaghetti western surf rock of the rumbly introduction, the immediate thing that will impress you (or, not) about "Easy" is the roughened--well, okay, strangled--tone of front man John Joseph McCauley III. Perhaps an acquired taste, or perhaps something you won't want to hear for more than three or four minutes at a time, but I urge you to ride this one out because the thing that ultimately gives this song its power is, I think, the juxtaposition of McCauley's sore-throated rasp and the urgent poise of its simple, well-crafted music. Listen to how the galloping verses leave you aching for resolution and how well the rock-solid chorus delivers it: an uncomplicated melody perched upon a flowing guitar line, everything shot through with the deep-seated authenticity of folk music, along with a shot of un-self-conscious '70s southern rock.
     Deer Tick began in 2004 as pretty much just McCauley, supported by a variety of side musicians. The band became a duo in '07, and has evolved since then to a full-fledged quartet, now based in Brooklyn, like everybody else. "Easy" is the lead track off Deer Tick's second album, Born on Flag Day, which will be released next month on Partisan Records, also based in Brooklyn. MP3 via Partisan.

"Come Monday Night" - God Help the Girl
     Me, this is the voice I most feel like hearing after McCauley's. I love that last song but listening to it makes my throat hurt. "Come Monday Night" is a delicious lozenge.
     God Help the Girl is the name of a side project by Stuart Murdoch, the principal singer and songwriter of Belle & Sebastian. B&S fans will clearly hear the Murdochian touch here in terms of the lilting melody and the general (for lack of a better word) twee-ness. After the dreamy, wordless vocal introduction, featuring a spare piano and a touch of strings, "Come Monday Night" picks up speed and lushness as vocalist Catherine Ireton sings with a sweet but solid presence--her tone is pure but not sugary--and that place in the verse where the melody takes a gentle turn upwards, three times in a row (the phrase we first hear starting at 1:01): isn't that just meltingly gorgeous? Each successive upward turn is a whole step above the previous one, and Ireton's voice makes the expanding leaps with airy aplomb; this phrase is the song's distinct hook, and a mighty example of Murdoch's melodic gift. Who plants hooks so casually in the second half of a verse? There's no chorus in the song; he didn't need it.
     Described as "a story set to music," God Help the Girl is name of both the group and the album; it's a project Murdoch has been working on intermittently since 2004. Ireton, from Scotland, is lead singer on 10 of the 14 songs; the vocalists were initially recruited via an internet ad in 2007. Ireton is otherwise one half of the duo Go Away Birds (Murdoch sings on one of the songs on the band's EP); she is also the woman pictured on the sleeve for "The White Collar Boy," a B&S single. There's a nice video introduction to the whole thing on the project's web site (scroll down). The album will be released next month on Matador Records; MP3 via Matador. [FS]

MAY 10-16

"Miracle" - Sally Shapiro
     Sweden's reclusive neo-italo-disco chanteuse (and/or duo) returns with another glistening wash of beat-driven melodrama, complete with whispery spoken French and electronic thunderstorms. Once again, it's the airy vocals--half golden warm, half icy cold; summer and winter combined--and blasé melodicism that give this song its particular charisma. For all its scrupulous construction and electronic core, there's something serene, even lackadaisical about the vibe, and yet not for a moment does the piece lose its sweeping, club-like theatricality. The melodies themselves are good examples of this dynamic tension, sounding at once borderline schmaltzy and emotionally penetrating.
     For newcomers, note that the name Sally Shapiro is used here to refer to both the duo behind the music--producer/writer/arranger Johan Agebjörn and an unidentified female singer--and to the singer herself, whose identity is kept secret, in the interest of maintaining her privacy. (She avoids both live performances and face to face interviews.)
     "Miracle" is the first available song from the album My Guilty Pleasure, slated for a fall release on Paper Bag Records. MP3 via Paper Bag.

"Symptoms" - New Ruins
     Evocative, echoey, and hypnotic, "Symptoms" unwinds to an irresistible 7/4 beat that manages to move with clock-like precision and yet also with that irregular seven-count glitch. The odd but resolute beat, kept largely by an acoustic guitar lick (and only intermittently by any percussion at all), works as a central focal point, a reliable ground on top of which muddier elements--the reverbed vocals, the indistinct background drone--can operate without entirely deconstructing the song. "Symptoms" feels at once dainty and rough-edged, traditional and experimental; the way the strings (cello and violin, it seems) bow plaintive melodies over and around a loose mash of softly clanging, echoing guitars (in particular beginning at 1:48), with a drumbeat that rarely rises about the sound of a heartbeat, kind of sums up the idiosyncratic amalgam the band appears to be seeking.
     Once a duo, New Ruins, from Illinois, has expanded to quintet for their second CD, entitled We Make Our Own Bad Luck, which was released at the end of April on Parasol Records. MP3 via Parasol.

"3 Leaf" - Jar-e
     With a genuine groove, the likes of which we don't often hear in the indie rock world, "3 Leaf" slithers its way into my brain and then kind of just stays there. This song does not have hooks as much as moments: the big-voiced way Jar-e (real name: Jon Reid) sings at the outset of the verse; the sudden--perfect--appearance of horn charts in the chorus; the casual build-up to the song's central metaphor (a "three-leaf clover"; not good luck, in other words).
     Embodying an unabashed, old-fashioned sound (heck, it's even got a saxophone solo), "3 Leaf" is something of an anomaly--a big-hearted blast from the past, seeking to be nothing if not accessible, that nonetheless has the spunky, independently-produced spirit of the '00s. Take those horns, for instance: while bringing to mind the horns you might hear on a soul record from the '60s, they're actually kind of edgy and intricate--they don't offer punch as much as ongoing counterpoint.
     You'll find "3 Leaf" on Jar-e's second album, Chicas Malas, which was released in February on Exotic Recordings, based in the decidedly unexotic town of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Reid grew up in Norfolk, Virginia and is currently based in Asheville, NC. Thanks to the hard-working Largehearted Boy for the head's up.

MAY 17-23

"I Am Leaving" - Blue Roses
     So-called folktronica often seeks to blend the acoustic and the electronic, but typically in a moody, glitchy ambiance; what Laura Groves introduces us to with "I Am Leaving"--Blue Roses is the name the multi-instrumentalist Groves uses for recording--is an acoustic/electronic blend that is at once bright and dreamy, the brisk folky guitar almost but not quite overwhelmed by a glistening synth that sounds like what a harpsichord might sound like if it could sustain. Soon we hear her harmonizing wordlessly, swoopingly, with herself; the (beguiling) effect is Kate Bush doing an imitation of the Roches, if you'll excuse the old-school references. When she first begins to sing actual words (at 0:40), her unadorned singing voice seems almost too...I don't know, too something: too raw, too high, too present and unfiltered. But give it a little time, and when the harmonies return, wow, check out some of those intervals--I can't even begin to guess what notes she's putting together at 0:59, on the second syllable of "silent." My goodness.
     I'll tell you exactly where it all began to make sense to me: at 1:12, when the swooping, wordless harmonies come back once more, and the melody makes that gratifying descent through an octave (first as she sings "Oh give me a clue somehow"). She repeats it, then resolves it with one extra melody line, then we go back into the verse--and we never hear this section again. But its existence haunts the song, renders it deeper and more complex. Everything sounds different from here on in, and not only because of the shift in instrumentation.
     "I Am Leaving" is from the debut, eponymous Blue Roses album, which was released in April in the U.K. and is scheduled for a July release on Beggars Banquet Records in the U.S. MP3 via the Beggars Group web site.

"Lalita" - the Love Language
     Crashing, distorted pop that manages the neat trick of being harsh and cute at the same time. There's that rough-edged sound and the lo-fi vocals on the one hand, that cheery tambourine and lovable, horn-like, garage-rock guitar riff on the other. Yup, pretty cute. And the thing even swings, in an effortless, '60s-ish sort of way.
     A key to its success, to me, is how relaxed a piece of work this is. It owes something, sure, to rock'n'roll of various bygone eras, but there's nothing slavish going on here, nothing emitting that straitjacketed vibe of someone trying too hard to make it sound like one particular thing or another. Meanwhile, the song is all "go away but come here": as ramshackle as the tune is, and muddy as the mix gets, the chorus cycles back each time, with its simple, sing-along melody, and wins your heart.
     The Love Language is a band from Raleigh that seems to have trouble deciding how many people are in it--while acknowledged as a sort of one-man operation, emerging from the imagination and talents of one Stuart McLamb, the Love Language is identified online variously as a five-piece band and a seven-piece band, even as both of these write-ups are accompanied by a picture of--yes--six people. You'll find "Lalita" on the band's self-titled debut CD, released in February on Bladen County Records. MP3 via Bladen County. Thanks to again to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

"Truth Only Smiles" - Sweet Billy Pilgrim
     This London-based trio has a knack for integrating different generations of progressive rock sounds, more than a little because lead singer Tim Elsenburg happens to evoke both Peter Gabriel and Thom Yorke, somehow; to think of this song as early Genesis as reimagined by later Radiohead isn't too far off if you want a quick handhold.
     In any case, what begins as an odd, lurching, bizarrely-sung ditty expands, after a leisurely 45 seconds, into a thing of almost startling beauty. But it's a distinctly postmodern beauty that we're talking about, which has as much to do with the prickly parts as the pretty ones. On the one hand, that which is blatantly gorgeous--the melody in the chorus--is partially withheld from us via unresolved melody lines and accompaniment that works against the lushness of the music. On the other hand, that which initially seemed challenging is slowly revealed as beautiful in its own right: check out the way the verse is presented at 1:54 versus how we first heard it at 0:00 and you may see what I mean.
     "Truth Only Smiles" is from the CD Twice Born Men, which was released in March on David Sylvian's Samadhisound label. MP3 via the band. Many thanks to visitor Hans for the tip. [FS]

MAY 24-30

"Airplane Blues" - the Antiques
     Joey Barro is back, and he's got his band with him this time. Featured here in January for a song from his solo album, which he recorded as the Traditionist, Barro has a somewhat more fleshed-out sound with his L.A.-based trio, the Antiques, but the appealing, brisk, acoustic-based stream-of-consciousness-esque vibe is still here, and that's a good thing. The repeated refrain of "There are no more new ways to..." is a winner--it functions as the chorus structurally, but an endearing, irregular sort of chorus it is, lacking any fully repeated lyrical lines. From the outset the structure is clear, which allows the listener to await each iteration with curious anticipation. (Sample, from the first go-round: "There are no more new ways to tap your shoes/There are no more new ways to sing the blues." My favorite comes later: "There are no more new ways to try to belong.")
     The thing that seals the entire song for me is the upward leap the melody takes in the middle of this "no more new ways" section, between the first third and fourth lines. Even though there's nothing unusual about it, it's still a delightful semi-surprise each time. This is why I'm suspicious of flagrant songwriting twists and tricks: something reasonably plain is often all it takes.
     I have not been able to discern why it's called "Airplane Blues," but that could just be my characteristic lack of lyric focus (I hear phrases but not storylines). The song comes from Cicadas, the second Antiques album, which has had something of a slow-motion history. Recorded in '07 (by Scott Solter, who is known for his work with John Vanderslice, Okkervil River, and the Mountain Goats), it was released on CD in '08 on Banter Records, and then just last week given a digital release via Filter US Recordings. MP3 via Banter.

"Love Has Left the Room" - A Camp
     At once expansive and intimate, "Love Has Left the Room" shimmers with the large yet delicate pop energy of something from the '60s that didn't rock, with Cardigans front woman Nina Persson here playing the part of Lesley Gore, maybe, or even Vicki Carr. We get the orchestral flourishes, the lyrical and melodic melodrama, and the engaging pattern of verse-tension and chorus-release that gave that sort of music its radio-friendly kick.
     As with "Airplane Blues" (above), this song likewise has one particular moment that makes the whole thing come together, for me: it's the elongated "you" in the chorus, in the line "I'll let go if you just tell me"--a note that pretty much epitomizes the bittersweet interpersonal stalemate the song describes. The "you" is offered just one whole step down from the "I" but in a separate, disconsolate harmonic context; even the way the note is held, a half breath more than seems seemly, speaks as well as the words do about the pangs associated with a relationship that disintegrates without closure.
     Persson launched A Camp way back in 1997, to be a sort of experimental side project from her regular work fronting the Cardigans, but at this point the Cardigans are on hold and A Camp has had the more recent success--its self-titled 2001 debut won four Grammys in Sweden. "Love Has Left the Room" is from the trio's second album, Colonia, which was released last month on Nettwerk Records. MP3 via [FS]

"What You Said" - the Decks
     Both in title and vibe, this song recalls pre-Rubber Soul Beatles, augmented by a garage-y edge, an abiding love of surf music, and (a bonus) boy-girl singing.
     I love the assertive but shuffly drumbeat, I love the old-fashioned guitar melody line (so rarely do guitarists want to give us this sort of thing any more), I love the surf guitar that kind of just sneaks in when the moment's right, I love how blasé and sloppy the vocals can get without ever quite losing their way, and most of all I love the song's casual but trusty momentum, which helps over the course of four minutes turn a simple but effective chorus into something just this side of extraordinary. We surely have a contender here for the song of the nascent summer, as this will go nicely blaring off a front porch accompanied by a frosty beverage.
     A two-boy, two-girl foursome from Detroit, the Decks have been together since 2003, but have just now released their debut CD--Breath and Bone, which came out this week on Cass Records, a small Detroit-based label. That's where you'll find "What You Said."


"Lake of Silver Bells" - Carbon Leaf
     It might be time for yet another Fingertips mini-lecture on why music doesn't have to be "new" or "groundbreaking" to be good. Or, it might not be. Lectures get tiresome, mini or otherwise. Although, I must say, not nearly as tiresome as listening to indie rock snobs dis perfectly good music as "formulaic" just because they don't like it. For god's sake, you don't have to like everything. But you also don't have to insist that all the music you don't like is therefore "bad," and that the most obvious way music is "bad" is if it doesn't somehow do something "new." Folk music has lasted for centuries with its impact unabated, and none of that ever sounded "new" or "groundbreaking."
     Rats. That was a mini-lecture, wasn't it? Time to get to Carbon Leaf, and the really appealing (but, nope, not groundbreaking) "Lake of Silver Bells." Something of a novella at a time when most indie pop songs are short stories at best, the song is driven by a shimmering, U2-inspired guitar line (first kicking in around 0:51) but really takes hold thanks to its two complementary hooks: the first being that recurring moment in the second half of the verse when smoky-voiced singer Barry Privett soars to falsetto; the second being the chorus, which is not heard until 1:48, and is well worth the wait: swooping and indelibly melodic, with an intriguing air of Celtic rock about it (anyone remember the band Horslips? anyone at all?), and ringing with such muscular movement that it feels less like a chorus than a song within a song. This gets better and better as you listen again and again.
     So yes, give me "deep" over "new" any day, and this kind of structural and textural depth is largely beyond the reach of musicians who are still getting to know each other. The Richmond, Virginia-based Carbon Leaf, on the other hand, has been around since 1992. Imagine that. "Lake of Silver Bells" is from the band's seventh studio album Nothing Rhymes With Woman, released in mid-May on Vanguard Records. [FS]

"Lady Saves the Dragon (From the Evil Prince)" - Bonfire Madigan
     I don't think I've ever been tempted before to feature a song simply because of its title but this one was hard to resist. Fortunately the song backed me up here: a strange but hearty slice of punk-cello-rock with a great pulse, an uncorked singer, and the ability to create loose-cannon drama out of not a lot of actual noise. There are no electric instruments here--just a cello, a contrabass, and drums. And then at the center, cellist Madigan Shive's unruly, Björk-ish yowl. (I don't by the way think that those electronic punctuation marks heard at 2:45 and 2:52 are vocal shrieks but then again you never know.)
      Even as I continue to find it hard to get my arms completely around this, I remain amazed each time I listen by how quickly time passes here; the song is just about four minutes but feels much more fleeting, even as the deep sounds of those big-bodied stringed things ground this odd composition in something rich and compelling. Something is happening here but I don't know what it is.
     Bonfire Madigan is the name of the four-person ensemble founded in 1998 by Shive, who comes by her freewheeling sound rightfully--she grew up in an extremely alternative household, was called Running Pony until she was six years old, and was thereafter given an expanding variety of names until, at 14, she chose one of them, Madigan, for keeps. This song is the semi-title track from Bonfire Madigan's Lady Saves EP, released in May by Shive's own MoonPuss Records. A full-length album is expected before the end of the year.

"Winding Roads" - Reed KD
     Imagine Ben Folds singing lead for Simon & Garfunkel and you'll have a fast idea of what "Winding Roads" sounds like. The melancholy guitar-picking and sweet vocalizing is definitely a throwback and/or homage to S&G in their heyday, but I also love that the tenor voice here feels rounded and confident (i.e. Foldsian) rather than wispy and introverted. Given how many 21st-century singer/songwriters seem birthed straight from the forehead of Elliott Smith, I for one am delighted to hear a guy who sounds like he could belt out a pop song if he wanted to, but doesn't want to.
     Another delight here is the exquisite and involving melody. Paul Simon's melodic gift was crucial to the S&G vibe, and so to go after that vibe without a serious melody is a big mistake, to my ears. (When you pull out the acoustic guitar things can go downhill quickly without a melody to hang onto.) Reed KD (and no, I have no idea what to make of his name; is KD his last name? is Reed KD a two-part first name?) engages us by offering a complex melody within a song distilled to utmost simplicity: both the verse and the chorus are each an eight-measure melody; we hear each one twice, with some lovely guitar work in between. That's it, and that's all it needs to be.
     "Winding Roads" is from Reed KD's self-released new album In Case the Comet Comes, due out next week. The singer/songwriter is based in Santa Cruz.

JUNE 7-13

"People Say" - Portugal. The Man
     The best thing to emerge from Wasilla, Alaska that I can think of, Portugal. The Man is a band with an enviable capacity to produce rock music that seems to come to us from some timeless, nameless place--music that sounds at once familiar and freshly-minted, sharp but easy-going, inscrutable but friendly as can be.
     One of the keys to this song's success, to my ears, is its matching up of a laid-back groove with steady, sinuous chordal movement. As the melody unfolds against a setting that pays homage to early '70s soul music, the underlying chords are changing pretty much every two beats, both in the verse and the chorus. The ear is continually engaged, and a sense of urgency conveyed, even as the underlying pace and vibe stays relatively relaxed.
     "People Say" is the lead track off the band's latest album, The Satanic Satanist, scheduled for release next month on Equal Vision Records. Portugal. The Man was previously featured on Fingertips in October '08 and August '07, and as has been noted are a bit of a self-assured mystery, from their name to their impenetrable intentions. A quartet currently featuring five people in their band photos, they have been based in Portland for some unspecified amount of time. MP3 via Spinner. (Be forewarned that this one ends so abruptly it sounds like an editing mistake; could be on the album the song leads straight into the next track in an impossible-to-edit sort of way.) [FS]

"Take It In" - Wye Oak
     Fleetwood Mac meets Yo La Tengo as Wye Oak vocalist Jenn Wasner channels her inner Christine McVie against a recurring explosion of clanging noise in a song that sounds like a debate between someone who's whispering and someone who's shouting.
     In contrast to the previous song, "Take It In" hovers within a strikingly limited range of chords. What I think gives this one its appeal is the bittersweet beauty of the verse's quiet melody, which centers on two symmetrical lines, one ascending and one descending. And the power of it comes from Wasner's dreamy delivery--she sings with minimal backing--and how she lingers subtly but deliciously behind the pulsing beat in just the right places. The harsh, clangy sections in between the verses render Wasner's return each time all the more elusively enticing.
     The Baltimore-based duo Wye Oak is also a TWF returnee; their song "Warning" was reviewed in January '08. You'll find "Take It In" on the band's second album, The Knot, which will be released next month on Merge Records.

"The Bottom" - I and I
     One of the downsides to a lot of electronic music, to my ears, is how inescapably aware it makes me that everything I'm listening to is being generated by, essentially, black boxes and computer screens. This awareness often lends a sort of aural claustrophobia to the music, not to mention a disspiriting sort of physical blandness. From the time of the earliest musical instruments straight through to the rock'n'roll era, one common element of playing music was the bodily movement required to send sound waves into the air. Generated without commensurate physicality, electronic music has a lot to make up for, as far as I'm concerned.
     Adam Sarmiento, the multi-instrumentalist behind I and I, manages somehow to do just this. There are three key elements at work. First is how carefully he chooses his synthesizer sounds, which vary not only in tone but in texture--there's one that sounds like a crunchy guitar, one that sounds like the desert wind, one that sounds like a funky bass guitar, and a few others I can't begin to describe. Because of how distinct they are they work together to describe something very much like three-dimensional space. Second is how carefully he uses them--at any point during the song, you can always hear quite clearly what sounds are in play. Lastly is the playful quality of his rubbery, somewhat adenoidal tenor, which many compare to David Byrne but to me is more rightfully likened to the similar but subtly different Adrian Belew, and which definitely humanizes the robotic setting.
     "The Bottom" is from the second I and I album, White Noise/Black Music, which was released last month via Alchemist Records and Believe Digital France. MP3 via the I and I web site.

JUNE 14-20

"Cabin Song" - T. Nile
     With its yawning steel guitar and soft snare beat, "Cabin Song" on the one hand says "country" from the get go. And yet the Vancouver-based Tamara Nile, who prefers using just her initial, does not affect a country-music accent, which is something, I'm suddenly realizing as I've been listening to this, that appeals to me. The conjunction of country music sounds with non-country singing has the effect of liberating country from its typically parochial musical constraints. I'm sure there's a place for twangy, cowboy-hatted music but if that sound doesn't call to you, you end up dissociated from certain musical elements that in and of themselves may actually be pretty cool. Combined with Nile's rich, athletic voice and sharp storytelling skills, the steel guitar's ghostly wail is worth hearing as an aural experience, not just as something that says "I am listening to country music."
     Nile was brought up in--yes--a cabin on Galiano Island, between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, by musician parents, but the song may not otherwise be autobiographical. It doesn't seem to talk about how she began busking on sidewalks with her multi-instrumentalist father in far-off places like New Orleans and San Diego at the age of six, for instance.
     "Cabin Song" is the title track to her brand new EP, self-released last week. Her first full-length CD, At My Table, came out in 2006; her second is due next year.

"Stillness Is The Move" - Dirty Projectors
     Not every pop song gets its lyrics by combining bits of dialogue from an enchanting foreign-language movie classic with phrases from an Excel spreadsheet of pop clichés, but the free-flowing, high-minded collective known as Dirty Projectors is hardly your everyday pop band.
      An experimental group masterminded by Dave Longstreth, a music major from Yale, Dirty Projectors has been releasing mind-bending, genre-defying music for the better part of the decade. "Stillness Is The Move" is one of the more accessible songs in the band's catalog--think Björk meets Prince--and it's still pretty prickly (think Captain Beefheart), its fat groove semi-dismantled by the fidgety melody, complex harmonies, stuttering rhythms, needly guitar lines, and eventual encroachment by a classical string section. Amber Coffman sings acrobatically and precisely, but be sure to tune as well into the meandering, often thrilling countermelodies offered in the background by Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle. I recommend hitting the replay button at least six or seven times, after which you won't need me to tell you to keep going. It gains mysterious traction from repeat listens.
     "Stillness Is The Move" is from Bitte Orca, the band's fifth full-length studio album, released this month by Domino Records. MP3 via Spin; thanks to Jonk Music for the head's up. [FS]

"Sometimes I'm Afraid" - Alibi Tom
     In today's global, fragmented, hyperactive indie-rock marketplace, one can never know whether a band with a good song is fated to flame out or make a solid career of it. The internet's relentless focus on the next new thing feeds on the flame-outs, but in so doing ignores the genuine gratification to be had from being witness to the ongoing flowering of an appealing musical sensibility.
     Which is all sort of a needlessly complicated way of saying hey, Gothenburg's Alibi Tom is back with an excellent new MP3. (And Alibi Tom itself is an outgrowth of Out of Clouds, also previously featured.) With bright guitar lines and personable vocals, "Sometimes I'm Afraid" hooks me most of all with a chorus that delivers a full power-pop wallop even as it cagily withholds a lot at the same time--listen to how the band retreats under the melody, which ends up being supported largely by a rapid-fire bass line and a lot of cymbals. That's the kind of backing you might hear at the end of a lyrical line, not sustained through an entire chorus; the juxtaposition of that nervous sound with a great melodic hook is oddly irresistible to me, and relates to the song's broader and equally appealing juxtaposition of cheerful vibe and pensive lyrics.
     "Sometimes I'm Afraid" is an altered, "radio edit" version of a song that originally appeared on Scrapbook, the band's 2008 debut, on the British label Leon. (The band's previous TWF pick, "Fire," is from the same album.) MP3 via the band's web site.

JUNE 21-27

"Glass Brigade" - Little Tybee
     A brand-new Atlanta-based trio, Little Tybee (named after a small nature preserve off the shore of Savannah) plays a sprightly, light-footed sort of indie rock that combines organic and electronic sounds with offhanded flair. The unexpected center of the song, musically, is Ryan Gregory's violin. We first hear it at 0:10, playing a distinctive grouping of twelve notes, launched by a pair of oddly accented triplets that end up as the song's guiding hook when singer Brock Scott gets hold of it. He's got a friendly tenor, with a bit of texture to it, so we're happy to hand it over to him. And listen to how Gregory, in the background, while Scott sings that off-kilter motif (first at 0:23), now plucks instead of bows his strings.
     Note also that it's the violinist who takes the song's primary instrumental solo (1:15), which offers an embellished pizzicato version of the recurring theme, and also leads the jaunty instrumental coda. And perhaps the ultimate tribute to the violin here is that Scott sings rather like a violin in the wordless chorus section, doing a playful bit of vocal "bowing" and "plucking" himself, which is accentuated by the fact that he sings notes but not words, some of them precisely aligned with the notes the violin plays simultaneously.
     "Glass Brigade" is a song from the band's debut release, a seven-song EP called I Wonder Which House The Fish Will Live In, which will be self-released next month, and features hand-printed and cut and individually put together CD covers, just so you know.

"When the Devil's Loose" - A. A. Bondy
     Thick with atmosphere and aching with the majesty of something timeless and true, "When the Devil's Loose" has me at hello, as it were. I love those guitars, at once fuzzy and bell-like, and the casual authority they immediately establish. The song, which refers at the outset to a river, itself flows with a river-like depth and grandeur, its potent melody sung with a rough-edged nonchalance at once sultry and defiant. I like how the guitars sometimes float off into a bit of dissonance, adding to the impression that some deep sort of force of nature was involved in the creation of this song.
     Bondy is an Alabama-born singer/songwriter now based in upstate New York. He fronted a loud, Nirvana-like band in the late '90s and early '00s called Verbena, then using the first name Scott. His solo debut, American Hearts (2008), presented him in a folk-like, early-Dylan-ish setting, backed largely by acoustic guitar and the occasional harmonica. And yet the one or two songs featuring a bit more of a band sounded to me like the stronger cuts--in particular, "Lovers' Waltz," which "When the Devil's Loose" resembles somewhat. To me, therefore, the news that his forthcoming album finds him more often playing with a band is promising. I look forward to hearing more of it.
     This song is the title track to that second solo album, which is due out in September on Fat Possum Records. MP3 via Fat Possum.

"Goodbye" - The Argument
     A mysteriously appealing and almost mystically engaging piece of organic electronica. With a brisk, manufactured beat and circular melody, "Goodbye" unfolds in a lyrical haze, the song's narrator offering a series of deadpan observations in a voice at once wavery and steadfast. Through a precise combination of concrete imagery and vague scenarios, the words themselves beckon to the unconscious, leaving the conscious mind lost in the song's upward-climbing, downward-resolving tune.
     A hint of how this works comes in the second verse: "And lights will start to fade/A car goes by and a window breaks/And scatters thoughts across the floor/They're keeping me awake/ They're keeping me awake." The window breaks, causing thoughts to scatter across the floor: the line between the external and the internal is blurred to the point of nonrationality. Note also the blurred aural line between acoustic and electric, and how the song, churning along with a homemade sort of charm, overlays clear musical resolution with lyrical elusiveness. And while I don't usually connect to songs with long, noodly outros, the spacey but poignant last 80 seconds or so seems perfectly designed to help a listener integrate what he or she has just absorbed.
     The Argument is a duo from Sweden, about which not much information is available; their names are Marcus and Niklas and that's about all I can tell you. "Goodbye" is from their new self-released CD, Everything Depends, their second effort. The MP3 link above is not direct; you'll have to click the words "Download Track" once you get to the page. The entire album is in fact available as a free and legal download, and is worth checking out.

June 30, 2009

"Trophy Wife" - the Winter Sounds
     An intent, energetic rocker with an underlying Cure-ishness at its core, from its ringing, two-part guitar melody and mobile bass line to its yelpy-voiced front man, Patrick Keenan, who edges pleasantly towards the almost hysterical in his upper register. I'm mentally searching rock history for this voice's precedent and I can't find anything notable that goes further back than Robert Smith, truly the godfather of the almost-hysterical yelpers who've come along since 1979. I like how you can hear Keenan gulp for air in the middle of the chorus (e.g. 1:22); there's a guy who's singing first, asking questions later.
     For all its relentless flow, "Trophy Wife" is nicely put together. First, there's the long introduction. Most long introductions just sort of tread water, and kind of bother me; this one sets the mood and contains actual melodic development. Much better. Second, note how the briskness and melodic movement of the verse is counterbalanced by the chorus, the first part of which is sung largely on just one note, and the second part of which is sung at half the pace of the rest of the song. Also, check out how the beginning of the second verse has a different melody than the beginning of the first verse. I like when that happens. And then there's that strangely captivating bridge with interweaving falsetto vocals (2:39). Didn't see that one coming.
     The Winter Sounds are a quartet that split their time between Athens, Georgia and Chicago. "Trophy Wife" is a song from the band's second album, Church of the Haunted South, due out next week on Nashville-based Theory 8 Records.

"Animals" - Sara Lov (with Alex Brown Church)
     Sweet-voiced Sara Lov has been on Fingertips twice previously with her duo, Devics, most recently in 2006 for the beautiful, torchy "Come Up." Minus partner Dustin O'Halloran's evocative keyboards, Lov sings here over a simple acoustic guitar lick and allows her voice the hint of a Jenny Lewis-like twang. But if the verse sets us up for a light bit of alt-country, the chorus moves us in a somewhat different direction. The sudden presence of Alex Brown Church (front man for the band Sea Wolf) as co-lead vocalist definitely changes the aural palette, as his warm baritone has not a bit of country about it.
     An important, albeit subtler, shift in the chorus comes via the melody line. While the verse works within a limited, sing-song-y framework (simple, repeated, two-measure phrases) that actually hides musical complexities that do exist, the melody in the chorus opens up into a nicely developed eight-measure line. This serves to relieve a claustrophobia that we didn't quite know we were feeling until the relief arrived. Then comes an interesting sort of tag line after the chorus, sung jointly, that works to transition us comfortably back to the verse, only what's this? The second verse is altered and all but nonexistent, the tag line then leads us into rather than out of the chorus, Church and Lov singing together again. And everything leads to the final line of the song, which is exactly the same as the first line. Well done.
     You'll find "Animals" on the album Seasoned Eyes Were Beaming, released rather too quietly in March by Nettwerk Records. MP3 via the free and legal music site RCRD LBL. Note that the link above is not direct, but you'll see what to do when you click it.

"Cascade" - Deluka
     Appealing electro-dance-rock with a sweeping ambiance and a more difficult-than-it-first-seems-to-pin-down sound. As much as one may initially want to hear this as harmless retro-y fun, one problem is that it's unclear exactly what era/genre this song is most reflective of, as it seems to gather everything from new wave and post-punk to disco and electro and then some under its sonic umbrella. Which maybe has the net effect of not seeming quite so retro after all. Certainly there's something in not only the sharp production but in the sheer urgent musical delight here that lends "Cascade" a sparkling currency--you've heard it before, except maybe not exactly. More to the point, you're likely to keep hearing this in your head moving forward. And surely this goes immediately to the top of the list of definitive summer songs for the summer of '09, at least here in Fingertips land. At least for now. The summer is yet young.
     Named after Laura San Giacomo's character in the movie Pretty Woman, Deluka is from Birmingham (UK) but has taken up in Brooklyn after being signed by the Brooklyn-based VEL Records. "Cascade" is the band's first recorded song. A digital EP will be released this summer, with a full-length CD expected in the fall. MP3 via VEL.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

for all other months see

© copyright 2009 Fingertip Productions