week of Oct. 30-Nov. 5

"White Daisy Passing" - Rocky Votolato
What's the difference between a boring, doleful singer/songwriter and compelling, doleful singer/songwriter? Aurally, not a whole helluva lot, sometimes. And yet it's this difference--which hits me clearly in the gut even as it's tricky to articulate--that allows me to like Elliott Smith and yet all too often really not like people who sound like Elliott Smith. And yet here's Rocky Votolato, all sweet-voiced and whispery, and yup, he grabs me right away. Maybe it's the crispness of the rhythm guitar. He may be sweet and whispery, but the song moves. This movement is based in both tempo and structure, as Votolato gets a lot out of the ever-engaging, Jackson Browne-ian relationship between a major chord and its relative minor (the introduction, for instance, is major; when he starts singing, he's in the relative minor, a pleasant but definite shift). Note too the sense of movement stemming from how he starts the chorus on the upbeat, straight out of the verse, and then leads us through a chord progression that pivots on a seventh chord. This seems particularly striking as he's getting just then to the saddest part of the song. (Seventh chords are usually good-timey things.) The lyric at this point is almost mind-blowingly painful, yet easy to miss in the strummy flow of the whole thing, so check it out: "I'm going down to sleep/On the bottom of the ocean/'Cause I couldn't let go/When the water hit the setting sun." "White Daisy Passing" will be on Votolato's debut CD, Makers, scheduled for a January 2006 release on Barsuk Records. The MP3 is up on the Barsuk site.

"Bang Theory" - World Leader Pretend
Maybe I'm crazy, but I'm beginning to sense an interesting rapprochement in the musical world that seems completely opposed to the tense polarity that suffuses the political world here in the U.S. in the new century. I'm hearing sounds that have for many years been rejected or ridiculed (for no actual good reason) seeping their way back into public awareness. ELO and early Elton John are popping up on store sound systems everywhere I go, making things seem happy and connected, and none of it somehow sounds like an accident. What this has to do with the New Orleans quintet World Leader Pretend, I'm not exactly sure, except that there's something in the big, swaggering sound here that reminds me of a neglected past, and bands I maybe used to make fun of (um, Simple Minds, for one), and now I don't really want to make fun. ("Can't we all just get along" and all that.) Okay, so lead singer Keith Ferguson teeters on the edge of macho-breathy histrionics--to my ears, the band creates such a large, burnished space for him to do it in, full of classic-sounding melodies and catchy instrumental refrains, that it all makes some kind of crazy messy sense. "Bang Theory" is the first song on the band's major-label debut, Punches; released on Warner Brothers Records in June, the label appears yet to be trying to work at some indie-like web buzz to get it going. If that means actually putting this free and legal MP3 out (via Filter), I'm all for it.

"Secret" - La Laque
Then again, maybe in the long run we prefer the sort of breathy histrionics likely to emerge from a band with a French name and a sultry lead singer singing in French. All the better if the band is from New York City, and the lead singer sings in French primarily because she's too shy to sing in English. La Laque is further notable for being a six-piece band, which is an unusual size in the annals of rock--and all the more unusual for its being made up of three men and three women. For all the apparent novelty of the music, this turns out to be an unusual song in less obvious ways as well, particularly for how it manages to sound at once like an ironic piece of chamber airiness and a chugging bit of post-punk-power-pop. Listen with admiration as "Secret" picks up a whole lot of drum-and-guitar noise in and around the violins after the minute and a half mark, yet does so with such ongoing panache that the band doesn't seem to break a sweat. "Secret" was one half of a shared single with the band Pas/Cal that was released on Romantic Air Records in June. The MP3 is available via the Romantic Air site.

week of Nov. 6-12

"Cash Machine" - Hard-Fi  NO LONGER AVAILABLE
This decisive update of the Clash's "Magnificent Seven" sound--an irresistible blend of punk, pop, dub, and disco--is simple, uncompromising, harsh, elegant, and utterly marvelous. Opening with an echoey melodica, sounding like a forlorn traffic jam, the song leaps into an assured beat yet never rests solely on its groove: there is melody, there are chord changes, there are flawless production touches, and there is a story--the last fact of which makes me realize how few bands, for better or worse, actually do tell discernible stories. The minor key chorus--wonderfully set up, in major keys, by a pair of gliding syllables--is a glorious distillation of this young band's assured sound. And while many songs succeed nicely in today's mash-up, shuffle-crazy world with a kitchen-sink style of production, sounds tossed willy-nilly on top of one another in pursuit of a mysterious ambiance, "Cash Machine" reminds me of the brilliance of the opposite approach: even as Hard-Fi creates a large, swaggering presence here, there is not one wasted sound in the mix. It's a relief sometimes to be able to hear everything that you're listening to, especially when it's this good. Hard-Fi is a young foursome from the apparently dreary [or not: a Fingertips visitor who lives not far from Staines has informed me it's actually pretty nice] commuter town of Staines, west of London. "Cash Machine" is the lead track on the band's debut CD, Stars on CCTV, which was short-listed earlier this year for the U.K.'s prestigious Mercury Music Prize. The MP3 is available via Insound. The CD has been released so far in the U.K. only, originally on Necessary Records in late 2004, and re-released in conjunction with Atlantic Records in July 2005.

"Mary Lately" - Martha Berner  NO LONGER AVAILABLE  [buy MP3 via Amazon]
There's nothing wrong every so often with a straightforward acoustic-based ballad with a good melody; this one strikes me as a poignant yet gratifyingly sturdy example. Martha Berner is a Chicago-based singer/songwriter who has lived previously in Alaska, Israel, Thailand, and Wisconsin, among other places. Could be her itinerant background is what gives both the song and her musical presence an elusive sense of familiarity. There's her resonant voice, which sounds like a slightly duskier version of Sarah McLachlan, back when she was writing good songs; I hear a touch of Dar Williams as well, around the edges of her enunciation. At the same time, the overall vibe makes me think that this is what the Cowboy Junkies might sound like if Norah Jones were John Prine's sister and sang lead. Don't miss that place in the second verse when, instead of the slide accent you might expect, a slightly loony synthesizer is used instead. I think that's when I knew I liked this one. "Mary Lately" is a song off Berner's debut CD, This Side of Yesterday, released last month on Machine Records. The MP3 can be found on the Machine web site.

"Higher" - Soft
John Reineck has the sort of sweet, yearning tenor voice that I associate with great moments in power pop. And yet the wash of big, reverb-y chords and fuzzy, subtly psychedelic atmosphere brings the best of '90s shoegaze to mind. It's a potent combination--dreamy walls of glistening guitars, sweetly voiced melodicism; I'm thinking this NYC-based quintet is onto something. I like that they don't merely rest on the achievement of their basic sonic package, which they easily might have; the band cares enough about the craft of songwriting to give us moments along the way that seem like bonuses: not hooks in the classic sense of something that sits at the center point of the song's allure, but tasty twists and additions that give the piece extra weight and substance. I like for instance the moment in that bridge-like bit between the end of the verse and beginning of the chorus, at around 1:05, when Reineck sings "Can't even feel my feet or keep them on the ground"--it's like the song moves suddenly into this new, open space, as if you were in a room that revealed itself to be much bigger than you initially thought when you came in. Given the lyrical theme, I'd say the effect is not unintentional. "Higher" is a song off the band's just-released, self-released, self-titled first EP. The song is available via the band's site.

week of Nov. 13-19

"Intoxicated" - Kids These Days
Wow: an instantly appealing song that proceeds to unfold in unanticipated ways. The chimey double guitar lines in the introduction lay out an initial melody both simple and memorable, playing as it does with the ever-engaging fourth interval. (Fourths tend to keep the ear in a satisfying state of suspension, you see.) I like also how in the introduction the intervals are not expressed cleanly, but are scuffed up with well-placed dissonances between the twin guitars. When the singing starts, the verse first affirms the melody (already sounding like an old friend) then glides into the effortless chorus; I love the effect of having the lyrics come up shorter than the musical line, leaving an instrumental measure that's just as much a part of the chorus as the words. And then, after two rounds of that, the song shifts--the rhythm section becomes itchier and lead singer Marc Morrissette explores the higher end of his range, giving the second half of the song an unexpectedly effective Radiohead-ian vibe. Kids These Days are a five-man band (all five write songs, apparently) from Vancouver; "Intoxicated" is a track from the band's debut CD, All These Interruptions, released this past spring in Canada on White Whale Records. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

"Sidewalk Chalk" - the A-Sides
I like how the garagey stomp that opens this song is incorporated into a shimmeringly upbeat bit of neo-power pop--it sounds cool, and also encapsulates this Philadelphia band's approach, which seems to draw simultaneously from two divergent '60s sounds: garage-rock psychedelia (think Nuggets) on the one hand, glistening orchestral pop (think Pet Sounds) on the other. The interesting result of this particular blend is how much more emerges in the sound beyond mere revival of the A-Sides' seemingly obvious, and admirable, influences (Kinks, Who, Beach Boys). Tuning more carefully in to the song's various charms--including a smiley descending melody and some great guitar interplay (Beatley lines contrasting with psychedelic howling)--I sensed the influences and confluences multiply. Now I'm hearing Robyn Hitchcock, I'm hearing XTC, I'm even hearing the Strokes--and I begin to realize how it's really the band's own spirit and musical capacities that I'm hearing most of all. While some rock'n'roll has appeared on the scene as if from another dimension entirely, most of the best stuff over the years is neither more nor less than a skillful distillation of previously available ideas. Picking out influences can be fun and instructive if the point is to understand a piece of music in a broader context; when influence-spotting becomes a reductive game (as it, sadly, does quite frequently with online music criticism), then this usually says more about the writer than the musician. "Sidewalk Chalk" is the lead track on the A-Sides' debut full-length CD, Hello, Hello, released in May on Prison Jazz Records. The MP3 is available via the band's site.

"Cowbell" - Tapes 'n Tapes
Cross They Might Be Giants with Pere Ubu and here you are. This is two and a half minutes of continuously strange, mysteriously catchy avant-pop. Driven by a rubbery bass, twitchy acoustic guitar, and slightly strangled vocals, "Cowbell" threw its first verse by me so quickly I didn't realize exactly what I was listening to, and then the chorus started and I really didn't know what I was listening to but I was completely hooked: the off-beat, villainous-sounding, sing-along melody is too cool for its own good. Tapes 'n Tapes is a Minneapolis threesome that's been around since 2003, if the band's web site can be believed, which it doesn't look like it should be. "Cowbell" comes from the band's first CD, The Loon, just released on Ibid Records. You'll find the MP3 on band's site.

week of Nov. 20-26

"Nightlife" - Gustav & the Seasick Sailors  NO LONGER AVAILABLE  [buy MP3 via Amazon]
From its mellow Bruce Hornsby-ish piano introduction, this song picks up a crisp beat and some Hammond B3 accents even as it retains vague jazz-pop stylings (Steely Dan-ish chords, stuttering drumbeats) through the opening verse. But everything is a set-up for the brilliant chorus, in which the 21-year-old Gustav (born, it must be noted, without a right hand; he wears a special device to allow him to hold a pick) sings an irresistible melody, at once beautiful and anthemic, that seems like something John Mellencamp was trying to write but never quite managed to some 15 or 20 years ago. For a young guy, Gustav breathes out a fetching, Steve Earle-ish sort of weariness as he lets go of his syllables. While I'm not sure we're venturing into lyrical profundity here, the music makes it irrelevant to me. "Nightlife" is the lead track off Gustav & the Seasick Sailors' debut CD, Vagabond's Polka, which was released last year on Marilyn Records. The MP3 is hosted on the Marilyn web site. A 10-person collective from Sweden, Gustav & the Seasick Sailors are scheduled to release a second CD early in 2006.

"Episodes (Diphenhydramine)" - Pela
I have discovered a previously unrecognized affection in my musical tastes for the sort of voice that Pela singer Billy McCarthy has. I will now describe it: okay, I can't describe it, not really, other than to say it's high, somewhat roughed-up, vaguely muffled and yet also incisive, with a keen edge. Beyond McCarthy's immediate appeal, this strikes me as a cool song for a variety of reasons. To begin with, it utilizes the trick of having the accompanying music playing twice as fast as the melody line, which achieves the pleasing effect of it seeming like a fast slow song or a slow fast song. I also like the mysterious use of wordless vocal accents in the extended bridge-like section after the verse--by now we completely buy into the sense of movement and urgency, and yet the resolution is delayed by those ghostly "aaahs." The underlying sense of tension increases when Swanson dives next into his lower register ("as if I really knew myself," he sings, with an unexpected bit of Morrisseyan phrasing). Then arrives the great release with the strange one-word chorus ("Diphenhydramine"--which is by the way an antihistamine), sung with a fluttery array of chiming guitars floating almost out of earshot in the background. This song was one of five on the Brooklyn-based band's debut EP, All in Time, released back in May on the Brassland label. The MP3 comes via the Brassland site.

"Spiral" - XTC
Sometimes you just want the real thing, even if the real thing isn't quite as real and thing-like as it used to be. This "new" XTC song has been floating around the internet for a couple of weeks; I heard it when it first came out (thanks, Largehearted Boy!), and put it aside. Did it move me to tears? Did it make me swear that Andy Partridge is still a god-like master of the three-minute, fifteen-second pop song? Um, no. I loved this band in its day, and then some. But days move on, decades without names roll by, and the fine line between a groove and a rut (thanks, Christine Lavin) grows intractably indistinguishable. And yet: even awash in nostalgia (talk about a groove, the spiral in question is the path the phonograph needle traces while converting plastic to soundwave), the song is rich and smile-inducing, for its jaunty melody, effervescent instrumentation, and other bounteous XTC-isms: the fast-slow shifts in pace, the distinctive chord changes, and Partridge's inimitable goofy-earnest yowl. If these guys exist in their own particular bubble of sound and space, so be it. I suggest a visit now and then. And while I might not steer you towards the extravagant re-boxing of the band's most recent two Apple Venus CDs from which this tune (recorded in the '99-'00 time frame) emerges, I urge you to discover or rediscover English Settlement (1982), Skylarking (1986), or the somewhat more recent and underrated Nonsuch (1992). The MP3 is available via Toolshed (a music promotion firm).

week of Nov. 27-Dec. 3

"Look At Her Face" - the Coral Sea  NO LONGER AVAILABLE
A terrifically put together song from a Santa Barbara-based band with a good-looking future. Offering dynamics legitimately deserving of the overused adjective "cinematic," the Coral Sea melds musical elements from a number of different decades, or maybe even centuries, to create an artfully assembled space that feels both layered and airy. The sense of urgency pervading the opening section is driven largely by the pulsings of a string quartet, of all things; when a simple, resonant piano line enters at 1:28, the song opens up magnificently, achieving a U2-esque grandeur even as singer/songwriter Rey Villalobos, with his sweet, pitch-perfect pop voice, keeps the enterprise rooted on earth rather than in the heavens somewhere. The son of a cinematographer (ah!), Villalobos is a classically-trained musician who lists Chopin among his influences; easier ones to pick out here might be the Beatles (John Lennon in particular), the Moody Blues, the Pixies, and Bends-era Radiohead, and yet this doesn't really sound like any of them. "Look At Her Face" is the opening song on the band's debut CD, Volcano and Heart, self-released under the Red Clover Records imprint in July. The MP3 is hosted on the band's site. Thanks to the gang at 3hive for the lead.

"Number One" - Catlow
Wielding no obvious sonic gimmicks, no "listen to me, I'm different!" antics, Natasha Thirsk, doing business as Catlow, has crafted a remarkably unformulaic piece of punchy, three-minute neo-'90s guitar pop. From the opening, off-beat crunch of the guitar, the off-kilter entry of the bass, and the restrained drumbeat, the song manages to feel both march-like and arhythmic. Hooks come and go before they settle in, as if seen from the aural equivalent of the corner of the eye. Listen for instance to the descending riff heard first in the introduction (11 seconds in): it kind of melts in on itself, describing a slippery series of diminishments that are quickly folded into the stuttering drive, leaving you not quite sure what you heard and whether it even made sense or not. This riff, however, recurs, and becomes its own sort of mysterious hook when Thirsk works it into the melody at the end of each line of verse (the "I am I am I am" part in the first verse). The chorus, in turn, is even more elusively catchy, with the clipped stop-start-ishness of the crunchy guitar and its lack of melodic lines to hang onto; what we get instead is Thirsk's light but powerful voice reaching successive climaxes before retreating in a sort of syncopated wave, falling then rising towards an unexpected chord that manages to lead us back to the verse without a traditional resolution. Thirsk comes from Vancouver, and gained a following late in the '90s and into the new decade with her former band, the Dirtmitts. "Number One" is the lead track on Catlow's debut CD, Kiss the World, released earlier this year in Canada on Boompa Records. The MP3 is via the Boompa site.

"Miles" - the Southland  NO LONGER AVAILABLE  [buy MP3 via Amazon]
Styles and tendencies in rock'n'roll tend to change pretty gradually when all is said and done, the definitive sound or sounds of one era blending seamlessly into another, and only emerging as definitive in retrospect--it's much easier, as an example, to talk about a "'90s sound" now than it was back when we were living through it. And so the '00s (more than half over already!) may seem so far to have produced a difficult-to-generalize sort of sound to date--particularly as there is by now such a longer and richer musical history for rock bands to be inspired by. I contend, however, that some characteristic sounds are emerging and this able and spiffy tune by a new L.A. band called the Southland pretty much nails one of them exquisitely. With its bedroom-rock-style mixture of acoustic and beat rhythms, "Miles" is not a song that could possibly have been produced in the '60s or '70s or '80s or '90s. I'm not saying this is gloriously original; actually the point is that it isn't--but it is enormously characteristic, and beautifully crafted. What wins me is the memorable chorus, with its bittersweet melody and that great, marshmallowy slide-guitar lick. "Miles" is a song from the Southland's debut CD, Influence of Geography, released in June on Ruffworld Records. The MP3 is via the Ruffworld site.

week of Dec. 4-10

"In State" - Kathleen Edwards
If you already know Kathleen Edwards, you'll be pleased to discover that she's recently made ten full songs, five from each of her two CDs, available on her web site as free and legal MP3s. If you don't already know her, use the opportunity to rectify the situation pronto. While Edwards is often compared, logically enough, to Lucinda Williams (the sweet-rough voice, the alt-country-americana vibe), what slayed me when I first heard her mighty first CD, Failer (2003), was how much she channeled Neil Young in his Crazy Horse mode. You maybe didn't expect it from a skinny 25-year-old from Ottawa; then again, as I've discovered time and again, do not underestimate Canada as an endless source of powerful music. The revelatory "In State," its muscular Tom Petty-ish-ness lit up by Edwards' heart-melting voice and a ripping arrangement, is the opening track on her excellent follow-up release, Back to Me, which came out earlier this year on Zoe Records (a subsidiary of Rounder Records). If I were inclined to make year-end best-of lists, it's a CD that would be in my top 10. Many thanks to Pop Matters for the lead on the new MP3 stash.

"I Will Always Find A Way" - Suffering and the Hideous Thieves
What an elusive vibe suffuses this song: it seems one part late '70s punk-turning-into-new-wave, one part '00s orchestral-indie-construction, and one part musician-from-another-planet epic. With its slow, swaying rhythm, "I Will Always Find A Way" makes the most of an exceedingly simple core riff (we're talking do-re-mi-re-mi-re) by handing it to a loose-limbed ensemble mixing strings, drums, keyboards, and goofy background vocals. Band leader Jeff Suffering has a British-sounding, congestive sort of wail that is oddly appealing, particularly when he goes off-key, which appears to be part of his vocal strategy. As for the burning question--is this his real name, really?--I can report that he does seem to take the name rather literally, both within his songs and without. "I've been wishfully thinking of leaving you/Since the day that we met" are the first words we hear him sing, with what appears to be a characteristic blend of sorrow and defiance. The record company's bio, in turn, quotes Suffering this way: "As of now, we will continue to put out obscure releases until the Lord comes back, or until we die, or can't rock anymore." "I Will Always Find A Way" is from the band's Ashamed CD, released in August on Lujo Records. Thanks to Jason at Mystery and Misery for this one.

"Another Sunny Day" - Belle and Sebastian
As charmingly twee and enigmatic as ever, Belle and Sebastian is back with a brisk, wonderfully melodic tune tinged with a slight, speeded-up country and western veneer, or as much of one as this eccentric Scottish band is likely to give us. Regardless of what he's singing about (often impossible to discern precisely), front man Stuart Murdoch--his high voice at once pure and reedy--almost always sounds laden with unbearable nostalgia for some far-off time and place that is only reachable via a rabbit hole or a wardrobe or some such magical portal. Here Murdoch delivers a voluptuous melody line most effortlessly: the entire verse is an extended melody, all 16 measures of it (compare that to standard pop songs, with their four-measure melodies at best). The shift in melody and chord that happens at the seventh measure wollops me in the gut every time (in the first verse, it's the shift that happens on the word "pardon" in the line "I told you, 'Beg your pardon'"); we move there into a second minor chord that cracks the song open--listen to how deeply inevitable the rest of the verse sounds, even as it's only half over at that point. And while you're at it, check out the nutty double-time snare beat the drummer offers up during the instrumental break at 2:24, just because it's nutty. "Another Sunny Day" is a song that will be on the band's next CD, The Life Pursuit, scheduled for release in February on Matador Records. The MP3 is available, somewhat secretively, via the Matador site. Thanks this time to Some Velvet Blog for the lead.

week of Dec. 11-17

"Nervous" - Tessitura
Jonathan Williams sings in a warm, buzzy voice, rendered warmer and buzzier by his fetching tendency to sing in octave harmonies with himself. He further accompanies himself with clean, patient acoustic guitar licks; there's something of Pink Floyd's stately acoustic side in the air here, particularly when Williams spins out a line with such a haunting convergence of melody and lyric as this one: "Even in a dream/Things could seem far too real." There, I think, we arrive at the song's center of gravity, its point of pure allurement--it's not just the nice chord he reaches on the word dream, it's the way the word "dream" stretches out almost unaccountably, with a mysterious, standing-still sort of rising and falling. This is a real song, not just a guy with a nice voice strumming a nice guitar. (Not enough people these days seem to be able to differentiate between beautiful-sounding and actually beautiful, says me, and there we are yet again back at Ives' great distinction between manner and substance, but I'll steer clear of that particular soapbox for now.) Tessitura is a side project for Williams, who is otherwise a member of the fine, endearingly-named Cincinnati-based ensemble The Spectacular Fantastic. "Nervous" is a song on a new free-to-download split single featuring both bands; it can also be found on Tessitura's recently released free-to-download full-length CD, On the Importance of Being Confused.

"Juicebox" - the Strokes
Why does this 3:17 second song, with its hard-driving "Peter Gunn"-ish intro, seem so hard to get a handle on, intermittently harsh and irritating, and yet so simultaneously compelling? It's not just because singer Julian Casablancas is singing without the filter he put his voice through to create the band's trademark sound on their first two CDs; and it's also not just because he spends a bit of time actually sort of screeching. What I think is going on here is the result of an unusual songwriting effect: the melody undergoes a series of purposeful time shifts so that in each of the first three sections of the song, Casablancas is singing half as fast as the previous section. (When this is done at all, it tends to be done only with two sections rather than three.) Then, after the slowest of the three, he doubles back to the middle pace, and that's where the song hits its stride and delivers its best hook (the Stones-copping "You're so cold" part) and coolest moments (the subsequent guitar solo). If you don't tune in to the time trick, you might hear this song as more disjointed than it actually is; that "Juicebox" is disjointed at best and dreadful at worst is certainly what most online critics have decided, because it's never their job to assume that a band actually knows more about music than they do. "Juicebox" is the first free download from the band's upcoming CD First Impressions of Earth, their third, due out January 3 on RCA Records. Thanks to the gang at Glorious Noise for the lead on this one.

"Rise Up With Fists!" - Jenny Lewis  NO LONGER AVAILABLE
Jenny Lewis's vocal charisma is a powerful powerful thing. She's got that hyper-present Debby Harry sort of open-mouthed fullness, a way of singing that sounds like she's just talking; and yet where Harry used a constant sheen of icy irony to keep her distance, Lewis, while still keeping her distance, seems infused with some messy mixture of pain and passion that makes it feel like she's always right there in the room with you. After hitting the indie big-time last year with her band, Rilo Kiley, and their assured, well-regarded More Adventurous CD, Lewis has in fact sought the additional adventure of releasing a solo CD--called Rabbit Fur Coat, it's due for release in January on Conor Oberst's Team Love Records. As this track indicates, the album is steeped in a sort of rootsy, countrified, white-woman-soul sound: a Laura Nyro for the new millennium sort of thing, complete with the Kentucky-born Watson Twins harmonizing their hearts out in the background. The MP3 is available via the Team Love site. Thanks once more to Bruce at Some Velvet Blog for the head's up.

week of Dec. 18-24

Fingertips will be taking a break for the HOLIDAYS (there are more than one, you know!--Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year's Day, you name it); this is therefore the last "This Week's Finds" update for 2005. When next we meet again it will be Tuesday, January 3, of all things. In the spirit of the season, I offer an extra song this week. Hope all is sweet and peachy with all of you as this most excellent interesting year winds down and yet another begins. See you in '06....

"Smile" - Stone Jack Jones  NO LONGER AVAILABLE
Spacey, melancholy, arty folktronica: Leonard Cohen meets Portishead at Laurie Anderson's house. When it comes to the sort of noodly atmospherics employed in this nutty little song, I know that it's hard to differentiate cool/noodly from dumb/noodly--I mean, is the wavery, spitty sort of trumpet meandering in the background a stroke of genius or completely random? The answer is probably both, which doesn't help. One of the ways I see my way through foggy aesthetics like this is to latch onto small moments, and if there are enough of them in a given song, I presume the whole thing is working. The small moments here include: the simple, plaintive piano refrain that holds the structure of the song up; the first line of the song (I love songs with great first lines): "Let's pretend this is an opening/Let's pretend this is a door"; the aforementioned trumpet; the deadpan female backup vocals; the construction-site percussion; and the fact that the song sounds exactly like the opposite of a smile, and yet simultaneously manages to provoke one, somehow. Stone Jack Jones is a musician from Nashville who's been taken under the wing of producer Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney). "Smile" is from his forthcoming CD, Bluefolk, to be released in February on Fictitious Records. The MP3 is available via Jones' page.

"Air" - the Owls
Sweet floating misery in pop form from a Minneapolis-based foursome. I'll admit to being something of a sucker for list-like lyrics; in this case songwriter Maria May appears to be free-associating her way through heartbreak; when she gets to "No header, no footer/No girl, no boy," I am charmed for good. ("No hand to put my handshake in": also charming.) "There is only air/Where I used to care," which is the lyric in the chorus, is by the way a pretty powerful way of communicating post-breakup malaise. While normally I might feel the need for a bit more development in a song than this truly airy number offers, on the other hand, I could probably rationalize why the breezy repetition is thematically appropriate. Or something like that. I also really like the disconcertingly unusual use of male backing vocals under a female lead; why isn't this appealing sound used more often? "Air" is from an eight-song EP entitled Our Hopes and Dreams, released last year on Magic Marker Records. The MP3 is available via the Magic Marker site.

"My Kingdom for a Trundle Bed" - Bound Stems
A jaunty, toothsome bit of complex pop from an interesting quintet from Chicago. The vague, lightly swinging intro barely hints at the muscular, tumbly song to follow. I like how the melody is at once central and changeable: the way the words pump out with an ahead-of-the-beat syncopation, the exact notes changing verse to verse even as the overall melodic essence is strong and sure. And lots of words there are indeed, in a relatively short song; and while the meaning is elusive, and while I don't often get all that caught up in puzzling lyrics out, in this case they seem worthy and intriguing and appear to add up to a bittersweet tale of a broken relationship--which I intuit largely from adding the title to the lyrics (it would seem the narrator has to sleep on the floor for the night in his ex's apartment). "My Kingdom for a Trundle Bed" is a song from the EP The Logic of Building the Body Plan, released last month on Flameshovel Records. The MP3 is from the Flameshovel site. (Be aware that the song cuts off a bit abruptly at the end.)

"I Feel Like a Fading Light" - Kim Taylor  NO LONGER AVAILABLE  [buy MP3 via Amazon]
With a voice mixing Ricki Lee Jones and Karin Bergquist (Over the Rhine), Kim Taylor wins me over with this simple, lo-fi strummer-with-an-attitude. Given the sort of year we've all had, this seems about the most appropriate seasonal song I could offer, even as it's not actually a seasonal song at all. I love how the Florida-born, Cincinnati-based Taylor subverts the girl-with-guitar model with such an insistent, percussive number; even the guitar has an upfront, twang-ish but not really twangy sound that exudes tension rather than easy listening--even as, at the same time, the melody is comfortably catchy, her sweet-weary voice a wonderful instrument in and of itself. This is not standard singer/songwriter mush, and the world is a better place for it. "I Feel Like a Fading Light" was released as a single in August, and is available via Taylor's web site. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head's up. Merry Christmas to all ("whether you celebrate it or not," as per The Daily Show) and to all a good night.

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