THIS WEEK'S FINDS
NOVEMBER - DECEMBER 2008
THIS WEEK'S FINDS
"Running" - Fred
This song is not about running for political office, but it should be; I think we'd be in great shape if candidates went about their business with this exact sort of wacky, good-natured, earnest, interconnected joie de vivre. (Listen to that goofy-wonderful violin in the intro for an immediate sense of what this is going to be about. The violin plays with the trumpet and sounds like it's trying to be a trumpet; the sound they manage to make together has a lot to do with the song's success.)
Needless to say, joie de vivre has not generally been a characteristic of American political campaigns, which have instead over time been all but vanquished by nastiness and amorality. And yet it makes no sense. Why have we for so many years trusted people to work in our legislatures and run our states and our country who behave like playground bullies when they're out there seeking our votes? (And oops I'm not really talking about the music, am I.) But: is this the year that something...changes? All I know is that finally, someone--in fact, That One--had the courage and vision to try a different approach on a vast, unprecedented scale, running on positive energy and a belief in our actual name: the United States. If you didn't personally prefer him or vote for him, I don't understand it (seriously: have you listened to him, really and truly?), but that's okay too. On this side of things, we criticize based on facts, and we don't demonize the opponent, or his or her followers. And we will see soon enough if there is, in fact, any hope left in--and for--our country.
In the meantime, Fred: an exuberant quintet from Cork City, Ireland with a knack for bouncy music--jaunty melody, great "oo-oo's" in the background, horn charts, endearing vocalist--and impish album titles. There was Can't Stop, I'm Being Timed in 2002; We Make Music So You Don't Have To, in 2005; and now, Go God Go, which came out on Sparks Music earlier in the year in Ireland, and will be released here in February '09. This is where you'll find "Running." (Note that Go God Go was released digitally last month, for those who can't wait and don't need plastic and liner notes in their lives.)
"The Epcot View" - Future Clouds and Radar
Last year, Robert Harrison, ex- of the Beatlesque Texas band Cotton Mather, unleashed Future Clouds and Radar on an unsuspecting world--a sprawling, double-CD debut widely praised by critics for its overflowing, multifaceted psychedelic pop. Personally, I'm not sure I heard anything on that album as cogent and immediately appealing as "The Epcot View," which sounds like the work of someone not trying quite so hard to be overflowing and multifacted anymore.
With its thoughtful mien and sweet, inviting melody, "The Epcot View" sounds a bit like "Eve of Destruction" as written by Michael Penn, with Robert Pollard making revisions. The song is not without its oddball flourishes--I like the abrupt jazz-rock break at 2:24, and the sci-fi guitar effects that follow--and the lyrics remain as inscrutable as any self-respecting Guided By Voices song, but there's something so solid and reliable at work here that I am thoroughly charmed. Plus, the idea of an "Epcot view" has an immediate connotation that gives me a narrative handhold, even if I'm still puzzling through the rest of the thickly-written lyrics.
This time around, Future Clouds and Radar is being billed as a four-person band; last year, the group was presented as a loose ensemble masterminded by Harrison. The band's second release, Peoria, is out this week on its own Star Apple Kingdom label. [FS]
"Scandinavian Warfare" - Champagne Riot
"A lot of bands these days seem to be either scared of or not good enough at writing good songs," says Caspar (yes, just Caspar), the somewhat mysterious Berlin-based Dane who records as Champagne Riot. He finds this particularly ironic given that today's production techniques allow songs to sound better than ever. Caspar himself, on the other hand, aims to write really good songs without in fact fussing too much over equipment and such. He apparently does what he does with little more than a Roland MC-307 groovebox (which is a DJ tool) and a couple of old guitars. "My focus is very much on creating simple and melodic music, and getting the most out of the primitive equipment I have at hand."
Not that "Scandinavian Warfare" sounds primitive by any means; this is one smooth piece of power pop, with a grand neo-'80s sheen (sweeping, orchestral synth lines; robotic dance beats). True to his intention, Caspar delivers glorious melody in three places: verse, chorus, and the recurring synthesizer riff. It's nothing complicated; he works nicely with two basic types of alternations--an alternation between major and minor chords, and an alternation between a faster (verses) and a slower (chorus) melody. And I think the man is selling his equipment short a bit--he's obviously got a decent microphone up his sleeve somewhere, as the pleasing timbre of his impressively elastic voice (often double-tracked) comes through with warmth and clarity.
"Scandinavian Warfare" is a track from Champagne Riot's debut EP Paris and I, which was released last week on Shelflife Records. MP3 via Shelflife. Thanks to Chris from Music of the Moment for the lead. And don't forget to vote, even if you have to wait in line.
THIS WEEK'S FINDS
"She Loves Everybody" - Chester French
Up-to-date pop pastiche-ism from a Harvard-educated, L.A.-based twosome, underscored by an affable, Fountains of Wayne-like mixture of irony, pathos, and craft. "Well she craves affection/So I use protection" could be a line straight from the Adam and Chris songbook, while the music offers up an intriguing, FoW-like blend of the '60s, '80s, and '00s, and maybe a few other decades besides.
From the start, this one's a mutt: seven seconds of string quartet tension mashes into a disco-y echo of "Time of the Season," with sleigh bells and surf guitar. The verses strip down to a beat-driven duo-friendly groove; a melodramatic piano appears, out of the blue, to usher us into a two-part chorus that is half laptop, half pounding '80s album rock, with lyrics simultaneously goofy and meaningful. An offbeat instrumental interlude then brings us back to the original groove. In the middle of the musical parade, note the unintentional (by the narrator) intentional (by the songwriter) irony of the central, seemingly breezy lyrical conceit: "And I know she loves me/She loves everybody."
"She Loves Everybody" is the title track to the duo's debut EP, released digitally this week, and on CD next week, on Star Trak/Interscope. The song first made a splash last summer when it was featured on the HBO series Entourage. The band takes its name from the sculptor Daniel Chester French, who designed the statue of John Harvard in Harvard Yard, as well as the Lincoln statue in the Lincoln Memorial.
"I'm a Machine" - Slaraffenland
Ambling along with an idiosyncratic blend of drums, electronics, and orchestral instruments, "I'm a Machine" eschews the verse-chorus-verse handhold for a noodly sort of soothing reiteration. Not your typical pop song, to be sure, but as merry and involving as any pop song worth its salt should be.
The intro sets pastoral woodwind motifs against a rattling, appliance-like sort of groaning and churning, while men chant vaguely in the background. This lasts for more than 80 seconds and, truly, somehow, I could've kept listening to just that--they manage a singular blend here of the free-form and the cheerful. This, I realize in a flash, is what has been missing from so many dreary efforts by contemporary classical composers to combat romantic melodicism: cheerfulness. The cheerfulness is oblique to be sure, but it's here, swirled somewhere into the song's
circular structure, layered sound, orchestral motifs, yelpy vocals, and the overall sense of its being a sort of deconstructed folk song.
"I'm a Machine" does perhaps have just as much to do with not-pop music as pop music. I think this cross-fertilization is good for all involved, and from this Copenhagen-based quintet's point of view, no accident, as they clearly have their collective eye on both musical and cultural history. Slaraffenland is the Danish name for a mythical land of idleness and luxury that was well-known in many countries throughout the Middle Ages (in England, it was called the land of Cockaigne). Slaraffenland was also the subject, and name, of a popular ballet by 20th-century Danish composer Knudåge Riisager. Everything is connected, especially on the internet. "I'm a Machine" is a song from the band's Sunshine EP, released last month on Hometapes.
"Set Me Free" - the Heavy
Forceful, graceful neo-R&B from a British five-piece, as simple and classic-sounding as the background scratches imply--this is, indeed, the kind of song that listeners of a certain age might remember as being accompanied by the sound of a needle dragging its spiral path through well-worn vinyl.
With this straight-ahead tale of love gone awry, front man Kelvin Swaby conjures any number of storied lead singers that have preceded him in similar musical landscapes, from Marvin Gaye to Mick Jagger to Prince, and does a nice job holding his own. This is one of those magical songs that succeeds for inscrutable reasons--there's no obvious hook to point to, no bells and whistles (cowbell, yes, however); the melody is at best serviceable, the beat is familiar, likewise the subject matter. And yet, from the subtly tempestuous stomp of the introduction, "Set Me Free" soars, unrelentingly. Maybe it has something to do with the underlying restraint at work here: Swaby keeps his cool, his evocative falsetto staying more whispery than shrill; the guitars guiding the beat are acoustic, not electric; even the background singers linger largely around the edges, sometimes sounding as if they're singing in the next room. This one will sound great in just about any imaginable playlist.
"Set Me Free" is the title track from a digital EP the band released last month on Counter/+1 Records. MP3 via Spin.
THIS WEEK'S FINDS
"Connjur" - School of Seven Bells
Buzzy and resplendent, "Connjur" is almost magically appealing, combining an earthy, decisive, Björk-y sort of electronica with airy, Cocteau Twins-like layers and harmonies and a touch of shoegaze swirl. Listen to the continual give-and-take between the yawning chasms of sound (distorting guitars?) at the bottom of the mix and the perky beat, with those sprightly vocals up on top--I love how that all works together somehow. I suspect that the way the melody is sung resolutely off the beat adds further to the music's unearthly pull.
Unable to determine with any clarity what this song is about lyrically, I still feel a strong sense of its seriousness and its playfulness, and this is what moves me most of all. Rare is the work of art--whether music, poetry, prose, painting, sculpture, whatever--that combines the mystical and the fun, the deeply serious and the lighthearted. These guys seem to be after that sort of thing, and more power to them, says me.
School of Seven Bells is a Brooklyn-based trio composed of Ben Curtis, formerly of Secret Machines, and twins Alejandra and Claudia Dehaza, who both used to be in the band On!Air!Library!. They make their sound with two guitars and a bunch of electronics. "Connjur" (a great song title for the Google age) can be found on the group's debut CD, Alpinisms, released at the end of October on the Ghostly International label. The album title comes from the 20th-century French writer René Daumal, himself a playful mystic. To Daumal, a student of Gurdjieff, "alpinism" was the art of climbing mountains ("in such a way as to face the greatest risks with the greatest prudence"), but mountains to Daumal were at once physical and metaphysical entities. His novel, Mount Analogue, is subtitled: "A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing," and is about an expedition organized to seek and then climb a mountain that is, at the outset, asserted to be imaginary. That kind of story. [FS]
"Happy" - Marykate O'Neil
Get three musical smartasses together and watch out--you can be in for a treat of a potentially overbearing kind, a too-clever-by-half sort of thing. Not so this time, however, as O'Neil covers a song co-written by Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne) and Jill Sobule, and immediately undercuts any pretension by adroitly copping a riff from the largely forgotten, intently strange Australian band Flash and the Pan and using it as the foundation for the entire song. (And boy this made me wish I were still doing the podcasts so I could play you a snippet, but what the heck--I've edited the intro to the song she's using, "Walking in the Rain," so you can hear it, here.)
"All I wanna be is happy," goes the lyrical refrain, as the narrator seeks to simplify matters by not trying so hard to be perfect or original or, even, thoughtful; and the music agrees, saying, hey, we'll use someone else's cool riff if we need to. Not to mention a title to a song already well-known to rock'n'roll history. (O'Neil seems to like doing that; she was previously featured on Fingertips for her song "Stay.") Keith Richards needed a love to make him happy; O'Neil here wearily accepts the world as it is, rather than try any longer to improve on it ("I used to get wisdom from being alone/Now I just leave the TV on"). Yet one more off-the-wall musical reference comes into play as the lyrics, in the second half, make reference to "It's a Small World After All" and then begin on the spot to re-write it. Tellingly, the narrator's new version of it isn't all that different from the original.
"Happy" is from O'Neil's new EP, mkULTRA, which is at once a reference to this disc as a bonus Marykate offering and the name of an infamous CIA project in the '50s and '60s involving mind-control experiments, which used a variety of potentially dangerous drugs on unsuspecting participants. The EP was released last month, and is an appetizer for O'Neil's third full-length CD, Underground, slated for a February release. MP3 via O'Neil's web site.
"Take Care" - Hooray For Earth
With a dense one-two beat, a tumble of words that sound concrete but don't tell us much of anything, and no introduction whatsoever, "Take Care" foists itself upon the listener without warning, and takes a while to make musical sense.
But the chorus'll hook you in, I think. The song is still driving fuzzily along, but a grand, anthemic melody rises up in the midst of the chugging fuzz, like the sun breaking through on a stormy day. Or, at least, it stopping raining a bit. Almost perversely, the chorus happens the first time without any lyrics (starting at 0:36), a wash of shimmering noise serving as the tune; you have to wait for it to come back again to get the full effect (at 1:29). With words, the clarity and (dare I suggest) beauty of the melody is revealed, if a bit coyly--those extended pauses between lyrical lines keep everything a bit off-balance, even in the midst of the grandness, while Noel Heroux sings, among other things, "This is not the song/That I want to sing," then offers the titular phrase as almost an afterthought, providing modulation to the bridge more than anything else. But, talk about grand: get a load of that prog-rock-y instrumental break which starts at 2:18, complete with what sounds like a choir of heavenly voices in the distance. From here, "Take Care" takes off on pure inventive energy, revisiting the chorus with a variety of accompaniment schemes, acquiring an almost majestic momentum as we are led at long last back to the "When I take care" lyric, which now, repeated, sounds like a triumphant realization.
Hooray For Earth is a quartet with three of four members based in Boston, one in NYC. The roots of the band go back some ten years, when bassist Chris Principe and singer/guitarist Heroux were in a high school group together. Hooray For Earth's current formation was finalized in 2004. The band issued a self-released debut CD in 2006 without any national distribution; with some updating and remixing, the album was re-issued this fall, digitally, on Dopamine Records; the physical CD will be released in January.
THIS WEEK'S FINDS
"Life Before Aesthetics" - Denison Witmer
Fleet-footed and amiable singer/songwriter pop with a dreamy '70s patina. It's a mellow toe-tapper--half Jackson Browne, half Sufjan Stevens--but it manages to vibrate with something extra that, to me, separates it from the kind of song that may come to mind when you think "mellow toe-tapper." And what, precisely, is that something extra? Well. Let's see. Hmm. He says "modern furniture" in the first line, but that's probably not it.
Okay, here's one thing: check out how the verse has two interrelated but distinct melodies. You can hear the first one beginning at 0:14, the second one at 0:29. The first part is a downward-trending melody, the second part leans upward, with two effects. First, Witmer gets to show us his impressive vocal range; singing sweetly and easily, he takes us from a low D to a high G without breaking a sweat. Second, this straightforward song now feels much more interesting and substantive. Witmer doesn't provide us with a 16-measure melody--a rare animal indeed in the indie rock world--but he does offer two back-to-back, repeated eight-measure melodies, which is a deft way of adding complexity without overtaxing either the listener or the songwriter. And then the chorus delivers simplicity itself: a slower-moving resolving melody that consists primarily of two notes, describing harmony's most basic interval, the third. The instrumental accompaniment maintains the faster rhythm of the verse, with the added texture of an organ playing a new countermelody. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the song would not have succeeded as well as it does without that organ.
Denison Witmer, based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, has been recording since 1995. "Life Before Aesthetics" is a song from his new CD, Carry the Weight, his eighth full-length studio album, released earlier this month by the Militia Group. MP3 courtesy of Insound. [FS]
"Tainted Love" - My Brightest Diamond
Yes, it's that song. Fingertips doesn't traffic in covers very often--hardly ever, actually--but that's not because I have anything against someone singing someone else's song. It's just hard, I think, in the end, to take the focus off the mere act of covering--hard, that is, to turn the new version into truly its own performance. The original is always the unspoken third person in the room between the performer and the listener. If the new version is a respectful homage, well, there it obviously is; if the cover, on the other hand, is an extreme re-working of the original, the distance between the two versions draws its own kind of attention to itself.
This problem is most easily overcome when the performer doing the covering has so much of his or her own magnetism that the song becomes merely another vehicle for it. Two-time Fingertips veteran Shara Worden, a musical force of nature recording as the entity My Brightest Diamond, qualifies without hesitation. Worden restores the drive of the Gloria Jones original, but instead of an early-'60s R&B stomp, she runs with a swirly, neo-disco ambiance that somehow manages to feel, also, pre-disco/retro--disco, perhaps, as imagined by the Jetsons, full at once of accidentally too-organic sounds (the drums sound very real) and early space-age bleeps and "futuristic" tones. Vocally, Worden is at her semi-operatic finest, singing with a husky, quavery restraint that makes it sound like she's holding back even when she's letting loose.
This new "Tainted Love" comes from the CD Guilt By Association Vol. 2, set for release on Engine Room Recordings in February, although it's already available digitally via iTunes. You can check out a stream of the whole thing on the Engine Room web site. The CD is the second in a series which features cover versions of big pop hits, of the top 40 variety, by indie artists. MP3 via Pitchfork.
"Keep It To Yourself" - the Layaways
Hey, all three songs this week are between 3:16 and 3:20 long. That's an old-fashioned radio-friendly length for three songs you're unlikely to hear on the radio. Last up, a nifty bit of polished garage rock, if such a concept isn't an oxymoron. Launching off a sonorous, rubbery guitar line that, melodically, echoes the hook from the Kinks' "David Watts," "Keep It To Yourself" has the big-drums/big-chords bash and concise melodicism of some Nuggets-era--um--nugget, with a welcome helping of shoegaze drone. The song itself is pithy and unadorned, but the presentation is cool, full-bodied, and impeccably controlled--not a note or sound is out of place.
Taking nothing away from David Harrell's understated, slightly processed vocals, I think his guitars are the stars here, presenting alternately as zipped-up-tight rhythm, circular synth-like lead lines, and droney dissonance. When the three sounds combine in the second half of the song, we definitely arrive in one of those "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" places. It can't be easy to make something this basically simple sound so fulfilling; it if were, everyone would do it.
You'll find "Keep It To Yourself" on The Space Between, the band's third full-length, which was self-released earlier this month by the Chicago-based trio. The album is for sale; you can also download all the songs as free MP3s on the band's web site. Long-time Fingertips visitors may remember the Layaways as one of the bands featured on the late, great Fingertips compilation CD, Fingertips: Unwebbed. The rest of you, you should've been there.
THIS WEEK'S FINDS
Nov. 30-Dec. 6
"Astronaut" - Amanda Palmer
The smoky alto is back, likewise the melodramatic delivery and foreboding lyrics, but Amanda Palmer arrives this time without the Dresden Dolls, the self-proclaimed "Brechtian punk cabaret" duo of which she is half. The Dolls have a compelling sound, to be sure, but perhaps it was time to see what Palmer could do when freed of the band's intriguing but restricted soundscape--an idea that so delighted Dresden Dolls' fan Ben Folds that he actively sought the job of being Palmer's producer for her solo debut.
And so the Foldsian piano pounding (by Palmer) that opens this, the album's lead track, seems no accident, but neither does the Palmerian left turn the song takes after 20 seconds of it--with the strings still echoing off the soundboard, we dive into 40 seconds of brooding quiet, which announces that Palmer has not left her bravado in her "punk cabaret" kit bag. We lean in, we wonder exactly what she's talking about ("Is it enough to have some love/Small enough to slip inside a book"), we get closer still and then bam, we get whacked on the head a second time, when the volume and beat return, at 1:02. "I am still not getting what I want," she sings, a thematically charged line in Palmer's oeuvre if ever there was one, as the song leaps back to life and soon picks up an unexpectedly welcoming bounce. When Palmer belts, her voice has this commanding way of sounding off-key and on the right note at the same time. She is in fact a very precise singer and writer; whether or not I get their meaning, her words are a rhythmic pleasure, scanning with a finesse not typically found in indie rock. And she even effects a musical climax based largely on the metric foot she employs, in the bridge that starts at 2:53, which sticks with a rat-a-tat trochaic meter (ONE-two, ONE-two, ONE-two etc.) until we are pretty much beaten into submission. It's both an impressive display of lyrical discipline and a way of adding a driving anguish to the song below the level of consciousness.
The CD Who Killed Amanda Palmer was released earlier this fall on Roadrunner Records. Note that the song link above is not a direct link, but will take you to the page where you can download the MP3. Palmer offers the 128k MP3 for free, and allows you to name your price for a variety of other file formats (including AAC, Ogg Vorbis, and Apple Loseless). Note too that Palmer offers up six tracks from the new album in this same way; check them out here. [FS]
"Automatic" - Gramercy Arms
Crisp and crunchy speak-singing verses alternate with a short, anthemic chorus with one word--"automatic"--sung in the background, while "It's automatic" is spoken/sung in the foreground. Very very simple, but oddly compelling. How can some songs be annoyingly simple and other songs be compellingly simple? Let's try to figure it out.
"Automatic" is short, to begin with (2:21). This is good either way--if a song is simply simple, there's no reason to belabor the point; if the song is not as simple as it seems, working quickly will increase the complexity (less time spent repeating anything). "Automatic" has no introduction, which is generally good in a simple song, as introductions often tread water anyway. The speak-singing style used here by front man (and ex-Dambuilder) Dave Derby adds subtle complexity, since it registers as talking but he is in fact hitting specific notes. The first verse is eight measures, then we get the partially sung chorus, also eight measures, but it's interestingly inside out, with the background singers singing first, before the lead singer speak/sings. Plus, the singing section is sing-along wonderful, like a tiny piece of power pop packed into another song altogether (note too that the word "automatic" turns out to be the completion of the last lyrical line in the verse; more hidden complexity). The second verse is six measures, a change that cannily jars the listener ever so slightly. Two more things nail this down for me: the instrumental break (starting at 0:54), which concisely fleshes out the two-chord riff of the verse in a sharp, yet multilayered way; and then, best of all, the bridge (1:19), eight measures of fuzzed-up melodic sweetness, capped by a burst of harmony that sounds like the Move just as they were turning into ELO, for you old-timers out there. Or Cheap Trick, for you not-quite-as-old-timers.
So this one, yeah, it works for me. "Automatic" is a song from the debut Gramercy Arms CD (and they don't fool around; the whole thing is only 30 minutes long); it's self-titled and was released on Cheap Lullaby Records in mid-November. Among the indie rock semi-celebrities helping on on the album were Matthew Caws from Nada Surf, Joan Wasser of Joan As Police Woman (who sings back-up on this song), and members of the Pernice Brothers and Guided By Voices, among others. And comedienne Sarah Silverman too, who apparently sings in addition to kvetches.
"Our Braided Lives" - Matt Pond PA
It's been a long time since we've heard from Matt Pond and company here on Fingertips; his band, purveyors of thoughtful, string-supported pop, was one of the site's early stars (an original listee on the Select Artist Guide, even); they were also one of the first 21st-century indie bands to find themselves playing for a mainstream TV audience, via placement on The O.C.. The band was actually formed back in the 20th century (1998), in Philadelphia; they have operated from Brooklyn since 2003, and have undergone a variety of lineup changes over the years.
"Our Braided Lives" is vintage MPPA--sweet but firm, wistful but forward-moving, with a deep-seated melodicism and nicely intertwining guitars. The two main melodies on display--one from the verse, one from the chorus--balance each other brilliantly: the melody in the verse feels like a thoughtful journey, hinging upon an unresolved moment (the line ending at 0:46, for the first example of it); the chorus melody, more focused, is one of those glorious, slightly melancholy descending lines, neatly balanced by a warm, ascending guitar. And check out this masterly bit of songwriting: both the verse and the chorus conclude with the same line, both melodically and lyrically, which surely contributes to the this solid sense of arrival the song evokes.
"Our Braided Lives" comes from the band's new free EP, which is being called, plainly enough, The Freeep (go here for the download; check out, while you're there, Pond's musings on the EP's title, among other things). The EP was self-released last week.
THIS WEEK'S FINDS
"White Shade" - Lukestar
Be aware, to begin with, that this is a man singing. I will quickly admit that I do not usually warm to a male voice that sounds this much like a female voice, but this has only to do with the fact that in my experience, singers with unusual voices tend to over-rely on the basic aural gimmick and therefore under-deliver on the song. Hell, I could listen to a male voice that sounds like a female hyena if the song is good enough.
In "White Shade," lead man Truls Heggero, of the Oslo-based quartet Lukestar, has a worthy piece of material to work with, featuring first and foremost that European pop band tendency to sneak up a bit on the hook, and to manage in general to make a three-minute song seem expansive and interesting. The song has three distinctive sections: the upbeat verse, with Heggero's voice in such a high range that he can make that five-interval downward leap and still sound like a soprano on the lower note; the meandering bridge, which arrives unexpectedly after a forceful instrumental interlude, and has the air of some hidden section of a lost prog-rock classic (but much shorter!), complete with organ flourishes; and then, wow, a swift and appealing chorus, with an assured, wide-ranging melody that brings Heggero so much further down in his range that a-ha, it's clearly a man singing after all. The song goes through the three sections again but with an alteration at the end of the verse, just to see if you're paying attention (around 1:42); when the chorus comes back it seems both more appealing and shorter than ever--wait! sing that again! you want to say. Good news--he does, and then, without fuss, the song is over.
"White Shade" is a song from Lake Toba, Lukestar's second CD, which came out in Norway early this year, and was released in the U.S. last month on Flameshovel Records. Lake Toba, I feel compelled to inform you, is the largest volcanic lake in the world (it's on the Indonesian island of Sumatra); an enormous eruption there 75,000 years ago changed the Earth's climate and apparently wiped out a lot of the human population on earth at the time. Just to keep things in perspective.
"Soft Pedals" - Modern Skirts
Cushy and upbeat with a lounge-like gloss and an incomprehensible flow of lyrics ("Give me a knife and a merry-go-round"?), "Soft Pedals" is all smoothness and unruffled cool, combining crisp acoustic guitar rhythms, bell-like synth lines, chirpy electronics, and occasional bursts of layered harmonies. I'm not going to tell you what it's all about because I have no idea, although I am picking up a vague scent of soft-core porn that floats around the pretty much impervious storyline. Let me know if that's my imagination or not.
And let the record show that Modern Skirts, the Athens, Ga.-based foursome that has sculpted this mysteriously agreeable groove of a song, is not in any way a lounge band; they specialize, rather, in being eclectic, in a Fountains of Wayne kind of way. Had a different song from their album, All Of Us In Our Night, been chosen as the free and legal MP3, you'd be getting a completely different impression of the band right now. Singer Jay Gulley has a languid baritone that works in a variety of settings, although I do in particular like the breathy nonchalance he brings to the job here, along with the backing layers of vocals he provides for himself. I am particularly mystified about how he gets away with that "You got on top/I got on top" part (e.g. 2:05), flagrantly emphasizing the wrong syllable in the background harmonies, and yet making it sound so smooth and unflappable that you don't even notice (except that I went ahead and pointed it out to you). He manages to make it sounder righter than the right way would've sounded. Now that's smooth.
All Of Us In Our Night, the band's second CD, will be self-released next month.
"Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us" - Sam Phillips MP3 REMOVED
Sorry, gang, but in an unprecedented development here on Fingertips, a song I linked to that was originally identified without question as a free and legal MP3 turns out not to have been a free and legal MP3. The record label (we're dealing of course with a big record label) was shocked--shocked--to find out that the company they hired to help market the album, a company well known for using free and legal MP3s with every artist they promote, was in fact planning to use an MP3 and not just a stream. So down it goes. And a Keith O.-style "worst person in the world" award goes out this week to Nonesuch Records and their lovely parent, Warner. Pleasure to do business with you.
Another rich slice of idiosyncratic marvelousness from Sam Phillips, "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us" uses the real-life 20th-century gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (one of the first to make a career singing secular music) as a jumping-off point for an evocative song about love and loss and the latent power of the self, particularly when challenged. One of Sister Rosetta's bigger hits was the song "Strange Things Happening Everyday"; Phillips begins her song with the line "Strange things are happening everyday" (and ah! that somewhat odd and bewitching voice of hers!) and takes us from there on a strange journey herself. The jaunty melody sounds like something from the '30s, a bygone aura enhanced by the use of a Stroh violin (as played by Eric Gorfain), an early 20th-century contraption that has strings and a bow but uses a metal horn rather than a wooden body to amplify its oddly clarinet-ish sound.
It was on her 2001 album Fan Dance and then, more thoroughly, on 2004's A Boot and a Shoe that Phillips first explored this old-fashioned musical landscape, although never succumbing to mere nostalgia. That's really what has made the music so compelling, I think: she takes sounds from the '20s and '30s and gives them currency and vigor through the quality of the musicianship, the allure of her smoky-buzzy voice, and the casual brilliance of her songwriting. Listen to the ease with which "Sister Rosetta"'s melody uses so many different notes in the scale, but listen too to how focused and down-to-earth her language is. "Though the sound of hope has left me again/I hear music up above:" fourteen words for just seventeen syllables, and all three two-syllable words have only five letters; and see how she yet hints at the ineffable core of life itself.
"Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us" was first recorded by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant on their 2007 CD Raising Sand; it's sort of like Phillips covers her own song, since her version came second, showing up on Don't Do Anything, which she released earlier this year on Nonesuch Records.
A big shout-out goes to the fine folks at Toolshed for getting this one out there as a free and legal MP3.
THIS WEEK'S FINDS
"Wild One" - Those Darlins
Take the Appalachian back-porch music of the Carter family and paste a Lily Allen-style 21st-century 20-something's attitude on top of it and here we are. This is not complicated stuff, but it's utterly charming, somehow. To begin with, there's something wonderful in the air when you're hearing three women, employing a hillbilly melody, accompanied by retro-sounding rhythm and lead guitars (plus, a ukulele in the mix), singing words like this: "If you can't handle crazy/Go ahead and leave/If you don't want a wild one/Quit hangin' round with me." It's hard enough to combine the contemporary and the traditional in a way that respects both; it's particularly hard to do so and come up with something fun. (Usually you end up with "earnest" in such instances.) (Not that there's anything wrong with earnest, but fun is, well, more fun.)
Based in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Those Darlins are three women who go by the names Nikki Darlin, Jessi Darlin, and Kelley Darlin, which also tells me that their historical respect extends likewise, and unexpectedly, onto the streets of downtown Manhattan in the mid-1970s, where a quartet of unrelated, black-leather-clad young men adopted the same last name and went on quite a tear themselves. (And what the heck: CBGB did, after all, stand for Country, Bluegrass, and Blues; I kid you not.) Maybe it's their sense of history, or maybe it's their sense of humor, or maybe it's just their plain old sense, but I'm getting a deeper and stronger vibe out of this trio than I get from most of the other brassy 20-somethings who've flung themselves onto the scene over the last year or two. Showing an awareness of a wide world beyond the tips of their own noses (or the touch screens of their iPhones) is way more enticing than being snarky and fashionable. At least it is here.
"Wild One" is the title track to the group's first release, a three-song EP, which came out this fall on Oh Wow Dang Records, which I'm pretty sure is the band's own label (information is scanty), but if not, with a name like that, it should be. Thanks to the mighty Largehearted Boy for the lead.
"In the New Year" - the Walkmen
So with the musical pickings slimming down with year's end, I'm starting a new Fingertips tradition: revisiting the "Almost Bin" in December, to see what songs might be wanting and needing another chance. The Almost Bin, you see, is the file into which I deposit all songs I've considered seriously for a "This Week's Finds" slot, but end up not featuring for who knows what reason. These things just sort of are. But this is such a non-science, there could well be a song or two in there that, if reconsidered, might sound, now, like a "This Week's Finds" entry for sure.
"In the New Year" was always really really close to getting the nod. Maybe in the back of my head I just figured it would be a better song to hear in December. There's something idiosyncratic at work here, to be sure--the song lopes along in a sort of undefinable tempo; something seems coiled up, but the intensity leaks out in aspects other than speed. A lot of the vehemence is worked out through singer Hamilton Leithauser's unrestrained capacity in his upper register--he's not screaming or shreiking, but he is surely letting loose, expressing his torn-up feelings indirectly, via roiling combination of glad tidings ("It's going to be a good year") and troubled hints ("It's all over anyhow"). Without a fully graspable structure--the song doesn't seem to have verses or chorus as much as drum-free sections, filled with ringing guitars, and drumming sections, the latter dominated by that chiming organ riff--very new yearsy it is, somehow, yes?--which cycles through again and again, generating a driving surge of appeal as the song unfolds in its potent but unhurried way.
The Walkmen are a NYC-based quintet that has been together since 2000. "In the New Year" is a song from the group's You and Me CD, their fifth full-length album, which was released on Gigantic Records in August. They were previously featured on Fingertips in July 2004. [FS]
"24.12." - B. Fleischmann
And here's another not-quite-typical holiday song. You won't hear a lot of out-and-out electronica on Fingertips, not because I have anything against the sound per se, but because by and large I find the genre lacking in what I will, with apologies to S. Colbert, call "songiness." We get a lot of beat and texture and neato sounds but often each track emerges like something sliced out of the electronica-o-matic machine, without an individually compelling sense of structure, arc, or storyline.
While "24.12." has its quirks--there is no chorus, either musically or lyrically, and nothing really resembling a hook--I still feel that Austrian Bernhard Fleischmann has delivered a fully realized song here, and then some. Unusually for electronica, this one is rooted in the lyrics, so don't miss them: it's a holiday story song of an unusual nature. The male voice--not Fleischmann's, but a guest vocalist who goes by the name Sweet William Van Ghost--sings only the song's prelude, setting up the situation and the character who then steps forward to sing the rest of the song. I won't give away the premise, but I will note that Marilies Jagsch, the woman who sings in the song's second half, is not who she appears to be, character-wise. And it may well be that twist that gives this strange song its depth.
In the middle of the nuanced electronica ambiance, the one central, recurring motif you will hear is the most musically unsubtle thing imaginable: a descending C scale, played note by note on the guitar. And yet by kind of hiding in plain sight there, it lends the subtle air of holiday song to the tale, as that descending line, in other contexts, carries the distinct flavor of Yuletide about it. (It's a tricky thing, using the unsubtle subtly.) "24.12." is a song from Fleischmann's latest album, Angst is Not a Weltanschauung!, released in November on the German Morr Music label. Weltanschauung, by the way, is one of those wonderful, not entirely translatable German compound words; the overall title means something to the effect of "Fear is not a worldview." Which is itself a great message for a not-quite-typical holiday greeting card, I'd say.
THIS WEEK'S FINDS
"Headin' Inside" - Surf City
Fingertips doesn't much traffic in genres and here's a great example of why: if asked, I would not claim surf rock as a particular favorite, or garage rock, or anything that sounds lo-fi or DIY-ish. "Headin' Inside" is pretty much a blend of all three, and this--go figure--I pretty much love. So, look: it's not about the genre, people. It's about the music. If "melodic, spirited, intelligent pop" were a genre, then maybe I'd sign up as a fan.
Meantime, "Headin' Inside": this one announces "pay attention!" to me in three distinct places. First: after that itchy, half surf-rock/half jangle-rock intro keeps you engaged but on hold, wondering where it's all going, we get, at 0:26, the unforeseen entrance of some sort of flute- or pipe-like instrument playing the melodic refrain; the musical juxtaposition is brilliant in a way words cannot describe. Second: when lead singer Davin Stoddard shouts "one, two, three, four!" for the second time, at 1:04, it leads into a wordless vocal section rather than straight back into a verse; even better, the "oh-oh-ohs" here are sung at half-speed to the verse's melody, and partially syncopated off the beat as well. That's just plain great. But again, I can't really describe why. Third: the chorus, when Stoddard sings, "I'm headin' inside/Yeah I'm headin' outside for a while." Which is it? How can it be both? Am I hearing things? Answers are besides the point when a song has this much infectious momentum. Fourth: when the lyric "What's the matter now?" is repeated (1:32). No other lyrical line is repeated like that, as far as I can tell. Need I bother to add that this moment too is indescribably delightful?
Surf City is a quartet from Auckland that used to be called Kill Surf City (after a Jesus and Mary Chain song) but found that a band in the U.K. had beaten them to the name. "Headin' Inside" is the lead track from the group's self-titled debut EP, released last month on the German label, Morr Music, which is typically an electronica label (see last week's review of B. Fleischmann, below). But maybe they don't let genre get in their way, either.
"In Your Eyes" - Elizabeth Willis
When a song starts with this much immediate authority, I wonder why all songs don't do this. Isn't it simple?: a forceful beat, some piano vamping with nice chords changes, and a bit of tempestuous violin (and/or viola) playing. Nothing to it. Well, okay, maybe there's a bit of something to it--especially the violin and/or viola playing. Turns out Willis is a former child prodigy in both violin and piano. Classically (and relentlessly) trained from the age of four. Maybe this isn't so simple after all.
Pay attention to how, right away, there's more action during the third and fourth beats of the four-beat measures than you'll hear during the first two. That lends an appealing off-kilterness to the standard 4/4 beat, and foreshadows the underlying structure of the song, in which the main melodies in both the verse and the chorus begin between the second and third beats. I haven't done any formal surveys but I would say this is relatively unusual; if a pop song's melody does not start directly on the first beat, it will usually start either between the first and second or on the second. The way the song keeps driving forward, with the melody lagging behind but forging on, lends an ineffable sort of poignancy and persistence to the sound of it. The melody also does interesting things like utilize semitones--half intervals between notes--in a sophisticated way, which I don't think I can get more specific about it, but it has to do with the first melody that goes with the words "It was in your eyes." And on top of everything, do not miss her fierce string playing and oh yeah, her voice--a dusky alto with a hint of vibrato--is pretty cool too.
"In Your Eyes" is a song from her self-titled debut CD, released in September, digitally, on Little Blackbird Records.
"Overcome" - Juliette Commagère
Lush, layered, and unapologetically dramatic, "Overcome" almost viscerally illustrates its theme with music that is simultaneously in your face and in the clouds. A cascade of simple descending melodies and unrestrained harmonies, "Overcome" aims for both unmitigated beauty and bashy insistence, in the process making lack of subtlety its own kind of asset--after all, a song all about being overcome is not one for nuance practice. The fact that its recurring six-note instrumental refrain mirrors the chorus of "Born in the U.S.A." is likely a coincidence but I kind of enjoy how she's imported that pummeling tune into a neo-Enya-like setting.
You know, I keep listening to this, which, circularly, seems to increase my desire to keep listening to it. And yet increased exposure seems to be decreasing my capacity to say anything particularly perceptive about it. I think this one aims at some entirely different part of the brain.
Commagère is the singer and keytar (yes, keytar) player for the band Hello Stranger. "Overcome" is from her first solo album, entitled Queens Die Proudly, which was released in October on the L.A-based Aeronaut Records.
THIS WEEK'S FINDS
Dec. 28-Jan. 3
In place of the usual three-song "This Week's Finds," I am this week unveiling the list of Fingertips Favorites for 2008--my favorite free and legal MP3s of the year. Actually, there are two lists--a top 10, and then another 10. They're kind of in order but it's also kind of pointless to try to put them in order. All are really good songs. Maybe you missed some of these along the way, so here's a chance to listen and download once again. (The MP3 is linked via the song title; the "more" link next to each song will take you to the original TWF review.)
If you'd like to listen to these songs in a player, or learn a little more about these lists, visit the official Fingertips Favorites page.
Happy new year one and all. See you in '09.
TOP 10 FAVORITE FREE AND LEGAL MP3s, 2008
"Albert" - Ed Laurie [more]
"Beyond the Door" - 13ghosts [more]
"Me and Armini" - Emiliana Torrini [more]
"Cherry Tulips" - Headlights [more]
"I Lost the Monkey" - The Wedding Present [more]
"The Crook of My Good Arm" - Pale Young Gentlemen [more]
"Some Are Lakes" - Land of Talk [more]
"Neal Cassady" - The Weather Underground [more]
"Cat Swallow" - The Royal Bangs [more]
"Scandinavian Warfare" - Champagne Riot [more]
Honorary Top 10: "My Mistakes Were Made For You" - The Last Shadow Puppets (no longer available) [more]
10 MORE FAVORITE FREE AND LEGAL MP3s, 2008
"Animé Eyes" - The Awkward Stage [more]
"HYPNTZ" - Dan Black [more]
"A Little Tradition" - Novillero [more]
"Connjur" - School of Seven Bells [more]
"Torn Foam Blue Couch" - Grand Archives [more]
"Yer Motion" - Reeve Oliver [more]
"Sure Enough" - Andrea Desveaux [more]
"Rosa" - Samuel Marcus [more]
"Right Away" - Pattern Is Movement [more]
"Un Día" - Juana Molina [more]
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for all other months see
MAIN TWF ARCHIVE PAGE
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