Aug. 31-Sept. 6

"Some Are Lakes" - Land of Talk
     Elizabeth Powell is a mighty guitar player, a compelling singer, and the front woman for a Montreal-based band that appears destined for big things.
     Last year's Applause Cheer Boo Hiss EP was a spunky, spiky debut; "Some Are Lakes," the title track to the band's forthcoming full-length CD, sounds a bit smoother on the surface than did the songs on the EP, but Land of Talk's appealing sense of roughness and urgency remains, now channeled into the workings of the song itself. Instead of lo-fi atmospherics--basically, loud/soft and fast/slow changes--"Some Are Lakes," with its wistful air and a muted drive, offers a subtler sort of twitchiness in the form of open-chorded melodies, a dissonant, cymbal-heavy chorus, and the buzzy undercurrent of Powell's gravelly guitar playing. And Powell sings here without vocal processing this time, allowing us to hear more than ever the heart and soul in her powerful voice.
     Some Are Lakes will be released next month on Saddle Creek Records. MP3 via Saddle Creek.

"Morning Tide" - The Little Ones
     There's lightweight-breezy and there's substantive-breezy, and the Little Ones, a quintet plying power pop from Los Angeles, have nailed the wonderful but difficult job of being substantive-breezy. That's really what great power pop is about: music that sails and soars but is nevertheless grounded in something deep and true and serious.
     So, how to tell the difference between the lightweight and the substantive, when the music is in both cases so breezy and easy and catchy? I look to the craft of it for clues. When there's more than one hook, that's a good sign ("Morning Tide" has three, to my ears). When there the song is instrumentally interesting--when, that is, the instrumental parts are themselves worth listening to--that's another good sign. (The Little Ones, it should be known, like to use a Mellotron, which is potentially a bonus.) Lyrics that aren't totally vapid: yet another sign (unintelligible lyrics are fine, by the way). Best of all, I discern substance in the unexpected twist or turn--when the song goes somewhere you might not have expected but, once it's there, it's perfect. In "Morning Tide," that moment for me comes halfway through the chorus, when the melody jumps up and shifts rhythms--the "It's something to think about" part (1:49). Where did that come from? Wonderful stuff.
     "Morning Tide" is the title track to the band's second CD, which was released in the U.K. in July, and is scheduled for an October release in the U.S. on Chop Shop Records. Like Land of Talk, the Little Ones are also Fingertips returnees.

"Milk" - Chris Letcher
     "Milk" is an immediately engaging rocker with stronger ties to something resembling late classic rock--Peter Gabriel comes to mind, or early Michael Penn--than what we are used to hearing in our indie-rock-centric new century. Consider it a good thing. On the one hand, wholesale rejection of the past is a tiresome (not to mention lazy) artistic premise. On the other hand, diversity sustains us. And I'm talking honest diversity, not lip-service diversity, not photo-op diversity, and not (for heaven's sake) diversity minus substance and qualification (any resemblance to a certain unexpected political announcement from the past week is entirely intentional).
     But I digress. Chris Letcher--hey, yet another Fingertips veteran; three for three this week, for the first time--is a South African-born, London-based singer/songwriter whose experience, likewise, as a film composer no doubt informs his capacity to construct dramatic and unusual soundscapes, even in the context of a three-minute pop song. Through the judicious use of strings, percussion, and Letcher's signature harmonium, "Milk" maintains an orchestral feeling even as it moves with a brisk, rock-like clarity which highlights the melody's succinct tension. This version of "Milk" is a so-called "radio edit" of a song that appeared on Letcher's Deep Frieze CD; it appears on his Harmonium EP, which was released earlier this summer on Sheer Sound/2 Feet label.

Sept. 7-13

"A Little Tradition" - Novillero
     Smart and sharp, with a Britpop flair, complete with horn charts and marvelous lyrics. And I'm calling the lyrics marvelous based almost entirely on their sound, not their content (although from what I can understand, the content is impressive too). Not many bands work hard enough to get their words so crisply aligned with the music but these five guys from Winnipeg have an enviable knack for songcraft. Check out how precisely everything fits when Rod Slaughter sings "What's wrong with a little tradition?": it's so comfortable it puts a smile on your face--or on my face, at any rate. (And phew, after last week's Mean People's convention in St. Paul, I can use all the smiles I can access.)
     Musically, the song takes a revved-up Motown beat and applies an early Elvis Costello-like sense of effortless melody and knowing restraint. Check out how the chorus gives us that bouncy up and down melody at the outset (0:41-0:45), retreats as if to set up another pass at the same melody (0:46-0:49), and then exactly when it "should" repeat (0:50) it doesn't. This is the kind of thing that draws no attention to itself but adds depth and class to what you're listening to.
     "A Little Tradition" is the title track to Novillero's third full-length CD, which comes out this week on Mint Records. Novillero was previously featured on Fingertips in June '05 for the truly wonderful song "Aptitude."

"In a Dream" - The Flying Tourbillon Orchestra
     Steady, gracefully dark indie pop from Los Angeles. The verses march, almost claustrophobically, to a carefully articulated pulse; the chorus, without that much different a melody, offers a flowing, minor-key release, as clear-voiced Kellie Noftle joins buzzy-voiced front man Hunter Costeau in a bittersweet, Nancy and Lee sort of way. Don't miss the modulation at 2:41; the change in key, a relatively pedestrian effect, feels at that point like a mini-revelation.
     While there's nothing overtly orchestral about FTO's sound in this song--this isn't chamber pop--there is an almost sculptural attention to sonic detail here that I find appealing. While it's not uncommon to hear a trio that sounds like a bigger ensemble, this is one of the few times I've heard a sextet sound like a smaller band, thanks to the group's joint refusal to overplay their instruments. I'm liking for example the controlled use of a xylophone (or glockenspiel?), its chimey accents plinging in and out of the listener's awareness. I also like that choral-like synthesizer, emerging first at 1:36 and coming into its own in the last third of the song, which works unexpectedly well with both of the guitars the band uses.
     A "flying tourbillon," by the way, is a type of tourbillon ("tour-bee-yon"), which is a mechanism inside a watch, and apparently a mechanism that was very challenging to produce, especially in the days of hand-made watches. Tourbillon watches remain prized by collectors, according to my web sources. "In a Dream" is a song from FTO's debut EP, Escapements, which was self-released this summer. An escapement, by the way, is also a mechanism in a watch, of which the tourbillon is a part. Now you know.

"Tall Trees" - Matt Mays & El Torpedo
     Driving, slashing Neil Youngish guitars leap into action here, but listen, at the same time, to the thoughtful melody and, best of all, to the off-the-beat octave harmonies that wrap up the verse with the repeated refrain "Tall trees hanging over the road." I love the combination of heaviness and lightness that we get as a result, all the more delightful coming from a group called Matt Mays & El Torpedo. The deftness on display is--dare I say--charming.
     Here in the midst of an indie-rock dominated decade, "Tall Trees" sounds like little of what we're used to finding and sharing in the music blogosphere. This isn't quirky, except maybe to the extent that not being quirky is its own sort of quirk by 2008. I'm hearing Bruce Springsteen in and around this ingratiating song--not in an obvious homage (a la Neon Bible) but in the succinct, road-friendly songwriting and, especially, in Mays' ability to sound at once weary and inspired in that gruff, everyman way of his. And hm maybe on repeated listen there is a bit of a direct homage going on; check out the early bridge (1:12 to 1:26) and see if you don't pick up a taste of something from one of the Boss's first three or four albums ("She's the One," maybe?). I like this.
     Matt Mays & El Torpedo is, as luck would have it, another quintet from Canada--Halifax this time. "Tall Trees" is a song from Terminal Romance, the group's second CD, which was released on Sonic Records in July. Mays himself two releases as a solo artist as well.

Sept. 14-20

"Life Like" - the Rosebuds
     The Rosebuds, a Raleigh-based duo, are an elusive band, rather willfully avoiding a defining sound over the course of three CDs released between 2003 and 2007 (they were a trio until last year). As such, I've managed neither to get a strong grip on them musically nor to latch onto one particular song to feature. Until now.
     With an insistent, somewhat ominous groove and easy-going melody, "Life Like" has plenty to recommend it. Such as, for instance, that very juxtaposition: ominous groove and easy-going melody. When pop music succeeds, it often does so through this type of aural paradox, the combining of contradictory elements into a cohesive whole. (A pop song by definition doesn't have a lot of time to work with, so if it's shooting for depth, it has to work with layers within the time frame.) You may not know why a song is sticking, why it's affecting you, and many times it's because of this sort of maneuver. With the Rosebuds, the vocal pairing of Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp is a sort of mirror of the effect: two very different vocal vibes, blending, alternating, and weaving in and around each other. Their work as dual lead vocalists has in fact been the one consistent element to the band's music and it works glowingly well here; I love how Crisp keeps herself at a distance in the verses, harmonizing around the edges, but injects herself into the center of the mix in the chorus.
     "Life Like" is the title track to the Rosebuds' fourth CD, which is scheduled for release next month on Merge Records. MP3 via Merge.

"Lost Coastlines" - Okkervil River
     One of America's best and most consistent indie bands of the '00s, Okkervil River is on a tear, seemingly incapable of releasing anything but rousing, rigorously engaging rock'n'roll. On the heels of last year's well-regarded CD, The Stage Names, the Austin-based quintet returns with The Stand Ins, which is in fact pretty much the second half of last year's album--not only is the subject matter revisited, but the album covers cleverly connect to one another.
     And so, once again, front man and songwriter Will Sheff is singing about an indie rocker's life on the road, and once again he sidesteps the pitfalls of self-involvement through his engagingly evasive lyrics and his uncanny way with melody and presentation. Snappy and chorus-free, "Lost Coastlines" is built on top of an accelerated Motown groove (think "You Can't Hurry Love"), over which Sheff sings with a rubbery, David Byrne-like quizzicality. At the same time, there's a sense of poignancy in the air, having a lot to do with the interludes sung by Jonatahan Meiburg (at 0:41 and 2:09). Meiburg was in Okkervil River until this past spring, when he left to devote himself full-time to his other band, Shearwater (the parting was amicable). When Meiburg enters, the itchy guitar disappears, leaving his croony baritone to float against bass, percussion, and strings, injecting a dream-like vibe into the chuggy ambiance.
     The Stand Ins was released last week on Jagjaguwar Records. MP3 via Jagjaguwar. [FS]

"Me and Armini" - Emiliana Torrini
     Iceland's Emiliana Torrini is a musical vagabond of sorts, having wandered over the years through a wide range of sonic settings. Trained in opera as a teenager, Torrini's international debut CD, 1999's Love in the Time of Science, introduced her as a trip-hop diva, with excursions into electronica and synthesizer pop, while her next release, Fisherman's Woman (2005), was all intimate and folk-jazz guitary. In between she gained a bit of fame for singing "Gollum's Song," the end theme for Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, a predictably windswept and string-strewn affair. Her new CD shows off any number of additional styles, as clearly suggested by the dub-inflected title track.
     Despite the reggae beat, "Me and Armini" is appealing, to me, precisely because it's not really a reggae song at all. I'm no purist; I have no issues when musicians borrow sounds and vibes from wherever they find inspiration. In the end, if the song works in the moment as a listening experience, regardless of how it satisfies expectations and musical "rules," then all is well. On "Me and Armini," all is very well indeed. In and around the slinky rhythm and electro-dub effects, Torrini has crafted a cool and affecting song, propelled by a sneaky melody that owes more to plain old rock'n'roll than its sly trappings may lead you to believe. The way the music and the lyrics in the chorus break in different places (the musical line keeps stopping after the phrase "that I'm") is a particular point of pleasure here.
     "Me and Armini" is the title track to an album released last week on Rough Trade Records. MP3 courtesy of the Beggars Group. [FS]

Sept. 21-27

"The Crook of My Good Arm" - Pale Young Gentlemen
     I love the musical and lyrical drama that Pale Young Gentlemen manage to pack into not even three minutes here. We first hear only a cello, playing a jerky line with what sounds like a mysterious rhythm until we understand that it's actually just accelerating into the right tempo for the song. Kinda fun. A crisp acoustic guitar joins in, and a violin (or maybe a viola? or both?). By the time front man Mike Reisenauer sings those not-your-typical-indie-fare opening lines--"You start to worry 'bout your health/As you reach a certain age"--this song has achieved liftoff (aided by a drum that enters with exquisite timing).
      And it's really only just starting; the rest of the way, "The Crook of My Good Arm" all but explodes with melodic vigor and instrumental dexterity: the strings play rascally melodies and rhythms, a cowbell clangs at precisely the right moments, and Reisenauer, his voice vaguely processed, handles the theatrical rhyme scheme (check out the spiffy A-B-C-C-B pattern in the verse, leading into the titular phrase) with the casual authority of someone who's more interested in telling a story than simply singing. Sounding nothing like rock bands that are typically associated with the word, I'd say that Pale Young Gentlemen (a seven-person outfit that includes by the way three women) possess great swagger. This isn't "Wail on the electric guitar and scream bloody murder" swagger or "Dig my blues riff and my street cred" swagger or even "Be awed by my laptop skills" swagger--it's "We know exactly what we're doing and don't really sound like anyone else" swagger. The best kind, in other words.
     The Gents were previously featured on Fingertips in Nov. 2007. "The Crook of My Good Arm" is a song from the band's second CD, Black Forest (Tra La La), which will be released next month on the Madison, Wis.-based label Science of Sound. MP3 via the band.

"Wreck" - the Bittersweets
     Hannah Prater has a voice made to sing the words, "Why'd ya go and wreck this all?": firm but with a little crack to it, at once bright and dusky, hurt and resilient and maybe a little existentially exasperated too. Why'd ya go and wreck this all? She's sad, and disappointed, and pissed off, and her rich tone nicely captures the overlay of emotions independent, even, of what she's saying. Over the Rhine fans should pay particular note; Prater sings with something of Karin Bergquist's idiosyncratic verve, and "Wreck," come to think of it, does have the vibe and polish of one of OTR's smooth, capable rockers.
     And make no mistake: smooth and well-crafted it is, from the gratifying melodies of the verse and the release of the chorus to the precisely played instrumental parts laid down by guitarist and keyboard player Chris Meyers (the group's main songwriter) and drummer Steve Bowman (who has played with Counting Crows, among others). Interesting how the "indie" umbrella by 2008 gathers in everything from buzzy, jarring lo-fi to well-produced, radio-ready numbers such as the Bittersweets play. The irony, as music aficionados know, is that the internet all but overflows with radio-ready songs that few if any terrestrial radio stations are in fact ready to play. Blame deregulation in this case too; and I only wish that were a joke.
     "Wreck" is from the Nashville-based trio's second CD, Goodnight San Francisco, which was released this month on Compass Records. MP3 vis Compass.

"Un Día" - Juana Molina
     I suggest giving yourself some time and space to take this one in. Being in an altered state might help, although this song, if you open yourself to it, might help you achieve one.
     A long-time Fingertips favorite, Molina returns with a crazy, churning, ecstatic daze of a song. The Argentinian former sitcom star has, as a musician, pioneered an alluring if evasive sort of folktronica, with lots of loops and repetition (check out the Album Bin review of her last album, Son, for a sense of what she's been up to). "Un Día" is some of that, but also something else entirely. Despite how rigorously plotted out and worked over this sort of song construction probably is, Molina here sounds almost nuttily spontaneous and expansive, both musically and vocally. Ecstatic, yes: there seems something nearly spiritual in the air as Molina all but chants--her voice sounds freer, more unrestrained than in the past--against a marvelously textured and continually varying undercurrent of voice, electronics, horns, sounds, and percussion. As usual, for English-speaking listeners, the language adds another element of incomprehensibility, but she appears to be aiming in that direction in any case; one of the lyrics here, translated, reads: "One day I will sing the songs with no lyrics and everyone can imagine for themselves if it's about love, disappointment, banalities or about Plato."
     "Un Día" is the title track from Molina's forthcoming album, her fifth, due out next month on Domino Records. Can't wait to hear the whole thing. MP3 via Stereogum. (Note that you'll have to download the MP3 yourself from Stereogum; the site doesn't allow deep links.) [FS]

Sept. 28 - Oct. 4

"Confessor" - Annuals
     Annuals prove yet again their capacity for producing intricate pop songs that defy standard structures while still offering catchy refrains and a satisfying sense of firm ground. "Confessor" develops upon two disparate rhythmic conceits: a stuttering, almost syncopated rhythm, which we hear for the first 26 seconds or so, accompanied by a melody featuring small intervals and drawn-out syllables; and a smoother, swaying beat, which you'll hear for roughly the next 26 seconds. That second part features full-bodied vocal harmonies, a distinctive string section, and the song's most prominent and inviting hook, starting around 0:30, which is the melody associated with the words "Through the windows in the chapel." So the song's a half-minute old, we've already experienced a how'd-that-happen? musical shift, and have come to a wonderful, old friend of a hook without quite knowing where we even are--verse? chorus? some mysterious other thing?
     The somewhat XTC-like journey we're on continues as the syncopation returns, the background music swells, and then--neat trick, around 1:21--we get the melodic hook overlaid onto the syncopated beat, aided and abetted by tight harmonies and a concise instrumental accompaniment, which feels full but not overcrowded. I like, after this, the swirling, climaxing instrumental section, and how it all but crashes ashore, wave-like, receding before the triumphant return of the "windows in the chapel" section. And with a few more swirly, wave-like swooshes, the song ends, less than three minutes after it has begun.
     "Confessor" opens the new Annuals CD, Such Fun, which will be released next week on Canvasback Music, which is a Columbia Records spin-off. The album sounds strong to me; expect an Album Bin review before long. MP3 via Stereogum.

"R + J" - Chris Flew
     Does the world need another song about Romeo and Juliet? I wouldn't have thought so. (Chris Flew himself probably didn't think so; note the sly non-reference of the title.) And yet when a songwriter hits melodic pay dirt like Flew does with this stripped-down beauty, well, what the heck, one more musical Romeo and Juliet reference can't hurt.
     So maybe I'm a sucker for a simple melody but tell me this one doesn't reach deep inside you also. And it comes at us right at the beginning: "I tried to understand as I touched your hand/What went wrong today?" A couple of ascending lines, describing a third interval, then the descending line that heads one further note down (to the word "wrong"), setting up the four-interval upward leap (from "wrong" to "today"). Simple, but awesome--it tugs at the heart, and sticks in the head. Building upon that rock-solid start, "R + J" proceeds from there with grace and inevitability. While the acoustic guitar strum remains at its core, Flew adds an evocative violin (probably better called a fiddle in this environment) and a distant lap steel guitar. No percussion used, or required. The lyrics may veer occasionally towards the obvious but Flew means well, and that affecting melody keeps returning and reaffirming the song's strength.
     Chris Flew is a Glaswegian singer/songwriter--that is, from Glasgow, Scotland, but don't you like the word Glaswegian? More cities should have singular words for their residents, I say. "R + J" is from Flew's most recent CD, Kingston Bridge, self-released in 2006 and scheduled for a re-release this winter. Flew is currently working on a new CD. MP3 via Flew's web site.

"Sideways Glances and Coded Speech" - Fulton Lights
     Andrew Spencer Goldman, the mastermind behind Fulton Lights, is back with another of his scratchy, moody, loose-limbed, beat-driven compositions. With the feel of something half-programmed and half-improvised, "Sideways Glances and Coded Speech" churns along with eerie personality; for all the echoey electronic noise that acts as the container here, the song is constructed just as notably from organic sounds, including acoustic guitar, upright bass (!), and what sounds to me like actual percussion in actual three-dimensional space. This beguiling sort of acousto-electronica fosters an unearthly vibe, which is neatly augmented by the presence of Goldman's ghostly tenor, singing barely comprehensible but vaguely ominous phrases, floating along on top.
     "Sideways Glances and Coded Speech" is a song from the second Fulton Lights CD, The Way We Ride, which was released earlier this month as a joint venture between Catbird Records and Goldman's own Android Eats Records. The album is available for free download in its entirety via Catbird, although a pay-what-you-will payment is suggested. MP3 via Catbird.

Oct. 5-11

"Palmyra" - Jolie Holland
     I love the timeless, deep-hearted quality of the music here, as well as Holland's fetchingly textured voice. Starting simply, with the acoustic guitar up front, the song picks up depth and punch when the drums and electric guitar kick in in full force, after about a minute. The electric guitarist is the masterly Marc Ribot, who plays with great invention and yet, somehow, without drawing any attention to himself. I suggest going back and listening to the song one time with the specific intention of focusing only on Ribot's playing--not just his solo at around 1:55 but from beginning to end (and yes he actually is playing from almost the beginning, even as the acoustic guitar seems onstage alone). Although a wonderful experimental guitarist on his own, I find him particularly effective in this sort of ensemble work, in the context of a traditional-sounding song.
     Beyond Ribot, one concrete element that adds to "Palmyra"'s mysterious appeal, to my ears, is how Holland shifts the melody in the verse on and then off the first beat of the measure. You can hear this clearly at the beginning: the first two lines (beginning with "Only a few..." and "My little heart...") are sung starting on the first beat of the measure; the next lines (starting with "You could tell...") are sung beginning around the third beat of the measure, which creates more space between lines as well. The feel of the song settles into something deeper and yearnier, somehow, in the shift. And yet she does not do this the second time the verse comes around, which is the first time we hear it in the fuller band mode--she shifts the shift, as it were. It returns for the third verse. I have no idea precisely why but I do believe this sort of subliminal complexity enriches the listening experience. In other words: good song.
     "Palmyra" can be found on Holland's new CD, The Living and the Dead, due out this week on Anti Records. MP3 via Spinner. Jolie Holland was previously featured on Fingertips in April 2006. [FS]

"New Song" - Your 33 Black Angels
     Concise and good-natured while also flashing a bit of hard-edged sloppiness that makes it all the more likable. "New Song" is not only so concise it can't be bothered with a title, it's so concise that it pretty much uses the same central melody in both the verse and the chorus. It works musically because...well, who knows, actually. These things remain mysterious. No doubt it has something to do with how the rhythm speeds up in the chorus, and also--not to be underestimated--the rumbly, lower-register harmonies brought to singer Benji Kast's slightly roughed-up tenor. But maybe the real trick is the fact that the melody remains unresolved in the verse. The verse kind of climaxes on the word "try" (listen at 0:19 or 0:32, for example), and that note, my friends, is unresolved. And it says right there in The Idiot Guide's to Music Theory that "you don't want to end your melody with unresolved tension." (I kid you not; Google it.)
     Well, you may not want to end the melody that way for good, but it's pretty great when it sounds like you are ending it unresolved and then you wait all the way until the end of the chorus (which starts with the same melody) to arrive at resolution. I am fairly certain that the five guys in Your 33 Black Angels have not read The Idiot Guide's to Music Theory.
      "New Song" comes from the Brooklyn-based band's self-released second CD, Tales of My Pop-Rock Love Life, which is due out next week.

"Homesick" - Gustav & the Seasick Sailors
     Gustav & the Seasick Sailors return to Fingertips, after an almost three-year absence, with another piano-based, jazz-tinged composition. The drumming is soft and skittery, the chords open and Bruce Hornsby-esque, the melody brisk and wistful. The point at which this song settled into my psyche is right in the middle, the stretch from 1:20 to 1:28, when the melody picks up velocity and the chords progress with muted beauty, peaking at the lyrics "All the things we were/All the things we're not." The understated female harmony vocal here is beautiful, all the more so for sounding so casual and easy to overlook if you're not paying attention.
     "Homesick" is a song from Brilliant Hands, the third Gustav & the Seasick Sailors CD. Lead by Gustav Haggren, a singer/songwriter from Helsingborg, Sweden, the Seasick Sailors are labeled a "collective" by the band's press material, which accounts for my inability to pinpoint, for instance, how many Seasick Sailors there happen to be. There seem to be five or six at the moment. And I don't want to dwell on it but it's interesting to know that Haggren was born without a right hand, and wears a special device that allows him to hold a pick and therefore play guitar.
     The song "Nightlife" by GATSS was featured here in November 2005; it was also a #1 song on the Fingertips Top 10, for those keeping score at home.

Oct. 12-18

"Rosa" - Samuel Markus
    A full-bodied helping of quasi-psychedelic neo-folk rock, or some such thing, "Rosa" treads an alluring line between the contemporary and the classic, mixing a Derek & the Dominoes-like guitar-band drive with crispier beats and 21st-century production effects.
     Holding it all together--because I have to admit, that description doesn't sound all that alluring as I read it back to myself!--is 22-year-old Samuel Markus, whose voice contains something of Grant Lee Phillips' deep melodrama, but with a lighter touch and self-effacing tone. The song is pretty much built around a cascade of two-syllable almost-rhymes that repeat at the end of each lyrical line; Marcus wins the day with his earnest yet quizzical delivery, all but reveling in the mismatches that tumble out (e.g. "Casanova" and "composer" and "for ya") in service of his ramshackle, bittersweet-sounding story.
     Markus co-founded the N.Y.C.-based band the Rosewood Thieves (featured on Fingertips in Aug. '06) before splitting to do his own thing out in California. "Rosa" can be found on New Dawn, a CD recorded with an ensemble he calls the Only Ones (no relation to the British new wave band of the same name, which has apparently been playing together again recently). New Dawn was released at the end of September by Yatra Media.

"Lieutenant" - the Happy Hollows
     I am no fan of indie music that veers too sharply into the DIY camp, as my ears will forever be jarred by sloppiness, however disguised by claims of authenticity or shred guitar prowess. When I first heard "Lieutenant," I was attracted by its left-turn hooks but wary of its seeming disjointedness. For a five-minute song, this one unspools in an unnerving number of directions; it's hard to get a handle on too quickly, and I was not initially convinced that there was any larger sense of purpose keeping the song from simply flying apart. (I am by and large unswayed by shredding.) And yet I surely did like lead singer Sarah Negahdari's trilly, pixie-like (or Pixies-like?) sense of drama, the trio's Belly-esque blend of heaviness and lightness, and the sly, quasi-martial swing of the song's stickiest hook (first heard at 1:10).
     I'm still not completely sure which side of the line between sophistication and random craziness that "Lieutenant" lands on, but the moment, probably, that won me over was this: the minute and a half in the middle of the song that features the most jumpy, unglued material climaxes, at around 4:00, with all three band members singing together and then just sort of shouting with jump-in-the-pool abandon. Weeeeeee. It cemented the song-as-journey concept, and I liked where it led: into a coda with a new, unexpectedly soothing melody. Well, okay, it gets wacky again for the last five seconds. They can't help themselves.
     "Lieutenant" is the lead track off the L.A.-based band's second EP, Imaginary, which will be released by the band next week.

"Surefooted" - Geoff Ereth
     Deftly arranged and smartly paced, "Surefooted" packs a goodly number of instruments into a brisk three and a half minutes, but the sound remains clean and uncluttered. There's piano and guitar and drums, there's a string quartet, a trombone, an interesting keyboard or two, maybe a woodwind of one sort or another--"orchestral folk" is what Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist Geoff Ereth calls it. But unlike much of what comes under the "chamber pop" umbrella, "Surefooted" leaves enough white space in and around its arrangement to feel fresh and easy rather than baroque and belabored.
     The key, I think, is the strength of the song itself. I love instrumental variety in rock'n'roll as much as anyone, but too often the aural curlicues are covering up melodic staleness--underneath the ornamentation, there's no there there, to use that old Gertrude Stein nugget. With "Surefooted," there's plenty of there, as both the verse and chorus feature strong melodies, put forward with gentle assurance by the smooth-voiced Ereth (and note the arresting way he offers harmonies on the middle lines of each verse but not the first and last). Symbolic, perhaps, of the song's full but unadorned feel is the instrumental break at around 2:10--rather than any orchestral swell, we are stripped down to just the strings, playing with punch and punctuation (and pizzicato), which creates room for an uncomplicated but evocative piano line that wanders briefly through at 2:20. (The string quartet that plays with Ereth on his record is Osso, which is the same group that has performed with both Sufjan Stevens and My Brightest Diamond.)
     Drunk With Translation was released digitally via iTunes last month, and will be out on CD in January; it is self-released, under the Deerly Records imprint.

Oct. 19-25

"Happy As Can Be" - Cut Off Your Hands
     Put Phil Spector, the Beatles, and New Order in a blender and out comes "Happy As Can Be." (Well, it works in my blender.) There's the spacious, bashy wall of sound, the "Please Please Me" melody, and the deadpan yet also semi-melodramatic club vibe. Oh, and maybe throw Split Enz in the blender too, since these guys are from New Zealand and lead singer Nick Johnston has a bit of a Tim Finn-ish yelp going on there, especially in the chorus. (Yeah, okay, it's a big blender.)
     I'm fascinated, as I always tend to be, by the 'wall of sound' sound--the overall effect is conspicuous but when you try to pick it apart, the specifics kind of scurry away. What is it that's making the sound, anyway? A big, rumbling drum and a distinct echo is part of it; clangy but indistinct guitar sound is part of it, as is a choral-like backing noise, coming from either voices or instruments or both. Mixing a bell in with the beat--always a good touch, for some reason. Whatever's doing it, Cut Off Your Hands is here to deliver it to us; on the quartet's MySpace page, next to "Influences" is one name: Phil Spector.
     "Happy As Can Be" is the title track to the band's new EP, their third, scheduled for a digital release on Frenchkiss Records this week. Their full-length debut is expected out in early 2009.

"The Great Depression" - Midwest Dilemma
     A brisk, bittersweet country waltz, "The Great Depression" tells a vague but insistent story of deprivation and resolve, via a 23-piece folk orchestra. Front man and songwriter Justin Lamoureux, from Omaha, sings with a refreshing, scuffed-up solidity--no wispy, chamber pop tenor he--but at the same time leaves plenty of room for the contraption-like menagerie of guitars and winds and strings and percussion that is Midwest Dilemma, as they pump and sway (and, occasionally, squeak) along with him. I picture Lamoureux singing from smack in the middle of it all, sometimes needing to stand on tiptoes to be noticed.
     The album on which you'll find "The Great Depression" is called Timelines & Tragedies, and was self-released in May. It apparently tells stories of Lamoureux's family history, spanning some 400 years (this song is not a current political statement, just to be clear). The indie scene of the '00s has definitively given birth to this sort of docurock--idiosyncratic, often incomprehensible takes on personal and cultural history. Neutral Milk Hotel may have spawned the trend 10 years ago, with the strange but seminal In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. You need a good melody to carry this kind of thing off; a compelling arrangement is another plus. "The Great Depression" scores on both counts. The harmonies provided by Elizabeth Webb enhance the power of the song's resilient tune, and as for the arrangement, pay particular attention to how oceanic the earnest, acoustic churn of the ensemble becomes during the song's closing half-minute. Some songs do not need to be fully understood to be gotten.

"Snowblind" - +/-
     This one starts as intimate electronica, the twitchy percussion blipping with a startling three-dimensionality, while a tranquil keyboard offers muted chords and James Baluyut sings a soft series of interrupted phrases so casually he may as well be talking. It's 50 seconds before we hear a guitar, and what it gives us at first is a careful, reverberant line that joins in with the calm itchiness thus far unfolding.
     Calm itchiness is not going to hold, of course. At 1:48, as the lyrics tell us that there is "no way to draw the poison out," the guitar breaks from its noodly mode and offers a ringing rhythm with the most wonderful chords--chords that sound at once central and off-center, urgent and restrained, obvious and oblique. This goes on for half a minute; it's interesting, come to think of it, that the guitar solo is all rhythm rather than lead. Interesting too that without an obvious chorus, the solo comes as a surprise, and not just for its volume and texture. We haven't been prepared for it by the song's structure. When Baluyut returns, he's singing in a higher register, still the same sort of interrupted phrases, and then here's the moment I, somehow, love most of all: at 3:36, when he leaps to falsetto and holds the word "you" through a downward series of notes (in classical music, they'd call that a melisma), twice. By now the flurry of guitar and full-fledged drumming is all but blizzard-like, creating an aural version of the title's state (which, lyrically, is metaphorical, not actual).
     "Snowblind" is from the new +/- (say "Plus/Minus") album, Xs On Your Eyes. This is the Brooklyn-based trio's fourth, and it's due out this week on Absolutely Kosher Records. MP3 via AK. [FS]

Oct. 26-Nov. 1

"Black/White" - the Raveonettes
     The Raveonettes, the fuzzy, atmospheric, neo-retro duo from Denmark, have an enviable knack for making cool songs, and making it seem easy, except of course it's not, otherwise everyone would be making cool songs. (Which they're not, when last I checked.) The whole, as usual for these guys, exceeds the sum of the parts, which, initially, are straightforward: a nimble, repeating bass line, fuzzed-up beats, deadpan vocals, and a distant guitar melody that has surely been lifted from some garage-rock nugget from the 1960s, or should have been. The first juxtaposition of that guitar against that contemporary beat (at 0:36) is what, I think, propels this song into full coolness--and then, all the better, the second time, when the beat itself retreats into the blurry distance, along with the guitar (1:18).
     So we're slinking along like that, the imperturbable Sharin Foo cooing the noir-ish lyrics (that's her on the bass as well), introducing each guitar break with a detached "yeah yeah yeah," but check out the feedback that lingers after the second break (1:31), and note the barely discernible presence of another guitar, scratching at the edge of the sound for the third verse, waiting for something. That something turns out to be the Raveonettes' signature electronic noise, which rushes into the song at 1:56, complete with an old-fashioned powering-up effect, and, with that extra guitar in the background, fleshes out the recurring guitar line with a very gratifying burst of well-textured racket.
     In the end, not a moment in this perfect-pop-length song is misplaced, and maybe that is truly the root of its mysterious appeal, as the duo generates complexity via uncanny control of relatively simple specifics. "Black/White" can be found on the band's digital-only EP Beauty Dies, which was released last week on Vice Records, the third of four EPs scheduled out in 2008.

"And I" - Portugal. The Man
     Wasilla, Alaska's favorite sons (we'll keep the daughters out of it) return to Fingertips with another indelible shot of at once forward- and backward-looking 21st-century rock. "And I" sways to a 3/4 beat, walking a splendid line between humility and swagger, with the air of some easy-flowing '70s arena staple, and yet, also, with something firmer, newer, and more hand-crafted in its bones.
     As might be inferred by the curious (and curiously punctuated) name, Portugal. The Man is one inscrutable quartet; like many of today's introspective indie-rockers, they seem happy enough knowing what they're doing without much caring whether the rest of us do or not. (Their not-very-clear Wikipedia entry is a good example of this; the reader is left not even knowing what the band's name actually is, or why.) This inscrutability might be aggravating if the music weren't so effortlessly well-built and rewarding. "And I" unfolds by adding musical elements you might not realize are necessary precisely when they are, from the intro's psychedelic organ line to the vaguely gospelly, falsetto backing vocals (first chiming in at 1:14 and 1:28, but keep your ears on them the rest of the way), to the Led Zep-pish blast of squonky guitar at 2:00, to what surely sounds like a cello at 3:49. By the end of this one, as guitars slash and churn against those insistent "ooo-ooo-ooo"s in a windswept landscape that is either triumphant or post-apocalyptic (can't tell), we have surely been through some kind of epic. Just don't ask me what any of it was about.
     "And I" is from the CD Censored Colors, which came out last month on the band's own label, Apprpoaching AIRballoons, in conjunction with the Albany, N.Y.-based indie label Equal Vision Records. MP3 via Equal Vision.

"Surprises" - the New Monarchs
     Tune in right away here, so you don't miss the ear-catching intro, with its striking juxtaposition of literally offbeat synthesizer lines and wordless, chant-like vocals. That's quite a way to start a song, and the good news is that this Minneapolis-based electronica duo has yet more up its sleeve, including, of all things, kick-ass guitars.
     I don't often warm up to electronica precisely because I'm just not an unadulterated beep-and-boop-and-beat fan. (And there's nothing wrong with those who are, mind you. I just don't tend to hear the music in it.) But "Surprises" had me sitting up after that introduction, and kept me interested with the minimalist approach the song initially takes with its electronics, the clicky beat and buzzy synthesizer almost melding together, clutter-free, in a sort of secondary introduction. The melody, when the singing starts, proceeds at a much slower pace than the beats, giving Sean Hogan ample chance to show off his scuffed-up tenor, and leads, seamlessly, into a reprise of the chant-like melody of the introduction (starting at 1:06). The song at this point acquires an almost hymn-like force, before sliding into a circular, hypnotic middle section featuring repetitive keyboard lines and keening, breathy vocals.
     And what of the aforementioned guitars? Perhaps these are the surprises of the title. Keep listening, you can't miss them. Hogan kind of fades behind the blaring screen of sound for a while, but don't lose track of him, as his unwavering tone is one of the song's few continual characteristics. "Surprises" is a song from the band's debut CD, Blueprints, which comes out this week on Soup Bowl Records, also based in Minneapolis. MP3 via Soup Bowl.

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