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May 18, 2010

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"The Way to Canaan" - The King Left
     Okay so noise is one thing. When you come right down to it, it's easy to make noise. Never understood what the fuss was about from the rock'n'roll primitivists who glorify sheer volume. I mean, okay--turn the bloody amps up and boom. It's noisy. Like, wow.
     Start combining noise with discipline and you begin to get my attention. Start understanding music enough to create different kinds of noise, not all of which are simply loud, and now you've really got something going. The King Left certainly does, playing continually along the edge of dissonance in this sharp, rumbling rocker. From the outset, we get no settled sense of tonic, a base chord to call home; instead we get slashing, clanging guitars and--key to keeping things unsettled--a dynamic bass line, running up and down and all around. The sound is at once harsh and tight. And listen to where the music goes when the lyrical line ends, at 0:27, and again at 0:40--we're left not only without resolution but bopping itchily in a clashing key, with that bass guitar refusing to ground us in a stable place. The chorus at long last delivers an anthemic release, but--there's a catch--buries it under a searing lead guitar, while Corey Oliver, even as he all but shouts, delivers his vocals as if now down in the basement. Nothing is easy but the hand-hold here is that it's all very precise. Knowing you're in good hands relaxes the ear, I think.
     The band's MySpace page lists Radiohead, The Beatles, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Nirvana, and R.E.M. as its first five influences and damned if "The Way to Canaan" isn't some kind of crazy-brilliant amalgam of all five. The song is from the New York City quartet's first full-length album--which is unfortunately also their last. They played their final show last week and are now no more. MP3 via the band's site. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head's up.

"All I Want" - Sarah Blasko
     Nothing says "cinematic" better than a Morricone-inspired whistling introduction, but I like how down-to-earth and personal everything still manages to sound here. Often this kind of spaghetti western-ish styling opens up sweeping vistas with a certain amount of ironic winking, conjuring bleak deserts and dusty trails in an almost cartoonish way. But here Blasko takes the whistly intro, the Spanish-like guitar, and a touch of martial snare and wraps them up in her smoky, heartsore voice, singing a simple, haunting melody. By the time the strings arrive, we aren't picturing a lonesome rider in the blistering vastness of the faux Wild West; she is clearly singing about inner landscapes, not outer ones. That producer Björn Yttling (of Peter, Bjorn and John fame) has found a way to personalize a musical setting rooted in outsized gestures is a mighty part of this song's charm, but it took Blasko's distinctive husky-breathy voice to pull it off. I'm guessing her voice gave him the idea in the first place. There's something haunted and unreachable in it.
     Blasko is from Sydney, where she has a sizable following after three well-regarded albums. "All I Want" is from her third and most recent CD, As Day Follows Night, which was recorded in Stockholm with Yttling and released last year in Australia and this spring in Europe. A U.S. release is scheduled for August.

"The Kiss" - Pallers
     This graceful electronic dance-ballad unfolds with a New Order-like majesty, but minus the melodrama. Despite the quickly established synth-driven pulse, a gentle dreaminess prevails during the song's careful build-up. There's no hurrying this song and in the end, you don't want to, because the payoff, while subtle, is deeply felt.
     So let this one happen on its own terms. The simple pulse--a robotic synthesizer line backed by a conga beat of organic simplicity--fuels an extended intro, while another synthesizer slowly plays with a melodic line that finally takes over the front of the mix nearly 50 seconds in. The singing starts at 1:06, adding a wistful melody to the carefully constructed beat. New synth lines emerge at 1:40. No one is in a hurry, remember. A new layer of percussion and previously unheard synthesizer flourishes add palpable substance around 2:30 but soon the song retreats back to its conga-and-synth origin before blossoming, from 3:00 to 3:15, into almost goose-bumpy wonderfulness the rest of the way, as the melody doubles its pace and we see now that our gentle electronic dream has transformed itself into something brisk, sturdy, and memorable.
     The Swedish duo Pallers is Johan Angergård (also a member of Acid House Kings, Club 8 and the Legends) and Henrik Mårtensson. "The Kiss" is a digital single due out next week on Labrador Records (a great Stockholm-based label, itself worth checking out). MP3 via Labrador.

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page updated 18 May 10

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NOTE: Older links may not always work, as promotional MP3s in particular are known to disappear without warning. 

May 12, 2010

"The Mermaid Parade" - Phosphorescent
     At once laid-back and expansive, "The Mermaid Parade" brings a slow-burning quality to its sauntering vibe. Singing this affecting if slightly mystical (or maybe just surreal) tale of love gone wrong, front man Matthew Houck has the knocked-around tone of a man who's been hurt a little too much; his voice has a built-in crack to it without ever really cracking, and he sings with the relaxed cadence of someone slowly draining the beer from a long-necked bottle.
     And the thing, to me, that really gives "The Mermaid Parade" its piercing quality is the electric guitar that plays like a backbone through the skeletally told story. Neither fancy nor newfangled, the guitar brings a classic-rock majesty to the singer/songwritery proceedings. The climactic lyric is plainspoken and startlingly moving: "But yeah I found a new friend too/And yeah she's pretty and small/But goddamn it Amanda/Oh, goddamn it all."
     "The Mermaid Parade" is four tracks in on Here's To Taking It Easy, the fifth full-length release from Phosphorescent, a band which is basically Houck and anyone else he can get to play with him at the time. The album is out this week on Dead Oceans, sister label to Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguwar. MP3 via Dead Oceans.

"Zebra" - Beach House
     The appealing sense of gliding momentum that propels "Zebra"? It's due entirely to a rhythm based on three beats rather than four, but one which has nothing to do with either the waltzing rhythm yielded by a 3/4 beat or the bluesy shuffle of a 12/8 beat. I'm guessing we're dealing with 6/4, but in any case the movement here is hypnotic; rooted in three beats but without any swing--it's all one-two-three-one-two-three, no ONE-two-three-ONE-two-three--there's a continual feeling of being carried along in anticipation, like a wave that rolls and rolls but never breaks.
     Even the chorus, with its delightful opening hook (the inching-up-three-half-steps melody of "Anywhere you run") and nifty chord changes, is musically satisfying but doesn't really give us any deep resolution, being too nimbly constructed, not to mention too busy tricking our ear into hearing syncopation that doesn't really exist. All in all the song is like a lovely little dream--shepherded by Victoria Legrand's commanding and all but gender-free alto, built with brisk but evasive dynamics, leaving an impression of having happened but without a clear sense of how or why.
     "Zebra" originally appeared on Teen Dream, the Baltimore-based duo's third album, which came out in January on Sub Pop. This is a slightly different version, the so-called "UK Radio Edit," which can be found on the Zebra EP released by for Record Store Day in April. MP3 via Sub Pop. And somehow the P.S. 22 Chorus in NYC got a hold of this song; you can watch their version in the video below.

"Becoming a Jackal" - Villagers
     "Becoming a Jackal" is not necessarily an immediate smash hit; it insinuates rather than sweeps away. Never is it uninteresting, however, and I mean that quite literally, in a moment to moment way. Great hooks are awesome, don't get me wrong, but songs can sometimes coast a bit too much in between the hooks, not to mention that sometimes it's a fine line between hook-y and facile, never mind hook-y and annoying. (You'll know what I mean if you've ever gotten a song stuck in your head that you don't even like.) So there's definitely a place in my pop universe for songs like this that use well-crafted indirectness, unexpected twists, and tension-building restraint to gain your trust and devotion.
     Sink into the song's small moments, let them float by and gain strength, notice the subtle shifts in accompaniment, and eventually a few become their own, quirky sorts of non-hooky hooks. The recurring phrase "I was a dreamer" at the beginning of the not-very-chorus-like chorus may be the first that sticks but a number of other melodic motifs grow in stature as the song unfolds. I like the one that first comes, at 0:26, with the lyrics "in the scene between the window frames"; when we hear it (I think for the third time) at 2:21, with the lyrics "you should wonder what I'm taking from you," it sounds like a climactic moment, but only because of how artfully we've arrived there.
     Villagers is the name Dubliner Conor J. O'Brien has given to his musical project, which is kind of a band but kind of not a band. "Become a Jackal" is the title track to the debut album, to be released next month on Domino Records. MP3 via Domino.

color="#000000" face="Courier New"> THIS WEEK'S FINDS
May 4, 2010

"Rio" - Hey Marseilles
     Funny, if you think about it: the 21st-century to date has arguably contributed two abiding types of music to the rock'n'roll idiom, and they're kind of the exact opposites of each other. One is the music played by a two-person band, with keyboards and synthetic sounds at the forefront; the other is the music played by a large-ish group of people (typically five or more) wielding an idiosyncratic assortment of often (but not exclusively) acoustic instruments. Not that each type of ensemble plays one precise kind of music, so I'm not really talking about two new music styles or genres as much as two new musical energies or platforms, both thriving over the last ten years or so.
     Hey Marseilles, as you can almost guess from the name, is the second type--a seven-piece band from Seattle that plays things like accordion, cello, viola, mandolin, banjo, trumpet, and (wait for it) drumbourine. Now on the one hand, just putting a bunch of musicians with a bunch of instruments together is no guarantee for sonic success, and yet one could argue on the other hand that seven people who can play non-amplified instruments well enough together to make a coherent sound have an immediate leg up over a standard, four-person electric outfit. But then on the other other hand it also happens that larger ensembles can get so caught up in merely making the sound they make that the songs themselves--melodies, chords, structures--come up lacking. Not so with these guys, however. "Rio" is a joy from the opening hand claps, a sweetly rollicking neo sea shanty with terrific interplay between music and lyrics and delightfully rich instrumental layers. You never quite know which sounds are going to match up with which other sounds as the piece bounds along. It's great fun, both light and deep.
     "Rio" is a song from the band's debut album, To Trunks and Travel, originally self-released in 2008, but which is getting a national re-release in June via Onto Entertainment. Thanks to the irrepressible Largehearted Boy for the head's up. And if you want a sense of what this musical energy is like in person, check out this live performance of "Rio" from the band's visit to KEXP:

"Afraid of Everyone" - The National
     "Afraid of Everyone" starts spooky, slowly and surreptitiously picks up a pulse, then a driving beat, but even as it does remains tight and restrained. This juxtaposition of brisk and deliberate adds layers to the eeriness, just as the fear expressed lyrically broadens from interpersonal to existential: what begins with a reference to today's poisonous political environment ends with Matt Berninger singing, semi-imperceptibly, "Your voice has stolen my soul." Notice (this strikes me as important) that the song itself does not change tempo; what happens is that the band finally--first around 1:10 and then more fully at 1:25--picks up on the song's implicit beat, and literally drives home the frightened and frightening message. Repeated listens give this one a palpably deeper and deeper burn.
     Originally from Cincinnati, now in Brooklyn, the National has been steadily building a critical and popular following, as expansively discussed in a recent article in the New York Times. Personally, I've been reserved about them in the past, in part because I didn't give Berninger's portentous but limited (and mumbly) baritone enough time to let the intrigue of the music penetrate. Not sure if I'm in the process of full conversion, but I very much look forward to listening to the new album, High Violet, in its entirety (which you can do this week on NPR.) The album comes out officially next week on 4AD. MP3 via Pitchfork.

"Let the Record Go" - the Mynabirds
     I cannot resist a repeat visit to the Mynabirds album, with this second free and legal MP3 now available (and also given what a great little set of music this comprises with the previous two selections). I just mainline this kind of sound--open my veins and inject it straight in. Laura Burhenn takes the standard blues progression and shapes it into a fiery piece of retro pop. Every last detail is exquisite, and yet the thing just plain stomps too. Right away, I love how the song starts in such a hurry it feels as if we're joining in midstream and then oops it stops at that place four seconds in for that great, conflicted "Oh!" from Burhenn.
     So many parts to like in such a short song!: the extended, melismatic "Oh" that functions as something between a verse and a chorus at 0:26; the repeated way the music stops or slows at just the right moments, without ever giving us the feeling of being interrupted; the fleeting bit of theatrical singing we hear at 1:04, as if maybe Lene Lovich has made a brief cameo; and then oh man when that opening "Oh!" comes back a third time right near the end (2:15) it completely melts my heart.
     So if you missed it the first time, please rush back and listen as well to "Numbers Don't Lie," the first Mynabirds MP3 featured back in January. And then do yourself an even greater favor and buy What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood, which was released just last week on Saddle Creek; it's a strong strong effort from a gifted musician.

April 28, 2010

"The Best Things In Life" - The Silver Seas
     Effortlessly enjoyable pop with a faux '70s-soul sheen. And I mean the faux part in a good way--after all, it's not the '70s anymore (by a long shot). It's far more fun to hear a group of 21st-century popsters re-imagine this sound with a present-day oomph than to hear some slavish recreation of the distant past.
     But there's no doubting that the '70s are the musical mother lode for this Nashville-based trio. Last time we heard from them they were more in James Taylor/Jackson Browne mode; this time Daniel Tashian and company have swung, literally, into Hall & Oates territory, with a loving, twice-removed nod to the Philadelphia Sound that that duo themselves mined. It's a breezy R&B groove poised brashly between Motown and disco, and the breeziness is exactly why slavish recreation would be self-defeating. You have to sound sharp but you can't sound rigid, and these guys strut it just right, propelled by a melody that steadfastly refuses to align with the beat in a song filled with large and small pleasures. A favorite smaller moment comes with the third lead-in to the chorus (2:34). The previous two times, the chorus begins after two smooth H&O-like "oo-oos," covering four brisk measures, which is exactly what the song appears to demand. The third time, they sing the two "oo-oos" once and then repeat them, which if you're not listening carefully you might not even notice. But it's one of those great songwriting tricks, giving us a subtle, unexpected, hang-on-what's-not-quite-right delay before the final payoff.
     "The Best Things In Life" is a song from the band's new album Chateau Revenge, which was released digitally by the band this month; the physical album is due out in July. MP3 via Spinner.

"Army Dreamers" - Patrick Wolf
     I can count on one hand the number of cover songs I've posted here on Fingertips over the years; I'm not at all against them in theory, but I don't usually feel compelled to talk about them. It's more of a "Oh, that's interesting," and on we go. But this was a no-brainer from the opening drum-and-piano salvo. How different from the original and yet immediately exactly right. Wolf here has done the near impossible with a cover version: he has revealed the depths awaiting us in a song that even its writer hadn't quite plumbed.
     And that is to take nothing away from Kate Bush, whom I love unabashedly. But she wrote and sang "Army Dreamers" for her 1980 album Never For Ever, which found her in transition between the lush, piano-based, teenaged sounds of her first two records and the more complex, Fairlight-fueled, experimental direction she would develop fully with The Dreaming and Hounds of Love. Her original was a delicate, string-filled waltz, with a hint of weird around the edges. (But, note, a #1 record in the U.K.) Wolf--an intense, theatrical character in his own right--has done nothing as much as show us how Bush herself might have recorded this once she truly hit her stride. The martial rhythm, the creative synthesizer flourishes, the inventive percussion, the ghostly backing vocal (whether real or synthesized, an obvious homage), not to mention the exotic counter-vocal, are all evident Bushisms. But perhaps Wolf's most splendid and mysterious accomplishment is singing in his shadowy baritone--not doing an imitation, not in fact remotely sounding like her--and yet all but channeling the great and mighty KB. Thirty years later, he delivers a cover that sounds at least as authentic as the original.
     "Army Dreamers" is a track from a massive compilation album put out by the Spanish music collaborative Buffetlibre in support of Amnesty International. For five euros, you get 180 MP3s from 50 musicians from around the world, including Marissa Nadler, Ra Ra Riot, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and the Antlers. All songs are exclusive and previously unreleased. Visit Buffetlibre for more information.

"It Will Never Slip" - Marching Band
     Marching Band is a duo. If you were Sherlock Holmes, that should tell you everything you need to know about this song, which engages and delights largely via a subtle, playful contradiction between the big and the small. "It Will Never Slip" is full of grand, large-scale gestures performed in a modest, almost intimate setting. The song is big and echoey but also small and unassuming. It opens and closes--as do any number of bloated, album-rock standards of the '80s--with an elusively familiar acoustic guitar riff. But note that otherwise you don't even hear the acoustic guitar, because, after all, there are just two guys in the band. They've got other instruments to tend to.
     And there are pretty much just two chords in the whole song. I do not believe this is because they only know two chords. Instead, consciously or not, it's another sly way of being big and small at the same time: you've got the fleet-footed melody, alternately bouncing and running up and down, but you're framing it onto those two chords--which are, in fact, C and G, perhaps the two most basic chords in the whole game. Verse and chorus, both the same two chords, but check out how they sew it all together in the chorus, between the lyrics, with that anthemic downward trio of notes (so it's like mi-re-do). That's typically heard in a huge, stadium-rock gesture, complete with slashing guitar chords. Here I think I'm hearing a banjo.
     Marching Band hails from Linköping, Sweden, a small city roughly halfway between Göteburg and Stockholm. They've been playing since 2005, and released their first album in '08. "It Will Never Slip" is from the forthcoming Pop Cycle, due out next month on U&L Records. The MP3 is another available via Spinner.

April 21, 2010

"Blood" - The Middle East
     Over a stately acoustic guitar noodle that wouldn't sound out of place on a mid-career Genesis album, "Blood" unfolds slowly yet engages the ear instantly. (That's an advanced maneuver in the rock'n'roll style book, by the way.) The anticipation is delicious; the song doesn't fully cook until 2:55 but I don't think you'll be bored. Engaging musicianship, sensitive and creative arrangement, affecting vocals, intriguing and well-crafted lyrics, short-term melodies, long-term structure: this six-piece from northern Queensland offers a full arsenal, even--what the heck--a children's chorus before the thing is through.
     I read somewhere that this song tells the story of three different relationships, two ended by death, one by divorce, but don't expect to pick that up easily; the band's singer has a lovely, Bon Iver-esque tenor that functions more like an instrument than a tale-teller. We pick up the occasional sonorous phrase--"She woke up in a cold sweat on the floor"; "Burned by the sun too often when she was young"--but as the song develops musically, the words fade into the fabric of the composition, eventually to be left aside entirely once the central musical motif--a refrain first heard as a whistled melody at 2:01--rises in climactic, wordless, choral repetition two-thirds of the way through (the aforementioned children's chorus).
     Formed in 2005 in a quiet village near the Great Barrier Reef, the Middle East self-released an album entitled The Recordings of the Middle East in 2008. And then decided to break up. And eight months later decided to re-form, with some personnel changes. The original album was then given an Australia-wide re-release in abridged form as an EP by Spunk Records, an Australian label that happens also to release a lot of big-time American indie rock (Spoon, the Shins, Joanna Newsom, Okkervil River, et al). The EP made it to the U.S. late in 2009, and the band itself arrived for the first time this spring and is currently touring here. MP3 via Spinner.

"Heart to Tell" - the Love Language
     This one also begins with an acoustic guitar riff, but an entirely different kind that goes in an entirely different, happy-shuffly Shins-meet-the-Left-Banke direction. A brisk slice of indie pop sparkle.
     Attentive visitors may recall the Love Language from "Lalita," a song featured here last May that ended up on the year-end "Fingertips Favorites" list. "Heart to Tell" likewise swings on a pronounced one-two rhythm, but with a gentler vibe than "Lalita." This time around the band has jettisoned the distorted vocals and funneled its penchant for harsh guitars into one short--but memorable--instrumental break. Also jettisoned this time around, in fact, is the band itself--Raleigh-based master mind Stuart McLamb has let go of the four or five or six others (reports varied) who last time functioned as the Love Language, now doing the mad genius thing by himself, aided and abetted by producer BJ Burton. The end result is a less lo-fi Love Language, but no less loose and energetic.
     "Heart to Tell" is from the Love Language's forthcoming Merge Records debut, Libraries, slated for a July release. MP3 via the fine folks at Merge.

"Lemonade" - CocoRosie
     Ah, CocoRosie: I do not know what planet these two women live on but it is surely a richer and more exotic place than the one the rest of us inhabit. Or maybe it's just that they inhabit a far greater percentage of this planet than most of us do, being quite the globe-trotting pair of sisters. This new album of theirs alone was recorded in Buenos Aires, Paris, Berlin, New York, and Melbourne. Good thing this was before the volcano.
     Fortunately, you do not have to understand what they are trying to do, or why, to find yourself captivated by this gentle but invigorating song. A soothing, chime-filled opening measures leads to a lovely piano line, alternating major and minor arpeggios, and the tender but haltingly sung verse. Not sure if it's Sierra or Bianca here but the phrasing is odd and the words are odder, offering images but no discernible story. A fat synth joins in, and some horns, which play in slow motion but lead to the jaunty, double-time chorus, enlivened now by some deep, rubbery drums. Lyrical clues now tell us we are in childhood memory territory, but there's still no narrative, just image-moments, and a magic realism sort of sensibility ("Shot a rabbit from the backseat window"?). But with the Casady sisters, given their unusual, itinerant childhood, this could all be a simple tale of a family outing. I'm not sure I'd've wanted to be there, but I do love hearing about it.
     "Lemonade" is from the duo's new album, Grey Oceans, which is coming out next month on Sub Pop Records. MP3 via Sub Pop.

April 13, 2010

"Brother" - Color of Clouds
     With a hint of glitch seasoning its spry intimacy, "Brother" is the work of a band with a gift for uncomplicated complexity, if that phrase makes any sense. Great pleasures await here in straightforward juxtapositions. For one immediate example, listen to how the beat glides seamlessly from a chime-like electronic stutter into a cozy 4/4 with a wistful bounce, driven by the gentlest of drumbeats. And then, without fuss, enters singer Kelli Scarr, arriving as if she'd been here all along, starting the story just about in mid-sentence, in tones of bittersweet honey. She has us at hello.
     And things only get better from here in a song blending the acoustic and electronic in a most gracious manner--the instrumental palette here is nothing short of delightful--and building towards a brilliant, light-footed chorus. I still can't tell if that's some sort of steel guitar in there or a nuanced synthesizer, but those are definitely stringed instruments that arrive for a first visit at 0:57, returning with the chorus to mesh almost heart-breakingly with that steel-guitar-ish sound and, most nimbly, that subtle persistent electronic glitch in the beat. And yes I'm afraid this is one of those songs that's far more trouble to describe than to listen to. Rest your eyes and reward your ears with repeated listens.
     All three band members were previously in the electronic band Moonraker, and Scarr has also been a frequent collaborator with Moby. "Brother" is a song from the debut Color of Clouds album, Satellite of Love, released digitally this week via Stuhr Records.

"World Sick" - Broken Social Scene
     Harboring as many as 19 people in its fold, the veteran Canadian ensemble Broken Social Scene is one of those loosely organized "collectives" that the indie rock scene has often favored. But on its first album in five years, Forgiveness Rock Record, set for release next month, the group was prepared to act more like a stripped-down (for them) six-man band, largely because of difficulties getting everyone together to record. And so the six prime movers--led by co-founders Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning--did the writing and arranging; but in the end, go figure, pretty much everyone showed up after all, including Amy Millan and Evan Cranley from Stars, Emily Haines and Jimmy Shaw from Metric, Leslie Feist, and some 15 others. It just can't be a BSS record without a crowd.
     "World Sick" is the album's lengthy opening track, an almost seven-minute composition with the big bashy sound of an anthem, the unhurried development of a prog-rock opus, and an itchy-echoey ambiance that stitches its ambitions together. The band is guitar-heavy (four of the core six are guitarists) but uses its instrument of choice judiciously. What we get is nothing like the muddy, canceling-out effect of those silly rock-celebrity gatherings when they bring nine guitarists on stage to celebrate someone's birthday and you can't hear any of them. Here, it's all about dynamics, about presenting an effective spectrum of sounds from soft to loud, from individual notes to chords, from melodic lines to crashing walls of noise. And while I'm normally not too keen on long instrumental outros, I don't mind this one, both for its subtle interplay of guitar and rhythm and nature sounds and for the thematic statement it makes in the context of its somewhat inscrutable but obviously world-weary lyrics.
     Forgiveness Rock Record is due out next month on the Toronto-based Arts & Crafts label. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

"Boyfriend" - Colleen Brown
     "Boyfriend" marches to a big, retro, triplet-driven beat, delivering a vibe that's part girl-group theatrics, part Dusty Springfield-style R&B, part something elusive and (dare I say it?) new.
     This is in fact a quality that strikes me again and again about Canadian musicians, if I may generalize (and I assume positive generalizations are somewhat less irritating than negative generalizations!): their capacity for drawing upon influences without either drowning in them or negating them through archness and irony. Here, Edmonton-based singer/songwriter Colleen Brown--with a slightly dusky voice, some sly lyrics, and an easy way with a time-shifting melody--has built a song and a sound clearly grounded in the past while managing, at the same time, to resist painting herself into a history-centric corner. I'm not exactly sure how this works up there north of the border but I appreciate it every time I hear it. In any case, "Boyfriend," with its driving stomp and gleeful vocal energy, is very much a winner in the here and now.
     You'll find the song on Brown's second solo album, Foot in Heart, which was re-released last month by Dead Daisy Records, an independent label run by Canadian singer/songwriter Emm Gryner. The album had been previously self-released in 2008. Brown has also recorded as a part of a duo called the Secretaries. MP3 via Spinner.

April 7, 2010

"Bicycle (Take So Long)" - Stanley Ross
     "Bicycle" is fetchingly slow and swingy in a way that tips its hat to bygone stylings such as doo-wop and torch songs and the Rolling Stones trying to do country. And yet the music is at the same time entirely un-nostalgic--it is performed simply, without affect, with a grounding organ line, some nice back-porch guitar work, and a winning smidgen of idiosyncrasy in the guise of Nick Meiers' slightly neurotic (I mean that in a good way) tenor. None of this would work, I don't think, with a more straightforward singer. But Meiers has an edgy voice that gives the impression of being more wavery than it actually is, an effect that--I like to imagine--is being generated by his shaking his head so deeply in time to the music's slow-burning groove that he's sometimes missing the microphone. This is no doubt an inaccurate conjecture but I'll stick with it anyway.
     Stanley Ross is another one of those "hm; is this a person taking on a stage name or is this a band?" acts. Press material is shifty on the matter. I do know that Meiers, the Chicago-based front man and singer/songwriter, has himself called Stanley Ross his "band," and the Facebook page lists three "members" so let's stick with band. In any case, "Bicycle (Take So Long)" is a song from Stanley Ross's third release, an EP called MN-EP, which follows two previous full-length albums. The EP is out this week and may be downloaded in its entirety for free via the netlabel RockProper.com.

"La Marcha" - Making Movies
     Crisp and crunchy Spanish-language, Latin-spiked rock'n'roll from...Kansas City, somehow. I'll take it from wherever; to my ears, Latin rhythms are a natural for rock'n'roll--we haven't over the years heard nearly enough of them in any sort of mainstream way (whether mainstream mainstream or, as it were, indie mainstream).
     "La Marcha" vigorously exploits the dynamics of a style of music called cumbia, which is known for melding a lopsided rhythm to a steady 4/4 beat. Get this one going and check out how easily your body wants to keep the beat even as the music itself seems to snake and sway in and around but never, it seems, directly on that same beat. One of the delights of that group-sung grunt (first heard at 0:10) is how precisely on the beat it is, compared to almost everything else that emerges from the drums and guitars. I also like how effectively the band works a slightly distorted rhythm guitar sound, straight from the rock'n'roll textbook, into the chorus, and how it leads with the Latino chord changes in a gratifying way. Don't miss, also, when the band drifts seamlessly into a salsa montuno (you may not know what that is but you'll hear it) for an instrumental rave-up at 1:56.
     "La Marcha" can be found on the album In Dea Speramus, which the quartet self-released last month. The album, by the way, was pretty much recorded live, vocals and instruments together in real time--yet another reason this song has so much energetic allure.

"Wire Wire" - Jen Olive
     A swirly, heady stew of loop-addled undulating (I stand corrected) acoustic guitar and shimmering layers of vocals, "Wire Wire" feels rich and complex while still offering the simple pleasure of a good melody, smartly delivered. While comparisons are at once inevitable and instructive--Björk meets Jane Siberry meets Juana Molina is one way to conceive of her sound--I am enchanted by the head-turning newness of the end result. Olive writes outside the box of the beat, floating the melodic line in the verse like elusive tinsel that decorates the tree without touching the branches. The warm sturdiness of the short chorus becomes all the more delectable, almost mysteriously so; she sings, "I could get/Lost in it/No regret," to a straightforward melody that out of context might not strike your ear and yet here hooks and nourishes in a wonderful, almost uncanny way.
     I have no idea how someone could conceive of writing this sort of song and it may well be because no one person did; it turns out that Warm Robot, Olive's new album, is the product of a unique collaboration between the singer/songwriter and Andy Partridge, who personally signed her to his Ape House Records label. (The XTC front man has called Olive "this astounding allegro algorithm from Albuquerque.") She recorded the basic tracks--guitar and voice and some idiosyncratic percussion sketches made on found objects like kids' blocks and wine bottles--and Partridge arranged and enhanced to create the final songs. The two didn't meet face to face until the album was already finished.
     The Ape House blog by the way has a two-part podcast online featuring the entire album with track-by-track commentary by Olive, worth checking out if you have time.

March 24, 2010

"Loxtep" - Annuals
     Fingertips veterans from Raleigh, Annuals have been featured three previous times over the past four years and somehow are still only in their early 20s. I promise at some point to stop pointing out how young they are. But geez, just listen to the conviction with which they render their exuberant, unusually structured, complex yet relentlessly attractive 21st-century rock'n'roll. I need to keep noting their relative youth because otherwise you'd never know.
     "Loxtep" is another shot of Annuals adrenaline, and if it again features a characteristic shift in dynamics, note how this pliable sextet continues to explore different ways to affect that shift. This time, it's not a straightforward matter of going from soft to loud, or slow to fast; instead, when the band crosses the dynamic borderline, at 1:08 (and can't you sense it coming, as it gets closer?), the tempo does not increase, and while the volume does to an extent, the song isn't as much louder after the change as deeper, and more intense. Basically, the rhythm section has kicked in, both drum and bass adding bottom to the mix that wasn't there before (the most significant percussion we heard in the first minute was, charmingly enough, castanets). But at the same time, strange stuff is happening, such as that funky-sounding synth joining in (1:21) apparently for the fun of it.
     I won't begin to try to untangle further "Loxtep"'s structure--which features among other things a series of musical reconfigurations of previously heard motifs--except to point out how, at around 3:05, the song manages to turn something that wasn't the chorus (namely, the lyrical phrase beginning with "lying around") into a sort of second, de facto chorus. Here's a band that is truly reimagining what a pop song can be even as you can still sing and dance along. "Loxtep" is from Sweet Sister, a five-song EP the band will release next month on Banter Records. MP3 via Banter.

"Oh, The Divorces!" - Tracey Thorn
     Just the sort of lovely, bittersweet song that Tracey Thorn, known best as half of Everything But the Girl, seems born to sing. A Jacques Brel-like waltz with both pathos and humor, minimally scored with piano and strings, "Oh, The Divorces!" deftly captures the exquisite sorrow of marital demise, viewed from that stage in life when one's friends begin to break up, in seeming droves. "Who's next?/Who's next?" she sings at the outset. "Always the ones that you least expect."
     The nicely sculpted lyrics are a particular treat, and not just because they emerge from Thorn's dusky yet velvety alto, although that doesn't hurt. At once matter-of-fact and ever so slightly sly, some of the words shine with almost Sondheimian savvy ("And this one is different/And each one of course is/And always the same/Oh, the divorces"). There's something gratifyingly grown-up about this song--from the wise, hurt depth of Thorn's singing to the wistful (and yet also sometimes almost ironic) bowing and plucking of the violins--and those rock'n'rollers who persist in championing loud and aggressive music as the only legitimate means of expression are so incredibly missing the boat I'm beginning to feel sorry for them, rather than annoyed. (Although I'm still pretty annoyed. Essay to follow. But read Azzerad's first if you haven't.)
     "Oh, The Divorces!" is the lead single from Thorn's upcoming Love and Its Opposite, slated for a May release on Merge Records. MP3 via Merge. This is her second solo record since EBTG went on hiatus in '02. Thorn remains married to band mate Ben Watt--happily, one hopes.

"Sweetness" - Air Waves
     Lord knows I don't think of Fingertips as me sharing playlists with the world (um, see essay), but I have to say I entirely love how the three songs this week interlock musically. In particular, check out the strummy warmth of the intro here and how welcome it feels after the swaying sadness of Thorn's tune. (And how perfect, somehow, that we first get that solitary drum beat, which functions as an instant head-clearer.)
     Front woman Nicole Schneit is another alto, but hers is a different instrument than Thorn's--a fuzzy, plainspoken, lo-fi voice, happy to get almost but not quite lost in the mix, happy to deliver a sing-song melody over a rumbling, chugging, two-chord accompaniment. I keep listening for a third chord but I don't think they get there, and it goes to show you how far a snappy melody and some good innocent instrumental energy will take you in a pop song...along with, okay, some "oo-oos" and other oddities in the background, including maybe bird noises. At least I think those are bird noises.
     Air Waves is a Brooklyn-based trio founded by Schneit; the name comes from a Robert Pollard song and is definitively two words, not one. To date the band has released one EP--in 2008, on Catbird Records; "Sweetness" is a new song, released on a compilation Winter Review 2010 disc put out in December by the label Underwater Peoples. The band has recently added a fourth member; a full-length album is expected later this year.

March 16, 2010

"Song For Dreaming" - Judson Claiborne
     A pleasantly droopy piece of Americana-flavored indie rock, with a sharp sense of melody and nicely integrated guitar work. Not only do the acoustic and electric guitars play beautifully in and around each other--the ear even loses track, somehow, of which is which at some points--but the lead electric lines are central to the song's development. You don't hear a lot of that kind of instrumental integration these days--what we hear instead all too often is a lot of what might be called instrumental hipsterism, when sounds are used merely to be unusual--and it lends something deep and timeless to this casually-paced song.
     Judson Claiborne is a stage name adopted by the singer/songwriter Chris Salveter, of Chicago, who previously sang and played guitar for the band Low Skies. But the name also seems, maybe, to have turned into the band's name; half the material I find online refers to Judson Claiborne as a band, an impression aided by current press material showing five people in a photo labeled Judson Claiborne. In any case, it's Salveter up front, singing a melody with wistful leaps that accentuate both the warmth and idiosyncrasies of his informal, slightly quivering voice. He's got a touch of Jim James in there, a touch of Roy Orbison even, for crying out loud, but he never goes too far, always retreats into seeming more like a guy who happened to wander up to a microphone and who's happy just to play guitar than any kind of self-styled crooner.
     The pseudonym and/or band name by the way comes from combining a first name his father had wanted to name him (his mother: nope, "too redneck") and a last name from ancestors on his father's side of the family. "Song For Dreaming" is from Time and Temperature, slated for release next month on La Société Expéditionnaire, a Pennsylvania-based label. MP3 via La Soc. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

"Someday" - Ceremony
     Ever since My Bloody Valentine there have been no shortage of bands choosing to wallop our ears with washes of noisy guitars while teasing those same ears with muffled vocals, but not enough of them--either in the original shoegaze era or in its current "neo" phase--have bothered mixing a strong melody into the sonic assault. The duo calling themselves Ceremony, on the other hand, while making themselves inaccessible Googlistically speaking, have decided to put the "pop" back into noise pop.
      Springing from the same Fredericksburg, Virginia trio--Skywave--that ended up giving birth to NYC's A Place to Bury Strangers, Ceremony are loud, no question. But right away see how they take the noisy, rapid-fire beat and use it to as a framework for a melody both leisurely and tuneful. The first hint we get is the lilting--in fact, rather Cure-like--instrumental theme that emerges from the beat at 0:16. That's an ear-friendly hook before the singing even starts. The vocals, when they arrive, are buzzy but not buried; you can not only understand a good number of words, but the singer--either Paul Baker or John Fedowitz (both are listed with the exact same credits: vocal, guitar, bass, drum machine)--sings like he wants to be heard; he's got a portentous baritone, but he enunciates, while singing a catchy little tune when all is said and done. Rather audacious of him, especially on a song with this straightforward refrain: "Take my heart and my life/'Cause someday you'll be my wife." Borrowing a bit from a recent post by Michael Azzerad, one might argue that in a loud and angry age such as ours, using this particular aural toolbox to deliver an unironic, non-violent message of love and connection is more subversive than any effort to be just noisy.
     "Someday" was released on a 7-inch single in January, and will appear on Ceremony's debut second full-length album, Rocket Fire, to be released next month. Both releases are on Killer Pimp Records, which also hosts the MP3. Thanks yet again to the indefatigable Largehearted Boy for the head's up.

"Liza" - Emily Jane White
     "It's not my job to create happy music," says Emily Jane White, a San Francisco-based singer/songwriter. "I'm okay with that." This may be a tricky stance to maintain for a long career, but you and I can be okay with that too for now if the end result is something as lovely, stark, and textured as "Liza." Sure, there's surface-level sadness in the air, but the music, while reasonably simple, offers an enticing depth of sound and spirit right from the outset. The introduction alone is mysteriously satisfying, with its evocative blend of picked electric guitar and violin, and that repeat musical line at the finish, which makes me feel like I've just heard an entire story in 24 seconds.
     Certainly White's subtly toasted alto is well-suited to the "not happy" vibe, but I'm actually enjoying more her phrasing and delivery than her tone. It's not too hard to sound gloomy; it's hard to sound interesting while also sounding gloomy. I like her off-handed delivery, the way she manages to sound like she's just deciding what to sing as she sings it, rather than reciting lyrics committed to memory--a particular feat in a song featuring not many lyrics in the first place. And why does the abrupt entrance of the drumming, at 1:51, sound like precisely the thing that needed to be there? Curious. The first verse, re-sung, is transformed by that insistent drum beat, which soon drives the violins into a double-time swirl, creating the feeling of a chase through the woods. The subsequent slowdown (2:56) is likewise sudden but somehow wonderful. We hear the first verse yet again. And that repeat finishing line from the introduction gets an extra repeat at the end of the song, exactly as required.
     "Liza" is from White's second full-length, Victorian America, set to be released next month on Milan Records. MP3 via Pitchfork.

March 9, 2010

"Modern Drift" - Efterklang
     Beginning with compelling, quasi-minimalist piano lines, structured around two related melodic motifs, and brilliantly integrating strings and horns with electronics and percussion, "Modern Drift" is more composition than song. Consider this a good thing--a way of bringing some of classical music's attractive complexity into pop music's attractive brevity. Everybody wins. We just have to work on the fact that they only seem to be able to do this sort of thing in Scandinavia.
     I suggest listening to this song four or five times in a row just to let it begin to make sense in a wordless way. But if you want some handholds through the process, I recommend keeping an ear on each instrument that makes an entrance after the original piano lines--the percussion, guitar, strings, horns, and electronics. Each interacts with the underlying piano spine in a particular way, and each will come front and center in the piece at a particular time--for instance, the way the guitar begins a complementary echo of the piano at 1:28, or the very satisfying horn punctuation we begin to hear at 1:47. And listen how the strings step forward at 2:27 and create an unexpected bridge to the electronics that start at 2:45, which in turn offer a beepier version of original piano line, but now it sounds like this is home, this is where it was leading. And then the electronics withdraw and leave the unusual--but, somehow, quite natural-sounding--combination of strings and drums to bring this dexterous and affecting piece to a close. Pay attention and you'll also hear the guitar and piano return with background support.
     Efterklang is a quartet from Copenhagen that has been active since 2001. The name is a Danish word that means both "reverberation" and "remembrance." (Grieg, a Norwegian, once wrote a lyric piece for the piano called "Efterklang.") "Modern Drift" is the opening track from the band's third full-length album, Magic Chairs, which was released last month on the British label 4AD. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.

"Deny All" - Bettie Serveert
     Moving into their 20th year together, the Dutch band Bettie Serveert may at long last be outlasting the "college rock" tag they earned as a proto-indie band in the mid-'90s. In any case, when their new album, Pharmacy of Love, is released later this month, they will have released more albums in the 21st century than they did in the 20th. So the time is ripe for listening to this engaging, not-quite-place-able-sounding band with new ears. It's not 1995 anymore in any possible way that I can think of.
     "Deny All" presents the Betties at their fastest and crunchiest. Guitarist Peter Visser couldn't be having a better time, combining searing lead lines with exuberantly squonky chords--one moment barely choked out, another fraying with dissonance. Leave it, however, to the fetching Carol van Dyk to distract us rather unfairly from Visser's heroics. The Canadian-born, Netherlands-raised singer has always helped to give the band a subtly inscrutable sound; moving to Amsterdam at age seven, she apparently never quite mastered a native Dutch accent but didn't grow up speaking English as a North American either. If you don't listen carefully you might not notice anything unusual but then again, given that lucid voice of hers, at once bright and dreamy, why aren't you listening carefully?
     "Deny All" leads off Pharmacy of Love, the band's ninth album, due out this month on Second Motion Records. MP3 via Second Motion. Bettie Serveert was previously featured on Fingertips in December 2003 and January 2005 (the latter appearance still has a free and legal MP3 available, the very appealing "Attagirl," so check that one out if you have the time).

"The Ballad of Cherry Hill" - Steve Goldberg and the Arch Enemies
     Wistful-cheerful blast of horn-peppered indie pop. When last we left Steve Goldberg, in 2007, he was a graduating college senior in Pittsburgh who recorded an album as a senior project with a revolving-door cast of fellow students. He has since come east to Philadelphia, pared the basic outfit down to four, and continues doing business as the Arch Enemies.
     While the basic sound remains intact--he comes across as a more extroverted version of Sufjan Stevens--the production value has improved, which has given his voice more depth and the music more oomph. I like that he has bothered to create two complete musical themes that are independent of the song's eventual melodies--these are the first two things we hear in the introduction (the pizzicato strings theme, then the horn section theme). One of the pleasing things about the song, then, becomes listening for how and when these themes recur, woven back into or between the primary melodies. (Even if you don't realize this is pleasing your ear, honest, it is.) Another perhaps unconsciously pleasing characteristic is the juxtaposition of downcast lyrics (here painting a scene of suburban alienation) and upbeat music. This itself is not an uncommon trick in pop music, but I like how Goldberg manages to bleed the two moods into each other a bit, thus further complicating the song's complexion--the lively music somehow lifting the words beyond mere despair even as the words simultaneously lend a bittersweet air to the music.
     "The Ballad of Cherry Hill" is from the band's four-song EP Labyrinths, which was self-released in January. Inspired by stories by Jorge Luis Borges, the EP is available for a price of your choosing, with no minimum, via the band's site. Thanks to Steve personally for the MP3.

March 3, 2010

"Flagship" - Jump Into The Gospel
     At once prickly and resounding, "Flagship" shows that even in 2010 there somehow remains a recognizable New York City rock-band sound. Certainly things have gotten more convoluted and diverse since the days you could trace a clear line from the Velvets to the New York Dolls to Television and the Ramones and Patti Smith, and the 21st-century alone has spawned a wide-ranging new generation of New York rockers (and note that "New York City band" does not equal "Brooklyn band," even though Brooklyn is of course part of New York City; anyone from New York knows this intuitively). And yet, as Jump Into The Gospel demonstrates, New York City rock endures, has a distinct vibe, and will apparently survive until the day the internet, because there's so much music here--and so much interaction and so much sharing and so much you-too-can-be-a-musician--kills music altogether. (And when that happens I suspect the New York bands will be the last to go.)
     So what sounds like New York here? Front man Louis Epstein, for one, all nasally and insistent and yet also edgily vulnerable. Second, the tick-tock beat, which functions just as well during the minimalist verse as it does during the expansive chorus, and is the sound of Manhattan's street grid, and timed traffic lights, and the unstoppable flow of pedestrians immune to the buses and taxis hurtling by. And then, New Yorkiest of all, for no reason I can articulate, that place in the chorus where the melody takes a further step down than you might initially anticipate (first heard at 0:29, on the third syllable of "situation." (Bonus points: the drummer's name is Chris Stein, the previous Chris Stein being Blondie's co-founder/guitarist/songwriter. Such a good NYC rocker's name it's been recycled.)
     "Flagship" is from the band's debut, four-song digital EP; all four songs are available for free at the band's site. Thanks to Some Velvet Blog for the head's up.

"Politics in Space" - Kate Miller-Heidke
     This has nothing to do with NYC, and maybe little to do with Planet Earth. A classically trained soprano, Australia's Miller-Heidke took a left turn out of the conservatory and didn't look back; she traces her musical lineage not geographically but aesthetically, and maybe even psychologically. Artists like Lene Lovich and Kate Bush and Björk come to mind once Miller-Heidke turns herself loose, and the process of singing becomes intertwined with something resembling performance art.
     But the cool thing is none of this is remotely ponderous--wacky, humorous, and cheeky, yes, but not ponderous. (Listen to how she briefly puts her "conservatory voice" to use--around 1:04--and you'll see how cheeky.) Musically, the song hues to a deliberate beat, with relatively austere accompaniment--there's a rubbery bass, a deep drum beat, a simply strummed acoustic guitar, hand claps, and not much else--except, that is, for the backing vocals. Turns out this song is all about the backing vocals, pretty much. ("Pretty much.") Follow them all the way through and you're in for a smile or two.
     Miller-Heidke has had hit records in Australia, and also reaped praise last year for her performance in Sydney of Jerry Springer: The Opera. Previously featured on Fingertips in 2005, she has not had any music released in the U.S., until now. (Although some may know her from the live-recorded song "R U Fucking Kidding Me? [The Facebook Song]," which has had some viral success on the social media circuit.) Curiouser, an album originally released in Australia in October '08 (and actually recorded in Los Angeles), will be released here this month on SIN/Sony Australia. Thanks very much to Victoria, at Muruch, for the lead.

"I Will Live On Islands" - Josh Rouse
     I've had this song in the listening pile for a few weeks and maybe it's the (finally) receding snow that has allowed me to open my ears and enjoy this merry, warm-weather-inflected bit of lovingly crafted faux Latin pop. Perhaps I didn't quite realize how aggravating the song was previously making me, its breezy narrator imagining his imminent escape to island living. No matter the narrator is literally in prison; the metaphor hit home (Seriously: "I want to see some green/Get me out of this place").
     But spring appears to be springing, however slowly. It'll be May before all the parking lot piles melt around here but grass is at long last visible and this week I'm charmed by Rouse's bright, Paul Simonesque romp. And I at long last listened closely enough to understand that the point is the guy's infectious optimism, not his present confines. Should've featured the tune weeks ago. Anyway, musically, yes, the echoes of Simon are clear and, even, are emphasized by the singing voice Rouse adopts. (Listen to the way he sings the word "convicted" at 0:35--that's an homage, no way it's not.) But let's of course remember that Paul Simon himself was borrowing existing styles and rhythms, and Rouse, a transplanted American who has lived in Spain for five years, knows the original sources very well by now himself. If you want to see just how well, check out the Spanish-sung "Valencia," which has been quietly available as a free and legal download via Vanity Fair since the fall.
     Both songs are from the album El Turista, which is set for release next week on Yep Roc Records. The "I Will Live On Islands" MP3 is via Spinner.

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