“Robert J.” – 13ghosts

At one level this is the sort of comfy-sounding, down-home strummy-guitar song that often does not catch my ear. And yet I know there is a variant of this sort of thing that I like, and “Robert J.” from the Birmingham, Alabama-based 13ghosts is a good example of this variant, and I’m sitting and listening and trying my best first to ascertain and then to describe what, to me, separates a non-descript rootsy-country-Americana song from a standout track. The word that arises as I attempt to figure this out is “tension.” A song can sound simple and laid-back and yet be suffused with depth and characte–and tension is what makes all the difference. How, in this case, is that tension achieved? From the start we hear a strikingly plain acoustic guitar, upfront and exposed, no rhythm section, no steel guitar accents, and it strikes me that in this case the slower rather than the faster strum sounds more vulnerable, more real–tenser. Likewise singer Brad Armstrong’s voice, the next thing we hear, has a vulnerable, semi-breaking sort of warmth that adds tension to the sound. Further, we have the melody, which extends beyond the four measures commonly heard with this sort of strummer–the verse instead rambles on through eight measures, and that lengthening, yes, fosters tension. Even as more instruments enter and the pace picks up, everything stays crisp and precise, which is also come to think of it an aspect of the tension. Finally, the lyrics bring it home, telling a concrete yet also elusive tale, the words balancing between the offhand and the profound: “His fingernails were a mess/All the dirt and promises/he’d been clinging to for so long.” “Robert J.” is one of 21 songs on 13ghosts’ sprawling Cicada CD, which was released locally in the fall of 2004; it was reissued for national release on Skybucket Records in late November 2005. The MP3 is available via the Skybucket site.

“Carly (Goddess of Death)” – the Capes

Spiffy energetic Britpop with that great good combination of skill and goofiness that often separates the wheat from the chaff in this particular corner of the rock’n’roll world. From the sharp, appealing guitar riff in the intro, the song successfully blends an almost-but-not-quite dissonant slash into a delightful pillow of a song. And as for that big fat irresistible hook in the chorus, I’m enjoying it even more for its strong echo of the great old Jam (them again!; see last week’s entry) single “Eton Rifles”: consciously or not (and remember, non-U.K. visitors, the Jam was truly a huge huge band in England back in the day), the Capes manage to transform what was a menacing melody into something much warmer and fuzzier, and offer a long-awaited musical resolution to the ominous, open-chorded hook the Jam originally created. And not to harp too often on length, but the fact that this one clocks in under three minutes is to me another sign of pop greatness. “Carly” is a song off the Capes’ debut CD, Hello, released in October on Hard Soul Records. The MP3s is available via the Hard Soul site.

“At Least Like Melissa” – Sara Culler

Sara Culler first came to my attention through her compelling work on David Fridlund’s impressive Amaterasu CD from last year. Apparently she and Fridlund have worked together over there in Sweden for quite a while (she sometimes sang backup vocals with his band David and the Citizens) and are a couple, romantically speaking, as well. Culler has recently started blogging and putting some of her solo songs up online. This is a curious one to be sure, beginning with its off-balance title; Culler is clear to emphasize the “like” and this changes everything doesn’t it–it’s not a comparison anymore, it’s an exhortation, and a somewhat desperate-sounding one if you think about it. The feeling of desperation is borne out both musically and lyrically; the song pivots upon an ongoing interplay between reserve and unhingedness. Me, I’m on board from Culler’s first Sinead O’Connor-like bursts of emotion as she spits out single syllables at the end of the first verse, and how that is immediately followed by an overflow of spilling words in the first line of the chorus. Suppressed violence somehow lurks around the edges here–this isn’t the quiet gentle thing it might seem. Culler as a solo artist is unsigned; the MP3, hosted via the record label that puts Fridlund’s stuff out, is available through her blog.




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