“Technology” – the Whigs

Take the crunchy drive of the Strokes but loosen it up, make it sound a little more fun than hip, a little warmer than cooler, and you’ve got a quick sense of this exuberant trio from the semi-legendary indie rock oasis of Athens, Georgia. Just about all I need out of this song is that great barrage of fuzz-toned guitar chords in the intro–I mean, how primal and cool and perfect is that sound? Perhaps lead guitar is overrated after all, when so much dazzling musical force can be channelled through crisp, chord-based pounding. And yet the song hardly stops there, working itself up into two separate hooks—one delivered as those great intro chords return (at 0:30), the other right after that, where the chorus centers on one note (beginning at 0:44) with shifting chords underneath, leading to the line “Technology it needs me.” There are great rock’n’roll precedents for this kind of one-note melody, but two of the monumental examples that occur to me (“Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Pump It Up”) use it in the verse rather than the chorus. Coming here after all the chord-crunching it seems like its own sort of brilliant release. “Technology” is a song off the Whigs’ debut CD, Give ’em All a Big Fat Lip, which was self-released last year, then re-released in September by ATO Records. The MP3 is via the ATO Records site.

“Too Many Pictures” – the Sheds

Listening to “Too Many Pictures,” I develop a theory on the spot: it’s hard to be quirky and nice at the same time, musically speaking. Usually something that’s quirky involves a prickliness of one kind or another–maybe some unusual vocals and/or lyrics, some challenging sounds, or at the very least some jarring twists and turns in the overall musical structure. To sound “nice,” on the other hand typically involves a significant amount of both prettiness and gentleness. So, yes—hard to be jarring and soothing simultaneously. One would think. But here come the Sheds, a duo from Kentucky that is more than happy to oblige. How do they do it? Well, clearly having a flowing melody and gentle instrumentation helps (as do those perky “ba-ba-ba” backing vocals). So the niceness is right up front. Whereas the quirkiness is subtler, based in the band’s lo-fi vibe, disarmingly unaffected vocals, and naked-seeming lyrics. “My family has a history of cancer/Addictive personalities/A tendency for excess intake/And our hearts are big”: that’s awfully quirky writing. And yet maybe here they’ve figured out where the quirky and the nice can overlap after all—in poignancy. Most of all, this song is poignant, as the narrator, rigorously honest with himself, describes his (quirky!) human need for the cigarettes he knows he shouldn’t smoke, singing a melody which takes plaintive, almost unplanned-sounding turns, sometimes upwards and sometimes downwards. “Too Many Pictures” is from the band’s recently self-released CD, The Sheds Quit Smoking, and all the songs do in fact have something to do with smoking. The MP3 is via the band’s site; as a matter of fact, the entire CD is available there for free and legal download. Thanks to the music blog Each Note Secure for the lead.

“Been Here Before” – Jeremy Enigk

Dreamy, grand, and effortlessly melodic, “Been Here Before” has many graces but to me its most notable achievement is its reclamation of a progressive rock aural vocabulary into a 21st-century pop setting. Enigk’s haunting vocal resemblance to Jon Anderson (Yes, anyone?) is not the only thing that sets off the prog-rock bells in my head (although it helps); there’s also the majestic ambiance (the soaring mountains and spreading valleys of sound), the supple use of 7/4 time, and okay maybe the organ solo too. Whatever happened once upon a time to make progressive rock the whipping boy of critics and music hipsters, who the hell cares anymore. In the hands of a talent like Enigk’s, the music comes across like a revelation. “Been Here Before” is packed with more musical ideas than most musicians realize are possible in a four-minute pop song—a series of fully-formed melodies and structural shifts that flow fluently and beautifully together. Lead singer of the pioneering but oddly controversial ’90s band Sunny Day Real Estate, Enigk more recently headed up the Fire Theft (with two Sunny Day compadres); now he’s got a solo CD coming out, his second. It’s called World Waits and is scheduled for release later this month. “Been Here Before” is the second track on the record.




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