“Striking” – Francis and the Lights

Funky but sleek, with squeally, retro synthesizers, staccato (and super-tight!) guitar lines, and, what solidifies this one for me, a stirring vocal performance from frontman Francis Farewell Starlite, who attractively combines an airy Prince-like falsetto with a Marvin Gaye-like huskiness in his lower register.

For the life of me I can’t figure out how this song actually works so well. There isn’t any traditional song structure here to speak of–instead, we are given an extended musical phrase that works as a free-floating anchor; listen carefully and you’ll see that every lyrical line features some variation of this phrase, if often a truncated variation. The lyrics are equally slippery. Something in Starlite’s restrained but impassioned tone implies the pursuit of love, as do some of the ordinary yet mysterious sentences we hear (“I don’t want to lose you though,” “There’s something in the air tonight”). The edgy, postmodern funk suggests a certain amount of interpersonal heat as well. But your guess is as good as mine. Use on your valentine at your own risk.

Not a lot of info on this young Brooklyn band is available except for the fact that they play around Brooklyn a lot. One notable fact I managed to unearth is that two of the four (or maybe five) members appear to be drummers. “Striking” is the lead track from the debut EP, which is self-released and available as a free and legal download via the band’s ordinary yet mysterious web site.


“Buildings and Mountains” – the Republic Tigers

Here’s a song with everything going for it: ear-opening atmosphere, engaging melody, interesting/familiar vocals, and then the clincher–a killer, in-through-the-back-door hook in the chorus. From beginning to end, the production is gorgeous; I particularly like how the crisp acoustic guitars are blended into the song’s larger, lusher soundscape, which utilizes a wash of wordless background vocals as its own sort of sonic building block. Listen how that high vocal note promotes an almost Morricone-like sense of uneasy loneliness in the long introduction, as well as in the verse.

And that mood in turn sets up the surprise resolution of the chorus, which begins as a fairly straightforward extension of the musical feeling of the verse, before gliding, seemingly a half-moment too soon, into a previously unsuspected major chord–in the phrase “before our eyes” (1:21 the first time), the major chord unfolds onto the word “eyes” (and the set-up chord, on the word “before,” is lovely too). All in all, what we have here is an excellent argument for the timeless value of knowledgeable production, an argument worth restating in a decade that’s been overflowing with do-it-yourself uploaders and their quixotic belief that people will listen to just about anything. A few people will, no doubt. Many many more people would prefer to listen to something well-crafted, well-performed, and thoughtfully assembled. Don’t you kind of want to know that the band took longer to make the song than it takes for you to listen to it?

Expect to hear a lot from this Kansas City quintet, not least because they are the first band signed to Chop Shop Records, the new Atlantic Records imprint run by Alexandra Patsavas. Patsavas, as music supervisor for The O.C. and Grey’s Anatomy (among other shows), can probably take single-handed credit for the emergence of TV as a music-discovery medium. “Buildings and Mountains” was on the band’s debut EP, which was released online in December, and will also be the lead track on the full-length CD, Keep Color, scheduled for release at some as-yet unspecified date in the not-too-distant future.


“Neal Cassady” – the Weather Underground

There’s something brilliant and Clash-like in the air here, as a smart young L.A. quartet sings of the famous Beat Generation figure in a rough-and-tumble musical setting that starts in a loose-limbed lope before shifting, like some lost track from London Calling, into a galloping, wild-west rave-up. And while singer/guitarist Harley Prechtel-Cortez doesn’t sound like Joe Strummer, he kind of still manages to sing like him: rough-hewn heart on the sleeve, lyrics juiced with spittle and passion. And this relatively short, often forceful tune is further enhanced by an arrangement at once casual and expert; touches such as the wordless background vocals (it’s wordless background vocals day!) of the introduction (0:32) and the variety of terrific guitar sounds on display (don’t miss that great untamed slide that gets unleashed during the song’s closing minute) suggest a knowing combination of instinct and craft at work.

The Weather Underground—they take their name from a documentary about the ’60s and ’70s radical organization, The Weathermen—is a group that prompts the musical question: can a band be too smart for its own good? Among “influences” listed on their MySpace page are Jack Keruoac, Luis Bunuel, Werner Herzog, Ingmar Bergman, Bernadine Dorhn, and my favorite, the first one listed, Guillaume Apollinaire, the French surrealist. Me, I say bring it on. If we can get enough bands going like this, maybe we can delay the inevitable demise of reading we’re always being warned about at least one more half-generation. You’ll find “Neal Cassady” on the band’s self-released Psalms and Shanties EP, their second, which came out in the fall of ’07. A third EP has been recorded and awaits release.




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