“Power to Change” – the Black & White Years

Perhaps there has always been a fine line in music between the idiosyncratic and the gimmicky, but I’m guessing never more so than here in the 21st century–an age in which worldwide musical genres are a mouse-click away, and a multi-million-dollar recording studio is no longer required to manipulate sound. And so, these days, bands can rather too easily seem the contrived result of combining, oh, say, South African music with an Upper West Side sensibility. For instance. Idiosyncrasy or gimmick?

The only way to tell, as far as I can see, is to do exactly what the music critics (and bloggers) almost never do: just listen, and stop thinking (and talking) so much. Take “Power to Change,” which bops and rolls to a ska-inflected, electronic-infected beat, guided by a split-personality vocalist who mashes glam-rock theatrics with jamband-style acrobatics. Whether this sounds in words like something I would enjoy is irrelevant; whether the music itself violates some or another “rule” about this genre or that one, also irrelevant. Relevant alone is the incisive, assured movement of the song, its engagingly crunchy vibe, its wistful good humor, and oh so cagey production.

For probably most of that we have producer Jerry Harrison to thank. Stripped-down-simple only does so much for me, usually; I definitely do not mind detecting the presence of an honest-to-goodness producer. Among many spiffy touches, I love the echoey electronics with which he layers Scott Butler’s vocals (particularly beginning at 1:44), and am tickled by the instrumental breaks Harrison (I assume) inserted into the song–check out the offbeat keyboard-like guitar (or guitar-like keyboard?) at 1:37, and the squonky guitar solo at 3:14. Harrison–a former Talking Head and Modern Lover–heard the Black & White Years at last year’s SXSW festival (the band is itself from Austin, in fact) and shortly thereafter whisked them off to produce their album in his Bay Area studio. That self-titled CD has just been released on Brando Records, a tiny Texas label. That’s where you’ll find “Power to Change,” while the MP3 is via SXSW; the band, not surprisingly, is returning to the festival this month. No longer in need of a producer.

“Drops in the River” – Fleet Foxes

“Drops in the River” is characterized by an aural depth of space not often heard in a rock’n’roll setting. Listen quickly and you might say, “Okay, sure, reverb, and a tenor–it’s Band of Horses, it’s My Morning Jacket.” But do yourself and the music a favor and attend more carefully. If so, you might hear how the Seattle-based quintet Fleet Foxes transforms reverb from a production strategy to a three-dimensional experience–via vocal harmony, percussion, and eccentric instrumentation, the band creates a vast, stone-vaulted sort of space in which one might picture monks, choirs, and thick white dripping candles.

Then again, on the band’s own MySpace page, they conclude, after attempting to describe their sound, “Not much of a rock band.”

The unusual accompaniment arrives right away: check out those Eastern-sounding stringed things we hear before anything else; they also arise intermittently throughout, as if from some ancient cranny. When the singing starts, it comes in multiple layers of vocal harmony–an unusual touch at the beginning of a pop song. From its soft and deliberate start, “Drops in the River” eventually offers up an impressive dynamic range, taking us on adventures in tempo and volume and instrumental involvement during its engaging four-plus minutes, sometimes turning on a dime in interesting and effective ways–for instance, the downshift from that clanging guitar that starts at around 2:00 into the subdued percussive section that begins at 2:18. And listen, in fact, to that clangy guitar and how it sounds like something one might in fact play in a large, dark, maybe a little damp cathedral. Along with some Eastern-sounding stringed things no doubt. “Drops in the River” is a song from the band’s Sun Giant EP, due out on Sub Pop in April. MP3 courtesy of Paper Thin Walls.

“One, Two, Three!” – I Make This Sound

Happy music from a band with a happy-sounding name. But it’s interesting-happy, not sappy-happy. Listen, first of all, to how the band takes the song’s basic three-beat measure and distorts it, via a jumpy piano refrain, hopping between the beats, to sound as if it must be some altogether new and different time signature. But, no, you can use the song’s title to count the beats: one, two, three, one, two, three. Lead singer Jonathan Price has a warm, pleasing (dare I say happy?) voice, and the way the female backing vocalists offer staccato punctuation between verses is another cheerful touch.

But there’s a “dark” section too, and how many peppy pop songs bother to do that? See how the time signature shifts to 4/4 at around 1:30 and then into, maybe, actually, some new and different time signature after all, because I can’t parse the section from 1:40 to 1:56 in any standard way. Then there’s a nicely resolving 4/4 section at 1:57 before we return, at 2:11, to the cheerful rhythm of the opening verse, complete with those perky background singers singing a countervailing melody.

I Make This Sound is from Los Angeles and there are seven people in the band, so my goodness, they’d better be pretty happy or they would probably be really miserable. There’s a lot of potential for drama there. “One, Two, Three!” is a song from their second EP, entitled Staring at Yourself, which was released in February. MP3 via the band’s site.




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