“Cat Swallow” – the Royal Bangs

A potent display of ramshackle rock’n’roll that brings the Replacements to mind both for the sloppy-tight ensemble playing and for lead singer Ryan Schaefer’s simultaneously offhanded and passionate voice, which is agreeably Westerbergian. The Bangs aim for a glitchy sort of sound, but only at the very beginning and at the very end are these glitches electronic in nature; otherwise, the band achieves its goals via a squeakily insistent, oddly memorable lead guitar line, cymbals-heavy percussion, the well-timed use of phased vocals, and, eventually, a clickety-clackety sound that might in fact be electronic after all but feels organic even if so. All in all there’s a certain wild grandeur at play as the piece shambles and swings along. I like how a searing instrumental break suddenly finds the band backing off, at 2:44, to offer a wonderfully subdued bit of guitar work that sounds completely different from what they’ve been doing but also, somehow, seamlessly part of the whole.

A quartet from Knoxville that is an outgrowth of Schaefer’s previous band, a trio called the Suburban Urchins, the Royal Bangs have been together since 2004. “Cat Swallow” is from the band’s second CD, We Breed Champions, due out next month on the Akron-based label Audio Eagle, a high-spirited outfit with the unambiguous message “Buy our fucking records!” on its home page.


“To Be Gone” – Anna Ternheim

Sad songs don’t always have to be slow, nor do pretty songs. Both sad and pretty, “To Be Gone” nevertheless moves at a steady, initially slinky, and ultimately almost finger-tapping pace, while Ternheim’s accented but clear and open-hearted singing style suggests, I think, greater pathos in this hardy setting than most singers convey who seek a melancholy ambiance through hushed tones and drowsy pacing. None of that mush for Ternheim here; “To Be Gone” is a firm-footed beauty, combining a keen if ineffable nostalgia with crystalline presence in the here and now. While there does seem to be something very late ’60s- or early ’70s-like going on here, the effect is peripheral–listen directly and it disappears.

At the heart of this song is a gorgeous, melancholic moment in the first line of what appears to be the chorus (although the lyrics shift from one iteration to another): it’s when the melody pushes forward but the chords lag behind, going seemingly in the opposite direction of where your ear seeks resolution. You can first hear this at 0:36 and then again, somewhat more clearly, at 1:13. I can’t completely describe this but the effect of the entire line is almost breathtaking.

Ternheim is from Stockholm, and released her first CD in Sweden in 2004 to great acclaim. “To Be Gone” was available on that CD, and is also now on her first U.S. full-length, Halfway to Fivepoints, coming out next week on Decca Records. The CD features mostly songs from Ternheim’s 2006 Swedish release, Separation Road, along with the older single “To Be Gone” and a few other songs from EPs and/or bonus discs from Sweden.


“Crooked Legs” – the Acorn

Opening with an appealing if unassuming bit of finger-picking, “Crooked Legs” begins like pretty much any 21st-century indie rock song written by someone who listened to a lot of old Paul Simon records (him again!; see last week). Except…listen carefully to the background percussion underneath the acoustic guitar. It’s syncopated, with a distinctly non-rock’n’roll flavor to it. That’s hint number one that this song may not end up where it appears at first to be going.

Hint number two: the trumpets that glide in at 0:48. There is some musical force seeking to enter here from beyond the realm of either standard-issue indie rock or gimmick-driven blog rock. You can hear it come to full expression at 1:09, when the complex, polyrhythmic percussion kicks in and we find ourselves in the middle of a genuine musical adventure. Which is only fitting, given the real-life adventure on which this song (and album) is based. “Part biographical narrative, part surreal fairy tale,” as the band describes it, the CD Glory Hope Mountain was inspired by the harrowing story of Gloria Esperanza Montoya (her name roughly translates to the CD’s title), mother of the Acorn’s singer and songwriter Rolf Klausener. Barely surviving a childhood of poverty and abuse in her native Honduras, Montoya eventually found her way to Montreal without any money or contacts and slowly made a new life for herself.

Writing a concept album about your mother is however not the best way to win over your bandmates, but the power of the story, and the accompanying music, got everyone on board. The Ottawa-based Klausener researched the history and mythology of Honduras, and listened to recordings of the country’s folk music; he became particularly inspired by the rhythms of the Garifuna music indigenous to the area, which developed from a blending of native traditions with music that came over with slaves who arrived from West Africa. The final product was less specifically about Montoya than a dream-like musing on the individual’s struggle to live a meaningful life.

The Acorn began as a solo project but ultimately became a band when Klausener decided that being a bedroom rocker wasn’t all that much fun. There are now five members. Glory Hope Mountain was released on Paper Bag Records in Canada this past fall, and saw its official U.S. release last month. MP3 via Paper Bag Stereogum (but no longer a direct link).




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