This Week’s Finds: May 23-29 (Robert Pollard, Ojos de Brujo, Joel R. L. Phelps)

“Their Biggest Win” – Robert Pollard

A quirky blend of the difficult and the catchy, “Their Biggest Win” starts with a series of unadorned electric guitar chords that don’t quite mesh with a time signature; when the drums kick in, the beat appears to regularize, but hold on—when the bass, now, comes aboard the song shifts into yet another beat. Soon it’s time for Pollard’s voice, and even this is cause for a less-than-straightforward listening experience, as he starts off with a lower register sort of growl—I swear he sounds like Ian Dury for a moment or two here. The verse, such as it is, is an interesting series of semi-audible three- and four-syllable phrases that build melodically, rather than repeat. Just as I’m about to throw my hands up at how nothing ties together, suddenly everything ties together as the song bursts forth with a crunchy, sing-along-ish chorus. This time I can hear the words but I still don’t know what he’s saying. But hey, I’ll admit I can’t begin to explain Robert Pollard, long-time mastermind of legendary indie-rock band Guided By Voices. The guy has released about a hundred thousand records over the last 15 years or so, most as GBV, but sometimes as a solo artist. This song comes from a new solo CD called Fiction Man, part of something called the “Fading Captain” series (I have no idea what that’s about). I do know that this is the first CD Pollard has put out since announcing last month that GBV will be splitting up by the end of the year. Which means there’s probably a good three or four GBV CDs to come before then.

“Ventilaor R-80” – Ojos de Brujo

And now for something completely different. I will admit to being someone who appreciates the impact that hip-hop has on other music more than I enjoy the actual hip-hop I’ve heard, at least so far. This may be the melody thing, to begin with–I respond much more deeply to songs that have melodies and musical structure rather than rhythmic structure and a collage-y approach to sound. That said, the rhythmic and sonic innovation introduced to music by hip-hop is clearly a huge reservoir of inspiration for musicians around the world. Perhaps I simply have to get in the back door like this—stumbling upon a band from Barcelona that produces an exotic amalgam of hip-hop, flamenco, dance, and folk. Yeah so I’m really in over my head here, as flamenco is its own universe, full of its own rules and regulations; apparently Ojos de Brujo (which translates, I think, to Wizard Eyes, or something like that) flouts all sorts of conventions in creating their sound. In any case, I’m loving how the musical elements that are so overtly Spanish–the style and substance of the acoustic guitar, the precise flamenco rhythms–manage to work so exuberantly with the elements that derive from hip-hop (the rap-inflected vocals, the so-called “turntablism” effects). “Ventilaor R-80” is a song on the band’s CD Bari, released in Spain in 2002; as released in this country this month, the song has been called “Ventilaor Rhumba.” The MP3 comes from the Flamenco World web site.

“Kelly Grand Forks” – Joel R. L. Phelps & the Downer Trio

Joel R. L. Phelps has an unusual name and a down-to-earth electric guitar sound that’s one part Neil Young, one part…well, someone else. My mind’s not working too effectively this morning. “Kelly Grand Forks” chugs along with an urgent rhythm section tension that helps expand this song beyond the confines of a typical roots-rocker. Another independent singer/songwriter laboring in relative obscurity (it’s big, big world out there of independent singer/songwriters laboring in relative obscurity), Phelps is gifted with a strong, throaty voice that pulls you in when he sings in the middle ranges, then just slays you when he goes for the higher notes. For what appears to be another jilted lover’s tale, this song shows me an unexpected lyrical depth, enhanced by Phelps’ delivery, and the accumlating force of the guitar work. “Kelly Grand Forks” is found on Phelps’ new CD, Customs (12xU/Moneyshot Records). The MP3 comes via the 12xU label site.

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