This Week’s Finds: July 4-10 (Martha Wainwright, Surefire, The Album Leaf)

“When the Day is Short” – Martha Wainwright

Brother of Rufus, daughter of Kate (McGarrigle) and Loudon (III), 28-year-old Martha Wainwright has played largely to the side and behind the scenes over the years, singing background vocals on albums by her better-known family members–starting with an appearance as a child on Kate & Anna McGarrigle’s 1983 CD Love Over and Over. As it turns out, however, Martha is a singer/songwriter of spirit and intensity in her own right. While her voice has an appealing McGarrigle-ish waver to it, she sings way closer to the edge than her mother and aunt do, sometimes leaving me breathless at the aural risks she takes. I’ve been waiting to hear more since being captivated by her haunting “Year of the Dragon” on the family-filled McGarrigle Hour CD, released back in 1998. “When the Day is Short” has a lilting beat that belies Wainwright’s not fully restrained vocal and lyrical furiosity. The song comes from a recently-released five-song EP (her third) with the eye-opening, R-rated title (which I will partially disguise, in case anyone might be reading this in a setting where such words might be less than appropriate) Bloody Moth–f–king As–ole; the MP3 is located on Wainwright’s web site.

“Seems to Me” – Surefire

While the production values are indie through and through, the resilient pop virtues of the songwriting here give this one a gratifying sheen and powerful presence. After a few measures of ringing arpeggios, the song hits upon a simple but memorable guitar riff; combine that with the minor-key twist of the Byrds-like melody and I feel gripped and ready for a big melodic payoff. But even as the verse drives forward, the apparent chorus doesn’t quite resolve before the song pulls back. Rather than a payoff the song creates a sneaky sort tension, which is extended after the second verse and chorus by a short instrumental break, followed by a restrained bridge, and then, finally, and well worth the wait, the release: a series of wordless, syncopated, interwoven “oh-oh”s arrive to echo the opening guitar riff. While I’m not always a fan of falsetto singing, the way lead singer Ben Stapelman flits in and out of falsetto as the wordless section repeats against increasingly insistent instrumentation is what gives this assured piece of pop its heart, soul, and dynamic core. Surefire is a NYC-based band; “Seems to Me” comes from its debut EP, Solution. The MP3 can be found on the band’s web site. Thanks to Largehearted Boyfor finding this one.

“On Your Way” – the Album Leaf

I like how this song manages to sound both dreamy and grounded at the same time. Part of the effect is achieved through the use of octave harmonies–ah, yes, more falsetto vocals (did I say I didn’t like them?); when paired with lower-register vocals singing the same notes, the result is captivating. Then there’s the way the tinkly, almost desultory bell-like sounds at the aural top of the song work together with a determined and likable drumbeat below. Finally, note how Jimmy LaValle, the multi-instrumentalist who records as the Album Leaf, mixes an extremely reverb-y synthesizer and melodic bassline into the middle of the sound, out of which both the vocals and percussion emerge, dreamily. And yet grounded. “On Your Way” can be found on the Album Leaf’s recently released CD, In a Safe Place. This is LaValle’s second Album Leaf record, but the first one with any vocals–his previous effort was all instrumental. Although from Southern California, LaValle went to Iceland to record the CD, employing musicians from Sigur Rós and other Icelandic bands to help him achieve his atmospheric sound. The MP3 can be found on the Sub Pop Records site.

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