This Week’s Finds: January 23-29 (Bettie Serveert, Cass McCombs, Engine Down)

“Attagirl” – Bettie Serveert

With a charmingly slinky verse and disarmingly catchy chorus, “Attagirl” might not, still, have succeeded so well without the captivating presence of Carol van Dyk (alternatively spelled Dijk)–the Canadian-born, Netherlands-raised singer who fronts this veteran Dutch band. Rilo Kiley fans take note: Jenny Lewis may yet sound like this (she’s cut from the same cloth), but there are ineffable aspects of tone and timbre that remain out of reach when you’re only in your 20s. From start to finish we are in the hands of a comfortable and confident crew here; I like the scratchy-frenetic guitar in the background, subtly undermining the faux-bossa-nova ambiance, and of course I love that wordless “ohhh” in the bridge, alternating back and forth on a fetching fifth–the song gets expansive and smooth right there in just the right way, with layered vocals and a quivering complement of things being strummed (do I detect a mandolin, even?). This leads into a most excellent chorus, with an urgently sing-songy melody, words that sound, somehow, better as sounds–“Don’t get stuck somewhere in the middle/You’ve paid all your dues and you’re not a second fiddle”–than than they do as a sentiment, and a superb and snazzy off-the-beat finish: the way van Dyk breathes out “Attagirl” at the end is just too cool for words. “Attagirl” is the title track off the band’s new CD, scheduled for release on Minty Fresh records on Tuesday of this week. MP3 via Better Propaganda.

“Sacred Heart” – Cass McCombs

This is the kind of song that convinces me that we are, truly, entering a new golden age of rock’n’roll. And I’m serious. When a 20-something guy like Baltimore’s Cass McCombs can take all his influences (I hear ’80s stuff here–a touch of Smiths, a dollop of New Order, a sprinkle of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark–and then ’60s stuff too, such as his unexpectedly Dylanesque turns of phrase and word selection) and wrap them into something this timeless and thrilling (geez, I find simply the open, vibrating chord that starts the song bizarrely thrilling), and when he is one of many doing this very sort of thing, and yet each differently, here in the middle ’00s, what else to call it? A new golden age. If I’m wrong, at least I’ll go down swinging. In any case, rock has weathered a lot, including being eviscerated by Madison Avenue and shoved off the pop-cultural main stage by hip-hop, but even so there is something timeless at its core. Sure, you have to sort through an incredible amount of nonsense to find it (were there quite so many inept troubadours in the Middle Ages as there are unlistenable singer/songwriters in the Information Age?), but it is here to be found: specifically here with this gentle-urgent vocalist, singing his sweet descending melody with aching assurance; and generally out there, as McCombs is hardly alone on the scene with serious rock’n’roll talent and know-how. “Sacred Heart” is an advance single from his new CD, PREfection, set for release on February 1 on Monitor Records. The MP3 can be found on the Monitor web site. Thanks to the estimable record review site 75 or less for the lead on this one.

“Cover” – Engine Down

It’s very easy to be very loud and very fast; it’s significantly less easy to be not-quite-very loud and not-quite-very fast, and harder still to do so while exhibiting a strong sense of melody and craft. The Virginia-based foursome Engine Down churn up a lot of dust here, but right away I hear plenty to separate this from the output of the many (many) loud and churning bands nowadays filling the web with their MP3s. They know some interesting chords, to begin with, and push us through them right away–you can hear how the whole musical ground shifts and shifts as the melody in the verse progresses. They have a sense of production perspective as well, allowing various elements to flow through the aural center of the song as the piece blazes along–a lead guitar line emerges from the noise here, a nice wall of vocal harmonies there. And to me the great hook is the off-beat delivery in the chorus: singing on the second and fourth beats here (the “Your cover has been blown” line) is an ineffably delightful twist in a hard-driving 4/4 song. Consider it all another vote for experience: Engine Down have been around since 1996; “Cover” comes from the band’s fourth full-length CD, self-titled, released on Lookout Records in August 2004. MP3 via Better Propaganda.

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