This Week’s Finds: May 15-21 (Calla, Laura Cantrell, John Vanderslice)

“It Dawned On Me” – Calla

At once driving and atmospheric, “It Dawned On Me” combines a melodic, nearly New Order-like guitar motif and classic rock chord progressions with a dreamy wash of what I can only call beautiful noise–I’m listening and listening and can’t quite figure out what exactly is behind the structure of sound that gives this song such weight and power. Given that two of the band’s three members are credited not only with playing instruments (bass, keyboards, percussion) but also with “programming,” I can only assume that some heavy-duty electronic know-how is partially responsible, but the beauty here is that the overall effect is extremely organic. Guitarist/vocalist Aurelio Valle’s dark, breathy voice has a lot to do with the song’s haunting nature, and, okay, if I can’t help hearing a bit of “Don’t Fear the Reaper”‘s minor-key elegance around the edges here, there’s nothing wrong with that either. “It Dawned On Me” is a song slated to appear on the Brooklyn-based band’s next CD, their fourth, entitled Collisions, scheduled for release this summer. The MP3 is available via the band’s web site.

“14th Street” – Laura Cantrell

Not unlike the kind of sweet, well-crafted singer/songwriter songs Nanci Griffith gathered so effectively on her much-admired Other Voices, Other Rooms CD, “14th Street” is at once breezy and poignant, held together by Cantrell’s startlingly pure, somewhat Griffith-like voice and her admirable capacity to keep the musical focus strong and simple. This song could have taken an indulgent turn, production-wise, in any number of places but is ever held in check by the crystal-clear interaction between acoustic guitar, piano, drum, voice. Cantrell’s decision to exploit the song’s Brill Building roots (check out the sleighbell/drum accent that kicks in at 1:35; I love how the Spector beat is implied without it actively materializing) creates a fetching amalgam of traditional country and traditional pop. Cantrell is a Nashville-born, New York-based musician and radio host (her weekly “Radio Thrift Shop” program can be heard on WFMU) who recorded two highly-acclaimed CDs before quitting her day job at a Manhattan-based financial firm to do music full-time. These sturdy, tradition-minded recordings of hers have attracted a number of notable music-industry fans over the last five years, including Elvis Costello (who picked her to open for him on a number of his 2002 concerts) and the late John Peel, who in 2001 called her first CD “my favourite record of the last ten years and possibly my life.” Written by a Portland, Oregon-based songwriter named Emily Spray, “14th Street” will be the lead track on Cantrell’s new CD, Humming By The Flowered Vine, to be released on Matador Records next month. The CD, as usual for Cantrell, will mix her own songs with traditional songs and songs from other songwriters. The MP3 arrives via the Matador web site.

“Trance Manual” – John Vanderslice

There’s a “Carpet Crawlers”-like sense of gorgeous contemplation underscoring this new tune from the underappreciated Mr. Vanderslice. Pristine without being boring, intricately produced without falling into the kitchen-sink syndrome, “Trance Manual” floats along in its own indelible world; again not unlike Peter Gabriel-era Genesis at their best, Vanderslice offers us lyrical imagery that manages the difficult trick of being both concrete and enigmatic, set against an almost orchestral sense of instrumental diversity. There’s plenty of Vanderslice’s production genius on display this time around, from the insistent chime-like drone that’s never far below the surface to the precise but limited use of flute flourishes to the wonderful way he uses keyboards (I think) to sound like backward guitars to the incredible arrival of pizzicato strings just before the three-minute mark–a truly unexpected and instantly perfect touch. “Trance Manual” has just been made available as an MP3 on the Barsuk Records site; it will appear on the next Vanderslice CD, Pixel Revolt, due out in August.

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