“Waves” – Marjorie Fair
This is one of the most accomplished, forward-looking examples I’ve heard yet of the neo-soft-rock sound that seems to be bubbling up on the 21st-century rock scene alongside the neo-new-wave sound that’s getting most of the attention so far. What makes “Waves” a particular pleasure is the band’s success (Marjorie Fair is a band, not a person) in linking a sweetly melancholy America-esque sound with a grounded, indie-rock-style drive. Listen to the opening drumbeat: it means business, and prevents the jazzy chords that comprise the heart of the song (major sevenths and ninths and things like that) from turning mushy and dull. Likewise is the lovely melody—and singer Evan Slamka’s equally lovely delivery of said melody—counterbalanced by some edgy guitar work; beyond the central, chiming riff there are droning accents that work to create palpable mystique throughout the piece, rising at last to the surface by way of a brief, reverberant solo beginning at 2:56. This mellow-rock meets indie-rock mix might almost seem its own sort of formula except for the fact that hardly anyone can do this effectively—it’s not much of a formula if it isn’t easily replicated, after all. “Waves” is a song off the L.A. foursome’s debut CD, Self Help Serenade, which was released last year in the U.K. and is slated for a major-label stateside release in July. Capitol Records is cranking up the PR machine on this one, and while I am not always pleased by the way that manifests itself, I must remind myself that back in the day, the big labels regularly delivered good music to the masses; it’s not yet too late (I don’t think) for at least some of them to remember this.
“Ballad of a Lonely Construction Worker” – Cuff the Duke
There’s a lost-epic feeling about this engaging, largely instrumental song, starting with its lengthy but chipper chimey-guitar build-up that comes complete with its own tempo shift (you hearing a “Free Bird” reference in that as I am?). It turns out the slower, weightier pace of the down-shifted part is where the song is heading; the second time the “Free Bird” section arrives, a crunchier, Neil Young-ish wall of guitar sound kicks in and singer/songwriter/guitarist Wayne Petti makes his delayed entrance (the song’s two and a half minutes old already), his thin tenor emerging first as a mixed-down, off-pitch counterpoint to the increased instrumental fury, but as he reaches the lyrical climax—an invocation-like repetition of the phrase “It’ll be all right”—he’s right there in the center, handing the song back to the guitars. Together the rhythm and lead slash and churn with yet heightened intensity before melting away for Petti’s final, quieter reprise of the same lyric from before with one subtle difference. “Ballad of a Construction Worker” is a song off the band’s debut CD, Life Stories for Minimum Wage, released in 2002 on Three Gut Records; the MP3 is hosted on the Three Gut web site. A new CD from the band is expected this August.
“Ecoutez Bien” – Eux Autres
To counter big-label promotion and epic-style earnestness, here’s a little shot of lo-fi goofiness—a brother/sister duo from Portland, Oregon offering a fetching two and a half minutes of garage rock a la francais. While it would never have occurred to me, for one, that crossing a chunky, freewheeling Stones vibe with spoken-sung lyrics in French would lead to anything in particular, there’s something smiley and effervescent in the outcome. This strikes me as rather fascinating, actually, given how much Debbie Harry-style archness is channeled by singer Heather Larimer, but I guess that’s another sign of the post-ironic world in which we live–that irony itself can now be used quite effectively to evoke sincerity. Add a distant but pounding piano riff, brother Nicholas’ megaphoned backing vocals, a flurry of well-timed whoops, and a one-line chorus, and you have an odd hodgepodge of a semi-song on the one hand, an almost-classic-sounding pop cultural tidbit on the other. “Ecoutez Bien” is the lead track on the band’s debut CD, Hell Is Eux Autres, released last year. The MP3 is available via band’s web site.