This Week’s Finds: August 7-13 (Thee More Shallows, Mercury Rev, Brandi Carlile)

“Freshman Thesis” – Thee More Shallows

A spacey synthesizer noodle leads into a classical violin motif, but notice from the start the strict, punctuating beat (laid out by an accompanying violin): as many changes as the song takes us through, the clock-like beat remains constant, central, sometimes upfront, sometimes implied via syncopation, eventually yanked into a searing metallic shuffle but still always there. You can tap your finger on your desk steadily throughout the song; I’m not sure why this characteristic engages me so but so it does. There is plenty else, however, to appreciate here, from singer Dee Kesler’s plainspoken voice, and the words he sings (example: “Before I spoke in riddles I was worried someone would hear me/Now I know that no one really listens so I will just speak clearly”), to the lovely yet urgent texture created through the interweaving of bass, drum, programming, and the recurring violin. What hooked me for good was how unexpectedly the song is opened by melody from 1:30 through 1:45–what sounded to that point like an intriguing bit of minimalism is deepened by a precise series of delightful musical steps. And then somehow the pretty precision is itself deepened by the slashing coda. (A great touch at the very end: the beat finally stops, but the violin, briefly, endures.) “Freshman Thesis” is the third song on More Deep Cuts, the second Thee More Shallows CD, released last month on Santa Clara, Calif.-based Turn Records. The MP3 is available via the Turn site.

“Vermillion” – Mercury Rev

At once glittering and mysterious, “Vermillion” offers an instantly unique amalgam of sounds, combining the swift beat of an airy pop song with the chiming, floaty atmosphere of something still and new agey and, occasionally, the churning insistence of beat-driven electronica. It’s up to Jonathan Donahue—he of the thin-high-wavery voice and idiosyncratic phrasing—to connect it all, but thanks in large part to the sturdy, inspiring melody of the chorus, he does. I have not personally followed Mercury Rev’s career as it has wound along from the late ’80s through the present day, so I won’t trot out the apparently usual suspects when talking comparisons and influences; me, I hear echoes of glittery-mysterious bands of old, from Supertramp (remember “The Logical Song”? I’m betting Donahue does) to the Blue Nile. “Vermillion” is from The Secret Migration, released in May on V2 Records; thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.

“Fall Apart Again” – Brandi Carlile

Do you know how, in a great recipe, two flavors can be combined in such a way that you can clearly discern both of them even as they intermingle to create a new, distinctive taste? Thus does this 23-year-old from rural Washington state marry the throaty depth of Lucinda Williams to Emmylou Harris’s heavenly smoke. While I might wish for a somewhat more distinctive vehicle, song-wise, for this heart-searing voice, well, what the heck–she’s only 23. Besides, if “Fall Apart Again” is not breaking any songwriting ground, that’s really part of the point with Carlile, who admirably seeks a timeless vibe and pretty much hits it. I can keep listening to this because her voice is an ongoing revelation. As much as I’m cringing in advance of what Columbia Records may yet unleash in the effort to make Carlile bigger than Lucinda and Emmylou combined, I have to give the label credit first of all for signing her and second of all for (amazingly) allowing an actual full-length free and legal MP3 to represent her work on the web. So put aside, as I did, some preconceived notions (major label? country twang? professional production? Rolling Stone “artist to watch”? “Brandi”???) and check her out. “Fall Apart Again” is from the debut CD, released in July on Columbia’s Red Ink imprint.

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