This Week’s Finds: Oct. 30-Nov. 5 (Rocky Votolato, World Leader Pretend, La Laque)

“White Daisy Passing” – Rocky Votolato

What’s the difference between a boring, doleful singer/songwriter and compelling, doleful singer/songwriter? Aurally, not a whole helluva lot, sometimes. And yet it’s this difference—which hits me clearly in the gut even as it’s tricky to articulate—that allows me to like Elliott Smith and yet all too often really not like people who sound like Elliott Smith. And yet here’s Rocky Votolato, all sweet-voiced and whispery, and yup, he grabs me right away. Maybe it’s the crispness of the rhythm guitar. He may be sweet and whispery, but the song moves. This movement is based in both tempo and structure, as Votolato gets a lot out of the ever-engaging, Jackson Browne-ian relationship between a major chord and its relative minor (the introduction, for instance, is major; when he starts singing, he’s in the relative minor, a pleasant but definite shift). Note too the sense of movement stemming from how he starts the chorus on the upbeat, straight out of the verse, and then leads us through a chord progression that pivots on a seventh chord. This seems particularly striking as he’s getting just then to the saddest part of the song. (Seventh chords are usually good-timey things.) The lyric at this point is almost mind-blowingly painful, yet easy to miss in the strummy flow of the whole thing, so check it out: “I’m going down to sleep/On the bottom of the ocean/’Cause I couldn’t let go/When the water hit the setting sun.” “White Daisy Passing” will be on Votolato’s debut CD, Makers, scheduled for a January 2006 release on Barsuk Records. The MP3 is up on the Barsuk site.

“Bang Theory” – World Leader Pretend

Maybe I’m crazy, but I’m beginning to sense an interesting rapprochement in the musical world that seems completely opposed to the tense polarity that suffuses the political world here in the U.S. in the new century. I’m hearing sounds that have for many years been rejected or ridiculed (for no actual good reason) seeping their way back into public awareness. ELO and early Elton John are popping up on store sound systems everywhere I go, making things seem happy and connected, and none of it somehow sounds like an accident. What this has to do with the New Orleans quintet World Leader Pretend, I’m not exactly sure, except that there’s something in the big, swaggering sound here that reminds me of a neglected past, and bands I maybe used to make fun of (um, Simple Minds, for one), and now I don’t really want to make fun. (“Can’t we all just get along” and all that.) Okay, so lead singer Keith Ferguson teeters on the edge of macho-breathy histrionics—to my ears, the band creates such a large, burnished space for him to do it in, full of classic-sounding melodies and catchy instrumental refrains, that it all makes some kind of crazy messy sense. “Bang Theory” is the first song on the band’s major-label debut, Punches; released on Warner Brothers Records in June, the label appears yet to be trying to work at some indie-like web buzz to get it going. If that means actually putting this free and legal MP3 out (via Filter), I’m all for it.

“Secret” – La Laque

Then again, maybe in the long run we prefer the sort of breathy histrionics likely to emerge from a band with a French name and a sultry lead singer singing in French. All the better if the band is from New York City, and the lead singer sings in French primarily because she’s too shy to sing in English. La Laque is further notable for being a six-piece band, which is an unusual size in the annals of rock—and all the more unusual for its being made up of three men and three women. For all the apparent novelty of the music, this turns out to be an unusual song in less obvious ways as well, particularly for how it manages to sound at once like an ironic piece of chamber airiness and a chugging bit of post-punk-power-pop. Listen with admiration as “Secret” picks up a whole lot of drum-and-guitar noise in and around the violins after the minute and a half mark, yet does so with such ongoing panache that the band doesn’t seem to break a sweat. “Secret” was one half of a shared single with the band Pas/Cal that was released on Romantic Air Records in June. The MP3 is available via the Romantic Air site.

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