This Week’s Finds: November 6-12 (Hard-Fi, Martha Berner, Soft)

“Cash Machine” – Hard-Fi

This decisive update of the Clash’s “Magnificent Seven” sound—an irresistible blend of punk, pop, dub, and disco—is simple, uncompromising, harsh, elegant, and utterly marvelous. Opening with an echoey melodica, sounding like a forlorn traffic jam, the song leaps into an assured beat yet never rests solely on its groove: there is melody, there are chord changes, there are flawless production touches, and there is a story—the last fact of which makes me realize how few bands, for better or worse, actually do tell discernible stories. The minor key chorus—wonderfully set up, in major keys, by a pair of gliding syllables—is a glorious distillation of this young band’s assured sound. And while many songs succeed nicely in today’s mash-up, shuffle-crazy world with a kitchen-sink style of production, sounds tossed willy-nilly on top of one another in pursuit of a mysterious ambiance, “Cash Machine” reminds me of the brilliance of the opposite approach: even as Hard-Fi creates a large, swaggering presence here, there is not one wasted sound in the mix. It’s a relief sometimes to be able to hear everything that you’re listening to, especially when it’s this good. Hard-Fi is a young foursome from the apparently dreary commuter town of Staines, west of London. “Cash Machine” is the lead track on the band’s debut CD, Stars on CCTV, which was short-listed earlier this year for the U.K.’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize. The MP3 is available via Insound. The CD has been released so far in the U.K. only, originally on Necessary Records in late 2004, and re-released in conjunction with Atlantic Records in July 2005.

“Mary Lately” – Martha Berner

There’s nothing wrong every so often with a straightforward acoustic-based ballad with a good melody; this one strikes me as a poignant yet gratifyingly sturdy example. Martha Berner is a Chicago-based singer/songwriter who has lived previously in Alaska, Israel, Thailand, and Wisconsin, among other places. Could be her itinerant background is what gives both the song and her musical presence an elusive sense of familiarity. There’s her resonant voice, which sounds like a slightly duskier version of Sarah McLachlan, back when she was writing good songs; I hear a touch of Dar Williams as well, around the edges of her enunciation. At the same time, the overall vibe makes me think that this is what the Cowboy Junkies might sound like if Norah Jones were John Prine’s sister and sang lead. Don’t miss that place in the second verse when, instead of the slide accent you might expect, a slightly loony synthesizer is used instead. I think that’s when I knew I liked this one. “Mary Lately” is a song off Berner’s debut CD, This Side of Yesterday, released last month on Machine Records. The MP3 can be found on the Machine web site.

“Higher” – Soft

John Reineck has the sort of sweet, yearning tenor voice that I associate with great moments in power pop. And yet the wash of big, reverb-y chords and fuzzy, subtly psychedelic atmosphere brings the best of ’90s shoegaze to mind. It’s a potent combination—dreamy walls of glistening guitars, sweetly voiced melodicism; I’m thinking this NYC-based quintet is onto something. I like that they don’t merely rest on the achievement of their basic sonic package, which they easily might have; the band cares enough about the craft of songwriting to give us moments along the way that seem like bonuses: not hooks in the classic sense of something that sits at the center point of the song’s allure, but tasty twists and additions that give the piece extra weight and substance. I like for instance the moment in that bridge-like bit between the end of the verse and beginning of the chorus, at around 1:05, when Reineck sings “Can’t even feel my feet or keep them on the ground”—it’s like the song moves suddenly into this new, open space, as if you were in a room that revealed itself to be much bigger than you initially thought when you came in. Given the lyrical theme, I’d say the effect is not unintentional. “Higher” is a song off the band’s just-released, self-released, self-titled first EP. The song is available via the band’s site.

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