This Week’s Finds: Nov. 20-26 (Gustav & The Seasick Sailors, Pela, XTC)

“Nightlife” – Gustav & the Seasick Sailors

From its mellow Bruce Hornsby-ish piano introduction, this song picks up a crisp beat and some Hammond B3 accents even as it retains vague jazz-pop stylings (Steely Dan-ish chords, stuttering drumbeats) through the opening verse. But everything is a set-up for the brilliant chorus, in which the 21-year-old Gustav (born, it must be noted, without a right hand; he wears a special device to allow him to hold a pick) sings an irresistible melody, at once beautiful and anthemic, that seems like something John Mellencamp was trying to write but never quite managed to some 15 or 20 years ago. For a young guy, Gustav breathes out a fetching, Steve Earle-ish sort of weariness as he lets go of his syllables. While I’m not sure we’re venturing into lyrical profundity here, the music makes it irrelevant to me. “Nightlife” is the lead track off Gustav & the Seasick Sailors’ debut CD, Vagabond’s Polka, which was released last year on Marilyn Records. The MP3 is hosted on the Marilyn web site. A 10-person collective from Sweden, Gustav & the Seasick Sailors are scheduled to release a second CD early in 2006.

“Episodes (Diphenhydramine)” – Pela

I have discovered a previously unrecognized affection in my musical tastes for the sort of voice that Pela singer Billy Swanson has. I will now describe it: okay, I can’t describe it, not really, other than to say it’s high, somewhat roughed-up, vaguely muffled and yet also incisive, with a keen edge. Beyond Swanson’s immediate appeal, this strikes me as a cool song for a variety of reasons. To begin with, it utilizes the trick of having the accompanying music playing twice as fast as the melody line, which achieves the pleasing effect of it seeming like a fast slow song or a slow fast song. I also like the mysterious use of wordless vocal accents in the extended bridge-like section after the verse–by now we completely buy into the sense of movement and urgency, and yet the resolution is delayed by those ghostly “aaahs.” The underlying sense of tension increases when Swanson dives next into his lower register (“as if I really knew myself,” he sings, with an unexpected bit of Morrisseyan phrasing). Then arrives the great release with the strange one-word chorus (“Diphenhydramine”—which is by the way an antihistamine), sung with a fluttery array of chiming guitars floating almost out of earshot in the background. This song was one of five on the Brooklyn-based band’s debut EP, All in Time, released back in May on the Brassland label. The MP3 comes via the Brassland site.

“Spiral” – XTC

Sometimes you just want the real thing, even if the real thing isn’t quite as real and thing-like as it used to be. This “new” XTC song has been floating around the internet for a couple of weeks; I heard it when it first came out (thanks, Largehearted Boy!), and put it aside. Did it move me to tears? Did it make me swear that Andy Partridge is still a god-like master of the three-minute, fifteen-second pop song? Um, no. I loved this band in its day, and then some. But days move on, decades without names roll by, and the fine line between a groove and a rut (thanks, Christine Lavin) grows intractably indistinguishable. And yet: even awash in nostalgia (talk about a groove, the spiral in question is the path the phonograph needle traces while converting plastic to soundwave), the song is rich and smile-inducing, for its jaunty melody, effervescent instrumentation, and other bounteous XTC-isms: the fast-slow shifts in pace, the distinctive chord changes, and Partridge’s inimitable goofy-earnest yowl. If these guys exist in their own particular bubble of sound and space, so be it. I suggest a visit now and then. And while I might not steer you towards the extravagant re-boxing of the band’s most recent two Apple Venus CDs from which this tune (recorded in the ’99-’00 time frame) emerges, I urge you to discover or rediscover English Settlement (1982), Skylarking (1986), or the somewhat more recent and underrated Nonsuch (1992).

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