This Week’s Finds: March 5-11 (Guillemots, Gus Black, Envelopes)

“Who Left the Lights Off, Baby?” – Guillemots

“I don’t think there’s a greater art than writing a three-minute pop song that people can sing when they’re drunk,” says Guillemots’ singer and songwriter Fyfe Dangerfield (nee Hutchins). Okay, so this one’s five minutes; but who’s counting when it’s this good-natured, finger-snappy, and brimming with loose-limbed musicality. “Who Left the Lights Off, Baby?” harkens back to Dexy’s Midnight Runners (“Come On, Eileen,” anyone?) for some of its rollicking spirit, but seems to be operating in a universe entirely of its own. On the one hand effortlessly catchy, the song on the other hand has some unusual things going on in the background and around the edges, such as the wash of spacey keyboards that accompanies most of the way through, the beepy synthesizer outburst at 2:03, the crunchy guitar that slashes in off the beat at around 2:42 (sounding as if another song has accidentally starting playing on my MP3 player at the same time), and then that startlingly hot sax solo that closes things down. Some of the song’s ineffable originality may have to do with the multinationality of the band: while Dangerfield is from England, the guitarist is from Brazil, the drummer from Scotland, and the bass player is from Canada (she’s also a woman, and is actually playing the double bass). “Who Left the Lights Off, Baby?” is a song off From the Cliffs, the band’s eight-song EP due out next week on Fantastic Plastic. The MP3 is one of the hundreds of free and legal downloads available via the SXSW web site.

“Certain Kind of Light” – Gus Black

“Certain Kind of Light” is crisp, itchy, and immediately recognizable and appealing: recognizable because, yeah, the basic chord pattern is a well-well-worn path, appealing because, well, it’s an incredibly engaging shift to most people’s ears. Why else is “867-5309/Jenny” such an indelible part of rock’n’roll history? This time around L.A.-based singer/songwriter Gus Black takes on the classic progression, and the freshness here, to my ears, has to do with the song’s brisk, syncopated feel. Rather than take us on a straightforward, Tommy Tutone-ish 4/4 power pop rave-up, Black, with his potent, elastic tenor, delivers a delicious sense of tension via the rhythm and meter. (Extra points for him for doing so in under three minutes.) I can’t always decipher time signatures successfully, but something to do with three rather than four is happening here: note how the rhythm section lays out an urgent series of six beats, while you can simultaneously count a slower 1-2-3 under the basic melody. As far as the basic chord progression goes, I could start talking incoherently about relative minors and subdominants and all that, but in looking at a keyboard I noticed this: the chord pattern is rooted in the fact that any minor chord is converted to a major chord by simply taking its top note up a half step. There’s something powerful here, symbolically: just a half step separates minor from major in this instance. Light/dark, good/evil–supply your own metaphor. In the meantime we’ve all but forgotten about good old Gus Black, whose fourth CD, Autumn Days, is set for U.S. release March 21 on Cheap Lullaby Records; apparently it’s been out in Europe since last summer.

“Audrey in the Country” – Envelopes

I know, I know: she’s singing out of tune. But bear with me, and her, as together we try to make it okay anyway. Lead singer Audrey (yes) Pic gains some points back for her endearing, Parisian accent (many of us Americans find what we call “foreign accents” unaccountably endearing, for some reason). And maybe the accent somehow makes the pitch problems a little more bearable, but in the end chalk it up to one of pop music’s most mysterious (infuriating?) qualities–namely, that singing in tune is not a prerequisite for success. So stay with this quirky, bouncy little song and see if it doesn’t work for you too somehow. For me, when the band kicks in fully, at around 0:28, the swelling, bright blue joy of the melody and the perky, melodious accompaniment takes over and suddenly, life is bright and bouncy. The presence of what sounds like a Hammond B3 organ in the swirly mix definitely helps. No doubt this is some sort of quirky, autobiographical thing but I’m not spending a lot of time trying to figure it all out, I’m just enjoying the romping-through-the-meadows sound of the ensemble, which creates a sonic innocence in the context of which the off-key singing perhaps almost makes sense. Envelopes is (are? never sure how that works) a quintet featuring four guys from Sweden, and Audrey, from France; “Audrey in the Country” is a tune from the band’s first CD, entitled Demon, which was released last summer in Europe on the Psychotic Reaction label. The MP3 is available via the band’s web site.

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