This Week’s Finds: April 2-8 (The Playwrights, Matt Costa, Starlight Mints)

“Dislocated (London Version)” – the Playwrights

A splendid, dense, and affecting 21st-century amalgam of the Gang of Four and the Jam from an intense young British quintet. It’s the melodica, to begin with, that has me paying attention, playing its wistful refrain in the intro underneath the slashing siren-like guitar dissonance that everyone like to call “angular.” After that the song belongs to vocalist Aaron Dewey, a singer with a somewhat one-dimensional tone and not necessarily a great range but an arresting presence, at once matter of fact and disconcerting. Dewey doesn’t quite sing what it sounds like he’s singing, and doesn’t quite say what he’s actually saying (I strongly suggest you head to the band’s web site, click on “lyrics,” and follow the words as he sings; it really changes the experience of listening to the song). “Dislocated” has a closed-in melody, with one note rarely moving more than a step or two away from the previous note, and yet look at what Dewey does with it: in the chorus, for instance, when he sings “I am feeling”—it sounds like some great leap he’s taking between “am” and “feeling” and yet it’s just one full step. I’m fascinated by stuff like that. While music this urgent and serious-sounding can readily bog down in its own dire potency, the Playwrights save themselves by the poignancy they mix into the stark, slashing drive. (“This is what happens when people open their hearts,” Dewey sings at the end.) “Dislocated” was a song previously released on a CD single, and re-recorded (thus the “London version”) for the band’s first full-fledged, widely-released CD, English Self Storage, which came out in March on Sink & Stove Records in the U.K., and is set for release in the U.S. later this month.

“Cold December” – Matt Costa

Sweet-voiced Southern California-based singer/songwriter Matt Costa has done here what I had previously considered impossible: he’s taken today’s (overly) prevalent jam-band-fed, laid-back-singer-songwriter vibe and made a good song out of it. Nothing against jam-band-fed, laid-back-singer-songwriters (or their fans), mind you; they’re all (by and large) pleasant fellows (they’re all fellows) making pleasant sounds. But they tend not to write songs, according to what my ears want and need. They seem instead ever-so-groovily content to combine aimless melodies and a few sturdy chords while they do their whispery-lazy, just-loping-around act or their hyper-wordy-and-rhythmic act. Costa sounds cut from the same cloth, but he’s got a lot more going for him, in my opinion. I hear it right from the start: over an itchy acoustic guitar he’s singing a real melody, and he even lets the melodic line end in an unresolved chord. Next thing we know, the song shifts, and we get a full-fledged pop hook, bright and emphatic and redolent of some old ’70s AM radio hit or another. And yet we’re not even at the chorus, leaving some unnamed complexity in the air. When we get there, the song actually folds in on itself introspectively–another unexpected, song-conscious touch. “Cold December” is the first track on Costa’s new CD, Songs We Sing, released last week on (uh-oh! Jack Johnson’s label!) Brushfire Records. The MP3 is via his site.

“Inside of Me” – Starlight Mints

That opening cascade on the piano tells you a lot of what you need to know here. It comes at you from all sides, sounds like four people trying to do one glissando and half knocking the drummer off his stool in the process. It’s a great intro to a stompy, glam-infected rocker that maintains a slightly crazy edge throughout. I love it when a band that can get truly weird–as Starlight Mints can—choose to keep it more or less under wraps and offer up their version of a straightforward pop song; the weirdness still seeps out through the seams. That’s a good thing. I like in particular the portentous reverb-y guitar that rings out every so often, and those loopy ELO harmonies that kick in around 3:00. The lyrics raise an eyebrow as well, as much as I can make them out (“So come inside and be my skin and bones”?). What’s in the water out there in Norman, Oklahoma anyway? The Flaming Lips are from the same town as these folks. “Inside of Me” is a track off the band’s new CD, called Drowaton, which is due out later this month on Barsuk Records. The MP3 is hosted on the Barsuk site<.

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