This Week’s Finds: July 30-August 5 (John Ralson, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Tomihira)

“Gone Gone Gone” – John Ralston

This one may start like just another weepy, acoustic ballad, but John Ralston has much more up his sleeve than weepy balladry, of the sort often practiced by the current pack of jam-band-inspired troubadours. First, when the full band kicks in after 19 seconds, the strength of the original melody becomes surprisingly evident. What sounded tinkly and precious with just an acoustic guitar playing now sounds vigorous and involving. I think it’s the drummer in particular: that just off the second beat accent he throws in, which adds unplaceable depth while likewise playing nicely off the ascending bass line. But then there’s also the fact that having a band to sing against brings something meatier out in Ralston’s voice, which veered towards the over-senstive (cute?) before the band rescued him. The real killer is the chorus, which sizzles with spirit, his voice transforming in its higher register into an instrument of power and bite, complete with a nicely emoted expletive (watch out who’s around when you listen). “Gone Gone Gone” is from his debut CD, Needle Bed, re-released in June on Vagrant Records after an earlier self-release. The MP3 is via his site.

“Odi et Amo” – Jóhann Jóhannsson

What we have here is a Latin poem from the first century B.C. set by an Icelandic composer to a string quartet and piano, with, oh yeah, a computerized voice “singing” the words. I invite you not to run away but listen once, twice, maybe three times, and see if you don’t become as mesmerized as I now am by the unearthly ambiance, the spellbinding combination of organic instruments, heart-rending melody, and subtle electronics. The vocal range is what classical people would call a “countertenor”; we can just call it “really high, but still male.” The poem is short, a so-called “elegiac couplet”; it’s repeated twice, with a plaintive yet tense instrumental break between. The words translate, roughly, to: “I hate and I love. Why do I do this, perhaps you ask?/I do not know. But I feel it happening, and I am tormented.” Remember, this is a computer singing. The effect is startling, both intellectually and emotionally. While getting his start as a rock guitarist, like everyone else, Jóhannsson quickly expanded his artistic scope beyond “guy in a band” to “avant garde guy with projects”–said projects including something called Kitchen Motors (“record label, think tank, art organization”), an ensemble called the Apparet Organ Quartet, and a dance/music collaboration called IBM 1401, A User’s Manual. “Odi et Amo” is from Jóhannsson’s first solo CD, Englabörn, which was released in 2002 on Touch Records. Thanks again to the delightful Getecho blog for the lead. Jóhannson’s next CD will be a recording of the music from IBM 1401, rewritten for a 60-piece orchestra, due out in October on 4AD.

“Pillbox” – Tomihira

Returning to a more expected context now, but still dreamily so, Tomihira being a San Francisco trio favoring a dreamy-droney-distorty guitar sound that makes everyone have to mention My Bloody Valentine so, there, that’s out of the way. “Pillbox” has a lot of things going for it, to my ears: an immediately distinctive instrumental hook, a delicate melody, a delicate melody set against some heavy guitar work (better, often, than a delicate melody on its own), a throaty vocalist, and a lower-register lead guitar solo, to name a few of them. Trodding the classic I-IV-V chord path, the song, gliding along without any obvious sort of chorus, oozes a crafty, slinky authority, with its syncopated beat, atmospheric guitars, and that sexy lead singer (Dean Tomihira, who lends the outfit his name). “Pillbox” is a song off the band’s debut CD, Play Dead; the song is one of six free and legal MP3s the band has available on its web site. They also offer you the entire CD for only $5, in case you like what you hear.

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