This Week’s Finds: Sept. 10-16 (Heartless Bastards, Judah Johnson, Isobel Campbell)

“Into the Open” – Heartless Bastards

From its dreamy opening–the echoey, faraway keyboard, the reverby vocal–“Into the Open” kicks into an intensely engaging reverie of a midtempo rocker. And there: I wrote at least one sentence about this marvelous Cincinnati trio without extolling the unearthly talents of singer/songwriter/guitarist Erika Wennerstrom. She opens her mouth and the world shifts; she has the sort of voice that reminds me why I listen to music. When it’s aligned with such a stirring, almost sing-song-y tune, I can do little except sit and receive, rather insight-less. Notice by the way she doesn’t sing in her full voice at the beginning, in the echoey intro. And hey that’s an actual introduction, almost like the old days–a separate part of the song that leads into the rest but is never repeated. That’s kind of cool right there. Anyway, she doesn’t really start singing singing till after that–the line that starts (David Byrne-ishly) “And I find myself…” Just listen to that. Every syllable is imbued with substance in a way you can neither teach nor describe. Interestingly, Wennerstrom’s lyrics here employ Talking Heads-style declarations, sometimes repeated, as Byrne was wont to do. This strikes me as very likable, somehow, since otherwise the music and vibe, which wanders into some room-shaking noise here and there, has nothing to do with the older band. “I’ve got a wind in my face”: listen to that. Sit and receive. Wennerstrom is the real thing, and so’s her band. “Into the Open” is the first song on their new CD, All This Time, released in August on Fat Possum Records. The MP3 is available via the Fat Possum site.

“Little Sounds” – Judah Johnson

Judah Johnson is a band, not a person; and “Little Sounds” is not so little, but rather a large, yearning sort of rock song, at once familiar- and fresh-sounding, which is a nice combination. Just that great up-and-down sliding guitar line in the intro is enough to hook me; vocalist Daniel Johnson’s substantive yet tender vocal delivery is another plus. And yeah I don’t suppose we can know, stuck inescapably in our own cultural moment, whether the band’s ear-grabbing use of electronic accents in the midst of such a big-sounding piece of rock is going to sound really cool in the long run or really dated. While I’m having a hard time focusing on what the song is about, get the sense that it’s all very sad, an impression furthered by the intriguing “Ooh Child” reference in the bridge (with the lyrics inverted: “Ooh, child/It won’t get easier/It won’t get brighter”). Made me wonder for a moment if the Five Stairsteps were a Motown group (Judah Johnson is from Detroit), but no, I see they were from Chicago (thanks, Wikipedia!). “Little Sounds” is from the band’s second full-length CD Be Where I Be, released in late August on Flame Shovel Records. The MP3 is via the Flameshovel site.

“O Love is Teasin'” – Isobel Campbell

So like a lot of people lately I’ve been listening carefully to the gruff but lovable Bob Dylan, pondering at no small length his deepening embrace of traditional song structures, admiring the tenacity, really, with which he has pursued his troubadour destiny, which has a lot to with being at once a great student and interpreter of songs from the dustier alleyways of folk music. Things return and return again to the storied Anthology of American Folk Music and a-ha, here’s where I start talking about Isobel Campbell, in case you thought I’d forgotten. The melty-voiced Scottish cellist/vocalist, and one-time member of Belle & Sebastian, has a CD coming out later this fall that, of all things, is directly inspired by the recordings from the late ’20s and early ’30s that Harry Smith famously collected and released in the early ’50s that propelled the American folk movement later that decade. This seems even more unexpected than her highly unexpected collaboration earlier this year with Mark Lanegan. “O Love is Teasin'” is, apparently, a traditional song that Campbell has arranged, and it’s subtle and very simple (just guitar and voice with two–count ’em, two–soundings of a chime) but if you slow down you might just find it as achingly gorgeous and haunted as I do. Of course even if you slow down it’s over pretty quickly (it’s just 1:57); my suggestion is listen to it a few times in a row to catch all of fragile, breathy moments Campbell offers while delivering this almost medieval-sounding melody. Her distinction is that her voice is at once pretty and imperfect, which has an arresting effect in this minimally presented song. “O Love is Teasin'” is from a CD that will be released in November on V2 Records called Milkwhite Sheets–an album of “psychedelic lullabies,” according to the press material. The MP3 is available via Pitchfork.

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