Rarely have I heard a rock’n’roll songwriter sing inscrutable lyrics with such heartbreaking sincerity as the Shins’ front man, James Mercer. Over time I’ve decided it’s quite an alluring, perhaps even unique, attribute. Most if not all of pop music’s traffickers in willfully opaque lyrics sing with more emotional flatness, maybe a bit of an ironic smirk, or sometimes even aggressive overcompensation. But Mercer has figured out how to be sincere, even movingly sincere, while singing words that only intermittently (at best) reveal any straightforward meaning. Clearly he, at least, knows what he’s singing about–which is exactly what keeps me going back to tease out whatever meaning I can. And at that point, Mercer’s ability to write subtly beautiful melodies becomes another alluring feature of his songwriting. To think of his songs simply as “catchy” (Google “Shins” and “catchy” and check it out) sells Mercer way short, because he’s doing much more than writing songs to hum after one listen. As one example, listen to the secondary melody he uses from 0:18 to 0:24—it follows the ascendant opening melody, employing now a couple of minor chords to end the verse in an unresolved place, just in time to return to the surging melody that we began with, although even then he alters the tail of it a bit. I love too the unexpected falsetto note he hits at 0:58 and the subsequent turn the melody takes there in the middle of what is probably the chorus. It’s almost as if he’s writing classical motifs rather than pop melodies, and your ability to note them and hear when they recur greatly adds to the pleasure of your listening experience. “Phantom Limb” is the first single from the band’s much-anticipated third CD, Wincing the Night Away, which will be officially released next month on Sub Pop Records. The CD however has been “leaked” online as of October, causing much hubbub in blogoland. The MP3 is now available legally via the Sub Pop site.
A buzzy, deadpan, neo-new wave rave-up. The appeal here is all in the vibe: there’s something steely and electro going on with that astringent drumbeat and ringing guitar line; at the same time singer Isabel Le Doussal’s uninflected speak-singing in the verse adds something mysterious and earthy to the beat-driven proceedings, which churn away with unrelenting vigor. The chorus, meanwhile, adds enough melody and bouncy synthesizer to make the return of the steely-electro section seem appealingly inevitable. Keep your ears open for unexpected additions to the sonic palette: the percussive, off-kilter metallic accents at around 1:20, for instance; or the whistly, arcade-game chirping that pops up around 2:36; and is that an accordion near the end? I think maybe. Prototypes are a French trio with one full-length CD released so far in the U.S. “Décider” can be found on a new EP called Je Ne Te Connais Pas, released for free online last week by Minty Fresh Records.
“Giver” – Patrick Watson
I’m guessing there aren’t a lot of indie rockers who know who Steve Reich is; Montreal’s Patrick Watson has actually played with the man. This suggests the U.S.-born, Canada-raised pianist/singer/songwriter Patrick Watson is at the very least an interesting, multifaceted musician. “Giver” suggests he also knows a thing or two about writing and performing a stylish pop song. To begin with, there’s Watson’s rich, echoey tenor, which maintains its character even soaring occasionally into the falsetto-sphere. As I listen repeatedly I’m struck by the song’s great texture–without piling on instruments or effects, it delivers a gratifying sense of motion and change throughout. Some of that has to do with the effective use of time signature changes (relatively rare in three and a half minute rock tunes), and some may have to do with the underlying, Beatle-like sense of jauntiness in the air–the Beatles were nothing if not masters of texture in pop music. And okay maybe I have a soft spot for the guy because he loves Debussy. If more people loved Debussy the world would be a better place. “Giver” is a track from the CD Close to Paradise, which was released in Canada in September on Secret City Records; this is Watson’s third CD but Secret City’s very first release ever.
The MP3 is available via the Secret City site. An American release is expected next month, although you can already buy it electronically via iTunes.