This Week’s Finds: January 7-13 (Arcade Fire, Looker, Ron Sexsmith)

“Black Mirror” – Arcade Fire

Only a couple of times every half-generation or so are rock fans treated to music from a band so sure and firm and complete that they sound only like themselves even as each song introduces new aspects of their sound. After just one CD–2004’s Funeral—Arcade Fire appeared to be one of these bands. This song, from their much-anticipated second release, Neon Bible, suggests this Montreal septet is the real thing indeed. Over an ominous opening rumble, acoustic guitars strum a couple of insistent, unresolved chords and I’m immediately intrigued. Win Butler then lends his distinctive warble to a solid, descending melody as a vague, indescribable sound roils around him and then, check it out: a piano, somewhat distantly, pounds out four ascending (again unresolved) notes, withdraws, returning to underpin the abbreviated chorus (just the words “black mirror” repeated). See, one of the things this band does so well–and uniquely, I think—is use their instruments orchestrally, employing recurring themes as motifs that are not simply the melody the singer is singing. Another asset on display is how Arcade Fire songs can effortlessly spin out in unanticipated directions. Listen, for instance, to the dramatic turn taken at 1:20—Butler’s voice leaps up into that “I may be coming unhinged” range while dynamic chords forge into surprising new territory before linking at 1:37 back to the chorus (1-2-3-4! goes the piano). Don’t miss another turn at 2:17, when Butler sings an emphatic French phrase over an increasingly frenetic but still indescribable musical background; and then, ahh!, the offhandedly marvelous theme the strings play from 3:12 (announced by that great dissonant trill at 3:11), leading the song back into the ominous rumble we started with. Neon Bible is due out in early March on Merge Records; the MP3 is available in a hidden sort of way via the band’s mysterious site via BetterPropaganda.

“Tickle My Spine” – Looker

Punchy, uncomplicated punk-pop with an undercurrent of something richer and inscrutably appealing. I like how the head-knocking rhythm of the verse alternates with a just slightly swingier feel, almost like a sped-up Supremes song, in the chorus. Singer/guitarist Boshra AlSaadi has a voice at once higher and musically stronger than one usually hears from a woman heading a hard-rocking unit like this one. Having fellow guitarist (and band co-founder) Nicole Greco on backing vocals adds a pleasing richness to the brisk, careening vibe. In fact, three of the band’s four members are women (only the drummer is male), which messes up music writers seeking to put them in either the well-worn “girl-band” box (Go-Gos, Donnas, etc.) or the “woman singer/male band” box (Blondie, Garbage, etc.). Haven’t seen anyone put them in the Elastica box but there at least was one other band with three women and one man, at least for some of its life, for what it’s worth. “Tickle My Spine” is a song dating back to Looker’s 2004 EP, On the Pull; after hitting the studio in 2006 to record some demos with none other than Richard Gottehrer (who produced the debut CDs for both Blondie and the Go-Gos), Looker is set to release its first full-length CD, Born Too Late, later this week. The MP3 is available via the band’s site. Thanks to the Deli for the lead.

“And Now the Day is Done” – Ron Sexsmith

One of the most talented singer/songwriters of his generation, Ron Sexsmith writes wondrous, lasting songs with apparent ease, but without (yet?) a lot of widespread recognition outside of his native Canada. I’ve stopped trying to figure out how he can keep writing so many good songs without resorting to studio trickery or drastic stylistic alteration, but ten albums into his recording career he seems endlessly able to amuse himself with a guitar, a cache of sturdy chords, and a direct vocabulary of plain words delivering heartfelt messages. Clearly his singing voice serves him well, to begin with—that achy, rounded tenor of his, as warm and tremulous as Tim Hardin’s or Jeff Buckley’s but with a touch of someone else entirely, like maybe Jackson Browne or, more obliquely, Elvis Costello. And even as his songs have been produced in various ways, often in a band setting, sometimes with flourishes like horn charts or strings, what remains front and center are his dual core talents as singer and songwriter. The elegiac “And Now the Day is Done” is Sexsmith at his quietest and prettiest, but listen carefully to discern how beautifully produced it is—what sounds like a stark guitar and voice number is given great depth and warmth by subtle embellishments deep down in the mix, not to mention Sexsmith’s deft touch as a guitarist (check out that glistening hammer-on at 2:48). “And Now the Day is Done” is the final song on his CD Time Being, which was released back in May in Canada, finally to be coming out in the U.S. tomorrow on Ironworks Music, an independent label co-owned by Kiefer Sutherland (really) and Jude Cole. The new CD was produced by Mitchell Froom, who had his hand on the knobs for Sexsmith’s marvelous first three CDs; among the musicians playing on the album are Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher, from Elvis Costello’s band the Impostors. MP3 is available via Salon.

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