“Down in the Valley” – the Broken West
Big Star meets Wilco; irresistibility ensues. With its muscular tom-tom beat, feedbacky guitar, sloppy-tight harmonies, and organ solo, “Down in the Valley” walks that great great line between power pop and garage rock–a line walkable only by bands that really know what they’re doing. As a matter of fact, although the year is young, I think I’m going to be hard-pressed to find in 2007 another chorus as infectious as this one. Two things in particular make it work so well. First, the set-up: after the verse (starting at 0:38) we get a two-line lead-in before the chorus, and the chords that finally usher us in are both perfect (a classic series of resolving steps) and imperfect (they’re hardly actually there; rather they are largely implied). This is why, I think, we’re left in such a delicious state of anticipation at 0:46, waiting for the chorus to give us the resolution we crave. (It does.) Second, the harmonies, and specifically the harmony in the second line of the chorus, where the melody repeats but the vocal harmonies, has shifted. What I’m talking about: compare the sound of the harmonies on the word “sundown” (0:50-51) (the voices are singing the same note) to the harmonies on the words “no one” (0:57-59)–here the backing vocal splits off, going up a whole step while the melody goes down a third and we get that mysterious fourth interval for a note and there, that does it for me. Perhaps for you too, now that I mention it? The Broken West is a young quintet from Los Angeles who sound as broken in and familiar as an old pair of slippers. “Down in the Valley” is from the band’s disarmingly titled debut CD, I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On, to be released tomorrow on the excellent Merge label.
“Carouselle” – Nicole Atkins
Attentive Fingertips visitors may remember Atkins from the delightful “Skywriters,” a song from her self-released debut CD that spent a few months on the Fingertips Top 10 late in ’05. Shortly thereafter, she was snapped up by none other than Columbia Records, which will release her next full-length CD this spring. In the meantime, an EP quietly emerged at the tail end of ’06 called Bleeding Diamonds, and from it, “Carouselle”: a charming amalgam of Kurt Weill and, oh, maybe Jenny Lewis? (Aha: an appropriate confluence, given Weill’s obsession with the name Jenny!) Alternating between a minor key, cabaret-ish piano vamp in the verse and a sweet, swinging Brill Building-y chorus, the song offers a bittersweet, idiosyncratic, smartly-crafted tribute to a demolished seaside amusement park ride. Atkins so sneakily blends typically discrete musical styles that you have to pay close attention to realize she’s up to something unusual. While you’re paying close attention, I urge you to listen as well to the depth of character in her voice; if you don’t concentrate, she may sound simply like another breezy-voiced flavor of the month, but no no no, she’s a keeper, with that rich, unexpected, and beautifully controlled vibrato and a simmering sense of passion kept just below the surface. I dare you to listen to how she sings the word “fantastic” (1:34) and not find your heart skipping a beat; or maybe you’ll just fall in love on the spot, as perhaps I have. The eagerly-awaited Columbia full-length does not yet have a release date.
“To Live and Die in the Airport Lounge” – My Teenage Stride
Buoyed by the same brand of upbeat moodiness that characterized many an old Smiths song, “To Live and Die in the Airport Lounge” is a sparkly bit of catchy but inscrutable guitar pop from the Brooklyn-based one-time one-man-band My Teenage Stride. Jedediah Smith is the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who launched the band, by himself, a few years ago; for a good part of the new CD, however, he assembled a stable foursome, and will perform live with them now as well. While I cannot personally vouch for the claim that Smith is “a living compendium of virtually every pop style that has existed from 1956 through the present,” as per his PR material, who am I to argue? He’s apparently written more than 500 songs in his still-young life, and I’ve only heard four of them. I will say that Smith’s music does exude an easy-going expertise; check out how nicely he blends the two (maybe three?) guitar sounds that drive the piece, and check out too his dexterous vocal layering–I really like how his extensive use of same-note harmony vocals serves to render all the more glowing the harmonies that subsequently differentiate. “To Live and Die in the Airport Lounge” is a song off Ears Like Golden Bats, the new My Teenage Stride CD, slated for a February release on London-based Becalmed Records.