This Week’s Finds: March 18-24 (All Smiles, Astrid Swan, Middle Distance Runner)

“Moth in a Cloud of Smoke” – All Smiles

Some songs take a while to build interest while others capture the ear effortlessly. One way isn’t necessarily better than the other, but “Moth in a Cloud of Smoke” strikes me as one of the latter—quickly likable and affecting. First comes ten seconds of a pensive yet propulsive piano line, and check out the unusual simplicity here: the right and left hands are each playing just one note at a time, no chords or flourishes. You don’t actually hear that too often in an age when technology all but demands more of everything—more notes, more layers, more sounds. The piano is then joined by percussion and acoustic guitar: still simple but now with a crisp, alluring drive. Ten seconds or so later, Jim Fairchild opens his mouth and the package is complete. He’s got one of those sweet, rich voices, high but not squeaky or breathy–a great power pop voice, I’d say, only he’s not singing power pop here, but something more introspective and knowingly hesitant—the melody in the verse is deliberate and contained within a surprisingly small interval (he’s working with just three adjacent notes) for how open and expansive it sounds. For the chorus we get a fuzzy guitar and a melody breaking beyond the confines of the original interval; I’m hearing an echo of Brian Wilson now as Fairchild reaches further up melodically and by the way gives great chord too. All Smiles is the performing name Fairchild is using on his first solo CD; and he’s the first ex-Grandaddy member to record on his own after that band broke up, rather badly, last year. “Moth in a Cloud of Smoke” is a song from the forthcoming All Smiles CD, entitled Ten Readings of a Warning, to be released next month on Dangerbird Records. The MP3 is via Filter Magazine.

“Good Girl” – Astrid Swan

I’m coming upon a certain number of breezy, swingy songs these days, and I’m sure there’s some hidden sociological message in it that I’ll restrain myself from commenting on for the moment. What I will instead comment on is this: mere breezy-swinginess is not enough to make a good song. This can get confusing, since breezy-swingy songs are cheerful and make us feel good. For me, however, the song still has to be there, and it turns out I may in fact be harder on breezy-swingy songs than songs with other basic sounds, since I listen carefully to be sure I’m not being tricked into automatically equating feel-good-ness with goodness. Or something like that. Here, however, I’m convinced we’re dealing with goodness. One clue: six seconds after establishing the breezy-swingy mood, it’s abruptly withdrawn. Kind of a musical tease, which subsequently renders the ultimate sound all the more persuasive. (Note too how the song’s most dramatic section, a bridge that starts around 2:08, likewise eschews the upbeat swing for something moodier.) Another clue: Astrid Swan’s voice, which has something of Neko Case’s fluid and convincing solidity both lower down and higher up. Finally, at the height of the breezy-swingy chorus, Swan strays into off-kilter chords, attractively minor and/or diminished sounding. And, okay, it doesn’t count for anything but I also happen to think Astrid Swan is one of the coolest names in show business. Swan is a singer/songwriter from Helsinski; “Good Girl” is from her CD Poverina, which was released in 2005 in Europe and is at long last getting a stateside release on Minty Fresh Records this spring. MP3 courtesy of Minty Fresh.

“Naturally” – Middle Distance Runner

Middle Distance Runner, a quintet from Washington, D.C., appears to be a group of guys with a well-developed sense of humor. (“Middle Distance Runner,” says their web site, “is what you would be left with if you took every nu-metal, frat-rock, and emo band, put them into a poorly insulated spaceship, and then drove it into the sun.”) As with the breezy-swingy thing, we have to be careful around such bands–easy it is to mistake “funny guys” for “good music.” This one even starts with hand claps. Cheery–one might even say jokey–hand claps at that. From there, the song acquires a sly sort of urgency, singer Stephen Kilroy delivering the eyebrow-raising lyrics with an easy-going slidiness. (The song appears to be about a guy who messes around romantically and kind of hopes he gets caught out and stopped already.) I love the chorus, with its abrupt 6/4 time change, as the words pour out beyond the boundaries of the 4/4 measures that precede it. “Naturally” is the lead track on the band’s self-released debut CD, Plane in Flames, which came out back in June 2006. The MP3 is courtesy of the band. Give the guys some hand claps.

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