This Week’s Finds: May 20-26 (Okkervil River, The New Pornographers, Rasputina)

“Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe” – Okkervil River

This sort of anxious, cinematic indie rock is bound to remind many of us here in 2007 of the Arcade Fire, and yet let’s note right away that this Austin-based quintet has been around since 1998, so do the math, as they say. From its wonderful if off-kilter title to its highly disciplined if slightly unglued sense of both song and production, “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe” strikes me as pretty brilliant from beginning to end. Front man Wil Sheff is a wordy sort of guy (he’s spent some time writing music criticism for a living, as I recall), but rather than do as other wordy sorts of guys do and cram too many syllables into lyrics (“look at all my words!”), Sheff’s a savvy enough songwriter to have figured out how to manipulate triplets and time signatures to embrace the extra syllables (you’ll hear this for the first time at 0:22, when he sings—I think—“When the love that you locked in the suite says there’s no crying”). So he’s a wordy guy who makes room for the music, which makes sense when you’ve got a crack outfit around you like this. Me, I’m especially enjoying the drumwork: listen throughout to how Travis Nelsen uses all of his drums, from snares to toms to bass drum, with great energy and sensitivity. Part of me keeps waiting for Okkervil River to break through in at least an Arcade Fire-ish sort of way, but part of me keeps suspecting that this band may be too literate/inscrutable for mass consumption. I mean, take a look at what Scheff has written about the concept of downloading music (hint: he relates it to a Borges short story) and you’ll see how literate I mean. (Also read it because it’s interesting.) “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe” will be the lead track on Okkervil’s River upcoming CD, The Stage Names, which is slated for an August release on Jagjaguwar Records. The MP3 is via the Pitchfork blog.

“My Rights Versus Yours” – the New Pornographers

Last week we heard from Kathryn Calder’s lesser-known band (Immaculate Machine); this week her more well-known group steps to the forefront (and she steps a bit to the rear, as the fabulous Neko Case happens to be the senior female vocalist in the band). Carl Newman’s affinity for late ’60s and early ’70s pop is yet again on full display, from the Brian Wilson-y beginning to the feel-good shuffliness of the rhythm section, once the rhythm section gets going (hang with it, it takes a while). Cross Bob Welch-era Fleetwood Mac with the Monkees and you’re almost here. The twist is that this Canadian ensemble is clearly up to something serious (“My Rights Versus Your Rights”: not a classic pop song title) while setting their observations to music so breezy you can bob your head to it while reading your trashy novel on the beach with your iPod on and no one’s the wiser. (Just don’t tell Will Sheff.) “My Rights Versus Yours” is an advance MP3 from the band’s upcoming Challengers CD, due in August on Matador Records. This one I also heard about via Pitchfork, which had for the longest time previously been yielding little of interest to me. Go figure.

“Cage in a Cave” – Rasputina

A different sort of ’60s vibe is in the air here—something quirkier and more psychedelic. And then something also having nothing to do with the ’60s at all, as there were not, to my knowledge, any groups with two cellos and a drummer doing business during the Summer of Love. This idea belongs exclusively to Melora Creager, the founder and leader of Rasputina, whose goal in starting the band back in 1992 was to “make funny, depressing music with nothing more than cellos, singing and electricity.” (In fact, when Rasputina started up, there were six cellos in all.) As “Cage in a Cave” illustrates, Creager captures a unique, full-bodied instrumental energy with her cello-based rock music, avoiding the frilly feeling one often hears when strings are an afterthought. A big part of the overall appeal is Creager’s strong, irresistible voice and her capacity to write real melodies, as too often, to my ears, those inclined to noodle with odd instruments forget that we still need a true and sturdy melody to hang onto. Classically trained and an art school student to boot, Creager is an authentic character, obsessed with historical events and elaborate, vaguely Victorian costumes. And yet on Rasputina’s upcoming CD, Oh Perilous World, Creager has partially let go of the historical content because, according to her press material, she decided that current events have become more bizarre than anything she could dig up from the past. Although the past still intrudes here and there, as in the lead track (“1816, The Year Without a Summer”) and for that matter “Cage in a Cave,” which seems to deal at least in part with Fletcher Christian, the man who was the leader of the mutineers on the Bounty back in 1789. The CD will be released in June on Creager’s Filthy Bonnet Recording Company.

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