This Week’s Finds: Sept. 30-Oct. 6 (Bon Iver, Southeast Engine, Clare & the Reasons)

“For Emma” – Bon Iver

“For Emma” has the steady, wistful ambiance of a determined trudge through the snow on a bright winter’s day to fetch something you know in your heart isn’t going to be there. Electric guitar lines bend languidly around crisp acoustic guitar chords, sleepy horns offer echoey punctuations in the background, and then, steadiest and wistful-iest of all, there’s Justin Vernon–doing musical business as Bon Iver–with his mournful yet adamant falsetto telling some difficult to pin down tale of past love gone (probably) wrong. It’s a song at once engaging and elusive: search past the meaty chorus and nicely textured atmosphere and listen for what’s there (listen, for one, to how the electric guitar and the horns intertwine sonically) and then also what’s not there. Beyond the chorus, and a brief wordless section near the end, Vernon opens his mouth only to sing two lyrical lines separated by a measure of music, and we hear them just twice. Which is to say the song marches along pretty much without any real verses. No wonder it sounds wistful. Vernon recorded this album holed up by himself in a cabin in the woods in the Wisconsin winter, in the wake of the dissolution of his former band, DeYarmond Edison. (No wonder he sounds wistful.) The haunted falsetto is new for this project, which gets its name from the French greeting “Good winter,” although Vernon chose to leave off the silent “h” from hiver. “For Emma” is the semi-title track from the first Bon Iver CD, For Emma, Forever Ago, which was self-released in July.

“Quit While You’re Ahead” – Southeast Engine

This one has a satisfying bottom-heaviness to it, due to a few different things I’m hearing: first, what sounds like a snare-free drum kit; second, the band’s refreshing emphasis of the electric guitar’s lower register; and then also the minor key in which the song is set. Southeast Engine is a six-man band but at their core they are led by guitartist/singer Adam Remnant (apparently an out of work middle school teacher) and drummer/percussionist Leo DeLuca, and I think the drum and guitar really drive the sound more than in most larger outfits–both of them play with a loose intensity that doesn’t mistake muscle for bashing or rhythm for uniformity. The verses are dominated by the pulsing tom-tom, and some atmospheric guitar work, while Remnant, singing, withholds a bit, a tremulous edge to his voice. At the chorus, the song opens out dramatically, with its one-note lyrical lines enhanced by a phalanx of vocal harmonies, which sound both shouted and turned down at the same time, and its ominous message about the poisoning of our public sphere with lies and deception. Southeast Engine is from Athens–Ohio, not Georgia–but like its more well-known counterpart, also a college town with a spirited music scene. “Quit While You’re Ahead” is a song from the band’s new CD, A Wheel Within a Wheel, their third full-length, due out next week on Misra Records. The MP3 is via the band’s site.

“Pluto” – Clare & the Reasons

Check out the earnest-goofy orchestral setting this one leaps from the starting gates with: all twittering pizzicatos, like some misplaced radio advertisement from the 1940s—pretty hard, I think, not to be charmed. (One of the things that rock’n’roll has yet to learn from classical music is that music can, in fact, instrumentally, be funny, can bring a smile to the face.) And then when Clare Muldaur Manchon starts cooing those earnest-goofy lyrics directly to the icy, undersized, woebegone, no-longer-a-planet, well, this one’s a slam dunk, to my ears. “Pluto, I have some frightful news, dear,” she begins—and lord, how about that blissful glide from the major to the minor chord as she eases from “news” to “dear,” beginning at 0:22; be still my heart! And it’s not just Muldaur who’s charming us—she’s got a coterie of able musicians along for this retro-groovy space ride, including backup singers who deliver jazzy accents and nifty three- (I think) part harmonies, an economical but vivid piano player, and a drummer offering some lovely muted drumming, all the while accompanied by those strings, who pluck and bow as required by the inventive arrangements. Manchon is the daughter of ’60s music stalwart Geoff Muldaur; her husband, Olivier, is one of the seven members of the ensemble (he plays violin, piano, and saw). “Pluto” is the lead track on the band’s debut CD, The Movie, released on Frog Stand Records, a label started by Manchon and a friend of hers from her Berklee School of Music days. Thanks to 3hive for this one.

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