This Week’s Finds: November 4-10 (I Am Bones, Sambassadeur, Hopewell)

“The Main Thing is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing” – I Am Bones

So this is a band with a sense of humor, which can be a mixed blessing in rock’n’roll, where a conscious effort to appear “funny” often crosses the line into “hm, maybe not funny.” The best way to stay on the good side of the line is, first of all, for the humor to seem self-effacing rather than obnoxious and, second (and more important), for the music itself to be delightful. The Danish quartet I Am Bones—whose first, self-released CD had the Firesign Theater-esque title of If You Really Love Me, Send Me More Medical Supplies—appears to satisfy on both counts with this splendid slice of slightly skewed, smile-inducing power pop. Listen, instantly, to the harmonies employed right out of the gate, which utilize elastic intervals that I can’t discern, delivered over a twitchy guitar rhythm. The off-kilter flavor of the verse, pleasing on its own, further serves to make the straight-ahead I-IV-V brilliance of the chorus all the more appetizing. Here, front man Johannes Gammelby’s voice takes on an unexpected depth, as the bottom-heavy drive of the music combines with the upward-leaning melody to lend him something of Jeff Lynne’s congenial vocal power. One final key to success is succinctness: the song lasts barely longer than the title; we hear the chorus but twice, as the entire last minute of a not-very-long-anyway song is a guitar-driven instrumental coda. “The Main Thing…” is from the new I Am Bones CD, The Greater Good, the band’s second for the English-speaking Danish label Morningside Records, released last month in Europe. The MP3 is via Morningside.

“Subtle Changes” – Sambassadeur

We’re staying in Scandanavia for no particular reason except that this next wonderful song sounds great after our first wonderful song. Sambassadeur is a quartet from Gothenburg, Sweden whose previously stripped-down vibe (in the past, their recordings were done at home) has been fetchingly boosted by echoey strings, atmospheric percussion, a grand, chugging rhythm and, later on, a honking sax solo. Anna Persson, once a casual, somewhat deadpan vocalist—singing in short, talky phrases, and sounding as if she could not sing and smile at the same time—here emerges with a richer tone, partly because of the production but partly also because she’s not afraid to hold her notes, to fully sing. She may not yet be smiling but she’s loosened up her facial muscles and in so doing shifted away from irony and towards passion, which engenders I think much more than a subtle change in the band’s sound. What they retain, however, is a nimble way with melody; listen in particular to the chorus and how beautifully the melody extends beyond the confines of a typical four-measure pop chorus–the melodic line here is actually nine measures long, which is unusual, seemingly one measure too long, and it leaves us vaguely unresolved musically, too, until the chorus repeats a second time and then hooks back into the opening chord of the verse section (compare the unfinished feeling from 1:43 through 1:46 to the resolution at 1:47). “Subtle Changes” is from Migration, Sambassadeur’s first studio album, released last month, in Europe, on Labrador Records. MP3 via Labrador.

“Tree” – Hopewell

It’s really hard, I think, to start a pop song this slowly; and to do so with a high-pitched, slightly nasally tenor such as Jason Russo’s front and center is even harder. But his voice is not, at first, what anchors the ear here. The piano, instead, commands attention, with its simple, firm, plaintive chords. Four times the chords shift during this slow opening, and notice how, with each chord shift, Russo nevertheless comes back to settle on the same melodic note; Tyson Lewis’s uncluttered, shifting chords create such a strong, if bittersweet, feeling that they trick the ear into thinking the melody is moving more than it is. When the band kicks in at 0:34, the small, careful instrumental flourishes put me in the mind of an old Band song, which the central, doleful melody reinforces, not to mention Russo’s intermittent resemblance to Rick Danko. While the opening progression remains at the center of this almost inexplicably captivating song, varied textures arise along the way, building towards a louder, fuller-bodied conclusion, complete with deep rumblings underneath and an almost orchestrated feel to the band’s playing. Hopewell is not from Scandanavia; Poughkeepsie, New York is the off-the-beaten path home for this talented but largely unrecognized quintet. “Tree” is from Beautiful Targets, the band’s fifth CD, released in July on Tee Pee Records.

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