This one sounds pure and true and good—completely devoid of the “hmm, what’s the best way to sound cool?” sensibility that mars some of the music one hears from U.S. and U.K. bands in particular. The Brunettes are from New Zealand, so that partially explains it. But the key here, to me, is Heather Mansfield’s voice, which is heart-breaking if you listen carefully: gorgeous and imperfect, it’s a little bit breathy, a little bit raspy, a little bit almost-out-of-tune, a little bit era-free (she’s kind of ’60s but also kind of not), and maybe at its most fetching when reaching towards her upper register. Another boy-girl duo in this golden age of boy-girl duos, the Brunettes aren’t rigid about it; even as Mansfield plays keyboards, glockenspiel, xylophone, and clarinet(!) (her partner, Jonathan Bree, sings and plays guitar), the twosome is happy to bring in other players when it seems like a good idea, which can be almost any time at all, apparently. A trumpet wanders in about a third of the way through, offers some smart Bacharachy punctuation, then gives way to some (synthesized?) strings and ultimately (why not) an accordion–which later becomes part of an instrumental break featuring (for probably the first time in rock history) accordion, xylophone, and electronic percussion. It’s quirky but the bittersweet melody, anchoring guitar work, and Mansfield’s unerring voice keep everything brilliantly just so. “Small Town Crew” is from the CD Structure & Cosmetics, which came out on Subpop Records back in August. Not sure how this one passed me by at the time but, as the saying goes, better late than really really late. MP3 via Subpop.
So you’re two freshmen goofing around with electronic music in college who end up forming a band more or less by accident. Goes without saying, therefore, that within four years, legendary producer Steve Lillywhite hears you and gets you signed to a four-record, six-figure deal with Columbia Records. Or not; but that’s what has indeed happened to Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, who met at Wesleyan in 2002 and within months of graduating were shaking hands with major-label honchos. If this song is indicative, these guys do in fact have something interesting going–something, in this particular case, that merges thick, hairy, synth-driven beats with a quasi-cheesy, neo-glam-rock vibe and a wry take on life. Pushed along by a chipper, just this side of irritating synthesizer riff, “Time to Pretend” lays out a cliched story of rock-star decadence and flameout as something the band is simply “fated to pretend” rather than achieve. Amusingly, we can’t quite tell if they’re making fun of the musicians who’ve succumbed to this or the rest of us for our standard, humdrum existences–or, most likely, both. “Time to Pretend” is the lead track from the band’s debut CD, Oracular Spectacular, which came out digitally last month, available via iTunes; the CD will apparently be released next month. MP3 via Better Propaganda.
Another song that has been around since the summer too, but in this case I’ve actually been listening to it for that long (unlike the Brunettes song, which I just recently discovered). “My Oldest Memory” resides on the least pop-like end of the Fingertips music spectrum; I’ve been transfixed since I first heard it by the eerie-Appalachian instrumentation, inscrutable lyricism, and elusive structure, but have been uncertain about the song’s apparent lack of hooks–just when I want the song to kick into something simple and solid, it instead recedes into its landscape-like, fiddle-based complexities, homespun percussion, and that abrupt non-sing-along-y sing-along section. This week, however, it more or less flung itself after “Time to Pretend,” daring me to push it away. I dare not. This song has legs, and deserves a good long listen at your end too. Bowerbirds is a trio from Raleigh featuring Phil Moore singing and doing some other things, Mark Paulson on violin and some other things, and Beth Tacular, an accomplished painter who also happens to play accordion and marching-band bass drum, while sitting. “My Oldest Memory” can be found on their debut CD, Hymns for a Dark Horse, which was released in July on Burly Time Records. Thanks way back when to Gorilla vs. Bear for the head’s up and the link.