This Week’s Finds: Dec. 9-15 (Camphor, Jong Pang, Robbers on High Street)

“Confidences Shattered” – Camphor

When bands get it right, they can make their music sound so easy and familiar that they don’t seem to be doing much of anything at all. This is one important reason why critics or bloggers or fellow musicians who would sniff at a band for not doing anything “new” are so misguided. Good music isn’t all about “new”; it’s about “good,” and sometimes–maybe a lot of times–this has not too much to do with sounding new.

Camphor is a marvelous case in point. There is nothing obviously new about “Confidences Shattered” but many a good and right and splendid thing. The crisp aural landscape is a major part of the appeal, capturing as it does a down-home sort of chamber pop with smashing clarity and precision. As the players play with skill, creativity, and restraint (a rare trifecta), the recording continually gives the listener the sensation of being in the room with them as they shift in their seats, adjust the grips on their instruments, and invent percussive accents. But the clincher here is Max Avery Lichtenstein’s marvelous voice, which has a gracious, gratifying depth (nothing against tenors but it’s nice to hear a baritone every now and then!); and he sings with impeccable timing. Check out how he phrases “whenever the mood strikes you” at 1:49; more subtly, check out how his words “left us broke” (starting around :42) give the instruments extra oomph in the spaces in between.

As with many indie bands in the ’00s, Camphor is the brainchild of one mastermind, who then enlists a bevy of sidekicks to flesh out the sound. Unusual in this case, however, is Lichtenstein’s background—he’s a film composer who has worked on the critically-acclaimed movies Tarnation (2003) and Home Front (2006), among others. “Confidences Shattered” is from his debut CD as Camphor, Drawn to Dust, which will be released in February on Friendly Fire Recordings. MP3 via Friendly Fire.

“Stains on Your Sweater” – Jong Pang

Okay, back to the tenors—in this case a tenor with such a soaring range that I had to double-check to be sure this was in fact a man singing. It is; he’s Danish musician Anders Rhedin, formerly of a band called Moon Gringo. Rhedin has been away from rock’n’roll for a few years, apparently immersing himself in world, folk, and classical music. But he’s back in the indie world and seems to be going by Jong Pang this time around.

“Stains on Your Sweater” announces itself with an unearthly fanfare before we even hear Rhedin’s keening vocals. An upward-yearning fourth interval repeats on an electronic keyboard, but listen carefully to what else is in there: an acoustic guitar, some industrial noise, and, if I’m not mistaken, either choral voices or electronically simulated choral voices. Half robotic, half medieval, this is quite a stew in which to cook a pop song. But it hardly needs be said that this is no normal pop song. Rhedin’s double-tracked voice enters 30 seconds in, singing about stains and sleeves and sweaters; and while the content is difficult to decipher what is clear is the deliberate repetition of words, creating a sort of slowed-down minimalist ambiance, reinforced by the reiterating fourth interval that continually informs the musical structure, even when the hammering keyboard riff disappears. I love the use of flat-out noise—you’ll hear an episode of it from 0:57 to 1:24–and how the song continues on otherwise, as if nothing untoward is occurring: the drumming keeps the beat, the chord progression progresses, and, best of all, a stubborn piano picks out a slightly desultory melody despite all the commotion.

“Stains on Your Sweater” is a song from the forthcoming Jong Pang debut, to be called Bright White Light, set for release in 2008 on a new European label called Tigerspring (so new it doesn’t yet have a web site). MP3 courtesy of Tigerspring.

“Seasons Greetings” – Robbers on High Street

And talk about getting something right. Christmas music is, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, something very easy to do, well, not right. The NYC-based Robbers on High Street, with their effortless Kinks-like flair, convert this strange musical relic—originally one of 200,000 “song poems” that were created over the course of 50 years during the last century (a phenomenon you can read more about here)—into its own sort of homely holiday classic.

Song poems were basically a scam. The idea was to lure people via small magazine ads (which originally promised income for songwriting) into paying good money to have their words converted into a recorded song with as little effort as possible, by uncredited industry hacks. This was not how to crack the Billboard Hot 100. A few years back, Bar/None Records released a couple of compilations of these original song-poem recordings, one of which was a Christmas album. “Seasons Greetings,” written by Raymond Moberly and originally performed by an outfit called Teri Summers and the Librettos, is a song filled with generic sentiment and lines that often don’t scan very well with the music. Robbers on High Street dive merrily in, giving it a Phil Spector-beated intro (cute) and latching breezily onto the song’s gleeful melody, which comes alive in a very Ron Sexsmith-y sort of way when relieved of the lounge-singer pseudo-swing of the original version. MP3 available via New Line Records.

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