This Week’s Finds: January 20-26 (The Autumns, Thao, Biirdie)

“Boys” – the Autumns

Riveting, dramatic, slightly breathless, and thoroughly satisfying, “Boys” is the perfect soundtrack somehow to a crisp blue January day, even if the band is named the Autumns, not the Winters. The song opens with a distinctive drumbeat that launches us into an edgy, unusually dynamic melody. The edginess comes from two elements: first, the melody appears to start off the tonic–that is, the tune begins within a chord that is somehow not home base, which is an unusual circumstance, especially in a pop song; second, the melody never in fact seems to settle in a place that feels centered. The third and fourth measures are the closest we get to a “home” feeling, harmonically, and even there it’s vague and fleeting; after that, the melody in the verse springs from an almost startling series of chord changes.

And the band is really just getting started at that point. The chorus continues the kinetic vibe: an angular guitar chord–another off-center thing–leads us into a soaring section in which singer Matthew Kelly, leaping up a minor sixth (0:26), shows off a formidable falsetto; here the melodic momentum is such that it seems to be dragging Kelly along with it, the way the tide moves the water but is not the water: up and down he goes, in and out of his upper range, and in and out of singing actual words–the lyrics break for a stretch of wordless syllables right in the heart of the chorus (which themselves mirror the underlying drumbeat), and the effect is of a song overcome by its own fervor.

Perhaps long-time Fingertips visitors remember the L.A.-based Autumns from three years ago, when they were featured here for the song “Slumberdoll.” That was darn good; this is truly great. “Boys” is a song from the CD Fake Noise From a Box of Toys, the band’s fourth, which was released in the U.K. in the fall, and is slated for a U.S. release in April on Bella Union.

“Bag of Hammers” – Thao With the Get Down Stay Down

Thao Nguyen has a woolly-textured, back-of-the-throat sort of voice that brings to mind Erica Wennerstrom of the Heartless Bastards. Thao has an airier air about her, however–a feeling supported by the cheery banjo with which she chooses to accompany herself and the sprightly, slightly cockeyed rhythm that bounces us along. The jaunty guilelessness on display in fact puts me in the mind of the sound pioneered by Talking Heads in their early recordings: this sense of simple yet off-kilter music that surprises even the people playing it, as they play it.

Nguyen, from Virginia, released her first CD in 2005, a solo effort entitled Like the Linen. The disc eventually found its way to Tucker Marine, who plays with Laura Veirs and has produced the Decemberists and Sufjan Stevens. And now, also, he has produced We Brave Bee Stings and All, Thao’s second full-length, recorded with her band, to be released later this month on Kill Rock Stars (that’s a record label). “Bag of Hammers” is the album’s second track.

“Him” – Biirdie

This one features both a classic-sounding melody, almost folk-like in its sturdiness, and an ongoing urge to deconstruct it. Sometimes oddball electronics wander in. Other times, the band grinds itself more or less to a halt, just when you were air drumming to the Phil Spector-ish beat. The bass, meanwhile, seems to come and go, and when present opts often for extended notes rather than a typical, rhythm-oriented pulse. And how often does the worn-out sounding male vocalist get a sweetly harmonizing female vocalist to sing with? Not very often is the answer.

So this trio calling itself Biirdie—oops, another L.A. outfit this week—kind of makes you listen more than once. Much the way their name kind of makes you look more than once. In the old days, by the way, I’d find the oddly-spelled name somewhat irritating. But here in the Google Age, the name is a boon: search on “Biirdie” and you pretty much get stuff about them and only them. However accidental the origin—they had wanted merely to be Birdie but there was already a Birdie band—the strategy appears sound. I fear a trend coming on.

You’ll find “Him” on the CD Catherine Avenue, coming out this week on Love Minus Zero Records.

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