A brisk but elegiac piano sequence, underscored by some spooky strings, leads us directly into the intriguing melody of this new song from the Portland, Ore.-based singer/songwriter Nick Jaina. I’ve been trying to put my finger on just what makes the tune so compelling, and I’m thinking it has something to do with Jaina’s prominent use of semitones, or half steps, which is not something you hear a lot of in indie rock, or classic rock, or any other kind of rock or pop for that matter. The half step is the smallest commonly recognized interval between notes in Western music, and the most dissonant when played in combination. When related within a melody, however, strange and wonderful moods emerge. Listen to how the notes he sings on the words “of the moon” (0:34) and “sacred tune” (0:37) sound so divergent, so firmly separated, and yet lo and behold they are only a half step apart. The illusion is achieved by his returning, in between, to the same notes he was singing leading into the “moon” part. So what we’re hearing is not just the half-step difference in the end notes but the significant difference in sonic relationship between the top and bottom notes in the two segments (i.e. the “moon” segment and the “tune” segment). More semitones are used, in sequence, as the melody line resolves (0:38-0:42).
And I know, this kind of thing sounds neither exciting nor, often, comprehensible in an attempted written explication. And worse, with pop music in particular, I’m always caught in the awkward position of claiming treasure in a seeming musical trifle. What I describe here, after all, is no stunning revelation in music theory land. But the very thing that causes many classical aficionados to stiff at the simplicity of pop music is, I would contend, pop’s very strength–what Proust, of all people, referred to as “the magic appeal to the imagination” found in things that those interested only in “intellectual weightiness” would condemn as “frivolous.”
Then again, maybe I’m all wrong. Maybe the song is compelling because Jaina was playing on Elliott Smith’s old upright piano. Jaina was the last person to play it before it was given to the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Or maybe it’s compelling simply because Jaina–itinerant, whimsical, a former archaeology student–is himself compelling, in a quirky sort of way. “Power” is from the CD Wool, Jaina’s second, and his first for the Hush label. (He recorded the vocals for the album in his kitchen, “refrigerator unplugged so as to be quiet, food slowly spoiling,” according to his web site.) Expect Wool in early March. MP3 courtesy of WFMU.
This is an unusually breezy-sounding setting in which to encounter such fuzzy/droney guitars. And yet therein lies a good part of the appeal. So here we have vocalist Jenn Wasner, lightly, airily singing the sing-song-y tune to a perky, march-like beat, and listen to what-all is going on around her: extended drones of feedback-laced guitars, rising and falling according to their own logic, existing in their own time and space. Seriously, after the lead guitar offers a fuzzed-up version of the main melody in the introduction, we don’t hear anything straightforward out of the guitars for quite a while. Try listening to this and imagining the song without either the vocals or the drums and you’ll see how driven by entrancing noise the piece actually is. I particularly enjoy the instrumental breaks, which begin with a vague effort to give us the opening riff again, but it never manages to emerge completely amidst the semi-chaos; the second and longer of the two breaks, beginning at 2:04, has the happy Yo La Tengo-ish capacity to sound simultaneously crazed and cozy.
Listen also to the shifty time signatures. The sing-song-y, march-beat-ed verse is given a rhythmic tweak by a dropped beat in the fourth measure. This creates an extra dollop of semi-chaos in the instrumental sections connecting the verses, during which the beat of the entire song seems to have been misplaced. And then the chorus, or what passes for a chorus here, re-establishes some sonic order but all of a sudden, somehow, we’re in 6/4 (or 6/8?) time. For all the noise, this is one smooth song.
You’ll find “Warning” on the CD If Children, slated for release in April on Merge Records. The Baltimore duo Wye Oak, by the way, was until earlier this month a band called Monarch; a self-released version of If Children was put out originally last year under the old name. The change was prompted by the existence of (at least) two other bands named Monarch, and was no doubt connected to their Merge signing. The Wye Oak, you may as well know, was the honorary state tree of Maryland–it was a specific tree, of great renown, that was believed to be more than 450 years old when it was, alas, destroyed in a storm in 2002.
“Sad Songs” – the Pendletons
I’m never sure quite how or why it happens, but sometimes a song that seems at one level a pretty basic genre exercise at another level rises way above that for me. “Sad Songs” is an excellent example. A stompy, country-tinged garage rocker, there’s something in the basic vibe that sounds like it’s been cycling through rootsy musical ensembles since the dawn of time. Or at least since the 1950s. When the melody is so strongly rooted in a classic rhythm like this (Johnny Cash, anyone?), that’s a sign of a genre exercise. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it just doesn’t tend too often to inspire a melody-oriented listener like me.
But here are four relative youngsters from Athens, Georgia, cranking it up and cranking it out and what do you know?: it’s a blast. Why? No doubt the appeal has something to do with the energy of the playing. Check out, for instance, the speedy, stuttering guitar riff that anchors the end of each verse, at the “no no no” part (for instance, at 0:30)—it’s done with this tight-loose sort of accuracy that conveys an image to me of everyone in the band moving up and down in unison to the stutter of that little lick, in a manner at once comical and serious. And listen by all means to drummer Ben DuPriest, who bashes and bangs and still keeps a train-like pulse; he manages to sound rowdy and polite at the same time. Oh, and don’t miss (e.g. 0:39) the thrilling, brilliant mini-rolls (are these paradiddles? I’m not up on my drumming lingo) that he uses to puncutate each lyrical line in the chorus, except the last. Maybe that’s what’s doing it for me. The (maybe) paradiddles.
“Sad Songs” is from the Pendletons’ debut CD, Oh, Me!, which was released electronically this summer on the digital label Indie Outlaw.