This Week’s Finds, Feb. 17-23 (La Scala, Raise High the Roof Beam, Kaki King)

“Parallel Lives” – La Scala

We can all use a big heaping dollop of melodrama with our pop every now and then, and La Scala is happy to deliver. (Even the name of this Chicago band implies something larger than life and over the top.) Up above the introduction’s searing, machine-gun guitar line and the ’80s dance beat, listen to that second guitar plucking out a homely, vaguely East European motif. Or maybe it’s not a guitar, as it sounds like a bouzouki or some such old country instrument; in any case, this is the best kind of musical melodrama—the kind that has you smiling for potentially unknown reasons.

Like for instance the verse. Listen, in the second half, to how singer Balthazar de Ley and one of the guitars “harmonize” in a crazy sort of way–the guitar plays a line completely in sync with the melody rhythmically, but squonking all over the place harmonically. It’s kind of wacky but also subtle–you might not notice, but, again, it creates an enjoyable mood. And then there’s that resplendent, two-part chorus, at which point this song truly sounds like some great early ’80s post-new wave hit, an impression furthered by de Ley’s familiar-sounding voice, which has the throaty warmth of one of those dreamy New Romantic-era singers.

De Ley by the way grew up both in Paris and in Champaign, Illinois, which may at least partially account for the intriguing, old-world sensibility laced into the band’s sound. La Scala was just formed last year. “Parallel Lives” is from their first EP, The Harlequin, to be released next week by the Chicago-based Highwheel Records.

<"My Father" – Raise High the Roof Beam

And now we get the antidote to sweeping, driving melodrama: the vulnerable, acoustic-based “My Father,” from singer/songwriter Thomas Fricilone, also Chicago-based, doing Salinger-inspired musical business as Raise High the Roof Beam. I find myself engaged right away by the broken descent of the opening riff—we begin with a standard downward progression but what’s less standard is how it stops and hangs out at the third note, two notes short of the resolution. We suspend there for the same length of time it took to get us there, and then the resolution is turned upside down: after hearing 5-4-3, and hanging out on 3, we then get 1-2 rather than 2-1. It’s all very simple and clear but interesting, and implies overturned expectations or unexpected conclusions, themes that bear out lyrically as the song unfolds.

Fricilone has a quavery voice that does not always stay on pitch, but in the particular musical setting he gives himself here the end result is gracious and affecting. For all that it may sound at first like a simple acoustic-guitar strummer, there’s actually a nimble array of instruments weaving together, including piano, ukelele, eletric guitar, maybe a melodica, and perhaps a synthesizer. Fricilone also double-tracks his vocals here, which I think gives them extra potency, and maybe compensates for the pitch variation, while maintaining the underlying fragility that serve the lyrics especially well: “My father told me I’d be late for life/That’s okay ’cause I think that waiting’s all right/I avoid the news for things that I might fear/My father tells me all the things that I don’t want to hear.”

“My Father” is a song that will appear on Raise High the Roof Beam’s Family EP, a work that is still in progress. MP3 courtesy of Fricilone’s web site.

“Pull Me Out Alive” – Kaki King

Dipping for the first time into the new SXSW MP3s, I’ve pulled out a plum, and an unexpected plum at that. Kaki King is a musician known initially for her ear-opening acoustic guitar virtuosity, which she has had a tendency to put on display in songs that are maybe a little complicated. Even as she has expanded her sonic palette over the past couple of years, and started singing on her songs, she has not previously focused her music quite so pointedly. But for her soon-to-be-released Dreaming of Revenge CD, King had producer Malcolm Burn at the board. Burn has worked with everyone from Bob Dylan and Patti Smith to Emmylou Harris and the Neville Brothers; he apparently told King, “If someone can’t be sawing a log in half and whistling along to the song, I don’t want it on the record.” Thus has King’s music taken a turn towards the accessible, shall we say.

And it doesn’t sound like a bad thing to me. Accessible doesn’t mean uninteresting, or bland. “Pull Me Out Alive” alternates itchy, idiosyncratically propulsive verses–check out the way her vocals are layered (starting around 0:29) to sound like a slightly out-of-sync conversation–with a drony, dreamy chorus that finishes on a wonderfully unresolved chord. I find the instrumental break at 2:10 particularly interesting; employing an intriguing blend of electric and electronic sounds, it nevertheless strikes me at its core as something she might previously have used at the center of one of her acrobatic and percussive guitar displays. While those who latched onto King for her instrumental mastery may be disoriented by a song like this, I kind of like it. And I assume she still does play the guitar now and then. I guess we’ll find out when the CD comes out next month. That’ll be on Velour Recordings. MP3, as noted, via SXSW, and this one may in fact be exclusive.

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