This Week’s Finds: March 9-15 (The Chocolate Horse, Paul Kelly, Shearwater)

“The Caribbean” – the Chocolate Horse

I find this very distinctive blend of homeliness and sophistication completely enjoyable. The Chocolate Horse are five guys from Cincinnati who give the impression of playing whatever instruments they feel like playing, in whatever style they happen to start playing. If “The Caribbean” has an island sound to it, we’re talking about a peculiar island—one that maybe grows both palm trees and cacti, on which cowboys on horses saunter down the beach in suede bathing trunks and everyone else is on vacation, but prefers to stay inside reading and listening to the radio, which only broadcast bands from Omaha pretending to be from Cuba.

Or something like that. Over and above the rhythm’s lazy sway and the eccentric interplay of trumpet, upright bass, and (dobro?) guitar, “The Caribbean” succeeds on the strength of Jason Snell’s oddly appealing voice. Half whispering, half growling, Snell sings with a historical sort of command, his voice echoing with the authority of some long-lost ’70s crooner, augmented with a ghostly falsetto and an indie rocker’s penchant for straying (winsomely) off pitch. A French horn and a saw are additional recruits in the Chocolate Horse’s instrument arsenal, although I’m not sure I’m hearing the latter in this song, and I may be imagining the occasional appearance here of the former.

“The Caribbean” is a song from the band’s debut CD, released last year and recorded when they were still officially a trio. Like every other band in the world, and every other music lover (truly, I’m sure no one is left around this week to read this except maybe you), the Chocolate Horse will be in Austin for SXSW. The MP3 is available via the vast SXSW MP3 collection.

“God Told Me To” – Paul Kelly

An old-fashioned folk-rocker with a new tale to tell: here, one of Australia’s most well-known living pop music bards sings, first person, as a terrorist, justifying his actions in our post-9/11 world. The canny, world-weary Kelly knows exactly how much his sociopath’s words sound like something an American president might likewise say (in our post-9/11 world): “The wicked need chastisement, you know it’s either them or us”; “God told me to/I answer not to them or you”; etc.

Kelly is often talked about as the Ray Davies/Bruce Springsteen (imagine them mushed together) of Australia, but he hasn’t been too successfully exported to the U.S. over the years. The closest he got to a certain sort of left-of-center recognition here came with his 1988 album Under the Sun, thanks to the appeal to “modern rock” radio stations of the song “Dumb Things” (in truth, a wonderful song, which still sounds great).
That album was recorded with a band called the Messengers (originally the Coloured Girls, changed for American export).

A classic single’s length (3:42), with an incisive guitar line and a haunting chorus, “God Told Me To” is nonetheless (obviously) as far from single material as could be in this country. So I’m not picturing a belated breakthrough for the estimable Mr. Kelly just yet. The artfully stark video could under the right circumstances get some YouTube love but then again it’s been around since the summer and has been seen only 8,000 times, mostly (I’m guessing) by Australians. But hey, the man’s playing at SXSW (see? everyone!), which is a mighty accomplishment for a 50-something musician. Stolen Apples, the 2007 CD on which you’ll find this song, has not been released in the U.S., but maybe the SXSW appearance is a harbinger of a domestic release? In the meantime, the MP3 is available via SXSW.

“Rooks” – Shearwater

     Shearwater is not only playing at SXSW this week but is based in Austin. The theme is complete. This song, however, is brand new, the semi-title track to an album called Rook, scheduled for release in June. On it, Shearwater continues both its penchant for lovely-ominous music and its avian fixation–the name Shearwater, you might recall, comes from a type of bird that flies close to the surface of the water; recall, too, that band leader Jonathan Meiburg has himself been an ornithological graduate student. While you’re at it, you may as well be reminded that Meiburg is a member both of Shearwater and a little band you may have heard of called Okkervil River. (OR’s front man, Will Sheff, is likewise in both bands, which is kind of cool.)

Meiburg sings with great, almost old-fashioned sweetness and his melodies are so gentle that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that “Rooks” is without question a tense, briskly-moving composition, marked by siren-like instrumental flourishes and cryptic but assuredly dark lyrics. When he lets rip the word “paralyzed” with uncharacteristic pungency (at 1:42; almost the exact halfway point), it’s as if we’ve been all but slapped awake only to fall instantly back into a new dream: the ensuing trumpet solo, underscored by distant, determined (bird-call-y?) “wo-oh-oh-ohs,” places us into a newly formed musical landscape. The dream, teetering on the borderline between interesting and nightmarish, continues.

Rook will mark Shearwater’s debut on Matador Records; its last few CDs were released by Misra Records. MP3 via Matador.

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