This Week’s Finds: March 16-22 (Grand Archives, Brooke Waggoner, and A Brief Smile)

“Torn Blue Foam Couch” – Grand Archives

This is one of those sweeping, evocative, thoroughly impressive songs that everyone more or less has to like—until, of course, everyone does like it, at which point there will be those who decide they don’t like it because too many people like it. You know the drill.

Lovely melodies are front and center in “Torn Blue Foam Couch”; they feel like bygone melodies, from another time and place, wafting through the window almost Twilight Zone-ishly—you’re sure you recognize them, but something seems a little off. There are some unusual instrument choices—the harp sound in the intro (might actually be a ukulele) isn’t something you hear every day, and that rubbery drum that kicks in at around 0:48 is not typically heard in a standard drum kit. But something else seems subtly awry as the song develops and after any number of listens I finally figured it out: this baby has a bizarre structure: it’s all verse for the first two-plus minutes, and then all chorus the rest of the way. The switchover happens at about 2:16, and you can really feel the shift in your gut at that point—it’s like you didn’t realize quite how much the tension was building until it finally released.

Lyrically the song escapes me—no matter how many times I listen, a combination of Mat Brooke’s pretty yet often unintelligible voice and some defiantly inscrutable lyrics continue to stymie. “Hey darling don’t you look fine/The dull look in your eyes/You’re terrified”: fascinating, but—huh? Brooke formed the Seattle-based Grand Archives in 2006, after leaving Band of Horses following their first CD for Sub Pop Records. Previously, he was in a band that has seemed retrospectively influential–the purposefully misspelled outfit Carissa’s Wierd, which also featured Jenn Ghetto and Sera Cahoone, and whose odd, neo-folk-rock sound presaged the likes of the Decemberists and Johanna Newsom. “Torn Blue Foam Couch” is from Grand Archives’ sort of self-titled debut CD, The Grand Archives, which was released last month, also on Sub Pop. MP3 via Sub Pop.

“Hush If You Must” – Brooke Waggoner

Brooke Waggoner may be the only singer/songwriter in Nashville who cites Chopin as an influence, never mind both Chopin and ELO. So she is not a typical Nashville musician; she’s from Louisiana but she’s not a typical Louisiana musician either. She seems, indeed, to have her eye on music that extends beyond any one regional palette—or any one genre’s palette, for that matter. “Hush If You Must,” while starting as a breezy piano ditty (the intro recalls “Daydream Believer” to these ears), quickly hangs a fuller-fledged, string-laden sound upon that original, recurring refrain. There are tempo changes and mood shifts throughout, centered on the basic dichotomy of the musically restrained vocal sections, featuring Waggoner’s double-tracked yet cozy voice, and the swifter, louder instrumental sections—which include one unexpected, tempo-shifting break, at 1:38, all honky-tonk and handclaps.

Waggoner has a college degree in music composition and orchestration, and is personally responsible for the string arrangements that play a central role here. But even when a soaring string display grabs your attention, I suggest keeping an ear on the piano. Waggoner has a sure touch at the keyboard–her playing has palpable personality, and not just during the honky-tonk interlude. I feel as if I can see her determined, playful, satisfied face as she nimbly hammers out her sure-fingered lines. Listen in particular to the extended piano solo she takes starting at 2:52—it’s not complicated, but it’s vibrant and personal in a way that more overtly virtuosic playing often isn’t.

Waggoner is 23, and has one EP to her name so far—Fresh Pair of Eyes, which was self-released last year. “Hush If You Must” is the lead track from the EP, and is available as an MP3 via SXSW, where Waggoner performed last week.

“Big Sky” – A Brief Smile

An exquisitely ambivalent song, musically speaking, “Big Sky” rings with unresolved chords, elegant dissonance, ringing harmonics, and finely-tuned noise–all hung on the unassuming frame of a sturdy little pop song. Succinct melodies, verse-bridge-chorus, you can even sing along. This is a marvelous accomplishment.

The chorus is a particular wonder; I can’t recall another song featuring such a blatantly unresolved musical setting in the chorus—normally the place where the song’s tension is released via melodies that come home to solid, grounded chords. None of that goes on here. The melodies lay out against a wash of chords that don’t match; the ends of lines leave us hanging musically until the very end, and even there, rather than a typical resolution we get an unexpected downward leap of six intervals—the aural equivalent of taking a last downward step on a staircase you thought you were already at the bottom of. You arrive surprised, unexpectedly reacquainted with gravity.

A Brief Smile is a five-piece band from NY and I’m just now stumbling upon them, and listening to this song, and liking it, and lookee here, it came out in September, and the band itself has been around long enough that they have “big fans” out there who apparently hang on their every note. Such is the unconquerable breadth and depth of the contemporary rock’n’roll scene. I will never get my arms entirely around it and neither will you or anyone else. The best we can do is work together to fill in one another’s missing pieces. “Big Sky” is a song off the band’s CD Now We All Have Horns, released on Wrecking Ball Music. MP3 via the band’s site.

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