This Week’s Finds: March 30-April 5 (The M’s, Laura Cantrell, Annuals)

“Big Sound” – the M’s

Giddily nostalgic and busily eclectic, “Big Sound” shakes and squeals to a tinny ’00s cavalcade of buzzy electronics, stomping piano, and echoey vocals, with a perky but disheveled horn section and some radio frequency sounds thrown in because, well, it’s a big sound. Neo-glam-garage-pop with an R&B chaser, or some such thing.

Most impressive of all is how this Chicago-based quartet mine rock history with such panache. With “Big Sound,” the M’s manage, almost uniquely, to evoke the Beatles, the Kinks, and the Stones pretty much at the same time, but with a magnetism that is independent of influence. This is one of those songs in which the chorus offers not too much more than a minor variation, melodically, of what we’ve already heard in the verse–and yet how compelling I find it, snaky guitar lines working with the pounding piano and nutty horns (listen to how the whole thing comes to a humorous halt for a moment at about 1:42) to drive us, with a sense of barely controlled chaos, towards, ultimately, well…complete chaos: the final minute of the song is a dreamy denouement of echoing feedback and tweedling guitars and electronics that feels oddly right and satisfying after the frenetic bustle of the previous three and a half minutes.

The M’s sound to me like the real deal. They’ve been around since 2000, recording since ’03. “Big Sound” is an advance track off Real Close Ones, the band’s third full-length CD, due out on Polyvinyl Records in June. MP3 courtesy of Pitchfork.

“Love Vigilantes” – Laura Cantrell

Nashville-born, NYC-based Laura Cantrell is a 21st-century anomaly–a country singer who falls neither into the syrupy, commercialized “country music” camp nor into the allegedly hipper and up-to-date-er “” camp. She seeks to sing something pure and folk-based that manages to sound at once very traditional and very present in the here and now. Her influences are clear to anyone who has tuned in to her acclaimed radio show, “Radio Thrift Shop,” a fixture on WFMU since 2000. There, she offers music from a wide range of often obscure artists (Pee Wee Crayton? Gitfiddle Jim?) from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, mixing down-home old-style jazz with western swing and plain old country–you are warned in advance that the songs are “often scratchy, swingy and stringy.” (RTS disappeared for a while in the ’05-’06 time frame; it has since returned in a biweekly, online-only format.)

Neither scratchy, swingy, nor stringy, “Love Vigilantes” is a plaintive, beautifully arranged reworking of a New Order song that was once upon a time a staple on “modern rock” radio. Cantrell sings with a straightforward tone, golden and nourishing, with a tincture of twang and ache, but without a trace of emoting. In direct contrast to commercially-motivated music, producers of which appear to believe that the straightest way to emotion is a combination of histrionic singing and overripe arrangements, Cantrell presents with true heart, and demonstrates the power of disciplined playing. Listen to the piano during the first 10 seconds–single notes, given their space–for an example. The fiddle, meanwhile, plays with such artful restraint, low washes coloring the mandolin, that you may not realize it’s there until it steps out for a sad, pensive solo at around 1:50.

First appearing on the soundtrack for the Iraq War documentary Body of War last year, “Love Vigilantes” is one of the nine songs on Cantrell’s new, digital-only CD, Trains and Boats and Planes. The songs are themed loosely around travel–perhaps natural enough for a woman who has been on hiatus from music for three years, taking care of her first child. Staying home with a baby is one of the surest ways to launch daydreams about seeing the world. Six of the songs are covers; three are new versions of previously released Cantrell songs. The album will be available digitally next month via Diesel Only Records.

“Sore” – Annuals

The relative youngsters from the North Carolina-based band Annuals (no “the”) are back with another dramatic aural landscape disguised as a pop song. As with “Brother,” from 2006, “Sore” starts gently, almost pastorally, but doesn’t stay there. The wondrous thing is that the louder, churning sections are nothing if not more gorgeous than the quiet sections. Also, this time, the song is not simply split into the “quiet first half” and the “loud second half”; the dynamics on “Sore” are more complex, and the end result is, I think, even more rewarding.

The beginning is certainly pretty, but subtly disquieting, as the time signature is hard to pin down, and rendered trickier when the drummer kicks in with a gentle, brushed swing rhythm at 0:32 that somehow fits on top of the existing structure even as it doesn’t seem as if it should. The subsequent two changes are cumulatively magnificent: at 1:14, when the music remains gentle but the new rhythm is now fully embraced; and then at 1:35, when the band erupts and lets loose. But not for too long, as a string-dominated instrumental section brings us back to a not-quite-as-quiet quiet section. The second time through, the verse is altered by some twitchy percussion, and leads more quickly back to the full-volume swing–alterations that keep our interest without causing us to lose our bearings entirely. Also, don’t miss the modulation at 3:30: it’s a simple trick but sounds so inevitable that when I go back to listen to the first half, I keep being surprised it’s not there also.

“Sore” is one of three Annuals songs on a new split EP the band has done with a group called Sunfold–a group which is, as it turns out, composed of the same six people who are in Annuals. In Sunfold, however, Annuals frontman Adam Baker steps aside and lead guitarist Kenny Florence does the writing and singing. The two Sunfold songs on the EP are apparently a bit more guitar-oriented than standard Annuals fare. The EP, called Wet Zoo, is out this week on Canvasback Music. The MP3 is yet another from Pitchfork. If you can overlook a certain amount of snooty (not to mention snotty) writing, Pitchfork has turned into a grand source for exclusive free and legal MP3s over the past couple of years.

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