This Week’s Finds: May 4-10 (The Awkward Stage, Trevor Exter, Reeve Oliver)

“Animé Eyes” – The Awkward Stage

This one has the driving grandeur of mid-’70s Roxy Music, but with the arty quirkiness replaced by power-poppiness: “Animé Eyes” positively rings with clarity and catchiness. And yet there’s more going on here than might be immediately apparent. Inspired, I imagine, by the subject matter, the verses are based on a pentatonic scale, the five-tone scale historically associated with Asian music. The pentatonic scale has an inherent sing-songy nature (at least, to my Western ears), which serves the goal of a pop song nicely, even as it also lends a slightly exotic je ne sais quoi to the musical setting (especially since the pentatonic underpinning here is subtle; no jokey musical cliches—think “Turning Japanese”—for these guys).

In the chorus, the music shifts subtly but firmly back to a Western orientation, even as there are now some Japanese words being sung—another sure-footed but subtle touch. The guitar break that comes at 2:16, however—all pentatonic. Songs that mix straight-ahead, simple-sounding pop with behind-the-scenes craft strike me as close to brilliant most of the time. It helps, I think, to have as charismatic a singer as Shane Nelken, the mastermind behind the Awkward Stage, whose voice has the sort of melodramatic gravitas we heard a lot of back in the New Romantic days of the early ’80s, but floats along with less pomposity—he even distorts it through some sort of filtering that keeps him from sounding too full of himself.

“Animé Eyes” is from the CD Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights, to be released next month on Mint Records.

“Strawberry Wine” – Trevor Exter

Finger-picking and generally slapping around a beat-up cello, Trevor Exter makes music that is both seriously unusual and thoroughly, pleasingly accessible.

First off, dig the long, funky introduction. I don’t usually like long, funky introductions, but I have never before heard one coaxed and charmed and pulled and plucked out of a cello before. In Exter’s hands, the instrument generates a soft, incandescent groove, neither bass-like nor guitar-like—nor especially cello-like either, given his unconventional technique. It’s kind of mesmerizing, and gets even friskier once the singing starts (after two and a half minutes) and the cello is used as punctuation, in a variety of creative, textured ways. Then again, once the singing starts, it’s hard to keep one’s ears entirely on the cello, since Exter has a grand instrument right there in his throat—a lithe and buttery tenor, full of soul but light as air. Never before (I don’t think) have we heard a cello and a voice perform so intimately and knowingly together, since the cellist and the vocalist are usually two different people. The galvanizing impact on the fabric of the song—the way the cello riffs and rhythms work so tightly in and around the vocal lines—is hard to overstate. And let’s not overlook the song itself, which is more than just a pleasant groove; he’s written a spiffy hook in there as well (the “trembling, shivering, I am under your spell” part).

Exter grew up, home-schooled, in upstate New York, found the cello at an early age but never took to classical music, and eventually spent a lot of time in South America absorbing a rich array of Brazilian pop into his psyche and repertoire. He’s come and gone from New York City over the years, but is currently back there, gaining a following for the crazy, lovable thing that he does, playing both solo and with a band. “Strawberry Wine” is a song off his CD Flying Saucer People, which was self-released this year. MP3 via Exter’s site. MP3 no longer available but you can listen and/or buy it via Bandcamp.

“Yer Motion” – Reeve Oliver

And then there remains, even now, much power in the simple formulation of “rock band,” just three or four folks banging and strumming and hitting their regular ordinary guitars and drums and maybe a keyboard. Reeve Oliver is, in fact, a band—a trio, from San Diego. “Yer Motion” has nothing unusual going for it except that it happens to be a great song. (And are you tired yet of writers and bloggers who act like music that isn’t somehow “new” is somehow bad? A great song is always a revelation.) So let me rephrase this: “Yer Motion” sounds really different than most songs because it’s good and, well, a lot of the 7.8 trillion songs currently circulating online (that’s an exclusive Fingertips estimate) do not actually qualify as “good.”

Why is it good? Energy, arrangement, performance, and (always the kicker, for me) melody. One thing “Yer Motion” does exceptionally well is build on itself: the verse is immediately engaging, with its alternating major and minor chords; then we get a second section that grabs the ear even more, and it turns out to be merely a transition into the chorus, which to my ears is the melodic climax of the song, with its sophisticated twists and tight tight harmonies. Nicely done.

Reeve Oliver has been around since 2000. Signed by Capitol Records in 2006, they were among the bands that were summarily dropped when Capitol merged with Virgin early last year. “Yer Motion” can be found on the band’s Touchtone Inferno album, their second full-length, which was self-released digitally at the end of 2007, and is now coming out on CD. A bonus: the album features a great retro look, from the font to the design to the cool B&W photo. Also nicely done.

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