This Week’s Finds: April 25-May 1 (Lying in States, The French Kicks, Electrelane)

“Fall or Stumble” – Lying in States

Simultaneously thumpy and smooth, discordant and musical, “Fall or Stumble” is a shot of intense 21st-century rock’n’roll—complicated, smart, edgy, and well-produced. I knew I was in good hands from the start, when the big-beated groove established by the drums was joined first by a gentle, subtly off-kilter bit of keyboard vamping and then by a couple of buzzy, offbeat blurts from the electric guitar. Pay attention to the guitar all the way through here—the band has two guitarists, in fact, and they work together to inform the song with a searing buzz underneath and a razor-like brassiness above. Singer/guitarist Ben Clarke’s voice sounds electronically compressed—a la Julian Casablancas in the Strokes—but the effect isn’t in your face as much because of the gratifying musical texture that exists around him. And while Clarke sings in the same range as Casablancas, I find his ability to sing powerfully both with and without restraint to be more reminiscent of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke than anyone else I can think of. Lying in States is a Chicago-based band that has been playing live to much acclaim since 1999; “Fall or Stumble” comes from their first full-length CD, Most Every Night, released earlier this year on Flameshovel Records.

“One More Time” – the French Kicks

Notwithstanding the itchy dance beat and drummer/singer Nick Stumpf’s vocal resemblance to Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s Andy McCluskey, “One More Time” emerges with repeated listens as far more than an ’80s retread. The synthesizer that cascades down as if from heaven in the first verse is actually more of a hip-retro sound (trip-hoppy, perhaps) than something from, say, Depeche Mode; the shining electric guitar brought in to mirror the synthesizer line in the second verse is also not an ’80s sound. Then there’s the strange, momentum-shifting chorus, which consists more or less of one repeated note, in what sounds like three-part harmony. This brings 10cc to mind, oddly enough, the second time in particular, when the voices are accompanied by the pounding of an insistent keyboard beneath the surface. So we’ve got a lot of generations of rock’n’roll at work here, to shimmering effect. The French Kicks are based in NYC; “One More Time” will be found on Trial of the Century, due out in May on Startime International.

“On Parade” – Electrelane

After releasing an all-instrumental debut, the British band Electrelane has opened itself up to a bit of vocalizing on its second CD, The Power Out. Keyboardist/guitarist Verity Susman’s singing is idiosyncratic to say the least, alternating between gruffly spat, largely inaudible phrases and wordless whoops, but the chugging energy—part ska, part surf, part punk—of the two-chord riff keeps me engaged throughout this short song. The shortness itself is interesting, as the band’s first CD, Rock It to the Moon, was notable for a number of extended, noodly instrumentals (including one that clocked in at 22 minutes). The Power Out was released in February on the fiercely arty British label, Too Pure Records.

This Week’s Finds: April 18-24 (Volcano, I’m Still Excited!!, Calexico, The Glands)

“2nd Gun” – Volcano, I’m Still Excited!!

The excessively punctutated, impenetrably silly name may not even be the strangest thing about this group–I vote instead for the fact that the band is a trio featuring guitar, drum, and a $10 Casio keyboard. Now that’s strange. What emerges from the combination is a little strange too, but urgent and oddly compelling nonetheless. For a short song, “2nd Gun” covers a lot of ground, its twitchy intro and nervous chord progressions giving way to a cathartically catchy chorus. For me, this music recalls the effect Talking Heads:77 had, the way the songs were both over-the-top quirky and yet somehow, underneath it all, comforting and familiar. Time will tell if VISE has Talking Heads-like substance and innovation to offer us, but today’s diffuse and insular rock scene could sure use a strange-pure blast like that. The song comes from the band’s eponymous debut CD, released in January on Polyvinyl Records. There are 16 songs on the record, most between two and three minutes in length; the one I’m most curious about is the last one, which is called “Two Exclamation Points.” Perhaps the name is explained? At least a hint or two?

“Alone Again Or” – Calexico

This is all but irresistible–on the one hand because of the power of the original song but on the other hand for how giddily well this ’60s nugget works when run through Calexico’s Southwestern blender. “Alone Again Or” opened Forever Changes, the 1967 masterpiece from the West Coast band Love; here it is brilliantly re-conceived as a Mexican-style rave-up, from the precision of the acoustic rhythm and lead guitars to the hand-clap accompaniment and, best of all, the poignant, incisive trumpet solo. This is one of those songs that brings an involuntary smile to my face as I listen; music (as opposed to lyrics) that prompts smiling or laughing is often some of the best there is. The song comes from Convict Pool, a six-song EP–featuring three covers–released this month on Quarterstick Records. MP3 via Insound; the link does not show up in the media player here but it is still live, and will download when you click.

“When I Laugh” – the Glands

The Athens, Georgia-based Glands mix a lot of influences in their sonic stew, but it’s the Kinks in particular who haunt this chugging little number. Fading in on a distorted guitar riff, the song hits the ground running when singer/songwriter/guitarist Ross Shapiro gives us his best Ray Davies-ish drawl (listen in particular to his delivery of the words “laugh” or “everybody”) over a deceptively tight beat; the background “doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo”s drive home the Kinks homage, along with a Dave Davies-like guitar break two-thirds of the way through. Me, I like to champion the overlooked Kinks whenever I can, and particularly enjoy discovering younger musicians who have studied the monumental Davies songbook. “When I Laugh” can be found on the band’s second CD, simply called The Glands, released on Velocette Records in 2000; the MP3 comes courtesy of Epitonic.

This Week’s Finds: April 11-17 (Jill Sobule, Trespassers William, Communique)

“Underdog Victorious” – Jill Sobule

Jill Sobule has an uncanny gift for putting big, memorable melodies into her offbeat songs, where I kind of least expect them. From the piano-driven opening stomp to the beautiful modulation in the second half of the verse (that is, the mysteriously gratifying chords she shifts into with the words “Four o’clock when he got home…”) to the seriously anthemic chorus, “Underdog Victorious” blazes with confidence from beginning to end. With sonic heft and lyrical grit, Sobule consistently undermines my expectations of what a singer/songwriter can sound like; her large and polished sound likewise runs counter to what one typically hears from musicians who record independently. Warren Zevon once called her “a cross between Tolstoy and the tomahawk thrower at the Cheyenne rodeo.” Not sure what that means, but what the heck, it’s a good quote, and indicative if nothing else of Sobule’s depth, talent, and wacky artistic courage. This song is new, not yet released on an album, but available on her web site.
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“Lie in the Sound” – Trespassers William

With a big, melancholic tip of the hat towards bands like Mazzy Star and the Cowboy Junkies, the California band Trespassers William serves up a fetching and affecting version of that sort of sad, deep, and distant dream pop. The key to this song’s success, to my ears, is the strength of the melody in the chorus. Too often bands on this path bog down in their own dreaminess; Mazzy Star’s well-known “Fade Into You,” offered little more than four- or five-note melodic phrases, repeated. “Lie in the Sound” gives us both the dreamy vibe and the extra lift of an honest, beautiful melody anchoring the song at its center. “Lie in the Sound” can be found on Different Stars, released in 2002 on Bella Union Records.

“Perfect Weapon” – Communique

A big, brash homage to the so-called “New Romantic” movement of the early ’80s, “Perfect Weapon” comes at us like an ABC reunion, complete with a re-use of the phrase “poison arrows” (the British band ABC had a hit song called “Poison Arrow”) and a lead singer who sounds vaguely British, even as the band hails from Oakland. The dance beat is pure ’80s; the minor-key urgency of the synthesizer riff will have you glancing over your shoulder for Midge Ure (the emotive singer who fronted Ultravox at the height of their hit single career phase). And yet for all the echoes from a bygone era, the song has a here-and-now chutzpah to it. Communique’s debut CD, Poison Arrows, will be released in June on Lookout Records. MP3 via Better Propaganda.

This Week’s Finds: April 4-10 (Laura Veirs, MK Ultra, Earl Slick w/ Robert Smith)

“Cloud Room” – Laura Veirs  link no longer available
Hang in there through the up-front, wavering, slightly out of tune vocals at the outset of this one–the pay-off is deep and moving. Laura Veirs may well be one of the most accomplished of America’s unknown singer/songwriters; “Cloud Room” hits a groove quickly, snaking into my consciousness with its assured beat, astute instrumentation, and some wonderful chords. For a performer with a somewhat geeky presentation (according to one British critic, she resembles a young Woody Allen, of all people), Veirs has an unexpectedly commanding presence. The music floats in a dream-like place straddling the familiar and the entirely fresh; a few listens to “Cloud Room” has me realizing once and for all that the 21st century has fully arrived. Indicative of her tendency to perform frequently in Europe, her new CD, Carbon Glacier, where this song comes from, has been released overseas but not in the U.S. at this point.

“The Dream is Over” – MK Ultra
Time to dip back into the rich John Vanderslice MP3 trove, this time to point you in the direction of his unheralded work with the band MK Ultra. “The Dream Is Over” opens with an itchy, insistent acoustic guitar, on top of which arrive some lush but unresolved harmonies (they sound like suspended fourths; so okay this must be great chord week here), and now he’s got you set up, the subtle musical tension extending through a repetition of the words “It’s unbelievably sad”; on the second “sad,” the music glides into unabashed gorgeousness, with melodies and harmonies straight from the Simon & Garfunkel songbook. And yet there’s still a keen skewedness about the song, both lyrically–“I was relieved/As a broken sweat”–and instrumentally (listen for a great duet between distorted fuzz guitars about halfway through). MK Ultra recorded between 1993 and 2000; Vanderslice has been on his own since then, and is really worth looking into. In case you’re curious, the band’s name came from a secret (and rather terrible) series of mind control experiments apparently performed by the CIA in the 1950s. Now you know.

“Believe” – Earl Slick (with Robert Smith)  link no longer available
How almost foolishly tickled I sometimes feel to hear an old familiar voice, after a long time, singing something new. This can happen even when I don’t remember being a particular fan of the voice in the first place. So here’s yet another ’80s icon (watch out, they’re popping up all over the place these days), the Cure’s Robert Smith, lending his distinctive style of fragile solidity to a dreamy piece of space-guitar pop from Earl Slick. It’s fun to hear Smith slowed down, a bit more vocally naked than I recall him from those Cure hits he spun out back in the day. Slick is himself a reappearing icon, although a background variety; he was David Bowie’s guitarist in the mid-’70s, on both Young Americans and the great Station to Station. This song doesn’t strike me as any sort of classic, but putting Smith’s voice against that arching, swelling guitar creates a pleasant few minutes that rewards some repeat listens. “Believe” can be found on Slick’s CD Zig Zag, released at the end of 2003 on Sanctuary Records.

This Week’s Finds: Mar. 28-Apr. 3 (Eszter Balint, Wilco, The Cribs)

“Good Luck” – Eszter Balint

A potent melting pot of scratchy avant-funk and boho folk, “Good Luck” comes from a new CD by the world’s only (I think!) Hungarian-born, NYC-based singer/songwriter/violinist/actress. From the opening syncopation of the brush-tinged drumbeat, I feel myself in good hands here, even as I’m never really sure what’s going on. There’s a bit of Suzanne Vega in Balint’s deadpan spoken-sung delivery in the verses, and a touch of latter-day Tom Waits floating around the fringes of the production, particularly in the odd aural space created by the somewhat dissonant, squonky guitar work, the wash of vibraphone in the background, and the intermittent oddity (alarm clocks?). Whereas today’s music scene encourages the often gratuitous tossing together of sounds, Balint appears to have earned the right to her idiosyncratic mish-mash, given her unusual background as the daughter of Central European avant garde theater artists. Balint’s recently-released second CD, Mud, is available on Bar/None Records.


“Cars Can’t Escape” – Wilco

While Wilco fans await A Ghost is Born (the next CD, due out in June), here comes a nugget left from the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions. While this may not grab your attention if you don’t already love this seriously great band (okay, I already love them), there’s a lot to hear here if you relax with it. To begin with, there’s Jeff Tweedy’s gift for meandering melody, and his perfectly matched lazy-but-insistent voice. (Has enough been made of Tweedy’s unexpected but gratifying resemblance to the Kinks’ Ray Davies?) This song is also a showcase for the band’s unparalleled capacity to blend the acoustic and the electric, here most effectively embodied by the way a recurring melodic theme is passed from one sound to another. Based on the opening acoustic chords, the theme is developed into a melody by an unstable penny-whistle-ish synthesizer break, then handed to a banjo, which proceeds to pick it out against an increasingly cacophonous background of swirling, unidentifiable noises. In and around the musical nuances, lyrical phrases emerge here and there, hinting at hidden emotions and untold stories (“In my sleepless head our love’s been dead a week or two”). Me, I’m looking forward to the new CD a whole lot. (Thanks to our friends at Glorious Noise for the heads up on this one.)


“Just Another Number” – the Cribs

In less than three minutes, this trio of brothers from West Yorkshire has done something subtly magical, uniting past and present sounds so seamlessly as to concoct something solid and memorable out of the union. While the song is driven by a high-pitched, crinkly guitar sound that brings the Strokes obviously and immediately to mind, the Cribs have done the brilliant service here of taking the Strokes’ sound out of the well-worn Velvet Underground-Television family tree and cross-fertilizing it with less obvious influences, adding in particular a welcome dose of new wave pop (I’m thinking a band like the Teardrop Explodes) into the mix. You know this song is going in an interesting direction when the lead singer breaks into some good old “ooh-oohs” during the bridge-like chorus. And then there’s the unexpected shift into unresolved, open chords as the guitar heads down into a normal register during the chorus-like bridge, and that wonderful point where the harmonies go into alluring octaves (“I disappear for hours/Over the smallest things, yeah”), followed by even more unanticipated “ba-da-ba-da-da”s, and okay at this point it’s probably better to hear it than to have me describe it but it’s pretty cool. This comes from the band’s eponymous debut CD, released this month on Wichita Recordings, a small London-based label.

This Week’s Finds: March 21-27 (Elastica, Bree Sharp, Elf Power)

“Line Up” – Elastica

Okay, so every now and then I want to silence the questions; I want something I already know and love, something I don’t have to sit and listen to over and over and wonder, “Hmmm…is this really good, or really not good?” It’s such a crazy fine line, sometimes. And okay this may not be my favorite song from Elastica’s memorable debut album (geez, nine years old already), but it sure starts the disc off with a crunchy wallop. Guitars don’t squeak and squawk much more satisfyingly than Elastica’s guitars; jammed against Justine Frischmann’s bored-yet-sultry voice, the effect was captivating. There’s even something endearing about the rhythmic grunting that intermittently accompanies the crunch here. While at the time it may have seemed that Elastica arrived rather way too late (long after the original new wave), in retrospect they act as a sort of bridge between a sound that had nearly died at that point and one that seems to be in the middle of a welcome resurgence here in the new century.

“Lazy Afternoon” – Bree Sharp

A different kind of crunch is on display here—brighter, punchier, and unabashedly mainstream-oriented. “Lazy Afternoon” is a straight-ahead rocker, fueled by crisp production, classic rock harmonies, and a heavy dose of Sheryl Crow-ish-ness. Despite her polish (and despite a truly sensational name) Bree Sharp seems to be rather unfortunately betwixt and between in today’s music world: neither a teenybopper nor a baby boomer, she records like an indie rocker (i.e. she has her own label) yet sounds like Crow’s younger sister. “Lazy Afternoon” comes from her second CD, 2002’s More B.S., which probably did not receive as much attention as her 1999 debut, A Cheap and Evil Girl. That one came out on a small label (Trauma Records), and was juiced by something of a novelty song—“David Duchovny,” a love letter to the X-Files actor (featuring the memorable couplet: “David Duchovny/Why won’t you love me?”).

“Never Believe” – Elf Power

Talk about a crazy fine line—what is the fine line between celebratory mainstream pop like “Lazy Afternoon” and celebratory indie pop like this song, from a dedicated bunch of “lo-fi” musicians based in Athens, Georgia (itself something of an indie-rock center-of-the-universe)? It’s another question for the ages. Elf Power has one of those complex histories that indie fans are used to–overlapping bands with interweaving personnel and lots of funky names along the way (like Neutral Milk Hotel and the Olivia Tremor Control). Well, wherever they’ve been and whoever they are, this song is two and a half minutes of hard-driving, cathartic melody, with acoustic rhythm guitars buzzed by an advancing and retreating wall of electric fuzz and artful feedback. Singer Andrew Rieger’s voice has its own sort of solid rock vibe to it, a wonderful amalgam of, oh, maybe Paul Humphreys (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) and Justin Hayward (the Moody Blues), somehow. “Never Believe” can be found on the CD Walking With the Beggar Boys, to be released in early April on Orange Twin Records.

Commentary

Alarmed

Earlier this year, a song called “45 RPM” was sent to a handful of influential British DJs. The song arrived on a white CD with the name “the Poppyfields” on it. There were no other identifying marks.

Wow, thought a few of these DJs. Pretty cool tune–at once jumpy and driving, with a catchy chorus, fervently sung, in the style of some of the popular new wave bands of the late ’70s and early ’80s.

“45 RPM” started showing up on British radio. No one seemed to know who the Poppyfields were but what the heck, a hot new band with a hot new single is all anyone’s ever looking for.

Except that in this case the hot new band wasn’t new at all. The Poppyfields were actually the Alarm–a band that does, indeed, date back to the new wave era.

Mike Peters, the band’s leader, wrote “45 RPM” while the Alarm toured in the U.S. this past fall.

“We knew it ws good when we finished it,” the 45-year-old band leader told the Philadelphia Inquirer in an interview published on March 8. “And we knew if we’d taken it to radio as an Alarm record, it wouldn’t have a chance.”

Thus the invention of the “Poppyfields”–named for a series of Internet-only CDs the band has been doing in recent years, called In the Poppy Fields.

“We felt we had nothing to lose,” Peters said. “It seemed to be the only way we could get a fair hearing.”

As the single moved into regular rotation on British radio, the Poppyfields abruptly needed some credible promotional material. In short order, the Alarm concocted a fake bio for a young punk band and even had a video shot featuring four teenaged musicians, play-acting convincingly.

The single rose into Britain’s Top 30 before word finally spread about the Poppyfields’ true identity.

The “45 RPM” ruse makes a great little story. There’s even an interesting lesson to be learned, although it may not be what you expect.

Yes, the music industry shamelessly prefers image over substance, youth over age; yes, this inclination, while always in the air, has worsened over the years as market research has long since replaced gut instinct when it comes to what’s played on the radio.

Even so, this situation–however frustrating and unfortunate–cannot be helped, because it is really an outgrowth of a larger problem that is all but intractable and in many ways isn’t truly a problem at all.

This “problem” is that there is too much music.

Not too much music for music fans, no no no. There can never be too much music for us music fans. (Right?) But from the perspective of radio programmers, the amount of music available these days is nothing short of, um, alarming.

Think about it: when the Alarm started, in 1979, the entire history of rock’n’roll, from Bill Haley onward, was contained within the previous 25 years. The Beatles had arrived in America only 15 years earlier, ushering in a sound upon which the classic rock of the ’60s and ’70s would be based.

For rock’n’roll radio professionals in 1979, a working knowledge of most if not all worthy bands and albums in the rock genre–particularly the post-1964 rock genre–was not only still expected at that point (imagine that!), it was also quite possible to have.

Today, 1979 itself is 25 years ago. Rock’n’roll history is twice as long as it was back then, and the amount of music contained therein has multiplied many many (many) times beyond.

What is a commercial rock station, seeking an identifiable sound, supposed to do about this? Clearly, most seek a specialty. While this is often presented as a demographic necessity, I’m beginning to see formats as commercial radio’s way of coping with there being too much music otherwise to filter and present in a cohesive manner.

While we tend to think of radio formats as genre-based–all-country stations, all-hip-hop stations, all-hard-rock stations, and so forth–radio may be more tellingly seen as segmented chronologically. When it comes to rock music in particular, commercial radio has effectively sliced off groups of years for us, presenting popular music in chronological clumps.

This trend began with the so-called “oldies” stations, which first appeared in earnest in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Pre-Beatles music–which sounded different in any case–was given its own sonic ghetto, and that seemed to work pretty well.

Until, that is, there was simply too much music to deal with–which happened, as far as I can see, between 1984 and 1994. Consider those the “tipping point” years.

This is when the “classic rock” radio format arose. Like the oldies format, the classic rock format sliced off a particular chunk of rock’s history and stayed there, forever. In classic rock’s case, the focus is on roughly 15 to 20 years’ worth of music

Because classic rock cuts off somewhere in the early ’80s, there have also emerged ’80s rock stations that play music from the ’80s only–another chronological clump of music.

This will continue to be necessary and will continue to happen as long as rock’n’roll continues to exist in some form or another.

But radio’s need to slice rock’n’roll history into manageable aural chunks has left few rock-based stations either willing or able to mix older and newer rock music together effectively.

So when an “old” band like the Alarm records an otherwise current-sounding song, we may suspect age prejudice at work, but it’s really more like organ rejection. With rock history divvied up into historical format/segments, it becomes difficult if not impossible for radio stations to pay attention to bands that stay around too long.

Thus the Alarm/Poppyfields, and the wacky irony that it’s easier for a young band to get airplay sounding like the Alarm than for the actual Alarm to get airplay.

Unfortunately for the Alarms of the world, radio isn’t changing; it can’t. Radio was simply not designed to deal with such a thing as a 25-year-old rock band with new records coming out. The Alarm is on its own.

As are we, the thoughtful music fans of the world. Not only was it easier to program a radio station back in 1974, with only about 10 years’ worth of useful music to choose from, it was a lot easier to be a music fan back then too. Nowadays there is no keeping track of everything. We need each other here because no one can do it on his or her own.

Such a reality may frustrate the determined collector and other sorts of quantitative-oriented aficionados. But maybe it’s not otherwise so terrible. Maybe, without radio to guide us effectively, music fans will grow to rely on an intuitive, synchronistic sort of browsing, whether online or in actual record stores (as long as they continue to exist!), to find what pleases them.

Speaking from my own experience, I find that this type of approach to the music scene can lead to unexpected places full of wonderful, even magical sounds.

The truth is that no one will ever know all of rock’n’roll again. For some, this may be alarming. I think it’s kind of exciting.

This Week’s Finds: March 14-20 (Abra Moore, Bishop Allen, Shutterspeed)

“I Win” – Abra Moore

A stark, hypnotic minor key piano ballad from the sweet-voiced Abra Moore, returning after a long absence from recording. Once a member of the neo-bohemian band Poi Dog Pondering, Moore released two engaging solo CDs–Sing in 1995 and Strangest Places in 1997–then disappeared. She has had quite the experience in the interim. Clive Davis took Moore with him when he left Arista to start J Records; the new label wanted to run her through the Vanessa Carlton-Avril Lavigne machine, basically, with team-based writing and production, teenybopper songs, the works. Moore was open to the experiment going in, but found she couldn’t live with the results, artistically. Despite having finished a CD called No Fear for J in 2002, the label–unusually–allowed her out of her contract, stopped the record’s release, and let her keep the masters. Moore regrouped, re-established her independent vibe, and has now emerged two years later with the aptly named CD Everything Changed, just released last week on Koch Records. Moore is an engaging musical presence; blessed with a voice that is at once lithe and hardy, her subtle variety of vocal tone and emphasis gives this simple, brooding song a great deal of weight.


“Little Black Ache” – Bishop Allen

Punchy, quirky, and catchy, this one brings you back to the Kinks in 1965, but with a Pixies-like or perhaps an Ass Ponys-like edge. The sound is at once loose and tight, and I’ll admit I’m a pushover for songs with a goofy call-and-response hook like this–“I’ve got my little black little ache”/(“What you got?”). Now Brooklyn-based, the band was founded in Cambridge; they took their name from their location on Bishop Allen Drive in Central Square (the street itself was named after Bishop Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episopal Church, if you must know). “Little Black Ache” comes from the band’s debut CD Charm School, which was self-released in May 2003. These guys have an appealing silliness to them, some of it planned (on the web site, where they present their lyrics, the band writes: “For increased prestige, we type them in Garamond”), and some not exactly (of the four members, two are named Christian but one of them is a man and one of them is a woman; go figure).


“Under Control” – Shutterspeed

Talk about bringing you back, here are five lads from Brisbane who come to you through a ’70s rush of Keith Richards riffs, horn charts, swaggering vocals, and back-up “woo-oo-oohs.” Lead singer Andrew Petersen has more than a little Southside Johnny in him, somehow–not that the decaying ambiance of an aging South Jersey beach town has anything in common with the up-and-coming subtropical splendor of Australia’s third largest city. It’s a small world after all, I suppose. While there’s always a danger Shutterspeed will lose itself under the weight of its influences, the band’s sheer brash energy pulls them through, to my ears; like Paul Weller (another guy grooving on that ’70s thing), Shutterspeed at once mimics and rises above the mimickry. “Under Control” comes from the band’s second album, Custom Made Hit Parade, released in June 2003.

This Week’s Finds: March 7-13 (The Get Up Kids, Mission of Burma, Emma McGlynn)

“Wouldn’t Believe It” – the Get Up Kids

Without a killer chorus, “Wouldn’t Believe It” might be an energetic but wispy bit of pop; on the strength of a few well-placed notes between verses, the song achieves true magnificence. While the harmonica-driven intro and Matt Pryor’s boyish vocals favorably recall the Housemartins (a great British band from the mid-’80s), the simple, clipped phrases of the first verse lack impact. But wait: as the verse ends but before the chorus begins, an unexpected sort of miniature bridge builds the harmonic tension, particularly as the keyboard starts an insistent background pounding that all but shouts “Warning: killer chorus ahead.” And it starts, Pryor singing “Did it occur to you too?” in a classic, descending fourth; then he sings “What was the worst it could do?” beginning an octave below where the chorus started, and for the word “worst” he jumps up a sixth, and there, music theory aside, that’s the hook, and it’s all happening so quickly and energetically that it leaves me breathless, as a killer chorus must, and casts a reverberant sheen on the entire song. And yikes it’s much more plodding to write about than to listen to, so check it out. The Get Up Kids are from Kansas City; “Wouldn’t Believe It” can be found on Guilt Show, their fourth CD, released last week on Vagrant Records.

“Wounded World” – Mission of Burma

Do I fear getting too soft around the edges here on Fingertips? Well, this’ll solve that, and who better to stage the aural onslaught than the obscure-but-legendary Mission of Burma, a Boston-based art-punk band from the early ’80s that finds itself together again in the 21st century. This song comes from the album ONoffON, slated to be released in May on Matador Records, and it shows the boys in fine, agitated form; from the opening lyrical sneer—“I’m a puppet, you’re a puppet too”—the song blazes out of the gate, effortlessly recalling the heady musical scene which gave birth to this particular brand of intellectual noise. And yet for all its recapitulative fury, “Wounded World” seems very present at the same time; while the brash electric texture produced by the band’s guitars and tape manipulations may be less of a crazy buzz than it was 20 years ago, there’s still exhilaration to be had in the band’s able juxtapositioning of noise and melody. The metallic bray of guitars halfway through the song is at once pure catharsis and outlandish fun.

“Impatience” – Emma McGlynn

An immediate sense of presence and personality shines through this song, which is quite a feat these days for anyone with an acoustic guitar, particularly anyone with quite so much of an Ani DiFranco fixation as Emma McGlynn. Like DiFranco, this U.K.-based singer/songwriter releases her own music on her own label, sings in a freewheeling and emotive style, and shows a lot of technical flair on her instrument. Similarities aside, McGlynn comes off as very much her own person; she’s got a spiritually softer vibe, somehow, than DiFranco—something less prickly and self-absorbed comes through, even as McGlynn has clearly borrowed more than a few tricks from DiFranco’s impressive bag of resources. “Impatience” is from an EP called 5th November that McGlynn released in 2001; a subsequent full-length CD, Kamikaze Birdie, came out last year. To download the song, right-click on the picture next to the song, then use the typical “save target as” approach to capturing the file.

This Week’s Finds: Feb. 29-Mar. 6 (Wheat, The Decemberists, The Ass Ponys)

“Off the Pedestal” – Wheat

Slinky and insistent, driven by a drone below and singer Scott Levesque’s sleepy-assured vocals above, this song gives you a glimpse of what the Massachusetts-based band Wheat was up to before “I Met a Girl” became an adult-alternative radio staple (as it appears to be right now; it may yet go the full top-40 route). “Off the Pedestal” comes from the band’s 1999 CD Hope and Adams, an album that created a buzz in indie circles as much for the band’s disinterest in publicity as for the music itself—the album not only had no pictures of the band but didn’t even list the members’ names. This song has an appealing, busy sort of fuzziness—listen for the oddly cheerful marimba-like synthesizer mixed down into the drone; it’s the kind of touch that subliminally adds texture and interest to a song that might otherwise sink from its own subtlety.


“Grace Cathedral Hill” – the Decemberists

More atmospheric and melodic magic from the Decemberists. Like XTC before them, this band has a way of putting a 19th-century veneer on rock’n’roll—truly a charming effect, the rare times someone can manage it. “Grace Cathedral Hill” can be found on Castaways and Cutouts, the band’s 2002 debut. I enjoy how the pretty turns of the melody contrast with the harshness of some of the imagery, much as singer Colin Meloy’s buzzy voice contrasts with the gorgeous lilt of the song. Eschewing the lo-fi vibe of many of its independent peers, this Portland, Ore.-based quintet creates exquisitely crafted music: from the space implicit in the opening strum of the acoustic guitar to the knowing addition of musical layers as the song develops, it’s clear that strikingly capable hands are at work here.


“All By Myself” – the Ass Ponys

Maybe it helps if you’ve lived in Cincinnati (that’s where they’re from) and already own an Ass Ponys record or two; and I’m sure it also helps if you have memories of driving around in your parent’s car just after getting your driver’s license and hearing this Eric Carmen song played incessantly on the AM radio. That said, listening to Ass Ponys’ leader Chuck Cleaver warbling ’70s pop kitsch may not be the best introduction to this quirky band’s substantial charms, but then again it could be just the thing. I’ve yet to hear their most recent two CDs, but can speak highly of Electric Rock Music, from 1996, which found the Ass Ponys on a major label, of all things. Don’t be surprised, by the way, when this song all but grinds to a standstill about two-thirds of the way through—at once an awkward and all but perfect tribute to the pop melodrama therein unfolding. Like the band notes on its web site, the song is “performed only like Eric wishes he could have done it.”