This Week’s Finds: January 25-31 (The Church, Norfolk & Western, Damien Rice)

“Song in Space” – the Church

Call me nostalgic, but I can’t seem to get enough of ’80s bands that regroup and take up right where they left off, as if the ’90s never really happened. There’s something reassuring about the effort somehow. The Church is even more reassuring because they never actually broke up in the first place. So here are Australia’s redoubtable purveyors of spaced-out guitar pop, back with their 17th (!) album, the just-released Forget Yourself. “Song in Space” is an extended drone that takes you right back to something like “2000 Light Years From Home,” Marty Willson-Piper’s iridescent guitar shining as ever off Steve Kilbey’s sleepy but reverberant vocals. Not a classic but with its own subtle charms. MP3 via Better Propaganda.

“Terrified” – Norfolk and Western

If Yo La Tengo added a banjo, I might expect them to sound more than a little like this. Norfolk and Western is a project headed by a whisper-voiced Portland-based musician named Adam Selzer and sharing the talents of drummer and vocalist Rachel Blumberg (also in the band the Decemberists), among others. At first this sounded to me like it was going to veer uncomfortably off the twee scale, but the steady beat gives it body and the varied instrumentation–including a welcome touch of distorted guitar–gives it depth. The band is named after a defunct railroad line and plays music that, while not necessarily “traditional” or “folk,” displays a care and tenderness one might associate with songs dating back to the heyday of the Norfolk & Western itself. “Terrified” comes from the band’s most recent CD, Dusk in Cold Parlours, released in 2003 on Hush Records.

“Volcano” – Damien Rice

If I’m not mistaken, some industrious segment of the music industry seems bent on turning the phrase “emerging artist” into a marketable term, much the way “alternative rock” was transformed some years ago. Keep an eye on this; as with “alternative rock,” there may be something contradictory in trying to build a saleable category of music called “emerging artists,” not to mention something formula-inducing. In any case, Ireland’s Damien Rice is certainly the guy most often associated here in the U.S. with that irritating phrase in recent months. Not that he isn’t a singer/songwriter of merit–and apparently not an “emerging artist” at all in his home country, but a full-fledged star. “Volcano” is a spare and rhythmic effort, with a repetitive hook that I’ll admit I’m kind of tired of because I hear it too often on the local singer/songwriter-oriented radio station. But approached with what in yoga they call “beginner’s mind,” I think this song holds up pretty nicely. Rice’s widely-acclaimed debut album is called O and came out last year.

This Week’s Finds: Jan. 18-24 (Ambulance LTD, Kate Rusby, Joe Strummer)

“Stay Where You Are” – Ambulance LTD

This one you have to hang with a while. It begins with a long stretch of moody noodlings. I don’t usually have a lot of patience for moody noodlings. But there was something in these particular noodlings that made me at least listen until something else happened. Maybe it was the backwards-guitar effect that kicked in after a while. So anyway about two minutes into the song, lo and behold, the clouds lift, the noodling shifts, a guitar chimes in over an engaging beat, and by the time the vocals start (themselves recalling the early to mid ’80s; the Go-Betweens maybe?), I’m thinking, “Hey. I kinda like this.” Unabashedly guitar-oriented, with a riff that just won’t quit, the song among other things is very nearly pretty. Who’d have thought. The band is young, they’re from New York City, and they don’t have a full-length album out yet, just an EP, from which this comes, on TVT Records.

“Annan Waters” – Kate Rusby

I just need this song right now–the purity of it, the ancient vibe, the heart-deep chord changes, the connection it suggests to earth and nature, and, yes, the simple catharsis of sung tragedy. Don’t mind me, I’m just a little gloomy, but there are worse ways to vent one’s gloom than to listen to Rusby’s lovely take on an old tragic ballad. To find this MP3 on, first enter your email address in the box and then go to the “Americana/Traditional” category. The song comes off her sparkling 1998 debut, Hourglass.

“Coma Girl” – Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros

One more from the last Strummer CD, this one with a gratifying mixture of ska-revival itchiness and pure pop know-how. I can almost imagine this song fitting into the Clash oeuvre, although with the Mescaleros songs emerged with more nuance and less muscle as a rule. So anyway, after a week spent combing through a lot of mid-level material from obscure if well-meaning bands, I found myself drawn to this for its sure-footed facility and unforced charm. It’s not all that easy, after all, to make a good song, but the good ones never make it sound hard.

This Week’s Finds: Jan. 11-17 (Sun Kil Moon, Lisa Loeb, Mark Cutler)

“Carry Me Ohio” – Sun Kil Moon

At once gentle and intense, “Carry Me Ohio” casts a spell, its recycling melody urged on and on by Mark Kozelek’s haunting, weary tenor. Kozelek is something of an indie-rock legend, gathering a devoted (if limited) following as the beguiling leader of the introspective (if not downright languid) ’90s band Red House Painters. This song, comfortably reminiscent of his old band’s sound, can be found on the CD Ghosts of the Great Highway, released in November. Yeah, it’s a long one–more than six and a half minutes–but by Red House Painters’ standards actually medium-lengthed.

“Underdog” – Lisa Loeb

Lisa Loeb is the only musician ever to have a number-one hit as an unsigned artist–it was that song “Stay,” recorded for the Reality Bites soundtrack, in 1994. And she may well have been single-handedly responsible for the retro eyewear look that remains with us to this day. But musically she has slipped off the radar screen since then, even as she continues to write literate, well-crafted songs and perform them with engaging flair. “Underdog” comes from her 2002 CD, Hello Lisa, which was a tweaked re-release of the CD Cake and Pie. That one was released earlier that same year but sunk with no support from A&M, her previous record company. So she packed her bags, fiddled with the album a bit, and put it out again on Artemis Records. I hope persistence will pay off, but me, I think there are larger forces at work here. I mean, “Stay” was a decent song, but was it worthy of its historic achievement? Or could it be that her sound has now lost its pop-music place in as out-of-proportion a way as it had once found it? Just a theory. But heck, she doesn’t even get a break these days from the so-called “adult alternative” stations that should be loving this stuff. They champion the likes of Aimee Mann while inexplicably ignoring Loeb. Underdog, indeed…

“Wrecking Ball” – Mark Cutler

No, it’s not the Emmylou Harris-covered Neil Young song; instead it’s a better Tom Petty song than Petty himself has recorded since maybe the 1980s, only it’s not Petty at all but a Providence-based singer/songwriter named Mark Cutler. Cutler headed the Raindogs in the ’90s and currently fronts an outfit called the Dino Club. This song comes from a 2000 CD he recorded as Mark Cutler and the Lexington 1-2-5 and it’s a brisk, insinuating piece of pitch-perfect guitar pop, recalling Petty at his zenith with a bit of Graham Parker around the edges. Providence has long had a vibrant music scene, even as relatively few bands from the area have broken out nationally; this MP3 arrives courtesy of the Providence Journal’s online collection of local music–a worthy resource blighted by a registration process requiring way too much personal information. But once found, the MP3s are downloadable directly, so you can grab this one through the link above without (I hope) difficulty.

This Week’s Finds: Jan. 4-10 (Isobel Campbell, Pedro the Lion, Grant Lee Phillips)

“Amorino” – Isobel Campbell

Full of tasteful and often unexpected orchestral flourishes, “Amorino” finds former Belle & Sebastian cellist Campbell in fetching form. Less a song than an instrumentally rich development of a riff, “Amorino” features Campbell’s light and breathy voice singing one simple refrain a few times, followed by a series of answering echoes from the veritable orchestra she has working with her. A ’60s vibe permeates the effort, thanks in part to the spy-movie reverb effect on the main riff and the “Strawberry Fields”-like flutes that float along in the background. The song is the title track from her first post-B&S CD, which was released in October on Instinct Records.

“Never Leave a Job Half Done” – Pedro the Lion

Very satisfying rocker from the one-man band Pedro the Lion. The unresolved chords of the urgent introduction grab me right away, and the combination of melody and drive keep me interested through to the charming “bah-bah-da-bah-bah”s at the end. Band mastermind David Bazan bears a comfortable vocal resemblance to Adam Durwitz of the Counting Crows, with something of the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan thrown in. You’ll find this song and five others from Pedro the Lion on’s MP3 page, in the “Indie Rock/Emo” category. As usual there, you’ll have to enter your email address to gain access. “Never Leave a Job Half Done” comes from Pedro the Lion’s 2000 CD, Winners Never Quit.

“Lily-A-Passion” – Grant Lee Phillips

There is something deep and arresting about this guy’s voice, and an indelible, timeless quality to his music. “Lily-A-Passion” is a song from Phillips’ not-yet-released CD, Virginia Creeper. It’s only a stream (sorry!), but here’s the interesting thing: the one-time leader of the band Grant Lee Buffalo is releasing a stream a week from this new CD leading up to its release in February. This is the third song now available on his web site; click on the song title to hear the stream. Check out the first track on the CD, “Mona Lisa,” as well, it’s quite good also.

This Week’s Finds: Dec. 28-Jan. 3 (Paul Westerberg, The Decemberists, TV on the Radio)

“Dirty Diesel” – Paul Westerberg

It’s a train song, and come to think of it, it makes perfect sense. Having (barely) survived his rough-and-tumble days leading the Replacements, Westerberg has emerged against the odds as a traditionalist, of the Keith Richards school, holding down his own particular, goofy corner of the rock’n’roll fort. And there sure does seem to be something endlessly inspiring about trains to the traditionalists of the world. The song itself is a bluesy chugger, not all that earthshaking, but well worth hearing for Westerberg’s casually brilliant guitar work, and that endearing voice of his.

“The Soldiering Life” – the Decemberists

Not enough rock bands bring to mind Al Stewart anymore; this Portland, Ore.-based outfit gets points for that right off the bat. There’s a fragile, 19th-century jauntiness to this song that seems particularly poignant given the harshness of the lyrical tableau. And just when you’re not sure exactly if this is going anywhere, it breaks into a full-bodied chorus that’s downright memorable. There’s something here that recalls the Auteurs, as well, for those who know of that distinctive band’s work. Give it a chance, I think it’ll grow on you.

“Staring at the Sun” – TV on the Radio

These guys seem to be one of the hot NYC bands of the moment (or maybe their moment has already past; you know how insatiable they are for the latest and greatest in NYC). Critics are throwing all sorts of labels at them, most beginning with the word “post”: post-punk, post-electronic, post-indie, post-whatever. What I know is that any band that begins a song with this lovely a series of wordless harmonies (think Brian Wilson-meets-21st-century-Brooklyn) is worth spending a little time with. Even the lyrics caught my ear (“We were all weaned, my dear/Upon the same fatigue”), and usually lyrics are the last thing I notice. All in all, it’s an odd little song, just a groove, a vibe, and a half a melody, but it’s fetching, and the singer is darned good. TV on the Radio is a Brooklyn-based duo with one five-song EP to their name, which came out this summer. See what you think.

This Week’s Finds: Dec. 21-27 (Eddi Reader, Yo La Tengo, Over the Rhine)

“All or Nothing” – Eddi Reader  link no longer available
Here in Fingertips-land, Eddi Reader is a superstar, a singer/songwriter whose grand outer charm is backed by spine-tingling emotional depth and spiritual awareness. Once part of the snazzy ’80s band Fairground Attraction (known, if at all, for the retro-y single “Perfect,” which made an alternative-radio splash in 1988), Reader has released one beautiful solo CD after another through the ’90s and into the new decade. This song comes from her first solo album, Mirmama, which was originally released in 1992 and re-released by her current record label in 1997. (To access this MP3 on you’ll have to first enter your email address. Look for Eddi Reader under the “Americana/Traditional” category.)

“Today is the Day” – Yo La Tengo  link no longer available
After two CDs that largely exercised the band’s gentle, reflective side, along comes the ever-resourceful Yo La Tengo with a release that reverses the trend. This song first appeared on the band’s last CD, Summer Sun, in a calm and quiet setting; in this version–available on a new, six-song EP–squawking electric guitars return with a glorious vengeance. There have been few bands in the history of rock’n’roll that have so engagingly explored both the loud and the soft. It’s particular fun when they do it to the same song.

“I Radio Heaven” – Over the Rhine  link no longer available
Another goodie, this comes from Over the Rhine’s rather brilliant 2001 CD, Films for Radio. Vocalist Karin Bergquist is a beguiling force of nature, guitarist/songwriter Linford Detweiler is way too thoughtful to be in a rock’n’roll band, and I’m going to keep writing about them until more people listen. “I Radio Heaven” joins an elite group of rock songs that get their drive and drama by focusing most of the melody on one note. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Pump it Up” are two others; this one’s sneakier-sounding, more elegant, and works up to a fevered pitch rather than banging away at the same level for the whole song (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Wonderful stuff. (As with the Eddi Reader MP3, you’ll have to enter your email first to be able to download. You’ll find Over the Rhine in the “Alt-Pop” category.)

This Week’s Finds: Dec. 14-20 (The Wrens, Mary Ann Farley, Fire Theft)

“Everyone Chooses Sides” – the Wrens

Hard-edged, dramatic power pop, with all the delicious extras–anthemic minor key, crunchy guitars in the foreground, pounding piano chords in the background, and vocals straight out of 1979. (Please someone put me out of my misery and tell me who these vocals are reminding me of!) From the group’s highly-regarded new CD, The Meadowlands, this is one glorious song, marred only by a technological glitch: the MP3 appears to cut out about 8 seconds before the end. No worries for me, however–there’s more than enough song here for me to know I’m going to buy this CD.

“For You To Do That” – Mary Ann Farley

Smart, sharp, and short, “For You To Do That” hits the ears like a piece of aural ’60s memorabilia, complete with some Spector-ishly spacious drum beats and a Beatlesque turn of melody. Vocally, Farley seems to be channeling equal parts Jill Sobule and Aimee Mann but with plenty of her own verve and charm in the mix. This song comes from the Hoboken-based Farley’s second and most recent CD, My Life of Crime, which came out last year. Her debut, Daddy’s Little Girl, was released in 1997.

“Chain” – The Fire Theft

Big, majestic song from three-fourths of the ’90s band Sunny Day Real Estate, reformed with a new name and a daringly accessible sound. “Chain” blends loping progressive-rock beats and orchestral depth with itchier electronic colors and an indie-fueled rejection of formula. That said, this approach is not going to please everyone. Indie-rock zealots will decry the band’s use of classic-rock motifs, while classic rock aficionados will hear the Fire Theft as derivative and soulless. Ah well. Such folks we must leave to stew in their own preconceived notions (a sour bath indeed). Me, I’m sort of thrilled to hear this–not because it’s the best song ever recorded, but because it sounds vibrant, because it aims high, and because if rock’n’roll has a future after all, it’s going to unfold in the work of bands such as the Fire Theft, who move forward with an inclusive grip on the past.

This Week’s Finds: Dec. 7-13 (Bettie Serveert, Hem, The Ladybug Transistor)

“Unsound” – Bettie Serveert

Former mainstream rock’n’roll idols live forever (or maybe it just seems like it) on classic rock stations and in TV commercials. But what happens to the Bettie Serveerts of the world? There’s no radio format (yet) for college-radio rock icons of the early ’90s. I guess that’s another thing the internet is for, particularly when said alt-rock icons are still making good music. “Unsound,” from the band’s 2000 release, Private Suit, features an appealingly insistent 11-note guitar line and singer Carol van Dijk’s Chrissie Hynde-like blend of weariness and spunk. It’s an engaging vibe, although perhaps more Martha and the Muffins than the Pretenders come to think of it. In any case, not many bands combine edginess and polish with this much style and ease; and having the Canadian-born van Dijk fronting a Dutch band is a hidden weapon, keeping Bettie Serveert from floating aurally into that strange place that European bands tend to go when their singers try not to have accents.

“Half Acre” – Hem

A lot goes on in a short amount of time on this lovely piece of bygone-like music. Hem is a NYC-based group that got together with the idea of making an album of timeless-sounding new music, and to do it the old-fashioned way–no digital recording, no samples or audio trickery of any kind. The lovingly arranged instruments are real and pure, as is singer Sally Ellyson’s unerring, unsappy voice. This song can be found on the band’s one and only CD to date, Rabbitsongs, released independently in 2001, then re-released by DreamWorks this year.

“Song for the Ending Day” – the Ladybug Transistor

I’m not normally enamored of this sort of trembly baritone voice, but there’s something goofily endearing about this song, violins and all, particularly as it works itself towards full-fledged, “Walk Away Renee”-ishness two-thirds of the way through. This is no-holds-barred production-savvy pop and we don’t hear enough of this anymore, says me. Okay, so I’m still unlikely to become president of the Trembly Baritones Fan Club, but it’s a nifty little song. You’ll find it on the band’s recently released, eponymous album, their fifth.

This Week’s Finds: Nov. 30-Dec. 6 (Cotton Mather, Tamara Williamson, David Dondero)

“Lost My Motto” – Cotton Mather

So these guys are probably tired of the word “Beatlesque,” but how to avoid it when you hear that voice, those chords, that melody? And yet, as all too many bands over the years (decades, by now) have discovered, it’s turned out to be pretty difficult to be both Beatlesque and, well, interesting. Something energetic and compelling too easily gets lost when bands find their singer sounds like John Lennon and their guitarist sounds like George Harrison. I give this Austin-based band a fair amount of credit for building a worthwhile catalog upon such a Beatle-y (not to mention Squeeze-ish) foundation. This song was originally recorded on their 1994 debut; this version is a re-recording, available on their 2000 EP, Hotel Balitmore.

“Paradise” – Tamara Williamson

And here we have yet another under-recognized female Canadian singer/songwriter with a rich, idiosyncratic sound. “Paradise” feels like a film or a short story, and yet, despite its length, never bogs down into mere vamping or noodling; the musical landscape unfolds with a steady beat, builds with layered drama, and is held together by Williamson’s lithe voice. To download the song, scroll down to the CD “The Arms of Ed” and click on the word “Listen” next to track 12. The CD was released in 2001; she has a newer album, All Those Racing Horses, released this year, but as yet has no MP3s available from it.

“Ashes on the Highway” – David Dondero

I had to hang with this one a bit, not connecting that well to the alt-country-meets-Billy-Bragg opening. But I found that it acquired a certain charm as it developed; once again, it was a slide guitar that hooked me in. I never realized I liked slide guitar that much. Hmm. Anyway, this guy has apparently been floating around the indie-rock scene for about 10 years. The song is found on his new CD, Transient.

This Week’s Finds: Nov. 23-29 (Rose Polenzani, The Kingsbury Manx, Electrelane)

“Fell” – Rose Polenzani

Assured, full-bodied song from a singer/songwriter who, like Dar Williams before her, seems to be expanding beyond the “girl with a guitar” sound, to good effect. Think Suzanne Vega crossed with Lisa Germano, maybe, with a touch of Dar herself in there too. This one hooks me in the chorus, the way she sings slightly ahead of the lazy beat, which kicks in each time with that unexpected slide-guitar accent in the background.

“Porchlight” – the Kingsbury Manx

I hear echoes of early Pink Floyd and (of all things) Simon and Garfunkel in this gentle but assured song from a relatively unknown North Carolina band. I don’t know how this particular vibe holds up over a whole CD, but this song spins a wonderful aura with care and nuance. The band has three full-length CDs out to date; the most recent is called Aztec Discipline and was released last month. “Porchlight” comes from the 2001 album, Let You Down.

“Many Peaks” – Electrelane

Edgy, atomospheric instrumental from a British band that specializes in edgy, atmospheric instrumentals. This feels oddly like an amusement park ride that begins slowly, gains momentum and space, then bursts a couple of times into a double-time onslaught of guitar and keyboard before winding down. I hear a lot of life around the boundaries of this one, in the series of instruments that are brought in and out over the grinding, almost punky rhythm guitars in the background. Electrelane has one album to date, Rock It to the Moon, from which this comes.