This Week’s Finds: June 27-July 3 (For Stars, The Playwrights, Jesse Malin)

“It Doesn’t Really Matter” – For Stars

A simple piano refrain over a racing heart-like beat starts “It Doesn’t Really Matter” with a thematically appropriate sense of unresolved tension. I mean, the whole idea of singing about something that doesn’t really matter is a sort of paradox, if you’re inclined to think in that direction. So, okay, the piano, the vague tension, and then comes Carlos Foster’s distinctively fragile tenor, punctuated by crisp, vaguely dissonant electric guitar bursts; the tension accumulates even lyrically, as the first verse culminates with a thought-provoking line—“It doesn’t really matter who you think you are”—that resolves neither melodically nor psychologically. The payoff comes in the chorus, as the guitar becomes a wash of noise under gratifying harmonies and a perfectly resolved melody. A trumpet arrives to add a gentle edge to the restrained instrumental break, then we’re back to a quick verse, this time fleshed out with harmonies, still over the heartbeat beat. One more exultant chorus, a second trumpet solo, and we’re done. Nice stuff. And I’m glad to see For Stars are still around; it’s been long enough since their last CD that I’d been wondering if they existed any more. The song comes from the CD …It Falls Apart, due out June 29 on the label known as Future Farmer Recordings. The MP3 can be found on Insound.

“Welcome to the Middle Ages” – the Playwrights

As hard and fast and angry and assured as an old Jam song, “Welcome to the Middle Ages” finds a new generation pondering the trade-offs of adulthood, with intelligence and venom. The introduction is simply a fade-in on a fuzzy electric din; then with a curt “one-two,” the Playwrights dive in: vocals with declarative authority burst on top of a hard-driving, bass-heavy beat. The song rocks hard, instantly, but the 6/4 time keeps things jittery, and the unexpected instrumentation–hey, another trumpet in this one–and subtle changes keep your ear engaged. The lyrics are charmingly wordy; again the Jam come to mind when I hear singer Aaron Dewey spitting out more syllables than the line theoretically wants to have (“As I get older my conditions get better/But my expectations get lower…”). Located in Bristol, England, the Playwrights have one full-length CD to their name so far—Good Beneath the Radar, which was released in June 2003 by the Bristol-based Sink and Stove Records. “Welcome to the Middle Ages” comes from a Sink and Stove compilation CD called The Hospital Radio Request List Volume 2, which came out in the beginning of June 2004. The MP3 can be found on the band’s site, as well as on the Sink and Stove site.

“Hungry Heart” – Jesse Malin

There’s a good song from Jesse Malin’s new CD that I’ve heard a few times on the radio. So of course I went hunting for a free and legal from the album, which alas don’t appear to exist. While looking on his site, however, I found “Hungry Heart,” and at the risk of turning this into Fragile-Sounding Tenors Week here (see For Stars, above), I could not resist featuring this one as well. Yes it’s the old Bruce Springsteen song, but Malin grabs it by the throat (or maybe that’s his own throat he’s grabbing; he sounds like he’s nearly strangling with odd pronunciations every now and then) and makes it his own. To begin with, he reins in the big, bashing, irresistible beat of the original, stretching it taut and slowing it down against a fuzzed-out guitar. Then Malin takes the aw-shucks, Everyman ache of Springsteen’s version and gives us a Neil Young-meets-Brian-Wilson-at-Tom-Waits’-house vibe. With Springsteen, it was sloppy-goofy; Malin makes it weird-goofy, but I’m not complaining. Perhaps I’m rather too easily impressed when someone takes a familiar song and adds an edge of unfamiliarity to it, but I’m enjoying this. The song was released on a Bruce Springsteen tribute CD compiled by the British magazine Uncut in April 2003.

This Week’s Finds: June 20-26 (Badly Drawn Boy, I Love Math, A.C. Newman)

“Year of the Rat” – Badly Drawn Boy

Woolly-hatted one-man-band Damon Gough returns to the do-it-yourself orchestral style that lent his first CD, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, its distinctive allure. Not that this sound doesn’t have its share of potential pitfalls. I mean, add kettle drums to anyone this earnest and he runs the risk of sounding, shall we say, bombastic. And let’s not even talk about the children’s choir in the chorus. But BDB wins out here, I think, through sheer force of good will. Good will counts for a lot these days, as there is so blessed little of it to go around–or, more accurately, the people who have it are so rarely given a voice in popular culture. So, yeah, the tune is pretty simple, and the sentiments are pretty corny, but it sticks in my head, and I don’t mind it hanging out there. Plus, I get the sense, like with Bewilderbeast, that this song is going to be an idiosyncratic part of an idiosyncratic whole, so much so that taking it out of context probably involves missing a certain amount of its effect. According to the Chinese zodiac, by the way, it is not the actual year of the rat, so I’m thinking he’s making a political statement, telling us hey, buck up, stick together, we’ll get through (“One plus one is one,” he sings; and that’s the name of the CD as well). So the slacker dude in the hat turns out to be one big Harry Nilsson-ish cornball, and I say good for him. The CD, on BDB’s own Twisted Nerve label, released through XL Recordings and Astralwerks, is due out June 21. The MP3 comes from BDB’s web site.

“On the Green” – I Love Math”

The song opens with a fuzzy, automated-sounding rhythm sound that goes on perhaps a little too long–I’m thinking “all right already” when I first hear it–and then, bang, the drum enters off the beat of the automated-sounding rhythm thing, incorporating it in an unanticipated manner. Soon enter guitar, bass, and harmonica, and we’re suddenly in the middle of a home-spun, alt-country-tinged indie pop-rocker. What gives the song such presence, to me, are the extra melodic steps the music takes both in the verse and the chorus. Listen to how the verse doesn’t just stick with the simple, repeated melody from the first two lines (as many songs might) but adds an asymmetrical line that gives the verse a chance to explore a few extra chords before heading back to the beginning. A similar moment of spiffy modulation happens towards the end of the chorus as well–and don’t miss how the band extends this moment the second time the chorus comes around. We’re not talking profound accomplishment here, but the great good melodic energy and vocal charm on display here make this song a keeper. I can find little proof of this group’s existence except on the web site, where you’ll find this MP3. There it says: “I Love Math is John and Jason from The Deathray Davies, Philip Peoples from the Old 97’s and Aaron Kelly who is just a badass.”

“Miracle Drug” – A. C. Newman

Okay, so speaking of Ray Davies (sort of), my goodness, Carl Newman could’ve been understudy for Mr. Davies on the Sleepwalker sessions. Only I don’t imagine Newman was even alive in 1977, when the Kinks released that album. Minor detail. In any case, not only does Newman’s appealingly nasal upper-register singing pay deep homage to Davies, the staccato crunch of the guitar has its own sort of Kink-iness to it as well. “Miracle Drug” isn’t actually that much of a song; the chorus is just one line long (interestingly enough, he sounds rather a lot like John Lennon during this part), and the verses succeed more on the jumpy charm of the guitar-vocal interplay (and of course Newman’s Ray Davies-ness) than on the breadth or depth of the songwriting, but hey it’s summertime–short and catchy is just fine. And, as previously noted here, current rock’n’rollers who love and respect the Kinks gain a fair amount of love and respect on Fingertips from the get-go. “Miracle Drug” is found on Newman’s first solo CD, Slow Wonder, released earlier this month on Matador Records. Newman is otherwise known for being the leader of the Canadian band the New Pornographers. The MP3 comes from the Matador Records web site.

This Week’s Finds: June 13-19 (Pedro the Lion, Shapes of Race Cars, Low-Beam)

“Discretion” – Pedro the Lion

David Bazan, Pedro the Lion’s mastermind (on some albums he’s the whole band), has a brilliant rock’n’roll voice, burnished by what sounds like an unalleviatable ache. This is a voice that says, “I’m going to tell you a sad story and you’re going to listen.” Here, an incisive, bell-like guitar line propels a tragedy I can’t completely decipher–but any song that starts with the line “Having no idea that his youngest son was dead/The farmer and his sweet young wife slept soundly in his bed” is not heading to a happy place. And yet the song has such presence and verve–Bazan writes long melodies, offers gratifying chord changes, and sings from his soul–that it feels stirring and heroic nonetheless. “Discretion” can be found on Pedro the Lion’s recently released fifth CD, Achilles Heel (Jade Tree). The MP3 is available on the band’s site.

“Captain” – Shapes of Race Cars

You could do worse than blast this song from your car’s sound system with the top down all summer long. Provided it doesn’t rain. And provided you have a convertible. But you get the idea: this here is a big, bashing dollop of tuneful, hard-driving, summer-anthemy energy. Shapes of Race Cars may be a new band, but the fact that they describe themselves as a “power trio” tells me what I need to know. It takes a certain amount of heart and guts to hit the rock scene with just guitar, bass, and drums: there’s no room to hide, no aural space for mushiness or lack of clarity. What’s more, these guys take what could’ve been an effective two and a half minute ditty and open it skillfully into an engaging four and a half minute mini-epic, thanks largely to an instrumental break that starts about two minutes in. Sailing out of chorus harmonies at that point, the song pulls back instrumentally, singer/guitarist Dylan Callaghan turns a high note into a thoughtful couple of “doo-ooo”s which are are mimicked on the guitar, launching a well-crafted, melodic solo that evokes nameless, bygone moments in rock history through both sound and gusto. “Captain” is one of six songs on a new, self-released EP called Apocalypse Hurts; the MP3 is on the band’s web site. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the heads up.

“Airstream” – Low-Beam

Vaguely off-key keyboards (off-keyboards?) lend an appealing goofiness at the outset, but when the joint male/female lead vocals kick in, “Airstream” takes off, steadily acquiring an unexpected sort of classic majesty, like some great lost late ’70s nugget–“Roadrunner” meets “I Zimbra” meets four 21st-century believers from New London, Connecticut. The repetitive, circular melody works in tandem with the driving rhythm and fuzzy-around-the-edges soundscape to create an inexplicably catchy song–its own sort of cruising with the top down summer song, come to think of it. And fans of unexpected instrumental entrances will no doubt appreciate the muted trumpet that wanders in during the last 50 seconds of this one. The band aims for an admirable sense of cohesiveness both musically and thematically; I like this explanation of the name, from the band’s web site: “Low-beaming is night-driving along the river road on the long way there, navigating by moonlight, almost into the river sometimes. Or out to the lake in a traveling party and shutting the lights off behind the lead car. And full moon motorcycling through the woods, the visual soundtrack equivalent to a CCR song or maybe Elvis in the ghetto.” “Airstream” was first released on a vinyl single in September 2003, then emerged on a six-song EP called Every Other Moment in March of this year; the MP3 is on A full-length CD is in the works.

This Week’s Finds: June 6-12 (PJ Harvey, Come Down, Polaris)

“The Letter” – PJ Harvey  link no longer available
Energized by its ragged, syncopated beat, “The Letter” shows me within a measure or two that maybe, just maybe, I’ve been listening to a bit too much indie rock of late. Harvey’s raw yet radiant assurance enlivens the music with a rich texture unlikely to be encountered in the lo-fi indie world. One of the most critically acclaimed singer/songwriters to come of age in the the midst of the “alternative rock” eruption of the early ’90s, Harvey is back with her seventh CD, the just-released Uh Huh Her, on Island Records. The deep, fuzzy guitar that lends the song its arresting groove all but hypnotizes me even as Harvey’s words–emerging in bursts between the guitar’s funky drive–snap me to attention, as she effortlessly charges the act of letter-writing with brash eroticism, before resolving into cathartic wailing in the wordless chorus section. Listen to how she enriches the sound in the second verse, as the guitar is supplemented by a mysterious-sounding low-register vocal below and a judiciously added synthesizer above. Unfortunately the song is available through the creaky, ad-crazed Artist Direct site. The link above should take you to a page that allows you access to the download, rather than directly to the song; this is one of those that gives you a license allowing for a limited number of plays.

“You Are Not A Song” – Come Down  link no longer available
This NYC band is going to have to get used to being compared to Radiohead, as both the dreamy, melodic ambiance it creates and singer Mark Pernice’s slurry, emotive voice rather quickly bring the great British band to mind. But sounding like another band is not a bad thing–I mean, “Beatlesque” is not an insult; neither is “Radioheadesque” (although maybe we need a better coinage). To begin with, there are far worse bands to embrace as a major influence. Second, if rock’n’roll is to remain vital in the 21st century, it’s important for sounds to establish themselves independently of any one band–too much fragmentation and there are too many islands, no mainland. Plus, when the band itself has talent, the more one listens, the more the apparently derivative work emerges with its own attributes and charms. I like the engaging interplay between acoustic and electric guitars here, and am particularly enamored of the droning guitar that accompanies much of the way through, adding a subtle ache to an already wistful song. Check out how the drone stutters and reverberates with added intensity in the second verse, but never (quite) overwhelms the melody. “You Are Not A Song” can be found on the band’s self-released Happy Hunting EP; the MP3 is available on the band’s web site.

“Waiting for October” – Polaris  link no longer available
A bouncy slice of good-natured rock’n’roll originally featured on the mid-’90s Nickelodeon show, “The Adventures of Pete & Pete.” I hear a big dose ofSteve Wynn in this track, for you Steve Wynn fans, both in the tone of singer Mark Mulcahy’s friendly voice and in the goofy good energy of the whole thing. One particularly endearing element here for me is the echoey background harmonies in the chorus, recalling another bunch of good-natured rock’n’roll goofballs, Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers. Polaris was “Pete & Pete”‘s “house band,” more or less; the band sprang from the core of a Connecticut-based band called Miracle Legion, which featured Mulcahy as singer and songwriter. Mulcahy, in turn, began his career in the mid-’80s as a Michael Stipe-inspired jangly-guitar indie-rocker, but transformed over the years into more of an emotionally forward singer/songwriter type and is said to have inspired none other than Radiohead’s Thom Yorke (him again) somewhere along the way. “Pete & Pete” was one of those shows that acquired a devoted cult following (many fans consider it the best TV show ever, in fact) while operating just below the pop cultural radar screen. The music was a definite part of the show, and “Waiting for October” is apparently a fan favorite. The song can be found on a CD released in 1999 called, simply enough, “Music From The Adventures of Pete & Pete” (Mezzotint Records).

This Week’s Finds: May 30-June 5 (Midlake, The Dresden Dolls, The Fountaine Toups)

“Balloon Maker” – Midlake

Here’s a band from Denton, Texas that’s channeling a veritable history of British rock in one great, swirling package. I hear Salty Dog-era Procol Harum in here, a dash of Robyn Hitchcock, some Beatles of course, and even a touch of Radiohead, majestically and more than a little psychedelically mixed together. (I for one never realized how much Thom Yorke owes to Procol’s Gary Brooker until these guys linked the two so clearly together.) “Balloon Maker” places you immediately in the middle of a fuzzy, orchestral wash of sound, and unfolds with quirky hesitations through the verse before unwrapping into a memorable chorus. Horns and chimes lend extra texture as the song develops, and before things get too stodgy, the synthesizer offers a dizzy solo three and a half minutes in. This song comes from the band’s first full-length CD, Bamnan and Slivercork, to be released June 8th on Bella Union. The MP3 is located on the vast SXSW web site.

“Coin-Operated Boy” – the Dresden Dolls

The White Stripes have their guitar-and-drum, Led Zeppelin meets a couple of geeks from Detroit act; now we have the Dresden Dolls with their piano-and-drum, Kurt Weill meets a couple of punks from Boston act. It’s hard to know what kind of shelf life this sort of duo will have, but the music (“Brechtian Punk Cabaret,” as they label it themselves) certainly stands out in a crowd. And there are hints at a simmering sort of brilliance beneath what might at first glance seem like shtick. To begin with, there’s the band’s seemingly effortless knack for melody–the verse, for instance, is an extended line rather than a repeated phrase; the descending twist at the point when pianist/singer/songwriter Amanda Palmer sings “But I turn him on” is a great moment. The lyrics likewise reveal a sneaky capability, despite the pitfall of tromping through somewhat well-worn territory (lonely outsider imagining life with an artificial lover). Like here: “Coin-operated boy/All the other real ones that I destroy/Cannot hold a candle to my new boy and I’ll/Never let him go…” Or, in particular, as the bridge starts, here: “This bridge was written to make you feel smittener/With my sad picture of girl getting bitterer.” Note too that the narrator wants the robot not because she can’t find a lover otherwise but because she’s tired of how she easily chews up her real ones. Could be a band to pay close attention to. The song is found on the Dresden Dolls’ self-titled CD, their first studio release, which came out in April; the MP3 comes from SXSW again.

“When I Wake Up” – the Fontaine Toups

I do like songs with “do-do-do-do”s in the them, I guess. Here’s an appealingly straightforward rocker from the oddly-named band the Fontaine Toups—oddly named because the leader herself is, apparently, named Fontaine Toups. She used to be in a popular NYC-based band called Versus, which recorded five CDs through the ’90s. “When I Wake Up” has a loose-limbed energy to it that plays well off Toups’ Chrissie Hynde-like swagger. The song comes from the band’s debut CD, released earlier this month on Teenbeat Records; the MP3 is located on the band’s web site.

This Week’s Finds: May 23-29 (Robert Pollard, Ojos de Brujo, Joel R. L. Phelps)

“Their Biggest Win” – Robert Pollard

A quirky blend of the difficult and the catchy, “Their Biggest Win” starts with a series of unadorned electric guitar chords that don’t quite mesh with a time signature; when the drums kick in, the beat appears to regularize, but hold on—when the bass, now, comes aboard the song shifts into yet another beat. Soon it’s time for Pollard’s voice, and even this is cause for a less-than-straightforward listening experience, as he starts off with a lower register sort of growl—I swear he sounds like Ian Dury for a moment or two here. The verse, such as it is, is an interesting series of semi-audible three- and four-syllable phrases that build melodically, rather than repeat. Just as I’m about to throw my hands up at how nothing ties together, suddenly everything ties together as the song bursts forth with a crunchy, sing-along-ish chorus. This time I can hear the words but I still don’t know what he’s saying. But hey, I’ll admit I can’t begin to explain Robert Pollard, long-time mastermind of legendary indie-rock band Guided By Voices. The guy has released about a hundred thousand records over the last 15 years or so, most as GBV, but sometimes as a solo artist. This song comes from a new solo CD called Fiction Man, part of something called the “Fading Captain” series (I have no idea what that’s about). I do know that this is the first CD Pollard has put out since announcing last month that GBV will be splitting up by the end of the year. Which means there’s probably a good three or four GBV CDs to come before then.

“Ventilaor R-80” – Ojos de Brujo

And now for something completely different. I will admit to being someone who appreciates the impact that hip-hop has on other music more than I enjoy the actual hip-hop I’ve heard, at least so far. This may be the melody thing, to begin with–I respond much more deeply to songs that have melodies and musical structure rather than rhythmic structure and a collage-y approach to sound. That said, the rhythmic and sonic innovation introduced to music by hip-hop is clearly a huge reservoir of inspiration for musicians around the world. Perhaps I simply have to get in the back door like this—stumbling upon a band from Barcelona that produces an exotic amalgam of hip-hop, flamenco, dance, and folk. Yeah so I’m really in over my head here, as flamenco is its own universe, full of its own rules and regulations; apparently Ojos de Brujo (which translates, I think, to Wizard Eyes, or something like that) flouts all sorts of conventions in creating their sound. In any case, I’m loving how the musical elements that are so overtly Spanish–the style and substance of the acoustic guitar, the precise flamenco rhythms–manage to work so exuberantly with the elements that derive from hip-hop (the rap-inflected vocals, the so-called “turntablism” effects). “Ventilaor R-80” is a song on the band’s CD Bari, released in Spain in 2002; as released in this country this month, the song has been called “Ventilaor Rhumba.” The MP3 comes from the Flamenco World web site.

“Kelly Grand Forks” – Joel R. L. Phelps & the Downer Trio

Joel R. L. Phelps has an unusual name and a down-to-earth electric guitar sound that’s one part Neil Young, one part…well, someone else. My mind’s not working too effectively this morning. “Kelly Grand Forks” chugs along with an urgent rhythm section tension that helps expand this song beyond the confines of a typical roots-rocker. Another independent singer/songwriter laboring in relative obscurity (it’s big, big world out there of independent singer/songwriters laboring in relative obscurity), Phelps is gifted with a strong, throaty voice that pulls you in when he sings in the middle ranges, then just slays you when he goes for the higher notes. For what appears to be another jilted lover’s tale, this song shows me an unexpected lyrical depth, enhanced by Phelps’ delivery, and the accumlating force of the guitar work. “Kelly Grand Forks” is found on Phelps’ new CD, Customs (12xU/Moneyshot Records). The MP3 comes via the 12xU label site.

This Week’s Finds: May 16-22 (Mary Lou Lord, My Favorite, The Standard)

“The Wind Blew All Around Me” – Mary Lou Lord  link no longer available
Gorgeous, insistent, accomplished, and heart-rending. Mary Lou Lord takes a straight-ahead, jangly-guitar, up-tempo ballad and renders it heroic, somehow. “Look at me laughing, look at me joking, I’ve having such fun,” she sings at the start, convincing you of exactly the opposite. While there may be nothing about “The Wind Blew All Around Me” that you haven’t heard before, that’s part of the joy of it: to remember that what moves the soul in a piece of music is rarely if ever a function of how “cutting-edge” it is. Genuine folk music has been moving souls for centuries, and this does, come to think of it, have the air of a sort of post-modern folk song–somewhat skewed, and charged with modern-day references (“My voice rang out like a dentist drill”), but with (as the title suggests) a timeless core. Lord’s voice is just plain lovely and yet very real and present; when she gets to that descending melody at the end of each verse, particular with the harmonies that kick in after the first verse, I just about want to cry. The song comes from Baby Blue (Rubric Records), her recently released second studio CD, featuring a set of songs written by collaborator (and label-mate) Nick Saloman (otherwise known as one-man band the Beavis Frond). The MP3 is available through

“Burning Hearts” – My Favorite  link no longer available
I love when songs hit the ground running. In this case we have a ringing, melodic, guitar-ish synthesizer (or could be a melodica; singer Andi Vaughn apparently toots one) playing off a really big drum sound, like the kind you used to hear on Blondie records, and I am swept right in. As it happens, Vaughn has a bit of Debbie Harry’s disaffected warmth (there’s a paradox for you) about her voice, which adds to the grand orchestral decadence of the whole effort. As does the admittedly overwrought Hiroshima motif of the lyrics. To me, the song soars by combining a knowing sense of melody with a gift for vague but momentous-sounding lyrical phrases (“I was an architect, she was an actress/I drew the Eiffel Tower upon her dress/So we could see the world”). My Favorite–not my favorite band name, I must say–is from Long Island, New York; “Burning Hearts” is found on the band’s 2003 double-CD Happiest Days of Our Lives (Double Agent Records). The MP3 is on the band’s web site.

“Ghosts For Hire” – the Standard  link no longer available
From the tense two-note pulse of the intro, “Ghosts for Hire” opens into a stuttering sort of guitar-laced march, driven by a hypnotic guitar line and singer Tim Putnam’s jittery vocals. The song centers around short, shadowy lyrical blurts that leave an ominous if inscrutable trail; there is no obvious verse/chorus distinction, no clear hook other than that wondrous, oscillating guitar driving through the heart of the song like blood coursing through the veins. The Standard is a Portland, Oregon-based band with two CDs to its name so far; “Ghosts For Hire” comes from the second, Wire Post to Wire, which came out in March on Yep Roc Records. The MP3 is on the Yep Roc site.

This Week’s Finds: May 9-15 (Ambulance LTD, Erin McKeown, Matt Pond PA)

“Primitive (The Way I Treat You)” – Ambulance LTD

The same young NYC band behind the gorgeous, spacey “Stay Where You Are” reveals a gratifying versatility as they’ve come forward with their first full-length CD. In place of the ringing melodicism of “Stay Where You Are,” “Primitive” arrives with a down-and-dirty groove, complete with a stomping keyboard riff and squonky guitars. Singer Marcus Congelton alternates fetchingly between a blase, Lou Reed-i-ness in the spoken-sung verses and a sweeter, yearning vocal in the chorus. Here is one new band fully comfortable with the length and breadth of rock’n’roll history, a fact further revealed by what they’ve chosen to call their CD: LP. Gotta love that. The MP3 can be accessed through the TVT Records web site, but you will need to provide an email address and postal code to get it.

“Slung-lo” – Erin McKeown

Before there was Nelly McKay, on her teenaged rampage to become the next fresh face of pop, there was Erin McKeown, mining some of the same territory from a twenty-something perspective, but unfortunately (or not?) lacking McKay’s publicity machine. This song has an old-fashioned, finger-snapping jauntiness to it (much like McKay’s “David,” which came later) that charms me enough to overlook the lyrical theme, which appears to be writer’s block. I don’t really like hearing from writers—be they book authors or songwriters—about writer’s block. Either write, or don’t; writing about having trouble writing is a cheap dodge (unless you’re Charlie Kaufman), and usually boring as hell (unless you’re Charlie Kaufman). But, heck, at least the vibrant McKeown doesn’t belabor the point (the song’s only 2:47). The MP3 can be found on’s elusive but worthwhile MP3 storehouse (soon to be written up in the Music Site Guide). The song can be found on her 2003 CD Grand, released on Nettwerk Records.

“Grave’s Disease” – Matt Pond PA

Another accomplished, nuanced, and engaging song from Matt Pond PA. While continually associated with the so-called “chamber pop” movement, for its use of cello and violin, the band is more instructively associated, to my ears, with ’80s bands like the Cure (in its radio-friendly phase) and the Smiths—the Cure for its easy way with driving pop (not to mention a tone in Pond’s voice that brings Robert Smith to mind), the Smiths for that band’s idiosyncratic way of using upbeat but minor-key acoustic rhythms to drive their unusual yet accessible songs. Propelled by clipped, enigmatic vocal phrases, “Grave’s Disease” unfolds with a gentle sort of urgency and a subtle acquisition of musical themes over the course of the song. It will be found on the band’s new CD, Emblems, which is scheduled to be released next week on Altitude Records; the MP3 can be found on Insound.

This Week’s Finds: May 2-8

“Of Course It Is” – Clann Zú  link no longer available
I am immediately engaged by the way musical elements accumulate through the course of this song’s unhurried introduction: first a warm, deep guitar and a spare bass; then the drum kit, cymbally and intriguingly off the beat; as the drums settle on firmer ground, the guitar moves up in register, and clarifies the riff; a rolling snare opens up both space and tension, the music gains in intensity, and then, at the moment of greatest frenzy, in comes something that sounds at first like a voice singing in another room. Actually it’s a violin. Fully two and a half minutes thus pass before we hear the singer, a Bono-like lad from Australia named Declan de Barra. His entry galvanizes the rest of the piece, which has dynamics aplenty to offer during its second half, including some inspired drumming, dramatic violin colors, and a simple but unexpectedly poetic lyric that infuses the music with depth and grandeur, even as the music does the same for the words. The band comes from Melbourne; “Of Course It Is” can be found on an EP released in 2001. A full-length CD, entitled Rúa, came out in the fall of 2003, on G7 Welcoming Committee Records.

“Motel Sex” – Danny Cohen  link no longer available
With a musical history dating back to the early ’60s, Danny Cohen is something of an underground legend, about which not much is known and a fair amount has been invented. But along the way he acquired some impressive fans–including Tom Waits and Ray Davies–and is about to re-emerge after decades on the fringe with a release on a semi-major label, entitled Dannyland. Cohen’s voice may be quirky and unpolished but the overall musical package is anything but–the playing is beautiful and nuanced, the setting extraordinarily well-crafted, oozing with a full-bodied knowledge of rock history, and yet full of neat little surprises, particularly in the skewed edges of the guitar work. In a touch apparently indicative of his subversive humor, the song is really about Motel 6, but of course he couldn’t use a company name like that so altered it by one letter. Dannyland is due out later this month, on Anti Records.

“Fashion Party” – Daniele Luppi  link no longer available
And when the aggressive harshness of human life in 2004 becomes too much for me, I have now a wondrous musical escape hatch. Daniele Luppi is an Italian composer who has written, produced, and arranged an album that is a living homage to the indelible sound of late ’60s and early ’70s Italian film scores. Inspired by composers such as Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota, Luppi has himself written music that equally evokes (to quote the precise and effective description on his web site) “a glorious, color-saturated world of zippy sports cars, plastic pop-art furniture, luxurious villas and all-night discotheques.” And here’s the thing: Luppi isn’t some young, mad computer genius alone in a room with a 32-track digital recorder. Rather, he knew he could not legitimately recreate the music without employing the musicians who themselves had made it. And so he hired the three surviving members of Marc 4 to play his new compositions (Marc 4 was the name of the quartet that played on literally hundreds of ’60s and ’70s Italian film soundtracks, much the way the Funk Brothers played on so many Motown records). He even recorded everything in the studio of Marc 4 bassist Maurizio Majorana, where much of the original music was produced. The resulting sound leaps from the speakers: sprightly guitars strumming against a dark, slithery bass line, setting the stage for–of course!–a whistle. (Luppi, true to form, hired the same whistler employed famously for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti-weseterns.) Much of the atmosphere and charm of the song, to me, emerges from the whistled melody’s snarky intervals–that is, the musical distance between adjacent notes: half-steps here, minor-sixth leaps there, and many other sly twists. The whole thing is driven by an assured, funky beat, colored by a bit of Hammond organ below and a sexy trumpet up on top. The CD is called The Italian Story, and was released on Rhino Records in February.

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.