This is the last week you can put your name in for the Lucinda Williams giveaway in progress right now on the Fingertips Contests page. Once more, with feeling: I’ve got two copies of the newly re-released, two-disc Car Wheels On A Gravel Road to give away for nothing at all but the time it takes to send an email. Two winners will be selected at random; deadline for entry is December 24. Details here.

Note that the Fingertips home office will shut down (mostly) between December 23 and January 1. (The contest winner, however, will be contacted during that week.) The next edition of “This Week’s Finds” will appear on Tuesday January 2. Wishing everyone in the meantime the happiest of holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice, New Year’s Day, and then some: all holidays are for celebrating); see you in ’07….

week of Dec. 17-23

“Grain of Salt” – the Morning Benders
A completely endearing blend of do-it-yourself-ish indie rock and pure pop know-how. Let me start, for a change, at the end: the fact that this thing closes out with a rave-up guitar solo–and if I better knew my guitar sounds I could tell you what kind of guitar it is; it’s a distinctive and familiar one, to be sure, with a deep feel of rock history about it–says a lot about the Morning Benders’ impressive musical instincts. It’s nothing I’d’ve expected and yet now of course it sounds perfectly inevitable, particularly following the coda-like extension the song takes before the solo kicks in. From beginning to end, in fact, “Grain of Salt” oozes charm and craft in equal measure, from the shuffly bashings of drummer Julian Harmon (I feel as if I just about see his elbows flying as he pounds away on the two and four beats) to the effortlessly merry melody, sung with easygoing grace by Chris Chu, and the happy happy chord progressions that enliven it. With repeated listens, I grow more and more impressed with the ability of this Berkeley, Calif.-based foursome to sound so simultaneously spontaneous and durable–a very friendly combination. “Grain of Salt” comes from the band’s debut EP Loose Change, which was self-released earlier this year, sold out, then re-released in September (with one extra song) on Portia Records. The MP3 is via the band’s site.

“The Vague Angels of Vagary” – Vague Angels
Even though this came out in March and has nothing whatever to do with Christmas or the holiday season of any kind, I like featuring a song by a band named Vague Angels this week. It seems like all we can hope for these days, and maybe all we actually need. And never mind any of that: this free-flowing, structure-free song is itself extraordinarily cool. Rolling firmly to a strong yet elusive train-like rhythm, “The Vague Angels of Vagary” seems, well, vaguely to be about trains, and journeys, and searches. NYC-based singer/songwriter/novelist Chris Leo (brother of Ted) speak-sings the odd but engaging lyrics like Lou Reed with a higher voice and no leather jacket; he seems more bemused by what he sees that pissed off. What hooks me with this one: the energetic, good-natured, descending guitar riff that keeps the song afloat–relentlessly it climbs back to its apex and spills yet again downward while Leo goes on about train track tundras and the WPA and the MTA. “The Vague Angels of Vagary” is from the CD Let’s Duke It Out At Kilkenny Katz’ (yes there’s that weird floating apostrophe in the title), released earlier in the year by Pretty Activity. The MP3 is via the Pretty Activity site; thanks to the Deli for the head’s up.

“All I Ever Get For Christmas Is Blue” – Over the Rhine
This year’s directly related holiday tune comes from longtime Fingertips faves Over the Rhine. Karin Bergquist is in fine, bittersweet form while partner Linford Detweiler lays down crystalline piano lines with unearthly deftness. This song comes from Over the Rhine’s new Christmas CD, featuring original Christmas songs, entitled Snow Angels. The instantly intimate and enveloping sound here is no accident; Detweiler himself has written, “We hope that Snow Angels is a record that becomes part of the landscape for small gatherings of people who love each other.” If justice is served, it will be, but then again the world as we are living in it is not is not known, alas, for great justice at a macro level. We are left to do what we can individually, and in small groups. Do yourself, at least, the favor of checking this song out–and the one other MP3 available from this CD, “Darlin’ (Christmas is Comin’)”–and then buying the CD if you like the vibe and think maybe an unabashed album of new Christmas songs is its own sort of wonderful thing (and hey I think so and don’t even celebrate the holiday myself!). These guys have developed a deep, rich, and very personal sound over the years that is a wonder to behold and deserves a wider audience than they have thus far reached. If you’d like to hear more be sure to check out the Over the Rhine entry in the Select Artist Guide for pointers to other free and legal MP3s of theirs.

week of July 9-15

“Something of an End” – My Brightest Diamond
A quirky, multifaceted pop song with cinematic ups and downs of the Kate Bushian variety, “Something of an End” is a good introduction to the compelling work of Shara Worden, one-time cheerleading captain of the Sufjan Stevens “Illinoisemakers,” now doing business as My Brightest Diamond. I am not one to value all quirkiness as good, just as I don’t criticize everything quirk-free as bad; I like my quirkiness to come with substance–to be fostered, in other words, by genuine expertise, rather than the boring and ultimately empty impulse to “shock” or “rebel” or simply “be different.” I think the fact that Worden’s father was a national accordion champion and her mother was a church organist is important; I like too that she studied classical music in college and, later on, studied composition with Australian composer Padma Newsome. “Something of an End” feels composed, in fact–its demarcated sections sounding at once distinct and tightly bound, its melodies and harmonies rich and unsimplistic. Keep your ears on the instrumentation throughout, as Worden uses strings in particular with marvelous flair. “Something of an End” is the opening track on Bring Me The Workhorse, the debut My Brightest Diamond CD, due out in August on Asthmatic Kitty Records. The MP3 is via Worden’s web site.

“Breakdown” – Stella (U.S.)
Even as the guitars squonk and blaze, and even as singer Curt Perkins emotes with the best of them, and even though the song is called “Breakdown,” there’s something joyous in the air here, so powerful is the energy churning around this one. I’m engaged to begin with by how the song launches with a rhythm that manages to stutter and drive at the same time. When Perkins joins in, he’s singing mostly one note against, mostly, a tom-tom beat, creating a pulsing sort of urgency–you know it’s going somewhere, only it’s hard to figure where. I was not prepared, however, for the glistening chorus, which depends upon the vivid arrangement of a simple three-note descent. I think it’s Perkins’ voice most of all that creates the hook–with the chorus, it becomes more full-bodied, as if there’s a howl now hiding just behind the words he sings; and the transition from the five repeated notes that open the chorus to the next note, one step down: there, that’s it, that’s the moment here, for me, when the song lodges in my gut. Coincidentally enough, Perkins comes from musical parents as well, his father being a classical musician, his mother a Broadway singer. Stella (which adds the U.S. officially to distinguish itself from another, Europe-based Stella) is a quartet based in Nashville; “Breakdown” comes from its “new” CD, American Weekend–the new is in quotes because the album was finished in 1999, but tied up in legal problems for, literally, years. It was legally released, at long last, last week, on Yesman Records.

“Beanbag Chair” – Yo La Tengo
It’s been a while since we’ve heard from this proto-indie, perpetually idiosyncratic Hoboken band. And, actually, when I first listened to this song, it kind of glided past my ears without making much impact. Okay, cute horns, but then what? Ira Kaplan’s trademark whispery-wavery vocals, sure. I still wasn’t convinced. But after living with it a while, I find myself charmed. I think it was (again) the chorus that did it. For here, in the middle of a peppy, horn-flecked tune comes an unexpectedly delicate, delicately harmonized melody–a melody that might fit comfortably in a folk-pop tune from the late ’60s, perhaps, if set in an entirely different musical context. As with “Breakdown,” I think I was hooked by more or less one note–in this case, the third note Kaplan sings in the chorus (as usual with YLT, the words are nearly impossible to discern). He’s just singing the basic chord triad, starting in the middle, going down to the one note, then up to the five, but the quality of his fragile tenor at the top there, combined with the casual, difficult-to-pin-down backing vocals, makes this an exquisite moment, truly. Make sure not to miss, too, the subtly chaotic bridge section, beginning around 1:40; I won’t try to describe it, but for a short while there it sounds like another song is playing at the same time. “Beanbag Chair” will appear on the next Yo La Tengo album, entitled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, set for release in September on Matador Records. The MP3 is via the Matador site.

week of June 11-17

“Throw My Weight” – Samsa
An extraordinarily satisfying three minutes of power-trio British indie pop. The guitar rings out and drives forward with nicely interesting chords, the drum cuts a powerful and more than a little complex beat, and singer Oli Deakin (also the guitarist) has an unexpected richness to his voice, singing with an intriguing blend of forcefulness and fragility. The thing, to me, that nails this one down as truly memorable is the great, double-hooked chorus: first, the catchy simplicity of the “I run for cover/From one to another” part, with its diving then rising thirds, sounding at this point like some lost pop classic; and then, the killer twist as the chords modulate through a really gratifying couple of shifts, ringing guitar sirening away over the top of it all. Samsa is from Leeds, in the U.K.; it’s Oli’s brother Jamie throwing down the engaging drumbeats, while the bassist, Harry Wood, is a non-brother. “Throw My Weight” can be found on the band’s first EP, called “First, The Lights,” which was self-released last summer. The EP sold out; all three songs are now available as free downloads on the band’s site.

“For Money or Love” – the Like Young
I don’t know how these married couples manage to play in a band together (there are a number of them out there at this point), never mind be the only members in the band, never mind make good music, never mind stay married. But here’s the Chicago-based duo who call themselves the Like Young doing all that with what sounds like great good energy to spare. This short, stomach-rumbling rocker has an incisive appeal to my ears, having a lot to do with the sturdiness of the melody and singer Joe Ziemba’s pitch-perfect rough-rocker voice. When wife Amanda joins in for one lead vocal line in the chorus, this too seems perfect. While the overall ambiance is “garage,” there’s something more sensitive in the air here, despite the visceral beat and short simplicity of the tune. “For Money or Love” is a song from the band’s third full-length CD Last Secrets, which was released last month on Polyvinyl Records. The MP3 comes from the band’s site.

“The Friday of Our Lives” – Audiotransparent
Slow-burning and deeply atmospheric, “The Friday of Our Lives” mixes actual instruments and fuzzy noise with impressive deftness. Portishead leaps to mind as a reference point, but this is one of the few times I’ve heard a band that reminds me of Portishead without simply sounding pretty much exactly like them (only not as good). The male lead singer in this case (one Bart Looman) creates an immediately different aural palatte; so does the lack of overtly trip-hoppy touches (no record scratches or obvious samples in the beats, for instance). With its muted (and subsequently unmuted) trumpet, soft keyboards, and brushed drums, “The Friday of Our Lives” manages to carry itself almost like a torch song even as the megaphoned vocals and dissonant bray of background guitar effectively and engagingly deconstructs the ambiance. Audiotransparent is a quintet from the Netherlands; this song has been sitting around in the listening pile for a few months, slowly growing on me. It comes from the CD Nevland, released in September 2005 on Living Room Records, a Dutch label. The MP3 is via the band’s clean and attractive web site. Thanks to to Getecho for the head’s up, way back when.

This Week’s Finds: November 6-12 (Hard-Fi, Martha Berner, Soft)

“Cash Machine” – Hard-Fi

This decisive update of the Clash’s “Magnificent Seven” sound—an irresistible blend of punk, pop, dub, and disco—is simple, uncompromising, harsh, elegant, and utterly marvelous. Opening with an echoey melodica, sounding like a forlorn traffic jam, the song leaps into an assured beat yet never rests solely on its groove: there is melody, there are chord changes, there are flawless production touches, and there is a story—the last fact of which makes me realize how few bands, for better or worse, actually do tell discernible stories. The minor key chorus—wonderfully set up, in major keys, by a pair of gliding syllables—is a glorious distillation of this young band’s assured sound. And while many songs succeed nicely in today’s mash-up, shuffle-crazy world with a kitchen-sink style of production, sounds tossed willy-nilly on top of one another in pursuit of a mysterious ambiance, “Cash Machine” reminds me of the brilliance of the opposite approach: even as Hard-Fi creates a large, swaggering presence here, there is not one wasted sound in the mix. It’s a relief sometimes to be able to hear everything that you’re listening to, especially when it’s this good. Hard-Fi is a young foursome from the apparently dreary commuter town of Staines, west of London. “Cash Machine” is the lead track on the band’s debut CD, Stars on CCTV, which was short-listed earlier this year for the U.K.’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize. The MP3 is available via Insound. The CD has been released so far in the U.K. only, originally on Necessary Records in late 2004, and re-released in conjunction with Atlantic Records in July 2005.

“Mary Lately” – Martha Berner

There’s nothing wrong every so often with a straightforward acoustic-based ballad with a good melody; this one strikes me as a poignant yet gratifyingly sturdy example. Martha Berner is a Chicago-based singer/songwriter who has lived previously in Alaska, Israel, Thailand, and Wisconsin, among other places. Could be her itinerant background is what gives both the song and her musical presence an elusive sense of familiarity. There’s her resonant voice, which sounds like a slightly duskier version of Sarah McLachlan, back when she was writing good songs; I hear a touch of Dar Williams as well, around the edges of her enunciation. At the same time, the overall vibe makes me think that this is what the Cowboy Junkies might sound like if Norah Jones were John Prine’s sister and sang lead. Don’t miss that place in the second verse when, instead of the slide accent you might expect, a slightly loony synthesizer is used instead. I think that’s when I knew I liked this one. “Mary Lately” is a song off Berner’s debut CD, This Side of Yesterday, released last month on Machine Records. The MP3 can be found on the Machine web site.

“Higher” – Soft

John Reineck has the sort of sweet, yearning tenor voice that I associate with great moments in power pop. And yet the wash of big, reverb-y chords and fuzzy, subtly psychedelic atmosphere brings the best of ’90s shoegaze to mind. It’s a potent combination—dreamy walls of glistening guitars, sweetly voiced melodicism; I’m thinking this NYC-based quintet is onto something. I like that they don’t merely rest on the achievement of their basic sonic package, which they easily might have; the band cares enough about the craft of songwriting to give us moments along the way that seem like bonuses: not hooks in the classic sense of something that sits at the center point of the song’s allure, but tasty twists and additions that give the piece extra weight and substance. I like for instance the moment in that bridge-like bit between the end of the verse and beginning of the chorus, at around 1:05, when Reineck sings “Can’t even feel my feet or keep them on the ground”—it’s like the song moves suddenly into this new, open space, as if you were in a room that revealed itself to be much bigger than you initially thought when you came in. Given the lyrical theme, I’d say the effect is not unintentional. “Higher” is a song off the band’s just-released, self-released, self-titled first EP. The song is available via the band’s site.

Because of the holiday weekend in the U.S., “This Week’s Finds” will be posted on Tuesday this week. The songs should be up by around 10 a.m. EST tomorrow, instead of the usual 1 p.m. Thanks for your patience, and your continued interest.


week of Feb. 6-12

“Inaction” – We Are Scientists

A playful yet blistering piece of dynamic guitar pop, “Inaction” is, actually, all action–two and a half minutes of alternately crunching and blazing guitar work supporting an edgy, propulsive melody. Singer/guitarist Keith Murray plays and sings with a bursting sort of restraint while his two band mates–what we’ve got here is a nice 21st-century version of a venerable rock institution, the power trio–punch out a pulsing backbeat. California born and NY based, We Are Scientists bristle with the sort of energy that may in fact only be available to this clean, three-pronged approach to popular electric music; I even think I hear an homage to Cream–rock’n’roll’s first widely-acclaimed power trio–in the assertive guitar riff that pops in at 1:39. And yet there’s nothing ponderous about this group; both the lyrics and Murray’s delivery of them have a subtly goofy edge, perhaps to be expected from a band that includes the following instructions on their download page: “To download songs, click on the title. To stream an mp3, click ‘stream’. To tie your shoes, twist the laces around each other as many times as you can, then light them on fire.” “Inaction” comes from We Are Scientists’ self-released 2004 EP, The Wolf’s Hour; the MP3 is on the band’s web site. Thanks to the good folks at 3hive for the head’s up on this one.

“Alive With Pleasure” – Viva Voce

The opening juxtaposition of a buzzing synthesizer and a big old-fashioned non-digital drumbeat is distinctive, and an immediate sign that this husband-and-wife do-it-yourself duo will visit some interesting musical places before they’re through. And, in fact, “Alive With Pleasure” feels like a few songs rolled into one, as the bashy introductory section–all drums, claps, and stomps–gradually wobbles into a slower, lovelier vocal section (wife Anita Robinson does the singing) with a Beatlesque melody and increasingly orchestral overtones. But before things sound too familiar, husband Kevin cranks out a loony, wah-wah-ish synthesizer solo seguing us into a coda that stompily reprises the introduction and there, we’re done. Are we having fun yet? “Alive With Pleasure” is the opening track on the band’s third and latest CD, The Heat Can Melt Your Brain, released in September on Minty Fresh Records. The MP3 is available on the band’s web site.

“Blue Angel” – Rose Polenzani

And sometimes the ear needs just an acoustic instrument or two, a lilting melody, a simple but resonant human dimension to the music. (Especially after a Super Bowl loss, eh?) I have long admired Polenzani’s vocal bravura–she can go to some really exposed places when she wants to–but in this song she reins it in in such a way that you hear it indirectly, like something you catch out of the corner of your eye but disappears when you look at it. One of the things I like best here is how she subtly shifts the rhythm on us as the song unfolds–what begins as a clear, softly swinging 3/4-time confessional pushes into a more urgent 2/4-time plea by the end, even as she sings the same notes. Instrumentally and lyrically reminiscent of R.E.M.’s “Half A World Away,” this song like that one has a keening poignancy to it that also seems appropriate the day after. “Blue Angel” comes from a CD of home recordings Polenzani released this past October entitled August; the MP3 comes from her web site.

This Week’s Finds: Jan. 9-15 (the Dears, the Autumns, Corrina Repp)

“We Can Have It” – the Dears

So this one begins quite literally as a lullaby–a soothing keyboard, a strumming acoustic guitar, a gentle sing-songy melody. And then the words: “Last night all the horrible/Things in life start through my dreams…” Okay, not your typical lullaby. Nor is it your typical rock song. The opening lullaby of despair continues for two full minutes, singer Murray Lightburn–who often sounds uncannily like Morrissey–here channeling David Bowie with the best of them while the band sustains interest and tension through subtle touches (listen for the melodramatic synthesizer blurts, and how the female backing vocals just sort of melt into place without your being aware they started). Then, at 1:59, the tempo kicks in double-time, electric guitar ticking a precise line against a complex drumbeat, and now there’s a flute in there, and a harmonica, and now Lightburn is back, still Bowie-like but yearning now, repeating emotive lines like, “You’re not alone” and “You never said I’d see you again.” Eventually the song pivits once more, on this great line: “Someone somewhere says they’ve got it all/But that’s not even what we want/Not even close.” From there the one-time lullaby closes as an incantation, the last minute featuring one line repeating over and over, instrumentation fading away, leaving only Lightburn and a muted chorus of voices. Pop music as therapeutic/spiritual adventure; just the thing for a Monday, eh? “We Can Have It” is the lead track on No Cities Left, the Dears’ second full-length CD, released in October 2004 on SpinArt Records; the MP3 is found on the SpinArt web site.

“Slumberdoll” – the Autumns

On “Slumberdoll,” the L.A.-based Autumns manage the wondrous but challenging task of being both lovely and noisy. A perky-chimy guitar and chipper drumbeat open the song, but then are suspended into a spacey wash as singer/guitarist Matthew Kelly enters with his voice distant and filtered. When his voice regularizes and the band kicks in, note that we’re now hanging out in the musically tense fourth chord (that is, four whole notes up from the home chord–usually denoted with the Roman numeral IV; trust me, it’s a time-honored place to hang out if you want to create tension). We’re not there for long, but it’s kind of fun that the song feels like it’s starting there, because of the production choices leading up to this point. So when we return to the starting place, harmonically speaking, it feels wonderful. There’ll be a five (V) chord in there too (e.g. around 1:08) to assist with the ultimate sense of resolution. But by now note how much noise the band has filled the song with; I particularly like the slanty discordant edges at least one of the guitars (there are a lot of guitars going on here) throws into the mix, and big open spaces the other guitars carve into the production. And yet an underlying sort of gorgeousness persists because of the unabashed use of the ancient I-IV-V progression. The return of the perky-chimy guitar helps too. “Slumberdoll” comes from the band’s self-titled CD on Pseudopod Records, their third full-length (they’ve actually been together since 1992), released in September.

“Finally” – Corrina Repp

Slightly skewed, minimalist folk-electronica from a Portland, Oregon-based singer/songwriter who was herself named by her parents after a Bob Dylan song. I like the carefully chosen sounds used to enhance the clockwork simplicity of the tune: a ghostly, bowed-saw-like synthesizer on top; a twangy, off-key guitar string randomly appearing in the middle of the sound; scratch-like swipes and buzzes of sound below. Repp’s voice has a deadpan straightforwardness that reminds me of Suzanne Vega, while the unearthly, hodge-podgy aural ambiance brings Tom Waits to mind, albeit a more mild-mannered and less loony version of Tom Waits. Not much happens, ultimately, here, but on the other hand, I find that I can keep listening to it again and again with little sign of mental wear and tear. If nothing else, the entire song, for me, is completely redeemed by the whispered “okay” at 3:17 (of a 3:39 song). I’m in love with the way she says “okay” right there. “Finally” comes from Repp’s second CD, It’s Only the Future, released on Hush Records in November; the MP3 is on the Hush web site.