This Week’s Finds: Sept. 12-18 (The Trashcan Sinatras, Cordalene, The Stills)

“Welcome Back” – The Trashcan Sinatras
There’s something to be said for experience. So, sure, I had no idea the Trashcan Sinatras–a band I vaguely associate with the early ’90s–were still around, but the fact that they are means that when they want to, the Scottish quintet can sound like this: crystal-clear, swaggery-assured, and quirky-pop-gorgeous. After making a minor splash with their debut CD, Cake, in 1990 (not to be confused with the band Cake, which I’ll admit I’ve done)(or Sea and the Cake, for that matter), they proceeded to lie low through most of the decade, releasing only two other CDs, in 1993 and 1996, before re-emerging with Weightlifting (Spin Art Records) last month. Biding their time may have made sense, since their shiny, well-crafted, jangly Brit-pop is much more aligned (praise the lord) with the current music scene than it was in the middle ’90s. I love this song’s offbeat drive, an effect amplified by the insertion of two extra beats at the end of each verse. The chorus, for its part, acquires a keen hook simply by modulating through three great chords, underscored by a wall of full-tilt, almost Edge-like electric guitar. I like how even in a short (2:24) song, they let the guitar open out into a sly, wailing solo that might be mistaken for a heavy metal cliche if you don’t listen closely. Vocalist Frank Reader (brother of the marvelous Eddi Reader) has an open quality to his voice that brings you back in time, managing to sound yearning without any over-acting. The song opens Weightlifting; the MP3 can be found on Filter Magazine.

“Isn’t the Sun” – Cordalene  link no longer available
On the heels of last week’s wonderful Paul Westerberg song comes another faux-’60s piece of perfect, slightly skewed pop, this from a little-known Philadelphia band. I’m loving the way the intro takes a bass line as old as the ’50s and segues it into an itchy guitar riff, and that’s really what makes the song so spiffy all the way through–that dusty bass line keeps knocking against the itchy guitars, and when they settle in together in the chorus with a kick that is somehow almost (but not really) swing-like, the result is all but swoon-full. Halfway through, the instrumental section works this out in a particularly charming way, as the guitar itself does a squonky riff on the bass melody. But I think my favorite moment of all is a lyrical one, when Mike Kiley (who’s got a really nice power-pop voice by the way) sings, “And she looked at me with a breathtaking stare,” breaking up “breath” and “taking” so resolutely as to give new shades of meaning to the word. The song comes from a release known simply as The Red EP; the MP3 is on the band’s web site. Thanks again to Oddio Overplay for the head’s up.

“Retour A Vega” – the Stills  link no longer available
I find this irresistible: the acoustic-guitar driven minor key beat, the tasteful use of violins, the French lyrics, and then, putting it completely over the top for me, the octave harmonies. Gotta love the octave harmonies. They were a great pop weapon in Squeeze’s arsenal, and with the Kinks before that. As if this weren’t enough, there’s a crunchy little electric guitar bit in the middle. Put this on in the background with a crowd of people and everyone will start to smile without knowing why. Better yet, be the owner of a small record store, put it on with a store full of customers, and see how many people (remember that scene in High Fidelity with the Beta Band song?) come up and ask about it and buy the CD. The CD in question, by the way, is the soundtrack to the movie Wicker Park, and while I can’t say anything about the movie itself (doesn’t look like one I’m heading quickly to see), the soundtrack has a positively “ooh! pick me, pick me!” sensibility in terms of seeking to appear very of-the-moment in an almost-but-not-quite mainstream way. (Think Singles soundtrack, back in the early ’90s.) In addition to the Stills, this one has the Shins, Death Cab for Cutie, Mates of State, and Stereophonics, among others. The MP3 comes courtesy of Vice Records.

This Week’s Finds: Sept. 5-11 (Paul Westerberg, Soltero, Rickie Lee Jones)

“As Far As I Know” – Paul Westerberg

Last heard channeling Keith Richards, Paul Westerberg is back wearing Beatle-ier clothing this time. What at first sounded to me like a competent bit of neo-McCartney-ism has revealed itself, after three or four listens, to be a deeply endearing pop song. The charm is all around the edges: the ringing guitars offset by a ragged wash of fuzz; the ’60s-perfect melody deconstructed by Westerberg’s exquisitely unpolished voice; the whole thing driven by an earnest drumbeat as relentless as it is borderline goofy. And you want to hear subtle? Listen to the chords he works up to during that distinct, repeated melody featured near the end of each verse. In the introductory section, with just the guitar playing, the words are “that doesn’t get kissed, that doesn’t exist”; the second time we get to that point he’s backed by the full band and sings “that never took place, that’s easy to trace.” Now listen as he’s there the third time, singing “that doesn’t resist, that doesn’t exist,” this time with a wondrous, elusive chord progression that augments the unfolding poignancy of the lyrics. At the same time, the song’s ramshackle momentum has by now become utterly infectious, its tumbling percussiveness revealing a refreshing, solidly human presence in this age of loops and programs. The lyrics build to reinforce the impression, closing with: “I’m in love with a dream I had as a kid/I wait up the street until you show/That dream it came true/But you never do, no you never did/As far as I know.” The song is on Westerberg’s new album Folker, due out tomorrow on Vagrant Records.

“From the Station” – Soltero

Neil Young meets Elliott Smith meets the Kinks in this loping, loopy, quick-pulsed ballad. I like how the song starts right in, both musically and lyrically; I like even more how it keeps going: “From the Station” features an unusually long melody line, fully 16 measures (actually 14 in the first verse, then 16 in the other two). Most pop songs give out at eight measures, and lots of these only survive that long with a good amount of internal repetition, with measures three and five mimicking measure one, for instance. Here the melody descends and extends, aided marvelously by singer/songwriter/guitarist Tim Howard’s appealing, high-pitched vocals, ghostly organ flourishes, and tasteful guitar distortions. While the Boston-based Howard does play all the instruments on this track, Soltero is in fact a four-piece band. They just haven’t recorded a full-band album yet; previous Soltero releases (beginning with 2001’s wonderfully titled Science Will Figure You Out) have been largely Howard’s work. “From the Station” will be on the next Soltero CD, entitled Hell Train, to be released later this year. The MP3 is on the band’s web site.

“Ugly Man” – Rickie Lee Jones

A jazzy shuffle, leisurely melody, and layered harmonies disguise an almost painfully personal protest song. Never mind the specifics of policies and decisions, Rickie Lee slices to the heart of the matter, which is GWB’s inability to access his own (heart, that is). Maybe, like the Tin Man, he simply doesn’t realize he has one. Look: thousands of years of human culture and spiritual wisdom tell us what living and acting from a heart-based center entails, and it has little to do with the appointed president’s resolute disinterest in learning and growing as an adult human being, never mind his crippling inability to connect to the entirety of humanity rather than simply those similarly uninterested in learning and growing. “Ugly Man” comes from Rickie Lee’s most recent CD, The Evening of My Best Day, which was released last year on V2 Records. The MP3 can be found for free on Salon.

This Week’s Finds: August 29-Sept. 4 (The iOs, Julian Cope, John Vanderslice)

“Forces Regrouping” – the iOs

Resplendent neo-’80s pop with subtle bursts of warmth and charm in just about every line. After an ambiguous opening measure or two of vibrating synthesizer, the song quickly engages me with its sly juxtaposition of garage-like rhythm guitars and new wave-ish electronics in the introduction. This surely isn’t your father’s ’80s music. I’m already won over when guitarist Chris Punsalan brings his agreeably buzzy voice to a neat, playful melody; that he is echoed in the second half of the verse, call-and-response-ishly, by keyboardist Autumn Proemm’s dreamy background vocals clinches the deal. I like this. But the best is yet to come, and it’s here: when the song goes into a stop-start section bridging the verse and the chorus (beginning with “And I could make it up to you”); the tension builds as melodic synthesizers play against a dark, fuzzed-up guitar; and then (wow) it breaks gloriously wide open as the song’s killer hook appears out of left field–the sneaky resolution of the “Look for a sign” section, full-ahead tempo returning with a lovely melody, and Punsalan and Proemm briefly but effectively singing directly together, taking my breath at least somewhat away. Great new pop from a young NYC band. The song is one of three on the iOs’ first release, an EP called Center and Stop; the MP3 is on the band’s web site.

“Uptight” – Julian Cope

Every musical generation needs its own mad-genius-one-man-band-recluse, and Julian Cope will do nicely for the new wavers who came of age in the late 1970s. Making a name for himself as the leader of The Teardrop Explodes, Cope went on to a certain amount of success in the ’80s as a solo artist, but it was all in and around a lot of weirdness, some drug-induced, some just natural for the eclectic Cope. The ’90s saw him out of the mainstream pretty much entirely, yet as active as ever on a number of fronts, including writing his memoirs and founding his own mail-order record label. Currently he’s spending time in a band called Brain Donor, and any band that can record an album entitled Too Freud to Rock’n’Roll, Too Jung to Die can’t be all bad. So, anyway: “Uptight.” It’s a song from the early ’90s that never made it onto any of his albums, and it’s a nice if lightweight example of Cope at his most Peter Gabriel-mellow-funky. A brief pastoral-like bit of Chinese music at the outset leads to a relaxed but definitive groove, and when Cope opens his mouth you are his, so much beautiful authority does he carry in that voice. The whistled refrain in the second half saves the enterprise from floating away perhaps a bit too inconsequentially. The MP3 is on Cope’s Head Heritage web site, his online musical community/record label. Thanks to Oddio Overplay for the lead.

“Pale Horse” – John Vanderslice

Another rich offering from the magnificent Mr. Vanderslice. Like “They Won’t Let Me Run,” this one comes from his powerful Cellar Door CD, released in January on Barsuk Records. When I first heard the two songs online in February, I latched onto the other, but after (finally) buying Cellar Door (see? it works!: post high-quality, full-length songs for free on the web and it’ll convince me to buy the CD! how about that?), I find myself in thrall to the serious charms of this literally off-beat tune. The lyrics are derived from Shelley’s “The Mask of Anarchy,” the music is all Vanderslice: assured rhythm, impeccable melody, casually expert producion touches, all wrapped in a glistening 6/4 shuffle. This guy is serious, and yet almost impossibly accessible for such an independent spirit. Check him out, and tell your friends. He really deserves a much much wider audience. The MP3 comes from Vanderslice’s web site.

This Week’s Finds: August 8-14 (Asobi Seksu, Christine Fellows, Constantines)

“I’m Happy But You Don’t Like Me” – Asobi Seksu

Three minutes and nine seconds of giddy neo-new wave bliss. The melody is Blondie perfect; combine that with the band’s capacity to unleash some serious but disciplined guitar noise and I’m all but swooning. Lead singer Yuki’s innocent breathiness adds to the glory of a song that sounds to me like the bright flip side of one of the new wave’s greatest singles, the bleak but invincible “Enola Gay,” from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Asobi Seksu is a NYC-based band that offers songs in both English and Japanese, but prior understanding of Japanese is not required to enjoy this awesome piece of pop. “I’m Happy But…” comes from the band’s debut, self-titled CD, which was released on Friendly Fire Recordings in May. You’ll find the MP3 on the band’s web site.

“Veda’s Waltz – Christine Fellows

The label “chamber pop” has been floating around for the better part of a decade, and is typically used to refer to music made by indie bands which have incorporated traditional stringed instruments (e.g. violin or cello) into their sound. Normally the label seems to miss the mark (and often has the air of gimmickry about it) but in the case of Christine Fellows, the shoe fits agreeably: “Veda’s Waltz” sounds like nothing so much as a pop song peformed by a small chamber ensemble, if that were something small chamber ensembles usually did. What makes it work, to me, is Fellows’ strikingly immediate voice. Stripped of all pretense, her voice is underscored by the same sort of ineffable ache that characterizes the sound of the instruments she is singing with; she blends beautifully, gratifyingly with them–gratifying because I have never believed one has to sing like an opera singer to perform with “classical” instruments, even though that’s been the presumption for, oh, a few hundred years or so at this point. Another engaging, idiosyncratic musician from Canada, Fellows was in a couple of bands in the ’90s before striking out on her own, first with an album called 2 little birds in 2000 and then The Last One Standing in 2002, on which “Veda’s Waltz” is found. The MP3 is on her web site.

“The Long Distance Four” – Constantines

From the first note, the electric guitar here says “pay attention to this,” and yet, how, exactly, is this achieved? I find it difficult to articulate (writing about music remains a basically ridiculous idea), but it’s a two-guitar sound that rejects classic-rock, guitar-hero fire for a clipped, urgent riff below, accompanied by open-chorded harmonics above. Bringing Television to mind, it’s a sound that puts you on call, and on edge, and then along comes lead singer Bryan Webb, sounding for all the world like Joe Strummer’s Canadian cousin, with the late Clash leader’s endearingly husky, offhanded capacity to carry a tune and his knack for spitting out startling, unexpected lyrics (“Collect the body of Isadora Duncan”??). Now I’m definitely paying attention, and I’m liking what I hear a lot. “The Long Distance Four” comes from the band’s first full-length CD, a self-titled disc released originally in 2001, and just re-issued by Sub Pop.

This Week’s Finds: August 1-7 (Tanya Donelly, Guided By Voices, Björk)

“Whiskey Tango” – Tanya Donelly

Slinky and acoustic, “Whiskey Tango” shows off Tanya Donelly’s rich, elastic voice and subtle facility with melody in a quiet and simplified setting. It’s a new direction for the former leader of the band Belly, whose songs have not lacked for crunch, drive, and electricity in the past. On “Whiskey Tango,” the under-appreciated Donelly looks for texture in smaller gestures–a slide guitar here, a wood block there–and brings her world-weary lyrics (“Of the art of making waves/I’ve had my lesson in spades”) front and center. The song is as quiet as its implied tango beat, and might float by unnoticed were it not for the aching dignity of its minimal but lovely chorus–Donelly’s use of a seventh chord and the elegant progression out of it when she sings “Of the art of speaking plain…” gives “Whiskey Tango” a small but powerful hook. The song is the effectual title track from her just-released Whiskey Tango Ghosts (4AD Records). (MP3 is no longer a direct link but if you click the red download button on Insound, you should find yourself with a copy.)

“Gonna Never Have to Die” – Guided By Voices

The air of timeless rock’n’roll hangs brilliantly around this song, from Robert Pollard’s Pete Townshend-like vocals to the old-fashioned drive of its big, snare-less beat and simple harmonies, to something at once larger and less definable in its deep and well-crafted ambiance. After a simple, itchy bit of acoustic guitar, the song grabs me instantly with the way each line in the first verse begins with one syllable drawn out over five distinct notes, complete with a wonderful, syncopated sort of hestiation in the middle. Okay, so it’s kind of harder to describe in words than to listen to, but it creates an almost transcendent sort of wonder right smack in the middle of the action. There’s even a counter-balancing resolution at the end of each line in the chorus, when, again, one syllable is stretched over five distinct notes, this time a simple back-and-forth between two tones. Yeah, like I said, harder to describe than to listen to. “Gonna Never Have to Die” is a song from Guided By Voices’ soon-to-be-released CD, entitled Half Smiles of the Decomposed (Matador Records). After 20 some-odd releases spanning 17 years, Half Smiles will be GBV’s last album–and therefore something of a momentous event in the indie world. And yet at the same time, leader Pollard has put the band through so many incarnations that it’s safe to say that as long as Pollard continues to record, GBV fans will have a lot to look forward to.

“Verandi” – Björk

Mysterious, hypnotic, and bizarrely endearing, as Björk just about always is. “Verandi” combines the exotic ambiance and expansive percussiveness typical of 1997’s Homogenic with a hint of the intimate sonic touches and gentle melodicism of 2001’s Vespertine. I like how the almost martial regularity of the beat provides unexpected comfort through the aural adventure that unfolds here. Some of the non-Western-ness on display stems from work done on the song by “Bollywood” composer Jolly Mukherjee, but with Björk, a musical universe unto herself, you never know quite from where the unearthliness radiates. And what does it all mean? With Björk, you just don’t ask. Bask in the sound of it, thrill to the countless moments of offbeat beauty, and be happy that she, at least, knows what she’s doing. “Verandi” was originally released as a B-side to “Hidden Places,” from Vespertine; the MP3 is on Björk’s jam-packed web site. Thanks to Fat Planet for the heads up on this one; the Björk site is so overflowing with words and links that I never previously noticed she had any MP3s up there at all.

This Week’s Finds: July 25-31 (The Walkmen, Red Pony, Grant Lee Phillips)

“The Rat” – The Walkmen
Brash and big and all but irresistible right out of the starting gate, from that first, fuzzy, unresolved chord, through the huge drum beats and the minor chord progressions, and that’s even before the first verse kicks in. These guys just don’t hold anything back, and the sonic result is exhilarating, combining the twitchy rawness of the Strokes with the aching spaciousness of early U2 and the artful drive of New Order. Singer Hamilton Leithauser sings with a hoarse edge, as if he’s already overdone it and should be resting his voice already but forget about it, he’s got this song to sing first, dammit. The Walkmen are from Washington, D.C. and have apparently been playing in bands together since the fifth grade. “The Rat” comes from their second CD, Bows + Arrows, released in February on the Record Collection imprint, which does its best to look like a quirky, independent label but is actually part of Warner Brothers. But I’m not complaining–more big labels should offer offbeat acts like Record Collection does, along with (heaven forbid!) free and legal MP3s. Back in the day, all we had more or less were the big boys to find our music for us, and they sometimes did a decent job. Times have changed, but good music is still good music.

“London” – Red Pony  link no longer available
While I am not a big fan of overly indie sounds, and am downright suspicious of lo-fi recordings, I find this song oddly endearing. Part of the appeal is the piano motif at the beginning; there’s something about its plaintive melodicism that I will gladly follow anywhere. The vocals are simple to the point of naivete, the guitar tinny, the sound garage-y, and yet at the same time I hear in it a vitality and urgency that brings me back to great singles that used to emerge from the U.K. in the late ’70s, each its own mini-universe of hopes, dreams, and vision. Red Pony is a bass-less three-piece band from Cardiff, Wales. They are label-less, also; “London” can be found on the band’s web site.

“Far End of the Night” – Grant Lee Phillips  link no longer available
And then sometimes this is exactly the sound I want to hear: deep, polished, and timeless. Phillips, the driving force behind the ’90s band Grant Lee Buffalo, has a knack for writing new melodies that you’re sure you must’ve heard before, sings them in an arrestingly familiar voice, and wraps them in an exquisite acoustic setting. Phillips is also as skilled as an ancient troubadour at telling a sad tale with a gorgeous tune: while the music is lullaby-gentle, the vague story sketched is a foreboding one, evoking a journey through a dark, enveloping night in which, sings the story’s narrator, “Time hangs like a noose before me.” “Far End of the Night” can be found on Virginia Creeper, released earlier this year on Zoe Records; the MP3 is located on the site.

This Week’s Finds: July 18-24 (The Pieces, Kate Earl, Jeniferever)

“The Wait” – the Pieces

I’m beginning to think that every city in the United States has its own version of the Fountains of Wayne, its own smart, history-savvy rock band ready to offer catchy, guitar-based pop to a world rather starved for the stuff. The Pieces appear to be Indianapolis’s entry in the game, and a smart, savvy entry they are. While not as giddily brilliant as Fountains of Wayne at their best (e.g. “Mexican Wine,” “Red Dragon Tattoo,” “Radiation Vibe”), “The Wait” is a fine little tune with any number of nuggets of pleasure to enjoy along the way. Right off I love the tumble of chords that are packed together in the introduction, and how they settle on the actual key through the musical side door. The melody has the inevitable touch of Beatle-ish-ness to it, an effect augmented by guitarist/singer/songwriter Vess (?) Ruhtenberg’s quasi-Lennonesque voice. I also like how the band incorporates bassist Heidi Gluck’s vocals into the sound, something that stands them apart from forebears such as Big Star and the dBs, not to mention the Beatles; come to think of it, there aren’t a whole lot of power pop bands featuring male-female harmonies. The moment in the middle where Gluck comes to the fore on the line “This is the part I hate” is a small but wonderful touch. (Gluck apparently sings lead occasionally as well.) “The Wait” can be found on the band’s self-titled debut CD, released last year on Benchmark Records. The MP3 comes from the Benchmark Records web site.

“Silence” – Kate Earl

A little bit Dusty Springfield, a little bit Ricki Lee Jones, newcomer Kate Earl exhibits a good deal of something else all her own on this haunting bit of retro-soul (blue-eyed variety). Earl creates a masterful, unabashed Dusty in Memphis vibe (the strings! the flute!), but infused with an engaging sense of innocence, intimacy, and spontaneity. I fear the MP3 itself is a bit cloudy, sound-wise (although maybe it’s just my overtaxed, six-year-old computer), but the song is still worth hearing. Born in Alaska, living now in California, Earl is slated to release a CD on the Santa Monica-based label Record Collection some time in the presumably near future, presumably featuring this song; the MP3 in the meantime can can be found on Earl’s web site.

“You Only Move Twice” – Jeniferever

A Swedish band with a penchant for long, spacious songs, Jeniferever appears to be inspired partly by the grand, spacey Icelandic band Sigur Ros and partly by the more structured, instrument-based spaciness of Radiohead or even Wilco. One of only four songs on the 37-minute EP Iris, “You Only Move Twice” is propelled by a harmonic-laced riff, a fractured sense of time and beat, and singer Kristofer’s ragged-weary-breathy vocals. The song has a cool enough vibe to keep me engaged for a quite a while, but then really hooks me with an unexpected turn of events about four minutes in, when the vocals drop away, the underlying syncopated beat is stripped down and brought forward, and, then, almost gloriously, an array of real instruments, including horns and strings, are added to the mix, beautifully accentuating the unusual chords and intervals that have characterized the song all along. Then the instruments pull away with a melancholy bit of reverb and the song finishes with another unexpected turn–this time a string coda, which again displays the rather charming musicality of the band in a different setting. Iris was released this month on Big Scary Monster Records, a tiny London-based label. The MP3 comes from the band’s site.

This Week’s Finds: July 11-17 (The Secret Machines, Rachel Goswell, Arto Lindsay)

“Nowhere Again” – The Secret Machines

Itchy, driving, and full-bodied, “Nowhere Again” combines the melodrama of the more-influential-than-anyone-realized-they-would-be-at-the-time Echo & the Bunnymen with a 21st-century blast of danceable drone. Okay, so maybe they lifted part of the melody (consciously or not) from the old Kinks nugget “Lola”—what the heck, there are worse starting places, and the song proceeds in other directions before it’s through. “Nowhere Again” creates some of its sonic interest by juxtaposing full-speed and half-speed tempos—in particular offering verses at full-speed, the chorus at half-speed, all against a constant, insistent beat. Not a huge innovation, but it does give the impression of texture when the chords aren’t changing all that much. Likewise helpful are the half-speed piano and guitar flourishes that arrive in the second verse. Singer and guitarist Ben Curtis has a subtle, appealing rumble to his voice in the lower register, an anthemic edge to his upper register singing, and a knack for highlighting stark lyrical phrases along the way. The Secret Machines were assembled in Dallas but have since generated much buzz in their adopted hometown of New York City. “Nowhere Again” comes from the band’s debut CD, Now Here is Nowhere, released in May on Reprise Records (that’s how much buzz they generated–they’re actually on a major label). The MP3 can be found on Epitonic.

“Sleeping and Tooting” – Rachel Goswell

The highly-regarded but spotlight-avoiding Rachel Goswell gained fans as the voice of the woozily atmospheric Slowdive in the early ’90s. When she joined bandmates Neil Halstead and Ian McCutcheon as they morphed into the British-yet-alt-country-ish Mojave 3 in 1996, Goswell retreated to the background, playing bass and singing mostly background vocals as songwriter Halstead took the reins as lead singer. Those who have missed her vocal presence on recent Mojave 3 records will no doubt rejoice at the recent release of her first solo CD, Waves Are Universal (4AD Records), from which this song comes. Although crisp and upbeat, “Sleeping and Tooting” has an engaging air of bittersweetness about it thanks to its repeated use of minor key modulations. Goswell’s airy yet well-rounded voice brings to mind the late, great Kirsty MacColl, which is always a plus in my mind. The song is so full of bright-sounding acoustic instruments and engaging production touches that I willingly overlook its lack of a center–there’s no meaty chorus here to anchor things musically; I find the song scoots by (it’s just three minutes) without completely sinking in. But maybe that’s just me; in any case there are plenty of charms here to make it worth a listen. The American arm of the Beggars Group, which distributes 4AD Records, hosts the MP3.

;”Habite Em Mim” – Arto Lindsay

Once a prominent figure on New York’s so-called “No Wave” scene of the late ’70s, guitarist/producer Arto Lindsay here issues an alluring bit of Brazilian-tinged, jazz-inflected, street-wise pop. Lindsay’s voice is smooth and seductive enough to distract your ear from the vibrant grab-bag of rhythms, competing tones, and sly sonic effects that are going on throughout the song, even as the effects are ultimately what give “Habite Em Mim” its oomph. Heck, I barely notice that he’s slipping back and forth from English to Portuguese, which is a pretty captivating effect itself. “Habite Em Mim” is found on Salt, released in May on Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records.

This Week’s Finds: July 4-10 (Martha Wainwright, Surefire, The Album Leaf)

“When the Day is Short” – Martha Wainwright

Brother of Rufus, daughter of Kate (McGarrigle) and Loudon (III), 28-year-old Martha Wainwright has played largely to the side and behind the scenes over the years, singing background vocals on albums by her better-known family members–starting with an appearance as a child on Kate & Anna McGarrigle’s 1983 CD Love Over and Over. As it turns out, however, Martha is a singer/songwriter of spirit and intensity in her own right. While her voice has an appealing McGarrigle-ish waver to it, she sings way closer to the edge than her mother and aunt do, sometimes leaving me breathless at the aural risks she takes. I’ve been waiting to hear more since being captivated by her haunting “Year of the Dragon” on the family-filled McGarrigle Hour CD, released back in 1998. “When the Day is Short” has a lilting beat that belies Wainwright’s not fully restrained vocal and lyrical furiosity. The song comes from a recently-released five-song EP (her third) with the eye-opening, R-rated title (which I will partially disguise, in case anyone might be reading this in a setting where such words might be less than appropriate) Bloody Moth–f–king As–ole; the MP3 is located on Wainwright’s web site.

“Seems to Me” – Surefire

While the production values are indie through and through, the resilient pop virtues of the songwriting here give this one a gratifying sheen and powerful presence. After a few measures of ringing arpeggios, the song hits upon a simple but memorable guitar riff; combine that with the minor-key twist of the Byrds-like melody and I feel gripped and ready for a big melodic payoff. But even as the verse drives forward, the apparent chorus doesn’t quite resolve before the song pulls back. Rather than a payoff the song creates a sneaky sort tension, which is extended after the second verse and chorus by a short instrumental break, followed by a restrained bridge, and then, finally, and well worth the wait, the release: a series of wordless, syncopated, interwoven “oh-oh”s arrive to echo the opening guitar riff. While I’m not always a fan of falsetto singing, the way lead singer Ben Stapelman flits in and out of falsetto as the wordless section repeats against increasingly insistent instrumentation is what gives this assured piece of pop its heart, soul, and dynamic core. Surefire is a NYC-based band; “Seems to Me” comes from its debut EP, Solution. The MP3 can be found on the band’s web site. Thanks to Largehearted Boyfor finding this one.

“On Your Way” – the Album Leaf

I like how this song manages to sound both dreamy and grounded at the same time. Part of the effect is achieved through the use of octave harmonies–ah, yes, more falsetto vocals (did I say I didn’t like them?); when paired with lower-register vocals singing the same notes, the result is captivating. Then there’s the way the tinkly, almost desultory bell-like sounds at the aural top of the song work together with a determined and likable drumbeat below. Finally, note how Jimmy LaValle, the multi-instrumentalist who records as the Album Leaf, mixes an extremely reverb-y synthesizer and melodic bassline into the middle of the sound, out of which both the vocals and percussion emerge, dreamily. And yet grounded. “On Your Way” can be found on the Album Leaf’s recently released CD, In a Safe Place. This is LaValle’s second Album Leaf record, but the first one with any vocals–his previous effort was all instrumental. Although from Southern California, LaValle went to Iceland to record the CD, employing musicians from Sigur Rós and other Icelandic bands to help him achieve his atmospheric sound. The MP3 can be found on the Sub Pop Records site.

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.