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 SXSW.com.

“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 SXSW.com’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  link no longer available
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  link no longer available
After releasing an all-instrumental debut, the British band Electrelane has opened itself up to a bit of vocalizing on its second CD, The Power Out. Keyboardist/guitarist Verity Susman’s singing is idiosyncratic to say the least, alternating between gruffly spat, largely inaudible phrases and wordless whoops, but the chugging energy–part ska, part surf, part punk–of the two-chord riff keeps me engaged throughout this short song. The shortness itself is interesting, as the band’s first CD, Rock It to the Moon, was notable for a number of extended, noodly instrumentals (including one that clocked in at 22 minutes). The Power Out was released in February on the fiercely arty British label, Too Pure Records.

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

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

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

“Alone Again Or” – Calexico

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

“When I Laugh” – the Glands

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

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

“Underdog Victorious” – Jill Sobule

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

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

“Perfect Weapon” – Communique

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

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

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

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

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