This Week’s Finds: Feb. 29-Mar. 6 (Wheat, The Decemberists, The Ass Ponys)

“Off the Pedestal” – Wheat

Slinky and insistent, driven by a drone below and singer Scott Levesque’s sleepy-assured vocals above, this song gives you a glimpse of what the Massachusetts-based band Wheat was up to before “I Met a Girl” became an adult-alternative radio staple (as it appears to be right now; it may yet go the full top-40 route). “Off the Pedestal” comes from the band’s 1999 CD Hope and Adams, an album that created a buzz in indie circles as much for the band’s disinterest in publicity as for the music itself—the album not only had no pictures of the band but didn’t even list the members’ names. This song has an appealing, busy sort of fuzziness—listen for the oddly cheerful marimba-like synthesizer mixed down into the drone; it’s the kind of touch that subliminally adds texture and interest to a song that might otherwise sink from its own subtlety.


“Grace Cathedral Hill” – the Decemberists

More atmospheric and melodic magic from the Decemberists. Like XTC before them, this band has a way of putting a 19th-century veneer on rock’n’roll—truly a charming effect, the rare times someone can manage it. “Grace Cathedral Hill” can be found on Castaways and Cutouts, the band’s 2002 debut. I enjoy how the pretty turns of the melody contrast with the harshness of some of the imagery, much as singer Colin Meloy’s buzzy voice contrasts with the gorgeous lilt of the song. Eschewing the lo-fi vibe of many of its independent peers, this Portland, Ore.-based quintet creates exquisitely crafted music: from the space implicit in the opening strum of the acoustic guitar to the knowing addition of musical layers as the song develops, it’s clear that strikingly capable hands are at work here.


“All By Myself” – the Ass Ponys

Maybe it helps if you’ve lived in Cincinnati (that’s where they’re from) and already own an Ass Ponys record or two; and I’m sure it also helps if you have memories of driving around in your parent’s car just after getting your driver’s license and hearing this Eric Carmen song played incessantly on the AM radio. That said, listening to Ass Ponys’ leader Chuck Cleaver warbling ’70s pop kitsch may not be the best introduction to this quirky band’s substantial charms, but then again it could be just the thing. I’ve yet to hear their most recent two CDs, but can speak highly of Electric Rock Music, from 1996, which found the Ass Ponys on a major label, of all things. Don’t be surprised, by the way, when this song all but grinds to a standstill about two-thirds of the way through—at once an awkward and all but perfect tribute to the pop melodrama therein unfolding. Like the band notes on its web site, the song is “performed only like Eric wishes he could have done it.”

This Week’s Finds: February 22-28 (Moonbabies, The Shins, Shannon Wright)

“Sun A.M.” – Moonbabies

Blondie meets the Cardigans meets some guy with a portable home recording studio in Sweden. This one wins me over in a couple of places: first, when the male vocals kick in in the chorus, that’s a spiffy turn of melody there when said male (with the unflappable name of Ola Frick) nudges into a husky falsetto for just a syllable; second, shortly after that, when the guitars erupt like a bunch of rubbery saxophones, just about deconstructing the song on the spot, but nope, not quite, we’re right back on the beat and off we go again, soon enough with acoustic guitars gently in the mix. And yet by the time Frick is back with the chorus again, there’s now more space to hear the distant, thundery bass drums that were there last time also but I hadn’t noticed. I’m pretty well sucked into it by now, however sugary a treat this may be. Moonbabies are (is? I never know how to handle the singular plurality of a band) a Swedish duo; “Sun A.M.” comes from their second full-length CD, The Orange Billboard, released in January on Hidden Agenda records.

“Kissing the Lipless” – the Shins

Another shimmering piece of skewed pop from Albuquerque’s finest. Driven by an itchy acoustic riff, the song unfolds unusually, its melody bending back and back again as tension is introduced by a sparse, expert use of electric guitar, some brilliant instrumental accents, and lead singer James Mercer’s high-pitched expressiveness. What a great name, by the way, the Shins—what an overlooked body part, known only for being kicked, and yet rather important to our overall ability to stand on our own two feet. For a so-called indie band, these guys have a sophisticated grip on rock’n’roll dynamics. Like “So Says I,” this song comes from the band’s well-regarded 2003 release Chutes Too Narrow, on Sub Pop Records.

“Black Little Stray” – Shannon Wright

Intense, fuzzy, and compelling, “Black Little Stray” alternates between a cockeyed, big-bodied electric guitar riff and tensely quiet, nearly whispered vocal segments. Tanya Donnelly comes to mind as Wright works the edge between loud and soft; there’s also something of the great band Television in the angular, sometimes dissonant ferocity of the guitar work. Shannon Wright is a Florida-born, NYC-based singer/songwriter who once fronted the admired indie band Crowsdell in the mid-’90s. I have no idea what she’s singing about here, but the overall effect is spooky and effective. This song will be found on her new CD, Over the Sun, scheduled to be released in April on Touch and Go Records.

This Week’s Finds: February 15-21 (John Vanderslice, Spoon, Rachael Davis)

“They Won’t Let Me Run” – John Vanderslice

One of the most gifted musicians I’ve yet uncovered by seeking free and legal MP3s online, John Vanderslice is a powerful songwriter and unerring producer; the music he creates is melodic, beautifully textured, and consistently engaging. This song comes from his new Cellar Door album, released at the end of January on Barsuk Records. “They Won’t Let Me Run” tells a sorry tale with an edgy sort of elegance and restraint, and shows off Vanderslice’s gift for creating hooks not merely with melody but with instrumental accents–listen here to the repeating synthesizer motif at the end of each verse, and the stylish way it works against the beat to draw you in. If you have a chance, spend some extra time on his web site and check out his older material, including his work in the band MK Ultra. It’s like a peep-hole into some grand, alternate, undiscovered musical universe; this stuff is seriously good, but no one (relatively speaking) knows about it.

“Me and the Bean” – Spoon

The three-piece Austin band Spoon has been around since 1994; such is the frenetic pace of musical trends that in staying together for 10 years or so, the band serves as a link from a bygone sound (punk-roughened indie pop, a la the Pixies) to a newly emerging sound (emo-infused indie pop, a la Death Cab for Cutie), and does it by simply by sounding the same. If that makes sense. Anyway, this song, from the 2001 CD Girls Can Tell, is a concise, edgy confection, brought to life by the unexpected warmth of the keyboard riff and lead singer Britt Daniel’s gruff melodicism.

“Better Than Me” – Rachael Davis

A stark track, featuring voice and banjo, but the 22-year-old Davis appears to have the chops to pull it off. With a fetching resemblance to the young Shawn Colvin, this Boston-based singer/songwriter sounds fresh and inspired to me in my current state of mind. Still reeling from my annual confrontation with quote-unquote mainstream music (I really have to learn to lay off the Grammy Awards once and for all), I feel particularly engaged by this sort of song performed by this sort of 22-year-old. Mass media depictions notwithstanding, young musicians in this country are not all about harsh rhythm, schmaltz, and/or heart-stopping shallowness. This song can be found on Davis’s one and (to date) only CD, Minor League Deities, released in 2001.

This Week’s Finds: February 8-14 (The Bigger Lovers, Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer, Okkervil River)

“I Resign” – the Bigger Lovers

Ah, for the days when bands made pop songs in 6/4 time! Well, okay, actually there never were days like that, but there should’ve been. Or maybe, against all odds, we’re in them now. Here, in any case, are Philadelphia’s answer to Fountains of Wayne, the Bigger Lovers, with their own version of pure pop for now-ish people. In a week when the so-called music industry is celebrating (why?) having successfully turned joy into commerce, let those of us who still get the shivers from a wonderful melodic turn or an unexpected harmony (rather than mere vocal histrionics) take the three-minute, sixteen-second gift the Bigger Lovers have offered and sink right into every last bit of it. From the offbeat swagger of the time signature to the offhand expertise of the arrangement to the wondrous climax, two-thirds of the way in, when the bridge melts back into the first verse, but without most of the lyrics, because words are no longer necessary, this is one cool tune. You’ll find it on the band’s third CD, This Affair Never Happened…And Here are 11 Songs About It, when it comes out next month on Yep Roc Records.

“Ordinary Town” – Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer

When I wasn’t listening carefully, the music of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer sounded like country-folk wallpaper—just another acoustic guitar, just another singer with a vague twang, nicely-enough executed, but so what. I’ll admit as well to a city person’s inherent distrust of the violin when played as a “fiddle.” But finally I’m listening carefully and as I do I’m at last hearing Carter’s incredibly well-crafted (not to mention philosophically subversive) lyrics, neatly delivered with deadpan grace by Grammer, who smoothes the way for (yes) the fiddle and darn if I kind of sort of like it in this context. I’m sorry I myself hadn’t paid more attention when they were still around; the duo was sadly cut short in its career when Dave Carter died suddenly, of a heart attack, in the summer of 2002. This song comes from their final CD, Drum Hat Buddha, released in 2001.

“End With A Fall” – Okkervil River

One of the most mysterious things in the annals of rock’n’roll is the matter of voice—how some bands or musicians can manage to develop a truly individual sound, a sound like themselves and no one else, while others struggle to emerge with a distinct voice, wearing influences a little too noticeably on their sleeves. (And then of course there are those many musicians with so generic a sound that they sound neither like themselves nor like anyone else specifically.) And yet sounding a little or even a lot like someone else, at first, is not necessarily a damning condition. Sometimes that’s what a band needs to find its voice, even as there’s no guarantee that it ultimately will. In any case, as this startlingly Wilco-like song from the Austin-based band Okkervil River illustrates, there can be a fine line indeed between a pleasing versus an uncomfortable resemblance. But despite the heavy Wilco vibe and singer Will Sheff’s Tweedy-esque vocals, this song stands firmly on its own. Right away I hear a wonderful spaciousness in the mix—a literal sense of physical space between the drums, the guitar, and the singer. Spaciousness always pulls me right in, and is only achieved by bands that really know how to use their instruments (including in this case, brilliant shadings from an organ, or maybe more than one). The melodies too are very appealing and long: eight leisurely bars—an anomaly in our melody-free age. From the 2003 CD From the River of Golden Dreams (Jagjaguwar Records), this song grows and grows on me with repeated listens.

This Week’s Finds: Feb. 1-7 (Jonatha Brooke, Kingdom Flying Club, Felix McTeigue)

“War” – Jonatha Brooke

This song, released on Brooke’s 1995 CD Plumb, was written for the last Iraq war. I forgive her somewhat heavy-handed lyrics because, heck, at least she tried. (Not many did, or do.) If she could have known back then that this one would come around again quite so specifically, she might have sounded even more exasperated than she already does. “War” is one of the three MP3s Brooke has available to download on her music-filled site, which allows you to stream every song she has recorded. (Another worthwhile MP3 is her passionate take on the Christmas hymn “Emmanuel” as well; I’d have chosen it here but it seems a bit out of season already.)

“Artists Are Boring” – Kingdom Flying Club

Ben Folds meets the Smiths in this affecting yet jaunty little number from a Columbia, Missouri-based band with two (very) small-label CDs to its name. This song comes from the band’s 2003 release, Non-Fiction, on Emergency Umbrella Records. Never mind that I’d like this for the title alone; I also like that for all its indie trappings (the not-quite-on-key-all-the-time vocals, the tinkly ambiance), there’s something quite accomplished in the vibe here. I also love the fact that I only found out about this small band from Missouri through a recommendation on a French blog. And I can’t even read French, and never would have known about the blog (called La Blogothèque) in the first place if one of the people who posts there hadn’t written about Fingertips (in French, as noted) last week. So a guy in Philadelphia finds out about an obscure band from Missouri via a blogger in France. Vive l’internet!

“El Paso” – Felix McTeigue

I don’t normally recommend MP3s with less than CD-quality audio (or at least near-CD-quality), but I also don’t like to have etched-in-stone rules about anything. So when something simple, bittersweet, and disconcertingly haunting like this song comes along, here it is, lower sound quality and all. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone who actually reminds me of Phil Ochs before, but with McTeigue it’s a gentle Ochs-ishness, without the passive-aggressive humor/anger. This song ambles along with a loopy sort of grace (“Van Halen’s on the radio/The old stuff, Diver Down/Right before David left and Sammy came around”), completely engaging me by the end. McTeigue is a NYC-based singer/songwriter with one CD to his credit, 2001’s Felix McTeigue. This comes from that, but probably sounds a little richer on the album.

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

“Song in Space” – the Church

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

“Terrified” – Norfolk and Western

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

“Volcano” – Damien Rice

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

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

“Stay Where You Are” – Ambulance LTD

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


“Annan Waters” – Kate Rusby

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


“Coma Girl” – Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros

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

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

“Carry Me Ohio” – Sun Kil Moon

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

“Underdog” – Lisa Loeb

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

“Wrecking Ball” – Mark Cutler

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

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

“Amorino” – Isobel Campbell

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

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

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

“Lily-A-Passion” – Grant Lee Phillips

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

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

“Dirty Diesel” – Paul Westerberg

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

“The Soldiering Life” – the Decemberists

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

“Staring at the Sun” – TV on the Radio

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