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.

This Week’s Finds: Dec. 21-27 (Eddi Reader, Yo La Tengo, Over the Rhine)

“All or Nothing” – Eddi Reader  link no longer available
Here in Fingertips-land, Eddi Reader is a superstar, a singer/songwriter whose grand outer charm is backed by spine-tingling emotional depth and spiritual awareness. Once part of the snazzy ’80s band Fairground Attraction (known, if at all, for the retro-y single “Perfect,” which made an alternative-radio splash in 1988), Reader has released one beautiful solo CD after another through the ’90s and into the new decade. This song comes from her first solo album, Mirmama, which was originally released in 1992 and re-released by her current record label in 1997. (To access this MP3 on you’ll have to first enter your email address. Look for Eddi Reader under the “Americana/Traditional” category.)

“Today is the Day” – Yo La Tengo  link no longer available
After two CDs that largely exercised the band’s gentle, reflective side, along comes the ever-resourceful Yo La Tengo with a release that reverses the trend. This song first appeared on the band’s last CD, Summer Sun, in a calm and quiet setting; in this version–available on a new, six-song EP–squawking electric guitars return with a glorious vengeance. There have been few bands in the history of rock’n’roll that have so engagingly explored both the loud and the soft. It’s particular fun when they do it to the same song.

“I Radio Heaven” – Over the Rhine  link no longer available
Another goodie, this comes from Over the Rhine’s rather brilliant 2001 CD, Films for Radio. Vocalist Karin Bergquist is a beguiling force of nature, guitarist/songwriter Linford Detweiler is way too thoughtful to be in a rock’n’roll band, and I’m going to keep writing about them until more people listen. “I Radio Heaven” joins an elite group of rock songs that get their drive and drama by focusing most of the melody on one note. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Pump it Up” are two others; this one’s sneakier-sounding, more elegant, and works up to a fevered pitch rather than banging away at the same level for the whole song (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Wonderful stuff. (As with the Eddi Reader MP3, you’ll have to enter your email first to be able to download. You’ll find Over the Rhine in the “Alt-Pop” category.)

This Week’s Finds: Dec. 14-20 (The Wrens, Mary Ann Farley, Fire Theft)

“Everyone Chooses Sides” – the Wrens

Hard-edged, dramatic power pop, with all the delicious extras–anthemic minor key, crunchy guitars in the foreground, pounding piano chords in the background, and vocals straight out of 1979. (Please someone put me out of my misery and tell me who these vocals are reminding me of!) From the group’s highly-regarded new CD, The Meadowlands, this is one glorious song, marred only by a technological glitch: the MP3 appears to cut out about 8 seconds before the end. No worries for me, however–there’s more than enough song here for me to know I’m going to buy this CD.

“For You To Do That” – Mary Ann Farley

Smart, sharp, and short, “For You To Do That” hits the ears like a piece of aural ’60s memorabilia, complete with some Spector-ishly spacious drum beats and a Beatlesque turn of melody. Vocally, Farley seems to be channeling equal parts Jill Sobule and Aimee Mann but with plenty of her own verve and charm in the mix. This song comes from the Hoboken-based Farley’s second and most recent CD, My Life of Crime, which came out last year. Her debut, Daddy’s Little Girl, was released in 1997.

“Chain” – The Fire Theft

Big, majestic song from three-fourths of the ’90s band Sunny Day Real Estate, reformed with a new name and a daringly accessible sound. “Chain” blends loping progressive-rock beats and orchestral depth with itchier electronic colors and an indie-fueled rejection of formula. That said, this approach is not going to please everyone. Indie-rock zealots will decry the band’s use of classic-rock motifs, while classic rock aficionados will hear the Fire Theft as derivative and soulless. Ah well. Such folks we must leave to stew in their own preconceived notions (a sour bath indeed). Me, I’m sort of thrilled to hear this–not because it’s the best song ever recorded, but because it sounds vibrant, because it aims high, and because if rock’n’roll has a future after all, it’s going to unfold in the work of bands such as the Fire Theft, who move forward with an inclusive grip on the past.

This Week’s Finds: Dec. 7-13 (Bettie Serveert, Hem, The Ladybug Transistor)

“Unsound” – Bettie Serveert

Former mainstream rock’n’roll idols live forever (or maybe it just seems like it) on classic rock stations and in TV commercials. But what happens to the Bettie Serveerts of the world? There’s no radio format (yet) for college-radio rock icons of the early ’90s. I guess that’s another thing the internet is for, particularly when said alt-rock icons are still making good music. “Unsound,” from the band’s 2000 release, Private Suit, features an appealingly insistent 11-note guitar line and singer Carol van Dijk’s Chrissie Hynde-like blend of weariness and spunk. It’s an engaging vibe, although perhaps more Martha and the Muffins than the Pretenders come to think of it. In any case, not many bands combine edginess and polish with this much style and ease; and having the Canadian-born van Dijk fronting a Dutch band is a hidden weapon, keeping Bettie Serveert from floating aurally into that strange place that European bands tend to go when their singers try not to have accents.

“Half Acre” – Hem

A lot goes on in a short amount of time on this lovely piece of bygone-like music. Hem is a NYC-based group that got together with the idea of making an album of timeless-sounding new music, and to do it the old-fashioned way–no digital recording, no samples or audio trickery of any kind. The lovingly arranged instruments are real and pure, as is singer Sally Ellyson’s unerring, unsappy voice. This song can be found on the band’s one and only CD to date, Rabbitsongs, released independently in 2001, then re-released by DreamWorks this year.

“Song for the Ending Day” – the Ladybug Transistor

I’m not normally enamored of this sort of trembly baritone voice, but there’s something goofily endearing about this song, violins and all, particularly as it works itself towards full-fledged, “Walk Away Renee”-ishness two-thirds of the way through. This is no-holds-barred production-savvy pop and we don’t hear enough of this anymore, says me. Okay, so I’m still unlikely to become president of the Trembly Baritones Fan Club, but it’s a nifty little song. You’ll find it on the band’s recently released, eponymous album, their fifth.

This Week’s Finds: Nov. 30-Dec. 6 (Cotton Mather, Tamara Williamson, David Dondero)

“Lost My Motto” – Cotton Mather

So these guys are probably tired of the word “Beatlesque,” but how to avoid it when you hear that voice, those chords, that melody? And yet, as all too many bands over the years (decades, by now) have discovered, it’s turned out to be pretty difficult to be both Beatlesque and, well, interesting. Something energetic and compelling too easily gets lost when bands find their singer sounds like John Lennon and their guitarist sounds like George Harrison. I give this Austin-based band a fair amount of credit for building a worthwhile catalog upon such a Beatle-y (not to mention Squeeze-ish) foundation. This song was originally recorded on their 1994 debut; this version is a re-recording, available on their 2000 EP, Hotel Balitmore.

“Paradise” – Tamara Williamson

And here we have yet another under-recognized female Canadian singer/songwriter with a rich, idiosyncratic sound. “Paradise” feels like a film or a short story, and yet, despite its length, never bogs down into mere vamping or noodling; the musical landscape unfolds with a steady beat, builds with layered drama, and is held together by Williamson’s lithe voice. To download the song, scroll down to the CD “The Arms of Ed” and click on the word “Listen” next to track 12. The CD was released in 2001; she has a newer album, All Those Racing Horses, released this year, but as yet has no MP3s available from it.

“Ashes on the Highway” – David Dondero

I had to hang with this one a bit, not connecting that well to the alt-country-meets-Billy-Bragg opening. But I found that it acquired a certain charm as it developed; once again, it was a slide guitar that hooked me in. I never realized I liked slide guitar that much. Hmm. Anyway, this guy has apparently been floating around the indie-rock scene for about 10 years. The song is found on his new CD, Transient.

This Week’s Finds: Nov. 23-29 (Rose Polenzani, The Kingsbury Manx, Electrelane)

“Fell” – Rose Polenzani

Assured, full-bodied song from a singer/songwriter who, like Dar Williams before her, seems to be expanding beyond the “girl with a guitar” sound, to good effect. Think Suzanne Vega crossed with Lisa Germano, maybe, with a touch of Dar herself in there too. This one hooks me in the chorus, the way she sings slightly ahead of the lazy beat, which kicks in each time with that unexpected slide-guitar accent in the background.

“Porchlight” – the Kingsbury Manx

I hear echoes of early Pink Floyd and (of all things) Simon and Garfunkel in this gentle but assured song from a relatively unknown North Carolina band. I don’t know how this particular vibe holds up over a whole CD, but this song spins a wonderful aura with care and nuance. The band has three full-length CDs out to date; the most recent is called Aztec Discipline and was released last month. “Porchlight” comes from the 2001 album, Let You Down.

“Many Peaks” – Electrelane

Edgy, atomospheric instrumental from a British band that specializes in edgy, atmospheric instrumentals. This feels oddly like an amusement park ride that begins slowly, gains momentum and space, then bursts a couple of times into a double-time onslaught of guitar and keyboard before winding down. I hear a lot of life around the boundaries of this one, in the series of instruments that are brought in and out over the grinding, almost punky rhythm guitars in the background. Electrelane has one album to date, Rock It to the Moon, from which this comes.

This Week’s Finds: Nov. 16-22

“If I Were Smart” – Shelby Lynne

I’ve rarely heard an album as impeccably put together as Shelby Lynne’s breakthrough CD, 2000’s I Am Shelby Lynne. And I’m not one who necessarily likes impeccability as a production value; it’s way too easy to seek precision but end up sounding precious and calculating, not to mention cold and boring. And yet the precisely effective choices that were made across the board, song by song, on that wonderful CD, gave the album a warm and inviting sheen, and turned a collection of nice songs into something lasting and memorable. Her next CD, Love, Shelby, was widely regarded as a misstep, and what I heard of it on the radio kept me away from it (although I will admit I’ve yet to hear the whole thing; hey, no one sends me this stuff, after all!). Her new one, Identity Crisis, is being touted as a return to form, and if this subtle and affecting song is any indication, I believe it.

“Late Bloom” – Amy Ray

Amy Ray’s tough edge is often blunted within her Indigo Girls context; this concise, sparkling rocker lets it out in a guitar-driven melodic burst. The song comes from Ray’s unjustly overlooked 2001 solo CD Stag. You hardly have to be an Indigo Girls fan to like this one, as they’ve never recorded anything quite so electric.

“The Little Things” – Matthew Ryan

Gruff, insistent, minor-key toe-tapper from a Pennsylvania singer/songwriter who has recently released his fourth CD, Regret Over the Wires. Don’t worry, I had never heard of him before either, but this one makes me curious about what I’ve been missing. Both in title and in vibe, the song inevitably reminds me of Paul Kelly’s “Dumb Things,” for those who might remember that lost classic. Consider that a good thing.

This Week’s Finds: Nov. 9-15

“Tom the Model” – Beth Gibbons  link no longer active
Funny how I had always assumed, with Portishead, that it was the background guy who was responsible for the eerie, kitschy sort of weirdness that permeated the band’s music–that, in other words, singer Beth Gibbons just sort floated her distinctive voice on top of the whole crazy, beautiful thing. I’m assuming differently now. Gibbons may be just plain weird herself. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) This song is from a CD called Out of Season that was released last year in the U.K. and is out now in the U.S.; it is credited both to Gibbons and “Rustin Man,” who is apparently a musician named Paul Webb (of the band Talk Talk). “Tom the Model” has in fact more Portishead-ish moments than most of the tunes on the CD, which by and large avoids that group’s intense retro-soundtrack-y ambiance in favor of a quavering, downbeat sort of intimacy. I’m not sure at this point that I even like this song all that much, but in listening to it a number of times, I find I’m compelled by it nonetheless. It’s a grey area that our “hot or not”-oriented culture overlooks, the idea that something may engage and reward you even if you wouldn’t say it was “great” or “hot” or give it five stars or whatever. This is definitely worth a few listens to experience and absorb.

“Get Down Moses” – Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros  link no longer active
Dubby and energy-packed, this comes from the last, posthumous release from the late, lamented Clash co-founder. I’m always struck by how musical Strummer could be at his best. There’s something fetchingly insistent about this tune and it probably has a lot to do with his guileless, open-hearted voice. Even when he sung in apparent anger, Strummer could warm my spirit, somehow, just from the sound of his voice. Having this new thing come out now, when there can be no more, is rather too poignant for words.

“Juanita” – Rachel Smith
So cross Sinead O’Connor with Jane Siberry and have the result emerge from a young Canadian musician currently pursuing a master’s degree at Harvard and voila!: here’s Rachel Smith. This playful, quirky song completely engages me, but I’ll readily admit I’m a sucker for a songwriter with an intuitive sense of how to insert odd and unexpected elements into songs. Like what’s with those “ah-ah”s in the verses? And okay, I’m also a sucker for songs with accordions in them, not to mention songs with memorable opening lines–in this case, “I’m not afraid of weakness/I’m afraid of power.” Any number of things here hook me in; I sense an intelligence at work here and I listen with eager ears. They sure do grow wonderful musicians up there in Canada. “Juanita” comes from Smith’s debut, The Clearing, which was released in 2001. Her next album, Famous Secrets, is apparently due out soon.

“Don’t Let Us Get Sick” – Jill Sobule  link no longer active
An inspired cover by the sharp-witted Sobule, who carries a complex mix of irony and sincerity in her voice more effectively than almost anyone I can think of–save, perhaps, the recently departed Warren Zevon, who wrote this song. This can be found on Sobule’s recently released CD The Folk Years 2003-2003. (That’s not a typo.) The premise here seems to be relatively stripped-down production, but it’s not just all guitar and voice–check out, for instance, the cool Salvation Army-band sound towards the end of this one. This link takes you to a page with a few MP3s on it; click on the song title to download this song.

This Week’s Finds: Nov. 2-8 (The Innocence Mission, The Shins, Peter Case)

“Tomorrow on the Runway” – the Innocence Mission

A simple tune, cleanly produced, and beautifully sung, “Tomorrow on the Runway” is sweet, sad, and lovely without being cloying. If you’re at all familiar with the Sundays, you may find lead singer Karen Pertis’s voice eerily familiar-sounding. This one comes from the Innocence Mission’s recent CD, Befriended, which was released in September.

“So Says I” – the Shins

Check out the deep-rooted ’60s-pop vibe in this one, from its “Build Me Up Buttercup” swing to its Grass Roots-ish vocals and timely distortions. But “So Says I” is no nostalgia trip; there’s something urgent and up-to-date going on here. Content-wise I’m still unpacking this song, as the lyrics rush by in a somewhat indecipherable whirl. But you don’t have to understand every word to sense that this is the latest notable addition to that special club of songs presenting dark lyrics to a breezy tune. It occurs to me that this may truly be one of pop music’s distinctive gifts, a memorable way to embody the underlying paradox of life itself. For those less in need of metaphorical inspiration, consider this a spiffy little song and leave it at that.

“Ice Water” – Peter Case

Down-home, shuffly folk-blues from a guy who has never managed to get the attention he deserves. One-time leader of American new wave pop group the Plimsouls, Case went on in the ’80s and ’90s to a solo career as troubadour-style storyteller. This song originally appeared on his highly recommended solo debut Peter Case (released in 1986); this version comes from an album called Thank You St. Jude, which found Case performing a collection of his best songs, rearranged in stripped-down, acoustic versions, recreating the feel of his road show. This one leaps from the speakers with glee and gusto.