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“Tom the Model” – Beth Gibbons  link no longer active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“Get Down Moses” – Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros  link no longer active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.

This Week’s Finds: Oct. 26-Nov. 1 (British Sea Power, Television, For Stars)

Fingertips started in May 2003 as a full-fledged web site, centered on reviews of three free and legal MP3s per week, but with a lot of other pages of content related to free and legal music online. The blog version, featuring just the weekly song picks, started in October 2003. This was the first post to the blog, featuring free and legal MP3s from British Sea Power, Television, and For Starts.

“Remember Me” – British Sea Power

David Bowie on speed? The Motors meet the Sex Pistols? Not sure what this ultimately reminds me of, but as I thrill to the unbridled melodic guitar-based frenzy on the loose here, it suddenly doesn’t matter. Only in England do they do this, and I for one, am loving it. Apparently the band is quite the eccentric lot, complete with costumes, enigmatic album imagery, and an almost ferocious intensity in performance. Whether they end up an eccentric but forgotten U.K. flavor of the month or a memorably idiosyncratic institution within British pop history (like, say, the Smiths), it’s too soon to tell. But I’m suspecting these guys aren’t going to go away. By the way, when you hit the link, you’ll have to scroll down to the entries for September 30th (you’ll be on at that point). The song comes from the band’s album The Decline of British Sea Power, which came out last month.

“Marquee Moon” – Television

Much was made at the time, and ever since, of this band’s compelling but unusual approach to rock’n’roll. One of rock’s great two-lead-guitar bands, Television was the first, it seems, to feature jamming guitarists who didn’t root themselves in the structure of the blues. The results were unpredictable, electric, mysteriously satisfying, and resoundingly influential. The ever-watchful folks at Rhino Records have recently released a re-mastered and expanded version of Marquee Moon, the album which was this band’s memorable debut. And what the heck, Rhino’s even letting you listen to the whole thing online, here.

“Field of Fire” – For Stars

Carlos Foster’s voice is a heady amalgam of Neil Young’s and Thom Yorke’s; the sheer prettiness of this voice singing this melody is offset gratifyingly by a brisk but brooding rhythm section below and a minimalist, searing guitar line above. Nice stuff. It’s from the band’s first CD, released in 1999; they have made three albums so far, the most recent in 2001.

This Week’s Finds: October 19-25 (Death Cab For Cutie, Norah Jones, Tweaker [featuring David Sylvian])

“The New Year” – Death Cab for Cutie

The “inside joke” name (it comes from an old Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band song) implies a much harsher, more nihilistic sound than this earnest, yearning band has, by a long shot. Front man Ben Gibbard’s refreshingly pure pop voice is a wonderful antidote for anyone whose ears have been pummeled by one David Matthews sound-alike too many set loose on the marketplace over the last few years. This one’s alternative without being weird, thoughtful without being morose, and catchy in an offhand but assured way. “The New Year” comes from the band’s new CD, Transatlanticism.

“Bessie Smith” – Norah Jones

Some artists use MP3s largely for live performances, which is great if you’re already a fan but less useful if you’re trying to get a feel for a song or album. On the other hand, for musicians who do interesting covers, live MP3s offer a potential wealth of worthy material. I don’t know which I like more, Jones’ performance here on this old nugget from the Band’s catalog, or the fact that she thought to sing it in the first place. Okay, there’s no out-doing the original, with Rick Danko’s evocative falsetto harmonies and Garth Hudson’s noodly organ-playing, but I always like when someone rescues a good song from oblivion, so I’ll take Norah gladly.

“Linoleum” – Tweaker (featuring David Sylvian)

Tweaker is the name that drummer Chris Vrenna is performing under since leaving the band Nine Inch Nails. This song is a beepy-boopy-crunchy sort of thing, brought alive by David Sylvian’s rich, atmospheric singing. (One-time leader of the group Japan, Sylvian himself is a hidden rock’n’roll treasure who does not surface often enough.) This song comes from the 2001 album The Attraction to All Things Uncertain, which is largely instrumental (Vrenna doesn’t sing, but uses guest vocalists when he needs them). I’m not sure if his industrial-meets-electronica sound is up my alley, but “Linoleum” is a cool little find, putting me back in the mind of 1981, for its Bowie-meets-Ultravox vibe.

This Week’s Finds: October 5-11 (Cassandra Wilson, Joe Henry, Edie Brickell)

“Fragile” – Cassandra Wilson

Yes, this is the Sting song, and leave it to Wilson to affirm for all of us that this is no fluke, it’s no mere cliche, it’s truly one of the great songs of our time. I kid you not. Listen to her deliver the crucial line (“Nothing comes from violence, nothing ever could”) and watch the goosebumps crawl up my arm (well, if you were here, you could). And then listen to how she plays with the chords along the way. She is a force of nature. Check out her unlikely version of “Lay Lady Lay,” also on this new album of hers, Glamoured, and also available to stream on the Blue Note web site.

“Tiny Voices” – Joe Henry

It’s a fine line, with Joe Henry, between hypnotic and soporific; this one lands in the former camp, I think. “Tiny Voices,” the title track from his new album, chugs along with a loopy sort of spaciousness, created by a Beatle-ish kind of kitchen-sink production—you never know what you’re going to hear in the background: clarinets, electric chimes, stray piano glissandos, who knows, and what the heck. Maybe I’ll get sick of it soon, but it charms me at this point, all six minutes, three-seven seconds of it.

“Rush Around” – Edie Brickell

Well, it’s more like half a song than a full song, and it’s languidness threatens to kill it before it leaves a trace, but damn if she doesn’t sound like an old friend after being gone for so long, and hey maybe she’s being kind of playful come to think of it, having a song called “Rush Around” that kicks back and takes its time. Not mind-blowing, certainly, but nice, precise, and worth a listen. But do it soon—this one involves a big-time record label push, so apparently the MP3 will self-destruct on your hard drive after 30 days.

[NOTE: This post, from Fingertips’ earliest months, was recreated from old archives to fit into the newer WordPress format after the fact.]

This Week’s Finds: August 3-9 (Guided By Voices, The Raveonettes, Steve Wynn)

“My Kind of Soldier” – Guided By Voices

Guided By Voices, a quirky Ohio garage band led by the disconcertingly prolific Robert Pollard, has put out at least 15 CDs over the last 15 years, not counting live recordings and re-releases. This has seriously confused me. Even as the band appears to specialize in the sorts of melodic but offbeat guitar rock I tend to like, I’ve never been able to jump in and follow them because they always seem to have a new CD out before I’ve checked out the last one. But maybe not this time. To be sure, a band with a tendency to record this much is definitely not to be judged on the merits of one song. But something about “My Kind of Soldier” sticks with me and makes me want to hear more. There are plenty of ringing guitars for us ringing guitar fans; there are pleasingly elusive lyrics; it’s catchy in a rumpled sort of way; and, on top of all that, the thing is blessedly short: just two minutes, thirty-seven seconds. There are not enough short songs out there anymore.

“That Great Love Sound” – The Raveonettes

Dumb but cool. This is the kind of song that, it seems, the British music press just loves every few years (or is that weeks?). This young Danish band does the neo-garage thing with an almost Spector-like “Wall of Sound” and the simplest of choruses but hey, why mess with a winning chord progression? At worst, “That Great Love Sound” will be forgotten in another month; at best, the Raveonettes themselves will be forgotten over time but the song will forevermore call up something ineffably profound yet fleeting about the Summer of ’03.

“California Style” – Steve Wynn

Wynn is somebody I like more in theory than in reality, but he’s so well-regarded by people who know what they’re talking about that I’m assuming I’m just missing something, so I’m going to keep listening. (He is also, I should add, well-regarded by people who don’t, necessarily, know what they’re talking about: a rave review on praises this song’s “killer chorus,” and yet, as you’ll hear, it doesn’t even have a chorus! If you really want a killer chorus, try “That Great Love Sound” [see above].) In any case, this song strikes me as reasonably good summery fun, so tune in yourself and see what you make of his deadpan voice and offbeat sense of rhyme. This one is from his new CD, Static Transmission.

This Week’s Finds: July 20-26 (Glenn Tilbrook, Pete Townshend, Autour de Lucie)

“Parallel World” – Glenn Tilbrook

Twenty years past the band Squeeze’s commercial prime, the group’s lead singer and co-principal songwriter sounds like an old friend on this song from his overlooked solo CD from 2001, “The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook.” He’s not breaking new ground here but he doesn’t have to—his agreeable voice and effortless sense of melody work in his favor, as they did all those years with Squeeze.

“There Is No Message” – Pete Townshend

Hm, it looks like old rockers’ week here at Fingertips. It turns out that the Who’s guitarist has quite a store of streams up on his site, including 20 songs that he apparently contemplated releasing as a CD called “Twenty” but never did. A lot have a demo-like feel to them, but this one is a viable throwback to “Let My Love Open the Door” era Townshend—catchy, sharp, and rendered better than it should be by his evocative, yearning vocals. (Then again, I’m someone who always thought the best Who songs were the ones he sang; I could never stomach Daltrey’s bombast.)

“L’Accord Parfait” – Autour De Lucie

Okay, to avoid the look and feel of a classic rock station, here’s something rather different. I’m a complete sucker for this sort of thing: it’s airy, it’s got ringing guitars, an irresistible power-pop chorus, a woman singing in French, and it’s 3 minutes and 33 seconds: classic single time. What’s not to love? Apparently this band gained a bit of an audience when it played the Lilith Fair back in 1997, but I never heard of them until I stumbled upon them online. This song is from their first, eponymous (there! I can be a music writer—I’ve used the word “eponymous”) CD, released in 1996.