Crafty songwriting, dynamic arrangements
For all its loose, swinging atmosphere, “I’m a Yes Man” is a highly disciplined exercise in catchy late-period rock’n’roll. The swing comes from melodies consistently centered off the first beat of the measure, while the sense of looseness is propelled by a dynamic bass line down below and wailing electric guitars up top. The discipline, meanwhile, can be felt in the tightness of the performances (random example: that tiny dead-air pause in the proceedings at 0:19), including the disaffected, precise vocal stylings of front man Joe Jackson (yup that’s his name). His rhythmically astute phrasing is impressive, maybe nowhere clearer than on the standout line “I’ve got half a mind to half-remember half the time” (1:14). The song is written to encourage his careful, clever singing, which doubles back to highlight the crafty songwriting. I like, as an example, how the line “And could you offer in a helping hand?” at 1:24 extends beyond the confines of its musical phrase, which strikes me as a confident bit of composition.
The arrangements, with their intertwining guitars and savvy dynamics, reinforce the air of a band in complete control. This might have a fair amount to do with producer Alex Newport, who has worked with a number of heavy-hitting outfits, among them Death Cab for Cutie and Bloc Party; in any case, the song is continually enlivened by not only the particular instrumental mix in use at any given time but the push and pull of volume and accompaniment. One small example: not only does the swell of sound drop away at the start of the verse (0:40), but we also get a guitar playing notes that imply chords that do not match the melody in the vocal–an enticing bit of passing dissonance. This is one of those songs that you can take a slice of at pretty much any moment and find something interesting going on. I suggest you try it.
The Great Emu War Casualties is a trio from Melbourne. “I’m a Yes Man” is a track from their five-song EP, Vanity Project, which was released at the end of February. You can check out the whole thing, and buy it, via Bandcamp. Oh and in case you’re interested: the Great Emu War was actually a thing, involving the Australian government employing the military to control a runaway emu population in 1932. You can read more here. Executive summary: the emus won.
Not often do you hear inventive bass-playing and inventive drumming intertwining so smartly while still allowing a coherent song to be built on top.
Check out the rhythm section on this one: not often do you hear inventive bass-playing and inventive drumming intertwining so smartly while still allowing a coherent song to be built on top. And what a coherent and engaging song it turns out to be—astutely arranged and structurally sound, “The Unheard” is a marvelous slice of 21st-century rock’n’roll, coming to us from the seemingly unlikely source of Bari, Italy, down there at the top of the heel of Italy’s “boot.”
I like how busy and determined this is even while cloaking itself in a bit of shoegazey mist. There’s that rhythmic pulse at the bottom driving things, but it’s that ongoing, canny employment of both electric guitars and synthesizers that ultimately gives the ear a lot to chew on—so much, in fact, that what appears to be the song’s chorus (first heard at 1:31) feels like a dreamy breather between purposeful building blocks. Both the guitars and the synths each get a motif-like theme to express—the former a hard-charging, syncopated riff (first heard at 0:55), the latter a chimy noodle (1:21) that shares a similar sense of syncopation. The more I listen, the more I am impressed with the song’s construction, and the more I think I hear something genuinely timeless in its mix of drive and dream. Give good credit to singer Tiziana Felle, whose voice can penetrate or levitate, depending on the need.
“The Unheard” is a song from the band’s new EP, Sparkles, which comes out in Italy next week. This will be the band’s third release, following an EP in 2012 and a full-length album, Echo, in 2013.
“Tumbling Bay” is one of those songs so exquisitely constructed and artfully arranged that you can isolate any slice and find all sorts of goodness to relish.
Attentive, gentle rock’n’roll that tells a tender story with an absorbing series of musical and lyrical details. “Tumbling Bay” is one of those songs so artfully arranged that you can isolate any slice and find all sorts of goodness to relish. At any moment, there are wonderful things going on with the guitar work, the percussion, and the vocals, never mind how these separate elements are continually weaving in and around each other, and working to create a whole that transcends its parts.
The song is named for a swimming area that used to exist in the Thames River in Oxford, the quartet’s hometown, and is a tale of unrequited love, told, unusually, from the perspective of the unwitting object rather than the tortured subject. Singer Brian Briggs has a distinctively innocent-sounding tenor, and he serves up the halting, affecting melodies with conviction; but don’t miss as well the background vocal efforts of his bandmates, as Stornoway is not averse to letting the whole band sing at the same time. (Indeed, the simple vocal coda we get at 3:36 is both haunting and oddly cathartic, not to be missed.)
“Tumbling Bay” is one of six songs to be found on the group’s newly-released “mini-album,” You Don’t Know Anything, which is a follow-up to its full-length Tales From Terra Firma, released earlier this year. Thanks to Lauren Laverne at BBC6 for the head’s up, and thanks to Rolling Stone for the MP3. Stornoway was last seen here in July 2010, for the fabulous song “Zorbing,” which ended up among my top 10 favorite free and legal MP3s of the year that year.
Brilliantly re-arranged to highlight the original’s strange and moody lyrics.
So it seems that Chamberlin guitarist Ethan West was driving down the New Jersey Turnpike one day, not exactly in the best mood, and heard Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” on the radio and was struck all of a sudden by how strange and brooding the lyrics are, despite the upbeat vibe of the music. He and the band, with a history of covering unexpected songs, decided to try to rearrange the things accordingly. And boy do they. These guys kill right away with their conversion of the original’s bouncy synthesizer riff into a wailing guitar (0:13), distilling Simon’s four full, cheerful iterations into a lead line that takes us through the motif just one and a half times, leaving us edgy and unresolved. Singer Mark Daly dives into the lyrics—previously sung so drolly by Simon—with a moody disquiet, sounding like an outtake from the first Counting Crows record.
Everything falls into place from there; this version has an instant, enviable inevitability about it. I love the effortless tension the band introduces in the chorus, as the familiar but still inscrutable line “If you’ll be my bodyguard/I can be your long-lost pal” is sung not with a wink and a skip as Simon did it but with a kind of harrowing plea (starting at 1:08), as a gathering drum beat sets up a stretching out of the word “long” that mirrors the original but in an utterly transformed context and culminates in the return of the central instrumental motif, now an unmitigated howl. Don’t miss as well how the band converts Simon’s cheerful “na-na-na-na” break into a slowed-down, cleared-out instrumental in which the percussive bass line in the original becomes a ghostly, intermittent clatter of drum sticks. If everyone affected cover songs with this much skill, no new songs might ever more have to be written.
Chamberlin is a five-man band from Vermont that was founded in 2010. They have released one album and two EPs to date, the most recent release being their Look What I’ve Become EP, which came out in September. “You Can Call Me Al” is a separate song, newly released. Thanks to the band for the MP3. You can download above the usual way, or visit the band’s SoundCloud page for streaming and/or downloading and/or commenting directly to the band. Be sure also to check out the band’s web page, where you can listen to the entire EP, download a song from it, and find tour dates for its fall tour, just underway.
Pleasantly off-kilter and yet still lovely folk revivalism from a pair of sisters from the English countryside.
Pleasantly off-kilter and yet still lovely folk revivalism from a pair of sisters from the English countryside. “Queen of Hearts” is a traditional song, first recorded by Cynthia Gooding in 1953 and brought to a wider audience by Joan Baez 10 years later, and the Unthanks honor the song’s heart but expand its soul with their uncanny gift of arrangement.
From the glockenspiel’s carefully tinkled opening notes (and note the odd tension the trumpet quickly introduces) it is clear that we are in exquisite musical hands. Keep your ear on the bottom of the mix, as it’s the drumbeat—resolutely minimal, reinforcing the song’s rapt sway—and its bass partner that lend the song its peculiar sense of magical menace, or maybe menacing magic. The interaction of the players—piano, trumpet, strings, percussion—is all but three-dimensional; they sound like they’re playing with each other both musically and spatially. Notes and chords are both thrillingly precise and yet seemingly just come upon. (A favorite moment: the chord that appears on the word “my” smack in the center of the song, at 2:13, on the line “If my love leaves me what shall I do?”)
And let’s not forget the central lure, which is the two sisters’ voices. Becky takes the lower road, Rachel, eight years senior, the higher, and the intertwining is such that they are hard to separate. Thankfully there is no need to. Unthank is their actual last name, by the way. And also the name of a village near where they grew up, west of Newcastle.
“Queen of Hearts” is from the album Last, the Unthanks’ fourth, which will arrive on the Rough Trade label in the US next month. MP3 via the Beggars Group. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.
No stranger to idiosyncrasy—her first band’s first release was named “worst album of the year” by a major Swedish rock magazine, according to Allmusic.com—Jenny Wilson sings and arranges with whimsy and determination and little concern for convention.
I am a fan of strange songs with hooks, which no doubt explains my fondness for Tom Waits, Jane Siberry, and They Might Be Giants, among others. Knowing how to be both weird and catchy is rare gift—it requires both smarts and humor—and surely weeds out both the uninformed and the formulaic.
No stranger to idiosyncrasy—her first band’s first release was named “worst album of the year” by a major Swedish rock magazine, according to Allmusic.com—Jenny Wilson sings and arranges with whimsy and determination and little concern for convention. While grounding her songs somewhere within an R&B-like setting, Wilson has no apparent interest in creating either an Amy Winehouse-style homage or a Dirty Projectors-esque deconstruction. Lord knows where the marimba came from but it works, as does the back-and-forth tension between the semi-minimalist verse and the (almost) sing-along chorus. The chorus is in fact one big inscrutable delight, both sticking in your head and continually running from it: there’s the hook-y moment at the beginning, with the words “If I…,” but see how it tails off into lyrics that are difficult to follow and the musical equivalent of a run-on sentence. It’s very engaging somehow.
“Hardships!” is the name of Wilson’s first U.S. release, which came out in late August on her own Gold Medal Recordings label. (The album was previously released in Europe in 2009.) This so-called “gospel version” of the title track is the only free and legal MP3 available so far; it has a slightly different instrumental accompaniment than the original and augments her multi-tracked voice with forceful, gospel-choir-ish backing vocals that replace a prominent violin that is now nowhere to be heard. MP3 via IAMSOUND Records, which is distributing the album’s first single, “Like a Fading Rainbow” (good song too); “Hardships (Gospel Version)” is the b-side.
With guitar and voice, “The Organ Grinder” starts off simply, plaintively—think Thom Yorke doing a Neil Young imitation—only to acquire offhand grandeur as a graceful parade of instruments (accordion, melodica, organ, guitalele [?], various percussive devices) add their voices to the mix.
With guitar and voice, “The Organ Grinder” starts off simply, plaintively—think Thom Yorke doing a Neil Young imitation—only to acquire offhand grandeur as a graceful parade of instruments (accordion, melodica, organ, guitalele [?], various percussive devices) add their voices to the mix. For a simple-seeming singer/songwriter composition, the song unfolds with an unerring sense of drama and beauty. Check out, as one example, the whistled motif that enters, almost as an afterthought, at 0:58, and then the unexpected but almost touching way the guitar joins the whistle in delivering the second half of its melody.
And if all songs showed such attention to dramatic development as this one—the last minute here is rich and surprising—the world would surely be a better place. The rhythmic shift at 3:07 is alone worth the price of admission, even if you (to think!) had to buy it, which in this case you don’t.
The Migrant is the name that Danish singer/songwriter Bjarke Bendtsen has given to his musical project, which represents the culmination of a couple of years spent living in Texas and also traveling around the U.S. The record itself, however, was recorded with friends when Bendtsen was visiting Denmark last summer. The end result, Travels in Lowland, will be self-released later this month.
Over a stately acoustic guitar noodle that wouldn’t sound out of place on a mid-career Genesis album, “Blood” unfolds slowly yet engages the ear instantly. (That’s an advanced maneuver in the rock’n’roll style book, by the way.) The anticipation is delicious; the song doesn’t fully cook until 2:55 but I don’t think you’ll be bored. Engaging musicianship, sensitive and creative arrangement, affecting vocals, intriguing and well-crafted lyrics, short-term melodies, long-term structure: this six-piece from northern Queensland offers a full arsenal, even–what the heck–a children’s chorus before the thing is through.
I read somewhere that this song tells the story of three different relationships, two ended by death, one by divorce, but don’t expect to pick that up easily; the band’s singer has a lovely, Bon Iver-esque tenor that functions more like an instrument than a tale-teller. We pick up the occasional sonorous phrase–“She woke up in a cold sweat on the floor”; “Burned by the sun too often when she was young”–but as the song develops musically, the words fade into the fabric of the composition, eventually to be left aside entirely once the central musical motif–a refrain first heard as a whistled melody at 2:01–rises in climactic, wordless, choral repetition two-thirds of the way through (the aforementioned children’s chorus).
Formed in 2005 in a quiet village near the Great Barrier Reef, the Middle East self-released an album entitled The Recordings of the Middle East in 2008. And then decided to break up. And eight months later decided to re-form, with some personnel changes. The original album was then given an Australia-wide re-release in abridged form as an EP by Spunk Records, an Australian label that happens also to release a lot of big-time American indie rock (Spoon, the Shins, Joanna Newsom, Okkervil River, et al). The EP made it to the U.S. late in 2009, and the band itself arrived for the first time this spring and is currently touring here. MP3 via Spinner.
A waltzing, carnivalesque intro segues into some smooth, orchestral retro-pop that owes a bit to Burt Bacharach, a bit to Kurt Weill, and a bit to our century’s relentless urge to mix and mash sounds into ear-catching concoctions. To me, “Wonderland” separates itself from a lot of the more disposable contrivances crowding the internet in our music-happy day and age via its rare combination of sweetness and sturdiness. The melodies are expansive and velvety, the arrangements unexpectedly thoughtful, even articulate. The bright-toned singer and multi-cultural multi-instrumentalist Raissa Khan-Panni, who flitted through a semi-successful solo career in the UK at the outset of the millennium, here manages at once to command center stage and to work as merely one of an idiosyncratic ensemble of musicians bowing and pumping out this breezy but slightly mysterious keeper. A whole different kind of summer song, this one is, from the Wheels On Fire track above, but a delightful summer song it nonetheless remains.
The Mummers are an ever-changing array of 20-some-odd musicians, based in Brighton. “Wonderland” is a song from the band’s debut full-length disc, Tale to Tell (Republic of Music/Universal), which was released in either April or June. (The internet is sometimes a contradictory place, information-wise.) MP3 via Fresh Deer Meat.