For a voice and percussion duo, Mariam Wallentin and Andreas Werliin create music with great texture and charm. It’s still pretty idiosyncratic–okay, very idiosyncratic–but you don’t listen to “My Heart” and think, “Geez, where are all the real instruments?” because Werliin does a beautiful, canny job finding not just beats but notes and motifs in a variety of things that are struck with a stick or a mallet. Wallentin in fact sounds like she’s being accompanied by a small, quizzical orchestra, not just a drummer.
The song’s many and varied structural and compositional and artistic quirks may well be why a listener’s ear is distracted from the basic instrumental peculiarity at the core of the duo’s sound. There’s the stop-start-y melody (I dare you to sing along for very long); the shifting rhythmic foundation (the same melody happens over drastically different percussive backgrounds at different points in the song); the art-song-meets-pop-song sense of development (note for example that odd, extended interstitial moment–beginning at 0:49–of being neither in verse nor chorus); and, payoff, the unexpected but brilliant choral finish.
“My Heart” is a song from The Snake, the band’s second album, which came out in Sweden in 2008 and was released earlier this year in the UK on the Leaf Label, and finally also in the US last month by the Control Group. MP3 via NME.
Propulsive and canny, “Gold and Warm” sneaks a huge, sing-along chorus into a multifaceted piece that sounds very little like standard-issue indie-rock-duo music in an age in which the duo has become oddly commonplace.
The dreamy, retro-y orchestral intro is an immediate clue that the song may not unfold as expected. While “Gold and Warm” drives with a determined beat, it also opens itself at various points to more delicate touches, and although singer-songwriter-guitarist-keyboardist Benjamin Davis pushes his voice through something of a Strokes-like filter, he doesn’t use that as an excuse to sing monotonously, which is something this particular effect typically encourages. The rich-toned Davis shows me a thing or two about the emotional range that’s still possible for a filtered voice, while partner Sebastien Schultz gives the duo the gift of a human drummer, grounding the band’s sound in something nuanced and organic, often putting his cymbal work more forward than the drumming in the mix. And then listen to him work the drum kit in the instrumental break that accompanies the instrumental interlude three-quarters of the way into the song (2:46)–that’s just some good, old-fashioned drumming the likes of which you might have heard from Ringo way back when: patient, spacious, self-effacing, and effective precisely because it doesn’t try to be intricate or show-off-y.
“Gold and Warm” is the second track on the Cincinnati-based band’s self-titled debut, released last month on Dangerbird Records. MP3 via Spinner.
So go ahead and listen to this song. Shrug and put it aside for two weeks or so. Listen to it again. Go: “Hm. I actually kind of like this! A lot, even.” Well okay, you don’t have to do any of that, but that’s surely what I did. Listening to music can be a flitty and unpredictable affair.
So, “Tammie”: kitchen-sink indie pop, sweetly nutty, with the large-scale energy of the Arcade Fire school of 21st-century rock, but achieved instead via a stripped-down, organic vibe driven by hand-claps and odd vocalizations and peopled by a simple (but multinational) duo—French/Finnish Olivia Merilahti and the Parisian Dan Levy. Where the song takes off, for me, is here: when the insistent, twice-repeated minor-key melodic lines of the verse resolve in the third iteration (first heard around 0:41)—such a smooth and unexpected chord slips in right there in the middle of all the staccato insistence. Check out the next time this comes up, with those invigorating harmonies (1:24, but keep listening). Another wonderful moment is when the repeated chant of the bridge, with all its percussive drive, morphs (1:47) into an orchestral interlude, featuring an enticing influx of woodwind-like sounds.
The Dø is pronounced like the first note of the scale (“‘do’ a deer,” etc.)—even though the “ø” (in languages that use it) is actually pronounced more like the “u” in “hurt.” And while the word “dø” means “die” in Danish and Norwegian, the band says the name comes simply from combining the letters of their first names. (D’oh!) “Tammie” can be found on their debut CD, A Mouthful, which was originally released last year in Europe, and given an American release this month on Get Down Records.
A mysteriously appealing and almost mystically engaging piece of organic electronica. With a brisk, manufactured beat and circular melody, “Goodbye” unfolds in a lyrical haze, the song’s narrator offering a series of deadpan observations in a voice at once wavery and steadfast. Through a precise combination of concrete imagery and vague scenarios, the words themselves beckon to the unconscious, leaving the conscious mind lost in the song’s upward-climbing, downward-resolving tune.
A hint of how this works comes in the second verse: “And lights will start to fade/A car goes by and a window breaks/And scatters thoughts across the floor/They’re keeping me awake/They’re keeping me awake.” The window breaks, causing thoughts to scatter across the floor: the line between the external and the internal is blurred to the point of nonrationality. Note also the blurred aural line between acoustic and electric, and how the song, churning along with a homemade sort of charm, overlays clear musical resolution with lyrical elusiveness. And while I don’t usually connect to songs with long, noodly outros, the spacey but poignant last 80 seconds or so seems perfectly designed to help a listener integrate what he or she has just absorbed.
The Argument is a duo from Sweden, about which not much information is available; their names are Marcus and Niklas and that’s about all I can tell you. “Goodbye” is from their new self-released CD, Everything Depends, their second effort. The MP3 link above is not direct; you’ll have to click the words “Download Track” once you get to the page. The entire album is in fact available as a free and legal download, and is worth checking out.
The Brooklyn-based duo Bishop Allen is one of the most likable bands in the kooky and sometimes unlikable world of indie rock. They are, indeed, likable at every level of activity, from the general vibe of their songs to the individual musical components employed to, even, the band’s sense of graphic design and their collective prose voice.
“The Ancient Commonsense of Things”: even a likable song title, yes? Makes you kind of relax, stop Twittering for a minute and just breathe. We were human beings before we chained ourselves to one sort of keyboard or another. As the lyrics offer the merest of sketches, the music quickly envelops you with its at once cheerful and intimate presence–it’s a soft song that sounds loud, a fast song that feels easy-going. Bright and lively percussion drive the piece–mostly sticks and clicks and xylophone–while the minimalist lyrics compare time-tested objects (a hammer, a clothespin, a cork) to the power of a soul mate. And it works, in part because of singer Justin Rice’s quizzical voice, which does both plain-spoken and buoyant equally well. The song might have benefited from one more verse, but Rice’s repetition of the titular phrase is so simultaneously jaunty and curious that I’m kind of digging the “less is more” approach. And whether that’s a bass solo or a guitar solo there at 1:40, I like its plucked sparseness–just these particular notes, in this particular order, over that clicky-clacky-chuggy-chimey background.
While Rice and Christian Rudder, who met at Harvard, are the two-man core of the group, Bishop Allen performs with other musicians, who are at least informally band members while the recording and touring goes on (a current video shows a band of five, in fact). “The Ancient Commonsense of Things” can be found on Grrr…, the band’s new CD, being released this week on Dead Oceans. MP3 via the band’s site.
If Gnarls Barkley can refer to themselves as the “odd couple” (as per their 2008 album), then what to make of this pairing of Helena Costas, a London-born singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist of Greek Cypriot extraction, and Danger Mouse (himself half of Gnarls Barkley)? A really really odd couple?
And what to make of this odd-couply music, part pastoral airiness, part Twilight Zoney strangeness? There are uncanny lyrics—“The horses turn into cows/And sheep lie on the edge of the road”—and an off-kilter heaviness to a beat that kind of wants to be lilting but isn’t, really. There are warm acoustic instruments and wayward keyboards and electronic effects that sound like a combination of a theremin and an old-fashioned radio dial trying to tune in a station. Through it all, Costas—a classically trained violinist, among other things—sings with an unperturbed, slightly breathy sweetness, almost as if no one has told her exactly what she’s singing about. Not that I have any idea either. And how short this is! Just when you’re ready to sink into the mystery of it all, it’s over. Rendering it all the more mysterious, I suppose.
“Worm’s Head” came out as a digital single in November, a 7-inch vinyl record in December, and will be on the debut Joker’s Daughter album, The Last Laugh, when it comes out in February, on Team Love Records. MP3 via Team Love.
The Rosebuds, a Raleigh-based duo, are an elusive band, rather willfully avoiding a defining sound over the course of three CDs released between 2003 and 2007 (they were a trio until last year). As such, I’ve managed neither to get a strong grip on them musically nor to latch onto one particular song to feature. Until now.
With an insistent, somewhat ominous groove and easy-going melody, “Life Like” has plenty to recommend it. Such as, for instance, that very juxtaposition: ominous groove and easy-going melody. When pop music succeeds, it often does so through this type of aural paradox, the combining of contradictory elements into a cohesive whole. (A pop song by definition doesn’t have a lot of time to work with, so if it’s shooting for depth, it has to work with layers within the time frame.) You may not know why a song is sticking, why it’s affecting you, and many times it’s because of this sort of maneuver. With the Rosebuds, the vocal pairing of Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp is a sort of mirror of the effect: two very different vocal vibes, blending, alternating, and weaving in and around each other. Their work as dual lead vocalists has in fact been the one consistent element to the band’s music and it works glowingly well here; I love how Crisp keeps herself at a distance in the verses, harmonizing around the edges, but injects herself into the center of the mix in the chorus.
“Life Like” is the title track to the Rosebuds’ fourth CD, which is scheduled for release next month on Merge Records. MP3 via Merge.
“Loud and Clear” – the Last Town Chorus
And this, oddly enough, is the second song called “Loud and Clear” now featured on Fingertips (the first being one from the duo Pink and Noseworthy), for those keeping score at home. This “Loud and Clear” is particularly well-named, because Megan Hickey, who plays lap steel guitar and sings, has a sweet, clear-toned voice and a round, indelible sound, as she plays her instrument using effect pedals not typically employed, creating both dreamy textures and memorable lead lines in the process. This is not your Grand Ole Opry lap steel. Hickey has an instinctive feel for just how much to glide and bend her notes, avoiding country cliches while invigorating the song with inventive shapes and sounds.
Although originally a duo, the Last Town Chorus has since 2004 been the Brooklyn-based Hickey playing with a changing ensemble of musicians. “Loud and Clear” is a single from an as-yet untitled CD, to be released at some as-yet unspecified date by Hacktone Records.
MP3 via Hacktone.