Strummy, melancholy Glaswegian pop
This is a lovely, crisp bit of strummy, melancholy indie pop, and if it reminds you of Camera Obscura and/or Belle & Sebastian, well, all hail from Glasgow, where apparently this type of strummy, melancholy indie pop is a prevailing musical dialect. But I encourage listening above and beyond the similarities, and tossing aside genre generalizations because, as I have said time and again, it’s far less important for a song to sound different than for it to be good. “Stop This Now” is deliciously good—so good in fact that it is different, if maybe in more subtle ways than can be summarized via pre-established labels.
Everything happens quickly here. The pace is light-footed, the verse concise—one melodic line, repeated twice, each time ending on an unresolved note. We’re at the chorus by 0:25, and yet see how we’re still not at any resolution. The pace stays fleet but the melody itself slows down, with front woman Melanie Whittle now singing fewer words per bar. It’s this opening part of the chorus that just nails the song for me—that lilting, deceptively simple triplet of lines (“And I know/And you know/We both know”) displaying both rueful wit and anguished charm, unfolding across those lovely chords that keep not resolving until we get to the twelfth bar (0:42). And even then we don’t feel full closure until the guitars strum their way through to the sixteenth measure, as we tend to need eight eight or sixteen measures for our ears to feel settled. The second trip through the verse is fortified by some dandy guitar work, the chorus’s follow-up enhanced with a winsome countermelody. Pay attention, however, or the thing will pass you by—it’s all over by 2:18 (the song actually ends before the MP3 does).
Founded by Whittle, the Hermit Crabs have recorded one full-length album to date, 2007’s Saw You Dancing. “Stop This Now” is from the band’s third EP, entitled Time Relentless, which is out this month on Matinee Recordings. MP3 via Matinee.
With the soothing, 3/4 beat of a folk ballad and the tenderness of a singer/songwriter confessional, “Oil & Lacquer” is the work of an eight-piece Scottish ensemble that plays with unusual warmth and restraint.
With the soothing, 3/4 beat of a folk ballad and the tenderness of a singer/songwriter confessional, “Oil & Lacquer” is the work of an eight-piece Scottish ensemble that plays with unusual warmth and restraint. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with the crowded, kitchen-sink indie pop that has flooded the market in the 21st century, but there is always something to be said for restraint, especially in our generally unrestrained times. I was surprised after listening to this a number of times to see that there were in fact eight people in the band. They create the sonic space of a smaller crew, and I mean that as a compliment. They are willing, for one thing, to let one another play in relative isolation—listen, for example, to the second verse, starting at 0:48, in which singer Ben Harrison is accompanied with not much more than accordion and percussion. And okay there’s a keyboard back there if you listen carefully. The uncluttered background allows the soprano sax to add beautifully to the color of the piece when it steps closer to the front of the mix in the third verse, around 1:23.
What the song lacks in sheer busy noise it makes up for in developing intensity. Part of this is accomplished via song structure, which isn’t the standard verse-chorus-verse but more like verse-verse-verse-chorus-chorus. The chorus half of the song is kicked off when most of the players put their instruments down and start singing, around 2:09. It’s a fine moment, and shifts the song into a deeper place; while the chorus melody is something of a variation of the verse melody, the music simplifies as the lyrics sharpen—the narrator goes from singing about life to singing about Life, and somewhere along the way the song gets me right in the gut.
Front man Ben Harrison was born and raised on the Isle of Islay in Scotland, in (on?) the Inner Hebrides (home not only of good music but some mighty fine Scotch); he and the band are now based in Glasgow. “Oil & Lacquer” was the ensemble’s first single, released this past spring in the UK. A new single will be out in December on the new Scottish label Eli and Oz. No word yet on a full-length release.
From the opening lead guitar salvo through the effortless, deadpan pre-chorus hook, “Younger Than America” feels just about perfect.
Do we need crazy all the time? Do we need gimmicky, do we need abstract, do we need unusual and/or odd? All the time? I don’t think so. In any case, crazy and gimmicky and strange only work when there’s a benchmark of normal and straightforward to operate against, right? And so here’s your benchmark: the admirable, long-standing Scottish band Idlewild. They’ve never quite had their moment here in the U.S.—although 2000’s 100 Broken Windows came close—but they’ve been at it for 15 years now and their latest release shows us, yet again, the musical benefits to be had when a band can stick it out for a while.
From the opening lead guitar salvo through the effortless, deadpan pre-chorus hook, “Younger Than America” feels just about perfect—a brisk, embracing rocker with an active, ringing lead guitar and unexpectedly effective female backing vocals. Front man Roddy Woomble has a Dickensian name and a husky depth to his voice, sounding at once weary and inspired. Although singing about America, there’s a Celtic undertone to the music, which only accentuates (to me, anyway) a clear echo of the old Horslips song “The Man Who Built America.” Anyone else with me on that? Okay, never mind. In the meantime, I love the “couldn’t/wouldn’t/shouldn’t have” business here (first heard around 0:36)—it’s a sly but definitive hook, grabbing the ear and anchoring the song between the verse and the chorus. Check out also the slow but steady way the song develops an almost Springsteen-esque sort of spaciousness, complete with a new, wordless vocal melody introduced in the coda (3:20).
Although they have churned through bass players and second guitarists a bit, Idlewild’s core of Woomble, lead guitarist Rod Jones, and drummer Colin Newton have been together since 1995, during which time the band has evolved from being neophyte, punk-ish Fugazi wannabes into full-fledged musicians with a warm, nimble sound. “Younger Than America” is the lead track on Post Electric Blues, an album released last year in the UK and last week here in the US, by the Nice Music Group. The album was in fact initially available as a free download, and you can still hear the whole thing on the band’s site. MP3 via Insound. Note that this is a direct download, but the song will not play in the Fingertips player because of how Insound links to its MP3s.
And speaking of reverb, well, here you are. Camera Obscura has built a sturdy sound around a spacious, melancholy reverb, affecting not just lead singer Tracyanne Campbell’s voice but, it seems, the entire rest of the band as well. Combine this with a knack for nostalgic beats and bittersweet lyrics and we end up pretty much suffused with a happy kind of sadness that only certain kinds of pop songs can deliver. This one carries an extra bonus ironic twist, as the song’s narrator, contrary to all musical cues, insists by the end that she will not be sad again. As the extra bonus ironic saying goes, good luck with that.
The (reverbed) keyboard motif that launches the song and recurs throughout is the spine which supports the whole–ongoing, upward-yearning octaves and near octaves that can almost sound optimistic if you’re not listening carefully, and against which Campbell’s disconsolate purr feels particularly star-crossed. Pianist Carey Lander is apparently playing ABBA’s piano on this track, which seems to me another ironic touch, another way the band is playing with bubblegummy nostalgia but finding their own present-day substance in the process.
“My Maudlin Career” is the title track to the fourth Camera Obscura album, due out next month on 4AD Records (this will be the band’s fourth record label in four tries). MP3 via the band’s site.
“R + J” – Chris Flew
Does the world need another song about Romeo and Juliet? I wouldn’t have thought so. (Chris Flew himself probably didn’t think so; note the sly non-reference of the title.) And yet when a songwriter hits melodic pay dirt like Flew does with this stripped-down beauty, well, what the heck, one more musical Romeo and Juliet reference can’t hurt.
So maybe I’m a sucker for a simple melody but tell me this one doesn’t reach deep inside you also. And it comes at us right at the beginning: “I tried to understand as I touched your hand/What went wrong today?” A couple of ascending lines, describing a third interval, then the descending line that heads one further note down (to the word “wrong”), setting up the four-interval upward leap (from “wrong” to “today”). Simple, but awesome—it tugs at the heart, and sticks in the head. Building upon that rock-solid start, “R + J” proceeds from there with grace and inevitability. While the acoustic guitar strum remains at its core, Flew adds an evocative violin (probably better called a fiddle in this environment) and a distant lap steel guitar. No percussion used, or required. The lyrics may veer occasionally towards the obvious but Flew means well, and that affecting melody keeps returning and reaffirming the song’s strength.
Chris Flew is a Glaswegian singer/songwriter—that is, from Glasgow, Scotland, but don’t you like the word Glaswegian? More cities should have singular words for their residents, I say. “R + J” is from Flew’s most recent CD Kingston Bridge, self-released in 2006 and scheduled for a re-release this winter. Flew is currently working on a new CD.
MP3 via Flew’s web site.