“Strangers” opens with a burst of happy wordless vocals (choosing the especially giddy “ba-ba-ba” over the more noncommittal “la-la-la”), right away informing us of its good-natured intentions.
Year by 21st-century year I am increasingly discouraged by our collective inability to discern good-catchy (based on effective/surprising melody) from bad-catchy (based on annoying, often shout-y repetition)—and, I suppose the greater affliction, our apparent preference for the bad-catchy. I do understand that bad-catchy is far easier to concoct and that today’s pop-oriented songwriters and producers, perceiving that virality is unrelated to quality, find bad-catchy better suited to their purposes.
Well, boo to all of them, but hooray for the astutely good-catchy “Strangers,” from the Los Angeles-based trio The Rebel Light. While sounding entirely of the 2014 moment, “Strangers” thrums with warmth and joy in a way that far too much of today’s indie pop has abandoned in favor of technology and analytics. As such, I’ll wager that this song will sound as fresh to future ears as most of 2014’s YouTube fodder will sound stale and uninteresting not that many years from now.
With a thumpy, head-bobbing core, “Strangers” opens with a burst of happy wordless vocals (choosing the especially giddy “ba-ba-ba” over the more noncommittal “la-la-la”), right away informing us of its good-natured intentions. While displaying moments of near-minimal accompaniment, the song works almost surreptitiously to add layers of aural interest as things unfold—squally electronics, hand-claps, an undercover disco beat, cowbell, acoustic guitar, a capella break, we get a little bit of everything stitched ably together into a pop-perfect 3:25 length. And at the heart of this catchy song is (of course) a super catchy chorus, featuring one of those great, inevitable-sounding melodies that good-catchy songs so often have. While easy to learn and sing along with, the chorus’s melody delivers extra oomph via the way it slides seamlessly off and on the beat. Specifically, note how each line in the chorus starts off the beat (i.e., the words “you,” “standing,” “waving,” etc.) aligns onto the beat for the middle of the line, then slips back between the beat for its three emphatic closing syllables (for instance, on the words “live this way” beginning at 0:46). I especially like when seemingly straightforward songs give us subtle little treats like that along the way.
“Strangers” is a single released by the band last month. You can download as usual via the title above, or directly from the band via SoundCloud. The band has previously released one three-song EP and one other single, both in 2013.
Sure, it was cool when rock’n’roll was younger and new forms were emerging, but it is also cool now with nearly 60 years of rock’n’roll behind us for bands to comb through it all and decide what works as a platform for their own musical expression.
With its glistening union of purposeful guitar rock and a mellifluous soprano, “Gag Reflections” gives off a welcome aroma of ’90s alternative rock (Belly, anybody? Tanya Donelly?), and okay, here’s something that the Retromania crowd refuses to understand: how brilliant it is that today’s bands have such wide-ranging, decades-spanning musical language by which to be inspired. Sure, it was cool when rock’n’roll was younger and new forms were emerging, but it is also cool now with nearly 60 years of rock’n’roll behind us for bands to comb through it all and decide what works as a platform for their own musical expression. For laughs, browse the blogosphere and note how often writers disparage a band for “not breaking any ground.” By which they mean that a given piece of music doesn’t seem to sound “new.” And yet to judge “newness” based entirely on whether it’s a new form is not only short-sighted (there’s way more to music than form, and always has been) but entirely misses the point of rock’n’roll in 2012. End of rant.
Both solidly built and subtly quirky, “Gag Reflections” begins with an odd but incisive prelude—first we hear a double-time riff, with an air of Morse-code urgency about it, then Zahira Gutierrez enters singing only the song’s title, the riff continuing, building tension, and releasing, now, into a proper intro. And quite an intro it is, with a satisfying, all but anthemic guitar line (0:22), the kind of guitar line, indeed, that rock’n’roll songs were made to be built around. And yet here, this superb guitar line feels a bit hidden—less central than slightly left-of-central, and soon overshadowed by Gutierrez’s fetching, elastic voice, which is simultaneously inviting and mysterious. She is one of those singers who can appear to sing clearly while still concealing most of the words she’s saying. And so you lean closer in. The payoff arrives at the end of the chorus, when she abandons words entirely for that angelic “oo-oo-oo” we first hear at 1:12. I love that the song’s most powerful hook is a fleeting moment, almost an afterthought, after the lyrics have ended. I also love the even higher “oo-oo-oo” Gutierrez unleashes later on (2:44), and, then, the brief but compelling guitar noise the band puts out shortly thereafter.
Wild Moccasins are a Houston-based quintet founded in 2007. Their debut album, Skin Collision Past, was self-released in 2010, and then re-released nationally in 2011 on New West Records. “Gag Reflections” is a single released in mid-July on New West.
Arriving on the indie scene in 2006 as a precocious, Nellie McKay-ish singer/songwriter/pianist, Casey Dienel has since taken on a band name (White Hinterland), a band mate (Shawn Creeden), and a new musical setting. I for one am happy to hear it, as I believe the world can use propulsive, mysterious-sounding, beat-driven but melodic electro-pop a bit more than it needs a second Nellie McKay.
Underscored by swooshing wind-like white noise, “Icarus” has a slinky sound that gains traction via the interplay between Dienel’s airy, plaintive singing style and the clattering rhythm sticks that are placed front and center in the mix. They are unavoidable there, and are thus transformed from percussive accent into full-fledged musical statement, particularly when Dienel sings the wordless refrain of “oo-oo-oohs” that functions as a chorus-like link between verses. Check out how the clacking rhythm stutters and syncopates along the way, just enough to keep your head in the game, to keep the song from fading into over-smoothness. Time passes much more quickly because the ears aren’t being lulled to sleep; every time I get to the end–at 3:47, the song is not notably short–I feel a little startled.
Born and raised in the Boston area, Dienel studied classical voice and composition at the New England Conservatory of Music before leaving to have a go as a pop musician. She is now located in Portland, Oregon. “Icarus” will be found on White Hinterland’s second album, Kairos, which is due out in March on Dead Oceans. MP3 via Dead Oceans.