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Thursday, March 31, 2011

This Weeks Fingertips picks...

The Unthanks


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 “love” 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.
TV on the Radio


Alternating between a stompy, fuzz-tinged verse and a silky groove of a chorus, “Caffeinated Consciousness” may well be aiming to reproduce the very feel of being juiced on caffeine: there’s the oh-wow-hey-pay-attention part and then there’s the I’m-just-gliding-along-as-smooth-as-can-be part. And they kind of fit together and kind of don’t.
In any case, it’s a curiously addictive vibe. As soon as the ear gets tired of the harsh, riff-heavy, sample-fueled first part, we slip with relief into the groovy second part, with its happy blend of mellow-funky guitars and pipe-organ-y synthesizers. When that gets maybe too easy-going (I’m wired, man, I need to bust up something), squonk we go, back into the noise. But it’s kind of a happy noise in its own way—”I’m optimistic!” sing/shouts Tunde Adebimpe, over a delightfully rubbery bass and (wait for it; it’s in the second half of the verse, not the first) a stuttery, metallic, low-register guitar melody that (okay, maybe I’m hearing things) wouldn’t sound out of place on a Grateful Dead record.
TV on the Radio has been doing musical business out of Brooklyn since way back in 2001. They were one of the earlier bands featured here on Fingertips, in 2003, for a song off their first EP called “Staring at the Sun,” back when they were still a duo. (And hey, it’s still available!) They are five men strong these days. “Caffeinated Consciousness” is a track off the album Nine Types of Light, the band’s fourth full-length, due out in April on Interscope. MP3 via Magnet Magazine.
The Ladybug Transistor


Always with a vaguely nostalgic sound, The Ladybug Transistor by now operates kind of meta-nostalgically, since the band itself dates back to an completely different musical age—born out of the Elephant Six Collective in 1995: pre-Napster, pre-MP3, very nearly pre-WWW. They disappear for such long stretches at a time that I’d pretty much forgotten what an appealing sound they have, all sad-sprightly and ’60s-pop-influenced. Belle & Sebastian comes to mind also; although different bands in many ways, there’s a common vibe, both atmospherically and melodically, between this Brooklyn ensemble and Stuart Murdoch’s Scottish gang. Both bands offer up a powerful kind of nostalgia that remains somehow, also, both of-the-moment and timeless.
What has me in love with this song in general is the juxtaposition of the rapid pace and the melancholy air, which is not a natural combination. The song’s fleetness also disguises its unusual construction: it seems to be built around a meandering, two-tiered chorus, without any otherwise repeating element in the song. I don’t hear a verse. What has me in love with this song in particular is the aforementioned chorus, which stretches beyond something simple and immediately singable, accumulating a quiet sort of grandeur as we are led to a truly wonderful melodic moment: front man Gary Olson singing, “And now that I’m not/It’s all coming apart” (first heard at 1:07). This is worth the price of admission. More goodness: the striking titular image, which implies an entire story in those two concrete words.
Always something of a free-floating outfit, the Ladybug Transistor has experienced any number of lineup changes over the years. One of them was tragic, as drummer San Fadyl, on board since 1997, died of an asthma attack in April 2007. The band has not recorded since then, until now. (Their last album, released in June 2007, had been recorded with Fadyl.) Three new members have joined three LT veterans; the end result is Clutching Stems, due out on Merge Records in June. The band was previously been featured in 2003 and 2007. MP3 via Merge.

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