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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

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Gold Leaves

“THE ORNAMENT” – GOLD LEAVES

A fetching blend of melodramatic ’60s pop and muddy ’10s indie something-or-other, “The Ornament” matches a brisk bashy pace to an introspective melody and evocative if inscrutable lyrics. There’s something Phil Spectory in the air—here an ambiguous echo of the classic Spector beat, there a reverb-enhanced ambiance that knowingly evokes the famous wall of sound. But Grant Olsen—Gold Leaves is his baby, pretty much a solo project—is not merely in retro mode. The song usurps Spectorian elements for its own idiosyncratic purposes. Listen for example to how “The Ornament” strips itself down to its drumbeat in and around the two-minute mark. Spector-produced songs are filled with dramatic drumbeats but nothing like this. The drums here, further, introduce an off-kilter section of the song that seems neither bridge nor verse and which culminates in a dramatic pause before rejoining our regularly scheduled programming.
And that’s another intriguing thing about this song. Even as it nods to a simpler sort of pop, it will not itself be pinned down to either a verse or a chorus that obviously sticks in the head. The verse seems to be divided into three sections, and the lovely turn of melody we hear in the opening lines (0:07-0:20) is never quite returned to—the next two times the song revisits that place, the main melody has been shifted up. I think what happens in a song like this is that you keep unconsciously waiting for that great early moment to return and when it never quite does you are instead led through a journey that seems at once familiar and unsettling. Olsen’s voice—a droopy tenor that’s one part Robin Pecknold, one part Ron Sexsmith—guides us through the song’s lyrical and melodic quirks most endearingly.
Olsen has previously been known to the indie world as half of the duo Arthur & Yu, which released its one album, to date, back in 2007. “The Ornament” is the title track to his debut as Gold Leaves, which will arrive on Hardly Art Records in August. MP3 via Hardly Art. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.
Haley Bonar

“RAGGEDY MAN” – HALEY BONAR

Many songs that are less than two and a half minutes are wonderful in their shortness but, at the same time, feel a bit over-short. Which is to say, it’s easy enough to wrap up a song in two minutes or so simply for the sake of punching out a short song; it’s another thing to give a short song some real oomph, to make a song that’s short in length but long in depth and feeling. With the delightful and succinct “Raggedy Man,” clocking in at 2:12, Minneapolis-based singer/songwriter Haley Bonar, sounding not unlike Neko Case’s younger sister, gives us a deft lesson in how it’s done.
Her two primary tricks are melodic. First is the straightforward but underutilized technique of using a full complement of notes. In the first ten seconds of singing she covers six of the scale’s nine tones, counting the top and bottom of the octave as two separate notes, and she ranges across the entire octave. Melodies that incorporate a majority of the notes in the scale are inherently more expansive and interesting. A short song gains substance this way. The other melodic trick is her 16-measure melody line. Most pop songs involve melodies that are no longer than eight measures, and some are just four. A 16-measure melody feels complex and leisurely, and creates the aural illusion of more time passing—another great way to expand the feel of the song.
Bonar (rhymes with “honor”) further employs some subtler structural tricks that work to counter the song’s brevity, including her use of a series of unresolved chords (beginning at 0:57) right where the ear is expecting a chorus, and her stripped-down take on the main melody when it returns at 1:29. Short songs don’t usually have the time or inclination for this kind of presentational variety. Bonar even finds the wherewithal at the end for the introduction of a new wordless melody in the last 15 seconds, providing a coda for which short songs also don’t usually have time.
“Raggedy Man” is a track from Bonar’s album Golder, which was self-released in April, and funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign. Bonar was previously featured on Fingertips in 2008. Thanks to the artist for the MP3, which Fingertips is hosting.
Bon Iver

“CALGARY” – BON IVER

When last seen around here, in October 2007, Bon Iver was the obscure, self-released solo project for a guy best known as a member of a band called DeYarmond Edison. Yeah, not many people had heard of them, either. The album was released by Jagjaguwar Records in February ’08 and then in Europe by 4AD in May. Let’s say it strikes a chord with a lot of people. Within a couple of years, the guy is in the studio with Kanye West. I can’t claim to have seen that coming.
“Calgary” opens as a benediction, Vernon blessing us with that aching falsetto, layered on top of itself, in a cathedral-like setting, with only an organ-like synthesizer as accompaniment. Percussion joins in around 1:14, centered on some rumbly tom-toms, along with an extra, twangy keyboard and some hints of a fuller band. The main melody, which repeats throughout the song, acquires a beat and a momentum that it did not hint at in the church-ish opening section. This to me is the power and delight of the song—that seamless, “how’d-he-do-that?” transition from prayer to proclamation, achieved by the very careful, if casual-seeming, entering and exiting of instruments and sounds. By the time the full band arrives in earnest around 1:53, the repeating melody has acquired a whole new kind of solemnity, a solemnity based on movement and rhythm rather than incantation. The electric guitar comes out of its shell for an itchy sort of solo at 2:23, leading into a bridge during which—don’t miss it—Vernon drops the falsetto. The song ends over an acoustic guitar that was previously hidden in the mix, giving both Vernon’s voice and the song’s melody one last iteration.
“Calgary” is the first single from the long-awaited second Bon Iver album, which is self-titled, and slated for release next week on Jagjaguwar. MP3 via the record company.
Mike Feuerstack

“SENTIMENTAL GENTLEMAN” – SNAILHOUSE

Smooth and swanky and melancholy, this wise/weary homage to the old Fleetwood Mac/Bob Welch chestnut “Sentimental Lady” is a sneakily wonderful work in its own right. I love its rubbery, lazy-afternoon vibe, sprinkled with unresolved lead-guitar chords, unhurried horns (or horn-like sounds), and some built-in applause that one can truly call a smattering. Best of all, I do believe that this song offers up an as good if not better use of the “sentimental”/”gentle” rhyme than the familiar, if rather forced, one we got oh so long ago in the Welch-penned classic.
The voice and guitar we are hearing here belongs to Mike Feuerstack, of the veteran Canadian band Wooden Stars; Snailhouse has been his lo-fi-ish side project since pretty much the same time Wooden Stars got off the ground, back in 1994. With both a slight tremble and a pleasing richness, Feuerstack’s voice emerges from his throat so effortlessly he seems merely to be talking, an effect accentuated by his wry, conversational lyrics, which seem at least in part to deal with what it’s like to be an experienced but still pretty much unknown rock’n'roller. “We lied to the promoter/Said we’re packing them in,” he asserts, dryly, along the way.
“Sentimental Gentleman” is the title track to the sixth Snailhouse album, which was released in April in Europe on Mi Amante Records, and then in May in Canada through White Whale Records and Forward Music. MP3 via Mi Amante.
Grace Jones

“SUNSET SUNRISE” – GRACE JONES

Sounding like a Marianne Faithfull for the club set, Grace Jones re-emerges as a singer after 20 years without an album release. Always somewhat ageless, not to mention androgynous, the now-63-year-old Jones pulls off this slinky, bass-driven shaker without breaking a sweat, her voice huskier and chestier than previously, her mystique unharmed for the long absence. The sheer musical presence and power of this song is a surprise and a delight, combining a sinuous playfulness with an almost oracular austerity. “Is it yours?/Is it mine?/Is it ours/To divide?” she sings, deliciously off the beat, voice vibrating with menace and experience. Grace Jones remains a trip.
Jones was always as much a visual artist as an aural one; the flat-top haircut and angular clothing she favored became quickly iconic in her new-wave era heyday; that she was both an early MTV favorite and a cartoon-ish silver screen villain is no surprise, and no one should underestimate how much a certain present-day pop star, with the fake name and the outlandish costumes, owes her act to the pioneering Jones. But here’s a big difference: Jones pulls off her persona by seeming genuinely odd, not to mention authentically bad-ass. Everyone who has followed her seems instead to be purposefully setting out to be odd, as if checking off a qualification on a resume. Not the same thing.
I mean, just take a look at this video, for the song “Corporate Cannibal,” which, like “Sunset Sunrise,” comes from the forthcoming album Hurricane. Crazy, yes? But also almost beautiful. In a trippy kind of way. Hurricane has actually been out since late 2008, but had only previously been offered up in Europe. It finally gets a U.S. release in September, via PIAS America.



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