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Thursday, December 8, 2011

”You bring the ocean/I bring the motion/Together we make a love potion”; yes, really!


Heartless Bastards

“PARTED WAYS” – HEARTLESS BASTARDS

Flaunting a compact, muscular sound, the Cincinnati-born Bastards, now residing in Austin, have a timeless air about them. This is rock’n'roll as if the internet not only never happened but wasn’t even supposed to. And yet I like how unnostalgic they still manage to sound, via sheer presence: the rumbling drumbeat, the unadulterated guitar lines, and, at the center, mighty Erica Wennerstrom, who can make your heart skip a beat if you listen too closely. Whatever she’s doing, more singers should do it. Or: would if they could.
As befitting the title, “Parted Ways” is really two songs that kind of move through each other and then separate. The first half is launched by the easy charm of the verse, with its ambling, descending melody and its seamless connection to the upward-oriented chorus. Punctuated by some Stones-worthy rhythm guitar playing, that fluent shift to the chorus (first heard at 0:31) really settles the ear; when it comes up again at 1:32, it seems newly powerful and true. As it turns out, there appear to be dualing choruses—the previously mentioned one that segues out of the verse, and then a succeeding one, beginning with the words “Out in space, I’m a long way from home” (first heard at 0:46), with a slower melody and a suspended sense of rhythm. The second chorus eventually takes the song over and moves it into a more expansive, jam-like (but not jam-band-like) space. An instrumental section modulates into an augmented version of chorus number two and then, at 3:32, we get a new vocal section with a loose, chuggy feeling that sounds like Wennerstrom doing a vocal solo the way she, as a guitarist, takes a guitar solo. Which she then in fact does as well. She is no slouch in that regard either.
Heartless Bastards were formed in Cincinnati in 2003. For most of its performing life the band has been a trio. A second guitarist (Wennerstrom has been the lead) was recently added; the band’s forthcoming album, The Arrow, will be its first as a quartet. It was produced by Spoon’s Jim Eno and is due out in February on Partisan Records. MP3 via Rolling Stone. This is the Bastards’ third appearance on Fingertips, with previous reviews in 2005 and 2006.
Family of the Year

“ST. CROIX” – FAMILY OF THE YEAR

Spacious and glistening, “St. Croix” appears as a burst of lemony sunshine on what may be a rather cold and/or dreary day where you are, depending on your hemisphere and latitude. Not to mention attitude. In any case, “St. Croix,” mood-wise, is all swift, swaying sweetness, nailed together with one memorable, signature guitar riff. To the extent that the central lyrics might stand out as rather gooey—”You bring the ocean/I bring the motion/Together we make a love potion”; yes, really!—I can assure you they come to us purposefully, and playfully.
Because as it turns out, everything about this song seeks first to evoke a blurrily-recalled pop era—it’s kind of ’60s, kind of ’70s, without pinning itself down—and second, well, to razz it, ever so humanely. It’s all very post-postmodern; the approach is no longer ironic, but embracing: they’re laughing with the music, not at it. And gently! The band sprinkles the humor around the edges, where it barely intrudes, so as not to disturb those who want or need to hear “St. Croix” as a straightforward romp in the sun. But from the opening bongos to the very suspicious single-syllable “oh!” that peppers each verse but once (in addition to one “cell phone!”) to the aforementioned signature riff, which is both super-delightful and rather silly (running up and down an octave as if bounding a flight of rubbery, jangly steps) to the “uh-oh, the batteries are dying” ending, “St. Croix” cruises along with a smile both of joy and comedy. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.
Family of the Year is a quartet based in Los Angeles. “St. Croix” is the title track to the band’s second EP. A second full-length album, Diversity, is scheduled for early 2012. Both releases are via tinyOGRE Entertainment. The MP3 comes to us from Magnet Magazine.
Barry Adamson

“DESTINATION” – BARRY ADAMSON

Melody has a built-in grace. This is why it works so well with allies—such as volume and density and drive—that do not have any inherent grace at all. Not to say that there is anything wrong with a song that is simply and only beautiful. But in the long run I believe we are enhanced by juxtapositions, blends, syntheses. Note for instance in your own lives how the most interesting people you know are likely those willing to roam beyond the comforts of one well-worn path. Songs can be the same way.
“Destination” is thick and gnarly from the get-go, and Adamson, a refugee from the heart of the U.K. post-punk scene, initially adds his portentous baritone in a speak-singing mode that magnifies the overall murk. But: you can hear the croon in his voice aching to get out at the end of each line, can’t you? And he unfurls it at last at 0:49; and now, without being quite sure how we got here, we are in the middle of a fabulous melody. Adamson has a deep, reverberant voice but he keeps things moving, avoiding the trap voices such as his often fall into in which they kind of wallow in their own richness. The vibe is brisk and crisp; we lose now the buzzing guitar and get a rollicking piano in its place. The piano, half-crazed, kind of steals the show shortly thereafter. It’s not where I expected the song to go but I like it. A lead guitar wrestles the spotlight the next time the chorus sweeps through but the piano returns to accompany the dense instrumental coda that closes out this oddly satisfying composition.
Adamson was bass player in the seminal British band Magazine through both its four original years and also in the 21st-century reunion (although he left the band before it recorded its long-awaited fifth album, this year). He played briefly in the Buzzcocks as well, and landed in the Bad Seeds with Nick Cave for a few years in the mid-’80s. Adamson released the first of eight smokey, adventurous solo albums in 1988 and has also worked since then on a number of film soundtracks. “Destination” is the first available track for an as-yet unnamed album set for release in 2012. MP3 once again via the resourceful Magnet Magazine.
Jennifer O’Connor is something of a poster child for the idea of a 21st-century singer/songwriter. Down-to-earth and hands-on, she is both musician and record company operator, both a highly regarded artist and an all too easily disregarded player in the terminally over-populated world of independent troubadours. As such, she is the kind of person who pundits insist should be exploiting our social-media-fixated world to her own artistic benefit on the one hand, while on the other hand being the kind of person hard-pressed to make a working wage in an age of guilt-free free music.
Her song “Already Gone” was featured here last month; she also graced these pages back in 2005. Her fine new album, I Want What You Want, was released in November on her own label, Kiam Records—which is, we should note, an actual working record label with other artists on the roster. As such, she is in a particularly good position to be discussing the state of the industry here in the digital age.


Jennifer O'Connor

Q: Let’s cut to the chase: how do you as a musician cope with the apparent fact that not everybody seems to want to pay for digital music? Do you think recorded music is destined to be free, as some of the pundits insist?
A: It does seem that we are moving more and more in that direction, doesn’t it? Where eventually all records (digitally anyway) will just be free. How do I cope with it? Well, I think you have to just embrace it because there’s no stopping it. I just released a record digitally and it’s available on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, and Bandcamp with a pay what you wish, low-minimum deal. I don’t think you can stop people from sharing music (nor do I think you should try to). I’m also selling a limited-edition CD that is pretty personalized and I know that people who are really fans will seek that out. I know because I do that for the music that I really love. I think all of the music business these days is just a race to see who can adapt the quickest and also just keep in the game. I know a lot of people are up in arms about Spotify but I think it is a really great, smart tool. I use it to check out bands I’m not familiar with. If they are worth my money and it’s something I will want to listen to repeatedly, I will go out and buy their record, no question.

Q: What do you think of the idea that music is destined for the “cloud”?
A: The whole cloud thing is weird to me. Music is personal and I like to own my records. I guess the cloud is like a lending library which I suppose is cool as a supplement, but I don’t think it can replace the notion of having a music collection that you own. You say that music fans won’t “need” to own the music they like any longer—but I think that many (myself included), will still want to. At least I hope so.

Q: How has your life as a musician been affected—or not—by the existence of music blogs?
A: Commenters on blogs can be a real drag, but I try not to pay too much attention to that stuff anymore. I think there is room for both old-style music criticism and blog writing and there is certainly quality and its opposite in both.

Q: What are your thoughts about the album as a musical entity—does it still strike you as a legitimate means of expression? If listeners are cherry-picking and shuffling and so forth, how does that affect you as a musician, if at all?
A: It doesn’t affect me as a musician. I still make albums. The album as an art form is still relevant and important and necessary. To me. And I know there are other folks (though the number may be dwindling) who feel the same way. I give a lot of thought to song order, transition, flow, etc. That being said, I’m also a songwriter, with an emphasis on “the song”, so I’d like to think that the individual tracks can stand alone, or they have no business being on the record. So, either way, you win.:)

Q: There is clearly way more music available for people to listen to these days than there ever used to be. How do you as a musician cope with the reality of an over-saturated market, to put it both economically and bluntly?
A: This is actually something I have thought a great deal about in the last few years. It can feel overwhelming. It’s hard to wade through all of the music as a listener and music fan for sure. And it is kind of rare that I hear something that really strikes me. As a musician and writer, I think what I’ve come to is that I can’t let that type of issue concern me. I just want to keep writing songs, doing what I do, getting better at it hopefully with each record. There is a ton of music out there yes, but there is not a ton of great music. I think great music will be recognized as such. Even if it isn’t in terms of money or tremendous record sales. The vast majority of musicians don’t really make money from record sales anyway—they make it from music licensing or touring. Of course there is a great deal of competition in those arenas as well. So depending on what part of my personality (musician, writer, or business person) is dominant on any given day—I guess that determines whether I’m thinking about it or ignoring it. It’s tricky and I would be the first to admit that I don’t have it all figured out.
Sharon Van Etten

“SERPENTS” – SHARON VAN ETTEN

Tough and controlled but also ever so slightly unhinged, “Serpents” slays me from start to finish. The intro is all guitars, an ideal combination of drone and drive, with an unresolved chord at the center. (And I have established my predilection for intros with unresolved chords.) Keep a particular ear on the lonesome slide guitar (played by Aaron Dessner, of the National) that leads directly into the verse at 0:22, with a slurred, two-note refrain. The refrain recurs throughout the song as a kind of bittersweet anchor, a classic-rock gesture boiled and condensed into an indie-rock leitmotif.
And then Van Etten enters and she hasn’t opened her mouth for more than five seconds and she’s nailing everything. Listen to how she sings the first line, “It was a close call,” dragging the word “call” in the subtlest way, not through different notes as much as through different shapes. And then, in the next line, the way the melody jerks unexpectedly upward and forward twice in the phrase “back of the room” is another “wow” moment disguised in nonchalance. Likewise the casual, nearly haphazard (but not really) harmonies that play out in the next line (beginning at 0:37), in and around our friend the guitar refrain, and how they—the harmonies, and the guitar refrain—lead us somehow into a sort of non-chorus chorus of surprising (but not really) intensity. With barely a moment to breathe we have been taken into a sizzling, guitar-driven drama, a kind of “Layla” for the smartphone set, the guitar riff shaved to its most essential two seconds, the sex more directly alluded to and yet, still, cleverly disguised—”You enjoy sucking on dreams,” the song’s narrator snarls, with a bit of a hesitation before the word “dreams”; she shortly thereafter finishes the line “You would take me” with the word “seriously,” also after a meaningful delay. Soon the upward-gliding guitar refrain has found a new home one octave further up, where it’s more of a wail, but still hasn’t found what it’s looking for. But I have found one of my favorite MP3s of the year.
“Serpents” is from Van Etten’s forthcoming album Tramp, her third, which will arrive in February. Note that Van Etten is backed here by some serious talent, including another Dessner (Bryce) on guitar, Matt Barrick (The Walkmen) on drums, and Wye Oak’s mighty Jenn Wasner on vocals. The album will be her first for the estimable indie label Jagjaguwar Records; MP3 via Jagjaguwar.

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