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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

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Nels Andrews

“BARROOM BARDS” – NELS ANDREWS

A wistful 3/4-time shuffle with mysterious narrative force, effortless melody, and a cumulative intensity. Bearing an attractive vocal and stylistic resemblance to Michael Penn, Andrews sings with the kind of offhand command not as common as it ideally should be—durable, concrete words flow from his mouth on top of crisply arranged textures via a strong descending melody; he’s afraid of neither putting his voice front and center nor of giving us many other agreeable sounds to listen to. I especially like the interplay between the mandolin and the electric guitar, which are not ordinarily instruments that seem to nod too specifically in the direction of one another. Here they both add thoughtfully to the underlying acoustic guitar strum; this feels less like mere accompaniment than orchestrated composition.
And this is another one of those songs that does not reveal itself to me in terms of narrative, no matter how many times I listen. I either can’t figure out who Poor Sweet William is and what he’s done or maybe I just don’t want to; there’s a part of me that craves the spellbinding versus the manifest. Andrews’ clear baritone and his often arresting word choice (I love: “I grew long then cut off my hair”) are all that I need.
“Barroom Bards” is a song from the album Scrimshaw, Andrews’ third, due out this month in the US. The Santa Cruz-based Andrews has for some reason had much more success in Europe than the US to date; the album has been out there since this past spring, and garnered fine notices.Scrimshaw was produced by Todd Sickafoose, who has worked previously with Andrew Bird, Ani DiFranco, and Anaïs Mitchell, among others. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.
Elise Vatsvaag

“AFTER THE STORM” – ELISE VATSVAAG

This song was nearly featured last week, but it didn’t fit in the mix quite right so I put it aside for a week and now look.
Sparse and elegiac, “After the Storm” uses what sounds like a full-fledged string quartet to generate volume and intensity in a song that otherwise secures its power from restraint and sweetness. After the real-life storm that affected so many people in the Eastern U.S. last week, we can all use a bit of restraint and sweetness.
Nothing has ever been this clear before
After the storm I have no fear at all
No fear at all

Vatsvaag is Norwegian and while her lyrics occasionally betray a non-native-speaker’s tentative syntax, the overall effect, almost counter-intuitively, is one of poignant authenticity. She sings with a clear tone but also without much sustain (i.e., she doesn’t hold her sung notes for long), which lends a soft-spoken intimacy to her delivery. The song has a traditional structure—verse, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, repeat with bridge—but her tender, affecting melodies expand gently beyond the typical eight measures in the pre-chorus and again in the chorus, which then melts into the instrumental tumult provided by the strings. This shows yet again that a song cannot be reduced merely to its words, and that it’s almost always the subtle musical effects rather than simply a turn of phrase that sends the impact of a song from the head to the heart.
Vatsvaag has been releasing a series of free to download songs throughout 2012. The first four were then gathered, earlier this year, into an EP called This Is Not My Music #1; after the second four have been released (song number 8 arrives later this month), This Is Not My Music #2 will be released. “After the Storm” was the seventh song, released in October.


photo credit: Erik Sæter Jørgensen
dEUS

“GHOSTS” – DEUS

No-nonsense rock’n'roll, both hard-driving and catchy, and yet too with an almost gracious sense of purpose. The opening keyboard riff sounds like a regular old piano, and gives the song an old-school swing that brings to mind the kind of radio-friendly rock made in the ’60s that was not itself Motown but existed only because Motown existed, if that makes sense.
And yet “Ghosts” is hardly a nostalgia trip; the feeling is more timeless than retro, more hybrid than homage. Front man Tom Barman speak-sings the verse in a way that both grabs the ear and fully informs you that he is not a rapper. (I don’t mean that as a criticism, just as an observation that rock singers have a particular way of speak-singing lyrics that is its own kind of thing.) The speak-singing interrupts the flow created by the catchy keyboard riff, drawing the song in on itself, creating both tension and anticipation—it is only a matter of time before that piano line returns, and when it does it finds itself in the center of the chorus, as much a part of the hook as the actual melody. The song’s last two minutes—right after the line “So chase the ghosts away ’til they’re gone”—crank up the drama and the noise as the band tips its hat more directly to its roots as an experimental outfit influenced by the likes of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. (I like the “hoo! hah!”—but sometimes also just “hoo!”—exclamations that now begin to interject into the proceedings.) And then everything just stops as if accidentally deleted.
Based in Antwerp, Belgium, dEUS was founded way back in 1991, but has recorded only seven studio albums to date, including two in the last two years. The only other remaining original member besides Barman is Klaas Janszoons, who plays keyboards and violin. The band, complete with its odd typography, remains relatively unknown in the U.S.; their records have only been sporadically released here. “Ghosts” is from the album Keep You Close, which came out a year ago in Europe. That album and 2012′s Following Sea were both released in the U.S. for the first time this fall, on the label [PIAS] America.
Allo Darlin'

“NORTHERN LIGHTS” – ALLO DARLIN’

Brisk and jangly, “Northern Lights” appears indeed to move too quickly for its own lyrics, as sweet-voiced Elizabeth Morris has repeatedly to squeeze extra syllables into tight aural spaces. The effect is somehow fetching. Listen, for example, to how she sings “suddenly came apart” (0:43), or how she handles the opening part of the lyric “And it makes me feel so alive” (1:09). The melodies, meanwhile, with their mid-stride minor-key modulations, have an undertow of wistfulness about them.
The song’s musical and lyrical fulcrum, to my ears, is the chorus lyric “This is the year we’ll make it right,” first heard at 1:12. The chorus presents us with a speedy gallop through a repeatedly descending, vaguely Christmasy melody line, its first two lines covering the same basic interval in such a way that the second line is subtly accentuated. The second time we get to the first two lines, in the second half of the chorus (is anyone still with me??), this moment feels extra-accentuated. And this is where we are when we get to “This is the year we’ll make it right.” And wouldn’t you know that everything else, moving forward, about the song—the “wait for me!” pace, the sweet-voiced singer expressing hopes and dreams, the lower-register guitar melody (consciously or not echoing the Blondie classic “Dreaming” starting at 1:23)—pretty much says hmm this also may not be the year you’re going to make it right. But, you can keep dreaming. (As luck would have it, Blondie will yet have the last word this week; see below.)
Allo Darlin’ is a London-based four-person band split between Brits and Aussies. “Northern Lights” is the third single from the band’s second album, Europe, which was released back in May on Slumberland Records, but the first I’ve found as a free and legal MP3. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead. You can download the song via the title above, or at the record company’sSoundCloud page. The band was featured previously here in October 2010. The three gentlemen in the band are still wearing the same shirts.
Chamberlin

“YOU CAN CALL ME AL” – CHAMBERLIN

So it seems that Chamberlin guitarist Ethan West was driving down the New Jersey Turnpike one day, not exactly in the best mood, and heard Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” on the radio and was struck all of a sudden by how strange and brooding the lyrics are, despite the upbeat vibe of the music. He and the band, with a history of covering unexpected songs, decided to try to rearrange the things accordingly. And boy do they. These guys kill right away with their conversion of the original’s bouncy synthesizer riff into a wailing guitar (0:13), distilling Simon’s four full, cheerful iterations into a lead line that takes us through the motif just one and a half times, leaving us edgy and unresolved. Singer Mark Daly dives into the lyrics—previously sung so drolly by Simon—with a moody disquiet, sounding like an outtake from the first Counting Crows record.
Everything falls into place from there; this version has an instant, enviable inevitability about it. I love the effortless tension the band introduces in the chorus, as the familiar but still inscrutable line “If you’ll be my bodyguard/I can be your long-lost pal” is sung not with a wink and a skip as Simon did it but with a kind of harrowing plea (starting at 1:08), as a gathering drum beat sets up a stretching out of the word “long” that mirrors the original but in an utterly transformed context and culminates in the return of the central instrumental motif, now an unmitigated howl. Don’t miss as well how the band converts Simon’s cheerful “na-na-na-na” break into a slowed-down, cleared-out instrumental in which the percussive bass line in the original becomes a ghostly, intermittent clatter of drum sticks. If everyone affected cover songs with this much skill, no new songs might ever more have to be written.
Chamberlin is a five-man band from Vermont that was founded in 2010. They have released one album and two EPs to date, the most recent release being their Look What I’ve Become EP, which came out in September. “You Can Call Me Al” is a separate song, newly released. Thanks to the band for the MP3. You can download above the usual way, or visit the band’s SoundCloud page for streaming and/or downloading and/or commenting directly to the band. Be sure also to check out the band’s web page, where you can listen to the entire EP, download a song from it, and find tour dates for its fall tour, just underway.

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