Play Some New Music to Help You Forget the Tax Man Ever Cameth

April 14, 2009

in Musical Musings

I hate to admit it, but I have been suppressing my new-music-buying passion. Maybe it’s the economy, or maybe just the wintry Mid-Atlantic spring weather, but I’ve been reluctant lately to go on an iTunes shopping spree, or even thumb through the racks at the local Borders or Best Buy.

It’s certainly not due to a lack of desire — there are many new releases I would like to put my hands and ears on. For instance, I still haven’t gotten Neko Case’s latest, which I’ve heard online and now want to own, or the new full-lengths from A. C. Newman, Robyn Hitchcock, U2, The Decemberists, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Gomez, Silversun Pickups, and Peter, Bjorn and John, to name a few.

Perhaps it’s this bout of “shopper’s block” that has caused me to indulge my musical whims in other ways recently (which I’ve chronicled here and here, for example). Or maybe it’s some sort of psychic malady, a type of avoidance behavior or something. I dunno.

I can tell you one thing, though — and this is far worse — only one song has been playing constantly in my head over these last two weeks — “Taxman.” And that’s so not a good thing, and not just because I dislike The Beatles. An earworm of that magnitude is an equal opportunity mood killer.

All of this is to say that, for this week’s post, the best I can do is to pick up from where I left off a couple of months ago (which was really a continuation of what I wrote last fall). Although I have made few new purchases, I’ve nonetheless been accumulating songs, either for free via an email or podcast subscription, or by slogging through music blogs. Most of what I’ve picked up and listened to I’ve liked and can recommend to you, realizing that it’s probably music by groups you have never heard of. (And, since it’s mostly free, you can afford to disagree with me.)

And maybe that’s my calling after all. I’ll let the big guys pontificate about the big-name releases, while I sit here (on my leaky piggy-bank) and offer up suggestions for free songs by relative no-names that I’m willing to bet will quickly top your list of get-to-know names.

So here you go, in (almost) alphabetical order, a hodgepodge of new must-have recordings — some I knew about and decided I must have more right away; some I am still discovering and plan to pursue soon; and some that were complete surprises and highly recommend — along with some thoughts on who or what they sound like, in case that helps. Be sure you click on the links to stream or download the songs.

(Note: I got a little too enthusiastic this go-round, and my list quickly became too long, so I’m posting it in two parts. The second installment will appear at the end of this week, so please check back.)

Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavillion. First, I want to take back my previous statement (briefly) and say something about the dazzling new record from this former Maryland-based trio, for three reasons — it’s one of the only full-lengths I’ve purchased in the past 45 days or so; I listen to it constantly; and I like it so much I will admit that I was wrong to delay buying it because of all the hype (never listen to critics). It really does stand up to everything that’s been said, and I’m not trying to exaggerate. In some ways, it’s like everything that’s come before it, and yet it’s completely unlike anything out there. Admittedly I was a little perplexed at first, but after several plays (and this is key — with headphones on) I began to understand why it’s been so popular, and hard to pin down. Imagine Tangerine Dream, The Beach Boys, David Byrne, and Kate Bush getting together to remake Paul Simon’s Graceland. But that’s too limiting, because so much is going on here — I can hear traces of ’80s synth-pop (ELO, Supertramp, and Genesis) in there, along with everything from Vampire Weekend to early Pink Floyd, Blue Man Group, Mogwai, and Midnight Oil, as well as a range of musical influences, including tribal music, gospel, disco, reggae and reggaeton, metal, noise-rock, and lots of indescribable ambient sounds. You’ve got to play it — or at least such cuts as “In the Flowers,” “My Girls,” “Summertime Clothes,” “Taste,” and “Lion in a Coma” — to hear what I’m talking about. And maybe my foot-dragging was fortuitous — this record, though released in the winter, is going to be my favorite soundtrack for hot summer afternoons.

Alexandra Hope, “Whatever You Want,” Invisible Sunday. This song delivers a somewhat incongruous mix of genres — on the surface a shimmery, tinkly-piano Motown beat, complete with doo-wop girl group vocals (think “Mr. Postman”), while a slow, reverb-laden, fuzz-guitar riff (ringing from the amps of a 90′s garage-band “grrl” group like The Breeders) simmers underneath — creating tension that is palpable and infectious.

Angus & Julia Stone, “Just a Boy,” A Book Like This. Here’s an original idea: take two musicians, male and female, get them to sing in harmony and play gently on guitars, piano and drums, and you’ve got a hit. OK, so not a novel concept, I know, but these two Aussie siblings are no novelty act, either. With their lush harmonies, warm acoustics, brushy percussion, and smart lyrics, this duo stand shoulder to shoulder with their Contemporary Music contemporaries, like The Weepies, KaiserCartel, and The Sundays.

Asobi Seksu, “Layers,” Hush. An aptly titled release (both the single and the LP) for these Brooklynites, who have toned down their signature wall-of-guitar sound and amped-up the keyboards and organs, while raising the levels on singer Yuki Chikudate’s angelic voice(s), to heighten the dreamy, shoegazing drama of an ever-evolving band.

Bishop Allen, “The Ancient Commonsense of Things,” Grrr… . For their third release, the core duo of Justin Rice and Christian Rudder have returned to the basics — guitar, bass, drums — adding only enough instrumentation (plucky or swirling strings, vibes, mandolin, etc.) to enhance or accent the melodies without jeopardizing the stripped-down feel of their earlier songs. Also check out the bright “Dimmer.”

BLK JKS, “Lakeside,” Mystery. This is another band that evokes the “where have you been all my life?” response. Except for what I’ve read here, I know very little about these guys, whose sound mix is a mish-mash of differing often seemingly incongruous tempos, rhythms, vocals, and instruments — think Peter Gabriel meets Soundgarden. I’ve only heard “Lakeside,” but it makes me want to encounter all the many sides of this band.

Born Anchors, “In Disguise,” Sprezzatura. With its raw, angular guitar licks, plaintive vocals, and anthemic drum pounding, this song is a page torn right out of U2′s early songbook, with some heavy post-punk influences, from the likes of The Pixies or Bloc Party, peeking out from behind the mask.

BrakesBrakesBrakes, “Two Shocks,” Touchdown. Despite its cloying, stylized British mannerisms and surreal lyrics (think Syd Barrett or Nick Drake), I’m surprised I can’t get enough of this song, especially its hypnotic melody and Who-like cacophonous ending.

Clem Snide, “Me No,” Hungry Bird. Reunited for the second (or possibly third) time, this fickle band lead by the prickly Eef Barzelay, has come back stronger, a little edgier, with more intensity, passion and clear-eyed lyricism, all in support of the same old genius melody-making. Having only heard this mid-tempo, angstful tune, I found myself hungry for more, saying “me, yes.”

Dan Auerbach, “I Want Some More,” Keep It Hid. Rather than venturing away from the raw, rootsy, blues-heavy rock that he cranks out with his two-piece, The Black Keys, Auerbach has expanded his sound on this debut solo recording by adding more musicians and revealing his funkier, more soulful singer/songwriter side. You’ll want more, too.

El Goodo, “Be My Girl,” Coyote. This is one of the groups that were unable to play on the final day of Woodstock — precisely because none of the members had been born yet. Their song’s youthful, beat-driven pop sound is joyously old-school imitative — a bit like Beck doing a cover of an unknown song by The Dave Clark Five — and it will make you glad all over.

Eleni Mandell, “It Wasn’t the Time (It Was the Color),” Artificial Fire. Mandell’s plaintive, smoky vocals (a raspier Emmy Lou Harris?) here play counterpoint to the quiet electric-guitar arpeggios, sort of like a female version of Bono at his most unforgettable fiery. But about two-thirds through the marshaling drums suddenly burst into a crescendo of crashing guitar chords and a jarring, melodic solo that sears it all.

Flight of the Conchords, “Carol Brown,” Singles. The two hapless Kiwis are back with new songs from the second season of their eponymous TV show, and this is one of the least faux-funky and funniest: a mocking reversal of the “50 Ways … ” motif, basically a loser’s list of loves lost, and nothing I write can do justice to the masterful arrangement, the flawless, airy samba, or Jemaine’s deadpan delivery of the witty lyrics — “Jen said she’d never ever see me again, then when I saw her again, she said it again,” or “Flo had to go, I couldn’t go with the Flo,” or “Mona, you said you were in a coma,” etc. I also like the wickedly humorous “Angels.”

Laura Gibson, “Spirited,” Beasts of Season. Singer-songwriter Laura Gibson has a voice reminiscent of Regina Spektor’s, in both timbre and inflection. But it’s her steady, upbeat pace and fuller instrumentation that make this song unique and, well, a little more spirited.

Harlem Shakes, “Strictly Game,” Technicolor Health. This song is full of the same swinging, bouncy world-pop energy made famous by the band’s better-known Brooklyn neighbor, Vampire Weekend. But there’s a looser instrumentation here that helps shake out the Shakes’ sound, making them seem like they’re having more fun.

Heartless Bastards, “The Mountain,” The Mountain. Sometimes all you need (OK, all I need) is some pounding drums, a solid bass line, some upfront guitars (power chords and soaring leads), and a female singer who can wail like Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. It’s insurmountable.

Here We Go Magic, “Fangela,” Here We Go Magic. This song, by a young Brooklyn-based “band” (actually just singer Luke Temple, with four friends who help when playing live), provides a delightfully frothy concoction of acoustic guitar strumming, offbeat rhythms, and spacey dance-club dubs, that will enchant you.

Hotels, “Kite Fight,” Where Hearts Go Broke. At first this song made me think, “Joe Jackson.” Then I thought, no, “Devo.” Then, wait a minute, OK, “The Cars.” Now, after a spin or two, I’ve decided, “Joe Devo Cars.” Or maybe I need another spin.

Iran, “Buddy,” Dissolver. Apparently, there’s a reason that this song sounds like TV on the Radio doing an atmospheric doo-wop tribute to Phil Spector (before his big, bad hairdo and prison sentence) — because, it is, essentially. Iran, the name of a “new” band that featured several members of TVOTR before their current incarnation, have reformed for this LP. Confused? Me too, but don’t worry, the music’s your friend — also check out the Bowie-tinted “I Can See the Future.”

K’naan, “Bang Bang,” Troubadour. It’s not the tight hip-hop beat or clever and clear rapping that makes this song a standout. Rather, it’s the way the chorus takes a sudden turn back in time to 1970s-era R&B soul — as if the Somali-born singer steps aside to reveal Stevie Wonder (actually Adam Levine from Maroon 5) taking The Commodores through a falsetto high-wire routine. It slays me every time.

Kinky, “Fuego En La Fabrica,” Barracuda. I don’t know anything about the band or this infectious techno-dance song. But if the grooves in “Rockit” once got your legs moving, and you like spacey, funked-out duck calls, then download this immediately.

The Love Language, “Lalita,” The Love Language. I think what grabbed me right away with this song was its unmistakable “Can’t Hurry Love” backbeat and Motown locomotion. But it’s the growling, snarly, catchy guitar hooks that keep me hitting repeat.

That’s it, for now. I hope this wasn’t too taxing and you found something you like. Keep a lookout for more recommendations coming at the end of the week. In the meantime, please leave a comment and let me know what you think of my choices, or feel free to suggest others.

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