This Band Is Your Band, This Band Is My Band

After more than a year of making head-to-headway, and with only about two weeks left to go, the 2008 presidential political circus trains are rolling into the center ring at full speed. The debates are over, offering little about the candidates’ stance on the issues, but providing plenty of fodder for comedians and impersonators. And now the political ads will begin flooding the TV and radio airwaves like allergens, reminding us that, once again, we are left with only two options: Left vs. Right (or, depending on your point of view, Right vs. Wrong). Red vs. Blue. Us vs. Them. Palin vs. Fey. Etc.

The royalty of "spirit" bands?

I have always felt that we need more choices. But, other than casting my vote as a “protest,” I don’t have the power to effect much change in that direction. I do have this blog, however. So, for this week’s post, I am throwing some more hats into the ring, offering a number of different contestants, from a variety of backgrounds and ideologies. This has nothing to do with politics, of course, and everything to do with entertainment. But politics has become one of our most popular forms of amusement, so why not. Maybe we will have better luck picking a winner by doing it my way.

Several bands releasing new material this year have similar-sounding names. Therefore, in the spirit of bipolarity favored by our current political party-poopers, where there is only my guy vs. your guy, I have decided to place these bands in a head-to-head competition of manufactured rivalries. Hey, it’s the American way. May the better band win.

(You can listen to a playlist featuring songs by the artists discussed below by visiting the Scribbleskiff page at 8tracks.com. Just click here.)

Duke Spirit vs. Delta Spirit — These two “spirited” candidates may have entered the race at different points this year, but both have released strong debuts. The titular “Duke” is deceiving, since it’s Leila Moss’s voice that marks the band’s distinctiveness on “Neptune.” In fact, more than the crisp guitar work and tight percussion, it’s her majestic, graceful (more like Grace Slick-ful) singing that provides the raw power for songs like “The Step and the Walk” and “Lassoo.” On the other hand, with “Delta” in their name, it’s not surprising that this five-piece from San Diego plays with a soulful, bluesy swagger worthy of a Stax recording. Standouts from “Ode to Sunshine” include the groovy, piano-pounder “Trashcan” and the more expansive, bouncy “Streetwalker.”

The Low Lows vs. Thao with the Get Down Stay Down — Neither of these two bands really lives up to its “low-down” stature. Instead, the former seem to rise from the depths of their drone-pop sound on their second full-length, “Shining Violence.” On cuts like “Sparrow” and “Modern Romance,” there are echoing strains (there are lots of echoes here) of the Velvet Underground and My Bloody Valentine, but with a shimmering warmth that their predecessors lacked. Similarly, for singer/songwriter Thao Nguyen, “getting down” means nothing more than “getting funky.” As she sings on the lilting, upbeat “Bag of Hammers,” from the group’s debut, “We Brave Bee Stings and All,” her sweet, offbeat songs (like “Beat (Health, Life and Fire)” and “Swimming Pools”) will “soothe you like a lick of ice cream.”

Shearwater vs. Firewater — Although one of the four elements links these two bands, it’s the other half of their names that sets them apart. There’s a sharpness and edgy quality that cuts through Austin-based Shearwater’s music on their new release, “Rook.” At times moody and ethereal, as on “Rooks,” or more rock-raucous, as on “Century Eyes,” this quartet forges a steely sound all their own. On the other hand, on “The Golden Hour” Firewater — with its Middle Eastern instrumentation and understated syncopated rhythms — smolders like a band of Old World gypsies ready for a fight, or a dance party, depending on their mood. Put on “This Is My Life” and “Electric City” and try to sit still.

Black Kids vs. Cool Kids vs. Cold War Kids — This three-way race proves that when it comes to making new music, the kids are still alright. The first group on the ballot, a quintet from Jacksonville, Florida, show off a penchant for crafting fun, danceable music on its debut, “Partie Traumatic.” I especially like the quirky “I’m Not Going to Teach Your Boyfriend to Dance.” The middle kids’ offerings on their self-titled debut are dominated by witty, self-reflexive lyrics (the song “88” even samples the ’80s classic, “Safety Dance” ) and inventive hip-hop structures, as on “Bassment Party.” The third group of contestants avoids the traditional sophomore slump with its release, “Loyalty to Loyalty,” by expanding the range of its raw, blues-inspired sound to include disco bass grooves (“Something Is Not Right with Me“) and rough, retro-reverb guitar riffs (“I’ve Seen Enough”). My only hope is that some or all of these kids will get together on the playground and beat the crap out of the New Kids on the Block, who are rearing their ugly old heads again this year.

Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip vs. Low vs. Diamond — At a time when everyone seems to be “versing” each other (as my kids used to say), why not set a bout between bands that have “versus” as part of their names. I have to admit that what first drew me to Dan v. Pip and their debut, “Angles,” was the working-class British accent (and oddball moniker). But what keeps me coming back are the duo’s intriguing electronic-rock rhythms and hilarious, biting lyrics, especially pronounced on songs like “Letter from God to Man” and “Thou Shalt Always Kill.” Low vs. Diamond, on the other hand, have a hidden gem in their self-titled debut. And, with radio-friendly songs to offer, like “Heart Attack,” with its new wave-ish swirling guitar hooks and soaring vocals (think The Killers), and the lush, sweeping Coldplay-like textures of “This Is Your Life,” it shouldn’t take long for this young LA band to shine.

She & Him vs. Matt and Kim — As our final pairing points out, whether you believe that a man and a woman can effectively run this country, one thing’s for sure: they can still make appealing folk-pop and dance music together. The delightfully retro mix on “Volume One” — actress Zooey Deschanel’s archetypal love-and-angst songs, like “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here” and “Change Is Hard,” brought to maturity through the refined arrangements provided by indie-rock darling M. Ward — sounds like this couple have been playing together for years. What Matt and Kim illustrate, in contrast, is that a kick-drum beat, some hand-claps, and jaunty piano riffs are all it takes to make spare, catchy, danceable tunes. You’ll want to play “Good Ol’ Fashion Nightmare” and “Daylight” (from their upcoming release, “Grand”) at your next party, no matter what your political leaning.

Maybe randomly throwing together contestants who seemingly have nothing in common is riskier than handpicking qualified combatants. (It’s what they do on reality TV shows, you know.) But it certainly creates some attractive contrasts, enhancing the individual qualities by emphasizing the differences. That can be a good thing, right? After all, variety adds more than just spice to life — it fosters change by introducing new ideas and allowing us to see what exists in new and different ways.

Perhaps that is what’s been missing from our same-old-same system for all these years. What if someone organized a movement, to make a difference, to bring about change? Real change. What if someone could provide more choices, for all Americans, when it comes to music? Would you join in? I would, and I invite you to do so, too.

I’m Scribbleskiff, and I approve this message.

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