Here's a jaunty stroll through the musical path paved with a teetering stack of recent CDs threatening to cover my desk.
Sunderland's Field Music is the quirky alt.pop dream of brothers David and Peter Brewis and the group's two discs were quietly some of the best music to emerge from Britain in recent years. David issued "Sea to Shore" as School of Language back in February and now Peter returns with "The Week That Was" (Memphis Industries), a rhythmic, syncopated, synth- and guitar-driven pop record worthy on 1980-era XTC. Although it was bad news that Field Music split, if that rift means we get two great records a year instead of one, how can we complain?
I don't know much about Gospel Gossip from the Twin Cities except that the group was one of First Avenue's Best New Bands last year and this year won the Best New Band category in City Pages. That, and that the jangly, echoey guitar record it released in 2007, "Sing Into My Mouth" (Guilt Ridden Pop), reminds me of the great early Bettie Serveert Records, albeit a bit more manic. Really, what it reminds me of most, is a dark, cold, late night at, say, Kodric's, with The Honest Disgrace onstage.
Then, there's Australia's I Heart Hiroshima, which features great primordial guitar playing and no bassist. All three members sing, keeping things interesting on "Tuff Teef" (Valve Records), and the group sounds very much like Italy's Yuppie Flu with catchy melodies, snaky guitar runs and a direct, no frills approach.
The first sounds on Kristoffer Ragnstam's "Wrong Side of the Room" (Bluhammock Music) suggest Johnny Cash's Sun sessions, but that quickly gives way to a low-fi, rock and roll melodicist who manages to mix "Magical Mystery Tour" overload with acoustic guitar-driven new wave retro in a single song like "2008." Then, on the next track -- "Sorry For Being The Man of 1000 Questions" -- the Swede is rock-rapping over an overloaded cheap-o beat box and what sounds like a kids' Casio keyboard. Then, "Swing That Tambourine" is low-key, addictive pop with a lovely guitar and piano figure. Somehow he manages to make it all sound coherent.
Singer and songwriter Bill Madden's "Child of the Same God" is indie rock and roll for fans of Springsteen, Petty and maybe even The Replacements and Elvis Costello. Madden's emotive voice renders the lyrics the focus of the alt.Americana rock workout.
Yearning for that next Fischerspooner record that won't ever come? Check out Philly's The Model, whose debut disc, "Physical," comes out in November on Playloop Records. Less awkwardly artsty-fartsy, The Model isn't afraid to be catchy. Listen to these seven tracks and you may be transported back to 1981, when Depeche Mode's "Speak & Spell" dropped. But even that was less poppy than "What Does It Look Like I'm Doing" and "I Won't Be Hanging Out Anymore."
Drawing on a similar era is Rafter, whose seven-track "Sweaty Magic" is out on Asthmatic Kitty. You'll hear Tom Tom Club and Bootsy and Clinton records from the dawn of the ‘80s in this collection of cluttered, dance-y, low-fi disco pop gems following on the success of last year's "Sex Death Cassette."
Also on Asthmatic Kitty is "City of Refuge" by Castanets. There are some alluring moments here, like the raw guitar and vocal on "Prettiest Chain" and "Refuge 1" and the good modern folk tunes "I'll Fly Away" and "After the Fall," but you've got to sift through too many guitar / noise noodlings that make this a great EP, needlessly topped off with, if you ask me, editing room floor clippings.
I'm Not Jim is the name of a roots rock project featuring Walter Salas-Humara of The Silos and novelist Jonathan Lethem. Improbable? Sure. Does it work? Absolutely! Although Lethem doesn't appear to perform on "You Are All My People" (Bloodshot Records), he contributes to the songwriting and the record feels like a genuine collaboration as Salas-Humara renders Lethem's lyrics to a style that is more encompassing than that of his own band. Also in on the collaboration is The Elegant Too, with former members of Brave Combo. This is smart, artful roots rock, but it's a lot more fun than that makes it sound.
Speaking of collaborations, High Places is based on the back and forth songwriting of Mary Pearson and Rob Barber and the duo's self-titled Thrill Jockey disc features unusual instrumentation and non-traditional arrangements to spotlight Pearson's tender, sing-songy vocals. Other than drums and percussion, I'd be hard-pressed to tell you exactly what instruments were used to make this music, but I guarantee that you won't hear another record like it this year or, most likely, next.
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