THE PHYSICS OF MEANING
(from Snake Charmer & Destiny at the Stroke of Midnight; Trekky Records)
What makes Daniel Hart's new record so enjoyable is in part what it isn't —no conspicuous Eastern exotica, no round-the-clock ragas, no enigmatic yogi bromides. This mid-record cut is instead rooted in chamber rock's tradition of indie exuberance-meets-actual chops. That's what tethers Snake Charmer's ambitious musical conceits to our own worldly experiences, even as the novella-inspired concept threatens to soar off with our disbelief. On this song, these charging guitars, gypsy strings, thumping kicks, cymbal explosions, dustings of glockenspiel, and "Clap your hands/Stomp your feet" imperatives all rush toward an out-pouring of choral joy—a wish fulfilled, love's promise invoked. "There's more to us than just surviving," Hart sings. Halleluiah for that. —John Schacht
Download "Boy from School"
(from Some Small History; Merge Records)
It's hard to go wrong with source material this strong, but you've still gotta give Mac McCaughan credit for this canny arrangement of Hot Chip's 2006 electropop monster. He flattens the original's funky hitches into stocky acoustic strums, rewrites its burbling synths for delay-kissed electric guitar, and puts the spotlight on its vocal melody, which is just as indelible wrapped in McCaughan's earthy voice as Alexis Taylor's weightless purr. The cover emphasizes that Hot Chip is the most songwriterly of dance bands, providing the insight that good covers should. Here's where we begin lobbying Portastatic for a version of Hot Chip's three-chord wonder of 2008, "Ready for the Floor." —Brian Howe
Download "The Elephant"
(from Handguns and Dancing Shoes; self-released)
Syncopations and seemingly dropped beats suggest forgotten memories. Insistent guitar solos convey unresolved emotions. Lyrics declare the sometimes confusing, sometimes painful personal reconstructions that occur with every lost relationship: The Proclivities constructs "The Elephant" as the flicker of a past flame. Trying to understand what went wrong, a hyped up burlesque-tango groove emerges from an off-kilter guitar riff, mesmerizing and frustrating. Clarity comes with the chorus as bass and drums drive the beat home, building intensity. The meaning of the repeated lyric "if she has a reckless heart" transforms from delicate regret to angry accusation. But the closing lines, "It's a foolish pride... [to] make a history from a woman that you keep inside," point to a more mature perspective than the usual song about lost love. "The Elephant," then, focuses more on the memory of the relationship than the relationship itself. —Andrew Ritchey
Download "Nice Fox"
(from Life Like; Merge Records)
If Life Like is the Rosebuds' paean to their natural surroundings, then "Nice Fox" is the memento mori that paeans are constructs of consciousness, and that Nature doesn't care a whit what meanings we ascribe to the cycle of life and death. Inspired by a dead fox Ivan Howard discovered behind his property, the Rosebuds juxtapose these readings sonically and lyrically over 212 seconds of graceful, melancholic pop. Kettle hollows haunt Howard's strummed acoustic and Kelly Crisp's keyboard comping, while Howard's near-animistic soliloquies are shadowed by a weary but insistent Greek chorus of "And it don't mean nothing at all." That a terminally ill neighbor passed away next door listening to The Rosebuds finish the cut suggests that, in the end, it's our songs that matter most of all. —John Schacht
Download "Out on the Main Drag"
(from The Latest Rights; Acuarela Records)
Across four albums and an EP, sole constant Struggler Randy Bickford has kept the sounds behind his voice simple and mostly clean—steady drum trots, simple guitar chords and a smattering of understated auxiliary instruments. "Out on the Main Drag" is no different, its pedal steel moans sweeping beneath Bickford's placid Southern tenor and between Jim Bob Aiken's keen rhythmic motion. It all directs us to Bickford's coming-of-age conundrum: Walking the same Charlottesville, Va., streets upon which Silver Jews' David Berman noticed the cold flotsam in the yards of the ghettos, Bickford realizes his privilege and its demands: "I was educated/ by borrowing."" He expertly pairs opportunity with aggravation, the future with its inherent anxieties, realizing that his schooling is a city upon a hill, lined with slippery slopes dropping straight into disappointment. —Grayson Currin
Download "Tell Me What You Want"
(from Daydreams; Fractured Discs)
An inspiration to those who believe anything can be improved by deep frying it—from the humble pickle or PBJ to the Snickers bar—Transportation prove sometimes more is better. They cram at least three songs into three-plus minutes on "Tell Me What You Want," flash-frying stuff like Cliff Notes to a rock opera. It opens as a jack rabbit, bounding like Big Dipper over effervescing indie-rock jangle and backing harmonies. The refrain slows the pace down to ballad-speed, as Robbie Scuggs begs his lady to "do me right." Suddenly, you're in a polyester sports jacket and gold chains, while someone delivers a mirror lined with cocaine. After making another circuit, a cow bell kicks off an outro, leading in a third direction, a galloping boogie rock guitar jam with a bite like Thin Lizzy. ADD doesn't always sound so triumphant. —Chris Parker
(from Immortalizer; Volcom Entertainment)
Metallica released an album this year, and people said it was a return to form. I don't buy that because Valient Thorr also released an album, Immortalizer, this year: It's not that Valient Thorr sounds like Metallica used to, but the Venusian heshers are so saturated with that boozy righteousness of golden-age thrash that it doesn't feel unreasonable to at least put them in league with the old guys. Valient Thorr's sinuous dual lead guitar's slice razor sharp, harmonious lines through low-end rumbles and the vaguely melodic growls of gruff frontman Valient Himself. This punk-metal anthem, as with its predecessors, is a call to action: to mosh, to skate, to chug a beer, to fold the freakin' laundry. What you do doesn't matter as much as the idea that you're doing something. —Bryan Reed
(from WAUMISS; Little Ramona Records)
This song bears a sneaky feeling: With a minimal setting of keyboards, guitar and beats, it's got the loopy atmosphere of psych-pop, but without the overindulgence. Everything's tucked away under a sheet of haze, so that a dream effect allows one to nod off under the song's forward motion. It's like looking at a photo with the subject tucked into one corner: Your focus remains in the frame. —Chris Toenes
(from Soft Dick City; self-released)
Raleigh's best new band spends these 150 seconds flashing into the red, both in terms of the high volume that gives the tune—pulled from the band's cassette-only debut, Soft Dick City—its fuzzy surface or the sociopolitical indignation Rich Ivey delivers in quips and dares. "It's the end of the era/ but the era sucks," he begins as the drums and guitars jump into rhythmic lockstep. He tells us about his empty pockets and his empty mind, but—most importantly—he tells us he's going to make matters personal with the dudes who turned this dirty trick on him: "I took your sister to the dance/ She let me know how much she liked the way I looked/ I let her know she looked OK/ Yeah, yeah, yeah." If you don't get the suggestion, this song might be about you. Best check your sis's bedroom, dog. —Grayson Currin
Download "You Better Praise"
(from The Whistlestop; Southern Brethren/ Apex Records)
Preaching The Word is tricky business. You want to save some souls—that's the whole point— but if you browbeat or belittle, your flock will likely head elsewhere. For a blueprint of how to do it the right way, follow the lead of Mike Roy, Rob Watson and company. "If you're gonna sing, sing for your room and board/ If you're gonna play, you got to get yourself a chord," Roy testifies. "If you're gonna dance, you got to get up on the floor/ But if you're gonna praise, you better praise the Lord." And if you're gonna preach, he might have added, preach with a gradual-burn approach culminating in a grand bonfire. Preach with the spontaneity of a first-take recording. Preach with sweat-flying intensity. And preach with a mountain of country, blues, gospel and rock 'n' roll built behind you. —Rick Cornell