When tunes trump lyrics

A successful channeler of Bowie, beautiful noise from the men who would be N.E.R.D. and a (rare) brilliant contribution from David Byrne.

By Thomas Bartlett
Published March 24, 2004 10:46PM (EST)

An unusually happy batch of songs this week. A big disappointment, though, is the new and very-hyped album by Sondre Lerche, the 21-year-old Norwegian boy wonder. His 2002 debut was a little half-baked, but still entirely charming, and showed great promise. I saw him hold a sold-out Bowery Ballroom's rapt attention last year, with nothing more than his guitar and a collection of melodically graceful, intricate songs, impressive for such a youngster. A shame, then, that on the follow-up he's pushed his hook-filled, '60s nostalgia-driven pop into unbearably cutesy territory -- oh, and this time around the hooks aren't that good anyway.

I was swamped with e-mail suggestions last week, but please keep the feedback coming. I'm doing my best to listen to everything that you recommend, but two things to keep in mind: A track needs to be available for (legal) download somewhere on the Internet for me to use it, and I'm trying to focus on recently released music. I've already broken the second rule, and I'll break it again (particularly when a great song is newly available for free download), but try to limit your suggestions to songs that were released within the last few months, OK?

"It's Gonna Take an Airplane," Destroyer, from "Your Blues"
I like to think of Dan Bejar, the man behind Destroyer, as a pocket Bowie, living out his glam-rock dreams in a bedroom filled with synthesizers, the walls covered with posters of Ziggy Stardust. The image isn't quite accurate -- while Bejar does play all the instruments on "Your Blues," the album was recorded not in a bedroom, but in a studio, with producers and an engineer -- but his music does sound like the product of a solitary, inward-turned, sometimes feverish and very Bowie-obsessed mind. His swooning, preening, overtly theatrical vocal stylings seem borrowed directly, and to great effect; it makes me wish that more people turned to the thin white duke for musical and vocal inspiration, rather than focusing on the extra-musical brilliance of his persona. Bejar surrounds his vocals with pseudo-orchestral arrangements, constructed nearly entirely of the kinds of tacky synth sounds that most people, for good reason, avoid. Somehow he makes it all work, thanks in no small part to his formidable songwriting skills, which have been showcased in his role as one of the chief writers for the indie-rock supergroup the New Pornographers. As long as you're downloading, grab "The Music Lovers" as well. It's also free, and just as good as "It's Gonna Take an Airplane." Free Download:
"It's Gonna Take an Airplane" and "The Music Lovers"

"Tiny Apocalypse," David Byrne, from "Grown Backwards"
David Byrne's post-Talking Heads career has been consistently and sadly disappointing. He should head any list of great frontmen who unexpectedly lost the magic as soon as they tried to go solo. Thanks to Byrne, in his capacity as the head of Luaka Bop Records, the music of Brazilian greats like Tom Ze and the band Os Mutantes has been introduced to a wide audience, but his own music has suffered from his Brazilian obsession, made frivolous by a lightweight, world-beat feel. Part of what worked so well about the Talking Heads was the way Byrne's goofiness played off the ferocity of Tina Weymouth's and Chris Franz's rhythm section. Left to his own devices, the music itself was too often goofy. Still, there have been flashes of brilliance on every one of his solo releases, and very occasionally, those flashes last for a whole song. For me, "Tiny Apocalypse," from Byrne's better-than-average, but still largely dull new record, is one of those songs. Over a gently pulsating Tropicalia groove, Byrne half-raps his surreal poetics, before breaking into glorious, operatic harmony for the chorus. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)

"She Wants to Move," N.E.R.D., from "Fly or Die"
N.E.R.D. is the rock project of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo (aka the Neptunes) and their friend Shay. Calling N.E.R.D. a rock band is misleading, but it's hard to know what else to call it. Recently, the Neptunes have seemed intent on cramming as many sounds, styles and references as possible into every track they produce, and in N.E.R.D., they go into overdrive. This track is a chaotic mess of flamenco guitars, funk, tribal beats, heavy metal guitars, handclaps and, best of all, a totally unexpected and harmonically bizarre piano riff. As usual, they rely on an arsenal of crude and ugly sounds, but deployed in such unexpected and exciting ways that it hardly matters. One of my favorite Neptunes-produced song is Kelis' "Milkshake," and each time I hear it I'm amazed that they were able to build such a great song around such a hideous synth sound. Unfortunately, all this production brilliance comes at a price, namely Pharrell's sophomoric lyrics ("Her ass is a spaceship that I want to ride"), but I assure you, it's worth it. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)

"Cherry Blossom Girl," Air, from "Talkie Walkie"
French duo Air traffics in a kind of retro futurism, their music coming across like the soundtrack to a hip, jet-setting 21st century life, as imagined in the '70s. It's a sound they perfected on their debut, "Moon Safari," an easy-listening masterpiece of lush, campy bachelor pad music. On "Talkie Walkie," some of the Moogs have been replaced with acoustic guitars, but the basic sound is intact, Bacharach-style harmonies and all. This is the first record on which Air's two members, Nicolas Godin and JB Dunckel, have provided all of the vocals, and Dunckel's unambiguously feminine coo is a nice surprise. It's showcased on "Cherry Blossom Girl," a sexy, seductive song with a great hook, and probably the closest thing to a real pop song that Air has ever written. It's built around an acoustic guitar riff that wouldn't sound out of place on a Sade track, but as the synths swell and the smooth-jazz flute fills become more frequent, you'll know you're listening to Air. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)

"Wonder", Lamb, from "Between Darkness and Wonder"
Louise Rhodes' lyrics are one of trip-hop duo Lamb's few weak components. They come close to ruining this song ("Wonder everywhere/ More than we know/ Heaven's not up there/ But on Earth below"). But the music provides the uplift that her words so clumsily try to capture. It's an unabashedly cheesy sound, with angelic choirs and ecstatically rising string lines, but still has the ominous undercurrent present in so much of Lamb's music. Rhodes' voice has some of the wickedly affected menace of Portishead's Beth Gibbons, providing some additional bite. But ultimately, this is a genuinely happy song. And a genuinely happy song is hard to find. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)

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Thomas Bartlett

Thomas Bartlett is a writer and musician in New York. He maintains a blog called doveman.

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