Flying their freak flag

Dylanesque rhymes from an "outsider," a free song from a potential Next Big Thing and the shiny, happy sounds of I Am the World Trade Center.

By Thomas Bartlett

Published May 26, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

The digital music stores just keep getting better, adding more music and more features every week. They now carry all pop/rock/hip-hop major-label new releases and are quickly filling in the back catalogs. But the available selection of classical, jazz, folk, world, electronic, blues, etc., remains frustratingly weak. Luckily, it's become part of indie-rock culture for bands, both obscure and popular, to post a few MP3s on their Web pages, giving me a nearly inexhaustible wealth of music to choose from. But sadly, the habit of posting a few songs for free hasn't spread to experimental, jazz, classical, folk or any other genre -- and I dislike having the contents of this column so homogenized. There's so much music I've been enjoying -- recently records by Charles Lloyd, Madvillain, Fennesz, Burnt Sugar, Dirk Powell, Tethered Moon and many more, as well as pianist Pierre Laurent-Aimard's brilliant performances of Ligeti and Messiaen -- that I can't feature in this column because it isn't available online. So, please, everyone out there who makes music that's not indie rock, put some tracks up for download on your Web page. You won't lose oodles of money, and you might gain a lot of new fans.

"Motel Sex," Danny Cohen, from Dannyland
Danny Cohen flies his freak flag right at the beginning of this track, striking a humorously out-of-tune chord on the guitar, which serves as a reminder that Cohen is often referred to as an "outsider" musician, the very concept of which is either bogus or offensive. Then you're tumbled into this glorious piece of Captain Beefheart-style R&B rock, with Cohen's energetic, half-spoken singing and scrumptiously exaggerated Dylanesque end-rhymes. Cohen's guitar part on this song -- harmonically tame, but beautifully and unusually voiced -- really is worthy of Beefheart, and the meandering organs give the track the same air of casual, unrehearsed brilliance as Dylan and the Band's "Basement Tapes." Some of Cohen's new "Dannyland," released Tuesday on Anti, is too scattered and incoherent ("quirky," they call it) to be enjoyable, and none of it is as immediately accessible as this track. But much of the time he sounds like a slightly stranger, less tuneful version of his friend, admirer and label-mate Tom Waits, but with a strange, possessed and slightly demented magic all his own. Fly your freak flag, Danny. Free download: "Motel Sex"

"On Vacation," The Robot Ate Me, from "On Vacation"
The Robot Ate Me, a band from San Diego, make indie-pop that is wistful, catchy and a bit goofy, not unlike the Flaming Lips. Unfortunately, they do not share the Lips' talent for self-promotion and so remain unfairly obscure. They recently released a double-CD album titled "On Vacation," from which I've heard only the four free tracks available on the band's Web page, more than enough to get me excited about the record. "The Genocide Ball," which features Ryland Bouchard singing over an almost impossibly smooth big-band sample, is sonically astonishing, a strange and evocative combination of Victrola static and vivid technicolor gloss. If it weren't for the cuttingly ironic lyrics -- I can't decide if they're intriguing or absurd -- this would be my pick. Instead, the nod goes to "On Vacation," a more successful, if less unusual, song. The band's most formidable weapon is Bouchard's voice, and this carefree, gently pulsing song showcases his beautiful singing to great effect. His voice is not unusual in kind -- a fragile indie falsetto -- but there's an extra resonance to it, and a submerged but piercing intensity that I find dazzling. There are also some tracks from The Robot Ate Me's debut available on the Web page, notably the brilliant "They Ate Themselves." This is a band to watch, far more talented than many of their better-known peers. Free download: "On Vacation"

"Untitled (Cancion Hiphop Arabe)," Nettle and Aziz Arradi, from "Firecamp Stories Remixes"
I know almost nothing about Nettle, except that it's a collaboration between a visual artist called D.D. and DJ / rupture, and that they're on the Agriculture, a small experimental-music label, home of the excellent DJ Olive. This is a fascinating, minimalist track, constructed from just four basic elements: acoustic bass, the voice of Aziz Arradi, some Moroccan-sounding drums and some glitchy piano samples. Rhythmically, it's delicate and precise, but it's the harmonic interplay (and sometimes full disconnect) between the bass, voice and piano that makes it so enjoyable. Free download: "Untitled (Cancion Hiphop Arabe)"

"Laura," Scissor Sisters, from "Scissor Sisters"
Can music that is almost purely derivative also be genuinely good? It's a pertinent question in a time when, perhaps to a greater extent than ever before, rock music is largely recycling its past triumphs (and failures). While I have no deeply held convictions on the matter, my tendency is to say yes. But then, I wasn't alive in the '60s or '70s, and wasn't remotely cognizant of popular culture in the '80s, so highly derivative bands like the Strokes, the Darkness and the Scissor Sisters give me neither the nostalgic thrill of hearing the beloved music of my past copied nor the disgust of hearing it copied badly. Like the Darkness, the Scissor Sisters traffic in overt camp, throwing in a healthy dose of glam and a dollop of disco, but they move beyond the Darkness' entertaining but ultimately tiresome caricature into inspired pastiche. They've become stars in Europe on the strength of their amusing, shockingly effective disco version of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," and they're on their way to at least cultish fame here in the United States. I find nearly all their songs entertaining, particularly the iTunes exclusive "Get It Get It," and the coming-out song "Take Your Mama Out," but it's "Laura," which reminds me of a George Michael song, that I'm enjoying most right now. (iTunes, RealPlayer, MusicMatch)

"Future Sightings," I Am the World Trade Center, from "The Cover Up"
I saw I Am the World Trade Center, the duo of programmer Dan Geller and vocalist Amy Dykes, put on an energetic, marvelously entertaining show last month at the Knitting Factory in New York -- and can barely process the news that a week later Dykes was taken to an emergency room, diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, and is now in her second week of chemotherapy. The band has had to abandon their tour in support of the upcoming "The Cover Up," their third full-length to date. I Am the World Trade Center has never been a critic's favorite, and this disc is unlikely to change that. Their artistic stance remains weak, an incoherent mush of ironic detachment and sincere cheesiness that doesn't bear up under scrutiny. But why scrutinize? Like the rest of "The Cover Up," "Future Sightings" is shiny, happy fun, with the glittery sounds playing off amusingly against fatalistic lyrics like "You can't break me/ Cause I was already this way." Free download: "Future Sightings"

Thomas Bartlett

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

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