Wilco she, or won't she?

The Fiona Apple album Sony isn't letting you hear, William Shatner's inept poetry-slam version of Pulp's brilliant "Common People" -- and free downloads from Badly Drawn Boy, Spoon and more!

By Thomas Bartlett
Published August 4, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

There are two fascinating leaks from upcoming albums floating around the Internet. First, there's the title track to Fiona Apple's long-awaited "Extraordinary Machine," which Sony has reportedly shelved, saying that there's no single. The song, an odd, swingy little ditty with pseudo-classical orchestration, sounds great. It was produced by Jon Brion and, like most of his productions, it sounds obsessively worked over with nearly scientific precision. Perhaps Sony will continue in its refusal to release the record and Apple can pull a Wilco, buying back her masters and releasing them on Nonesuch to unanimous acclaim and plaudits over her artistic integrity -- until the backlash starts two years later. Won't that be fun?

Not quite as fun as the other leak I heard, a cover of Pulp's brilliant "Common People" by none other than William Shatner. As bad as that idea may sound, the song sounds worse. Shatner speaks the lines like an inept slam poet, and his phrasing is so stilted that at times it seems he doesn't even understand what he's saying. All of Jarvis Cocker's incisive wit and bitterness is gone. As comic relief, it's extraordinary, but the laughs are all at Shatner's expense.

I'm watching MTV as I write this, and Badly Drawn Boy's "Year of the Rat" is playing. It's not bad, exactly, it's just so monumentally ordinary, so terrifically boring. I'm genuinely mystified that a writer who has displayed such pop smarts in the past could consider this a finished song, let alone a worthy single. For a reminder of how brilliant he can be, head to Better Propaganda, which recently added a free download of "Once Around the Block," from Badly Drawn Boy's 2000 debut album, "The Hour of Bewilderbeast."

Better still, the site has also added Spoon's "The Way We Get By," one of my favorite songs of the last few years.

"Home by Saturday" and "Robbed Blind," Hayden, from "Elk Lake Serenade"
There is a weightiness to Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden's music, a certain bearish clumsiness that some find ponderous and others find appealingly straightforward. I'm firmly in the latter camp. Hayden's simple, acoustic-guitar-based songs and fragile voice have earned him many comparisons to Neil Young over the years, but the connection between the two artists runs deeper than their stylistic similarities. It's their willingness to be clumsy, to sacrifice elegance for truth, and the emotional openness that comes with that willingness, that makes their work so moving. It's nice to listen to music that embraces human frailty. These two songs are from Hayden's excellent new record, "Elk Lake Serenade." Free Downloads: "Home by Saturday" and "Robbed Blind"

"Acadian Mouth Music/Horses, Geese, and One Old Man" and "Qui Me Passera Le Bois?" Grey Larsen & Andre Marchand, from "The Orange Tree"
"The Orange Tree," recorded in 1993, was a collaboration between multi-instrumentalist and Irish flute master Grey Larsen and singer/guitarist Andre Marchand, a founding member of the spectacular Quebecois supergroup La Bottine Souriante. Despite their coming from different traditions, it's hard to imagine two better matched musicians -- both are masters of precision, of the small, perfectly nuanced musical gesture. Together, they create a minutely detailed, oddly cloistered musical world, small and private, like a Joseph Cornell piece. I was thrilled to find that my two favorite tracks from the record are actually available for free from Larsen's Web page. The first track, "Acadian Mouth Music," has some beautiful foot percussion and wordless vocals from Marchard, but the focus is really Larsen's brilliant contrapuntal arrangement. Even better is "Qui Me Passera Le Bois?" with the focus on Marchand's wistful, dignified singing. Marchand and Larsen have just finished a second recording together entitled "Les Marionnettes." I don't enjoy the two tracks that are posted (download here) as much as those from "The Orange Tree," but they're worth a listen. As always, I'm amazed by Larsen's ability to make nice music primarily using those two horrid instruments, the flute and the concertina. Free Downloads: "Acadian Mouth Music" and "Qui Me Passera Le Bois?"

"Keep Walking" (CD version), Saturday Looks Good to Me, unmastered mix from "Every Night" Every day I receive in the mail at least one CD with music that draws heavily, and often exclusively, on the Beatles and the Beach Boys. But as those two bands become ever more deified and canonized, another giant of pop music, Phil Spector, is being strangely ignored. Thank goodness, then, for Saturday Looks Good to Me, a band that certainly takes some cues from the Beatles and the Beach Boys, but that even more explicitly pays tribute to Spector and the Motown sound. Fred Thomas, the slightly cracked genius behind SLGTM (and also the front man of the beautiful and unjustifiably obscure Flashpapr) subs out many of the vocal duties in the band to more or less competent friends of his. But it's always best when he does the singing himself, as part of the fun of this project is in hearing Thomas' slightly out-of-control, very '90s-indie-rock voice sing these classic pop songs. SLGTM has made three unmastered songs (two with alternate mixes) from their upcoming "Every Night" available on a hidden page on the Polyvinyl Records Web site. And if you missed out on the band's last record, "All Our Summer Songs," you can also download a song from it, "Meet Me By the Water," for free. Free Download: "Keep Walking"

"Famous Umbrellas," King Radio, from "Are You the Sick Passenger?
Well, this is an unexpected treasure. A CD from a band I've never heard of, with wretched graphic design (badly lit snapshots taken inside a subway car), had my expectations pretty low. I certainly wasn't expecting delicate, beautifully arranged pop music, as impeccably classy as the packaging is shoddy. "Famous Umbrellas" hits all the classic pop sweet spots: Bacharachian keyboards in the carefree, "Raindrops" kind of vein; grainy, warbly guitar sounds straight out of "Pet Sounds"; and McCartney-style bass, with that dull, popping sound, and the odd, meandering phrasing that Sir Paul perfected. There's also a typewriter used as percussion, normally a gimmicky trick, that here sounds perfectly natural and magnifies the general feeling of intense, but not particularly specific, nostalgia. "Famous Umbrellas" is a highlight, but the whole record is worth hearing. "Meet the Maker" is also available for free, and the rest can be bought from iTunes. Free Download: "Famous Umbrellas"

"Mine Is in Yours," Mouse on Mars, from "Radical Connector" The German electronic duo Mouse on Mars loves sonic clutter. Their tracks can be disorienting, overstuffed with information, barraging you with sound. But again and again on their excellent upcoming record, "Radical Connector," all the stray electronic burps and clicks, which seem nearly random at first, coalesce into groovy, almost funky, music. "Funky" is, of course, an unusual word to use in describing music made up almost entirely of electronic sounds, but in this case, it's the right one. This band is extraordinary in its ability to make the electronic feel organic -- even the bits of vocoder on this song's lead vocal sound not like an automation of the human, but like an entirely natural expressive device. Free Download: "Mine Is in Yours"

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Have an opinion about this week's downloads? Check out the Wednesday Morning Download thread on Table Talk.

Thomas Bartlett

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

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