Staples of virtuosity

Exclusive free download: A new song by a member of the legendary Staples Singers. Plus: More from the musician who has inspired the most appreciative e-mail in the history of this column.

By Thomas Bartlett
Published August 25, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

When it was announced in April that Guided by Voices would be breaking up this fall after one final album ("Half Smiles of the Decomposed," released yesterday on Matador), all I felt was indifference. OK, maybe I was a little bit pleased. Rarely has there been a band so beloved that I've found so completely uninteresting and flat. And I've never understood why many people consider it a mark of GBV frontman Robert Pollard's brilliance that he writes songs with the frequency and ease that most people write e-mails. Or go to the bathroom.

Last Thursday night, I went to the GBV record release karaoke party, which featured the members of GBV playing their songs, with guests and audience members standing in for Pollard (I was there to support a friend, not the band). While it didn't make me like the band, it was impossible not to be impressed by the fervor of the crowd, every member of which seemed to know every word of every song, even though they were drawn from across an absurdly large catalog. Any band that's inspired that kind of devotion, and kept it up over a 21-year-long career, deserves my respect.

Not so much respect, though, that I'm not bothered by comments like this one (made by Pollard from the stage during the show in which he announced that the band was breaking up): "We are the kings of indie rock. When we quit, indie rock will die." Good riddance, you egomaniacal bastard.

Two months ago, I featured "Static on the Radio," a duet between Jim White and Aimee Mann from White's recent "Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See." At the time, it was available only for pay, but Insound has recently posted a free download of the track, so if you skipped it the first time around, grab it now. It's a marvelous song.

Correction: Last week I said that Jimi Tenor currently has no U.S. distribution. In fact, his releases are distributed in the United States by Forced Exposure, a great resource for hard-to-find alternative music.

"Have a Little Faith," Mavis Staples, from "Have a Little Faith"
Mavis Staples, now 56, has had a long and successful career as the lead singer of the legendary Staples Singers. She's just released her first solo record since 1996, and her first since her father (and bandleader), family patriarch Roebuck "Pops" Staples, passed away four years ago. The title song, "Have a Little Faith," is a warm, groovy track that harks back to the Staple Singers' classic Stax soul/gospel sound. The lyrics are, frankly, terrible, but Staples' performance is so convincing that it doesn't matter -- she's like a great actor salvaging a bad script. As soul divas go -- and Mavis Staples is unquestionably one of the great soul divas -- she's a remarkably unshowy singer. She doesn't have a huge range or overwhelming power, and she rarely indulges in the complex mellismatic ornamentation that is the staple of modern soul virtuosity. But with her perfect phrasing and a rich, raspy alto voice, she is a powerfully affecting singer. Salon Exclusive Free Download: "Have a Little Faith"

"Me and Mia," Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, from "Shake the Sheets"
Ted Leo makes the ultimate ectomorph rock: lean, taut, wordily cerebral, driven entirely by nervous energy. If that sounds unappealing, it's because I'm leaving out Leo's perfect pop instincts -- think Elvis Costello at his fiercely melodic best but with an added compositional discipline. The combination of tight, jittery punk energy and perfectly chiseled, catchy melodies is irresistible. "Me and Mia" is the opening track of Leo's upcoming "Shake the Sheets," his third unassailably brilliant album in a row. This is as good as punky indie-rock gets. Free Download: "Me and Mia"

"You Are the Light," Jens Lekman, from "You Are the Light" EP
In the time that I've been writing this column, no single song has generated as much appreciative mail as "Black Cab," by Jens Lekman, a young Swede with a Magnetic Fields fixation. Now he's back with a new EP, "You Are the Light," and a full-length album on the way, titled "When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog." Some things are different this time around -- primarily that Lekman, formerly a DIY bedroom auteur, recorded this record in a real studio with real musicians -- but never fear, his Scandinavian-teenager-as-Stephin-Merritt shtick is still firmly in place. His references have also expanded: This song has big-band horn stabs, Scott Walker-ish orchestral pop bombast and a Motown-style chorus, complete with female backup singers. Free Download: "You Are the Light"

"Legacy," Maylay Sparks, from "Graymatter"
Rahsheed, aka Maylay Sparks, is an obscure but highly regarded emcee from Philadelphia. On his solo debut, "Graymatter," he teams up with a number of European artists including Danish producer DJ Noize, who provided the beat for this track. It's the production I'm most excited about here: slightly sloppy (in a good way) trip-hop drums, a fat, heavy bass line, a beautiful, woozy string sample, and underneath the whole thing, the supremely comforting hiss and crackle of old vinyl (the most viscerally nostalgic sound that exists? For me it certainly is). It's the perfect, soft-focus backdrop for Sparks' sharp rhymes and aggressive, staccato flow. Free Download: "Legacy"

"Last Walk Around Mirror Lake" (Boards of Canada remix), Boom Bip, from "Corymb"
Boom Bip is, apparently, an instrumental hip-hop artist from Cincinnati. Since I've never heard his music before, I have no way of knowing how much of the beauty of this track can be attributed to his original and how much is the work of Boards of Canada, who did this remix. I lean toward giving more of the credit to Boards of Canada, only because this sounds so much in line with their other work: spacious, unassertive and unabashedly pretty, almost daring you to call it Muzak, whispered melodic dissonances and other irregularities notwithstanding. Take away the scratchy, sputtering beat and you'd have classic Eno ambient music, which is what the Scottish duo does best -- nobody I've heard follows up on Eno's early experiments as successfully as Boards of Canada do. Free Download: "Last Walk Around Mirror Lake" (Boards of Canada remix)

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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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