Why give up?

Postal Service, the band that stood up to the USPS, delivers music that justifies its fame. Plus: Free downloads from indie idol Neko Case, hipster favorite Vashti Bunyan and more.

By Thomas Bartlett
Published November 11, 2004 2:00AM (UTC)
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Last week I went to see Deerhoof, with Need New Body opening. The show was so great that I was compelled to revisit both bands' recordings, and the music I found there, coupled with memories of the show, has kept me energized all week. Need New Body plays jagged, nearly epileptic dance music, with minimalist interlocking double-keyboard parts and spastic, hyperactive drums, fronted by a chanting, groaning, bearded man plucking at a banjo. It rocks. Try "Show Me Your Heart" (available for free download here), from 2003's "UFO."

Deerhoof's recent "Milk Man" didn't quite grab me on its release. It seemed a little staid, a little reserved, a little too calculated in its combination of dissonant guitar stabs, catchy chorus melodies and surprise tempo shifts. But in concert, the songs come alive. There's an extraordinarily compelling balance between the cerebral intensity and exactitude of guitarists Chris Cohen and John Dieterich, who seem to think and move as one, and the exploding energy and improvisatory looseness of drummer Greg Saunier. Happily, the band has made a 10-track live record, "Bibidi Babidi Boo," available for free download here. Both recording quality and performance quality are varied, but the whole thing is worth hearing.


"The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" and "Such Great Heights," Postal Service, from "Give Up"
Last Saturday's New York Times had an amusing article about the Postal Service, a duo of Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard and Dntel's Jimmy Tamborello, and their unexpected brush with copyright law in the form of a cease-and-desist letter from the U.S. Postal Service. The story has a happy, and absurd, resolution: The band keeps its name in return for helping to promote the use of the actual Postal Service, and agreeing to perform at the postmaster general's annual National Executive Conference. If you read the article and were curious about the band's music but didn't feel like doing the Googlework to see if any of it was available online -- well, that's I'm here for. As it happens, two of the band's best songs are available for free, and they make it easy to understand why their record, "Give Up," was, by indie standards, such a runaway success: The music is easy-listening indie synth pop, breezily sophisticated, catchy and uncomplicatedly beautiful. Free Downloads: "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" and "Such Great Heights"


"Diamond Day," Vashti Bunyan, from "Just Another Diamond Day"
Over the last few years Vashti Bunyan, a not particularly successful British folkie from the '60s, largely forgotten except among obsessive collectors of obscure LPs, has emerged as a dominant influence on a number of today's most critically and hipsterly approved acts, including Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart and the Animal Collective (the latter two of whom she's even collaborated with). Just how the unexpected resurgence took place is not entirely clear, but it really gathered force with the DiCristina label's 2000 reissue of Bunyan's lone full-length, "Just Another Diamond Day." The music itself is lovely and almost impossibly precious, with Bunyan la-la-la-ing and cooing airily about how lovely nature is, accompanied by an acoustic guitar and a gaggle of recorders. Bunyan strikes me as the Satie to Nick Drake's Chopin, less complicated, less depressive, less substantial. But she's to be treasured, for she brought a significant amount of beauty into the world, both in her own music and in the influence it has exerted. Free Download: "Diamond Day"

"Beyond the Translucent Veil," Joshua Penman, live performance
Young composer Joshua Penman is a former student of Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. Occasionally Penman's catholic taste and wide range of musical enthusiasms lead him into questionable territory -- see "Crazy Ball of Yarn," written for gamelan, and "Songs of the Clay, Vines, and Stars," which features the composer throat-singing -- but when not conducting ill-conceived experiments with world-music techniques, he can write some very beautiful music. Of the many pieces available for download in the music section of Penman's Web page, "Beyond the Translucent Veil," scored for piano and four double-basses, is the most striking. The opening bass quartet, in which you can hear bits of plainsong and of modern composers like Morton Feldman and Arvo Pärt, is particularly entrancing. The basses play mostly harmonics and notes far above their customary range, which is key to the effect of the piece: There's something touching about such large and unwieldy instruments making such delicate sounds, something akin to the lumbering grace in the underwater cries of humpback whales. Free Download: "Beyond the Translucent Veil"


"Train From Kansas City," Neko Case, from "The Tigers Have Spoken"
Neko Case has often struck me as slightly overrated, both as a solo performer and as a member of the (slightly overrated) New Pornographers. But one thing that I very much appreciate is that, in an indie/alt-country world dominated by tentative, quavering, sad-sack mumblers, Case has a big, smooth, resonant voice, and she's not afraid to use it. She's one of the very few indie idols I can think of who could also conceivably be an American Idol. And that voice of hers, with its old-school movie star good looks, is perfect for covering the Shangri-La's "Train From Kansas City," one of the highlights of her new live record, "The Tigers Have Spoken." Releasing a live record is a perhaps questionable move for Case, as she's not a particularly spontaneous or improvisatory performer, and all the songs on this record would probably have come across better in studio versions. But it's a pleasure to hear Case tackle such a wide range of material, with covers like Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Soulful Shade of Blue" and Loretta Lynn's "Rated X," and folk songs like "This Little Light of Mine" and "Wayfaring Stranger." Also available for free download is "If You Knew," one of two previously unreleased Case originals. Free Download: "Train From Kansas City"

"There and Back Again." The Legends, from "Up Against the Legends"
The music of the Legends, a Swedish nonet, falls somewhere between the dapper retro pop of Jens Lekman and the jubilantly sloppy orchestral pop of Saturday Looks Good to Me. Like those two artists, the Legends draw inspiration from a wide pantheon of '60s, '70s and '80s pop deities, and none more frequently than the great Phil Spector, who, in the midst of his current legal woes, could take some solace in the SLGTM-spearheaded mini-renaissance of his Wall of Sound, with its commodious reverb, over-enthusiastic tambourines, and harmonies stacked to the ceiling in joyful cacophony -- but probably won't. What really appeals about the Legends, though, is frontman Johan Angergard's ability to write tight, classic, irresistibly catchy pop songs like "There and Back Again." Also available for free download is "Make It All Right." Free Download: "There and Back Again"


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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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