Essential Non-Essentials, Part One
Now let’s return to compulsive list-making with some old favorites, alongside a few you may not have heard before. My knowledge of music could hardly be called obscure, but there are a few artists I know of who deserve a little more recognition — not because they’re making undiscovered masterpieces or anything, but because they may be of passing interest to someone out there. A couple of these artists have a solid fanbase, although for some reason I never hear anyone talking about them. I’ve suggested which album might be a good starting point.
Alaska! — Emotions
LA-based (and now defunct) band Alaska! is just another group caught up in Lou Barlow’s tangled, incestous web: bass-player Russ Pollard played drums for Sebadoh’s last record, and he and singer Imaad Wasif both joined Barlow in the new, revamped Folk Implosion following Davis’ departure. Wasif was a young virtuoso guitar player, formerly of little-known band lowercase, and he currently plays solo, or as part of Imaad Wasif and the Two-Part Beast. Wasif has a commanding vocal presence that seethes even in quiet moments. I might be tempted to say that their sound is mostly straightforward rock, but there are moments of glam and prog that peek out sometimes in their longer, more epic crawls. I saw Alaska! play on three different occasions (in tiny, sparsely attended venues in Louisiana and Mississippi) and they put on some of the tightest shows I’ve ever seen, owing largely to Wasif’s swaggering rock star charisma. They never quite harnessed the energy of their live performances in the recording process and, as a result, the albums sound a little flat by comparison. Wasif’s pseudo-poetic act can be a little silly and pretentious, but Alaska! put out two solid, underappreciated gems of snarling rock sparkle. Their second album, Rescue Through Tomahawk (available at Insound, is also consistently entertaining and worth checking out.
Eleni Mandell — Thrill
This Silverlake singer/songwriter doesn’t get enough love ’round these parts. I saw her twice at a tiny club in New Orleans, but her recent tours haven’t been as extensive as they once were. She honed her dark, playful mix of cabaret, spy noir, and Tom Waits-inspired songwriting on Thrill, her second album. While her entire catalogue (seven full-lengths and an EP) has produced some great songs here and there, Thrill is a solid piece of work, with Mandell’s retro bad girl persona in full bloom. Her voice is like a coy PJ Harvey; in the span of a song she moves effortlessly between a coo, an ecstatic whisper, a howling wail, and wounded, vulnerable soprano. In later years, she toned down the theatrics in favor of a cooler, lounge-y jazz sound, still whimsical in its way, but much tamer. Personally, I prefer her femme fatale phase. In particular, check out Thrill’s opening track “Pauline,” in which she has seduced the title character’s lover and taunts her about the “cold blue sofa where your man got down, and your man told me, ‘Let’s go.'”
Mew — Frengers
Mew, from Denmark, has enjoyed enormous success all over Europe, but hasn’t quite broken in the U.S. Sure, they’ve done a couple of extended tours with gigs in every major American city, played six showcases at SXSW 2007, but I don’t actually know anyone (besides myself) who has heard of them. Frengers, their third album, catapulted them from relative obscurity to the top of the Danish charts, displacing shitty bubblegum acts like Aqua (the only other Danish group to gain such international success) in favor of more inventive indie bands. More than that, Frengers is a solid album. A couple of the songs, like the singles “Am I Wry? No” and “She Came Home for Christmas” sound a little slicker and more radio-friendly than the average American-indie counterpart, but lead-singer Jonas Bjerre’s quirky acrobatic vocals keep it interesting. Check out the ethereal “Eight Flew Over, One Was Destroyed,” and be ready to crank up “Snow Brigade” during a thunderstorm. The album ends with the crowd-pleasing closer, “Comforting Sounds,” a song that maintains its intensity, despite a running-time of nearly nine minutes.
More later! Happy listening.