Tuneful Humanism

Kevin Canfield

Here’s what I like as much as just about anything in the world: Music that sounds hopeful in the face of cynicism. An uplifting melody; an artfully crafted hook; a redemptive lyric about love; a vocal harmony so beautiful that it catches you off-guard — if you ask me, these are all good reasons to be alive.

With so much cause for pessimism (a war, a bad president, etc.) now’s when we need this sort of music, and two very different records have arrived to fill the void.

Let’s start with A.C. Newman, a Canadian singer of irresistible rock songs. A good argument can be made on behalf of the notion that Newman is largely responsible for two of the three or four best power pop records of the last five years. In 2000 he and a handful of friends put together a band called the New Pornographers; the group took its name from, of all people, the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who once labeled rock music the new pornography.” That year saw the release of the band’s first effort, a majestic, rollicking album titled Mass Romantic.” With crunchy, crackling guitars, vocal harmonies and an occasional backing vocal turn from a choir of little kids, it is a brilliant, big-hearted record.

After the release of a second, less impressive New Pornographers album last year, Newman turned his attention to a solo record. The just-released The Slow Wonder” (Matador) has qualities that most rock music can only dream of. A lean 34 minutes of indie pop that is at once stately and emotionally authentic, it blends guitars and piano and off-beat vocal phrasing in a way that’s impossible to ignore.

On the Table” might be the single most compelling song released all year. Against a bed of ascendant piano, drums and jittery guitar parts, Newman sings about dancers’ legs, thieves and innocence. With an urgent, three-word refrain and a shimmery sound, it’s a deliriously beautiful song. Drink To Me, Babe, Then,” is almost as good. A bit slower-paced, it’s an acoustic guitar-driven look at a puzzling relationship; fittingly, Newman closes the song by whistling a melancholy tune.

Newman’s songs have a sort of stickiness to them — you just can’t let go of them. I’ve been listening to this record for days on end, and oftentimes I can’t get beyond the third or fourth song — not because the rest of the record isn’t great (it is), but because I need to hear those first three all over again.

The same quality is present on a new record from an idiosyncratic New Jersey outfit known alternately as the Danielson Famile and, more recently, Br. Danielson. A charmingly strange crew that has performed in matching nurses’ garb, the group makes gorgeous music. There are bells, banjos, drums, guitars and fiddles on the new album, titled Brother Is To Son” — but the band’s most useful instrument is bandleader Daniel Smith’s voice.

Singing in a high-register yowl that calls to mind a half-mad farmer who’s lost track of his herd, Smith is not what one would call a good” vocalist in the traditional sense. And to call his lyrics uplifting might be a stretch; at one point he goes so far as to confess, This music, it is killing us.” But on songs like Cookin’ Mid-County,” a mid-tempo lament, and the impossibly catchy Our Givest,” there is a humanism, a hopefulness that propels Danielson to epic heights.

There’s also social commentary. One song, titled Things Against Stuff,” bemoans the caste system and acquisitiveness of contemporary America: We cannot win,” Smith sings, with the chopping this, dicing that, compartmenting you and therefore the grouping of me.”

But lyrics are secondary for these records. What both Newman and Br. Danielson have done is to remind listeners once again of the visceral, inscrutable pleasures derived from the sound of heady, fun, non-derivative rock music. And don’t we need that right about now.

Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York.
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