From Rubik to the Raveonettes, Spring’s Best New Music Hails from Europe

Much as New York bands from Interpol to A Place To Bury Strangers have tried, the American indie scene’s taste for music that aesthetically favors Europe seems insufficient to challenge the guileless, rumpled Americana dominating the airwaves. Still, this spring’s music release schedule is chock-full of some of the strangest, most deliciously enigmatic masterstrokes from those across the Atlantic.

Firstly, now that Finland has snagged top prize in Newsweek‘s 2010 Best Countries survey, perhaps the cognoscenti will come to see Helsinki as more than a flight connection on the way to Moscow — even spend a day or two soaking up its design and music scene. Hot export Rubik release the unashamedly proggy Solar this spring, and that distinctly multifarious Finnish spirit makes it a consistently startling listen. The Sgt. Pepper horns of the album’s intro lead into the soaring, jubilant strains of “World Around You,” which then lead on to the magnificently bizarre Medievalism of “Sun’s Eyes.” Radiohead’s stamp is all over it, especially in the eerie anxiety of “Not A Hero,” and the pretty, melancholic “Storm In A Glass of Water” sounds rather a lot like Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” — that estimable chap also apparently an overriding influence. It’s wonderfully, singularly madcap.

Both members of The Raveonettes might call America home now, but their latest and tellingly titled album, Raven in the Grave, is like all your favorite 4AD bands gathered for a summit on the ethereal possibilities of sound. With the guitars set to “Slowdive” rather than “J&M Chain,” rock & roll’s sexiest Danish duo glide through eerie, echo-drenched elegies and mystical, gossamer love serenades (“Can’t I fall awake now?” they earnestly but mysteriously entreat on “Forget That You’re Young”). Easily the most romantic, proudly gothic record ever given a springtime release, if you’ve ever thought of picnicking amongst the spires of Elsinore Castle, this is your soundtrack.

Emilie Simon isn’t goth, but she certainly holds no small amount of appeal for those who’ve spent time navigating the darkest recesses of the human psyche. Enormously popular in France but currently residing in Brooklyn, the Kate Bush comparisons have likely become tiresome to her. But, with her affected, beautifully operatic trill and staccato piano attack, they’re pretty much unavoidable. Yet where Bush was probably more of a harm to herself, psychologically, Mlle. Simon just might be a danger to the rest of us. In fact, her astonishing voice is perfectly suited to the anxiety ridden tales on her astonishing new album, The Big Machine. When she howls “Welcome to Chinatown!” you’d think she was the gatekeeper of Hell itself; and at the conclusion of “Cycle,” as she sighs, “No one came to me and took my soul,” you wonder if she’s expressing relief or daring you to be the one to do it. A riveting album by a truly magnificent eccentric, her live show, where she dons a “bionic prosthetic” is also strongly recommended for a full dose of her brilliant outlandishness.

Finally, no one would ever mistake a song by The Horrors for a lost Wilco track. So that Le Chef L’Horreur Faris Badwan would take a break from his grimly fiendish bandmates to do the musical mating dance with Italo-Canadian soprano Rachel Zeffira (who has already graced the stage at Milan’s La Scala) seems perfectly reasonable. A singular marriage of 60’s girl group pop and Mitteleuropa etherea, their new duo Cat’s Eyes (debut album due in May) is sort of like Martha & The Vandellas by way of the Cocteau Twins. Badwan proves, like Nick Cave before him, that behind every gruesome murder balladeer, there’s a hopeless, dark-hearted romantic. They’ve already played (would we kid you?) The Vatican in Rome–so check your local church listings for tour information.

Survival Strategies: How Bands Can Win At CMJ

After you find yourself stranded outside The Delancey behind a strange-looking man who is screaming, “I AM HERE TO SEE DELOREAN. THEY ARE A SPANISH BAND!” and you’re unable to get inside despite being “on the list,” you may decide that this isn’t an ideal venue to be hosting an event featuring a half-dozen rock bands. And then you may quickly resent the snarly boulder at the door who not only denies the existence of your wristband, which is on your wrist, but also the guest list. Defeated and unable to cover the band that was your raison d’etre for getting out of Brooklyn at such a ridiculous hour, you may even shamble over to Katz’s to stress-eat a knish. And then you’ll summarily dismiss three-quarters of all CMJ-related antics as “rubbish” and go onto pen a list of tips, tricks, and gimmicks that indie bands vying for relevance would do well to heed, lest they incur their own #CMJFails. That list is after the jump.

● Guitars are great, but there is only so much “shredding” musicians can accomplish while swinging their unshorn manes. Many bands would do well to take a cue from CMJ Best of Show Rubik and have an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to performance, swapping out guitars for trombones and electronic doohickeys on a lark.

● Sense of humor. Really, music stopped being about the music long, long ago. Heck, it even stopped being about the skinny jeans long, long ago, too. In these recessionomic times, people are likelier to fork over barely-there cash to their friends than total strangers. So musicians, be chummy and turn that frown upside down. Crack a joke. Do a jig. Heck, half-assedly play a Beyoncé cover. Seriously, your post-recession future depends on it.

● Women are talented. No really, indie bands! Many of you sound like James Blunt in the middle of a roid rage and would do well to scale it back. This sort of gimmick could break you into the major label success that you so desperately need. Consider fallen pop titans grasping for credibility. The UK’s teeming with them: Jamelia, that one Minogue sister who didn’t just wrap up a Stateside tour, and that broad from S Club 7. Camp adds color to an otherwise monochromatic indie sound. Seriously.

● Do not exceed your allotted time. I don’t care if this song is for your “best friend who helped me celebrate my cat’s birthday three nights ago” — if you’ve got 40 minutes, and we’re currently clocked in at minute 47, there is a problem. You should probably shut it down. Also: Please don’t dawdle in between songs. There’s always a midnight happy hour that CMJ attendees need to get to afterward.

● Most importantly: Mingle. You can sleep in all of next week. But the remainder of this week, dearest indie bands, you belong to the city.

From Bowie to Wilco: The Faces of Rubik’s Musical Cube

Most dimly, Finnish indie collective Rubik’s eclectic, airy pop-rock hybrid could be described as having tinges of Of Montreal in the sense that while sprawling, it’s never aimless. But that would be a sloppy comparison. And anyone who gives the much-buzzed Dada Bandits a casual listen will find that although initially intimidating, the album’s exciting amalgam of sounds begins to make sense, even if its as a glowing accent to a hipstery cocktail party wherein your Neitzsche-toting ex invariably broods in a corner.

There’s also something peculiarly anachronistic about Dada Bandits. Frontman Artturi Taira explains it as the result of “making music with a more childlike approach.” He elaborates, “When you’re a kid, things are new to you. You’re not sure what the world looks like. It had this kind of strange, scary side to it as well. We wanted to capture that, we were trying to approach a new angle to the music. Then of course it’s in the title. That came together of the concept of people taking things out of their context, and reorganizing them in a way that they get their own intentions.” Although Rubik plays Brooklyn’s Union Hall tonight and Manhattan’s Pianos tomorrow, Taira takes some time out to highlight 11 songs instrumental to his own creative process.

1. “Breaking Glass” by David Bowie This is such an amazing song. The way he plays with a typical song structure on that album Low Structurally, it’s not a traditional song.

2. “Harvest” by Ennio Morricone Most of [Morricone]’s most known work has been for Clint Eastwood’s Western films. But, he has scored a lot of orchestral songs too. This song is a cycle — there’s nothing much happening in it. Structurally, I like the way he uses harmonies. It’s a very simple song, but if you take a closer look at it, it’s well-written and so well-arranged. It’s a book written on arranging songs. My friend got married not that long ago and a friend and I performed this song. We rearranged it and I love that about music, getting to know it and playing around with it.

3. “Neon Golden” by The Notwist Really one of the only recent German bands that everyone likes. They’re one of those bands who can combine the electronic stuff with traditional sounds. Of course, they are masters and we are apprentices. When they played live in Helsinki not too long ago, it all made sense. They had a really complex set of samplers. It clicked and they really knew what they were doing.

4. “Ikuisuuden maailma” by Paavoharju This song by this Finnish folk band inspired me because it sums it all up. The electronics and the ambient landscapes and the other stuff they combine with it. I listened to their album a lot when we were writing Dada Bandits. I hope that at least someday we could accomplish something as beautiful as this song. It’s not rock music but that doesn’t matter to me, because it’s great.

5. “Winter Killing” by Stina Nordenstam This is a record I usually tend to come back to during springtime. It’s a dark album, lyrically. But at the same time, it’s really comforting in a way that things that come together in a better way. It’s very uplifting. I love the way she plays with words in the chorus — it’s so devastating.

6. “Black Swan” & “Idiot Heart” by Sunset Rubdown I had to pick them both — they’re a bit different. “Idiot Heart” isn’t prog rock per se — but it’s poppy prog rock which we always kind of wanted to get into. It reminds me of old David Bowie records. I really love their last album as well. Especially these two songs. “Black Swan” has a hypnotic beat and melody. They’re both very well-crated tunes.

7. “Marquee Moon” by Television Our first album was more guitar-oriented, but when talking about guitars and how to make sounds and arrangements, we wanted to have a couple of guitar songs on Dada Bandits as well. The guitar can be a melodic and percussive instrument at the same time. This song’s guitar music at its best.

8. “Seneca” by Tortoise I picked this one up because it’s really great instrumental rock music. I don’t think vocals are important in rock music. It’s a great example of how a rock song can be produced in a silent way, without any guys squealing on it and ruining it.

9. “I’m Waiting For The Man” by Beck I chose the cover [of the Velvet Underground original] because I’ve been listening to it lately. We could never do records like Beck’s cover album. Of course the original is unbeatable. We’re the kind of guys stuck in a studio for half a year. It’d be great if we made a record that was so spontaneous. The courage of doing that and putting it out — I appreciate that. And we probably couldn’t ever record an album that way. It’s the opposite of what we’re doing.

10. “Bull Black Nova” by Wilco That’s one of those songs that when you hear it for the first time, you think, “What the hell.” With everything that’s going on — this song is so hypnotic. They add little flavors to their music. I don’t think there are that many bands that can actually do that. Add drums here and there, or guitars here and there. It’s a great approach to making records–and arranging the songs. I love the albums they’ve made before. I had to pick this one because I don’t think there are many bands that can sound so vulnerable and infinite at the same time. But not in a cock rock way, but in a cool rock & roll way. And moody. I think that’s what I love about Wilco.