Can’t Beat a Record Store
Three Recommendations From My Local Hangout

These days, there’s a seemingly infinite number of places to find new music.

Fans used to have to rely on the radio to hear new stuff. I remember listening to my boom box (yes, we called them that) with a blank tape at the ready, poised to hit record the second I heard the opening strains of whatever band’s new single I was dying to own. Then came MTV. Believe it or not, this network used to play music videos. Like, all the time, not just at 3 a.m. And they would play new stuff, and (most importantly) tell you the name of the band and the name of the album. I kept a notebook handy, because I am that much of a huge nerd.

But now? Between Spotify and Pandora and YouTube and Pitchfork Advance and four million websites with streams of new records, you can hear pretty much anything you want to. Read an intriguing-sounding band name in a review? Just plug that into a Google search and you can find out in seconds if they’re for you. It’s easier than ever to seek out new music to listen to, new bands to enjoy.

For me, though, you can’t beat a local record store. It’s more than a place to pick up CDs and vinyl, it’s a community hub. It’s a place where like-minded music fans can connect, can trade recommendations, can spin unknown pleasures and get immediate feedback. Yes, I take full advantage of the resources of the internet, and I find a lot of new music that way. But my favorite place to discover new stuff is Kiss the Sky, the best record store in Chicagoland.

The staff at Kiss the Sky has been invaluable lately, as I’ve tried to keep my resolution to try as many new bands as possible. I have three on tap this week, and I bought two of them after recommendations from Mike Messerschmidt, who looks like Terry O’Quinn from Lost, but knows his shit. And after nine years, he knows what I like, what will flip my switch. In both cases, he was absolutely right. In fact, those who paid attention to last week’s column will already know which albums I’m talking about.

Let’s start with my new favorite band, Little Green Cars.

This quintet is from Ireland. Your first clue should be that there’s an O’Regan, an O’Rourke and an O’Leary in the band, and the O’Leary’s first name is Donagh. Their debut album is called Absolute Zero, and you can find it occupying the number six spot on my top 10 list right now, ahead of the likes of Steven Wilson and Johnny Marr. These guys (and one girl) are barely in their twenties, and I ordinarily have a physical aversion to jumping on the bandwagon, particularly when it comes to young bands and their first albums. But this one is just awesome.

Imagine the harmonies of Fleet Foxes married to the jangly power pop of a band like Shoes, and you have a pretty good idea of the arresting first single, “Harper Lee.” The song slowly springs to life, Stevie Appleby’s shaky voice ringing out over strumming acoustic guitars, but when the chorus kicks in, it’s like the clouds suddenly parting. It’s the greatest “oo-we-oo-ooh” I’ve heard in a long time, and though the song doesn’t offer much more, it’s still a great way to open things.

The harmonies are the hallmark of Little Green Cars. Just listen to the rising waves of vocals that wash over “Angel Owl,” or the mass of singing voices on the Arcade Fire-ish “Big Red Dragon.” (“I’m not gonna wait for it, oh my god…”) And if propulsive rock with delicious vocal arrangements were all this band offered, they’d still be great. But Absolute Zero has a number of surprises in store. The first one comes at track three – “My Love Took Me Down to the River to Silence Me” introduces Faye O’Rourke on lead vocals, and she brings a Florence Welch energy to the proceedings. The song is marvelous, putting a different twist on their sound.

And then, just when you’re thinking you have the band figured out – sweet guitar-pop in a sea of harmonies – they spring “Red and Blue” on you. The music consists entirely of an oscillating organ line, and the five-part vocals are all auto-tuned – think Bon Iver’s “Woods.” The effect is mesmerizing, and what could have been a simple little ditty is something altogether stranger and more interesting. That leads into “The Kitchen Floor,” an emotional gut punch about ending a painful relationship. O’Rourke sings this one too, over a subtle electric piano bed. It’s wrenching and wonderful.

Little Green Cars keep the quality high all the way to the end, the delicate acoustic piece “Goodbye Blue Monday,” and by the time it’s done, you’ll be astonished that this is the band’s debut. There’s enough honey-throated goodness here to sustain an entire career. Absolute Zero is an accomplished work that belies the age and experience of its authors, and a damn fine album that any band would be proud to call its own. It is, thus far, the discovery of 2013.

Young Dreams isn’t far behind, though. I’m not sure how Mike hears about bands like this, but I’m glad he does. This band’s name is the worst thing about them. They’re a 12-piece pop collective from Norway, led by Mathias Tellez, who produced their first album, Between Places. And again we have a confident debut album with a fresh sound and a sure step.

Young Dreams is everything I wish Animal Collective could be. My favorite material from Panda and Avey has been their most Brian Wilson-influenced, and Young Dreams takes that foundation and builds a gleaming tower on it. There are gauzy synthesizers in abundance, but there are also real strings and glockenspiels and horns and glorious, glorious harmonies. Best of all, there are songs – deeply melodic, complex yet still catchy songs, with new surprises every few seconds.

Opener “Footprints” sets the tone. The fuzzy synths and electronic drum patter will be familiar to Animal Collective fans, but when Tellez sings, his clear and bright-eyed voice sends things skyward. The chorus sports a gorgeous vocal arrangement, and the extra “ah” in the refrain that follows seals the deal. This song is terrific, and it only gets better as it goes along. “Wounded Hearts Forever” picks up the ball and runs with it, opening with a synth orchestra and ending with a wondrous keyboard dance party. In between, the Beach Boys melodies keep on coming – the chorus is particularly Wilson-esque.

By this point, you’ll likely be overwhelmed by the physical sound of this record. The band obviously labored over it, layering color atop color, and the result is simultaneously airy and massive. The arrangements are certainly fussy, but all of that precision somehow results in a record that feels unbounded, one that takes flight early and doesn’t come back down. “First Days of Something” is like a mix of Dream Academy and Vampire Weekend, merging Paul Simon guitars with piccolos and blipping keys, but it works beautifully, the song climbing and climbing until it breaks our atmosphere.

The band’s ambitions truly become clear on the 11-minute “The Girl Who Taught Me to Drink and Fight,” an epic of SMiLE-esque proportions. Though parts of it may feel like jams, this is clearly a carefully-thought-out piece, swinging from section to section with nimble joy. When the vocals come soaring back in at the eight minute mark, it’s simply glorious. The album ends with the song that shares the band’s name, and it’s a brief benediction, summing up most of what’s great about this record. You can almost forgive them for choosing the name Young Dreams.

Between Places is a stunning debut, an attempt to make Pet Sounds right out of the gate. It falls short, certainly – it’s at times too committed to its sonic overload, and that gets a bit monotonous. But if this band can hone and refine their sound, they’re going to make a masterpiece one day. Between Places comes remarkably close.

So those were Mike’s recommendations, and I’m thankful. The third of my new-to-me bands this week comes from Mike’s fellow Kiss the Sky employee Rob Hale, who, I swear, listens to absolutely everything. One day he’ll be waxing ecstatic about some Belgian prog band, the next putting on some vintage Art Blakey jazz session. You never know what he’s going to like, but since he has just about the broadest taste I’ve ever encountered, I pay attention when he gives me a heads up.

His new obsession is And So I Watch You From Afar, another group from Ireland. Their work is largely instrumental, and eminently danceable despite its proggier leanings. Their third album is called All Hail Bright Futures, and Rob believes it was written as a single piece of music, then cut into tracks during recording. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out he’s right – the album as a whole is an explosion of joy, a guitar-drenched party from another planet, and it feels of a piece.

Musicians will certainly admire this band’s chops. The ringing guitar line on “Big Thinks Do Remarkable” is tricky and ultra-fast, and the band locks into some complicated grooves on “Ambulance” and “Mend and Make Safe.” This is not easy material to play, and it was obviously hammered into shape over months of rehearsal and refinement. But that makes it sound stuffy, and this is anything but. On the contrary, this stuff rocks – just listen to “Like a Mouse,” all of 2:39 and every second of it head-bangingly fun.

Adding to the sense that this was one long piece of music initially is “The Stay Golden,” an eight-minute epic divided across three tracks. It glides from kinetic rave-up to blissful, wistful finale, complete with chiming trumpet. It’s definitely the most accomplished thing here, if not the most fun. That title goes to “Ka Ba Ta Bo Da Ka,” a delightful piece which features those syllables sung in rounds over a shifting guitar party, with a big riff showing up around the three minute mark. The album ends with the seven-minute “Young Brave Minds,” a slowly-building summation of everything this band does well. It’s grand.

You may think you don’t like bands like And So I Watch You From Afar, with their distinct lack of lyrics and their prog sensibilities. But check them out. They’re a mostly-instrumental band for people who don’t think they like mostly-instrumental bands. All Hail Bright Futures is certainly head-spinningly complex, but you won’t even notice over the sound of how much fun it is. Thanks for the recommendation, Rob.

Next week, probably the Strokes and Depeche Mode. Leave a comment on my blog at Follow me on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date.

See you in line Tuesday morning.