Indie Round-Up for Dec. 15 2005: Panic Division, Mankita, McMullen

Welcome to this week’s Indie Round-Up. Here in New York City we’re facing the threat of a transit strike, which feels like a mini-apocalypse in the making. So Aaron McMullen’s gritty urban folk music is fitting. Jay Mankita’s gentler songs are a balm. And Panic Division – well, the name feels just about right for this moment in this place. Read on.

Panic Division, Versus

This is corporate noise-pop at pretty close to its worst. Polished, professional, and forgettable, its headbanging rhythms, frantic power chords and circular melodies add up to empty grandiosity. Here and there, as in “Paradise” with its skewed beat and U2-borrowed melody, and in the moody “Little Child,” Panic Division comes up with something slightly more interesting to listen to, but even those bits are too derivative to say anything even slightly important. We heard early U2 back in the days of early U2; a faster version of Flock of Seagulls isn’t going to turn anyone’s world upside down either. These guys should be doing something more original with their musical talents.

Jay Mankita, Morning Face

Last time we covered Jay Mankita’s lighter-side CD. Today we discuss his more serious recent recording, Morning Face, which shows off his quirky, jazzy-bluesy songs, deft acoustic guitar work, and subtle take on the human condition. Everything Mankita does here is understated, and the more effective thereby. Graham Nash and early Simon and Garfunkel come to mind, but Mankita has a bluesier style than most guitar-folkies.

Songs like “Shadow” reflect his facility with children’s music, but it’s no kids’ song: “Shadow, shadow, you already know/You shadow of my former self, you’ve got to let me go.” The title track has a lilting, playful melody too, but there’s an adult sadness to the lyrics: “I bring to you my morning face, my morning face/My face before the thoughts rush in, before the waters of the flood rush in.” This is an evocation of childlike simplicity by a wistful adult mind that can’t quite recreate it.

Can’t always, anyway. Children and adults would both enjoy the delightful “Bread Alone” and “Rain Rain.” The latter unifies nature and humanity by calling on rain to “bring us life again,” wind to blow down “the foolish houes I build if they won’t bend,” and a ray of sunlight to “melt away the icy words I spoke to you today.”

In “How Deep And Wide,” a simple Donovan-like tune with a creepy minor-key break alternates with a traditional-dance instrumental theme and a folk-rock chorus a la the Roches. That structural complexity is of a piece with the irregular rhythms of the wordless “Finny in The Long Run,” the jazzy harmonics of “Worms in the Night,” and the jiglike but harmonically complex “Sliwa the Cat,” which picks up on the Celtic dance theme and adds a merry concertina to the mix.

Jay Mankita uses bits and pieces from various folk traditions to say his piece. His generous talent and heart will bring warmth to the spirits of – to use an overused but useful cliche – children of all ages. His CDs are available at CD Baby here.

Aaron McMullen, 75mg

Aaron McMullen’s latest lo-fi Web album is another collection of miniature slices of life in the dual locales of drunken urban streets and a sensitive mess of grey matter circa 2005, and circa any year. Many of the songs have a fragmentary nature, but some, such as The Nick Cave-like “Sad Song Sung” and the dramatic-as-Brel “City Country City,” display an increasing songwriting maturity on the part of this fella who’s always had a way with words: “Oh, here in the dark beneath these sheets,/I watched a play performed by spirits midst the twisting waves of heat/And when the play was through, I had a wakin dream a you.”

Behold a true Irish poet of the back alleys. “Oh, and the queen done propositioned me,/He had a song he sang to me/Was a tattered love song, ode to someone chewed the soul from outta him/But the song that snared my senses, yeah,/Wasn’t his, was someone else’s, yeah/And I can’t recall a single line,/An I never heard that song again.” Treading the knife edge of consciousness, these songs pull on you like a feral cat its prey. If he builds up his vocal power McMullen could make a serious impact with language like this.