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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY with some new music. Critic John Brady has a review of three new bands from the Pacific Northwest. They are redefining the music scene there with their distinctive, sometimes quirky, voices.

Mr. JOHN BRADY (Music critic): Olympia, Washington's Calvin Johnson has a voice as flat as warm, day old beer.

(Soundbite of song, "When Hearts Turn Blue")

Mr. CALVIN JOHNSON (Singer): (Singing) If the sky can hold on past deepest black, through pastel hues.

Mr. BRADY: Oddly enough, that's part of his appeal. With his off-key, bassy voice and lean, jangly melodies, Johnson shucks off many of the usual pop music trappings. He's a cool and detached hipster with an out-of-kilter sound. He couples this with dryly humorous and sometimes surreal lyrics. In this song, Johnson riffs on the tale of the tortoise and the hare.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) ...new sign to every person, the tortoise and the hare, I'm a turtle when I'm working, and a rabbit as a player...

WEINER: Johnson is a scene veteran. He co-founded the record label K Records, which has been an influential incubator of indie music for many years. By contrast, Portland resident Chad Crouch is a relative new comer.

(Soundbite of song, "Stephanie, My First Crush")

Mr. CHAD CROUCH (Singer): (Singing) We met each other at the autumn dance. Behind the lockers, Lisa said do you like me?

WEINER: Recording under the name Toothfairy, Chad Crouch sings in a soft, wispy voice that tends to dissipate at the end of the phrase. On his album Formative, he revisits his teenage years, to funny and touching effect. With a mixture of both nostalgia and pained embarrassment, he takes the listener on an audio tour of episodes from his adolescence.

(Soundbite of song, "Stephanie, My First Crush")

Mr. CROUCH: (Singing) I'm leaning forward together. Stephanie likes me. I only want to be alone with her. Stephanie, under a tree. I'm going to whisper in (unintelligible), Stephanie, sweet pea. Still and clumsy this attraction, Stephanie, I'm learning.

WEINER: The music is almost always catchy and entertaining. It is crowded in contemporary electronic music, but it also harkens back to the bands Crouch avidly listened to as a teenager: Depeche Mode, Erasure, and OMD. Both Johnson and Crouch favor a wry and lightly ironic take on life.

Beth Ditto, lead singer of the Portland-based "The Gossip," leans heavily towards the sincere.

(Soundbite of "Fire with Fire")

Ms. BETH DITTO (Singer): (Singing) It ain't the end of the world, girl. You'll find you're place in the world, girl. All you've got to do is stand up and fight fire with fire.

WEINER: She's a punk-rock howler in the tradition of the X-Ray Spex's Poly Styrene, or Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna. But she also has a bit of the sexy, soulful disco diva in her.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DITTO: (Singing) Everything you do has got a hold on me. Then every thing I do has got a hold in it, but I can...

WEINER: As a result, Ditto can give stormy voice to a desire for independence and control, but she's also capable of more sensual, embodied explorations of her emotions. It's a compelling juxtaposition: fierce and voluptuous.

Ms. DITTO: (Singing) Ya'll make it hot. Your (unintelligible) is hanging onto memories. You're letting go of everything that used to be. I've had enough, you fill me up to let me down.

WEINER: I'm reassured by Johnson, Crouch, and Ditto, because they testify to the persistence of pop music's vitality. The music world can be fickle, and the Pacific Northwest doesn't garner the publicity it once did. But whether the critics are paying attention or not, the musicians continue to invent creative, sometimes idiosyncratic takes on the pop sound. Without the spotlight, you may have to look a little harder, but as these three demonstrate, it's worth the search.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DITTO: (Singing) Oo. You're making hot. You're (unintelligible) love, that's hanging on to memories.

BRAND: Music critic John Brady is a writer living in Los Angles. DAY TO DAY returns in a moment.

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