Monday, December 17, 2007

Free and legal MP3s from Fingertips

(as featured on This Week's Finds, Dec. 16-22)

"Walk in the Woods" - Shipwreck
     As Stephen Sondheim cautioned us some time ago, going into the woods is never a straightforward enterprise. Something lurks, shadows predominate, and change--not initially for the better--is always afoot. And even though the cryptic lyrics here do not describe anything overtly terrible, "Walk in the Woods" drips omen and portent, from its itchy, hihat-driven beat to Harman Jordan's deadpan baritone to the wailing lead guitar that quite literally becomes a siren as the plot thickens.
     The latent creepiness may be rooted most of all in the song's structure, of all things. There are verses but no actual chorus--instead, there are lyrical lines that are repeated twice in succession; the first line that's repeated this way comes back at the end, but the other two are never heard again. On the one hand, this kind of forces us to wonder if there might not be some hidden meaning in the words (or in some cases, to wonder why we still can't quite understand the words even hearing them twice in a row)--a feeling enhanced by the mysterious phrases that are in fact discernible: "sparrows in a yellow sky," "thunder is a lullaby," et al. On the other hand, we are given nothing solid to hang onto. A chorus typically grounds us in a song--in "Walk in the Woods," the ground keeps shifting. We don't even get much melody, as the verses are almost spoken-sung. And yet, rather marvelously, we get plenty of drama, all in a swift 3:14.
     Shipwreck is a quartet from Champaign, Illinois. "Walk in the Woods" was out earlier this year on a self-released EP; it has emerged again on the band's first full-length, entitled Rabbit in the Kitchen With a New Dress On, which was released on None Records (a so-called "sub-label" of
Polyvinyl Records) earlier this month. MP3 via the band's site.

"Heaven" - Club 8
     Cheerful bongos and a melodic bass line propel this dreamy, resplendent slice of Swedish pop with insouciant authority. It's hard not to like a song with bongos (or a melodic bass line, for that matter). It's also hard not to like a song this resolutely tuneful, particularly when said tune is delivered by Karolina Komstedt, whose voice is imbued with a sublime sort of weary vibrancy that makes me hang on her every sound--and I do mean every sound, since I'm finding I'm quite enjoying, even, the way she breathes. Listen, for instance, to her potent intake of breath at 0:45, in advance of launching into the lustrous chorus, sounding as much like a sigh as a breath--I mean, how weary/vibrant is that?
     Komstedt and partner Johan Angergård have been recording as Club 8 since 1995; Angergård is also in the band Acid House Kings, which may account for the leisurely pace of Club 8 albums--The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Dreaming, on which you'll find "Heaven," is the duo's sixth in these 13 years. It was released in October on the marvelous
Labrador Records, based in Stockholm and Malmö. MP3 courtesy of Labrador.

"Little 18" - Eric Matthews
     Open on a brooding piano vamp featuring an unsettled chord or two, cue the husky-voiced crooner ("I think I sound like the rainy half of the west coast," he says), and settle back and listen to a pop rarity: a song with a long, long, long melody line--more than 30 measures' worth of continually developing melody, repeated twice with an instrumental break in between. This sort of melody is largely unheard of in rock songwriting, and is pretty unusual anywhere outside of classical music. (Even back in the days of so-called pop "standards," while longer melodies were more common, they were still rarely if ever this long.)
     Eric Matthews, as it turns out, is pretty unusual himself. Classically trained on the trumpet (that's him on the horn during the break; as a matter of fact, that's him on all the instruments), he knows his way around actual orchestral scores, while at the same time was turned on musically, in high school, by the dark sounds of the second half of the British new wave--by bands such as Tones on Tail, Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Smiths, music that would ultimately lead him to a pop rather than a classical career. Matthews definitely has the voice for it; perhaps the main reason his protracted melody is so engaging is the well-rounded depth of his singing. And yet it's also, I think, ear-arresting to listen to a pop lyric--Matthews is here offering some hard-headed but hardly earth-shattering advice to some unnamed young woman--unfold in this uncharacteristic musical setting.
     Matthews put out his first album back in 1994, while part of the duo Cardinal; two solo albums for Sub Pop Records followed in '95 and '97, after which he dropped out of sight until a 2005 mini-LP for Empyrean Records. A full-length followed in '06. "Little 18" is a track from his forthcoming album, The Imagination Stage, due out in January on
Empyrean, which is hosting the MP3. Thanks to Filter for the lead.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Favorite free and legal MP3s of 2007

Over the course of the year, Fingertips has featured in-depth reviews of roughly 150 excellent free and legal MP3s. Pruning that list of already really good songs down to a top 10 proved to be a piece of cake pretty much impossible. And so what follows are two lists: one of my top 10 favorite free and legal MP3s of 2007, and another featuring my next 12 favorite free and legal MP3s of the year. Click on the song titles to download; click on the word "more" to read the original "This Week's Finds" review. More information about this page is available here. Maybe you missed some of these the first time around, so happy listening, and happy seasonal holiday of your liking. (If you'd like to listen to the songs right now, without downloading, visit the page on the main Fingertips site where these lists are posted, which features media players to play the songs.)


"Boy With a Coin" - Iron & Wine  
"Every One of Us" - Goldrush  
"Diamond Heart" - Marissa Nadler 
"TV Reality (the New Plague)" - Contramano  
"Remission" - Ryan Ferguson  
"Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe" - Okkervil River  
"She's In Love" - Fourth of July  
"Down in the Valley" - The Broken West  
"Flesh and Spirits" - the Gena Rowlands Band  
"He Keeps Me Alive" - Sally Shapiro  


"Limbs" - Emma Pollock  
"The Main Thing is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing" - I Am Bones 
"Elusive" - Scott Matthews  
"23" - Blonde Redhead  
"Are You Sleeping" - Sara Culler  
"Black Mirror" - the Arcade Fire  
"Parables" - Rebekah Higgs  
"Speak to Me Bones" - Land of Talk  
"That's That" - Cass McCombs  
"Broken Arm" - Winterpills  
"All the Same Mistakes" - Mieka Pauley  
"Here's Your Future" - the Thermals 

Monday, December 10, 2007

Three great free and legal MP3s, selected by Fingertips

(as featured on This Week's Finds, Dec. 9-15)

"Confidences Shattered" - Camphor
     When bands get it right, they can make their music sound so easy and familiar that they don't seem to be doing much of anything at all. This is one important reason why critics or bloggers or fellow musicians who would sniff at a band for not doing anything "new" are so misguided. Good music isn't all about "new"; it's about "good," and sometimes--maybe a lot of times--this has not too much to do with sounding new.
     Camphor is a marvelous case in point. There is nothing obviously new about "Confidences Shattered" but many a good and right and splendid thing. The crisp aural landscape is a major part of the appeal, capturing as it does a down-home sort of chamber pop with smashing clarity and precision. As the players play with skill, creativity, and restraint (a rare trifecta), the recording continually gives the listener the sensation of being in the room with them as they shift in their seats, adjust the grips on their instruments, and invent percussive accents. But the clincher here is Max Avery Lichtenstein's marvelous voice, which has a gracious, gratifying depth (nothing against tenors but it's nice to hear a baritone every now and then!); and he sings with impeccable timing. Check out how he phrases "whenever the mood strikes you" at 1:49; more subtly, check out how his words "left us broke" (starting around :42) give the instruments extra oomph in the spaces in between.
     As with many indie bands in the '00s, Camphor is the brainchild of one mastermind, who then enlists a bevy of sidekicks to flesh out the sound. Unusual in this case, however, is Lichtenstein's background--he's a film composer who has worked on the critically-acclaimed movies Tarnation (2003) and Home Front (2006), among others. "Confidences Shattered" is from his debut CD as Camphor, Drawn to Dust, which will be released in February on
Friendly Fire Recordings. MP3 via Friendly Fire.

"Stains on Your Sweater" - Jong Pang
     Okay, back to the tenors--in this case a tenor with such a soaring range that I had to double-check to be sure this was in fact a man singing. It is; he's Danish musician Anders Rhedin, formerly of a band called Moon Gringo. Rhedin has been away from rock'n'roll for a few years, apparently immersing himself in world, folk, and classical music. But he's back in the indie world and seems to be going by Jong Pang this time around.
      "Stains on Your Sweater" announces itself with an unearthly fanfare before we even hear Rhedin's keening vocals. An upward-yearning fourth interval repeats on an electronic keyboard, but listen carefully to what else is in there: an acoustic guitar, some industrial noise, and, if I'm not mistaken, either choral voices or electronically simulated choral voices. Half robotic, half medieval, this is quite a stew in which to cook a pop song. But it hardly needs be said that this is no normal pop song. Rhedin's double-tracked voice enters 30 seconds in, singing about stains and sleeves and sweaters; and while the content is difficult to decipher what is clear is the deliberate repetition of words, creating a sort of slowed-down minimalist ambiance, reinforced by the reiterating fourth interval that continually informs the musical structure, even when the hammering keyboard riff disappears. I love the use of flat-out noise--you'll hear an episode of it from 0:57 to 1:24--and how the song continues on otherwise, as if nothing untoward is occurring: the drumming keeps the beat, the chord progression progresses, and, best of all, a stubborn piano picks out a slightly desultory melody despite all the commotion. "Stains on Your Sweater" is a song from the forthcoming Jong Pang debut, to be called Bright White Light, set for release in 2008 on a new European label called Tigerspring (so new it doesn't yet have a web site). MP3 courtesy of Tigerspring.

"Seasons Greetings" - Robbers on High Street
     And talk about getting something right. Christmas music is, as I'm sure I don't have to tell you, something very easy to do, well, not right. The NYC-based Robbers on High Street, with their effortless Kinks-like flair, convert this strange musical relic--originally one of 200,000 "song poems" that were created over the course of 50 years during the last century (a phenonmenon you can read more about
here)--into its own sort of homely holiday classic.
      Song poems were basically a scam. The idea was to lure people via small magazine ads (which originally promised income for songwriting) into paying good money to have their words converted into a recorded song with as little effort as possible, by uncredited industry hacks. This was not how to crack the Billboard Hot 100. A few years back, Bar/None Records released a couple of compilations of these original song-poem recordings, one of which was a Christmas album. "Seasons Greetings," written by Raymond Moberly and originally performed by an outfit called Teri Summers and the Librettos, is a song filled with generic sentiment and lines that often don't scan very well with the music. Robbers on High Street dive merrily in, giving it a Phil Spector-beated intro (cute) and latching breezily onto the song's gleeful melody, which comes alive in a very Ron Sexsmith-y sort of way when relieved of the lounge-singer pseudo-swing of the original version. MP3 available via
New Line Records.

(Coming soon: Fingertips' Favorite Free and Legal MP3s of 2007! Online by week's end.)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

CD Review: Watch the Fireworks, by Emma Pollock

Fingertips reviews one of the year's best--and most overlooked--releases:

Watch the Fireworks
Emma Pollock

4AD Records

"If Silence Means That Much to You" is the best song of 2007 that you probably haven't heard--three minutes and forty-seven seconds of delightfully unfolding interpersonal melodrama, with engaging rhythmic shifts and a memorable chorus featuring a melody that swings effortlessly between the beats. This is the work of an assured songwriter and it is one of many unmitigated pleasures on Watch the Fireworks, an album that you may not heard much of either. The first solo album to emerge from a member of the late, lamented Scottish band, the Delgados, Watch the Fireworks seems to have vanished without much of a trace, as Delgados records tended to do here also.

It's inexplicable, really. Pollock has an uncanny capacity to keep her songs interesting, infusing them with stimulating melodies, engaging changes, and a sense of honest humanity. Her voice glows with a lucent authority that hits both the louder and the softer notes, the faster and the slower ones, with easy confidence. (Two other highlights are quieter tunes: the former TWF pick "Limbs" and the swaying, commanding "Fortune," which withholds its most powerful melody until one-third of the way through.) Despite its lack of overt trendiness, the album has by and large received solid critical praise--it's really just too good for anyone with even half an ear to dismiss. And yet since its September release, Watch the Fireworks has pretty much slipped quietly away.

Or maybe this is not quite so inexplicable, if one asks: would this be happening if Pollock were younger and more of a babe? The artist behind this mighty record is, merely, a serious and seriously talented singer and songwriter. Not good enough for the blogosphere (37 mentions to date on the Hype Machine--two of them here--versus 210 for Lily Allen, for example), or for the adult alternative radio stations that should have been all over this CD this fall but have by and large ignored it. I strongly suggest that you do not make the same mistake.   
[buy via Fingertips Record Shop]

(as featured on the Fingertips Album Bin page, posted December 8)

Monday, December 03, 2007

Free and legal MP3s, selected by Fingertips

(as featured on This Week's Finds, Dec. 2-8)

"Small Town Crew" - the Brunettes
This one sounds pure and true and good--completely devoid of the "hmm, what's the best way to sound cool?" sensibility that mars some of the music one hears from U.S. and U.K. bands in particular. The Brunettes are from New Zealand, so that partially explains it. But the key here, to me, is Heather Mansfield's voice, which is heart-breaking if you listen carefully: gorgeous and imperfect, it's a little bit breathy, a little bit raspy, a little bit almost-out-of-tune, a little bit era-free (she's kind of '60s but also kind of not), and maybe at its most fetching when reaching towards her upper register. Another boy-girl duo in this golden age of boy-girl duos, the Brunettes aren't rigid about it; even as Mansfield plays keyboards, glockenspiel, xylophone, and clarinet(!) (her partner, Jonathan Bree, sings and plays guitar), the twosome is happy to bring in other players when it seems like a good idea, which can be almost any time at all, apparently. A trumpet wanders in about a third of the way through, offers some smart Bacharachy punctuation, then gives way to some (synthesized?) strings and ultimately (why not) an accordion--which later becomes part of an instrumental break featuring (for probably the first time in rock history) accordion, xylophone, and electronic percussion. It's quirky but the bittersweet melody, anchoring guitar work, and Mansfield's unerring voice keep everything brilliantly just so. "Small Town Crew" is from the CD Structure & Cosmetics, which came out on
Subpop Records back in August. Not sure how this one passed me by at the time but, as the saying goes, better late than really really late. MP3 via Subpop.

"Time to Pretend" - MGMT
So you're two freshmen goofing around with electronic music in college who end up forming a band more or less by accident. Goes without saying, therefore, that within four years, legendary producer Steve Lillywhite hears you and gets you signed to a four-record, six-figure deal with Columbia Records. Or not; but that's what has indeed happened to Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, who met at Wesleyan in 2002 and within months of graduating were shaking hands with major-label honchos. If this song is indicative, these guys do in fact have something interesting going--something, in this particular case, that merges thick, hairy, synth-driven beats with a quasi-cheesy, neo-glam-rock vibe and a wry take on life. Pushed along by a chipper, just this side of irritating synthesizer riff, "Time to Pretend" lays out a cliched story of rock-star decadence and flameout as something the band is simply "fated to pretend" rather than achieve. Amusingly, we can't quite tell if they're making fun of the musicians who've succumbed to this or the rest of us for our standard, humdrum existences--or, most likely, both. "Time to Pretend" is the lead track from the band's debut CD, Oracular Spectacular, which came out digitally last month, available via iTunes; the CD will apparently be released next month. MP3 via

"My Oldest Memory" - Bowerbirds
Another song that has been around since the summer too, but in this case I've actually been listening to it for that long (unlike the Brunettes song, which I just recently discovered). "My Oldest Memory" resides on the least pop-like end of the Fingertips music spectrum; I've been transfixed since I first heard it by the eerie-Appalachian instrumentation, inscrutable lyricism, and elusive structure, but have been uncertain about the song's apparent lack of hooks--just when I want the song to kick into something simple and solid, it instead recedes into its landscape-like, fiddle-based complexities, homespun percussion, and that abrupt non-sing-along-y sing-along section. This week, however, it more or less flung itself after "Time to Pretend," daring me to push it away. I dare not. This song has legs, and deserves a good long listen at your end too. Bowerbirds is a trio from Raleigh featuring Phil Moore singing and doing some other things, Mark Paulson on violin and some other things, and Beth Tacular, an accomplished painter who also happens to play accordion and marching-band bass drum, while sitting. "My Oldest Memory" can be found on their debut CD, Hymns for a Dark Horse, which was released in July on
Burly Time Records. Thanks way back when to Gorilla vs. Bear for the head's up and the link.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Fingertips Top 10 free and legal MP3s - update

The Fingertips Current Top 10, an ever-shifting listing of ten extra-good free and legal MP3s, has been updated. Here's what it looks like now, with new additions indicated with an asterisk:

1. "Boy With a Coin" - Iron & Wine
2. "Diamond Heart" - Marissa Nadler
3. "He Keeps Me Alive" - Sally Shapiro
4. "The Main Thing is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing" - I Am Bones
5. "That's That" - Cass McCombs
6. "Parables" - Rebekah Higgs*
7. "Million Dollars Bail" - Peter Case
8. "Adrenaline" - Emma Pollock
9. "Saturday Night" - Pale Young Gentlemen*
10. "Dead Sound" - the Raveonettes

The Rebekah Higgs song was added on 11/19; Pale Young Gentlemen's "Saturday Night" will officially be on the chart as of tomorrow. Songs stay on the Current Top 10 chart for a maximum of three months, but not all are so lucky. Links are direct to the MP3s (if all goes well). Visit the Top 10 page on the Fingertips web site for more information, or just for the heck of it.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Free and legal MP3 goodness from Fingertips

(as featured on This Week's Finds, Nov. 25-Dec. 1)

"Saturday Night" - Pale Young Gentlemen
The Madison-based ensemble that call themselves Pale Young Gentlemen (the prominently featured cellist is a woman, however) play a singular sort of theatrical indie pop, featuring a jaunty sense of melody, a soft spot for old-timey rhythms, and something of Randy Newman's way with string-enhanced, piano-based vamping. The aforementioned cello lends an indefinable suggestion of yesteryear to the proceedings, while lead singer and pianist Mike Reisenauer--sounding like a cross between Adam Duritz and Andrew Bird, with a dusting of Chris Martin--sings with a amicable sort of semi-boozey flair; when he gets to the rollicking chorus I can all but see him doing a vaudevillian sort of backward-moving kick step and spread-hand shimmy. And I like how economically the Pale Young Gents manage the theatrics; rather than drowning us with strings or layered, Freddie Mercury-style vocals, the song gives us the feel of something orchestrated with, in fact, a minimal number of instruments, skillfully but informally played--the music has the air of something that everyone maybe just finished rehearsing half a moment before they sat down to record. Keep an ear out too for the backing vocals, sung with fine slapdash charm. "Saturday Night" is a song from the band's self-released, self-titled debut CD, which came out way back in March, but only recently came to the attention of the hard-working mail sorters in the Fingertips home office.

"Truck" - the Octopus Project
Indefatigable and gleeful instrumental pop from one of the indie world's most beloved and quirky outfits. (Note that it is difficult if not impossible to achieve beloved status in the indie world without quirkiness.) As noted the previous times the Octopus Project has graced the pages of this web site (a TWF pick in '05
here; the Select Artist Guide entry here), this Austin-based quartet has an almost magical way of converting its beepy, boopy sounds into something rich and satisfying, even to the ears of this non-instrumental-oriented listener. Here, a sprightly synthesizer comprises the not-as-simple-as-it-seems core of this fleet-footed 7/4 rave-up. As usual, the band's uncommon ability to blend the electronic, the electric, and the percussive into an organic-sounding whole is front and center (although its endearing use of the theremin is not, unfortunately, on obvious display in this song). While the 7/4 time signature is not unheard of in pop music, the band's ability to rock out, briskly, within this framework is ear-catching. Likewise ear-catching are the short bridge-like sections during which the 7/4 is abandoned for an even more off-kilter beat (for instance, from 0:20 to 0:31; could be 5/4, maybe, partly) before rejoining the seven-beat groove. Don't miss the outer space version of the bridge, from 1:32 to 1:43, when the synthesizer pairs with one ringing guitar to create, somehow, a shimmering sound that almost "out-aliens" the absent theremin, before giving way to hard-bashing 7/4 craziness the rest of the way. "Truck" is a song from the CD Hello, Avalanche, the band's third full-length disc, which was released last month on Peek-A-Boo Records.

"Falling Behind" - Dear Euphoria
Elina Johansson has a slight Sandy Denny-ish tremor in her tender, affecting voice, lending a luminous air to this song's pervading sadness--a sadness induced by the crestfallen pace, spare setting, and broken-hearted lyrics but not, interestingly, by the actual music, which is mostly comprised of major rather than minor chords. Listen carefully and you may hear how closely the verses hang on top of one of the most familiar bass lines in the 20th-century pop songbook, the one from novice-pianist-friendly "Heart and Soul"; the chorus, meanwhile, floats us into a forlorn, asymmetrical space in which Johansson's doubletracked voice sings a melodic line that repeats once too often while the drummer retreats, taking the assurance of a beat with him (or her). The plaintive ambiance ultimately forces an alternative interpretation of Dear Euphoria--bliss that is not sweet but, rather, costly. Born in Sweden, Johansson did not begin performing until she moved to Los Angeles for a while earlier in the decade; she "took it as a sign to return home when daily turning on the ac to max," according to some sketchy but evocative biographical information on her web site. Dear Euphoria is not a band but the name Johansson performs under, with, sometimes, a small circle of regular side players. "Falling Behind" is a song from the self-titled debut CD, which came out last month on London-based
Stereo Test Kit Records. This CD is a re-worked version of an album that was self-released, with a different title, in 2005; the new CD has subtracted two of the original songs and added four new ones (including "Falling Behind"). MP3 is via the Stereo Test Kit site.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Check out free and legal music from Nicole Atkins

The latest addition to the Fingertips Select Artist Guide is Nicole Atkins. Here's the entry, as found on the Select Artist Guide page of the main Fingertips site:

Nicole Atkins
The New Jersey-based Atkins has a big voice, a healthy respect for music history, and a heady command of the craft of songwriting. I'm pretty sure she's going places beyond the "This Week's Finds" page (where she has, so far, been featured
here and here). Between her first and second TWF appearance she was signed to a major label (Sony's Red Ink imprint); even so, I'm happy to report that her music still sounds great, and (even more unusually) free and legal MP3s remain online so you can hear for yourself. The only problem is the four MP3s she has available are not all in one place. Check out "Skywriters" and "Carouselle" by following the links to the TWF blurbs, earlier in this paragraph; "Party's Over" is available via Sony, here, and "Bleeding Diamonds" via the SXSW site, here (thanks to Frank at Chromewaves for gathering these together and reminding me I wanted to do this entry).

* * * * * *

The Select Artist Guide on the main Fingertips site is a list of artistically notable bands and/or musicians offering free and legal music to download on the web. "Artistically notable" is the key phrase. This is most definitely a select list, as the title indicates. There are many many (many) musicians on the web offering free and legal MP3s. Relatively few of them will be listed within the Select Artist Guide; the intent is to point you to quality artists who offer at least two (and in most cases more) free and legal MP3s online and to show you exactly where to find them. There are currently 80 artists featured, including the Arcade Fire, Neko Case, Kathleen Edwards, Midlake, Okkervil River, the Shins, and Tom Waits.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Another high-quality batch of free and legal MP3s from Fingertips

(as featured on This Week's Finds, Nov. 18-24)

"You Can't Say No Forever" - Lacrosse
Peppy, winsome, and unpretentious, "You Can't Say No Forever" launches off a nimble acoustic intro, picks up a boy-girl pair of lead singers singing maybe not exactly in tune all the time, a drum kit, an electric guitar or two, an endearing synthesizer (don't miss it), and a nice fat horn line before it's all through in a scant three minutes six seconds. The almost but not quite zany energy is the infectious result of a delightful sing-song-y melody and six musicians playing with great bustling spirit--as they get going, I can all but picture the jouncing body parts working things into a dust cloud, like some cartoon animal band, setting up the climactic moment (at 2:25) when the instruments stop on a dime and the vocalists join together for a heartfelt "ba-da-da-da-da-da," which repeats as the piece draws to its lively close. We have by the way yet another band from Sweden here--Lacrosse is from Stockholm, and are signed to
Tapete Records, the German label with an enviable habit of releasing wonderful music. "You Can't Say No Forever" is from the CD This New Year Will Be For You and Me, which was released in Europe this month. The MP3 is via the Tapete site.

"Evergreen" - Celebration
With its carnival organ, idiosyncratic drum beat, cagey structure, and elusive vocals--not only is the singer hard to understand, but you might not initially realize that a woman and not a tenor is singing--this is truly an unusual song. I've been sitting with it for quite a while already; it was one of those that fascinated me at an unconscious level, leaving my conscious mind a bit perplexed as to why I kept listening and listening. I'm still not sure I know, exactly, but it definitely has something to do with the unique texture created by the swirling instrumentation, scuttly drumming, Katrina Ford's reverberant voice, and maybe most of all the seductively repetitive melody--listen to how Ford stays centered on one note a whole lot of the time; the furtive dives she takes to lower pitches somehow serve to further emphasize the unmoving primary note. And I may be crazy but deep within the kaleidoscopic organ sound I'm sensing the beating heart of an old-time soul record, as I could swear I'm hearing a Booker T. and the M.G.s/Stax Records reference in the mix somewhere. "Celebration" is the lead track off this Baltimore-based trio's second CD, The Modern Tribe, which was released last month on
4AD Records. MP3 courtesy of Beggars Group, 4AD's parent label.

"Faster Than Cars Drive" - Kate Tucker & the Sons of Sweden
The combination of tough and lonely is an appealing one, and Tucker's got it going here, with a tough and lonely shuffle that sounds a bit like Patty Griffin trying to do a Mazzy Star imitation, with Neko Case for a teacher. Tucker's got an achy edge to her breathy voice, while her able band creates a world of subtle feeling behind her via a series of fluid changes in their reverb-laced playing. Keep your ear on the drummer in particular, who drives the one obvious, and central, change: the apparent time shift of the chorus, which isn't a time shift at all, simply an ear-arresting rhythmic trick. This outfit, by the way, is actually not from Sweden, but from the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard--which was the traditional center of the city's Scandanavian community (thus, it would seem, the band name). The Sons of Sweden, by the way, were a band called the Dark Ages before joining forces with Tucker, who has herself released one solo CD before this one. "Faster Than Cars Drive" is from the self-titled debut CD as an ensemble--a disc produced by Ryan Hadlock, who has worked with Blonde Redhead and Metric, among other bands. The CD was self-released at the end of October, on the band's Red Valise Records imprint.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Nov. 11-17

"Parables" - Rebekah Higgs
This one starts almost before the musicians have picked up their instruments. We hear tuning, we hear the singer warming up, and then we hear the song kick in, but listen carefully--in addition to the instantly engaging and well-textured groove, you'll hear a layer or two of ghostly electronics echoing in the aural distance. Unlike many who have explored a mix of acoustic and electronic sounds (often a simple mashing of acoustic guitar and laptop effects), Higgs uses electronics with an orchestral flair, weaving beautiful howls and altered vocal effects into a down-home mix of guitar, drums, banjo, and strings. At the song's center are a resilient, six-measure melody (the same for both verse and chorus) and Higgs' breathy-scratchy, bumpy-yet-frisky voice. Together they can do no wrong; interspersed with noodly sections featuring the words "I will" amidst an eddying swirl of loops, indistinct sounds, stray lyrics, and banjo, the main melody returns each time like a trusty friend. The end result is hypnotic--the song is five minutes long but might as well be two or ten, time kind of becoming elastic in the hands of this 24-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarist from Halifax with a bright bright future. "Parables" is the lead track off her self-titled debut CD, given a remastered, Canada-wide release last month by Toronto-based
Outside Music. (Higgs had self-released the CD in a limited release last year; the Outside version also contains two extra songs.) MP3 via Outside Music; thanks to Chrome Waves for the lead.

"Alarm Clock" - the Rumble Strips
A sprightly slice of good-humored British neo new wave pop, plus horns. The sax and trumpet deliver their old-fashioned horn chart with a slaphappy abandon that enhances the general drollery, but then here's the twist: "Alarm Clock" is not actually a carefree song, as it concerns the unhumorous reality of having to work at a dreary job day after day. What the music reflects, however, is the spirit with which our narrator struggles with this ubiquitous misfortune--not to mention "solves" the problem of the bothersome alarm clock ("So I hit him with a hammer/And now he's quite subdued"). Singer Charlie Waller has a bit of Andy Partridge's spirited wail and he and his three bandmates most definitely like to bang, blow, and hit their instruments with incautious glee; at this point it's hard to imagine that anything they sing about, however serious, will sound somber. The Rumble Strips hail from Tavistock, a small Devonshire town near the Cornwall border in southwest England; "Alarm Clock" is from their six-song Alarm Clock EP, the band's first U.S. release, which will be out next month on
Kanine Records. A shorter version of this EP came out earlier in the year in the U.K.; "Alarm Clock" can also be found on the Rumble Strips' debut full-length, Girls and Weather, which was released in the U.K. in September on Island Records. MP3 courtesy of Spin.

"Five O'Clock News" - Ryan Scott
This languorous, slightly jazzy ballad, in three-quarter time, is a definite grower. Scott has a distinctive, somewhat smoky, large-mouthed voice, with nice range and a pliable tone--an ideal tool, as it turns out, for this deceptively complex little song. While there appear, more or less, to be verses and a chorus and maybe a bridge, lyrically, the music slides sneakily from section to section, augmented by understated changes as sections repeat, the sneaky feeling complemented by the melody's tendency to swing across the three-beat measures, most syllables in the lyrics stretching out for two or more beats. And then, lo and behold, the central (albeit subtle) hook, to my ears, is the one-sentence chorus, in which Scott placidly lobs a ten-syllable run in which each syllable is precisely one beat long--from the word "sweater" to the words "for me" (from 0:52 to 0:58 the first time we hear it), and does it with an appealing ascending/descending melody, finishing on the sidestep of an unresolved chord. The second time we hear this exact sentence we get fourteen straight one-beat syllables, beginning with the word "clock" (2:36), with the song ending when the sentence ends, unresolved chord still hanging in the air. Trained as a jazz guitarist, Scott moved to NYC from the Bay Area in 2001, only 18 at the time, to make his way as a singer/songwriter. "Five O'Clock News" is from the CD Smoke & Licorice, released in September by Brooklyn-based
CrystalTop Music. This is officially Scott's second CD, but features eight songs that were also on his debut CD, Five O'Clock News, which had a limited release in the middle of last year.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

On the main site, the Fingertips Current Top 10 has been updated. Here's what it looks like now:

1. "Boy With a Coin" - Iron & Wine
2. "The Main Thing is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing" - I Am Bones*
3. "Diamond Heart" - Marissa Nadler
4. "That's That" - Cass McCombs
5. "One Man" - Eulogies
6. "He Keeps Me Alive" - Sally Shapiro*
7. "Million Dollars Bail" - Peter Case
8. "Adrenaline" - Emma Pollock
9. "Pluto" - Clare & the Reasons
10. "Dead Sound" - the Raveonettes

New additions are indicated with an asterisk. Songs stay on the Current Top 10 chart for a maximum of three months. Links are direct to the MP3s. Visit the Top 10 page on the Fingertips web site for more information, and also to see the All-Time Top 10 chart, featuring ten of the best available free and legal MP3s of the decade.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Nov. 4-10

"The Main Thing is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing" - I Am Bones
So this is a band with a sense of humor, which can be a mixed blessing in rock'n'roll, where a conscious effort to appear "funny" often crosses the line into "hm, maybe not funny." The best way to stay on the good side of the line is, first of all, for the humor to seem self-effacing rather than obnoxious and, second (and more important), for the music itself to be delightful. The Danish quartet I Am Bones--whose first, self-released CD had the Firesign Theater-esque title of If You Really Love Me, Send Me More Medical Supplies--appears to satisfy on both counts with this splendid slice of slightly skewed, smile-inducing power pop. Listen, instantly, to the harmonies employed right out of the gate, which utilize elastic intervals that I can't discern, delivered over a twitchy guitar rhythm. The off-kilter flavor of the verse, pleasing on its own, further serves to make the straight-ahead I-IV-V brilliance of the chorus all the more appetizing. Here, front man Johannes Gammelby's voice takes on an unexpected depth, as the bottom-heavy drive of the music combines with the upward-leaning melody to lend him something of Jeff Lynne's congenial vocal power. One final key to success is succinctness: the song lasts barely longer than the title; we hear the chorus but twice, as the entire last minute of a not-very-long-anyway song is a guitar-driven instrumental coda. "The Main Thing..." is from the new I Am Bones CD, The Greater Good, the band's second for the English-speaking Danish label
Morningside Records, released last month in Europe. The MP3 is via Morningside.

"Subtle Changes" - Sambassadeur
We're staying in Scandanavia for no particular reason except that this next wonderful song sounds great after our first wonderful song. Sambassadeur is a quartet from Gothenburg, Sweden whose
previously stripped-down vibe (in the past, their recordings were done at home) has been fetchingly boosted by echoey strings, atmospheric percussion, a grand, chugging rhythm and, later on, a honking sax solo. Anna Persson, once a casual, somewhat deadpan vocalist--singing in short, talky phrases, and sounding as if she could not sing and smile at the same time--here emerges with a richer tone, partly because of the production but partly also because she's not afraid to hold her notes, to fully sing. She may not yet be smiling but she's loosened up her facial muscles and in so doing shifted away from irony and towards passion, which engenders I think much more than a subtle change in the band's sound. What they retain, however, is a nimble way with melody; listen in particular to the chorus and how beautifully the melody extends beyond the confines of a typical four-measure pop chorus--the melodic line here is actually nine measures long, which is unusual, seemingly one measure too long, and it leaves us vaguely unresolved musically, too, until the chorus repeats a second time and then hooks back into the opening chord of the verse section (compare the unfinished feeling from 1:43 through 1:46 to the resolution at 1:47). "Subtle Changes" is from Migration, Sambassadeur's first studio album, released last month, in Europe, on Labrador Records. MP3 via Labrador.

"Tree" - Hopewell
It's really hard, I think, to start a pop song this slowly; and to do so with a high-pitched, slightly nasally tenor such as Jason Russo's front and center is even harder. But his voice is not, at first, what anchors the ear here. The piano, instead, commands attention, with its simple, firm, plaintive chords. Four times the chords shift during this slow opening, and notice how, with each chord shift, Russo nevertheless comes back to settle on the same melodic note; Tyson Lewis's uncluttered, shifting chords create such a strong, if bittersweet, feeling that they trick the ear into thinking the melody is moving more than it is. When the band kicks in at 0:34, the small, careful instrumental flourishes put me in the mind of an old Band song, which the central, doleful melody reinforces, not to mention Russo's intermittent resemblance to Rick Danko. While the opening progression remains at the center of this almost inexplicably captivating song, varied textures arise along the way, building towards a louder, fuller-bodied conclusion, complete with deep rumblings underneath and an almost orchestrated feel to the band's playing. Hopewell is not from Scandanavia; Poughkeepsie, New York is the off-the-beaten path home for this talented but largely unrecognized quintet. "Tree" is from Beautiful Targets, the band's fifth CD, released in July on
Tee Pee Records.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Oct. 28-Nov. 3

"Be Unhappy" - Maritime
I like how the basic, wet-blanket lyrical twist here--"Even if you find the love of your life/You could be unhappy for weeks at a time"--is mirrored in the music: at the heart of this peppy, summer-sunny tune are recurring suspended chords that block our sense of simple fulfillment (they're laid out right in the intro, at :03 and :06), like persistent clouds on a beach day. And listen to the guitar that plays these chords--a smooth, old-fashioned-sounding thing that wouldn't seem out of place offering insouciant licks in a jazz bar, and yet somehow, too, commingles successfully with the much itchier, vaguely punky second guitar. My ear even finds singer-guitarist Davey von Bohlen himself embodying the same aesthetic conflict, his high, graceful voice subtly contradicted by a raspiness just below the surface. That the music conveys us eventually to a bunch of "doo-doo-doo-doo"s is the culminating musical oxymoron in a song that so prettily seems to be assuring us that life isn't always pretty. You'll find this one on Maritime's new CD, Heresy and the Hotel Choir, the third album from this accomplished Milwaukee quartet, which was released this month on
Flameshovel Records. [RS]

"Ex-Guru" - the Fiery Furnaces
The Fiery Furnaces are fully a product of the 21st century: a brother-sister duo from suburban Chicago trafficking in oblique, experimental songwriting featuring intermittent snatches of backward-looking pop-rock, with lots of stylistic leaps, sonic mayhem, and lyrical perplexities along the way. Founded officially in Brooklyn in 2000, the Furnaces tend to elicit extreme reactions--some claim Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger as Captain Beefheart-style geniuses, others urge people to throw money out windows rather than pay for what the Fiery Furnaces have recorded. Me, I'm thinking that it's a vast knowledge of and appreciation for the music of the past that fuels their experimentation, which means, if they put their minds to it, they're fully capable of sounding quote-unquote normal too (as, for instance, they did on "Benton Harbor Blues," a previous
TWF pick). "Ex-Guru" gives us, this time, a brisk, ironic/nostalgic piece of rock such as Beck might concoct, delivered with a blasé sort of gusto by Eleanor, who must here know that the recurring lyric "She means nothing to me now" accentuates the aural illusion that a man is singing. (The lyrics, rather plainly about, indeed, an ex-guru, are funny and also I think a little sad.) Be sure to hang around past the Stevie Wonder keyboards to see where else this one wants to go: we get, first, a heavy burst of guitar and synthesizer (1:25) that sounds like the B-52s doing Led Zeppelin, which leads somehow into a baroque-y flute, horn, and harpsichord-like keyboard trio that helps finish things off. "Ex-Guru" is from Widow City, the band's fifth full-length, released earlier this month on Thrill Jockey Records. MP3 courtesy of Paper Thin Walls.

"Imaginary Girl" - the Silver Seas
Easy-going, super-likeable neo-mellow rock. Singer/songwriter Daniel Tashian sounds like a cross between James Taylor and Jackson Browne, with maybe a dash of young Billy Joel thrown in, and the music he crafts with producer/keyboardist Jason Lehning is a lovingly updated version of the kind of thing that was in the air back when JT and JB and BJ were plying their 1974-ish wares--we get something of JT's soulful swing, a bit of JB's star-crossed ache, and an agreeable interplay between the gentle but lively piano (a la Joel), with its cascading arpeggios, and some snappy acoustic guitar work. Tashian and Lehning were until recently doing business, in Nashville, as the Bees (U.S.); when they signed with
Cheap Lullaby Records they changed their name to rid themselves once and for all of the conflict with the British band the Bees. Tashian, by the way, is the son of Barry Tashian, front man for the Remains, the legendary '60s garage rock band from Boston (best known for the single "Don't Look Back," a highlight off the landmark Nuggets collection). "Imaginary Girl" is from the CD High Society, originally self-released in 2006, when the band was still the Bees; it's slated for a national re-release on Cheap Lullaby next month. MP3 courtesy of Cheap Lullaby.

NEWS FROM THE WEB SITE: Time's almost up for getting in on the latest Fingertips contest; the prize is the 3CD Dylan greatest hits package. Three runners-up will receive the single-disc version. Details are here. Deadline for entry is Tuesday October 30.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Oct. 14-20

"Dead Sound" - the Raveonettes
Simple and dense, loud and whispery, retro-y and up-to-date, "Dead Sound" continues this Danish duo's studied--and catchy--deconstruction of American rock'n'roll music from the late '50s and early '60s. What you hear here is what they do: take chords and melodies and guitar sounds that feel old-fashioned and familiar and mash them onto a wacked-out Phil Spector meets My Bloody Valentine assault of difficult-to-pin-down noise. These guys are sticklers for detail and like to constrain themselves (their first album, Whip it On, featured eight songs all in B-flat minor; their second album, Chain Gang of Love, was recorded, on the other hand, almost entirely in the key of B-flat major), which tells me that for better or worse no sonic detail is an accident. Here, I'm especially enjoying the guitar's narrative. It starts as a lonely echo in the background, with a simple remark or two (around 0:44)--kind of like a surf guitar looking for the beach. Next we hear it all but drowning in a buzzy vat of undifferentiated din (around 1:18), later to emerge in the spotlight with a reverb-drenched, Springsteen-y solo (beginning at 1:53) and soon to find its true place with a climactic bit of staccato surf-iness (from 2:20 through 2:32) before melting into the final swirl of noise, a lot of which at that point sounds like a harsh electronic wind. All in three and a half minutes, with appealing boy-girl harmonies. "Dead Sound" is from the Raveonettes' forthcoming album, Lust Lust Lust, scheduled for release next month (internationally; the band is currently without a U.S. label) on London-based
Fierce Panda Records.

"Sweet Love" - Melou
Not the Anita Baker song but its own sort of sleek and sultry. This "Sweet Love" is a slow and seductive cross between mainstream R&B, jazz, dub, and pop. Singer Annie Goodchild has a voice one must inescapably describe as "soulful," for perpetual lack of an effective voice-description vocabulary; her bandmates offer her an appealingly minimalist background texture in which the guitar, sax, bass, and percussion restrain themselves both individually and collectively; when any one of them feels like offering a languid lick or flourish, there's always plenty of aural space in which it can move, and no one abuses the privilege. (The final two minutes, all instrumental, take this skeletal approach through its interesting if maybe overlong denouement.) To me the song is anchored mightily by its juicy chorus, which in its hook illustrates yet again the latent power of three simple notes. Melou is a quintet with a globetrotting biography: Goodchild is from Boston, guitarist and songwriter Maarten Reijnierse is from the Netherlands, and they first got together in Guatemala; now rounded out by an additional mix of American and Dutch players, the quintet recorded its debut album, Communication, in Barcelona. "Sweet Love" is the third track on the album, which was released by Barcelona-based
Whatabout Music in June.

"Halfway to Hollywood" - Dick Prall
A good-natured minor-key shuffle with a few thoughtful touches along the way. Prall's voice occasionally brings Joe Walsh to mind, and of how many 21st-century rockers can we say the same thing? Come to think of it, there's something of Walsh's self-effacing goofiness in the air here as well, for reasons I can't immediately identify. The aforementioned thoughtful touches are a bit easier to pinpoint: the violin that joins surreptitiously at 0:46 and stays to lend a jaunty, '30s-ish style to the melody; the rumbly syncopated thud of tom-toms added to the verse the second time around, beginning at 1:22; and those yodelly yelps with which he finishes the lines at the very end, as he sings, "Say what they want." How does he manage to finish the word "want" with a yodelly "oooo"? Hm, so maybe I can after all identify some of the goofiness too. For good measure I like the way the song quite literally ends: we used to call that a "sting" back in radioland--the last note is banged out and it's over, abruptly. It seems to me that just about everything fades out these days. "Halfway to Hollywood" is from Prall's CD Weightless, released in September on Authentic Records, and the Chicago-based singer/songwriter's fourth. The MP3 is via Prall's

Visit the Fingertips Record Shop for direct links to purchase some of the albums that feature the MP3s you read about here. Look for the yellow-ishi [RS] at the bottom of reviews to indicate when a song's album is available via the Record Shop. When you buy through the Shop, you support Fingertips.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Oct. 14-20

"Make a Plan" - Saturday Looks Good to Me
Deftly built with riffs and sounds and cheery vocals, "Make a Plan" is infused with a charming sort of handmade vibe, like something modeled unexpectedly yet expertly with masking tape and cardboard. The introduction is an immediate example of the odd but sturdy construction I'm talking about--first we get the buoyant acoustic strum, straight out of a Harry Belafonte record or some such thing, then a thin slice of vague and fuzzy electric guitar, which together are capped by a low, fat, echoey line of four descending notes from a different guitar finished off with that comic book-y flanging. The net effect is simultaneously solid and odd. Then comes the kind of kooky melody, a long downward trip of doubled notes, sung with unhurried flair by SLGTM multi-instrumentalist and mastermind Fred Thomas. And how much like Ray Davies is Thomas sounding here? A lot, says me, especially for a guy from Detroit, and more especially when the song hits full Kinks mode during the bridge, from 2:05 through 2:30. I like how a piano suddenly appears at this point too, as if someone had just rolled one into the room so, okay, might as well play it. Saturday Looks Good to Me is an ensemble with a revolving lineup; Thomas has apparently worked with more than 75 people towards the end of putting SLGTM records together since 2000. "Make a Plan" is from the outfit's fourth full-length CD, Fill Up the Room, slated for release next week on
K Records. The MP3 is courtesy of K.

"Headrush" - Hot Springs
Grinding, spunky rock'n'roll from yet another intriguing band from Montreal. This quartet's distinctive sound is immediately dominated by the throaty, quavery voice of singer/guitarist Giselle Webber, who is in full command of what she's doing. After studying the voices of classic jazz singers, Webber found a new way to use hers. "You can contort and find these extra pockets of air in your sinuses and deep down in your gut," she told a Montreal newspaper a couple of years ago, "and eventually I learned that you can sculpt your voice in these crazy ways by fucking up sound inside your throat. That's my favorite way to sing." To be honest, I can't claim that it's my favorite voice to listen to, but the way Webber interacts with this stop-start-y, bottom-heavy music does have a sneaky appeal, combining a comfortable classic-rock drive with something fiercer and untamed. I like the chorus in particular, with its mixture of rushed triplets and dragged-out quarter notes, skipped drumbeats, and jumbled-together words (which are hard to decipher; the first line is "These glasses have been empty for too damn long"). Often I praise lyrics that scan impeccably with the music but for the sake of vehemence there is room in rock for songs in which the drive of the music requires the words to bend to its will. This kind of thing, I think, only works when the singer has a bit of "force of nature" about him or her; from what I'm hearing, I'd say Webber qualifies. "Headrush" is from the debut Hot Springs CD, Volcano (see? force of nature), released last month, in Canada, by the band's Quire Records imprint, via the big label DKD. The MP3 is found on the
band's site.

"See These Bones" - Nada Surf
If this song sounds like a sharp, pristine relic from some disconcertingly long-ago day when songs were songs and bands were bands, one good reason for this is that Nada Surf has been around pretty much since those days--this Brooklyn-based trio formed back in 1992. Or, as they note on their MySpace page, "Nada Surf has been a band 10 years longer than most of their living peers have been out of a car seat." Straightforward and memorable, "See These Bones" is given an assist out of the gate by a good opening line--"Everyone's right and no one is sorry/That's the start and the end of the story"--that in a nutshell describes the sociopolitical impasse in which we find ourselves. The heart of this one is clearly the glowing chorus, featuring one of those classic-sounding, power-pop-affiliated melodies that seems clearly to recall some other song or two (or five) and yet eludes specific identification. The lovely, pining voice of Matthew Caws is, as ever, the ideal vehicle for the soaring bittersweetness on display. "See These Bones" is a way-early peak at the band's next CD, which will be called Lucky and is not scheduled for release on
Barsuk Records until February '08. The MP3 is via Barsuk.

NEWS FROM THE WEB SITE: As noted a couple of days ago, the latest Fingertips Contest is offering as a grand prize the new 3CD Bob Dylan compilation, entitled, simply enough, Dylan. Details
here. The record company is also releasing a single-disc version of this; three of those are available to three runners-up. Deadline for entry is Tuesday October 30. And hey, whether you're a contest entering sort of person or not, if you happen to be a Dylan person, or perhaps would like to be, be sure to check out the iMix I've created featuring 15 Bob Dylan songs that have not once been collected on any of the many different greatest hits and best of compilations that his record label has seen fit to release over the years.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A quick note to let you know that there's a new contest posted on the main Fingertips site: you can enter to win the new 3CD Bob Dylan compilation, which they're simply calling Dylan (probably because they've already used up "Greatest Hits" and "Best Of"). What's notable about this one is that it spans his entire career, from his first CD in 1962 through to last year's Modern Times.

Dylan fans are already complaining--not without some merit--that the collection is pretty much of a retread; given the depth and breadth of Dylan's catalog, even a three-disc collection can end up, as this one has, pretty much just rounding up the usual suspects. One track that qualifies as an obscure gem, not previously collected on any of the other packages of Dylan's best stuff, is the song "Dark Eyes," from his nicely titled but otherwise forgettable 1985 album, Empire Burlesque. There are also a trio of songs from three of Dylan's lesser-heard '90s albums, Under the Red Sky, Good As I Been to You, and the truly great World Gone Wrong. Other than that, lots and lots of pretty high-profile tunes.

While I understand the fans' disgruntlement, the thing is, die-hard Dylan fans already have everything, so simply putting more obscure songs on the collection doesn't give aficionados any more need to own it than a package full of the big, safe hits. And if it's rarities the zealots are looking for, the record company has been reasonably good about offering those over the years through the so-called "Bootleg Series." A package such as Dylan is clearly being aimed at people who maybe don't otherwise have any Dylan CDs. As predictable as it seems to long-time fans, this new triple-CD set is now the best thing a new fan can buy to get lots of the major works in one place.

(Of course, if you enter the contest and win, you won't even have to buy it.)

I think maybe what the Dylan fans are really complaining about is how these packages serve to keep newbie fans continually in the dark about lots of other really good songs. And I completely agree. In fact, I've personally decided to do something about that: I've assembled an iMix playlist featuring 15 really great Dylan songs that have never, any one of them, been collected on any of the greatest hits and best of CDs that have been done to date. You can check it out on iTunes here. They may not be familiar to anyone who's not already a big fan, but these, too, are some wonderful songs. Check it out and see what you think.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Sept. 30-Oct. 6

"For Emma" - Bon Iver
"For Emma" has the steady, wistful ambiance of a determined trudge through the snow on a bright winter's day to fetch something you know in your heart isn't going to be there. Electric guitar lines bend languidly around crisp acoustic guitar chords, sleepy horns offer echoey punctuations in the background, and then, steadiest and wistful-iest of all, there's Justin Vernon--doing musical business as Bon Iver--with his mournful yet adamant falsetto telling some difficult to pin down tale of past love gone (probably) wrong. It's a song at once engaging and elusive: search past the meaty chorus and nicely textured atmosphere and listen for what's there (listen, for one, to how the electric guitar and the horns intertwine sonically) and then also what's not there. Beyond the chorus, and a brief wordless section near the end, Vernon opens his mouth only to sing two lyrical lines separated by a measure of music, and we hear them just twice. Which is to say the song marches along pretty much without any real verses. No wonder it sounds wistful. Vernon recorded this album holed up by himself in a cabin in the woods in the Wisconsin winter, in the wake of the dissolution of his former band, DeYarmond Edison. (No wonder he sounds wistful.) The haunted falsetto is new for this project, which gets its name from the French greeting "Good winter," although Vernon chose to leave off the silent "h" from hiver. "For Emma" is the semi-title track from the first Bon Iver CD, For Emma, Forever Ago, which was self-released in July.

"Quit While You're Ahead" - Southeast Engine
This one has a satisfying bottom-heaviness to it, due to a few different things I'm hearing: first, what sounds like a snare-free drum kit; second, the band's refreshing emphasis of the electric guitar's lower register; and then also the minor key in which the song is set. Southeast Engine is a six-man band but at their core they are led by guitartist/singer Adam Remnant (apparently an out of work middle school teacher) and drummer/percussionist Leo DeLuca, and I think the drum and guitar really drive the sound more than in most larger outfits--both of them play with a loose intensity that doesn't mistake muscle for bashing or rhythm for uniformity. The verses are dominated by the pulsing tom-tom, and some atmospheric guitar work, while Remnant, singing, withholds a bit, a tremulous edge to his voice. At the chorus, the song opens out dramatically, with its one-note lyrical lines enhanced by a phalanx of vocal harmonies, which sound both shouted and turned down at the same time, and its ominous message about the poisoning of our public sphere with lies and deception. Southeast Engine is from Athens--Ohio, not Georgia--but like its more well-known counterpart, also a college town with a spirited music scene. "Quit While You're Ahead" is a song from the band's new CD, A Wheel Within a Wheel, their third full-length, due out next week on
Misra Records. The MP3 is via Misra.

"Pluto" - Clare & the Reasons
Check out the earnest-goofy orchestral setting this one leaps from the starting gates with: all twittering pizzicatos, like some misplaced radio advertisement from the 1940s--pretty hard, I think, not to be charmed. (One of the things that rock'n'roll has yet to learn from classical music is that music can, in fact, instrumentally, be funny, can bring a smile to the face.) And then when Clare Muldaur Manchon starts cooing those earnest-goofy lyrics directly to the icy, undersized, woebegone, no-longer-a-planet, well, this one's a slam dunk, to my ears. "Pluto, I have some frightful news, dear," she begins--and lord, how about that blissful glide from the major to the minor chord as she eases from "news" to "dear," beginning at 0:22; be still my heart! And it's not just Muldaur who's charming us--she's got a coterie of able musicians along for this retro-groovy space ride, including backup singers who deliver jazzy accents and nifty three- (I think) part harmonies, an economical but vivid piano player, and a drummer offering some lovely muted drumming, all the while accompanied by those strings, who pluck and bow as required by the inventive arrangements. Manchon is the daughter of '60s music stalwart Geoff Muldaur; her husband, Olivier, is one of the seven members of the ensemble (he plays violin, piano, and saw). "Pluto" is the lead track on the band's debut CD, The Movie, released on
Frog Stand Records, a label started by Manchon and a friend of hers from her Berklee School of Music days. Thanks to 3hive for this one.

Visit the Fingertips Record Shop for direct links to purchase some of the albums that feature the MP3s you read about here.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Sept. 30-Oct. 6

* There's still time to enter the Ani DiFranco contest, but don't delay. The grand prize is Canon, the nicely-packaged, hand-picked two-disc DiFranco retrospective. Two runners-up will receive a copy of Fingertips: Unwebbed, which will disappear from the shelves here at year's end. There are also five prints of Ani DiFranco artwork available both for the grand prize winner, the runners-up, and two others. So five winners in all! Deadline for entry is Tuesday, October 2.

The Record Shop is now open for business: a page of links taking you directly to where you can buy some of the albums mentioned here week to week (and support Fingertips in the process).

"Adrenaline" - Emma Pollock
Emma Pollock has this heart-rending way of singing happy songs with a sad voice. "This adrenaline rush is keeping me high/Keep it coming around": sure sounds happy. (Sounds like a Phillies fan, I might add.) No doubt the bright piano chords sound happy as well. But her voice has too rich a texture for simple happiness--there's a subtle and soulful abrasion in it, and its substance seems fueled by breath, if that makes any sense. Cross a drawl-free Lucinda Williams with Harriet Wheeler of the Sundays and you're pretty close. In any case, scratch below the surface of the chipper accompaniment and inspirational lyrical snippets and you may both sense and hear that "Adrenaline" is more about life than happiness: there are wonders to be had, but only if you work to get out of your own way, and understand that they often come wrapped in unpredictable packages. "Adrenaline" can be found on Watch the Fireworks, the long-awaited solo debut by the former Delgados singer and guitarist, released in mid-September on 4AD Records. For more information about Pollock, (and to hear another great song of hers) check out the TWF review of "Limbs," released long before the CD arrived, from this past February. The "Adrenaline" MP3 comes via

"He Keeps Me Alive" - Sally Shapiro
Crystalline neo-italo disco from an enigmatic Swede who protects her privacy by forswearing face-to-face interviews and live performances, and by singing under an English-sounding pseudonym. (She is also more the voice than the creative force; Johan Agebjörn is the writer and producer of "Sally Shapiro" music.) And let me quickly add that whatever your preconceived notions about dance music may be (rock'n'roll has always had a testy relationship with dance music, even though rock itself more or less began as dance music), I suggest giving this one a fair shot and actively seeking out its various charms, which include, most prominently: Shapiro's icy-warm, doubletracked delivery; the pristine sonic atmosphere (this song is the musical equivalent of a meticulously cleaned and dusted room, all silver and white, with blonde woods, in the winter sun); and the sweeping and yet controlled melodrama of the chorus, both musically and lyrically. For the heck of it, check out also the piano-like keyboard that comes in around 1:55, a startling bit of organic-seeming sound in a cascade of beats and synthesizers. Shapiro may be on the verge of having a blog-rock cultural moment, though it could also be that the moment, because it's about to be here, has actually already passed. You know how it goes. "He Keeps Me Alive" is a song from Shapiro's CD Disco Romance, which was out last year in Europe, and will be released in North America this month by
Paper Bag Records. MP3 via Paper Bag.

"Anna Leigh" - the Sadies
And the perfect counter-balance to neo-italo-disco is probably something gritty and bluegrassy like this--although note that the boys in the band start this one off kinda smooth-like, with pretty harmonies (note, too, however, the wavery organ sound: all is not necessarily well). Soon enough, in any case, the finger-picking beat kicks in and we're all minor-key and traditional-sounding in pursuit of a forboding tale about a lover who dreams of her lover's demise and is trying to get him not to go on the trip he's about to take. Maybe it's just me but now that I'm thinking about it, I like this stark, fiddle-free approach to bluegrass, which to my ears accentuates the stalwart melody and gripping narrative. The Sadies are a quartet from Toronto who have been recording since 1998. They are perhaps best known these days as having been Neko Case's backup band, but it would seem they deserve a bit of their own spotlight as well. "Anna Leigh" is a song off their latest CD, New Seasons, which comes out this week on
Yep Roc Records.

Visit the Fingertips Record Shop for direct links to purchase some of the albums that feature the MP3s you read about here.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Sept. 23-29

* The latest Fingertips contest features Ani DiFranco gifts. The grand prize is Canon, the nicely-packaged, hand-picked two-disc DiFranco retrospective. Two runners-up will receive a copy of Fingertips: Unwebbed, which will disappear from the shelves here at year's end. There are also five prints of Ani DiFranco artwork available both for the grand prize winner, the runners-up, and two others. So five winners in all! Deadline for entry is Tuesday, October 2.

* The Record Shop is now open for business: a page of links taking you directly to where you can buy some of the albums mentioned here week to week (and support Fingertips in the process).

"That's That" - Cass McCombs
With its rolling, ringing, nostalgic sheen, "That's That" glows with an almost breathtaking sort of pure pop grace. This is one beautiful piece of work, rendered palpably touching by the self-control that characterizes the song from start to finish. For even with its crisp, head-bobbing rhythm, "That's That" offers us a lesson in sonic restraint: guitars that withhold as much as they play, silvery melodies that ache off the swing of the beat, and subtlest but maybe best of all, that warm, rounded, tom-tom sound that keeps a hurried pulse in the background, forever implying a crashing release that never arrives. McCombs, furthermore, has a voice that sounds on the surface sweeter than it actually is--listen carefully and you'll hear a homely, vaguely adenoidal tinge to his tone that sounds oddly enough like a benefit, offering a bit of an edge to the silky melody line, and underscoring the awkwardness of the young man/older woman affair recounted here. "That's That" is from McCombs' forthcoming CD, Dropping the Writ, due out next month on
Domino Records. MP3 via Pitchfork. (Oh and if you still haven't heard "Sacred Heart," a 2005 Cass McCombs song that's been ensconced in the Fingertips All-Time Top 10 for quite a while, visit the chart and check it out.)

"Everwise Muskellunge" - Rats With Wings
The Brooklyn-based band Rats With Wings has a predilection for synthesizer sounds most bands prefer to avoid: rubbery flugelhorny ones, chimey squeaky ones, cheesy tromboney ones. Let me quickly say that I might normally prefer to avoid such sounds also. And yet let me quickly also say that through some combination of vibrancy and laptop-infused invention, the whole here becomes far more than the sum of its strange, synthesized parts. With its solidly constructed melody, spacious sense of structure (note how many different chords the tune seems to feel comfortable resting on), and inscrutable lyrics, "Everwise Muskellunge" grows increasingly comfortable and engaging--but no less odd--with each listen. (A muskellunge by the way is a large fish, in the pike family; here it is apparently stuffed and mounted on the wall, from which vantage point it stares at the narrator, who both talks to it and imbues it with an unearthly sort of perspicacity.) At the heart of the band is the duo Brendan Fitzpatrick and David Hurtgen, who have played together in various guises for 15 years; they got the name for this latest incarnation from Woody Allen's memorable description of pigeons in the movie Stardust Memories. "Everwise Muskellunge" is a song from the band's self-released Tiny Guns EP, which came out last month, and includes a seriously striking version of Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf." MP3 courtesy of the

"Summer's Ending" - Steve Goldberg and the Arch Enemies
Well okay summer has actually already ended, but just barely, and in any case the indelible complexion of late summer/early fall is delightfully embodied in the words, the music, and the spirit of this charming song. The bittersweet cello that leads into the first verse--with its singular way of sounding upbeat and sad at the same time--is just a hint of the tuneful orchestral treat the Pittsburgh-based Goldberg has in store for us, with its nicely incorporated string, woodwind, and brass parts. I like how, even so, the guitar and drums--the only "normal" rock instruments on display--are still given their due; the guitar plays an important textural role, and the drums are woven into a larger percussive sound with a nifty sort of homespun finesse. And boy was this homespun: the self-titled album from which this comes was recorded over eight months as Goldberg's senior project as a music student at Carnegie Mellon University; all the musicians on the album (a total of 22 instruments employed) were CMU students as well. Goldberg even sang into a microphone that was custom-built by an electrical engineering student. And perhaps it took an actual college student to so evocatively capture summer's end, with its looming, double-edged departure scenes ("I couldn't wait to leave/But now I want to stay"). Kind of gets you right in the stomach. The CD is available via Goldberg's
web site, as is the MP3.

Visit the Fingertips Record Shop for direct links to purchase some of the albums that feature the MP3s you read about here.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Sept. 16-22

* Be on the lookout for a new section on the main Fingertips web site entitled "The Record Shop": a page of links taking you directly to where you can buy some of the albums mentioned here week to week (and support Fingertips in the process). This should be up by week's end, if all goes well.
* Likewise be on the lookout for a new contest, to be posted later in the week. The prize this time: Canon, the nicely-packaged two-disc Ani DiFranco retrospective.

"Slow Years" - Men Among Animals
An irrepressible air of the madcap permeates this sly and slightly manic piece of pure pop from the Danish quartet Men Among Animals. One of the many fun things about "Slow Years" is how misleadingly it begins: I'm not sure what sort of song is being signalled by the throbbing bass line and portentous guitar noodles of the intro, but I don't think it's the gleeful hookfest that follows when Lasse Nielsen opens his mouth at 0:12. Nielsen sings with a yelpy but agreeable doubletracked tenor (a voice that makes "most bluebirds quiver and almost all librarians faint," according to the band's MySpace page); check out the likable way he takes those upward sidesteps in the verse, away from the notes you think he's going to hit. This is fun in its own way but all the more so for how it sets up the chorus, which has the simple, unstraying melody of a lost classic. I like too how the band augments the proceedings with some flavorful work of their own, including an extended instrumental break that begins at 1:16 with a previously heard guitar riff and stretches way out from there, first with a glissando-crazy haunted-house organ, then (my favorite part) a guitar solo that consists pretty much of one note, bent and strained for 15 seconds or so. Don't miss it. "Slow Years" comes from the CD Bad Times, All Gone, which was released last week in Europe by the small but tasteful German label
Tapete Records, which is run by Dirk Darmstaedter. The MP3 is via the Tapete site.

"Million Dollars Bail" - Peter Case
Before he was frontman for the little-known (but influential) power pop band the Nerves and the better-known Plimsouls, Peter Case eked out a living playing guitar in coffeehouses and busking on the San Francisco streets. After the Plimsouls had their 15 minutes of new wave fame in the early '80s, Case revisited his roots, re-emerging as a road-toughened troubadour in the later part of the decade, and recording a couple of fine albums in the process. In the years since, Case has all the more convincingly grown into the role; nowadays he sings his finger-picked songs about hard-luck characters with the deep, rough-hewn authenticity of the folk and blues balladeers he admired as a teenager. "Million Dollars Bail" is an old-fashioned protest song--guitar, voice, and indignant lyrics. And yet notice the lack of vitriol, the palpable dignity of the stark yet nuanced performance--he sounds too centered to have to convince us he's right, and too right to have to point fingers and yell. He's singing about our two-tiered justice system (John Edwards may want to contact him for a campaign song), but he's not ranting and demanding changes--he lets the story tell itself, and lets us know, in the end, what's really at stake: "But there's a sentence passed on every soul, someday we all must die/When the question's not who pulled the switch, it's how you lived and why." You'll find "Million Dollars Bail" on the CD Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, which was released last month on
Yep Roc Records. The MP3 is courtesy of

"Salvador" - Jamie T
"Salvador" takes full advantage of its three and a half minutes, filling both the time and space it has with an enticing, cross-genre stew of sounds and rhythms. After a slow intro featuring oddly ancient-sounding electric guitars, the song takes off with a ska-infused beat, at once propulsive and snaky, and atmospheric, often sinister guitar accents. Just as we adjust to this unexpectedly captivating soundscape, the young Briton introduces an unhurried rap verse, which slides into the churning musical terrain quite nicely. As do the threatening "hoo! hah!" background vocals a bit later, somehow. His working-class singing accent has caused a bit of a row in England, as it turns out 21-year-old Jamie T (née Treays) is from well-to-do Wimbledon, and attended a posh school, but all I'm thinking we should care about is does the song work? I say it does. (And would point out that Joe Strummer, the son of a diplomat, was hardly a hooligan either.) "Salvador" is from Jamie T's debut CD Panic Prevention, which was released in the U.S. at the end of August on Caroline Records. (The record came out in the U.K. back in January and is one of the 12 nominees for this year's Mercury Prize.) The MP3 is via