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.