Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Fingertips Outshout

Time for another Fingertips Outshout, this time offering up the great new song from 13ghosts, "Beyond the Door." See the initial Outshouts post for information on what this is all about.

Monday, February 25, 2008

New free and legal MP3s from Fingertips

(as featured on This Week's Finds, Feb. 24-Mar. 1)

"Childproof" - Batteries
     Slinky, dark, and peculiarly catchy, "Childproof" sparks such conflicting retro vibes in my music memory that I couldn't immediately figure out what it was reminding me of--usually a sign that the influences are being integrated into something fresh and tasty.
So I hung in there, kept listening, and sure enough some seductively--and chronologically--divergent sonic elements revealed themselves to my dissecting ear: there's a '60s garage rock feel to the guitar sound, yet also something spiky and Television-like (late '70s); there's a Doors-like organ ('60s again) and a Morphine-like saxophone (hmm: '90s); and then there's a lead singer (one Dave Frankenfeld) with a shivery, nasally, talky croon that sounds something like Stephen Malkmus (still current) trying to sing lead for a mid-'70s Steely Dan album. While somewhat recognizable when teased apart this way, the cool thing is how briskly and matter-of-factly "Childproof" weaves them together.
     And what about that recurring "hide your eyes"/"hide and hide" part? That has a mysterious appeal to me in a this-is-really-familiar-but-not-quite sort of way that sometimes happens with new songs that stick in my head. When I first heard this song, in fact, I actually had to check to see if it was a cover version of an older song, such déjà vu was I experiencing. For all I know, this part in particular does come straight out of some older song but for the life of me I can't place it. (Feel free to let me know if you know what I thought I was thinking of.)
     A five-piece whose members come from the north country of Minnesota and Wisconsin, Batteries put out a debut CD late last year entitled That Great Grandsuck of the Sea--and no, I don't know what that means, either. "Childproof" is third song on the album, which was self-released.

"Beyond the Door" - 13ghosts
     Phased, psychedelic vocals mixed with crisp, George Harrison-y rhythm guitar give this one an immediate trippiness that might seem mere affect were it not for the terrific melody lurking at the heart of the chorus. For all its sonic largeness, "Beyond the Door" all but shimmers with focus and restraint. I like, for instance, how the chorus, when we first hear it, is delivered (0:29) as the instrumental accompaniment pulls back, everything seemingly run through the same distortion the vocals are undergoing. So we don't actually receive the full effect of that great melody the first time it arrives--we hear it, but we don't really hear it. This is a most excellent songwriting trick but it only works with an excellent song. ("Beyond the Door" qualifies without reservation.) And so, you see, when the chorus returns (1:12), its full power hits us all the harder. Note that the band still throws us a bit of a curveball--listen to that guitar line that drones through the first half of the melody in the chorus and feel the extra depth that dissonance can bring to music, at least when we're in the hands of talented musicians. (Otherwise, alas, it may simply be noise.)
     13ghosts, from Birmingham, Alabama, is one of those fortunate bands that contain two strong singer/songwriters--in this case, Brad Armstrong (who sang the last time Fingertips featured the band) and Buzz Russell. Russell is out front this time around, and his interest in swirly, spacey aural space is paired, happily, with unusually sharp pop chops. Normally, folks who want to take us on a space ride forget to give us something to sing along with. Russell, however, has melody, nice chord changes, and smiley-harmonies pouring right out of him here, all in the service of a song about death, and the possibility of life thereafter. The gracefully modulating "oohs" that you hear after the chorus, by the way, were, according to Russell, "supposed to create the effect of taking a Xanax or something to ease the anxiety"--the anxiety of facing the possibility of an afterlife, he says.
     "Beyond the Door" is a song from the band's forthcoming CD, The Strangest Colored Lights, to be released next month on Birmingham-based Skybucket Records.

"Regarde" - Monade
     Bordeaux-based multi-instrumentalist Lætitia Sadier, one half of the band Stereolab, has had her own side project going now for the better part of the last decade (Stereolab, a "post-rock" pioneer, has been around since 1990). She calls it Monade in part for a concept taken from 20th-century Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis, referring to the undifferentiated psyche (before the id, ego, and superego break apart), and also for how it is rooted in the word "mono," which in turn is related to the word "stereo," and thus neatly implies her working on her own, apart from her more well-known band. And right away, if nothing else, I appreciate the depth of a European education.
     As for the music, the suave yet playful "Regarde" launches off an alternating minor/major chord motif, and unfolds as a kind of cool, Euro-march for the lounge crowd, driven by Sadier's husky, Chrissie Hynde-meets-Brigitte Bardot voice (and yes, sports fans, Chrissie Hynde did in fact mention Brigitte Bardot in a song once; small world!). Plus, there's a trombone, which is apparently one of Sadier's main instruments. Halfway through, the song abruptly slows to a slumberous waltz (1:50), begins to pick up speed and orchestral drama (2:40), then melts precipitately back into the original tempo and rhythm (3:01) in a manner at once awkward and--I have no idea why--exceedingly charming. Don't miss it.
     "Regarde" is from Monade's third album, Monstre Cosmic, which was released last week on Too Pure Records. MP3 via Pitchfork.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Fingertips Top 10

Thanks to some brand-new updates, the current Fingertips Top 10 now looks like this:

1. Cherry Tulips - Headlights
2. Boys - the Autumns
3. Gila - Beach House
4. Neal Cassady - the Weather Underground
5. Saturday Night - Pale Young Gentlemen
6. Bodyguard - Dawn Landes
7. Sarah's Game - the Loved Ones
8. The Silence Between Us - Bob Mould
9. Buildings and Mountains - the Republic Tigers
10. On the Chin - Grey Race

Note that Fingertips only features high-quality free and legal MP3s, so you really can't go wrong with any of them. The Top 10 represents an effort to focus attention on ten especially wonderful songs at any given time. Songs remain in the Top 10 for a maximum of three months, before they are retired to the Retired Top 10 Songs page, logically enough.

Also note that the Fingertips blog now features an easy player function--click the play button next to any song, anywhere on the blog, and it will play (as long as the link isn't dead!). Player is courtesy of Yahoo!, of all places.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Free and legal MP3s from Fingertips

(as featured on This Week's Finds, Feb. 17-23)

"Parallel Lives" - La Scala
     We can all use a big heaping dollop of melodrama with our pop every now and then, and La Scala is happy to deliver. (Even the name of this Chicago band implies something larger than life and over the top.) Up above the introduction's searing, machine-gun guitar line and the '80s dance beat, listen to that second guitar plucking out a homely, vaguely East European motif. Or maybe it's not a guitar, as it sounds like a bouzouki or some such old country instrument; in any case, this is the best kind of musical melodrama--the kind that has you smiling for potentially unknown reasons.
     Like for instance the verse. Listen, in the second half, to how singer Balthazar de Ley and one of the guitars "harmonize" in a crazy sort of way--the guitar plays a line completely in sync with the melody rhythmically, but squonking all over the place harmonically. It's kind of wacky but also subtle--you might not notice, but, again, it creates an enjoyable mood. And then there's that resplendent, two-part chorus, at which point this song truly sounds like some great early '80s post-new wave hit, an impression furthered by de Ley's familiar-sounding voice, which has the throaty warmth of one of those dreamy New Romantic-era singers.
     De Ley by the way grew up both in Paris and in Champaign, Illinois, which may at least partially account for the intriguing, old-world sensibility laced into the band's sound. La Scala was just formed last year. "Parallel Lives" is from their first EP, The Harlequin, to be released next week by the Chicago-based Highwheel Records.

"My Father" - Raise High the Roof Beam
     And now we get the antidote to sweeping, driving melodrama: the vulnerable, acoustic-based "My Father," from singer/songwriter Thomas Fricilone, also Chicago-based, doing Salinger-inspired musical business as Raise High the Roof Beam. I find myself engaged right away by the broken descent of the opening riff--we begin with a standard downward progression but what's less standard is how it stops and hangs out at the third note, two notes short of the resolution. We suspend there for the same length of time it took to get us there, and then the resolution is turned upside down: after hearing 5-4-3, and hanging out on 3, we then get 1-2 rather than 2-1. It's all very simple and clear but interesting, and implies overturned expectations or unexpected conclusions, themes that bear out lyrically as the song unfolds.
     Fricilone has a quavery voice that does not always stay on pitch, but in the particular musical setting he gives himself here the end result is gracious and affecting. For all that it may sound at first like a simple acoustic-guitar strummer, there's actually a nimble array of instruments weaving together, including piano, ukelele, eletric guitar, maybe a melodica, and perhaps a synthesizer. Fricilone also double-tracks his vocals here, which I think gives them extra potency, and maybe compensates for the pitch variation, while maintaining the underlying fragility that serve the lyrics especially well: "My father told me I'd be late for life/That's okay 'cause I think that waiting's all right/I avoid the news for things that I might fear/My father tells me all the things that I don't want to hear."
     "My Father" is a song that will appear on Raise High the Roof Beam's Family EP, a work that is still in progress. MP3 courtesy of Fricilone's web site.

"Pull Me Out Alive" - Kaki King
     Dipping for the first time into the new SXSW MP3s, I've pulled out a plum, and an unexpected plum at that. Kaki King is a musician known initially for her ear-opening acoustic guitar virtuosity, which she has had a tendency to put on display in songs that are maybe a little complicated. Even as she has expanded her sonic palette over the past couple of years, and started singing on her songs, she has not previously focused her music quite so pointedly. But for her soon-to-be-released Dreaming of Revenge CD, King had producer Malcolm Burn at the board. Burn has worked with everyone from Bob Dylan and Patti Smith to Emmylou Harris and the Neville Brothers; he apparently told King, "If someone can't be sawing a log in half and whistling along to the song, I don't want it on the record." Thus has King's music taken a turn towards the accessible, shall we say.
     And it doesn't sound like a bad thing to me. Accessible doesn't mean uninteresting, or bland. "Pull Me Out Alive" alternates itchy, idiosyncratically propulsive verses--check out the way her vocals are layered (starting around 0:29) to sound like a slightly out-of-sync conversation--with a drony, dreamy chorus that finishes on a wonderfully unresolved chord. I find the instrumental break at 2:10 particularly interesting; employing an intriguing blend of electric and electronic sounds, it nevertheless strikes me at its core as something she might previously have used at the center of one of her acrobatic and percussive guitar displays. While those who latched onto King for her instrumental mastery may be disoriented by a song like this, I kind of like it. And I assume she still does play the guitar now and then. I guess we'll find out when the CD comes out next month. That'll be on Velour Recordings. MP3, as noted, via SXSW, and this one may in fact be exclusive.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Fingertips takes a holiday; SXSW MP3s now online

Due to the U.S. holiday weekend, Fingertips will post its weekly MP3s tomorrow, Tuesday.

One quick note in the meantime, for those especially eager for new free and legal MP3s: the 2008 SXSW MP3 repository is now online, featuring literally hundreds of MP3s to check out. More information about this can be found in the SXSW entry in the Music Site Guide on the Fingertips web site. Expect some of the best ones in that collection to show up here in the coming weeks, perhaps even beginning tomorrow.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Fingertips Outshout

Time for another Outshout; see the post from 2/7, below, for more details about what an Outshout is, and why.

Monday, February 11, 2008

This week's free and legal MP3s, from Fingertips

(as featured on This Week's Finds, Feb. 10-16)

"Striking" - Francis and the Lights
     Funky but sleek, with squeally, retro synthesizers, staccato (and super-tight!) guitar lines, and, what solidifies this one for me, a stirring vocal performance from frontman Francis Farewell Starlite, who attractively combines an airy Prince-like falsetto with a Marvin Gaye-like huskiness in his lower register.
     For the life of me I can't figure out how this song actually works so well. There isn't any traditional song structure here to speak of--instead, we are given an extended musical phrase that works as a free-floating anchor; listen carefully and you'll see that every lyrical line features some variation of this phrase, if often a truncated variation. The lyrics are equally slippery. Something in Starlite's restrained but impassioned tone implies the pursuit of love, as do some of the ordinary yet mysterious sentences we hear ("I don't want to lose you though," "There's something in the air tonight"). The edgy, postmodern funk suggests a certain amount of interpersonal heat as well. But your guess is as good as mine. Use on your valentine at your own risk.
     Not a lot of info on this young Brooklyn band is available except for the fact that they play around Brooklyn a lot. One notable fact I managed to unearth is that two of the four (or maybe five) members appear to be drummers. "Striking" is the lead track from the debut EP, which is self-released and available as a free and legal download via the band's ordinary yet mysterious web site.

"Buildings and Mountains" - the Republic Tigers
     Here's a song with everything going for it: ear-opening atmosphere, engaging melody, interesting/familiar vocals, and then the clincher--a killer, in-through-the-back-door hook in the chorus. From beginning to end, the production is gorgeous; I particularly like how the crisp acoustic guitars are blended into the song's larger, lusher soundscape, which utilizes a wash of wordless background vocals as its own sort of sonic building block. Listen how that high vocal note promotes an almost Morricone-like sense of uneasy loneliness in the long introduction, as well as in the verse.
     And that mood in turn sets up the surprise resolution of the chorus, which begins as a fairly straightforward extension of the musical feeling of the verse, before gliding, seemingly a half-moment too soon, into a previously unsuspected major chord--in the phrase "before our eyes" (1:21 the first time), the major chord unfolds onto the word "eyes" (and the set-up chord, on the word "before," is lovely too). All in all, what we have here is an excellent argument for the timeless value of knowledgeable production, an argument worth restating in a decade that's been overflowing with do-it-yourself uploaders and their quixotic belief that people will listen to just about anything. A few people will, no doubt. Many many more people would prefer to listen to something well-crafted, well-performed, and thoughtfully assembled. Don't you kind of want to know that the band took longer to make the song than it takes for you to listen to it?
     Expect to hear a lot from this Kansas City quintet, not least because they are the first band signed to Chop Shop Records, the new Atlantic Records imprint run by Alexandra Patsavas. Patsavas, as music supervisor for The O.C. and Grey's Anatomy (among other shows), can probably take single-handed credit for the emergence of TV as a music-discovery medium. "Buildings and Mountains" was on the band's debut EP, which was released online in December, and will also be the lead track on the full-length CD, Keep Color, scheduled for release at some as-yet unspecified date in the not-too-distant future. MP3 courtesy of the still skeletal Chop Shop site.

"Neal Cassady" - the Weather Underground
     There's something brilliant and Clash-like in the air here, as a smart young L.A. quartet sings of the famous Beat Generation figure in a rough-and-tumble musical setting that starts in a loose-limbed lope before shifting, like some lost track from London Calling, into a galloping, wild-west rave-up. And while singer/guitarist Harley Prechtel-Cortez doesn't sound like Joe Strummer, he kind of still manages to sing like him: rough-hewn heart on the sleeve, lyrics juiced with spittle and passion. And this relatively short, often forceful tune is further enhanced by an arrangement at once casual and expert; touches such as the wordless background vocals (it's wordless background vocals day!) of the introduction (0:32) and the variety of terrific guitar sounds on display (don't miss that great untamed slide that gets unleashed during the song's closing minute) suggest a knowing combination of instinct and craft at work.
     The Weather Underground--they take their name from a documentary about the '60s and '70s radical organization, The Weathermen--is a group that prompts the musical question: can a band be too smart for its own good? Among "influences" listed on their MySpace page are Jack Keruoac, Luis Bunuel, Werner Herzog, Ingmar Bergman, Bernadine Dorhn, and my favorite, the first one listed, Guillaume Apollinaire, the French surrealist. Me, I say bring it on. If we can get enough bands going like this, maybe we can delay the inevitable demise of reading we're always being warned about at least one more half-generation. You'll find "Neal Cassady" on the band's self-released Psalms and Shanties EP, their second, which came out in the fall of '07. A third EP has been recorded and awaits release.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

A Fingertips Outshout

Ever been to Outshouts? It's a relatively new site that lets you send songs to people, complete with a recorded introduction by you; you can send the song and the message either via email or via cell phone. You can also turn the recorded message plus the song into a widget, as I've done here. All for no charge.

I'm intrigued by this, and am going to experiment with using Outshouts here on the blog, and perhaps on the main site too. You can listen to this one, share it if you'd like, and of course you can go to Outshouts, sign up, and start using the service yourself.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Free and legal MP3s from Fingertips

(as featured on This Week's Finds, Feb. 3-9)

"Power Lines" - the Interiors
     I can't make out what they're singing about, and the title doesn't necessarily imply a fun time, but the music is extremely good-natured, in an early Talking Heads-ish sort of way--the stuttering drumbeat, creative bass playing, swooping melody lines, and singer/guitarist Chase Duncan's amiable, wide-mouthed vocal style (sounding quite a bit like Dave Matthews doing a David Byrne imitation) all contributing to that sensation. One of the things that I think makes the rhythm here so ear-catching is the dynamic interplay in the rhythm section: listen in the introduction and the verse to the stark difference between the steady, clockwork bass and the changeable drum pattern. Interestingly, the bass breaking free of its strict pulse is more or less what creates the chorus, as the melody itself does not alter that much.
     On guitar, Duncan adds a handsome depth to the chuggy ambiance, with rounded, semi-drone-like tones and ringing arpeggios. No doubt he's very happy to be doing all this, after a freak accident last year required the amputation of a fingertip. (Of all things.) This happened the day after the Chicago-based trio had signed with the record label 54°40' or Fight. The band had to take most of last year off while Duncan, thankfully, recuperated. Their self-titled label debut is slated for an April release. MP3 courtesy of the band's site.

"Bodyguard" - Dawn Landes
     "Sultry" and "banjo" are two words not normally encountered within the same sentence. But Dawn Landes, the Louisville-born, Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter, is one those 21st-century musicians who appears comfortable juxtaposing sounds, vibes, and emotions--while happily emerging with a firm voice of her own, rather than a pointless mashup. (Not all 21st-century musicians are as fortunate. Just saying.) So here, then, we get a minimalist groove, some almost trip-hoppy but organic aural space, Landes' pretty yet matter-of-fact voice (a disarming blend of deadpan and sultry), and yes, somehow, too, a banjo.
     Anchored by its deep, unhurried bass line, "Bodyguard" unfolds in its own world, both musically--beyond the banjo, don't miss the sleighbells in the distance--and lyrically: "I had a dream that we were robbed/They took the moldings off the walls/Erased our signatures from things." Those are remarkable opening lines, I think, for their concrete, casual leap into the surreal, beautifully served by a melody spanning a full octave. Landes here is mining an actual, terrible real-life incident (not an intentional theme, this week, honest!): her apartment was in fact broken into, and they took her stuff (though not, I imagine, the moldings), including her laptop and hard drive, which at the time contained the only copy she had of her entire new album, then ready for production. Gone and not coming back. She didn't try to re-create it; "I just started over from scratch," she has said. "I wrote 'Bodyguard' in the kitchen while waiting for the police to show up." I hear something of the incomparable Jane Siberry both in Landes' vocal presentation (Sib fans note her abrupt "Where've you been?" at 3:22) and in something inscrutable residing deep down in this strange but hypnotic song.
     "Bodyguard" is from the CD Fireproof, which was recorded live in a single day in an old fire station in Brooklyn. The album will be released next month on Cooking Vinyl; MP3 via Cooking Vinyl USA.

"Sarah's Game" - the Loved Ones
     Musical genres are a funny thing. As labels, some are very broad and more or less indispensible--say, blues or jazz or reggae--in that they clearly describe a distinct universe of music, while leaving lots of room for variation. Many others make an effort to slice and dice music into narrower and narrower sub-universes (jangle pop, anyone? folktronica?), with the unfortunate end result of implying many more boundaries than there need be, especially within the broad, theoretically embracing kingdom of rock'n'roll. (To me, the only sensible boundary to make is between good music and bad music, but we'll leave that for another time.)
     I bring this up because the Loved Ones, a quartet from Philadelphia, are supposedly a punk rock band on a punk rock record label. The band's previous releases, a 2004 EP and a 2006 full-length, were hailed as fine punk rock by people to whom such things matter. Punk rock, it turns out, is a genre particularly resistant to boundary crossing. Punk rock fans often start to get suspicious if the music gets too "catchy" or "melodic" (which is exactly, by the way, when it starts becoming actual music rather than unprocessed noise, but we'll leave that for another time also). So I don't know what the punk rock purists will make of "Sarah's Game," but to me, this is a great listen: simultaneously harsh and focused, passionate and engaging, with a powerful melody, nicely crafted lyrics (note the internal rhymes), careful musicianship (the two guitars work impressively together), and even a harmony or two. God forbid!
     "Sarah's Game" is from the CD Build & Burn, which comes out this week on Fat Wreck Chords. MP3 via Fat Wreck Chords.