Monday, May 19, 2008

Free and legal MP3s from the Catalysts, Soltero, and Langhorne Slim, via Fingertips

"Goes On Forever" - the Catalysts
     Anchored by a shimmering guitar-and-harmonica sound that will take you back to the '60s even if you were never actually there, "Goes On Forever" is one part pure breeze, one part bittersweet homage to times gone by. The relentless good nature of the solid backbeat and genial melody is counteracted by enough suspended chords in the chorus to give you the impression of clouds passing in front of the sun. The words tumble out in a sort of Dylanesque swirl; some of the ones that I can catch do in fact, either coincidentally or not, appear to refer to music from the '60s and '70s ("I'm a Believer," "It's a Beautiful Day," and the way the title phrase comes right after the word "dream," which calls the old Todd Rundgren song to mind).
     The Catalysts is a band name, but there's really no band at this point--just a guy named Ulric Kennedy, from Glasgow, with a history in a number of independent bands dating back to the late '80s. Kennedy is a bass player by trade, and he lays down a particularly interesting bass line here--listen closely and you'll hear how he plays bass more like a lead instrument than a bit player in the rhythm section: not only is the bass given the melodic lick that drives the entire song, but Kennedy also plays sustained notes that frequently drop the bass out of the rhythm altogether. It's not the kind of thing your ear is supposed to notice consciously, but it does add subtle sonic interest to the song as it develops. And don't miss the fake fade-out--not subtle at all, but mysteriously alluring nonetheless.
     Kennedy is getting the Cloudberry Records treatment for this new Catalysts release: a three-inch CD-R three-song single, released in a hand-numbered batch of 100; "Goes On Forever" is one of the two "b-side" songs on the "Autumn Everywhere" single, due out next month. MP3 courtesy of Cloudberry.

"Out at the Wall" - Soltero
     This song has an unexpectedly spacious presence for something so relatively quiet and contemplative, thanks in part to the in-the-distance production effects, which include a hammering, machine-like noise, an electronic surf sound, the whistle of a ghost train, and echoey, drop-like percussion accents, with some mysterious tinkly sounds thrown in for good measure. And it's not just the sounds themselves that create the space, it's the fact that these sounds are dropped behind the tidy pulse of an acoustic guitar. Note too how the reverb that Tim Howard uses on his voice feels somehow crisper than the often muddy wash of reverb we tend to hear in indie-land in this day and age; while muddy reverb veers sonically towards both the claustrophobic and the impersonal, what Howard does here feels open and vulnerable.
     Quiet, contemplative songs also don't tend to move along in this brisk and shuffly sort of way, which is another juxtaposition that enriches the vibe. Then we get that part of the song in which Howard unleashes his upper register, at which point the guitar pretty much drops out and it's all the echoey ghostly carryings-on in the background. Cool stuff.
     And the theme this week so far, unintentionally, is bands that aren't bands, since Soltero this time around is pretty much a solo effort for Tim Howard (over the years, Soltero has sometimes been a band and sometimes not; Howard's previous appearance on Fingertips back in '04 was also a solo affair). "Out at the Wall" is a song from the new Soltero CD, You're No Dream, being released this week on the Pennsylvania-based label La Société Expéditionnaire. MP3 via the label's site.

"Rebel Side of Heaven" - Langhorne Slim
     I have a soft spot for songs that start off the tonic chord--that is, songs that open on a chord that feels obviously not the song's home base. I'm never sure how we even know this so quickly but we do. Listen to the first three or four seconds of "Rebel Side of Heaven" and you'll hear it yourself, and then enjoy the way the song slides itself into the tonic, then--oops--out again, before settling in at 0:12, just before the singing starts.
     And what singing! Langhorne Slim (nee Sean Scolnick, who grew up in Langhorne, Pennsylvania) has a high-pitched warble that manages still to be warm and approachable, kind of like if Jeff Tweedy were singing with Neil Young's voice. With its good-natured swagger and great horn charts, the song is a rollicking good time, but unlike the vast majority of rollicking-good-time rock songs, it's neither uncomfortably dumb nor way too long. The lyrics, in fact, are not only idiosyncratic and engaging, but feature at their heart what strikes me as a novel idea ("And though we have sinned all of our lives/We ain't going to hell/Well we're going to the rebel side of heaven." Whether he got it from something he read or made it up himself, it beats the pants off the lyrics to most good-timey songs in the rock canon.
     "Rebel Side of Heaven" is from the debut, self-titled Langhorne Slim full-length, released last month on Kemado Records. MP3 via Kemado.

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(Due to the Memorial Day Weekend holiday in the U.S., there will be no MP3 selections next week.)

Monday, May 12, 2008

This week's Fingertips MP3s: free and legal downloads from Stereolab, Tokyo Police Club, and Oh Darling

"Three Women" - Stereolab
     The semi-legendary, relentlessly inscrutable Stereolab--with their sexy vocalist, arcane musical references, and Marxist leanings--may never hit the big time, but they sure know how to entertain the left of center. Perhaps the first band to be called "post-rock," back in the early '90s, this British-based outfit were spinning out intellectually giddy genre-mashups when today's laptop-rockers were in preschool. As I'm not a long-time or super-knowledgeable fan, I always find myself surprised by how sunny and accessible a lot of Stereolab's music sounds at the simple level of listening--never-minding the underpinnings of influence and philosophy. You really don't have to know what they're doing--intermingling krautrock, lounge music, funk, jazz, '60s pop, and contemporary classical minimalism, among other things, leaning on vintage electronic instruments in the process--to like what you're hearing.
     On Fingertips, we last visited with vocalist Lætitia Sadier not too long ago, as her side project Monarde was featured in February; here, she sounds just as sultry-sophisticated (she sings in French again, as she often does), but a bit more light-hearted, as the music this time bubbles along with great pep and texture. Launched off a classic R&B groove, "Three Women" features a sneaky, meandering melody and a bright instrumental coalescence--I'm hearing Farfisa organ, marimba (or, perhaps, vibes?), trumpets, maybe even a celesta--that effortlessly evokes some other time and place without it being quite clear what time or place that might actually be. Sadier purrs, the music rolls along, and if we really have no idea what she's saying or why, well, this is Stereolab. Absorb the vibe, observe the craft, and enjoy the download.
     "Three Women" can be found the band's forthcoming CD Chemical Chords, not due out till August, on Duophonic UHF Disks/4AD. MP3 courtesy of Beggars Group.

"In a Cave" - Tokyo Police Club
     Buzzy, driven, incisive indie pop from a Toronto quartet with a knowledgeable vibe and the added attraction of having a singing bass player (discussed when last we met these guys). This songs strikes me as very smartly constructed--elements added at just the right time, pieces interacting with a casual sort of precision. Example of element added at just the right time: those unexpected, shouting background vocals that chime in at 0:49; example of casually precise interaction: the almost feedbacky guitar line that enters at 0:40 and, first, mimicks the melody line as it's sung but then continues even as the melody moves on (right into the shouting vocal part in fact).
     And what are they singing about? The cave is metaphorical, to be sure, and there's that nice touch about reversing the effects of being in the cave once deciding to leave ("All my hair grows in/Wrinkles leave my skin"), which is skillful way of extending the metaphor; beyond that we get a skittery atmosphere, both musically and lyrically, and we're left to figure out exactly what's going on on our own.
     As per last week's comment about web writers who disparage music when it's not "new" enough, TPC is likely to catch some flak in this regard--and already have, in fact: "Tokyo Police Club aren't smashing templates or changing lives," proclaims Stereogum, "but this stuff is catchy [as hell], easily digestible fun." Here's a clue for you to take around the web: anyone who does that "damning with faint praise" routine is revealing more about their own insecurities than about the subject at hand. Either like something, don't like it, or, even, partially like it--just do so clearly; ground it in observable fact. Is that so hard? "Easily digestible fun" means "this isn't really 'cool' enough for me to like but I like it anyway." Humbug. "In a Cave" is from TPC's debut CD, Elephant Shell (the phrase comes from this song; listen carefully), and is another sign that these guys mean business. It was released last month on Saddle Creek Records.

"Shoulda Never" - Oh Darling
     This one clicks for me in the chorus, at the end of the second line, when the melody steps slightly down, into that unresolved place, and just stays there (around 1:11). Goes to show yet again that you never know where a hook is coming from, or why. And this sort of thing doesn't happen in a vacuum--the whole reason that unresolved detour sounds so apt is because of everything that's come before it. For a relatively new band, these guys have recorded something that glows with preternatural charm and know-how.
     Right away note the juxtaposition of that staccato bass-and-guitar intro, a reliable implement in the rock toolbox at least since the Cars came along, and lead singer Jasmine Ash's pure, almost child-like tone--an intriguing blend that pulls us into "Shoulda Never," establishing the song's subtle push/pull of soft and hard, naive and experienced, female and male (the quartet features two men and two women, and includes a mixed-gender rhythm section--male drummer, female bass). Familiar-sounding in appealing ways, the song also offers its share of subtle surprises, one of my favorites being the whistly, almost flute-like synthesizer that creates a kind of lost-world ambiance, first heard in the instrumental break at 1:24.
     Formed in 2006, Oh Darling self-released an EP at the end of last year. The band's full-length debut is expected out this summer, on Nice Records. "Shoulda Never" can be found on both discs. MP3 courtesy of the band's wonderful-looking web site.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Fingertips CD Review: Fireproof, by Dawn Landes

Dawn Landes

Cooking Vinyl Records

Fireproof is an unassuming, sneaky sort of record, performed with such casual, comfortable intimacy that it seems as much like an overheard impromptu house concert as much as a studio recording. And Landes herself is an unassuming, sneaky sort of singer, in the unadorned, plainspoken tradition of Suzanne Vega, but with a subtle quirkiness that brings Jane Siberry, occasionally, to mind. Her music, while not overtly odd in any way, eludes precise description, probably because of the offbeat but uncluttered mix of instruments she's engaged here, which include a banjo, harmonica, pedal steel, organ, optigan (this being a strange, organ-like instrument made by Mattel in the '70s), bells, and toy piano.

Most of the songs take a while to sink in, both musically and lyrically. Some saunter by with an Americana-ish, by-the-campfire aura ("Tired of This Life," "Twilight," "Dig Me a Hole"), while others exploit Landes' eccentric musical landscape in divergent ways: the Waits-ian carnivalia of "Picture Show", the tinkly tranciness of "Goodnight Lover," the stripped-down urgency of "Private Little Hell," the languid, semi-surreal banjo-funk (?) of the mysteriously alluring "Bodyguard." She sings often of dreaming and darkness and nighttime, and her lyrics make discomfiting leaps in both thought and image. Listen to how she uses her quirky chamber group to great effect on her affecting cover of the traditional (and yet, strange) song "I Don't Need No Man," with some of the percussion playing, it would seem, across the room, while burbling synth sounds frolic with the fast-strumming hoedown of guitars and mandolin. Another highlight: "I'm in Love With the Night," all lonesome-prairie torchiness and fugitive heartache.  [buy via the Fingertips Store]

(See more Fingertips CD reviews on the Album Bin page of the main Fingertips site.)

Monday, May 05, 2008

Free and legal MP3s from Fingertips: The Awkward Stage, Trevor Exter, Reeve Oliver

"Animé Eyes" - The Awkward Stage
     This one has the driving grandeur of mid-'70s Roxy Music, but with the arty quirkiness replaced by power-poppiness: "Animé Eyes" positively rings with clarity and catchiness. And yet there's more going on here than might be immediately apparent. Inspired, I imagine, by the subject matter, the verses are based on a pentatonic scale, the five-tone scale historically associated with Asian music. The pentatonic scale has an inherent sing-songy nature (at least, to my Western ears), which serves the goal of a pop song nicely, even as it also lends a slightly exotic je ne sais quoi to the musical setting (especially since the pentatonic underpinning here is subtle; no jokey musical cliches--think "Turning Japanese"--for these guys).
     In the chorus, the music shifts subtly but firmly back to a Western orientation, even as there are now some Japanese words being sung--another sure-footed but subtle touch. The guitar break that comes at 2:16, however--all pentatonic. Songs that mix straight-ahead, simple-sounding pop with behind-the-scenes craft strike me as close to brilliant most of the time. It helps, I think, to have as charismatic a singer as Shane Nelken, the mastermind behind the Awkward Stage, whose voice has the sort of melodramatic gravitas we heard a lot of back in the New Romantic days of the early '80s, but floats along with less pomposity--he even distorts it through some sort of filtering that keeps him from sounding too full of himself.
     "Animé Eyes" is from the CD Slimming Mirrors, Flattering Lights, to be released next month on Mint Records.

"Strawberry Wine" - Trevor Exter
     Finger-picking and generally slapping around a beat-up cello, Trevor Exter makes music that is both seriously unusual and thoroughly, pleasingly accessible.
     First off, dig the long, funky introduction. I don't usually like long, funky introductions, but I have never before heard one coaxed and charmed and pulled and plucked out of a cello before. In Exter's hands, the instrument generates a soft, incandescent groove, neither bass-like nor guitar-like--nor especially cello-like either, given his unconventional technique. It's kind of mesmerizing, and gets even friskier once the singing starts (after two and a half minutes) and the cello is used as punctuation, in a variety of creative, textured ways. Then again, once the singing starts, it's hard to keep one's ears entirely on the cello, since Exter has a grand instrument right there in his throat--a lithe and buttery tenor, full of soul but light as air. Never before (I don't think) have we heard a cello and a voice perform so intimately and knowingly together, since the cellist and the vocalist are usually two different people. The galvanizing impact on the fabric of the song--the way the cello riffs and rhythms work so tightly in and around the vocal lines--is hard to overstate. And let's not overlook the song itself, which is more than just a pleasant groove; he's written a spiffy hook in there as well (the "trembling, shivering, I am under your spell" part).
     Exter grew up, home-schooled, in upstate New York, found the cello at an early age but never took to classical music, and eventually spent a lot of time in South America absorbing a rich array of Brazilian pop into his psyche and repertoire. He's come and gone from New York City over the years, but is currently back there, gaining a following for the crazy, lovable thing that he does, playing both solo and with a band. "Strawberry Wine" is a song off his CD Flying Saucer People, which was self-released this year. MP3 via Exter's site.

"Yer Motion" - Reeve Oliver
     And then there remains, even now, much power in the simple formulation of "rock band," just three or four folks banging and strumming and hitting their regular ordinary guitars and drums and maybe a keyboard. Reeve Oliver is, in fact, a band--a trio, from San Diego. "Yer Motion" has nothing unusual going for it except that it happens to be a great song. (And are you tired yet of writers and bloggers who act like music that isn't somehow "new" is somehow bad? A great song is always a revelation.) So let me rephrase this: "Yer Motion" sounds really different than most songs because it's good and, well, a lot of the 7.8 trillion songs currently circulating online (that's an exclusive Fingertips estimate) do not actually qualify as "good."
     Why is it good? Energy, arrangement, performance, and (always the kicker, for me) melody. One thing "Yer Motion" does exceptionally well is build on itself: the verse is immediately engaging, with its alternating major and minor chords; then we get a second section that grabs the ear even more, and it turns out to be merely a transition into the chorus, which to my ears is the melodic climax of the song, with its sophisticated twists and tight tight harmonies. Nicely done.
      Reeve Oliver has been around since 2000. Signed by Capitol Records in 2006, they were among the bands that were summarily dropped when Capitol merged with Virgin early last year. "Yer Motion" can be found on the band's Touchtone Inferno album, their second full-length, which was self-released digitally at the end of 2007, and is now coming out on CD. A bonus: the album features a great retro look, from the font to the design to the cool B&W photo. Also nicely done.

* Don't forget to visit the all-new Fingertips Store. There you'll find both current releases and back-catalog classics--and, what the heck, even some DVDs and books, too. The Fingertips Store is designed as a boutique; the point is to offer only highly recommended items, not to get you lost in choice overload. The store is basically a small, customized slice of Amazon, and there is no extra cost to you at all; you'll buy items at standard Amazon prices, and still support Fingertips in the process.